Day of Destruction
In the aftermath of the devastation, none of the Great Halls remained.
Stone, marble, fine cloth, weapons, and instruments from around the known world lay in smoking, shattered heaps, among lumps of broken bone and shredded flesh, littering the valley, and the smoke, still thick, roiled back on itself and grew larger, like a confused stampeding crowd. Sprawling across the cloud-strewn sky, it hid the bodies from the view of carrion birds, and small fires, safe from the coming spring rain, still burned in protected places, unchecked, but unable to do anymore damage.
Singers Hall was completely destroyed.
Lorelei woke up, her throat raw from the smoke, her eyes bleary and bloodshot, her clothes torn, and her thoughts rambling. Her book wasn’t far from her, but it was singed.
Gingerly, she picked it up, lifting with her fingertips; bits of charred paper fell off and flew away, but only from the edges. The book itself was sound, its pages untouched by fire, still readable, with all of her notes in the margins.
That, and the clothes on her back, were all she had.
She was able to stand, and slowly got to her feet, not wanting to be prone in case whoever did this was searching the rubble to kill the wounded.
She took a look around, and tears not born of smoke filled her eyes…
That was good, because it caused her not to focus.
There was a general impression of carnage, of blood, of bodies broken and torn, but she didn’t look at anyone’s face, didn’t allow herself to recognize, and remember, because she’d be paralyzed by fear and grief, and there was no telling who was coming.
So she waited, and collected her thoughts, as the soft spring rain began to fall.
Footsteps crunched over stone.
A fallen pillar hid her from view, but hiding didn’t occur to her.
She wanted to see if whoever it was had been responsible for what happened; what she would do then, she didn’t know.
Her throat, however, was still raw from smoke and dust, so a canticle of binding was out of the question. She had her training, but no weapons, so with the only recourse left to her, she picked up a sharpened piece of the fallen pillar.
There would only be one chance.
A boy stood on the fallen pillar, but above her.
Shielding his eyes against the rain with his hand, he scanned the remains of Singers Hall, and Lorelei used the time to observe him.
He was brown, all over, from his skin to his clothing, to the small harp in a brown case strapped to his back. She could see the burnished scrollwork at the end poking out of a corner of the case. He was a stranger in these lands, but if he’d made Musicians Hall here, he was indeed talented.
She looked some more.
He was bald, almost hairless to the point of babyhood, and had a dark gleam about him, brimming with some unknown power, but he seemed whole, and strong, and about her age; he wouldn’t need looking after then, but she was still reluctant to reveal herself.
Seeing nothing, he turned to go.
If he leaves, you’ll be traveling alone, for who knows how long, facing who knows what?
“Wait!” She stepped out from hiding.
He turned, surprised, but wary.
She scrambled up the pillar, put herself on level with him, and they stood, taking each other in.
“You survived,” he finally said.
“So did you. Did you see anything?”
“Bodies, ruin, and fire, not much else. You?”
“The same. None of the Halls are intact. I thought they might be walking around to kill the wounded, so I got up.”
“I don’t think they needed to; they were pretty efficient. And it might not have been wise for you to get up, since they would’ve killed you for real.”
“I’m no good at pretending to be dead if I’m not.”
“No,” he smiled, “me neither.”
He walked back toward her, but didn’t offer his hand.
She didn’t take offense; the Musicians never offered their hands, which they held as transporters of their craft to enter this world from the next, so they were sacrosanct, and kept untainted.
“Now there’s a name for a Singer.”
She smiled, pointed to his back.
“Among other things, none of which survived; this will have to do for now.”
The rain fell harder.
“Let’s find shelter, and we’ll figure it out from there.”
“We already have shelter.”
He looked at her.
“We can stay right here, under this pillar, and wait out the rain.”
“You could do that? Your friends’ corpses lay here, your teachers…”
“None of whom would mind. Is there any point to blundering about in the rain, not knowing where we are, or where we’re going?”
Besides, I’ve already mourned, in secret, where no one could see.
He opened his mouth to say something, but couldn’t argue the validity.
She was already scrambling back underneath the pillar.
Intrigued by her practicality, if surprised at the hardness of her decision, he followed.
The rain continued falling, steady, after dark, and they went hungry that night, though they managed to make a fire.
In the morning, the sun came out, the smoke cleared, and a herald crow sounded the breakfast bell.
They left, still dampened in clothes and spirit, and began to try to find a path out.
As they searched, she thought back to her first day.
Her teacher was a walking willow stick; everything about her was wispy, like the pink, fluffy candy of country fairs, sweetness without substance, but that was only on the surface.
“You have been chosen as Singers; you are above the pale and beyond the norm, and this is now your home. Everything, and I mean everything, you need, or ever will need, is here.
