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Rated: 13+ · Chapter · Fantasy · #2167420
When a King threatens the last Torch Wings, Manie sacrifices everything to save them.
The Crystal Keepers

By J.M. Arlen. (Jamie McGehee.)




Chapter 1. An Unlikely Thief.




Streaks of bright color began to spear across the stars like strokes of thin ink, leaving long ribbons upon the darkness of a sky inhabited by wide galaxies: rolling clouds of green and blue smoke. There were silver trails, yellow trails, orange, brown, sapphire, crimson, golden: all burning to paint the blackened sky with tens of thousand of different shades, like an artist leaving his signature upon a singular moment in time, a beautiful wash of sparks and long lines as if the aurora had begun to cry, unfathomable and utterly mysterious to the minds of those who watched from far below. A sketch of pure accident.

Never had the people of this land witnessed such an event, nor anyone else in their long forgotten timeline. It was unique, special--an anomaly: one moment that would go on to change history forevermore.

Beneath the streaks of color lay a landscape shaped by hundreds of tall mountains and snowy peaks, carved by the teeth of rock and plates stabbing up from the skin of the earth’s crust; a palette of wide open grasslands and hilly terrain peppered with boulders of rock and glass. A place of sheer cliffs and long gorges as high and sharp as the oldest glaciers inhabiting the sea. A land of valleys, and streams, and ports. A wilderness of forests and cities filled with life. A world of immense energy, untold mystery, and pristine innocence--until tonight.

The world had grown dark. Only in moonlight could the land beneath the stars be seen. Talmoria: that was what this place was called, an island of peaceful existence, seperated from time by a long divide of draining darkness. The people who lived here here had no knowledge of the world beyond their home, their skies, other than that it existed and was forever dark and mysterious to them. But tonight it would deliver a gift that would permanently alter that perspective. A hard lesson sent from beyond the stars by a species lost to time.

The rain of colors sparked and hissed upon the atmosphere with flame and intense heat as thousands of burning orbs fell farther and farther towards the ground. Some trails shattered mid-air, bursting into clouds of glowing dust and hazy light that dispersed long before the streaks could reach the Earth. But those that pierced the planet's shield of magnetic energy and dense air found a world waiting all too eagerly for their arrival.

As they fell farther, it became clear that these orbs were actually crystals, drowning in long rivers of light. But where had they come from? And why were they here?

These were no ordinary crystals. These crystals were filled with power--power that could be unlocked by those who carried the ability to siphon energy from them, in the way that a river might draw water from out of a lake. Except, in the veins of these people they could carry this water, this power--like an unchecked child wielding a sharp and heavy blade.

Though, not all would seek to use the Crystals for harm. Some would aim to raise civilizations using these rare powers, these gifts; to create life from out of the dark. But still others carried a different goal in mind--a goal of domination, and fury, and overwhelming power. To create a world where freedom was decided only by how long one was willing to fight.

The rain of Crystals began to pound the raw landscape into a boiling sea of smoke and flame, each explosion a different color. The impacts were like footfalls from a stampede of stone titans, marching across the land, shaking the Earth to its very core. And then, as quickly as the performance had begun, it was over, and the island grew quiet once again.

In the aftermath, deep craters appeared across the landscape like freckles upon a grassy face. Slowly, carefully, Talmoria’s inhabitants crept out to investigate. In naivety, they could not be aware that, from this, there was no turning back.

A farmer, restrained by the hand of his wife, approached a crater rimmed with orange flame, and knelt. There in the burned soil and charcoal, buried to its neck in debris of rock and wood, was a small, Amber Crystal. The man's heart began to leap. He reached out and swept a layer of ash off its glassy surface. The stone was cool as ice.

The farmer grabbed the rock and plucked it from the earth in two fingers, staring in wonderment at what he had found. He let the Crystal rest in his palm and watched as a fire inside the stone's center danced and waved as if blowing in invisible winds. The flame was the same shade as the stone: a deep amber, like tree sap.

“You shouldn't touch it!” his wife warned. “We don't know what that thing is.”

The farmer glanced out across the night and saw each of his neighbours holding Crystals, others who had also come from the village. Each rock was a new shade from the last. An uneasy silence spread across the land. Something felt wrong.

