The Lifting of the Veil
Book 1: Winternight
Copyright © 2004 by Jared Michaud -- www.winternightproductions.com
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Inside, a fire crackled brightly in the hearth, its orange hues vivid against the dingy backdrop of the soot-stained lime-plaster walls and the dark furniture of the common room. The room, however, was far warmer than the wind which, as if to prove the point, howled around the eaves and across the chimney. A few guests sat around the room, talking little and laughing not at all. A wary, oppressive silence hung about the place, making conversation seem an uneasy business at best, despite how much busier the inn was than usual.
An old man sat by the fire in a rickety wooden chair, dozing with his long, white beard on his chest; a tobacco-stained pipe hanging loose in his jaws. The other occupants, travelers all, unlucky enough to be caught in the storm, huddled in small groups whispering among themselves occasionally. Three trolls sprawled at a low table in one corner, watching the room with hooded eyes, while in the opposite corner, by the door, a lone figure reclined, feet propped on a chair with the hood of his plain, brown cloak pulled low over his eyes.
By the hearth the old man shifted, making his chair creak; and at the same moment the wind gave an especially loud howl. Awakened by the noise, he started, then shivered uneasily and looked around as the wind howled again. He started to close his eyes, but the inn door opened, letting in a blast of freezing air and snow. A moment later three cloaked figures stepped through, stamping the snow off their boots and closing the door behind them. Heads turned as people sought the source of the cold, but a moment later attention returned to within the various companies; interest in the newcomers dwindling as quickly as it had appeared.
As the scant conversation resumed, two of the inn's occupants seemed to shrink back into the darkness in the corner furthest from the door. The three newcomers, their faces hidden in the shadows of their cloaks, conferred for a moment then picked their way between the tables in the room to where the old man sat watching them with a half-open eye. When they reached his table they stopped, one of them facing him with the other two flanking, their eyes raking the occupants of the room.
The leader spoke, his voice low, "May we sit down, old one?"
The old man considered a moment, "Who claims your sword, stranger?"
The three shifted away from the table a bit and the leader sneered, "You ask dangerous questions, old one."
The old man shrugged, "Age teaches one not to fear questions... This inn is a freehold. Sit where you like." The leader nodded and the three quickly seated themselves in the remaining chairs, their motions fluid.
The old man seemed about to speak but their leader asked, "What news is there in this place?"
The old man stared into the fire for a moment; putting up a hand to stroke his beard, then chuckled, "You ask dangerous questions, dark one. ...But news? …I don't know that there is news…though…" He twitched his shoulders in a shrug, "there are always stories."
"Yes?" The newcomer's voice, though still low, had taken on a sharper quality, and his eyes shone like diamonds from the depths of his hood, seeming to bore into the old man, who raised his bushy eyebrows, still looking faintly amused.
"Well, rumor is that a war has begun far to the south. They say the king of Trusk has sworn vengeance upon the Jahazi trolls of the great plain. There was something about a lost hunting party I think, but I don't pay much attention to such. By the time the news gets here, it's almost as old as I am." He made a throwaway gesture with the hand that was not holding the pipe.
The newcomer scanned the room again and, sounding faintly disappointed, murmured, "I see."
The old man turned his eyes again upon the leader, and his voice had a slight edge, "Who claims your sword, stranger?"
One of the man's companions cursed and reached for his belt, but the leader raised a hand to halt him, "You will do yourself harm, old one. Men are killed for asking another's allegiance in these parts. The Oath is both enemy and friend to any of us. Still..." He shrugged, "My sword is my own. I am a freeholder from the south."
"In that case…" the old man turned his head from the fire and looked at the newcomer's face, still hidden in the strange shadows of his hood, as if seeking a reaction, "there are rumors of strange doings in the mountains as well."
"Doings?" The stranger's voice regained its odd note and he resumed his former, piercing stare.
The old man shrugged, "They say were-men have been seen in the north holds. They say a deep shadow has fallen over the mountains, gathering up all the dark things of the netherworld. If the rumors are true, the creatures hide there, awaiting their master's return so they can claim the world for their own. And, for those who believe such things, they say the Star of Yore shines once more."
The stranger hissed, the sound of a long breath drawn in between clenched teeth and said, half in question, half in demand, "Who has told you such tales? What do you know?"
The old man hesitated, "Well…" Then he shook his head as if pushing an idea away. "No," He muttered under his breath. Then, "No" he said, a little louder, as if he had decided some question in his own mind.
The stranger seized his arm, "What have you heard? Tell me."
The old man shrugged and stared pointedly at the stranger's hand, which clutched demandingly at his arm. The hand was slowly withdrawn, and the old man turned his gaze to the fire, saying nothing for a long moment.
When he next spoke his voice was distant, as if he pondered a place far away or a time long past, "T'was a traveler who told me; a strange man who seemed to wear the silence as a cloak. He shared my fire for a night. I have never heard the like of the tale he told, even from of old. …It seems fanciful beyond belief. Such fancies are too big a mouthful for this modern world, when children no longer believe even in were-men or giants." He snorted softly, "but…" he twitched his shoulders in another shrug, "If he spoke true, we may see the signs of the ancient times once again." His eyes unfocused slightly, and he seemed to be gazing inward for a moment to something unseen by the rest of the world. Then he began his story…
She stood motionless in the center of the clearing, hood pulled low over her eyes, listening. The forest around her was as dark and still as she, the trees sending searching branches into the night. Above her the moon shone bright upon the woodland, which spread to the south and west as far as the eye could see. Very near to the north then sweeping around into the distance to the east, a wall of mountains rose huge and forbidding into the sky—strange, terrible fortresses of black stone guarded by dark, purplish clouds that swallowed up their peaks. Seen from the corner of the eye, the clouds seemed to creep farther and farther outward from the mountains they called home as if they wished to consume the sky itself. If one turned to look at them directly, however, they still hovered there, churning slowly.
The wind stirred the trees, whispering through the branches and brushing lightly over the cloak that shrouded the solitary figure on the hillside, still standing unmoving in the darkness.
There was something wrong with the air—with the night itself. Something was present that should not be there, she thought, or possibly something was missing. She wasn't certain and that in itself was a bad sign, as she had walked the forests of Eschaton for far longer than anyone from the most of the world's races had ever lived. She knew the forests well—even this dark, unnatural one.
Again the breeze brought the scent of the woods to her nose, and again she sensed the almost imperceptible tang of bitterness—of something wrong. Yet, as she tried to isolate it in her mind, it disappeared again. Behind her the trees stirred, and she turned to see her companion emerge from their shadow. He stalked toward her, eyes flicking around the clearing.
"My lady Talina, the path ahead is clear. And…" his eyes swept the clearing again, uneasily. "Something is wrong with this wind."
"Yes, Bretran, I feel it. We must be getting close…perhaps too close."
"Too close?" He frowned, "This is no time for second thoughts, Lady. If you would go back…"
"No, of course not." Talina waved her hand dismissively. "This is an uneasy night, and we haven't yet found…"
Bretran's hard face set itself into grim, determined lines that had become more and more familiar of late. "We must continue. That path is set now."
Suddenly, Talina's hand shot up and her head swiveled to the right, toward the edge of the clearing. With her gesture Bretran melted back into the shadows as if he had never been; his hand already moving to the hilt of his sword. Talina's breath hissed as she inhaled, then she turned and stepped quickly back into the forest.
The leaves on the trees, still but for the wind, began to tremble slightly, as if the earth shook, then more and more, and a sound came, faint at first like thunder gathering in the distance and rolling in through the darkness. A moment later, the thunder became a roar, and a shape broke through the trees on the southeastern side of the clearing. It was moving impossibly fast, but its features were unmistakable, even in the dimness. It was a horse of a kind both beautiful and terrible. Its black coat shone with magic, and its mane streamed straight out behind it from the terrific speed at which it ran. Balls of red lightning flashed in its eyes, and light danced around its hooves as if it struck sparks from the ground, whether it trod upon stones, grass, or the softest earth.
Talina had seen a Dread Steed once before, when she was very young, and this was a stallion of the kind that belonged only to the Fair Folk. It seemed to freeze for a moment before her eyes, and she caught a profile both noble and infinitely dangerous, perfect of form and limb, its rider seeming impossibly small upon its back.
Talina shrank even farther back into the shadows as it thundered across the clearing, a blur of speed, hooves beating the earth in a continuous roar. Behind it came the terrifying avalanche of the Wild Hunt, of hooves and whips and Fae lights, red and black leather flashing as it pounded past through the darkness. Along with the Dread Steeds came the Dark Hounds. They were creatures of nightmare, the larger cousins of the great forest wolves, bred magically for the Hunt, their eyes and teeth glittering as they followed fast on the heels of their masters' steeds.
Once it began, the parade of shapes and light and eyes racing through the gloom seemed to go on forever, and Talina stood absolutely still, barely breathing. Hundreds of horses and riders fairly flew through the clearing each moment, but they came and kept coming. As Talina watched, the night was broken by a cry from the darkness and two shapes sailed out of the mass of horsemen to land rolling in the grass on the near side of the clearing.
Then, as quickly as the careening train had begun, it simply ended, and the ground was still, but for a little residual trembling that soon faded to nothing. There was no sign at all that the Hunt had passed. Not a blade of grass was bent, and the trees were as still and silent as ever. All that remained were two inert shapes, lying in the grass.
