"With the passing of the long night comes magick's last light"
Excerpt from Wit'ch Star: Chapter 1
Seated on the Rosethorn throne, Elena studied the riddle before her. The small stranger, dressed in a patchwork of silks and linens, appeared just a boy with his smooth and unlined face. He stood no taller than a lad of ten winters—but he was clearly no youngster. His manner was too calm and assured under the gazes of those gathered in the Grand Hall. His eyes glinted with sarcastic amusement, bitter and road-worn. And the set of his lips, shadowing a smile, remained both hard and cold.
Elena felt a twinge of unease near the man, despite his illusion of innocence.
The stranger bowed before her, dropping to one knee and sweeping off his foppish hat. A score of bells—tin, silver, gold, and copper, sewn throughout his clothes—jangled brightly, sparkling with the same sardonic amusement as their owner.
A taller figure stepped to the tiny man’s side. It was Prince Tylamon Royson, Lord of Castle Mryl to the north. The prince-turned-pirate had forgone his usual finery and wore scuffed black boots and a salt-scarred black cloak. His cheeks were ruddy, and his sandy hair unkempt. He had arrived at the island’s docks with the rising sun and had requested an immediate audience with Elena and the war council.
The prince bowed to one knee, then motioned to the stranger. “May I present Harlequin Quail. He has come far with news you should hear.”
Elena motioned for them both to stand. “Rise, Lord Tyrus. Be welcome. She studied this newcomer as he rose to his feet amid another chorus of jingling. It was clear the man had indeed come from far. His face was oddly complexioned: a paleness that bordered on blue, as if the man were forever suffocating. But it was the hue of his eyes that was the most striking—a shining gold, currently full of a wry slyness.
“I’m sorry for disturbing you so early on this summer morning,” Lord Tyrus intoned formerly, straightening his disheveled cloak as if noticing for the first time his sorry state.
It was indeed early. Elena had not even had a chance to partake her morning meal. Her empty stomach made her patience short—and she was not the only one.
Er’ril, her liegeman and husband, spoke from his station beside the throne. “What is this urgency, Lord Tyrus? We have no time for fools and jesters.”
Elena did not have to glance to the side to know the Standi plainsman wore his usual hard scowl. She had seen it often enough over the last two moons as sour tidings had been flowing into Alasea: supply chains to the island cut off by monsters and strange weather, townships allied to their cause suddenly struck by fires and plagues, ill-shaped beasts roaming the countryside keeping all close to their hearths, making travel hazardous.
But the worst tidings of all struck closer to home.
Elementals, those rare folk tuned to the Land’s energy, were succumbing to some dread malaise. The Mer’ai were losing their sea sense and their link to their dragons, the Elv’in ships could not fly as high or far, and just the day before, Nee’lahn reported that the voice of her lute had grown weaker as the tree spirit faded inside. It was now clear that whatever damage had been inflicted upon the Land by the Weirgates was continuing its onslaught. Elemental magicks waned as if from a bleeding wound.
As a consequence, the press of dwindling time weighed upon them all. If they were to act against the Gul’gotha, it would have to be soon—before their own forces weakened further, before the gifts of the Land faded completely away. But their armies were spread wide, gathering them difficult, and the distances great. Presently, as matters were, the campaign upon the Dark Lord’s stronghold, the volcanic Blackhall, could begin no sooner than next spring. According to Er’ril, it would take until at least midwinter to position all their armies. And an assault upon the island then, when the northern seas were beset with savage storms, would give the advantage to Blackhall.
So spring at the earliest, when the winter storms died away.
Still, even by then, Elena had begun to doubt whether they’d be ready. Their forces were far from prepared. So much was still unknown. Tol’chuk had yet to return from his own lands, gone now these past two moons with Fardale and a handful of others, off to learn what he could from his og’re elders about the link between heartstone and ebon’stone. Many of the elv’in scout ships had not returned from reconnaissance trips over the lands and waters around Blackhall. The d’warf army, led by Wennar, had sent crows with news that their forces yet gathered near Penryn. The d’warf captain wanted more time to rally his people. But time was short for all of them
And now more urgent news from afar.
Lord Tyrus turned to his companion. “Tell them, Harlequin. Tell them what you’ve learned.”
The tiny figure nodded. “I come with tidings both bright and grim.” A coin appeared in his hand as if conjured from nothing. With the flick of a wrist, the figure tossed the bit of gold high into the air. Torchlight glinted off its surface.
Elena’s gaze could not help but be drawn by the coin’s flight as it danced among the room’s rafters.
