Many are the numbers of counting. More are the numbers of distance and of learning. Find them in art and mineral, because numbers are universal music. Simple, however, are the numbers of magic, for then they are become markers of the path.
The Steps of the Magical Condition
~ Awl, also author of Tattle’s Blunt Adventures
The Well of Crystal Sound
One night to New Moon
The five Guardians used the period of waiting to rest, acclimatise and renew in natural light.
They relaxed in various ways as peace infused and beauty surrounded. It would be hard to leave.
Llettynn watched his leader, and Saska covertly did the same. For the first time Taranis unveiled something personal and it placed him in a different light. She liked him more, she realised, in this new vulnerability.
Glint saw his future differently. Taranis underscored the implied accord of loyalty and obsession one could enter into with one’s homeworld. The real trick and the hardest to do, was to keep it in perspective. He needed to revere Glorium, not obsess over its future.
Belun, for his part, looked forward to besting Infinity - therein laid massive perspective.
Taranis frequently spent time staring into the Well, as if it contained his particular future, while Glint had a more practical task to hand. He attempted to identify the species of trees, a wonderful source of relaxation, but surrendered to ignorance after about three hundred. Even Taranis had to smile over that.
As time stretched, concern entrenched.
The nine mortals were tardy. Did they know who they were? Did they know where to meet? Was anyone on Valaris aware they were about to lose a way of life, that death and worse lay around the corners of mere hours? It was nerve wrecking. The coming night was the last of the darkened moon. By all that was good, it had to happen.
Midday brought more waiting, until Belun pricked his ears.
Two humans approach.
The words were scarcely received when Kisha and Kylan broke the tree line from the east.
The sudden light dazzled them.
Kisha saw the Well first. “We’re here …” She trailed off as she marked the strange gathering. Afraid, she backed into Kylan.
For his part, he stared. Another dream? And no Jess to wake me. He realised if he could have that thought, he could not be dreaming. This was happening and the tension in Kisha’s body confirmed it.
“What the …?” he muttered, and counted them. Five. And slowly he breathed out. “This is part of my dome dream,” he whispered as a man detached from the group around the Well, his hands spread in the universal manner signifying peace.
“You saw them?” Kisha whispered back, straightening away, feeling his heat in her back.
“No, but I may have had Jess not woken me. Remember what I said about recognition?” He frowned at a woman with blue hair. His eyes narrowed; he did not trust this. Infinity had blue hair, blue everything- not the same one, then. He did not know what to think. “Get ready to run into the Forest. Go south, hear?”
“Right behind you,” Kisha responded, her eyes drawn to the green giant and the gold-silver - animal? “Kylan, I think this is why we were beckoned to this place.”
Kylan reserved judgement.
The man was before them, a quizzical smile on his face. Grey eyes, strong features and carries a sword.
Kylan said nothing, waiting to see who would make the overture.
“Well met, stranger,” she said with growing confidence. “I am Kisha of the Tan, and this is Kylan, Herbmaster of Farinwood. Were you and your companions also drawn to this place?”
Taranis’ smile widened. “Well met, Kisha and Kylan. We were similarly called here, yes, and this is indeed the gathering place.”
“And you are?” Kylan almost growled.
That question, this moment, was something Taranis had difficulty with. Saska quietly remarked a few hours ago that his status in Valarian conscious could be a disadvantage. Right. He knew where and in what guise he stood placed, so how to inform them he was that same person? From their view, he could be regarded as mad. He had the appearance of an ordinary human, a mortal, and did it really matter? It could be advantageous to stay undercover, but his name was his name and no matter what they thought, he would not hide behind another.
“I am Taranis,” he said.
Kylan’s eyes widened. “Nobody calls their sons Taranis, for Aaru’s sake. You must have parents with delusions!”
Taranis paled at the slur and Kisha twisted around, hissing, “How can you be so rude? You’re letting your mouth run away with you again!”
