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Chapter 1
The Royal Wood

Alyen had vowed never to enter the Royal Wood again. It was a promise she’d made herself too many times to count, and one that had, yet again, proved too hard to keep.

She slid off her horse in the dim forest light, heart fluttering in her chest, breath coming quick. Keeping her eyes cast downward, she tied Lusa’s reins to a low-hanging branch, then removed her shoes and stockings and stowed them in her saddlebag, bare feet sinking into the cool, spongy moss. She paused to take a steadying breath, then turned, blinking, to let her eyes adjust to the half-light. 

 

Gradually the trees came into focus. The vague, familiar tingle in the air brushed against her skin, sending shivers up her arms. It would start at any moment. It always did. Each time, she waited less. Now, it started almost immediately.

There! 

And again!

In her periphery, tiny shapes darted and flashed in the trees, the ferns, and in midair. Excitement danced with fear in her gut, her heart beating faster beneath her ribs.

She walked softly, slipping between the looming trees, skirting around bushes and boulders. The forest scents of moss, pine, and fern filled her as she followed a familiar path of dappled sunlight and fallen leaves. The flickers and flashes continued, seeming to move with her, whether following her path or leading her, she couldn’t say.

At last, the forest thinned to reveal the Ancient Oak. Alyen placed her hands on the immense trunk and leaned against it, feeling the steady current of life running beneath the rough bark. She sank down to curl up between two enormous roots and relaxed her gaze on the forest around her.

The flickering had grown strong over the past months. And it was always strongest here, near the Ancient Oak, the heart of the forest. What are they? she wondered. Faeries? Elves? Some other elemental group she didn’t know the name of? The pulse of the forest thrummed through her body, excitement blooming in her chest as she watched the dancing shapes. For a stolen space of time, Alyen allowed herself to bask in the joy, the rightness, the belonging she always felt in the forbidden Royal Wood. 

But eventually, as it always did, dread began to creep unbidden from her belly up her spine. Her breath grew shallow, and her heart seemed to constrict, as the one thought she could never entirely banish echoed through her mind.

The fact that the flickering appeared to her was not good news.

A chill wind rustled through the autumn woods and Alyen shivered. Suddenly she wanted to leave. She rose and retraced her steps, trying to ignore the flickers that continued to flash in the trees. Her throat was dry; she glanced toward the stream, just visible to her right. But she pursed her lips and pressed on. She’d grown up hearing the rumors of faerie magic that would ensnare any who drank from the trickling brook, leaving them to wander the forest, forever lost to the faeries and the mist. As a girl, Alyen had never quite believed it, but now…

I need to stop coming here, she thought for the hundredth time, fingers fumbling to untie Lusa’s reins. It’s only getting worse. There’s a reason this forest is forbidden.

She swung a leg over Lusa’s back and threw a final glance into the forest depths. Flickers winked at her everywhere, so thick her vision almost wavered. Face set and grim, Alyen turned her back on the Royal Wood and kicked Lusa to a run across the moor.

* * *

The sun had burned away the haze of early morning by the time she rode into the courtyard of Castle Dúr. Garret was waiting, and Alyen handed him her reins as he helped her down from the saddle. He patted Lusa’s side affectionately, the old angry scars on his hands shiny and tight.

“Did you have a nice ride?” he asked with a sparkle in his eye. 

Alyen hitched a smile on her face, determined not to glance toward the lingering flickers. Not only were they appearing more quickly in the forest, it was also taking them longer to fade once she left. Sometimes they didn’t completely disappear for days. 

“I did—Lusa rode well. Give her an extra carrot for me, will you?”

“Of course, Your Highness.” Garret nodded in a curt bow. “Though may I add that she hardly seems winded at all considering how long you were gone? Were you perhaps … detained?” He glanced pointedly toward the tops of Alyen’s feet—dirt-stained and hastily shoved back into her shoes without her stockings.

He suspects. Alyen’s stomach flipped. Figures—he was the one who told me faeries could be seen in the Royal Wood to begin with. 

“Not at all,” she countered. “She must simply be a marvelously strong horse. Any news this morning?”

Garret nodded, his face suddenly grim. “Rowenna arrived while you were out.”

