They bore the unconscious Kassargan to the infirmary and hovered around anxiously until the healers shooed them off with a promise that they would be informed if there was any change.
Powerless to do anything else, they withdrew to discuss what had befallen the Iolan. This quickly proved to be a fruitless exercise as no one really understood what had happened.
Illiom was surprised that the Iolan had survived at all.
Later, in the small hours of the night, she awoke with a scream in her throat, bathed in sweat and terror. In her nightmare, a drop of the scrying water had fallen upon her hand and where it had landed it left a black mark that grew to cover her entire arm, the tumorous blackness reeking of seared flesh. Illiom tried uselessly to go back to sleep, but a deep restiveness claimed her.
When they arose the next morning they were all tired, but were also keen to forge ahead, to do something – anything – that would shake off the helplessness they felt as a result of all that had happened.
So they planned a course of action that began to shape the very pathway they had been hoping would come to them.
The first thing they decided was to arm themselves.
Under Argolan’s guidance and informed by the Riders’ expertise, they visited the palace armoury that same morning and sifted through the dizzy array of weapons and body armour stored there until they found the items that suited them.
Illiom settled on a relatively light vest of chainmail, a small round shield and a dagger. She doubted that she would ever find the courage to use the blade, but she thought it a practical tool that could be generally useful. She had not thought to bring her Altran bow to the armoury so she looked through the assortment of bows on offer to the Ward.
She liked none of them; they were all big, unwieldy things that required far more strength in the arms and upper body than she could muster.
Tarmel offered to fetch her equipment from the hall and upon his return Illiom began to put her own bow through its paces at the range just outside the armoury.
The arrow she selected from her quiver was beautifully crafted: long and slender, the shaft of golden hardwood was tipped with a sharp needling bone and fletched with white eagle feathers.
“Bone, uh?” commented Grifor wryly. “I think you will find they do not last very long.”
Illiom nocked the arrow, drew the bowstring and fired.
Her first shot went awry, missing the target completely and eliciting a disparaging remark from the inimitable Scald. Illiom had completely forgotten about the humming sound the bow made and hearing it again had distracted her. Forewarned, she tried again, and this time she hit the target.
It was on her fifth draw that she noticed something about the sound: the pitch seemed to change with her aim. She fired the two remaining arrows, experimenting and noting the results, then retrieved them all before trying again.
By her ninth draw she had worked out that the pitch seemed to be highest when her aim was truest. After that discovery, every single arrow she fired hit the mark, creating an impressive cluster within the target’s bullseye. By the time she finished her fourth set, everyone in the armoury had stopped to watch her performance, Tarmel with a smug look of pride at his charge’s unexpected prowess.
Grifor offered her a full quiver.
“Here, this will save you from walking to and fro when you run out,” she suggested.
Illiom thanked her and nocked the first arrow, but it immediately felt wrong and now there was no hum from the bow. She fired anyway and although she still hit the target, it was not even close to the cluster.
She handed the quiver back to Grifor.
“I think I had better stick to my own arrows.”
Grifor nodded curtly, although a slight smile softened the corners of her mouth
“Then you will need more arrows than you have. The quiver of every Bow in the Ward carries fifty arrows. Seven might be enough for practice but will never do in battle.”
Illiom’s pleasure at her newly found prowess abandoned her at the Rider’s remark.
Illiom had hunted and killed before, but never a human being. Except for the time she had levelled an arrow at Tarmel when he had first approached her at her mountain retreat, she had only ever used her bow when it became necessary to provide food for herself.
As she retrieved the arrows from the target she brooded on the implications of the Rider’s words. Would such a situation arise? Would she have to fight? Kill people? And how in Âtras was she going to get more arrows now that the fair had ended? She doubted that the Altran woman who had sold her the bow would still be in the city.
Her mood soured; she fired no more shots that day.
