“What will I do? What I do best. I’ll find him and I’ll kill him. And then I’ll kill Garran’s murderer.”
Even if the killer is my sister.
A half-breed and a female, Lady Bethany clawed her way to the ranks of the Elven Service’s top military elite. They only knew her as their champion against Magic, and not the daughter of a Goddess.
She’d expected a long, rewarding life protecting those under her care. But that was before her twin sister returned from exile, addicted to brutal Magic and human sacrifice, twisted inside, and abusing ancient prophecies to overthrow their mother and destroy everything Bethany holds sacred.
The world will burn in flames and innocents will die, unless Bethany can stop it. Unless she can take the life of her own sister.
According to her mother, Krista D. Ball tells lies for a living. She is the author of several short stories, novellas, and novels. Krista incorporates as much historical information into her fiction as possible, mostly to justify her B.A. in British History.
Krista enjoys all aspects of the writing and publishing world, and has been a magazine intern, co-edited four RPG books, self-published several short stories and a novella series, and has been a slush reader for a small Canadian press. She has also written a non-fiction blogging guide and is currently writing a non-fiction historical book for authors called, "What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank."
Whenever she gets annoyed, she blows something up in her fiction. Regular readers of her work have commented that she is annoyed a lot.
The Diamond is born to a people in chaos. She will bring light to a dismal world. To doubt her is to doubt Our wisdom. -The Prophecy of the Diamond, Third Tablet
“I am your Goddess now, gutter drudge.”
Bethany paused to let her words sink through the stubbornness of the two hundred fresh-eyed recruits in front of her. When the desired uncomfortable silence settled over the large gathering room, she continued. “I don’t care who you are or why you’re here. Whatever your title or rank was in the world, it means nothing here. You are the lowest now. From this day forward, you will do exactly as you are commanded.”
Whispers and a rare pointed finger came from the rows of recruits seated in front of her, as well as the handful of men who stood against the statue-carved walls. Hers was a well-practiced speech, having been massaged and tested for over forty years. She did wonder why no one heckled her yet. Perhaps the human boys were growing up faster these days.
“Your fathers paid a high price for you to train with the Silver Knights. I recommend not squandering that gold by being kicked out your first week. For some of you, the sight of a woman fighting with a sword may come as a shock.”
A purple-clad young man, and his flanking scarlet-cloaked friends, snickered. Bethany flicked her sight and caught the purple man’s eye roll. She hid her inner smile. Clearly a human royal. He’d soon learn.
“Being commanded by a female may offend you.”
Though old enough to be the great-great grandmother of every human in the room, she knew from experience the young males saw her as little more than a child, at best. Years of the worst memories of men always welled up in her mind, making her tone harsh, as it did every year during the special spring training class.
“Either grow used to it or grow accustomed to the embarrassment of having the women around you advance further because they focused on their studies. All I value is discipline and skill, not your sex. Remember that and you may have the honor of one day impressing me.”
Stunned silence, broken with only the occasional snorts, spread across the low-ceilinged, windowless room. She needed these spoiled humans uncomfortable and her speech, as always, succeeded. Reminding them of their place was her job, after all. Bethany held the third highest position in the Elven Service, arguably the most powerful army in the world; a world that generally believed a woman’s purpose in life was little more than to produce sons at an unhealthy rate.
She sniffed the air. Bodies unaccustomed to both bathing and the early spring warmth filled the room. Working with humans came with sacrifices—the stench being one of them. How could an entire race of people believe monthly, or even annual, baths were acceptable? A question no one ever provided a proper answer for.
“I realize that majority of you are human but this temple is elven. I’ve smelled battlefield rot better than the lot of you.” She wondered how the handful of full-blooded elves in the room managed to sit in the smell. Being half-blood meant that she only had half of an elf’s sense of smell. .
“Lord Kiner,” she said, turning behind her enough to incline her head at the Elorian male to her right. He was at least half a hand taller than her and only needed two paces to take the center position. His black earth features contrasted against his beige tunic in a pleasant manner. Crossing his chest was a chainmail sash that sported his many battle honors. Many of his matched the medals on her own baldric. War had forged both their friendship and their careers.
“Thank you,” Kiner said in his smooth, baritone voice. “As third in command of the Elven Service, Lady Bethany will oversee all weapons training.”
