Elenarka Vannes turned to watch the sun rise over its last barrier of barren, wind carved rock. Blinded at first, she raised her hand and looked out upon the now golden, glittering desert sands. They made her city look dull and broken in comparison. After all these years, and despite the thousands of souls residing there, it was still just a necropolis. The walls, once tall and solid and strong, made of stones of unimaginable size puzzled together by long dead hands, now weathered by sand and wind, crumbling, lowered, indefensible. Even the carrion birds did not like to sit upon their broken tops.
She turned back to the cool ocean waves lapping at her feet as she stood upon the pebbled shore. The ocean seemed endless, stretching off forever to the north into the morning mist, but she knew it was a lie. She knew that not far beyond that wall of mist was the home of the men who had warred against her people, banished those they did not kill.
The men of Ur. They lived in luxury behind pristine walls and wanted for nothing, while her people fought against the sand and the wind and the wild beasts of the desert. Fought to scrape a living from dead soil, to shelter behind the weakened walls of a dead city.
They thought their battle with her people over. They thought they had killed the last of Elenarka’s ancestors long ago. They were wrong. She only needed a way to prove it to them.
She bent and picked up a flat stone, rubbed her thumb upon it before skipping it out across the calm early morning waters. Boats were what she needed, but it was not that simple, for the water before her was not as it seemed. The calm surface would carry only the shallowest of boats, for just below lay a forest of reefs ready to tear a deep keeled boat apart. The second problem was material. In the desert there are few trees from which to build boats. Both obstacles seemed insurmountable and so she was left to pine in the desert, cower in a crumbling city, pick away at what remained in the mines as her mother had done, and her mother before her. At least the first Elenarka had her stolen warrior, the talon of Ur, and he had betrayed many things to the lost people and drawn up many maps. But what good were maps if there was no wood to build boats or chariots? What good were secrets if one could not cross the mountains to exploit them? What good was the metal from the mines if one could not reach the battlefield to use it?
She picked up another stone and tried to skip it, but in her anger she missed the toss and the stone sank.
“We have no beasts of burden to carry us into battle, or plough the soil. We have no soil in which to grow our food, we have no wood to build great towers or even to keep us warm in the cold desert night. We are as empty handed as grandmother was when she arrived with a hundred years to prove ourselves stuck!” She picked up another stone and moved to throw it, opened her mouth to curse the ocean, the mountains, the desert but was stopped by a hand upon hers.
You have your life, a deep voice sounded inside her head.
“And I suppose I should be grateful for that,” she snarled in return. The palm of his heavy hand struck her cheek, twisted her entire body so that she lost her balance and fell upon the rocky shore. He stood over her, even taller now that she was on the ground, his eyes as black as pits, and the dark fur of his body seemed to absorb the light of the sun rather than sparkle with it as the desert sands did. He was a giant, half beast, a dead god, as long forgotten as the people who had built and abandoned the necropolis. Sometimes he had the face of a man, skin as black as night, sometimes he had wings like a carrion bird, most often, as now, he came with the body of a man, the head of a black dog. Always he wore, hanging on a chain of silvery, delicate threel, an orange-red stone that glowed like the sun obscured by blowing sands. Always she became mesmerized by its power.
As long as there is life there is a chance.
“I want more than a chance!” she cried. “I want a decent life!”
She did not blink but he was at her neck, the warmth of his body hovering over hers, the heat of his breath, the press of his teeth against her throat. She dared not move or speak. She could feel the itch of his jaws to snap shut on her tender flesh, to drink up the blood of her life. She kept her eyes open, stared into the blackness of the eye turned toward her.
If you would only see what I have put before you. His thoughts were hard in her head.
“You’ve given me nothing but a dead city and an empty pit mine.”
I have given you life. I have given you everything. If you do not want it...
His jaw tightened on her throat, his ivory teeth punctured the soft flesh and her blood oozed down her neck onto the stones beneath her. His tongue licked at her blood, he changed his grip upon her and she could feel his teeth pressing into her windpipe. She could not speak, could hardly breathe, felt the heat of life vanishing from her. The cold dark of death touched at her toes and crept up her feet. She hadn’t felt a cold like it in all her long nights in the desert. It frightened her and she tried to struggle, finally. She moved her hands up, meant to push him away but there was nothing there.
Darkness filled her.
She awoke to a hot tongue upon her neck, lapping at the blood drying there. A lone dust wolf danced back startled when it realized she was awake, alive. It stared at her with eyes as green as her own and when she yipped at it, it took off along the shore. She sat up, her head pounding, her neck sticky, her skin hot and tight. The sun was at its peak and she could barely see, for the heat of it blurred the landscape. She moved her hands to wipe at the dried blood and found a stone still clutched in one. There seemed to be something on it, a picture perhaps. She rubbed her thumb across the surface and the picture started to move. She saw a boat like nothing she had ever seen, with shallow draft and yet wide, long and sturdy enough to hold thirty warriors. She could make out a face in one of the boats...a city in the distance...
