The Runic Series - Book 4 Preview

 

Prologue

  

The streets of Osa were packed with carriages leaving the city, commuters returning to the surrounding towns after a long day’s work. Children walked in long lines down the sun-baked white stone sidewalks, dressed in colorful shirts and shorts, most of them wearing sandals or no shoes at all. Tessa walked among them, glancing behind herself on occasion, peering through the crowd.

Where is he?

Darren must’ve gotten out of school a little later than her, she supposed. Probably talking to his friends, or maybe that dumb girl he was obsessed with. Ever since he’d turned twelve, her brother had become preoccupied with girls. Overly-preoccupied, if you asked Tessa. It was weird; he’d never even cared about them before. She wished that he was more interested in spending time with her, like he used to be. Dad had warned her this would happen at some point, but she hadn’t believed him.

Of course Dad had been right, as usual.

She sighed, turning to face forward again, her arms burning a bit from carrying all her books. While most of her friends hated books, she loved them. She read all the time, especially since her brother had started ignoring her. Either that, or she played at her friends’ houses. It wasn’t like she could hang out with her friends at her house, after all.

She stared at her feet as she walked, wishing her brother were by her side. He knew she didn’t like to go home alone.

She glanced up, spotting her house ahead. Someone bumped her from behind, and she startled, realizing she’d slowed down. Tessa moved to the side, onto the short grass of her neighbor’s lawn, which prickled her bare feet. She stared at her house; it was the biggest house on Zucker street, which had the biggest houses in Osa. Dad was an important person, and as far as Tessa could tell, important people had bigger houses. Which meant that Dad was the most important person in Osa, besides the governor of course. Her house was by the beach, which was what really mattered. Tessa didn’t care about having a big house, but being on the beach was awesome.

The other children walked by her as she stood on the lawn, and she watched them go, hoping to see her brother. But he wasn’t there. She glanced at her house again, picking at her lower lip.

Come on, Darren!

She waited until all of the other kids had passed, the sidewalks now deserted. A few carriages still came down the road, pulled by big horses, their hooves clopping on the cobblestones. She watched them pass, her guts squirming. She glanced at her house again, knowing full well that she couldn’t wait much longer. She’d have to go in alone.

She took a deep breath in, then stepped back onto the sidewalk, trudging toward her front door. Up the front steps to the porch she went, then twisted the doorknob, opening it and stepping through.

A large foyer greeted her, high ceilings painted white, a grand staircase leading up to the second floor. Walls with colorful murals painted on them, and a beautiful, dark wooden floor polished to a mirror-shine.

Tessa stepped into the foyer, then felt a sharp pain in her heel. She jerked it back, seeing blood welling up there, a small piece of glass sticking out of it. There was broken glass all over the floor, she realized, along with the unmistakable – and familiar – smell of alcohol.

Her books fell to the floor with a thud.

“Tessa?” she heard a voice yell. A woman stumbled into view, staring at Tessa. A woman with light brown skin, her eyes red and bleary, her wavy hair a mess atop her head. She glared at Tessa. “What’re you standing there for?” she slurred. “Close the damn door!”

Tessa obeyed instantly, shutting the door behind her, then pressing her back against it. She stood there, a small puddle of blood forming around her right heel, glass still embedded in it.

“What’s this?” her mother demanded, gesturing at the broken glass. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t…” Tessa began, but her mother held up one hand, standing before the mess, swaying slightly.

“Don’t even,” she warned. “Wait until your father…”

The door opened suddenly, shoving Tessa forward. She stumbled, stepping onto another piece of glass. She cried out, hopping to the side on one foot, then falling onto her butt on the floor. Blood poured from her feet, and she stared at them in horror.

She started to cry.

“Mom?” she heard a voice say. She glanced up, seeing Darren standing there. He was nearly as tall as Mom was, with short black hair and deep brown eyes. He stared at the glass on the floor, then at Mom..

“Close the damn door!” Mom shouted.

Darren ignored her, turning and spotting Tessa sitting there. She stared back at him mutely, her vision blurring with tears.

“Look at what your sister did!” Mom exclaimed, gesturing at the floor. Darren turned on Mom, his expression furious.

“You mean look at what you did,” he shot back.

“Don’t you talk to me like…”

“Shut up, Mom,” Darren retorted. He stepped carefully over the glass, reaching for Tessa. Tessa grabbed his hand, but shook her head when he tried to pull her onto her feet.

“My feet,” she whimpered. Darren looked down, seeing the blood all over the floor. All over her feet. He turned to Mom, balling his hands into fists.

“Look at what you did!” he shouted, pointing at Tessa’s feet.