Alyen frowned as she followed Garret through the wide stable doors, the comforting smell of horses, hay, and earth not quite able to banish the foreboding she felt at Garret’s expression. She’d never seen him look upset at the arrival of his sister. “Rowenna? She’s back from the search? Did she find an apprentice, then?”

Garret shook his head. “There’s other news from the north. I’m sure they’ll be wanting you to hear all about it inside.”

“In that case, I’d better go change. Best not to keep everyone waiting.”

Garret glanced up at Alyen as he scooped grain into Lusa’s trough. “Good luck, cailínna.”

Cailínna. It was the nickname Garret had used since she was very young, but only when they were out of earshot. In old Dúramairian, it meant “small girl.” Somehow, hearing it usually managed to lift the weight of learning to rule a kingdom from her shoulders, if only for a moment. But her nerves were wound too tightly today. She forced a smile to match the one Garret offered and patted Lusa in farewell, trying to ignore the flickers coming from a corner of the stall.

Her smile faded once she turned away. Rowenna still hasn’t found an apprentice. But if there’s bad news waiting inside, I surely can’t say anything now.

If Rowenna didn’t find an apprentice soon, Alyen would have to confess the secret she’d been keeping so long. And it would be devastating.

Unable to silence the worried chatter of her thoughts, she hurried across the courtyard, unaware of Garret’s assessing gaze on her back as she entered the doors of Castle Dúr.

* * *

Alyen glanced nervously at the hourglass as she pulled her arms out of her riding gown. She hadn’t realized how long she’d been gone until she saw Cook Nellie sliding tiny bowls of midmorning faerie food out the kitchen windows as she entered the castle. Her parents knew she often went for a morning ride, but if she returned too late there would be questions—questions she didn’t want to answer. She shoved her feet into a pair of shoes not stained by the forest floor and hurried out her door. 

She had almost reached her destination when a voice made her skid to a halt.

“I trust, Your Highness, that if you were planning on completely skipping your tutoring today, you would have done me the courtesy of letting me know?”

Alyen closed her eyes momentarily, cursing under her breath. She turned and retraced her steps until she reached the doorway to the study where Professor Glibb sat, glowering over the spectacles perched on his ink-smeared nose. His face looked even more sour than usual. 

“My apologies, Professor,” Alyen said in her best attempt at a regretful but even tone. “It seems I’m needed by the king and queen this morning. I’ll reschedule with you for another time, if you’re agreeable.”

Professor Glibb sniffed. “It seems I have no choice. Though the quality of your most recent lettering indicates that you may want to make your studies a higher priority.”

Alyen nodded and practically fled down the corridor. 

She stopped outside a private audience chamber that glowed from the hearth and the autumn light streaming through tall windows. Her parents were already seated in large armchairs across from the woman accepting a steaming mug from a servant. Alyen waited for the servant to leave, then curtsied.

“Mother, Father. Welcome, Rowenna,” she said, willing her voice not to sound breathless.

“Hello, Alyen.” Rowenna’s voice was warm. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Alyen,” Queen Réanna said, her beautiful smile thinner than usual. “Join us.”

King Stephan squeezed Alyen’s hand lightly in greeting as she sat beside him in the remaining armchair. His face looked worried. 

“I hear there’s news from the north?” Alyen said before anyone could ask about her day.

“There is.” Her father let out a long breath. “Rowenna’s just told us that Castle Illya went up in flames.”

Alyen paused for a heartbeat, then looked to Rowenna. “Truly? It burned?”

“It did.” Rowenna’s voice was grave.

“So, Mother Brenwyn’s vision has come true. So soon.”

A log in the fire crackled and a flurry of movement flashed in the rising flames. Alyen flinched and hastily looked away, only to find that Rowenna’s gaze had sharpened as it fixed on her. She swallowed and closed her eyes. Focus, Alyen. You’re a ruler—you’ve been trained for this. Ignore the flickers, and deal with the issue at hand. She opened her eyes. “What happened?”

“According to reports,” Queen Réanna supplied, “the fire is out. The castle still stands, but it remains surrounded by an unnatural plume of black smoke that doesn’t disperse or change with the wind.”

