“Arieum is a nest of vipers, waiting to strike. The most powerful of all the Keeps, their Mages poison every aspect of society, their power allows them to dominate most of the known world.
Only they remain, only their Gateway remains standing.
It must be destroyed.”
The personal diaries of Erisa, Empress of Uxe.
Fayan watched the bandits fan out in front of her. The Fortune’s Path was the quickest way to the Sunrise Mountains, but it was pitted with many bandit camps all along it. Most did not travel this way because of them.
Fayan had chosen this way for them. She needed gold if she was going to buy her way into Arieum and honour her Mayma, make her proud.
This time, there were five bandits spread out over the road, against only her and Flyne, her horse. It wasn’t really a fair fight for the bandits.
Fayan almost felt sorry for them.
“It’s alright pretty lady,” the lead bandit said, “we won’t harm you. You’re not in danger from us.”
It was always the clothing that got them – the long dresses, the opulent silks that she wore. They seemed to think that because she was better dressed she wouldn’t know how to use the sword that was strapped to her hip.
A mistake many made, which was why her saddle bags were so full of money.
“Oh, won’t you?” Fayan said sweetly.
She pulled Flyne to a halt, sliding off his back with ease. Flyne flared his nostrils, stamping his hooves.
He knew what was coming next. It was a well-practised routine by this point. Fayan was amazed these bandits had not heard about what had happened to their fellow scum about three miles further down the road.
“Not if you give us those saddlebags,” the bandit said, his eyes dancing over them greedily.
So desperate to get gold. It was all that drove anyone these days, what with Erisa’s constant campaign to destroy all the Keeps, and finally subject the world to her iron fisted Empire.
It had been Erisa herself that had told Fayan about her plans for Arieum. Erisa made no secret for her contempt for the Mages that lived there, holding onto the last Gateway of Old Power. Erisa had hit each of the four Keeps, one a year, desecrating their Gateway of Old Power along with it.
Only Arieum and its Gateway remained, the last bastion of defiance for wielders of Old Magic against Erisa’s onslaught.
“Do you not want my cloak instead?” Fayan asked, unbuckling her cloak and throwing it to the bandit’s feet.
The cloak caught all the bandits’ attention for a moment, especially the jewel at its neck. It was the jewel that got them every time. People hungry for gold were also hungry for wealth, and that meant jewels always caught their attention, overcome with an urge to touch it.
Sadly for the bandits, this jewel had been cursed.
Fayan smiled as the bandit leader reached down and pulled the cloak from the mud, running his hand over the material. Fayan’s hand drifting towards the hit of her sword as the man’s hands crawled up the cloak to the broach at the neck. She watched as his thumbs brushing over the delicate gold metal. He giggled, his thumbs sweeping in a wider arch, just up enough to touch the ruby-
All hell broke loose.
The lead bandit fell to the floor, screaming. His hands began to blister and burn, sizzling in the cold night air.
Now it’s time to have some fun, Fayan thought, as she unsheathed her sword and fell into a well-practised stance.
Raeyn would be pleased with that move, Fayan thought.
The rest of the bandits attacked.
Bandit One fell easily. One parry and his guard dropped. A second slice downwards and his neck fell open.
Bandit Two jumped over the body of his fallen comrade, screaming with the thrill of the battle. He slashed at Fayan, forcing her back a step. She grinned, feeling the thrill of the fight run through her bones as she matched every parry and thrust.
Fayan slammed her sword into his, snapping it clean in half. The bandit stumbled, staring at her sword, confused.
“Mage made,” Fayan explained, lunging forward and stabbing him in the stomach, “by me.”
In the corner of her eye, Fayan saw the other two bandits go for Flyne’s saddlebags. She swivelled, screaming in defiance, trying to distract them-
They turned towards her – a fatal mistake.
Flyne slammed his rear hooves into one of the bandits, sending him flying. Fayan jumped over the lead bandit’s body and slashed her across the last bandit’s chest, flipping the sword in her hand and stabbing down into his torso.
Fayan pulled her sword out of the man’s chest. Flyne whickered next to her, stamping his hooves.
“Good boy,” Fayan said, patting Flyne on the shoulder. Even if the bandits did suspect Fayan could use her sword, they did not expect Flyne to be a trained warhorse. Those only belonged to royalty.
In this case, Flyne had belonged to Erisa’s right hand woman – the Butcher herself, Raeyn Iyrel. But whilst Flyne might belong to Raeyn, he was Fayan’s horse. She was the one who cared for him each day, he was the one she trusted, and now he was the one who had carried her out of that nightmare of a castle and towards freedom.
The final bandit, stood by the treeline. He looked at the bodies of his dead companions, and then up at Fayan’s blood splattered face.
“Mercy!” he cried, dropping his sword.
Ugh, forgot about you, Fayan thought.
She pulled the knife from her belt and flung it at the bandit. It embedded in his skull before his sword could hit the floor.
“Yes, there is danger on this road,” Fayan said to the bandit leader’s now shrivelled and burnt corpse, “but sadly, that danger is me.”
Flyne whickered behind her as she made quick work of the bandit’s pouches. This would do her nicely, maybe in the next town she could get a hot bath. Maybe even a new dress.
It was still three days to Arieum, and then there was the difficulty of crossing the Bridge. But if she did, if she could cross the Bridge without dying, she’d be able to face the Gateway. Earn some bracers.
Make her mother proud, make her death worth something.
And maybe, if Erisa did follow through with her threat for once final offensive of Arieum’s walls, Fayan might even be able to get revenge.
“I have only seen the Gateway or Arieum once. The mages who protect it keep it fiercely secret. It is an object of the Elder Times, and the oldest of the Gaie Gateways. It’s power flows into the other Gateways in lesser Keeps – in effect it is the source of power for every Mage on the continent.”
Excerpt from “The Diaries of Haune Tunl – Explorer”
The Arieum Keep was as beautiful. As beautiful as Fayan’s mother had written in her diary when describing her mother’s lost home, the place she had met Fayan’s father, where Fayan had been born.
Fayan gaped at the huge keep, suspended in the middle of the valley from thick cables that were strung into the sides of the mountainsides. In the sunset light, the white walls of legend were bathed in an orange glow. Tall turrets climbed high into the sky, almost as high as the mountains itself. Even from here, Fayan could feel the power of the Old Magic, the Gaie, tickling her skin. Her Mayma had told her of the stories of the Gateway, and the feeling of warmth you got when you stood near it. Maybe this was the Gateway’s work.
Fayan pulled on Flyne’s reigns, drinking in the view before her. Here she would earn her bracers, as her Mayma had done before her, and use magic to protect the lands and its people from evil.
From people like Erisa.
Fayan tapped her heels into Flyne’s sides, guiding him up the path. Down below, she could see the town of Relane sprawling out in the valley. The only way down to the town was through the pass that Arieum sat in front of, so the town owed its existence to Arieum’s protection.
The road arched up and down, following the edge of the valley wall. In the distance, Fayan could see the fabled Arieum Bridge stretching out from the edge of the cliff towards the centre of the floating fortress. Even from here, she could see the colours of the bridge flickering in the dying light of the day.
Wish you could have seen this, Fayan thought. Mayma’s death still hurt, even after all these years. It hurt even more to think that she could never see her home again, or be the one to ‘bring Fayan home’. Apparently there was a tradition for it, High Mages bringing back potential candidates for testing. That should have been her Mayma’s role.
She should be here.
She should be alive.
Erisa will pay, Fayan thought. Erisa hadn’t known who she had killed, not really. If she had known she had held a High Mage of Arieum, Fayan would have been strung up on the same stake as her mother. Erisa didn’t just want to kill the Arieum mages, she wanted to eliminate them.
Including any of their bloodline who might carry an affinity to magic.
As Fayan and Flyne closed on the Arieum Bridge, the path began to widen out. Orbs of light were strung on the cliff edge to illuminate the path. This close, Fayan could see the engineering that went into the Bridge. It was made up of individual metal cables woven together, over which a thick sheet of what looked like glass had been laid. Light crackled through the metal cables, flashes of green and blue firing at different points along the bridge. Strength spells, most likely.
It looked ethereal.
Fayan reigned in Flyne as they reached the foot of the Bridge. On the other side of the bridge stood Arieum, looming over them in the evening light. The wooden guardpost on this side of the bridge was firmly closed up – if she had managed to get her a few hours earlier, then she could have given her gold and her reasoning to them.
At least if they had refused her, she wouldn’t be risking her life trying to cross the Bridge.
But that’s not how life works, Fayan thought, repeating one of her mother’s favourite phrases. The wounds she had received from the last group of bandits on the Fortune’s Path had slowed her down considerably, forcing them to take longer each day to travel.
There was no choice. She would just have to take the risk, and hope her lineage would trick the bridge into thinking she had a right to be in Arieum. She was her mother’s daughter after all.
