Age crept through her certainty like a malignancy, leaving the guider feeling old and sick inside, as she stared up at the menacing black wall. She couldn’t hold it back—her magic was simply too weak. Trenara stood alone, trembling as the darkness towered above her. It was so long, it faded into distance on either side of her frail form; and so tall, it fused into black clouds high above her head as a deafening thunder pounded the sky and scattered lightning blinded her.
She stood between the wall and the world. The shadow rushed forward, eating away at everything so quickly there was no time to respond. When she could do nothing else, Trenara howled up in frustration, her tiny fists quivering with fury, her mouth silent in the roar of the ruin. There was nothing she could do to stop it from shattering the Imperium, not even a hope she could grasp in her tiny fingers. When the world surrendered, a feeble shaft of light opened the blackness for a fleeting instant and showed her once again the only promise against destruction: a frightened child—and a broken wand. The starguider screamed.
Trenara came out of the dream with a start and sat up. Scanning the room, she thought she had heard a scream and then realized it must have been her own. Her vocal chords still ached as she touched her throat uncertainly, scowling at the early morning. The guider’s nightgown was soaked with sweat, and clumps of waist-long gray hair clung to her forehead and neck. She threw her legs over the side of the bed and buried her face in her hands, shaking uncontrollably for a moment. Taking a deep breath to stop the tremors, Trenara got up to cross to her dressing room.
She tried to dislodge the dream that haunted her as she dressed, but her trembling hands were making the simple action of buttoning her undershirt almost impossible. She dressed as quickly as she could. Her aide Ena had laid out food and tea on the table, but Trenara ignored it, as she tied her hair into a loose knot at the back of her head and stepped to the balcony to try to calm her shattered senses in the morning breeze.
Far below, she could see the tide was in and the ships, so very few it seemed, were moored haphazardly to the docks. She frowned at the harbor, wondering why it seemed so empty. The captain would be furious if he were alive, Trenara thought. Blue and black sea scalards flew in large flocks as they screamed and darted in the salty air. The pound of the surf and the hiss of the tide were very faint as they drifted up the castle wall. The sound helped to soothe her mangled nerves.
The nightmare was approaching the realm of vision, she knew, but of what she didn’t know, and the thought unsettled her. It felt as if the gods were meddling again, directing her, forcing her toward something. But, as always, she didn’t know what. They had done this to her many times, for as long as she could remember. The guider told no one, of course; it wasn’t something you shared. This time the visions were frightening, confusing and involved not only herself, but also a child she loved—Joshan. Trenara shivered, returned to the room to grab her satchel, and left in a black mood.
“No, no, lad!” Haiden brought his quarterstaff up and pounded it into the ground. He wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and spat into the dust at his feet. “Put your back into it, not your arms. I’ve seen you fight better with your nurse.”
Joshan, perhaps half the size of the grizzly older man and a fraction of his age, circled around, and adjusted his grip; this man was notorious for his speed and trickery. The boy’s tunic was streaked with sweat and his face red with exertion. With energy he didn’t feel, Joshan again lunged at Haiden uselessly.
“That’s better, lad.” The sergeant gave him a half crooked smile and switched the staff to his other hand. “Now, let’s see what you can do with some real fighting.” He crouched low and readied his attack.
Joshan put up his stave and massaged his side. “A moment, Haiden. Let me catch my breath.”
“Your breath, is it? Well, if you think your enemy will give you time to catch your breath, think again.” He gave a vicious cry and charged.
In the same instant Joshan dived for the ground. The tip of Haiden’s staff just missed the prince’s ear and Joshan pushed his staff across the sergeant’s legs. Haiden didn’t have time to stop before winding his burly limbs around the shaft and stumbling headlong into the dusty courtyard. He spun around, spitting out dirt and glared at the young prince with a mute smile. Joshan was beside himself with laughter.
“You’ll be sore a week for that!” Haiden hauled himself up and ran after the boy, who stopped his laughter only long enough to skirt a battle dummy.
“You should be proud, sergeant.” Joshan wiped his eyes, which glistened darkly in the morning light. “I’ve only done what you taught me.”
“I’ll teach you a thing or three when I get my hands on you. Now hold still.”
Haiden feinted to the left, causing the boy to move a little too quickly to the right, and then he had him. Weak with laughter, they went down in a tangle of arms and legs and dust. Over and over they rolled, almost ending under the hooves of two very frightened eechas tethered nearby. The creatures arched their high backs, and a shudder sent the long fur rippling as they skirted the two and shrieked their displeasure.
Guards gathered to watch the play. Though the boy was barely ten and the guard close to sixty, they were admired by everyone who knew them. Their laughter mingled in a delightful harmony of youthful giggle and aged guffaw.
