Master Arcanist [Chapters 1-3]

Hello peeps!

The 7th book in my Frith Chronicles series, MASTER ARCANIST, releases April 19th! ❤

I’m both excited and nervous (like always, lol). There are some amazing moments in this one I’ve been daydreaming about since I first Knightmare Arcanist. Can’t wait for everyone to finally see the story trapped in my head all this time!

SO, in anticipation of the release, here are the first three chapters as a preview! Obviously Warlord Arcanist left off on a cliffhanger, so some of the stuff that happens in these immediate chapters are a bit of a spoiler.

You’ve been warned!

Spoilers!

But if you’d like to see the start of the novel, here it is!

CHAPTER ONE

PRIORITIES

            The last twenty-four hours had been rough.

            I stood outside the shattered walls of Thronehold, the capital of the Argo Empire. The cries of the injured and mourning rose with the smoke into the air. The armies—soldiers and arcanists familiar with war—celebrated their victory and the rightful queen’s restoration, despite the surrounding rubble and bodies. I wanted to rest, to spend time with Evianna and the others, but I didn’t have that luxury.

            I was the World Serpent Arcanist, the Warlord.

            Too many problems needed my attention.

            Last night, I had killed Theasin, but the Second Ascension had stolen away with his soul forge. From what I knew, the god-creatures couldn’t survive without their arcanists. The soul forge was surely dead, but now its corpse was in the hands of the enemy. The Second Ascension had used the skeleton of the apoch dragon to make fearsome weapons, and I had no doubt they’d use the soul forge for the same villainy.

            That was a serious threat, but without knowing where the corpse had been taken, there was little I could do about it right now.

            To make matters worse, several of my friends and family had been infected with the arcane plague during our battles. I had thought the plague was no longer a threat. I had helped a friend, Vethica, bond with a khepera, a creature with the power to revert the corrosive damage caused by corrupted magic. Then I had allowed that information to be spread widely—I wanted everyone to be cured.

            But now Vethica was gone. She had vanished during the battle, and I had every reason to think the Second Ascension had been the ones to take her.

            Now I had to find a way to help those infected, as well as locate Vethica.

            The mounting pressure to find the Second Ascension’s lair weighed on me. How would we find it? As well as the other god-creature I suspected had already bonded. Was that god-arcanist a member of the Second Ascension? So many problems…

            Another complication—the fenris wolf, a god-creature of extraordinary ability—was nearby, here in the Argo Empire, somewhere close to Thronehold. Someone had to bond with it, but Queen Ladislava had declared all god-creatures in her realm belonged to her. Would she see reason and allow us to send someone into the lair of the wolf?

            The final problem was a personal one.

            During the fight for Thronehold, the soul forge had used its heinous abilities to steal life from people, and then given it to the corpses of mystical creatures. Those corpses… They had risen from the dead.

            Even Luthair.

            A white hart stood next to me, stomping his golden hooves and shaking his head. “Where am I? Why am I here?” When he turned to face me, his white fur shone in the bright afternoon light. “I don’t understand.”

            Arthur, the white hart, was the eldrin of an assassin who had tried to kill me—Adelgis’s sister, Venae. His golden antlers had been sliced from his head during our fight, but they had grown back during his resurrection, large and pointed, just as glorious as before.

            I had almost forgotten about him. My thoughts were on so many other things.

            Thankfully, Evianna was with me as well. She waited by my side, a look of determination etched onto her face. Her white hair, pulled back in a tight ponytail, fluttered in the wind. Loose strands glittered with a metallic edge, beautiful and mystical, in a way no one else was.

            Her bluish-purple eyes…

            Evianna stared at me without saying anything, but I knew she was waiting.

            I had to decide what to do.

            Which problem had the highest priority? Rescuing Vethica? Finding someone to bond with the fenris wolf? Stopping the Second Ascension from using the body of the soul forge?

            Saving Luthair?

            Thinking of Luthair caused a twinge of pain to lance through my chest. I turned to the white hart. He had been brought back to life—perhaps he would have answers for me.

            “Are you still bonded with Venae?” I asked.

            The mighty beast twitched his ears. “I don’t know who you speak of.”

            “You don’t… recognize Venae’s name?”

            Arthur shook his head. “My Trial of Worth has been completed. I can… sense it. But I have no arcanist. I need to find her. We need to bond.”

            “You know your arcanist is a woman?” I asked.

            The white hart didn’t answer for a long moment, perplexed.

            But it was all I needed to hear. Arthur couldn’t remember his old arcanist, but he sought to bond with her regardless. Was that what Luthair had felt when he awoke? Had he felt an urge to find me and bond with me? Or was it just because Venae remained unbonded?

            Again, my chest hurt. I hated… the thought of him searching endlessly for me. I hated the thought I wasn’t there for him.

            “Volke?” Evianna asked. She placed a hand on my shoulder and stepped close to me. “Are you okay?”

            “I will be,” I managed to say.

            “We still have Venae in custody.”

            “I… I know.”

            I didn’t care whether she bonded with her white hart again. I just didn’t. Someone else could handle that. Right now, I needed to focus on the big issues.

            Out of all the problems, which could I handle the fastest? Obviously, the fenris wolf was nearby. I could speak with Guildmaster Eventide, and we could escort someone into the lair of the beast. We had the wolf’s runestone. Everything was ready—we could have another god-arcanist on our side before nightfall, assuming we all didn’t die from the perils of the lair.