“What I did?” Mom retorted, her voice rising. “You dare…”

“Go to hell, Mom,” Darren interrupted. He turned to Tessa, reaching down and sliding one hand under her knees, the other under her back. He lifted her off the floor, using one hand to open the door.

“Don’t you walk out on me!” Mom shouted.

Darren ignored her, stepping out onto the porch, then stepping down the stairs. He walked across the short path to the sidewalk, carrying Tessa in his arms. She looked up at him, wiping her tears away with one hand.

“Sorry sis,” he mumbled.

Tessa nodded mutely, glancing over his shoulder. The front door was still open, and she could hear her mother screaming through it. A bottle hurtled through one of the windows, shattering it, then landing on the grass beyond.

“It’s okay,” Darren murmured, smiling down at her. It was forced, she knew, but she appreciated him trying. “Dad’ll be home soon.”

He took her a ways down the sidewalk, then turned right again, down a narrow path. It led to the backyard…to the white sand beach. And the ocean. She smelled the tang of saltwater in the air, a slight breeze cooling her sun-baked skin. She turned to look across the sand, blindingly bright with reflected sunlight, watching as wave after wave crashed upon the shore.

Darren walked all the way to the shore, then stepped into the water, waves lapping at his sandals. He lowered her gently, so that she sat on the dry sand, her feet dipping into the water. A wave rushed toward her, bathing her feet, then taking her blood back with it into the endless blue.

“Let’s take a look,” her brother said, crouching down and peering at her feet. He glanced up at her. “I’m gonna pull it out, okay?”

She nodded, taking a breath in, then holding it.

Darren grabbed one of the pieces of glass, then pulled, and she bit back a yell, watching as blood gushed from her foot into the water.

“That’s one,” he said. “One more, okay?”

He pulled out the piece of glass from her other foot, and this time it hurt…a lot. She cried out, yanking her foot back. But the deed was done, and Darren tossed the piece of glass into the ocean before she could get a look at it. He rinsed the blood from his fingers, then smiled at her.

“All done.”

“Thanks,” she mumbled.

He crouched there, looking at her, his smile fading.

“I’m really sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Tessa insisted, forcing herself to smile. “Really.”

“No it’s not,” he retorted. “I shouldn’t’ve been late.”

“I could’ve waited for you,” she countered.

“Tessa…”

She heard shouting in the distance, and looked over her shoulder, spotting her backyard, and her house in the distance. The shouting grew louder, followed by a scream.

“Dad’s home,” Darren guessed.

Tessa nodded, turning back to gaze at the ocean. The waves lapped at her feet gently, the water warm and gentle. Her feet stung where it touched her wounds, but she didn’t mind. The water was cleansing. She closed her eyes, feeling the breeze on her skin, hearing the endless crashing of the waves, the hiss of foam on the sand.

“Do you really think he’ll leave her?” she asked, keeping her eyes closed. Even asking the question made her guts squirm.

“After this?” Darren asked. There was a long pause. “Yeah.”

Tessa opened her eyes, staring at him.

“What’s going to happen to us?”

Darren smiled, coming around to sit beside her. He wrapped an arm around her, pulling her to lean her head against his shoulder.

“Dad’ll get us,” he answered. “Everyone knows about Mom now.”

“What if he doesn’t?” Tessa pressed, picking at her lip.

“He will,” Darren promised, giving her a squeeze. “I promise.”

“Yeah, but what if he doesn’t?” she insisted. “What if they split us up?”

“No way,” he replied. “Not gonna happen.”

“Yeah, but…”

“Look at me,” Darren interjected. She lifted her head from his shoulder, staring at him.

“I won’t let it happen,” Darren interjected firmly, his expression dead serious. “Dad won’t let it happen.”

Tessa lowered her gaze, tears welling up in her eyes.

“You don’t know that,” she mumbled.

“Tessa,” Darren insisted, grabbing the sides of her head gently, lifting her gaze to his. He leaned in, kissing her forehead, then pulling away. “I promise you, I will never let them separate us.”

“You promise?”

“I promise,” he repeated. “I’ll always be here for you, sis. Always.”

She dared to smile, ignoring the shouting in the distance. The waves drowned out the sound anyway, cleansing the air as they’d cleansed her foot. The ocean always made things better.

They sat there for a long while, neither of them speaking. Tessa watched wave after wave advance, kissing her toes before retreating back into the sea. The sun felt marvelous on her bronze skin, her long wavy hair blowing in the ocean breeze.

“Love you Darren,” she murmured. She felt him stir, and give her a squeeze.

“Love you too sis.”

