No, master rat! That would be fool’s gold …
~ Tattle’s Blunt Adventures
Actar, during the day, recovered from its nightly excesses.
People travelled far for this - drunken oblivion at night, sleep of the dead in daylight. It was akin to dying a few days. Yet they came to become creatures of the night, leaving the town grave-like during the day.
Rayne went out early for supplies and it proved frustrating with business closed until noon. He wandered the streets patiently, in no hurry to return. He needed to put distance between himself and Saska, and he needed to give Taranis space to manoeuvre in. The Guardian was hurting; he saw it in Taranis’ bearing this morning.
There definitely was more than friendship between him and Saska, and Rayne, mortal, had no right to destroy that. His sister Rees would remark with long-suffering patience that Taranis had nothing to worry about, her brother never committed, but Rees was not nearby, nor was commitment the issue.
Even a kiss could hurt Taranis.
Foolhardy and selfish, he berated himself as he walked. But, Goddess, she felt good in his arms, and the sense of touch now joined the entrancing images of a midnight swim.
‘Lose myself with you’. Her words and her tone reverberated in his head, goading him. He desired to do the same, and probably would have had Taranis not seen fit to return.
He returned with bread, eggs, and the makings of a decent cup of coffee. Glint proceeded to whip out breakfast and did an outstanding job.
After the meal they gathered in the living room.
Sunlight slanted through the windows in dusty beams, proving their absent host had not had guests in a while.
Aven and Mordan were comfortably propped into a double couch, with Kylan nearby, Kisha at his feet. Love bloomed between the two, although neither had broached the subject. The others were perched at various points; there was too little seating.
Rayne and Saska remained apart, and Llettynn paced, filled with energy, and his roving glance often rested on Rayne.
Taranis stood in the centre of the crowded space. There were dark lines under his eyes. He waited until everyone was comfortable.
“We cannot look back into the beginnings of life and creation, not even Immortals like the Siric who’ve been around longer than most, but this we do know - the Arcana are close to that beginning. They evolved soon after regions of this universe became sustainable to sentient life. ‘Arcana’ translated from the original Ancient Tongue means not ‘secret remedies’ as sorcerers here know it, but translates as ‘those who came before’. They did come before, before the Siric, Sagorin, our feathered friends, and darklings everywhere. They were first, lived long, longer even than the mortal life spans of the Sagorin. We think they lived four thousand years on average.” Taranis paused, his gaze on Llettynn.
The Siric had stilled and leaned nonchalantly against a wall. Llettynn was a firm believer in listening with more than ears, and his eyes were therefore closed to delve at a deeper level; although they covered everything possible in the Dome, the Siric employed his summation of the present to find nuances that may have escaped them in the Gatherers’ Circle.
“The surprise,” Taranis continued, “lies in that we knew the Arcana before they chose to exit this universe. Not only did Immortal races know them, so did mortals, in particular humans. Allow me to explain. The Arcana inhabited the same worlds humans today lay claim to, and for a time both peoples occupied those worlds simultaneously. The two races could not long live in harmony, and there was war, Arcana versus human, and it waged for thousands of years.”
Taranis’ gaze swept over all. “Valarians aren’t the only humans who would be amazed by the fact, for no one remembers, other than in legend. We put a time-line together, which is sketchy, but will be adequate for the present. It transpires that around the time the Arcana opted for another universe, a final few came to Valaris …”
“Here?” Kisha squeaked.
“This planet was isolated and empty. After millennia of war it was a godsend, a new hope, a last chance to re-establish without interference, and yet most of them left through the Rift. The Guardians surmise they thought it only a matter of time before Valaris was discovered by others, choosing to escape another war for ownership. The few who came here were either hardliners or they were to fortify this world before recalling those beyond. Whatever the reason, the Arcana came to Valaris.”
“And then human settlers,” Aven murmured.
Taranis nodded agreement. “Valaris was discovered by others, yes, and those beyond were proven right. We believe the settlers found the Arcana here and again war waged. What happened, who won, who left, we don’t know, for the Arcana legend took over then.”