            And then we’d stand a better chance against our enemies.

            Those who were infected with the arcane plague… Their eldrin had a few days, maximum, before becoming twisted monsters. The arcanists had longer, since they weren’t completely magical, but it wouldn’t matter if their eldrin fell first.

            It would probably take weeks or months for the Second Ascension to use the soul forge to create powerful artifacts. Especially now that Theasin wasn’t there to help them.

            Heading to the fenris wolf’s lair was the best choice.

            At least, I hoped it was.

            “Evianna,” I said.

            She tensed and then held herself a little straighter. “Yes? What is it?” Before I could answer, she hastily added, “Do you need something? What can I do to help?”

            “Can you gather the other master arcanists of the Frith Guild?” I shook my head. “Or anyone else on our side? I need to speak with them.”

            The white hart snorted. “What of me? You said you knew my arcanist. I want to meet her!”

            I waved my hand at the creature. “Evianna, can you… take care of him as well?”

            The shadows around Evianna’s feet flickered and fluttered, like bats trapped in the darkness. She replied with a single nod, and then her knightmare, Layshl, stepped out of the inky void.

            Layshl’s leathery scaled armor, black as midnight, didn’t take to the sunlight well. Her empty cowl and dragon-wing cape seemed thinner than usual. Knightmares didn’t care for the light. They became weaker when it was bright. An unfortunate downside.

            With careful and silent movements, Layshl stood next to the white hart. Her gloved hand—disembodied, as though worn by an invisible person—stroked the brilliant white fur of the creature. Arthur calmed and allowed the knightmare to stroke his shoulders.

            “Layshl and I will handle this,” Evianna said. “You should rest a bit.”

            She pointed to the encampment just outside of Thronehold. The many tents had once been for Queen Ladislava’s soldiers, but now that she had the city, they were empty. Eventually, the whole lot of tents would be torn down and packed away. The commander’s tent—larger and positioned near the center of the encampment—was a quiet location, sitting in the middle of the tent graveyard.

            “You’ve been through a lot,” Evianna said, the concern in her voice genuine. When she touched my shoulder again, it was gentle. “I promise I won’t take long. I just… I worry about you. Everything you’ve been through. It’s so much.”

            “I’ll handle it,” I said, more confidence in my voice than I felt in my heart.

            She smiled up at me. “I know. But I want you to be okay at the end of everything, too.” Then Evianna threw her arms around me in a tight embrace. “No more near-deaths. No more close calls. Do you understand?”

            The more she squeezed, the more I could feel her concern. I returned the hug, thankful she wasn’t too angry with my recklessness. “Sorry for worrying you.”

            Evianna broke away from me and placed her hands on her hips. Her clothing—a high-quality button-up shirt and riding trousers that fit her perfectly—had been dirtied during the fighting, but still retained their elegant qualities.

            “No more apologizing,” Evianna stated. “We can’t have excuses. You rest, I’ll handle the white hart, as well as gathering everyone for a discussion. Everything will be taken care of. You have my word.”

            Although the smoke from destroyed smokestacks in the city stung my nose, I managed a smile. Evianna was dependable. I could relax for just a moment in the command tent while I thought of a plan.

***

            I slept for a short while.

            The dreams I had were fleeting. I relived my bonding with Terrakona. The inside of the massive tree—Terrakona’s lair—had been a gauntlet of obstacles. The insides had consumed the others, and then we had faced Evianna’s brother in a dark confrontation.

            Luthair…

            He had killed the grim reaper to save me.

            That was when I first met the hatchling world serpent. The massive beast had bonded with me. My arcanist mark—a twelve-pointed star over the heart of my chest—marked me as one of the strongest arcanists in the world.

            As a world serpent arcanist, I could move the earth, control the water, summon fire and plants, and reshape terrain. A warlord on the battlefield that was how the last world serpent arcanist had become a legend.

            But I still thought about Luthair. I couldn’t abandon him.

            I owed him my life. More than once over.

            The sound of air popping jerked me awake. I stood from my chair, half-groggy and confused by my surroundings. The table in the center of the command tent was massive—it was made from solid wood and had to weigh more than two horses. A Tactician’s Charm was rolled out on top of the table—a magical trinket map that detailed the surrounding area, including the weather.

            The tent walls were held up with shelves, and half a dozen chairs were positioned around the table. In the midafternoon sun, the tent was warm. It didn’t help wake me.

            When I glanced around, I noticed my sister, and I immediately tensed.

            She stood at the opposite end of the table, quiet and careful, as always. Her eldrin—the adorable white rizzel, Nicholin—sat on her shoulder like an extra-long ferret. His silver stripes shimmered in the lantern-light as Illia walked around to greet me.

            Although we weren’t related by blood, we were siblings. I knew her emotions long before she said a word. The eyepatch over her face, stitched with the image of a rizzel, couldn’t obfuscate her dread. Her one eye remained locked on me until we were mere inches apart.

            I was taller than her, but even when afraid, she had an innate confidence that practically added a few inches to her stature.

            “Volke,” she said, her voice unusually soft.

            “What’s wrong?” I asked.

