Illiom, Daughter of Prophecy (2nd Ed)

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Chapter XXVI

Sudra’s Descent into the Garden

And so it was that Sudra the Immaculate, the Compassionate, the Life Giver, became a mere mortal for a time and lived in the lands of Âtras. The moment She entered Her new body She became ensnared by the Great Dream that claims all the creatures of the world. She lost all Her self-knowledge and, like them, She too yearned and hoped and suffered.

And suffered…

It is said that one thousand lifetimes came and went before Sudra awoke once more from the dream and sought Her beloved consort, Iod the Resplendent.

She found Him, much as She had last left Him, in the Grove Geweldion, and at the sight of Him, Her eyes overflowed with joy.

He turned to look at Her and She saw Her joy reflected in His loving gaze.

“My Lady,” He remarked. “Where have You been?”

“I have been lost in the Great Dream. I have roamed the realms of twilight and utter darkness. I have pursued shadows filled with promises and lies.”

Iod considered Her with a watchful eye, for He had not been mindless of Her pursuits, nor of their purpose.

“How did You flee from such a place, my Goddess?”

Sudra smiled into His embrace and said, “Within the Great Dream one dreams of what is real. Once the path back is shown, one need only follow it and not falter.”

She paused and looked deep into the gold of His luminous eyes.

Iod was silent for what seemed a long time.

“What would You have me do?” He asked at last.

The Compassionate One had a request ready and She stated it without hesitation.

“My Lord,” said Sudra the Ineffable. “Together, You and I, the tenders of the Garden, shall forge a resplendent Orb of Truth, blazing with the Light of Ataram. The Orb will dispel all dreams and illusions from those who touch it. The Orb will radiate Truth in all directions and give joy and peace to all who venture near it.”

Iod the Allmaker considered this.

“And what would You do with such an Orb, my Queen?” He asked.

Her answer leapt from Her lips the moment He became silent.

“My Beloved, I shall build a temple within the stone fortress of the highest mountain in Âtras. Seven halls will have to be crossed to reach the Orb. A formidable door shall seal each hall. Seven keys I shall deposit into the hands of worthy Keepers. A guardian I shall summon to preserve the Orb from falling into unworthy hands. There, from the height of the great mountain, the Orb shall shower Ataram’s grace upon the whole land and people shall journey from far and wide just to behold this mountain, to bask in the radiance of the Orb, for it shall remind them of their lost truth. It shall set them upon their true path once more so that their separation may be shortened and their despair diminished.”

Iod and Sudra then looked upon the murky tides of time and saw that much good would follow from such a creation – even though much ill would also come to pass.

“Let it be so,” said the Lord of the Dawn, and together He and She gave shape to the Golden Dawn, also known as the Orb of Full Light.

This is the 8th Fragment of Sudra’s Lore





VIPERS’ NEST

Coronation Square was as still and silent as the rest of Kuon. Only Sudra’s shadows and ghosts populated the empty walkways and the barred stalls of the fair. The sound of their horses’ hooves striking the cobbles echoed loudly in the empty darkness.

They dismounted and walked the rest of the way to the stables where sleepy young lads took their mounts and led them away. Soon they were negotiating the maze of stairs and corridors that separated them from a well-earned rest.

Illiom contemplated the more pressing events of the day.

Menalor’s face appeared repeatedly in her mind, his voice speaking of events and times long gone – times he actually remembered – and whispering in her ear the true mission that awaited them. So many different realities were now present before them, so many diverse perceptions of truth. Eranel, Metmus, Menphan Tarn, all the members of the Triune and even each of the Chosen and their Riders; most looked upon the situation through the filters of their own personal past and private agendas.

Menalor had opened their eyes to another, deeper truth.

Illiom found it impossible to mistrust the man. As far as she was concerned, he did not need to speak Truespeech in order for her to know that he spoke truly. However, it still troubled her that there was much he could not say. What remained hidden, still waiting to be brought to light? Who was he referring to when he suggested there were vigilant eyes and ears tuned in to their meeting?

She shook her head. Only fifteen days had passed since Tarmel had come for her and in that short time, her whole world had been turned upside down.

Ahead, Mist whispered something to Elan and the priestess responded with laughter. Further down the passageway, a small patrol of Blades emerged from a side-passage and headed towards them.

Illiom glanced at Tarmel.

Her fondness for the Rider had grown. His vigilance, loyalty, and steadfastness reminded her of her mountains. She had missed them sorely at first, but now she saw the spirit of those mountains mirrored in him, as well as in the other Riders.

He turned to look behind him and so did not notice her glance. Illiom was about to turn away when something stopped her. Tarmel tensed and dropped slightly, as though bracing for a blow.