Tessa heard someone calling her name, and fear gripped her. She twisted around, spotting a man trudging through the sand toward them. She immediately relaxed, standing up and limping toward him.

“Daddy!” she cried. She limped up to him, leaving bloody footprints on the white sand.

“Tessa!” Dad exclaimed, rushing up to her and bending over to look at her. He was a big man, tall and broad-shouldered, and impressively muscular. “What happened?” he asked. “Are you okay?”

 “I cut my feet,” she answered. He took one foot at a time, peering at her wounds. His expression darkened.

“On the glass,” he stated. It wasn’t a question. She nodded. His jawline rippled, and he scooped her up in his arms, bringing her back to the waves lapping at the sandy beach. He lowered her gently into the water, rinsing the sand from her wounds, then turned back toward the house. “Come on,” he urged Darren.

“No,” Tessa blurted out, clutching him tightly. “I don’t wanna go back inside.”

Dad hesitated, then turned toward the street instead of the house. He walked back to the sidewalk, stopping before the street. To Tessa’s surprise, the streets were packed with people - kids and adults - all of them looking upward.

Tessa looked up, following their gaze, and saw a dozen large black objects floating high in the sky, just below the clouds. They descended slowly, spreading over the city.

“Dad, look!” Darren shouted.

“I see them,” Dad replied tersely. He grimaced, glancing down at Darren. “Come on,” he added.

“But I don’t want to.”

“You don’t have a choice,” Dad retorted. “You have to come.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t argue with me,” Dad interjected. Darren stared up at his father, his face paling. But he stood his ground.

“We could go back inside,” he insisted. “We can hide from…”

“No one can hide from them,” Dad snapped. Darren’s mouth snapped shut, his eyes turning moist. Dad’s expression softened. “It’ll be fine,” he added. “Nothing bad is going to happen.”

“But last year…” Darren protested.

“I know what happened to Elan,” Dad interjected. “But it’s not going to happen to us.”

Darren hesitated, then nodded, and they joined the others on the street, watching as the black objects continued to descend toward the city. One of them, Tessa realized, was falling toward them. As it got closer, it was clear that it was a black, oval-shaped ship. Four men in black robes levitated around it, holding long staves with white crystals on top.

The crowd parted as the ship lowered itself toward the street a few dozen yards ahead. The ship slowed its descent as it reached street-level, stopping to levitate a few feet above it. Then black-robed men surrounding it eyed the crowd, their expressions flat.

“Come on,” Dad urged, walking forward through the crowd, squeezing past the people ahead of them. Tessa saw other parents doing the same, squeezing past the adults with their children, making their way closer to the ships and the robed men. A ring of parents and their children began to form a few yards away from the ship.

More than a few of the children were crying…and some of the adults, too. Tessa pulled on her father’s shirt.

“Daddy?” she said. He looked down, smiling at her. But only with his lips.

“It’ll be okay,” he tried to reassure her. But she knew he was telling himself that as much as he was telling her.

The black-robed men strode forward, forming a line in front of the big black ship. One of them came forward; he did not walk, however. His black boots hovered over the ground as he levitated forward a few few ahead of the others, then stopped. He stared at the crowd for a moment longer, then slammed the butt of his staff onto the street.

A gust of air shot out from him, whipping through Tessa’s hair and clothes. She clung to her father tightly, her guts squirming.

“I am Finder Warren,” the black-robed man declared. He had a book in his other hand, and held this out before him, letting go of it. The book levitated in mid-air, the pages turning of their own accord, then stopping suddenly.

“As your name is called,” Warren declared, “…come forward. If I call a name and no one comes forward,” he added, “…we will find you, and the punishment will be severe. If you come forward for someone else, we will know, and the punishment will be severe.”

Tessa glanced at Darren, then at Dad. They were both staring at Finder Warren. Tessa clung to Dad, wondering what was going to happen next. She’d never been to one of these before, although all the kids talked about it. Dad had always insisted that she and Darren stay in the house every year it happened.

But this year was different, of course.

“Balister of forty-six Abaxter Street,” Finder Warren stated, his voice booming over the crowd. Moments later, a boy came forward, and Warren gestured at the robed man to his right. Balister stepped before him, staring up at the man silently. His eyes were as wide as saucers, his face pale.

“Touch the orb,” the man commanded.

Balister hesitated, then placed his hand on top of the orb.

The black-robed man paused, then shook his head.

“You may go,” he stated. Balister practically ran back to his family, vanishing into the crowd.

“Valerie of forty-nine Abaxter street, Grennan of fifty-four Abaxter street,” Finder Warren called out. An older girl and boy walked up, and Warren gestured for each to stop before one of the other robed men. They touched the orbs hovering before them. Moments later, the robed men gestured for them to go back into the crowd.