            The fear in her voice, coupled with my own frayed nerves, caused me to jump to the worst-case scenario—the Second Ascension had returned for Thronehold. I stepped around Illia and headed for the flap of the tent. “Let’s go. If there are more members of the Second Ascension around, I’ll—”

            Illia grabbed my elbow and yanked me back. I turned around to face her, my brow furrowed.

            “Illia?” I asked.

            She shook her head. “It’s not the Second Ascension.”

            “Then what is it?”

            In that moment, she hesitated. It wasn’t like her. Nicholin said nothing—which really wasn’t like him. The little ferret creature didn’t look me in the eyes. His paws gripped Illia’s coat, and his white tail wrapped around her neck.

            Their silence gave me chills.

            “We won’t find Vethica in time,” Illia whispered. “And the other khepera arcanists who are part of the Frith Guild are barely trained in their magic. Even if we somehow made it back to Fortuna—where they are—it wouldn’t be fast enough.”

            “For Zaxis, you mean?” I asked.

            Illia tightened her hands into fists. “Yes. For Zaxis.” She glared up at me with her one eye. Her shoulder-length hair, wavy all the way from the roots to the tips, had been beaten down by rain, mud, and sweat. When she went to run a hand through it, her fingers got caught in tangles. Illia ripped her hand through, her frustration apparent in the simple act.

            “Guildmaster Eventide separated him from the others,” Nicholin muttered, his gaze on the floor. “And he hasn’t complained, but… He’s really worried.”

            “I’ll help him,” I said. “I promise.”

            “How?” Illia demanded.

            “I… I’ll think of something.”

            Only creatures and people with magic could become twisted by the arcane plague. If worse came to worse, we could kill Zaxis’s eldrin—his phoenix, Forsythe—in order to save his mind from falling to madness. That wasn’t the ideal route, but it was something.

            But I knew I couldn’t default like that.

            I grabbed at my arm and idly rubbed the spot on my shoulder where a plague-ridden creature had once bitten and infected me. What could I do?

            I had cured myself of the plague when Luthair achieved his true form. I couldn’t force Zaxis to do the same with Forsythe, but another thought crossed my mind. Terrakona had said that a mystical creature achieving its true form was the same as touching the purest magic—and the purest magic couldn’t be corrupted by the plague.

            Terrakona had also said that his lair—his birthplace—had been steeped in the purest magic.

            We were too far away from Terrakona’s lair, but the fenris wolf…

            It was nearby.

            “Listen,” I said, placing a hand on Illia’s shoulder. “I have an idea. I don’t know if it’ll work, but I’d rather try it than never know.”

CHAPTER TWO

LAIR OF THE FENRIS WOLF

            Terrakona wrapped his gigantic serpentine body around me. I climbed up the side of his body and took a seat on his scaled back.

            He was too large to fit into Thronehold without destroying something. He was at least a few hundred feet in length, his body thick with snake-like muscle, and his head was wide, like a python’s. The crest of crystals around his head flared out, similar to a mane or the hood of a viper.

            The crystals sparkled with a black inner beauty. For some reason, they reminded me of knightmare magic.

            “Warlord,” Terrakona telepathically said, his voice deep and regal—but youthful and hopeful. I appreciated that about him. “The arcanists of the Frith Guild are gathering inside the city. It would be best to join them.”

            “I will in a moment,” I said, as I stared out at the destruction around the shattered walls of Thronehold. The wind carried debris and ash over the cracked roads. The sight fueled my determination.

            I wouldn’t let the Second Ascension do this again.

            “Why hesitate?”

            “I’m waiting for Adelgis.”

            We needed Adelgis more than ever. He was the only one who could detect the location of the god-creatures. And… I needed to thank him for that. At first, Adelgis hadn’t been able to use his ethereal whelk magic on god-creatures—he couldn’t even hear my thoughts. But Adelgis was more talented than people gave him credit for.

            Adelgis had spent all his free time mastering his manipulation—his ability to alter dreams—to find the dreams of the god-creatures. Ever since then, his magic had been able to affect god-creatures and their arcanists. He could hear my thoughts—and he could sense the dreams of the fenris wolf.

            “Volke?”

            Adelgis’s quiet voice drew me out of my thoughts. I turned and spotted him on the ruined road outside of Thronehold. He walked over to Terrakona and I, his eldrin floating through the air by his side.

            His ethereal whelk—a shimmering sea snail the size of a human head—had once been a bizarre sight to me. Now, I enjoyed her presence. Felicity was one of the few mystical creatures who maintained a tranquil demeanor at all times. Plus, she reminded me of the ocean. Her spiral shell, iridescent in color, like oil on the surface of water, looked like the shells I would find on the beach of Ruma.

            Felicity had tentacles that hung from her sea slug-body, though. That was odd.

            “Good afternoon, Volke,” Felicity said as they approached.

            Her voice was as light as the breeze.

            I leaned forward and rested my elbows on my knees. “How are you two doing?” I asked.

            Adelgis smiled up at me. It was forced. I could tell in an instant.

            He was tall and slender, but right now he stood with drooped shoulders and his robes sloppily tied. That wasn’t like Adelgis. Even his long black hair, which he usually spent some time maintaining, had been tied back in a knot. A few strands were loose and fluttered in the wind.

            “Volke, allow me to apologize,” Adelgis said, not even bothering to answer my question. “I know I already did through telepathy, but I owe you the respect of saying it in person.”

