Aderyn stood on the wide, stone ledge of her balcony. Below her, the river roared, swollen and angry the way it always was after the late summer rainy season. A ferocious beast, it carved its way through Alethea from the mountainous, frigid North to the dense forests of the Southern Lakes.
And now it called to her.
It pleaded. It begged. It sang to her as she slept, coaxing her with the sweet promise of freedom.
Inching closer to the edge, she wiped a clammy hand against her brow. The night air was thick, suffocating, and so humid that moisture beaded and rolled down the back of her neck. Even the breeze was hot as it brushed against her damp skin.
The moonless night concealed her in it's blackness, leaving only the stars to bear witness to her betrayal. Far beneath, the white water swirled and raged, but she wasn't afraid. She knew the river like an old friend, a confidant who had shared her darkest thoughts. A constant ally in her fight for independence.
Closing her eyes, Aderyn took a series of quick, determined breaths, and the smell of sweet night-blooming jasmine filled her with purpose. Throwing her arms wide— as if embracing the sky— she dove, plunging into the darkness below.
1 | Reflection
The old woman gripped the arms of her chair, the velvet upholstery slick under her long, arthritic fingers. She adjusted her hold and pushed hard against it, easing her weary body out of the seat. It was a struggle that she adamantly refused help with. If she couldn't get herself out of a chair she wasn't much better than a corpse now was she? Might as well put her out of her misery.
The last twenty years had not been kind to Ama, and the once spirited woman had become faded and worn. Her agile hands were withered and twisted, her honey-blonde hair dulled to gray, and her bright, crystal eyes were blanched.
Ama's bones popped and the wood groaned as she braced her fragile weight against the antique armchair. It was symphony of decay, each reminding the other that there wasn't much time left in this world.
The Seer made it to her feet and grasped the cane that had been resting against the wall. Nearly as old as she was, it was made of deep, rich mahogany. Wider at the bottom, it tapered at the top with an elegantly carved lotus, the symbol of Danya, the mother goddess.
Shuffling across the floor, Ama made her way to her looking glass. The massive oak-framed mirror made the small suite look peculiar and endless, but it was her most prized possession. It had been her grandmother's, and then her mothers, and someday it would pass on to one of her granddaughters. If either of them could get their head on straight. Though powerful, Aderyn was still a fool of a girl and Elena would have the mirror sold and the money spent before Ama was cold in her grave.
Reaching the glass, she stared into her reflection. The old, haggard Seer stared back for only a moment before the image blurred and changed, revealing a beautiful young woman with knowing eyes and a gentle smile.
"What have you to say this morning?" the Seer croaked.
"Oh, much has happened!" the apparition clapped excitedly. "The Truthsayer has gone, fled, abandoned her duty. She has kissed the sky and flown far away. She was washed clean, perished, but revived. She knows she is vital to finding the girl. Grayson has given the plot away with his passion."
"Ama! You should not speak so."
"I'm ninety-seven. I shall speak how I like," she grumbled. "Curse that girl. Why today of all days? I had plans to see the ballet, you know, and now I'll have all of Rohem knocking on my door looking for answers. I don't suppose you see anything else?"
"I see . . . trees."
"For Danya's sake," Ama said, throwing her spindly arms in the air. "Alethea is nearly all forest. How is that even remotely helpful?"
"I'm a manifestation of your own psychic ability," the woman said sweetly. "It's not my fault you aren't better at it."
"Oh, you saucy thing, you," Ama chuckled waving away the image. "You've got more attitude than I ever did, that's to be sure."
The Seer hobbled to her desk. With a trembling hand, she wrote a series of letters on thick, yellow paper. There was still time to fix this situation if she called in a few favors. With any luck she could be sitting front row for the evening performance.
2 | The Hogwash
The Hogwash, or "Wash", was a wooden hovel built on the outskirts of the Alethean empire. It was a home for washed up dreamers and desperate souls; a place where bad decisions were born and good intentions went to die. The Wash was a reminder that Alethea wasn't always pristine white walls and gleaming cities.
The homely bar had sat at the soggy base of two steep hills for as long as anyone could remember. It was resilient— like an insect that adapted rather than died— but not immortal. Perched on the banks of a noxious bog, it existed on borrowed time. Each year the pungent mass of black water and moldy trees grew inch by inch, promising to swallow the building whole.
