A stranger summons and questions the cast from Time of the Awakening.
On that day, in a perfect place, the fires burned pure and smokeless. Their warmth soothing; their edges soft. Distant waves caressed white sand shores. The crisp air refreshed, as it ought. And the loamy, green earth stretched in all directions, cradling even the sky.
The light of understanding illuminated that perfect place.
Over one stretch of land, an indistinct, roiling pillar twisted into the sky like a magnificent thunderhead, unbroken. The cloudy pillar swirled with pastel hues. Tendrils of colored light streaked in its depths, occasionally worming their way to surface. At the pinnacle of the immense pillar, I sat in a billowy enclosure awaiting those who I summoned.
“Good day, my King.” I inclined my head.
Krylor took in the wide enclosure with a sweeping gaze and a trained eye. Warrior first, statesman last, I realized. He tested the insubstantial floor with the ball of his foot, watching it materialize into polished marble as he approached me.
“What is this place?” Twice, the King reached for his belt hoping for the Royal Blade.
“Be at ease,” I smiled. He was older than when last I’d left him. Worry had left his eyes thinner, their edges irritated. “I’ve missed our meetings, my friend.” I continued, blinking at the moisture gathering on my lids. “I’ll explain.” I put my hand on his shoulder and looked to the ocean in his eyes. “But first, the others…”
Rhob’en appeared next. When she looked from the King to me, the worry drained from her face. E-Tam followed. Stroutock loomed over him an instant later. The Brute’s width made the previous three seem to shrink. Fang, who appeared while still laying on his side, made no move except to elevate his thick head and swivel his ears forward. The generals, Ian and Dregorun, shifted into place, their practice swords vanishing like the mist at their feet. Myrl Lynn and Hanlough appeared at once, with Rasha just behind. The Immortals, Yarus Nar and Alhorune, manifested in the background. The Giamen crossed his arms, cocked his head to the side, and looked at me, instantly recognizing my authority, if not my identity. On this day, the Treekin, Alhorune, reminded me of lilacs in late spring. He sat and hummed producing a sound not unlike a full choir.
Of all those unnerved, Neiloph appeared the most alarmed. He shrank away from me and the assembled heroes, searching for a long shadow or dark corner, no doubt.
“Be welcomed, Neiloph.”
“Lord Ebonire,” he sneered and groped for his assassin’s dagger finding only an empty scabbard.
“I’ll have nothing do with that specter, Neiloph.“ I emphasized. “But you are welcome.”
Neiloph squinted and looked to Krylor with contempt. “Is this your doing?” As he addressed the King, his unmodified voice grew faint and his hand reached for his throat.
“The infection holds no sway here,” I silenced Krylor’s response. “You are, as you should be, Neiloph of Ryphos.”
Neiloph considered my words as I disclosed his home city – something the Human anchor had left long ago – but made no move to join me or the group. I sensed his contempt, could almost hear him correcting me a second time, ‘Neiloph Ebonire,‘ but he restrained himself. Seeing no lingering shadows, he drew himself up and pulled his cloak tight.
“What is this place?” Myrl Lynn echoed Krylor’s question. “Did you call us here?”
Krylor sat, finding a sturdy bench as he knew he would. Lacking her lover’s prophetic insight, Rhob’en looked to the swirling mists behind herself and slowly lowered into a seated position finding a tree stump where none had been before. The other companions likewise found suitable support each growing in confidence as seats materialized. Seeing the effect, Neiloph sat at the edge of a dark throne, elevated a head higher than even Hanlough, E-Tam, or Yarus Nar, who remained standing.
“Be comfortable,” I said to Neiloph, who appeared anything but.
Slabs of onyx grew under the throne, adding height. The villain sat more erect and sneered.
A sigh escaped my lips. “I tire of this,” and Neiloph found himself in the midst of the group on a raggedy, old footstool, which creaked under his thin frame. “What next? Shall I turn you over my knee?”
Brute lounged on the floor near his friend – a position he’d grown comfortable with since only the sturdiest of benches bore his girth without audible protest. Though reclined, his head came to chest height, compared to those seated near. “Well, explain. How have we come here, and why?”
As I made to answer the Brute, E-Tam’s anxiety won over. He’d cleaned his ears out with his pinkies more than once and now fidgeted like a child in need of a chamber pot.
“Master E-Tam,” I laughed, “I don’t suppose you’d like to have a look around?” He took the suggestion and in an instant, disappeared through an obscure archway at the edge of the room, reappearing seconds later on the opposite side. His stuttering belly laugh grew faint as he continued his wonder-filled exploration.
I regarded the other two still on their feet. “Patrol if you must, though you’ll find nothing of ill-intent here.” The Giamen disappeared into the mists. “And Master Builder, what is it you seek?”
“If they can manifest a bench or a throne at will,” Hanlough’s inquiry came with no hesitation. “Can I…?”
“If that is how you find peace.” In moments, at the edge of the mist, a bellows pumped, gears clicked, and a blast furnace roared to life. Soon thereafter, an anvil sang under the Builder’s hammer.
