Arbiter (The Arbiter Chronicles Book 1) (2 page)

BOOK: Arbiter (The Arbiter Chronicles Book 1)
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Chapter One: Alone

She had always been alone.

Memories flashed through her mind as she floated away, the hospital room and the Reaper’s face fading from her view. The bottom dropped out from under her, and she seemed to fall endlessly, her eyes slowly closing and her arms spread out on either side of her as she fell into the dark.

She remembered watching as a child as the Reaper took her parents away from her, remembered wandering into the darkness of the living room one day to see him there, his scythe in hand, and her parents on the floor. She vaguely remembered the fire, and the questions in the aftermath.

And she remembered his eyes.

They looked at her, and she had felt like a hand closed over her heart. Like she couldn't remember how to breathe.

She remembered getting sent from relative to relative, passed around quickly once it became clear that she was not normal, that she could see things no one else could. She remembered Hallie. Remembered breaking.

At the center of it all, there was always the Reaper. There had been screaming—her voice, and then his. There had been tears—all hers—and then there had been his declaration. His promise, and her curse.

“You don't want me to take randomly? Is that it? Then fine. I'll just take from you.”

She remembered the Reaper’s taunts as she grew attached to the people who accepted her, remembered watching from a distance as they all died, one after another. First, she would see darkness gathering around them, smothering them in a cloud of black. Then, something would happen—an event she couldn’t predict or couldn’t prevent, no matter how hard she tried. And then they would die, and she would be left alone again. Ever since high school, the answer was the same.

It was never like her parents. Although that night was still fuzzy, she remembered that much. She had insisted on it long after others had given up. It wasn't the fire. It had been murder. She didn't know why he had killed them personally. But at some point, it had stopped mattering. Death was death, and a point came where she simply stopped caring, not reaching out to anyone and not allowing anyone to reach out to her.

She became a shadow, a ghost in the world she had been born in. Living for the sake of living, existing for the sake of existing…

At some point, she managed to convince herself that she hated people. It didn't last, so she retreated. She found her solace in books, as she always did, in music, in the things she could do alone. When she went to college, she drifted through her classes, never speaking unless she had to, never participating in anything if she could help it, and never joining a class with less than thirty students, so that they wouldn’t be forced to talk.

And then there was Nathan James.

Somehow he managed to find his way into her life. Not in a romantic way—she hadn't been interested in him like that, but he had sought her out as a friend. He had always been an idiot in her mind, drawn to the girl who no one knew and no one  understood.

And she had stupidly let him. She hadn't sighted the Reaper in years before that night. A small foolish part of herself had started to hope that he had left her alone. She didn't exactly let
Nathan talk to her, but she didn't do a very good job of making him go away.

It was funny how one bullet—something so small and so fast—could so efficiently end a life.

At twenty-one, death was something some people her age had never encountered. It was an old enemy to her, a fact of life.

The people she loved would die.

It was simply what it was. Fact. She had learned not to fight it.

And so she had always been alone.


When she opened her eyes, she was lying on the slope of a hill, in a bed of coarse grass. Above her lay an expanse of stars. They looked too bright and too close to be real,  fully illuminating the area. Rae took a deep breath, slowly sitting up. She stared down at her hand. It seemed unnaturally pale in the starlight. She thought she seemed almost translucent, like the light could travel straight through her.

She ran a hand through her long black hair, taking a deep breath. She didn’t feel quite normal. It felt like her body wasn’t her own, like she was still floating in a dream.

“Hello, Arbiter,” said a male voice from behind her. “Good to see you awake.”

Rae tensed and turned her head sharply, thinking it was the Reaper. The man behind her, though, was someone she had never encountered before. His hair was a bright gold, and his eyes were blue. Where the Reaper wore black, he wore white—a long sleeved white shirt, pants, and a cloak that rested lightly on his shoulders. His skin was the same shade as the Reaper’s, but while the Reaper radiated death, this man did not. He was handsome, but she instinctively shied away.

The Reaper was handsome too. The Reaper looked like someone she could trust too. She knew better than to fall for that.

“Don’t worry,” said the man, giving her a small smile. “I’m not here to hurt you. I’m just here to talk.”

“So talk,” said Rae. “I’m listening.”

