Chapter One – Nathalie
“Help me,” a ragged voice called.
Nathalie skidded to a halt, slipping on a patch of damp leaves. The beacons in her satchel shifted, sending out a soft clink of crystal against crystal as she caught herself on a low-hanging branch. “Hello?” she called, hoping for a repeat of the cry. If anyone answered, it was quickly lost in the din of water dripping from leaf to leaf, courtesy of the morning’s rain.
She flipped the walking stick in her hand, pushing the metal-plated end through a curtain of thornvines before maneuvering through the opening. If the Essential lived, and it seemed she did, Nathalie needed to find her, and that meant leaving the trail. The thorns, serrated and a quarter of an inch long, were sharp enough to cut through her leather armor, leaving her swollen and itching for days. If she were stupid enough to touch them.
“Hello?” she called again, listening intently. Her responsibility as a Beaconer was to search for Essentials, dead or alive. Most would be dead. Otherwise, they would have retreated to safety on their own. Most of her people, Nonnies, were of no value in extended fights and would be useless on their own. She and other Beaconers like her were the exceptions.
When no response came, Nathalie trudged north toward the tower that jutted above the forest. If she asked sweetly, the watchers would let her climb the tower and use the vantage point to scan for whoever had called out to her.
Nathalie straightened her satchel, creating a new chorus of clinking and thumping. In it were the tools with which she saved lives: herbs, bandages, and crystal beacons, some green, some red. The green ones alerted a duo of healers who would arrive within minutes. The red beacons summoned a hauler whose goddess-granted abilities were only marginally more useful than Nonnies.
Strength was their strongest ability. Their secondary power varied and determined their assigned areas. There were only so many clearings or well-worn trails, and Essentials sometimes chose particularly inconvenient places to die. So, those with weak mobility powers like short-range teleportation were given a hauler’s cart and assigned to the Queen’s forest.
A faint scratching broke into Nathalie’s thoughts, and she slowed her steps. Something moved nearby, cloth scraping against stone. Quiet whimpering. The movements were too loud, too pitiful to be a Clicker.
“I’ve almost found you,” Nathalie said.
“Help me. Please,” the voice repeated, raspy and faint.
Nathalie followed it forward and stumbled into a small, roughly T-shaped clearing. Near the center were ruins of an ancient building. Little remained. A cracked and mossy foundation littered with dead leaves and twigs. Three tall pillars of dark gray stone twisted with thornvines. A fourth pillar lay on the ground, angled away from the others.
Nathalie crept forward, testing every step with her staff in search of traps left behind by Clickers. When she found none, she took more confident steps, circling the pillar. The fall left it in three large chunks, tenuously connected by thornvines pulled tautly.
Underneath the largest chunk, decorated with weathered but intricate carvings, lay a groaning, dirt-streaked Essential. Nathalie knelt and pushed the woman’s muddy hair from her face. Somehow, underneath all the dust and mud, her skin still shimmered prettily, courtesy of the Queen’s light.
“I’m stuck,” the woman mumbled, her blue gray eyes glassy. She tried to wiggle from beneath the pillar, and the pain of her action drained the remaining color from her face. “I think I’m hurt,” she whispered.
“You’ll be fine.” Nathalie gave a reassuring smile, then bent to examine the injured woman, offering nonsense to distract her. “I used to be envious of you when I was younger, surrounded by all your shining glory.” Nathalie pulled her braid over her shoulder, showing off the glossy blackness. A magic all its own, that glossiness, considering the dirt that covered her hair. The mark of the Dark Mother. One part of it, anyway.
“Not you in particular, of course. I don’t even know you. I wanted so desperately to be ice and light. Like my family. Like Queen Lilith. I didn’t want to be the odd one out at all the silly parties my parents attended. Made me attend.” Nathalie tapped the pinned woman’s nose, counting the seconds before a response. A full five seconds later, the woman’s nose, delicate and dusted with silver freckles, wrinkled. “What’s your name?”
The Essential’s eyes narrowed as she struggled to focus on Nathalie’s face. Nathalie guessed the woman had taken at least a light blow to the head, considering her slow reactions, though no blood matted her white hair.
“Elisare. Do you have any water?” The woman sighed and tried to move again, apparently having forgotten the pain it would cause. She cried out, and Nathalie made hushed sympathetic noises.
While the woman wept, Nathalie turned to inspect the fallen pillar and grimaced. At best, only Elisare’s legs were crushed. Nathalie would eat her satchel if the woman ever walked again, even with a healer’s intervention.
“Hello, Elisare. My name is Nathalie, and I’m here to help you.” Nathalie smiled and pressed her fingers against the woman’s neck, checking her pulse. It was strong, and she wondered if Elisare might have weak self-healing.