She also found herself reluctant to disclose the true reason for her newfound accuracy. She wanted to be open and honest, yet a part of her – the part that did not know how to trust – balked at the prospect.
She sighed. More secrets…
With a few exceptions, the others had also selected weapons and armour for themselves. Malco had not bothered, favouring the familiarity of his regular equipment instead. This included an ornate steel cuirass that protected his torso, a sword that could be wielded with either one or both hands, a dirk, and a shield of wood reinforced with steel bands.
Sereth had chosen a long, slender blade, and a leather vest and leggings. Undina, after much indecision, had settled for a short sword just marginally longer than Malco’s dirk, and some lightly moulded leather for armour.
Scald, who could not bear the touch of anything hard against his scars, settled on a small buckler and a wicked-looking blade, curved like Sudra in her crescent form. He looked ill at ease, however, and held it without confidence, as if he was afraid he would accidentally cut himself with it.
Azulya and Elan both abstained from choosing any weapons, but the Kroeni also refused to don any armour. This stirred up quite a reaction, ranging from Argolan’s quietly expressed concerns to Scald’s scathing criticism.
Although Elan had refused to arm herself, she had at least chosen, like Undina, to wear leather. It was obvious that even the priestess could not understand Azulya’s refusal.
“To wear armour is the same as inviting an attack,” the Kroeni said, in an attempt to explain her decision.
“While choosing not to, is to invite death,” Scald snapped, exasperated. “Your logic eludes me, Azulya.”
Azulya looked like she was about to speak, but in the end just shook her head and refused to be drawn into further discussion on the subject.
Their training began early the next day.
They gathered before breakfast in a place called the Pit, a wide and roofless enclosure, not far from the armoury, yet still within the confines of the palace. Although open to the elements, it was surrounded on all sides by high, windowless walls. It was, Argolan explained, one of the Black Ward’s several melee-weapons training grounds. The Pit was cluttered with training equipment that ranged from pivoting wooden mannequins dressed in armour, to wooden ramps that simulated different kinds of terrain.
Illiom found the place unpleasant and foreboding.
The Chosen who had elected to bear arms donned protective gambesons and practiced for what seemed a long hour, using cane weapons that spared them from serious injury, though not from painful bruises.
So began their daily regime, under the watchful eye of Argolan and the Riders. Malco was the only one to relish this development; the rest regarded it as a necessary evil to be endured.
Azulya and Elan, having no weapons, did not participate.
They voiced their preference to be elsewhere while the others trained, but Argolan reminded them of Menphan’s directive that they all stay together.
So the two women watched the others spar for a while, but soon grew bored with the combatants’ shouts and the occasional cries of pain. They turned away and, as best they could, ignored the fighters, preferring instead to converse with each other.
Illiom, of course, sparred with Tarmel.
She felt ridiculous and inept as she self-consciously tried to ward off his blows whilst making ineffective attempts to breach his defences. The Rider, being his usual considerate self, went to great lengths to avoid hurting her, yet even so it was not long before she sported a few welts of her own.
On one occasion he stood behind her to demonstrate how he wanted her to move, how to twist and parry before bringing her blade arm up in a counterattack.
Illiom, distracted by his close proximity, found it hard to remember what he had just shown her. He patiently took her through the routine again, this time draping his arms around her, holding her wrists in his hands, guiding her through the motions, his face close to hers, his breath brushing her cheek.
Illiom became conscious of the length of his body pressed against her back. She yielded to the temptation and looked up into his face.
Intent on instructing her, there was a moment when he was completely unaware of her gaze; then their eyes met.
In that moment Illiom saw him. Not the Rider or the warrior, not the Tarmel who wore a uniform and served realm and Queen. She saw the being behind all those masks, the one that hid behind the role that was expected of him.
She saw him and he was beautiful. Clear, bright and beautiful.
Tarmel fell silent.
Upon his face, she saw the look of one caught between hope and regret.
The moment stretched, suspended outside of time.
