The Redemption of Erâth: Book Three, Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten: The Crossing of the World, Part II

 

There was a curious comfort to Brandyé in the cold snow and the warm fires of the fishing village. It was far from the glory and glass spires of Viura Râ, and the magic that seemed to abound there; doors opened at the turn of a handle rather than merely appearing when needed, and though their buildings’ heat came mostly from steaming iron pipes and not flame, there was such a flavor of old world to it that he felt very much at home. The great advancements of men, it seemed, did not spread equally across all the world of Erâth.

There was no news in Taureth; The Namiraltèr had departed soon after their arrival, returning to Viura Râ under the new captaincy of Marla’s first mate. Brandyé was uncertain how well they would fare in the increasingly icy waters, and kept watch from the town’s lighthouse for several nights, looking for signs of distress flares, but he never saw anything. No other ships called at their port throughout the rest of that winter, and Brandyé settled into the dark of winter, his mind burning to know what was going on in the rest of the world.

Despite the comfort of war fires, the increasing gloom and boredom of the place was such that Brandyé found himself eager to leave by the time the thaws finally came, and the sun began once more to peek out from behind the gray clouds. This presented a problem in itself, of course, because none of the village folk held much interest in visiting faraway places—even other towns in their own lands. Though there was still much snow on the ground, Brandyé was beginning to consider taking the coastal road to Yvesberg, the largest port of Galecia, some hundred miles to the south. It was to his great surprise, then, when one day Bill approached him and said, “D’you fancy a sea voyage, lad?”

“You mean fishing?” Brandyé asked.

“Of a sort,” Bill replied. “The winter’s been harsh, and we’re running low on oil.”

“Where does one get oil from?” Brandyé was curious.

“From narwhals, of course!”

“What’s a narwhal?”

Bill looked at him, taken aback. “You really don’t know much, do you?” he asked, for Brandyé had told him of his lack of memories. “It’s only the biggest sea creature you’ll ever lay eyes on. Not a fish, exactly—breathes air, like you and me—but their oil is mighty useful.”

A dim memory came into Brandyé’s vision then. Amidst darkness and fog, he saw an enormous mouth gaping wide, swallowing water and ships whole. “How large are these creatures?” he asked.

“Some can be the size of a small ship,” Bill said, “though most are smaller.”

“Not the largest sea creature, then,” Brandyé murmured.

Bill looked at him oddly for a moment, but let the comment pass. “Anyway, I’ll be setting out in a couple days for a hunting trip, and thought I could carry you as far as Yvesberg—that is, if you’re still wanting to depart.”

Brandyé brought Bill’s offer to the Sarâthen, who seemed unsurprised. “Ah!” he said, “I was wondering when he would suggest we leave. The season grows late!”

“Do you think we’ve delayed here too long?” Brandyé asked.

“Oh, no,” said the old man. “The world has gone on without us, yes, but I do not think they have destroyed themselves yet.”

“So we leave in a few days, then,” Brandyé said. “How long, do you think, before we attain our goal? Bill will only take us as far as Yvesberg. What if we can’t find transport from there?”

But the old man only smiled. “I think Bill will take us further than he knows.”

Soon the day of their departure came, and Bill’s boat, the Elmira, was considerably smaller than the Namiraltèr had been. It housed no more than four or five crew, and Brandyé, the Sarâthen and Athalya were cramped extras. Shaera did not appear on the day of their voyage, much to Brandyé’s disappointment and Bill’s relief (“I’ll not have Death on my ship, thank you very much,” he had said).

Brandyé asked the Sarâthen how she would find them again, but he merely said, “The Namirèn come and go as they are needed, Brandyé; you and I are more bound to this world.”

Brandyé did not voice his concern over their need for one of the race of Death—namely, that she would appear when it was time for one of them to die—and asked instead, “Where are we to go?”

It was Bill who answered, standing at the helm wheel. “We follow the land south, until we reach the Cape of Horne. There, off the coast of Galecia, we hunt. The narwhals will be migrating north to the Oceans of Narün. It’ll be a week there, and a week back. But before we return, we’ll be dropping you off in Yvesberg, west of the Cape of Horne. Where you go from there isn’t my concern.”

