Askari, Child of Muralia Book I
Chapter 1: Cedron’s Return
Cedron stumbled and fell on his face. He grasped his side and tried to massage the stitch that held his lungs hostage. The stabbing pain that tore through his chest only taunted him as he lay fighting with his body for the air that would keep him alive. I’ve got to get up; got to keep running. Cedron felt that he’d been running forever; running from his past, running from his pursuers, running from the reality of what he was and the death sentence that inexorably followed. He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the pain of his burning lungs and protesting legs but they would not be silenced. He groaned.
“Get up,” his Uncle Roven growled and nudged the boy’s shoulder with his boot. “We can’t get caught out in the open.”
Rolling onto his knees, Cedron tried to slow his breathing and take deliberate breaths. The aching in his chest remained, but the fire was dwindling.
“Just one more minute,” Cedron pleaded as he slowly raised himself to his feet. “I just need to catch my breath. We’ve been running for a fortnight.”
Roven’s gruff expression softened and he gripped the boy’s shoulder. “That we have and I know it’s hard on you. Still, until we shake our pursuers, we can’t afford to slow down.”
Cedron sighed and nodded. Although he’d always found long-distance running a pleasurable activity, this terrified fleeing wore down both his physical and emotional reserves. Glancing at his uncle and noting the old man’s sunken cheeks and loosely billowing shirt, he cast his eyes down in shame. This is costing him even more than it is me. I shouldn’t complain.
The two weary travelers resumed their northwestern course, although not quite as swiftly as they had been moving earlier. Both were bone-tired and on edge. They started at every noise they heard, fearing discovery by those pursuing them. Cedron almost wished that those hunting him would catch up, then the chase would be over and he would finally learn who it was that had forced him to flee his temporary sanctuary in Samshaeli.
Life had become a blur of terror and exhaustion ever since they found the charred body of the Askari man near their cave in Samshaeli. There was no doubt that the man was Askari; his stocky form and remnants of scorched dark hair and swarthy skin were unmistakable. But who could he have been and who sent him? How could he have known where we were? How could he have made it past the Sumari warriors who kept Samshaeli’s borders closed? Cedron had found himself asking those questions over and over in his head in the days since his uncle had packed their few belongings and hustled him from their home.
Only two people had known where they’d been living since Cedron’s father banished him from Askari-Barre: his father and Roven’s brother Rabin, whom Cedron had only recently met during a clandestine visit. Rabin’s youngest daughter Lania had been chosen to serve the Shaeli people as a guardian of Aurevya, the tree of life and source of Akashi energy. She had to report to her new post in Sulari, which was near where the outcasts had been serving their time. This brief visit had been the only one to break up the monotony of their isolation.
Cedron knew precious little about his mother’s people, but he had been taught that every Shaeli was born with some magical skill. It was this magical ability that caused his father’s people, the Askari, to despise the Shaeli as demons. There was some truth to this fear, for during the ancient war between the two peoples, the Shaeli decimated the mundane Askari as a result of their superior magical abilities. Although some Shaeli may only have small talents like the ability to keep cut flowers alive, others could have more impressive skills like his Uncle Roven’s ability to become invisible. Only the most magically powerful Shaeli had the skills to serve the ancient tree and Lania’s status represented a high honor among the Shaeli nobility. Rabin, along with his wife and their four older daughters all served as Sumari, the elite warriors that patrolled Samshaeli’s borders. Although Lania had been thrilled with her success at the trials, her mother and sister had been less than enthusiastic with her departure from family tradition.
In the end, it was Lania’s father that had escorted her on her long journey from their home in Suriyah, the capital of Samshaeli, to Sulari in the Ginaya Forest where the Guardians of Aurevya made their home. The brief interaction with other Shaeli, not to mention one who looked up to him as an older cousin, had done wonders for Cedron’s loneliness, but even that brief visit had put Roven on edge. If the Shaeli Council of Elders had learned of their presence in their lands, they would have been executed. The arrival of the dead Askari so near their cavern had validated Roven’s fears and spurred him to evacuate.
The old man and his young nephew had been on the run for the past thirteen days. The lush, green forests of Samshaeli had given way to the waving fields of grains and grasses of the Rabeen Plains. They followed the Akaradan River for much of their journey, which had provided both food and water for them but as they neared the foothills leading into the mountains, Cedron began wondering not only where they were ultimately headed but how they were going to sustain themselves once they abandoned their only water source.
Slowing his jog to a walk, Cedron held out his arm to keep Roven next to him. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he scanned the horizon all around him and turned to his uncle.
“So where to from here?” he asked, pulling his water pouch from his side and taking a quick sip. He offered the leather bag to Roven who shook his head.
The old man glanced behind them and in all directions as if trying to get his bearings. He ran his gnarled fingers through his lengthening silvery beard then scrubbed at his eyes with his hands.
“Let’s take a little break while we figure that out,” he said and sank to the ground. Folding his legs beneath him, the elder bowed his head and closed his eyes.
Cedron knelt down at his side and placed a sympathetic hand on his uncle’s shoulder. “You must be exhausted…I know I sure am.”
The lad shrugged off his pack and sat down cross-legged across from his uncle. He stretched his arms above his head, catching his uncle’s bleak expression as he dropped his hands.
“What is it, uncle?” he gasped, scouring the old man for any signs of illness or injury. “Are you not well?”
Roven sighed and smiled weakly at the boy. “It’s not like that, lad.” He pulled a burnt piece of scroll from an inside pouch in his jerkin and unrolled it carefully.