Fayan reached out with her foot and tapped the glass surface with her toe.
The bridge erupted into light. Reds and yellows now danced with green and blue, firing along the bridge towards Arieum. Further colours, purple and orange, flashed along the metal supports towards the lofty heights of Arieum’s tall towers, announcing her arrival.
Then the colours disappeared, leaving her illuminated by only the gentle glow of the orb light from the pathway.
Here goes nothing, Fayan thought, taking in a deep breath. She had to hope her and Flyne weren’t going to end up at the bottom of the valley having been catapulted off the bridge by magical energy.
She took a full step onto the bridge. She could feel the energy of the Gaie in the air around her, gently tickling her skin. Her heart pounded with nerves. She had not come all this far to turn back now.
She would train here, she would get bracers.
“I’m not attacking, I’m not attacking,”Fayan chanted under her breath. Whether it would make a difference, Fayan had no idea. Her mother had spoke of times when assailants had tried to cross the bridge, only to have been flung by into the valley below by the magical defences that surrounded Arieum.
It took almost twenty minutes to cross the bridge. Flyne was just as nervous as Fayan, unsettled by the flickering lights that danced from underneath his hooves.
“You and me both, bud,” Fayan said, patting Flyne’s neck.
She stepped off the end of the bridge and sighed with relief. In front of her, the huge metal entrance doors of Arieum soared above her, engraved with the creation stories and traditional gods of the World. At the top, she could see a woman holding a lightning bolt in her hand -the legendary Fevyan, the first Mage on Uxe.
Fayan took a deep breath, trying to imagine her mother next to her, encouraging her.
I am my mother’s daughter, Fayan thought, I have every right to enter here.
“Here goes nothing,” Fayan said, grabbing the door knocker and slamming it into the door.
A dull clang rang through the ravine around her. Her ears rang with it, and her heartbeat increased tenfold. She could feel it, pounding in her ribcage, as if she had just taken a mouthful of Trayneit leaf.
Please open, please open, she begged.
The door squealed. Flyne whickered, and Fayan rested her hand on the hilt of her sword.
The door opened just slightly.
An eye appeared in the gap.
“Fayan of the Rivervale, daughter of Herache,” the man said from behind the door, “we have been expecting you.”
Fayan swallowed. Expecting her? Her mother hadn’t contacted Arieum in years, not since her father’s death.
“Yes?” Fayan replied, “that is me.”
The door opened further. A man in a brown robe stood behind it. The colour of his robe indicated his level – Brown was second level.
“The High Mages are expecting you,” he said, “the Gateway foretold your arrival on the last full moon.”
Fayan swallowed. That would have been when she had first enchanted the jewel on her cloak, using the natural Gaie as her mother had taught her. The Gateway had sensed that? Sensed her intention?
The door opened further, just enough for her and Flyne to slip through.
“Come inside, young one,” the man said.
Fayan stepped inside the door, tugging Flyne to follow her.
The first thing that caught Fayan’s attention was the light. There were hundreds of glowing orbs of light hanging high in the vaulted tower entrance. They moved like fireflies, swarming around the top of the tower, some dipping down and disappearing through the corridors that spanned out from the centre atrium.
“Wow,” she whispered.
“Yes, they normally catch the new one’s attention,” the man said. He looked only slightly older than Fayan, perhaps by a couple of years. He would have been learning magics for years, the bracers on looked almost half way up his forearms.
Fayan felt a twinge of jealously. That could have been her if Erisa had not murdered her Mayma and taken her hostage.
One thing at a time, Fayan thought. Erisa would pay, eventually.
“My name is Huan,” the man said, “I’m to take you to the High Mages.”
Fayan couldn’t help but notice the other groups of mages pause in the atrium, looking at Fayan and Flyne with interest. She felt her skin prickle.
“Ignore them,” Huan said, “it is just because we have not had a new member through our doors since me.”
“Thanks,” she said, “Flyne-”
“Rachell will take care of him, he can rest in our stables-” Huan waved and a young girl of barely ten bolted out of the shadows, looking up at Flyne with admiration.
Another stable girl, Fayan smiled. She patted Flyne on the neck, handing the reigns to the young girl.
“Behave yourself,” Fayan warned, Flyne “I’ll see you soon.”
Flyne whickered, nuzzling her face affectionately. Rachell gently tugged Flyn off down one of the corridors, merrily chatting to him as she went.
Like me, Fayan thought. Had she really been that small as a child, the same age when Erisa had assigned her to the stables?
“Come,” Huan said, gesturing with his arm, “the High Mages wish to see you.”
“My payment,” Fayan said, pulling out her coinpouch.
Huan held up his hand.
“The payment is only for those who wish to learn magics,” he said, “not for the daughter of Herache.”
Fayan gripped her coinpouch tightly. They knew who her mother was, they remembered.
If only she was here, if only she knew, Fayan thought. Her mother had died thinking she was a lost cause, a failure of a High Mage.
“Follow me,” Huan said, “I will take you to the Gateway.”
“It can take years, decades even, to obtain the full arm braces of legend. The metal of the bracers is somehow linked to the Gateway itself, allowing the user to grow in power over time – power granted by the Gateway.”
Excerpt from “On the consideration of Elder Time Objects – an encyclopaedia” by Ulereth Rany
The Gateway to Arieum hung in the centre of a domed room, two arches spinning around on a vertical axis, missing the floor by barely a few centimetres. Light flooded from each of the two arms, bathing the space in an ethereal green light. The natural light of Gaie.
Fayan gaped when she saw it. It looked like everything her mother had described and more. There was a presence of magic here, pulsing through the room with every swoosh of the arches arms flying past.
It was beautiful. Awe inspiring.
Erisa can never destroy this, Fayan thought.
“Please, let me introduce you,” Huan said, leading her over to a group of Mages in the corner of the room.
“Master Ryn,” Huan said, gesturing to the man at the front of the group, “and Masters Trinexa and Ulereth.”
Fayan bowed, as did the Masters.
“Herache’s daughter,” Ryn said, smiling at Fayan, “it is wonderful to see you full grown. We all mourned the loss off your mother, when we heard.”
Fayan nodded her head respectfully. She wasn’t sure what else she could say.
“There are rumours that you were taken by Erisa, self-proclaimed Queen of the West,” Ryn continued, “is this correct?”
“Yes,” Fayan replied. She wished she sounded more confident, but the looming swoosh of the Gateway next to her was unsettling.
“And you managed to leave?” the woman standing next to Ryn, who Fayan assumed was Trinexa.
“Yes,” Fayan replied.
Ryn seemed impressed.
“And what has made you decide to come here, to Arieum?” he asked.
“Didn’t your Gateway tell you that?” Fayan asked.
Ryn smiled, shaking his head.
“It does not tell us the why, just the fact that Herache’s daughter was using Gaie in the Western reaches,” Ryn said, “I want to know your why.”
Fayan licked her lips.
“Erisa plans to destroy the Gateway,” Fayan said.
Trinexa raised her eyebrows, just slightly.
“As the others have said,” she muttered at Ryn.
“But why travel here?” Ryn pushed.
Fayan stared back at Ryn.
“Because I want Bracers,” Fayan said, “and I want Erisa to die.”
Saying it out loud, in front of the High Mages, her Mayma’s counterparts when she had been alive, almost felt like a promise. She would kill Erisa. She’d wait at the gates when Erisa approached with her bracers, ready to fire every ounce of power at her army-
“Step forward,” Ryn said, snapping Fayan out of her thoughts, “and hold out your hand.”
Fayan held out her hand, covered in dirt and grime from the last two days travel.
Ryn held his hand above Fayan’s, closing his eyes momentarily. A light flickered between Fayan’s hand and Ryn’s. It began to grow, swirling outwards until the orb was almost the size of a fist-
Ryn snapped his hands away, staring at Fayan.
“The power,” he whispered, turning back to Trinexa, “she is truly Herache’s daughter.”
Trinexa smiled, first at Fayan and then at Ryn.
“We’d best test her then,” she said.
Ryn nodded, turning back to Fayan.
“There is no time, the Gateway would have sensed you by now,” he said, “please place your pack down by the side and step towards the red mark.”
Fayan did as instructed. Ryn came to stand next to her, with Trinexa stood on her other side.
The Gateway continued to swoosh in front of Fayan, fanning her face with the warm air of the room. It was a hypnotic sound, punctuated only by the pounding of her heartbeat.
“Fayan of the Rivervale, daughter of Herache,” Ryn said, “are you ready to begin this test?”
I’ve been ready all my life, she thought, I’ll make you proud, Mayma.
“Yes,” Fayan replied.
She liked to think somewhere, her mother, her Mayma, was proud of her.
“Some do not make it out alive,” Ryn intoned, “others do not speak again for the horrors they witness. Are you ready to take the test?”
