Northmere, Central Isle
Locke—as he was called by some—sat at a narrow table made of polished wood that was wedged in the back corner of a Northmere tavern. Across from him sat a Druishk man with glittering jewels woven through his dark hair and golden rings lining his fingers that flashed in the low burning lamps of the lodge. Locke’s own face mimicked that of the Druishk noble—charcoal grey skin, green eyes, tall stature—and he wore similar ornate robes stitched together by gaudy designs and a blaze of colors. But he was not Druishk. He was not even mortal.
No, Locke was of the fair ones. The burning ones. The better race that thrived beyond the realm of Bakkaj.
The tavern was quiet. Low murmurs drifted like a hushed breeze, forks clinked against plates, the fresh smell of flowers wafted over everything. It was a typical place to meet for business; no danger of being overheard like one would in an Eastmere pub, but not too overrun with crowds like cafes in Effre where one could not hear over the din of conversation. It was private, upscale, and refined in both taste and appearance. Personally, Locke preferred it to other locations, especially Effre with its buildings of blacksteel that made his skin crawl, and it had become his favorite tavern when it was first built well over hundred years ago.
“How fare you, Lord Oku?” the Druishk man, Lord Uro, asked. He settled his linen cloth in his lap and plucked a glass chalice from the table, taking a long drink. Locke watched his neck bob as he gulped down the golden liquid that smelled of apples and was no doubt mixed with the spirits most mortals were prone to indulge in.
“I’ve had better days,” Locke replied, ignoring the nasally tone that came from his throat. Druishk nobles didn’t just look obnoxious; they sounded obnoxious with their high-pitched voices. Locke traced the rim of a dingy tankard that sat near his right hand. He would never stoop so low as to sip from the mug full of liquid that looked of jax-oxen piss and smelled worse. He knew what such drinks did to mortals—and to the fair ones. It was there for show, so the mortals believed he was just another Druishk noble out for a friendly chat about trade.
“I hear you brought no new product from Blitzkrieg,” Lord Uro said. He patted his mouth with the linen cloth and smiled wryly.
“Unfortunately not,” Locke said in a monotone voice, trying to hide his irritation. Lord Uro wasn’t different than any of his predecessors. Over the past century, Locke had encountered all types of people; most were the same. So of course Lord Uro had already heard the rumors rippling through Central and wanted to flaunt his connections to the Trade Union’s underground network. Locke wondered if the man also knew he’d been cast off the Andromeda by that bloody captain.
It was her fault, Locke mused. She had done something with the girl; she had to have done something. That skinny Taegan boy didn’t have the power to obscure the girl from the world. No, it was the captain and her illusions. She had, somehow, tricked him.
Beneath the table, he fingered a shard of quartz. He always kept at least one shard on him at all times, in case he needed it. The edge of the shard pressed against his unbreakable skin. No, not unbreakable. More like unbreachable.
“I ran into a few problems on my way to Central. My… product was liberated from my possession.”
Lord Uro clucked his tongue and picked up his fork and knife. He cut deep into the hunk of meat that sat on his plate, sauce pooling across the surface. Locke resisted the urge to gag. Mortals and their desires. Locke wouldn’t be surprised to learn that prized piece of meat, which no doubt cost a pretty penny, was simply a dressed-up slab of jax-ox. Yet mortals would do whatever it took to keep up appearances. Eating meat, no matter where it came from, was just one reason for Locke to loathe the man. Another was the man’s profession.
Lord Uro was a merchant by choice, a plantation owner by birthright. He owned half a dozen ships that traveled back and forth from Central to Druishk to transport the product that grew on his plantations. A plant called papavaleriana that was a necessary ingredient in possession potion. It was a profitable venture if one didn’t worry about breaking several ethical laws or getting caught by the charter patrol. Plenty of slave traders would pay quite a sum for possession potion as it helped subdue potential livestock, including mortals.
But Lord Uro also had a hand in the slave business himself, mainly to keep his papavaleriana product relevant. And Locke—as Lord Oku—was one of his lackeys.
It was a charade, Locke told himself every time Lord Uro gave him a disgruntled expression or reprimanded his failures. Locke could walk away at any point, turn into someone else and escape Lord Uro’s cruel hand. But he didn’t; he had a mission to complete, far bigger than picking up slaves for Lord Uro. He needed someone who had access to merchant ships to take him from island to island. Right now, Lord Uro was the easiest connection.
“Perhaps in the future you will learn to do better.” Lord Uro bit into a piece of meat, juice spilling between his teeth. Locke squeezed the shard of quartz in his lap until it was nothing but a pile of dust. “If you continue this pattern of incompetence, your endeavours will not prove fortuitous. I’m sure you, as a businessman, understand that I will be unable to continue such a partnership if there is nothing to gain of it.”
“Of course,” Locke said without looking at the man. He smoothed out his facial features to hide his annoyance.
