Chains to bind and chains to fasten,
Chains to hold the Creator,
Chains to tie and chains to lash,
Chains to seal the Breaker.
Chains to fasten and be forgotten,
Chains to make the demon weep,
Chains to be broken by youth and pride,
Chains to make the hero sleep
- The Epic of the Phoenix, First Cycle, Prime Sonata, Lines 1-8
“We are going to die,” Donovan whispered next to him. Gabriel refused to look at his twin brother, choosing instead to stare straight ahead. He could have looked up, to see the dim sun bathing the mountains in pale light. But he had seen the sun before, there was no need to focus on it. He could have looked down, like Donovan surely was, where the path ended suddenly in the snow-covered crags hundreds of meters below them. But he had seen those as well. He had spent hours staring at the rocks that were his proposed doom. He had used those hours to set aside his fear. Finally, he could have looked behind him, at the spectators who had led him and his brother to this point. But he knew who was behind him. There would be the luminarch who was presiding over this ritual, a man with hollow eyes and thin as a spear. With him would be Lady Morgan, his tutor and matron who had practically raised him, weathered and grey haired but every bit as fierce as she had been in youth. And directly behind him and his brother would be Garren and Cadmus. Twins themselves, but twenty years older, the eldest of his brothers had asked for the right to guide the youngest.
“Ya’ll be jes fine, tykes,” Garren said low enough for only them to hear, the Pyran accent he had learned from his tutor coloring his speech. Gabriel still did not turn, but he could picture what he would see if he did. He heard the subtle sound of shifting fur – Cadmus shaking his head with a grin on his face- and a thwap of gloves hitting a cloak – Garren smacking Cadmus for his poor humor.
To Gabriel’s left he heard the first of the youths beginning their jumps. Some leapt of their own accord, silent and determined. Others were weaker, needing to be pushed by attending family members or screamed as they fell. Gabriel saw Callen Ryst, the son of one of the armorers, make his leap. His foot caught on a root at the edge of the cliff, keeping his fall close to the mountainside. The sound of his body hitting the sharp outcroppings as he fell clumsily to his death made Donovan wince beside him.
“Off ya go.” Gabriel felt strong hands shove him roughly. At only fifteen, he simply did not have the bodyweight to resist. He pitched forward over the edge, falling face down just long enough to pick out Callen’s body crumpling like a ragdoll, his limbs thrown at impossible angles. Then Gabriel’s vision shifted as he turned in the air. I have been preparing for this my whole life, he told himself. I am a Sinclair, and Sinclairs do not fail. He threw a hand out, grasping a jagged edge of rock. His tunic tore against the stone and the force of hitting the mountainside made his fingers slip. He was in freefall again.
The mountainside disappeared, as did the sensation of falling. He was still in the air, but suspended. Wind ruffled the thick leather of his clothes. It took only the smallest of moments for him to realize what was happening. It was the madness again. Now of all times!
From a young age he had seen what he could only call visions. His sight would shift; the world around him would disappear, sometimes slowly, sometimes in an instant. And he would always see things that he knew could not be real. He had walked battlefields strewn with the corpses of creatures he had never heard of, seen himself talking to people he did not recognize. Some were more nightmarish, like the one he had been experiencing for the past three years. He could never remember what that vision was, but he knew he had it more often than any other and every time it ended it left him in a cold sweat.
He bit hard on his bottom lip, as much to wake himself up as to stop himself from a blasphemous oath. Some heathen faiths thought that people who had such delusions were seeing into the future. But nowhere in the Book of Sealed Light was there any mention of prophecy. That was reserved for heretics and the insane, the latter almost as bad as the former. If he had allowed himself such feelings, the thought would have terrified him.
Quickly he remembered that in the real world he was falling to his death. Even still, the vision would continue until it reached its conclusion and he knew his body would not be under his control until then. With no guarantee I won’t be folded around a crag next to Callen when I wake. Excellent.
He was snapped out of his dark thoughts by a strong buffet of wind. He somehow managed to turn in the air and saw that what he thought was wind was really a woman. A winged woman. Her black hair cascaded like liquid night to the small of her back and over a quiver of night blue arrows fletched with cardinal feathers. Her dress was plain, but smooth and formfitting. His breath caught in his chest at her beauty. He had seen her before, but never so close and never in the flesh. Oh, for the love of Spectra. The archangel Xiomara seemed to look through him as if he wasn’t even there. A flash of umbra cut past his ear and caught the hem of Xiomara’s dress as she glided sideways on three pairs of ebony velvet wings. Gabriel spun with the displaced air from her wings and saw her attacker. Wrapped in an impossibly long scarf made of pure darkness was a female figure, shapeless in her shroud of night, cracking the fringes of it out like a whip. His eyes caught more scenes in the distance, flashes of fire, water, and, inexplicably, shards of earth being blocked and evaded by more winged warriors. The world moved again.