“What’s that?” Cedron asked, scooting closer to get a better look.
Roven spread it out on his lap and pursed his lips before turning it around to show his charge. “I found this on that Askari back at our cave. It was the only thing he had on him besides his clothing.”
“What does it say?” Cedron asked. “Can I read it?”
Roven handed it to him. “I suppose you must. I wasn’t sure what to do with it until now, but I think that we’d best follow it until we know more.”
Cedron looked at his uncle quizzically and scanned over the parchment. It had the seal of the Regent of Dulnat, Cedron’s father, across the top. Cedron’s breath caught in his throat. It’s an official summons! Father wants me to return home! He read it twice before glancing up at Roven for confirmation.
“What does this mean?” he asked, holding his breath.
Roven frowned and held his hand out for the parchment. Cedron handed it to him and watched as his uncle rolled it up and put it away as if it touching it caused him pain. He stared at Cedron for a moment then sighed.
“It means that we’re headed home to Dulnat and whatever waits for us there.”
“Do you think it’s safe for me?”
Roven shrugged. “Maybe the people have forgotten…”
Cedron blew out the breath he was holding in a loud whistle. He crossed his arms across his chest, then paced back and forth in front of his uncle as he thought about the ramifications of a return to the land of Askari-Barre. Why now? What could have happened that would allow father to bring me back? And how come…!
“Uncle Roven, why didn’t you tell me about this sooner?” the boy glared at his uncle who had been watching him silently as the boy processed the information.
“Because I hadn’t decided whether or not we’d follow those instructions until now,” he said simply. “When I found it on that dead Askari, I knew that the poor man had at least been followed if not intercepted. It wasn’t safe to head straight to Dulnat until I could be sure that whoever killed that man had been thrown from our trail.”
Cedron considered his uncle’s answer. “Because the only reason that an Askari would risk entering Samshaeli was to find me, right?”
“That is a logical reason, if not the only one.” Roven said slowly. “It would make sense that a messenger from Dulnat heading to the land of your mother would be seeking you. I can’t think of any other reason that would be worth the risk, can you?”
Cedron’s shoulders slumped. “Then they already know I’m returning…whoever ‘they’ are.”
Rove shouldered his pack again and indicated that Cedron should do the same. “Yes, whoever killed that Askari probably realized what his mission was and has been watching for us. However, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of any pursuit for the past two days. I think we’re clear to head north into the mountains.”
Cedron grabbed his pack and stuck his arms through the straps. He turned back towards the Rabeen Plains and the forests of Samshaeli that were no longer even visible on the horizon. A gentle breeze caressed his face, bearing the familiar scents of the lowlands that he was leaving like an elusive memory. I wonder if I’ll ever return there or have a place among my mother’s people. Will they ever accept me for who I am and simply allow me to live? Somehow, I just don’t see that happening. The boy turned his back on the past three years and clapped his uncle on the shoulder.
“We don’t have to run all the way there, do we?” he asked.
Roven chuckled and shook his head. “Not unless you start to get lazy. We should try to get to Dulnat before the end of the Festival of Narsham-Vu. It will be much easier to slip in unnoticed with the throngs of revelers.”
Cedron swallowed a lump in his throat. “Right. Well, lead the way.”
Cedron inhaled deeply. The pungent bitterness of juniper now mixed with the sweet grasses of the plains they were leaving behind as they ascended higher into the foothills. The chattering sounds of burrowing rodents that had been his constant companion during the trek across the grasslands had been replaced by those who made their homes in the tops of the trees. Cedron saw a colorful display of feathers amidst the swaying tree tops and squinted to identify the species, but it moved too quickly for him to follow. He knew that large, predatory birds also inhabited the trees of the dense forest, but all he could see currently were the pesky little twillings that seemed so fascinated by the two travelers and flitted overhead constantly.
The panicked and grueling pace they had begun with during their flight from Samshaeli had softened to a determined hike as they made their way higher into the mountains. Even at their slower pace, their goal was just a couple more days ahead. Cedron’s insides twisted as they continued inexorably closer to their destination; the knot extending deep into his bowels. By tomorrow night, given their current pace and continued good weather, they’d be high into the mountains and back to their home in Dulnat.
When he’d initially left, Cedron had resigned himself to never seeing his beloved city again, but the official summons could not be denied. After only three short years of exile, Cedron’s father had experienced a change of heart. Cedron still wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t trust this unexpected reversal. Nor did he believe his Uncle Roven’s suggestion that perhaps the people of Dulnat had forgotten.
The fair-haired boy squeezed his eyes shut tightly, trying to dismiss the unbidden image that floated before him. Dark waves of angry faces tossed before him on seas of fear and revulsion, all clamoring for his destruction as an abomination. A return to Dulnat would be as good as signing his own writ of execution. Yet Cedron couldn’t bring himself to believe that his father would put him at such a great risk. After all, it was only by his father’s love and rapid decision to banish his son that had saved Cedron’s life in the first place.
His Uncle Roven had been his only companion in the years since and had proven to be both a caring mentor and capable protector. Cedron knew, despite appearances to the contrary, that Roven wouldn’t heed the summons if the danger was too great. The slender lad glanced over at the older man walking next to him, unbent and vigorous after so many long days of traversing the thick undergrowth of the Ginaya Forest, then the ceaseless waving grasses of the Rabeen Plains and now the steep trails of the Monhadi Mountains. Lord Shamar’s brilliant rays shone down on the pair as the daytime deity arched across the clear blue sky, causing the older man’s silver hair and translucent skin to gleam in the light. Cedron paused to stretch his back. He glanced sidelong at his uncle who continued on, oblivious. The boy’s moss green eyes reflected the soft greens of the leafy trees as he scanned the surrounding hills.
