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Dark forces rule the world...yet, even as heroes battle to the death, even as terrible magic rends the world, there is one last hope - the saviour of this world, perhaps all worlds, is the greatest mage of an age. His is an arcane and powerful magic, but he is imprisoned for all time.
If Shorn, Renir, Tirielle and the Paladins of Sard are to save the world, they must first save the wizard.
But he is terrible beyond belief. Ancient beyond mortal years. Insane.
A traitor to his own kin, and the last of his kind on the world of Rythe.
His name is Caeus.
Foaming white spume flecked the air. The cliffs were white and grey where the gulls nested. They flew out to sea flapping madly against the harsh wind until they were caught in its snare and snatched high into the air, only to plummet into the surf below and struggle up with fish. The long grass – no tree was brave enough to grow here – was blown flat against the rocky earth from which it sprouted. Rocks gave in to the elements and crashed below, splashes obscured by the smashing waves and endless wind.
The ocean vented its frustration at the land. Eventually, the sea would win.
Elsewhere, high summer was beginning to make itself felt. The lush fields in the more southerly Sturman lands would be parched and cracked under the baking sun. Here, in the distant north, summer was only a thought and a wish.
Bitter cold taunted bones and the sharp, wet wind stung flesh. There was nothing here for men. Just solace. Perhaps repentance. Few would choose to make such a place their home.
As each season passed the north slumbered as it always had. Thaxamalan waited in his mountain home, his baleful eyes shut and crusted with ice, while held in frozen sleep for eternity as Carious and Dow shunned him with their warmth.
Here, there was nothing. No smells, sounds, feelings but those made by the sea and wind.
Shorn, mercenary to some, friend only to his companions on a strange journey across the lands, stood staring out across his home, the home of his heart and the home of youth, and watched, as he watched each day, waiting for the Seafarers to answer his call. A month’s ride to this place was distant for him. He knew it to be much greater for the Feewar, those who roamed the sea.
He scanned the horizon each day for as long as he could bear, waiting for the Feewar ship. While he waited for the vessel, he prepared. Hardening his heart for the meeting he knew would come soon. He was waiting for the Feewar, but he had also come to ready his soul. The barren outcropping seemed a fitting place. His sword, honed to undying sharpness, was clutched in his white-knuckled fist, his hand frozen onto it.
The suns’ rays had tanned him, even though their heat was only blown away. He was leaner by far – there was little sustenance to be had from the land. Each day he came to the top of the cliffs at first light. Each night he left, climbing down to his camp and the waiting Harlot, his surly mare. Before he ate and slept he trained. He had made himself a pair of soft hide trousers and a bracer of thicker leather for his right arm. His shirt was still in tatters, providing little protection against the steel brace that supported his crippled left hand. Some days he would take the brace off his leg. It grew stronger ever day. His left hand, though, would still not clench with full strength. The scar on his forearm had turned red and healed in thick hard flesh, curving in toward the bone. The muscles there would never heal, he knew, because they were absent. Instead, he trained his leg back to health and practised using his arm as a balance for the sword, using the flaring metal of his arm brace as a second weapon, his left forearm blocking and slashing in time with his sword. It was just another blade, and he was a master with all blades. He invented movements where there were none. His left hand may have been gravely injured, but the brace granted him support and flexibility where the hand faltered. To an outsider it looked as though a master practised. To Shorn it felt clumsy and slow.
He knew he was faster, improving in this odd new style. It would not be enough when Wen came for him.
Wen, the weapons’ master, Shorn’s old tutor and the man who had given the mercenary his battered look, with a scar that still stood proud across the middle of his face, splitting his nose once and leaving behind a shattered remnant, would come.
Wen would look into Shorn’s eyes, take the measure of his student’s soul, and see the death his weapon had wrought. He would try to put him down. Shorn would strive to live, as he always had. Life, and his sword, was all he had to call his own.
But when the battle came, Shorn would understand Wen. The time he had spent alone on this cliff had given him new insight. Drun, his companion on this long journey, was right in some sense. The old priest had told him once, on the trail that had led him to this place, ‘only people are truly worth fighting for’. Shorn had broken that creed. All his life, he had fought for money (pride, too, he admitted, if only to himself).
But there was no avoiding destiny. Drun Sard was right about that, too. Meeting Wen was inevitable, as was the fight that would follow. Shorn had no doubt Wen would find him here. He, too, would have heard Shorn’s call to the Seafarers. That Wen would come was certain. The Seafarers…well, that was down to fate.