Finder Warren called out more names, and each time two children would come up, touch the orbs, and be asked to leave. Most stayed in the crowd however, watching each pair of children as they were called, all eyes on the two black-robed men…and their orbs. Tessa realized that Finder Warren was calling them by street, from A to Z. Which meant that their street was going to go last. That meant they’d have to be out here for a good while longer. She didn’t mind, of course…not with Mom still home.

As the minutes passed, the crowd began to dwindle, people gradually losing interest in the endless parade of children sent away by the cloaked men. Tessa’s mind wandered, already planning what she’d be doing after this. Mom was probably already asleep, so she could get a snack, and spend the rest of the day…

“Darren of 34 Zucker Street.”

Tessa snapped out of her daydream, glancing down at Darren, who’d stiffened. He turned to look up at Dad questioningly, and Tessa did as well. Dad nodded at Darren, smiling reassuringly.

“Go on,” he prompted. “We’ll have ice cream when we get home.”

Darren smiled, then glanced at Tessa, who was suddenly nervous.

“Don’t go,” she urged.

“Don’t worry sis,” he reassured her. “This’ll only take a sec.”

He walked up to Finder Warren then, who gestured for him to go to the cloaked man on his left. The clear orb levitated between them, and Darren hesitated, glancing back at Tessa and Dad. Then he put his hand on top of the orb, holding it there.

Nothing happened.

Darren smiled, and was about to take his hand off when the orb changed, turning a slight yellow. He stared at it, then looked up at the cloaked man, the blood draining from his face.

Finder Warren grabbed the book floating before him, shutting it was a loud snap. Darren flinched, taking a step backward. His hand slipped off the orb, and it shifted back to clear once again.

“Come,” Finder Warren ordered, putting the book back into the recesses of his cloack, then gesturing at the ship. A door swung down from it, forming a ramp that led inside.

Darren shook his head mutely, taking another step back. Finder Warren gestured at the ship again.

“I won’t ask you again,” he warned.

Darren bolted.

“Darren!” Tessa cried, watching as her brother sprinted toward them. She felt her Dad’s arms tighten around her, and he burst forward, pushing through the crowd toward Darren. He ran up to him, then stopped suddenly, as if hitting a wall. Darren did as well, ricocheting off an invisible barrier between them. Darren recovered, leaping at Dad. But the invisible wall stopped him.

“Dad!” he shouted, his eyes wide with fear. “Daddy!”

Finder Warren lifted a hand, and Darren lurched upward suddenly, levitating a foot off the ground. He began floating backward toward the ship.

“No!” Dad yelled. “Don’t take him!”

Finder Warren stared at Dad for a moment, then turned his back to him, levitating back toward the ship. The other two cloaked men retrieved their orbs, placing them back within their cloaks. Darren continued to be pulled toward the open door of the ship. The air rippled slightly around him, under the strange power of the cloaked men.

“Dad!” Darren pleaded. “Make them stop! I don’t wanna go!”

“Darren!” Dad cried. “You can’t take my son. You can’t take my son!”

But Finder Warren ignored them, and Darren disappeared within the ship, the ramp swinging closed. The cloaked men resumed their positions around it, and the ship began to rise into the air.

“Darren!” Tessa screamed, struggling out of her Dad’s grip and jumping to the ground. She ignored the pain in her feet, bursting forward. The invisible wall was gone, and she ran toward the rising ship, her soles leaving bloody footprints on the street. “Darren!”

The black ship flew upward, rising faster and faster, higher than the tallest building in Osa now. Tessa stopped, staring up at it, watching as it shrank against the pure blue sky. Watching until it was so small she couldn’t see it anymore.

And then her legs wobbled, and she fell to her hands and knees. She lowered her forehead to the sun-baked street, and wept.

 

 

Chapter 1


 

“Try again," Ariana urged.

Kyle sighed, pushing himself up from the ground, then standing up. He brushed dirt and grass from the front of his white shirt and pants, grimacing at the stains he'd just acquired. There was a reason Runic students wore white; it was because they stayed indoors, doing research and inventing things like civilized people, instead of going outside trying to blast each other to pieces.

"All right, all right," Kyle muttered. He faced Ariana, taking a few steps back, then nodded. Ariana smiled at him, running a hand through her long black hair. Her skin was terribly pale in the light of the noon sun, but that was hardly surprising. She wasn't technically alive, after all...she was undead, kept animated only through the hidden magical green crystal buried in her brain. Only a handful of people knew about Ariana's true nature; everyone else assumed she was just another lovely young woman. Which she was, mostly. Sure, her skin was as pale and cold as a corpse's. And she was immortal, and possessed of enormous strength and incredibly sharp senses, and never ate or slept. But other than that, she was perfectly normal...and the best, most loyal girlfriend he could ask for.