“There is no need to go skulking about in the woods, like trolls and brigands. The sacrifice of your voice in offering replaces what is left of your life. You no longer have families, or friends, or lovers, save those you meet here.
“You are given no outside indulgences to detract from your training, for while you are superior, you are not yet fully formed.
“And it is I who will form you, from now on.”
The days were grueling, the nights sometimes more so.
Willow, for that is what Lorelei called her, was relentless, merciless, and sometimes cruel.
Lorelei had been at turns beaten, starved, made to sleep standing up, and a few things in between, but last month, at the end of her fourth year, Willow had given her the book, Blessed Canticles. Her own copy, signed with Willow’s own hand.
“To Lorelei, you have been blessed beyond your worth, but you have earned it, and done well.”
She later found out, when she went to see what Willow had written for the others, that hers was the only book signed.
Gradually, they’d fallen off, wondering what she’d done to gain such favor, when they had all been equally punished and rewarded, seemingly solely based on Willow’s whims.
The imposed shunning hurt, the exile to a table of her own as they left at her approach even more so, but there it was.
“And now, I’m all that’s left…”
“Nothing. Nothing, Devon, just thinking out loud.”
“We’ve flushed her out into the open, Lord Karis; she travels with a bard.”
“A bard? Indeed, two for the price of one. I’m pleased, Jahrin.”
Jahrin smiled; he didn’t like when Karis wasn’t pleased.
“May I ask a question, Lord Karis?”
“What do you want with the Singer?”
Karis looked out the window, distracted, but he’d heard the question.
“I will answer you, Jahrin. If I hear it on the lips of anyone else, your tongue is forfeit. Have I made myself clear?”
“Yes, Lord Karis.”
Karis sighed, and walked over to a table, where he took a book of white and gold, and placed it before Jahrin.
“I…I can’t read, Lord…”
“I know, Jahrin.”
Karis walked away, and began to sing, a minor key, that sounded something like a dirge, slow, sonorous, and foreign sounding, and Jahrin closed his eyes, shuddering in his seat, held by something that frightened him beyond words.
His teeth chattered, and tears leaked copiously from his eyes, and when the song ended, and he was finally released, he slumped forward.
The cover was bleary in his vision, and he clumsily wiped his eyes with an overlarge hand, breathing hard.
And the cover said,
The Canticles of War
“Lord Karis…Lord Karis…I…I can..”
“I know, Jahrin.”
Jahrin remained speechless, reading the words over and over again, wanting to hug the book to him; he dared not touch it, and ran to the shelves, pulling things at random, reading, books and parchments gathering around him like sand.
Karis, enjoying his servant’s excited mood, stopped on his way out to give him a look.
Jahrin’s eyes were bright with happy tears.
“Now imagine what I could do, Jahrin, if I had her power.”
He thought about taking the words from Jahrin, leaving him illiterate again, but that would be cruel, even for him.
This might be actually prove to be useful, later.
He could hear Jahrin’s laughter echo in the hall, and the crash of more books falling off the shelves.
Quite useful, indeed.
Since the bodies were out in the elements all night, still pitted with fire and soaked through with rain, laced with shelter seeking worms that began to feast even as they drowned, a faint scent of corruption laced the otherwise fresh morning air.
Lorelei and Devon had found their path out, but Devon stopped them, and turned to her as she came up behind him.
“Lorelei, we can’t leave them this way.”
She looked back at the devastation, and knew it was true.
“I know,” she said, as Devon unpacked his harp.
They left unsaid that the unleashed magic in what they were about to do would tell anyone who was after them that someone was still alive.
It was a chance they would take, not knowing they were already targets.
As the sunlight crested the surrounding hills, Devon plucked the first notes to ‘Unaendelea’, the song for starting the underworld journey that bid the spirits rise.
The birds went silent as the notes filled and echoed across the green, glistening valley.
They rose in a myriad mist of moods: some were at peace, some bore expressions of profound regret, unable to weep, and still others were bewildered, their faces somewhere between joy and anguish as they came to the dread realization that this was, indeed, their last day on earth.
When he was finished, Lorelei sang the Immrama, the song of the final voyage, a song interwoven with power and magic that compelled them to depart, willingly or not.
Among the mass of faces, some turned to see who sang them into the celestial void.
Some smiled and nodded in approval.
Those who didn’t know her looked and listened for a moment or two, either smiling or simply turning away. A few of them waved goodbye, and she nodded acknowledgment of their farewell as she sang.
And then she saw the faces of her former classmates, those who’d been her friends, pushing against the ethereal flow, glaring at her, if possible, with even more hatred.
Their lips shouted vile names and curses she mercifully couldn’t hear.
