I hear people speak as if they believe they see the world clearly, as if there could be no argument with their clear sight and understanding. But I see through the eyes of an elf, a shaman, a descendent of millennia of elven culture and years of my own brief life. How could I see the world other than through these eyes?
Even in dreams I am an elf, and cannot see as a human sees, or a dwarf. Sometimes I believe I can see through the eyes of my best friend, but she is a wolf and every day she shows me a different world than my eyes see.
But even in this understanding am I trapped within ego and the illusion of firm ground beneath me. Just when I feel I know who I am, and the structure of the world within which I walk, a giant hand turns the stage on its side, and the ground is now a cliff and I fall helpless, trying to remember my name.
One morning I awoke believing the world was a place of beauty and wonder, and that I was a quiet wanderer on its paths. By nightfall I knew a great war had begun, and I already wore the weight of a soldier.
— from the known pages of the Oracle of Aovyn
* * * * *
The Ginto were led by a woman named Ekistei, who seemed to be the most tranquil and serene, thought she had fought fiercely in the ruins. The man who had spoken first was Quaja. The others had not yet said a word.
After the battle, they had left the cursed city behind them. Ekistei led them through the plains of yellow grass toward the northeast. As they walked, they drew closer to the long ridge that rose into a mountain in the center.
“What brings you to this land?” asked Arebon.
“You might say that we were led here.”
Arebon glanced back toward Aovyn. “We were led here as well. I do not know what is in that city that is so important.”
“Not to the city. To this.” Ekistei pointed toward to mountain.
Aovyn stepped forward to walk alongside Arebon. He stared at the gateway carved into the side of the mountain. “I understand now. It was always the lair. That was the last thing I saw in my vision. Irilanssa and the city, they were only landmarks to guide us here.”
“So we wandered the dead city for nothing,” said Sairi.
“Not for nothing,” said Arebon. He looked over to Isonis, who still gripped the hilt of his new sword.
“It’s been a long journey to get here,” Sairi. “We killed our own people, then wandered the wilderness for months without purpose.”
No one said anything for a long moment. Then Quaja said, “Our destiny now is to kill our own people. Almost all of them. It is the only purpose left to us.”
Sairi opened her mouth, then closed it.
“Are they really our own people any more?” asked Ekistei. “Savage, brutal, violent yet craven, all the sense and thought of their species riven from them until all that is left is a feral husk. I have seen Revenant climb over the bodies of their own to engage a new opponent. I have seen them eat their own dead. I have seen a Revenant who, disarmed of all weapons, leapt and bit the throat out of the one who fought it.”
Her voice as she spoke of these things was calm, sad, resigned.
“They have become monsters like the god we once loved,” said Quaja. “Only the sacrifice of our goddess saved us few that are left. She is within us now—guiding, strengthening, gifting us both peace and the will for what we must do.”
Sairi sighed. “So the war really will come here.”
“It already has,” said Quaja. “Many Revenant are coming by different paths, over land and sea, clawing their way through shadows and forests, to find their way to the general to whom they have been given.”
“Ossari,” said Arebon.
As they neared the mountain, the entrance loomed before them. Shaped to admit a dragon with huge wings, it was made of shaped stones placed so closely together that they appeared as solid stone around the gateway. On the front surface, giant letters that dwarfed them all glowed and pulsed. Some still glowed a deep fiery red, yet portions of the letters had faded to black with time, as if their magic drifted away.
Yet something cringed in Arebon as he stared at leviathan script, and a pain arose within his head and chest.
“Do not look too long at the writing you see,” said Ekistei. “This writing is twisted, like the mind of the writer.”
“The language of the dragons of Terminus,” said Quaja, “has its own magic, and it is not necessarily the same from dragon to dragon.”
The Ginto led the way into the vast opening in the mountain. Arebon stood at the entrance for a long moment, peering into the darkness that loomed before them.
“We’re being followed,” said Sairi.
“I noticed that as well,” said Kymeret.
Arebon turned. “By what?”
“They are being rather skittish, creeping some distance behind us.”
More of the Revenant? wondered Arebon.
“Let’s keep moving,” he said.
* * * * *
Kymeret summoned his titan companion, an armored stone that walked on one side while Slumber walked on the other.
“Marching order,” said Arebon quietly. “Keep watch.”
The halls of the dragon were carved into the mountain with some power that Arebon couldn’t imagine. Corridors branched off into unknown places, and broad passages descended into the depths of the world.
All were lit by more of the dragon’s twisted writings. Some of the letters flickered as if straining to illumine a world they should have graced forever. Yet they grew weak as the centuries passed.