Alyen’s heart sank. “Dark magic?”

“It looks that way,” Rowenna confirmed.

“Did anyone see anything else?” Alyen asked, hoping desperately for a less ominous explanation than the one that seemed apparent. “It’s an abandoned castle, after all. Any chance the Nethermairians are just trying to find an empty place to experiment?”

Rowenna and her parents exchanged dark glances and her father cleared his throat. “There are rumors of a black-robed woman sailing alone to the island from our shore several days prior, but no one can confirm this, and no one has seen her since.”

Curses. Alyen sat back in her chair. Dark magic—and from our own kingdom. She found herself wishing she hadn’t picked this day to visit the Royal Wood. The flickering coming from the flames in the hearth was terribly distracting, and the air itself seemed to shimmer, particularly around Rowenna. With effort, she forced herself not to glance around the room, steadying her gaze on their guest.

“I’m assuming Morten knows. Did he have any insight?” 

Rowenna shook her head. “He knows, yes, but no more than we do. Even the Slayer of Monsters can’t wage battle against a hidden enemy, and we really have no way to figure out what’s beneath that cloud of smoke, monster or otherwise.”

“But there hasn’t been a monster in Dúramair for centuries. Dark magic hasn’t been in Dúramair for centuries, so how would anyone have learned it?”

“That,” Rowenna said, gazing at Alyen over her mug, “is a very good question.”

Alyen’s stomach gave an anxious squirm. More and more over the past year, her parents had been letting her handle conflicts and matters of state while they watched and guided from the sidelines—absent enough to give Alyen a real chance to practice ruling, present enough so the Dúramairians and dignitaries felt that the king and queen were still in charge. But Dúramair was a peaceful kingdom. Problems and conflicts were mostly small. This unknown threat was not. And it wasn’t lost on Alyen that everyone was watching how she would handle the situation, not knowing about the secrets she was carrying, or the flashes and flickers that kept distracting her from every corner of the room. She swallowed in an attempt to calm her nerves. Breathe, Alyen. You can do this. You just need time to clear your head and think.

Alyen rose from her chair and strode to gaze out the window. Movement flashed through the tree branches, and Alyen’s head turned sharply to follow it before she could think to stop. She tried to disguise the movement by turning back to the room and swallowed as she saw the expression on Rowenna’s face. Her eyes had narrowed, and she was looking at Alyen with something close to undisguised suspicion. Alyen felt her nerves quiver but drew a breath and steadied her voice.

“Rowenna, we owe you thanks for bringing us this news. I realize it means you had to interrupt your search for an apprentice. Have no candidates been found yet?”

Rowenna’s face was unreadable as she shook her head. “No, not a single one. I never expected it to take so long.”

Alyen’s father ran a hand across his brow. “This business with Illya couldn’t have come at a worse time. Dark magic threatening from the north, and we’re one apprentice short of ensuring the continuation of the Trianid.”

Alyen felt a chill as her father’s meaning sank in. If one of the Trianid should fall with no apprentice and their knowledge lost … Alyen’s stomach clenched again, and she harnessed all her will to press down on the panic that threatened to rise in her throat. “Do you think it could really come to that?”

Rowenna raised one eyebrow. “I certainly hope not. But the fact remains that the position of Keeper of Scales is vulnerable. Morten’s been training Aaron for nearly a decade, and thank the saints, Mother Brenwyn found Lirianna this spring. But I’ve been searching now for over a year, and I haven’t found a single person with the Sight.” Her eyes bored into Alyen’s. “Not one.

Alyen’s stomach plummeted and for a moment she thought she might be sick. She turned back to the window, breathing through her mouth. Behind her the conversation continued, but she only half heard. Flickers were coming now from all directions—the water pitcher, the fire, the air in front of the hearth, the trees outside. I’m going to have to say something. I can’t keep it a secret anymore. She exhaled a shaky breath.

“Alyen? Are you feeling all right?” The conversation had stopped, and everyone was looking at her.

“No, actually. I—” Alyen shook her head, unable to force out the words she feared she must say.

 

“Alyen,” Rowenna’s voice was direct if not unkind. “What is it you need to tell us?”

