In the Roan Mountains, 482 IH
Yonai crouched beside a large tree and watched the soldiers in the valley below. Ordered ranks moved briskly eastward, each soldier with a spear over one shoulder and a shield in hand. Three mounted elves rode ahead, leading the force. She knew that more cavalry would be patrolling nearby. These soldiers, some 200 perhaps, patrolled a route that shouldn’t even exist. Hidden among them would be a wizard.
There were more stealthy patrols, of course. But since a shipment of supplies for the Sanctum builders had vanished without a trace, the Council was taking no more chances. Guards had been doubled for caravans, and these patrols of Teles’iyai—about 200-300 spears with mounted scouts—were moving through the shifting caravan paths as well.
As they neared, she looked at the banner held aloft by one of those in the lead. She did not recognize the standard. A new company, perhaps.
While she watched the soldiers in the valley, she chewed on a leaf of kwynshir. Something in her muscles had relaxed since she began chewing, easing the tension of months of waiting, training, preparing… and waiting some more. She knew these mountains as well as she had long ago known places closer to Faerthale.
She did not quite long for the lands to erupt in full war—yet perhaps she longed for it very much. She wanted to wipe Terminus clean of Revenant and all followers of the fallen god, and know that they were gone forever. To return peace to the land.
Yonai suddenly drew a breath and stood. In the valley below, a force of perhaps 500 Revenant was engaging the elf soldiers. A horn blew among the elves, signaling orders.
Where did they come from? They had not been there moments ago.
Something drew her eyes to the left. A woman in robes sat on horseback behind the Revenant forces, watching the battle. Suddenly the woman stood up in the stirrups and began working her hands, building fire between them. Then she launched a ball of fire over the heads of the Revenant and toward the elves.
Yonai drew out a tongah—a half tube with a string on one end that would attach to her wrist—and set one of her short sniper arrows into it. Then she drew the bowstring, allowing the tongah to keep the arrow straight when the bow was at full draw. She stared at the wizard, glanced at the banner blowing in the wind, gauged the distance. Nearly 300 yards.
Released, the arrow flew unseen into the valley below. She knew her aim was true when the woman nearly fell from her saddle as if struck. The wizard pulled herself back up and clutched a hand to her right arm, then looked toward the mountain slopes where Yonai hid.
This cannot be good.
The wizard reached out toward the woods above, and Yonai was knocked off her feet. There was a sound like a thunderclap against a world. Dust and debris flew over her as she protected her head with both arms. As the storm subsided, she looked down toward the valley—and nearly choked.
Much of the forest between her and the valley floor had been flattened as if a great hand had struck the side of the mountain. Trees lay on their sides, pointing up toward Yonai.
And the wizard was riding toward her along the valley floor.
Yonai cursed and clambered to her feet. She began to run up the steep slope, sometimes on two limbs and sometimes four. When the ground leveled out slightly, she picked up speed. Surely the wizard couldn’t see her? She should nearly blend into the trees...
Another thunderclap, and Yonai rolled into a ball as she was blown upslope to one side. A glance told her that an area of trees to her left had been flattened against the ground.
She picked herself up again, feeling sore in every bone, and ran into trees on her right. Just a little further. Soon she saw what she was looking for: a broken tree trunk with a barely visible mark that she had made herself. When she reached it, she pulled the trunk up and to one side, then threw herself into the hold revealed. She drew the trunk back over the hole and secured it.
There were supplies in this hole: salves, bandages, a source of light. But for a long time she sat very still and listened for a sound of thunder.
She waited a long time, even after the sounds had passed and the forest, or what was left of it nearby, lay still. Then she reached around for a glowstone and scraped it against her leg. A soft glow appeared, and she set the stone to the side.
For a time she tended her wounds, which were many but small. Scrapes and bruises, some cuts that bled.
Deep into the night she quietly emerged from her place of hiding, then crouched on the ground with the stillness of prey who feels that predators are about. When she was satisfied, she gave a low whistle, trembling across two notes.