A voice ripped through the courtyard with a sudden, sharp edge that broke the noisy revelry. “Haiden!” Both turned to see the regal figure of Jenhada glaring down at them from a balcony, and smiles dissolved. Haiden and the others fell to one knee and bent their heads.
The emperor clutched a heavy cloak around once strong shoulders as if to ward off chill, although the air was quite warm and approaching the torridness of high season. Deep lines etched his face, and his eyes were shadows under a course mane of graying hair.
“It seems, sergeant, you would have better things to do with your time than this foolery.” His voice was edged with a contempt that sent shivers through Haiden’s spine; but in it, too, was the underlying fatigue of sleepless nights. The emperor’s illness showed in the lines around his mouth, the furrows in his formerly smooth brow, and in those restless eyes. “You will see to it this does not happen again. Failing this, I will find my son another trainer. What brawling you do with your men, is your business. The prince is mine. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, sire.” Haiden nodded once humbly.
Jenhada snorted an acknowledgement and exchanged a glance with Councilor Pravius who stood at his back. The man returned the look with a nod of approval. “Isn’t it time for your lessons?” The emperor barely glanced at Joshan as he pulled the collar up around his neck. “That is, if that magician of yours hasn’t forgotten again. Get yourself cleaned up and at least somewhat presentable. You are not a beggar. I will not have you looking like one!”
“Yes, father.” Joshan lowered his eyes so his father would not see the anger. The blush of embarrassment turned his face scarlet to the ears.
Jenhada leaned on his cane and limped off without another word, as the bent figure of Pravius glared at Joshan. The prince thought for a fleeting moment the councilor’s face had changed; it was hard and cruel, a side of Pravius Joshan had never seen before. When he blinked, the expression had faded and the man was once again the tiny, pale figure with massive sad eyes Joshan had known since he could remember. Pravius spared the prince a languid nod before turning to catch up with the emperor.
Haiden got up and brushed dust from his clothes, looking after Jenhada. The crowd disbanded in silence as Joshan straightened his tunic and retrieved his staff. “I’m sorry, Haiden,” he said. “Father’s been very sick lately. I don’t know what comes over him sometimes.”
“I know, lad. I’ve known your da a long time.” Grabbing the prince’s shoulders, he pushed him gently toward the entrance. “But off with you. I got work to do and Trenara will have my hide if you’re late.”
“Tomorrow, then.” Joshan ran for his quarters, throwing his staff to a guard.
Joshan had just arrived at Fourth Gate when he saw his mentor’s beautiful white eecha charging down the road at full gallop, the stallion’s flat face and long ears rippling in the wind. There was no mistaking the Starguider Trenara, even at that distance. Her tall, slim figure was held straight in the saddle, a magnificent silver mane of wayward hair flowing behind her like a tempest, despite feeble attempts to tame it. Piercing azure blue eyes shone from a face that seemed ageless, despite soft lines and the mantle of gray around it. Her beauty was still striking, and she often turned heads, even at fifty-two seasons.
Trenara was wearing blue today, a sign she was in a pensive mood. Joshan had been with the guider on a daily basis for so long, knowing her moods had become second nature to the boy. No stories today, he thought dismally. He wished he could stay with Haiden, but knew better. It was going to be another day of rote lessons and boring recitals.
Trenara spotted the lad and gave him a curt nod, catching the flash in the young eyes. Joshan had the oval shape of his mother’s face and the dark coloring of his father, but the eyes, not the mother’s nor even the father’s, shone brown-black in the mid-morning light and were distinctly his own.
The black and white eecha he was straddling reared as Trenara approached, spooked by the crystal scepter tucked in her robes. The animal jostled him on the high saddle until Joshan got her under control. “Where to today, guider?” he asked cheerfully, undaunted by the guider’s mood.
“The High Cliffs, I should think.” Trenara shaded her eyes to measure the sun. “But I’d like to stop in the forest first.” She dug her heels into her eecha and did not look back to see if Joshan followed.
As they emerged from the thick archway of Fourth Gate, a huge open plaza spread out before them, alive with marching guards, fighting men and women, and soldiers doing what they did best—marshalling together in perfectly formed straight columns. Joshan glanced at them longingly, again wishing he could stay. There hadn’t been a war in the provinces in nearly thirty seasons, but the Guards still recruited, trained, and prepared though the numbers had dwindled to less than a fraction of their old force. The massive military grounds looked strangely deserted.
On the other side of great courtyard, beyond the training fields, barracks, and medical facilities loomed an enormous steel reinforced wall; Third Gate. The large entrance was always open at this time of day. A squad of Elite, the emperor’s personal guard, stood at attention on either side like vivid blue standards, bright against the aging stone blocks. The village of Keepton could be seen through the gate, the bustling market at the height of its trade. Between the noise of the shouting guards on one side and the crying vendors selling their wares on the other, Joshan and Trenara had to cover their ears as they passed through the echoing tunnel.
