Sneak Preview: The Shadow Age (The Age of Dawn Book 7)
Here’s another sneak preview of the first chapter from The Shadow Age, the last book in the Age of Dawn series. Please keep in mind this is UNEDITED. Much may change with the finished version.
Time to read: 20-40m
Chapter 1 – Salvaged
A line of light sprung to life, vertically cutting the air. The line twisted clockwise from each end, opening into a warbling portal forged from the Phoenix’s gift. The portal hummed as wisps of bluish-white light curled from its edges like smoke, lacerating the sand where its bottom most arc touched the earth.
Nyset Camfield, Arch Wizard of the Silver Tower, stepped through.
Her foot sank down to her ankle into the powder sugar sands of the Nether, granules scrambling to climb over the tops of her boots stopping mid-thigh. She could do a lot with the power of the Dragon and the Phoenix, but one thing she couldn’t do was keep sand from wriggling its way between her toes and under her arches. It was a reminder that she was mortal. It was a reminder that she could die. Like Walter.
Being the Arch Wizard, one of the most esteemed positions in the realm of Zoria besides the king, meant she was frequently sought for guidance from travelers near and far and her word taken as the Dragon god’s own voice. For a time, Nyset was lost in that cloying hubris. She saw it in herself. It needed correction before it consumed her and she became no better than the bastard king Ezra.
Nyset traversed far down the path of humility and into the arms of paranoia after discovering the Shadow Princess’s whereabouts in Tigeria. It was an obsession. She had to fix her mistake, letting the Shadow Princess escape the Shadow Realm after Walter had slain the Shadow god. Her mistake wasn’t resolved, but at least the problem was known. It felt surreal. The Shadow Princess had remained hidden for so long Nyset had almost started to believe she imagined watching her fly away from the Silver Tower during the Shadow War. A ruinous fight gone horribly wrong.
About three months had passed since Isa and Senka had returned from Tigeria with the king’s sniveling heir, Greyson Rogard. She had managed to emotionally right herself, discarding her worries like a moldy blanket and pulling herself together to focus on the Shadow Princess’ ever looming figure. No, Nyset wouldn’t allow herself to once again be swallowed by pride with the constant reminder that she could die. Everything ended.
She wiggled her toes and blinked away tears birthed of the whipping wind. The wind carried the desert’s acrid air, heated to a horrible degree by the naked sun. The wind ran its burning fingers over the tops of dunes, spiking the landscape with strange vacant notes. She grasped at loops of scarlet scarf tugging at her neck and worked the soft fabric around her face, leaving only her narrowed eyes exposed.
The sand shimmered and glowed like a sea of gold, the backs of dunes cast in forbidding shadows. The desert formed into mountainous waves, not unlike that of a tsunami, engulfing all in its wake. Clouds fled the white sun, shredded into threads in the infinite gradients of blue.
She stood atop a dune, peering down at the barren landscape. Twin rivulets of sand hissed down its side where her feet disturbed the continuous surface. The valley was dotted with few cacti. Some were short and flat and others towering and round. All were lined with bright white thorns and all had their flesh blackened and showing signs of disease.
Everything was rotting here. No animal prints, no signs of life.
Among the cacti were a few remnants of shrubs, their leaves long dead and gone, branches wind-worn, and roots choked. As her eyes adjusted to the shadow of the valley she saw things. There were a few peaks from thatch roofs, likely once huts, perhaps a village, all but buried by sand. She supposed that was a good sign because Death Spawn were not using them.
Her carmine dress hung from one shoulder, the other bared, flapping in the wind. Nascent sweat was torn away before it could make her dress cling. Around her reedy biceps were Milvorian circlets, one ornamented with carvings of the Dragon and the other the Phoenix. Circling her waist was belt woven of gleaming silver threads, below it a sword belt carrying her Breden stamped long sword. Her golden hair was tied back into a bun, fluttering bits of hair secured by a thin diadem.
On her fingers were a series of rings, each unique and each a magical artifact imbued with great powers. They once belonged to Malek, a member of Asebor’s Wretched, the name once used for his dead generals. She twiddled her fingers, making the rings click together. One was topped with a long eagle’s talon, another a silver circlet with fat ruby in the center, another a dull gray alloy that covered her entire index finger.
Velsa, her assistant, had given them to her as a token of her appreciation for her station at Nyset’s side. She claimed she found them outside of Midgaard, attached to a pair of severed hands, apparently Malek’s hands. Velsa once worked in the palace and for the king, but left Midgaard due to fearing the Purist uprising. The Purists hated all things magic and had grown so brazen that they would rove the streets in groups, assaulting unsuspecting wizards. Vesla found refuge in Helm’s Reach, a safe place for wizards, and eventually recruited for the Silver Tower. She was one of the few apprentices who had survived the Tower’s assault and takeover by Asebor. She fled at Nyset’s side and was there as a witness when Nyset pronounced herself Arch Wizard.
Nyset had the poise of a queen and the flesh of a warrior. She curled her hands into fists, but then made them relax with a slow exhalation, raising her chin at the lashing wind. The scars running up and down her arms flexed and quivered with the action. Some were pinched from Death Spawn dagger stabs, others long from their claws, some raised from sword slices, and others twisted by ragged burns. She was fortunate that her narrow face had managed to get through it mostly unscathed, save for a few nicks, a notch taken from the top of her ear, and an ugly scar that curled around her throat.
She peered about and blinked until her tears gave her clarity, wondering if her portal had been woven in the correct location. In the distance about thirty or so feet away from the village’s remains was a hole in the ground taking the rectangular shape of a freshly dug grave. Strands of sand tunneled into the uncertain abyss like a mouth inhaling all that came near.
She stared at that spot, searching for the footprints that would validate the need for coming here, but found none. Nyset’s full lips pulled into frown.
What was taking them so long? She looked over her shoulder and back at the portal, expectant. The sun warmed the side of her face.
