Official Web Site

elderbloodchronicles@gmail.com

Home of "Elder Blood Chronicles"


Sample Chapter from "The Blessed Curse"

Prologue

 

Cool wind cut across his sweat soaked back as Neph let his sword relax in his hand. He wiped his face with the back of his arm and studied his sister. He’d lost her attention again. With a sigh, he followed her gaze to the courtyard wall where two kittens had begun their own duel. “Zyi, we don’t have time for this.” Neph spoke softly and her eyes flickered back toward him.

“They are so cute when they are small.” Zyi’s mouth was curved into a gentle smile and her pale blue eyes danced with amusement. “All fuzz and energy,” she added with a wistful glance toward the kittens, her smile slowly fading at the expression on his face.

“Zyi, the trial is tomorrow. You have to focus,” Neph pressed, his voice thick with his frustration. He’d been working with her for weeks on her shields and defense without much improvement, and she didn’t seem to be taking any of it seriously.

“I know Neph,” Zyi sighed. Her back straightened and she raised her sword again with an expression that suggested he was torturing her. “I don’t want to run the trial, Neph. It is hard for me to focus on something I hate the thought of.”

“You have to, Zyi. All Delvay face the trial when they reach our age,” Neph said, repeating words he had spoken a thousand times in the past month.

“Then let me face it tomorrow, Neph, and let’s do something that’s actually fun today,” Zyi offered, her smile returning as she stared up at her brother. Her sword dipped toward the ground again as she stepped closer. “Swimming? It’s certainly hot enough today. We could go riding. How long has it been since you have had a break from training, Neph?” Her voice was hopeful and Neph felt himself smiling in return.

“Zyi, your defense is appalling, your attacks are weak, and there are field mice with more focus than you. We need to train.” Neph shook his head at her slowly and her smile faded again. She nodded in return and lifted her sword once more. “I won’t let you fail this, Zyi. We will work all night if we have to,” Neph promised.

“I’m not like you Neph. I don’t have the warrior’s soul that Father is always preaching about. I don’t want to fight, I don’t want to kill, and I don’t want to face this stupid trial.” Zyi’s voice rose as she spoke and Neph glanced back to make sure they were still alone in the courtyard. “What does this trial prove anyway? That we are as strong as the mountains like father says? I’m not. I admit it freely. So why do I have to face the trial?”

Neph turned back to look at her, his eyes locking on her own. Her bitterness was as clear in her voice as the frustration was in his. “Because all Delvay do. Please watch your voice Zyi. If someone overhears you saying that, Father will thrash you,” He warned in a low voice.

“Thrashing me for being honest? How noble is that? It would be nice to be able to speak the truth for a change,” Zyi hissed. Angrily she pushed her pale blond hair back from her face once more and glared at him. “Well, come on, Neph, train me to be a better liar. Help me hone skills I despise.” Her sword raised and she dropped low into a defensive stance.

Neph shook his head slowly and smiled down at his twin. Her eyes narrowed at his expression and he held up a hand in a gesture of peace. “How about rather than train you to be a better liar, I help you earn the right to speak the truth. Once we pass this trial, Zyi, we are full citizens. As children, we can’t speak our mind, as citizens we can,” he offered.

Zyi sniffed and rolled her eyes. “As if you have anything to speak your mind about, Neph. You are Father’s golden child. He gives an order and you obey. You and Kadan are just like him,” she grumbled, but her sword was still in the ready position. “Come on, then. Help me earn the right I should have been born with.”

“First of all, get your damn shields up, Zyi. Magical protection can save your life. Never forget your shields!” Neph snapped as he sprang toward her, his sword flashing. If she wouldn’t listen to his words he would hammer them into her skull with his sword.

 

ëôéôé

 

Laughter echoed down the hall behind him as Neph made his way slowly toward his father’s door. He paused at the sound and considered turning back to the main hall to join the others in drinks. With a heavy sigh, he shook his head and placed a hand on the cold stone of the door and pushed it gently open. “Father, I need to speak with you,” Neph said in a voice just loud enough to carry to the next rooms as he stepped inside. As he had expected the sitting room was empty. His gaze turned automatically to the door of his father’s prayer room as it opened.

“About what?” RenDelvayon demanded, his expression filled with warning. His father was a large man, towering over his children in height and strength.

Bowing his head with respect, Neph inhaled deeply and let the breath out slowly. Nothing he had to say would please his father. “About Zyi, Father. She isn’t ready for the trial and honestly I don’t think she ever will be,” Neph began in a steady voice. His father despised weakness above all else, now was not the time to show nerves.

“She is my child. She will face the trial.” His father’s words were spoken in a low voice that suggested the topic was settled.

“Father, you have Kadan and me. Do you really need Zyi to pass the trial too? Send her to the Academy instead please,” Neph pressed. His eyes searched his father’s face for any sign of mercy and found none.

“All Delvay face the trial. Zyi will as well. She carries my name. Do you expect me to let weakness grow in my family?” Ren demanded, his eyes narrow.

“Would you rather see her die, Father? There is a very good chance that will happen.” Neph’s voice cracked with his frustration and his father’s eyes narrowed further.

“Yes, I would rather see her die than bring weakness to our family. This discussion is over Neph.” His father glared at him, daring him to open his mouth again.

Neph shifted his feet and struggled to fight back the words he knew he would regret. He could feel his temper rising and knew if he didn’t leave he would regret it. No one spoke back to High Lord RenDelvayon, least of all his children. “As you say Father,” Neph said softly through clenched teeth.

His gaze moved to the painting on the mantle as he turned back to the door. It was the only artwork in the room, and the only image of his mother left remaining in Delvay. He felt his temper cool as memories of her surfaced. They were bittersweet to be sure. Part of him hated her, and yet he could remember how she had treated them. His mother had been strong, kind, and as stubborn as stone. She might have been able to speak on Zyi’s behalf. His father might have listened to her. At the very least RenDelvayon would have let her speak her mind fully, which was more than he was doing for his son. Pausing with his hand on the door Neph glanced back at his father. “Not everyone is born for war, Father. Zyi’s calling could be something greater than either of us guess. She could be a healer, or a scholar, or so many other things. Please just give her a chance. Exile her and take the family name from her if she shames you, but don’t force her to do something she isn’t capable of doing, please.” Neph spoke the words softly and didn’t bother waiting for a response. There was little point to it. Mercy wasn’t a word found in the Delvay language, even when dealing with their children.

More laughter erupted from the main hall, but the thought of drinking and laughter no longer appealed to him at all. Turning slowly, Neph headed for the stairs and his own rooms. Tomorrow would be a disaster and he knew it. Zyi had left the courtyard with bruises lacing both of her arms and very little sign of improvement to her defense. No matter how many times he had worked with her on spells or blades she never improved. Her heart simply wasn’t in it. His steps paused as he neared her door. He could still see the glow of candlelight from beneath the door, but there was no sound from within. Without bothering to knock he pushed the door lightly and leaned on the door frame to look inside.

Zyi was seated under the window her back pressed against the dark stone wall with a snow cat kitten curled in her lap. Her eyes were bloodshot and dried tears streaked her face. Looking up at him, she smiled weakly and waved him in.

“I tried to talk to him,” Neph offered softly as he stepped inside the room. His eyes roved over the colorful paintings and tapestries that filled the small room and he smiled faintly. Every other part of the Delvay keep was somber and dark. Zyi’s room however was as bright and cheerful as a sun filled meadow.

“He didn’t listen,” Zyi concluded with a sigh and nodded to him. “He never listens. Thank you for trying though Neph.”

Neph nodded slowly as his gaze fell on the packed bag hidden just beneath the edge of her bed. He studied it for a long moment and nodded again. “I even tried to get him to exile you,” Neph continued as he turned back to her.

Zyi gazed up at him and then slowly stood. Carefully she shifted the kitten in her arms and offered it to Neph. “I waited for you to come upstairs,” she said, her tone so low the words were barely a whisper.

Watching her carefully, Neph took the kitten and stood silently as she gathered her bag over her shoulder. “Where?” Neph asked. He knew he should be stopping her, but he didn’t have the heart. Their father had been quite clear on the subject of her leaving, and he would be furious when he found out that Neph had known.

“Away. Anywhere is better than here, Neph.” Zyi whispered, her eyes growing glassy once more. “You are the only thing I will miss here.” Moving quickly she wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him tightly.

He could feel her tears soaking through the cotton of his shirt as he wrapped his own arms around her tiny frame. She was so much smaller than the rest of them, so delicate and fragile. The idea of her being alone in the world terrified him, but then the thought of her facing the trial frightened him more. If she couldn’t stand against him and hold her shields, she didn’t have a prayer against the odds they would face tomorrow. “Let me go with you,” Neph began unsure exactly where the words had come from. He didn’t actually want to leave Delvay, but then he didn’t want to see her go alone either. No one else would understand her. Not like he did anyway. She was his twin. He knew her better than anyone else ever could. He had always protected her. What would she do without him guarding her from others? In Delvay it had been childish teasing. The outside world would be so much worse and he knew it.

Zyi laughed, and the sound was choked with her tears. Pulling back from him she shook her head and smiled. “I love you so much for offering Neph, but your place is here and we both know it. I only waited here so I could say goodbye. I never thought that you might go with me.” Her voice was thick and Neph felt his chest tightening.

“I don’t mind leaving here, Zyi. Let me get a few things and we will go.” Neph placed the kitten carefully on the bed and started to turn for the door as she grabbed his arm. He paused and looked down at her once more as she shook her head again. “Zyi, neither of us has ever been outside of Delvay. You don’t even know what you are walking into,” Neph said gently.

“A better life for me, but it’s not a life for you Neph. You belong here. You do have the warrior’s spirit. You are one of the strongest in Delvay now. In time you will be more than Father could ever hope to be,” Zyi whispered as she placed a hand on his cheek. “Keep them in balance, Neph. Father is as cold as winter, and Kadan is heartless. You are the only one in this damned place with any compassion at all. Maybe one day you will lead here, and I can come home again.”

“I will never lead Delvay, Zyi,” Neph said with a faint smile and watched as she stepped away toward the door. “How are you going to get out of here without them noticing?” Neph asked quietly.