The words, Fayan thought. Her Mayma had told her of these, the trigger words for the initiation ceremony. She would be asked twice whether she was ready – and she had to reply yes confidently both times.
Fayan took a deep breath.
“Yes,” she said.
“Some get bracers,” Ryn said, raising his arms, “and carry the weight of the world with them. Are you ready to take the test?”
“Yes,” Fayan replied.
I will avenge you, Mayma, Fayan thought.
“Very well,” Ryn said, raising his arms further. His robe fell down to his shoulders, revealing the silver and black metal braces that ran up his forearms. From Fayan’s reading, the older the bracers, the blacker they became. Like a pot used to cook over an open fire.
Energy crackled along the metal lattice work.
Trinexa did the same. Her bracers were also latticed, but instead of a geometric pattern like Ryn’s, it was built from softer intertwined weaves, like a climbing plant. Hers were green and gold, an indication of her speciality in life magics.
“Fayan of Rivervale, daughter of the great Herache,” Ryn said, “let your test begin.”
Ryn brought one of his hands down and placed it on Fayan’s shoulder. Trinexa followed.
Fayan stared at the Gateway, braced for something, anything.
Then the world turned to white.
Fayan tried to stop herself screaming as she fell. There was no sensation of air rushing past her, no frame of reference. Just the feeling of spinning uncontrollably, head over heels.
The only sound she could hear was the familiar swoosh of the Gateway turning-
In an instant, Fayan stopped turning. The white around her began to bleed away like dye in a vat of water, revealing a clear blue sky and crisp, green grass beneath her bare feet.
A gentle breeze buffered her, bringing with it the smell of the salt from the sea. Fayan watched as a cliff edge was etched into the white background, splitting the horizon into two. On her left, the edge of the known land, on her right, the Southern seas and the horizon beyond.
She was home. The place her Mayma had taken her to hide from Erisa, to take her away from the politics of Arieum. To mourn the loss of her husband, Fayan’s father, after he had been killed on the Fortune’s Path.
This was home, her childhood home. The childhood unrestricted by the Arieum Codes and the weight of bracers. Where they could live in peace.
Mayma had thought she was safe here, on the edge of the world. She thought Erisa’s touch would not extend this far, that it meant despite being outside of Arieum’s walls, they would be safe–
It was her mother’s voice. As beautiful as she could remember it. It felt so real, it had her lilting gentle accent, the way she sung her words like a melody whispered to the land. A true witch of the wilds.
This was what the Gateway showed, you according to legend. Your past and your memories, all intertwined.
“Mayma,” Fayan whispered. Her voice cracked. She couldn’t help it.
She turned to where the sound of her Mayma’s voice was coming from. This was home, their home, safety and-
Her Mayma stood before her, but not her mother of her happy memories. This was the worst one, the one where she had watched Erisa’s mob burn her mother alive.
“Mayma,” Fayan said, “I’m so sorry-”
Fayan could not make out if her mother was making an expression or not. Her face was completely burn, blackened muscle sat where skin should have been. One of her eyes was missing, courtesy of Erisa’s henchman’s knife.
And the smell. The smell of burning flesh that wafted with every gentle gust made Fayan gag.
This is the test, Fayan told herself. Face the horrors of your past, and you got granted the bracers. That was what the books had said about the Gateway.
“You did this, Faye,” her mother said. Her mouth was cracked, her skin blistered and raw.
Guilt slammed into Fayan, making her step back. Her Mayma had told her she wasn’t to blame. She had gone to the fire with her head held high, telling Fayan how much she loved her.
This isn’t real, Fayan told herself.
Fayan took a deep breath and forced herself to step forward, holding out her hand.
“I’m so sorry, Mayma,” Fayan said.
Her Mayma took a haltering step towards her, like a puppet who had just learnt to walk. Bits of flesh flaked off her arms, blowing away in the wind like autumn leaves.
The stench of burnt flesh hung in the air around her Mayma.
“You did this, Fayan,” her Mayma said, taking another haltering step towards Fayan, “they were supposed to come for you.”
Her Mayma sounded sad, so, so sad. As if she had waited for years in this half state of death, disappointed with Fayan before she could move on to the peace of her final rest.
This isn’t real, Fayan thought.
But it felt real. It felt like she was standing in front of her Mayma again.
“I know,” Fayan whispered to her Mayma. And in some ways, it was her fault. Fayan had figured out the truth a few years ago, when Erisa had brought another child into the castle, a child with weaker magical powers than Erisa.
Even though her Mayma had managed to keep them hidden for years, six year old Fayan had not understood. Not really. She liked helping the injured animals and making the water sprites in the well dance, and talking to the trees to help them flower.
It had been Fayan’s magic that had attracted the attention of Erisa’s witch Hunters.
The children always give up the hiding spots, Erisa had said, Children can’t hide their magics. Stop the children going to their Gateways, stop the Mages infecting the world.
Erisa never explained the reason why she collected children of Mages, instead of putting them to the same fate as her death. Fayan’s guess was that Erisa like to keep trophies.
“Come, my child,” her Mayma said, opening her arms out, “come give me a hug, to say sorry.”
Fayan squeezed her eyes shut. This wasn’t real. Her Mayma wouldn’t hold it against her. Her Mayma knew she was only six years old, she knew the risks of Erisa’s witch Hunters.
Sometimes you’ve just got to be who you are, she used to say to Fayan.
“I’m sorry,” Fayan choked. Even with the knowledge that her six year old self was not at fault, the guilt was still raw inside of her. There was some deep part of her that did take responsibility for her Mayma’s death.
“I’m so sorry,” Fayan whispered.
She pulled her mother’s corpse into an embrace.
“I know, Fayan,” her Mayma said, “you will have my revenge.”
Fayan felt something sharp plunge into her back.
“Stay with me,” her mother said, as she plunged a knife again and again into Fayan’s back, like the Hunters had done to her mother when they had pulled her half alive off the stake, “stay with me daughter.”
The world went white.
Fayan hung in it, screaming in pain. She could feel blood trickling out of her back. Her lungs ached, she couldn’t breathe-
Colour appeared instantly. Fayan dug her hands into the ground to re-orientate herself. It was a stone floor, stone slabs, nothing to dig her hands into–
She looked around, recognising the courtyard immediately. It was the same one she had been brought to when they had finally stopped travelling. She had been seven.
It was the courtyard of Castle Rian, home of Queen Erisa of Truanak.
Fayan felt the hair on her neck prickle. The place felt wrong, unnatural, like looking at the corpse of a person who had just died. This place was supposed to be a hub of activity, traders yelling their pitches for government across the room at one another, courtiers haunting the fringes. It was a place of vibrant clothes, of wealth and power.
But it was empty.
“Hello?” Fayan asked.
Her voice scraped along her throat, making her cough. The sound echoed off the black marble walls that flanked the courtyard on all four sides.
Above, in the grey cloudy sky, birds cooed in response.
Is anyone there? Fayan thought. She tentatively reached up to touch her back. Her clothes were clean, not sodden from blood. But she could feel the blade sliding in and out of her skin. Like the last fragments of a nightmare she could not shake after waking up.
“I see you have returned.”
Fayan froze. The voice, Erisa’s voice-
How did she get here? Was this part of the test?
Fayan looked up towards the central doorway. Queen Erisa stood there, flanked by the statutes of her forefathers, dressed in her typical opulent silks. Her rich yellow hair was piled high on top of her head, in which the crown of Truanak was nestled. Emeralds and rubies glinted in the morning light that streamed in from the stained glass windows in the ceiling.
Erisa smiled at Fayan.
This is a memory, Fayan told herself a warped memory.
Erisa wasn’t real. This wasn’t real. This was the Gateway, showing Fayan her past in order to earn the first seeds of her bracers.
“You,” Fayan spat, “you need to die.”
It was easy to say to this fake Erisa. The Gateway had done a good job, but it wasn’t her. The real Erisa you could smell from a mile off with the sickly sweet perfume of the naterwater flower. A flower that only grew in the deep south, of special significance to the people who lived there.
Erisa had it made into a perfume she wore every day. Just because she could.
“I believe,” Erisa said, smiling at Fayan “you need to be more capable of a few parlour tricks to do that. Or did my men bring in a fraudster’s child?”
Fayan spat at Erisa’s feet, just like all those years ago when Fayan had first been presented to Erisa.
“Good luck trying to catch me,” Erisa said, “you were too weak to even confront me before you left.”
“You dare judge me?” Fayan hissed. She could feel the natural magics bubbling under her skin. Wild, untamed magics. Mayma had said that without a bracer to control it, it would eventually consume her. With bracers to add further Gaie to her reserves, however, she would be one of the most powerful Mages in the land.
Powerful enough to kill Erisa, Fayan thought.