"Remember your shield," Ariana reminded him. Kyle nodded, focusing inward. He felt power there, vibrating in the bones of his skull, and pulled it inward to the center of his mind's eye. It formed a thin thread of magic, and he wove it into a tight knot, then sent it outward. A faint blue sphere appeared around him. It was a gravity shield, capable of repelling just about anything that was thrown at it.

“Ready,” Kyle called out.

"Neutralize my shield first," Ariana instructed. A single gravity shield appeared around her, its outline a faint blue to Kyle's eyes. To anyone else's eye, the shield would be nearly invisible, marked only by a faint distortion of light, but Kyle was capable of seeing magic...a trait he'd inherited from his god-like grandfather.

"Okay," Kyle replied. He studied Ariana's shield; it was actually two gravity spheres, the outer one shoving outward, the inner one pushing inward. In order to neutralize her shields, he had to create a shield of exactly the same strength around her, but in opposite directions. So the outer layer had to suck inward, the inner layer push outward. That would completely nullify the shield, making her vulnerable to his attack.

In theory.

Kyle wove the appropriate patterns in his mind, pulling the magic from the edges of his mind's eye and shaping them. Then he sent them out at Ariana's shields, streaming magic to the pattern. He saw the blue sphere around her darken slightly.

"I think I got it," Kyle stated, not at all sure that he had.

"Now let's spar," Ariana replied.

"Are you sure this is safe?" he asked nervously. The green crystal in Ariana's skull – shoved through her forehead, hidden beneath her flawless skin – had magical defenses automatically programmed into it. Her Weaving teacher, Master Owens, had nearly died trying to spar her.

"I can suppress my shard's reactions," Ariana answered. "I've been practicing it for the last week." Which meant, of course, that she'd been practicing every night, while everyone else slept. Not being able to sleep had its perks.

"All right," Kyle replied. He nodded at her, creating a gravity shield around himself. "Ready?" Ariana smirked.

"You're about to find out."

Kyle smiled despite himself, then took a deep breath in, letting it out slowly, and nodded at her. He felt his heart start to pound in his chest, butterflies flitting about in his stomach.

Here goes...

A fireball shot out from Ariana, flying through the air right at him!

Kyle jerked to the left out of the way, magic automatically weaving in his mind's eye, creating a gravity sphere to the left of the fireball. The fireball clipped the gravity sphere, sucking leftward...and directing it right into his shields. The fireball bounced off, landing on the grass below.

"Oops," Kyle blurted out.

"Silly," Ariana said, grinning widely. A stream of water appeared over the burning grass, extinguishing the flames. "Try again."

"Okay," Kyle replied. He sighed, then nodded. Another fireball shot out toward him with unnerving speed, and this time he dodged left, creating a gravity sphere to the right of the projectile. The fireball swerved rightward toward the sphere...and away from him.

"Ha!" Kyle exclaimed triumpantly.

Then he saw his shields vanish, and a force sucked him rightward, pulling him right into the path of the fireball. The projectile stopped in mid-flight right before hitting him, and he stumbled to the ground.

Again.

"Damn," Kyle muttered. He picked himself up off of the ground, shaking his head at Ariana. She laughed, walking up to him and giving him a quick peck on the cheek. He tried to glare at her, but found it impossible to do so. Just looking at her made him melt.

"Don't rely too much on your shields," she counseled. "Remember that they can be taken away from you."

"Yeah yeah," Kyle mumbled. While he knew how she'd nullified his shields – by creating gravity fields of equal strength but opposite polarity to his own – he hadn't even come close to perfecting the technique.

"Don't worry," Ariana soothed. "Practice enough and it'll become second nature."

Easy for you to say, Kyle thought, wisely keeping it to himself. After all, Ariana had an extra eight hours a day while everyone else slept. Not to mention the time saved by not having to eat or drink, or rest. Ariana never got tired...unless she ran out of magic.

"Had enough?" Ariana asked.

"Yeah," Kyle admitted. "It's been a long day." And that it had; he'd been up since sunrise receiving lessons from Master Lee, his Runic instructor. He'd only finished later this afternoon...and then met up with Ariana to learn weaving. As a Runic, Kyle was destined to learn how to create magical items called runics, while Weavers learned how to use magic to fly, throw fireballs, and do other flashy, heroic things. Kyle had accepted his role as a Runic, for the most part. He still felt jealous of Ariana's abilities from time to time. That's why she'd agreed to teach him weaving, in secret.