“They are drinking downstairs aren’t they?” Zyi asked, pausing by the door.

“Aren’t they always?” Neph snorted in response.

“Then they should be sleeping by now. I added a little something extra to the mead tonight. Nothing that will hurt them of course, but they will get a very sound night’s sleep from it.” She smiled impishly as she spoke and winked at him. “I will miss you so much, Neph.” Zyi said softly as she stepped out into the shadowed hall.

With a final glance around the room Neph carefully picked up the kitten once more and balanced it in the crook of his arm as blew out the candle and headed for his own room. Delvay would be a darker place without her, but he knew in his heart it was for the best. Still, that didn’t silence the voice screaming for him to go after her, to stop her, to go with her, to do something. A lump was growing in his throat and he could feel his eyes burning with unshed tears. With a heavy sigh, he stepped into his own room and leaned back against the door. The kitten stirred in his arm and he absently ran a hand through its thick fur. For the first time in his life, he was truly alone. There was no one left in Delvay that he could confide in, or show weakness to. Zyi never judged him for emotions. “I should have gone with her,” he whispered to the cat as he sat it down carefully on the foot of his bed and began to strip out of his sweat stained clothes. Tomorrow would be a long, grueling day, and it would be best to be well rested before facing it. Not that he truly believed he would sleep tonight. With a heavy sigh he glanced back at the hallway once more. He doubted he would ever sleep soundly again, knowing she was just as alone as he was in a world that was much crueler than Delvay. The Academy might have been safe, and he could only hope that was where she was heading.

 

ëôéôé

 

Morning sunlight filtered down through the trees as Neph guided his cat carefully up the steep mountain path. By tradition the trials were held on the tallest peak of the three mountains surrounding the capital. His gaze rose to the snow covered heights ahead of him and then to his brother who rode beside him. “Are you going to say anything to me Kadan?” He asked finally. Kadan was typically quiet, but today was extreme even for him. His brother had barely even looked in his direction since they rode out.

“Did you know she was running away?” Kadan asked, his voice low and filled with anger. His dark eyes locked on Neph and narrowed. “Did you help her run away?”

Neph watched him for a long moment and shook his head slowly. “I didn’t know she was going to do it, but I’m glad she did. I didn’t help her, but I would have, had she asked.”

“I know she wouldn’t have left without speaking with you Neph.” Kadan snapped.

“She said good bye,” Neph agreed, his gaze moving once more to the mountain. Kadan would tell their father everything he said and he knew it. By the time he faced his father, however, he would be past the trial and could no longer be punished as a child.

“You should have stopped her Neph. She is weak and has proven herself a coward by her actions.” Kadan’s voice rose and Neph turned to regard him again.

“She is our sister, Kadan. She is gentle and kind and has shown nothing but love toward us. You scorn her because she doesn’t wish to fight,” Neph said and shook his head slowly in disgust. “In my eyes, she should never have to fight, Kadan. She has two brothers that should have been more than willing to fight for her.”

“She is Delvay,” Kadan snapped, as if the words explained his anger completely.

“She was Delvay,” Neph corrected. “And Delvay didn’t understand her at all. Maybe she will find others that do,” he added hopefully.

“Idiot,” Kadan growled as he pushed his cat forward into a lope. “C’mon. I’m eager to put this day behind me.”

“You and me both,” Neph agreed as he urged his cat forward. There was perhaps an hour left of riding and then the trial. He had no doubts he would pass his tests. As Zyi had said, he was one of the strongest in Delvay. His spells were perfect and his shields were stronger than anyone he had faced so far, including Kadan. With a faint smile, he followed his brother in silence as they crossed through the thick pine forest surrounding the base of the mountain peak. Snow began to show on the ground and the air cooled drastically as they continued to climb, but he was used to the cold. He was Delvay, and the mountains were as much a part of him as his own flesh.

Movement to the side of the trail caught his eye and Neph stared hard into the trees. His gaze locked on the woman crouched in the snow at the base of one of the massive pines. He knew her well enough, but he didn’t understand what she was doing here. He nodded in greeting and frowned when she looked away without returning the gesture. He knew she had seen him; their eyes had met.

“Why is Kes here, Kadan?” Neph asked cautiously, as he spotted another scout on the other side of the road. Kes herself was the leader of the Delvay scouts and by all rights she should have been south watching the borders. His brother continued on in silence, either pretending he hadn’t heard the question or simply choosing to ignore it. “Why is Kes here, Kadan?” Neph demanded as a sick feeling began building in his gut.

“You know what the punishment for cowardice is, Neph,” Kadan answered in a low voice.

Panic washed over him at the words and Neph dug his heels painfully into the cat’s sides sending it leaping forward on the path and past Kadan. Snow churned beneath the creature’s massive paws as it scrambled up the steep trail. “No, no, no.” Neph mumbled as the trial grounds grew closer. He knew it was futile though. In his heart he already knew what he would see.

The smell of blood reached him before he had cleared the last of the trees. With an incoherent groan he stumbled from his saddle and staggered past the last of the pines and into the trial grove. A circle of guards surrounded the clearing and he could hear them move to block his way back out of the grove, but didn’t bother to look back. His eyes were locked on the body swinging from the center post. Her pale blond hair was matted with blood and her clothes were shredded from being drug up the mountain side. His throat tightened as he moved quickly to her side. They had bound her wrists and hung her from the post as if she was a deer to be bled out. Tears burned at his eyes as he stared up at her pale bruised face.

“Neph.” The word was mangled by her swollen lips, but it still sounded like music to his ears. She was alive; there was hope.

Carefully Neph wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her until the rope slipped from the post. “It’s ok now, Zyi, I’ve got you,” Neph whispered, his voice harsh. His eyes rose to stare hard at the circle of guards. “She has suffered her punishment. She needs a healer now,” he growled.

“Cowards do not receive mercy from Delvay, neither do traitors.” The voice cracked through the clearing and Neph turned slowly to face his father. “Did you help her, Neph? Are you a traitor to your people?” RenDelvayon demanded.

“He didn’t help her, Father,” Kadan replied before Neph could open his mouth. “I spoke with him on the ride and I will swear by the Aspects and Divine that Neph is no traitor.”

Neph stared hard at his brother before slowly turning back to face his father. Zyi shifted in his arms and he could feel her blood soaking through his armor. “She needs a healer,” he repeated, struggling to keep his voice calm.

“Return her to the post. We do not heal cowards. You know the coward’s fate well enough to understand that,” Ren said coldly.

“She is your daughter!” Neph bellowed, his panic and anger fueling his voice.

“That creature is not of my blood,” Ren snapped in disgust and pointed once more to the center post. “Place her back on the post or share her fate, Neph.”

“Do it, Neph. Let me die. Don’t fight for me, please,” Zyi begged weakly. Her hand moved to his arm and her pale blue eyes flickered open. “Please, Neph.”

“Save your strength, Zyi. You will need it for the ride back down the mountain,” Neph whispered and kissed her gently on the forehead. Carefully, he sat her down at the base of the pole and pulled off his cloak. Gently, he wrapped the thick wool around her and slowly stood once more facing his father. “You want her back on the pole then come and put her there yourself,” Neph snapped as he pulled his sword slowly from its scabbard.

“You would challenge me for a coward?” Ren demanded, his anger rising in his voice.

“My sister,” Neph corrected firmly and squared his shoulders as he brought up his strongest shields. “Consider it a challenge if you want. I really don’t care. All I’m saying is, she is going back down the mountain with me, and if I have to fight you first so be it.”

“I always knew you had a weak heart,” Ren snapped as he drew his own blade. Stalking forward he shook his head in disgust.

“At least I have one,” Neph growled as he moved to meet his father’s first attack. Metal screamed as he parried the blow. Stepping back quickly he dodged the next swing and struck low with his own blade. His sword grazed across his father’s armored leg. Frantically, Neph called on his magic to lend him speed as he parried another bone jarring blow that had been aimed at his head.

“You can’t win here, Neph,” his father growled as his own magic flared to life and his attacks doubled. “You may have strength, but it isn’t honed. One day you might be stronger than me, but not today.” RenDelvayon was the High Lord of Delvay for one simple reason: he was the strongest. No one in Delvay could match him at swords or magic.

“I’d rather die than see her hang again,” Neph gasped the words as he struggled to keep pace with his father’s sword. Blow after blow rang down on him and it was all he could do to parry or dodge. At this rate, his father was right. He didn’t have a chance. He needed a break in the assault, just one chance to strike a solid blow.

Back stepping quickly, Neph circled his father and pulled on his magic once more. It was dangerous to speed himself more than he was already, but he had no choice. His accuracy would suffer and he knew it, but it was the only chance he had at landing a blow. His sword flashed out again striking sparks from his father’s breastplate and he felt his hope rise. His father had been so sure of the fight that he hadn’t even bothered to put up shields. That was the second time he had scored a line in his armor. Now all he had to do was hit flesh.

“False hope, Neph,” His father growled as he renewed the assault with a savagery that Neph had never before seen.

Staggering back under the attack, Neph parried his father’s blade as quickly as he could, his sword flashing like a hummingbird in the morning light. His fingers were growing numb with the ringing of his blade. Pain flashed down his arm and he barely had time to register the wound before he was blocking another blow.

“Sloppy Neph, too much speed for you to handle,” Ren scolded, sounding almost bored as his blade bit deep into Neph’s side.

Bright red droplets stained the snow in a spray as Ren tore his sword free once more and continued to advance. Desperately, Neph parried the next blow and spun bringing his sword up sharply for his father’s neck. His father dodged the brunt of the blow, but his blade still managed to score a thin line down the side of the High Lord’s face. His small victory was lost in the pain however. Stumbling back, Neph stared down stupidly at the sword stuck through his side. His own blade slipped from his fingers and his knees buckled beneath him.

“Such a waste, Neph. You had so much potential,” Ren sighed as he moved forward and kicked Neph’s blade out of reach. “I’ll tell you what, though, Neph. They say I don’t have mercy, but I will prove them wrong today. If you can make it back down the mountain, I will forgive your sins and forget this ever happened. Prove you are worthy of the name Delvayon.”

