Chapter Three

Delin Eu'Lania sat in his study, alone, the darkness outside meeting with the darkness within. He could feel the chair below him, and the desk his arms rested upon, but the rest of the world may as well have vanished for all he noticed it. He didn't even see the approach of Fuadi, his wife. She stood just within the doorway, holding a candle, and that was what finally roused the duke. While hiding his head in his hands blocked all light, and his hearing had started to go slowly in the last season or two, his sense of smell was as sharp as ever, and the smell of melting tallow is unique indeed.

He looked up, his tired eyes looking into her creased and worn face, as familiar to him as his own, and smiled slightly. "I'm just worried over Tarrial my heart. Go on to bed, I will be up in a moment." She smiled, and after crossing the room to kiss him softly and hand him a glass of ale, did as he asked. As he heard her footsteps once more fading away, he opened the drawer in his desk by touch alone, and pulled out a bottle from within. A foul smell filled the room as he pulled the crude rag stopper, and he shuddered even as he poured a healthy amount into his ale, and traversed the room with slow, cautious steps, one hand on the rough stone wall, the other holding the ale until he reached the liquor cabinet.

There he pulled out another bottle, this one at random, and immediately drank all of the ale that he could at once, thumping it down on top of the cabinet and fumbling at the second bottle. When he had it open, he immediately took a swallow, and dropped it on the cabinet as he sank to his knees on the coarse woven rug. The rank smell of the clear liquid mixed with the pungent smell of the brandy that had sloshed over when the bottle was put down, and Delin gagged, quietly, as he shook from the fierce cold of the medicine and the heat of the brandy that swept over him like ocean waves.

After a time that seemed like eternity, but was only a couple of minutes, he was able to stand. He no longer shielded his eyes, although his hand did massage his temple in the odd way that had become second nature in the past few seasons, ever since the headaches had started. Not that he ever thought that they could get this bad! It felt as if mighty Ayima, first huntress, was piercing his head with her wicked flails, passing his skull and sinking directly into his tender mind. With his free hand, he repeated the ritual, with the little left in the glass of ale and the open bottle of brandy, although the reaction was not as severe this time, only causing him to sway on his feet and place a hand on the cabinet in front of him.

It had been getting worse, slowly but steadily. It took more and more of the foul brew each time to drive off the bright, searing agony that raked his mind as cruelly as the fire arrows raked a town under siege, and he did feel as if he were trapped in the prison of his own mind, watching it erode around him under the relentless assault. The priests had told him that it was a war of cleansing fire, burning out all sin so that he could take up the calling of the gods, and the hedge-doctors told him that he had a demon child growing in his skull. The midwife who had delivered every baby in the castle and nursed most of them back to health at one point or another clucked her tongue, shook her head, and gave him the bottle.

It tasted the way death smells, but it made the pain leave for a while, and so far he was still alive. He had seen two other men in his life who went through the head pains and the slow betrayal of their bodies, but it was not slow for either he had seen. It had taken his father only a single rotation to go from headaches sometimes to being a pale shadow of a once powerful man. He had already had the headaches three quarters of a rotation, and he still walked, and talked, without the madness that had plagued his father by now. He rubbed his temples again, and began to put things away, stashing the midwife's potion back in it's drawer. He would have to have her make some more soon.

Just let me finish one more rotation! He prayed to whatever gods may or may not exist beyond this world. Please, just let me have five more seasons, let me see the snows begin to fall, let me see my son turn thirteen, let me see him having one last summer of childhood, and then when the leaves turn, let me tell him, let me be the one to teach him of his destiny. Let me be the one to take away the childhood of the child I love, because at least I will do it with mercy and with tears in my eyes as well. Then I can waste away as my father did, waste away as I watch the snows falling from my bedroom window, and I can remember being married next to the fireplace in the great hall, and remember how she looked in her soft rose colored day gown, and how the snows fell inside but we were warm with love.

These thoughts dominated his mind as he looked out into the still night air, and then he thought of one final prayer. And please, he thought softly, please let Tarrial come back unharmed, and able to guide Sujon when I can no longer do so. With this final, unspoken prayer of the heart, he turned from the window, and padded quietly towards his bedroom, and the arms of the woman he loved. Through the window came a soft glow as he left, a glow that was moonlight and starlight, a light that was faint, and all the more beautiful for how faint it was. Then a cloud moved in front of the window, and the room was dark once more.

Far away from the keep, in a wild patch of jungle, Tarrial sat in the dark, his head bowed and his eyes closed, as before him the dirt started to move, slowly, shaping itself into a broad face. It was a craggy face, pitted and gouged on it's right cheek, and as it appeared the earth itself groaned and trembled slightly. What do you call me for? The face asked.