She felt him shudder. Then he took a step back and let her go.
He cast a quick glance at the others.
No one had noticed anything.
Tarmel resumed his training as if nothing had happened, but something had happened, and the fact that he studiously avoided her eyes told Illiom that he, too, was aware that it had.
Melee training was followed by range training.
Of the Chosen, only Illiom and Undina had elected to practise using bows. Grifor, the only Rider also to opt for that weapon, joined them, whilst the rest of her companions, including Malco, practised with crossbows.
Illiom put her bow through its paces and her shots were so accurate that, after a time, the others stopped their practice just to watch, as arrow after arrow left her bow to find its mark.
Grifor stood by her side the entire time, studying her style and posture, trying to divine how she could shoot so well. In the end, brimming with annoyance, she summarised her findings.
“Her draw is inconsistent. Her posture is shoddy. I cannot for the life of me see how she does it!”
Illiom quietly relished the praise and admiration; even Grifor’s envy felt like a compliment of sorts. This was one secret she was actually beginning to enjoy.
After training they cleaned up and changed into fresh clothes and, on their way down to breakfast, headed to the infirmary to check on the descrier. The healer in charge shook her head when she saw them approach. The Iolan’s condition was unchanged: she had not stirred.
They ate in silence, but once sated, Sereth brought up the very thing Illiom had been pondering.
“So, now that we are armed and being trained, what should we do next?” he invited, looking innocently around at his companions.
The silence that met this simple question was so intense it almost crackled with anticipation.
“Do you have a suggestion?” countered Scald, cautiously.
“Yes, we need to do something other than stand around getting picked off one by one. We need to act.”
Malco and Azulya responded simultaneously.
They looked at each other, smiled, then Malco indicated that Azulya should go first.
“I agree,” she repeated. “The attacks on Sereth and Illiom, the attack on us here in the palace, and now this latest attack on Kassargan, shows us one thing: our enemies are not waiting for us to be ready to act. We must begin to make moves of our own, whether we are prepared or not.”
“What do you suggest?” Scald asked her.
“Well, what can we do? We have the power of summons and we have an invitation to visit Draca Provan in Iol. What other options are open to us?”
“Anything we want,” Sereth answered. “But we have to choose some direction. What have we been charged with doing? Queen Eranel wants us to find her son; Metmus and Menphan want us to also find out what is happening to the Queen. Menalor wants us to find the Keys that lead to this Orb.”
“Well, I think we should focus on discovering the source of this taint, so that we can stop it from returning.”
“Are you thick?” asked Scald. “Is it not obvious to everyone that the taint comes from Kroen?”
“After all...” continued Malco, pointedly ignoring Scald, “we need to wait for Kassargan to recover. We need her scrying skills, but we may as well do something constructive while we wait.”
“Right now that does seem like a priority,” she said. “Even though it does not address what Her Majesty requested of us. I also do not think we can do anything about finding Vardail until Kassargan recovers.”
Sereth clasped his hands behind his head and stretched, arched his back, yawned and began speaking.
“The problem with finding the source of the taint is that we need to summon those closest to the tainted: parents, spouses, immediate family, that sort of thing. And all of them are in Kuon, and we cannot go into the city until the cleanse is finished.”
There was silence.
“How about talking to the guards who were on watch when the Prince disappeared?” Illiom suggested.
“Menphan has already done that, extensively by the sounds of it.”
Illiom took a long breath.
“Well, what does that matter?” she said, testily. “It is better than sitting on our hands waiting for the next attack to happen!”
“Well put, and indeed, why not start with that? If nothing else at least it will give us a feel for the process.”
“Hmm, a good point,” he conceded. “Even though the Wardmaster has already gone over this, there is no reason why we cannot hone our blades on the same sharpening wheel. Who knows, we may even uncover something that he missed.”
“I doubt that,” Scald commented. “But there is some merit to the idea – if nothing else it will fill our days.”
