Even though the city was engulfed by the darkness of the mountain’s caverns, Darzomil was fully alive. Hordes of mountainfolk rushed through the weaving dirt paths of the city. Houses, stores, schools; all were composed of the dark stone of the mountain. Traders and merchants were shouting from the front door of their stores, attempting to steer anyone they could toward their goods. The footsteps of the civilians buzzed like bees and the crying of a child couldn’t be heard over the clamor of the crowd. Even though the city appeared chaotic, it was a conforming system. Within the anarchy there was order. There was no one unique in the entire city of Darzomil, no one who could separate themselves from all the others around them, save for one. A Descendant of the gods from Aithnen, trapped in the nation in the skies.
Serafine sat at a small, circular, wooden table with an empty chair across from her. The diner was a quiet one, with only one lonely man sitting in a dark corner of the room. A warm, cracking fire was enclosed within an immaculate marble fireplace. An emptied mug of ale rested in front of Serafine as she held the Shadow Stone in the palm of her hand. The light from the tabletop candle made the violet edges of the stone glisten. A sonorous whisper hissed from it. The words were indistinguishable, but it sounded like a foreboding warning. It cast a shadow over Serafine’s mind, its darkness latched onto her, bound to her soft skin. The voice was a leech, stealing the life from her breath.
“That stone has been in Kordon for far too long,” said an old, round man who was standing next to the empty chair. The voice of the stone faded and Serafine’s mind cleared once again. She recognized the man standing before her; Wallen. As he sat down, the chair creaked from his immense weight. “Undoubtedly, that’s why you brought it to me, correct?”
“Yes. The Shadow Stone was held in the foul clutches of Kalil’s servants, but Cail helped me to take back what is rightfully mine. All I need now is a path back to Aithnen so I can return the heirloom of my people.”
“You were wise to come to me. I do know of a way for you to return to the Domain of Fire. Ijsbrandur marks the edge of Kordon. If you fly west of the Iron Fortress, you’ll find nothing but an empty horizon, a void of endless clouds. However, to the south, there lies the Tower of the Sun. In ancient times, it was a spire that was used by the entire world as a bridge between Kordon and the other three nations. The tower was an anchor for a nation that was detached from the rest of the world.
“Kalil believed that Kordon being in the sky was evidence of divine intervention and that the rest of the world deserved nothing more than to be forced to look up to the heavens to see the Nation in the Skies. The tower was too sturdy for him to destroy, so his only option was to cut off any access to it. He burnt the bridge that connected the Tower of the Sun to Ijsbrandur, and no one from the ground has entered Kordon since, save for you, of course.”
Serafine nodded and said, “I flew up from Aithnen thanks to my father’s crimson eagle, who is now trapped beneath the ocean of clouds. If what you say about the tower is true, then it’s my only hope for a safe return to my home.”
“That it is,” Wallen acknowledged, looking into Serafine’s blue eyes. “Since the bridge leading to tower has been burned to ash, your only hope is through Cail’s falcon.”
Serafine cursed under her breath. She knew how attached Cail was to Laney. Convincing him to leave her side would be like ripping a leech from flesh. But what choice did she have? The Descendant of Aithnen left her home for hundreds of years in search of the Shadow Stone. Now that she finally had it within her grasp, she couldn’t let an unconscious girl get in her way. She would steal Cail’s falcon if need be.
“Your help, as always, is greatly appreciated,” Serafine said as she rose to her feet, but Wallen swiftly snatched her forearm.
“Wait,” Wallen said with a quiet, but firm, voice. He rose from his chair and looked to the waitress standing behind a wooden bar. “Leave us.” Without hesitation, she quickly shoved the lone man out the diner’s doors and hurried back to the kitchen, leaving the entire restaurant completely empty save for Wallen and Serafine.
“What kind of authority do you have here?” Serafine asked, shooting a glance of confusion at Wallen. He wore a sly smirk on his face.
“I built this restaurant up from rubble. Nothing happens here without my knowing.” Wallen walked to the center of the diner and forcefully stomped his foot into the floor. A previously indistinguishable slab of stone, not much wider than Wallen’s foot, and the fireplace immediately went dark. A low reverberation rumbled beneath their feet and the fireplace slowly descended into the ground, revealing a hidden corridor.