Arebon led a brisk pace so they could catch up with the Ginto, who did not seem inclined to wait.
There was enough light from the writing in the walls to cast a lambent glow through the passages, a shroud of burnt umber and madder. There were yet enough shadows in vast towering corners that Arebon and the others kept a close watch on the darkness.
The echoes of their footsteps bounced strangely around the angled walls and the ceiling so far above. As did their voices when they spoke.
The Ginto stopped and looked around an intersection.
“Are we still being followed?” asked Arebon.
“Yes,” said Kymeret and Ekistei at the same time.
“You knew?” said Arebon.
Ekistei studied him. “This is our destiny. We knew. It is important that you do not stray… unless you wish to walk another path.”
Her voice spun back to them in rhythmic echoes, reminding Arebon of light refracted through a prism.
Ekistei looked around again and said, “The power we seek… is that way.”
The newest intruders in this ancient lair turned and made their way deeper into the halls.
They turned several corners more, then stopped as they beheld the form of a great dragon towering above them in the room. Along one side of the chamber was a spring big enough to be a water trough for the dragon, and the water flowed clear and clean before them, disappearing into a drain across the water.
“A dragon of stone,” said Quaja. “I wonder, is this a portrait of the old worm? In his own home?”
“It is,” said a new voice.
Sandoval strode into the hall from a passage on the right. In his hand he bore still the staff with slow-moving quicksilver at its head. His robes were of elf fashion perhaps two generations back, and his hair was unbound as before.
The Ginto all bowed before him, and Quaja said, “I believe it is you that we have come to meet.”
Arebon waved his people toward the dragon statue so that they could watch the passage from which they came.
“I am Sandoval. And who are you?” Sandoval sniffed. “You are not dissimilar from elves or dwarves or humans, but I have never beheld your species before. There is…” his eyes narrowed, “a light in your eyes that I have never seen.”
Quaja nodded. “It is the light of our goddess Ginavi, the voice and the spark within us.”
“She has graced you with her power.”
“What remains of it.”
“There is a story here.”
“A long one.”
“But first,” said Ekistei, “we should deal with those who pursue.”
Sandoval turned at the sound of hoarse laughter as a number of Revenant came around the corner and begin to run toward them. There were more than two dozen. They slowed and looked at those they faced, perhaps turning the odds in their heads.
“I see,” said Sandoval, and he strode forward toward the Revenant. They eyed him warily, hungrily.
Sandoval spread his arms as if to embrace them. “What has been done to you?” he asked. “You are… wrong.”
Those who led the Revenant decided the odds were good, and ran toward him screeching.
“Wait,” said Ekistei to her people.
In Sandoval’s hand, the staff began to change. The quicksilver flowed down the length of the staff, then surged back over a greatsword rising toward the ceiling. He took the hilt in both hands.
The sword itself appeared to flow like liquid silver, like moonslight in an arc around him. It was as if silver splashed through the bodies of the closest of them. He continued to walk as the arc of his sword swept back and forth before him, felling Revenant who screamed and began to melt in pools of silver and blood.
Those who remained realized what was happening and began to run.
Sandoval swept his sword around once more, then back—and it was a staff again, shining silver upon the fleeing Revenant until they too fell.
When they were all dead upon the ground, Sandoval lowered his staff and seemed to slump slightly.
“Yes,” said Ekistei, and the Ginto sighed in apparent relief.
“Why did you lead them here?” Asked Sandoval.
“We were led to see you, and our enemy followed.”
Sandoval looked them over, then began to walk toward a chamber deeper in the dragon’s lair.
“Come,” he said. “I would hear your story.”
* * * * *
It was a long hall of green marble inlaid with red arabesque. It did not seem large enough for the dragon whose statue was behind them, but Arebon did not ask. He was staring at artifacts on pedestals along the sides. Here, a sword. There, a spear. On some pedestals were items whose purpose he could not imagine.
“Touch nothing,” said Sandoval to those who followed.
Arebon suspected there was some sort of protection over the artifacts, and after seeing Sandoval fight, he had no intention of angering him.
The hallway ended in a smaller chamber. Cloth and furs and candles made clear that this was where Sandoval spent his time in this place.
He waved around at seats and beds of stone.
“Tell me,” he said.
Ekistei remained standing. “I do not know what you see when you look at the stars.”
“Sparkling gems in a vast black cloth.”
“It is not a cloth,” said Ekistei, “but a void. A darkness deeper than the deepest pools, deeper than worlds, deeper than one can imagine.”
Sandoval lowered himself into a stone chair covered in furs. “And what do you see in this… void?”
