Aiden, you need to wake up! We need to leave!” Staring down at the precious bundle beside her, Evalina Verdani watched with dismay as the young boy yanked his blankets up over his head.
“But it’s still dark out,” he whimpered.
“I know, honey,” Evalina replied with as much patience as she could muster, “but something’s happening in the city, so we need to leave now.”
Grumbling and turning, Aiden twisted the covers more tightly around himself, intent on delaying the inevitable for as long as possible.
“Aiden? Aiden!” Evalina tried once more. “Aiden, I’m serious!”
“No! It’s too cold!” he shouted, convinced that he might somehow get his way.
Then, sure enough, Evalina did rise up from his bed, giving the drowsy eight-year-old one brief moment of victory before he heard her mutter, “We really don’t have time for this.” An instant later, Evalina tore every blanket from the bed in one fell swoop and flung them clear across the room.
“Get your ass out of bed right now!” she demanded, causing Aiden to scramble to his feet. “It’s not safe here anymore!” Then she grabbed the case she had stuffed full with his most cherished possessions and dropped it with a thud beside the door.
“Wait! Where are my clothes?” Aiden whined, his arms wrapped tightly around himself as his teeth chattered. The words had barely left his mouth before a shirt and a pair of pants flew at him in the darkness from across the room. His mother simply had no more patience for delays.
In the hallway, Evalina tossed a number of cloth bags at her eldest son, Rennie, who had only just turned ten. Though his wild black hair and bright silver eyes made him look vaguely like a taller version of Aiden, his golden-olive complexion was far closer to that of both his mother and his older sister, Levara.
“Take these down to the carriage, and make sure the horses are ready,” Evalina ordered. “Aiden will be right down.” But before Rennie could even manage a response, a distant BOOM! caused the entire house to tremble.
“That didn’t sound like thunder,” Rennie mumbled as the two glanced outside and struggled to see past the torrential rain.
“That’s because it wasn’t,” Evalina replied before hurrying Rennie along.
“What about me?” Levara asked, her arms overloaded with stuffed bags and loose clothes.
“What part of ‘pack lightly’ didn’t you understand?” Evalina demanded.
“Do you have any idea how much money we spent on all of this?”
“Of course I do, Levara! I’m the one who spent it!” Storming past her daughter, Evalina glanced back only for an instant to add, “I already told you we don’t have enough room in the carriage for everything, so figure out what you actually do need, and leave everything else behind.”
“Are you serious?” Levara shouted as she slammed her baggage onto the floor while watching her mother descend their spiral stairs. “Why do you hate me?”
“Levara, please! We really don’t have time for this! Now, go get Torian, and grab the case I packed for him by the door. And make sure you carry him down so he doesn’t wake up!”
“Wait, what?” Levara screeched as she bent over the second-floor banister.
“Why do you always make me carry the heavy one?”
“Because apparently I hate you, Levara. Now hurry up!” Only then did Evalina finally turn her attention toward the withered Ildarwood tree growing up through the center of the house. Surveying it one last time, Evalina lamented how frail it had become. It had once been the most beautiful feature of their estate, but its smooth gray trunk had grown brittle and dull. The tiny crystalline flecks in its bark had lost all their luster. Its long, slender branches had turned to hardened ash, and even the silver glass-like leaves no longer shimmered in the light. Most disheartening of all, however, was how the small glowing bumps along its limbs and trunk barely even flickered in her presence.
“The horses are ready,” Rennie announced as he stepped inside, “and I’ve moved all that stuff you packed into the carriage.” Yet even as he spoke, Evalina’s gaze remained fixed upon the tree.
Staring at the unusual scene, Rennie suddenly realized how much his mother’s appearance had also diminished in the preceding weeks. Her once-radiant skin had grown blemished and pale; her warm, loving smile had been replaced by a fretful scowl; and for the very first time, her hair revealed all the countless streaks of gray she had always fought so hard to keep hidden from the world.
In that moment, an unnatural silence fell upon the house as Evalina placed her hand upon the tree’s crumbling trunk. For just a few brief seconds, there was no complaining upstairs, and the racket of rain against the windows somehow seemed to subside. Even the rumbling booms in the distance slowly gave way to peace and tranquility.
Evalina ran her fingers along the branches of her beloved Ildarwood tree one last time but then recoiled with regret as one of them crumbled into dust before her eyes. So meticulously had she cared for the tree over the years that it very nearly killed her to see it in such a state. Still, she refused to surrender more than a single tear of Silver to mourn its demise. Within seconds, the tear streamed down her cheek, then evaporated into a shimmering spectral mist before it could even hit the floor.
