Eniri opened the door but paused before stepping out. The streets of Intal Eldanir looked empty at the moment. It should be safe. It had been safe all her life. It had been safe yesterday.
But that was yesterday. Everything changed this morning. The wardens had failed. Six Durunim entered the city and did as they wished for almost an hour before being caught and killed. Other Durunim had been seen just outside the city, as if waiting to enter as well.
The entire incident happened before Eniri left home and came to work. She hadn’t even heard of it until much later. And now that her work shift was over… she no longer trusted the empty street.
Eniri’s life had been without fear for almost all of her twenty-five years. Only once could she say she had experienced fear: when Lady Siratel spouted such a frightening prophecy it almost incapacitated the old seer. When Eniri heard it, her heart raced, a weakness filled her joints, and she wanted to hide.
Today was different. Her heart did not race; it seemed like it moved slower than ever. Her fingers holding the door open grew cold. A sour taste filled her mouth. This was fear, but not the same kind of fear.
“Eniri? Are you all right?”
She shot a smile at the co-worker who spoke. Ensirha had just arrived to take over from her. Working with the patients here, like Lady Siratel, required full-time observation. “I’m fine, Ensirha. See you in the morning.” She stepped out onto the street.
Mornings were an illusion in the Starlit Realm, of course. But like all Eldanim, Eniri could see the sun setting in the primary world, just as she would see it rising after she slept.
The walk to her home normally took only a few minutes. Tonight, those few minutes stretched on and on, far beyond what should be normal. She could feel each step with excruciating detail, her heel touching the ground, followed by the roll of the ball of her foot. How strange to notice something like that.
She stopped walking.
Three figures walked down the center of the street. Like all Eldanim, they stood immensely tall. But Eniri knew right away: they were Durunim. They could not be anything else. Even from here, she could see their dark faces absorbing all color around them, yet crackling with energy. They wore dark armor in composite pieces across their bodies, including tall helmets.
Even without the visual evidence, Eniri’s other senses warned her. The three figures radiated malice like a living thing that writhed through the air around them. The malice spread apart and broke into three distinct sources as the Durunim spread themselves across the road. Eniri would not be able to get past them.
She took a step backward. Almost at once, she felt new malice behind her. She took a quick look. Two more of the dark figures stood on the street near the hospital.
Where were Intal Eldanir’s defenders? Though the outer wardens had failed, the city still boasted thousands of Eldanim, many of whom would be able to deal with these intruders. Yet the streets were empty. Eniri did not even see anyone at the windows of nearby homes.
Her hand reached inside her bag. She carried no weapons, but she had one hope. She wrapped her finger around a Ranir Stone and murmured a desperate plea for help. Only one person would hear it, if the stone were working properly, but that one would be enough.
She moved toward the center of the street, giving herself as much space as possible. The silent enemies came closer from both directions. If she had no other choice, she would turn and try to get past the ones behind her. She had little hope of success, but two might provide slightly more of a chance than three.
The stone street beneath her feet rumbled and Eniri breathed a sigh of relief. He had heard her.
Another figure appeared behind the three enemies in front, approaching them at a rapid pace. Even from this distance, she recognized him. Harunir. Her father. While everyone knew her mother, Indala, as a member of the High Council, not as many knew her father’s true profession.
The three Durunim drew their curved swords and dropped into defensive stances to meet this threat. That would do them no good. Eniri ran forward, wanting to see what happened, and staying ahead of the two behind her.
Harunir, mightiest mage of the Eldanim, carried no sword. But almost as he reached the first enemy, he gestured, and a long, golden staff appeared in his hand. He swept it through the legs of the first Durunim, upending it. The second one charged him, sword high.
Eniri glanced back and saw the other two breaking into a run also. She swerved toward her father’s side of the battle.
Harunir blocked the downward slash of the sword with his staff and pointed at the Durunim with two fingers. “i hatel nirhatal!” he cried. The enemy warrior flew backwards through the air as though a mighty force had slammed into its chest. It smashed against a column and fell.
Harunir swung his staff down and smacked the prone Durunim in the head as it tried to rise. It collapsed unconscious. “Are you hurt?” he called to his daughter.