“It's burning,” he said, turning to watch the flame dance. It was so beautiful, so mesmerising--he couldn't look away. He could barely even breathe.

He reached out to stroke the surface, and the moment his fingers found the edge, a sharp pain lanced up his arm to the back of his neck, drawing a grimace across his face. Sweat poured down the farmer's forehead, and his eyes felt like they were going to burst. It was like boiling water was sliding through his veins. Streams of burning heat.

For a moment the pain dampened as the farmer felt something squirm between his fingers, like blood. But beneath his downturned knuckles dripped a stream of flaming water instead.

“You're aflame!” his wife screamed.

The man realized his pain at once and swung out his arm, creating a great breath of sucking flame. The Crystal sailed away beneath a jet of fiery liquid as the farmer fell back in a frenzy of terror. “What's happening?” he yowled, terror streaking through him.

He turned to reach for aid and ended up showering his wife in a wash of flame, turning her body to a writhing torch. “NOO!”

She danced and shrieked, releasing a blood curdling screech that was everything of pain and panic. The farmer turned his arms from his wife as tears rolled across his face. He screamed as he tried to end the pain. “Stop! Stop this, please!”

He stared at the river of fire bursting from between his fingers as it hissed and roared back at him, willing for the release to stop, but he didn’t know how to control his power. His hands quickly erupted into a ball of flames and sparks that consumed both he and his wife in a twisting inferno.

A crackling boom shattered the still air, echoing out as a mushroom of black smoke coiled above the farmers, whisking away upon gusting wind. When it was gone, a pair of burning corpses and an Amber Crystal were left glowing below, quiet and still among a sheet of frosty grass.

It didn't take long for more of the villagers to suffer fates that were much the same…

One-thousand years of tomorrow's crept by, and the world changed dramatically within that time. Wars were fought for the Crystals, factions rose and fell, kings and queens met death. The most famous became Mikhail: the first king to unite all Talmoria under one flag, and his precious blue stone, who died at the hand of enemies he fought to erase.

Mikhail’s rare Blue Crystal, which was then known to be the only one of its kind, fell to the hand of a new king, nearly a millennia into the future. But this new king was not able to wield its power like the other, and so he gave it to someone who could.

Manie was an infant when she first set fingers upon the stone, yet the changes it brought were great. Her innocent, smiling face, bright with the joy and wonder of a new world to be explored, became shattered. A single touch, and she was different. Her black hair turned as dark and blue as a polished sapphire, and a flame of the same shade erupted within her eyes, and inside Mikhail’s Crystal as well, marking this girl forever as the heir to Mikhail’s power. Before she was even old enough to speak her first words, her fate had been chosen for her.

As she grew through childhood, Manie was kept in a tower: a tall and stony rod standing behind the majesty of a gilded mansion, built upon the crest of a reaching rock that looked out across a massive city filled with thousands upon thousands of tall and short structures, enclosed within an iron fence and mouth of toothy mountains. Denengear: the King’s city, and Manie's city, too, even if she did not like it.

There in that tower she lived, and there in that tower she stayed. She became its prisoner--forever watching this new world pass her by, locked away because of Mikhail’s rare gift: the power within the stone. The ability she had gained to see a world hidden from every other had given her this task, this responsibility, of solving a terrible disease, one that had killed many innocent people, far more than Manie could ever perceive from way up here, in her tower that scraped the clouds.

It was called the Grey Death, a disease that starved and drove victims to silent madness. This disaster had been wearing away upon Manie's world for five whole years, inexplicable to the reasons of its appearance. No one could comprehend where such a deadly disease could first sprout from, such a nightmarish and horrible thing. But the King had an idea of how to solve it. And the answer hung from a chain around Manie's neck.

Mikhail’s Crystal granted her the ability to see the Torch-Wings, creatures fabled by their collective disappearance thousands of years ago. Few could see their mysterious world of trees and glass houses, except those who were given this extremely rare gift. Their queen, Milly, was said to be a sorceress of insurmountable power, whose ability to accomplish the impossible was once sought by many dead and missing wanderers throughout time. King Dukemot now desired her aid, but this time, the need was dire. Talmoria's extinction was quite possibly at hand. And the King had been convinced that they would find no other way.

