The city was asleep, blanketed by low-lying clouds. The season was shifting, and the coming autumn could be felt on the breeze that came from across the sea.
Erik slowly crept through the stone alleyways of the lower quarter, making his way to the wall. He wasn’t afraid of being caught out this late at night, not even by the evening watch. Erik had been born and raised within these walls, and he knew the patterns of the streets like he knew the lines on the palms of his hands. He knew this city; it was his city. Erik also knew that his mother’s face would redden with anger if she discovered he had been out at this hour. But that didn’t worry him either; she had long since retired to her room for the night.
He made his way to the narrow staircase—nothing more than small stone steps cut right into the side of the city’s outer wall—that would lead him to his destination. Slowly he climbed, sticking close to the cold, hard rock on his right, his fingertips running along the stone surface. To his left was nothing but open air. The wind swept around him, bringing the salty scent of the ocean with it. The wall reached high above the rooftops of the darkened city below. Erik crept up slowly, careful not to look down at the view below him. Only when he reached the top did he pause, cautiously looking around to make sure he was alone.
He had come here to look out over the rolling plains and imagine the events of the past. He knew the legends that surrounded the city, how it had come to the brink of being destroyed and how it had been saved. Fourteen years ago, on the eve of his birth, the city had lain under siege. Then, when all were sure the city would be lost, High King Roshanel, who had been hidden away as a child, had returned, just in the nick of time to rally the men against the False Kings—evil brothers bent on claiming, by force, the right to rule.
Erik had tried to find out all he could about the battle, but even though the forces of Roshanel had been victorious, much had been lost. None wanted to tell the tale—memories were still too fresh, and pain still lingered in the hearts of those who had lost the ones they loved.
Erik leaned against the smooth stone wall in front of him, resting his chin in the palm of his hands and looking into the distance. Even though the night was dark, as he gazed out, he could see in his mind’s eye the brave men on horseback clashing with the armies of the False Kings. The thick and heavy battle steeds hammered the ground with their enormous hooves, their sharp teeth gashing at the enemy. The mounted warriors swung bright swords overhead, wielding blow after crashing blow. The High King’s colors were flying high over the battlefield, and the ringing of metal on metal rose above the cries of the men as waves of arrows sang overhead. Erik’s heart quickened, excited at the thought of such heroic men.
Aeron had told him that it took a brave man to keep peace and prosperity alive, that it was the rash and greedy men who started wars, but Erik refused to believe this. Surely it took true courage to ride out into battle, knowing that day could be your last. Erik leaned against the wall, letting his mind wander as his gaze drifted off into the distance.
Then his eyes narrowed, and he held his breath for a moment. Was something moving out there? Holding completely still, he stared out at the horizon. A small shadow seemed to flicker over the darkened plain in front of him. Before he could make out what it was, he heard the quick beat of a horse’s hooves. Someone was heading toward the city.
Now his heart truly pounded, and excitement warmed his blood. If he was to see who it was, he had to get closer to the main gate before the newcomer arrived. He turned and scurried down the narrow walkway, sticking close to the shadows so as not to be spotted. The guards at the gate soon came into view, and Erik stopped, not daring to move any closer. But they too had noticed the rider, and he had their full attention.
The rider was quickly approaching the gate. He was dressed in a black robe with a black hood, and he rode a black horse. Chills crept over Erik’s arms as the rider swept toward the city like a shadow moving over the earth. The rider didn’t slow as he drew near the gates, only stopping suddenly in front of them, sending the horse rearing and pawing the open air. A white hand reached up and brushed back the hood.
The face of an angel appeared. Her green eyes flashed as the wind caught her black hair and sent strands twisting up into the night air. Her skin, pale in comparison, reflected the light of the torches. Erik stared in wonder—and yet…there was something very familiar about her. She raised her face to the guards.
“I have a message for Ann, cousin to the king. It is urgent.”
Her voice echoed out over the silence. Erik could hear the heavy breaths of her horse even from the heights of the wall. The girl’s voice rang with an authority even the devil would have been afraid to cross.
