Valkwitch Excerpt

Valkwitch

Prologue
Story Tellers and World Enders

 As I write this entry, Tyrissa stands at the edge of our shadow-cloaked campsite. She gazes out across this twisted, unearthly landscape at the eldritch light blazing beyond the horizon to the southwest. This is her nightly ritual; a solitary, defiant vigil staring down whatever may lie at our goal. She leans on her spear, the weapon that has carried her through so many struggles with stoic, unquestioning support. The Va—

The rest of the sentence emerged as vanishing scratches as the pen ran out of ink again. Giroon let out a short sigh, set aside the nearly full book, and reached into his pack for a stoic companion of his own: a corked ink bottle. A slight wind stirred through the evening air as Giroon refilled his pen and he shivered despite the warmth of the nearby roaring campfire. At least, it was roaring now. At any moment it could gutter down to fickle matchstick flames or flare six feet into the air. Giroon kept his distance just in case it was the latter. The firelight cast out twenty feet and came to an abrupt stop. There, a ring of deep shadow swallowed the light whole, concealing their party of seven from the various walking horrors that lurked in this hellscape’s night. ‘Night’ was a generous term here, where the broken boundaries between their world and the elemental planes caused all manner of chaos in the sky, toying with the natural order of light and darkness.

Giroon had spent his entire life entertaining others with stories of heroes marching off to accomplish the impossible and saving the world in the process. Through his adult years he traveled far and wide, delving into any and every culture’s repository of lore and myths, looking for new stories to tell and clues to long-held mysteries. Giroon never thought he’d experience such a journey first hand, much less chronicle the conclusion as it occurred. He simply wasn’t that creative. But it felt as he expected: Bleak but defiant, desperate but noble, insane but necessary.

Her ritual complete, Tyrissa returned to the fireside and sat crossed-legged next to Giroon. Her proximity steadied the campfire, the flames dropping in intensity. She laid her spear across her lap. The shaft was built of a deep gray wood run through with silver threads, like lightning boiling through a stormy sky. The bladed tip was crafted of an utterly black metal and seemed to only devour the light, just like the sculpted shadows that surrounded their campsite.

“Writing away as usual, I see,” Tyrissa said, “Is it going well?”

“It is. Very much so,” Giroon said. That was an understatement. The composition was effortless. Perhaps the apocalyptic mood hovering over their party eased the flow of words. They marched toward what might be the end of the world, and Giroon found the prospect of no future liberating to his writing. “However,” he added, “I’m finding the title to be the most vexing part.”

Tyrissa’s Saga.” She gave him her usual broad and toothy smile that never failed to brighten her face.

Giroon returned the smile, but shook his head at the suggestion. “Much too simple. It needs to be truly grand for this is an epic to tower above all others.” Giroon thought for a moment, tapping the pen against his knuckles. Titles usually presented themselves in the process. Not so this time. “There must be something in the embarrassment of granted titles and honored epithets you’ve earned. There’s too many to choose from. Tyrissa, Fist of the Stars? Tyrissa, Of Ten and None? The Lance of Dawn, Titanbreaker—”

“World Ender,” Tyrissa whispered, her face now clouded over with doubt. Giroon’s eyes darted to the heavily wrapped bundle sitting a prudent distance from the party’s gear. The air rippled around it like a heat shimmer and the earth below already bore faint cracks that weren’t present an hour ago. It would need to be moved every few hours to prevent it from burying itself overnight.

“That part is yet unwritten,” he said. He hoped that Tyrissa was wrong, but feared that she was right. “I prefer ‘Bringer of the World’s Rebirth’ instead.”

“Not bad,” she said, “If a little long.”

Tyrissa fell into thoughtful silence, blue eyes sparkling as she stared into the campfire, face framed by loose strands of golden hair. In one hand she idly rotated her charm necklace in a slow circuit, coiling the chain to her neck and guiding the process in reverse. The charm was a simple steel circle monogrammed with two initials that were not her own and attached to an equally simple silver chain.

Giroon recapped his pen, returned it and the unfinished chronicle to his pack, and joined Tyrissa in watching the crackling flames. Through the sheen of shadow above them the sky still bore hints of what passed for twilight here, and none of their party yet slept. Each day they made camp early for fear of getting caught in dangerous or indefensible terrain at nightfall. The warping touch of the raging Elemental Powers made this land unpredictable. An impossibly dense forest could give way to a volcanic rock waste, which in turn disintegrated into tenuous bridges of marble with nothing but sky above and below. Giroon couldn’t help but, in a grim way, find his companions’ caution amusing. The actions of the people sharing this campfire have shaken the world and realms beyond. History would see each enshrined as a legend, yet here they feared the night. Dinner rations were passed around in a reverent silence. Though they were close friends and allies, there was little to chat about anymore. Everything had been said, their choices were made, and they all knew what they soon must do. Such times lent themselves towards considerable inward reflection and quiet nightly firesides.

“Tell us a story, Giroon,” Tyrissa said after many minutes of silence.

“Ty, you must know all the stories worth telling as well as I do by now.” That was how they first met, ten years ago, a determined girl forcing down his inn room door with a challenge for Giroon, the master bard and storyteller from the Evelands. Since then, they’d combed through mankind’s tapestry of tales, parsing truth from fiction but finding value in both. He hardly recognized that girl now, re-forged by the will of old, slumbering gods into a woman of legend.

“Well, how about what you’re writing about me?”

“Ah, that would be…premature.” Giroon guarded his work in progress from their prying eyes with a zealotry that would give the berserkers of his homeland pause. This would be his masterpiece. If they succeeded. If there would be anyone left to read it. “Besides,” he said, turning to sweep his hand toward the horizon that burned with dreadful beauty, “This particular story is nearing its conclusion.”

“You and I both know that the ending is only a fraction of a good story,” Tyrissa said, undeterred. Giroon expected no less from her. “Endings have an inevitability to them: The hero succeeds or fails, and that’s it. What people really care about is the journey, the beginnings and middles, the victories and defeats along the way.” Tyrissa looked around the campfire at her companions. “Friends made, enemies slain, the loves and losses. That’s what people really want to hear.”

“On that, you’ll get no argument from me,” said the bard. The book in his pack was only the last few weeks of the chronicle. He left the rest with his apprentice in a safe place. ‘Safe’ was, of course, as relative as this land’s night. Should he not return from this land that lay on no maps, Giroon trusted that his apprentice would be able to complete the chronicle, if in vague terms. The concluding pages in his pack hardly mattered beyond the binary resolution, and that would be obvious to everyone in the world soon enough.

“You rattled off all those silly titles. Why don’t you tell us about the beginning? Before the titles, the plane-shifting, the titan-breaking. When I was just…me.”

A well-practiced jester’s grin split the bard’s face. “Do you need a refresher on your own youth?”

“No,” Tyrissa said, her smile making another appearance. “I just want to hear your version so I can correct the glaring flaws and ridiculous embellishments. While I still can.”

Giroon feigned shock, ignoring Tyrissa’s casual assumption of her imminent death. That particular argument only led in circles. “Miss, those pages only contain the raw, unvarnished truth.”

“Of course they do. Come on; tell us about Tyrissa Jorensen, the carpenter’s daughter. I want to hear about her.”

 

Chapter One

The aurora flared at the red peak of its cycle, shrouding the northern half of the sky with rippling curtains of crimson light. It was midday and while the sun tried mightily to outshine the trespasser in its azure domain, it had to settle for sharing. Below this luminous duel stretched a noble, northern land of soaring mountains and vast evergreen forests, pockmarked by countless lakes and scarred by rushing rivers and rocky crevasses. Here, among an ancient forest that enveloped the boundary between civilization and wilderness, one daughter and two sons of this land walked along a trail towards their home village with a morning’s worth of successful fishing.

Tyrissa was a tall girl, built lean from years of running and climbing through the Morgwood and topped with a mane of golden blonde hair that did not see a comb often enough. Her face was somewhere short of pretty, but her smile was broad and striking, her blue eyes always bright with a touch of mischief. As the eldest, a scant few weeks short of seventeen years, she led their party of three through the forest with a comfort that a dwindling number of their people possessed. With a fishing spear propped on her shoulder, Tyrissa scanned their surroundings for the spot she had marked yesterday.

The path was little more than a game trail that followed the top of a short ridge. To either side the ground slopped away into the summertime tangle of undergrowth and fallen branches. Thin pines towered above them in all directions, their heights swaying in the gentle breeze and filtering any sunlight that reached the forest floor into narrow slits. The fresh scents of resin, pollen, and foliage in full bloom filled the air.

Tyrissa brought the three of them to a stop near a tree with her initials carved in its bark. She pointed the spear off the trail to their left, pushing aside the fronds of a summer fern.

“This way,” she said. Her two brothers returned only blank stares.

“Home’s back that way Ty,” ten-year-old Sven said while pointing up the trail, his voice tinged with a whine. Sven shared Tyrissa’s features, those of their father, though his hair was a typical boyish mop and his mouth usually held a tight, petulant frown, as it did now. At least he pointed in the correct direction this time.

“I know,” Tyrissa said, “But we still need to catch dinner.”

“But we have all these fish! We’ve been out here all morning and I’m tired.” Sven carried a small pack filled with fishing gear and hitched his shoulders to punctuate his discomfort at all this walking.

“This’ll be the first time we’ve seen Liran in two years. We’re going to have something better than salmon or elk.” It was their brother Liran, five years her elder, who introduced Tyrissa to the trails and secrets of the forest. In turn, she tried to pass those same lessons and wonders onto Sven and Oster, with limited success. “Besides,” she said, “you need to toughen up. Mother coddles you too much.”

“She does not!”

“Then you won’t mind us taking a few more steps,” Tyrissa leaned on her youngest brother’s recently found need to prove himself stronger, a useful tool against his stubbornness.

“Fine,” Sven muttered.

“That-a-boy,” Tyrissa said, ruffling his hair. Sven ducked away. He hated that.

“Ty, what’re you up to,” Oster asked. As usual, the boy of fifteen preferred patience over interruption.

“When was the last time you had wurm steak?”

Tyrissa smiled as Oster’s eyes widened and took on a distant cast as the memory returned to him. He took after their mother, with a rounder face, brown eyes, and hair that was more honey than gold. Though built wider than average he wasn’t fat, just solid with the effects of his apprenticeship at the town smithy starting to show. Tyrissa had already given up trying to beat him in arm wrestling.

“Midwinter’s Feast the year before last,” he said. “Mistress Forran said we could only have one each, but I snuck out a second under a big slice of bread when she wasn’t looking. It was the best feast ever.”

“Right,” Tyrissa agreed. Oster had an impeccable memory for great food. “Can you think of a better dinner to welcome Liran home?”

“No. Lead on.”

“Great,” Tyrissa said, stepping off the trail, the ferns slapping at her legs.

 

 

Ten minutes of traversing the wilder, off-trail terrain of fallen trees and shallow creeks led to a wide clearing covered in moss, dried needles, and fallen pine cones. Thirty feet across and roughly circular, the stillness of the area was distinct from the typical forest calm. The ground was too clear of small ferns or saplings or other undergrowth that would rush to fill such a space with its pool of unfiltered sunlight.

Tyrissa dropped her pack to the ground and held a hand up to her brothers.

“Stay there. Don’t come any further.” Tyrissa began poking the ground in front of her with the butt of the fishing spear, taking small steps forward between each jab. After a few paces the spear sunk into too-soft earth. She then dragged the spear through the ground, creating a shallow trench that filled with murky water.

“What’s she doing,” Sven asked.

“This is a raeg,” Oster said, “a pool of muck and mud that forms from years of spring rains and snowmelt collecting in a low area. If you’re alone and fall in, you’re done for as it’ll drag you down if you struggle against it.”

“And that’s why you never go into clearings you don’t know?”

“Correct.”

“Which is what Ty’s doing right now?”

Oster paused and said, “Also correct.”

