Heirs of Power- Prologue

Perpetual twilight filled the world. The only illumination was a grubby, reddish light given off by a fungus that was the only thing desperate enough to grow on such rocky terrain. It was getting worse. Devin ducked into the crumbling aperture that led to the meeting place of his father and the other Nine. It was no different inside to out- the same heat from the ever-increasing lava formations, the same sickly light: Tenebria was dying.

The Ten stood before him, strengthening their devotees. The humans received their gifts with awe and thanks, then departed back to their own world. They were ready to betray their homeland for a taste of power… it was sickening, but it served the cause. The Ten returned to their high-backed thrones. They were set in a circle that faced inward so whoever they were speaking to had to constantly turn to address all of them.

Another human closed the portal that the devoted had returned through and placed the golden Urn on a pedestal before The Ten. This servant was twisted beyond recognition- too much exposure to Tenebri magic. More magic than Devin had ever received from The Ten. He fell on his knees before them and they motioned for him to speak.

“Great Ones, I’ve heard that once again we are setting plans into motion to claim the world that is rightfully ours. I beg you to give me a purpose. It has been many years since I have crossed to New Tenebria to fight our war. In my youth I recruited the devoted, I furthered our plans, I even killed…”

“We are aware of your works, Devin,” Hereth, First of The Ten, cut in.

“You must trust that what we are doing is for the best,” Phiskelle added, gazing patronisingly down at him from her throne. “In this case we believe that Kaphira is most suited to the task.”

“With the utmost respect, Great One, you say that because she is your daughter.”

“As you are my son,” Virender said from behind him. “This decision was made by us all.”

The shame and anger was overwhelming, but the scrutiny of the ten most powerful beings in the world caused Devin to remain humble.

“Yes, Great Ones. Then I beg your leave.” Ever the image of obedience, he left the second they acknowledged his request.

Devin made his way back outside, attempting to force some of his external calm into the inner turmoil that grieved him. He had always been loyal- a model Tenebri- but as time went on he felt increasingly forced out of the inner workings of the saving of his people. He knew there was plenty to do here in this world, he just felt drawn across the barrier to do…something, anything.

“Devin,” his father had followed him from the meeting chamber.

“Great One,” he intoned, bowing before the imposing figure.

“You would do well not to question our decisions, this only makes the others feel that you are not suited to follow their orders,” Virender said with a sigh.

“You are right, of course… but- Kaphira? She is not more suited to lead our devoted, at least not in her actions. I admit she has had an advantage with the gifts she has been given…” Devin growled.

“Ever you question your betters.” Devin couldn’t tell if his father was more angry or disappointed. “You think that your lack of exposure to my magic puts you at some sort of disadvantage? Yet, in truth, it is a blessing. Every human we gift with our power looks less human each time…”

“I am no human,” Devin almost sobbed. “I am your own.”

“You are more Tenebri than the majority of humans, it is true,” Virender said. “But you would be changed.”

“Kaphira is gifted, she is changed. This has made her excellent in the opinion of The Ten. Why do you not allow me to look like my true kind? To have these abilities?”

“Kaphira is a maul.  She hits hard and does this well, but no-one cares for what it looks like. You see it coming and dodge it with ease. You, my son, are the nondescript knife that ends up in your jugular when you least expect it. When the time is right, you will ghost across New Tenebria wearing the face of those that oppose us. Then you will kill them wherever they have a sense of security. It is in this way that you will serve our people.”

The feeling of relief was tangible; Devin had his purpose and he would make The Ten proud.

“I was wrong to question The Great Ones, it will not happen again,” Devin assured. “I will obey.”

Heirs of Power- Chapter One

When you have driven away wolves, subdued bandits, and lived off the land for weeks at a time, you gain a kind of confidence which means that you can deal with whatever life throws at you. Apparently planning a wedding was much harder. Lists of things to do, endless trivial decisions and worst of all…

“Hey, how is all the planning going? You must be so excited!”

The constant questioning from people who rarely spoke to you under normal circumstances.

“It’s going great, thanks Lucy,” Kitty replied, forcing her best attempt at a genuine smile.

“If you need anything, I’ll be there,” the other girl said as she passed by.

Kitty looked at the handsome, stocky man next to her. She studied his short, dark hair and neatly trimmed beard, relished his closeness and the affection in his eyes as he returned her gaze. She knew it was all worth it. Only one season to go and she would be Luke’s wife. He just smiled and wrapped his arm around her waist, holding her against his solid body. It was the best he could manage considering that she was horrendously tall for a woman.

They were heading through Waybourne village to Luke’s house. It was a fairly small farming village nestled against the side of a large forest- a rustic place, with the houses built more for purpose than aesthetics, but it was home.

They did have a good number of skilled people living there though; a carpenter, a blacksmith, a healer, a dressmaker, and Luke’s family were veterinarians. Waybourne was very fortunate to have such a service within the village and there was high demand for his time, especially as it was lambing season. The couple had just had their last breakfast together before he was due to head out for the next two weeks, visiting the farms in the area and ensuring that all was going well with their flocks.

Spring was definitely in the air; it was still a little chill but the bitterness had been replaced with a few notes of warmth that were very welcome after the months of winter. Kitty absorbed it all, taking in the bustle of village life: the smells of cooking mixed with the tang of smoke and various crafts, the sounds of children shouting with glee and parents yelling after them. She was trying to adjust to the idea of living among it. Although she came here often and it was practically her home village, she lived outside of its borders, a short way into the forest in a cottage with her father.

“I’m going to miss you, my love,” Luke turned to her. “It’s the first time I’m leaving you for so long.”

“I leave you all the time,” Kitty grinned. “You’re just giving me a taste of my own medicine.”

“Yes, your punishment for working away from me is to stay here and write out invitations for everyone in the village. I’m expecting hand-drawn flowers on every one!” he teased, pulling her into a hug.

She clung onto him, feeling unusually concerned about him. “Be careful out there, you’ll feel really embarrassed if I have to come rescue you.”

“I’ll be fine,” he promised.

Their moment was interrupted by a shout from across the street. “Kitty! There you are.”

Her father hurried over. If it wasn’t for the years that stretched between them, they could have been mistaken for twins. They were both lanky and lean, with the same shade of dark brown hair, although his was tied at the nape of his neck and hers hung in a loose braid to the middle of her back. Their features were a little angular, presentable but not stunning by any means. She met his grey-green eyes with identical ones, smiling to herself as it struck her that they even dressed the same: a dark green tunic with legs clad in brown armoured leather, sturdy calf-high boots and a longbow with a quiver of arrows slung over the shoulder.

Kitty slid from the embrace of her betrothed and rushed to her father’s side.

“What is it?”

“I just got a bird in. Bandits robbed Bereford. No- one was badly hurt but they got away with valuables. We need to find them and stop them before they try again anywhere else.” Her father’s forehead was creased in worry.

“Let’s go.” She nodded, turning to give Luke a quick kiss goodbye, “Be careful,” she repeated.

He raised an eyebrow at her, “I know there are some pretty vicious sheep out there, but just worry about yourself for now. Keep an eye on your dad too, I’ll see you both when I get back. I love you, Kitty.”

“I love you too.” She squeezed his hand before running to catch up with her father.

 

Zander handed Kitty her travelling pack, which she swung onto her back, arranging it alongside her bow and quiver with practiced ease as she followed her father into the woodland.

“Bereford is about a day’s journey south- do they have anyone tracking the bandits? We don’t want a cold trail,” Kitty said.

“A hunter followed them a little way and it seems they are sticking to the long deer trail that leads towards us. He is going to meet us on further up the trail and let us know if they turn off. If they don’t, we’ll find them along the way,” he assured.

Kitty nodded and allowed her concentration to refocus on her surroundings. Linonia woods was vast and densely packed with all manner of trees and creatures. It took up the majority of the south-eastern border of the kingdom, and if you didn’t know the area it was very easy to become lost. Kitty had spent her whole life immersed in its beauty and danger, and so it felt as much like home to her as the cottage she lived in. This familiarity made Alexander and Kitty Fairlow ideal custodians to the area.

Where the woods and kingdom ended, The Scar began. It was a bleak place with no rule or law, just dust and rocks that coated the majority of the decrepit expanse, which was populated by the nomad Illari tribes that warred and stole indiscriminately. Most stayed within their own lands, but occasionally bandits crossed into Eriwynne and stirred up conflict. The custodians were the ones called upon to prevent this from happening. Kitty had dealt with a fair few criminals during the time she had been working with her father, but this type of issue occurred much less often than hunting particularly dangerous animals or helping to find those who had gotten lost.

