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Crowsinger

  • 2021-11-22 15:13

Chapter 14

 

On a high ridge to the east, a tower of black stone rose above the highest ground. The scholars who lived and worked in the tower called it the Kelelindricon, a word created using two words from a dead language that no one outside the tower understood.

Peoples in the countryside around called it the Black Tower and told tales of sorcery and strange lights at night. The scholars knew nothing of such rumors, focused as they were on their studies of the movements, personalities, and magical properties of lights in the sky.

They were also unaccustomed to visitors, so the sudden appearance of two elves clothed in wilderness—or so it seemed to them—was a source of some befuddlement among the scholars.

“Of course we study the movements of the moons,” said one man, whose name was seven syllables long. “Did I already pour you tea?”

“Yes, you did,” said Arebon, holding the cup in both hands. “We were hoping that you could help us understand something.”

The man seemed at a loss what to do with the kettle now that he had poured the tea, so he set it down on some papers in front of him. “What would you like to know?” he said, suddenly remembering that he had visitors.

Arebon leaned forward and set down the teacup. “Of course we have seen Hauna and Lauta close together in the sky. Both at the same phase, I believe, when that happens.”

“Of course,” said the scholar. “They will always be in the same phase when they pass one another.”

A second scholar entered the room carrying scrolls and several long rolled up sheets of parchment. She attempted to set them down upon the table, but they went flying in various directions. Arebon and Sairi each caught a scroll on its way off the edge.

Arebon set down the scroll and said, “Have they ever come together so that,” he tried to form the shapes with his hands, “one is on top of the other, perfectly centered?”

The scholars glanced at one another, and then the second one said, “It is very rare to find Lauta centered within Hauna. They share the same phase, of course, so they shape they form together varies. When both moons are full, we call it a Luminous Transit. When full Lauta is centered within full Hauna… well, few live during a time when they are fortunate enough to see such a thing. Some peoples in this region call it a ’Red-Eye Eclipse’ because, as you might imagine, red Lauta seems to stare at Terminus out of the eyeball of Hauna. They believe it to be a sign of evil.” She gave a lopsided smile. “We do not study evil here. Although we do believe such an eclipse has magical properties.”

“What sorts of magical properties?” asked Sairi.

The first scholar said, “Oh, are you students of the magical arts? I know that some elves are.”

“No, we are hunters, scouts. Rangers.”

“Well, I believe the magic of the Luminous Transit is a magic of portals, doorways, gates. But I am not an expert in such things.”

Arebon said, “Do you know when such an eclipse will happen next?”

The scholars glanced at one another again, then sighed. “We should probably take them to the Antikythera.”

“It would save time,” agreed the other.

Leaving the tea behind, they led their visitors up the stairs that curved around the inside wall of the tower. They emerged into a room that took up all of one floor of the tower.

Above their heads, a dome of sky was represented in the curvature of the ceiling. Glowing gems took the place of stars. On the floor, a number of concentric circles slowly turned at different rates, and on the circles were fine lines and symbols that Arebon had never seen before. Above the circles floated three orbs representing a sun and two moons. Arebon could not see how they drifted above the floor.

An older man with an impressive gray beard was moving beads and circles around on a strange device and making notes on a scroll. Aside from clicking sounds from the device, and the scratching of a quill pen on parchment, there were also sounds beneath the floor from whatever mechanism turned the circles.

Arebon was so focused on the mechanism that took up most of the room, that he heard little of what the scholars were saying. He blinked and watched the two younger scholars get down on hands and knees and carefully make their way toward the center. They scribbled calculations down on scraps of parchment, calling out numbers and strange words to the elder.

Then they gathered around a table that curved along one wall. More scratching and clicking.

At last the woman looked up with her eyes wide. A moment later, the younger man looked up and said, “Fifteen days.”

“What?” said Arebon. “That soon…”

“It has been twenty-seven years,” said the elder, “and of late we have been focused on dire signs from the constellations Dragonmouth and Harrowscythe.” He pointed to the star map on the ceiling. “I suppose this has snuck up on us.”

“What…” began Sairi, “dire signs?”

