Following on directly from
AVAELYN: THE ENSHROUDED WORLD:
The Vallas go to war with each other.
Avaelyn returns to Reaume, no longer enshrouded … but soon another world draws attention, for it is there that the great battle will be fought.
Avior is veiled.
By inverted sacred sites.
On Valaris, four strangers to the realm prepare to face Torrullin and Elianas, Tristan and Alusin, and they have a tale that raises terrible alarm. On Akhavar, the reality of the true enemy surfaces. The Path of Shades must be reopened … and old foes therefore step into the arena. A vengeful Timekeeper, an ancient Vallorin with a bone between his teeth, and a wife seeking to undo her husband.
The plight of Avior’s children is discovered, and all fight to save them from the monsters flourishing beneath the shroud created by myth. From dragons to darklings, the field is strewn with horror.
How to end their reign?
All are called into battle, from the Valleur, Kaval and Guardians to mysterious sorcerers gathered on the volcanic world of Danaan, but is Valla pitted against Valla that causes shudders in the ether.
No matter what, Torrullin will not stand aside, not until every child is safe.
So many! I am blessed.
~ H. Waetherhar, novelist ~
The Dome of the Kaval
ELIANAS felt Torrullin labour for breath, felt his dead weight on the other end of the tether, and felt him plummet through moisture. He felt also the man’s elation when he realised he was in the atmosphere of their world, and silently celebrated with him.
He heard every word of the interaction between Torrullin and Avaelyn’s sentience, and tears flowed over his cheeks. How blessed they were. He jerked forward when Torrullin slammed the grappling hook into bedrock, thanking his foresight for handing the four men behind him extra tendrils to secure the hold, for they instantly braced to hold him upright and inside.
The link to his beloved vanished.
The tether dematerialised.
All gods, he whispered internally, closing his eyes, I pray it worked.
The loud exclamations around and behind him forced his eyes open, and Elianas stepped to the edge of the Dragon ogive. And there she was. Avaelyn. Beautiful Avaelyn. Back in Reaume.
He fell to his knees, and wept.
A GLOWING blue coil of light appeared from the cloud cover and with it flames shaped like a three-pronged hook. It swirled to the north of Roux Island, and thereafter the flames raced for the ocean, only it didn’t reach the sea, it smashed into the small outcrop Torrullin had once claimed was an ancient rock that was one giant column from the ocean floor itself. A massive eruption of light ensued, and then utter darkness descended.
“Bloody hell,” Teroux whispered. “Is he … did he …?”
Silence was next … until they heard a man laugh.
“Knew it,” Tarlinn declared. “This is why we jumped into that void. Having accepted himself, he discovered the belief he needed to unveil our world.”
“I understand now,” Tristan murmured.
They heard splashes as if someone swam towards Teroux’s island. Looking at each other, the four men raced for Teroux’s jetty. Skidding to a halt on the slick stone, they stood at the far end and cast gazes into the inky ocean.
“There!” Teroux exclaimed, pointing frantically.
Yes, there. Arm over arm, a man swan towards them, and then he was close, and they knew it was Torrullin.
Tristan hollered, “Wet enough, are you, for a swim this night?”
Treading water, Torrullin shouted, “Tristan! You made it!”
“Seems you did, too!”
The splashes resumed and then they helped him from the water. Despite the fact that he dripped salt water, the cousins enfolded him in their arms. Alusin smiled like an idiot, watching everything.
Eventually Tarlinn asked, “Is she back?”
Torrullin grinned at him over the clasp. “Avaelyn has returned to Reaume, yes.”
The dwelling on the cliffs
ELIANAS alighted on the grass where the bench perched near the edge, and simply stood there, his dark eyes trawling from one end of their home to the other. It was still night, but in the enveloping darkness he saw everything.
Kneeling, he placed his palm upon the cold green stalks. Thank you, Avaelyn, from my heart.
The world sentience did not reply with words, but he felt a warm, ethereal hand descend to his crown and briefly rest there. He had, however, heard her speak to Torrullin via the connection they maintained – him in the Dome, Torrullin blindly diving into Avaelyn’s atmosphere – and counted himself as eternally blessed.
When he looked up, Torrullin was before him.
“That was a fool thing to do,” Elianas grunted, before smiling and adding, “but I am so glad you succeeded.”
“We succeeded,” Torrullin murmured.
Rising, he moved to the man and merely embraced him. Yes, for this, this, there were no words.
HAVING asked for the remaining hours of darkness to reconnect with their home, when the first sunbeam fell upon the bench in the elements upon the cliff, both men, sleepless, knew the time had arrived to resume the ever more complicated mission of the present. Avaelyn had returned to Reaume, thus was that quest done with, and now it was time to focus on the greater tapestry, as Tarlinn would say. Sitting with cold mugs between them, watching the ocean light up as it greeted the day, they wondered who would arrive first to prod them into renewed action.
It was Quilla.
The birdman, though, did not come to prod, he came simply to greet. Appearing before them, he placed a tiny hand upon a small breast, and bowed. “My lords, you are returned.”
Simultaneously, both men raised hands to their brows, touched.
Quilla smiled. “Reverence, is it? It does fit, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” Elianas agreed.
“Welcome home,” Quilla murmured.
Rolling his shoulders, Torrullin stood. “Thank you, Quilla, and thank you for watching over everyone.” He snatched up the mugs and sent Elianas a questioning glance.
“You go,” the dark man replied.
“Take as long as you need,” Torrullin offered, and indicated for Quilla to follow him.
Elianas sat on.
TRISTAN and Alusin were in the kitchen preparing the kind of breakfast fit for a host eating in stages. Boiled eggs, sausages, salad, sliced bread, with a pile of plates to hand. A ‘help yourself when you’re hungry’ meal. Coffee burbled somewhere, and the orange juice was freshly squeezed.
“Thought you’d be back on Akhavar already,” Torrullin teased as he entered with Quilla, wiggling his eyebrows their way.
Alusin grinned, but Tristan grunted, “Can’t, not until we’ve faced the Syllvan. A promise we made.”
“Bugger,” Torrullin stated.
“Pretty much,” Tristan laughed.
Torrullin grabbed a plate and loaded up. Already eating as he made his way to the table, he said, “Thanks. Hungry.” Sitting, he tucked in.
Quilla soon joined him, his plate as loaded.
“How does a birdman eat so much?” Torrullin muttered.
“He does when he’s hungry,” Quilla snapped back, and ignored everyone to eat with relish.
Teroux and Tarlinn appeared then, and simply fell in with the ‘help yourself’ meal. A few minutes later, it was Karydor and Echayn, with Belun and Teighlar in tow. Belun and Teroux went at each other, laughing and pumping hands, and then Teroux and the Senlu Emperor sized each other up and, realising no animosity held sway anymore, backslapped each other resoundingly. Somehow, they fit around the table, including Tristan and Alusin.
“Any moment now,” Torrullin said, winking at Teroux.
The Kaval leader grinned. “I know. Tian won’t wait much longer.”
“Tian brought everyone,” Tianoman said from the passage, and entered with his entire family trailing him in.
“Cousin!” Teroux hollered, scraping his chair back and racing at the man.