“Fuck you.” Neph growled as he pulled the sword from his own side. With a snarl he forced himself back to his feet and glared in defiance at his father. Wiping one hand across his face, Neph steadied himself and raised the blade shakily toward his father. “I’m not done yet.” He growled though he could feel his strength fading quickly as his blood colored the snow below him.

“It would be wiser to use that strength to crawl back down the mountain and beg forgiveness, Neph,” Kadan called from his place near the entrance to the grove.

“Leave him be,” RenDelvayon called to the surrounding guards and motioned for them to leave the grove. Turning back to his son he smiled coldly. “If only your judgment was as sound as your determination, Neph. You could have been a son I would have been proud of.”

Neph ground his teeth and willed his body to move. Raising the sword over his head he sprang at his father with every ounce of remaining strength he had. Pain shot through his limbs as the sword rang hard against metal. His father’s gauntleted hand was wrapped around the blade holding it firmly in place.

With a smile Ren twisted the blade, wrenching it from Neph’s weakened grasp, and shoved hard against his son’s chest sending him crashing back into the bloodstained snow. “Better judgment, Neph,” his father repeated as he flipped the blade around and replaced it in his scabbard. Turning, he walked back toward Kadan without another glance back. “Leave them both.”

Swallowing heavily, Neph watched as the grove emptied of people. Most wouldn’t look at him and those that did had expressions of disgust written plainly on their faces. Not even his own brother would meet his gaze.

“I didn’t want you to die with me,” Zyi whispered, her voice weaker than it had been before.

“Neither of us is going to die. I will get us out of here,” Neph mumbled as he pulled himself closer to her.

“How, Neph? Neither of us knows spells to transport yet.” Zyi’s voice was filled with despair and she sounded close to tears.

“Just give me a minute,” Neph muttered as he pulled his dagger from his boot and began to cut strips from the end of his cloak. Clumsily he wrapped his wounds as best he could and placed the dagger once more in his boot. “Ready?” he asked softly as he pulled himself to his feet once more. It took every ounce of will he had to remain silent through the wave of agony, but he wouldn’t allow himself to make a sound. She was in worse shape than he was, and he needed her to keep hope. If she knew how wounded he was she would argue with him, and he didn’t have the strength to spare for that. Carefully, he leaned over and picked her up. Pain tore through him with a wave of dizziness as fresh blood soaked his bandaged side.

“Leave me Neph,” Zyi begged as she struggled weakly for him to put her back down. “You don’t have strength enough for yourself. Taking me will just kill us both.”

“Neither of us is going to die,” Neph repeated through gritted teeth. “I will get us both down the damned mountain, and it will be the last either of us sees of Delvay. I’ll even let you decide where we go Zyi. As you said, anywhere is better than here.”

“It wouldn’t be like this if mother was still here. None of this would have happened. Why didn’t she take us with her, Neph?” Zyi muttered softly. Her head dropped limply against his chest as she spoke.

“He would have hunted for us, Zyi, and she knew it. We are his children. He never bothered to look for her, but she knew he would hunt for us. I can’t blame her for leaving after what I’ve seen today.” Neph paused and tried to force more cheer into his voice as he continued. “Maybe we will find her out there in our travels. She could be living in Sanctuary, or maybe Arovan. I’ve heard Arovan has mountains too, and she always loved the mountains.” He didn’t really believe the words as he spoke them, but maybe they would give Zyi more hope to cling to.

Their mother had left years ago, and there had been no word since. At the time it had been a betrayal in his eyes. She had abandoned them, and Neph had never wanted to see her again. Today, however, had opened his eyes to a lot he hadn’t known about his father. He had always known RenDelvayon to be cold, but he had never before seen him as cruel. He could only imagine what his mother must have endured beyond the sight of others. Despite the words he had spoken to Zyi, after today he wondered if Ren truly had let their mother go. As coldly as he had left his two children to die, Neph could well imagine Ren sending hunters after his runaway wife. It wouldn’t have been to bring her home though, and he knew it. Zyi didn’t need to think about any of that now, however, and neither did he. There were more important things for him to focus on now.

“Love you Neph,” Zyi mumbled, her words barely coherent. Her head hadn’t moved at all from where it rested against his chest and her eyes were no longer open.

“Love you too, Zyi. Now save your strength and quit talking. There will be plenty of time to talk once you are stronger,” Neph mumbled as he stared hard at the crooked path leading out of the grove. Gently he shifted Zyi’s small body in his arms and willed his feet to move forward.

It was a three hour ride from the city to this grove. He could only imagine how long it would be walking while wounded. He did his best to keep from stumbling as they left the sheltering circle of pines that surrounded the grove, but it was impossible once he was beyond the trees. The path was steep and slick with snow and loose rocks. Each slip of his foot sent agony through his body and it was all he could do to keep from making any noise. Zyi was resting as far as he could tell and as weak as she was she needed all the peace he could give her. He wasn’t sure what they had done to her beyond the dragging, but he knew she needed a healer as soon as he could reach one. Zyi was so weak that every moment he delayed might be her last. With that thought firmly in his mind, Neph forced himself to continue long past the point where his body gave up. Wounds didn’t matter; pain didn’t matter. Zyi mattered.

 

ëôéôé

 

Night was falling as Neph rounded the last corner in the path. The lights of Delvay shone brightly through the trees below him. His mind was so fogged with exhaustion that he almost giggled in relief at the sight. Carefully, he leaned back against a massive oak and it was all he could do to keep from sliding to the ground. It was the first break he had allowed himself, and it was only willpower that had kept him moving this far. His strength had failed him hours ago. Gently he shifted Zyi and her head lolled against his chest to hang limply over his arm. “Zyi,” he whispered as he moved his arm to cradle her head back against him. “Zyi,” he repeated as panic rose in his chest. Her face was lax without even the flicker of an eyelash. Fumbling, he pulled the cloak back away from her and allowed himself to slide to the ground as he pressed his fingers against her neck, desperately searching for a pulse. Her body was still warm to the touch, but there was no sign of life from her. “Zyi, please,” Neph pleaded. “Zyi, we are there. Please, just open your eyes, make a sound, damn it Zyi please.” His words poured out of him in frantic gasps as he struggled to find any signs of life in his sister.

“She is dead Neph,” Kadan’s voice was a whisper in the night, but still it froze Neph in place.

Tears were pouring down his face and he had been whining like a child. If Kadan chose to act he would have full right to kill him for his weakness. He hadn’t even heard his brother approach, and yet when he looked up, there he was looming against the twilight sky in his dark plate armor.

“Leave her body and follow me,” Kadan ordered. The expression on his face was like stone. If he felt any grief at Zyi’s passing, it wasn’t showing.

“I’m not leaving her,” Neph hissed through clenched teeth. He had managed to stop the tears, but there was nothing he could do about the tightness in his throat. They had been so close. If only he had been able to walk a bit faster. Zyi would be alive if he hadn’t been so weak.

“He will feed her body to the cats Neph. Do you want to watch that? You know what the penalty for cowardice is,” Kadan said in a level voice.

“She wasn’t a coward, Kadan!” Neph bellowed as he staggered to his feet. “Do you know how much courage it took to defy Father?” he demanded as he cradled Zyi’s limp body closer to his chest. “Do you know what kind of strength of will it took for her to beg me to leave her behind? She was willing to die alone, Kadan, and not once did she plead for help. You will not call her a coward again.”

Kadan watched him silently, his dark eyes flickering once to Zyi’s body then back to Neph’s face, his expression still neutral. He shrugged as if the point wasn’t one worth arguing over. “Say what you will about it, Neph, but Father is the one that will determine what is done with her remains, and he sees her as a coward.” The cold practical logic of Kadan’s voice burned through Neph’s mind.

“Why are you here?” Neph demanded. His temper was burning so hotly now he didn’t even consider his wounds anymore. Carefully, he sat Zyi’s body down behind him and turned to face his brother once more. Kadan was older and better trained, but Kadan was predictable in his fighting. If his brother answered poorly, Neph would guarantee he bore the scars for his words for the rest of his life.

“I was waiting for you,” Kadan explained calmly. “Father said you would die. I knew better. Technically, you have accomplished the task he set for you. You have made it back down the mountain, and I can assist you to the healer now.”

“Assist me in burying our sister, Kadan! Do that much and I might find a shred of forgiveness for you,” Neph snarled.

“I don’t seek forgiveness, Neph. I’ve done nothing wrong. You are the one that broke our laws. A coward hangs, you know that, and Ren declared her a coward,” Kadan replied with another shrug, his eyes moving past Neph to scan the forest behind them.

“I told you not to call her that,” Neph snarled as his fist slammed into his Kadan’s jaw with bone breaking force. His brother’s attention had been elsewhere, and technically it was a sucker punch, but that didn’t matter at all to him at the moment. All rational thought fled his mind as he hammered his anger into his brother’s flesh. Neph didn’t bother to defend himself when Kadan started fighting back. All that mattered was delivering punishment to his brother. He didn’t care if he was wounded further. It was their fault that she was dead. Kadan had left her to die, and Neph had failed to save her. Both of them deserved to feel pain now.

 

ëôéôé

 

“As stubborn as your mother was.” The voice echoed through his mind from what seemed like a thousand miles away. “You almost died you know,” the words continued and slowly Neph’s fogged thoughts registered the sound of Kes’ voice. A damp cloth brushed at his face and he lifted his arm feebly to brush it away. “Stop it, Neph. I’m wiping the blood from your face. Or what’s left of your face, anyway. What were you thinking, picking a fight with Kadan when you were already wounded?”

“Get away from me,” Neph mumbled as he forced his eyes open. The world blurred around him then slowly came into focus. Bright sunlight showed through the window illuminating his room in the Delvay keep. Kes frowned down at him from beside his bed, her hand poised to deliver another swipe of the wet cloth. “Get away from me!” Neph snarled with more conviction and forced himself to sit up. Pain echoed through his body. Every inch of his flesh seemed to be bruised or bleeding.