Deep in the darkness of night, after a day of fruitful planning, a girl named Veronica appeared below Manie’s tower, a girl with her own solutions in mind, a girl as important to this history as Manie.

And so this story began, on a dark and cloudless night, in a land that had been forgotten…

***

Veronica threw the coil of rope to the grass then brought the large crossbow into her hands, pressing the stock back against her shoulder, grunting and stumbling from the weight as she raised it up. She aimed high, and with a squeeze a deep thrum sounded off, and the hook went sailing into the stars, rope twirling within its wake. The metallic fingers surged up to the edge of Manie's window, hundreds of feet above the ground, and grabbed the iron bar below the shutters with a solid clang of metal.

Veronica grabbed the rope and gave a firm tug to be sure the hook was secure. It didn't move an inch. She smiled, feeling proud of herself for this. Everything was going perfectly. No one even knew she was in the city. And if she was lucky, no one ever would--not even Manie. She grabbed the rope and started to climb.

“She thinks she's so perfect,” Veronica muttered under her breath. “She gets a tower all to herself!.. I'll show her just how useless she is.”

The effort to climb the rope was immense, and by the time Veronica had arrived at the top, she was sweaty and gasping for air. She clutched the iron bar below Manie's window and pulled herself up until she could reach the stained-glass window. It was already unlocked, cracked open, even. Could this plan go any better?

Veronica pulled the window until one side was completely open. She quickly saw her target. Manie was asleep in her canopy bed, coiled beneath red blankets, and she was holding the necklace rather than wearing it. When Veronica saw the Blue Crystal, she almost gasped. Her heart seemed to stop beating for a moment. It was surreal to think that this was really going to work. Soon she'd be the one to wield the power. She'd be the one to decide Talmoria’s future.

Veronica climbed inside, careful not to make a sound. She hardly even breathed. She went to the fireplace and set two keys on Manie's mantle, between books and three empty jars. This way, at least Manie could escape when she finally did wake up, before the King's anger could rear its head. It’ll be easier this way, Veronica told herself. She then turned and approached Manie’s bed. When she came within reach of the Crystal, her heart began to pound.

So slowly, as if her veins were filled with sap, Veronica reached out and grabbed the necklace of Mikhail’s Crystal. She pulled, gently sliding the chain through Manie's fingers until the Crystal began to tug away from her grip...

***

Manie awoke to the sensation of chain sliding between her fingers. She opened her eyes and saw Veronica, standing right beside her bed, the last person she thought she'd ever see again. The girl was staring and smiling at a small, glowing object in her hands. It was Mikhail's Crystal.

"What are you doing?" Manie shouted as she rose from her bed. Veronica looked stunned.

"Get back!" She screamed. "The Crystal's mine, now."

Manie couldn't believe this was real. She reached out and caught the chain with two fingers and tried to yank it away--but failed. Veronica quickly unsheathed a blade and drew the edge across Manie's arm. She stumbled back, holding her left forearm as a line of blood and pain slowly blurred into focus.

"You cut me," Manie gasped, her eyes widening in disbelief.

She was shocked. Seconds ago she had been dreaming about a terrible storm of lightning and long tornados. Now she was staring at a slice in her own flesh. She looked to find Veronica and saw that the girl was already halfway through the window with Mikhail's Crystal still in her hand.

Manie ran after her, ignoring the sting in her forearm, and dove, reaching out at the end of her slide to grab the necklace at the last possible second. She secured a firm grip, and the sharpness of the chain's links began to dig imprints into her skin like rows of serrated knives.

Manie could feel Veronica's descending weight pulling her body across the polished tiles--which were now wet and slick with her own blood. The stained-glass window ahead reached all the way to the floor, and Veronica soon disappeared beyond the edge, dragging Manie and the necklace along with her.

"Veronica, stop," Manie screamed in desperation. "I'm the only one who can use Mikhail's Crystal! Giving it to someone else isn't going to change anything."

Manie came to the edge of the window and looked down. She saw Veronica, hanging by a rope attached to a hook beneath the window. The grass was dozens of feet below them. In her free hand, Veronica was clutching the necklace with all her strength.