“The Inn at Lake Julani would be a nice place to rest and bathe before presenting ourselves at the festival, don’t you think?” Cedron asked, catching up to Roven.
The old man cocked an eyebrow, and then cleared into a blank expression. “Wouldn’t you prefer the warm baths and fresh clothes from the castle?”
Cedron shrugged. He had certainly missed the hot water piped into the baths he’d enjoyed in Dulnat. It beat bathing in the chilly Akaradan River, especially during Dormantide when ice rimmed the shallows. More than once he’d had to run through the forest just to get the circulation back into his numbed extremities, completely wasting the point of the swim. The extensive cave system where the two had spent the last three years of exile was deep in the Ginaya Forest and ideally located near a portion of the river that was wider and deeper, making it very cold. Although Roven assured his nephew that it was the best bathing in Samshaeli, the lad had begun to think that his uncle had a warped sense of humor.
Cedron’s grandmother had dug out the pool along the bank for bathing and washing during her own exile. Although Roven had refused to speak of it, Cedron always wondered if his grandmother’s crime had been as serious as his, or her punishment as unjust. Pausing, the boy watched a pair of brown twillings fly by, dodging and circling each other in the sky as they hunted the insects that would feed the young still bound to the nest. They were still beautiful to watch, even if they didn’t have the bright, jeweled colors of their brethren in Samshaeli.
Similarly, the shimmering hair and translucent skin of the pair of travelers set them equally apart from the swarthy inhabitants of the lands they now entered. And I’m as good as dead if I go through with this. The Askari will never accept me.
Cedron shuddered and wiped his damp hands on his trousers. Visions of being stoned to death by an angry mob returned to his mind. Even the Harmolin Legion, Askari-Barre’s peacekeepers, wouldn’t step in for one such as him. Cedron adjusted his pack on his shoulders, hitching it up higher so that it didn’t cut into the spare bit of flesh that covered them. He sighed heavily.
“This is a mistake.”
Roven stopped and turned around, facing the lad. His piercing blue eyes bore deep into Cedron’s, causing the youth to cast his eyes downward.
“I thought you were more optimistic about heading home to your father. Why the second thoughts?” Roven asked, walking back to where the boy had un-slung his pack.
“I don’t know. It’s just that…” Cedron was distracted by a large raptor circling above the trees higher in the hills above them. It swooped down out of the sky and grasped one of the chattering rodents from a branch where it cowered. He shuddered in empathy for the helpless creature being carried high over the trees in the raptor’s claws.
“It’s just that I can’t imagine things changing that quickly. I’m not sure I can defend myself, you know? I mean, I’m only 15 and…well…after the “incident”…everyone wanted me dead. Suddenly father wants to bring me back…I just don’t understand.”
“Neither do I,” Roven frowned. “However, things do change with time. Perhaps there is more to this than we know.”
Behind them, Cedron heard a crack. Roven’s eyes darted toward the noise, his muscles tensing. Cedron followed his uncle’s gaze and held his breath. I thought Roven said we’d lost our pursuers! How could they have found us all the way up here? Coldness crept into his neck and shoulders despite the heat as the thought of who might be pursuing them sent shivers down his spine.
Roven motioned for the boy to take cover behind a patch of scrub brush. Cedron ducked quickly and peered through the thin twigs at his uncle who shimmered briefly before disappearing altogether. Only the sounds of his soft footsteps revealed the older man’s furtive steps towards the sound. Cedron followed his uncle’s steps and stared intently into the thicket.
Moments later, a pair of feral yellow eyes gleamed at him from the depths of the underbrush. Cedron’s heart leapt into his throat. What is that thing? The lad’s eyes jumped from the crouching beast to his uncle, who had revealed himself again. Roven was staring intently at the creature. Cedron heard a low growl from the bushes and the yellow eyes blinked and turned away.
Cedron exhaled slowly and shook his head. His uncle’s ability to empathize with animals had probably saved them from more than this particular encounter. All Shaeli could empathize with animals; a talent that came in handy around hungry predators. Cedron wished for the millionth time that his blood was pure, giving him full access to his Shaeli side rather than being so dependent upon his uncle, but wishing such a thing wouldn’t change his circumstances.
The old man winked and motioned for Cedron to shoulder his pack. “Well, that was exciting.”
Cedron shook his head and sighed loudly as he hefted the heavy pack back onto his shoulders. “I wish I had half of your abilities, Uncle.”
Roven’s shrewd eyes raked the boy up and down for a moment, then he scratched his beard briefly. Unslinging his pack, the old man rummaged through the deep bag, murmuring quietly to himself as he dug through its depths. “Aha!” he exclaimed as he pulled a small pouch and held it for Cedron’s inspection.
“What is it?” the boy asked, eyeing the bag.
Roven rubbed his hands together and loosened the strings of the pouch. “This may be at least one answer to your problems,” he grinned.
The elder motioned for Cedron to hold out his hands. Roven poured the contents of the small pouch into the boy’s outstretched palm. Cedron stared uncomprehending at the colorful array of rough-hewn stones that glittered in the afternoon light. Roven picked up the largest one and hefted it in his palm.