“I cannot be kept waiting!”
The guards exchanged quick, nervous glances, and hurried orders were sent down for the gate to be opened. The wood groaned under its own weight as one side of the massive doors swung inward.
The dark angel entered the city and at a full run, striking straight into its heart. Erik lost sight of her in an instant, but he knew where she was headed. Turning, he ran down the walkway, not caring who saw him now. He had to get back—it was Ann that she was after, and he knew where she would be. He sprinted down the narrow staircase.
As soon as his feet hit the cobblestones, he took off. He darted through the open streets, the sound of his footsteps bouncing off the sides of the houses he passed. He didn’t bother sneaking through the alleys as he normally would have. He didn’t have time for that. The dark angel would be there by now.
Despite the coolness of the evening, beads of sweat formed on his brow as he started uphill. The houses around him began to thin out, separated by quaint gardens and then eventually surrounded by low walls laden with wisteria. The cloying scent of the soft purple flowers would permeate the air in spring. His mind was racing; he had to know who this girl was and what was so urgent. Whatever his dark angel was up to, it was important; he could feel it in his bones.
He finally reached the large iron gates, and his breath caught in his chest for just a moment as he saw they were already open. The massive iron portal, adorned with the image of two powerful stags, had always blocked the way on his evening excursions. Normally they stood facing each other with their heads down, their nostrils flared, and their horns about to lock in battle. Tonight they had been thrown apart, the gates open wide. He bolted through them, reassured that she had indeed come this way.
He slowed to a jog, out of breath and sweaty. After passing through the gates, he veered off the main road and followed a narrow paved path. He could hear the sound of gently falling water coming from the fountains hidden in the gardens around him. Trees, blocking the light from the moon, shadowed his way. Already turning the color of rust, their leaves swirled in the canopy above him. All else was quiet. Excited as he may be, he was still very aware that he shouldn’t be out at this late hour. He had to sneak back in, and the servant’s entrance was the best way to do so.
A simple wooden door made of large timber planks, now dark gray with age, was just ahead. He paused to catch his breath before slowly turning the knob and pushing the door open just a crack. He peered into the darkened hallway to make sure no one was there, his eyes taking a moment to adjust. Seeing the way clear, he slipped inside and crept down the hall, walking on tiptoe. He could see the light from the fire in the kitchen, which he’d have to pass—with any luck, unseen.
At this hour, it was unlikely that anyone would be there, but as he got closer to the kitchen, he could hear women whispering and pots being moved around. If he walked quickly and quietly, maybe they wouldn’t look up and see him pass.
“Master Erik, what are you doing up this late?”
Erik’s head dropped to his chest, caught—and by Elsa, no less. He thought of her as the matriarch of the servants. Her gray hair was twisted up on top of her head in a tight bun, and as always, she had a pristine, crisp white apron tied around her middle. She knew everything, and nothing got past her. She had helped raise him from a babe, and Erik knew that she could be just as stern as she was loving.
He turned and stepped into the kitchen, not yet looking her full in the face. Three other women were there, all of whom had stopped in their tasks and were now staring at him. One woman was seated, kneading dough; her hands, white with flour, hovered in midair. Another stood by a long bench, a knife poised in one hand while small bits of the onion she had been chopping glistened in front of her. The women seemed to be frozen, their large eyes fixed on Erik. The kitchen was hot, and the beads of sweat that had formed during Erik’s sprint home now started to roll down his forehead. He picked at his nails, trying to think up some excuse that he already knew she wouldn’t buy.
“Master Erik, your mother would have your head if she knew you’d been out this late in the night.”
Erik looked up and opened his mouth, about to plead for her silence.
“Elsa! Elsa!” a man’s voice rang out from behind him. Erik turned in time to see a skinny young man come panting to a stop at the kitchen door. Elsa took a few steps forward, standing at Erik’s side. The young man’s eyes were wide, and he hadn’t yet caught his breath, but he started speaking anyway.