Devon saw them too, and a slow, empathetic understanding dawned on him as he saw a single tear spill down Lorelei’s cheek, heard a note quaver ever so slightly at a hitched breath; the spirit masses rippled subtly at the brief discordance, before resuming their journey.
He plucked the harp strings louder, bolstering her, bringing her focus back to the task at hand.
She raised her voice to match his volume, and the swell pressed her former friends back into the flow, sweeping them along until they could no longer see her.
Devon nodded once and kept playing, and she managed to spare him a grateful glance before singing the final verse.
The valley floor was emptying of debris as the marble, stones, gems, woods, along with clumps of ruined flesh and shattered bones dissipated, dissolving into one with the dissipating morning mist.
The duo paused, closing their eyes, preparing for the complex final verse, a benediction from Katava, the god of peaceful rest.
When it started, Devon felt chills coursing through him at the almost painful beauty of Lorelei’s voice. Up until now, she’d been singing, but now, she was praying in song.
He thanked Katava for being able to hear, and his own dark aura pulsed in response to her lilting cadences.
His own playing felt effortless, the notes flowing over, before and around her like dolphins dancing in the sea with a mermaid, but there was a core of power to her voice that made him know this was nothing so superficially frothy as that; he was shaken in his spirit at what he felt, and he knew, somehow, in that moment, that they were in danger for their lives.
As the last notes faded, they opened their eyes to find themselves alone.
The very meadow they stood in seemed deep in reverence.
All traces of the Great Halls were gone, as if they’d never existed.
Toward the tree line, however, something was still visible; a sodden black lump sprawled across the drying grass.
They watched it for a moment, not sure what it was, or how it had remained.
From within the sloppy, folded mass of blackness, a woman’s hand emerged, fingers scraping in the dirt.
Lorelei was running across the grass before she realized she’d even moved.
Devon trotted after, not wanting to rush into something; normally he would’ve taken the lead, but Lorelei was a girl who looked like she could handle herself.
Lorelei wanted to call her, but wasn’t sure if anyone was coming to finish the job, or would be; for now, her teacher was exposed, and if danger was close, she’d need protection.
“Singer Farin?” She’d almost said ‘Willow.”
Singer Farin groaned, and fell.
Devon got a steadying hand under her, quickly assessing damage.
Lorelei helped her from the other side; they propped her against a tree trunk, and pulled back the damp cowl that covered her face.
Her left eye was swollen, and there was a cut on her cheek, but nothing seemed broken and she wasn’t paralyzed.
“I’m here, I’m here.”
Devon gave her some water from his skin.
“This is Devon.”
“Thank you, Devon.”
“At your service…”
She took some more water, her good eye gaining clarity, and she seemed to be getting her bearings.
“I was…I was in the library,” she said. “Everything went up, all of a sudden. The floor shook, and I was blinded…”
She looked out across the field.
“They’re gone, Singer.”
Singer Farin looked out over the annihilation of her life’s work, fell into Lorelei’s arms, and wept until Devon played something to put her to sleep.
“We’ll stay another night, figure out what we’re going to do,” he said, putting his harp away. “I’ll get some firewood.”
When Devon was gone, she took the heavy robe off Farin and hung it up on a stout branch that hadn’t burned.
Her clothing was damp in spots, but not soaked through as the robe was.
The grass was all but dry, so Lorelei lay next to her and embraced her, keeping her warm.
It was late morning when Devon returned with an armload of wood.
“We’ll be exposed, but she needs the rest. Maybe we can look around and see if we can make some sort of shelter.”
Devon set about making another fire, and they ate in silence as the birdsong once again crept back into the air, slow and tentative, some lighting above them hoping to get some crumbs of bread, which they provided.
It was Farin.
In an instant, Lorelei was kneeling by her side.
Her face was ghastly pale, and she was shivering.
“Not…going..to make it.”
“Sh. Not much…time. Listen.”
Lorelei nodded, fighting the tears that welled and stung.
“Darkness…hunts you…a lord, far off. A man…”
She coughed, and Devon handed Lorelei his water skin.
Farin drank, and it helped. Her words were slowing, but she was fighting.
“My husband…years ago…Karis…murderer, wants your power…”
Lorelei was speechless, and had to lean forward.
“I don’t understand…” Lorelei was fighting panic; Devon came and knelt beside her, and again, she drew strength from his presence.
“Came…to Hall…to find you…protect you…can’t now.”
“Why does he want her voice?” Devon asked.
“Start war…great power.” She coughed again, her body wracked, and she grew weaker.
“Canticle of Victory?”
“Where is it?”
Another cough, another spasm, and she placed her hands on Lorelei’s shoulders, pulled her down to whisper.
“Find it…kill him.”
Her nails dug in as she drew a final breath.
“I always…liked the name…Willow.”
Her hands slipped from Lorelei’s shoulders, and her life slipped away.
