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  • 2021-09-06 15:03

Chapter Ten: Crossroads

 

Awake, my King, the summons flies

And one by one Outsiders stir

On mighty wings no dragon’s call

Will reach the halls of Ninjipur

 

Awake, my King, the world is old

And who now will our banner keep

When monsters rake their hoary claws

Across the peaks, across the deep

 

Awake, my King, a prophecy

Silent are our wingéd lords

Doom has called and none shall live

None except the star-spawned hordes

 

Awake, my King, the gods are mute

The storm will break across the stone

Helpless mortals huddle close

The Six like Suns will save their own

 

Awake, my King, in shattered halls

We drown in fire and dust and bone

Spirits wander winter roads

Nothing but our souls alone

 

— from the Siniskeri Edda,

fragmentary poems of the end times of the Anenseka people

Translated by Kaolyen Greyborne

 

Note by the translator:

According to all evidence, the Anenseka are now extinct, wiped out to the last child during the Deicide War.

 

* * * * *

 

The Isle of Vesu, 475 IH

 

An island half-drowned, lifting out of the wild seas during the winter months when the glaciers drink the waters of the deep into themselves and sleep.

Under the dawn sun with two gibbous moons riding beneath the world, the red sands awoke.  But the beach was more than mere sand. Sleeping umber corals waited for the water to return. The long arms of drape jellies lay along the beach like filaments of crystal, waiting for the unwary. Eggs of crimson trilobites hid within pocks in the stone, to hatch when the island sank once more.

Along the southern shore was a length of stone some hundred paces cleaned of all life. It was here that boats came from ships anchored farther out in the shallows. And strange ships they were. One sleek vessel painted blue and turquoise brought the so-called Dark Myr, themselves just 17 years in Terminus. Their caravel could barely be seen against the daylit sea. They were anchored far from the Ogre ship, a warship riding low in the waves and encrusted with barnacles of sharp iron and weaponry.

The Archai had arrived with the Dwarves on a ship of smooth dark wood carved into interwoven symbols traced with rich coldark.

The Humans, who had spent the 16 years since their own collision settling into their city far from the sea, had no ships of their own. They arrived as guests of the Elves, though their king spoke as if the Elves had borne his majesty upon a palanquin across the sea.

In the island’s center was a circle of stone smooth as marble, some hundred paces across. Seven standing stones were placed around the rim of the circle, covered in strange glyphs that none could decipher. They stood silent as their long shadows trailed away from the dawn.

Seven tents had been erected around the circle, one near each of the standing stones. Here the seven peoples gathered.

They eyed one another warily until a group of Ginto Remnant stepped out of their tent. One was a woman dressed in pale blue robes, with a straight sword sheathed at her side. Another was a man in robes of the same color, clutching a book to his chest as if this book were the only thing keeping him from drowning.

The third, for whom the other two seemed to be an honor guard, was an older man dressed in brilliant colors richly embroidered.

When the woman spoke, she used a language of trade used across continents. Not all who listened were fluent, but all who listened understood.

“Welcome to Vesu,” she said. “I am Ekistei. I shall not speak at length, for time is not our ally. The Tholen of Itholis call this the year 475 of the Ithosbrun Hjilen, the age of the silence of dragons. All of our peoples were brought to this world from the distant dark. We brought with us our gods. We brought with us our conflicts, our poisons, our doom.”

“It is your god who brought this evil,” rumbled the Ogre warlord. “Your god who made your species into Revenant. Your god who brings the Night.”

Ekistei nodded once. “Our god began this war. But our god does not bring the Night alone.”

One of the Archai stepped forward, her body laced with fierce blue tracery. “Haethus-Kevgrejl, the Dead Heiress of our people, chose to descend and join the Ravaging Lord. She intends to bring the Night to the land the Dwarves call Whitethaw.”

Several of those gathered looked toward the Human king, Amensol, as if waiting for him to speak—but the King remained silent.

If the Human King chose to hold his tongue, the Dwarf King did not. “And Ossari,” said Khazas, “a god of the Humans, brings the Night to their continent.”

Amensol frowned at the Dwarven King, but did not deign to respond. Isek was certain he did not imagine the disapproval on Khazas’ face.

Ekistei continued. “We, the last Remnant of the Ginto people, carry the sparks of Our Lady within us. I ask you to listen to the greatest of us, our High Priest and prophet, Semina.”

