"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
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"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN <=== / ===> EPILOGUE
The instant of black light before my eyes flashed by. The force of the wind conjured up by the Jengchan priest suddenly ceazed, and I flopped down to the ground. Hard. Pain and impact combined to drive the air from my lungs once more, and I gasped for more, scrambled to get back up.
I had to get back at the priest, find my sword, if my numbed hands could –
Pain? I was in pain?! That wasn’t possible, my blessing had –
My eyes opened and I saw that I wasn’t in the round chamber anymore. Not exactly, anyway. The ground under me was covered by moss and a few blades of grass peaking up here and there, and the light flooding me from above was not the strange one of glowater. It was the sun, high in a wonderfully blue sky with clouds.
How had I come here? Where had the chamber vanished to?
And why was the central frieze still here, looking a lot fresher and recent, as well as the grooves running towards it – now free of the black light? I had barely made it to my knees when I saw that there was a low, circular wall encompassing this place. The grooves ended in friezes much like the ones I had seen in the chamber below the mansion.
No, not much like them. Identical. And beyond them there were ridges of thrown up dirt, so fresh that no plants had yet taken root there. Battlelines, I realized, my mind as numb as my body had been moments earlier.
“Get away from me!” the broken voice of an old woman yelled.
To my right. I turned my head, hands seeking for my sword. I must have dropped it, right? But there was something in my hands that felt comfortably like my old pilgrim’s staff. A lot like it, but not exactly. Besides, my staff had broken across the head of an arydog half an eternity ago.
Then I forgot about that when I saw the old crone, bent over from age, standing on the other side of the frieze, staring at me with wild eyes, her hair – uncombed for a millenium, give or take a decade – white, messy. The crone wore a wizard’s robe, black, billowing, but tightened down in the places that would have served a young woman very well. Habit of decades ago? I wondered absent-mindedly, while the major part of my mind tried to understand why she was so afraid of me.
Granted, an armored man doesn’t commonly drop out of nowhere, but –
Especially when he isn’t wearing armor anymore. I couldn’t help it, I had to look down. I was wearing a robe now, of rough linen – not so rough that it was chafing, but I had grown used to the metal on my skin, after all. And my staff… Six feet long, of elfwood rather than the oak I had used. Elfwood! Yes, without a doubt it was that precious, rare wood. Once hardened, it is the toughest substance we know on our planet. And if you put an edge, a sharpened tip to the end of your staff, it makes for a formidable weapon that can cut through stone as if it were butter.
The crone made a noise that seemed like a sigh, but with an edge of determination. Fortunate for me, since I looked up just in time. She was making use of my ponderings to raise her arms – wrinkled, gnarled like an old tree -, and I knew right away she wanted to fire a magical spell towards me.
“Don’t, please!” I yelled, raising my hands. “I mean you no harm, honest!”
The crone snarled, “That’s what you would say! I haven’t gone through all this blood and terror to be carried off by you!”
“I don’t want to –“ I started, then caught myself. That wasn’t my voice at all – but it spoke from my mouth, that deep, dark bass, with a slight echo, sounding like a large, subterranean crypta. Like the place in the Divine Realm where the bowls of life were kept by Decirius, where each being’s life water slowly dripped out of the bowl, until it was empty and the Messenger of Death would be sent out to fetch the soul towards the Final Courtroom.
“That isn’t me!” I yelled, in fury and fright. Why did I sound like the Messenger of Death himself? How could that be? How could I hold the staff that the Messenger bore?! Yes, that was it, I had seen the picture so often before, it was a miracle I hadn’t recognized it right away.
The crone hissed. She walked sideways, like a crab, always keeping her clawed hands pointed towards me. “What is this going to be? Archer Melt’s book all over again? I like the classics, but this is silly.” Her eyes were flashing angrily. She had the movements of a woman once used to utter grace, the kind who knew that each motion of her hip would make men swoon in dreams, leap to their feet and ask her for a dance. So strange that I had to think of that. This woman was ancient – a hundred years she certainly bore on her back, yet there was something in the lines of her face, a memory, a shade of beauty. Of kindliness. Of laughter. Of…
“Valanda?!” I whispered.
