Not all stories have happy endings.
Everyone loves Mathias. Naturally, when he discovers it’s his destiny to save the world, he dives in head first, pulling his best friend Aaslo along for the ride.
However, saving the world isn’t as easy, or exciting, as it sounds in the stories. The going gets rough and folks start to believe their best chance for survival is to surrender to the forces of evil, which isn’t how the prophecy goes. At all. As the list of allies grows thin, and the friends find themselves staring death in the face they must decide how to become the heroes they were destined to be or, failing that, how to survive.
Fate of the Fallen is the start of a brand new adventure from author Kel Kade—publishing November 5th with Tor Books.
“You have all heard of the time when the dead didn’t tread upon the land?”
The sea of youthful faces shone with the golden light of the hearth. The children nodded, expressions flooded with concern or fear. Even so, they were spellbound, as they were every night at this time, when they huddled on the floor surrounded by adults who gathered in chairs or leaned against the walls.
I turned to gaze out the window. The children’s curiosity prompted them to follow my lead. By the silvery light of the moon, we could see the wanderers ambling in the dark. Their cloudy gazes appeared distant as they searched. Their pale flesh was frigid blue in the moonlight, cold as the late autumn night. The front door rattled, and everyone jumped. It failed to open, and the wanderer moved on, passing by the window without a glance.
Beside me, young Corin gripped his older brother’s hand. “I don’t like to think about it,” he said.
I mussed the boy’s hair and replied, “We cannot ignore the truth just because we don’t like it. It’s important to understand how the world became the way it is so that we can learn and grow. Survival is never guaranteed. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.”
Corin glanced up at his brother, then back to me with a nod.
I leaned back in my chair and recalled the words of my mother, the same words spoken by her father and his before him. “The living once walked this world alone. They worked the land, growing sustenance for themselves and their children. They built homes and palaces. They sailed the seas, explored distant lands, and shared their dreams in artwork and mesmerizing enactments. Wizards and witches, mages and sorcerers, and all sorts of other magi performed feats great and small with their wondrous magic. For seculars like ourselves, life was made easier.
“Back then, when a person’s time was finished, his or her soul passed into the next realm, and the body was laid to rest—to rot—beneath the ground.” I met their pensive stares and leaned forward. “That was before the dead rose, before the Grave War—before the King of the Dead stole the power of a god.”
A few of the younger children gasped, while the older ones, having already heard the story, grinned with excitement. Waving my hand over their heads, I said, “Look around the room, and listen well, for one day, you may be the one to tell the story. For countless ages, men have been ruled by prophecy, but what happens when the path of good and right, the triumph of light over darkness, the only path to salvation… fails?
“It begins in a forest…”
“Why?” Mathias said as he stared down at the back of his best friend’s head.
Aaslo patted the rich soil around the base of the sapling, then stood. “Why what?”
Wind surged through the trees, rustling their green and gold leaves and nearly whipping the dirty rag from Mathias’s fingers as held it out for Aaslo. “Why won’t you go with Elanee to the dance? She wants to go with you.”
Aaslo took the proffered rag and dragged it across his soiled hands, but Mathias wondered if they weren’t becoming dirtier for the effort. Aaslo probably didn’t notice, and if he did, he likely didn’t care. The forester seemed the most content when he was covered in dirt and leaves. Aaslo didn’t immediately answer the question, either. He never did. Mathias waited, knowing that Aaslo would mull over every conceivable reply before settling on one. While others might consider it irritating, Mathias found comfort in knowing that whatever Aaslo finally said had been well considered. He had long since lost any frustration with his friend’s oddities. The foresters had their own strange way of looking at things.
Aaslo’s mouth twisted in consternation before he met Mathias’s gaze. His eyes were the dark, rich green of an ancient forest hiding epic mysteries. His fingers scratched his scruffy jawline, leaving a smear of dirt in their wake. Finally, Aaslo grumbled, “You know I’m going with Reyla.”
“You asked her?” Mathias said, already knowing the answer.
Aaslo’s lips turned down a well-worn path to a frown. “Why would I need to ask her? We always go together.”
Mathias shrugged and tossed a golden lock from his eyes. “I’m just saying, if you don’t ask her, how do you know she plans to go with
you? Just because you went together to the last dance—”
“And the one before—and each of the six before that,” said Aaslo.
“Right,” Mathias replied, “but it doesn’t mean she’s planning to go with you to this one.”
Aaslo huffed as he scraped the mud from his boot on one of the many stumps that dotted the dense forest that had been recently visited by the loggers. “That’s ridiculous. She knows I’m making progress on the house. Pa and I set the beams yesterday. It’ll be ready to move into in a few months, and Reyla and I’ll be married. There’s no reason for her to go to the dance with anyone else.”
Mathias’s gaze was drawn to the tops of the tall pines where they bent under the force of the wind. He looked back to Aaslo and said, “True, but I still think you should ask her. Women like that kind of thing, you know.”
Aaslo checked his tools, then slung the bag containing all his forestry supplies over his shoulder. Glad he wasn’t carrying the bulky monstrosity that looked to weigh as much as his friend, Mathias picked up his much smaller pack, containing their water and lunch, and followed Aaslo through the trees. He never worried about getting lost. He was quite certain Aaslo could navigate the forest blindfolded in a blizzard.
After walking in silence for several minutes, Aaslo said, “Who are you going to ask?”
Mathias grinned to himself as he pictured how Neasey would react when he asked her—or maybe Arielle. Then he remembered a promise he had made at the previous dance.
“I guess I’ll have to take Jessi. She was pretty upset when I went with Laney to the last one. She said I should have taken her first since J comes before L.”
Aaslo glanced over his shoulder. “You’re taking them in alphabetical order?”
Mathias’s laughter was swallowed by the crackling of limbs and leaves as another gust tore through the timbers. “No, that hadn’t been my plan, but I guess it’s as good as any.” He groaned when Aaslo stopped and pointed to a clump of mushrooms growing from the side of a tree.
“That one,” said the forester.
“I don’t see why I have to know that, Aaslo. I’m not a forester.”
Aaslo rounded on him, his jaw tightening as the wind touseled his shaggy brown hair. He crossed his meaty arms and stared at Mathias. Although Aaslo was a few inches shorter than he, the forester was strong—a condition bred by a lifetime of lugging equipment and planting and maintaining the trees of the Efestrian Forest. Still, Mathias knew he could take Aaslo down if needed, since he won every two out of three sparring matches. He waited for Aaslo to say something, and eventually he did.
“If I have to learn the letters and numbers, and histories and sciences—”
Mathias threw up his hands. “Come on, Aaslo, that’s different.”
“—and maps and cultures, and languages and fighting—”
“—then you can learn the forest.”
With a heavy sigh, Mathias said, “All right, I get that, but I have no use for mushrooms. I don’t even like the taste. What you’re learning with Grams is useful.”
Aaslo grunted. “How is knowing that Akyelek is the official language in Mouvilan useful? It’s on the other side of the world. I’ll never go there, and I’ll probably never meet a Mouvilanian, either.”
Mathias hopped onto one of the many fresh stumps and spread his arms. “The world is huge and full of mysteries! Where’s your sense of adventure, Aaslo?”
Aaslo’s gaze bore into him as if he were staring down an enemy. “Words shouldn’t be wasted on telling you things you already know.”
With a chuckle, Mathias said, “That sounds like something your father would say.”
Aaslo nodded. “It is.”
Mathias crossed his arms. “It’s not like you get a limited number of words to use in your lifetime. You’re not going to run out.”
“That’s what I always say,” Aaslo said with a smile. It was more of a smirk, but it was the closest to a smile that Mathias had ever seen. Aaslo’s expression soured again, and he said, “Still, it applies. You know I have no desire to leave this forest or Goldenwood—ever. There’s nothing but trouble out there, and everything important can be found right here.”
Mathias raised a brow. “Important like the mushroom?”
“Yes,” Aaslo said with a curt nod, “because the mushroom is right here in front of us, and if not for your grandmother, we wouldn’t even know Mouvilan existed.”
As usual, Mathias was both humbled and amused by Aaslo’s artless mindset. His gaze dropped to the bright orange mushroom, and he sighed. “Laetiporus?”
Aaslo nodded once. “Good enough. Couldn’t have been any easier.”
Mathias grinned as Aaslo turned back to the path that only he and other foresters could see. He was glad the foresters kept the underbrush to a minimum or the hike would have been much more strenuous and Aaslo would have had a plethora of foliage over which to quiz him. Although his friend would never admit it, Mathias knew that Aaslo enjoyed teaching him about the forest. A bud of mischief began to unravel inside him, and Mathias said, “You can lose the pride, Aaslo. You know I’ll be ripping it and your hide in the practice yard this afternoon.”
Aaslo didn’t turn as he answered. “Probably, but I’ll be sure to make you a bit prettier for Jessi. A black eye and split lip should go well with whatever absurd poetry you spout.”
“Did I say Jessi? Maybe I meant Reyla.”
Aaslo’s machete sliced the air, lopping the top off a toadstool. “You even joke about that, and I’ll remove your head.”
Satisfaction bloomed as he successfully penetrated the forester’s thick skin, and Mathias said, “You can try, but I got Cromley to teach me a new form. I was going to make it a surprise, but it’s more fun to watch you sweat.”
Aaslo whacked a tangle of vines in their path and groused, “If that old captain is going to give anyone an advantage, it should be me. I come away more bruised than you even when I win.”
“You do,” Mathias conceded, “but that’s not the point.”
“And what is the point?” Aaslo said with a glance.
Mathias grinned broadly. “To beat you, of course.”
Aaslo shook his head, then continued with his survey of the third sector, planting, transplanting, fertilizing, trimming, and treating trees and other plants important to the forest ecosystem for their ailments. Mathias didn’t care for the work, but going to the forest was the most adventure his grams had ever allowed and only in the company of Aaslo or Ielo. He had never even been to Mierwyl, where the villagers of Goldenwood traded for most of their food. It would have been only a three-day ride if he’d had a horse, which he didn’t. Grams had a horse, but she would have rained fire and devastation down on his head if he had taken it without asking, not that she would approve if he did. Thus, he was stuck tromping through damp leaves as more showered his hair and clothes with each gust. Aaslo had finished his inspection of the youngest saplings by the time the sun began its descent. The hike back to the village was more direct but steeper. Much to Aaslo’s amusement, Mathias had managed to don almost as much dirt as the forester.
