Take a peek at a snippet of the 1st draft for the cover of Revival of Fire, the final novel in the Ruination Gods series, and read the prologue and first chapter below.
Heart pounding, Rilaena slipped down the natural path carved through the overgrowth of wavering brush. She ran beneath the witness of the three moons and several distant planets that spun through the cosmos around Expansion, the planet she now called home. Stephan clutched the tips of her fingers as she ran, staggering as she darted down the trails that branched off from the main road. She prayed that not a single person from her guard or entourage–or anyone for that matter–had seen them. Her silent plea fell on deaf ears, it seemed, as several winged figures rose up into the sky behind them, engines whirring, announcing their presence.
“Rilaena, we should just go back!” Stephan pleaded, resisting her pull slightly. She would have none of it, and ran on without response. To his credit, he didn’t voice another concern and simply allowed her to pull him along.
She knew they’d stand out amidst the brush, the fibers within the long, soft stalks reacting to the lack of light from above by glowing a faint blue. The creatures in the air giving chase were biomechanical organisms, grown by her father as much as built by the engineers who served him. Their eyesight was impeccable, durability unmatchable, speed and agility unbeatable, and they were far more clever than any mere machine.
She recalled their details, as she’d often seen them up close. Scaled skin, varying between different shades of yellow and orange, sometimes striped by black or white, covered the creatures. Six thin legs terminating in wicked, three-pronged pincers dangled from beneath them, folding in along their bodies as they flew. Two sets of transparent wings—one wing atop another on each side—has extended from a point directly behind their first set of legs. The shape of their bodies constantly reminded Rilaena of a dog, void of fur, and disgusted her often for taking such an animal and perverting its kind image. A nest of horns grew from the top of each one’s head, laying back against their skulls and along their necks in a mockery of flowing hair. Various pieces of light-steel and smaller components made up of heavier metals clung to each creature, enhancing them in a dozen or more ways.
Her father and the engineers who served him fondly referred to the creatures as the Appointed. She couldn’t bring herself to call them anything other than monsters. Her father’s creativity and power had birthed them and his engineers had shaped them further into what they were now. While they were living beings, they were nothing more than tools with a high status.
Rilaena pulled on Stephan’s hand hard as she turned off the path and ran straight through the glowing brush, trampling it underfoot and creating her own trail. She sprinted to the main road and doubled back down a preexisting trail. Then she cut down another to continue running away from the stronghold and the patrol behind her.
Her target came into view as they turned down another path. A lone tree sitting near the edge of river aglow with pink light feebly poked out from beyond the edge of a copse of trees throwing off a dim green luminescence. The pink tree glowed with far more intensity than anything else in the meadow, a brilliant white in places where the leaves clustered thickly. As always, she thought of it as a fallen star, descended from the heavens to gently plant itself in Expansion’s soil, sharing its splendor with the planet and its inhabitants.
“You’ve seen it! Now, can we go back?” Stephan pleaded once again.
“You know that’s never enough!” she shot back breathlessly.
The sounds of flittering wings and churning engines grew louder, and Rilaena doubled her efforts to flee from the sky patrol. The drones found the trail she had made through the brush, and the direction from which their sounds came shifted suddenly as they buzzed down it.
Rilaena wrenched Stephan from the path and into the copse of green, glowing trees, named verdant willows. The long, thin, drooping branches of the trees slid past their shoulders and cheeks, gently caressing their skin with leaves rimmed by a pleasantly soft fuzz. They hunkered down behind the thick, squat trunks and watched as the Appointed continued down the main path that would meander toward the river and then cut north to the Great Arc Bridge that spanned the Valenfire River and led from the island her home sat on and to the mainland where Ultimate City sprawled, rivaling the very sun with its brightness.
Her gaze alternated from trailing the Appointed and glancing at Stephan. His handsome features were hard and stern, his clean-shaven jaw clenched. He was a large man, with rippling muscles accustomed to swinging a heavy blade with deadly efficiency, but the kind light in his green eyes clashed with his imposing physical appearance. She knew his ire would melt away once they had returned safely to the stronghold.
After a silent minute passed, Rilaena pulled Stephan from beneath the veil of willow branches and leaves. He resisted slightly and the frown upon his face changed into a smile, a familiar light twinkling in his eyes. Now was not the time for passion; they had plenty of opportunity for that back in the stronghold. It was this time, away from it, that she savored most, especially with him by her side. They dashed through the brush, careless of the mark they left in their wake, and were soon standing beneath the tree she sought, known to the people of Expansion as a pink wisp. According to the records, there were only several dozen spread across the planet, and this one was only a half mile from her room.
