The Azure Ancient - A tale of an Elfin empire at the crossroads of annihilation
Chapters 1 - 5
Jabin sat within the poorly lit chamber watching the great hearth cast long shadows high upon the opposing wall. The flames haloed those present in its warming light, emphasising their wizened faces, furrowed, sagacious and questioning.
Having answered all, he as yet understood little of what lay behind their scrutiny; typical of Azure, as unrevealing in their responses as the questions were mysterious.
His father’s explanation concerning the Gift and its power was largely lost on the child; one still young enough to both need and enjoy his dependence on others. Talk of being the first in a line of Kings, leading people and making decisions of influence served only to heighten his confusion. Such things played little on the mind of the ten-year-old boy.
Truth be told, he doubted any would regard him; past experience bearing this out. Only peers paid any mind to what the young boy said. None to what he commanded. Added to this, he was bored. Therefore, his only wish presently was that of his itching feet—to run. Preferably in the dirt, but anywhere would do. Anywhere where tedious questions and kingly decisions weren’t required.
Fidgeting, Jabin thought of his cousin Josheb, a score of years older than he, admired and respected by everyone. With his love of swordplay and obsession with battles, Jabin thought him a lot likelier choice as king than himself. However, Josheb had only spent a short time with the Azure before being sent from the citadel. Jabin wondered at that.
Not small for his age, Jabin was still slight. Known by all for his dexterity and competent coordination, he made up for in speed and agility what he lacked in mass and strength, often competing as an equal with boys much older in those events where swiftness out-classed brawn. He thought himself average in most ways, when he thought of himself at all, though his Aunt’s did tell him girls would swoon when he was older; he was unsure of what that implied, as he could only imagine people fainting at something gory or terrifying.
Typical of his people he had the sandy brown hair and light olive complexion, but what made Jabin unique were his eyes. Large they were, though not overly. Yet it was their colour that startled most. A pale blue green, turquoise almost, having a misty, at times almost luminescent, quality.
Looking around the room with those startling eyes, Jabin recognised most of the Azure present, having spent the past weeks enduring many strange tests at the hands of these very Magi. Spotting one he knew well, he waved. Having been under his tutelage, he'd grown fond of the Azure, whom he called Quinn; struggling to mouth his proper name—Quirinicotilius.
Quinn was more jovial than most of the Ancients, with hair that existed only as wisps at the sides of his head behind large ears and a tanned rotund face that Jabin thought resembled a bloated leather wine skin. His multiple chins cascaded their way down the full length of his neck, which was attached to a body quite adequately matching the face in colour, rotundity, and stretched leathery texture.
Lifting a plump hand, Quinn waved back, a genuine smile of affection on his lips. Over the past half month he had come to view Jabin as something akin to a grandchild and, being celibate and therefore childless, he poured all his fondness on the boy. Of all present at the council, he was most delighted to see Jabin become Chosen; the recipient of the Gift. However, contending with his pleasure was the knowledge of the burden the young lad would take up as ruler of the Three Realms; leader, protector, and providential builder of a kingdom spanning the continent; a heavy task for even an Azure with ten lifetimes of experience. None knew how long Jabin's life would be extended, if at all.
Quirinicotilius was forced to push the troubling thought aside as a bell sounded indicating the council assembly. Silence fell as all turned toward the moderator presiding over this crucial meeting of the Azure Magi, ancient priests to the people of Asasa.
The moderator, an unusually tall Magi that Jabin knew as Dored, had a sombre air about him, a severity that caused those around to be more conscientious of their behaviour. As he rose from his seat and scanned the auditorium with his foreboding glare—about the only expression Dored ever showed—the assembly quickly came to order.
After fully inspecting those gathered and satisfied that all who should be present were, Dored nodded. Grim-faced, he walked toward the centre of the room. There, kneeling upon one knee, he bowed his head and uttered the words of power.
The Ancients, being always at work amongst the people, used their arts for tasks beyond the capacity of ordinary folk. Whether bringing rain, moving house-size boulders from fertile strips of land or healing a usually fatal injury, whenever the Magi used their powers they always knelt and bowed their heads as if in prayer.
Jabin had questioned Quinn concerning this practice and was told that prayer was as close a definition as any. He went on to explain this in some detail, how the Magi were simply an order of priests established by the Creator to guide and protect the populace, that only through approaching the Creator in a form of intricate prayer, a mixture of invocation and petition, had they any powers at all... He had said a lot more. However, like most children, Jabin had only patience for short answers, more elaborate replies quickly eclipsing his interest.
Yet whatever Dored had uttered to his God, it was obviously being answered, for the amphitheatre shaped hall began to alter.
It reminded Jabin of gazing across the smithy fires of home, the rising heat causing objects behind to blur and distort. So too the walls of the ancient chamber wavered, shimmering gradually to transparency. Yet unlike the heat illusion, where objects bleed ephemerally back and forth into focus, here the transition was fixed. Stepwise the room vanished from sight, leaving nothing visible but perfect blackness. The effect on the senses was confounding and Jabin became increasingly disoriented, relieved only when a comforting hand took hold of his own. Looking up, he saw the grandfatherly face of Quirinicotilius'.
‘What's happening?’ Jabin asked in a half-choked whisper.
Quirinicotilius looked pensive before replying, ‘Necessity brings us to this place, Jabin. For to achieve the purpose of this assembling requires we be free from all distraction, both corporeal and otherwise. That being the case, Dored has... Dored has...'
Obvious to Jabin was the Magi’s difficulty in explaining the situation with terms simple enough for him to fathom. Quinn liked big words.
‘...Do you understand the term ethereal by any chance?’ was the Azure's next attempt. Noting the uncomprehending look on the lad's face, he sighed and tried again. ‘Dored has taken us to a place that has no time or substance, well, not in the sense easily understood’, he paused again, before rushing the next words, ‘A place where nothing physical lives. This is the realm of the deceased. Well, in a sense it is… Hmm, am I making any sense?’
The look of frustration on Quinn’s face earned Jabin’s sympathy. He answered the Azure with a nod and a look of open-mouthed amazement. Although somewhat short of plain, Jabin had grasped enough of the Azure’s explanation to realise they were in a place he’d experienced only in his father’s stories.
‘Are their ghosts here?’ He asked in a more hushed whisper.
Quirinicotilius looked at the boy and smiled, ‘My dear child. I won't lie to you. Yes there are spirits in this domain, however none that you can see nor hear and definitely none that could cause us any harm, even if they wanted to.’
‘What do they do here then?’ Jabin asked, now extremely interested.
Quirinicotilius face went sad. He was about to answer when a hand came between them and rested itself on Jabin’s shoulder.
‘There will be time enough for questions later Jabin. For now we have more immediate things to give attention to, and your help will be most vital.’
The hand and voice belonged to Sosthene, recognised as the most powerful of the Ancients and one of the three founding fathers of the land of Triad. Holding Jabin gently but firmly by the shoulder, he led him to the centre of the gathered Magi.
Each step was one of faith, each footfall into inky black darkness. Yet light came from somewhere, for Jabin could still see those around him.
Pushing aside his inquisitive mind, Jabin allowed himself to be led.
Positioning himself in front of the boy, Sosthene squatted to his level and spoke calmly. ‘Jabin, you must listen carefully to what I now say, for the words will be few but critical to what we are about to do. In truth our success here may depend on how well you listen to my words. Do you understand?’
Jabin nodded. Though young, he appreciated when to be attentive. Forcing all else from his mind, he gave full attention to the Magi.
Seeing the boy's efforts, Sosthene smiled and continued. ‘Shortly I will lay you down and ask that you close your eyes and completely relax. My hand will remain on you for a moment but when I remove it you will have the sense of falling, as if through the air. However, you must not open your eyes or attempt to move at all. Do you understand?’
Jabin nodded again.
‘Good. After this you will hear the Magi utter the words of power, but not as you have heard it before. You will hear many things you will not understand Jabin, things that may cause you to fear. Still you must remain unmoving, your eyes tightly shut. Can I trust you in this?’
Jabin unconsciously swallowed rather loudly and gave a slow nod. He had been taught from infancy to unswerving trust what the Ancients said. To have them now seek a confidence from him was unsettling.
Sosthene again placed his hand on the boys shoulder and gave it an understanding squeeze, ‘Try not to fear. As long as you do what I have said no harm can befall you.’ Sosthene paused before continuing, ‘There is one more thing, and maybe it is unnecessary I even bring this up,’ For a moment he looked as if he’d changed his mind and wasn’t going to, but with a sudden nod, he continued ‘Remember only to keep your mind clear, to not dwell on any one thing. As thoughts come to you, simply focus on pushing them aside. I know you cannot stop thinking, just do not become fixed on any one thought.’ Sosthene again looked as if he wanted to say more, but after a pause simply said, ‘Can you do this?’
