ECHOES IN THE RUINS
The two Chosen and their Riders met at the palace’s northern gate where Garrison Road began its circuit of the rim of Varadon’s Keep.
It was a stark exit. The palace’s northern wall, in contrast to its southern counterpart, was bare granite dotted with narrow openings little better than arrow slits. Tarmel explained that the enemy here was the frigid wind that shrieked every winter, its weapons spears of ice that stabbed at the living, robbing them of warmth.
The road squeezed between the palace and the rocky incline that formed the northern edge of the plateau, wending its way east from there.
It was early, and the morning air held a sharp reminder that summer would soon end. Illiom took Calm’s reins from the page, pleased that the gelding did not shy away from her touch when she stroked his muzzle.
They mounted and at the Riders’ suggestion rode east.
As the road ambled away from the gate, it soon deteriorated into a rough trail that skirted a sheer drop.
They soon caught glimpses of the Besene Sea and beyond that, a little further south, even the Bay of Winds was visible. Closer to home the road that led to Healung Harbour and the town of Atlan snaked away from the Keep like a pale river, vanishing in and out of dense forest.
Ahead, on top of the plateau, the jewel that was Uma’s Lake sat embedded in the deep malachite of Nostum Wood.
The southernmost tip of the Keep was impassably steep, so the path skirted down to the edges of the wood. Illiom marvelled at the massive girth of the giant trees that rose straight and true like perfect pillars.
“They are Majesty trees,” Angar explained when Undina broke the spell to ask about them. “The Altrans gifted them to Albradan in recognition of the support freely given during the troubles with Kroen, more than three hundred years ago. That is why the wood is called Nostum, after the so-called capital of Altra.”
Illiom raised an eyebrow. “So-called?”
“The stories I have heard speak of Nostum as a place with no buildings. Apparently, it is no city at all, but a meeting place where the Altrans gather; but I cannot say for sure because I have not travelled there.”
Undina leaned forward in her saddle.
“Like Teth’ha, our central village. No one there live. Just place for spirit gatherings and elder meetings is. Every year families from coast travel, to in Teth’ha meet.”
Illiom steered Calm closer to the Pelonui.
“Are the Altrans also tribal?” she asked.
Tarmel shook his head.
“Altrans are strange, is what they are. I have not been there either – very few people I know have – but from the stories I hear they are unlike anyone else in Theregon. They have no capital, no queen or king, no wards...”
“No leader?” asked Undina.
“Not as far as I can tell.”
“What about a Draca?” Illiom asked, remembering the tantalising tale of Kroen’s attempted invasion.
Angar grinned broadly.
“Aye, her name is Abdora. And from what I hear she is the fairest woman ever to have walked upon this world.”
“And who might you have learned that from?” enquired Tarmel with raised brows.
“It is common knowledge! All the men who have seen her...”
“There, I knew it! Tavern talk is all it is. Give male Riders some ale and their talk always turns to women. Even the Draca are not exempt from becoming targets!’
Angar embarked on a lengthy explanation regarding the lineage of this rumour and the Riders sparred like overgrown boys.
Illiom smiled, listening absently to their banter whilst absorbed in the unfolding landscape.
Undina pointed silently and Illiom turned to see a herd of deer amidst the trees. They were immobile, their faces fixed upon the party. With a sudden movement, they bolted in unison and vanished into the deeper woods.
A solitary white structure stood at the top of a steep hill, overlooking both lake and forest.
“What is that?”
Tarmel followed Illiom’s gaze.
“Sudra’s Temple. That is where one of the Chosen, the priestess we are yet to meet, was found.”
Illiom raised her eyes repeatedly to gaze at the temple, until their path descended and it was obscured by the trees.
They rode on leisurely for the rest of the morning, passing through several unoccupied outposts. Tarmel explained that they had been built, along with Garrison Road, at a time when war and treachery were the norm and vigilance was essential.
Iod had already moved past the noon hour when their path delivered them to a sizeable outpost. It too was unmanned, but was well-tended and showed signs of recent occupation.
Tarmel and Angar reined in. The big Rider grinned.
“How about a bite?” he suggested.
They dismounted and tethered the horses in the shade of a stand of leafy poplars. The four walked through the outpost and climbed a rampart that led to a squat tower. At the top, Illiom realised that they had reached the westernmost edge of the plateau. Here, the entire western lands were visible.
Looking directly down, she saw the gentle hills give way to flat lands. Trees became increasingly sparse. The colour of the earth changed from a lush olive green, close to the Keep, to a reddish ochre further away. The horizon was completely lost in haze.