After an unplanned slide halfway down a slope of loose soil and scree, Mathias picked himself up on shaky legs and said, “I don’t know why I came with you.” He swept damp dirt and leaves from his rear, while Aaslo waited patiently at the base with crossed arms.
“You secretly like being in the forest,” Aaslo replied.
Mathias scowled down at him. “No, I like being out of the house. It’s not the same thing. You know I don’t get out much when Grams is home—except for practice and work, anyway.”
Aaslo frowned. “This is work.”
Mathias was grateful when he successfully made it to level ground without another messy incident. “This is your work,” he said. “That’s different. Besides, I’d only be stuck with my nose in those musty old books at home. Don’t get me wrong. I like to learn. It’s just that it seems like she wants me to learn all of the knowledge of the world, and for what? She won’t even take me with her on her travels. I could be helping the merchant master take the goods to Mierwyl, or I could be going with you over the mountain, but no. Stay home, Mathias. When am I going to see the world? Never.”
“Well,” Aaslo said, pausing to rub his scruffy chin, “everyone says you’ll be town mayor someday. I guess the mayor needs to be pretty smart, and you’ll get the chance to travel to regional meetings.”
They turned down the path toward Mathias’s home, which lay on the outskirts of the village that was nestled a hundred yards ahead in an open expanse where once resided a small meadow. A rocky perimeter surrounding the entire town had been cleared of trees and undergrowth to prevent Goldenwood from burning down in the event of a forest fire. Mathias mulled over Aaslo’s observation as they tromped through talus that had been painstakingly spread over the area to deter new growth.
Eventually, he said, “I don’t know, Aaslo. Mayor Toca doesn’t seem to be the most learned man. He didn’t even know who Parshia was.”
“Nobody knows who Parshia was,” Aaslo said, “except you and me and Grams.”
“The people of Lodenon know.”
“And nobody around here knows Lodenon exists, therefore Parshia didn’t exist. Mayor Toca doesn’t need to know anything about Parshia.”
“Exactly, so why do I need to know about her?”
Neither spoke for a few minutes as the crunch of gravel underfoot took them farther from the rustling of the forest and closer to the clangs and shouts of the town. When they were within a few yards of the first building, Aaslo said, “I see your point.”
Mathias glanced at his friend, who was still frowning in contemplation. “About what you said this morning—you know you don’t have to take the lessons with me.”
Aaslo’s head jerked up, and he spun, forcing Mathias to draw up short. The forester looked at him as if he had just lost his mind. “Of course I do,” Aaslo snapped. His face had darkened, and his eyes sparked with anger. Mathias immediately regretted bringing it up when his friend said, “It’s like you always say—brothers in all things?” Aaslo nodded toward the mountain. “It’s why you come to the forest with me when you don’t have to. Now stop saying stupid things.” Without waiting for a response, Aaslo turned toward town.
Goldenwood was busy in the afternoon, but the incessant wind prevented many from straying beyond their porches. There, in that manmade hole in the forest, the unfettered breeze tossed hats from heads, snagged curls from coifs, and tore linens from lines. Still, the townsfolk smiled and hollered greetings as Mathias and Aaslo trod through the village center. Most of the paths were made of dirt, hard. packed by years of foot traffic, with wagon ruts carved down the centers of the wider lanes. In the more prominent areas, wooden boardwalks prevented the tragic loss of footwear during the wet months, and these were kept in good repair by the town’s loggers and carpenters, which was most everyone. The wooden buildings faced the village center, and most were painted in bright colors, in stark contrast to the dark forest that surrounded them.
Mathias glanced back at his friend, who now trailed behind him. As usual, the moment they’d set foot in town, Aaslo had allowed Mathias to take the lead. The forester’s shoulders slumped forward, his chin brushed his chest, and he barely raised his eyes to meet the appreciative stares of the onlookers. Aaslo was one of the few foresters who ventured into town more than a few times per year, but most of the townsfolk knew by now not to pester him. Mathias turned his gaze back to the path in front of him and abruptly stopped.
“Hello, Mathias!” called Mr. Greenly as he stepped from his office to greet them. The man pushed his spectacles onto the bridge of his nose, leaving a smudge of ink on the tip. “You boys been out in the woods today? Seems a mite gusty for outdoor work, if you ask me.”
In a barely audible grumble, Aaslo said, “I’m surprised he knows the outdoors exists.”
Mathias knew that the aged Mr. Greenly couldn’t have heard, but he gave his friend a reproachful scowl anyway. Aaslo only shrugged and went back to tracing the planks with the toe of his boot.
Mathias turned and smiled at the elderly bookkeeper. “Hello, Mr. Greenly. The breeze wasn’t so terrible in the forest. I’d say we had the better luck.”
“Wasn’t luck,” Aaslo mumbled. “Trees are good for more than chopping to pieces.”
Mr. Greenly turned his azure gaze toward Aaslo. “What’s that? I didn’t quite catch it.”
Aaslo glanced at Mathias with a frown, perturbed by having been heard. He raised his voice. “I said the forest takes care of those who care for it.”
Mr. Greenly nodded and smiled. “Quite so and said like a true forester. This town would have died long ago if not for you kind wood folk. My grandpappy told me of a time before the foresters. The trees disappeared, and whole villages died out. People had to pick up and leave their homes, their friends—all because they’d go and chop the whole forest down without thinking it through.” The man squinted, his gaze turning toward the treetops. “Seems like there’s so many. Couldn’t imagine they’d run out, you know.” The bookkeeper turned back to the forester. “You know we all appreciate your sacrifice, we do. It can’t be easy spending your life away from everyone, planting trees and caring for them—just so we can chop them down again.”
Aaslo shifted his pack and ducked his head noncommittally, but Mr. Greenly seemed satisfied with the acknowledgment. Mathias knew that Aaslo felt it was a greater sacrifice each time he left the forest.
Mathias cleared his throat to get Mr. Greenly’s attention. And then cleared it again. The older man continued to stare at the forester, and Mathias could tell that Aaslo wasn’t enjoying the scrutiny. Mathias raised his voice and said, “Sorry, Mr. Greenly, but we need to get going. Captain Cromley is expecting us. It was good see you.”
Mr. Greenly blinked several times, as if awakening from a daze. “What’s that? Oh, yes, of course, Mathias. Please tell your grandmother that Eleanor and I would love to have you two over for dinner soon.” He turned to Aaslo and said, “You and your father are welcome, too, of course, Sir Forester.”
Aaslo nodded and with practiced civility said, “Thank you for the invitation, Mr. Greenly, but I must respectfully decline.”
Mr. Greenly nodded knowingly, then stepped back into his office, clearing the way for them to finish the short walk to Mathias’s home.
“How many times do we have to hear about the time before the foresters?” Aaslo grumbled.
Mathias glanced back at his friend with a grin as he stepped from the boardwalk to cut across the square. “Every time.”
When they reached the paving stones that surrounded the fountain, Mathias paused. The wind brushed across his ears, muffling the sound, but he was nearly certain that it carried his name. He caught a flash of color from the corner of his eye just as Aaslo groaned.
This time, the voice was clear and feminine. Mathias’s grin returned as he slapped Aaslo on the back. “Now’s your chance, brother. Your fair lady approaches.”
Reyla, Jessi, and Mirana advanced in their direction with a gaggle of girls in their wake. Mathias imagined that, had they been in a larger town, the women wouldn’t have accepted the younger girls into their company; but companions were scarce in Goldenwood, especially when so many of their peers were already with child or busy caring for infants of their own.
“Hello, Reyla,” said Aaslo.
Reyla glanced at Aaslo and smiled sweetly as she pulled a lock of wind-whipped hair from her face. “Hi, Aaslo. How was the forest?”
“Would have been better with you there. I visited our tree. It’s already grown to nearly twice my height—a good sign.”
Mathias noticed Reyla’s smile tighten and the light in her eyes retreat. It wasn’t the first time he had seen the reaction, but Aaslo never seemed to notice.
She said, “That’s nice.” Then she turned to Mathias. She tilted her head as she twisted an errant lock around one finger. “So, Mathias, have you decided who you’ll ask to the dance?”
Mathias glanced at Jessi and Mirana and feigned confusion. Opening his palms to the sky, he said, “What dance? I, ah, have to get home. Grams’ll be roiling if I’m late.” He turned to Aaslo, pointed to where the path re entered the forest on the other side of the square, and said, “I’ll wait for you there while you speak with Reyla.”
Jessi and Mirana exchanged a mischievous glance.
“We’ll come with you,” said Jessi.
Mirana added, “We should give Reyla and Forester Aaslo some privacy.”
Both women grinned at Reyla, who seemed less than pleased when she returned the courtesy, saying, “Thank you. You’re both such dears.”
Mathias returned Aaslo’s smirk with a proud nod as Jessi and Mirana pulled him across the square, each clinging to an arm.
Aaslo gazed at Reyla while she stared after her friends. Her long, slender neck and alabaster skin were reminiscent of the aspens that peacefully dotted the mountain. The mahogany mane that draped over her shoulders had the soft appearance of a willow swaying in the breeze. She turned to him, her eyes grey like the sky after a storm, and her pert lips pink as the petals of the cherry blossom. She smiled and looked at him expectantly, although it seemed she already knew what would be said. As she should, he thought. Mathias was being an idiot for suggesting this.
Aaslo cleared his throat and forced himself to say the words that needn’t be said. “Reyla, will you go to the dance with me?”
Her smile fell. “I—um—thought you weren’t going to ask me this time.”
“I wasn’t,” Aaslo grumbled. “Needless words for an obvious outcome. We always go together—but Mathias thought you might want me to ask anyway. He says it’s romantic.”
Pleasure teased at her lips, but she didn’t smile. “Well, as you say, we always go together. I was thinking of going with someone else this time.”
Aaslo’s stomach sank like a rock. “Someone else? Why?”
Reyla reached up to gather her hair and twisted it into a rope over one shoulder. When it was under control, she said, “It’s fun. Everyone else goes with different people—except the married couples, of course.”
“Exactly,” Aaslo said, glad to hear some sense at last. “Our house will be finished soon. If we are to be married, there’s no point in going with anyone else.”
“Um… about that,” Reyla said with a glance toward her friends.
Aaslo looked as well. Mirana and Jessi were shamelessly competing for Mathias’s attention while the younger girls gawked and giggled. As a forester, Aaslo had received his fair share of attention, but he had made it clear that he only wanted Reyla. He turned back to her and said, “About what?”