“I’ve divined no working, yet I cannot escape the feeling Tamaje is all around us; how have you done this?” Myrl Lynn’s inquisitiveness quieted the others.
I smiled. “You are here…”
“But how…” the indigo Myristae continued.
My eyebrows ascended, impatience coming through. “You are gathered here,” I started again, “that I might question you.”
“And those three?” Myrl’s eyes went over her shoulder following first the Immortal, then the coming’s and goings of tiny Anathie, and finally, the clatter from Hanlough.
“Rest assured, good sister, I’ll get what I’m after.” That seemed to quiet her.
“And when you get what you’re after?” Ian called from the far side of the semi-circle, his leg bouncing up and down. His hand clamped on his knee, forcing the limb still.
“Then you may leave, if you wish,” I answered the First General. “What of the tremors, Ian?”
“They come and go. It’s worse of late.” His eyes squinted as if this revelation unnerved him.
“Did you not know there are herbs for such ailments?” Myrl Lynn offered.
“This is not a sickness, and no herb will remedy it.” I did not take my eyes off the General. “It’ll get worse before it gets better. I’m sorry.” He weighed my words, treating it like he would one of Krylor’s declarations. “Tell me Ian,” I changed the subject. “What one thing shames you more than your growing illness?”
He looked down. “Honestly,” his cheeks went red. “I don’t know how I contain myself. Not that I would ever force myself on a …” He sighed and then spoke up. “If I could, I would have my way with every woman in this room. No matter my devotion to Holly, chivalry, or the kingdom. Oh, the nights I could have. I would…” He stopped and tried twice to meet Krylor’s eyes. “Even Rhob’en.”
Rhob’en’s eyes widened as she cleared her throat. Krylor laughed, reached over and patted his friend on the shoulder.
Brute grunted. “What man wouldn’t?” He reached behind himself without looking and wrapped a massive hand around a pitcher of ale, then appraised his intuitive find before he drank. Brute changed his focus from the brew and looked to Rasha with uncontained lust.
Ian shook his head. “I don’t think it’s like this for other men.”
“Perhaps not,” I revealed. “Thank you for your honesty, Ian.”
“Great,” General Core Lamar cut the pleasantries. “Now we know about Ian’s loins. What next? Will we find the Kohlas sucks his thumb at night?” Stroutock seemed to whither at the General’s comment – something reminiscent of an oak tree bowing – but Dregorun waved his comment aside like he might shoo a bug away. “No offense, boy. I meant only that our host is powerful enough to pull us from our routine, create,” he looked around, “what-have-you, and now asks about trivialities.” Core Lamar grumbled. “I need to get back to training.”
“You’ll find yourself where and when I left you, down to the last sword stroke in practice.” I told him.
“Exactly?” Myrl wondered aloud.
“Exactly, as I left you.” I confirmed. At that comment, Hanlough’s constant rhythm stopped, as if he weighed my words on a fine Urairthe scale. “Now tell me about your training, Dregorun.”
“What would you know?”
“You’ve read your father’s war journal. And his father’s. Familiarized yourself with every armor – leather, chain, scale, plate – its crafting, its advantages. You’ve mastered countless weapons, most among them, the sword. The only person in this room with more training on a warhorse is Ian. In fourteen years you’ve not missed one day of practice.” I paused. “Tell me about that day.”
Core Lamar sucked in air between his canine tooth and it’s adjoining partner with the smack of a tongue. “You better ask another question.”
“Fair enough. What drives you, Dregorun Core Lamar?”
He sat back, considering – unbalanced. Dregorun was not a man used to being questioned. Not even by his King.
“I’ll come at it another way,” my voice softened as I continued. “I would know of your greatest struggle. What is your greatest battle? Your most worthy opponent?”
“In a fight? I’ve sent many a mean Raider to the long night; Cirr Ock trained them well. Truth be, I’d rather battle Unlife,” he growled. “I suppose,” he reconsidered. “After a few weeks of instruction, Krylor knew more of the sword than I did – and I’ve honed my skills for years. He can best me,” the General nodded at his King. “I’ve no doubt. Is that what you want?”
“No, my old friend. I’ll ask you again, what is your greatest enemy?”
“Well,” General Core Lamar leaned back and interlaced his fingers behind his head. “I’m not sure any more.”
Brute rose. Third tallest in the room, his height intimidated, but his width – more than that of the young Kohlas. I regarded the mountain before me. “Dejareck,” I used his real name. Until recently, few of the assembled heroes knew it.
“This piss ant running around,” he gestured over his shoulder with his thumb at E-Tam. “The smith likes it hot. That four armed Giamen pacing in the background.” Brute looked down on me as he might a speck and cracked his knuckles. “What say I make you chew on your teeth, just for fun?”
“If you must,” I replied. “But know that I will attack in turn, so don’t hold back.”
He shifted his jaw bringing his wide nose with it. “None of that sparkly crap?”
“I’ll not modify my counter with Tamaje.”
