“Zerenas.” Marcus had no clue how many times he said the name, but he said it enough it came out like clockwork. “Zerenas.” He shook his head and pressed his knuckles to his mouth. “Zerenas.” His voice deflated to a defeated sigh as he opened his palm and rubbed his eye. “No, I really can’t say the name rings a bell.”
Princess Selere, with her hand pressed against the small of Marcus’s back for support, bit her lip. “Are you three thousand percent sure, Master Seylo? You have never heard the name ‘Zerenas’ in your life? Even as reference to His Regnancy’s name?”
Marcus shook his head again. “No, not at all. You see, Your Highness, there were two things we Archsages theorized for fun: His Regnancy’s name and true age. None of us really know anything about him.”
“Suspicious. You’d think someone in such a leadership position would at least reveal some of those basic facts.”
“This is the Regnant Archsage you’re speaking of, the greatest Archsage to exist within the Council.” Marcus winced as Selere’s grip on his arm tightened. He appreciated the princess’s willingness to support him out of bed and into daylight, but he wished she would lighten her grip a little bit. At this rate, Selere would break him before any illness would. “He possesses knowledge, I’m certain, that he can’t allow even Order Arcana to have access to.”
“This is basic information, though! A name, an age, a little bit of history! That is not restricted knowledge! So you mean to tell me, Master Seylo, that His Regnancy’s secrecy doesn’t strike you as strange?”
Marcus scrubbed his eye again. “Your Highness, I was rarely present at the Council.”
He felt his stomach shrink at Selere’s sidelong glare. “What I mean to say is,” he hastily added, “it’s not strange to me if only because I traveled so often. The other Archsages might have agreed, and they might have known more as well, but that information was never disclosed to me. I never considered it significant enough to pursue.”
“Well I’m definitely disappointed! I thought you’d pursue anything you didn’t know!”
About theories and postulates of magic, certainly, but not about other people, Marcus answered inwardly. He sighed heavily as he sank against Selere’s support. His body felt weighted down by sacks of lead; walking even made him feel somewhat nauseated. The world spun once around him, and his legs buckled. If not for the staff in his hand, as well as Selere’s arm around him, the cobblestone ground would have been his next bed.
“Selere, if you don’t mind me asking,” said Marcus, wiping sweat off his brow, “exactly why am I out of bed?”
With a grunt, Selere pulled Marcus, swaying, upright again. “You don’t mean to tell me this sunlight bothers you, do you?”
Marcus shook his head. It wasn’t the sunlight. In fact, Marcus was grateful for the fresh air and sunlight. However, while he did appreciate the break from his chambers, Selere had yanked him out of bed still nauseously groggy and half-asleep. Consequently, Marcus’s swimming headache churned and pitched harder, thanks to Selere’s recommendations. For Marcus, this was one of those rare times he preferred to stay in bed.
“Well! Tristan and Sealiah are at the Temple of Sei right now! I figured we had all best stick together, what with those draconians flying about in the area, and the Sanctuary being…stuffy.”
Tristan’s reports had thankfully kept Marcus well-informed of the circumstances in Luxakari. Shame that Kevyn and her group disappeared so quickly, but Marcus found no fault in their situation, considering Kevyn’s condition. Marcus remembered Reeon’s furious expression, too. The eyes, especially – glowing, and oddly piercing – those were the eyes of an angry raptor. Marcus shivered. He wanted nothing to do with Reeon’s anger ever again.
On the other hand, the recent draconian activity puzzled the Archsage. Save for hearing and seeing Aislin’s encounter with one (and shame she disappeared as well; Marcus hoped to interview her for an anecdotal study on draconian personality), the draconians had kept quiet throughout the years. So why, suddenly, did they move now? There was a motive – that much, Marcus ascertained. But what?
He glanced at Selere. “We are headed to the Temple of Sei?”
“Yes; did you not hear me the first time?”
“C-clarification,” said Marcus. “I have never been in those archives, actually. Perhaps they will help with understanding…” The draconians’ movement, Marcus inwardly finished. They certainly have a motive, and they certainly shared a history with the manaketes. Given the manaketes’ absence from Luxakari for nearly twenty years, the draconians might have finally decided to move in on the vacancy.
Could the manaketes have known this was going to happen? Maybe that’s why the general was so high-strung about the validity of the Silver Vixen. The Priestess of Light was probably the only figure able to stand her ground against the draconians, and yet, she seemed disinclined to assume her responsibilities.
Out the corner of his eye, Marcus saw Selere shake her head. “Master Seylo,” she said, “While I understand you’re practically married to archives of all varieties, feeding your knowledge is not the reason we’re headed to the Temple of Sei.”
