And now all the threads tie up :)
North East West South, NEWS
He had her measure now.
She was shrewd and ruthless. How she made the connections that led this far into another realm was beyond his understanding, but no matter.
What counted at this point was that she searched diligently for the one factor to satisfy her thirst for vengeance and she found it, and he would use it well.
Had she seen the invisible thread? He did not think it likely; she was an opportunist, but she was a mediocre sorceress. Even more interesting was her ignorance of the greater truth, and it meant she could be used. It also meant he had a hold over her, for she was not to destroy Valaris. Not now that he had seen it.
He released his conscious earlier, something he was not comfortable doing in the event a spy discovered his hibernating body, and he tracked the living thread into the stratosphere surrounding Valaris.
Had he been a poet he may have found words and prose to describe what he saw, how he was affected in that first viewing, but as it was, he could only behold in dumbstruck awe.
Valaris went beyond every dream. It was more than this miserable excuse of a world. Even when the light shone benignly here, and the mountains were green and white, rounded and inviting, it could not compare.
For a brief moment regret found him - regret that a world had lost its light and a young man lost his parents, his love, and his people. There was no stopping it and he had not been strong enough to die with the rest of them.
Regret was rare and he barely knew it for what it was before anger resurfaced.
He was forced to become worse than the slobbering creatures that slunk out into the darkness to survive.
He had survived. He became more powerful than that young man envisioned while the sun shone, and now it was time to reap reward for long and exhausting patience.
What a kaleidoscope world!
Sapphire and emerald, silver and white, gold, crimson, amber and violet! Mountains of infinite variety, fertile valleys, oceans, islands, lakes and rivers!
There he could live, BE.
He could never return to that innocent young man, but he no longer had interest in recapturing that kind of wonder. He was what he was, and it would bring him what he desired. Valaris had beauty.
He would set his hounds to do his bidding and permit Infinity to play her little game until he was ready to step in and take it all.
Then he would move them like pieces on a board, his game, and she could be counted on to achieve much of his own design, while unknowingly strengthening the thread that would lead him to the Medaillon. With that …
Every step brought him closer to goal. The Rift would remain indefinitely open, he now knew, because she foolishly promised to deliver the last Vallorin, the mighty Vannis.
He still had time to rein his hounds to his command, but soon he could count change and victory in days only. Everything would be different.
Watch the skies, all of you, watch the skies!
Valaris, glorious and priceless jewel, would soon be his.
For the past hour the Palace Guard hammered on the heavy doors.
Dantian summoned Anastir, his best sorcerer, to unseal the chamber. When that did not dent the copper doors, the Guard resumed battering.
Dante had already muttered his astonishment that copper, notoriously soft, could hold out so long. Huge and numerous depressions now pocked the surface, but nothing more budged.
Dantian’s robes swirled as he stalked the outer chamber. Firelight from wall sconces flickered over the confusion of Guard, sorcerers, retainers and an agitated Vallorin and his calmer brother. The wavering light seemed to enhance the darkness of night and Dante frowned over that. Valleur loved their omens, and this was like a humdinger.
He snagged Dantian as the man stalked by. “It is not helping, all that noise.”
Dantian glared at him.
“We cannot hear what they are shouting about, brother, on the other side of that stubborn door. If we can, maybe we can also devise a solution.”
Dantian glared at him some more and snapped, “Hold!”
The pounding to seek entry swiftly dwindled into silence. Guards stepped aside and formed into a line to the left of the doors, awaiting new orders. A fair few heaved from the uncommon exertion.
The terrible ruckus beyond, the reason for the midnight hammering and sorcery, had not abated in the least. The seers, clearly, had not reached consensus.
“Dragon’s breath,” Dantian muttered.
“We can do no other than wait, my Lord Vallorin,” Anastir said. He moved to stand in quiet contemplation before the doors.
Dante stood at his brother’s shoulder and leaned in to whisper, “We need prepare for battle.”
The skin over Dantian’s cheeks tightened, but he did not speak.
He listened to the shouts beyond. They were entirely without meaning, for layers of voices could only be noise.
New Moon on Valaris
Night was falling over Valaris with another two hours before the New Moon sliver made its appearance.
In the clearing, ten waited in silence. There was not much to say now. Words were for the four still to arrive.
Those four pushed the limits of time and nerves. According to Llettynn they were on their way, and according to Belun there was an old man among them who suffered a twisted ankle and this slowed them. He offered to bring them in magically, but Taranis said it might upset Infinity’s conception of rules.
Thus they waited. Not a breath stirred the trees. All sound ceased. Day and night creatures hid where they felt safe. Valaris waited. Valarians might be unaware of darak encroachment, but the planet knew.
A twig snapped and there was a muffled curse.
The ten near the Well stiffened and shifted in the direction of the sounds. As Kisha and Kylan had, they came from the east. A big man aided an old man, and there was another man and a woman also. In moments the required complement would be complete.