Torrullin, leaning back, watched fondly as the cousins gripped each other, both laughing and crying at the same time. Aislinn waited her turn with a silly grin on her face, and around them milled Lunik holding Sianora’s hand – excellent, Torrullin mused – as well as Timare and Zane, and Enlyl and Ashar leaned against each other shoulder to shoulder watching everything and everyone with big eyes. Tianoman gripped Alusin to him, happy to see him safe and sound, and then suddenly demanded an explanation for Tristan’s blue eyes … tuning that out, Torrullin swivelled his gaze to Karydor at the table, to find his father waiting for his look. Ah, yes, family, and quite a large one now.
When Elianas’ hand descended to rest on his shoulder from behind him, Torrullin closed his eyes. Perfect. His loved ones were in the same space at the same time.
“We are blessed,” Elianas murmured in his ear.
Indeed, oh, indeed.
BELUN returned to the Dome, which was now in orbit around Avaelyn as a precautionary measure, and Enlyl and Timare reluctantly went back to Valaris, while Lunik took Sianora and Zane to Kalgaia, explaining about their task underway there. Ashar went with them.
That left Torrullin and Elianas with the three cousins, who could not stop talking, Karydor, Echayn and Tarlinn, who were wordless, simply listening to those three try and outdo each other, as well as Alusin and Aislinn, who could not get a word in, and Tarlinn, Quilla and Gabryl, the latter having joined them a while ago, sitting now with his father, both quiet, but smiling as they watched everyone.
In the informal sitting area overlooking the bridge over the fishpond in the garden, Torrullin and Elianas sat side by side near the ledge, backs against the stone, legs stretched out, and merely listened also. This day they would allow the chaos of many personalities, but tomorrow? Ha.
Teighlar rose and came to hunker before them. “Knowing you, this isn’t normal for your home,” he teased.
“Today is different,” Torrullin murmured.
Sitting cross-legged, Teighlar nodded. “Alik would love this. That girl is made for a large family.”
“I’m surprised she isn’t here,” Elianas put in.
“She’s in surgery,” Teighlar shrugged. “No doubt she’ll visit soon enough.” He eyed them. “Gabryl and I will return to Grinwallin to renew family bonds just now, but before we do, what’s next?”
“We don’t know yet,” Torrullin said. “Gabryl can’t leave, though, not until he’s faced the Syllvan.”
Silence arrived then, as those words penetrated.
Tristan grunted, “Then let’s get it done, so that we can all go on. You, too, Torrullin, and you, Elianas. Both of you have been avoiding the Syllvan, and that’s downright stupid now. They have answers we all need.”
Elianas grimaced, but didn’t otherwise respond.
“Perhaps all here should face them,” Teighlar suggested.
“No way,” Echayn muttered. “I’m going to bend Sabian’s ear for a while, find out what he knows about shadowy influences.” Echayn summarily vanished before anyone could stop him and force him into the Sentinel Chamber.
Karydor stared at the space vacated, grinned, shrugged, and as swiftly disappeared.
“Clearly not,” Teighlar sighed.
“Tian,” Aislinn murmured, “let us leave them to it. Teroux can come to us on Akhavar when done …”
“No way; I’m coming right now,” that cousin stated. “No Syllvan for me.”
Tianoman glanced at Torrullin, who laughed. “Go; we’ll join you soon enough.”
“All right then,” Tianoman nodded. Taking Aislinn’s hand, he dematerialised with her, and Teroux hastily followed suit, an expression of anticipation on his face. He, no doubt, wished to wander Akhavar’s mountain halls and renew the bonds there. Far better that facing a tree trunk able to unmask one’s secrets, after all.
“Quilla?” Teighlar prompted.
“I am not afraid of questions,” the birdman said. “Count me in.”
“An hour,” Elianas grunted, levering himself upward. “Need to refresh first.” He strode away, heading for the sleeping area of the dwelling.
“An hour,” Teighlar echoed, and shifted to the edge, jumped off and went a-wandering around the garden. Gabryl joined him.
Tristan and Alusin did the same, but went in a different direction. That left Torrullin with Quilla and Tarlinn. Quilla ruffled his feathers, and said he would be back, that the Lifesource would offer him the serenity needed for the Syllvan, and absconded. Torrullin gazed at Tarlinn, and waited.
The not so generic man soon kneeled before him. “I wish to assume a place as family, Torrullin.”
“I have noticed the differences,” Torrullin nodded. “You are now forever separated from not only the Throne, but the man you were in the past. Are you whole?”
“I believe so.”
Rising then, Torrullin bid the man do the same. Gripping his shoulders, he said, “You are Tarlinn Aleru, and I welcome you as family.”
When the One spoke your true name, it set you free. Tarlinn’s knees nearly buckled as the release overcame him. “Thank you.”
Letting him go, Torrullin winked. “So. Here we have a full-blood Aleru able to restore the bloodline … means you’ll have to make little Alerus, of course … and there’s a full-blood Danae running around, too, able to do the same. Karydor may need some convincing …” He doubled over in laughter when Tarlinn merely gaped at him. “I’m just saying that the great lines can be rebuilt.”
“Yes, well, give me a break, will you? I don’t even remember how to use that part of me yet.”
“Ha, trust me, that will not last much longer.”
Shaking his head, Tarlinn gave him the finger, and jumped off the ledge. Laughing still, Torrullin went to find Elianas.
Our children are sacrosanct.
Avaelyn the world returns to Reaume, that great collection of spaces tangible and intangible, after a thousand-year absence, but no one knows the home of Torrullin Valla and Elianas Danae again swerves in its designated place.
Avaelyn is enshrouded.
How to rip aside the shroud?
On Akhavar, meanwhile, Enlyl Valla lifts from the mud in the badlands an ancient artefact, a sword created to protect children. The plight of Reaume’s children is dire, after all, and volunteers from many worlds gather to do something about it.
Will the sword help?
When the shivers of premonition tell that the young are taken to keep Avaelyn enshrouded, the Vallas take the fight to the monsters responsible for such horror. They will not rest until every child is safe.
However it comes to pass, Avaelyn will be unveiled.
Beware of examining your past too frequently.
~ Teighlar of Grinwallin ~
SLAPPING his hands upon the expanse of his scarred wooden kitchen table, Sabian swore foully. Master Historian? Ha, master fool! He cussed some more, then swiped the empty mug accusing him from the tabletop, grunting when it shattered against the far wall. Yes, better. He felt … well, perhaps calmer was stretching it. At least less furious. Ha.
A snort of amusement emanating from the region of his open front door had him straightening with such alacrity that he pulled a muscle in his lower back. More cussing followed. Master bloody fool, indeed.
“What’s got you in such a mood?” Torrullin Valla laughed as he entered the small cottage Sabian called home beneath the towering mountains in this region.
“Book,” Sabian muttered, swiping fair hair from his forehead as if the strands had been placed there to deliberately irk him. “That damn book, is what.”
Eyeing the book in question – a hefty tome with the appearance of terrible age on a dedicated pedestal next to Sabian’s cluttered desk in the corner near the pantry – Torrullin murmured, “A conundrum?” Open to around a third of the way, an illustration stared at the wooden ceiling overhead. “Is that a sword?”
“And don’t we know too well how swords can determine fate?” Sabian mumbled, rounding the table with his arm extended. “What brings you?”
Stepping into the ritual forearm to forearm clasp, Torrullin said, “I’ve come to pick your brain.”
“Hopefully not about a sword. Coffee?”
