Early evening found most of the team enjoying a home-style meal in the dining room.
Large overhead fans lazily circled the hot air. The three exiles remained out of sight, eating in the privacy of their room. McSee was well into his cups by then, with the younger Samson not far behind, but were neither alone nor unobtrusive in the state; other diners joined the drinkers around the barrel, all becoming quite rowdy.
The dining room was full, proving the Luannesse was filled to capacity, conversation a constant buzz. It was not long before Samson and McSee were joined by yet more patrons, accompanied by much backslapping. Crude jokes and tall tales were told by all and the noise level increased dramatically.
Darkness fell and brought with it relief from the heat.
Samson and McSee swayed their way to bed, too far-gone to be of further use that night, but the hour was early for others. The women opted for a stroll along the beach, and Mordan and Aven moved to a smaller table beside the ocean-facing windows. They enjoyed the companionship being of an age brought. Everyone kept a sharp eye and ear tuned to the event, word or incident that could shed light on their reason for being in Luan.
Kylan suggested he visit the local taverns, people being ever willing to open up to a Herbmaster. Taranis nodded agreement and said he and Rayne would investigate Captain Bertin and the Calloway to maintain their cover.
Folk about town were for the most part locals; the backbone of a recreational town - the shopkeeper, butcher, handyman, ships’ crews and so forth.
After leaving Taranis and Rayne on the jetty, Kylan headed for the nearest tavern. He could not for the life of him figure why the Medaillon directed them here, and he was not sure the stupid medal was to be trusted … or even magical.
He entertained a sneaky thought Rayne manipulated them into coming this way, but why he would do so, well, he could not unravel that either. Then, if he were entirely honest, he was still lost to the dismay of all the magic he had witnessed to date. Infinity, Jess’ disappearance, Jess’ strange understanding - that was a kind of magic - the Ruby thing, the creature in the Well, and, yes, the Medaillon, the Ancient Tongue, the Oracles, and let him not forget the glamouring of Glint and Belun’s ability to take on different shapes. It was real, but he did not trust it, and it was hard to overcome his entrenched fear.
Perhaps it was as simple as Rayne having misread, misheard, whatever … oh, get real, Kylan. Rayne was likely all Aven and McSee claim him as, even if the man himself seemed reticent. Then there was the other Immortals’ wariness around Rayne and that underscored the claims surrounding him.
Rayne says to come here and everyone came.
Kylan sauntered, breathing in deep the night air; a tang of salt, a taste of greenery. Land and sea were ever at odds and always in symbiosis.
We are here, for something or someone will point us onward.
He headed for the tavern.
A Square Pyramid. How do you ask someone about that?
The bartender and an old man nursing a tall glass of stout occupied the first one he attempted. He did not stay long, for they were not curious, visitors being commonplace in Luan; they did not ask anything, and thus did not create an opening to ask questions of his own.
The next drinking-hole had a fair number of patrons, men and women. Clearly this was the locals’ favourite. Scarred round tables, fat candles in chipped glasses, a truly ugly bar counter, filled with laughter and talk. No airs and graces; simply a place to unwind.
The moment Kylan entered he knew why they were in Luan.
Tucked away in a far corner, removed from the light, candle extinguished, sat a cloaked figure. Upon Kylan’s entrance, he looked up and Kylan made contact with a pair of yellow eyes. Not yellow as in jaundiced or drugged, but yellow irises. A strange and disconcerting sight, yet it was the man’s natural colour.
Knowing the cloak was an attempt at disguise, he was at a loss how to approach the shadowy figure without raising questions. He fervently wished he had either Taranis or Rayne with him or, better yet, both. He need not have worried, for the man stood and beckoned him over.
Obviously the man had the same sense of recognition, and it was as clear he was waiting for Kylan, though Kylan wished it were another heading for this chat.
Feeling a number of curious eyes on him, he walked over to sit at the table as if it were the most natural state in the world. He sat in such a way that his back was to the general area, and his companion was now blocked from view.
Behind him the buzz of sound continued unabated. Curious they were, but not curious enough to listen in on a conversation between two strangers. This man was definitely not a native of Luan.
“You search for the Square Pyramid.” The man stated it unequivocally and without preamble, his voice gruff and gravelly like a pipe smoker’s.
The words jolted Kylan forward in his seat. “Who are you?”
“You used the Ruby five days ago. It rang an alarm in my chamber. It has not rung in millennia. That knowledge has not been lost.”
The man spoke in punctuated sentences that sounded almost inhuman, a staccato alien. Kylan opened his mouth to interrupt …
“Quiet.” The tone brooked no argument. “Listen. There is no time for long explanation. Permit me to fulfil my duty and be on my way. The Square Pyramid is on Tor Island, southeast of Actar. There is a riddle to solve to breach the walls. Here,” and he slid a scrap of paper across the table.