Just a whisper, but it stopped her dead in her tracks. For an instant the old hag studied me, trying to look into my hood, see the face hidden beneath. The hood! “Gods,” I growled, swept my hand up to push the hood back.
She mistook the meaning of my movement. Fireballs launched from her hands, so incredibly fast. I should have dropped back, avoided the balls, hoping I was fast enough. Instead my right hand jerked forward, the one holding the staff.
And the fireballs veered off their course to rush the elfwood, playing their fiery havoc on the dark wood, sending tendrils and sparks all over the six feet long staff, including my fingers – bare fingers, hurting like the abyssal flames. But it was over so fast, the elfwood soaked the flames in before I could do more than yelp. Too fast for me to drop the staff.
The crone coughed. “Should’ve known you couldn’t be hurt by magic,” she said, the fury slowly evaporating from her. She – could that really be Valanda? that ancient lady? – sank forward, her shoulders slumping, the light fading from her eyes. The eyes… Surrounded by wrinkles, deeply porous skin, spots over it. Yet the eyes I knew. “Go on,” she said in a low voice that I now recognized, despite the overtones of age and surrender, “take me. Finish it. I want to see where I wind up. I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me, are you? Leave it to your master to decide whether I was a good girl or a bad one.”
She wasn’t looking at me. Her hands were by her side, she was bent forward by the weight of more years than I could count. Or she could count, for that matter.
I got up, surprised by my own body. It wasn’t quite mine – not just that the skin was a pasty white, as if there should be maggots crawling around in my innards. No, I was taller than before. Slimmer. Now I’ve never been fat, but this was a body that hadn’t seen a meal in – well, probably never.
It didn’t matter. I saw Valanda, so old, so… hurting. Gods, she was still beautiful. I don’t understand how I could think that way. She was a crone, after all. A woman long past the final petals of beauty have wilted and fallen off. But she was Valanda. All the features of her face were still there, buried beneath wrinkles, beneath faded skin, but they were still there. I could see them. I didn’t even have to close my eyes, call up an image of memory. The latter would have been very easy – after all, not even an hour had passed since I had last seen her as she had been. Granted, there was still the glamor of youth on her, but…
I walked over to her, reached out my hand – the one without the staff, mind you – and gently touched her shoulder. “Valanda,” I said, doing my best to raise the tone of my voice, make it warm and less subterranean, “you are always a wonderful girl. Please, don’t –“
Before I could finish my pithy sentence, her elbow shot out, rammed my ribs with more strength than any old hag should have. Let me add that no self-respecting crone would have thought of slamming her forearm down right afterwards, burying her fist in my groin with enough force to make me wish for that nerve-numbing blessing to work. Provided that there would have been enough thought left in my head to come up with that idea, rather than gasp, double over and cry out huskily.
Valanda didn’t leave me any time to ponder on the fact that this was the third time that a woman had hit me there – let’s not ponder the first two occasions, all right? I had been innocent, truly! No, her knee came up, meeting my head with a resounding crack. I spun backwards, to the ground, flattening a couple of swaths of grass, and then –
Then the hag was on top of me, kicking the staff from my fingers. I could barely see her, tears clouding my vision. She was grinning determinedly, shouting, “I won’t be taken that easily!” Valanda pulled back her arm, for enough force to knock me unconscious. (It’s a miracle I didn’t pass out before, I ought to mention. That pain burning through me… Gods, throughout our descent I don’t think I felt quite that much!)
She stopped when I started to laugh. Don’t ask me how I managed. The laughter just came out, inbetween my gasps for air, despite my surely pain-distorted face, and everything. “Oh, Valanda!” I pressed out. Was my voice back to normal? Was it Ahnfredas Bluekeg’s voice rather than that of the Messenger of Death?