“Please.” Releasing the greeting hold, Torrullin moved to the book for a closer view. “No blades today, no battle other than seeking an answer to our dilemma.” Peering at the rendition of a weapon that appeared as most swords did, seeing nothing in the depiction to have caused Sabian such distress, evident in the lifted eyebrows he sent Sabian’s way, he added, “I am of the opinion the past holds the key.”
“And here we thought we were free of said past,” Sabian rebutted.
“Old stories can still tell us something.”
As a historian, Sabian trusted to that truth and thus did not refute the statement. He set to gathering the necessary to brew a pot of the dark stuff, knowing his guest preferred it strong. “So ask what you came to ask.”
Finding a brush and scoop, Torrullin hunkered at the site of the broken mug, sweeping the ceramic shards from the floor. “Is there mention in the Lore Book about veiling?”
Sending him a look, Sabian muttered, “Of course. The Arcana myth that protected the tear between Valaris and Ardosia is chronicled, a veiling if ever there was one, and so is the Forbidden Zone obscuring. You know this.”
Rising with his gathered pieces, Torrullin headed to the small bin near the backdoor, tossing the lot in. “Other than those.”
Lifting his chin at the bin, Sabian said, “Thanks. Amazes me how you are handy when it comes to chores.”
Smirking, Torrullin took a seat at the table. “Because I am so important it should be beneath me?”
Grinning, Sabian took a seat opposite. Behind him the stovetop kettle burbled. “Not who you are, is it?” Wafting a hand, he went on. “Sure, there are other shrouds in our longer past, such as the time Nemisin denied the existence of Danaan, and his lies surrounding Orb, and there are a few ascribed to races other than the Valleur, but none hold the kind of answers we need. Nothing points to a way out of Avaelyn’s enshrouded state, not even obliquely. Then again, truthfully, there may be, but I haven’t yet found it. That is a mighty book.”
Indeed. A mighty book. One created by a bloodline of lore keepers, one as old as the Valleur, of which Shep was the current embodiment. Shep’s last name, in fact, was Lore, and was the scholarly man with deep wells on compassion not eminently suited to the task. However, Shep’s need to record events in the magical tome ended when Avaelyn swerved away from the timeline. These days he spent most of his time at the Healers, leaving the deciphering to Sabian.
“Where is Shep?” Torrullin asked, causing Sabian to hike an eyebrow upward. “Right. Healers.” Frowning then, Torrullin murmured, “Shep seems reluctant to talk about the past contained in that book.”
“After our adventures on Lykandir, he clammed up, yes.” Inhaling, Sabian again slapped the tabletop, unexpectedly enlightened. “Because he knows something. The man says not a word because he’s afraid he’ll give it away. Always garrulous, now silent? Why didn’t I see it before? No, stymied by a drawing of a sword, I am, stumped as to why the book won’t let me turn the page. Fool. As if a lost blade is able …” Halting there, he swallowed. His fingers curled into claws. He rested his blue gaze on the far man on the other side of the table. “Torrullin, no such animal as coincidence, right?”
The grey eyes meeting his abruptly shifted into silver. “Now you’re downright frightening me, Master Historian.”
Those silvering eyes meant Torrullin had entered a different realm of understanding. Clearing his throat, Sabian divulged, “I think I’m scaring myself. See, that drawing? Nothing special. An ornate pommel, probably pricey, but nothing extraordinary. Still, resonance, you know. And when you read the legend it comes with? See …”
“Speak plain,” Torrullin growled.
“Lake of Swords, Torrullin, where Tristan ended Halon’s life and threw his blade into the water. Alusin found it, though, and returned it to him. A veiled place, a thing of time, and someone retrieved something from the water, and that has never happened before. Has that altered the dynamics, I ask?” Rising, he made his way to the ancient book. “This sword, also tossed into the Lake after its owner died, had before its disappearance the ability to ever return to the hand that knew it best. If lost during battle, within an hour of losing it, it would hurtle through the spaces back to that hand.” Licking his lips, he faced the silver eyes fixated on him. “What if the owner is reborn? I’m willing to wager you my vegetable patch that the sword will rise from the shallows of a legend and return to the one it has waited for, and in so doing, the Lake of Swords will appear, a magical enclave, Torrullin, able to wed the flows of time, space and everything within and between.”
The man had paled somewhat, Sabian noticed, but he nodded towards that paling countenance. “The blade was known as Akynitun, Valleur for …”
“… death’s gateway or …” Torrullin inhaled, and exhaled the next word explosively. “… shroud.” He inhaled long before asking, “Whose hand did it know best?”
“No name is given but he is described as a Golden with brown eyes, his hair a dark gold, a good man, a strong man. He protected children, his life’s work.”
Closing his eyes, thereby releasing Sabian from the pressure of that otherworldly gaze, Torrullin mused, “Sounds like Tianoman.”
“That’s what had me in a tizz. Your grandson does fit the description, but it didn’t resonate, not as the rest did. Now I’m thinking his son Lunik, or another of his sons. By now he has sons, plural,” Sabian stated. “A man walking the plains of Akhavar, old enough after a millennium, as they count the years, of our vanishing from those spaces to have come into his power naturally, a Valla with Danae genetics. Perhaps a man who feels the need to protect children also?” Throwing his hands up, he added, “But this is all supposition.”
Silver orbs lanced his every secret space, causing Sabian to shudder, and when Torrullin responded with, “Too much coincidence is in play,” his knees weakened. They, he already understood, himself, Torrullin, Elianas, Shep, the others, would now overturn every coincidental stone until the narrative either revealed the answer to Avaelyn rejoining the timeline for Reaume, or utter failure resulted. Failure was not an option. Torrullin sought return to the space where Akhavar and his family resided within, and would undo every strand he could find to have it come to pass.
Avaelyn’s western seaboard
WOOD creaked, sails flapped and stays hummed in the freshening breeze coming off the ocean. White spray danced into the air at the apex of every wave. Gulls swirled overhead, noisy as ever.
Teroux Valla worked the ropes, tying off loose ends before the storm arrived. His golden curls hid under a woollen cap. Did not need hair whipping his eyes right now. Even in harbour ships remained vulnerable, and this baby was his favourite. First built and by his own hand, it was special to him, for he rebuilt himself with every hull curve and deck plank laid. Leaving Akhavar and his traumatic past behind for this island on Avaelyn led to ship building and also restoration of self. In a way, it was his good luck charm.
Lovingly sweeping a hand over the polished railing, Teroux eventually considered every task done and stared over the ocean instead, noting the waves reach higher, the spray thrown further, and in the distance the smudge had already darkened. An hour, no more, and the spirits of sea and air would pummel his island and every ship in the vicinity. Not many of those, fortunately, for he had sounded warning two days back.
Time then to stoke the fire in his cottage and prepare a nourishing meal. Giving the smudge a final look, he turned away and headed down to the sturdy stone quay, checking the knots anchoring the vessel to its mooring as he passed by. As he set a booted foot to the lowest step of the meandering stairway carved into the hillside adjacent the harbour, a scream tore through the air, curdling the marrow in his bones. No, he imagined that. No one lived on his island. Shaking his head, he trod onto the next step, and another screech separated his ears from his head. Breathing fast, he raced upward, for the sound had source up there, not behind him on the jetty.
On attaining level ground, he skidded to a halt.