‘I… I think I can’, Jabin stuttered, unsure how he felt. He wasn't really scared, as all the people of Triad had great confidence in the Ancients, but he was nervous of the fact that he, a mere boy, had been chosen to receive something uniquely powerful, something he knew nothing about—something that would make him different to everyone else.
Sosthene placed his hand behind the boy's head and gently lowered him to the unseen floor. Jabin closed his eyes. Straight way it seemed thoughts came crushing into his head, but being ready he began deliberately to push them from his mind.
Jabin felt the chill of the stone floor beneath him and the tingling caress of a breeze on his face. Though warned, he still tensed when the pressure of his body against the cold stone suddenly disappeared. More like falling than rising. An eerie fear sent a shudder through him, like vertigo. He battled the instinctive temptation to throw out his arms to save himself, the even greater temptation to open his eyes. He did neither.
The words of power started not at all as he thought they would; in whispered prayer. This time they incanted in song. At first, as if from a distance, faint lyrics carried upon winds soft breath. Yet as he listened the words became clearer, the voices stronger, and, as the singers intoned their magic, something began to stir within Jabin, something deep and immensely powerful.
It is known by the Azure that all men are gifted with magic’s power at birth, a latent link to the Creator. However, like the individual strands of a gossamer web blown loose to the wind, so too will the threads of their gift slowly, filament by filament, be lost, if not fixed in place from youth.
Jabin, ignorant of how it was happening, perceived changes occurring within his mind and body, as if some part of him as yet unknown had awakened from a long sleep. This portion of his being attempted to rise to the surface of his consciousness and tell him something. Concentrating on the voice, Jabin remembered Sosthene’s instruction to keep his mind clear. Emptying it, he allowed his thoughts to come and go, dwelling on no one thing in particular. In doing this, he found the voice of this new awareness became clearer, amplifying as he quieted his thoughts.
Jabin could still distinguish between the world in which he lay and the one he witnessed in his head, but it was within his mind’s eye a new knowledge rose.
He rushed toward a piercing light at the end of a grey and insubstantial tunnel. It was here that the voice seemed to call from.
Yet along with the beckoning voice and the singing of the Azure, Jabin heard a more disturbing sound. Distant and immaterial, it grew as the light of the tunnel rushed toward him, becoming defined and clear—an appallingly sound that chilled Jabin to the depths of his young soul. It was as if millions of people groaned in agony, voices that told only of ambivalent despair and anguish, moans that left images of all that was of terror to man and child.
Within moments the tormenting din overwhelmed him, collapsing him inward by some invisible weight of dread that pressed from all sides. The weight evolved into a presence, alien and evil. A presence that sensed him and wanted him for itself. With the chillness of a glacier it pressed into Jabin and sought to take hold of his very soul.
Frantic now, in the dread presence of this being, Jabin screamed. He knew such an entity had the power to rob him of himself, could master his own mind and body. In his fear the light before him began to fall away, replaced by a yawning gulf of hopelessness. Unprepared, his young mind surrendered to a battle it knew it must surely lose, for the power of this being was vast.
Again the scene changed. At the brim of a pit he stood, a cold howling wind piercing his ears as it entered the murk of the chasms depths. Fixated, he leaned forward, knowing he would fall but already enticed. Eyes glowed up at him from the base of the abyss, yellow like a wolf and full of power and evil and hate. They probed him, widening as if in shock before pulling on him again with renewed fervour. Jabin's knees began to fold even as he screamed rejection at what was happening. The cavernous black and hateful eyes enclosed their embrace.
The image cast itself across his abating mental command, the brief image of an Azure. No more than a whispered form, it was enough. The hold was shattered. With sudden clarity, Jabin remembered Sosthene's warning to dwell on no one thing and with a mental-discipline found normally only in the highly trained, Jabin banished the notion of the creature from his mind, clearing his thoughts of those dreadful cries.
With jolted suddenness he reached the end of the tunnel. All became bright spinning pinholes of light within his head. There was only disorientation as sound and blurred images bled apart from each other in lingering shifts. Then, with a snap, all came into focus.
Jabin found himself looking down from a great height on a land he did not recognise. It was not Triad. This he knew, for the Magi had shown him maps of his home with its distinct battle-axe shape. This land bore no resemblance.
More disturbing to Jabin, was the fact that by rights he should be hurtling at velocity to the ground beneath. Instead he remained suspended, as it were, on nothing. Looking down to see what was supporting him, Jabin received a greater shock, he could not see nor sense his physical body at all. A dread arose in him, his mind grappling with the messages it was receiving. It was the voice of an Azure that again rescued him from the uncomprehending terror of his situation.
‘Jabin! Jabin, do not be afraid.’ The voice belonged to Sosthene.
‘What is happening? Where are we? Where are you?’ Jabin frantically looked about in search of the Ancient.
‘Jabin, I am too drained of strength to speak long, so listen well. You cannot see me just as I cannot see you. Our bodies are not with us in this place.’ Sosthene spoke quickly, though calmly, aware of the fragility of Jabin’s mental hold on the situation. ‘What you are experiencing is the awakening of your magical potential. A part of that awakening involves what the Ancients refer to as The Recalling.
‘The land you see before you is the Motherland, the ancient home of your forebears. All who experience the recalling see what you are about to witness from a unique perspective. You will witness our history as it was at the beginning of the gift of magic, what we believe to be the greatest of all God’s gifts to man. You do not have to fear, for the things you will see are long past, you will be nothing more than a spectator to a history that now also belongs to you.’ Sosthene's voice sounded strained, as if he were in pain. ‘I must return to my own body now Jabin, watch well young king, and learn. Do not be afraid.’
The last words were just audible to Jabin, but the significance of the words “young king” remained loud in his ears.
Calmer after the reassuring words of the Magi, Jabin directed his awareness back to his surroundings and noted with surprise that he was no longer miles above the land but in a large forest glade. From the thick carpet of snow covering the ground, he guessed it to be winter, and deep into it, though he could feel neither the bite of the air nor the damp of the snowfall.
In the centre of the clearing, almost perfect in its circular shape, was a pond of the purest cerulean Jabin had ever seen. Looking up he saw the trees sway in the breeze. Yet, with detached curiosity, he noted the water of the pond remained glassy smooth, no hint of a ripple. At first he thought it had iced over, but on observing the trees of the forest clearly reflected on the ponds surface, he rejected that theory.
It was when he attempted to approach this seeming paradox that Jabin discovered his immobility, stuck fast, it seemed, to his current position. Yet he had no time to dwell on this problem, for entering from the far end of the clearing came a large procession of men.
Their column approached the pond and formed a circle around it. All were young men. All with a strange cast to their countenance, as if walking in their sleep.
Jabin could not help but think he recognised some of these men, though he discarded the thought; he knew all the young men of his home town and none of those were here.
Once circled around the basin of water, each man dropped to his knee and bowed his head. The immediate similarity of this action became obvious to Jabin, but he pushed that aside also, to see what happened next.
With a low rumbling the air began to pulsate and from the pond there came the most beautiful sound Jabin ever heard. Not a sound he could later describe. It filled him with joy. Had his physical body been present, it would have brought tears of rapture to his eyes. This ecstasy grew in intensity until he thought he must surely burst, for without doubt no mortal mind could endure such bliss. When suddenly the euphoria altered to an engulfing awe, as each present witnessed a being clothed in white light rise serenely from the crystal waters. If Jabin could have moved, he would have followed the example of the young men and prostrated himself face down on the wet snow, for plainly this entity was a being to be worshipped.
For an indefinite period, Jabin alone was forced to behold a being whose presence simultaneously terrified and mesmerised him.
‘Rise, my favoured ones.’
Jabin saw the lips move but the voice it seemed came from all directions at once, so deep and rich that one would have thought the universe had taken voice and begun to speak. Jabin longed at least to bow before this great one.
At the word of the glowing immortal the gathered men rose to stand and gaze with enthralled eyes upon the speaker.
‘Each of you knows me. You have been chosen and guided to this sacred place for the same purpose...’ As He spoke, the Holy One seemed to emanate an aura of absolute power, an ascendancy that made all standing excruciatingly aware of their inferiority in comparison, ‘...The purpose of guiding, protecting and teaching the rest of mankind on the world of Asasa. You are to be my High Priests.’