She looked at him, but her gaze did not venture above his chest. She said, “You’ve been talking about marriage for a while, I know, but we’ve never really agreed on anything—”
“What are you talking about?” Aaslo said as his heart attempted to tear its way out of his chest, and his blood heated beyond comfort. He looked around to see if the world was staring. They received no more than a passing glance as people ducked into shops and homes to escape the howling wind. He knew that even if the whole town had gathered to watch his world crumble, the words would not have reached their ears. Turning back to her, he said, “You approved of the house plans. You said you like the location.”
She nodded slowly. “Yes, but you only asked for my opinion. I do like it—for you.”
“You knew what we were talking about,” he said.
Shaking her head, she said, “No, I couldn’t have known what you were thinking.”
Aaslo gave her a disparaging look filled with the protests he wouldn’t voice. He knew by her expression that she understood.
“Okay, that’s not true,” she conceded, “but you never asked. I thought you would ask, and then I could tell you how I really felt.”
“Tell me what? You don’t want to marry me?” A gust rushed past, and it felt as though the words had been snatched from his lips only to smack him in the face.
She laid her fingers on his chest and finally met his gaze. “It’s not that, Aaslo. You’re great—wonderful even. It’s just that—I want to marry someone else.”
“But I can give you everything you need,” he said. “You’re special, Reyla. You deserve to be given the respect of a forester’s wife. It’s an honor.”
Reyla shook her head vigorously. “You and the other foresters are worthy of that honor, but I’m not prepared to make the sacrifice.”
Collecting her shaking hands, he caught her gaze. “It’s not a sacrifice, Reyla. The forest is a blessing, and we foresters are honored to live in her embrace and contribute to her glory.”
She pulled her hands away and occupied them with reclaiming her hair from the relentless currents. “I don’t want to live in the forest. I’m afraid of the wild, and I don’t want to be so far from my friends and family.”
“You were never afraid before—during all those walks and picnics.”
“That’s because you were with me. I trust you. I knew you would keep me safe.”
“As I would my wife.”
“If I were your wife, you would not always be there. You would be off in the forest, and I would be trapped in the house too afraid to leave.”
Aaslo pulled his hood over his head. Feelings he hadn’t considered since his youth welled within him, threatening to drip from his eyes. “You know my mother felt the same. At least you realized it before we married.” He swallowed the lump in his throat. “You’ve waited this long. Most of our peers are already married or betrothed. If not me, then who?”
Reyla glanced toward her friends, but Aaslo knew what truly held her attention. His overheated blood froze, as though all the life within his body had been extinguished in an instant. She looked back to him with tears in her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Aaslo. I’ve already asked my father to approach Ms. Brelle with a proposal. Don’t look at me like that. I know what you’re thinking. Of all people, why him? I swear, if not for him, it would be you.” She said it as if to make him feel better and then went on to make it worse. “But he’s Mathias. He’s handsome and smart and romantic. He’ll be mayor someday. Everyone knows it. Mayor’s wife is a position better suited to my tastes. I might even get to travel with him to see Fernvalle or Dempsy. Can you imagine?”
“I’d rather not imagine it,” Aaslo muttered. “I’d rather not imagine any of it. My best friend—my brother—with the woman I was to marry. Are you so cruel as to wish that upon my imagination?”
“Oh, Aaslo, I didn’t mean—”
“No,” Aaslo said, “I apologize. I said too much.” His was an echo of his father’s voice battering against his heart. “Words erupted of emotional turmoil will be tumultuous at best. Tremulous gales break boughs and topple timbers, but peace and serenity encourage growth.”
Reyla blinked at him, then wiped the moisture from her eyes. “I don’t understand.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s a forester’s wisdom—one that I’ve too often failed to appreciate. I’ll heed it now for both our sakes.”
Reyla started to speak, but he held up a hand. He had heard something. Beneath the howling gale, beyond the thump of loose shutters and cracking of distant limbs, a pulse thundered through the ground. He reached for Reyla just as Mathias crashed into him. Drawing her tight against his chest, Aaslo pulled Reyla to the ground with him, bracing himself so as not to crush her in the fall. He stared at her as she blinked up at him in startlement; then he was yanked from the ground by his collar. Aaslo stumbled over his feet as Mathias practically dragged him across the square yelling something unintelligible. He gained his footing and was finally able to focus.
“Come on, Aaslo!” Mathias called. “We have to stop them!”
Aaslo finally saw what had caused the stir as Mathias released his shirt. A rampaging horse had streaked into town, nearly trampling Reyla and the oblivious forester. They came to an abrupt halt, causing him to collide with Mathias. When the horse reached the fountain at the center of the square, it reared and rounded on them, flinging the unconscious rider around its legs to be trampled beneath it. The man’s foot was trapped in the stirrup, and by the look of him, he had been dragged for some time.
Mathias pushed Aaslo to one side. “You come in from the left, I’ll go to the right. Slowly now. We don’t want to spook her.”
The furious mare stomped and huffed deep, wheezing breaths as blood sprayed from her nose with every exhale. Her eyes rolled wildly, and she turned and trampled the rider with every step.
“Easy now,” Aaslo calmly said as he took a few careful steps closer. “Easy. We’re not going to hurt you.”
He could see now that the mare had arrows sticking from her neck and haunch, and the rider bore what remained of at least two through his back. Aaslo reached out as he got close enough to grab one of the dangling reins, snagging it just as Mathias grabbed the other. The horse shrieked and tried to back away, but Aaslo and Mathias stayed with her, offering pats and coos until she calmed. Mathias held the horse’s bridle while Aaslo worked to free the rider’s leg from the stirrup.
“What’s going on here?” called a husky voice.
The townspeople, overcome with curiosity, had begun gathering in the square. They parted to admit Captain Cromley of the village militia.
“They’ve been shot,” said Mathias, “and the rider’s been trampled.”
Aaslo pulled the mangled leg free but noted that the boot was far too small. As Mathias led the horse away, Aaslo turned the rider over, and his suspicions were confirmed.
“It’s a woman,” he said, kneeling beside her.
Captain Cromley stood over him as Aaslo wiped blood-soaked hair and dirt from her face. The woman suddenly gasped, and her eyes popped open. Blood burbled from her lips as she struggled for air, and she grabbed Aaslo’s shirt with broken hands. Her teeth were chipped and her face smashed to barely human. Beyond the gore, she stared at him with a brilliant mossy-green gaze. Then her eyes began to glaze, and just before she lost consciousness, two words escaped.
“What did she say?” Mathias said as the town doctor shooed Aaslo away.
“I’m not sure,” Aaslo said. “It was hard to understand. I think she said, ‘the light,’ but I don’t think that was the whole message.”
Captain Cromley pointed their way. “Mathias, you take the horse to your stable. I need to look into this. There won’t be any practice this afternoon.”
“Yes, sir,” Mathias said. “Do you think we need to be worried? Someone shot her. What if they’re coming here?”
“Probably highwaymen. They’re more likely to prey on lone riders, but they don’t usually come out this way.”
“How do you know she was alone?” Mathias said. “It’s unusual for a young woman to be traveling by herself.”
Cromley nodded. “Yes, and that’s one thing I’ll be looking into. We’ll have to send out a search party to see if anyone’s left behind on the road.”
Mathias’s muscles twitched in anticipation. With a thrill, he said, “Can we go?”
“I’ve got people to do that,” said Cromley. “You get home to your grandmother. You know she’ll be furious if I send you out there without her permission.”
“I’m twenty-six,” exclaimed Mathias. “I don’t need Grams’s permission.”
Cromley gave him a knowing look. “You settle that with your grandmother. Now, you two get on with yourselves.” He pointed to Reyla and the other young women, waving them toward the crowd. “You all get home and stay there until we find out what’s happened. Go on! Clear out!”
With the horse’s reins in hand, Mathias yanked Aaslo toward the path but only got a few steps before he was forced to a halt. Aaslo stepped forward to intercept Reyla, but she took no notice and slipped around him.
“Thank you, Mathias,” she said, wrapping her arms around his neck. “You saved me. That horse would’ve run me over.”
Mathias gently pulled her arms away, easing a distance between them. “Of course I did,” he said with a wink. “That’s why they call me the Hero of Goldenwood.”
“No one calls you that,” Aaslo muttered as he grabbed his pack and tromped toward the path out of town.
Mathias nodded toward Reyla, then stooped to collect his bag. With the reins in hand, he led the injured mare toward his grandmother’s home. After a few minutes, when the town was behind them, he caught up with the forester. “Hey, Aaslo. What’s wrong? Is it because we couldn’t go with Cromley? That would have been exciting. I hate that he still treats me like a child, but I do understand his reticence toward inciting Grams’s wrath.”
Aaslo said nothing, and this time, Mathias wasn’t sure if the forester was brooding or being his usual quiet self.
“Maybe we can convince Grams to let us go. I guess you could go without me. No one is stopping you—”
“You saved me,” Aaslo said.
Mathias paused. “Yeah, I guess I did. You should be showering me with praise.”
“No,” Aaslo said. “You saved me. I saved Reyla.”
Mathias glanced up at the trees tossing about overhead but wasn’t really seeing them. He grinned with satisfaction and said, “Well, if I hadn’t saved you, then you couldn’t have saved Reyla, so technically I saved you both.”
“You didn’t even come close to her. If I hadn’t reached for her, she would’ve been trampled.”
Realizing that Aaslo was taking things too seriously, Mathias dropped the humor and said, “You’re upset. I know you love her, and I realize you probably would have preferred that I save her instead of you—but, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to save her. It’s just that, well, you were closer, and I didn’t really think about it. The horse was rushing right toward you. Truthfully, there wasn’t anything to consider. You’re my brother, Aaslo.”
“That’s not the point,” Aaslo grumbled.
“What is the point?” Mathias said in exasperation.
Aaslo huffed but said nothing. Mathias knew better than to press him for more before he was ready to talk. Once the forester had gathered his thoughts and reconsidered them a hundred times, he might broach the subject again.
The quaint country cottage came into view as they emerged from the patch of woods that loomed between it and the town. The home was nestled within the shade of the trees. A garden lent color and life to the front yard, which was delimited by a short, crumbling wall of stones. The familiar scent of herbs mingled with the sweet aroma of wildflowers, and flecks of white and yellow pollen danced on the breeze like fabled pixies.
Mathias had not even unlatched the gate when his grandmother slipped from the shadows into the waning afternoon sunlight that cut across the front porch. The older woman’s jet-black hair was tied back tightly and wound atop her head so that the white streaks swirled in the dark like river eddies in winter. Her arms were crossed over her black riding jacket, from which spilled white lacy frills that climbed up her neck to frame a face bearing red-painted lips pursed in disapproval. She glared at them over the rim of her spectacles, the toe of her knee-high boot slapping the planks in a slow, methodical cadence—a sure sign they were in for a berating. Magdelay Brelle was not a patient woman.