Taking a deep breath, Evalina then cast her gaze upward, toward the burning gray sphere that floated high above. The domed Asterport on the roof housed the manor’s protective Ildarstar, which on any other night could be seen like a beacon from miles away. By that night, however, it had decayed to the point where only a tiny shimmering portion of it remained. No longer did it shine down proudly upon their Ildarwood tree, for its time protecting the Verdani family and their home was very nearly at an end.
“Will you please just hurry up already?” Levara’s shrill voice exclaimed, piercing the peaceful silence and echoing throughout the manor’s empty halls. Only then did the violent clatter of rain against their windows finally resume.
From the darkness upstairs, Aiden emerged with a green knitted blanket wrapped tightly around him. Struggling to carry as many of his toys as he could fit into an oversized satchel, he said “You forgot a lot of stuff!” as he sauntered down the stairs.
Rolling her eyes, Evalina shouted, “We’re almost out of time, Levara! What’s taking so long?”
“I’m tryin’ to get him dressed!” Levara snapped back.
“I told you not to wake him!” Evalina reminded her, but if there was one thing she had learned about her daughter, it was that her disobedience knew no bounds. Turning to face her eldest son instead, Evalina implored, “Can you please go out to the carriage with Aiden and keep him safe till I come out?”
“Why can’t we just wait in here with you?” Rennie questioned, increasingly frightened by the thunderous noises in the distance.
“Rennie, please, I really just need you to go outside and make sure we’re ready to leave, okay? I’ll be out in a few minutes, I promise!” Placing her hand upon his cheek to try to reassure him, even she became startled when a massive BOOM! in the distance shook the house far more violently than any time before.
“They’re gettin’ closer, aren’t they?” Rennie asked before turning to face his mother – only this time, the eyes that met his gaze were not the warm silver ones he had spent his life staring into. Somehow, in an instant, they had been replaced by a vibrant emerald hue that glowed in the shadow of the tree’s bare branches.
“Get out to the carriage, and lock yourselves inside,” Evalina ordered before Rennie could say another word. “Now!” she demanded. Then, with a single motion, she drew a long, slender sword made of Ildarglass from beneath her cloak and held it at the ready. “Levara!” she shouted again, her eyes fixed upon the front door and the limitless darkness beyond.
“I’m comin’!” Levara wailed as she hurried down the stairs, several large bundles in her arms, and several more strapped across her back.
“One of those had better be your brother.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Want me to carry you too while I’m at it?”
Wincing, Evalina knew then was not the time to put Levara in her place. Instead, she simply turned her attention back toward the Ildarwood tree, her sword gripped firmly in one hand.
“Are you comin’ or what?” Levara asked, her tone split between bitter irritation and genuine concern.
“I just need another minute,” Evalina insisted. “I’ll be right out.”
After rolling her eyes and bracing herself for the deluge outside, Levara raced out into the night and did not stop until she finally reached the carriage.
“What took you so long?” Rennie asked from within.
Unloading one bundle at a time, Levara replied, “I would have been a whole lot faster if she hadn’t made me grab him too!” Then she lifted Torian’s half-asleep frame up into the carriage and said, “I don’t remember Mom ever treatin’ any of us like a baby when we were seven.”
“True, but then again, she actually likes him, so—”
“Whoa, is that why we need to leave?” Aiden asked, his face pressed against the window on the other side. Above the forest to the north, the skies had taken on a violent golden hue – one that only grew brighter by the minute. Distracted by the dazzling display, the four Verdani children almost did not notice the blinding flash of light that erupted from the Asterport atop their home. Were it not for the complete lack of thunder in its wake, the Verdani children might have mistaken it for lightning. Yet as soon as they realized that the tiny shimmering Ildarstar they had cherished all their lives was gone, they came to understand how truly dire the situation had become.
They could mourn its disappearance for only an instant, however, for the Verdani children were swiftly overtaken by an invisible force that burst forth from within the house, causing the carriage to lurch to one side and drawing whinnies from the mighty beasts tethered to the front.
“What was that?” the children asked all at once, though none of them had an answer.
Only then did Evalina finally emerge from the manor and abruptly close the front door. Sliding her fingers across an Ildarglass panel directly above the knob, she sealed the manor shut, then raced through the rain to the carriage.
“Hey, what just happened in there?” Rennie asked as soon as she arrived, taking each of her bags from her and setting them off to one side.