“This is a bloodstone,” he held out the greenish stone with red veins striating across its surface. “It stops the bleeding when placed on wounds.”
“Great,” Cedron shrugged. “I’ll remember that if I’m needed to dress a wound.”
Roven wagged his first finger at the boy. “In addition, it is said to have the property of invisibility.”
The old man waited, watching the boy’s face for any sign of comprehension. Nothing. Cedron stared back at him blankly.
“Think, lad!” he chuckled, blue eyes sparkling in Lord Shamar’s light.
Cedron was tired, his mind exhausted. They’d kept up a grueling pace for over three weeks with little food or water in addition to the constant stress of potential pursuit. What does he expect of me? I don’t know anything about stones and their properties…that’s the domain of the Tawali. Oh. Comprehension dawned on the boy’s face causing Roven to chuckle again. Cedron fought down his annoyance and grabbed the bloodstone.
“Ok, what am I supposed to do with it?” he asked, holding the stone gingerly as if it might suddenly grow teeth and bite his hand.
Roven squatted down and had Cedron sit cross-legged next to him.
“Your grandmother’s Tawali blood allows you to manipulate terra, as we have learned. Perhaps you can access the bloodstone’s properties through your focused intention. Shall we give it a try?”
“Now, close your eyes and slow your breathing,” Roven began. “Send out your consciousness into the stone and feel it.”
Cedron rolled his eyes. Really? Feel the stone with my consciousness? Whatever. He sighed and closed his eyes, willing to give anything a try that would hone his unruly and undefined abilities. Cedron took a deep breath. Exhaling slowly, the boy reached out with his mind and touched the surface of the stone. Slowly, he stretched out deeper, sinking in his mind’s eye beneath the red lines and shaped his intention to become invisible. He’d done this exercise countless times in other contexts with varying results and he was skeptical of the outcome.
His breathing became more relaxed as he slipped into the meditative state. Intent on his objective of invisibility, Cedron was startled to feel the prickling and tightening of his skin. He opened his eyes slightly and gasped. His hands had taken on the greenish hue of the bloodstone. The blood vessels and veins shone dark red against the olive tinge.
“What’s happening to me?” he gasped, fully alert.
Roven grasped his hand holding the bloodstone and closed it around the mineral’s rough edges. “You’re infusing yourself into the stone. Instead, try to only elicit the properties of invisibility through the stone rather than within it. Can you make the distinction?” Roven asked.
Cedron thought about it. He pictured the power flowing around the stone and concentrated on the energy coursing through it and capturing it on the other side. His skin returned to its normal translucency then began to shimmer. The boy squeezed his eyes shut tighter and let his mind join the river of energy. He felt the tingling of his skin again as it rippled. He opened his eyes and looked down at where his hands should have been, but saw nothing.
“I’ve done it!”
“Yes,” Roven nodded and reached for the stone. “Focusing your energy through the stones has opened up a whole new area of training for you.”
Cedron released his grip on the stone and brought his attention back to solid form. He grinned broadly at Roven. “Why didn’t we think of this before?”
The old man took the stone from the boy’s hand and placed it back into the small pouch. “Don’t you think we’ve had enough to work on without complicating matters? Come, we
must keep moving. If we hurry, we may be able to catch the caravan before they reach the city.”
Cedron’s eyes lit up. “Really? Aren’t they in Tamona this time of year?” He quickly adjusted his straps and hurried after his uncle, the prospects of increasing his mastery momentarily forgotten.
Roven kept marching, leading them higher into the foothills. The juniper gave way to ferns, filling more of the open spaces between thickening aspen and birch, precursors to the evergreens that rimmed the higher elevations. The old man stroked his silvery beard absentmindedly for a few moments as they walked.
“The caravan is returning from Tamona and should arrive in Dulnat about the same time we do.”
Cedron blinked. Why would the caravan change its century-old schedule…and how had Uncle Roven known about it? Their exile had been complete, as far as he had known, with no communication from Dulnat until they found the corpse of the Askari messenger. Even the Council of Elders in Samshaeli hadn’t known of their presence as they kept their exiled existence quiet.
As much as Cedron was excited about the thought of catching up with the caravan and seeing his best friend Dariun, the idea that Roven had kept secrets from him was disturbing. What else is he keeping from me?
“How do you know this, uncle?” Cedron asked, peering at the old man’s face to detect any duplicity.
Roven kept walking. Staring straight ahead, he finally answered. “There have been rumors of Hinaek moving down from the north and into the marshlands near Tamona. Master Cherak and your father thought it would be safer to have the caravan regroup in Dulnat before deciding on a safer route.”
Cedron nodded and kept walking, pondering the news. If the Hinaek were moving south, then Dulnat could also be a target. His heart beat a little faster. Perhaps father is bringing me home because of the threat to the city. If Dulnat were overrun with the monstrous Hinaek tribes, perhaps my abilities could help defend the city.
Cedron swallowed against the bile that rose in his throat. He’d already lost his mother. Even though he had been a small child at the time, her loss was still keenly felt. To lose his father was more than he could fathom in his short life. It was one thing to be exiled and away from his home and kin, but it was another entirely to know that they were gone from the world.
“Is Dulnat at risk? That’s why father is bringing me back, isn’t it? To use my powers to defend the city?” Cedron asked.
“The Hinaek are not necessarily headed to Dulnat. Ours is a small city, hardly worth their effort. What’s more concerning is why they’re on the move in the first place,” Roven puffed as he lunged up the steep slope of a hill. “I’m sure your father has his own reasons for recalling us home.”