Trenara was thankful to be leaving the Keep, as the wet weather had trapped them in the castle for nearly a month. She glanced up at the pale blue sky, the wisps of grey-white clouds floating delicately above their heads and the mayhem of humanity parting for them as they moved through the first of two villages sheltered in the immense fortress. In earlier times, an escort of several guards would have been required for them to leave the castle. Thank the gods they don’t do that anymore, she thought as they moved through the milling crowd. The Imperium had enjoyed thirty seasons of peace and the countryside was safe again, not to mention the fact that most people would think twice about attacking a Starguider.
As they made their way through the streets of the village, she saw several uniformed men, but they seemed out of place. Trenara didn’t think much of it until they reached Second Gate. She knew many of the guards personally and had for years; but at each of the three gates leading to the countryside, these men seemed to be strangers to her now. The guider eyed a few of them suspiciously, knowing they were not from Thrain.
They were dark, swarthy men who leered at them. Her eyesight wasn’t good without the spectacles she habitually left behind, and they all looked alike to her, so she passed it off as fancy. However, as they approached First Gate, Trenara noticed where once there had been a full complement of guards, there seemed to be a minimal crew. Odd, since she knew Haiden kept the gates fully manned at all times. She would talk to the emperor about it next time she saw him, but wondered again when that would be.
Her mind wandered to Jenhada. The emperor hadn’t called her in several months, and she missed the dinners they usually shared to discuss the Imperium, both the Empire and Assemblage. Trenara knew of his illness, of course, his lack of sleep and the blinding headaches. When she tried to reach him, she was refused by the Elite, stating the emperor would call at need. Trenara thought she was getting sensitive in her old age. After all, the emperor was a busy man and she had her books, her studies, and Joshan to look after.
“What are you thinking, guider?” Joshan asked, seeing his mentor scowling.
“Oh, nothing, lad,” she replied pensively as they approached the tunnel to First Gate. “Let’s get going.”
“Good enough!” Without warning, Joshan spurred his eecha into a full dash down the long passageway and disappeared in a cloud of dust before Trenara could call. The guider tapped her mount irritably.
“Come along, Gliding. We better catch the young idiot before he breaks his neck.” She goaded him into a gallop, the stones echoing the hoof beats like drum rolls.
Some leagues from the Keep, after a grueling race through rutted fields and hidden sands surrounding the fortress walls, the guider caught the spirited rider. Joshan had slowed his mare to a trot and was casually taking in the sights and sounds of the beautiful high season day.
“A marvelous morning, don’t you think?” he ventured, as the guider rode up beside him.
“Don’t give me that. You’re fortunate you didn’t break your neck, charging off like that. Your father would roast me alive if anything were to happen to you. I’ll thank you not to risk your neck along with mine. Though both are probably worth little, I still value them!”
Joshan gave her one of those special, disarming smiles. “Please don’t scold me, not today. This one feels special somehow. I promise I won’t do it again.”
“I doubt that. But it is a lovely day and there is something rather special I wanted to show you.”
Joshan regarded her wide-eyed and stood up in the stirrups. “What?” Trenara’s “something specials” were really to be marveled.
Trenara chuckled. “Well, you’re going to have to behave yourself. That eecha of yours is too large for you as it is. How Haiden ever talked me into it, I’ll never know. At the very least, you could cause her a fall and possibly break her leg, not to mention your own. Then where would you be?”
Joshan sat back in the saddle and patted the mare’s neck affectionately. “Not Whirl. She’s very sure footed and Haiden says she seems to have more sense than me.”
“That I won’t contest,” she said flatly. “Come on. We’ve a lot of trail to cover, so step it up.” They left the main road and proceeded to the forest that lined it. Once through the trees they picked up a well-used path and followed in silence.
Something is gnawing Trenara, Joshan thought. He decided not to dwell on it, though he did wonder what the starguider had in store for him. He knew when he woke this day was going to be exceptional. He didn’t want anything to spoil it. Unfortunately, Trenara did not share the lad’s enthusiasm. The dreams still haunted her, awakening something she hadn’t felt in seasons. Even Andelian, the crystal scepter tucked in her robes, felt colder somehow today. She began to feel ancient.
They finally reached a moss-blanketed clearing in the trees, where they went through the hour or so of voice training. Joshan hit the notes exactly as Trenara had taught him, each one perfect in his high voice. The boy’s talents had always been uncanny, almost genius. It was the main reason the prince was chosen to train for Assemblage. His mastery of the musical notes that amplified the power with their resonance was unsurpassed by anyone of his age, or very possibly, anyone this side of second trial. He had been a phenomenon almost since birth.