The Archsage furrowed his brow and frowned. “You said you wanted me to get some fresh air, and that we should all stick together. As long as we remain in the archives together, we’ll be fine, right?”
At this, Selere curled her lip and glared at Marcus. “I mean to say there are far more pertinent issues at hand that need addressing! This ‘Zerenas’ character is only one of them!”
“Then do tell me your other concerns, Princess.”
Selere’s voice dropped to a hiss. “Only when Tristan and Sealiah are with us, and we have some privacy. There are eyes and ears posted all over this city.”
Marcus thought to ask what the princess meant, but her rigid focus ahead kept him silent. Selere’s pursed lips told the Archsage enough about her resolve: she would say nothing until they were within the walls of the temple.
Beyond the circular plaza, a quiet road wound through residential buildings, meandering along until it ended at a clearing, shaded by overhanging wisteria. It was in this clearing the Traveler’s Spire, otherwise called the Temple of Sei, stretched high into the sky. Ivy trailed along the grooves of its aged bricks, and framed the panes of clouded crystal windows. Selere gave Marcus no time to count the windows of the tower, however, as she coaxed him toward the spire’s doors. The oak swung in willingly, allowing the pair to shuffle in with little hassle.
Wonder seized Marcus’s chest and pushed him out of his hunch to his full height. Everywhere he looked, he saw packed, overfilled bookshelves lodged snugly between floor and ceiling. Orbs of Light magic hovered in sconces on the sides of the bookcases, and hung suspended from golden chains. The red plush of tasseled carpets invited Marcus to step ahead, along the exposed, smooth sandstone bricks of the floor. He brushed aside hanging plants – medicinal flora, he realized with delight – as he wandered ahead.
Selere’s grouchy cough reeled the Archsage back, however, before he could lay a hand on the tomes lying open on the tables. She took Marcus by his arm and dragged him beyond the archives, to a corner of the first-floor library where Tristan and Sealiah sat at a table. Tristan, with a grimace, held a hand over his nose and mouth, while Sealiah leafed through a book.
Marcus raised a brow. “Is there a smell bothering you, Tristan?”
Tristan sighed and pulled his hand away. “It’s not a smell,” he sniffled. “It’s the dust.”
Without seeing Marcus’s bemused look, Sealiah added, “It’s all he has been complaining about since we set foot into these archives.”
At this, Tristan slowly shrugged, with a look of bashful shame in his features.
Selere cut off the discussion with a swift rap on the table. “Well then!” she started, “Now that we have everyone gathered in one private place, I believe we can begin to sort out our situation.” She drew back and crossed her arms. “Namely, my recent discoveries in the basement of the Sanctuary.”
Sealiah closed her book. Alarm and worry creased her lips to a frown. “The way you say that doesn’t make those discoveries sound very positive.”
“Far from it. I’ve already spoken with Master Seylo on the matter, but has anyone heard the name ‘Zerenas’ at any point of their lives?”
Marcus was not surprised to see the clueless looks in Tristan’s and Sealiah’s expressions.
Yet Selere continued. “Then how about ‘Eurami’?”
Sealiah immediately perked up at this. “I’ve heard the name,” she said. “Aislin and Jerran mentioned it a few times.”
“Of course, yet another name we don’t know,” Selere sighed. “Who in Sei’s name is Jerran?”
At this, Sealiah tensed and bit her lip, but relaxed and folded her hands on the table. “Aislin’s draconian companion. He’s the one who took her away at the plaza.”
The threads came together in Marcus’s mind. “You’ve mentioned this man as Aislin’s guardian,” he started. “It’s best to assume he was acting in Aislin’s best interest: her safety, in other words.”
“I…suppose so,” Sealiah glumly replied. “As much as I hate to admit it, their sudden absence followed immediately by the draconians’ appearances couldn’t have been a coincidence. And, going by his nature, I’m certain he’s able to sense his brethren from miles away.”
A flow of thoughts slowly twined together in Marcus’s mind, and they were going at a rate he wasn’t sure his oration could keep up. Aislin, Jerran, the draconians, Eurami, General Pellsi, Zerenas… There was a connection between these names; Marcus was certain.
He had to draw it out.
Bolting up from his seat, he rushed to the nearest stack of scratch parchment, then to a cart of ink bottles and quills. Disregarding the flecks of black dotting his scarf, he stumbled back to the table and wordlessly began his recording, with the others looking on.
Jerran was a guardian to Aislin. These two disappeared when Reeon unleashed his magic, which, according to Tristan’s reports, was immediately followed by the appearance of the draconians. Marcus looked up from his writings to Selere and Sealiah. “Eurami,” he said.