As easily as that, the Chosen began to exercise Eranel’s power of summons.
They arranged for an interview space to be set up nearby and, like the Wardmaster before them, they summoned all the Blades on watch during those crucial few days and listened to their accounts. And while, as Scald had predicted, they did not unveil anything new, the exercise kept them active and focused and gave them a valuable feel for this power that had been thrust upon them.
That same day the cleansing of Saryam’s Gate was completed and the Black Ward began the onerous task of cleansing the Wards stationed outside the city.
The first to be screened was Surdalan’s Ward which was declared clear after the capture and summary execution of less than a dozen tainted.
But on the following day, the twenty-third of Last Harvest, tragedy struck.
Even before the troops freed up from Surdalan’s Ward could be deployed to screen Crelor’s, chaos erupted in that camp. Fighting had broken out on a large scale and there was no clear way to distinguish between the combatants.
They heard from a messenger that Menphan had despatched two large contingents of Black Bows to surround the camp. He had followed this by sending three entire Shields of Riders in to attempt to quell the fighting, but that had proved almost impossible. How were the Riders to discern between the combatants - between the tainted and those who were merely fighting for their lives?
By mid-afternoon it had started to rain. Misty clouds drifted across the plateau as though attempting to shroud what was happening. The leaden sky added to the heaviness that was already felt around the Keep.
“It is a war down there,” the messenger concluded, “but one that we can never win, for both sides are our own.”
It rained all the next day as well. In the afternoon Argolan was summoned to Menphan’s office. When she returned her expression was grim.
“More than a thousand have lost their lives in Crelor’s camp since yesterday,” she informed them. “Of those, only about one third was actually tainted.”
There was nothing to say; they listened to this news with sinking hearts.
Argolan took a deep breath.
“If there is a bright side, it is that all the survivors have been screened and all the Wards are once again under our control. The only thing that remains now is to screen the city itself.”
Any sense of celebration at receiving this news was dampened by the incredible toll of human life. Illiom could hold back no longer.
“What about Crelor?” she asked.
“Yes, I asked that also. Many are still not accounted for and Wardmaster Crelor is among them. The survivors say he had not been seen in the camp for several days.”
“Could he be dead?” Malco asked.
“More likely long gone,” offered Scald. “That one does not strike me as being like the others. Tainted or not, he has his wits about him, that is certain.”
Later the same evening, after dinner, they went to visit Kassargan again, but found her condition unchanged. She lay in the infirmary bed completely still, the barely imperceptible rise and fall of her chest the only indication that she lived.
They stood around her in silence for a span before filing out of her room.
The next morning the cleanse of Kuon began in earnest.
Like an invading army, the survivors of Surdalan’s and Crelor’s Wards - a contingent in excess of nine thousand troops - surrounded the city’s perimeter, blocking all the roads, alleys, and paths that could conceivably be used as routes of escape.
Within that protective snare, the Black Ward began the gruelling search of each house and the screening of every single citizen within the royal city.
They dealt swiftly with Old Kuon and the Merchant Quarter, but Squatters’ End, with its maze-like alleys and its mass of haphazard and decrepit hovels, posed a much greater challenge for the soldiers.
As other areas of the city were cleansed, more troops converged on the Squat, holding it in an inescapable stranglehold that gradually tightened like a noose.
The cleanse continued deep into the night.
Sometime around the first hour, a runner despatched by the infirmary roused them from their sleep. Kassargan had finally regained consciousness.
Excited and elated, they rushed to get dressed.
The messenger raised her voice.
“I must caution you, however, that ... all is not well.”
The hall became immediately silent.
“The Iolan is blind.”
For Illiom, these words felt almost like a physical blow.
“Her eyes are completely ruined. She will never see again.”
As they made their way down to the infirmary, Illiom kept remembering the descrier’s beautiful eyes and did not know if she could bear to see the Iolan marred in this way.