Not just with the control notes. The boy had a talent for spoken manipulation as well, which usually came only after many seasons of training for any other guider. When very young, Joshan found if he pitched his voice in a certain way, his nurse would do almost anything. That all ended, of course, when Trenara took over his training. She was immune to his pranks, and he was usually punished severely when he tried to manipulate her. Without knowing it, he could have seriously hurt or even killed someone. It was for this reason Trenara had been selected to train the prince. Her voice and techniques were equally uncanny. On the few occasions when they sang together, everyone within earshot had to stop to listen. The sound was exquisite.
After the lessons, they remounted to travel to the High Cliffs. This was a long journey as the climb was taxing on the animals, so they had to be rested often. Neither the guider nor her pupil minded, however. Despite their differences, they enjoyed each other’s company.
On long journeys, Trenara usually told wonderful stories as they rode. If asked, she would take you to ancient times, long before the Crystal of Healing fell from the heavens, or Assemblage and the Empire governed the world. Back to Kerillian the Prophet, and his travels through the old provinces. Sometimes, she spoke quietly of the dark times: tales of monsters, wars, and brave deeds. Trenara would often talk about Assemblage itself, its greatness, and its failings. She would speak longingly of Mathisma, the Assemblage home nestled in an island fortress far over the Ethosian Sea to the east. Or she’d tell you about the Starguiders, their queer, enigmatic ways and the music of power, always with a bemused smile.
If you were very, very good, the guider would sing the histories, her contralto voice so pure it would take you to another world entirely. At times Joshan would join her in his favorites, his high voice adding complicated harmonies and intricate melodies. This was always the best time for both of them.
Her tales were not limited to the power. They included the history of the provinces, the empire, and the grand (and not so grand) deeds of Joshan’s ancestors, the long line of emperors and empresses that preceded him. The prince felt he learned more from these ancient stories than from any books, and Trenara silently agreed.
The eechas plodded along the trail, their hoof beats dulled by the soft ground, as green-filtered sunrays danced solemnly around them. The trees chattered with life and the fragrance of the afternoon had an intoxicating appeal. It caused the guider’s mood to soften, and the prince’s to mellow. Each was once again immersed in the friendship they had grown to love.
“What tale shall it be today, lad?” Trenara asked cheerfully.
Joshan thought for a moment, but hesitated to ask for what he really wanted. The guider was in such a wonderful mood, it might be the perfect time; or then again, the worst.
“Come, come, out with it. The story of Cessas and the Crystal? The Sea Tarsian and the Princess? The…”
“Well, I had thought, perhaps the story of… of Sirdar, ma’am.”
Trenara pulled her reins and shot Joshan a stern look. “Sirdar?” Narrowing her eyes, she didn’t speak at once, looking the boy over carefully.
This was too much for Joshan, who stared down at his hands. “That is… of course, you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“Hmmm.” Trenara clicked to her eecha and continued down the path with Joshan riding in tortured silence beside her.
“It’s a dark story,” the guider said at length, gazing at the trail, “and to be honest, one I should have told you before this. I suppose now would be as good a time as any.” She settled into the saddle and Joshan didn’t say a word.
“It was almost thirty seasons ago when the signs came… signs that something was wrong.
“It was a good season.” Trenara sighed, an old memory sparking a small smile. “One of the finest, as I recall. Your father was at his peak in those days; young, headstrong and untried, yet brave and wise when the empire needed him to be. The young man who had been simply Prince Jenhada had become Emperor Jenhada Thoringale Kanaine.” She paused for a moment, staring off into the woods.
“The first reports came from Badain in the south; reports that a large flying lizard had destroyed several small villages and was terrorizing the populace. The scholars consulted their books and discovered that the monster could only be a flying tarsian. It was an ancient reptile, a creature bent on the destruction of anything living. But tarsians had been extinct for centuries. The emperor sent soldiers, of course, and passed it off as an isolated incident. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. More villages burned, more lives were lost, more soldiers sent, never to return.
“Then other creatures began to appear… some of them so strange and unfamiliar we had a hard time believing they could possibly exist. That is, until we saw them with our own eyes,” she continued gravely. “There was the sasaran, a perversion of a beast that walked like a man, had immense black horns, hoofed feet, and a wicked temper. The laminia, creatures who lived on the blood of the helpless. The Mourna… the Assemblage Bane. Its voice drew the unsuspecting guider to do the bidding of its master. It appeared as an enormous black bird…” The drone of her voice stopped as a memory sent shivers through her. “There were others.” Her eyes stayed fixed on the path ahead. “Gruesome to see—dangerous to cross.
