FYI, please remember this is part of a rough draft. There is very minor editing done.


Prologue

16 years ago…

Anieli paced outside the small home. His powerful body taunt with tension. The sun was setting and his beloved wife, Calantha, had been in labor for hours. The screams and moans coming from inside the house shot through his chest like steel tipped arrows. Several times he tried to enter to check on his wife, but was shooed away by the many midwives in her attendance. He loved his wife more than life itself. Although he was happy that she was with child, if the birthing process ended in her demise, he would damn the child for all eternity.

Anieli stopped his pacing and heaved a heavy sigh. Closing his eyes, he prayed to the Gods for his wife’s suffering to come to an end. As he opened his eyes, the scene before him struck with a terror he’d never felt on any battlefield. The sky, a mass of bright pinks and oranges just moments before, had turned blood red. The setting sun, its majestic yellow color, had been consumed by a black as dark as onyx. A sense of foreboding so strong caused Anieli’s stomach to heave and drove him to his knees. His body shook as sweat ran down his brow. A baby’s cry broke through the silence. Anieli raised his head to see his wife’s sister, Ismena, standing at the door. One look at her expression and he knew that his beloved was gone. His head hung down for but a moment and then rose towards the sky as he let out an agonizing scream. Tears ran freely down his face while he told the world of his grief.

Ismena let him grieve for a moment before moving to his side. Crouching down to look him in the eye, she laid her hand upon his arm in a silent gesture of empathy. She took him by the hand and brought him to his feet. “Come meet your daughter,” was all she said.

Silently he followed her into the house. It reeked of blood and sweat. In the arms of his wife’s mother laid the tiny babe with a lustful wail. Anieli turned his head away from the baby and moved to the bedside where his adored Calantha laid, a sheet covering her face. Upon hearing the child’s continuing cries his rage won out over his grief. Calm and composed on the outside, the women in the room didn’t suspect the seething anger boiling over inside. He walked over and looked down at the object of his hatred. He reached out one of his hands and stroked the baby’s cheek. She immediately stopped crying. Anieli traced the path of her tears from her cheek, down her chin, to where they were pooling in the soft creases of her neck. His fingers, moist with the salty substance, wrapped themselves around her throat and started to squeeze the life out of her. Pallas, the grandmother of the child, didn’t realize what Anieli’s intention was until an orange glow engulfed the child. The blue eyes of the baby began to glow a hot white as a ball of fire shot from one of her small pudgy hands, hitting Anieli square in the chest. Gasping in pain as the flames licked him; he released his grip on the child and fell backwards. Ismena rushed to his side to put out the embers. The glow around the child ceased and a black band now encircled itself around one small arm. Pallas’ worst fear was realized. “It’s the mark of the Phoenix. This child is cursed.”

“It’s a demon! A demon that killed my beloved!” screamed Anieli, “I’ll have nothing to do with it unless it’s to put it to death.”

Pallas tightened her grip on the child.

“You cannot!” she declared, “This child is destined for something great, but it’s not without a cost. It’s written that those with the mark will surely cause their own demise whilst fighting for those who cannot save themselves. My daughter, Calantha, was very wise in naming her Axelia, protector of mankind.”

Anieli glared at the child with pure hatred. The stench of his burnt flesh mingled with the smell of death that already permeated the room.

“May the Gods take her sooner than later. I will have nothing to do with that beast,” he stated with venom in his voice. He left the house without ever holding his own daughter.

CHAPTER 1

16 years later….

“Axelia, you get back here right this instant!”

The willowy teen with hair the color of fire looked over her shoulder and saw her aunt standing on the front porch, hands on her hips, an angry look on her face. Grinning, she gave a small wave to the older woman as she ran off with one of the freshly baked loaves of bread that had been cooling by the kitchen window. Waiting at the edge of the woods, watching the familiar scene, Atellus shook his head and sighed. “She will be in trouble later, but it never seems to stop her,” he thought. Barely out of breathe; she came to a grinding halt right in front of him.

“Whew! Thought I’d get caught for sure this time around!” she exclaimed juggling the still hot loaf from hand to hand.

“Would have served you right,” Atellus replied trying to come off as being stern.

“Oh shush,” Axelia replied breaking off a piece of the bread and offering it to him. He gave her a look to let her know he didn’t appreciate her methods, but she knew he couldn’t resist her aunt’s freshly baked bread. Sighing he took the piece from her hand and took a bite. It was as heavenly as always. Axelia flashed him her typical impish grin and began to walk away. Atellus followed close behind her. They walked in silence until they came to the fence that separated their two properties. Axelia stepped up on the bottom rung and threw her leg over the fence to take a seat. She was quiet as she broke off more bread and offered it to him. He leaned his tall frame against the fence and watched her for a moment.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she replied not meeting his gaze. He sighed loudly.