She often sat on her balcony, admiring it from afar. Even through her spy glasses and scopes with specialized lenses that altered her perception of reality, the wisp was never so beautiful than when she was within reach of it, running her fingers along its smooth, white bark. She’d closed her eyes often as she’d caressed the tree, and each time she’d believed that she truly was stroking polished marble that breathed and squirmed beneath her very touch.
Each leaf burst from the stem in a tri-point design. Rilaena thought of how Stephan had told her they reminded him of a spear with three tips. Pink light blossomed from each one while the flowers that bloomed from the tips of the branches and twigs were a stark white. In the water, just a stone’s throw away, the wisp was reflected as an explosion of light constantly wavering as though disturbed by a perpetual breeze.
Stephan seemed encapsulated by the tree just as Rilaena was, but his silent wonder ran its course far quicker than hers did. “Is this your favorite place to be?” he asked.
“Of course,” she whispered.
“Well, my favorite place to be is with you.”
“No, that’s your favorite place for us to be. Not you. But, this is far more my favorite place when you’re in it as well.” She leaned back into him as she spoke and he wrapped his arms around her. Enraptured, it was a long moment before she could turn from the wisp and looked over her shoulder. He leaned down slightly and their lips locked together in a deep kiss. She stepped forward and his arms relaxed, his lips leaving hers. She stood directly beneath the wisp and looked up, into a sky, a wondrous sprawl of swirling light and beauty.
The smooth surface of the bark reflected the intense glow from the leaves and flowers, turning the trunk and branches into jagged columns of light. The infrequent breaks in the foliage opened holes in the otherwise solid tarp of color and light, furthering its splendor by reminding her that it was not infinite, and thus should be cherished. She reached out and caressed its glassy surface, then ran her fingers along its leaves and its flowers. A petal fell free of its perch, instantly dimming to a dark blotch against the backdrop of luminescence.
Rilaena’s breath caught. Stephan took a step forward warily, obviously searching for whatever had startled her in case he was needed to defend her. “Stephan, the seasons are changing,” she whispered. Each year, when the leaves and flowers of the wisp she admired fell to become nothing more than mulch to be trampled beneath the feet of animals and people alike, Rilaena despaired. She dreaded this change, and thus needed to see the wisp as often as she could manage before its beauty was taken from her.
Stephan brushed back her dark, wavy hair and placed a soft kiss on her chestnut-colored, freckled cheek.
“We should go,” she whispered, her eyes rimmed by a wet sheen. “Before they find us here. I don’t want them to take it away.”
Stephan placed his hand on the small of her back, and she leaned her head on his shoulder in response. “Just another minute. Then we’ll go. I didn’t let you nearly pull my arm off for a few seconds of bliss.”
She smiled and let loose a giggle despite herself.
Beyond the wisp, across the massive Valenfire River flowing calmly before her, sat Ultimate City. An aura of pinkish-white light battled the dark sky valiantly, more victorious than not. From this distance, it seemed like nothing more than a star rising over the horizon. The city was like an ever-churning machine filled with life, continuously breathing and spreading its warmth and light deep into the night and early into the morning where other individuals rose to take up their seat behind the helm that drove Ultimate.
The light from the city, coupled with the many astral bodies above, the glowing greenery, and the massive Valenfire river made night nothing more than a mere shadow poorly draped over the day. Light abounded in many ways, filling corners with ghostly luminescence, glinting sharply off mountaintops and building corners, flooding the very air with the buzz of life. Rilaena experienced darkness only when she was caged inside the stronghold. She’d spend her life outside if she could, waking when the sun began to descend, sleeping only when it was high in the sky.
An angry whir rattled overhead, followed by the hasty beating of wings. A gale struck immediately after, before either of them could even turn their heads, and Rilaena watched as a hundred leaves and dozens of flowers burst from the wisp and at once lost their magnificent light. Her breath left her in a gasp as a pit of cold bloomed in her stomach and she whirled around, reacting without thought.
Stephan glanced into her eyes, saw her fury, and then scrambled away, ensuring he was far from her path. Rilaena thrust her hands outward at the two Appointed buzzing belligerently overhead, and light blazed from her palms.
The flesh of the beasts exploded with wounds as skin split, muscle tore, and bone shattered. Their wings seized up as their bodies convulsed. Over the din of the lithe creatures perishing, Rilaena screamed. The several small motors embedded deeply in their bodies beneath their wings, legs, and jaws, shuddered, then exploded. Small bursts of fire blossomed beneath the creatures’ yellow and orange skin, providing a glimpse at the shattered bones and machinery beneath. Their faces twisted into agonized visage of what they should have been beneath their cracked faceplates. Then, they plummeted and crashed into the brush.
