Chapter I

Redfield. Built long ago in the Heartland of the Achaean Empire, some old buildings still remained, bearing tall, white columns and intricate designs of gods and heroes, reminiscent of the temples in the nearby ancient city Lake Demon. The majority of Redfield’s architecture, however, had far more in common with newer buildings in the Empire: buildings of dark stone, some with flat roofs, others slanted and made of wood, and – sometimes – the buildings even had glass windows.

But, within the city’s own walls, an ancient secret had festered for many years, nurtured to perfection, hidden from everyone, remaining only in fairytales and local folklore.

It was this long-forgotten power over which one man brooded.

Here in the chill blackness of the night, Redfield still looked sturdy as ever. Over the high walls surrounding the entire city rolled seemingly endless plains of tall grass, billowing gently in the moonlight. From high in the mighty Lysander manor, looking impressively advanced and regal in its construction and resting atop a hill in the center of the city of Redfield, one could see almost to the pastoral would-be paradise of Arcadia, many leagues away. The mansion of dark wood and stone, with its many large windows of fine glass, did not fly so many flags as certain other noble families, instead letting the building itself stand for the family’s wealth and status.

And in that dimly-lit manor, a man stood gazing through one such enormous window, taking in the sights as darkness lay over the city. Many times, he stared through this very same glass, watching Redfield as it never changed. The same smells, the same sights, the same peasants, the same simpleminded knights watching over them. It was a disgusting cycle destined never to end… Never, unless someone changed it.

For years, he had stood at this same window, thinking these same thoughts, brooding on these same plans. His eyes lost focus as he looked inward. When at last he pulled himself back to reality, he found himself looking at his reflection in the glass instead of through it, and he saw a tall figure wearing a fine noble tunic of black, trimmed with gold. He had every look of a noble son: hair of raven black, perfectly swept back on his head with not a hair of it touching his neck and a clean-shaven face. Perhaps his strangest feature were his utterly colorless eyes, as sharp and cold as a well-polished blade.

He became a statue, standing so still and staring into his own pale, severely-featured face. A handsome statue, but a daunting one nonetheless.

And, in the silence of the great study, he wondered… Had his time finally come?

Just as he reminded himself it would hardly be the first time to have asked himself that question, and that he had come close once but one unwitting fool had gotten in the way, a set of quick footsteps pattering on the thick, rich rug. Though he did not yet turn, the noise nonetheless pulled him from his thoughts. The return of his current reality, instead of his planned future, came with a wave of annoyance.

“Servant,” he said, halfway through his teeth, his tone making plain his utter disinterest in any single reason in the interruption.

“Sir,” said the servant who had approached, his nervous voice dripping with respect, “Duke Myron wishes to speak with you.”

Ambrose Lysander gave a deep sigh, fogging the glass before his pointed nose. For a long moment, he thought only of how very worthless his uncle Duke Myron was: the old man who refused to die.

But Ambrose answered, “Very well.”

Turning on his heel, his long surcoat trailing behind him, Ambrose strode past the servant without ever once looking at him. If his uncle wished to speak, there was only one place he would likely do it: his private chambers. After all, Ambrose had little doubt he was about to receive another lecture on behaving better toward the commoner filth that inhabited the streets. To avoid these same lectures from a decaying old man, Ambrose had simply refused to travel beyond the district of the nobility, so as to avoid the peasantry altogether.

Exiting the study and passing down a long hallway lined with tapestries and dotted with candles on curling brass wall-mounts, Ambrose went straight toward his uncle’s room. Finding the door open, he did not bother to knock as he admitted himself.

His uncle, Duke Myron Lysander, turned to face him as he strode in, looking away from the large tome laid out upon his enormous, lavish desk. Myron’s long, snowy white beard shook slightly, though whether from anger or simply his age, Ambrose could not ever be sure. In his youth, Duke Myron had been a very striking young man. Now he was a very striking old man, with regal features and a voice so commanding it would halt a charging bull.

Myron rose to his feet, standing hunched and leaning one hand on the back of his nearby chair for support.

“Ambrose,” he said, forcing himself to stand up straighter in spite of how much it clearly pained him, but it better put his noble robes on display and brought him at least a bit closer to Ambrose’s tall, straight-backed height, “I trust you know why I wished to speak with you.”

Ambrose did not budge from where he stood. “I trust you do not want to waste our time,” was his only response. “You want to speak with me regarding the way I treat our subjects.”

Myron’s blue eyes suddenly locked onto Ambrose’s silver orbs like a lion that had seen its prey. “My subjects!” he snapped, finding the willpower to make himself stand so straight his spine popped loudly. “There lies your problem, Ambrose – perhaps you have forgotten yet again in your brooding absent-mindedness, but I still draw breath! I rule here, and these are my people you treat so poorly!”