Alyen met Rowenna’s gaze and saw the knowing in the other woman’s eyes. She swallowed. “I think … I think I have the Sight.”

The silence that followed was profound.

“W—What?” Alyen’s mother was the first to speak.

Alyen merely nodded, her eyes fixed on a spot on the floor.

“How long has this been going on?” asked Rowenna.

“Since spring,” Alyen said quietly, acutely aware that she was admitting to months of secrecy despite the full knowledge that Rowenna had been scouring the kingdom, searching for anyone with the Sight. “I—I’ve been sneaking out to the Royal Wood and it’s always stronger there. But it’s happening in the castle now, too, and more today than ever. I think it’s because you’re here.” She lifted her eyes to Rowenna’s, waiting for the angry words she was sure would come. But Rowenna merely held Alyen’s gaze, her eyes thoughtful. 

“I suppose I can’t blame you for your silence. In your position I may have done the same. Can you describe for me what you see now?”

Alyen’s eyes darted around the room. “Something’s in the hearth, the trees out the window are constantly flickering, there’s something hovering in that corner, and the air’s full of motion. Particularly near you.”

Rowenna’s eyebrows lifted as she took a deep breath, one hand absently fingering the flashing stone of the brooch on her shawl. “Well. This is … unprecedented.”

“Unprecedented?”

“Yes. The Keeper of Scales has never before come from the royal line.”

“It’s true then?” King Stephan asked. “Alyen has the Sight?”

“It appears so,” Rowenna said, sounding as if she couldn’t quite believe it herself. “But she hasn’t fully broken through yet.”

“What do you mean, ‘broken through?’ Is it different for you?” Alyen asked.

Rowenna’s expression softened as she looked back at Alyen. “The reason you see flickering, Alyen, is because the elemental world hasn’t fully opened to you yet. Right now, it’s like you’re trying to see into a room through a frosted window—all you’re getting are flashes of movement and light. That’s how the Sight always starts, and then it either fades away or continues to grow until you finally ‘break through’ and see the elemental world in its entirety. When that happens, you won’t see flickering anymore. The elementals you see will look normal, just like anything else.”

“So, I might not actually be your apprentice? It might go away?” Alyen wasn’t sure if the pang in her chest was relief or disappointment.

Rowenna pursed her mouth. “I suppose it might. But I have to say, it’s usually only young children who catch glimpses of the elemental world without actually possessing the Sight. Very few ever experience it at your age—that’s how we know someone might be a candidate for Keeper.”

The room was silent again. Alyen resisted the urge to cringe or fidget. This is supposed to be a good thing. When one of the Trianid finds an apprentice, it’s supposed to be a celebration. But Rowenna was frowning in thought and Alyen’s parents looked like they were in a state of shock.

Finally, King Stephan spoke. “How do you suggest we proceed, Rowenna?”

Rowenna took a slow sip from her mug before replying. “For a start, I think we should keep this news as quiet as possible. As we are all well aware, Alyen is first in line to the throne with no siblings. I believe the next in line is a cousin, is that correct?”

Queen Réanna cleared her throat. “Yes. My sister’s son, Merrith. I think he’s twelve or thirteen now.”

“So, an heir does exist and from the same lineage,” said Rowenna, “but it would be unexpected for Dúramairians and, I’m sure, for him. And any hint of instability is not what we need circulating when dark magic is threatening at the same time. The situation isn’t ideal, but as Alyen is also the only candidate to be found for Keeper, the apprenticeship is a possibility I think we need to consider. It will be difficult for her Sight to mature here in the castle without attracting attention to it, so with your permission, I’d like to take her to Monstar Abbey, where she’ll be safe under Mother Brenwyn’s care. We can say she’s there to further her studies or to develop her relations with the Trianid—at least until her Sight fully opens. When it does and she makes her choice, then we can decide how to proceed from there.”

“My choice?” Alyen asked quickly. “So—I do get to choose?”

Rowenna met Alyen’s eyes. “Of course you do. It’s always a choice. A Keeper forced into the position would be useless.”

A wave of relief washed over Alyen and she almost didn’t hear as her parents continued to discuss the logistics of the move to Monstar. I can choose, she thought. I can say no. I can still be the princess, and no one will have to worry about training an unprepared heir for the throne. 