            “Don’t worry about it.”

            “No. Please, listen.” Adelgis walked to the side of Terrakona and placed his hand on my eldrin’s emerald scales. Terrakona didn’t move away or otherwise react. Then Adelgis pressed his forehead into Terrakona’s side, hiding his face from me. “All of this is my fault.”

            “What’re you talking about?” I asked.

            After a long exhale, Adelgis replied, “I was so concerned about stopping my father, that I failed to think of all the many things the enemy was capable of.” He kept his forehead on Terrakona, staring down at the ground. “The plague, their enemy agents, their abilities. I… I should’ve devised a better strategy. I should’ve coordinated more. I should’ve—”

            “We have other arcanists with us,” I said, cutting him off. “You don’t need to put this all on yourself. Even Guildmaster Eventide and Master Zelfree were caught off guard by the enemy.”

            “You don’t understand. They don’t know my father like I do.”

            “It’s okay,” I said with a dark chuckle. “He’s dead now. That much we accomplished. He won’t hurt anybody anymore.”

            Adelgis shook his head. “Don’t you understand? My father never did anything halfway. Look what happened to Thronehold. He used his god-arcanist powers to resurrect the fallen mystical creatures here. He used them to create an army for the Second Ascension.”

            “We’ll find them,” I said with a shrug. “We have ways. Like the Occult Compass.”

            Adelgis didn’t respond.

            Wasn’t this part of being a leader? Helping others when they felt low? Even though I felt like I had just fought through a hurricane, I had to maintain my confidence and extend Adelgis a helping hand.

            “I can hear you,” Adelgis muttered into Terrakona’s side.

            I rubbed my face. “Right. Sorry. I’m just… Trying to think of something to help.” Even though I knew he could read thoughts, I just always forgot.

            “I’m afraid that I’ll overlook something my father left behind,” Adelgis muttered.

            “Look, he was a talented man, but you don’t need to be afraid of him anymore.”

            “I barely ever saw him… But he still terrified and inspired me. Even now… I’m worried.”

            For a long moment, I mulled over the comment. Adelgis was right. We had chased the shadow of Theasin Venrover across ocean and land. He had always been ahead of us—plotting and planning—but did we really need to fear his schemes when he wasn’t around to execute them? Who was more competent than Theasin?

            “The Autarch,” Adelgis murmured in response to my inner monologue.

            I didn’t know much about the Autarch. All I knew was he led the Second Ascension, and that he was bonded to a rare gold kirin. From what we had gathered, the Autarch’s plan was to bond with multiple god-creatures and then rule as the sole sovereign over all nations.

            If he had gotten the world serpent, the Autarch would’ve won already, but he hadn’t.

            “We’ll be fine,” I said as I slid off Terrakona and landed on the road next to Adelgis. “Don’t worry about it.”

            Adelgis finally removed his forehead from my eldrin and turned to face me. The black bags under his eyes didn’t reassure me. “My father set up an arranged marriage for me when I was five,” he said. “A whole decade before I was a man, my father had already planned my wedding. Trust me. My father left instructions for the Autarch—for my siblings—and for the Second Ascension. I just… I just need to think of what they would be.” Adelgis rubbed at his chin. “What would’ve been my father’s next move?”

            His ethereal whelk floated in the air around his head. Her tentacles grabbed his long hair and gently tugged. “Listen to Volke. Everything will be fine.”

            I placed my hand on Adelgis’s boney shoulder. He snapped his gaze to mine.

            “Forget about your father for a moment,” I said, my tone serious and my words exact. “I need you to locate the fenris wolf. All right?”

            Adelgis nodded once. “You needn’t worry. I felt the dreams of the wolf before we arrived in Thronehold. And now that the fighting has ended, the wolf dreams again.” He turned on his heel and pointed to the south, beyond the fields, and straight into a forest. “He’s there. In his lair.”

            “I can sense him as well,” Terrakona said, his eyes narrowing into harsh slits. “The fenris wolf slumbers.”

            “Do you think you can lead us straight to the door of the lair?” I asked. When we had discovered Terrakona’s lair, it had been locked. Only the world serpent runestone had allowed us to open it.

            Adelgis faced me with a half-smile. “I failed you before, but I won’t fail you on this.”

            “You’ve never failed me,” I said, curt. “Don’t even think that way.”

            “Even if you forgive me for not outsmarting my father, you must admit that… That it’s my fault Luthair might be in the hands of the enemy. I should’ve… I should’ve thought about—”

            “Don’t talk about Luthair,” I snapped. Then I forced myself to breathe—to enjoy the crisp midafternoon air—and allow my rage to subside. “Everything will be okay. We just have to focus on one problem at a time.”

            Adelgis didn’t respond. Part of me knew he would still blame himself, but I didn’t know how to convince him otherwise. He had complete control over people’s dreams, but this wasn’t a dream. He couldn’t control everything.

            It was in all our hands to set things right.

            “I’m going to speak with the master arcanists about our plans,” I said to him. “All I want from you is to make sure we have a path straight to the wolf.”

            Adelgis nodded, and his whelk spun around like a wagon wheel.

            “Thank you,” I said, clasping his shoulder. “Trust me—without you, I’d be lost. Stop blaming yourself. You’re one of my closest friends and allies.”