Her brothers weren’t wrong but sometimes, Tyrissa reminded herself, you have to take risks for the big prize. Tyrissa finished drawing a line in the earth and returned to the two boys. She smacked the fishing spear against a nearby pine tree, shaking off the mud coating the butt of the spear. The tree leaned precariously over the raeg, the growing pool threatening to topple the forest giant in the coming years.

“I saw a wurm here a couple weeks ago,” Tyrissa said. “It should still be in there, they like to lurk in the muck during the summer. Here’s the plan. We’ll toss a couple fish in there to get its attention. Oster, unhook all of those and pile them up over there.” She pointed to the slope they came down, about fifteen feet away from the edge of the raeg. Oster simply nodded and went to work.

“One fish will be hooked on a line as bait for the wurm to chase out. It’ll smell the pile once it’s on dry ground and rush over. Their vision in daylight is bad and it probably won’t even see us.” Tyrissa knelt and pulled a weighted net from the bottom of her pack.

“Sven, all you have to do is throw this net on it after we lure it out, all right?” The boy took the net from her hands in agreement, though his brow was furrowed in worry.

Tyrissa softened her voice and placed a hand on her youngest brother’s shoulder. “They aren’t as fast on dry ground when there’s no snow to burrow through. If anything goes wrong you can outrun it.”

Sven nodded, looking only somewhat reassured. “How do you know all this Ty?”

“I read a book. Ranger rule of the forest number four: Know your prey.”

That proved to be of little reassurance. Even Sven had taken to rolling his eyes whenever she quoted one of her ‘rules’.

“But you haven’t done this before,” Sven said.

“No. Anyway, Oster will man the fishing pole and lure. You stand between the raeg and the fish pile.”

“And what are you going to do?”

Tyrissa drew her belt knife, a well-built blade etched with Jorensen, their family name, and pointed at the fishing spear propped against the doomed, leaning tree.

“I get to kill it,” she said with a grin. She had re-read the wurm section in her old ranger manuals a dozen times in the last few days, memorizing the instructions and diagrams. All it takes is one quick stab in the right place to kill a wurm. It should be easy.

Tyrissa sheathed the knife and walked over to the pile of fish. She chose a smaller one and tossed it to the middle of the raeg. It landed with a wet smack and sank into the muck. The three youths watched, waiting for their prey to make an appearance. Soon, the surface of the pool quivered and a guttural gulp swallowed the area around fish.

Tyrissa let out a short laugh.

“Right! Let’s do this. Sven stand a little to the side.”

The three took up their positions. Sven and Tyrissa stood a few steps to either side of Oster who stood at the line in the earth. Tyrissa funneled her buzzing energy into rotating the spear in her hands, feeling the friction of the wood turning in her palms.

This should work, she thought. Lure, net, and stab. That’s all.

Oster paused with his arm pulled back to throw the hooked fish into the pool. “Does anyone else find it funny that we used worms to catch fish and are now using fish to catch a wurm?” He gave a small grin, pleased with himself.

“Throw the fish dummy,” Tyrissa said, wishing she had thought of that quip first.

Oster skipped the fish across the surface from the edge of the raeg, backing away once it came to a stop, dragging the bait across the top layer of moss and mud. Nothing happened, the raeg was still. He shared a shrug with Tyrissa, and repeated the process.

“Maybe it’s full,” Sven suggested.

Halfway through the second cast there was another gulp from below that missed the bait by inches. As Oster dragged the line across the surface, a bulge of mud rose and followed the fish like a giant, seeking finger of the earth. It inched up to the edge, and hesitated as the fish passed onto dry land. Tyrissa waved her hand downward, and Oster let the bait come to rest halfway between the pool and the pile of fish. He dropped the fishing rod and took up the emptied staff, brandishing it at the moving mound in the raeg.

The wurm emerged onto dry land in an explosion of mud. Its head was a pointed snout with bony ridges on either side that bore sunken and beady black eyes. Thin, flexible plates lined its body under a clinging layer of mud. It was five feet long, foot wide, and much larger than Tyrissa expected.

As planned, the wurm ignored the three youths, instead snorting at the air before undulating towards the bait. They stared at the beast, transfixed. They’d all heard stories of wurms and eaten the occasional hunted one, but seeing one alive and writhing across the forest floor was something else entirely.

“The net! Now!” Tyrissa’s command snapped Sven to attention and he threw the net from where he stood. It spread properly in the air but fell short, a single weighted corner hitting the wurm with a pitiful thock. Provoked, the wurm abandoned its free meal and surged towards Sven, stopping partway and twisting its body around, whipping its tail as a bludgeon with surprising speed.

That wasn’t in the book, Tyrissa thought.

To his credit, Sven jumped over the wurm’s tail, but was bowled over when it recoiled back around. The boy landed hard on his side and cried out in pain. He pushed himself up on hands and knees and tried to back away. Right into the raeg. Sven screamed and struggled against the sucking mud, hands scrabbling against the soft earth. There was nothing firm to grasp at the pools edge, and he only managed to draw himself downward to the waist.

“Oster! Help him!” It happened so fast that neither of them had moved.

Tyrissa stepped forward, flipped the spear around, and smashed the butt against the wurm’s snout. It turned to her and opened its mouth to reveal a single row of widely spaced teeth that looked like carved points of stone, ancient arrowheads. Mouth agape and hissing, the wurm surged towards Tyrissa in a brutish slither as alien as a snake’s but with none of the grace. She hopped back a few steps, spinning the spear around to face down the creature’s charge, waiting until the critical second when the wurm was just the right distance away.

Tyrissa yelped something resembling a battle cry, crouched low, and thrust the spear into the wurm’s open mouth. The creature twisted at just the wrong moment, dodging a fraction of an inch out of the way of Tyrissa’s strike. The thin spear point struck nothing but the earth, the shaft grazing against the wurm’s jaw. The wurm turned and bit down on the spear, narrowly missing one of Tyrissa’s hands. Thrown off balance by the sudden weight, she pushed herself away, falling backward to the soft ground.

The wurm closed its jaw around the spear, snapping off both ends. It lay still for a second, struggling with the chunk of wood lodged in its mouth. It coughed and hacked, trying without success to eject the spear fragment. Tyrissa glanced beyond their supposed prey to see that Oster had pulled Sven out of the raeg. She spared the briefest thought to abandoning the idea, settling for a lesser meal. Instead, Tyrissa sprang to her feet, drew her belt knife, and jumped atop the wurm’s back.

As soon as she was atop it, the wurm began to contorting wildly, thrashing about in every direction. Tyrissa held on, wrapping her legs around the beast and stabbing at its back in quick jabs with her knife. Her strikes left only superficial scratches against the wurm’s thick skin. The wurm’s tail lashed around in circles, causing the two combatants to roll away from the raeg. They came to a stop against one of the trees ringing the clearing, Tyrissa on top. She shifted her weight and managed to plant a knee against the wurm’s back, trying to pin it down. It must have been a sweet spot on its spine, for the creature’s violent spasms weakened.

Tyrissa pressed her temporary advantage, seizing the top of the wurm’s upper jaw with her free hand. Slowly, she inched her fingers over the edge of what passed for lips and between the stone-like teeth. The wurm tried many times to snap its jaws shut, but the broken fragment of the spear kept its mouth lodged open, frothy saliva drooling down its neck.

Pulling with all her strength, Tyrissa yanked the head of the wurm upward, nearly bending it to a right angle around her knee. For an instant they stared at each other, glossy black beads against blue sparkling in fury, hunter and hunted. She had a clear view to the back of the wurm’s throat. Tyrissa gripped her knife tighter and drove it deep into the beast’s mouth, her arm scrapping against the bottom row of teeth and opening up fresh cuts. Her attack struck bone and sent a shock of pain through her wrist. Jerking her arm back within the creature’s mouth she made another thrust aimed further back and higher. This time she hit soft flesh and a spurt of hot blood washed over her hand, mixing with the wurm’s foul-smelling saliva. The wurm let out a pitiful squeal as the knife slipped into its small brain and its struggles shifted from violent resistance to nervous, residual twitches.

Tyrissa untangled herself from the wurm and rolled away to lie on her back. Panting as if she hadn’t breathed through the entire ordeal, she craned her neck to look over at her brothers. Sven was wide-eyed and covered in mud from the chest down, but otherwise in one piece. Oster looked impressed and a touch frightened.

Lying there, arm coated in wurm blood from the elbow down, the rest of her body splashed with mud and new-found exhaustion Tyrissa said, “Now we can go home.”

 

Chapter Two

It took the better part of an hour to return home by way of the winding but still well-traveled ‘Hunter’s Trail’, as Tyrissa called it. Their catch, while not overly heavy, was cumbersome and required all three of them to carry. The delineation between civilization and wilderness was sudden, the Morgwood vanishing around them to become pasture with aged stumps poking out among the grass. Tyrissa couldn’t help but frown at the constantly advancing boundary of Edgewatch Village, but the feeling passed as the close embrace of the forest was replaced by the warm familiarity of home.

With each passing year, Edgewatch ‘Village’ became more of a misnomer. The original village, built around an old hilltop watch tower nestled within the edge of the Morgwood, was now but a small section of a much larger town growing in the cleared fields south of the hill. With the exception of the weather-worn, pyramidal-roofed stone temple to the old Morg gods, every standing building in Edgewatch was less than twenty years old, built after the butchery of the Cleanse by survivors of the original village and the flood of refugees from the surrounding area.

The Jorensen home stood among the relatively older upper section of town, a ring of fifteen homes built around the original village green with its massive, preserved fir tree in the center. Anchoring the north and south points of the ring were the temple and the crumbled ruins of the watchtower that lent the town its name. In the afternoon shadow of the great fir, Alli Forran, the lead schoolmistress, had a class of about a dozen younger children sitting in two rows, each with a lapboard of brown wood for the day’s lesson. The trio drew some looks as they crossed the village green, though only the smaller children granted any lingering attention. Tyrissa had a reputation for emerging from the forest looking like hell with a smile on her face. It was considered some approximation of normal.

Their house looked much like the others in the ring: a square, single story built of sturdy Morgwood lumber, painted white with green trim, strengthened in places by locally carved stonework, and topped with rust brown tiles from the forges of Greden, the Morg capital city. A smaller, matching building containing her father’s wood-working shop sat nearby at a prudent distance. They took few chances given the fire hazard the stacked wood, sawdust, and lacquer of his trade posed. The sound her father sawing away at his work drifted out of the open double doors of the workshop. It was one of the most comforting sounds Tyrissa knew.

The instant they reached the front stoop of their home with its pine green door framed by an arch of gray stone, Iri Jorensen displayed her preternatural (or perhaps simply a mother’s) sense of knowing exactly when her children returned from misadventure, and opened the door. Somewhat darker in hair and skin than her daughter and husband from her southern Morgale blood, Iri silently assessed her three disheveled children and their prize, her face flickering between relief and mild disappointment.

Today, Iri wore traditional Morg women’s garb, a simple white blouse with well-used metal buttons and green skirt. Not so traditional was the matching length of green cloth tied around her head like a bandage, cutting diagonally across her forehead and covering her right eye before wrapping down below the ear.

It must be one of her bad days.

“Hello mother. We brought dinner!” Tyrissa said in as cheery a voice as possible while letting the wurm fall to the ground with an unceremonious thud. Oster sighed behind her, grateful to be relieved of his majority of the carried weight. The wurm landed with its head pointed up at Iri, mouth agape, tongue lolling out one side like a panting dog. Charming.

Tyrissa received a hard, accusatory stare from her mother’s eye. She could see the lower end of the scar peeking out from below the makeshift eye patch. A deep and surgically precise cut ran through Iri’s eyebrow to partway down her cheek and the wound should have blinded her, yet she could see perfectly fine on good days. Whenever Tyrissa asked about it her mother would say, ‘I received it in the Cleanse and it never healed properly,’ and would elaborate no further despite Tyrissa’s repeated attempts to learn more. Iri’s entire generation bore such wounds and scars: the shared mark of Cleanse survivors. Few, however, were as peculiar as her mother’s eye. Though Tyrissa’s latest growth spurt gave her a few inches over her mother, she still felt shorter out of sheer presence.