Something was wrong.

Without meeting her eye, he signalled for her to stop and back away.

“Ward!” he shouted, nonsensically.

Then her Rider threw himself at her.

The impact sent her flying. Arms flailing to keep her balance, she hit the wall, hard. Her head bounced audibly against the stone.

Stunned by the blow, confused and terrified, Illiom slid to the floor, Tarmel’s body still pressed against hers, their limbs entangled.

As she went down, she half felt, half heard something hiss past her.

Up ahead, she saw Elan’s back arch suddenly as though the priestess was yawning. Her arms were stretched out and her head flung back as her whole body was pushed forward by an invisible force. A thin, dark reed protruded from her right shoulder blade; a small, red rose bloomed upon the priestess’ robe.

Shouts of warning and screams of pain seemed to suddenly erupt from every direction.

Illiom lay where she had fallen, trying to make sense of what was happening around her.

Tarmel – letting go of his grip upon her arm – was back on his feet, taking up a position over her. He drew a thin blade from the folds of his vest, letting it fly swiftly and with deadly focus. He then sprinted away, holding two more knives that seemed to magically appear in his hands.

Illiom turned to look in the direction they had been heading.

Several bodies lay unmoving upon the floor. Argolan barked out terse commands, but her words were incomprehensible to Illiom: all sounds were muffled as though her ears were full of water.

All the Riders now had their weapons drawn. The four Blades Illiom had noticed earlier were racing down the corridor towards them.

Thank Sudra, Illiom thought.

Then to her bewilderment one of the four levelled a crossbow at Malco. Before the woman could pull the trigger, however, Pell’s huge form slammed into her, deflecting her aim.The bolt fired harmlessly into the stone wall, spraying a cluster of sparks as it struck.Illiom felt as though she was in a nightmare and could make no sense of what she was seeing. All around her was a blur of movement, noise, confusion, blood, and terror.

She saw the delicate-looking Wind leap in a way that seemed to defy gravity. Her heel connected with a Blade’s sword arm, causing the woman to drop her weapon.

A roar of rage made Illiom turn in time to see Tarmel duck beneath a scything sword. The miss left his opponent exposed for just a fraction of a moment: the man did not get a second chance.Tarmel sped towards his next target. The ferocious warrior was now fully present, the snarl on his lips murderous and merciless.

Illiom, deeply distressed by the horror of it all, was unable to hold back her tears. There was so much blood and so many bodies everywhere.

Her eyes moved from Undina, bleeding arms wrapped around her knees, desolately rocking to and fro, to Azulya, anxiously stooped over a wounded Sereth. Further away, Malco and the giant Pell gripped bloodied weapons in readiness for the next onslaught.

She was startled by a sudden movement and turned to see a Blade, his weapon drawn, charging towards her.

Illiom screamed, but the scream died in her throat as she recognised him.

It was Crom.

Eyes bulging with lust, breath stinking of ale and garlic, Crom was attacking her for a second time, and was going to rape her again.

The fury that flared up inside her was like a fire roaring through straw. Her entire body tingled with power and her hands brimmed with it. She gritted her teeth, snarled at her attacker, and hurled it into his face.

The man’s body lit up as if lightning had struck the very ground in front of him. What had made her think it was Crom? In the light, she now saw that he was a complete stranger.

Illiom saw the man’s life leave him: the eyes, intent on murder, acquired a vague, surprised look and then their light simply snuffed out. The head lolled, the legs folded, and the corpse crumpled on top of her.

The stranger’s sword, deprived of the will that drove it, missed its intended target and pierced her hip instead of her belly. Illiom screamed as ice and fire shot down her leg.

The room spun, the sounds of fighting receded, and the passageway faded into dark grey mist.

Moments later, the sounds around her grew loud once more and her vision cleared. The pain in her leg settled into a deep, burning throb. She managed to twist her arm past the dead weight pinning her to the floor, and felt her wound.

The tip of the sword was still embedded inside her, but she could not bring herself to pull it out so she pressed her fingers down around the weapon to try and stem the flow of blood. The wound was much smaller than she had anticipated.

Is this it?

Was this the end of their quest? Was all lost ... before they had even begun to find any answers?

It occurred to her that they had been attacked in the one place where they had felt completely safe; and it had come at the very hands of those who were meant to protect them.

She realised that the clash of weapons had ceased and the only sounds that remained were voices raised in either pain or concern. She glanced around the hallway, looking for help … and saw Tarmel.

The Rider was staring at her with a look of complete astonishment. It was a look that left her with no uncertainty: he had seen.

It was over.

With nowhere to hide, Illiom closed her eyes; but all her mind could do was circle obsessively around a single thought.

