The Creatrix rapped the end of her wand against the wooden podium, and silence fell across the underground chamber. Her sapphire gown shimmered in the candlelight—the flames maintained, undoubtedly, by a few sweaty students, prospective champions of fire from the school.
Rowan balled her hands into fists. The Pentacle had demanded a test of her loyalty, a demonstration in for all assembled, before they would consent to her candidacy as a liaison for Lis-Maen to the battalion.
Three fortnights she had spent practicing, trying to determine what would best disguise her desire to return to the rooted power of the forest and what would hide the scars the Pentacle had embedded.
Her first tests failed. A demonstration of power, of ‘gifting’, as they called it, would do little to impress. It would only heighten their desire to contain her within their walls, in case troops advanced from Scourge or airships attacked from the Cities again.
Instead, she would recount the attack that had led her here, the burning that had gutted Willow.
Rowan raised her chin, opening her throat to scrying eyes. The pink irises of the Oracle hadn’t left her face since she entered the chamber.
Staring down from her platform, the Creatrix opened her hand. “Begin, Hexblade. Tell us, why should we return you to the forest of your birth when there are many more qualified who might take the place as our liaison to the Cities?”
She would hide the truth behind her tale, just out of sight.
“They came in the night,” Rowan answered. She shuddered again at the trees’ scream as they burst into flame. “They attacked without warning.”
Violet splinters of lightning had struck the reyanna, their circle’s leader, in the chest. She crumpled, twitching, onto the earth. The ground rumbled in answer, but it could not help her.
A chamber full of eyes, hundreds of them, watched her every movement. “Darkstones glittered around their fingers.”
Rathenza, Rowan’s trainer, had clutched her throat as the mage’s fingers curled. The druid gargled, choked, gagged. Blood gushed from her lips and trailed thick down her chin. It seeped into the white of her ceremonial robes.
“That night, I ran.”
Vraise leapt down from the middle trunk, his home tree a ball of fire behind his feet. His parents’ totems melted, curling back against the bark, but he never took his eyes off her. “Go, Rowan,” he said. He grasped her hands and clutched them to his chest. “I’ll buy you as much time as I can.”
“I stared at the inferno the soldiers of Ignis had started on the far side of the grove. In a matter of moments, the flames devoured our home.”
“Rowan!” Vraise’s grip tightened. He shook her hands, rattling her shoulders.
She tore her gaze away from the fires her circle had laid, back to him. The flames gleamed behind his eyes, orange in the surrounding darkness.
A few of the council members leaned forward in their seats. Rowan began to pace across the marble floor. But for the size and the flickering light, they could have been in the extraction rooms far above. “The soldiers’ shouts reached us,” she said. “Their anger thrummed upon the air, carried by the flames.”
“Go,” Vraise whispered again. “The river knows what we’ve done. She waits for you.” In a single motion he stripped off his tunic. The sigil of Ignis flared upon his chest. He’d had no other way to carry away the Cities’ hoarded magic.
“My companion, Vraise, had spent his life preparing for this. We all had. I knew he had chosen to make the sacrifice himself. And that knowledge gave me peace, even in the midst of the chaos all around us.”
Of the six that had returned, that night with Vraise had felt the most real.
Rowan yanked free of his hold.“No! I can help you.” Rathenza had trained her, the brightest, most powerful of her pupils. Rowan could call the flame—or extinguish it—without the titan’s mark.
And since Vraise, the fire was a part of her, forever.
Vraise shook his head and slid away. “I made a vow before the Pentacle.” His eyes shone brighter.
A cry from deep within Willow, from the edge of the burning trees, echoed through Rowan’s ears. The soldiers had spotted them.
“Our circle pledged you to the five faces before you were born,” Vraise said. “All this time, they’ve been waiting for you.” A falling tear sizzled on his cheek. “Please”—his voice broke—“don’t throw away everything we’ve done.”
None of them, besides her father, had made their vow to her. His spirit still lingered between the trees, in the ashes buried beneath their roots.
“Vraise was the last of the six who bore the brands, who stole the elemental power and returned it to our home, to its place of origin.”
The Healer nodded. She, more than any of the other faces, knew the ritual of which Rowan spoke.
A branch splintered overhead, sputtering ash and embers as it fell. Vraise leapt toward Rowan and knocked her off her feet. The burning limb pierced his leg. His body arched back as he screamed.
Rowan clutched her hand to her heart. The well of darkness ran deep. She drank from it, dripping its waters over her speech. “‘We depend on you to honor our sacrifice, to save us,’ Vraise told me. He cupped his hand beneath my chin. ‘Do this for me, for us. None but you can control the water. It will carry you to the Pentacle, to safety.’”
And carry her away it had.
Something stalked nearer through the forest. Vraise’s eyes widened. He groaned as he crawled over Rowan, pressing her deeper into the underbrush.