            I didn’t know why, but Adelgis stood a little straighter. “R-Right. Well, I’ll try not to disappoint you.”

            “You have until sundown to locate the entrance.” Then I turned on my heel. “That’s when I’ll return with the others.”

***

            There were only twelve god-creatures in total. From what I knew, they spawned one at a time, all across the world. The world serpent was first. The soul forge had been second. The fenris wolf was third.

            It was all I could think about as I paced the study room in the Thronehold library. The toppled bookshelves and cracked windows made the library feel like a refugee camp. The lanterns hanging on the wall were new, though. Scribes had been busy cleaning everything, but Guildmaster Eventide had asked them to leave.

            Now it was just me, Eventide, and the Ace of Cutlasses in the large stone room. The books at our feet were battered, but not destroyed, and I took a moment to kneel and examine everything.

            Guildmaster Eventide stood near one of the bookshelves, her eyes on the tomes.

            The Ace of Cutlasses—Yesna, the siren arcanist—examined the large window with a frown. She wore a simple tunic and trousers, which was different from her typical swashbuckling gear. Her two blades were secured to her thick leather belt, and I wondered why she didn’t like to wear armor.

            Then again, Thronehold was safe. In theory. Perhaps she didn’t think armor was necessary.

            Her black hair had been braided, similar to Eventide’s, but the tie didn’t look like it would hold. Her hair was thick and puffed and looked like a powder keg ready to explode from all restraints.

            Despite all that, Yesna was beautiful—athletic and confident, and her eyes bright with adventure. She reminded me of old tales, like the stories of Gregory Ruma.

            “We don’t have much time,” Yesna said. She kept her gaze on something beyond the window. “Queen Ladislava said she would be preparing some of her knights to escort us into the fenris wolf’s lair.”

            “We don’t need an escort,” I said.

            Guildmaster Eventide picked up a ruined book. She dusted the cover and then walked over to the nearby desk. “She’s not sending them to protect us. She’s sending them because she’s hoping one will be accepted by the fenris wolf to bond.”

            Ah. Right. Ladislava wanted someone from the Argo Empire to be the next god-arcanist.

            I sighed. Why was everyone so much trouble?

            Then again, I still didn’t know who I would recommend to bond with the beast. What if one of the knights was a suitable match? Then we wouldn’t run the risk of someone from the Second Ascension bonding to a god-creature.

            I gritted my teeth, my mind going to dark places.

            What if there was a traitor among the knights? What if they bonded, and then betrayed us?

            Guildmaster Eventide placed her hand on the desk, her gaze drilling a hole into the book. She seemed older. Worse than before. Her hair had always been gray, but now it seemed frayed. She had once moved with such energy and gusto—now her movements seemed stiff and forced.

            Eventide touched the edge of her tricorn cap and pulled it down a bit, hiding her face in shadow, preventing anyone from seeing the dark marks under her eyes.

            “We should send only a handful of people into the fenris wolf’s lair,” she said.

            “Why is that?” Yesna snapped back. “Let’s just send in the whole damn guild and see who can bond with it.”

            Eventide held up a finger, but her gaze never left the book. “When Volke traveled through the world serpent’s lair, it was filled with traps.”

            “They weren’t deadly.” Yesna shrugged. “Everett said he got caught, but he didn’t die.”

            “Only because Volke bonded with the world serpent.” When Eventide glanced up, her eyes were narrowed in a glare. “If Volke hadn’t bonded, everyone caught in the traps would’ve stayed there. And died.”

            The statement sent a shiver down my spine. Illia had been one of the few unfortunate people to get caught. I could still recall her being swallowed by the floor. The sight haunted my thoughts.

            “We should send in only a few people—those who can help get others through the lair, and those who we think can bond.”

            “Also, Zaxis and Odion,” I said. “They’re both infected with the arcane plague, but I have an idea.” I walked over to the desk and stood next to Eventide. “Please. I’ll go. I’ll watch them.”

            Guildmaster Eventide offered me a weak smile. “You needn’t ask my permission on this. If you think it’s wise to take them—for whatever reason—do so.”

            I held my breath and tapped the tips of my finger on the desk. For years, I had considered Eventide my guildmaster. She had been the one in charge. But that had changed when I had become a god-arcanist.

            Before I could say anything else, Eventide asked, “Who do you think would make a suitable god-arcanist?”

            I had been thinking about that for days, yet nothing ever came to me. I blamed the fatigue. The answer had to be obvious.

            “Have you ever considered your adopted father?” she asked. “William Savan was a naval officer back in his heyday.”

            The suggestion struck me like a punch in the chest. My throat tightened, and I dwelled on the thought for a full minute. Why hadn’t I thought of that before?

            Guilt twisted in me, but I slowly realized why. Gravekeeper William had once told me that he had tried to bond to a creature, but he had failed the Trial of Worth. In my mind, I never pictured him as an arcanist, even in these dire situations. He was just my father. The one who had raised me. The kind man who had taught me my love of books—and of honor.

            Could he be a god-arcanist?

            Even now, the thought seemed crazy to me.

            But plausible.

            “He’s back in Fortuna,” I whispered. “We’d never be able to get him here in time.”

            “In time for what?” Yesna barked from her position near the window. “And speak up! There’s nothin’ about this that needs hushed voices.”