Talina stood absolutely still, watching. There was a good chance that, when the leader of the Hunt realized he had lost two of his hunters he would return for them. The Folk were a reclusive lot, but for the Hunt and the Snatchers, and seeing even those was a rarity. They would not knowingly leave two of their own among the hostile outsiders…There was a good chance they would come back, but the Folk were only men, just as any of the other races of men. They were just as likely to err.
Seconds stretched into long, silent minutes as Talina waited, totally still but for her breathing. Finally, after what must have been a full quarter of an hour, one of the two figures before her stirred and moaned.
A moment later, it sat up and looked blearily around. In the silver light of the full moon, Talina could see it was a girl, and a rather tiny one (as would have been expected for the Folk). She would have been under four links high, standing upright. That was short even for one of the Folk.
She turned her head side-to-side for a moment, then gave a muffled cry and started toward the other figure, which still lay sprawled across the damp grass of the clearing. As the girl moved forward to hover over the still form, Talina stepped silently from the trees.
Talina was a gray shadow, even in the silver moonlight of Winternight, moving through the clearing, her cloak's colors matching her surroundings with a little too much accuracy for the eye to be comfortable. Approaching the two, she could see that the one on the ground was a boy—and entirely too large for one of the Folk.
Talina let out a short, surprised hiss of breath and the girl whipped around, coming instantly from her knees into a defensive crouch over her companion, her eyes shining in the moonlight.
Talina halted, surprised. The sound should not have been audible even a few links away. The girl made a grab for something inside her cloak and her eyes flashed as Talina raised a hand.
"Who are you?" Uttered in a voice of tinkling silver bells, the girl's challenge was strong enough to carry clearly, and the warning in it was unmistakable, yet still soft enough not to carry beyond the edge of the clearing. Talina's eyebrows rose. Such control and purpose were impressive considering the circumstances. That was especially true if, as Talina suspected, this girl was only a child.
"Peace, girl. I've nothing against you."
There was a noise of metal on metal from across the clearing and Bretran stepped from the shadow of the trees, his sword drawn. The girl whipped around, her hand coming out of her cloak to reveal a dagger, held cocked and ready to throw.
"Drop it." Bretran's words slammed into the still night like a block of granite, and the girl hesitated, her arm still, staring across the clearing at the tall man, his chain mail gleaming dully under the moon, his sword an accusing finger of steel pointed straight at her.
The two held there, frozen for long moments until, slowly, the girl replaced the half-drawn knife within her cloak. Talina had moved silently up until she stood barely five links behind the Fae child and the Deegani boy. Deegani he was; Talina could see him clearly now, sprawled in a tangle of limbs across the grass, his chest rising and falling ever-so-slightly.
Talina spoke gently and the girl turned back to her, "What is your name, child of the Folk?"
"Cyrith." The girl stared suspiciously up at her, still hovering protectively over the unconscious boy on the ground. "What do you want?"
Talina raised an eyebrow, "From you? Likely nothing." Her eyes considered the Fae child for a long moment. "Would you have us leave you as we found you? Castoffs of the Hunt?"
Cyrith started to nod almost belligerently, then brought herself up short and looked down at the boy, who had begun to stir feebly. "I... I don't know."
The boy opened his eyes and Cyrith threw herself upon his neck, hugging him fiercely. "Oh, Stephen, are you all right?"
He groaned and reached out to hug her in return, then set her easily on her feet as he sat up. He was nearly as tall sitting as she was standing.
Seeing Talina, his arms tightened reflexively around Cyrith and his eyes narrowed, but he said nothing, simply studying her for a long time. Talina returned his gaze, her face revealing nothing in the moonlight. There was a depth to his eyes, she saw. It was a depth that no child should have. It reminded her of…
Talina frowned as Bretran approached, still watching the children carefully, though he had sheathed his sword.
In a clipped, irritated voice he said, "What now? We can't take them with us—not there." He jerked a thumb toward the mountains to the north.
Talina raised her eyebrow, "Oh? We must take them with or send them back alone, and one is just as dangerous as the other."
Bretran nodded, "But what about…"
Talina raised a hand to stop him, an odd expression on her face, "Hold a moment." She turned to the boy, "Who are you?"
His slight frown was as thoughtful as his previous glance had been, "I am Stephen. Who might you be, my lady elf?"
Talina frowned. Her kind were rare across Eschaton. She would never have expected such discernment in one so young, and a Deegani at that. "I am Talina ne'al Kalin ni'al In'Kalith." Stephen nodded gravely and Talina thought she caught a glint of amusement in his eye for an instant.
Talina glanced to Bretran then turned and faced the two squarely. The Fae girl stood half behind the boy, obviously deferring to him, and she remained silent as Talina spoke, though her eyes never wavered.
"You may join us on our journey if you wish. We travel north to the mountains. Otherwise there is a town, Findale, three days south. We can give you food and water. If circumstances were different, we would accompany you, but we cannot."
At the word mountains, Stephen's eyes narrowed but he shook his head, "Please, don't leave us. This is a terrible place, dangerous to Folk, both Fair and Deep."
Talina's lips twisted wryly, "The forest is dark, true, but the mountains are the source of the darkness. You would join us there?" Her voice was thoughtful, "Safety lies to the south, boy, not in the madra'risa."
Stephen shrugged as Cyrith shifted uncomfortably behind him, "Yet it is to the dark mountains that you travel, lady. Surely we would be safe with you?"
The neutrality of Talina's tone was its own sort of shrug. "Very well, come then. Our horses are over the hill." She motioned the children toward the southern edge of the clearing.
There were four horses. Two were common pack animals, only lightly burdened. The other two were saddled for riding and were obviously far from ordinary. One of the horses was a mare. Her color, an odd, eye-twisting combination of gray and brown, seemed to fade into the foliage. The other was a pure white stallion, his head held high, intelligent eyes watching the trees suspiciously as if he, too, disliked something about the place. It was the work of moments to move the remainder of their supplies to a single packhorse and rig a makeshift bridle so the children could ride.
They had to ride bareback, but it didn't seem to bother them; they clung to the horse and each other as if they had been born to it. After Talina mounted the mare and Bretran the stallion, the little party moved out toward the mountains. Talina led, sitting erect in the saddle, hood pulled low, alert to any change in the forest around her. Next were the children, holding to the packhorse and saying little, staring into the woods as if they expected terrible creatures to plunge out of the brush at any moment and attack them. In the rear rode Bretran leading the other packhorse, his eyes flicking about, senses alert. His stallion must have picked up his mood as well, because it seemed as alert and watchful as he.
Talina headed them straight for the mountains that towered so near in the north, following a ghost of a path that was invisible to the others at times. As they rode the night seemed to wear on forever; the moon never moving from its place behind them; the entire world silent as the grave. Ahead the mountains loomed ever closer, towering peaks still lost in the clouds.
It must have continued that way - the horses' hooves making little crunching sounds in the needles of the forest floor, the saddles creaking slightly - for several hours. Time, though, seemed to stand still. The world was frozen in the darkness, unmoving and silent, and as they continued, it became increasingly threatening. The trees' branches seemed to reach out for them, and the silence that had at first seemed merely eerie grew more and more ominous. All the while, the wind continued to bring stronger and stronger the sense of wrongness that Talina had first become aware of in the clearing. Obstinately, however, it refused to allow her to identify it.
Suddenly Talina spoke, breaking the silence that the night had held them under, "How did a Deegani boy come to be in the company of the Fae? ...and riding the Hunt, no less?" She didn't turn her head, and after her voice faded, she might almost never have spoken.
A moment later Cyrith spoke. "Why should we tell you anything?" Her voice was high and musical despite the belligerence of its message, carrying a sound akin to tiny bells.
Seemingly ignoring her, Talina said, "Cyrith…an interesting name…what is your lineage, girl?" Cyrith started, almost losing her hold on Stephen who glanced back at her reassuringly.
"I…well…" Cyrith gulped. Talina turned her horse abruptly, facing them and making them pull their mount back sharply. Bretran also halted, watching everything and focusing on nothing, just as impassive as before.
Talina stared out from the depths of her hood; and despite the shadows shrouding her features, a hint of reproof marred her calm, "There is more to this than you know, girl. Do not try my patience."
Cyrith seemed to shrink in the saddle behind Stephen, but she spoke up indignantly, apparently unfazed, "Elves do not often trust so easily as you. You didn't even seem surprised to see us. There's something that you aren't telling us, isn't there?"
Talina seemed amused and she glanced at Bretran, "Elves do not trust so easily...and Deegani do not ride easy with those whose loyalties are in question." She nodded, "Yes, there is much you do not know. And you, too, may have a part to play in this…."
She shrugged and turned her horse, starting again along the path. It was a long moment before she began to speak, "My journey began when I was barely a child. An old man spoke a prophecy to me which he said would someday change the world. Ever after that, I felt drawn to leave my people and wander. I first left when I was barely fifty turnings old. I went westward, then south. I returned to my people often in those early days. I would spend a turning at home then another traveling. As time passed, I was away for longer and longer.
“Wandering became my life. I saw the four corners of the land and even sailed out from the shores of this land and saw another, far, far away. Of late, my travels have taken me to Degan. It was there I heard that same prophecy again. It was as if a voice had reached up from the depths of my childhood and pointed the way north. It had been handed down by my people, from generation to generation, ever since the Great War. I heard it purely by chance, but it awoke old memories."
Talina twisted half around to peer through the darkness at the two children, "What do you know of Degan?"