Owned by an old sailor named Yosh and his pretty Soine wife, the Wash attracted only the lowest of Aletheans, Fae and Human alike. No matter the season, the air was stifling and smelled of unwashed bodies and stale alcohol, but no one cared. Why would they? The Wash was rock bottom and couldn't find a more accepting place than rock bottom.
By all rights, it was the last place you would expect to find a Danyan, but there she was, tucked into a dark corner of the smokey room, her legs crossed in a show of relaxed confidence. She was sitting across from a gnarled, mangy Tobbin with a sour complexion and questionable constitution. Drenched in sweat, his moist skin glistened as he gnawed on a ragged fingernail, contemplating his next move.
The girl smiled and sipped her frothy drink. The withered creature glared back at her with shrewd, beady eyes. He knew she was bluffing. Or at least he thought he did.
Resigned, he picked up his last coin, feeling its weight in his palm before tossing it into the pile. He wouldn't eat for a week if he lost this hand, but if he won, he would live like a king.
Holding his breath, he watched her, his nerves tensing and his two hearts flailing in his chest. With their tiny rib cages, Tobbins weren't made for stress, and he was no exception. Just the anticipation of seeing her cards was enough to make him light-headed and nauseous. His fingers ached to take back his coin, but he resisted, forcing his hands into his lap instead.
Amused by his discomfit, the young woman stalled like she always did, content to make him suffer. When he looked ready to faint under the pressure, she tossed her cards onto the table with a playful wink. Incensed, the Tobbin jumped to his feet as she burst into a fit of giggles.
"You're nothing but a cheat!"
Her good humor vanished as soon as the words slipped from his greasy lips. Wide-eyed he watched as she unfurled herself from her chair, uncoiling like a viper. In a flash of movement her hand was wrapped about his throat. His eyes grew wide.
"Now how could I cheat a smart fellow like yourself?" she asked, tightening her grip, letting him feel the warmth of her skin against his.
"Alright, alright!" he yelped, backing away from her reach. "You win, but mark my words . . . one day I'm gonna catch you cheating. And when I do—"
"You will do nothing," she laughed, releasing him.
The Tobbin sighed and fell into his chair, rubbing his chest in relief.
"You need to ask yourself one question," she said, pushing a refilled mug toward him. "If something happened to me, who would buy your beer? Not to mention I'm the only one left who will play with you."
His sickly green cheeks bloomed with shame.
"Talk about a cheater," she scoffed. "You couldn't get one over on Old Frank, and he only has one eye."
"It's a damned good eye!" a voice called from across the room.
"Yes, Frank, it's lovely, but you lack peripherals," she called back. "Everyone knows it's all about the peripherals."
Her companion huffed. "You don't even need the money. My children are starving and here you are, swindling a poor Tobbin out of the last of his wealth."
"Since when do you have children?" she laughed. "I'd like to meet the lady brave enough to bed you."
The Tobbin fumed in his chair, a line of slime dripping down from his pouting bottom lip.
"Oh, fine," she said, her arm making a dramatic sweep over the table. "Take the coins. I would hate to be the reason your fictional children starve."
"That's generous of you Elena," a warm voice whispered in her ear.
"Gods Grakk!" she cried, with a start. "Why didn't you tell me Ranon was here?"
"I did not know who he was," Grakk shrugged, scraping the pile of cash and coin into his bag.
"You saw a man standing behind me and didn't say anything?"
"Women are strange," he shrugged, giving her a yellow grin. "Especially your kind. How am I to know what you do or do not want?"
"You were just hoping he would kill me is what it is."
The Tobbin shrugged again and jostled off with his treasure.
"Ungrateful wretch. . ."
"Nice to see you too," Ranon said, taking the a seat. "I'm surprised you recognized my voice."
"Yes, well, it has a certain quality to it. Not quite a lisp, more of an intermittent whistle."
"I do not whistle."
"Maybe not anymore," she giggled before slamming her glass on the table, the remnants of her drink sloshing over the side.
"I don't believe it," Ranon said wide-eyed, sitting back in his chair. "You're drunk."
"Haven't you heard? I'm always drunk. Now why are you here?"
"We haven't spoken in seven years and all you can say is, "Why are you here?""
"I didn't ask you to find me."
"You didn't ask me anything," he fumed. "You didn't say anything. You left in the middle of the night without so much as a note explaining where you were going. I was tormented for years trying to figure out what I had done to make you leave me."
"I didn't leave you. I left Rohem. You should have known that."
