"Alyss is a copyright character created by John Grant (Paul Barnett). She is used here by specific permission. Her appearance here does not imply that she may be used elsewhere without permission first being sought from John Grant (Paul Barnett) via the Words into Print website (www.wordsintoprint.org)." - John Grant (Paul Barnett)
This story is dedicated to Joe Dever, for the marvellous vistas and the deep history of Magnamund. Also to Jonathan Blake, for his practical advice and reassurance, and to John Grant (Paul Barnett), for telling me when I was going wrong. The rest of you all know who you are.
Chapter Three: The Return of the Miscreant
Kai Grand Master Lone Wolf stood alone at the headwaters of the River Unoram--a waterfall high up in the Durncrag range, flanked by dipping branches like the curtains of a stage, half masking the hollow out of which the long cascade pours.
The morning of the annual Feast of Fehmarn was cold, and it was silent. No life was there in the undergrowth or along the craggy stone face above the Kai Lord, nor even in the pale blue sky in which grey clouds once more began to amass. This spot, this spring, was hallowed as no other place in all of Sommerlund. This was the source of the Unoram, whose waters joined the Eledil at mighty Holmgard.
This was the place where Ailendar, the son of Kai, had been laid to rest at the dawn of Creation.
Lone Wolf began to ascend a series of worn steps leading up to the slack-mouthed hollow, bearing an object in his lightly clenched right hand: the object of the invocation. Upon reaching the hollow, Lone Wolf knelt and, kneeling, opened up his right hand.
In his palm rested a ring--a golden ring adorned with a circle of small red stones all about its outer circumference. He held it out before him as if the darkness of the hollow might reach out black hands and snatch it away, to cradle it against its lightless heart for all time. It was a troth ring; but the hand it had been meant for could never wear it now, not even as she was lowered down into the soil. . .
Lone Wolf shook his head and pulled up the hood of his dark green cape. The rain had started. Best to conduct the task he had set himself before true daylight arose out of the east.
"Kai, sire of my race, O Lord of the Sun," he whispered, barely audible over the water, "I kneel before thee in the place of thy true son's burial. I have suffered much on your behalf, O Lord, and unquestioningly; but now I would ask a favour of thee. In my palm I hold the token of a love that never was--troth never plighted--in the presence of your own heart's grief. Kai, Father--speak!"
The wretched shadows did not stir. Neither the swaying of the branches nor the foaming of the water gave any indication that this was the barrow of a demigod. Not even the site of the battleground where he had fallen was known, only a name: Vigrid Plain, where Ailendar fell to an older avatar of Naar than Agarash, and where, it was said, the Last Battle was to be fought.
"Kai!" Lone Wolf cried out. "Will you not answer?"
Lone Wolf looked up and suppressed a gasp. The valley, the waterfall and the cairn--all were gone. All was a soft golden skyscape through which he drifted. Below him were domed bell towers of white marble, immeasurably tall yet seemingly small from his perchless vantage.
"Kai!" he cried. "Father!"
Landar, the patriarchal voice said softly. What are you doing here, Landar?
Lone Wolf had to suppress tears at the wholesome, melodious sound of his god's voice. He drifted on, his eyes closed against the heavenly beauty of the Plane of Light.
"A friend of mine is held under the sway of a sorcerous crown," he whispered. "He speaks omens that none of us can interpret; neither can any lore we have to hand. The Lorestones are gone to we-know-not-where, and my love is dead in the seeking of them. My Father, what ill befalls Magnamund?"
Landar, Son of my Spirit, the crown is a thing that should not be here. Naar prepares to break the fundamental laws we set down at the creation of Aon: he is making ready for direct intervention in the affairs of Magnamund. The crown is the key into Magnamund, your friend the vessel into which Naar shall pour his being. The Last Battle for Magnamund draws near.
"Can you yourself not interfere, Father?"
I cannot. Aon is meant for mortals, not gods. Naar alone will fill up most of the cosmos with his presence. Were Ishir or myself to follow suit, Aon would flood over with power and be no more. But there are many other old powers upon Magnamund that the King of the Darkness knows some fear of. Seek out Cynx, Landar. There you will find what you need.
"Father--Kai!" Lone Wolf cried, feeling himself being gently pushed away from the Plane of Light. "What of the Lorestones?"
It is too late for them. Seek out Cynx, when the time is right. Return to your kind, now. They are in peril. . .
The light flared. The world returned.
Storm Raven paced anxiously up and down outside of Grand Master Sun-Star's study. So occupied did he become with the motion that it was only when a finger landed upon his shoulder that he realised that the Grand Master had come out into the hall himself.
Storm Raven spun about and almost took an involuntary step backwards. Sun-Star was haggard, the bags beneath his eyes appearing as heavy as black anchors.
"Grand Master--I am sorry--I did not hear you. . ."
Sun-Star casually waved aside the protests and pointed, mute, at the open doorway into his study. Storm Raven passed through the portal, Sun-Star following and closing the heavy door shut behind him.
"Please, Mentora," said Sun-Star, "be seated."
Storm Raven did as bade, settling himself down in one of the uniformly uncomfortable chairs that dotted the sparsely furnished room. Sun-Star remained standing, shoulders slightly slouched. Storm Raven decided that his superior had not been getting enough sleep.
"There is talk, is there not, concerning the Guildmaster?" asked Sun-Star, his eyes focused on the window behind Storm Raven.
"Talk, Grand Master?" asked Storm Raven in a prompting fashion.
Sun-Star's brow creased. "Gossip. Gypsy-whispers. Rumours. Pertaining to our guest and his . . . condition."
"I . . . try not to listen, Grand Master."
"You should: they're true."
Storm Raven's jaw tried to drop. Sun-Star took this as a sign that the young Mentora had listened to a few, after all.
"Confirmation of this came early this morning," Sun-Star went on. "Guildmaster Banedon predicted the return of false dragons to Magnamund while he was being brought to the Monastery. Word from the regions around the central Tentarias says that a dragon has indeed been sighted--black, far larger in size than those that attacked the Monastery in the days of my initiation. It could be coincidence, of course, but there is also this."
Sun-Star took out from the sleeve of his robe a roll of parchment. He handed it to Storm Raven, who carefully unrolled it and cast his eyes swiftly over it.
The Fallen Stones shall rise again. Tier upon tier, the heavens to dominate. The walls of death shall have no dominion; the drowned from the sea shall break the waves. A fleet: ships of dead men's finger bones. . .
