Elements by Nia Markos- Prologue
Book One of The Crystal Series
Alba, 997 AD
There had been a light rain falling for weeks over the northwestern coast of Alba. The fog from the low-lying clouds hindered visibility, covering the cliffs in a mist that swirled with the gale-force winds. On the highest peak of the ridge, a lone figure, a weathered- faced old woman, stood looking out at the turbulent sea. Waves thunderously pounded the rocky shore far below. The stone beneath her feet was wet, slippery and covered with sea foam. Wrapped in a woolen tartan, the old woman scanned the horizon. It had been two days since her message had been sent. There should have been a reply by now. The safety of her young apprentice was at the center of the worry gnawing away at her. The disappearance of the young woman had not gone unnoticed. Even now, at the inn housing the only tavern in town, rumors were taking on a life of their own. There was no way she could calm the growing unease taking hold of the inhabitants. She herself was anxious about what was to come.
The town had stood for centuries. A small chapel, the inn and a modest market were the gathering places for what few residents remained. The cold climate made life difficult in this forsaken land. It was rare that sunlight touched the barren landscape. Most of the year, people huddled indoors in front of their wood fires. The local farms more often than not had little yield. Instead, they relied on food brought in from the lowlands. Why anyone remained was difficult to comprehend. The fishermen were the only ones who managed to make any living. When the winter snow came with its punishing winds, the town appeared deserted. Only the hardiest ventured outdoors. Their religion held them together. Trust that the Almighty would not abandon them gave them hope. Anything inexplicable was looked upon with suspicion. Fear of witchcraft and the devil was growing in these tumultuous times. If only they knew how accurate their imaginings were.
The old woman’s eyes stared out into the mist, seeing more than what was visible to the naked eye. Across the fog-covered waters lay a land that none knew existed. An island shrouded in mystery and invisibility, which had been sheltering its people for thousands of years. The land was rich and warm, nothing like the desolate, inhospitable home the mainlanders called their own. The old woman had only been there once herself. Few of her kind could see it when, by chance, the fog cleared bringing it into view. To everyone else, the island remained unseen. The security around it was complete. Even fishermen steered clear of the area. It was long believed that anyone approaching the land would be lost.
The old woman had expected a reply from her friend by now. The urgency of the message would have had a profound impact on the recipient. There was no telling how much damage had been done already. Only her friend would be able to gauge the impact with her senses. For some time, the old woman had felt that her apprentice was more than who she seemed. Power, unlike anything the old woman had ever experienced, radiated from the young girl. The old woman was sure that the girl shielded herself. There was something more within her that was being carefully hidden. In all her years, the old woman had never felt so afraid of what it could all mean. The wait was becoming unbearable. Knowing there was nothing she could do to make a response arrive more quickly, she cast one last look over the horizon. Seeing no movement, she turned away from the cliff, walking carefully back towards the inn.
As she made her way slowly towards the building’s entrance, the door of the inn swung open. Her eyes were momentarily blinded by the light shining from within. The noise from inside the inn rose to join the sound of the howling winds around her. In the open doorway, a slight woman peered out the door. Sighing, the old woman continued her descent, stopping in front of the young woman standing in the doorway, another one of her apprentices. This one was too unruly to be ready for any formal training. The girl’s name belied her character. Her tantrums were becoming legendary.
“Patience, what have I told you? Get back inside! Curiosity will be your downfall one of these days,” said the old woman, scolding her young apprentice.
“Sara, where have you been? I sense danger out there.” The young woman’s worried look rested on the old woman.
“There is nothing out there that can harm me. Isn’t it time you were off to bed?”
Not giving her apprentice a chance to respond, Sara pulled her back into the inn. Closing the door behind her, Sara made sure the woman went off to bed. Once her apprentice had retired, Sara went into the sitting room, avoiding the stares of the other occupants. She knew that they feared her. They would not be approaching her for any conversation. Their questions would have gone unanswered anyway. Walking past the only servant girl, Sara asked for a cup of tea. Not waiting for a response, she continued to one of the chairs facing the fireplace. As Sara settled herself in front of the roaring fire, the servant girl appeared with a cup and small pot containing what smelled like mint leaves. She poured some into the cup for Sara, avoiding looking directly at her.