With the last word the Holy One raised his hands. From his body emanated luminous beams that speed toward each of the men, encasing them in an envelope of purest light. Time again froze, as if it was of no consequence. Nothing of earth and nature moved as the glowing One silently communicated his will with each man present. One by one the glow around each dimmed, to leave the men in a lesser but continuing nimbus.
The Holy One spoke aloud again. ‘To you I give the gift of Dunamis, the ability to draw on the strength of your God through the channel and facets of the supernatural and its mysteries. From this day forward you shall be hailed as the Azure Magi, the priests of the Most High. As you learn of the facets of this gift, so you will learn of me. To each of you I have given a partial understanding, a foundation for you to build on together. But know this, none of you is above the other, united you must serve me, divided you will fall.’
A book of great volume and of shining silver appeared in his hand. ‘To the whole, I give you this. This tome will be to you both guide and law; its words are final and its mysteries deep. Study it dutifully and live by it faithfully, for by it will things of the future be foreknown and the path for your feet to take be revealed. Be true my Priests.’
With that the holy one turned and, to Jabin’s wonder, stared openly at him—smiling. As he began to slowly sink back beneath the sacred waters of the pond, he pointed almost casually and released a stream of light in Jabin’s direction.
Wishing to flinch away, Jabin nonetheless felt nothing. Looking back to the pond, he was greeted with the bewildered faces of all the young men looking back at him. Glancing down he now saw the rest of his body, though not one of flesh. Opalescence. A glowing skin of myriad coloured lights. In panic Jabin looked again to the pond, in time to see the smiling face of the holy one sink into the mirrored surface of the waters, yet not before he heard uttered four more words, words that Jabin were convinced spoken to him.
‘You are the beginning.’ Then all was darkness.
The building itself was impressive, even to an immortal. Flawless was the masonry work; inspection revealing only the finest hairlines as evidence the structure was indeed made from separate blocks. And all this capped with a vaulted roof of stone over one hundred and fifty feet in height.
Once the possession of a kingdom of men, the fortress was now the residence to Tarnul—the Lord of darkness.
Evidence of his presence was apparent everywhere, from the noxious black mould that had taken hold on every surface, to the clogging mist that continually rose from the now dead earth.
The dais that rose at one end of the massive chamber supported in its centre a throne from antiquity, its once silver brilliance now the dullness of bronze. The very air that circulated the chamber had become corrupt, dank, and poignant; as with the odour of a festering sore.
It was just as Tarnul liked it.
Ornan halted his pondering of the building to cast his gaze around his gathered brothers. The summons had been urgent, clear in its charge that none be absent—and none it seemed had been foolish enough as to ignore the call.
A conclave meeting of all the dark brothers had not occurred since the time of the Ancient Wars, and Ornan noted the air of speculative confusion written on the faces of most present. He alone of the assembled Dark-ones knew the reason for this meeting—or at least had an understanding of the reason—thus he alone understood his master’s excitement; which he shared. The Hated-One had touched the barrier, the very fabric of their corporeal prison screaming of it.
He had also heard the words.
Yes... The words...
Ornan neither understood nor knew who they were directed to, and that troubled him. For whom on this forsaken planet populated only by the Dark Ones and their minions would the Hated One communicate with? And what did the words mean?
Ornan pushed the questions aside and bowed.
Exiting form a recessed chamber, their master approached.
Robed completely in black with cowled head hidden deep within its folds, the dark High Lord stepped from the shadows. Alike to a shadow, he seemed to drift to the raised dais and mount his waiting throne. Concealed well within his hood, Tarnul’s dull blood-red eyes perused those bowed before him. As he gazed, he ruminated on the past, one that held a lost glory; a time where he possessed almost unbounded power; a time when he and his horde were not entrapped upon a single pitiful planet, but were free. Free to roam the cosmos and its endless systems, free to enter the otherworldly realms of the incorporeal universe—the domain of the spirits—the place from which all that now is originated, the place from which all that will be is ultimately decided. Above all he missed that place.
Titanic had been the struggle for power, immense in extent the forces unleashed. Both the hated Creator and his own dark host battling as only immortals can to gain the pre-eminence, to attain the position of supreme controller over all that is; that at least was Tarnul’s ambition and, he assumed, the obvious goal of the Hated One—though his enemy always denied such a motive. But all that was a long time past as mortals measure, over two thousand years. All that time the great High Dark Lord had spent as a prisoner, defeated and cast down by the infernal Hated One, imprisoned and stripped of so much power.
Tarnul probed outward again as was his constant habit, and, as was the constant result, he struck the barrier; a scourge erected by the hated Creator; a cursed impenetrable force of energy that the Dark Lords had given up attempting to overcome; a shield that prevented any from departing the realm of Asasa, in any form.
But the High Dark Lord knew its limitations, and the deep disquiet it surely caused the Hated-One before and after putting it in place. For to raise an enclosure capable of resisting the powers of the Dark Horde, to prevent their release, would also prevent any from entering, so leaving the Creator and his creatures separated by his own hand.
Tarnul again wondered why the Hated One had chosen to leave his creatures so trapped. However, it was because of this very thing that he had called for an assembling of the princes of night. Breaking from his contemplation, he addressed his waiting Dark Lords.
‘Brethren of the dark, the Hated-One has touched the barrier.’
Tarnul watched his simple statement have its effect. Could feel it, as those gathered, with wild hope in their eyes, used their powers to reach out for the barrier. Escape was their most desperate dream.
He watched in silence as that hope dissolved, as each Darklord struck the obstacle they had thought removed. One by one all eyes turned again to their master, confidence turned to uncertainty on their faces.
Tarnul was silent. He relished being master, most powerful, feared and respected of the dark host; and by some the most hated. He relished that most of all.
He coveted the abilities and knowledge he possessed. Powers that possibly exceeded the rest of the Dark Ones combined. He delighted now in the confusion on their faces; his servants, all waiting for him, their master to reveal to them his hidden knowledge.
‘The barrier has been touched, but as you have discovered it remains unbroken. However, the key to its undoing is now known to me, and that key is,' he paused for effect, 'an Elf.’ The last was delivered slowly, pronouncedly, the speaker fully aware of the response it would incur.
Listening, Ornan coveted what his master had, this power over others.
‘How is that possible master, no Elf lives?’ This came from Chkurl, a lord Ornan considered a fool, but more importantly, a rival to Tarnul’s favour.
No matter his feelings though, Chkurl’s question was still valid. What Elf was left for the Creator to communicate with? Had not the last died in the fighting pits centuries ago as entertainment for the Dark horde?
‘There are Elf’s that yet live Chkurl.’ Came Tarnul’s reply, ‘But they reside many leagues across the Boundless Sea.’
Tarnul’s words raised a stir amoung the gathered, but only one voice spoke up.
‘There is no land beyond the sea, master.' This from the Lord Sabototh, 'The land we abide on is the only soil on this planet, even the least of us are aware of the geography of the worlds, how is it that you speak of another land?’ Known for his arrogance, Sabototh’s tone still managed respect, though spoken through a sneer.
Tarnul’s eye’s flared his contempt of the presumptuous dark lord. ‘You, fool, show only the grandeur of your ignorance in what you say, being matched only by the grandeur of your arrogance in supposing that I would hastily speak of things I have no conviction of.’ With his finger still pointed at Sabototh and a look of murderous menace, Tarnul continued. ‘You speak of knowing the geography of the worlds. Tell me, how far does the eastern point of the land extend from where we now stand? Surely your prodigious knowledge can recall such a thing.’
Sabototh’s expression revealed his thoughts better than any words; barely contained fear was clearly evident in his eyes; his sneer of arrogance replaced by apprehension. Pride still marked his stance though and there was no wavering of voice as he answered. ‘Almost two thousand leagues, my master.’
Tarnul’s angry mien changed to a grin, remarkably alike to that of a skull. ‘Subservience toward your betters has always managed to escape you Sabototh. A problem I may soon rectify if you fail to develop it yourself. However, along with your failing diffidence is your flawed knowledge of how the land lays.’ Tarnul paused just long enough for Sabototh to open his mouth in reply. ‘You are incorrect in saying that from here to the eastern tip of the Motherland is two thousand leagues. Albeit you would have been correct if I had asked you that same question before we were cast down, but things have changed since then.
‘Ornan, tell us the distance to Eastern shore. Show our insolent brother that my more trusted lords are also my wiser.’
Ornan enjoyed a gloating look at Sabototh before responding, ‘Just fewer than one thousand leagues master, the land is not as it was before we were cast down.’
Sabototh’s expression, as that of many of the other lords, showed surprise.
Tarnul continued, ‘One thousand leagues Sabototh. A thousand less then we remember it created as, and do you know where that land now is?’
Sabototh merely shook his head, too intimidated to speak.