When he had read the page through and reread it, the Mentora handed the scroll back to the Grand Master, who set it aside on a nearby table.
"What does it mean?" asked Storm Raven.
"We are not yet certain. It is one of many such scrolls, recording the prophecies made by the Guildmaster. Recently he has fallen silent. That business about fallen stones was just a sample of his talk."
And here, said a voice in Storm Raven's head, is what it means.The room swam about Storm Raven. He saw towers, many, each one of a varying height, fused together into one massive, indomitable structure. And a being, a presence that eluded him for all its gigantic poignancy. . .
Storm Raven shook his head. What had just happened? Sun-Star gripped his shoulders and peered at the Mentora's face with concern in his eyes.
"Storm Raven?" the voice sounded slurred. "Mentora? Can you hear me?"
The study walls seemed to bulge at impossible angles. The floor rippled. Holes grew in the air, the spaces between particles widening, opening up into nothingness.
A city. A name. Two rivals in might--one the standard of beauty and grace, the other the hulking and the monumental. He saw them and he knew them both.
Choose. A girl's voice. Choose now. Before the decision is made for you. The moment is near. . .
"I cannot have both!" Storm Raven screamed, standing, knocking chair and Grand Master aside. He shambled about, seemingly without purpose; but for him, what with the hallucination of distorted angles, he was following a path, looking for an even place, somewhere that was still and unchangeable. But he fell over his own feet.
Choose now! Choose now, you dim-wit! The moment is--
Outside, down in the courtyard below, the Healers' Ward exploded outwards in a shower of stone, dust and wood chip shrapnel. The sky went black, and there was silence, but for one voice. All eyes turned upwards, away from the wreckage of the Ward, to the Tower of the Sun, whence issued a voice from a lofty window, screaming hoarsely:
"Cynx! Cynx! I choose Cynx!"
And then their eyes were drawn back to the rubble of the Ward, for they felt the play of nausea beneath their skin, the leaden weight of black murder dragging down their hands. They turned, and saw a finger climb unscathed from the rubble.
Lone Wolf ran under the black sky towards his Monastery. And black it was--both the clouds and the gaps in between were opaque, for all that it was late midday now--black to the horizons; the sun had vanished as if it never had been. Something dreadful had arisen within his Monastery--he knew it. But what?
It was a three-dimensional silhouette of a man that climbed up out of the wreckage of the Healers' Ward. It had the advantage of several inches more than the measure of a tall man's height, though it seemed inclined to a stoop, as though nerves or muscles had been severed three parts of the way up the spine. The clothing that it wore was likewise silhouetted, though the shape of a long and heavy cloak could be made out as the being moved about, picking its way across the rubble. The only thing of any colour about the apparition was a plain circlet bearing a ruby that burns with red fire.
He looked about--this figure--with contempt, and the Kai fell back before him, feeling malice and despair launched from the black eyes to hound them. He--does gender signify at such a level of authority?--wanted dearly to kill them all. Here. Now. Final and absolute. But he did not yet have the strength he needed. The barrier was still up, and most of him was still behind it; only a little had escaped through the crack and into Magnamund. Until such time as the wall was beaten down, he must draw upon the powers of the crown: and that would take time.
A'RÛNYA KATH MORGUSVÄND! he cried, and the Dark Tongue shattered stone and assailed the walls of the Monastery, and then he was gone. And the darkness gradually abated, and the sun returned, and the Kai came out of their hiding places, confused and frightened as children. They did not understand.
Neither did Sun-Star nor Storm Raven, who had found themselves cowering like dogs run to ground in the Tower of the Sun. they rose up now, very slowly, as if expecting to view the site of a holocaust outside the window. But they knew, even as they mutely surveyed the ruined Ward where so many of the sick had perished beneath falling stone and timber that the thing, the presence, had gone.
"Come," said Sun-Star, patting Storm Raven on the arm and turning about. "We must do what we can--try to make some sense of what has happened. . ."
And he wandered what had become of Lone Wolf.
The foremost Nadziranim of the city of Aarnak, one Gourhak, unleashed right-handed fire and blew away the obstructing wall of rock, furthering the length of the tunnel that he and other Darkland spawn were creating. A dozen or so of the Giak workmen died, but Giaks were still expendable, even these twenty-five years after the wrack of Helgedad. Fifty more of the grey-skinned humanoids rushed in to fill the breach, pursued by Gourgaz torch- and whip-bearing slave-drivers, while hulking Egorgh brought forwards stout wooden supports to upholster the roof of the newly formed cavern.
But, reflected Gourhak, many Nadziranim have also died through this massive expenditure of magic. It seems to me that we have done more to build this tunnel than the Giaks. But as much had probably been the dragons' plan from the beginning. Yes. It's quicker for us to just blow away the rock than for the Giaks to mine it. But even so, a construction similar to the Lajakeka would be helpful now. . .
Gourhak wiped sweat from his brow. All of the Lajakeka--the mining vehicles of the former Darklands Empire--had been dismantled by Giaks long since, salvaged for weapons and other tools.
The tunnel was necessary, regardless of Gourhak's preferences as regards the death of his kindred and other similar concerns. It would link Cragmantle at the edge of the Darklands with Naaros, far to the south. It was, so the false dragon Sinnagar had claimed, the most efficient way for the spawn of the fallen Darklords to make their way to Southern Magnamund--undetected, completely hidden from view. It was high and wide, to accommodate for the numbers of spawn that would partake in the southward exodus, and many lesser tunnels branched off the main. The Darkland spawn used these side-tunnels to gain access to the surface, where they would be free to set about collecting food for themselves.
And so the tunnel. Already it passed below Skaror, the Hammerlands and Bor. There, at the margin of the Great Bor Range, the spawn had been forced to start burrowing further down, to avoid the notice of the Boradon Dwarves. Further down, even, than the prison of the Shom'zaa, and into the stifling regions of the under-earth, where the rock was baking hot. They would have to go down further still before they reached the Tentarias, else risk continuing forwards at the level they were already at and blindly break down a wall, only to find the waters of the continent-spanning rift lying immediately before them. Drowning was not an option that overly appealed to Gourhak, so he had decided to start the downwards-dig here and now.