She nodded to the gathering before yielding the position to stand next to the other knight in attendance at the front. The spring session was the only recruit course the senior members of the Silver Knights assisted, all in the name of diplomacy. Keep the politicians happy and the entrance fees flowing.
“Also behind me is Lord Jovan, second in command, who will be handling all hand-to-hand combat. None of you are worthy of Lord Allric’s attention.”
Being third in command was her favorite part of the speech and not because Kiner lost a wager with Jovan to add it. Well, it wasn’t the main reason. Kiner had argued that anyone attending elven military training would already know the command structure. Jovan had insisted the barely-literate aristocrats wouldn’t know a knight from a raspberry bush. A quick survey had ended the challenge in Jovan’s favor.
Bethany appreciated the recognition, regardless of its origins. She had worked hard to gain her rank.
“To advance to specialized training, you must complete the basic initiate course required for anyone joining the Elven Service. While most of you are not elves, that matters little. You’ve paid to be here so I’m confident you’ll be able to handle yourselves,” Kiner said without any inflection in his voice. “If you fail, it will be another year before we open training again to humans, unless you apply to become regular soldiers.”
Bethany smirked at the recruits, many looking disgusted by the notion. They would have to train hard to stay. Once a year, humans fought for a seat in the Basic Initiate Training for the Elven Service. A long name to describe something simple: training by the best. Training at the Temple of Tranquil Mercies was the most prestigious. Even those from non-allied human territories applied...as long as they had enough gold pieces. The annual course had done more for diplomacy and good relations than any government or king. Money had an odd way with relationships.
Kiner recited his usual speech on the training programs, something she knew as much by heart as he did. She took the opportunity to scan the room, watching the faces around her. The fact that the vast majority were human males came as no surprise. Elorians and elves usually came at different times, though a scattered pointed ear poked out in the crowd.
She spotted two human women sitting together, both still wearing their flowing, laced-up dresses. She loved training human women, whose determination and drive often made them stand out more than their arrogant male counterparts. Even though there were only two, she remembered when there used to be none.
She glanced over at Jovan, and contained the strong urge to roll her eyes at his outfit. Vowed knights living at the temple rarely wore uniforms or armor. Instead, they wore their baldric sashes, slung from shoulder to hip to display their marks of distinction.
While she was glad for the rule, she also believed in modesty of dress. She did wear the latest styles of a hip-length tunic and loose trousers, but Jovan insisted on going overboard. He wore a pale, blue cotton tunic that skimmed his hips. Gold thread with small glass beads were embroidered into an intricate, floral design along the sleeve cuffs. His dark brown trousers clung to his legs so tightly that his thigh muscles pressed against the fabric. A gold ring hung from the pointed tip of his left ear.
When they first walked into the training hall, she had whispered, “You look like a painted peacock.” On second glance, she decided that peacocks were more discreet.
Jovan shifted his head enough to look at her. He narrowed his eyes, as if asking what she wanted.
“Peacock,” she mouthed and turned back to look ahead. She did not display the smile that shone in her heart for getting the jab in unanswered.
“Lord Jovan, would you like to say a few words?” Kiner asked.
Jovan nodded, his blond hair falling into his eyes. Someone needed to take a blade to his skull before his hair grew long enough to begin plaiting again. Bethany decided she should be that person and made a mental note to enlist Kiner later that night.
He stepped forward, his muscular legs pulling his trousers taut. Bethany winced.
Jovan’s speech was about his expectations and the usual platitudes of respect, honor, and all the clichés. Bethany only half-listened. Instead, she stared at the intricate carvings that covered even the simplest of public rooms in the temple. She had helped make some of them nearly eighty years prior. They brought back painful, aching memories. That’s why she never came into the main areas except for work.
Her gaze settled near the front of the room, where one pattern in particular caught her eye: the sun rising over the temple. Her sister, Sarissa, had carved it. Sadness passed over her, leaving as fast as it arrived. Even after decades of exile, small things still reminded Bethany of her sister.
It was then she noticed the man leaning against the carving.
She judged him to be around twenty. A good age for any human to join; they still possessed their youthful vigour but had some maturity under their belts. He was dressed plainly in various shades of brown that matched his messy, but short hair and his bronze, tanned complexion. She supposed he was the group’s charity case. There was always one that managed to raise the gold from a wealthy patron. Bethany did not approve of mixing the common folk with the aristocrats but she had been out-voted on the point several times.
