“Build a structure able to stand the test of time upon a natural energy node, and you will build with magic and essence also. It is a great gift to future generations, but it is also a grand gesture that creates balance in the world. A true geomancer knows where to locate a site that will be sacred forever.”
~ Ancient Oracles
Vannis requested a space to find equanimity in before they rejoined the team and thus Rayne accessed an image in his mind of a clearing much like the one the team waited in.
They had traversed it soon after leaving the Square Pyramid; thus was it accessible to memory.
As they landed, Rayne thought on how simple everything was up to the leaving at the Pyramid. Everything was now different.
He thought also of the Siric and his warnings about cause and effect.
Vannis did not move and they did not speak. Although Rayne desired to demand answers to the blue fire between them on Ardosia, for the Medaillon never reacted in a manner like that, it was clear Vannis seemed unaware of anything, although eyes tracked movement with bemusement.
Rayne retreated into the shadows, but was unable to look away. He wanted to give the man the privacy he needed, yet needed to witness this return. This became the moments and minutes of Vannis’ real return to life, his real freedom. It was something akin to honour - his, and the Vallorin’s.
A sigh of deep, profound release sounded loud in the silence, and Vannis blinked his eyes, licking his lips as if thirsty. He threw his head back to stare up in wonder at the blue sky. The next instant he closed his eyes, to experience, to absorb the warmth of reality, to take in the energy of life.
He was tall and golden, lean and strong, and wore his power casually, as if it were of no consequence, so intrinsic he no longer needed to examine it, and Rayne, watching, wondered what it felt like, that confidence, that certainty. He was also awed the man could recover so fast. He saw Vannis’ nostrils flare at the spicy smells of forest and water and flowers and bird-droppings combined with a hundred other fragrances, smells he and others took for granted. He turned his back then, finding the strength to walk away, to afford the Vallorin the privacy, for the joy of freedom was an individual concept.
Vannis blinked his eyes open and caught the tactful withdrawal, then forgot about Rayne as ears discerned a thousand sounds, both familiar and alien, long ago heard, a long wait for this.
Freedom. Now it would be real.
He could see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and everything was new, miraculous. Yesterday and today blurred, Ardosia receded into the background, time lost its unholy hold over him, he trembled, and silvery tracings made their way over his cheeks. Life was precious; never would he undermine its beauty and majesty again.
Rayne studied the glory of the new-old trees spread like benign sentinels about him, protective friends never to be ignored.
Seeing the Vallorin’s silent pain and joy caused him to thank all gods he never knew that kind of imprisonment. A frisson of fear ran through him. He, too, stared up at the blue heavens, amazed by the hues after the terrible darkness over another world, and wondered why he should be afraid, in this way, now.
It was not fear of the man behind him, that much he knew, but fear nonetheless connected to the golden man. Like with Taranis, there was a bond, but this one was frightening, and did not sit comfortably. Blue fire, dear gods.
He heard the unmistakeable sounds of running footfalls behind him, and saw Vannis, barefoot, racing around the small clearing, deliberately digging his toes into the fresh grass. The pure pleasure of the act transformed the grave features into a beacon of light.
Vannis halted, heaving, and smiled, grinned, laughed, his eyes large and glorious amber, before fading back to Valleur yellow. He doubled over, standing with his hands on his knees to find breath again.
He raised his head to smile at Rayne, and Rayne returned it, a witness to the transformation that freedom wrought.
Vannis said, “Thank you.” Thank you for knowing, for understanding, for compassion, for not judging, for freedom, for witnessing. “I am able to absorb other personalities now. Amazing, isn’t it, what a few minutes of sunshine can do for the soul?”
It had been far more than a few minutes, Rayne mused, but would not say so.
A blink from Vannis. “We will talk, but after we have mobilised the team.” He grinned then.
Taranis’ words. Rayne smiled. Fine. He needed time also. “They are not far. Do you want to walk?”
“I want to draw my sword and behead that monster on the moon,” Vannis muttered, and shrugged. “We will be walking soon enough. Picture where they are … I will follow.”
Rayne nodded, paused. “Yesterday I could not transport through the spaces. Today …”
“Yesterday you believed you could not. Today you know you were in denial.” Vannis lifted a challenging eyebrow.
Rayne stared at him a beat. And vanished.
Snorting a laugh of disbelief that no one heard, Vannis followed.
Rayne led the way into that other clearing, long shadows crossing it served to mark the passage of time, and Averroes and Saska were at him.
No doubt the wait drove them close to insanity.
He shook his head. “Questions later, please.” He focused on Averroes because she was easier to manipulate. “Introduce Vannis.” He watched her intently until she nodded.