"What did you learn from Master Lee today?" Ariana asked.

"A lot," Kyle admitted. "Nothing exciting," he added ruefully. "Mostly just about different minerals and stuff."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, different minerals interact with magic in different ways," Kyle answered. "I'm supposed to memorize a whole bunch of them by tomorrow." He walked toward a small book he'd set on the grass, picking it up. It was, he knew, a book for young children, with more pictures than words. He was still practically illiterate here on Doma, the language being completely different than English back home. If it weren't for the magical earring in his right ear, he wouldn't be able to understand a word of what Ariana was telling him.

"Good luck," Ariana offered.

"Thanks," Kyle muttered. He glanced up at the sky then. "It's getting dark," he added. The sun had already kissed the horizon, the few clouds above turning a brilliant pink-purple.

"Oh, right," Ariana replied, her face lighting up. "We're having dinner with Kalibar tonight!" She grabbed Kyle's hand, steering him back toward the Great Tower in the distance. Fourty-two stories tall, with a huge crystalline pyramid at its peak, the Great Tower was the tallest building in the city of Stridon – and the home of the highest government officials in the land. That included Grand Weaver Kalibar, the co-emperor of the Empire...and Kyle and Ariana's adoptive father. Even though Kyle's real father and stepfather were back on Earth, Kalibar was Kyle's father in this world.

"I'm glad he's back," Kyle stated, smiling back at Ariana. Kalibar had taken a much-needed vacation after Sabin's defeat, bringing Petra to his mansion in Bellingham and showing her around. They'd returned yesterday for the celebratory parade, but Kalibar had been so busy with that, he hadn't been able to spend any time with Kyle and Ariana. Tonight was the first time they'd get to spend time together in nearly a week.

"Me too," Ariana agreed. She went faster, nearly sprinting from the grass onto the cobblestone path that led back to the Tower. Kyle struggled to keep up; not only did Ariana never get sleepy, her muscles never tired either. She could walk, or run, at a brisk pace indefinitely. A fact that she sometimes forgot.

"Hey, slow down," Kyle protested. Ariana did so, and they walked hand-in-hand, the Tower growing nearer with every step. Kyle glanced at Ariana, remarking on how happy she seemed. Seeing her smile had been rare before Ampir had killed Sabin; now she smiled all the time. It made her all the more lovely when she did so.

They walked in silence then, reaching the huge open double-doors of the Tower and stepping inside the lobby beyond. Three stories tall, the lobby was magnificent beyond description, with polished granite floors and stone columns that rose to the ceiling far above. Powerful gravity fields allowed people to walk upside-down on the ceiling – as they could on almost every floor of the Tower. In the center of the lobby was a tall statue of a Battle-Weaver, standing atop a solid gold pedestal. They walked past this, continuing on to the long hallway beyond. Eventually, they reached the riser at the end, and stepped onto it. A magical elevator of sorts, the riser brought them upward with remarkable speed, slowing abruptly at the 41st floor. They stepped off, continuing down another hallway until they reached the door of Kalibar's retirement suite. Ariana knocked on the door, and within moments the door became translucent. Kyle saw a stern man clad in black plate armor staring down at him from the other side. The man was an elite guard, one of Kalibar's personal bodyguards. Only the most skilled of the Battle-Weavers earned the right to wear that black armor. The guard's expression softened as soon as he recognized Kyle and Ariana.

The door became opaque again, and then it swung inward. The guard ushered Kyle and Ariana through into the massive suite beyond. There, sitting around a long table, were Kalibar, Erasmus, and Petra. Kyle broke into a huge grin.

“Kalibar!” he exclaimed, rushing up to the table. Kalibar turned to Kyle, then smiled broadly, rising from his chair and walking forward to embrace Kyle, then Ariana.

“Kyle, Ariana!” Kalibar greeted. He stood back from his adopted children then, his brown eyes twinkling. Despite his sixty-odd years, Kalibar appeared much younger, his tall frame toned and muscular. His white hair – completely shaved off a week ago – was starting to grow back in, as was his white goatee. He was quite handsome, the very picture of a regal emperor.

“How was your vacation?” Ariana asked. Kalibar gestured for the two to sit opposite himself and Petra, and they did so.

“Very relaxing,” Kalibar replied. “I spent a day in Bellingham, and then took Petra on a flying tour of the Empire.”