The Singer’s tears fell on her teacher’s hands as she gently folded them, and she wondered just who this woman had been.
Lorelei had never said the name ‘Willow’ out loud.
“I don’t understand, Devon. She was getting stronger…”
“I don’t know, Lorelei. Maybe there was too much damage inside.”
“She slept for hours; I was holding her. She was getting stronger!”
Devon was helpless. “Lorelei…”
She seemed on the verge of losing it; the hard practicality he’d seen the night before was crumbling. He had little experience with women, and was hoping she wouldn’t, because he’d just stand there like a statue in bad weather, unable to do anything but hope the storm would pass without knocking him over.
He watched her wrestle with herself, knowing she had to come to grips with what on her own.
Without a word, she turned and walked off into the woods.
Not knowing what else to do, he started the fire, toasted some bread and ate it, cleaned his hands, took out his harp, and played while he waited.
Then it came.
Lorelei’s screams of rage and sadness split the quiet like Katava’s thunder, and Devon smiled.
Lord Karis…you’re a dead man.
She emerged from the woods toward evening, more wan, but none the worse for it.
Devon had his hands behind his head, resting against the tree trunk, but he wasn’t asleep.
“Surprisingly, yes. Where’s Singer Farin?”
He pointed to a pile of stones.
“You did that?”
“You are tired, Lorelei, to ask such a question.”
She shook her head. Look around, silly girl…
“We will sing her out later tonight.”
“All right.” She saw bread in a folded cloth napkin.
“Where’d you get bread?”
He grinned, sheepish. “Forgot I had it. I was just going out when…”
She managed a grin herself. “We went hungry last night, you idiot.”
“Is that anyway to talk?” He broke off a chunk and passed it to her as she sat next to him.
“I didn’t have to save you any, you know,” closing his eyes again while she ate.
“I know,” she said, taking a big bite, along with a healthy swig of water. “Thank you,”
“Where’d you get water?”
She blushed. “There’s a stream back there. When I got finished...I filled this.”
She passed him her water skin.
“Thank you,” he said.
“My pleasure, but it will just take the edge off for tonight. We’re going to have to trap and hunt along the way.”
He arched an eyebrow in approval; she may have been brought here, but she was not just some frilly girl.
They looked out for awhile across the empty valley, the complete erasure of their past; not having made a quicker exit, they were becoming reluctant to let go, delaying the inevitable, even with the threat of death hanging over them.
Lorelei decided it was time for a conversation.
“So what about you, my mysterious friend? How’d you come to Harpist Hall?”
“It’s a long story. Can it wait?”
She flicked water from her fingertips on him.
“No. I’ve lost everything, and I’m afraid, and now that all of it’s gone, I’m bored; you, on the other hand, are moving along just fine. No tears, no emotions, and other than your name and the fact that you play harp, and you’re brown and bare as a wet log in an autumn rain, I know nothing about you.
“If we’re going to travel together, I need to know who’s traveling with me.”
He smiled, wiping the water drops from his face.
“Fair enough.” He turned and propped himself on his elbow, and as she continued eating, he regaled her.
He was but a babe in a basket.
The moon was full, and he was looking up, fascinated by its light, having no idea what it was.
A pair of soft eyes peered in at him, a pair of soft hands lifted him out, held him close, and he remembered a song, softly sung, almost whispered, the notes sinking down into his ear, calming his heart, for he’d begun to fidget.
He didn’t go back to sleep, but rather grasped the tendril of hair tickling his cheek, and put it in his mouth, and examined it, and put it back again.
It didn’t taste like anything, and his tongue moved over his lips to push it out.
The holder laughed, a different type of music, her scent and the warmth of her robe sinking into him.
A clicking sound, and the starry sky and resplendent moon were replaced by beamed ceilings shadowy with firelight, and the heat in the room added a scent to hers, and he made a noise.
She sat down in a chair, and gave him milk from her body, and sang to him some more.
And raised him as her own.
Her name was Celinette, and she was beautiful, with black hair and brown eyes, as caramel as he was brown; she was also lonely; the last of her Order, as far as she knew.
She told him she was a Moon Priestess.
It was only for women, and nothing for him to learn, she told him later, as he puttered about, uncapped and sniffed and drank and rubbed himself with her unguents and concoctions meant for rituals she performed alone.
The new duke had committed fratricide to gain the throne, and while his brother had freely welcomed the Priestesses as benevolent, and often put them to works of healing and compassion, looking after the needy, and even recruiting women from the ranks, if such were so inclined, this one held them in loathing and suspicion.
He was not above either notion of training them to the sword, or putting them to it.
The new magistrate, needing to secure his place, adopted his ruler’s suspicions, and harassed them, disrupting their ceremonies, defacing their buildings, putting the women in stocks as they shopped from the marketplace; he stopped short of physically assaulting them, not sure what powers they would bring to bear on him in revenge.