“You haven’t had a healer, Neph. You are going to tear the wounds back open. Lay back down,” Kes ordered in what had to be her best impression of a motherly voice. Her tanned face was creased with worry and he could see glassiness in her dark green eyes.

“You brought her to him. I saw you in the woods, Kes. How dare you even come near me after what happened,” Neph growled. Ignoring her words he pulled himself from the bed. His knees wobbled beneath him, but he gritted his teeth and forced himself to remain upright.

“I had no choice about that, Neph,” Kes said softly. She started to move toward him then hesitated and shook her head at him. “Please, Neph, lie back down. Lord Delvayon won’t let a healer in to see you, but he says if you live you have passed the trials.”

“Fuck his trials,” Neph snarled, his gaze searching his room for his armor.

“Neph, please lie back down. You are hurt worse than you think,” Kes repeated.

“I’m leaving,” Neph informed coldly. Staggering on his feet he moved to his closet and began to shove his travel bag full as quickly as he could.

“What? You can’t be serious, Neph. You can barely cross the room,” Kes argued as she moved up behind him and tugged at his arm trying to pull him back toward the bed. She wasn’t forceful, but the little strength she used threatened to unbalance him. Shrugging her off, Neph turned and glared at her, allowing her to see just a glimpse of the hatred he felt. With a gasp she stepped back, staring at him in shock.

“Get the hell out of my sight. I’ve never hit a woman before, Kes, but if I so much as see you again, I will kill you.” Neph spoke the words with cool promise.

“Neph, I had no choice,” Kes muttered. Fumbling, she opened the door behind her still staring at him with wide eyes.

“We all have a choice, Kes. You chose to kill my sister,” Neph snapped his eyes flashing with anger, but he knew he was in no condition to act on it now. It was taking everything he had just to pack his bag.

“Had I refused, he would have thrashed me Neph.” Kes pressed herself against the door frame her eyes intent on his every move.

“And that is the problem with Delvay. We say we kill cowards and yet everyone in this city is a fucking coward. No one speaks his mind; no one dares defy my father. You are all weak, pathetic bitches. Never again will I soften my words, and when something is wrong,” he paused and locked gazes with her, “I will act on it, despite the consequences. I will never again bow down before someone who doesn’t deserve my respect. Lord Delvayon can kiss my ass and so can the rest of this god-forsaken place. I will not return to Delvay until that bastard is dead.”

“Neph, please, I know you are angry, but he has forgiven you.” Kes’ eyes searched his face frantically as she spoke, as if she was looking for some sign of rational thought. It was clear from the expression on her face she thought he had gone mad.

“I will never forgive him, or any of you for that matter. This is not what Delvay was. We were the heroes in the past, and he has led us down a much darker path. I will keep the name Delvayon for one single purpose: to set everything right.” Glaring at her, he motioned toward the door once more. “Go,” he ordered, allowing anger and hatred to fuel the word. She fled the room without another word, confirming his thoughts about cowards. They should all hang as Zyi had.

Swinging his bag over his shoulder, Neph walked from his room and down into the main hall ignoring the staring faces that watched his progress. He had no words for any of them. They had avoided looking at him in the grove, but they all watched him now.

“Neph,” Kadan called from behind him, but he ignored his brother and continued for the door. He had one more purpose in Delvay and then he would leave and never look back, at least not while RenDelvayon lived.

Neph made his way in silence through the front gate and up the small path that led to the trial grove. Her body was still where he had left it, as he knew it would be. It was custom to leave the remains of cowards or traitors for the scavengers of the forest. He had known Kadan would leave her here, despite the fact that she had been neither.

Pulling his bag free from his shoulder he dropped it to the ground and knelt in front of her. His eyes traced over her face memorizing each detail. She had been his twin in everything. They shared the same eyes and pale hair. The only difference had been their strength. All of his life, Neph had believed he was the stronger of the two of them, but Zyi had proved him wrong. Out of everyone in the city below, she had been the only one strong enough to tell RenDelvayon “no,” and she had died for it.

Slowly he pulled his dagger from his boot and gently cut a lock free from her tangled blond hair. Wrapping it carefully around his hand he sliced the edge of his palm and let his blood run slowly down to mingle with the dried blood already staining the hair. “I’m so sorry, Zyi. I should have gone with you, or stood up to Father. I don’t really know what I should have done. I just know I should have done something.” Neph paused and stared down at the bloodstained hair. Silently he clenched his fist around it before looking back down at her body once more. “It won’t happen again, Zyi. I promise you that. From this day forward I will speak my mind and to hell with the consequences. I will not back down when I know something is wrong.” He paused and tightened his hand on the hair. “I promise you I will help those who truly deserve it, as I should have helped you Zyi.”

Footsteps on the path behind him drew his attention and Neph glanced back at two riders approaching. Letting out a slow breath, he stood and tucked the bloody strand of hair into his cloak pocket before turning to face them. He closed his eyes for a moment and willed himself back to calmness. There were so many emotions churning in his gut it was nearly impossible to keep from sobbing or screaming. Neph wasn’t sure which he truly wanted to do.

He recognized both of the riders however, and now was not the time for either.

“By our beliefs the dead do not hear our words. Once the soul has left the body it is in the hands of the Divine and no longer cares for mortal concerns.” His Aunt’s voice was calm and level as was the expression on her wind-burned face. She was younger than his father by several years, but it didn’t show in her features. KayDelvayon lived most of her life outdoors and the effects showed in her numerous scars and deeply tanned skin.

“I doubt you are here for theology lessons. Are you planning to drag me back?” Neph asked coldly.

She frowned her disapproval at his tone and shook her head, her long brown braid bumping slowly against her armor. “We are planning to help you bury your sister,” Kay explained in the same neutral voice. Turning back to her snow cat she pulled a shovel from behind the saddle and tossed it to the second rider. “Kadan start digging the hole. I need to speak with your brother for a time,”

Neph had purposely avoided looking at Kadan until that moment, but now he couldn’t help but watch in stunned amazement as his brother caught the shovel and dropped from the saddle wordlessly. Without so much as a glance in Neph’s direction Kadan set up the hill and into the woods his gaze searching the ground as he walked.

“I have nothing to say to anyone,” Neph began, but his Aunt cut him off with a sharp gesture.

“I have plenty to say to you, so shut up and listen,” Kay snapped. Turning, she searched the area until her eyes landed on a spot beneath a massive pine that was reasonably clear of rocks. With another quick gesture in his direction she made her way to the spot and dropped down into a cushion of pine needles.

“I don’t have to listen to you. I am apparently a citizen now,” Neph grumbled, but even as he spoke the words he was walking to join her. Her clear brown eyes settled on him as he sat down across from her and he could see how exhausted she was.

“I don’t have to waste my time seeking you out, either. I love you, however, so I did. You love me as well, so you will listen,” Kay said with a sigh. Her gaze trailed past him for a moment to Zyi’s body and a flicker of pain crossed her face. She shook her head sadly and met Neph’s gaze once more. “I won’t defend what your father did. I will explain it to you though,” she began.

“I don’t want you to explain it. I don’t want to think of him at all,” Neph snarled, and sat back quickly as her large palm connected squarely with the side of his head in a solid smack. Blinking he stared at her in shock. His Aunt had never raised a hand at him before, even when he had deserved it.

“I said shut up and listen, Neph. I’m tired and I have no patience for petulance. I rode all night to reach here when I heard what happened,” Kay snapped back at him. With another sigh she rubbed the fingers on the hand she had smacked him with and shook her head lightly. “Thick skulled brat,” she muttered. She shifted where she sat and adjusted her sword before continuing. “The trials have always been part of Delvay, Neph. In the beginning, however, they were only for our warriors. It wasn’t until after your Grandfather died that it was decided that everyone must be a warrior and therefore everyone must take the trial. Not everyone agreed with it, but Ren was in charge so they accepted it,”

“Cowards,” Neph grumbled, his expression filled with disgust.

“What is the penalty for treason, Neph?” Kay asked sharply her eyes narrowing.

“It varies depending on the severity, but typically it’s disembowelment and being left to the mountains,” Neph answered slowly with a frown beginning to form on his face.

“Delvay is ruled by the strongest, it always has been. To disobey or to go against a direct order of our leader is considered treason. So unless you can take Ren in a fight, you accept what he says. No one in Delvay can defeat my brother yet. You might have considered that before you spoke so harshly to Kes. She had no choice but to do what she did.” Kay’s tone had grown harsher and Neph could see the anger she was working so hard to control.

“What do you mean, yet? You think Kadan will ever take over?” Neph asked dryly and shook his head in disgust. “Kadan doesn’t have the balls to challenge father.”

“And neither did you before today, but no, I wasn’t thinking of Kadan,” Kay answered with a faint smirk staring pointedly at him.

Eyes widening Neph returned her stare until she nodded slowly. “Me?” he asked dumbly though she had already answered his question.

“My brother is a strong ruler, but he isn’t a good ruler, Neph. He is doing the best he can with what he has, though. The trials weed out the weak for several reasons and if you will be silent long enough I will let you know them.” Kay paused and watched him as he nodded for her to continue. Her gaze flicked back to Zyi once more and her anger faded to what seemed to be resignation to his eyes. “Delvay is failing Neph. Our heroes are gone and we are losing our strength. There was a time when only the best were chosen to defend Delvay. Now everyone must.”

“But if we need numbers why do we kill our children?” Neph broke in.

Kay glared at him for a long moment and rolled her eyes. “I am explaining that, Neph,” She grumbled shaking her head at him once more. “It’s two reasons mainly. We cannot show weakness to the outside world. That is why our children are not permitted to leave Delvay at all until they are past the trial. If our enemies had any indication of how weak we are now, they would march in force without hesitation. We are insular, we always have been. Now, however, it is more hiding rather than anything else.” Her words faltered and she rubbed her face. “The other reason is for future generations. Our blood is already too weak now, Neph. That is why we don’t allow commons to live amongst us. We can’t afford to weaken ourselves further. Our lands are harsh; they do not provide much. We cannot have a large population here, and we cannot force the strong amongst us to provide for those too weak to take care of themselves. Everyone must do their part, and if they are too weak to do it…” her voice trailed off and she shrugged at him.

