Reveal the Strength of Aulis’ call, make those once-blinded know.
Though the setting sun only grazed the horizon, revelers already packed the main room of the Friar’s Folly. The boisterous crowd spilled out into the central street of Northridge. Farmers and shepherds out front surrounded a merchant wagon labeled Falsted’s Finery. A hawker showed off wares from Aulivar and made bargains, seeking coin but willing to barter. Inside the tavern, music from three instruments filled the air, each playing a different tune in separate parts of the hall. The cacophony of song resounded in Josephine’s ears.
She pushed her way through the crowd blocking her exit. When she glanced back, an elderly man with an immaculate goatee and fine robes raised his mug to say farewell. Joram Falsted, whose business stretched between Aulivar and distant Aelwyn in the east, along with all the towns in between.
He winked and smiled before one of his associates demanded his attention.
Josephine blinked in the sunlight once she reached the street. How does Master Falsted stand that racket? He acted like this is tame. What must the Market Square in Aulivar be like?
Imaginations of the City-State filled Josephine with hope. Maybe I’ll find out for myself. She pictured gleaming white stonework buildings towering into the sky and merchants in the latest fashions crying out to wealthy nobles dressed in finery. Horses clopped down cobblestone streets in her mind. Most of all, the air would smell fresh and sweet, like baked goods.
Josephine skirted around a steaming pile in the dirt road and turned toward her father’s home. I bet there’s no dung laying about in Aulivar, that’s for sure.
She considered Joram’s offer and tingled. Is that excitement, or fear? I’m not sure.
Townsfolk raised their right hands in greeting, palms turned inward, whether they had a Gracemark or not. Josephine Marked to a couple Elders who turned aside as if distracted. More than a few busy folk with cold glares in the last three months.
Josephine brushed off the snub, and her thoughts returned to the last question Joram asked. Am I truly ready for this? Father doesn’t think so, or I would have gone to Glacierift with the Arcanist. Camden Delumiere’s decision to forbid his daughter’s selection did not sit well with the town’s Elders. Many sent sons into the Militia, and the sight of a Gracemarked Soulforged like Josephine in the town raised questions.
But for Josephine, the memory stoked fires of rage ever since.
There is nothing left for him to teach me. He said so himself. Her fists clenched and her footfalls turned to stomping. So why can I not do my part? What if they encounter Fractured in the north?
The twisted creatures came in many forms, but regardless which shape they took, a Fractured always looked like an animal made of liquid shadow. The strength of men faltered when facing one. Swords and shields tripled in weight. Armor became an overwhelming burden, making it impossible to move. Even an Arcanist’s Refocusing magic acted strange around Fractured.
A verse of Tsadek’s oaths echoed in Josephine’s mind. Soulforged blessed with Just One’s might, called to stand against the Night. Only the holy warriors of Tsadek the Aspect of Justice could stand unencumbered by a Fractured’s power. Soulforged were forever sought after, and every settlement housed at least one. Until four years ago, Camden was Northridge’s sole protector against the Night.
Josephine frowned as she approached the gates of her father’s home. You’re not the only one, now, Dad. Deal with it. Give me an opportunity.
Soft whimpering from the side of the house broke Josephine out of her thoughts. Her right hand reached by instinct for a hammer at her hip that was not there. She jogged around the corner and gasped.
A dirty brown figure racked by sobbing slumped against the house. Lyllithe! Josephine froze, taking in the scene. “Light, girl, did you roll in the mud with the pigs?”
Lines of pale skin shone in the sunlight where tears carved through the caked mud on Lyllithe’s face. Her shirt hung too loose over her slender frame, exposing more flesh. The gentle glow of Lyllithe’s double Gracemark barely shone through the dirt on her hand. She looked up at Josephine and opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out.
Was this one of those blasted Devoted from Lyllithe’s class? Some practical joke gone too far? Everyone knew the Ghostskin was the butt of half the pranks in Northridge.
Josephine knelt down, furious. “What happened to you? What God-scarred son of a Kem did this?”
Something smelled wrong. Metallic. Pungent.
Josephine looked at her palm.
This isn’t dirt.
She fell backwards and grunted when she hit the ground. Her voice croaked. “Lyl… what… whose blood…”
Horn blasts erupted from the Woodwall around the town. One cut short. Then another.
We’re under attack? The bandits never assault the Wall.
Josephine scrambled to her feet. “Stay here, Lyl. I need to fetch my hammer.” She spoke an oath to Tsadek. “Give me strength to stand. There’s killing to be done.”
Behind her, Lyllithe groaned.
* * * * *
A war of emotion raged in Lyllithe’s mind.
Just tell her. You have to warn her, warn all of them of what you did, what Jek said.
If they find out, I’m finished as a Devoted.
You already are.
I never asked for this.
Really? Then why play with magic? Why didn’t you simply burn Davon’s book?