Time and space never moved rationally in the visions. It felt like his body was drifting over continents and through ages until he slammed to a halt. The stop wasn’t so much physical as it was mental, his thoughts and spirit finding their destination and ceasing his journey. He saw a stone door, carved to depict some type of struggle, twisted, vicious shapes tearing men apart and dragging them into the darkness from which they had spawned. He heard banners whipping in the wind, though there was no breeze to be felt or pennants in sight. The stone door cracked open, groaning against the floor and ceiling of the antechamber that held it. Curling mist snaked out of the breach. The fog danced its tendrils around Gabriel’s feet and slithered up his body. He twisted and thrashed to wrest free, but the mist could not be fought. He heard a hiss fill his ears and felt the presence of several things within his mind. We have waited for you in my long slumber, it whispered venomously. We urge you to find me in the center of your world. Gabriel’s universe dropped out from under him.
Pale white landscape came rushing up at him and cold crept back into his body. Oh yes, that’s where I was… He recovered in less than a moment, conjecture doing him no good as icy claws of earth welcomed him.
He was keenly aware of the crags rising to meet him like snapping jaws of an arctic wolf, but he let out a breath and chose his moment. There! His hand shot like an arrow, digging into the mountainside and tearing through leather and flesh. His grip tightened against the pain. Only when he knew his hold was secure did he look around, catching sight of Donovan a few meters above him, safe. Something cut into his heel as he dangled. Gabriel shot a quick glance at the rocks below him. A piece of the crag was poking his foot and no more than three feet below him was a butcher’s table of meat and clothing that had been children. His father would be pleased about how close Gabriel had come to death. Gabriel himself wasn’t quite so sure how he felt and would be certain to leave out how unintentional his close call had been. He stored his ambiguity away for later study and began his climb back up. Not nearly as difficult as the way down, contrary to the popular jibe, he made good time and hauled himself over the edge, as was expected of him. He saw Donovan being hoisted off the snowy ground where he had thrown himself, glad to be back on solid ground.
Cadmus released his grip on his younger brother and looked at Gabriel. Crimson and cerulean eyes winked at Gabriel through sharp bangs of blue hair. Powerfully built and tall, yet not wide, Cadmus wore a midnight blue cloak fixed with a pin shaped like a pair of swords wrapped in chains. The broach labeled him a praetor of the Second Legion and his carefully groomed hair, parted with subtle clips of dragonbone, marked him as a member of the royal family. He had taught Gabriel everything from swordplay to battlefield tactics. Everything that Gabriel was now, he owed to his brother. Cadmus pushed through the crowd faster than the rest, beating everyone to Gabriel. The rest of the spectators began to crowd them, but Cadmus cast a glance in every direction and people gave them a wide berth. Cadmus had that effect on people.
“Well done, little brother.” Pyran accent covered his speak as well, though his voice always had a more playful tone than Garren’s. Cadmus held out his hand and dropped something into Gabriel’s hands. They were a set of dragonbone clips. Gabriel took them slowly. Now that he had survived his brush with death he was counted a citizen of Altera, and, more importantly, officially the Seventh Prince of the kingdom. The weight of the moment was not lost on him, but something was wrong.
“Shouldn’t Father have been the ones to give these to me?” Gabriel asked, already arranging the clips in his hair that he had grown long for the occasion. Even if he was perplexed, he couldn’t show it in front of everyone watching.
Cadmus didn’t meet his brother’s eyes. “His health,” he said dismissively. With their father, that could have been true or false, and both were just as likely. Cyrano Sinclair II was not known for putting his family before his kingdom, though his increasing age had taken its toll over the past several years. Before Gabriel could get any more out of his brother, Lady Morgan had pushed through the crowd. She dropped to one knee, gave a cursorily polite look at Cadmus and then gripped Gabriel hard by the shoulders.
“Lowest height of your class. Your mother would have been so proud of you. And I know your father is.”
“If he’s as proud as ya say, ‘e would be here,” Cadmus said just as Gabriel thought it. For one of the top strategic minds of his generation, Cadmus had very little social tact.
Morgan fixed him with a glare harder than mountain steel. “His Majesty would have been present if circumstances were better. But there was a matter of state more pressing than this that required his attention.” Gabriel knew her subtleties well enough to tell that she knew full well that Cadmus was aware of those “matters of state”. Funny that I don’t. Gabriel looked about and found Garren helping Donovan put on his clips while a luminarch began a sermon on the sanctity of the leap and what it represented.
“Those who have survived their trial, as did did their fathers and their fathers before them, are now men in the eyes of the Lady and the Prisms. From today onward they may carry weapons, father children, inherit lands and titles, carry out the will of the Luminarchy…” It went on in this manner for some time. Normally Gabriel would have listened to his new rights happily, but now it seemed far away and menial.
