“The Prince should be dead by now,” a priest murmured, smirking at the chambers that laid in devastation, furniture scattered across the large gaps between the few standing walls. A second priest called forth his lightning scouts—small, purple, glowing specks—sending them through the ruins of the Tilia Palace, leaving imperceptible trails back to his fingers.
All screams of anguish had ceased. The palace’s three-story west wing had crumbled into a heap of crushed rubble only a few feet tall. Still aflame, the building’s east wing belched curls of black smoke into the night air. No signs of life could be detected. Deathly silence had replaced the pleas of the doomed in the home of Queen Elizabeth.
Crunching the wreckage beneath their boots, the priests moved to leave while their scouts drifted toward the central span, drawing into one another to form a faint purple orb, searching and moving toward the great hall. Once hailed as the most beautiful room in all the kingdom, it was now torqued into a grotesque battlefield. The collapsed glass ceiling lay strewn in bloodied pieces across the floor, perforating the malformed carcasses of several combatants.
The scouting orb slowed as it approached the last soul stubbornly clinging to life in the palace where one hundred had defended against more than four hundred assailants. The palace’s keepers had mustered a stiffer resistance than expected and forced the Order to an unanticipated draw. Still, the disproportionate slaughter of their votaries didn't matter; it was all for the Glory of the Chosen.
Despite his weakened state, the last living knight in the palace detected the lightning orb. -Swoosh- He destroyed it with a summoned gust of wind.
But the scouts had already fulfilled its purpose: it verified the knight would soon be dead. The bundle he’d protected no longer held any sign of life. The goal was accomplished. The palace’s reinforcements were coming, and the priests must not be caught.
◆ ◇ ◇
After a long night of combat, the knight lay dying in the great hall.
There was a mash of bone and flesh where Anwn Sargon’s left leg should have been, and he knew he had lost too much blood. His only solace was the altar of bodies he had created out of the enemies who’d dared harm his loved ones. His elemental summons had consumed all the basswood trees previously covering the palace grounds. Remnants of the invocation stuck out as jagged lances from the bodies of the invaders. Pieces of quills drilled deep into the hearts and neck of the corpses that never made it past the front courtyard.
“You did well.” A familiar voice trembled nearby.
“Your Highness.” Anwn lowered his sword at the voice of his King. He could finally relax. It was time. The elemental energy used to force his body into compliance started to fade, allowing fatigue and the invading poison to take over. -Clang- His sword hit the red-soaked marble floor. He relaxed his other hand too, releasing the bundle he used to draw the raiders’ focus, feigning that the cluster of vines wrapped around a cat’s limp body was more precious than his own life.
“I...I couldn’t save her,” Anwn cried. There would be tears if his eyes and face weren't already mutilated—caked with blood. “You have to save...in the wardrobe...underground...”
“Your Highness shouldn’t touch him.” Another familiar voice echoed in the gloom as Anwn’s senses fled him. “The poison might spread.”
“Father.” Anwn recognizing the new voice. “Protect the Prince...” His head slacked as his mind drifted into the darkness. <The Prince is safe now. Elizabeth will be waiting for me. She never liked being alone.>
In the Capital City of Forknowl, the orchestrator received word. The Order of the Chosen had fulfilled their end of the bargain. They danced at the news, the Queen and her son were dead.
Over a decade later ...
Part 1 - Anthanaeum
<Peonies...peonies...> Nina Hearst approached the woman at the front counter after not finding any at the shop. “Excuse me, ma’am. Do you have any peonies?” Nina asked.
“Peonies? Oh! you must be Abby’s daughter.” The flower shop owner smiled at the petite girl. “You’ve grown so big I hardly recognized you! Your mom wrote last week, said you’d be by to pick them up.” She reached into the glass display case behind her. “We special order these for your mom every year.” The woman presented Nina with a bouquet of buds in various shades of pastel pink. “I suppose you’ll want these opened?”
“Yes, please!” Nina nodded eagerly as the woman put on a set of fingerless gloves studded with light green crystal beads and touched the cluster of closed shoots.
Nina watched as the skilled elemental user guided the power from the glowing crystals. Wisps of green wood aura flowed into the folds of the plants, waking them from their fall slumber. Each bud unfolded gracefully into full bloom, while the leaves bristled with the shop owner’s will. The resulting collection was as big as Nina’s torso. “There, much better.” She said handing Nina the blossoms. “I’m sorry your mom won’t be by this year.” The shop owner’s eyes were full of pity.