If only he knew the truth, Locke thought. If Lord Uro only knew who he truly was—what he truly was. This superior air Lord Uro held himself upright with would vanish in an instance if Locke revealed his true form. The whole tavern would turn, soaking in his glorious blaze, and would bow. Of that, he had no doubt.
“Though, I believe my latest venture proved fortuitous,” Locke began. “I found a powerful anamri in Blitzkrieg. She’s here in Central, right now. If we could find her—”
“So, you lost the girl.”
Locke glanced up. The quartz dust in his hand solidified and multiplied in his lap. The material of his ornate robe sagged where the stones tumbled. Lord Uro grinned at him, lips peeled back to show a sliver of dark meat between his teeth. No, not Lord Uro. Not quite.
A rather irritating fair one who believed he possessed the knowledge of, well, everything. All because with a flick of his thoughts, he could enter a mortal’s mind and play dress-up without lifting a finger, without needing to enter the mortal realm or ask permission to take control as some fair spirits were bound to do. No, Jagatnatha wasn’t doomed to wandering the realms as a spirit, separated from his physical body by some unpleasant means. He was, to Locke’s dismay, very much whole.
And he was now in control of Lord Uro’s body, staring at Locke with two green Druishk eyes and a tight, disappointed smile. As always.
Lord Uro, however, was lost to a pleasant dream, lulled to sleep by Jagatnatha’s alluring voice. When it was over, he would waken with gaps in his memories. A simple blip of time he had forgotten.
“How fleeting, mortals are,” Jagatnatha always said when he released his control over a mortal. “They spend so much time trying to impress themselves they forget how to live. They forget their own existence.”
Locke did not agree—not entirely. Yes, mortals seemed to waste their lives with the same day in and day out activities. But Locke didn’t believe his own people, the fair ones, were any better. They idled away in the fair realm: Arcaen. Instead of growing older, they just grew. In strength. In power. In lust.
“How unfortunate,” Lord Uro—Jagatnatha—replied in a foreboding voice. He continued to eat Lord Uro’s meal, relishing every slice of the knife through the meat, every flourish of the fork through the air, every satisfying bite between his teeth.
Locke grimaced and crushed the quartz shards beneath the table again. It soothed him to feel the stones bite against his skin, trembling until they burst into an iridescent rainbow of dust. Playing with quartz was how he always calmed himself, ever since childhood when Bransk was flat land in all directions and Effre’s towers didn’t try to grasp the sky. How he hated Jagatnatha and his pompous attitude. Not that Locke himself was any better, pretending to be a Druishk noble, putting on high airs as was the Druishk way. It sickened him. Though he didn’t know why.
The other fair ones never batted an eye at acting superior to the mortals, of manipulating them for their own gain. In their minds, they didn’t just think they were better, they knew they were better. Locke just thought differently. As always.
“I took a sample of her blood,” he offered Jagatnatha. His fingers slid to the vial hanging from his ornate belt. There wasn’t a lot, but there would be enough to know. He could hear the fluid swish against the glass walls of the vial. Her blood and magic could fix everything for his court, the Refectoris.
“Excellent.” Lord Uro’s face brightened, but Locke still saw the superior smile warp the man’s lips. “Bring the sample to the breach and send it along to Erkan. Perhaps this girl will be worth pursuing as you request.”
Locke nodded, knowing his place. It was best to comply to Jagatnatha’s commands. In a world of turmoil and bloodshed, anyone with similar agendas was considered an ally. Similar goals, different reasoning, different methods even. For some, it was similar enough to be the same. For Locke, it was as different as the two realms.
But he complied. For his people, for his mission, for his sister.
“Will you tell her?” Locke asked, eyeing Lord Uro. He rubbed the quartz dust across his thumb. It left an iridescent streak on his charcoal grey skin.
“She’s not here,” Jagatnatha replied. “Off to her island again, I suppose. Waiting for him to return.” Lord Uro rolled his eyes before patting his lips with a linen cloth.
“He’s not coming back. It’s been over a decade,” Locke said with a sigh. He’d always been better at keeping time than other fae, always knew how many years passed in the mortal realm. “He’s forgotten her, as most mortals do, or he’s dead. After all,” Locke tilted his head to one side, “mortals’ lives are fleeting.” There was a mocking tone to his words, a bitterness that crawled up his voice. Jagatnatha picked up on it better than Locke assumed he would.
“Think you’re better than us, orphan?” he hissed. “You and your foolish ideology that mortals have merit, have a reason to live?”
Locke shrugged, fingering the knife next to his untouched plate. It was dull, only good for cutting meat, not flesh and bone. Locke didn’t need to cut meat, not since he watched one of the fair ones eat their own kin out of some kind of wicked desperation. The Saeva were always like that, though. Anything was lawful as long as it sated their lust.
“I don’t think I’m better than you,” he said slowly, each word deliberate and pronounced. He locked eyes with Lord Uro. “I know I am better than you.”