"If that's true, then Talmoria will be destroyed no matter what happens tonight! The Grey-Death must be stopped, Manie. Everyone depends on us to do the right thing! Now let go of the Crystal and let me save the future!"

"I can't let you have it," Manie said in breathless frustration. "What do you think’s going to happen to me if I do?"

"I don't care what happens to you," Veronica responded with venomous anger. "I've had enough of everyone worrying about poor, little Manie all the time! If you try to stand in my way, I will kill you. I swear I will! Now just let go!"

Veronica used her grip on the rope to give a few firm tugs on the necklace with her opposite hand, but Manie held strong, never allowing the Crystal's necklace to slip an inch out of her fingers. She clutched the silver chain as if her life depended on it, which it very well might have just then, in more ways than one.

"Veronica, you can't save anyone! Milly can help us find a cure. She can erase everything that's ever happened."

"The only thing that needs erasing is the decision to give Mikhail's Crystal to you! It should have been mine all along. And if you really think Milly is going to help the people who are enslaving Torch-Wings, you're insane."

Manie couldn't believe what she just heard. The Torch-Wings were being set free. Veronica's words were a lie.

"Use the keys on your mantle," Veronica said. "Find the room marked weapon storage. It's in the basement. That's where your king keeps his pets!"

For a moment Manie paused, wondering if that could be true.

"No," she screamed. "You're trying to give power to the wrong person. Give me back the Crystal!"

"I'm not giving you anything! Let go!"

Veronica looked enraged in a way that Manie had never seen before. She seemed like a beast. All those years of friendship, of bonding, and this was how it would end? It made Manie feel almost as angry as Veronica was.

Veronica gritted her teeth and reached towards her belt, hanging her weight by one hand and the strength of the silver chain. Manie was pulled so far down the outside edge of her tower that the only thing left planted in the bedroom above was her sliding legs and waist.

Manie could feel freezing wind soaring past her ears with an edge of sharpened cold. Darkness swelled around them as sweat formed on the back of Manie's neck and her heart began to pound. Veronica wrapped her fingers around the wooden handle of her curved knife and revealed the bloody blade. She pointed the tip towards Manie's neck and prepared a deadly strike.

In that single fleeting moment, where time itself seemed halted and visible before her, Manie saw that there was no turning back--not for Veronica, not for herself. There truly was only one thing left she could do, even if she did not want to do it.

Manie slipped one hand free from the chain as Veronica's knife flew upwards to stab her throat. She reached down and caught the girl’s wrist. With a blink and whispering thought, electricity popped through Manie's fingers and surged directly into Veronica's veins, causing the thin girl to lose grip on the Crystal's chain.

Veronica squeezed her eyes shut as a gasp of immense pain tore through her body. The bloody knife slipped from her fingers and began to fall, tumbling towards the ground below. Manie stopped her release of electric energy and let go of Veronica's wrist.

She watched in horrified anticipation as Veronica fell, her clothes rippling in the thin breeze. She hoped, demanded, that her old friend reach out to save her own life. But Veronica never opened her eyes. She didn't regain consciousness, and never tried to grab the rope.

Seconds later, without a single thing left to do, Veronica's body hit the ground.

"No!" Manie cried out in shock. Breath fled from her lungs like she'd been kicked in the stomach. She closed her eyes, causing tears to spill down her cheeks. "Veronica..."

Manie felt like a dagger was stabbing her heart. Her mind was buzzing with the thoughts and images of all that had just happened. She grabbed the bar beneath the window and pushed herself back up inside her bedroom, crawling and rolling away with the last of her exhausted strength. She leaned against a wall and drew in rapid breaths of air.

Manie felt dizzy. Why did this all happen? She asked herself. It didn't make sense. Not now. Not after so many years had passed.

She lifted the necklace with the tips of her fingers to let Mikhail’s Crystal hang loosely in front of her eyes. She studied the rock closely, realizing that she couldn't see anything inside--nothing. Just a swirling black tornado gently twisting before her face.

Manie leaned towards the Crystal, bringing the stone close to her eyes. The blue fire’s gone? It’s gone?! How can that be possible? And why had it been replaced with a swirling black cyclone?