Rilaena stood tall before the creatures as their bodies caught fire and began to smolder, casting flames high up into the sky. The long grass on which they burned, thick with water, resisted the fire. Had it been the drier, hotter months, the entire meadow would have been engulfed in moments.
Her breath came and went as though into and from a bellows, her face twisted in a soundless snarl, her mouth twitching often from her barely controlled rage. A hand brushed her shoulder and it felt as though she had been seared by flame at the touch. She twisted away and dropped into a crouch, snarling at Stephan.
“It’s over, Rilaena,” he cried. “It’s me. Come down from it, love. Come down.”
The mantra cut through her fury and seemed to wash her in cold water, calming her. She looked to the Appointed, saw them for what felt like the first time, and her hand darted to her mouth. She knew she’d been the cause of their destruction, just as she had done many other times before. Stephan, relaxing his raised arms as he realized she had been released from the embrace of her fury stepped forward and wrapped in one of his own.
A dozen more Appointed leapt into the sky from above the black stronghold beyond the rising flames. Despite the lushness of the meadow, the fire would spread unless it was stopped, and it would devour the wisp she had grown to love, the burden of its destruction her doing. With a thought, she reached out the way her father had taught her to the lines of power that swam through the air and formed a net within the Valenfire. She tugged on it and a wavering sphere of water arced over her head and splashed down on the drones, extinguishing them and drenching her feet.
She turned her head, rested it against Stephan’s chest again, and stared at the wisp. Nearly half of its splendor had been wiped away in a heartbeat. She began to cry, for if she tried to bottle her emotions she’d surely explode and begin turning the stronghold she called both her home and prison into a ruin.
Felicia lay next to Phalax, morning light streaming from the window above their bed gracing her cheeks and the curve of her body beneath the silk covers like sunlight glinting on the surface of a softly rolling sea. The world seemed oddly quiet, or perhaps Phalax was too intent on drinking in the visage of his gorgeous wife to notice anything else. He dismissed the notion of his dulled senses and let himself drown in absolute happiness. Comfort wrapped him in its caring embrace, whispering to his heart that he had everything he ever needed before him right now.
He reached out and ran his hand across her cheek, rubbing her ear gently between his fingers. Her blue eyes fluttered open, sparkling sapphires that twinkled in the light. Her smile nearly brought him to tears, so loving and perfect. She began to speak, but before she could utter a word, footsteps pounded on the wood floor outside their room.
Phalax rolled over, looking to the door just as it swung open and Holris came barreling in. He leapt and soared through the air to land between his parents. He giggled, happy with his performance, and his laughter increased tenfold as both Phalax and Felicia began tickling him. Phalax slung his arm over both his son and wife, wrapping his entire family, his very reason for existence, in his love.
But then, he was somehow looking upon himself, at the short beard covering his face and his own lively gray-blue eyes and the prominent bridge of his nose. Sleep had propped the front of his hair up, giving it a spiked look where it otherwise lay flat and disheveled.
Trepidation began to suffuse the air. He wondered about how he could view himself this way, as a spectator of his own life on the outside, then the Phalax before him suddenly turned grave, as though remembering something heart-breaking, and the brightness of the room dimmed.
The sun was suddenly snuffed and the darkness that fell stole the smiling faces of his wife and child from him. He lay there for a time, acclimating to the shift, staring at what he eventually realized was hard dirt, broken up by patches of weeds and long grass. A worm inched its way across the dirt, painted blue by the early morning still awaiting the sun’s rays. He watched it until it disappeared behind a short patch of crabgrass, then looked up when he noticed a figure in the distance.
A stone’s throw away, sat his son. The sight of him now, however, was far from comforting. Holris sat on a low-hanging branch at the edge of a copse of trees, blood spilling from his stomach, dripping from the branch and his feet. He was ghostly white, and not even the wan light creeping across Baronfall as the morning brightened changed his pallor. Phalax knew this version of his son was a figment of his imagination, twisted by the effects of the spell known as Uxra’s Tree.
Before returning to Zepzier, his home planet, where his city, Cavia, waited for him to deliver it from the control of a man acting as a god, he along with a handful of others had removed Uxra’s Tree. The spell had nearly destroyed a city on another planet and had prevented them from leaving it. It had also dug into Phalax’s mind, discovered his worst fears, and manifested them. Since then, he had been plagued by visions of his dead child, twisted into grotesque displays.