“It’s her! It’s really her!” He gulped for more air.
Elsa’s eyes widened in disbelief. “But where has she been for the last fourteen years?” she questioned.
“I don’t know, but this isn’t a happy reunion. She brings news. Dark news.”
He paused for just a moment, resting a hand on the doorframe to steady himself. His eyes sank into Elsa’s as he said, “The past is rising.”
At these words, Elsa swayed a bit, her hand came up to her throat, and she took in a sharp breath. Time stood still, and no one moved. Fear seemed to pass between the skinny man and Elsa without their saying a word.
As if suddenly remembering where she was, Elsa dropped her hand and looked about, her eyes falling on Erik. “It’s time you’d be gettin’ to bed.”
She placed a hand on Erik’s shoulder and steered him past the skinny man and out into the hall. “You should get going before your mother catches you.” She gave him a hard look. “Now, Master Erik, let’s just say I didn’t see you here tonight and that you didn’t hear what Josh had to say.”
Turning from Erik, she glanced down the hall as if checking for anyone who might have overheard. Seeming satisfied, she softly patted him on the shoulder and then returned to the kitchen, leaving Erik unsure of what had just happened.
He stood there for a moment, trying to make sense of what he’d just heard as well as Elsa’s unusual behavior. Erik knew the skinny man must have been talking about his dark angel, and both he and Elsa had known whom she was. Yet Erik didn’t know, and he couldn’t make sense of what he had heard—“the past is rising.” He could feel his face heat with anger. He had been the one who had seen her at the gate, and he had known she was here before anyone else had. He wanted answers.
Meraview was the last of the great cities. Built in the time when the Eight ruled before their lineage dwindled and was lost from the world. Only the line of the High King was left, and his domain was diminishing. Still, Meraview stood like a beacon on the coast of Ahnal. Its tan walls shone like gold at dawn, when light from the rising sun reflected off the water. Tall towers pierced the sky behind the great wall that surrounded the city. Its foundations had been laid down in a time when all men had strength and purpose. Its halls had seen the passing of many ages and now seemed to slumber beneath the southern skies.
Erik roamed those halls, his blood running hot as he clenched his jaw in frustration. He needed answers, and he knew of one man who could tell him—if only he could find him at this hour.
The shuffling of many hurried feet sounded down the halls, and their owners scurried past Erik, paying him no mind. They all looked like they had been roused from a sound sleep, their hair hastily pinned up or quickly combed out, their clothes disheveled. Women ran past, shaking their heads and gripping each other’s arms. The men’s faces seemed turned to stone with looks of fearful resolve. Erik had never seen the place like this before. His dark angel was responsible—of this, he was sure.
He rounded a corner and emerged into the main hall. Its vaulted ceiling reached high above him, and visions of the night sky were painted across its lofty surface. Stars, aligned in the formation of the constellations, circled the room. Baythood with his flaming bow; Abraxas, the decider of fates; Lord Roth, master of weapons; and Ilak, mother to all gazed down at him from the painted sky. From the walls hung rich tapestries depicting mythical sea creatures, brutal fishing scenes, and proud sea captains surveying the horizon. Erik walked by the roaring fires lit in the hearths that lined the walls, passing between the columns of marble pillars that led to the end of the hall. Their blue-and-white variegated surfaces were as smooth as glass, the designs seeming to swirl around the pillars in the flickering firelight. Each step forward felt as if a living sea were parting in front of him.
Alone near the end of the hall, before one of the fires, paced a man shorter than Erik. The man’s small hands were clasped tightly behind his back and his head was down, his eyes staring fixedly at the floor. His round stomach was silhouetted by the firelight. Luck was with Erik tonight—he had found whom he was looking for.
The little man so lost in thought didn’t even notice Erik’s approach. Only when Erik was a few feet away did the man finally stop and look up. Erik, at fourteen years old, was already nearly a foot taller than he was. The man’s brow wrinkled for a moment and then relaxed in recognition.
“Erik, what are you doing up?” he asked.