‘Well I will answer for you then’, responded Tarnul, ‘It is over ten thousand leagues across the Boundless Sea, on the other side of this world. There, on a portion of land once part of this continent, live the last remnants of Elvin-kind. One of whom now holds the key of our imprisonment.’
The hubbub created by Tarnul’s words reverberated as a wave across the chamber.
Ornan had listened throughout and had yet to hear anything he had not already reckoned upon, but the answer to one question eluded him, this he directed to his master. ‘High Lord Tarnul, I have heard the words of the Hated One to the Elf, but I am at a loss as to what they mean and how He could have done such a thing without breaking the barrier. Have you an answer?’
Ornan was aware all eyes were on him. Of all his brother lords, only he and Tarnul had heard the Creator’s message; and such revealed much power. He smiled inwardly to himself, for this would elevate him in the eyes of his peers. Yet, not one to be carried away by outward signs of his vanity, he tempered his expression, fully cognisant that Tarnul tolerated none who revelled in self glory; such did not make faithful servants, and Ornan wanted nothing more than to be seen as a very faithful servant—or rather, the power that such a servant would obtain.
Tarnul’s aspect became frustrated, and the shadow that hung about him deepened. ‘To the second of those questions, Prince Ornan, I am at a loss myself to answer. And as to how it was done, I can only speculate. We know that the Hated-One cannot touch the shield without at least weakening it, if not destroying it completely. Therefore, the answer to what was done does not rest so much in the how, as in the when.’ To Tarnul’s satisfaction, perplexity manifested itself on the faces before him. He continued in the smugness that greater knowledge so often produces, speaking in a lecturing tone, as those who hold themselves in high regard do. ‘When did our enemy give his message? There are but two possibilities: past or present. The present has been eliminated, for the shield could not still stand otherwise. This leaves us with only the past.
‘Our hated enemy, if my conjecture is correct, has shown adroit cunning. At some time before the shield was erected, the Hated-One had given a message to one of Elf kind in this present age.’
On the faces of some, bewilderment had become blatant scepticism. It was once again Sabototh who voiced this doubt. ‘What you say is a paradox. No mere Elf, even those of the Ancient Azure priesthood, has the power to travel through time. Even we were limited in that. What you suggest then is implausible.’ Again Sabototh’s tone, all respect, was at variance with his expression, mocking doubt.
Ornan noted this, and so was surprised that anger did not mark the Dark High Lord’s features. Yet though Tarnul’s face reflected nothing, his words were cold as ice as he replied.
‘Your hand is at the door to my wrath. I advise you to leave us now before you open that door with your foolish tongue and discover what it means to enter it.’
Always quick to speak, Sabototh was not so quick of wit. In a stance that lacked all sagacity—in light of Tarnul’s expression, he answered, ‘You have no right to speak to me this way. You are High Lord because we put you in your position. I demand the proper respect due a Dark Lord. Or are we of no more esteem in your eyes than the dispensable Kobolds?’
Ornan was sure Sabototh would have said more, but whatever words he had intended left him as a startled wheeze. With no time to think, let alone react, he found himself gripped by the throat in an invisible fist of power. Lifted from his feet it rammed him at great speed against a caryatid support of the arcaded roof section, forcibly enough to crack the carved figure across her waist and dislodge the masonry.
The impact, powerful as it was, was hardly felt by Sabototh. Fear, though, was clearly etched on his face.
Ornan could sense the intensity with which Sabototh fought back, with the might of an immortal being harnessing powers that had once been enough to split mountains. Using every strand of dark energy that was his to command, Sabototh opposed the fist of power Tarnul had holding him.
To no avail.
No hint of strain marked Tarnul's voice, only icy hostility, ‘You were warned fool, but you were heedless, and now you have opened the door to your own ending.’ The shadows about Tarnul grew darker still, ‘you have no longer any rights. You are less in my eyes than the lowest of servants. And as to my position as High Lord, I stand here because of my might, not your choosing.’ His words were bitten emphasis, ‘My strength, my knowledge, and my power have put me over you, and the price of your forgetting that fact is your soul.’
If the assembled Dark Lords’ had been quiet before, they were deathly so now. Sabototh’s mien had altered from fear to terror. No shred of arrogance or pride remained in his eyes, only the horror of ultimate ending, something abominable to an immortal.
It is known that the vital essence of a being cannot die. However, for those powerful enough and willing to take the risk, it is possible to lay hold of a weaker opponents soul, to subdue it to the point where it may be absorbed, and then to take it as one’s own. However, the attempt to assimilate another’s essence carries great risk, requiring complete confidence in ones pre-eminence over an opponent; for to fail in fully binding the soul of another, would end in your losing your soul to them.
Tarnul had such confidence.
From the fear in Sabototh’s eyes, he believed also that Tarnul was able. Yet he did not surrender, even as he was drawn across the hall toward the High Lord. Such was the struggle between the two that a high pitched keening began to emit from all around, the focused energies causing the air to vibrate with power. With the increasing noise came heat, the air jumping hundreds of degrees within seconds. Sabototh’s body armour began to melt, so much power poured into saving himself that he could not spare any to protect the armour nor flesh of the Elvin form he had chosen to take. In reaching the High Lord the charred flesh of his body was beginning to fall as ash to the stony floor, itself now aglow and dull red.
Tarnul on the other hand was untouched by strain, the antithesis of Sabototh’s condition. Bathed in a cool nimbus of blue, his calm was most evident in his smile as he spoke a few final words to his opponents burning image, ‘I claim your essence as mine Sabototh. You will live eternally enslaved as an impotent entity within me. This day your existence will cease, yet live you will Sabototh, forever as mine. Welcome dark fool into my embrace.’ The words were ominous and many shivered in the heat.
Ornan was not one of them. Mesmerised by his master's display, he wondered how he’d fair in such a contest. He watched as Tarnal began drawing Sabototh’s vital essence to himself.
Such was the puissance of Tarnul’s dominant power that the assembled Lords felt their own inner beings threatened, at risk if they did not protect themselves. A chill fear forced each to erect their own shields.
All watched in awe.
Amoung the Dark Lords such an end was dreadful to contemplate, to witness Horrifying. Yet they watched as Sabototh’s soul departed its ruined flesh and as shadow approached the waiting High Lord. Having no body, Sabototh could no longer be heard to scream, but all could imagine the horror of it as the futilely struggling spirit came within reaching distance of Tarnul’s baneful visage. Suddenly funnelling, it was sucked as a maelstrom into Tarnul’s eyes. Within the space of a breath Sabototh was gone. The High Lord’s orbs turned from red to pitch black. With a staggered step and moan escaping his lips, he sunk to one knee.
Ornan watched his masters bowed head and trembling body. It was obvious a struggle was taking place; Sabototh’s final vies for escape. To falter at this point, even for a moment, would see Sabototh, though much weaker, turn and take Tarnul's soul instead. Yet, as suddenly as he had gone to his knee, the Dark High Lord straightened, eyes again dull red and a smile on his lips declaring victory.
Turning to face Ornan and Chkurl, with an expression that denied any struggle had taken place, he spoke, ‘Ornan and Chkurl, you I have chosen to find the Elf to whom the Hated-One spoke, and once found to contain him. As for the rest of you,’ He addressed the assembly, ‘Once again we fight the Hated-One’s creation. This time however it will lead to our freedom. Each of you is to begin construction of ships for transporting our army, ships capable of carrying them to the other side of this world. I leave the logistics of such an undertaking in each of your hands.’ He shifted his attention to two Dark Lords standing together at the foot of the dais. ‘You, lords Brachk and Dryma, will come with me now. Those of you for whom I have further instructions will receive them in due course. This conclave meeting of the Lords of Night is at a close.’
Dissatisfaction at being dismissed without consideration to their own concerns was evident on many faces, yet none spoke in protest, subdued by Tarnul’s display of power and the horror of seeing their dark brother’s demise; many appeared even relieved, eager to be excused.
Soon the great hall was empty of all but Ornan, Tarnul, and the others he had summoned.
Chkurl, proud at being hand-picked, stood by the master. In contrast to Ornan's well-groomed appearance, Chkurl had adopted the look of a barbarian warrior. A large six foot frame covered completely in furs, a hard face, dirty, rugged, with a full beard and shoulder length head of ruddy unwashed hair. Although of no need to an immortal Dark Lord, he still carried a broadsword at his hip. A buckler which now hung from a shoulder strap completed the look.