Time alone had granted Shorn patience, and insight that was surprisingly common in a man of war.
Today, Rythe’s twin suns high above him, he would meet Wen again. Then he would find out if all the honing had been for nothing.
Spinning on his heel, he blocked high with his flared brace, an imaginary adversary slashing down toward his head. His sword whistled through the wind, decapitating another enemy that wasn’t there. He reversed his grip on his sword, and thrust the tip into the midriff of his first attacker. The sword sang.
Destiny on Rythe pulled men into it as surely as the immense gravity of the twin suns. Carious and Dow, as the glowing sentinels were named, watched all. They waited, patient but never silent. Some creatures, such as Shorn, burned brightly while they lived. Some artefacts, too.
The sword he wielded like an extension of his will shone with its own light. The sword had a name, too. Once, long, long ago, Carious birth a second sun, a second star, and an ancient enemy was defeated.
Many fates exist. Sometimes they come together and seem like one. Faerblane, the sword that had chosen him, would meet its twin today. Perhaps they would move on.
The sword rested against the hard earth. Shorn took a deep calming breath.
From behind him a voice eroded like the cliffs said, “I knew I would find you here.”
Man and sword turned to meet their fate.
The suns were long set, but still the thick heat of high summer burnt the tongue and made bones heavy. Within the city of Lianthre, people took solace in the evening’s mild respite from the days heat, thankful for their cold baths, grateful, even, those whose weekly wages did not run to fuel for their fires. Even the many taverns of the city served cold meats, raw fish from the western coast, or plain breads and cheese, sometimes garnished with pickles. No oven burned.
None stirred from their homes but the hardiest of drinkers, determined to struggle through the oppressive heat to their cups. They could be found late at night in any city, the accomplished drinkers, fighting the weather from summer through spring. Of course, the best drinkers stayed where they were, no matter the season.
Nothing could deter a seasoned drunk from travelling to sup his ale, but they were the only people walking the dark streets. They were safe from cutthroats and footpads, but even the safest of cities pose their own dangers. Danger was not something a man could avoid, whether he lived in the company of people, or alone in the wilds but for the woodland creatures. Under the bright glare of the sun danger often lurks. During the night, even one such as this, danger looms.
Thieves did not prowl the streets. Something worse roams the alleyways of the greatest city in all of Rythe, the capital of the world as much as it was the capital of the continent of Lianthre. Thieves existed, but those that made it past their childhood years did so through an enhanced sense of self-preservation. At night, the city belonged to the Protectorate, the enforcers of the Hierarchy. While the Hierarchy remain aloof, above the petty lives of their human charges, their will was carried out by the Protectorate – a guard of sorts (should the guard practise torture and murder as a deterrent rather than a punishment), an occupying army, a legion of judges and executioners. Their features are as alien as the stars themselves, for no aspect of their countenance could be considered human. Though their actions do not mark them peculiar to humanity, it is the excess, the unstinting attention to pain in all its guises that is remarkable.
Outstanding, in some respects. They are masters of the suffering of others.
The streets belonged to the Protectorate, not the thieves. Among the creatures of the night, Protocrats were above all others.
Still, what kind of continent would it be were humans not granted some rights, some sense of autonomy? The humans believed they were governing themselves. It was a delusion the Protectorate encouraged. People shouted and railed against one another, debating taxations, rights and aid, state of the continent’s roads, trade. The topics of debate were often varied. Their discussions took place during the light of day, when it was easier to believe in self-governance. They discussed most everything, and forgot what was forbidden. The forbidden topics had been so for so long that they skirted around them without thought.
A world the size of Rythe could not contain but one continent. Never did they discuss what lay across the expanse of ocean surrounding the continent of Lianthre. Never did they think of raising their own armies – the Protectorate was the army. That was their domain, and had always been so. What sense in debating what could not be changed? As a monkey thinks nothing of its tail, forever chasing its body, sometimes seemingly acting of its own accord, the humans thought nothing of the Protectorate running in the streets. But, somewhere, deep in the recesses of the human mind, there is a special place reserved for the terrors of the night. A child might let it come to the fore, and cower under the covers in the candlelight. A man has no such luxury. He must function. The terror must be pushed down into the darkest corners of the mind. Had the people of Lianthre shone a light into the shadows of their minds, they would recognise the face of terror there. It wore dark cloaks, with its hair long, covering unnaturally long ears, framing hawkish faces of pale skin, pale enough to seem blue under a bright moon, skin that would never tan, never darken. Expressions seem forgotten upon their faces, but the human imagination could paint one just as easily as a human mouth could be turned to a smile or snarl.