Nathalie’s hand lingered on the woman’s neck. Even dirty and twisted with pain, she glowed. Essentials were the true children of Queen Lilith. Snowy white hair and eyes the color of the sky in winter. It was said they were born so bright that new mothers had to shield their eyes, lest they go blind. That was nonsense, of course, but a beautiful sort of nonsense.
Nathalie took a small, translucent bottle from her bandolier and removed the waxed cork. Elisare perked up at the sound, turning to face Nathalie, who tipped the bottle sideways. Green-tinged water splashed into the woman’s thirsty mouth. She gulped greedily, getting as close to the bottle as possible without hurting herself. The mixture of herbs inside would dull her pain and, more importantly, her powers. Essentials were dangerous when injured, especially if they became delirious. The mixture had been stolen from the Clickers, who used it to keep their captives docile.
Nathalie stuffed the cork back into the bottle and tossed it into her satchel with the other empty bottles before pulling out one of the thin crystal beacons from her bag. She stabbed it into the ground near Elisare’s head with a satisfying crunch of soil. She flipped the tiny switch with an almost inaudible click and a flare of light resolved into a thick beacon that pierced the clouded sky. A beam that seemed too thick, and too bright, for the sliver of crystal inside.
Confusion darkened Elisare’s eyes. “Why is it red?” she asked.
Nathalie slid sideways, straddling Elisare’s chest, pinning the woman’s arms with her knees. The woman grunted, a slow fear creeping across her face as Nathalie dragged her fingers across Elisare’s long neck. “So many dead,” she said, voice cracking. She sniffled, and a forced tear fell from her cheek to Elisare’s, cutting through the dust that had gathered there. Nathalie’s hands circled Elisare’s throat, squeezing ever so slightly. “It’s so awful,” she sobbed. Her grip tightened, and Elisare’s eyes widened as she tried, finally, to struggle out of Nathalie’s grip. The pillar, the weight of Nathalie on her chest, and the herbal mixture she’d drank so greedily prevented anything more than a weak thrashing. “I used to be envious.”
Elisare made a faint, wet noise and Nathalie grinned; a fire buried deep roared to life. The Essential’s face darkened, and Nathalie’s breath caught, involuntarily mimicking Elisare’s. The woman, as if sensing her end, fought with all her remaining strength, and would have succeeded if Nathalie hadn’t braced herself against the sun-warmed pillar.
Elisare’s death did not come quickly, but when it did, it happened all at once. The icy shimmer in her skin and hair winked out. With a shuddering gasp, Nathalie released her grip a final time, bending forward and resting against Elisare’s chest.
A different need spread through Nathalie, starting in the pit of her stomach and traveling up her chest, followed by an aching tingle. Kesin, tonight. The fragmented thought and the shudder it sent through her brought a smile to her face.
Nathalie straightened with a satisfied groan. “You were such a pretty thing, weren’t you?” The body offered no response. The wind had picked up during their struggle and she welcomed it as it cooled the sweat on her face.
She hummed, contented, as she searched the corpse. It was her job, after all. She found nothing of use, but took a ring from the corpse’s finger, a small twist of metal topped with a cracked azure crystal, and pushed it into the smallest pocket of her bandolier.
The squish of hooves on wet leaves sent her thoughts scattering, and she scrambled off the body and stood a few steps away. The flush that darkened her cheeks would be misconstrued; it always was. A delicate, overworked Nonny, stressed at the sight of so much death.
Two tall, black-and-white spotted horses broke through one of the three trails that entered the clearing. They hauled a wooden cart behind them, shaped like a squat, square box. A man with hair cut so short it seemed as if his head was dusted with snow, drove the cart. Joren, another forest regular, held the thick reins in one hand. His other hand rested on a small crossbow. He halted the horses a few feet from the broken pillar.
“Hey, Nathalie,” he said as he jumped from the wagon with a loud thump. He stood a few inches above the horses, a broad chest to match his height. Even if she hadn’t known, she would have pegged him as a hauler. Only those with strength got that broad. “Another one? You’re not having any luck today are you, kid?”
Kid? They were the same age. She sniffled, suppressing her irritation, and embraced the role he gave her. “I should have been faster.” Her voice thickened, as if on the verge of tears. He tsked, and from the corner of her eye, she saw his face soften in unconsciously condescending sympathy. She almost smiled. So easily manipulated.
He closed the gap between them and picked a dusty twig from her braid. With a finger under her chin, he tilted her face until she met his eyes. “You’re as fast as you can be, given your…” He gestured to her eyes. The other mark of the Dark Mother: bloodred eyes. “But don’t you worry your pretty little head about it. I’ll take care of this,” he said, shooing her away.
Nathalie grimaced, irritated at his casual dismissal. Maybe one day she’d help him as she’d helped Elisare. She smirked at the thought and resumed her search for survivors.