Control of the Elements (foundation)
Manipulation of the Elements (mastery)
Extension of Life-expectancy (foundation)
Immortality Ritual (mastery)
Creation: Light, heat, sustenance, weaponry … and also thought and emotion
~ The Steps of the Magical Condition
They waited for Vannis.
The horses were tethered nearby, peacefully chomping new, sweet grass. It was warm, with none of the heat of before, the trees moderating the merciless summer sun.
The solstice was three days hence, it was midsummer and the heat was bound to intensify before the relief of a season winding down happened. Shade was a blessing anywhere on Valaris, but Tor was true paradise.
Birds sang regardless and unaware of danger, unaware of the tension below.
Phet perched on Saska’s shoulder, the two having greeted each other like old friends, and indeed they were. They had been on many adventures together, some dangerous, some less so, and formed a bond a long time ago. No doubt that was the reason he was seconded to planetary duty.
The little Falcon, with his astonishingly bright blue plumage, had already imparted the Darak Or’s name, and Saska passed it on. There was not much discussion. A name, at this stage of the game, was a name only.
Rayne sat with his head hanging forward as if removed from reality; a stiff posture belied that. Time drew him in, and all he had to do was acknowledge it.
Saska, resting against a tree, lifted her head, and found Rayne unerringly. She noticed Averroes pacing the side-lines, and the others sitting in various poses, with Kylan and Kisha whispering together.
She explained the situation to the team, and could now sense their confusion. She could do little to change how they felt.
She pushed herself upright - Phet hopped down - and wandered over. Averroes stopped to stare at her, but she ignored her. Rayne ignored her, too, when she sat beside him, and did not lift his head.
“Not now, Saska.”
“I need to know what to expect.”
She grunted a laugh. “Please, Averroes would tear my heart out if she could.”
He lifted his head to stare at her with a dark frown. “What does that mean?”
“Nothing. Tell me, how was he?”
“Enraged, grief-stricken, anxious, impatient … all of it. Vannis will be as we find him.”
She nodded. “Did he blame us for delaying his release, for … for …”
He blamed me. “Of course he did.”
“Is he … I don’t know - royal?”
“Is he a king of nations, you mean? Yes.”
“He got to you.”
“He will get to you, too.”
“Ah, a charismatic … like you.”
Rayne frowned again. “I am not playing those games now.”
“I meant it exactly as I said it; there is no game.”
“Sorry,” he muttered, looking away. He noticed Averroes then, and let his gaze slide unseeingly over her. “He is, as you say, a charismatic.”
“You told Taranis you aim to trust him.”
“Read it any way you like.”
She blinked. “You looked to the Rift, didn’t you? You saw.”
“Llettynn is right; you have power. It took me ages to learn that.”
“Are you judging me now?”
“Stating a fact.”
He pulled his face into a semblance of a smile. “Touchy me.”
She smiled back, more sincerely. “I like it.”
For a too-brief moment the wonder was back in his eyes, akin to that night in the water.
Then the conversation was at an end, for he came, the Vallorin, an hour after the Medaillon was returned to him.
The longest hour of Rayne’s life.
He arrived in their midst, clutching the golden medal as if his life depended on it … which was no doubt exactly how it was for him.
The man was drawn and pale, shaking, his head juddering with strain, energy expended. The undoing had been tasking.
A dumbfounded silence descended, in which Rayne rose first, and Saska with him. Averroes took a step, her eyes wide. All were struck by the golden man’s beauty, and then by the strain on his face. Averroes neared, and made to rush forward in welcome, but Rayne waylaid her.
Gripping her arm, he mutely shook his head, and stood in her way when she moved to go around him, snatching her arm from his grasp.
“Nay,” he whispered. “Look at him.”
Swallowing, Averroes sagged into herself, lost.
“Saska,” Rayne said next, still softly, “take everyone away from here.”
She, in studying Vannis, saw what he meant. With a decisive nod at the others, who loosely crowded together in the interim, she pointed and followed and herded them into the trees.
