The Five

The Five has been one of those stories that has been kicking around in my head for a long time. I started working on it in earnest in 2005. I finished it, and the sequel Prisoners of Sorcery in 2007, but I knew there was more coming. There's always more coming. I enjoy writing the characters and the world they live in. I also enjoy the idea of the Five, a small but dedicated group that have to work together and come under a lot of fire from all sides.

The first chapter, posted in full below, starts with Zern waking from a terrible nightmare with sinister implications. That feeling, that moment when you wake up in a cold sweat, seemed to be the best spot to start. The initial attack has already happened. Her world has already been shaken to the core. Now she starts the quest to get past it, to protect her people. To survive. But the heroes she needs don't come ready made. They have the will, and the ability to fight Aria's technology... but they don't have the honed skills of the Five. Yet.

The quote above is asked during the course of the Five, and it wasn't until I was preparing to publish the book (available here: The Five at Amazon!) that it occured to me how much I like that particular line, given that it comes from someone born in a world without magic who has been thrust into a world that, to him, is positively filled with it. This is a story about many things -- romance, hate, revenge, fighting and fleeing, futuristic technology, castles, war -- but to Aiden Nash and his friends, it's a chance to be heroes and actually have the power of magic.

Chapter 1

A skeletal hand held Zern under water, its fingers gripping her hair and holding her head twisted to the side. In the darkness she could barely make out its form: male, his flesh rotting away and hanging from his bones. Zern needed air, needed to get her head above water; her chest felt tight with pain. Reaching up, she tore at his arm, trying to pull free of his grasp, desperate to get away, to get up. The form holding her lowered his head into the water and sneered at her. The skin on the left side of his face had completely rotted away.

Gasping, Zern sat up. Her chest felt tight as she took deep breaths. Her red hair clung to her face, and her sweat-soaked shirt stuck to her chest and stomach. Gripping the broken sword that served as her only weapon, Zern glanced at the forest surrounding her. The nightmare made her realize how alone and defenseless she was now. In her sleep- and food-deprived state Zern felt unsure of her ability to use magic. The sword, broken midway down the blade, and her training, represented the only power she could rely on. Deep in the forest in the dead of night, stuck with the haunting memories of her nightmare, that power wasn't enough to comfort her.

Something in the back of her mind reminded her that it was her own fault. But when her father and brother died, and the city of Nalin came under attack, Zern simply reacted. Magic held no power over their attackers, neither did steel. So she ran out of the city, across the farms, and through the woods until she collapsed. The day after that she trudged on, unable to bear the thought of what she'd seen, of what had happened, and too tired to force herself to move faster. An owl hooted in the distance, bringing her thoughts back to the present.

She grabbed her father's maroon cape -- all she had left of him -- wiped her forehead with the back of her right hand, then glanced up at the moons above. While she slept, the brown-red moon Vevay reached the horizon, leaving only Delianna's white light. Dawn approached, and Zern had slept for only a few hours before the nightmare had awoken her. She sighed and dragged herself on, holding the sword tightly in her small, pale hands. Zern guessed that she walked east, based on the position of the stars and remaining moon.

Painfully aware that she couldn't bring back her father or Nathan, her older brother, she knew that she could, however, bring their murderer to justice. Zern gritted her teeth. Ciel Aria stayed silent for generations, living apart from their world, and had chosen the naming of the next Five of Nalin as her time to strike. Zern's face twisted up in a snarl somewhere between rage and sobbing. Her brother was ascending to the position Champion of the Five, a position her father previously held, until...

Somehow, Aria would pay.

When she reached a creek, Zern stopped walking. She looked at it briefly before glancing up at the trees. The place was familiar, but Zern couldn't place it. A low oak branch reaching over the water reminded her: She and her cousin Erin swam here when she was younger. A bead of sweat rolled down the side of her face. Zern knelt and touched the water; it was cool but not cold, not like it would be in a few months when winter came. Tossing the broken sword down in the sand, she kicked her boots off and tugged the legs of her pants up. Before walking into the stream, Zern grabbed her boots and sword then waded to the other side. Birds chirped in the trees as the sun rose over the horizon, the gold light drowning out Delianna.