“I see. Thank you.” Iri’s eye bounced between the wurm, Tyrissa’s bandaged arm, and Sven’s mud-caked clothes. The three of them had stopped at a stream on the way back and attempted to clean Sven up, but there was only so much that could be done for it. Iri’s expression softened into a small, soft smile. Tyrissa inwardly cringed at promise of a future tongue-lashing.

“Well, don’t just stand there, take it down to Hileg’s. Tell him he may keep a few cuts for himself and Mirra. Then clean yourselves up and try not to have any further… adventures before dinner. If at all possible, Tyrissa.”

 

 

Hours later, Tyrissa sat behind their house at the crest of the hill, catching the faint scents of her mother preparing dinner mingling with the sharp smell of the herb-soaked bandages wrapped around her right arm. The book lying in her lap, The Women of Amonzae, was unopened. She’d read it cover to cover many times, the stories of the jungle dwelling society of warrior-women always thrilling, but glossing over how such a society functions for more than a generation without men.

Instead, Tyrissa gazed out over the lower section of Edgewatch and kept watch for Liran’s return. A larger ring of homes were built around a second common green, the houses similar to the ones at her back, but packed closer together. The lower green currently had a swarm of children kicking around a leather-bound ball, the game utterly lawless. It was a common sight, as youth far outnumbered adults in Edgewatch or any other Morg town, with most families having four or more children. Tyrissa had no shortage of friends and playmates growing up, though only Oster was capable of keeping up with her in the forest. Everyone else wasn’t interested in ‘a bunch of trees and trails’. She sighed at the thought. Most times it seemed only her eyes were drawn northward while everyone else looked south.

Past the lower green, the Fjordway cut through the new center of Edgewatch, an ancient road that ran from the central Morg cities in the west to the rugged port towns nestled among the fjord-riddled coasts to the east. Shops lined the road, along with the Forest’s Respite, the town’s inn and stables. Beyond the inn was the spire-topped roof of the schoolhouse. Tyrissa was glad to be done with that place. Beyond that stood yet more rows of homes, some still skeletal frames in the midst of construction with stacks of recently felled and cut lumber beside them. Edgewatch had become the primary waypoint for traders traveling the Fjordway after the Cleanse. Most of the other villages along the trade road were gone, with little left but bad memories haunting the burnt and rotted husks of abandoned homes.

Her eyes followed the road eastward until it vanished among the trees. Tyrissa had only read about the fjordland, never seen it for herself. At this point, her imagined view of staggering cliffs and countless secret inlets probably outdid the real thing, the fantastic landscapes of her adventure stories coloring her view of reality. Still, wanderlust itched at the back of her mind. Whether the Morgwood at her back or the fjords up that road, she wanted so much to just be away. Direction mattered little.

A large, cream colored horse with puffs of snowy white hair around its hoofs lumbered to a stop behind one of the shops lining the road. It pulled a narrow red wagon with a tall man seated on the driver’s bench. He was dressed in out-of-place dark colors with a close cropped crown of blonde hair that matched Tyrissa’s.

Her book tumbled to the grass as Tyrissa sprang to her feet and broke into a sprint down the hillside. She cut through the ball game, a brief addition to the chaos, shouts sounding in her wake. By the time she weaved through the houses and reached the wagon, Liran was already haggling with Jorill, a pudgy shopkeeper nearing sixty with only scattered strands of hair above his ears and a gray tangle hanging from his chin. Tyrissa waited, catching her breath and allowing Liran to finish his business. Her brother wore a loose but handsome coat of black and blue, the colors of his merchant guild. On the back, sewn between his shoulders, was a circular patch of concentric circles in the same company colors with a silver coin at the center. ‘Khalan North Trade Company’ was stitched around the outermost ring of the company crest.

“Eleven chiefmarks, boy,” Jorill said. “We already get supplied with herbs once a week from Greden. Don’t think you can get a little extra because you used to live here when you were a lad, snatching candies when you thought me or the wife weren’t looking.”

“I wouldn’t dare think of it Jorill! But I don’t think you have spices from the Khalanheim markets. Ever had rajspice?” Liran removed the stopper from a small jar of reddish-brown powder. Jorill leaned in for a sniff and came away looking thoughtful.

“This traveled some two thousand miles to get here. Khalanheim’s markets contain pieces of the entire world, and I’m bringing a piece of the world to you. It’s not just rare, it’s unique. I’d say that’s worth a ‘little extra’. It’s still a discount from what you’d pay to someone from the capital for anything like this. I’ll even knock a few off the price as… delayed payment for those candies. Fifteen chiefmarks.”

Liran spoke faster than she remembered, some of his words seasoned with an unfamiliar accent. He had been gone for almost two years now, leaving for the city of Khalanheim to further his career with the Khalan North Trade Company. That was on top of the years he spent bouncing around Morgale’s cities, working with the local branches of the company and visiting Edgewatch once a season at best. To Tyrissa the cities of the south sparkled in her imagination like diamonds just over the horizon. Khalanheim and Gardula, Imperial Rhonia and Tillmoore. Liran got to see them first hand and she couldn’t help but feel a small surge of jealousy whenever she thought on it.

Jorill wrapped up their haggling duel with, “Sure, fifteen. Welcome home, boy.”

Liran lifted a small padded crate from the back of the wagon and handed it to the shopkeeper. He saw Tyrissa standing here and lifted a finger, asking her to wait a moment longer. All that remained in the wagon bed were a travel pack and another smaller crate of jarred spices, likely a gift for their mother.

“You have a great evening Jorill. I’ll come by for payment tomorrow.”

Jorill grunted in assent and carried the crate through the backdoor of his shop.

“I find your priorities confused Liran,” Tyrissa said crossing her arms in mock disappointment. “Honestly, two years and you’d rather make a few marks before seeing your dearest sister.”

Liran had the decency to send his sharp, appraising eyes downward and look chastised, all the while still bearing a charming smile that implied a constant, private joke. The other girls always told her how Liran was ‘the pretty one’. Tyrissa didn’t see it.

“Call it a merchant’s nature, Ty. It can’t be helped, only indulged.”

Liran stepped over to her and they embraced. Upon pulling way he looked her over and said, “My how you’ve grown, almost as tall as me now.” Tyrissa would have to dispute that later, as they were clearly eye-to-eye. Liran’s face was sun bronzed from the trip north, a long journey through the vast emptiness and supposed dangers of Vordeum. The last two years had been kind to his beard, finally filling in the gaps and patches that haunted him from youth.

“What happened to your arm,” Liran motioned at the fresh bandages around her forearm and hand.

“Dinner,” she replied with a wicked smile.

“I’ll let it be a surprise,” he said with a laugh.

“Is this horse yours?” Tyrissa patted the mare’s neck and traced her hand along a splash of white running down the snout. This far north, horses were a rarity, the property of lords and the king, a symbol of wealth. Most Morgs used kaggorn as haulers, the burly beasts slower than horses and hardier against the fierce Morgale winters.

“The Guild’s, but at least she makes me look all the more impressive.”

“She’s beautiful.”

Liran chuckled and said, “I suppose. The novelty wears off quick when you’re around them for enough time. Maybe I’ll take you to the caravan while it’s camped over in Tav and you can get your fill of them.”

“I’d like that.”

“I thought you might. Let me stable Izzy and we’ll head home.”

 

 

The Jorensen family sat hand in hand around the table and dinner began with ten seconds of silence for the ten silent Morg gods, a practice done more out of tradition than reverence. The Cleanse shattered what remained of anyone’s faith. What good were nameless gods that cared nothing for their people in their darkest times? Tyrissa ticked the seconds off in the back of her head, paying more attention to the feel of her father’s hand in her left and Liran’s in her right, the contrast of calloused versus smooth, of wildly different paths in life.

Ring-shaped wurm steaks lay in a stacked line atop a central platter ringed by a smattering of side dishes, mostly summer vegetables and a plate of pungent kaggorn cheese. Everyone save Sven had a glass of premium mead from the western Morg city of Stalven, the drink stained a murky blue from the berries used in its creation.

“It looks wonderful Iri,” Orval Jorensen said after the blessing. Tyrissa’s father was a broad-shouldered man, the source of his children’s height and bright blue eyes. Well into his middle years, his blonde hair was thinning, or perhaps merely migrating to his thick beard that looked as youthful as ever. Tyrissa thought he always smelled of sawdust, as if fresh from the shop.

“Thank you dear,” her mother said, “It was Ty, Oster, and Sven who brought in the wurm, though I’d prefer to not know the specifics on how.” Iri’s bandana was off, which was common in the evenings. Faint tan lines showed on her face, the slash of paler skin evoking the war paint of clan champions of old.

Probably for the best mother, Tyrissa thought to herself. If Sven managed to hold his tongue about the incident, there might be hope for him yet.

“A shame that Corgell couldn’t be here,” her father said, “but I suppose he has a family of his own to care for, now.”

“The caravan is camped at the Tavleorn festival grounds, so I paid him a visit on the way in,” Liran said while attacking his steak. “Little Eirin is talking now, she can barely stop. His shop seems to be quite successful as well. I managed to score a discount on fair bit of Rhonian greenwood from the caravan for him. Expensive stuff this far north. He’ll flip for double making bookends for the nobles in Greden or some such.”

“He has a pair of hired workers now,” their father said, voice clearly proud for the son that followed in his footsteps. Tyrissa was never close to her eldest brother, given their age difference. She was only eight years old when Corgell left home to start his own woodworking shop in Tavleorn, the closest city to Edgewatch, two or three days to the west by the Fjordway.

Talk wavered through updates on members of their extended family. The food was exquisite; her mother had conjured a feast seemingly from nowhere.

“Ty, your seventeenth is soon,” her father said. As if Tyrissa could forget. Seventeen was the traditional age of maturity among Morgs, the age when a child becomes an adult and commits to a trade or role. Terrifying, in a word.

“Any further thought of what you’re going to do?”

“Well in some traditions, the third-born takes a martial path. Army, militia, guard for traveling traders. That sort of thing.” Tyrissa made no mention her real desire: to rebuild the Rangers of the Morgwood. The order had fallen into disuse decades ago. It was a criminal abandonment of a vital need and a part of their people’s history.

Iri gave a quiet scoff and said, “Third son.

“Mother disapproves, as usual.”

“Because it’s not realistic or proper.”

“You’re always so quick to tell me what a proper woman’s role is, despite the fact that you and everyone your age fought in the Cleanse.”

“Those were different times. We fought so you wouldn’t have to be like—”

“Be like you? Heroines and leaders instead of mothers and seamstresses?”

“I won’t talk about it further, Tyrissa. It’s the… very opposite of proper dinner conversation.” Her mother said raised a hand to stroke the pendant engraved with her maiden initials that she always wore. Tyrissa knew that meant she was thinking about the Cleanse, an unconscious reflex that was as unexplained as the scar over her eye.

“Ty. Not here, not now.” her father said with a hint of weariness. This point of conflict between his daughter and wife was nothing new.

“Yes papa,” she said, a parting shot wrapped in obedience.

“Liran,” he said, “Tell us of Khalanheim.”

“Ah, Khalanheim, of course.” Liran paused for a moment, eyeing the end of his fork in thought. “It’s big, for one. A few times the size of Greden at least. When you first get there you’re struck dumb by how many people there are and how the city seems to stretch on forever. At first, I thought I would be out of place, being from so far away, but that was far from the truth. It’s the crossroads of the entire continent. People from all over the world end up there, and bring with them an endless supply of trade goods, foods, stories, and styles.”

Tyrissa finished her wurm steak and listened as her brother spoke of the city’s size, and clustered rooftops, and the varied merchant guilds, and the endless lines of market stalls and bazaars. She couldn’t help but feel that Liran was leaving out something more… interesting.

“Pactbound aren’t outlawed there, right?” Oster asked.

There it is. Pactbound: the heroes and villains of many of the adventure stories that filled her imagination and spare time, blessed (or cursed) with magick bestowed by the unknowable Elemental Powers. Tyrissa hid a grin with sip of mead. It was very sweet.