I don’t know. Something made her pull her punch. Yes, she did hit me. It wasn’t all that bad, though. Perhaps because there was all that pain from her previous hits surging throughout me, but I didn’t pass out. I kept on grinning and laughing. She hadn’t surrendered. Face her with the Messenger of Death, and she kept on fighting. Foolish girl, she didn’t know who she really was!
“I know myself,” she snarled. Uhm, had I spoken the last thought aloud? Well, she stopped herself, frowned at me. “Ahnfredas?!”
“That’s my name, don’t waste it,” I giggled, put my arms around her – finally! Gods, how I had longed for this moment! Yes, she was old, but – oh, abysses! – this was Valanda, and I loved her so much, so very much.
So much the realization made me pause in my laughter. I was in love with Valanda. All the way the bards (human ones, mind you) sing about, all that silly stuff about giving your heart and soul to one person. It had never seemed real – don’t forget, there’s all that real, day-to-day stuff that you have to deal with, not to mention the fact that a young man doesn’t exactly worry much about love when there’s a pretty girl around. Love, in the bardic sense, is the last thing on a young man’s mind. Nonetheless, I suddenly understood that the bards weren’t crooning about some dimwitted ideal, but something that existed. Something that transcends the bounds of the flesh. Don’t ask me to explain it in any detail – it would only come out as flowery as a bard’s song. And you, kind reader, do know how little impression that makes on the listener!
“You don’t look like yourself,” Valanda growled, stiff in my arms, still ready and willing to pound me to unconsciousness. She must have thought I was a rather mad Messenger of Death.
“Neither do you,” I chuckled, “old hag.”
“I am not old!” she cried, then paused herself. For the first time she noticed her hands, the gnarly old finger-like twigs. “I am…” she started, her voice breaking.
“Valanda,” I said, grasping her head gently with both hands, “you’re beautiful. I love you.”
“What?” she snarled. Such a harsh sound, not at all what the bards were singing about. She pushed up against my arms. I wasn’t holding her tight, she bounded up from me, with all the ease and strength of a young woman.
Which she was. I’m not sure when the change happened – somewhere between my words and her leaping up -, but now there was a woman of some twenty years of age standing above me, gazing at me with a mixture of fury and – well… – longing. “You’re… Ahnfredas?”
I carefully picked myself from the ground, rolled over onto an elbow. “Yes, that’s me.”
“You love me?” Her voice was breaking all over the place. Disbelief. Anger at somebody daring to express that to her, most of all me, and… “Me? You don’t know me,” she spat the words at me. “Ahnfredas, you’d better watch what you’re thinking, you –“
Tears welled up in her eyes, those pretty eyes that hadn’t changed one bit whether she was ancient, middle age, or young. “I want to, Ahnfredas, I want to love you, but I – I can’t, I can’t, I can’t…”
“You will have the time to think about it.”
The voice was unnatural, much like Wharfrat had sounded at the end. It was surrounding us, not coming from a single source. Not from any one mouth.
It jarred both of us out of the mood. (Not an uncommon experience per se, as far as I’m concerned, but the circumstances were quite unique.) I bounced up from the ground, my hand going automatically for the sword by my side. I had drawn the blade before I quite realized that I now had one by my side. And what a beauty it was. (Nothing to match Valanda’s.) Four feet of the best steel you can imagine, double-edged, the tip sharpened, the hilt made of ivory, with jewels inlaid. And while I was busy watching my sword, I noticed that my clothes had changed as well. I wore a shirt now, of white silk, with soft embroidery – no flowers, to be sure, but twisting, intricate insignia. There was a jacket over it, brown leather, supple to the movement, reinforced by chainmail inlaid between two sheets of leather. I knew that without having to test it. My breeches were knee-length, of the same brown leather. And my hair – it fell over my shoulders, and I just knew it was a perfect light brown, as perfect as my eyes had turned blue, in a face that one might have recognized as that of Ahnfredas Bluekeg. Should somebody have thought to use my likeness for the cover of one of Hrolfwald’s Clairbold tales.