When the girl moved away to serve another patron, Sara leaned back into the chair, bringing the cup to her lips. Warmed by the fire in front of her and the hot liquid making its way through her body, Sara surveyed her surroundings. The eating room to her right was empty. Tables were already prepared for breakfast the following day. There were four other residents staying at the inn. A few of them were still at the bar enjoying a last drink before turning in. They avoided her, sensing something was different about her. Alone, she blocked out the sound of the voices as she stared into the flames, letting the fire’s heat enfold her in its warmth, hoping tomorrow would bring news.
Across the sea, hidden behind a thick fog, the island was aglow with torches that lit the paths around the homes of its people. Crystals emitted a blue-tinged glow from within the walls of the dwellings. What few folk were awake sat huddled together, conversing about their day. In one of these homes, a couple stood watching over their sleeping son. They had waited so long for a child that they did not ask questions when he arrived on their doorstep, accompanied by a celestial being. The woman did not care how it was possible. She had waited so long for a chance at motherhood; she did not care to question why he had been placed in their care. He was a miracle.
Outside, lush green foliage swayed in the gentle breeze and sounds of crickets filled the air. The deep green forest surrounded the village, protecting and camouflaging the homes. Built on stilts, the dwellings reached up into the foliage of the trees. Winding stairs made their way around the trunks. At the highest point of the island a citadel occupied the cliffs. Its courtyard garden held species of flowers no human had ever seen. Their brilliant colors provided enough light to walk the cobblestone paths easily. One of these pathways meandered through the garden, leading to an immense interior great hall. White flowing drapes were pulled back and tied with red sashes to allow the breeze to enter. Across the stone floor of the vast room, twenty white marble columns stretched to the ceiling, ten on each side, lining the way to the woman sitting on a gold-leafed throne.
Eliana sat rigidly on her throne, her fury growing as she reread the words written on the paper she held in her hand. The magnitude of the betrayal she felt nearly overwhelmed her. She had no doubt that the message was true. It pierced her heart to read the treacherous actions of someone she had trusted. She crumpled the paper into a ball, letting it fall at her feet. She rose from her seat, walked over to one of the archways that looked out at the courtyard and stepped out into the night. She was dressed in a flowing emerald gown that matched her eyes. The gossamer material hugged her curves, outlining her ethereal five-foot-eight-inch frame. Her long, almost white, hair framed her gentle facial features, running down her back to her waist. Almond-shaped eyes, a straight nose and full lips graced her heart-shaped face.
She always enjoyed this time of night. Everything seemed so peaceful. She could almost forget all the decisions and impositions her title put upon her. Her eyes took in the splendor of the night, the village below and the stars scattered across the sky. How could such a peaceful night hold so much treachery? Realizing she had little choice about what needed to be done, she re-entered the hall, stopping in front of her throne. With more strength than she felt, she called out to the guards standing at the end of the great room.
“Bring Elsam to me immediately!” She ordered.
As two of her guards hurried from the room to do as she ordered, she sat back down on her throne. The pressures of being queen to her people had her questioning her every decision lately. She could not afford to make any mistakes. Her people were not the only ones at risk. From a young age she had been able to see far into the future. Her clairvoyant ability made it possible to intervene when necessary in order to protect her people from discovery. For thousands of years the Eruvians had managed to exist without their presence becoming known. Humans were not yet ready to know about them. The human’s mistrust and ignorance would be the end of her people if she allowed it. Somehow, Elsam had disrupted the course she had laid out. Searching with her senses, looking into the future, she could not see what he had done to undermine her. The fact that he had been able to disrupt her plans without her being aware of it had her very concerned. It was essential that she make things right. Not knowing what Elsam had done to make changes, she was unsure of what she needed to do to correct things. This only further increased her ire. She needed to know what it was that he had done in order to fix it. Lost in her thoughts, she did not feel Vanya, her closest friend, until she touched her shoulder, bringing her back to herself.
