Release date for this book is February 22, 2022
The final book in the Sacred Knight series.
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From my website: https://www.morningskystudios.com/product/sword-and-shield/135
Ancient magicks flowed through the gray stone walls of Dubinshire castle. Most of the rock for this fortress had come from the ruined city of Gohaldinest, whose buried skeletal remnants lingered beneath Dubinshire. The rebuilding had brought into it naturally most of the enchantments meant to guard and protect the earlier city.
Along with the old spells came something else, something older. Possibly even a little wicked.
It remained weak from longevity, twisted in a possible shroud of insanity. It tingled at the edges of the dreams of those who slumbered. It probed the minds of those who were not aware of it.
It couldn’t be held back forever.
The sensation of not being alone in his room woke Steigan before sunrise. His eyes opened and his mind had full alertness. He picked up his head and looked around in the faint pre-dawn light, asserting that he was alone, then rested down once more.
He was certain that the dreams of hunting gargaxes through the night was just that – a dream. The cold air and the sight of the three moons in the sky remained clearer in his memories when he was actually outside. As for last night, his senses were more elusive, and those imaginings had been the precipitant for this morning’s paranoia.
Sitting up on the bed, he turned to put his back against the wall. Eyes closed, he kept his thoughts as still and blank as he could make them. He listened to the sound of his own breathing, the birds beginning to sing as the first rays of light touched the sky, and the taps of people moving in the hallways.
Once, he thought soft footsteps creep to his door, then turned and slipped away.
His strength felt nearly restored. After receiving his Winctonicht aspect thread back, he’d been so sick and probably closer to death than he’d like to think about. The magic he’d spent shortly thereafter in a series of jumps through time had drained his fleeting reserves once more. Now, a fortnight later, he thought he might be fully recovered.
There were the short forays into the forest just beyond Dubinshire each night to hunt gargaxes. Though his palm no longer bore the lineage mark on it, it seemed that Rivic’s enchantment still burrowed into Steigan’s soul. Finding gargaxes was becoming harder, and he wondered if he’d finally managed to defeat all of them. Last night’s hunt was a dream. Of that he was certain. So maybe the enchantment was coming to a close.
He had to hope and began to turn his thoughts to the future.
Steigan said a prayer asking, begging, for strength and for this quest to come with a swift end. He was ready to be home in Whalston. The physical labor of helping Sim rebuild would be good. Then, after the inn was running, Steigan would turn his attention to the forge house and what remained. He’d follow in what Arlyn left behind.
Steigan refused to open his eyes. Every moment, he shielded and strengthened his heart with plans of events beyond the upcoming challenges. He’d never given any of it much thought before, but now he saw that he could no longer ride the waves and let them determine the course of his life. He needed to know there was light at the end of this journey’s tunnel.
An unbidden thought of Jalana, the daughter of the baker in Whalston, and her waving from the porch of the bake shop bidding Steigan to come on back down soon. It made his heart ache, not for himself, but for her. Jalana had confessed her feelings for Steigan, but he had never felt the same way about her. Perhaps the karma of his relationships ran even deeper. He wondered if she would return with her family to Whalston to rebuild. Would she be there when he returned?
How could he continue to do this to himself? He had many amends to make before he stopped. He didn’t deserve happiness until he’d repaired a world he’d helped to twist. He was no saint, never had been, but he’d played a part to create a false religion.
He didn’t even know where his thoughts about Martias started. As much as he wished he could hate Martias, he knew his friend had been motivated by self-protection. Steigan had had the same instinct when he’d left Searn’s to go back into Lilinar for the High Maege’s help with his magic. It had been so scary to admit to anyone what he’d been going through.
Steigan felt the light in the room changing, brightening. Yet he remained, eyes closed, breathing.
Somewhere out there was a dragon who had created the world and sought to destroy it. Why hadn’t the dragon, Leschemal, done that already? What was stopping Leschemal?
Cirvel, the Destroyer of Civilizations, wanted to take humanity off the bloodwave, saving everyone when Leschemal decimated everything. Steigan didn’t know how that was supposed to help unless everyone on the planet would escape to another dimension. He thought about the West Tower; had that blue column with the myriad of images always been part of the plan? Maybe Rivic, who had studied and served under Cirvel, had more answers. Steigan knew he’d been avoiding Rivic. What did one say to a distant relative, especially when that relation caused wrenching pain in his heart?