“You, too, Averroes,” Rayne said, watching Vannis battle to focus, noting the man’s fingers colourless around the Medaillon, gripping it two-handed.
Sighing, Averroes retreated in the direction Saska indicated. She was not happy.
Rayne and Vannis were alone in the sunlit grove.
Vannis drew deep of the fresh air and drew his sword free. It rattled as he did so.
“You are in no condition to do this,” Rayne said.
Vannis lifted his hand to his chest and closed his fingers around the Medaillon through the fabric of an ancient and smelly tunic, and closed his eyes briefly. “I have to be.”
Rayne went to his horse and found his water bottle, brought it back.
“Are you ready?” Vannis asked.
“Then call them back. Delegate. No time now for civility and tact. We need leave this world.”
Rayne handed the bottle over and called out to the others.
Vannis lifted the bottle to his mouth to drink greedily. He retreated into the centre of the glade, as if desiring space about him. There he stood and studiously corked the bottle.
Rayne’s lips tightened. Vannis was not ready. Time, however, moved on.
Then he gaped. As Saska preceded the others into the open, Vannis unconsciously, yet markedly, assumed a mantle of authority, and altered from the uncertain individual he was moments ago into a true leader.
It was a dramatic change, made more so in being affected without thought. The transformation was instant and complete.
A Vallorin. It explained much.
Vannis did not speak. He deliberately swung his blade through the air. It hissed and even Saska flinched. Averroes was so pale, it seemed she was about to collapse. Her gaze moved back and forth between Rayne and Vannis.
“Saska, you need take the reins now,” Rayne said.
“You’re actually going with him?” she blurted. “To fight? Look at him … and you don’t …”
“No time left.” Rayne stepped away, glanced at the others and drew his sword.
Vannis gripped his upper arm.
When they stumbled upon a smouldering jetty and saw before them a massive structure wreathed in smoke, both men struggled initially to regain their feet.
The jetty was failing as a platform and screams from the building instantly undermined their confidence.
“The Palace,” Vannis said. He stared at it in something approaching dread. His people dying.
“Too late,” Rayne murmured. “You were right.”
“So were you,” Vannis said. “If we can save just one …”
“Just one,” Rayne echoed. Which one?
They started to run, heading for a doorway set across from the jetty. Moments later they flung against the stone on either side of it. Vannis quickly poked his head in and withdrew as swiftly. “Soltakin.”
“What are they?” Rayne heaved.
Vannis sent him a glittering look from the other side of the entrance. “Creatures who are pure soul, but those souls know only hate and the need to destroy. Completely immune to sorcery.”
“How do we fight them? Or how are they created?”
Vannis swore inaudibly. “We do not have time for this.”
“Gods, just tell me how to fight them.”
Vannis loosed a feral grin. “Deep end, Valarian?”
Rayne sent him a look and hurtled through the doorway, sword poised before him in a two-handed grip.
Vannis drew a surprised breath and followed.
Inside it was a netherworld. Chaos. Nothing compared to an enclosed space dimmed by the smoke of fire and assailed by the rank taste of absolute fear. It was akin to walking deliberately into a nightmare.
Vannis gripped Rayne’s tunic from behind and jerked him to a halt. “You are foolishly brave.” When Rayne moved to free himself, he hissed, “Listen! Do not use magic; it is a siren song for these creatures. Use your blade only … do not use your hands to touch them.”
They appeared as wraiths in the smoke-filled netherworld, almost like to the soltakin they sought to kill. Rayne peered over his shoulder. “Metal through mist, Vallorin?”
Vannis gripped his arm, fingers digging through the fabric. “That is a Valleur sword you wield. It will do.”
For a brief instant time ground to an eternal halt. “Impossible.”
“Right, it should be that, but you possess a blade stronger than anything a human can devise. Somehow. Soltakin are not immune to the elements and Valleur metal morphs into an elemental force. Use it now to …”
Rayne stared in fascination at his sword.
Vannis shook his head. “Gods, man, take my word for it.”