Lyllithe had no answer, at least none that would drive away the crushing burden of guilt. She hunched over on her knees, her abdomen tight from strained breaths and weeping. Her hands shook and she placed them on the ground for stability. In the distance, the horns ceased. Shouts echoed, but Lyllithe couldn’t make out words.
I knew better, but I wanted this so badly. What have I done?
Knowledge has a limit. Dominating one’s nature is superior. The inscription on Davon’s book. Her eyes opened, and she saw the soft blue glow of her Gracemark shining through the cracked dry blood on her hand.
I have not been forsaken. I am not abandoned or Scarred. I can and will control myself.
Lyllithe sucked in a deep breath and focused on the Strength side of her Mark. Light send me strength, because I’m going to fix this.
She rose to her feet and looked for energy in the air. Wavy lines of aera intertwined and turned on each breeze. Lyllithe Bound some and twisted it into aqua. A small cloudless shower poured down on her as she walked toward the Square and the town’s gates. The blood and grime streamed down her arms and legs, revealing shining white skin once more.
A voice inside her mind whispered, Guilt doesn’t wash away so easily.
* * * * *
Josephine hustled up the steps to the guards’ platform halfway up the Woodwall. Camden stood there with three Elders, their voices low. Josephine ignored a bloody, lifeless hand hanging off the wooden ledge above, where the townsfolk on duty patrolled. Another body lay in the dirt below, with an arrow through his neck. Tolam, the baker’s brother.
Grieve later. First we avenge this. She drew her hammer from its belt loop and adjusted the straps on her shield.
Raucous voices hollered and sang beyond the Wall. Josephine could only make out snippets of the lyrics.
…What’ll I do once me purse is full?
Break her legs and crush her skull!
An’ when an Arcanist looks me way
To set me bones on fire,
I know right what Kal would say,
In a fight so dire:
I’ll cut ‘is gut in night or day
An’ send ‘is corpse to the Friar!
Cheers and whoops punctuated each stanza, and the bandits began another. In this verse, the victim was a Dunnestani merchant out of Aelwyn. Josephine blushed at the indignities the bandits promised, and turned to listen to her father.
“Most of the bandits stand on the other side of the gate,” Camden told the Elders. “Obviously they have archers in positions in the trees or on high terrain. Our men on the other side of the Wall took arrows as well, though they lived to find cover.”
Josephine considered the Elders. First, there was Master Varonaulis, the leader of the Council. The pudgy man’s eyes darted all about, and his breath came out in nervous gasps. His puffy hands gripped the railing of the guard platform. He’ll bend like a first-year sapling if it saves his hide. Next, Gammin, whose son now ran the Folly. Scrappy and strong-willed. He won’t stand for this. And Marten, the Eldest from the Abbey. Lyl’s dad. With everything he’s lost to these bandits of Kal’s, surely he won’t give in.
Even if he can’t fight to save his own life.
The townsfolk clustered together near the platform, most eyes fixed on Master Varonaulis. Whispers and murmurs reached Josephine’s ears, and she looked at the councilman. Sweat beaded on his brow, though he often dabbed it with a handkerchief. Josephine imagined she heard his heart pounding like a war drum beneath his rich coat.
At least I hope I’m imagining that.
Camden lay a reassuring hand on the councilman’s shoulder, who jolted at the touch. “Balfour, what would you have us do?”
“I—well, I think we must, ahh…” He patted his brow again, and his eyes darted to Marten. “I think we must give them what they demand, and hope they are satisfied with that.”
Making demands of the village? Josephine frowned. That’s new. What do we have to offer that they couldn’t take from travelers and merchants on the road?
Marten moved to speak, but Camden raised a hand. “I cannot abandon one of our own to torture and death, Councilman.”
Varonaulis looked down. “She’s not really one of our own, though, is she?”
Marten and Camden both erupted into shouts, and Varonaulis raised his hands as if expecting a physical attack.
A booming voice rang out from the other side of the Wall. “You had time to think it over. Bring out your Arcanist and we go away.”
What? Northridge doesn’t have an Arcanist.
Varonaulis whispered, “We can’t stand against so many. It’s for the best.”
“You got enough trouble to worry you, putting out fires,” the bandit yelled. “Open up the gates. Give us that Ghostskin, an’ we’ll give you peace.”
A flash of white caught Josephine’s eye. Wet and clean, Lyllithe strode into the Square and made her way toward the crowd as if summoned.
Many hard faces with narrowed eyes turned toward her.
But not Gammin’s. “Fires?” He turned to Camden. “What fires?”
Flaming arrows whooshed overhead, landing in thatched roofs and wooden walls. Three struck the whitewashed wood of the Abbey.
Camden dashed down the stairs and yelled to the townsfolk. “Women to the well, with buckets. Swiftly! Keep the fires at bay. Once they’re out, seek shelter. Any who will stand and fight, come to me.” Then he turned to Lyllithe’s father. “Get your Devoted ready to tend the wounded. And Gammin, send some lads for weapons.”