When Kylan made to look it, he said, “Read it later. The Obelisk is due south of the Pyramid, close to Mintor. Once you enter the Pyramid, you have exactly two days to reach the Obelisk. Due south, twelve sals. If you are late, you will never find it. That is all. I shall not wish you luck.”
The stranger rose, drawing his cloak close, and released Kylan from that yellow gaze. Kylan put out a hand to detain him, despite his nervousness. The man’s eyes were unsettling, but Kylan rose as well to stand level with them and did not flinch or look away.
Show fear now, Herbmaster, and you will learn nothing.
“Wait, please.” Kylan’s voice was surprisingly even. “Who are you?”
“I have not asked that of you, stranger. The bell chimed. I came. I have completed my duty. It has given me no pleasure to part with this information, but I have no choice. So it is. The last time it was divulged, the Pyramid was an abortion and Valaris flung into civil strife yet again. I have no choice. Again the Vallorin will rise to remind of the glories of old.”
“I don’t understand.” He wished he could see the man’s face, not just his disturbing eyes.
Those yellow orbs held the Herbmaster rooted. “In time you will understand. Valaris will. He cannot die.”
“Who?” Kylan asked.
“If it is time, you will know when you see it come to pass.” The man made to move …
“Wait. Who are you?”
“My name is of no importance. I have dallied here long enough.”
“Humans. Arrogant in their desire for answers, yet so afraid of them.” There was a sneer in the gravelly voice. “I am half-Valleur, and I spit on the human race.” With that, he swept past Kylan and vanished through the door.
When Kylan got there moments later there was no sign of him.
Shaking his head in utter disbelief and confusion, he remembered the paper in his hand. Going back inside to sit at the closest vacant table, he unfolded the square and drew the candle nearer.
Before he could read it, a voice asked, “You know that strange man?”
It was an older man at the neighbouring table, and Kylan drew breath. “No, never seen him before, only got into Luan myself. He’s not local?”
An emphatic headshake followed. “He’s here five nights. No idea where he keeps himself during the day, never spoke to a soul until tonight. Where you from?”
“Farinwood. Bit of a break,” Kylan forced out, heart thudding. “Weather’s hot, though.”
He found it a strain to talk. He wanted to know more about the stranger, he wanted to know what was on the paper, and he wanted to get back to the others.
They now had directions to two places. The man was strange - would be even without those weird eyes - but what a stroke of luck. He checked himself. He doubted luck had anything to do with this.
“Excuse me,” he said, standing. “I think I had better find my friends. Perhaps I may see you here tomorrow night. Good evening.”
Without a backward glance he left the tavern to walk in the direction of the Luannesse. There was no sign of the stranger. The women were no longer on the beach, he noted, and hoped that meant they were safe.
He saw, with heartfelt relief, Taranis and Rayne approaching the inn from the wharf. He intercepted them under a lantern at the jetty’s steps, and his pale face gave him away.
“Did something happen?” Taranis asked.
He told them. Rayne frowned, as confounded by the event, but Taranis whistled soundlessly.
Rayne studied him. “Do you know something about this?”
Taranis gave a small shrug. “A twinge of something, but I’m not sure yet. Read the note, Kylan.”
Kylan held it up to the lantern with shaking fingers. He quoted, “’The Valleur build eternity. No substance in weather. No substance in strife. Blind is our stronghold. Man dies, a child, maternity. Lightless is the feather. Only the wife opens the gates as daylight fold.’”
“Sweet Universe,” Taranis muttered and headed forthwith for the inn, setting a blistering pace.
Kylan refolded the square, pushed it into his pocket, and followed the Guardian.
Rayne stood on under the lantern, his face drawn. He thought first he was correct in his estimation there was more to the gem than it had revealed, and thought there was more to the game also. As suspected.
He experienced a tightening in his gut as if he knew what that meant and simply no longer remembered. His hands trembled.
Yellow eyes. The girl in his dreams had yellow eyes.
The locals spoke of the fen beyond the sand dunes behind Luan as a place where evil thrived.
Valarians in general regarded it as something unwholesome. Strange, then, that it was ignored; one would think on this world, hating magic as it did, someone would form a team to cleanse the region. Perhaps evil was not regarded as magic, but, truthfully, that did not fit with the mind-set of the times. Magic was evil, therefore evil was magic.
Perhaps, because the fen was contained and out of sight, it could be safely ignored. Fear could be overlooked.
In the dead of night, sand in whispering rivulets from foot pockets, Rayne and Taranis climbed the dune.