Erik’s smile widened. “Hobble!” he exclaimed triumphantly.
Slowly the expression on Hobble’s face changed. He was still looking at Erik, but he no longer seemed to see him.
“Once I thought I would have given anything for this day,” Hobble said. He began to pace again, slowly shaking his head. “But not like this.”
Hobble’s voice was small and weak; it was such a contrast to his usual gregarious temperament. Erik just watched him as he paced back and forth before the fire. The little man seemed to be sleepwalking, as if lost in a dream. With each moment that Erik stood there, his chest gradually became heavier and heavier—the feeling that something was terribly wrong was sinking in.
A booming voice echoed his name from behind. It was a voice he knew all too well.
“Yes, Dad.” Erik turned, hanging his head in defeat.
“What are you doing here? How come you’re not in bed?” The large form of his father was fast approaching.
Hobble stopped pacing. He reached up and placed his hand gently on Erik’s father’s arm. “Have you heard, Felix?” Hobble’s voice was almost a whisper. He stared into Felix’s eyes, lost and confused.
Felix dropped to one knee, placing his hand on Hobble’s shoulder. “I know, my friend. I know. I am sorry, but I don’t have any answers for you right now. But be patient. I’m sure she will find you as soon as she can.”
Hobble nodded slowly. “Yes, yes. She will come as soon as she can.” He turned back to the fire and began pacing once again, lost in a world all his own.
Erik could hear his father draw in a slow, deep breath.
With that he rose, placing a rough hand on the back of Erik’s neck and directing him out of the hall.
They walked in silence as they made their way toward Erik’s room, his father’s hand resting heavily above his shoulders.
“I saw her at the gates, you know.” Erik held his breath and waited for his father’s wrath at the confession of his evening excursion. But Felix only pulled his lips tightly together and nodded, and they continued on in silence. As they neared his bedroom, Erik could feel his moment, his chance to get answers, slipping away.
“Dad.” Erik stopped walking and looked up at his father. In that moment, in the dimly lit hall, Erik’s father looked older to him than he had ever seemed before. Age had set into the fine lines around his eyes and lips. His father wore no beard, but gray had started to appear, lightly peppering his short-cut, dark hair. His shoulders were a little more relaxed than their normal rigid posture. His father looked tired.
Felix nodded, and then smiled weakly at his son.
“You want answers. You want to know what’s going on.” His hand slipped down to Erik’s shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze. “Ah…I guess it is about time you knew your history.” He nodded once more, looked back down the hall, and started walking again. “I’ll bet there’s a good fire going in your room. Let’s go make ourselves comfortable, and I’ll tell you what tonight is all about.”
When they got to Erik’s room, there was indeed a small fire blazing in the hearth. Opposite the door, a window cut into the three-foot-thick rock wall allowed moonlight to spill into the room. Lightly faded and threadbare carpets covered the floor, boasting the marks of the passing of many feet. The dark, polished wood of Erik’s four-poster bed glinted in the eerie mixture of moon- and firelight. A large armchair with claw feet sprawled by the bed, its pale-blue fabric also showing signs of age. The air was thick and warm. Erik’s father sank with a heavy sigh into the large chair and gestured for Erik to sit on the bed. Erik lost no time in crawling up onto the soft blankets and propping himself up with pillows, settling in.
“Erik, to explain what is happening tonight, I must tell you a bit about the past, particularly what brought me here. You might find it hard to believe, but once I was a young man…or I thought myself a man. Little did I know I had so much more to learn of life. One day, a strange woman arrived at my home on an adventure of her own. I was restless; I wanted adventure. I wanted to see the world. I was tired of my small village where nothing ever happened. I made it so that she had to take me with her. The details aren’t important. What was important was what she carried with her. I didn’t find out until after we arrived here, at this city, that she carried the documents containing the whereabouts of High King Roshanel. We had brought hope to the city.
“But war was inevitable, and I wanted nothing else than to be a part of it. My head was filled with notions of how glorious it would be to go into battle. I trained every waking hour; I was filled with the obsession of war. I learned how to fight.”
