Mountains Will Crumble
SPOILERS AHEAD! The following excerpt contains spoilers from the first book, Leaves May Fall. If you have not read Leaves and wish to remain unspoiled, turn back now!
The air was static: deceptively calm, but pressurized. Everything was dark. Or maybe there was light, but everything was so deeply black that nothing was discernible.
Mollian stood in the center of the space, or possibly right on the edge. He breathed evenly, turning in a slow circle. Though there was no apparent source of light, the mess of white curls falling over the aspen branch tattoo that crowned his brow shone in stark contrast to the light brown of his skin.
“Hello?” he called, and his voice echoed back to him from some unseen obstacle.
He took a few tentative steps forward, one hand held out to keep from smashing his face into something.
He felt like he should be scared, or at least concerned, but he was almost void of emotion aside from a light curiosity about where he was and how he’d come to be there.
Looking down at his feet, he took a few more steps forward, and then backward. Then he sidestepped. A chuckle fell from his lips, the echo returning to him from all sides.
The ground was moving with him, like his steps weren’t propelling his body, but the surface underneath him. Curiosity winning out, Mollian lunged forward, running with long strides. The ground rolled seamlessly beneath him, no matter if he slowed to a jog or launched into a full sprint.
Eventually he stopped, clasping his hands at the back of his head as he panted, trying to catch his breath.
His surroundings were still the same heavy black nothing they’d always been, but he noticed he felt lighter, less compressed, the longer he spent in this place.
My magic. The realization slammed into him. The pressure he typically felt from it pushing at the constraints of his body was no longer present.
Out of sheer curiosity, Mollian summoned his power. There was nothing in this room to reach for, so he just shot it forward.
It rushed from him like a siphon, taking his breath with it.
He tried to pull back, not having meant to unleash such a strong burst of power.
Pull. Pull. Pull, his magic seemed to whisper, refusing to settle.
Mollian held up his other hand in a futile attempt to restrain the magic that poured from him freely.
His magic settled, moving calmly through his blood as he dropped onto his hands and knees. He waited for a moment and was about to push himself up when he heard a ripping sound from far above him.
It was soft, but echoed in the stillness of the space, soon followed by a soft hiss. Air brushed across Mollian’s skin, gently ruffling his curls as it sought escape from its confines.
He glanced up, standing slowly while his eyes stayed locked on to the source of the sound above him.
A narrow tear had appeared in the vast expanse of black, and light spilled through in a rotating prism of color.
Mollian licked his lips, realizing his mouth had gone dry.
Pull. Rip. Tear. His magic stirred, eager.
Taking a deep breath, he set his feet firmly and held out both hands, letting his magic flow through him.
Pull! Rip! Tear!
He felt his power wriggle into the open seam, momentarily stopping the rush of air seeping out. His magic squeezed into that rip, gripping it from each end, threading through the molecular makeup of the blackness.
Mollian clenched his fists and threw his arms wide, his magic following the movement and tearing the seam into a large gap.
Pull! Rip! Tear!
Thousands upon thousands of threads appeared through the hole, each one shimmering with color and light. He hardly even noticed though, too preoccupied with following the call of his power, focusing on tearing the blackness further and further back.
A guttural growl ripped from his chest, turning into a yell as he again pulled at the long tear.
With one final cry, Mollian rent the blackness completely in two, and it dropped from around him like a curtain.
“What the …” he panted, finally looking around. What had appeared to be thousands of threads crossing the sky turned out to be millions, interwoven and extending in every direction. They all seemed to originate from a point behind him, and he turned slowly, apprehension suddenly filling his chest. He blinked away a drop of sweat that rolled from his brow.
Mollian’s eyes flew open, his magic rippling outward in a pulse that flung the blankets from his bed and sent the objects on his nightstands scattering. He panted, instinctively reaching out for Merriam with his mind before remembering she wasn’t there.
“Entumbra, she’s in Entumbra,” he whispered to himself. He took a deep breath, reining in his magic and forcing it to settle. It stretched underneath his skin for a few moments before it finally quieted. He lay there for a while, testing to see if he could fall back asleep, but he was restless.
Mollian sat up with a groan, moonlight catching the sheen of cold sweat on his chest. He swung his legs out of bed, pulling the bedding back onto the mattress with a flick of his fingers as he made his way into his bathroom.
With another careless wave of his hand in the general direction of the shower, he turned on the tap, letting the water warm while he filled a cup from the sink and drank.