Taranis breathed his relief; he had not realised how tense he was. Never trust Infinity. She might have accepted a lesser complement to exact proper revenge, by her standards, but she may well have made good on her promise to release the Arcana.
The two groups met midway between tree line and Well.
In the gathering dark Taranis stepped forward and so did Rayne.
Taranis noted the four were not surprised. They expected to find us here, and if not Guardians, someone. That makes this easier.
Taranis and Rayne locked gazes simultaneously and both experienced a jolt of unaccountable recognition. It hit hard in the gut and seeped through to the tiniest blood atom.
“Lord Taranis,” Rayne said. His heart jumped erratically.
“You knew,” Taranis stated. Goosebumps stiffened every hair on the back of his neck. He wanted to double over to deal with the feelings racing through him.
“Then you commanded the Medaillon,” Taranis said, relieved. Recognition of power - that is all it was. He needed to believe that. Did he know this man? Had he met him before?
“And called the clans of the north,” Rayne murmured, and lifted his gaze to the gathering behind Taranis. He picked them out one-by-one. “San, Kinna, Mye and Tan.” The four northerners gaped. His gaze rested on Kisha. “You were called earlier.”
She nodded numbly.
Kylan gaped at him. This was no old wizard carting a cast iron pot around.
“And you are?” Taranis prompted, unable to drag his eyes off the fair man.
“I am Rayne. This is Aven, practical sorcerer recently of Farinwood.” Rayne’s voice was soft, but clear, and measured, as if he controlled all emotion in it strictly.
The Siric immediately wondered why that was.
“Rayne kept matters to himself, hasn’t he?” Aven muttered, looking askance at the man. “You knew Lord Taranis would be here? Good Aaru, man, this is Lord Taranis and you say nothing?”
“And increase the tension?” Rayne snapped. Anger was better. He could function - he could ignore Taranis. Why was the man so familiar to him?
Aven sighed like someone who sometimes has to accept his fate. “Lord Taranis, I am deeply honoured to stand before you this night.”
Taranis smiled. Something deep lay between these two men. “Thank you.”
“Jeez,” McSee breathed. “You should have said something, Rayne.”
“This is McSee, theoretical sorcerer of Gasmoor,” Rayne supplied.
“I am honoured, Lord Taranis!” As Aven had chosen to stand unaided in the meeting of new people, McSee was free to bow low over his hands, and did.
“McSee,” Taranis returned, and added, “It is Taranis, not ‘my lord’ or ‘lord’, for I am no deity, merely a Guardian doing his duty, as are my companions. I shall introduce them to you soon.” He lifted eyebrows towards Averroes.
Rayne smiled at that. He had a similar habit. “This is Averroes, keeper of the Maghdim Medaillon.”
Averroes bobbed her head and gave a shy smile. Her eyes were bright in the dark.
Taranis studied her curiously. “You knew the Guardians would be present.”
She nodded. “The Medaillon revealed it to me.”
“Averroes?” Aven squeaked, hand over heart.
“Forgive me, my father, but I agreed with Rayne. It was better to keep the journey here simple.”
“Jeez,” McSee went again.
Taranis chuckled and introduced the others.
In the deepening dark it was difficult to discern distinct features. There were impressions - Belun’s magical shape, Glint’s size, Llettynn’s paleness and Saska’s blue hair. The humans were indistinguishable other than as male and female. Kylan, Aven and Averroes knew each other, and that made the meeting more casual.
Introductions dealt with, Taranis said, “There is little time for explanation right now, for we await the New Moon and …”
“Infinity?” Rayne interrupted. “She has been seen all over Valaris, particularly in Farinwood.”
“Ah. Indeed.” Perhaps Valarians were aware.
“Allow me to fill you in, then you may not be so surprised, Lord Taranis,” Aven said. “My boy here loathes using his title.”
Taranis nodded as Rayne frowned, but both gestures were lost in the gloom.
Aven assumed he could go on, and did. “This is Rayne of the Mantle. The Mantle harbours and trains Valaris’ sorcerers and Rayne is First Rank.” There was a touch of pride in the old man’s voice.
“On Valaris?” Kylan murmured in the dark. “You were right, Llettynn.”
The Siric made a sound in his throat.
There was a loaded silence, and then, from Taranis, “You have the ability to transcend mortality within your grasp, Rayne of the Mantle. You choose not to use it?”
McSee hissed through his teeth.
Llettynn’s head jerked. That was most unexpected.
Taranis froze inside. Why, by all gods, had he asked that? He wanted to discuss the Ritual? Was he going mad?
“As you did, Taranis? Can you honestly say it is worth sacrificing all you know and love?” Rayne’s voice dropped to a whisper on the last words.
“Spoken like a true Immortal,” Llettynn murmured.
