The forest opened to a stone gate wide enough to fit the War Machine. Divine heard enough about Isla, The Stone Fortress.
The fortress went by another name years ago. Bane’s Fire. The smallest castle in the world. Before the Revolution, nobility ran the Jaelian territories, treating them as different countries. People grew tired off their tyranny. They stormed castles and executed everyone inside. Most castles were burned during the war. Others were torn down, later, to make way for modern cities. Bane’s Fire was the only one left in Jael.
The tall wall surrounding Bane’s Fires fought off many attacks. Pity it was useless in the Revolution. A thick cluster of tall trees concealed the stone barrier. Vines wrapping the wall meant you didn’t know you reached Bane’s Fire until you were accosted by guards.
How did these humans occupy Bane’s Fire without the Jaelian government throwing them out? Probably the same way a town like Sovereign could exist in secret for nearly fifty years. Most people in the cities didn’t know Middle Jael remained inhabitable. They didn’t believe those that visited the area.
Josephine pressed her face to the window.
“Stop spitting on my glass,” Bel shouted.
As if that would get her to move.
Fire sat within egg shaped lanterns. Some hung off buildings. Others stood on top of black posts.
The convy slowed to a creep as they traveled through the narrow stone road. Horse and mule drawn carriages and handcarts made their way through Isla. People stepped in front of vehicles, forcing them stop. Bel almost ran over a couple hauling a crate. They glared at Bel as they slowly made their way across the street.
“Apparently, they don’t know they’d lose a fight against a War Machine,” Aliceanna grumbled.
Other convys loaded with supplies, tin boxes, machine parts and immense netted bags packed the roadway. Like Bel, they must store fuel.
How many people died to make an entire city made of stone? At one point, the barbarians built dead bodies into the walls believing flesh would make the city impenetrable.
Divine studied Bane’s Fire in university. Sorin immigrants forced slaves to make each stone. Sorins knew how that could hold off armies.
Trees and grass grew within the city on the first level. The short narrow roadways made the level seem small. Divine studied layouts of Bane’s Fire. The first level was the largest but the street was barely wide enough to fit Bel’s War Machine. Shops lined the road on either side of them. Green vines crawled up the walls.
The tall buildings with flat roofs allowed little light to touch the street made the street feels smaller. The original builders didn’t care about beauty. Each structure looked the same. It was disorienting. He didn’t care for the rows and rows of continuous buildings.
Most books said Bane’s Fire brought the concept of apartments into Jael. Single and semi-detached houses only exist for the wealthy on the top levels. On first level, residents lived on top of each other, in small apartments over shops. Historians and architectures dismissed Bane’s Fire because of its simple and compact design. It wasn’t nearly as elegant or artistic as some of the more famous castles in parts of T’sya.
You couldn’t tell that from the way Josephine eyed everything like an excited puppy. Tanri too stood with his paw on the window, wagging his tail while trying to sniff and lick everything through the glass. The little wolf took well to being around humans. Though protective of Aliceanna, Tanri never acted hostile towards them. He was growing at an alarming rate. Aliceanna only had him for about ten days. Standing on all fours, he nearly reached Josephine’s knees.
The narrow street opened to a wide area. Patches of grass surrounded by low stones walls were placed around the area. Large bare trees often grew out of these patches of grass.
Though Bane’s Fire was called a castle, the levels were open to the sky. The wall outside was tall enough to protect those on the top layers. It also meant people milling about the bottom couldn’t see the surrounding forest. Books never said why the builders didn’t bother creating a roof over the entire fortress.
Bel kept to the road near the outer wall. Towers shot up at different points on the outer wall.
Wooden and tin stands were set up throughout this level. A few stands sold furs, building materials, machines part and animals. Their shouting battled with the sounds of animals, carts and convys. The smell was eye-watering. The stench of animals and unwashed bodies seeped into Bel’s War Machine.
“The market is usually more crowded.” Mauve said. “Isla is a frigid nightmare during the winter. Experienced merchants are out of here by the end of autumn. These sellers are going to be stuck here until the thaw. Housing those animals all winter will eat up whatever wealth they made selling their merchandise. They’ll learn.”
Snow was on the way. Divine smelled it in the air. They didn’t get much daylight during their travels. Telling time was a pain. If the sun rose and set, it did so at different times each day. Divine could tell morning by the animals, especially Tanri. The sun didn’t rise and set often but certain animals awoke and went to bed at the same time every day.
