Drop, drip, plop, every sky tear eventually a puddle forms.
~ Arid World Prayer
Aven was full of questions, which Averroes answered simply.
Her mode of travel to the city, lifted in the air upon a platform of wings, had the mortals first amazed, then in stitches. For Averroes the experience was inspiring. The smile that continually tugged at her lips as she described the event told eloquently it changed her.
The Guardians glanced at each other. One was never quite the same after seeing one’s world from a different vantage. She explained how she was set down outside the city - Belun fetched her there.
Thereafter they brought her up to date with developments, and finally she understood Vannis was real. It left her breathless and buoyed.
She said nothing; for Rayne’s unreadable expression boded ill. If she understood anything, it was that he could not like what he heard. Vannis’ pertinent questioning about friend or foe came to mind … and she decided to tackle it.
“Rayne, you are the one he is uncertain of.” There, she said it.
“And what makes me special? He doesn’t know me.”
It was the best reaction, and she was relieved. “You’re not what you appear and even you don’t know it yet.”
Rayne shrugged. “So I have issues. I am not unusual in that. Your Vannis has a fifty-fifty chance of being right. He knows nothing of us.”
Averroes drew breath, her heart skipping a beat. His attention narrowed to include only her, and she responded to it. “It wasn’t guessing. I thought it a dream, but Vannis is as real as we are. Another dimension, another kind of existence, yet real. I can’t comprehend the subtleties of his survival, but Taranis and the Guardians believe it possible, and that proves it … to me. Granted, he doesn’t know us, but he does sense …”
“Fine,” Rayne interrupted. “You make your case for him. Vannis is real, the Valleur once lived here, we deal in sacred sites, and he requires the Medaillon. We go on, we play the game, but I shall not let you stand here and tell me he knows what I am.”
“Who, Rayne, not what,” Averroes snapped. “Stop sticking your head in the sand.”
There was surprised silence. Averroes had not been forthright before.
Rayne leaned forward. “What does he say about me?”
“He says there has been no one like you since the Valleur left.”
“And what does that mean?”
“Recognition of power.”
“Ah. And he knows this, how?”
“He felt you born,” Averroes answered. “As he sensed me find the Medaillon.”
Rayne rocked back, paling. “That proves nothing.”
“No? He says if you could accept, you could counter the threat to Valaris, using the Medaillon. That means power, Rayne. He marked your power when you were born.”
“Meaning?” Cristi asked, wide-eyed.
As Averroes and Rayne stared at each other, Taranis said, “Natural talent is evident at birth, a signature another sorcerer would feel.”
“And the line separating good from evil is sometimes indistinct,” Rayne added, without looking away from Averroes. “Is that why Vannis is concerned? He doesn’t know which side of the line I walk?”
“Oh, that’s horse dung!” Aven roared. “Bring him here; I’ll show him the difference! Upstart Valleur! How dare he pass judgement?”
Rayne’s lips twitched, and he glanced at Aven. “Thank you.”
“Too right,” Aven returned. “I know you’re a good man, and to the trees with them all!”
Rayne muttered, “He gives me more credit than I deserve.”
“Your friend Vannis obviously speaks from experience,” Saska said to Averroes. “About the line. I wonder which side he walked?”
“He is not my friend!” Averroes said, glaring.
“You could have fooled me,” Saska muttered.
Taranis said, “About one matter Vannis is right, Rayne; you have to accept yourself, and you must know we would be there for you.”
“Thank you, Taranis, but perhaps you won’t know the difference when the time comes.”
“There is more,” Averroes said. “He says you and I are the products of prophecy …”
“Excuse me?” Aven said, ashen.
Rayne was silent, moving to find her eyes again.
“Vannis called me the Changeling and was surprised I hadn’t grown up amid the half-Valleur. I found the Medaillon, because it was so prophesied.”
“You sensed you had a purpose and you sensed you had a past before Galilan.” Rayne said, his voice hypnotic. “Averroes, you know he speaks truth. You are the Changeling. You are half-Valleur.”
She shook her head.
Rayne lifted the Medaillon into sight. “Touch this and deny it again.”
“I can’t be!”
“So, there are half-Valleur,” Glint, silent until now, mused. “I wonder what that means, and I would give my right arm to know how they did it. Vanishing for millennia? Amazing.”
“What prophecy concerns Rayne?” Saska asked.