I wasted little time on noticing these details. They were unimportant, now.
More important were the hooded beings standing before each of the friezes. Eleven, I thought without counting to make sure. They were of varying height, some a little over five feet, some ranging well above six feet. Each wore a black robe, with red signs on the chest, where the robe was closed with a blood-red sash. The signs – they were of both the wizardly and clerical kind, meshed in a painter’s fever dream. There was Darawk’s quill on one chest, merged with letters from the magical language, and with something that reminded me of the balancing scales of Decirius. All in one intricate symbol.
None of the symbols were alike, merging various other symbols together in such a fashion that one might have lost himself in figuring out what was hidden behind the swirls of lines and curves.
“They are not what we expected,” the unearthly voice said.
“They are here,” the voice answered itself – as if another person had spoken, but it sounded exactly alike. “The ritual has begun. They fit the requirements.”
nothing, brother!” That was a third source of sound. “A new
cycle is started. These will be our successors. A proper priest, a proper
“A wizard, actually,” another source commented, suggesting a smile.
third source made a growling sound. “Whatever, they are ours now.
They will continue our path. They will found the next generation of
magepriests. After more than two thousand years, we will continue.”
“Like the others?” the first source said sourly.
I was reaching out my hand to Valanda in the meantime. She took it, her bosom heaving hard under the laces of her light pink blouse, her white skirt wafting in a breeze, exposing firm thighs. I felt my thews bulge, muscles all over my body, more than I had ever known in my life. Power was flowing through me – the sheer power of a strong body, not that of magic or anything of the sort. And Valanda, she was… No, not the same, but she was the very embodiment of femininity. With an edge. One made of steel, I hasten to add. Her blade was a shortsword, fitted to her perfectly, the hilt adorned with roses. Like roses, this weapon had quite a sting.
Oh, the sight of us would make a cover artist of the Clairbold-style romances faint, having found his heavenly model.
two are more apt than the others.”
look at them. See how their minds shape them.”
imbecile, that is the truth. Their selves know better than to fall for
dreams. This is what they truly are.”
I second that. They are suitable.”
suitable. How say you?”
“Dismiss this! Let us take them!”
I shouted back at the cacophony of voices around us, “Forget that! We won’t be taken by anybody!”
“A futile expense of energy.”
“Let’s see about futility!” I shouted, squeezed Valanda’s hand – and propelled myself forward, my wonderful sword slashing the air, making a hissing sound as it split the elemental air. I swung my blade at the nearest hooded figure, and the blade bit into the cloth, splitting it, going on into… Nothing?
The hooded figure disintegrated under my blow, its cloak and hood dissolving, revealing nothing underneath. Nothing but a patch of black light that churned, twisted, boiled – and screamed.
“No, they are not permitted!”
“Bloody abysses, we’re not!” That was Valanda shouting, running her own blade through another hooded figure. It blew apart a tad more spectacularly than mine had, I’ll admit.
“Stop them, brothers and sisters!”
The hooded figures moved away from their positions at the friezes, not walking, gliding along the grooves in the ground, much like the black light had flowed through them in the original chamber. Not leaving the grooves, right? I jumped back, amazed how much strength was in my body. One slash to the right, one to the left, and two more of the hooded figures fell.
So quick it was, so easy. The figures hadn’t expected us to fight. They hadn’t had any defenses in place, and before they quite realized what was happening, six of their number had dissolved, their screams boiling the air around us, darkening the sun. The black patches within the cloaks sparked up, formed a sort of dome above the circular place, for instances before fading away.