The old man set his jaw, striding forward and meeting Ambrose’s unfaltering stare. “You worry me, boy,” he said flatly, spitting the last word as an insult. “Do not think I’m such a fool as to not see how much you detest my charity… unlike the others, I can see through your lies. Redfield is lucky you weren’t old enough to rule when your father died. And if I hadn’t loved my brother so, I would have tossed you out in the street on your head and see if you could learn to love the common folk.  It didn’t take such drastic action to have Charis understand the importance of being a fair ruler…”

And there was the name-dropping again: Charis Lysander, Myron’s wonderful daughter who could do no wrong. Ambrose’s temptation to role his eyes was steadily becoming unbearable. At least the upstart was a woman with no claim to the throne.

“And yet,” Myron went on, steadily calming down, “here I am, going on believing you’re becoming a better person.” Myron shook his head. “I have orders for you, and you will fulfill them without question or demand. You are to visit with the commoners tomorrow and, with your presence, remind them my nephew is not some deformed creature hidden away in the manor as a mark of shame upon my house. Check on them, make a good impression.”

His lip twitched, but Ambrose said nothing.

Myron narrowed his eyes. “Ambrose, your delusions of grandeur extend too far. After your neglect to attend the past three royal banquets… I want to remind you that you’re a man, just like the rest of us. You believe yourself above everyone in this entire city, perhaps even above me. But you are not. And you may yet learn precisely how great a weight it is to wear a crown.”

Ambrose said nothing as he fought the smile attempting to twist onto a corner of his lips. Myron did not realize just how amusing he was, while he sat wearing the jeweled crown of Redfield – decorated in the heraldic scorpions of the Lysander family and Lake Demon’s great manticore, all gilded in gold – that seemed to very literally weigh down his drooping, balding head.

With that, however, Myron marched out of the room with more strength and deliberation than Ambrose had seen in his gait for some time. The Duke reached behind him and slammed the door on his way out, leaving Ambrose alone and standing in the same position he had been in upon first entering.

Silently, Ambrose raised his right hand before his face. A faint, deep violet glow of pure arcane energy appeared in his palm. The instant he closed his hand into a fist, it disappeared.

“If only you knew, uncle…” Ambrose said slowly, his voice low and with a half-smile twisting onto his face, “just how far I am above you.”

The following morning, the sunny streets of Redfield bustled with activity. Commoners in various drab clothing rushed around to finish their daily activities. Mothers bought goods for their families, husbands sweated over their professions, young and eager apprentices watched their masters work their trade…

And there, caught in the middle of it, was a young, unmarried girl with no profession and no husband – arranged or otherwise.

She ducked and dodged through the crowds with expertise, not sure where she was going and even less sure of why she was in such a hurry to get there. Her mother had sent her out to fetch some things, but they weren’t even needed until that evening, when her big brother would finally return to the city. Maybe, she decided, she was going so quickly simply because she burst with excited energy and had to expend it somehow. After all, this would be the first time seeing her brother in months – since he left to join the Venatori, the Empire’s monster hunters.

So she wandered the streets for a while, admiring the various goods she was too poor to own. But she didn’t do so with a doe-eyed longing, just simple curiosity. Why would someone need all those dresses, much less a bunch of fancy jewelry?

As she looked around the familiar streets, Plexaura Voros drew a rather uncomfortable amount of attention to herself. Some looked out of disdain for the masculine attire she wore, cavorting around in trousers like a man, with a shirt that clung perhaps a little too closely to her lithe but lovely form. Others looked for a different reason entirely: the fact that she was stunning, with beautifully defined features and long, deep red hair that flowed freely – and a bit wildly – over her shoulders and down her back.

Plexaura was no stranger to catching glares or glances of either sort, and she simply ignored them all, smiling and greeting those passers-by whom she considered friends. Many of them regarded her with pity, and despite part of her appreciating it in an odd way, she always quickly averted her gaze. Pity for her family was the last thing she needed right now – she wanted to focus on seeing her brother again.

But since that wouldn’t happen for several more hours, she needed a distraction – a fun one… Preferably a useful one, too. Her utter lack of responsibility made her feel obligated to try and help her family’s tenuous lifestyle somehow, but she had no idea what to do. Her mother wanted her to get married, but that sounded utterly detestable.

Although she had yet to tell her mother, she had arranged for other plans. As much as she wanted to do something exciting, there was one profession an unmarried woman could get into, at least: medicine. And she could not have asked for a better mentor… although she’d never imagined that such a career required as much discipline as her would-be teacher kept trying to pound into her head.

