Let me tell you the story of heroes of old, whose adventures, now forgotten, were once widely told.
Let me tell you the story of how the old world fell.
Of those who fought to save it, and fought well.Yvayne Shadowbright, lorekeeper
Chapter One: Ashes to Ashes
Delmoir, Lis-Maen, Present Day
Steam rose from the tram outside Rowan’s window. Nearly time. She tightened the last of her boot buckles and secured her leather corset around her hips.
Thank Lilith the Cities’ attacks had struck so near to the portal at the heart of Lis-Maen and the inlanders could no longer pretend they weren’t at war. She could bare her magic openly without attracting as many averse reactions.
The green tattoo on her shoulder glowed as she stretched, the earthen magic rippling beneath the bronze glow of her skin. One less thing for the Pentacle to scold her about anyway.
Outside, the tram hissed. Somewhere in its bowels, the junior champions of water and fire intertwined their gifts from the titans. The steel wheels screeched into motion.
Rowan glanced down at her left hand. Would the young fire champion in the tram experience the same bursts in their magic as she had? She smirked as she called a tiny flame to life at the tips of each of her fingers. Rowan flexed, and the motes shot off around the room. They flared against the candle wicks, their light glittering behind mottled glass panes.
The small expenditure wouldn’t be enough to sate the pulsating fire burning within, but it took the edge off.
Perhaps after her meeting with the council, she could find a forester to spar with. These inlanders had been tamed for too long by the walls of their city. She needed someone who had witnessed true flames.
A cloud of breath condensed over her face as she stepped out onto the cobblestone street. Rowan knelt by the doorway and pressed her fingertips against the moss that grew over the stone foundation. “Spirits help me,” she murmured in the Queran tongue. It was all she had spoken in the forest. Before her circle had scorched their home.
The energy of Lis-Maen darted around her. Spirits and elements mingled. From the second story, the rooms next to hers, the pixies squabbled. Their tinny voices rang soprano notes over the scrape and scratch of the city streets.
An elderly woman crouching beneath the covered stoop of the inn bowed her head as Rowan passed. The glowing sigil of darkness on the crone’s palm whispered that she understood. The mark’s indigo was so deep that it reined in the tendrils of hazy sunlight peeking through the low cover of clouds hanging over the island city. Rowan placed her fingertips to her lips and bowed in return.
One day Rowan’s markings would deepen in that same way. For now, their amethyst depths curled in rose-covered vines across her chest. A few times a year, the roses opened, revealing the black petals at their heart of their blooms.
She strode past the training yard where students stopped their morning exercises to gape. Their most skilled instructors would possess only a sprinkling of the elemental tattoos, gifted by the Pentacle as a reward for their loyalty. Even fewer of the students themselves would have naturally come by such markings.
Rowan winked at the lone witch who lingered in their midst. Her hazel green eyes shone beneath a curtain of black hair. It wasn’t often that witches made it as far from the Emeraude as Lis-Maen.
Just as it was rare for Rowan to show four of her six tattoos.
She had made the exception at the Druidess’s urgings. “If you truly want to return to your forest, bastardized by the battalion though it is, this is your best chance. Show the Pentacle, during council, that you can be trusted with this task. Show them that you have both the strength and the control to see it through.”
Rowan sighed as she rehearsed the falsehoods of her speech. A few were in service to the Pentacle. But more served her own ends.
Hidden deep within Willow, there were answers that only her ancestors’ trees could impart.
And the scouts wouldn’t let her within ten leagues of the battalion’s camp without permission from the Pentacle.
But she had another reason for leaving. Each moon-cycle, despite the Pentacle’s frequent extractions, her power with the elements grew rather than receded. Well, for all save the water, that was true. “I know you were distressed at first,” the Druidess had asked her one night as they lounged before her fire, “but has it truly been so bad here? The elements might have consumed you without the Pentacle’s help.”
The flames had flared before Rowan could stop them. The sudden inferno had left scorch marks all around the gray stone mouth of the fireplace. The Druidess was breathless beside her. Rowan clamped her jaw tighter and shoved the flames back to their binding to the logs. Some questions weren’t worth answering.
Beneath the expanding runes and vines of the tattoos was an intertwined root-forest of scars. The Pentacle’s needles drove the extractions deeper and deeper. Their razors stretched the growth, each season, across her skin.
Lucien was the only other who knew the extent of her expanding powers. But it served his ends to keep quiet. After her speech, he would vote in favor of her appointment to the forest outpost.
There, he would visit her in secret, and his extractions would continue.