“Zyi could have left like mother did. He could have exiled her and taken her name and then it wouldn’t have reflected back on Delvay. He didn’t have to kill her,” Neph argued a spark of his anger returning at her callous words.

“No, he couldn’t have, Neph. Do you have any idea how many children fail the trial each year?” Kay spoke gently and watched him as he shook his head slowly. “No, I didn’t think you did. Too many, Neph. As I said, Delvay is failing. How could Ren let his daughter walk away after forcing so many others to die in the trial?”

“He could have let her go when she ran away. He could have disowned her after she was gone, rather than turning his back on her after she was already on death’s doorstep,” Neph broke in once more.

“No, he couldn’t. Despite how you say no one would know where she was from, they would. All it would take is Zyi talking about her past. One little whisper to someone she trusted and soon everyone where ever she was would know she was High Lord Delvayon’s errant daughter. People gossip, Neph. I loved Zyi as much as I love you, Neph, and I grieve for her passing, but she was weak.” Kay leaned back against the Pine tree and watched him as a wave of emotions washed over him.

The desire to lash out was so strong he had to bite his own tongue. Instead, he tilted his gaze up to the pale blue sky and tried to rein in his emotions once more. Kay had always been honest with him. Some truths however were painful to hear.

“Tell him all of it Kay. Don’t let him walk out of here thinking he will find her,” Kadan’s voice broke the silence between them and Neph turned his gaze back to his brother. Slowly he looked back at Kay a frown creasing his face.

“Why won’t I find my mother if I search for her,” Neph demanded cautiously.

Kay closed her eyes for a moment then turned to glare at Kadan. “I was getting to that Kadan. I trust the grave is done?”

“It is,” Kadan agreed.

“Watch your words then or I will be digging another and you will be measuring your own work from the inside,” Kay said in a clipped voice before turning back to Neph.

“Delvay’s strength is failing Neph. Magically, you are the strongest child that has been born in the mountains in the last five hundred years. Your sister showed potential as well, but she didn’t have the strength of will that you do,” Kay began carefully.

“What does my magic strength have to do with my mother?” Neph snapped.

“You are stronger than father ever was. It’s rumored that you are stronger than my Grandfather was. You don’t show any of the weakness that is plaguing Delvay. What does that tell you Neph?” Kadan growled, drawing another glare from their Aunt.

“Kadan, I’m warning you for the last time,” Kay said levelly. Turning back to Neph she shrugged. “There is no pleasant way to explain, Neph, but what Kadan says is true. Add the fact that you were born early by nearly two weeks and the fact that your hair is blond while your mother's was chestnut and well…” Her words trailed off once more and she shrugged again.

“So, I’m not truly Delvayon?” Neph gasped his eyes flickering between the two of them.

“Your mother was a cousin of our house, so technically you do have some Delvayon blood,” Kadan offered gently.

“Well then who in the bloody hell is my true father?” Neph demanded.

“No one but your mother knew that, and no one has seen or heard from her since the night you cast your first spell at three years of age. It was strong enough to knock a hole through the keep wall, and far more powerful than any Delvay child would have been capable of. After that Ren told us all that she had run off. Most of us didn’t believe it,” Kay explained softly. She chewed on her lip for a long moment before meeting Neph’s eyes once more. “Delvay won’t stand much longer at this rate, Neph. My brother is leading us to ruin and only a few of us even realize it.”

“Are you expecting me to save it somehow?” Neph asked incredulously.

“No, I’m not expecting it, but I’m hoping that you will,” Kay answered softly. “There is no one else that is strong enough to take control from him. Go and learn, Neph, gain strength and wisdom, and consider what I’ve said today. I will pray that you return, but I will never expect it of you. The choice is entirely yours and Delvay will do as it always has and try to survive either way.” Standing slowly, she dusted her armor off and looked down at him. “Let’s see to Zyi now and make our peace with our grief,” she said softly.

“I thought it wasn’t allowed to bury those accused of cowardice? Why are the two of you helping me with this?” Neph spoke carefully to keep the anger and frustration from his voice. They were both questions that he truly wanted answered and he didn’t want to give them reason to ignore him.

“Everyone buries their dead, Neph. Most sneak out of the city to do it to avoid difficulties. No one leaves their child for the wolves, though,” Kay answered with a sigh.

Kadan simply shook his head and shrugged. “She was my sister, Neph. I do what I must to keep him happy, but I didn’t want this anymore than you did. I simply knew I wasn’t strong enough to challenge him on it. You lived, Neph, I wouldn’t have. My hopes are resting on you as much as Kay’s are,”

“I haven’t forgiven you for allowing it Kadan. You should have spoken up regardless of strength. Maybe if the two of us had stood together he would have listened.” Neph stared hard at his brother as he spoke, but Kadan didn’t so much as flinch. Instead he smiled with approval.

“I don’t expect you to ever forgive me Neph, and if you do I’ll be disappointed. I doubt I’ll ever forgive myself. Don’t expect me to say more on the topic, Neph, let it lie between us as it is. You never know when you are being watched, or by who,” Kadan turned with those words and walked silently back toward the trees where he had dug the grave.

“Fetch the body, Neph,” Kay said softly as she followed after Kadan.


 

Chapter 1

7 years later

Southern Goswin

 

The sound of footsteps rang through the early morning darkness outside his tent. Neph glanced up briefly as the regiment passed. The faint gleam of their armor was barely visible through the crack in his tent flap, but still he recognized them as Goswin forces. Turning back to his table he opened his bag and began pulling his dueling armor from its depths. The leather had been stored for nearly a year without being oiled, but it was still soft and supple and the metal studs that lined it shone as just polished. Systematically, he began removing the leather armor he typically wore, dropping it piece by piece into his travel bag. On a normal day, he wouldn’t have bothered switching his armor out. Today wasn’t normal, however. Today the odds were set so far against them it was almost laughable. He needed every edge he could get today. Jala’s life depended on it. Flipping the leather vest over, he examined the inside carefully, checking each metal stud for any sign of filth. Satisfied that it was as clean as he could make it, given the circumstances, he pulled the vest on over his scarred back. The sharp metal points jabbed into his flesh as he laced the armor on and he seized the pain in his mind.

Other channelers generally chose the elements for their focus, he however had chosen pain and the anger it bred in him. Fire could be doused and wind was a gamble. Pain, however, was always in ready supply, either from his armor or simply from the world itself. Sanctuary was filled with pain, and Neph had never had difficulty summoning anger. His focus was as constant as the sun and sky and had never failed him.

He laced the bracers on next, followed by his gloves. Each piece of armor bit at his skin, the pain more an irritation than anything else. Over the years, he had developed a pain tolerance that would have impressed any masochist. Today, however, he needed more than irritation. He needed to channel everything he could. Flexing his hands, he tested the spikes digging into the back of his arms and inhaled deeply. A small smile spread across his lips as he slammed his two arms together driving the spikes deep into his flesh. Agony tore through him and he seized it, opening the full channel to his magic. His reserves soared as his focus narrowed on the pain.

“I finally see why you have such a sunny personality,” Shade’s voice whispered from the tent flap and Neph turned to glower at him.

“What do you want?” Neph snarled as he shoved the rest of his discarded armor into his bag. It was bad enough having Madren in the camp, but Shade Morcaillo was almost too much for him to stomach. Shade weighed every action on a moral scale before doing anything. He had actually had the audacity to argue against going to Arovan. It had been a combination of Neph’s reminding Madren that he wouldn’t have a country to protect if not for Jala and plain intimidation that finally decided the matter.

“Madren sent me to get you. He says the witches are ready to begin the portal and well…” Shade paused and smirked at Neph. “You scare the hell out of him, so he sent me to get you. Probably a good thing, too, if he had seen you pounding spikes into your skin, he might have fainted. May I ask why, exactly, you did that and how, exactly, you intend to shroud the entire portal spell? According to Madren you are going to hide the entire army from the Rivasan mages and I frankly think it’s bullshit.”

“No, you can’t ask, and I don’t give a shit what you think,” Neph growled as he pulled the bag over his shoulder and shoved his way past Shade and into the chill of the early spring morning. The sun was just beginning to show itself for the day, which meant he didn’t have much time. The Rivasans were giving Jala until morning before they attacked, and if they were literal in their words they could already be beginning the assault. There was no help for it, though. The preparations had taken most of the night. It had been a chore in itself to gather the Delvay and prepare them. Most had no stomach for fighting after their failure to protect their own homeland. Once again, Neph had called upon intimidation and his pathetically small army had gathered and prepared.

The Goswin forces had been the time-consuming part. Madren simply didn’t have the temperament to bully his forces and the debate on his side over whether they should actually participate in the battle had taken hours. It likely could have been decided much sooner had Shade simply kept his mouth shut, but then as long as Neph had known Shade the man had never been very good at that. For every action, every choice, and every dream, Shade Morcaillo had an opinion and it was usually opposing whatever was suggested by others.

“I haven’t given up talking him out of this, you know,” Shade began conversationally as they crossed the camp.

“If you succeed, I will personally rip you apart. I thought you were supposed to be Jala’s friend,” Neph responded coldly.

“I am. That’s why I’m trying to respect her decision. She sent you here to live, not to run back to die,” Shade said, firmly repeating words that Neph was utterly sick of hearing. It had been the same argument all night.

Stopping in his tracks, Neph whirled on Shade and stepped closer to him. Staring down hard at the smaller man, Neph summoned his darkest glare and almost smiled when the slighter man simply stared back up at him without the slightest hint of nerves. While it would have been nice if Shade would have cowered like everyone else did when they glimpsed his temper, Neph had to give the boy credit for his nerves. Even if he was a self-righteous prick with too many opinions, Shade Morcaillo did have spine.

“This might actually work on others, Neph, but it isn’t working on me. I can be intimidated, but it takes someone a hell of a lot scarier than you. Vaze might have been able to do it. You want to call him back?” Shade offered in the same conversational voice.

“Vaze has more important things to do than silence you. He is summoning the other nations to support Jala, which leaves me the task of shutting you the hell up. So let’s see if I can actually accomplish that, Shade,” Neph began his voice low and filled with warning.

