"Heralded by the dragon's roar and born in a maelstrom of ice and flame, this is the way the war began"
Excerpt from Wit'ch War: Chapter 1
With only the crash of waves for company, Elena stood by the cliff's edge and stared out across the blue seas. At the horizon, the sun was just dawning, crowning the distant islands of the Archipelago with rosy haloes of mist. Closer to the coast, a single-masted fishing trawler fought the tide to ply its trade among the many isles and reefs. Over its sails, gulls and terns argued while hunting the same generous waters. Nearer still, at the base of the steep bluff, the rocky shore was already occupied by the lounging bodies of camping sealions. The scolding barks of mothers to their pups and the occasional huffing roar of a territorial bull echoed up to her.
Sighing, Elena turned her back on the sight. Since the seadragons of the Mer'ai had left fifteen days ago, the routines of the coastline were already returning to normal. Such was the resiliency of nature.
As if to remind her further of the natural world's strength, a stiff morning breeze tugged at her hair, blowing it into her eyes. Irritated, she pushed back the waving strands with gloved fingers and attempted to trap the stray locks behind her ears, but the winds fought her efforts. It had been over two moons since Er'ril had last cropped her hair, and the length had grown to be a nuisance -- too short to fix with ribbons and pins, yet too long to easily manage, especially with her hair beginning to show its curl again. Still, she kept her complaints to herself, fearing Er'ril might take the shears to her once again.
She frowned at the thought. She was tired of looking like a boy.
Though she had readily accepted the necessity of the disguise while traveling the lands of Alasea, out here in the lonely wilds of the Blisterberry bluffs, there were no eyes to spy upon her, and no need to continue the ruse as Er'ril's son -- or so she kept telling herself. Yet, she was not so sure her guardian held these same assumptions.
As a caution, Elena had gone to wearing caps and hats when around Er'ril, hoping he wouldn't notice the growing length of her locks or the fading black dye that had camouflaged her hair. The deep fire of her natural color was finally beginning to re-appear at the roots.
She pulled out her cap from her belt and corralled her hair under it before hiking back up the coastal trail to the cottage. Why the appearance of her hair should matter so much to her she could not put into words. It was not mere vanity … though she could not deny that a pinch of pride did play a small role in her subterfuge with Er'ril. She was a young woman, after all, and why wouldn't she balk at appearing as a boy?
But there was more to it than that. And the true reason was marching down the path toward her with a deep frown. Dressed in a wool sweater against the morning's chill, her brother wore his fiery red hair pulled back from his face with a black leather strap. Reminded of her family by Joach's presence, Elena was ashamed to hide her own heritage under dyes any longer. It was like denying her own parents.
As Joach closed the distance between them, Elena recognized the character of the young man's exasperated grimace and his pained green eyes. She had seen it often enough on her father's face.
"Aunt My has been looking all over for you," he said as greeting.
"My lessons!" Elena darted forward, closing the distance with her brother. "I'd almost forgotten."
"Almost?" he teased as she joined him.
She scowled at her brother but could not argue against his accusation. In fact, she had completely forgotten about this morning's lesson. It was to be her last instruction on the art of swordplay before Aunt Mycelle left for Port Rawl to rendezvous with the other half of their party. Elena wondered for the hundredth time how the others had fared in Shadowbrook -- Kral, Tol'chuk, Mogweed, and Meric were due to meet with Mycelle in Port Rawl in two day's time. She prayed they were all well.
As she and her brother marched back up the trail toward the cottage, Joach mumbled, "El, your head's always in the clouds."
She turned in irritation, then saw her brother's quirked smile. Those were the same words her father had used so often to scold Elena when time had slipped away from her. She took her brother's hand in her own. Here was all that was left of her family now.
Joach squeezed her gloved hand, and they walked in silence through the fringe forest of wind-whipped cypress and pine. As Flint's cottage appeared on the bluffs ahead, Joach cleared his throat. "El, there's something I've been meaning to ask you."
"When you go to the island …" he started.
Elena inwardly groaned. She did not want to think of the last leg of their journey to retrieve the Blood Diary from the island of A'loa Glen. Especially Joach's own accounting of the horrors that lay in wait.
"I'd like to go back with you. To the island."
Elena stumbled a step. "You know that's not possible. You heard Er'ril's plan, Joach."
"Yes, but a word from you -- "
"No," she said. "There's no reason for you to go."
With a touch on her arm, Joach pulled her to a stop. "El, I know you want to keep me from further danger, but I have to go back."