“You have more blood on your hands than anyone in history,” Fayan hissed, “you murdered mages, dryads, anything with magic-”
“I cleansed Uxe of her poison,” Erisa said, “like I will cleanse you all when I destroy the Gateway.”
“Magic is not the poison,” Fayan said, “you are.”
She flung out her hand at Erisa. A shaft of yellow light shot towards Erisa like an arrow, smacking into her torso with the force of a horse’s kick. Erisa was flung backwards as the light began to envelop her in a swirling mass of light.
Then the mass of light began to expand slowly outwards, taking Erisa with it.
Blood and flesh exploded as Erisa was suddenly ripped apart by the force of the spell, splatting over the walls and the floor.
Fayan turned away, covering her face. She tried to ignore the wet sloppy liquid that smacked into her back.
When the noise subsided, Fayan slowly turned back to where Erisa had been standing moments before. Her heart pounded with excitement, the relief was palpable-
Is this what it will feel like when I finally kill her? Fayan thought, standing up and looking over the ruins of the courtyard. The spell had blasted holes in the walls, crumbling the stone into dust. Fayan could hear the structure groaning as it lost its stability. It was moments away from collapsing around her-
“Approach me,” a voice whispered in Fayan’s head.
Fayan froze, looking around her for a sign of a person. It had sounded like a person-
“Who are you?” Fayan asked.
“Approach me,” the voice said again.
Fayan stepped forward, ignoring the gentle squelch of blood under foot.
“I am the artefact you call the Gateway,” the voice whispered inside Fayan’s mind, “and you have passed your test.”
Erisa’s blood began to flow towards her over the stone floor, dribbling into the gaps between the stones.
“Place your hands on the floor,” the voice whispered.
Fayan knelt with one knee, placing her hands on the floor. The blood flowed towards her hands, snaking around her ring fingers. In moments, her hands were covered in a pulsing mass of blood-
Then the blood pulled back, like a wave before it crested on the cliffs of her childhood home. A ring sat on each middle finger. One was silver, a highly polished chrome that sparkled in the sunlight. The other was blood red, like burnt copper, but with the hue of a ruby.
A Red bracer. Death magics.
Fayan smiled. She’d have the power to make Erisa pay and be in pain.
“You have passed,” the voice said.
The world began to spin, around her, slices of her vision began to move around her like the great arms of the Gateway. Each time, more and more pieces of her vision began to move, until the whole room was spinning around her. Fayan felt herself loose her balance, falling sideways onto the floor-
Her head smacked into the ground.
“Congratulations,” Ryn’s voice echoed above her. Fayan opened her eyes. There were two Ryns standing in front her, or maybe one? They kept moving-
“Welcome to Arieum,” the two Ryns said in unison.
Then Fayan blacked out.
The Sun and the Moon were jealous of each other,
They each wanted to be the sole God in the Skies.
One day the Moon said to the Sun:
“I wish the humans worshipped me as they did you.”
The Sun laughed and replied:
“You have no heart, Moon, with which to talk to the humans.”
And so the Moon created the Raven, a creature of the night,
With six legs and no eyes,
To bring her a heart so that she might be worshipped by humans.
If you see a Raven at night, flee, flee,
The Moon Goddess is coming for your heart.”
From the Children’s story, A Raven’s Heart.
Arieum was not a place where Fayan noticed the passage of time. It was only when she went outside, out of the castle walls and took the long walk to the local village of Relane did she really notice its movements.
Fayan’s bracers were now half way up her forearms, glittering in the early morning sunlight. She sat in her small room, perched on the windowsill, looking at the grounds of Arieum that spilled out below her.
The main castle stood above them, hoisted above the valley. Down beneath it, a whole world thrived. It was as large as a village, with houses and rooms dotting the cliff edge. At the base of the valley, a small farmland was cultivated by the land Mages, feeding the Castle and village above.
But it was a shadow of what it had once been. Mayma had described Arieum like a city within the valley, with hundreds of Mages and their families living and working in the valley below. But now, there were rows of empty terraced apartments alongside the cliff edge. According to Ryns, Fayan was the first student of Arieum in five years.
Even the Mages were in short supply. Some had left, like Mayma had all those years before with baby Fayan. Others had gone off to support the resistance against Erisa’s Empire.
Most of them were now dead. Found and then executed by Erisa’s elite squads of witch Hunters.
All that blood, all that sacrifice, and still Erisa was not stopped. She moved like a plague, consuming one part of the land after the next. When a city surrendered, Erisa would decimate it. When a city lost, she would enslave any who dared rebel.
Fayan stared out of the window, down the valley to the hills of the Northern Forests beyond. The Forests that had the Fortune’s Path, the path Erisa’s army was now marching along. The same path that Fayan had taken all those years before.
And no bandits will stop you, Fayan thought. She tapped her bracers absently, enjoying the gentle metallic twang that ran out when she did so. It would be another ten years before she had full bracers, and another fifteen after that before she could be like her Mayma and be considered a High Mage. So many years of learning and study, so much opportunity–
And it will all go if Erisa gets to the Gateway, Fayan thought. She’d discussed this many a time with Trinexa, who had been a military strategist before she had decided to come to Arieum. The only way, according to Trinexa, for Erisa to get to the Gateway would be to starve them out. She could try and assault the castle, but it would be costly given its defensive position.
That mean her most likely move was to take over the town of Ravean at the bottom of the mountain pass, and stop any travellers or trade coming up the mountain. Then she’d wait and stave the Mages out, or try to encourage them out of the safety of Arieum’s Keep and attack them whilst exposed.
The High Mages had been tracking Erisa’s movements for the last three years, watching her steady march northwards towards Arieum. All the while, Fayan had been learning and training. Each of her bracers had a unique gift – silver for enchantments, red for blood magic.
It had been decades since a Mage had worn a blood bracer. None of the High Mages wore one, which meant Fayan’s learning had been mostly self-taught.
Which, Fayan considered, was just fine. It meant she had time to do some research on enchantments that her blood bracer could allow her to perform.
Enchantments that she could use to kill Erisa.
Which was why Fayan was surrounded by every book on the Moon Goddess, her rituals, and rumours about a spell called the Raven’s Heart.
Erisa was an ardent devotee of the Moon Goddess. That was a well-known fact.
It will be your downfall, Erisa, Fayan thought. She paused her page turning, tapping the paragraph and writing another line in her book.
The Raven’s Heart was an ancient curse that intertwined a gemstone with deep blood magics, making a creature that was sentient for a time. The original incantations were not wildly known, but the more common version had been adapted over hundreds of years to form one of the devotee prayers to the Moon Goddess.
It has to be a ruby, Fayan thought, tapping her pen against her pad of paper. Every iteration of the Raven’s Heart legend had a red or “heartbeat” stone at its centre. Even when Fayan had tried the spell with a false ruby or a graphite sapphire, the two closest in magical potency to a true ruby, the spell had not worked-
A knock at the door broke her from her concentration.
“Yes,” Fayan said, snapping her book shut. The door opened to reveal Trinexa.
“May I?” she said, gesturing to Fayan’s room. She raised a questioning eyebrow at the mess of papers across every horizontal surface.
“Not much space,” Fayan said, “sorry.”
Trinexa waved away her apology.
“You could have one of the apartments,” Trinexa said, stepping over the piles of paper, “it’s not like there are none to spare. And you are a Mage now.”
Fayan shook her head.
“It’s too big,” Fayan said. Trinexa didn’t get her reasoning, but then most wouldn’t they’d see a grand space to fill up with things. Fayan had grown up in a two room house with her mother, and then consigned to one room when she had been serving Erisa. One room was enough for her. Anything more was unnerving.
“Fair enough,” Trinexa said, sitting on one of the wooden chairs, “I wanted to ask about your research. On the Spell.”
She didn’t have to name what spell. The spell that they all relied upon. The one the High Mages really didn’t want her researching but saw that they had no other choice.
Erisa had to be stopped.
“I’ve managed to reverse engineer the first part of the chant from the Moon Goddess’ devotee prayers,” Fayan said, “The original curse used to be part of a ritual for Yelen, the Spider Goddess, but it was taken over when the Moon Goddess’ worship spread with the advancement of the Northern Armies-”
Fayan pointed to the page.
“There are two parts of the incantation, the ruby itself, which must be cut in a certain way, and the words you say over it. I’ve managed to piece together the first part, but the second half that makes it alive-”
Fayan gestured to the failed attempts at the spell, a bucket of broken and shattered gemstones.
“And you think Erisa will use this stone?” Trinexa remarked.
“She’s a Moon Goddess devotee,” Fayan said, “always wearing the trinkets and rubies of the faith.”
“Even if it comes from you?” Trinexa asked.
“If I tell her it’ll give her the power to destroy the Gateway, she’ll take it,” Fayan said, “she’ll use it.”
“And if she doesn’t?”