As she wandered the streets, making a wide berth around a sewer grate that stank to high heaven, a sign caught her eye: Madame Melisende’s House of Healing. Plexaura, but a simple commoner, could not actually read it, but she would always recognize that sign.

Plexaura always enjoyed setting aside some time to be with Madame Melisende. She had served as midwife for both Plexaura’s birth and her brother’s, and she was one of the few – possibly the only – real friend that the Voros family had. To her, Melisende was almost a second mother, having always taken care of her when her own mother had to work day and night to provide coin enough to keep them fed and housed.

Plexaura promptly began to slip through the pedestrians and in the direction of Melisende’s rather run-down little building. As she neared, the smell of fresh flowers wafted toward her so strongly it smelled like she was approaching a perfume shop. Stepping into the dark building and out of the warm sun, however, the smells changed. Even the pungent flowers could do little to conceal the smell of herbs, spices, salves, and strange oils. Plexaura wrinkled her nose, even if the smells weren’t entirely disagreeable. It was better than the mingled odors of filth on the poorer streets, but somehow she didn’t care for it anyway. She never had, but it was something she would have to get used to.

The dark little building was empty, the ragged old curtains drawn on the few windows and shutting out the cheerful sunlight. Shelves of various jars lined the walls, and a small, unoccupied counter stood to one side of the room, along with a closed door.

There came a sudden rustling from somewhere to one side of the counter, and out from behind a shelf stepped a slender, aging woman. Her long, black hair was pulled into a bun, drawing further attention to her face. She had a long, hooked nose, a pointed chin, and a somewhat wrinkled face around her beady eyes, but the eyes themselves – twinkling and forest green – always seemed to smile.

Melisende beamed the instant she saw Plexaura, gliding toward her, ugly brown dress flowing around her gangly legs. She took Plexaura’s hands in hers, as she always did.

“Good to see you, Plexaura,” Madame Melisende said gently. “Have you told your mother yet?”

Plexaura managed a short laugh, lightly squeezing Melisende’s hands before she slid her own away. “Not yet,” she replied. “I’d like to come home one day with some coin of my own, tell her I’m a healer now, and have her learn that way. Maybe then she’d actually accept it.”

Melisende gave a sage nod. “If you don’t drive her mad first, acting like you don’t want to get married,” she remarked with a chuckle. “Are you so sure you hate the idea of having your own family?”

“I’m sure,” Plexaura answered, her tone firm but dry. “Caiden’s a handful enough. I love him, but he can’t even look after himself… I’ve been worrying about him ever since he joined those monster hunters.” She glanced at Melisende as the older woman took a seat behind her counter. “Is it stupid that I worried about him less when he was in the Red Legion? Even when he would come home with all these bruises and cuts, sometimes just from their ridiculous ‘training’…”

“He’s a man, Plexaura,” Melisende answered. “Getting bruises is often their lifestyle. Not like us, who sit around the house powerless and… well, bored.”

“Tell me about it,” Plexaura muttered disdainfully, grabbing a chair from a corner and pulling it over to the midwife, sitting down and crossing her arms.

“So, tell me about your week, dear,” said Melisende, perking her voice up again. “Your mother asked me to come over to dinner tomorrow night, when your brother will be there. It’ll be lovely seeing Caiden again.”

The idea brought a smile to Plexaura’s face, but she shrugged and replied, “Not much to tell. I was sent on some errands, like usual. Mother wants plenty of food in the house for when Caiden comes back, with all four of his stomachs.”

Melisende nodded with a smile. “And have you gotten any food yet?”

She shrugged dismissively. “No, I’ll get that figured out later.”

The midwife nodded thoughtfully. At length, she said, “I’ve often wondered, Plexaura… where does your mother think you are during all these hours when I’m teaching you the arts of healing?”

Plexaura paused, but after a moment, she simply shrugged. “I don’t think she cares. As long as I come home every night with the things she needs, that’s enough for her. She’s always busy being a maid for anyone who can pay her. She’s about given up on me…”

“She loves you very much,” Melisende cut in, but her tone remained soft. “You should be grateful that you have parents. Being both illegitimate and a woman, I never even knew mine. I grew up in an orphanage at a temple of Astra…” She paused and chuckled at herself. “You’ve heard this story before.”

Then Melisende leaned forward in her seat, looking Plexaura in the eye. “But I have a story you haven’t heard, Plexaura. One that will interest you greatly. I’ve been saving it for many years now, waiting until you were ready. Would you like to hear it?”

Plexaura blinked, taken aback. Melisende kept smiling, her face gentle as ever. With a casual shrug, she said, “Alright.”

“It may come as a bit of a shock,” said Melisende, slowly rising to her feet and straightening her dress. “But yes… you are ready.”

