Darius handed the child a tostee. “Thank you, Dwimoe. You read another book for us.”
Dwimoe’s unibrow drooped as he nibbled on the sweetened bread. Tarvus lifted the child and carried him off the vardo.
“Take care of him, Thalsa,” Darius said to the lady outside in Halan. “We will see you tomorrow.”
The olive-skinned woman embraced the boy and raised two crossed fingers to her forehead.
Darius and Tarvus followed suit, wishing the lady good fortune.
Tarvus punched his shoulder. “The bandits think that you have taken a fancy to Dwimoe’s mother.”
Darius scoffed. “She cooks well but enduring her singing is a pain I would not wish on Courash.”
“Be nice, Remus. She did teach you recipes and gave me a chance to childmind Dwimoe.”
“I’m just thankful Barak went off. We never would have stayed in Dharya for this long.”
Tarvus nodded. “May Succellok keep him away further. Imagine the things we can learn.”
Darius pulled the door behind him. He rubbed his hands in glee. “So, how does the diary end?”
“With Scipio, last lord of the Lanthorns and ruler of all lands of Govard, forgetting how to spell. By the end he was squiggling gibberish.”
“What? Maybe it’s another dialect.”
Tarvus shook his head. “You know Dwimoe can read anything. He read every single book we gave him over the past two weeks.”
“So what? Scipio lost his mind battling the Corruption?”
Tarvus shrugged. “Guess so. It’s a story anyway.”
Darius rolled his eyes. “You know it is a journal. It even has proper entries with dates.”
“Which make no sense. Five hundred years before death? What kind of a date is that?”
“Nobody ends a story with meaningless squiggles.”
Tarvus shrugged. “Maybe he lost interest in writing. Just because the story was lively does not mean it is true, Darius. Besides we have a lot of other books to plough through if we are to understand what the bandits want them for.”
“As if the other books are any good. Lore of architecture and how to skin animals…I’m beginning to think Barak is a loon who collects books in weird languages.”
Tarvus nodded. “We may be reading too much into this.” He twirled the diary around. “But this is the only book which gives names of the places. Wonder which part of Quindor was called Govard. Or is it a land beyond the oceans? And were the Lanthorns as powerful as you?”
Darius smiled. “Don’t think so. From what Scipio wrote, they were barely holding on. The whole thing about the Corruption was scary. Wait, where is the part you wrote about the Corruption?”
Tarvus nodded. He rummaged through a stack of sheafs. “Good thing I wrote this down. When we get back to Sen-Tian, we should get a book made out of this story.”
“And claim undue credit for writing it?”
“No, we will mention the special little boy who helped us.”
Darius let out a sigh. “Weird how a little boy like that can read so well and read languages which no one else can.”
“Some people are born with a gift. Some can run faster, some are strong, I guess Dwimoe got an unusual ability. Maybe Barak has it too. That would explain him collecting all these books.”
Darius groaned. “Then we would have wasted a week of our lives. But I still do want to read the part about the corruption.”
“Here, let me read it out,” Tarvus said, holding a few sheets out. “The Corruption has swept away all the greenery. The outposts on the borders are never safe. One day, they are outside the Corruption, the next they are overrun; with monsters, ghouls and specters. And sometimes, an eyebeast comes – razing everything and everyone to the ground. Cracks appear in solid ground, walls vanish of their own accord.
Yesterday our strongest fort in the area fell in a matter of hours. Hundreds perished within those walls. And we could still live with the loss if the Corruption didn’t spew it back like the bones of a carcass drained of all its juice. The broken walls remain, screaming of death, screaming of horror, screaming of all that is not real and yet has claimed lives beyond count. It must be destroyed. But no fire burns it, no weapon bleeds it. It cannot be reasoned with or bargained or bullied. We fight a foe which has no form, no weakness and no desire save the will to engulf all around it. We have no magic that will hold this madness back.
The only hope lies with the Bonegoths. Mindless monsters we call them, but I know different. Mindless they are not. But they toil away to the north, lost in their halls, unconcerned with the fate of others. The heart of the mountain holds far more interest to them. Once we thought of them as the bane of mankind. But maybe, they are the sole hope, for only they can devour magic.
I must find a way to get their aid.”
Darius sighed. “Makes my hair stand on end. And to think he found a way to actually fight monsters with monsters. I can’t think of facing an enemy like the Corruption, eating away our lands.”
Tarvus smiled. “Makes the Halans seem human, right?”
“Fine, I admit. Not all Halans are bad. But that does not mean my hatred for them has lessened. They did kill a lot of people.”
“I never asked you to forget your loss. I only…” A loud ruckus stopped Tarvus.
Darius opened the door to the vardo and stepped out. The bandits ran around carrying crates and wrapping up the tents.
“What is happening?” Darius asked one of the bandits carrying a bunch of swords.
“Barak’s back and has ordered us to leave within the hour,” the man left grumbling about Barak and his high-handedness.
“Well, looks like we finished the story on time,” Darius looked at the small village. Tarvus was right. Holding hate against all Halans seemed pointless. But he still had no sympathy for those who killed his mother.