“A seditious starguider named Balinar took the Crystal of Healing from Sanctum where it had been safe for millennia. He escaped to Badain, where he became captain to the master who had summoned him.
“A terrible fear weakened the Imperium. Without the Crystal, the power was erratic and often lethal. Assemblage was crippled, and the name of Sirdar spread like fire as his forces marched toward Thrain. The horde blackened the land and the hearts of men as they advanced. Faithful men succumbed to his spell daily, taking up his banner and joining his ranks—hundreds of thousands of them. Edicts poured into the Keep proclaiming Sirdar master, threatening complete annihilation if the emperor did not throw open his gates and surrender.
“By the end of Meridian, the enemy crossed the borders of Thrain, driving a multitude of refugees before them that filled the Keep to overflowing. Sirdar’s army stood like a massive wave at our gates. No assault could move them, or tricks deter them. Finally, we could do nothing more than quake behind Thrain’s last defense. After a long siege, the emperor and his armies marched out to meet them.
“While the battle raged at The Keep hundreds of leagues away, Sirdar stayed at his fortress in Badain, afraid to move from its protection until his victory was assured. Assemblage sent its strongest men and women to face him. A hundred Starguiders marched on the castle at Mt. Cortaim.” Trenara lowered her head and tears filled her eyes. “We believe most were lost to Sirdar’s creatures or destroyed by the blackest magic. What few remained charged his fortress and there passed out of knowledge.
“No one knows what happened that day in Badain. All we know is the darkness was soon abated, the creatures drew back from our borders, and the land cleared of foe. The war, which had raged at the Keep’s gates, ended all at once when the enemy fled in terror. Many were trampled by their own eechas and more killed by our advancing armies. The rest were captured and eventually sent back to their homes, most uncertain why they waged war to begin with. Sirdar’s power over them had been complete.
“None of the Assemblage who traveled to Badain ever returned, and like a miracle, the Crystal of Healing was found back in its place of honor at Sanctum. By what device, no one knows.” She stopped for a moment and turned her head away.
“There are many conjectures as to what happened in the south. The only thing we are reasonably certain of was that Sirdar and Balinar were destroyed. When reports came in later, it was found that Mt. Cortaim, where Sirdar kept his headquarters, was nothing more than a pile of rubble and melted rock. No one could have survived. We searched, of course, but there was nothing to find. Safeguards were put into place in Badain and the emperor ordered that no starguider be allowed to set foot in the province again.
“That was the end of it. It took seasons to heal, but the reasons for Sirdar’s rise and the cause of his fall are lost in a mountain of fused glass. I suppose the mysteries will never be solved.” She grew still then.
The afternoon began to fade to early dusk and the forest was quiet. Joshan glanced at the furrowed brow of his mentor and put a small hand on hers as it rested on the saddle. “It’s over now,” he whispered.
“Yes—over. It brings back memories just as soon forgotten.” She remained silent for some time and finally breathed deeply to shake the feelings. “Enough of this gloom,” she said at length, throwing him a glorious smile. “What say we see who has the fastest eecha?”
Joshan grinned broadly. “I’ll wager we beat you by twenty spans, at least,” he said, hastily adjusting his reins.
“And I’ll wager a month’s lessons we leave you behind by at least a league.”
“You’re going to miss me for a whole month. To the ridge?”
“As you wish.”
They went thundering down the path in a spray of mud and grass. Despite the prince’s best efforts, Trenara won the race and Joshan heartily vowed to beat her one day, to which the guider chuckled. She knew it would not be far in the future, having won this one by no more than a hand’s breadth by what she considered luck—with possibly a dash of treachery.
When they reached the High Cliffs, it was approaching dusk. After a light supper, they sat on the edge of the towering rock face that fell thousands of spans below their dangling feet, the Keep to the left and the Ethosian Sea to the right. The sun was a giant red disc hanging lazily on the western horizon, with endless drifts of red and purple clouds billowing across the evening sky. The star Ethos shone like a fiery beacon on the eastern horizon, and the two watched the spectacle of sunset in silence.
“You see the star?” the guider asked at length, pointing to the flickering brilliance as it rose from the sea.
“She always rises before the moons, doesn’t she? Why is it Ethos seems larger than the other stars and so much brighter?” Joshan threw pebbles into the chasm under his feet and watched as they bounced off the cliff face below.
“It’s closer to our world than the other stars, so it only appears larger.” Trenara pointed to the large rosy moon starting its climb. “Both moons, Redwyn and Whilema, would seem like stars if you could stand on Ethos. As would our own world, I’d venture. Though the star is nearer, it is still some billion, billion leagues away.”
The boy whistled softly. “I can’t even imagine a distance that far.”
