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The Lost Sentinel: Relics of Power Book 1 (Ebook)

The Lost Sentinel: Relics of Power Book 1 (Ebook)

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Book 1 of 3: Relics of Power


They say the country of Zeuten no longer has any need for heroes.

Quests have been completed, the great Powers have withdrawn from the world, and the Sentinels who guard the last Relics are largely forgotten. Unlike their neighbours in the country of Aestin, whose Invokers wield the magic of the deities in exchange for glory and prestige, they leave the gods alone, and the gods extend the same courtesy to them.

When Zeuten's last Sentinel disappears, Zelle, her granddaughter, intends to track her down. Instead she runs into an Aestinian stranger with no memories of his past, who claims to be looking for a long-lost Relic hidden in the mountains by the first Sentinels. To Zelle, the rumours of lost Relics are just stories told to trick gullible travellers, but the hordes of enemies on the stranger's tail suggest otherwise. Armed with nothing but her grandmother's sentient (and temperamental) magical staff, Zelle finds herself tasked with keeping them both alive.

Between monstrous beasts, magical storms, and an enthusiastic but inept aspiring assassin and her dragon sidekick, Zelle has her work cut out if she wants to survive long enough to save her grandmother and prevent the destruction of a nation.

Maybe Zeuten is in need of a few heroes after all…

Also included is the exclusive free short story, The Unexpected Tourist.

Also available to buy on retailers here.

BBNYA 2023 Semi-Finalist

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Zelle Carnelian was on her way to the Sentinels’ outpost when she ran into her first tourists of the day.

The man and woman both wore long travelling cloaks that must be newly purchased, as they bore no stains or markings from the road. If Zelle had to guess, they’d taken a carriage until the roads had come to an end close to the village of Randel, nestled between patches of dense forest. Catching sight of Zelle, they hurried in her direction.

“Is this the outpost?” The woman, whose deeply tanned complexion indicated she’d travelled from the eastern spear of the continent, held a crumpled, hand-drawn map in her hand. “The Sentinels’ outpost, near the location of the lost Relic?”

Zelle stared at her for a moment, baffled that anyone would think the outpost would be situated close enough to human habitation for hapless tourists to wander into. “No, the outpost is up in the mountains. You won’t reach it before sunset.”

Not unless they knew the shortcuts, that was, and Zelle had no intention of enlightening them on the matter—nor anyone else who was willing to risk being eaten alive by a wyrm or dashing their brains out on the harsh cliffs in their quest to find the supposed lost Relics of the gods. Would-be adventurers came here in droves during the summer months and either returned home empty-handed or not at all, yet the stories persisted. The mist-wreathed expanse of Zeuten’s famed Range certainly looked alluring from the ground, but Zelle had spent years traipsing all over the mountain paths and had found nothing in the way of mythical Relics. 

Besides, Zelle didn’t trust anyone who aspired to heroics. They never met a pleasant end.

The two tourists exchanged dispirited glances.

“In the mountains?” echoed the man. “Are you sure?”

Of course I’m sure. The Sentinel is my grandmother. Not that she’d ever tell that to these two strangers. From outward appearances, Zelle looked like any other villager from the Range, with neither the classic black hair nor the tanned complexion of her mother’s family. Her freckled face and the reddish tint to her brown hair she owed to her father, along with the pale complexion of someone who’d spent most of her childhood with her nose in a book rather than embarking on the wild travels of her ancestors. She could blame some of that on her dear departed Aunt Adaine’s habit of remarking that adventures belonged between the pages of a book and nowhere else. These days, there was no need for heroes in the country of Zeuten. 

“We’re all better off without them,” Aunt Adaine had often added. “We don’t bother the gods, and they don’t bother us in return.”

Easy enough, since no living person recalled the times when the deities had ever been anything more than a word uttered in anger or prayer, or a silent recipient of an offering left on the doorstep. As for their Relics, most people had more important things to concern themselves with than the mysteries of the Range and the inhospitable lands to the north.

“We can always wait until the morning,” suggested the woman. “Explore the trails instead.”

“Do that,” Zelle encouraged. “You’ve come such a long way that it would be a pity to waste your trip. Try the Randel Inn. They offer reasonable rates on rooms, and the owner is very knowledgeable about the walking routes in the forest.”

If they asked the advice of a local, they were less likely to fall victim to one of the mountain’s pitfalls. The forest might be dense, but the villagers were familiar with its trails and paths, and the newcomers ought to be able to avoid any wild predators if they returned before nightfall.

