The Infinity Mantle
“This is creepy, boy; it’s about to tumble into the whirly-swirl.”
~ Tattle’s Blunt Adventures
Rayne rested on the final descent from the high pass, sitting on a boulder sipping tepid water. Exhausted after four days hard travel and battered from losing traction on a scree slope earlier, he wished for the oblivion of sleep.
Farinwood, journey’s end, was now close, nestled in a valley where the soil was fertile and moist all year. Gazing down upon the old stone town facing the Corridor Mountains behind him, he hoped for a decent bed and time to sleep in it.
Dense vapour shrouded the lower hills and enveloped the valleys beyond in murky shadows and was the reason he had embarked on his rough journey. Rumours of darak sorcery and sightings of the dara-witch Infinity had the Mantle in turmoil; before him lay the proof. At this point in summer’s mastery, mist was a mere wish and yet it now veiled Farinwood.
Forcing his aching body to move, Rayne followed a track only goats knew of to enter the town and, as he stepped off the splintered bridge spanning the canal, the weight of rampant sorcery pressed down upon him, settling as a weight upon his shoulders. The channel was ridden with algae, he noticed; not a comforting sight, for this was Farinwood’s drinking water.
The town itself was gloomy with vapour trailing tendrils like spooky fingers from a netherworld. The quaint, old buildings were shuttered, blind; the cobbled streets slick with misshapen moss in cracks.
Shivering, he hastened onwards. Nightfall approached and he had to find Aven before darkness claimed these streets.
The first evidence of Infinity’s malevolence upon people also was revealed in a cluster of surly men bearing knives and cudgels, even a rusty saw. Rayne halted when he saw them, realising Infinity no longer limited her coercion to nature.
The men looked around him, unseeing after initial scrutiny. Something else was on their minds and they were petrified. When one murmured to another about night closing in and now was not the time to become distracted, Rayne understood the coming darkness held the real terror Infinity had unleashed here.
Aven could wait until morning. Sleep was probably a dream at this point, but he needed to find a place to spend the interim hours. When he enquired after the nearest inn, a man pointed him onward willingly, but eyes darted. Another stared intently at him as if to say something, until his companion dug an elbow into his ribs.
He left the men behind, wondering what that one needed to share. Aven would know what happened in Farinwood.
In a broader street he discovered another gathering, more armed men huddled together. What were they guarding against?
There were no women and no children in sight anywhere. It was a bad sign; it meant women and children were confined for protection’s sake. Or something far more sinister could be in play. Inhaling a breath, Rayne hoped the women and children were merely behind locked doors to keep them safe.
He caught snatches of mutterings as he passed.
“… not normal this fog …”
“… Farinwood’s a portal to the netherworld …”
“… darkness in their hearts …”
“… Feon saw the dara-witch …”
“… Infinity on Hogshill …”
“… our poor children …”
“… An ancient curse I tell …”
“… same war of three thousand years ago …”
The words were repetitions of fact and rumour spoken almost as mantra. He sensed their need for reassurance and could not offer even a word in comfort.
When Rayne did notice a knot of children around a further corner, he was relieved to think maybe he had misjudged the situation in Farinwood.
If children were on the streets, the manipulation was still reparable. While the presence of fear was real, it had not yet killed. The young would not be allowed out if death stalked the streets. The Mantle could reverse the darak mist and dampen the manifestation of terror, thereby restoring Farinwood to the townspeople. It required concerted effort, but was achievable. Aven would know where to commence the process.
Rayne paused to study the gathering of children, searching for the signs of dread evident in their elders, and was similarly scrutinised.
Across the intersection they watched at each other.
Rayne began then to understand the men and their homemade weapons, their words and depression, their terrible wariness and the withdrawal from outsiders. He understood what Infinity had achieved in Farinwood.
Here it was about the children. Elsewhere on Valaris there were unexplained deaths and events, but here it was definitely about the children.
One lad curled his hands into claws and bared his teeth. He rose onto his toes as if to launch an attack. Rayne smelled the presence of aggression, the utter lack of conscience.
Appalling knowledge in deadened eyes told him the boy was not afraid to attack and kill like a rabid dog; as with infected creatures, it was thus wise to retreat.
The Mantle could not reverse this. He could do little to help them. He could do nothing. The men with their makeshift weapons guarded the streets against their own children, by Taranis.
Rayne hastily negotiated another corner, the back of his neck prickling, and ahead saw a sign that proclaimed the Foaming Ale Inn.
He felt the need to surrender the streets; never had lodgings appeared at a more opportune time.
A vestibule displayed a pewter hat and coat stand and beside it, a mirror in a chipped gilt frame.
The floor was rough slate, the walls of stone.
As a welcome chamber, it was not particularly inviting. The stand was empty; he was either early, the only patron, or fear kept others away. The tension on the streets spoke of the latter.
He glanced in the mirror to see clammy skin. Fair hair hung in long, damp strings, grey eyes were bloodshot, and his face was colourless, adorned with scratches from the scree slide earlier.