“You aren't going to ask me who I am?” asked the man, his smile fading as he looked at her. “You seem...surprisingly calm, considering all of this. Almost like someone who's given up.”

She didn't answer that. She couldn't. He sighed as the silence grew deeper, coming to stand next to her.

“I wanted to talk about the deal you made with the Reaper,” he said, stopping beside her. Rae didn’t move to get up, instead resting her hand on her knee as she looked up at him. “You’ve been sent to the Twilight Realms, to search for Kaeltharin. Do you even know what you’re looking for?”

Rae paused, staring up at him. Truthfully, she had no idea. He had told her that it was an item, but that could mean anything. Her mouth twisted into a scowl. Of course he wouldn't tell her much. He had no intention of letting her or Nathan go. He would let her run herself ragged for a year, and then he would come to collect…

The thought chilled her, and she wrapped her arms around her knees for warmth.

“…No clue,” she admitted, looking away from him.

“I see.” He slowly lowered himself, sitting down beside her. She tensed, but did not move away. He was different from the Reaper. that much, she was sure of, though she didn’t know how or by how much. “I would not have expected him to. The Shard of the Star is an item from an ancient age. Even in the Twilight Realm, it is something of legend. Few are aware of its existence, fewer still know how to find it. To find it, you will need to go into dark corners untouched for centuries, and into the darkest part of yourself. You will be tested by forces any sane man would leave alone, and you will be brought to the brink of despair, if you do not cross it entirely. It is not a journey for the faint-hearted, and it is not
one you can make alone.”

Rae stared down at the ground at the bottom of the hill. The grasslands seemed to go on forever, and she wondered where she was. Was this the Twilight Realm, or was this somewhere else? How many planes of existence were there anyway?

“Why are you telling me this?” she asked.

“Because I think it’s fair that you understand what you are getting into,” said the man. “I want you to enter this situation equipped with all the knowledge you need to succeed, and all that can reasonably be given to you. What you are attempting to do is something that has not been done for centuries. I think you might be able to do it, Arbiter, but not as you are now.”

“Why are you calling me that?” asked Rae. “My name’s Rae. Rae Miller.”

“An arbiter is one who decides,” said the man. “In this situation, this is what you are. It was your choice to accept the Reaper’s bargain and search for the Shard. What you do with it should you find it will also be your choice. You know that the Reaper does nothing without a reason. Should you fail to find the Shard, he will take you away, and no one will be able to find you.”

Rae’s heart sank like a stone as she understood what the man was implying. In truth, she had expected something like this. “…And if I do manage to find it?” she asked.

The man turned his eyes away from her, looking off into the distance. “…In ancient times, Kaeltharin was a weapon. It is still a weapon. The Reaper is strong, but giving him the Shard of the Star would make him invincible. You gain your life, but at what cost?”

“So it’s a win-win situation for him, then?” mumbled Rae, staring down at her hands. “Of course.”

The man looked back at her“You do have another choice.”.

Rae sighed impatiently, getting to her feet. “And what choice is that?”

“Remember, Kaeltharin is a weapon. Once you find it, there’s a fairly good chance that you
might have the heart to wield it.”

Her eyes widened as she realized what he was implying. “You want me to fight him?” she asked. “Are you insane? I can’t fight him! He’s the embodiment of death, and I’m—.” She paused, thinking through her words. What was
she? “I’m…” she began. “I’m just…”

“Yes?” asked the man, looking up at her. “You’re just…what?”

When she said nothing, he turned away from her, looking up at the sky. “You are Arbiter,” he said. “Understand what that means. In this situation, you have the power to decide. And what you decide will mark your fate.”

“Who are you?” asked Rae.

“Someone who wants you to succeed,” said the man. “In whatever it is you decide to do. The Twilight Realm is different from the world you know. Your power will be different there as well. You've survived this far by not making allies, but you will soon need them. Remember what I said. You cannot do this alone.”

The sky began to darken, the stars fading out one by one as darkness encroached upon the edges of the world she was sitting in. Her eyes widened, and she took a deep breath, stepping back from the approaching shadows. The man didn’t react. He simply turned towards her.

“You will awaken soon,” said the man, looking over at her. “I hope you remember these words when you do.”

The darkness swirled around her, dragging her back into it as the man and the world he was in slowly faded away. He continued to speak, his eyes locked onto hers as she began to fall again.