Although the initial pang of horror and pain was unavoidable, Phalax had grown somewhat accustomed to seeing Holris at random, and the shock passed relatively quickly. Still, in those few moments where he and Holris locked eyes, the son accusing the father of failing in his responsibility to protect him, Phalax couldn’t help but imagine how easy it would be to send a vein of steel, sharper than any razor, right across his own throat, ending it all.
Who then would prevent the same fate from befalling another father?
While there were others with amazing talents and abilities—the fighter name Micale who slept next to him at this very moment being one—Phalax was an imperative cog in the machine needed to end the reign of the fake gods. There were many others, but they had been forced to go after the gods on their own. Each man or woman needed to kill their respective god to prevent the Convergence, a mass transportation of dozens of cities and peoples from across the cosmos. Already these men and women who played as gods commanded unimaginable power, but if they completed the Convergence, their abilities would be limitless. They’d become indestructible, and hundreds of thousands would perish in the process.
Phalax sat up and turned his head away from his son, burying his guilt as he had done so many times before, and found Vesik standing just beyond Daeson’s sleeping form. His initial alarm caused waves of steel to spill out from the disk lodged deep in his chest and cover him a second skin, impenetrable and weightless. Blades sprang from his hands as he stood, but Vesik raised a hand, his hawkish features twisting with concern.
“Phalax, don’t be alarmed,” he said. “It really is me. It’s Vesik.”
Vesik had been a native to Cavia, when he was a human. Not much longer after his twentieth year he had accepted a “gift” of grand power from the gods that allowed him mastery over the arcane. This power, however, had come with a great price. He had been betrayed and slaughtered. His death, however, hadn’t been his end.
Edmund, a man who had originally been no different than the gods, had saved Vesik. He had taken Vesik’s soul and placed it into a golem created in the image of his original form. Together, the two men had worked for years to interfere in the gods’ machinations and would continue until every single one of them was destroyed.
This figure standing before him seemed like the Vesik he had come to know. He was a thin man with hawkish features and brow-length dark hair that fell across his forehead at an angle. His dark, brooding eyes seemed unfocused, lost in his many thoughts or taxed by exhaustion. Both, most likely.
“How do I know that?” Phalax asked, still tense and bathed in steel.
“This,” Vesik said as he pulled on a chain around his neck. A talisman slid from beneath his shirt, one that mirrored the very amulet dangling from Phalax’s neck. Edmund had crafted them, and they kept the fake gods from being able to track the wearers or even target them with their destructive spells.
“And how do I know they didn’t find out about those as well? Vesik, you just sent us here last night. Why would you be back so soon?”
Phalax remembered their departure, trying to glean some important detail that would help him decide whether or not this really was Vesik. Instantly, his thoughts went to Trinika, the cartographer he had confided in, and her daughter. Trinika had reminded him so much of his wife, her fiery attitude and sparkling eyes a mirror image of Felicia’s. He had wanted to explore that spark he felt when he was with her, but the fates wouldn’t allow him that time.
Still, though, he knew she wouldn’t leave his thoughts. Perhaps when this was all said and done, Edmund or Vesik could take him back to her. Perhaps there could be something for him after the tragedy of his life.
Daeson stirred, still half consumed by his slumber, groaning and mumbling about herding pigs. Daeson had been a northerner—a man who wore ice and snow like a second skin—before journeying to Cavia to become a soldier, and had found himself unlucky enough to get snapped up in the struggle between the gods and their champions.
He was no more extraordinary than a spotted cow, unlike the others who fought against the gods. Still though, he was a valiant fighter and wouldn’t be deterred from the task at hand. He had been travelling the world with his brother, Kellum, when the man had been killed in the demon invasions, thus giving him as much reason as anyone to hunt the gods.
Much of Daeson’s face was covered by his now scraggly, sandy beard and bushy eyebrows. High cheekbones made his beard seem to reach ever higher up his face. When not slumbering, the man’s fierce blue eyes showed his battle spirit, and his smashed nose bespoke of his experience with battle.
Micale, lying a few strides away, rolled backward suddenly and snatched a bronze gauntlet from its place near his pack then sprang up to his feet. As he bent his knees, he fastened the scavenged gauntlet to his right hand, claws extending from the knuckles, lending each strike fatal power.
Micale was similar to Phalax; he’d been chosen by a god, and given a gift. His came in the form of being kidnapped from the world then secluded in a desolate place to train and hone his abilities until he was an absolute master of martial prowess. He could do to a crowd of people what Phalax needed a very sharp blade for.
