Thyrm’s arms burned as he wheeled himself up the uneven cobbles towards the Upper Ward, breath coming thick and heavy as his lungs sucked at the suffocating fog. Night had fallen, but the hungry orange of a thousand burning homes coalesced and refracted through the smoke and mist, weaving its way up to reflect off the low-hanging clouds, casting its wan glow throughout the city. Above all this, lost in the unfathomable heights, the bells continued tolling out in discordant tones, chasing friend and foe alike through the maze of blood and terror the lower Wards had become. He halted for a moment, catching his breath at a small intersection, using the brief reprieve to adjust the massive greatsword wedged against his back, eyes taking stock of the new wounds gouged across the tracery of his old scars. He had left flesh and blood in the streets behind him, but the grasping shadows with the eyes of the Reideine had paid a heavier price than he. What manner of sorcery could have called forth such creatures, and for what purpose? As he pondered that question, his ears caught the sound of stone grinding against stone. Wrenching his chair around to face the alley behind him, he drew his sword, readying the blade to slice through whatever abomination emerged from the sinister twilight. The stones of one of the buildings along the alley warped and twisted, changing their shape as if they were fluid, opening into the facsimile of a door, although there was no opening within their arch. It was as if his eyes could not focus, could not perceive what lay beyond the stones as they ceased their strange gyrations. As suddenly as it had begun, the spectacle halted, the wall remaining as straight and sturdily mortared as the day it was laid, only now a figure stood in front of it, heavily swathed in a dark cloak, earth-brown features locked into a permanently-furrowed scowl, as if they were carved from granite. The light of battle fell from Thrym’s eyes, yet he held his arms and sword tensed and ready as the Ambassador approached him.
“Tell me Eli, is this your handiwork out there tonight?” he gnashed out.
The Ambassador, Eli, turned as if looking out onto the city shrouded in fog, as if his eyes could make out what transpire beneath them. “Our enemies, MY enemies, are many and varied. I will take whatever steps necessary to ensure the protection of my charge,” his glowing green eyes turned to view Thrym, “Something you apparently have forgotten.”
Thrym lowered his blade, resting the edge on the cobblestones in front of him, “I knew you had changed, knew you were changing, but this is too far Eli. There are people dying down there, people screaming and bleeding and fleeing in terror from Ancestors knows what; and you stand up here telling me this protects them? You’ve unleashed a nightmare upon them!”
“They’ve killed the Orcs, have they not?” Eli responded, “They’ve driven off the threat to their home. Yes, collateral damage was inevitable, but as long as the city survives, the magic survives. The people will return, but Air will not, winter will not.” He threw his hand out, back towards the burning valley, fingers splayed in fury, “Fire consumes the city, Summer refuses to relinquish its hold, and the seasons themselves have ground to a halt. If the magic dies, we all die, and then there will be no survivors.” He took a forceful stride towards Thrym, “Winter will not return, the Gespri have abandoned us, the Seer has abandoned us, Air has abandoned us. I am all these people have, and they don’t even realize it! I am no Ancestor, I am no Pure. I have no army at my back, no miracle in my pocket, but I will carry out my responsibilities.”
“Winter will return,” Thrym spat back, “But the lives you have wasted here will not.”
“You are delusional,” Eli turned on his heel, cloak billowing as he strode away from Thrym towards the main thoroughfare. “I thought perhaps I could requisition your help in this matter, knowing our history, but I see I was mistaken.” He paused, “I will simply have to seek allies elsewhere.”
Thrym hefted his sword, readying it again as he spoke, “They’re gone Eli, I sent them from the city hours ago. With luck they won’t return.” His hand tightened on the hilt as Eli turned back, green eyes glowing with a dangerous light. Thrym felt some unseen force sweep over him, and his wounds lanced with pain as his pulse thundered in his ears, fresh scabs breaking open, and old scar tissue searing with agony. Almost as soon as the moment began, it passed, and Eli was again striding away into the orange night.
“Then I will hope for their safe and timely return, won’t I?” Eli glanced over his shoulder as the cobblestones around his feet began their strange, otherworldly dance. “And you are wrong Thrym, I will save them, I did save them.” His scowl deepened as he vanished into the stone, “The one who left the blood of Tamarack Row in the streets tonight was you.”
Ivan stared around him, beard stained with soot and blood, eyes reddened with smoke, as he gathered the last of his surviving forces. He could still hear the voice echoing through his mind, like a thousand boulders tumbling infinitely down a mountain towards him.
Our purpose has been served, return to me my vessel, bring all you can
He shuddered, he hoped his master allowed him glorious vengeance when the time came. Gallons of Tarrusian blood had been spilled tonight by those filthy Impure and their strange pets, but he had faith in the direction Sandro would lead Tarrus.
“Spread the word, we meet on the western arc of the March of Seasons, two days out. Any who aren’t there in one week are dead. Their blood will be avenged,” he whispered to the orc on his right. The soldier saluted and turned, gathering his squad as they tramped back into the fiery city.