“If anyone makes it out this far, they need to think the house has been abandoned,” Evalina explained. “Hopefully, they won’t try to break in if it looks like we’ve fled.”
Then she stepped away from the door and hurried to the front of the carriage, where she was met with alarmed snorts from both of the family’s Ildarhorses. Composed entirely of entangled Ildarwood branches and coiled vines, they clopped about uneasily before their mistress, both seemingly aware of the danger fast approaching. It took only the gentlest of touches on the nearest creature’s neck for Evalina to calm them, and she needed only to think of her destination to communicate her intentions. After that, both Ildarhorses whinnied and clopped along the carriageway’s puddle-soaked stones, and Evalina knew for certain that they had understood their orders. “Please, just get us there in one piece,” she added before returning to the carriage and climbing inside. Then, just as soon as Evalina had slammed the door shut, they were off.
Before they disappeared into the thick forest surrounding Silvermarsh City, Evalina had only a few precious moments to look back at the place she had called home for ten years. With deep remorse washing over her, she watched, heartbroken and helpless, as its once-ornate facade began fading and crumbling with nobody left to give it life. In that moment, Evalina shed one final tear before wiping it away and convincing herself that she would not shed another until they finally reached safety.
The ride was not at all comfortable for the Verdani family that night. Their gentle speed did little to cushion the bumps and shakes caused by drenched woodland roads that had long ago fallen into severe disrepair, and every pothole they hit caused both passengers and luggage to leap into the air and collide.
Along the roads they traveled, the only light they could find came from the beaming white eyes of their trudging steeds, making it all the more challenging for Evalina to keep an eye out for any signs of danger. For what seemed like an eternity, she scanned the woods and roads they passed, desperate to know if they were being followed. Feeling some small semblance of hope as they reached the halfway point to Ranewood, Evalina wondered if perhaps they would escape without incident. Then the very last of her hope vanished in an instant upon catching sight of the one distinct shape hidden in the darkness that she feared above all others.
Staring at a single spot in the woods behind them as her stomach tightened and her limbs went numb, Evalina prayed that she had somehow been mistaken. Yet she knew that her prayers were all in vain when a pair of blinding white lights burst out from the shadows of the forest and settled upon her carriage.
“What’s wrong?” Levara asked, still holding her youngest brother tightly in her arms.
But Evalina did not respond to her daughter. Instead, she merely placed her bare hand against the Ildarwood frame of the carriage and whispered, “Run!” An instant later, the family’s Ildarhorses accelerated from a fast-paced walk to a full and breakneck gallop, and so the race was on.
“We just need to make it to the bridge,” Evalina whispered to herself. That was her only focus – nothing else.
All the while, Levara, Rennie, and Aiden stared out through the back window and watched as the lights drew nearer and nearer.
“Can’t you stop him?” Levara asked her mother.
“Only if he gets closer,” Evalina replied, “but if we’re close enough to stop him, he’s close enough to stop us.” Peering through the downpour up ahead, she managed to spot the most distant possible point of light at the end of the road. “We’re almost there!” she shouted, but seconds later, a radiant sapphire glow illuminated the forest as the vines on the Ildarhorse behind them began pulsating wildly with alarm.
Desperate to shield his eyes, Rennie shouted, “Wait! It’s just an Asterguard! Doesn’t that mean it’s safe to slow down?”
“Not tonight, it doesn’t. It means we need to go faster,” Evalina insisted, though not to anyone in the carriage. That was all the instruction their Ildarhorses needed to pick up their speed once more, sending all five passengers – and their luggage – bouncing into the air with every pothole they struck.
“Why aren’t we stopping?” Aiden implored.
“We can’t stop,” Evalina insisted. “We have to get to Ranewood.”
“Why?” her children demanded all at once.
“Not now! We just can’t let him catch us.”
With each passing second, the Ildarhorse rider inched closer, but still the family’s carriage raced toward the safety of the Old Ildarwood Bridge up ahead. “Faster,” Evalina whispered. “Faster, faster, faster!”
“I don’t think they can go any faster!” Levara shouted, struggling to protect Torian.
“I don’t understand,” said Rennie. “Shouldn’t he have caught up to us by now?”
“He doesn’t have to,” Evalina answered as she stared out through the front window. Up ahead, another rider in Ildarglass armor sat high atop an Ildarhorse in the rain, and the instant Evalina spotted him, his Ildarhorse lit up too.
