Caranne bent down to examine Dah-Kun’s pulse. It was slow but healthy, though the man looked pale and starved. He was surprised that the man had not changed his appearance from the last time they met. Splashing water on the man’s face garnered a slight twitch.
“Master, are you okay?” he shook his shoulder lightly.
The bearded man looked up at Caranne, his face crunching up. “Who…”
Caranne pulled the man up to a seating position.
“Viallan?” The man’s eyes were still glazed over but he blinked.
“Yes, Master. What in Sucellok’s beard happened here?”
The master shook his head, the hood covering his black hair falling off. “I don’t know. My head …oh my head.”
Caranne looked at his master, concern lining his face. He’d never seen the man not alert. Even while sleeping, his ears twitched like those of a dog.
Dah-Kun waved off the skin of water he offered and instead asked for his chewing stick.
Caranne had seen the man chew on a thick finger sized piece of wood which had a foul garlic like smell, only stronger. He found several of the sticks wrapped in a piece of velvet inside a carved wooden box, which looked ancient. He handed the master one of the sticks, who started sucking on it like a cane stalk.
He waited. The man’s eyes regained its keenness. After about ten minutes, Dah-Kun pushed himself up.
“What happened, Master?”
“Magic. And a very strong version of it. We’ve been dallying too long. I had no idea the people of this land would take to magic like wolves learn to hunt.”
The Empress? Caranne leaned in. “Someone attacked? And where did the entire village vanish? There’s no sign of any battle.” If the Empress was already siphoning off forces from the bandits, his chance at redeeming the Viallan name was fading fast.
The master grunted, which sounded like a brusque laugh. “You think swords and spears can match magic? Nobody attacked. They just passed by.”
“Master, I sent you a message. It’s grave news…”
“The child that calls herself the Empress? Is that what you wished to tell me? I learnt of her when she banished non-magic folk. I did get you message. But I do not think this was her handiwork. Although it may be a man allied with her.”
“Huh?” Caranne gave the man a quizzical look. “Then how did a man whisk away an entire village without a fight?”
“Have you seen the vines outside and the smell emanating from them?” Dah-Kun pointed to the slashed vine in the doorway. “The man in the wine red cloak can grow them at a whim. And all men fall to it. And then they follow him.”
“So it puts a spell on people. Even you?”
The bandit lord nodded. “I did not expect it and it was only because my magic is strong that I resisted going with them. But it still left me without a will to move.”
“So that’s what happened to the three outside.” Caranne mumbled.
“There are more with you?”
“Yes, Master. We were trying to bring you this.” He handed the wrapped staff to Dah-Kun. “But they are afflicted by the plants. They are sitting on their horses in stupor.”
The man’s face broke into a smile and colour flowed back to his skin. “I knew you were special.”
“Always happy to aid you, Master.” Caranne smiled. But have I chosen the right man to align with? What if the Empress or this vine man are more powerful.
“You don’t understand. Getting this is not what I was talking about. Why do you suppose the plants and vines do not affect you?”
Caranne started. He hadn’t realized it. “What do you mean?”
“I always knew you were in some way immune to magic. Do you remember when I gave you the disc, it wouldn’t turn bronze at first?”
“Yes, but you said the magic must have worn off.”
The man smiled. “No. The disc was fine. It’s just that my spell didn’t catch on to you.”
“Then, how does it work now?” Caranne pulled out the disc and held it out, which gleamed in the lantern’s light.
Dah-Kun took the bronze disc from him. “This is not like the other discs. This one will turn in anybody’s hand.”
“What? But isn’t the point of the discs to identify as unique and the true of the owner of the disc?”
“It is usually. But with you I took the risk, since I had to know.”
“So magic does not affect me?” He stood up and breathed. He’d always felt threatened by Dah-Kun and the rise in the number of magus. Relief coursed through him. He didn’t know what being immune would get him but it made him feel more secure.
“Evidently, and thankfully. You saved me from losing my mind.”
Caranne nodded and smiled. He didn’t have to be scared of the bandit lord turning against him anymore. “So what do we do now?”
“We will break the others out of their trance. But first, let us see what we have here.” Dah-Kun unwrapped the cloth from the staff. Even in the lantern light, the staff shone a bright silver on its own accord. Intricate carvings lined the length of the staff but three holes caught Caranne’s attention. They seemed like the staff had been eaten away at those spots.
“Master, are those holes supposed to be there?”
Dah-Kun did not speak. He raised the staff and plunged it into the earth. The ground was hard and it went in only about a few inches, but the staff turned brighter.
Caranne stepped back in awe. The carvings on the staff glowed separately and he could make out every single details. The holes too were covered in silver light.