Cyrith's tone was more relaxed now as she said, "The stories say it is the land of the Degaani—the men who hold the north against the forces of darkness."
Bretran snorted softly and Talina's gentle yet somehow bitter laugh rippled back to them, "Yes, that is what the stories say, and once it was even true. Today, the reality of the thing is a different matter. Once, the Degaani may have been men of valor and courage who stood against the darkness. Now the tale of the northlands is much more... interesting. The Degaani are warriors still, but they squabble among themselves like children while their people are slaughtered or enslaved."
Bretran grunted and this time when Talina laughed, her bitterness was plain, and she replied, as if to his grunt, "Oh, you know the truth of it."
She waved her hand in a throwaway gesture that, at the same time, indicated Bretran, "He was having…difficulties…with one of his brothers over who would succeed their father as king; so when the reports they had been receiving about bandits and raids in this area began coming from sources too reputable for his father's regency council to ignore, he came north to see for himself.
"When we arrived in Findale, we found the barracks at half muster. The men desert their posts, and the farmers in outlying lands have not been heard from in months upon months. There were also strange tales passing between the villagers. We decided then to continue north to find the source of the problem, despite some..." her mouth quirked, "...trouble with the captain of the guard."
Cyrith nodded, frowning, "There are only two of you?"
Talina's voice carried contempt now, "We'd no 'royal authorization' to take men from the barracks. Besides, I've my own suspicions of what has been happening here."
"And your prophecy? What has it to do with all this?"
Talina looked thoughtful, and her voice had a testing edge to it when she next spoke, "What is tonight, girl?"
Cyrith blinked, uncomprehending, "Winternight. There's only enough free magic for an easy hunt on Winternight."
Talina's shoulder twitched under her cloak, "So it is..." and her voice changed, deepening and, as she continued, ringing out through the darkness.
"On Winter's night of power, the comrades first shall meet.
The princess of the woodlands, the scion of watchmen bright,
The child of dwarves and fairies, the giant from the east,
The son of fallen Simia, the outcast from the pack,
The wizard of the shattered coast, though present yet unseen.
Together will they forge man's fate, together stand against the storm,
For when they find the light of yore, shall ancient darkness wake once more." Talina let the last words trail off into silence.
Cyrith's puzzled frown showed her incomprehension, "So the prophecy is speaking of tonight? ...but what does it mean? What darkness?"
Talina's cool, ironic smile could be heard in her voice, "If I knew, I would hardly be bumbling around the forest in the middle of the night with two children, would I?
"All I know is that that prophecy was made by one of great power—one who should be believed. ...And I know we may have a part to play in its fulfillment."
Cyrith nodded slowly then asked, "But why me? My people are the Fae, but I'm not even grown yet..."
Talina looked at Bretran; and, voice troubled, she said, "Prophecies have been wrong before, even those kept by my people, but that prophecy comes from the Book of Yore. The Great Wizard himself wrote it, shortly after the last, terrible battle..."
They were climbing into the foothills now, and Talina was guiding her mare carefully up a slope covered with rocks and loose debris.
She fell silent for a moment choosing their path, and Cyrith asked, "The Book of Yore?"
Talina looked back at her, "Do the Fae remember nothing of the past? I speak of the greatest warrior wizard of all time, who defeated the Byzimyanny—the Nameless One—in the Battle of Ages. He left a book of prophecy behind him when he left Eschaton, and this is the first and possibly greatest of the Prophecies of Eschaton."
Suddenly the air was rent by a terrible sound - half howl, half scream - filling the night around them, echoing off the mountain ahead, and raising the hair on the backs of their necks. The packhorse and the children's mount tried to bolt, but Bretran grabbed for the halter of the children's horse and held it. The packhorse's lead rein, however, which he had held in his other hand, slipped free; and the animal went crashing off into the brush.
Bretran cursed, "Beastmen!"
Talina shot a disbelieving glance at Bretran, then her features twisted into an ironic smile and she nodded. Whirling her horse Talina called, "Run!" then she whispered something to the mare and it took off to the west at a dead run. Bretran slapped the children's horse on the rump; and, putting spurs to his own mount, followed Talina. A moment later another scream tore through the night. This one, however, came from directly ahead. Talina scarcely paused, whirling her horse back around, but before Bretran and the children could follow, two more screams came in rapid succession from the south and the west. Talina turned once more, this time north-east; and again they began to run, all three horses abreast. As they fairly flew toward the mountains, dodging trees, they heard another scream behind them, this time of an animal in pain, cutting off as abruptly as it had begun. Then the inhuman sounds came once more, this time in a chorus that set the horses running even harder than before.
They raced on and on, each moment seeming an eternity; their horses blowing now, tiring more with every step. They were running uphill with the unnatural, black mountains looming still ahead of them, closer than ever, jutting up suddenly out of the land. All around, the trees hung motionless, and neither bird nor beast was to be seen.
The chase dragged on for what could have been minutes or hours, and through it all Talina seemed to be muttering something under her breath. Every now and then either she or Bretran would glance behind them, but mostly they fixed their gazes ahead. Again screams came from behind and to either side, and Bretran and Talina exchanged meaningful looks. They were being herded like sheep to a slaughter, and the children must have known it too judging by the glances they shot over their shoulders and the frightened way they peered ahead into the darkness. After awhile they began to see patches of snow, brilliant white in the darkness, and at times they plunged through drifts of the stuff, soft and powdery.
They were under the clouds now; and soon they passed into shadow, leaving behind what little light the moon had provided. They were still running though they hadn't heard the screams for some time, and Talina was still muttering to herself.
Then, the chorus of screams came again, and a few moments later there was a crashing in the forest to their right, as if a great beast was blundering toward them through the brush. Bretran's sword was clear of its sheath in an instant, and its steel glinted in what little light penetrated into the shadow of the terrible clouds. The horses were running full out, foam flecking their bodies, and still the crashing sound came closer. The trail they had been following widened suddenly, and a great shape, at least twice the height of a man, broke from the brush next to them, running parallel to their course, but less than fifty hands away.
The screams sounded yet again, and the great running figure seemed to leap ahead of them along the trail, only getting closer to them as the trail began to narrow again. Then, the screams sounded again, but this time deeper and closer than ever before. Their pursuers no longer called a hunt; now they sounded the chase. Talina was still muttering to herself, but even more frantically now, and she suddenly veered off to the left into what appeared to be solid growth.
It was merely a thin screen of brush, and without warning they broke from the trees into the open. Ahead of them and off to the left was a cliff that dropped sheer into darkness; and, doubtless, all the way to the forest below. Directly ahead lay a narrow trail along the mountain with the cliff to one side and the steep mountainside to the other.
Instead of heading along the mountain, however, Talina made for the brush to the right, stopping next to the mountainside just at the edge of the brush. Instantly, she was on the ground and pushing through the thicker brush that grew up along the slope. It only took a moment for her to find what she was looking for, but then she hissed and motioned Bretran forward. He swung from his horse and strode forward to where she stood. She pointed to the side of the mountain and spoke a few words. He nodded and pushed his body into the foliage, still leading his stallion.
A moment later there was muffled cursing from ahead, but as the stallion disappeared, Talina motioned for the two children to dismount and hurriedly pushed them after Bretran. She herself followed immediately behind their horse, leading her mare. As they pushed into the cave, they found that it was just large enough for the horses to pass through, though after a few links it widened and the ceiling stretched away and upward into the darkness.
The darkness was not complete, however. A glow lay ahead and off to the left, and when they halted they could see a tiny fire against the wall. Talina pushed her horse up beside them, and, almost reflexively, the children turned to look at the mouth of the cave.
Cyrith shrieked. A huge figure was just getting to its feet where the cave's entrance started to widen. It could have been a man, if men could be eighteen or twenty links tall. Long, wild hair and beard flowed from a face that was broad, weathered and knobbed like a great water-worn lump of volcanic rock. The eyes were great blue and green orbs that caught the firelight and gathered it up like the eyes of a great cat. Their colors, however, were not fixed. They changed and flowed with their gathered light, always running blue or green, with an occasional touch of yellow.
At Cyrith's scream, Talina turned and put her hand across the girl's mouth, muffling the greater part of the sound. She hissed, "By the great King himself, be silent, girl! Else you'll kill us all."
Cyrith raised a trembling hand and pointed at the huge figure, standing now at the entrance. Whatever she might have said was muffled by Talina's hand, but the elf responded anyway, "Yes, I know what he is. He is as caught here as we. Besides, this confirms it all."
As Cyrith blinked up at her in shock, Talina released the Fae girl and pushed past the two children toward the tiny fire where Bretran stood, his sword against the neck of what must have been the ugliest creature they had ever seen. It was short and squat, literally as wide as it was tall, with green-black skin It wore only a breech cloth and a long-sleeved robe, open at the front, with a hem that brushed the dirt. Its arms and legs poked out at the corners of its body almost like they had been added as afterthoughts. Its half-reptilian face was pocked and pebbled and it shone with oil in the firelight.
Talina spoke, quietly but with the same cool authority she had shown so far, "We are not safe here, but we should have a few moments. Say what you must and no more, and by the Star, be quiet!"
Everyone stared at her in varying mixtures of shock and befuddlement. They all stood inside the cave, firelight flickering around them, not a sound coming from any of them, except when one of the horses would stomp or snort. The raw fear of the chase still held most of them, and their minds were sluggish enough, even had there not been a great deal about their circumstances that was new to all of them.