The two women had grown up together and shared everything with each other, but the contrast between them was striking. Vanya stood at five-feet-five-inches tall. Her sinewy figure and skill at combat made her an asset to Eliana. She was always present, protecting her queen from any threat. Her diminutive form made others underestimate how lethal she could be. Short, dark chocolate hair with wispy bangs framed a face that held mismatched features that somehow worked together. The same emerald-coloured eyes that marked their entire race were wide spaced from a small upturned nose. Thin lips circled a small puckered mouth. Vanya would know and understand the deep hurt that she was feeling at that moment. Eliana was not yet ready to voice all that she felt, however. The time for that would come. For now, she needed to face the next few minutes alone, to gather her strength for what was to come. Vanya, perceiving her friend’s needs, stepped back far enough to give Eliana the space she desired, but remained close enough to come to her aid if requested.
Indecision on what course to take, how to undo Elsam’s actions, weighed on the queen. She wondered about his motivation. He had been her most trusted adviser. Their connection had been strong at one time. She had even considered taking him as her mate, even though the joining had not manifested. Her race rarely felt the illusive bonding between males and females any longer. In the rare cases where two souls belonged together, they would be joined eternally. Although she had believed herself to be in love with him, they did not forge the binding that would have made them dependent on each other. His present actions, going against her edicts, were punishable by death. It was beyond her comprehension what his reasoning was for the chain of events he had put into motion.
The sound of the returning guards caused her to look up to see if they had found him. Elsam marched defiantly between the guards, his eyes locked on hers. What a shame it would be to see him gone from her court, she thought. Elsam towered over her guards. His powerful leg muscles flexed with every step he took. He was dressed in his usual black leather, and the gleam of his sword, where it rested on his hip, drew the eyes to his tapered waist. Approaching the throne, he fell to one knee, his head downcast, leaving her looking at the top of his head. At one time, her fingers had combed through his shoulder- length, wheat-colored hair, and her hands had caressed the muscles of his strong shoulders. He raised his head, looking at her boldly. Not waiting for permission, he stood, facing her, silently waiting for her to speak.
“Elsam, your actions have placed me in a difficult position,” she said, reigning in her emotions.
“What actions are those, my Queen?” His deep voice inquired.
She got up from her throne to stand in front of him. She willed her hands not to strike him. His blatant arrogance seeped from him. Has he always been this insolent? How could I have missed the way he openly disrespects me? His eyes, blazing with seething hate, were boring into hers. She studied his handsome face, taking in his strong features, looking into those eyes. Frustration built in her as he broke eye contact and stared at the wall behind her. She itched to strike him, but held her hand. It would accomplish nothing. She needed answers.
“I have been informed that you have been crossing over to the other land. What were you thinking? That I wouldn’t find out? There is a reason why I have forbidden access to the humans. They are too primitive for us. Why would you disobey me?”
“They are beneath us, yet they have access to a land that should belong to us,” he shot back at her.
“Why, Elsam?” She looked at him knowing there was always a reason behind his actions. “There must be more to it than that. I know there is more to the story. Where is this anger coming from?” She pressed him for an answer.
“You wouldn’t understand, my Queen. You live ignorantly in your kingdom, satisfied with the foolish attention of your courtesans. What would you know of real life? You play at it while all around you everyone feels you lack the strength of a monarch.”
“No!” She thundered. Her hand rose, angrily slapping him. “You will not speak to me that way. I am still your queen and your life is in my hands. Do not forget who you are addressing. Answer me, why have you done these things?”
Elsam’s hand went up to his cheek where he felt the sting of her slap. He pulled himself to his full height and stared at her coldly, refusing to answer. She knew by looking at him that she would not get anything out of him. Her anger with him was matched by his stubbornness. She would need to search elsewhere for answers.
“How did you cross the barrier, Elsam?” She asked, trying a different approach.
“Now that is an interesting story, my Queen. There are others with powers besides you,” he replied.
“And what has it cost us, Elsam? How many did you torture and kill? How could you make our kind known to them? We have lived peacefully in our land without giving ourselves away. What am I to do with you?” She asked angrily.
Elsam said nothing. Whatever she decided to do, she had to make an example of him.
“Very well,” she continued. “Elsam, you leave me no choice. Your actions have placed our people in danger and for that you will be punished. You will be placed outside of the passages of time where you will live within its darkness for a thousand of our years.”