            Eventide waved away the comment. Her hand was wan and shaky, though. I stared at it a bit longer, even after she put it back down at her side.

            “Then perhaps we should consider him when it comes time to find the other god-creatures,” Eventide stated. “There are many others. We should think of who we want to go through their Trials of Worth.”

            How many other creatures were there? “I know we have more than half the runestones,” I muttered. “Which ones do we have?”

            “The jade runestone, for the world serpent. The shale runestone, for the fenris wolf. The red jasper runestone, for the typhon beast. The lapis lazuli runestone, for the scylla waters. The opal runestone, for the tempest coatl. The sandstone runestone, for the progenitor behemoth. And finally… we have the bauxite runestone, for the corona phoenix.”

            Which meant the Second Ascension had the runestones for the sky titan, garuda bird, the abyssal kraken, and the endless undead…

            And one of those creatures had bonded. Since the Second Ascension had the runestone, I could only conclude that they had another god-arcanist in their midst.

            It would be helpful if we had more information on these creatures. Who would make good partners for the god-creatures? Some of them sounded fearsome. Others…

            “Volke,” Adelgis said to me telepathically.

            I tensed, my whole body prepared for a fight. “Adelgis?”

            Yesna and Eventide both turned to face me. They, too, looked like they were ready for anything.

            “I’ve found the door to the lair. It isn’t far from Thronehold. Please bring the shale runestone so we can enter.”

CHAPTER THREE

A TEAM OF SIX

            Guildmaster Eventide walked with me to the broken walls of Thronehold.

            Although most of the trek was in silence, whenever I glanced over, she offered me a confident smile. Her long coat was made of patchwork materials. Leather from various mythical creatures, including a minotaur, was sewn together with thick thread. I had never examined the thread before… It appeared to be the golden mane of a unicorn.

            “Did you imbue that coat yourself?” I asked once we reached the foot of the wall.

            Eventide shook her head. “A friend of mine did. It was a gift.” She grabbed the edge of the coat and lifted it so that I could see the hem at the bottom. Patches of void-black fur were used in the construction, giving the coat a frayed appearance. “These are from a rare black sphinx.”

            While I wanted to ask a hundred questions—about Eventide’s friends, and her adventures across the world—I knew I didn’t have much time. I turned my attention to the wall. “I’m ready for the fenris wolf. I won’t come back until the way is secured, and we find someone to bond.”

            “Afterward, we should head back to Fortuna and regroup,” Eventide said. She released her coat and then reached into a pocket and withdrew the shale runestone. It was no larger than her hand, with arcane runes on one side, a picture of a fearsome wolf on the other. “Who all are you taking?”

            “Odion and Zaxis.” I held my breath, trying to think of others in the nearby area. “Illia and Master Zelfree.”

            “Everett won’t be joining you.”

            I met her gaze with a lifted eyebrow. “Why not?”

            “He’s insisted on watching the prisoners. The Second Ascension members who were caught during the attack on Thronehold.”

            Eventide said the statement as though it meant nothing, but I saw through her words. Master Zelfree was staying behind to watch Calisto. That madman had almost died in the final battle, but Illia had captured him instead. Someone had to watch the dread pirate, even if his manticore was dead.

            He wasn’t an arcanist anymore—the moment someone’s mystical creature died, their connection to magic faded—but that didn’t mean his black heart would change. Calisto was a cutthroat, and if we allowed him to escape, I had no doubt that he would find a new creature to bond with, and then terrorize the seas all over again.

            “Okay,” I muttered. “I’ll take Illia, Evianna, and Captain Devlin.”

            Illia had her rizzel magic. Teleportation and the ability to manipulate gravity were impressive.

            The world serpent’s lair had been pitch dark. Evianna’s knightmare augmentation would allow us to see in the dark.

            Devlin was a master arcanist, capable of using all his magical abilities, almost with ease. He was one of the few arcanists I knew who could even produce his aura without difficulties. Although I didn’t know the man well, Devlin had proven himself to be dependable time and time again.

            Guildmaster Eventide smiled. “Excellent. Then you should hurry.” She glanced up and stared at the orange-tinted sky. “You should return before dawn. And remember your guild pendant.”

            I touched the guild pendant hanging around my neck. Unlike most guild pendants—which were made from copper, bronze, or silver—mine had been crafted from the bone of an atlas turtle. On one side it read: Volke Savan the World Serpent God-Arcanist. On the other side was the Frith Guild symbol, an ornate sword and shield with a star of magic between the two.

            It could protect me from attacks.

            Ever since Eventide had given it to me, I hadn’t taken it off.

            “Thank you, Guildmaster Eventide,” I said. “I won’t let you down.”

            She sighed. “How many times do I have to tell you? Call me Liet.”

            “Well… It just feels unnatural.” With a nervous laugh, I added, “But I’ll try.”

            “I’d go with you, if I could.” Eventide exhaled, this time with obvious fatigue. “But Gentel is so far from me… And after that battle, it feels as though my soul has been ripped and frayed.”

            “I understand.”

            Eventide—no, Liet—placed a hand on my shoulder. “When we return to Fortuna, we’ll have a chance to recover. Until then, don’t let your guard down. If any members of the Second Ascension escaped us, they might be nearby, just waiting for an opportunity to strike.”

            She always had insight and advice that I hadn’t considered.