“Oh, it seems that something terrible is going to happen within the next decade,” said the younger man. “I don’t know if this is related to frightening rumors that have reached us here. But the whole tower has been talking about it.”

“Twenty-seven years,” repeated the elder, who had been muttering to himself while others spoke. Now he turned to his colleagues and said, “The arrival of the Ginto was twenty-seven years ago. Thus began the Second Era of Collisions.”

“Sairi and I were born that year,” said Arebon, “and—“

“We really must research this,” said the first scholar. “We should have seen that connection.”

“Oh, I saw it,” said the elder, “but over the years one forgets…”

Arebon held up a hand. “Where will the eclipse appear? Where will it be overhead?”

“Oh.” The scholars looked at each other.

“The moons will travel overhead from east to west,” said the first scholar, speaking slowly as if to a child. “They move as if surveying all the world beneath them.”

“Where will it rise in the east?”

“Over an untamed land, the wild end of the east. There you would find no cities, no tribes.”

”I meant over those mountains east of here. From here, if we were to reach the mountains at the place the moons appear to rise…”

Arebon was having trouble, and he tried to think of a better way to describe what he pictured, but one of the scholars answered.

“Oh, that we can tell you.”

Instead of saying more, the scholars bent down to their scrolls again. Scratching and clicking. Ink-stained finger moving across a map. Then they all looked up.

“They don’t want to go there,” said one.

“Probably not,” said the other.

“Excuse me,” said Sairi.

“There is an entrance in the mountains there,” said the second scholar, “to a deep and ancient city called Nen Sorshegweth. No one goes there.”

“Why not?”

“It has always been said to be a place of evil.”

Arebon looked at Sairi. Then he turned back to the scholars. “There is evil everywhere,” he said.

As they were escorted out of the tower, Arebon asked one of the scholars, “There is a lot here that might tempt thieves. All those gems in the ceiling, for one thing. How do you protect yourselves?”

“Oh, there is a protective magic here. No one knows why the first scholars were accepted by the tower, but ever since then our order has lived here.”

“And if war comes?”

The scholar frowned. “Then let us hope the tower does not withdraw its protection.”

 

* * * * *

 

For days the elves tracked the moons when they were low in the east. Again and again the moons rose above the razorspine mountains, waxing with each day, and the travelers made the moons their compass.

The plains would come to an end in the foothills, and then they would find the gate that led beneath the mountain. On the other side, they had been told, was a land of strange and colorful life: the wild end of the east.

The scholars had urged them to head north into the eastern plains, then south into this land, but Arebon was desperate not to lose the only clue they had. So they made for the tall mountain from which the moons rose every day.

The mountains ahead of them towered over the first ridges decked with autumn flowers. Sharp edges and treacherous cliffs were dotted with tall thin trees of dark green needles; their roots clawed and clung to the cliffsides. In the higher reaches, snow caught the setting sun.

The day came when Lauta and Hauna rose together, and Lauta overlapped the larger moon as if they touched one another. It would still be several days before Lauta was centered within Hauna, but they had no time to waste.

They waded the tall graingrass and kept watch on the plains around them. Sairi could see nothing that looked like a pass through those peaks.

But she did feel that they were being followed.

Once she glanced back and saw some of the grasses behind them stir against the wind.

As she turned to look ahead again, Arebon said, "Tell me there's something back there."

"Why?"

"Because if there isn't, my spine is whispering for no reason."

"How long have you been feeling that?"

"Since we left the Black Tower. Or maybe since I was stalked and attacked in Dunsarrol.”

"Well if it helps," said Sairi, "I'm pretty sure there's something back there."

"That does help."

The foothills were blanketed in tall evergreens. Birds fluttered around the treetops, watching the two elves approach.

"When we're into the trees," said Arebon, "we start to run."

"Understood."

Whatever followed them made no sound. All Sairi could hear was the racket their own legs and boots were making in the grasses.

Soon the forest took them in, and the birds in the treetops did not seem happy about it. Sairi winced at how loudly they protested the interlopers in their forest. The elves walked a bit deeper in, and Arebon led her around a large tree.

