(Written by Nicola Price, edited by Tarryn Thomas, illustrated by Sam Yang.)
The trade route wound between the rolling hills, a path of dirt and clay moulded by the passage of the centuries. Dark shadows enfolded the dim landscape, and the beaten path was cast in shades of violet and listless green as the sun sank behind the horizon, relinquishing the stage to a foreboding twilight. Golden armour gleamed faintly in the last few traces of sunlight, quietly announcing the arrival of a small party of knights, marching along the trail to the north.
Boltyn’s gaze was locked firmly on the fields ahead, scanning the skyline for signs of any other travellers. Behind him, the rest of his party strode forward, their hands resting on their weapons, eyes flicking from side to side as they scoured the gloomy landscape for potential threats. Months of hunting down cultists in the Northern Realms had left each of them changed by the weight of duty; their shoulders were taut with silent tension, their weapons at the ready, their gazes ever-moving, constantly checking their surroundings for the slightest trace of shadow aether.
A plume of dark smoke rose from the skyline, rancid with the acrid stench of burning flesh. As they drew closer, Boltyn began to taste the sour-sweet coating of its soot on the back of his tongue, an almost tangible layer of fine ash carried by the evening breeze.
“I see it.”
Boltyn exchanged a glance with Leander, their expressions a mirrored image of dread and determination. Even at this distance, both of them could feel the faint tremor of the Shadow, while the fading daylight was snuffed out by the dusk which bloomed along the horizon. Its presence seeped into their veins like the bone-deep cold of freshly fallen snow, leaving their fingertips pale beneath the beaten metal of their gauntlets. Just beyond the fields, a crimson glow loomed within the growing darkness: rising flames revealed silhouettes encircling the open fire.
Boltyn gestured toward the horizon with two fingers, listening to the muffled sounds of his party fanning out behind him, their weapons at the ready. As one, they crept closer to the group of cultists who stood in the distance, painfully aware of each and every sound which seemed to echo through the thick silence.
Muffled whimpers greeted them as the party drew within earshot. Boltyn’s attentive gaze swept over the figures gathered in the centre of the circle: Amidst the ring of shrouded cultists, a group of bound captives knelt uncomfortably close to the flames. Their faces were drawn with terror, and bloodied marks were scattered across their ashen skin. They swayed slightly on their knees, exhaustion written plainly in every line of their bodies, their eyelids drooping closed even as the cultists chanted to draw upon the dwindling energy of their unwilling sacrifices.
Boltyn swung his sword clear of its sheath, signalling the rest of his squad forward as he charged toward the cultists. Their expressions faltered for only a moment as the band of knights raced into the light of the fire, leaping into the fray. As one, the cultists raised their hands overhead, breaking into a haunting, grating chant which shattered the hushed erstwhile quiet of their ritual.
The party of knights burst through the circle like a tidal wave, weapons brandished high as they fought their way toward the group of captives. Two of the inquisitors broke off, falling to their knees next to the villagers and quickly beginning to cut through their bindings, their fellow knights all that stood between them and the forces of the Shadows.
Boltyn and his fellow inquisitors acted as their shield, deflecting the onslaught of arcane attacks and fighting to keep the cultists at bay. With each passing moment, the cultists’ power only seemed to grow, shadow aether flooding the cool air as the circle drew upon the might of the beyond.
Suddenly, with a sharp cry, the inquisitor to Boltyn’s right fell to his knees, head bowed as he slowly slumped to the ground. Viator’s face was pallid, the colour draining from his skin until he resembled the ashes which coated the earth beneath his feet. He lay still, barely breathing, as if the life had been drained from his very bones.
As the last captive stumbled free of her bindings, Boltyn barked out an order to the rest of the party, watching out of the corner of his eye as another knight quickly propped up Viator, wrapping his arm around her shoulders.
“Get them to safety, now! I’ll hold them off.”
Glancing to one side, he met the determined gaze of Leander, his second-in-command, whose steely eyes were unyielding beneath the weight of Boltyn’s stare. After a moment, they shared a nod, manoeuvering themselves so that they stood back-to-back, facing down the cultists together.