Desperate to think of some solution as her stomach twisted itself into knots, Evalina hastily considered her options. She knew they could not go back, and the road ahead was clearly blocked, so only one course of action remained.
Without another moment’s hesitation, Evalina rose to her feet and pulled a sturdy wooden suitcase to the center of the carriage. Standing upon it, she poked her head out through the hatch on the roof and peered out at the riders in both directions. Though the Asterguard behind continued to follow at a distance, the one up ahead was only getting closer.
Convinced that she had no other choice, Evalina reached into a small pouch on her belt and withdrew a handful of gems with a glowing green substance swirling within. They were her last ones, she lamented, but they were her only chance at escape. So with every last ounce of power she could muster, Evalina launched the stones with unnatural speed toward the Asterguard up ahead, and with a blinding flash of emerald light, they exploded in the darkness and sent a deafening CRACK! echoing throughout the woods.
“What’d you just do?” Rennie demanded as the carriage barreled past the injured rider and careened onto the Old Ildarwood Bridge.
“I promise I’ll explain everything as soon as we stop,” Evalina insisted as she fell back into her seat, water dripping from her hair and cloak.
The family’s Ildarhorses slowed to a more reasonable pace once they were safely inside the forests of Ranewood, though Evalina remained surprised that no Asterguards had been assigned to protect the border. They must all be in the city, trying to restore order, she thought, though that only made her more suspicious of the two she had just evaded. Finally we are safe.
Without even an instant’s warning, the carriage tumbled violently off the road before finally coming to rest on the precipitous edge of the North Ranewood River. Along the carriage’s path, debris, luggage, and passengers had all been strewn about, including Evalina and her two eldest children.
Several long, agonizing moments passed before Levara began to muster at last. She stared at the splintered remains of their carriage, then followed the burning remnants with her eyes in search of her family. Not far from her was Rennie, who clutched a broken arm and wailed with pain each time he touched it. Then, beyond him was Evalina, who had landed in a patch of wild shrubs.
A deep sense of dread filled Evalina’s heart as she too rose to her feet, desperate to focus her vision. In one direction, she saw their burning carriage perched precariously above the river. In the other, she saw Rennie doubled over in pain. But then she spotted Levara, who struggled to stand while Goldenfire flames burned with impunity in the rain and turned pieces of their carriage into ash.
Goldenfire? Evalina wondered before realizing what had happened. There was no other possible explanation. Her family had been attacked.
It was in that moment that a figure fell from the sky and landed on the road behind Levara. Dressed in glistening Ildarglass armor as dark as pure hatred, he approached his first target with a slow and measured gait. With eyes like rounded rubies set aflame in a bottomless well of shadows, he bore two massive Ildarglass wings and wore a helmet of sinister design, giving him the stark appearance of some birdlike agent of death.
Seeing this monstrous visage, Evalina struggled to scream to her daughter, but the words could not escape her mouth. With the wind so forcefully knocked out of her, she felt as though she had fallen into some deep and terrifying nightmare where she could not manage to call for help. All she could do was watch in horror as the figure pulled an Ildarglass sword from its sheath and pointed it directly at Levara.
For a moment, Evalina felt as though her heart had stopped. In front of her, her daughter stood in dire peril. Behind her, her youngest boys were trapped inside the burning remnants of their carriage. She had no time to think. She had no time to act.
In that instant, her eyes met her daughter’s, leaving Levara to wonder why her mother looked so pained. Then Levara saw her mother turn away, and she experienced a pain so wrenching that her screams could have awakened the dead.
Desperate to block out the noise, Evalina clenched her eyes shut, though even that was not enough to stop the screams from tearing through her soul with just as much intensity as the Ildarglass sword piercing deep into the soul of her daughter. Seconds later, a powerful yet invisible shock wave knocked Evalina to the ground, and a sudden heartbreaking silence fell upon the woods.
With no time to grieve, Evalina struggled to her feet once again before stumbling over to the remains of her family’s carriage. Desperate to search for her youngest sons, she was forced to recoil as Goldenfire flames seemed to sense her presence and surged in her direction. So many years had passed since her Trials that she had very nearly forgotten how to respond to such a threat. Then some vague recollection gave way to an instinctual response, and before Evalina even realized what she was doing, she found herself reaching toward the carriage with both hands and summoning the Goldenfire flames into her palms. Screaming from the torment, she forced herself to fight through the pain. She needed to. And with every second that passed, her emerald eyes grew brighter, until finally the flames upon the carriage were gone.