Gourhak eyed the Helghast off to his side with something approaching hatred. He was called Edzartaag, and he was the oldest of his race. He watched the proceedings from some forty feet to the right, hunched over in his tattered robes. His long black shadow darted madly hither and thither in the dim torchlight, his gnarled staff tapping without rhythm on the floor of the tunnel. He paused to grind the metal tip into the basalt as though the dark stone had slighted him. He, Edzartaag, had been the envoy of the false dragon, Sinnagar. He it was who had imparted to Gourhak's court in Aarnak the news of a resurrection in Naaros, and the search for the Nightmare Sword--threatening them with the power of his staff if they failed to cooperate.
One day I will kill you, little Helghast, thought Gourhak.
Gourhak returned to the business of the tunnel. There was a long way to go. Between here and Naaros there still lay the Leaguelands of Ilion, the small nation of Halia, and the vast land called Lunarlia. And when the tunnel was complete, he, Gourhak, must then trek back the whole two thousand miles of tunnel networks to Cragmantle, so that he could begin the exodus of all Darkland spawn to Southern Magnamund. He did not know whether to feel pleased that Sinnagar placed so much trust in him, or daunted by the enormity of his task.
Best not to think on it. He strode forwards, and let loose his fire.
The Helghast inhaled the perfumed air of the Imperial Court of Shadaki with something close to contempt. It was an expression it dared not allow to show on his face: he was, for the moment, Chulas, envoy to Shadaki in the name of the Baron of Andui. In a day or two more he would be the Venerable Dakulami, Grand Vizier to the King; and the events that would bring about Dakulami's death were even now in motion.
Chulas bowed respectfully to Grey Star and made an abstract motion with his left hand, a gesture of "court speech" which asked permission to be absented from the proceedings. The King nodded in silent assent, and the Helghast, who appeared to the human eye to be an unremarkable and gaudily clad young man, departed, counting himself lucky that Grey Star knew neither what Helghast were, nor how to detect them. Even so, there was worry on the King's brow whenever Chulas was present. It could only be a matter of time before Grey Star or some court wizard figured out precisely what he was.
Mentioning court wizards, here came one now, down the darkened side corridor along which Chulas walked, iron-capped staff clacking on the floor, approaching in a black cloud of robes. Outside the lights of night twinkled, and Ishir--cursed witch--shone down, a crescent: or, to the Helghast's mind, a sickle waiting to slash at his throat.
But the court wizard--let us focus on him for the time being. He was a Lastlander. What was his name? Gorian, perhaps? Gwinnen? It didn't really matter. The only names a Helghast needed were those it borrowed for a while from its victims.
Chulas paused and bowed to the man, who continued walking straight towards him. He was wary of this one, whoever he was, whatever his origins. He had only met him on one occasion, and had decided there and then that the wizard's eyes saw too keenly. They would have to be put out.
"A good evening to thee, Old Sire," intoned Chulas.
"You!" hissed the mage. "Possessor, shape-shifter--I know you."
"Know me, Old Sire?" said Chulas, feigning perplexity. So, you know me, do you? I know where I stand then. But who're you, eh, elderly fool, who are you?
"Yes, Black Screamer." The wizard halted, bringing his iron-shod staff down hard on the marble. "The stars-" he pointed out of a window "-can be useful allies, if one has the ability to read them aright. You are many thousand leagues from the tattered nest of your dead masters. Who sent you here?"
"Step aside, human, and you will come to no harm."
The threat was wasted. The mage glared with the intensity of a sun, and the Helghast felt himself wavering between his illusory form and his real one.
"I do not have to ask you," the wizard said, with deadly silence. "I could simply take the answers from you, pick the thoughts out of your brain, and you would not enjoy that. Now--tell me who sent you here."
The Helghast grinned malignly.
"I will tell you who sent me here," it hissed--and leapt!
For an instant the corridor is lit up with golden light, and when the radiance fades there is no sign of man or Helghast, either one.
"And you took it down, every word of what he said?" demanded Lone Wolf, buckling the Sommerswerd to his belt.
"Every word, Supreme Master," replied the scribe Black Quill, bowing low. It had been his good fortune to be outside of the Healers' Ward at the time of its ruin. "These scrolls contain all of the prophecies made by the Guildmaster during his stay with us."
Lone Wolf nodded, then turned to Sun-Star and Storm Raven. He still couldn't figure out why he was allowing the young Mentora to accompany him on this mission. Unless. . .But no, that was ridiculous.
He thought, Alyss?
Took you long enough.
What are you doing back here? The last I heard you'd abandoned Magnamund after the fall of Helgedad.
Well, don't bother to say "hello" or anything. And I had other business to attend to. It took a while.
It's been more than two decades. And--he made the thought an accusation--Banedon's missed you. After you left he immersed himself in self-pity and started what was practically a one-man war of healing against the Naogizaga desolation. And now, he made a mental twist, he--your love--is dead.
No, no, you silly little person, that's why I'm here. He's not! He's not dead.
Sun-Star and Storm Raven were staring worriedly. Lone Wolf told them that he was thinking, and would they mind waiting outside his study for a while. Sun-Star exited looking straight ahead: Storm Raven darted nervous glances over his shoulder at the Supreme Master. Black Quill followed out after.
The door closed.
All right, he's not dead. So where is he?
It's difficult to explain, and you don't need to know that yet, besides--and if you don't mind I'm not taking this very well, so stop sounding so Gods-damned badly done to!
Lone Wolf caught stumbled and caught himself on the edge of his desk. The thought had struck him hard, a bundle of mixed guilt and worry.
Now, shut up while I tell you why Storm Raven's important--why I prodded your mind so you decided to take him along. I could give you the long explanation, but you've already heard it, so I'll give it to you outright: Storm Raven replaces Qinefer.
What? You're speaking in riddles again, woman--talk sense!
He could almost hear her tapping her thought.
Qinefer's dead, remember? Lone Wolf remembered only too well what the bards referred to as "The Tragedy of Torgar". That meant that there were only two out of the three people left who were meant to make major alterations in Magnamund's history--you and Banedon. Now another crisis has come up and it's much, much bigger than the last ones. So there needs to be three. Storm Raven's the second--he replaces Qinefer. But because Banedon's. . .elsewhere at the moment, a third has to be sorted out. You'll meet it before long.It?
Well, sometimes it's a woman; sometimes it's a man.
What is it, a demon?
No. Look--stop bothering me. You'll find out when you do--and I've already told you that you'll meet before long. Now, go away.