Nina forced a brittle smile as she paid. “Thank you for the flowers.”
Outside, the clock on the bell tower ticked above the busy Anthanaeum market plaza. <It’ll be a while before Linden and Benjamin arrives.> Nina gravitated to the largest store. The Eastern Trade Emporium was a four-story building possessing dazzling windows showcasing a variety of magic tools and weapons. In the storefront was a lacquered elderwood board etched with magic formations of gold and crystal thread, and large gray wind crystals at each end. Nina pressed against the glass, looking longingly at the flight board. <I wish I had Awakened in wind as my first element. I would train so hard to be a Wind Master and learn to fly.>
Her gaze wandered to other elemental factistrums: tools and weapons that required Awakening in an element to use. A sword gleamed with red crystals and a shield shone with blue ones. Other magic instruments were also on show, each embedded with different colored crystals of the six elements.
<It’d be nice to be Awakened in anything external.> She touched her bracelet and sighed. Nina had only Awakened internally in the water element a few days before, around the time her mother sent word she wouldn’t be able to return for the anniversary. Nina didn’t blame her—her mother’s schedule was dictated by the ocean mines, which were suffering from an unexpected surge of mutated sea beasts, slowing their operations.
Looking back at the window display, Nina caught a reflection of familiar figures. <Uh oh.> The three kids looked bored, which meant trouble for Nina. Instinctively, she hugged the bouquet closer and looked for an escape. <The store.> Quickly she slipped into the Emporium, as a shopper exited the building. Passing the magical security formation etched on the ground, she dashed toward an aisle of particularly expensive selection of tools with embedded natural elemental crystals.
Nina set her flowers down—a few aisles away, just in case—before approaching a shelf of small pucks, rods, and gloves with purple lightning beads, made for light emission. She palmed a couple while pretending she was looking at the cantistrums, magic tools that anyone could use, even those not Awakened.
“Hey look who it is.” Nina winced at the gruff voice and turned to see Barton approaching. He was a large oaf of a boy and the leader of his little gang of tormentors.
“Why are you looking at those? It's not like you can afford them.” Jessica, a skinny girl with a long neck, followed Barton up the aisle toward Nina.
Nina glared at the two. “It’s free to look, isn’t it?” She attempted to leave, but Barton blocked her.
“Yeah, but you being here lowers their value,” Jessica cut in, joining Barton to create a barrier between Nina and the exit.
“The trash rarely falls far from the bin,” Barton said. Nina pushed past the girl and the large boy, quickly slipping the tools she had palmed into their pockets.
“Look what I found! She was holding these earlier,” HeLi declared. The short boy was gleefully waving Nina’s flowers above his head as he arrived in the aisle.
<Shoot.> Nina's stomach dropped.
Barton smirked. “How nice of you to get me a practice target.”
“Don’t you dare!” Nina scowled. But Barton was already summoning a reddish glow from his fire crystal ring. She dashed for HeLi and the peonies at the end of the aisle. <No no no!>
“Fire Ball!” Barton whooped. -foom- A wisp of red left his hands, forming a small, slow-moving ball of flames. Nina had just enough time to tackle HeLi to the floor before the weak orange ball dissipated over their heads.
“No casting in the shop!” someone shouted from across the store.
HeLi yelped as Nina wrestled her flowers back, jumped up, and ran for the exit.
The three chased her, but she passed the door first. -BRRARR BRRARR BRRARR- Alarms blared as a shield erupted from the security formation with a blinding flash. The bullies slammed into the summoned wall.
“You three trying to steal things?” The shop worker strolled over. Nina laughed at her tormentors imprisoned near the shop entrance, while the cacophonous alarm attracted curious onlookers.
<Serves you right.> She smiled, but then her face dropped as she noticed the state of her squished flowers. <Dang it. These are ruined... maybe I can save half of them?>
A loud whinny startled Nina out of her sulking. She turned to see Linden Drop and Benjamin Tor arriving.
“Them again?” Linden said with a sideways glance at the bullies trapped in the Emporium.
Nina nodded. “Don’t tell Gigi.” She handed her half-squished peonies to the blond boy on the horse before clambering on behind him. Linden twisted on his saddle and frowned at her.
“Hey, cheer up,” Benjamin said from the other horse. He raised his hand, where a borrowed cobalt spatial ring glittered. With a flourish, he withdrew an enormous bouquet of white and pink peonies from the magical storage device. “I had Aunt Roseline buy an extra bunch for you last week. They just came in.”