Falling to her knees, Evalina had only a moment to recover before tearing the broken hatch from the carriage roof and glimpsing inside with a fearful panic. There, she mercifully found her youngest boys both alive and with souls intact, though both were crying and covered in blood. They crawled out and latched onto their mother with a grip just as intense as her own desperation to hold on to them. With tears streaming down her face, Evalina knew she needed to be strong. She had no other choice. Yet even as she prayed for someone to save them, she knew she could not count on prayers anymore. All she could do was defend the children she had left, even if it would cost her life, or worse.
“Run! Now!” she ordered, her eyes darting back and forth between Torian and Aiden. “Go into the woods, and don’t come out unless you see an Asterguard, or until I tell you it’s safe, okay? Do you hear me? The Asterguards in Ranewood are good. You can trust them. Okay?”
As she spoke, Aiden cried, still frightened beyond words, while beside him, little Torian’s trembling face was stained with dust and blood and tears. Still, both of them nodded obediently before running into the safety of the forest. Only Torian stopped to stare back at her in the hope that she might come with them. Never before had Evalina seen his face so overcome with grief, and it broke her heart to think that she might never see him again.
“Go! Now!” she shouted before drawing her Ildarglass sword and turning to face her attacker.
Mustering the very last vestiges of strength she had left inside her, Evalina closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The time to face her enemy had come. Opening her eyes again, her emerald glare shot directly at the man in Ildarglass armor.
Only a few steps had he taken since plunging his sword into Levara’s soul, and now that he finally had Evalina’s full attention, he took the opportunity to wipe away the shimmering silver substance that glowed upon his blade. He relished every last drop of the power that it gave him.
“Get away from her!” Evalina demanded, but in response, the figure began to walk toward her eldest son next. “Don’t you dare!” she shouted before drawing a second sword from beneath her cloak. Unlike the first, however, this one was made of polished steel, and so threatening was its appearance that the man in the Ildarglass armor paused at first sight of it. He had already destroyed a soul that night, but perhaps even he would not be willing to take a life – or so Evalina dared to hope. Then she gasped with heartache as she watched the figure pull a long steel dagger from his belt and resume his menacing march.
“Leave him alone!” Evalina shouted, moving closer as her hands began to tremble.
In response, the man merely lifted his dagger into the air to ensure that Evalina could see it clearly before he knelt beside her injured son.
She had run out of time. She had run out of options. And so, without another moment’s hesitation, Evalina rushed toward the man, screaming, “I said leave him alone!” She felt no pain in that moment, and no sense of fear held her back. All that remained in her heart and in her soul was an unwavering determination to protect what was left of her family – or at the very least, die trying.
Much to her dismay, the man in the Ildarglass armor seemed to welcome the challenge as he readied his weapons for a fight. Colliding with such intense fury that thunder rang out into the night, Evalina and the armored figure swung their blades at each other without the slightest remnants of mercy. Back and forth, they matched each other’s attacks. First she had the advantage, then he – steel on steel, Ildarglass on Ildarglass – with each strike echoing out with its own distinct and terrifying sound.
Yet only when a rumbling in the distance caught their attention did the two finally stop and stare each other down.
“You see that?” Evalina called out as frigid flashes of sapphire light lit up the skies. “They’re coming for you! They know you’re here, and they know what you did! You just better hope they get to you before I do, you sick son of a—”
But the man in Ildarglass armor had no interest in her threats. While Evalina was distracted, he channeled all his hatred toward her into the palm of his right hand. He needed only an instant after that to unleash a volley of obsidian shards in Evalina’s direction. In response, Evalina dropped her swords and forced all the spectral energy she had absorbed minutes earlier to surge outward from her palms and form a barrier. With every last ounce of concentration she could muster focused on protecting herself, she cried out as each shard of pure hatred collided with the shimmering emerald shield. With each successive strike, blinding flashes lit up the night until at last darkness reigned again.
Only one shard needed to slip past the barrier to hit its mark, and when it did, Evalina fell backward onto the ground beside her son. That was all the man in Ildarglass armor needed to see. Then, in the blink of an eye, he vanished into the skies, leaving chaos and suffering in his wake.
All the while, Aiden and Torian watched from the shadows, their faces lit only by the flicker of a few lingering golden flames until at last flashes of sapphire reclaimed the night. Never before had the two boys felt quite so powerless.
If you enjoyed this Prologue, the full version of
The Trials of Ildarwood: Spectres of the Fall
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Map of Ranewood | Appendix of Lore
Chapter illustration by David Perez. Color illustration by @izizallart.