Stopping midway across, Zern slipped her right hand down into the water and waved it in a circle, her fingers causing ripples in the slow moving stream. She closed her eyes and thought about the feel of cold, wet sand between her toes. Her father had taught her how to swim in this stream, taught her how to fish; this was where she had fed squirrels and birds, and secretly listened to her brother and his friends talk about girls. Zern opened her eyes. This was near the country manor house that had been in her father's family since the last civil war.

A feeling of resolve washed over Zern when she realized that today was a new day, a chance to start over. Another day to go after Ciel Aria, to get the justice she ached for. She decided to go to the manor house. Her father had books there, books about other worlds, and other cultures. Somewhere, someone would have the power to fight Aria where magic and steel failed.

Aria commanded machines and technology beyond Zern's understanding, beyond anything she'd ever seen. With such power, she wouldn't have attacked suddenly if she didn't want something they had that Aria did not. Zern sat on a large rock and pulled her boots on. What could Aria be after?

A large turtle sunning itself on a rock in the middle of the stream plopped into the water. Zern jumped, reaching for her sword. She turned and watched the turtle move through the water and snap up a small fish in a single bite, then surface and pull its bulky frame back onto the rock. When she stood, the turtle looked at her, pulling its head and front legs back into its shell a bit.

"I hope you're all I encounter," Zern said.

There were many things in these woods that posed a danger to her; wolves and bears, but she could defend herself from them with her magic even in her weakened state. It didn't take much magic to scare off most creatures. The real threat were the Resa. Ancient creatures, immune to most magic, that roamed these areas from late summer to early spring. Zern tightened her grip on the broken sword. Only once in her life had she glimpsed one, shortly after her father and his friend Duncan took it down. It resembled a large, hairless bear with a larger snout and long, thick tail. Bringing it down represented a day-long struggle for both men, using long spears with wicked barbs, hooks on thick ropes, and the favor of the gods.

The turtle slid back into the water and swam in the opposite direction of Zern. She watched it for a second, surprised by the graceful way it moved in the water, and wished she had spent more time with her father in these woods. He and Nathan loved it out here, fishing often, sometimes hunting deer with their bows, or going for long walks. She'd spent more time indoors, away from the humidity and bugs, and now regretted the lost time with her family.

She also regretted the lost chance to learn how to find her way out of the forest. When given a choice, Zern preferred a fireplace to fireflies. She began walking again, avoiding heavy underbrush and any poison ivy she could see. It was the one vine Zern recognized, all because of an incident when she was eight. Having her pale skin covered in red, itchy bumps for a week marked the end of her days of adventuring in the deep forest.

The sand- and grass-covered bank gave way to a pathway of old lichen-covered stones. The stones rose up, forming a staircase, and stopped at the remnants of an ancient wall. In the stream, the stones were covered with green algae and formed a man-made waterfall. An old tower rose up on the other side of the stream, with an oak growing out of the middle of it; many of the stones had been taken or knocked off, and the remaining stones were barely over a dozen feet high.

The sound of a young boy laughing echoed in Zern's mind. She remembered the oak tree, and her brother standing on one of the limbs that stretch over the stream, then leaping off into the dark water. She had asked her father why the water looked dark brown in some places. She could even hear his voice in her mind: "The leaves gather on the bottom and decay, covering the bottom, and algae grows on them..."

Memories rushed through her mind, and she knew the house was not far. Zern stepped onto the stairs and walked around an old stump. There was a gap in the trees, wide enough for two people to walk along.

On Nathan's last birthday, his twenty-second, her father had taken him on a three-day fishing and hunting trip in this very forest. Zern knew that there were trails through these woods that they and other hunters and fishermen would have used, beaten paths that were wide enough for two men to walk abreast. In some places wagon wheels had marred the earth to the extent that the trails were marked by two parallel lines of white, sandy dirt.

