Long-dormant magical forces are moving once again in Sartorias-deles. Agents of Norsunder, a mysterious bastion of incredible dark power, have reappeared in the world, amassing resources and sowing instability.
But with numerous nations led by young rulers brought too early to their thrones, the world is hardly ready to defend itself. Atan is still uncomfortable with her new queenship, gained after her country was freed from a Norsundrian enchantment that left it frozen outside time for a century. Senrid strives to establish rule of law, after deposing his brutal and cruel uncle, seeking to exert control over rebellious jarls and a distrustful military academy. Jilo never expected the responsibility of leading his nation, but when its dictator vanishes after a Norsundrian attack, Jilo finds himself stepping into the power void, taking the reins of a country so riddled with dark magic that its citizenry labors for mere survival. Clair and CJ lead a band of misfits against magical threats that overshadow their tiny country, including a direct incursion from the Norsundrians.
Those in power are not the only individuals working to subvert the plans of Norsunder. Liere, a young shopkeeper’s daughter, battles her own debilitating insecurities to live up to her reputation as a former savior of the realm. Hibern, a mage’s apprentice, must act as a liaison between national leaders, negotiating politics still foreign to her. Rel, a traveling warrior, stirs powerful allies to action encourages common folk to take up arms.
These leaders soon realize that any significant victory against Norsunder will require an alliance between their nations. Yet good intentions may fracture in the face of personal grudges, secrets, and inexperience. As the Norsundrian attacks become bolder, the members of this tenuous alliance must find ways to trust one another and bind themselves together—lest they fail to defend against a host that has crushed entire worlds.
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There are, at present, two records that the world believes lost.
I know where they are. I've sat in the dusty chamber where they lie, my only company spiders spinning cobwebs into spectral lace over the years I was in and out reading both.
One of those records is The Emras Defense, a deposition with a later-secret-addition, written by Emras, the mage who wrote on advanced ward magic. The first version, without the addition, was surrendered to the Sartoran mage guild, and buried so deeply in the archives that it requires several levels of inquisition to be permitted to see it. Only a heavily redacted version is studied by senior mage students at present.
The other record predates Emras's confession by four hundred years, written by the man who went down in history as Fox, captain of the ship named Death, who sailed under the Banner of the Damned. He did not sign his history, which delves into everyone's thoughts but his, as his purpose was to record how Inda Algara-Vayir changed the world they both lived in.
I am taking him as my model in writing the history of the disparate group later called the Young Allies. I, too, have a purpose beyond autobiography.
This will be unsigned, which permits me the freedom of anonymity.
At least, so is my intention in setting out. As I get farther in, everything might change, except the actual events: the consequences remain to be seen.
Since the war that nearly destroyed Ancient Sartor more than 4700 years ago, Norsunder-the ancient, evil enemy-had, until recently, dwindled from admonitory parable to vulgar epithet.
While assembling my facts for this writing, I was entertained by the various definitions of Norsunder by those who have never ventured to that retreat beyond the limits of the temporal. Most of them described Norsunder as a vast army with a single motivation, an oversimplification that borders on outright lie.
This much is true: Those in command of Norsunder withdrew from the temporal after the Fall of Ancient Sartor nearly wiped out magic as well as humanity from the world. So much was lost, including magical abilities that had become innate. With the dwindling of magic, these abilities vanished forever-or so humans thought.
But recently it's become evident that these abilities were only dormant, as magic slowly manifested in the world again before Norsunder was aware or ready, this being the disadvantage of existing outside of time.
Norsunder's center is commanded by two individuals who seldom venture out of their citadel, aided by four others who call themselves the Host of Lords, implying they are part of the inner circle. The struggle for power among these four will be addressed in time; before that, all you need to know is that they assigned much of the grunt work in the temporal world to an Ancient Sartoran who had fought successfully against them until he was captured and turned.
He has operated under a variety of names over the succeeding centuries. Currently he goes by Detlev. Under Detlev-and straining against that short chain of command-is his nephew Siamis, who had been twelve years old when he was seized and used as the bait to entrap Detlev, in those terrible days at the very end of the Fall.
Bringing us to the year 4735.
When a new voice was heard in the mental realm for the first time in over four thousand years, it meant that one of the skills thought lost forever, Dena Yeresbeth-"Unity of the Three," cohering body, mind, and spirit in ways impossible to humans after the Fall-was emerging again. For his first assignment Siamis was sent to track down the child and secure the source of that voice.
Now on the threshold of manhood, Siamis used that opportunity to demonstrate his skills in magic and command by binding entire populations under an enchantment, to cover Norsunder's attempt to create rifts between Norsunder's timeless vantage and the temporal world in order to bring across the armies waiting there.