Elsam did not flinch at her pronouncement. There were worse things she could have done to him. The darkness of time, having no sense of its passage, would not break him. Many had gone mad. Once cast in this vacuum, he would lie awake in an unending silence. He would not know how much time had lapsed. His strength and resolve would have to be enough to keep him on course. What his queen did not know was that it was exactly the right amount of time he needed. He would serve his sentence. Once he was released, he would be free to take his final revenge.
Eliana could see his mind working. The brief smile on his lips let her know that more was at play than what she was aware of. She needed to find out what he had done. One way or another, she had to fix what he had put into motion. Once he was confined, she would have to figure out what his end game was. Elsam was not going to win in this fight. He did not know that she had her own contacts to help her.
“Guards, take him to the gateway. I will be there shortly,” she commanded.
Her guards stripped Elsam of his sword, letting it fall to the floor with a loud clang. The sword, once out of his possession vanished from sight, fading into nothingness, abandoning its master. They bound his arms behind his back, roughly pushing him out of the throne room. Once he was gone, Eliana called Vanya to her side.
“I need to see Sara as soon as possible,” she whispered. “See if you can find her. Do so quietly, Vanya. No one must know.”
Vanya bowed her head, quickly taking her leave. Eliana took a moment to steel herself for what was to come. Knowing that she had to be strong, she gathered her courage. Two of her guards fell into step, one on each side, as she strode from the room. She made her way to the chamber that held the gateway, where Elsam was waiting. Entering the circular room, she stopped to gaze at the blood red crystal that hovered over a pedestal in the center of the room. It glowed and spun slowly, infusing the walls with a crimson-colored aura. The crystal of Eruva, shaped like a diamond, seven-inches tall and four-inches wide, was the source of power that protected the island and its people. Her ancestors had named the precious stone, Kaemorra. In their tongue, the word meant sanctuary. Eliana, and each queen before her, had a connection to the crystal and were able to harness its power and use it when needed. Not so long ago, she herself had placed an incantation on it, blocking the entrance to the human world. She wondered how Elsam had gotten around the barriers she had built. She would find out. She had no choice if her people were to be saved.
“Elsam, I am giving you one final chance to tell me what it is you have done to the crystal,” said Eliana.
Elsam remained silent, his eyes defiant in his final moments. Very well, she thought to herself. Calling upon her power that linked her to the Kaemorra, she spoke in their ancient tongue. The words opened the spaces between times. She spread her arms wide, closed her eyes, focusing on the energy around her. The crystal released multiple rays of color from within it, saturating the cave with its light. As the light danced, it caught Elsam within its power, rendering him immobile. Eliana repeated the words again. The light grabbed hold of Elsam, his whole body convulsing from the power. It encircled him, binding him within its radiance. His eyes found Eliana’s, defiant and filled with hatred. It was the last thing she felt before the light pulled him into the crystal’s core. As quickly as the light had spread, it disappeared. Eliana looked at the Kaemorra with regret in her eyes. Elsam had been close to her, losing him was a heavy loss. His actions had hurt her more than he knew. With her guards following behind her, she returned to the throne room where Vanya had returned with news. The guards took position on each side of the main door as Eliana walked towards the only other door at the back of the room. She motioned for Vanya to follow her into her private chamber. Once she had closed the door and they were alone, she sat down on one of the chairs.
“What have you found out?” Eliana inquired. “Were you able to locate Sara?”
Vanya smiled and answered, “Yes, my Queen, Sara will see you at the usual location in an hour. She asked me to tell you that she can help.”
“Very well,” Eliana responded. “I must prepare. Thank-you, please leave me now.”
Vanya did not move to leave, however. “My Queen,” she spoke, “I think I should come with you. You might need me.”
Eliana looked at Vanya, not surprised that she wanted to come with her. Her friend would follow her into any danger, but for this she needed to see Sara alone.
“I’ll be fine, Vanya. Sara can take care of any dangers that might arise. I will need you when I come back.”