Silently, they wended their way along the narrow deer trails. Kitty spotted a plump young buck that she would have taken, if she’d had the time. They were almost upon it before it froze, the magnificent beast staring at them for a second before tossing its head and bolting off.

“He doesn’t realise how lucky he was,” Zander murmured to his daughter.

Kitty threw him a flicker of a knowing smile as they continued on their way.

 

Early afternoon was approaching, and Kitty was about to suggest taking a break for lunch when she noticed that something was out of place. Part of the ground was heavily disturbed just up ahead. She attracted her father’s attention and they both began to search the immediate vicinity. It didn’t take her long to find the body.

“That’s Victor, our hunter,” her father confirmed.

Kitty couldn’t remember ever meeting him, but was overcome with a wave of sadness. She quickly quashed it and instead attended to checking the body for clues.

“This wasn’t done by an animal,” she whispered, aware that the murderers could’ve remained in the area. “He died from stab wounds, and fairly recently.”

“Most probably our bandits. It seems odd though…” Zander frowned and surveyed the forest around them. “Victor was very careful, he would sooner have lost them completely than risk himself.”

“They may have left a member behind, to stay hidden and ensure they weren’t followed,” Kitty suggested.

Zander considered all of this, continuously scanning the surroundings for their own safety.

Confident in the competence of her father’s senses, Kitty allowed her attention to be drawn back to Victor. He was a middle-aged brunette with a tuft of beard, dressed in typical hunter gear, who didn’t seem to have many definable features. Then a gleam from one of the shafts of sunlight breaking through the canopy caught her eye.

“Dad,” her voice cracking over the single syllable as she felt an inexplicable panic rising in her chest.

When he turned to her she was holding up the dead hunter’s cloak. There, fastening it, was an ornate gold pin in the shape of a delicate oak leaf. Bandits would never have left such a prize- whoever killed him had done so out of malice, not greed.

She saw her father’s expression change as he drew the same conclusion.

“We have to find whoever did this,” he said as he made his way over to the scuffed ground that had caught their attention in the first place. It wasn’t difficult for the two experienced trackers to find out which way their quarry had left.

As they were checking their weapons and preparing to leave, Kitty caught an acrid scent in the air. She turned to Zander, hoping he would be able to identify it. His face scared her. She had never seen him look so unsure. His eyes were wide and unseeing. He was slowly shaking his head, as though in disbelief.

“What is it?”

Kitty grabbed his arm to try and elicit a response- not the most sensible reaction but she needed him to be about his senses.

Zander snapped back into focus, took hold of Kitty by the shoulders and stared evenly into her eyes.

“Follow me. Stay close. Stay silent. Shoot to kill,” he grunted.

The assurance and determination pulsing through the commands convinced her that there was no need for questions. She readied her bow and steeled herself for whatever was to come.

A couple of minutes of brisk but careful walking brought them to the edge of a small clearing. A group of eight men were stood milling around. Some of them lounged against fallen trunks, others paced while keeping watch over what was going on in the centre.

Kitty barely had time to register the strange clothes, the unnatural grey pallor that tinged their skin, or the golden device that was being used to open some sort of magical portal…

Her father deftly released an arrow. The man holding the object dropped to the ground instantly with Zander Fairlow’s arrow sticking out from his eye socket. Another had fallen before Kitty realised that battle had commenced, she allowed her instincts and training to take over.

She was already a faster and more accurate archer than her father and her missiles flew effortlessly through the air towards their targets. Warned by a primal sense, Kitty dived down to the left. As she did so, a huge ball of flame exploded into the tree she had been stood beside just a second before. Caught between utter disbelief and a swift scramble to safety, she threw Zander a brief glance only to see that he was entirely focussed on their enemy.

One man was left still standing, gouts of flame trailed from his fingertips as he conjured another blazing missile to launch towards the custodians. Then, suddenly, he fled into the forest on the other side of the clearing like a wounded animal separated from its herd. They avoided the projectile and pursued the remaining man. Whoever they were, it was obvious that Zander wasn’t going to let even one of the strangers escape.

The man wove through the trees, making it difficult for them to get a clean shot. Kitty stopped and, aiming through a narrow gap, waited for her prey to make another appearance. Zander kept up the chase in case Kitty missed. She wouldn’t- she never missed.

Time seemed to slow as she waited for the perfect shot. The man was getting away now; most people wouldn’t even be able to fire an arrow that far, let alone with accuracy. Kitty brushed away a strand of hair that had escaped her braid, then readjusted her position. She breathed out with the shot, releasing pent up anticipation and tension along with the arrow. She knew it would hit, before he had fallen… she just knew.

“A clean kill,” Zander confirmed as he reached the body. “Let’s check the others.”

“Dad, he just threw fire at us,” Kitty said, folding her arms as she awaited an explanation.

“Yes,” was his only reply, and with a light pat her on the shoulder, he began to jog back to the clearing.

She swallowed a rising growl of frustration, and settled instead for a deep sigh.

 

When she reached the site where their battle had taken place moments ago, her father had just finished checking the rest of the fallen men. Kitty’s attention was caught by the oval of rippling silver stood in the middle of the clearing. It undulated gently like a pool on an almost-calm day, all except for a hand-span at the top which had formed into a window showing a dark and stormy sky. She probably could have touched the portal’s highest point if she stretched on tip-toe, and it was about half as wide as it was tall.

Clearly killing the man holding the golden object had not reversed the formation of this strange portal, just prevented its completion. The smell that had first brought them here was billowing from the space at the top of the oval, making her feel sick and filling her with fear. Although the scent was unfamiliar, she couldn’t help but associate it with something dark… something profoundly wrong.

When Kitty finally managed to tear her gaze away from the oddity, she noticed that Zander was slumped on the ground. Her first thought was that he’d been injured, but then she realised that he was cradling the gold device that had been used to begin opening the gateway. He turned it over and over, taking in every detail. A pained expression swept over his face, which turned to despair as he launched the object as hard as he could against a nearby rock and buried his head in his hands.

“You’ll break it!” Kitty cried, darting to retrieve it.

“Can’t be broken,” her father’s voice came muffled and weak from between his fingers.

“Okay, don’t you think it’s time for you to explain what’s going on here, Dad?” she demanded, doing her best to hide the growing frustration that was threatening to spill over.

He had always been her strength- he had always known how to overcome anything and he had always stayed in control. She barely recognised the man crumpled on the ground before her. Despite the fact they had been able to put a stop to whatever had been happening here, her father seemed ultimately defeated.

Finally, his expression shifted into one of resolve and he stood up, brushing scraps of leaves from his clothing. After several deep breaths, he was almost himself again, apart from a faint glimmer of something that haunted his eyes.

“I hoped it would never come to this,” he began. “Although I supposed you needed to know soon enough… I want you to do something for me, Kitty.”

“Anything, Dad. Just please, tell me.”

“I need you to take that urn before the princess. She will know what it is and will explain everything.”

“Urn?” she looked at the magical device she had picked up. It did kind of look like an urn, she supposed. It was vase-shaped, with a lid and slim handles, coloured gold with a line of unfamiliar crimson runes ringing the base.

“Yes, the thing you’re holding,” Zander pulled a bag out that he usually put small game in while hunting. Then he took the urn and dropped it inside. “You mustn’t let anyone else see it. Only the princess.”

“Just explain the bits you know and I’ll find out the rest when I get there,” Kitty urged.

“You need to leave now. This is more important than anything we have ever done here. I’m sorry, I can’t do this… It’s my own weakness, please forgive me. It’s… It’s just too difficult…”

“Did Mum have something to do with this?” Even as the words were still leaving her mouth, she regretted them- it was the only topic she had ever seen upset her father like this.

She wished it affected her too, but she couldn’t remember a single detail about the woman who had brought her into the world. Kitty had stopped bringing up the subject with her father long ago, it only caused him to withdraw into himself, lost for words.

“She never had anything to do with them,” he growled. “But they definitely had something to do with her, to do with what happened.”

Kitty wasn’t even sure what that was, he’d never gathered the courage to explain her mother’s final fate. The thought had nagged at the back of her mind occasionally, but really she was used to it being just her and Zander. After all, surely you can’t miss someone you’ve never known?

“It’s alright, I’ll go,” she promised him. She felt twinges of guilt starting to set in for bringing up what she knew was a taboo topic of conversation. His evasiveness was bothering her too. If it took a four day journey to the capital and an audience with royalty to get a straight answer, then that’s what she would do.

Zander folded his daughter into a heartfelt embrace, clinging on to her as if he never wanted to let her go.