“The statue back there… that was a small one of its kind. Some dragons are of such length and breadth that, so I have heard, one would think they could lie across continents as their beds, and bathe in oceans.”
“So I have heard,” said Sandoval, “though I have never seen a dragon lord with my own eyes.”
“Yet a dragon lord, even a dragon king, is still closer in kind to you and I than that which hungers behind the stars.”
Sandoval closed his eyes. “Speak no more of this, for I fear there is a cold in this secret that would freeze us until the end of the world.”
“We must,” said Quaja. “Though we will not tell the full tale, we must tell you what happened to our god, Ittero—as Semina has told it to us. For the… thing beyond the stars is a power that hungers for worlds and sees us not at all, and barely sees our gods. Ittero was changed. Twisted. Corrupted.”
“Yes. And he in turn, with a new exultation, committed a great evil against those he previously protected.”
Sandoval’s eyes narrowed, and his head tilted slightly as he perceived. “He corrupted his people as he himself was corrupted.
“What one person calls a monster,” said Ekistei, “might be brother or sister to another. Or child. One by one they slowly became monsters. We watched it happen in our leaders, in our friends, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. The evil took them, and now they are no longer Ginto. Though craven and senseless, they hunger for flesh and murder and brutality. We call them Revenant.”
“I have heard that word used for those who die and come back wrong.”
“Most of our species came back wrong. When our goddess Ginavi realized what her husband had done, she gave her life to pour her essence into those of us who remain.”
“The light of a dead goddess,” said Sandoval quietly, with wonder in his voice. “And you…“ he shook his head, “you must now kill them all. Your friends, your husbands and wives, brothers and sisters.”
“It is the only purpose that remains to us, the Ginto Remnant. We know what Ittero the Ravaging Lord intends for this world. He is tainted by the ravening dark that destroyed him, that destroyed our world. And he would destroy Terminus, home not only to us, but to many species.”
“Your purpose is to save the world,” said Aovyn. “Are there enough of you?”
“There are not,” said Quaja. “That is why all species who were brought here, who were taken from doom and given this bed of thorns in which to dwell, must fight to preserve the only world we have left.”
Arebon swallowed, shaking. This was bigger than he imagined. “These Revenant are here, now. What will they do?”
“They will gather. They will bow before their general, the fallen human god Ossari, along with other species who join his army, whether in joy or fear.”
Quaja turned to look at him. “And then they will burn down your cities, burn every forest and grassland, and kill you and everyone you have ever known. Your species will die, as ours has, and no one will be left to remember.”
* * * * *
Sandoval gripped the staff in his hand, and red light from the walls cast his eyes into deep shadow.
“I understand well enough, I think,” he said, turning back to the Ginto. “But why have you come to me?”
“I beheld a vision,” said Ekistei, “that led us here. And we did not come in vain.”
“What have you found?”
“A man asleep.”
He looked at her, bemused. “What do you mean?”
“Our eyes… see.”
For a moment, Arebon thought he saw the gleam of blue light within the Ginto’s eyes.
“If I am asleep, when will I awaken?” asked Sandoval.
“When the time comes.” Ekistei bowed, and the other Ginto as well. “But my heart is at peace.”
Sandoval shook his head. “I do not understand. Yet I envy the peace of your heart.” Now he looked up at Arebon. “And you, why have you come to me?”
“We now realize that Aovyn’s vision was not leading us to Nenufarn, but to you.”
Sandoval laughed without humor. “Perhaps the dragon should have spoken to him in words.”
“It would have been helpful.”
Aovyn stepped forward. “You said that elves are not known for making long journeys. You were right. We are in exile—temporarily, we hope—but what has brought you here?”
Sandoval looked troubled. “Some cloud hides from me the memory of my journey to this place. I cleared out the creatures who had taken up residence within the halls of the dragon, so that it would be a safe place for me, and for others. I have collected some of the artifacts of the Suulchun and placed them in the Hall of Malachite, shielded, so that they might not be misused.” He looked at Isonis. “You seem to have found something in the ruins.”
Isonis looked at Sandoval warily. “The sword was guarded by one of the ghosts… or whatever they are. Our swords would pass through them, but this one did not.”
“May I see it?” On seeing Isonis’ expression, he added, “Worry not, for I am no thief.”
Isonis walked over and showed him the blade of the sword.
“Yes, this is one of theirs. The blade reads, ‘I am Drinker of Night’s Breath’. The magic that I feel in the blade is suitable for slaying creatures of spirit, creatures of the veil… the sort of beings that a normal sword would pass through.”
“So I discovered.”
Aovyn leaned forward. “They were called Suulchun then?”