For a moment, Felix stopped, letting his words hang in the air. His eyes glazed over with memories of the past. Then, with a tilt of his head, he looked straight into Erik’s eyes and said, “I learned how to kill.”
He paused again, letting the gravity of that statement sink in. Felix’s eyes held Erik’s with a certain degree of intensity. Erik, unsure of the reaction his father was looking for, sat unmoving, barely breathing, afraid his father wouldn’t continue. But Felix did continue. He gave his son a sad smile and then went on.
“I spent the few short days I had doing nothing but prepare myself. I will tell you this—practice did not prepare me for the brutal chaos that awaited. We rode out to meet the army of the False Kings. The memory of that first day is one I am unable to forget.
“At first, our enemy was just a black dot on the horizon. As we drew closer, the reality of their size became apparent. So thick were their numbers that they appeared as a massive moving sea spreading across the earth in front of us. Our horses became anxious, making them hard to control. Fear grew over us in an oppressive silence. When we were about to come within range of their arrows, we stopped. We could hear their voices, not as individuals but as one overwhelming, assaulting cry. I could hear our captains shouting orders and trying to rally the men, but I was lost in the call of our enemy.
“Slowly, the familiar voice of Lucin, our captain, brought me back to reality. His voice was confident, strong; his words full of purpose. Adrenaline was beginning to take hold of us, and he used it. Told us we were going to push them back to the very rim of hell. That we would make them curse this very day—the day they’d met us. When the horns sounded, we were ready.
“I would have sworn that the very sky was being ripped apart by the sound of our armies colliding. All of a sudden, the world consisted of nothing but blood and metal and men. I lost all concept of time. The ground under my horse’s hooves become soft with the bodies of men and their blood that muddied the earth. It was then that I realized my muscles were on fire and that my body burned with exhaustion. But there was no choice but to continue. Each man—on both sides—was fighting for his life. I started to recognize the faces around me as the men I had trained with just days before. I watched as their limbs, too tired to fight, failed to protect them from the blows of the enemy. Finally, the battle seemed nearing an end, and we were winning—not that I would have called it a victory with so many dead.
“It was then that they joined forces. The False Kings’ armies had merged, swelling their numbers and overrunning our depleted ranks. Our king at the time was young and inexperienced. He was not eager to admit defeat and refused to call a retreat, not heeding the counsel of his lieutenants. When the call finally did come, our men could hardly run, let alone fight. Many were slaughtered as they tried to make it back to the city. Horses and men alike stumbled…and when they fell, none got to their feet again.
“The False Kings made an attempt to kill King Roshanel in the retreat. In one fell swoop, they would have won it all. Lucin, Ann, and myself were next to the king when it happened. In an instant, we found ourselves up against men who were fresh and not fatigued from fighting. Pure madness overtook us. There was no rational thought, just insane rage. As we were breaking away from their grasp, an arrow struck Ann in the chest. Still she fought with a fury I’ve seen no man possess. The king owes her his life. But when we were in sight of the city, she fell. All the strength just drained from her body. I remember watching as her limp form slip off the back of her horse as it ran. I almost remember the sound of her body as it struck the ground. But there was nothing we could do. To stop would have meant not just our own end, but the end of our people.
“We made it into the city, safe for the moment behind its walls but too tired to care about what would happen next. The city lay under siege. A day and a night passed. Blood ran through the streets like water as the enemy screamed at our gates. By the next morning, we knew we had lost. This city was to be our tomb. It was then, not long after dawn, that we heard the rumbling of the earth. It was as if the very veil of hell was opening to swallow us whole. But in fact, it was our salvation.
“The men from Haled had come, men whose bare hands could shape the very rocks that they mined. They have no equal among men—and they had come to our aid. At the mere sight of them, new hope sprang up in our hearts. We threw open the gates and rushed out to join them. In the end, the day was ours. We had beaten back the enemy beyond return.”