Steigan turned from the thought, returning to a focus on his breathing.
Why was he sitting here in meditation? He needed to be moving, to throw his life into battle and start the beginning of the end. One way or another, he would deal with this dragon and either he would die or he’d finish Leschemal. Everyone had made it very clear that Rivic was the only one who could hope of defeating Cirvel, but no one had ever said he couldn’t go after the dragon.
If Leschemal was the threat to the people, then Steigan would do what he’d been trained to do. It was almost as if he could feel Arlyn beside him helping him in this decision.
His future lay beyond this wall he had to climb now.
Darkness gave way to the light of a new day as Steigan opened his eyes. He stood and held his arms out. “Vochey.”
Armor wrapped comfortably around him and a sword settled at his side. Yet when he looked down, the sight nearly took his breath away. He didn’t wear Searn’s armor. A white and gold breastplate had surrounded him. He looked at the arm braces, finding them also white with gold swirls. It looked very similar to his original armor, save for being white rather than blue. Yet it seemed as if it were made just for him.
Could this be a sign that the Goddess was real? Had She been watching him? Had he passed Her test? What else could this be if it were not a miracle? Or perhaps this was a reward for completely integrating his Winctonicht powers, similar to Alityka’s armor and sword infused with unicorn horn and all of their magics to safeguard her.
Steigan chose to believe it might be a little of both. He put a fist over his heart and bowed his head. “Thank you, Goddess.”
Steigan headed toward the door and stepped out into the hallway of the gray stones of Dubinshire castle.
A brunette woman smiled as she made her way toward him with a tray of food. “Good morn’, Steigan,” Matoline said. She was older than Steigan remembered her being, silver starting to come into her hair from age. Yet her smile wiped away all his worries as it always had done. “Bright blessings to see you happy today.”
Steigan placed a fisted hand over his heart. “Good morn’, Matoline.”
“I was bringing you breakfast just now. I heard that… well, it’s not important now. It seems you have some new armor.”
“Seems that way,” he said, not wanting to commit to more than that bland confirmation.
“I like it. It looks good.” She returned and picked the tray up. “Do you want to eat first?”
Steigan realized just how hungry he was. But this was Matoline. She could be just as motherly as Lucinia if she put her mind to it. Now, she’d had practice with raising Keteria and Tanold. If Steigan thought he had a complicated life, Matoline had it doubly so. Maybe because she was a unicorn transformed into a human, she handled it well. Rather than reaching for the bowl, he thought to ask first, “Do you mind if I eat while we walk?”
At first, she seemed like she might scold him, but then she extended the tray toward him with a little smile. “I suppose not, as long as promise to rest when we reach the others and you take the remainder of today’s meals sitting down.”
He hesitated as he neared to take the bowl. “Did I… go out… last night?”
“As far as I know, you didn’t. Rivic didn’t mention anything.”
The only people he’d confided in about his renewed efforts to hunt gargaxes had been Rivic and Matoline. They all seemed agreed that it had to be some leftover magicks activating because of Steigan’s switches in powers.
“Do you remember going out?” Matoline asked.
“No, I was curious. That’s all. Next time you have a chance, please tell Rivic that I think they are gone. I don’t feel them out there any more.”
Matoline nodded. “I think he’ll be glad to hear that.”
He took the porridge off of the tray, saying a silent prayer as he started to eat.
“What’s everyone up to?” he asked between bites.
Matoline gave another of her smiles. Little wrinkles appeared at the corners of her mouth and eyes. “Well, let’s just say that there has been a lot of worry about you. There are some rifts between people. Hopefully now, things will begin to settle.”
Steigan wondered if anyone had told Matoline the reason they had brought her back to this timeline.
“Tell me about the arguments. I don’t want to walk into something blind,” he said.
“Ithanes is upset that Rivic wouldn’t unbind the spell holding Dek’tae. Valic is walking again, thanks to Rivic’s healing. Ithanes seems to think that Rivic could have, and should have, helped you too. I personally think Rivic was correct in letting you take your time. What you were going through was something more traumatizing than a broken back.”
That struck Steigan’s curiosity. “How do you mean?”
Matoline looked him over. “Look at you. You are a Winctonicht. As soon as I heard that you had recovered the thread aspect taken from you, I knew that your body needed time to adjust to it, merge it back into itself. Of course, no one will listen to me, save for Alityka and Rivic. Everyone else just thinks I’m Cirvel’s mistress. Very few people know what I really am.”