“Yes, but why couldn’t he have just told us?” Cedron threw up his arms in exasperation.
Roven shrugged. “I am not privy to that information. I only have the summons. I’m sure Kasuin will fill us in on the details once we reach Dulnat.”
Cedron stomped his feet hard into the soft moss and ferns of the knoll he was climbing. It felt good to let some of the tension from his fear and uncertainty bleed out the bottoms of his boots and into the ground. He knew that allowing his anger and frustration to build up inside his body could have disastrous consequences. Roven had worked diligently with him over the past few years at controlling both his emotions and his energy to prevent another mishap.
Lord Shamar’s rays turned deep golden as the deity lowered himself from the sky to begin his evening repose. Shadows grew longer and the two weary travelers began to slow their exhaustive march. Pine trees now dotted the hills as they continued into the gathering dusk.
Cedron breathed through his nose, enjoying the musky scent of the mosses that grew thickly between the trees and continued to calm his mind. He felt the anxiety and fear wash through and exit his body as the thumping in his chest quieted to a normal beat.
As his mind cleared, Cedron realized with a sharp jolt that his uncle had cleverly ignored his earlier question. Roven must have been in communication with someone in the caravan, but with whom? Although many in the caravan had access to magical artifacts, only one had any innate ability and she couldn’t dream weave or scry. The more Cedron pondered it, the more curious he became.
“How did you know about the caravan changing their schedule?” he asked, as Roven set his pack down in a clearing beneath a fairly large oak tree and surveyed the area.
The elder began gathering fist-sized river rocks from the Akaradan River, ever their guide, and motioned for Cedron to help him. They stuffed the rocks in the loose hems of their shirts, making pouches for carrying the heavy stones back to their camp.
Cedron dumped his rocks into a pile and waited expectantly while Roven placed them in a circle for their fire. Cedron threw small branches and twigs from the area into the circle while Roven shaved the dry bark from one of the few trees lining the river. The old man took the shavings and placed them under the twigs.
“Cedron, would you mind?” he asked, indicating the lad should start the fire.
Cedron looked at the mound of firewood and back to his uncle. A smile played at his lips.
“How about you answer my question first?” he grinned.
Roven’s head jerked up at the impertinence. He glared at Cedron for a moment, and then chuckled. Cedron knew his uncle had just realized that he’d been outmaneuvered. Roven combed his fingers through his beard before answering, his eyes twinkling in the fading light.
“Very well. I was contacted by Sarohra. She is working on a new method of scrying.”
“Really? What is she using?” Cedron asked.
Roven shook his head and pointed at the fire. Cedron shrugged and squatted down next to the ring. He closed his eyes. Reaching deep within himself, he felt the flow of energy that coursed through his body and pictured the crackling fire in his mind.
Heat rose through his chest and poured down his arms and into his hands. Opening his eyes, he held his palm towards the fire pit and whispered, “Maftah.” Instantly, the flames began licking at the shaved wood, crackling merrily and filling Cedron’s nose with the acrid scent of burning sap. Cedron sat back on his haunches and blew gently on the flames until they reached a satisfactory level.
“I believe she is using some form of aqua stone, but I’m not entirely sure. Our conversation was short and seemed to cause her a lot of discomfort and energy,” Roven said, sitting cross-legged next to Cedron.
Cedron nodded. If anyone could figure out a way to communicate using stones, it would be the gem-cutter Sarohra. She was brilliant at enhancing the natural properties of the gems she worked with. Her artifacts and jewelry were in high demand throughout Muralia’s many lands. He wondered at her heritage, for her ability to work with stones was a Tawali trait. Cedron knew that it was only because his grandmother was Tawali that he had the ability to manipulate terra and rocks himself. The Askari didn’t hold much for mixing the races, so asking Sarohra about any mixed blood would be inappropriate. Cedron knew that it was only because his father’s family was the renowned Varkaras line that the occasional indiscretion with foreigners had been tolerated.
“I can’t wait to see what Sarohra’s come up with,” Cedron mused as he pulled the dried meat and roots from his pouch. He offered some to Roven who declined.
“Would you like me to get the water?” the boy started to get up.
Roven waved him down and grabbed both water skins. “I’ll be right back. You keep the fire going…it looks like another clear and cold night approaching.”
Cedron glanced into the skies where the first moon daughter, red Orwaena, was just making her appearance above the hills. Her early crimson light melded with her father’s retreating golden hues turning the cloudless sky into a brilliant display of color. Golds and reds crashed into swaths of orange as the deities briefly collaborated on the aerial canvas. Cedron could see the first early stars peeping through the wash of golden-red, twinkling at him from their distant perches.
The rest of their celestial brethren would make their appearance before Orwaena’s sisters, blue Azria and violet Hamra would complete their dance across the heavens. Cedron pulled the woolen blanket from his pack and laid it on the ground. The air was still warm as they hadn’t climbed very high into the mountains yet, but the temperature would drop quickly once Lord Shamar’s light was extinguished from the skies.
Roven returned with the full water skins and tossed one to Cedron, who caught it neatly with one hand.
“I see your reflexes haven’t slowed despite being away from Dariun these past three years,” Roven teased his nephew.
“Some skills are just ingrained with years of practice,” Cedron laughed as he grabbed three small stones from around the fire. He began juggling them high in the air.