Divine tried smelling the difference between the times of day. Darkness made sure the world smelled the same all day.
A bell range through Isla. Would people learn to tell time differently?
Without the sun, this winter was the coldest he experienced.
Traffic thinned by the third level. The noise changed. The sound of merchants, cart and convys changed to a buzzing chatter. Not at as many vehicles packed the road. Bel kept his driving at a slow pace. The sloping road was barely wide enough to fit his machine.
“I’ve read about Bane’s Fire,” Josephine said. “The history is more in the stone, in the fortress’ layout. This is probably the last intact Sorin structure in the world given what we did to the province during the war. Maybe you can study this place, Divine, figure out what makes Sorin building so durable—to things other than bombs.”
She was giving him work. She also didn’t need to say that. Divine wasn’t leaving this place until he know how it was able to stand without repair for more than a hundred years.
The road was rough. Piece of the stone were cracked. The fortress still appeared strong. Remaking it without an army would be impossible. Could his power be used somehow?
“See? I got your mind going,” Josephine said.
She faced the window, almost putting her bottom in his lap.
The kept traveling up. People pressed themselves against doors or between buildings to let them pass others refused to move from the middle of the road until they reach their turn or destination.
The first level seemed reserved for selling merchandise while the second and third were residential. Finally, Bel pulled into the space between two buildings.
“We’re here. Help me unload,” Bel announced.
Once everything was on the road, Blae and Mauve wondered off. Kaige steered Josephine into the two story stone fully-detached building. Did Bel own this entire thing? Tanri leapt out the convy and marked his territory.
Something hurled towards Bel. Divine sensed no spite behind the object. He said nothing.
Bel jerked his head to the side and lifted his hand, catching the object. It was an apple.
“Do you have any idea how long I’ve been waiting for you?”
The pale skin, wild-haired male wasn’t human. He was the same as Shade, Vayle and Niah. His aura was steady—filled with calm colors. This male didn’t have a volatile nature or rather, it took a lot to get him enraged. His silver eyes were disconcerting. They saw everything. Divine resisted the urge to cross his arms over his body. Those eyes left him feeling naked.
“Sorry Xurice, I’ve been busy,” Bel said, biting into the apple
“Niah told me.”
Those penetrating eyes searched Divine and Aliceanna. Xurice cocked his head. His lips curled into a sinister grin.
“They’re Rayne’s half siblings. Interesting.”
Aliceanna’s eyes widened.
“Do you know what happened to him?”
Xurice frowned at Bel. “What happened to him? He’s fine.” He squinted, “You mean the block. Some outside force is blocking him so he can’t reach those he’s connected to. I don’t know his progress on it. We learned his smell and face through our connection. She wants use to look after him during his travels.” Xurice probing eyes fell on Divine and his frown deepened. “You Stelwarts make quite an impression on Shade... and our family. I don’t see it. She’s constantly thinking about you, Rayne and Nocturne.”
Pink and red burst through Xurice’s aura once he said Shade’s name.
A person with eyes that shifted between kindness and steel flashed through Divine’s mind.
“How’s Mom?” Divine asked.
“Mom?” Xurice scowled.
Where did that come from? Damn the Darkness, these people read his aura and smelled his emotions. He read Xurice’s. The older male didn’t like him or his family. He was fond of Shade, which was the only reason he was humoring them.
That didn’t matter. Rayne wasn’t in danger. Xurice dismissed the block on his connection. Maybe it wasn’t a significant problem. Xurice didn’t come off as someone who’d wish Rayne harm simply because Shade liked him.
Rayne was safe. He’d fix the problem with his connection. Divine too would find a way to get past the barrier. He wished, though, he could have a conversation with Rayne the way Aliceanna did. She talked about it for weeks. Did she know how lucky she was?
“I forgive you for annoying me,” Xurice turned back to Bel. “My villages need their supplies. They’ve been giving me dark stares as though it’s my fault they don’t have them. You and your damn shield.”
“Vayle and Niah found me.”
“Niah learned a few bothersome abilities during her travel. Remember Bel, no matter how good your shield is, someone will be able to break through it. Beside, both Vayle and Niah tend to ignore things like boundaries.”
Divine chuckled. They were worse than Blae.
Xurice lifted his eyebrow at Divine. He glared at Aliceanna
Aliceanna stepped forward and jabbed her finger into Xurice’s chest. “You are a worm. Your opinion of me and my family doesn’t reach my level of care. Don’t disrespect us because the female you love seems to love everyone else but you.”