"How would I have known it? I was a boy! Of course I thought it was me," he said, banging his fist against the table. Yosh looked up from washing dishes with concern, but Elena waved him away. Ranon gave a deep sigh and leaned across the table to take her hand. "If you had to go, couldn't you have at least told me why?"
"My reasons were my own," she said, signaling for another drink. "I couldn't explain them then, and I won't explain them now. I don't know why my grandmother decided to give me up, but you've wasted your trip."
"A trip," he laughed softly. "I've been riding like mad for days and you call it a trip."
"Gods, never mind," he said exasperated. "It doesn't matter, I'm here to bring you home."
"Not going to happen."
"Look," Ranon said, lowering his voice. "Something has happened at the Estate. I can't talk about it here, but you have to come back with me. You're needed at home, Elena, and I won't leave without you."
"I guess you better order a drink then," she said, taking hers from the Soine waitress. "It's going to be a long night.
3 | For the love of a drunken . . .
Quill was miserable. A social young man, he needed– no, craved– stimulating company. Yes, the lake near their camp was inspiring, and yes, the wild scent of witch hazel was invigorating . . . but he was in desperate need of entertainment. His artistic soul longed for a theater or art gallery— a brothel at the very least.
For now he would settle for tending the fire, which he did like all things, with a bawdy song on his lips and his unruly curls waving madly in the wind.
When Ranon returned, an unconscious Elena slung over his shoulder, Quill's world shifted. Call it fate, call it divine poetry, but the moment he laid eyes on her, he knew everything would be different.
"What did you do to her?" he cried, dropping his trusty fire-poking stick in shock.
"Nothing," Ranon protested, lowering her onto the lake's mossy bank. "She did it to herself. I have never seen anyone drink that much."
"She's drunk? Well, how about that," Quill said, crouching down to look at her. "Why did you put her on the ground?"
"I don't know. It doesn't seem right to put her in one of the tents where we've been sleeping all this time. It's too intimate."
"Time to grow up my friend. A boy, or rather, a man your age should be looking for intimacy, not running away from it."
"So you keep saying," Ranon mumbled, his attention more on the sleeping girl than his friend.
He was baffled by how much she had changed. Gone was the young, high born girl he had known and in her place was an exotic and vibrant woman. Only the high cheekbones and wide, dark eyes that ran in her family gave away her heritage. Her time out in the wild had made her strong. Though still tiny, barely coming up to his shoulder, she was an alluring mix of feminine softness and lean muscle. She looked amazing. And dangerous.
"Well, did you talk to her?" Quill asked. "What is she like?"
"She's definitely not the girl I remember," Ranon sighed. "Do me a favor and grab the rope out of my saddle bag. I'm going to tie her up."
"That sounds like kidnapping," Quill mused, scratching his chin.
"Don't be so dramatic," Ranon huffed, taking the rope and wrapping it around her hands and feet. "I just want to talk to her when she's sober. I get the impression it's only going to happen if we keep her here long enough to dry out."
"Alright, then. I will play along, but only because it will make for an interesting song."
"You are not writing about me kidnapping her."
"You bet I am. I'm going to call it, For the Love of a Drunken—"
"Enough!" Ranon interrupted laughing. "Go to sleep already, we wasted half the night waiting on that one to drink herself agreeable. I don't think we will get much sleep once she wakes up."
4 | Elena's Light
"Wake up!" Quill shouted, shaking Ranon's shoulders. "Wake up! She's glowing!"
Ranon sat up with a start, bumping heads with his frazzled companion. Rubbing his temple, he turned in Elena's direction, amazed to find that she was, in fact, glowing.
"What did you do?" Ranon whispered.
"What did I do? I didn't do a blessed thing! I got up to take a— to relieve myself, and she was glowing!"
With a trembling hand, Quill pulled her blanket away and they both sucked in a breath. Her entire body was radiating a soft, white light. It brightened as they watched, the moss around her releasing steam into the air.
Ranon grabbed her shoulder, jerking back with a yelp as her skin seared his hand. At his touch, her eyes flew open and she sat up, scanning the small camp with round, hysterical eyes.
"I need a drink!" she cried. "For the love of the Gods, give me some wine, beer, or . . . something. Just get it now!"
"We don't have anything!" Quill shrieked.
"Then run," she said, her voice dark and low. "Run as far and fast as you can."
"I'm not leaving you," Ranon swore. "Whatever this is, we can help."
"Forget about me, Ranon, you have to Run!"
Elena's light intensified, and the ropes dropped away from her wrists in a blaze of flame and smoke. Ranon and Quill shrank back in fear. Across the camp, the horses broke away, their startled cries ringing through the trees.