"Now," he said.

They began to run, first left, then right around trees as they approached. They dodged randomly, choosing direction as much from whim as instinct.

At last they slowed. Sairi looked back but couldn't see any sign of their pursuers.

They emerged from the trees and saw before them a valley stretching to north and south. On the east side were high rock walls that ascended into the mountains. The sun had set beneath the hill they had just crossed, and shadows moved across the valley, but they could seee a crevice in the rock wall on the other side, a pathway.

There was yet enough light to see that all the grasses had been stamped down as if by thousands of feet.

"What did that?" wondered Sairi.

"An army," said Arebon. "But which way did they go?"

The grasses swept away to the north like normal, but in front of them, and to the south, they had been crushed into the earth.

“All right,” said Arebon. “It’s one or the other. Either this army approached from the south, or they came out of the mountain and traveled south. If it they went south—“

“Then we should choose another path.”

Arebon shook his head slowly. “If we go north, we lose our only beacon.”

“And how much of that army remains in the mountain?”

He swallowed, still shaking his head, and she knew that he had set his mind upon this path.

She sighed. “All right. We spent years wandering the wilds, sometimes entering places underground and avoiding enemies we couldn’t handle. Just two things.”

“Yes?”

“We had a healer then. And we were never faced with an army.”

“We don’t know there is an army down there. They went south.”

“I want a plan.”

“So do I. But I don’t have one yet.”

Sairi nodded. “Then let’s think of one before we enter the mountain.”

She whirled and looked back, saw movement in two places.

“Still following us?”

“They are, yes.”

“Then let’s move.”

Into the dusk they descended, eyes roaming the twilit ground for any danger. There were items here and there, dropped like refuse as the army moved. Once they came to the body of a Revenant, no doubt slain by its companions.

As they passed into the crevice in the cliff face, Sairi glanced back, but saw nothing in the valley.

“They’re waiting until we can’t see them cross.”

“I suspect ratkin,” said Arebon.

“It does fit their style.”

They walked a short way into the crevice, but the darkness was complete. From long practice, Arebon spread brightfire sap on the blade of his sword to give them some light.

"We are nearly out of brightfire," said Arebon.

"Would it not have been wise to gather more before traveling under a mountain?"

"Nothing about this journey is wise."

Sairi agreed silently. The crevice opened up into a narrow ravine whose sides were too steep to climb. The path wound back and forth.

“Hold on,” said Sairi.

She lowered her pack to the ground and searched for supplies. Arebon kept watch as she set a hidden trap across the crevice. When she was done, she lightly tied the knot and slowly drew her fingers away. “Don’t come near,” she whispered. “I’ve set this knot for ratkin feet.”

Sairi backed away with light steps, lighter than the wind.

After several more turns, she set another trap in a narrow stretch of ravine. As she backed lightly away from the second, she said, “I could make a third, but then I would be out of tripwire.”

Arebon nodded. “If they get through those two, maybe the army will get them.”

For a moment, there was silence. Then Sairi collapsed on the ground laughing. Arebon looked at her a moment, then shrugged. She laughed on and on, helplessly, as if months of stress were at last released.

“They’re going to hear you,” said Arebon.

“It’s okay,” she said with whatever breath remained, “the army will get them.”

Finally her laughter was spent and she sat looking at the ground, trying to catch her breath. Then she looked up and saw Arebon smiling.

“Shall we go?”

She nodded and stood up, then shouldered her pack again. “I really do hope the army went the other way.”

“As do I.”

"Do we have a plan yet?"

"Hope that our kinder gods are with us."

"Thin hope with which to face a shadow-haunted city."

One more turn, and the ravine opened up into a broad space before the entrance to Nen Sorshegweth. The entire cliff wall before them seemed carved of green and black marble. In the center was a dark opening some four yards high, with vertical bars of green light on either side. On either side of the opening were the shapes of giants carved into the smooth dark marble. They had simple features and were about eight yards high.

In the face of each figure were deep gouges, as if a great axe had been taken to the marble faces over and over.

“How…” began Sairi, “how big is a fallen god?”