The young lady just kept sitting there, staring up at Melisende, feeling utterly confused.

“I’ve taught you much of how to control your emotions. Claimed it was so useful for midwifery…” Melisende chuckled again. “Well, I suppose it is, but not for the mother or the baby’s sake. For the sake of everyone around you, including yourself.”

Turning, Melisende strode over to the door and locked it, continuing as she did, “You’re a very special child, Plexaura. I don’t mean that in the same manner as your mother tells it to you. Try as I have to think of a way to break this to you gently, I cannot.”

All too dramatically, at least to Plexaura as she stood sitting in mild shock, Melisende walked into the center of the room Looking Plexaura right in the eye again, she asked, “Have you ever heard of magic?”

Plexaura felt like she could hardly think. “Yes,” she answered. “I’ve heard of witchcraft – sorcery. Everyone says it’s evil. People get burned on the stake because of it, or else they get taken away by the Inquisition.”

Melisende nodded yet again. “All true. All but one thing: magic is not inherently evil. In fact, it is powerful enough to shape one’s life – and others’ lives – into something much… more. But it can be destructive, and it is that destruction that people fear. And they are right to fear.

“Observe,” the healer said lightly, but she paused for a moment to make sure Plexaura was watching – which she was, quite intently. And then Melisende flung her hand downward to the floor, her fingers outstretched.

And, suddenly, large shards of pure, glimmering crystal appeared from nowhere and lodged themselves into the floorboards. At the same time, a strange feeling washed through the room, sending Plexaura’s skin tingling and the hairs on her neck standing on end.

Plexaura started out of her skin so hard she fell out of her chair and had to scramble upright on the floor, her eyes wide.

Melisende smiled sweetly and said softly, “It’s nothing to be afraid of. Not for you, anyway, dear. Because my whole point here isn’t that I have power… it’s that you have power.”

Once more, she glided over to Plexaura and cautiously stood alongside her, gesturing out toward the room.

“I discovered your power at your birth, Plexaura. Your mother, to this day, remains blissfully unaware, as I have continually taken precautions to make sure it remains our secret. You were born with a special mark – a birthmark, a rune, on your side… Just here.”

Melisende gently lifted Plexaura’s shirt, just to her left ribs. But, looking, Plexaura saw nothing – as she had her whole life.

Stunned, Plexaura bit her lip, but before she could tell Melisende nothing like that existed, she saw something appear on her skin… a strange symbol. The birthmark.

“I used a spell to hide it your entire life, not wanting it found, even by your mother. Every time I visited, I would cast the spell on you again. It requires no verbal component – meaning, I do not have to speak anything aloud. I merely had to touch you.”

Plexaura stared at the mark, her mind incapable of working and yet still working too fast. She felt Melisende’s familiar, gentle hand on her shoulder as she let the corner of Plexaura’s shirt drop again.

“Please do not panic, Plexaura. Most all mages are born with some kind of mark, though a select few of the luckiest ones exist without one… Strange hair, strange eyes, a birthmark, a scar – sometimes multiple telltale signs at once. Mages learn to hide these things, if they live long enough, or else simply hide themselves.”

Finally, Plexaura dared to meet Melisende’s gaze once more. She was certainly the same kind lady that Plexaura had known her whole life, and yet she struggled to realize it was the same person looking upon her now.

The instant she realized this, however, she felt a strange pang of frustration. No, of course this was the same Melisende. If all this were somehow – somehow – true, then… it fit. Of course Melisende had protected her for her entire life. It was not so hard to believe, with how much this healer cared for her, even loved her.

And yet Plexaura could still only stare at her for a moment before she said quietly, “So… you’re saying I can use magic.”

Melisende nodded, looking Plexaura full in the face as she spoke every word. “Each mage,” she said calmly, “has what we call an affinity. While the study of magic is, to say the least, a small and mysterious field, we have at least learned that all of those born with the Gift possess power over Arcane magic, which is truly difficult to harness. But all magi also have a particular element to which they are closely bound. My affinity is Earth. I… admit I am very excited to see in what realm your strongest powers lie.

“You see, I can do things like this…” she waved her hand, and trailing after it in the air were what looked like particles of shimmering sand, and again Plexaura felt that sensation of raw energy in the very air around her, a sensation she suddenly realized felt oddly familiar – but, with another wave of Melisende’s hand, the sand suddenly dissipated. “But you may be able to do something very different.”

“But…” Plexaura sputtered. “I’ve never…”

“I know,” said Melisende. “You’ve never used magic in your life. That’s because all this discipline I’ve been teaching you has aided you greatly. Many mages your age – and trust me, there aren’t many to begin with, in fact I’ve never known one until you – have already had a magical outburst from some emotion or another. They’ll kill people, sometimes even those they care about, without meaning to. And then they’ll either be slaughtered by an angry mob or taken and locked up by the Inquisition.”