Taranis understood the young man did not know better, none of them did. Nobody knew how sacred his parents were to him in memory, or how he ached over the manner of their deaths. Taking a breath, he said, “It is to be expected, my dear, and rudeness right now is the least of my concerns.”
Kylan raised his hands in a pacifying gesture. “Forgive me. My mouth, unluckily, does have a tendency to say words I don’t even think.”
Taranis’ lips twitched. This one had a sense of humour. Good. “Forget it. I am Taranis.”
Kylan gazed into calm grey eyes. He shivered as he realised the particular claim made. Dear God, had his call been heard that night with Infinity? He breathed in and out. “The Taranis?”
Taranis inclined his head.
“Crikey, really?” Kisha gasped, and poked Kylan in the ribs. “Jeez, you must learn some manners!”
Taranis burst out laughing.
Kylan gave a grin, which felt forced even to him. He bowed formally. “My lord Taranis, I am humbled by your presence and honoured to meet you.”
Kisha glanced at him and mouthed, that’s better. She bowed. She was less formal, for an impish smile tugged at her lips.
Taranis found it infectious and grinned back.
My lord, may we approach? Belun sent.
“Who said that?” Kisha and Kylan said together, both automatically looking behind them.
Belun had opened lines of communication to the two young people, and was obviously not going to molly-coddle - typical Centuar. “Yes, now would be a good time.” Taranis spoke without turning, knowing Belun would hear, and said to the two before him, “Not behind you; behind me. The Centuar communicates with thought. Mindspeak is the correct term, and you will soon get used to it. It will be like words.”
Kylan, still battling with the notion of who stood there talking to them, thought it was more sorcery, and it seemed he would need to get used to that also. “Is that how you talk to each other?” He was out of his depth. He wondered if he should remain bowed; this was Taranis, Lord of the Deities.
“No. Mindspeak can be an invasion of privacy,” Taranis replied. “The Centuar have no vocal chords, and others of our organisation use it for the same reason. Kylan, there is no need to be subservient; we are in this together. Ah, Belun,” Taranis said, turning as the others joined him, “as quick off the mark as ever.”
We do not have time to play those games, Belun sent, and his tail swished at the irony of his words.
There was tension there … there is something here, Kylan thought, and his distrust soared.
“How do we approach this, my lord?” Saska asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe we should have given this more thought. I thought they would know.”
Kylan carried a knife as weapon, but a Herbmaster was generally left to his own devices, treating as he did both the everyday sick and those who came by their injuries via more devious and criminal means, thus the stupid knife was in his pack.
He really should carry it on his person; the world was getting too weird. And this was a peculiar bunch. He had to admit, though, they were dream creatures, and as he thought that he gazed into Taranis’ eyes. There was a message there …
Taranis thought, open your mind, Herbmaster, let us in; do not be afraid, for we are not the enemy. It was a sincere thought, a desire to ease the transition from legend to reality, but it was not meant as mindspeak. He was therefore shocked to see the young man concentrating hard, as if he could hear the message. Is this kid capable of magic or am I finally picking up Belun’s bad habits?
Kylan struggled. He wanted to know what Taranis tried to communicate, but how could he trust after Infinity? That blue devil said the Deities did not concern themselves with mortals … were these the Deities?
Or were these others, perhaps putting masks on the faces of evil?
At his side, Kisha studied the gathering of five.
Until a few weeks ago she was a Bellwether’s protected daughter, and now she had seen glorious countryside, stepped into confrontation with an evil creature, met Kylan, learned of the southern people, discovered the peace of the Forest and felt the pull to this place.
It was much to grasp in a brief span, and perhaps her innocence aided her. She sensed only compassion and friendship. She made eye contact with Saska, woman to woman.
“Lady, who are you? Why, pray, are we meeting at this Well?”
Saska smiled and it lit her features with an inner radiance that caused Kisha to gasp silent envy. The woman was striking, more so when she smiled. This was a woman men would fight over, and probably had.