Averroes glared at her despite her inner confusion. Both sensed the rivalry. “He didn’t elaborate.”
“He could be spinning you a tale,” Taranis remarked.
“To get you to reveal Rayne and therefore the Medaillon,” Belun added.
“I don’t think so.”
McSee chuckled. “What think you now, Lord of the Mantle?”
Rayne twisted his head to pierce the big man with his grey eyes. “Does it matter?”
“Oh-ho, boy, does it ever,” McSee said. “Give us your thoughts.”
Rayne jerked around to face the taunting man. “I will tell you this much - I hope there is a prophecy, for it would go a long way in explaining the hell of my life.”
“Crikey, Rayne,” Kylan murmured. “Relax.”
“Crikey, Kylan,” Rayne said, “but you have no idea.”
“Hey!” Kisha snarled.
“Enough!” Averroes shouted. “My God, you are as bad as him!”
“Who?” Rayne snapped.
“Vannis! Control your temper! You learn nothing when you hear only anger! If Vannis hadn’t got mad, I may have listened better, and if you calm down, I may tell more!”
Belun murmured, “It appears certain nerves vibrate here. Yon Vannis struck the right chords.”
Llettynn inclined his head in agreement, his gaze sharp.
“There is more?” Taranis asked Averroes.
Pointedly ignoring Rayne, she faced Taranis. “Yes. Vannis says he is not the enemy. He says there is worse coming and it’s his destiny to be freed during this time to counter it. He didn’t say exactly what the danger may be.”
“Convenient,” Belun muttered.
“I can think of a few … Arcana, Infinity, darklings …” McSee uttered.
“Or all at once,” Samson murmured, and McSee nodded.
“No, the Arcana and the Valleur are one and the same,” Taranis said.
“And we can’t know how much is truth and how much is fiction,” Saska said. “The Valleur may turn out as all the Arcana are made out to be, which means Vannis may be the last person we need helping us.”
“He meant something other than that we already know of,” Averroes said. “Not Arcana or Infinity.”
“He said so?” Llettynn enquired.
“Not specifically,” Averroes replied, dropping her gaze.
“Well, whatever lies ahead, known and unknown, we’re still playing this game,” Saska said, her tone reasonable again. “I say we high tail it to the Pyramid. After, we may know more of the Valleur, and any decision regarding this incarcerated individual can be reached then.”
Taranis pursed his lips. “Sensible. We will need horses.”
“Vannis won’t like it,” Averroes murmured, her gaze travelling between Taranis and Rayne.
“He definitely won’t,” Taranis grinned, “but he must also realise we need be prudent. A few days cannot harm.”
“Figments of the imagination,” McSee muttered, but was ignored.
Averroes and Rayne looked at each other, and both had the same fear. To delay his freedom, whether they liked it or not, could spell disaster.
“Averroes, you have barely reacted to the Changeling.” Rayne’s voice was soft.
She took a step closer, and whispered, “Would you have me react as if someone had walked over my grave, Rayne? The way you’re feeling? You are a changeling also, do you understand that? As much as I am going to find change, it will be as nothing to what awaits you.”
“What are they saying?” Aven demanded.
Rayne’s eyes narrowed. “How much is certainty and how much is guessing?”
She leaned closer. “Instinct, Rayne.”
He smiled at her then. “Our time comes, Changeling.”
She licked her lips, shivering. “Gods, you scare me.”
His eyes were expressionless. “Gods?”
She whispered, “You know all about them.”
He stepped away, cold inside, and apologised to Kylan.
Averroes’ gaze followed, and she went to Aven.
The Guardians looked at each other, and more than one was troubled. They had not heard the exchange, but the message was clear - prophecy was part of the dynamics.
Saska’s feelings had nothing to do with prophecy.
Even Belun was mounted when they set off, something he felt particularly strange about.
Glint teased him constantly, causing Cristi to giggle uncontrollably.
The three exotic mortals were again glamoured to appear nondescript. Aven muttered a long time about the exorbitant price of horses and how mule-headed folk could be until Rayne silenced him with an irritated look.
For the first time in summer, Actar’s streets were busy in daytime, its folk and guests feeling safer with sun on their backs.
Soon the city was behind them. The sun beat down mercilessly; summer on Tor Island was not for the fainthearted. The oppressive heat sapped strength, leaving little for thought, let alone talk.