“Doubtful, but you are welcome to try,” Shade sighed with a slight shrug and stared back up at Neph matching his glower with a curious relaxed expression.

“We are going through the portal, and we are going to help Jala. I know she wants us to live. It’s possible she wants us to live almost as much as I want her to live, Shade. The key to friendship is you respect their wishes when you know their choice is the right one. Jala’s isn’t, so I’m not respecting it. Jala chose to sacrifice herself to save others,” Neph paused and shook his head at Shade. “The problem with that is, she needs to live to save others. Without her, everything falls apart, Shade. Look at who has rallied behind her. She has Soulreavers and Arovan working together for the love of the Divine. She has dragons at her call and the Firym on her side. Even Oblivion calls her friend. No one else could do that. She has me willing to die for her, Shade. I wouldn’t die for my own bloodkin. Jala Merrodin is the linchpin that could hold everything together and possibly stop the endless wars, and she is about to die. Salvation for all of our people is at hand, and you want to let it slip away. I don’t care if every man and woman I take through that portal dies, as long as Jala lives. I will see this world become a better place, Shade, and Jala is the key.” Neph paused in his words again and stepped closer to Shade until they stood barely inches apart. He let his glower fade and stared hard at Shade, willing him to see past the anger to see the pure conviction in his eyes. “We are going through that portal and we are going to do everything in our power to see that Jala Merrodin lives and if you get in my way one more time on this, Shade, I will kill you. When I kill someone there is no coming back. I’m not blustering, I’m not threatening, I’m promising you. Not even Rose will be able to call your soul back if you open your mouth one more time to say we should let Jala die. Are we clear?”

“So the spikes in your armor are your focus isn’t it? Pain as a focus, that’s pretty clever,” Shade murmured with interest and patted Neph lightly on the shoulder before stepping around him. “Well said, Neph, you should have explained it that way last night. We are wasting time, you know. The Witches have been ready to open the portal for about twenty minutes now. I’m sure they are tired of waiting,” Shade called over his shoulder as he strolled off toward the center of camp.

“If the Rivasans don’t kill him today, I’m going to kill him myself,” Neph growled as he followed after the rogue trying desperately to ignore the jaunty tune Shade was whistling.

 

ëôéôé

 

“How long can you hold the shroud over us?” Shade asked softly, his eyes locked on the distant Rivasan forces.

“For as long as I need to,” Neph replied quietly. The relief at seeing the Rivasan forces still preparing for their assault had been so overwhelming he had nearly smiled. Given his current company, though, that would have been a horrible idea. Both Madren and Shade would have gotten the wrong impression and likely not even the Divine could have silenced their chatter had he shown anything resembling good humor.

“Look at how many there are. I have to admit I’m terrified,” Madren whispered from his other side. Madren fidgeted in place and turned to look at Neph. “Aren’t you scared?” he asked.

“No,” Neph answered firmly and let out a sigh. From what he could tell the Rivasans were about to make their first charge. That in itself would be a blessing. He’d much rather be fighting than listening to either of his companions. He tried his best to ignore Madren’s stare but finally sighed and looked over at the smaller man.

“Truly?” Madren asked, once he knew he had Neph’s full attention. His gaze locked on Neph with an intensity that was unnerving. Madren shook his head in amazement when Neph answered with a simple shrug and looked truly shocked. “If I were you, I’d be witless with terror. I mean you are a complete and total asshole, Neph. I don’t know anyone that is a bigger ass than you. Even the Rivasans are nicer. There is no way you will escape penance in hell. There are probably demons in the Darklands that have committed fewer sins than you. If you die, you are going to be condemned for decades. I mean, I’ve seen you kill people for getting in your way. Hell you killed two people last night and I don’t even know why. I will probably just pass on through the life stream and begin a new life, but you are completely screwed, Neph. I can’t believe you aren’t terrified. To think of the endless torments you will face in the afterlife makes my skin crawl. I mean, they say you have to serve five years penance for every drop of innocent blood you shed. If that’s true you will never see sunlight again, Neph.” The sincerity in the man’s expression and voice was so overwhelming that Neph couldn’t decide if he wanted to laugh or choke the little bastard in response, so he settled for simply glaring at Madren.

“Uh, Madren, you are getting kind of loud with your tirade,” Shade broke in and it was obvious from his tone he was struggling to contain laughter.

Neph continued to glower at Madren for another long moment before turning his attention back to the Rivasan forces. They were sending front lines forward and by the look of the soldiers they were planning to open with Hellfire. It was a typical Rivasan attack and Neph had no doubt that Valor would have Jala more than prepared for the tactic. His muscles tensed as the first wave of fire washed through the valley to pour over Jala’s forces. “That’s it, when they move for the third wave, we hit them hard on the flank,” Neph said firmly as he turned back to join his own forces. A long wavering note faint on the wind gave him pause and he turned his head to stare in the direction it had come from. The noise was similar to a wolf’s howl and it brought a smile to his face.

“What in the name of the Divine was that?” Madren hissed, his gaze moving from Shade to Neph.

“Glis battle horns. The Shifters will be here soon and I’d wager Arovan rides beside them. Help is on the way, girls, so you can quit your trembling,” Neph answered, the satisfaction clear in his voice. With the smile still firm on his face, he swung up onto his snow cat and glanced back at his ranks. For a Delvay force, his numbers were pathetic. Kadan had sacrificed nearly everyone in Delvay trying to hold the capitol. Neph couldn’t blame him for it, though. Without their Capitol, Delvay had no hope whatsoever.

“Good luck on the ground,” Shade said with a sigh and turned to leave the small stand of trees they had chosen as cover.

“You aren’t fighting with us?” Madren asked, turning to watch Shade go with a look of bewilderment.

“There are dragons on the field. I’m going to be fighting where I function the best,” Shade answered as he tossed a storage gem into the air and caught it. Looking back at them he smiled and winked at Madren. “I will be looking out for you from above,” he promised as he tossed the gem once more and caught it lightly.

“I’ll be praying a dragon manages to swallow your ship,” Neph replied, his gaze already back on the battlefield. From what he could tell, Jala had managed to keep the Hellfire from reaching any of her forces.

“And I’ll hope like hell that if that happens, the bastard chokes on my ship and falls on you,” Shade called back faintly, his form already disappearing into the ranks of waiting soldiers.

“I hope everyone I fight beside lives,” Madren said quietly and glanced at Neph. “Even the complete assholes,” he added softly.

“If you were hoping for something sentimental from me in return you are wasting your breath,” Neph grumbled without bothering to glance at Madren. His focus was fully on the Rivasan forces. “Get on your horse, Madren, and get your men ready to charge. We have Rivasans to kill,” Neph ordered quietly.

“She must be impressive,” his Aunt’s voice rose from the ranks beside him and Neph turned to look at her. She was the only family he had left amongst the living, and the only one in his family that he had ever truly respected. To see KayDelvayon still amongst the living when he had arrived in Goswin was a blessing from the Divine in his eyes. Without her help, he would have found the process of taking over leadership of his people a much bloodier affair than it had been. So far he had only had to kill two men for challenging him. Without Kay’s support, the number would have been much higher and he knew it.

“Jala? She is, but you will see for yourself after the fight,” Neph agreed his gaze moving back to the field.

“We are horribly outnumbered here, Neph. Are you sure we will see anything after the fight?” Kay asked. Her voice was steady, though, with no sign of fear in it.

“We will win today,” Neph replied firmly, his eyes searching for Jala, though he knew it was a useless endeavor. He had no hope of spotting her in the valley she had chosen to make her stand. His muscles tensed as the Rivasans launched another wave of fire into the mouth of the valley and he dropped the shroud of magic he had been holding over his small forces. “Now!” He bellowed, his voice ringing clearly through the entire grove. His heels dug deeply into the side of his snow cat and the beast launched forward in a powerful leap. Battle cries rang out on all sides as the men and women of Delvay followed him.

The Rivasan forces wheeled to meet the charge, though by the expression on their faces they had not expected the attack at all. The lines he was hitting now were reserves, and given how badly the Rivasans outnumbered Jala’s forces, Neph guessed these men hadn’t thought they would see fighting at all today. He smiled at the thought of proving them wrong. The Rivasans had barely managed to get their shields up and their swords drawn as the combined might of Delvay and Goswin slammed into them. The Rivasan lines bowed dangerously, but somehow they managed to hold, and Neph found himself packed in the middle of tight lines with chaos surrounding him on all sides. Gritting his teeth he pulled on his magic to speed his attacks. His sword flashed in and out of the fight as he seized every opportunity for a clean strike. In truth his mount was likely doing more damage than he was at the moment, but then that was what the creatures were bred for. The Snow Cats of Delvay were legendary for their savagery in battle.

A distant cry across the field drew his attention for a bare breath and he glanced up long enough to see Flameriders pouring through the Hellfire the Rivasans had summoned. Hope rose in his chest as the odds against them lessened and he returned to the fight with enthusiasm. Blood sprayed across his cheek as a Delvay rider beside him fell and he hastily tightened the lines and pushed forward to take up the slack from his fallen comrade.

“You just need to hold the lines for a few more minutes.” The voice beside him was an unfamiliar one though it was obvious the man was talking to him. “Oblivion will be hitting from the other flank very soon, NephonDelvayon. Hold these lines just a bit longer and then you must get to Jala,” the man continued. He was slight of build, though the muscles on his wiry frame showed he was no stranger to fighting. His armor was mismatched, with chain and plate and even places of nothing more than leather, but his bearing was that of a seasoned warrior. Despite his ragged appearance, the red-haired man was obviously no stranger to battle. He glanced over at Neph and winked. “Watch out,” he called with a smile.

Turning back quickly, Neph barely registered the outline of the sword plunging toward his face before another thinner silvery blade blocked the attack. Eyes widening, Neph glanced down at the slender blond haired man who had saved his life. Neither of them had traveled through the Goswin portal with him. This man, however, Neph recognized. He had seen him once before when the man had been struggling to talk Jala out of her quest into the Darklands. Neph had watched in mute silence as Jala had turned her back on the man and renounced her faith. His name was Fortune, and this was the last place he should have been.