Or I could say yes…

“Then it’s decided,” King Stephan was saying as Alyen’s thoughts returned to the conversation. “Rowenna and Alyen will leave for Monstar in three days’ time. I shall organize an escort tomorrow.” The words sounded thick in his throat.

“And I’ll arrange for Alyen’s things to be packed,” Queen Réanna said, a tremble in her voice. 

Everyone stood and Alyen’s parents reached out to her. Tears stung at her eyes as she felt their arms circle around her. They weren’t angry. She didn’t have to carry the secret anymore. She didn’t have to solve the problem alone.

When they broke their embrace, Alyen took the moment to search her parents’ faces, hoping to see reassurance. But her relief disappeared as her heart sank. They’re devastated, she realized. And worried. And now the choice rests on me.

Chapter 2
Power

Atop the black tower of Castle Illya a woman stood, her robes rippling in the breeze as she gazed at the sea. Above her, the dark plume of smoke hovered, tethered to the tower by the circle of symbols she’d spent days etching into the stone floor. Triumph warred with uncertainty in her heart. She’d achieved the impossible—but now what?

From the depths of the smoke a voice whispered the name of the woman who’d woken it.

“Ylvain … Ylvain … Ylvain …”

Ylvain’s face flinched as a stab of fear sliced her chest. 

She hadn’t intended on raising him. 

Years she’d spent searching out lost records of the dark arts in Dúramair. And many more years again, isolated and alone, she’d pored over those records—teaching herself, growing her power, honing her skills. She’d etched the circle, harnessed the power, spoken the words—merely to practice. But her power had grown more than she’d known, and she’d been swept up in it, intoxicated by its thrill and pull. 

And it had worked.

“Ylvain …”

The voice had called to her often, but she wasn’t foolish enough to reply. Once ensnared, an evil spirit could escape only by tricking its summoner into releasing it.

And this was no ordinary spirit.

Ylvain exhaled slowly and continued to contemplate the ocean waves that slowly devoured a blood-red sun. 

“You don’t have a plan, do you?”

Ylvain started and spun to stare at the smoke that rose from her summoning circle. The voice had never uttered a word other than her name until now. She stood tense and wary, eyeing the smoke that undulated before her.

“If you did, you would have spoken to me long ago. No one would dare raise a child of darkness merely to stare at it silently for days. Tell me, Ylvain, was my rebirth an accident?”

The accuracy of the whispered words rankled Ylvain, but she kept her face blank and her lips pressed tightly together. The smoke seemed to swirl with impatience.

“Come now, Ylvain. You are wise to be cautious, but don’t insult yourself with stupidity. If you possess the knowledge to raise and hold me, then you are impressively educated in the ancient arts. You know that I can do nothing to you without your consent, nor can I escape this circle without your order. And if your power is great enough to have achieved this, you are certainly no coward. Surely you are not too frightened merely to speak to me, your servant?”

A silent pause, then the whisper, softly caressing.

“I can help you. I wish only to help the woman who broke my prison. A woman with the power to rule the world.”

Ylvain’s posture straightened. Tricks, she told herself firmly. He’s trying to seduce me with promises of power. I must not be fooled. But perhaps there’s something to be gained from speaking with him.

“Rule the world?” she asked in a voice she forced to be steady. “And how would I do that? I have no royal lineage, no army—even you couldn’t hand me the world at my bidding.”

The voice purred in reply. “All true. I cannot give you the world. But I can give you an army. An army stronger and more powerful than all the kingdoms combined could defeat. And with that army, you can take the world.”

“What army is this, that cannot be defeated?” Ylvain’s lips were white, her breath quick. 

“One we shall give birth to together, you and me. That is, if your power is sufficient to the task.”

“What do you mean? I’ve raised you, haven’t I? Doesn’t that prove my power sufficient?”

“Perhaps. But there are many kinds of power all stemming from different places, different desires. Yours must be of the right variety for this plan to work. Sadly, I suspect it is not.”

Ylvain’s eyes narrowed. “Tell me.”