After about a minute, the bandit lord pulled out the staff, which returned to its non-glowing form.
Dah-Kun’s face glowed pink and his skin shone like that of new born babe. “Finally, the wretched cloud of confusion is gone. Caranne, you’ve done well.”
He was surprised at being addressed by his first name. “You look much better, Master. But what does the staff do?”
Dah-Kun’s look changed to one Caranne was accustomed too. The serious and mysterious lord of bandits who did not answer to anyone. Even with the knowledge that magic couldn’t hurt him, the hair on his body stood up.
But then the bandit lord smiled. “I do not approve of anyone asking me questions about what I do. But since you saved my life, I do suppose I can make an exception for you. It helps me access the magic flowing through the earth. Any amount I want.”
Caranne held back his expressions. “Does it mean you’re the strongest in Quindor now? Even over the Empress?”
“She raised a city right? I must say, I was impressed to hear that. But with the amount of magic coursing through these lands, and with my experience, I expect I can do much more.”
Caranne nodded. “Wait, so why did you not get the staff before? Wouldn’t it have made all of this easier?”
“What was the point of getting it before, if I didn’t know where in this land I could access the granules which house magic? And using this is addictive. I was afraid I would lose focus, if I retrieved it before. Besides, your people are a superstitious lot. To get anybody to go the Blood-Dune islands is incredibly tough.”
Caranne’s mind was overwhelmed with information. I need to focus. “That is true. And one of the bandits outside claims the cephalans are real and that he fought them off to get the staff.”
“Did he? Well, the cephalans are real enough. I faced them when I crossed over all those centuries ago.”
Caranne’s thoughts froze. “So you are saying the stories are all true. That you’re a thousand years old and that you come from beyond these lands.”
“Why does that surprise you? I could control magic much before anyone even knew what it was here.”
“No, it’s just that…I thought they were stories to incite awe and fear.”
“They were. Which is why I spread them among the bandits. But just because they are stories, doesn’t mean they aren’t true.”
“But why do you want to find these granules so badly? You can already overthrow the Throddens with the power you have. You can rule these lands. And I imagine, it would have been easier a few centuries ago when you didn’t have the Empress or this vine growing man.”
Dah-Kun’s face hardened. “I did not want to conquer these lands. I have never intended to rule. The only thing I wanted was to take back magic from these lands to mine. Besides magic is a curse. It’s a sweet feeling till you have it but it will leave these lands as well and when it does, you will see your entire civilization crumble into dust. Madness and rage will drive your friends, family and innocent people to their ruin. You haven’t seen true despair.”
The bandit lord’s eyes grew wide open. Caranne could almost feel him reliving horrific visions. “You have no idea what it feels like. As if somebody’s parched you and your throat gets drier and drier by the minute till you can take it no more. The further west we moved, we felt the pain ease, so we kept moving. Till we reached the seas. Nobody had crossed the waters and lived to tell about it. For the same reason your people refuse to cross the Blood-Dune islands- the cephalans. But what choice did we have? So we sailed for months enduring endless days of nothingness around us because the small spark of magic kept our sanity intact. And then we endured those humongous blighted black and white monsters. They tore our ship to pieces leaving me stranded on your accursed Blood-Dune islands. I was rescued by a fisherman, who brought me to his lords – the Viallans. Which is how I know of the injustice done to your forefathers. Your forebearers were kind to me and for that I will see their legacy returned.” He held Caranne by the shoulders. “Your family will rise to its former glory, I promise you that.”
Caranne felt his chest swell. “So what do we do now?”
“Firstly, let us go help your three companions. And then we go get ourselves back our army.”
“I cannot believe all this was supposed to be farmlands.” Fabius raised his glove rubbing his fingers. “Even the air feels so dusty and unclean.”
“It’s getting worse. Look at the cracks. The city being raised has destroyed these lands.” Lord Tremane shook his head again.
Fabius’ anger towards the old lord had been dissipating at his plight. The man seemed genuinely concerned about the land, even though it wasn’t his state.
“I didn’t think Averness was hilly at all.” Ainsley said, looking at the range of hillocks they had been traversing.
The free road had all but disappeared with broken portions of it cropping up in between. However, there was no dearth of traffic heading towards the city. The folk travelling had various stories of how the city glowed in the night to how the Empress made it fly once a week. Most of it was probably untrue but if a city had indeed been raised in a matter of days, he didn’t know if the stories he heard were impossible to believe.
“It wasn’t. This magic is the cause.” Lord Tremane answered.
“But how can magic be the cause? You said you and fathers have been tracking it for years. How can somebody suddenly be powerful enough to do all this?”