From the side-lines he watched the reduced team, noted how subdued they were in sensing the aura of authority. They did not say much, merely reservedly greeting Vannis in turn, and Rayne wondered how Aven would have handled himself; probably with unsinkable aplomb.
Gods, wish you were here, old man; we could use your spirit right now.
His lips thinned. And McSee? Would he have knocked Vannis flat to the ground, telling him to stop fooling with everyone? A smile tugged at his mouth a moment later. That would be interesting, to say the least.
McSee. Our paths will cross again.
“I’m still here,” Saska muttered. “Ignoring me won’t make me go away.”
And was that not an absolute truth?
“What happened on Ardosia?”
Silence. She now knew that world’s name. “Annihilation.”
More silence. “Did you fight?”
“Barely. The enemy was leaving when we arrived.”
She touched his arm. “It won’t happen here.”
He looked at her. “It could.” He moved away. “I cannot talk about it, not yet.” Too much has changed.
She nodded after a moment and they gave attention to the team now with Vannis.
Vannis, Rayne noted, was doing fine. Clear of voice, without judgement. He coped remarkably well, considering his history of disdain for humans.
Saska was thoughtful, watching closely.
The Falcon relayed every word back to the Dome, to whoever was there. The blue bird dipped his head in greeting on being presented, and Vannis grinned. Phet had that impact on others, and everyone would know it soon. Phet, in his unique manner, was a charismatic.
Introductions over, Vannis commented on progress to date, which caused the subdued team to glance at each other warily. It spoke of unnatural power, and no one was wholly comfortable with the idea of a freed Vallorin that possessed it.
Vannis glanced at Rayne with a wry smile, who shrugged.
If she was given instructions via the Falcon, Saska gave no sign, but the next moment she stepped up to Vannis and bowed.
“Lord Vallorin, on behalf of the Immortal Guardians I extend our deepest sympathies. The destruction beyond the Rift caught us unaware, and we beg your forgiveness. If we had known; if we had more time …”
Vannis held a hand aloft to forestall her. “Please, no more. I thank you for your kind words, but I shall not function if I dwell on it. The wholesale murder of my people must be put aside for the time being. Please do not mention it in my presence again.” Vannis gave a twisted, sorrowful smile. “Not until I am ready to face it.”
Saska paled at first as he spoke his reprimand, but swiftly she understood his state of mind, and said, “It will be as you say.”
Vannis beckoned Rayne closer.
Rayne closed the gap. His realisation regarding the Falcon passing information back to the Dome was discomfiting. But what was wrong with that? Saska and Phet were seconded to Valaris for that reason, and the Dome did need to be informed. It was not Taranis listening on the other side; he was on Ardosia.
Gods, he did not want to be responsible - he did not want to be the one to send people to their deaths. Their inaction already caused slaughter; action could achieve worse.
Cristi, he noted, hid behind Samson, as shy again as on first arrival, Kisha and Kylan hung well back, both pale, and Mordan stood stiffly to attention, holding his carved staff in both hands. Averroes forced calm, and Saska was, well, Saska - prepared, willing to act, with caution underlying it. And fire. Senior Guardian on Valaris, she ached to blaze a trail for others to take note of. Perhaps she should be in charge.
Perhaps that would be worse. He would be guilty of sidestepping responsibility.
Rayne’s gaze slid from her, and he faced Vannis. “Lord Vallorin?”
Vannis was familiar with the deferment to authority. “Thank you.” He faced the team as a whole. “I have seen each of you glance to Rayne for confirmation … even you, Guardian. It appears you regard him as your de facto leader. I dare suggest this is the case even with Taranis present.”
He stated it without inflection, and moved on, giving no one an opportunity to deny or ponder his statement. Only Saska reacted, paling, but she did not look at Rayne.
“He has deferred to me at this point, and I am to tell you where we go from here. This meets with your approval, Rayne?” Vannis paused and before Rayne could reply he added, “An evocative name. Why were you given it?”
Confounded by the sudden change in direction, Rayne nonetheless remarked, “Because the Valleur attach great value to a name?” How did he know that?
“Indeed,” Vannis said.
“I believe I was the new life in the desert of my parents’ marriage.” I never knew that before this moment.
“Real meaning; rare for a human. Forgive me for asking out of turn, now is not the time for that. To continue …”
“You have a plan?” Saska interrupted. Who was Rayne that a Guardian millennia old and a Vallorin from a forgotten past were drawn to him, quickly, wholly, and he to them? Why did they not question it?
“A plan? That would be a trifle early, I think,” Vannis said. “The threat to my - our - world is dire, if only a fraction of the terror unleashed on Ardosia is released here.”
“Margus,” Saska murmured. “His name is Margus.”
“Well, fitting. It means …” Vannis glanced at Rayne, who shook his head.
Sunless. Without light, Rayne thought.