A series of arcane blasts fired in quick succession, shattering the split-second ceasefire, almost driving Boltyn to his knees with their raw, tangible power. The air crackled like the sky before a thunderstorm, filled with energy and charged with a devastating potential. He swung his blade in a wide arc, trying to absorb some of the blow with the edge of his sword.
Runes burst to life above their heads with a bright flare of energy, blazing brightly against the darkened sky. With each rune that appeared, Boltyn felt dread pool in the pit of his stomach. At his back, Boltyn heard the quiet hiss of Leander cursing under his breath, and knew that his friend had come to the same conclusion.
“Go,” Boltyn barked over his shoulder, swinging at the nearest cultist with his blade, tearing through the man’s shoulder. “Get out of here and help the others.”
“You can’t fight them alone,” Leander shot back, and while Boltyn couldn’t see his face, he could practically sense his friend’s expression—teeth gritted, eyes narrowed to slits.
“We can’t fight them off together, either!”
One of the cultists finally fell to the earth, blood pooling from the wound on his side, but the rest kept on fighting. Boltyn watched with bated breath as the man he’d just wounded summoned yet another attack, seemingly oblivious to the gash in his arm.
Before his eyes, the wound appeared to slowly shrink and curl in on itself, blood evaporating into thin air, and moments later, the gash had disappeared together.
Boltyn shuddered at the feeling of shadow aether washing over him, unfamiliar and deeply unsettling. As it dissipated off the edges of his armour, he felt his heart lurch in its direction, his hair standing on end at the hungry, searching sensation, not unlike the gaze of a predator hunting its next meal.
Behind him, Boltyn heard the sharp clatter of metal against the ground, and turned his head to see Leander’s twin blades tumbling to the earth. The inquisitor himself slowly slumped to his knees, visibly trembling. Boltyn quickly manoeuvred himself between Leander and the cultists. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted Leander’s face, stark white, his expression twisted with a mixture of pain and exertion, beads of sweat collecting on his brow as he fought to stay upright. Traces of shadow aether curled off the sides of his armour, a fine mist that was coiling through the air towards the cultists surrounding them both.
While Leander grew weaker, fighting against the pull of unconsciousness, their foes only seemed to grow stronger, their attacks coming faster and faster.
Standing alone, outnumbered, outmatched, and overwhelmed, Boltyn steeled himself, turning aside the dread which pooled in the pit of his stomach. He filled his mind with the memory of Aios, so young, and yet fearless even amidst the devastation of the attack on Solana.
Boltyn’s determination coursed through his veins. A blazing heat which felt both fiercely protective and achingly familiar, as gentle and welcoming as a patch of warm sunlight in the dead of winter, it was yet as powerful and untamed as a forest fire. Bellona’s light washed over him, and for a moment Boltyn saw nothing but the shape of her wings, flaring in the dark.
The shadows around him dissipated, and the arcane attacks dispersed into fine mist, shattered by the radiant shield which had formed around Boltyn. Rays of light burst forward from his blade, spearing the cultists’ arcane attacks before they had a chance to fully form. The cultists, who had turned their attention to Leander, collapsed to the earth, their parasitic connection suddenly bursting with light. It had sent them to their knees, trembling from the force of the intangible blow.
Seized by this unknown power, Boltyn charged at the semi-circle of cultists around him, striking each of them down one by one, his armour gleaming like the first light of dawn. He moved as if guided by some ancient, unknowable force, fighting with a preternatural speed and grace. As the last foe fell to the ground, Boltyn rose to his full height, slowly sheathing his sword.
Leander slowly forced himself into a sitting position, his disbelieving gaze fixed firmly on the rigid, tense line of Boltyn’s shoulders.
“I didn't know you could do that,” Leander murmured, as if raising his voice a single octave higher would shatter some unspoken rule.
After a long moment, Boltyn turned to gaze down at his friend, his eyebrows furrowed.
“Neither did I,” he finally admitted, turning his gaze to his own hands, and analysing them as if he’d never seen them before in his life.
