It was said by traveling minstrels and merchants alike that the beauty of Storm’s Quarry had no equal. The citystate rose up like a statue, its walls carved from ancient white marble. Its five tiers gave way to one another as if each was an ascending guardian of the rare gemstone mines the city was built upon. At its feet, the Kyanite Sea, a great inland body of salt water, filled the crater which had once felt the impact of a fallen star. The waters of the Kyanite would grow restless and dangerous during the frequent violent storms the city weathered, but tonight, they lay subdued. Storm’s Quarry, however, had not yielded to the arrows and battering rams that besieged it.
Even surrounded by the First Legion of His Majesty’s Army, the pride of the Kingdom of Wintercress, Storm’s Quarry stood defiant. Or so Lode imagined as she approached the city gate.
The torches held by Cressian soldiers gave their light to the still, black waters of the Kyanite Sea, which in turn gave the marble walls standing before them an ethereal glow. Lode raised her hand in the flickering torchlight, marveling at the white sheen her already pale skin took on in the shadow of the mountainous city. Storm’s Quarry was, she thought, the most breathtaking sight she had ever seen.
Of course, she could not remember if that was really true.
Overhead, arrows alight with explosive oils flew above the walls, smoldering as they met their deaths on cold, unfeeling marble. The steady boom of the Cressian battering ram echoed across the bridge, though it left no mark upon the great gate of Storm’s Quarry. In between strikes, a steady tinny sound filled the air as musket fire from upon the walls struck the kite shields carried by the first rows of the Cressian army.
It was a standstill.
“Hurry up, girl!”
Lode slowly looked away from the wall and to the soldier who had been tasked with bringing her to the front lines. He gestured at her with annoyance, as if she was some misbehaving hound. She stared at him for a moment longer before following once more.
“Ignorant wench,” he muttered under his breath as he waited for her. Lode considered the insult as she walked, but it brought no clench of anger to her chest. Frustratingly, though, she was certain it used to. Before.
They wove between disciplined camps of soldiers, all standing at the ready, their eyes focused upon the great wall before them. Finally, she and her guide came through to the foremost part of the bridge.
Behind the first regiment, whose shields kept any retaliation from the wall at bay, a lieutenant, by his olive-colored cloak, was speaking with a tall man in white-gold armor. Surrounding them, a host of the royal guard, their plumed helms marking their import, stood at the ready.
“Months ago, the Erevans managed to blow a hole in their own wall, and they’ve done nothing but stuffed it with rubble in the meantime. Can we not simply walk over it?” the taller man asked, his voice betraying the barest edge of impatience.
The lieutenant’s fingers twitched at his sides. “I’m afraid not, Your Highness.”
“This is war,” he snapped. “Soldiers of the High King do not fear.”
“Of course.” The lieutenant straightened. “We cannot scale the damaged wall, Your Highness. Storm’s Quarry’s forces have shored it up, and they have stationed a regiment of musket men just inside it. None of our soldiers have made it over the top.”
“And our battering ram is just as useless. So be it. I did not wager upon a war with such common tools.” The taller man turned away from the lieutenant he had been speaking to and looked to Lode and the soldier who led her.
The soldier bowed deeply, and then announced, “His Highness, Trillium, Crown Prince of Wintercress, favored son of the King.”
Lode stared at the Prince. Trillium stood with ease in his ceremonial armor, its white-gold plating nearly glowing in the torchlight. Figurehead he might be, but his armor carried the scars of battle—small dents, silver scratches—that not even the greatest smiths could mend. His saber bore a well-worn hilt, and his left hand rested casually upon it. Fair hair, so blond as to be nearly white, was cropped short in military style, and his eyes, a shining blue, looked over Lode with great interest.
It had been only weeks…months?…since she had awoken to those same glacial eyes, edges soft in a gleeful smile. A stranger had hovered just above her as she awoke. His breath smelled sweet, of something familiar, but the memory was out of her reach and she couldn’t identify the scent.
She would come to learn that this man was the Crown Prince of Wintercress.
“You are strong, stronger than the others. You survived where they did not,” the Prince had said, eyes roving over her naked body, not with lust but excitement. “If you are as powerful as they say, then we will crush those brakabeneath our armies. And you will be the lodestone of our plans.”
Lode did not remember her name, and the chemists who wore elaborate masks and cut her arms for blood never remembered to give her one. So she took Lode for herself.
She blinked and the chilly salt-tinged air brought her back to the bridge before Storm’s Quarry. “Yes?” she said without a bow or even a gracious nod.