“Then I’ll do as we discussed,” Fayan replied. A knife in the back was not as neat, but she could fight as well as any bandit. Alone, it would be enough to overpower Erisa.
“Good,” Trinexa said, “when will you finish?”
“In a few months-”
“Make it days,” Trinexa said.
Fayan paused, staring at Trinexa.
“You remember Ulereth?” Trinexa said.
Fayan nodded. She hadn’t seen much of him when she had first arrived, more like a legend than an actual face. One of the few Mages out in the open who had stayed out when Arieum had called them all back to the keep.
“You’ve had word?” she asked.
“He’s heard rumours that Erisa is planning an assault,” Trinexa said, “to obliterate all Mages.”
“Assaulting Arieum?” Fayan shook her head, “but you said-”
“She is desperate and driven,” Trinex said, “and has a copy of this.”
Trinexa pulled a thin volume out from her robes and handed it to Fayan. The title On the consideration of Elder Time Objects – an Encyclopaedia was scrawled across it in looping, cursive gold leaf.
The author was Ulereth del Falet.
“Ulereth wrote a book?” Fayan said, turning the thing volume over in her hand, “I’m impressed.”
“Before he became a Mage,” Trinexa said, “that book was published, one hundred copies were produced. It was a hobby book, nothing more. But there are some secrets in it that we want to control. Ulereth has spent most of his last two hundred years hunting down any remaining copies.”
“And?” Fayan asked.
“One of them has reportedly fallen into Erisa’s hands,” Trinexa said, leaning over and opening the book. She flicked through a few pages and pointed at the paragraph.
“The Gateway,” Fayan breathed. There was a rough illustration of the Gateway, along with some detailed notes about it. Fayan skimmed over them.
“She knows how to destroy the Gateway?” Fayan breathed. Erisa had always had the why to destroy the Gateway but never the how. This showed the relationship between a Mage’s bracers and the Gateway, that if the last set of bracers was to be destroyed, the Gateway would fall.
And no one would ever be granted bracers again.
“That is what the rumours say,” she said, “she’s now got a reason to assault us-”
“But we’re safe,” Fayan said, “the Keep-”
“Could keep her away for months if we had all five hundred mages at our command,” Trinexa said, “but we have fifty in the Keep. That won’t be enough if she wanted to do a serious assault, eventually the barriers would fall-”
“So you want to kill her before she gets here?” Fayan asked.
“Ryn says that your spell is our best chance,” Trinexa said, “it is like how we planned, but just more-”
“Urgent?” Fayan interrupted.
“I’ll do what I can,” Fayan said, handing the book back to Trinexa. She shook her head.
“You keep it,” she said, standing up, “it might give you some…insight into the old world technologies. It might have some clues to your gemstone.
Trinexa bowed. Fayan did so in response. Their conversation was over.
“How long do I have?” Erisa asked.
“About three months,” Trinexa said, “it will take that long for Erisa’s army to arrive at Ravean. If you can’t do it -”
“I can do it,” Fayan said. She would do it.
To save the Gateway, to save Arieum.
To save herself.
“Good,” Trinexa said, opening the door, “don’t disappoint, Fayan. There is much riding on this.”
Trinexa stepped out of the doorway and shut the door, leaving Fayan in silence.
Erisa will die by the Raven’s Heart, Fayan thought, I’ll make sure of it.
“If you were to ask anyone from that time about that day, they’ll all tell you the same thing.
Erisa had it coming for years.”
Chapter 21 of Memories of War by Ratcek Nev’e, First Hand of the Guard Platoon, titled “Erisa’s Stand at Arieum”.
Fayan grumbled curses under her breath as she handed over the coin to the shopkeeper in the market square. It was busy today, the Freeday market was in full swing.
The perfect place to be captured.
“Something that matter?” the shopkeeper asked.
Fayan shook her head.
Relane felt different now, Erisa’s army settling on its doorstep for a week would do that. The shopkeepers were more bristly, the locals crossing the street. Some blamed Arieum for abandoning them in their time of need. Others blamed Arieum for making Erisa come to their town in the first place.
Safe to say, wearing bracers in Relane was more dangerous than ever.
“Headache,” Fayan replied, “long day.”
“Ain’t it all?” the shopkeeper replied.
Now or never, Fayan thought.
She picked up her little basket of vegetables, purposefully allowing her robe to snag on her bracers for a moment.
The shopkeeper’s eyes widened. Fayan quickly pulled the sleeve down again, as if she hadn’t intended to show it.
“Thanks,” she said, turning away quickly and walking back to Flyne.
Flyne flicked his head as Fayan approached. He didn’t like the other horses here, he could sense the tension in the town
“I know,” Fayan said, digging out an apple from her basket and letting Flyne munch it off her hand.
Fayan glanced over her shoulder. She could see the shopkeeper talking to another stall owner, both stealing glances towards Fayan. They’d be talking loud enough to attract the attention of Erisa’s soldiers who were standing in a small group, supposedly “protecting” the market-
Fayan packed the saddle backs, tucking her small basket behind Flyne’s saddle. It was only a matter of time-
“Show us your arms!”
And that’s my cue.
Fayan leapt into the saddle as the market erupted into screams. The soldiers had heard the shopkeeper’s comments, now pointing their swords towards Fayan.
“SHOW US YOUR ARMS!” one of the soldier’s bellowed.
Fayan held Flyne in place, waiting for the market to erupt into screams. She needed panic to give enough cover-
“SHOW THEM!” another shouted. One was an archer, raising his bow.
“As you wish,” Fayan said. She dropped Flyne’s reigns and held her arms up in the air. Her robe fell back, allowing the sunlight to shimmer of her bracers.
“MAGE!” the soldier shouted. The archer loosened his bow-
Fayan flicked her wrist. The arrow turned into butterflies.
“See ya,” Fayan said. She slammed her heels into Flyne’s sides and he leapt forward. The crowd parted, still screaming as Flyne and Fayan charged out of the market square.
“GET RAEYN!” one of the voices called.
“CATCH HER!” another yelled.
Fayan glanced over her shoulder. The soldiers were just mounting their own horses, and round the corner a black feathered helmet appeared-
Magics bless me, Fayan thought. Raeyn Inye herself was here? The woman who had maintained Erisa’s iron grip on her Empire.
The woman who was also Fayan’s first mentor in Erisa’s castle. The woman who had taught her how to hold a sword.
She pressed herself close to Flyne as they left the village towards the mountain road. She needed to lead them back towards Arieum, away from the village. No need to get innocents caught in the cross-fire.
Arrows flew around her as Flyne charged into the forest. Fayan took a moment to look behind her-
Raeyn was following her, sitting ontop of a huge Frecrak, a lizard creature from the North that was poorly tempered and not used to domesticity. It was as high as a horse, three times as long, and had huge scraping claws that dug gouges into the ground as it ran.
Behind Raeyn, another five soldiers on horses charged behind her, barely able to keep up with the Frecrak.
“Keep going,” Fayan whispered to Flyne as she funnelled magic down through her red bracer and into the palm of her hand.
She waited for five heartbeats whilst ducking under the branches as Flyne tore through the forests. Behind them, Fayan could hear the pounding of the hooves from Raeyn’s troop following her.
“Unetiq,” Fayan whispered flicking her hand behind her.
The sound of the spell hitting a magical shield made Fayan’s ears ring.
Someone has a protective amulet, Fayan thought. Probably Raeyn.
As the ringing died down, Fayan heard the screams of pain from behind her. So someone had been hit by the blood spell-
“SORCERER!” Raeyn screamed, “FIND HER!”
But not Raeyn, Fayan thought. She hadn’t bargained on Raeyn capturing her. That introduced another unknown element into the puzzle.
Branches whipped past her as Fayan directed Flyne off the path and into the thick woodland. Flyne galloped through the undergrowth with ease.
“Come on, Flyne,” Fayan said, as they broke through the forest-
Flyne stopped dead.
Fayan continued forward, flying over her head towards the ground. Fayan drew on magic instantly, improving her balance as she fell so she could take the impact of the fall into a roll-
She looked up to see the forked tongue of Raeyn’s Frecrak staring her down. Clearly the beasts were as fast as they had been rumoured to be.
“Go,” Fayan said, “go home.”
Flyne stomped his hooves.
“GO!” Fayan ordered.
Flyne leapt off the road and cantered off into the distance. The Frecrak tried to snap at Flyne, but Fayan already had another spell at her fingertips, this time from her silver bracer. Ice shot out of her hand, hitting the creature square in its open mouth.
The creature screamed, swinging its huge head back towards Fayan. Flyne whinnied, charging off down the track towards Arieum. He would make it, without a rider he could run faster than anything chasing him.
Now it’s all on me, Fayan thought. Magic ran down both of her bracers, lacing in with the metal and pooling in the palms of her hands. Without a spell to tame it, it crackled like lighting, snapping and popping loudly.
