An old man stood near the top of the rise where the horses grazed. He wore a robe of coarse hemp, tied loosely at the waist with a leather thong. His face was unshaven and his eyes, like watery pools, were red-rimmed and heavily shadowed. His short white hair jutted out at odd angles.
Before anyone could speak, he walked up to a nearby boulder and sat down with a deep sigh.
“Personally, I doubt that the Power of Summons will be of much use to you.”
He scratched at the stubble on his face.
“But, if it pleases her to think that she has aided you, then that would be one positive outcome.”
The old man’s words were at complete odds with his appearance.
Illiom, like her companions, stared mystified at the intruder.
“What are you doing out here, old one?” asked Argolan, as puzzled as the rest. “You are very far from the city; how did you get here?”
“Come and sit with me,” he said, ignoring the question.
Argolan, looking perplexed, did not move. Then suddenly her eyes widened and she straightened.
“My Lord Draca,” she said in a soft voice, and bowed deferentially. “Pardon me for not recognising you.”
The old man chuckled, waving her apology aside.
“I would have been disappointed if you had, Shieldarm. When I wish my whereabouts to remain unknown, I prefer my guises to be effective.”
He looked around at the lake, the woods, and the beach.
“This is a good place for a meeting, far better than any in the palace. Here we can speak freely without causing speculation. Is it not wonderful how things turn out?”
They stared wide-eyed at Draca Menalor, the most powerful man in Albradan.
“Come,” he repeated. “There are still a few spare stones for the lucky ones who reach them first.”
He laughed again, without inhibition. By the time they had gathered around him they too were smiling. Illiom noticed that even Scald was not immune to the Draca’s charm.
“Undina is still in the water,” Azulya informed him.
“Yes, but she is making her way back.”
Illiom saw no sign of the girl.
Once they had all settled, Menalor studied them, his gaze pausing upon each in turn, Chosen and Riders alike.
He did not speak, and no one broke the silence.
When it was Illiom’s turn, she was unable to look away, as though the Draca was stripping all her surface layers to see what lay beneath. When his gaze left her, she released the breath she had been holding.
“It was not my intention to surprise you, but I prefer to come and go without drawing attention these days.”
He looked out across the lake.
A rare stillness settled over the group.
Undina emerged, dripping, from the lake, looking renewed and radiant. In a fluid motion she sat cross-legged before the Draca. The pattern tattooed on her face glowed like silver.
Menalor smiled at her and she beamed back as though he was someone she had known and loved all her life.
Silence cocooned them.
Illiom cast a quick glance at Scald to see if the fiery Chosen might be the one inclined to break the silence, but he was watching the Draca as intently and expectantly as the rest.
Menalor’s eyes drooped sleepily and eventually he closed them.
A bird’s faint trill was the only sound to adorn the mantle of stillness that draped the party.
Illiom could not take her eyes off the Draca.
She saw a change coming over him: he seemed to be shedding his bedraggled disguise as a subtle nimbus of light emanated from his being.
She watched as her companions succumbed to the sway of the Draca’s stillness: their eyes closed and their chins gradually drooped to meet their chests.
Illiom yielded to Menalor’s spell.
His words, when he finally spoke, emerged from the silence like lilies from the perfect stillness of a pond.
“What you are about to witness happened so long ago that no records have survived to tell of these events or of the people who lived through them.”
Illiom felt lulled by his voice, pulled deeper into an all-pervasive stillness. Behind her closed eyelids a mist seemed to rise and thicken.
“For thousands of years a great realm known as Elendalid – the Bejewelled Lands - had flourished in what we now call Theregon. Chosen, Riders, behold Elendalid!”
At his command, the mist in Illiom’s mind parted. A great forest stretched across the land beneath her as she flew at speed over it. The trees reached up so high as to almost touch her with lush green fingers. Between them, small lakes flashed like mirrors of purest aquamarine.
Directly ahead, the forest opened into a large clearing. Here, Illiom’s flight took her towards a cluster of earth-red and ochre towers, spires that needled into the bright sky. Iridescent domes shimmered like dragonfly wings, and streets meandered like rivers among these ethereal structures.