Though the aspect a Dark Lord chose reflected nothing of their abilities or power, it did disclose something of their character. Therefore Ornan's appraisal of Chkurl concluded that, as the barbarian he resembled, so too were his ambitions simple and unrefined. Contrary to Ornan, Chkurl had no desire for great power, only recognition of his prowess. In line with that barbaric nature he chose simple ways to achieve his goal, often challenging others of the horde to pointless duels. So Ornan held Chkurl in low regard, considering him and his crude ways both inferior and foolish. However, this did not eliminate him as a threat to Ornan's ambitions, for Tarnul took pleasure in Chkurl’s simple ways and slavish obeisance. For this, Ornan hated Chkurl, for none coveted the High Lord’s favour more than he—and the power of that favour.
Ornan turned in disgust from is evaluation of Chkurl, and faced the two other Dark Lords, Brachk and Dryma. Both stood at a distance from him and one another, facing the High Lord. Neither appearance was Elfin, apart from the fact that they stood erect on two legs, but there the similarity ceased.
Brachk’s head resembled that of a serpent, with torso and upper limbs of a lion and lower limbs feathered and clawed. Dryma, of whom Ornan knew little, disconcerted and confused the perceptions when focusing on any single feature of his appearance. Appearing at times insubstantial, like a shadow, he flitted from one form to the other, making it so hard to comfortably focus on him that Tarnal commanded he choose a form and stick with it. Dryma chose the shadow, frustrating Ornan further; being unable to divine much of the lord's character from his murky silhouette.
Tarnal's voice drew the distracted attention of Ornan and the rest of the lord’s to himself.
‘You four I have chosen to share something which the others will not be privileged to hear. You will all have questions, but first listen to my words.
‘Many centuries have passed since we last fought the Azure Priest’s, and I’m sure none have forgotten that if we did not have such a vast army at our command then we might have lost that war. We learnt quickly that individually the Priests were almost powerless against us, but together their strength increased far beyond proportion to their numbers.
‘Yet they were few compared to us and eventually fell, though not before reducing our number to a fraction of what it was.’ Tarnul paused reflectively for a moment before turning to Ornan. ‘Ornan, you and I alone heard the Hated-One speak. Was there anything you noted of the Elf he spoke with?’
Ornan examined his recollection of the time, but recalled nothing of significance. ‘No’, was his regretful reply.
‘Well I did,’ said Tarnul. ‘The stirring of the spirits alerted me that the Hated-One was up to something, and I prepared myself to know what. Surprised I was, though, to find that it was no Azure Magus the Creator conferred with, neither a grown Elf, but a mere Elf child. A male I think. Of course, I attempted to obstruct the message and enter the child's mind; however, an outside force prevented me —the Azure. They were protecting him. Far fewer than we have faced before, yet more than I could overcome alone. I had to be content with concealing my presence. And though it neared the limits of my abilities, I was able to witness what happened.’
Tarnul went silent again, his face taking on an unreadable expression. ‘Ornan and Chkurl, I send you not just to find a mere Elf child, but a threat greater than even the Ancient Azure, a threat to our very existence. This child has the key to both our freedom or our desolation. For to this child has been given the complete power of the Azure, that power which they call Dunamis. This power which before was distributed amongst them proportionately and only as need demanded, has now been given in its fullness to one individual. He we must have under our control, or dead.’ Tarnul raised a gloved fist to his face as he spoke the last. Then smoothly turning, his robe following him like some beleaguering ghost, he faced away from them. His voice lowered as he continued, ‘as you know, Dunamis is the force the Creator established to uphold the shield. The Azure drew from this power. Being given to this boy in its fullness now means it works through him to that purpose, though as yet he probably does not know this. To destroy the child, therefore, is to remove the focus of Dunamis' converging force, thus releasing it, and enabling us to harness it for ourselves, and once that power is in our control, so too the barrier’
Ornan was so stunned that he stood for a moment, dumbfounded. He had encountered the Azure Priesthood before, five or six he could handle alone, with difficulty. But anything more was a force beyond him. To contemplate facing the combined might of Dunamis in one individual? Well, it could not be done.
He had witnessed with his own eyes a Dark Lord so weakened by the drain of Dunamis, that a simple warrior’s sword had felled him, sending his soul to the realm of the dead. Such a thing had once been thought impossible, no longer. Trapped in the physical domain, the Dark Horde had seen the impossible become a threat and quickly learnt to fight only in groups, and then against only few Azure.
It was with this knowledge and respect born of fear that Ornan responded. ‘How, my lord, are we expected to destroy this Elf? Child though he may be, what hope have two Dark Lords against even a child replete with the power of Dunamis?’
Tarnul replied without pause, gesturing casually, ‘Quite simple, my faithful Ornan. You will not go as Dark Lords.’ His reply contained no mirth, his smile was not mocking, rather the grin of one who had thought through a problem and reached all the answers.
Ornan decided to wait for Tarnul to expand on his bewildering statement. But Chkurl had neither patience nor the prudence for it. In a perplexed tone he asked, ‘What do you mean by, “not Dark Lord's”, master?’
Sombre and with a portentous tone, Tarnul replied, ‘You will not like what I am about to say, but in the face of desperation we have no other choice. As Dark Lord's you would be easily detected in the world of Elf’s, and, being only two, just as effortlessly dealt with by the Azure, or the child himself for that matter. Therefore the only way to remove your conspicuousness amongst them, is to remove...’, Tarnul hesitated for a moment to stare intensely into the eyes of the Dark Lord's, adding the weight of his authority to the loathsomeness of his words, ‘to remove your powers.’
Ornan and Chkurl jerked backwards a step. Although both had deduced were Tarnul's words were leading, their impact was no less staggering. Ornan was first to reply, his brow an etching of misgivings. ‘High Lord Tarnul, you know, master, that I am always your most faithful servant, but what you ask... What you ask is so much. To strip us of our powers would make us susceptible to the mundane dangers of this world, forcing us to use physical means in defending ourselves or killing another. With our full powers it would be difficult if not impossible to destroy this child, how then are we to destroy him with no means other than that afforded to the mortals of this world?’ Ornan would have stopped there, but he decided it was time to lay it all out, with the hope that he could stall Tarnul’s plans through sheer weight of questions; a vain effort he knew. He tried nonetheless. 'Also master, to whom, or what, will the safe keeping of our powers be entrusted? And how can we be guaranteed that another will not take them? For, as you surely know lord Tarnul, to release ourselves of our puissance frees another to take it themselves at ease.’
Chkurl carried on where Ornan left off, attempting the same futile strategy Ornan employed. ‘If I may speak master, how if we are made devoid of our immortal abilities are we to travel to and from this land on the other side of the world?’ Chkurl spoke with a tone of resignation that reflected Ornan's own fatalism. For both knew Tarnul would have planned this long in advance, the answers to all their protests waiting in queue. By the very presence of Brachk and Dryma, both Ornan and Chkurl had already surmised what the High Lord’s answer would be.
They were right. Tarnul responded. ‘Your questions have been considered and I have answers for them all, but understand this: the child, as I have mentioned, is the key to our freedom. The Hated-One has transferred to him the power to uphold the shield. Before this time Dunamis was in the world, but only as the Azure required it, now it is given completely to one. If we do not destroy him soon, while his powers are still new to him and largely unrealised, then he will grow in might beyond all hope of overwhelming.’ Tarnul came forward to place a hand on each of their shoulders, ‘But if destroyed, then the complete potential of Dunamis will be freed for our taking, ours to use to lay waste the barrier. To leave this child to come to his maturity would be to place the enemy's blade at our own necks. A blade, I do not need to remind you, which would be ready at any time to destroy us.’ Tarnul paused meaningfully before going on. ‘Now you understand the importance of your task and why I ask you to lay aside your powers to achieve it. We cannot risk your being detected as Dark Lord's, for that would alert the Azure as to our knowledge of their whereabouts, and that must not happen. Not until we have the advantage in our hand.
‘As to your questions: How to kill the child is something I have deliberated much upon. Being mortal he will, if caught unaware, be totally unprotected from physical attack. But to kill him and thus release Dunamis before the Dark Horde is present to harness it will only allow the Azure to take control of it again. Therefore, you must detain the child until we arrive by ship with the army.’
‘But master, how do we confine such a one without our powers?’ Chkurl voice reflected the disturbance within.
Tarnul answer was immediate, ‘With this.’ Raising his hands the High Lord revealed two thumb sized vials, both containing a milky white liquid.
Using their abilities to see beyond the obvious, the Dark Lords probed the conglomeration of substances the liquid was composed of. They noted the complex formulation of ingredients in precise amounts. With their complete knowledge of Elf biology, they were well aware of the potent effect of such a poison.
‘The liquid will kill the child master.’ Ornan said bluntly.