            The fourth step of the Pillar. Preparation. Without it, we leave our fate to chance.

            “I won’t let you down,” I said.

***

            Terrakona rushed across the fields of the Argo Empire. He was massive, and his concertina movements allowed him to move with surprising speed. Sometimes I forgot he was the world serpent—I feared he would destroy the landscape, and leave the Argo Empire a smoking wreck—but then I glanced behind us, and saw that the ground moved to accommodate Terrakona’s movements.

            Whenever he moved, the very land would part to create a smooth path. The trees, the rocks, and even the water would be peeled away, like the skin on a banana, and then the earth would stitch itself back together once Terrakona had passed.

            There were some minor hiccups—sometimes the ground didn’t lineup quite right—but it was basically the same as before. No harm to the wilderness. No damage to the farms or crops.

            Evianna and Illia held on to Terrakona’s emerald scales, clinging to his back as we traveled. Evianna’s knightmare remained hidden in her shadow, and Illia’s rizzel clung to her shoulder. Every once in a while, Nicholin would poke his head up through her wavy hair and allow the wind to play with his soft, white ears.

            High above us, on a white two-headed dragon, was Odion, the King of Javin.

            His eldrin was a juvenile twilight dragon. They were fearsome beasts who changed colors depending on the time of day. While the sun was up, they were a bright white. Once the moon dominated the sky, twilight dragons were a bluish-black. Currently, Odion’s twilight dragon, Hasdrubal, was a brilliant white. Once dusk hit, he would shift to a grayish color, and then finally to his raven-black form.

            Zaxis rode on the dragon alongside Odion. The two of them were infected with the arcane plague, and while I was immune, Illia and Evianna weren’t.

            Zaxis’s phoenix, Forsythe, glided through the sky, his scarlet wings out wide. Soot and embers trailed off of him as his inner fiery body pulsed with life.

            And while we all stayed together, Devlin had shot out ahead. His massive roc, Mesos, could be seen from a mile away, so I didn’t fear losing him, but I wished he would’ve stayed close.

            Since rocs were man-eaters, they were immune to blood diseases. Devlin was the only other one in our group immune to the terrible effects of the arcane plague.

            While I dwelled on everyone’s capabilities—trying to think of strategies long before we reached the lair of the fenris wolf—Terrakona brought us to the forest. The trees parted as we went deeper into the woods, and before I had any real time to formulate a plan, Terrakona came to a stop.

            I grabbed the crystals of his mane to keep my balance.

            “Adelgis is nearby, Warlord,” Terrakona telepathically said.

            “Thank you.”

            I slid off his head, down his back, and then off the side of his gargantuan body. I hit the ground hard, to the point it hurt my knees, but I quickly brushed off the sensation. As a god-arcanist, my ability to heal was superior to most.

            Illia disappeared with a pop and glitter. Then she appeared by my side. She touched her eyepatch and offered me a smirk.

            As though not to be outdone, Evianna dramatically leapt off Terrakona and then dove into the darkness like it was a pool of ink. She emerged on the other side of me, walking out of the shadows with all the confidence of an assassin.

            Evianna fluffed her white hair. “I’m ready for this challenge. I’ll make it to the end of the lair this time.”

            “You need to be on your toes at all times,” Illia said. “The lair of the world serpent was no joke.”

            “Who said I was joking?” Evianna placed a hand on the hilt of her short sword. “When I say I’m ready, I mean, I’m ready.”

            Nicholin once again poked his head out of Illia’s hair. “Okay, children. Everyone put their smiles on because I am not getting eaten by a tree this time.” He squeaked and ruffled his white fur. “This lair will be different. We won’t be messing up.”

            “You don’t need to worry—I’m here,” I said, more confident than I felt.

            For whatever reason, it seemed to calm the others. Both Illia and Evianna acknowledged my statement with nods, and I wondered if the lair would even allow me in. From what I could remember, Terrakona’s lair had practically been a living thing. The massive tree had attacked us.

            Would the fenris wolf tolerate my presence?

            Captain Devlin—who had flown so far ahead of us—had to angle his roc back around. He circled once and then leapt off his bird-like eldrin a good fifty feet from the ground. Right as he was about to hit the ground, he evoked wind to buffer his fall. With a whoosh of dirt, leaves, and icy wind, he landed among us, his tricorn cap still snugly secured to his head.

            The man stroked his thin chinstrap beard and looked us over.

            “Eh,” Devlin said with a grunt. “I keep forgettin’ how young you all are.” He sighed and rolled his shoulders. “I suppose it’s up to me to carry the team.”

            Evianna placed her hands on her hips. “I’ll have you know that I’m quite accomplished.”

            “For your age,” Devlin quipped. “But you’re no master arcanist, trust me.” He pointed his thumb at his chest. “I’ll be the one dealin’ with the traps.” Then he lifted his cap a bit to show off the arcanist mark on his forehead.

            His was a seven-pointed star with a giant bird woven around the points. The image was clean and clear—the darker the lines, the longer the arcanist had been bonded. His mark didn’t glow, though, which meant his eldrin wasn’t true form.

            Evianna’s mark—a seven-pointed star with a cape and a sword—wasn’t nearly as prominent. She had only been bonded for a year.

            “I can still carry my own weight, thank you very much,” Evianna stated.