Plexaura’s eyes were wide and her face pale, but Melisende went on, “That’s why I started to train you to use control from the moment I first knew you. Mages’ powers don’t manifest until after childhood. No doubt yours began to manifest a few years ago, but thank the gods you haven’t had any trouble from them yet.”

“So if I got angry at someone,” Plexaura said, sounding rather sarcastic as if she didn’t believe a word she was saying, “they might just – die.”

“Potentially,” said the healer, more serious than ever. She paused and nodded. “Or, well… almost certainly, in some fashion or another. But the more you worry about it, the more likely it is to happen. That’s why I’ve always hesitated to tell you.”

“And my mother – and my brother… You said they don’t know about this.”

“No,” Melisende answered. “And you shouldn’t tell them. I know it’s painful to keep such a secret, but it’s best for everyone. They wouldn’t know what to do with you, and it would upset you all. It’s best that you continue your life as you always have. But, at your age, even all I have taught you about self-control may not prevent an outburst. So… I wanted you to know the truth about what you are.”

For a long moment, silence hung thick in the air. Plexaura nodded, but she glanced away from the midwife, saying nothing. As much as she hated it, she knew Melisende was right… she couldn’t trust anyone with this information, not even her own family. Melisende only knew, and she only understood, because she was a mage, herself.

“There is so much more to tell, and I will teach you,” Melisende said, giving Plexaura’s shoulder a loving squeeze. “But you’ve spent enough time with me today. You have errands to run before your brother arrives. Just remember what I’ve told you – always stay calm and maintain control. Come back to see me tomorrow, Plexaura – then, your lessons will truly begin.”

Plexaura still felt as if none of this was real. But she got to her feet and looked at Melisende, blinking a few times before she simply nodded again.

“Alright,” she replied, somehow managing to keep her voice even. It felt as if, maybe, all of this was happening to someone else and she was simply watching. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Melisende.”

“And if you don’t believe me, Plexaura,” Melisende added as the young lady turned to leave, “think about what you feel when I cast even the simple spells, including that illusion I must maintain upon you – a feeling of power… That is your ability to detect magic.”

As Plexaura left, her mind raced to understand everything that had just happened. The more she thought, the more sense it made. The discipline Melisende had taught her all her life was useful for healers and midwives, but the level she taught was hardly necessary. And that feeling – she had felt it before, Melisende was right. It just wasn’t on the same level. But whenever Melisende had been around, she had felt it. Perhaps, over time, she became so used to it that she hardly noticed…

Plexaura shook her head. Stepping back out into the sunlight was almost blinding, and she blinked, feeling as blinded by the light as she was by everything Melisende had just presented to her. Then, another cold, hard fact hit her in the head like someone had just thrown a brick at her skull.

All of this had to happen on the very day she would finally see her big brother again.

The city was beautiful. Sunlight streamed down upon the open streets, glistening off the white pillars of a nearby temple of Ares. High on the back of his brown horse, he could smell the familiar scents of his home city: baking bread, lavender from a bathhouse near the gates, the embers of furnaces as many blacksmiths worked hard on arms and armor for the Red Legion, the clanging of their hammers filling the air…

For once, Caiden Voros of Redfield relaxed. Only a little, but for him, that was something. Tension was so at home across all his thick muscles that the simple act of letting them loosen even slightly almost seemed to hurt.

He drew more than a few eyes as he rode into the city, his partner by his side. He exchanged nods of greeting to those who smiled and waved as he approached, though his own face did not change.

Caiden ignored the giggles of a nearby flock of unmarried girls admiring him, but his handsome, chiseled face and statuesque perfection indeed looked like a statue. Even as Caiden turned his unchanging eyes to his partner, he showed no outward emotion, his dark, serious brows shadowing his slim eyes.

His partner was quite busy taking in every single sight and sound around her, looking eager and interested. But when Caiden regarded her, she instantly met his gaze with her glimmering green eyes, turning her head toward him so quickly it flipped her auburn ponytail over her shoulder. Gwen was often like that: quick, precise movements. A good deal of it may have come from her induction into the Venatori.

“We finally made it, but you’re still being all stoic,” she said with a teasing smile. “Aren’t you going to give me a tour, or at least some narration?”

Caiden looked at her for a moment, his deep blue gaze asking if she was serious. But she met that gaze evenly, her eyes asking him more politely than she had aloud.

He shrugged and nodded down a cobblestone road to their left. “That leads to the richer parts of the city. I never went there until I was a guard. Plexaura and I grew up around here, in the poorer districts. We liked to run and chase each other over buildings like these,” he nodded to the right as he gently steered his horse down another street toward his family’s home. “A pair of reckless kids, climbing on everything.”