There, by Aaru, a flying contraption hung from the flagpole jutting up from his chimney, a deflating balloon covering half his cottage, and a woman clung to a rope swinging underneath a torn basket. He wanted to laugh – had he not said flying baskets were idiotic when they had not the gas to keep the balloons properly afloat – but she was in danger, and that bloody thing needed to get off his roof before the damn storm was upon them.
Striding in, he called up, “Can you not float down?” Her hair was as golden as his, she had to be Valleur, and that meant born with magic.
Hazel eyes glared down at him. “I’m human, idiot!”
Right. Avaelyn was home to Valleur, Senlu, and humans originally from Xen III, Beacon and Valaris, with a few oddballs thrown in here and there. Humans, too, laid claim to the golden glory that was the Valleur natural hair colour. Rolling his eyes, he said, “Let go, I’ll catch you.”
Immediately she shook her head, whitening markedly.
“Listen, you’re brave enough to fly in that thing, high, so I think you can manage a few yards of freefall. I will catch you. I am Valleur.”
“I know who you are,” she grimaced, and abruptly released her hold to plummet.
Well, that caught him unprepared, but he hastily muttered the words of cushioning and stepped underneath her. As he extended his arms, she landed in them. Despite the cushioning, his shoulders protested with jolts of fiery agony. Bloody hell. Setting her down, he shouted, “A little warning will have helped!”
Winking, she said, “My thanks.” She glanced upward. “The wind blew me off course. Why do you have that pole up there? It’s an invitation to lightning.”
“It diffuses strikes,” he grunted, massaging one shoulder. “Now help me get that thing off or the storm will use it to rip my roof into smithereens.” Gesturing at the broken balloon, he stomped to the corner to see what was where, and ignored her when she made no move.
Snarled as the ropes were, it took him the better part of ten minutes of succinct spelling to remove the offensive device. The woman did try to help after a few minutes, but there wasn’t much she could do, not until the material lay rumpled in the grassy paddock where he kept two horses. They, luckily, had already been stabled against the approaching weather. She started rolling the material, and he aided her, eventually magically lifting and sending the remains of the basket and the untidy roll to the storeroom beyond the stables.
By then the wind was a howling monster and, unspeaking, they hastened indoors. As there was nowhere else for her to go, she had now become a guest until the storm petered out.
“Thank you,” she said once he had secured the front door.
“Who are you?” He headed to the hearth and there snapped his fingers to set flame to the pyramid of sticks, thanking his stars for magic, for he had not the wherewithal left to build and stoke a fire the old-fashioned way. A magical blaze required simply a few sticks.
“Naemi Wynd.” She closed in to extend her hands to the blaze.
“Call me Teroux.”
Dressed in leathers to cope with the cold in the higher air currents, she was soon warm again, and moved to the large window overlooking the small bay. “Something happened up there, Teroux. I’ve flown many times, testing the gas ratios I’m trying to perfect, and know well the currents, but …”
He interrupted. “A storm on approach can be unpredictable.”
“I wasn’t near this region, not until shoved this way.” She did not look at him, no doubt thinking she sounded crazy.
He was Valleur. Crazy was once everyday for him in the times before Avaelyn separated. “Shoved? What happened?”
“It felt as if something sucked at the basket and then released so quickly that it catapulted me in a different direction. Kind of like a hole filled with vacuum briefly opened, and then suddenly closed. Shoved.” Shrugging, she faced him. “Sounds impossible.”
“It’s not, but should be on Avaelyn. We’re enshrouded and outsiders cannot influence anything.” Frowning, he thought it through. “Either there are localised currents we are unaware of, or …” Like to her, currents of air and, in his case, water also, had become a field of expertise. “… someone on the ground either deliberately or accidentally messed with your situation. Hopefully not.” For that would mean someone needed to be taken to task and it meant investigation. “Well, we can’t do anything about it now,” he muttered and made a beeline for the kitchen alcove he loved to spend time in. “You hungry?”
“Starving,” she laughed, and the sound of a woman laughing in his private space did something to his gut he had not experienced in over a hundred years.
The Singing Chapel
SEARCHING for Shep Lore, having left Sabian to his mutterings, Torrullin eventually apprehended the purple clad, rotund half-Valleur in the small chapel that served as a place of tranquillity for those needing it while at the Healers, or as Shep preferred, the hospital. Valleur in general, despite his eye rolls, called it the Healers.
The man was rapt, listening to the birds in the foliage outside singing their songs of praise. Birdsong was the reason why this serene place was named the Singing Chapel, a site sacred now for many reasons, no longer merely a Valleur sacred site forming part of the fourteen geo nodes.
“My Lord!” Shep gasped when he became aware of Torrullin. “Oh, my mind, Forgive me!”
“No matter, Shep.” Sitting in the nearest window seat, Torrullin sent his gaze outward. As ever, the surroundings soothed, and the musical tones bathed him in bliss. “Ever I am renewed here.”
Shep smiled. “Indeed.”
“How fares the facility?”
“All is well. We finished the final repairs a few weeks back.” He referred to the damage caused by the near collision with Lykandir three months ago. “We have only three patients. Nothing serious.” His tone offered a lilt at the end of his summation, as if wondering why he had been sought out this day.
“Lake of Swords,” Torrullin murmured, and listened to the man’s response with more than his ears, and sensed how Shep Lore instantly tensed. “It is time to tell me, Shep.”
Silence answered him first, and thereafter a volubly sigh sounded. “Very well. Not here.” With deliberation, the purple form rose from his bench and headed out, which was most telling, for Shep never acted first in his ruler’s presence.
Whistling silently through suddenly clenched teeth, Torrullin followed him out. “Shall we go to the Lifesource?”
“Excellent idea. Quilla should hear this also.” Tawny eyes speared him as Shep looked up. “My Lord, call Elianas.”
Torrullin’s gut hollowed.
He sent the call.
AS THE two men dematerialised for transport, Anastir stepped from the shadows. As First Sorcerer and Elder, he was entitled to go where he pleased, but listening in on Torrullin’s conversation could be construed as something beyond eavesdropping. He had trailed Shep Lore, however, and Torrullin’s arrival had been a surprise.
It seemed, Anastir mused, that Lord Elixir had stumbled upon the same track he had skinned knees on, and Shep, as suspected, knew the way. He intended to attend the impromptu meeting at the Lifesource.
Indeed. Change was now daily fact.
OVER roasted vegetables, slivers of fried fish, and garlic bread, accompanied by a fruity white the winemakers finally excelled at – it only took them fifty years of vinegar varieties to find success – Teroux asked Naemi to be specific in location for the ‘shove’ she experienced.
Her golden hair tucked behind her ears, she ate with abandon, using her hands without apology. “You’re a good cook,” she said, lifting her goblet in toast. “My mother will love you, for sure.”
Smiling, Teroux acknowledged her compliment.
“I flew over the orchards beyond the hills that keep the salty winds at bay, so that’s roughly forty sals east from here. All along the coast folk spoke of the storm, and I decided to keep inland. As I moved the rudder to shift south, heading home, that’s when it happened.”
“Did you see anything on the ground?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Wasn’t looking at the time … but … seriously, I smelled mud, stinky stuff, stagnant, and I could swear I saw muddy droplets around the basket. And then your island loomed, and I went down.”
“How long from there to here?”