The Order, however, scattered themselves just to prevent such accusation, there was nothing the royal court could prove to say it was so.
A bard was traveling through their village, rugged, handsome, well-voiced, and he stopped at Celinette’s to ask to use her small well, since he’d run out of water.
She told him he could, for the price of a song when he was done.
He honored his promise, and Celinette, having been so long without company that was not another woman or priestess, asked him to stay.
Beguiled by her enigmatic manner, he did, and they spent time together that for awhile made her smile and laugh and enjoy being a woman.
He was a traveler by nature though, and having had his rest and his lust temporarily sated, he told her it was time to move on.
She understood, and while she felt a pang of sadness at his impending departure, she was nevertheless grateful that he obliged her request.
Making a travel bag of foodstuffs for him, they spent part of a final night together.
As the bard and Devon slept, a sister came to Celinette’s place, and told her that the rest of the order was leaving for the south; a haven had been established, and they were leaving under cover of night.
There was no place for her young charge; she would have to leave him.
Celinette was torn between preserving her heritage, and abandoning the baby she’d raised.
Together, the priestesses consulted Kamaria, the goddess, to confirm what Celinette should do.
The bard balked at her request, as she knew he would.
“I can’t take him; the places I go are too dangerous, he would slow me down, and I don’t know how long I’ll be staying. Come with me, and I’ll plead your cause; perhaps we can find a place for him among the Guild. A lot of us have been dispersed, and there’s been some attrition.
“Travel with me, and I’ll send you with an escort where you need to go.”
Celinette agreed, and they enjoyed some more time together before their parting.
“The memory I have of her is that she held me, blessed me, kissed me and caressed my cheek after I thanked her for being my mother. She began to cry, and then she left.
I watched her walk away, the bard’s hand on my shoulder; one of the village soldiers brought her a horse, and she mounted. Arilon had arranged the armed escort.
She looked back over her shoulder at me, and we watched each other until she was gone.
“He kept his word, and impressed my dilemma on them. They’d never had one of my people in their care before, so I was something of a novelty. I waited a day or two for their decision, and the bard, named Arilon, did well by me, keeping me safe until they decided.
“After three days, the Guild took me in; its teachers raised me, fed me, put me in music classes, and said I took to it almost right away. I had my own room, since they didn’t know how the others would take to me, but overall, things seemed to go well once they got used to me, not that it mattered much.
“I did take to it; all of it, the rigors of discipline and practice and sacrifice, as well as the pleasure of performance, applause, feminine attentions, and peer jealousies.
“Every time I ate in a place that was not my home, surrounded by those who didn’t look like me, even Celinette, I was reminded of how rootless I was, so music became my root, my center, my anchor to life.
“They’d kick me out of the practice halls all the time; I’d be lost for hours, forget to eat, learned about my surroundings only enough to get to the places we had to perform; taking a wife wasn’t on the horizon, much less in the picture. In short, I lost myself in the craft, and suffered.”
He hesitated, and it was the first time she’d seen him look uncertain.
“I’ll show you. I composed something for Celinette; I never saw her again, but I think something happened to her, because…”
He stood up and took out his harp.
The sun was lowering, and they’d not yet sung Fanir on her journey.
Lorelei stood up too, as much to stretch her legs as to defend herself should something go wrong with his demonstration.
From the first notes, colors danced in Lorelei’s vision; the song lilted, a lovely major key not often used, the rhythm a soothing balm across her own scattered emotions, bringing her back to a center she hadn’t known was lacking.
Devon walked a little distance from her, finding a spot, and the song echoed faintly across the valley.
Then she saw it. Over him, gradually, as if someone was covering him, a dark and pulsing aura crept from his feet to his head, a dim glow, so close to his body it was almost imperceptible from his dark skin, but Lorelei saw it.
Caught up in the tune, in his memories, in his love for the woman who became his mother at some cost to herself, but in the end chose her own happiness over sacrifice, he turned and looked at Lorelei, and she gave a small gasp, her hand to her mouth.
Devon’s eyes were a bright gold, burning with an unnatural radiance that was neither malevolent nor kind, but could be perceived as either.
He came toward her then, to see what she would do.
She put her hand through the aura, touching his cheek, and a golden tear slid down his face, pooling in the corner of his mouth, which she wiped with her thumb.
The song enveloped them both, and she felt what he was feeling; sadness so profound, with a silent cry so deep she wondered he’d survived, but also a quiet joy, a fierce love of life that refused to let him go. Already he’d resigned himself to his fate with her, whatever it would bring.
His dark wine aura leaked over her, but shrank back, for her center of strength was not in her hands, or but her voice.