Jagatnatha growled, and Locke reached for the dagger hidden within the sleeve of his garish robe. He knew Jagatnatha would have lunged across the unstable table, knocking dishes and glasses to the floor in an explosion of rage if not for a cheerful servant girl who walked past, toting a tray of empty dishes back to the kitchens.
Instead, Lord Uro stayed planted in his seat, a grimace twisting his already ugly features. Locke’s gaze followed the servant girl and her bright yellow tunic, dotted with white sunbursts. Who was she? He wondered. Did she belong to Northmere or Eastmere? Did she have a family? Was she kind? A dozen questions penetrated his thoughts. Something inside him stirred—longed to know the answers, to touch her hand, to whisper her name. She was mortal, he could tell. He had tuned his ear to hear such intricate details of the body; she did not throb with the erratic, desolate heart of a fair one.
And that made her better.
Locke looked back to Lord Uro. Jagatnatha flashed one final ugly smile, as if he knew what Locke had been thinking of the girl, as if that held some kind of power over Locke. Then he left. Locke discerned the moment he left, felt his presence dissipate like walking into a cold spot of the room, and Lord Uro returned. The man blinked rapidly, eyes unfocused, and shook his head as if to chase away the dreams he’d been experiencing. It was quick, but a blink.
“I’m sorry, Lord Oku. What was I saying? I seem to have forgotten…” His eyes drifted down to his plate, now empty except for a sludge of brown sauce. The Druishk man choked in his throat, eyes bewildered and bulging, at the loss of the last few moments.
Locke waved a hand through the air. “Not you. I was saying it was time for me to be off.” He pushed back his chair and slid the knife tip back up his sleeve. Gathering his robes, he stood. “Thank you again for offering to pay for the meal. Generosity is rare during such times.”
Confused, Lord Uro nodded. A knob formed between his eyebrows as no doubt his mind was scurrying to remember such a promise. “Right, of course.”
Locke smirked. Sometimes mortals were too easy to manipulate. It was no surprise the vast majority relished influencing them so often.
With a flick of his hand and the turn of his heel, Locke sauntered away from the table, trying not to break his Druishk pose—rolled back shoulders, chin up, long strides. He strode out of the tavern and into the bright afternoon sun. He breathed in the Northmere air, feeling refreshed after that suffocating conversation. Behind him, his helvts—disguised as his personal escorts—stepped in line behind him as he wandered from Northmere to Eastmere.
A young woman, wearing a bright blue dress with orange and white flowers scattered across the material, bumped into him, digging her pointy elbows into Locke’s arm. Miffed, Locke paused to bark at the girl, but she eluded his escape, quick as fish in the sea, the necklace at her throat glittering in the afternoon sun. A shorter boy ran next to her, calling back a quick apology before they disappeared down Northmere’s streets.
Ahead, Locke saw smoke rising to the sky in a dark, blanketing billow. The streets were in a flurry over a fire, which apparently only consumed one shop building a few blocks away, or so Locke heard from surrounding conversations. He ignored the pandemonium and continued to his destination. Perhaps someone was having a worse day than he was.
After another block, Locke turned down a vacant street and stopped before a hat shop. The old brick was sun-bleached and the sign hung crooked above the door, but Locke smiled. Somehow, this place felt like home. Not his real home. That was in Arcaen. But here, in Central, this small building was his place of peace.
He led the helvts into the shop, past the rows of hats and the empty counter, where he deposited a box one of the helvts carried. Inside, the hatter would find a woolen knit hat straight from the Eastern Dock of Blitzkrieg. He didn’t own the hat shop, of course; he merely rented the upstairs apartment. It was cramped, dusty, and may or may not have a rat infestation in the roof, but it was quiet and empty and hidden so far into the grime of Eastmere that no one would find him.
They headed up the rickety staircase along the back wall, and, at the top, Locke jiggled the door open. It was never truly locked since the hatter was the only one with a key, but Locke knew a trick or two to keep someone out of his private space. He entered the apartment and immediately stripped himself of the thick robe, flinging it across the back of a chair at the small table in the center of the room. He tossed his knife on the table; the metal edge thudded into the wood.
The helvts hovered in the doorway. He beckoned them with his mind to come forward, as they were prone to wait until he commanded them. He was their master, they were born of his own blood—a mistake, his sister had insisted, when he’d returned with both helvts in tow. But he didn’t think them a mistake. Fifty years ago, he had been deep in the forests of Ottillie Isle when he’d stumbled over the dying phalanx-elk. A terror beast had attacked, rampaging through the forest undergrowth and plowing through anything that stood in its way. The only way to save them was to bind them with his own blood, a ritual the fair ones sometimes practiced to have control over livestock.
His lifeblood for theirs. But instead of the usual results where a hevt was created to be a slave, Locke formed a bond with his helvts. They would do his bidding without resistance, but he always knew where they were and what they were feeling. So he took them with him everywhere, just to ensure their safety and to know they weren’t in pain. His sister claimed this mistake came from the amount of blood Locke had transferred to the beasts. Only a little was meant to create a helvt, enough to turn them from beast into something slightly more fair. His were an even hybrid—half beast, half fair one.
