When the flame that had been burning for the last 1074 years fell to a wisp and winked out of existence, the seven men and women ringing the altar knew they were about to witness something rare. They did not know they were about to witness something devastating. They stood in the center of an upper room, hewn out of rock in a time before time, circled by windows open in every direction to the sky beyond. A chill air crept in, past the circle of cloaked figures, and into the void left by the flame.
Nashua cradled the glass orb in her hands, longing to dry her palms. The Head of the Order gave Nashua a warning glance, as if she needed one. Not the slightest movement could deviate from the ceremony. She knew that. She took a breath and forced her hands to still. Just don’t drop it, she thought.
The man opposite Nashua, his cloak a ghost of color in the darkness, held his orb over the coals on the altar. He rotated it until the opening in the top faced down. “Relessa.”
A puff of ash fell from his orb and settled on the coals. Just as it should.
He turned his orb upright and placed it on the stone tablet in front of him. Around the circle the ceremony progressed, through each Order member until it came to Nashua. My turn. She raised the orb, walking her fingers along its surface, rotating it, praising her steady hands. “Relessa.” The ash released to the coals below. Relieved, she set it on the tablet in front of her.
The two remaining members of the Order of Ceinoth returned their ash, ending with the Head of the Order. The Head raised her hands, the sleeves of her cloak sliding down her arms, and spoke with the rhythm of a drum: “Eta retune. Eta retune. Eta retune.” She lowered her arms. They were only minutes away.
All were silent. Except for the last light of day, all was dark.
The coals burst into life, illuminating the cloaked members of the Order and the round room in which they stood. The flames roared toward them. Each flinched but the blaze halted and they recovered once it was clear the fire would not leap its bounds. Nashua could see now why the altar of coals was so large. This was not the minute flame she was accustomed to seeing. The fire dominated the whole of the altar. The entire room was aglow. She fought the need to draw back from the heat.
All awareness in the room turned to Nashua. The Head of the Order met her eyes. Suppressing her nerves, Nashua focused and withdrew into herself. Her vision withdrew too until all she saw was the Eternal Flame in front of her. The song began within her. The magic too. The pewter horn around her neck warmed and reverberated with magical power. She sang the Song of Calling with more than just her voice. The magic carried the song across the entire land to every soul in it. She felt immersed in power, her body pulsating with the pewter horn. When the last note left her and the song died away the magic went with it and she was only Nashua again, aware of all around her. She felt suddenly mournful. She would never sing that way again.
The Rock of Light fell to silence, only the crackling of the flames remained. The pendant of the Head of the Order, silver flames surrounded by a braided band of ribbon, glinted in the light. Time slipped and Nashua had the odd feeling of eternity pausing and claiming this one moment.
The Head led the group around the altar to their final position facing the Pillar. Nashua felt the warmth from the Eternal Flame blazing behind them. Raised in front of them, the cup-shaped Pillar of Receiving stood waiting. Beyond was the window facing in the direction of the Realm of the Phoenix, and now, at last, Nashua could look for herself.
She stared openmouthed at the sight before her. A veil of darkness swept over the land, approaching them, concealing what she was looking for. It rushed forward until it completely surrounded the Rock of Light in darkness. The Great Darkness was everywhere. The only light anywhere in the land was now inside this tower, coming from the Eternal Flame behind them, brought to life when the Phoenix had resurrected itself in the Realm.
Now, after its journey from the Realm to the Rock of Light, cloaked in darkness along the way, the Phoenix emerged before them.
The Glorious Bird.
Nashua saw now why the Phoenix was so called. Its feathers were so brilliant they appeared still to be aflame. Its eyes shone and danced as if made of glowing embers. The bird filled the window as it flew in and dwarfed the members standing weak-kneed in front of it. The wind from its wings beat back Nashua’s hair and cloak. Nashua felt as much heat from the Phoenix as she did from its flame behind her.
The Phoenix hovered over the pillar between it and the Order members. In its claws was a massive egg of ash. The Phoenix set the egg on the pillar. The Head of the Order bowed. The other members followed and Nashua heard the bird flying away. When they straightened, the bird was already in the distance, the darkness retreating with it, leaving only the first moonlight in its wake. A rare event indeed.
Nashua’s eyes leapt to something else. The egg of ash was glowing. Was this supposed to happen? She snuck a glance at the Head of the Order. As the ceremony demanded the Head had started toward the pillar, but she looked like someone trying not to appear alarmed. Nashua looked back at the egg. A ball of light emerged from it, expanding past it. Nashua resisted the urge to retreat as the ball of light came nearer to where they all stood. She looked at the other members. Decorum was fading. Each member was turning to the Head of the Order for guidance. This is not supposed to happen.
The Head signaled for them to stay in their places but she was no longer moving forward herself. The light touched the Head of the Order and they all jumped as she cried out in pain and leapt backwards.