Our purpose has been served…
Sandro’s summons consumed Ivan’s thoughts, and yet his body yet longed to turn with his men, back into that den of filth. That was where the traitor was, Ulrik, the one who refused Sandro’s call. A stain upon their proud people and the new direction they, and thus the rest of Kedrana would take. And yet Ulrik stood there, somehow obsessed with that dirt, that TRASH, and all of their scheming, blind to the destiny that awaited him.
Our purpose has been served…
Yes, Ivan would return, he would not lose sight of their goals in his rage against Ulrik. But he was certain that his master would see the necessity of silencing Ulrik. After all, he bore a perversion of his master’s glory, had refused his master’s call. He had sided with the weak in this, knowingly or unknowingly, and when the time came for that to become clear, well…
Return to me my vessel…
Sandro had ways of rewarding his most faithful. Yes, vengeance would be glorious indeed.
Khafri Sojay Cardinas stood in the center of the Temple Ward, observing the situation. The muddy water that had until earlier today been covering much of the Ward hovered a distance behind her, glittering dully in the firelight, rising in a perfect vertical line as if pressed against a wall, while the surface fifteen feet above hissed and bubbled, long streamers of steam peeling themselves off to join the smoky fog. More vapor curled off the ground around her, snaking up around her finely tooled boots, winding around her body before it evaporated. Even the fog itself was pushed back, the sphere around her the only clear or dry air anywhere within miles of Tamarack Row. She watched as her men scoured the area where the Altar of Craft once stood, looking for any trace of its fall. She watched as others bandaged their wounds and cleaned their blades, having just felled another of those strange creatures that seemed to be attracted to their camp. She watched as her lieutenant knelt in front of her, giving his report as he presented to her the severed head of one of her elves, the fletched end of an arrow protruding from his mouth, his face frozen in an expression of shock.
“Milady, I believe they have provided their answer,” her lieutenant finished. She flashed the signals to him to gather the men and pack their gear, they would be leaving within the hour. His eyes took in the deft movements of her fingers, and he loped off towards the camp proper, barking out orders to the various knots of elves scattered about the clearing. She took the severed head in her hands and cast the appropriate spells. Beris had died in the line of duty, he deserved a proper burial once they returned home. That is if his soul didn’t respond to her call. As much as he had earned his rest, she doubted he would stay away, their devotion to her was near fanatical.
It was not so much Beris’ death that was eating at her; each and every one of her retainers, before they swore their oaths, was made fully aware of the dangers they would be facing in her service. No, it was the circumstances leading to it that had her disturbed.
Perhaps she had performed the spell wrong, perhaps her incantation was off, or the Unbound magic suffusing the air interfered with her casting. Perhaps even the bells of Tamarack Row defending the city had sensed this intrusion and thought it a threat. Her mind cascaded through the options, each and every one making sense to her in its own way, each and every one a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why her divination had been so wrong.
But she could see the truth, she knew it in her bones. Nothing else made sense, when you looked at the bigger picture, and not just the failing of a single spell. The seasons, the magic, the world, the politics; all of it pointed to one thing.
She walked as she pondered, making a circuit first of the clearing, then widening as she went, until she found herself at the doors of one of the temples. Her eyes took in the stonework, the motifs and designs covering the building. The Altar of Thought beckoned her, offered her a quiet place to sit and think through the implications of this night. The doors swung open as she approached, tendrils of vapor hissing out of the grain of the wood, loosening the swollen doors, and drying the stone within. As her foot crossed the threshold, her eyes already scouting out a likely seat to meditate upon; her nose picked up the faint and telling tang of ozone from within. She continued her stride unabated, it had been a very long time indeed since she had scented this particular variety of Unbound magic, but it was familiar in its own way, and much preferable to the tarry stench of the Unbound suffusing Tamarack Row. She passed the sturdiest place to sit, seeking out the pews deeper into the sanctuary. As she passed the rows, the ceiling opened up above her, but she was too focused on scanning the aisles of debris to take in the ruined beauty of the temple. As far as the holy places of the Ancestors went, Tamarack Row was fairly low on the list of the most awe-inspiring. As she reached the row standing nearest the actual altar, she spotted him, sitting in the shelter of a column far down to the side, his gaze apparently intent upon the statue of the Thinker gracing the front of the temple.
He didn’t even flinch as steam began rising from his seat at her approach, though she knew he was aware of her. As she drew close she noticed how much worse he looked than last she saw him, several centuries past. His beard was longer, and tangled, reaching the bottom of his throat, and his hair was ragged and graying, though still tightly pulled back, dangling down his back, partly obscuring his torn and threadbare shirt. His breeches weren’t in much better condition, ragged and shortened, having been singed and ripped around his ankles so often that they now reached only halfway down his calves. He had his callused feet crossed beneath him, and his sword, she realized with a barely repressed chill of terror, that strange blade crossed the gap in front of him, paper covered blade tapping at the stone floor. The blade was long and thin, with a slight curve to it, and other than the paper, was a fairly unremarkable weapon. The hilt was old and worn, much like the man himself, and the leather grip needed replacing. The crossguard was corroded and pitted, both by the elements and the accumulated damage of battle. But not a faction of the blade was showing, the entire thing had been tightly wrapped in parchment, now cracked and yellowed, with water-stained script written in a tiny, cramped hand spidering across every available surface. But that sword could still cut, could still kill. Once she had wanted to study that writing, to find out what message it bore or what spell it help in its words. All it had taken to quench that desire was for her to get within a foot of the blade. She had been sick for weeks, her body and mind wracked with the magical echoes of just being in close proximity to that sword. She knew it was Unbound, and she knew that was all she would ever want to know.