But here, the underbrush encroached on the trail at the sides, and the grass reached out to the edges, obscuring the trail and providing shelter for various nasties. She flicked the back of her free hand across her pants, sending a tick falling to the ground. A large anthill rose up in the grass, and Zern paused. It stood nearly a foot high and twice that at the base, with bright orange ants dancing around the outside, carrying bits of a dead dragonfly. Muttering under her breath, Zern carefully sidestepped the anthill. She knew if she disturbed it, hundreds of ants would emerge, angrily defending their home. It was a sentiment she understood.

A fallen pine blocked her way a dozen paces after the anthill, but she saw the trail on the other side. Two white lines of dirt stopped at the pine, a thick line of grass growing between them. She knelt and crawled under the tree and began to walk one line of white dirt. As the worn pair twisted south, Zern started running. Her father's library would help her; she could read his books and find the answers. Form a new Five. His books... the Five... Zern stopped in her tracks.

In one horrifying moment Zern realized what Aria wanted. In her mind, Zern could hear her father and his friend Duncan discussing the Book. It contained knowledge about god-like powers, and magic that allowed such power that one could access other worlds with but a thought. Named the Book of Ambrose, after a fallen angel, it had been in the possession of the church for centuries before disappearing during the civil wars decades before. That had to be Aria's goal; Zern saw her take apart the best trained fighters in the kingdom with weapons smaller than swords that brought down towers. What else would Aria want? What else could they have?

Her father would have known where the book was. As the Champion of the Five he would have made it his business to know. She knew what she must do. With the book, she would find a new Five, from another world, who could destroy Ciel Aria. Men with technology more advanced, more powerful. Weapons that would bring down Aria's towers, wherever they might be. Yes, Aria would pay, and Zern would settle her debt. For the first time in two days Zern smiled. The idea spurred her on, and she ran faster through the trail.

The trees thinned out, eventually giving way to a massive field, as the trail continued to twist southward like a gnarled hand. At the very horizon of Zern's vision she could see the road that led from Nalin to the manor house. Two parallel lines of oak trees formed a shaded path leading up the hill to the house. The house where her father taught her to read, where he kept his library, the one she avoided after the poison ivy, hopefully contained the Book she sought.

The staff was understandably surprised by her appearance. She knew they had received the news about the attack on Nalin, and her father's death, before she arrived; a man on horseback could have reached the house in a few hours. Zern asked the head servant to draw a bath and bring her clean clothes. Before she got up the stairs, the tight, rumbling pain in her stomach reminded her of another need.

"And have the cook bring me something to eat, please," Zern said.

She hadn't eaten since the morning they were attacked, and the attack had come in the middle of her meal. Zern set the broken sword on a table at the base of the stairs, and then sprinted up to the library. She swung the door open and stared. Shelves packed with books lined the walls. Three levels of books, each over twice Zern's height, stretched above her.

There were thousands of books.

Zern didn't remember that many books. She would need help and turned to go look for someone who might know where her father's important books were. The head of the manor was standing almost on top of her, causing Zern to start in surprise. "What would the lady like to eat?" In the years since she had been here, Zern had forgotten how huge the old man was. She had also forgotten his name.

"Anything," Zern said. "Excuse me; I'm looking for a certain book of my father's. It would have been very important to him. You wouldn't happen to know where he would have kept it, do you?"

The man looked into the library and shook his head. "He wouldn't have kept it in here." He reached around Zern and closed the library door with one long, thin arm. "All the important books were in his study."

"Thank you. I'll be up there, when my food is ready," Zern said. She started up the stairs to the third story.

"Miss Zern?"

Zern stopped and half turned.

"I am very sorry about the Master's death. Your father was a good man."

Zern nodded. She finally remembered his name. "Thank you, David."