‘Yes, if taken in too large a dose. However, a few drops every couple of days will rob any mortal of their abilities to reason coherently, four drops will prevent all voluntary muscular movement, and six or more will kill, the more the swifter.
‘Once in your hands, and the how of that is up to you, but once yours, you must conceal the child until we arrive, being sure that he is constantly secured and incoherent.’ Tarnul then opened his hands, with palm exposed, revealing two rings of silvery grey metal, a small crescent shaped black stone embedded in their surface. ‘To aid you in remaining hidden from the Azure scrying, which they will surely use after the child is taken. These rings will prevent you from being detected by anything but mortal means.’
Ornan and Chkurl passively took a ring each and placed it on their finger.
‘Now’, continued Tarnul, ‘As to how you will travel, and the safe keeping of your powers.’ He turned abruptly from Ornan and Chkurl to summon Brachk and Dryma, one to either side of him. Both approached with immediacy born of fear. Together they knelt to the left and right of their master.
Although Ornan knew neither Dark Lords well, he knew that were of limited abilities in relation to the rest of the Horde; revealed in their hasty willingness to kneel in the High Lord’s presence before summoned to do so. Having witnessed the demise of Sabototh, Ornan did not blame the two lords their timorous genuflection. Ornan waited to hear Tarnul's explanation. None came.
With planned suddenness, Tarnul placed a hand on each of the kneeling lord's heads and with a single word of power and a fluid downward thrust prostrated Brachk and Dryma before him. Immediately a nimbus of red light encased the now insensate Dark Lord's. With a pulsing energy that could be both heard and felt, the two rose ponderously to their feet. They hung with heads slumped forward, suspended as if from invisible bonds three paces apart and a short distance above the stone floor. As Ornan watched, thin tendrils of power broke off from the nimbus surrounding each lord and began to intertwine, weaving together to form a quickly growing web in the open space between them. As the complex pattern became denser, so also did the void become darker, appearing now as a billowing black cloud amidst an ever-moving lattice of dull red light. Within the space of moments the light receded, to be smothered by a black emptiness bordered on either side by inert Dark Lords, themselves half swallowed by the void.
The completed Portal of Travel was nothing new to the Dark Lords; like every other means it too had proven futile against the barrier and had thus been dismissed as a way of escape.
Although before their exile it had been ability often employed, this was the first time Ornan had ever witnessed living beings utilised as portal stanchions. Therefore, with mild curiosity, he continued to watch in silence, as did Chkurl.
Tarnal positioned himself squarely before the portal and again with a single word extended his arm with palm exposed this time revealing a spinning white Orb of Vision. With another brief command and controlling gesture, Tarnul sent the orb with blinding speed toward the portal which swallowed it up as if it had never existed. He turned to Ornan and Chkurl.
‘The Orb will return when it has found the land we seek. No doubt you are wondering why I have chosen two Dark Lords to act as Portal Stays?’ He didn’t wait for their reply. ‘Lords Brachk and Dryma I have chosen not only as sentinels of this portal, but also as guardians of your power. As you both know, only those who use the portal can command it. You therefore, having once conferred your powers upon them, will enter and once through you will command the portal to close on this side, thus preventing any other the use of it or from command over it. Being the only Dark Lord's in that land, you will be the only ones capable of retrieving your rightful powers; after your task is accomplished of course.’ Tarnul said no more, but rather calmly turned and stood waiting before the portal for the orbs return.
Ornan looked over at Chkurl and saw that he too was surprised at the simplistic and flawless solutions Tarnul offered in response to their objections. With a less than reserved realisation, Ornan understood that the High Lord wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
Quirinicotilius sat silently next to the pallet, gently holding the hand of the still form laying there. Both his hand and the one he held reflected the changes that had occurred to the owner of each. Quirinicotilius for the first time in his ancient life felt the advance of old age upon his body; and a rapid advance it was. Seeing that the power behind the Azure's almost ageless existence was no longer theirs, it appeared to be making up for lost time, and Quirinicotilius knew that the days left to him in the flesh were swiftly drawing to an end. The thought saddened the Azure, for he was a lover of life. Known by all as the epitome of kindness and joviality, even in the numerous distressing eras of the Azure history Quirinicotilius had maintained a cheerfully optimistic outlook that could not but infectiously rub off on those around. And now, though that life was coming to a close, Quirinicotilius still found he had comfort and hope enough to share; the source being the same that had always enabled him to remain positive throughout his long existence –his God.
As with all Azure, but perhaps more in some ways than most, Quirinicotilius was a man of faith, possessing a confidence in the power, presence, and foreknowledge of his God that suffused his every thought and lay behind his every action. Now, as then, it was in his creator that he placed his reliance; and the one whose hand he now held, the creators Chosen.
Focusing on the hand, Quirinicotilius ruminated on the boy it once belonged to, as many changes having occurred to this one as had to the Ancients. The once youthful lad of slight appearance now possessed the well-toned physique of a man in his early twenties, and, if Quirinicotilius were any judge of such matters, he would say that the young face was a handsome one; Kingly in its cast, he thought. With a strong jaw line and a face that revealed a good heart, even in repose. Quirinicotilius chuckled at his own bias, seeing how affection swayed perception, he cared for this boy.
‘A face revealing a good heart indeed,’ he mumbled to himself humorously, next I’ll believe that white hair signifies wisdom. But the Azure none-the-less believed in the goodness of the young man’s heart, he only wished the lad would awaken to prove it.
It had been five weeks since the Azure had gathered to bestow the power of Dunamis upon Jabin. Now only half the number of Ancients still lived, less each day, and in spite of all their efforts to the contrary, Jabin remained unconscious. The passing on of the Gift to the Ralisian line had been successful, but a success that had carried a heavy price. The feeblest of the Azure had died during the ceremony of transference, their powers and lives violently torn from them. And within the weeks following many more had passed on, some aging faster than their metabolisms could cope, others from injuries incurred when thrown by the explosive forces that containing and transferring Dunamis had produced. But the strongest, those that had managed to maintain some form of control over the conveying, those who had managed with the last of their draining powers to erect a barrier against the volatile energies that surrounded them, these still lived; though fewer with each passing week.
These remaining Azure were troubled, over the fact they no longer possessed the power to protect the people, but more-so that the one who did lay, for all practical purposes, powerless in a coma.
The door opening into the room abruptly brought Quirinicotilius back from His contemplation. It was brother Dored who stood in the entrance. An aged Azure Dored, but one who still carried his frame erect, and acted and spoke with an authoritative calm. ‘Brother Pul has passed on. Reman and Vral are on their deathbeds. Sosthene has called for council.'
To anyone not knowing Dored, he would have sounded almost callous speaking of the death of a friend and the mortal rest of two others in a tone resembling that of indifference. But Dored was not only a brother in faith to Quirinicotilius, but a good friend also, and Quirinicotilius could see behind the mask his brother wore so well, could read the eyes and see the wretchedness that Dored felt within his soul; for the departed Pul was not only a spiritual brother to Dored, but one of flesh also.
Empathy clutched at Quirinicotilius' throat, preventing him from speech. Rising therefore, he approached and compassionately embraced his friend, knowing for all his stoic detachment that Dored still craved to be held, to share his grief. In Quirinicotilius' clasp, Dored's resolve crumbled. With a pitiable cry he leaned into his brother’s shoulder and together they wept. For long minutes they remained locked together in the consoling comfort of each other's touch. The stored anxieties and recent distresses halved in the sharing of tears, the bond of friendship doubled in the sharing of solace.
At last Dored pulled away, and with his usual voice but lighter countenance said, 'Sosthene has summoned council, those of us who remain must decide a course of action to take and pray the Creator guide our steps.’
‘Who’s to watch over Jabin during the assembly?’
‘We’re to take him with us. Sosthene requires he be present.’ replied Dored, his shrug revealing that he didn’t know why.
Both paused and looked at the inert but healthy appearing young man on the pallet. Both then looked at the aged frame of the other.
‘I don't know about you good Dored, but I think if I attempt to lift that lad parts of me might quickly regret it. Maybe you should go and fetch some sturdier limbs from the young men working in the store yard.’
With a nod and exaggerated pretence of frailty, Dored smiled and theatrically limped off. Quirinicotilius chuckled at his friend’s rare attempt at humour as he grabbed a blanket from the only shelf in the room and draped it over Jabin. He then sat and waited. He was awoken by a gentle shake of the shoulder. With embarrassment he noted Dored and the two middle aged men behind him.
‘The assembly will be awaiting us sleepy-head, let's not keep them waiting.’ Dored said, with another of his rare smiles.