The guider laughed. “You will, if you pay attention to your lessons. When we reach Mathisma, you’ll learn under more knowledgeable teachers than I. Astronomy has never been one of my strengths.”
The boy regarded the darkening sky. “When will I reach first trial, Trenara?” he asked dreamily.
“Oh, not for many seasons—at least three or four. After that, you will travel to the island and learn so much more of your craft.”
“If I ever get to Mathisma.”
Trenara shot up an eyebrow. “Now what’s that supposed to mean?”
Joshan shook out of his reverie and looked at the guider with a wistful smile. “I don’t know. Sometimes I get the impression… well I just can’t seem to picture myself studying in the Learning Halls of Assemblage.” He turned to regard the Keep and put his chin in his hands. “Just a feeling, I guess.”
“More like wishful thinking, if you ask me,” she replied, throwing a stone down the cliff face. “You’ve never been overly fond of book learning.”
“Can you blame me? All cooped up with a bunch of dusty old books?”
“Dusty old—scoundrel! You are beginning to sound like Vanderlinden,” Trenara exclaimed, but Joshan gave her a sad nod.
“That does sound like the captain, doesn’t it? I miss him sometimes.”
Trenara’s eyes dulled for a moment. “As do I, my boy. He was a good friend.” She drew a deep breath. “But once you get to Mathisma, I think you’ll enjoy it.”
Joshan gave her a half smile. “We’ll see.”
He jumped up and hung from the limb of a nearby tree. “Guider, tell me more about the stars.”
Trenara rose stiffly and brushed the dirt from her robes. “Not just now. I had something entirely different in mind.”
Joshan loosened his grip on the limb and dropped to the ground, the excitement making his eyes twinkle. “What?”
“Come on. Let’s go back to the clearing. It’ll be safer there.”
They walked through the few sparse trees that outlined the cliffs and came into a large clearing blanketed by wild green grasses and night-dark flowers. Trenara went to the eechas, threw her cloak over Gliding, and then put her satchel on the saddle horn. She drew her via Andelian from her robes and returned to Joshan. The crystal rod caught the early moonlight and colors flashed brightly in the segmented orb at its top.
“Sit there,” she said, indicating a small boulder at one end of the glade. Joshan stared at her wide-eyed with anticipation and silently did her bidding, as the guider stepped to the center to survey the grass and trees surrounding them. When she seemed satisfied, she turned to the boy and winked.
“I thought you might like to see what the power can do.”
“Oh, yes, please,” Joshan exclaimed, clapping his hands.
“Very well, then. But first, tell me how it works.”
The prince was disappointed by the delay, but said, “The power comes from the star Ethos, then into the Crystal of Healing which lies in Sanctum on Mathisma, and then to one of the Assemblage vias where it’s amplified with the musical notes.” The words tumbled out like spilled water, but he added more slowly, “Uh, your via is Andelian.”
Trenara scowled. “Well, basically correct, though sketchy at best. I’ll forgive your curt reply since I know you’ve learned more than this in all your seasons of training.” A guilty look flashed over his young face, but it was soon replaced by excitement, and the chide was quickly forgotten.
“Now…” Trenara began and lifted her arms to allow the sleeves of her robe to fall back.
The clearing was dark. The sun had taken its last yawn at the sky and nestled beyond the horizon to the west, while the larger of the two moons, Redwyn the Giant, rose stiffly from his slumber in the east and cast a ruby hue over the night. Whilema would soon slip from the waves of the Ethosian Sea and try to drown her brother’s light. Though a great deal smaller, the moon was several times more brilliant. Their battle for the dominion of the night would begin. Neither moon was full that night, allowing the milliard of stars to litter the sky like a thrown handful of magic dust. A night fowl shrieked, a rodent screamed, and then all was very still.
Trenara faced the east with Andelian held high. She closed her eyes and a barely audible chant chimed on the air, the crystal rod beginning to take on an almost imperceptible glow. A single exquisite musical note came from her throat: low, resonating, and perfect. There was a sudden hiss of wind that whipped the guider’s robes around her, and then a blaze of white radiance that flashed through the glade and settled into a frosty glow around the guider’s tall form.
She took a deep breath to ease the tension in her limbs and then sang another high note that floated a long time on the air. It focused the swirling light until she glowed like a white flame. Ecstasy enfolded her face as the power took hold and a radiant expression chased the age and wrinkles away, leaving not a woman, but an ethereal spirit, a shining goddess. When she lowered her eyes to Joshan, they glowed with white-hot fire that painted the young boy’s face with awe.
Trenara’s smile was glorious.
“You like magic, don’t you?” the guider asked, her voice dulcet and reverberating. Joshan nodded mutely. “Then, let’s see if we can conjure some.”
