Manifold are the talents of the sorcerer. We tend to list the majors, 1 to 14, in a dictionary of terms such as this, because the authors attempt to instil the principle of the ruling number. But, reader, manifold are the talents of a sorcerer.
~ The Steps of the Magical Condition
Varelie screamed and bolted from her warm bed into her father’s lap.
Her scream snatched him from sleep in the armchair nearby and her frantic struggles awakened him fully.
“Varelie, hush, love,” he murmured, wrapping her into his warmth. “A dream, sweet …”
“It’s burning!” she shouted in her high-pitched tones, squirming away from the embrace. “Daddy, it will all burn!”
Dante stared at his daughter.
“They’re coming!” she squealed.
There was a crash in the outer chamber … and a loud cackle.
Every atom of Dante’s blood froze in terror.
“Hide,” Varelie whispered in his ear.
It was already too late for that. He rose swiftly and set her down. Pushing her back towards the bed, he said, “You must hide, Varelie, right now. Quick, under!” He drew his sword as she slid out of sight. “Quiet now, hear?” Dante drew breath. “Sweetheart, when you can do so safely, run …”
Then it was too late for that also.
Averroes reined her horse in without warning. “Something’s wrong!”
Taranis nudged his mount closer. “Averroes?”
She ignored him to look to Rayne riding alone out front. He had not said a word since leaving the Pyramid, and that was four hours ago. She shouted, “Rayne! We have to set him free! Something is wrong! Rayne, please!”
“Now, whoa there,” Belun murmured. “No one is freeing anyone.”
Rayne turned his horse. “Those devils we spoke of?”
She glared at him for an instant and thumped her thigh in frustration. “Dare you ignore me?”
Rayne pulled the Medaillon free to clasp it, despite a hiss of warning from Taranis.
Vannis stood dead centre of the gem-studded chamber, staring up.
Those eyes were changing so fast it was hard to track; his emotions were in turmoil. Yellow to green, green to blue, blue to brown. Fear, pain, anger. Something terrible was happening and he could SEE it, he could feel it, like echoes, the final breaths of souls, those last, swift thoughts before death claimed life.
What is he doing to my people?
Rayne released his hold. “Death beyond the Rift. And Vannis senses it.” All gods forgive me, for it means someone will die first. Rayne’s face became a white shade of ashen. Indeed, all gods, here was destiny in every guise, right now, right here.
“You can see him?” Llettynn uttered.
Rayne jerked a nod. A moment after that he snapped a flame onto the palm of his hand.
Llettynn forced his mount forward as Belun shouted, “What are you doing? Rayne, put it out!”
Rayne closed his fingers.
“Aaru, what is the man doing?” Glint moaned.
As Taranis gripped Rayne’s wrist and Llettynn jostled his horse from the other side, Rayne said, “Infinity watches the heavens … as Vannis does. It’s not her.” Look beyond the skies. His fingers relaxed and he pulled his arm free.
Llettynn leaned in and took hold of Rayne’s shoulder, fingers digging in. “Did I not tell you never to use that?”
“We are under the aegis of magic. It is a small nuance.”
“And why did you not say you can see the Vallorin?”
Rayne ignored the Guardians. There is a darkness coming.
“The Darak Or is coming,” he said. Without conscious thought, his hand strayed to the hilt of his sword.
Llettynn’s eyelids flickered.
Camot, war leader, saw the first soltakin.
At first he thought it a trick of his imagination - a creature of shadows, how does one credit that? However, when it cackled and stretched a ghostly finger out to touch a serving girl and she twisted around with a gargled scream and she seemed to burn from the inside out, he knew it was real.
He raised his voice in a warbling call to arms and then soltakin were, simply, everywhere.
An appalling cry of suffering rent the air.
In it, impotence, fury, accusation, and terrible sadness.
“No,” the air whispered, “no, no, no …”
The cry echoed through the glade.
Rayne gripped the Medaillon. “Averroes, come.”
“Do not be foolish,” Llettynn said. “We do not know what has happened or what the cry signifies.”
“Instinct, Siric,” Rayne snapped.
“There is something at the Rift! Oh, for Aaru’s sakes, use your powers! LOOK!” Averroes shouted. She moved into position next to Rayne as she did so.
Both slid to the ground.
The five Guardians glanced at each other, then, as one, they did as she suggested.
Rayne studied their expressions and when he saw them alter to horror, he looked as well without resorting to flame or magical disc, and was surprised at how easy it was. Then that surprise meant nothing, for what he saw eclipsed everything.
It was a nightmare akin to the Arcana threat that initially coerced them into the game.
Not mythical evil creatures, but hundreds of thousands of soltakin poured through the Rift, amber eyes glaring and burning like smouldering embers.
Even with the great distance separating the watchers from the act, the ice-cold, fearsome fire, intense desire, the malevolent need for utter annihilation was tangible, burning into them, freezing them, sapping sanity from the universe.
Hatred that should be impossible and a burning desire for revenge that should be improbable, and much more, travelled the great distance.
Some fed on living and lifeless men, women and, utter horror, children. Corpses floated around them, half-eaten, dragged into the slipstream of a vast army travelling through the rent in space. It was terrible, true horror. The aftertaste would remain with them for many years.
