The final chapter in Part II - Arcana. Now that you know Vannis, we will return to the main story tomorrow :)
If the barriers crumble, blind them.
~ Ancient Oracles
From the main balcony, Vannis saw the hundreds of fires of the human encampment.
They were a sal distant, occupying the natural amphitheatre where he recently said farewell to his people. They sully even that … and he released a breath. He could not now care about the unconscious insult; there were greater concerns. Like death.
His eyes narrowed. The amphitheatre was a natural trap, but an attack on the enemy, even herded as they currently were, would not alter the result. He had too few to swing the fortunes of war. It was time to bow to the inevitable. It was time to make peace with the Goddess.
We have done our worst and they keep coming. They will keep coming, no matter how long we delay them. He clutched the Medaillon. Soon, my son, it will be yours, waiting for you when you breathe your first sweet breath.
A heartbeat. Two.
Vannis clutched the golden medal tighter, concentrating. Another? Is Mantra carrying two?
He released it. It thudded against his bare chest.
What will be, will be. She will know to recognise the second if there is another. She will be a good mother, one who will not permit that kind of strife in her household. She will know. They will be thorough in this new pregnancy, their new future, and another will not be overlooked. I am content to have recognised my son. Nemis. May your life be long, fruitful and, above all, may you know love, happiness and peace.
He heard a footfall behind him.
“My Lord? May I speak?” He was young still, born on Valaris. He had been eager to fight. He was not so eager to die.
“You have my ear, Namud. What is it?”
“My Lord. There are few of us left, too few to defeat that multitude,” and Namud waved his hands at the fires. Vannis tapped his chin, and the young man hastened on. “We have cloaked the sites and thus removed the larger portion of this world’s natural, tapped magic. We leave them nothing of value and the Valleur race continues unsullied beyond the Rift. We are guilty of terrible deeds; we cannot hope to make restitution, not even in the Hereafter. Aaru is now denied us. Truly, it is time to die. Yes?”
Vannis nodded, growing impatient. “If we cannot defeat them, we deserve death, Namud. Continue.”
“I have not spoken of this to another, my Lord, for I believed it my duty to approach my Vallorin first.”
“Namud, I care not whether you bind or loosen your tongue, not this late in the game,” Vannis growled. “Will you get to the point? I must still make what peace I can with my Maker!”
“Y-yes, my Lord,” Namud swallowed. “I thought … well, should we not scry the future? As a final measure? Perhaps it reveals a different path to this … death? Perhaps there is something we could try, something we have not thought of?”
He fell silent and looked at his hands. In a sense he accused his Vallorin of dereliction of duty, and the punishment was death, but death waited anyway. He did not want to die.
Anger warred with guilt. “You find yourself not so eager to die, Namud? Is that why you accuse me of this oversight?” When the young man nodded, daring to look up, Vannis said, “I will let you in on my secret, Namud; I am not so eager to die either.” His mouth twisted at the man’s widened eyes. “However, I shall not live with these humans. In that, death is preferable. You have spoken a truth, young man. I have been remiss in my single-mindedness.”
Vannis faced the encampment and was silent for a time. Namud would not leave until dismissed.
Then, “I did scry before we enjoined battle, and I have seen it come to pass, every terrible deed. Yet, Goddess help me, I did not change this fate. I saw this standoff as it is now. Humans at the doors, with every advantage.” Another silence. “I looked no further. Perhaps all I needed to see was the fighting, the rest mattered not …” He swung back to the young man. “It matters now. Call everyone together in the Throne-room - we are scrying for a final vision. And, Namud, thank you, son, for your wise counsel.”
Namud smiled, his eyes glowing at the praise. He raced out, a hopeful bounce to his gait.
Vannis stood a while longer, willing away simmering resentment.
Young upstart, how dare he question me? I want done; I am tired. I cannot scry when I am this emotionally poor … and gradually the darkness in his eyes dimmed.
He thought on the good from his long life. His world before the humans, Mantra, his son, and drew those thoughts to him like a protective cloak, even the loss of it causing him to smile.
I had something to lose, he thought. How blessed I am.
His eyes were yellow when he descended down to the Throne-room.
They prepared the fire in the centre.
An octagonal ceramic dish of pure white, needing two men to heft, was brought in. Rosewood was stacked in a pyramid shape in the centre of the heavy dish, ready to be lit. Alongside, a simple wooden bowl, two hands wide, its origin lost to antiquity, the dark wood polished to a high sheen by time and use.