She found herself wordlessly following his melody, singing low as he played it through once more, and her own aura sparked, and leaked over him, and shrank back.
Not knowing why she did, or how she knew to do it, she stepped behind him, and embraced him as he played, her voice swelling with his own cadence; she had the gist of the tune now, and it seemed as if she’d always known it, though she knew that wasn’t true.
Her own aura, as golden as his eyes, touched his again, and gradually enveloped it, brightening it to the color of an amethyst, and she followed Devon down as he sank to his knees and relaxed into her, his hands no longer able to play, and she took the harp from him, and laid it aside, holding him as he cried his golden tears, and she continued to sing, finishing the melody a capella, soothing him.
A deep peace flooded his heart and spirit, and he knew that somehow, now, they were inextricably bound as something far deeper friends, than lovers, or even soul mates.
This was a bond that transcended anything earthly, and neither one of them knew to what extent.
You are soldiers now, Devon.
They both looked up.
Singer Farin was standing in front of her cairn, unsmiling.
“We…” Devon was regaining control as Lorelei released him.
There is no need to sing me out, children. I know the way, but I would hear your voice and harp one last time…
Devon, coming back to himself, played, and Lorelei sang; it was seamless, and its power filled the valley once more, so that the creatures within hearing grew silent, and came furtively through the greenery, drawn to it.
Farin’s spirit joined in a harmony, sussurant on the evening wind that rippled the grass and rattled the leaves as the white road appeared, and Singer Farin’s form began to float toward it.
You are bound to each other now, but trust can be betrayed. Do not, upon your own peril, turn your backs on one another during this time. The bond can only be broken by death, even if you go your separate ways when this is over. If Karis seizes your voice, Lorelei, you will soon join me; Devon, you must be careful as well. The power in your hands and being have now been set in motion to increase, and there will be those who seek it as well.
Karis has a servant, a dimwit, named Jahrin. He is not intelligent, but that actually makes him more dangerous, for he can’t be swayed from Karis’ bidding; he owes him his very life.
Devon nodded, not quite knowing what to say.
“Thank you…Willow.” Lorelei said.
Singer Farin rewarded her with a beaming smile, and placed the hood of her robe over her hair as she turned to walk the road.
They watched until she faded, and they stopped playing and singing.
The sun was low in the western sky, and the stars began to appear, celestial confetti strewn among the clouds.
Devon and Lorelei were sitting back down, out of things to say, out of reasons to stay in the valley now that all was completed, but neither felt of a mind to travel, though neither felt the need for sleep.
So they sat through the night until they drifted off due to the silence, the warmth of the rekindled fire, the familiarity of their former home, and the interminable passing of hours.
Jahrin had cleaned up all the books and scrolls, reading still as he placed them back on the shelves, even though it strained his eyes.
There were words he didn’t yet understand, and concepts that eluded him, but Lord Karis had promised him teachers to grant him the knowledge of anything he wished to know, and suggested Jahrin make a list of those things.
Now in his bed, sighing happily, closing his eyes, he recaptured the wonder of the day, and fell asleep with a smile on his face.
Karis sipped the last of his brandy, looking over the rim of his snifter at Regina, his wife.
“Was that wise, husband?” Regina asked. “You know that reading men think, and thinking leads to thoughts of improvement.”
“Thoughts in the mind of a simpleton don’t m
ake him a man of sophistication,” he said, leaning over the table to kiss her.
“My brother learned that lesson, and I was the one who taught it. I did think about stripping him of his newfound wisdom, but he’s happy enough with his lot, and I may have need of it later.
“Besides, the Singer and the Bard are out there, wandering who knows where. I’ll send Jahrin to find them. All he has for now is a general direction, but he’s like a human hound.
“If anyone can pick up a random trail and chase the quarry from shelter, it’s Jahrin.”
Regina said no more; she’d seen Jahrin in action; she’d gone on a hunt with them once, and though she loved Karis, it was clearly Jahrin who had the affinity for it.
Karis had given her all her desires, but it seemed that once she had them, there was always something else.
His indulgence of her was excessive, and they both knew it, but peacetime had bought idleness and prosperity, until that day she found the white and gold book on one of her infrequent forays into the library proper.
The title, etched in gold letters, was glinting in the early afternoon sunlight, and drew her to it.
She had to cradle it in order to bring it to the table, but one of the attendants saw her, and did it for her.
The book itself was in pristine condition, though aged.
She questioned the attendant as to how it came into Karis’ possession, and he said it was a gift to the duke’s predecessor.
Regina wondered what he’d planned to do with it, but it didn’t matter now.
Beguiled, she opened it and gave it serious study, and after reading for an hour, she came across a passage that explained everything else to come.