And she was gone. He thought he had heard a choke before she left, like the sound of tears starting.
Lone Wolf rapped on the wood. So, she was back, wisdom and power alongside, nature lopsided as ever, but a little more sober. Which was understandable. Even so, he didn't know whether to feel relieved or burdened. With Alyss came help, yes--but trouble also.
"You can come back in, now," he announced to the door, breaking the silence that had settled on the room.
The three Kai filed into the study and took up positions before their superior, who was expressionless and oddly contemplative. But death does such things to people. Which reminded him:
"Banedon is not dead," he announced.
Their silence prompted him to continue.
"Have any of you ever heard of Alyss?" he asked, looking straight at them.
Black Quill took a step forwards, placed a hand to his heart and bowed silence. The air in the room was suitably grave, and he felt that formality was called for.
"You have made reference to her in the past, Supreme Master, as being a key player in the Darklands War. You have also made mention that she is of supernatural origin, possibly divine, and acted as an advisor of sorts to yourself and others throughout the strife. She was also--ah--companion to the Guildmaster."
Stuffy so-and-so, isn't he? said a voice in Lone Wolf's head. You aren't letting these people get out enough.
Glad to see that you've composed yourself. Go away for a moment. I'll talk with you in a minute--if you actually decide to listen for once.
O ye of little faith.
"That's about it," said Lone Wolf. "She departed from Magnamund when the war concluded, claiming that she had other business to attend to. She appeared a couple of times after that, at the time the Moonstone was wrested from Naar." He took a coin up from his desk, absently flipped and caught it, then set it down again. "Well, she would seem to have come back. I've just been talking with her."
The three Kai took their superior's word on this. They knew that grief had not sent Lone Wolf mad, and they had heard enough stories about Alyss to know that she sometimes communed through thought. Still, the statement was slightly unnerving. Was she here, even now, in this room, listening to them as they thought?
Somebody blew in Storm Raven's ear. He turned to look at Sun-Star, but couldn't envision the stoic figure playing such a childish prank. Then, for a moment, he believed that he heard a girl giggling.
"And what did she have to say, Supreme Master?" asked Sun-Star.
Lone Wolf shrugged--a habit he'd never broken out of.
"Only that he is not dead, and that it is well that Storm Raven should accompany us. She did not say why, though," he lied. It would do the boy no good setting out on this mission with delusions of grandeur filling his mind. Besides, the Mentora looked pleased enough with himself as it was upon hearing this. After all, it is not every day that one is singled out by the supernatural for missions of import.
"That's it!" a voice exclaimed of a sudden. "I've waited long enough!"
In the middle of the air a young Sommlending girl appeared. She landed upon one foot as she completed her descent to the floor, placing the other down as she gracefully folded the first leg and went down into a crouch, then arose, all in one motion, crossing her arms over her thin chest. The skull-hugging red hair seemed garishly bright in the dusty room, and the eyes beneath surveyed the Kai with something like an amused impatience. She stood between Lone Wolf and his fellows.
Lone Wolf looked mildly embarrassed. He coughed.
"My fellow Kai Lords," he said, making an attempt at formality, "this is-"
"Oh, be quiet, Wolf!" Alyss snapped, whirling about and transfixing his chest with her finger. "I think they've worked it out. Let's credit them with some intelligence." She turned her attention back to the small assembly of three. "Hello," she said. "It's going to rain tomorrow. I know these things."
Black Quill raised a finger and opened his mouth to speak, then realised he couldn't think of anything to say.
"Right." Alyss clapped her hands together, laced her fingers together and cracked them like a pianist. "I suppose you all want to know where you're going."
"We are, at the advice of Kai, going to seek out Cynx," said Lone Wolf, moving around the girl to take up a seat beside the window, from which vantage he could view the conversation sideways on. "We intend to begin in the Stornlands, since there are many ruins in that region, and Cynx may be among them."
Alyss was shaking her head silently, looking at Lone Wolf through her lashes with bottom lip pouting, like a mother trying to convey to her child that she would only need to start shouting if he failed to read her look properly.
Lone Wolf sighed, for what seemed like the hundredth time.
"Very well," he said. "If not the Stornlands, then where?"
As one, the three Kai leaned forwards to listen. Alyss smiled at them as if they were attentive pupils.
"You're going into the Darklands," she said, and quickly raised an arm to stave off the barrage of dismayed questions. When she had silence, she continued. "You're going into the reclaimed area, and you'll be staying with the Herbalish and the members of the Brotherhood of the Crystal Star that're camped out there. As you probably all know, there used to be a bunch of Old Kingdoms in the region that the Darklands now occupy--but none of you know any of their names. Doesn't matter though," she added with a shrug. "That's what I'm here for. The only one that we're interested in for the moment, though, was called Mandabar, and its capital was Man Theryn, where the Herbalish camp is at the moment. Not that you'd be able to tell, of course."
"And that's where Cynx once stood?" asked Sun-Star.
"You don't need to know that yet: Kai told you that you had to go there, but he didn't say anything about going there now, did he?" I hope he doesn't need them there now. "Now, will you all go away for a moment, please? I need to speak with Storm Raven."
Lone Wolf ushered the Kai superiors out of the room, giving Storm Raven a reassuring pat on the back on the way out. It seemed that back-and-forth and shifting about were the norm when Alyss was about.
When the door banged shut, Alyss turned to Storm Raven with a frown that made him flinch.
"You'll have to get your act together, young fellow," she said to him. "You can't stay a Mentora forever, much as you like to. Nothing's ever constant. Things have to shift. Except for me, of course, and maybe one or two of the Gods, but let's ignore that for the moment."
"It was you speaking in my head when. . . when the accident happened at the Healers' Ward, wasn't it?" he asked, uncertain how to respond. The subject of his progression through the Kai ranks was once he preferred to shy away from.
"Yes. It was. Now, just when do you hope to progress to Scion-kai?"
"I-I don't," he stammered, feeling his face colour. That sounded pathetic!
"Well, you'll just have to, I suppose: the future says you do, so you will. Enough of that--you're sure about Cynx?"
"I don't know. I couldn't really tell what you were asking me in the first place, back there in the Tower."
"It's a matter of allegiance," Alyss replied, making a vague gesture in the air. "Naaros or Cynx, Cynx or Naaros. I wanted to see which flag your subconscious would leap to serve under if it was put under pressure. And you chose Cynx, the city of the true dragons, which means you're definitely Good."