Rosewater dripped, drop by slow drop, into the ancient bowl until it was filled. Vannis gave this honour to Namud, and smiled when the young man realised what a tiresome process it was. Generally, when scrying for a newborn’s name, this slow process was unnecessary, but given the gravity of their situation, Vannis opted for the old, formal ceremony.
Namud sat back at last, and Vannis took his place before the two dishes. The remaining fifteen sat cross-legged in a circle about him.
When all was ready, Vannis nodded, and together they declared, “Manik!” The rosewood burst into fragrant flame to burn with a steady blue light. “Saldan!” and the pyramid collapsed into bright blue embers in the shape of a flying blue dragon. The smell of roses perfumed the air.
Vannis nodded at Namud, who shuffled forward on his knees. He lifted the wooden bowl, careful not to spill, and placed it on the hot dragon, before briefly dipping his fingers in the warming rosewater and shuffling back into the circle. Silent, the others came to do likewise, dipping fingers to show homage to the future.
Last was Vannis, who then remained with his face bent over the steaming water.
He waited until he saw the first bubble shoot to the surface, and nodded.
As one, they declared, “Manil!” The steamy surface of the water cleared and was mirror smooth.
Vannis kept his attention focused on the reflection not to miss a moment of the visions, for future there would be, whether or not any of them lived in it. He cleared his mind, while the Valleur collectively held their breaths, afraid to make the slightest move.
Never had a scrying been so important.
For an hour no one moved and not a sound was heard. The air in the circular chamber was dense with expectation and Vannis stiffened in his unmoving, bent position, every muscle protesting, eyes bloodshot.
The visions came, and they kept coming, flickering images the others could see come and go.
Finally it ceased. The surface grew dark, the water cold.
Vannis toppled back into a semi-conscious state, his eyes moving from side to side ceaselessly. They gathered around to lay hands on him, and eventually his eyes closed, his breathing eased into cleansing sleep.
They carried him to his bedchamber and put him to bed. His mind required a brief time to recover, while sleep would organise the visions into a form easier to understand.
Namud stayed to keep watch, and the rest could do naught but wait and tidy away the accruements. They were hopeful; for a race about to become extinct in this universe, their Vallorin saw a lot of future.
It neared midnight when Vannis awakened, instantly aware. He looked to Namud asleep in a chair beside his bed. Shaking his head indulgently, he called out to the man, who jerked awake, muttering apologies.
“Never mind, no time. Let us go to the Throne.”
They were waiting. Vannis strode to the seat and sat down. Now he would need the authority of the ancient seat. He stared at his fifteen, his last loyal subjects. How he loved and respected them.
“Namud was right,” he said, his voice sure. “Remember this young man, for he showed us a different path to death this night.” He inclined his head towards the young man, who blushed.
Vannis went on. “Know what we are about to embark upon is a kind of death, living death. Hold this not against Namud, for we make this choice and we hold to it, and when you wish in the future you died here this night, remember that.”
No one said anything, but tension mounted. And hope.
“The future I have seen is both of now and a far distant time, the time between belonging to the humans, and therefore somewhat unclear.” Vannis paused and sat forward on the seat. Pointing at them, he said, “You are to leave this place before dawn and go north into the Vall Peninsula … quiet! It will be years before the humans go into those icy wastelands; you will have sufficient time to vanish from view, for disappear you must. No! Listen to me! It has happened!” Vannis pointed to his forehead as the restive Valleur stilled. “There is no mistake. No margin of uncertainty. It is.”
He paused again, studied them, and when he was certain they would obey, continued.
“You will steal the technology you require to accomplish your hideaway; they will not need it, nor miss it. You are to uphold the Valleur laws as far as you are able, and you must further our race for a future return. You are all men, thus you will steal, coerce, flatter, seduce, by whatever means, women from the humans … NO! IT MUST BE DONE!”
He glared them into submission.
“Choose women close physiologically to the Valleur, and beget children.” The fifteen gazed at him incredulously. “There is not the time to present to you the images as they came to me one by one - you need now to prepare - I ask that you trust my interpretation. You know in your hearts I would not do you ill by lying, particularly not in this and not now. This is our final time as Valleur; the humans come tomorrow. I now know we are needed here, on Valaris, in the future, for the humans who will suffer terrible onslaught … and, my friends, for the Valleur beyond the Rift. They will need us, and that is why you vanish with the dawn and you continue our race in another fashion. We shall rise again.