A pounding on the door just then jerked Erik back to reality. He had been sitting forward, hands gripping the sheets, lost in his father’s story.
Felix rose from the chair with an air of exhaustion and answered it. In the doorway stood a lanky man. His sandy-brown hair had receded around the temples, leaving a sharp widow’s peak, which only emphasized his long, pointed nose. This nose was at this moment being held with a slight tilt upward in a manner of self-imposed importance.
“Sir, I apologize for the disruption, but the King’s Council has been summoned.” His wispy voice floated into the room.
“All right, I’ll be right there,” Felix replied, causing Erik to leap out of bed.
“But what happened? Who’s the dark angel? You have to finish!” he exclaimed.
“Erik, the King’s Council has been called. I have to go. But I promise I’ll be back to finish the tale.”
Felix then turned and stepped through the doorway. Erik’s heart lurched. He didn’t want his father to go.
“What does ‘the past is rising’ mean?”
At Erik’s words, Felix spun around so fast that Erik was forced to take a quick step back.
“Where did you hear that? Who said that?” demanded his father in a fierce tone.
Erik’s heart seemed to pause in his chest. For the first time in his life, he was afraid of his own father.
“I…I—” he stammered.
The man at the door interrupted. “Sir, I was instructed to bring you at once.”
Felix sighed as his face softened. “Erik, try to get some rest. I will be back as soon as I can.”
And with that, his father left the room.
She could hear their confused voices through the thick oaken doors. She knew the message she had to convey, and she had been warned there would be opposition. Slowly she placed both of her pale, cool palms against the aged wood. Shutting her eyes for a single moment, she gathered her strength. Taking a deep breath in and flexing her fingers, she threw open the doors.
Before her were gathered the members of the King’s Council—mostly men, of all ages, and wearing long robes, who were until this moment standing around arguing among themselves. At her entrance, all became quiet, their eyes fixed on her. Alone against the far wall sat the king, and her eyes were on him alone. No one else mattered. She stepped through the door and made her way directly to him. Her whole focus was set on him, but she could feel the weight of the other bodies around her, closing in. Finally, she could no longer ignore their presence. One voice cut through the rest.
“Ann has informed us that you’ve returned and that you bear news worthy of our gathering at this late hour.”
She stopped, her eyes narrowing in on the man before her. He had long, gray hair that draped limply down to his chin. His skin was thin and splotched with age. His whole body gave off the impression of fragility, but she knew better than to be deceived by his appearance. Even though she had never met him before, she knew he was the one who went by the name Aermous. She wasn’t ready to address him yet, so she let him continue. He raised his hands, gesturing as if lost.
“We took you for dead. Since you are clearly still very much alive, I think I can speak for us all when I say that we are quite curious to find out why you have abandoned us all for fourteen long years.” His tone was mocking as he slowly, carefully, overenunciated every last word.
“No,” she corrected him, her voice ringing clearly over the crowded room. “The question you should be asking is, why have I returned after fourteen long years?” These last words held the same mocking tone he had used. “Not why I left. And you should be asking why with such urgency have I roused you all from your beds at such a late hour.”
She paused, but only for a second, to make sure she had their full attention. She raised her voice just slightly, sending it echoing off the cold stone walls.
“My friends, I’ve come back to you now to inform you that the past is rising.”
For a moment, the world stood still. She paused again, letting the weight of her words sink into their fearful souls. Then, chaos erupted. Everyone was talking at once, and no one was listening to each other. She closed her eyes, letting their voices wash over her like waves. Then she straightened herself, stretching out every fiber of her being, making herself taller—an illusion Madeline had taught her. Her voice rose over the clamor in the room.
“They have awoken the language of the dead.” She slowly opened her eyes, glancing at the men around her. “Resurrecting that which we had thought long since forgotten, things that are but a distant memory—a bedtime tale for our children. Few are left who know how to deal with such things.”
Her eyes went to the king. She stepped forward once more, and the sea of bodies parted in front of her.
"I have returned after these fourteen long years to finish what your mother had started."