“I have directed you to somewhere where you might be able to find assistance. It is the most I can do for now. Good luck...Arbiter.” 


Chapter Two: Mage Tower

When Rae next awoke, she was lying in bed. She slowly opened her eyes, letting the room's high ceilings come into focus above her. Sunlight refracted off of a window somewhere above her head, the glare blinding her as she tried to orient herself. She raised her hand to shield her eyes, squinting as she turned away from the light.

Slowly, her senses began to return to her, and she studied her surroundings. Her bed lay against the wall of the small room. The roof slanted inwards somewhat, so that the ceilings were higher near the door than they were near the window. The room was mostly bare except for the bed, although it did hold a wardrobe against one wall and a writing desk at the foot of the bed. Someone had taken the time to take off her shoes, placing the black flip flops neatly against the wall. She lifted the covers and looked down at herself, letting out a small sigh of relief when she realized she was still wearing her muddy dress.

She pushed the covers off of herself, slowly sitting up and sliding her legs over the side of the bed. The wooden floor was cold, and she slowly eased herself onto it, getting to her feet. This place didn’t carry the same dreamlike quality as the other place she had found herself in, but it was obviously different from the world she knew.

She felt different as well. The air here crackled with something, an energy that she couldn't quite name.

Rae hesitantly walked over to the door, leaving her shoes where they were for the moment. The door was heavy, reinforced with iron and with an iron handle. It reminded her that this was not her world, unless the Reaper was playing a cruel practical joke on her. She tugged on the handle, and the door swung open easily. Rae stepped through it, glancing around the corner.

She was in what looked like a circular hallway. A set of stairs wound up through the center of it, stretching on in both directions. Doors led off from all sides of the hallway on this floor. She counted four, not counting the one she had just stepped through.

Voices drifted up from downstairs. Rae hesitated for only a moment before letting the door close behind her and walking over to the staircase. She glanced down, but from this angle, she couldn’t see anything besides winding stairs and the barest hint of the floor below. There were definitely people down there, though.

The man had said that he was sending her somewhere that could help her.

Rae took a deep breath, gathering up her courage. She walked slowly down the stairs, her hand loosely curled into a fist near her chest. She kept one hand on the railing to steady herself, pausing as the floor below came into view.

It was more open than the floor she had just left, and the floor was carpeted this time instead of hardwood. Bookshelves lined the walls, several couches and armchairs spread out between them. Two people stood near a large window, talking quietly amongst themselves. They didn’t seem to notice her. From outside the window, Rae caught a glimpse of the tops of trees, making her wonder just how far the staircase extended.

One of the people talking was a woman about her age. She had short black hair, and spoke in a hushed voice, her hands curled protectively around a tray of food. The girl she was talking to was a lot younger, probably around ten or eleven. Her hair was somewhere between light brown and dark blond, and it was tied back in a braid. She spoke loudly, and had an insouciant grin on her face as the other woman scolded her. Both were dressed in white dresses with blue trim, although the older woman’s dress had more intricate designs than the girl’s did.

The younger girl looked up and saw her, and her grin widened as she pointed her out to the older woman. Rae took a step back reflexively, her eyes widening as the older woman turned towards her. Her fingers tightened around the railing of the stairs.

“Oh, you’re awake,” said the woman. Her expression softened as she noticed Rae’s frightened expression. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

“I thought you were going to sleep for longer than that,” said the girl, grinning at Rae as she locked her fingers together behind her head. “I was just telling Varra not to bother bringing you food.”

The woman, apparently named Varra, glared at the girl. “Edel, hush,” she said. “Don’t you have studying to do?”

Edel pouted, glancing at Varra. “I want to talk to her too,” she said.

“You can talk to her once she’s rested,” said Varra. “Leave her alone for now, please. If you need something to do with your time, go study your runes.”

“But that’s boring!” whined Edel.

“No buts,” said Varra, her eyes narrowing. Edel sighed, looking away. “Fine,” she said, running past Rae and continuing down the staircase. “But I’m gonna go tell Cathel she’s awake first!”

Varra sighed, balancing the tray in the crook of her elbow and pressing her free hand over her eyes. “God save us all from eager apprentices,” she muttered under her breath, before looking over at Rae. She managed to force a tired smile onto her face. “Sorry about Edel,” she said. “She’s new, and she gets a little excitable. Your arrival was the most exciting thing to happen in a while.”