“It will be a diluted race you beget. Half-Valleur. But once enough younglings are born, take care to mate half-Valleur to half-Valleur, in that manner always retaining half the blood. Our genetics are strong and your descendants will resemble us; yellow eyes, fair hair, golden skin, while also inheriting a large portion of our abilities. My friends, you will do all this because of a prophecy. You will pass this prophecy down through the millennia that follow this night. You will remember it to all, so you may know it when it comes to pass.”
Vannis rose and stood before them. There was absolute silence.
“Listen well; a dark-eyed child will be born among you. She will be the Changeling who will return the Medaillon to the Last Vallorin and release him from his tomb. He, in turn, will bring you freedom. What does it mean? Exactly what it says and it can only come to pass if you beget the half-Valleur and remember to the generations the words I have spoken. You will take with you my son’s Medaillon. Do not fear; it can take care of itself.”
He closed his eyes, knowing Mantra would never know the peace and closure the coming of the Medaillon would bring, painful as it would be.
Teach him well, my wife, for now he will not know everything.
Vannis drew himself up and opened his eyes. He was the Vallorin. “This will not be easy for you, nor will it become simple with time, but it will be done. I shall have your oaths on it before you leave this chamber.”
A short silence ensued, one imbued with reluctance. An oath they would give, willingly; what was expected of them caused their dilemma. Living death, indeed.
Namud stood to approach the Throne. As the youngest he was also the most daring.
“You have my oath, Lord Vallorin.”
“Thank you, Namud.”
“But, my Lord? What becomes of you? You have not told us what lies ahead for you. How will the Medaillon free you far into the future? From a tomb?”
“It appears I have a destiny. I cannot tell you how or what, or even why. The Medaillon will remain on Valaris. I shall remain here; I shall not die. No, I am not permitted to tell you how I shall achieve this. I would that I could end it now, for I desire no part in a world settled by humans. I know not why exactly I need wait for the Changeling, only that there is a darkness coming, although I do not perceive in what form. We are to assist in preventing it, defeating it, a long while from now. It will aid our brethren in another realm also. That is as much as I am able to reveal. No more discussion. I shall have your oaths now.”
There was a further prophecy, but Vannis held sway, not yet certain what it meant or how it would touch them. He would have time, in plenty, to unravel it soon.
They had followed him too long to disobey, and a scrying never lied. Kneeling, each after his fashion uttered the words that would bind the generations.
When it was done, Vannis said, “Thank you. You must now prepare to leave before dawn. Do not look back under any circumstances. Do not concern yourselves with me, for I know what I must do and you cannot share in it. Take your leave of me and go. Do not enter the Throne-room again. There can be no witnesses to what I must undertake.”
He searched each pair of eyes, then nodded, satisfied.
“Namud? As the one with the potential of living longest, I hand you the Medaillon. It will not harm you. When your time is near, hand it to another.”
Namud nodded, his eyes bright. The honour was great.
Vannis uttered these final words and it made every difference.
“Darkness and tribulation is not the whole of it, my brothers. Beyond lies light and hope in which Valleur will be free to live with all races without strife. All we do this day heralds a glorious future. Do not despair.”
They came to kiss his hand a last time and Vannis greeted each by name.
It was done.
An hour before sunrise they headed in the direction opposite the human encampment and they did not look back, even as their hearts were heavy.
Behind them there came the sound of exploding masonry and a terrible cry rent the air. Namud turned, his face white, but was grabbed savagely by his companion.
“We are not to look back!” the Valleur hissed, his face contorted in grief.
Namud clutched the Medaillon for comfort, and thus he saw without looking how the great and beautiful palace tumbled down.
It was the hardest act any of them had ever achieved; every fibre of their beings desired to turn around.
The dark heavens lit with blue meteors of iridescent light, shooting one after the other, faster and faster … they gazed up, transfixed.
What great power had their Vallorin harnessed for that? They knew not what he did, only that he was forever lost to them, and saw those shining meteors as a final farewell.
Then … the darkness before the dawn was more complete than ever it had been.
As for the humans, Vannis’ cry haunted them the remainder of that night, and for years to come.
They would wake in the morning and know not whence it came, only that they were petrified of hearing it repeated.