“We thought the legend was ancient, you said so … or did this occur earlier than we think?” Samson frowned. “Did the settlers arrive far earlier than history states?”
“No, human habitation of Valaris occurred nine thousand years ago,” Taranis replied. “The legend is a smokescreen, a mere nine millennia old, and was created to protect the Rift. It was then sent back in time to veil all memory of those who came before and succeeded so well that nobody remembers them today.”
“Crikey, how?” Kisha asked.
“Sorcery, achieved and implemented by a race of sorcerers.” Taranis paused to give his next words impetus. “The Arcana myth is a confusing tale to keep hidden not only the existence of a Rift, but the positioning of it and the true name and all knowledge of the race that left this realm.”
“The Arcana aren’t real?” Kisha asked.
“They are real, but there was a change of name.”
“Valleur,” Rayne breathed, and had every eye on him in an instant.
Llettynn’s eyes opened. “Yes, the Arcana are the Valleur. Did you guess that, or do you know?” Taranis made to speak, but the Siric’s hands lifted to silence him. “Let him answer, Taranis. You make an assumption such as this, human, based on which facts?”
Rayne rose to face the Siric. “Whatever I say serves only to underscore your lack of trust.”
Llettynn pushed away from the wall and paced forward until he stood a foot away. “Back in the Forest you and I declared a truce, until we knew more, we said, until time proves certain … traits. Fair and good, and it holds, but if you desire trust, Rayne of the Mantle, earn it right here.”
“Llettynn!” Taranis barked.
Both Rayne and the Siric ignored him, and Glint and Belun glanced at each other.
“How, Siric?” Rayne demanded. “If I even need it.”
“You admit our trust is of little consequence?”
“I admit only I cannot force you to change.”
Llettynn’s colourless eyes gleamed. “You are a challenge, but that is not the current issue. How did the name Valleur come to you?”
“The riddle, Siric,” Rayne replied. “And an individual claiming half that in Luan. Logic.”
“True, once the connection is established, yet I put to you there is more.”
“Leave Rayne alone!” Aven grunted. “He’s done nothing to be treated in this manner. Taranis, stop this!”
Taranis said, not taking his eyes from the two, “This is a serious undertaking, Aven, and we need to know each other to see it through successfully. To speak of a legend and then to have the veil drawn aside by one other than a Guardian speaks of undue knowledge. We must have the truth from him.”
“I am able to defend myself, old man.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of!”
A reluctant smile tugged at Rayne’s lips, and his eyes slid from Llettynn’s to glance at Aven in amusement. “My temper?”
“Yes, your temper! Now tell that creature what he wants to hear!”
Llettynn’s gaze swivelled to Aven as well. “Creature?”
“You know what I mean!” Aven fussed out of the couch and pointed a finger at Llettynn. “You call him ‘human’ and ‘sorcerer’, hardly ever thinking to use his given name, so ‘creature’ it will be!”
Taranis started to laugh. “He’s got you there, Llettynn!”
The Siric’s lips curved and he inclined his head. “Indeed. Rayne?”
Rayne realised something else. “’Undue knowledge’,” he repeated, swinging around to Taranis. The two locked gazes and Saska’s stomach tightened in dread.
It was almost as if Rayne then stepped away from a confrontation deliberately, for he shrugged, signifying he surrendered. “The Medaillon, Taranis. The medal, Siric. It is Valleur, as I am sure you have realised, and it whispers to me.”
Taranis deflated, while Llettynn’s dour face wore a puzzled expression. “Have you used it since the storm?” the Siric queried.
“No,” Rayne bit out. “It whispers in the dark and silence. Nothing threatening - more like it prompts.”
“This is too much,” Kisha whispered. “Not only a populated south and Guardians walking on Valaris, but now a war with Arcana who were Valleur, and a medal that talks. Kylan, I don’t know, I’m seriously thinking of going home.”
The Herbmaster looked down at her aghast. “Don’t leave, for Aaru’s sake.”
“This is too strange,” she murmured. “It’s like we aren’t in control, like we walk into traps all the time.”