Mollian couldn’t remember anything from his dream aside from the vast expanse of blackness and the blinding, colorful light. His brow furrowed, but nothing else would come to him. His power felt roiling and restless inside him, but his mehhen had been gone for over a week, so he didn’t think much of it.
Ever since he’d been tattooed with the crown of aspen leaves, the ink mixed with finely crushed pieces of the Gate, his magic had felt more immense and harder to dampen. Merriam’s presence helped with it, though. Something about the way their souls were bound allowed it more space to stretch.
Mollian stepped under the stream of water, his hair plastering to his face. He pushed it back, the water cascading over him and washing away the last unsettling remnants of the dream.
After drying off, Mollian dressed in simple pants and a cotton shirt to head down to the kitchens.
Rillak, a sergeant in the Royal Guard, was stationed outside the outer door to Mollian’s chambers. The burly Guard looked down at him curiously. “Yer Majesty’s up early this mornin’.”
Mollian smiled, waving him off. “Guess I was just eager to start the day.”
“What’s on the agenda?”
Mollian stared off down the hallway. “Roads, Rillak. Roads are on the agenda,” he said with a heavy sigh.
The kitchen staff rushed to prepare him breakfast, though he tried to assure them it wasn’t pressing. Even after almost eleven months as king, he still wasn’t used to the way everyone jumped to attend to his every want and need. It made him exceedingly uncomfortable, but as much as he tried to explain he didn’t need to be waited on hand and foot, his denizens continued to rush to do things for him.
Mollian ate his breakfast in the courtyard, staying until the sky slowly began to lighten over the mountains to the east. He considered changing, knowing Ferrick would be attending the meeting, more than likely in full uniform. But he was feeling ornery, and he was king. Why should he have to dress a certain way? He had no one to impress.
Graigory would be the most important person present, and Mollian would bet good coin he could show up naked and the roadsmaster wouldn’t notice as long as plans were out on the table prior to his arrival.
“Good morning, Your Majesty,” a Guard greeted as he made his way back inside.
“Good morning,” Mollian returned with a smile. He cringed inwardly that he hadn’t even realized there’d been a shift change. Merriam would be disappointed in his lack of observation.
Almost a year had passed since she’d killed Basta, and there hadn’t been any reported demon activity since, but Merriam still worried. She’d become almost obsessive with making sure the ley lines spread throughout the country stayed warded, sending birds back and forth with every outpost to make sure nothing out of the ordinary was happening without their knowledge.
Mollian understood, though. Losing Oren had almost broken her, and sometimes she still blamed herself for not doing things differently. As the second-born prince with no set destiny, Mollian had never been under the same guard as his brother and parents. Merriam knew that lack of security had led to his kidnapping, the rescue of which had led to Oren’s death.
Mollian still blamed himself, too. He knew he’d had the power to pull the demon from his brother and collapse the cave, but he’d been too slow in harnessing his magic, and Merriam had been too argumentative, too questioning.
It was a thought he had never shared with anyone and would take to his grave, but even if Oren had been able to get out, Mollian never would have been able to bring down the cave with Merriam still inside. A part of him knew that he could have killed them all, but not her. He would never have been able to be the cause of her death.
Even if it wasn’t intentional, he had chosen Merriam over his brother that day, and that knowledge ate away at him, the guilt adding to the perpetual feeling that he was only an impostor parading as king.
Oren never would have been so selfish.
But … hadn’t he?
Wasn’t it Oren’s love for Merriam that had made him angry enough to take back control from the demon possessing him and turn on Basta?
Mollian shook his head to clear it of the dismal thoughts.
It was nearing a year since his brother’s death, and it was dredging up emotions and feelings more frequently than he’d dealt with in the past few months.
He missed Oren, especially on days like today, when he would be deciding things that could possibly change the course of their country, change history. Mollian often wondered if his brother would have made the same choices. If he would be proud.
The war room was empty when Mollian entered, and he slipped into the office at the back, buckling a sword around his waist. A small detail, especially considering his attire, but one that Ferrick’s warrior mind would see and respect. Grabbing the plans and various agendas and budget charts from the top of his desk, he went back to the main room, piling everything neatly onto the table overlaid with a map of Sekha.
He sorted through the notes he’d written, refreshing himself for any potential arguments or questions to come.
Ferrick was the first to enter, accompanied by a few advisors and representatives from other territories. “Good morning, Your Majesty,” he greeted, dipping his head respectfully, but his eyes traveled down Mollian’s body, judging. His expression had cleared by the time he met Mollian’s eyes again.