Xurice had it coming though. He could read people. He must’ve known Aliceanna was not the type to be stepped on.
Xurice’s aura didn’t change.
“There’s another one.” Xurice eyed Bel. “First, Vayle then Niah and now this one. Even Shade, Lafeyette and Tearani have their moments. You’d think the Dark Consciousness stripped us of everything civilized.”
Aliceanna jerked her head back. Xurice called her uncivilized. Divine kept his mouth closed.
“Aliceanna,” Bel said. “Xurice Altor lives with five of the most aggressive Sciell I’ve met. This is not a battle you can win and you,” he turned on Xurice, “I need payment.”
“Come by my house as usual.”
Bel nodded. “I need to talk to you about a few things.”
Xurice’s eyes narrowed.
“Fine. Are you back to your normal schedule?”
Bel rocked his head. “I am.”
“You sound unsure.”
“I have family issues to tend to now. They weren’t things I predicted. I’ll keep to my schedule as best as I can.”
Xurice smirked as he turned away. “Only you can get away with that. For some reason the humans are more tolerable of you, probably your skin color.”
“Xurice wait,” Bel called.
“What,” the male said without stopping.
“I need you to talk to my brother.”
Xurice stopped and turned. “Why would I do that?”
“He’s like you.”
Xurice smirked. “No one’s like me.”
“Talk to him, please.”
What was Bel doing?
A chorus of whistling sounded behind them. A group of men huddle in front the building a few rows down from them. Josephine scene come from that crowd. Divine’s chest twist and burned. She was in the middle of that pack.
One man stepped back, giving Divine full view of Josephine. She leaned close to one man and whispered in his ear. She dragged her fingers down his chest. The man turned scarlet. Another stepped behind her and cupped her butt. She grinned.
Divine needed to stop her. This wasn’t Silhouette. He’d never forgive her if she came home smelling like another man. The way that group was pressing against her…she’d reek for the rest of the day. She didn’t know what she was doing. He had to stop her. Divine couldn’t move. Shadows stirred. If he moved, his power would kill those men putting their hands on his Josephine. He swallowed. Blades sawed through his chest. His Josephine would never do something so disgusting. Cora would.
Where was Kaige?
Xurice was beside her. When did he moved? He dropped his arm around Josephine.
“That’s enough sweetheart,” he said.
Josephine leaned back on her hip, folding her arm. She pressed her lips together and squinted.
Her eyes and mouth fell open. She pushed past Xurice and the men. She raced to Divine, throwing herself around his waist.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Divine nodded. Damn the Darkness, he could kiss Xurice.
“I’m really sorry.”
Divine smooth his head over her hair. Relief made him light-headed. When did he turn into a person who wanted Josephine all to himself?
Stepping back, Josephine stood on her toes and lifted her chin. Divine was drawn to her mouth. He kissed her. He liked her taste. They hadn’t embraced like this since being reunited in Sovereign. Josephine shifted back. Divine grabbed her head, holding her against him. Did she always smell this nice? He opened his eyes and glared at the group of man staring at them. Josephine was his. If they touched her, he’d decorate this city with their skins.
What was he doing? He was kissing her in public. He claimed Josephine like she was some object. And, she let him.
He released her and stepped back. Josephine frowned. She probed his mind. She shrugged. Xurice stood behind her with his hand on her head.
Xurice needed to stop doing that. Divine didn’t seen him move. He didn’t sense Xurice behind Josephine until he drew attention to himself.
“Come one. Let’s go inside.” He steered Josephine towards Bel house. “I’ll talk to your brother.” Xurice called over his shoulder.
They walked inside.
“I need to visit the Main Office,” Bel said. “Walk with me.”
Divine and Aliceanna followed.
“We’re leaving the supplies here?” Divine asked.
Bel stopped. “Damn.”
Bel pointed out which things were going with them. Divine held a crate full of crops. Aliceanna balanced two boxes with handmade decorative items. Bel slung the bag of wool and furs across his back. Tanri carried a small bag full seeds in his teeth.
They walked on, leaving the rest by the convy. Bel said it wouldn’t get stolen. Divine didn’t question him.