“Minutes, Teroux. That was the weirdest part.” She stared at him. “It sounds like I hallucinated, I know, but that’s what happened. Forty sals in minutes. No balloon flies that fast.”
Leaning back, he fingered his goblet. “If we can find this mud, maybe it will lead to more clues. An isolated incident. Someone working a spell that rebounded. That someone needs to be cautioned. If not,” and Teroux leaned forward to stare intently into her hazel eyes, “we need to know if an outside influence did this.”
“How? Everyone knows Avaelyn is hidden. You said so yourself.”
“Is it?” he whispered. “I wonder. We are in Reaume once more, Naemi, and this is a busy space filled with talents even the Valleur have had to stand back for in our past. What if someone can see us, while we remain blind?”
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Motionless seas. A two-faces clock. Lykan sees all.
The Dark Ages reigns on a world separated from Time, where men prefer war and women are lesser. Writing is outlawed and city gates close against the night, for the legend of the Wer is frighteningly real.
King Androdin sends his son Cadmus north to meet with his northern rival, Drakan of Caladin, and with him is Aris Delmann, leader of the army. Their journey takes an unexpected turn when they discover not only an enclave of women, but also powerful men from another world, among them Torrullin Valla and Elianas Danae.
Meanwhile, in the south, traitors have summoned an army from a distant land, and soon the first city falls to their might.
When the mages begin their own game of manipulation, using the two-faces clock, Lykandir becomes explosive. It needs but a spark and all hope will be lost.
How dare they? Now is the time to stand together, is it not? Lykandir is about to suffer an overdue shake around and no one will escape it.
Lykan sees all.
Do not be deluded by the beauty of nature surrounding you, soldier. Much lies in wait behind a shrub overrun in blooms.
~ Sergeant’s Speech ~
City of Globeni
Month of Harvenis – The Shifting Season
14th hour / 45th minute
HISTORIANS would tell that it – change in all its complications – began when a man entered the city of Globeni on his warhorse, and yet one must hark to the fact that his travel to a place of meeting was the culmination of factors, therefore of time passed. Thus, it began, if one was truly dispassionate, a long time before, but let the historians tell the tale their way …
The man on his warhorse approached the city of Globeni with some misgiving. It had been a while since Aris had set foot in the city nearest his home, and he wondered how much had changed in the interim.
Born to an unknown woman in the household of the forester clan Delmann, he spent his childhood fighting imaginary battles with trees, a wooden sword his weapon. His father swiftly understood this son would not follow in his footsteps – he had six others to do so – and alerted the local guardsmen. At age twelve Aris left the forest for the local city – Globeni – and the sands of a training ground. That was the last time he saw his father and his brothers.
At age sixteen he fought in his first war, a son defending his father’s rights to the forest from the rival Cormsin clan, although he did not meet his family on the battlefield that day or any other. His father was a forester, not a soldier, but Aris knew two of his brothers had fought. One did not survive.
This war was enacted more than once, honing raw talent into a formidable warrior. Aris discovered he loved the blood of battle, the sound of metal ringing, the power of a warhorse between his thighs, and the freedom of travel. He had seen much of Lykandir south of the Wall that divided the northern kingdom from its larger neighbour.
This day, this journey, his king had commanded, and it had naught to do with impending battle. Aris was to meet with a forester from the Cormsin, for apparently the man possessed first-hand knowledge of events moving to the north. Of course, one had to admit that battles were not always fought with iron and steel.
It did not sit right. Firstly, any dealings with a Cormsin felt akin to betrayal, even though a soldier was regarded as neutral, going where the king decided his troops were most needed. The wars between Cormsin and Delmann of yesteryear, when he as a younger soldier fought on the side of what he believed was right, had been for territory the king required, land the Cormsin owned. It could well have been the other way and he might have been commanded to dispossess his own family, while having to remain ‘neutral’. Secondly, anything that carried the stench of the north was to be avoided. No good had ever come from the land of savages beyond the Wall.
Why now? Aris thought as he nudged his mount under the arch of entry into Globeni proper. King Androdin considered Drakan of the north his mortal enemy; what was that imperative to result in this coming meet?
He would soon discover the why of it.
His horse’s hoofs clattered on the stone underfoot as they ambled together to the stables maintained next to the training sands and the barracks. He glanced around in some curiosity, seeing the same stone frontage and fading signs as in days passed. Globeni had not changed, other than to appear a little timeworn. Despite being near the ocean, dense forest lay between the city and the cliffs overlooking the Dungaler Islands, and few thus regarded it as a coastal settlement, although a tang to the air said otherwise. Aris sniffed and, yes, there it was, the faint smell of salt overlaying the decay from the old trees.
The city folk, he noticed as he ambled onward, seemed far surlier than he remembered, and less well-fed. Androdin’s taxes, he knew, were steep. An army had to eat, and needed to be outfitted frequently. No wonder the looks cast his way were not friendly. It paid to be a soldier, but the common man laboured to feed that soldier.
Soon the stables were in sight, and Aris swung from his horse, handing him over to a lad sporting a mop of brown hair.
“Take good care of Vulcan, hear? There’s extra in it for you.”
The lad grinned and nodded vigorously. “Aye!”
“Go with the boy, Vulcan,” Aris murmured after rubbing between his charger’s ears. “Take some rest now.”
Obediently the warhorse acceded to the gentle tug from the lad, and vanished into the gloom of the yard.
Aris headed in the opposite direction, eschewing making his presence known at the barracks. As ever, those would be filled with both new cadets and old hands, and he had no desire to view either. Removing his understated boiled leather helmet, he scrubbed at his cropped fair hair, grimacing at the sweat he encountered. He sought the tavern where he was to meet the Cormsin, hoping for a meal and a drink before the appointed time arrived. He hoped also, once that duty was done with, for the opportunity to bathe.
City of Rodair – Capital City
14th hour / 47th minute
THE INTERMITTENT sunshine created sparks of light upon the water, arcs of glitter as wavelets rippled. This day the breeze drove the usual tranquillity into forerunners to frenzy; it needed but a degree or three more, and ripples would become waves to send fishermen to harbour.
Standing at the very edge of the royal pier where it jutted into Lake Rushin, the sails of the royal barge snapping somewhat to his left, Prince Cadmus watched the dancing on the crests. In the distance, two boats gradually tacked towards the wharves that reposed slightly northwest of the city. The wind would thus strengthen, he understood; one could ever tell the temperament of the lake merely by tracking the movements of men well-accustomed to conditions. They were definitely scurrying to harbour; a tempest might be in the offing. Neither here nor there at this moment – the magical skittering of light had captured his attention.
One did not navigate the seas of Lykandir, but the lakes were suited to sailing, fishing, swimming and more. Here the waters moved. The great bodies of water surrounding Lykandir remained ever motionless, no matter the wind, no matter the rain, a state to frighten even the bravest of souls, for it was without doubt unnatural, a scientific impossibility. Given the moon in the heavens and the rotation of their world – measurable by noting the stars revolve in the night sky – tides, at the very least, had to be the logical result one relied upon. There were no tides, however, at least not in the accepted sense. Many whispered of fell sorcery, although none were able to give a reason for such necessity. The inland ‘seas’ possessed no tidal action either, but at least the waters moved. And thus created glitter for an enchanted prince to lose himself in.