“Draconian,” Selere replied. “I never had the chance to see her face, but she had a snakelike way of speaking. That’s a characteristic of the draconians, isn’t it?”
Sealiah nodded in agreement. “Aislin’s companion hides it well, but he has that same way of speaking. I noticed it particularly when he was angry or irritated.” Before Marcus could ask how Sealiah knew this, she quickly went on. “Aislin has never concretely described Eurami to me, but I can tell there’s a poignant fear in the topic. As far as I understand, Aislin and her friend are evading Eurami.”
“Oh!” Selere clapped her hands. “There’s another thing I remember! I heard General Pellsi address this Eurami person as ‘Lord.’ Rather interesting, isn’t it?”
Marcus scribbled Eurami’s name to the side, along with her title. “Draconians have never been known to distinguish male versus female roles. The fact Eurami is hailed as a lord says a lot about her stature.”
“I’m guessing she earned it,” said Tristan. “Probably not through any means we want to be acquainted with.”
“Precisely. We may only have old legends to go by, but they do tell us draconians are a warring race. A title such as ‘Lord’ means only one thing: Eurami stands at the very top of her kind. We know she’s superior in status to Jerran, considering he wants to evade her rather than fight her.” Marcus tapped his quill on Jerran’s name. “Curious, this one. Draconians usually have a high intolerance of humans. He obviously has some profound connection with Aislin.”
“We’ll see about that if they happen to cross paths with Eurami along their way,” said Sealiah. “For all we know, he may want to save his own hide.”
“We can’t say at this point.” Marcus pushed his glasses up. Sealiah’s responses reinforced his growing theories about her connection to the late Apostle, but the Archsage quietly decided to let the subject go for now. He had to keep up with his current thoughts. “Selere, did you hear anything about Eurami’s connection to Zerenas?”
“Well,” the princess began, “she wasn’t at all nice to General Pellsi; I’ll start with that. She ridiculed him more than anything, but she listened and acquiesced to Zerenas’s commands.”
That told Marcus enough. He wrote Zerenas’s name above Eurami’s, then General Pellsi’s on the same level as Eurami. The Archsage paused in his scribblings, staring at the blank space between the two sets of names. An apparent schism separated them, but what? What was the connection between Aislin’s side and Zerenas’s side? What did Zerenas want from the others? From the Archsages? He tapped the blank space between the names. “We’re missing some vital information here,” he said. “Whatever it is that connects Aislin and Jerran with Zerenas, Eurami, and the general, it’s not going to come up in a discussion now.”
Tristan slouched against the table. “Then how are we going to figure anything out? I thought we were on to something here, but it’s really only said the same thing: we don’t know anything.”
Marcus smiled. “Nonsense. We realized there’s some connection between all of these people. And we do have a lead.” He tapped General Pellsi’s name.
While Tristan stared inconclusively, Selere quickly grasped the connection. “Order Arcana! There must be a reason beyond religious symbols that General Pellsi tried to have Kevyn executed!”
“Exactly.” Marcus drew a line away from General Pellsi’s name, and wrote Kevyn’s at the end. From Kevyn’s name, the Archsage then extended nine more lines. “One missing member of Order Arcana can mean disaster; Pellsi must know that.”
“They were also talking about disposing of Reeon,” Selere added. “Maybe they’re targeting members of the Order for their own ends?”
“It’s a likely goal,” Marcus replied. “We don’t know what that end is, but the events here in the capital have said enough; Order Arcana is in danger. And by extension, the Archsages as well. As far as I can tell, I am the last of the late Council.”
“And Zerenas plans to simply wait for you to die.” Selere clenched her fists and bit her lip. “As though I will sit quietly by and let things continue like this!”
Tristan sat up again. “Well, in order to get Mark back into shape, Kevyn said we needed her abilities, plus Reeon’s and two other people, the Spirit and Aura pillars. Almira was the Aura Pillar.”
“Meaning the Spirit Pillar should be in Xemif!” said Selere. “In that case, we should head straight for Xemif right away and meet the others there! All things considered, it would be perfect for me as well; I would like to start my training as soon as possible!”
Marcus’s mood sank again. Truth be told, he hadn’t the energy to make the journey from Luxakari to Xemif. He remembered the Xemifian rainforests from his training days well – blazing, humid, and so many critters. Back then, those rainforests were no problem for a 16-year-old, healthy Marcus. As a 24-year-old dying Archsage, however, Marcus wasn’t sure he could handle the conditions. He doubted Selere wanted to hear any objections, however, and since she seemed especially keen on progressing away from Luxakari, Marcus decided to keep his reservations quiet.
He hoped, at least, they would take the journey slow enough for his crippling condition.