He now knows what you are.

Still, she refused to yield to the tears that threatened to flow again; she would not show weakness, so she swallowed her grief, forcing it back down.

Hands reached for her. The dead man’s weight was lifted away.

She could not help it, she cried out when the sword was pulled from her hip, but she did not open her eyes. She shied away from the loathing and rejection that she expected to see on her Rider’s face.

Her eyes opened in shock as she felt a hand gently rest against her cheek.

It was Tarmel.

His expression was sorrowful, even as his eyes were filled with questions.

“I am so sorry,” he whispered.

Those few words opened the floodgates that she had kept closed, and the tears rolled down her cheeks. Illiom did not know what to say.

He was sorry?

The sound of running feet alerted her that it was not over, that death could still claim them at any moment. In that instant she did not care. Tarmel sought her hand, squeezed it tight for a long moment, then with a look of wordless promise he let her go and stood up.

“Stand back!” Argolan barked.

Illiom craned her neck to see more Blades rushing in, swords drawn.

The Shieldarm and her Riders barred both ends of the passageway.

“Not a step closer!”

Argolan stood like a war goddess, brandishing her sword with both hands, daring anyone to defy her command. No one did. Wind, Malco, and Pell stood with her, gripping their weapons. Closer to hand Tarmel, Grifor, and Angar blocked their end of the corridor.

Mist was still bent over Elan, who lay sprawled face down in the middle of the hallway. He looked up at the new arrivals.

“We need a healer,” he shouted. “Go! Will one of you gaping idiots wake up and fetch a healer!”

Confused and wide-eyed, the newly arrived Blades stared at the carnage in disbelief. A few hurried away in response to Mist’s plea.

Azulya, her eyes a fountain of fiery reassurance, appeared by Illiom’s side. She laid her blue hand on her cheek.

“You are hurt.”

Illiom, unable to answer, tried to look down at her wound.

Azulya gingerly pried her bloodied fingers away to look at it.

“It is not serious,” she said after a moment. “You will be fine; keep pressing until a healer comes.”

She stroked Illiom’s cheek and then, leaning forward, kissed her lightly on the forehead before moving on.

Illiom closed her eyes again, but nausea racked her body. She heaved once and unceremoniously vomited.

“Out of my way!” a voice boomed. “Krodh’s balls, what is happening here?”

“Treachery,” Argolan answered as Menphan Tarn pushed his way past the gawking warriors. “We were returning the Chosen to their rooms when we were ambushed.”

“How many dead?”

“I am not sure. All of the attackers...”

“None of the Chosen have been killed,” Azulya informed him from where she knelt, bent over Sereth. “But Elan and Sereth are both seriously injured. They live, but that may well change if we do not get help very soon ... others have sustained lesser injuries.”

The Wardmaster barked at the Blades who crowded both ends of the hallway, to verify that help was coming.

“How is this possible?” he growled as he moved down the hallway, turning corpses over with his boot. He looked aghast, his expression one of utter disbelief. He knelt beside the body of a woman and turned her head to look at the face.

“These are not assassins posing as Blades. These are Blades, every single one of them. I know them.”

Argolan was the only one to respond.

“It is now impossible to know who to trust,” she murmured.

The Wardmaster nodded.

“Then you will do well not to trust anyone until this damn mess is explained.”

He closed his eyes for a moment and drew a breath.

“Argolan, use the lesser hall to house the Chosen. No more separate accommodation for anyone. You and the Riders must stay with them, all together, all in one place, at all times. Understood?”

He did not wait for an answer before continuing.

“I will have bedding and victuals sent to you. The injured should stay there too ... if there are traitors amongst us...”

He hesitated as if the thought physically pained him.

“If there are traitors amongst us then nowhere in the palace can be regarded as safe. The doors of the lesser hall are strong and can be barred from within.”

He turned to the Blades crowding both ends of the corridor.

“You! Go and clear a path between here and the lesser audience hall. Post guards at each and every junction. Let no one through until this group has passed.”

“Wardmaster ... Shieldarm...” Pell interrupted in an urgent tone. “You must come and see this.”

The two glanced at each other then made their way towards the giant Rider.

Illiom craned her neck.

Pell was kneeling next to one of the dead Blades.

“I just noticed this as I walked past,” he said.

Both Argolan and Menphan looked down at the corpse. By their expressions, it was clear that what they saw was inconceivable.

Argolan recovered first. She moved to another body, that of a woman, and tore her shirt open. There, between the woman’s breasts, lay something small and black, like a pendant.

It was only when Tarmel followed suit and did the same to Illiom’s attacker that she saw what was there. It was no pendant.