Once the freed villagers had been safely returned to their homes, Boltyn’s party received a message from the city, calling them back to Solana. Stepping through the city streets, it was almost impossible to hear the soft whispers of war. Some spoke of the fighting taking place in the golden fields, others spoke of dark omens visible on the horizon, but most referred to the attack on the city, their faith shaken by the sudden, horrifying assault.
While the rest of Boltyn’s party dissipated into the crowd, seeking out loved ones or heading back to their houses to rest, Boltyn found himself standing before the main doors of the Library of Illumination. He remembered the young woman he’d met within, recalling the sound of her voice as she recounted the tales of the Heralds; the devotion and joy with which she described each of them in all their glory and splendour. Bellona’s image once again flared within his mind’s eye, her blazing wings bright against the evening sky.
As much as he wished to return home and greet Aios, his mind refused to be at ease.
At this hour, the Library was almost completely empty; most of its daily patrons having been chased away by the lengthening shadows of dusk. The usual hushed whispers had given way to a heavy blanket of silence, betraying the age of the tomes which lined the library’s shelves. As Boltyn moved down the hallway, he made a concerted effort to quiet his footsteps, conscious of the armoured travelling boots he had yet to remove.
As if summoned, Prism suddenly emerged from one of the aisles ahead, turning towards him with a cheerful, unguarded smile.
“Boltyn, wasn’t it?” Her voice, while bright and filled with life, was still soft enough to avoid disturbing the still library, complimenting rather than breaking the heavy silence.
Boltyn nodded in response, though she hardly needed the confirmation - he found it difficult to imagine Prism forgetting anything. She seemed like the type of person whose mind resembled a steel snare; once it clamped shut on a new piece of information, it held strong.
“Yes. Actually, I was hoping to run into you.”
Prism’s expression visibly brightened, curiosity washing over her face.
“Oh? Why? Did you have more questions about the Heralds?”
“Yes.” He wasn’t entirely sure whether or not that had been an educated guess on her part, as Boltyn’s only real conversation with her had been about the Heralds. But perhaps the young scholar had somehow seen the answer within his mind. For some reason, the latter explanation didn’t seem so far-fetched. “Something… strange… happened while I was outside Solana.”
“You were sent outside the city gates? You have become an Inquisitor, right? Oh, I’d love it if you could tell me about your journeys—what you’ve seen, the things you’ve done…”
“Well - I believe I may have seen Bellona.”
As he’d expected, Prism’s gaze immediately snapped back to meet his, her expression flooded with a series of different emotions in very quick succession, none of which lasted long enough for Boltyn to decipher what he’d seen.
“My party fought a group of cultists in the Northern realms. They’d captured some nearby villagers to sacrifice as part of a ritual, and once we had freed them from their bindings, I told the rest of my party to get them to safety. My second-in-command and I remained to fight off the cultists, and hopefully to give the others time to escape.” Boltyn paused for a moment, eyebrows furrowed as he drew the memories to the surface.
“All of the cultists had aether affinity, and could cast runes and spells. Some of them were using the Shadow aether in order to drain energy from my second, Leander, who quickly became too weak to fight and collapsed to the ground. I remember standing between him and the cultists, trying to find a way to prevent them from killing him, or chasing after our party and the villagers they were leading to freedom. And then, just as I thought I was going to die in that circle—”
“You saw Bellona,” Prism guessed, a quiet, unshakeable certainty ringing through her soft voice.
“I felt determined, and then very warm—as if I were standing in front of an open fire. It was familiar, but also simultaneously the strangest feeling I’ve ever experienced. I felt as though I had recognised an old friend, someone whom I had not seen in a very long time, and yet reconnected with almost instantly. And then—suddenly everything seemed so much brighter. My sword turned white-hot in my hands, light burst forth from the blade, and the unnatural shadows began to dissipate. Their arcane attacks just glanced off my armour, and then vanished altogether. The moment that their spells began to fail, I just charged forward and immediately went on the offensive. I’ve never felt like that before, but at the time, it felt so natural. Like I’d done it before.”