Grey eyes found the dark ones before him, focused there. “Vannis, there are only Valleur blades on Ardosia.”
Realisation came to Vannis. “And it aids them none.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I see.” He frowned. “How do you know this world is called Ardosia?”
“I do not know.”
Vannis’ eyes moved between yellow and brown as he considered Rayne’s knowledge and his ignorance. “Strange.”
“Down!” Rayne shouted, and Vannis dropped like a stone. Rayne’s blade hissed into the vacated space and sliced through a soltakin an instant before its touch landed on Vannis.
The creature gargled as if with delight - another kill in the offing - before convulsing. It screeched and wafted upward, twisting all the while.
Rayne stared after it. “Won’t kill it, but we can at least defend.”
Vannis clambered to his feet. He touched Rayne’s blade. “Forged on Valaris a long time ago.” He looked up then as well. “The wraiths were made in this realm, as are the swords of Ardosia. It nullifies efficacy.” Again he swore and this time there was an undertone of sadness to it.
His gaze returned to Rayne. “Our realm’s elemental forces are dangerous for them. We shall employ that advantage to find the Vallorin.” Lifting his weapon, he entered the smoke in a fast crouch.
Other questions and issues could wait.
Rayne wondered where the Guardians were.
Dantian was ten years old when he realised what his name meant.
He was nine hundred years old when he saw the prophecy imbedded in his name come to pass.
The night Ardosia burned.
He ran through the Palace with his guards on his heels, heard his war leader exhorting warriors to arms. There was desperation in Camot’s voice, absolute fear. How did one fight wraiths? The vice of dread tightened on Dantian’s heart. Too little, too late; they were already doomed.
The seers saw this doom and had not understood the danger lay in this realm. They thought annihilation would arrive from beyond the Rift and the contradictions shut them down, fatally.
Just this morning the last two seers succumbed, neither awakening to sound warning. All gods, if only someone had sounded warning. A voice in the back of his mind whispered that Varelie, a little girl with no insights yet, had warned them … and they had not heard.
“My Lord Vallorin, it is time to flee,” his guard captain gasped. “Now, while the war leader draws attention.”
“I must find my brother.” Dantian ran faster.
Death lay everywhere. Piles of ash were trampled into the shining floors. A burning touch, unholy death. Dantian ducked one such touch, screaming obscenity, and heard behind him one of his guard gargle.
Dear gods, there was nothing good left in this world of second chances.
He found Dante where he thought to - in the suite he shared with his daughter - but his brother was already dead. He fell to his knees.
Dante fought hard. He stared down at the man who had been his friend through every trial of childhood, who had been there to lean on when their father abdicated, thereby passing rulership to him. Dante had been as much part of the Vallorinship as he was; he was a better ruler because he had Dante’s counsel.
And, likewise, he stood at Dante’s side when Dante’s wife died in childbirth, a second birth, holding Varelie, small and confused, as her father sobbed in grief. For a while he became Varelie’s rock … Dantian drew a shaking breath, remembering the night Dante came to his suite to fetch his daughter. The man’s eyes were voids of grief and yet they spoke of love that night. Love for his brother and love for his little daughter.
A soltakin had touched him. Dante cut his arm off to sever the burning limb from his body. Dantian heaved a shuddering breath, seeing that. Left arm ragged above the elbow and a small strip of ash nearby. He bled to death. Perhaps that was better than burning.
He touched Dante’s cooling brow, whispered … and rose.
Where was Varelie? A two year old would not survive with death stalking this night. He spent fruitless minutes searching. If he could save just her …
He did not care if she was the mother of kings. He needed to save her … for Dante. For himself.
“My Lord, we must go to Valaris and beg aid!” the captain shouted.
Dantian heaved and rested on his sword, staring at the man. It had come to that. Through the Rift back into the universe the Valleur abandoned in search of peace and a new start, to Valaris, where Vannis made his last stand against humankind.