Manie’s mind practically froze as she scanned the room, wondering how this could have happened. Was it because of Veronica? She grabbed the Crystal and squeezed, but it didn't react at all. She could see candlelight reflecting across the smooth, glassy surface, but nothing from within.

Sweat squeezed from the top of her forehead and slid gently across her eyes. She shut them, and pressed the lids tightly together. This was all just a bad dream, she told herself. The next time I open my eyes, the world will be back to normal; I'll be back in my bed, and Mikhail’s Crystal will still be in my hands. The fire will still be burning blue, just like it always has, and Veronica will be unharmed.

Manie flashed open her eyes. There she still was, sitting on the cold floor, soaking in her own blood. Her arm was throbbing red liquid, and down the stained and torn skin of her left forearm, resting snugly between three fingers, was Mikhail’s Blue Crystal, its flame still extinguished.

Manie's heart seemed to stop as the reflective emptiness met her eyes. Her breath was replaced by icy stillness. She wondered what would happen next. She had to do something, but what?

Manie looked to the mantlepiece and saw that the three jars were now empty. Bree, Fitzel and Julius were gone. It was beyond comprehension. She noticed that the keys Veronica had mentioned before were really there. It was the only thing left that seemed real.

* * *

Manie threw her arms against wood doors, causing them to fling open and slap the opposite walls in a loud thwack. On the other side was a dark hallway of moist stone, bricks dripping and slimy with moss.

One of the keys Veronica brought had already worked. Five long years Manie had been locked inside that tower. She was seventeen today, and the last time she had been allowed outside that place was when she was only twelve years of age. And just like that, with a twist and a click, it was over? Why? Was she supposed to be set free? Or was she supposed to stay trapped, and safe, but it had all gone wrong?

If the Crystal didn't work anymore, neither possibility seemed to matter. What chance would she have when King Dukemot found out she couldn't help cure the disease anymore? The disease that had mysteriously appeared five years ago? Questions rang ceaselessly through Manie's mind. She wondered if they would ever stop.

Manie dragged her hand along one of the walls, using it like a guide. She hadn't been down this way in a very long time. But if what Veronica said was true, the other key would unlock a room where Torch-Wings were being held prisoner. If that was really happening... No. It couldn't be. But she had to know for sure.

Manie looked around the dark hallway for a door, her eyes projecting just enough of a dim, blue light to let her see the entrance. She remembered how the blue fire in her eyes had ignited when she was still just a child, when the Crystal was given to her as a gift, and was glad it hadn't gone out too.

Approaching along the right wall, Manie finally saw the door. It was marked weapon storage just as Veronica had described. It's existence alone was enough to make Manie pause. Veronica had told the truth. Manie looked at Mikhail's Crystal, wiping cold blood off the outer surface. She felt a numb tingle beneath her thumb.

Manie inserted Veronica's key into the door's lock and twisted, switching it open with a stiff click. She grabbed the handle and turned, watching in horror as her worst nightmare instantly came true.

Inside the room was tens of thousands of empty, glass jars, stacked halfway to the stone ceiling in endless rows of lids. They were sitting on hundreds of wood pallets with enough room left to walk between. It seemed like the hallway went on and on forever, stretching far into the bleak darkness and flickering, orange torch light.

Tears filled Manie's eyes. She had never felt so stupid, so betrayed, so heartbroken. Here were the creatures she had grown to love more than life itself, kept as prisoners, trapped inside jars in a dark and empty hallway. How could someone do this? Veronica was right, the queen of the Torch-Wings would never help them if she knew about this. This was unthinkable.

It became clear in Manie's mind what had to be done. If this was how she was helping her king achieve his goals, she didn't want to help at all. Even if it meant she had to sacrifice the life she had grown to know.

Manie went towards the stacks and grabbed a jar. She looked at the contents and saw nothing. It became painfully clear that she may never see another Torch-Wing again, now that the Blue Crystal had gone dark. Her ability to reveal the creatures had vanished, along with the Crystal’s blue flame. It was all because of Veronica’s greed. It made Manie angry. But that wasn't important right now. What was important, was freeing the Torch-Wings.

"I'm going to save you," Manie said to the empty jar. "I don't care what happens to me. Free your friends. You'll all be home soon..."