“The jewels of Elendalid were its cities,” continued the Draca. “These shone all the brighter for the lands that surrounded them were green carpets of abundance, unmarred by greed and reckless industry. An eon of prosperity and peace had prevailed over Elendalid, and its citizens deemed themselves the most fortunate in the whole of Âtras.”
Illiom’s flight spiralled down until she circled between the towers. Here she dropped lower still, until she glided over tranquil streets filled with people moving with unhurried purpose. All were attired in deep and vibrant hues that attested to the Draca’s mention of prosperity. None wore the plain clothes that betrayed poverty, nor the harried looks of desperate need.
“The rulers of ancient Elendalid, known as the Council of Wisdom, ruled over their lands with a benign hand. They valued the happiness of the people above all else and so constantly strove to ensure their continued fulfilment. They were aware of the existence of other lands and other realms and knew that some were even greater than their own, but they paid them little heed for the world is large indeed and most were too distant to matter.”
As Menalor’s words washed through her mind, Illiom found herself flying around a single building, a circular domed structure of amberlike stone that glowed like something plucked from a dream. She spiralled closer until she suddenly and unexpectedly plunged through a solid wall and into a hall that she recognised.
It was the very same hall that she had visited in the ruins of Akta.
Menalor pressed on.
“The first contact with the outside world took place when a group of beings approached the western reaches of Elendalid. However, these were not explorers, nor traders; they were fugitives, fleeing for their lives.”
As Menalor spoke, Illiom saw a dusty, sun-scorched wasteland and a scattered handful of people desperately fleeing eastwards as fast as their exhaustion allowed.
“The Council sensed their arrival for they were not common folk, but beings of power. They had been schooled in the greatest college of Wizardry in Âtras. These were fallen wizards, and they were not alone...”
Illiom looked beyond the fugitives and there, in the distance, she saw a rim of blackness spreading like ink across the far horizon.
“Others, Bloodrobes, followed the wizards in deadly pursuit. They too had been schooled in the same college, but where the wizards had sought to serve humanity and the powers of light, the Bloodrobes had chosen a darker path; they served one whose name I will not speak, one who fuelled their purpose with single-minded malice. These Bloodrobes sought two things above all else. The first was something that had only recently come into the wizards’ possession: the keys to a power that could uplift the entire world. The second was the complete obliteration of the ones they pursued.
“It was perhaps due to good fortune – or fate – that the wizards had been forewarned. So, they had fled in the only direction open to them, towards the east, and in this way had reached the lands of Elendalid.”
As Menalor continued, Illiom watched the darkness spread to engulf all the western reaches and wondered then at the pursuers’ numbers and the scope of their power for, by comparison, the wizards seemed powerless.
Menalor grew silent. When he spoke again, Illiom wondered at the regret that tinged his words with sadness.
“The Council of Wisdom prodded the exhausted minds of the fugitives and became aware of their plight. When the wizards reached the edge of the Endless Sea they stopped, defeated, unable to muster the resources to continue further. They turned to face their doom.”
Illiom swooped down on invisible wings upon the desperate group. She looked into faces that were filthy and bloodied from the ordeal they had endured. The looks they cast around them were haunted and their faces were lined with sorrow and loss.
“The Council deliberated upon a course of action, for soon the time to make or implement decisions would pass. They knew that Elendalid’s fate was already sealed. Neither aiding the fugitives nor handing them over to the Bloodrobes would spare the land and its inhabitants from what would follow. They were fully aware of the Bloodrobes’ intent for they were filled with hatred.”
“So, the Council offered the wizards the only solution they could find: a place so perfect, so secure, that it would keep them safe from harm for as long as they remained in hiding. The wizards recognised this as their only chance and accepted gratefully, vanishing from the world as if they had never existed.”
Menalor’s tone grew leaden.
“The Bloodrobes vented their wrath upon Elendalid, slaying and destroying everything in their path.”
Illiom soared high over a land now completely enveloped in darkness. She witnessed the exquisite city she had seen earlier instantly devastated by a conflagration of green fire that clung to and devoured everything it touched. Domes exploded, towers crumbled, stone melted and fused together like molten glass.
“After they had scoured the land and destroyed all the cities and villages and every living thing they could find, the Bloodrobes returned to whence they had come.”
As Menalor’s tale came to an end, silence weighed heavily and settled like a pall over the gathering. A distant crow cawed.
Illiom opened her eyes.