Kyle glanced at Petra, feeling his cheeks flush as he did so. A member of the Barrens tribes, she was somewhat shorter than Kalibar, but equally toned, her skin nearly black. Tattoos covered almost every inch of her body, coming up the sides of her neck and ending at her temples. Thin, raised scars extended from the sides of her neck to her temples like the bones in a bat's wing. Her hair was black, and as usual was tied back into a ponytail. She wore a white shirt that would have been loose on just about anyone else, but given her impressively feminine proportions, found itself barely adequate to its task. Kyle found himself staring, and jerked his gaze away, feeling his cheeks grow even hotter.

"What did you think of it?" Ariana asked Petra, rather pointedly ignoring Kyle's consternation.

"It was...big," Petra replied.

"I assume you're referring to the mansion and the Empire," Erasmus said with a grin, nudging Kalibar with his elbow.

"You didn't invite your wife to dinner," Petra observed, ignoring Erasmus's comment. Erasmus cleared his throat.

"Yes, well," he replied. "She doesn't like to come when I'm with Kalibar, on account of how much I drink."

"You could drink less," Petra quipped.

"You haven't met my wife," Erasmus shot back.

Just then, the door opened, and a tall man clad neck to toe in shimmering golden armor strode into the room, stopping before the table.

"Darius," Kalibar greeted. "Come, join us for dinner."

Darius nodded, glancing at Kyle as he sat down next to Erasmus. The portly Grand Runic shot the bodyguard a sour look. He'd never taken a liking to Darius, almost certainly because the bodyguard was a bit of a jerk. Erasmus took great pleasure in trying to insult the man, although that pleasure was always short-lived. Darius never lost their battle of words...or any other battle, for that matter.

"Ah, damn," Erasmus muttered. "I just lost my appetite."

"Probably for the best," Darius retorted, eyeing Erasmus's protuberant belly.

"I'll fetch Jenkins," Kalibar stated, ignoring the exchange. He put a hand on a crystal sphere sitting on an end-table next to where he sat, and within moments, a man wearing a blue shirt and black pants entered the room. It was Jenkins, Kalibar's loyal butler. Jenkins took everyone's orders with his customary quiet efficiency, then left the suite as quickly as he'd come.

"So," Erasmus stated, leaning forward and rubbing his hands together eagerly, his eyes on Kalibar. "Now that you're back, what's next?"

"I've been thinking about that all week," Kalibar admitted. "With Sabin gone, the Empire is relatively safe...but we still have all of the Death Weaver camps to deal with." Kyle nodded; even though Ampir had killed every last one of Sabin's Chosen, there were still countless underground lairs filled with thousands upon thousands of Death Weavers to consider.

"I'm not too worried about them threatening the Empire," Erasmus replied. "But they might stir up trouble in the surrounding towns."

"We also have to finish rebuilding Stridon," Kalibar stated. Nearly a quarter of the city had been destroyed by the Void Behemoth a couple of weeks ago. Erasmus's Runics had worked day and night to rebuild, their remarkable efforts having inspired many talented students in the Secula Magna to consider becoming Runics instead of Weavers.

"Well under way," Erasmus declared proudly. "The Southwest Quarter is going to be the most technologically advanced in the whole city when my Runics are done with it!"

"I don't doubt it," Kalibar agreed. While Kalibar's strength lay in strategy and warfare, Erasmus was remarkably gifted when it came to developing systems and infrastructure. As co-emperors of the most powerful country in the world, they made a formidable team.

Jenkins returned, followed by one of his assistants, and soon the table was filled to overflowing with silver platters and bottles of wine.  Jenkins removed the lids from each platter, revealing Kyle's favorite dish – roasted duck. From then on, there was only the sound of smacking lips as everyone devoured their meal. The food, as always, was fit for a king...or in this case, two. When everyone had finished – which didn't take very long – Jenkins returned to whisk away the remains. Kyle noted that Petra's plate was still half-filled; she ate modestly, no doubt her secret to maintaining her remarkable figure. Ariana, of course, ate nothing at all.

"How is the political climate in the Council?" Kalibar asked Erasmus, leaning back in his chair and sipping on his wine.

"They haven't turned on us yet," Erasmus answered. "We're about as popular as we're going to get." He leaned forward eagerly. "I say we take advantage of it and push as much legislation as we can."

"Within reason," Kalibar agreed. "We don't want to alienate anyone by appearing to take advantage of them."

"Like they wouldn't do the same," Erasmus scoffed. "Bastards'll turn on us first chance they get!" But he sighed, leaning back and sipping his own wine. True to form, he was already on his third glass. Kyle caught Petra eyeing the portly Grand Runic disapprovingly. She'd barely touched her own wine; apparently she wasn't much of a drinker.

"We'll enjoy their support as long as we can," Kalibar stated. Then he shook his head. "Ah, look at me, carrying on about work." He turned to Ariana. "How have you been, Ariana?"