A bald man bearing a distrustful scowl ducked through the other side of the portal and into the desert. His cheeks and nose were pinked from sun, likely from training yesterday’s new Armsman recruits. There was a menacing axe laid across his giant’s shoulder and loosely held by two fingers with enough strength to crush a man’s skull. Great slabs of polished Milvorian steel shrouded his enormous shoulders, broad torso, and tree-trunk legs. His armor had an opalescent sheen, the breastplate’s center embossed with the Tower’s sigil, an interwoven depiction of the Dragon and the Phoenix.
Grimbald gave his square cut beard a tug as he scanned the vast expanse of sand. He stepped to her side to give the others room to come through. “What are we doing here, Ny? There’s nothing here,” his deep voice managed to somehow reverberate.
“Hopefully nothing,” she grunted, licking her lips. Nyset turned to face the portal, hands planted on her hips, waiting to release her hold on the Phoenix so she could close it. The longer she held it open the more of her constitution it would sap. If they found what she suspected they may find, given the state of the surrounding flora, she would need every bit of strength.
Grimbald snorted and produced a soiled handkerchief, tying it around his mouth as a makeshift mask. He staggered further away from the portal, sending plumes of sand cascading down the dune’s face. He hefted his wicked axe, Corpsemaker. The flat of it was inscribed with a concentric pattern like ripples produced from a dropped stone. It was a versatile weapon with a broad rounded blade and on one side of the haft and a grisly spike on the other. The base of the haft terminated with a grinning metallic skull whose eyes were inset with a pair of glimmering rubies. Grimbald had grown into a fearsome warrior and most importantly, he was man she could trust. She couldn’t think of a better person to head the Silver Tower’s Armsman.
“Couldn’t have picked a cloudy day?” he muttered his distaste.
Nyset arched a thin eyebrow at him. “You know, you’ve grown awfully cranky for such a young man.”
Grimbald shrugged, head swiveling about, tongue working at his cheeks. “Twenty-eight name years, not all that young anymore Ny. Even my knees creak when I get out of bed.”
She gave the slightest of frowns, forehead creasing. That would make her twenty-six. Time did have a frustrating way of making haste.
A figure moving with the grace of a dancer and the languid surety of a lion slipped through the portal. He was silhouetted in midnight leather armor. His skin was blanched and stretched over a hairless face that betrayed no humor. On his back was a short sword, across it a short bow and a full quiver, the fletchings shimmering raven’s feathers. Hanging from obsidian belt loops was a dented hatched and a well used hammer, both seeming to be lined with ancient bits of blood in the crevasses of their leather wrapped hafts. He was a man entrenched in dark work, capable of doing what few could do.
“Isa,” Nyset nodded at him, guts briefly clenching with the fear she could never fully stifle in his presence.
The Swiftshades were a fearsome sect of killers and he their leader. They were at her disposal and loyally followed her every command. She was glad they were on the Tower’s side. They were a tool she seldom used due to their ruthless efficiency, laying waste to all who stood in the path of their goal. Men, women, children, the sick and dying were seemingly all the same to them. How they remained so cold, spirits hard as iron, was lost to her. She thought perhaps she should try to change that aspect, but thought better of it. They were a tool to be employed when the sturdiest of stones needed breaking and the loudest of voices needed silencing. And there were matters of greater import to attend to.
“Mistress,” he nodded back, dragging a strip of dark fabric around his mouth, marking his pointed chin and sharp cheekbones. “Please do your best not to die. We have very little water and the trek back to the Tower spans more than three-hundred miles. She might be able to handle it,” he nodded at the portal, “but not us… and I’ve come to enjoy living.”
“I shall try my best,” she said, forcing her lips to regard him with a genuine smile. Those had finally started to come more easily, the weight of losing Walter finally lessening.
“You know you can still turn back? There would be no shame in it.” Isa tightened the buckle for his sword, bright cobalt eyes meeting hers then taking in her figure.
“No,” she said, voice resolute, eyes unblinking despite the wind. “I need practice. The time for peace dwindles.”
He gave a stoic nod. “The only future for peace—”
“Is war,” Nyset said over him.
Isa sucked at his cheeks. “Glad to see you brought your sword. Always pays to prepare.”
“Never be caught without it, not in a place like this.” Nyset said. Her eyes were once again drawn to the hole in the earth, swimming with casket blacks. A flicker of movement. She slitted her eyes. “Did you…” she trailed off as a soft footfall came from behind her.
“Mistress, I apologize for the delay. I dropped my dagger,” an apologetic voice said, Senka’s voice. She loved this woman, her loyalty boundless and humility refreshing.
Senka, like Isa wore blacks and a mix of well worn leathers. Over her head was an oversized hood that ruffled with folds below her round chin. Beneath her hood short jagged cuts of hair swept across her brow. A black mask clung to one ear, opened to show her mouth. Flapping against one shoulder was a thin cape, the other uncovered and showing a leather shoulder pauldron with overlapping plates. Around her abdomen, forearms, and legs was riveted leather armor secured by rows of buckles, all likely hiding poisoned needles and a blowgun or two. Hanging from an ornamented belt were two long Dragon headed daggers, their grips metallic and carved with scales. Further along her belt were pouches and vials, their contents unknown.
“That’s unlike you Senka. Are you well?”
“Mhm. I’m well, mostly. I increased my dosage on a few poisons today, I fear I may have given myself a bit too much Windroot oil.”
Nyset scratched her throat. “Do you wish to return to the Tower? We could perhaps do this another time.”
She gaped, deep brown eyes widening. “No— no, of course not, Mistress. Working under new stresses is what made us who we are.” She shook her head, pillowy lips pressed into a hard line. “Who we were, I meant. It’s what made the Scorpions so hard to kill, made our reputation spread among the sands. I must carry our memory in my heart, in my blood.” She winced at windblown sand and drew up her mask, securing the other loop over her ear.
“I see.” Nyset gave her an appraising glance. Was it just her poison or had she once again fallen into the iron embrace of Angel’s Moss? She didn’t appear sick, round cheeks glowing, skin a beautiful of shade of espresso.