Rae relaxed slightly, her grip on the banister loosening. “…Where am I, exactly?”

“You're at Laria Tower,” said Varra. “We found you outside two days ago. You just...appeared there, in a flash of light. You were unconscious, but you were mumbling something in your sleep. Something about someone named Nathan? A friend of yours?”

Rae's eyes darkened. “You could say that. Friend’s a little strong of a word. You said I was unconscious for two days?”

Varra nodded. “Mm. Cathel—my yearmate—theorized that you’d been through a portal between dimensions, and it had drained all your energy. You have a very strong Source, though, so he guessed you wouldn’t be unconscious long. We were a little worried. Sometimes people who get drained as much as you did don’t survive.”

Rae gave Varra a puzzled look. “Source?”

“Ah, sorry,” said Varra. “Forgot that this would all be unfamiliar to you. A Source is…well, it’s a long story, but it’s kind of the Source of your power, the thing that lets you use magic.”

Magic, she thought, glancing in the direction the younger girl had gone. Considering she had just been sent here by the Grim Reaper, and was in a world that seemed vastly different from her own, it wasn’t a hard thing to accept. It explained the yearmates at least, and the runes.

“…Is this a school of some sort?” she asked. “For magic?”

“You could say that.” Varra shrugged her shoulders slightly. “It’s a common misconception. Magic isn’t something you can really learn at
school. Everyone’s Source is different, and everyone’s power manifests in different ways. There are common threads, sure, but it’s not the sort of thing you can teach in a classroom setting, like mathematics or trade skills.”

“So what is this?” asked Rae, glancing around.

“This is a Tower. It’s one of five Towers, dedicated to the research and study of the magical arts, and the protection of the Safelands.”

“So you’re an apprentice?”

Varra shook her head. “Not exactly. I’m past my basic apprenticeship. I’m a mage, but I’m not experienced enough to carry rank in the Tower. I’m still pursuing my own studies.” She shook her head. “Ah, sorry,” she said. “We shouldn’t be talking about this right now. You just woke up. Why don’t you sit down and have something to eat? You must be hungry.”

“I’m fine,” said Rae, a little too quickly. Her eyes passed over the tray that Varra was carrying. She spotted some sort of soup, and half a roll of bread. Her stomach growled in spite of herself, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten in two days.

Varra smiled understandingly, walking over to one of the sets of arm chairs and placing the tray on the end table between them. Rae hesitated, then slowly walked down the stairs, taking the empty seat across from Varra. She gripped the hem of her dress nervously, pulling it down around her knees as the other woman pushed the bowl of soup towards her.

“…Thanks…” said Rae quietly, picking the bowl up. She stirred the soup slowly, then took a small spoonful of it. The moment the flavor and scent of food hit her, her hunger spiked, and she took a bigger spoonful, eating quickly.

Varra waited until Rae had finished half the bowl before talking again. “So…are you really from the Daylight Realm?”

Rae paused, setting down her spoon as she looked up at Varra. “…What?”

“The other Realm,” said Varra. “The magic-less one. Are you really from there?”

“…Yeah…I suppose…This is the Twilight Realm?”

Varra smiled slightly. “Yes, technically,” she said. “But nobody outside of the Towers calls it that.”

Rae nodded, continuing to eat. She tore a small piece out of her roll, using it to soak up some of the soup and taking small bites. She watched Varra out of the corner of her eye as she spoke. The other woman said nothing, allowing Rae to eat in silence, but Rae could sense Varra’s curiosity towards her. She couldn’t blame her for it. She would be curious too, in Varra’s shoes.

“…So…if you don’t mind my asking, what’s your name? And why are you here?”

Rae stared at Varra, as if considering how much she could trust her. She didn’t want to involve anyone in this if she could help it, but she couldn’t imagine finding her way on her own.

…The man had sent her to a mage Tower…and had told her that they could help her.

She set down her spoon with a clink.

“My name’s Rae Miller,” she said quietly. “I’m here to find Kaeltharin.”

It was impossible to disguise Varra's look of surprise. It was just as impossible to deny the sudden feeling that she shouldn't have said anything at all. 


BOOK: Arbiter (The Arbiter Chronicles Book 1)
3.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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