Gabriel’s eyes were drawn towards a source of commotion further down the edge of the cliff. It wasn’t hard to pick out what the source was. A tall, lean man seemed to be in an argument with the guards of another luminarch. His long blue hair was streaked with indigo feathers and his hands, while covered in gloves, had bird-like talons protruding from his fingers. Gabriel recognized him instantly as a Dakashi. Master Kestrel in fact, the best and most shunned falcon trainer in the kingdom. Gabriel moved closer just as the conversation began to get heated.
“Pagans and monsters are not welcome at this sacred moment!” the luminarch sputtered, his face a horrible shade of purple. Gabriel noted he was keeping at least four feet between himself and Kestrel with his guards in front. For all of his righteous indignation he was clearly afraid of the man.
Master Kestrel did not look perturbed in the least. He simply smiled and opened his cloak slowly, showing clearly where the Radiant Blades were stitched into the fabric. “I am an Andragoran, luminarch,” he said in the most pleasant voice. If the luminarch had not been so worked up, one might have thought Kestrel was informing him of the time of day. “As an Andragoran, I do not believe I can be called a pagan accurately. I have simply come to congratulate my princes on their success.” He looked at Gabriel with the dull orange eyes of a hawk. Gabriel saw nothing but kindness and honesty in those eyes. Kestrel gave out a low whistle and two shapes came flying down from the sky.
The luminarch’s guards shouted and a couple of them fired their crossbows. The shapes stopped abruptly in the air and tumbled to the ground. Gabriel dove into the snow to catch one. It fell into his hands as he skidded on the ice, almost going right over the edge again. His breath froze as loose ice and frigid pebbles spun into the air, clattering against the side. He wormed backward carefully and stood to inspect the object. It was a fledgling hawk, its chest pierced by a crossbow bolt. It died in Gabriel’s arms and he felt it shudder subtly as the life fled from it. The rest of him echoed the shudder in anger and sorrow. He had seen death before, even dealt it to those who deserved it, but this was a pointless loss of life, born of cowardice and ignorance.
Before Gabriel could master his anger he found himself standing, turning, ready to unleash havoc on the careless guards. But his brothers had beaten him to it. Garren and Cadmus had crossed the crowd in a heartbeat. Cadmus had broken a crossbow with a heavy fist and Garren had another guard by the collar with one hand, holding him clear off the icy ground. The luminarch was screaming curses, completely oblivious to the fact that the targets of his abuses were the royal family. Kestrel barely blinked. He rested a hand gently on Garren’s shoulder and whispered something. Garren let the guard drop unceremoniously and stepped back a few feet. Cadmus joined him, never taking his eyes off the luminarch’s guards, hands closed the way a wolf bares its fangs.
“You dare assault my guards!?” the luminarch was quivering with what could have easily been either rage or fear.
“Yer guards pulled weapons in the presence of my brother,” Cadmus said, his voice low and dangerous. “Ya should be lucky ya still have guards, let alone that we barely touched ‘em.”
“Need I remind you that I am a servant of the Lady of Light and Her Luminarchy, not to the Sinclairs! These men were only doing their duty to protect me and had this monster,” he shot a finger at Kestrel with such force it might have been leaping from a bowstring, “not come along, none of this would have happened!”
Garren tensed like he was about to leap forward again, but Kestrel stepped in front of him. He turned to the luminarch, smiled and bowed deeply. “Quite right, luminarch. The error is mine. I apologize for the commotion.” His voice contained no sarcasm, only tranquility tinged with regret. He turned to Gabriel. “Seventh Prince Gabriel. It is a pleasure to finally meet you in person. I have heard many great things. Would you be so kind as to bury that hawk when you return to softer ground? His name was Argyle and he was meant to be yours. I shall bury his brother myself. He was called Cylla and was meant for Sixth Prince Donovan, but I am told he has a gentle heart and I do not wish to burden him with such tragedy.” His voice was even and polite, using all the proper honorifics and nothing to suggest guilt on anyone’s part but his own. A man of infinite patience and peace.
The luminarch passed deliberately close to Cadmus as he departed. “Your family’s time is coming to an end, Sinclair. An Inquisition has been a long time coming and when it is conducted I assure you that the faithless will be purged.”
Cadmus gave the luminarch an icy smile and removed his left glove, showing the Radiant Blades tattooed on the back of his hand. “It’s a good thing I take my faith more seriously than you do, then, mate.”
“I will burn the world around you and leave you to bathe in your family’s blood before I see you killed,” the luminarch hissed.
Cadmus’ expression stayed frozen in cold amusement as he gave the luminarch a firm push off the ledge. Gabriel didn’t hear the luminarch scream as he fell because his vision faded into another vision, this one of the luminarch being skewered on a jagged rock and his life’s blood being spit up. The corpse shuddered like the hawk in Gabriel’s hands had.