She stepped aside, and the older Ginto stepped forward.

He spoke about the unseen hand that brought them here to this world. He spoke about Terminus, its beauty and its thorns. He spoke of them all as seven orphans given a chance at life when no chance remained.

And he spoke of the corruption like a plague of hate sweeping across all the world. Of armies clawed and gibbering, knowing only hate and destruction. Of the Night that would claim them all in the end.

In the uttermost end of hope, he bespoke a prophecy. This could be an end, yes, the end of everything. Yet Terminus was not done with them, these ragged peoples, these orphans from beyond the stars. A dawn would come with powers greater than they could imagine, and they would blink in the sun after years of darkness.

They had but to endure. To survive the war that was reaching across the lands and seas until the breaking of the dawn.

Behind him, Isek heard the furious scratching of pen on parchment as an Elven scribe wrote down every word from the prophet’s mouth.

“Are you suggesting,” said one of the Dark Myr quietly, “that we work with the Ogres to build a fortress large enough to play home to tens of thousands of our peoples… together?”

Ekistei said, “We are suggesting that if you do not do this, you will not survive the Night. Like children bedding down in a forest field, predators will find and devour you. Unless you find shelter, you Sacred Six will cease to be.”

“And what of you?” asked the Archai who had spoken before. “What of the Ginto?”

“We are no longer the Ginto,” said Semina. “The Ginto are already a dead species. We are the Remnant, and we have one purpose left: to save something of this cradle and those who were brought here to live and dream in the dreams of dragons. To save what we can from the Night.”

 

* * * * *

 

We all felt a sense of purpose while traveling with the Ginto. It felt as if the world we knew was a mask, and now that mask began to turn and reveal its true face to us. A hidden face that we did not know. We could have been terrified, confused. Uncertain of the ground we were standing on. Uncertain if we understood anything at all.

Perhaps we felt all of those things. But we also felt, I know no better word, strong. We adventurers trod the world and found the secret places and dangers only known to most in stories. We fought, and we lived. Over and over, we lived.

We were the heroes, the scouts preparing our people for a war. They needed us. Even I felt this reckless euphoria, and began to write these pages as we traveled, to document our journey, and the darkening of the world.

We felt strong. Until the day the world turned again and showed us yet another face. And that face told us that we were nothing, that we outcasts were destined to die so that wealthy scholars and wizards and councilors could live.

And on that day we turned away.

 

— from the known pages of the Oracle of Aovyn

 

* * * * *

 

A town in the middle of nowhere, 475 IH

 

Arebon’s chair was leaned back against a wall in the corner, and his legs were crossed idly on a table. The brim of a hat covered his eyes.

Sairi knew he was asleep before she reached the table and heard him snore. An assortment of empty tankards were standing or fallen near him. It was a sight she was becoming accustomed to since a smuggler ship dropped them off in a smuggler town off a smuggler road that somehow led to this town in the foothills of the western plains.

The town seemed to have no name. They had asked when they arrived, and after the third person shrugged and said, “It’s here,” they gave up asking.

Sairi sighed and was about to walk away when she saw a hooded man standing near the table looking down at Arebon.

“That’s quite a fine sword,” said the hooded man, “for a drunk elf at a table in Nowhere.”

Sairi moved over to stand leaning against the wall beside Arebon. She looked the hooded man in the... mouth, for his eyes were hidden by the hood, and said, “I have a fine sword myself.”

Her arms were crossed in front of her, right hand gripping the scabbard she cradled.

The hooded man smiled. “So I see. Did you think I intended to kill him and take the sword while the crowd,” he looked away toward the hearth, where Crowdancer was singing a ballad, “was listening to your fine bard over there.”

“Why do you think she is my bard?”

“Elves are said to come through this place, but they seldom stay long. You have all stayed long enough to be known. And your reputations have followed you across the sea.”

“Good or bad?”

“I imagine that would depend on who you ask. You have earned both the respect and the envy of smugglers between here and the cape of Saol. Only one of those is a good thing to have earned. And it is also said that you traveled with interesting companions.”

“I see,” was all she said.

The corner of his mouth moved, the only sign that betrayed his amusement. “And yet,” he reached down to one of the fallen tankards and set it back upright.

