© Sam Kearns
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The moon waxed. A breeze shook the canopy. Down on the forest floor, something moved.
Parus threw himself against a tree trunk, shuddering as cold river water covered his bare feet. Although confident he hadn’t been spotted, he still checked left and right for movement before letting his breath out. Moonlight reflected on the mangrove channel, its brilliance distorting the water.
She was out there somewhere. She was probably watching him right now.
Creatures were hunting, scurrying within the steamy clearing. Birds squawked as they glided between branches. Primates crossed between the tiny inlets on fallen logs, their panicked howls alerting their families for alligators hidden in the reeds. The waters swelled up the beaches and river banks, lethargically flooding the soil.
He sensed nothing unusual. The twitching movements of the insects, the ruckus of a passing flock of parakeets, it all pressed in on Parus. As creatures swam and jumped and fought and consumed one another, the Elements raged around them.
Parus experienced it all, like a word whispered on the edge of hearing. The Water Element was everywhere; an ever-shifting force that touched his awareness. In that mass of movement and energy, she was out there.
There was no point in waiting; Parus moved from his hiding place, crawling between twisted branches and through dense undergrowth. He was becoming more frustrated by the second. The chase had been in motion for well over an hour now. Despite weeks of practice, he could still sense the gulf between their abilities; wider and more dangerous than the treacherous channels that lay between the islands. How could she just disappear?
Was she out there now? Mocking him?
He reached a channel that separated his tiny inlet from the next. With no cover from the canopies, and so close to the channels, this would be where he was most vulnerable. Tantha was a Water Elementalist, like him, and could use rivers to her advantage. He risked the crossing, stooping low across a fallen log in the hope of blending with the shadows. To his relief, he crossed without incident. Parus adjusted his mask to get a better look at his surroundings.
And there she was, leaning easily against a tree, waiting.
He Shielded immediately, tensing his body. But the expected attack never came. They were still for a long moment. Spears of moonlight struck through the canopy, piercing the ground between them. Tantha rolled her neck and stretched her legs. He frowned; she never wasted a chance to show her confidence.
Parus moved first. He darted forward, streaking through the empty clearing. There was a glint of something slim and sharp as he pulled his dagger from its sheath. He closed the distance in seconds. Parus ducked low, his arm stabbing upwards. She moved, even faster than he expected. His blade met nothing but air. He watched her turn, grasp the gnarled trunk of the tree and pull herself out of his reach.
The dagger had been for show; he had never intended to cut his favourite sparring partner but Parus needed her to know that tonight, he was serious.
Tantha climbed from one branch to the next, moving with inhuman elegance. Parus smiled at this new challenge and unleashed his first Magi of the night.
This was where Parus excelled. He was an Elementalist; his own bodily power could link to the Water Element, creating a force of nature known as Magi. His energy mixed with the Element, a storm inside his mind, as the world reacted to his manipulations.
Below him, water foamed through the soil. The ground gave way as he forced more of himself into the Magi. A raging vortex of water burst beneath his feet, carrying him towards his prey. He gritted his teeth, enjoying the feeling of release, as he shot upwards. Sopping mud showered the glade.
He crouched on his Magi, guiding it upwards with his will, branches shattering into kindling as it passed. He saw Tantha’s head whip downwards, her face hidden by her sneaking-mask. This time, he had her.
Tantha leapt, slipping through the night like an arrow. Her kick landed flat across his face, throwing him away from his Magi. The raging column dissipated as his concentration vanished. Parus howled as he fell, his cheek flaring with hot pain.
He was used to flying through the air in these forests, and using his Elemental Sense as a guide, his feet balanced safely on a jutting branch. His Sense was an intuition, making his body react, even when he couldn’t see what was behind him. Warm blood trickled down his cheek. Parus cursed; Tantha had vanished again. He scanned every inch of the darkness, finding nothing.
Her Magi exploded against his back like a swung branch, but he was ready. Parus Shielded his stomach just in time and the Magi struck without harm. Shielding was an extension of the body’s energy that prevented physical damage, but the amount of internal energy it could steal was enormous. He felt the dizzying rush as the strike on his consumed a chunk of his energy; it was like somebody had ripped five hours of sleep and two full meals out of him. However, losing energy was far better than being wounded on a battlefield.