“Hush, Siric,” Glint snapped.
“Mark me, Sagorin,” Llettynn said.
“Ask me another time,” Taranis managed. Goddess, the man went to the heart of the matter instantly despite being tripped up by the bizarre question.
“Taranis, time is short; that dara-witch is due,” Saska prompted. Her heart fluttered. Something was off-kilter between the two men; she could feel it.
“Right,” Taranis muttered, and was silent.
The Siric sucked at his teeth. This human stumped Taranis and caused him to utter words that should not be spoken aloud. Why? In fact, they all felt there was something special about him, including his companions. The man himself seemed unaware of his effect on others; he was someone to be watched carefully indeed.
Llettynn made a prompting sound when Taranis said nothing and when that elicited no reaction, said, “Briefly, Infinity has devised a game of fourteen players and fourteen tasks. We are the fourteen and the first rule was to gather before the New Moon. The game itself commences with the rising of the moon.”
“What hold has she?” Aven asked. McSee, for his part, gaped.
“Chaos and darkness in the form of the Arcana,” Llettynn responded.
“That’s bad?” McSee asked.
Saska chuckled in the dark, and Rayne’s hair rose electrically. “It’s bad.”
“The tasks?” Rayne asked, again going to the important aspect.
Taranis shook off his inexplicable numbness. “This is why we await her.”
“Thus you know nothing specific,” Rayne mused. “She plays mind games from the outset.”
“You are sharp … Rayne,” Llettynn murmured. We shall have your measure soon.
Taranis made a sound in his throat that sounded a bit like ‘shut up’ and headed for the Well. The rest followed. Taranis halted, waved the others on and waited for Rayne to catch up. As the man drew abreast, he said, “Let them get ahead.”
When he reckoned the others were beyond hearing, Taranis snapped his fingers to bring forth a light on his palm - a little flame. In the dark, it threw quite a glow.
Rayne looked at it, knowing how Valarians would regard it. The two men studied each other. They were of a height, the one dark and muscular, the other lean and fair, with their grey eyes a common feature.
Saska, looking over her shoulder to see the two highlighted in the little flame’s glow, experienced apprehension that had nothing to do with the current situation. Something niggled at her, something she saw before it got too dark, and she knew if she could unravel it now she would prevent future pain and loss.
The fact that this Rayne character was not shocked by Taranis, Valarians’ number one Deity, proved … what exactly? Foreknowledge will have prepared him, so there was no call to instil deeper meaning into lack of holy awe. But what if there was more? She decided she would not trust him yet.
Taranis did not feel the need to be a god with this man, not as he had, according to Llettynn, when confronted by the youthful innocence of Kylan. Rayne was older and he was not innocent in the way the Herbmaster and the others were; there were shadows in this man, as any Guardian could recognise. He had a need to make him a friend, and yet he was wary. He needed to be after that blunder about immortality.
“Rayne, I sense you are good at magic,” Taranis said, “but I also sense you are unwilling. That isn’t odd, given how Valarians regard the art, but, one way or another, you need to make a choice.”
Rayne said, “You do not know me well enough to tell me this.” Really? It was an inner voice and he pushed it ruthlessly aside.
Taranis shrugged. “Time has compressed us into a bubble of necessity, and nothing will be gained by holding back saying what is imperative to its integrity. The fact is you must choose or you fail your future.”
Rayne’s eyelids flickered and then steadied. “If I choose to turn my back on this cursed talent, then why am I here at all? Choice seems irrelevant to me.”
“Maybe, but Infinity did not deliberately set out to choose sorcerers; she cannot know what you are capable of, or that McSee has theory and Aven practical experience. Or Averroes’ role. She introduced and agitated signs and symptoms of evil to force those of a certain character, not talent, into a need to do something about it, and hoped it would be sufficient to meet her rules of gamesmanship, and she no doubt caused the New Moon urgency to prevent human procrastination. It means this game is not only about sorcery; it means you and the others are the nine representatives of those who aided in Drasso’s demise and it means you have talents beyond magic, and therefore there is choice for you. There is choice for all of us, but you are the one who needs find an answer more complicated.” Taranis smiled wryly. “Of course, having another sorcerer aboard is a decided advantage, and your talent brought you here … like a kind of fate …”
“Destiny,” Rayne muttered.
“Only if you believe that,” Taranis responded. “Don’t let that interfere with what you feel inside.”
“Then I am free to go?” Rayne said. “The game is forfeit if I leave, is it not?”
“I am afraid so.”
“Then let us not discuss choice,” Rayne said, and walked on.
Rayne halted, but did not turn.
“I have been waiting for you,” Taranis whispered, the words wrenched from him. And once they were out he could not retrieve them. He made it worse. “When I saw you, I knew I was waiting, and it scares me, for I do not know why, nor do I know why it is important that I do not let you suffer over this.”