Eniri ran past him and turned around. “I’m safe!” And she genuinely believed it now. Her father stood between her and the remaining three Durunim.
Having seen the prowess of this attacker, these three advanced with caution. They fell into a formation, not too close, but not too far from each other. They readied their swords and stepped closer.
Their silence was baffling. Why didn’t they speak? Eniri had witnessed many duels and training exercises among the wardens. They often spoke while fighting, or shouted battle cries. Or laughed. The Durunim never opened their mouths. Had the dark gods stolen their tongues?
“These three will trouble no one else,” Harunir said. “That much is certain.”
Her father pointed his glowing staff toward the stars and swept his other hand in a half-circle toward his assailants. “In the name of the One Beyond,” he breathed.
Eniri could not see her father’s power, but she could sense it. Her hair fluttered back and a warm breeze swept her skin. The three Durunim stopped advancing. They seemed frozen for a moment. Then all three dropped their swords and reached for their own chests.
“Close your eyes,” Harunir warned.
Light exploded from within the Durunim. Eniri shut her eyes a moment too late. The warm breeze turned into a hot wave of power sweeping over her body. She gasped. When it ended, her eyes flew open. She looked down at herself quickly, but everything seemed all right. She would not have been surprised to see the edges of her clothing singed or starting to burn.
She looked up. The three Durunim were gone. Nothing remained of them save a few tattered shreds of clothing that floated to the ground beside the dropped swords.
Harunir turned and pulled her into his arms. “I came as soon as I got your message,” he said into her ear. “I will always come when you call.”
“Thank you. Thank you.” Eniri realized her heart was racing again, like the first fear she had experienced. She took a deep breath and composed herself.
Harunir released her and looked down at the unconscious Durunim on the street. “This should never have happened.” The tone of his voice changed; anger radiated from him now. “To think that enemies would walk the streets of Intal Eldanir openly! I will speak to the Council about this.”
“Can we go home first?” Eniri asked.
“Of course, my daughter.” Harunir waved to a trio of Eldanim who had just come into view. “Let me arrange for this one to be taken somewhere secure, and I will walk with you every step of the way.”
Eniri wanted nothing more than that, though it troubled her. Enough of fear. She would need to learn how to protect herself. It seemed all of Intal Eldanir might need to do the same.
The chamber of the High Council of Intal Eldanir resonated with Harunir’s voice. Eniri couldn’t help wondering if her father might be enhancing his voice with magic. If so, he did it only for the High Council. No one else had been permitted in the chamber today to hear his complaint.
“It is outrageous that this was allowed to happen!” he thundered. “That my daughter should be threatened by Durunim on the very streets of Intal Eldanir is unthinkable! Yet it happened. How could this be?”
Eniri’s eyes went to her mother who stood behind one of the twelve podiums as a Council member. Indala kept her face impassive, trying not to react in a personal manner. It was a talent all Council members were forced to adopt.
“As you no doubt know by now,” one of the other councilors said, “a large number of the Durunim attacked the city on the west side. The five you faced snuck in from the east while most of our defenders were occupied.”
The stars cast multicolored light through the domed glass ceiling. Imbued with magic, the hexagonal glass panels magnified the differing lights, filling the chamber with light in its many forms. Eniri loved the effect. No other building in Intal Eldanir could boast the same. It was almost enough to distract her from the seriousness of the moment.
“Two hundred thousand of our people live in this great city,” Harunir declared. “At least five thousand of them are trained wardens, warriors, or mages. How is it that four thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine were all required to repel one invasion?”
“Your sarcasm is not necessary,” the councilor replied. “Of course not all of them were there. Many were going about their own business. No alarm was raised, as the High Warden saw no need to frighten the rest of the city.”
“If these five had not come across my daughter, what then?” Harunir gestured with an open palm. “Suppose they had kept going, broken through to the interior of the city and the gardens? Five Durunim could cause untold damage to our food supply.”
“What good are these hypotheticals?” another councilor asked. “What is your point, Harunir?”
“The High Warden is not doing his job,” Harunir said. “The exterior wardens should have discovered these Durunim long before they reached the city. And once they did, our defenders should have been there to stop them at every point around the city. We have an entire series of failures here.” He gestured again, a broad stroke with both hands. “They have grown lax! This is nowhere near the size of Durunim invasions we have repelled before now. Our enemy has mostly given up on attacking our city. Yet now we let them in?”