Perhaps his sages were right, and Vannis lived. As he himself believed. Perhaps the man had an army to defeat the soltakin killing his people here.
Did his name not prophesy he would pass through the Rift?
“Leave someone here to find Varelie. Then we go.” Briefly Dantian closed his eyes against the pain. This, this abandonment, this he would never forgive himself for.
The captain pointed to a seasoned soldier, and the man nodded without expression. It was a death sentence, but he was loyal to his Vallorin beyond this life and any other.
They would not see him again.
Belun created the glamour that passed them through a host of rabid wraiths at the tear in the fabric.
It was swiftly done, without finesse, and would not long hold. As filthy soltakin, they shifted unnoticed among floating corpses, bile and anger rising up, threatening to unmask them faster than poor disguises.
Not even Drasso’s annihilation of humankind, world to world until the battles on Valaris commenced, caused this kind of fury. Guardians were objective, fought with level heads - not this time.
Massive roils of pitch smoke covered a planet.
Choking, they shifted through the atmosphere. A host of soltakin flew across their path, appearing as a dense cloud of smoke. Clearly they were intent on something.
Taranis circled his hand in the air and pointed. Follow them.
Minutes later a mighty edifice of marble came into view.
Must be the Vallorin’s Palace, Belun sent.
If a Darak Or wants his back cleared before he moves on to new pastures, he needs the king of his killing field, Taranis responded, using mindspeak. We have to get to the Vallorin first.
They altered direction and came at the Palace from a different angle.
It was a nightmare. Flickering fire and swirling smoke. Ash in the air, underfoot, splattered against the walls. Screams and gargles, shouts and desperate footfalls. Figures fleeing like wraiths in the smoke chased by soltakin cackling glee. Ice in veins, frantically beating hearts.
Goddess, this is bad, Belun grunted as he and the Centuar landed with metallic clinks in a central space.
They landed beside a fountain choked with ash, the water sluggish as it attempted to flow.
Taranis was already running. “Vallorin!”
That will bring every soltakin to us, Belun warned.
A man stepped from swirling shadows, gripped Taranis’ arm and spun him around. Instantly Belun, Rilt and the rest of the Centuar crowded into the confrontation, huge teeth snapping as they reached for the offender.
A blade flashed into the melee, forcing those teeth back.
Soot smeared, panting.
Taranis swore. “Careful, will you? How long have you been here?”
“Minutes, spent mostly running from wraiths. It is impossible to kill them.”
A golden man moved from the swirling shadows behind Rayne to stand before Taranis, chest heaving. Tawny eyes speared the Guardian. He seemed ill, his skin clammy, hands shaking on his sword hilt. The blade shivered.
Rayne shifted to stand sword raised back to back with the golden man. Over his shoulder he grunted, “We have been noticed.”
Eyelids blinked over that intense yellow gaze, releasing Taranis.
“Taranis of the Guardians, perforce we have to skip introductions.” Vannis smiled quickly, and added, “I assume you shouted for another Vallorin. He is up there.” One hand, steadier than moments before, gestured towards a mighty staircase visible in the smoke. “And Rayne is right … cannot kill this enemy. We need, therefore, to concentrate on getting the innocent out of harm’s way.”
Taranis, heart beating erratically, glanced at Rayne standing ready to defend this Vallorin’s back. He scanned around him at the terror on all sides. He nodded once at Vannis and shifted to speak to Belun.
“Get as many out as you can. Tell them to flee. This madness belongs to the Darak Or. No heroics, Belun. Do not go looking for a fight. Get as many out as you can.”
Belun stared at Taranis, glanced at Vannis and allowed his gaze to settle on Rayne.
What say you now, Rayne of the Mantle?
Rayne did not turn. I say we shall fight side by side on Valaris, Centuar, to answer this evil with death.
Belun snorted, stamped a hoof, and thundered away. His Centuar galloped after him.
“We need go up,” Vannis said, eyes intent. Gripping his sword one-handed, he sprinted for the stairs.
Rayne danced around and followed. Taranis, swearing under his breath, set off after them.