She pointed her scepter just to the right of Joshan’s ear and began her song, so beautiful the boy’s heart skipped a beat. A beam of light escaped the orb with a crackle and stopped where she intended, leaving a white spot no larger than a coin. The beam returned, but the spot remained and began to dance merrily in the darkness to the rhythm of her music. Joshan held his breath and heard a soft tinkling, like suspended glass in the wind.
The air began to fill with tiny dancing lights as Trenara struck fire again and again, until the sound of their music blended with her singing. It became a chorus of delightful bells.
Joshan’s intoxication with the lights grew as he jumped from the rock and began to chase the elusive pseudo stars. They evaded his every move, teasing him mercilessly as they glided between splayed fingers, around his head or through his legs. Trenara’s laughter echoed through the clearing in rippling waves that shook the leaves of the nearby trees.
The lights seemed to be strangely attracted to the boy as they gathered around him like so many moths to a flame. The guider hadn’t given it much thought, however. Ethotic starmoths were an independent lot with likes and dislikes of their own. She remembered vaguely hearing they preferred children to adults. Something about being attracted to purity of heart or that strange, enigmatic quality that youngsters had, which seemed to harden with age.
After the frantic chase, Joshan sat heavily on the grass and Trenara decided to end the chaos. They had a long, hard ride ahead and she didn’t relish the thought of carrying a sleeping prince back to the Keep. Off in the distance she caught the faint sound of horns coming up the cliff walls. The gates would be closed soon.
She lifted her scepter once more and spoke to the starmoths gently. “Come, children, time to go.” Waving Andelian twice, Trenara sang to the wind and one by one, the lights were extinguished. Joshan held out his hands, watching the failing stars sadly, as they brushed his palms in farewell and then sighed when they were gone.
Andelian lost her sheen at once, and Trenara put the via back in her robes. Exhausted, she sat next to the prince and put her arm around his small shoulders. “Well, lad, what did you think?” Joshan was speechless for a moment, but then took the guider’s hand and kissed it.
“Oh, Trenara, that was the most wonderful, the most spectacular… I’ve never seen anything like it. They are—delightful.” Joshan felt it inadequate, but could think of nothing better.
“Perhaps, but the moths can be the devil’s own when they want to be, especially to those they don’t like.” She smiled at an old memory and rose stiffly.
“I’m glad you enjoyed them… and they you. But we need to go. We’ll barely make it back before they close the gates.” She went to Gliding and donned her cloak, throwing the satchel over her shoulder. She turned to Joshan. “Are you coming?”
“In a moment, guider. I just wanted…” His voice was cut off as a strong gust of wind swept from the east, so powerful it threw Trenara into her eecha. Joshan’s eyes widened in terror, and his feet became anchored to the ground. He stood as still as stone, although Trenara was having trouble keeping upright. His mouth hung open at an odd angle, moving as though he were trying to speak, but couldn’t.
“No!” Trenara screamed against the wind. “Not now!” Fear ripped through the guider when she realized what was happening. She cursed the gods for choosing a time when she was unprepared. She had seen first trial several times, but each time the same foreboding took her. Will the child survive the trial? Will my own power be enough? And, strangely… is the child old enough? Never in her experience had the power taken one so young.
She struggled to get to the boy and pulled the still warm Andelian from its place. Joshan went to his knees as Trenara reached him, some silent demand having been given. The guider raised the scepter high above her head. As she placed her free hand on Joshan’s brow, anger welled inside her at this unfortunate turn of events. Here, in the middle of the woods, leagues away from another living soul, there was nothing to help her but her via and her courage. She hoped they would be enough.
This time the notes she sang were very low, like the sound of distant thunder on a rising storm, a deep solemn song drowned by the power’s wind. The notes bolted to the heavens and a faint echo answered. The power came as a mist from the sky and quickly turned to a torrent of glistening light as it drifted into the scepter she held tightly in her hand. Joshan paled and his breathing became shallow as the power took him.
Trenara’s body stiffened, her breath became labored and fear threatened to consume her; and would have, had it not been for the overwhelming force suddenly thrust into her hands. The fire spread to her arms, her middle, her legs. With a jolt of clarity, it took over her mind in a single instant. She felt suddenly young and strong, certain of her abilities, and absolutely trusting of the power that engulfed her.
The guider fought desperately for the boy’s consciousness, which seemed to slip away like sand through her fingers, and just as desperately not to harm the young mind as she entered its fringes. With every awareness, Trenara could feel Joshan’s terror deepening to insanity and she struggled to hold him.
All the seasons of training and experience came to this one moment, this brief second in time. If she failed now, the child would die. When the guider had control of the white energy around them, she whispered gently into his ear, “Joshan, don’t fight it. Let the power touch you. You’ll feel pain—terrible, terrible pain—but I promise it will pass quickly. Remember your training. Let it touch you.”