“Yes.” Sandoval leaned back. “Magic artisans of evil cunning. They were brought here from their world, Irilanssa, and set down in the endless marsh to the west, now a land awash with the yellow plant life from their homeward.
“And their gods came with them, two gods who cast even greater shadows than those who worshipped them. Both gods Descended and took their places to rule the city that rose from the plain. And the Suulchun used their magic to create slaves… pets… out of bits and pieces of other life, until a new species arose: the Keristorja. You have seen one of them. Tormented by their creators, they lived in fear and misery.
“Until the war came. The two gods hated one another, you see. And the followers of each waged war on behalf of their chosen demigod. A war of magic and destruction. And you have seen the result.”
“We have,” said Ekistei. “And that and worse will be the fate of all of Terminus if we do not stop the new demigods and their followers in time.”
“What can save us from demigods leading armies?” said Sairi. “Can we even escape what is coming?”
“We cannot,” said Arebon quietly. He was looking down.
“No, you cannot,” said Quaja. “You have already engaged the Revenant in battle. While others scurry to pretend they can avoid the storm that comes, for you the war has already begun. You are soldiers who stand before the darkness and fire that would destroy life. What will you do?”
“I’m a ranger!” said Sairi. “A tracker, a trapper, a hunter. I’m not a soldier.”
“You are now,” said Ekistei.
“You already have,” said Isonis quietly. “I am no happier than you, Sairi, but you have killed. Not just Revenant, not just beasts of the forest, but you have killed humans. And you have helped us kill elves. It is time we all looked fully in the face of what we have done and know that we have only begun.”
Sairi would not look up.
“What will we do,” said Arebon. Then he raised his head. “Whatever happens, we fight for the elves, for Faerthale. We fight against the ravaging horde. We fight against those who would destroy and burn and murder without reason. And when we are done, I shall return to Faerthale and call it my home.”
Sandoval looked at him a long moment. “Is that an oath?”
“Consider it an oath if you like.”
“Is it an oath that others of your people will follow?”
“I will,” said Aovyn.
“I will,” said Crowdancer.
“I will as well,” said Isonis.
Slumber and Kymeret stared at one another. Then Kymeret sighed, and his shoulders slumped. “I don’t know if I would fight for Faerthale. I know that I would fight for my companions.”
“Sometimes,” said Quaja, “that is the farthest you can go. Sometimes it is enough.”
Crowdancer laid a hand on Sairi’s shoulder. Sairi nodded. “I will fight for those who stand with me.”
“This is so much bigger than I thought,” said Arebon. “Bigger than we know how to handle, perhaps.”
“I was a farmer,” Quaja said to him. “I had trained with sword, yes, but my days were spent with tending to crops, finding ways to grow food for us in this new world. I was born soon after the collision, and I learned the ways of grains and vegetables, soil and rain. I did not choose battle.”
“But you have accepted it,” said Aovyn.
“I carry the heart of my goddess within me, along with a spark of her spirit and power. I never forget.”
“We have a purpose,” said Ekistei. “We have nothing else.”
They turned as Sandoval stood and took his staff in hand. “Among the artifacts of the Suulchun that I gathered, some shone with evil intent, with corruption. Those I have destroyed. But some of the less dangerous are in the hall through which you passed. Take what you need, and make better use of them than their former owners.”
He stepped forward and looked down at Crowdancer. “And you, follow me.”
She glanced at Arebon, who said, “Let’s all go.”
They followed Sandoval back down the hall. He stopped next to a frame drum with writing all around the edge. “I saw that you play. This might assist your music. And the writing along the wood protects the entire instrument from decay over time.”
He smiled slightly. “Though you can still fall on it, if you like.”
“I have no wish to break it,” said Crowdancer. “Thank you.”
When the others had chosen weapons from among his collection, Sandoval translated when he could, telling them the names, and in a couple of cases the power, of the item chosen.
Then he turned to the Ginto. “And you?”
“We carry weapons imbued, as we are, with the intend of Our Lady. It is enough. And now we must go.”
“Where will you go?”
“We are advance scouts,” said Quaja. “Though the main battle of our people is elsewhere, still we must understand the movements of the Revenant across other lands. My group will scout this continent, and depending on what we find, we might contact the leaders of peoples and tribes.”
“I wonder,” said Arebon, “if we might come with you.”
Ekistei met his eyes for a long moment. “Are you sure?” she said.
“At least for a time. If we are soldiers, then we should learn of our enemy while we can.”
“Perhaps we will all meet in the Great War to come,” said Sandoval.
Ekistei met his eyes. “Of that I am certain.”
~ End of Part Two ~