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Soulblade: Chapter 6

I STAND AT THE ENTRANCE to the training cave, acutely aware of the throng of Eldrin gathered within and the shiver of apprehension deep in my belly. After waiting so long to be fully accepted into the Order of Power Mages that the Eldrin represent, the thought of making this lifelong commitment is daunting. To forswear the oath means death, and I have crossed that line in their discipline too many times already. I know how difficult it will be to maintain the expected level of self-mastery.

Maybe that is why Jantian has finally decided to take the risk of accepting me. Perhaps he thinks the additional constraint will reduce the chance that my actions will endanger our small team as we venture into the murky unknowns of Rapathia. Whatever his reasons, I know I have a choice between acceptance and exile. Alone. Marin has chosen to stay with the Eldrin. Even after everything that has happened to him, even in the depth of his disillusionment, he still holds his loyalty to the Order.

I made the choice to stay with Marin, and that means accepting the same responsibilities he has lived with since he was seven years old. If it demands everything of me as it has of him, I have no idea whether I could hold to the kind of steadfastness he has shown.

Deris appears and leads me into the heart of the cave where Jantian is waiting. I kneel to lay my weapons at his feet and repeat the words that Deris barely had time to teach me before the garrison started to assemble. I suspect there has been more bad news to provoke the sudden rush, but I won’t find out until this is over. I force myself to concentrate on the task in hand. Jantian’s voice seems distant somehow, but no less compelling for it.

“… Do you swear to hold to your oath, even to death?”

“I so swear. My loyalty is to the Eldrin and to my friends, for the rest of my life.”

“Take your weapons.”

I pick up the two crysteel blades and follow Jantian a few steps to the power-source at the heart of the cave. I stretch my hands holding the twin swords above my head. I have seen Shadow do this twice now, but he is so much more powerful than any human. I have no idea what will happen to me.

And then I feel it. That wild, shivering connection I noticed when I first held these blades. It had made me curious at the time but Marin made it clear he was not permitted to tell me more. Now I know. This is something you have to experience to really understand it. The rippling sense of power grows stronger, running through my body and bringing with it an understanding of how the Eldrin can work together, fight together, protect each other, and maintain the subtle communication that enables them to move in perfect coordination.

I withdraw my weapons before the tingling threads of power become too much and throw me off balance. I barely remember to sheath the twin blades before each warrior in turn gathers round to grip my arm in welcome. The sense of connection is overwhelming, in some ways not so different from what I have already experienced with Shadow. But this is far more powerful, reassuring, unhindered by fear of betrayal.

What I had imagined from watching the others work together all those times was but an echo of the real thing.

Marin waits until last. He leans close and whispers.

“I have wanted this moment for you for so long.”

My heart leaps with the strange mix of emotions I’m picking up from him. Joy on my behalf, together with a kind of resigned pain and sadness that he is about to give up something more, even after everything he has already lost. I don’t understand what is going on for him until he turns to Jantian and offers his two crysteel swords.

“No!” All thoughts of holding back from challenging my commander instantly disappear as I step between them. “Jantian, please. you can’t let him do this. He has given up too much already.”

My mind flashes back to the moment in the Northlands when Nem insisted that if I left their company to go with Shadow, then I could not take Eldrin weapons with me. And Marin defended my right to take them. He was the only one who understood what I was giving up at that time, to try to save my country. I couldn’t live with myself if I fail to do the same for him now.

To my surprise, Nem steps forward to back me up.

“Jantian, Ariel is right. If you want us to risk our lives together in unknown lands, at least let us have everything possible, to help us support each other.”

Jantian acknowledges but I sense his reluctance.

“If you wish. But I suspect it will make no difference. Be aware of that.”

I wait for some explanation of what he means but none is forthcoming. Something to ask about later. The other warriors are filing out and I can tell how impatient Jantian is to send us on our way. He hands me a small leather bag.

“Ariel, you may be able to learn how to use this, either from watching Shadow use his, or from persuading him to actually teach you this skill.”

I reach inside and draw out a tiny silver bowl no bigger than my hand, so finely wrought it weighs very little. The slender form of the snake devouring its own tail curves around the rim. This is another version of the scrying mirror that Shadow uses to see what is happening in distant places. And to spy on me. Satisfying as it might be to turn that trick back on him, I suspect it will be difficult to acquire the skill to direct it accurately. And persuading Shadow to teach me? Unlikely.

“Where did you find this?”

“Wrapped in cloth, together with that last piece of Jaren’s history.”

“I will do my best to learn but please don’t assume I can achieve instant success. Or any success for that matter.”

He dismisses my hesitation with a brief wave of his hand.

“I am sure you have already guessed that I have received several messages with disturbing news. Lord Farang has escaped from the dungeons in Corinium. I am dispatching the Eldrin to hunt down the traitor immediately. I assume from this that our attempts to dismantle his spy network in the capital have failed to find all the conspirators. I sent a message to Tandarion, advising him to remain at Blackthorn Manor with his Eldrin guard. If Farang’s gang of plotters has not yet penetrated its secrets, it is the safest place to hold the King until we can capture all the traitor’s allies.”

My thoughts go instantly to all the other associated risks this brings with it. “When you searched the Rapathian prisoners on the battlefield, did you find the adept that Nagal empowered?”

Jantian shakes his head. “No. We questioned the Rapathian commanders. They said he did not have a name so they called him Gron. They showed me the cage in which he was being transported. It was broken open and empty. They all insisted that they did not know who had freed him––and I sensed that this was the truth. There is no advantage to any of them in leaving this savage creature free to roam Samaran and wreak havoc with its people. Not while they know they are to be indentured to work among those same people for the next five years as war reparations.”

My mind fills with images of the other adept, the one I discovered and killed in the dungeons beneath the palace in Corinium. I remember all too clearly the shock of confronting the violent craving behind his demands.

“Gron will have only one thing on his mind. He will be drawn to Maratic like a moth to flame, hungry for its power. He will kill only as many as he needs to gain enough energy to reach his goal. It is only after he succeeds in stealing Maratic’s power that he will become a serious danger to hundreds at one time.”

“In that case we must keep this place heavily defended. I suspect Farang had somehow placed spies in the Rapathian military as well as in Corinium. No doubt his own escape will be for the purpose of finding Gron and using him to empower his own army.”

Nem gets her question in a fraction of a second before mine. “Does that mean you want us to stay here and join the search for both of them before we head for Rapathia?”

“No. We must deal with threats from without and within at the same time. I have given orders for your horses to be saddled and your equipment prepared for your journey to the port. Lupine is already getting impatient.”

“There is something else.” I feel a shiver of disloyalty to Shadow even as I say it, but my oath to the Eldrin has to take precedence now. “Shadow learned that when he killed Nagal, it weakened the Emperor but did not kill him. If he applies the same logic to his own binding with me, he will already be making plans to protect himself if I am killed in Rapathia. If that happens and he can get past your guards to take power from Maratic, I think he would survive my death.”

“And he would then be free to take as much power as he wants––becoming a threat and a danger to us all. Thank you for the warning. If that happens, we will have only a brief opportunity to kill him while he is still weak. All the more reason to post extra guards here.”

I follow the others in silence to collect the horses. For all Shadow’s trickery, using my help for his own advantage, I still feel as if I have betrayed him.


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