Shaking free of his hand, she stared him in the eye. "Why? Why do you think you need to go? To protect me?"
"No, I'm no fool." Joach stared at his feet. He still would not meet her gaze. "But I had a dream," he whispered. "A dream that has repeated twice over the past half moon since you arrived from the swamps."
She stared at her brother. "You think it's one of your Weavings?"
"I think so." He finally raised his eyes to hers, a slight blush on his cheeks. Joach had discovered he shared their family's heritage of elemental magicks. His skill was dream-weaving, a lost art preserved by only a select few of the Brotherhood. It was the ability to glimpse snatches of future events in the dream plane. Brother Flint and Brother Moris had been working with Joach on testing the level of his magick. Joach nodded toward the cottage ahead. "I haven't told anyone else."
"Then maybe it's just an ordinary dream," Elena offered. But the part of her that was a wit'ch stirred with her brother's words. Magick … even the mere mention of it fired her blood. With both her fists fresh to the Rose, the magick all but sang in her heart. Swallowing hard, she closed her spirit against the call of the wit'ch. "What made you think it was a Weaving?"
Joach scrunched up his face. "I …I get this feeling when I'm in a Weaving. It's like a thrill in my veins, like my very being is afire with an inner storm. I felt it during this dream."
An inner storm, Elena thought. She knew that sensation when she touched her own wild magick -- a raging tempest trapped in her heart screaming with pent-up energy. She found her two hands wringing together with just the remembrance of past flows of raw magick. She forced her hands apart. "Tell me about your dream."
Joach bit his lower lip, suddenly reluctant.
"Go on," Elena persisted.
His voice lowered. "I saw you at the top of a tall spire. In A'loa Glen. A black winged beast circled the parapets nearby -- "
"Black winged? Was it the dragon Ragnar'k?" Elena asked, naming the ebony-scaled seadragon who shared flesh with the Bloodrider, Kast, and who was blood-bonded to the Mer-woman, Sy-wen.
Joach's fingers wandered to an ivory dragon's tooth that hung from a cord around his neck; it had been a gift from Sy-wen. "No, this was no dragon." His hands fought to describe the figure, but he gave up with an exasperated shrug of his shoulders. "It was something more shadow than flesh. But that's not the important part of the dream. You see …" His voice died and his eyes drifted away to stare out at the ocean. Her brother was hiding something from her, something that scared him deeply.
Elena licked her dry lips, suddenly wondering if she truly wanted to know the answer. "What is it, Joach?"
"You were not alone on the tower."
"Who else was there?"
He turned back to her. "I was. I stood beside you bearing the poi'wood staff I stole from the darkmage. When the creature dove toward us, I raised the staff and smote the creature from the sky with a spellcast bolt."
"Well, that proves it was only a nightmare. You're no practitioner of the Black Arts. You're just dreaming that I need your protection. It's probably worry and fear that 'thrilled' your blood in the dream, not Weaving magicks."
Frowning, Joach shook his head. "Truthfully, after the first dream, I supposed the same. Papa's last words to me were to protect you, and that has weighed heavily on my heart ever since. But when the dream came to me again, I was no longer so sure. After the second dream yesterday, I crept out at midnight -- out here alone -- and I … I spoke the spell from the dream while holding the staff."
Elena had a sick feeling in the root of her stomach. "Joach …?"
He pointed behind her. Elena turned. Only a handful of steps away stood a lightning-split pine, its bark charred and its limbs cracked. "The spell from my dream worked."
Elena stared with her eyes wide, suddenly weak in her legs, not just from the thought that Joach's dream might be real, but also from the fact that Joach had called forth black magicks. She shivered. "We must tell the others," she said in hushed tones. "Er'ril must be warned of this."
"No," he said. "There's still more. It's the reason I've kept silent until now."
"In my dream, after I smote the beast from the sky, Er'ril appeared from the depths of the tower, sword in hand. He ran at us, and I swung the staff toward him and … and I killed him, like the beast, in a blaze of darkfire."
"Joach -- !"
Her brother could not be interrupted, the words tumbled from his mouth in a rush. "In the dream, I knew he meant you harm. There was murder in his eyes. I had no choice." Joach turned pained eyes toward her. "If I don't go with you, Er'ril will kill you. I know it!"
Elena swung away from Joach's impossible words. Er'ril would never harm her. He had protected her across all the lands of Alasea. Joach had to be wrong. Still, she found her eyes staring at the charred ruin of the nearby pine. Joach's black spell had worked, a spell he learned in a dream.
Her brother spoke behind her. "Elena, you must not trust Er'ril."
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