Wallen snatched a candle from the nearest table and said, “Come with me, there’s something I must show you.” Serafine nodded and Wallen led her into the corridor, guided only by the candle’s faint light. The hallway was flooded with drapes of cobwebs and Serafine could hear insects and rodents crawling up and down the walls. Serafine hated insects. She would’ve set the entire corridor ablaze had Wallen not been with her.
They stopped suddenly and Wallen lifted his candle up to light a torch which hung from the ceiling above their head. The torch emanated a bright radiance which illuminated the cramped, circular room that Wallen had taken Serafine to. Just before them was a wooden pedestal rising about as high as Serafine’s waist. On the pedestal rested a stone, but not just any stone. It was an Air Rune. Serafine was mesmerized by the rune’s beauty. The onyx stone gleamed in the light of fire and the markings, markings of the language of Dragonspeech, were as white as the clouds of the heavens.
“I don’t understand,” Serafine said with perplexion. “I thought Cail found all the Air Runes in Kordon.”
“He did,” Wallen responded. “This rune was originally hidden in Aithnen, but an ancient king, named King Lothic gifted it to me with the wish that it would be given to the Descendant of Kordon when the right time came.”
“Isn’t that now? He did save Kordon from Kalil’s reign of terror after all,” Serafine argued.
“That’s true, but I still fear that Cail has much to learn. What he did for the nation of Kordon is honorable and goes beyond what anyone could’ve expected of him, however I fear that his sight doesn’t go beyond the borders of Kordon; I don’t think he can see the rest of the world. Millennia have passed since Neptil, the world within which we live, has breathed as one spirit. Petty quarrels have divided the four nations, bringing toil and hardships to everyone.”
“Thanks to the Fontanians,” Serafine interrupted with no shortage of bitterness.
“That attitude is exactly why the Neptil is in the state that it’s in. You’ve been trained from your birth to hate the Domain of Water. The loathing hatred that your people feel toward the Fontanians is suffocating the world, draining its essence.”
“To be fair, they feel just as much hostility for us as we do them.”
“Which is why we need Cail,” Wallen responded as he retrieved the rune from the pedestal. “However, the quarrels between Aithnen and Fontana can wait for a later time. I wager you’ll need this if you’re to return to your home.”
“I don’t understand,” Serafine said, staring at the curves and patterns drawn on the rune. “Cail can just fly me to the tower with the help of his falcon. Why does he need this Air Rune?”
“Strictly speaking, he doesn’t need it, but he’ll undoubtedly want it, which will give you the leverage you need. He has left Elona before so he could acquire his powers, and he’ll do it again.”
“I don’t know. That was during a time when he was trying to discover himself. He thinks he has found all the Air Runes and now he knows he’s powerful enough to take down anyone he comes across. I believe he’ll be content to stay at his home in Elona with Laney, safe from danger and peril. He won’t leave for a new, trivial power.”
“But it’s not trivial, not in the slightest,” Wallen placed the rune back onto the pedestal and gazed into the darkness of the stone. Serafine could see that he was hiding a truth about the stone. It was different from the other runes that had been found throughout Kordon. After a moment of heavy silence, Wallen said, “King Lothic told me the tale I’m about to pass on to you, a tale that might convince you to take the rune.
“Shortly after the gods forged the four nations of Neptil, they also gave birth four beings, demigods; one for each of the nations. For Conrian, the Kingdom of Light, a fierce dragon named Kaida. In the vast oceans of Fontana lived a colossal sea turtle named Tradell. Aithnen was ruled by a ferocious lion named Cosimo. Finally, the nation of Kordon was protected by a magnificent falcon named Loni. All four of the divine beings cherished life above all else, which is why they felt isolated and lonely. These demigods gave birth to all the animals and races of the world that we see today. We wouldn’t be standing her today if it wasn’t for them.
“The four wizards of the world each created magical staves, but the demigods forged magic themselves, magic with unimaginable power. Knowing that these powers could lead to dangerous times, the demigods decided to hide each of these powers in a different nation, hence the reason why this Air Rune was in Aithnen.”
“You mean to tell me that I’ve yet to unlock the potential of powers? That there is rune hidden in the world that belongs to me?” Wallen nodded. “Where is it?”
“In Fontana,” Wallen responded with an emotionless face.
Serafine cursed beneath her breath. Fontana would be the death of her. She had been taught to know that it was sacrilegious to even set foot on Fontanian soil. In order to obtain that which she desired, she would have to betray the teachings of her parents and go where no Aithnenian had gone for millennia. The rune that laid before her could be the key to unlocking her true power, making her the unquestioned ruler of Aithnen.