Rayne leaned against the contraption, closing his eyes. His heartbeat was uneven - the presence of fear. He could only imagine how much worse it was for the fathers out there and for the mothers trapped inside their homes with their thoughts. He drew breath and headed for the common room.
The inn door slammed inward. A big man with flaming red hair and beard barged in, glanced over his shoulder, and shoved the door shut as he looked Rayne over. Shoulders the size of an ox surged closer.
Rayne’s eyes narrowed. This was not a local.
“Rayne of the Mantle?” the man boomed. “Name’s McSee. My lord, you have nothing to fear from me. You are Rayne of the Mantle?” He thrust his hand out.
Too flabbergasted to do much else, Rayne took the proffered hand. Long after he would wonder if he said no to the query would McSee have turned away not to be seen again, or were their fates already decided before that first handshake?
“I have been on your tail a few days. I just missed you in Galilan. You move fast - thirsty work. Let’s see if this dump lives up to its name!” McSee launched into the common room. “Two ales, barkeep!”
He rolled like a runaway boulder across the empty room to a table at the hearth where a fire blazed warmth and comfort.
Bemused, Rayne followed and chose a chair, nodding greeting, while McSee watched the small, rotund man busy behind the counter.
The little man winked. He had a friendly face and as he poured he asked, “Need rooms? No problem. We’re empty presently, the unseasonable climate putting the fear of who-knows-what into superstitious folk. Granted, I’ve never known weather like this, not in summer.”
He came over with two foaming mugs.
There were changeling children on the streets, and the man called it superstition. Rayne frowned into his mug as he lifted it to swirl the dust of travel away.
McSee handed over the required coin. “Yes, rooms and hot water. I could sorely use a scrubbing.”
The little man grimaced. “It’s all I can do to keep this fire going, my staff left me in the lurch - I told them it’s fairy tales and legends, but no one listens. We’re in for a poorly spell, you know, nature telling us who’s in charge. Mist from a netherworld, ha! Superstitious nonsense. Name’s Julian, by the way.”
He gazed pointedly at McSee, and glanced at Rayne, dark eyes inquisitive, and one could not blame him; he was in the business of people, and visitors were scarce.
McSee made the introductions. “McSee,” he said, thrusting his hand out again. Rayne winced, having recently shaken it. “From Gasmoor. And this here,” McSee continued, “is Rayne of …” Rayne faintly shook his head. “… ah, Rayne of Galilan.”
Julian enfolded Rayne’s hand in a firm grip. “He’s rather quiet, your friend Rayne.”
“Tired, Julian, more tired than I have been in a long while,” Rayne answered.
“Apologies, sirs! Hot water … yes, and something to eat … excuse me …” Managing to curb his curiosity, Julian left.
“Did you see them? The young ones?” McSee murmured, pointing a finger to the outside world. “Is he blind?” He gestured next after the round man. “Scared the crap out of me, I tell you.”
“He is afraid. Denial is a form of defence.” Rayne settled back and took a pull of the ale. The brew definitely lived up to the name above the door. He glanced at the big man. “McSee. From Gasmoor.” Gasmoor was the second largest centre on Valaris, a university city two days ride from Galilan, capital city. “That is a start. McSee, you seem to know a little more about me than I know of you.”
McSee did not drop his gaze. “I mean you no harm, my lord.”
“That remains to be seen. At this point answer my question.”
McSee set his mug down and settled his big arms on the polished wood, twisting his fingers together. “I was chosen to find you, for we have noticed the same distressing signs the Mantle has …”
“A society, my lord …”
“Do not call me that, for Aaru’s sake; I don’t want unnecessary attention. Rayne will do fine.”
“Of course, I’m sorry, my … Rayne.” McSee scratched at his head.
“A society,” Rayne prompted.
Brown eyes were sombre, expecting trouble. “A society of folk who think there is great danger a-foot. We also believe what we see is a fraction of what is coming. Allow me to offer my help. If nothing else, I find my size in odd situations is an advantage.”
There was a trace of diffidence in McSee’s voice, but as his claim could not be named as lie, he did not back down from it.
“You are not answering my question, friend. How is it you know of me? Perhaps twenty outsiders know of the existence of the Mantle.”
“The Society knows as well,” McSee murmured, lowering his voice on hearing Julian’s scuffles in an adjoining chamber. The way he accented Society revealed it as more than a generic term. “We know the Mantle is an organization studying signs and portents. You are the protectors, right?”
In a manner of speaking, Rayne thought, but did not answer. “And what exactly does this Society of yours do?”
For the first time the big man was uncomfortable. “They said this will be the hardest part, and now I see why.” He lapsed into silence.
Rayne took a deep breath and released it on a long sigh. “Something like the Mantle?”
McSee nodded. “Our goals are similar, but we are more than mere academics …”
And so is the Mantle. “I get that,” Rayne said.
Something in Rayne’s tone alerted the big man, for he spoke swiftly then. “I’m instructed to tell the truth, so here it is; the Society is a select group of … of sorcerers … no, wait,” McSee interjected as Rayne straightened in his chair, “It’s not what you think! We don’t do darak magic, I swear; we don’t practice magic at all, only theory.”