Nina’s eyes widened at the flowers held by the boy with curly black hair, breaking into a broad smile “Thank you, Ben!”
Benjamin winked as he stored the flowers, and the squished ones Linden passed along, back in his ring.
“We figured you might not handle buying flowers for your dad,” Linden teased. Nina pinched the boy in the back. “Ouch!”
Benjamin snickered at the two, as the three friends set off toward the Anthanaeum graveyard for the anniversary of her father's passing.
◆ ◇ ◇
At the port of Anthanaeum, a man in gray robes was hurrying to reach Christine Norfort. He had spilled the blood of countless sacrifices with his own sword during their research for the last twenty years, but it was worth it. Now he was blessed to be the messenger. Upon his arrival, the brunette woman summoned a shield of wind that quieted the noise of the busy area, cupping her hand to his ear, she slipped a spatial ring onto his finger. “Be careful, this breakthrough is essential to God’s Arrival,” Christine said, “For the Glory of the Chosen.”
The man nodded and replied, “For the Glory of the Chosen.” After a bow, he proceeded to the boat. Christine Norfort watched as the votary boarded the ship towards GuiAnDao’s WesternLands.
1 : Maddison Astair
As the mild fall concluded, the cold winds ushered thick clouds to the island of Anthanaeum, signaling the start of winter—a wet and sticky affair. Kicked off with sporadic rainfall, the onset always summoned patches of puddles and mud across the small island dominated by the Anthanaeum Mountain which held the island's namesake: the Library. Built eons before and visible miles offshore, the Library emerged harmoniously from the mountain depth looming over the island’s lowlands.
Looking out the window of her hotel suite, fourteen-year-old Maddison Elizabeth Astair closed her pocket watch with a sigh. <They’re late.> This was her third day on the island and she was already wasting time waiting for royals. <Not very different from Capital City.> Putting away her watch, she resumed reading the newspaper on her desk. Bold letters on the front page announced the Areviks’ execution, marking the fall of a former Major House in the Kingdom and the culmination of her inquest for the past three years.
Maddison extracted a picture she had stolen years ago from her elemental Teacher: an image of the Tilia Palace Massacre—bags of bone—bodies once resembling human beings, strewn in troubling intervals. Some still had their limbs attached. She fiddled with the small print, dwelling on the tragedy that had occurred on the day of her birth, and the question that had haunted her since she was six. <With the Areviks’ case resolved, a vacation would be nice before the next phase of my investigation into Tilia.>
The Tor Family Inn’s Sapphire Suite was the most coveted in the not-so-humble “inn.” Boasting a two-story ceiling and walls adorned with windows that stretched from the floor to the crown molding, each room showcased the inn’s prime oceanview location. She picked idly at the newsprint on her desk in the living room as she stored the photo in her spatial ring. <If I’m lucky, the King won’t need help with the Sage Tower and I can relax.>
There was a soft knock on the door. Instinctively, she corrected her posture. “Come in.”
A short girl with soft tan skin entered the room. Maddison watched as the young housekeeper surveyed the area.
The girl bowed low, her long brown pigtails dangling in front of her chest. “Your Ladyship, I brought the umbrella your butler requested for you. And...your tea must be cold. I have a fresh batch. Shall I exchange it?”
“Please do.” Maddison watched curiously as the girl removed the pot of cold tea and exchanged the stale buns for fresh cookies and pastries which didn’t indicate their age. <She’s rather attentive.>
“May I also make the bed, Your Ladyship?” the girl, perhaps a year or two younger than Maddison asked after arranging the new refreshments that concealed the length of her wait.
“Yes.” Maddison waved toward the suite’s master bedroom. Her bed was still a mess since she had been reading throughout the night. Maps of properties and details of land for sale by the Lavaux House were strewn across the room. “You can bring the papers over when you're done.”
The housekeeper hastened to her task. When she returned, she was casually reordering the stack of pages.
“If that is all, Lady Astair, I’ll take my leave,” the girl said with her head low, handing the documents to Maddison.
“What’s your name?” Maddison asked.
“Nina Hearst, Your Ladyship.” Nina looked up and smiled, brushing her hair aside to reveal her nameplate.
Perusing the stacked papers, Maddison asked, “Which property would you pick?” She glanced quizzically at the girl, her eyes captured by the black bracelet on her wrist. One of the six small crystal beads was emitting a faint blue glow. <Water Awakened? So young?>
“They’re already in order of my preference, Your Ladyship,” Nina responded with a mischievous wink before bowing again. “If that is all, may I take my leave?”