A pair of colourful geese swimming unhurriedly between the currently gentle troughs created by the breeze, with a row of goslings in rapid pursuit, the sun highlighting their iridescent plumage, caught his attention next. Father and mother, together, caring for their young.
A tear tracked over Cadmus’ cheek. How he wished to be one of those goslings, to know true care. Women had no place on Lykandir, and yet nature belied that notion. The mother cared for the young while the father brought food, and then the day came for an outing such as the one he now viewed, and both mother and father undertook the task of teaching their offspring.
Something, he knew in his soul, was truly awry with the social system all men accepted as norm in the place of his birth. He suspected, if boys grew up under the care of a mother and had girls growing alongside them, under the same care, the men of their patriarchal society would not be as warlike as they were now. Perhaps men would not be as angry about … everything.
Cadmus watched the small family vanish into distance, and inhaled a breath. I shall change it, he swore in silence. All women will have the status they deserve.
He suspected, although the thought was unformed, that women were more powerful than men in many ways, and men knew it and thus denied them a long time ago. A different kind of sorcery, but as impactful as motionless seas.
THE SMELL from the smoky hearth revealed ash, elm, hard pine, and aged orange tree logs burning away to nothing. Aris was a soldier, true, but a forester never forgot.
Being not long after mid-morning, the tavern had not yet filled. Excellent. The food would still be fresh, and there would be enough to settle the gnawing in his belly.
Two men sat a far table – griffers, by their apparel. They did enjoy prancing about in bright garb and starred cloaks. Aris ignored them; he did not wish to think of griffers on an empty stomach.
Lykandir was a hilly kingdom with some larger peaks, surrounded by ocean, a beautiful land with great trees, inland seas and plains of wildflowers and colourful heather. Majestic birds gave mournful cries in grey skies. Numerous small islands hugged the coastline, generally tribal, or clan, lands.
This is the world, the king proclaimed, both present day Androdin, and his fathers before him, but there were a host of tales about other lands, most notably rumours of a civilisation to the south. According to the rumour mongers – the subversives of society – a valiant crew and a sturdy vessel needed sail due south for ten days to attain a harbour overflowing with outlandish and exotic people, strange craft and peculiar things (nobody explained what those ‘things’ were). There was not a word for ‘exotic’ in the Kandrian tongue and thus it evolved as a slang term created for the purpose of nuance. Griffers – scribes with the kind of magic that retarded indefinitely the decay of scrolls – called the rumours a lie. One had to believe them, for they were the mouthpiece of the king.
Aris snorted to himself, thinking about griffers despite his intentions. Ever had their presence led to such speculation, however, and thus he did not flay his inner self over it. His snort was for ‘the mouthpiece of the king’. He knew well how often Androdin cursed their very existence.
Few men became griffers, for few possessed the gift of magic and writing. Magical talent was extremely rare, and not so many possessed the skill of writing either. If a boy was seen by an elder scratching a shape in the sand, he was immediately marked and subsequently removed from his family for training; one had to believe the griffers – they knew. Did they not?
A girl seen scratching a shape in the sand, by any man or boy, was put to death instantly. Women had therefore learned to hide such talents and in the present few were found with such abilities. It was said there was a chain of women and girls possessing both writing and magic, but one would have to be a woman to verify that rumour. Aris had no idea whether such was true. He had not spoken to a woman in years.
Ignoring the griffers and shifting his thoughts from the intrigue of lands to the south – he was here about a certain kingdom to the north – Aris beckoned a server closer.
The nondescript man shuffled nearer, his expression baleful, and then waited insolently, offering no greeting. Aris ignored his attitude; it was for his uniform, therefore his rank – Chevalye – and he did not need to explain himself to anyone. “Stew and a fresh loaf. A tankard of whatever’s on tap,” he ordered.
The man went away without responding.
Men, he mused, preferred the wild spaces and the clash of weapons – no doubt why the server felt inadequate – and left it to others to track the truth, and that was why griffers and clerics had so much leeway.
Forcing his thoughts to the present, ignoring the occasional flash of bright garb in his periphery, Aris waited for his meal. He had around an hour at his disposal before his mysterious contact showed up, and he would use it to eat well.
Twenty minutes later
15th hour / 19th minute
FOUR patrons had entered the smoky tavern in the last few minutes, and thus he ignored the door when it again creaked open to allow a newcomer within. When silence descended, however, Aris looked up.
By Lykan, Lord Cormsin himself had arrived for this meeting. Aris shoved his meal aside with regret, and inclined his head to the man, his hazel eyes revealing no expression.
Grinning ferally, Caleb Cormsin approached.
Grief-stricken over losing his wife in childbirth, Karydor commands that his son be drowned. Carers choose to hide the new-born instead. The child, when his father realises his terrible mistake, vanishes without a trace.
Ages later, suffering cycles of rebirth to walk in the same time as his son, Karydor discovers the identity of the man his son becomes and, in need of atonement, sets out to ease his path through life, hoping for a future when he will be able to look him in the eye without guilt.
On Farochin, a world where the terraform is about to fail, Karydor, Kristyn, Echayn and Fletcher team up, hoping to save the world from the influences of FARA, the godhood responsible for the failure.
A god, however, is not easily undermined.
A world is not effortlessly rescued.
A father will step into that arena, though, because of the love he bears his son. This is Karydor Danae’s atonement.
A flag is History’s banner.
~ Adjunct Glestiel of Nolkoth ~
City of Therin
SUMMER inTherin this year was milder than usual, according to the locals, and yet sufficiently present to make for uncomfortable sleeping patterns. When the sun rose, Karydor was relieved. The act of trying for rest could now be abandoned. Nightmares plagued him, too; respite was elusive for many reasons.
Dressing swiftly in lightweight linen after splashing tepid water on his face and completing the morning ritual of ablutions, he hastened down the bougainvillea enhanced outer stairs to the cobbled street in search of breakfast. The old man baker on the corner knew his hours; a savoury pastry would be waiting.
It was indeed waiting, steaming on a platter, although the old man was not in sight. He was rarely in sight, preferring not to talk to Karydor – or, more correctly, be seen talking to Karydor.
Karydor snatched it up and, chewing, wandered along the lonely path down to the ocean.
The tide was in, and the wind seemed favourable, which meant ships were able to enter harbour. Sitting on the low sea wall encrusted with dry seaweed, he finished his tartlet while watching masts aplenty vanish south to where the calm deep-water and a berth awaited. The Waymere Sea on Thela’s western coast was still, the sky clear, beckoning travellers to cross the ocean to lands beyond. Few did, according to the tales he overheard while picking olives; most would head north again from here and then east into Natticus Sea instead, the cradle of their civilisation on Farochin.
Inhaling the fresh air before the summer winds dried it to kiln degrees, Karydor simply sat. Today was a rest day; no pressing duties required his attention. Unfortunately, that also meant he could not hide from himself, but this day he intended to remain as serene as the gently lapping waves. Anger and aggression did little to aid the process of recovery, after all.
He knew his name and he knew one date, and that was all. Memory of before was lost when he went overboard a ship much like those now lining up to the south, he was told. No ship’s captain or quartermaster had yet recognised him; either no one wished to know him, or his ship had sailed onward.
He had no recall of going into the ocean, but his clothes revealed him as a seaman, according to the healer he eventually woke up to. They hauled him, waterlogged and near drowned, from the beach after a storm. That was two months ago, and no memory had resurfaced.