Steigan realized that Dragzel wasn’t here. “Where’s the cahaster? It’s strange he’s not tagging along with you.”
Again with a soft grin. “I know you really don’t like him and you’re still getting your strength back after being very sick. I figured that you didn’t need more confrontation. I asked Dragzel to stay with Ellis.”
Steigan finished off the porridge and downed the water Matoline also carried. “Anything else I need to know about?” he asked.
Matoline’s footsteps slowed. Since Steigan carried the bowl and the glass for the water, she lowered the tray down to her sides. “There’s probably a lot you should know. Cirvel has taken Plenelia.”
“Patience. I’ll get there, but I need to get this all out first. I’m starting with the easy news.”
If Cirvel overrunning Plenelia was the simple part, Steigan wasn’t certain he was braced for the what she considered difficult.
“Alityka…” Matoline took a deep breath and shook her head. “She is being her headstrong and temperamental self, but it’s like she is ready to charge headlong into a thousand foes. She and Rivic are fighting. That in and of itself is really nothing new, but she’s attacking him, both verbally and physically. We’ve had to pull her off of him a couple of times. Worse, he thinks it’s funny, which just angers her even more.”
“And you think this is because…?”
“She has a thing for you?” Matoline finished for him. “Yes, but Rivic doesn’t know why like you and I do. He mutters something about her being an untempered champion and goes about his day. There are too many factions between your friends and everyone is split.”
“You said you would get back to telling me about Cirvel in Plenelia, that it was the easy news.”
Matoline gave a small, but bright smile. “It is easy. That’s all we know. He’s in Plenelia, but no one knows why he’s there. It’s not like any of the Plenelians are going to come out and tell us either.”
Steigan stopped and turned toward Matoline. “Is there any good news?”
“Laurient and Aeribela are getting along beautifully. It’s not uncommon to find the two of them sneaking off together.” Matoline beamed. “Of course, since that takes their minds off of a way to defeat Cirvel, it’s not making Ithanes very happy.”
“I suppose not. Have they found any way to make Dek’tae useful?”
Matoline shook her head as they started walking again. “They are in the library,” she said. “Let me take your dishes now. I’m heading down to the kitchens to start on lunch. I reminds me of the days in Sim’s Tavern and it does me good, gives me plenty of time to think by myself, and makes me useful in the way I know best: taking care of people.”
Steigan set the dishes back on the tray and watched her leave. Then, with a deep, calm breath, Steigan headed into the library.
The vast room had changed little in the time since Steigan had first been in here for the bloodvision spell Ithanes and Keteria had performed on him nearly a thousand cycles ago. Except now, the four tables, which had been pushed together several days ago for everyone to gather around, were all pulled apart and set in separated spots.
Alityka, Ellis, and Dragzel sat at one table, Rivic and Valic at another, and Ithanes with Aeribela and Laurient at the third and fourth with a pile of books between them. No one seemed to notice Steigan walking into the room until Aeribela gasped and said, “What happened to your armor?”
Ithanes hand dropped upon the open book before him as he looked Steigan over, assessing, and then giving a look of displeasure at the sight. “You have got to be joking me,” Steigan though he heard Ithanes mutter.
Rivic raised an eyebrow as he smiled and gave an approving nod. Valic also seemed delighted.
“Woah,” Ellis exclaimed as Alityka refused to lift her head.
Steigan continued into the room pretending that he hadn’t just noticed all of their reactions. “I’ve been updated as to the situation here,” he said, sharing a look between all three tables. “No one has come up with a plan or anything solid which we can use against Cirvel. All of you refuse to admit what our true problem is. Worse, it has now splintered us when we should be dividing our foes. This is unacceptable.”
The only person in the room who seemed to back Steigan’s tirade was Valic, who nodded often at Steigan’s statements.
“From now on, we will not huddle in the library endlessly looking for some mystical magic that will help us,” Steigan continued, “nor will we fear Cirvel getting into Gohaldinest. We are too late for that, but we will welcome the challenge should he decide to do more than walk those ruined streets again. From now on, we will focus on our specific tasks and we will do them with the efficiency that speaks to our days of training and preparation. We all have our roles here.”
A loud creak sounded as someone scooted back their chair, dragging the legs over the wood floor. Steigan fully expected it to be Ithanes, unhappily realizing that his leadership was being overthrown. But rather is was Valic who stood up.