Gwen laughed. “Gods, I can hardly see you doing that. I can’t wait to meet your sister – she’s seen you have fun.”

Caiden said nothing. The people around them were becoming less accustomed to avoiding their horses on the narrowing lane, so he focused on guiding his steed. Gwen fell in behind him, their mounts walking single-file and trying not to get in anyone’s way.

“They seem pretty familiar with you,” Gwen prompted at length as she kept looking around – glancing over one shoulder, Caiden saw her looking at the pedestrians on the streets who kept watching him. “I’m gathering you had more of a reputation around here than you let off.”

“I have one as Red Legionary,” Caiden confirmed. “Or else a former captain of Redfield…” he hesitated briefly before finishing, his tone unchanged, “who was publicly shamed by Ambrose Lysander.”

Gwen frowned. “I’m starting to see why you never told me.”

Caiden gave her a look over his huge shoulder and arched a brow. “You never asked.”

She simply arched a brow right back at him, a small smile playing on her lips.

That lasted several moments as Caiden kept looking into those green orbs… the same eyes that had watched his back for the last several months – the same partner who had put up with his initiation into the Venatori and everything that came with it, all the changes, if one could call them such.

Other thoughts, stranger thoughts – strange and foolish, very unlike him – drifted through his mind… but Caiden quickly pulled himself out of it and replied, “I’m not ashamed of it. I don’t regret what I did, and I’d do it again. He took command of me and my men when I was a captain. We fought alongside each other because we had to. At least, we did until he gave orders I acted against,” he said bitterly, more emotion slipping into his voice than he had intended – and more words.

He hated words. He hated emotions, for that matter. Or, at least, he hated showing them.

His evenness returned as he went on, “I put the lives of civilians before everything. Ambrose disapproved, and he made sure I knew. After having me publicly flogged, he personally discharged me from Redfield’s armies, and I joined the Red Legion. I was only there for a few months.”

Gwen looked taken aback by Caiden speaking so many words at once, and her previously cheerful demeanor was gone. “I see,” she replied. “And you became a Venator after that.” She gave a dry chuckle. “Someone might think you’re a glutton for punishment, Caid.”

Caiden grunted dismissively.

After a moment longer of riding, he nodded to a small building they now approached and fought off the tiny smile that tried to struggle onto his face. “We’re here.”

It certainly wasn’t much to look at. Tucked away amongst the various other buildings of dark wood was a little one-story house that looked like it had been squeezed into a tiny box shape by the larger buildings on either side. But it had a quaintness about it, with a basket of fresh flowers hanging by the door and one open window looking into the seemingly single room of the home, where Caiden spied that everything looked the same: neat and orderly, with chairs pushed up to the eating table and everything put away in the kitchen.

Caiden knew perfectly well it was at least a bit larger than it appeared, however, with a short hall leading to three bedrooms. True, all but one were too small for their occupants, but that had simply become a fact of life.

They dismounted and tied their horses to the weather-worn hitching post outside, which had clearly never seen much use. The moment they neared the actually-rather-tiny door, it swung open before Caiden even had the chance to knock.

Looking at them now was a regal woman, younger than she appeared, with stress lines marking her face. But she seemed to have weathered her hard life well enough, if the energy in her deep blue eyes, like Caiden’s own, was anything to go by. She beamed as her son approached, and for once, Caiden had no choice but to smile back, even if it was lopsided. His back was turned to Gwen, however, so she missed the phenomenon.

“Caiden!” said Ariadne Voros, pulling him into a hug. “It’s been eight months!”

“I know,” Caiden replied, hugging her gently. “The Venator trials kept me.”

“And he did very well with them,” Gwen added with a smile of her own.

“Mother,” Caiden said, turning to allow her to see Gwen past his muscular form, “this is Gwenevere Vergil, my partner in the Venatori. Gwen, this is Ariadne Voros.”

Gwen approached and giving a small bow. “It’s an honor to meet you, Madam Voros.”

Ariadne took Gwen’s hand in both of hers and said with a friendly laugh, “There’s no need for all those manners around here. Please, just call me Aria. Both of you come in and make yourself at home.”

Caiden stood silently by the door as Ariadne turned and led the way inside, waiting until Gwen had followed after her before he entered, himself, turning slightly askew and ducking to fit his broad shoulders and tall frame through the narrow doorway. It was a bit of a challenge, but thankfully no one drew attention to it.

At least, not until Plexaura did.

Plexaura had been laying around in her room when she heard her brother’s voice again for the first time in what felt like years. She sat up and jumped to her feet, charging down the hall toward the one room that served as their den, kitchen, and dining area.