She smiled as she got to her feet, the stone still clutched in her hand. The answer was there, it had been all along. She walked back to her city, to Thrain, through the unwavering noon day heat. She saw its crumbling walls and sand pitted stone and for the first time she saw what a beautiful deception it was and the magnificence of those long dead who had built it and she laughed.
He had let the beast within take over, and now nothing would ever be the same. He did not want to remember who he had been or what he had done. Most of it was a blur of burning emotion. He fell to his knees, his clothes were soaked and clung to his aching body, he gasped for breath, gulping each one down and clawing for another. He bent his head, fell forward and caught himself before he could fall face first into the moist green grass.
And then a heavy hand fell upon his shoulder and he whipped his head up in shock. The man was a giant, towering over him even bent as he was to eclipse Cab’s shoulder with his hand. He was dressed in the skins of animals, though they seemed to grow from him, much like his ragged beard and long hair. He grinned, showing bright teeth, but most fearsome of all was the gaping hole in his face where his right eye should have been. A hole that seemed to stretch out like an open mouth ready to swallow Cab whole. He pulled back, reeling, his heart racing.
And the giant was gone.
Before him, instead, a pair of heavy chestnut doors loomed, carved with a single lidless eye, eight spokes protruding like the points on a compass. It stared at him and he knew that it was the giant’s missing eye. He fumbled at his shoulder, certain the heavy hand still rested there. His blood pounded in his ears until he could hear nothing else. He closed his eyes, and could not open them.
Waking was an icy bucket of water dumped upon his prone form. He gasped and choked, rolling onto his side and retching.
“Wake up, princess,” Iridian said sweetly. Cab coughed and spat, took a few calming breaths.
“Oh good, you’ve seen the Serenity,” Iridian said as the cell door swung open. Cab could sense the man winding up to provide a kick as if it were his own muscles moving. He spun, caught the booted foot and twisted his adversary off balance. Iridian caught the bars of the cell before his head could and kicked out with his other foot. But Cab was already on his feet, delivering an elbow with all the force of his weakened body behind it, to the other man’s kidneys. Iridian’s head did hit the bars of the cell, but Cab could not enjoy the victory as the two guards were suddenly in the cell with them. Kiret delivered a blow with a short cudgel that sent Cab backward, darkness swallowing darkness. Dolan put his shoulder down and rammed Cab in the gut, forcing him into the stone wall and expelling the air from his lungs.
It was over then. Gasping for breath Cab tried to fend off blows from the cudgel, but the guardsmen took hold of his arms and held him still. Iridian spat blood and yanked the tooth that had been knocked loose.
“Sow swyving son of a whore,” he snarled, wiping his lips.
“That’s no way to speak of your mother,” Cab managed before a fist was planted in his gut. Iridian snatched the cudgel from Kiret and rained blows in a heavy anger.
There was a peaceful hum of bees and the scent of flowers filled his nostrils. He opened his eyes, took in his surroundings. He lay on a cot, in a small room. There was a window that let in warm sunlight. He did not have to look to know that outside were fruit trees dressed in brilliant pink blossoms.
“This is a dream,” he breathed, unable to move from lying on his back on the cot.
“Yes,” came a deep-voiced response. Cab turned his head. The room was as he remembered it, simple, clean, peaceful. His heart ached. Beside the bed was a chair, upon that chair a man. But it was not the man that had been there when he had awoken in this room so many years ago. That man had been a monk, a broad shouldered man, with forests of dark curling hair and a laugh that could fell castles.
“You are not Brother Jenteive,” Cab said. He found he was able to sit up and settled bare feet upon the floor. It was a giant sitting in a chair that would never have held his weight were it not a dream.
“No,” the giant said grinning. It was not a grin of glee, almost it was a grimace.
“This is not how the dream goes,” Cab said shaking his head. “I am supposed to be greeted by Brother Jenteive, he takes me to the garden to pray. He asks me if I am ready to die...”
“Yes,” the giant said. “You like to revisit these places over and over again. I tell you, it brings my sister no great pleasure to be pushed around in her own realm.” He chuckled.
“Your sister...” Cab said slowly, but the words did not stick with him.
“Where is Brother Jenteive?” he asked, getting to his feet. He did not like to look at the gaping hole in the giant’s face and so he turned away, poked his head out into the hallway. Empty.
“Stubborn man,” the giant said. Cab turned back to the room. The walls seemed to be melting. His surroundings were trying to change but he would not have it.
“No,” he said, with a force that solidified the room.
“Still you resist change,” the giant said. Cab ignored him, moved to the window and received a shock. There was Brother Jenteive in the garden, kneeling beside a praying Cabriabanus.