“Believe what she tells you, no matter how impossible it may sound. It’s very likely that they will request your services to help them deal with the situation, so if Luke returns before you, I’ll explain that you are on a mission for the royal family. I wished so hard that you would never have to be involved with this, but I have prepared you for it. Just try to remember that everything I’ve ever done or not done, was to protect you.”

“If this is so important, then why am I going instead of you?”

“Because my time is over and you are more than ready for your time to begin.”

Heirs of Power- Chapter Two

The journey from Waybourne to the capital of Lanathere was one that Kitty had completed many times. She had delivered reports to the palace, and taken in criminals either surrendered and captured.

However, this was the quickest she had ever made the journey, taking advantage of the well-guarded and maintained roads to set off at a pace that strained her long legs.

Her mind worked just as hard as her body, turning over and over what she had seen in the forest. At the time of the battle she had been so consumed by the bizarre events that she’d hardly processed the details. She asked herself a million questions which she knew she didn’t have the answers to. She had never seen anyone with grey skin before- even the men that lived in The Scar with their darker, sun-exposed skin didn’t have the ashy hue she’d seen on those at the scene of the battle. The strange men had been wearing clothes made of strips of long material wrapped around them- again, she couldn’t recall a culture that had this custom.

Her thoughts churned: how did they manage to do such incredible things? Create portals and fire? Could she learn to do it? Or was it inherent to their kind? While she considered these things, part of her mind remained on her father, her attitude swaying between concern at his reaction and annoyance that he hadn’t spoken to her about it.

The walls of the capital came into sight; finally, answers were within reach. Checking the position of the sun, Kitty realised the princess wouldn’t be receiving petitioners for another hour at least, and so stopped by Zander’s favourite food stand to get herself a hot lamb roll.

Though the queen was still alive, and seemed still capable of running the kingdom, her only daughter was responsible for seeing to the day-to-day problems brought into the palace. She set aside two hours each weekday afternoon to receive reports of issues or disagreements. Custodians were given priority, and Kitty was confident of getting a meeting fairly quickly because she knew most of the royal guards.

Lanathere was a beautiful city, blessed with streets that were wide and clean. The constant vigilance from the city guards kept crime to a minimum and the entire settlement carried an uplifting atmosphere. Its people were all well cared for and most were polite and cheery as they bustled about their business.

Kitty had never been to any other city, but she was sure it was the largest and most magnificent in the kingdom. The buildings were made of red clay bricks and pale grey stone mined from the mountains to the south west. The whole city was one huge, perfect pattern, with every structure having been planned meticulously, and each building complementing its surroundings.

Wanting to be in plenty of time to see the princess, Kitty decided to avoid the ever-busy market place, and instead took a route towards the palace that curved around the thronging crowds

The sight of the palace had stolen her breath the first time she had seen it as a small child: the castle-like building had its own protective moat and walls that obscured a lot of the bottom stories, but delicate spires rose behind them, giving the palace a distinct fairy-tale quality.

The drawbridge was down, as it usually was. The people were free to roam the front courtyard after passing by the group of guards that remained vigilant by the gates. Recognising Kitty immediately, the guards waved her through. She was allowed to keep her weapons; custodians were always expected to defend the royal family if they were attacked.

Kitty was admitted into the familiar waiting room, barely noticing its rich tapestries and plush carpets anymore, but still appreciating the comfortable sofas after what had been a tiring forced march.

A group of petitioners had already gathered: three noblewomen were gossiping quietly in a corner; a nervous older man dressed in the hard-wearing clothes of a farmer; a man who looked both furious and bored, bedecked with too many jewels, and several other people from various walks of life had congregated in the waiting room. When the door to the small audience chamber opened, Kitty was the first one called. The jewelled man glared at her as she passed him, she responded with her sweetest smile.

Compared to most of the palace, this room could be considered plain. The walls were patterned rather than carved or gilded and the floor was a simple tile design. Ten guards in full armour and carrying polished weapons ringed the chamber, four immaculate attendants in purple livery waited on those within, and two advisers- one political and one military specialist- were sat at a table to one side. However, it was the presence of Her Royal Highness Judith Celestia Olbridge that dwarfed the room.

She sat daintily upon a wooden throne that was placed on a platform and mostly covered by her huge, golden, shimmering, layered skirts. Her features were typical of the royal family: her skin was honey-coloured, her dark eyes large and curved up on the outer edge, and her lips were formed into a permanent pout. Her hair was her most spectacular feature- a gorgeous mane of sleek black waves that fell down to her waist and glinted with a purple iridescence wherever it was caressed by the light. A slim gold and diamond crown rested on her brow, completing the image of perfection. The princess beckoned Kitty forward with delicate, manicured fingers.

It suddenly struck Kitty that she had never personally presented herself, her father had been the one to give all their reports. She felt a strange and unfamiliar nervousness creep over her.

“Your Highness,” Kitty greeted the magnificent woman, kneeling respectfully.

“Good day to you, Kitty Fairlow.” Despite her exotic appearance, the princess’ accent was unmistakably that of an upper class Lanatherian.  “You have a report for me?”

“Yes, Your Highness, thank you for receiving me,” Kitty did her best to remember her courtly manners. “My father instructed me to bring you this object.”

As Kitty stepped forward with the bag containing the urn, one of the guards moved to intercept her and attempted to take it.

“Please, Your Highness, I’m to give it to you only,” Kitty said, clutching the covered object to her stomach.

“Allow her,” the princess commanded.

The guard stepped back, just enough for her to pass by. He kept an intense gaze upon her and rested one hand on the sword at his belt. Kitty nodded her thanks to him and hastily handed her delivery to the magnificent woman before her. She could barely control her anticipation of the princess’ reaction.

But there was none at all. After peering into the bag, and giving the contents a poke, Princess Judith tied the bag shut and laid it at her feet.

“Thank you for bringing me this,” the princess spoke without a trace of emotion, as though just presented with any ordinary trinket, and then turned to an attendant, “Paula, show Miss Fairlow to a place she may stay tonight and bring her all she needs, the Lily suite should suit her well.”

Kitty was crushed- where were the answers she so badly desired? Did the princess even recognise what it was she had shown her? Had Zander just sent her on a pointless journey so he didn’t have to reveal what he knew about the magic-wielding men? Surely her own father wouldn’t lie to her like that.

“Your Highness, my father said…”

“Thank you again, Kitty, you and your father’s dedication and hard work are very valuable to us. You are dismissed,” the princess smiled at her pleasantly. “Bring in farmer Rye next, it amuses me to keep Lord Carsil waiting.”

Paula, the attendant commanded to see to her needs, took Kitty gently by the elbow and led her out of a different door than the one she had entered. Several twisting corridors later they arrived at the visitor suites. They stopped at one and Paula unlocked it, waving Kitty inside.

“I wasn’t really planning on staying the night,” Kitty said, “I need to get back home to help my father.”

“The princess will be greatly offended if you don’t accept her hospitality,” Paula countered. “Please rest for tonight and be on your way in the morning. I’ll have food and hot water brought over to you shortly.”

Kitty thanked the attendant as she left and turned to examine the lodgings. It consisted of a sitting area furnished with low couches and tables, a bookcase with a selection ranging from map books to fantasy stories, a fully stocked writing desk, and a cupboard packed with game boards and embroidery supplies. To one side was a wash room and to the other, a bedroom with a lavish four poster feather bed that could have comfortably slept three.

Everything was decorated with carved lilies. The delicate flowers featured in the panelling, on the bed posts, even on the legs of the metal tub in the washroom. Fresh lilies in antique vases stood upon every empty flat surface, which Kitty moved around carefully as she explored the room.

Whenever she had been to the palace with Zander he was always in a hurry to get home, and so she had never stayed in a custodian suite. Kitty assured herself this was definitely going to change; this was like living as a noble for the day.

Paula reappeared not long later, this time accompanied by a young man pushing a trolley. He unloaded several covered plates onto one of the tables, along with two bottles, glass tumblers and cutlery. They left her to her meal with barely a word.

Usually the lamb roll Kitty had eaten before her meeting with the princess would have kept her going until an evening meal, but the smells coming from the table made her mouth water instantly. There were fingers of hot bread covered in pate, a plate of roast quail and vegetables, some tiny muffins and a board of different cheeses and fruit. The bottles contained wine and chilled water with a hint of peach. Kitty ate every bite of the incredible food, taking time to appreciate and savour the intense but well-balanced flavours. Afterwards she settled for a single glass of wine- she rarely drank and it would be awful to return such hospitality by making a fool of herself.