“Well met, Kisha of the Tan. I am Saska of the Sylmer, and this gorgeous creature here is Belun of the Centuar.”
Belun dipped his head in greeting.
“Next to him is Glint of the Sagorin.”
Glint put his hands together in an attitude of prayer and gave a formal little bow.
Saska grinned and continued, “And lastly, Llettynn of the Siric.”
Llettynn gave a full bow and spread his glorious wings to full length and splendour behind him.
“Oh, wow,” Kisha breathed.
Show-off! Belun sent.
Kisha laughed. She clapped her hands and made a theatrical bow to the whole company, and was pleased to hear appreciative chuckles greet her gesture.
You are a show-off, you know that? Belun sent to Llettynn, who crossed his arms and simply gawked at him.
“Hush, Belun.” Saska shook an admonishing finger at the Centuar, and whispered loudly, “He wishes now he had shown off his wings first!”
Belun grunted, but did not say more. The ice was broken. Saska nodded and stepped forward to take Kisha’s hand.
“We are friends, do you feel it? Good. Don’t worry about the mindspeak; it only happens when Belun opens a line of communication. Come, there’s much to tell and not much time to do it in. Taranis?”
Taranis and Kylan were locked in mutual thought.
For some reason Taranis felt he needed to know if he was mind sending or not and Kylan, in ignorance, tried to receive something not sent. What happened was a mutual desire to understand, but …
The Siric tapped his leader’s shoulder. “You have not the talent. Let him go.”
Taranis looked away, leaving Kylan confused. “Then he has …”
“No,” Llettynn said, sensing the Herbmaster’s fear of sorcery. “He has nothing but a desire to trust.”
“Kylan, forgive me. I attempted to project through your emotions to your inner soul, the one knowing we are here as friends. I cannot mindspeak.”
“But you and … Belun, is it?”
“Belun controls the communication. He hears me, yes, but it is his doing, not mine. Are you all right?”
Kylan glanced at Kisha and received an encouraging nod. “I guess so.”
“Excellent,” Glint murmured. “Now can we go sit on the grass, please?”
Amid general mirth, Kisha and Kylan were accompanied to the Well. Taranis trailed them … and Llettynn kept pace with him.
“They have frail minds, Taranis. If you tried harder …”
“I don’t know what came over me.”
The Siric shrugged. “He wants to believe you are a god, for he knows there are great problems here. You needed to be that god for a moment, because you badly want this to work. Human nature, I believe.” There was no censure in Llettynn’s tone.
Taranis chuckled. “Sometimes you surprise me, old friend.”
“When you get old you learn a few tricks,” Llettynn returned, and there was a ghost of a smile on his dour face.
By nightfall the three northerners joined them.
Their adjustment to the Guardians went smoother, as Kisha was able to explain for their benefit. She knew them by reputation and from whence they came. They felt a calling to the Well of Crystal Sound and that was a source for wonder, but the greater wonder was in finding the four main clans represented.
Samson, the strong one, from the Mye, who told of a hoeing accident; Cristi of the San, so shy she could barely utter a coherent word; Mordan, the wise teacher of the Kinna; and herself, Kisha, daughter of the Tan’s late Bellwether.
There was one other cause for wonder, and that was the speed of their journeys south; they claimed to have felt driven, and said it was akin to flying overland without leaving solid earth.
The Guardians laughed with them, and glanced at each, astonished.
Mordan arrived last, wet and bedraggled, his eyes alight with the spirit of adventure that led far younger men into serious trouble; he remarked he hoped never to fly a raft again.
All headed as crows fly, directly to the Well. It proved they were meant to be part of the team. Whatever Infinity put in place was working.
Kylan was amazed by their unheralded appearance. Seeing them confirmed what he and Kisha discovered. The three northerners were flabbergasted and much of the talk that night centred on how the division came about and how it remained, and there was embarrassed consensus that humans were often so complacent they were more ignorant than informed.
