Stone of Wrath
Andre gazed across the countryside with a mixture of the pride and defeat. Spires of dark stone and squat cottages of brick and mortar sprawled across the valley surrounding Lake Peris. Ash blown in from Mounts Mordris carried glass and volcanic ash into the city, giving Galis its infamous crimson sunsets and glittering skies. The range of mountains and volcanoes made his land beautiful, but it barred the Kingdom from the rest of the world for most of the year. And no matter the season, the few existing passes were considered too treacherous for a Duke’s son. Here was the kingdom of burnished gold and hot iron—
The Kingdom of Banishment.
It was here the surrounding lands sent their castoffs: cheating wives, scheming princes, and all manner of people too important and not heinous enough to kill. They were received without judgment—if they made it here alive. Despite the grudging obedience of the citizens, accepting the undesirables kept King Aidris’ coffers full and international trade free.
The first eruption of the year marked the beginning of debutante season and Andre congratulated himself on finding the perfect place to hide from his cousin, Princess Mina. From his corner, he spied on the heavily perfumed debutantes as they dragged their victims across the ballroom by the coattails.
Andre was sixteen autumns—young enough to be considered a boy, but old enough that his father expected him to think like a man. Settling down was the furthest thing from his mind, and instead, he dreamed of the Mts. Mordris and the day he crossed them to explore the continent.
Before he married, he would go beyond those peaks and into the Kingdom of Valindra for science and culture—or the State of Abaell to ponder the forces of the universe. Even the Kingdom of Addagarr to the South held promises of adventure as it was home to dragons and medicine men, witch doctors and sorcerers. There was so much to learn of the world, how could Andre even think of settling when he never had the chance to start?
Andre ducked down just as he spotted Princess Mina by the buffet table. Grabbing a glass of wine from a servant, he escaped to the balcony. He watched her pretty blond curls bounce as her head turned in search of him but Lady Einhar turned her to a group of young bachelors before she could spot him behind the flounced curtains.
Andre danced with a few girls and then determined it was a good time to leave. The businessmen around town departed long ago, taking their stories of travel and adventure with them. He moved to wish his cousin a good night but as he neared, her eyes lit up in relief then widened in horror. The music stopped and a hush fell over the hall. Andre turned around.
With a tattered blue cloak wrapped about her like a fog, a woman stood at the grand entrance to the ballroom. Her honeyed skin was smudged with mud and dirt and glimmered with the glass of volcanic ash. As she walked past, Andre smelled ivy, sulfur and blood. Even beneath all that grit and grime, she walked with a gentle grace that marked her as something more than a street urchin.
“Great King Aidris,” she began with a resonating voice and bowed with the elegance of a practiced lady. “The State of Abaell extends many blessings upon you and your kingdom.”
Andre was quite certain that the king would throw her out immediately, and indeed, by the appearance of his furrowed brows and flustered cheeks, he looked ready to do just that. But at the mention of Abaell, the king jolted in his seat and leaned in to get a better look at her.
“Priestess,” he whispered with reverence. “We rarely receive visitors of such esteem,” he said.
“I am honored that you hold my presence in such high regard.” She said with another graceful bow. “May Pavola see that I live to your expectations. But I fear I am not in the best state for story-spelling,” she said as she gestured to herself.
The King sat erect, the tone of his voice rich with power and pride. “Of course, you must be exhausted from your journey, Priestess--”
“Oralyn, your majesty,” she said with another bow.
“Priestess Oralyn,” he amended. “My servants will prepare a room for you. Return when you have rested.”
“I will make haste.” Her hood was still drawn over her head, but a long, thick braid swung down from her shoulder with every bow. She lifted her head as two servants came to take her to the guest hall. Her footsteps echoed within the chamber as lords and ladies, criminals and swindlers watched her graceful retreat from the hall.
She was just over the threshold of the entrance before the hall was abuzz. The servants wisely closed the doors and she was out of his sight. Andre found himself unable to move from where he stood. He was young, but even he knew the significance of her visit. Priests of the old religion were highly regarded and even kings bowed to the High Priest of the Order.
“Your grace will stay now, won’t you?” asked a voice somewhere at his side. Mina had her arm threaded through his own in a gesture of possession. She looked up at him with wide, innocent green eyes.
This Oralyn may not have a castle, but King Aidris saw her as an equal. So why did a priestess, revered by kings and blessed by the gods, arrive in such a state? Should she not travel in style and grace? What brought her to the Kingdom of Banishment and why did she bring nothing with her?
Andre reclaimed his glass and awaited her return.
It was an hour of tense excitement. The chatter slowly dwindled into silence. Tired children climbed into their mother’s laps and sucked their thumbs as their eyes became heavy. The mothers’ arms soon grew tired and waning patience showed on their delicate faces. The men stood in quiet groups, checking their pocket watches and slurping their whiskies as they all looked towards the door for any sign of the priestess’s return. Tight smiles passed from lords to ladies and the King’s indulgent deference diminished as the time passed. Would she ever show?
The King nodded to a servant at his side. With a curt bow, she started for the hall.
The doors crashed open and a gale swept through the hall, extinguishing the candles and waking the sleeping children. The restrained quiet turned to hushed excitement. Andre stumbled around to find the wall and squinted into the darkness.
Waves of heat and light wafted from the center of the room as the smell of the ocean and sulfur washed over him. From the spark came a rush of images: Mounts Mordris erupting, spewing ash and hot magma from its gut as it bubbled up from the sea, flashes of lightning and rain turned an entire desert to glass, and a dragon slithered through the fires as it carried an egg in its talons.
The magic of her calmly delivered story-spell swept over him in a gentle caress. He saw a flash of light from her dark eyes before the Hall was plunged in liquid fire. Her voice stole over them as she showed them the birth of the Great Continent.