“I'm not sure. I don’t know if there are rules for that sort of thing.”

“Do you think he did that?”

“I don’t know.” Arebon glanced back into the winding ravine. “I think we should move on.”

“By all means, let’s follow the angry god.”

He smiled slightly, then took a deep breath. Together they entered the realm of Nen Sorshegweth under the mountain.

 

* * * * *

 

It soon became clear that the halls of Nen Sorshegweth were enshrouded in darkness. They had explored some underground places without light: tombs and catacombs, or ancient places whose light sources had long since faded into sleep. This was supposed to be an ancient city, but whatever illumination this hall once knew, it knew no more.

They pulled out the last of the brightfire sap and coated one sword. The soft amber light showed the floor and little else.

“The hall is too big,” whispered Sairi. Her whisper was louder than she liked in the darkness.

“At least it should keep us from falling down stairs,” whispered Arebon. His whisper joined hers in playing about the ceiling above them.

Soon they saw a void yawning before them. As they came near to the opening, they saw broad stairs leading downward.

“Wait,” whispered Sairi. She led him around the hall they were in, and they discovered other openings to north and south. Both of them led to hallways that continued for an unknown distance without descending.

They returned to the east opening, which led in the direction they wished to go.

“No choice,” whispered Arebon.

They began to descend. Always they went on for a length of stairs before they came to a landing, and then descended in the other direction for a time. East to west to east.

As they paused on the last landing, they saw light below, green like the marble walls. It slowly rose to meet them until they staggered with weary legs onto a floor that went on as far as they could see in the soft light.

And none too soon, for the brightfire sap was fading.

This lower hall slumbered in the glow of occasional lights in the walls, burning with unknown magic. Not all of the lights still shone; some pulsed and flickered, their magic faded to embers. Other lights were black, and would remain so until the end of the world.

In the soft green light, the elves saw that they stood in no mere hallway. They could see no ceiling above. Bridges crossed above them from other paths on other floors. Now and then they found a parapet from which they could peer down to the dim light of levels deeper in the mountain.

How big is this space? wondered Sairi. She did not wish to speak aloud, for fear of how far her voice might carry, and to whom.

They continued eastward for a long time, passing other paths to north and south, and stairs leading downward into the gloom. Sometimes they saw closed doors for some room or building that loomed along one side of the path. None of them would open when tested.

Until they came to a large room with great cylinders arrayed along the walls. Smoke wafted into the air from the green cylinders, as if they were torches in some smokey tavern. Some of the cylinders had gridded sides that revealed glowing orbs within. A low hum sounded from them all.

At the far end of the room was a table piled with items that gleamed in reflected light. Silver, it seemed, and gold and precious gems.

“Several things trouble me,” said Sairi.

They had stopped some four yards from the table.

Arebon said, “I’m not accustomed to seeing such treasures piled onto a table for adventurers to find. Usually we have to work for it.”

“That’s one. Also we should have encountered something by now. Spiders, at least, or what other things might have crept into this city over the ages and made a home.” She shuddered. "Or crept up from the deep."

After a moment of silence, they turned to one another and said, “The army.”

Arebon looked back toward the table and said, “Let’s find a way out of this room and through the mountain.”

He turned from the table and took a step in what seemed a safe direction. They heard a soft click.

The floor collapsed beneath them and they fell into darkness.

From far away, a rough bell tolled.

 

* * * * *

 

A river sang and played, diving into a temple of wood under roots greater than cities. Arebon’s eyes opened slowly to light pouring down like honey from above. The sun was hidden, dripping gently through the boughs of the world tree towering over the valley. And light came from the tree itself, strong but gentle. His eyes, his heart, drank this light and felt a long-unknown peace.

The tree was so large it seemed that each branch, each vine, was a world unto itself. He saw camps atop the mighty roots, and ladders of vines leading upward. Higher up, whole forests on a branch in which life danced and loved and hunted and died. A waterfall drifted down from a bough halfway up the tree.

For a long time he watched lightning play in a cloud beneath the canopy and listened to the rush of the river. His heart ached with the beauty of this world beneath the Tree, and he felt that he could stay here for the rest of his life.