Yet, something about him stood out. Something odd. She dismissed the feeling, arguing that it was merely his proximity to the wall art.
Still, she watched him. She watched his reaction as Kiner discussed the training schedule and expectations. He seemed to hang on to every word spoken. They allowed a slight amount of inattention during that first gathering as a courtesy to those who had never taken an order in their lives. But this one was focused.
She liked that.
The man looked at her, straight into her eyes, and offered a slight bow of his head. Snapping her attention back to Kiner, she sucked on the inside of her cheek. She wondered if she was offended that he looked her in the eye or intrigued by his boldness to acknowledge her. Quickly, she decided both.
The door behind Bethany creaked. She turned just enough to see a dusty courier standing in the doorway with a leather pouch in his hands. She choked back a cough as the stench of old sweat and horse manure wafted from his clothes.
The courier cleared his throat, eyes skimming the room. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but there is an urgent message for a Lady Champion Bethany.”
A loud murmur rumbled through the room. Even Jovan stopped speaking.
“I’m Lady Bethany,” she said, stepping closer to the door.
She nodded to Jovan who resumed his speech. Despite the breakfast-churning stench, she leaned close for him to whisper.
“Urgent courier directly from Queen Marcia of Ellentop. She begs you to read it immediately.”
Bethany narrowed her eyes, but reached out for the parchment bundle he pulled from his pouch. Strange that Marcia would be sending the urgent message, as opposed to Garran, the king of the Elorian nation. Perhaps he had taken ill.
She stepped back, accepting the letter. The courier bowed and slipped out of the room, the door creaking once more. She popped open the wax seal. Her heart skipped a beat as three words stood out amongst the rest.
Garran is dead.
Arrago leaned against the cold wall, giving him an excellent view of both the senior knights at the front of the room, as well as the carvings done in the stone walls. His experience at the Temple had so far been limited to the front gate and a handful of rooms. Already, he was overwhelmed with the richness, the artistry of the place. Indeed, this was where Apexia lived.
“Blessed be the name of Apexia,”Arrago muttered under his breath, gratitude washing over him. The Goddess was ever faithful. Who would have thought a simple boy from Taftlin would end up at the very seat of Apexia herself? Indeed, the Gentle Goddess worked in mysterious ways.
A creaking door caught his eye. He watched the grey-clad, redhead step back at the announcement. She took the satchel, nodded and began reading a letter of sorts that had been handed to her by the dusty messenger.
Lady Champion Bethany. Her mixed blood was as apparent as Lord Kiner’s. Arrago’s time with the elven monks in Taftlin taught him the immediate differences between elorians and elves. Her face was too round for an elf, her cheeks just a touch too high on her face.
Her ears had the obvious points, which too many people just assumed meant “elf,” often to the detriment of their kneecaps. Elves were sure touchy about their bloodlines. Arrago could see her earlobes hung unattached as a human’s would, the tell-tale sign of her mixed parentage. Pure elves, like this dandelion fluff Lord Jovan, had longer, taunt lobes that attached to the top of their jaw line.
Mostly, Arrago tuned out the speeches, which seemed more to the benefit of the rich men around him, than someone like him who lived a life of servitude and poverty. Lady Bethany proved far more exciting. Her reputation had reached him even in Taftlin: temperamental, competitive, strong. She looked the part well enough—physically designed to march and die in formation while carrying a sword. Either way, he’d seen friendlier forest fires. Perhaps that’s why her nickname was ‘Fire Tits.’ He held back a chuckle at her reaction to that name.
He used his sleeve to mop the perspiration from his forehead and longed for a cool breeze greater than Bethany’s chilling glares. Orchard Park was hotter than a kitchen stove and it was only early spring. It was going to be a long, hot summer.
Arrago yawned behind his hand. Despite his excitement at being at the temple and being in training, he had only arrived the previous day and was still exhausted. He found it hard to concentrate on training schedules and found watching Lady Bethany read her letter far more exciting. He supposed it to be important; after all, they disturbed Lady Bethany from training. Then again, maybe a group of recruits straddled the lowest rung on her priority ladder.
Curiosity pulled at him and he glanced back at her. Her hand trembled enough that the paper shook as she read it. He wondered what the half-elf was reading.