Nashua turned back to the light.
She could not look away now even if she wanted to. All down the line Order members jerked back as if they had been burned. As the light pressed on Nashua she felt no pain. She was bound in place by delicious warmth. All around her was the dome of light, pulsating in a rainbow of colors. She was in there alone.
In front of her were the pillar and the egg of ash.
She felt an urge to pick it up. She dared not. That was the job of the Head of the Order.
The light grew brighter, as if urging her on. She squinted against it but kept her eyes fixed on the egg. She stood a moment longer, then made her decision. She approached the pillar and climbed the steps. She hesitated. The prompting to act intensified. She reached up, cupped the egg in both hands, and brought it down to her. It was heavier than she imagined with the texture of porous stone.
Suddenly, it crumbled. Nashua’s heart leapt into her throat. Her hands fumbled to contain what was inside, dropping to her knees in her efforts to salvage it. The egg of ash was more than just ash this time. In fact, there was barely any ash at all and what little there was, Nashua realized with horror, was strewn on her gown and the floor around her.
Before she could think any more, Nashua started speaking. It wasn’t her voice. It was low, melodious, sorrowful, powerful.
As each word passed out of her mouth, the Order members standing outside the ball of light listened with astonishment, which soon ascended to horror. When the light finally withdrew the Order members could only stare, a chill rooting them to the spot. Nashua knelt in the center, holding more than ash and shaking like she would never stop.
1203 years later.
The old woman looked like a piece of fruit left to rot in the sun. Corren watched her cross the grounds of Tower Hall South, home to a clandestine group of wizards and their pupils. Unknown visitors were uncommon, but she drew his attention for more reasons than that. He had been extracting finger root with a single word, enbiree, and collecting it in a woolen bag. The appearance of this woman caused him to stop mid-movement. He stood under a hickory tree, the bag lying forgotten at his feet.
She drew near, her brittle hair yellowed in the sun. Now he noticed her eyes. One was brown, the other blue. He found it uncomfortable to look at her, as if he was staring impolitely at her oddity, but neither could he look away. She shuffled under the canopy of the tree, her frame darkened by shadow, and stopped. She was here for him, a fact he somehow knew the moment he saw her.
“Corren of Landsdowne,” she said.
Just as this stranger’s presence here was out of the ordinary, so too was this greeting. It had been years since he was “Corren of Landsdowne.” No one from that village would know to look for him here.
Memories flashed through his mind: Corren watching Mother Taiven collapse in front of Tower Hall South on their way home to Landsdowne… wizards and witches swarming around her body and ushering him inside their stone halls… the echoing of their voices as he heard phrases like “what do we do with him?” and “who would take on an eight-year-old boy?” Even now, Corren was amazed at how sharply he could recall the memory of himself, orphaned for the second time in his life, huddled on a narrow bed in an empty room, not knowing what would become of him, not yet knowing it was Aradia who would save him. It was a turning point in his childhood. Aradia had knelt by his bed – her long silvery hair and powerful presence a contrast to her young age – and asked him “will you allow me to care for you?” He knew at that moment that nothing could harm him if she decided to keep him safe. So he stayed. Magic had permeated every aspect of his life since then, a skill that came so natural to him it felt akin to fate. Even before he was of age, Aradia selected him to be one of her Apprentices. Despite his promise to himself that he would find his parents someday, in the nine years following Mother Taiven’s death, he never did make it back.
So why was this woman calling him “Corren of Landsdowne”?
“You know me?” he asked, unable to subdue the eagerness in his voice.
The woman nodded. “Once. Long ago.”
He took a step forward. She was too aged to be his mother, but perhaps… “Are you my grandmother?”
Her strange eyes saddened. “No, boy. I bring you news of a different sort.”
Her answer stung and he realized the yearning for his family had never lessened – it had only been buried. He regretted his rashness. It was not like him to be so unguarded. “What news?” he asked, trying to recover a sense of formality.
She did not reply, only stretched out her frail hand. Shining in her palm was a red stone. “Take it,” she said. As if there were nothing else he could have done, he did.
It was rectangular, nearly as long as his hand and half as wide, coming to a soft point at both ends. Its scarlet color was captivating. He wrapped his fingers around its smooth surface and everything fled from his consciousness. All he knew was the stone and himself holding it. A jolt raced up his arm, then as abruptly as it came the feeling was gone. He opened his hand. The stone looked harmless enough, but his palm tingled and his heart was pounding. Something inside him was different. Something he did not know had been sleeping, started to awake.
“Show it to no one,” the old woman said, and he startled. Her voice pulled him back into the world. “Tell it to no one,” she said. “Come see me in a month, exactly.”
“What is it?” He did not mean to whisper.
She did not answer, only gave him directions to her home… in Landsdowne.