“Good morning, Captain.” Mollian returned the nod before addressing the others. “Go ahead and take your seats. Master Graigory should be here shortly, and then we’ll get started.”
Polite conversation filled the room, and after a bit of deliberation, Mollian took his seat at the head of the table, forcing his legs to remain still when they wanted to bounce with nervous energy.
Mollian shouldn’t have been surprised when Graigory strolled in, his arms filled with papers and research of his own and light blue eyes bright with excitement.
“Thank you for your patience, Majesty. I hope you weren’t waiting on me too long. I’d forgotten one of the maps and had to run back home,” the roadsmaster apologized, setting up at the end of the table opposite Mollian.
“No worries at all, Master Graigory. We’ve only just assembled,” Mollian assured him, fighting off a grimace at the formality of his words.
Once the fae had finished organizing his papers, he looked to Mollian with a broad smile.
At least one of us is looking forward to this, he thought, before clearing his throat. “Thank you all for being here first thing in the morning and clearing your schedules. We have a lot to discuss, and I’d like to get as much of the groundwork done today as possible.”
Mollian took a deep breath. He’d discussed bits and pieces of this project with everyone in some manner, but never all of it together. He’d wanted to be sure it was a viable possibility before dedicating himself to the cause, knowing that if he’d thrown the idea out without any research and it turned out not to be probable, many would think it was directly related to his age and inexperience.
The only one who knew the entirety of this proposal was Graigory. Mollian had approached him with the idea first, getting reports back with additional inquiries that he forwarded off to the appropriate people.
“As you’re aware, Master Graigory and I have been collaborating on a way to advance trade throughout Sekha. Currently, it takes roughly a week to travel from Do Lech to Umbra, longer if large amounts of cargo are being transported. I believe there’s a way the trip can be completed in two days or less.” Mollian confidently met the eyes of each person in attendance as he spoke, keeping his voice smooth and measured.
Mollian unrolled one of his diagrams, clipping it to a stand beside him so that everyone could easily see. “This, my friends, is a train. It will be capable of moving large quantities of food, cloth, stone, people—anything imaginable, really—at high speeds using the power of steam.”
“Steam?” one of the guildmasters questioned.
“Yes.” Mollian picked up another stack of papers to be passed around the table. “Here’s a rough idea of the contraption we’d need to build. I’ve talked with the head of the smithsguild in Umbra and have been assured that they’re capable of creating it.”
The king kept to himself that he’d tasked Merriam with hunting down old blueprints of steam engines from Earth. Though crude electricity was possible throughout Nethyl, more intricate technology was incompatible with magic and the way it moved through the world. But steam was just another form of hydropower, and Mollian was interested to see how much industrialization magic would allow. Merriam had found a few very informative books that she’d brought back for him, helping him translate some of the more intricate English into Common so he could study on his own. He kept them locked away in the desk in his room, but would eventually have them fully translated and kept in the castle library to use as reference.
Mollian gave everyone a moment to look over the simplified versions of the plans for the large steam engine and the designs for different carts it could pull before continuing. “The biggest challenge with this project will be building a rail system for the train to travel on. Master Graigory, would you like to go into the details?”
The roadsmaster stood, spreading his own map over the table. “Absolutely, Your Majesty.”
Graigory explained, in great detail, how they would be able to lay steel and wood down along the side of the major roads already cut through the foothills, setting up small stations along the way that could be manned with people who could make sure the tracks stayed in safe condition.
Mollian sat in his seat, elbows propped on the table and his eyes following Graigory’s hands as they moved over the map. His expression stayed attentive, but his mind wandered. He had initially been excited about the idea of implementing train travel in Sekha, but it was really just the engineering of it that piqued his interest. Once he’d worked out whether or not they would be capable of creating a steam engine and how to make it work in his world without having a drastic impact on the environment, he’d learned that getting it put into action was all politics. And if Graigory could talk all night long about simple roads, he had ten times as much to say about railroads.
Mollian felt guilty for it, but this part of it bored him nearly to tears. He was excited for what it meant for his country, but he’d done his part of figuring out how it would work. What was the point of having advisors and people in charge of different branches of politics if they couldn’t work the rest of it out themselves?
He stifled a sigh, sliding one hand into his lap and playing with a small penknife under the table just to have something to do with his hands. At least if Merriam were here, they could make a game to play together. His magic flared slightly, as if remembering she was gone.
Soon, he promised. She’ll be home soon.