The light around them blazed, but Joshan’s eyes were dull and vacant. “Trust me,” Trenara rasped. “If you don’t let the fire touch you, you’ll die. You must master it. There’s no other choice. Let it touch you.” Slowly, almost unseen, a dim light began to grow in Joshan’s eyes. “Yes!” Trenara exclaimed, trying to control her own use of the power now. “You must sing, Joshan. I can’t help you.” The drone of the wind swept her words away like dust.
Joshan could feel the presence of the power now and was suddenly unafraid. Exhilaration lit his mind with fire; a joy that few mortals could know filled him with ecstasy. He could hear every sound, feel each vibration on the air as though he were somehow linked with the life surrounding him. From the spider clinging desperately to the blade of grass at his feet, to the ancient trees that bowed low to the wind, he felt entangled with them, as if their awareness were his.
Joshan was no longer the child of ten seasons, full of wonder and awe. In an instant, he was beyond mortal flesh, beyond the primitive sight of man, into a new awareness that shouted at him madly and made mortality a small thing—very small. He was ultimate, alive, free.
Then, by degrees, the light began to change. It swirled around them, sparkling with the moon’s brilliance reflected on its white beauty, when the fringes became tainted a pale blue. The blue deepened at an accelerated rate, alarming the guider so much she nearly dropped her via. Second trial, by the color, but that wasn’t possible.
The blue veil pulsated, undulating around the two, while the trees watched and the world stood still for a breathless moment. With the abruptness of a lightning bolt, the blue became a shower of green flame, pouring down on them in a torrent, engulfing them with energy Trenara had never known. Third trial!
“Joshan, you must sing!” Trenara’s demand grated on the boy’s mind like a slap in the face. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out, and a wave of terror swept through him. Joshan strained to move the notes to the outside, but they died in his throat. The color of the flame deepened and became as dense as smoke. He felt the danger. He knew he would die and the guider with him, if he did not sing to end the power.
Visions came so suddenly to his mind, they made him sick with their intensity: his father’s death, a vague shadow of a woman who could bring him triumph or terrible defeat, an annihilation of the empire more horrible than any imagining, a golden sword and then a black one, shot with red and Trenara—Trenara?
The power blackened. A scream pierced his mind. The pain was intolerable. It burns! It burns!
Then the final vision came and his destiny opened like a gaping wound. Joshan knew what his purpose was, knew what it would mean for the world, and it almost drove him mad. The horror shook his tiny body like an earthquake. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t form the words. Trenara’s thoughts reached out to him as a burst of fire in the darkness.
SING BEFORE WE BOTH PERISH!
A note of absolute perfection flowed from the boy’s throat, controlled and sustained with such skill, the power began to fall away from them in vast, vibrating waves. Then another note, even more beautiful than the first, reverberated on the air with a command that made Trenara gasp. She had never heard anything more stunning, the voice of the gods. The notes grew to a crescendo that echoed down the cliffs and out to the sea taking the deadly light with them.
The power disappeared in a spark of brilliance, and the wind settled to a gentle evening breeze around them. The glimmer was gone and the glade was once again silent. Joshan fell unconscious into Trenara’s arms, as she wept openly and clutched him to her chest.
After what seemed like hours, she put the scepter back in her robes with a trembling hand, and lay the boy on the ground, the springy turf cushioning her knees when she nearly dropped him. The mentor was weary to the bone and had to fight to keep unconsciousness from robbing her of this experience.
Trenara stared down at the sleeping child, finding it difficult to believe he could be breathing. Joshan should have died in such a conflict. They both should have died. The guider had never seen anything like this—the greatest contest and the longest possession by the power at first trial. If it was first trial she witnessed. The boy had seen. The green hue had shown that, but seeing wasn’t possible until third trial. Trenara herself had not reached that pinnacle, though she had been a starguider for almost forty seasons.
Joshan moaned and tossed fitfully on the grass. Trenara struggled to her feet, pushing back the fearful implications that haunted her, to let a deeper, more maternal instinct take over. A light rain began to fall. With an effort, Trenara removed her cloak from the silent eecha and stumbled to throw it over the prostrate boy. Joshan cried out in his sleep; convulsions began to contort his body.
The guider reached into her satchel and removed a vial of imaka. She parted Joshan’s lips gently and poured a few drops on the fevered tongue. The liquid worked quickly, changing the pale in his cheeks and stilling the torrents that twisted his small body. Joshan slept peacefully then, and Trenara knew the worst was over.
She wrapped her arms around the sleeping child and closed her eyes to let exhaustion take her, gratefully surrendering to sleep. The night quietly surrounded them, hiding their secret, immune to all experience.