The smoke billowed. From within came a sinister orange glow that reflected in the darkness of Ylvain’s eyes. “Your power must come from ambition—a merciless disregard for anything but yourself and your own power. It must be cold, calculating, and ruthless. But I know humans well, Ylvain. Sentiments of such purity are rare and at best transient in your kind.”

Ylvain’s mouth twisted, and she spoke between clenched teeth. “Believe me, Dark One, my heart is filled with ambition aplenty.”

“True. But if I am correct, your power is fueled by hatred, your hatred from rage, your rage from pain, and your pain from love. With love at your core, you can never rise to your full potential. With love comes mercy, loyalty, forgiveness. Love will make you weak.” The voice spat the words as if they burned.

Ylvain drew a sharp breath and took a step backward to think. She was on dangerous ground. He was baiting her, but she was still in control. 

“You are bound to do as I command,” Ylvain said. “And I forbid you to lie to me.”

“As you say.”

“Is there a way to determine the quality of my power?”

“There is.”

“What is it?”

“You must let me into your heart.”

Ylvain sneered. “If you think I am so foolish as to release you anywhere near me—”

“I said nothing of release,” the voice interrupted. “I said only that I must be allowed a glimpse into your heart. You would maintain control and I would remain bound.”

“You are speaking the truth?”

“You have commanded me not to lie, and so I cannot.”

Ylvain turned her back to the smoke and strode to the battlements. She studied the waves and inhaled the salty heaviness of the air as her mind repeated the exchange over and over, searching for any loophole, any falsehood, any crack in the wall of her control. She could find none.

Ylvain returned to the summoning circle and chose her words carefully. “I command you to enter my heart solely to determine the quality and source of my powers. You will tell me truthfully what you find. And you will leave me completely at my slightest command.”

“As you wish,” the voice whispered.

“Then begin.”

A tendril of smoke snaked down from the plume hovering above the black tower. It hesitated before Ylvain’s chest, then surged forward and melted into the front of her robes. Ylvain’s head snapped back, her eyes wide as the smoke rushed into her heart, her lungs, her limbs. She felt it twine around her spine and race through her blood as it sought every crevasse in her being and filled it with a power that was clean and cold, terrifying and wondrous. She gasped in fear and pleasure, then asked in a thick voice, “What do you see?”

The whispered words filled Ylvain’s ears and echoed in her mind. “It is as I thought. You possess ambition and a promising talent, but your heart is filled with the pain of loss and betrayal. Both are worthless, and both will break you.”

Ylvain gritted her teeth against the disappointment and rage that filled her. It was time to end this. She had been foolish to go so far.

“But there may still be a way …”

Ylvain bit down on the command she’d been about to utter. Somewhere in her mind, her own voice shouted at her to abandon her pursuit and banish from within what was best left alone to begin with. But the power vibrating through her body was intoxicating. She cringed, thinking of the emptiness she would feel when it was over. If only to delay that moment, she spoke again.

“How can it be done?”

“You will not like it.”

“Tell me!”

There was a pause, then: “You must release me. I must be your master and you, my pupil. I can transform your anger, teach you a colder hate, fill you with a power that can conquer the world and make you its queen. Bow before me, Ylvain, and I shall raise you to greater heights than you have ever dreamed of.”

Ylvain said nothing, her breath coming fast.

“I warned that you would not like it. Perhaps it would be best to banish me. You have power enough to amuse yourself if you do not wish to rise further.”

“What do you mean? My powers can grow no more?”

“Not without guidance.”

“Do not lie to me!”

“As I said, I cannot.”

Ylvain stood trembling, her fingers straying to the hilt of the knife she kept strapped to her side.

“Come, Ylvain,” the voice cajoled. “Be the courageous woman I know you can be. Join with me, and together we can take everything you’ve ever wanted and more.”

Ylvain’s eyes squeezed tight for a moment. Then her hand whipped upward and her blade flashed as she smashed it downward onto the stones at her feet. Metal screeched against rock and a long gash sliced through the runes of the summoning circle. 

 

A hiss of triumph sounded as the smoke billowed free and encircled Ylvain. Slowly her eyes darkened, filled by a shadow the world had long since forgotten.

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