Varonaulis sputtered, opening and closing his mouth and raising a finger seeking attention no one paid him. Finally he spit out a question. “Delumiere, what are you going to do?”
Camden smiled as he strapped on his shield. “Just what you suggested, Councilman.”
His hand closed around the haft of his warhammer, and it shone with sudden light like it held the sun within. “We’ll give them what they demand.”
A second wave of fiery arrows pelted the town.
Camden turned and shouted for the bandits to hear. “Prepare to open up the gates!”
* * * * *
Lyllithe twisted more aera into water to put out flames. The light of fires and the setting sun cast orange and red hues over all of Northridge. In between plumes of smoke, stars began to twinkle in the twilight. Near the gates, the men of Northridge gathered their weapons and prepared for a fight. A few women joined their ranks. There’s Jo, right at the front.
Doubts filled Lyllithe’s mind. You should be in the Abbey. They will need healers.
I don’t even know if I can still heal. And I’m in no rush to find out.
How devoted you are.
She Refocused more air into water. Fires sputtered and went out. I can do more here.
Haven’t you already done enough?
Another volley of flaming arrows struck the town. One woman with an arrow in her side screamed and fell thrashing as her dress caught on fire. Anetta. Stam’s niece.
This is your fault.
Lyllithe turned away from a burning building and loosed aqua on the woman. The flames went out. Lyllithe jogged over, extending a hand, ignoring the stench of burnt hair.
Anetta scrambled backwards like a crab, wincing in pain before rising to her feet.
I saved you. Why are you so afraid of me?
The doubts broke in again. How many will die tonight as the cost of your dreams?
Not that one, Lyllithe answered. But she watched as Anetta ran away.
Lyllithe turned back to Loose more aqua onto the new set of fires sprouting up. And she told herself it was the smoke that made her eyes water.
* * * * *
Josephine shifted from one foot to the other, ready to sprint into battle as soon as the gates swung wide.
On the other side, the bandits hollered and taunted the townsfolk. “You’re outta time,” one yelled into the darkening dusk. “We’re coming in if you don’t turn her over now.”
Camden stood beside Josephine, calm and immovable, the Light-Shield of the stories Davon and others told. “Patience, Jo. Be steadfast. The river’s strength breaks on the rocks. Stones don’t charge into the nearest stream.”
Josephine sniffed. “Water wears the stones down until nothing is left.”
“Perhaps. But only over a long time. And this ends tonight.” Camden shrugged and grinned. “We’ve got no place to go. Nowhere to be but here.”
Josephine returned the grin. “Soulforged blessed with Just One’s might,” she recited.
“Together we’ll outlast the night,” Camden said.
Dad, you can’t change the oaths whenever you please. But that word together brought a smile. I am ready for this. He knows it. A more important realization came. He trusts me.
Camden raised his hammer to the men at the Woodwall. “Steel your hearts for battle, and open the gates!”
They shoved at cranks that turned gears and pushed the tall doors open. The defenders formed up, spears and swords at the ready along with pitchforks and staves.
Warcries erupted from the other side. Something roared in the twilight.
“Open only one quarter.” Camden said. “Create a chokepoint against a charge.”
The men around him shifted and stared—at him, at each other, at the night beyond the widening gap between the gates. Josephine saw hesitation and confusion on several faces.
“Farmhands and herdsmen, Dad,” she said. “This isn’t a star of Lightsworn soldiers defending the City’s walls.”
Camden nodded and turned to the men of Northridge. “They’ll be forced to enter one or two at a time. Guard each other, and you’ll get through this night with stories to tell your children. I will not say ‘Do not fear.’ Fear if you must, but do so for your women and children huddled in your homes. And let that fear drive you to seize greatness, as many noble men have done before you.”
The Light-Shield spun and pointed at the gap in the gate. “Let them come!”
A massive hand punched between the widening doors, and they shuddered. What was that? Black claws dug into the tree trunks which made up the left gate, and wood splintered. Another hand grasped the top of the left gate. That’s the height of two men.
The townsfolk murmured and stirred. Ranks drifted apart and men shuffled back.
Something bellowed, and the left gate flew up into the air to crash in the distant forest. A mountain of muscle in a vaguely humanoid form stomped into the town on cloven hooves, orange flames reflecting in the huge curved black horns sprouting from its head. Glowing yellow eyes in the creature’s skull-like visage scanned the defenses and settled on Camden. Bandits rushed in on either side and attacked the stunned defenders.
“Dad, what is that?”
Camden frowned. “A Kem’neth, a Cursebearer—a Scarred man empowered and corrupted by one of the Daemons into a champion of war.”
The creature’s lofty gaze took in the meager opposition. Obsidian claws gleamed as it flexed its fingers. It snorted and made some rumbling sounds like coughing.
Josephine stood frozen in place. “And what is it doing?”
“Laughing at us.”