Elorian, Arrago reminded himself. Not half-elf. He’d hate to be brained on his first day.
Lady Bethany had paled more than he thought possible for someone with such a fair complexion. He wondered if the letter contained horrible news, like a family tragedy. Or, perhaps war had broken out. Or, her gambling debts had caught up to her.
He smirked at a memory of the priests chiding him. “Arrago,” they’d say, “your curiosity will be the death of you.”
Obeying the nagging voice of his mentors that echoed in the back of his mind, Arrago returned his attention to Lord Kiner. He straightened his back, trying his best to look attentive. Only a handful of them were unable to find seats. Judging by the extravagant waves of purple and scarlet clothing, he guessed the richest had taken the individual wooden chairs in the front rows. Everyone else had taken the long, backless pews that stretched across the room like lines of writing on paper. The remaining dozen or so were left standing against the walls.
“As initiates, you will remain with your group at all times. Roaming the grounds without permission will result in immediate dismissal. Assuming that you aren’t killed by one of the guards first,” Kiner said. He paused for effect and Arrago’s stomach fluttered.
Around Arrago were nervous glances, whispers, and an arrogant snort that sounded like a challenge. He snapped his head in the direction of the sound. Prince Daniel of Taftlin, as he had discovered that morning, sat towards the front, arms crossed, quietly mocking Lord Kiner to the men flanking him. Until the previous day, Arrago had never seen any member of his own country’s royal family. Taftlin’s royalty rarely visited the countryside beyond the need to hunt and Prince Daniel, in his purple and red velvet outfit, definitely did not seem the type to be interested in meeting poor, rural subjects.
Lady Bethany, letter still in hand and as pale as milk, took four long strides towards Prince Daniel. She silenced the already quiet room with the loud backhanded slap she planted across the tanned face of the snickering man sitting next to the prince. Without a word, she marched back to the front on the longest legs Arrago had ever seen on a woman. With a nod to Lord Kiner, she returned to her position.
Arrago understood why she had not kicked out the men for laughing, or why she had not hit the prince. No doubt, the powerful men would receive extra allowances for bad behavior. It wasn’t called the privilege of the rich because it sounded good rolling off the tongue. If Arrago had acted with such disrespect, he knew that dismissal would have been served immediately. But it was the way of the world. Arrago accepted it and possessed no burning passion to change the order of things.
Besides, a misbehaving prince could not dampen his enthusiasm. Becoming an initiate at The Temple of Tranquil Mercies had been his life’s ambition. There was no greater honor than serving the Gentle Goddess, Apexia. The strange fortune of having his dead parents replaced by an entire monastery had rewarded him with an opportunity to escape nothingness and poverty.
“Master Henry will give you a number for your leader assignment. Once you have that, match yourselves up with your groups. Training begins immediately.” After stepping back, the Elorian’s replacement, an elderly human male with grey-streaked hair and olive skin, began assigning numbers.
Arrago noticed Lord Kiner lean close and whisper to Lady Bethany. Lord Jovan looked at her expectantly. Whatever information the letter revealed caused Lord Jovan’s eyes to widen. He couldn’t see Lord Kiner’s face, but assumed his expression was comparable because it looked as though he wanted her to leave. Bethany shook her head, though she didn’t look too sure of herself. Perhaps detachment was just another part of her armor. She needed to put on a strong face for the new recruits.
She flicked her gaze in Arrago’s direction but he was too slow diverting his attention. She glared at him, an angry, hot stare that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. She turned her attention back to the other senior knights.
She probably already has it in for me. Typical.
Master Henry had worked his way through the recruits and only a handful of men were ahead of Arrago. Sweat made wisps of hair cling to his neck. The humidity played merry agony with his body. I hope this is as miserable as it gets here. But it was only spring and he wondered if he would melt by summer.
“You’re seven,” Master Henry said, pointing at Arrago, snapping him from his daydreams. Heading over to his leader on the other side of the room, he took a quick glance back at the three senior knights and met the Lady’s eyes once again staring in his direction. A chill went over his body. He turned his eyes towards his leader and concentrated on making it across the room without annoying Lady Bethany further.
“Get out of the way, peasant,” Prince Daniel said as he pushed past Arrago, his purple cloak billowing behind him in a regal flurry.Arrago sighed but stepped aside, giving the prince a bow. It didn’t matter. No one could ruin the best day of his life.