Iri sighed audibly. “All manner of polite dinner conversation tonight.”

“He’s just curious mother,” Liran said.

“The wrong sort of curiosity can kill with respect to Pacts. Especially here.”

“It’s different in the rest of the world,” he continued. “And there are different kinds of Pactbound and none are like what we had here. Some are actually quite useful. Why, the Shaper’s Guild can—”

“Liran,” Iri’s snapped, voice hardening from nearly-lost patience, “Please.”

He hid a grimace with a grin and threw a quick wink at Tyrissa.

“I simply worry about you,” Iri said, softening her tone. Slightly. “The south is less safe than Morgale, and having Pactbound roam free… you can’t trust them. Ever. There’s a reason Vordeum is an empty land. Man wasn’t meant to toy with the power of gods. We made that mistake and it cost us more than you four could ever understand. Speak no more of it at my table.”

“Of course, mother.”

Talk returned to inconsequential fare as the meal wore down. Tyrissa stayed silent. Liran left out certain details about Khalanheim that she had read about in her many adventure books. She shot a glance at her mother, and knew Liran was omitting the more fantastic elements. While the meal was filling, Tyrissa still hungered for information. She would have to grill her brother for the good stuff later.

 

 

Chapter Three

Tyrissa stood among the fragmented ruins of the village’s watchtower, the late morning light promising a warm day. One Morg tradition Tyrissa embraced was the training of all children in basic weapon skills and self-defense, one of few holdovers from the old clan ways that had strengthened after the Cleanse. She poured nearly as much energy training with the visiting instructors as she did exploring the Morgwood. Her weapon of choice was the staff, enchanted as she was by fantasies of a warrior whirling at the eye of a storm of blunt power. Carved from local pine, her current staff was well-worn from countless hours of practice. It was too short for her now, but she had a plan to fix that.

She had no sparring partner today so she fought against the air, flying through forms and techniques as quickly as possible in the pursuit of perfection. It helped to push away the aimlessness that grew like summer moss in the corners of her mind. Her formal schooling was finished and there are only so many minor tasks and chores that could use her hand. She never learned a trade, instead helping out with odd jobs here and there, mostly in her father’s shop or with the kaggorn herders. Tyrissa let the morning fade into the blur and whistle of her staff flying through the air. She knew she needed to find a place in the world, a true role to fill, instead of dreams of adventure and heroics. She hated the very thought of surrendering to practicality, but for now she faced southward, her back to the beckoning wall of trees, resisting the forest’s call.

Eventually the build-up of doubts and worries broke her concentration. She misplaced a foot and stumbled, swearing quietly as she regained her balance. Tyrissa glanced around to see if anyone was watching. No one. It didn’t count. Sweat trickled down her back as she glanced to the sky. The sun neared its noon peak, its light drowning out the day’s faint aurora, now in its fading silver phase. How long had she been practicing? Shaking her head, Tyrissa propped her staff against the ancient watchtower’s stones and went to a nearby well for a drink.

Upon her return Tyrissa spied her mother at the center of the lower village green, speaking with a group of strangers. Many other residents of the village watched from the edges of the green or their windows, the adults suspicious, the children fascinated. Tyrissa leaned into her staff and joined them. Strangers were always watched closely, more out of a lingering caution than overt hostility. Especially strangers such as these.

There were five, each with a horse and each armed with a variety of weapons, all sheathed or stowed and marking them as warriors. They all had darker hair and skin tanned either by blood or from weeks traveling under the sun. That would make them unfamiliar, foreign, and mercenaries, three black marks against. Four hung back, clustered at the edge of the village green, while the fifth and only woman of the group spoke with Iri. Tyrissa could sense her mother’s irritation at this distance as she jabbed an accusing finger at the woman’s face. They were unwanted. When the other woman talked, she punctuated with small, respectful bows. Iri stood still for a moment, then looked over her shoulder at Tyrissa and pointed.

A minute later Tyrissa faced down one of her dreams.

The woman looked a handful of years shy of her mother’s age, with a round face that was once pretty but now tempered by age and experience into a quiet dignity, like a bouquet of flowers made from steel, mold lines and all. She gave Tyrissa an assessing look with bark colored eyes that tilted slightly downward toward her nose. Her gaze lingered on the staff.

“Hello” she said bowing slightly. “I am Tsellien ar’Ival. You are Iri’s daughter, Tyrissa, yes?” She spoke at a deliberate pace, her accent infusing her speech with an exotic buzz.

“I am,” was all Tyrissa could manage at first. Tsellien wore a simple brown coat over a faded silver tunic, both worn and dusty from travel. Over one shoulder stood the hilt of a longsword, handle elegantly worked into a thicket of vines, the pommel a crystalline orb that glinted silver in the sunlight. Tyrissa knew she was staring and conjured a polite smile to mask against her gawking.

Tsellien motioned at the staff, “You are a student of the staff?”

“Yes. Only the basics. It’s a tradition.” And a part of everything she wanted.

“From the look of you,” she said with a faint smile, “you were going through more than the basics. I spoke with your mother and she said you might be of some help to us.”

“Do you two know each other?”

She shook her head. “Not personally, no. Iri worked with a friend of mine many years ago.”

“During the Cleanse,” Tyrissa guessed. An easy go-to. What else could it be?

The woman returned a solemn nod. “Terrible times for many. Iri told me you know the forest better than anyone else in town.”

At that, Tyrissa raised an eyebrow. “She said that? Yes, I do.” Tyrissa glanced downhill to catch her mother watching them, just in time to see her turn back to her errand, shaking her head in slight disapproval.

“Do you know of a place like this,” Tsellien said, drawing a curled piece of parchment from an inner coat pocket. It unrolled to reveal a drawing of foothills at the base of a mountain range, a deep pass cutting between two peaks. The mountain peaks looked to be peeling away from each other, leaving sheer cliff faces that descended to the pass. The margins were crowded with notes and annotations written in an unrecognizable, delicate script that paired well with Tsellien’s accent. The landscape, however, sprang to mind instantly.

“Looks like Giant’s Gap, the first major pass in the Norspine. It’s about a day and a half to the northwest, if you’re on foot. More with horses,” Tyrissa said, sparing a glance at Tsellien’s party waiting down the hill. Their progress in the thicker parts of the forest would be slow as none of the old paths made for kaggorn-pulled carts lead straight to Giant’s Gap.

“You could mark it? On a map, yes?” Tsellien said with a smile that possessed surprising warmth and sincerity, as if Tyrissa could trust to her words without fear or doubt.

“Of course.” She could have pointed directly at the pass, though from here it would be obscured by the curve of the Norspine Mountains.

“Vralin,” the woman called down the hill to her party. A hooded man in loose, charcoal-colored clothing separated from the group. He walked with a flowing grace, as if his feet glided just above the grass, clothing rippling from a wind that Tyrissa couldn’t feel in the air. Braced around his belt were an array of vials, glass orbs, and knives. Despite the variety of gear, he made barely a sound as he walked uphill toward them, carrying square brown leather folder. Tsellien favored Vralin with a bright smile and fired off a rapid string of words in an ethereal language full of buzzing syllables and breathy sounds, like whispers on the wind. He replied quietly in the same tongue.

Tsellien gave a small start and said, “Yes. Let’s stay with Northern for her sake.”

Calling the common language ‘Northern’ was an odd and antiquated choice. Tyrissa only ever saw it called that in the older stories from the southern nations. Each detail placed these strangers from an ever further homeland.

Vralin nodded, produced a pen and flipped open the folder to reveal a printed map of northeastern Morgale and the Morgwood, the lower right corner bearing the family seal of a cartographer from Tavleorn. Tyrissa knew the seal well; an older map made by same family hung on a wall in her bedroom. She frowned at the newer map, noting the new blank spaces in the Morgwood and other wildernesses on the fringe of civilized territory, visual evidence of exploration being undone. The Norspine Mountains ran along the west border of the map, and a handful of recently drawn crosses dotted the both sides of the range. Most were wildly off the mark for Giant’s Gap. Shameful.

“Add yours if you please, miss”, Vralin said, his accent less pronounced, a low vibration instead of a buzz, like a house subtly creaking in a steady wind.

She leaned in and added her own on the east side of the mountains, not far from the little house icon labeled ‘Edgewatch’ on the map. Tyrissa glanced up to catch a look at Vralin’s hooded face and came away disappointed. He looked normal, sharing Tsellien’s angled eyes and rounded face. He was the only one of the five foreigners dressed like that. Why would he hide his face so?

“The way is rough in places, and you’ll have to make a few detours around two larger crevasses here and here,” Tyrissa inked in two thin lines a few hours northwest of Edgewatch. “There might be other unmapped rifts in the way as well.”

“How wide are they?”

“Twenty to thirty feet. They opened two winters ago.” Tyrissa remembered the thrill of discovering them after the thaw, only to be saddened when no one else seemed to care. The forest was far from static, the earth below seeming to shift every year with gradual changes. It lent all the more need to a constant presence in the Morgwood, knowledge and guidance that a ranger could provide.

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” he said, dismissive. “Is there anything more significant in the straight line route?”

More significant? As if they could fly over them…

“No.”

“Thank you, child.” Vralin snapped the folder shut and turned to Tsellien, his use for Tyrissa done and the girl now invisible. “Ellie,” he said, “it is still early enough. It’s best if we kept moving.”

“Vralin, there’s no reason to jump at shadows this far north. It’s no longer quite as bad as the last time we were together.” Tsellien said, frowning.

“We’re hardly welcome here. There’s no need to provoke the locals further.”

Tsellien nodded, glancing to the sky. “True. Not the welcome I expected, yes?” She gave Tyrissa a short bow. “We must go. Thank you, Tyrissa. When we return through here, I would like to speak with you at length.”

“I’d love that,” Tyrissa said, dozens of questions already popping into her head. “Good luck out there.”

Tsellien seemed amused by this.

“Yes,” she said. “Luck.”

 

 

Chapter Four

The aurora sparkled at the peak of its violet phase, the light tinting another perfect summer afternoon. Tyrissa and Oster weaved their way along a path even less trod than usual for the Morgwood, many miles north of their home. Stems of undergrowth crossed the path and slapped at passing arms and legs, the trail below their feet crumbling, reverting to natural forest floor. Oster had made the error of agreeing to help Tyrissa with a ‘quest’ before asking what it entailed. Tyrissa held him to his promise, but gave no other details beyond how far, how long, and needing an extra person to carry ‘it’. She would have preferred to bring Liran, but he had business back at the caravan.

“Ty, can you at least tell me what we’re looking for?” The only hint to his sister’s intentions was the handsaw clipped to her belt, the tool bouncing along with her overconfident stride.

“Ranger rule of the forest number eleven, ‘There are as many secrets as trees’”, Tyrissa quoted with as much wisdom she could muster. The Rangers were experts in every aspect of living off of and within the forest. They also didn’t number their rules. That was her addition to make it sound more impressive, and just may become canon. There sadly wasn’t anyone left to tell her otherwise. The order disappeared when her parents were still children.

“That’s not really a rule. It’s more of a saying.” Oster audibly puffed every third word while the trail scaled an incline. Tyrissa slowed her pace, remembering that few were as practiced at navigating the shifting terrain below their feet as she.

“You… I… well, anyway, this is one of them,” she said pointing ahead to the flattened top of the hill. There stood a tree unlike any other in the Morgwood. Its trunk was as large as a bull kaggorn at the base and it soared over a hundred feet high, a patriarch lording over the thin neighboring conifers. A thicket of gnarled branches spread out along its entire height, each bearing an array of broad, green leaves that would rustle in the wind rather than sigh. The dry and rotted leaves of previous years coated the forest floor, cushioning the final steps of their approach.

“A steeloak,” Oster whispered in awe, running his hand over the tree trunk as if to gain assurance that it was real. The bark was a deep gray color, lending it a metallic appearance.