"But why did you need to do that?" Storm Raven ran a hand through his lank black hair--the inheritance of his father, the Varetian Lord Carden. He spared a thought for his parents' welfare, then returned to matters at hand.
Alyss sighed. She became easily bored with explanations--and worse, with being stationary throughout the course of them. She began a lazy dance across the outside of the room, so that Storm Raven had to turn in circles for his eyes to follow her, speaking to him in a singsong voice: "Because I needed to know whose side you were on from the outset. If you'd said Naaros, then there might have been something like the recurrence of Vonotar, and the implications of Kai Disciplines combined with Nadziranim are too horrific to contemplate. And this isn't getting us any further." She stopped her dance abruptly, and came over to stand immediately before him, looking directly into his eyes. The darkness of her pupils seemed as deep as the gulfs of space, the pits between one world and another, as serious as Kai's judgement over the sinful. He looked away.
"Banedon," she said, "whom I quite unintentionally fell in love with is, in fact, alive, as Lone Wolf told you. And he's been possessed by. . ." She paused, and there was utter silence. She put an arm about his shoulders as if it were an embrace, and put her lips close to his ear, her breath tickling the lobe. She whispered, "By Naar," and pulled back, vanished, and re-appeared close-legged in Lone Wolf's chair beside the window.
Storm Raven's mouth hung slack.
"By. . .but. . ." he hissed. "No. . ."
Alyss nodded her head. "I'm afraid so. After all the centuries, the Last Battle for Magnamund has finally begun."
Chapter Four: Kingdoms Gone to Ash
Far below the ruined city, the King of the Darkness threw back the heavy temple doors and looked down into the bottomless depths of the Maakengorge. Then he thrust his hand out into the arctic, screaming air of the gulf and cried out in his terrible voice:
VASHNA. DARKLORD, STAND BEFORE ME: I COMMAND YOUR PRESENCE!
Something invisible moved in the air before the Dark King, and a voice whispered back mockingly: 'Do you, False Master? Do you really?'
The silhouette straightens its back. The red eyes narrow down to knife-slits.
DO NOT, it said, PRESS ME FURTHER. I SHOWED YOU MERCY IN THE MAAKENGORGE. I COULD UNMAKE YOU, AND YOU WOULD NEVER RISE AGAIN. WHAT WOULD YOU DO THEN, VASHNA? WHAT DO REBELS ACHIEVE ONCE THEY HAVE BEEN CONSIGNED TO OBLIVION?
'I care not.'
I AM OFFERING YOU GENERALS, VASHNA, AND ARMIES. I AM OFFERING YOU A THRONE ABOVE THRONES.
'I am dead, False Master. I am dead, and I care not. My time will come with or without you. And you cannot threaten me yet, False Master, for you are weak. Come back with your lies when you have mustered the might to make your guile unquestionable. Now, I will rest. . .'
The voice faded, and there was only the chill gale of the Maakengorge left behind. And Vashna and his legions remained a legend at the roots of the Chasm of Doom.
VASHNA, the figure uttered warningly. VASHNA!
The Darklord was right. He, Naar, the Archlord of Evil, was impotent to carry out his threats. Curse the wall between Magnamund and the Void! Curse Mord and her spells of old! Curse the Nightmare Sword that helped to bind him outside of Aon, and might Ishir and all her works wither and perish.
He turned and left. There was still the fortress.
By necessity, the three Kai Lords would not be present at the Monastery for the Feast of Fehmarn. A tiny corner of Lone Wolf's brain winched about this, insisting that tradition should be maintained, come blood and thunder, Sun and clear day. The rest, however, rather sensibly pointed out that Fehmarn could be celebrated anywhere, and it would still be Fehmarn; and that the task before him was more important besides.
They had put the Monastery behind them by the afternoon of the first day, going on foot through the trackless wilds of Sommerlund, where the lay of the land would likely ruin a horseshoe. The Sun had passed into the west and a Sickle Moon was ascending the starry sky when they came out from under the shadows of the forest and forded the Unoram Narrows. Ishir was far overhead when they put up in an inn at Searsheld for the remainder of the night.
They were in Wheaton between the Southlund Marches and the Pass of Moytura when the day of the Feast arrived. The Kai Lords joined the villagers out on the green in their festivities, and gave alms to the Church of Ishir later, then fasted in the evening and renewed their oaths to their Queen. Storm Raven's twenty-ninth birthday passed more or less un-remarked upon. But it didn't matter to him: the day had been bright as only Midyear's Day could be in that long-ago Age of the world.
After a fortnight of travelling over rough terrain and through bad weather (during which time Alyss was completely silent), Lone Wolf and his small party reached the Pass of Moytura. There they observed from a rise a group of robed and hooded men heading northwards. Details were easily made out; the clouds had moved on. The leader of the line carried a container full of blue incense, which he swung from a chain; midway down the procession was a bald man carrying a banner marked with a lightning bolt; and at the rear, a man bearing a lantern on the end of a pole. Lone Wolf knew them instantly. He raised his hands and halted his fellows.
"Shoni pilgrims," he said, watching them approach. The robed men gave no sign of noticing them.
"The Stornland beggar-monks?" asked Sun-Star. "What might their business be here?"
Lone Wolf's mouth twitched at the edges. "Profit," he replied. "They will give us news--for a price. Watch your pouches," he advised Storm Raven. "No--better still--remain here and I will speak with them." And he went striding off down the hill. "Hello! Children of Shoni! Will you stop and speak with us for a while?"
That was the last thing that Storm Raven caught, though he was certain that Sun-Star heard the whole exchange between the monks and the Supreme Master. They sat in contemplative silence upon the hillside together until Lone Wolf returned, his money pouch much the lighter, and the monks moved on, disappearing around the side of a slate-grey hill.
"They are the first of many seeking refuge in the Lastlands," the Grand Master told them. "The Holy Slovian Kaiser has declared the expulsion or extermination of all orders independent of the churches of Kai and Ishir. They--the Shoni and their kind--are being blamed for the bad weather and the sudden insanity that has struck down Kaiser Ostmark's sister Magda. And," he sighed, feeling old, "rumours have circulated that 'dark things' have begun to haunt the wilds."
"What sort of 'things'?" asked Storm Raven.