She turned to the wall, aimed, then threw the jar. Manie watched as the glass shattered and fell to the floor with its tin-lid in dim satisfaction. In the aftermath of the explosion, the room went silent, but there was no question if something had been done. Within seconds, another jar began to hover, all on its own, then it dropped and splashed to glass as it struck the dense stones. Soon, another repeated the motion. And then another.

The room quickly became a symphony of bursting explosions, tinkling shards of glass, and cawing tin-lids. Manie felt a wide smile curve across her face; the first genuine one in many years. In an instant, the pain was almost worth it.

Manie turned and exited the room, never once allowing herself to look back. She followed the stone hallway back the way she had come until she arrived at the bottom of a circular iron staircase. Within moments she was rushing back to the top.

It felt like hours had passed by, but only mere minutes were lost by the time Manie had arrived to the top of the stone tower. Behind a few locked doors that now sat open was Manie's given room, her prison, her home, splashed with red evidence of all that had gone on.

Manie walked towards her fireplace where remnants of a fire were still smouldering. She began to form a plan. No one had yet discovered what had been done. There was a small window for her to escape, and she intended to take it.

She grabbed a book and the three glass jars, each as empty as the ones in the basement, and began packing them into a brown, leather bag. These jars contained Manie's pets: three young Torch-Wings named Fitzel, Bree, and Julius, the first she had ever helped capture. She couldn't imagine leaving them behind. And if she was going to find a way to restart her connection with Mikhail's Crystal she would need a way to test her success.

Manie threw the leather bag over her shoulder and immediately began moving towards the window, passing her canopy bed along the way. She went to the edge and looked down. She could see Veronica laying silent and still at the bottom of the rope's slack in a smoky pile, undiscovered.

Manie began to weep and tremble. She pressed one leg outside and grabbed the window's frame with both hands. She started to descend the very same rope that helped a thief into her room. Now it helped a thief escape. Manie cried as she thought about all she had done, all that was happening. Her life was changing, forever, and she had caused anothers’ to come to an end, forever... Right now it was far too much for her brain to process, but in time, she knew this moment would cut deep. It was terrifying it hadn't already.

Releasing her grip, Manie fell to a floor of soft grass, feeling cool night air ruffle her sleeves and tickle her skin. It stirred pain in the cut Veronica had given her. Manie's sleeve was drenched with blood, but the wound had stopped bleeding, and she kept pressure on it to ensure it would stay that way. She wasn't going to bleed to death after all that had happened, that Manie was sure of.

She couldn’t bear to look at her once best friend lying broken and motionless at the bottom of the stone tower. The sight was too painful. She drew her eyes to the sky. There she saw a bright shining beacon, high in the sky alone. At this time of year it was a compass. An arrow. A guide to lead her north. And that's where she decided she would go. To the North, behind the protection of the Beacons of Black Fire--ancient and powerful statues built as a wall of safety for any seeking refuge from the danger that these powers could bring.

But first she would have to find a way around them. Her natural bond to the Crystal that had once belonged to Mikhail, as well as her bond to the missing Purple Crystal, meant crossing the border would be no simple task. An invisible wall would stop her if she tried, and Manie understood that. But she had to find a way.

In the daring days to come, all Manie had left was hope. Hope that her heart would eventually lead her to the place she was supposed to go. The place where the Crystal was supposed to go. The place where Talmoria needed them to go. And that was how she set off.

She left behind the massive stone walls, and wrought iron gates. The wooden towers where guards once patrolled and slept their shifts away--if not for the disease that had killed most of them off.

Within hours, Manie had climbed the half-ring of craggy cliffs that partially encircled Denengear, their sharp, mountainous teeth split apart like a broken ring of stone, and never once was she seen by anyone. Her escape was like the shadow of a bird crossing a land without eyes.

In her heart Manie knew that tomorrow would be new and unknown for the very first time. She tried hard not to cry as she realized that bitter truth. In the close distance ahead was a seemingly endless labyrinth of sharp rock and gravel roads that went on and on for miles. For the first time since leaving, regret began to appear on Manie's mind.

She looked over her shoulder and saw the mansion, her tower, perched high above a town buried in thousands of tall and short buildings; all of it draped in stone, and gold, and wood. She wondered in silence if this would the last time she ever saw the great city. And then she turned away.