Mumbling words of mock indignation, Quirinicotilius rose and directed the younger men to take an end of the pallet each and follow.
By the time Quirinicotilius and Dored arrived at the council of meeting, the remaining Azure had already been seated for some time.
‘Ah, there you are brothers, we were beginning to worry; is all well?’
Quirinicotilius dismissed the two men before answering Sosthene, noting for the first time just how big the red bearded man was. ‘All is well brother, only the need for stronger limbs to carry the chosen kept us from arriving sooner. Council may begin.’ Both Azure took their designated seats, leaving Sosthene the floor.
Sosthene walked up to Jabin's cot and with one hand placed on the lad's chest, he closed his eyes. No word he spoke, but what happened next brought every Azure to his feet with disbelief. Sosthene appeared now twice his normal size, and both Jabin and the hand of the Azure glowed dimly in the lit chamber they were gathered in.
A few muttered astonished oaths, incredulous. Some shouted questions, echoing their bewilderment, but most just stood in silence; stilled faces that hid their owner's thoughts. Over the perplexed voices of the Azure rose that of Sosthene, silencing in its magically amplified rumbling all the others. 'Brothers hear me. As you see, I have access to Dunamis, but I ask you to grant me your attentiveness for a moment so I may explain.’
The dying echo of his augmented voice was all that could be heard in the chamber and with the full attention of all focused on his giant form, Sosthene continued. ‘After the transferring of Dunamis upon Jabin, I realised that the mental link I had formed with him during the ceremony remained partly intact, to the extent that I can feel his presence, if not his thoughts, even now.
‘This along with the fact, as you are possibly aware, that I alone have not aged, caused me to wonder as to what other advantage was left to me. It was not until two nights back while serving as Jabin’s guardian that I discovered I still had passage to the powers of Dunamis, though only when in physical contact with him. When touching Jabin, I can summon the magic at will.’
Removing his hand from Jabin’s chest, Sosthene returned to his normal size and walked to the bench of council before continuing in a more hushed and grieved tone. ‘That, my brothers, is the good news. But as we, the creators appointed Priests, have all learnt in each of our long lives, good news and bad often embrace as lovers, preventing the blessing without the curse and producing that which is treasured through that which is detested. So it is with the news I now have to speak.’
Sosthene's voice took on a keen edge, one full of emotion. Standing, he stretched his hands out as if to encompass them all and resumed his news. ‘We chose a royal seed-line to have perpetual rule over the three realms. A king who would possess the power to lead, protect, and provide for the people as he so needed; a power greater than any on the planet when in its fullness, a power that was once ours alone.
‘Yet in the giving of that power we relinquished our own hold upon it and in so doing unwittingly turned over the last page of our lives. And now we must wait for the book to be closed.
‘But brothers, we did not decide this course through our own wisdom or foreknowledge. Rather it was the holy book and the prophecies contained within it that dictated our actions, indicating that the time for such to be done was now. Of our own volition we remained faithful to the oaths we all made to the Creator, heeding and obeying the prophetic words of the sacred book. Known we, that such action would lead, as it has, to our deaths, still we would have obeyed, for we are his priests to use as he sees fit.’ Sosthene paused briefly before continuing in a softer voice, his eyes revealing a hidden fear. ‘But yesterday my friends, just as death races to meet us, so I witnessed death approaching this land.’
Throughout the chamber there was silence, pure and intense. The fervour with which Sosthene spoke robbed each present of the will to speak lest they hasten the foreboding words he was about to utter.
‘The Enemy sails toward us.’
The words were spoken chokingly, Sosthene collapsing into his seat as he voiced them, deep sadness in his eyes. Also evident was a bitterness that plainly was testing the Azure’s resolve. Amoung the more intuitive Magi some had realised Sosthene’s speech of obedience to the creator, faith in the holy book and dutiful sacrifice through selfless giving were the oration of a desperate man, a man who struggled under the weight of his knowledge and responsibilities; but worse, a man who was beginning to doubt. Doubt the beneficence of the one he so much wanted to believe was infallible and irreproachable. The fine words of his speech were designed more to convince the speaker then those listening that the decisions of a millennium had been wise.
The final words had struck more than just Sosthene to silence. For the second time in the meeting all present rose from their seats. However, it was not the rushed rising of surprise nor shock, but the deathly slow and hesitant one that fear and horror bring.
‘Are you sure brother Sosthene?’ Dored finally asked, the question breaking the dread silence abruptly.
‘Yes, I am sure brother. I sent a scrying across the Boundless Sea. Why, I'm not sure, intuitive sense maybe or just latent fears surfacing. As my travelling neared the shores of the Motherland, I encountered thousands of ships lining the horizon, loaded with the Dark Horde and their demon spawn, carrying them toward us. This is why I have called this meeting, for again we face destruction at the hands of the ancient Enemy.’ Sosthene choked, 'Yet this time all but I am powerless to defend against them and the one on whom we have pinned all our hopes,’ he indicated Jabin, ‘lays, himself helpless.’ With these words, Sosthene let out a ragged sigh and sagged even further into his chair, shoulders shrugged and crest-fallen. To all watching he looked defeated.
They his real battle, shared much of it: a man who for over a thousand years had devoted himself to a God he now questioned, and a cause he now suspected as futile; a man who alone bore the burden of being sole able possessor of the only power capable of resisting the approaching enemy. His dejected image was mirrored in the visage of many of the assembled Azure, Sosthene’s words robbing them of hope, leaving ambivalence in its place.
Some, though, were not so affected, and one in particular stoically refused entrance to the wasting demon that was despair. Rising to stand before them all, Quirinicotilius did what he did best; he gave words of encouragement and hope.
‘My Brothers’, his voice resonated with entreaty, and many despondent heads rose. ‘For years longer than I care to recount we have dwelt together as joint servants of our creator, fellow protectors and guides of the people. We have freely given of the powers we had been blessed with, gladly aiding those we lead. For over a millennium this has been our privilege and life work.
‘And now, once again, we face hardship and supposedly unassailable odds, but may I remind you of not only our past, but of the fact that this time also has been foretold.’
At the mention of their current situation being prophesied, every Azure now gave Quirinicotilius their attention.
‘Have you all forgotten the words of the Sacred Book?’
`When your strength passes and night pervades, when all seems lost; then will the enemy appear. Then seek the One who is taken, though think not them lost.
From amoung you a guide shall be chosen and another to protect until light returns and the darkness gone. Be true my priests. Be watchful. For these things will be a sign to prepare for war.'
Quirinicotilius' words were spoken softly, pleadingly.
And as the first rays of the sun can ever so gently awaken those who are deeply asleep, so too Quirinicotilius' words quietly stirred those who heard them. Discouragement and helpless fear drained from their faces, to be replaced by a new confidence and refocused clarity.
‘Our brother is right. We have been blinded by our own feelings of inadequacy. We have been faithless brothers as to forget the words of the Book. We must have faith, for even now when all seems hopeless we see the creator’s hand preparing and using even this for his purpose.’ It was Sisera who spoke, who along with Sosthene and Vashti were founding fathers of the land of Triad. Well respected by all he was, for his knowledge of the Sacred Book, and loved by the people for his time given in teaching the children and wise council to those troubled. Although he was rapidly aging, Sisera still had youthfulness about him, and his eyes shone with an honesty that told much his character. In truth he was a man who drew great joy from simply observing the everyday things of life; being able to draw from his observations profound truths and helpful insights on living life to its fullest. Like Quirinicotilius, Sisera too was a jovial man, able to laugh loudly and make others laugh just as loud. But the other side of his nature was reflected in the many arduous hours he spent in his small study alone carefully examining the holy book; a book for which he had a passion, both for its piercing moral truths as much as its insight to future occurrences. So when Sisera spoke, others listened.
He walked up to Quirinicotilius, embraced him warmly then continued to address the Azure. ‘The Sacred Book speaks of what we face in several places, but it is only just now that I have realised it.’ Again he patted Quirinicotilius’ arm in credit, ‘The passages referring to this time, although obscure before are clear now in their fulfilment, as if the creator desired them to find definition only in consummation.’ Sisera laughed to himself, obviously amused at some revealed truth that as yet remained hidden from the rest.
‘Brother Sisera.’ Dored’s tone hinted at impatience, ‘Please share your new found wisdom with those of us less familiar with the prophecies you speak of.’
‘I apologise brothers. It's just that this is like a sudden revelation. Quirinicotilius' comments have caused me to recall passages that because of their ambiguity I'd ignored, yet now they are so clear. Let me explain before dear Dored here melts me with one of his stares.’ He hesitated while the few chuckles subsided. ‘The passage that Quirinicotilius brought to our attention mentions our power passing and our night drawing near. It is obvious now what that means; the loss of Dunamis, and our own deaths.’