If they came perhaps ten minutes earlier they might have changed the fortunes of war.
They may have altered the future. It was not to be, however; destiny had played one hand and now moved into the realm of prophecy.
Dantian and his guards fought clear of the palace and fled directly to the rent in space between two dimensions.
Ardosia, behind them, burned, and Valaris, a last hope, lay beyond the tear.
It was not to be. Soltakin swarmed into their path, killing his guards, and formed an impenetrable barrier he could not pass through. Had his name lied? He was meant to exit; he had been waiting centuries.
He had not expected it to be after the annihilation of his people, however; perhaps death would be a release from guilt.
Suspended magically in space, he stared at the architect of Ardosia’s doom. He heard a hiss of acclaim, a soltakin saying this man’s name as a mark of respect.
The Vallorin made a bid for freedom.
He fled the destruction of his world and people with a clutch of his warriors and headed directly to the Rift. No doubt he hoped to find allies in the populated universe beyond the barrier. If he succeeded, he, Margus, would be stranded here, with naught to do but hunt a meagre number of survivors.
The Thread would go with him, curse all of them.
Ardosia was not the goal.
He commanded his soltakin into the Rift immediately, rage fuelling him, fuelling them. Their reactions banished the remaining illusion of Chaos that had protected it. They were the chaos, real and more terrible than any illusion. His soltakin, more substantial after releasing their holds on blood lust, slew the warriors and captured the Vallorin, holding him unharmed until he got there.
Freedom lay within the next moment.
Suspended magically in space, they stared at each other - Margus with triumphant calculation, the Vallorin boldly, fearless in his disdain.
If only all foes were this brave.
“You misjudged, did you not?” Margus said. “In arrogance you believed yourselves alone.”
“Your time will be short,” Dantian said.
“We shall see,” Margus smirked. “Your rule is at an end.”
“It is, yes. This was foretold, if only in a name.” Tawny eyes were immensely serene.
“What does that mean?” Margus demanded.
“Beware the blood of the royal house, Darak Or. We never surrender.”
“We shall see,” Margus stated. Dantian ignored him when he floated to a position behind the man. Little did he realise it would be his final independent act.
His robe torn from him, Margus shoved Dantian’s hair aside. He should have moved then, but Dantian refused to give credence to the acts of insanity by an ignominious attempt at flight now.
Yes, if only all foes were this brave.
Weaving his fingers, Margus conjured from his supply a grey oblong disc inscribed in a language known only to him. Along the edge of the contraption were hooked claws. He held it against the golden skin and on contact, the claws released, turned inward, and burrowed deep into the man’s flesh.
Dantian screamed once, an agonized sound, when the metal dug into his back, and was silent.
When Margus turned him, his yellow eyes were lifeless, catatonic.
Dantian passed through the Rift after all, as his name foretold, a prisoner in stasis under the command of Margus, Darak Or.
Hate drove anger into rage of epic proportion.
What did Dantian mean about the blood? What was foretold? He should have waited a few minutes longer.
There were other means of extracting information … and Margus clamped down on useless fury. The man was catatonic; he would reveal everything. His little toy was effective. The device could not be removed unless cut from the victim’s flesh, and invariably the victim died. For the time being the Vallorin lived, entirely under his control, his body in stasis. His mind would be entirely accessible.
Fury made space for silent celebration.
He, Margus, had command of the Thread!
He was free.
It was time to instil a new order upon a populated universe.
Pulling the statue of a once proud Vallorin with him, he headed for the rent in space.
Within the Rift itself, he turned and unleashed his long garnered fury on his miserable homeworld of no name. It had deserved no name, and the one it had once was long forgotten, not to be wasted on such blight. He had the satisfaction of witnessing a blinding flash of light far away, brighter than a hundred suns, as atoms split and vaporised all, unholy retribution, before he turned his back on it, and the past, forever.
Ahead far in the distance, he could see the small blue jewel that was Valaris. His prize.
He headed for its moon.