“Thank you.” The woman turned to her companion. “We’ll explore the forest. There are rumours of abandoned settlements, so we might get lucky anyway…”

As the tourists departed, Zelle watched them leave, their cloaks trailing behind them. Then she turned back to the stretch of pine trees clothing the mountain’s base, contemplating the dark mass of clouds blooming on the horizon. Typical of Grandma Carnelian to neglect to check the skies before leaving for the outpost. While her visits were primarily for the purpose of scrounging up any old junk that her grandmother could spare to sell in the shop she’d inherited from her aunt, Zelle suspected that if she didn’t make the occasional journey here to check on the old Sentinel, she’d probably have got herself killed long ago.

Once she was certain the tourists had gone, Zelle sought out a shortcut that sliced through the forest directly to the base of the mountain. Silence wreathed the thick pines, the faint hum of the villagers’ chatter fading with each step and shadows stretching across the leaf-strewn paths. When the rain began, it would turn the paths into puddles and render even the smoothest trail into a treacherous bog. The return trip would not be pleasant, but an isolated outpost in the mountains was no place for a ninety-five-year-old woman to spend the night. 

As Zelle walked, a faint rustling sounded from amid the trees to her left. Her shoulders stiffened, her gaze skimming her surroundings, and she caught sight of a pale shape sticking out of the bushes. Her heart leapt into her throat. That was a hand… a human hand.

Zelle walked closer, spying the hand’s owner. The man wore the garb of a messenger, with his sack of letters lying nearby, but it was the arrow piercing his throat that caught Zelle’s attention. No wild animal had killed him. Travellers undoubtedly had a habit of dying in strange and unpleasant manners in Zeuten’s wilder regions, but this was different. A human had committed this murder—but who would lurk in the foothills of the Range, shooting down messengers? Her family were the only people who willingly ventured into the woods, aside from the occasional hapless tourists, and she knew nobody in the village with that level of skill with a bow. Much less a desire to fire upon oblivious messengers.

A quiver of alarm snaked through her. Grandma Carnelian was armed at all times with her Sentinel’s staff, so whoever had fired the arrow was likely to come off worse from a confrontation with her, but Zelle herself had no weapons but the cheap knife she typically carried on the road. She gripped it tightly as she left the body behind and returned to her route to the mountains, the first rumble of thunder echoing in the background.

The path wove between thick pine trees, closing the distance between the woodland and the foot of the mountain in a matter of moments, and yet Grandma still did not appear. Nor did whoever had shot the arrow. Instead, she found herself facing the sheer cliffs of the Range, shrouded by bruise-coloured clouds.

Stifling a shiver, Zelle pulled her thick wool coat more tightly around herself and continued on until she came to the narrow slash in the cliffside which led into a cave containing a set of stone stairs hewn into the very mountain itself. No tourists would easily stumble upon this particular spot, yet Zelle remained tense as she hurried up the stairs. The echo of her footsteps pursued her, punctuated by the occasional rumble of thunder. When she neared the top, a faint whistling reached her ears from outside. The wind had picked up, the storm moving faster than she’d anticipated.

The stairs came to an end in a small cave, whose narrow opening led out onto the mountain itself. Zelle approached the exit and was greeted by the sight of a torrent of snow racing downwards at the mountain path. A fierce wind propelled the swirl of flakes into the cave entrance, and Zelle had no choice but to brace herself for the onslaught as she walked outside. Her steps slowed as she pressed a hand on the nearest cliff to keep her balance, the other shielding her eyes as she looked for any signs of her grandmother. 

A short distance away stood the first outpost of the Sentinels, a crooked towerlike construction whose slanted walls made it appear to be leaning against the cliffside. As a child, Zelle had once remarked that it looked like it’d travelled halfway across the mountain and had to stop for a rest. Right now, she sincerely hoped her grandmother had had the sense to get indoors before the storm had struck, because the snow had already formed a thick crust around the tower’s base and clung to Zelle’s feet as she covered the short distance to the tower. 

To her intense relief, the door was unlocked, so she wrenched it open and slammed inside. 

“That’s one big storm,” she murmured, brushing snowflakes from the sleeve of her coat and running her fingers through damp tendrils of reddish-brown hair. “Grandma?”