As he fell, he sent a barrage of needle-pointed Magi in every direction. His hands swept through the night air, spitting liquid power. He heard them striking into trunks all across the clearing. Parus wasn’t worried for Tantha’s safety, he knew she would be Shielding; they had agreed to have a light Shield burning before the hunt had started. With any luck, the barrage would draw her from hiding.
He landed clumsily, his foot twisting in the mud. He grunted in pain as Tantha darted from the canopy above, landing before him in the darkness.
‘Ignoring the fact we almost killed one another, that was fun,’ he said.
Triumph burst in his chest as he managed to catch her swinging leg. He gripped it as hard as he could and drew forth from the channels, the soil, the moisture in the air, and struck Tantha with a torrent of water. It emerged from his body, like a wave rushing along the flats, taking her balance from beneath her. Tantha stumbled forward and Parus saw his chance. He let the Magi go, Shielded across his body, and dove forward.
His fist struck her side as she climbed to her feet and a second blow knocked Tantha back to the ground. Heart racing, he prepared a forceful Magi, but Tantha was already reacting. Her hand flashed, and her Magi struck him harder than the previous blows. His Shield shattered, causing his body to dip into sudden exhaustion. He cried out, horrified by strength of her Magi and amazed at how quickly she had made it. Tantha span; and Parus’s feet were taken out from under him.
His head slammed back against the sodden ground. Parus groaned. The whole episode had lasted less than a minute. He was now at her mercy. The turmoil of their chase danced inside him. Trembling with effort, He raised his arms.
‘You win,’ he whispered.
Tantha, eclipsed by her black sneaking gear, rose over him. Droplets of water rained from the trees above. She grabbed the side of her mask, unclipping the rings that held it in place. It fell from her face, landing in the dirt.
‘Get up, you big baby.’
Parus grunted with effort. Tantha seemed untouched, aside from heavy breathing and a film of perspiration on her forehead. To think he had been afraid for her safety…
‘So, were you trying to kill me, or is that your new way of saying hello?’
‘I was trying to teach you a lesson,’ she replied. ‘Take your mask off. Lithia Beach around here somewhere, and I need a cool-down.’
‘It’s over there.’ Parus pointed through the darkness. He knew the islands of Quartz perfectly. He spent more time in the depths of the mangroves than he did back at the village. Quartz Village was his home, but his spirit was more at ease in the high mangroves, sleeping under the moonlight.
‘What lesson was that, then?’ he said.
Tantha marched off. ‘Figure it out.’
Parus trailed behind her, too numb from the spar to care about his saturated clothes. He could only guess what had irritated her this time. She had little patience for his shortcomings. Helena, her mother, always joked that it was Tantha that kept him in line. He never denied it.
‘What have I done?’ he called.
‘Are you going to take off that mask? I’ve always said you look silly with that thing on. You get a tuft of hair sticking out at the back.’
He began fiddling with the straps at the back of his head. With a click, the straps fell away and he lifted the mask from his face.
Underneath his crumpled blond hair, Parus looked the same as he always had; youthful, yet cynical. His face was full of fire, his skin so clear it was startling, and his bright hair was spiked slightly from the sweat.
‘Did you cut yourself?’ she said, switching tact.
‘No, you cut me. I understand you were afraid of losing, so it’s fine. I’m used to your abuse by now.’
To his surprise, he saw concern in her face. She ran her finger underneath the cut.
‘That was from where I kicked you,’ she whispered, ‘you should have Shielded in time.’
Shielding would have cost energy, therefore slowing him down. He hadn’t wanted to give up a potential advantage over her.
‘Parus, you promised to Shield more tonight. You could have been killed.’
‘Can we save the reprimands for when we get to the beach?’
Lithia Beach was the crown of Quartz, the most eastern point of the islands, as well as the most eastern point of the Elenzia Archipelago. Its silver sands were left untouched by the ravaging tides that consumed the forest floor every day; instead it faced outwards onto a calm sea. To them, it was a place of serenity, and so they chose it for their cool-down walks.