Senka, apparently sensing her thoughts muttered, “It’s not what you think, Mistress. I assure you.” Her eyes slitted.
Isa watched Senka’s face as she said it, trying to lip read as her voice was torn away in the wind.
“I believe you,” Nyset said with a smile. She placed a hand on Senka’s hard shoulder and gave it a squeeze. She plodded through the sand to stand a few steps before the group, allowing her Phoenix portal to close with a sizzle and a parting spark. Where it had materialized the bottom of it touched the sand, turning it into a razor thin line of glass from its energy, reflecting the sun like a blade of light. “Everyone just about ready?” she asked.
Grimbald dragged his knuckles across his brow and regarded her with a solid nod.
“Always,” Isa said, widening his legs and resting his hands on the deadly instruments lining his hips. She wondered for a moment how many hidden weapons were strapped about his body.
Senka pressed her clasped hands between her firm breasts. “Thank you. Thank you so much Mistress for doing this for me, for my people, our legacy. My father’s name remembers you.”
Nyset slowly shook her head. “No, Senka. And please, call me Nyset, both of you. Though I know you won’t and yet I am unsure why I keep saying it,” She grinned, casting her gaze between Isa and Senka.
Isa smirked and produced a sound that might have been a laugh had she thought him capable of such a thing.
Senka gave a sheepish smile and a series of nods.
Nyset continued, spreading her arms and meeting Senka’s eyes. “I should be the one apologizing. You’ve taken great risks for the Tower, Senka. I’m grateful for you, for giving us a chance to repay you for all you’ve sacrificed for us.” She swept her eyes over the group. “We may find nothing in the Black Furnaces. We may find bandits, looters, perhaps squatters. Either way, let’s go take back what’s yours, Senka.”
Nyset turned to face the downward slope of the dune. She flexed her fingers open and embraced the powers. The Dragon always came first, rushing past the Phoenix in a a torrent of rage. It swept through her limbs, burned like acid in her gut, and swelled her heart with the urge to destroy. A second after came the tempering energy of the Phoenix. It was an icy wave, muting the Dragon’s mindless thirst for ruin. A shiver tunneled through her from neck to toes. Disjointed thoughts shattered by the Dragon’s rage were mended together in the Phoenix’s calming touch.
She was the world’s last dual-wielders, a rare wizard gifted with the ability to embrace both the Dragon’s power of destruction and the Phoenix’s healing and protective energies. She felt all her worries slide away among the swirling tempest in her chest. The Dragon and Phoenix flashed in her mind, a pair of dueling animals intertwining and configuring into a circlet of power.
Halos of flickering fire surrounded her wrists like floating bangles. Her eyes sparked to life with a cool blueish light, her pupils Dragon fire torches. She was the harbinger of death and life, giver and taker, the end and the beginning.
She marched down the dune and heard everyone fall in behind her. Her legs sank deeper into the sand, thankfully stopping at her knees. Each step whispered secrets of what lay in that dark hole. Demons. Ancient gods. The Shadow Princess. But no, none of those things could be there, but one. Death Spawn. The one thing she suspected might be here but feared mentioning it for mentioning might make it real.
Senka once told her of the horrors that had occurred here just shy of four years ago. There was a Death Spawn raid lead by a member of Asebor’s Wretched, Dressna. Her father was slain upon the floors of the Black Furnaces by Dressna herself, Asebor’s winged bodyguard. Along with Senka’s father’s death came the majority of her clan’s by the ravages of Death Spawn.
Thinking of it reminded her of her first experience with Death Spawn in Breden countless cycles ago, when her parents lived. Walter lived, before her memories of the Festival of Flames were tainted by the Shadow’s touch. When one of her best friends, Juzo Pulling wasn’t doomed as a Blood Eater. She wondered how he was in the western wilds. Show wondered how he managed to stay sane with such social isolation. She understood though. Some temptations could not be resisted and conditions had to be put in place to make certain assurances.
Nyset closed her eyes in a particularly strong gust, sending bits of sand scraping at her eyelids. She let a long breath escape pursed lips, shaking her head, turning her thoughts back to Senka.
Nyset only saw Dressna once and as a mangled corpse in the Tower’s training yard. She was a fearsome creature, reaching a height of almost seven feet with a quartet of horns emerging from the back of her dismembered head and curling around her face. Senka got her revenge, her daggers bloodied, but had to use Angel’s Moss to survive the encounter. She did what had to be done and Nyset couldn’t fault her.
Senka’s father had sacrificed himself so she could live. He gave her an opportunity to escape the Black Furnaces. She fled to Helm’s Reach where she found Nyset as the newly self-proclaimed Arch Wizard of the Silver Tower. Nyset realized then that returning to this place might be hard for Senka.
“Senka,” Nyset said, voice drawing out as a whisper and stolen in the wind. She said her name again, louder this time. “Senka, come join me,” Nyset took long plodding steps through the yielding sand.
Senka shuffled up beside her. “Yes Nyset?” She said, using her name coming out forced.
She gave her a warm smile and gestured at the nearly buried village. “Are you… okay with this? Being here? I know it must be hard for you.” She watched her carefully, searching her expression.
Senka’s mouth yielded the flicker of a frown, but then steeled herself with a hard nod. “Yes. I want to be here. This was my home, my oaths left unfulfilled. I need to be here,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief.
“I know…” Nyset trailed off as a familiar odor brushed her nose. The scent, yet identified made her halt, grit her teeth and clench her fists. It was a stinging mix of ancient urine and rotting mushroom-covered logs. Her heart hammered against her chest, spine tingling with a surge of electricity. That horrible smell raised the corpse of a long dead memory. “Wait!” Her voice cut the wind like a blade.
Senka froze at her side. “What?” She gasped. Isa and Grimbald staggered on a few more steps, both stopping to look up at her where the dune went flat. Behind them not more than twenty paces away lay the start of what remained of Senka’s village. Hardly an arm’s length of thatch roofs showed above the merciless sands.