“As if you somehow just knew, deep inside your soul, what to do. You called the light, and it answered so quickly and readily that you thought you must have done it before.”
Prism broke into a wide grin, her gaze filled with a glaring focus Boltyn hadn’t seen before.
“I believe I know exactly what happened. Tell me, how much do you know about Solana and the Demonastery?” She led him toward the back of the Library, directing him toward a stained glass window that Boltyn had never taken note of before. The stained glass appeared as though it were made of gold and amber, trapping the light of the sun in a prismatic form. Within the swirls and patterns, Boltyn could make out the markings of the Heralds, somehow recognising them despite never having seen them before. His gaze was immediately drawn to Bellona’s; a blade of blazing light which filled his soul with warmth.
“Only a little. I’m not sure what you teach young Solanians who aren’t chosen for the Light of Sol, but I don’t know much of the city’s history.”
“Then let me start from the beginning.” Prism cleared her throat, her face settling into a detached, peaceful expression, and Boltyn was suddenly hit by a sharp bolt of familiarity. For a moment, he saw his grandmother’s face, felt the press of her arm around his small shoulders, pulling him close as she cleared her throat, preparing to tell him yet another story.
“Solana has long existed in the land of Rathe. Our forefathers came to this land a long time ago, and were guided by Sol’s grace to the earth on which we now stand. Here, they began to build the city of Solana. Our people have always been filled with a kind of curiosity, which drives us to understand the world in which we live. In time, as the village grew into a proper city, our people began to separate into different roles. Some of them became scholars, and as they were the most learned and devoted citizens of Solana, they eventually came to lead our people.
“However, not all intelligent minds are made for leadership, and not all devotion is equal. One of our scholars, the very first to have led our people, abused his power. By day, he practiced his sacred duties to Solana, studied the teachings of Sol, and pursued the path of the Light. However, by night, he would disappear under the pretense of retiring to his bed, when in truth, he went to the room he had created as a hiding place for all of Rathe’s secrets. In the darkness he followed the broken path: He studied the ways of Shadow.
“In time, the Apostate’s betrayal was revealed to the rest of the city, and the scholars of Solana sought to bring an end to his dangerous, heinous studies. Yet at the moment that they’d learned of his actions, the Apostate fled, hiding himself first from the Light, and then from all of Rathe. Eventually, we came to learn that he had built a new home for himself, one which was devoted to the most nightmarish studies known to humankind.
“The Apostate, a scholar of Solana, was the one who founded the Demonastery. It was the ultimate betrayal, a perversion of everything that Solana has stood for. The Shadow is a path of untold power, but one which always demands a high price. The followers of the broken path are unafraid to sacrifice others in their quest for power, harming the innocent and casting aside all that is good in order to pursue their own selfish desires.
“This is the truth of our fair city. Solana and the Demonastery will be forever linked through our history, and as we were the ones who created the Apostate, it is our duty to bring an end to the Demonastery. Sometimes, this fight creates great strife not only for our city, but for all of Rathe. In these times of struggle and sacrifice, Sol sometimes grants us gifts, so that we might fight back against the malicious intentions of the Demonastery. While that dark and devious place is filled with followers of the broken path, who devote themselves to pursuing the blighted magics of the Shadow, we Solanians are noble and pure of heart, devoting ourselves to the Light. With Sol’s guidance, we dedicate ourselves to understanding the world around us. This knowledge, this devotion, sometimes blesses us with gifts that the rest of Rathe shall never know for themselves.”
With a wave of her hand, Prism created two shining visions in the air before them. In the pale lantern light, two figures took shape, almost twice Boltyn’s height, their countenances immeasurably ancient, filled with a grace and wisdom which no human could possibly hope to understand.
“I have dedicated myself to the study of the Light, and to the quest of showing all of Rathe the blessings of Sol. I believe that my gift for illusions was guided, in part, by Suraya’s hand.” Prism turned to the figure who stood on their left, her face almost shining as she looked up at the Herald’s shimmering form.