“You speak to the Crown Prince, girl,” the soldier barked. Inside, she felt his footsteps upon the bridge, felt his weight shift as he moved to strike her. “Show some res—”
The Prince raised his hand and his personal guard moved to intercept the soldier’s progress.
Lode retreated internally as well, without moving, as she released the grip she had on the power. The Prince’s icy blue eyes, bright even in the predawn darkness, rested on the man. “Show some respect to our victory, soldier. Know to whom you speak.” His tone a dismissal, he turned from the suddenly sweating soldier and looked to Lode. “I have received positive reports of your progress.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“War is far different, you know.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” she said, for there was nothing more to say.
Prince Trillium gave a swift nod. “Then we should not keep our gracious hosts waiting another moment.” He turned and walked through the regiment of royal guards, who parted for him like wheat. Lode followed him.
The bulk of the Cressian army still waited on the far shore of the Kyanite Sea. The narrow stone bridge that connected Storm’s Quarry to the rest of the world did not allow a large force to pass, a natural defense the city had long employed against enemies. Coupled with its immense walls, which while cracked, had been impressively shored up, Storm’s Quarry stood nearly impenetrable. A fact the guardsmen who defended its ramparts knew well.
A Cressian soldier advanced, carrying the red flag of negotiation. On the wall, a sharp order was barked out, and the muskets withdrew, no doubt still within easy reach of their masters.
When the ceasefire was complete, the regiment of royal guards remained behind Prince Trillium as he approached the gate, his soldiers falling in line behind him. Lode followed him. Two steps back, one to the left.
One of the city defenders stepped forward up on the ramparts. This guardsman wore a brilliant red uniform, a rapier belted at his side. He stood with practiced military posture, though he crossed his arms in front of him as if daring the Prince to speak.
Prince Trillium took the dare. “Guardmaster, have you come to hand over the keys to your city?” he said in near flawless Erevo, the language of Storm’s Quarry. Lode understood the Prince as he spoke, knowing the foreign words nearly as well as her own Cressian. She could not remember having learned them, and the lack of memory itched at the base of her skull.
“We let your people into our city once, and you poisoned our water.” The Guardmaster spoke in accented Erevo, revealing his nomadic Nomori heritage. “Your councillor betrayed the good faith of our Duke and conspired against Storm’s Quarry. Wintercress will find no friends here.”
“So send out your masked heroes,” the Prince said, spreading his arms wide. “The Iron Phoenix and the Shadow Dragon, you call them? The ones who breathe fire and break stone? Where are they to defend their city?”
“The Guard of Duke Isyanov need none to fight for them,” the Guardmaster said curtly.
Prince Trillium shook his head. “It was not your Guard that drove out the small regiment of Cressian soldiers under the command of my ambitious cousin, Guardmaster. It was those two Nomori. Nivasi, your people call them? They swore to watch over your city, so where are they now?”
Lode did not hear the Guardmaster’s reply as she furrowed her brow, straining to remember. The word meant something, but her memory was a void before the moment she awoke to meet the Crown Prince of Wintercress. If it meant something once, it was long lost to her.
Prince Trillium was speaking. “Pity your Duke chose so poorly, placing only a Nomori in defense of the city.”
“My Duke has my full confidence, and I his,” the Guardmaster said, his tone ignoring the insult. “Return to your men. You will find no surrender here. Continue your pointless barrage against our walls. Not even a Great Storm can overcome them, and your army, Prince, has nowhere near the power of those winds.”
A hushed silence fell over the Cressian regiment as soldiers peered forward, waiting to see if their leader would rise to the Nomori’s baiting.
Prince Trillium laughed. A swift chuckle of personal amusement, unexpected of the general of an invading force. He looked to Lode, speaking loudly for the Guardmaster to hear while never breaking eye contact with her. “The skies are a force to contend with, no doubt. But only a fool thinks the wind the only power in this world.” Then he lowered his voice and said for Lode’s ears alone, “Bring them down.”
Lode nodded. She stepped forward, while the Prince and his guard backed off, leaving her alone before the great gate of Storm’s Quarry.
She studied the walls, the weathered marble that still stood unmarred, the sharp cracks that had been hastily patched in the wake of the Blood Sun Solstice and the damage it had wrought upon the city. Lode then turned inward and reached down. Far down to where the well of power sprung from her core, where the steadying pulse, still new to her and yet part of her, pulled at her mind.
In the moment before her grip tightened, it occurred to Lode that someone starting a war should feel something, anything. But her chest was calm and empty, and her Prince was waiting, so she brushed the annoying thought off and pulled back.
And the great wall of Storm’s Quarry came crashing down.