Grimbald raised his meaty hand to shield his eyes from the sun, squinting down at her. “What is it?”
She stared into that darkness, waiting and braced for war. “Do you not smell it?” she asked with a wan smile. How? Why? Her mind searched for the reasons. They should all be dead, gone with the Shadow God’s demise. She knuckled her forehead and closed her eyes, searching her mind for answers
Isa turned his ear toward the steps, eyes slitted, and sucked in a long breath. His eyes snapped open, breath hissing out and eyes burning with alarm. He ripped his sword free from the scabbard, twisting around to face the cavernous steps leading into the earth. “Death Spawn,” he growled, hammer ringing out from the loop and clutched in his second hand. The sun glinted like white stars from his weapons.
Grimbald mirrored him, Corpsemaker dragging down into a two-handed grip and stance widening. His forearms muscles wriggled under a gallery of scars, fingertips white against the wooden haft. “Where are they? Could be anywhere, a trap.” Sweat beaded on his head and trickled down his neck, head swiveling.
“Not anywhere. There.” Senka pointed with a drawn dagger, the pommel a masterwork Dragon’s head. “The Black Furnaces.”
Nyset understood now. “A strong source of magic. The forges tirelessly burn with Dragon fire, the same fire that’s used to produce Dragon forged weapons. The proximity to magic must preserve them… like the cluster you encountered in Tigeria at the Dread Temple.” The words flowed out of her, a missing puzzle piece finally snapping into the appropriate spot. “That was why Walter’s Sid-Ho trainer Noah had found them in the Yellow Caverns long after the sealing of the Age of Dawn,” Nyset said with an affirmative nod.
“Another Black Furnace?” Senka made a face, dagger casually twirling in her grip.
“Yes, another. There’s a twin Black Furnace near Breden, buried deep in a treacherous cavern. It too must have possessed enough magic to keep them alive.”
“No.” Isa shook his head, staring at that dark rectangle in the ground. “Why they were there in the Dread Temple… that was something else entirely.”
Nyset’s eyes flicked to the swirling script on Isa’s forearm, the edge poking out from his studded leather bracer. It was a curious story that had occupied most of her recent research. Isa received a brand from a creature, quite possibly a god, who had apparently called itself Prodal. He claimed he’d gone by many names in different times. The stories told by he, Senka, Juzo almost impossible to believe. But then again, there was a time when she thought a woman holding fire in her palm and her flesh, and even stranger her clothing, remaining unscathed was a child’s fantasy. The world continued to surprise her.
Grimbald cocked his head at her. “Certainly no magic expert Ny, but if the Black Furnaces are a creation of the Dragon, why would they keep Death Spawn alive?”
“I…” She blinked, pushing away the endlessly branching paths of thought whose trunk started at Isa’s mark. “I’m not sure. That’s a good question. Perhaps their magical energy was all the handle they needed to cling to life. Maybe they were weak like the ones you found in the Dread Temple. Noah had supposedly felled over thirty of them on his own, a practically insurmountable feat for a Norm.”
Grimbald and Isa shared in mocking glances, Grimbald chuckling. Isa raised his chin to regard her. “Just remember Mistress, a well trained Norm with an Equalizer crystal can make a bad day for a wizard. A wizard whose sole method of self-preservation is granted in the ovarian lottery,” he said with a wink.
“And that is precisely why all wizards now train the sword,” she said, slapping the crosspiece mounted on her hip. She narrowed her eyes, meeting his stare until he finally averted his gaze, likely out of respect than anything else. He was bold man, toeing the line of recklessness. She only had a small measure of the things he’s done, the things he’s seen. She knew they could change a man. The things he did required one to disconnect from empathy, discarding compassion, and pitying weakness.
“They come!” Senka barked. Grimbald growled and hunched his posture while Isa spread his arms in a taunting gesture.
Nyset swiveled her stance as a roiling mass of nude figures poured out the stairs and into the light. Ruby eyes flashed. Ashen limbs whipped. Death Spawn. They whooped and shrieked their fury. They were mostly unarmed, bearing makeshift weapons such as clubs and stones. Their bodies were gangling wastes. Flesh sagged and swayed from their bones, mouths pinked, lips peeled back to reveal blackened gums. Black forked tongues darted, lapping at the air in ravenous anticipation.
Some part of her pitied them. Hunger betrayed us all, laying waste to even the best of traps. Had they only waited a moment longer for them to enter the furnaces, this might not have been the killing ground it would soon become.
Nyset waited, stilling her mind and finding within the dense forests of the Great Retreat. Her patience was the cresting wave, never rolling over, rooted deep in the ocean floor, its depths containing a mountain of frozen fury. It was a patience forged in the trials of her life, mortared in death, fang, and claw. She went deep into her sorrow, a place where babies were gutted by Death Spawn blades, their mothers watching in wild-eyed terror, bodies trembling. It was a place where all was lost and nothing could hurt her. Deep in this place, fear dared not tread.
Her alliance with the Dragon’s flame burned bright in her eyes, flaring up with tongues of fire over her forehead. She pressed herself deeper, away from all the realm’s burdens precariously balanced on her back. In here, she was as fearless as new mothers and fathers. She was as fearless as love’s first kiss. Her spirit rose like spring buds, yielding to the yawning blue and the crush of careless boots.
And she waited. Her wave bubbled with gurgling white tips. A buzz crawled across her throat, stomach tightening, a great sense of knowing her every cell while similarly in a place far outside her body. Far outside time, wondering why these beasts came to die.
Her wave fell, pressing her fists together and a second set of fists of flame thrust from her hands, growing into head sized boulders and colliding with the group’s leaders. There was a series of wet pops, red spray, flames gouting over the back of the group and bathing their flesh in Dragon fire. Headless bodies crumpled, tripping those pushing on behind them. A few whose torsos had been sheared away flopped to the welcoming sands. More fell with agonized screams, rolling in a futile attempt to put out the fire that could not be snuffed.