Everyone stirred as though they had all just woken from a long intense dream. Pell gave words to what the others were already thinking.
“It might have been the end of all life in this land had the Council not warned its citizens to take refuge in whatever caves lay beneath the earth. Most of those who were able to heed the warning survived, but the rest perished, including most of the Council who had remained behind to assist their people. As you already know, it took over a thousand years for the people to recover from the Devastation, a period now referred to as Dur Egon, the Second Age. It was a time of desperation and survival, of hunger, disease, and war. An age that prevailed until the Common Weal was forged.”
Illiom could not speak, for her mind was filled with images of the destruction of Elendalid. She was still in shock at all the lives lost and the incredible beauty that had been so mindlessly destroyed. She understood all too well why the Draca had made them see and experience what had happened. Mere words could never have accomplished that task. As she looked around, she saw the expressions on the faces of her companions, Chosen and Riders alike. They had all shared in the Draca’s vision and were deeply affected by what they had seen.
All but Scald, who was the first to speak.
“Why have you told us this? I mean, it is all very illuminating and instructive, but what has this to do with the prophecy and our summons?”
Draca Menalor kept his gaze upon him even after he had fallen silent. For the most part, Scald seemed immune to others’ opinions of him, but he now looked ill at ease under the Draca’s prolonged scrutiny.
Illiom spoke before she could stop herself.
“’Seven the stones to find the true souls, seven the souls to unlock the sealed doors, seven the doors to free the lost Lords, seven the Lords to face the dark foes’. What do you not understand?”
The lines, etched in her memory through much repetition, emerged easily into the open. All faces turned towards her, including the Draca’s.
“Indeed,” Menalor said, nodding slowly. “For, you see, the wizards are still in hiding, unaware that their hour is almost upon them. Soon, they will have just one chance to undo what was done and set the world aright again. Soon, the sun Iod and the moon Sudra – as well as other celestial bodies I prefer not to mention – will come into a rare alignment. This will be in the same configuration as it was at the time of the Devastation. Speak with the college astrolomers and scholars; I am sure they will be more than glad to fill in all the details. But what matters here is this: the wizards will have just this one chance to unravel the damage. If they succeed, the world will flourish anew.”
“And if they do not?” asked Elan in a near whisper.
Menalor’s expression was heavy with sadness.
“That is not a possibility we want to contemplate.”
He shook his head slowly.
“Eranel believes that the crisis referred to by the prophecy relates only to the Prince’s disappearance, her illness, and the other signs that things are awry in Theregon. She is only partly right. But her understanding is limited by her ignorance.”
The Draca’s eyes seemed suddenly on fire.
“Chosen! This is the task that I now charge you with: to seek the wizards and coax them out of hiding. You must make them aware of the opportunities and the dangers that are coming. Time is short. By the end of next year it will all be over, one way or another. The future of Theregon and, indeed, of Âtras is in your hands.”
Menalor’s words had acquired a new quality; they entered Illiom and echoed inside her, imprinting upon her soul.
Shrian Olum was right! Illiom realised. They were not the ones who would confront the dark foes; that task was for these ancient wizards. All the Chosen had to do was find them and coax them out of hiding.
The Draca gave them a long hard look. His gaze was both commanding and inquiring, as though he sought to both impress upon them the import of his words, and evaluate their ability to fulfil this quest.
“So you now see that the stakes are much higher than the Queen or anyone else in Theregon can imagine. You are the Chosen, and you are pivotal to the change that is coming. Understand one thing: no one else may perform this task for you. So, find the wizards, rouse them from their slumber and convince them to act, before it is too late.”
Draca Menalor drew a deep breath then turned to Argolan and the Riders.
“You are the Riders,” he said, singling each of them out with his gaze. “You have been assigned to protect the Chosen from danger. Take your task to heart for, without you, the Chosen will not succeed. Do not underestimate your role in this, and in the future of our lands and that of our people.”
A silence followed. After a while Azulya spoke tentatively.
“Do you know where the wizards hide?”
Menalor turned to look at her and nodded slowly.
“I do; and would that I was free to tell you, but that is something I cannot do.”
He addressed his next words to the whole group.
“There is much more that I could say. If it were that simple, everything I know I would lay at your feet. Unfortunately, to do so would also seal your doom so I will not speak of anything that would do so. The task ahead of you is onerous enough without hastening you towards danger before you are ready to meet it...”