Of course, dragging two hybrids behind him through the busy streets of Central would attract the wrong kind of attention. So Locke had to carefully construct illusions around the helvts to keep them out of the eye of strangers. They were loyal, though, and handy in a pinch. Keeping them close wasn’t as unwholesome as many fair ones and mortals appeared to think. Often when he walked the streets of Central, he saw mortals commanding the beasts, but more so, he saw them completely ignoring their presence. Another thing to manipulate until it burnt out and died. A fleeting thought.
Now, he faced them, hands outstretched. Carefully, he settled each one—each brother, as he called them at times—into a chair on either side of the doorway. Like sentinels guarding the threshold to the apartment, they sat statuesque. Locke enticed them to sleep without dreams. If all went well, he would come back in the evening to care for their basic needs. If not, they would sleep until he returned.
Locke went to the mirror in the bedroom. The apartment was small, with only two rooms, but it sufficed as a place for the helvts to rest and for Locke to clear his mind. Normally when he lingered in Central, he would go to the Sanctuary, one of the first temples to be built in Northmere. There had only been ten temples then, certainly not representative of every religion in Bakkaj. The Sanctuary was many things—a safe haven, a place for answers, a social hub—but it was not quiet. Or, not quiet enough. There were too many hearts ricocheting through the Sanctuary’s curving corridors. So Locke came to this apartment.
He looked into the mirror and found the grey-skinned Druishk man known as Lord Oku staring back. He grimaced and the man frowned in reply. Of all his disguises, the Druishk man was his least favorite. He despised the way Druishk people treated other mortals, believing themselves better merely because they had more money or power, depending on which island he traversed, even in the Southeastern Isles where they competed with the wealthy Estronians for the bigger ego. It didn’t matter how much money they kept close or how many jewels they wove through their long, dark hair. They were still mortal, still fleeting. A mere blink of the eye in comparison to the fair ones.
The Druishk grey skin faded into a hardened, glimmering onyx. His green eyes burst into flames, and his dark hair faded white. His true form, or as close to his true form that was possible in this realm, rippled back at him. But he couldn’t go to the Sanctuary looking like a Druishk noble, someone who felt he was above assembled religion, nor could he as true self. This would require a different face, someone who could blend in with the crowds of Central, someone who wouldn’t call attention to himself. Someone who wouldn’t be remembered.
So his face changed again. The black skin diluted to a shade of fresh, wet earth. His nose and forehead broadened. His eyes spun the color of trampled autumn leaves, and his hair shortened and became as dark as the midnight sky.
He had seen this face once before on an island in the West. When the man no longer needed it, Locke had taken the face for his own, knowing it would not be remembered, knowing no one would care who he was trying to be.
Locke opened the large wardrobe next to the mirror, which contained clothes from all across Bakkaj. There were billowy shirts from the Southern Isles, woolen coats and boots from Blitzkrieg, thin-strapped sandals from Taegan, and leafy skivvies from Chorlea. There were any number of necklaces, bracelets, and belts as well. There were outfits from other eras, styles that were no longer popular, clothing that was no longer made. He’d been to almost every island on the map, and some that weren’t on maps, and he’d collected the clothes as one collected souvenirs. Most had come from shops, but some had come off bodies that no longer needed them.
He rifled through the wardrobe, pulling out shoes and socks, trying on different shades of scarves, and holding up different sweaters to his new face in the mirror. These days, Central required a more relaxed attire. Nothing fancy like Druishk, nothing flowery like Ottillie. Simple, plain, everyday. Something that wouldn’t be remembered.
He settled for earth tones: a grey woolen sweater with a dark green scarf, a dark blue button-down jacket, and black pants. He traded leathery, crisscross sandals for a pair of sturdy, calf-high boots. He gathered the extra clothes and shoved them back in the wardrobe. Another day, perhaps, he would organize the clothing by island. But he was in a hurry. Jagatnatha would be waiting for an answer.
Locke left the apartment, checking the door twice before departing. The helvts would be undisturbed until he came back. Even the old hatter knew better than to enter his residence. Locke had made that clear during the early arrangements. He would pay the hatter as requested—one fine hat from any island he traveled to—and in exchange, the hatter would ask no questions and leave the apartment door open for Locke’s convenience.
Of course the hatter believed him to be a man from the Southeastern Isles, someone who needed a place to stay during business ventures to Central. It was all the same, after all. One arrangement after another, it was all business for Locke. No one knew the true reason he traveled.
It wasn’t for slaves or papavaleriana or to trade. He was sent to find someone—someone with unnatural magic abilities, someone who was of both realms. Someone who could change everything between the realms.
With the vial of blood tucked in his coat pocket, Locke walked through the streets of Eastmere at a brisk pace, watching those he passed with mild interest. A shopkeeper’s daughter refilled a fruit stand, her long braids swaying with every swing of her hips. A boy peered around the corner of an old brick building before darting into a crowd, his hands slipping into pockets and withdrawing filled with coins. Two men balanced on a creaky ladder, trying to hang a crooked, wooden sign.
