Disclaimer; Elemental Truth, the first of the Elemental Wars books, is in the final stages of editing. Hope you all enjoy it.
The great Fortress of Dhaul loomed overhead, intimidating and dreary, casting a shadow and a chill over the road coiling towards its gate. Ancient towers spiraled up, their tips hidden in ever present dark and ominous clouds. Like the cracked, carved stones lining the road, they were silent sentinels of another time. An eerie testament of a long gone era.
“Matau told me that it was shaped out of the cliff, not carved nor built.” Xin said, her voice hushed. She nodded towards the fortress. “It was a trade, you see, the water users ended a drought in a northern kingdom, so in return the rock shapers came south and created the fortress for them. The entire summit is a palace.”
“I wonder why Nekar let the fortress fall into ruin. Especially after going to the trouble of aquiring it.” Rale murmured. Tier shrugged.
“General Dyrnos, or one of the history teachers in Lorn could tell you. I never paid that much attention.” Tier pointed at the moss covered stone pillars lining either side of the road, like soldiers ready to march into battle. “Would you want to have those things staring at you every day?”
Rale shook his head. “I don’t like to think our people would be superstitious enough to let that sort of thing bother them.” He patted one of the stones. “They’re just stone, after all.”
Tier shrugged. Every now and then, beneath the underbrush and twining around the pillars, he’d catch sight of wisps, clinging to the broken stones. Things watching them. Perhaps there was a connection between the ghosts and the stones? Part of him wanted to linger and inspect them, another part of him wanted to run as fast as he could.
“What are those stones, anyways?” Rale asked Xin, pointing to a nearby pillar. An ugly face was carved into its surface. “I’ve never seen anything like them before.”
“Matau called them Standing Stones, and said they were here before people came to Dhaul. No one knows what the language is, or who or what put them there. Come on, it’s getting late. I’d rather not be on the road at night.”
“Why not? Worries about ghosts?” Rale asked her.
“There are things that move around in the forest.” She motioned towards the trees. “Some say ghosts, or demons. I’ve never seen anything, but I’ve heard things.” She shuddered. “I prefer not to travel here at night.”
“What do you think, Tier? Think we’ll see anything?” Rale asked.
Tier tried to ignore his cousin’s jabbering.
“Tier sees ghosts.” Rale said. Tier glared at him. It wasn’t something to laugh or joke about. In the wrong company it could get him killed. He never talked about it and wished Rale wouldn’t. “When we were children he swore he saw bodies in the river near the Seeress’s Oracle.”
“Overactive imagination.” Tier said quickly. Xin was looking at him with a frown. “I was a child.”
“So,” she drawled. “You don’t see ghosts?”
“No.” He turned from her.
“The ghosts here are real, not imaginary. They get restless when people come up here.”
“Any idea why?” Rale asked.
Xin was quiet before answering. “The Nekarian army slaughtered everyone inside the palace, once the wall was breached. No one was spared. Elemental, non-elemental. Young, old, male female. It didn’t matter. Everyone died.”
Tier nodded. “That is what happens in war.”
“Their souls are still here.” She turned and continued up the path. “We’d better hurry before it starts raining again.”
Neither of the horses wanted to go anywhere near the front gates that towered over the trees. It took Rale and Tier quite some time to get them on the wide yard in front of the fortress. Xin perched herself on a rock, her knees drawn up under her. When they finally convinced the beasts that it wouldn’t hurt them the light was dimming in the sky. Tier couldn’t see any way to open the gates. He turned to Xin.
“How do we get in?” He asked. Before she could answer, Rale was pushing the reins in Tier’s hand, half stumbling toward the gate.
“Are you seeing this?” He turned, eyes wide. “It’s huge!”
“You, prince, are a horrible liar.” Xin said in a low voice. Tier blinked, looking down at her.
“Why do you say that?” He asked warily. She flashed a grin at him.
“Your eyes. The way you look in the forest, and at the Standing stones… you see the spirits here, don’t you?”
He gritted his teeth, saying nothing. She laughed.
“There are lots of ghosts here. Lots of things here. I don’t envy you.”