“You are right, my dear,” Taranis interrupted. “It is as if we are being manipulated. This will come to the clanlands also, know that. This is about Valaris as a whole, not simply a town or a region or one sacred site.”
“Sacred site?” Kylan echoed.
“I am getting to that. My point here, before we go on; we cannot run away, and the only way to find a glimmer of success in the future is to remain strong, focused and together. By together I mean mind, soul and heart, for we may not always be a physical unit. Kisha, you may choose to go home - the fourteen principle was achieved at the Well, and remains unbroken despite Averroes’ absence, and will remain in effect if we go our separate ways right now. Yet our strength and resolve will fail, and the darkness will find us all the sooner. You may go, if you so wish, but you will find yourself ill-prepared when it heads north.”
“I must warn them,” Kisha whispered.
Llettynn murmured, “We do not yet know what it is we face.”
“We know!” McSee blurted. “Chaos, Arcana, Infinity!”
Taranis swung about to encompass all in his next gaze, touching longer on Saska before moving on. “The Arcana is in truth a myth only, and it hides the Valleur. Given that, Chaos may prove a myth also, a hologram to make any incursion beyond the Rift moot. We don’t know today what exactly awaits us, and therefore,” and he glanced at Kisha, “we shouldn’t part until we have greater understanding. Kisha, I suggest you grant this team the time to uncover more. Then, with our blessings, you may go home to warn your people. Agreed?”
She nodded, unconsciously twining her fingers into Kylan’s. The Herbmaster looked down at their hands, and smiled.
Taranis drew breath and exhaled. He threaded a hand through his hair, and spoke to Rayne. “Before we go on; what does the device say to you?”
“’Valleur supremacy’ over and over, so that I cannot sleep,” Rayne replied. “’Vallorin’ and ‘Changeling’, whatever that means.”
Taranis rubbed at his face, more concerned than in the Dome. He looked to Llettynn, and said, “Have any of you experienced familiarity with the term ‘Valleur’?”
“Only what Rayne said about the riddle and the man in Luan,” Samson offered.
“Wait a minute,” Aven muttered. He had retaken his seat, and now leaned forward intently. “The Valleur were here when the settlers came? Is that what this game is about?”
Taranis felt as if he lost control of the situation. “We do not know. This is why we are pulling it apart, but we do know we were made to forget - allow me to explain, please.” The latter he addressed to Samson when the young man opened his mouth. “Nowhere in Valarian history is there tell of a people here when the humans came, but it isn’t an oversight or an arrogance, or even disinformation. We were made to forget. The lack of memory is encompassing. The Arcana legend displaced them. Pointers remained, perhaps deliberately, perhaps unconsciously, or perhaps there was no way to wipe the slate completely clean. Whatever the case, the riddle is one of them. On hearing and reading it, the legend began to show cracks. Memories started to return.”
“I’m not remembering anything,” McSee said.
“Yet,” Taranis said.
Mordan said, “The question begs, what has this to do with the game?”
“The answer lies in sacred sites,” Taranis said. “We realised the Valleur build fourteen sites sacred to every world they inhabit for periods longer than a century.”
“Ah, fourteen sites, fourteen steps,” Aven murmured. “We are in a Valleur game.” He was not refuted.
“Why?” Mordan asked.
“The time is now?” Glint muttered.
“Yes, obviously,” Aven grumbled. “But why are we to find these sacred sites? What are they? What is the real motive behind the game?”
Taranis shrugged. “I can answer the one about sacred sites.”
“Please do,” Aven said.
“Ancient architects, and the Valleur rank among those, employed sensitives known as geomancers to situate their sacred structures at energy points, where all would be in harmony with terrestrial currents. Why? The Valleur sensed the nature of magic in all spheres, and when one builds upon a node, one grows in stature; one becomes more. It is certainly one of the reasons the Valleur were so powerful.”
“Dandy,” McSee muttered.
“Does Infinity know?” Rayne queried. “Go back to start; she said something like that to Saska. The fourteenth site?”