“There I am,” Cab said, glancing at the giant and then back out the window. “Yes, that’s where I should be, praying there in the garden. But what is that shadow?” Standing beside his other self was a great dark shadow, almost man shaped.
“You know what it is,” the giant said and moved to stand beside Cab as he watched out the window.
“It is Her,” Cab whispered.
“Yes,” the giant said. “This is the dream where you answer yes.”
“Yes,” Cab said softly. “I am ready to die.”
The giant slapped him on the back. Cab watched his other self nod to Brother Jenteive, watched the shadow wrap tendrils or tentacles or arms around that other self, and lift. Something wrenched inside and he had to turn away.
“There will be many more deaths,” the giant said. “But first you must be born.”
Varkas sighed in her exhaustion-sleep. A great weight had lifted and in her dreams she floated into the air, no longer trapped beneath a torrent of pain that had been like a river breaking a dam.
His body ached from shivering in the deep dark where ice glittered on the bars and walls of his cell. He lay in filth-stiffened tunic and britches on the hard dirt floor. It was as cold as death and the cold was in his lungs making him cough and choke. He clutched at the Eye sigil around his neck, its eight points digging into his flesh. One minute he would be burning up, sweating, pressing his face against the cold earth, the next he would be icy cold, his sweat seeming to freeze upon his flesh, wracked with shivering that made his very bones ache.
He sat on his knees, curled into himself, unable to stop his body from retching, there was nothing to bring up. He gasped and shuddered, they must have cracked his ribs again and the retching did nothing to quell the pain.
The heavy oak door opened on squealing hinges. Light broke the darkness, a shuttered lantern focused the bright flame of light upon him, blinding him. For a moment all pain disappeared, every sensation gone as though he had left this body. Heavy footfalls down the stone steps, Iridian speaking but Cab could not hear the words. Then a crack across the face with the cudgel that snapped him back.
His mind was like a clear sky after rain.
“Let’s see what’s left to break,” Iridian said with a smile as he exchanged the lantern for Kiret’s cudgel. Atholine was on his knees in the cell, retching. Iridian unlocked the door, stepped forward and swung the cudgel in an underhand arc which connected with Atholine’s jaw and sent him flying onto his back. A warm comfort filled Iridian but it was quickly replaced with fear.
“Shine the light on him,” he growled. Kiret obeyed and Iridian’s eyes raked over the limp form of his victim, searching for signs of life. The man did not appear to be breathing.
“Dolan,” Iridian snarled. “Fetch the Serenity.”
The man turned and vanished up the stairs as Iridian moved to kneel beside Atholine.
“I’m not finished with you,” he hissed and thrust his fingers under the man’s jaw to feel for a pulse. He could hear Kiret shuffle into the cell behind him, the light shone steadily upon the prone figure. Hesitant, yet not wanting to show it in front of the other man, Iridian leaned over the body, placed his cheek over Cab’s mouth, feeling for movement to indicate the drawing of breath.
Kiret was more nervous then he let on. He had hated this dungeon from the first moment he had seen it. It was too full of shadows for a place without light. It made his skin crawl, almost as badly as having to touch that filthy magic user. Yes, the Serenity was necessary, her skills in healing could not be matched, but the end did not justify the means, by any stretch of the imagination. His mother had been killed for a magic user when he was young. He did not like to think about it, but she had chosen her own fate when she decided that performing illegal magics was more important to her than raising her own son.
And then there was this prisoner. He knew the name, but had been still too young when Atholine had been Captain. He knew his history, though, knew that the line of Atholine had been the King’s-Own-Blade for as long as Ur had ruled this land. Why had he run from his position, and what was his quarrel with the Captain? It was not for Kiret to know, but he could guess. And he guessed it had something to do with a woman. He shivered as he shuffled in a little closer to the Captain, as if that could help.
“Is he...?” Kiret didn’t finish the sentence. His Captain bellowed in pain, reeling backward, and struck the dirt floor on his back. He clutched at his cheek, blood seeped between his fingers. The prisoner was on his feet faster than Kiret’s eyes could follow, before he knew it the lantern had been knocked from his hands to shatter against the stone wall. Oil drenched stone lit up like Dreamer’s moon, but Kiret was trained to ignore such distractions. He leaped at the prisoner as the man made for the open cell door, caught the edge of his tunic and held fast. The tunic ripped but the man lost his balance, stumbled on the stone steps. Kiret lunged after him, grabbed hold of an ankle and yanked. The man’s face hit the stone steps and his free heel flew wildly, striking Kiret a jarring blow to the nose, which loosed his grip on the prisoner’s ankle.
Both men choked on their own blood, trying to shake it off. Cab, recently more accustomed to being struck in the face, pulled himself to his feet a little faster. Trying to ignore the fact that the world around him spun and twirled, he stumbled forward, up the stairs and out of the dungeon.
Kiret was not far behind.