Bald with a simple tattoo of a serpent winding about the side of his head and down his neck and sporting a few golden earrings on each side, the man seemed a constant ball of tension. At times, his intense stares and ever-vigilant awareness dulled and he let loose a joke or enjoyed the company of those around him. But more often than not, like now, he seemed cloaked in solemnity.
“The time was ripe,” Vesik explained. “We sent you all as soon as possible, hoping to ride the same veins they had used to get here. This way, it would be far more difficult to notice then creating our own. It seems to have worked. I then spent the rest of the day preparing this spell of transportation that would get me here unnoticed.”
“Listen,” Vesik urged, exasperated. “If I was one of them, I wouldn’t be here chumming it up with you three. I’d be dropping fireballs and other painful shit on your heads.”
“Oh yeah?” Daeson murmured. “Well, you’d be in for a world of surprise and hurt.” He swung his hand out as he spoke. Gripped in his hand was one of his twin hand axes but he stopped the blade just a handspan from cleaving into Vesik’s ankle.
“I knew you were awake, Daeson,” Vesik said.
“Not a chance,” he insisted as he rose.
“Cracking your eye every five seconds to make sure I’m still where you think I am is a really bad tactic when it comes to playing asleep.”
“Well, the other two didn’t know…”
“I did,” Micale offered.
Daeson turned to glare at Micale but Phalax’s frown abruptly stopped him.
“Can we stop this and figure out what’s going on?” Phalax said. “There’s an entire city behind us being controlled by some by kid with a hammer and a temper. And it’s our city… Our city.” Although Micale hadn’t done more than take a stroll through Cavia months ago, Phalax liked to think he considered it his to protect as well. It was, after all, the beacon of civility in Baronfall, its massive castle visible for miles.
“Sure, Phalax,” Micale said, confirming Phalax’s suspicion.
“Now,” Vesik continued, “the reason why I’m here. You recall how Cavia’s castle used to shine? Lit like the very moon had crashed down into the center of the town? Well, that was an intricate enchantment that had been working its magic for decades. It’s been triggered. Everyone who had ever walked into the castle since the spell’s inception is now under the absolute control of Regzenier. Granted, only those still alive. He doesn’t dabble with the dead like some of the others. Regzenier, as I’m sure you already know, is Hakmrid, and a whole hell of a lot of other things.
“There are also a whole bunch of Deth Uk, several tribes, within the city as well. And they all believe Regzenier truly is Hakmrid. If the Convergence commences, the Deth Uk will run the campaign while all of your neighbors act as their slaves, both as soldiers dying on the front lines and subservient workers. If you kill him, however, all the people he’s primed to transfer will be saved. I’m not talking about a handful here, guys. I’m talking several hundred thousand. Anyone under his control are no less than an extension of him, so what they see, he’ll see.
“If he finds out where you’re at, you’ll be dead in moments. You need to find a way to catch him off guard. Get in without being noticed, kill him before the Convergence, and you’ve done more than your fair share.
“There is a large chance that you don’t even run into him, however. He has his hands more than full with all the planets he preparing for the Convergence. He could be here for a few minutes at a time before hopping across the cosmos, or he could stick around for several days. But there are others on those other planets, going after him just like you are. You push forward as if he’s in there. If you hold back at all, there’s no chance you’ll defeat him.” He paused momentarily, fixing each man with his expectant gaze. “Questions?”
Each man shook their head.
“You’re here now,” Phalax said. “Can you stay? Can you help us?”
Phalax was as prepared as the others. Still though, he knew that Regzenier was terribly powerful. What chance did they have at defeating him on their own?
Vesik eventually shook his head, as though he had been contemplating the tempting offer but found himself incapable of accepting it. “You’ll have to go it alone for now. And don’t expect me to just pop up out of thin air, or Edmund for that matter. Although we will do what we can.”
Daeson raised his hand in the air as though he needed permission to speak, then without waiting for anyone to acknowledge said raised hand, said, “I have a question; you got your leg back?”
Vesik smiled then lifted his leg and flexed his foot, showing it off as though it was a prized possession. “Edmund was working on me while I was working on getting myself here. Fits like a charm.”
In the final moments of the struggle to dispel Uxra’s Tree, Vesik had lost his entire leg, torn from him by a massive rock hurled by a nightmarish beast. Thankfully, being that he was a golem, he’d been able to sustain the damage without faltering. He could curb the sensation of physical pain with little effort he had explained to them before.
“So,” Phalax interrupted, “How do you propose we even get past the walls?”