Caravans and carts rolled past Caranne raising a steady stream of dust around him. He had wrapped a scarf around his face but the sheer number of caravans on the high road surprised him. Most of them led away from his destination. The map told him he was less than half a day’s ride to Maray.
The developments in the northern lands surprised him. His initial plan of simply heading to Maray and establishing a foothold there would not work with so much attention already drawn to magic. But the bandit lord would require more than knowledge of this mobilization. A wry smile crossed over his face. As if he didn’t already have so many people to contend with. The Empress.
Whoever had taken control over these lands had to be a bold woman. However much power she held, challenging centuries of the Throdden rule without support was foolish. And from what he could see, the majority of the people ran scared from her.
Caranne scratched his stubble. It’d grown a bit too long for his liking. Vast stretches of farms and farmlands stretched out on both sides of the high road. However, the state of Averness had far more undulating landscape than the other northern states. Caranne found riding much easier. He suspected the horses liked the small mounds and hillocks now and then.
His horse tumbled a couple of steps to the right. Caranne leaned to the left and hugged the horse’s neck. “What in Sucel…”
Another tremor knocked him off. He though, landed on his feet and immediately grabbed the reins of the horse. It wouldn’t do to have his horse run off. He had never heard of quakes in the northern lands but the tremors of this one were strong.
“The good part is we’re outside.” He spoke in the horse’s ear, trying to calm it down. And reassure himself. He’d faced an earthquake a decade back near the Az’watha desert and the wooden shack he’d been staying for the night in had collapsed on him.
Loud screams mingled with the wild neighing of horses erupted all around him. Those who were on their feet tried holding on to their mounts. The rumbling increased. Caranne heard a snap as a horse collapsed on the arm of a man.
“Calm down, boy!” He stroked the horse’s mane but it kept jerking away, its nostrils flared. A sharp tremor knocked his horse to the left. Before Caranne could leave the reins, he was vaulted over the horse and landed a few feet away.
His head spun and his vision blurred with splotches of darkness. A sharp pain coursed through his shoulder as he lay flat on his back. Caranne blinked his eyes. The shrieks of the women, the shouts of the men, the rumbling of the hooves and the crashing of carts all faded as a brown cloud began to envelop the blue sky.
A deafening crack made him cover his ears. It felt as if the earth under him groaned in despair. What in Sucellok’s name is happening?
A thunderous crack rang out and the ground under him gave way. Caranne flailed as he flipped over and landed on his face. He spat out the blades of grass and dirt from his mouth and raised his head. The sound of thunder echoed as another crack opened up next to him.
Terror gripped Caranne as the ground beneath him shot towards the sky. He clenched his fists around clumps of grass, moist clay meshing with his fingers. A corner of his eye caught people lying and flailing through the debris of their caravans, but Caranne could care less. The farms to the right side of the high road had fallen away. A huge tremor flipped him on his side and the ground below rose in an incline.
He lay on the ground for a good half hour after the tremors stopped. His breath came erratically and he could barely feel his heart beat.
Caranne looked around. His horse had fled and the only animals that hadn’t bolted lay hurt or dead. Their owners and families were in no better shape. Broken carts and splinters lay scattered. Many lay hurt and bawling. But he wasn’t interested. This was not a normal earthquake.
He crawled to the top of the newly formed hill on which he lay. The land below had been torn apart, literally. A huge chasm snaked like a river came down from the north and then curved back to the north-east. The sky was still obscured by billowing mounds of dust but it had begun settling down.
Caranne peered over the edge. To the north, through a large plume of dust, shone a clump of humongous black stones. If I can see them three leagues away, they have to be fifty feet high.
“It’s where Maray was,” he exclaimed to himself.
He kicked one of the farmers trying to unhitch his cart from an unhurt horse and slashed the rope entangled with the horse’s feet. Jumping up, he rode hard. He needed to know what happened at Maray. If the town had been destroyed…Caranne shrugged off the thought.
Riding on broken land was not easy. The horse seemed to stumble every few yards and Carranne reigned in his anger at the lack of speed. The road was all but gone and clumps of large rocks impeded his path. Small cracks and holes had cropped up in the ground.
But as he neared, the sheer size of the black rocks astounded him. From the large mounds of earth rising ten feet around the rocks, he knew the stones had been pulled out from beneath the ground. Who has that kind of power?
A league away, he slowed down. The terrain ahead could not be navigated on horseback. A loud crack and groan made him dive to the ground. But there was no tremor. Instead, a large section of top of the rock broke off and fell inwards.
Soon, other sections started breaking off. Caranne watched, stupefied in amazement. What is happening?
A boom reverberated through the air as a tall black spire rose from behind the cluster of rocks. His eyes widened in shock. They are building a city.
Caranne turned the horse around. He now knew that the Empress could not be taken lightly. She commanded enough power to alter the fates of the land all by herself. A new magical regime would undermine his ambitions and leave the Viallans with less pride and power than they had now. He raced over the slowly forming lakes from the waters of a stream. He needed to inform Dah-Kun as soon as possible. And they needed to make sure this black monstrosity fell under their control.