They filed down a long hallway lined with windows that faced the city. Illiom looked down to see the Squat ablaze with torchlight. The cleanse there was still underway.
They quietly entered Kassargan’s room and found the descrier sitting up in her bed. Her face, finally free of the torment that had gripped her expression since the ordeal, was once again drawn into lines of serenity.
But, looking at her now, Illiom felt a noose tighten around her throat and her tears overflowed.
Kassargan’s beautiful eyes, that once blazed so brightly, were now white and empty. Set as they were within the exquisite frame of her face, they had become a shout of outrage in an oasis of peace.
Even so, she smiled as they gathered around her.
“You have come to see me…”
Her voice was soft, almost inaudible.
Azulya moved to take her hand as they gathered silently around her. “Oh Kassargan, we have come to see you every day.”
Kassargan allowed her touch and Azulya continued to gently stroke her hand, tears running unchecked down the Kroeni’s face.
“I am so sorry...” she said softly. “If only we had known that there might be a danger, we would never have let this happen. We would never have asked you to scry.”
Kassargan’s lip trembled a little until she bit down on it. She pressed her blind eyes shut. After several deep breaths she nodded.
“I know,” she reassured them. “This is not your fault.”
That she had been so terribly maimed was appalling, but her brave acceptance of what had happened to her, of the burden she would have to bear for the rest of her life, that Illiom found almost incomprehensible.
She felt a pure fury welling up inside her.
Kassargan brushed away her tears.
“There is something I must tell you,” she said, collecting herself.
Her hands gripped and worried the end of the thin blanket that draped her.
“Ever since I was a child I knew that this day would eventually come. At first I had nightmares about this happening, and then, as my training took hold, I understood that the nightmares were nothing less than prophetic dreams. I have had an entire lifetime to prepare for this; now that it is finally here, I welcome it.”
Illiom could not believe what she was hearing, and if the expressions upon the faces of the others were anything to go by, neither could they.
“I am a descrier, you see: my true sight is not, and has never been, with my physical eyes. In fact, they have always been a limitation, sometimes even an obstacle. Sight is often an impediment to fully seeing the invisible worlds. My Lord Provan showed me that: his sight is the clearest I have ever witnessed.”
Kassargan swallowed and took a few breaths. They waited for her to continue. “Until this moment I have been restricted to scrying by the use of a shield. Now, I am free. I have tried it already ... well, just a little. I scried Calestor, and especially Maularahad’s Keep in the centre of the city.”
It was difficult to know what was happening in the depths of the descrier’s soul. Without eyes to betray her, it was as though she had donned a mask and spoke to them from behind its screen. Even her smile seemed eerie and inscrutable.
It was her tone and the small pauses in her speech that began to reveal what she was truly feeling. To Illiom it sounded as though Kassargan’s voice held awe, not grief.
“I saw it all,” she told them, “in more vivid detail and colour than ever before…” She choked on the words as tears streamed from her eyes.
“I can finally scry without the need for anything else!”
“My eyes ... my eyes are blind, but I can see better than ever. Also, I need nothing but my awareness to travel anywhere I want and to see whatever I choose.”
Kassargan inhaled deeply.
“I am now a true seer, dependent on nothing but the power within me.”
No one could find anything to say.
“It will take some practice and much experimentation because it is so different from what I am used to, but I know that my gift is now enhanced beyond words. At last, I understand how Provan feels, how he perceives the world. And I now understand how a limitation remains such, only for as long as we perceive it to be limiting.”
“So please, please, please,” she concluded, “do not suffer needlessly on my account, for I am free.”
They had come to comfort Kassargan in what they had thought would surely be the greatest and most horrendous crisis of her life.
Now she comforted them.
They gathered what chairs they could find. Most of the Riders elected to sit on the floor except for Pell who stood, arms crossed, in one corner, and Argolan who stood near the only window. Illiom sat on the end of the descrier’s bed, while Tarmel stood just behind her. Azulya sat on the opposite side of the bed.