“Sorcerer,” Raeyn said, “you are surrounded. You have no escape.”
“Try me,” Fayan hissed.
“Oh I would love to,” Raeyn said, sliding from the back of her monster. On the ground, she stood slightly shorter than Fayan, although her ridiculous helmet of black feathers stood up a good foot further.
“Your horse will be captured,” Raeyn said, “and then you will watch us while we slaughter it. And then we will do the same to you.”
Fayan let the magic build in her hands despite the pain tingling through her fingers and forearms. The lightning leapt downwards towards the ground, back to its source in the earth.
Raeyn’s gaze followed it. She paused, eyeing Fayan uncertainly. A look Fayan had never been able to elicit from her with a sword in hand.
“Don’t try me, Raeyn,” Fayan said. She could taste blood in her mouth, the shock of the landing had made her split her lip-
Raeyn paused, surprised at being called her first name.
“Fayan?” she asked. She even sounded surprised.
“Miss me?” Fayan spat back.
“Not really,” Raeyn remarked. She was trying to sound disinterested, but Fayan could tell there was a curiosity in her tone.
She wants me for something, Fayan thought. Raeyn always wanted her for something.
“I don’t take it lightly that you stole my horse,” Raeyn said, “or that you betrayed my trust.”
“Flyne was never your horse,” Fayan replied, “and your pity for a young girl was not trust.”
Raeyn hissed, unsheathing her sword and putting it at Fayan’s throat.
“I could kill you,” Raeyn hissed, “no one would care-”
“Explain to Erisa how you killed the Mage who would hand her the keys to destroying the Gateway,” Fayan replied, “I’d like to watch you try.”
Raeyn paused. Fayan heard the rest of Raeyn’s squad file in around her. The longer she kept them here, the better chance Flyne had to escape.
“Take me to Erisa,” Fayan said, “and I’ll come quietly.”
Raeyn stepped forward, keeping her sword at the same pace on Fayan’s throat. She stood almost nose to nose with Fayan, close enough that no one else would overhear her.
“Speak to no one,” Raeyn whispered, “before I speak to you.”
Fayan glanced at Raeyn. That was heresy-
Raeyn continued to stare at her.
There is something more here, Fayan thought. She let the magic drip from her hand, hitting the soil with a hiss.
“Fine,” Fayan said, loud enough for Raeyn’s squad to hear.
Raeyn stepped back, lowing her sword slightly.
“Take her,” Raeyn said.
A sharp pain blossomed from the side of Fayan’s head, and the world went black.
“Pray for me, Light of the Moon. Forgive my past and bless my future. For I am yours, forevermore your servant.”
The Final Chant – Traditional Blessing of the Moon Goddess
Fayan could not stop herself shaking from nerves.
She’d been held for too long. When she had woken up, she’d been in this tent, hands tied and abandoned. If the rumours were right, Erisa should be desperate to get the information, she wanted to destroy the Gateway-
The flap of the tent opened, making Fayan jump. A figure, a woman, stepped inside, dressed in the traditional dark green of Erisa’s army-
It was Raeyn.
“Hello, Fayan,” Raeyn said, closing the flap behind her.
Fayan swallowed. Raeyn had the name of the Butcher for a reason – she was Erisa’s hound sent out to do the dirty work of killing uprisings and maintaining Erisa’s iron grip on the world.
“Mind if I sit?” Raeyn said, sitting down.
Fayan continued to stare at Raeyn. The other woman was not wearing a sword, or indeed any visible weapon. That didn’t mean there wasn’t a knife up her sleeve ready to stab Fayan.
“I can only apologise for your current conditions,” Raeyn remarked, looking at the tent, “it is not ideal.”
“Spit it out, Raeyn,” Fayan snapped.
“Very well,” Raeyn said, “I would like you to help me.”
Fayan raised an eyebrow.
“Oh drop the façade, Fayan,” Raeyn said, “you and I both know you’re not going to allow Erisa to step near your precious Arieum. It was all you ever talked about as a child.”
Fayan bristled. Raeyn was only ten years her senior. She herself had been a child when Fayan had first been brought to Erisa.
“I guess you are here to kill Erisa?” Raeyn asked.
“Why would I tell you?” Fayan said, “you’re her Butcher.”
Raeyn’s expression grew dark.
“I did not ask for that name,” she said.
“And yet your actions earned you it,” Fayan said.
“I do what I need to survive,” Raeyn said, “Erisa’s employ is not a safe place to live. As I think you already know, Fayan. I heard of the tales of your journey down the Fortune’s Path. Using the skills I taught you to slaughter and steal from bandits.”
Checkmate, Fayan thought.
“Like you say,” Fayan replied flatly, “whatever you need to do to survive.”
“Good, you remembered your lessons,” Raeyn said, “now, tell me if you are here to kill Erisa?”
“Or?” Fayan asked.
“I’ll kill you now as you would have no further use,” Raeyn said.
And you wonder why you have been called the Butcher, Raeyn.
“Do you want her dead?” Fayan asked.
“Answer my question,” Raeyn replied.
“Why do you want her dead?” Fayan asked, “so you can become Empress? That’s what you’re after?”
“A leader the world needs,” Raeyn corrected, “before the whole empire falls into the chaos it is destined for with Erisa on the throne.”
“So you’ve marched up here with her whole army?” Fayan muttered, “but why? There are better places for it. You could pay someone to do it-”
“Believe me, I’ve tried,” Raeyn said, “Erisa is too smart for that. Her informants…to vast.”
“So you need someone from the outside,” Fayan breathed, as the puzzle pieces fell together, “you were hoping the Mages would do something.”
“I had thought that we’d have made it to Arieum first and then maybe Erisa would be dealt with in the ensuing battle,” Raeyn said, “but it seems like the fates have other plans.”
“Seems we’ve both got the same goal,” Fayan said.
“Indeed,” she replied, “I will give you the opportunity to kill Erisa, as long as I get the Crown.”
Fayan could imagine Trinexa’s reaction if she could hear this conversation. That the Butcher shouldn’t be trusted, that no one in Erisa’s employ could be trusted.
But this was Raeyn. And for all of her might and name, she had still been the one person to look out for Fayan when she had first been brought to Erisa’s castle all those years ago.
I can trust her, Fayan thought.
“Deal,” Fayan said, “when is her next Moon worship?”
Raeyn cocked her head to one side, intrigued by the question.
“Tonight,” she said, “why-”
“I won’t ask questions of you if you don’t ask them of me,” Fayan said.
Raeyn nodded, standing up.
“If you say a word of this when Erisa visits-”
“You’ll kill me, I know,” Fayan said, “I remember our lessons.”
Raeyn smiled. Maybe, in another life, with another set of circumstances, the two of them could have been friends.
“I will be back,” Raeyn said, stepping out of the tent and leaving Fayan alone with her thoughts.
If Raeyn doesn’t support Erisa, and she’s willing to do this, she has to have backing, Fayan thought. So a coup then, instead of a collapsing power vacuum. It would be helpful, better for the Empire even. There would be wars, sure, but with Raeyn at the helm, with the army behind her…
The only problem was that if Fayan did fail to kill Erisa tonight, Raeyn could use her as the scapegoat. Rather than being able to escape to Arieum, Fayan would be executed at dawn with the Sun God’s blessing.
The thought made her stomach turn.
Hours passed. Fayan felt the cramp start to creep up her shoulders and down her legs. She tried to move them to keep the blood circulating, but it was difficult with her hands tied behind her back.
The flap of the tent flung open a second time.
Raeyn stepped through the flap, her face drawn into a scowl.
“Stand,” Raeyn ordered, her voice hard and rough round the edges. The Butcher, in all of her glory.
Fayan struggled onto her knees. Her head pounded still, Fayan would need a poultice and some swelling spells to get rid of it completely before the Gaie through her bracers would naturally heal it.
At least my bracers mean I don’t have any serious damage, Fayan thought.
“Get up,” Raeyn hissed, pulling Fayan to her feet. Fayan hissed in pain, hitting her head on the top of the tent as she straightened up.
“I don’t trust you,” Raeyn hissed into Fayan’s ear, “but know this Mage – help me and I can help you.”
Fayan glanced at Raeyn momentarily, opening her mouth to respond-
Fayan felt her blood turn cold as she turned from Raeyn to Empress Erisa. Erisa had aged, but her eyes were still full of ice. The saying went those with blue eyes had ice in their hearts, and in Erisa’s case it was certainly true.
“Bow your head to your Empress,” Raeyn hissed.
Fayan raised her head and stared Erisa in the eyes.
“It has been some years,” Erisa said, “but I do not forget those who are ungrateful.”
She paused, eyes flicking at Raeyn.
“Kneel before me,” Erisa ordered.
“We know how that turned out last time you told me to do that,” Fayan said.
Raeyn kicked Fayan’s legs from under her.