“Creep up, study the people affected by the spell, then copy their mannerisms and walk right on in as though you’re just another group of people under Regzenier’s control. There’ll be herds of people coming from all over. Slip in with them.”
“Like this?” Micale said, brandishing his gauntleted hand and then motioning at the rest of his brutally fashioned armor sitting in a neat array on the ground near his pack.
“Nope. You’ll be a merchant. Here.” Vesik snapped and two large burlap sacks appeared in the air, suspended somehow five feet above the ground. “Throw your armor in those, and ride that on in.”
The three men looked at each other quizzically. Daeson pointed at the two sacks and said, “Ride what? A floating sack?”
Vesik snapped his head to the side as though he’d been stung by a bee and dropped his eyes to the ground, shaking his head and sighing as he looked at the floating sacks. “That happens sometimes. Hold on.” He snapped again, and nothing happened. He did it again, to no avail. He tried twice more before he growled in anger and shut his eyes tight, his brow wrinkling as he focused on whatever it was he was doing. Daeson raised his hand and started saying something when a donkey suddenly appeared, bearing the two sacks on either side of it.
“Sorry,” Vesik said as he opened his eyes and rubbed his temples. “I’m pretty tapped. It’s getting harder and harder to manage things.”
“Was the snapping supposed to take care of that for you?” Daeson asked as he began snapping his fingers at the donkey, obviously hoping he could also make it disappear. Micale slapped his hand, shaking his head and Daeson took visible offense to the slight.
“No, actually. I just like to punctuate my spells sometimes. Helps me focus on the exact moment something should happen. Doesn’t make for my best work sometimes though, so it’s best saved for really easy things… like making an invisible donkey appear.”
Daeson lifted his chin once, his eyes squinting, as though he had just learned a very important lesson about tampering with magic.
“And us?” Phalax asked. His attention was suddenly stolen as Holris came stalking toward them, his fingers ending in wickedly curved claws that dripped blood, his face turned down to the ground and his eyes endless pits of black. Phalax watched as the boy sidled up to Vesik and reached over his shoulder to place the tips of his claws on the wizard’s throat. Then, he raked them across Vesik’s flesh. And nothing happened.
Vesik waited for Phalax’s focus to return, nodded once as though he was offering his sympathies, then said, “There are outfits in there for you three. I don’t much mind who gets what. I’ll leave the arguing to you gentlemen. I’m needed elsewhere. I’ll be seeing you.” Vesik turned slowly, drinking in his surroundings with longing in his eyes, then bent low and ran his hand lovingly across the hard dirt. He rose, looked off to Cavia, standing silently for a long moment, then disappeared.
Daeson darted for the sacks slung across the donkey’s back and untied them quickly. He rifled through the first one, tossing a pair of pants, lacquered, knee high boots, a long-sleeved shirt that seemed too slender a fit for any of them, and a wide-brimmed, stylish hat with raised edges. The fine cloth was a deep red and brown with black stitching. The other two outfits were far more plain, and obviously larger.
“Well, I’m not all that important in this whole thing, so no one’s going to be looking for me. Same with Micale, seeing as how he’s never even been to Cavia.”
“Actually, I have, although briefly. Chaetor took me there to fetch Daria. Gods, that seems far away. Hell saying ‘gods’ doesn’t even make any sense any longer! I agree, though.”
Daeson bent low and scooped the hat and shirt from the ground and held the former up. “That leaves this one to you, Phalax. However,” he said as he withdrew the hat and thrust the shirt out in front of him, “this is a woman’s outfit!” The man’s beaming face poking from around the articles of clothing exposed the joy Daeson found in announcing this to Phalax. Despite Phalax’s urge to wipe the smile from Daeson’s bearded face with his knuckles, he still couldn’t help but crack a smile.
The shirt was cut to fit the shape of a thin, curvy woman, and even sported a low V-neck. The boots were slender, far too much for Phalax’s wide feet. And the pants would cling to his backside, and frontside for that matter, like a second skin. “What was Vesik thinking?” he fumed.
“He’s tired, remember,” Micale explained, lifting a shoulder and tilting his head briefly. “I’m sure it was an innocent mistake.”
“Besides,” Daeson teased, “I’m sure you’ll look lovely in it. Well, only if you shave, of course.”
“So many times I’ve told you,” Prosectero chided his daughter, shaking his head tiredly. “Don’t go running off at night. Only leave during scheduled times, cleared by Arlenti and me. Take a dozen armed guards and the Appointed with you. Stop pulling my first general’s youngest son along with you unless he’s a part of the armed escort!”
