The Starlight Blade by Nancy O’Toole

1

The Dead

Viola

I had no reason to fear the dead. At least, not the long-dead.

A chill came over me as I stepped inside the catacombs, a narrow room dug into the side of the mountain. Sarcophagi lined the center of the space. The names and dates had been worn down by time, the bodies set to rest hundreds of years before, their accompanying souls already reborn.

That was the way of it. Life and death progressed in an ever-moving cycle. Once you died, your body was returned to your place of birth, allowing your soul to be reborn. If there was a long delay between one’s passing and the burial, the spirits of the dead could appear in the waking world. But there was no reason for the long-dead to rejoin the living.

At least, until The Mage King changed everything, the bastard.

“Viola? Is this what you wanted me to look at?”

The speaker—whose voice carried a crisp, clear Hijanni accent—was a good friend of mine. She stood at the farthest sarcophagus. Its stone slab lay cracked on the floor.

Mari’s appearance didn’t match her surroundings, her fine outfit and jewelry a bizarre choice for any kind of outdoor excursion. But having known Mari for a decade now, I knew this was toned down for her. She wore trousers, not a gown, and her jewelry, while still gold, was relegated to a pair of stud earrings and a couple of bangles. A casual look for Mari, but a far cry from the more rugged garb I had selected, which had more in common with the soldiers that waited for us outside.

If a stranger were to meet us on the road and hear that one of us was a princess, they’d likely make the wrong choice. Of course, Mari’s rank was plenty impressive too.

I gathered myself and crossed the room of the dead.

Mari leaned over the sarcophagus and pointed to a long vertical line of symbols carved on the inside.

“This?” Her golden, hawklike eyes met my green ones.

“Was it that obvious?”

“I’ve seen symbols just like this scattered all over the ruins near my father’s house. Ruins that predate all Hijanni record keeping, written in an alphabet seemingly completely disconnected from the current or previous version of the Hijanni language.” She raised her dark eyebrows. “It sticks out.”

I couldn’t help it. I chuckled. Mari had always been pretty sharp.

“I’m going to take a logical leap and assume that because we’re hundreds of miles away from any Hijanni ruins and in a tomb that predates any relationship between Hijan and Verida, you suspect that this has something to do with the fair folk?”

I nodded. The fair folk were a new concept, and not just to Mari, but humanity as a whole. Thousands of years before, the fair folk had covered the world, at least until the magically dependent race had overdrawn from the supply of power that naturally had existed in nature, ignoring all the warning signs until it was too damn late. As a result, each member of the fair folk had fallen into an endless, deathlike sleep known as The Nightmare.

All except one.

“I’ll need to compare them against my notes to be sure,” Mari said, rummaging around in her satchel. “Of course, I can’t exactly read this language, which begs the question.”

“Oh?”

“Why did you ask me?”

I blinked. “Uh…well, I thought about your story about the ruins, and—”

“Let me clarify. You suspected that this was rooted in the fair folk. And yet you asked me when you just happen to know a living, breathing member of the folk who could confirm all this.”

I scowled. “Well, if I had known that it was going to bother you—”

“Oh, don’t you get prickly with me! It’s clear that you’re not exactly Aria’s biggest fan.”

“I…why, that’s ridiculous!”

“Uh-huh.”

Mari reached into her satchel and pulled out a piece of paper and charcoal. She leaned forward into the sarcophagus.

“Listen,” she said. “I don’t blame you for asking for a second opinion. You have a man who wants to murder you and your entire family and some woman shows up completely out of the blue with a mysterious connection to his past? I’d be cautious. But it doesn’t change the fact that you don’t exactly seem to like her all that much, beyond that.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You mean besides the fact that you always reach for one of those knives when I mention her name?”

I froze and looked down to find my right hand resting on one of the long twin daggers I wore at my hip.

“I see what you’re talking about.” I said with a wince, forcing my hand to rest at my side.

“Well, if you ever decide you want to talk about it, you just let me know.” Mari pulled back, a rubbing of the strange symbols in her hands. “Anyway, I don’t want you to think that I’m not thankful. This could potentially be game-changing for Hijan. Most people assume that the ruins are cursed, the symbols left behind by The Silence. If I could prove that it’s connected to a genuine ancient civilization, this could open us up to a whole new world of research.”

“Research that you could be a part of.”

“Precisely.”

“Now I see why you’d agree to traverse the countryside with a woman with a target on her back.”

She looked up and grinned at me. “Oh, that just gives me an excuse to travel with so many handsome young men.”

“Yeah, can’t relate there.”

“More for me!”

For a moment, I paused to look around the catacombs.

“You know,” I said. “It’s a bit strange.”

“Hmmm?”

“From what Aria said, the folk turn to silver leaves after they die. I saw it happen to Lyric in Kelvia. And it’s not like they bury those.”

Mari pulled back, a troubled expression on her face. “So why would folk writing turn up in an empty grave?”

I opened my mouth to respond, but before I could, a shout came from outside. The two of us exchanged a glance, then rushed to the door.

Only to find our guards under attack by the forest around them.