On a good, clear day, Parus could see the tip of the Holy Mount Maladict from this beach. The mountain stood at the centre of the world, but could be seen all across Sisalia. This phenomenon was just one of Maladicts great miracles. Knowing that all the Elemental Tribes could see the mountain from their capitals was a reminder of what they were all fighting for. Purity.
‘I did alright, I thought,’ he said as they reached the lapping waters.
‘You were reckless.’
‘Was I now?’
‘Your Magi were uncontrolled and sporadic, and it cost you. You removed huge chunks of your energy stores in weak attempts to draw me out of hiding. But, I suppose it could have been worse.’
Tantha wasn’t usually so cutting. True, she always chastised him and patronised him, but tonight there was something else on her mind. Parus remembered her Magi colliding with his back, sending him spiralling towards the dirt. That was the work of a very angry woman, he knew that much.
‘What have I done wrong?’ he repeated.
‘I told you, figure it out,’ she said, splashing water on her flushed cheeks.
‘Is this because I haven’t been showing up at the Academy again?’
Tantha rounded on him. He was wise enough to take a step back.
‘You have been avoiding Lord Marrine’s lessons for months now, and you keep spouting about how apparently “we don't learn anything of importance, he just recites the Histories and the Teachings.”’ For the quote she put on a distorted masculine voice. He had to stop himself from laughing. ‘We learned how much effort we need to use to break Shields today, and, as you can see, it’s immensely useful. If you won’t let him teach you the lesson, I will teach it instead.’
‘I could have died.’
‘Thank Maladict that you didn’t.’
‘You could have killed me - just to make a point.’
‘Parus, stop whining.’
He put his head in his hands. Much as he adored her, he was seriously considering throwing her in the ocean.
‘Tantha, just tell me next time. You don’t have to do whatever…that was.’
‘Fine,’ she sighed.
‘And don’t tell Garret about this?’
Garret, who had looked out for the both of them since they were little, kept a tally of how many times Tantha had beaten Parus in a spar. He claimed it was just for record, but Parus always noticed his grin every time he scratched another line under Tantha’s name.
The mood softened as she gave him a smile. Parus felt his legs and arms begin to stiffen where he had not cooled his body down.
Fatigue dragged his muscles, but he was used to such discomforts; they were worth it for the extra practice, but the spar was over and the point had been made.
‘I would love a clean shower,’ Tantha said, ‘and a thick log to beat some sense into you.’
‘The ocean’s right there,’ he replied in a sing-song voice.
‘Don’t be childish Parus, it doesn’t suit you.’
They continued strolling on the edge of the tide. Parus’s thoughts remained inside the undergrowth, analysing every second of their spar. Maybe Tantha was right, and his own physical training wasn’t enough. He would test his endurance and his agility in the clustered jungle at the centre of the islands where the foliage was thickest, where a wrong stance could throw him into the rivers. Once the tide had retreated from the mangroves he would stroll along the lips of the beaches, relaxing his body and clearing his thoughts. Later on, he would practice his Magi, often by lifting as much of the tide as he could into the air.
It was these walks which he enjoyed the most though. He observed everything; the tiny shells under his toes, the rippling ocean, the sheer magnificence of the star-light. Parus looked at Tantha. She was still flushed from the battle, her sharp features highlighted by the natural blush that spread across her cheeks.
He had known her as far back as he could remember. She had never been anything but a friend; a friend, who chided him, put him down and showed her own excellence at every opportunity, but a friend nonetheless. Despite how haughty she could be about being Lord Marrine’s favourite, it was balanced by her charm and enthusiasm for almost everything.
They walked along the beach so close to the lull and pull of the tide that often the waves would drag over their feet. A rare, cool wind moved the treeline. Some days on Quartz could be so hot that skin could burn in minutes. Parus preferred the night; they were always the perfect temperature, and unless disturbed by a tropical storm, clear and bright.
‘How was your day?’ Tantha asked.
‘The same as always,’ replied Parus, stepping over a hermit crab scuttling towards the ocean. ‘I woke up, I avoided any potential responsibilities, came out here, practiced Magi until it became too hot. Then I took a rest in a tree hollow. Ate some fruit. Very juicy. Same old routine.’
‘What a life you lead, Parus.’
‘The best, some could say.’