This is what I want my new staff to be made of. It’s supposed to be unbreakable once it dries.” Tyrissa scooped up a fallen twig from the forest floor. The twig didn’t even hint at snapping as she coiled it four times about her index finger. When released, it sprang back into its original shape. She tossed it over to Oster. He admired it in his palm for a moment before tucking it away as a keepsake.

“The manuals talk of the rare steeloak tree growing in the areas near the Fjordway. I’ve been looking all summer for one. Papa will love working with it.”

“A gift within a gift,” Oster said.

“Exactly,” she said, her eyes scanning the lowest branches of the tree. “Give me a boost.”

Tyrissa glided up along the trunk of the steeloak, smoothly scaling the maze of branches. Each hand hold and foot placement felt as solid as rock, the bigger forks of the tree immovable from the seemingly minor extra weight of the girl. She ascended most of the way up the steeloak to find a branch of the right length and girth, about twice the width of her wrist and long enough for a proper Morg staff. Upon finding one hanging easily in arm’s reach above a wider branch, Tyrissa settled in, her legs wrapped around the trunk below. Only then did she look down to see that the ground was visible only in swaying patches through tree’s layered, leafed fingers. Tyrissa had to admit that she was at a reckless height, even by her standards.

She unclipped the handsaw from her belt. It was an older, unused one from a dusty storage crate in her father’s shop. No prized tool, it wouldn’t be missed in a normal day’s work and was quite replaceable. Tyrissa went to work with the saw, and found that even when alive the steeloak’s possessed an unnatural toughness. Flecks of gray dust fell like snow upon her upturned face as she sawed away. Like all of her siblings, she’d helped out in her father’s shop, and knew that a cut like this should have been quick. Yet, it took nearly ten minutes to saw through the relatively thin steeloak branch, with multiple breaks to rest her aching arms. After a few final strokes, a splintering crack ripped through the air and the branch fell away. Tyrissa watched it slide and crash through the lower reaches of the tree waiting for it to get stuck, but her future staff flew true all the way to the ground. She took that as a good sign.

Oster’s voice called up, “I got it!”

Tyrissa replaced the leather guard on the handsaw, noting how dull the blade was after one session with the fabled wood, and re-clipped it to her belt. Shifting her weight, she made to climb back down the tree but paused, finally taking note of the view.

From her vantage point in the swaying heights of the steeloak’s upper branches and with the tree itself at the crest of a hill, Tyrissa could easily see over the tops of the common pine and firs of the Morgwood. The forest stretched northward as far as she could see, a green carpet that rolled over hills and sharp ravines, broken only by the jagged peaks of the Norspine Mountains and a few large lakes that glittered in the sun. She caught such views daily, but every once in a while took a moment to relish them. The sense of belonging never waned, no matter how hard she tried to push it away. About to turn back to the task of climbing down, Tyrissa’s eye caught a dark blemish in the expanse of forest. Atop one of the foothills, miles more to the north, there was an area of felled trees and raw rock as if a landslide had swept through.

No, that explanation felt wrong. Tyrissa squinted against the distance, wishing she were closer. Among the devastation rose a spire of stone as black as a midnight without the aurora. Tyrissa stared, blinking a few times against the midday sun, waiting for her imagination to stop trying to fool her. The spire remained quite real and not some visual trick of a rock formation. It could only be manmade, in a place where there should be naught but nature.

Oster called up at her, breaking the brief spell that held her attention.

“Yeah! I’m coming,” she yelled back. Tyrissa took one more look at the strange spire, memorizing its location and promising herself that she would investigate it another day. It lay a few more hours away, through rough terrain at the back of a long valley. She eloped for a day last summer to ‘survey’ the area and a route came to mind immediately. It was the same direction she sent Tsellien’s party well over two weeks ago. They hadn’t returned back through Edgewatch, much to her disappointment.

I’ll go alone, she thought. This will be my discovery.

 

 

Days later, the Jorensen family held a modest celebration at midday for Tyrissa seventeenth birthday. Afterward, they each went about their separate business. Liran, once again, had to return to the caravan for a few days, her father had orders to fill (including Tyrissa’s) and her brothers had afternoon lessons and apprentice work to attend to. Tyrissa was free to curl up in one of the two upholstered armchairs near the cold and clean fireplace of their living room. They were dark blue with a pattern of curling leafed vines, the colors faded from age and use. The cushions were thin in spots but raw nostalgia kept the chairs comfortable, a constant, quiet presence in their household for as long as Tyrissa could remember.

Here, Tyrissa dived into Liran’s gift: a pristine copy of Tales from Across the North, a collection of adventure stories edited by one ‘Giroon the Great’. Tyrissa skipped the rambling, self-important introduction and scanned through the table of contents. She was thrilled to find that while she had already read a few of the stories, the majority of the book was new to her. Liran had chosen his gift well. Her brother made a tradition out of giving her a book on her birthday and this one would more than make up for last year’s breaking of that tradition.

Tyrissa flipped through the book, skimming the pages for a place to start, torn between stories about the Golden Legion of the ancient Rhonian Empire and the heroic pirates of the outer Felarill isles before settling on a tale from the journeys of Calad Stoneshield, an Earth Pactbound and one of her favorites. It detailed his adventures in Morgale during the clan era, long before even the idea of a unified kingdom arose, and fit into a gap in the chronology of Calad’s stories that she had already read. It quickly became clear why her Morg-printed books skipped this particular section of the hero’s life. The stories were unkind to her people, likening them to simple forest and mountain dwelling barbarians. ‘Yellow haired savages’ with ‘ghostly-pale skin and ignorant, animal eyes’ were common descriptors. Tyrissa read on in a mix of discomfort and illicit thrill. The story was hundreds of years old but still haunted her with the question of ‘Is this how southerners see us?’ News of the unreal savagery of the Cleanse probably only reinforced the idea.

Time vanished into the pages, Tyrissa only noticing its passage when she had to light an oil lamp against the descending dusk. She could hear her mother bustling about in the kitchen, preparing the evening meal. Her journeys were broken only by her father settling into the matching chair.

“Evening, Ty,” he said.

“We need to talk,” Tyrissa said, meeting his eyes over the top of the book. Her father still wore his working clothes and was speckled with persistent bits of sawdust, but his face and hands were clean.

“We do,” he agreed. Tyrissa caught sight of her mother’s silhouette turning away in the darkened doorway to the kitchen. She marked her place in the book and set it aside.

Her father nodded and skipped the introduction as they both knew this chat would be a continuation.

“Ty, you must find your place and you need to make a realistic choice. We’re still rebuilding from the Cleanse, there’s no shortage of jobs and trades that need hands. Your mother may encourage you towards ‘proper’ tasks, but after so many losses we can no longer afford to adhere to the old customs of gender.”

Some abandonment of the old ways Tyrissa welcomed. The idea of her as a maid or seamstress or mother was laughable. Even with her overly packed imagination, some things were beyond her ability to visualize.

“You don’t have to choose right away,” he continued, “but you need to decide what you really want, what your place in the world will be.”

“I already know what I want.” This type of heart-to-heart talk wasn’t new, just more urgent. She couldn’t put it off much longer. It felt so unfair. She was supposed to follow a calling, but no, not this or that.

“Ty, the old ways are gone. They were dying when I was your age and after the Cleanse… well, many things changed after that.” Her father leaned his head back against chair, eyes raised to the ceiling, as if staring through the wooden beams and tiled roof to the sky above. His eyes took on a rare and distinct cast when he remembered those troubled times. All the blood and steel and death and near-pyrrhic triumph glinted there in the reflected lamplight. Tyrissa had seen the scars on her father’s back and chest and arms. They were cuts from blades, a couple of arrow wounds, and a single set of parallel scars from the claws of some creature not detailed in any of her ranger manuals. Together they formed a timeline of his experiences during the Cleanse. He saw so much, all not far from their supposedly ‘safe’ home in Greden, the Morg capital that had weathered the storm better than most.

“We came so close to destroying ourselves,” he said. “After that, of course we traded the ways of the forest for the comfort and safety of the south.” Despite the familiarity of the talk, Tyrissa could hear an earnest timbre in her father’s voice, an absence of the previous occasions’ patronizing tone. “Don’t think that we’ve honey-coated the Cleanse for the children. Over the years in your schooling you’ve been told every sordid detail needed to make sure such a tragedy never happens again.”

“I know, papa.” Tyrissa couldn’t forget the long, terrifying lectures given by her schoolmistresses over the years about the Cleanse, Morgale’s five years of pure hell. A war between old, nearly meaningless clans, followed by a scattered, seeping corruption of hearts and minds. Then came the emergence of countless Pactbound men and women fueled by daemonic magicks. Neighbor killed neighbor and roving mobs murdered anyone suspected of being ‘touched’, only for more daemons to appear alongside bands of forest dwellers firmly under their sway. Villages burned and towns emptied in a vicious cycle of self-inflicted genocide broken only by King Horald’s armies, guided by rumored divine providence. His justice had the same brutality, but it was an effective, directed brutality. The Pactbound were exterminated, and you could look someone in the eye without wondering if they were one of them.

“We rebuilt this town as a wall, a way of shielding us from the past and as a monument to better times. It’s not an exercise in denial but a form of therapy, a restoration of life’s order. Your mother and I, our generation needs to cling to something. For Iri it’s a desire, misguided or not, to see you live a life she was denied.

“Then what is she hiding from me?”

Orval sighed. “Her choice, Ty. She will tell you when she feels ready. Though I must admit I’m surprised you haven’t been hounding the other veterans in the village about it.”

“I—” she stopped herself short, considering the why. “It seemed too personal. The way they look at her, or rather, not look at her makes me think they don’t know the truth either. I’d just get their versions.”

“Showing more maturity already,” he said with a smile. “Now, enough of this grim, adult talk, this is a joyous occasion. My little girl is no longer little, and no longer a girl.”

Orval stood and went to the door. There, he retrieved a staff propped against the doorframe. So absorbed was she in the book, Tyrissa hadn’t noticed her father bring it inside. Their talk and the stories of her new book vanished from her thoughts as her heart jumped in excitement.

“I thought it would be a few more days,” she said, the words rushing out.

“I pushed your order to the front,” her father said as he reentered the pool of lamplight. “The mending of chairs and building shelves can wait for this.”

He held the staff up horizontally in his weathered upturned palms.

“For you, my daughter, on the day of your rise to womanhood.”

Tyrissa sprang up, smile as broad as it’s ever been, and accepted the weapon with a little bow. The storm gray wood was smooth, pristine. Three bands of polished steel were set into the staff, a long one at the center and two narrower bands at either end. Tyrissa took a few steps back and gave her new staff a few slow, experimental spins and swings. The balance was exquisite, though it was little long with room for growth.

Tyrissa laughed and threw her arms around her father in a tight hug.

“It’s perfect. Thank you, papa.”

They embraced in silence for a moment before Orval said, “I wish you’d tell me where that tree is.” There was a touch of hunger in his voice. He could make a fortune from that tree, given the rarity of steeloak lumber. A woodworker with nigh-indestructible products would be well off indeed. Her father wasn’t greedy, but was a business man all the same.

“You just said how you’ve had to leave the old ways behind Papa. That tree belongs to the forest and those who still follow old paths.”

He pulled away, hands on her shoulders, and gave her the look of a man who just outwitted himself.

“That I did,” he said nodding, beard curling around that small smile of his. “That I did.”

 

 

Chapter Five

Tyrissa awoke before summer’s early dawn, her mind too full of anticipation to sleep any further. She craned her neck back and looked up at the tall thin window set into the wall above the head of her bed. The aurora’s hazel light filtered through the thick pane of glass, promising clear skies. Lying there in the near-darkness, she smiled to herself. Today would be the day she traveled to the distant, beckoning spire that she’d spied from the steeloak’s branches.