Again Llettynn murmured something about human nature. Glint muttered about separation versus inclusion, which earned him a dark stare from his Dome leader.
The talk also went down other paths. The Immortals attempted to explain their origins and duties to the universe, while the five mortals gave simplified versions of their life stories; with the exception of Cristi, who did not say much. The green giant’s heart went out to her and he resolved to give her special attention.
Taranis launched into detail about Infinity, pausing when Kylan described his confrontation with the dara-witch, although the Herbmaster refrained from mentioning the words he uttered there.
Taranis spoke of the Arcana and, clearly, they were unfamiliar with that particular tale. It was a legend unknown on Valaris and he despaired of making them understand the nature of the threat to their world and from Valaris into the wider universe.
Llettynn came to his rescue. The Siric was more involved than he usually was. Perhaps Valaris worked magic on him also. Perhaps dry academics were no longer sufficient even for a Siric. He would, of course, deny such claim.
He drew on his arcane powers to create a holographic image of the communication Taranis shared via the console in the Dome. He showed them, more briefly than what was revealed to the Guardians, what lay beyond the Rift. He showed them Chaos.
Fangs and slithering creatures in whirling, grasping fog …
Cristi whimpered and Glint swore, but the rest stared in horror, even Taranis.
It was not the full truth Llettynn brought forth, but it was sufficient. The five understood. Emotionally only, yes, but it would aid them until the reality of the threat wore factual guise. Fear stalked on quiet footfalls into the precincts of the firelight.
“You are not alone in your fear,” Glint said.
“And you are certainly not alone in facing it,” Saska added.
Later still the game and its rules were laid out, as far as that went. Taranis remarked that they would know more the following night when the New Moon rose in the east.
“Tomorrow?” Samson exclaimed. “By all that is holy, what if the final four are late?” He was a big man, younger than Kylan, and dark of colouring. He wore buckskin breeches, a sleeveless jerkin and comfortable moccasins. His sling and a pouch of stones hung from his belt.
“Then it is forfeit,” Taranis said. “But will the blue witch really unleash the Arcana? We cannot know.”
“I wonder why she chose ordinary humans,” Glint mused. “Surely someone with magic would be a better choice?”
That would make it too easy for us, Belun sent.
“There are no sorcerers on Valaris,” Kylan pointed out.
Llettynn shook his head. “You are wrong there, friend. There are always sorcerers; you merely do not get to hear about them.”
Kylan was about to deny that statement when Taranis spoke. “You of the northern land experienced an undeniable pull to this exact place and were unerring in your direction. You claim it felt as if you were flying. A journey that should have taken five to ten days was achieved in a day and a half. That is magic.”
“Infinity?” Kylan suggested.
“The dara-witch has not that kind of power,” Taranis said. “And she certainly would not aid anyone.”
“What are you saying? It was you?”
“No, Kylan, it wasn’t us.”
“Llettynn’s claim of sorcerers on Valaris …”
“Exactly,” Taranis agreed. “Allow me to explain how we arrive at this conclusion. The only way the northern clans could be summoned to a gathering of this nature is via the Maghdim Medaillon. We lost sight of the Medaillon; it went into deep cover where we could no longer track it. Before it vanished it was enchanted, and part of the enchantment was this calling of the clans …”
“Someone used it,” Kisha understood.
“Not just anyone, my dear. Someone who knows where it hides, someone who knows it for what it can do, someone who is aware of the growing danger to Valaris and perhaps even beyond, and only a sorcerer is able. Somewhere nearby is someone who has the power to draw you hither, someone not afraid of a strange magical tool, and he or she will join us soon, and probably have the final three as companions. That sorcerer is as human and mortal as you are. Llettynn is right; there are always sorcerers.”
“And where there is one, there are bound to be others,” Glint murmured.
Kylan gazed into the dark. In his mind’s eye he saw a bunch of old wizards gathered around a cast iron pot on heatless flame. Resolutely, he shook that image aside.