Grimbald charged at the mass’ flank, axe whirling through one torso and traveling onward to hack through another, black blood filling the air around them. Corpsemaker begged to be used, made for one thing alone: violence. He carried in his every limb the countless hours of his training, limbs flashing and metal gleaming in a brutal dance. His arms were iron, legs worked into the hardness of wood, gut as tough as stone. Anyone foolish enough to brave his strength was doomed. Nyset grinned as her friends worked.
Isa ducked under a thrown stone, arm snapping like a whip, sword stealing an arm from its owner’s body. His hammer followed the sword’s whisper, possessed of its own ferocity, rising up in a sick parabola and turning a Death Spawn mouth into a place of ruin. His movements mirrored a dancer’s grace. Isa’s every cut was precise, every smashed limb and shattered jaw a thing of beauty. Splintered teeth tumbled across the sand, followed by a pair of severed fingers and spattering of blood. Up and down went his savage hammer, tearing an eye free from a socket, crushing an elbow, and shattering ribs.
Senka was a storm of blades, spinning a determined course through the squirming limbs. She gave her daggers life, set them plunging in and out of thighs, armpits, slashing through biceps and throats, severing major arteries. She gave her blades more direction than even the most dedicated of mothers. Her blades winked like stars when they caught the sun, gleaming behind a patina of blood, charting a path through the black heavens. Death Spawn mindlessly charged onward toward Nyset, felled before they could manage more than a few steps. Senka’s daggers drew cries of pains from their sordid throats.
Death Spawn clubs were dropped from hands whose tendons had been cut. Clutched stones went wide of their targets and struck their compatriots. Nyset carefully chose her targets, well aware that the gifts of the gods could murder her friends. She conjured arrows of fire, cutting clean holes between the centers of Death Spawn brows, leaving smoking holes and spurting wounds behind.
They were all heroes of legend and these sad creatures merely a warm-up for the quartet. Nyset stood before their withering charge, a stark and irresistible target in bleeding red. Raising her arms and splaying her fingers, she drew on both the Dragon and the Phoenix together. She wove their energies into a single spell. A series of blinding white tendrils sprung from her back, each lengthening and darting through the air, homing in on Death Spawn targets. Where they met Death Spawn bodies they formed spirals around their torsos and then constricted, butchering their forms into dozens of slabs of sliced meat.
One Death Spawn, black blooded, bull-eyed and full breasted, snarled as she hurled a jagged rock at Nyset. The Arch Wizard drew upon the Phoenix, manifesting an oval of blue light forming a shield just big enough to surround her upper body, sending the stone bouncing harmlessly away. The shield vanished a second after, still holding her dual-spell. A tendril of light punched through its bull eye out the back of its skull, shattered bits of bone and brains hanging on the air. Another came behind it, hands raised and in position to choke her if it could conceivably bridge the ten or so paces. She pulled on one of her ten tendrils, shearing its head from its body, legs carrying it onward for two steps before it crumpled.
About two dozen of the Death Spawn possessed wounds born of her dual-spell, some sprawled and trampled by their kin, choking on their blood as the others finished them off. A few hunched at the side of the battle, clutching at gaping wounds, all the fight drained out of them and replaced by pain. On and on they came from that dark abyss until their numbers finally dwindled with the last few squinting into the day.
Three Death Spawn dashed for her, trampling over the dead. They were surprisingly smart enough to come all at once, briefly bathing her in their rotting shadows. Their clawed feet left crimson tracks in the sand. The middle of the three slowed, its dead eyes staring at her unblinking. Nyset’s boots were rooted to the sand, purposefully and brutally stilled as she reveled in the god’s gifts. She drew on more of their strength, gathering the raw power to both heal and to destroy. Her body was all but motionless, the tendrils of light from her back working through enemies trying to assail the flanks of her friends. The power that built within her narrow frame made her flesh tremble. Her dress flapped, the air around her quivered, and the light shifted.
The Death Spawn paused to watch her. One even tilted its head, spots of mold covering the bones showing through its cheeks. Cracked lips peeled back to show their teeth, wildly panting with a sudden need for violence. She saw one of the three was spattered with the blood of its brethren, and yet it went on. Curious. Death Spawn jaws creaked like wood rubbing together, muscles twitching, bodies moving.
Perhaps they had never seen a human stand before them. Perhaps they were only used to seeing men run. They advanced and she smiled. With a great surge of release, she let the brewing spell go. Her skin burned as lightning sprang from each of her fingertips, crackling through the air, and forming chains of lightning through each and every remaining Death Spawn. Their bodies were hurled at least twenty feet into the sky, wisps of dark smoke trailing behind their paralyzed forms. Their nerves were charred crisps, bodies thumping like stones and limbs violently twitching. Words were spoken, cries voiced, but they were just noise in her ears.
Nyset raised her chin to regard the ruin around her. A thin smile formed behind her scarf, filling her chest with a lost joy. She missed combat. The sands were littered in drying pools of blood, but not a drop of it was hers. The combined powers of the Dragon and the Phoenix in one woman allowed her to produce such a slaughter that has never been seen in the realm of Zoria. She had far more time to work with the combined powers than Walter ever had, and thus her strength had grown to surpass any wizard before her since the sealing of the Age of Dawn.
She thought of that day the Shadow Princess escaped the Shadow realm, giant leathery wings carrying her over the currents of the Far Sea. She would fix her mistake and make it right. The Shadow would be obliterated from the future histories.
Nyset knew what would come next as she let the powers go. She panted and sweat trickled down her neck, tickling her back. She hadn’t felt it until now, but her face was spattered in globs of stinking blood. If there had been any Death Spawn remaining in that cavern, they would’ve finally understood the meaning of terror. They would have not approached for it would’ve only meant ruin.
Grimbald, Isa, and Senka stared at her, all mouths agape. Isa was the first to close his, giving his head a quick shake. He cleaned the blood from his sword on a rag, dropped it, then sheathed his weapon. “Well done,” he muttered.