My reassurance instantly put the titan in motion. He uncoiled, brought the first two knuckles to bear, and drove his fist between my jaw and cheekbone. My head moved only as much as the length of his arm required – a pace and a half. What the assembled companions did not know, was that Brute could topple a middle aged tree and his strength grew by the day. Had I been what he took me for, Brute would’ve shattered the bones in my face, turned my upper spine to mush, and left my gray matter a hemorrhaging mess.
“A mighty strike.” I relished our contact, whatever form. “Thank you.”
“You gunna hit me back?” He arched an eyebrow. Like the rest of his head it was hairless. His torso flexed, muscles rippling in anticipation. He welcomed my attack; his body language suggested he’d not flinch.
“She did not suffer because of you.”
“Let’s have at it… Wait, what did you say?” His eyes fixed on the indistinct mist past me. He remembered. “Leave that be,” he whispered.
“They were angry with you, took it out on her.”
“Let it go,” a harsh whisper. A warning. But the Brute knew now that not all his strength could make me stop.
“How long will you bear that burden, Dejareck Tamallyn? How long will you consider that your fault?”
“My ego!” His balled up fists dropped open – loose. “My ego… brought on their wrath.” He looked at me with watery eyes, then considered my line of questioning. “A mighty strike,” he replied, with a voice full of sarcasm. “You finished?” Brute looked away from me and did not wait for a response before he reclined once more.
“I’d not force a revelation of your pains, Neiloph. Tell me of your last joy.”
He laughed – not the sinister bellow to which Krylor and Rhob’en had grown accustomed – but still a shallow, mirthless snicker. “I found a whore at Genji Fort on my way to track…”
“Your last true joy, Neiloph. Not that wretched thing attached to you.” He looked up at me from his slumped position, eyes squinting, a snarl in bloom. “Search your memories for a time before you left Ryphos,” I offered.
He looked down and spoke to the floor, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “It was a warm autumn day. I met Sunim at the old water wheel for a game of ‘find the crowns.’ He never really liked playing with me, but used our encounters to get away from his wench-of-a-mother. That and it gave him more opportunities to goad me. Not enough that he could wrestle me to the ground, Sunim always outsmarted me.
“You needn’t cover your ears, fair lady,” Neiloph paused to address Rhob’en. “This is not a tale of horror.
“We played and my crowns lay hidden – all of them. His I revealed, leaving not one unturned. He accused me of cheating,” Neiloph laughed, warmth now sneaking into his voice. “So we fought – which I expected, whether I won or lost. But on this day, I finally pinned him.”
“Did you match stones with honor?” Stroutock leaned forward, intent on Neiloph’s story, despite their enmity.
“It’s called ‘crowns’ but I know how the Kohlas play it. And no, I did not cheat. Not at ‘find the crowns,’ nor when we wrestled.”
“So you feel some joy at overcoming your persecutor?” Rhob’en hadn’t taken the sting from her tone.
Krylor put his hand on her knee. “No, love. That’s not it,” the King said, as if seeing his enemy for the first time.
“An insightful ruler you are.” Neiloph still would not meet the heroes’ eyes, though he at least stopped staring at the floor. “I knew he’d not pick on me again, nor match wits with me from that day on. I’d lost a worthy opponent.”
“What joy, then?” Even Core Lamar’s curiosity had been piqued.
“I did not gloat, and I could have. He deserved it – and yet I chose not to. I realized that not rubbing it in his face said something about my nature. I felt good about my restraint.”
Rasha smiled, but still did not join the conversation.
“How’d you go from that,” Ian gestured at Neiloph’s attire, “to this?”
“That was not our host’s question.” Neiloph made eye contact with me once more. “Now that they know I was Human, at least at one time, may I go?”
“I’ll leave you exactly as I found you, Neiloph.” Again, Hanlough’s hammer stopped. The click of the gears near the bellows were instead, I imagined, gears spinning in his mind. “But, my dear Neiloph, I didn’t have you tell the tale to reveal your Humanity to them.”
“Now that the vile one is gone,” Fang’s rumbling voice drowned out the clang of Hanlough’s hammer, “perhaps we can hear something more pleasant.”
“We’ve not yet heard from Alhorune,” I said.
The looming, broad-leafed Immortal did not engage the spoken word, but turned his glowing eyes in my direction. The volume of his quiet melody grew, washing over us like the sunset tide. His harmony came from air moved by his will, sifted through his midnight-blue petals, and reverberated deep in Alhorune’s thorax. Under the brush and vines covering his body, soft-hued light pulsed in time with the wordless song. The Treekin’s ‘voice’ became a symphony; its origin centering on him, but also emanating from the misty enclosure around us.
It spoke to me of the coming darkness – yearning for an everlasting dawn – and conveyed his fear of an endless night.
Of all those affected by the tune, Brute and Krylor seemed most moved. The massive Brute wiped at his eyes time and again – the King did not even bother. Even General Core Lamar – stoic as ever – let a tear run across his stony cheekbone.