Other than a date.
The healer, upon hearing it, looked around in some fright and advised him not to repeat it. The man would not be drawn further, despite repeated prompting even after he discharged his patient. While he was no help regarding information, he did arrange a bedsit for Karydor in the recuperation enclave, as well as work on the olive farms to the east. The labour was intense, but Karydor preferred that to any activity involving the sea.
To the east, behind him, the first yellow rays breached the hilltops and sent tendrils amid the earthy-hued structures that comprised sleepy Therin. Soon the city would awaken, and a buzz would overtake the natural world’s sounds.
Standing, he chose to amble along the shoreline; it afforded the most privacy. He preferred avoiding people or, more correctly, the strange glances they sent his way. He did not look like them. He could not explain it, and no one seemed to have the courage to tell him more. Even the farm labourers avoided him.
Perhaps this morning a ship would put in with someone aboard who knew his face, or at least his kind.
RIGGING groaned and sails flapped. Barnacled hull bashed against swollen jetty, and sailors everywhere shouted and cursed, laughed and jeered at mates, either engaged in securing ships, offloading merchandise, or smoking together where the quays met dry land.
It was chaos.
Karydor counted sixteen vessels, with six more awaiting entry, and noted wagons begin the descent from the merchant district to the harbour road. Structured chaos would soon become bedlam.
Gritting his teeth to still his instinctive reaction to the noise and frenetic activity – frustration that frequently led to fury – he ambled to the far docks where the larger ships berthed. Those sailors travelled further, and many were from strange ports; perhaps one working them would deign to talk to him.
Moving through crowds of men, who swiftly stepped out of his way, given that he towered over them, he noted a fair few shaven heads showing fuzzy growth, lending their scalps a coppery sheen. No doubt the roll of a ship at sea put an end to grooming, fuzz being preferable to nicks and gashes. He grimaced, watching them watch him; not only was he larger than everyone in Therin, but his dark brown hair flowed to mid-back. He arrived with his tresses attached to his head from the ocean; he refused to shave to bare skull, although the healer had recommended he do so, to fit in, apparently. He lost his temper that day, hearing that.
The locals were placid. He was not. Wherever he hailed from, clearly equanimity was not among his people’s traits. He snorted as he approached a hulking vessel, acknowledging that maybe his temper was out of place even among his own.
The Dromerias had seen better days, but was a strong ship. Isolated at the far point, it summoned him. Perhaps it was the lack of activity that drew him, but more likely was the silence. Admittedly, the two states complemented each other, and yet this silence contained something extra. What that was, he could not fathom; intrigued, he closed in.
Karydor soon squinted up. The absence of movement on deck seemed unnatural. Either the vessel arrived on the night’s tide and had already unloaded, its crew now in port somewhere, or something else kept everyone below. He frowned, noticing the colours snap in the breeze. On a black background, a silver sickle moon cradled an emerald. He shuddered on truly seeing it. He knew that flag. He had no memory of it, but he knew it.
An odd sound pierced the even stranger silence.
The pull of a longbow.
How he knew that, Karydor could not gauge, for the locals generally openly carried daggers only, but again, the knowing was immediate. This was a longbow.
He instantly sidestepped.
An arrow thudded into the planking beside him.
“I suggest you leave,” someone said. A man of some maturity, by his tone.
No, he was not walking away. After two months of nothing, now this? Silence, longbow, the sense of summons? Here was something in the offing, something he did not foresee upon waking earlier, and he would be the fool if he walked away. He wanted answers and those answers might be before him now. That arrow was no more than a warning; the intent had not been to kill. He hoped so, anyway, and took the risk.
“Do you know me?” Karydor asked.
He spoke the language – Faroche – but had questioned whether it was his native tongue. He possessed an inflection no Therin inhabitant had yet revealed.
Instantly a white head of hair craned over the railing above. He had hair. Karydor’s heart stuttered into an uneven rhythm. Hair. Like to his. The man was old, his face lined and weathered, his skin tanned to that of aging wood. Hazel orbs latched onto his.
“I do not know you, but I can tell you are not from these parts.”
Karydor snorted again, aloud this time. “Pretty obvious, I’d say. Seems you are not a local either.”
A cackle erupted. “Did the hair give me away?”
“The bow, too,” Karydor grinned.
“Bring the arrow,” the old man commanded, and shoved at something. A rope ladder swung over the side. “Come aboard.”
Karydor worked the arrow free – a slim head, sharp. Whoever made it had to be a master. He then gripped the nearest rung and clambered up He was not about to deny this opportunity, whatever it might herald. Those answers? He needed them.
The universe is populated and many worlds are far-flung, forgotten. Until the day Gabryl, a man both alive and dead, his body reposing in a sarcophagus, his spirit roaming as a shifting being, bellows a call to arms. Eurue, as world and civilisation, after ages of isolation, will now step into the ultimate arena.
Tristan and Alusin of the Kaval hasten to answer the summons to where tentacled miasmas are consuming people body and soul. Savier, as Keeper of the sarcophagus, sheds light on an ancient legend. Tianoman, Vallorin of the Valleur, brings the Valleur host to Eurue, and Emperor Teighlar of Grinwallin pledges his army.
But how does one fight miasma?
Who is the true enemy?
Meanwhile, as the spaces become frantic, a woman in a turret somewhere, elsewhere, plans her revenge. The schism between what went before and the reality of the present presents to her the power to control the fate of all.
Who will stop her?
Like white powder upon the hazy dunes, light drifts without direction, shedding spurious glows.
~ Cullin of Balconaru ~
ALUSIN squinted along the path, moving his head from north to south and back. Reverberations in the soles of his feet revealed to him someone on horseback approached, perhaps two horses, but the trail remained clear in both directions.
“Do you feel that?” he asked, hunkering to touch fingertips to cold and damp gravel.
Tristan stared back the way they had come, his shoulder length fair hair wafting in the strengthening breeze. No sign of anyone behind them. The morning mist further obscured view. He too sensed something on approach.
Facing north, he murmured, “Difficult to say where it’s coming from, and this lack of decent light will aid whoever it is.”
Straightening, Alusin gestured to a nearby copse of denuded trees. Winter’s presence was everywhere, evident in bare branches and the renewed promise of ice by nightfall in the air currents. “I suggest we conceal ourselves.”
Nodding, his companion moved in his long-legged manner towards the grey boles, a hand silencing his sword against his thigh. Metallic sounds carried in cold air. His dark green tunic and leather breeches matched their surrounds. Alusin fell into step beside him, tucking white hair behind his ears. He wore grey, the camouflage kind that was both light and dark patches.
Goddamn it, a fire would be welcome right now, he thought as he hastened for cover.
Hoof beats sounded, closing in, and they hurried to concealment, dragging their dark, somewhat besmirched cloaks tighter, lifting the cowls to hide their fairness.
Shadowed and in shadows, they hunkered, scrutinising the path.
As the white sun sent its first tendrils onto the land, two forms on horseback wandered around the far bend further along, seemingly unhurried. Both were swathed against the cold, in the drab colours of the region. Old woollen tunics covered burly frames, while filthy scarves wrapped around their faces, leaving only eyes clear. What colour those orbs were remained invisible, which had more to do with distance than subterfuge. Fingerless gloves adorned rough hands and knee-high leather boots rested in dull stirrups. It was difficult to tell skin colour also.