“What is over there?” she asked, pointing directly west.
“Nothing whatsoever,” said Angar, with an indifferent shrug.
“Desert, and beyond that what the Iolans call the Forbidden Lands.”
They stopped to eat a simple meal of pears, cheese, and bread, washed down with a sweet wine. Afterwards they resumed their ride around the Keep.
The ruins of Akta came into view soon after, and although there was little to see from this distance, Illiom’s eye kept drifting towards them.
The path seemed determined to give the ruins a wide berth, preferring to flirt with the perilous edge of the precipice overlooking Middle Plains.
Illiom took every opportunity to study the ruins.
The black stone glistened under Iod’s direct light. The ancient buildings had been subjected to such intense heat that the stone had melted. Even from this distance, Illiom could see that no jagged edges remained.
She pulled on the reins and brought Calm to a halt.
“I need to go there.”
Angar looked at her with dismay.
Tarmel gave her a small questioning frown.
“Why?” he asked bluntly. “There is nothing there but a jumble of nothing and ancient ill.”
“I want to see the place where the Princess received her gifts.”
“It is easy enough to wend our way down there from here,” he said, and immediately steered his horse off the path.
The way down was gentle enough and Tarmel picked his course carefully, making as much allowance as he could for Illiom’s inexperience.
As soon as they reached the edge of Akta, Illiom dismounted. The others sat in their saddles and watched her. Holding Calm’s reins, she walked into the ruins. She heard the others dismount and follow, but did not turn to look.
Everything in Akta had the same appearance. Every structure, every surface, including the ground, had the same translucent, glassy, black aspect. There were no broken or loose fragments anywhere. Everything was part of a single mass.
As she walked silently on, she noticed something else.
“There is no dust. No leaf litter, no sand, nothing. How can this be?”
No one answered. Illiom turned to look at Undina but the Pelonui lass simply shuddered.
Calm snorted once, then again. His ears were pressed flat against his head. Illiom guessed that he too was unhappy about being here.
The streets of Akta were nothing more than broad spaces that ran in straight or curved lines, criss-crossing through the ruins. They could still be discerned and traversed, if one chose to. But these were only the main streets. All the narrower secondary streets and alleys were barely identifiable. They stuck to the easiest path and slowly made their way deep into the ancient wreckage.
“Like Klah is,” Undina commented quietly.
Illiom noticed how even the air had an odd quality. Whenever they spoke, their voices sounded flat, without resonance or echo.
Illiom was about to comment on this when she saw it.
It was impossible to miss, for it stood alone in the centre of what must have once been a great square.
It was the remains of a large circular building, whose walls flowed seamlessly into the pavement. However, one arched entryway had been spared. It remained intact and still recognisable.
Illiom strode towards the archway but the others stopped and watched.
This was the place where Princess Sestel had received the Seeking Stones that had led to the Chosen.
She left Calm outside the pointed archway and stepped through into the circular ruin.
Other than the intact archway, there was nothing to mark this place; nevertheless, she stood there, waiting.
Quashing her self-consciousness, she closed her eyes and steadied her breathing.
The first thing she became aware of was the silence. She realised then that there had been no birdsong, no breeze rustling through anything. This emptiness, this absence, permeated Akta and was total and complete.
Slowly, Illiom became aware of something subtle, just on the brink of being felt. The more she strained towards it, the further it receded. Till it was lost.
She pulled back and waited.
It was not long before she felt it again.
She could not tell if it was a sound or a vibration. More like a quiet hum. Then she knew; it was faint human voices sounding a single vowel, without melody or variation. It was similar to the chants of Iod’s monks, only much softer and more subtle.
On impulse, she squatted upon the smooth floor and placed her palms flat against the glassy black surface.
The humming became louder then, and a warm sensation travelled up her arms. Illiom opened her eyes and turned to the others to share what she had discovered, but her companions – as well as the ruins that had surrounded her – had vanished.
She stood in the centre of an undamaged, circular edifice. Through round windows sunlight fashioned pools of brightness upon the floor. She looked directly up and saw a dome of palest aquamarine that washed the building’s interior in a gentle hue, lighting up the faces of the beings who surrounded her.
They sat on chairs of solid stone, facing inwards to where Illiom crouched. Directly beneath her, a round golden circle was embedded into the floor. It was easily two spans in diameter, and from it crimson rays made of different coloured stone radiated out, each pointing towards the individual who sat there. Thirteen rays for thirteen beings in robes of dazzling white.
