Smoke drenched the wind with the scent of charred flesh. The desolate battlefield before me lay still, except the drifting ash. I sat deep in the saddle, signaling my horse to stillness. Failing sunlight glinted through hazy air from bloody dented armor and fallen weapons. I waited on the hill’s crest, and what remained of Eloria’s army approached. We won the day, but only just.
Dirt clods splayed through the air as Eremil drew his black mare up. Eremil’s face wore shadowed blue eyes, sharp despite their hooding. His mouth pulled a thin line across his broad, almost-human features. Dried blood streaked his face and crusted from his clothes as he holstered one of his axes. He still held one, seemingly unaware of its solid weight in his hand.
“How did this happen?” I wondered. Eremil’s eyes rightfully accused my flame-scarred hands. I folded my arms across my chest and tucked away my guilty hands, but that did not assuage my part in the fire. Eremil’s gaze rose to my face and his eyebrows raised. “The attack,” I said, “Not the fire.” I knew from where the magical fire had come. My hands craved magic, and did not relinquish it readily. The bodies of our former allies smoking where they fell and I yet felt them fueling the fire that destroyed them. Their lives, their souls, had seared into me, tingling through my flame-scarred hands. Eremil shook his head.
“These were Medaron’s men,” Eremil said flatly, picking dried blood from his axe blade. His nonchalance indicated the smoldering corpses nearest us. “And over there,” he said, poking his chin at the scorched hilltop, “Those were Vecansian’s.” Sky blue eyes examined the fortress’s soot-streaked granite walls. “But I do not recognize most of these elves. From whence did they come?” I had no answer for him.
Ash rained down like black snow from the parapets. Heat roared in me again, remembering the panic when the archers began their assault on the soldiers below. The confusion, the terror, shifted through me. The arrows fell. The cries, the screams of soldiers that rent the air. The cavalry turned to charge the very walls they had been protecting. The foot soldiers grappled. And the flames whipped out from me, scorching and burning, igniting bows and arrows and archers alike, but they were not the men and weapons of our enemies. They had been our friends, sworn as we were to protect the walls of the fortress. But they turned against us to unite with the unknown foe, a strange company of elves.
“Gandron held the walls today,” I said.
“I cannot think they worked in concert,” Eremil said, reconstructing the battle now that it was done. “That chaos could not have been planned, Prince.” I nodded in agreement, not trusting my voice.
“Why?” I said. “Why did they turn from defending the fortress to attacking it? Did they forget the alliance?”
“There is but one answer,” Eremil said quietly.
There could be only one answer, but I did not want to think on it.
Might spun beneath me to face oncoming riders, nearly unseating me. My father’s battle-scarred golden armor shone in the failing light from within the ring of his guards. He held his helm beneath his arm and the tips of his ears protruded through grey-streaked blond hair. Grief colored his kind face. He knew as well as I what had happened.
“Our friends betrayed us,” Father declared, reining his horse in. Dust mingled with smoke and the stomping hooves of impatient, tired horses. His retinue reined in around him. His guard standing vigilant even now the foe was dead.
“No, Father,” Lexia said from atop her red mare. My sister’s platinum hair drifted around her, untouched by ash or soot. She wore unsullied leather trousers and vest over a billowing, spotlessly white shirt. No weapons adorned her person nor her horse, but she had no need of them. “They did not betray us.”
“What is this if not betrayal?” Father said. “Our walls stand stained and undefended. Half our army is dead at the hands of our supposed friends.”
“Medaron would not have joined the enemy, Father,” Lexia said quietly. “Nor would have Gandron or Vecansian. This was the Darkness’s doing.” Father shook his head, gritting his teeth in denial.
“She is dead, Daughter,” he said. “Her magic can no longer deceive us.”
I drew rein to lead Might away. I had no wish to hear this argument yet again. Our world was dying without magic to sustain it. Did it matter at whose hand? “Phoenix,” Father called, dusting ash from his shoulder. “You did well.”
I bowed my head in response to his praise. There was no good in the deeds I performed today. There could be no rejoicing in the death of elves. I intended to ride on, but Eremil reached over and pulled Might to a stop.
“You must respond to the king, Prince,” Eremil whispered.
“I did my duty, my lord,” I said, turning Might around. Our only duty was to protect the walls of the fortress, to protect the Scepters of Power that lay within them. We nearly failed at that, and our allies lay dead among our dead, ashes blowing in the wind. I had done what was necessary and my hands still craved magic. No good at all.
“And it is our duty,” Father said. “To protect the fortress and the Scepters guarded within. Until the Golden Dawn arrives and magic is restored to all elves. But I fear…” Father trailed off. His face sagged with weariness. I easily read the worry he sought to hide. It was the same as mine. Our race dwindled. Magic was lost to all but a rare handful of elves. And we continued to kill each other with abandon, even turning against our friends. Father surveyed the field of ashes. “I fear we will not survive this unending onslaught.”
Defeat had been proclaimed by the king. Lexia and I stared at one another. The remaining soldiers around us shifted uncomfortably, and Eremil dropped his axe.
“The Darkness is in your mind,” Lexia said, her silver eyes still locked on mine, though her words were for him. Father glanced at her and his mouth pulled down in an angry frown. Lexia’s red mare moved forward and she lay a hand on his arm, her silver eyes now intent on his. I felt her magic, her strength, flowing into him. He shuddered under her touch and sat straighter. His face returned to the face I remembered from my childhood: strong and sure. “There is yet hope for Eloria. Do not believe the Darkness, Father,”
“Hope,” Father said quietly. “Hope was lost from Eloria long ago, and yet I am poisoned by it. We hope to survive. We hope to see the Golden Dawn. He hope…” He shook his head, pulling away from her touch. “There must be another explanation. For if this was the doing of the Darkness, we are doomed. There is no fighting her, Lexia Mindwalker.” A billow of smoke drifted among us, obscuring everything. It smelled of burned hair.
“We can all fight, Father,” Lexia said. “The Darkness only has power if we let her.”
He turned away from her and his gaze drifted out to the battlefield. His face gave no indication that he gazed upon the bodies of our allies lying in the ashes of our friends.
“What comes next?” Father asked.