“Ah, my son, your eyes will be your greatest grief, and yet, also your greatest joy … may you find only the latter …”
~ Father to son, long ago
Vannis gazed down upon Dante.
He did not know his name, but knew this man was kin. Golden skin, golden hair.
Nearby there was another male in the uniform of a guard. More correctly, it was ash in the shape of a man, the uniform still recognisable. The chamber was otherwise empty.
This was a well-appointed suite, the kind fit for a king. Emblazoned on the far wall was a coat-of-arms of a blue dragon upon gold, with Valleur glyphs in a scroll below.
“The Vallorin?” Taranis murmured, coming to stand beside Vannis. Rayne, meanwhile, after staring a moment at the dragon emblem, moved through the suite weapon raised.
Vannis kneeled in the same place Dantian had earlier and touched the man, long, shaking fingers against the neck. Dead. Still he sensed the connection that was the blood of kin. He rested his hand on that lifeless chest.
He nodded and pointed at the Valleur glyphs on the coat-of-arms. “House of Valla.” Vannis swallowed back grief that threatened to overwhelm. “We are too late even for this.” He rose fluidly then and glared at Taranis. “Because you delayed.”
Taranis was already burdened by the guilt Vannis accused him of. In that, his feelings matched Rayne’s. “No one could stop this, Vannis of the Valleur. This world was doomed long before Infinity stepped into the arena with her games.”
Taranis wished with all his heart he had harked to Rayne on Tor Island. The five hours between warning and this could have made every difference.
“It is known as Ardosia. My people’s second chance.” Vannis drew breath. “We could have saved him.” He jerked a hand down to indicate Dante.
“I don’t think so,” Rayne said, returning then with a peculiar look in his eyes. “There can only be one Vallorin at a time.”
Vannis entire being infused with fury. “How dare you?”
Rayne frowned at him and shifted his attention to Taranis. “She was here. She escaped when her father was murdered.” He sheathed his sword and bent over to stand hands on knees taking massive gulps of the unclean air. “She was here.” He straightened. “I must find her.”
“Who was here?” Vannis demanded when Rayne strode to the exit, which was a gaping hole, its doors blasted across the chamber.
“His daughter,” Rayne said, pausing in the hole to look left and right. He frowned. “The Palace empties fast.”
“Rayne dreams of a girl,” Taranis said. “One needing rescue.”
A terrible sense of helplessness washed over Taranis. Needing rescue. An entire world and its people needed that, and there was nothing anyone could now do to make it come to pass. He glanced at Rayne. Perhaps the rescue of one little soul could soothe guilt. Perhaps.
An overturned frame lay on floor. Vannis flipped it over. It was a likeness of the dead man and a blond toddler. A girl. The Vallorin’s daughter. “The mother of the future,” he whispered.
Rayne, about to vanish into the passage beyond, halted. “What did you say?”
Infinity believed the Arcana evil.
She believed the tales. Fool! Hoodwinked. Had they laughed at her? Had they laughed at her?
When she opened the Rift, she rejoiced. That Chaos was precisely what she desired for Valaris. Valaris would get what it deserved and she would revel and thrive in the evil dark. Valaris deserved eternal darkness. Valarians deserved to writhe and suffer and die.
While sweet Drasso vanquished his enemies on that horrible little planet, she discovered the Ruby of Enlightenment and then it vanished before she could unravel its mysteries. It smacked of serious magic, and gifted a glimmer of a new plan, her complicated revenge. She sensed it contained the key to unlocking Valaris’ past.
What a past! An angry, vengeful Vallorin, who hated the human race, hated all beings but his precious Valleur; perfect. If the Arcana did not release Chaos, Vannis would be it in their stead.
She devised a ‘game’ using the Fourteen Principle to call that Ruby forth, and chose commencement for it at that insipid Well, needing her revenge to start where Drasso ended his life. Oh, he had not actually died there; she knew that; Taranis’ bathing there that fateful day made him almost invincible. She would cause Taranis to sacrifice and forfeit most.