“If you have some idea who we are,” said Sairi, “then what do you want? Or did you just walk over here to amuse yourself?”

“Help yourself to a drink,” mumbled Arebon.

The hooded man smiled again. “Maybe next time.”

And then he disappeared into the crowd on his way to the outer door of the inn.

“If you’re awake,” said Sairi, “why don’t I get you upstairs?”

“Good,” he said. “This wall is hard.”

“You said that yesterday.” She lifted him out of the chair, then glanced down at the tankards on the table. There was a coin next to the one the stranger had set upright. Without thinking, she picked it up and put it in a pouch that hung from a cord around her neck. Then she stuffed the pouch back down her tunic and helped Arebon to the stairs.

The second floor hallway was kept lit until late in the night with flickering bronze lanterns spaced between the doors. She led him to the second door on the right and went in.

She dropped him on his bed, then went back out into the hall with a stub of paper and lit it on one of the lanterns. She went back into the room and lit the candle by Arebon’s bed.

He was asleep again. Just as well.

She lifted the candle and set it down next to the other bed, then sat down wearily. She pulled out the coin to get to get a better look.

An eyeball. That was her first impression. The coin was of soft copper, cheaply made, and resembled no coin she had ever seen before. On one side was stamped one circle within another, as if an eye stared at her out of the coin. She turned it over and saw what looked to be a vendor’s booth in a market.

She set the coin down on the table and lay down on the bed.

A town with no name. Adventurers with no purpose. Perhaps they did belong here.

 

* * * * *

 

The elven caravel picked up speed as it ran before the wind shadowed by its two well-armed escorts.

“Your Naftali speaks well, but he is not a soldier,” said the king.

“Speak your mind, king.”

Amensol turned. A tall man, he towered over the elven councilors and crew. Shoulder-length hair whipped in the wind along with his cloak. He spoke loudly enough to be heard above the voices of wind and sea.

“You are the stone workers, the architects and artisans. We can help you with military strength, but I doubt we could contribute to the construction of such a mighty fortress.”

“Mighty,” said Isek dryly. “I try to imagine a fortress mighty enough to house every man, woman, and child of both our species and my mind reels. We might as well build a world, except we have already been brought to this one.”

Amensol struck the bulwark with a mailed fist. “We have survived a new world after the end of the old world. We have flourished. And now it is all threatened because of gods who are more ill-behaved than gangs of thieves in the streets of Havensong.”

Isek was thinking furiously. “What can you contribute for the protection of the builders?”

“Perhaps five thousand soldiers. We will need the rest to protect Havensong. It is we whom Ossari hates most of all. If you choose a site with good natural defenses, five thousand should be enough.”

“And the others of our continent? What of the Rishagi, the Anenseka, the Sarn, and all the rest?”

Amensol shook his head. “It will be a miracle if we can even protect our own people. And I don’t believe in miracles. Let the others look after their own. They can see this coming as well as we.”

With that the king turned and strode away toward his cabin, following by the guards.

“We have to build this thing,” said Kaolyen. “We have been given an impossible task.”

“Then let us show them that the elves are a match for it,” said Isek. “The Tohr’mentirii could not destroy us. We shall survive the wrath of gods.”

 

* * * * *

 

Sairi awoke to a chill wind and a bright light. Opening her eyes, she saw Kymeret in the room. She drew her arm across her eyes.

“I hope there is a reason why the windows are open,” she said.

“They are open because Arebon hasn’t had a bath in days and smells of bad ale. Perhaps you are so accustomed to this fragrance that you no longer—“

“I notice, trust me.”

“Fine,” said Arebon. “I’ll take a bath.” He sniffed. “It really is bad ale.”

“What is this?” asked Kymeret, his voice closer.

Sairi looked up and saw him picking up the coin on the table beside her bed.

“Some strange man in a hood was lurking over Arebon while he was asleep downstairs. I think he must have left that behind when he pretended to straighten the table a bit.”

“What did he say?” Kymeret was frowning, looking at both sides of the coin.

“I don’t remember. Something about how we have a reputation and apparently we are besmirching our good name by staying here in Nowhere and being useless.”

Kymeret looked at her. “Those were mostly your words, I believe.”

“Okay yes, I agree with the suspicious hooded man.”

“Was he an elf?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Most of his face was under the hood, so I don’t know what species he was. Spoke flawless Trade, though.”