The creature that answered her call was a predator, but one familiar with the elves who walked these hills.
“I need your speed, my friend,” she said, and the creature nuzzled against her.
Yonai closed her eyes to the rushing wind as she was borne swiftly up the mountainside.
* * * * *
Avaresk paced among the elves. He had remained in contact with them since he had returned from Terefal Tarn with Kymeret, and they relied upon him for information from the Hidden Folk.
“Are you certain no one has seen the Sanctum?” asked Arebon.
“I am not,” said the wizard. “But people do not travel as they once did. Since the fall of Sarnishar and the wreckage of trade routes, people stay close to home. Cities close their gates. People rely on whatever they can grow or build, instead of trading with others. But other than humans, no one ever travels that close to the Roans north of Havensong. There is nothing there.”
“We just have to keep protecting the routes,” said Sairi. “That’s all we can do.”
Arebon leaned against a tree. “Do you bring any other news?”
“Yes,” said the wizard. “Strange news from the south. It seems that a group of ratkin have sworn a blood oath of vengeance against you all for disturbing the tomb of their ancient king.”
Arebon shared a glance with Sairi, then looked back to Avaresk. “I suppose that would have been one of the many tombs we've crawled looking for treasure. We have had some trouble with the ratkin already, but we didn’t know why.”
“Is this not another thing for you to worry about?”
Arebon laughed. “If we somehow live through this war, I will be happy to deal with this other problem.”
“If only there—“
“Shh.” Slumber held up a hand. He and the wolf were both looking southeast through the forest. Several hands moved toward weapons.
Soon a bird whistle sounded.
“Yonai,” said Arebon.
She emerged from the forest limping slightly. Her eyes quickly found Avaresk, but then she turned to Aovyn and said, “The human you met in Sarnishar. Tell me again about this ability she used.”
Aovyn glanced at Isonis, then raised his hand palm down. He squeezed his fingers closed, then said, “And then we were all flat on the ground.”
Eyes turned toward Avarisk. He crossed his arms and looked up at the leaves thoughtfully. “Did she speak? Or did she use a magic item of some kind?”
“She wore several rings.”
Avaresk nodded. “A force that pulls you to the ground. And she was a human? This magic is not taught in Havensong. Why didn’t you mention this before?”
“We’ve been trying to forget Sarnishar,” said Aovyn quietly. “Her name was Safranin Alizar, and she called herself the Emissary of Ossari…” he stopped at the look Avaresk was giving him.
“Safranin Alizar,” said the wizard. “Yes, we studied wizardry together. She was less fond of studies and texts than she was of raw power. The practice and nuance required to handle arcane energies seemed to bore her.”
Aovyn said, “I suppose it’s possible that Ossari gave that ability, or object, to her. Or this could be someone else…”
“It was her,” said Isonis. His eyes were hard.
Yonai looked at Avaresk. “What about hiding a force of 500 Revenant? I never saw them approach, but suddenly the caravan was being attacked.”
Avaresk shook his head. “I cannot guess how she did that.”
“She was leading the Revenant into battle?” asked Arebon.
“Not leading, but she was in command. You know how they fight. She had them hidden and organized. They made not a sound until she revealed them.”
“Are they still in the valley?”
She shook her head. “I hit her with an aegisal at 300 yards, but she lived. Then she began to bring the forest down to the ground around me, so I ran.”
For a long time no one spoke. Then Sairi said, “We need to do something. She’s in our territory. The harm she will cause as long as she lives…”
"I shall kill her," said Isonis. He was pacing back and forth and staring at nothing. "We have a debt to settle."
“No, my friend. It must be I who deals with Safranin,” said Avaresk. He turned to face them. “She is a wizard, and I believe I can find a way of dealing with this ability she uses.”
Frustrated, Isonis turned away.
“You don’t know what other gifts she has received from Ossari,” said Arebon.
“Yet I must be the one to go. I trained with her for some time. I know her habits, her limitations…” he grimaced, “and her personality.”