After a moment, as if she could not sense their confusion, Talina gestured gracefully to the great shape in the entrance to the cave, "Who might you be, my lord giant?"
The figure stepped forward, away from the entrance and farther into the fire's meager light. The giant was at least twice as tall as Talina, and in the confines of the cave he had to stoop to keep his head from scraping the ceiling. He wore a loose brown cloak made of coarse wool cloth, unevenly died. Under the robe were trousers, seemingly of the same rough weave as the robe, belted with a length of rope. In his hand, he clutched a long staff, at least as tall as he was, for he held it at an angle and it was still in danger of bringing down chunks of cave rock on their heads. It occurred to Cyrith to wonder how he had gotten it into the cave with him—or how he had gotten in himself, for that matter. He must have crawled through the entrance nearly on his belly.
The giant nodded to Talina and spoke in a voice that was deep, rumbling through the cave, even though he was obviously trying to be quiet, "Ulgoth is my name, Lady. I mean no intrusion, but I've no desire to see the beastmen any closer than I must. Their leavings are sight enough...burned farms and slaughtered livestock all the way from Grandgorge. Only by luck have I made it so far without meeting them. I expect I would make a fair account of myself if forced, but better to avoid trouble."
Talina nodded, then turned to the hunched-over creature that Bretran still held at sword-point, "And you?"
"I," the creature drew itself up to its full height, which was still just barely taller than Bretran's chest, "am being called Grath, and this," his hairy arms rose into a sweeping gesture, indicating the group that had crowded into his shelter, "is most rudeness." His voice was gruff, but not extraordinarily low, and it seemed too high for his bulk, especially after Ulgoth's rumble.
Grath stared up the sword, which was still just a finger's width from his neck, and snorted, "Bargering in! Pointing nasty sharp sword at Grath! Deepest shamefulness!"
Bretran snorted and raised the point of his sword a little more toward the hairy creature's chin, "Oh, and it's out of a peace loving nature you were holding that when I found you? I don't fancy a troll love-tap." He pointed with his chin at a huge, gnarled hunk of wood that looked to be a club of some sort, a few links away on the floor.
Grath brought his hands up in a half-shrug of protest, "Must have protection. Half-men want to eat Grath. Been trying days and days."
Talina raised a hand and said to Bretran, "Peace, son of Degran, there is no harm for us in this one, I think. Troll he may be, but he is hardly a beast, less still a were-man, and besides..." She trailed off with a slight twitch of her shoulders.
Bretran's lips twisted into a half-irritated, half-ironic line and he lowered the sword until the point rested in the dust. For a moment, he seemed about to speak, then his taciturn nature reasserted itself and he subsided. Grath sniffed at Bretran, then began straightening and patting at the loose robe he wore.
Talina looked around and nodded, "Shall we move deeper? We dare not attract the wrong sort of attention by lingering here."
She started to take a step forward, but Cyrith planted her hands on her hips and said challengingly, "You mean we're just letting them come with us?"
Talina frowned at her, obviously irritated, and said coldly, "You remember the prophecy, girl:
The princess of the woodlands, the scion of watchmen bright,
The child of dwarves and fairies, the giant from the east,
The son of fallen Simia..." Talina nodded to each of their party as she recited.
Cyrith frowned and motioned to her companion, "And what of Stephen? I hear nothing of him in those prophecies."
Talina flicked her head from side to side, "You ask for answers I do not possess. I am neither scholar nor seer."
Cyrith sniffed loudly, "In that case, how did you find this cave? And how did he follow us," she indicated Ulgoth, who stood impassively behind them, "if the... werethings ...can't?" Cyrith gave an involuntary glance toward the entrance to their cave.
Talina's mouth twisted into a half-amused expression, "As to that, elf magic is strong with the trees and living things. Confusing our scents was a bit difficult, but it should lead them a merry chase. ...and," she frowned, "this place has a peculiar feel to it. It—called—to me. Even had I not been able to find it by other means, its presence would have been plain enough."
Talina shook her head and pointed deeper into the cave, "and now, we had best move on. If you two will accompany us, we can talk more at... wherever this leads." She cocked an eyebrow at Grath, "Have you explored the cave to any depth? We'd best get inward and away from the were-men. There is still a smell of us coming from this place."
Grath's face contorted into a grimace, "Goes deep deep. Smell magic." He shrugged, "No like magic." Then his face contorted more and he bared his teeth, "No like magic; hate half-men. I come."
Talina nodded and seemed about to speak, but Ulgoth cleared his throat and shook his head, "Pardon me, lady, I know nothing of prophecies, but even so, I, too, am content to accompany you. I've no love for the... were-men as you called them? I ask only if you truly give allegiance to the King of Yore. I keep no company with his enemies."
There was silence for a moment then Bretran grunted and said drily, "Allegiance is a touchy question here, giant."
Ulgoth stared at him levelly, immovable and suddenly incredibly dangerous, "Allegiance is a touchy question the world over, Deegani, yet these are extraordinary circumstances if ever I've seen any. I walk not with the enemies of the King." Then he frowned, "Your people are said to serve, Deegani. You should hardly be afraid to say unless it is not so."
Grath shrugged his massive shoulders, "Grath serves King. Not afraid." He shuffled his feet awkwardly, then looked challengingly at the rest of the party.
Bretran, too, shrugged, "My people serve more in word than deed, but I've naught to lose by saying. Your answer is yes. My sword is the King's."
Cyrith sniffed, "There is no master worthy of allegiance among the Folk. Fae serve others with many words, and only themselves in truth. The Oath is held quiet among us... For me, I serve the King." Stephen smiled a half amused, half ironic smile and nodded agreement.
Talina raised an eyebrow, then gave an ironic half smile herself, "My people hold to the old ways. I, too, serve the King."
Ulgoth shook his head, sadly, "Among the giants, there are few who claim the King as master in this day, and fewer still who serve with their hearts as well as their tongues, much less swear to his service. Yet of those I am one.
"My path, then, lies with you." He glanced down the tunnel, "...and we are all King's men. We've naught to fear."
Talina frowned, "Come then." She stepped forward, leading her mare deeper into the mountain. The children followed, walking side by side leading their horse. Bretran and Grath came next, Bretran leading his stallion, with Ulgoth taking up the rear.
As they continued, the cave grew dimmer and dimmer, but in the little light they had, the party could see that the walls had opened out somewhat more, and Ulgoth no longer had to stoop to avoid the ceiling. There was a decidedly musty smell to the air, and the floor and walls were smooth and grew more perfectly shaped with every step, though they bore neither tool marks nor natural stone formations.
After a minute or two, Talina half turned and said, "I think it is no accident we found this place, and this tunnel was not made by natural means." She did not slow her pace, however, and soon the darkness around them was complete. Talina walked more and more slowly until the group was just inching along, feeling their way forward like worms in the darkness. They continued that way for what seemed like hours, the rustle of their movement loud in their ears, their footfalls echoing from the polished walls.
From behind, Bretran was grumbling quietly, monotonously, his epithets punctuated by the thump... thump... thump of Ulgoth's staff, when a light appeared in the middle of the group, half-blinding them all. Bretran's sword came out, and Talina whipped around; but the light dimmed to a bearable level so they could see a tiny ball of blue flame hovering over Cyrith's hand. She looked at their startled expressions and blinked in surprise.
"Sorry. There's a ley line down there." She pointed at the floor. "I just felt it. It must be coming to the surface."
Bretran sheathed his sword, uttering a soft oath as Talina nodded and Ulgoth rumbled, "Or mayhap we go down to meet it. Seems rather a large one. For one so young, you've skill if you're able to tap that." Grath made a harsh sound of disgust and they resumed their slow, trudging walk down the cave.
With Cyrith's light as a guide, they proceeded at a more reasonable rate, but whether they traveled for an hour or a day none of them could afterward have said. It was a long time, certainly, and they all fell into a semi-stupor, pressing ahead, step-by-step, through the darkness.
Slowly, as they moved deeper into the mountain, the stone turned from the gray it had been near the entrance to a deep, light-consuming black that seemed to pull at the tiny ball still flickering over Cyrith's outstretched hand. It was some time before Talina noticed, and the nagging doubts she had felt since entering the cave flared up inside her. Something about what lay ahead seemed wrong, just as had the wind in the clearing; something beyond sensing but there all the same. There was something about the earth itself that was evil in a way she couldn't quite define. Still she kept on. There was no going back—not with were-men right outside…
The trek was a long one, and their minds, already weary from the long chase, were lulled into a stupor by the monotony of putting one foot in front of another, and the darkness of the deep earth. Time took on an ephemeral quality, elastic and not easy to recognize. Reality became a repetition of step, step, step, one after another until their minds were numbed and dull.
It was barely noticeable at first, something that nagged at minds befuddled by the darkness; but didn't quite bring itself to their notice. Slowly, imperceptibly, the light in the tunnel had been increasing. After a time, it easily outshone Cyrith's little flame. The walls were still the same unblemished, black stone, but light somehow seeped through it to fill the tunnel with a strange radiance. The process was so gradual that Talina didn't even notice until she stepped directly out into the full glare of a blazing, white light.
It was like being thrust suddenly onto a stage before an audience of thousands. Talina felt more exposed than she ever had in her life. She stopped stock still and slowly backed up until she was again hidden in the shadows. The sudden stop had alerted the others, and Stephen and Cyrith crowded up beside Talina, with Bretran and Grath on her other side, now staring ahead out of the passage. Talina followed their gaze, and what she saw caught her eye and held it.