“Astute, hu … Rayne,” Llettynn murmured. “Pyllanthos is not a place, merely a valid reference to set us on the hunt. The site it replaces may hold the key.”
Rayne paced. His left hand strayed to the Medaillon hidden under his tunic and rested there. They watched him warily, especially Saska. He came to a halt before Taranis.
“Vallorin and Changeling - that is the why.”
“It explains nothing,” McSee muttered.
“You’re full of crap this morning,” Aven accused the big man. “Why don’t you listen before getting snappy?”
McSee growled, but then he nodded, and seemed miserable.
Llettynn’s nose twitched and he studied the red-haired man.
Taranis said, “Vallorin means …”
“… ruler, king,” Rayne murmured.
Llettynn’s eyes snapped away from McSee. “How do you know that?”
“It said so.”
“Of course it means ruler,” Kisha blurted. “It’s in the Oracles. Leave Rayne alone. Anyone who has knowledge of the Oracles could tell you that.”
Rayne smiled his appreciation, and Llettynn backed off.
“Do the Oracles mention ‘Changeling’?” Taranis asked of Mordan.
The old man shook his head after a moment.
A heavy silence descended.
Rayne held his hand over his chest, and Saska’s gaze was drawn there. Her heart beat an uneven rhythm that spoke more of trepidation than guilt. She looked away, to find Taranis watching her.
“I’m thirsty,” Cristi complained.
The silence changed, eased.
While the women brewed coffee, Taranis beckoned Rayne onto the balcony.
“Valleur left this realm for another. It means, logically, there are Valleur elsewhere.”
“You are saying the girl is beyond the Rift.”
Rayne pinched his nose. “What can I do about finding her?”
“Go on here. These sacred sites might uncover truths that lead to a different revelation.”
“More waiting. I will not do it much longer.”
Taranis stared into the brightness of Actar. “I am aware of that, but you need hear the rest of it.”
Taranis jerked a nod and moved to go inside.
“Wait. About last …”
“I don’t want to know.” Taranis stalked back into the suite.
The hot drink served to remind there was a real world with real needs, and it rooted them anew.
The sun was directly overhead, the main room in shadow. It was stifling. Outside the noises of a stirring, hungry population sounded; Actar awakened. The windows on both sides were flung wide to catch errant sea breezes, of which none was forthcoming.
Taranis stood at an open window looking out over rooftops to the ocean blue and still. There was not a cloud in a bright sky.
Llettynn returned them to the shadowy world of ifs, buts and maybes.
“Valleur. Say it. Valleur. And again. Say it and listen to what your mind tells you.”
The sound of breathing.
“A book written by someone called Vannis …” Aven murmured.
Rayne stumbled backwards into Llettynn, who gripped him hard and held him. “Go on,” the Siric said.
“… Vannis of the Valleur,” Aven said, looking at Rayne. He did not remark on the Siric’s actions. “He claimed to be the last Vallorin of the known universe, and in it he laid out his legacy to half-descendants, the half-Valleur. He issued threats to his usurpers and he meant the people of Valaris. He could wait eternity and we should beware Valleur tools …” Aven stopped, shrugged. “It’s been a while. Thought it fantasy.”
“Thank you.” Taranis shifted to Rayne.
The Siric leader held him, and it was odd that Rayne did not fight the grip.
As Taranis moved, he noted Saska’s shocked face. She was not the only one, but it was her opinion that counted. The atmosphere in the room was oppressive and stuffy, which was now beyond the heat of the day. It was as if they summoned the vengeful Vannis into the room.
Stranger had happened, Taranis thought.
“Rayne? Llettynn, release him.”
The Siric let go, having sensed in that hold power that went beyond humanity and mortality, as if Rayne were ages old, with eons of power. He desired to delve deep, and knew he could not do so unless the man permitted it. That kind of power could hold off virtually everything.
Rayne paced forward. In some unnamed way, he drew strength from the Siric, which he knew Llettynn was aware of. He opened his arms out, palms facing up. “I am not the enemy.”