Mathias didn’t bother to check if Aaslo still followed him toward his doom. Aaslo would weather any storm beside him. As Aaslo had pointed out earlier, they were brothers in all things, and misery was best when shared.
With the most cheerful smile he could muster, Mathias said, “Greetings, Grams! I’m glad to see you made it back in one piece—and quite swiftly, I might add.”
Magdelay’s eye twitched. “Whose horse is that? No, never mind that. You can tell me later.” Her gaze slid to Aaslo. “Did he learn anything useful?”
Mathias glanced at Aaslo hopefully but saw only the signs of his usual obstinacy.
“Everything I do is useful,” Aaslo grumped.
“Don’t take that tone with me, boy. You know what I’m asking,” said Magdelay.
“I’m not a boy, and neither is he,” Aaslo huffed. “Most of the villagers our ages are already married or betrothed. Half of them have children of their own.”
“You’ll always be a boy to me,” Magdelay said, her eyes softening briefly before she apparently remembered she was in the middle of a rebuke. “You two were off wasting time in the forest while you should have been studying. Cromley will be waiting in the clearing by now. When you’re finished with him, you can work on the list I left for you.”
“Cromley isn’t coming,” Mathias said. “A rider came into town nearly trampled to death and shot full of arrows. The captain told us to bring the horse here.” Mathias stroked the mare’s muzzle and said, “She needs your help. She’s stuck with two arrows of her own.”
Magdelay frowned. “A rider? Did he have any insignia? A uniform?”
“I didn’t see anything that might identify her,” Mathias said.
“She? Was she a very large woman?” Magdelay said suspiciously.
Mathias glanced at Aaslo.
“No, ma’am,” Aaslo said. “She was small, young.” He glanced at the horse. “I see what you mean.”
“What am I missing?” said Mathias.
His grandmother’s pointed stare nearly bored straight through him. She said, “Think, Mathias. What are you missing?”
Mathias looked back at Aaslo, who scowled at him. He had no idea why his friend was angry, but he knew he would be receiving no help. He studied the horse, and it dawned on him. “The horse is too big. A woman that small probably would have needed a smaller horse for the long journey between here and—well, anywhere—if she’d had a choice.”
“Precisely. I’ll see to the horse’s injuries then speak with Cromley.” Magdelay strode over to take the reins and looked up at him. Even with her high-heeled riding boots, the top of her head reached just above his shoulders. “You stay in the house tonight. If I find out you’ve been out looking for bandits, you’ll regret it. Get busy with that list you neglected to notice this morning.”
“But what about dinner?” said Mathias.
Magdelay smiled ruefully. “You may have dinner after you’ve finished your studies.” She glanced at Aaslo again and shrugged. “Of course, Aaslo is free to return to his father’s house for dinner whenever he wishes. I’m sure there will be plenty. Ielo killed a boar today. He left a haunch for us in the smokehouse.”
Mathias’s stomach grumbled its approval, and without thinking, he frowned at Aaslo in envy.
Aaslo caught the look and shoved past him to stomp up the front steps, grumbling all the way. “Don’t look at me like that. You know I’ll help you with your studies—for all the good it’ll do. You’re weeks ahead of me.”
Mathias wrapped his grandmother in a hug, then bounded up the steps in Aaslo’s wake. “You shouldn’t have taken all that time off,” he said.
“Time off? You call traveling over the mountain to help clear debris and replant everything destroyed by a fire caused by both molten rock spewing from a volcano and lightning from an ash cloud time off?”
“You didn’t do anything the forest wouldn’t have done naturally,” Mathias said, turning away to hide is grin.
“Yes, yes,” Aaslo muttered. “The forest might have grown back by itself—in a couple of generations. A good portion, though, would have been lost for good. We had to dig runoff channels and secure several steep slopes so all the topsoil didn’t wash away in the storms last week. If we hadn’t, the town of Jabois would have been destroyed by a lahar after the first good rain.”
“I see!” Mathias said. “The Mighty Aaslo has saved the town and brought life back to the forest. We should have held a celebration—a parade! We’ll build a statue in your honor. It can stand right next to (but shorter than) the one of the Hero of Goldenwood.”
Aaslo slammed down his pack in the middle of the floor and spun around with a raised fist. “I never said it was me. It was all of us—the foresters—as it’s supposed to be. And none of us are needing or wanting of parades and statues.”
Mathias tucked his hands under his arms and rocked back on his heels with a grin. “But you want credit for saving Reyla.”
“No! I told you, that’s not the point.” Aaslo pulled off his jacket and tossed it on top of his pack. With frustration, he mussed his hair, causing leaves to litter the floor. Then he looked up at Mathias and said, “You didn’t put her first. You don’t love her.”
“Who? Reyla?” Mathias said. “Why would I—”
“If she is to be your wife, you must put her first,” Aaslo snapped.
Mathias was suddenly at a loss. He leaned back against the wall, and his breath left him in a rush. “What?”
“It’s not right,” Aaslo said, and he began pacing in circles. Mathias had never seen Aaslo agitated in such a way. Sure, his friend would grouse and protest their studies or the necessity to leave the forest for any reason, but never had Aaslo seemed so—unhinged. “You don’t love her. She deserves to be loved.” Aaslo abruptly stopped to look at him, his fathomless green gaze filled with pain. “Did you know?”
“Did I know what?” Mathias said.
Aaslo swallowed and glanced out the window before looking back again. “Reyla is arranging a proposal—a proposal to marry you.”
“Me?” Mathias exclaimed. “Why would she do that? She’s your girl.”
“She doesn’t want me. She wants you.”
Mathias sighed. “No, Aaslo, she doesn’t want me. She wants the next mayor of Goldenwood. Grams has received at least a dozen proposals for me over the years, and maybe a few of the girls even thought they were in love with me. Aaslo, Reyla is beautiful, and she’s nice—but, she’s a bit shallow—”
“Don’t speak of her like that!”
“She is. I’m sure she cares for you, but I always suspected she mostly liked to brag that she was seeing a forester. She doesn’t seem like the kind of girl who wants to live the way you do.”
“She doesn’t,” Aaslo conceded as he dropped onto the stool by the hearth. He turned his back to arrange the kindling and said, “You’ll take care of her, though.”
Mathias struggled to maintain only the slightest indignation as he said, “Aaslo, I’m not going to marry Reyla.”
Aaslo paused. “You’re not?”
“No, I’m not going to marry the woman that captured my best friend’s heart.”
Aaslo exhaled heavily, and his shoulders dropped. “All right,” he said. “She might come back—”
“No,” Mathias said. He threw his hands down and dragged a chair over to sit across from Aaslo. “Reyla will come back. You can be sure of it. She wants to marry for recognition. She might have been willing to give up a forester’s honor for the convenience of marrying the mayor,
but anything less won’t do.”
Aaslo looked up. “You think? That’s good—”
Mathias shook his head and met his friend’s gaze. “No, it’s not good. You’re going to say no. You’ll turn down her proposal.”
Aaslo frowned. “Why would I do that?”
“You deserve better. You’re a forester. You hold the highest honor in this town, and despite the ribbing I give you about it, you deserve that honor. What you do is hard, and it’s lonely, and even though the economy of this town—of every logging town, and in no small part, the kingdom—depends on you, you will never see wealth. Whatever riches you have, you find in the forest you personally nurture. You, Aaslo, will never settle for being second.”
Sitting back, Mathias said, “Surely someone else has caught your eye at some point.”
“I had Reyla,” Aaslo replied. “There was no point in considering anyone else. What does it matter if she wanted you? That doesn’t mean she cares for me any less.”
Mathias sighed, resigned to the fact that Aaslo would marry Reyla despite her flaws.
Aaslo grabbed a small box from the mantel and crouched in front of the hearth. Sparks jumped from the flint and steel, and eventually the kindling began to smoke. As Aaslo coaxed the flame, Mathias began rummaging through the books on the center table. The only task on his grandmother’s list that he had been looking forward to was the practice with Cromley, but that wouldn’t be happening. An hour later, Aaslo tossed a book in front of him. He flipped it open to the page Aaslo had marked and grinned.
“How did you know I was looking for that?”
“I read the list,” Aaslo mumbled as he dug through the pile in front of him to find the worn map of Aldrea.
Mathias’s gaze lingered on the map, as it did each time he saw it. Every country known to the scholars of Uyan, the entirety of the explored world, was painted in detail upon its parchment. The brilliant landscape was filled with distant mountains, forests, seas, and rivers—and still, parts were blank. Mathias thought that if he had drawn the map, his kingdom of Uyan would be in the center, but the cartographer who had created it was not from Uyan. Like most maps, Mouvilan was at its center. The much smaller kingdom of Uyan occupied the northwest corner of the map, and Goldenwood was marked with a tiny point in the northwest corner of Uyan. The only reason the insignificant village graced the map at all was because his grandmother had added it on the day he had first laid eyes upon the masterpiece.
A sound echoed in his mind, and he realized Aaslo was speaking to him. Mathias pulled his gaze away from the beauty of Aldrea and said, “What?”
Aaslo scowled at him, obviously unhappy to repeat himself. “I asked why you haven’t married.”
Mathias laughed, his usual mechanism for stalling the conversation until he could come up with an excuse to change the subject. “You first.”
Aaslo sat back in his chair. “Why?”
Mathias grinned. Pleasantries were supposed to be disarming, and he wanted Aaslo to drop the subject. Then again, mockery also worked. “Brothers in all things, right? You’re a year older. The oldest has to marry first.”
Aaslo narrowed his eyes. “That tradition applies to sisters. We are men and not actually related. Besides, I’ve been planning to marry Reyla. We were supposedly waiting until the house was finished. You aren’t even betrothed.”
“Come now, Aaslo,” Mathias said as he stood from the table to pour drinks at the sideboard. “Why choose just one when there are so many? There is plenty of time to settle down.” He kept his back to the room as he spoke so that Aaslo would not see his struggle. He refused to lie to his friend, even if he couldn’t tell him the truth.
“There are not so many left,” Aaslo said. “Were you waiting on her?”
Mathias paused and looked at Aaslo with genuine confusion. “Who?”
“Reyla. Were you hoping I would change my mind so that you could have her?”
Mathias’s shoulders relaxed; he was glad this was an issue he could address honestly. “No, I told you that I will reject the proposal.”