As it fell, her eyes followed it down. She startled back into her seat upon finding the strange man now standing toe-to-toe before her, leaning in. He had crossed the distance in a heartbeat, silent despite the hundred bells he wore.
Even Er’ril was caught by surprise. With a half roar, he swept out his sword and bared it between her and the man. “What trick is this?”
As answer, the man caught the falling coin in an outstretched palm, winked salaciously at Elena, then backed down the two steps, again jangling with a chorus of bells.
Lord Tyrus spoke up, a cold smile on his face. “Be not fooled by Harlequin’s motley appearance. He is more than he appears. For these past ten winters, he has been my master spy, in service to the Pirate Guild of Port Rawl. There are no better eyes and ears to sneak upon others unaware.”
Elena straightened in her seat. “So it would seem.”
Er’ril pulled back his sword but did not sheathe it. “Enough of these tricks. If he comes with some information, let’s hear it already.”
“So the iron man asks, so it shall be.” Harlequin held up this gold coin to the flash of torchlight. “First the bright news. You’ve cut the Black Heart a deeper wound than even you suspect. He is not pleased by the destruction of his black statues. He’s lost his precious d’warf army and is now only left with men and monsters to defend his volcanic lair.”
Tyrus interrupted and explained, “Harlequin has spent the last half winter up in the north, scouting the edges of Blackhall. He’s prepared charts and logs of the Dark Lord’s forces and strengths.”
Er’ril grumbled, “How did he come by these?”
Harlequin stared brazenly up at Er’ril. “From under the nose of the Dark Lord’s own lieutenant. I believe a brother of yours, is he not?”
Elena glanced to Er’ril. Though his face remained stoic, she saw the angered glint in his eye.
“He is not my brother,” her liegeman said coldly.
Elena spoke into the tension, “Are you saying you were inside Blackhall itself?”
Harlequin’s mask of amusement cracked. Elena spotted a glimpse of something pained and darker beyond. “Aye,” he whispered. “I’ve walked its monstrous halls and hollowed rooms—and pray I never do so again.”
Elena leaned forward. “And you mentioned grim news, Master Quail?”
“Grim news indeed.” Harlequin lifted his arm and opened the fingers clenched around the gold coin. Upon his palm now rested a lump of coal. “If you wish to defeat the Black Heart, it must be done by Midsummer Eve.”
Elena frowned. “In one moon’s time?”
“Impossible,” Er’ril scoffed.
Harlequin fixed Elena with those strange gold eyes. The truth of his next words were plain in his gaze. “If you don’t stop the Black Beast by the next full moon, you will all be dead.”
* * *
Meric ran the length of the Stormwing. His feet flew with practiced ease across the familiar planks, hurdling over balustrades and leaping decks.
His eyes remained fixed to the skies. Through the thick morning mists, a dark speck was now visible high overhead, plummeting gracelessly out of the sky. It was one of the elv’in scoutships, returning from north, from the lands and seas around the volcanic island of Blackhall.
Something was wrong.
Reaching the prow of his own ship, Meric lifted both arms and cast out his powers. A surge of energy billowed through his form and into the sky, racing upward to meet the falling ship. From a corner of his mind, he felt his magick flow into the empty well that was the other’s boat’s iron keel. He fed his power, but it seemed he was too late. The plummeting ship continued its dive toward the waters around A’loa Glen.
As he fought the inevitable, Meric felt the weight of the other ship upon his ownshoulders. He was slowly driven to one knee, arms raised and shaking. The Stormwing, drained of its own magickal energies, began to drift lower toward the docks.
Gasping in his exertions, Meric refused to relent. Mother above, help me!
He now saw with two sets of eyes: a pair looking up and a pair looking down. Linked between the two ships, he felt the weak beat of the ship’s captain. Frelisha. A second cousin to his mother. She was barely alive. She must have been drained of all her energies to bring the ship even this close to home.
Below, Meric whispered into the wind. “Do not give up, cousin.”
He was heard. Through his magickal connection, the last words of the captain reached him. “We are betrayed!”
With this final utterance, the heartbeat held between Meric’s upraised hands fluttered once more, then stopped forever.
“No!” Meric fell to his other knee.
A moment later, a huge shadow shot past the starboard rail. The explosion of wood and blast of water nearby was a distant echo. Meric slumped to his planks, head hanging. He stared down at the two hands that had been too weak to catch his cousin and her ship.
As alarm bells clanged along the docks and shouts rose in a chorus of panic, one word whispered from his lips: “Betrayed…”
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