“How do we get inside?” He repeated the question. She eyed him, her eyes twinkling. She was laughing at him, he was certain of it.
She pointed towards the wall. “Along that wall is the breach that the Nekarian army used to take the castle.”
“Lets go then.”
Rale hurried over, taking the reins back, rambling about the fortress. The breach appeared to have some minor repair work, but it was never completed. It was wide, high, and both horses were convinced that there was an ogre on the other side, just waiting to eat them. Tier glanced over at Xin.
“Lead the way?”
She stepped through the breach, Rale on her heels. Tier swore under his breath, trying to get the horses through. Once on the other side, they calmed down, though their eyes were wide and their ears pricked forward. They would bolt the minuet he let his guard down.
He barely got a glimpse around, before Xin was directing him to an old stableyard. Once secured inside the horses calmed down and Tier rejoined Xin and Rale near a gaping doorway. The wind picked up as they stepped inside.
The room, an ancient hall, whispered of time. In the torchlight, Tier could make out broken swords, straw, and leaves blown in, littering the floor. The room was empty except for the large fireplace that dominated it. Tier made his way over, frowning at the remnants of a fire. It wasn’t very old. He glanced over at Xin.
“I thought you said people avoided this area.”
“They do.” She moved over and frowned, crouching by the fireplace. “Odd.”
“When you led the other lords up here,” Tier began.
“They wouldn’t come inside.” Xin said. She stood, setting her torch in a stone holder on one side of the fireplace. “Then they insisted on taking the road towards Delebeg.” she stared at the char. “It may have been bandits.”
“I thought you said bandits wouldn’t,” A loud crash drowned out the rest of Rale’s statement. He stared towards the back of the hall. “What was that?”
Tier stood, taking a visual survey of the lower room. Shapes were forming, hazy and indistinct, some were detailed most just the vague outlines of what they used to be. But all of them had the dark shadows for eyes.
“Tier, did you hear that?”
A rumble of thunder shook the palace. Tier almost jumped when he felt the touch to his arm. He looked down at Xin who was staring towards the way they’d come in, her hand rested on his arm. Warmth wiggled through him and he smothered it. Couldn’t read too much into it.
“Wind probably knocked something down my lord.” Xin said, looking sharply at Rale. She sounded as if she were trying to be cheerful. “Over by the entry is fire wood, why don’t you grab it so we can get a fire started.”
Rale nodded and Tier swallowed when his cousin turned and walked through several ghosts to get to the firewood.
“What do you see?” Xin whispered looking up at him.
“Be glad you don’t know.” Tier replied.
It didn’t take long to get the fire going. Xin enlisted Rale as her helper, ordering him to get things and cut up vegetables much to Tier’s amusement. It was, he thought, good for Rale to be away from the comforts of home. Maybe he might do more for himself.
“Why do I have to go get the water?” Rale asked belligerently. Xin looked up at him and his shoulders sagged. Tier was glad that he was not the only one affected by those large, innocent looking eyes. Xin was dangerous and knew it.
“My lord, have you ever cooked a meal before in your life?”
“Then you go get the water.”
“You’re mean to him.” Tier said as his cousin stalked off. Xin glanced his way then back down to the makeshift cooking preparation area.
“I don’t have patience for a spoiled royal.” She didn’t meet his eyes. When Rale got back she was far less sharp with him, showing him how to add things to the small flat pot.
They ate in silence, setting up sleeping rolls on the floor near the fire. The storm raged outside. The thunder boomed, lightning lit up the room, shone through windows high up. With each flash he saw the pale figures, standing, staring. He swallowed. One in particular, a noblewoman or an ancient queen, got closer with each flash. He was certain the ancient spirit wasn’t moving. The ghost’s eyes glowed a bright silver, locked on him. He forced himself to lay back, to close his eyes and listen to the sounds of Rale and Xin talking in low voices.
You are not what you seem to be. The voice, hollow and wispy echoed inside his skull. His eyes shot open and saw the ghost floating above his feet. An unearthly wind blew her hair. Her face one minute was narrow, gaunt, with a timeless beauty to her, the next nothing more than a skull. These halls are not for you, Nekarian.
“Hey Tier, where do we go from here?” Rale asked from his sleeping bedroll.