As if on cue, the boy with the trolley came to take away the dishes for washing. Behind him was the ever-attentive Paula with a line of servants, all holding steaming buckets of scented water. These were promptly emptied into the wash room tub and Paula suggested Kitty should bathe straight away to ensure she experienced the water at optimum temperature. The aches of travel melted away as Kitty soaked herself in the fragrant liquid. For the first time in the past few days she felt truly relaxed.

Suddenly, the water felt chilly, she must have dozed off. Kitty quickly scrubbed herself, washed her hair and lifted herself out of the tub. The towels provided were enormous and fluffy, and she soon was dry and dressed in a fresh change of clothing.

Kitty perused the bookcase, looking for something to occupy her for the rest of the evening, and settled on a slim volume about a brave knight fighting a fire-breathing dragon. She took it through to the bedroom, plumped up the pillows and curled up with the book. As she sank into the mattress, amazed that anything could be so comfortable, she become lost in the story.

She had barely started the fourth chapter when she heard the door open again- probably the servants coming to take away the cold bath water. Feeling compelled by good manners to go and thank them for all their work, she reluctantly parted from the divine cosiness and padded through to the main chamber.

Instead of servants, she was met by single woman entering the room and closing the door behind her. Kitty inhaled sharply, frozen for a second. The woman was certainly dressed down, wearing slightly loose, soft trousers and a leather jerkin with pieces of chain mail sewed into it. Her make-up had all been removed, making her eyes seem a more natural shape. Her long hair had been tamed, bound back by dark ribbons and then looped and pinned to the back of her head. She carried a leather backpack over one shoulder and wore an armoured belt with a long knife attached to one side and a pair of fans on the other. There was no mistaking who she was.

Princess Judith pulled the golden urn from her pack, held it up and stared intensely at her subject. There was no greeting, no formality, only a question.

“What do you know about this?”

Heirs of Power- Chapter Three

“Your Highness” Kitty finally managed to force the words out, sinking to her knees.

“Not quite,” came the slightly amused reply. “You had an audience with me earlier. However, in truth, I am a relation of Judith’s and one of her body doubles. My name is Serena Olbridge… ‘My Lady’ will suffice.”

Serena glided over to one of the sofas and motioned Kitty to take a seat opposite her. Her movements were so fluid and graceful that Kitty felt like a clumsy oaf just getting from her knees to her seat. She did note with delight that Lady Serena was only half a head shorter than herself, where the majority of women would struggle to reach Kitty’s chin.

“Tell me about the Thaedric Urn and how much Alexander has told you about the Constellations,” Serena cut straight to the point.

Kitty was bewildered, barely understanding the questions, let alone knowing how to answer. “I didn’t even know it was called that,” She admitted. “My father did call it an urn when we found it, but I’ve not heard that other word before.”

“He always did say he wanted me to give you our history.” Serena sighed. “But nothing about the Thaedra? The Tenebri?”

Kitty just shook her head silently, feeling as though she had failed a test that she hadn’t even realised existed.

“Do you know where this Urn was found?”

That Kitty did know, and she told her story with as much detail as she could manage. She described the men and their odd powers, the look and smell of the portal, and how her father had reacted so strangely to the whole situation.

“Then my father told me that I should bring that urn here to the princess and that she would explain everything to me. He said that she may want me to help fight against these men, and seemed to think they may have been involved with my mother’s death… he finds it hard to speak about what happened to her…” Kitty trailed off.

“Then I have much to share with you, Kitty.” Serena gave a small, pitying smile. Her mouth then opened and closed several times admitting no sound before she settled on an opening line.

“A war has been fought over this world for thousands of years. Humans have always lived here but there used to be a spirit race with which we co-existed. They were called the Lucidians, and they had a huge variety of powers and abilities that were entirely unique. Their power came from the stars themselves and they shared it to make the world a better place for everyone to live. However, there was another spirit race, known as the Tenebri. They had great powers too, but their abilities drained life force from around them, which caused Tenebria to decay and so they searched for a way to travel elsewhere. In a third land were another people, the Thaedra. They were similar to humans and had access to their own magic. They created the Thaedric Urns, devices capable of linking different worlds. It was an innocent curiosity that lead to their destruction: the Tenebri swarmed through and claimed the unspoiled land. The Tenebri were temporarily sated, but over time the problem arose again and they sought to move on once more. They had gained all five of the Thaedric Urns in their war and soon turned them towards our world. History would have been repeated if we humans had been alone, if the Lucidians had not stood alongside us…” A single tear spilled down the noblewoman’s cheek.

Kitty felt something stir inside her, as though she was remembering fighting in the war herself and seeing her friends being slaughtered around her. A purposeful rage built in her chest and she knew she was willing to sacrifice everything in defence of her world, or had she done it already? She struggled to separate this sudden vehemence from reality.

A glint in Serena’s eye acknowledged and validated this pang of emotion surging through her. In that moment, they were sisters and they mourned their fallen family as though they were still bloodied from the ancient battle.

“We fought them back, over and over. They kept coming, and used everything they had. The Scar will still barely support the most basic life forms because of the sheer amount of energy ripped from our own land to throw against us.

“The truth is, we were losing and quickly running out of options. The Lucidians combined every last scrap of power they had between them, and sent out a wave of magic that swept the whole world. It pushed all of the Tenebri back through their portals into Thaedra. The Tenebri thought it was amusing that such great power had been spent on something that had not even harmed them, but when they tried to re-enter the portals they found they could not. The Lucidians had created a barrier keyed into Tenebri physiology, preventing them from entering our world. It remains around our entire planet to this day, keeping them from entering our territory.

“The Lucidians were completely drained by this final monumental effort. They fell to the ground in a state of dormancy, and we can only hope that one day they will regain enough energy to reap the benefits of this world they helped to save. It happened so long ago that most people don’t know of this part of history, or the heroic actions of an entire race that sacrificed so much for our existence to continue. The main reminder we have of them is in the stars- before the barrier was erected they were barely visible in the sky. The Lucidians knew them all though and each was connected to a certain constellation. The barrier magnifies the tiny specks of distant light and the constellations we now see are like the signatures of each selfless being, written across the sky.

“That is far from the end of the story though, the situation was never fully resolved. We do not possess the exact details, but we gather that there was a lot of infighting within our enemy after they lost. It was many years before they attempted to claim this world again. This time, instead of force, they used stealth. With no way to get to the land they wanted to conquer, they needed someone who could fight their battles for them. One of their portals remained open, in a fairly secluded location. They waited for a long time for a human to pass by, and when one eventually did it was a man greedy and self-centred enough to suit their purpose. You see, the Tenebri have the ability to temporarily pass on their magic to others. This one man betrayed his species and his entire world so that he could wield this power. He was sent back with the order to find like-minded humans who would serve the Tenebri in searching for a way to break the Lucidian barrier, in exchange for gifts of magic.

“You remember that Tenebri magic is fuelled by the energy of others? Therefore, whenever someone receives a ‘gift’ from the Tenebri, their own body is warped and begins to change. Their skin becomes grey and thick and distorts over time. In this way, they are tainted irreversibly.

“That first betrayer returned to this world. Although he carried a stain of the enemy, he was still human and so was free to cross the barrier. Fortunately, a group of ten of the strongest Lucidians had fallen together and between them had managed to begin their regeneration. They barely had consciousness or intercommunication but they felt the Tenebri power passing into this world. They did not have the strength yet to fight back alone, and so their solution was to give whatever remained of themselves to a human host. We humans can generate energy through eating and sleeping, unlike spirit races, but we naturally lack their extraordinary powers. So, one night just over thirty years ago, each of the ten Lucidians called to a human, one who would bond easily and willingly with them. They spilled every remaining part of their being into their new body, imparting abilities, powers and gifts. So, the ten Constellations; The Dancer, The Swordsman, The Duellist, The Scholar, The Astronomer, The Archer, The Juggler, The Sculptor, The Mystic and The Assassin were formed, a human vessel endowed with a powerful spirit. To make sure they would continue to fight as long as the Tenebri came against this world, the power would pass on to each Constellation’s first child.”

It was a lot to process, an entire history of the known world that remained in the knowledge of only a few. Those grey-skinned men Kitty and Zander had fought must have been more betrayers, trying to help the evil spirit race. That was where their power had originated. Suddenly, possessing that magic herself seemed a much less enticing prospect.

“So, my father helped these Constellations?” Kitty’s throat was almost too dry for her to get the words out, she was overwhelmed with the colossal tide of information. “That’s how he knew what the Urn was?”

Serena frowned and shook her head. “No Kitty. Your father was one, as you are now. You are The Archer.”