“Toss me another,” he said to Roven as the circle in front of him went higher. Roven tossed two rocks at him in rapid succession. Cedron didn’t miss a beat incorporating them into his display. “This is harder when things are coming at me from two directions, but we don’t need to go there tonight!”
Roven watched with a slight smile on his face as the boy continued to display his juggling prowess. “What about a couple burning branches?”
“That would impress Dariun, wouldn’t it?”
Cedron grunted as he struggled to get the flaming branch Roven tossed his way into the circle of flying objects.
“More!” he yelled at his uncle, dropping the stones sequentially as more flaming sticks entered the fray.
Cedron focused on the flaming branches and spinning them faster and faster in front of him. Once they reached the point that they resembled a solid flaming sphere, he closed his eyes and dropped his arms. He felt the Akashi flow through him, burning slightly on the palms of his hands as he released his energy outward.
Using only his mind and the ability he was born with, he kept the flaming circle spinning for several more moments before clapping his hands together and extinguishing the fire. The scorched sticks dropped harmlessly to the ground. Cedron picked them up gingerly and tossed them into the fire pit.
Roven nodded solemnly. “Yes, Dariun will be impressed, as am I. Your control of fire has really improved. You should be proud of your progress, Cedron.”
The lad grinned ruefully at the scars on his hands and forearms. “Not without some sacrifice though. Having Askari blood helps, but it’s left its mark. Air will be much tougher…especially learning to fly!”
Roven clicked his tongue. “One step at a time. It’s a marvel that you can manipulate it at all, let alone harnessing the winds enough to levitate.”
Cedron cocked his head to one side and gave a faint smile. “You’re right, but for whatever reason, I have the ability…and I’m not going to squander it.”
Cedron sprang onto the log lying across the side of the campsite and grabbed a low-lying branch from the tree near where they had built their fire. He swung himself up easily and balanced on the narrow branch. Closing his eyes, he spread his arms out wide and blew.
The wind rose into a small cyclone just beneath him. Leaves and small branches flew into the whirling wind causing Roven to cry out and cover his eyes. Cedron took a deep breath and stepped out into the top center of the spiral that reached to just below the branch he was standing on.
Roven peeked through slitted eyes as his nephew fell through the center of the cyclone to the ground and collapsed. The wind died down, scattering the resultant flotsam throughout the campsite.
Roven rushed to the boy’s side. “Laylur’s beast! Cedron, are you hurt…is anything broken?”
Cedron lay flat on his back and groaned. He opened his eyes and gasped for breath, reaching for his uncle’s shirt. Grasping the fabric with his fists, he pulled his uncle closer.
“I think I broke it.”
Roven scanned his body. “Why do you think that?”
“Because I’ve got a crack in my butt!” Cedron said in a ragged whisper.
Roven’s worried expression cleared as he burst out laughing. Cedron grinned sheepishly as he rolled over and slowly got to his feet. He rubbed his backside gingerly, the bruises beginning to swell from the hard landing.
“Guess I still need to work on that one. Did you notice that the wind was stronger? This time I didn’t break anything.”
“True, and that’s great,” Roven said with his hands on his hips as he surveyed the mess. “But you’ve blown out the fire. First rule in showing off is to make sure you impress more and damage less.”
Cedron meekly began picking up the sticks to rebuild the smoldering embers into a usable flame. “I still think Dariun will like it. Do you think we’ll catch up with the caravan tomorrow then?”
“Perhaps,” Roven tossed an armful of twigs and branches into the fire.
Cedron whooped loudly and jumped into the air, grinning from ear to ear. He had really missed his friend during his exile and nothing could dampen his excitement at seeing him again.
Cedron flopped down next to his uncle in front of the fire and drank deeply from the water skin offered him. He was exhausted from the forced marches and dancing around the fire in anticipation of the next day’s meeting. Cedron wiped his face with his sleeve and inhaled deeply.
“It’s a beautiful night, isn’t it?” he sighed, gazing up at the stars blanketing the heavens in the clear twilit sky.
“It is, but it will be over all too quickly,” Roven clapped him on the shoulder. “Get some sleep.”
Roven slid under his blanket and rolled over with his face away from the fire. Cedron watched the stars for a few moments more. He spied the faint blue light as the second moon daughter Azria crested the trees on the horizon, following her vermillion sister in their nightly pattern across the Muralian sky.
Hugging himself in anticipation of the reunion promised by the eve of the following day, Cedron rolled himself in his blanket and closed his eyes, unsure how long it would take for sleep to finally reach him.
The last vestiges of the third moon daughter Hamra’s plum-colored light hovered along the western horizon as Cedron felt his uncle’s hand on his shoulder waking him. Pale streaks of Lord Shamar’s golden rays were just climbing into the eastern sky as he bade his violet daughter farewell.
Yawning and stretching to shake the sleepiness from his body, Cedron got up and quickly rolled his blanket and arranged his pack. The embers of the fire had long since died out, but Cedron watched his uncle stomp on them anyway to ensure that no residual flames remained. The Shaeli avoided destruction of the land in any way and would never risk leaving even the tiniest spark that could flare later.
“Would you like me to clear up the campfire with my vortex?” Cedron asked, his hands already preparing the magic.
Roven held his hand up, signaling for him to wait. Digging in his pouch, the old man brought out a pale yellow sphene crystal and handed it to Cedron.
“Try focusing the air through the wind stone. It will give you more control. Try just moving the rocks back to the river and clearing up all traces of the fire without damaging all the flora within a 100 foot radius, would you?” the old man grinned.