“Only because you feel that you’ll be stealing her from me. If I had chosen another, you would be free to accept her without guilt.”
“Honestly, Aaslo, it wouldn’t matter who did the rejecting. My decision would be the same.”
With a roll of his eyes, Mathias said, “Because I don’t want to marry Reyla.”
“No, I mean why haven’t you married.”
Mathias met Aaslo’s accusatory stare, hoping it would appear as if he had nothing to hide, and immediately realized it wasn’t working. Aaslo was suspicious.
“I knew it,” Aaslo snapped. “How long have you been keeping this from me? Why would you keep it from me?”
“Keeping what? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mathias replied. “I didn’t say anything.”
Aaslo slapped the table and said, “You’re leaving.”
Magdelay lashed at him from the doorway like an angry wasp. “You told him?”
Mathias glanced up to see his grandmother standing there with a disapproving glare, not unlike the one he was getting from Aaslo.
“No! I haven’t said anything. He’s only guessing. You know how he is.”
Magdelay looked at Aaslo. “Stubborn foresters.”
“Determined,” said Aaslo.
“Obstinate,” said Mathias. He wished he’d kept his mouth shut when Aaslo turned back to him. He said, “I would’ve told you, but Grams—”
“It doesn’t matter now,” Magdelay said as she came into the room and began shuffling through the papers and books on the table. “It will be dark in an hour. We will leave then.” She whipped the map of Aldrea from beneath everything, stacked a few more maps and scrolls on top of it, then rolled up the bunch before shoving them into a leather map case. She glanced over at Mathias and said, “Get packed. One bag of traveling gear only. We travel light.”
Mathias said, “You’re kidding, right? We’re not leaving right now.”
Magdelay continued sorting through items in the study, shoving them into a bag that she had somehow procured during his shocked mental absence.
“Well, how long do we expect to be gone?” Mathias said.
“Forever,” she said. “We’re not coming back.”
Aaslo lurched from his seat at the table. “You’re leaving now? You weren’t even going to tell me?”
Mathias shook his head. “No, I don’t know what’s going on. She told me we would be leaving someday. That was fifteen years ago!” Turning to his grandmother, Mathias said, “Is this because he knows? We have to leave because he figured it out?”
Magdelay didn’t cease her preparations to answer. She muttered, “No, that was coincidence.” Then she paused and gave Aaslo a sidelong look.
Aaslo crossed his arms over his chest and said, “Don’t look at me like that. You’re the one who’s been keeping secrets.”
“How did you know?” Magdelay said, taking a step toward the forester.
Mathias was suddenly uncomfortable with his grandmother’s hostile demeanor. Aaslo must have picked up on the change as well, because he abandoned his mulishness to answer.
“It was because of Reyla.”
“Reyla told you?”
“No, Reyla said she had given you a proposal, but he says he won’t marry her.”
“So, the only reason I can think of that he wouldn’t want to marry Reyla is because he’s leaving.”
A smile threatened Magdelay’s lips, and she relaxed her stance. “You place too much value in that silly girl. Mathias is meant for endeavors greater than she, greater than us all. Aaslo, I have helped raise you since you were barely a year old. You have been a second grandson to me. I hope you marry that silly girl and live the rest of your days in the shade of the trees.” She looked to Mathias. “You’ve been friends for a long time, and this parting is abrupt, but you must say your faresells quickly.”
She then swept from the room, dropped her pack in the foyer, and jogged up the stairs.
Aaslo looked at him in dismay. “What’s going on?”
Mathias held up his hands. “Truly, Aaslo, I don’t know. She told me a long time ago that I shouldn’t get too attached to anyone. I wasn’t supposed to make any long-term plans because someday we would be leaving. I couldn’t tell anyone—including you. She swore me to secrecy on my honor.” He leaned forward and whispered, “I tried to drop hints—like today on the way home. I tried to get you thinking about it.” His eyes landed on the pack on the floor of the foyer. “I think she’s serious, though. I—I guess I need to pack.”
Aaslo crossed his arms. “You’re not going anywhere until I get an explanation.”
Mathias said, “I don’t have one. I’m sorry.”
Magdelay reappeared in the doorway looking none too pleased. Despite the matriarch’s demanding gaze, neither Mathias nor Aaslo moved. Magdelay scoffed and said, “Fine. I’ll explain, but only for you, Aaslo.” Her gaze softened. “I suppose I owe you that much. Did you know your mother left the day I came to Goldenwood with Mathias? You were only one and he a newborn. You’ve been a good friend to Mathias, practically a brother. We have no time for questions, though.”
Perching upon the arm of a high-backed chair, Grams held her hands before her and began moving them as if she were knitting with imaginary needles and yarn. She muttered under her breath, and an image suddenly appeared floating in front of her. It was bright and translucent. Mathias and Aaslo both jumped at the sudden intrusion of light. Mathias had never seen anything like it.
“What is that?” he blurted. “What are you?”
“I am a sorceress—the high sorceress, to be more precise.”
“The high sorceress?” Aaslo mumbled. “Like from the stories you told us? The one in charge of the magi?”
“Yes, and the stories are true, not just fantasies I made up to put you to sleep. Now listen. For all of human existence, certain members of the magic community, collectively called the magi, have been foretelling the future—”
“You mean prophecies,” said Mathias.
“Yes, you are part of one such prophecy.”
Mathias’s heart lurched, and his blood rushed with a thrill. He leaned forward in his seat. “Which prophecy?”
“The only prophecy that really matters. For hundreds of years, prophets from every country have been following the lines of the same prophecy.” Small red lights popped up all over the spinning globe, showing each of the places the prophecy had emerged, until the entire spectacle was red. “It is the only prophecy known to have visited magi in every corner of Aldrea, and it is the prophecy that foretells the future of us all. For this reason, it is called the Aldrea Prophecy.”
One of the fine tendrils that had been restraining Mathias’s excitement snapped. “I’m in this prophecy?” he said. Somehow, he knew it to be true. He had felt like he was waiting for something his entire life, waiting in anticipation for something big, bigger than Goldenwood could ever offer.
Magdelay said, “More accurately, you are the prophecy—at least as much of it as anyone cares to consider. Prophecies have many branches or lines. For every decision and every event, the lines of destiny and vertices of fate can change the outcome.”
“I don’t understand,” said Mathias. “What’s the difference between destiny and fate?”
Magdelay closed her hand, and the image disappeared. She glared at him. “I told you we don’t have time for questions.”
“But, you’re so good at answering them.”
“Don’t try that on me, boy. I know you too well.” After another glance, she sighed and said, “Fine.”
Mathias grinned. She might know him, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t work.
She said, “Destiny is your life path—your soul’s plan. It is the map of events and experiences your soul decided to endure during this lifetime. It has many branches because you have many decisions to make. If you are true to yourself, the branches will eventually lead back to your path of destiny. Every soul has a destiny, and we are all interacting, so sometimes our destinies cross. At times, the crossing is intentional and remains part of your destiny. The point where they unintentionally cross is fate. Fate is unplanned, at least by us, but still part of the overall tapestry. These points of fate are most often where people diverge from their destinies. Sometimes people never make it back, and sometimes a person goes so far that the only way back is to return to the point where he or she stepped off the path.”
Mathias was crestfallen. “So, my whole life is planned?”
“Were you not listening? Your destiny is planned. The decisions you make determine whether or not you reach it. Think about this. In life, for every action you take, you have a goal. If you cook a meal, your goal is to feed yourself. If you practice the sword, your goal is to defend yourself. Life without a goal would be pointless.”
“That makes sense,” Aaslo said.
Mathias looked at him, surprised the forester would accept the notion so readily.
“So, where do I fit into this prophecy?” Mathias said.
“In short, the Aldrea Prophecy is nothing but darkness. It is the death of everything—all life, all souls—gone from the face of Aldrea. A great enemy will desiccate the land, subjugating and destroying its people until those few survivors will be met with nothing but despair before they finally succumb. For more than two hundred years, the Prophets of Aldrea have followed the branches of the prophecy—millions of them—seeking hope. Every single branch leads to terror—except one. One, and only one, branch leads to our salvation. It is your branch, Mathias.”
Excitement twisted in his stomach until he felt sick. “The entire world, all of life, depends on me? You’re not serious. Are you doing this to punish me for slacking in my studies?” He looked to Aaslo. “Was this Aldrea Prophecy in the material I was supposed to read today? It’s a test, right?”
Aaslo didn’t look at him. The forester’s infernal gaze might have succeeded in burning Magdelay to the ground had she not been a sorceress. Aaslo said, “I don’t think she’s kidding.”
Mathias looked back to his grandmother. “You’re saying I’m the one. In the stories, there’s always the unwitting hero—the chosen one—”
“Someone who gets all the world’s problems dumped on him,” Aaslo muttered.
Mathias’s voice cracked when he said, “—and I’m it?”
“Yes,” Magdelay said.
Mathias could sit no longer under the rising internal tension. He stood from his seat and paced the room. “But, what about Aaslo? The chosen one always has a friend, a comrade, a sidekick.”
Magdelay eyed Aaslo sideways. “He does not appear in your prophecy.”
“What do you mean? He’s my best friend. My whole life he’s been my brother. He has to be in it somewhere.”
“He is not, and believe me, I’ve checked. We do not believe him to be a part of your destiny, but rather fate. The council and I decided to permit the friendship because he was not seen as being responsible for your demise in any of the prophecies. I, personally, hoped that this point of fate was a gift of the gods.”
“How do you know it’s him?” Aaslo said. The forester still had not taken his gaze from the woman, even for a second.
“It is part of the prophecy: He who bears the mark of the world will call upon the light, and within that light, shadows will swarm the enemy. Death to the god-bearers, he will stay the righteous hand, and bless this land with life reclaimed from their destruction.”
“He who bears the mark of the world,” said Mathias. “You mean my birthmark.” He reached up to stroke the tiniest smudge at his temple that was usually covered by his hair. “The one that looks like the map of Aldrea?”
Magdelay said, “Isn’t it obvious?”
Aaslo finally looked at Mathias. He said, “Every one chooses you. The whole world wants Mathias.” The forester rose from his seat, grabbed his pack from the floor, and left without another word. Mathias’s mind swirled in every direction. He didn’t know what he might have said, but he felt it should have been something. He knew Aaslo, though. He would say what needed to be said and assume every thing else to be understood.