Brandyé thought he heard a note of bitterness in Bill’s voice. “You disapprove,” he said.

Without looking at Brandyé, Bill said, “You know my thoughts on the world out there. I think you’d be smarter to settle down in Taureth, and not leave again. But … you must do what you must.”

“One day, even Taureth will not be safe,” said Athalya, who was with them at the ship’s helm.

“I hope to be long dead before that day comes,” said Bill.

“I hope for your sake that day does not come soon.”

“Aye.”

They had been under threat of poor weather almost since their departure, and though the fog inevitably lifted each day and the coast of Galecia came back into view, the sun had yet to show its face in all their time at sea. Should a storm rise, he thought, they risked being blown into land and dashed against the sharp rocks—or worse, swept out to sea, lost to land and salvation. And if that storm should be of Darkness, he feared even Athalya might not be able to save them.

Indeed, despite Athalya’s restless vigilance, the skies darkened over the following days and the swells grew higher, until Brandyé felt quite ill at the ship’s incessant motion. Bill only laughed, and said it would take far more to sink the Elmira than a few waves, but Brandyé worried nonetheless. It seemed to him that Darkness was very much upon them, and when he began to see dark shapes in the water, he shuddered and cried out.

“Nonsense!” shouted Bill. “It’s the narwhals, of course.” In the distance, a great gush of water sprayed high into the air. “They breathe, see?”

The geyser was echoed by another, and yet another, and as Brandyé looked closer he saw indeed that there was a great pod of creatures, nearly black in hue and shadowy amongst the waves, but real and tangible nonetheless. They were large indeed, as Bill had said; Brandyé thought the largest of them might have stretched twenty feet or more. To his astonishment, he saw that several of their number sported a single, great tusk that sprouted from their snouts, nearly the length of a man in itself. He watched for many minutes in fascination, for he had never seen such a creature in his memory.

Such was his admiration of these creatures that for some time he missed entirely the crew’s work about him, and only when the noise of metal clanging outgrew the crashing waves did he look to the ship’s bow to see a great harpoon set upon it, crewmen bringing it about to face the pod of narwhals that continued to pace alongside them.

Confusion, and then horror, dawned, and he cried out, “Wait—what are you going to do?”

From amongst the crew Bill called back, “You didn’t think they gave up their oil freely, did you?”

“You can’t kill such peaceful creatures!” Brandyé protested in shock.

But Bill only rolled his eyes and turned back to the hunt. Brandyé watched helplessly as they made fast their weapon, and a sickness rose in his throat. Where was Shaera? Where was Death to tell them they were wrong?

But even as horror brought tears to his eyes and the crew set their sights on the peaceful beasts, the storm thickened above them, and a great crash of thunder brought with it a deluge of spray and rain. The ship rocked heavily under a sudden swell, and Brandyé was dashed against the hull with force enough to dim his sight entirely for a moment. When he cleared his eyes it was to see the harpoon’s mount swinging about madly, thrusting several crew onto the deck—and one into the sea entirely. His eyes widened in horror as the man’s screams were drowned, and he realized that this storm was rapidly growing stronger than perhaps any of them had suspected.

“Get below deck!” he heard Bill shout, and he saw the crew begin to scramble in panic, forgetting their lost comrade in their haste to reach the safety of the lower decks. Brandyé made desperately to follow them, battling against the pitching deck as he crossed the ship toward the hatch that led below. As he placed his foot on the iron steps, he looked once more to the ship’s bow, and saw with dread that Athalya was still there, grasping the hull with all her might and facing out to sea. The narwhals were gone, he saw—frightened by the harpoon or the storm he knew not—but the Illuèn remained, glowing mightily and crying out to the wind.

“Athalya!” he called. “You can’t weather this storm! Come with us!”

But she either ignored him, or did not hear. “Get down!” Bill shouted, and pushed heavily at Brandyé’s back. The ship heaved again and Brandyé was nearly thrown down the steps, and his last sight before plunging into the gloom of the lower decks was Athalya, her white cloak billowing in the rain and the wind. Bill swiftly followed him, pulling the hatch tightly to. As the metal door clanged shut Brandyé let out a moan of despair.