“… Lightless, Sunless,” Vannis finished. “A parody name, as if given after something of import occurred. Now. The Guardians will work from the Dome. They have the means to knowledge that could aid us, and there is where their real contribution lies. They are better served in the seeking by remaining off world. Do not expect direct participation at this time. In the meantime, we prepare for confrontation here on the ground. We do all in our power to undermine the Darak Or, delay him, subdue him, until we are ready to stand together and do battle with him and his army.” Vannis paused and looked to each of them, including Rayne. “Do not fool yourselves; Margus will come to this earth, and soon.” Dear Goddess, I must fight a war with these soldiers?
“What can we do?” Mordan asked.
“Reawaken the ancient magic of the land,” Vannis stated. “As you have done here on the island.”
“Ah, the sacred sites,” Mordan said, and gripped his staff almost in ecstasy.
Vannis inclined his head and his eyes travelled the length of the staff. “Mordan, is it? Well, Mordan, your recall of the Oracles is astounding, but I warn you; do not use the magic unless you are certain of the result. Never speak Valleur unless you are aware of the meaning. It is a tricky tongue, and has messages within words, enchantments within casual grammar, and therefore not to be trusted.”
Mordan nodded and was not put out; he was relieved, for now no one would ask him to repeat anything from it.
“And your staff … I see what you have done, but be grateful you never tested it.”
Mordan held it away from him, two-fingered, as if it were a poisonous snake. It should have been comical; it was scary. “What does it do?”
“Nothing in that state,” Vannis said, amusement lurking in his yellow eyes. “Essentially it is a wand. Point it at something, shall we say a mountain, and read the symbols in the correct order - suffice to say, poof, no more mountain.”
He grinned when Mordan dropped it willy-nilly. Cristi bent to retrieve it and handed it to Vannis, who took it and studied it.
“Excellent workmanship. You have worked with your hands in younger days.” Vannis looked up. “I am able to remove the enchantments, if you prefer …”
“I prefer,” Mordan said.
Vannis ran his left hand the length of the oak, and the carved symbols vanished one after the other. He handed it back to Mordan, who accepted it gingerly.
“I cannot wholly undo the magic - that is not in my power - but I have rendered the destruction enchantments void. It is a strong staff, stronger than appearance implies.” Mordan was discomfited, and thus Vannis added, “The Valleur elderly fashion those in their final years. What you did was not wrong, Mordan; use it well.”
There was a short and more relaxed silence. Vannis’ act of goodwill helped put the team at ease.
“To return to the sacred sites. They are situated to tap into the natural magic of the land, and by reawakening them, we return power, something Margus will find difficult to counter, if not impossible. However, given the time constraints, we shall be forced to separate.”
Cristi squeaked dismay.
“What kind of timing are you looking at?” Saska asked.
“What leaps out at you?” Vannis countered.
“Three nights, including tonight, of moonlight available to us, and thus we must make haste,” Vannis said.
“No,” Kisha breathed, holding onto Kylan’s hand.
“And the solstice,” Rayne murmured.
“Right,” Vannis agreed. “We assume the worst.” He focused on a subdued Averroes. “Little one, you and the Herbmaster must go north into the wastelands of the Vall Peninsula. You, because of your birthright, and the Herbmaster, because a healer is respected in any culture. Yes, my dear, I am sending you to the half-Valleur.”
Kisha said, “The Vall? It’s a dead land.”
“It is a wasteland, correct,” Vannis returned, “but the half-Valleur live below.”
“They exist?” Samson asked.
There was a faraway look about Vannis as he replied. “Averroes is here; they must exist still. They hid well; after a time even I could not track them and did not want to, if truth be told. I imposed upon them exile, a half-life for my remnant fighting force.”
“And they are half-Valleur because …?” Saska queried.
“… because they were commanded to mate with humans.”
“Ah, and how did they manage that, seeing as you despised us humans so much?” Kylan asked.
“Use your imagination,” Vannis said. It was a sore point; an unforgivable issue. He inhaled calm, and looked to Averroes. “Find and prepare them. They may not at first believe you. They are ostracized long, but they are faithful. Can you do this?”
As Averroes nodded, Kylan muttered, “It’s a long way; we cannot get there before Moondark.” He was not happy with the notion of abandoning Kisha.
“The Medaillon will assist you into the region, but, Averroes, from there you must follow your instincts. You were born there, and someone took you away when you were young under circumstances neither of us can now guess at, but you will remember. A Valleur baby never forgets; it is in your blood. Trust yourself.” He leaned closer. “When you remember, you will recall the Changeling prophecy. You will know yourself.”
She asked, “And after we find and convince them?”
“The Ruby is there, and once the sites are uncloaked it can be used to travel between them, as well as to see. Search the gem to find us when the time comes. They will know how. Uncloak the Maze. It is a site on the Vall and they know what to do.”