It was all trivial, he knew. Soon they would all be dead—the boy, the older men, the girl. They all died, every person, every heart, and new ones would take their place. He had watched it happen for over a century.
He had been young, still a child according to the fair ones’ years, when he and his older sister were abandoned by their parents. One day, they had been together, a family, sharing some semblance of a life. Fair ones didn’t coddle their children, didn’t always provide for them, but they taught them. They taught them how to be powerful, how to fend for themselves, how to manipulate mortals. Because, after all, they were better than mortals. They had to be better, or nothing they’d done for the past centuries mattered. The divide, the wars, the bloodshed.
It was better, they were taught, that they were divided from the mortals. That the mortals couldn’t overrun their lands as well. It was, after all, mortals who killed the first fair ones. In anger. In rage. In greed. Or so Locke and his sister were told.
But then the next day, their parents had vanished. Never seen again. A century later, Locke only remembered brief glimpses of them—a whispered word, the smell of flowers, a kiss between them full of hunger and taking. Where they went, why they went, he didn’t know. Would never know. They had disappeared without a trace, leaving him and his sister alone in a dark world.
Abandoned, destitute, left to the wildest of fair ones who sought only to corrupt and extort, Locke sought comfort elsewhere. In the mortal world. Through scrying and other tricks, he saw a place that wasn’t solely ruled by manipulation, greed, and a ravenous lust. In brief moments—a blink of the eye—he witnessed acts of compassion, kindness, even love. The mortals, the forbidden ones, the abominations—they were more, so much more, than his own people ever could be.
He saw orphans left to roam the street corners, widows wandering fields, the hungry traversing oceans. But he also saw mortals helping mortals without gaining anything in return or gratifying some feral desire. But because they could, because they wanted to, they did. Free of charge.
It was then Locke and his sister forged their own path, away from the doctrine of the fair ones, from the courts that preached mortals should be controlled or the ones that believed in total isolation. Away from the abuse and slavery. Away from the cruel Saeva, who would enslave all mortals for their own frivolous gain or the apathetic Arceo that wish to keep things the same. The siblings sought something more, a way to grasp what the mortals had, a sliver of hope, of better.
So they swore to one another, a binding blood agreement, to always seek what was best for the mortal world.
For it was the mortals, not the fair ones, who deserved to live out their short lives in peace. Because they were better.
He headed back toward Northmere. The traces of the fire had dissipated in the afternoon sky, not a cloud to be seen. It was odd, almost unnatural, but Locke didn’t have time to linger on other problems. He had enough of his own to deal with and didn’t need someone else’s.
Instead of branching toward the market square with its shops and taverns, he headed toward the center of Northmere, toward the temples that rose from the heart of Northmere. Locke had been to enough islands to know that only Central had tolerance for every religion in Bakkaj. The temples and sanctuaries meshed together like Northmere flowed into Eastmere, and Eastmere into Southmere, and Southmere into Westmere. It worked, and it thrived. Even if most of the deities spawned from his own people influencing the mortals. The fair ones would proclaim a new name and take over entire islands to exert their control.
Locke too had changed his name once. But for different reasons.
After joining a group within the Refectoris that sought the freedom of mortals and the healing of the divide, Locke had taken a new name. He had discarded his birth name, a name he hardly remembered now, hoping it shed the unruly part of himself—the part that still longed to trick the mortals and make them kneel to his power—and bring about a new light to his wretched soul.
And it was this name, or part of this name, that echoed in his ears before he could even see the plain wooden gates of the Sanctuary rising out of the afternoon haze.
“Luka!” a small voice, that of a child, cried out.
The Sanctuary, with its round architecture and plain stone, loomed in the smoke-curled air. The fumes from Bransk’s factories drifted on a current that cut through Northmere before vanishing across the Inwardly Sea. Not smoke like fire, not fumes like fog. But burning magic. It didn’t used to be like this, though. There was a time he remembered when the sky over Central was clear and clean. When he could smell the vegetation growing in the ground, when he could feel the refreshing breeze spin his clothes.
Locke tugged at the collar of his coat, pulling it closer around his now lanky frame. He knew what went on in those factories; his people had never stopped discussing it since it started. Another way the humans were shallow and petty, killing their own kind for another bit of coin. Another reason they should all just be controlled by fair ones.
“Luka! Luka! Luka!” Voices grew closer, synchronizing with small footsteps. Bare feet against stone. Hearts beating wildly.
The young, vibrant hearts of children.
There were three of them, all under the age of ten. They burst through the straight, plain gates of the Sanctuary with arms outstretched toward Locke. He grinned and stooped down to catch all three in his embrace.
“You’re back!” one cried as all three rubbed their bald heads against his sweater. “Did you have fun? What did you do? Was it cold? Did you see the lightning mountains?”