“We can’t leave her up there!” he said.

“She had the chance to get below,” Bill said sharply. “It’s her choice to remain.”

“But she’ll be killed!”

“Enough!” said Bill. “I just lost one of my own crew, if you didn’t notice—I’ll not sacrifice the rest of us for an Illuèn. Now, hold on tight—this storm’s likely to get worse before it gets better.”

Inwardly Brandyé raged, but he held his tongue; this was Bill’s vessel, after all, and he knew the fisherman spoke sense. Opening the hatch again would likely send seawater pouring into the depths of the ship, drowning them all. As it was, they would be fortunate not to capsize under the force of the waves, and Brandyé knew their very survival was at stake. His only solace was that Shaera had not reappeared, and he held hope that this meant no more of them were to die. He was uncertain how to reconcile this with the death of the man thrown overboard, though, but he thought perhaps it had more to do with the Duithèn than the Namirèn.

Bill had the Elmira’s engines swiftly snuffed, and without the coal’s flames it was dark and cold. Brandyé retired to his bunk, and there with the rest of the crew he stayed for several days as the ship swayed and rocked, fearful every moment that they would capsize, or founder on unseen rocks, and that freezing water would pour through the hull and end them all. They did not eat, and scarcely drank, and all Brandyé could do was listen to the raging of the storm and the rattling of the ship, and mourn for Athalya’s passing, which was a thing he did not doubt. Anything that was not bolted down was tossed about the cabin, and Brandyé was bruised and injured by the time, six days later, that the ship’s contortions began fade and it became apparent that they were not, in fact, going to die.

On the seventh day Bill opened the hatch to blustering winds and fast-moving clouds against a brilliantly blue sky. When Brandyé emerged from the ship’s depths he was astonished to see an emerald-green sea, crested white in the wind, abundant with fish and endless as far as the eye could see. There was no land in sight, and Brandyé wondered just how far they had been propelled by the storm. Even with the engines stalled they were moving at a prodigious pace; it seemed the storm had blown them into a swift current, drawing them inexorably onward toward the unknown. The sun beamed down upon them, and from its position Brandyé knew they were far to south, and traveling west.

All of this was nothing, however, to the astonishment that awaited Brandyé when he reached the wheelhouse, for there lay Athalya, faint and weak but very much alive. She had lashed herself to the wheel during the storm, it seemed, and had steered them through waves and swells that had towered above them, black as pitch and rife with Darkness. “It was the Duithèn,” she said weakly as they cut her down. “They tried once more to destroy us.”

“And once more, it seems, you saved us,” Brandyé said as he held her. She was cold to the touch, her robes drenched, but he could sense the vitality return to her under the touch of the sun’s rays. Bill said nothing as he wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, but Brandyé suspected he knew the man’s thoughts: without Athalya, they would certainly have perished. “Where do you think we are?”

“I’ll tell you tonight, if the weather holds,” Bill said. “The stars’ll say.”

Indeed, that evening under a bright moon Bill pointed out the constellations to Brandyé, and said, “See those stars, to the south? They’re too high in the sky. I reckon we’re a good three or four hundred miles south of Narün, and west of Cathaï already.” He sighed. “I doubt we’ve got the fuel to get us back to Yvesberg, especially against this current.”

“What can we do?” Brandyé asked. “We can’t stay at sea forever.”

“We can continue west,” the Sarâthen said from beside them. “Thaeìn lies there.”

Bill nodded. “Where you wanted to get to all along.” He eyed the old man suspiciously. “Work of the Duithèn, eh? Seems they’ve done you a bit of a favor—you’d not’ve got me to take you so far willingly, no. Still not sure how my little ship’ll make it back, for that matter.”

They drifted for the rest of that night, and come the morning under clear skies they relit the furnaces, and the Elmira continued on its way south, toward Thaeìn and the port city of Griefenthrall. Bill had procured a sextant and compass, and by the stars and sun guided them through the vast emptiness of the Thawoèm—the sea that lay between the lands of Thaeìn and Cathaï. There were no narwhals here, but many other fish abounded, and it was fortunate that there did for they soon discovered they had run low on salted meats.