Prosectero’s brow furrowed in frustration beneath his slicked hair, styled in a sweeping pattern to the side and back. His grey, sharp eyes narrowed further to menacing slits and his nose, characterized by a prominent and pointy bridge, flared. His normally full lips were a firm, hard line. Only the smallest slight separated him from a relative calm and a burst of anger that would end painfully for Rilaena, she knew.
Rilaena sat quietly, staring out a magnificently large window at a sky brimming with stars and sweeping constellations. Stephan stood at attention somewhere behind her, likely bearing the hardened gaze of his father, Arlenti, who stood next to her father in a flowing night robe, dagger strapped to his waist. Great creases lent his scornful gaze a palpable force, like a wizened owl frowning intently at its prey before striking.
Two dozen men, at least eight feet in height and bursting with coiled muscle, were cast about the room at regular intervals. Their bodies seemed to have been blasted from iron then clad in burnished steel. Each gripped a long-shafted axe in hand. A half-dozen servants gallivanted about Prosectero, Arlenti, and the entourage that followed the former like coat tails.
The great poet Hauris, who followed any and all drama he could catch wind of as he kept his nose turned up, lounged on a divan. He was soft-featured and slow to anger, but quick with his mocking wit. The master engineer Enauth, who had likely been roused to discuss how best to improve the Appointed, leaned against a liquor cabinet. The golem Lo, whose sweeping form of smooth silver gleamed with a dozen reflections bright enough to rival the dawn, stood rigidly near Prosectero, its master and creator.
The walls of the grand study they were all comfortably corralled in sported swirling patterns of red amidst a tan backdrop, painted by the recently deceased artist Dotera. Her work was sought after by all when she lived, and further coveted after her passing. Within the walls were flecks of gold, inlaid without pattern, clashing wonderfully with the silver and white trim.
High above were vaulted ceilings that anchored many pennants and flowing carpets of Dotera’s work that draped a full twenty feet, hanging just out of reach above the heads of the massive guards posted along the walls. More artwork decorated the walls, all of it Dotera’s, depicting glorious battles or resplendent fields and lush forests. Couches and divans lay here and there, lending the room a sense of openness and invitation to conversation as they carved a circle in the center.
Rilaena stalled, her father on the verge of lashing out at her, then said, “I’m sorry, father. It was wrong of me. I won’t do it again.”
“I’ve written this drama before,” Hauris scoffed, taking and swirling a glass of brandy proffered to him by a servant.
Rilaena trained her fiery gaze on the thin man. “You have no right to words here, Hauris. Shut your mouth.”
“Me, shut my mouth? The great poet who makes gold out of words? Whose songs have been sung for a decade and will live on far after my passing? I think not, child.”
“Hauris, quiet yourself,” Prosectero murmured half-heartedly.
“Of course, sire.” Hauris drained his brandy then snapped his fingers, one servant snatched the glass from his hand to pour another drink while another handed him a pewter bowl of grapes.
“He has a point, though, Rilaena. Incessantly you spin me the same yarn. I’ve grown sick of your empty promises.” He sighed and his features sagged, apologetically. “Henceforth you will be monitored at all times, and an escort will bring you to your room at nightfall.”
“Father!” she cried.
“You will,” he shouted, cutting off any further protest, “of course, be allowed your privacy when necessary. You and Stephan as well. Lo,” Prosectero addressed the golem without looking at him, “you will be responsible for my daughter’s wellbeing.” Lo tilted his featureless head toward his master as he spoke, nodding slightly at the command. “You’ll ensure she follows the rules I have set forth for her.”
Rilaena looked at the creature with disdain, knowing that it likely couldn’t fathom her derision and that it wouldn’t care one way or the other if it could. Its flowing form was sculpted in a manner that suggested rippling strength, its head nothing but a wide dome atop broad shoulders. Its mirror-like surface reflected the room and people within in twisted proportions.
Rilaena wasn’t sure of its full potential but knew it was powerful. She’d seen it once crush a man’s throat with its three-fingered hand and even toss a dozen resistance fighters a hundred feet into the air with a concussive blast of power. Her father had created many implements to crush any resistance that rose within his people, and Lo was certainly one of them, nothing more.
“I’d like to speak with you alone, Prosectero,” she growled. Rarely did she call her father by his name. When she did, he quickly understood she expected to be heeded. A fire was burning in her as she relived the destruction of her beloved pink wisp. The accusing eyes of those assembled along with her father’s new edict further kindled that blaze, and she feared she’d lash out at them. Surely he saw that as well, else he would have continued his deriding speech without pause to even consider her words.