Rayne’s grey eyes were silvery on the edge of the flame’s reach, unreadable. A man with dark hair, yes, but this one had grey eyes not the dark of vision. “I knew you would come to Valaris in my lifetime. I have been waiting, and therefore I was not surprised in the sensing of your presence in the Forest. Where you were, others of your kind would be also, but I sensed only you clearly. I know you, Taranis, and how that can be, I do not understand. Choice or not, I cannot walk away, not yet.”
Taranis blinked, astonishment closing his throat to a response that would be worth the words it took to speak.
Glint sent a whistle across the clearing. Taranis extinguished the flame. The greater dark after the light was then a blessing, for it hid unasked questions.
“Let us go to the Well,” Taranis murmured, requiring the anonymity a gathering could afford, and walked on. As he passed Rayne, he brushed him in the darkness, but could not for the life of him offer apology.
Rayne followed more slowly, his entire body tingling, not at the physical aspect of a brushing in the dark, but at the renewed feeling of recognition it brought on.
“What is it, Rayne?” Aven asked a few minutes later. There was new reserve in the man.
“Nerves, I guess.”
Aven snorted but let it pass, for Llettynn again brought forth the Chaos hologram to illustrate the urgency of the game. A fire, magically lit by Glint, glowed in the fire pit near the Well, lighting the gathering, and, as Llettynn illustrated, Glint related the tale in brief.
McSee was stunned into silence, face markedly pale even in the amber light. Averroes averted her eyes from the image, hands clenched bloodless in her lap. She looked over to Rayne, to see the man staring into the dark trees, his gaze so far away she doubted he heard anything said.
Llettynn thought along similar lines. It was enough that he came, the Siric realised, for he needs neither image nor explanation. He already knows and cannot understand how he knows. He waved the image away.
Aven listened intently to Glint’s hurried but effective summary of the situation, old eyes shifting among the Immortals. In his lifetime, he thought. I lived to see them, and know now they are real. I have been honoured.
After a time there was silence. Averroes looked shyly at Kylan. She knew the Herbmaster, but finding him in present company was a revelation. He had been a friend in the past, a compassionate healer she could trust, and his inclusion in present company spoke of depths she had not realised he possessed. Maybe he did not know he had them either. Maybe they would all be astounded by whom they really were.
Kisha’s earlier call was a mystery, but Averroes was not so shocked over that. The young woman, like herself, felt the pull to a new order, a means to put the past behind her, or at least into new perspective. It was about the heart and soul, not magic and urgency. Cristi smiled back at her when her attention moved there, even shyer than she was, and both felt the better for it.
Rayne and Taranis were obvious in their withdrawal from the gathering, which the Siric deemed necessary to tackle. “Taranis,” he said, his voice deceptive in its calm. “You need to concentrate … now. We have only minutes left.”
“I know, Llettynn,” Taranis snapped. “Don’t state the obvious.”
“Fine, my lord,” Llettynn said. He focused on Rayne. “The same applies to you.”
Rayne gazed searchingly at the Siric. “The Arcana frighten you.”
Taranis hissed through his teeth, something like a warning, and Glint and Belun both stiffened. Saska paled.
The Siric took it in his stride. “Indeed. This is why the game is crucial.”
“To allay your fear?”
Llettynn drew breath and said, “To prevent the darak, mister.”
What he means is, if a Siric is afraid of something, it is something to be really afraid of, Belun sent. And, human, I would not bait a Siric if I were you.
Rayne chose silence for a time, but knew they awaited a response. He gave it coldly. “If one does not like and love those in one’s team, one is able to deal with their loss easier.”
Aven was shocked. “Rayne? Nothing is going to happen to any of us … and, man, you shouldn’t even think it!”
Rayne inclined his head. “I am being realistic.”
Everyone was silent, for Rayne’s words brought the unthinkable home. Death lay around the corner, around the tree trunk, around the dark of night. Survival – life - was no longer guaranteed.
The Siric stared at Rayne.
Rayne glared back.
Then from Kylan, “Moon’s up, folks.”
The doors slammed open.
The Palace Guard rushed in first, and froze.
Dantian with Dante at his side, Anastir a step behind, shouldered past the line of big men, and froze.
Fourteen seers lay upon the great copper disc. Heat wafted in shimmering waves akin to an ethereal wall. There were no sounds now. There was also no movement.
Dantian moved first. Kneeling beside the nearest inert form, he said, “Summon the healers. And prepare a secure chamber.” Ignoring the resultant actions behind him, he leaned over the man before him and drew his hood away.
“It is Droian,” Anastir murmured, falling to his knees beside his Vallorin. “He is alive.”
Droian opened his eyes. They were bloodshot. “Beware the rain. Beware the line of light. Beware rain!”
Silence returned. Droian’s eyes closed.
“He is dead,” Anastir said.