Ahead of them—well over a hundred links ahead of them—was a pool of light that reflected itself off the smooth, midnight-black stone. The pool was dim at the edges, so there was no obvious line where the light stopped and the darkness began. At the center, however, the circle of stone was as well-lit as a summer's day. What was really odd about the sight was that the stone was still entirely black, and the light seemed to reflect from it only by virtue of their total incompatibility.
Cyrith stirred and yawned then stopped still at the sight. Slowly, Talina led them forward and out into the light, looking warily around. The light, they saw as they filed hesitantly out of the passage, came from a brilliant point that hung in midair, far, far above them.
They slowly walked toward the pool of brilliance, leading the horses and gazing up at light's source. Strangely, the light did not blind them, but neither could they see what actually caused it. The glow was fierce but seemingly cold at the same time; and they stared at it, mesmerized.
The group stopped, as if by one accord, as they approached the place where the light began to reflect from the stone at their feet. For long moments, they simply stood there, their eyes fixed on the brilliance above them.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" They all looked down from their reverie to see Stephen seated cross legged on the floor, just where the light began to brighten.
All of them, even Talina, blinked at him in incomprehension for a moment, and he smiled wryly, whimsically, almost ironically, "The light has shone on this floor for nearly two thousand turnings." He shook his head, eyes distant, "It was once so bright it lit the whole cavern like daylight, and on Winternight the mountains glowed with it. The power is fading, the binding growing weaker." Stephen broke off for a moment, then, in the still-stupefied silence he asked, "Would you like to see?"
Cyrith nodded, frowning slightly, "Please?"
Stephen smiled and said, "A moment, then, little sister." He got to his feet and turned away from them to gaze upward. After a moment, in total silence, the light began to descend.
By this time, the group's consternation had turned to questions, and all of them were near to bursting with it. Still, none broke the silence, and Stephen continued to stare up at the growing light for a long time as it slowly, slowly descended until it hovered barely twice Ulgoth's height above them, shining ever more brightly in the darkness. They could see, now, that the light emanated from a crystal the size of two fists held together and filled with blue-white radiance.
"You are fortunate." Stephen said, slowly turning back to them, "Or perhaps...perhaps you are not so fortunate, at least as most would measure." He looked bemused for a moment, as if having some inner conversation none of them could hear, then he shook his head.
"Do you know why you are here?" He looked at each of them in turn—a long, hard look as if he searched for something, then he turned and began to pace slowly back and forth.
"You are here to fulfill your oath. Master Ulgoth came closer than he knew when he asked of our allegiance." Stephen paused, smiling a bit ironically, "Each of you once swore fealty to one this world has all but forgotten." His eyes swept over them again. "Many pay him lip service, but few remember there is a living man behind the name...or if they do, they do not believe he will ever return to claim his due.
"Few indeed have bound themselves to him with the Oath. To most of this world, the King of Yore is a myth. The Sidhe are a mere ghost of a memory; a legend, perhaps.
"Even you, though you believe enough to pledge him your life, know very little of reality—or of what that oath meant."
Stephen turned full toward them and said, with a ghost of a smile, "I'm sure you have questions. I will answer as I may, though ask wisely, for as you ask, so you will be asked."
Talina's was the first voice to break the silence, "Who are you, boy...or what are you?"
Stephen's mouth quirked, "I told you. My name is Stephen. ...As to WHAT—well, there is a more interesting question." He considered a moment, "I have been many things—a traveler, a warrior, a diplomat, a prince. Of late, I have been a brother to one in need. To you, I am a messenger. But first, and always, I am a liege man of the King." On his last words, he bowed his head for a moment, then looked straight at Talina. His eyes burned, and he asked, "And what are you, Lady? ...You are a princess among your people, but you have run away from your responsibilities there to chase a fancy."
Talina looked aghast, "I have sought to fulfill the prophecies of Yore!"
Stephen shook his head, "Honesty will serve you better."
Talina shrank back and seemed about to bolt, "Grandfather—In'Kalith himself said I would never be an elder! What do you ask of me?"
Stephen's voice was gentle, "You are asked only to fulfill the promise you made to His Majesty so many turnings ago. Do you remember?" Talina nodded dumbly, her usual self-assurance and sense of authority sent into confusion.
Stephen looked at each of them in turn, "Do not mistake me. You were called here, each in your own way. You have done well to come. That is not questioned."
He fell silent for a moment, and Bretran pointed at the crystal, "To be in command of such a wonder, you must be a great wizard. Why did you not save us, even the one you claim as sister, from the were-men?"
Stephen shook his head, "I am no wizard, or not as you might think of such things," he said thoughtfully. "And even had I the power to do as you say, what gain would we have from it? The first lesson a great wizard must learn is that greatness is found far more in using well what you have been given than in having great power. The smallest pebble can dam the mightiest river, if it is properly used." He shook his head again, emphatically, "No. Had I interfered it would have called worse onto our heads than a few Changers."
Then Stephen cocked his head, "But what of your friends, and those you call your people? True, you are no wizard, but you have influence enough. Haven't you the power to save the freeholders if you choose?"
Bretran shrugged, "I am not king. The council decides. If I usurp them now, I inherit nothing."
Stephen sneered, "You put your own pride before your subjects' lives. What sort of king would you make?"
Bretran countered, his face going stormy, "In war, a commander must not lose his command for fear of casualties. Nor have I responsibility to the freeholders. They are not sworn to the crown."
Stephen's face fell into sadness, "So says one reclaimed at great cost from the greatest enemy of all...and what of The Sword? How many must pay for your pride?"
Bretran turned white and bowed his head, and Stephen turned to Cyrith and smiled, "I see you waiting, little sister. What say?"
Cyrith's mouth twisted, "This means you're leaving..." She stared at him hard, "...doesn't it?" Her eyes started to tear up, "Don't you care for me?"
Stephen's smile was bittersweet, "Dear little sister, you knew it must happen someday. Will you wound me for a departure whose time has come?"
Cyrith hung her head as silent tears began to drip from her face, "Sorry. I... I..."
Stephen's smile turned gentle, "Yes, dear one, I love you, too. Remember what was promised you. Eyes clear." She nodded, head still bowed, then asked, "You've spoken much to me of the King. But you never told me what he is. Is he a man? One of the gods?"
Stephen's twisted smile re-appeared, "What is a man? Is a man a Sidhe? a Gygan? one of the Fae perhaps? ...and what of the gods? Are the Dragons gods? The youngest of them is older than the Sidhe, yet even they die when they reach the end of their purpose. What of the Engyls? There are Engyls that could stir the Cauldron like a bowl of soup, yet they are feared as demons if men know of them at all. ...and there are men who worship rocks and call them god. What makes a god?
"As to the King, he is as much a man as you or I—more," Stephen's mouth quirked, "Or perhaps we are men as he is. There has never been a man to equal him, nor has any man walking the face of Eschaton lived since before the Betrayal as he has.
"Your question has no easy answer. He simply is what he is."
Cyrith nodded thoughtfully and Stephen smiled at her, "I daren't digress too long, little sister. We have yet to complete our purpose here." He raised an eyebrow at Ulgoth, "What of you?"
Ulgoth shuffled his great feet, and cleared his throat uneasily, the unselfconscious stolidity he had so far shown curiously absent, "Dare I ask, young master, when I know that I, too, have much to be ashamed of?"
Stephen looked at the giant speculatively, "Why ask that, big brother? Pride? Cleverness? Fear?"
Ulgoth looked thoughtful, then gave a rueful headshake, "Say what you will then, young master. I stand at your pleasure. You need wait for no question of mine to speak."
Stephen shook his head, "Do not misunderstand. I do not speak to condemn you. The path ahead is steep. You cannot afford pride or fear. They will undo you."
Stephen turned to Grath and nodded, "And you?"
Grath brought one ham-size hand up to his chin and squeezed thoughtfully, "Why Grath here?"
Stephen raised his eyebrows, "You're asking me why you came?"
Grath shook his head vehemently, "No, no, no. Grath told to come. Grath come. What do now?"
Stephen smiled, "Listen, and watch, and learn. Make new friends. Then go home and take care of your family. They will need care in the times to come."
Grath nodded, satisfied, and Stephen's gaze swept across the rest of the little party as if seeking something. He waited a moment, then nodded and bowed his head for a moment.
There was silence as Stephen waited then began pacing back and forth through the edge of the light. The little party of travelers stood silent, watching. Suddenly, Stephen stopped and looked at them, and behind him something began to take shape in the light coming down from the crystal. Patterns of light coalesced in mid air, colors seeping from white lines to form a great landscape in the air before them.
Then, as they watched, the landscape morphed and changed—once, twice, three times, then again and again, faster and faster, finally blurring out into a field of shifting luminescence.
"This is our world," Stephen said, as the scene finally came to rest, a perfect representation of the black mountains under which they stood. "The world is a brutal place." As Stephen spoke, the scene changed to a huge beast, tearing at something on the ground. Its head came up and a man's foot could be seen protruding from its mouth. Cyrith gasped in horror, and turned her face away as the beast gulped down the leg and suddenly the beast disappeared, leaving in its place what might have been a man, but twisted and misshapen.