* * * * *
Rhydian made his way through the forest. He was weary of wilderness, weary of climbing, weary of being given meaningless tasks by that woman—that wizard. Yet here he was, seeking signs of elf rangers prowling the trees and underbrush.
In Sarnishar there had been things to do: gambling, hustling, women of various species… music. He missed music. Yet now he was once again running errands in pointless forests.
Surely Ossari would leave a city or two standing for him to play in.
Though who would I play with? Revenant?
In many ways the war was fun, but now and then the thought crept across his mind that he wasn’t sure what would come after the war.
Just a castle to myself, he thought. Servants, wine… and no wizards.
A wolf growled amidst the trees to his left. He froze for a long moment, then allowed his hand to inch toward a pouch on his belt. Within were smoke pots he could use to distract the wolf while he made his escape.
“It won’t work, you know,” came a woman’s voice on the left. “She can smell you no matter how you try to imitate a tree.”
Rhydian straightened. “Then what do you recommend, lady of the woods?”
The woman stepped out from behind a tree, dressed in leathers and holding an elven bow in one hand. In the quiver at her side were at least three kinds of arrows. Over her shoulders loomed the hilts of two swords. Elven ears peeked through her hair.
“Lady,” she repeated in Tradespeak, “is a word for women of high status. You flatter me.”
He tone suggested she was not at all flattered, but then elves never seemed to have a sense of humor. He spread his arms, palms up. “Someone of far greater experience in these woods than I, if you prefer.”
“And what,” said a man to his right, “are you doing in these woods?”
Rhydian turned and saw another humorless elf standing with one hand on the hilt of a sword at his belt. Rhydian did not lower his arms. “I but scout for my lord.” —truth— “Is it not true that our peoples work together in these times?”
Other elves were now stepping out of the trees. He could have sworn they were not there until now.
“Humans and elves have been working together, yes,” said the man. “But you…” he raised a finger and shook it side to side, “are not part of our alliance, are you?”
“Whatever do you mean, sir?”
The man glanced at the woman and said, “Sir.”
The woman pointed to herself and said, “Lady.”
“You do honor us with your speech,” continued the man, “but in no other way. You see, I have a long memory. I don’t remember everyone I have met in my travels. But I do remember you.”
Slowly Rhydian allowed his arms to fall. “Perhaps you have mistaken me—“
“I have not. How could I forget the man who caused us so much trouble? Quelnarrin, a hunting town. We but came to ask you questions. The elf with you, the son of a Councillor, pleaded your case. And then you drew a blade across his neck while looking me in the eye and smiling. Even after twelve years, I could never forget your eyes.”
The elf crossed his arms. “I’m quite sure I killed you and looted your remains.”
Rhydian stared at him while listening to the sounds around him. Their boots, nearly silent, nonetheless betrayed the position of several elves. The crackle of leaf or needle, the sway of a flower. Oh yes, these sounds were clear to a man with his senses.
“No, I fear you have truly mistaken me for someone else. Many humans have eyes such as mine.”
“Where is Safranin Alizar?” came another voice. This time in the speech of humans.
Rhydian turned and saw a tall man, robed, of dark skin and hair, with a staff in hand.
Gods, I hate wizards.
“Should I know this person, friend?”
But the wizard shook his head. “We are not friends, Rhydian Vrask. Your description has been passed among the Hidden Folk, and I think you will find my friends here to be poor targets for whatever charm you possess.”
I am dead, he realized. Ah well, I would have been bored in the Night that Ossari brings. Let us see if I can make a bit of fun.
“I have no idea where General Alizar can be found,” he said lightly. “I despise wizards, you see, and her most of all. Why?” He took a step toward the wizard. “Do you wish to save her from the dark?”
“Hardly. We were trained together, and I know that for some there is no saving.”
Double-edged words. “I am worth more than all of these elves you call friends. I spread chaos within their Council of Nine Twigs. I destroyed several buildings in their fair city as if they had never been.”
“Yes, like Safranin, you wield tools and magic objects given to you by your lord. But what are you without them?”