He said nothing. Zern climbed the narrow flight of stairs that led to her father's study. The early morning sunlight bathed the room. Swords, some centuries old, decorated the walls, hanging on ornate plaques of shined wood with gold inscriptions. Above the large window behind the desk, two massive spears crossed. The desk was made of the same cherry wood as the plaques and dominated the room with its size. It and the matching chairs were the only furniture in the room. Zern stepped around the desk and knelt by the small bookshelf. She froze.

There was a space in the middle of the bookshelf. A single, thick volume was missing. It had been taken recently; the thin layer of dust that covered the shelf and other books did not cover the gap. Zern ran her finger along the gap and looked at her fingertip. Nothing.

It had been taken today.

Zern's heart began to pound. She turned and ran down the stairs, skidding to a stop and grabbing the second story balcony. "David!"

The lanky man walked out from under the balcony as fast as his legs would carry him and looked up at her. "Yes, Miss Zern?"

"Has anyone else been here? Has anyone else been in my father's study?"

"No, miss. Other than the messenger, not a soul has been in this house since your father's last visit, and the messenger did not stay."

Zern whirled and looked back up at the study. David had to be mistaken. Someone had been there and taken the book. They had been careful not to disturb the surrounding books, at all. Whoever it was knew what they were after, and had bypassed the valuables in the study for that book. David was wrong, or he was lying.

As she walked back into the study and grabbed one of the less ornate swords from the wall and sighed. Nothing could be easy. It just wasn't that kind of day, or even that kind of week. She walked around the desk, knelt down by the shelf, and took out the books to either side of the gap. Holding the sword under the desk, she sat in her father's chair, setting the books down on the desk. She opened one of them and leaned over it.

It was written in her father's handwriting. Zern read a little from the first page, then pushed the book aside and thumbed through the other. This one was also her father's handwriting. A single word in the middle of the page caught her eye so she read a few paragraphs, then turned to the first page and began reading. This book was the journal her father kept about the Book of Ambrose. Zern's jaw dropped open in surprise. She closed her mouth and began to read, but was interrupted by a polite knock at the door. Zern looked up.

David stood in the doorway with a tray of food balanced on his left hand, and a tray of clean clothes on the other. His eyes were sad and distant. Zern motioned to the desk. "Set them here. I'll get to them."

"Miss, your bath will be ready when you please. The water is warm, as you like it," David said. He set the two trays down and left without another word.

The overpowering smell of cooked pheasant and buttered, boiled carrots proved too much for Zern. She pulled the tray of food close to her and ate quickly, giving no thought to manners. She downed the warm tea in three gulps when she had eaten all of the meat and vegetables. After wiping her hands, she went back to reading. Scanning over the pages, Zern shook her head in amazement.

The journal wasn't just about the Book, but a guide to the translation that her father started. She decided the missing book must have been the Book of Ambrose. Zern turned the page and began reading again, then stood up, holding the book. In addition to finding the Book of Ambrose, her father found six of the seven spells of Ambrose. Six stone tablets containing the power of a god. She swallowed and read further, pacing as she read, barely aware of the sword's weight.

Her father kept the tablets separate from the Book, not in the manor house, but nearby. Zern's breath caught in her throat. He managed to learn how to use the spells. The pages she read now were the key; the scribbled notes in the margin gave her an idea of what the spells did. Four spells contained a portion of Ambrose's four magics. Another contained his ability to manipulate the barrier between worlds. The page was torn, a piece missing, where the description of the sixth tablet started. Whatever it did, her father decided not to leave the knowledge for anyone else. Zern tore the relevant pages out and stuffed them in her pile of clean clothes. She slammed the book shut and walked over to the brick fireplace in the corner.

After setting the book down on the ashes, Zern stepped back. She concentrated on the cover and closed her eyes. The room around her cooled as she drew the heat from it and focused it on the paper. Goose bumps tingled across her body, and her eyes felt hot when she released her magic for the first time in days. The cover of the book ignited, filling the room with the sharp smell of burning paper and leather. Zern watched it burn, focusing and releasing more magic when the flames started to die out. She felt relieved that her magic worked that well.