* * *

"You can help me cross the Beacons?" Manie remembered asking.

"No," another voice had responded, "Under them."

It was a woman and her son, Manie remembered. The woman was the one who spoke. What were their names? Asher, and Fordham... Manie tried hard to concentrate on who they were, wondering why they had helped her get to the North in the first place.

She had never understood it. She remembered finding the woman in Market-Town, outside the inn. She had offered food, and a warm bed, a bed Manie rarely found sleep in. Soldiers had been after Manie, trying to bring her back to Denengear to face punishment for what she had done. Instead, Asher bandaged her arm, and not a week went by before they departed to find the tunnels that lead beneath the Beacons; but something had happened inside those tunnels. In the caves there was a bridge. It collapsed after Manie crossed it, separating her and Asher.

"Follow the wind!" the woman had screamed with hands cupped around her mouth. "It will lead to the surface! Go North and find the Protectors! They are the reason your eyes burn blue!.."

And that was the last thing she ever said before the rumbling beneath the ground became too much for them to hear across.

Darkness swarmed on Manie's vision once again. Her mind was babbling. She understood that she was actually alone, now, stumbling head-first through a frosty forest in the shadow of a snow-capped mountain. There was no use trying to remember the past. Mt. Ven stood over her now, which meant she had made it past the Beacons. This was the North. Her intended destination.

The smell of clean air and frozen pine-trees made it seem like a hidden paradise, but Manie hadn't eaten anything but raw mushrooms and a few out of season berries in six whole days. Starvation was truly starting to affect her body and mind. Every second she wasn't eating, her belly felt like it was being ripped in half by someone with sharp fingernails. She wanted to collapse and roll herself into a ball to stop the pain, but she kept going despite it, moving onwards as if something unseen was guiding her along, pushing forward every new step.

Eventually, in her starving stupor, Manie forgot the one rule she had given herself upon escaping Denengear: never to travel by road. Somehow she had stumbled back onto the path when her thoughts began to look back to the motionless and broken corpse lying dead at the bottom of her tower. She held her breath as she waited and willed the person to move, but they never did...

"Hey! Are you okay! Hey, stop!"

Manie woke from her dreamy stupor and saw a wagon with two horses slowly rolling towards her. She quickly pushed herself into a ditch behind some short trees and tried to stay low, but by the time she had managed to do it, she was so winded and exhausted that all she could do was lie there and hope she could remain unseen.

Manie heard the horses come to a stop. Boots crunched and crackled as someone dismounted the wagon. They came towards the ditch, and within seconds Manie felt the warmth of an oil lantern grow close to her face. She put up a hand to block the light, and immediately heard a gasp.

"Please," Manie begged in a rasp of her old voice. "I need food..."

For a long, decisive moment, nothing happened. But soon, with an unsure sigh, the lantern was placed on the ground beside her, and a man stepped down and stood at Manie's side. He reached down very carefully and Manie felt her practically lifeless body lift into his arms.

Seconds later she was being carried. He brought her to the wagon and seated her onto the driver's bench, behind two large horses. A blanket was wrapped around her shoulders and cupped to cover her face, like a hood. A few strips of jerky were then placed into her hand.

"It isn't much--that's all I bring with me on these short journeys to Shor-Wood. But the good news is that my tavern in Ferengul isn't too far from here. I was actually on my way back there right now. I'll get you something hot when we arrive."

Manie could feel herself shaking. She started crying, though she wasn't sure why.

"Thank-you," she whispered. "What's your name?"

"My name's Danyal," the man said. "Keep yourself covered until we get to my Tavern, okay Manie?"

Manie didn't remember telling the man her name.

"Why," she asked.

"We don't want the wrong person to see your face. There are pictures of it nailed all over town... But I'll keep you safe, I promise."

Manie had no idea if she could trust this man. Was this stranger her enemy? Or her friend? It didn't really matter, she had no other choice. Death would have found her if he hadn't. And not much later, with the thoughts of past and present swirling endlessly through her mind, Manie fell completely out of consciousness.



Check out J. M. Arlen (@JMArlen8) on Twitter for updates on when the first book will be released: https://twitter.com/JMArlen8?s=09



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