Chapter One: Nalithor Vraelimir
I stared up at the stars in silence and rested with my back against Dauthrmir’s outer wall. Below me was a drop of a thousand feet, perhaps more. This precarious place in the Sapphire Quarter—sandwiched between the Nobles District and Lucifer’s palace—had always been Arianna’s favorite hiding place. It scared the hells out of me when I was a child. With only a few yards of turf between the wall and the drop off into the lake below, I always worried she would fall.
And yet here I was in the place that once terrified me, alone with my thoughts and several bottles of strong liquor. There wasn’t anywhere else in the Empire I would be on this day of the year.
As of today, two hundred years had passed since Arianna was taken from us.
She was very much alive when I found her in Limbo despite the horrifying state she was in. The torture she endured made my blood boil even though years had passed. I couldn’t fathom how she lived through it. Even the fae-dragons Djialkan and Fraelfnir didn’t have the power to heal such horrendous wounds or stop that much bleeding.
For some reason, Arianna took on the torture meant for both her and her brother. They were raised apart from each other and, as such, had never grown close. Yet she still opted to protect him. I couldn’t understand it. Although it appeared that the bastard Angels had held their end of the bargain, I couldn’t be sure.
Limbo was a place of stasis where time didn’t flow, a place meant to imprison Exiled Gods and their monstrous creations; the Chaos Beasts. Normally that place was governed by the God of Time but I hadn’t found a trace of him or his faithful while there. It was as if the Elders and Angels had re-purposed Limbo for their own purposes and thrown the God of Time from his own realm.
“I knew we’d find you here.” A voice sighed, “Come on, Nali. If we’re going to get drunk, let’s at least go to a bar.”
I turned my head and watched my two closest friends step through the crack in the wall. The tallest of the pair was Eyrian Il’thar, a Draekin demigod and First Prince of Gron’kial. His blue and aqua mane looked even more disheveled than usual, and his seafoam green eyes held a hint of concern. We had both been friends with the princess, and studied with her, as children. We might have even fought over her a few times.
The second man was Xander Leukos—my adopted brother. He hadn’t known Arianna as long as Eyrian and I had, but he was still saddened by her death. Xander was now a Vampire, but when I first met him he had been a Desert Elf. He still had the caramel-colored skin and glossy black hair of his original race. His eyes were a rich yet pale shade of blue, and were one of the reasons his tribe cast him out as a child.
During an undercover mission to the Desert Elf capital, V’frul, Arianna and I had discovered the nobles at the time were trafficking slaves—Devillian slaves in particular. Xander, a child at the time, had been amongst the “cargo” and Arianna had rescued him. I later discovered that Xander was terrified of her when he first met her, but it didn’t come as a surprise. Before finding him, she had slaughtered everyone in attendance at the auction. To say she was blood-soaked doesn’t quite do her enraged visage justice.
“A bar is the last place I want to go.” I shook my head before leaning back against the wall once more, “I don’t think I have to explain to you what will happen if one of the wenches offers me ‘comfort’ for my sorrows.”
They both grimaced but it was Xander that spoke, “I hope you have enough varikna for the three of us, then.”
“I’m not sure if there’s enough in the entire damned city for the three of us.” I snorted in reply, “Not with everyone using the day of remembrance as an excuse to go out and party like it’s Groslturvir!”
I snarled curses under my breath as my glass of liquor shattered in my hand, the shards of glass tearing deep into my palm. The bastards in the city were drinking and eating as if today was a day of celebration, not a day of mourning. Regardless of which language I used I had no word strong enough to describe the fury I felt. Keeping to myself was the only way to get through the day without killing anyone. They may have been our people, but they didn’t understand. Lucifer, Eyrian, Xander, and my parents were the closest to understanding, but even they didn’t quite get it.
As the God of Balance I wasn’t supposed to talk to anyone about what happened when the Elders sent me to Limbo. I had found loopholes in the Elders’ rules of course so that I could let Lucifer know. He was her father; he needed to know. However, neither of us knew how to handle what had happened. Arianna’s memories being taken from her was already a dagger through our hearts.
That the Elders claimed I was the reason she died outside of Limbo was a whole other matter entirely. I had carried her bloodied, unconscious body out of Limbo myself and Djialkan had accompanied me. Afterward, I returned to fetch Darius and his Guardian, Fraelfnir. When I returned to where the Elders were waiting, Arianna and Djialkan were gone. The Elders claimed that the trauma of moving between Limbo and our world were too strenuous for her—and that she had passed.
When I demanded to see her body as proof, they declined and told me that they had wiped her soul clean of memories of her life and of Limbo so they could reincarnate her. Then, they claimed that they had already disposed of her body and could not give it to me or to Lucifer for burial purposes. Again.
I had healed her completely before leaving Limbo. I took my time, mended her wounds, made sure that her blood was returned to her, and then I took her back to our world. All under Djialkan’s supervision. Aside from Lucifer and myself, I knew of no one who had ever been as protective of Arianna as Djialkan was. Certainly it was his job as her Guardian, but it went beyond that. Before I came along, he was the only one she would speak to aside from her father and brother.
