Forest shadows loomed omniously overhead in the waning light of the new moon. Distant hooves rumbled like thunder, echoing loudly in the dark rider’s ears. His cloak had fallen away from his face was the wind whipped around him as he urged his horse faster. Fear dwindled his chances of outrunning the templars on their Warders. He wasn’t ready to surrender, not yet. He was so close to finding her, he could feel it. Those damned templars would ruin everything!
His eyes blazed angrily as he murmured ancient words that tasted of ash.
Eight armored riders slowed and wheeled as they rounded the bend in the forest. Sweat trickled down their faces behind visored helmets. A concerned murmur grew among them. The lead horseman turned his head slights towards the petite woman clad in crimson and orange that sat uncomfortably behind him. Her slender gloved fingers were clenched around his waist..
“Where?” The templar demanded.
A small butterfly illuminated the shadows and darted forward. “That way,” she quickly replied, “That will guide the way. He’s hiding.”
With a nod and a shout the riders gave chase, seeking the light that broke through the unsettling darkness of the forest.
A jolt of frigid cold down his spine made Vladimarts stop his horse. He panted, attempting to catch his breath.
There! Did I imagine it? Is she closer than I thought?
He glanced backward and saw a light coming towards him. His heart sunk.
Damn it all, of course the templars dragged an Ember along to hunt me down!
He urged the horse forward again.
I can’t get distracted! If they catch me, it’s over for nothing!
His thoughts were conflicted, he could sense that the woman was close but he didn’t know where she was. Or was that the presence of another wielder of the Word nearby? Everything the Church had taught him said that Word users were drawn together. Good or bad, and that’s why using the Word was dangerous. Aphotics would come if he wasn’t careful.
Vladimarts shivered at the thought. Aphotics were fear and death manifested. Only an Ember could truly destroy an Aphotic though a skilled templar might survive such an encounter.
Perhaps, I shouldn’t be careful? It might be my best chance.
His hand trembled, as the thundering hooves grew closer, his pause had been enough to allow her pursuers to close the gap. He inwardly cursed and reached mentally outward reaching for the largest thread that connected the Word to the forest.
Tyr forgive me for what I am about to do.
The Ember’s hand shifted from the templar’s waist to the back of his cuirass. His attention was forward in pursuit of the marker but he turned his head slightly at her touch.
“What’s wrong, Apoline?”
Her voice trembled despite the power that resonated in it, “It’s coming.”
Lucius grimaced behind his visor and signalled for the others to stop. Silence grew between them as armor and hooves settled. Apoline slipped from Lucius’s horse and paced a circle around the small contingent of templars.
She felt their unease and heard the racing of their hearts. Once their eyes had been on her back, uncertain of her ability but today, their eyes were watching the darkness beyond. Their faith in her gave her shield strength. It would buy them precious time in the fight to come.
Her sight showed her a world of color and light in the darkness. All around her were the pulsing threads the Word that gave everything life. She searched beyond for the blight that was coming for the rogue mage but would find them first. Her presence would be the candle that drew the Apothic like a moth- her light was brighter than any human mage.
I don’t want this thing to touch her.
Behind him, a mantra broke the silence and filled their pocket of forest with light. Coupled with Apoline’s magic, the tendrils recoiled back from their shield. A thunderous screech chilled him. He watched the colors and warmth drain from the forest. The tall grass just beyond their circle had withered and curled to ash. Tension coiled around them.
A wave of darkness crashed and broke over them. Apoline stood at the center staring into the fathomless depths of the Aphotic’s eyes. Her light surged forward and pushed the demon back. Her eyes blazed and the force of the magic made her hair flow around her. She took a step forward and glanced to Lucius.
He met her gaze and she returned her attention forward.
She reached out to touch the Aphotic. It hesitated as it flashed its maw at her.
Her hand, small, glowing touched an inky tendril and it shivered.
Birds tore through the forest canopy with a skittering screech after gunfire and shouting tore the evening air. Vladamirs frowned, something felt off.
Did the templars kill it already?
He reached out and felt something brush against him. Startled, he fell out of the shadows onto a pile of dead pine needles.
Many years earlier...
A little girl’s laughter rang out like a bell through the solemn mantras of the temple. Lucius paused in his scrubbing of the grand temple’s vast marble tiles. His back ached and his knees were sore. He rose to his feet and scratched his head. When did they bring young girls to this temple?
He wiped the suds from his arms and dropped the brush back into the bucket. He dropped the handle of the bucket and hurried towards the laughter. If Sir Colin catches me, I will just tell him that I went to fetch fresh water!
He turned several sharp corners until he found a snow blonde girl chasing butterflies around the inner courtyard.
The girl spun as the butterflies fluttered upward into the light. Her clothing twirled around in crimson and orange, much like the wings of the bugs she chased.
“What’s an Ember doing here?”