"The seven races are at each others' throats. Life—even the life of men—is worth little. There have been generations of war between the Changers and the Watchmen. Their hatred for one-another is implacable. They kill on sight, and no quarter is given for civilians, even for the women or the children.
"Open war may yet be avoided among many of the races, but there is conflict everywhere, and mistrust and treachery are more the rule than the exception.
"The Theurgans hold the Simianites in their thrall. But for a few scattered tribes, the entire race of Simia is enslaved by its more powerful brothers. Nor is slaving practiced only by the Theurgans. The Changers and the Fae often keep their brothers in bondage, and there are those who hold slaves among all the people."
The scene changed again, this time to a group of men, as twisted as the first, gathered beneath a great rock, upon which another man, tattooed all over and holding bones in either hand, stood shaking his fists above his head. Then, he raised face and hands to the sky in supplication. At his feet, another knelt, obviously of the same race as he, but bound, with his head bowed. The tattooed one replaced the bones in his belt and brought out a knife, then raised it above his head and plunged it into his victim. Once, twice, a third time. The bound form before him slumped as the tattooed figure again raised its hands to the sky, howling its triumph.
Stephen's voice was raw with anger and his eyes flashed, "This one claims to be a direct representative of His Majesty—and several gods—yet he treats his own people as slaves. Those who disobey are executed as blood sacrifices. Their life-force is siphoned off to feed the shamans' magic. Abuse of the king's authority is as vile as it is widespread."
The scene changed to show a group of giants, gathered in a circle around a stone altar. One giant held a deer, its legs bound together, head tucked safely under one of his great arms. Another giant held a huge knife with which he ever-so-gently cut into the deer's neck, drawing an immediate gout of blood.
Stephen shook his head, "Blood-sacrifice, too, is everywhere, though the people cloak it in pretty euphemisms and petty excuses."
The light behind Stephen shifted to a bright haze and he said, his voice heavy, "It has not always been so. Once the world was a brighter place—before the Cataclysm and the Great War.
"Then, the world was home to the Sidhe, the men of old. They were bound to the world by their magic, and all the creatures of the earth were their subjects. In those days, the King himself walked Eschaton. It was long ago, and much of what we remember is half-truths and tales grown large in the re-telling.
"It was in the Great Cataclysm that the world of today was born—out of fire and chaos and destruction. When the land and its magic were sundered, so were the people of the land, and the seven races of man are all that remain of the great Sidhe."
Stephen trailed off with a frown and considered for a moment before continuing, "There are many tales of the Cataclysm. Some believe it was the work of the Nameless One and his followers—that he sundered the world out of spite and hatred, jealous of the King's favor, and the King left in sorrow for the land from which he came in time beyond memory. Others hold that the cataclysm was the result of a great war, that the King and the Nameless One rent the world with their battle, that the Nameless One was destroyed and the King was driven away by the terrible magics they released. Some say the King himself was responsible—that he was displeased with the Sidhe, and set the Nameless One upon them, to tear the world asunder and enslave all who survived.
"There are many more tales—vile ones, foolish ones, and some very, very dangerous ones."
Stephen shrugged and began to pace again, "It is not my affair which of the tales you believe, and you will learn, in time, what may be true." His lips twisted into a wry grin, "Very little of it bears on what I must tell you. You need only know that your forefathers left you a legacy of chains that remains to this day.
"Just as the Sidhe were bound to the land, so they could bind themselves, at will, to whatever or whoever they chose. The Old Magic was stronger and more enduring than the very bedrock of the world. Bits remain, even today."
He paused for a moment and smiled wryly, "Among the Sidhe, allegiance was a matter of pride, not shame or fear as it is now. Ille' Breela Ee'Hoenye, the Great Oath, is one such remnant of Old Magic, though it has but a shadow of the power."
There was a hiss of indrawn breath from one or two of the little party and Bretran snorted, "The Oath is unbreakable. What can be more powerful?"
Stephen's smile went crooked, "Not unbreakable. Infernally difficult to break. Powerful and dangerous, but not unbreakable. ...The Old Magic was—well—a step beyond even unbreakable, for it is the Old Magic itself that holds the world together. It is Old Magic that makes the sun rise and fall, and Old Magic that holds the moon in its place."
It was as if Bretran's question had broken a barrier of some sort, and Cyrith piped up, "What do you mean?"
Stephen stopped pacing, and his face was deadly serious, "I mean that you are still bound by the greatest oath ever sworn—an oath your ancestors swore to the Nameless One itself. Not bound as they were. Even the Old Magic wanes with the generations, but bound more surely than if you spoke the Great Oath to the Nameless One right now, even if not as tightly."
"You speak in riddles, young master." Ulgoth shook his head. "I hear your words without understanding. You speak wonders, but what do they mean?"
Stephen shrugged, "Simply that much of the world will always serve the Nameless One, whatever they may think or will."
Bretran snorted again, "I don't believe in fate."
Stephen looked at him and frowned, irritated, "Nor I, but this is not fate, and it is no less true. Allegiance is held both sacred and secret today, and for good reason. What happens when a liege man tries to break the Great Oath?"
Bretran blinked, "He cannot. He will die before he can betray. He is compelled."
Stephen nodded, "Just so. ...But," he gave a twisted smile, "even bindings in the Old Magic can be broken, given time, and the King has not forgotten his own, though the world may forget him.
"There are a few, like us, who have sworn themselves to the King, and for us, the fetters of Abomination are broken."
Ulgoth shook his great head, almost in disbelief, "To half the world, even among those who claim to believe, the King is a myth, yet you speak as if you know him. Two-thirds of the world has forgotten the Gan-Anim, yet you say they are bound to his service. If it is so, how could so few know of it?"
Stephen nodded at Ulgoth's question then looked around at the others, "Bear with me a little longer. It will become clear."
He resumed pacing, then continued, "As little as we may know of the Cataclysm, we remember more of what followed. There was an age of confusion and chaos, as the earth settled, then a time of peace—or so it seemed. The Nameless One built a kingdom that enslaved half of Eschaton, and would have enslaved the rest, but for the Wizard."
The air behind Stephen, which had remained empty for a long time, again began to shimmer and take on form. When the light had gathered, it showed a forest, malformed and twisted. The trees were alive, but would never be healthy, and there was no beauty left in them. Everything about the scene was warped, and the plants looked poisonous.
"There was nothing he did not twist to his purpose." The scene changed to show a great black shape, like a bear but bigger, bulkier. It was tearing at something unrecognizable and mutilated, that struggled to escape, but could not. "The plants, the animals, the birds... Everything became his tool. The men were the worst. By far."
Stephen shuddered and looked hard at each of them as the light behind him rippled, then finally disappeared like smoke. "I will not show you what he can do if you choose to allow it. You will learn soon enough."
Stephen subsided again and looked thoughtful, "Now as to the Wizard... Some say he was one of the Sidhe, come back to fight for the world he loved. Some say it was the King himself, returned to do battle with his ancient foe. Some say it was the King's son, or his servant, or another of his people. Some believe there was no Wizard—that one of the great princes of Degan joined the Giants to do battle with the Nameless One.
"Most say the Wizard went to battle with the Nameless One and destroyed it, then returned from this world to the one from where he came. We know little of what he was or claimed to be except the Book of Yore, the prophecies he left behind. Many have puzzled over the book and found little of use.
"Today, men say there was no wizard, even that there was no Nameless One. After the great war, they disappeared. It has been thousands of turnings since the Battle of Ages. Most have forgotten it. It is easy to doubt, with the Wizard gone and the Nameless One with him.
"Most would rather doubt than know, for it allows them to do as they will. Their lives are easier when they forget. The Nameless One has become a story to scare the children. Only a few remember at all, and they are more often the Nameless One's own followers."
"Time turns and the world moves on. All is forgotten."
Stephen nodded to Ulgoth, "There is your explanation, big brother, though there is more, even than that."
The light behind Stephen rippled yet again, and he said, half to himself, "So much forgotten. So much lost...."
Then, turning his attention fully back to them, he smiled at Bretran, "You called me a wizard. What you call magic is... well, first it is energy—power that can be manipulated by those with the gift and the knowledge. Raw energy can be turned to many purposes—more easily destruction than life.
"The Nameless One was not always a creature of flesh and blood. First it was an Engyl, a being made wholly of magic. The Engyls are creatures unlike us. They do not even live in our world. We do not know where they come from or how they were made.
"But the Nameless One was not content to be as it was. By a great working, one more powerful than any other ever attempted, it was made flesh, and became the greatest enemy to this world that has ever been."
Stephen paused and his mouth twisted in something between disgust and bitterness. "The Watchmen call him Nameless. You," Stephen looked at Talina. "You call him Byzimyanny." He turned his gaze to Ulgoth, "You say Gan-Anym. To the Fae he is Ynaithnid, to the Simianites Degahyaso. The Theurgans know him as Nyvtelen; the Changers as Ynami. All mean the same. To this world, he is the Nameless One. None call him by his rightful name for fear they may call his attention down upon them. For his followers, it is a token of respect."
Stephen frowned, "Many are right to fear. We who are sworn to the King need have no such fear. His rightful name is Sheklah, Disturber of All. Sheklah, the Defiler. Sheklah, the Never-man." There were sounds of distress from one or two of them, and Stephen smiled a bit ruefully before continuing, "The world from which Sheklah came, the world of magic, is ethereal, ever-changing and shaped to the will of any creature that lives there—or here. This world is dust and stone, unyielding and solid. Sheklah's will is to change the world to fit its own twisted whim. The weak are its slaves; the strong are its enemies. It sees no other way." Stephen paused to look at each of them seriously, "...And it is coming back."