She struggled, trying to slip free. He was too heavy. With one arm pinned across her chest, he angled the palm of the other at the woods behind them.
A tongue of fire burst from his hand. Blood sprayed—burning—across Rowan’s face.
“Vraise’s face blurred as I stared back through the remains of our trees.” Real tears for her lost forest fluttered to the edges of Rowan’s eyes. They blinked as faery lights across her vision. She blotted them away with her fingertip. “The rippling silver silhouettes of the battalion marched ever closer. I shouted to be heard above the guttering flames. ‘Why?’ I cried. The question was burning ash upon my tongue. ‘Why has the battalion come here?’”
Rowan released her hand. A few of the listeners gasped at the glowing orange runes at the tips of her fingers. She would have to be careful. Such eagerness could easily expel her from consideration. But after the failure of the last attack, the beaches lost to the Cities’ sitting armies, the people of Lis-Maen were eager for change.
It was easier to blame the encamped Luz and the battalion than it was the Pentacle or themselves.
“Vraise raised his full lips to the sky.” Rowan stretched her body into the position she had invented for Vraise. His rebellion had contained little of the heroism she’d carefully sprinkled across her retelling.
“Blood leaked from the corners of his eyes as he spoke. Beneath the tongue of fire, his life force ebbed away. ‘Because they want back what we took,’ Vraise shouted, loud enough to be heard by the battalion slowly surrounding us.” Rowan lowered her voice. “They feared the fire being in others’ hands, of course.” Her eyes glinted, reflecting the very fears of the council, the Pentacle, back to them. Somewhere hidden among the figures, his yellow eyes obscured by his cloak, she felt Lucien’s smile settle over her.
“Their attention his, Vraise yelled, ‘But it will never be theirs again!’”
Rowan strained and struggled beneath Vraise’s weight. She turned her head toward the forest, toward the spurt of flame Vraise had sent between the trees.
A brilliant glow, flickering fire, tugged her gaze deeper into the wild heart of Willow. One of the battalion’s soldiers appeared from between the trees. Shadows and smoke rippled around him, the aftermath of Vraise’s missed attack. The soldier wielded a sword of flame but no dark stones. With a single swing, he batted aside Vraise’s second strike.
Rowan raised her voice again, allowing the hoarseness from her expended magic—disguised as clinging emotion—to creep into the edges of her story. “Vraise stepped back from me and spun around to face the army. He shouted and called forth the fire from his chest. Beneath the brand, blood slithered out of his skin and sparked to life between his fingers. He swirled his hands, forming the flames into a sphere. The fire drank deep of his energy, pulling his hair, his face, ever closer to its swirling power. I knew it would engulf him. But he was buying me time to flee.”
Instead of advancing toward them, the soldier lowered in his stance. He waited.
Vraise struggled up off the ground. Only a few nights had passed since he had surrendered the stolen magic to Rowan. Between the exchange and the ritual, he would never return to full strength again. Already his days were numbered.
He leaned against a smoking sapling, his injured leg limp behind him. Blood whispered free from the wound. “Rowan, go,” he begged. “Find them.”
She grew breathless with the close of her story. It was here that she had to be the most cautious. Here that she had greatest need of the obscuring darkness. The magical flames sputtered in the torches high overhead. They felt the tendrils of her expended energy, what the onlookers understood as pure emotion. But it was so much more.
“The muscles in Vraise’s neck strained, and he glanced back at me. His eyes were red embers, his face aglow in the light of the flames. ‘The Pentacle will avenge us,’ he cried.”
A few in the underground chamber murmured their agreement with Vraise’s sentiment.
“You will hold them all in the palm of your hand,” Lucien had said as Rowan revealed her plans. His eyes had rolled back as he pressed his nail into her palm, sucking the fire energy from her, skin to skin.
Rowan’s hands trembled as she faced the soldier. Fire tore through her veins. Waves crashed against the borders of her heart.
The fire was most susceptible to the might of the earth. Rowan called upon Gaia for aid. The titan would devour them all. The forest would be Rowan’s shield.
And the Pentacle would never know where she had gone.
“The first of the silver-clad soldiers appeared from behind their conjured wall of smoke. Vraise sent a streak of slithering fire into the hollow of his throat.”
The soldier set his jaw and stared at her. “I cannot aid you if fall into their hands, fireheart,” he said. He tossed his gaze toward the burning home trees.
The rumble of his voice settled deep within her spirit. He spoke with the cadence of her newly acquired flame.
“Your battalion, or the Pentacle?” Rowan shouted. As though it mattered.
“The enemy,” the soldier answered. He advanced toward Vraise.
The last of Rowan’s circle stared at the sky.