Fighting down the excitement that jolted away any lingering lethargy of sleep, Tyrissa lay still and ran her eyes over her darkened bedroom. It was small and narrow, partitioned off a few years ago (at her mother’s insistence) from the much larger bedroom now shared by Oster and Sven. Her room was just large enough to hold a bed, a stout storage chest and the proper level of privacy for a young lady. Two built-in shelves lined the dividing wall with twenty-three books in a neat row upon the upper shelf: Tyrissa’s collection of adventure tales, myths, and a pair of well-loved ranger almanacs. Each was a treasured gift, a hard earned purchase, or simply ‘borrowed’ on a very long term basis. Tyrissa listened for the sound of other early risers, but heard nothing but her own breath. Today was the day of rest after all, and the Jorensen household was still. It was time.

The would-be explorer sat up, threw aside her quilt and peeled off her night clothes. Her skin broke into goose bumps against the cooled night air as she sprang out of bed and padded over to the storage chest. It opened without a sound (she had oiled the hinges a few days ago to be certain) and she grabbed the bundle of clothes set aside the night before. Tyrissa pulled on her outfit for the day, consisting chiefly of a faded green shirt with short sleeves that stopped just below the shoulder and her favored pair of earth-tone trousers that were, week by week, becoming a bit too tight at the hips.

As she blindly worked her belt on, Tyrissa mentally ran through the contents of the small pack attached to the belt. It held a fair amount of jerky, nuts, dried berries, and bread pilfered from her mother’s pantry and an empty water skin. There were also a few matches, a length of bandages, and an extra pair of woolen socks.

Ranger rule number twenty-one: always carry extra socks.

Tyrissa clipped on her knife, which had jokingly become known as Wurmslayer. Lastly, she retrieved her new, but already prized, steeloak staff from the lower shelf. It was unnamed and every idea for one felt forced. Weapons had to earn their names.

Everything was readied. Tyrissa picked up her boots and padded down the hallway, through the living room and out the front door. Her bare arms flushed red against the crisp morning air, an invigorating feeling to begin the long day to come. The common green lay as quiet the house at her back. Only a pair of the other houses had windows illuminated with bleary, yellow light creeping through curtained windows. The mix of the hazel fire of the aurora and blue, pre-dawn light made the village look as if it were underwater. All she could hear were the caws of the morning crows and the occasional bleat from the nearby sheep flocks.

Tyrissa trotted northward across the village green, racing to be away from the eyes of any waking neighbors. She paused only to fill her water skin at one of the wells and made it to the outer edge of town as the pink light of dawn ignited the soaring faces of the Norspine Mountains to the northwest. She would be alone, of course, both to have total ownership of this discovery and in the interest of speed. Her brothers or friends could never match the effortless way she could glide through the forest, and she had many hours of travel over rough terrain ahead of her. She ran through the route in her mind countless times over the last week. Out before the dawn, at the spire by midday, and back by evening, just in time for one of the final family dinners before Liran returned to the caravan for good. He would be traveling back to Khalanheim soon, and Tyrissa wanted to say good-bye with the tale of her own adventure.

Pastures for the herds of charcoal colored sheep and the bulky kaggorn lined the northern fringe of Edgewatch, filling in the space left by the retreating edge of the Morgwood. Tyrissa slowed to a walk as she passed the low stone walls of the pastures, glancing over the fields at a herd of about twenty sheep. A shepherd and his dog, both unrecognizable at this distance and light level, glanced at her in unison but turned back to their mutual watch without a word. Tyrissa continued unhurried, letting the sun grow strong enough to light the canopy-dimmed trails. Everything was coming together just as she planned. Even the aurora would be at its hazel peak tonight, bright enough to light her way should she take that long to return home. As the abrupt edge of the forest rose higher, so too did her excitement. Crossing into the tree line always felt like crossing into a different world. Her world.

The trails around Edgewatch were well packed and Tyrissa knew them better than anyone. She struck off into the forest, the first part of her northwest route long since memorized in other excursions. With the arrival of sunlight the forest awakened into its usual chorus of faint rustles, bird song, and the buzzing of insects. To Tyrissa, it was the sound of contentment and belonging. She quickened her pace under the shelter of the forest, her thoughts wrapped up in the thrill of what lay ahead.

As the initial hours and miles passed, the route turned from the well-trod routes of men, to forgotten and disused paths, to narrowed, natural game trails or untouched forest floor. Tyrissa knew from her schooling and her own explorations that there used to be a great many of homesteaders who preferred to live within the woods, either single family cabins or isolated clusters of homes. Their occasional traffic back to town would keep the trails clear, and extended the reach of man over the Morgwood.

The Cleanse had taken them all. The forest’s isolation made them easy prey for the roving bands of Pactbound raiders, or from the other side of the coin, they became pockets of corrupted men that had to be purged. People shunned the forest after the Cleanse, unfairly associating the shade of the trees to the shadow that crept through Morg hearts in those dreadful years. Now they clung to the still partially empty cities and towns for the perceived safety of numbers, civilization, and the reach of the king and his sentinels. Their abandoned cabins stood scattered through the southern reaches of the Morgwood, ruined and silent reminders of a discarded way of life.

It was approaching noon when the forest thinned and dropped away into a wide, glacier-carved valley. Tyrissa fished out handfuls of dried berries and nuts from her pack as she picked her way down to the valley floor. Here, she would turn west towards the mountains and avoid the detours caused by crevasses that broke the direct route. A long gradual rise to the foothills stretched ahead of her and as always the forest floor was strewn with nature’s chaos: varied shrubs and saplings sprouting between errant boulders and the occasional fallen tree.

Tyrissa inhaled a full breath of the sweet, crisp air and broke into a run, kicking up dead pine needles in her wake. She ran with a focused yet reckless abandon, flowing through the forest like water over rapids. Every obstacle was part of the route, the variable ground all part of the plan. Fallen trunks were vaulted over, low hanging branches ducked below, fields of rocks became stepping stones, and the soft forest floor cushioned each landing. Any waver of balance from an uneven step became part of the flow and part of the thrill as the Morgwood blurred around her. The idea that should might take a serious fall and injure herself never crossed Tyrissa’s mind. Alone and wounded this far from the village, she would be easy prey for the wolves or wurms. But that was impossible. She was a ranger of the woods. In those moments of flight through the forest, she was invincible. She would only stop when her breath struggled to keep up, or if her balance ever verged on being lost. The breaks were time to savor the taste of youth, of freedom.

“This is what I want, papa,” Tyrissa said to the sky while running her hand along a nearby tree, through gentle moss and rough bark. She wanted the forest, the hunt, the exploration. She wanted to be the guide, the watcher, the Ranger.

I want something that’s no longer needed. I want something we’ve left to the past, the voice of reality reminded her. Tyrissa tried to push the idea away. It was persistent, but even when she tried to imagine herself as something practical, her mind drew a blank slate. She couldn’t be something so mundane. She wouldn’t allow it.

Her feet begged to run again, and she obliged. The foothills of the Norspine loomed higher, beckoning her closer. Tyrissa could see base of the hill where the curious black spire stood, though the top lay obscured by the forest marching up the slope. She ran on towards her goal, trying to escape her own thoughts and doubts.

Soon Tyrissa had to slow her pace, as the closer she came to her destination, the more rock-strewn the valley became. For a time she paid it no mind, but eventually she noticed that something was amiss. The rocks and boulders littering the valley floor weren’t the typical, half-buried and erosion-worn stones of the Morgwood, but fresh and bright. They sat atop crushed grass and many trees had recently scarred trunks. She thought back to her original idea of a landslide, but there was no wake of an avalanche to be seen and too many trees stood unharmed. It was as if it had rained stone.

By the time she reached the base of the hilltop with the strange spire, Tyrissa cautiously picked her steps around the serrated stone fragments that littered the ground. She already bore a pair of minor scratches and a tear in her trousers from careless stumbles. Looking up the hillside she saw that it was an easy climb clear of the disconcerting fresh rubble of the valley floor. On her left the Norspine Mountains dominated the western horizon, the sheer cliffs of Giant’s Gap soaring thousands of feet above her. Sparse isles of clouds drifted over the summits, blemishes on the day’s otherwise brilliantly clear skies. Using her staff as a hiking stick Tyrissa began her ascent of the hillside.

Tyrissa felt a silence descend around her. The ever-present sounds of the forest did not follow her up the slope. Halfway to the crest of the hill she paused to simply listen and she could hear only her own breath and the wind sighing through needled boughs. It was unnatural, and the disquietude of the stillness wormed into her heart. Briefly, she flirted with the thought that this journey was a bad idea. No, ridiculous. Tyrissa resumed the climb, reassuring herself that there was nothing to fear here.

At the hill’s crest, Tyrissa laid eyes upon a landscape that belonged in one of her adventure novels. The hilltop was nearly flat, as if a rusted razor had shorn off whatever natural peak it once had. Fallen trees ringed the space, all pointed away from the center where the pitch black spire jutted from the ground like a thorn piercing the skin of the earth. The spire bore faded, unfamiliar runes etched deep into its otherwise smooth surface. The ground circling the base of the spire was blackened and broken, as if charred by fire. All was still save for the stirrings of the wind.

This must be what Tsellien was looking for, Tyrissa thought, though her directions had been slightly off; Giant’s Gap lay a few miles to the north of here. They hadn’t passed through Edgewatch on their return trip, much to her disappointment.

Stepping around one of the blasted-flat trees, Tyrissa crossed the rocky plain to the edge of the black circle. Despite the land’s appearance of being recently charred, the air didn’t carry the long lingering scent of wildfire. She knelt at the edge of the charred circle and extended a cautious hand, running a finger along a blackened stone. Her finger came away with a clinging layer of pitch black ash, utterly devoid of the natural grays and whites. Flicking the ash off with her thumb, she watched as it fell back to the ground without drifting on the air. Indeed, despite the light wind, no ash stirred from the black circle surrounding the pointed spire. For all appearances, it could have been painted on.

Tyrissa walked a circuit along the edge of the ash, obeying her gut feeling that it would be a poor idea to step directly on it. The spire constantly drew her eye, its surface smooth and polished like obsidian, yet reflecting none of the afternoon’s sunlight. The etched runes ran in coiling spirals upward along its height. Questions of who built this and when bounced through Tyrissa’s head. She racked her memory for stories, true or otherwise, modern or mythic, of anything similar to the spire, but nothing came to mind. It was a complete mystery.

As she made her way around the circle, she spotted crooked gaps with shadowed depths hidden among the black ash. Crevasses opened by whatever broke away the hilltop and exposed the spire, no doubt. The ground was violently cracked between many of the gaps in the earth, causing the entire area to look unstable and further discouraging a closer look. Still, Tyrissa paused near a crevasse close to the circle’s edge and tried to peer within. At first she saw naught but shadow but soon she noticed a stream of sunlight beaming through the depths. She leaned in for a closer view, gingerly stepping atop the ash, and saw that a large cavern lay just below the surface of the plateau. No, not a cavern. She could barely make out a stone floor far below.

“Like the icebergs of fjordland,” she said to herself, resuming the slow circuit. There was much more of this ominous curiosity hidden from view and she cast her eyes about for an entrance. Nothing presented itself as such; the blasted hilltop was uniform outside of the ash-coated center.

The far side of the hilltop dropped away into sheer cliffs. Beyond, the Morgwood and foothills of the Norspine Mountains rolled onward into the uninhabited northern wilderness. Myths of the far reaches of the world greatly outnumbered facts. Even the ranger manuals were silent on anything beyond the northern fringes of the Morgwood. Legends of endless fields of snow where frost giants built cities of magick-infused ice were the best they had. For a minute Tyrissa half-leaned on her staff and stared into the seductive unknown, despite the sample at her back and below her feet.

Glancing down the cliff, Tyrissa saw that below the lip of the hilltop was a wide ledge that overlooked the steep drop. A wind worn, dark colored obelisk stood half embedded in the rock. Tyrissa lowered herself down the short drop to the ledge, happy to pass out of sight of the eerie spire. The obelisk was not made of the same material as the spire, but bore similar faded carvings and overall shape, like a waist-high sibling. She ran her fingers along the runes, though it brought her no closer to understanding any of it. There were two languages, one similar to old Morg runic, with many geometric angles and cross-hashes. Tyrissa could slowly read the old Morg runic language, but these were subtly unrecognizable, an antiquated dialect. The other language was written in more organic shapes, like flows of blood made into text. She cursed herself not bringing means to copy down the symbols for later.