“What do you propose, then?” To Eniri’s surprise, that question came from Indala.
“One man, no matter how talented he is, should not be in charge of the entire city’s defense. The High Warden should share that responsibility with the High Mage and the High Champion.” Having made his point, Harunir stepped back from the speaking podium.
Eniri’s eyebrows went up, as did those of most of the councilors. Her father was nothing if not audacious. She waited for the obvious response.
“We do not have a High Mage position.”
Harunir stepped back up. “And why don’t we? Even the humans have Master Mage positions for each of their lands. Why do we not have a similar position? The mages defend the city as well as the wardens and warriors. We should at least have a chain of command to organize around.”
“And I suppose you would be the top candidate for this new position,” one of the councilors observed.
Harunir spread his arms. “I would be honored to serve, if chosen. But there are other mages who could serve just as well.”
“Your modesty is noted,” the councilor replied. “The Council will consider your proposal.” He glanced around at the other councilors. “While I cannot say for certain, I believe there will be little objection. You raise points that perhaps should have been dealt with a long time ago.”
“In that case, I would like to make one more proposal,” Harunir said. Eniri could have sworn her mother stiffened at that.
“Since the High Warden, the High Champion, and perhaps the new High Mage are in charge of the city’s defense, it would seem prudent that they would also have a voice in the High Council.”
“Preposterous!” snapped another councilor. “The High Council has always consisted of twelve members, chosen by the people.”
Indala raised her hand. “Are you proposing that we expand the Council to fifteen members and give each of these three a position here?”
Harunir gave a short bow to his wife. “Ideally, I would prefer that solution. But if it proves too drastic of a change, perhaps only one position could be added, occupied by a rotation of the three city defenders.”
Eniri heard grumbles from some of the councilors. The fact that she could hear them showed how much Harunir had thrown them off balance. The members of the Council prided themselves on their stoicism during meetings.
“We will consider this suggestion,” a councilor said, in a tone that implied the exact opposite.
Harunir bowed again. “That is all I ask.”
He stepped down from the dais and beckoned to Eniri. Together, they walked out of the chamber. None of the councilors spoke while they exited.
Outside, Harunir chuckled. “What did you think of my performance?” he asked.
“Performance? You mean, you didn’t mean what you were saying?”
“I meant every word.” Harunir patted her on the shoulder. “In politics, Eniri, always ask for far more than you actually want. Then your primary goal will seem reasonable.”
Eniri considered. “Then you only wanted them to create the High Mage position and arrange a new way of defending the city?”
“Yes. Of course, I would love to have the other proposals as well. It seems only right to me. But I will be content if they only do what I asked for in the first place.”
Eniri shook her head. “All this time, I thought Mother was the politician in our home.”
Harunir’s eyes twinkled. “Ah, perhaps I have learned from her over the years. Or maybe she got it from me.”
Eniri laughed. “I’ll tell her you said that.”
“Then I truly will be in trouble!” Harunir joined her in laughter.
As they continued on their way home, Eniri thought over the rest of what had been said. “Do you think the Durunim threat will return?” she asked.
“Many of them have left the Starlit Realm and invaded the primary world. That’s why we have seen so few lately. At least one of the ancient portals has been opened.”
Eniri’s eyes widened. “I’ve heard nothing of this! Then they are attacking the humans?”
Harunir nodded. “And we are foolish to ignore it. For should they conquer Antises, they will return here, more powerful than before. And if we do not strengthen our defenses and how we control them, we will not be ready.”
“So you used the attack on your daughter to spur the High Council in the direction you already wanted.”
Harunir bent his head. “It worked out that way, yes. I was genuinely outraged on your behalf. But good came from it. Or will come from it. I hope.”
Eniri had no doubt her father’s words would sway the Council. Then again, she had thought the same before and been surprised by their rulings. She could not always tell what they would do, not even her mother.
“Come. Let us find a place to dine,” Harunir suggested. “I am hungry after all that postering.”
Eniri chuckled again and followed her father.