The Lord shrugged. “I have told you this before. This is as surprising to me as it is to you. And I think this Empress is an exception. There cannot be too many powerful like her or we would have heard.”
Fabius cut in. “I’m sure you can learn what they are doing.”
“What they are doing cannot be learned. They are born with abilities. How they gain them is beyond me but I’m starting to believe a higher power like your Sucellok may have a hand in this.”
Fabius scoffed. “Sucellok watches over us all. He provides hope and enlightenment, not darkness and destruction. And if the evil gods of the Halans could not give them any powers, do you think even Arbok can do this?”
“I do not wish to debate gods with you, Fabius and it does not matter how they got these abilities and powers. If they continue using the powers in this way, it will ruin Quindor. They have already started bonding with each other, raising cities and gathering in force. If we don’t stop them, you may not have much of a kingdom to inherit.”
Fabius opened his mouth to object that he didn’t want to inherit anything but Darius’ memory cut through his heart. Think of something else. “So, any updates from your scouts?”
Every few days, Lord Tremane would receive visitors bringing him reports from across the northern states. Fabius marveled at the network the man maintained.
The old Lord shook his head. “Nothing new. The barrier at Katak is still up. The men think it doesn’t extend too far into the bandit lands but there is no way to check. The bandits have cordoned off their lands as far as the eye sees.”
Fabius bit down on his lip. Arbok-cursed bandits. I will have their heads. “And do we know anything more about the Empress? Does she have a name?”
The Lord shook his head. “Again, just that she belonged to a small village or town around where this city has been raised. Even the two men who managed to get into the city can’t find anything about who she really is. Apparently, she is worshipped as a god by the people there and it is considered blasphemous to call her anything but the Empress.” The old lord’s face wrinkled up with irritation. “The Empress is an extremely polarizing figure. Her diktat has drawn magic-wielders from all over the northern states, although as you would expect, most of them came from the neighbouring states.”
“And has she really banished the non-magic folk?”
“I haven’t heard of anything concrete. But yes, the non-magic people do feel threatened. Which is why all these people you see heading towards Ianthine all have some kind of magic in them. This is uncharted territory, Fabius. When things like this occur, it is impossible to separate the stories from the truth.”
“But these are normal farmers, peasants, traders. They are nothing like the goons we encountered on the road.” Fabius pointed to the two carts and a sole man riding in front of them.
“Magic doesn’t choose evil men, Fabius. In fact, I don’t think it chooses at all. Some people get it and some like us don’t. Men wielding swords can be evil just like men wielding magic are.”
Fabius nodded and looked to the cart they passed by. A small family with two children rode sat in the cart and he couldn’t tell whether they had any magic.
A large crowd had gathered up ahead.
“What is happening?” Fabius asked the showman, who shrugged.
“Ianthine,” a plump farmwife exclaimed, running past them barefoot.
“What? How can that be? I thought we were still half a day’s ride away.”
The path ahead sloped upwards as it had been doing for the past mile or so. Fabius broke Bretun out into a trot and Ainsley followed. The rest of the company hung back.
Over fifty people had gathered ahead. He and Ainsley pushed to the front like kids trying to watch showman’s tricks in a crowd. The hillock they had been climbing sloped down rather steeply. Far ahead in front of them lay a city of black, the outlines of which were fading fast in the dusk.
“That is a big city.” Ainsley exclaimed.
Fabius gulped. It appeared at least ten miles wide. But in the darkness, they could only make out a huge wall which hid most of the city from sight. But even then, he could make out a few buildings which stood taller than the wall. But what caught his attention was the ghostly violet light emanating from the top of tall spires. A feeling of dread coursed through him.
“They raised that monstrosity?” Ainsley mirrored his thoughts. He rubbed his hands together and shuddered.
The land seemed far more desolate than what they had encountered till now. Fabius could see no trees below. Only a few carts and people dotted the cracked and broken land, travelling hard to beat the dying light.
They turned back to find the others setting up camp.
Lord Tremane came up to him. “It is still half a day’s ride away. And everyone else is camping for the night too. We do not want to be too indiscreet.”
Fabius nodded. “But do you see that city? It looks horrifying. Why would anybody go towards it? It feels evil.”
Tremane’s face turned into one of the infuriating smiles he gave but before he could say a word, a man ran up to them, handing the lord a piece of bread. “We are safe. Look at the magnificent city. All hail the Empress.”
The man’s elation and excitement shocked Fabius.
He came and held Fabius’ hand, handing him a piece of bread. “Our days of hunger and sadness are gone, my friend. Welcome to Ianthine.”