In addition to the Venator woman she had never seen before, she finally saw her brother again. Standing there in the tiny living space, Caiden looked like a hero bound in toned and handsome muscles that would have put even Hercules to shame, gracing the humble home of a simple peasant family. Of course, Plexaura had never thought of him as devastatingly handsome, but she’d heard other girls say Caiden was an Olympian, with the perfect face put onto the perfect body.

Plexaura, on the other hand, thought he looked ridiculous.

“Are you even bigger since I last saw you?” his little sister asked as she burst into the room, grinning from ear to ear and charging down the hall from her bedroom. She gave him no time to answer before she pounced and latched onto him in a hug like a strange insect. Caiden, taken by surprise, broke into a grin that made Gwen blink and stare. Plexaura could only guess she had never seen Caiden do anything remotely of the sort.

“I might be,” Caiden replied, tugging Plexaura off him just to pull her into a hug of his own, enveloping her completely in his muscular arms.

“Actually,” Gwen said, apparently having found Caiden’s grin contagious, “I think I left Caid back at Castle Greywatch, because I’m certain this is a different person.”

That apparently made Caiden fight the smile off. “No,” he admitted, “I’m just finally off-duty.”

“Well, for a monster hunter, you still look like a soldier,” Plexaura commented teasingly. Caiden still had his short-cropped, dark brown hair that spiked up defiantly in more than one place. The only telltale sign of his newfound freedom from the Legion was the short stubble on his face.

“That’s just what I look like,” Caiden replied as he finally released Plexaura from his embrace. He then reached to his belt and took a small bag from it, holding it out to Ariadne. She took it with a rather sad smile, and Plexaura heard the faint jingle of coins.

“Caiden,” their mother said gently, “how many times have I told you that I can support myself and Plexaura on my own? I know you can’t possibly make much in the Venatori.”

The huge monster hunter just put his fists on his hips in defiance.

Plexaura felt grim reality sinking back into the warm little room, so she gave her brother a nudge in the ribs – or she tried to, but he was wearing a very thick leather jerkin that made it hard to poke him at all.

With a little help from Gwen, she managed to lead them back onto more pleasant subjects. The four of them sat around the little table, Gwen unknowingly sitting in a chair that had been empty for years, because it once belonged to her and Caiden’s father. But that was another topic to avoid, and one all of them were careful not to bring up. It was certainly the last thing Plexaura would focus on, now that she was here with the two people who mattered to her most. Then there was Gwen, who had, apparently, been Caiden’s only close companion during all his time away.

Finally, Plexaura felt at home again. Things felt… normal. It was a feeling she had so sorely missed. And even if he might have never admitted it, looking at her brother, she knew he had missed it, too.

Every day, when he deigned to enter the streets of the common folk, Ambrose smelled the same filth. The peasants had quite a talent for filling the air with horrible stenches…

From atop the saddle of his huge, sheer black stallion, Ambrose could see it all. Commoners scurried around like rats, wearing their filthy clothing and begging to one another for a good barter or for a few coins. The burlier ones pushed and shoved their way down the streets like thugs on patrol. He saw a butcher throw bad pieces of meat out onto the street, and an undiscerning stray dog scrambled forward to devour them greedily. Everything stank of simple filth, of sweaty, grungy commoners and the sewer grate he just passed.

Ambrose snorted. His horse snorted as if in agreement, striding confidently down the streets. Before him, the peasants scattered like ants. Horses rarely came into this part of the city. They were luxuries owned by nobles. No one here could afford one, even if they wanted to.

Duke Myron had wanted him to make a good impression on the common folk by ‘checking’ on them, did he not? Because they were making up ridiculous stories about him? Ambrose’s lip twitched at the idea. As if these fools needed to be reminded he existed. Thankfully, his uncle had not specified that he need go on foot and traverse the same ground as these simple brutes. Nobles belonged on horseback, not rubbing shoulders – literally – with the unwashed masses.

So, instead of wearing less garish attire and walking among them as an equal, speaking to them and ‘encouraging’ them somehow – or whatever it was his uncle liked to do – Ambrose saddled his horse and set out. He wore a long, black coat and noble attire of nearly matching color, but with a few golden highlights and the red emblem of his family’s heraldic scorpion on his chest.

A peasant suddenly darted up alongside him. “My lord!” he said with a huge grin on his dirty face, bowing low even while he tried to keep up with the horse’s long strides. “My lord, may I please trouble you with a question?”

Even now, Ambrose could hear the peasant’s companions pleading and hissing at him to return to them and leave the Duke’s nephew alone.

Before Ambrose even had time to respond with a flat ‘No,’ the unshaven peasant was rambling on: “Everyone likes to scare kids by saying Redfield was built on a burial ground of Lake Demon’s ancient enemies – that this place is haunted! Is that true?”