Heat of the fire singed his lungs with every breath. The blast from the flash of flames licked at his face but the fire never burned anything it touched. He sighed as the hot magma solidified into dark earth and the cool wash of rain poured from the crystal chandeliers to smooth his tight skin. Her words rang in High Abaellian speech, but her song was a gentle overture that bloomed thick white volcanic flowers and spun gold and green ivy around the growing bases of trees.
Humans emerged from the brush, threading quietly and barefoot through the jungle. The squeal of a hog caught the attention of the hunters and one threw his spear at the king. The nobles gasped in horror, but sighed in relief as the spear struck at his feet where a wild boar was readying to pounce. It turned and charged for the hunters and vanished.
The scene progressed. The jungle unraveled and gave way to farms. Buildings sprouted like trees and large cathedrals rang up from the center of great cities. Bathed in hard afternoon sunlight, the cities began to smoke. Smog poured from their tops and covered the skyline in a dusty haze.
Andre stumbled and the ladies screamed in alarm as the sickened Earth roared and pitched and rumbled until it shook itself apart. Lightning struck and caught fire to anything left standing and when all was destroyed, the heavens opened up and it rained for some time. Water crept in and swept it all away.
“Knowledge reserved for the Gods bought humans speech and writing; they built cities and farmlands; they erected libraries, learned to love, and finally, forgot about the gods.”
It was the history of the Seven Earths, serving up the most recent cataclysm. In each tale, the humans made a grievous mistake and the Earth—Peris—destroyed them with fire and left the Sky—Pavola—to bring the gift of rebirth. The Abaellian Order recorded each history and the monks traveled to spread the story in hopes of never repeating the past.
When the performance finished, Andre applauded and found himself begging for an encore. When he was invited to dine at the table with King Aidris and Princess Mina, he accepted with more enthusiasm than usual. The priestess sat on the left side of the king. Andre clapped again and congratulated her on her performance.
“Thank you, your grace,” she bowed her head in respect. “Perhaps one day, I will have a story of yours to tell.”
“Have you ever heard of the shape-shifting dragon of Mts. Mordris? They say he changes into a human male and seduces the women at the base of the mountain.” He said without thinking. When everyone at the table froze, he blushed.
“She didn’t mean for you to tell her a story now,” came Mina’s annoying voice. She and her friends giggled. His father gave him a look that suggested they would have a long talk about manners later. But when he looked at Oralyn, her face softened into an indulgent smile.
“I have always been interested in dragons. They are fiercely protective of their kin, but despise the weak. When I was a child, I was charged with the execution of two water dragons that were crazed with age and loneliness. Perhaps one day, you will tell me about your encounter with one.”
Andre liked the thought of that. He watched the priestess talk to his king and couldn’t tear his eyes from her. That skin that was such a pretty brown held the coloring of a farmer, but she looked soft, not hardened and wrinkled like the field laborers. Exploring her large obsidian eyes and full red lips, he thought she looked like a painting. How could he ever mistake her for an urchin?
Oralyn locked the door behind her and stumbled to the bed, calling out to Pavola as she carefully stepped out of her clothing. She looked down at the torn flesh where the bite of steel imperiled her life for the last week. Honey and lavender staved off the sick from taking root, but without Pavola’s blessing, she would not heal so easily and the night’s magic had devoured what little progress she made. She closed her eyes and peeled the bandage from her wound, the tiny fibers tearing away the dried blood.
Oralyn cursed herself for her own foolishness. Distracted by corpse of the High Priest, a soldier of the Barren Queen ran her through with his knife. She should have waited to mourn him when she knew she was safe—and she was punished her for the lapse. As she cleaned and packed the wound with winter calendula, she thanked Pavola for guiding her safely to the Middle Kingdom of Galis even though she knew Goddess was deaf to her now.
She’d killed a man.
Oralyn lied back on the bed and let her body relax, feeling the weight of the world on her chest. All her pain, all her loss was caused by the tiny, lone rock around her neck. She daren’t take it out or look at it, knowing that to do so would drag her deeper into its obsidian depths.
The Stone, although with a mind of its own, was not an entity rather than emptiness. It was a glut for power and life and it indulged from her during her journey when she most needed the energy. She wanted to be rid of the unforgiving thing as soon as possible.
The moment the Queen of Valindra learned of its power, her people were no longer safe. Her forces tore through the Pavolains, the peaceful healers too shocked to mount any defense. What frightened Oralyn most was the almost complete destruction of the Perisain monks. They were saved only by High Priest Fahren who sacrificed his life to use the stone—this stone—to destroy the invaders. As he lay dying, she knew it was only a matter of time before someone else came to claim the stone and she had to make a choice: find someone who could keep it safe or accept the stone as a Perisain Priestess.
Oralyn was a brave girl. She has slain dragons, traveled the continent, beheaded lords, freed stolen children and served under the most heartless High Priest in the history of Seventh Earths. Oralyn has known pain.
But this thing frightened her.
It frightened her, not because of what it could do, but the way it would transform her. She had to run. She confronted a dozen solders bent on her death; she journeyed across the glass desert with only the stars for a guide; and she climbed the ring of Mts. Mordris to brave the halls of the Galis for fear of becoming the evil she must outrun. With the first eruption came the countdown to her safety within these walls—one month, and all of Valindra will be here for the stone.
But could she trust that the fortress of Galis would hold? Could she trust that even the Queen of Valindra, so drunk in her lust for power, would give Oralyn time to form a plan before the calm season of Mts. Mordris? Could she even trust that the King of Galis would keep it safe and not be seduced by the power it could bring him?
Oralyn placed her hand over the cool stone closed her eyes. She had little time to learn the answers to her questions. For now, she and the stone needed their rest.