"Run!" she screamed, her leather clothing sending thick plumes of smoke into the air. "Get to the lake. You have to get as deep as you can."
The boys took off. Diving, they swam hard. When they reached the center, they turned back just in time to see Elena lift from the ground.
"Is she FLYING?" Quill shrieked.
Her light continued to grow, igniting the trees around their camp. The tents were long gone, burned to ash in the short time it took them to swim across the lake.
Elena floated in the air, her arms outstretched on either side, her head thrown back. Her face twisted in pain. The halo around her was a ball of brilliant white, blinding as the sun.
With an inhuman screech, the light exploded out from her. The boys dove deep into the lake, fighting to get low enough not to burn. Ranon was the first to emerge, gasping for air. Quill popped up a second later, sputtering and coughing up water.
The cool lake was now a heated pool with steam billowing into the sky. Everything living on shore was now ash. The ground was still smoking as they stepped onto the bank. They could feel the heat seeping up through the skin of their feet.
The path of destruction reached out in every direction for at least a half a mile. Ranon was grateful they had camped so far out of town. The boys made their way back to where Elena had been, terrified of what they would find. If they found anything at all.
Ranon let out a ragged breath when they found her. She was lying on the ground, her clothes burned away, but otherwise unscathed. When she rolled over to face them, Ranon shut his eyes and turned his back to her.
"What's wrong with him?" she croaked, her voice dry and raspy.
"You're naked," Quill said, grinning at her.
"Ah, right. Why aren't you covering your eyes?"
"I don't suffer from the same chivalrous sensibilities as my friend here. I'm Quill. Nice to meet you," he said, reaching out to shake her hand. "If you don't mind me asking, what's with the whole burning down the forest thing?"
"I see," he said, nodding, "that's completely understandable."
"Could you please stop looking at my naked wife already?" Ranon growled as he pulled off his wet over-shirt, throwing it to a stunned Quill who handed it Elena.
"Since the tender age of twelve," Elena said, pulling on the shirt. "I'm dressed now Ranon, you can turn around."
"What is going on Elena?" he demanded. "You—"
"Turned into a flaming ball of light?"
The boys nodded their head in unison.
"Look, I don't know why it happens, just that it does. I went to Ama, but the old bat couldn't help. She told me leave Rohem because she had a vision of your father using me as a weapon. I haven't heard from her since so I've had to figure it out on my own."
"Wait," Quill interrupted. "Who's Ama, and why didn't you tell me Elena was your wife?"
"Ama is the seer who works in the castle," Ranon sighed. "You've met her at least six times. I didn't say anything because it was none of your business."
"We were still children when I left," Elena said, wringing the hem of the shirt. "Our "marriage" was nothing more than signed contracts and the infatuation of youth."
"For you perhaps," Ranon said bitterly.
"So, Elena," Quill said, turning his back to Ranon with a dramatic flourish. "I'm guessing the booze keeps you from turning into a flying fire demon, am I right?"
"Clever boy," she grinned. "It seems to be a pretty universal thought that alcohol drowns out magic. I've talked to countless Fae all across Alethea and it's the only solution that seems to work. Speaking of which, we only have a few hours at most before it starts back up."
"This can't be happening," Ranon said, sitting down heavily on the steaming moss. "It's you. Gods-be-damned, it's you."
"What are you talking about?" Elena demanded.
"This!" Ranon cried, waving his arm at the destruction around them. "My father is looking for the girl responsible for this, or rather another incident like this. He's obsessed. I can't believe it, but it all makes sense. They knew. They both knew."
"Ranon," Elena said impatiently, crouching down in front of him. "What are you talking about. Who knew?"
"Ama and Aderyn. They knew you were the one my father is looking for. They knew what he has planned. That's why Ama sent me to find you and why Aderyn . . ."
"She's gone, Elena. She ran away. My father wanted her to use her power to help track you. Well, not you specifically, but the girl with the power to burn cities."
"It was a village. It was also an accident and no one was hurt. Not seriously anyway."
"Where's Aderyn? Does anyone know?"
"Ama saw that she was alive, but other than that no one knows. They are sending troops to find her."
"Well, I suppose we need to find her first. How far are we from the Wash?"
"A few miles at least."
"I'm renting a room upstairs and have things I need to get before we leave. If we start now we might be able to make it."
"It should be an easy walk," Quill mused. "You burned up all our stuff, so there's nothing to carry."
To be continued