With her arms tied behind her, her magic was her only source of protection. Her bracers flared, magic flowing through them to make the air thicker, harder to fall through-
Fayan touched the ground gently, barely hitting her nose on the carpet. She struggled onto her knees, looking up at Erisa.
Erisa looked at her bracers with disgust.
“I am disappointed in you, Fayan,” Erisa said, crouching down in front of Fayan, “following your mother’s heretical path.”
Erisa reached out and tapped on Fayan’s bracers.
“But Raeyn said she had a good reason to not execute you on the spot,” Erisa said, “that you are willing to help me destroy your precious Gateway?”
Erisa’s hand whipped out, grabbing Fayan by the chin.
“Why?” Erisa asked, squeezing Fayan’s jaw. Fayan fought the pain, staring Erisa down.
“Because I’ve seen what they’re doing,” Fayan said, “I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It needs to end.”
Erisa smiled, patting Fayan’s cheek.
“Leave,” Erisa said to Raeyn.
“But-” Raeyn started.
Erisa stared at her second in command.
“Now,” Erisa said, “I wish to be alone.”
Raeyn looked at Fayan angrily before storming out of the tent.
“I will be outside,” Rayen said to Erisa. She shot a look back at Fayan, before leaving the tent.
It was just them. Just Eris and Fayan.
“I believe we have a common friend,” Erisa said, “a man by the name of Ulereth?”
“I believe I have something you want,” Fayan replied.
“Now, Ulereth didn’t help me,” Erisa said, ignoring Fayan’s comment, “and he ended up indisposed. I was wondering if you can help me?”
Fayan swallowed. This was news to her. Erisa had got to Ulereth? Maybe that was why she had decided to march to Relane. Why it had taken them by surprise-
She killed Ulereth, Fayn thought. If she had managed to kill Ulereth, then Fayan would be easy pickings.
“What do you want?” Fayan asked.
“I know how to destroy it,” Erisa hissed, “I need you to get me into Arieum first,”
Erisa’s gloved fist slammed into her stomach. Fayan doubled over, collapsing into the floor. She struggled back to her knees as Erisa pulled out a thin, rolled up, book from her jacket pocket.
“One of my Duchesses got this for me recently,” she remarked, “by our common friend?”
It was Ulereth’s book, his encyclopaedia of Elder Time artefacts. Somehow, she had gotten a copy.
“I understand, the Gateway is somehow linked to your beautiful trinkets,” Erisa tapped Fayan’s bracer, “and that by destroying it, it destroys all of you.”
Fayan stared silently at Erisa. Time had not been friendly to her, her skin was mottled with the scars of war and lined with wrinkles that spread out from her eyes like cracks on a sheet of ice.
“I already know how to destroy the Gateway,” Erisa whispered, “so it begs the question, why are you offering something I already know?”
She thinks she’s already got the answer, Fayan thought. And sure, Ulereth’s book did give hints the Gateway could be destroyed, using multiple Mage’s powers to invert the Gaie back on the Gateway itself. But it would require the Mage’s compliance-
She wants to make me turn the other High Mages, Fayan thought. It was almost hilarious, how desperate Erisa was. How she thought she could intimate the Mages of Arieum to do her bidding. To destroy the Gateway that gave them their powers-
Fayan couldn’t help by laugh. Her throat burned – Gods, she would kill for a drink of water.
Confusion flashed across Erisa’s eyes.
“You refuse me?” Erisa said. Fayan heard Raeyn draw her sword outside of the tent.
“You want to make the High Mages of Arieum bow to you?” Fayan asked.
“I am the Empress,” Erisa hissed.
“And they control more power than all of your armies put together,” Fayan retorted.
Erisa snarled, slapping Fayan with an open hand. Fayan stumbled to the other side, catching herself on her elbow.
“What I offer you is a ritual,” Fayan said, “no one knows of it-”
“How do you?” Erisa interrupted.
“Because I’ve done my research,” Fayan replied, “and I wanted to give you a way to destroy the Gateway without even having to step inside Areium’s walls.”
She’s hooked, Fayan thought.
“And how do I do this?” Erisa asked. She leaned forward, greed glinting in her eyes.
“A ritual,” Fayan said, “called Raven’s Heart. It is a ritual of the Moon Goddess. That must be done during the waning moon cycle.”
Erisa smiled. The Moon Goddess was the final clincher. Erisa believed that her beloved Moon Goddess supported everything she did. If it was a ritual of the Moon Goddess, she’s at least try it.
“There is a waning moon this evening,” Erisa said, barely able to keep her excitement out of her voice, “and you can teach it to me?”.
“For you, my Empress, it would be my pleasure,” Fayan replied, “on one condition.”
Erisa’s eyes narrowed.
“You untie me,” Fayan said, “and you and your people leave me alone. No one is to disturb me.”
“Done,” Erisa said. She reached around and undid the rope that held Fayan’s hands together.
“Thank you,” Fayan said, “and now I need time to prepare-”
“The worship is in three hours,” Erisa said, “is that enough?”
Not really, Fayan thought. But she didn’t an option.
“Yes,” Fayan replied.
“Good,” Erisa said, “Raeyn will come and get you when it is time.”
Erisa stood, scowling at Fayan as she practically skipped out of the tent.
Fayan looked at Raeyn, holding her gaze for more than a few seconds.
“Do not mess this up,” Raeyn warned, leaving the tent.For you and me both, Fayan thought.
“Even though we know how the story ended, two hundred years ago, the details around the ending are still a mystery.
How it must have been, to not know how the world would turn out, a time before the Compass Wars. In a time of Queen Erisa.”
Notes from the Journal of Fveth Un Ifgeroth – Court Explorer of Queen Tynate
Fayan spent the rest of the afternoon and evening meditating and preparing the gemstone for the ritual.
The Raven’s Heart was a complicated enchantment because it had so many layers of magic all working with one another to create the final spell. There was a spell from the Old God Tryan, God of the Stars, another blessing from Unale the Goddess of the Springs. Layered in a certain way on the gemstone at Fayan’s feet, the spells would then wait until the final moon ritual chant was laid over the top.
Some of the spells weren’t part of the original ritual. The books Fayan had read implied that the original spell had been used to protect artefacts from the Tryanist temples, creating immortal creatures that would live for as long as the magic flowed through them.
It had been the final problem that Fayan had not been able to solve. Her Raven’s Heart would die within fifteen minutes of being awoken.
The tent flap rustled. Raeyn stuck her head into the tent.
“You ready, Mage?” Raeyn asked.
“Yes,” Fayan replied, uncurling her legs. She picked up the ruby from her feet, tucking it into her gempouch. It was warm to her touch, the Gaie already seeping into it from the pre-ritual preparations and blessings.
“Good,” Raeyn stepped into the tent.
Fayan held her hands out in front of her, allowing Raeyn to tie her hands together.
“Try anything funny and I’ll kill you,” Raeyn said, tightening the rope.
“What do you define as funny?” Fayan asked, “you don’t have a sense of humour, last I remembered.”
“Follow me,” Raeyn said, tightening the rope around Fayan’s hands.
Raeyn pulled on the rope Fayan was attached to, leading her out of the tent. Fayan gasped when she saw the encampment fall away down the hillside below her. Hundreds upon hundreds of campfires, each with a unit of soldiers surrounding it-
There are hundreds of them, Fayan thought. If she failed, if Erisa did try to assault Arieum with this army, the Mages wouldn’t stand a chance. Erisa might not be able to destroy the Gateway, but she could eliminate the Mages by sheer overwhelming numbers. Sure, the Mages could put up a fight, but there was only so long they could out for.
Raeyn led her around the back of the line of tents. In this area, there was no sign of life, the tents stood still and there were no fires lit. This wouldn’t have been ordered by Erisa. This was Raeyn’s work.
“You ordered the Guards away?” Fayan asked.
Raeyn glared at her.
“I suggest you don’t ask questions,” Raeyn said, “lest I decide to kill you now.”
Well there ends that conversation, Fayan thought.
They walked deeper into the forest, Raeyn guiding Fayan through the dark trees. Fayan could hear the hoot of an owl on the hunt, but other than that, the forest was deathly silent.
Raeyn stopped suddenly.
“She is praying to her Moon Goddess, three hundred meters due East,” Raeyn said, untying Fayan’s hands, “she will have three guards with her-”
“Yours?” Fayan asked.
Raeyn shook her head.
“Kill her,” Raeyn said, “do not fail.”
Raeyn stepped to one side.
“Good luck,” Raeyn said.
“You too,” Fayan replied. It seemed weird, wishing luck to the Butcher of all people.
But Erisa had to die. Arieum had to be protected.
“Shaer,” Fayan whispered. The shadows pulled in tightly around her, cloaking her in darkness.