I call you to beg a favor Tarrial replied, staring down into the face which was only a fraction of the power of the elementals, but the greatest power he dared to raise. He knew well that if he tried something beyond his ability and understanding, he would die. Elemental magic was not to be toyed with.

What favor do you ask? The voice asked, even as it's teeth grew longer. Tarrial watched the face carefully, diverting his mind from those he worried about, and spoke. "Your task is simple."

In another part of the world, Sujon sat alone in a field in the forest, searching for the magic that Tarrial had shown him. Slowly, he began to feel the way he had felt, a sense of joining and fullness that comforted him with his teacher's absence. It seemed that lately he could only get peace on the field or in these exercises.

The feeling of unity deepened, and he could feel the life around him. His concentration shattered as he heard a small stick snap to his left, and the instincts of a warrior took over the young boy's mind, driving out all thoughts of this mysterious power. He dove to his right, and grabbed up a thick branch. Rising to a crouch, he scanned the forest frantically, his heart beating faster than he could remember it. Despite the training he had been receiving for years, despite the fact that he had spent hours at a time learning to disable, injure, and kill, he had never been called on to do so. In truth, he was a rather sheltered boy, loved and protected maybe a little too much by his family. Still, his stance said that he was ready and even expecting a blow, but the blow never fell.

The sounds faded away, and later he would hate himself for not hearing that the noises went towards the south gate. However at the moment, he just tossed down the stick and returned to his trance, seeking the peace that had left him with his teacher's absence. The deeper he went, the more serene his face became, until he once more looked like nothing but a young boy, untroubled by the world and sometimes cruel twists of fate. He sunk deeper, and deeper yet, the world itself falling away, and the faint sounds of battle at the walls of the keep never even registered to his ears, as he finally reached deeply enough to once more not only feel the life around him, but was an extension of the life.

This was what finally warned him, what finally told him that something was wrong, for suddenly, one of the dancing flames of light that he somehow knew was life itself was crushed, and a soft keen of loss flowed from the power itself. Someone had died! And now another, and flickering, a third about to go. Sujon lost the trance in a bolt of sheer terror, and then the sounds reached him. Grabbing up the branch once more, he flew towards the keep, hating himself for going out so unprepared, and frantically worried about his family and friends within the keep, even though a part of him, even after his training, retained the youthful naivety that insisted that people may die, yes, but no-one he cared about.

He arrived at the gate in time to see one of the young guards that had so often watched him and Tarrial at training drop, one hand weakly covering a wound that bubbled forth blood every time he breathed. He looked at the sight, transfixed by horror and pity, and blocked a sword blow with his stick almost absentmindedly, unable to tear his eyes away, somehow sure that the boy, not much older than him, could not die if he watched. Instead he felt the part of him that hid the magic cry out, and the boy's eyes lost all life.

He turned on the men that had attacked his home, holding the large stick like an unwieldy quarterstaff, and attacked them with every intention to kill. There were only ten, and he could hear the keep's guards responding, as well as the three who guarded the gate still. The men attacking the keep were not well trained, but the branch in his hands was awkward and heavy, not at all like a true quarterstaff. He felt slow and ungainly, struggling to find the peace he had learned on the field, and the graceful movements that Tarrial had taught him.

He struck a man, getting the side of the stick up in time to block a sword blow, and then shoved the middle into the midsection of a man in front of him. Too late, he saw a flash out of the corner of his eye, and felt a stinging pain lance along his back. He dropped down and swept the legs out from under the men close enough to him, and almost slipped on his own blood as he began to rise. The sounds of the guard broke through to Sujon, and a man picked him up easily and carried him inside, as half the guard formed around him, insuring the heirs safety.

Inside the keep, the doctors and the god-men waited, but were hustled away by Delin and a midwife. They left, grumbling about how Delin's trust in a mere woman insured his son's death, and the midwife pulled the blood soaked shirt off of the boy's back. She hissed between her teeth at the deep gash that laid open skin and muscle alike, and began to call for supplies.

On a bed in a far off world, a man sat upright, his eyes wide and his hand over his heart, where the most powerful sigul of his office laid. He began whispering rapidly under his breath, the dancing mist that was a seer's power floating around him. He slumped over when he was done, the magics he had used exhausting him. On the true world, the shards of bone that none had seen began to return to their proper places, slowly knitting back together. The boy screamed and thrashed, but was held down by the loving hands of his parents as the alcohol burned into the deep wound on his back.

Even in unconsciousness, the man smiled, knowing somehow that he had done what was needed, what the balance of good and evil required. It was enough, and that knowledge allowed him to sink into a deep, healing sleep. Next to him, a woman muttered in her sleep, and rolled over, placing her hand over the most sacred of marks, smiling the smile of death even in her sleep.