It had been agreeing to that or submitting to suffocation here, indefinitely, instead.
Rowan rubbed the sigil of fire over the exposed skin of her shoulder and warded off the cold. Like sunlight in early spring.
Lucien had been planning this since the beginning, since he had first sought an alliance with the Pentacle, shortly after Rowan’s arrival in Lis-Maen. The Pentacle turned their eyes from the ever-expanding scope of his schemes. His allegiance bought them the neutrality they craved, however frustrating it was for the battalion, the Luz, and the Cities United.
She shuddered as she passed the low iron door they had snuck her through when they fished her out of the water. “You’re lucky, girl,” the boatman had said. “The Watchers nearly got you.”
How often had she wished they had?
The tunnel beyond led to the extraction chambers, part of an interconnected system of tunnels that spread beneath the Pentacle’s towers.
Rowan rounded the corner of the cobbled street and followed the wall of stone.
The students had been right to stare. Her circle’s sacrifice, the implanting of the elements after they were stolen back from the Cities’ private champions, had heightened the powers of their teachers.
But enough of her blood had been spilled on the polished marble of those rooms. Her forest needed her to return. She felt its tug with every breath.
Rowan placed her right hand against her chest. The darkness swirled over her heart and through her bloodstream.
Eagles perched on the archway that led to the Pentacle’s doors. Her cloak of darkness would allow her to pass unseen beneath them.
Even the Oracle couldn’t say when Alessandra peered through the birds’ eyes. It was one of many compromises the Pentacle had made. They called it neutrality, but Rowan knew it was self-interest.
The sigil of light was the one they extracted as rarely as possible. By necessity, they entrusted the light-force only to the most powerful and capable healers.
“Once she can perceive you clearly,” Lucien had warned Rowan during his second visit to her room, “she will never fully let you go.” A haunting hollow lingered in his eyes as he said it, a tell that her father’s intuitive gifts had taught her to see.
That secret, like so many, she had kept from the five faces of the Pentacle.
Rowan ducked beneath her cloak of darkness and passed under the eagles’ gaze.
The sweeping stone walls of the Five-Spire towered overhead. Her boots clicked against the stone cobbles.
She took a deep breath as she passed through the faery ring. Rowan circled to the left, past the oak, with a nod to the hawthorn, and ran her fingers over the smooth bark of her namesake tree. “May your blessings coat my tongue,” she prayed.
The rowan tree whispered a soothing melody over her as Rowan continued inside. Be at ease child. Beneath every step, your path unfolds, exactly as Verdigris intends.
Her circle had carried on Lilith’s work, trying to reawaken Verdigris. From their hope for the titan’s return, they had formed both Rowan and her magic. This secret she had also kept from the Pentacle. Such a hope violated their own teachings and threatened the power they held dear. They alone were the five faces of the vanished titan. How could Verdigris return if, in their combined gifts, she was already here?
Rowan bit the inside of her lower lip and held back her grin. Though their mind-readers were few, her thoughts were not free here. Especially not beneath the hawk-like gaze of the Oracle.
The central hallways of the spires stretched several stories high. Wide panes of glass sheltered the walkways between the five. Rowan strode down the sixth hallway. Its use as an entryway signified a union with the wider world. The hall had been formed from sweeping archways, with only a few structures interspersed between the entry arch and the gardens.
A cloying, damp breeze pressed against Rowan’s bared skin as she crossed the stone pathway. White-robed supplicants, the servant-students of the Druidess, tended to the carefully arranged gardens spread across the lawn.
Three supplicants, each clad in heavy blue robes with gold ties, the colors of the Creatrix, waited for her at the end of the walkway.
Rowan counted her breaths. The darkness beat steadily over her heart.
The three supplicants bowed low. Rowan acknowledged them with a nod. The order of their magic was separate from her naturally acquired giftings. They were not like the powerful crone Rowan had passed.
“The Pentacle waits for you,” the first of the three supplicants said. Her smile failed to reach past the end of her nose.
Rowan’s energy would be best saved for her true audience. Only a few times a year did the Pentacle summon the full council. It would take all of her concentration, and nearly all of her magical reserves, to conceal the truth of what had transpired in Willow five long years ago.
“Your energy betrays you,” Lucien had scoffed during their last session together. “Those with a keen eye will easily see past your words, just as a traveler would fail to miss a great dark forest whose limbs stretched tall over the thatched roofs and wooden wall of a town.”
She sent a pulse of darkness into her fingertips. We shall see.
The adventure continues:
Phoenix Rising chapter one, scene one copyright Beth Ball 2021. All rights reserved.