Rowan held her hand out at her side. The copper glow of the embedded flame shimmered beneath her skin. “The soldier fell, his knees cracking against the roots of the earth. From the smoke, the battalion shouted at seeing one of their own fall to the flames. Vraise sent streak after streak pelting against their armor. Though his aim was true, he was one against many.”
Vraise closed his eyes before the soldier struck. The last of her circle released his soul to Astralei.
The hollow that hung in Rowan’s chest settled deeper.
The soldier nodded to her again.
Rippling flames flared in her veins. They matched the arc of the soldier’s swing as he carved through the dark of the forest behind her.
The fire severed the last of her ties to her circle, the last of her birthkind.
The fire should have set her free.
Rowan quickened the pace of her retelling. The spirals of energy emanating from her union of the six elements ebbed over the assembled council. Only those with a close control over their own elemental magic would even notice the undertow. “I sprinted toward the river, leaping over trees and brush. I whispered a spell of cloaking behind me. The shadows answered, a meeting of earth and darkness.”
She crouched in the cover of the woodland, the trees that had sheltered her circle for generations. Willow’s children, whom her circle had slaughtered at the merest suggestion of the Pentacle.
The Sorceress hadn’t even sent her enforcers to lurk beneath their trees. But the Oracle’s prophesy made almost any who heard it eager to capitulate.
That Oracle’s daughter glowered down at Rowan now.
The soldier stood tall over Vraise’s corpse as the Blazing Battalion formed up around him.
Rowan edged away, the covering of night and forest beckoning her deeper in.
“Behold,” the soldier cried, “the last of their thieves, fallen. This night, we have righted our failing of Ignis. This night, our honor before our titan returns.”
Rowan’s pacing took her across the center of the Pentacle’s circular council chamber. The supplicants of each of the five faces, and the elders of Lis-Maen, watched with eager eyes as she brought her tale to a close. Soon, her story-self would reach the protective ring of their borders. To them, it could not have been otherwise, as here before them she stood.
They didn’t know of the river’s betrayal that night. But Rowan remembered still. Whatever the Pentacle said, the river wasn’t theirs to command.
And for a reason that had eluded her for five years, one for each of the faces staring down from atop the Pentacle’s platform, Alessandra wanted Rowan to stay in Lis-Maen.
Rowan hadn’t accepted each of the six elements to appease the desires of the traitor goddess.
“When I reached the banks,” Rowan said, “the heaviness of our loss fell upon my heart. I collapsed into the flowing waters, and they bore me inland. The river carried me to the true heart of our enclave, here, to the Pentacle’s protective ring.”
The same belief buoyed her now that had saved her from drowning as she fought against the current the night the river had brought her hence. Wherever I go, I carry the stolen fire. I carry stolen water, stolen earth, stolen light, stolen darkness, stolen air. These were stolen from us, not the other way around. But not to us, to me, they now belong. This truth I live, this truth I bear, however they choose to compromise themselves and their magic.
Rowan lifted her head, peridot-green eyes shimmering as she looked at the five faces of the Pentacle in turn. “To assuage your concerns, Creatrix, I am certain they will not remember me. The battalion have no knowledge of anyone surviving that night, no reason to suspect our recovered magic lives on outside your giftings and the school.”
All eyes turned to the Creatrix. The tight wrap of her hair behind her head pulled at the fine lines that criss-crossed her skin. “A fair point, Rowan Hexblade.” The Creatrix slid her arms behind her back and strolled the length of the dias before her sisters. “You lost much that night, did you not?” She lifted her chin, eyes narrowed down the length of her nose.
Rowan recalled the final dregs of the darkness from her extremities. From each corner of herself, she bade the elemental energy to well and cover over her heart.
Not even the Pentacle knows what it is to possess the six united, whatever power they find among themselves. They are representations, reflections. Aspects, nothing more.
My magic is renewed, revived. A spark of Verdigris.
Rowan trailed her fingertips along the fire sigil and its runes, the deep-set marks of what she had given and what she had lost. “The vanished titan is merciful,” Rowan answered. She forced a smile for the five faces before her. “No lives have been extinguished beyond what the Pentacle wills.”
The recovered ephemera of Verdigis added five words to the prophesy: From the ashes I rise.
At the end of the five thrones, the Oracle rose. She laid her hands flat against the plane of her waist and stared down at Rowan. “Can you still name the lost of your circle? Aside from Vraise, this last fallen?”
When the Pentacle had first begun to experiment, to manipulate the elements to form warriors such as she, their subjects had lost their identities entirely. But as the united five had honed their spell-bindings, their warriors remembered.
The problem was that a few had broken free.
“No, I cannot.” Rowan curled her toes in her boots. Countless nights she had trained for the Oracle’s questions alone. She was the youngest and most perceptive of the Pentacle. Rowan’s slightest twitch would give her away. If they discovered the depths of her plans, the Sorceress would strip off the bindings of Rowan’s magic and torture her with the released elemental lashes.