Then the hooded figures whisked by us, reached the central frieze. And changed. The cloaks and hoods fell away, but there was no simple black patch underneath. Creatures of nightmares turned around, clad in mottled brown scales, claws on all appendages, fanged snouts breathing small jets of flame, glowing red eyes. Not quite dragons, they were like a cross between dragons and human beings. A cross you wouldn’t want to see.
“Valanda!” I shouted. She was close to one of the dragon creatures, it slashed its arm out at her – lazily, negligently, but the claws were gleaming, rushing for her tender flesh. Valanda smacked her blade at the claws. The blade dented them, but the arm moved onwards, smashing into her side, flinging her across the room.
She didn’t cry, she kept hold of her sword, rolled neatly and came up on her feet.
I ran forward, fingers tight around my blade’s hilt, swung it at one creature. My blade cut in, splashed green blood, made the dragon creature howl – a sound from its snout, not the unearthly voice beyond -, but it still lashed out with his other hand. The claws bit into my stomach, tore my fine jacket and shirt apart, not to mention the skin underneath. Pain jabbed through me. No, I wouldn’t give in. My sword was moving away from the creature, on its outward swing. I brought it back in, spun it higher, towards the throat.
Yes! Scales went flying, blood followed, and the creature jerked back – forgetting to take another swipe at me.
Unfortunately neither of the two standing next to that one were as forgetful. They moved forward in unison, scaled and clawed arms flashing forward, about to sever my head from my neck. Valanda’s hand snatched me back, at the last second before the claws would have touched my throat. I flew back for an instant, managed to put my feet in the ground quickly enough to steady, scream an insult at the creatures and keep on swinging.
So did Valanda. We weaved a web of glittering steel before us, so beautiful, so perfect. The dragon creatures nearest kept away, but not the others. Five were still there, three were held by the steely web, the other two stepped sideways, no longer bound by the grooves.
In moments more they would be upon us. Valanda and I tried to widen the web, cover the outer two as well – but it gave an opening to the creatures right before us. A powerful arm hit my sword hand, smacked it back – in Valanda’s direction, the tip going straight for her. I had to drop to the ground, swipe my sword away.
A bigger opening for the creatures to attack us.
“Back!” I yelled, scrambling in that direction while I was shouting. Good Valanda, she was faster, doing her best to keep up the web with her single sword while I was pushing backwards on elbows, sidling to the left, towards one of the grooves. I knew my feet hit it when pain flooded me, as much as the damage Valanda had done. I ignored the pain, wedged my feet in, gave a thrust with my thighs, bounded up, my sword flying already.
No, I am not exaggerating. You probably think I’m drunk on some of the ambling knight romances I have read recently. You are right to think I have done so. Nonetheless, at that point my reflexes and abilities were those of a man who had trained fighting from childhood. Or, perhaps, even better than that. Had I been given the time to wonder about it, I would have died then and there, thrashed by the dragon creatures.
For nought, my newly found prowess was. Oh, yes, I kept the creatures at bay. For the moment. There were still too many, they were coming onto us. Valanda and I retreated, panting hard, swinging our swords. We scored on the creatures, sent more scales and blood drops flying. But the wounds healed almost instantly, and there was a howling of greedy hunger in the air. The unearthly voice, anticipating to take us.
There was only the low wall behind us. We could jump over it, run from these beasts, make it for some other place, try to –
For a tiny instant I forgot about one of the creatures, concentrated too much on the others. It was enough for that beast to leap forward, embed the claws on hands and feet into my chest, rending flesh from bones. That pain was – oh, I shouldn’t say it was unbearable. I am running out of proper terms for that. Let me just continue in my tale, and you may imagine how I felt.
I wasn’t alone in forgetfulness. So was the creature, ignoring my blade. That wonderful length of steel ran through it, splattering blood and gore wide – and the creature dissolved at that instant, turned to another patch of black light that sparked upwards. Lucky me, its claws vanished at the same time, or else I would have died then and there.