They travelled in silence, making periodic stops to water the horses. Trees and shrubs appeared intermittently, but were of the stunted, desert variety. The meagre shade was welcome when they halted.
The half-Valleur from the tavern had not said how far to travel before expecting the Pyramid, thus they maintained southeast as direct as any compass, and hoped they would know it when they saw it.
They made camp as night fell, too exhausted to continue, and the temperature plummeted. After a half-hearted meal, they rolled into bedrolls, sleep was instant, and Glint, on duty, could not keep eyes open. Muscles unfamiliar with the gait of a horse ached and pulled, but even that could not hold back oblivion.
The only sounds were night insects, occasional sand scuttles, the snorting of horses … and Belun’s snoring.
Rayne lay silent and sleepless. One hand rested on the Medaillon, the other wrapped around the hilt of his sword. He could see Vannis prowling the gem-studded chamber Averroes described … and he wanted to wake Taranis for a round of swordplay to rid himself of frustration and the need to focus on what the Medaillon revealed.
He sensed Vannis’ impatience and anxiety. The man intrigued him and he focused to study him, and relaxed his grip on his blade.
That focus meant he was aware when Averroes dreamed again, although this time she knew it was not a dream.
He opened his eyes. As suspected she was no longer physically present. He wondered if she knew, but put it aside to watch her interact with the Vallorin.
Her heart raced and her breathing was shallow.
It was different. Now he was real.
Vannis paced the Throne-room, rubbing his shaven head. Aware she had arrived, he halted, dropping his arms with a rueful grimace.
“We shave our heads when we go into battle; a superstitious belief our powers will be readily available without the weight and interference of hair. It also scares the enemy to behold shaven savages. Now that my form is whole once more, my body’s needs become relevant. Not good at all, my dear. It distracts! And my hair is growing - mere stubble, but it itches like a thousand fleas on a naked cat!”
Averroes smiled. Real, yes, but not so different, and he had rubbed his scalp pink. She asked, “How do I address you?”
The Vallorin is likeable, has a sense of humour, Rayne thought.
Vannis studied her a moment; she had accepted he was greater than hallucination. “You are half-Valleur; you should address me as Lord Vallorin.”
Nodding, she wandered the chamber studying the multi-coloured gems. “These are exquisite, Lord Vallorin, but … a bit flashy, don’t you think?”
Vannis laughed. “How right you are, and you are the first to tell me that. No one dared before! I find your honesty appealing. You see, little one, ‘Vannis’ means ‘exotic creation’ in my tongue and in the first flush of exultation in discovering Valaris, I desired an exotic Throne-room, thus …” Grinning, he gestured at the walls.
“You discovered Valaris?”
“Ah, yes, and a paradise it was then.”
He sat on the dais, long legs stretched out, dressed in form-hugging black breeches, feet in soft brown leather boots. His upper body was naked, the dragon leaping from his chest. If she did not know otherwise, she would have thought it alive … but then, she did not know, did she? He had buckled on a sword, the scabbard dull from long disuse. Still, it was unsettling; where had he found clothes, the weapon?
Glancing around, she noticed an open trunk in the shadows near the great, sealed doors.
Rayne studied his familiarity with blade and scabbard. The man was definitely a swordsman. He smiled wryly. Thanks to Taranis, he could perceive a man’s ability with a blade, but he was as critical as the Siric.
Following her gaze, Vannis said, “Lucky for me that went into hibernation also, or it would be rotten dust. Unfortunately, there is no food in there.”
She swallowed. “You are hungry?”
“Very. And thirsty.”
She knew well how it was to be hungry with no means of finding food. Then she thought he might be tricking her. “Are you trying to play me?”
Vannis’ head dropped to his chest and his yellow eyes closed. “I guess I deserve your distrust.”
She bit her lip. “It’s not that.”
His eyes snapped open. “The Guardians have uncovered facts about me, have they not?”
“Yes, but facts? Supposition, I think. Most are unsure.”
“Understandable; no one was meant to remember the Valleur.”
“They were right,” Averroes stated.
“About forgetting? Yes. And now that they have remembered enough, they recall more and more. The mind-block sunders.” His gaze flicked up as if looking for something.
“Then surely they should know truth from fiction?”
Vannis shrugged. “The Valleur are guilty of atrocities, Averroes, whatever the ideal behind them, and that is what others will remember first. The end did not justify the means, not for the Valleur, and saddest of all is that we did not achieve what we set out to do. We deserve your distrust based on the past, and truth and fiction are so closely intertwined the Guardians will find it hard … even the Siric, who are the cleverest of all sentients.”