Opposite to the obelisk on the ledge was a cave entrance. Tyrissa peered within and saw a wide doorway stood a short distance within. The doors were constructed of the same black stone as the spire and seemed to blend into the shadows. They stood open, the darkened interior inviting and challenging. Tyrissa tightened and loosened her grip on her staff, took a courage-fortifying breath of mountain air, and went inside to seek out answers.

 

 

Chapter Six

It was far hotter inside than the mild summer day at Tyrissa’s back. Beyond the black doors was a long hallway that burrowed into the hillside, the walls made of the same, now omnipresent black stone. Tyrissa pressed into the gloom, taking the knot in her stomach as steeled courage. Frescos covered the walls in long, rambling panels, covered in more of the alien script that was on the spire, as well as other symbols and designs that defied explanation. It all felt unknowably ancient.

Tyrissa ran the fingers of her free hand along the wall, seeking meaning through touch if not sight. There was no conceivable order or logic to the work, script mixed with shapes and icons at random. As she passed, the occasional face or recognizable animal would emerge from the chaotic crowd of foreign symbols, but they only further obfuscated any meaning in the expansive mural.

Enchanted by the eerie frescos, she was well into the hall before realizing that, despite the enveloping blackness of the stonework, the interior of the ruin wasn’t entirely dark. She carried no light source and the sunlight from the entrance seemed to stop a few feet into the hall, as if hitting a wall. Yet there was a clinging luminance within the hallway, degrees of shadows rather than light, that caused the strange carvings on the walls to twist and contort as she passed. A few narrower halls split off from the main passageway, but many of those were filled with rubble from collapsed ceilings and fully darkened in every case.

If the silence above ground was unnerving, here it was overpowering. The scrape of her footfalls upon the stone floor took shape as whispers in her ears, speaking in sinister tongues of unknowable syllables, the language of the twisted art on the walls. Tyrissa shook her head to clear away the doubts and fears of an overactive imagination. Every few paces she would step onto a softer patch of floor and saw flecks of that black ash clinging to the sides of her boots. At each muffled footfall, she would quicken her pace until she stood upon clear stone again. She pressed on, heartbeat rising with each step.

At the end of the hall, what appeared to be a far wall in the distance was merely the black ceiling descending into a deep stairway. To her eyes, the dim light and steep angle made each step merge into a smooth slope. Furtive sunlight crept into sight at the base of the stairs far below, perhaps an entry to the large cavern she had seen from above. The light was inviting and despite the heat weighing in and the sweat running down her face, Tyrissa wanted nothing more than the warmth of that light.

Steadying herself with one hand on the wall, she started to descend the inky black stairwell and entered a void. Each step echoed away from her to be swallowed by the darkness. The stairway stretched on forever, hundreds of steps, as if she wasn’t moving at all. She was utterly isolated, an island of life in a place devoid of it. She used her staff as a guide, feeling out each step before taking it, making sure there were steps to take and not a sudden drop into an abyss. Either seemed equally likely, equally rational. The whispers returned, louder but still indistinct, alien. The thought of turning around and running never occurred to her. Tyrissa could only see the light below drawing closer and resolutely marched downward. She would not be afraid. If she reached the light all would be well. All would be well.

As her feet landed at the base of the stairway, the whispers stopped, the heat dissipated, and relief washed over her like a cool rain. She stood in a plain hexagonal chamber, built of the same black stone but the floor clear of ash and the walls free of murals. A grand arched doorway, fifteen feet tall, stood before her. One of the stone doors lay crumbled on the other side of the threshold, torn off its unseen hinges as if it were paper. Tyrissa stepped around the still standing door and into yet another scene from the tales.

Within lay a massive chamber, hundreds of feet long and half as wide, a cathedral of stone. Both sides of the room curved sharply upward to the roof, mimicking the shape of the doorway. Giant frescos covered the walls, dwarfing the ones above in their sinister grandeur. Afternoon sun poured through dozens of cracks in the ceiling. A long crevasse ran along the center of the roof, casting a highway of light among the smaller pools of gold upon the stone floor. Much of the chamber was bare, the floor a seamless piece of black stone dusted with pebbles and debris from the cracks above. On the far side of the room the base of the spire descended from the roof, a thin pyramid that merged into the far wall. A great pile of rubble, twenty feet tall, lay at the base of the spire, ringed by a skirt of scattered debris. A lone figure lay face down and unmoving on the floor, a discarded scrap of life. Tyrissa recognized it from a distance. It was Tsellien. She hadn’t come back through Edgewatch for a terrible reason.

Any earlier hesitation forgotten, Tyrissa broke into a sprint across the grand hall, boots crunching against the layer of pebbles and dust that coated parts of the floor, each step a grinding echo in the cavernous and otherwise silent space. A curious flash of warmth washed over her as she drew near, like a rush of blood to the head. Tsellien was long dead, though well preserved. No smell of decay hung in the air and at a glance the warrior could have been mistaken for unconscious were it not for the thin knife buried deep in the nape of her neck. A dried patch of blood encircled her head, a profane halo. Her sword lay nearby, the blade broken and the crystalline orb shattered.

Tyrissa kept a few steps away from the corpse, unsure of what to do. She looked around for anything that would shed further light on what happened here. The giant pile of rubble at the base of the spire wasn’t made of stones fallen in from the hilltop, but held shapes. Judging by the many stone limbs and faces among the rubble, it looked to be the collapsed statue of some monstrous creature. A neatly arranged circle of stones sat nearby and around that was a ring of runes sketched onto the floor with white chalk. Three human skulls, picked clean to a bright white sat evenly spaced atop the stones, staring inward at the center. It was a ritual circle, straight from the stories. Tyrissa moved closer and saw that the three skulls gazed at a pointed, pyramidal gem in the middle of the macabre arrangement. It shone with gentle silver light and beckoned with a slight tug in her heart that begged for Tyrissa to take it away from this terrible place. Just as she moved to do so, the shadows at the base of the ruined statue began to boil, bubbles and coils of animate darkness leaping among the rubble.

“I wouldn’t disturb that, were I you,” said a chorus of voices that came from all directions. Tyrissa raised her staff to a defensive pose on pure reflex, only to lose focus as a patch of shadow detached itself from the rubble and flowed towards the gem. It stopped on the opposite side of the stone ring and grew upward. From the moving shadows emerged a black outline, a silhouette. It grew in mass and paled to an ashen gray humanoid form. Tyrissa found herself backing away with eyes fixed on the shifting shape and fear rising ever higher in her gut.

It came into focus as an approximation of a human figure, hairless and naked, but utterly androgynous, like a template that needed severe refinement. Its face was dominated by a wide, gaping mouth lined with too many narrow, white teeth. Behind the teeth lay only a black void. Its eyes were a milky white and without pupils, but Tyrissa could feel that it was looking right at her. Or perhaps through her. It flexed its overly large hands, the fingers ending in curved black talons.

“Daemon,” Tyrissa said, her throat tightening in dread. A creature of mythology, of fiction stood before her. No, not fiction. They were the very real puppet masters of the Cleanse, the whisperers that turned men into savage, depraved beasts.

Its face split into a broad, feral smile.

“A sharp girl. My name is Xivo. Will you tell me yours?”

“No.” Daemons were featured in many of her favorite epics and half the time a daemon that knew your name was stronger than one that did not. In the other half it made no difference. Her mind raced to remember anything that might be useful, but came up blank. She knew to be afraid. That much was easy.

The daemon moved toward her with an unnerving, sensual grace. It did not walk so much as glide across the floor. As it came closer an overpowering scent churned her stomach, vile and sweet, the rot of an unkempt slaughterhouse masked by lavender. The sun’s warmth washed over her as she back peddled into a pool of light from above. Somehow, she found the nerve to stand her ground.

How much of the stories are true?

Xivo reached out a hand as if to stroke Tyrissa’s cheek. It began to smolder as it crossed into the sunlight. The daemon drew back, but looked unconcerned. It tilted its head to one side and regarded her with narrowed eyes, as if reassessing a piece of meat at the market.

“Clever indeed. I am so happy that you arrived, child. The boredom of being bound here was becoming unbearable. I wish to make a simple deal with you. Then I’ll let you leave with your fragile all-too-mortal life.”

“No.” The answer is always no. Never agree to a daemon’s requests. She wanted to run, but Xivo’s unearthly stare kept frozen in place. Nor did she want to leave the apparent safety of the sunlight.

“Come now, don’t be difficult. You are weak, you are nothing,” it waved a hand at Tsellien’s body. “That one, she was strong, beyond corruption, and,” it growled, “victorious, after a fashion. Her companions were less so, weak points in the armor. Not so… blessed.

“No,” she said again. This time it was a meek whisper, that of a field mouse protesting against the will of a falcon. The daemon ignored her and continued.

“All I need is a donation of human blood. Our magick of blood and souls is complicated, you wouldn’t understand the details. I would need a considerable amount, to be sure, but you appear sturdy in body and should live through the process. Do this and I shall let you leave. Once you have the strength to walk, that is. What do you say?”

In a single motion, Tyrissa raised her staff and spun in a tight arc, smashing one end into the side of the daemon’s head with as much force as she could muster. A sickening snap echoed in the great hall and the daemon fell to the floor with its neck bent at a freakish angle. Not waiting to see if it was dead, Tyrissa turned and ran into the long streak of sunlight that led to the entrance. It said that it was bound here, if she could make it out of the chamber…

A roiling patch of shadow flashed along the ground beside her. It overtook her and stopped between the end of the streak of sunlight and the broken grand doorway. Tyrissa stopped at the end of the sunlit channel and watched in horror as Xivo reformed, rising from the patch of shadow like a melting wax statue in reverse. When fully rebuilt it appeared slightly smaller. One clawed hand massaged its neck as it walked towards her, seductive and lethal. Tyrissa glanced down at the pool of sunlight and stepped into the very center, staff held up in defense, quivering in her hands.

“I see I must take what I want,” the daemon’s all-surrounding voices said.

“Come on then, monster,” she said, her trembling voice betraying away any feigned confidence.

“Child, I have all the time in the netherworld,” its head tilted upward at the afternoon sunlight pouring through the roof. “I can wait until nightfall.”

A cloud passed over the sun. Xivo grinned.

“Or that.”

The daemon’s body thinned to a near-skeletal state and its right hand bulged, contorting and reshaping itself. In a blink, foot-long talons burst from the fingertips its hand. Xivo leapt forward with shocking speed, talons whistling through the air. Tyrissa took a step back and managed to deflect the blow but the weight behind it sent her stumbling backward. The daemon’s thin hand darted out and punched the center of her chest, knocking her to the floor and the breath out of her lungs. Tyrissa sat up, gasping for air, and swept her staff into the daemon’s legs. Its knees buckled but it did not fall, and it merely raised its talons to strike in reprisal, face a mask of eerie calm. Tyrissa tried to roll out of the way but was a fraction of a second to slow. There was a razor flash of pain as one talon struck true and opened a deep gash across her right shoulder. The others gouged small scratches in the ancient temple floor.

Tyrissa pressed a hand to her shoulder as she stood. The wound bled heavily, bright red streams running down her arm, but the shoulder was unbroken. She gripped her staff tighter and swung at the daemon. Again it dodged, flowing away from her attacks with infernal grace. Xivo’s strikes came slower now, each getting blocked but always managing to slip a single light cut past her defenses. They repeated the sequence many times, a strike, a block, a fresh cut in a new place, and a step backward to recover. The grim dance pushed Tyrissa to ruin, her clothes and skin gradually cut to bloody tatters. The daemon was toying with her, draining out her energy and enjoying every moment of it.

The sun had returned, but their melee had pulled them away from the refuge of light. The pools of safety lay too far away, were too fleeting, and were too late.

There’s no way out. No escape.

The thought vanquished the splintered remains of her spirit. She was going to die here.