Kitty was speechless. She began to massage her temples and wondered if there was a polite way to tell a member of the royal family they were insane. She was unsure how much of what she had been told was true, but there was no way she had a spirit creature trapped inside her. Kitty knew she had received a different kind of training than most village girls, but other than that she was barely out of the ordinary- no magic powers or outlandish abilities.

“You don’t believe me?” the princess’ double asked.

“I just think…” Kitty felt around desperately for the right wording. “You have the wrong person.” She finally finished.

“You are Alexander Fairlow’s only child, there is little room for error,” Serena gave a small smile, “Let us take this Urn to a safer location and I’ll prove that you are who I say you are.”

“Of course, My Lady, but maybe it is my father you are mistaken about? He has only ever seemed to be a normal man.”

“His power was transferred to you at your birth, rendering him ‘normal’ now. My mother and father both journeyed alongside him when the Constellations received their powers and he is one of the few originals that stayed closely connected to our family after they completed their great mission. Most felt it was safer to disappear to raise their new Constellation in anonymity after they were targeted by Tenebri loyalists.”

“What was their mission?”

“Soon we will speak of this more, but for now follow me- and not a word of this as we walk. Though the palace is a safer place than most, the enemy could be anywhere.”

Serena returned the Thaedric Urn to her pack and lifted it back onto her shoulder before striding purposefully to the door and opening it. Kitty could do little else but follow her, burning with curiosity. Was she really entertaining the fact that she could be one of these Constellations?

She didn’t have time for consideration though, as Serena set a blistering pace through the palace. They passed dozens of doors and corridors, and Kitty realised there was no way she was going to find the way back on her own. Serena confidently led the way down three sets of staircases, passing statues and suits of armour. They met several pairs of guards who simply saluted and waved them on their way.

Their journey came to an end in front of a colossal metal door with six heavily-armoured soldiers standing to attention outside. One took out a large key and opened the door, and the pair quickly stepped through, Serena closing the door behind them.

The room was bathed in a low lamp light that was reflected around the room by the vast quantity of gold and jewels arranged on shelves around them. They were in the royal treasury. Kitty drew a sharp breath at the sheer beauty of what surrounded her: gems the size of fists, delicately crafted jewellery, mountains of coins, and enough crowns and sceptres to dress every citizen of the city as a royal. She couldn’t think of a reason she was being given the immense privilege of seeing such a wonder.

“This way,” Serena finally broke her silence.

They passed through a door at the side of the room into a small, dark corridor, with another locked door at the end. Serena drew out a finger-length key on a slim chain from beneath her collar, and unlocked the door. They entered the room.

They had to light a lamp inside. This chamber was obviously little used. A fine layer of dust greeted them, laid evenly across the room’s contents. A drab chest on a pedestal, a pile of wooden crates against the back wall and several weapon racks sporting a wide array of deadly implements were revealed by the flickering glow.

Serena tore open the chest and blew out a sigh of relief. She put her hand in and took out another Thaedric Urn.

“Thank the stars it is still here,” she breathed, hugging the artifact.

“You thought it wasn’t?” Kitty frowned uneasily.

“There were five of these that were used by the Tenebri. The original Constellations recovered all of them and they were each taken by a different loyal family and hidden away somewhere where the enemy would not be able to find them. When you brought this one to me today I feared it meant that the treasury’s security had been breached. Now I’m worried about the other four locations, if they could have found one there is no telling if any of them will be safe. Wait…”

A look of utter confusion passed across the noblewoman’s face. She sank to the floor and began looking at both Urns as close as she could in the lamp-light. She turned them over again and again, her hands shaking.

“No, no, no, how could they?” Serena thrust both at Kitty. “Are these the same?”

Kitty handled both, at first glance they seemed identical but after a closer look she noticed minute differences. “This one has thicker handles, and the base of this one has a bit of a ridge. Do you think yours was replaced with a fake?”

“No, I’ve studied how a Thaedric Urn is supposed to look and the one here is perfect… all five Urns that the Constellations found were exactly the same. This means that the Tenebri have either found more, or developed a way to make them.”

Kitty felt a knot of determination swelling inside her- magic spirit or not she was not going to let another race take her land and steal its life. “My Lady, whatever you need from me, I’ll give it. Even if you are mistaken about me, I’m a protector of this kingdom and I won’t stop until this threat is removed.”

“Then we leave tonight. Gather your things.”

Kitty nodded fiercely and turned to leave as Serena put both Thaedric Urns in the chest.

Before she could pass through the doorway, something caught her eye. A black longbow hung by the door, and Kitty reached up, took it down and examined it. It was a strange thing, with no string or even nocks so you could attach one. However, it was beautifully curved and fit Kitty’s stature perfectly.

“This is mine.”

“What was that?” Serena asked, turning around as she closed the chest.

Kitty’s hand flew to her mouth, her brain racing to catch up with what her treacherous lips had allowed past. “I’m so sorry, My Lady. I don’t know what I’m doing, I must be overwhelmed by this strangeness. I swear to you I haven’t taken a thing.” As she fumbled to try and put the bow back, Serena put her hand in the way.

“It is yours Kitty, it’s called…”

“Venethos.” Kitty cut in, wishing her mouth would stop making decisions to speak before her brain ordered it to do so.

Serena grinned so widely that Kitty was convinced that the noble was relishing the prospect of throwing her disrespectful subject into a deep, dark dungeon. Instead, Serena effectively bounced on the spot.

“Draw the bow, Kitty.”

“There’s no string, I have a spare in my room if you would like me to fetch it?”

“No. As it is. No questions, just do it.”

Kitty felt a fool as she lifted the bow… although it did feel fantastic in her grip. If Serena was going to let her have it, she was sure she could fashion it into a nice weapon.

“Away from me!” Serena piped when Kitty moved to draw it inadvertently in her direction.

Finally, at her wits’ end, Kitty pointed the bow to the side of the room and made as if to pull back the non-existent string. Except, to her utter disbelief, it was there. As she gripped the empty air, a faint line connected the ends of the black bow. She pulled gently, in complete shock. Silver-white flecks appeared across the length of the bow, mimicking the constellations in the night sky. Suddenly an arrow materialised… it was straight and true with a black shaft and head, and it had white and black banded fletching. She drew further, the dainty string holding firm and bending the limbs of the bow gently. It was perfect. She aimed towards the floor and loosened the arrow slowly, it disappeared as she released the tension; along with the string and stars. Venethos was plain, black and incomplete once again.

“It’s incredible… a- a magic bow,” she waved it excitedly at Serena, forgetting herself momentarily in the light of so many increasingly unbelievable revelations.

“That is your proof,” Serena nodded at Venethos. “The bow only responds for The Archer, your father left it here once you were born and it refused to recognise him anymore. Congratulations Kitty Fairlow. You are definitely a Constellation.”

Heirs of Power- Chapter Four

Within the hour the two women had packed and were on their way. Once again, Serena had decided that it was necessary to travel in complete silence until they could be sure they were alone. They had left through Lanathere’s west gate, the opposite side of the city to the one Kitty had entered, meaning that she was already the furthest she had even been from home.

The roads this close to the capital were wide and well-constructed, flanked mainly by farmland and small copses. They passed a few late-comers making their way to the city, though they grew fewer and further between as the light faded.

The pair continued on, still without a word as night fully took hold. The stars glowed in the sky, and Kitty realised she would never be able to see them in the same way again. She looked to the north, almost not daring to meet its face in case the constellation of The Archer looked back at her. She traced its belt and bow: twelve main stars peppered with miniscule specks in between. Is that how all stars used to appear before the Lucidian barrier? The nights must’ve been so dark back then.

“Let us make camp in that woodland,” Serena gestured towards a group of trees that was much bigger than any they had passed so far.

Kitty found a perfect spot near the centre, with a bit of a depression that would hide a fire reasonably well. It was nicely sheltered by trees overhead and enough new foliage had grown around them that she could arrange a windbreak to keep out the worst of the chilling gusts of wind. She set to work gathering firewood, setting it ablaze, and then went about boiling some water. All of these tasks were second nature to her and she welcomed the familiarity, although she was ever aware of the weight of Venethos strapped alongside her usual bow.

While Kitty was busying herself, Serena had taken a map from her own backpack and was studying it intently, measuring and making notes on a piece of paper. Kitty wiped the log grime from her fingers and walked over to see what the noblewoman was doing.

“This is where we are.” Serena pointed near the centre of the page. “We are heading to Garrowgent, unfortunately.”

“Why is that unfortunate?”

