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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.

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Cariss Mesila

Part Forty: Dead on Arrival

“Your fault!”

The shout echoed away and back, thrumming through wisps of gray and black, striking the three figures as they moved through the Shadow Realm, sending them reeling. With no point of reference, the spin caused the edges of vision to blur while stomachs churned as if from a sudden drop. More importantly, it sent them reeling away from the portal about to open in the Gnomic garden at the mountain’s base.

“Can this wait?” Cariss asked, her normal tone on the edge of panic.

“Quiet, both of you! If we lose contact with one another, you’ll be lost here forever.” Closing his eyes, Onvical sought another point to open the portal out. While he held onto the Braidon’s thick leather belt with one hand, Cariss held the other in a grip that ground his knuckles painfully together, making it difficult to concentrate.

“Liar!” the Braidon shouted. Without a firm purchase to throw the punch, Torgin could not put his weight behind it, but it still hit like a hammer. Bright bursts shone behind Onvical’s eyelids as his head craned sideways from the impact. Though both hands reflexively opened, he somehow managed to maintain contact with the Braidon.

With all sense of direction lost, Onvical looked back in time to see a second punch headed his way. Her movements a blur, Cariss redirected that fist so that it only caught the top part of his nose. Pain flashed behind his eyes, and blood gushed from the dislocated nose, causing it to sit further to the left side of his face, yet he somehow managed to renew his grip on Torgin’s belt.

“Stop it Torgin!” Cariss shouted.

“It’s his fault!”

“Yeah, he got us in here, but you can’t kill him until he—”

“No, Ambyr!”


Feeling the grip Cariss had on his hand waver, Onvical did his best to blink through the tears and push away the bright flashes over his vision. In the hand Torgin hadn’t used to batter his face, he saw the skull the braidon had taken off the pedestal. A bright sky blue glow alternated through the symbols that circled the bone overgrown eyesocket.

“It’s the skull,” Onvical said, his tone muffled by the condition of his nose. “He doesn’t know how to control what he—”

The grip Cariss had on his hand tightened, causing the knuckles to pop audibly. “What about Ambyr?”

“Led us to cave with pendant in his pocket!”

Eyes narrowing, her gaze bore into Onvical. “Is that true?”

“Of course, it’s true,” the Magis replied. “The Eye’s showing it to him, but there’s context to consider.”

Around them, wisps of gray and black began to coalesce into tentacles and long-fingered claws reaching out of the void.

“I know the context,” she replied, her free hand reaching for a dagger. “With Elis eaten by trolls, you needed a surrogate corpse. It didn’t matter which of us they killed, so long as it was one of us.”

“No, that was not the plan.”

 Out of the corner of his eye, he saw long clawed fingers moving towards Cariss. Back when Finney had first explained the Backlands to him, the old man warned him of the inherent dangers. Where he claimed that things roamed all realms looking to consume the unwary, Tualla told him that the realms themselves sought to absorb those who lingered. She believed – or knew – it to be less about monsters and more about their nature. Just as pond moss will engulf a stick or rock thrown in, so to would a realm engulf those exposed too long.

Some more violently than others.

“Yeah. Then what was the plan?”

Blowing out a breath, causing his entire face to throb, Onvical loosened his grasp on her hand. “The plan was to retrieve Elis’ skull and use that and the pendant to hopefully locate Caraklin’s Lair. I never meant for Ambyr to die!” Leaning towards her as the fingers began to close around her head, he stared into her eyes. “And if I wanted one of you dead, she wouldn’t have been my first choice.”

Channeling magic into his shoulders, he pushed it down his arm, causing his hand to blur. Eyes going wide, her fist closed on nothing as he pulled his hand free and pointed the open palm at her face. Black-green energies surged around her.

Something displaced the surrounding air as the magic pushed it away.

Glancing down, she saw that Onvical had hooked her leg with his.

Seeing the surprise on her face, one corner of his mouth turned up in that lopsided grin. “Don’t misconstrue this. Remember, you sold me your loyalty. Fortunately for you, I’ve not yet received its full value.”

Reaching his hand back out to her, Cariss stared a moment before taking it.

“Now then, if two will be quiet, I’ll find us a way out of here.”


They both turned to the Braidon, whose orange eyes stared down at the skull in his hand. The reverberation of his echo ruffled through their clothing.

“What do you mean, no?” Cariss asked.

“I not serve in death.”

“We’re not going to die in here,” she insisted. “And once he gets us out, we’ll get away from him. You and me will take that skull back to your people in the Highlands and—”

Shaking his head, the Braidon looked up at her. A single tear spilled out of that orange eye and ran into his long scraggly beard. “You won’t leave.”

Pushing his free hand out, Torgin struck the Magis in the chest, pushing the air out of his lungs and causing his hand to reflexively open. Between the longer arm, lost grip, and strength of impact, the Braidon floated immediately out of reach.

Cariss opened her mouth to shout his name, but a sudden burst of swirling winds took it from her mouth as the void swallowed Torgin.

“He broke my magic,” that cold voice she hated whispered in her ear, causing one shoulder to jerk back and the flesh to rise on her neck. “I need my hands to get us out of here. Hold on, or we’ll both be lost.”

As she grasped his arm, he shook his head.

“No, my waist. When I summon the magic, you’ll lose your grip again,” that cold voice whispered.

Knowing they could not speak normally in these winds didn’t diminish the rage she felt at that voice, but it paled in comparison to the thought of having to hold onto him like a maiden in need of rescuing. “I’ll die first,” she muttered into the wind, instead gripping the back of his robe and wrapping one leg under his.

Her hands went cold as he began to channel the magic. Though she’d seen him do it often enough, never this up close. A light cloud of those black-green energies formed across his shoulders, not quite touching the fabric of his black robe. She and Ambyr had speculated on why he always wore black – neither had considered that it might camouflage the initial casting of his magic. Lines of that black-green cloud ran into his shoulders and flowed down his arms, causing that blur associated with channeling magic.

Bringing his hands together, she could barely distinguish the details of his fingers under the effect. When he tried to pull them apart, his hands trembled, and that blur faded.

Swirling winds continued to batter them, and she felt her stomach churn again as if from a sudden drop. Looking at him, she found something scary about the uncertainty in his expression. Pulling close enough that the Magis could feel her breath on his ear, she shouted, “What’s wrong!”

When he turned, she saw remorse in his eyes, and he mouthed a simple apology.

“No. Wait.”

Turning away, his brow lowered and jaw set, he once again began to channel the magic.

Cariss grabbed at his arm, wanting to stop him, but the icy cold caused her to jerk back.

“Whatever you’re about to do, don’t!”

Ignoring her, he clapped his hands together. This time, when he pulled them apart, a desolate gray landscape lay before them, filled with irregularly shaped stones and the skeletons of trees. Those swirling winds dropped as if they’d stepped into a house and closed the door. Above them hovered a gray skyline. No clouds, sun, or stars, just gray.

Releasing him, she stepped away, trying to get a handle on her labored breathing. “Idiot, you scared me.” Turning in a circle, she took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “What happened to Torgin?”

“Normally, I’d say he’s eternally lost in the Shadow Realm.” His voice had a hushed quality that she did not like.

“Why normally?”

Silence for a moment, and then the Magis responded in that same tone. “He has the Eye. If there are any natural exits, he should be able to find one.”

Turning once more in a circle, she stopped while facing him. “Okay, fine. Where are we?”

“Between that blast from Caraklin and Torgin disrupting my magic—”


“The only place I could manage to get us.”

Noting that he refused to meet her gaze, she stepped forward. “Onvical?”

“We’re inside the Realm of Death.”


The End of Book One

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