Fayan made her way slowly, slowly made her way diagonally towards where Raeyn had said Erisa was praying. If anyone saw Fayan, they would just think her figure was a trick of the light. Nothing more.
Fayan caught sight of a broken branch, evidence that someone had passed through this way.
Perfect, Fayan thought. She touched the branch gently at the point where it had been broken.
“Fare,” she whispered. Her bracers dug into her arms as she drew on the Gateway’s Gaie pool to use the seeking spell. Without it, she would only be able to go a few steps at a time. Using her connection to the Gateway, she could find all of the people who passed through here easily.
A yellow line sprung up in front of her, shooting forwards into the darkness. Fayan began to follow the line. As she got closer, it got brighter, changing from a sickly yellow colour to the colour of the sun-
She stopped when she saw the figure of the guard, standing watch over a clearing. A seasoned soldier, one of Erisa’s personal guards. Someone that Fayan wasn’t going to be able to take down through fighting.
Magic, however, put her on an even playing field.
She dug her hand into the dirt, picking up a stone from the ground. The benefit of spending so long researching the Raven’s Heart spell was that she had picked up a few interesting ones of her own.
This one was a variation on the Raven’s Heart, weaker, but still powerful.
“Harkea,” she whispered.
The stone wriggled, as eight little legs popped out of the edge of the stone, scuttling in her hand. Fayan touched the yellow line gently with her finger, pulling it over on top of the stone.
Stone wiggled its legs as the tracer spell attached to its back-
Then it was off.
Fayan took a few steps backwards, hiding herself behind the trees.
Screams filled the forests around her as the stone attacked its first victim. It would send the victim into cardiac arrest, then circling the corpse until another person came inside its range.
The two guards ran through the forest ,towards the sounds of the fallen first. Fayan pulled the shadows in closer around her, making herself almost invisible. They ran right past her, oblivious-
One, and then the other, fell to the grounds within minutes.
Fayan felt a faint tremor on her tracer line, indicating that the spell on the stone had dissipated.
Time to go, she thought.
She kept the shadows wrapped around her as she approached the clearing. She could hear Erisa muttering under her breath, deep in prayer. The prayerwrap that was tied around her eyes and ears meant she was completely oblivious to sound.
Perfect, Fayan thought.
She reached into her pocket and drew out the ruby that was to become the Raven’s Heart.
“Erisa,” Fayan called. She laced her words with Gaie, making the sound travel through the thick prayerwrap.
Erisa stopped her chanting, standing up from her kneeling position and pulling the prayerwrap back from her eyes.
“You interrupted my chants-” Erisa said, “where is Raeyn?”
“Do you want to defeat the Gateway?” Fayan asked, ignoring Erisa’s questions. She held the ruby out in her outstretched hand.
Erisa’s gaze snapped to the stone.
“You should have waited until I was finished,” Erisa said.
“The spell relies upon the Moon’s strength,” Fayan said, taking a step closer, “if you want to defeat the Gateway, defeat Arieum, you have to use it now.”
She stepped forward again, now an arm’s length away from Erisa. The ruby glinted in the moonlight.
Erisa paused her next tirade, staring at the stone.
“What do I have to do?” she whispered.
“Repeat the Moon Mother’s prayer whilst holding it over your heart,” Fayan said, “she hears you, and the spell is complete.”
“And it will destroy the Gateway?” Erisa said, taking the stone from Fayan’s hand and holding it in her own. She looked like Fayan had just given her the world.
Fayan stepped back, as if to give Erisa space to pray.
Erisa placed the stone over her heart, pulling her prayerwrap back over her eyes and ears.
Fayan heard a noise to her left. Raeyn appeared at the corner of the clearing, hidden by the trees.
Gods I hope this works, Fayan thought.
Erisa began to pray.
The chant of the Moon Mother was a complex one, with a number of phrases in it. As Erisa completed the chant, the ruby began to glow brightly in her hand as it took on more and more Gaie into itself-
“Forevermore your Servant,” Erisa said, finishing the prayer.
Silence fell over the clearing. Fayan didn’t dare breathe, as Erisa pulled off the prayerwrap.
“It didn’t work-” Erisa started.
Then she began to scream.
Her hand fell away from her chest, red with blood. The jewel, however, stayed on her chest locked into place with six sharp legs that had dug into her skin.
“You,” Erisa hissed, trying to pull the ruby off her chest, “GUARDS!”
“Are dead,” Fayan hissed, “you think I wouldn’t take precautions, Erisa?”
“I will still find your precious Arieum-” Erisa screamed, “GUARDS!”
Raeyn stepped out of the shadows.
“You called, Erisa?” she said. She sounded completely nonchalant to Erisa’s predicament.
The stone began to dig in further, clawing out lumps of flesh from Erisa’s chest as it dug it’s way to her heart.
Erisa screamed, falling to the floor. Her blood spilled out onto the dark ground.
Raeyn stepped forward, approaching Erisa slowly.
“You,” Erisa spat, “you did this.”
“No,” Raeyn said gently, kneeling down next to Erisa as she writhed on the ground. Erisa tried to grab Raeyn’s leg, but Raeyn neatly batted Erisa away with ease.
“You allowed that creature,” Erisa screamed as the Raven’s Heart began to crack open her rib cage. She frothed at the mouth, the pain becoming too much for rational thought.
“No, I saved you, remember?” Raeyn said, “I protected you but it was too late.”
Erisa would be in excruciating agony by now. She was barely able to talk, let alone think.
“Raeyn,” she choked.
“I will lead for you, Erisa,” Raeyn said.
Erisa screamed as the Raven’s Heart sliced into her heart, cutting open her arteries.
“Raeyn,” Erisa choked, reaching up to Raeyn and smearing blood over Raeyn’s cheek, “never.”
Erisa tried to turn away from Raeyn, but she was too weak. Blood poured from her chest as the Raven’s Heart sliced her heart away from her body-
Then Erisa lay still.
The Raven’s Heart scuttled out of Erisa’s chest cavity, dragging Erisa’s heart in its pincers. Blood smeared across the ground as it pulled the heart over towards Fayan, depositing it at her feet.
Fayan picked up the heart, turning it over in her hands.
Goodbye, Erisa, Fayan thought. She held the heart between her hands, gripping it like she would have gripped Erisa’s neck to strangle her-
“Hakitan,” Fayan hissed.
The heart smouldered in her hands. Smoke drifted out from between her fingers, bringing with it the smell of charred flesh.
For my Mayma, she thought.
She pushed her hands together, expelling the ash that had once been Erisa’s heart. Without her heart, the Moon Rites could not be performed. According to Lore, Erisa would not be able to sit in the hallowed halls of her so dear Moon Goddess.
The Raven’s Heart scuttled around her feet, it’s movements becoming more erratic as the spell began to wear off. First a leg disappeared, then a pincer, then another leg, until it fell still and became a simple gemstone again.
Fayan reached down and pulled out the gemstone. She wiped the blood off the stone with the edge of her sleeve and put the gemstone back in her pouch.
Raeyn knelt next to Erisa’s body, holding Erisa’s signet ring in her hands. She seemed pensive, as if absorbing the fact that she was now Empress of Uxe. She’d claim Erisa’s death was an accident, or make someone else the scapegoat. Either way, the only person who would truly know how Raeyn got to wear the Empress’ crown would be Fayan.
A privileged and dangerous position, Fayan thought.
“Tell anyone about this, and I will send a Raven’s Heart after you,” Fayan said, breaking the silence.
Raeyn looked up, sliding the signet ring onto her finger. She flexed her hand, as if feeling how it fit.
“It would also be frustrating if anyone were to find out that I helped you,” Raeyn said, standing up. She stood straighter, taller, now.
“Leave in the morning,” Fayan said, “leave Arieum, leave the Mages, and don’t ever think about trying to touch the Gateway.”
Raeyn fiddled with the signet ring.
“I don’t think you’re in a position to make threats,” Raeyn remarked, “but I have no interest in the Mages. I will order them to leave in the morning.”
Fayan pulled out the ruby from her pouch, holding it in her hand absent mindedly in her fingertips.
“Make sure of it,” Fayan replied. The threat was clear – if Raeyn didn’t Fayan would send the Raven’s Heart after her too.
“Fine,” Raeyn replied, staring at the stone. Her gaze flicked to Erisa’s mangled corpse, fear flashing across her face.
Fayan smiled. Raeyn would not be troubling Arieum. She’d have Erisa’s death cemented in her mind for the rest of her life.
Fayan looked at Erisa’s corpse. For such a proud, powerful woman, in death she was nothing more than meat and bone.
Fayan spat on Erisa’s body. A final farewell.
“Goodbye, Erisa,” Fayan said.
Fayan nodded at Raeyn, and then turned away without another word. Erisa was dead, Fayan was free, and the new Empress of Uxe was in her debt.
Most importantly, the Gateway of Arieum was safe once more.