She lowered herself to the floor and took up a similar posture next to him, removing the porcelain mask that was her birthright as she did so, her fingers caressing the perfectly smooth surface, unbroken and unadorned, a pure white oval without flaws. As she did so, her senses reverted to their physical state, taking in all the sensations that her mask cut out.
“Walker,” she stated flatly. It always surprised her how clear her voice was, on the rare occasions that she would speak she always expected a hoarse rasp, indicative of its disuse, but such was never the case.
“Sojay,” he returned, not breaking his stare into the distance.
“What brings you out here? And why now?”
“Let me see your eyes,” he spoke without moving, “I must assess the situation before I speak.”
She sighed, and shifted around so she was facing him, pushing blond hair behind her ear so as to given him an uninterrupted view of her face. For the first time since she had spotted him he moved, his eyes shifting to make contact with her own. Her right eye was a sightless white orb, blinded since she her youth, some 700 years before. Her left was no eye any longer, but the tiny orb of a miniature sun, burning with a fierce light and heat. In spite of this, looking into his plain brown eyes was an experience she did not enjoy in the least. It made her skin crawl and she felt like she was plummeting down into some bottomless abyss, swallowed up by darkness and emptiness on all sides, torn to shreds.
“Let me see it,” he whispered. She sighed again and held her eyelid with her fingers as she rolled her blind eye forward as far as she could, expose the tiny mark she carried there, almost like the mockery of a pupil, black against the solid white.
“Satisfied?” she lowered her hand as he grunted. Relaxing a bit as he placed the sword behind him, out of immediate reach. “Not since I first found my way to Clarity and first accepted my gift have you tested me so, and that was a mere formality,” she shifted again, his stillness always made her uncomfortable. “This did not have the feel of formality.”
“We are being used Sojay,” he spoke softly, almost reverently, but there was a hardness to his voice. An edge that made her break out in a cold sweat. “I have followed my call here to you, to test you, and I will follow it to each of us in turn, testing them all, until the offender is found. Tell me, is your calling clear?”
She dreaded what she had to tell him, but she understood now why he had sought her out at this moment. “Walker my calling is clear, and I accept my burden thricefold; once for the branding, twice for the seeking, and thrice for the signing,” she spoke the ritual answer and continued. “Walker, I know yours is as well, it brought you here to me, first, because of what I just learned,” she took a steadying breath, “We may be being used, but there is more to what is transpiring than that. The Edicts have been broken Walker.”
His silence and his eyes told her she had hit the mark, and she could tell he had come to the same conclusion she had arrived at weeks earlier. She was just glad that her suspicions, her calling, had proven to be clear. He stood slowly, she couldn’t remember seeing him reach for it, but the sword was there at his side, tucked through his rope belt. She rose as well, matching his stride as he walked towards the center aisle, brushing his fingers across the base of the altar as they passed.
“We must each heed our calling Sojay, but always remember our bond can no longer be one of trust. Follow the rites, follow your calling, and tell no one of what has transpired here. I will seek out Eisen next, you will know when I find him.”
“Eisen is dead,” she said slowly, “He died in Akshiva, decades after the last time we saw you.”
“And yet that is where my calling leads,” he raised a hand to forestall her protest, “You speak it, and thus I hear it to be true, but I will not ignore my calling. If not Eisen, then someone else.” He narrowed his eyes, “May we meet again in Threshold, Speaker Sojay.”
“May we meet again in Threshold, Walker Khireed,” Sojay once again provided the ritual response.
“I thought I told you never to use that name, Speaker,” he said as he took a step away from the altar and vanished. The scent of ozone vanished with him, replaced by that tarry reek from outside. She knew without a doubt that his magic and his presence were both gone.
“It is a part of my calling, Walker,” she said to the empty temple. She placed the mask back upon her face, blocking out the world from her senses once again. She knew her calling, and she could only hope that the seven survived their flight.
It was past time to be away from Tamarack Row.
A figure perched high on a spur of rock, gazing out into Seer’s Mane. In spite of the fog shrouding the forest, he swore he could feel the city approaching across the horizon. He threw his richly embroidered cloak back over his gleaming armor as he began his descent. Soon now he would come upon the valley, bells pealing out his arrival, welcoming their savior.
Soon, very soon now. The air was electric, and tension filled the sky. He swore he could almost hear the bells calling to him across the distance. He bellowed out a deep, booming laugh, the sound echoing off the dark, low-hanging clouds.
Soon, very soon now.
Gideon Stormsoul was coming to Tamarack Row!