Excited by the potential of it, she’d brought it to Karis’ attention, and he too, saw the value in it, but kept the knowledge of the discovery and its potential quiet:
The composers of the canticles herein are gone, and do not wish to be found; bones lay in the earth now, pens still, voices silent. We owe great honor and thanks to our Scribes who labored to complete this work. Not all is explained within these pages, but the power in the songs themselves is undeniable.
This is one of the last surviving compendiums; attempts to duplicate it have resulted in hands catching fire, eyes going blind, or the power of the spell itself claiming its would-be wielder; the powers contained within have mostly remained mute and unyielding to our best efforts.
We have discovered the power to speak events into being: the spoken word, converted to song, sends out vibrations full of power. That power has the capacity to invoke emotions. Feelings become thoughts, and thoughts become actions.
By harnessing the sounds of the binding fabric of the universe and enhancing them with arcana, we are able to affect events to outcomes that have the desired result, be it rebuilding an old conquest, or conquering a new one.
We have also discovered the existence of an exclusively elite group of female Singers: the Aaralyn, whose voices have greater powers of creation and destruction over massive amounts of people and land.
We are in the process of locating their origins, but have encountered difficulties in finding reliable documentation; we believe this to be deliberate. What we do know is that visible auras mark them when they sing, hence separating them from their less powerful sisters.
They have scattered throughout the known world, and are at various stages of the incarnation of their powers.
There are books of other Canticles as well, and they are equally exhaustive in length and composition.
Contenting ourselves, then, exclusively with its study, one of the acolytes, a Singer of the Aaralyn, whose name was not recorded, spoke of a unique canticle that if, harvested correctly, will do great things for us as a nation.
Since our research has proven mostly fruitless outside of this collection, we now seek to discover the newest generation of Aaralyn; we designed and built the Great Halls to bring them out, that we might identify them, harvest the powers of their voices, and use them to our own ends.
We have included Halls for Musicians as well, in case other groups or subgroups exist to support or counter the powers of the Aaralyn.
Over the next two weeks she made inquiries into the existences of the Great Halls, and found there was one in a valley some distance away, but no distance they couldn’t cover. As long as they shared the same land mass, they’d be able to get there if needed.
In the process they had to find out where the others were located, and cull the voices from those as well.
Regina considered it a shame that Karis had destroyed the Great Halls before she could travel there; she would have liked to see the splendor of the architecture, hear the instruments and voices in concert, stroll about the lush grounds, and speak to the Masters and students before razing the place.
Karis was a brute in his own right. She had hoped to bring him some gentility, but he’d been resistant, if not rebellious. Over the years, she grew weary of teaching him to be respectable, made excuses if he behaved boorishly, and accepted his trinkets and attention with equal aplomb and indifference.
Confined to the palace, as Karis ruled with a rough hand, she longed for an adventure, not sure in herself how dangerous she would like it to be; she knew only that she wanted one.
She would join Jahrin, and knock on subtler doors his oversized fists would slam asunder. The lackwit made her uncomfortable; she’d caught him staring more than once. Only the fear of Karis’ anger stayed his hand.
She said goodnight to Karis, who said he would be coming to bed soon after he saw to some minor details regarding their search.
She lit some candles, doing without a hearth fire.
Tired from yet another day of idleness, she hoped Karis would not be in a lusty mood.
Looking out the window at the rising moon, she let her thoughts wander to what she would do if Karis wasn’t successful.
Then for no reason she could discern, a chill passed through her, so cold it made her gasp, and she folded her arms across her chest for modesty as the attendant approached.
Regina turned to find four shades looking at her with intense and angry expressions.
She backed away from the window, stumbling over her own feet, going down in a sprawling mass, her eyes wide, her mouth making unintelligible sounds.
“Do not fear us, your Majesty,” a male voice said.
“We mean you no harm,” said a female.
“If you seek to capture the Singer of Canticles, we know where she is, and we will lead you to her.”
With an effort, Regina gathered her wits, regained her feet, and smoothed her night clothes, as they watched her like hawks over a newborn litter of mice.
“We were her friends, but are friends no longer.”
“Her name is Lorelei, and she travels with a brown Bard whose name we don’t know.”
“They yet remain in the Valley of Great Halls, but they will be leaving soon.”
“We will take you there before they get away, but you must leave tonight.”
“Go tell Lord Karis.”
“Tell him now.”
Her head was a-swirl with the rapidity of the exchange, and feeling somewhat giddy, she had to steady herself as she hurried to find Karis.
Devon was dreaming.
Celinette was standing in the door of the Musicians Hall, an expression of alarm on her face, tears in her eyes, marring their beauty.
She was calling his name, though he couldn’t hear her voice.
He went to her, but she began to fade the closer he came, so he stopped.
She spoke again, but he shook his head and cupped his ear.