Sun-Star shrugged his heavy shoulders. "Most likely the Giaks have finally come down out of the mountains, and a few Vordaks and Helghast. They won't do too much harm, I shouldn't think: not without a large power like Gnaag or some other Darklord behind them. And the Darklords are all dead. Maybe Naar has chosen to take up residence in the abode of his former champion? Maybe we tread a darker path than we had guessed."
"Maybe," said Lone Wolf. "But one of the prophecies made by Banedon was that 'the Fallen Stones shall rise again'. That cannot be a reference to Helgedad, for the Black City was all of iron wrought. And it cannot mean Cragmantle or Blackshroud or any of the other city fortresses; for they are still standing."
Sun-Star let out a gusty sigh and stretched his long arms. "This is all becoming a little too enigmatic for me," he said. "I was not born to solve the riddles of prophecies. Besides, if that Crown was a thing of Naar--how can we be certain that it was not deliberately trying to mislead us with false foretellings?"
Lone Wolf shook his head. "We have no way of knowing. But before we move on--Mentora, are the Scrolls in good condition?"
Storm Raven, who had found himself nodding off, slipped off his pack and removed from it a small wooden box: it was the first time the Supreme Master had asked him to check. He cursed under his breath. The other two heard, nevertheless.
"What's the matter, Mentora?" asked Sun-Star.
"A crack," stammered Storm Raven, pushing his hair away from his face. He coughed. "A crack," he repeated, "along the edge of the box."
Lone Wolf silently opened up the box and carefully removed the rolled-up Scrolls. In a corner of the box was a small pool of water. The Scrolls were, from the back several pages in, saturated and unreadable. The water had got in on one of the rainy days during their two weeks' journey south.
"Well, we can't help weather and accidents," he said with little conviction, emptying out the water and handing box and Scrolls back to Storm Raven. The Mentora discarded the ruined sheaths at a nod from Lone Wolf and placed the remainder in a new box in his pack. "Fortunately, Black Quill made several copies, and they are stored safely in the Monastery library. But we can't turn back now and get them. Still, assuming these things will all happen in chronological order, at least all the early pages are intact. And assuming that these prophecies are not intentionally made to mislead us."
"They predicted the return of the false dragons well enough," said Sun-Star. "Which could make matters worse--some could be true, others not at all. All of which could lead to us going 'round in circles for hours on end."
"If they do, they do," said Lone Wolf. He sounded casual enough, but his eyes were worried.
Late the next day, they turned west and cut through the Ruanon Forest to the Durncrag range. By evening they had reached a part of the mountains where the granite barrier shrank down to mere squat hills, made treacherous on all sides by scree. This was the entry and exit to the Darklands that the Herbalish used to gain access to the reclaimed area, and the very same narrows out of which Vashna's armies had sallied during the wars that shattered the Age of the Black Moon. The wind howled forlorn across the tumbled stones, scorched black by some forgotten flame; and men called it Shattered Gate.
The Kai Lords passed on through the Gate with hands close to hilts, ever mindful of the monks' tales of Giaks and other creatures being abroad. But there was neither sound nor sight of the servants of Darkness; the pass that had been so important in the time of the Darklords and ever full of activity was dead. They slept in caves bored into the slopes by Mountain Giaks that night. They slept for a little while. . .
Not all slept that night. Below the earth, there is neither day nor night; and for those who do not truly live. . .
A vague multicoloured shape, Gourhak the Nadziran drifted along the unlit and empty tunnel until he had reached the hideaway of his 'rival'. It was set into a side-passage several miles away from the toiling of the spawn and the other Nadziranim, and the sounds of that labour were very faint here. Edzartaag the Eldest enjoyed his silence.
"Edzartaag," he said, "I wish to speak with you."
"One should always be doing a touch of speaking," said a voice from the shadows, oddly colourful for a Helghast. "Mouth and mind both require exercise: one cannot exist without the other. But do show some courtesy and take on some recognisable shape or other."
With a slight disturbance of air, the Nadziran shifted into his heavyset, jut-browed and wild-haired human form. This done, the Helghast--back so bent it was practically doubled up, stench as foul as a week-old exhumation--approached, trinket-covered staff clacking on the tunnel floor. The upper half of his face was obscured by the hood of his tattered robe, which clung to his back, accentuating grotesquely the ridges of his spine and his sharp shoulderblades. The Nadziran attempted to keep the disgust off his face. But nothing--nothing--was ever hidden from Edzartaag.
The Helghast nodded. Gourhak was put in mind of a master nodding to a pupil, and he seethed.
"Now, Gourhak--what's on your mind?"The Nadziran leaned forwards, so that his wide shadow engulfed and dwarfed the ancient Helghast. "I would like to know where the spawn have been vanishing to."
Edzartaag smiled through parchment lips with his teeth--little stubs of yellow-black coal. "I have borrowed them. Sinnagar has a task for them to perform. What that task is does not concern you--yet. All that you are required to do is keep your ten-a-penny wizards clearing the road to Naaros--nothing more." The smile became a stern line. "Nothing more, I say. You are dismissed."
"Dismissed? How dare-?!"
The Helghast straightened up, casting his staff aside. Seven or eight feet tall, he towered over Gourhak, tall, menacing and gnarled as a dead tree in a storm. Decaying, lightning-quick hands shot out and gripped the Nadziran by the throat, lifting him easily into the air. Gourhak attempted to shape-shift, but found that he simply had no access to his Right-handed power. So there he dangled, clawing at the bone-and-tattered-skin hands, tendons all a-stare, his cheeks reddening and face muscles bulging as he attempted vainly to draw on the stuffy air. Edzartaag brought their eyes level.
"You are dismissed, little wizard." The voice had become flat, threatening, razor-edged. "When I require you, I shall call for you."
Gourhak was dropped unceremoniously to the ground. There he lay, gulping in great lungfulls of air. With a strange fascination, he observed the black apparition that Edzartaag had become retrieve its staff and shrink down again to the age-stooped creature he was more accustomed to. The Helghast returned to the shadows of its lair.
"Remember who is in charge here, Gourhak--remember."
But for those that do live, far from these hellish tunnels, in age-old Toran. . .
"We cannot afford to elect him as Guild Regent, no matter that the majority wish it so! As well hahd Vonotar the reins of the Brotherhood."
"That as may be, the majority refuse the right of the Council to rule in the Guildmaster's absence. They want an independent voice, a single strong personality at the tiller with a sure hand, and not a disunited bunch of crotchety old misers like us telling them what to do."