The distance seemed much farther than on any other return to his home. The shuffle of dirt under Aaslo’s feet and the rustling of his pack against his back were louder to his ears than the wailing wind. He glanced toward the southwest to see the sun disappear behind the trees. It would sink beneath the distant mountains soon. He was glad it was not yet winter, when the village would be cast into night much earlier by the mountain on which he lived. Time was short. It was never a good idea to travel through the woods at night. Grams was a smart woman. They had always believed her to be a university professor who had retired upon taking custody of Mathias after his mother died in childbirth. Now, they knew her to be much more. She knew better than to travel at night. Something serious had to have occurred if she felt the need to risk it—something worth endangering their lives. He thought it must have to do with the rider.
Someone stepped in front of him, and he drew up short. He took a moment to pull himself from his thoughts and realize who it was.
“Hi, Aaslo,” she said softly.
He waited, his impatience mounting, while she stood there looking at him. Her brow was furrowed and her eyes were entreating.
“What is it, Reyla? I’m in a hurry.”
“I—I ran into Ms. Brelle a little while ago.”
“She said no—to my proposal. Just like that. No. She said I couldn’t marry Mathias and was kind of rude about it. She acted like she didn’t even have time to think about it.”
“What’s your point?”
“Well, it’s just that I thought he liked me. He and I have spent so much time together—”
“You and I spend time together,” said Aaslo. “Mathias and I spend time together. Sometimes you both spend time with me at the same time. You and Mathias don’t spend time together.”
She dropped her gaze to the ground, and he wondered if she truly felt the shame she bared. She looked up again and said, “I realize that now. It was you. It was always you. I’m sorry for doubting that.”
“I have to go, Reyla. It’s getting dark.”
Stepping into him, she put her hands on his chest and looked at him with those beautiful stormy eyes. “Please, Aaslo, forgive me. I do love the home you’re building for us, and it’s not that far from town. I know we can be happy together.”
Aaslo brushed a thumb across her cheek, wiping away a tear, and then took her face in his hands. He kissed her. He kissed her the way he had always dreamed of kissing her on the day she finally professed her love to him. Then he pulled her hands from his chest and said, “I could be happy with you, Reyla. You could never be happy with me.”
Aaslo felt as if his chest were being torn in two, but he didn’t have time to mourn his loss. He moved to step around his lost love, and she reached for him.
Mathias’s words echoed in his mind. He said, “I cannot settle for being second, Reyla. It’s over.”
If she said anything more, it was lost to the wind. Aaslo increased his pace and jogged briskly until he reached the foot of the mountain. There were no roads or trails to the home he shared with his father, and they were careful to keep it that way. The first stars of the night could be seen beyond the treetops as they swayed to and fro, and Aaslo was frustrated that time rushed so quickly whenever he was in a hurry. Now that he knew the gods had a plan, he was sure they were sadists.
The lantern was lit when he arrived home. He could see it resting in the center of their table through the open doorway. The table had only two chairs, and one of them was occupied. He kicked and scraped his boots on a piece of rough pine by the threshold, then stepped inside the humble abode, probably for the last time.
Ielo looked up from his meal and gave Aaslo a lopsided grin. It had been some time since all of his father’s face worked properly.
“Aaslo, a fine day for catching leaves, I see.” The old man nodded toward him, and Aaslo brushed a hand through his hair, sending the brown and gold flecks fluttering to the floor.
“And boar, from what I hear.”
Ielo stabbed his knife into the chunk of meat on his plate. “I took a bit off the flank for dinner and left some with Ms. Brelle. The rest is out in the meat shed.”
Aaslo perused his father’s form. “You’re uninjured?”
“I’d’ve said so if I weren’t,” Ielo muttered.
“I’m not sure you would,” Aaslo replied. “I’m leaving.”
“It’s dark now,” Ielo said. “You don’t need to be out in the forest at night. I shouldn’t have to say that.”
Aaslo crossed to his bed in the corner and pulled a small chest from beneath it. He put a few of the supplies from his pack into the chest and replaced them with items he thought might be needed for a journey.
“Where are you going?” Ielo said.
Aaslo glanced over his shoulder to see his father turned in his chair, staring at him with concern.
“I don’t know,” he said as he went back to packing.
“Then, you go with Mathias?”
“What do you know of it?” Aaslo said, looking back at him again.
“Only what you’ve told me, which is nothing,” Ielo replied. “But, I doubt you’d leave this house at night for any other reason.”
“A rider came into town. She’d been attacked and was nearly dead. It spooked Ms. Brelle, and now she and Mathias need to leave town.” He paused, wondering how much he should say, then decided his father deserved the truth. “Mathias is some kind of prophesied hero, and she’s taking him away to save the world. They’re leaving at night”—he glanced up, looking at his father pointedly—“through the woods.”
Ielo looked at him as if he suspected a head injury, then nodded. “They’ll need a guide, I suppose. I can do it. I’m more familiar with the forest on the route out of town.”
“No,” Aaslo said. “He’s my brother. I may not be a part of his destiny, but our fates are intertwined. I will go with him.”
“Then, you’ll leave the forest?” Ielo said.
Aaslo smirked. “Someone has keep the chosen one’s head on his shoulders.”
Aaslo was abruptly reminded of the gods’ sadism. He only ever got a half smile from his father, but he got a whole frown. Pausing, he said, “Before I go, tell me about Mother. Do you know where she went? Maybe I could find her.”
Ielo turned his gaze toward the fire. “I don’t see the point. You already know that after we married, she decided she didn’t want to live in the forest. She was going to leave before discovering she was pregnant. I begged her to give it a chance. She agreed to stay long enough to wean you; then she was gone. I don’t know where she went. She said she wanted to live in a big city. She wanted romance and fancy things.”
Aaslo felt like he had been punched in the gut. First his mother, now Reyla. He shook his head. “What good are fancy things? Seems better to have practical ones.”
Ielo grunted and nodded. He said, “How far do you intend to follow him?”
“As far as he needs to go.”
The warmth had left with the sun, and Mathias wished he had grabbed a warmer coat. Having never traveled beyond the town, he hadn’t realized how cold it could get riding atop a horse in the wind. It had only been an hour since they left the house, and he was already wishing for a warm fire and cozy bed. His horse snorted, and Mathias cringed. He felt like every sound was a call to the bandits—or whoever they were. He rode the horse that had belonged to the mysterious rider, and it looked none the worse for wear. It was difficult for him to accept that his grandmother was a sorceress, but the proof was in the beast. Magdelay had healed and soothed the injured animal in a matter of minutes, and now Mathias was riding it away from his home.
“Grams,” he said in a harsh whisper.
“What?” she said.
Although he couldn’t see her, he could feel her tension. She was alert, her gaze constantly roving the dark forest that surrounded them. The road was narrow between Goldenwood and Mierwyl, barely wide enough for a wagon. During the growing season, the trees and plants had to be continually trimmed or the road would disappear in a matter of weeks.
“Is it safe to speak?”
“I sense no one in the area. Speak quietly if you must.”
“You told us that magic is inherited. If you’re the high sorceress, then that means I’m a magus, too, right?”
The silent minutes that followed seemed to stretch into infinity. Finally, she said, “I am not your grandmother, Mathias. You are not of my bloodline.”
Mathias shivered, and it had nothing to do with the wind. Of all the things he thought she might have said, that had not been one of them.
Before he could rouse a response, Magdelay added, “You are, however, a member of one of the twelve bloodlines.”
“But not yours.”
“Correct. Your parents had been married little more than a year when you were born. Your mother was a young sorceress of the Sereshian bloodline. She possessed moderate power and had little experience. The Council of Magi agreed that it was in the best interest of the world for you to be taken into protective custody. Your parents protested, of course, but it was not their choice.”
He yanked on the reins, causing the horse to snort loudly as it came to an abrupt halt. Mathias’s face heated, and he shouted, forgetting the potential threat. “You stole me from my parents!”
Magdelay stopped and turned her horse so that she faced him. “It was for your own good. Your parents could not have protected you from those who sought your death. It was some time before they accepted that; but, eventually, they did.”
“What happened to them?”
“Nothing happened to them,” she said. “Your mother is the sorceress of Bellbry Court, a position she could never have earned on her own talent, except she married the earl.”
“Wait, my father is the Earl of Bellbry?”
“Yes, although your mother is technically in the higher position, despite the fact that she received it by virtue of her marriage—and, I suppose, the council’s guilt over taking their child.”
“You don’t speak very highly of my mother,” Mathias said with accusation. His shoulders were tense, and he wanted to throttle something.
“Of course not. She is a Sereshian, and not just in name. She is fully committed to their cause.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s politics—politics with a long history.” Magdelay guided her horse back down the road, and Mathias begrudgingly followed while she explained. “As you know, magic is only passed down the bloodlines. People without magic are called seculars. Although we live longer than seculars, it is difficult for us to procreate. We have more success if we mate with seculars. Doing so waters down the bloodline, though, so the practice is discouraged unless the bloodline is in peril. There used to be fifteen bloodlines. Now, there are only twelve. Not only that, but the oldest of us, elder magi like me, bear a fraction of the power carried by our ancestors. The younger generation—magi like your mother—dream of possessing even half that of an elder. In short, human-borne magic is dying.”
“So, you hate her because she’s weaker than you?”
“No, I pity her for that. I dislike her because of her cause. Each of the bloodlines approaches magic—and its impending expiry—in its own way. Some approaches are compatible. Others are not. I am of the Etrieli line. We pursue the advancement of applied magic through research and development. Your mother is a Sereshian. They use magic for profit and care nothing for its restoration. They believe their bloodline is best served by acquiring as much wealth as possible while they have the advantage. We have been at odds for as long as the bloodlines have existed.”
“If you hate them so much, why did you raise me? Why not send me to someone else?”
“You are our savior. It was agreed that the strongest should protect you. Besides that, only I held the power to suppress your own for so long.”
With every question she answered, with every explanation, Mathias’s nerves burned hotter. “If I’m supposed to be this powerful savior, why would you suppress my power? Why not teach me to use it?”
“A little magic boy running around Goldenwood would draw attention. Each member of the bloodlines is known and registered. If some random child exhibits power, people will investigate. Only the council and your parents know of your existence, and we hoped to keep it that way until you were grown and fully trained. You have not yet realized this, but I have been teaching you magic. The dead languages, the artwork, the meditations, even some of the dances, are spells. You know them already. Once you learn to connect with your power, it will not take long for you to learn to apply them practically.”
Mathias’s anger finally overcame his curiosity. “You’re saying that nothing in my life has been real?”
“Don’t get snippy with me. I know you, Mathias.”