“Because the place is a cesspit.” Her nose wrinkled in disgust. “It is over-populated, dirty and much too large. Garrowgent is the gateway to the capital, a rest stop for the mining and fishing communities heading to Lanathere.”

“So why are we going there?” Kitty said.

“The Juggler dwells there, for some reason. His father is from there so it appears to have become a nasty little family tradition. It does make them easy to contact though- I have ordered a message be sent on ahead for him to meet us. Make some hot tea, Kitty.”

“Yes, My Lady.” Kitty obliged, adding leaves to the water boiling over the fire. “Do you know where all ten Constellations are?”

“There are only nine now, I am afraid,” Serena frowned and stared into the distance as she spoke, “The Assassin was killed before she had chance to bear a child… before the originals even completed their collection of the Urns. The Tenebri have much to answer for. As for the others, there are two of us here.”

“I figured you must be one of them, to be as involved as you are,” Kitty raised her eyebrow in Serena’s direction.

“I preferred to say as little as possible where it may have been heard. I am The Dancer, as was my mother before me.”

“Your power?” Kitty asked as she handed over the freshly made tea.

Serena pulled her two fans from her belt, which Kitty had almost forgotten were there. The Dancer flicked them open, they sharpened and elongated into a pair of bladed war fans.

“They are similar to your Venethos, being of use only when in the hands of The Dancer.”

“Do they have names, like my bow?” Kitty had to ask, remembering with amazement her instant connection with the weapon.

“I do not believe so, not all tools need a title. We both have battle prowess too: your skill with a bow comes from more than practice, and I possess great agility. Did you not ever wonder about your long-sight?”

“My what?”

“You did not even notice?” she barely got the words out as she attempted to stifle her mirth. “Kitty, you can see nearly twice as far as a normal human!”

Kitty felt a bit stung by Serena’s laughter- it wasn’t her fault she hadn’t had this explained to her.

“You don’t have to laugh at me… If I’ve always been this way, how was I supposed to know what normal people see? Although, now I think about it, I often thought people were a bit oblivious to their surroundings…” Kitty felt her cheeks redden as several instances sprung to mind, seeming a lot more understandable in light of this new revelation.

“You are right, I apologize,” Serena nodded, still looking faintly amused as she sipped her drink. “I shall continue to tell you about the others. In three days, we will be meeting The Juggler, Asher, who is en route to pick up The Astronomer, Stefan. We need him more than anyone else because his abilities allow him to sense the direction of the other Constellations. He is around a week’s journey past Garrowgent. Lucian, The Swordsman, should be at Gilder Rose. Other than that, we need The Astronomer to locate the rest.”

“So, there are four unaccounted for,” Kitty counted off, “If The Astronomer could find them, why didn’t he already? Why wait for an emergency?”

Serena rolled up her map and stowed it away, more forcefully than necessary. “They did not wish to be found. At first the majority stayed in contact, close to each other. Many of the Tenebri loyalists were still on this side of the portals when the Urns were confiscated and they were furious at the Constellations for cutting off access to their power. They took your mother, Kitty. They wanted you in exchange, but your father fled to Waybourne and left you hidden there while he tried for over a year to find her. Some others had similar experiences and had no choice but to flee for the lives of our generation of Constellations.”

A numbness came over Kitty. She wanted to cry, or to be angry or vengeful. After a lifetime of Zander avoiding the subject and deflecting her questions, she had come to terms with the fact that she would never know what happened to her mother. She just didn’t have anything in her to process this- to accept that she was partly responsible for what had happened.

“I think that will be enough for tonight.” Serena patted Kitty’s shoulder kindly before pulling her blankets over herself.

Kitty sat with her back to the dying flames and tried to convince herself she was staying awake to keep watch. She doubted she would be getting much sleep tonight, and so busied herself by eating some of the trail rations. When she was done with that, she washed out their used cups and the small pan the tea had been in, and then pottered around tidying the camp so they would be ready to move out first thing in the morning. Eventually she ran out of distractions and just sat with her head in her hands until the inevitable tears finally came.

 

Kitty awoke with the sunrise; she must have fallen asleep after all. Her exhaustion was more emotional than physical, and so she could at least present a calm exterior, whatever turmoil she might be feeling inside.

She had splashed her face in a nearby stream, changed her clothing and brushed out the snarls from her hair by the time Serena began to stir. Kitty obligingly set about in assisting the noble in getting ready.

Serena was her usual aloof self and Kitty was terrified to ask her anything else, in case her already dwindling stability came crashing down. She wondered what Luke was going to make of all this, and what her father was going to tell him. It usually took her a few more days away from home for her to begin to miss her betrothed, but she wished he was with her right now- he always made her feel safe and cared for. She pretended that he was holding her, telling her things would be fine.

“Let’s go,” The Dancer curtly cut into her reverie, and abruptly snatched from the imaginary embrace of her fiancé, Kitty followed the noblewoman’s lead.

 

The next few days passed without event, and they made good progress along the journey. Kitty felt some of her confidence returning as she had opportunity to mull over the situation. She even began to feel slight anticipation, as if she was at the beginning of a great adventure. Surely over time all this information about the Constellations would begin to make sense and it would be as normal to her as it appeared to be to Serena.

The area they were passing through looked so bland and regular that it quickly got boring; there were fields after fields of crops and cows, interspersed with small white-walled farmhouses that were so similar they must have all been designed by one man. Wagons pulled by hefty oxen passed frequently, along with traders towing hand-carts full of wares. The road was straight enough that they could take note of what was approaching them, especially now Kitty knew she had long-sight, and would be able to see what was coming a long time before being spotted herself.

“Lady Serena?” Kitty suddenly felt a need to chat.

“Yes?” came the half-hearted reply.

“I’m not too familiar with interaction with royalty…am I allowed to… ask things?”

“What you just said was a question, was it not?” Serena frowned.

“No, I mean… ask you things about yourself? We are going to be travelling together for a while… I know that I’m your subject, and so I’ll be careful not to speak inappropriately… but, aren’t you tired of walking in silence?” Kitty enquired.

“There is much to muse upon,” Serena said, “But ask away, if you so wish.”

Kitty smiled to herself, and wondered where to start. “Okay… what is it like being part of the royal family?”

The Dancer considered the question for a moment. “In some ways, it is much like being part of your own. Our duty to the kingdom is the focus of our lives. We work very hard to provide security and prosperity for our people. As a body double for Judith I had to have all of her political and financial training, so that when I stood in for her in a situation such as taking petitions I would make the same decision as she would have made herself. Added to this, I received combat training so that I could subdue anyone who sought to assassinate her. Not to say that it doesn’t come with great privilege.  I have always had the finest of anything that the kingdom has to offer, and I am aware that I am fortunate not to have gone hungry or been in need.”

After a short pause, the noblewoman seemed to be struck by a thought. “What is it like being you, Kitty?”

The Archer was taken aback for a second. She wasn’t sure if Serena was taking a genuine interest in her, or simply being polite- either way it was a pleasant gesture.

“Mostly average, sometimes exciting,” she pondered the question, “I had fun times learning woodcraft with my father, we helped out a lot of people and had some close scrapes when we were taking bandits in. Life in my village is pretty dull besides. I’m not that close with a lot of the people there, I think they must be intimidated by what I do. It was a lot worse when I was younger- I’ve learned how to make most of them feel more comfortable around me now. I do have a very handsome vet waiting for me when I get back though.”

The expression of superiority on Serena’s face melted away almost instantly and she suddenly seemed like any ordinary young woman, eager to hear all the details of a relationship. “Indeed? Tell me more.”

 

By the time they stopped to make camp they were still engrossed in each other’s stories. Kitty had told her that it was Luke’s family that had cared for her while Zander was searching for his wife and explained how Luke had been a close friend before proposing to her last summer.

Serena had complained at length that Olbridge women usually had their spouses picked out for them and that she was resigned to the fact that she would eventually have to marry one of her cousins or another relation, so that the royal family could maintain their distinct features which made them immediately recognisable. She explained that their unique appearance originated from the people that used to live in The Scar before it was obliterated in the war by the Tenebri.

“The royal families of the two kingdoms were nearly wiped out and there was so much destruction and chaos that they eventually merged into one,” Serena elaborated as the two women settled down for the night.

“It’s good that they decided to work together to rebuild.  If they’d ended up warring among themselves for what was left then maybe none of us would be here now.”

“Yes, we are very proud of our heritage. It is a shame that much of this must be kept from the general population. Thank you for asking about this, Kitty. It is nice to be able to share it with someone- the original Constellations must have taken great solace in one another. I have only met a small number of the current ones when we were younger and I had little chance to speak with many of the originals when they visited.”