She got his meaning, and mouthed it so he could understand:
You have to leave tonight, my son.
He woke up, roused Lorelei, who, it turned out, knew a few curses.
“We can’t stay; something, or someone, is searching for us.”
“Devon, it was just a dream.”
“Celinette never appeared in my dreams before, not even as a child. She was my mother, and if she took the trouble to say this to me, from wherever she is, I’m going to listen.”
He slung his pack over his shoulder.
“You are free to stay and sleep, then. I will trouble you no further.”
She looked at him; he was resolved, but he was also afraid. He didn’t strike her as a coward, but he’d left himself vulnerable playing the song he’d composed for Celinette.
But then Lorelei remembered Farin’s words:
Darkness hunts you.
Without another word of argument, she picked up her book.
Devon took it and put it with his harp inside the casing, and they set out in the direction they’d chosen to go two days before.
The moon was bright on the walking path, and the hills were quiet, full of the usual sounds of night.
“We’re going to need weapons,” Lorelei said.
“Are you good with any?”
“My father trained me.”
“Was he any good?” Devon smiled.
She punched his arm playfully.
“The walking paths are overgrown, so they will have trouble finding our tracks.”
“Where do we go?”
“To the next town, for now. We’ll need horses.”
Lorelei tried to recall the town’s name, but couldn’t.
“They could be watching us from anywhere,” she said.
“Then it won’t matter; if that’s true, they can catch us anytime they like. No use speculating.”
She saw the truth of it, though it stung a bit to hear.
He was still something of an enigma to her; she’d never had anyone open to her like that in the past. The abruptness and circumstances of their meeting had induced a closeness they might not have otherwise sought on their own.
A dark power seemed always around him, just under the surface. He kept it in check at some price to himself. She felt it when she put her arms around him, and wondered if Celinette had performed some ritual on him after all.
His playing was masterful, yet beautiful. His changes were exotic, but natural; he wasn’t showing off.
Tears of gold, though, were pretty frightening.
She’d felt the heat of it on her thumb when she wiped it from his face, and wondered at it, but said nothing.
If there was anything to tell, he’d tell her in his own good time, though she was of a mind to hasten the journey.
To where, Lorelei?
She gave a grim smile, and walked out of the valley for the first time in many years, and for the last time forever.
On the way, the curiosity got the better of her, and she wasn’t willing to let the questions wait.
“You say she’s never appeared to you before tonight?”
He sighed, but he figured given the circumstances, he owed it to her.
“No. That’s why I woke you.”
He stopped, realizing by her tone that he was in for a grilling, and turned to face her.
“Lorelei, since the day before yesterday, we have not been in normal circumstances. We survived an attack we didn’t expect, and survived for reasons we don’t know. Someone is after us for something we don’t possess, and our world wiped out by a man who wants us to come to harm so he can accomplish an unknown task.
“Our lives have been repurposed, and nothing is as it seems anymore. We have no choice. If nothing else, Celinette would not appear to me after all this time and lie to me.
“I have no idea where she is, what happened to her, or even if she’s still alive. Does any of it matter?”
“It does. It does to me.”
He sighed, seeing the effort it took her to suppress the fear.
He walked up to her, and took her hands.
“The only way we’re going to get answers, is to go through it, and we’re going to need to trust each other. If I’ve done nothing to cause you to doubt me up til now, then trust me until I do.
“My future is as desolate as yours; there is no reason for me to lie to you, or harm you. As I said before, you are free to go your own way. We have no claims on each other, and I won’t travel with someone I can’t trust, so I will ask you now, and be sure of your answer, because I won’t ask again. I don’t want to travel alone, but I will if I must.
“Do you trust me, Lorelei?”
She considered her answer; it was true, he’d given her no reason to doubt him. In truth, she was reluctant to leave the valley, because it meant acknowledging the truth of what Willow told her; her life was at risk, and all she’d worked for stolen from her and used for further destruction.
Like it or not, she was involved, and whether or not Devon was supposed to be, he was merely traveling along in the wake of her making. She didn’t get him into it, but she wasn’t sure she’d have a chance of getting out of it alive without him, a reason she knew was purely selfish, but she knew he’d understand if she told him that. He implied in the undercurrent of the exchange that indeed, he already knew that.
They have the option of killing him first, which would give me the possibility of escaping.
He not only understood it, but he knew it would hold true for him as well; she could be killed first. It was a horrible basis for a partnership, but neither of them would deny the truth of it.
She took a deep breath, committing herself to what would follow, and lightly squeezed his hands in response.
“I trust you, Devon. I trust you with my life.”
“And I trust you, Lorelei. Let’s get to the business of seeing this through.”
She nodded, and they traveled for the rest of the night in a determined silence, connected more deeply, but more darkly as well.