Alhorune’s communication had summoned the other Immortal, the Giamen Yarus Nar. “The end is upon us if the ‘Kin’ chant this old hymn,” the Giamen boomed. “How long till I am blessed by the ‘Sutobi en Agadove?’”
Unlike the Treekin, the Giamen’s words had an opposite effect. Once more the King reached for the Royal Blade. General Core Lamar squinted and clenched his teeth – which for the emotion he displayed might as well have been bellowing a war cry from the edge of a cliff. With every sinewy muscle tensed and all his veins near popping, Brute looked about to burst. Even the Treekin bristled. The assembled companions made ready for battle; all save Ian who, for some moments, finally stopped trembling and seemed more solid. Ian’s chair collapsed and he plunged to the marble floor beneath, leaving it cracked.
“The Leader in Truth,” I addressed both Immortals, “will emerge within the span of three generations. Be at ease.” I looked to the crowd. “Be at ease.”
They relaxed. As Ian stood, the floor beneath resealed and his wooden chair reappeared.
“Yarus Nar, Giamen of the Ices Tribe,” I said, “now that you’ve surveyed this chamber, come rest with us.” As the four-armed warrior sat cross-legged, I continued. “Tell me of your recent shame. But with less intensity, if you’d be so good, lest Ian end up in the room below.”
“I carry no dishonor for my battle lust or the demise it brought me,” Yarus Nar began. Stroutock’s eyes narrowed with focus at such words as honor and battle. The Kohlas understood the Giamen most. “But this quest to annihilate Unlife took me deep into their territories. Not for the first time, I came to an ending.” The Treekin’s song now called to mind a ring of light surrounding a growing bubble of evil. One point of light moved into the darkness and vanished.
“When I arose,” he went on, “I could not meet the threat as I once had; it is some years before our skills return and our sinew is properly hardened. So the eldest sent me on a messenger’s errand, for I would not be sorely missed.” The Giamen’s head went down, “I am not troubled by my departure, I am shamed because I enjoy being away.”
“Had it not been for you,” Krylor offered, “I’d not have retrieved Nightblade, nor survived my encounter with Ar ak Soul.”
“True,” he conceded, “fate brought me to the Lost One. But this is the Time of the Awakening – darkness multiplies! Abominations ascend the depths! If my thinking were to spread to my brethren…” Yarus Nar let the implications go unspoken. Nothing else kept the Unlife at bay in the First Realm.
E-Tam sped from the surrounding mists, his bare feet squeaking when he came to a halt in front of me. He bent half at the waist and put his hands to either side, as if he were holding up mountains rather than thin air. The Anathie craned his head up at me and pursed his lips. “Iliketotravel,too.”
“One more time,” I replied. “Slow enough that we can understand you.”
“Like,” his eyes squinted in determination. “To,” he continued slowly. “Travel,” he finished. “Icangoandgoandgoandgo…”
“And where, might I ask…”
“Would you like to visit?”
He ignored my question, looking over his shoulder at the King. “Lets’smakeadeal. How. Bout. This. Youmakehimgivemethegemcoveredsword.”
I chuckled. “Master E-Tam, you are a shrewd negotiator.” Then I tackled him. And tickled him. Behind the legs, my fingers clambered, swiftly moving to the back of the neck. When his hands went to cover his leg and neck, I then chewed on him – playfully of course – starting with his side. This produced that same, short-breathed belly laugh which turned to complete breathlessness when I worked my way to the pit of his arm. Despite my initial misgivings, it smelled only of cloves and peeled lemon.
As E-Tam caught his breath, I hugged him, picked him up, and set him on his feet. “I miss you, little one. Sometimes most of all.”
He looked back at me and, in a moment of non-fidgetiness, asked what the others hoped to know, “Who are you?”
I ignored his question. “Where would you like to go, E-Tam? What would you see?”
“Everywhere. Shores. Cliffs. Desserts. Fields. Jungles. Caves. Lakes. Lakesincaves.” E-Tam walked his fingers across the back of his hand and gestured like a person diving into a subterranean sea. “Theplacethat’sdarkbydayandlightatnight. Theplacewheretheoceanmeetsthesky. I can draw,” his shoulders sagged. “But I’d like to paint.” His ears wilted. “If I could just see it all,” E-Tam’s frown took over his face. “If I could see it, my heart would…” His pleading eyes looked at me like an animal discovering a fresh wound. “My heart would… I could paint.”
“He’ll return when the binding calls him back,” Stroutock spat. “It’s not right.” The Kohlas explained E-Tam’s rambling to the group. “Long ago, the Anathie and Tragdrac attacked us without provocation, without honor. Rather than annihilation, we offered a bond. They chose slavery to pay the debt.” Stroutock’s jaw flexed, a look of long-standing consideration fitting for the wide-jawed Kohlas. He’d weighed this matter for years. “We’ve penned them up for too long – it’s not right.” Stroutock put his wide hand on E-Tam’s shoulder and gently said, “The debt is long since paid.”