“I think he’s going to need something stronger than varikna.” Xander’s statement interrupted my thoughts, earning him a glare, “You can’t hide the fact that you’re troubled from us, Nali. We’ve known you too long for that.”
“You’re not allowed to talk about it?” Eyrian crossed his arms and arched an eyebrow.
My friends sighed and then sat down on either side of me, moving the bottles of varikna out of the way. It was like a ritual at this point. On this day every year, I would come here and waste the day away drinking. Eventually, these two would show up to keep an eye on me—and drink with me. Perhaps they were concerned I would leap off the ledge, or perhaps they thought their company would lend me some form of comfort.
‘I should find a better place to hide…but there is no other place fitting.’ I grimaced and then summoned darkness around my bleeding hand to heal the wound, “Suffice to say it’s something I can’t drown out with work or with liquor.”
“And there’s nothing we can do to help?” Xander shook his head and then continued, “I won’t pry, but we know you, Nalithor. It has to be something serious, and it has to be something about Arianna-jiss, if you’re sulking about it this much.”
“He’s right, you know.” Eyrian jabbed a thumb in Xander’s direction, “If you think of a way we can help just say the word.”
“Well, if you two know how to slay the Elder Gods that would be a good start.” I muttered irritably, “I—”
Pain lanced through the left side of my chest, forcing me to cut myself off with a groan. I clutched my chest and bared my fangs in a poor attempt to contain myself. Both of the crystalline hearts in my chest beat wildly and burned with unbridled fury and hatred. My breath came in short gasps and my hands shook as I tried to stifle the overwhelming power and emotions pouring from Arianna’s heart.
Attacks like this first started a few months after the Elders claimed they were going to reincarnate Arianna. Over the past few years, these attacks had become frequent—and sometimes crippling.
“Her heart again?” Eyrian frowned at me after exchanging a look with Xander, “Shouldn’t that mean…”
“It should have shattered if the Elders were telling the truth about her death.” I snarled through grit teeth, “I’ve searched Limbo several times over to see if they moved her somewhere else within it. She’s not there.”
“So, they moved her somewhere out of reach?” Xander murmured, “Well, they are Elders. I suppose they could stash her anywhere they wanted, couldn’t they?”
“They said they reincarnated her.” I replied with a tetchy huff as the pain subsided to a dull ache, “If they were telling the truth about her…death…it is possible her heart remained if they moved her soul to a new body immediately, but it’s a stretch.”
“A ‘stretch’ is too generous.” Eyrian rolled his eyes, “At this point I don’t think it’s too ‘hopeful’ or ‘naive’ of us to think she’s alive somewhere. Reincarnated or not, she’s still attached to that heart of hers. If you’re sensing things through it, she has to be in Avrirsa somewhere, right?”
“Why else do you think Lucifer decided to fund the expedition to the Nrae’lmar Continent?” I pointed out, “He’s determined to find her, and he has more reach to do so than I do at the moment. Whether it’s her or not is another matter entirely. Wherever she is…it can’t be good. Not if it causes this much pain and hatred.”
“The Elders are claiming it’s a fake—or a copy—connected to her heart.” Lucifer appeared in an explosion of shadow in front of us, causing Xander and Eyrian to rush to their feet to salute the Emperor, “Tch, enough of the stuffy antics, boys. You’re making me feel old. Sit down before you fall down.”
Lucifer shot Eyrian and Xander both a sharp look before shifting his attention to me. Although my rank among the gods was higher than his, Lucifer’s gaze still had a way of making me squirm. Like Arianna, Lucifer was pale with messy dark brown curls. Silver horns twisted back from above his temples, and a black-scaled tail swung lazily behind him.
However, it was his eyes that set Lucifer apart from other Devillians. His left eye was a brilliant electric blue, but his right eye was chartreuse green and gradated to yellow at its center. Both of his pupils were slits, but unlike most Devillian races, his sclerae were not black.
‘Arianna really did take after him.’ I pursed my lips and picked up a new bottle of varikna, ‘The hair, the skin, blue eyes… I wouldn’t have been surprised if her horns and tail matched those of her father as well.’
“We haven’t started drinking yet!” Xander huffed, motioning between Eyrian and himself.
“A fake?” I looked up at Lucifer again once I’d pried the cork from the bottle of varikna, “And what is their reasoning behind that one?”
“The Exiles.” Lucifer spat, his lips curling into a scowl, “We already know that the Exiled Gods have been trying to create replicas of demigods and deities to further their agenda, but the Elders are claiming that they’ve had their first success—and that her ‘copy’ is somehow bound to her heart.”
“Even the First Exile shouldn’t have that much power.” I frowned, ‘Granted, he shouldn’t have had the power to create a new race, either.’