Vanya bowed and removed herself from the room closing the door behind her. Once alone, Eliana changed her clothes in order to fit in where she was going. She put on the simple-styled dress worn by the humans. Facing her mirror, she adjusted the robe, running her fingers over the rough-textured, bland-colored fabric. No one would know who she was. She hoped Sara would have answers for her. To pass the time, she went over some documents that needed her attention. Once the hour was up she grabbed a heavy tartan cloak for warmth. Standing in front of her floor-length mirror, she passed her hand in front of it. Her image was replaced by a white swirling cloud. Pulling the cloak up to cover her head and hide her features, she took a deep breath and walked into the mirror, disappearing from the room.
The world she stepped into was harsh. The winds whipped at her as she faced the only building in sight. The darkness outside the inn was pierced by a single lantern that hung from the wall next to the door. The isolation of the building from the main town made it the perfect spot for their meeting. Eliana walked to the structure, and opened the door. Entering, she stood a moment, letting her eyes adjust to the dimly lit interior. In the back of the room Sara sat facing away from her, her head bent down staring at the table. The innkeeper appeared, having heard her entrance. Eliana waved him away, walking by him briskly to join Sara.
“Sit, Eliana,” Sara spoke without looking up. “We won’t be interrupted.”
Eliana let her eyes sweep the room one final time before she sat down facing Sara. The witch sitting in front of her was just as she remembered her. Hunched over, she looked frail. Deep lines covered her face, which held a wary expression. To anyone else, she appeared as any other old woman. Eliana knew her look was deceptive. Sara held more power within her than any other witch Eliana had ever met. For as long as Eliana had known her, she had not changed. They had met over a hundred years ago according to Sara’s time. Their friendship had developed out of need, but was now based on respect for each other. She hoped Sara would be able to help her right Elsam’s mess. Sara’s head lifted. Looking at Eliana with her gray eyes and seeing everything, she sighed, shaking her head at her friend.
“Elsam has caused a deeper problem than you realize my friend.”
“What have you discovered, Sara? Do you know who helped him?” Eliana whispered to her friend.
“Yes, it was one of my apprentices. Meredith has been imprisoned by Elsam for months. I only discovered her absence recently. She was on her way to visit her family, but never made it. Meredith is one of the youngest I have trained, but she is also one of the most powerful. I am not sure what she has done, but I feel the energy’s power engulfing this whole area. It is disconcerting, Eliana. I cannot decipher the spell. We have to free her to know what she has done.”
“Do you know where he was keeping her?” Eliana’s anxiousness rose at Sara’s words.
“Yes, but we need your magic to enter. I have tried to reach her, but the barrier protecting the area guards against my kind.”
“Is it far? Can we go now?” Eliana asked impatiently, as she gripped the edge of the table.
Sara turned her head and upon seeing they were alone, she stood. Eliana rose to her feet as well, ready to follow Sara.
“Hold my hand. There is no time for regular transport. You will have to get us there using your power. See the image in my mind and take us there.” Sara gave Eliana her hand.
Eliana took Sara’s hand, feeling the surge of the witch’s energy. Entering her mind, she saw the vision Sara was projecting and in a split second they stood in a forest. Trees towered around them in the darkness. They were miles from where they had been, somewhere in the lowlands if Eliana’s sense of direction was accurate. The silence that greeted them was unnerving. The dark night held no sounds. The air felt stagnant, hanging oppressively over them and making it difficult to breathe. Sara pointed in the direction they needed to go, already heading towards the path that lay in front of them. Within a few minutes, they stepped out from beneath the canopy of trees. In front of them lay a clearing holding a small thatched house. Eliana could feel the magic surrounding it. She took a small step towards the clearing, feeling the energy trying to repel her. Sara remained where they had exited the forest, letting Eliana test the strength of the field. Eliana put her hand out, touching the energy’s flow, testing the magic that had created it. Pulling her hand away, she centered her feelings inward, focusing her power on the barrier. The energy field fought against her attempt to disable it. It sparked, hissed angrily, resisting the attack, before finally exploding away in a bright orange flash. Eliana turned to Sara, nodding to her that she could approach. Together, they made their way to the house where Sara opened the door, but blocked Eliana from entering.
“Let me see to her before we question her. She has been through a lot,” Sara explained softly at Eliana’s questioning look.