Cedron rolled his eyes and held the crystal in front of him. He closed his eyes and focused on the wind stone’s properties. In his mind, he felt the stirring of the Akashi magic from deep within his body. He focused on the stone and felt the cool breeze of air gently caressing his hands.
Holding his palm open, he felt the stone capture and direct the gently swirling breeze. He envisioned the wind lifting the river rocks around the fire pit and smiled slightly as they rose gently into the slow-moving vortex. Ha! The old bugger was right; it is easier to control when focused through a stone!
Cedron sent a mental prayer of gratitude to his Tawali grandmother. He guided the small cyclone of stones and assorted small sticks and leaves towards the river, where he released the stone’s energy once it hovered a few feet from shore. The river rocks dropped instantly to the bottom, leaving the rest as flotsam on the surface of the river.
“Well done,” Roven clapped the lad on the shoulder. “Your Tawali blood is the key, I think. If you can access the other elements through stones, you may have a way to control your Akashi energy after all.”
Cedron handed the sphene crystal back to his uncle and sighed. “Yeah, I just wish…” Cedron slumped his shoulders.
Roven gripped his shoulder and squeezed gently. “I know, Cedron. I know.”
The two shouldered their packs and struck out due northward, leaving the Akaradan River and heading straight into the Monhadi Mountain range. Cedron glanced back over his left shoulder and saw the twin peaks of Zahir and Zohar rising into the deep blue sky. The Tadim Pass that ran between those enormous peaks would have been an easier route, but it would have added time to their journey.
Cedron kept up with Roven’s brutal pace without complaint, knowing that every step brought him closer to his best friend and ally. Their pace slowed even further as the steep terrain took them higher where the air was thinner. After being raised in the high mountains, the dense almost palpable air of the Ginaya Forest had taken a lot of getting used to. After three years of feeling as if he had been breathing solid air, Cedron inhaled deeply, enjoying the freedom in his chest as they continued northward on their trek.
Lord Shamar had already reached his zenith when the two reached the shores of Lake Julani and the last leg of their journey. The two weary travelers joined an extended family of weavers who were loading their wagon full of cloth onto the ferry to cross the lake. The monstrous towren stomped and blew in the warm air, their chains jangling against the sides of their harnesses.
Cedron and Roven skirted around the wagon, carefully avoiding the dangerous horns that protruded from either side of the steel grey bovines’ muzzles and behind each pointed ear. Cedron’s cloak caught on the rough scales of the towren’s leg, causing the enormous creature to stomp its heavy, taloned claws at the irritant. The boy leapt agilely out of the way as they made their way to the front of the ferry where the ferryman was collecting fares. Roven dug in his pouch for two flecksun coins. The crystalline fragments inside the polished, indigo stones glinted in the light as he pulled them out.
Handing the coins to the ferryman as payment for their passage, Roven waited as the man inspected the Rohiti stamp on the coin validating their fare before guiding Cedron to a bench where they would have a good view of the western shore. The weaver and his wife stayed with the wagon where they could keep control over the nervous towren, but their many children ranged themselves along the benches on either side of the small ferry.
Two burly young men, probably the ferryman’s sons by their resemblance to the older man, stepped up to their positions along the chain as the ferryman cast the ropes off from shore. The young men grasped the heavy chain from where it exited the metal grommet at the bow of the ferry and hauled it to the grommet at the stern. They let go and walked back up to the bow of the ferry where they repeated their efforts, pulling the ferry across the long lake as the chain dripped water into the deck.
Cedron watched the muscles of the young men’s legs and shoulders as they strained to get the ferry moving and grimaced. What I wouldn’t do for half of their strength and muscles. He looked down at his lanky legs and sighed. At least I’m an excellent runner. His lithe form was good for little else in his homeland of Askari-Barre, where brute strength and martial prowess were traits appreciated by the masses. His adopted brother Toran was endowed with plenty of both and had never let Cedron forget it growing up.
Roven caught Cedron watching the powerful lads and correctly guessed at his train of thought. “Toran would be well-suited for this type of work, don’t you think?”
Cedron was startled out of his reverie. He looked at his uncle and back to the ferryman’s sons and snorted.
“Toran could certainly do this with ease,” he agreed. “But I think he’d become bored with it rather quickly.”
Roven nodded and cast his gaze to the western shoreline, watching fish in a distant school jump for the insects hovering above the water.
“Toran will be a great warrior someday,” Cedron continued his musings. “Dariun is the only one who could outmaneuver him in acrobatics. I remember when the weapon’s master agreed to let him use Dariun’s moves in weapons training. That was a deadly combination.”
“Yes, your brother is quite skilled with the blade,” Roven agreed. “Kasuin is proud of him.” He caught Cedron’s pained expression and cleared his throat. “He’s very proud of you both.”
Cedron picked up a small rock and threw it into the water, narrowly missing one of the big lads as he pulled the chain past him.
“Toran is more my father’s son than I am and you know it,” he said. “Everybody loves Toran. I’m an embarrassment…a demon.”
Roven frowned but said nothing.
Cedron crossed his arms over his chest and looked out over the side of the ferry. He stared out at the tall evergreen trees that lined the shore, their thick branches stretching high into the sky above the thick foundations of their trunks. Unbroken by any trace of civilization, the water of the lake was green from the endless trees that lined its shores as the ferry slowly made its way across its vast length. The stately trees made him think of his young cousin Lania and her own familial tribulations. Her situation was almost diametrically opposed to his.