Krylor smiled with pride, noting again the ethic and character which was often displayed by his young friend, Stroutock. I smiled too; most Kohlas treated their slaves as refuse – did not even see them as people. Stroutock not only respected the Anathie and Tragdrac, he considered E-Tam a friend and equal.
“You accept the Anathie,” Myrl Lynn began, “when will you trust me?” Her unblinking, dark eyes held Stroutock the Meager in place for long moments.
“You’ll have my trust when you earn it,” The young Kohlas did not shrink from her ancient eyes, but carefully turned toward me. “If there is to be some admission of a shortcoming, I still hate the Myristae.” His head swiveled back in her direction. “I will not lie; I do not like you, Shol Lynn.”
“That’s not all,” I prompted.
“I am not ashamed of it, but I am clever enough to recognize my fault and stubborn enough to attack it.”
“Conquer thyself.” The Giamen’s voice conveyed his appreciation. “This is the only battle.”
Fang’s position on the matter proved less direct. “Some enmity cannot be helped. What does the hare know of the hawk,” Fang rumbled as he climbed to his paws and padded near me. “What does the mouse know of the snake?” His weighty body nudged mine, its solidarity knocking me a half pace back. “I’d kill a Grenthum if I could,” the snowcat spoke of his Racial enemy, “and I’ve not even half the motive you have.” Fang then pushed his torso up and placed his front paws on a rough, wooden countertop which had not been there before. He stood just next to me, if awkwardly.
I reached around the giant snow leopard and scratched at his chest. I might’ve had an easier time reaching around a bear. “Perhaps Myrl Lynn will teach the hawk how to eat grass,” I said, moving from the silken tuft to Fang’s bulky neck. “And perhaps someday a Grenthum will teach the snake to eat cheese.”
Fang growled. An untrained ear might’ve mistook the sound as displeasure but I knew this was as close as he came to purring. “You look strange, Manling.” Fang bared his teeth, presenting an imitation smile. “I have seen many a garment in my travel, and I do not recognize the look of your furs. More peculiar, your aroma hints at every place I’ve been and every beast I’ve met. You are as the treacherous bog and barren desert. The fair plain and rugged mountain. The wolf and the doe – all at once.”
Hanlough’s pounding clinked to a stop for just moments, then intensified, as if he hurried to finish.
“And what of your concerns, Sur Shaw Fvaang?”
“Like any Durgos, I dread the onset of lameness. Who can say when I might grow one wing and some fish scales? When shall my claws become brittle or my teeth turn to gums?” Fang shook his head bringing mounds of fur and under layers with it. “Ah, but age strikes us all,” Fang sighed. “What I long for, is a suitable lair-mate. I fear this uncouth moron scares off worthy…”
Brute sat. ”You’re the lame one. I couldn’t even make a decent pelt of you.”
“Ha. The hairless one quips,” Fang rolled his eyes and casually lowered his front half from the counter. His wide, unusually long tail brushed its fading surface.
“You know,” Rasha accused. “If he will find his lair-mate.” Somewhat like the Treekin, Rasha spoke with more than one voice at the same time. But her harmonies always resounded in minor keys. Alhorune reached for her, his eyes opened wide and their light went dim.
“You know what I turn from,” her face moved away from the ‘Brother of Nature.’ “And what I long for. What I joys I’ve found. What mistakes I’ve made. Why I must speak so infrequently and school my voice lest it break Men’s hearts. For me,” the graceful sweep of her arm included the companions, “and all of us. Yet you ask us to lay bare some of the inner most places in our souls.”
“I know,” I agreed. “But you must reveal it, if you’ve the strength. Not I. While our meeting pleases me, I confess, this is more than just a gathering held on my behalf. There are others, like me, who come here. Unlike me, they barely touch this place.” The companions looked around – some with unease – searching the mists and even the indistinct dome above. “You oft see their twinkling illumination in the night sky. To see them more clearly now, we must journey deeper. But first, two heroes remain unquestioned.”
“Does our host not count?” Myrl Lynn smiled. “Are there not four left to your questioning?”
“Hanlough will reveal himself without my prodding.”
“Then,” an uncharacteristic pause stopped the badgering Myristae. “Then who among Rhob’en, King Krylor and I…” She let the question go unfinished.
“You’re a wise Grandmaje in the making, Shol Lynn.”
Understanding purpled her cheeks; if not for her indigo hue, they’d have been flush. “My questions have revealed me all along.”
I nodded and looked from the King to his soulmate, Rhob’en. “Shol Hood?”
“For my heart, the King.” She lost herself to the depths of his gaze and interlaced her fingers with his. Pulling herself grudgingly from that encompassing stare, she continued, “My mistake was not heeding its wisdom soon enough.”
“Straight to the point,” I said.
“In all things.” I could see Rhob’en longed to return to her training, not unlike General Core Lamar.
At last, I hugged Krylor. “A fine day, my King.”