She made the connection between Arcana and Valleur by delving deep into the universe’s chequered past, and killed the seer who accomplished it for her. She learned much; the Valleur on Valaris, the exodus, the back-dated legend of the Arcana, the likely immortality of the Vallorin, the method of Rift opening, and more. She approached the Arcana and told them she would deliver the Vallorin, and their cautious optimism confirmed her suspicions. She had something to bargain with, and they were her bargaining tools.
Fool! Yes, the Arcana were a legend, but she thought they were Chaos and Evil.
And the Vallorin? Could she trust he nurtured hatred still? Would he assist in unlocking Valaris’ mysteries? Would he lay traps for the humans, or would he lay one for the Darak Or? Most likely the latter, considering what was done to the Valleur beyond the Rift.
As she needed to alter strategy, no doubt he would also. Perhaps he would turn on the humans afterward and finish what he started millennia ago.
Her endless eyes gleamed. What of this Darak Or? Her manipulations at least resulted in him.
He shattered her bargaining tools, but he did so with inconceivable power! And he was on his way to Valaris! Now there was someone she could make a pact with. It might be transient, for she did not enjoy sharing the limelight, but a pact it would be. The Darak Or proved he was not squeamish. She had now lost the control factor, but, no matter, the result would still be the same … and she desired to be part of it.
She would approach carefully and make contact. His aim was hers by all appearances and they could achieve it faster together.
How to do this? His soltakin made her shiver, and she did not think they knew how to distinguish between good and evil. She had to do something. She could go to Valaris herself, now, before the Darak Or, and enable obstacles, promote fear, undo the renewals, force Taranis to return … yes, and the Darak Or would see and know her as an ally.
She screamed. Flapping around her, sharp beaks biting, talons scratching, reaching …
Margus gazed in awe upon Valaris.
It was a greater prize than he envisioned. Proximity gifted a magnificence missing when he viewed it disembodied. Great mountain ranges, beautiful lakes, pristine forests.
He smirked. Valarians were unprepared for soltakin. They were not equipped for him.
Silence had descended on Ardosia now - he sensed it - but it was a silence filled with the crackling sibilance of a planet burning. Nothing would remain; those few Valleur who escaped the madness of his soltakin had nothing to return to. He was done with that realm into eternity. They would succumb, driven by grief into insanity in the great emptiness. Let them feel emptiness as he had endured.
His attention focused on the fourth Vallorin. On this side of the Rift, he was keeper of the thread.
Dantian could not now know how important he was.
“Why does it resonate so?” Vannis said, sounding exactly like Llettynn back in the Great Dividing Forest, as Taranis in the fen.
“It is a term I have heard too many times recently,” Rayne murmured.
Taranis retrieved the likeness from the floor and brought it to Rayne. “Is this the girl? Be sure before we start a search.”
He took it. “It’s her.” Rayne drew the picture free of the frame and tucked it inside his tunic.
Taranis, over his shoulder, said to Vannis, “Are you coming?”
“Taranis,” Rayne said. “Thank you.”
Grey stared into grey. “This is for me also, Rayne. We did come too late. Listen. Mostly silence now. Ardosia has been abandoned by the innocent and the guilty.”
Rayne squeezed his eyes shut and his sword wavered. “How do we live with this?”
Vannis came to rest at his shoulder. “Realistically, there was nothing we could do, even had I been free long enough to garner strength. No one knew what was beyond the Rift. You cannot blame yourself, and I cannot blame another. I am deeply grieved, but we have to go on, look forward. The Darak Or has turned his attention on Valaris and will attempt the same destruction there, and then go forth to other worlds. We have to stop him. We are forewarned; I cannot let my people have died in vain.”
Rayne closed his eyes again to release himself from Vannis’ intent gaze. Blue, he thought, the colour of suffering.
Vannis focused his extraordinary eyes on Taranis. “A handful fled into the far reaches. They do not want to be found. And that is why …” He shifted to Rayne. He seemed to stare into Rayne’s soul. “… I shall put aside blame, and go forward. I shall make Valaris safe for that handful. Along with defeating the Darak Or, we must overcome all untruths, for only then will victory have meaning.”
“Yes.” You were right again, Aven, and I left in anger. Forgive me.