“Before we are ready to meet it?”
The almost hysterical pitch in his voice betrayed Scald’s outrage.
“You talk about events far beyond our understanding. You say that you cannot tell us what we need to know. Now you also say that we will be walking into danger and that we must be ready to do so! I have absolutely no intention...”
Menalor made a small, cutting gesture with his hand.
“Be still, Scald,” he ordered mildly and, strangely enough, the volatile Chosen complied. “Know this, that soon everyone in Theregon will be embroiled in this matter, whether they choose to be or not - and believe me that most would not wish what is about to unfold upon their worst enemy. Had you remained in your private lives, had you never been summoned by the circumstances that have brought you here, you nevertheless would have been caught up in the storm that is brewing. There is no way anyone can avoid this.”
With these words, the Draca of Albradan stood.
“Understand that you are in a position of power. You are both forewarned and capable of directly influencing the outcome of this crisis. No others – aside from the wizards themselves – can do so.”
The Draca held up his hand to forestall yet another attempt by Scald to interrupt him.
“Now hear what I have to say, and hear well, for once this meeting is over we may not meet again soon. There is one object that you must find, for it alone will assist you in finding the wizards. It is a mystical device known as the Golden Dawn.”
Elan gave a stifled cry. Illiom turned to look at the priestess. Her hand was clasped over her open mouth and her eyes were filled with awe.
“Sudra’s Orb?” she breathed.
“Heed me,” he repeated. “The Orb is also what the Bloodrobes seek, therefore it is essential that you find it first. Only through its power will you be able to complete your quest. Find the Orb and you will find the wizards.”
“My Lord,” Elan said, coming to her feet. She took two steps towards the Draca and stopped. “My Lord, do you know where the Orb is hidden?”
Her voice trembled as she spoke. The Draca looked at her and his eyes softened.
“No, Daughter, I do not. Nor do I know of anyone who does, although you must know that the scriptures speak of it. I do suspect that some in your order may be able to point you in the right direction.”
Elan nodded and sat down.
“Remember, not all powers will be set against you; some will seek to aid you. Signs and omens may come your way. Interpret them carefully and seek counsel wisely. At all times use discernment.”
“What of the keys?” Elan pressed. “The scriptures refer to seven keys needed before one can approach the Orb.”
“Indeed!” Menalor exclaimed with a smile. “And this is the first ... or perhaps the last?”
His hand vanished into the folds of his robe and when it emerged he clasped a white disc of polished stone. He proffered this to Elan and the priestess received it as if she was being offered a fragile treasure.
“Before going into hiding, the wizards entrusted the keys to the Council of Wisdom; this is one of them. Enquire at the temples, watch for clues, and be vigilant. Six more await you, and now that you have the first, the others will be drawn to you and each one should become easier to find. Once you have all seven, you will be as ready as you can ever be to reach the Golden Dawn.”
Menalor raised his eyes and looked up at the sky.
“I must leave soon. I have been speaking about dangerous subjects. Even now, a mind is probing this way. The speaking of things of power draws them, as light draws the moth. We must disperse.”
Argolan was on her feet in a flash and the other Riders looked around for signs of danger.
The Draca ignored them.
“Remember, look for omens and use your hearts as well as your heads. You all know more than you believe. There is a very good reason why you are the Chosen.”
He moved away, then stopped and turned.
“Oh, and one final thing: do not speak of this meeting. Not to anyone, do you understand? The poison that seeps towards Eranel’s heart is not restricted to her body alone; it stalks the very heart of the realm. So, here is my final counsel: do Eranel’s bidding. Seek Vardail. Tend to the Queen’s wishes and while you do that, be watchful, stay alert. Always remember what your true task is. Do not be swayed by the voices of reason, for where you must go reason cannot follow.”
He looked up again.
Illiom followed his gaze and squinted at the clouds overhead. Iod’s radiance leaked through them with enough brightness to cause her to shield her eyes.
“No time left,” whispered the Draca. “I must cloak my mind...”
Illiom thought she saw a small dark speck appear briefly in a space between the clouds. She looked back to see whether the Draca had also seen it, but her eyes found nothing to rest upon.
Draca Menalor had disappeared.