The men did not speak; they simply ambled by, looking neither right nor left. A definite sense of tension surrounded them, however. Unhurried was therefore not entirely relaxed. Either they chose the slow pace to minimise noise, or they hoped their apparent unconcern would mask them.
Eyes appeared to scrutinise every bush and bole, the actions evident now that they were closer.
That screamed the concept fear.
What were they afraid of?
Unmoving, Tristan studied them. Alusin’s eyes narrowed.
The horses were strong and in good health, although the tack and saddles had seen better times. Nothing seemed amiss. Two men on their mounts were on their way home or heading towards the labour of the day, and yet …
Tristan covertly gave a hand signal. It is a trap.
Indeed, but a trap for who or what? Were the two men prey or distraction? Lure or victims? No one knew he and Tristan were in the area, other than the one who dispatched the messenger, and he or she had not yet been informed of their arrival. In fact, they deliberately chose to commence this journey to the meet from an added distance in order to garner a feel for the situation, whatever that was. No one therefore knew of their presence, and thus the trap could not be about them.
Who, then, was meant to draw what out into the open?
That answer was not long in coming.
BEYOND the coppice, opposite the path, a field slumbered in winter’s guise. Vapour tendrils lifted from the cold earth as the weak sunlight arrived. Seed pods, summer’s husks, adorned scraggly bushes. More than morning mist arose from the deserted field, however.
Tristan gripped Alusin’s forearm, and pointed.
The miasmas swiftly took on form.
Eight-legged – no, tentacled – creatures waddled in an ungainly yet horrifying fashion towards the two men on horseback and, even from the distance they watched, Tristan and Alusin discerned the dreadful hunger prevalent in the nightmare beings. There was also the faintest sense of despair.
“Fight?” Alusin whispered.
“We have no idea what they are,” Tristan denied him. “We watch.”
The horses were more aware of danger than the men were. Neighs echoed through the still morning air, and one reared on hind legs, pawing in desperation. Cursing, the men attempted to control their suddenly skittish mounts, seemingly giving no thought to what caused the panic, although that was more the perception of the watchers, for the men soon screamed as loudly as their horses did, as terribly aware.
Ethereal octopi clambered over and into the melee of horses and men.
Seconds later, nothing remained.
Not horse. Not man.
And no otherworldly miasmas either.
“What the fuck just happened?” Alusin demanded after many minutes had passed without further sign of danger.
Tristan cautiously stood. His hands trembled and his gaze probed every shadow. “All gods, this is why we are summoned to Petunya.”
Alusin released an explosive breath. “Have you seen these before?”
“These, no. Something teases at the edge of my subconscious, but right now the closest comparison I have is the Mysor from the Forbidden Zone,” Tristan murmured. “They were real, though, according to the stories. Massive harvestmen with eight legs, but easily dealt with. Not this.”
Standing, Alusin asked, “What do we know?”
“Belun said the summons came via a third party. A messenger collared Jonas while he oversaw the raising of grain silos on Lax, said there was trouble here. Wasn’t too specific.”
“I am aware of all that; what else do we know of this place?”
Tristan gave him a sidelong grin. “Worried, are we?”
“Damn right, I am. Those creatures were waiting for warm blood. It could have been us that went poof. The messenger should have given proper warning.”
Nodding, Tristan stared across the field. “Our cloaks masked our warmth, thank Aaru. What do we know? Well, Petunya is rural, but not without allies. This world of farmers feeds many out there. I’m guessing folk didn’t want to talk about this, for it would put trade in jeopardy. Therefore, the single messenger and the lack of detail.”
“Or most here are dead already. This place feels emptied.”
“Bloody hell, I hope not.” Tristan swiped at his hair. “Someone lives, and sent an envoy, and where have we been focusing recently? Lax. A messenger was bound to bump into one of the Kaval at some stage, and Jonas got that prize.”
“Therefore that someone has some clout. Has to, to send a man on a space flight to pass on a message, cryptic and less than forthcoming as it was.”
“That worries me,” Tristan frowned. “And clearly that means no one here is able to communicate as we do across distance, or able to transport either. Maybe those able to transport were taken first. If misty monsters are eating the locals, they are prey wherever they are. There’s no magic here, but what we just witnessed is sorcery.”
“This may also be an elaborate trap for the Kaval.” Alusin moved openly yet cautiously towards the path. “Or you. If so, someone messes with the wrong people.”
Following, hand on hilt, Tristan muttered, “Indeed.”
JONAS revealed that the messenger – nondescript, no accent speaking in the common tongue – gave a location for a meeting, and requested minimal Kaval presence.
In itself that was suspicious. If murdering miasmas with eight appendages decimated the local population, surely one would summon the entire Kaval in?
Tristan ruminated on the situation as he walked beside Alusin. The messenger asked for one, no more than two, when it was already clear to him he would need his full team on site to quell whatever this was. The man, according to Jonas, then vanished amid Lax’s populace.
Was the trap for him, Tristan, as Alusin suggested? Even those unaware of space politics knew the Kaval engaged in succour on Lax after massive flooding virtually drowned all crops there. If anyone was to follow a call for aid elsewhere, it was him. His team was engaged, but he was able to answer a summons. Anyone with half a mind would know that. He would leave his team to go on doing what they were meant for – succour – while personally reconnoitring a potential new threat.
“You think too much,” Alusin muttered. “Your thoughts are bloody loud, too.”
Laughing, Tristan rebutted with, “Elianas used to accuse Torrullin of the same.”
“We are not them.”
Tristan’s face wiped clear of all expression. “I am well aware of that.”
He obliquely studied the man keeping pace with him. White hair; long and straight. Alusin wore it tied in a loose knot at his neck, bound with bleached leather, claiming his hair got in the way in a sword fight. Vanity, of course, did not allow him to cut it shorter. Tendrils escaped to flutter about his face. Blue eyes, a darker shade than was usual, and exceptionally pale skin. Alusin did not tan even under the harshest sun. In that condition, he was much like the Siric of yesteryear. Excellent bone structure, a straight nose, proper chin, lips neither too thin nor too fleshy. He was tall, like to the Valleur. It was a truth that he was attractive and possessed nobility of features. Alusin absolutely reminded him of Elianas, but Elianas was dark of colouring, while Alusin was all light.
Only an immortal heard the summons to Dome duty, and Alusin heard it after Erin died, leaving a post vacant in the Kaval. As an immortal, the last of his kind, he had been alone a long time before that summons, and therefore no one needed to pay the ultimate price in order for him, as sole survivor, to take his place on the team. He was a sorcerer and a seer, highly skilled in weapons and fighting. Having passed the Recognition test in the Dome, Alusin, as lumin kindred, fought with the Kaval in the present only for the light.
This man was a brother-in-arms, a true friend, and also his Eternal Companion. A century after Torrullin vanished with Elianas into another realm, Tristan still could not face that particular fact.
Growling, he spat, “Concentrate on this mission.”
Alusin sent him a look, and did not say a word.
Together, yet apart also, they headed for the place of meet.
MOSQUITOES danced on the surface of the water in the pail she had hidden in the shadows of her prison, but there were sufficient stilled sections to view events beyond her confines.
Releasing a breath, she shuffled back to the narrow window slit.
It has begun. At last.