“You believe me without them?” said Rhydian in a low voice.
“I do. Nonetheless, I will stand here and watch as they kill you, to be certain you do not escape.”
“Not like this,” said Rhydian, drawing long knives. “Not like a dog. I am better than that. I will take as many of you down as...”
Something tugged at his chest, and he looked down to see a strangely colored blade emerging through his armor. As he sank to the ground he felt the pull of the sword being withdrawn. He tried to move his hands, but his blood was draining fast, taking his remaining strength with it.
“I wanted information,” said the first man.
A voice Rhydian couldn't see said, “I wanted to kill him.”
* * * * *
In a high room in the Silent Sanctum
Through the gap Isek could just see Havensong sprawled upon the plain far away. A strangely resolute species, humans, even if they sometimes seemed prone to chaos and infighting. In just twenty-three years, they had gone from tattered arrivals facing their first winter in Terminus, to building this city where no city had been before. Their armies patrolled the lands around their city, watching for the smallest sign of the Army of Night and Rage.
All of this trouble for a fallen god of less worth than the least of elves.
Whence comes this corruption of malice that devours people and gods alike?
He could not blame the Revenant. They had been dragged into their god’s abyss unwillingly, transformed into creatures craven yet vicious, locusts swarming over the land. But Ossari and those others who served him, they had chosen their path. They gazed into the depths of stars and the night of their souls, and cried out with joy at the red rage and killing lust of their hate.
So Isek pitied them not, those who forsook light and life for resentment, revenge, and war. They each drowned in a rakashai, a dark prison of their own making, in which their souls would rage at the loss of light they had freely relinquished, and burn with hate for any who had not made the same choice as they.
He allowed his gaze to fall, seeking the latest caravan making its way toward the Sanctum. Too small. Some wagons had been lost along the way, and many soldiers.
Time to change their path yet again, he thought. But there were only so many usable paths through the Roans between Faerthale and the Sanctum.
He turned away from the scene far below to face the man who entered the room.
The elf bowed and said, “Councillor, Eiryoet is here with her report.”
Isek followed him down to the chamber in which the meeting would be held. He admired the stonework around him, years of steady work by elven crafters. Yet would it be enough?
Entering a chamber of sparse walls and a single round table, he sat across from one of the chief overseers of the Sanctum project.
“What do you have for me, Eiryoet?” he asked.
“We are still on course,” she answered. “We are fairly certain that we can finish the Sanctum according to our design by late 485.”
“What if we are forced to retreat into the Sanctum before then?”
She shook her head. “We have finished most of the lower defenses, but we have not completed all of the living space. Nor the caves for provisions. If our people need to suddenly abandon Faerthale, there will not be supplies enough to feed them here. The least perishable provisions we have in stock will keep for three years, maybe four. But it’s for the builders and our soldiers here.”
Isek sighed. “This autumn. We shall begin shipping supplies in great volume this autumn. Stockpile it in the coolest parts of the caves.”
She stared. “Are you certain that is not too… cautious?”
“I have been accused of being a doomcaller, always expecting the worst. Unfortunately I have been right for the past two decades, so I don’t expect things to look up now.”
When she was gone, Isek returned to the lookout room above, choosing this time a window to the east. Somewhere across the nearest mountains were those rangers he had raised to watch over the mountain paths between here and Faerthale… those who had not abandoned their cause. Some 354 elves in the prime of their lives.
Most of them would probably be dead within three years.
There I go again, he sighed. And yet.
Now would be a wonderful time to be wrong.
* * * * *
Safranin Alizar emerged through a wizard portal and brushed dust from her robes. She frowned at the landscape around her, then started eastward at a brisk walk.
She turned and raised one hand, ready to cast—and then she saw the man who addressed her.
Her quick smile twisted into a smirk. “Avaresk Umanderuun.”
Avaresk stepped out of the shadow of a tree. “It has been years, has it not?”
“I cannot remember. Tell me, did the wizards send you to deal with me at last? Or were you sent by the king himself?”