On the crest a light breeze tugged at their cloaks; hands stilled the errant jerks of their scabbards. Neither man said a word, for what they beheld quite removed the power of speech.
A gift wrapped in layers of surprise, was present day Valaris. At the foot of the dune, murmurs of marsh grass and the smell of stagnant water, the rustle of snakes. There was the exotic waft of water lilies, the chirrup of crickets, and the croak of frogs. The near-silent swish of hunting bats revealed their presence.
Thousands of miniscule points of brightness, akin to a starlit heaven, but these moved continually; rivers of stars, dancing torchbearers in the velvety darkness.
Rayne murmured, “Fireflies.”
“Beautiful. Where is the evil in this?”
“The fen has taken lives, young lives,” Rayne shrugged. “Some pools are deep, notoriously deceptive.”
“Probably the real reason no one comes to exorcise the ‘evil’.”
Rayne glanced at him. “Never thought of that.”
“Why have you brought us here?”
“I have never seen it. I have heard the tales; even McSee muttered about the danger behind Luan on the journey here. Something about his father, I think. And we will not be disturbed. I doubt anyone comes here and definitely not at night.”
“I hear you, but this isn’t a place that lends itself to a sword fight.”
Rayne grinned. “Ye of little faith.”
Taranis laughed. “Fine. Lead on, spirit-weaver.”
About to step off the ridge, Rayne paused. “Why would you call me that?”
Taranis’ eyes reflected only the tiny, moving points of light. “And why does it resonate with you?”
“You sound like the Siric.”
“Hmm, and what did Llettynn call you?”
Taranis blinked. “Really?”
Rayne laughed. “And I dump myself deeper into suspicion. Follow me.”
As Taranis did just that, he muttered, “Neat sidestep, by the way. You certainly know how to dodge straight answers.”
Rayne’s laughter floated back at him.
They neared the green zone and the firefly lamps picked them out from the encompassing dark. Shadows flashed in amber planes off face and form. Pockets of silence enveloped them as they picked a way carefully through the spiked grass, the night sounds resuming swiftly after they passed on.
“You seem to know the path,” Taranis said after a few minutes.
“Jalle Senna of the Mantle grew up in Luan and once told me the only safe path through a fen is to follow the driest grasses. He also told me of an island in the midst of all this.”
“You do know a lengthy walk along the beach would have gifted us both privacy and a space to test our blades in.”
“True, but then we would not have seen this.”
Taranis laughed. “Man, you are surprising.”
Rayne halted. “We can go back.”
“No, I am enjoying this adventure within an adventure. Besides, it takes my mind off Kylan’s riddle.”
Wordless, Rayne led the way once more.
The island was flat and round with dry sand, high ground in a marsh.
As they stepped onto the expanse, a flock of geese took to wing, raucously making their displeasure known.
The sound of flapping wings would mask a sword being drawn … Taranis drew his blade free …
… and discovered Rayne facing him, his sword free of its scabbard.
Taranis whistled. “Nice. Quick reaction.” He stepped to one side, holding his weapon casually. “Let’s see you balance that blade on your palm, perpendicular.”
Rayne frowned. “Why?”
“Blademasters say you and your sword are one only when you are able to balance it effortlessly.”
“Really. Pommel or tip?”
Taranis shrugged, smiling.
Rayne extended his left hand, changed the grip of his right on the hilt and lifted the sword, point heavenward. No need for stupidity, after all. He held the pommel over his palm and carefully placed it there, and stilled. Breathing slow, shallow breaths, he waited until the upright length of steel ceased all movement and swiftly removed his hand from the hilt. The blade dipped slightly and he concentrated fiercely until it again steadied.
“Very good. Now walk it,” Taranis commanded.
A quick oath under his breath, and Rayne placed one foot before the other. Again, the blade dipped. He compensated using the strength of his arm and took another step. This time it barely wavered.
Taranis shouted something incomprehensible.
The sword clattered down, landing with a dull thud in the sand.
“What was that?” Rayne demanded, hand over heart.
Taranis doubled over, laughing. “Priceless!” He pointed at Rayne amid gusts of laughter. “You must always remain calm; always understand distraction can come from any source, even a Guardian who merely wanted to see your reaction!”
Rayne swore and retrieved his sword.
“Good sense of balance, though. Few can hold a blade aloft for more than a few seconds. Defend!”
Taranis moved with lightning speed, sword up and swooping low almost simultaneously. He danced into Rayne’s space to find him not only ready, but shifting his blade into counter-attack.
“More than proficient, I would say,” Rayne grunted. “You are fast.”
“Likewise,” Taranis muttered.
They moved apart and closed in, blades flashing in the magical light of the fen.
The ancient dance of swordsmen.