He returned my embrace. “You are familiar.” Krylor Hendsdred held me at arms-length searching for clues to my identity. “When I look into you, as I have countless others, I cannot get a sense of who you are. I see you as Fang described – you remind me of… everyone. The old nursemaid who came to tend me when my mother traveled to supply my father. You even smell of her sour cheese. My Grandfather, the High Maje Teldoff. The courtesans, trailing my Council – who plead on behalf of matters mundane or mountainous. Innkeepers. Leather smiths. My Generals. My friends.” He stepped back. “Even my enemies.
“Only one other both fascinates and terrifies me this way.”
“Ian,” I observed.
“Yes, an effect that’s magnified recently. But he’s earned my trust,” Krylor reassured his friend, the First General, and then turned back to me. “You… Bah, if you meant us harm, it’d be done by now and nothing, I suspect, we could do about it.”
Krylor tapped on his lip, just under his nose as he considered. “If your questions are meant to reveal us, and the asking of a question can serve as a revelation…”
“One thing you may ask,” I nodded. “But know that my answer will best be delivered indirectly.”
“King Sareck is gluttonous with power.” Krylor started counting on his fingers. “I’ve had deliberations with self-righteous Myristae nobles – I can’t imagine their High Watcher. My own Council harbors corruption. Stroutock tells me even the Kohlas have abandoned honor – that Mazroar Solomen is foolhardy enough for ten kings.
“Why am I a good ruler?”
“Indeed, you are more powerful than any of them; thus far it has not corrupted you. But you are good, because, in some sense, you can’t help it. This has to do with your prophetic gifts; a necessary implication which arises from seeing every possible outcome of your decisions. A word of caution, though” my tone changed. “Even for you, some difficult choices lie ahead.”
”Now that we’ve sat in fellowship, we might journey to discover who else comes to this place. More importantly, how they come to this place.” For each person assembled, spiraling staircases opened out of the floor, revealing the same incandescent, source-less light in a chamber below. I motioned the heroes down the stairs and then willed myself deep within the gigantic pillar. Looking up, I watched them descend the twisting flight of steps. E-Tam pointed and gawked at the bolts of colored light in the outer walls. They occasionally wormed their way near the surface only to sink, once more, disappearing in a muted afterglow. The assembly approached me near a wide mirror – some scratching their heads at the sound of Hanlough’s pounding; his forge lay at the edge of their vision, just as it had in the chamber above.
“We are not all here,” Krylor noted.
“The guardian seeks to refill his post,” I said of Yarus Nar. “And the ‘Brother of Nature’ must tend the old growth forests. As for Rasha,” I leaned close to the King, “she’d only see half of what she wanted in this mirror.”
“Come my friends,” I waved them forward as their individual stairs wavered into nothingness. “Come see who else touches this place. See into yourself, and them at the same time.”
“I see only myself,” General Core Lamar sounded uncertain as he approached.
“Perhaps you should look closer, Dregorun.”
He watched his reflection shimmer and come to life. An armored man stood before him, proud and resplendent in bronze armor carrying the longest spear he’d ever seen. The man rubbed near his ankle and shimmered once more – now he was covered in stark white armor, carried an intricate shield and broad, white sword. “This foolish young man is wearing my helm,” he said, sparing a glance in my direction. When Dregorun turned back, the young reflection met his scrutiny in kind, now without the helm. The old general’s eyes went wide. “That looks just like…”
E-Tam ran up to the polished surface, dragging his finger across the perfectly smooth glass in time with his reflection. He stopped and peered at it, watching as his rags dropped off and a tiny green monster replaced him. Within the mirrored world, a midnight bell resounded and the tiny monster grabbed a mutton leg, took a bite and vanished.
E-Tam looked at me, compressing his lips and furrowing his brows. “Idon’tlikemutton.” When he returned to the mirror, a small, cream-colored child, with a long tassel stared back at him. E-Tam ran in place, waved his arms, and twirled about, laughing as the reflection matched his every move. When he stopped, the reflection reached into a pocket on its vest and tossed a large diamond through the mirror. E-Tam dove after it. Only an eddy of mist told of his departure.
When Fang moseyed up to the mirror, he found a cat of equal size, yet there the similarity ended. Green fur covered the tiger. Gauging from Fang’s snarl, he thought it worse that the foul animal let someone dress it in riding gear – a red saddle and stir-ups. “This is non-sense,” Fang said, careful not to take his eyes off the mirror. The fur paled and Sur Shaw Fvaang soon gazed into a perfect replica, which sat as he did. The reflection’s change proved subtle but Fang tracked its shortening tale, changing hips, and widening rear paws. When it stood on two legs without need of a counter, Fang, too, left us.
Brute jogged up to his reflection and made to punch it, looking to his friends with a chaotic grin. The mirror reclaimed his attention. “You’d color me green, as well,” he said of the changing figure.
“That’s not all my doing, Dejareck. But you regard only the outer layer.” I cleared my throat. “Of all those gathered, you must look deepest. Be brave.” I warned.
