Despite the devastation wrought after 196 years of battling trolls – killing two-thirds of the Commonwealth – the united army of Liraehne cleared the lands. The great Fanaal Emperor Tian’Tal pushed the trolls to the edge of the Frontier, making a stand at the outpost of Tarn, but it was the leadership of Queen Kalynn Wytestarr who led the final victory within the Crax. Of those who went to war, many would never return home, some not because death claimed them but because their wounds made travel impossible, and the outpost swelled into a city.
As Tarn grew, with farmers and families restoring a sense of normal after so much loss, the great heroes and leaders began to pass into legend and new powers began to arise to fill the voids left behind.
This is the story of one of them.
Part Thirty-Eight: A Dim Reflection
Only days after Queen Kalynn Wytestarr led the Army of Liraehne away from the Crax and out of the mountainous Frontier, a young woman stepped into a pointlessly opulent hallway. Between the tapestries and paintings that hung along the walls going both directions, and random set of statues, small tables, and suits of armor carefully placed among them, it felt staged. As if they existed to take attention away from the ominous doors standing at each end.
“Something feels—off,” she noted, her left hand blurring as she raised it and carefully closed her fingers into an open fist. A void existed beyond the far door. Before exploring further, blonde hair pushed away from her forehead from a breeze she didn’t feel, drawing her attention to the right. Pale blue eyes turned to look in that direction, pausing at the painting of the Krigzehr. The image of the battlelord, prophesized to build an expansive empire upon the bones of all the other races, had been artistically rendered anonymous. The ill-defined figure stood on broken bones, wearing gleaming white armor speckled, stained, and dripping with blood. Something in it reminded her of—
With such contempt and disgust in that tone, her gaze did not need to continue to the now open doorway to identify its owner. “Greetings, mighty Caraklin. I understand from Queen Wytestarr that you played your role perfectly in pushing the trolls out of the Crax.”
“I trust you are here to pay the price negotiated for that service, Isiliyin.”
“Are titles really necessary here?”
Red and black clothing billowed as the old man’s arms and face blurred. “That title is rightfully mine. You stole it.”
A laugh slipped past her lips, its almost childlike quality fitting to the soft features she wore. “You mistake me for my teacher’s teacher, old Caraklin. Unlike you, who draws upon the backlands to extend your life, the Isiliyin spends one lifetime learning and teaching.”
“One lifetime is only enough for lesser beings.”
“And that is why you were passed over for the title. And why I will not teach you the remaining realms.”
A shadow grew behind the old man, engulfing the door and walls in an impenetrable darkness. “Do not play with me.” As the black spread towards her, twinkling lights began to show in it, filling the entire hallway with the night sky. “You will not withhold the last two from me.”
“You’re own limitations keep you from mastering the Backlands.”
“I have six of the eight realms.”
Cocking her head right, a smile touched the corners of the Isiliyin’s mouth. “What makes you believe there are only eight realms?”
A subtle movement began in the stars – as if flowing in a slow stream. “Only those matter. Each member of the Circle of Seven represents one of them, with the Master of Death notably excluded. They represent the eight realms of the Backlands, and I seek them all.”
As the night sky moved around her, she saw that it revolved around a single point. “For all your ego, believing that the stars revolve around you, it’s sad to see that you don’t even know what you don’t know.”
“Ah, my dear, there is something you don’t know.” Spreading his arms, which elongated well beyond any natural reach, chunks of the sky began to break away, revealing the shimmering curtain of light behind.
As the illusionary night sky fell fully away, she found herself in a different room. “Clever distraction,” she noted, glancing around. Eight iron wrought stone pedestals circled a raised marble stone dais. An artifact representing one of the realms stood upon each pedestal, with one left empty, circling a spherical iron framework covered in glowing golden runes. Within that framework hovered the shimmering Akenun.
“So it wasn’t treasure you were collecting,” she continued, beginning to move around the room, purposely away from the two empty pedestals, “but stealing magic.”
“I need anchors,” Caraklin’s disembodied voice seemed to surround her.
“Caldin Wytestarr’s blazing sword. Did you kill Kalynn’s grandfather or just happen across this?”
“Does it matter?”
“It will to her. And I suspect the Braidon will be none too happy with you,” she gestured towards the one-eyed skull.
“Do you have any idea how rare authentic divination items are?”