“It is difficult for us to understand,” the Kroeni told the descrier. “What exactly has changed?”
“Well, I will let you know as I work it out. But for one thing, my vision is so different now, it will take me a while to adjust to its reach,” Kassargan said.
Her countenance brightened as she spoke about her craft, of what was now her main link to life, to the world around her.
“I know my limitations in using the scrying shield full well. Now I must discover what my new limits are; let me explain.”
She propped herself up and sat more erect, her posture mirroring the resolve of her spirit.
“Different scries require different contributions of Kai, our word for spiritual power or life force. So the further the scry, either in time or in distance, the more taxing it is to the descrier. For this reason every descrier has certain boundaries in place. Mine were that I would not attempt more than one scry in a single day, and that each scry would last no longer than a half hour.”
“There are two types of Kai. This is an arbitrary distinction but a necessary one. The one used for scrying is referred to as secondary Kai. Primary Kai is what sustains life itself.”
“The amount of secondary Kai consumed by a scry determines the amount of time needed for recovery. After one’s secondary Kai is completely depleted, it necessitates as much as three days of complete abstinence from scrying before it is replenished.”
“When I opened to the Prince’s shield and ... when I was attacked, the power that seized me had started to drain my primary Kai. If your Rider had not intervened and broken the link, I would have died very quickly. I am indebted to you, Tarmel.”
Illiom turned to look at her Rider and saw a flicker of emotion flash in his eyes.
Azulya leaned towards the descrier.
“Can you tell us ... what actually happened when you looked into Vardail’s shield?”
The smile faded so quickly from Kassargan’s face that Azulya immediately withdrew her question.
“I am so sorry; we can talk about this another time...”
“No, no, I want to talk about it,” she cut in. “The sooner I get this behind me, the sooner I will be able to heal.”
She sat very still and closed her eyes again, as if this somehow helped her to concentrate.
“I felt a presence becoming aware of me the very moment I entered into communion with the scrying shield. This was unprecedented and I was very curious to see who it might be. It was clearly someone with considerable ability. Yet it fled from me, as if it was frightened or shy. This pulling away caused me to enter more fully than I might otherwise have. Then, once I was completely engaged, it turned around suddenly and attacked me.”
Kassargan paused and swallowed before continuing.
“I have never felt anything like it. It was…” She shook her head, struggling for words. “Whatever it was, it unleashed its full murderous intent, leaving me in absolutely no doubt of what it was about to do. I tried to pull back, of course, but it was far too late. Its hold on me was vice-like; I could not break free. It had started to crush me, but even worse than that was the mindless hunger I felt behind its destructive appetite. It reminded me of a time when I had entered the awareness of an insane woman. In a way this was similar, just a thousand times worse.”
Kassargan’s throat worked as though she was trying to swallow something.
“It was darkness, a dreadful pit of ... emptiness. This probably makes no sense, but I can only define it as an absence, not a presence; a conscious but insane, voracious hunger that could never be sated, an absence that wanted nothing less than ... to devour my very soul.”
“I am fortunate to still have my soul. It only took my eyes. I should be grateful...”
Her shoulders began to heave under a sudden barrage of silent sobs, and whatever Kassargan had intended to say remained unsaid.
Eventually the descrier’s grief subsided. A healer brought her a steaming herbal draft, which she slowly sipped. They waited while the herbs took effect and eventually she slipped back into peaceful slumber.
The healer followed them out of the room.
“It will take some time for her mind to accept what has befallen her,” she explained. “Until that happens we will care for her and look after all her needs.”
She shook her head.
“It is so very sad. She is such a beautiful and kind young woman.”
The walk back to their hall was silent and sombre.
When they returned to their beds, sleep stubbornly eluded Illiom, but in that she was not alone.
Lying wide awake, she listened to her companions’ breathing.
It was a long time before anyone fell asleep.