A small black stone, half the size of an acorn, was embedded into the flesh directly over the breastbone. Confirmation came rapidly from up and down the hallway.

“They each have one,” Angar summarised softly.

In that moment, four hastily dressed and bewildered healers arrived at a run. They carefully lifted the unconscious priestess and laid her onto a stretcher.

Illiom felt faint when she saw the black bolt protruding from Elan’s back.

Another bout of nausea made her reel.

Menphan paced up and down, incapable of standing still. The need for action burned through him like acid.

“Have your Riders arm themselves with those crossbows,” he ordered Argolan, indicating the weapons discarded by the attackers. “Kill anyone who in any way tries to interfere with your passage.”

The healers helped Sereth onto a second stretcher. He was conscious and grimaced as they laid him down. His hands were around his throat and there was blood all over his chest.

Then it was Illiom’s turn. She was lifted gently onto a third stretcher and soon the bedraggled party made their slow and sorry way back to the Chosen’s hall.

Illiom kept her gaze fixed on the ceiling, watching cornices and chandeliers float past. Her mind was strangely still and at peace, as if all doubts and unanswered questions had been purged from her soul.

They arrived at their hall without further mishap.

Simple field beds were being set up along the hall’s perimeter by a contingent of servants. Argolan sped them along and the Riders kept watch till they had finished their task, and upon their departure all doors were secured.

The healers set Elan, Sereth, and Illiom apart from the rest. They cut the priestess’ robe and exposed her pale back.

Argolan dispensed various tasks to anyone who was not injured. It kept them busy, and out of the healers’ way while they ministered to the wounded. Azulya and Mist remained close to the priestess, the Rider clearly more concerned for Elan than for his own injured hand.

Illiom, listening to the healers’ exchanges, learned that a bolt had pierced Sereth’s neck and had exited on the far side. A healer and his assistant worked to stem the flow of blood from the wound.

“You are more fortunate than you can possibly know,” he told Sereth. “The bolt could have snapped your neck or pierced an artery or your windpipe. Instead, it has passed cleanly through muscle tissue, leaving no lasting damage.”

He shook his head at Sereth’s good fortune.

In answer, Sereth pulled out a charm that hung from a leather thong around his neck and dangled it before the healer, his smile the incarnation of innocence.

“Well, if that is what brought you your good fortune, then that must be the best money you ever spent.”

Elan’s situation was more challenging.

The elder healer shook her head.

“More than anything, she needs a chirurgeon. One should be here soon but there is not much we can do until that bolt is removed.”

“Will she recover?” Mist asked, his voice barely audible.

The healer raised her shoulders and shook her head.

“Her shoulder blade is shattered, there is a lot of bleeding, and she probably has a pierced lung. Once the bolt is removed, we will be able to do more for her. Then, if the wound does not fester...”

A knock sent Wind and Grifor to one of the doors. They opened it cautiously but it turned out to be just a delivery of food. Illiom was not hungry, but Argolan and Azulya insisted that they all eat something, so she picked at her food absently.

Despite her reluctance to do so, Illiom’s eye kept returning time and again to Elan. The sight of her bare back and that dark shaft protruding from her body wrung her heart. It occurred to her then that if Tarmel had not shoved her out of harm’s way, she might very easily be lying next to the priestess.

Tarmel.

She looked around for her Rider.

He stood with Pell near an entrance, a plate of food in his hand, staring fixedly at the ground.

What was going through his mind? Illiom would have given anything to have some time alone with him to find out how he was ... and what he was thinking. Was he worrying over what he had seen her do? Was he reliving the attack just like she was? As if sensing her thoughts, he raised his head suddenly and stared directly at her, his expression unreadable. Illiom mouthed the words ‘thank you’ at him, trying to show him some of the gratitude that she felt.

He nodded once; his expression softened, and then he turned away.

When the chirurgeon arrived he immediately set to work on removing Elan’s bolt.

Grifor came by and offered Illiom a skin of wine. She gratefully took a mouthful, then a second and a third, before handing it back. The Rider smiled and moved on.

The wine did its work and Illiom soon found herself yielding to a deep exhaustion. Her wound throbbed in time to the beat of her heart, but otherwise, if she stayed still, she felt almost no pain. She closed her eyes and fell asleep.

A healer woke her sometime later to inspect her wound, and looking up, Illiom saw that the dome was still dark. As she was being re-bandaged, she asked after Elan and Sereth.

“They are both stable. The bolt has been removed from the priestess’ shoulder and we have managed to stem the blood flowing from the man’s throat – he will be fine.”

She left Illiom with another glass of wine to help her sleep, although she no longer needed it. Reassured that no one had actually died, she soon drifted back into the nether world.

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