Then a presence made itself known, a great, vengeful, craving presence, its essence black as the darkest, deepest, most lightless place in the netherworld. Its hatred was far more than the terror of that vast army.
The presence focused its gaze instantly on Valaris.
And speared fear into every heart on that precious earth.
The Darak Or was on his way.
“Go!” Taranis said.
He spoke to empty air, for Rayne and Averroes had vanished.
They found him slumped on his Throne.
When he lifted his head to stare in mute accusation, his eyes were deep blue and grief had etched new lines on his face. He focused instantly on Rayne.
“Greater than prophecy, stronger than most, and yet in your unwillingness you allowed this tragedy. Here you are, the one who will free me from my tomb after millennia of waiting, and what was I waiting for? To fight the darkness! And you delayed!” A deep breath. “You come too late. My people did not have a chance. They were ignorant of the threat and ill-equipped to deal with it, for they believed themselves alone and did not watch their backs … they watched the Rift. They maintained a chaos barrier, believing the threat lay there! Will the persecution of the Valleur ever end?” Vannis paused, his eyes darkening.
Rayne drew breath. He had delayed and he would have to live with it, but he doubted preparation would have altered anything. He glanced at Averroes, frozen in fear, and told her to stay where she was.
“It is not done,” Rayne said. He stalked forward, sensing suppressed violence in Vannis, how dangerous he was, but sensing also great pain and grief. Only a man of compassion, one of deep emotions, could care this much. “We can still save many. Do you know this Darak Or?”
Vannis shifted his gaze to Rayne’s chest. Where the Medaillon had to be. “I have seen him, I have warned him, but I know him not.”
Rayne pulled the medal free and removed it from around his neck. “You delay now, Vannis of the Valleur. Saving even one before he comes for Valaris is worth every effort. I do not care if you have not walked further than that flashy wall there for millennia; are we doing this or not?”
Vannis rose, the skin over his cheeks pulling taut, and held his hand out. A faint tremble was quickly stilled. He stepped away from the Throne and dais. “Tell the Guardians to gather. We are going in. The Maghdim, please.”
Rayne handed it over without fanfare or words, spooling the chain into Vannis’ palm on top of the golden disc; Vannis’ hand quivered noticeably and his breathing came in shallow gasps.
He stared at what he had, at last, in his palm.
Nemis. He closed his fingers over it.
After all this time. He brought his fist to his chest and crossed his free hand over it.
Now it begins anew.
He lifted his gaze. “I shall meet you in the glade. Go.”
Around the glade fluttered the Eagles and Falcons.
Rayne withdrew his hand from Averroes’. She had completely lost the power of speech. Rayne sent her a troubled look, but Averroes could not now be his priority.
“Vannis comes,” he said to Taranis.
The team was frightened. Those forced to wait until someone cared to tell them what was happening, what it was that was badly wrong. He could not concern himself with that either.
My lord Taranis, Funl the Eagle called out to his leader, there are soltakin coming through the Rift. They destroy the Valleur beyond.
Taranis vaulted off his horse, decisive. “Saska, I need you to go on here. Kras, select one of your Falcons to remain with this team. Belun, Llettynn, Glint, Falcons, Eagles, to the Dome, now.”
Those named vanished.
A small blue Falcon remained, perched on Taranis’ empty saddle, watching the reduced team, watching their confusion and their fear. His name was Phet.
Taranis approached Rayne. “Do not trust swiftly.”
A grimace. “And thus I offer him the same disadvantage as I labour under. No, Taranis, I either trust him or I don’t.”
Grey eyes clashed with grey. “I hear you, but this is different.”
Rayne inclined his head. “Yes. His people are annihilated and an army of doom heads this way. He is filled with rage and sorrow, he seeks to kill and who can blame him? I shall trust that he kills soltakin and therefore frees Valaris of the same fate.” Grey eyes bored into grey. “Taranis, I shall help him kill soltakin beyond the Rift. I suggest you gather every Guardian to that end also.”
The team collectively drew breath. Annihilated. Army of doom. Soltakin.
Taranis shouted, “You have never been in a battle, Rayne! Wielding a sword isn’t enough! You do not transport through the spaces! How in god’s name can you even think of …?”
Rayne stepped close to Taranis. “I have done all that. I no longer remember where and when, I don’t know how I forgot, but I have fought battles with sword and sorcery.” He punched a finger into Taranis’ chest. “I am doing this and if Llettynn seeks to hang me for it after, so be it.”
Taranis paled. “Who are you?”
A grim smile. “No doubt we shall find out soon.”
“You have made your choice.”
“No longer unwilling,” Rayne shrugged. “Man of action, remember?”
Taranis drew breath and released. “This is about the girl.”
Rayne willed him to understand. “It is not just about the girl, but, yes, she is there. She is there where Valleur are dying. She is where the Darak Or has unleashed terror.”
Ah. That explained quite a bit. Rayne had warned him, but atop the Pyramid he was still uncertain. That, clearly, was no longer so.
Taranis nodded. “I choose to trust your judgement at this point. The Guardians will fight.”
He flicked his gaze over the team, nodded once at Saska, and vanished.