‘The One refers to Jabin, and according to the prophecy he will in some way be taken, yet not be lost to us. This we have to assume is connected with his current state. Two Priests' are also mentioned; one as guide, one as protector. It would seem to me that you brother Sosthene, due to the fact you alone are still able to access the power, have been chosen as guardian. As yet I do not think we can be sure who is guide, though if I were to hazard a guess I would say Quirinicotilius is the one. Jabin has taken a shining to him from the very first, an affection I believe that is returned by our brother.’ Sisera paused to gather his breath. As he always did when excited he spoke at a pace unmatched by his lungs, a condition not helped by his aging body. After a moment he continued. ‘But there are two other passages which I clearly see now as finding their fulfilment in this time and the near future.’
Everyone was on the edge of their seats now. Not a foot did stirred or hand shifted.
‘One is found shortly after the prophecy Quirinicotilius quoted, it reads;
When the One who appears is taken, know that north is the way, beyond the Northern wild to the further peaks, there to find the waters to quench our need.
The rest with the people must seek refuge in the eastern heights, for there while in waiting will the war come.
‘The other is from a much earlier entry, it reads:
Be true my priests, for testing will come while many of you abide with death. Power is lost, life does ebb, but this test remains for my priests to assail. To those who seek, help will be found.
As a seed is but a seed until it dies, so too the chosen.
The room remained silent, the seated Azure portraying a diversity of expressions. Some nodded to themselves while others sat in quiet contemplation, having heard but still struggling to see any clarity in the prophecies. Still others looked as if a cloud had been lifted from their minds, allowing a moment of lucidity to refresh them. But the silence did not last long, for all had something to say.
‘Then the creator still has work for us to accomplish, we are to lead the people to safety.’
‘Yes, but we are again to train the people in the ways of war.’
‘Are the waters referred to literal or figurative?’
‘And what is alluded to by the chosen having to die as does a seed?’
The questions continued until Sosthene stood. Heaviness still marked his brow, deep rooted doubt that would take more than a rousing speech to undermine. Yet, Quirinicotilius’ words had lightened his load somewhat. Raising his hands in an appeal for order, he once again brought silence to the assembly. ‘Brothers, it is clear now that our future and that of mankind upon Asasa hinges on the decisions we now have to make. As council moderator I advise that we adjourn this meeting and allow Sisera, who among us is the most knowledgeable in the Sacred Book, also brother Quirinicotilius, Dored and myself, time to study the prophecies more closely. During this time the rest of you must make plans to evacuate the people and,’ he paused, ‘For the first time in the history of Triad, we must make preparation for war.’
To the reach of each horizon ships filled the sea, their dark lines marring the play of the sun’s rays on the cresting swell and their cheerlessness seeming at odds with the brilliance of the day and the teeming life beneath them.
The eleven hundred galleons were divided into scores of flotillas, looking from a distance like giant stepping-stones across some vast lake. The magically constructed craft sat low in the waves, weighted by their cargo, the brutal and unruly Dark Horde army. The majority of these remained below decks while the ungainly movements of the few who worked the rigging and kept deck clearly revealed that seamanship was anything but a familiar practice. However, by needs demand they had learnt quickly. Tarnul had forbidden all use of the Dark Lords powers in aiding the voyage and so the journey relied on the sinews of his minions. Beyond the need to protect the ships from magical detection -a belated afterthought- even Tarnul had refrained from further exercise of his power. To ensure secrecy from any Azure with their eyes turned this way, had been the reason given for the command; and such may have indeed been the case. But the Boundless Sea was not only seemingly endless but highly turbulent; a place where nature was free to test the limits of its fury, where wind and wave struck blows with one another in an unending contest of wills. Here it was that Tarnul’s fleet had found itself the anvil between the contenders, a trinket that the wind attempted to drive into the ocean and the waves essayed to throw at the sky. But Tarnul had remained resolute in his decision –No magic.
So the anvil had begun to chip.
‘Lord Tarnul, we lost twelve more ships in that last storm, another four are bordering on unseaworthy. We are going to have to use our powers my lord, if we hope to sail more than a handful of ships into our destination. We have only just begun our journey and already lost an eighth of our fleet, many of which were carrying essential supplies for the army. We...’
The droning appeal came from Dark Lord Foeomen; recently appointed by the High Lord as chief of logistics. Tarnul had considered the appointment a necessity, the fact being he had come close to sinking a few of his own ships if for no other reason but to release his frustration at the unceasing problems bedevilling their journey from the outset. His lowered head revealed only to the floor the annoyance written there as he deliberated the harm he would like to visit upon this insipid, annoying Dark Lord standing before him; he woefully regretted his decision to appoint such a monomaniac.
Oblivious, Foeomen continued delivering his report, appealing several more times to his conviction that unless the power of the Dark Horde was brought to bare the ferocity of the frequent storms would doom their mission. His monotonous dialogue then ended abruptly.
Tarnul looked up at the now silent lord; and look up it was, for Foeomen literally filled the high vaulted cabin. Physically he appeared not far removed from a tree, with skin resembling the texture of bark, limbs that appeared more as the great branches of some oak gone wrong than that of a sentient being. Tarnul momentarily had visions of a large log fire. His words were brushed with irritation as he replied, ‘Lord Foeomen, if I have to tell you or any other of the Dark Horde one more time why we cannot use our powers before we reach our destination, that will be the last thing they ever hear. Is-That-Clear?’
The tree paled, swallowed, and nodded creakingly its comprehension.
‘You may go now, but don't bother me again with anything short of the barrier falling.’
Foeomen rose rapidly, the sound of a small forest being felled and opened the door to leave. Standing ready to enter was another imposing figure, this one was of flesh; ebony flesh.
‘Ah, brother Damd, you received my summons. Foeomen was just leaving, please come in.’
Damd waited for the somewhat pale logistics adviser to clear the hallway before closing the door behind him.
‘He looked somewhat nervous, High Lord. Did you threaten to use him for kindling?’ There was no humour in Damd's voice. After Tarnul, Damd was one of the next most powerful of the Dark Lords; a fact only he and the High Lord new and which both wished to remain that way, a secret. For Damd was not only the military adviser to Tarnul, but his secret eyes and ears among the Dark Horde also.
Easily eight feet in height, Damd looked more a sculptured masterpiece of ebony than a living being. Every feature of his face appeared perfectly chiselled from a slab of black glass, every muscle clearly defined and in flawless symmetry with the rest. His skin was a polished pitch-blackness, reflecting his surroundings like some undulating mirror and his voice was such a deep bass as to be almost inaudible. Not knowing him, one might presume that his choice of appearance reflected an egotistical vanity, but Damd was far from vain; for that requires one actually care what others think of you. Damd cared for nobody and even less for what they thought. His only care was for himself and his desire to escape this world. Rather what motivated such a god-like appearance was a fanatical proclivity for perfection. Everything had to be without flaw; every word spoken precise; every plan made unerring.
Tarnul answered the ebony statue, ‘I was tempted Lord Damd, very tempted. He seems to think the loss of a few ships more important than arriving undetected.’
‘He has a point though High Lord. We need the army if we are to defeat the Azure and their people. It will take all the power of the Dark Horde to deal with the child who possesses Dunamis, we cannot afford the loss of too many ships.’ Inflection never entered Damd's speech, often making it impossible to know the intended nature of his words.
‘Yes, yes, I know. But to save the ships we must use our power and to do that means risking detection by the Azure. We have no choice.’
‘Is there nothing that can be done then High Lord?’
‘Nothing. If we lose half the army, so be it. My hope is that we will not need them at all, and if lord's Ornan and Chkurl are successful in their mission, we shouldn't have to.
‘But if they’re not?’
Tarnul did not reply leaving unsaid what would happen if the mission failed, but Damd was well aware that if Ornan and Chkurl were not successful then all out war would be the only avenue left, and that was an avenue they were unlikely to triumph in.
‘Then our hopes hinge on the capture of the boy. Is there no way to communicate with Ornan or Chkurl?’ Damd asked.
‘Yes and no. Yes, I could send them a message with my powers, which I am not prepared to do. But even done it would be impossible for them to reply seeing that I have stripped them of the means. So my friend, we must be patient and wait until our destination is reached.’
‘I can wait a while longer I think, High Lord.’ Damd's voice inflected nothing in his reply, but his straight back and the set of his jaw told much of just how patient he really felt. ‘I just hope you were right in your choice of Dark Lord's master.’
Tarnul didn’t reply, but his thoughts were the same.
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