Rayne lifted a disbelieving eyebrow, and thought that meant they were only academics.
“It’s true,” McSee continued. “We train generation to generation in an attempt to keep the old knowledge alive. Long ago, someone understood we would need the theoretical arts. Folk forgot about the Society as time passed, especially after the Drasso catastrophe, but we were there then and saw what real danger is. We weren’t formal like now, maybe not so hidden, and probably not quite as unpractised as today, but that was then and I don’t know much about the past and only about the future we seek to protect. The way matters add up, we need countering that can reach beyond traditional weapons. We’re not a danger to the Mantle or Valaris, quite the contrary, and if you need to keep me nearby to prove that, then so be it; I’ll earn your trust soon enough.”
McSee leaned in. “You are of the Mantle, my lord …” and he used Rayne’s title deliberately, “… so you must know Valaris can’t hope to survive the coming darkness without trained sorcerers. Who will help us if we do not help ourselves? I can sniff danger and fight it too. I would be honoured to stand at your side.”
Rayne was a power in an underworld of influential men and McSee clearly knew that. Did the man aim to aid him with the different power of the Society? What, exactly, could McSee do? Moreover, how much did he know of the Mantle?
In the ensuing silence, they heard Julian throwing water. The innkeeper would return soon.
When Rayne finally spoke his voice remained low. The men with weapons outside needed just a spark, a whiff of a whisper of a sorcerer inside, and all Julian had to do was shout.
“You are telling me there is a group the Mantle doesn’t know of and you say this group has been in existence a long time. There are trained sorcerers running amok on this world. By Taranis, man, how do you expect me to react?”
McSee put up a hand. “Three thousand years ago Valaris was the battlefield for Infinity and Drasso and their darak fallen, and the Deities descended to aid us in that war. Today we don’t know how much is fact or fairy-tale, but we do know there was a war and our world was almost destroyed. A handful survived, the north was forever annihilated, and it took Valaris a thousand years to recover. We still have the poison of the north, which the Great Dividing Forest separates us from. And now someone like Drasso could be happening again.”
Rayne gave a wry smile. The big man was on target. Infinity had returned to exact revenge for the death of her son Drasso. He blinked; no wonder she manipulated the children. It was a mother’s vengeance.
“Will the Deities come to our aid? Dare we wait for that to happen? Do we allow it to get so bad it takes another thousand years to recover?” McSee leaned forward. “Better if we join forces …” He broke off as Julian re-entered the common room.
“Good news, gentlemen. Two tubs in the steam room out back. Fresh towels inside the door.” Julian’s bright eyes darted from one to the other, sensing enmity.
Rayne pushed his chair back. “We will resume this later, McSee. Lead on, Julian.”
His hands shook.
A screech tore through the darkness.
Rayne surged up in his bed as the reverberations shivered over his skin. The echoes of his dream - a fair girl crying out her name, “Mitrill, my name is Mitrill” - caused momentary confusion, and then he knew where and when he was.
It was night in Farinwood. This was a bed in an inn. The present. He had actually fallen asleep.
Here it was about a child on the hunt.
Then, like crystal shattering in the ensuing silence, a woman sobbed as if her heart had been ripped from her body.
Aaru, how could the men on the streets be expected to stop this? One was father to that screeching child. One was husband to the woman trapped in hopeless grief.
Anger was then heat and resolve. Rayne left his bed, snatched his cloak up for warmth and doused the smoking lamp on the table under the window.
A moment later he snapped his fingers for the tiny flame that danced upon his palm.
This was a sorcerer’s trick and on a world that abhorred magic, it meant also a noose slung over a branch if someone saw him with it. He needed to be ever careful; vigilantism thrived on Valaris and continually prowled for magic-users, a mind-set that would lead eventually to confrontation.
He cupped his free hand around the flame.
Enfolding magic, even this insignificant nuance, gifted him the ability to witness events beyond his immediate surroundings.
He employed the flame to see what the darkness hid.
Leaves skittered across cobbles, driven by gusts of contrary wind. A storm was on the way. The leaves lifted and swirled and smacked into the calves of two boys, slim shadows peering through a tall iron gate at a man holding aloft a blacksmith’s hammer. There was a sense of hunger emanating from the boys and terrible despair had etched into the man’s face.
Would the gate keep them apart?
Rayne’s breathing shallowed when those shadows swiftly clambered over and padded closer.
The man swung the hammer, but it was evident he was loath to use it even for defence. How did a man sleep again after hurting children? Then they were upon him and Rayne’s breathing stopped. The mallet thudded down; leaves scurried and rustled as if prodded and young fingers and mouths tore into cloth and flesh.
A horrifying gurgle echoed. Insane giggles. Rayne lost his hold on the flame as shock numbed his ability to function.
Sweat trickled in icy rivulets over his face.
Hands on knees he fought for equilibrium and feverishly hoped Aven would know how to counter this nightmare.
He prayed the old man was still alive in this netherworld town.