“Everyone, out for a moment,” he commanded. Each man and woman shuffled from the room quickly and without so much as a murmur of disapproval, although Stephan did cast her a look of worry as he exited. The vast room was now empty but for Rilaena, her father, and Lo. Prosectero plopped down on a lounge chair and held his empty hand out as though waiting for a servant to offer him something. A glass half full of dark wine swirling gently within appeared and he sipped it, shutting his eyes as he savored the first taste. “What is it?” he finally asked around the brim of the glass.
Rilaena sat and stewed for a moment, trying and failing to calm her anger. “It isn’t just me, father,” she finally said. “This whole damn palace, all of Expansion feels like a prison. Like we’re all supposed to sit in our corners and wait for something to happen. For you to do something to us, or for us. Why does it feel like that? Why all the machines and magic?”
“What is this? You’ve railed against my rules concerning you before, but not my reign over the others.”
Rilaena tried to keep her emotions in check. Images of the wisp’s desiccation flooded past her mind’s eye and she failed, however. “They destroyed my wisp, father!” she cried, tears falling from her eyes. “I’ve watched it grow for years and they nearly wiped it away in a moment!”
Prosectero sagged into his seat, his frown melting into a weary expression that conveyed his relief and frustration.
“It’s more than that, though,” she said, her voice firming and the tears drying from her eyes. She would not let him dismiss her like the many times he had done before. “That is just an illustration of the world we live in. The world you and the others created. This place was grand and wondrous and new when we came here. Now, it’s shrouded in darkness and behind every corner lies death, and you’re responsible for that. Why, father? Why is it like this?”
“This is a special place, and you are integral to its well-being.”
“Cryptic. Always you say cryptic things that you think will placate me. No longer, father. I want to know the truth of this place and I want to know it now!”
Prosectero seemed lost in the crimson liquid spinning in his glass. He lifted it and drained the wine in a single gulp, looking upon Dotera’s pieces. Rilaena’s patience had worn thin long ago and yet her father continued to ignore her, obviously believing her qualms were unwarranted. He was on the verge of dismissing her like an annoying fly when her anger spilled over and she lost control of it.
The glass in Prosectero’s hand suddenly erupted, millions of glass shards blasting the room and its occupants. Those that would have struck Prosectero and Rilaena dissipated against a bright aura of orange, shielding them from harm. Lo stood still as the glass chimed across its metal form. Dotera’s work and the furniture in the room lay buffeted by the shards, ripped and torn in a thousand places.
Rilaena sat breathing heavily, her eyes smoldering. Prosectero stared back angrily, and she prepared herself for pain. Instead, he looked away from her and surveyed the damage to his possessions, frowning. With a wave of his hand the room reverted to its previous state, all the damage she had done vanishing. “I can do that to the tree, you know? I can put it back to how it was.”
He looked out the large windows and toward the Valenfire where a small pink speck glittered. “Don’t you dare,” she seethed. “I don’t want it touched by you or your people.”
“You want to know the truth of things, Rilaena? Fine.” He stood and walked around the sofa he had been sitting in, placing his hands on its back. “This world is a key that unlocks new places and far greater power to me and the others. To you even. I gave you your power. I made you like us before you were even born. I raised you with careful hands. And now you’re a woman of twenty-two. All the hard work I’ve put in, the life you’ve created for yourself, there are those that seek to take it all away. That is why I have to keep you, this planet, all of us safe.”
“So all of this,” Rilaena whispered, “is just a play for power. You’re doing this just to get more of it. How is that any way for me to live? What if I don’t want it?”
“What is so terrible about this, Rilaena? You’re looked after. You’re taken care of. Anything you want in this world, you can have. Hells, you have the power to get it for yourself even!”
“Can I have my freedom?”
Prosectero’s breath caught and his mouth fell slack. He shook his head, sighing. “Stop this, Rilaena. I love you. I am your father. I want you to be happy. But I need you. And you owe me this, at the very least you owe me this. Once this is over with, and it will be soon, you will have all the freedom in the universe.”
Rilaena nodded somberly, her brain working. There was still something he wasn’t telling her. She played an integral part in Expansion’s function, and she didn’t know what that yet was. She relented, if only for now, certain that her father was not who she believed he once was. Rarely was he around any longer, and he reacted far more ruthlessly. He wanted his power, and she knew he wouldn’t pale before a harsh decision to get it, regardless of the gruesome consequences.
Something deep within her told her she needed to stop him.