“You know you can’t lie to me Lia,” he reminded her. She remained silent, her head bowed. When he heard her sniffle he dropped his bread and put his hand under her chin to raise her head. Her eyes were unusually glassy and her face a bright shade of red. She tried to jerk her head away but he held her tightly. Atellus was concerned. Axelia wasn’t the type of girl who cried. In fact, she wasn’t much like a girl at all.

“What’s wrong?” he asked her again, “Is it your grandmother? Is she OK?”

“I saw him…,” Axelia said in a small voice.

“Him?” asked Atellus dropping his hand, “You mean…your father?” Axelia nodded her head and rub her eye with the heel of her hand. Atellus clenched his jaw and balled his hands into fists.

“Did he say anything to you?” he asked.

“No…He looked right at me and walked by as if I didn’t even exist,” she said quietly. Atellus sighed once more and put his hand on her knee.

“I’m sorry,” he told her.

“He’ll never forgive me,” Axelia said sadly.

“There’s nothing to forgive. You’ve done nothing wrong. He should be asking for your forgiveness for abandoning you.”

Axelia shook her head and then crammed the remainder of the bread into her mouth. After she swallowed it she swung her other leg over the fence and jumped off.

“Enough of this sissy crying stuff,” she said. “Let’s go for a ride.” Atellus smiled.

“OK. OK,” he said and swung his muscular body over the fence to join her.

“Race you to the barn!” Axelia yelled over her shoulder as she ran away from him. Atellus took off after her.

Atellus reached the barn before Axelia and stood triumphantly, waiting for her to catch up.

“No fair!” she gasped, when she finally made it there.

“Hey, I can’t help that my legs are longer than yours. Maybe if you drank more milk you would grow taller!” he said.

“Bleck. You know I hate milk,” she said swinging her fist to hit him in the shoulder. He grabbed her arm and wrestled her to the ground. A dark shadow appeared over them as they playfully fought with each other. Suddenly stopping, they both looked up to see Atellus’ father towering over them. He reached down between them and pulled Axelia to her feet. She sheepishly brushed the dust off her clothes. Atellus stood and came face to face with his father, Timur. There was no mistaking that the two were related. Atellus had gotten his father’s height and build. Both men had hair as black as night yet Atellus had inherited is mother’s bright green eyes. With his chiseled features, it made for a striking appearance.

“Remember your place,” his father growled at him. “I think the two of you are too old now to be rolling around in the dirt.”

“Sorry,” mumbled Atellus, his face turning red.

“And you!” Timur said pointing at Axelia. “Don’t you think it’s time you stopped acting like a tomboy and started acting like a lady? Your grandmother will never be able to marry you off as you are now.” Axelia looked mortified. Atellus stepped in front of her defensively.

“I need you to do a job for me,” his father said. “Sienna is going to foal any day now and I will need more bitter root. You remember where it grows, don’t you?” Atellus nodded his head. “Good. Saddle up Flame and head out soon. A storm is brewing and you don’t want to be up on the mountain when it hits.” He started to walk away and then stopped and called over his shoulder, “Let Axelia take Sadi. He could use a good run.” Without waiting for a reply he walked off back towards the house. The two teenagers looked at each other and shrugged.

“Let’s get going,” Atellus said looking up at the sky, “That storm is going to roll in quickly”. They saddled up the two horses and grabbed some food from the house before setting out.

The bitter root grew in only one spot on the mountain, next to Silver Lake. When the snow melts, it runs down the mountain and collects in the lake. The sediment it brings with it provides rich nutrients, which enable the bitter root to flourish. The root can be used for many ailments from colds to bruises to staunch bleeding.

Atellus and Axelia followed the well-worn path up the mountain.  Normally they would have taken the time to enjoy the lush surroundings, but the sky was growing increasingly dark and threatening.  Thunder rolled in the distance, making the horses skittish.  Should heavy rains start, the path would get incredibly muddy and slick. Not the best conditions when there’s only a foot between a person and the steep drop off the side of the mountain.  They arrived at Silver Lake in record time, beating the rain. Atellus quickly dismounted and took a small pouch out of the saddlebag.

“We need to make this quick,” he said to Axelia with a worried glance towards the sky.  She also dismounted and brought the horses to the water’s edge so they could drink.  Following Atellus’ lead, Alexia found a patch of bitter root.  Being sure to leave as much of the root in tact as possible, she began to extract them from the ground.  They worked in silence for several minutes before Atellus stood and brushed off his knees.  He walked over to Axelia, his hand outstretched. Axelia handed him the roots she had collected. He added her pile to the pouch and pulled on the drawstring to close it tightly.  Walking over to the horses, Atellus secured the pouch back into the saddlebag and mounted Flame.  Axelia easily swung her leg over Sadi’s broad back and settled into the saddle. Suddenly there was a deafening crack of thunder and a bright flash of lightening, surprising them all. Sadi, scared by the unexpected occurrence reared up in surprise. Axelia, not expecting the horse’s reaction, lost her grip on the reins and was violently thrown from the horse, landing in the icy waters of the lake.