“Get your head back in the fight, Nephon, we are depending on you,” the first man called as his blade flashed forward again, dropping two Rivasans to the blood soaked earth.

The sound of battle horns from behind him rang out through the trees and Fortune laughed as the musical notes faded. “They will clear the path for you soon, Neph. Be ready. Jala is in more danger than you know. She needs you at her side.”

“Faydwer?” Neph stammered stupidly glancing to his side for confirmation, but both men were gone and it took all of his attention to stem the flow of Rivasans pressing forward into the gaps in his lines.

“What in the name of the Divine,” Kay gasped beside him as they managed to push the Rivasans back, giving themselves a much needed moment of rest. At first Neph thought she had witnessed the presence of the Divine as he had, but quickly realized her attention was across the field. The sky had darkened in the north and lightning lit the clouds beyond the battle field. Her gaze, however, was on the single rider charging toward the Rivasan lines. His armor was black as was his horse and it only took a moment for Neph to recognize him as Zachary Dark of Oblivion. “Is he mad? He is charging alone,” Kay hissed, her gaze dropping back to their own battle as the Rivasans pressed forward again.

“He isn’t alone,” Neph replied, his eyes moving past the Oblivion knight to the dark figure standing just beyond the battlefield and barely visible against the darkening sky. The man’s ragged black cloak was stretched taut in the storm winds and his black armor flashed in the lightning beyond him. Neph pulled his attention away from the Aspect of Destruction as he raised his hands to the battlefield beyond and the black inky shapes of Harvesters began to rise from the ground surrounding Zachary’s charge. Where a single knight rode moments before, an army now ran, and from the bloodthirsty cries echoing across the field, the damned souls of Oblivion were more than ready for the fight.

A snarl from his snow cat brought his attention fully back to his own problems and Neph quickly dispatched the Rivasan that had managed to score a wound across his cat’s side. The Faydwer battle horns sounded behind him again and from the pitch they were much closer. “Firym is here and Oblivion, and by the looks of those storm clouds, Arovan and Glis will arrive at any moment. Faydwer is closing from behind us. We will make it through this, Kay.” Neph gasped the words out between sword blows and edged his cat closer to his Aunt to strengthen their lines. He fought against the desire to gaze across the field. The words of the Divine had left his gut churning with concern for Jala, but there was nothing he could do about it yet. The sound of charging hooves behind him grew louder and he tensed. “A path will be open soon,” he whispered to himself, wondering how exactly the Faydwer were going to open a path through the bloody mess before him. Even with the other allied forces joining the fight, the Rivasans were still standing strong on the field.

A light hum hissed through the air beside him as the earth began to tremble behind them. Two arrows drove into the Rivasans closest to Neph, knocking them back savagely. The shots were well placed and buried to the shaft. Both men were dead before they hit the ground. “Wisp,” Neph grinned as he spoke the name, his attention flickering from the purple and white fletching on the arrows to the trembling ground behind him.

“What the hell are they doing? We are going to be trapped between that rise of earth and the damned Rivasans,” Kay snarled as the ground behind them bucked and rose to form a solid wall behind them.

Three more arrows pegged into Rivasans, each bearing the purple and white fletching and Neph whispered silent thanks to the Fae and used the moment of peace she had given him to frantically search the field for Jala. The Merrodin forces had moved beyond the valley now, and he could see Valor among the Firym pushing the Rivasans back, but there was no sign of Jala.

The hoof beats grew thunderous behind him and the ground shook with the force of it as the first of the Faydwer knights reached the battle. Shadows darkened the ground around him as a massive white horse launched himself from the newly risen earth behind him and Neph barely managed to dodge as a slender form dropped from the back of the warhorse to land beside him. More horses leaped gracefully over the ledge, their riders striking with deadly grace as the beasts landed in the Rivasan ranks.

Wisp stood gracefully from her crouch as she landed, her bow already thrumming with more arrows as she fired with perfect accuracy into the Rivasan ranks ahead of them. Glancing over, she smiled and winked up at Neph. “Sorry I’m late,” Wisp called cheerfully, her musical voice barely audible over the pounding hooves.

The field before them was cleared of Rivasans as the Faydwer ranks plowed through, scattering their lines. “Are you going to let the god damned pixies out-fight you?” Neph bellowed to his own forces as he grinned down at Wisp. “Thank you,” he said in a voice just loud enough for her ears. “I have to get to Jala now, Wisp,” he added, his gaze moving once more to the valley as he pressed his cat forward.

“We will clear a path, then,” Wisp responded and raised a hand over her head. More shadows darkened the ground as Faydwer archers moved forward along the earth bank behind him. Wisp dropped her hand motioning toward the valley and the archers began their deadly rain of arrows without hesitation. Somewhere beyond their range of fighting the scream of a dragon rose on the air and Wisp shook her head at him frowning. “My archers can clear the Rivasans but there is nothing Faydwer can do against dragons.

“We will have to hope that Jala brought her own dragons then, or that Shade can handle them with his Spell Hawk. I’ve seen him strafe the field a few times, but it wasn’t against anything scaly,” Neph replied quickly as he offered a hand down to Wisp to pull her onto the cat behind him. “You have command here Kay. I have to get to Jala,” Neph yelled back over his shoulder as he pushed his cat forward into the clearing the Faydwer charge had created. It was a risky maneuver. It wouldn’t be long before the Rivasans closed ranks again and then they would be surrounded by enemies, but he didn’t have a choice. Bright light flashed from the mouth of the valley and Neph’s attention snapped in that direction.

“What spell is that?” Wisp gasped behind him, her bow still thrumming as she peppered the enemies ahead of them with arrows.

“That’s not a spell. That is raw magic and way too much of it,” Neph replied hoarsely. “Jala, what have you done,” he whispered, his mind filling with dread. The sound of the battle faded around him as his focus narrowed on the magic and he pushed the cat forward faster. He had to reach her now. That was more magic than even he could handle and he knew his reserves were larger than Jala’s. That much power would rip any mage apart unless he could reach her and somehow redirect it.

“Can you use magic to transport us?” Wisp asked, her voice filled with concern.

Neph shook his head savagely and motioned with a free hand toward the chaos of the battlefield. “Too many moving objects here, Wisp. I couldn’t find a free place to set us down that would be close enough to her to help. We have to cross this shit,” Neph answered loudly. The Rivasans were closing in around them and the noise of battle was growing so loud words were almost impossible.

A cheer rose from the inner ranks of the enemy and Neph’s cat slid to a stop as a massive form rose from the center of the field. “Oh shit,” Neph hissed as the dragon rose to its full height and unfurled its immense wings. Its scales were the deep red of drying blood and by its sheer size there was only one dragon it could be. “That is Nerath himself,” Neph gasped. The dragon twisted his tail, lashing, and the screams of horses shattered the air as the Faydwer forces were scattered by the attack.

“You have to do something, Neph!” Wisp screamed behind him.

“That is the dragon that killed my grandfather, Wisp. He is a legend. His own damned country is named after him. What do you propose I do?” Neph snarled back. He could see his allies scattering back from the field and knew the battle was swiftly turning against them. Someone definitely needed to do something soon, but he wasn’t sure what.

“I think you should kill it before it kills my brother!” Wisp snapped, her hand smacking directly into his back, driving the spikes of his vest deep into his flesh. Pain flared and Neph seized it, channeling the magic into a spell. The wind around his cat rose viciously as his magic tore through the Rivasans that had been closing on them, tearing flesh and armor alike to shreds. “Pain is still your focus to channel, isn’t it Neph?” Wisp demanded loudly.

“Yes,” Neph growled through clenched teeth as he readied another spell.

Agony ripped through his leg and he nearly lost the spell. Glancing down he stared hard at the dagger protruding from his thigh and then back at Wisp who was glaring at him. “What the fuck!” He demanded as he unleashed his newest wave of destruction on the Rivasans.

“Focus and Channel and kill that damn dragon!” Wisp ordered sharply, her slender hand rising quickly to point at Nerath.

Neph started to answer as another sound rose on the wind and his heart lurched painfully in his chest. It was a scream and he knew the sound of that voice as clearly as he knew his own. By all rights he shouldn’t have been able to hear her so clearly from across the battlefield. It was filled with complete agony and it was rising from Jala. It was a sound that couldn’t be mimicked and he had fought enough duels and seen enough battles to recognize it for what it truly was. It was a death cry.

For the second time in his life, he hadn’t been strong enough, and someone he loved was dying because of it. Pain and anger rose in his chest and he felt something snap inside. He couldn’t say if it had been in his mind or in his heart, but magic roared in his ears. Every muscle in this body thrummed with power and the only spells that rose in his mind were the forbidden ones. The penalties for Death magic no longer seemed important, however. The only thing that mattered was punishing his enemies. First, however, he had to get rid of the damned dragon. Turning slowly in his saddle, Neph regarded the creature, his gaze narrowing as he studied the ancient magics that protected it. Wards were nothing to the forbidden magic. He had spells that would eat through the protection as easily as they destroyed flesh. Never before had he been willing to unleash them, however. According to the magic lore, there were seventeen ways to kill with magic that would utterly destroy a creature with no hope of returning to life or the life stream. Neph knew twelve of them, and he intended to use all of them today.

“Neph, what is wrong with you?” Wisp gasped, as she dropped quickly off the back of his cat, her eyes wide as she stared up at him.

Neph glanced from her to the shroud of dark magic that covered him, rising like shadowed flames from his skin. He didn’t bother to answer her question and he ignored the look of fear on Wisp’s face as he began to chant softly in a language that had been dead for centuries, speaking the words of a spell that had been forbidden even longer. The Dragon’s battle cries turned to roars of agony as the first of his magics wrapped around the creature. To the naked eye it looked like no more than shadows covering the deep red scales, but Neph knew the truth of it. Each tendril of darkness was driving down through the creature, burrowing into muscle and bone alike and twisting. He continued to chant and the dragon writhed as his spell literally ripped it apart from the inside, piece by piece. This was simply the first stage of the spell designed to immobilize the victim, the next stage would target the mind and then finally the soul. By the time he was done, there would be nothing left of Nerath the red beyond whispered tales of his demise.