That night, the final night of awareness, Malin Drew, the leader of the human army, and the man generally regarded by future generations as Valaris’ founding father, dreamt he stood in the Valleur Throne-room, at the foot of the Throne, and he asked a beautiful and terrible king … why?
He received answer. Although he would not remember why he fought this being, or who or what Vannis was, he would remember the words in his dreams until he drew his final breath. He would understand his ‘why’ and when he awakened, the feeling of pity and loss and sorrow would be with him well into the morning for the rest of his days.
“We were the first sentient creatures Mother Universe allowed within her embrace. For time out of mind we were Masters, lords over all, known and unknown. We were, we are, a good people. Then all changed when other sentient life grew up and reached for the stars. We clashed and neither would surrender. Worst of our enemies, besides the darklings who are enemy to all, were the humans. Yet, essentially, we are the same in character and needs, and perhaps that is why we could not co-exist. Most of our kind left this universe to retain what humanity we had left. Yes, humanity, for that is what goodness really is. Your kind taught us that. You are a good man. What a pity our two races did not become sentient at one time; how differently we would have written our histories - we may even have become one people. The Valleur you encountered here are the last, trying to protect what we regard as exclusively ours. You cannot be allowed to expose our fraud, the Arcana, our race cannot suffer more. You will be isolated, afraid of much, and I have left legacies I cannot undo at this late hour. Forgive me, even if you no longer know me.”
Before Malin Drew awakened, he realised he stood before the man with tragedy in his glorious blue eyes, and he knew with a terrible certainty that the man, the king, the Vallorin, was immortal.
When he did awake to that first day in his brand new world, he woke first with that feeling of pity, loss and sorrow he would never understand. When he opened his eyes on the encampment, the battlefields of yesterday, he was dumbstruck. What, by all that was Holy, had happened?
Why are we at war? Where is the enemy? Is this a dream … or a nightmare?
If only he could remember.
They would never explain it, and the sight of thousands of dead elsewhere, would be put down to uncontrollable disease and omitted from the history books.
The only certainty Malin Drew possessed that strange morning was that their new world was named Valaris.
By the time Vannis spoke the prophecy, by the time his Palace came crashing down over his Throne-room, burying him under rubble twenty feet thick, his eyes were no longer black or even yellow, but deep blue.
He lost everything - his universe, his world, his people, his wife and his son. His son he would never know, yet he felt that loss most keenly.
Even the rubble of the Palace would eventually vanish. No one would know to dig him out, if it were possible.
He was alone.
Only now, with it gone, did he realise, as those who chose to exit this realm did, it was thoughts and wishes, relationships and feelings, people and history, that made life what it was, made it important and tangible. It was not about the where and what.
Leaving what one knew, loved, and held dear, wrenched and hurt, but one could begin anew elsewhere if one understood those simple concepts that held the true worth. He did so in coming to Valaris - why, bless the Lady, had he not learned the lesson then?
He could be with his queen, could see his son born, watch him grow and teach him as his father taught him.
Instead he held onto an oath, an oath his father would not have had from him had he been alive at the speaking. He maimed and killed innocents. He was selfish, egotistical, arrogant and blind … stupid.
He took the last Valleur to their deaths, and exiled a few to an existence that went against everything they were.
How they would curse their blood.
He put in place a future to confuse, delay and hurt the people of Valaris, all of them innocents. It could not be undone. He lost all, even self-respect. He was a villain.
Maybe, one day, they would recognise it had been ultimately out of love, and maybe they would be kind, as he had not found within himself, and know him as misguided, a fool, not evil.
Maybe. One day.
There was no way out of the subterranean chamber.
It was the same as ever - his Throne, the gem-studded walls, the dais - and almost he could walk through the huge doors into the glorious sunshine of the worlds. It was not the rubble above or the stone surrounding him, or the depth to which his sorcery had driven his chamber, that prevented escape, although each route was physically impossible. He could not transport out as he would when travelling distance. It was not the prophecy that prevented him leaving.
The wardings he uttered before he could change his mind, to protect it from destruction and discovery, held him. Wardings that would contain him because of the prophecy, wardings dating back to ancient times, wardings that not even his considerable skill in sorcery could undo.
His Throne-room became his tomb.
Here he would exist, in and out of reality, his body surreal, sometimes solid, mostly not. Hungry, thirsty, lonely and bored, with only his milling thoughts as company until the Changeling brought the Medaillon.