When the book was nothing more than ashes, she closed the door and quickly changed into the clean clothes. Retrieving the short sword from behind the desk, Zern walked out of the study, tucking the pages into her shirt. She hesitated as she walked towards the door. Her head and ears itched; she needed that bath.

"David, I will be back later, please keep my bath warm," Zern called down as she rushed down the stairs. He said something in reply, but Zern didn't hear it.

Once she got out of the house, she pulled the pages out of her shirt and read the location again. She glanced up at the sky and gaged the position of the sun, then ran back into the woods, making her way back along the trail. When she reached the stream, Zern glanced at the tower, then the pages in her left hand. She stepped around the stone wall and glanced at the water. There were other pairs of boots at the house, and Zern didn't feel like walking on the slimy rocks barefoot, so she stepped into the stream. The water was only a few inches deep as it crested the stones.

Before Zern had taken three steps, she slipped on the algae. Her feet came out from under her and Zern landed on her behind with both hands smacking down into the shallow water and against the stones. Her sword landed in the deep water to her right and sank. She scooted back out of the stream and stood. Zern glared at the spot where she had slipped, and held her hands out in front of her. The air swirled into a cone in front of her hands then flew forward. It pushed the water and slime off the ancient stones. The cone of air stretched across the stream and cleared a path. The back of Zern's neck felt cold as she walked across, focusing her power. When she reached the foot of the tower, the cone of air faded away, letting the water flow again.

Zern stepped into the broken tower. Green moss covered the oak tree in the center of the tower, and dark black ants scuttled back and forth between the bark. She knelt between two large roots and grabbed a loose stone, lifted it and tossed it aside. Birds nesting far above in the tree to began chirping in alarm at the racket. The smell of mold wafted up out of the dark hole. As she reached into the darkness below her, something sharp stuck in the back of Zern's neck. The muscles in her neck and upper back tensed up as a burning pain shot through her entire body. A similar stinging started on her right elbow. She screamed in pain and backed out of the tower, clawing at her neck with her left hand.

Three angry black and red wasps hovered around the discarded stone, and a fourth flew at Zern and strung her knee. She pinched its head in between her thumb and forefinger and squeezed, backtracking further. The itching, burning sensation rolled through her neck, arm, and knee, and tears rolled down her cheeks. One of the wasps landed near the edge of the discarded stone. Zern followed it as it moved in a disjointed S-shape, and then crawled onto a large paper nest.

Kneeling, Zern grabbed another loose stone. She snarled at the wasps and watched as two hovered in the air over the nest. One landed on the oak tree and fluttered its wings, and the other flew out of the tower and into the forest beyond. Zern set down the slab and grabbed a medium-sized rock. She hurled it at the wasp sitting on the oak tree, but missed. The wasp flew from the tree to the wall of the tower. She picked up another rock and tried again. This rock crushed the wasp and fell into the hole that contained the spells.

Zern retrieved the slab and ran into the tower. She slammed it down on top of the other slab, crushing the remaining wasps and the nest. Zern gritted her teeth and pressed down, rubbing the stones together. When she felt satisfied that the wasps posed no further threat, she stopped and glanced into the hole.

Despite the darkness, Zern could make out a lopsided stack of stones. She reached down and pulled one up, then set it aside and repeated the process with the next. When she had all six she again consulted the notes, then tore them apart and threw them out a small slit in the tower and into the water. Before continuing, she placed the spell her father didn't know how to use back in the shallow pit and replaced the stone cover. She knelt and placed her hands on the top tablet and focused on it, gathering her energy and power and letting them flow into the tablet. Instead of the normal feeling of goose bumps, a strange power echoed back, power stronger than hers and much older. The power understood what Zern wanted.