“I’m sure your people would love to hear the true history of this kingdom… they would be able to help fight back now that the Tenebri may have access to our world again. From the little you’ve told me about the Constellations it seems we can do a lot, but we are still only nine. Why not gather an army?”

Serena gazed at her with warmth, a slight, sad smile written on her features. “Your faith is welcome, it bodes well for our mission that you are so loyal. Most people are not like you, Kitty. Yes, there would be those that would choose to give their lives for their world. There would be many more that, upon learning what the Tenebri could offer them…” The Dancer shook her head, not needing to finish the thought.

“No-one is sure how many would join each side, which is likely why the Tenebri neglect to announce themselves openly. They seem to think more highly of our people than I do,” Serena continued. “I believe that, at this moment, we need to gather the Constellations and when we are together we can decide the best way to combat this threat. If the Tenebri truly have more portals into our world, then we need to make sure that none of us is alone or vulnerable. The enemy will be gifting powers to their loyalists again and the other Constellations do not have that knowledge yet. We need to get to The Astronomer so he can find The Mystic.”

“I’m still not sure on which power each Constellation has- The Astronomer knows the location of each of us, right? So what power does The Mystic have?”

“The Mystic has the ability to absorb magic and then reverse or redirect it. Kitty, he or she can absorb the energy in the portals to close them, and if the Tenebri get to The Mystic before we do, then I know of no other way of doing it.”

Heirs of Power- Chapter Five

They reached the walls of Garrowgent late the next day, which was fortunate as dark clouds were beginning to gather, and a night in the rain is never a welcome prospect. After Serena had shared her concerns the day before, they had both felt a fresh sense of urgency about the situation and each of them was even more determined to push ahead to reach their goal.

The city was every bit as dingy and ramshackle as Serena had described, but any place that had a roof and a soft bed was as good as paradise right now. Kitty kept close as Serena navigated along the maze of streets, passing through the gates of three different walls; the city had been radically expanded several times. The whole design was completely different to the capital, it was chaotic. Each building varied wildly in its purpose, size and composition. A small thatched cottage sat next to a four-story furniture shop that had a tumbledown shack haphazardly overflowing onto the street. There was dirt and rubble on the floor, accompanied by the persistent, clinging smell of dank waste.

The two Constellations passed miserable people muttering to each other in lazy accents that made Lanatherian commoners sound well-bred. Some were working but most simply milled around, either because they didn’t have homes or because the ones they had were so awful that they were avoiding returning. Just being within this settlement made everything seem grey and hopeless.

Their destination turned out to be a palatial, solidly built townhouse. It was owned by the royal family and maintained by a handful of permanent staff, whose duty it was to make sure that at least this small part of Garrowgent was clean and fragrant. The entrance was a vast, high-ceilinged receiving room, designed to create an immediate impression of grandeur. Vast amounts of marble had been used as decoration, from the open staircase on the left of the room, to the counter along the back wall which was manned by an overly cheerful attendant. Pillars lined the edges and several corridors leading to closed rooms were also visible. Kitty admired the skilfully carved bannister, wondering if she would ever be able to feel totally at home in such a place. Travelling with Serena was definitely allowing her to experience a different level of accommodation than what she was used to.

“Lady Olbridge!” the female attendant bounded over and knelt elegantly before Serena, with remarkable ease considering the flamboyant ruffles on her pristine white skirt. “Your arrival was unexpected, I am deeply sorry that we have not prepared a room for you or your companion, My Lady.”

The poor woman looked genuinely flustered, and although Kitty’s dealings with the royal family had generally been pleasant, she guessed they took a harsher approach with those who served them in a more direct manner.

“Alainia, it is no problem,” The Dancer insisted. “We will use the messenger’s room, we are merely passing through.”

“My Lady!” Alainia gasped, “That is not suitable for one of your station. I will have one of the girls prepare the Northern Suite, there are no views to be had in this city but that room has the least offensive sights by far.”

“I am tired and it has become late already. The room down here will suffice, say no more of it and be back about your duties.” Serena commanded the attendant, and then promptly turned and took herself off down the nearest corridor without another word.

Kitty raced to catch up and found herself in a small room with two light-framed single beds and a desk with two chairs. Not the luxurious experience she was hoping for, but an improvement on the previous few nights sleep. Serena locked the door behind them, dropped her pack next to it and started pulling one of the beds away from the wall. Kitty grabbed the opposite side of the bed and assisted in the impromptu rearrangement of the furniture. She could see why The Dancer had insisted in staying in this room: underneath where the bed had stood was a tiny trapdoor, just wide enough for Serena to put an arm down. The noblewoman fished a piece of paper out before quickly restoring the room to its former state.

“This is how we have been communicating with The Juggler- the bottom of this chute connects to a hidden tunnel running underneath, linked by the old sewer system. We send a trustworthy messenger to the city to leave a letter, and then pick up the reply.”

“That’s really clever… does it say where he’s meeting us?”

Kitty looked over Serena’s shoulder as she unfolded the paper and felt the royal tense as she took in its contents.

“It is the letter we left…”

Kitty skimmed the writing. It’s started, two will meet you. Name a safe place.

But then on the bottom, in a different hand. Run, they know who you are.

They looked at each other with wide eyes for a split second, then grabbed their packs and bolted for the door.

They found themselves back in the receiving room, but they were met with an unnerving sight; Kitty noted that the room looked a lot smaller when it was packed with soldiers. These were not royal guards, but clearly a group of individual warriors with grey plates of armour and assorted weaponry consisting mainly of swords, daggers and cleavers. Alainia was speaking to one with distinctive grey skin and pointing towards their corridor.

Kitty grabbed Serena’s arm, intending to pull her back to the room. Maybe they could escape through the window?

It was too late, they had been spotted. The Dancer pulled away from Kitty’s grasp and swiftly tore out her fans. The Archer moved to deploy Venethos as the soldiers charged, hoping to take down a few before she had to rely on her knife. In that instant, her stomach flipped. She suddenly found herself next to a door leading out of the building, just a step behind the enemy soldiers.

An imposing man stood with her, his hand on her arm. He looked a few years older than her and was tall and slim with a scruff of dark blond hair and messy stubble. He was obviously not part of the soldiers’ squad- he wore no armour, just a loose, black cotton top with elbow-length sleeves, rugged trousers, and a self-satisfied smirk.

His grip tightened and he unceremoniously shoved Kitty behind him before she had time to react. She caught herself and succeeded in remaining upright. The closest soldier spun around to face whoever had approached him from behind. The blond man lazily tapped the enemy with one finger and glanced across to where Kitty had been a few seconds previously. The soldier vanished and Serena appeared in his place, brandishing her war fans.

“Asher!” she exclaimed, her relief palpable.

“Who else was gonna come rescue you, Dancer?” The Juggler was deep voiced, with a local accent. He turned to Kitty with an unhealthy amount of anticipation in his massive, liquid brown eyes, “Cover us, Archer.”

Asher drew a short sword from his belt with his left hand and launched himself into the centre of the battle. The squad had quickly realised their quarry had shifted and moved to surround the trio of Constellations. Kitty put herself in the doorway so she couldn’t be flanked, tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear and began firing Venethos’ conjured arrows into the mass of soldiers.

Serena wove around the enemy soldiers, her fans flashing as she waltzed between the incoming blows. She took the head off one man before spinning low and hamstringing another, her regal features still arranged into their usual calm expression.

Asher’s style of combat was unlike anything Kitty had seen before. It seemed that he used his strange swapping power as a weapon. He was never facing the same man for more than a second or two, constantly flicking between the soldiers. He kept at least one hand free to tap his target, using his short sword ambidextrously to combat unsuspecting foes as they unknowingly materialised in the blade’s path. Even merely watching was making Kitty feel queasy, she couldn’t imagine how disorientating it would be to try and fight against.

Five soldiers broke away from the rest and headed for the staircase, readying their bows. Kitty had put black and white arrows into three of their skulls when another small group rushed straight at her, swinging cleavers and screaming war cries. She felt an unusual calm settle over her as she lined up her first shot. Venethos was an exquisite weapon; it felt perfect in her grip and she swore that it improved her aim. It seemed to be an extension of her body and senses, a sleek predator felling her enemies one-by-one. She would have to break soon though- they were getting close. Kitty tensed, ready to duck an oncoming strike. Biting down nausea, she found herself on the marble counter at the other end of the room.

“Treacherous whore deserved it,” Asher commented jovially as he blocked a sword strike from one of the rapidly decreasing number of soldiers on the floor below her.