The weather held for five days, and on the sixth land was sighted to the west. It was curious to Brandyé that they should have been propelled so far on their journey by a power that purported to thwart them, and then left to their own devices; he wondered if the Duithèn had thought they would drown, or starve in the middle of the vast ocean. Instead, the coast of Thaeìn guided them along, and on the seventh day they were floating anchored in the bay of Griefenthrall, in the north of Thaeìn, and Bill was bidding them farewell.

“I’m a seaman of Narün,” he said to them, “and I’ll not set foot on foreign soil if I can help it. My mate here, Caleb—he’ll take you into land, and barter fish for coal for our return trip.”

Brandyé felt a choke of sadness in his throat, for despite the man’s brusqueness he had rather come to like Bill. “I wish you well on your return,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever meet again.”

“If we don’t,” Bill said, “it’s been a pleasure knowing you, lad. I wish you well, also—still won’t consider returning with us?”

But Brandyé knew this was a thing he could not do, and so he said his final farewells, and stepped aboard the dinghy that would take them in to shore. Soon they were passing through the bay, propelled forward by Caleb and his crew’s strong arms, and before long the Elmira had all the appearance of a plaything, and the city of Griefenthrall was upon them.

It was no Viura Râ, but it was larger than any other town Brandyé had seen so far. Stone houses spread far from the waterside and into the hills beyond, and before long they were passing along cobbled and paved streets. The streets were crowded, and Brandyé failed to notice the great steaming vehicles that passed along the streets on metal rails until he was nearly crushed by one.

“Watch yourself,” the Sarâthen laughed as he pulled Brandyé to safety. “Thaeìn is known for one thing: steel. Their rails run the length and breadth of the country, and it is by them we will reach the Bridge of Aélûr.”

“How long will the journey take?” Brandyé asked.

“If all goes well? Less than a week.”

It occurred to Brandyé that, after many months of traveling and yet further months of waiting idly, they were finally nearing their destination. One more week, he thought, and they would be faced with the most violent kingdom of Erâth. Again, he wondered what they would do when they reached Urkûl. What if they were merely imprisoned? What if they were killed outright?

Soon they were lost deep within the city, and after a time they came to a building that dwarfed those around it. Great columns rose dozens of feet above the street, holding aloft a ceiling that seemed made entirely of glass. They passed under these columns and into the building, and here Brandyé could see it was a station of sorts: steel rails ran into the place from miles beyond, and on each was a great, black engine, smoke and steam gushing forth in huge quantities. The engines rested on the rails on enormous iron wheels, and made fast to each one was a long line of carriages, long and slim and lined with windows.

Brandyé stared with eyes wide, and knew he had never encountered anything like this before, lost memories or no. “We’re to take one of these beasts?” he asked, incredulous.

“These beasts,” said the Sarâthen, “travel faster than any other creation in Erâth. What would take us months on foot will take mere days. Our journey takes us through mountain and valley—and these engines pass under one and over the other, in the deepest tunnels and on the highest bridges. Oh, yes—this part of our journey will be the most magnificent!”

They mounted into one of the carriages, and the seats that lined them were soft and comfortable. Brandyé settled himself near a window and looked out: through passing steam he could see hundreds of other folk going about their business, embarking and disembarking and traveling to who knew where. Sunlight filtered down from the glass roof, and Brandyé wondered where Darkness was, for it seemed not to be here.

“The Duithèn have long ignored Thaeìn,” said Athalya at his question. “They have long bent their will on those kingdoms already given to Darkness: Urkûl, in Aélûr, and the Pulväen, in Cathaï. The folk of Thaeìn have no great kingdoms, and are of little concern to the powers of Darkness. Still,” she added ominously, “that does not make them safe.”

They were soon under way, the engine and carriages heaving into motion to the grinding and squealing of metal and steam. The coach rocked gently as they gathered speed, and soon the city of Griefenthrall was behind them, the countryside speeding past in a blur of green fields and blue skies. Mountains rose in the distance, and before long they were winding along the sides of steep valleys. At times they would pass into the rock itself, and here Brandyé was grateful for the carriage’s gentle glow, for it was pitch black in these endless tunnels.