In her mind's eye Zern saw a man standing near two towers of steel. He was in a small, cramped room. Another man sat next to a beige box that glowed eerily. The power of the tablet whispered to her. "These have power." As her power and the new power melded together, Zern heard a strange humming. The pain in her neck, knee, and elbow faded away. Then she felt her hands moving to the next tablet, and felt herself falling further into the power of the tablets.

When Zern came out of the trance, her head was swimming. She pushed herself up, finding herself face down on the roots, and saw that the five tablets were crushed into a shiny black powder. Zern touched her hands to her forehead and looked at her fingers; she was bleeding. Staggering out of the tower, she made her way for the house. The first time she fell, she noticed that the sun was setting. Whatever she did after using the first tablet, it had taken hours. Zern pulled herself up again and pushed forward. She fell again as she made her way back to the house.

Something was wrong. Those she had summoned weren't there. They had gotten lost somewhere, and Zern couldn't remember anything about them. She fell to her knees when she cleared the woods, bent over, and vomited. Her hands shook, her chest ached. A strange hum echoed in her ears, the same hum she heard while using the spells. Zern stumbled to her feet and looked up, to her house.

Black smoke curled up through the sky from the roof. Zern glanced around the clearing. In the distance she saw a man in a strange black suit walking away, along the road to Nalin. She felt a jolt of anger an fear, and a sense of urgency. Zern ran as best she could into the house and called out. The staff didn't answer. She ran up the stairs, taking them three at a time, and kicked the library door in. Smoke rolled out of it and into the hall, smoke filled with a dark, almost sweet odor. Zern gasped and backed into the railing.

The bodies of most of the staff were piled up with the books, and they were all aflame. Something moved in the study. Zern hesitantly walked up the narrow stairs, remembering that she lost her sword in the stream. David lay in front of her father's massive desk. The broken sword Zern carried from Nalin had been jammed into his chest. He held a wicked curved knife in his right hand, and kept trying to pull the sword from his chest. He stopped when he noticed her.

"Miss Zern. I'm... sorry. Couldn't stop them. I tried..." His voice was a gurgling rasp.

Zern knelt beside him. "It's okay, David. Who was it?"

"Called himself Dane, said he worked for Ciel Aria," He said. "I'm not going to make it. You better get out. He didn't... find it here, but he may be back."

"What? What was he looking for?" Zern asked.

"He just said 'The book.'"

She blinked at him. Aria hadn't been the one to steal the book from her father's study. Before Zern could ask him another question, David was gone. Closing his eyes with her right hand, Zern glanced at the sword. The sword that she had broken fighting with Aria's men. That was a message for her. Zern stood, taking a deep breath and sighing. In addition to finding the four she summoned, she now had to deal with Aria and whoever had the book. She leapt over the desk and opened the drawers, searching frantically.

One drawer was locked. Zern cursed and concentrated on the lock, but her magic didn't come. Stringing together every foul word she knew, Zern bolted across the room to the fireplace, taking the fire-stoker, then returned to the desk and jammed it between the drawer and the frame. Grunting with effort, she pried the locked door open. It flew out and slammed into her shins, and she jammed her knuckles against the desk. In the distance, she heard a beam collapse. She glanced down at the drawer; all types of coins shined up at her. She shattered the window with the fire-stoker and hurled the entire drawer out.

Zern stalked out of the study and made a mental list, she knew she would need supplies, and promised to avenge David and the others. When she found those she summoned, she would name them to the Five. Zern closed her eyes, the smell of burning flesh and paper filling her lungs. The crackling sound made her heart ache for those people. They were innocent. She glanced over her shoulder into the library, forcing herself to look, so she could remember.

Clenching and relaxing her fists, Zern darted up the stairs towards her old bedroom. She could feel the heat as the fire in the library spread to the rest of the house; she didn't have much time. Quickly, she tossed a few items onto her bed; clothing, pillows, and a few sentimental items. Then she rolled up the thin, top sheet and slung the make-shift pack over her shoulder and leaped down the stairs towards the kitchen, taking the steps three at a time.

Aria would pay.