Mathias started to protest, but the words died before reaching his lips. His grandmother—no, Magdelay—was right. He wanted this. He wanted it more than he wanted to have known his parents, and that made him angry.
“Shhh…” Magdelay said with urgency as she drew her horse to a halt.
Mathias pulled the reins, then reached over to loosen his sword. The moon was but a sliver, and the stars were obscured by a thin haze. Darkness surrounded them such that he was unable to discern a single tree. He had no idea how Magdelay had managed to keep to the road, but as high sorceress, he was sure, she had her ways. Still, he heard nothing unusual over the rustling branches and hollow breeze.
It was the motion that caught his attention. A silhouette hurried toward them from behind. With blood pounding in his ears, Mathias barely caught the scuff of boots over the rough road. A flicker of light drew his attention away from the figure. Thin tendrils of purple lightning snapped around Magdelay’s fist and twisted up her forearm as she turned to face their stalker. Her determined gaze reflected the violet light as she drew back her arm.
It was too late. Fire scorched his back as Mathias was thrown from his horse. The attack had come from the other direction. Before he knew it, shadows were converging on them from every side. Magdelay was screaming something, but he had no time to consider her words. He reached for his hilt and couldn’t help but cry out at the ripping of flesh across his back. The smell of roasted meat and burnt hair reached his nose, and he knew it to be his own. Somehow, it didn’t hurt as badly as he would have thought. With the shadows getting closer, he knew he needed to get to his feet. He tucked his legs under him and drew his sword as he rose. The night was abruptly lit with the gold and purple of fire and lightning. Mathias’s blade flashed in the light, then clashed with the weapon of the nearest assailant. It was then that he got his first look at the enemy.
Before he could wrap his mind around the truth, a searing pain tore through his calf, and he faltered. He caught a glimpse of the feathered shaft sticking from his leg as his assailant’s axe fell toward his head. Struggling to raise his blade in time, he knew it was for naught. He jerked, falling to one knee, his lungs ceasing to take breath as something jabbed into his back. Another arrow, he thought. He watched in agony as the axe-wielding creature in front of him was suddenly split into two, showering him in milky white blood and gore. The tightness in Mathias’s chest finally released, and he gasped to capture every bit of air he had missed in that eternal, excruciating moment.
His lust for survival overrode his pain, and Mathias struggled to his feet, then turned to meet his attackers. An arrow sliced across his arm as he lunged to stab one of the creatures through the throat. Grabbing the dying fiend, he used it as a shield to block two more arrows while simultaneously searching the forest for the archer. The only light now came from a few bushes set ablaze during the initial attack, and Mathias realized the flicker of purple lightning had gone.
“Magdelay,” he called. “Magdelay, where are you? Grams?”
Mathias’s head began to spin, and he blinked to clear his vision. If Magdelay wasn’t there, then who was fighting the other creatures? Who had saved him from losing his head? He glanced around, seeking the source of the sounds of battle, but he could only see two dark silhouettes struggling in the trees just beyond the road. He wheezed, and then hot liquid shot up his throat. Black in the darkness, his blood spilled over the pale flesh of the creature behind whom he hid. Coughing and sputtering for breath, he could no longer hold his own weight, much less the weight of another. Mathias crashed to the ground, half buried under the fiendish corpse.
Movement from the trees caught his eye, and he grasped for his sword, which he didn’t remember dropping. Pawing at the dirt, he searched in vain as another of the creatures scurried in his direction. A shout from his other side drew his gaze, and a dark figure ran toward him. He glanced back to his attacker just in time to witness the descent of the blade that would take his life. It happened so fast. The sword had impaled him, thrust deep into the ground beneath him, faster than he could have blinked. But he didn’t blink. He saw every glint of firelight slither across the mottled blade. He sought the face of his killer, the foreign beast that had robbed him of life, of his destiny, but the creature was gone. Abandoned. The chosen one—alone in death, reduced to insignificance before his journey had even begun.
He blinked as the stars glittered above him through a break in the haze. How had he never noticed such brilliant beauty?
Was that a sound? It was so far away. Should he try to find it? The stars were winking out, one by one. Only one was now left, and he feared to look away lest it disappear, too. He didn’t want to be alone in the darkness.
Something massive blocked his view of his last light.
“I’m real, Mathias! Don’t die. Mathias, breathe! Mathias!”
He knew that face, and he knew that voice. He was not alone.
“I’m real, Mathias! Wake up! No, Mathias, no!”
Aaslo shook Mathias, then grabbed his face. He looked into his friend’s distant gaze and saw with brutal clarity that the light had left. Panic threatened to overcome him, but he knew he had to make it right. Somehow, he had to fix Mathias. He looked into the trees and saw a distant purple glow. It was far from the road—too far. He couldn’t leave Mathias. If more of those creatures lurked nearby, they might take Mathias away. Then how would he save him? Mathias was the chosen one. It was his destiny to save the world. He couldn’t die on the first day of their journey. The world needed Mathias to live. Aaslo needed him to live.
Aaslo pushed a creature’s corpse off, then waited. Magdelay would return. She was the high sorceress. Of course she would return. As he surveyed the carnage, his gaze roved over the pools of blood, milky in the firelight and smelling of tannin, save for the one human corpse beneath him. Its blood was dark and held the sour scent of metal. He spied a familiar sword lying just inches beyond the reach of Mathias’s outstretched hand, the fallen savior’s fingers still gripping the dirt where they had searched for the weapon. Aaslo took Mathias’s hand, warm as a living man’s, and placed the hilt within it. Looking back to the trees, he could see the purple glow intermittently lighting the trees, so he knew Magdelay lived. He waited. He had to protect Mathias.
Eventually, his panic subsided, and a dull emptiness settled inside him. He leaned down to examine the creature he had pushed off Mathias, though the dwindling fire in the bushes did not provide much light. The fiend was unlike anything he had ever seen. With its saggy purplish skin and milky white eyes, it seemed otherworldly. It was monstrous, and its vague human likeness made the creature’s appearance all the worse. This specimen wore leather armor, like most of them, and had wielded a sword. A few of the others were dressed like common folk, some bearing swords and hatchets or axes, and others wielding sticks and rocks.
When the sorceress finally returned, he had just finished searching the bodies nearest Mathias, finding nothing of use. When Magdelay saw him, the purple lightning erupted over her hands, but it was dim compared to the vivid blast he had seen earlier. Aaslo stepped in front of Mathias’s body and paused.
Magdelay’s voice hissed with vitriol as she said, “Why are you here, and how did you follow us without me knowing?”
“You know why I’m here. He’s my brother. I came to join you, but I found their trail in the forest. They were following you, and I followed them. Their trail turned away from the road, and I realized they were taking a shortcut to ambush you at this bend. I tried to catch up to warn you, but I was on foot, and you were riding.”
While she did not release her power, she did appear less likely to attack him. “Well, the horses are gone now,” she said. “How’s Mathias?” She nodded toward what she could see of Mathias’s body. “He is injured. Is it serious?”
“I’ve been waiting for you—it seems like forever. You need to fix him. Use your magic,” he said as he stepped to the side.
He knew she would be upset when she saw Mathias sprawled lifeless on the ground with a sword through his heart, but he didn’t expect the shriek that erupted from the doggedly poised sorceress.
Magdelay rushed to Mathias’s side, glanced at the sword, and then slapped Mathias’s face.
Aaslo said, “I left it in—the sword—you know, because they say to leave it in or it’ll bleed more.”
“It’s through his heart, Aaslo! He’s dead!”
“But you can fix him. You’re the most powerful magus in the kingdom! You can fix him!”
“No, Aaslo, I cannot fix death!” She fell onto her rear in the bloody mud and buried her face in her hands. “I failed! All these years, the plans, the preparations, and I failed. We’re doomed. There is nothing to be done. The savior is dead, and we have not even a fool’s hope.”
“What? No. You have to fix him! You fixed the horse. Fix him!”
She shook her head, her expression one of defeat. “I could heal his body, but I cannot return his soul. No one can. He’s dead, Aaslo.”
Aaslo had never felt anything like what he was feeling in that moment. Nothing made sense, and he had no desire to pick and choose his words. “You were supposed to protect him! It was your job. You left him here in the road, all alone with these, these, things!”
“He wasn’t alone. I realized it was you right before they attacked. Mathias was trained for this. He could have prevailed but for the magus. The magus somehow masked their presence from me. I cast a wide net that should have sensed them from miles away. It should have sensed you. Yet, it did not.”
“Not until I stepped from their path,” he said. “You sensed me when I took to the road to warn you.”
Magdelay sighed. “Yes, he must have masked their path somehow. He attacked Mathias first. I didn’t see it coming. The magus was more powerful. I didn’t think I could defeat him, so I led him away to keep him from attacking Mathias again and to give you two time to escape should I fall. It was only by luck that I prevailed.”
“By what luck?” Aaslo said. “Does he live?”
“No, he lit a fireball while standing under a fiergolen tree.”
“Why would he do something so stupid?”
She shook her head, but her heart seemed absent—defeated. “I don’t believe they grow outside the Efestrian Forest. He likely didn’t know it would explode. This—” She waved a hand over the slaughter. “We cannot stay here. I must inform the council. The king will also need to know. You should go home, Aaslo. There is nothing more you can do.”
“Go home? What about the enemy? What about the impending doom?”
“We have already lost,” Magdelay said. “It will probably be a while before they reach Goldenwood. Enjoy what time you have left.”
Aaslo clenched his fist. “By the time they reach Goldenwood, there will be no one left to help us.”
“No one can help anyone.” She nodded toward Mathias, where he lay still as the dirt beneath him. “Only he could save us, and he is dead.”
“That’s absurd,” said Aaslo. “If one man can do it, another can as well.”
“No, I told you, every branch of the prophecy ends in defeat except his, but he has to be alive to make it happen. I don’t know how or why, but it had to be him. He must have had some special skill or power or a connection with the enemy, or the blessing of the gods.… It doesn’t matter anymore.”
Aaslo growled, then said, “If you think I’m going to sit back and wait to die, then you don’t know me at all. These things killed Mathias, and they’re threatening to kill everything else. We need to stop them.”
“You think to take up Mathias’s banner? You are not the savior.”
“No, I’m a forester. Foresters do what needs doing, even when no one else wants to. Beyond that, you don’t know what I am. You said I wasn’t in the prophecy.”
“I said you weren’t in his prophecy. I told you that I checked with the prophets. You have your own branch.”
“Well, what does this prophecy say about me?”