Again, Stephen stared hard at each of them, "So you learn what your service is to be. The end of the age approaches. I tell you now—Sheklah was not destroyed. It was only defeated—locked away from the world in the heart of the land it had called its own." He stared at the floor at their feet. "It lies imprisoned beneath this very stone, and the seal weakens a bit more every day, sapped and eaten away by the darkness of this place." He pointed to the great crystal, shining down upon them.
"...And Sheklah knows. It knows because, even in its timeless sleep, it is still aware. It sees, watches—always listening, and yearning, and hating. There are still those who follow it—a few by consent and consciously, and many by pride and fear and hate, tied to it by an ancient promise that may not be broken.
"It is to Sheklah's advantage that the people do not believe, so that when it comes awake from its darkness, the world is unprepared for it and unbelieving." He smiled a wry, twisted smile, "The ones who scoff loudest are often his own followers, for the first and most potent of the enemy's weapons is a lie, and that," Stephen paused and looked at each of them meaningfully, "is how you will know him and his ilk. Where truth is, hope is."
Talina looked thoughtfully at Stephen and said, "It has been many an age since the Byzimyanny's...." She stopped and looked at Stephen with an eyebrow raised, "...since Sheklah's defeat, but the elves still remember. The world was a terrible place, ravaged and torn. It is said that the very rocks cried out in agony at its wrath." Her eyes were far away, as if remembering something, then she cocked her head slightly, "What would you have us do?"
Stephen nodded to her, almost deferentially, "Return home, lady. Return home and prepare. There were to be seven of you. I see five." His eyes glinted and he searched each face carefully. "Five of you to carry the most important news this world has ever heard. Five of you to prepare the way, for the Wizard, too, will return when the time is right, and that is what you must tell them."
Then, in an instant, Stephen's eyes turned hard as steel and bright as the noon-day sun, and his voice rang through the cavern, sending back echoes from walls impossibly distant, "There is no middle ground. Tell them. The time of the reckoning is coming."
Stephen bowed his head and when he looked up again, his voice was calm and gentle, "I have told you that we stand upon the tomb of the greatest evil in the history of Eschaton. Have you not wondered that none of Sheklah's allies waited here to guard it?"
He looked at Bretran, "You asked why I did not intervene. This place is one of the most dangerous in the world. It is guarded, on the one hand, by the greatest talisman of the greatest Wizard the world has ever known, by traps, magical and mechanical, by a maze of tunnels and passageways that honeycombs the entire mountain range, and by secrets even I do not know. On the other hand there are the closest and most powerful allies of the most evil creature ever to inhabit Eschaton, as well as the lowest rabble of the underworld, attracted by the pull of his magic.
"This is all that keeps them at bay—the worst of them." Stephen pointed up at the light above their heads.
"Look." Stephen pointed outward, away from the light, and as their eyes followed his hand, the great crystal flashed, its light so bright it should have blinded them.
Standing on three sides of their little pool of light, just out of reach in what had been the darkness, were creatures from a nightmare. They were all three the same, with a shape to haunt the darkest of dreams. The blue-white light seemed to absorb into flesh as black as the walls themselves; the darkness of their forms spreading into great wings that reached out, out, out from them to fill the air above the little party. The creatures' shape was surprisingly well defined even in the dimness, but it was the dull, blood-red eyes that brought true horror. There was something in them that pulled at the mind, catching the consciousness and holding it spellbound. They seemed to reach into the very soul and bring out the darkest fears and hatreds to feed upon them.
Then, the light had faded. They all stood there in shock, Stephen simply frowning, the rest huddling closer to the center of the little circle of light—light that they now realized was life itself to the little party.
"Dark Engyls?" Cyrith's voice was hardly above a whisper, and her eyes were wide as twin moons.
Stephen smiled sadly, "Engyls once, perhaps. Not now. Engyls are free creatures, temperamental, but not evil. These...these are daemons, engyls bound to Sheklah's will and forced to serve him against their own wills.
"Sheklah's first aim is to break the spirit, and the engyls are spirit in its truest form—magic. These have been broken and remade so many times they are now mere reflections of their master's will."
He smiled humorlessly, "Gargyls are worse, and there are others, but most have not been seen since the Great War. They chose Sheklah of their own free will. Those who remain hide, now, awaiting its return."
"How did we not meet those before?" Bretran's mouth quirked, "I'm not ungrateful... I'd fight a whole tribe of were-men before one of those." Stephen just shrugged, "It is Winternight. Time, distance—even reality itself runs strangely here. Especially on Winternight. And," His mouth quirked, "You had special protection. You came unknowing, bearing no thought of Sheklah... and you all bear the mark of the King.
"But that does not guarantee your way out—or even your passage beyond our three... hosts. Steel is no impediment to such as them. That much, however, I may be able to help you with. After that, well, your best option is speed."
"It's a node, isn't it?" Cyrith asked, cutting Stephen off. He blinked in confused surprise, then chuckled, "Yes, there is a ley node not far away...and that tunnel follows a major ley line."
Cyrith frowned, "Major ley lines are so... so big. That little bit of fire was hard. I don't know how much I can draw without losing control."
Stephen nodded, "That ley line was one of the reasons we got in so easily. Even creatures sensitive to magic find it difficult to see those who walk so close to the big ley lines. No fear, little sister. You need not risk it. I can do you one last service."
Abruptly, he turned to Bretran, "Take care of her, watchman." He motioned to Cyrith, then turned and pointed back the way they had come. "It is time to leave."
Cyrith opened her mouth to argue, but Stephen said, "The night is waning. Soon the light from the crystal will fade. You do not want to be here then."
Talina nodded abruptly and motioned to the others and suddenly they were moving. Talina had swung up onto her mare, and Bretran pulled Cyrith up in front of him. Bretran held the lead rein for the third horse, which Grath had somehow clambered onto. The beast didn't look too happy, but as Bretran and Talina turned to go, it bolted after the other two, directly for the cave where they had entered.
Before they were clear of the circle of light, the great crystal flared and white light shone on the midnight-black cavern wall around the entrance, reflecting from it in the same eerie way as on the floor earlier. Now however the radiance was mixed with a painful red light that seemed to sear into the rock.
As they passed from sight, something compelled each of them to glance back. Stephen still stood directly under the crystal, while facing him from three directions, the daemons stood upon the jet black rock of the cave floor.
Voice strong and clear, Stephen called, "Be gone from this place! Your time is not come yet! A prison awaits you! Go!" The sight lasted for a seemingly interminable moment…then, they were into the cave, bending low over their horses' necks, dodging blindly around corners that none of the riders could see. The horses seemed to know their way however and there was something about the cavern they had just left behind that urged both horses and riders onward, not allowing them to think of what might lie ahead.
It was the nameless terror of something impossible yet real—come to life in some horrible insanity. Only Cyrith tore free for long enough to cry, "Stephen! Stepheennnn!"
They were dodging through the passageway only a few moments away from the cavern when light pierced through the darkness of the mountain, washing away the black of the stone and turning the rock a glowing, pulsing white. It lasted for a mere moment before the black stone absorbed the light as if it had never been. Then the sound hit; a roar of rage and combat and destruction like some terrible force of nature frustrated in the act of tearing its enemy to pieces. The sound passed as quickly as the light and there was silence. The silence was somehow even more terrible however, and the horses raced on their hooves noiseless on the black stone beneath.
They ran for a long time, the horses' breath heavy in the enclosed space, the terror never fading even with the time it took to run the length of the cave. It was a time immeasurable in the darkness, before they broke out, seemingly all at once into the same dark night they had left behind…how long had it been? The same night? It seemed impossible.
They reined up, and Bretran stared back into the cave as Ulgoth crawled out of it on hands and knees, nearly scraping his back on the low ceiling. Talina, however, moved farther out from the cliff, glancing around uneasily. Their exit from the cave had brought them back to their senses, and the terror of their long run was fading. As her senses cleared, however, Talina's uneasiness shifted in another direction. There was something wrong…
None of them saw the figures step out of the woods surrounding them. It was as if they were a part of the forest itself. Then, one of them spoke, "Ahhhh, you have returned. The Dark Lord said you would, but I scarcely believed it." The voice had a hissing, rasping quality; and Talina started violently, wheeling her horse to face the speaker who laughed loudly in amusement.
"You didn't think I saw you when you did your little disappearing trick? Yet we know better than to go into that place." He eyed the cave balefully.
"You are one of the Changers? What pack do you claim?"
The creature's eyes flashed, "You have not the right to use that name!" Then the creature smiled, "...and I serve the Dark Lord, none other." The Were-Man sounded lazy, like a cat toying with its food, "However, when the aims of the pack match the aims of the Dark Lord, I will not complain." The Were-Men had left a slight gap on the cliff side of their formation when they had stepped from the trees and Talina found herself edging toward it along with the others as their enemies slowly closed in. There were at least a dozen of them, probably fifteen.
As they drew nearer, Talina eyed the cliff behind her. More fun to corner your prey before you kill it, she thought bitterly; maybe even push it off a cliff, which is what was going to happen if they kept advancing.