After many hours the sun began to sink behind the now snow-capped peaks, and as night came on the windows became black reflections of themselves, and Brandyé could see nothing beyond. The coach lanterns dimmed, and Brandyé knew the passengers were preparing for sleep.

He was restless, though. They had spent most of the journey since Griefenthrall in silence; Athalya would need no sleep, he knew, and the Sarâthen seemed already to be dozing. In silence, it seemed, they would stay for the rest of that night, but he knew that there were things of which they must speak. In all the time since they had left Viura Râ, they had not once spoken of what they would do when they reached Urkûl, short of seeking an audience with Dûmèn the Great. He did not know what they would say; he did not know how they would convince so ruthless a leader to stand down his weapons.

After a while he looked to Athalya, and saw that she had been watching him. “The people of Urkûl have terrible weapons, don’t they,” he said.

“We don’t know,” she answered. “We only suspect.”

“Is it magic? Could it bring down a city as great as Viura Râ?”

Athalya pursed her lips. “Magic is a word, Brandyé, to describe that which we cannot explain. There is no magic in this world: only that which cannot be explained.”

“I’m afraid,” he admitted.

She nodded. “There is much to fear. The world of men may yet fall; the towers of Viura Râ may crumble. Before your arrival, there was much talk in Viura Râ. Talk of war, and of death. The men of that place believe they must create weapons—devices terrifying enough to stay the violence of the world. Viura Râ is home to the most ingenious minds Erâth has to offer, and there is nothing they cannot create if their will is put to it. Our mission is not to stop Urkûl; it is to stop Viura Râ.”

Brandyé stared at Athalya, trying to unravel what she was saying. “If you’re afraid of the destruction Viura Râ could unleash,” he said slowly, “then why are we here at all? We could have stayed, could have convinced them.”

Athalya gently shook her head, turning to look at him once more. “Words speak less than deeds, Brandyé. We must show them there is still hope—even if we don’t believe it.”

“You used me,” Brandyé said softly.

“I’m sorry.”

Brandyé covered his face in his hands, and was silent. For nearly six months he had worried what they would do when they reached Urkûl, and now it seemed not to matter. Their goal was not to convince Dûmèn the Great to withhold his armies, his weapons or his flames; it was merely to delay the creation of something even worse. He lowered his hands and looked at Athalya again. “What are they making?” he asked. “What could it destroy?”

“Nothing,” she said, “and everything. What I fear the most is not a weapon to destroy, but rather one to control. A device that would allow the bearer to gain the insight of other men—leaders, armies, entire nations, even. One that could force them to lay down their weapons.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

Athalya fixed him with a grim look. “It would mean the loss of will for all men. Would you give up your freedom so easily?”

“If it meant peace …”

“And if you had such power over men,” she continued, “would you give it up?” She shook her head. “There are some things in this world that are not meant to be.”

“The alternative is the ending of the world itself.”

“That is why we must not fail.”

“You said yourself Dûmèn can’t be stopped.”

“Dûmen is a pawn of the Duithèn,” Athalya said. “If he was killed today, another would take his place. Ultimately, it is the Duithèn that must be stopped. If we can achieve that, then men such as Dûmen the Great would no longer rule the world of men.”

“How? How can we defeat a force as powerful as Darkness?”

“For all their strength, the Duithèn are weak,” Athalya said. “Love, life, light … hope. These things they fear above all others, for in them is the power to resist them. They can be defeated, if we cling to hope.”

“Even if there is none?”

“Especially if there is none.”

Through the rest of that night and into the morning, Brandyé said nothing more, and spent the time dozing or staring into the bleak darkness outside. Come the day’s light, he saw the skies had become clouded and gray, and a cold rain pattered the windows as they wound slowly through narrow and steep valleys. Gone was the lush foliage of the countryside that surrounded Griefenthrall, replaced by dull rocks and thin, wasted grasses. They were deep in the mountains now, it seemed, and Brandyé could see nothing but stone and snow for miles around.

As the days wound on, though, and their final destination came closer, the clouds became ever darker, and the mood of the passengers became ever bleaker. Sometimes Brandyé would wander the length of the carriages, stopping here and there to speak with folk, but few seemed interested in discussing much of anything, and most merely grunted and stared out of the windows, ignoring him completely.