“Isla has been around for almost fifty years,” Bel said. “The humans can run it most of the year without my help. The shield doesn’t need any maintenance yet. Because of taxes, Islaians, don’t often need food and supplies. They use us mostly for trips through the Wall. That Wall,” he jerked his head to the tower of Darkness in the distance, “leads to a fairly prosperous city. Miners and Sciell can pass through it without suffering its effects. We can take a few humans with us. A lot of humans out here still accept kroll so they can purchase items in the cities and cart them home. Hopefully, they don’t need me for anything. My Lifeblood needs to rest.”
Bel didn’t often give information without being asked first. He never admitted a weakness. It must be hard being the head of this family. Kaige and Mauve worked. From what Divine noticed, they depended on Bel for most of their wealth. Bel took take care of six beings. He never meant this trip to be a rest for himself. When was the last time Bel relaxed? Divine needed to earn a living, take some of the burden off Bel.
“What you are two discussing?” Bel asked.
“Nothing,” they said together.
Bel shook his head and faced forward.
Josephine rested her mind inside Divine’s core. He slowed his pace, concentrating on not doing something stupid like moaning or racing inside the house to curl up beside Josephine. He didn’t throw around words like magnificent and delicious. Those were the best ones to describe what he felt whenever she took refuge inside his core.
Divine prided himself on his self-control. He wasn’t mild-tempered like Blae. He was better than Josephine and Aliceanna at holding down his anger. He could rationalize himself out of any emotion. His practiced self-control meant nothing against Josephine Royal.
“The world has finally ended,” Aliceanna announced. “I didn’t know you could use words like magnificent and delicious, Divine.”
Josephine filled his entire being. She became a part of his Lifeblood. Divine focused on not succumbing. He didn’t have the brain space do anything besides glare at his sister.
“Even after all this time, Josephine’s the only one who can demolish your impressive barriers,” Bel said.
Leave it to them to throw him down that embarrassing hole.
“Josephine’s not the type to give up. It would be easier to give in to her. It’s not like you don’t feel the same way about her,” Aliceanna said.
Now they were stomping on his back, shoving his farther down that hole.
“Besides,” and Bel kept going, “what would you do if Josephine brought home someone else?”
A slimy emotion spread through his body. Divine’s power slipped from him. He needed to kill every man in the village before that happened. Bel dropped a shield over him.
“Leash it, Divine.”
Bel’s voice came out rough. His Lifeblood needed to rest. Divine wasn’t helping. He pulled back his power. Bel lifted the shield.
Bel led the way up. The noise from the lower levels turned into a collection of mumbles. Tall walls stood on either side of them. Vine covered stone bridges crossed overhead. The area opened to a courtyard with a dry fountain in the middle. Fire lit arched tunnels turned the area around the courtyard into a maze. Drying clothing above them swung in the breeze. Life noise spilled out from windows and open doors. Excited chatter and singing added to this city’s noise. When was the last time Divine heard such amazing sounds? He enjoyed Sovereign, mostly. They weren’t as drunk on life as the Islaians. This remained him of home.
Books dismissed Bane’s Fire an embracement to real castles. Divine too never saw any merit in it.
Centuries ago, when this place was first built, people didn’t have modern technology and tools. They had what they brought with them from Sorin, the knowledge and whatever materials they could mix from the land. Despite that, they created this place. It wasn’t as grand as the castles in T’ysa. Unfortunately, they brought slaves with them and forces some of the natives to construct this place.
The rooms were dark and cold. They didn’t have ornate fixtures or phrases carved into the wall. The cobblestone, the walls, the tunnels were simple. Instead of isolating this place under a single roof, the builders left it open to the sky and fresh air. Why did books call Bane’s Fire a castle anyway?
He needed time. He needed to study Bane’s Fire. What were the stones’ made of? How did the fortress survive centuries of war? Why were the designer so focused on defense? Jaelian natives were never a threat to settlers. What had they been afraid of? The Sorin immigrants must’ve been running from something. Did they have problems with the T’syian settlers? History books never talked about battles between settlers. They focused on the savage natives. Sorin and T’sya settlers fought over who would own Jael. They came to a truce, divine Jael into four territories.
Divine needed to study so he could recreate Bane’s Fire. Bel said they needed a safe place to live. What was safer than a fortress? Bane’s Fire had secrets it wished to share. Exploring this fortress would take Josephine’s mind off thing.
“You sound like Josephine,” Aliceanna said.
Of course Aliceanna would ruin the moment.
“Don’t pretend like you wouldn’t be smitten when faced with an unusual animal.” Divine jerked his head to Tanri racing around the courtyard.