As it was I fell to the ground, blood spewing from my chest. And I remembered something. I was a priest of Decirius. Who could summon the Messenger of Death – the true one, not just its likeness.
That’s what I’d been trying to remember earlier, when I had been about to enter the basement chamber in the mansion. The Messenger of Death. And how are you going to speak a proper prayer, with your guts leaking like that? I didn’t care. I saw Valanda step across me, one leg to my right, the other to my left, and she was swinging her blade, hollering defiance. Defending me. Against all five of the dragon creatures. I needed the Messenger of Death, needed to send these beasts to the abysses where they belonged.
Magepriests! Demonic creatures! Wind up in the fiery blaze you deserve!
Valanda was knocked back by several of the arms connecting. One moment she was over me, her blade flashing, her voice shouting – then there were scaled arms, and red, precious blood splattered on my face, my lips. After that…
After that an elfwood staff flashed through my field of vision, cutting through the arms, transforming them into howling patches of black light. The elfwood kept swinging, a dark dome over me, so fast it blurred into a single sheet of brownish color.
The howls continued. The sheet of brown moved away from me, toward the central frieze.
I raised my head, wondering how I could still move with the wounds in my chest. Except that those were gone now, and I was free of pain. I sat up, and there was…
The Messenger of Death.
I couldn’t possibly mistake the long-limbed, hooded creature – its cloak very different from those the magepriests had worn -, and that being was swinging an elfwood staff like the one I had held not so short ago. Whenever the elfwood touched a dragon creature, it bit deep, severed a limb, turned it into a patch of blackness. The creatures didn’t dissolve altogether at the first touch, the Messenger needed a little more work to dispatch of them, moving with calm and a speed that was beyond a mortal human being.
I watched in amazement. So did Valanda. I knew where she was, felt the warmth of her body near to me, her legs – I was still sitting, but I shouldn’t be, should I? No, definitely not, Ahnfredas. (Wait a minute, that wasn’t my own thought. It’s just now coming to me – foolish me, penning down these words, that it wasn’t… But, really, whose thoughts could those be?) Anyway, I got to my feet, my fingers reaching out, touching Valanda’s without either of us taking our eyes of the sight before us.
The Messenger of Death was dancing. It was a masterful dance, better than any I’ve ever seen. And I have seen Grenage clerics, priests and priestesses, at their most euphoric. Each thrust of his staff, still blurring quick, struck one of the dragon creatures, cut through scales, created one more patch of black to join the dance – a perfect counterpoint to the brown of his staff, the black of his robe, and the hood…
No, the hood had fallen from his head, onto his neck, exposing the pasty white skin of the head, the stringy patches of hair on the top, and the face… Grinning, enjoying, exulting in the process, yet it was familiar somehow.
Have you ever looked into a mirror? Or a reflecting pond, wondering at how familiar that face before you is? You don’t regularly see it – perhaps when you shave, or on a similar occasion -, but you still have an idea what you look like.
The Messenger of Death wore my face. That of Ahnfredas Bluekeg.
It was over quickly. The last piece of dragon was smashed, and the last patch of black light darted above us, formed the final dome of darkness, and after that…
There was the sun. There was the merry blue sky. The clouds, drifting about, having a good time. I noticed trees around us, big trees, growing towards the sky, blotting out the backdrop, but they were somehow happy trees.
The Messenger stood on the central frieze. He spun his staff around on his wrist, kept it moving for a whole minute, grinning and laughing, while he slowly turned around to face us.
Stupid me had to ask, “Are you the real –“ At least I was fast enough to stop myself after those few words.
They were enough to make the Messenger chuckle. A friendly noise – strange, considering that he spoke in that cavernous voice that had frightened Valanda before. “Ahnfredas Bluekeg,” he said, “you know who I am.”
Valanda made a slight noise. “Ahnfredas, is that…?” Her voice trailed off, made me rather more aware of what the being before me had meant.