Grimbald frowned. “You couldn’t have saved some for the rest of us?” He heaved out a great sigh, setting his axe to rest across his back. “Was just starting to enjoy myself.”
“Impressive, Arch Wizard,” Isa said in an appreciative tone. “Your control…is remarkable.”
“Mistress— Nyset. You’re incredible!” Senka beamed, sheathing her daggers and running over to her. Before Nyset could react Senka had her wrapped in a hug, released before Nyset could hug her back. Her body felt like a piece of hardened wood, hardly a strip of fat on her figure.
Senka grasped one of her hands in both of hers, slicked with blood, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Thank you Mistress. I’m sorry, Nyset just feels far too improper for me.”
“That’s fine Senka, say what makes you comfortable then,” Nyset said with an approving nod.
Senka smiled, releasing her hand, eyes going wide at seeing she had covered Nyset’s hand in blood. “Oh no, I’m sorry!” She produced a small cloth from her pocket and started vigorously rubbing her hand.
Nyset let her, not overly pleased at the tacky feeling between her fingers. “That’s alright, Senka. Let’s see to the Black Furnaces.”
Senka bit her lip, stuffed the soiled cloth back in her pocket, and nodded as she turned to face the stairs.
“Lead the way,” Nyset offered.
“Right.” Senka froze for a moment, steeling herself for what may lay in the depths.
Beside Senka, Grimbald peered about, scanning the tops of dunes and shimmering shadows. Isa rubbed at the back of his neck, staring down at a Death Spawn corpse.
She saw there were maybe fifty corpses strewn about the wastes. Narrow plumes of dark smoke curled from the bodies slain by Nyset’s chain lightning, filling the air with the stink of bad meat. Some had been thrown farther than she could’ve imagined. A few were almost at the peaks of the surrounding dunes. Scores were missing limbs. Many were heaped upon each other. They were twisted wrecks, once men before being converted by the Shadow’s curse.
Senka started onward toward the stairs. She stretched her arms out to her sides and traced the walls of the sandstone entrance with her splayed fingers. As she traveled further into the Black Furnaces she held her fingers there, caressing the rough hewn walls. Senka faded to a shadow and Nyset came in after her, a soft hiss of her finger meeting her ears.
The wind was lost in the darkness and trapped in the world of the sun. Her boots crunched through ancient stones, turning them into dust. Nyset summoned an orb of fire to float by her shoulder, casting the narrow stairway in a flickering glow. She saw the stone was a beautiful pattern of alternating reds and whites, forged from countless millenia of sand and water cementing together.
Isa followed after her and Grimbald took the back, grunting as he compressed his form to fit through the narrow space. The edge of Corpsemaker squealed against rock. “This place is fit for no man. I am curious to see the furnaces…but that smell, by the Dragon it could kill a hog.”
“You can wait outside if you’d like,” she threw over her shoulder. Nyset had successfully ignored it until then. The stench of Death Spawn became a weight on the air, so thick it felt as if you should’ve been able to see some evidence of its presence. Her stomach spasmed with the urge to gag. It took all of her focus to press it down.
Isa snorted. “Smells like they’ve been shitting down here for years.”
“Likely have, though how they survive this long with nothing to eat is a wonder,” Grimbald replied.
Senka reached the bottom of the stairs, slowly raising her hand to peel off her mask. “They found things to eat.”
“They did?” Nyset reached the bottom of the stairs, eyes following Senka’s gaze to find weapon racks not filled with weapons but scores of writhing Death Spawn. “Each other,” Nyset breathed. They were secured in a haphazard manner, some properly bound with rope at the wrists and ankles to the racks, others pinned through the wrists with daggers and swords. All bore some manner of bites, most with gangrenous limbs chewed to the bone. How they didn’t bleed out or die of infection was a mystery. A few started moaning, one shrieked with the Dragon’s rage, teeth thick with slime, the others wordlessly slumping in their bonds.
Grimbald and Isa fanned out from the stairway, taking the flanks around Nyset and Senka.
“It seems men and beast are not unalike when it comes to survival,” Isa said, sheathing the sword he had apparently drawn.
Grimbald shook his head and spat out the corner of his mouth. “We should put them out of their misery. Care to do the honors Ny? Could use a bit more light in here.”
“No. If you think it smells now it’ll be far worse with their flesh roasting in this oven. Isa, Grim, make it quick.” She flicked her fingers towards the racks. “They’ve suffered long enough.”
Grimbald grunted in annoyance while Isa sighed.
Nyset drew on a bit more of the Dragon, conjuring four more balls of fire. She set them to float a few feet above everyone’s heads in the shape of a pentagram, dispelling some shadows and darkening others.
The floor was all interlocking stones littered in towers of feces, refuse, discarded weapons, and bones picked clean. There were mouldering rags, broken swords, pitted spears and ruined heaps of armor. The Black Furnaces formed an expansive cavern, roof stretching beyond the reach of light. The yawning mouths of the sputtering furnaces dimly lit the room, twelve in all, two columns of six. They crackled and burned with white hypnotic Dragon fire. The fires were cast by a group of twenty wizards working in tandem, long before the Age of Dawn and at the end of the Age of War. The fires exhausted into iron piping reaching into the darkened ceiling, and out the sands high above. Their thin plumes of smoke were quickly dissipated by the desert’s winds and thus invisible to the untrained eye.
“At last, the famed Black Furnaces. Remind me again why the wizards thought it was a good idea to put a bunch of forges below a mountain of sand? Not exactly a robust structure,” Grimbald mused. He sauntered around the glow of a forge’s mouth, kicked a bone and sent it skittering into undulating shadows.
Nyset opened her mouth to respond but Senka beat her to it. “You do recall the manner of weapons which can be forged here?” Senka with hands on hips, sounding as if she were trying to mute her anger.
“Magical weapons and armor, I know. But all that sand…” Grimbald pointed at the ceiling with the pick side of his axe. “What if it clogged the ventilation pipes? The whole of the chamber would be filled by smoke and you’d never find the stairs. Not to mention any invading force could easily block the only exit. If they had the numbers, and well… that’d be a bad day for you.”