They stood in silence for a while, their stares crossing the ocean and ascending to Mount Maladicts tip. Parus longed to one day see the peak up close. The church couldn't have found a more magnificent place to house their senior clergy. He resented the fact that all but the highest Bishops were banned from ascending it’s slopes. He imagined the trip up would take many weeks.
‘What about your day?’
‘My day?’ Tantha responded, ‘My day was spent listening to Lord Marrine, like yours should have been. I'm not going to lecture you again, Parus, but you do miss some wondrous stuff.’
‘We learned about the biology of the trees around the isles-‘
‘-and how being able to discern between the different species’ energy can help us draw our Element from them faster, thus increasing the vitality of our Magi. See? It’s useful stuff.’
Parus gave a non-committal grunt.
‘You know it as well. You just have a problem with authority.’
‘I do not,’ started Parus, sarcasm dripping from his lips.
‘You do. You hate going to the Academy, you hate going to the Temple...’
‘Now that’s unfair,’ he said with a scowl ‘It’s not the Temple I hate - it’s the priests inside it.’
‘If the Bishop lived on the island, then you wouldn't get away with saying half the stuff you say.’
‘Maybe,’ said Parus, facing the ocean again.
‘I’m trying to look out for you.’
He pointed to the gash on his cheek.
‘People on the island accept you unconditionally,’ she said, ‘It’s disrespectful not to give anything back.’
‘I’m a soldier, aren’t I?’ he replied hotly. ‘Isn’t that the point of all this? Laying down my life when the time comes?’
‘Not yet you aren’t. And if you don’t start taking your life here seriously, you could find yourself unprepared for the day where you do need to keep yourself alive.’
‘I can figure it out myself, Tantha. What happened to not wanting to lecture anyway?’
‘You don’t have to be alone all the time Parus, this island cares about you, maybe you should care about it.’
He faltered, hurt. He opened his mouth to speak again, but then stopped. Something had changed. He sensed a crushing force all around him, nothing like anything he had sensed before. Tantha must have felt it too, as she too opened her mouth to continue, but no noise came out.
The forest fell quiet for the first time.
With a wave of noiselessness, the force was sucked away from the island in an instant, sweeping over the ocean and into the distance. Parus breathed outwards as the pressure on his body released.
‘What’s happening?’ he cried.
The world burst into magnificence. The dark places in the forest were lit up. The sea radiated as if blessed. Parus shielded his eyes from the intensity, but then found he had no need. The light felt thick and alive; pulsating like a heartbeat.
He waved his arms around him. Sisalia was dissolving in light, until there was nothing left, but the sands, and her.
He met Tantha’s eyes, and a realisation passed between them. They stood on the glowing sands, all their bravado sucked away in an instant. He could see it in her eyes. Fear, and a cold certainty.
Just like the silence before it, the light was sucked away, spitting from the islands and across the ocean. Quartz returned to normal. The forest chattered in the night, as it always had done.
‘The mountain,’ said Tantha as she pointed into the distance. Parus clasped her arm as they stood on the cusp of the sea and stared in wonder.
A new star hovered on the horizon.
The top of Mount Maladict was alight. It wasn’t the light of a fire, or the light of day, but the light of something else, something holy. It shone with an unbridled vivacity, but somehow did not disturb the darkness. It was a surreal sensation just looking at it.
‘It looks like a star has fallen on the mountain,’ said Tantha.
Parus just stared. The light was so alien and so beautiful; he could see it reflecting colours of all shades into the night. It astounded and perplexed him; it was the most wondrous sight he had ever seen. And he knew what it was. They both did.
‘The Maladict Aura,’ he said. Tantha looked up at him.
‘What should we do?’ she whispered.
Parus didn’t know. The water lapped around his ankles as he stood with his friend, facing the light, facing the mountain and facing the hardest years of his life.
Maladict had spoken. The Crusades had come again.
The Maladict Aura.
Parus couldn’t tell what he was feeling, whether it was dread, excitement or the fear that the whole world was going to change. His neck snapped round, checking to see if the Aura was still there, checking that they weren’t mad.
They had seen the Maladict Aura, experienced it. The holy light, the touch of God. It had flooded Sisalia. There was no time to contemplate; there was just a mad desire to move, to do something, even if all they could do was warn those in the Temple.