“I want to go with them,” Kisha stated.
“No. You have another task.” Vannis was firm. “It is time to go.”
“Wait, all right?” Kylan said. “Jeez.” He pulled Kisha aside. “Don’t let anything happen to you, please,” he begged from his heart and pulled her into an embrace, which she returned fiercely, fighting tears.
“Be careful,” she whispered.
Averroes meanwhile approached Rayne. “If anything goes wrong, will you tell Aven?”
“You will be fine,” he said, drawing her to one side. “You have an instinct about you, Averroes, a natural confidence …”
“Yes, well, it has been sorely missing all my life.”
“You were in exile,” Rayne responded. “Today your feet are on the right path. You are the Changeling, feel it. You will change hearts, Averroes.” Almost he bent his head to kiss her, but then thought better of it.
She smiled up at him as if she knew. “Courage, sorcerer, hmm?”
He barked a laugh. “Just go … before I whack you one.”
Kylan and Kisha disengaged and Vannis bid Averroes take the Herbmaster’s hand. He laid his own hand upon the clasped ones while holding the Medaillon in the other, and they vanished.
Rayne was thoughtful as Averroes left. He suspected she would not be the same person when they met again.
It was likely he would not be either.
Vannis released the medal. “Next we have to reach out to the clanlands. They innocently get on with life muttering about the contrariness of this summer’s weather. You four northerners are the only choices to affect this task.”
Mordan, Kisha, Samson and Cristi nodded, each beginning to smile. They were going home.
“Warn your people, prepare them, and when you are done, we will come for you and any who choose to meet the Darak Or head-on. Our paths will intersect before long.”
With their agreement, he sent them north also, again employing the Medaillon.
Then it was only Vannis, Rayne, Saska and Phet in the glade.
The little blue Falcon was unblinkingly curious, his black eyes moving from face to face.
Rayne remarked, “Sending the others away won’t speed the uncloaking process.”
“It does, for they will slow us otherwise. They are doing what they are best suited to.”
“We are to stay together?” Saska asked.
Vannis lifted a shoulder. “A Vallorin, a sorcerer, a Guardian and a communicator - how not?”
“What happens to the game now?” she asked next.
“Infinity has no hold,” Rayne said, his voice devoid of feeling. “In fact, she will fight for survival before long. The game is forfeit.”
“Oh, she will come up with something, trust me,” Saska said. “She always does.”
“What is this game?” Vannis asked, and when they told him, he laughed long and hard. “Who would have thought we would be so successful in our illusion! How they must have laughed at her from behind the Chaos screen!” Then he sobered. “This Margus is good.”
“The truth of the illusion was evident on his side,” Saska pointed out.
“No more game, but the plan remains.” Vannis sucked at his teeth. “There is no way Infinity could convince the Arcana to re-enter this realm, yet she convinced them to keep the Rift open … because of me? Did she somehow realise I was alive, and would they have agreed to that kind of trade-off? How could she have known?”
“She didn’t know enough,” Saska offered.
“Mistakes occur when one doesn’t know enough. She knew to use the Ruby, the fourteen sites, enough to force a game of revenge … no matter, it was meant to be. To return to the plan. We unveil the sites, for they are more than magic; they are the balance that is Valaris. Together they restore equilibrium, which is to our advantage. If we achieve one day of balance before Margus attacks, we have the upper hand.”
“Can it be done before Moondark?” Saska questioned.
“Probably not; we do what we can.”
“Unbalance is dangerous,” Rayne said.
Vannis looked at him before replying, “It is not the way with the sites. Each one renewed adds strength only.”
“Paths have a way of twisting out of control.”
“Agreed, thus we keep eyes and ears open to chance opportunity and unheralded mishap. Every so often a twisted path leads to greater success.”
Rayne thought that was misplaced optimism and said so.
“Would you rather we crawl into a hole and give up?” Saska snapped.
Her attack was upon the gulf between them. “By now you know I see a demon behind every bush,” Rayne murmured.
“Right, but being negative …”
Vannis interrupted. “Set the horses free; we go to the Obelisk by easier means.”
Saska shook her head in a long-suffering way and went to unsaddle the patient beasts, saying she needed to do it, needed a few minutes alone. She placed the saddles under a large tree, stacking them one atop the other. Phet perch fussily on them, picking at his wing feathers while she removed the horses’ halters. She grinned at the bird and slapped rumps one after the other to send them on their way.
“She’s feisty,” Vannis murmured.
Rayne glanced at her. “Very.”
“It will be hard to build a relationship during a state of war. Erect your defences. It will be easier on both of you.” Again Vannis was filled with challenge. He raised his voice. “To the Obelisk!”