Within the dark pit where terrors of the mind clawed incessantly toward the light they would see Protocrats rising up from the abyss, howling and gnashing, rending flesh with teeth, bright steel catching the light from the hopes of their thinking minds, as the terrors they studiously ignored tore through their numbers shredding lives along the way.
But they did not think of those dark places in their minds. They thought of food, and work, and making love to their wives. They thought of their children, their ale and nights inside the safety of a tavern. They shut the cellar door on the terrors of the land. It was enough to live…how could a man live if he sees death stalking the streets every day? Such a sight could cripple a man with fear.
Perhaps, all said and done, it was best not to see it.
Like the minarets of the Hierarchy that towered this night, reaching into the black sky, the Protocrats’ masters lording over all from within. Rarely seen, never asking for anything at all, never taking. How easy to ignore them, the Hierarchy. Did they even rule? Lianthrians wondered, wordlessly, on dark moonless nights such as this.
But not for much longer.
Thieves did not prowl, but humankind was beginning to sense the shadow all around them. Within their seat of government, the council building known as the Kuh’taenium, the councillors met at sun down. It was unprecedented to meet while dark reigned, but many things were changing, and not just on Lianthre. Ignorant though they were of events on distant continents, of the hand of fate pulling three humans toward an unknown destiny abroad and at home, they discussed one of the three, equally ignorant of her place in the future of all living creatures. Had they known the woman of whom they spoke was one third of their hopes for survival, perhaps the outcome would have been different. Then again, fear cripples. Perhaps it would have changed the outcome not at all.
The Kuh’taenium was old beyond reckoning. It sat like a conch shell within the centre of the city, but one so large as to have a section of the city named for it. It could contain five hundred or more bodies, although there were rarely more than three hundred and fifty-seven – to be precise – the number of representatives from each region of the continent. Lianthre was huge, but the size of a region was no indicator of its importance. Some regions had more representatives simply because they were more populous. At five year intervals, a census was taken. Sometimes the Conclave expanded, sometimes, such as in times of plague (there was no such thing as war on the continent of Lianthre) it might contract.
The heat outside was fading as the night drew on. At this late hour, it was no longer burning. It was merely marrow-drying. Within the Kuh’taenium, the high summer heat was forgotten. Heat of another kind was steadily rising.
In the halls of the Conclave, righteous dissonance drowned out all sensible argument. The room, mirrored on all sides so each member could see all others, held over the three hundred-some councillors and the majority of them bowled bitter words at each other even though they agreed. The anger went were it could, and as the law dictated they could not direct it at the Hierarchy or the Protectorate they turned it on themselves.
A malodorous stench hid behind the ire and prickled the lone Protocrat’s nostrils. The smell of cowardice grew as one by one they capitulated and the Protectorate won another battle against its most unchallenging opponents.
Just one of the humans was different, though.
Reih Refren A’e Eril finally bashed an ornamental sceptre against the polished hollow pedestal that stood at the centre of the chamber. The resounding crash echoing back off the mirrored walls loud enough to pull its own hush behind it. The visiting Protocrat stood among them on the raised speech platform, tall and proud in ceremonial robes of the Interpellate (the political arm of the Protectorate’s twenty-one divisions), and savoured the last wisps of emotion before the assemblage reeled it in. He waited although he knew the outcome could not be disputed.
“Enough!” Reih cried, hitting the pedestal once more with the sceptre she alone was entitled to hold. She then spoke quietly and the words bounced around the room to every member’s ear. “Whether we like it or not, the order stands. By decree, the murder of an officer of the Protectorate instantly allows the council member to be disbarred, regardless of the punishment she receives. It is not our place to judge evidence, merely to ensure that the dissident cannot be allowed to return. This is the law, and it has spoken.”
“Then the law is wrong, and who are they – " said Myron Rumbil, pointing at the Protocrat – “to tell us!”
“Temper your wrath, Myron. None here are content with this outcome but the word of the law is inviolate. I understand Tirielle A’m Dralorn holds a special place in all our hearts. We took her in after her expulsion. When they said she was possessed of magic, we looked after her estate. While she was gone, we mourned for her father, favourite among us. But perhaps we wanted her to turn out like her father so much that we overlooked her evil.” Even as she said it she did not believe it. Appearance was paramount now.
“Bah! You expect us to believe Tirielle a murderer?” Someone mumbled to a colleague, the words gathering pace and shooting around the room as soon as they were free.