Rowan knew the Sorceress well. The mage would relish her every scream.
The Oracle smirked. “You’re lying.” Her words were soft, a petal placed upon the tongue.
Gasps echoed across the council chamber.
The Creatrix lifted her hands for silence.
Rowan crossed her arms over her chest. She forced herself to wait. To breathe. The copper tang of blood splashed over her tongue.
The Healer slowly unfolded from her seat and stood. She glided to the end of their platform, robes rustling across the marble floor. Torchlight glinted in the elder elf’s eyes as she stopped an arm’s length from Rowan. The Healer raised her hand, placing her palm against Rowan’s forehead. The shimmering silver of her skin searched Rowan’s bronze heat for the trace of her lie.
The cold bite of the mint tincture—brewed by the Druidess precisely for this—still lingered beneath her tongue.
“She remains true,” the Healer announced. The nearest of the onlookers sighed.
The Creatrix bowed her head. “Good.” She opened her hands at her sides. “Sisters, return.”
Rosemary and sage lingered on the air as the Healer spun away and did as the first face bid.
“The fulfillment of our work is nigh, Hexblade.” The Creatrix smiled at the assembled, anxious crowd. The ripples of their energy returned, lapping waves washing away the lingering flakes of her cover of darkness.
“Remember, Hexblade, the council knows not of your circle’s self-sacrifice,” the Druidess had whispered after she placed the mint tincture into Rowan’s palm the night before. “The Pentacle asks that you omit this truth during your trial.” She leaned closer.
The heat of her breath had tickled Rowan’s ear. “The elements chose you for a reason, however mysterious it may sometimes seem.” Her brown eyes had lingered, dancing over Rowan’s face, the curve of her lips. With a stuttered breath the Druidess had pulled away. She repeated the words she had uttered during the first of their stolen nights, a handful across the last year. “I trust the wisdom of the six. I trust you.”
It had been Lucien’s idea for her to share her magic with the Druidess.
Rowan’s lover sat, back rigid in her chair, as the Pentacle’s leader dismissed Rowan for the council’s deliberations.
She perched on a stiff wooden chair alone in a dimly lit stone hall and waited. Rowan knew what came next. She didn’t have to wait long.
“You did well, my pet.” Lucien’s voice drifted over her, a blanket of cold, before his form flickered free and coalesced from the surrounding shadows.
His cloaking spells were easier underground. Anyone passing by, even if they stood directly beside Rowan, would only see her, sitting in a wooden chair, staring at an ancient tapestry—Verdigris splitting into five pieces—alone.
They wouldn’t see the towering form of the guardian. His skin glowed a pale green in the flickering underground light. Or was it the effect of his most recent extraction of Rowan’s store of elemental earth?
She avoided his gaze. Even if her plan succeeded, Lucien would linger on at her side. And with him, her cage.
Lucien clicked his tongue against the back of his teeth. In a swirl of smoke he lunged forward and seized the underside of Rowan’s chin. She winced as he drew her up, half-standing from her chair. Rowan gripped the wooden arms, trying to hold herself back from him dragging her closer.
“I hope you have not forgotten the terms of our arrangement.” Lucien’s yellow eyes bore into hers. His wings unfolded slowly behind him. They covered her entirely in shadow.
Rowan grimaced. She spoke through clamped teeth. “I remember.”
“Good.” The word purred in the back of the guardian’s throat. “I would hate to see your forest—all the residents of this island—destroyed because you failed to honor our bargain.”
Lucien’s illusion dampened the supplicant’s call.
He growled and released her. “We have only just begun.” The wisps of the guardian’s form trailed away, slithering back into the underground hall.
Rowan clamped her hands tighter around the arms of the chair. Her fingernails bit into the wood.
“Hexblade?” One of the first three supplicants who had shown her here peered closely at her, a question the girl was too well trained to ask poised across her brow. “The Pentacle is ready for you.”
Rowan’s thoughts whirled as the Creatrix announced to all the council, and to the potential liaisons themselves, that the Pentacle had chosen Rowan as their representative.
“Lucien is right,” she proclaimed to the assembly. “No one more than the Hexblade understands the dangers of the battalion lingering on in our forests, however distant a threat they pose to us and our might.”
Rowan’s ears rang as she strolled out of the audience chamber. The gaze of all those assembled followed after her. The council tossed their hopes behind her every step.
She shut her eyes, inhaled, as the sunlight struck her face.
For years, Rowan had longed for freedom from the Pentacle.
So why did she feel as though she’d played precisely into Alessandra’s hand?
Rowan was too tired from the ordeal to remember to cloak herself or disguise her energetic form as she walked beneath the arches to return home.
Beneath the eagles’ perch, a whisper flew into her ears—Into ashes, we all shall return.
Phoenix Rising chapter one, scene two copyright Beth Ball 2021. All rights reserved.