“No one is saying that,” Taranis murmured. Their gazes met and interlocked. Despite mistrust, the bond was there, and it grew ever stronger. “Tell us.”
Rayne’s arms dropped. “Since the Ruby something nagged at me, and it intensified after Kylan met that man in Luan.”
“Likewise,” Taranis said.
“Us, After Time, that is the book’s title.”
“Yes,” Aven said.
“In my early apprentice years I found it, but could not at that age understand.”
“And?” Llettynn prompted.
Rayne glanced around. It was time now to put cards on the table, as it were, and to tell them what connected in his mind earlier.
“The settlers weren’t first to Valaris. This is no game, not Infinity’s anyway. She is being led, as we are, by a vanished race of powerful sorcerers. The way I read it, half-descendants thrive on Valaris somewhere, propagating this game also - the man in Luan. Glint’s right, the time is now. All comes together, and our quest forms part of it. In playing, we uncover what is hidden.”
Rayne paused, and sat beside Saska, caught up in the unwinding tale. She accepted it, also ensnared, and so did Taranis.
That simple act put the three of them on an equal footing once more.
Rayne mused, “Valaris saw the continuation of age-old strife. Human versus Valleur. Many settlers arrived and the Valleur were outnumbered. They decided to end the invasion. There was a war and the space-warp was put in place to halt further settler incursion.”
“Well, that explains that,” Taranis said.
“You read this at what age?” Saska asked.
“Around ten, I think.”
“And you remember it?” The Siric was disbelieving.
“Rayne forgets nothing,” Aven snapped. “He has an eidetic memory.”
“Lucky for him,” Llettynn murmured.
“What proof is there? Did the writer mention it?” Belun said.
“Ten volumes of the Ancient Tongue with the wherewithal to come and go - the Oracles. These works have appeared at various times, different places, discovered anew only to vanish again, never explained. Until they stayed put for three thousand years with the clans. Why?”
Taranis shook his head.
“The Ancient Tongue is the Valleur language?” Rayne asked.
A nod from Taranis.
“Aaru, I’m glad I never spoke it,” Mordan remarked.
“Taranis, did we not enchant the Oracles to remain in one place?” Belun frowned.
Taranis nodded. “Llettynn did it.”
“Maybe it was Valleur planning,” Rayne suggested.
“Well … by the stars,” Glint muttered. The Guardians were seeing matters in another light.
Rayne went on. “The Ruby was similarly used, but was described as entrances.”
“A device to move between the sites,” Llettynn said.
“The Medaillon also moved from place to place, time to time. Proof lay in these tools, which would come either before or after periods of strife. True. There are records of sightings.”
“Put it all in the crucible and one has a real game of life and death, and it isn’t Infinity’s,” Glint said.
“Infinity inadvertently started it, in discovering the Rift,” Belun said.
Rayne raised a finger. “No, she is a tool. This was meant to begin when the Rift reopened. That opening was the signal. Whoever or whatever opened it.”
“And the point?” Kylan enquired, frowning. Every word made Kisha more skittish, and he did not want to lose her, not now that he had found her.
Rayne said, “We won the war.”
“Sweet Mother,” Glint breathed. “You guys made him angry.”
“It isn’t over. The final battle has yet to be fought,” Rayne added. “The time is now; the time has come to finish it. That is the point to all this.”
“Yet we are the ones attempting to find the sacred sites,” Llettynn mused.
“Hidden so long, they now require others to uncover them, to return strength and power to the descendants,” Belun said. “We need to find those descendants before they find us.”
“It lies in the fourteenth site, or the first, depending from which point one views it,” Taranis said. “There lies the power.”
“The Vallorin’s Throne,” Saska said.
Rayne drew a slow breath, as that piece slid into the whole. A Throne. Yes. “Vannis of the Valleur, the last Vallorin of the known universe, who wrote a book, who manipulated his tools throughout our history, who says he can wait an eternity. Vannis, a descendant race, and a Throne. His Throne, the most sacred site.”
“He is Immortal,” Taranis breathed.
“And the puppet master,” Rayne said.
“Now is the time,” Glint added. “His time.”