Oh, my. He wore my face. He looked as I had when I had appeared in this place.
I had thought He was only the Messenger of Death. Foolish, damn foolish me!
“My…” Voice breaking, I sank to my knees. Valanda did the same. We stared at the being with my face on the central frieze who now stilled his staff, planted it on the ground beside him, leaning on it with a smile on his face.
He Who Decides, the Eternal Judge smiled at the two of us. “You have done well, my children. Better, I must say, than I anticipated.”
“My lord,” I whispered, amazed at my audacity, “our friends… Torrindas, Carter, Cardsleeve, and… Are they…?”
The Taker nodded, his smile unabating. “Rest your worries, my children. They are at peace now. Ahnfredas, I have heard your plea, and I have judged them worthy.” He winked. (Can you believe that? He winked at me.) “That includes Blasvendas Karrinal whom you knew as Longstick. As well as Rymondas and the one you knew as Slim Tim. They have proved themselves.”
Then his smile wavered, and grimness replaced it. “But your road is not at its end, my children. That of your friends is. You… you have another task set for you.”
“More? There is bloody, cursed more?!”
Don’t ask me if that was really me shouting those words. I don’t know. I’d rather think it was somebody else. Despite remembering.
But He smiled. That smile was back – an eery sight, his flesh receded anyway from the teeth, and smiling, showing those pearly whites, was little effort. His head seemed a mummified skull, and it still bore my face.
“Yes, Ahnfredas. Valanda. There is more.” He stepped aside, away from the central frieze. “The beings you just saw, they weren’t the magepriests. They were but shades of the real thing, the real terror.” He shook his head. “This was only one of the many sites of battle from those days. One headquarters, held for half a year befor the magepriests moved to another site. Yet it is a focal points of their power, of their battlelines. It is a power that…” Another shake of his head. “No, my children, you need not know about that. Let us just say that this is an ancient power into which the magepriests tapped. They were more than servants, I will grant them that much, but they were not the single evil in there.” He laughed. “Evil. What do you think that means?
“No, don’t answer. My children. Your view of evil is different from mine, as it should be. There once was a time when my own brethren thought I was evil. Good Darawk, lovely Alyssa, and Olmawi…” He Who Decides laughed at a private joke. I will wonder forever what he meant, and I will search the many books in the mansion for a clue or two. “This power here, it can be tapped. The way the magepriests have done. The way their shades had wanted you to do, wanted you to become their tools in propagating another set of magepriests on the world. I will not allow that. They can open the road for – the other evil.”
The Taker walked towards us. We were on our knees still, and he bowed forward, laid his hands on our shoulders. “You fulfill the needs of the power, my children. I ask you to guard it for me. Keep it from those who would open the doorway. That is the task I set you. Take the power. Embrace it. Become one with it.”
My mind recoiled from His words. How could he ask this of me? Of us?
Oh, very well, there was some ancient evil He didn’t want loose in the world. But he meant for us – us – to connect with it, embrace it! Let it be me who does so, but not Valanda, not her, not this wonderful woman who –
“I understand, my children,” the Eternal Judge said. “Both of you want to sacrifice yourself for the other.”
What? The thought shot through my mind, taking its time to wind a couple of loops around my brain before telling me gently that Valanda had wanted to spare me, the same way I had wanted to do for her!
He sighed. “But the two of you are needed. Protect this power focus. Guard it. Become one with it, and keep it contained.”
The touch faded from my shoulder, as it did from Valanda’s. I frowned, looked up.
We were alone. The Eternal Judge, my lord, had gone.
Some time passed before we got to our feet. We wandered around, beyond the circular clearing, well away from it, into the land beyond. I must say that some of the features of land seemed familiar, like the subterranean landscape we had seen in the past day. Could this truly be the same place, now buried under tons of rock? At least a mile under the surface?