“How do you know me? Who are you?”
She was already turning to leave. “You will know more than you want to soon enough.” She left the shadow of the tree and slowly crossed the grass with the concentrated walk of the elderly. He watched her only for a moment, his vision drawn to the stone. He felt as if part of him were sliding into its depths. He closed his fist around the stone and held it protectively to his chest.
He knew he should embrace caution. Unknown magic could be dangerous, deadly even. He watched the old woman disappear around the corner of a building. He feared neither the woman nor the stone. Did that make him a fool? He began to consider how, in a month’s time, he would sneak away to Landsdowne, without Aradia knowing the reason why.
Nicolai had never been this close to a wizard before. It was almost enough to distract him from recent events. Almost.
It was a strange thing to see a wizard pulling water from Nicolai’s own well. He was clearly parched, for he filled his cup with the ladle and drank it down in nearly one gulp. Traveling long, no doubt. Nicolai wanted to ask why a wizard couldn’t just conjure up some water, but decided against it.
“I should’ve brought more water,” the wizard said. “I wasn’t expecting such a long journey today.”
“Help yourself,” Nicolai said and extended his hand. “I’m Nicolai of Knobby Tree.”
He shook it wearily. “Corren of Tower Hall South.”
Corren the wizard was tall, nearly as tall as Nicolai, and held himself with the surety of someone who took self-confidence for granted, though Nicolai sensed no air of superiority either. His high cheekbones, defined features, and dark brown hair added to his rather serious countenance, but all this was softened by his clear blue eyes and polite manner. He wore a cloak of fine linen, tightly woven, soft from the looks of it.
He was certainly the most interesting traveler to make use of their well, though not the first. Their well was situated not far from the road leading from Stonebridge to South Caedmonia. The road ran along his family’s homestead and property on one side, neighbors to the west bordered another, and the other two sides were hemmed in by the Wilds. Nicolai’s family had farmed their land in the shadow of the Wilds for ten generations. Local farmers of Knobby Tree thought it an unfortunate plot: cursed for its location. It was so undesirable that even if Nicolai’s family wanted to sell no one would buy it. Nicolai thought this foolish considering the fact that their soil was known to be fertile (at least in recent years), but this was not enough to dispel the fear of generations. Nicolai’s father was never much bothered by the presence of the Wilds, but when Nicolai was a child his mother sent him out to play with the admonition not to go into the trees.
Corren sighed and wiped his brow. It was a warm autumn day, but compared to working in the summer heat Nicolai preferred it. It mattered less now that the harvest was finally over. “Traveling long?” Nicolai asked.
“Well, I thought I was going to… to a meeting in Landsdowne, but as soon as I got there I was sent straight back out. Now I’m going to Stonebridge just to fetch a pot for a little old lady.” The wizard glanced at Nicolai and shrugged as if to say he wasn’t bothered by it.
Nicolai knew better. He smiled. “Elders can be demanding that way.”
“I suppose.” Corren took another drink, tipping back his head to empty the cup, and set the ladle on the rim of the well.
“If you’ve a flask I’ll fill it for you.”
“I was going to ask. Thank you.”
Corren and Nicolai grabbed the ladle at the same time, pulled away together and inadvertently knocked it down the center of the well. Nicolai dove for it, catching the end of the handle with the tips of his fingers before grabbing it with his other hand.
“That was close,” he said, depositing it into the bucket. His stomach smarted from where he had crushed it against the well. When he looked up Corren was staring in astonishment, not at Nicolai, but at his shirt. Nicolai followed his gaze with a glance and his heart tightened. His necklace had come out and the yellow stone attached to it glinted in the sun. Nicolai shoved it back into his shirt, his heart pounding in his ears. When he looked back at Corren he was filling his water flask as if nothing had happened at all. Nicolai thought he saw the wizard’s hands shaking.
“Well,” Corren said, glancing at him without quite meeting his eyes. “I thank you for your hospitality. I’d best be on my way.”
Nicolai nodded a farewell. Corren had noticed the stone, there was no doubt about that, and Nicolai questioned the wisdom of wearing it. But what else am I to do with this thing?
Nicolai felt sure he would be seeing Corren again, and his sense of foreboding only increased when the wizard headed not for Stonebridge, but back the way he’d come.
The day the woman visited Nicolai, he had been clearing the ditch in the west field. Rain had clogged it with debris and the water broke a groove through the side of the trench. She came to him walking along the edge of the corn stalks which stood well over her head: the last corn days away from harvesting. He first thought she was a stranger to the area and likely lost. He wondered how someone so feeble-looking came to be traveling alone. Perhaps she wasn’t lost but had a companion who was hurt and needed help. His mind tried to anticipate her reason for being there, but by the time she was next to him he found himself waiting for her to speak. Something about this woman stilled him. He thought it may have been her eyes, the one brown and one blue making it difficult to know which one to look at. He knew it was something else which caused him to look at her as if he already knew she had been coming.