They stumbled through river channels and scattered howling groups of lemurs, who darted back towards their canopy homes. It was as if nothing had happened; the forest hadn’t changed, but somehow the entire world had.
There was nowhere else to go but back to the village, and up to the Temple. He had to tell Lord Marrine; the Water Sensei himself needed every second he could to prepare for the coming days. Parus had a mad desire to run through the streets, screaming the words at the top of his lungs. The Elemental Crusades were returning.
They reached the edge of the village. Parus raised his hand to stop Tantha. He swallowed huge gulps of air, sweat covering his face.
‘I shouldn’t have run that fast.’
‘We are nearly there; keep going.’
The plateau that housed the village was at odds with the rest of the forest. For starters, it was still. At night, the flocks of birds and families of primates stuck to the edge of the forest, away from the humans. Parus’s first indication of the village wasn’t through sight; it was too dark to make out even the first few huts. Instead, he was met with the music of the village.
It was the trickling that came from the multitude of tiny rivers that ran down the buildings and cliffs, the crackle from the torches that rested upon the Temple and at the various guard-posts. It was the scratching sound from the insects, their legs vibrating in the thick undergrowth that threatened to consume the village. It was the tiny sounds from a sleeping village, hidden in the tropics, at one with its surroundings. This never-ending melody bought Parus home in the darkness.
Quartz was not a big island, not by any means, but it was one of the most important in the country of Hydrul, the land of the Water Tribe. Home to barely a thousand people, the huts and storehouses of the village were dotted across the space, nestled under a rising cliff. The Temple proudly stood on this rise, as if watching over the island. As he started along the village’s main thoroughfare, the music grew louder.
Parus passed the forge, considering waking Garret, and then drag him outside and point to the sky. He decided against it though; Garret would see the Aura soon enough.
Like Tantha, Garret had been his friend for as long as he could remember. Parus did his best to work hard around the Island for Garret and his father, Kifir. In return, they let him stay in their shed at the back of the building.
Parus glanced behind him. In the gloom above the tree-line, he could see it. Quivering, brighter and more alive than any star, the Maladict Aura squatted on the mountain’s peak. The light didn’t disturb the deepness of the night around it. It was a singular point of radiance. Parus felt his eyes water at the contrast.
He struggled to describe it. It was like Maladict himself was watching him; the Creator, staring from thousands of miles away into Parus’s soul. He wondered what he saw there.
Tantha had over-taken him. The steps that led up to the temple were almost always bustling with monks, pilgrims and Temple Guardians during the day, so it was always surreal to see them so vacant at night. He was used to racing Garret up the steps, so he took them two at a time. Along the low wall of the stairway were fine tubes of glass. Angelic beams of light drifted up and down these tubes, an effect created by channelling some of the temples energy.
Encrusted into the walls, and into the stairs themselves, were heavy gems of precious metal. It was a sin to attempt to remove those prized rocks. As a prank, he had once tried to rip a ruby from its holdings in the banister. It was a futile effort.
The Temple was invincible.
Each Elemental Tribe had a temple, Parus knew that much, and he was sure none could be like Hydrul’s. It was made from sweeping sandstone that curved and twisted in arches around its frame. Great colossal gems from the ocean floor crested its walls, and it always had ferocious torches burning around it. It was from the four temples that all the worlds’ energy was circulated, and it seemed to Parus to be less a building, than a living font of power. It never showed a sign of age; not a single mark of disrepair. He half suspected that if the island collapsed inwards the temple would go on, languishing on the ocean’s floor.
They reached the gates and banged on them. It was odd not to see the usual choir of chanting monks. Parus liked them, they were thoughtful and charming, unlike the priests, who were intrusive and dogmatic. He had heard of parts of the world where the monks were spies for the church, sniffing out heresy in all of its forms. As far as Parus was concerned, he had never met a heretic and he would gladly point him out if he did.
The gate opened and Sergeant Acrius stepped out. He frowned when he saw Parus, but shook it off when he noticed Tantha.
‘You both look like you were dragged straight from the Otherworld,’ he said.