The second of the two speakers lit up his pipe with a little flame he'd summoned onto his fingertip. To his older colleague, the flare seemed unnecessarily bright in the twilight-darkened cloisters. He waved his hand, and the flame on his digit winked out.
"He's Lencian though."
The younger man removed the pipe from his mouth, wisps of grey-blue smoke trailing up from his mouth and nostrils. He cocked a red eyebrow. "So?"
The older man tugged irritably at his droopy brown-grey moustache and slapped his slippered feet down on the smooth mosaic floor. The setting sun turned to gold the rims of his sockets and picked out all the fine lines on the cracked skin of his cheeks. "So," he said quietly, as though afraid of being overheard, "the Lencians--like our good Slovian friends to the south--are building up an empire. True, they've done us a favour by taking hold of all the Drakkarim nations bar Nyvoz and Skaror--but just what prompted them to attack Kasland and Eru? And where'll it stop, eh, young one? Tell me that!"
The red-haired man said nothing. His pipe hung by the stem from the depression in his tooth. He withdrew it a second later, and gestured with it down the cloisters towards the quarters of the younger members of the Brotherhood. "And you think he's working for Emperor Pelador?"
"Hush! Please, keep your voice down! Yes," hissed the elder conspiratorially, leaning closer. "For the Emperor--or for himself. Either way, I don't like him."
"Perhaps you overestimate him."
"And perhaps I don't"
The red-haired boy shook his head. "You've still a good deal to learn about trust, Apprentice--about giving outsiders a chance. Come, now--Kai is westering, and soon Naar and Ishir will be sharing the skies above the world." He turned and bowed low his stocky frame to the last rays of the Sun. "Farewell, Father of the Sommlending. Fair weather have you given us this day. To you, we both bid good night."
Storm Raven sits bolt upright in a place he has not seen before. He thought that he had heard a noise, the sound of wolves. But no, that can't be right.
"He will not wake!" cried Sun-Star.
"Carry him then, and I'll take his pack. We must get to higher ground--the valley is full of them!"
"Why not further back into the caves?"
"And be cornered? Are your wits addled, for Kai's sake?! Get moving!"
Storm Raven experienced the dizzying sensation of being slung over someone's shoulder. Which is unusual, since he was seated on a crystal chair at one end of a table in a banquet hall. Everything besides his seat was made of jade: bottles, cutlery, tapestries, and even the guests, though they moved and talked politely to one another. Occasionally one would look in his direction, but they payed him no more attention.
As though I'm not really here at all, he thought and swirled the liquid in his glass. Even the drink is the colour of jade.
"That's it, over there: a waterfall! They will not follow us behind it I think."
"Lone Wolf, are you mad? What are the chances of-?"
"The chances are greater for us behind there than they are out here, say I. we shall risk it. We'll stay there until these things have departed, then make straight for the Herbalish camp."
Cold water rained down upon Storm Raven's head. He raised a hand to his hair, but it was dry. He looked up, but the hall was roofed.
He looked again at the guests, and realised that he had never seen their like before. They were hazy, and he could make out no details; their movements were slow, as if they were in a dream.
Then he noticed the slight figure at the opposite end of the table. She, too, sat in a crystal chair, and the other occupants of the room payed her no more mind than they did him. For all that, her white face possessed a melancholy beauty.
Her scarlet lips curled up secretly at the edges. Glacier-blue eyes locked with his. Chimes sounded from the windows. There was a breath of cold air against his cheek.
"I will see you again in Mandabar," she whispers.
All is blackness. . .
The sun rose. It seemed strange to be viewing it from the western side of the Durncrags, seeing the brilliant orb flooding the peaks with its light. (Storm Raven was used to seeing it rise up out of the blanket of the forest about the Monastery.)
And here was another strange thing--to his mind, at least, and maybe to yours, if you were standing there. His feet were planted firmly upon a grassy field through which a small river ran, but a stone's throw away there was a desolation of ash climbing towards threatening, smoking peaks in the far distance--waterless, arid and un-loving. Here the sky was blue, the air pure; over there, the vault of heaven was wreathed in noxious black-green fumes that the sun could not penetrate.
This was the site of the Herbalish encampment. This was the land that Vashna had made desolate and whose fertility they laboured to restore. It had not grown much, this green corner, in the two decades that had passed since their work began; and their work would not be finished for generations to come. But it was a beginning.
A couple of feet ahead of him, the Grand Masters stirred, cloaks rippling. A dust cloud rose up on the plain, and collapsed again. But closer at hand, there was another movement. A small golden light darted hither and thither, drawing nearer. Behind the Kai, the Herbalish paused in their tasks and spoke quietly amongst themselves: watching and wondering.
In a swarm of grey dust, surrounded by a corona of sun-fire, Alyss halted before the Kai Lords.
"Come," she said sombrely. "I will show you the ruins of Mandabar."
There was a rise in the flatlands halfway between Kaag and the Herbalish encampment. It lay off the road (now largely buried by dust storms through lack of maintenance), a little to the east. From its crown protruded three jade boulders, arranged in a rough circle--or a triangle, if you prefer.
"A strange place to build a stone ring," commented Sun-Star as they trekked through the desolation. Storm Raven's boots were heavy with ash.
"Those happen to be tower-tops," said Alyss, who had opted for levitating cross-legged in favour of walking. "They're all that's visibly left of Iridathon, Mandabar's old capital. It was the last kingdom of the Old Races to fall to the Darklords. The final blow of the War of Desecration fell here–" she smiled "-exactly one thousand six hundred and sixty nine years ago. I can pinpoint it down to a second, if you like." She looked from one weary face to another, and her own dropped a little. "No? OK. Well, anyway, it's also here that our problems started. Well, not here exactly, but I'll fill you in on that later. No, now. Oh, scrax! I'll tell, you when we reach the hill, OK?"
They sat around a fire on the space in the middle of Iridathon's three remaining tower-tops. Alyss was talking.
"Now, I'm going to fill you in on some details that you know nothing about concerning the Wars of the Gods. If they conflict with your mythology in any way--well, tough, I'm giving you the facts, and I pride myself on never being wrong. Got that?"
They nodded diligently. Alyss smiled. Just like dogs performing tricks.
"Well, contrary to what the priests may tell you, the Gods didn't always fight through pawns and avatars after they created Aon. The conflict was direct, God versus God back then. But their presence had an adverse affect on Creation. When Naar and Kai were in close proximity, the surge of power threatened to tear holes wide open in Creation. When they fought, holes were torn open, and things from the Daziarn came in. (I did the patching up, and never heard a word of thanks for it.)