“What powers will this rune unlock? What will it turn Cail into?” Serafine asked after silently pondering over what she should do.
“I don’t know,” Wallen said with regret. “I wish I could tell you, but the Divine Powers are abilities that have been possessed by no one other than the demigods themselves. It’ll undoubtedly unlock a terrible power within Cail, which is why it’s imperative that you wait until the right moment to give it to him.”
“I’m not convinced that it’s safe to give it to him at all,” Serafine said. She reflected on the time she witnessed Cail summon a swirling cyclone that kept an entire army at bay. Everyone stood as still as statues, amazed by the prowess of the wind that dwelled within the Descendant of Kordon. To think that he could obtain magic that was even more powerful than a tornado chilled the fire within Serafine and put the fear of death into her heart. Having made her decision, she said, “No. There’s far too great of a risk in giving this sacred power to him. I’ve seen what he’s capable of. When irked, he can transform into the mightiest of warriors and it’s as easy to touch him as it is the wind. If this rune possesses what you claim it does, then Cail can never be allowed to touch it.”
“Serafine, eventually this rune will fall into Cail’s palms,” Wallen said, trying to convince Serafine. “Each of the demigods took magic from themselves and preserved it to be given to each of the Descendants. The rune sitting before us is Loni’s gift to Cail. He is divinely destined to take control of this power. You must use this rune to your advantage; use it as leverage. Cail’s prowess can be bent to your will if you so choose. The key to your home is before you, but you’re welcome to find your own path.”
Against her better judgement, Serafine snatched the rune from the pedestal and held it in her palm. It felt deceptively light, no heavier than a small pebble. Her mind was screaming for her to put the rune back in its rightful place, atop the pedestal, but her heart greatly longed for Aithnen. Hundreds of years had passed since she had known the emerald flowing fields of Edenor, the Kingdoms of the East, the mountainous Bodaway Volcano. She missed her family, her friends, the tastes of the fresh foods, the radiant sunrises and the star-flooded night skies.
“I know this is a bad idea,” Serafine said, staring at the Air Rune.
“It’s what needs to be done,” Wallen responded without hesitation.
Serafine nodded and placed the rune safely in the inside pocket of her beige cloak. From the same pocket, she retrieved the Shadow Stone and showed it to Wallen. “Did King Lothic tell you anything about this?”
“Ah, yes. The Shadow Stone,” Wallen said after a moment of observation. He took the stone from Serafine’s palm and held it in the light of the lantern’s fire. It shined gloriously and glistened like a precious jewel. “The surface possesses alluring beauty, but darkness dwells within, as its name suggests. Just like the Air Runes harness the magic of the wind, the Shadow Stone contains dark magic; the magic bides within, waiting for anyone to release it from its cage.”
“That stone was locked away in a temple for millennia, and you claim that it defiled our sacred grounds?” Serafine asked, insulted by what Wallen had told her.
“That’s correct. A stone just like this was found on the island of Irda, by Kalil. That stone led to the demise of the free islands of Kordon, and this stone could bring about the fall of the democracies of Aithnen, should the stone fall into the wrong hands. With that being said, this is also the key to breaking down the barrier between Kordon and Aithnen. If you wish to have a peaceful, free world, then returning the Shadow Stone to its rightful place is your only choice.”
Now that Serafine knew this stone was capable of unleashing a tyrannical king on an innocent nation, she wanted nothing to do with it. As with the Air Rune, there was an immense amount of risk in taking the Shadow Stone back to the temple. The ocean of clouds would be drained and Aithnen would feel the warmth of the sun once again, but it would be all too easy for the Shadow Stone to be stolen, leading to the rise of darkness. Serafine couldn’t live with the guilt of being responsible for that.
“I just helped Cail to eradicate evil and malice from his home. If I take the Shadow Stone with me, it could give birth to that same malevolence. Perhaps the right choice is to destroy it,” Serafine pondered aloud.
“Perhaps you’re right,” Wallen said. Serafine looked surprised by his remark. “However, I think the leaders of the Kingdoms of Aithnen should decide what is right.” He offered the Shadow Stone back to Serafine.
She took it and placed it back in her pocket. “I agree,” she said with a heavy heart. Serafine’s first choice was to destroy the stone and be rid of the evil within it, but that wasn’t for her to decide. She needed to respect the will of the leaders of Aithnen. “I assume that my next course of action is to find Cail?”