Nyset watched as Senka’s throat started to work in response, mouth opening and closing, lips pressed into a line. For the briefest moment her eyes bulged, glassy in the firelight. Her expression went limp and finally her posture sagged with a sigh. Wearing a half-smile she bent down and snatched up a length of wood, setting it ablaze on the edge of one of Nyset’s crackling fireballs. She met her eyes, cheeks wet with tears, and turned away, marching into the shadows.
The men predictably missed all of it. Nyset frowned at her back, thinking it prudent to give her some time alone.
Isa was scowling down at a pile of bones intertwined with a shredded shirt. “I think this was a man once,” he said to himself. He raised his head to regard Grimbald. “Swords are safe in their scabbards, but that’s not what swords are made for.” Somewhere a stone fell from the ceiling, tumbled across the floor in an echo that stretched for too long. He made to follow Senka’s fading figure when Nyset laid a hand on his arm to stop him. Lowering her voice she said, “Give her a moment alone, would you? Her father. You remember, don’t you?”
“I— of course.” Isa nodded at her, brow creased. She thought if he could’ve blushed he would be scarlet. She released his arm and mouthed ‘thank you,’ but he didn’t see it, turning back to face the towering furnaces. A long breath hissed through his nose. “I need to go to her.” And before Nyset could respond, he was marching into the shadows.
“Did you understand his meaning? About swords in scabbards?” Grimbald asked with a grunt, one hand rummaging in a belt pouch. He produced a golden honey cake, stuffed half into this mouth and offered Nyset the other half. She shook her head, but less at the food and more in disgust at eating with hands soiled with Death Spawn juices.
Nyset popped the cork on her waterskin and gulped. “What Isa was trying to say Grim is that sure, there are great risks to working these furnaces, but they needed to stay hidden because of the quality of weapons they can produce. Given the state of things here, it doesn’t seem this group of Death Spawn had any penchant for working the forges.”
Grimbald pressed the other half of his honey cake into his bulging cheeks, speaking around the bolus. “Got lucky, Ny. The fight might’ve been worse had they waited here. As the Captain of the Armsman,” he swallowed, then started speaking while he chewed. “I said it before and I have to say it again. This was an unnecessary risk. The Tower needs you, now more than ever. You going to tell me why I couldn’t send the Armsman to do this?”
“I have my reasons,” she said with more bite than she’d wished. She crossed her arms, squinting at all those flickering eyes of white flame in the forges. A frown touched her lips. She sighed, regarding him as he brushed golden crumbs from his beard.
“Grim. I’m sorry. There would be no talking me out of this. I owed Senka and it’s the least I could’ve done for all she’s done for me— for the Tower. All her sacrifices, her time in Tigeria… I’m sure you understand that she needs closure.” She bit her upper lip. “She hasn’t been back since she fled from here, her home. If you didn’t know, her father gave up his life so that she could live, gave her the time she’d need to escape this very room.” Nyset trailed off and thought of her own parents, their lives rent too early by Death Spawn. But this wasn’t about her.
Grimbald grunted with a nod. He stared into the fires, stroking his beard, eyes growing distant. The waving light marked the deep scars and pocks lining his face. She remember when she first met him in the Hissing Gooseberry in Shipton. His skin was as flawless as a new babe’s, confidence always wavering. How he had changed. She wondered then how his life would have been if she, Walter, and Baylan had stopped in a different tavern. Would he still have his Pa’? Would Juzo still have converted half of the village into Blood Eaters, forcing Grimbald to slaughter his own? These were paths that lead to nowhere.
“There are other reasons too,” Nyset cleared her throat, irritated from smoke that hadn’t found its way up the ventilation shafts. “I want to avoid unrest in New Breden and the realm at large. If an adventure made his way here and survived the encounter, returning to tell of what he saw. If the denizens knew there were Death Spawn in the world after they thought it safe… well for now I see no reason to dispel the illusion of safety. People are still healing. All that tragedy from the Shadow War has left a scar on the world. It’s hard to believe four years has passed since the Shadow God’s fall, but it feels like only months.”
Senka identified the remains of her father by a notable dent in his skull and by the length of his figure. They were mostly intact, the only bones missing the ribs where Dressna had driven her hand through his torso. Senka asked for solitude while she collected his remains. She worked his bones into a large leather sack for what was apparently a ritual of respect for the deceased. She said no one but her should see his body, ensuring his spirit was peaceful in the Shadow Realm.
While his remains were collected, the others trudged their way to the surface. The desert had already reclaimed the majority of the dead. Small dunes formed over their withered bodies and the occasional limb rebelliously stood against the mounting sand. It wouldn’t be more than another hour before all evidence of their passing would be erased. The Nether was life accelerated.
Nyset traveled via portal to the Tower and back to the Nether, retrieving a sun shelter in the Tower’s stores to shield them from the weather. Isa and Grimbald pitched it, beige and constructed with a heavy canvas weave. Nyset drew on the Dragon and channeled wind to carve a hole in the sands large enough to accommodate Senka’s father. She did her best to make it symmetrical, but gave up as the sands continuously collapsed inward.
Nyset, Isa, and Grimbald gathered under the shelter, silently waiting for Senka to emerge from the Black Furnaces. Grimbald gave the shelter an appraising glance, adjusting one of the support poles. The shelter looked like a curved dome that had been sliced in half, its walled side flapping against the wind.
Some time passed, maybe twenty minutes by Nyset’s guess. Senka finally emerged from the Black Furnaces a moment before Nyset was going to go in after her, wondering if she was well. She stopped where the threshold of stone met the spiraling sands, one arm clutching the leather bag and the other grasping her collar. Her eyes were downcast, cheeks red as if she’d been rubbing them.