“Death. Your branch is death. So say all the prophets.”
“If my branch is death, then why did you let me befriend Mathias?”
“You did not cause his death, Aaslo. You are not responsible for this. If anything, you gave him a fighting chance.” She waved at the corpses littering the ground and said, “You killed all of these, didn’t you?”
Aaslo nodded, then tilted his head to stare at the night sky. He didn’t want to look at the bodies. He said, “Mathias was severely injured. Otherwise, he could have done it himself.”
“Yes, I know. That was my fault,” she said, her voice quavering.
Aaslo finally looked at Mathias, his friend, lying there as if waiting only to be told to breathe. “I’m his brother in all things. That’s what we always said. Brothers in all things that matter and those that don’t. If this was important to him, then it’s important to me. If he can’t finish his destiny, then I’ll finish it for him.”
Rising to her feet, Magdelay said, “I appreciate the sentiment, Aaslo, but it is for naught. I must get to the council quickly. If you truly want to help, you can take the news to the king.”
“The king,” Aaslo echoed. “The king in Tyellí?”
“Yes, the King of Uyan, our king.”
Aaslo took only a breath to contemplate the trip to meet the king, and he was greatly disturbed. “There are no forests near Tyellí.”
“No,” Magdelay said, with patronizing patience, “you will have to leave the forest, and you will need to take proof. The king does not know you, and this is something he will need to see for himself.”
“You want me to take Mathias to Tyellí? How? That’s weeks from here by horse, and we seem to be out of those.”
“No, you are right,” Magdelay said, looking down at the body. “You cannot take his body. Cut off his head.”
Aaslo’s stomach heaved. “What?”
“I will cast a preservation spell upon the head so that it won’t decompose. The king will need to see the mark.”
“I can’t—I can’t travel to Tyellí carrying my brother’s head. What’s wrong with you? You raised him. Don’t you feel anything?”
Magdelay glared at him. “Of course I do. I grew to love that boy as my own. I regret that I didn’t tell him that when I revealed truth of his birthright, but we must prioritize, and our feelings fall very, very far down the list. In fact, they’re not even on this list.”
She picked up the axe of a fallen creature and held it out for him. “You must do it.”
Aaslo’s stomach continued to flip and spin, and he thought he might become sick. He looked at the oddly shaped axe, crusted in old blood, and his lip curled in disgust. “No, I’ll use my own.”
“So be it,” she said.
The sorceress created a glowing green orb over her head to light the ground in front of her. She walked to the side of the road and waved her hands in a strange pattern while muttering unintelligible words. The ground began to peel away in layers to form a deep trough with a mound at one end. Then the sorceress—Mathias’s grandmother—turned away.
Aaslo said, “I’ll be right back.” He shuffled down the road a short way to where he had first stepped off the enemy’s path. There, he found the pack he had discarded in his haste. All he could hear as he collected his belongings was I should have run faster.
His steps were noticeably slower upon his return to the scene. The scent of tannin soured the air around it, and he wanted nothing more than to turn and go back the way he had come. He tried not to think of what he was doing. It’s just like cutting a log, he told himself. It’s Mathias, his heart replied.
Releasing his pack, he grabbed the hilt of the sword in Mathias’s chest and wrenched it from the ground before launching it into the forest with as much strength as he could muster. He then picked up his axe and stood over the body.
“I’m sorry. If it has to be anybody, then it should be me.” After taking a deep breath—and then another—he raised the axe and brought it down with a thwap. Something broke inside him. It was as if he could hear the crash, like a glass shattering in his mind.
“Is it done?” Magdelay said.
Aaslo’s gaze fell on the bloody stump of Mathias’s neck. He looked up to see that the head had rolled a few feet away and was now staring at him. He didn’t vomit. He was surprised. He had thought he would be sick, but his stomach felt like an empty pit. Aaslo picked up the head by its wavy golden locks and stared into the empty, lifeless eyes—not at all like Mathias’s. They were the eyes of a man he didn’t know.
“Yes,” Aaslo said, “do you need to see it to cast the spell?”
“Unfortunately,” Magdelay replied.
While Magdelay worked her magic, Aaslo pulled a burlap sack from his pack. He had intended to use it for gathering useful plants and herbs along the journey, but he supposed it would do for a head. Only once the head was placed inside did he realize how heavy it was. He grumbled, “A burlap sack is a poor burial shroud.”
Magdelay’s gaze was distant. “It is no longer of consequence. We are all dead and buried under the shroud of this prophecy.” She pointed to the trench and said, “Do not bury him with his sword. It was a gift from the council.”
“He needs a sword,” Aaslo mumbled, barely able to force his voice past his lips.
“What’s that?” she huffed.
Aaslo swallowed hard, his voice rising in anger. “He needs a sword. He needs his head, and he needs a sword.” He gripped the bag against his chest and again muttered, “He needs a sword.”
“Then bury him with yours,” she said testily.
Aaslo had nearly forgotten about his sword. During the battle, he had used his axe, as it was his preference. Mathias had given him the sword, because he had wanted a training partner. Aaslo supposed it was only appropriate to give it back. He removed Mathias’s sword belt and wrapped it around his own waist before placing his sword in the pit with the rest of his best friend’s body. Magdelay covered it over with dirt, and then they both stood in silence. After a few minutes, Aaslo began dragging the creatures’ bodies into the woods where they wouldn’t be easily found, while Magdelay continued to stare at the fresh grave.
Finally, she said, “We must go.”
Myropa watched as the two shadowy figures disappeared into the darkness. She would find them again; but, for now, she had another task. She studied the fresh dirt piled over the young man’s headless body. It was a shame. He had been a handsome man with great potential. Still, he wasn’t the first to die in this war, and he certainly wouldn’t be the last. She turned her gaze back to the dark road. Was it coincidence that she had been sent there—at that very moment? Two of the travelers had been unknown to her, but the third she would have recognized anywhere. Never had she thought that one person could drive another to such madness, to lose herself, to utterly destroy her entire being until not even her soul was her own. Was it fate or destiny that had driven her back onto that path?
Turning away, she moved fifty paces into the forest with little more than a thought. On silent feet, she followed the iridescent path that twisted between the tangled branches rendered black by night. She felt no dread nor thrill on the gloomy trek through the untamed wood. Long past were the days of threats by forest terrors. If only she had felt so dispassionate while she lived, she would not be in her present state.
The rich aroma of roasted meat tinged with the sour scent of charred hair and bone prickled her nose. While the taste of a savory meal or delectable desert was denied to her, the scent of death was all the more pungent. It was a special torment for her kind, and a torture overshadowed only by the per sis tent, aching chill that suffused her body. She could feel the heat radiating from the wood still burning at its core, but never would her flesh be warmed.
She knelt on the sooty leaves, though they did not crackle beneath her—proof again that she was only a trespasser in this world. The wizard was dead. Well, he would be in a moment. A talented healer might have repaired enough of his scorched body for revival. It was too bad for him that none were pre sent. She leaned down to whisper in his ear, and then he was standing in front of her, a luminescent man-shaped figure wrapped in a shroud of swirling light.
“Myropa,” he said—a single word tainted with accusation.
She smiled with indulgence. “Disappointed? Trust me when I say that this is all my pleasure.”
“Put me back, Myropa. You have gone too far.”
She held her hand out to the charred mass of flesh on the ground. “You wish to go back to that?”
“What is this?” he shouted in alarm. “That woman! What has she done? It is impossible. She could not have bested me. I am far stronger than she.”
Myropa tsked and said, “Obriday, you were always so arrogant. I told you it would be your downfall.” She pointed to the ashy remains of the tree beside his corpse. “You killed yourself, actually, blew yourself up, to be precise. You should not have lit a flame near a fiergolen tree.”
“What is a fiergolen tree? Bah, never mind that. Put me back and take me to Byella for healing.”
“You know I cannot do that, Obriday. It is your time. You are marked.” Myropa dragged one finger along the iridescent tether that bound her to him. “It will not break until you are delivered to the Sea—if it will have you.”
“There has been a mistake. Pithor would not allow it. I am an incendia.”
“Well, you certainly are now,” she said wryly. “Remember, I do not work for Pithor.”
Obriday curled his lip. “You should have more respect for the Deliverer of Grace and be grateful to His Mighty Light for assigning you to this team. It is likely your only chance for salvation, should you serve him well.”
Myropa plucked the iridescent cord between them. “Yes, I have seen his light. Pithor may be a deadly force in this world, but he is nothing to me. He came begging on his knees for aid from Axus. He will pay a heavy price for my services.”
“It is not a shame to subjugate oneself to the gods. Pithor is the Blessed Chosen. While others scoff with skepticism, he knelt at the feet of the temple’s idol. With unmatched and undeniable faith and humility, he prayed for aid, and it was granted. Axus, the God of Death, demands you serve Pithor, and Pithor wants me alive.”
Myropa brushed her long, dark curls over her shoulder. “I was not sent by Axus. I am here at Trostili’s behest. Axus may be the God of Death, but he does not make the rules.”
Lifting his chin, Obriday said, “The God of Death, the God of War—what difference does it make? They are both on our side, and theirs is the will of the gods.”
“Are you so sure about that? Axus stands to gain much power from Pithor’s war. I am not certain he has the other gods’ approval.”
“What do you know of the gods’ desires? Most are just as eager as Pithor to see this world cleansed. The others don’t care. Tell me, did any of them interfere in the realization of the prophecy? Did we succeed? Did we kill the Lightbane?”
From the dozens of thumb-sized marbles dangling on black cords at her waist, Myropa selected one that glowed with a pale blue light. She twirled it in the air before him and said, “Yes, he is dead.” She indiscriminately grabbed a handful more and said, “So is your team.” Dropping them back to her side with a clatter, she manifested a clear, empty orb in her open palm. With the vessel pinched between her finger and thumb, she placed it in the path of light between them and said, “So are you.”
“Wait, you must inform the deliverer that the Lightbane is dead. He must know that he has already won.”
Myropa hummed a slow tune, one tiny vestige of her past, and said, “You are not listening, Obriday. You are dead. The concerns of this world—Pithor and his plans—no longer matter for you. Have you nothing of yourself to remember?”
“I cannot be dead! I am an incendia. I am to lead our troops against the darkness that infests the hearts of man. I will help bring His light into the world.”
With a deep inhale, Myropa activated the tiny sphere. “No, Obriday, your tasks are done. Now, you go into the Afterlife.”
Excerpted from Fate of the Fallen, copyright © 2019 by Kel Kade.