No response came from within the Sentinel’s quarters, which appeared untouched since her last visit. Inside the main room, a fire lay guttered and empty. The shelves to either side were packed with books, the air replete with the scent of old pages. She’d spent many a happy childhood hour nestled in the window seat, thumbing through old storybooks while Grandma and her sister Aurel discussed Sentinel matters. Today, though, a sense of neglect permeated the tower, and most of the valuables had been stripped away over the years.

At one time, their family had held enough wealth to rival the Crown Prince, but their fortune had dwindled away with each passing generation, and so had their numbers. Zelle’s own father had met a tragic end in a boating accident, while her mother had died of a sickness when she was eight. As a result, Zelle had begun to help her aunt in the shop from a young age and had quickly learned that her family’s history held little value in the modern world. Many Zeutenians prided themselves on having nothing to do with the scheming magicians in Aestin, and the Sentinels were the sole reminder that those ties had ever existed.

Of course, there were always the few who were keen to probe her for knowledge of the lost Relic of legend, but with the way her family’s luck usually went, the legend probably referred to some mundane object a settler had lost on the trek through the Range rather than anything of worth.

Oh, Powers. I’m starting to sound just like Aunt Adaine. And just where is Grandma?

Zelle strode through the quarters, peered into both the main bedroom and the guest room, and was readying herself to climb the stairs into the Sanctum when her gaze fell on a long stick of dark wood, half concealed beneath an armchair. Her grandmother’s staff. The Sentinel never let it leave her sight if she could help it, and she muttered to her staff more than she talked to her own grandchildren. If she’d left it lying on the floor, then something must be horribly wrong.

Zelle’s fingers closed around the end of the staff. A sudden voice rang out, sharp and demanding: Put me down!

Her hand opened of its own accord, sending the staff clattering to the floor. Her heart thudded against her rib cage, and her mind recoiled from the knowledge that the staff had spoken to her. Only the Sentinel was supposed to be able to hear its voice.

“Where’s Grandma?” She scrambled to pick up the staff again, but it tumbled from her grip as though it would sooner lie neglected than allow her to hold it. Gritting her teeth, Zelle crouched down beside the prone wooden stick. “I’m not an intruder. I’m Zelle, the Sentinel’s granddaughter. Where is she?” 

This time, when her hand coiled around the staff’s length, a jolt of awareness shot through Zelle’s nerves to her fingertips. Zelle, the voice said. Ah yes, the talentless one. Still alive, are you?

“Excuse me?” She pushed to her feet, keeping a firm grip on the long wooden staff. “Where is Grandma? This place looks deserted.” 

She went through a door. 

Zelle stared at the carved stick for a moment, wondering if the staff might be lying to her. Why, she couldn’t say, but she shouldn’t be able to hear its voice at all. “What is that supposed to mean?” 

Are you simple?

“Not in the slightest.” She narrowed her eyes in a glare in response to the insult, though the Powers only knew if the staff could see her face when it didn’t have eyes. “Tell me where my grandmother is, or I’ll chop you up and use you as firewood.”

You would never.

How had her grandmother endured the staff’s stubbornness for so many years without tossing it away in frustration? She muttered to it a lot, Zelle knew, but she’d never heard it talk back. Not until now. A sentient staff wasn’t too unusual here at the outpost, where the Sanctum was full of ancient tomes teeming with secrets and rattler-imps lurked in the shadows, but she hadn’t expected the Sentinel’s staff to be this… temperamental.

I can tell you’re going to be a difficult one, the staff remarked.

“Speak for yourself.” Her gaze snagged on the window, from which she could usually see all the way down to the forests surrounding the village below. Instead, snowflakes swirled in thick dervishes, and the wind rattled the window in its frame. If Grandma wasn’t inside the outpost, then Zelle had no chance whatsoever of finding her until the storm abated. There were worse places to be stranded in a snowstorm, given that the Sanctum contained books which weren’t available anywhere else in the nation, but for once, the notion of losing herself between the pages of a story was far from Zelle’s thoughts. 

What could possibly have dragged her grandmother away from her staff, and why had she even come here in the first place? 

Zelle suppressed a flinch when the wind struck the tower like a heavy blow and the staff in her grip grew cold. Someone’s coming.

* * *

The storm began when the young man was halfway across the Range. One moment, the sky was clear; the next, clouds rushed in, bringing a sweep of snow which numbed his hands and froze his skin to the bone. His battered leather travelling boots skidded at every other step, threatening to send him into a fatal tumble. But he kept on, because the alternative was death. He felt its cold presence lurking inside him, like the jaws of some beast waiting below a sheer and inevitable fall. Yet a single image remained etched in the front of his mind: a red leather-bound book. Once opened, they said the book would give its discoverer what they most wanted in the world. For that reason alone, he had to survive.