“Mistress,” Senka said, voice a whisper in the wind. She raised her eyes to meet Nyset’s, her tears dry now. The wind sliced fire from the east and sun burned crimson, filling the air with heat. Nyset felt her own eyes pooling with wet. She could only stand there, rooted to the shelter. The piece of her that would’ve known what to do to comfort Senka had been lost with Walter’s death, replaced by a glacial wall. To endure that pain again, having her heart torn beating from her chest, was something she could not bear. Sealing away that part of herself, it seemed, had unintended repercussions.
Nyset got herself to leave the shelter and embraced Senka. She knew the action, but did it without heart. She knew that she should say some consoling words, but couldn’t settle on the right ones. Perhaps they had gone with Walter too. So she said nothing. Nyset held her.
Senka didn’t move to hug her back, but made no effort at getting away either. Nyset felt arms on her shoulders, the scent of cedar. Grimbald wrapped them both in a great bear hug. “We’re all so very sorry for your loss Senka,” Grimbald said soberly. “I know I can’t say exactly how you feel, but I know it hurts.”
Senka sniffed back new tears. “No. I thought… I didn’t know what I would I think. I’m sorry— I can’t.” She shook her head, pulling away. “Let’s be done with it.” She adjusted the bag on her shoulder, clattering the bones within. She marched from Nyset and Grimbald, unceremoniously dropping the the bag of bones into the hole. She gazed at the hole with a few nods, licking her lips.
Isa remained back in the shelter, massaging his temples as if this was delaying him from an important meeting.
For a reason Nyset couldn’t place, this scene brought back the day of Walter’s funeral. She’d watched countless funerals since then. Why was this one any different? Nyset numbly watched as Senka proceeded to sprinkled vial after vial of poison into Sinred’s grave, mumbling words she couldn’t discern. Nyset was paralyzed by grief, breaths only coming in with conscious effort. Her stomach hurt. Her lips contorted into a fierce grimace. There was something about seeing her friend in so much pain that reached deep inside of her and wrenched at something crucial.
Senka drew a dagger, bringing it high to catch the light, then drove it down into her own arm. Senka winced and Nyset reached, mouth falling open. Senka dragged the blade onward, carving a line of red from her wrist to her elbow.
“Senka!” Grimbald shouted.
Isa raced toward her. “No! Senka! What are you—”
“Don’t. Please, Isa. I must do this, the ways of the Scorpions.” Senka’s face was streaked with tears, bloody palm raised to stop him.
Isa’s fingers fluttered at his sides, neck muscles twitching. He complied with her wishes and then rubbed at something that had apparently landed in both of his eyes. Grimbald tried to stride past him, but Isa caught him by the wrist. “Let her be,” Isa growled through clenched teeth.
“You’re going to stand here and let her die?” Grimbald circled his wrist to break Isa’s grip, scowl showing behind his beard.
With the speed of a viper, Isa re-gripped Grimbald’s wrist as he marched for her. “Grim. She needs this. We have to respect her wishes.”
Grimbald’s mouth opened to protest, but then closed with a reluctant nod. “Why? This is mad,” he breathed, lowering his head.
Senka watched Isa as she made to move, letting her gushing blood spatter onto the bag. She walked around the grave, drawing a ring with her blood on its perimeter.
Through blurred eyes Nyset watched Senka complete the ritual, a part of her knowing her friend must carry on her culture’s tradition, despite the risks. It was enough to make her heart burst. The pallor of Senka’s cheeks went ashen as the thirsty sands swallowed her blood.
Senka openly wept as she started on her third revolution. Ruby beads of red fell from her wound, catching the sun with an ethereal brightness. Fat tears fell from her jaw. Once the ring of blood was thrice completed, she collapsed on her side with a sickening thump.
“Senka!” Isa ran to her and scooped her up, her cries becoming a moan. He carried her to Nyset. “Heal her! Not her, not you. I can’t lose another. Please, Arch Wizard.” Isa stared at Senka wide-eyed, face creased with pain.
“As if I wouldn’t,” Nyset snarled, trudging through sand to meet him and placing her hands on Senka’s shoulders. She drew on the healing light of the Phoenix, simultaneously directing it to stitch Senka’s wound and to restore her lost blood volume. Nyset watched as thousands of tiny Phoenix tails worked like sutures, drawing the folds of her flesh back together, the scar forming and then smoothed away as if never there. Gooseflesh formed on Senka’s throat as the cooling sensation of healing took her.
“Utter madness,” Grimbald hissed, shaking his head at Nyset’s side.
Senka’s cheeks flushed with a hint of red. Her eyes briefly opened and found Nyset, settling to half-closed. Nyset’s lips tugged into a sad smile. Senka’s long eyelashes were thick with tears. “Have to carry the ways, carry the ways. I’ll carry the ways father. Won’t forget us, won’t let us die,” Senka mumbled.
Isa slowly raised his head to meet Nyset’s eyes, swimming with glassy blues. “Thank you, Arch Wizard.” He swallowed, eyes peering up at the sun as if searching for words. “She said she wanted to stay here, after this was done. To spend some time in with the forges. I think she had planned to tell you herself, but perhaps was expecting her constitution to better withstand the Scorpion’s ritual of passing. Do you mind if we stay?”
“Of course not,” Nyset sniffed, gathering her emotions back into that iron box where they wouldn’t interfere with her decisions. “I’ll send Claw with provisions. How long will you stay?”
“I’m not sure. She wanted to make me a sword and teach me how to do it.” He grimaced as he adjusted her in his arms. “We’ll have to clean it out before we can start of course. I would wager maybe two weeks.”
Nyset pressed her index fingernail into the pad of her thumb. “At this juncture, I see no reason why you can’t stay. Very well. If I need you… and I may need you soon, maybe in a few days. I’ll summon you via a Phoenix portal. You must not forget what transpires among the realms out there, what looms.” Nyset flicked her eyes from the brand on Isa’s forearm and back to his eyes, hopefully making her message painfully clear. He winced and she continued. “There are many unresolved things which must be resolved.”
“My edge is always yours, Mistress.” Isa managed a partial bow with Senka cradled in his arms.
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