"Good," Ariana replied. "I've been training every day with Master Owens. I'm learning a lot."

"I don't doubt it," Kalibar replied. He knew – as did just about everyone else – that Ariana had already far outmatched every Weaver student in her age range. Her daily sparring matches with Master Owens, the second best Battle-Weaver in the Empire, had honed her skills considerably. "And how have you been, Kyle?" he asked, turning to Kyle.

"Not bad," Kyle admitted. He'd been training nearly as intensely with Master Lee, Erasmus's mother. Lee was an extremely effective teacher, albeit far less pleasant than Owens. "I'm learning a lot too."

"I bet you are," Erasmus agreed, grinning from ear-to-ear. "Can you imagine what I had to go through growing up?" He raised his wine glass. "Now you know why I drink!"

"I thought it was because of your wife," Petra retorted with an arch of her eyebrow. Erasmus smirked at her.

"They say a man marries someone just like his mother," he shot back. Then he took a robust gulp of his wine.

"Yes, well," Kalibar interjected. "I'm glad you're both doing well," he stated, smiling at Kyle and Ariana. Then he turned to Erasmus. "And how are you doing, old friend?"

"Busy," the Grand Runic replied with a rueful grin. "Between running the damn Empire, working on your idea about magical vacuity, and discovering new patterns with the K-Array, I've barely had time to sleep!"

"How many new patterns have you found?" Kalibar inquired. Based on an idea Kyle had a few weeks ago, the K-Array allowed Runics and Weavers – for the first time in millennia – to discover new magical patterns from plants and such. It had revolutionized the study of magic throughout the Empire...and made Kyle quite popular among the academic elite of the Secula Magna. Kyle knew he hardly deserved all of the credit; after all, it had been Kalibar who'd fleshed out his idea and made it actually work.

"Four," Erasmus replied. "I still think the invisibility pattern is the best of them. I'll have one of my Runics send you a debriefing."

"Much appreciated," Kalibar replied. "Anything else new?"

"Well, yes," Erasmus answered, glancing at Petra. Kalibar raised an eyebrow.

"What is it?"

"Remember all those bodies we found the day you came back from Orja?" Erasmus asked. Kyle saw Kalibar nod. When they'd returned from killing Sabin, reports of nearly forty people dropping dead – at the same time – had come to the Council's attention. Then came the reports of hundreds more having dropped dead throughout the other cities and towns of the Empire...also at the same time.

"Well," Erasmus continued, "...the coroner's office finished the autopsy of the first body they'd found...a butler in the Tower. They found a hole in the front of his skull...and that the front of his brain had been vaporized."

"What?" Kalibar exclaimed.

"That's what I said," Erasmus replied. "Then the coroner started the other autopsies at the head, and found the same thing in every other body they found."

"Interesting," Kalibar murmured.

"Damn right it's interesting," Erasmus stated. "Autopsies on the other bodies found throughout the Empire showed the exact same findings. Nobody can make any sense out of it."

"I believe I can," Kalibar countered, leaning back in his chair and sighing. He glanced at Petra. "Remember the Chosen...the Immortals that nearly killed us when we were searching for Ariana in the Barrens?"

"I do," Petra replied.

"They dropped dead suddenly," Kalibar continued, "...with holes in their skulls where their shards had been."

"On the day Sabin was killed?" Erasmus asked.

"That's right."

"Well I'll be damned," Erasmus breathed, slumping back in his chair. Then his eyes widened, and he jerked forward. "Wait, that means..."

"Every one of the forty people found dead here in Stridon...and every one of the hundreds found elsewhere...were Sabin's hidden Chosen," Kalibar interjected.

"My god!" Erasmus blurted out. "You mean all this time we've had a few dozen Chosen living here, right under our noses?"

"Not anymore," Darius piped in with a smirk, taking a gulp of wine.

"Sabin's infiltration of the Empire was greater than anyone expected," Kalibar murmured. He shook his head. "We're lucky Ampir struck when he did."

"I agree," Erasmus replied. "And I for one plan on celebrating. A toast," he declared, raising his wine glass. "To peace throughout the Empire at last!"

With that, everyone raised their glasses – except for Ariana, of course – and took a generous gulp of their drinks. The conversation turned back to happier topics. Within another half-hour, everyone was ready for bed. Kyle retired to his room, washing up and flopping onto his bed. He rolled onto his side and closed his eyes, a smile on his lips. Kalibar and Petra were back, and the Empire was at peace. There was nothing more to fear, no Sabin threatening to kill them, no Chosen hiding among them waiting to strike.

Kyle gave a contented sigh. At long last, after months of terror, everything was finally going their way.