"Eventually, Kai and Ishir decided that all of this wasn't exactly being fair to the little things (that's you, by the way) crawling around on the planets their scuffles were obliterating. So the Lords of Light gave it a big push, and managed to battle the Lords of Darkness to the edge of Aon, and then to push them out.
"Mord was one of the handmaids of Ishir, and she was a very good singer. (Not quite as good as me, mind you. Rehan'll tell you that. On second thoughts, since it's unlikely you'll ever meet, maybe not.) Where was I? Oh, yes. Mord was a very good singer, and better than anybody else--even Ishir--with magic. She was the only one of the Gods gifted with the control over both ethereal and elemental magic. And she made a wall all around Aon, and it was called the Wyrd of Mord.
A sudden anger came over Alyss. "That ought to have been enough. That really should have been enough. But Kai--no-one knows why--had her make a key out of the substance of magic, and then bind it to a physical object--a sword, the Nightmare Sword. Kai had captured it from Naar in a battle billennia ago, and it had a little of the Dark God in it. Light magic wrapped around dark magic. No-one knows why.
"But it killed her. Creating the Wyrd had already weakened her. Binding the sword broke her health, then caused her to waste away to nothing. Centuries went by. Then she just. . .petered out. Where do Gods go when they die? Who do Gods pray to when they see death looking them right in the eye?"
Her teeth were bared. Alyss drew her forearm across her eyes, and clapped her hands together. "All better," she said, but the Kai Lords were disturbed.
"Kai, Ishir and the rest went back to the Plane of Light, but Kai left the Sword behind. All was well, he thought. But Kai had missed something--something that I'd seen but didn't tell him about 'til much, much later, when he realised what he'd done to Mord: and even then he wouldn't tell me why he'd made the bloody thing!" Alyss drew in a long breath: she was having difficulty keeping to the point. Storm Raven reached out and took her hand: in silence, she accepted it.
"Go on," prompted Lone Wolf. "What had Kai missed?"
"When Naar perceived that his way into Magnamund was being closed off, he took from his head his Crown, which was shot through with his essence, and hurled it back into Aon. It went sailing through the void, and I never thought it would do any harm, so long as it never fell down on some world." She pointed a long finger at the ground. "It fell all right--it fell right here, in the city below us. When Kai saw that the Crown had fallen, and realised what it would mean if the Light lost Magnamund, he told me what the Sword was for. (Not the why, mind you, just the what.) He said it acted as a key to Mord's Wyrd, in the event of it being necessary to unlock it."
Sun-Star pulled a face as though he saw something vile in the dust. Alyss held up a hand.
"The Crown is not here. You know where it is. You have seen it. Banedon wears it, and Naar has him. Naar threw the Crown into Aon on an impulse, but he has since had plenty of time to think about what he might do with it. Through mortal agents within Aon he learned about the Nightmare Sword. He learned what it could do. He knew that if worst came to the worst and all his devices failed him, then there was still his Crown. It would call out to a mortal like a siren, and as soon as it was upon a brow, Naar would be able to take hold. He would have a host through which he could influence matters on Aon near-directly. He has one now. Banedon: my love.
"But it was here in Mandabar that it all began. The Darklords were on the rise back then, confined to a little barren area to the north of Lake Shaern in Erellain, later to be the site of the Lake of Blood and Helgedad. So Naar did not need the Crown just yet. But he had to make certain that it was safe from the servants of the Light. But he also decided to have some fun first.
"So Naar whispered through the Crown to the peasant who had found it, persuading him to carry it to the King Anitari of the Rhielshi race. Anitari took the Crown for his own, and it twisted his mind. When at last Vashna came to Mandabar with his armies, the Darklord was surprised at how easily the city fell. Proud eejit that he was, he never did learn about the intervention of his master, and Naar never told him.
"Before the fall of the city, King Anitari fled into the wilds, to the unconquered south of Mandabar. Behind him, Vashna had his Nadziranim detonate the Kagazitzaga in a dreadful out-flowing of right-handed magic, and the city was entombed in the ash that poured from the volcanoes. There he found the cairn of an old hero, and at Naar's command tore the Crown from his brow and cast it into the tomb. Then Anitari went insane, and lived out a pitifully short life miles from anybody, crying over the betrayal he'd enacted.
"The Crown lay undisturbed until a few weeks ago. The rest you know. And now we must find the Nightmare Sword before Naar can. If he does, he'll open up Aon to the Plane of Darkness and plunge Magnamund into eternal shadows. The suffering will never end. Never."
There was a profound silence after Alyss had concluded. The night was a vast, empty, hopeless thing, and the desolation all around was hard, unyielding and choking. But for the campfire, all was absolute darkness: the dusk was hidden by the poisonous clouds westward. Storm Raven shivered.
"What do you advise us to do, then?" demanded Sun-Star. "You make everything seem hopeless, you who are always so full of life. Is there nothing we can do--nothing at all?"
"There is always hope," said Alyss. "The Nightmare Sword is also on Magnamund, brought here by Ailendar Kaison. The Dark God has no idea where it is, which is rather to our advantage, since I'm about to introduce you to the one person that does. Excuse me for a moment." And she snapped her fingers. . .
. . .and the Kai Lords found themselves standing out in the wastes some distance from the ash hill that entombed Iridathon, in a large bubble created by Alyss to allow them to breathe. Storm Raven prodded it, then stuck his fist against it. It was as solid as a mountain's root.
But of more interest to them was what was happening to the hill. They could hear Alyss singing--there were no words in the song; or none that they could recognise. The earth heaved, and the miles of mordant grey dust rippled: scintillating waves travelled outwards from the hill. Then the hill seemed to come apart, and to swirl itself around into a near-black tornado, and flew away northwards until it vanished from view.
Where the hill had stood, there were now cracked spires and low buildings. . .
Then they were among the ruins, the transition from one point to another nauseating. Alyss stood before them in the middle of a square full of statues of people frozen in the motion of flight or falling or cowering. They knew it not, but these were the petrified bodies of the people of Iridathon.
"Come on," said Alyss, darting up the steps of the cathedral-like structure behind her. "I want you all to meet Shan a'Shellé."
Lone Wolf © TM Joe Dever 1984-1999.