He peered ahead and the reflection shriveled. A scrawny man replaced the giant, cowering and lonely in the dark. Only the hands remained clearly visible. Tools of healing filled those hands, discarded as quickly as they appeared. When Brute focused on the hands, he saw that they, in fact, were the tools his image sought. Light bathed him growing in intensity. The reflection’s smile was one of fulfillment and Brute exited through that ray of brilliance.
The young Kohlas inched to the revealing window. Before him, the runt he’d come to expect carrying only a simple sling. But, behind Stroutock within the mirror, a massive enemy lay dead at the runt’s feet. The small one changed into a warrior, strong as ten of his brethren, and now hefted an axe so massive it took both of his arms to wrap around it. Stroutock straightened his back and puffed out his chest. The warrior grew so large Stroutock had to lean forward to see past the top edge of the mirror. But leaning forward and craning his neck, as such, unbalanced Stroutock, who fell through the glass as if it were air.
I pointed at the remaining four, watching as the women drew near. “Three of you may not want to know…”
Myrl giggled over my warning; a soft laugh like the chiming of a bell. “Come sister,” she said to Rhob’en. “Let’s see if this artifact will make fools of us…”
“Or turn us green.” Rhob’en interlaced her elbow with the elder Myristae and strolled arm-in-arm with her.
“Does this thing show only one gender?” Myrl Lynn asked.
“A sturdy tunic and a fine bow that may be, but I would not look like that were I a man.” Rhob’en shook her head.
“Why must I look so old? And carry a staff? And, I should say! – that tangle of a beard is fit for a Urairthe. Wouldn’t my twin at least trim the edges?”
“Kind sisters, as I’ve mentioned, this window may show you how the others touch this place. You may not want to look deeper, and Ian…”
“But to see ourselves as we are…” Rhob’en cut me off this time.
“We see ourselves changed again?” Myrl finished right over her.
Rhob’en’s image grayed and the mirror darkened. A crowd formed around the Myristae. They turned from her and cast her out. Myrl’s image faded. She left weeping.
Rhob’en looked to Krylor for reassurance. When she returned to her image, a dark hole replaced it. She stumbled, back pedaling and terrified.
“Shol Hood,” Ian dashed forward while she too was swept away.
Krylor’s eyes widened. “Is this your doing?” he pleaded.
“Ian, wait.” I called. But he already stood in front of the mirror. The endless pit had gone along with Rhob’en and now the whole mirror shook as it bore Ian’s visage.
“Is this your doing?!” Krylor grabbed my shoulder.
Countless reflections converged on Ian’s twin cracking the floor on which the twin stood. The convergence pulled Ian beyond threshold into the growing fissure where they sank. As soon as Ian met his reflections, he departed. Now the room lay empty save for me, Krylor and the distant Hanlough.
Once more, the window of visions appeared intact.
“They are unharmed,” I removed Krylor’s vice-like grip. “Those deeper insights showed only potential. Right now, our dear friends are as they were before the summoning.”
Krylor steadied his breathing.
“Of all the companions, you may be most confused for you touch so many things, here and elsewhere.“ I watched the lines soften around the King’s eyes as I motioned him forward. “But I would still have you look.”
A small, olive skinned boy stood in front of the King, wearing a white robe and red sash from right shoulder to left hip. When the King noticed a small dot on his reflection’s forehead, he reached for his own. As Krylor reached up, the reflection shimmered but still mirrored his searching finger tips. The boy had been exchanged for a middle aged man, unremarkable save for the hands and forehead. Those hands, Krylor recognized, were the hands of a craftsman – a woodworker, if the lingering dust meant anything. The forehead had been marked not by one spot of red, but many – and a jagged crown.
The King’s imitation flickered revealing a strange figure in tight leathers and long coat. Krylor had never seen its likeness. The man’s spectacles proved more bizarre – the warrior king didn’t understand how his twin could see through the dark tint. Last, the man’s bent spoon held some meaning Krylor still hadn’t worked out.
Another change – they now came with more speed. The clothes on the stranger before him seemed more familiar – a black, sleeveless tunic, with silver accents and a matching cloak. The bent spoon had been exchanged for a white sword. Krylor couldn’t make out the word etched into its surface before the following image replaced its predecessor.
A green shaft of light traded places with the white sword, its pommel a metallic cylinder. The weapon bearer had lost his hand.
The next image – also missing one hand – revealed serpents climbing each forearm. The mirror started to glow.
Krylor closed his eyes. “All of this,” he chose his words carefully, “has to do with me?”
“Yes,” I confirmed. “The next three, you’ll more readily recognize.”
A brilliant figure replaced the others; Krylor could barely open his eyes. The sword outshone the figure. It’s power and purity seduced the King.
“My Ghad,” he mumbled.
“As you understand him.”
“That’s not me…” Krylor could not contain his disbelief.
“Not exactly. Look deeper.”
Krylor scrubbed at his eyes – no doubt trying to see past the after image. But a certain darkness had invaded the mirror. A man in shadows now took the place of the other, and his sword – the weapon of carnage Krylor had come to know – Nightblade.