“Either way, that isn’t what I came to talk to you three about.” Lucifer crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at us, “One of our scout ships found something strange in the skies above the lands to the far west, beyond Falrrsald. They described it as ‘a flying island with a violet sky and no sun,’ and they’re landing to investigate.”
“We’ve flown west before and never found anything.” Eyrian pointed out as he sat back with his own bottle of varikna.
“The island isn’t anchored like other airborne landmasses we’ve found.” Lucifer offered in response, “It seems that it orbits Avrirsa, not unlike a moon, but its speed is closer to the rotation of our planet. A few of the scholars are staying with the ship so they can get a grasp of its pattern.
“The others have gone to survey the land. They said they saw what looks like X’shmir on the eastern half of the island and the Sihix Forest to the north.”
“X’shmir?” Xander asked, disbelieving, “That country has been missing for years! Have you notified the rest of the Rilzaan Alliance about this, Your Excellence?”
“That’s why I was looking for you as well; you can relay it to the Beshulthien Empire.” Lucifer replied as he waved one hand dismissively, “Several Beshulthiens are on board as well, but they said they’re unable to get a signal back to your capital. You’ll need to relay the information to your Emperor yourself.”
“I’ll wait until we have more to go by.” Xander tilted his head in thought, “If they’ve been stuck in the sky for this long, I doubt they need to be suddenly swarmed by a bunch of outsiders.”
“I will want to go to the Sihix Forest.” I spoke up, drawing the Emperor’s attention, “They’re more likely to tell us what happened to X’shmir than the Humans are. The people of X’shmir were never very friendly, if I recall.”
“Eyrian, you and your men are going up there as of tomorrow morning.” Lucifer stated, giving the Draekin a firm look when he opened his mouth to protest, “Fear not, I’ve already informed them. You’re free to drown yourself in alcohol for the rest of the night if that’s what you really want to do.
“Nalithor and I will have to wait before venturing there. We need to make sure that magical power doesn’t make the inhabitants skittish.”
“You honestly think there are still people living there?” I arched an eyebrow, “That place was never meant to be a flying island, unlike Tulja or Juln.”
“The city is active and there’s precious little else outside of it.” Lucifer conjured a stack of parchment and tossed them it me, “Those are the readings the scholars have taken thus far. They’ve requested you compare them to your findings with the Ceilail and Xiinsha Forests.”
I looked down at the first page and frowned while skimming over the data. It made no sense. The amount of aether was far too high for the size of the island. ‘This much aether should have made anyone, and anything, living there ill.’
“How much of the island is covered by the Sihix Forest?” I asked after rifling through the stack of papers and finding no answers.
“You’ll have to ask them yourself. They didn’t say.” Lucifer shrugged, “I want you to look into the data and then take updated readings from Ceilail and Xiinsha Forests as soon as possible. In the off chance that place is where the Elders took Arianna, I want to make sure one of us gets there first.”
‘She can’t be alive.’ I kept the thought to myself as I slumped against the wall and closed my eyes. I wanted to believe that Arianna was still alive but at the same time it was a frightening thought. Upon leaving Limbo she had reverted to the form of a child, looking much as she did the day she was taken from Dauthrmir.
She hadn’t remembered anything prior to being taken from the Dauthrmiran palace—would she even remember that now? If the Elders had tampered with her again there was no telling who or what she was now.
A bottle of varikna groaned and cracked in my hand but I eased my grip before it could break. The cold liquor soaked my hand, seeping from the fractures in the glass.
I sighed deeply—I had to keep that place from my mind. I doubted I would ever find out how Arianna didn’t go insane while trapped there. If she truly was alive somewhere she deserved a quiet, peaceful existence after all that she endured in Limbo.
‘If she is still alive, I can’t let her grow close to me—and I can’t grow close to her.’ I grit my teeth, ‘I can’t let her suffer the responsibility of this role. Balance is the role of a monster.’
A monster. For a moment I thought my heart would stop as it hit me. Arianna probably wouldn’t even want anything to do with a monster like me. She would hate and loathe me, despite all I had done to save her. Despite all we had done together as children. None of that would matter—she would just see a foul creature that had to keep the balance through any means necessary.
Ahhnn, but isn’t it so wonderful to be like a monster?
I frowned as warmth radiated from Arianna’s heart, soothing me. It was a strange phrase, but she had said that to me in Limbo. At first I hadn’t thought much of it. It wasn’t until after I searched her memories that I realized who she was, but she had uttered that phrase quite some time before that point. The Angel assigned to stand guard had called her a monster, and she was amused.
‘She always was a strange one…’ I took a swig of alcohol, oblivious to the other three men talking, ‘Just how connected to this role was she?’
“It’s growing chill. We should find some fiirzik to drink, or head inside.” Eyrian jabbed me hard with his elbow to get my attention.
“Then let’s go inside. I want to start working on this data.” I stated as I rose to my feet, ‘Real or fake, I will find her. If it’s a fake… I will end whoever is responsible. I don’t care if it’s the Exiles or the Elders, they will die.’