Her dreams are of things that the mind cannot understand, things the mind shies from even seeing, and yet they hold a certain beauty, the beauty of an end, and of an answer. In her dreams madmen cry in their beds, and claw at their flesh, and poets and writers find themselves caught by a dark inspiration. The dream creeps through the minds of beings greater and lesser, and nearly all of them draw their blankets around their shoulders and whisper of the coming, completely unaware. One woman however sat in a dark tent, surrounded by the stench of death and the slime of decaying bodies, and trembled in the growing night. A man, not too far from her as the crow flies looks into a black and silver sky, and convulsively rubs his hand over his mouth, as if to rid himself of some lingering foulness. They both feel her touch in their souls, but only one of them knows what is happening.

Shivering, torn between terror so complete it freezes her muscles in place and an aching desire to vomit, she cries out silently to her goddess as the dreams wash over her, cries out for them to be removed before she goes mad under the onslaught. She does not feel her goddess respond, and she sits for agonizingly long minutes, as horror after horror violates her mind, threatening to upset her sanity as a large wave capsizes a small boat, but she clung to her memories and to her goddess with a desperation born of pure, elemental stubbornness. At last a wall drops into place between her and the dreams, although she knows not if it was her goddess or her mind's own last frantic defense.

Either way she offers up a heartfelt prayer of gratitude and spends the rest of the night in meditation, seeking the strength to fight when they come for her. She has felt their slippery, skittering thoughts, and had picked up enough to know that she was scheduled to be sacrificed tomorrow night, when the darkness covered the lands, and not even the glows of the other planes light the night sky. Her mind frantically ticks away at other possible times to escape, but she can think of nothing. As she is about to resign herself to her fate, she feels a slight ground tremor, nothing more than a hill giant might cause stomping it's foot, but the cacophony that greets it is immediate. The things outside cast their thoughts out in a wild mental gibberish that she swears must erode her mind nearly as much as the dreams, but the panic in them spurs her to slide under the tent wall on the far side of the door, and run as swiftly as she can away from the camp. In a frenzied glance over her shoulder, she sees them around the altar she was first dropped at, gathered around something on the ground.

She runs as her lungs gasp for air and her unfed body lurches and protests, as her muscles scream and her head spins dizzily. Finally however she can run no more and collapses in a heap at the foot of a large tree, her body so weakened by captivity and exertion she can barely pull herself into a small depression under the roots of the ancient elm tree, curling into herself like a small wounded animal. She laid there as the sky lightened and the dawn overtook the night, unaware of all that moved around her, sunk into the sleep of the truly exhausted.

Elsewhere, a young boy sat almost motionless beside his friend's bed, trying to fight back the tears that pricked at his eyes. Despite the fact that the back of his shirt was dark and crusted with blood, despite the fact that his own parents had denied him a place to live and threatened to sell him to the vilest of men if he dared to leave, his tears were not for himself. Instead he looked at the boy with the deep brown hair and laughing face who laid almost impossibly still, and he feared for his friend as he could not fear for himself.

Kalit often thought of himself as a coward when compared to Sujon, and while it was true that he could never even think of a fight without a sinking fear in his stomach, or think of some of the people Sujon trusted so easily without a kind of dread, he never spoke of his own life, even when Sujon asked about his bruises or his limp or any other marks he may bear. He thought of himself as a coward, but that was only because he was too young to realize the courage it took to suffer in silence, and the even greater bravery needed to throw away everything you have ever known for the sake of someone who mattered to you.

He sat by Sujon's bed in the still, pre-dawn light, having managed to reject all offers of healing and requests to rest about an hour earlier. He didn't know what to say, or how to say it. Instead he sat, hurting physically and emotionally, exhausted beyond all reason, and yet somehow, some force of will held him to the chair, as if his friend would know that there was someone there still. Sujon sweated and twitched, held in bonds that the midwife had insisted on, and still Kalit sat, occasionally ignoring the pain of scabs tearing open again to dab at his friend's brow.

After a time, the door opened again, and it was Sujon's mother. Fuadi smiled at him, a wan drawn smile that showed she had spent almost the entire night in a sleepless state of worry, but it was tender and genuine all the same. "I'll watch him." She said softly, coming all the way into the room. "I've had a room made for you. It's yours as long as you want or need it." There was a hint of understanding in her eyes, and a love that spilled over to include him as well. The young boy felt exhaustion overwhelming him, and succumbed to her gentle urgings. He stumbled to the chest at the foot of Sujon's bed and drew out blankets though, instead of heading to the proffered bed. He curled up in a welter of blankets at the foot of his friend's bed, too tired to even bother drawing them around him in a semblance of order, and barely felt the hand that stroked his hair as he fell asleep. The last thing he heard was her soft voice, murmuring in a comforting tone, but whatever sense the words may have had was lost to him as he fell into unconsciousness.