            “Uh-huh. Sure.” Devlin waved away the comment. “I’m gonna tell you the same thing I tell my cabin girl, Biyu. Just stay behind me when it comes to a fight. I’ll handle the rest.”

            I had never seen Evianna press her lips so tightly together. With her cheeks red, she turned away from Devlin and stomped off toward the shadows of the forest. Illia said nothing and followed her, unconcerned with Devlin’s bluster.

            Illia had never really listened when told to stand back and do nothing. Why would now be any different?

            A rush of wind caught my attention. The twilight dragon descended into the forest, his feathered wings a beautiful sight to behold. Unfortunately, the trees were too close together, and Hasdrubal had difficulty landing. Eventually, the massive dragon manipulated the shadows to form blades of hardened darkness. Then the dragon cut at the branches until he could land.

            Both heads of the twilight dragon chomped at the branches and leaves, his anger on full display.

            From what I could remember, there weren’t many trees in Javin. The tiny island nation was more well-known for its brutal lifestyle.

            Odion leapt off the back of his dragon. His armor—gleaming full plate that was the color of snow—glittered whenever he walked into pillars of light streaming through the forest canopy. His white hair was similar to Evianna’s, but cut short and kept neat.

            When he turned his blue eyes to me, I was reminded of his intensity. The man always gave me an odd feeling.

            “We’re close?” he asked.

            I replied with a curt nod. Then I pointed in the direction Evianna had headed. “Adelgis is that way. He’s waiting at the entrance.”

            Captain Devlin gave the king the once over. “Curse the storm-ridden tides. You’re young, too, aren’t ya?”

            Although he was young in terms of arcanists, Odion was at least seven years older than me, likely twenty-five. Still younger than Devlin, though.

            King Odion didn’t dignify the question with a reply. Instead, he offered me a formal bow. “I’ll see you at the entrance then, my liege.”

            I really disliked it whenever people said that, but now wasn’t the time to complain. Odion straightened himself and headed toward our destination. When he passed Devlin, he shot the man a glower.

            Devlin replied by straightening the crotch of his pants.

            I suspected this would be an interesting adventure.

            Zaxis dismounted from the twilight dragon at the same time his phoenix flew through the forest canopy and landed at my feet. With sluggish steps, Zaxis walked over to me, his gaze on the dirt the entire time.

            His red scale armor didn’t glitter like Odion’s, but it did seem to have an inner fire that was hard to describe. It had been crafted from the hide of a salamander—a creature of pure flame—and it was immune to all forms of heat.

            Forsythe walked alongside his arcanist, his heron-like head craned upward to stare at his arcanist.

            Once Zaxis reached me, he hardened himself and straightened his posture. His red hair looked… messy and limp, like he hadn’t done anything with it in a long while. His green eyes were clear, but his brow remained furrowed, like he couldn’t dispel the last of his anxiety.

            “You’re not dead yet, son,” Captain Devlin said.

            When Zaxis met my gaze, I froze.

            He seemed so… serious.

            “Do you remember Gregory Ruma’s wife?” he asked me.

            I swear my heart froze for a moment. How could I forget Ruma’s wife, Acantha? She had been nothing more than a shambling zombie. Ruma had… kissed her on the forehead and whispered sweet nothings to her, despite the fact she was just a corpse.

            Zaxis exhaled. “Her phoenix was plague-ridden, right?”

            I nodded once, already knowing where this was going.

            “Somehow… the corrupted magic of the phoenix kept Ruma’s wife alive far longer than was natural.” Zaxis gritted his teeth and stared at his boots. “I just… keep thinking about that.”

            Once mystical creatures were infected with the arcane plague, they became twisted monsters. But if they consumed enough magic, they achieved their dread form, the exact opposite of a creature’s true form. It was the hideous pinnacle of corruption.

            A true form phoenix could resurrect the dead, in theory.

            A dread form phoenix could… keep a body moving. Even if it was infested with maggots.

            I placed a hand on Zaxis’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. You were infected before, remember? We cured you. We can do it again.”

            “Forsythe wasn’t infected then.”

            I couldn’t deny that.

            “Stop worrying about it.” I withdrew the shale runestone from my pocket. “We have a plan. Find a source of pure magic in the fenris wolf’s lair. Maybe that can cure you.”

            “Maybe,” Zaxis repeated the word with venom.

            I almost punched the man. That would’ve gotten through to him.

            But I didn’t have the anger necessary to jolt him out of his depression. I felt his fear. I, more than anyone else, understood. I remembered the terror I had felt after being infected—I remembered running from the Frith Guild because I hadn’t wanted to accidentally infect anyone else.

            So all I could do was offer confidence.

            “The previous god-creatures single-handedly stopped the Blight of the Sky,” I said. “If they can do that, I’m sure they can cure a single person of the plague. We just have to find this one.”

            Captain Devlin grunted in agreement.

            Zaxis listened in silence, then closed his green eyes and took a deep breath. Opening them again, he turned his gaze to the woods. “Fine. Let’s do this. Let’s make it through this damn wolf’s lair and go home.”


Hopefully you all enjoyed!

Remember to pre-order Master Arcanist so you get it right away on April 19th! ❤

If you want to see chapters early for ALL my works (including the spin-off series, Academy Arcanist) please consider supporting me on Patreon!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s