As if sensing her despair, Xivo stopped and stretched a smile around the sides of its head. Its small, withered hand snapped out and ripped the staff from Tyrissa’s hands with ease. The daemon’s talons merged back into its body, its arms expanded with grotesque muscles, and it swung the staff in a vicious underhand. Tyrissa felt ribs shatter beneath the blow’s unreal force as she was knocked into the air, thrown about like a doll. A second hard blow greeted her when she hit the floor and slid to a stop against Tsellien’s corpse.

Every inch of her body ached, bleed, or was simply too weak to go on. Each breath was forced through a filter of pain, and when she coughed, she tasted blood. Tyrissa looked back at Xivo through agony-blurred eyes. It was trying to snap her staff in half, but the steeloak resisted, bending but not breaking. Its smile narrowed in frustration and the daemon tossed the weapon aside with a shrug. The smile vanished when it turned its attention back to her.

“Aw Hell,” it said as its body morphed back into a well-balanced, if still inhuman, shape. It sauntered over, stopping well short of her. Extending a single finger, Xivo reached toward Tyrissa. The air shimmered all around her and the daemon’s finger melted into a black slag that pooled and hissed on the floor.

Xivo growled like a pack of furious hounds and said, “Even three weeks dead the aura is still active. Troublesome.” It started to pace around Tyrissa in a wide circle, shaking its wounded hand and muttering to itself in an infernal language that twisted around in Tyrissa ears like a parasite. It ignored her, debating with itself at length.

After a few minutes of respite, Tyrissa found the strength to sit up and tried to think through the pain. Tsellien was well preserved, as if the processes of decay and scavengers and flies were kept at bay. She was also armored in silver chainmail and thus heavy. Tyrissa considered dragging the body with her to the exit, but knew she didn’t have the energy for it. Even if she could get out of the temple, at this point she was so badly wounded and beaten that the forest would finish her off.

She looked around for other options, for anything that would help her. The warrior’s sword and shield lay nearby, both broken. There was the knife embedded in her back of Tsellien’s neck, an elegant thing, its grip shaped like a cyclone, but no better than Tyrissa’s own knife and inadequate. She rolled the corpse onto its back, doing her best to avoid looking into the dead woman’s face. Tyrissa found a scabbard tied to Tsellien’s waist, a short sword with a glinting silver hilt contained within. Laying a hand upon it, she found that it was warm to the touch.

“Fine,” Xivo declared from behind her, finishing his internal debate. Tyrissa shot a glance over her shoulder. The daemon was funneling almost his entire body into a massive, growing hand. Its face was stretched thin over its head, and every other limb was a narrow core of ashen flesh. She watched, transfixed. The horror stories of the Cleanse flashed through her mind, all the whispers of monsters and tales of twisted men and women. This foul place was a remnant of those times and she had blundered right into it.

The daemon, more hand than anything else, reached into the shimmering air, pushing through unseen resistance. Layers of flesh sloughed off the giant hand into a growing, smoking puddle. The daemon intended to pull her out despite the annihilating aura. Tyrissa tore herself away from the approaching fist and drew the Tsellien’s short sword. It sang a sweet, metallic note as it came loose. She felt calm, reassured, even as an immense grip took hold of one of her feet and a powerful, acidic heat ate through her boot and seared her foot. She tried to twist around to strike at the daemon, but she was yanked away from Tsellien’s body, once again lifted into the air like a plaything. Xivo spun and threw Tyrissa along the floor towards the trio of cleaned skulls and the shining silver gem. She cried out as she tumbled away from the daemon, wounds screaming in fresh agony, but she kept her grip on the sword. She rolled into the stone circle, scattering the three skulls and smearing the white runes chalked onto the stones.

Stand up. I will take this monster down with me.

She could finish this. She could do that much.

Tyrissa pushed herself to her hands and knees and then stood, each motion causing her wounds to cry out. She ignored them. She stared down the daemon, her eyes two sapphires burning in defiance. The blade turned hot, as if she held molten silver in her hand. Xivo gave its arm a quick shake and morphed it into a long, cruel spike. Once again, it smiled.

The daemon charged without any of its earlier sensual grace, only brutal, inhuman speed. Tyrissa waited a single heartbeat and swung the sword. She was too slow. The spike gored though her abdomen with a horrifying, wet burst. She screamed. It was beyond pain. It was simply death.

She felt Xivo lift her into the air over the center of the daemonic circle where the shining silver gem still sat. It focused on pooling her freely flowing blood around the gem, whispering in that same mind-warping language from the halls above. The white symbols etched onto the floor started to glow with a fiery light.

Tyrissa couldn’t feel her legs and her arms hung limp at her sides. Her vision was darkened and blurred, her heartbeat frantic and weakening. But her right hand burned with fury. She still held the sword, a beacon of stability in dreadful, bloody chaos. Somewhere, she found the strength to lift her arm and drive the blade into the side of the daemon’s head. It went clean through, the point bursting out the other side, shining with radiant silver light. Xivo’s eyes widened in surprise and looked up at her. Tyrissa gave it a weak, blood flecked smile.

The sword started to melt and merge into the daemon’s flesh and molten rivulets of metal ran down the sides of its head. Silver light coursed through Xivo like arteries and the daemon flickered.

“A poor trade, human. We’ll still have you.” Xivo said. The daemon then dissolved into a cloud of the black ash that coated the hallway, the floor, and the hilltop above. Tyrissa fell to the floor into the pool of her own blood. The wetness soaking into her back felt distant, and the sound of ragged, shallow breathing belonged to someone else. In the corner of her vision she saw a shining light. The gem shone brightly through a coating of blood and flecks of ash. Unthinking and unfeeling, Tyrissa inched her hand over toward the gem and through the growing puddle of her own life seeping away.

She curled a finger around the gem and flipped it into her palm. It was a small, fragile thing that radiated warmth and comfort. Tyrissa wrapped her fist around it and felt the gem shatter in her feeble, dying grip. Somehow, it seemed like the right thing to do, the completion of a task left unfinished.

Tyrissa then closed her eyes and died.

 

 

Chapter Seven

The poets had it all wrong. No shining beacon of godly white light greeted her. Nor was there an endless void of utter darkness. Death, it would appear, was shades of gray. Dense, pallid mists interlaced with veins of sparkling silver coiled around her. She drifted through them, carried on the languid current of an invisible river toward an unseen destination. She could still sense her body, but it was a detached feeling, empty and uncaring. In death, her form had but a tenuous resemblance to what it was in life, a reflection in a wind-rippled pond, its surface distorted and its depths murky. A chill ran through her, a pure polar shock. Cold. Death was indeed cold. The bards were correct on that account.

Inky black motes swirled in the infinite mists, coalescing in and out of view like inverted fireflies. They watched from the banks of this eternal river like eyes of an infinite night. They brought the chill, frigid daggers stabbed into her from those watchful black specks. She didn’t care, couldn’t care. Solid thoughts were elusive and memories simmered just beyond her grasp, unreachable glimpses of a lost life. The dark motes increased in number, a growing swarm of corruption marring the mists. Scraps of instinct and intuition remained, both urging flight but lacking in the means and will. Somehow, she knew something wasn’t quite right.

That word remained as a half-thought. It meant nothing to her. It meant everything to her. She held to it like life itself as death drained her away.

Arms of heavenly warmth embraced her. The cold melted away, any shred of fear banished in the face of an overpowering sense of safety, like an infant cradled in her mother’s arms. A force lifted her up and away from the river, the mists streaking into a brightening blur as deathly gray turned to radiant silver. When they came to a halt, the mists were a brilliant, argent fog, peaceful in a way she never thought possible. Glorious. Divine. A slow and scattered awareness returned to her mind, the clarity stunning after the impenetrable haze of a dying soul. Voices spoke, the languages unknown yet understandable. Bathed in the magnificent light of this place, Tyrissa could only listen.

“Daughter. Latest of the North. Be welcome.” The first voice spoke across the gulfs of time, ancient and distant. It came as the crash of waves upon the rock-strewn coast of an abandoned land. “You bear another. Strange. We share in their name. We share their Fields. Not their function. What soul is this?”

“Honored First, I submit this one as my heir. Grant her the Essence of our line as my successor.” Tyrissa knew that one. She spoke in an airy, buzzing language. It was Tsellien, sounding even more ethereal than before.

The reply came as the crackling of a wildfire as it guttered out on a charred plain. “Choice belongs to the living. This time, we shall sleep. No Succession. Rebirth.”

“We don’t have time for that.” From reverence to defiance in a blink.

A rockslide answered: “Time. Time is another concern of the living. Release yourself from it. Your role in their world is complete, the burden no longer yours. Rest, daughter. Watch. Sleep. It is our reward.”

“Watching the world burn is no reward.” Tsellien’s voice was gradually losing its vitality, becoming as hollow and detached as the First. “The East is fractured and tainted by her own hand. The West is but a child, unready and vulnerable. We’re nearly broken when we must be stronger than ever. The North cannot sleep. Not now.”

The waves returned, speaking in the steady rhythm of the tides. “The South. She has stood alone in the past. She can again.”

“They haven’t the time,” Tsellien pleaded with the unseen void of eternity. “The Elements sense their advantage. They roil in fury against thinning barriers, slipping though uncountable weak points, man-made or not. Soon, a great storm will boil through the world.”

A distant avalanche’s roar: “And you would cast this one adrift into that storm? Returning this one would leave her alone and lost in a life of strife. She’d be flawed and weak and ignorant. Her earthly time, and yours, is at an end. We wait for Rebirth.”

“And while we wait the world will unknowingly depend on a single set of shoulders,” Tsellien said, her voice losing its passion, its humanity. “I’d rather balance the world along an axis than a mere point. Yes, this one will be flawed but we all are. That’s the weakness and strength of our line.”

As Tsellien made her case, Tyrissa felt… nothing. They spoke of her yet she regarded the conversation as about someone else.She was but an observer, and a distracted one at that. The flecks of shadow began to reappear in the silver fog, vile imperfections that floated in the calming clouds and ate away at the warmth of this place. She wanted to cry out a warning, but lacked the means. She knew they were here for her, here to claim their prize.

We’ll still have you,’ said the memory of a corrupt chorus.

The wind sighed across a mountain valley, stirring the boughs of an expanse of needled treetops, “Proceed, daughter.” With that it retreated into the void, blowing away like sand scratching over the cracked stonework of a dead empire, leaving only a sudden emptiness.

Tyrissa felt the mists draw away, but the motes of shadow remained, multiplying, threatening in their profane presence. Tsellien knelt at her side, the woman’s face an indistinct artist’s sketch, her body wrapped in gently billowing sashes of regal purple and silver. Pristine white feathered wings spread from her back, an encompassing shroud that blocked none of the omnipresent light. Tyrissa felt a weight press onto her chest, through her heart. Tsellien’s eyes flared into two pools of molten silver, narrowed in concentration. Filigree flows of divine energy ran between them. Connecting. Binding.

“Few get second chances, child of Morgale. If you live you will live for our cause alone.” Her voice now held an angelic timbre as timeless as the First’s. A surging, unreal heat spread through Tyrissa’s body. She felt solid again, rebuilt. Still, those inky motes of shadow pressed in, some extending clawing fingers that wormed through her being, as cold as death.

“A life of service or the oblivion of death. Do you accept?” Tsellien’s voice became as the mists around them, filth-specked and distorted. The corruption’s strength grew close to overpowering the purity of this place, the mists now more black than silver.

“Yes,” Tyrissa said, the word a spectral whisper carrying the weight of the universe.

“Prove yourself worthy of this legacy, daughter.”

Tsellien placed a hand on Tyrissa forehead and pushed her down and away in a burst of blinding silver light. As she fell through the mists, a celestial bundle of energy burned like a young star in her heart. On came the darkness from below, that missing embrace of oblivion. It dared not touch her now, its chill held at bay by the heat of raw, radiant power that blazed within her.

 

End of Extended Preview
Return to Book Page

Copyright © Michael Watson 2013