“Why is everyone so gloomy?” he asked of the Sarâthen and Athalya, though he suspected he already knew the answer.

“We are entering into the realm of the Duithèn,” the old man said. “Hope sits on the very edge of Darkness, and those who dwell there feel its influence, whether they are aware of it or not. The world west of here is dark indeed.”

They were due to arrive in the evening of the fifth day of their journey, and as the time approached Brandyé found there was scarce any change from day into night, so dark had the countryside become. They had gradually left the highest mountains behind them, and were now passing through gently rolling plains. The sky was nearly black, and the fields and low hills were muted and dull under the dismal light. Brandyé found himself staring through the window, searching for the first signs of a town on the black horizon, and before long he began to see a dim orange glow over a nearby hill.

“Is that Hope?” he asked, pointing.

Athalya narrowed her eyes. “It is where Hope should be, but such a small town should not be able to produce such a light.”

Brandyé supposed the Illuèn ought to know how much light to expect, and he began to worry. What did it mean?

“We are slowing down,” the Sarâthen said momentarily, and indeed Brandyé could feel the gentle tug of the carriages coming to a gradual halt. Within a few minutes they had stopped entirely. There were no lights outside their coach; other than the dim glow from over the hill, the night sky was utterly dark.

“We’re not there, are we?” Brandyé said aloud.

“The rails are gone,” the Sarâthen murmured. “We can go no further.”

“What do you mean?” Brandyé asked, but instead of answering, the Sarâthen slipped silently out of their compartment and disappeared down the corridor. He turned to Athalya instead. “What’s happening?”

But Athalya could only shake her head. “I do not know, but something is not right. Hope is alight, and we have stopped at least two miles from the town. I fear the worst.” She turned from the window. “Gather your things. We may need to leave, and soon.”

Indeed, only a few minutes later the Sarâthen returned, abrupt and curt. “We must depart, now. They will have seen us, and all aboard are in danger. Come—follow me.”

Brandyé followed the old man and Athalya down the length of the carriage to a door at its end that descended onto the rails. Outside all was bitter and dark, save the eerie glow from over the hill, where lay Hope. Brandyé cast a glance in that direction, and saw indeed that, not a hundred yards ahead, glinting in the engine’s light, the rails were twisted and bent. Further passage was impossible.

“How did our driver know to stop?” Brandyé asked in a hush.

“The folk of Thaeìn are masters of iron and rail,” the Sarâthen said somewhat unhelpfully. “He will have felt the wrong in the track.”

“Where are we going?”

“We must get out of sight of the carriages,” he said. “Soldiers of Aélûr will be upon us soon.”

Brandyé felt a chill of fear down his spine. “I don’t understand,” he said. “What are they doing here?”

As he walked, the Sarâthen looked briefly back at Brandyé, and for a moment he thought he saw uncertainty in the old man’s eyes. “I had thought not, but perhaps we are late after all. It seems the armies of Urkûl have begun their advance upon the world. Hope is gone.”

It took Brandyé a moment to recognize that he spoke of the town. “What are we to do, then?”

“There are no other towns within a hundred miles of here,” said Athalya.

“We will make for Hope nonetheless,” the Sarâthen said, “though by foot and track, and not rail. Hope may be gone, but if its people are dying, we may find company there. The Namirèn would not abandon their duties.”

It was a grim thought, and Brandyé had no wish to see Shaera in her element, bringing death to an entire town. Yet he recognized that he had little choice in the matter; without the Sarâthen and Athalya, he would be hopelessly lost, and making for civilization—even one in flames—made more sense than waiting idly for their enemies to find them.

Eventually their path began to twist and wind its way upward through a long and shallow valley, and before long they had crested the final rise and looked down upon the ruins of Hope. A small moan escaped Brandyé’s lips, and beside him the Sarâthen sighed and closed his eyes.