“Hmm?” Tier blinked several times looking over at him. The ghost drifted between them.
“You were insistent on coming here, to Dhaul, now where to?”
“I’m not sure.” Tier shrugged, meeting the gaze of the ghost. “Seeress specified here but gave no suggestions about where we should go after here.”
The haunt stared at him, lips pursed. For a moment, in the flickering lightning he thought a twitch of a smile tugged at her ghostly lips. Then she was gone.
He stared towards the back wall, letting the icy tingles fade away. In the lightning strikes he realized there was a painting on the wall above the old dais. He half sat up frowning, waiting for the next lighting to strike.
“What is it?” Rale asked.
“There’s something painted on that wall.”
“It’s a mural.” Xin said. He looked over at her. She sat cross-legged, her hair down and over one shoulder. “In the light, when there aren’t storms you can get a better view.” She braided her hair quickly and then sat staring at the fireplace. Rale harrumphed and rolled over.
“Gotta sleep.” he muttered.
Tier laid back down half closing his eyes. They were in an unknown place, possibly dangerous. He would doze, but not be fully asleep. Years of training, habit and experience wouldn’t let him. Either way, when he dozed he dreamed; odd, disturbing dreams of both the Seeress and Xin.
When he woke, his heart was pounding loudly in his ears and he felt as if something had made a loud sound. He stared towards the doorway, listening to the rain pouring down outside. It took time before his body had unclenched enough for him to roll over to his other side. Xin was facing him, her eyelashes dark against her pale cheek. Tier bit back a curse and sat up staring into the darkness. The ghosts were gone, except for the queen hovering near the stairs.
He glanced back down at Xin and then to Rale, neither one had moved. He stood and carefully took the torch from its holder and crept over to the regal looking ghost. She smiled, half beauty half skull, turned and drifted up the stairs. He took one last glance towards Xin and Rale before following her up the old wide steps. She led him through the upper levels of the palace, down long ago forgotten passages finally ending up in what was once a wine cellar. She stopped over a black patch on the floor, staring at him.
What is it you seek here? Her voice echoed hollowly in his mind. He felt the presence of other spirits gathering in the room. Many, far more than he could actually see. The air grew chilled and he had to grit his teeth to keep them from chattering.
“Information.” He gritted out. A murmur went through the room, a ghostly whisper tinged with mockery. They didn’t believe him.
Liar. You seek other Elementals.
“Why ask me if you knew already?”
No elementals, besides your water girl, have come here in years. Perhaps they’re all dead.
“Perhaps they are just hiding. Where did the other old fortresses stand? Dhaul is the last I know of.”
The specter became harder even for him to see. Then she was gone. Tier swore under his breath. All the other spirits departed with a howl.
“Just like a ghost. Afraid.” The air in the room went chilly but the Queen did not reappear. Tier stared at the blackened spot on the floor. He looked around the room. Empty except for bits of blackened char and rocks.
There was a great battle here. The queen’s voice echoed in his mind again. For a moment he could hear the sounds of swords clashing, men yelling, the groans and screams of the dying and the relentless and endless clang of two great swords. Briefly he saw the two, fighting over the blackened flagstone.
No one remembers who they were, only that they hated each other, they fought each other and they killed each other right here.
Tier squinted and knelt beside the blackened stone, running his hand over the scorched block. There was a crack. He debated and pulled his belt knife out using it to slide between the flagstones and carefully pry it up. There was a large cache beneath the flagstone with a single small wooden chest. Tire lifted it, and felt a tingling, a release of an ancient ward.
The chest was simple, a basic latch with no lock kept it closed. Dark stains covered the lid and Tier was certain it was blood that had leaked down through the cracks. He replaced the flagstone and stood, finding himself face to face with the queen.
These are the only records left of that time. The queen moved through him and led him back up to the corridor at the top of the stairs. Be careful with them.
The next chapter will be posted Thurs, June 26th.
If you’re enjoying it, please share, spread the word, I’d appreciate it.
Want more to read? Check out J.A. Marlow’s Summer Crash serial!
Thanks for reading.
(c) 2014 Necia Phoenix