Siamis was so intent on proving himself by building this web of enchantment that locating and snapping up a ten-year-old shopkeeper's daughter named Liere became a secondary consideration, until she managed to elude capture. Aided by fifteen-year-old newly crowned king Senrid Montredaun-An and a growing host of allies, Liere brought down Siamis's enchantment as rapidly as he had created it.
That was the year previous to the beginning of this history.
In spite of what ballads, speeches, and poems about the Girl Who Saved The World, and new Golden Ages, will tell you, neat, discrete endings to stories don't happen in real life.
Of all the subjects of this chronicle, most of whom were young rulers brought too early to thrones, probably the one most distrusting of the ephemera of Golden Ages and happy endings was Senrid Montredaun-An.
It seems appropriate to begin with him.
The Alliance is Born
Early Rothdi (Sixthmonth), 4737 AF
Marloven Hess, a kingdom traditionally not given to taking any interest in its neighbors except as prospects for conquering, was still unsettled after the civil war that had removed their hated regent-who had been secretly supported by Norsunder. The Marlovens, never easy to rule even for a powerful and experienced king, found themselves with a fifteen-year-old boy trying to hold onto his throne.
Senrid had first become aware of Norsundrian game plans and stirrings of old powers during the bad days when he and Liere had been on the run from Siamis.
But right now? Norsunder was not his problem.
All his focus was on a boy several years older, who faced him across the stone court in the infamous Marloven military training academy.
At best, it would hurt. A lot. At worst, Senrid would be dead. No, that wouldn't be the worst, Senrid was thinking, because then he'd be gone. Unless he became a ghost, but if ghosts actually existed, he'd never seen any. If dying by violence caused haunts, by rights Marloven Hess should be wall-to-wall revenants, and Senrid had never even seen his father's-
Ten years of habit shut away that thought. He flexed his hands once, resisting the impulse to wipe them down his trousers, and faced the tall, dark-haired, angry boy who towered over him. Boy? Jarend Ndarga, the leader of the seniors of the academy, had four years and two hands of height over Senrid.
"Fight me," said Senrid.
He knew he hadn't a hope of winning, but since he was an underage king in a land where fighting has always decided everything, and all his future commanders were gathered in this one place staring at him like he was a squashed bug, what did he have to lose?
"Of course I can't fight you," Ndarga said bitterly. "I touch your precious kingly head and you'll have me at the flogging post so fast there won't be time to whistle up a crowd to scoff."
"That," Senrid said, "was my uncle. This is me. When I said anything goes, I meant it. Do you see a uniform tunic?" He lifted his hands and spun around, as if Ndarga hadn't been aware of his plain white shirt tucked into his black trousers. Senrid hoped no one noticed the tremble in his fingers.
"No," Ndarga said slowly.
"Then take off your coat. We're two people, and we're going to scrap."
"Rules?" Ndarga said in a goading voice.
Senrid exulted, in spite of his hammering heartbeat. I've got him.
He didn't pause to reflect on how. Who cared? He might not last until the next watch change, but at least he'd go out fighting, a fitting finish to the shortest reign in Marloven history . . . "Anything goes," Senrid said recklessly.
The low whistles and whispered comments from the perimeter were testament not only to how many had gathered on the walls and at the windows, but to what they thought.
"Oh, for certain," Ndarga sneered. "If I kill you, nothing happens to me?"
"Something is certain to happen, but it won't be by my command," Senrid retorted, and breathed out when he heard a ripple of laughter from the spectators. "Seeing as I'd be dead," he added, in case there were some a little short on logic.
Senrid dared not look around to see the reactions. With an effort he kept his gaze steadily on Ndarga's dark eyes.
"Kill him," a senior called from a safe vantage behind.
And as Senrid had hoped, Ndarga's upper lip curled in disgust. From that same direction behind came a fast, whispered exchange from the crowd:
"I didn't see you walking out there when he called his challenge."
"And have the guard land on me for my pains?"
"He's not here as king."
"He's always king," someone else said.
"What's the matter, afraid of an untrained scrub?"
"We all know he's had training."
"But not with us."
Senrid listened without shifting his gaze from Ndarga, who was also listening as he took off the coat that only academy seniors wore, and handed it to a friend to hold. Now they were both committed. They could hear it in the whispers.
Senrid was not the only one who felt that the world had gone smash in the last few years. He didn't need his still-uncontrolled Dena Yeresbeth to know that Ndarga was furiously angry at the situation and at the world. Senrid might not have been traditionally trained at the academy with his future leaders, but the academy's commander had risked his life by personally training him in secret throughout Senrid's boyhood.