“You may go. Thank you,” Maddison looked at the topmost property with an amused expression.
“By the way, Your Ladyship...I don’t think it will rain today,” Nina added before closing the door to the suite.
~ Lance Lavaux
The Astair deal was Lance Lavaux’s first task since his coming-of-age ceremony at seventeen, his first official duty as an heir of House Lavaux, a Great House of Forknowl. He had assumed Maddison Astair would have a fiery or at least cheerful temper to match her red hair, but it was not so. She was his junior, yet she seemed older than him; that was annoying. Even more absurd, she was completely immune to his charms, her indifference was oddly familiar despite the fact he was sure it was their first meeting. He'd never met anyone so wholly unimpressed by him, Duke Leonardo Lavaux’s second son. His father was one of the most powerful people in the kingdom.
Nothing seemed to impress her. Her smile, which was more of a simper, seemed to be her main reaction to all things: their introduction, his younger sister Lily offering to be on a first-name basis, the ornate lunch at the Academy Restaurant. She wasn’t stirred by their golden carriage, and even the island’s famed Library barely merited a nod. She wordlessly followed him and Lily, writing in a small black notebook, using a shorthand he couldn't read. On the other hand, she showed no signs of displeasure, even when they passed the large refuse patch on the south edge of town. <Maybe the Cursed Prodigy is actually dumb?> His face didn’t betray his thoughts as he smiled at the girl politely.
“Thank you very much for escorting me today,” Maddison said upon their return to the Tor Family Inn standing on the stone steps nested between the gothic exterior of the hotel entrance.
“Won't you join us for an early dinner?” Lily asked.
“Ah...no thank you. I have to return to my work.” Maddison bowed.
“Won't you come to breakfast, then? We can send the carriage for you,” Lance tried.
“Apologies, my Lord and Lady, I already have plans.” Maddison curtsied politely.
<We can't leave like this.> Lance's thoughts spun, frustrated that she wasn’t eager to spend more time. He only had tomorrow before going back to the Academy and wouldn’t be free again till next weekend. The instructions from his father ran through his head. <Make a good impression. The Astairs now control the trade of the Phyphili Spice Islands.> “But—”.
“Apologies for intruding, Your Ladyship, but I have urgent news for you.” A new voice interrupted their conversation. Lance scowled at the meddling bellboy with black curly hair and sharp features.
“Ah yes...please excuse me, I must be going. Thank you again, Lord and Lady Lavaux.” Maddison edged toward the bellboy, for the ornate steel and glass door.
“I guess we’ll see each other next weekend for the land purchase?” Lance called after her.
“Yes, Your Lordship.” Maddison offered a polite nod before disappearing behind the doors.
Back in the carriage, Lily settled herself across from Lance and sighed. “Do me a favor and don’t drag me along next time, especially for someone of a Minor House like her.” She scowled at her brother.
“Don’t be so dense, her family is newly rich. Her father bought the majority of land on Phyphro in Phyphili after he was knighted, it gave them control and made him baron.” Lance preened while scolding his sister, proud that he sounded rather mature and informed. “They’re rumored to be close to the King.”
“Well, the King’s not a real King,” Lily rolled her eyes at him.
Lance kicked her feet. He didn't think King Samuel Battlever, who was first of his name, was worthy either, but his sister was far too careless with her words. “Make her your friend. It’s your duty as future duchess.”
Two votaries watched from the shadows as Maddison returned to the Inn. On orders from the priests, they had been following her for the past three days and were due to report soon.
“Seems like she's only here for the land transaction,” one commented. “I don’t get why we’re following a child and I’m not looking forward to the rain.” She shivered, thinking about the coming storm. While Anthanaeum rarely saw snowfall, the winter downpours were dreadful, lasting almost two months with little reprieve.
“Priest Norfort is just being cautious. The Astair family is responsible for taking down the Areviks,” the other replied, gesturing for them to go.
“Her family’s one thing, but she’s just a girl.” The woman stared at him incredulously.
He shrugged. “She seems harmless...they’ll probably let us skip the night shifts.”
“Do you think God is planning to seek revenge for the Areviks?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said.
She shot him a look. “Killing a child would draw a lot of attention. I thought Anthanaeum is too important, and we must hide our presence.”
“It might not happen here.” He shrugged. “Either way, it's all for the Glory of the Chosen.”
The first votary nodded in agreement.