“I’d not given it much thought.” Knowing that she held the last anchor Caraklin sought, the young woman continued to move. Only recently taking on the role of Isiliyin, she’d already seen more bloodshed and battle in the Troll War than her twelve predecessors combined. But that didn’t make her ready to take on a being as powerful as he, especially not in his lair.
The detection magic she’d used in the hallway had been a mistake—it provided him the knowledge he needed to counter her abilities. Even with the distraction, he wouldn’t have been able to move her far without tipping his hand, likely putting her behind one of the two closed doors. Getting out of this room and back into the lower halls might allow her the opportunity to escape.
If this were the room with the void she’d detected earlier, the door out to the hall would be hidden in the darkness behind. But if it were the other room, it would be on the other side of the dais, near the empty pedestal.
“So, you want my pendant,” she stated, pushing the situation forward.
This time the voice whispered close. “I’ll have it, one way or another.”
“But these anchors alone cannot disperse the purity of the Akenun into the lines of the backlands. What will you use as a focus?”
“Myself, of course.”
“The raw energy will destroy you.”
“Enough!” the disembodied voice boomed in the room. Wincing from the unexpected rage that accompanied it, she patted at the pendant under her blouse. A gift from her teacher, the nondescript exaggerated silver octagon housed a single green jewel within a silverwork labyrinthine pattern. A common jeweler might deem it a moderate value based on the silverwork, but its true value lay in the Iuuran Stone. A manifestation of the Realm of Death, generations of Isiliyin had their spirits linked to it, allowing them to consult with and learn from their predecessors.
Although nine of the stones had been forged, only six remained, spread across numerous kingdoms and in the hands of those powerful enough to protect them.
“Wait, you have an Iuuran Stone. Why do you need mine?”
“In fact, I have the other five. I require yours to complete the bridge to that realm.”
Blowing out a breath, she readied herself to run for the back of the room, hoping the door would be there. “Even with it, your body won’t be able to handle the raw power of the Akenun.”
As she tensed to move, a deep laugh filled the room. Shadows rushed from the darkest corners to manifest a form on the dais. Standing in front of the spherical iron framework, Caraklin turned to face it, raising his arms slowly and with an exaggerated bearing. “You are correct, of course. This device of my design displays an echo of the Akenun. A dim reflection of its energy, but enough to connect me to every realm. Now, give me the pendant!”
Almost too late, she realized that Caraklin wouldn’t have had to hide this room from her. The device on the dais channeled all of its power from the other room. That meant she wouldn’t find the door she needed to escape behind her.
Drawing on the realm of fire, she began to pull the energy down her shoulders and into her hands.
As she expected, the magic fell away, leaving her fingers numb from the cold.
“I won’t ask again, Isiliyin.”
Dropping her eyes to the smooth stonework floor, she started around the perimeter of the pedestals, one hand going to the pendant, tracing its edge through the cloth. Arriving at the empty one, she hesitated, glancing back over her shoulder before lifting the pendant over her head. For her, learning when to give up to fight another day had been one of the most difficult and pain-filled lessons learned during the Troll War, but one she learned well.
Holding the simple leather strap, she lowered it onto the pedestal and stepped back.
The magic that washed over her felt cold and left her looking up at the mountains.
Eyes narrowing, she squeezed her hands into fists, blurring all the way up to the elbows. “We’re not done, Caraklin,” she promised before turning and starting for home.
Years later, she would hire a mercenary named Elis to retrieve her pendant.
* * *
Listening to Torgin complain all the way back down the hallway, Cariss and Onvical moved cautiously towards the disorienting scene at the other end of the hall, with her slightly in the lead. Passing the suit of Rylin armor that continued falling apart and reassembling, the inexplicably creepy portrait of the Krigzehr – part of which still wriggled on the floor, and the statue that seemed to fall back together, things somehow got worse.
Every piece of decoration they passed shifted in some way.
Wall hangings shifted from paintings to tapestries to mountings, but all kept the same basic imagery. Woodgrain faded, stains changed, and cuts shifted, while stonework went through various stages of sculpting and refinement. None of it happened fast, which somehow made it more difficult to see.
The three of them focused on the door ahead – the only object on this end of the hall that didn’t change in some way – and said nothing to one another. That silence left their footsteps and the repeated echo of the armor clattering as the only sound in the hall.
Arriving at the door, Cariss held up her hand, with her fingers counted three, and opened it…
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