“The first King,” Krylor spoke the words in reverence. “Tuldar looks so forlorn,” the King said to me, careful not to take his eyes off the decrepit twin. “I told your tale true.”
The rapidly changing surface now held Krylor’s true reflection, save the King’s reflection still clutched Nightblade. Though the image did not yield, the weapon’s oppressive weight seemed unbearable. Then, for just an instant, the other hand grasped a blinding shaft of light.
“Potential,” Krylor whispered and disappeared along with the mirror.
“Good bye, my friend.” I hated seeing him go. “You’ll be sorely missed till next we meet.”
Hanlough, the Urairthe smith, stumbled forward often catching himself on his knuckles. He fumbled with a large metal disk, bringing it out from where it had been tucked into his thick apron. Hanlough held the artifact out to me.
“It’s heavy,” he remarked. When I relieved him of the item, he cast off his apron and protective gloves.
“You struggled to bring it here.” When I took the intricate disk, I traced my finger along the flattened, perfect circle which encompassed a triangle. The smooth disk began a slow rotation around the triangle; its mechanisms lay hidden.
“But I did not struggle in the crafting.” The Builder considered his work. “My arms did not tire. My back isn’t sore for a ‘knuckling.’ I perspired, but never found myself in need of ale. It passed as a dream.” Then he considered his departure from the group. “How long did that conversation last? Surely not long enough…” He let it drop.
“With that equipment and those materials, you could’ve forged anything. The finest weapon the Realms have seen, impenetrable armor, any trinket, tool or instrument your heart desired.” I let the artifact hang in the air, eye level to the Urairthe. “Yet you present me with this.”
“That image has always fascinated me.”
“What does it mean to you?”
He shrugged. “I’ve seen the symbol in our old books. We’ve only guessed at its meaning.”
“The Urairthe have pondered it for some time,” I agreed, tracing the wide triangle in the circle’s center. It began a slow rotation opposite the circle. “But I asked what you thought.”
Hanlough scratched at his long beard. “Well, the Giamen are the oldest of the Races. They see it as a message from the First Ones, ‘Circular motion overcomes linear motion.’”
“A keen observation regarding combat.” I touched a point on the triangle. Smooth rectangles emerged from the edge of the circle, clicking into place as they continued along the lines created by the triangle. Three smaller triangles formed along those lines, opposite the points of the first triangle. The smaller ones followed the motion of the their progenitor. Three new circles closed around the triangles. “But the Giamen know only of combat.”
“So, of course, that’s how they’d think of it.” The Builder wiped sweat from his broad nose.
“Shall I ask my question a third time?”
He lifted the shag at his face with a smile. “To me? It means… many things. Perhaps, everything. I see in it, the Realms.” The three smaller triangles extended their lines outward once more, creating new triangles of varying sizes at their intersections – each surrounded by a circle.
“I see balance,” he continued. “Yes, linear meets circular. The Giamen were on to something there. It’s deeper, though. The Realms are flat – linear – but I know they must also be curved.”
Hanlough’s quick nod told of his enthusiasm. “You can see the land bend from a mountain top on a clear day. In my home range, I planted a straight pole completely vertical at noon during Midyear. Then I did the same far north of my home, in a Myristae field. In my home range, I found no shadow; north of that, a shadow.” Hanlough curved his hands around an imaginary sphere. “It is curved,” he emphasized.
“So you see the truth of the curvature in that pattern?”
“And many other truths,” he conceded. “This pattern is as the Realms because its beginning simplicity is the foundation for all the elegance and complexity that follows.”
“Each level of complexity, built upon the last.”
Hanlough’s eyes expressed utmost appreciation, not even Myristae scholars understood him. “And all of its unfolding complexity is only possible through convergence and unity.”
“You are,” I patted Hanlough’s shoulder, “a Urairthe ahead of his time, Master Builder. You would’ve made a fine leader.”
He shook his head. “I couldn’t lead my people – I’ve been stripped of my titles and cast out. Did your enchanted mirror not show you…”
“A fine leader,” I said again, “for more than the Urairthe.”
He squinted at me, considering with all his genius. “You said you’d return them, exactly as you left them.”
“I did mention that, didn’t I?”
“Then, they won’t remember – I won’t remember…”
“Not until much later,” I agreed.
He stroked his long beard. “The Realms won’t remember – won’t even know we left.” His lip quivered. Hanlough bowed his head made to bend at the knee.
I caught him by the arm, stopping him half way. “Don’t you do that.” My eyes watered. I picked his chin up, looking into his sandy irises. “It is I who should bow to you. I’ve been humbled by all of you, instructed by you, comforted by you. You’ve been my guide, inspiration, strength in my hour of need. My companions. My accomplices,” I laughed. “Even my King. You have been and ever shall be…” I hugged the stout craftsmen before I finished. “I am made whole by all of you.”
“Thank you,” he patted my back. “When shall we meet next?”
“Baring Dath’set,” I swallowed, “I shall see you again at the end of time.”