“Yes, but not before I show you one last thing. Follow me.” Wallen snatched the lantern which was hanging from the ceiling and led Serafine out of the chamber, through the dark corridor and the diner, and into the buzzing streets of Darzomil. Serafine had to constantly evade the wild traffic of the civilians, but Wallen steadily walked through the crowd. Anyone who bumped into the rounded man bounced off him, usually forcing them to run into someone else. Serafine had to push and shove away hundreds of people so that she could keep up with Wallen, who was surprisingly quick on his feet, but she trailed right behind him nonetheless. It wasn’t long before Serafine realized that Wallen was leading her out of the city; the density of the crowd started to dwindle.
Once they had escaped the cramped city, they walked down a narrow dirt path, just wide enough for Serafine and Wallen to walk side by side. The path led them to a cliff, hanging over a steep drop into darkness. Serafine’s stomach turned as she looked over the edge, knowing that a single misstep would lead to a death as certain as the sunrise. “Where are you taking me?” Serafine asked, looking up to Wallen.
“We’re about to plunge into the heart of the mountain, into the depths of Darzomil.” Wallen stepped forward onto a narrow stone staircase which circled around the edge of the cliff, descending deep into the mountain. The light above them slowly faded and it didn’t take long until they were solely guided by the illumination of the lantern in Wallen’s hand, silence surrounded them save for the echoing clicks of their footsteps, and the air’s warmth evaporated, chilling Serafine to the bone.
After several moments of descending into darkness, the staircase stopped and led them into a cave with an entrance so small that Wallen had to duck in order to enter. Serafine immediately realized that this was no ordinary cave; it was a shrine. An ocean of gold coins flooded the towering cavern and stone altars held ancient texts and glistening jewels. Serafine was nearly blinded by the glistening gold. In the center of the cave stood a silver statue of a falcon, at least twice as large as Emey, Cail’s falcon. The falcon’s wings were spread out wide and its beak was open as though it were calling out to them. Serafine felt as puny as an ant in the cave, as humbled as the dirt and rubble beneath her feet.
“This is the Shrine of Loni,” Wallen said as he approached the statue. He stood before the magnificent bird, staring at it in awe. The stared back with a terrifying glare, a scowl that could pierce through anyone’s courage. “Sadly, this statue does no justice for the magnificence of Loni. He’s the Father of Kordon, Protector of the Skies, King of the Clouds.”
“Do the mountainfolk of Darzomil know of this place?” Serafine asked, flabbergasted by the immensity of the shrine.
“Of course. Where do you think all this gold came from? The people of the city offer a small portion of their earnings in an attempt to please the spirit of Loni. They think that by doing so, their lives will be at peace.”
“What do you believe?” Serafine asked without looking away from the statue’s trenchant eyes.
“Who can know for sure?” Wallen responded with no small amount of wit. “The mountainfolk have remained safe through all the years of Kalil’s corruption, so there must be something looking out for us.”
Serafine was skeptical that the spirit of mythological creature demanded money in order to protect the civilians of Darzomil; it seemed like a scam. Why wouldn’t Loni protect all the people of Kordon? If he truly was as powerful as Wallen claims, why wouldn’t destroy Kalil himself, instead of forcing Cail to do it? Serafine thought silently. She didn’t want to offend Wallen or offer him insult, so she kept her doubts to herself. Instead, she asked, “Why did you bring me here? Isn’t this something you should show to Cail?”
“I have a nagging that you’ll have to be the one to do that,” Wallen answered with a melancholic voice. “The quest you are about to embark on, returning the Shadow Stone to your homeland, will be a tall task. It will take days, years even, and it will test your strength. As I age, the days grow shorter, speeding like a boulder tumbling down the mountain. My days are numbered and, to be completely honest, I fear that my life won’t survive long enough to see your return.”
“Please don’t say that,” Serafine interrupted. The thought of Wallen’s death brought tears to her eyes. “You’ve guided me ever since I arrived from Aithnen, two thousand years ago, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without you.”
“Then I have fulfilled my purpose,” Wallen said with a light smile. “Bearing that in mind, you must promise me that you’ll show this shrine to Cail, should the worst come to pass for me.”
“You have my word,” Serafine responded. A glistening tear ran down her cheek. Wallen used a thick finger to dry her face and took her into his arms.
“There’s no need to let sadness thrive. I’ve lived a life full of purpose, a life that helped bring peace to Kordon. Even though weakness is beginning to plague my body and bind my muscles, I know that I am strong.”
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