“I imagine he did.”

Something in Kymeret’s voice made her sit up. “Do you know what that is?”

“Whatever he said to you, this,” he held up the coin, “was his real message.”

“It looks like an eyeball.”

“The other side.” He held it out to her, and she took it.

She looked closely again. “A booth in some market.”

“What is above the booth?”

“Pinpricks in copper.”

“Stars,” he said. “A vendor’s booth under stars. That is the usual symbol for the Night Market.”

“The what?” Arebon sat up in his bed and began rubbing his eyes.

“The Night Market is, well…”

“Stories,” said Arebon.

“Oh no, I believe the stories are real. Some say it is a place of thieves, smugglers, and spies,” Kymeret chuckled, “and all manner of secret societies. Others say it is roamed by the hopeless and the lost, or by vendors of great secrets and items of powerful magic.”

“I have heard something different,” said Aovyn as he walked into the room.

“Who is with the wolf?” asked Sairi.

“Slumber and Crowdancer.”

“What have you heard?” said Kymeret.

Aovyn took the coin from him and looked closely. “I have heard it is frequented by the fae, by spirits… one story even speaks of a wraith who came to sell its skin. I have heard that what is sold in the Night Market is not items, but wishes, hopes, curses, and rain.”

“Well this is charming, why did he leave the coin for Sairi?”

“Who left it?”

“A mysterious stranger,” said Kymeret, smiling.

“I really do need to take a bath,” said Arebon.

“Yes, you do,” said Sairi. He looked at her.

“Do you want the news first,” said Aovyn, “or after?”

“What news?” Arebon looked up.

Aovyn closed the door and leaned against the wall. “While Crowdancer was performing, Isonis sat nearby as usual listening to tales and engaging people in conversation. Isonis was right, Sarnishar has become a focal point in the midst of all the unrest. Farms and villages continue to be attacked, caravans raided... and people report seeing foul creatures of every kind. But people speak of Sarnishar as some kind of beacon.”

Kymeret said, “Will the people of Sarnishar be taking a stand?”

“I don’t know if they have made a decision. But migrants have been fleeing there. Refugees and small forces of fighters. They say there is a growing movement to convince King Nuodi to officially offer sanctuary and commit to defending the surrounding lands.”

“Then perhaps that is where we should go,” said Arebon.

“Another thing,” said Aovyn. “As my wolf and I were preparing to sleep in the loft, a wagon arrived. Traders from the east. They were speaking of a place called Terefal Torn. There is a wood there, and standing stones—and when I pressed them, they swore they saw an Undine.”

“An Undine!” Kymeret reached out and grabbed him by the arm. “Did they describe it?”

Aovyn shrugged. “A creature of water, an arcamental, they said. You know carters, they tell stories in every town. But I thought you should know.”

Sairi said, “Why can’t you learn to summon one like you figured out how to summon the Fury and the Titan?”

Kymeret shook his head. “I can’t. I have tried everything. I didn’t want to believe Ekistei, but perhaps I do need to seek one out. A quest to earn the respect of,” he waved an arm, “arcamental Water.”

Arebon sighed and stood up, grabbed some fresh clothes from a chest. Before he reached the door, he turned and looked between Aovyn and Kymeret. “But why the coin? That seems… random, does it not?”

“I don’t believe it was random at all,” said Kymeret. “I believe it was an invitation.”

 

* * * * *

 

On a dusty road stretching east across the plains, eight elven travelers walked with everything they owned, and a wolf scouted ahead of them. They had been on the road for many days before they came upon the crossroad they sought.

A standing stone at one corner was carved with markings naming places in each direction. Here, three of the elves said their goodbyes and turned to the north with the wolf. The others continued on to the east for a fortnight, until they reached another crossroad.

In the place where five roads met, Kymeret was speaking excitedly to Slumber. Arebon pulled Yonai aside.

“Kymeret will think of nothing but his quest,” he said. “Watch over them, all right?”

“I will bring them back to you alive,” said Yonai. “And meet you all in Sarnishar when we are done.”

They bid each other safe journeys, and three elves took an eastern road to seek a land called Terefal Torn.

Sairi looked at Arebon and said, “So where do we begin to search for this Night Market?”

Arebon looked around at the endless plain, and five roads leading away from them.

“I have no idea,” he said.