 

ëôéôé

 

Everywhere he looked was destruction. The smell of burnt flesh and blood saturated the air so fully that even when he closed his eyes, he could still see the battlefield clearly in his mind. Corpses covered the ground before him, but Neph didn’t spare them a glance as he crossed the last stretch of the field that separated him from where Jala had fallen.

A crowd had gathered in that area and they all watched him in silence with expressions of suspicion on their faces as he approached. The last of the battle was a blur in his mind. He knew he had called on more magic in those few minutes than he had in his entire life, and all of it had been dark. There would be an accounting for it, he was sure. Regardless of how he had used the magic, it was forbidden magic, and even his allies would want him punished for it.

That could wait, though. He would face it without fear later, after he had seen Jala, or what remained of her. The crowd parted as he continued and Neph could feel their gazes on him, but his focus was on the path ahead. The ground where she had been standing was charred black and cracked from the heat of the magic she had channeled, but there was no sign of her body. It was possible that nothing remained but ashes, but he didn’t think so.

Neph paused at the edge of the burnt ground and scanned the area until he spotted the massive forms of the Bendazzi crouched in front of a tent deeper in the valley where Jala had been camped. Slowly he began moving that way, his gaze lingering on Marrow’s powerful white form. The fact that the Bendazzi was still alive gave him hope. Marrow was a Familiar and by the laws of magic he should have died with Jala.

“It’s no use, Neph, the Bendazzi won’t let anyone near that tent,” Shade called as he approached. Neph hadn’t even noticed Shade in the mingling crowd, and pretended as though he still hadn’t. He had no desire to speak to anyone now, and not even the Bendazzi would stop him from seeing her.

Both cats did appear to be ready to attack, but Neph didn’t slow his steps. His hand dropped to the top of Marrow’s head as his other hand pulled back the tent flap and he lightly brushed his fingers through the thick plush fur. “If anything can be done, Marrow, I will do it,” Neph promised quietly as he stepped inside the dark tent.

It took only a breath for his eyes to adjust to the dim light and only a second more for him to spot Valor sitting near the back of the tent with her body cradled in his arms. The knight had wrapped her in is battle stained cloak and was holding her tight against his chest. His head was bowed. Neph couldn’t see the expression on his face, but he could tell the man was sobbing by the way his shoulders silently shook. Crossing silently to where Valor sat, Neph crouched down beside the man and slowly sat down cross-legged. He could tell by the stillness of her form that she was dead, but for the Elder Blood that didn’t always mean the end. He needed to see how bad the damage was, but couldn’t even get a glimpse of her flesh with the way Valor had her shrouded and clutched so tightly to him.

“Val,” Neph began softly, his tone as gentle as he could make it. “I want to help, Val, but I need to see her so I know what can be done.”

Valor shook his head slightly in denial and refused to look up from where his face was buried in the filthy cloak. “You will say the same as the rest of them. They say she is dead and she isn’t. She will return. I’ve seen her do it before, Neph. I just have to keep faith and pray. She isn’t dead.” Valor’s voice was ragged with grief and by the tone alone Neph could tell how close he was to snapping.

“Valor, you know I will do anything I can to help her. If you are right and she isn’t dead then it will be easier if I can help mend the body for her to return,” Neph pressed. He knew it was false hope he was feeding Valor, but there was not much else he could do. From the amount of raw magic he had sensed, Jala’s body was likely damaged beyond repair, but he wasn’t sure Valor was stable enough to hear that now. Still, he had seen Jala do things no one else would ever have been capable of. He felt a flicker of hope rise in his chest at the thought that Valor could be right, and carefully contained it. He couldn’t allow it to grow in his mind until he saw the body. The disappointment would be too bitter to bear if Valor was wrong.

“If you want to help, Neph, then pray. I tried to tell them that when they tried to take her body. They want to bury her, Neph, and they can’t. She isn’t dead!” Valor’s voice rose as he spoke and he slowly looked up to meet Neph’s eyes. “She isn’t dead, Neph, no matter what she looks like now, or what they say, she isn’t,” he insisted. His blue eyes were bloodshot and Neph could see a faint gleam to them that spoke of madness. “Everything we’ve done, everything we’ve suffered, it doesn’t end like this Neph. I won’t let it. We have to have faith.” His words grew slurred as more tears flowed down his face and he shook his head again pulling her body closer to him.

The cloak pulled away as Valor moved her and one pale arm fell limply to the ground. The skin was cracked and burned in places and still glowed faintly with magic deep within her body. Slowly, Neph leaned forward and lifted her hand, examining the rents in the skin. Gold dust drifted slowly down to the dirt below her as he brushed a thumb across the wound. The magic had burned so hotly within her that it had dried the blood in her veins.

It was as he had feared, and no matter what Valor said there was no coming back to this body. With the magic still coursing so strongly through her damaged frame there would be no way to use magic to heal the wounds, and as damaged as she was, her soul would not remain even if Ash himself called it back. His thumb brushed once more across what remained of her hand and he felt his own eyes brimming with tears. He didn’t have the words to explain any of this to Valor without risking what was left of his sanity. Truthfully, he wasn’t too sure about his own state of mind at the moment. He wanted to sob like a child and scream at the same time. They had been so close, a breath from victory, and then fate had stolen her from them.

Leaning forward he carefully tucked her hand back under the cloak and sat back once more. Resting his elbows on his knees, Neph leaned forward and covered his face with his hands. His anger was gone and his pain was fading to despair. He was drained physically, emotionally, and magically, and he simply didn’t care. There was no longer anything worth fighting for and no reason to get back up again. The world was shit and that was that. How could he find the words to save Valor, when he didn’t know how to save himself.

“You aren’t praying, Neph,” Valor whispered and the sound of his voice pulled Neph back from the darkness his mind had been retreating to.

“I’m not sure exactly who to pray to on this, Valor,” Neph admitted quietly.

“Pray to her, Neph. Put all of your faith in Jala,” Valor replied without hesitation.

“Val, she had the blood of the Divine, but she wasn’t a god. She can’t hear prayers as they do,” Neph informed him gently as he slowly slid his hands down his face and stared at the lifeless body.

“Look back on everything she has done, Neph, and say that again,” Valor snapped, his head rising once more. The gleam was stronger in Valor’s eyes and Neph wondered if he truly would recover, once he moved past his denial. Neph had known the man loved Jala, and was utterly devoted to her, but he had never guessed how deeply those emotions ran.

Exhaling slowly, Neph leaned forward and pulled the cloak back from Jala before Valor could stop him. Her face was as cracked as the skin on her arm had been and her beautiful violet eyes were completely burned away. The magic within her pulsed slowly, giving off faint light and Neph shook his head slowly. There was no way to soften what had to be said, and the sooner it was done the better. Both of them needed to face that fact and try to move on. Despite how much Neph wanted to give up now, he couldn’t, neither of them could. They both had responsibilities in the world beyond. “Valor this body is broken and Jala is gone. Even a god couldn’t remain in a form this damaged. Look at her, Valor! Look at the glow of the magic, damn it. Even you can see it. I know you can!” Neph snapped, his words breaking on the last words as his throat tightened. “You have to let her go and so do I, damn it. This does no good for either of us.” The last words came out more of a sob than anything else and Neph let his arm fall back to his lap heavily as tears coursed down his face.

“Marrow still lives!” Valor snarled, his hand flying up to point at the shadow of the Bendazzi through the tent. “If Jala was truly dead, her Familiar would be dead! You are supposed to be the one that believes so strongly in the gods, Neph. Why is it so hard for you to have faith in her?” he demanded.

“Because she wasn’t a god, Valor. She was my friend, she was our leader, and she was truly a Dasharran, but she wasn’t a god. Valor, she channeled enough magic to kill anyone. That much raw power would have destroyed her soul as much as her body. Please let her go,” Neph pleaded. He wasn’t even sure why he was wasting so much energy on the knight. Valor had never been a close friend of his, but he had meant so much to Jala. Perhaps in some twisted fashion, he believed that saving Valor would be a last service to her. Perhaps if he could just save Valor, it would somehow redeem him for failing her.

“I can’t. If I let her go, then I have nothing left. They took my family and they destroyed my home. If I give up on Jala, I have nothing left. It doesn’t end like this, Neph. They don’t win. I won’t let them.” Valor spoke in a broken whisper and shook his head slowly in further denial.

“Merrodin is your home now, and it still stands. They didn’t win, Valor, we did. You may have lost your brother and sister in this, Valor, but you still have your parents. Which is more then Legacy can say. Finn may have sired him, Valor, but you were the closest thing he had to a father. You read to him, you played with him, and you comforted him when Jala couldn’t. You say you have nothing. I say you aren’t looking hard enough. Let her go, Valor, and go back to Merrodin. You are the only one that can help that child right now.” Neph let the words pour out of him in a final attempt. If the mention of Legacy didn’t pull Valor back from the brink, he truly didn’t know what would.

“If I believe Jala is dead, then they have won.” Valor spoke the words so quietly that Neph almost didn’t hear him. Slowly, the knight looked down at the broken body in his arms and nodded. “You are right, though. She will need a new body. I’ve seen her create them before in Goswin. They can bury this.” His voice was faint and the words stilted as he carefully lowered Jala’s remains to the ground. He stood slowly and unsteadily and nodded down at Neph. “You are right. Legacy does need me, and I need him. He will have faith.” With those final words, Valor left the tent. Neph watched him go in silence and wondered if there was anything left to the man’s sanity at all. Shaking his head slowly, he gathered Jala’s remains in the cloak and stood. They would want to give her a hero’s burial, and the sooner that was done the sooner he could leave Arovan. He would stay long enough for the ceremony and gather his wounded, but no longer. Without Jala, everything would be falling apart again very soon, and he needed to reclaim his homeland before it did. The Rivasans still held Delvay, and it would take all of his remaining strength to win it back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2011, 2012 Melissa Myers
All rights reserved, photos are the property of Melissa Myers