Lania had earned the right to their people’s highest honor, despite the chagrin of her mother and sisters. Cedron knew that most, if not all the people of Dulnat would oppose his return to the city, regardless of how beneficial his magic could be should the Hinaek attack.. How could father possibly think that I could just come home as if nothing had ever happened?
Cedron pondered it a bit longer, rejecting every possible argument that his father could have given the people of Dulnat on his behalf. Still, Kasuin Varkaras is a great leader of men in a long line of Varkaras pioneers. He wouldn’t make such a move lightly unless there was a good reason for it and greater than likely chance for its success. Perhaps something has happened that has allowed him to sway the people of Dulnat in my favor. Maybe the threat from the Hinaek army has warmed the population to me and my unique abilities. After all, I’ve learned so much over the past three years that perhaps my skills can help defend the city. Cedron grimaced. Those same skills that condemned me.
Cedron squirmed on the hard bench, his backside numb from the long ferry ride. He glanced up at the two lads pulling the chain and realized that they were slowing their pace. Cedron nudged Roven, who had dozed off next to him, and pointed to the launch they were rapidly approaching.
Cedron stood and stretched, helping his uncle stiffly to his feet. The ferry slid aground in the pea gravel that had been built up between the pilings to keep it stable. The ferryman’s sons let go of the chain and grabbed the thick ropes used to tie the ferry to the pilings for unloading. Nodding to the weaver sitting atop the wagon, Roven hustled Cedron to the bow of the boat in front of the mighty towren and the two hopped off the ferry.
They wove their way through the small crowd that had gathered either to welcome the arrivals or to board the ferry for passage to the other side of the lake, and up to the lawn in front of the inn that sat imposingly overlooking the lake.
“Any chance we can get a pint of ale before heading out?” Cedron asked, wistfully looking at the comfortable inn.
“Sure,” Roven said and turned toward the inn, nearly knocking Cedron over in his change of direction. “As long as you don’t mind missing the caravan.”
Cedron stopped in his tracks. The call of the comfortable chairs and fresh-brewed ale warred with the camaraderie of his friend in the caravan; the caravan won. Cedron exhaled slowly and pivoted westward on his heel. Roven clapped him on the back and grinned as they started their final march into the forests above Dulnat.
Cedron watched his uncle and decided that the spring in his step was as much a result of the rest they’d had on the ferry ride as his improved spirits. The old man began whistling a lively tune as the daytime deity sank lower on the horizon, his last rays stretching the long shadows of the evergreen trees well out in front of them.
Cedron was grateful for his long sleeves and cloak as the temperature dropped and the biting flies came out. He’d forgotten about those particular pests during his time away and didn’t appreciate having to swat endlessly at them as they hurried through the forest in the deepening gloom.
“How long do you think it will be until we catch up with the caravan?” Cedron asked peering through the trees for any sign of the caravan’s lights.
Roven shrugged. “It’s hard to say. I imagine before full dark, if they’re camped above the city where I think they are.”
Cedron nodded and continued to hold a steady pace. His thoughts had improved the closer they got to the caravan.
“I’ve been thinking,” Cedron began, matching his stride to his uncle’s as the path widened beneath the trees.
“Hmm?” Roven looked at him with raised eyebrows.
“If I focus my fire through a tourmaline, I might be able to launch fireballs. That would be a great weapon against the Hinaek, don’t you think?” Cedron’s eyes were shining in the fading light.
Roven watched the lad, carefully keeping his expression neutral. “Perhaps, but I’d want to see you practice it until you’re proficient before releasing you where you might harm our own legionnaires.”
Cedron’s face fell.
“Look, I’m sure your father knows how very valuable your abilities are and could be,” the old man said hastily. “Perhaps you’ll have the opportunity to prove it to the people. Either way, I’m sure that whatever his reasons, they are in your best interest and he will be very pleased to see you.”
The young man smiled, his green eyes softened as he thought about his father and the happy reunion he hoped for. He hated disappointing his father and the thought of being helpful and even valuable to the Regent, the city, and her people filled Cedron’s heart with hope. He never again wanted to feel the dejection he’d experienced when his father had to banish him from Dulnat for his own protection. I’ll show them all how great my powers have grown during my time away and prove that I can be trusted.
Cedron wandered in his happy thoughts for a few more feet when Roven stopped suddenly and raised his hand. Cedron stopped and crouched down low, joining Roven behind an enormous tree trunk.
“What is it?” Cedron whispered.
Roven closed his eyes, listening without the interference of his other senses. Without speaking a word, Roven gave Cedron the signal for invisibility. Cedron nodded and silently pulled the bloodstone out of his pouch.
He focused on the stone’s properties and pulled his Akashi energy from deep within himself, pouring his essence into the stone. Cedron shimmered briefly and disappeared from view as Roven carefully inched forward, activating his own magic. His uncle didn’t tell him what he’d sensed, but it must have been dangerous or he wouldn’t have had Cedron use the bloodstone.
Fear welled up in Cedron’s body causing cold beads to form along his hairline. His heart beat rapidly in his chest causing him to breathe heavier. Cedron clamped down on his emotions, hoping that whatever was out there wouldn’t hone in on his tell-tale perspiration or ragged breathing. Fear of the unknown was far worse that fear of a known quantity, he reminded himself.
Cedron closed his eyes and willed himself to breathe slowly. He opened his mind, sending out tiny tendrils of awareness to pick up on whatever was out there potentially stalking them. Cedron had just felt the fringes of a foreign energy when he heard his uncle gasp.