“You are more forthcoming …”
Vannis held a finger aloft. “I think we are not alone.”
Averroes gestured. “Seems empty.”
A smile. “He watches.”
Her expression froze.
“He has the Medaillon; he can witness without involvement,” Vannis said. “He will make the decision, I believe, that sets me free.”
Rayne drew back in shock and lifted his hand from the medal on his chest. His heart was erratic, for Vannis’ words resonated. He was on his feet then, hoping activity would quell the need to enter the Vallorin’s arena, there to demand answers.
Out in the dark he drew his sword and cut the air, over and over again.
“And now we are alone. Averroes, do you trust him? An instinctive answer, please.”
Vannis sighed. “Many will not.”
She did not like the direction and changed the subject. “How is it I am here? Or does my body sleep beside the fire?”
A short silence ensued as he sensed her reluctance. “You are here. If your companions awake now they would find you gone.”
“And I can return? Why can you not do so?”
“I cannot leave due to wardings spoken to keep me here, and they cannot be undone without the Medaillon. You possess sufficient residue to come and go … for now. It will fade soon.”
“You won’t be able to bring me here?” That caused her distress.
He sensed it. “Or you may be here unable to leave.”
She saw the trap. “I get it. Can I bring food and drink?”
“How kind. Dare I think you are thawing?”
Averroes shook her head, bemused at how quick his thoughts moved. “Maybe.”
“It’s all right, my dear. Yes, you can bring in physical objects, but then you must come of your own will.”
“I have to go. The others will be worried.” She looked at him. “I will bring something.”
“Bring the Maghdim, too. Bring your friend.”
She grinned and wagged her finger at him. “Lord Vallorin, you are biting the hand that will feed you!”
Vannis’ face lit with a delighted grin and his eyes deepened briefly to amber. Then, in a serious tone, “I understand why I have to stay, but hear me when I say do not wait until it is too late. There is a Darak Or coming from beyond the Rift, and he is strong, stronger than all of you together. He has an army of soltakin that feeds on fear, pain, uncertainty, dislike, and I cannot defend my world - your world - sitting in a bound chamber with gems on the walls.”
She believed him.
“Go now, your companions are awake. Close your eyes, I shall assist you.”
Averroes closed them as bid and reopened them to find herself standing on her bedroll.
Rayne inadvertently awakened the camp when he got up.
“Averroes! Where have you been?” Aven blurted out.
“I’m fine …” She looked around and saw Taranis with Saska. “Taranis, I was with the Lord Vallorin. He has a warning and I believe him. He is not seeking to trick. He cares for Valaris; he found this world and settled it by choice with his people. This is truly his planet. We humans,” and she frowned, thinking maybe she was not entirely human, “have a tendency to … no matter, that is the past …”
“Discovery does not mean ownership,” Saska interrupted.
“Perhaps we humans should hark to that,” Rayne said, coming out from behind the horses to the left of the camp. “It sounds as if this Vannis has the greater claim.”
Averroes met his expressionless eyes in a manner that had Saska’s mouth thinning. Rayne did not react.
“Averroes, what kind of warning?” Taranis prompted.
“There is a Darak Or from beyond the Rift.”
“Arcana,” McSee snapped from his bedroll.
Ignoring that, Taranis asked, “Who?”
“He didn’t give a name,” Averroes replied. “He said he’s stronger than us, that …”
“Yes, yes, he needs his freedom,” McSee growled, clambering to his feet. “Wake up, Averroes; he’s playing you … if this whole farce is even real.”
Everyone stared at McSee.
“Perhaps this Darak Or is someone we have encountered before,” Belun suggested into the silence, choosing to move over McSee’s stubbornness. “We should get the Eagles and Falcons onto it.”
Llettynn mused, “Unless this evil travels realms with regularity, I doubt we will know him.”
Averroes cleared her throat. “Maybe we should consider getting Vannis out.”
“Methinks you like him, Averroes!” McSee accused.
“So?” she shot back. “At least I know how I read the situation. You have no clue what is going on!”
Taranis interrupted before the big man could retaliate, seeing McSee’s face redden in anger. “We must give due consideration to this warning, for safety’s sake, if no other. Belun, set the birds on it, and, Llettynn, start thinking of oddities from the past …”
The Siric snorted. “Where do I begin?”