Dozens of questions poured out between their small lips in squeaky, chattering voices. Locke pulled back to look at each one in turn.
Two girls, one boy, all with the same light brown skin and charcoal blue eyes. Each an orphan, the same as Locke, raised by the Sanctuary’s many followers. Their heads were shaved for cleanliness, and they all wore the same traditional white frocks, ones that tied at the waist with three-strand cords to represent the connection of a person’s soul with the two-part godhead, Sister and Brother.
They were young, wild-eyed, and oblivious. Gaunt and sickly, though much better off here in Central than they would be on their home island of Ottillie. If they had stayed there, they would be dead, like their parents. It was only in the Sanctuary that orphans from Ottillie had any hope of survival. The island was wild, brutal even, lost among thick forests and dangerous canyons. The population was swelling. There wasn’t always enough food, and children without parents didn’t stand a chance of survival as there was no one who could take them in.
But did it matter if they lived or died? There lives were a mere flicker of lamplight. There would always be more orphans to bring presents to, more children to watch grow up. What purpose could these three have? Their existence didn’t change a thing in the realms. He already knew this, had already sent their blood to be unraveled by Erkan. The results were firm: no distinct anam ran in their blood. They didn’t stand a chance in the world.
So why did he care?
“Did you bring us anything?” the boy—Valor—asked. Both of the girls—Endellion and Zadie—paused their speculations about Blitzkrieg to gasp and nod eagerly in agreement with Valor.
Locke tossed a lopsided grin toward them. “I don’t know. Blitzkrieg is awfully boring and cold. Why ever would you want something from that chunk of ice?” He drew out his words slowly, exaggerating his movements and expressions, sticking out his lips and raising his eyebrows to feign indifference.
“But-but! Snow!” Valor cried. The boy threw his hands into the air and stuck out his head like a turtle from its shell. Locke grinned.
He waved his hand through the air, catching the sunlight overhead on his shard of quartz and pulling on the light, distorting it, threading it with a new image. Instead of dust and leaves whipping through the windy air, light snowflakes danced on the breeze and slowly settled on the children’s naked heads.
Endellion shrieked with delight. She danced around, shaking the powdery illusion from her head. Zadie stared up at him with wonder laced in her dark blue eyes. She crouched very still as if moving would melt the snow. Valor let out a laugh, his closed eyes crunched between his forehead and cheeks, a huge grin spreading across his face.
With a snap of his fingers, Locke dissolved the illusion, and in its place, he brought forth three trinkets from the pocket of his coat. While in Blitzkrieg, he had little time to shop for tourist souvenirs, but he couldn’t forget his favorite three orphans. Every time he left Central for an expedition, whether it was long or short, he promised to bring them something special back. He promised every orphan he’d bring something back.
He held three stones toward the children. Each was roughly the same size, made of the same smooth grey granite. The only difference between the rocks was the color of paint that decorated the top. These were prayer rocks in Blitzkrieg. The natives painted them with symbols of their god, Edu, usually lightning bolts or mountains, sometimes letters or trees, and then they would use them as they prayed, kneeling on the ground with hands splayed on either side of them and the rocks settled between the ground and their palms. They believed the rocks strengthened their tether to the earth, Edu’s own flesh, and it helped their prayers reach his celestial soul in the sky.
Most gods and goddesses in Bakkaj were Locke’s own people, manipulating the mortals for some purpose, even if it was a good purpose like his sister did. But Edu was different; Locke didn’t know which fair one was Edu, like he did some of the others who boasted of their accomplishments in the mortal realm. In all the times he’d traveled to Blitzkrieg, Locke had never noticed the presence of another of his kind like he did in other places like the Shifting Highlands or the Southeastern Isles.
Whoever—or whatever—Edu was, he kept himself hidden and under control. Never taking or giving too much.
Zadie cupped her hands around her face, shaking her head in marvel. “It’s so pretty, Luka. So pretty.”
Locke grinned, warmth flooding through. Their wonderstruck faces almost made up for the last week and his terrible failure at keeping hold of the girl. She had been just as young, just as innocent and marvelous as these children. Yet he had a duty to perform, a mission to complete, and he had to do that by any means necessary.
As he handed the children their rocks, which they cradled in their small hands, Locke’s smile faded. He was at the Sanctuary for a reason, not to get sidetracked by children. He had to get the blood sample to Erkan.
Locke stood, taking the children by hand, and headed through the plain gates of the Sanctuary. “Tell me about your studies.”
With wide grins, the three children babbled on about what they’d learned during his absence. They passed under the archway gate and through the courtyard. The design mimicked the island of Ottillie, which was made up of rings of land divided by rings of water with a single mountain in the center. The great eye of the sea.
When they entered the building, the children’s words echoed off the cavernous walls. The Sanctuary was built like a giant spiral, each corridor swirling closer and closer to the center, the inner chamber. This chamber was where the Sanctuary followers believed the godhead spoke to those deemed worthy to pass beyond the wide, stone doors. This was Locke’s destination.