The town of Hope stretched out before them, some miles into the distance, and every last dwelling was crumbling, shattered and ablaze. Thick black smoke billowed up from the countless fires, joining with the equally black clouds high above them. The roar of flames was deafening even at such a distance, and Brandyé thought he could feel the heat lapping against his face. Lost in the din were occasional shouts and screams, and tears came to Brandyé’s eyes as he spied straggling villagers running for their lives through the blazing streets. Here and there moved also the soldiers of Urkûl, black specks against the bright flames, and against them the villagers held no hope. Everywhere they went, bodies were left crumpled in the streets, and Brandyé knew they must be armed with killing stones.

“What could have done this?” Brandyé asked aloud. “Surely even an army couldn’t set so bright a fire as this.”

In answer, the Sarâthen only pointed to the sky. “Look.”

Brandyé followed his motion, and saw for the first time that the glow they had seen from the carriage previously was not only emanating from the blazing town. The clouds themselves were alight with fire, a dull red glow in the night that was as dreadful as it was unnatural. The flaming clouds boiled restlessly, bright tendrils of flame and ember spiraling downward toward the ground. Brandyé stared incredulously, and finally uttered, “What is that?”

“It is Urkûl’s weapon,” replied Athalya. “The kingdoms of Aélûr have long been masters of flame, and with the Duithèn’s aid they have brought it to the skies.”

“You knew of this?” Brandyé was appalled.

The Sarâthen took a deep breath, and sighed. “We suspected. No man of the east has yet laid eyes upon it. Or at least,” he corrected himself, “lived to tell of it.”

As Brandyé watched on in horror, he saw that the crimson clouds seemed to be concentrating in a particular area. “What’s happening there?” he asked.

“You may wish to look away,” Athalya said, and indeed within a moment the swirling clouds had erupted into a storm of lightning and flame. Suddenly the world was lit as bright as day with a rain of fire that drew down in an instant upon a place not two miles north of where they now stood. Brandyé shut his eyes against the glare, and when it finally faded, he looked out again to see the distant countryside blazing.

At first Brandyé was confused: it was an attack, clearly, but upon what he was unsure. Then it dawned on him that the carriages they had left only a few hours previously lay in that very direction, and he felt his knees weaken at the thought. “The people …” he muttered. “The others …”

The Sarâthen rested a hand gently on his shoulder. “Had they arrived in Hope, they would have been slaughtered just as equally.”

Suddenly furious, Brandyé rounded on him, flinging the old man’s hand from him. “You knew of this! You knew they would die—why didn’t you warn them? Why didn’t you say anything?”

Yet the Sarâthen was not fazed by Brandyé’s anger, and remained passive as he said, “Even the Sarâthen cannot see all ends. There was yet hope that the village below us might have survived; that the powers of Aélûr and of the Duithèn might not have made their first move.”

“But you knew!” Brandyé repeated. “There was a chance they might live—and a chance they might die! You knew! You could have saved them all!”

Then the Sarâthen did bow his head, and it seemed suddenly a great weight of shame settled upon him. “For all the wisdom of my people, I may be yet foolish,” he said finally, “but it is a folly born of hope. Foresight is vague and clouded, Brandyé, and often we are given a choice of paths. One might lead to life, and the other to death. Which would you choose, do you think?”

“I …” Brandyé faltered. He had not considered the Sarâthen’s perspective before, and it doused his fury.

“I chose the path of life—and I was wrong.” he looked up into Brandyé’s countenance then, and there was something beseeching in his gaze; a hint of reprieve, of asking for forgiveness.

But Brandyé was not ready to forgive. “How often must our mistakes cost the lives of others?” he said bitterly. “When will the dying end?”

Then a voice came from beyond all three of them, and it was at once cold and familiar. “You sound like your kin, Brandyé.”

Brandyé turned swiftly and there, almost lost in the shadows, was the dark and cloaked figure of Shaera. Despite his surprise at her appearance, and the reward of a familiar face, he could not quite overcome his simmering anger. “I suppose you would be here,” he said to her. “Did you spare their pain?” He gestured vehemently toward the village.

“I have been busy, yes,” she replied, “though I know you will not thank me for it.”

“Thank you for the death of hundreds? I should think not!”

“Thousands,” she said, “and more before this war is done.”

“So it is war,” spat Brandyé bitterly.

“What do your eyes tell you?”

“Why now? Why would they attack a defenseless town? What purpose is there in such destruction?”