He could only pray he deciphered the images of prophecy correctly, or he would remain half-alive, half-dead into eternity.
Perhaps, yes, it was fitting punishment, this entombment, and all the more effective for being self-imposed. He could hate only himself for this, rail against only his own mind. Perhaps insanity lay in waiting around the corner.
He could not leave, but he could ‘see’. He had his powers; he could scry into the future, and would do so periodically to confirm his visions when doubt set in. Ever the result would be the same.
Always he had to await the Changeling.
He could call forth events to ponder over, he could feel magical vibrations, and could even influence circumstances.
Thus it was he assisted those poor, beset-upon creatures in the Great Forest to attain their crystal song to take them beyond the warp. It gave him great pleasure.
He marked the initial struggles of the settlers; they suffered the first years without the mechanized farming implements that travelled far to assist them, without their computers to maintain records and to analyse everything from weather conditions to population and the mapping of a new world. There was hunger, disease, and death, but they survived, and they flourished. As generations flew by, they forgot about technology, they forgot they were isolated, and relied on their natural skills, and it worked well for them.
He felt the arrival of darklings and the havoc they caused. No space-warp could keep creatures of the dark away, curse them. He sensed the stirrings of magic within the humans, magic necessary to repel and keep at bay those evil creatures, magic they were mortally afraid of. With hindsight, he realised he did Valaris a great disservice in instilling a fear of magic; it left his world vulnerable to evil. He should have left the sacred sites alive, at the very least, to assist the holy earth in their subtle ways.
When Drasso and Infinity commenced the campaign of annihilation, he called on the Immortal Guardians anonymously. Only they, with their superior skills and powers, could defeat those two. When it was over and he saw the blight that was Valaris, he allowed the Oracles to remain, recalled the Maghdim from the northern wastelands, and allowed them to be ‘discovered’, hoping, as the Guardians had, the tools would serve to heal people and the land.
A great risk he took in releasing the Medaillon to the spaces, but a prophecy cannot be denied.
During the many thousands of years of his entombment, Vannis was angry and vengeful also, and during those spells he would sow the seeds of mistrust. He would bounce the Ruby about, and send snippets of Valleur lore. During one such spell he saw a small group of humans save technological items, saw them repaired and rebuilt.
It angered him, and he penned his dire warnings and vengeful prophecies into a slim volume in the hated common tongue, and willed it out into the real world for them to discover. Find it they did, but rather than destroy their handiwork in fear of reprisal, they hid it and kept it secret.
He let it go eventually, wondering what greater aim there was in holding onto items growing outdated with each passing year.
It was also during one of his episodes that he saw the sorcerers discover his Ruby, and assisted in subverting it, knowing havoc would result. They did not deserve magic; they did not deserve to see the truth of the sacred sites.
At other times, Vannis was at peace and willing to amend for his crimes. He would be aghast at the harm he engendered during an angry spell, and would then withdraw his tools of magic.
For long periods he would vanish into nothingness, a kind of extended hibernation. During those long periods of ‘sleep’ Valaris would know peace and harmony and new prosperity, until a signature jolted him into interference once more.
Time passed, neither slow nor fast, and he waited on the Changeling.
He knew his time was near when he felt a surge of power one day.
A surge so strong, it set the walls of his Throne-room a-tremble. He knew then a man of great and surpassing ability had been born, and examined anew the second prophecy.
Upon scrying, he saw a beautiful baby lying in a velvet-lined cradle, a baby loved … a baby abandoned. As a boy, and later as a man, he was an unwilling sorcerer, and yet naturally tuned into the forces. Unwittingly, he blocked Vannis’ attempts to closely follow his progress, his signature vanishing entirely when he reached adulthood.
Then, a number of years after that august birth, Vannis sensed the Medaillon enclosed by two small hands that could only belong to the Changeling.
He grew impatient. Alternatively angry and at peace, he would rage for days about punishing humankind, make them pay for all they had done to the Valleur, they would SUFFER, and then he would chide himself.
Have you learned nothing, Vannis?
His eyes were never yellow in those last years.
She is coming.
Darkness. There is a new darkness over Valaris. The humans are helpless. The Immortal Guardians are involved again. And the Changeling travels with them. Is this my atonement? For there is a darkness coming, as foreseen, a darkness worse than the one they battle already, one I cannot fully …
A Darak Or.
Hurry, hurry, little one, fleet of foot now.
I am not the danger!