They began to circle, each watching the other for tiny signs-the twitch of an eyelid, attitude of shoulder, how a foot was placed.
While they circled, inside the castle, Hibern Askan, a Marloven-born mage student, arrived in the transfer chamber. She stared at the patterned tiles on the floor, different for every transfer Destination. Her joints throbbed in slowly diminishing pangs, protesting being wrenched in and out of the world from a continent away.
She let out her breath, and as she headed for the stairs, she began to consider what to say to Senrid. This was not her usual time for their magical studies, and she knew he liked sticking to a schedule.
She ran up the stairs two at a time, not surprised to find Senrid's study empty.
She was far more unsettled to find the hallway empty, too. Usually there were guards moving on their regular patrols at every landing.
What now? Something violent, of course. Her heart banged at her ribs. It was strange. A few years ago, their respective guardians had expected Hibern and Senrid to someday marry. They were both Marlovens, and close to the same age, but in every other respect they could not have been more different. As she walked more slowly downstairs, she reflected on the thrill of excitement she'd experienced on discovering the world outside of Marloven Hess.
World? Worlds! The fact that there were seven worlds circling the sun Erhal, and that on three of them humans lived, made her long to read about them. But Senrid-one of the smartest people she knew-was totally indifferent.
Her passion was magic, a passion so strong it had lost her her home. Senrid's passion was his kingdom.
But, she thought grimly as she heard the low mutter of voices echoing along the stone hallway at the ground floor, in many ways she still thought like a Marloven. Maybe just as well. She'd discovered that the world outside her homeland's borders still distrusted her for being one.
A turn of a corner revealed guards talking in a cluster, mostly-blond hair glinting in the beating torchlight.
At the sound of her step, the four guards whipped around, two half-drawing swords. Then they separated and hustled away, presumably to resume patrols they never should have abandoned.
Something was definitely wrong. Hibern reached the landing, and said to the runner stationed there, "I'm looking for Senrid-Harvaldar."
The runner, who was probably twenty-five, looked about ten as he said stiffly, "Went to the academy."
"At this time of night?"
She didn't expect any answer, but the runner seemed to need to talk, as if to pass his tension on to someone else. "They say he went to the senior court."
The words were fraught with extra meaning. Hibern ran downstairs. Three steps in the direction of the academy, and she faltered in the middle of an empty, echoing stone hall. She wouldn't be permitted to set foot in the academy. No girls were, except at the barns, a holdover rule from the regent. Women do not carry weapons. It was said that the regent had killed his own wife . . .
Never mind that. Think! Hibern paused before the mighty iron-reinforced door that led in one direction to the tower stairs, and in the other to the ancient tunnel that debouched into the academy, now an inky darkness dimly lit by a distant torch.
The barns-and Fenis. Hibern and Fenis Senelac had played as children. Was Fenis still training horses at the academy barns? She would be if she could, Hibern knew.
Hibern ran, her proud new mage robe flapping at her knees. She encountered no academy boys. They had to be gathered as close as they dared to the senior court, wherever that was. She pounded down torchlit stone corridors between the unembellished sandstone buildings that had trained Marloven commanders for centuries. The sinkhole of the kingdom, that's what the academy was known as outside Marloven Hess. And there had been times, she'd discovered, that it had been known that way inside the kingdom, usually before some great ruction.
She reached the barns, where girls were busy bedding down horses for the night, and asked after Fenis until she was pointed in the proper direction.
She spotted a familiar dark, curly head. Fenis looked exactly like her brothers from the back, but when she turned, Hibern recognized her, though she was dressed much like the younger academy boys in her loose tunic-shirt and long riding trousers.
Fenis stared, brow furrowed. Hibern paused, waiting. She could imagine Fenis thinking: tall, black hair, black eyes, riding clothes, but what's that sky blue robe over them? Mage blue, hadn't she heard something about her old playmate doing magic studies?
Fenis exclaimed, "Hibern! I thought you were . . ."
"Disinherited and driven from home?" Hibern asked in a hard enough voice to hide how it still hurt, all these months later. "Yes, I was. I'm now a mage student."
Fenis made a quick slapping motion in the air, as if to strike the words away. "Magic," she said, and grimaced. "Almost as nasty a subject as the regent."
Hibern knew that any magic but the everyday spells that everyone used without thinking, such as the Waste Spell, or those concerning bridges, roads, and water purity, was a matter of distrust to her fellow Marlovens. And she was not about to explain the difference between the dark magic that Marloven mages had been using for several centuries, and light, which was now her study. "Senrid? They said in the castle that he's here. What's going on?"