“Oh, I’m afraid that they are not particularly concerned about you anymore.”
“You may wish to know that I have found a powerful patron.”
“Yes, I am aware of your… patron. I remember the day before you left Havensong. You had found someone who appreciated you. Someone who would make you great.”
Avaresk stopped about two dozen yards from her. “Did he give you everything you wanted?”
“Everything I wanted, and more I never dreamed. He made me a powerful wizard.”
“Is that what he told you?” Avaresk smiled sadly. “Was that all it took to give you purpose? You were already a wizard, Safranin.”
“Constrained and bound by rules and punishments.”
“For the good of those around you.”
She laughed. “Why should I restrain myself for others?”
“You set fire to one of several shelters for—“
“Is there a reason you have come to greet me? To take me back to Havensong, or,” she smiled, “have you decided to throw off your chains and join my side?”
“Neither, I’m afraid. I have come to kill you.”
She looked at him as if he had grown feathers. “You… what?” She spoke through laughter. “You never won a single duel against me.”
“I obeyed the rules set by our masters, and you did not.”
“Of course. And I have only grown more powerful.”
“Yet our masters are not here, and I am no longer of Havensong.”
She considered. “I wondered what you might accomplish if you really let go. But alas, I have things of consequence to do for My Lord.” She raised an arm toward him, palm down and ringed fingers spread. “Would you like the first move?”
Avaresk flexed his fingers, which now bore several rings given him by others among the Hidden Folk. Perhaps to reassure himself that they were there, he touched several rings with a thumb. Then he raised his staff and drew mist from the end with his other hand. He uttered three words, and the mist drew together to form ice shards. As they flew toward Safranin, she closed her fingers into a fist…
And nothing happened. She stared at her hand, shocked, then up at the shards of ice that now spread apart and whirled around to attack her from all sides. At a shouted word, a shield of fire sprung up around her, blocking some of the shards. Several made it through and struck her, and she bled from a cut on her cheek.
“You are not the only one wearing rings today, Safranin. My friends among the elves told me about your favorite trick…”
Before he had finished, fire leapt from one of her hands. He dodged into a roll, then wove mysteries into a bolt that curved toward her as she moved.
Avaresk wove magics together from elemental forces and the sharp edges of reality, while Safranin tried to pummel him with fire.
She always preferred club to rapier, as it were.
Both of them dodged attacks while moving through the grass. There was no place to hide.
Suddenly Safranin darted toward the treeline to the north. He followed, running, and sent darts of violet light after her.
Avaresk looked for sign of her as he entered the trees. In the gloom beneath the canopy, he moved from tree to tree while his eyes adjusted. Still he did not see his prey.
His only warning was a silence as if all the forest, as if all the world, stilled for one moment. Then a nearby tree roared and flew away into pieces, and the wind knocked him to the ground.
He waited in the shadow of another tree, eyes searching. He saw nothing but the dusky wood, and tree shadows darkening the already dim light of the forest.
The wind picked up, and Avaresk waited for shards of the dead tree to drift to the ground. They never did. Then silence entombed the world once more, and another tree met the same fate as the first.
Avaresk kept moving, staying within the shadows. The next time silence fell, something cold brushed his right leg, a chill that unbalanced him as he lost feeling in the leg. Not just a chill, but the coldest dark, and something crawling within, searching, a mouth of blades. He felt a pull as if his feet could leave the ground and he would fall ever upward into the brittle dark.
He fell to the ground and crawled into the shadow of another tree. He could see blood through his robe. What was that?
"Are you hiding in another shadow?" Safranin crooned. “There are teeth in the dark.”
Avaresk threw himself down the slope and began to roll as the tree behind him exploded into wood chips. His eyes caught a darkness filled with sharpest stars.
Then he lay still on the ground, his dark cloak blending in with dead leaves and undergrowth in the gloaming.
Safranin spoke again from the slope above. “I don’t remember our passage here from the old world. But Lord Ossari does. He crafted a magic, a memory of the cold between where great things lurk and hunger, where a conflict burns between forces you cannot understand. And now the dark is mine!”