In one swift motion, Ambrose halted his horse and leaned down to grab a fistful of the man’s filthy, meager excuse for a shirt.

“No,” Ambrose snapped in the commoner’s now very pale face. “You peasants enjoy treading on this city’s good name with your lies… Perhaps you should reconsider the bugbear stories you tell your children. They may grow up to be just as ignorant as you.”

Ambrose shoved him away, abruptly setting his horse off at a walk once more. He did not glance back at the peasant or his fellows, leaving stunned silence in his wake. His cold, grey eyes silently resumed scanning the civilians around him. They gathered in droves now, lining the streets and making way for him like he was a king. Which, all things considered, he was.

Suddenly, he felt something he had never felt before in his life. It made his skin tingle and the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. It seemed minor, like someone had breathed on his neck – or walked over his grave. And yet, somehow, he knew this was no simple chill.

Ambrose glanced around in alarm, feeling a flare in his magic that made him tighten his fists to not release that same flame he had held in his palm the previous night. Discipline, he ordered himself. He could not afford to be startled, especially not now.

But what had just happened? It was still there – the faint tingling in his flesh…

A woman stared at him in the crowd – a tall, slender, older woman with raven black hair and bright green eyes. She had a long, hooked nose with a matching chin and wore decidedly lower-class clothing… she also looked in need of a bath, her face and arms grimy and marked with filth.

Their eyes met for half a second, and in that moment, the world around Ambrose seemed to fall silent. The tingling briefly grew stronger. Ambrose narrowed his eyes, but the woman’s eyes were wide in apparent shock. She could only have felt it, too.

With a slight sneer, Ambrose urged his horse onward. The steed nickered and sped up, leaving the woman – and the strange feeling – behind.

Despite the voices and cheer from before, the Voros household had once more fallen silent. But it was a different kind of silence than usual: not a silence of longing, begging for someone to speak or for the door to swing open and Caiden come striding inside. Now, the silence brought only peace and comfort as the night drew on.

And yet Plexaura felt none of that peace. She tossed and turned in her too-small bed in her too-small room, as neither she nor her family could possibly afford her anything better.

Her eyes refused to shut. Every time they did, all she saw was Melisende summoning spikes of crystal from thin air, and all she heard was her voice, one of the voices Plexaura had always trusted most, telling her she was a witch and she would be hunted and killed if anyone knew the truth.

Anyone, including her brother.

Instead, she chose to lay there, staring at the dusty floor and the one faint sliver of moonlight that peeked in through her cracked-open bedroom door. Her bed of straw poorly contained in sackcloth did little to comfort her tonight – all it did was itch, as if furiously pushing her to do what she considered. And her pillow felt like a hot bag of lumps.

She couldn’t take it anymore. Plexaura threw off her meager sheet and got out of bed. Quietly, she tiptoed out into the hall and over to Caiden’s room, cracking the door open just enough to look inside.

For once, instead of the empty bed staring back at her as she spent so many quiet nights longing for her sole companion, Caiden was there, twitching in his sleep. His small room had one window in it, and in the faint moonlight, she could see him lying there on his stomach, his limbs a bit twisted, with his head turned away from her and his long legs hanging off the end of the bed.

They hadn’t stayed up and talked that night. Most nights, they would sit together until well after anyone sensible would be in bed, just to converse. They would talk about anything that came to mind, joke around, discuss whatever was bothering them… He would always sit, nod, probably give her a hug, and listen attentively to her every ridiculous and stupid problem she felt the need to get off her chest. And then he would tell her it was nothing to worry about, smile, and find some means of cheering her up.

Suddenly, she felt a sharp pang of guilt. She and Caiden knew just about everything when it came to each other. They shared it all, no matter how embarrassing or shameful or silly or trivial it could’ve possibly been. She knew him down to every quirk and pet peeve, and he knew hers. But here she was, keeping a terrible secret from him… one she knew she shouldn’t keep.

Caiden had always been there for her. Sometimes they bickered, but they always felt bad about it and made up pretty fast. Through her entire life, no matter how many friends had come and gone, Caiden always stayed true. And he was always the only one who never – never – let her down. She couldn’t imagine life without him, no matter how long between his visits.

Plexaura swallowed hard. She should tell him. But how could she? Everything else they had shared… none of it was like this. The truth about her would put the family she so loved, small as it was, in all sorts of trouble. And if Caiden thought for even a second that she might be better off living in that Inquisitor stronghold, Karak du Vide, that place where they kept mages, she would end up there forever.

For a long moment, Plexaura stood there, hesitating… But she closed the door and left as quietly as she came.