“Recently, I awakened to a power that I had never seen or read about before, and was gifted with the talents of the Light. In that moment, I glimpsed Suraya looking down upon me, and saw the shape of her hand as she reached out to me, gesturing for me to move onward. You see, I have a duty entrusted to me, and the Light shall guide me on this path to peace. You, like me, were chosen to be blessed with the most precious of Sol’s gifts. Bellona has bestowed the Light talent upon you so that you might use it to drive back the shadow, and fight to protect Rathe from the horrors of the Demonastery.” Prism turned back to him with a smile, her expression lined with a peace which could only come from knowledge, and a wisdom beyond her years.
“You mean to tell me that this blessing, this talent, is for me to use in the coming fight?” Boltyn frowned curiously, his eyebrows faintly furrowed. “Does that mean I will be able to continue using it in battle from now on?”
“Yes,” Prism confirmed, her pale golden eyes crinkling slightly at the corners. “You will always be able to use this power, Boltyn. Once given, the blessings of Sol cannot be returned.”
“Why me? Why would Bellona or Sol choose to bless me with the Light?”
“You said that you faced a group of cultists, is that correct? That every one of them was a follower of Shadow, that they all had aether affinity, and were casting some of the more powerful and darkest spells known to Rathe.” Prism smiled, shrugging one shoulder. “I cannot say for certain, but if I had to guess, I would say that that is your answer. You stood against the cultists, even though you knew that you would likely lose your life. You were prepared to sacrifice yourself for Leander, for your party, and for the villagers whom you had been fighting to save. Your selflessness, your leadership, your courage, your compassion, your devotion to the virtues of the Light—this is why you were chosen, Boltyn. This is why your talents awakened.”
Boltyn looked from Prism to the image of Bellona, her bronze mask moulded into an expression of fierce determination, blazing with the light of the sun.
“How did you learn to wield it? Did it always come naturally to you?”
“A little. It usually just feels like something that you know you’ve done before, but you haven’t done it in a long time. I began to learn pretty quickly, once I started practicing.” At her weighted pause, Botlyn looked over to see Prism staring thoughtfully at Suraya’s serene, inscrutable countenance. “The Librarian said that it’s not uncommon for the Light talent to start emerging when Solana enters a time of war. I’m not sure if it is Sol, or the heralds, or just simply born of our own determination. Maybe we all hold the potential, and a struggle just makes us remember.”
“I think that if anyone could figure out what the Light talent is, and why it emerges, it would be you.”
Prism turned her head to smile radiantly at him, her golden eyes gleaming with determination.
In the rosy-fingered light of dawn, the Solarium was still and near-silent, a relative quiet which was broken only by the sound of soft footsteps against the earth. Almost the entire Glory of Sol was gathered within the Amphitheatre, waiting patiently for the guests of honour to arrive. At the centre, the Grand Magister walked toward the podium, raising their hands to address the crowd.
“Today, those of us gathered here prepare for the culmination of our efforts against the Demonastery. Today, we fight to protect all of Rathe from the horrors of the Shadow, and prevent our people from experiencing the darkness and destruction which the armies of the Demonastery have inflicted upon our beloved city. We have seen what the Demonastery is capable of, when left to pursue their dark desires. Will we stand idly by, while they sacrifice innocent lives in their quest for power?”
The crowd began to stir at the sound of the Grand Magister’s impassioned voice, carried throughout the Amphitheatre. Boltyn felt the energy in the air shift, as the sun’s light peeked over the horizon and cast the morning sky in shades of gold.
“We must stand for the virtues of the Light, and defend the innocent. We must eradicate the Shadows. The Demonsatery must fall. Today, we march to meet the armies of the Demonastery, and drive back the Shadows from the world of Rathe.”
The Amphitheatre was flooded with wordless cries of determination, answering the Grand Magister’s call to arms. As others drew their weapons, thrusting their blades toward the sky in a salute, Boltyn looked out over the crowd, and met with Prism’s knowing gaze.
For one single moment, in the pale light, Boltyn thought he glimpsed Bellona’s figure, too; rising above the Solarium, her fiery wings painting the sky in brilliant shades of gold and amber.