The silence returned, and trees blew apart as if in a storm. The cold oozed downhill from the wreckage. Avaresk felt his heart beating quickly, unease and danger shifting into terror. She makes death out of shadows.
Avaresk looked up at the surrounding trees and thought, Forgive me.
Then he stood and raised his arms.
“There you are!” said Safranin, delighted.
Avaresk uttered words of Power and Flame—and the forest around him breathed fire, crackling and roaring flames into the sky.
And not a shadow remained.
Safranin pointed some kind of rod or wand at him, but the shadow was lost in the light. A breath of cold passed across him, but not the bone-deep chill, the living cold that lurked in the shadows cast by the rod.
If it takes a forest to save those she would doom, thought Avaresk, then a forest I shall burn.
Safranin put away the rod and begun to cast fire. But Avaresk knew he need not summon fire again, for it was already here. He reached for the fingers of fire all around his enemy and drew them in. Like amber threads he wove them into a burning net around her. She dodged while tossing bolts of fire his way, but the cage became a thicket, a grove. The trees themselves were the thickest bars that held her.
She was shouting something, looking for a path.
A burning bough crashed to the ground before Avaresk, but he did not stop. He could barely see Safranin anymore, caught as she was behind curtains of smoke and bars of flame. He sent arcane bolts through the smoke wherever he heard her voice.
And then the forest canopy began to fall, rippling like the curtains of light in the northern sky.
Avaresk limped away trying to escape the conflagration he himself had made. When he reached the open fields again he fell into the grass, drained of strength and magic, and stared up at the stars. His eyes slid from the stars to the spaces between whence Ossari had created whatever magic Safranin had tried to kill him with.
He awoke to rain on his face and an eastern sky brimming with dawn. He pulled himself up and began to limp back into the forest. Most of the fire had been extinguished by the rain, for which he thanked whatever gods still lifted a hand to help the world. He saw trees burning to the west, but it seemed the fire was breathing its last.
Safranin Alizar lay in a heap where she had curled in upon herself to shield herself from the fire. The body was horribly burned, but he saw enough to know that it was her. He stooped and lifted the rod and the rings of magic given her by the fallen god. And then he prepared himself for a task he did not want.
He drew a small axe from his belt and began to hack away at her neck until the head rolled away. Then he lifted the head and dropped it into a sack along with the magic items.
He had lost blood in the night. Even leaning on his staff, the way was difficult. He made his way slowly back to the standing stones where he twisted the arcane ways to return him to Tharifon.
Inside a secret cave of the Hidden People, he dropped the sack and fell onto the floor unconscious.
He awoke to see the Lycandrell face of Uwalfe staring down at him.
The shaman was frowning. “I see you lived.”
“I’m sure I have you to thank for that.”
“No, you have me to thank for the fact that you will walk again. Tell me, Avaresk: Why the head?”
“Oh, you found that, did you?”
“It was difficult to miss.”
“I didn’t want some priest of Ossari to come along and raise her from the dead and spoil all my work.”
“It just seems unlike you, my friend.”
Avaresk felt himself drifting back into sleep.
“When I was a boy, the world ended for my people. Now the world is ending again. So soon. Who am I to become if the world is always ending?”
* * * * *
Yonai found Isonis sitting by a stream and sharpening his disquieting sword. Without a word she sat beside him.
After a time, he sheathed his sword and looked into the rushing water. “Have you nothing to say? No words of wonder and rebuke?”
“None at all,” she said. “I just hope you will not leave me behind.”
Isonis looked at her, questioning. “What are you saying?”
“You do not expect to survive. Neither do I.” She laughed without humor. “Oh I will try. I will live my fullest until the time comes. But neither of us will live through this.”
She looked at him now. “Do not throw yourself into the arms of death alone, brother. When you make your stand, I will be by your side.”
He turned away and watched the water in silence for a long time. And then he said, “Thank you.”