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The Shadow Conflict: Prologue

Prologue

Plains outside Ayseli, capital of Caeher…

So, it has finally come to this.

Lailie, Lady of Light, stood on a broad field of green, her council- men and women born of the elements and commonly referred to as elemental tamers- at her side. The sky overhead was brightest blue, the wind warm- both stark contrast to the purpose for the gathering. Guards in dirtied, battle-worn armor formed a line across the field, their faces hard, weapons gripped in clenched fists. Two emerged from the center, dragging a man between them. Despite his disheveled and bloodied appearance, the prisoner still possessed the arrogance- and frank sensuality- he was renowned for. He shrugged off the guards and approached Lailie, head held high, the beginnings of a smile tugging the corners of his lips. It was a disarming smile, one made all the more attractive thanks to his well-shaped lips. And once, not so very long ago, it had been a smile that was nearly Lailie’s undoing.

The captain stepped away from the ring of knights, his weathered face like thunder. “You will kneel before Lady Lailie, traitor!”

“I will not,” the prisoner declared, never once breaking eye contact with Lailie. “I do not recognize her authority, for she has refused to recognize mine.”

Beside her, red-haired Fire tamer Aideen drew in a sharp breath. “How dare he,” she hissed. “Lailie, I beg you: let me teach that smug bastard some respect!”

“Peace, Aideen,” whispered gentle Meriel, the Water tamer. She watched him with infinite sadness in her green eyes.

Ah, Meriel, Lailie thought with a sigh, how could you have fought against him and still find it in your heart for pity? He is not worthy of it, from any of us.

Two knights forced the prisoner to his knees, the shackles around his wrists jangling loudly in the deafening silence. Earth tamer Blair, still wearing his filthy, green and gold armor, stepped forward. Wind whipped at hair the same color as ripened wheat, all but filthy now in the aftermath of battle. “Shadow tamer Jett,” he began, his voice laced with contempt. “You have been brought before the Council of Elements to answer for crimes committed against the people of Caeher. Have you anything to say for yourself?”

“Indeed I do, Blair,” he replied, his smile insolent, easy, unwavering. Lailie was suddenly reminded that the two had been close as children. Blair’s narrowed eyes revealed the friendship was not forgotten. “Your mother fell on her knees, begging I spare her. She even suggested joining my cause. I regret I did not take her up on her offer, but she was far more useful to me dead.” As the audience gasped at this Jett addressed Aideen. “Your father, Aideen? He died blubbering like a coward.”

Murmurs of outrage and dismay swept through the crowd. Meriel choked back a sob, turned her face to tall, white-haired Wind tamer Makan’s shoulder. He looped an arm around her and held her close, his eyes narrowing behind his spectacles.

Lailie regarded Jett with renewed disgust. All had known he killed the former tamers of Earth and Fire; to hear those acts described with such nonchalance was an insult to their memory.

Did we truly know you at all, Jett? At what you were capable of?

Did I truly know you?

“Blair, no!” Makan suddenly shouted, a hand latching onto the Earth tamer’s shoulder. “Do not give in to his goading! Nor you, Aideen,” he rasped when she stepped forward, dagger in one hand, an aura of fire coming to life around her. Though Lailie felt their anger was justified, she could not let them demean themselves in this way and sent each a warning glance. After a moment Aideen muttered a curse. The fire aura vanished in the blink of an eye. Blair, his face still red with anger, relented as well. He gripped Makan’s hand in silent thanks, stepped back and gestured to the guards.

The knights parted to make way for a procession of chained individuals, those commanding officers and kin captured at the same time as Jett. As they were marched into the open and lined up a woman spotted him and wailed his name. Jett did not react to the piteous cry.

His total indifference to his own people was the final straw. Lailie stepped forward, her cloak billowing out behind her as she lifted her hand. The words came easily, spurned on by years of watching the world suffer on behalf of one man’s mad ambitions. “For introducing war and strife to Caeher, and the murder of former Earth tamer Adamina and Fire tamer Aiden, we hereby sentence you to death. May the elements have mercy on you, for we shall not.” She nodded to her captain.

He approached Jett just as one of the other knights forced him to his hands and knees. Another took a knife to his long, black hair, shearing it clean off. These strands littered the ground like small pools of darkness. The captain’s sword flashed silver as he yanked it from the sheath. Jett’s kin and followers protested loudly when the blade rested upon their lord’s exposed neck. Some even wept.

Jett looked directly at Lailie, ferocity gleaming in his eyes, his smile deranged. “Hear me well, followers of Light- you may end my life but this is not the end for me, or my cause. Shadow will prevail!”

Lailie was as chill as a winter morning as she answered: “Then so shall Shadow become Caeher’s enemy.”

The captain’s sword cut a graceful arc in the air. Jett was still smiling as his head came away from his neck. It struck the ground with a slight thud, rolling onto its side and enabling Lailie to witness his leering grin, frozen in death. Blood stained the ground bright red. His followers surged forward, wailing and shouting, but were quickly brought to heel by the men.

As they were led away Lailie glanced at her council. Meriel pressed close to Makan, sobbing against his shirt. Aideen glared hatefully at Jett’s corpse; within seconds it ignited. Blair strode to where Jett’s head lay, seized it by the hair and plunged his sword into the ground. The head, he set on the hilt, making certain it faced Jett’s followers, who now wailed in renewed distress.

Lailie spent some moments watching Aideen’s flames consume Jett’s body, a blackened shadow residing in the heart of the fire. Smoke billowed high into the air, drawn there by Makan’s wind. Lailie’s gaze traced the smoke’s movement, seeing in it every good memory she had of Jett dissipate. Their departure left her mind and heart clear, hardened, for what was to come.

When Jett was nothing more than ashes, and the assembled knights began making their way back to Ayseli, Makan turned to Lailie. There was profound weariness in his eyes, as well as relief. “What shall we do now?”

It was a question Lailie had been expecting. Her gaze drifted to the darkened spot on the ground where Jett once knelt. “We ensure this never happens again.”

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