“Just don’t stall long,” Averroes warned. “There is a darkness coming.”
Rayne moved away, ice in his veins. There is a darkness coming. Look at the skies, beyond the skies. The voice or thought in Farinwood, when he thought paranoia drove him insane. Vannis’ thoughts, sent to him, or had he picked up on the Vallorin’s musings? He had proven he could sense the intangible. The Siric’s probe, for one. Who was he? Can the Vallorin tell me?
He started packing his gear. It was either that or a confrontation in a circular chamber.
Later, while breakfast was prepared, Aven dragged Rayne aside. The two men walked a distance ostensibly to relieve themselves.
“She’s different, my Averroes,” Aven muttered, clearly concerned.
“We all are.”
“Yes, of course,” Aven returned, irritated. “That’s not what I meant.”
“I know, old man, but she has brushed with death, coped alone on this dry island, and everything in her life before has also shaped her. Now Vannis, prophecy, this half-Valleur business - she has much to deal with. And, you know what? She is doing well, she is stronger, sure of herself, she trusts her judgement. Let her be.”
“I can’t help it.”
Rayne squeezed his shoulder as Aven stared into the distance. They travelled a fair distance the day before and the ocean was no longer visible. All was desert; it would be another hot day.
“I worry about you, Rayne.”
“Come, Aven, I haven’t changed that much.”
“You listen where before you would argue, you accept where before you would summarily deny, and you use your power, not yet easily, but with less soul-searching, and, Rayne, you are more powerful.”
“Compared to what, old man?”
Aven snorted at the argumentative tone. “Some things will probably never change, like your manners. I meant only compared to what you could do before.”
Rayne sucked at his teeth. “I haven’t done anything new.”
Aven snorted again. “Retrieving your sword?”
“I never needed to … in your presence.”
“Ha!” Aven realised what he said. It silenced him, but only briefly. “And you appear to want to use it, too. How do you explain seeing the Vallorin through Averroes the other night, without touching the Medaillon?”
Rayne hissed through his teeth. And felt the Siric’s probe. “I don’t know.”
“I rest my case!” Aven declared, causing Rayne to smile. “You unlock more of yourself.”
Rayne tilted his head, saying nothing. Aven would get philosophical if he rose to that one. They moved to go back to the others, where the smell of warming bread wafted into the air.
Aven laid a detaining hand on the younger man’s arm after a few paces, sensing immediately inner tension. They halted, still out of hearing range, and Rayne waited. “This is really none of my business …”
“Then don’t say anything.”
“I will, by Aaru! Just because you’re all grown up now, doesn’t mean I don’t feel responsible!”
“What is it, father-of-my-heart?”
Aven snorted again. “Oh, I know that tone, that look! You’re not going to listen to a word I say!” Rayne laughed, and the old man fixed a beady glare on him. “Rayne … you and Saska …”
“You were right; it’s none of your business.”
“Do you even know what you’re doing?” Aven continued, riding over his protestations. “She is Immortal, and what of Taranis? Have you even seen the pain the man deals with?”
“I do not have to listen to this!” Rayne shouted. The others at the camp turned, and he lowered his voice. “Do not interfere!”
“Stubborn as ever!”
“Touché, dear boy, but …”
“No more, I’m hungry. Let’s go …”
“Averroes, however, is my business.”
Rayne rounded on him. “Meaning what, old man?”
“Meaning, you stay away from her. She’s an innocent and she will get hurt if you use her the way you do others.”
Rayne strode away to control his blinding rage, and then back. “Use her? What kind of monster do you think I am?”
“You won’t do it deliberately, but you had a different upbringing, and you allow no one close …”
“And whose fault is that?”
Aven retreated in the face of the man’s fury.
After a moment Rayne shook his head, and walked towards the horses to begin saddling.
Aven watched him a few minutes, and went to breakfast, shaking his head at the others’ questioning glances.
Rayne did not join them. He watered the horses when he was finished with the saddling, and walked a distance to warm them for the next leg of the journey, bleeding away anger into each measured step.
Aven watched both Saska and Taranis watch him, both wanting to go to him, both sensing they would be unwelcome. Rayne was the leading personality in the team … and it had ever been thus with him.
Moths to a flame.
Averroes stared at nothing at all, her thoughts on Vannis, and choked her food down, knowing he was hungry.