Kitty struggled to understand until she looked over to the spot which she’d been moved from. Alainia had taken the blow intended for her. The Juggler had switched the attendant into the path of the cleaver and now she was sprawled across the entrance, previously spotless skirts dyed a bloody red.

Kitty felled the remaining enemy archers before they could snipe at the Constellations.

“I was about to dodge,” she huffed between shots.

“Yeah, but two birds and all that. Now you got the high ground and I don’t have to kill her myself,” Asher’s cool drawl remained steady.

Kitty decided to ignore his harsh reasoning and concentrate on the task at hand, in the hope that she would be able to gain a better understanding of their new companion when they weren’t fighting for their lives. It was easier to pick off the remaining soldiers from her new perch and The Juggler faithfully removed any threat that came too close.

The Dancer was the most obvious target, but anyone who thought that this meant she was an easy one soon realised their mistake. She was more than a match for any of them, with not one blow landing on Serena as her fans flickered deftly into every unarmoured weak spot.

The chaos turned to calm in an instant. Kitty shot a man who had given up and run for the exit. He was the last. She checked and double-checked the room, alert for another attack and adrenaline still pulsing through her veins. The room was a state. Blood spatters covered the chipped marble decorations and a sea of dead bodies carpeted the floor. But there was something else out of place.

“The man leading them is gone,” Kitty shook her head, furious that she’d allowed the only grey-skinned man to escape.

“He’s gotta be in one of the other rooms- he didn’t go out the front,” Asher said with perfect confidence. “Let’s find that Tenebri-loving scum.”

“There is more than one way out of this building and we need to be away from here as soon as possible,” Serena interjected. “Take us somewhere safe, Asher.”

The tall man looked like he was going to argue but settled on giving The Dancer an exaggerated eye-roll.

“Only coz you asked so nicely.” He smirked.

A hard look flared in the noblewoman’s eyes, not used to this kind of insolence. Kitty quickly resolved not to get involved. The tension was lost on The Juggler, who swiftly shooed the women out, stopping only briefly to make sure they had all their gear. Kitty averted her gaze as she stepped over the pile of gore and frills to take her leave, although she was still unable to avoid the accusing blank stare of the dead woman at her feet.

 

Night was starting to fall and the impending rain with it. It made for a miserable journey, despite its brevity. Asher’s house was closer to the outskirts of Garrowgent, along a system of labyrinthine alleys. He gave them a set of directions, handed Kitty his door key and then disappeared into the gloom to check if anyone was following them.  The Archer was relieved to approach the squat, single-story stone building. It was quite inconspicuous, looking solid but worn, and consistent with the drab grey theme of the city. She fumbled with the key for a few seconds, feeling the chill set in now that she was starting to get wet.

She dragged open the solid oak door and stepped inside with a sigh of relief. This feeling was short-lived- the place had been turned upside down. There were random objects and items of furniture scattered everywhere, and it seemed that everything from ornaments to tools had been snatched up from where they belonged and hastily discarded. The Juggler’s house had been thoroughly searched.

Kitty barred Serena’s entrance with an arm, motioning for the noble to be quiet and pointing to the scene of destruction that lay in their path. The door to the kitchen lay open on their right, it was dark inside but seemed empty. Serena glanced at Kitty before drawing her fans silently and nodding towards the closed door at the opposite end of the room. Kitty braced herself and gripped her knife.

“You can go in, you know.”

Kitty jumped, heart beating wildly as Asher appeared behind them.

“Look,” she whispered. “Someone’s wrecked everything, it’s a complete mess”

The Juggler frowned at her and surveyed the damage beyond the two women. He strode in, glanced around and shook his head. “Nope, that’s exactly how I left it.”

“You live like this?” Serena asked, disapproval written across her face as she eased the door shut behind them. “Do not bother with an answer. Where is your best guest room? I must change into clothing that is not covered in blood.”

“Well, I recommend the Summer Suite: it comes with a four-poster queen-sized bed, butler and private pool. Depends on what colour scheme you’re after though, love,” he deadpanned.

Lady Olbridge took the hint and flounced through the single closed door, just managing to stop herself from slamming it behind her. Kitty was left stood in the gloom awkwardly, not wanting to disturb Serena but certainly not wanting The Juggler’s ire turned towards her. The only solution, it seemed, was perfect neutrality.

“Thank you for your help back there,” she offered her hand. “I’m Kitty Fairlow.”

The Juggler regarded her suspiciously for a second before shaking her hand. “Asher Grey,” he returned. “And, no problem.”

“Th-that woman in there… she’s Serena Olbridge,” Kitty added emphasis to The Dancer’s surname, hoping Asher would realise that he’d just insulted a member of the royal family and attempt to make amends.

“Yeah, I know her. We used to play together as kids. She was a snooty cow then as well,” Asher shrugged, “You hungry?”

“What? Yes, but- she’s royal.” Kitty explained.

“Ha, barely,” he laughed, beckoning her through to the kitchen.

Kitty was taken aback for a moment as she entered this new space. Everything was obsessively tidy: pots and pans hung in size order, with not even a spoon out of place. The Juggler set out bread, cheese and fruit and grabbed a large jug.

“Help yourself, Archer,” he offered, pouring her a drink of water.

“Thank you,” she smiled nervously, taking a chunk of thick, crusty bread. They ate in silence for a few minutes before the overwhelming urge to break the ice came upon her. “That power you have- teleporting people around? It’s amazing.”

He looked at her quizzically. “It works different than you thought? Or you just didn’t realise the potential for it to be used so lethally?”

“Oh, no. She didn’t tell me what you could do, just that we would be meeting you. What weapon do you have? Is it that sword?” Kitty guessed.

Asher dropped his food onto his plate and held up both hands, as if to present himself to her, “Love, I am a weapon.” He glared at her across the table, shaking his head in disbelief. “What’s with you? Forgot to listen in Constellation school?”

Kitty felt her cheeks redden. She loved her father- truly she did- but she wished that he hadn’t left her so clueless. The other Constellations had obviously been taught everything they needed to know about their heritage. No doubt she would still be struggling to catch up by the time they had all nine together… at least all she had to do was stand on the outskirts and shoot arrows.

“You said ‘she’ didn’t tell you. Was Serena or Jessica supposed to be training you? Coz I find it hard to believe that Alexander would leave out such basic stuff- like what each Constellation’s bloody power is.” He sighed, running his fingers through his hair.

Kitty just shook her head mutely. She didn’t want to paint her father in a negative light- he had told her that he was just keeping her safe. He had taught her a lot: how to shoot, hunt, forage, navigate, and a million other skills that would be useful to her in daily life. He’d just kept too much to himself, she was sure it would have been better for them both if he’d only shared their story with her earlier.

“It’s not just people,” Kitty was startled as Asher began to speak. “Any object. If I’m touching one and can see the other, I can Juggle them. They gotta be similar size, being the same shape helps, but mass don’t matter so much. The more different or further apart they are, the harder it is for me. I don’t get a personal weapon like you and The Dancer… I’m one of the Constellations who doesn’t have a combat orientated power. The Dancer’s got enhanced speed and flexibility, you got heightened senses and dexterity. In the years my father spent as The Juggler, he figured out ways to use the gift we were given as an asset in physically fighting the Tenebri, and we honed it as I grew up.”

Kitty’s heart broke a little as she found herself wishing she’d been brought up in such an open environment.

“My father taught me everything about being a forest custodian, but he didn’t teach me anything about being a Constellation. The first time I even realised I had a spirit thing inside me was a few days ago when I met Serena. When I left home my dad told me that he was only trying to protect me and that the princess would explain everything. But then the princess turned out not to be the princess, it was Serena acting as a body double, and that’s when she gave me Venethos. She told me about Lucidians and Tenebri and Thaedric Urns, because my father and I had found one, and then we came here and to be honest I’m totally lost…” she trailed off dejectedly.

“So that dense wench dragged you here and couldn’t even be bothered to tell you the basics?”

“Well, she tried. But at first I thought she was a bit crazy,” Kitty admitted. “Then she dropped a magic bow into my hands and told me we needed to get going. I found out a few things from her but there’s so much I’m missing… I’m not certain I’m even asking the right questions. All I can be sure of is that there is a very real threat to this world and that it’s my responsibility to be a part of resisting it.”

Asher regarded her with his cool gaze, “You want all the gaps filling in then?”

“Yes, please. I have no idea who these people are that I’m supposed to be working with, or what they can do, or even what I am. How can I fight a war when I don’t know my allies or my enemy?”

“Hope you aren’t too tired then, we got a long night ahead of us to bring you up to speed, Archer.”

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