“I stand ready,” Valic said, saluting with a fist over his chest.
Steigan felt exceptionally proud that one of the domini was behind him. In some small way, it made him feel as if he was part still part of that elite group.
He approached the table where Ithanes stood, matching Ithanes’ stare for a moment before moving on to look around the room at the others. “We all have been trained for something and have different abilities. From here on out, I will assigned tasks based on those abilities.”
“You think that just because you received the last part of you and received some magical, mystical white armor that you are now the most powerful person in the room?” Ithanes asked.
Steigan had been waiting for this. He pounced on the moment. “No. But I have been take trained in battle strategies. Have you? Have you seriously been trained in how to defeat an oncoming foe and how to face a fear that would make you run? Have you been trained in how to keep your own demons back while facing an enemy who seems invincible? Do you understand what it is to sacrifice your life for your duty?”
It was a strange thing to see Ithanes cower. Ithanes dropped his gaze to the table.
“It is no longer merely a question of power. It is now a question of skill. I have been used to being one of the most powerful people in the room, but now I realize that I have surrounded myself with people more knowledgeable and differently skilled than myself. I understand the strategies it is going to take to win. Now, does anyone stand against me?”
Steigan waited just to see if Rivic might speak against him Steigan, but even his ancestor remained quiet. Rivic looked almost serene and grateful that the entire problem no longer rested only on his shoulders.
“Then it is settled. Ithanes, as Lord of Gohaldinest, your mission is to control and protect the Guardian. Her help may be needed, so you focus on understanding her motivations. Rivic, you understand the Destroyer better than anyone. Reflect on his motivations and report to me as to why he would bother to conquer Plenelia. A powerless city has no strategic advantage, unless we are missing it. What does Plenelia and Gohaldinest have in common?”
Steigan took a moment to breathe and step forward toward Aeribela and Laurient. His adrenaline had kicked in now and he felt himself starting to shake. He hoped that in taking control of this group, he was doing the right thing. “Aeribela, as a Lady of Dubinshire you will protect Dubinshire and the gateway to Gohaldinest. This city must remain standing. Gohaldinest is already in ruins beneath us. I do not believe that Cirvel would ever intend on raising the ruins to be exactly as they were. He would much rather conquer.”
“Laurient, I know you would prefer to stay here and protect Aeribela, but you have to trust her magic and the protections of Dubinshire. I need you to go and gather the fairies and the centaurs to keep anything from coming out of Plenelia.”
“Montikovert,” Ithanes said calmly and softly.
Ithanes was right. Montikovert had always been a potential for Dubinshire’s downfall. “Once you have informed the centaurs of our plan and rallied the fairies, go to Montikovert. We need to know what’s going on there and if the citizens there know about Cirvel’s black ships. We still don’t know enough about that or if it’s merely a story.”
“They’re real,” Rivic said. “I’ve seen them. They hold the bodies of undead Necroathelings. He slides the ships to another dimension and keeps them at bay.”
“We can assume they’re in a timelock too. They may think that very little time has passed.”
“If we can rally Montikovert to our side, they need to fortify their shoreline as best as they can. We can’t let those ships reached the shore.”
Laurient nodded. Steigan was pleased to see that Laurient didn’t look too upset about his mission, but rather had accepted it.
“Valic will stay here to guard Dubinshire and Gohaldinest. You will be the first line of defense for Aeribela and Ithanes.”
Valic nodded his understanding, then returned another salute to Steigan.
“Alityka, you and I are going to go take on the dragon. If it’s magic it wants, then magic is what it will get.”
“Are you sure that only the two of you should be going up against the dragon?” Rivic asked. He sent Alityka a concerned look.
“I have your sword, which the dragon will sense as charmed with novihomidrak magic. I am a Winctonicht, and Ali is a Dominari. Those three consist of the most powerful types of mages on this planet. That either has to give the dragon hope that its world is succeeding, or we have failed completely. It really won’t matter what happens to us at that point. If the dragon is that determined to destroy this world, nothing will save it. Not even Cirvel’s plan to take humans off of this world’s bloodwave can save this planet or its people. We have reached the point of proving our worth or dying. We must prove ourselves worthy to Cirvel, to the Guardian, and to the creator of this world. If we can’t do that then maybe Leschemal is right that this planet does not deserve to exist. Let us show our strength and prove our right to live.”
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