“That reminds. We need to practice our powers.”
“Make sure you bring enough food for everyone,” Bel said.
“Plan on it.”
“Clean it before you bring it back and don’t throw away any parts.”
Divine caught the faint scent of feces and urine. It wasn’t as overwhelming as he expected. This fortress was built before in-door plumbing. People used the throw their waste in the streets.
“How do they manage waste disposal,” Divine asked Bel. “I can’t image the humans here have the machinery to install pipes to remove waste from each building.”
“You sound like Vayle with your fascination with things going into and out of the lower half,” Bel mumbled.
Divine didn’t care for being compared to that male.
“Answer the question.”
“As I’m sure you know, the fortress sits on top a series of human-made tunnels. The humans extended the tunnels so it connects with Jael’s underground channels. Islaians release their waste in containers and dump it into the tunnels where it flows into caves. They also dug into an underground water supply, well away from their waste tunnel.”
Divine should’ve known that.
“Are you telling me I have to cart my waste down three levels to and throw it in some tunnel,” Aliceanna snapped.
“Of course not.” Bel’s squeezed his face in disgust. “Those who can pay for it hire someone to empty their containers for them.”
“That’s an unfortunate occupation,” Aliceanna mumbled.
“They get compensated well enough,” Bel said shrugging.
“Without baths, their stink must be impressive,” Divine said.
“Someone has to do it,” Bel said.
They walked through a wide door behind the fountain.
Tanri growled. A team of humans met them. Bel handed them his bag. Divine and Aliceanna followed his lead. Aliceanna took the bag from the still snarling Tanri and gave it to them.
Bel led the way through the dreary hallway into a large room.
Aliceanna snorted. “A throne room. That’s original.”
A female sat on the throne flaked by a team of burly humans. They were dressed in colorful clothing laced with jewels. An imposing fireplace cast shadows across the room. At least these humans weren’t glaring at them. The female beamed at Bel. Her guards might as well have been statues. Were they even breathing?
The room smelled like Lifeblood beings. The power wasn’t potent enough to belong to a Sciell or strong Miner. Shade’s journal mentioned other Miner communities. The journal said there were more Miners than Sciell. Over the years, they perfected the art of hiding. It also said those beings didn’t have any interest in the outside world.
Bel’s aura darkened. Divine resisted stepping beside him. Bel was tired. He was on edge. Divine didn’t want to insult him by assuming Bel would lose his head just because he was exhausted. Tanri sniffed the air and snarled. Aliceanna gave him a scathing look. He stayed by her side with his ears up and fangs bared. Divine didn’t like the smell of those Miners either.
A male with a cheerful round face stepped forward. He smelled like the queen’s bond partner.
Bel curled and uncurled his fist. His temple pounded. His jaw was rigid. Divine needed to do something. Bel was going to lose control. What could he do? He couldn’t lead this conversation. He spent months with Bel in Sovereign and he didn’t understand how Bel managed his transactions. In Divine stepped in, Bel would kill him. If he didn’t do anything, Bel would kill these humans.
The male beamed at he took Bel’s hand.
“It’s good to see you. Your relatives stopped by to tell us you were having family trouble. I hope things have been sorted out.”
Relative? Vayle and Niah said they took care of Bel’s villages. Did they lie to the humans?
The human glanced at Divine and Aliceanna before returning his kind gaze to Bel.
“I was hoping Kaige and Mauve would be with you. We have gotten help from other non-normals and we’ll need to re-do your contracts. We’d like to continue doing business with you. This would also mean, you’d receive less payment.”
Bel tightened his lips. “That’s fine. Do you need me to sign something now?”
The human’s eyes darkened then glowed again. Bel usually tried to be pleasant.
“No, not yet. We don’t need you to take anyone through the Wall. Your goods are all we require of you. Please, enjoy your stay here. We will talk to you soon.”
The human shook Bel’s hand again. Bel turned and walked out.
They were away from humans. Bel's shoulders slumped. He groaned.
“I don’t care, don’t ask me,” he said.
Aliceanna tightened her lips. She was about to ask him about the Miners moving in on his territory.
“You should be able to find your way back.”
“Bel,” Aliceanna said.
“Don’t. Follow. Me,” Bel snapped.
He vanished into Darkness.
Aliceanna wrapped her arms around Divine. Tanri leaned against his leg with his head and ears down. Tanri was already acting like Aliceanna.
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