The mountain had other plans, however, and the path grew more treacherous with each step. On either side of him, the ground dropped away, with nothing to grab onto if he were to slide too close to the edge. If he hadn’t spent the last few weeks existing in a place far beyond fear, he might have returned to steady ground to take a ship home, to live out his last days in the land of his ancestors. Then again, in his current state, he might not survive another voyage across the ocean. And so he stumbled on, both hands gripping his staff tightly. He’d bought it with the last of his coin, and while it was nothing more than an ordinary walking stick, he could still imagine that he sensed the ghostly presence of his deity under the surface.

He kept going uphill while his hands grew red with cold and his feet numbed in their boots. Gritting his teeth against the bitter wind, he kept his gaze fixed on the peak of the mountain visible beyond the sweeping snow. Occasionally, he wondered what kind of people lived up here in the most desolate part of the world. Who in their right mind would trade safety, security, and human company to guard the secrets of the Powers? If rumour was to be believed, the rest of Zeuten had turned its back on magic altogether, but there was little information on the Sentinels save for tall tales carried across the sea. He’d paid them little notice in the past, and if he closed his eyes, he could imagine his father berating him for putting his faith in a mere rumour—but his father was gone, and tall tales were all he had left.

Then he came to a halt. Ahead of him lay a bridge of dark wood lashed to the cliffs by ropes. It did not look sturdy in the least, judging by the creaking and groaning that came with every gust of wind. Mist swirled around its edges, and when he risked a glance down into the valley, he saw nothing but a black mass that might have been trees. It was a very long, grim fall.

“The Powers grant me safe passage,” he murmured, the wind snatching the words from his mouth. Turning back at this point would be as fatal as the alternative. Nothing to do but walk and hope whatever deity dwelt within this mountain was on his side.

He took one step then another. The bridge bucked and swayed with every movement, each step dragging for an eternity. His heart hammered frantically, as though to remind him he had a limit on his life whether he made it to his destination or not. Then he lifted his head, and a rush of rejuvenating energy bolstered him.

There it is. The crooked stone tower appeared like something out of a dream, forming a splash of shadow against the bitter whiteness. The outpost of the Sentinels of Zeuten… and his last chance.

The bridge rocked again, and his heart gave a lurch. He had never feared heights, but he wondered why the bridge hadn’t been built with safety in mind when the Sentinels were so vital to their nation. Unless it somehow judged him unworthy and was trying to throw him off the mountain, that was. He kept onward, step by step, suppressing a gasp of relief when he found solid ground beneath his feet. A rocky path led the rest of the way up to the tower, the stones buried in piles of snow.

The mountain, however, wasn’t finished with him yet. As soon as he began to climb, the smooth rocks had him scrambling and slipping. His path slowed to a steady crawl, and when he slid too close to the cliffside, only luck stopped him tumbling over the edge. He kept on, wedging his numb fingers into cracks in the rocks and trying not to look down. He wondered if he’d left his courage somewhere back home, though admittedly, no one in their right mind would attempt to climb this bare rock and be anything short of terrified.

Waving farewell to his last vestiges of dignity, he remained flat on his front, hauling himself up the stone path by sheer force of will. The tower wavered before his eyes, appearing no closer than before, and when he pulled himself upright in the hopes that using his feet might quicken his pace, he slipped. Arms wheeling, he sought to regain his footing, but a blast of wind caught him at the edge. He found himself clinging to the cliff by his fingertips, the icy shadow of death looming closer than ever.

“Curse you, Powers, you temperamental bastards,” he snarled, losing his head completely. Even in his current state of panic, he was vaguely aware that cursing the names of the Powers upon one of their sacred mountains was probably the worst thing he could have done. Yet the echoes of his own shouts gave him something to focus on that wasn’t the sheer drop, and he managed to heave himself up to safety.

Breathless, he lay facedown on the path, and several moments passed before he was able to focus on his surroundings. When he pushed to his knees, a sudden booming voice spoke in his ear: WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?

The breath froze in his lungs, and try as he might, he couldn’t lift his head to look upon the speaker. His whole body felt weighted down by an invisible force.

The image of a leather-bound book wavered in front of his vision before darkness filtered in.

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