The sudden shock of the cold water stole Axelia’s breathe. She tried to struggle to get her head above the glassy surface, but her body would not obey her mind’s commands. Helpless and silent she sank into the depths, flashes of her loved ones played in her head. The last thing she remembered was a strong arm wrapping itself around her slender waist and propelled her upwards.

Axelia awoke to find that same strong arm wrapped around her, holding her in a tight embrace.  When she turned her head to see whom the arm belonged to, she found herself face to face with a peacefully sleeping Atellus. She breathed a sigh of relief.  She turned her head again to try and take in her surroundings. To the right of them a fire burned brightly, casting dancing shadows across the gray walls of the cave they seemed to be in. Just beyond the fire, clothes were laid out to dry. Axelia spotted her shirt among them. Panic quickly set in when she suddenly realized she was practically nude under the horse blanket that had been thrown on top of them.  Her panic worsened when realized that not only was she lacking in clothes but so was Atellus!  She could feel her face burning as she struggled to release herself from his tight grip.

“Where do you think you’re going?” came a deep voice beside her. Axelia slowly turned and faced the voice.  Atellus had an amused look on his face as Axelia continued to try and release herself.  In a panic and not thinking rationally, Axelia felt her body temperature start to rise.  Atellus saw her eyes start to change from blue to white and felt the heat radiating from her body.  He quickly released her. She fell backwards and hit her head on the solid rock floor.

“Lia, calm down,” Atellus said while backing away from her semi clad form, “Every thing’s alright. Take a deep breath.”  He could see that she was already too far-gone and could not longer hear his voice.  He quickly tried to assess the situation. If she released her power inside the cave it would surely cause a collapse. He had to get her outside. Taking action he moved swiftly, grabbing her and throwing her over his shoulder. The immense heat radiating from her body burned his own skin. He raced out into the cold rain and roughly dumped her onto the ground facing away from the cave. The cold rain made a sizzling sound as it landed on Axelia’s bare skin.  Atellus took several steps back and held his breathe as he waited for the release. He was shocked when he saw the orange glow beginning to fade away.  Axelia shook her head and tried to regain her bearings. Bewildered to find herself suddenly out in the cold rain she frantically looked around for Atellus’ familiar form. She found him standing at the mouth of the cave, a look of confusion on his face. She slowly made her way back , unsure about what had happened. Atellus grabbed the blanket from next to the fire and held it out for her.

“What just happened here?” Axelia asked him wrapping the scratchy blanket around her shivering body.

“You almost..I thought you were going to…,” Atellus stammered.  Axelia’s eyes grew wide with fear as she spotted the red skin on his shoulder. She reached out and touched it gently.

“I did this?” she asked him softly.  He took her hand in his.

“It wasn’t your fault,” he said., “I picked you up to bring you outside so you wouldn’t cause any damage.”

“But I did cause damage. I burnt you,” she said, her lip quivering and her eyes filling with tears. Atellus sighed knowing regardless of what he said to her, she would blame herself.  He put his arm around her shoulders and led her to the fire. The sat in quiet and drank in the warmth the flames were providing.

“An amazing thing happened Lia.”

“What might that be?” she asked with skepticism.

“Well, it’s more about what didn’t happen,” he said.

“What didn’t happen?”

“You know, the fireworks,” he explained.

“I still don’t understand,” she said in confusion. “You have that burn mark and I can’t remember you bringing me outside.”

“You somehow stopped it from happening. I’m not sure how but you, fizzled out, for lack of a better term. If we can figure out how you did it, maybe you can control it!”

“I don’t want anything to do with it. You know that,” Axelia defiantly exclaimed. Atellus looked her in the eye, his stern face baring a striking resemblance to his father’s when he had scolded them earlier in the day.

“You were given this gift for a reason Lia. You’re going to have to come to terms with it eventually.”  She stubbornly refused to respond to his comment. Atellus sighed again and decided to drop the topic. He knew why she was reluctant to discuss it, but maybe this occurrence will make her think more seriously about it. “It doesn’t look like the rain is going to let up anytime soon. Let’s plan to sleep here tonight. It would be too dangerous to try and get back down the mountain now.”  He wrapped his arms around himself and inched closer to the fire.  Axelia felt a stab of guilt when she realized he must be freezing.  She moved closer to him and held out one end of the blanket.

“Are you sure?” he asked hesitant to accept the invitation.

“I’m sure. Besides, it’s my fault you got wet anyhow, right?”  Atellus grinned knowing it was her way of saying thank you and he took the edge of the blanket and moved closer to her.

“Can I use you as a pillow?” he asked her jokingly.

“Don’t press your luck mister,” she said with a glare as she punched him in the arm.  Atellus laughed aloud.

“At least you’re back to your normal self,” he said with a smile as the settled in to try and get some sleep.

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