Each branch of the spiral was lined with rooms of various sizes and purposes. There were classrooms for students, bedrooms for those who lived at the Sanctuary, chambers for worship, the kitchens, and more. Each member of the Sanctuary had a job to complete.
Locke’s job was to recruit others, or so that was what the people from Ottillie believed.
As they traversed the circling corridors, they passed by other members of the Sanctuary. Keepers tending to the interior of the building, ayahs ushering children down the halls, ecclesiastics kneeling in worship chambers or pouring over texts in study rooms. Each one did their part, moving with grace and fortitude, their hearts alive. Locke took all of this in as the orphans’ voices echoed off the walls and their hearts ricocheted through his head.
If only they knew the truth, Locke thought. If only they knew who they truly worshiped and the significance of the Sanctuary. Perhaps their lives would not be so content. Perhaps they would find other ways to spend their days than dedicating every ounce of energy to such duplicity.
Some days, he wondered why the Refectoris used the Sanctuary as their foothold into the mortal realm. Deceiving the mortals into believing they were just another set of gods to worship, that this building was a house of prayer and reflection, none of it felt different than what the other courts did to the mortals. But his sister had said it was necessary for their purpose, their mission.
Without an anchor in Bakkaj, they would be unable to carry out their work. Other fair ones took over entire cities, even islands. What they were doing was minimal, simple even. They didn’t force any of the followers to carry out their duties; they chose to. For something greater than they, as mortals, could ever imagine.
It didn’t sit well with Locke, but he abided by his sister’s commands. He understood. The realms weren’t perfect right now, hadn’t been for centuries, but they would be once they healed the divide. Everything would go back as it once was, full of peace and harmony.
The corridor ended at the heart of the Sanctuary with two large stone doors. Carvings outlined the door in rough sketches of the godhead, monsters, mortals, and the invocation of light. The creation of the realms, the separation of the divide, and the someday coming of restoration. It was truth hidden behind the false religion, put in place by his own people.
Locke released the orphans from his grasp. They knew the rules; unless deemed worthy by the Priestess, they could not pass the threshold to the inner chamber. As Locke spoke the ancient password, the children scurried away, clutching their Blitzkrieg prayer rocks and daydreaming of what lay beyond Central’s shores.
The doors thundered open as Locke uttered the last syllables of the phrase. Magic whispered from the slivered crack that appeared between the stone. The perfect divide between mortals and gods. Locke slipped through and heard the satisfying groan as the doors shut behind him.
The inner chamber was plain except for benches and torches that lined the circular wall. In the center was the gateway. The Refectoris had built the Sanctuary around the breach in order to control the passage from the Bakkaj to Arcaen. There were three such portals throughout Bakkaj that his court had command over. The inner mountain of Ottillie was the largest of the gateways, hidden deep within the mountain’s core. This was the victory his court had gained during the Cross-Court War. The second was here in Central, and the third was hidden deep within a forest on an uncharted island in the West. No one entered or exited the realm without permission of the sentinels who guarded them. In Central, the guardian of the gate was the Priestess, in Ottillie, the High Priest, but no one except Locke’s sister was permitted access to the small gateway on the uncharted island.
“Luka,” the Priestess said, her voice rich and flowing like honey. His name still sounded sweet from her mortal lips after all this time.
Locke bowed to her, lifting only his eyes to meet her wise blue ones. “An honor, Priestess.”
“Rise. We have much to discuss,” she said with a flick of her wrinkled hand. Red robes draped over her bony frame. A headdress that shimmered with fragments of quartz—quartz he had once formed for her as they lay together in bed, legs entwined, bodies fitting perfectly together—covered her greying hair.
“I presume he has informed you of the blood sample and my…” Locke’s nose flared, he was unwilling to admit he’d failed at keeping hold of yet another anamri.
The Priestess smiled, elegant with a hint of disaster. He’d fallen for that disaster once before. “Of course.” She held out a curled hand. Her fingernails were sharp red, dagger-like and cruel. But her skin had once been soft and smooth like wet sand. He knew this; he had slid his dark, burning hands over her body many times. He had felt the scrape of those nails across his flesh.
But no longer. She wouldn’t know him now anyways; he had changed his face numerous times since then. And now she was old, wrinkled, and greying. She was still striking, but there was an air to her that Locke could not grasp. Death was coming.
Locke pulled the vial from his pocket and slid it into her hand, brushing her fingers with his. Delighted shivers zipped across his skin. The Priestess clutched the vial between her thumb and forefinger and turned toward the portal.
The surface rippled, not with water or light, but with something else. Liquid and air and ice all at once, swirling and churning, becoming one then the other and the next until it grew blurry beneath Locke’s eyes.
The Priestess tipped the vial toward the portal and poured its contents into the simmering surface. The blood, red and thin, spilled out. Locke closed his eyes, trying not to think about the girl screaming on the ship, her eyes unfocused, unblinking, as the helvts cut her arm and caught the rivulet in a jar.