“Yes, I expect you to believe," the Protectorate’s representative spoke for the first time, "not because my word is the law, but because it is the will of the Kuh’taenium. Never forget, though; we protect you. Thanks to us this land has known a thousand years of peace! Each time the council rises against us in anger, each time your fears are laid low, and each time we forgive your race. A thousand years ago came the revolution and governance was passed into your own hands, but by edict you are forbidden to rise against us. In turn we keep to ourselves and you govern yourselves. The Protectorate shield you all from the harsh realities of a world with rogue magic, keep your streets safe and protect the innocent and yet still you bite the hand that feeds you. Have you no shame?!” The Protocrat sputtered in mock fury.
More mumbles roamed the room, but few dissenters were rash enough to speak out further. But there is always one whose mouth runs too freely.
“And perhaps we should petition the Protectorate for their brutality! Not two days ago I saw a man beheaded in front of my very eyes!”
Oh, Guy, thought Reih. You have just signed your own death warrant. She could see it, but Guy was wrong. To accuse the Protectorate would mean death, even if they could not kill a Councillor in the street like a wild wizard, they could still kill. The Protectorate were growing bold. She looked at the creature dressed in all its finery, but for all that still a thug by any other name. Such proud, noble features he had. When would all the others realise the threat they posed? Harsh words were allowed – such accusations were too far. It wasn’t written but they all knew it, even Guy. She could see the unconscious slump of his shoulder as he realised what he just done.
Reih sighed and rubbed her eyes. She knew there was some duplicity here – she would protect the law with all her might, but Tirielle a murderer? The charge smacked of politics more than crime. The boundaries were clearly demarked still, yet she felt the lines become involute. The Kuh’taenium seemed stretched and blurred in her eyes. The lines were fading. Her link with the law was tainted, and there was nothing she could do about it. It was bred into her bones, a link formed at birth, and now it felt diseased. As Imperator of the Conclave, she and the Kuh’taenium were symbiotic. They shared thoughts, saw each others dreams, gave each other strength. Some would think it unnatural that a building should have a soul, but not Reih. She accepted without question.
She needed the Kuh’taenium’s power more than ever now. Some kind of revolution was coming. She hoped it was all in her mind, but if it was in her mind, it was in the Kuh’taenium’s, too.
She could feel a headache coming on. Knowing there was nothing more she could achieve among the Conclave, she called it to a close, cutting off the Protocrat before he could reply to Guy’s foolish accusation. She needed to rest. The Kuh’taenium was sickened by the betrayal it had been forced to witness, and she felt its sadness in her bones.
As the sun came up, the members filed out through various exits (some above ground, some below – the shell itself sat half submerged in the earth).
His work done, albeit not swiftly, the Protocrat left last. Tirielle was disbarred and the arguments in her favour had held no sway. The Kuh’taenium had decided – Tirielle was on her own, and no rights afforded to a member of the Conclave would be granted upon her capture. Not that such considerations had hampered the Protectorates efforts to capture her until now, but it was the appearance of the thing that mattered.
The Protocrat stretched, spine cracking loudly, and made his way to his superior, who waited under the shade of one of the trees that lined the twelve approaches to the Conclave’s heart.
Reih passed slowly through the outer cells of the Kuh’taenium, ascending gradually to her living rooms at the apex of the giant sphere. The journey took some time as she wound her way higher, looking out through the sheltered windows onto the grounds and the city beyond.
There, under the canopy of growth that fluttered lightly on the day’s breeze, the Protocrat spoke animatedly with someone. Another Protocrat, his face hidden. The two were concealed on the curving paths that ran through the gardens, unseen from below. She stood back from the light watching the two in discussion until she could see who would walk away.
The man left, and Reih let out her breath. His size alone gave him away, but the Kuh’taenium confirmed her suspicions, its sight and senses greater than any mortal. She saw through its myriad eyes. There was no doubt.
Tun, the head of the Protectorate’s Search Division.
So it had all been set up. They had just been waiting for license to hunt Tirielle like an animal. Stripped of the benefits granted to the Conclave, Reih had no doubt that should Tirielle be captured, she would be tortured and killed.
But what could she do? What was she really, but a glorified politician?
What was one human, against the might of their rulers?
She sat on her bed, thoughts whirling dangerously, until the Kuh’taenium began speaking. They talked long, until Dow rose. Finally, she fell into her bed and slept a shallow sleep that did little to refresh her.
She woke to a new day half fled. As Carious slid below the horizon, she began to write.