“You are Nicolai,” she said, not as a question.
He cocked his head. “Do I know you?”
“Hmm,” she said, “I suppose the answer to that is ‘no.’ But I know you, and I’m here to give you what is yours.”
She held out a hand, her skin mottled with sun spots. In her palm was a stone. It was such a luminous yellow he squinted to look at it. She held it out, but he did not take it.
“That is not mine,” he said, wondering what could make her think it was.
“It belongs to you,” she said nodding.
“I think you’ve made a mistake.”
“I’m sure I haven’t.” She took his hand.
“But I’ve never seen…” She placed the stone in his palm, released him, and his words died in his mouth. It was cool to the touch as a gem is cool, but he realized at once this was no mere gem. There was something else within it, something he could not see, but could feel. His fingers curled inward, the stone cradled in his hand. When his grasp was complete, a sensation ignited in his palm, shot up his arm, and caused him to jerk in surprise. He gaped at her.
She leaned in, her eyes holding his. “It is yours.”
Despite her admonition to keep the stone a secret, he had no intention of hiding such a thing from his father. After she had gone, he went toward his father working in the north field. Nicolai began with a walk but after a few steps burst into a run.
Nicolai stood over his father by nearly a head. Nicolai told him what happened, still holding the stone and catching his breath.
Graham furrowed his brows at the stone which Nicolai held close, as if afraid something was going to happen to it. “How did she know your name?”
“I don’t know. She never told me hers, now I think of it.”
“You didn’t ask?”
Nicolai thought back on the conversation. It had been peculiar, like a dream, or something that happened without his feet quite on the ground. “No.”
Graham looked around, scanning for her. There was only the field, the house, the road. “Why would a stranger give you something so valuable?” he asked. “Do you think it was stolen?”
Nicolai dropped his eyes to the stone. He felt part of him sinking into its center, while the rest of him stood rooted to the earth. The stone pulled at Nicolai. If he should have been alarmed by this, he wasn’t. The old woman had said it was his. Against all reason Nicolai believed her. “No,” he said. “I don’t think it’s stolen.”
Nicolai felt an urge to leave and tightened his fingers around the stone.
“Nicolai? What’s wrong?”
Nicolai shook his head. He felt he needed to run, but his mind fought against it. He told himself to calm down. He didn’t understand why he felt fear.
Graham looked at Nicolai in concern. His eyes dropped to the stone, and he pressed his lips together. “I… don’t know… if you should keep that.”
It took all Nicolai’s will to fight the urge to run from his father. Perhaps he should fear the stone. Perhaps there was dark magic in it. What else would bring on such emotion? But Nicolai didn’t fear the stone. He feared his father. His father who he loved, his father who had never harmed him. Still, he needed to run. Escape. But Nicolai would not allow his feet to do it. He would not run from his father.
His face must have betrayed something of this.
“What’s wrong?” Graham asked. “What is it?” He leaned in and Nicolai flinched back.
Graham straightened in surprise.
Nicolai brought the stone up, pressed it to his chest with both hands. His father’s eyes locked on it.
“Drop the stone, son.”
“No.” His voice sounded far away but was firm. He had to run. Flee. Run now. He felt these thoughts would crush him if he did not obey soon. His father’s eyes were on the stone; his face resolute. Nicolai saw it as if in slow motion, Graham’s hand rising up, his fingers opening, his aim on the stone.
Nicolai let go his will.
Time caught up in a rush. His legs reacted but it was too late. His father’s hand was already there. Nicolai jerked the stone back in a panic, his arm flinging back and his father lunging after it. The two men stumbled, Nicolai backward and Graham ramming into Nicolai’s chest as he stretched for the stone, both their eyes on it, the impact and uncertain footing bringing them to the ground. Nicolai lost the advantage of height.
As Nicolai hit the ground he saw his father’s hand close around his own, and around the stone. A yellow light flashed out of the stone and Nicolai clenched his eyes against it. He felt his father crash on top of him, not moving. Nicolai jerked his hand away, the stone still in it, and the light withdrew.
Graham felt like dead weight. Nicolai, panting, held him and rolled him onto the ground. He feared his father had hit his head and hoped he had only passed out. Still seeing flashes from the light, Nicolai blinked his eyes furiously, pulling himself up to kneel next to his father and that was when his sight cleared and he saw his father’s face: his mouth hung open, his eyes staring at nothing.
Everything around Nicolai pressed in on him, turning to blackness. The screams he heard, he would later learn, belonged to his mother who had come out to the field. But to his ears and to his stricken mind her screams were non-existent, indistinguishable from his own. Every part of him cried out as he clutched his father to his chest. He had not passed out.
The stone had killed him.