The Were-Man seemed amused, "You did lead us a merry chase you know…" Suddenly Bretran lunged at one side of the formation, pulling back on his reins, his horse rearing, hooves flailing. At the same time he pulled out his sword and swung it around, catching one of the Were-Men across the head. His stallion had picked its own target, and a fore hoof came crashing down on another of the creatures. It screamed and fell backward to lie writhing in the snow, clutching its face as yellow blood streamed between its fingers. The exposed parts of its body immediately began to change, twisting and growing until it was more beast than man. On the other side of Bretran, the same thing was happening to the other creature. Seeing the gap that Bretran had made, Talina spoke to her horse, which plunged through to the other side of their line. Meanwhile, Grath had taken a flying leap from the pack horse to land on another of the Were-Men and twist its head around in a full circle. He immediately proceeded to leap on another of the creatures and he now wrestled with it. As Talina watched, Grath took hold of a shoulder and twisted the beast's arm impossibly far backward. It howled in anguish and disbelief as its limb dropped useless to its side.
Ulgoth was keeping a full five of the creatures busy with his huge staff, striking at one, then blocking another. They simply didn't have the reach to attack him effectively without falling to his staff. That left too many, however, and they were rushing forward. Bretran spurred his horse, trying to pull through; but at precisely the wrong moment a Nilgoth jumped on the pack horse and it reared screaming into the air. Bretran was still holding its lead; and he was pulled from his saddle, his horse bolting forward with Cyrith still on its back.
Bretran quickly regained his feet, but there were simply too many of the enemy. The only way to live was to give ground. A creature on the left struck out just too far, overbalancing itself; and Bretran too struck, ducking the creature's blow and impaling it on his sword.
The combination of its imbalance and weight were too much however; and Bretran, having been driven to the edge of the cliff, toppled backward, the beast falling with him. Grath and Ulgoth, too, were on the very edge of the cliff.
Talina cried out, but there was no time to stop. Three of the Were-Men were already turning toward her and Cyrith, who still sat on Bretran's horse, leaving five surrounding Grath and Ulgoth. Even as she watched, however, one of the five dodged just a bit too slowly and Ulgoth's staff cracked it across the head as he swept it around to block one of the others.
Then, the three Were-Men began to run toward them and Talina whispered again to her mare, which set off running into the darkness, Cyrith and the stallion right behind.
As they raced away, Talina thought grimly of Stephen. She still wasn't quite certain what to think of the boy and what he had said, but she could not doubt the truth behind his words.
He was almost certainly still alive, but soon the Nameless One would be loose as well. She thought also of the prophecies. They had been missing two of their number—or possibly only one. What of that? She shook her head. There was no way to know.
The Nameless One would require months, perhaps turnings to build his power, to break free again. Stephen had not said how long they might have. There was time to raise an army and, perhaps, to defeat the Nameless One. She thought of Bretran and the cliff. The others would simply have to take care of themselves. Yes. There was time, but time made all the more precious for its terrible cost.
The old man paused for a long moment as if reflecting, then seemingly returned to the present said, "…and so you see. A strange story indeed, and one that I sometimes doubt the truth of."
There was a quiet gasp from the corner of the room and all three strangers' heads snapped around toward the sound. They rose, and two of them circled outward, one moving into the middle of the room, the other passing him to stand near the wall, so the three surrounded the one who had gasped.
The inn's patrons had gone silent, and they huddled in their chairs, watching the three strangers with more than a little fear. "You see," the leader said, "we are searching for the two who escaped, for the story you told is true, old man, doubt it though you may." He slowly reached up and pulled back the hood on his cloak to expose a face twisted and deformed. Gleaming yellow eyes stared from sockets that seemed too small to hold them, while long, ivory fangs stained yellow in places protruded from between his lips.
Gasps went up around the room, and the inn's patrons cowered in their seats as the other two strangers followed their leader's example, revealing faces equally hideous. The two people at the table in the corner stood up and drew back against the wall, their hoods pulled low so their faces couldn't be seen. The three Were-Men reached inside their cloaks and drew swords.
The beasts' leader said, "You! Remove your hoods so we may see who you are."
Slowly the taller of the two figures removed his hood. As his face came into the light, they saw that it was a man so old his wrinkles piled up under his proud, frightened eyes and around his face like the weathered ridges and crags of a mountain. His beard was pure white. The smaller figure, seeing what the older had done, followed his example. It was a boy who looked to be about ten turnings old with a frightened yet somehow defiant look.
A growl that sounded like a curse escaped the leader's lips, and the other two clamped their hands reflexively on their swords. He stared at the two for a long moment then a low, evil chuckle escaped his lips and he raised the hand not holding his sword. He pointed two fingers at the figures and a beam of yellow light flowed from his hand to touch each of their faces in turn. The faces seemed to melt into nothing, like masks stripped away, leaving behind a young girl and a woman so beautiful her face seemed to shine. Her pointed ears and aristocratic features were out of place above her plain, roughly cut gray robes. The girl was small with short red hair and fine features. The change had been so complete that the only thing remaining of their former appearances was their eyes.
The leader chuckled again, "You've led us quite a merry chase indeed, elf. Now it is time to finish what was started at the Black Lord's mountain these two moons ago."
Before the three could start forward however, the sound of a sword being drawn came from the opposite corner of the room near the door. The Were-Men's heads turned, and suddenly Cyrith's hand was moving, pulling something out of her sleeve and sending it flying through the air. A moment later a knife buried itself in the throat of the creature next to the wall. As the dying beast clutched its throat, gurgling and trying to pull out the dagger, the leader turned to face the new danger, a man in a dirty brown cloak who moved quickly between tables toward the center of the room. The two remaining creatures started forward, one toward the girl and the elf, the other toward the man, both with swords raised, but the chair in which the leader had been sitting tipped over and he tripped on it, twisting in the air trying to land on his feet. He might have succeeded except that the old man's tobacco-stained pipe skittered out of nowhere to land where his foot must. As the foot came down on the pipe, it turned, and the beastman went off balance again, falling headfirst into the fire.
Then came such an unearthly shriek as to make all the people in the inn cover their ears in pain. It rang through the room as the creature writhed on the hearth, half his face blackened by the fire and one yellow eye staring and sightless, embers sticking into the black mask that had been flesh. The other beastman's head snapped around to see what had happened to its leader, and the man in the brown cloak brought his sword around, cleaving its head from its shoulders.
While it was still falling, the man turned toward the leader, still writhing on the hearth. Before he could start toward the creature however, it rose with a howl of rage and pain and fled toward the door, sword still in hand. Instead of opening the door though, the beast smashed it from its hinges and battered it to the ground outside the inn, and, still running, disappeared into the night.
Bretran walked over to the doorway and stared thoughtfully into the darkness for a moment before picking up the door and pulling it back into the frame as well as possible. Then he turned back into the room and strode toward the corner where Talina and Cyrith stood. Cyrith gave a cry and ran to him. He swept her up in a hug then set her back on her feet and bowed slightly to Talina.
She nodded, frowning, and said in her clear, musical voice, "Why have you waited so long to show yourself? It has been nearly a month…"
He scowled in the direction of the door, "When I fell down that cliff I landed in a pile of snow—atop that beast, thankfully. Soft snow, so I didn't break any bones, but the fall knocked me out. When I woke I tried to dig myself out. Couldn't.
"Grath and Ulgoth found me there." He grimaced again, embarrassed at the memory. "By the time we found the trail, we were a day behind, without a horse. Two weeks after we started on your trail, I found their tracks." He jerked a thumb toward the dead beastman on the floor. "We followed them." He grimaced. "I lost them yesterday, so I found you two before they could." Talina nodded thoughtfully.
Cyrith was biting her lip, standing beside Talina's chair, and she said, "I thought you were dead. Talina said she would know, but when you fell…after Stephen…" she trailed off, tears coming to her eyes, and Bretran smiled gently at her, the hard planes of his face softening.
"Couldn't leave you alone, could I?" His lips twisted into something half-wry and half annoyed, and he broke his customary silence again to add, "Stephen bid me take care of you. He'd take it hard if I didn't, eh?" She nodded, still sniffling.
After a moment, Talina raised one eyebrow, "What of the others?"
Bretran's mouth quirked and he jerked a thumb to the south, "Grath got chewed on. Ulgoth had to carry him. They're camped down there." He grinned unexpectedly, then imitated Grath's voice, "Big bag of wind talk less walk more. Grath crawl faster than big oaf walk."
The three sat down, leaving the rest of the inn's occupants alternately darting glances at them and staring wide-eyed at the dead Beastmen on the floor, now twisted in their half-man, half-beast death rictus.
All except for the old man, who had retrieved his pipe from the floor where he tossed it and, after looking at it with obvious amusement, clamped it still unlit back in his jaws. He stared thoughtfully at the dead Beastman then glanced over to the table in the corner. For a moment the wrinkles melted from his face as he smiled, then he frowned slightly and stared again at the dead creature, now rapidly crumbling to dust on the floor.
If anyone had watched, they might have seen the youth that momentarily peeked from behind his aged countenance during that smile. No one had however, and as the last of the Changer's remains dispersed into the dirt of the floor, he sighed and closed his eyes, dozing again in the rickety chair beside the fire. Outside, the storm beat more fiercely than ever against the old inn, and the wind sent its chill howls into the winter night.
The keening wind blew long and hard that bitter, frosty night,
to pierce the heart and chill the bone and chase away the light.
When in the blasted land it claimed the darkness woke once more,
To rend a battered world from which 'twas bound in time of yore.