And what did that say about where we were? Was this a real place, in the past? After the magepriests had been here? No, not quite. It took me a bit, perhaps a day. We slept outside, under the shade of elmtrees, by a pleasant creek gurgling its way through meadowy hills.
When I woke up, I was beginning to understand. We weren’t in the real world. This place was askew from reality, as if a pocket had opened up between our mortal realm and that of divinity. It retained much of what had once been, in the time of the magepriests. Before their battle – just one of many – had caused a cataclysm, shoving this area beneath the ground, formed a cavernous ceiling. One that would be filled with glowater dew, and the animals caught underneath were transformed, turned from ordinary surface beings into creatures quite different. Lizard-crossed beings, like the driger, or like my little Jitters. Innocent of themselves, but their origin…
That ancient evil was involved, but I wasn’t given enough insight to understand. Perhaps I didn’t care to know. Perhaps I don’t want to know more at this time, either.
Valanda sat next to me, by that gurgling creek, flinging a stone into its waters. “All that time, my city has been above this focal point.” She crooked her head, looking at the circles running out from where the stone had hit the water. It hadn’t skipped, not like the one I had thrown moments earlier. “Guardpeak has become my home, you know, Ahnfredas? I don’t…” She paused, then continued firmly, “This power might run free. Or somebody else can come down here, somebody like…”
Firmness of voice only went so far.
I didn’t want to answer. I was far too satisfied sitting next to her, my arm around her, both of us naked, and… Ah, well, you can imagine the reason for our nudity. (Remove your thoughts from the ditch by the wayside.) “The wild dwarves. The Jengchan priest.”
“Yes,” she said slowly.
I squeezed her shoulder. She glanced at me. There was resolve in her eyes.
I closed mine. “You want to do this?”
“Ahnfredas,” she said softly, her hand on my (still very well muscled) thigh, “I have to. It’s… No, I don’t want to sound selfish. It may be my best shot at doing something worthwhile, but that’s not the point. Remember what Bluff said about protecting his wife and child? And Red, he’s going to be a father. Carter sent Grapes back home. They all wanted to protect their loved ones. I –“ She sighed. “I cannot do any less. No matter what that asks of me.”
Resolve. Determination. All of that was in her voice.
She would embrace that darkness, the power of the battlelines, join them. Become one with them. A wizardess, without a priest by her side, would not fill all the requirements. Madness was the inevitable result.
Valanda, mad? This wonderful woman, this precious mind, lost?
I looked up at the sky, the morning sun just rising above the treeline. “You know that we will have to stay under ground?”
Such an easy word. Yes. Never to see the sun again. This would likely be the last time I got to see that yellow ball in the sky – and the last time I would see a blue sky, with clouds.
Now that last was me speaking. I am a priest of Decirius, of He Who Decides. This was my Final Courtroom, and I had leveled judgment on us.
We spent an hour or two more by that creek, finding a nice diversion that must have scandalized quite a few animals in the vicinity. Including perhaps an ancestor of Jitters, the lizard squirrel left in the real world.
Then we made our way back to the circular clearing, to the friezes. The focus of the battlelines.
We walked to the central frieze, stood on it, held each other’s hands. I wanted to kiss her, but she shook her head. “Let us do this now,” she said.
We did. We invited the power. The friezes started to glow in that black light we had dreaded, and the grooves filled with it, like a dark liquid roiling towards us. The liquid reached the frieze, lapped up at our feet.
I held my breath, hoping that Valanda wouldn’t notice my fear.
Then I saw that she was doing the same, and I grinned. I leaned forward, embraced her, pressed my lips on hers. If I didn’t want to breathe, I might as well put my lips to good service, right?
That was the last moment of Ahnfredas Bluekeg, the pilgrim, the priest of Decirius, as he had once been. He died a good death, believe me.
Valanda? Oh, yes, she thinks it was a good death, too. She told me so a few minutes ago.
The black light rolled in and took us.
Read on in the Epilogue!