Behind and above each of the seated ones hung a broad disc, a silver representation of Sudra showing the Goddess in her thirteen aspects between full and new. Each disc was etched with a different glyph that shimmered against the orb of Sudra as if it were on fire.
With a start, Illiom realised that the thirteen beings were the source of the humming, and the sound they made created a field of pure energy that coursed right through her.
She stood within a power that was filled with a depth of boundless knowing.
No sooner did she attempt to grasp one thing than another would move in to replace it and become, in turn, the centre of everything else.
The merging of the ones enthroned around her was unsullied by pride or competition. It was empty of conceit and so pure that tears washed down her face.
I know this.
She felt it in her heart. Illiom could not have said what she knew, but know it she did.
It was as self-evident as the understanding that it was either day or night.
However there was such urgency, so pressing and terrible, that it froze her blood: a need so vast and a peril so great that the very fabric of reality was under threat.
Illiom struggled and failed to hold on to what she was experiencing. Then, as abruptly as it had all begun, the ancient ones around her began to fade.
“No!” she implored.
Indifferent to her plea, even the floor beneath her began to dissolve. She cried out as the truth slipped through her fingers and, without any care for herself, Illiom let herself fall after it.
Seemingly from nowhere, hands caught and held her. Voices gradually gained a hold of her awareness.
She opened her eyes and looked directly into Tarmel’s, wide with alarm. Undina and Angar stood beside him.
Angar’s expression wavered between fear and anger, but Undina looked deeply relieved.
Tarmel’s gaze held Illiom.
“You are here. We are with you. Everything is fine,” he reassured her. “Are you hurt?”
With an effort of will she closed her eyes and tried to return to the place she had just left, but that door was closed.
“What happen?” Undina asked tentatively.
Illiom sat up.
“...can I have some water? Please.”
Angar fetched a skin and she drank deeply. It gave her time to gather her thoughts.
“I had an experience ... of the past, I think.”
She sipped some more. Incoherent flashes still pulsed through her, but these were fragmented, like pieces of a shattered pot.
“The building ... this building was intact and whole, like it must have been before the Devastation. There was a gathering of sorts. I do not know who they were, but I could not ... I did not understand much of what was said.”
Nothing had been said.
“There was grave danger ... I do not know what else to say. I am sorry I frightened you. I just knew I had to come here for some reason ... I am sorry.”
Tarmel brought a finger to her lips.
“Do not be. We are just glad that you are not hurt.”
The others nodded.
“Can you walk?” Angar asked, looking around the ruins cautiously. “The sooner we get out of here, the better.”
They left the ruined building and walked the horses away from Akta. Once they were outside they mounted and were soon putting distance between themselves and the destroyed city.
Illiom resisted the urge to look back. She carried within her the memory of the strange hall and the beings gathered there.
A while later, Undina broached the subject once more.
“Your sadness I felt. Your sorrow here touch me,” she said, placing her hand upon her heart.
“You felt it too?”
The Pelonui shook her head, her plaited tail swinging behind her.
“Not my feeling, your feeling,” she explained. “Too much sad.”
Illiom did not correct her, but it had not been her sadness, it had been theirs. Maybe it was the memory of sadness locked in the molten stone.
The experience continued to haunt her as they made their way back.
The road led them a distance away from the southern shore of Uma’s lake. It rose for a time, snaking up a windswept hill and, when they reached the crest, Illiom saw two large encampments spread out, one on either side of the road.
“Two Golden Wards,” explained Angar.
Even though she tried not to, every time she looked at Undina’s Rider, Illiom’s eye strayed to the gap between his teeth.
“Waiting to be stationed wherever they are needed,” Tarmel added.
Illiom took in the seemingly endless rows of tents and the bright pennants that rose above each.
“There are so many...”
“Each Ward is made up of more than five thousand soldiers. An encampment is made up of six hundred tents...”
“Six hundred and fifty, actually,” Tarmel corrected.
Angar flashed him an annoyed look.
“Do you want to count them?”
“I do not need to. I know.”
Illiom looked away.
They trotted between the two camps, their passage marked only by bored sentries. Illiom felt their gazes on her back until the land hid them from sight.
When they reached the crossroads where Garrison and Trade Road intersected, they were confronted by a continuous line of traffic headed towards the capital. One of the Blades posted there stopped the traffic and nodded the party through.
“Worse than last year,” he volunteered as they passed. “We will have a fine time patrolling Kuon for the next quart.”
They had just re-entered the palace when a young Blade ran up to them.
“A message from Wardmaster Menphan Tarn: your immediate presence is required in the great hall.”
Tarmel eyed his companions.
“Looks like events have not stood still while we were away.”