“We won’t find the girl if she fled into the far reaches,” Vannis added, staring at Rayne, “but she might be hiding here still or she could be with those the Centuar aided. We will look, but we cannot spend too much time here now. Valaris needs us more.”
Taranis murmured, “How do you want to play it, Rayne? I will follow your lead in this.”
“We search the Palace.” When Taranis nodded, Rayne said to Vannis, “Will you see if she is among the survivors?”
Vannis swirled his tongue in his mouth. “And stand amid Valleur for the first time in millennia? Wondering if they know who I am? Wondering also how I can contain my grief and anger …” He paused to inhale. “Yes, I shall step in there. Their faces will gift me the strength to recreate Valaris as a haven.”
He shoved past Rayne and Taranis, strode into the smoke-filled passage beyond and carried on walking, his gait long-legged and certain.
“A king indeed,” Taranis murmured.
“Yes,” Rayne said.
“I will go this way,” Taranis said, gesturing. “We meet in one hour outside. Rayne, he is right. Valaris needs us more now.”
Rayne nodded and turned left into the passage.
They searched everywhere, crawling into spaces big enough only for a tiny form, overturned fallen masonry and shifted broken furniture out of the way.
They found only the dead. And ash, so much of it. Coughing and spluttering, they went on. Tears ran over cheeks and some of it was smoke, most was grief.
The might of the Valleur was crushed.
It hurt to be witness to it.
There were no soltakin. Clearly the Darak Or had left this realm, taking with him his terrible host. Even now, he could be invading Valaris. It lent wings to the search, for Vannis was right.
Valaris needed them more.
Rayne tore his tunic open and used a piece to tie across his mouth.
Breathing hurt. In those few seconds he was still long enough to listen to the silence. He heard someone moan.
There! He was in a study. Books smouldered on shelves and old scrolls lay blackened and twisted on a scorched blue carpet. A massive desk had caved in as if pounded by a huge hammer and someone crawled into the mess below.
Rayne fell to his knees and peered into the darkness. He summoned the tiny flame to shed light.
Someone had been under the desk when it caved in to escape the terror of a wraith touch. However, she had not escaped; a thick splinter from the struts under the desk became a stake. It speared her below her heart; she was moments from death.
She turned her head towards the flame.
It was a young, attractive woman who, when she awakened this morning, had everything to look forward to. And now nothing.
“I am sorry,” Rayne murmured.
Yellow eyes raked him. “Who are you?”
He coughed and pulled the cloth from his mouth. “I cannot move you …”
“You are Valleur,” she whispered. “Different eyes, but definitely Valleur. Who are you?”
Rayne shivered. “I am called Rayne, but that is not important now. Who are you?”
A ghost of a smile. “For the record of the dead?” Her head shifted away from the flame. “Do not remember me. I failed.”
“You are not at fault.”
“I couldn’t save her.” A tear slid from one eye. “I couldn’t save her.”
Rayne’s heart thundered into life inside him. “Who?”
“I hid in the wrong place … and look now.” Her head moved to him once more. “Elder Anastir found us. I couldn’t save her, but she is safe with him.” Her hand inched across the carpet and rested on his hand. “Tell her I love her.”
Dear gods. “Was she your charge?”
“An angel, yes.”
The woman’s eyelids were flickering. Seconds left. Rayne gripped her hand. “I am searching for the Vallorin’s daughter …”
“Dante’s little girl, yes. An angel.”
“What is her name? Who has her?”
A smile. “I see colour … smell fresh air …”
Rayne shook her hand, hard. “Please! Her name!”
“Varelie. So pretty.” Her eyes closed.
It did not fit. My name is Mitrill.
Rayne heaved a breath, and sat hard holding her hand. A moment after he remembered the likeness inside his tunic. He pulled it free, hoping, praying she would last long enough to look at it, to tell him. To grant him peace.
He tugged at her hand. “Please, will you look?”
Her eyes opened.
“Please. I need to know this little girl is safe.” He held the picture closer to her. “Just look. All I need is a nod.”
She focused, likely expending her final reserves. And nodded. “That’s Varelie. Safe.”