When the vial was emptied, the Priestess set it on the edge of the portal’s rim. “You should rest, Luka. It has been a long journey, and it could be some time before we know the truth. You know how meticulous Erkan can be.”
A twinge of irritation rose inside of Locke. For years, he had submitted to the Priestess’s wishes, trying for something that was near impossible. He believed if he submitted to her every whim, his mission would be completed and he could return home. How foolish he’d been. He may care for mortals, believe them to be better, but he cared for himself most of all.
He did not want to submit to the Priestess again.
How he wished he could reveal his true form to her, to show her the power he held beneath this young, naïve frame. But he couldn’t. She may be the Priestess, deemed worthy to communicate with the godhead, but she could not know that he was part of it. That he was the other half, the Brother.
So instead, he relented to her suggestion, and he left the inner chamber. He found an empty bedchamber and fell upon the mattress, not bothering to pull back the covers or undress. He was exhausted, and he was dissatisfied by the events of the past day.
When he closed his eyes, he saw the girl. Instead of flying away from him, he saw her flying toward him. Her eyes were bright as stars, her skin as soft as feathers. Her blood as white as the twin moons. But her face held fear, anguish. She was calling to him for help.
“Locke, there’s so much blood. And the ringing. The ringing is everywhere.”
For four days, Locke wandered the corridors of the Sanctuary, waiting for a response from Erkan about the girl’s blood. Sometimes communication through the gateways took moments, other times it took months. Time was different between the realms.
Locke visited the classrooms, the children all delighted to hear from the Sanctuary’s head apostle. He told them wild stories of the northern island where pinnipeds breathed ice and the mountains rumbled with the breath of dragons. He helped the keepers tend the gardens, and he spent hours in the library, musing over books he’d read at least fifteen times over.
The days were long and dull. In and out. The same thing every day. He wondered how the mortals could bear such lives, or did their lives feel so meaningless that it never occurred to them all that was in the world for them to experience? Were they too fragile to take the risk? They died so quickly, so easily.
Finally, on the morning of the fifth day, after another restless night of dreams involving the girl, the Priestess sent for him. He didn’t delay this time in his arrival at the stone doors.
He found the Priestess leaning over the rim of the gateway, a strange expression etching her brow in furrows. She was neither happy nor disappointed, neither angry nor sad. She was confused, conflicted. He crushed his quartz necklace into his palm and took a step forward to peer into the portal.
“What is it?” the Priestess asked, which surprised Locke. Normally, the Priestess answered questions, not allowing anyone to best her in the knowledge of the godhead and the Sanctuary’s inner workings. Not even him.
If only she knew.
Locke’s eyes slid from her to the pool. Shock collided inside of him. In previous samples of blood, one of two things had occurred. The blood would be returned, each element separated into perfect orbs of material. The life force separate from the natural elements with the anam shining gold or silver. Gold was the blood of someone with a strong connection between their soul and their natural body, what the more educated called anamri. Silver was the blood of someone with a connection to magic, but only in an elemental, natural way. He had heard it called neart—even liked to use it himself to separate mortals into distinct groups—and those who used it nearti, but generally they were referred to as anamri also.
The other option was for the blood to be returned whole. This signified that the blood was of someone who either could not perform magic or had never bothered to strengthen their magic.
There were rumors, of course, what the blood of a mortal who was born of the fair ones would look like. Some said it would be brighter than any color, just shining light, an iridescent rainbow. Others said it would look gold but it would burn. And some, rarely, said it would be neither gold nor silver, but white—a sign of the tainted mortal blood becoming whole and pure when mixed with fair blood.
It was only a half-fair, half-mortal that could restore the divide between the realms, or so legend told. A faeling could bridge the gap, mend the veil with his or her blood. Locke’s people, therefore, often encouraged relations between fair ones and mortals, though no relationship that he knew of had produced such a child. If a mortal, healthy and intelligent and gifted with magic, was found, they were deemed worthy of such relations and a fair one was sent to ripen a relationship. He himself had tried, if but to fulfill the legends. After years of failure, he had been commissioned with searching the islands for such a being instead.
It was rare to find a child produced under such circumstances. He had yet to find any, even after decades of tracking down leads. Perhaps it was impossible after all; perhaps fair blood and mortal blood did not mingle.
But now, staring down at the portal that churned, Locke realized he had been wrong in this belief. Fair blood could mingle with mortal blood, and it was possible to produce a faeling. A child with extraordinary ability.
The blood was neither silver nor gold, separate nor whole. Instead, it consumed the entirety of the portal, boiling the substance in a searing white light. Phosphorescent. Incandescent. Effervescent.
“Luka? What does this mean?” the Priestess asked, looking up at him with her soft, blue eyes.
Without answering the Priestess’s question, Locke turned on his heel and bolted out of the stone doors. It had been days since he left the Andromeda. Days for the girl to get further away. But he had to try to find her. He had to search every nook and cranny of this bloody island until he found her. She was his chance at repairing the divide. She was his chance at redemption.