The girl turned to look at Lucius, her eyes glowed brightly cyan as her cheeks flushed pink. “Oh! They said I could tend the garden. What are you doing here?” She shyly replied.
Lucuis hid the bucket behind his back and straightened. His own cheeks flushed pink. “I’m a squire! I will become a templar like my liege, Sir Colin.”
“What about you, Sister?” He huffed.
“I’m Apoline, Squire.” She grabbed his hand. Apoline’s eyes glowed brightly and he jerked away. He opened and closed his mouth like a stranded fish, holding his hand like he had been burned. “Father Torbin brought me here for my training.”
Lucius stared in disbelief.
“What’s wrong, Squire?” Apoline waved her hand in front of his face and he flinched.
Lucius scrambled backwards and closed his mouth. “His Holiness was here?”
She tilted her head as she looked at him oddly. “Yes, isn’t this the main temple?”
Lucius wiped his damp hands on his trousers. “It is but his Holiness doesn’t, well, he’s important. I’ve never heard of him taking anyone somewhere for training. I see him at the Provings with the rest of the Pillar but…”
“You were there?” Apoline interrupted.
“Of course, I was! So was the rest of the kingdom!”
“You don’t remember me then, Squire?” She asked in a hurt tone.
HIs thoughts shuffled as he tried to recall the Embers that were at the Proving. He remembered the roar of the crowd and the smell of cooked mutton over hickory. There had been a couple of taller Embers observing the Whisperers but his attention had been on the Templar candidates. The clanging of a sword upon a shield, stomping and then the defeat of Sir Gareth by Lord Voss’s son and General Castillo’s grandson was something to behold. Afterwards, he and the other squires too young to compete in the Proving had tried the move when their lords weren’t watching.
His gaze settled on the way the sky and sunlight reflected from Apoline’s snowy hair, giving her a halo of sapphire that was paler than the intensity of her glowing eyes. Wait. He remembered that the opening prayer by His Holiness the Dragon Slayer, Torbin Springborn had grabbed a young Ember’s hand as he gave the Proving’s blessing. Her hair was snow white too.
“You were the one with the Pillar,” Lucius finally stated. His bucket dropped with a plop on the stone behind him.
Apoline nodded, beaming. “I was! Father Torbin is really nice.” She stifled a giggle at the lost bucket as Lucius nudged the bucket behind him with his foot.
“LUCIUS?!” An irritated male voice boomed, echoing through the halls.
Lucius tensed. Sir Colin noticed I was missing, he inwardly cursed. “Apoline, I uh, have to go. Can we meet here after dinner? I..I’d like to know more about ...His Holiness.”
“Sure, Squire,” Apoline nodded, the tips of her ears were still flushed.
“Uh, call me Lucius,” he stammered as he grabbed his bucket and ran towards the main hall.
Everything hurt. Lucius's ears rang as his head spun. He couldn’t see as he struggled to sit up. He didn’t remember laying down. With effort, his eyes opened to blurry dark shapes and shadows. Beyond the ringing was shouting and the clang of metal. His mouth tasted of stale blood and dirt.
Lucius, a feminine voice whispered. He turned his head to one side to see no one beside him.
His tongue felt heavy as he finally regained his feet. “Who’s still alive?” He croaked.
“Merek, Simon, and I still breathe,” Bryce’s voice wheezed from somewhere to the left of Lucius.
Lucius squinted, searching for the slender figure. His chest tightened, it was bad enough to lose half of his team but to lose Apoline…
A warm hand touched the side of Lucius’s face, “Is behind you,” Apoline’s voice was weak, barely above a whisper, “Squire.” As she approached from behind him. Her form slowly came into sharp focus. Her deep sapphire colored eyes were full of tears.
Bryce cleared his throat, “She saved us. The monster is gone.”
Apoline hugged herself as she trembled. “I couldn’t bring them back from Mara… I tried. I…”
Lucius turned to look at Apoline and then the others. At the wood’s edge, he saw the mangled bodies of his fallen Templar brothers: Tristan, Asher, Joseph, and Thomas. Everywhere was splashed crimson. Chunks of flesh and metal mixed together on the rotting leaves. His eyes traveled upward and saw the dangling entrails from what might have once been horses from the branches of the barren oaks.
Bile rose up in his throat. He quickly leaned down and tightly closed his eyes, saying a quick prayer as his stomach voided on the ground. His surviving companions groaned.
“We need to report back,” Simon stated as he came up behind him, a firm hand on Lucius’s pauldron.
“The sod got away but we need to lick our wounds and bury our dead,” Bryce added.
Apoline stood at the edge of the scene of slaughter, her eyes fixed at the remains on the ground. “I can find him, he… needs to be brought before the judgement of Tyr’s hammer,” her voice trembled.
Merek limped to the Ember and shook his head, “I don’t doubt you, Sister Apoline but we should go home. We can’t let you go after him alone while we limp home, tails between our legs. Between the Fleur and the Wolf, all your efforts to save us would be forfeit.”