Eliana allowed Sara to enter without her. She cursed Elsam again under her breath. She stood in front of the house wondering what they would find out. She hoped that whatever it was, it could be undone. So much depended on the peace she had managed to secure between the worlds. Her thoughts were interrupted as Sara reappeared, opening the door fully, allowing Eliana to enter.
Meredith, the young apprentice, lay on the small bed that occupied the sparsely furnished room. Her slight frame barely filled the tiny mattress. Chestnut hair, tangled and dirty, hung limply from her head. It covered part of her oval-shaped face, which was streaked with dirt and dried tears. She lay deathly still with her eyes closed. Eliana walked slowly towards the bed, sitting down on the chair next to it. She reached out her hand, touching Meredith’s brow. At her touch, the girl’s eyes flew open, terrified. She drew herself away from Eliana. Sara, having come closer to the bed, was able to stop the girl from falling off the bed in alarm.
“Meredith, do not be afraid. Queen Eliana only wants to help. She has some questions for you. Elsam has been caught and punished. He cannot hurt you any longer,” Sara gently told the girl.
Meredith, trembling, looked at Eliana with a cold look in her eyes. Even in her weakened state, she exuded a steely strength. There was more to this girl than the usual power of witchcraft that Eliana was used to feeling. Something old and potent flowed in the girl’s blood. She wondered if Sara knew about the girl’s beginnings. What they meant.
“Where was she when he took and tortured me?” Meredith asked accusingly, breaking into Eliana’s thoughts.
“Elsam deceived and betrayed me also, Meredith,” Eliana said softly to the girl. “He has been dealt with. You have nothing to fear. You must tell us what he has had you do. We must protect our people.”
“It is out of our hands now. He thought he could use me to his ends, but I have foreseen the end. I outsmarted him.” Meredith calmly studied Eliana’s face.
Sara and Eliana exchanged a look, both confused by what they were hearing.
“Explain Meredith, my dear,” Sara prodded.
Meredith tried to sit up, struggling to lift her own weight after what she had endured. Sara helped her lift herself in the bed, readjusting the pillows behind her back. Out of breath and wincing in pain, Meredith nodded at Sara, silently thanking her. Already the girl was starting to heal. The marks on her body faded as they spoke. Eliana did not know whether to be concerned about that. Something was different about Meredith.
“I’m all right,” she managed to breathe out. She looked at Eliana, trying to decide how much to tell the queen.
“I have placed a spell on your Kaemorra,” Meredith explained. “I could not stop him from what he was doing, but I could set forces at play that would ultimately end it. Sara, I’m sorry, I couldn’t do anything for us in our lifetime. It is in the future that others will have to save our worlds.”
Meredith put her face in her hands, giving way to tears, silent sobs racking her body. Sara glanced at Eliana to see if she had any idea what had been done to the crystal. Eliana could only stare back, shaking her head to show that she did not understand either. Sara sat next to Meredith, reaching to take the girl’s hands away from her face. Flinching from the touch, Meredith looked up with tears on her face. She looked so lost and scared. Eliana somehow thought that this was an act. She felt nothing from the girl, no emotions at all.
“Please, Meredith,” Sara asked. “Please explain to us what has been done.”
“It was simple really,” Meredith said, looking at the queen. “I have seen it. The future line will have to save us.”
Eliana and Sara exchanged another confused look before turning to look at Meredith again. Eliana reached towards the girl, softly touching her cheek. She concentrated on the girl’s essence, sharply drawing her hand away when she saw inside her mind. Gasping, she looked at Meredith stunned. What she had seen was remarkable. It was impossible to believe what she was in the presence of. Sara was right, this girl had strong magic in her, but not in the way she thought. Now was not the time to get into it though. There were still things that could go wrong. Meredith had foreseen the future, effectively placing a spell to counteract Elsam’s, for a time that would save them all. But it still had potential for failure. Maybe together they could make sure that the elements were all in place when the time came. Eliana smiled at the girl. Meredith gave a small smile back knowing the queen had seen what she had done and understood who she was.
“Sara, Meredith, we still have some work to do,” Eliana said to them both. “We have to finish what Meredith started. Sara, I’ll explain on the way. Help me get Meredith up and ready.”Yes, it might still be possible.