‘We need to see Lord Marrine, right now,’ said Parus, stepping forward. Acrius’s hand landed on his forehead and pushed him back outside. Parus felt a flush of anger; Acrius was one of the highest Temple Guardians and was famous for being the most uncompromising. Too many times had Acrius punished the Acolytes in the Academy with extreme Magi training that had damaged their bodies for weeks Not only that, but Parus felt patronised every time Acrius spoke to him.
‘You’re not going in,’ Acrius said.
‘We have to see Lord Marrine, right now. Didn’t you see the light?’
‘What light?’ Acrius demanded, looking at Tantha.
She said nothing. Around him or Garret, Tantha was the most assured, bossy person he had ever met. But, as soon as somebody else of higher authority appeared, she seemed to cave in. She became subservient and quiet, as if afraid to disturb the natural order of things. She told him he had a problem with authority, and this was why. It changed people; he resented that.
‘That light,’ growled Parus, stepping aside and pointing into the far distance.
Acrius stepped beyond the gate and narrowed his eyes. A few seconds of absolute silence passed.
‘Now you understand,’ said Parus with forced restraint, ‘Lord Marrine has to be warned. The Maladict Aura-‘
‘-has come back, indeed.’
From behind Acrius, a lean, muscular figure appeared. Company Master Levirius looked the same no matter where Parus saw him. He always wore armour, his brilliant white breastplate bearing the ornate markings of his station. The man was an impressive sight; he never seemed tired, nor miserable, and could only be aggravated when something affected the running of the Temple Guardians.
It was his job to lead the most powerful cohort of Elementalists in Hydrul. Their holy duty, at the expense of land, friends and family, was to protect the Temple against the rival Tribes. If ever they failed in their task, and the Altar inside the Temple was desecrated, then Hydrul, the land of the Water Tribe, would die.
‘Company Master,’ said Tantha, bowing low.
‘Acolyte Tantha, Acolyte Parus,’ said Levirius with a sigh. ‘How may we assist you?’
Parus gaped at him. ‘What do you mean how can we help? We were on Lithia Beach, and the Aura, it-‘
‘-Parus, have you not considered that one of us here at the Temple was outside when the Aura returned to us?’
‘Of course, but Lord Marrine needs to know.’
Levirius raised an eyebrow.
‘Does he now? Would you wake the Water Sensei from his well needed rest for this?’
‘Wouldn’t you?’ offered Parus weakly.
‘Parus, I appreciate your concern, as is your duty and your right,’ said Levirius, ‘however, it is the middle of the night. Besides for us, and maybe a few poor drunk souls in the capital, the entire country is asleep. Pyron, Aeris and Geoth are many weeks away. Do you really think that waking everybody up a few hours before dawn will change much?’
Parus considered this. ‘I suppose not.’
Levirius nodded. ‘In the morning, the people of Quartz, including your teachers and classmates, will discover the Aura and they will be asking some difficult questions. Be assured, Acolyte Parus, that everything will be explained as soon as possible. The Elemental Crusades are returning, and the village will be scared. We will need the both of you to be strong in the days to come.’
‘Does that mean you have a plan?’ said Parus, ‘are we prepared for this?’
‘It has been sixty years since the last time the Aura illuminated the world, Parus,’ sighed Levirius, ‘The Teachings will guide us, as they always have. I trust in Lord Marrine’s vision.’
‘What’s going to happen?’ said Parus.
‘Parus, stop all these questions. Go back to the village and sleep. Take your chance whilst you can. Morning is only a few hours away.’
Parus felt Tantha pulling at his arm. His spar had been intense, and he was tired. Levirius was right; there was nothing they could do tonight.
‘Ok,’ he said begrudgingly, ‘I will go back to the forge.’
‘You will have plenty of duties tomorrow Parus, rest assured. Lord Marrine will call a meeting to explain the situation to the village. I will see both of you tomorrow.’
Levirius turned to leave. Acrius had been staring, transfixed at the aura. He shook himself out of it and disappeared into the Temple grounds.
‘Company Master?’ asked Tantha.
Levirius stopped, but did not turn. ‘Yes?’
‘Does this mean that one of your Guardians will become the next Prophet?’
There was a thick silence for a few moments.
‘Goodnight, Acolyte Tantha.’
There was a quaking boom as the doors to the temple were sealed shut.