“You cannot,” said a voice.

Arebon moved slowly as if from long sleep. He stood and beheld an elf a few yards away, standing with his back to Arebon. The elf had long white hair yet stood unbowed by age.

“It was beautiful, was it not?” said the elf.

“Was?”

The elf pointed to the west. “Do you hear them?”

Arebon heard howls of rage and hunger—a hunger for violence, to strike with all their strength until the hated ones were dead and beyond dead. And even then, their hate would not be quenched.

“They have joined the Beasts. They are the Beasts. They are one in darkness. They must rive the world as their own souls are riven every moment, waking or sleeping. Soon they will overrun this valley, even the Tree itself.”

“What can I do?”

Now the elf turned toward him with a face wise and serene, but also sad.

At last the elf spoke. “What can you do?”

“I can fight.”

“But will you?”

Arebon shook his head, and his heart beat fiercely in him. “I have to.”

“Do you?”

“What are you saying?”

“You could run to the north and south…” the elf nodded. “Ah, but perhaps there is nothing there. The whole world has burned, so whither could you go? You could run east with those who flee.”

“But I can help them.”

Again the elf stared at him. Then he turned and pointed up toward people standing high up one of the roots of the great tree. “They keep watch for the enemy.” Then he pointed down to the river N’yleen, where elves armed and armored themselves, prepared to fight. “They will guard my people as they flee to whatever sanctuary remains.”

And then he pointed to a woman standing apart from the other fighters. Around her were perhaps a hundred elves who looked to her as if she held the only light they would follow to the end.

“We shall give them time,” the woman said. The valley wind blew through reddish-brown hair, and she held in one hand an unstrung bow. “We shall lead the enemy on a dozen paths. We must keep them at bay so that our people can live on.”

The others cheered at her, raising swords and bows.

Arebon swallowed as he realized that he knew whom he watched. “Ardria,” he said.

The tall elf turned back to meet his eyes. “Then you know of her? You know what she will do?”

He nodded. “She will die,” he said, his voice rough. “She and her rangers will lead the enemy away from the path the elven people take, so that we might live on.”

"We?"

Arebon frowned. "I am an elf. I... I would not be here if not for the Ardrian Rangers."

“You asked me. ‘What can I do’, you said. Why did you ask, when you already know?”

“You have brought me here to talk me into doing what Isek wants.”

“What is he to you?” The elf stepped closer in looked into his eyes. “Is he your father?”

“I have never had a father.”

The elf looked as if he wanted to argue, but then he shook his head. “There is nothing I can say. I merely wanted to understand your choice.”

“My choice.”

“I see.” The elf held up a hand, gesturing toward his eyes, his mind. “I see. You have chosen to sacrifice your people, my people, to your own grief. Is this not true?”

The howls of the Tohr’mentirii drew near. Arebon stared at the mouth of the valley where they would appear. Then he looked back to the tree… and the elves were gone. The soldiers, the farmers, the watchers—everyone gone, fled.

Except the hundred who remained behind, watching their captain for a sign. Ardria's bow was strung and ready.

Arebon turned back.

Once-elves now twisted with merciless hate ran into the valley. They ran among the Beasts of Tohr, demons as large or larger than the elves who had cast away their souls to join them.

“What can I do?” whispered Arebon.

At a word, Ardria’s lieutenants led groups of rangers in a dozen directions. Ardria herself waited, her bow raised, until the demons saw her. It took three arrows to fell one of them, and then she nodded.

“Though I spend my last breath,” she said quietly, “you will never find the elves you hunt. My mercy too has fled.”

She ran south toward a forested hill, and two dozen followed, shouting.

 

* * * * *

 

Arebon awoke choking.

“Arebon,” said Sairi, and she helped him sit up.

“Aellos,” he said.

“What?”

Arebon realized his cheeks were wet. “Aellos…”

“Our gods Aellos and Dythiir are not with us now. We are alone.” She looked away from him. “With them.”

Arebon looked and saw that they were in some sort of cage. Their weapons had been taken from them, their armor stripped.

And outside the cage, two Revenant crouched and stared.