For a moment, Shaera looked to the burning village, and a touch of pensiveness flashed across her brow. But when she turned back to Brandyé, she said only, “The answers to those questions are beyond my kin. We go whither we are called—and our duty is clear.”

“We should not linger here,” Athalya broke in. “I fear we are too close to the village—their soldiers might see us.”

“I agree,” said the Sarâthen. “We must find shelter, swiftly.”

But Brandyé could not keep his gaze from the burning village, and as the others started off into the dark night again, he found himself inexplicably drawn toward the flames. Uncertain what compulsion drove him to the dying village, he knew only that he could not run and hide while innocent people were dying. Again, vague memories of death and injustice surfaced in his mind, images of torture and slaughtered slaves rising before him, but he could not place them in his past.

“Brandyé!” He heard his name called after him, and ignored it. Onward he went, breaking momentarily into a run, and as he came upon the first burning houses he felt his breath leave him, overwhelmed by the heat and the smoke. He came to a halt, gasping, and looked frantically about. The streets about him seemed deserted, though it was hard to see through watering eyes. Shattered glass and rubble crunched underfoot, and he slowly made his way forward.

In the distance, dim and hazy with heat, he saw shadows moving, and he urged himself onward. Perhaps these were villagers, he thought—perhaps not all was lost. As he drew nearer, though, he began to suspect a worse thought: the movements were careful and methodical, far from the panicked motions he would have expected from fleeing townsfolk. It was unclear what the shadows were doing, but they were certainly not running away.

He brought himself to a halt beside a ruined and burning building, shielding his face from the heat, and in a moment the shadowed figures closest to him paused as it became clear they had seen him. He heard shouts, and a wave of dark-clad soldiers came upon him without warning. As they neared, he saw that to a one they wore unsettling masks, rounded goggles lashed tight around their eyes and mouth and nose covered with black canvas. Not a single feature could be discerned behind this apparatus, and in a heartbeat he was grasped roughly and dragged forcibly from the burning building.

“Wait!” he cried in futile supplication, not knowing if these soldiers could even understand him; “Let me go!”

They of course did no such thing, and before long he was thrown unceremoniously to the ground in an open square, distanced enough from the flames now that he could at least breathe easily. He raised himself to his knees, and looked up to find one of the soldiers peering imposingly down upon him. He noticed that the soldier’s face covering was a deep crimson, solitary among the blank black visages surrounding him, and he supposed this must be a commander of some kind. Indeed, momentarily the commander spoke, voice clouded through the cloth.

“You are a passenger here,” the commander said, and it was not a question.

Brandyé nodded in fear. “How did you know?”

But the commander ignored his question. “Where have you come from?”

It took Brandyé a moment to consider how to answer this question; he still was uncertain where he had truly come from, but he supposed this commander meant where he had journeyed from to get here. “We left Viura Râ sometime last year,” he said, and immediately regretted his words.

“Where are your companions?”

“I don’t know,” he answered truthfully. In fact, he hoped desperately that they had kept going into the countryside, and were by now far beyond the soldiers’ reach. “I’m alone in this town.”

“I suspect you are lying, but no matter. If we find them, we will kill them.” Swiftly, the commander knelt to the ground before Brandyé, and he watched with apprehension as a gloved hand pulled the face mask away. The goggles were lifted up, and Brandyé saw for the first time the face of the enemy.

The commander looked intensely at him. “I was tasked with returning one captive,” she said darkly, “and I have one.” She gestured over her shoulder, where Brandyé saw another figure, cowering on his knees similar to himself, looking around him in terror. The commander withdrew a small stone, and Brandyé knew now what fate awaited him. He wondered if the killing stone would hurt. He gritted his teeth.

But to his astonishment and horror, she turned and pointed the stone toward the other captive. There was no sound, no light or sign that she had done anything, but suddenly the other captive let out a horrific shriek, and collapsed in the dirt. Sick tears came to his eyes, and he shut them against the man’s awful writhing. When he opened them again, the man was still as death, and the commander had replaced her face mask.

“A captive from the great city will be immeasurably more valuable,” she said. “Consider yourself fortunate.” With those words, she swung a heavy hand down upon his neck, and Brandyé knew no more.

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