Beware the sting in the sky scorpion’s tale!
~ Pirate saying
The horizon vanished in an enormous mass of dirty thunderheads, pressing down on the surface of the heaving ocean, rushing insanely closer.
It came swifter than Bertin anticipated, but he was ready. Rayne spared a glance for their Captain as he secured himself at a point midway between Aven and Averroes.
The Captain’s expression was grim determination, his huge hands clenched to the helm. A bright gleam in dark eyes gave evidence to the fact the seaman welcomed the challenge ahead, and Rayne smiled appreciation of the man’s courage.
He looked up, checking the sail.
A thick rope led from the release knot directly to Bertin. The Captain intended to wield the sail himself, his only aid in the wind, hopefully controllable. Or it could prove their undoing.
It was uncommon, but Bertin was an old hand who generally sailed crewless. He likely gave thought to the fact that commands shouted through the storm from the bridge would not be heard, or not heard in time.
Rayne tied the final knot as the first gust of an almighty, ferocious and greedy wind shook the Calloway.
Averroes screamed, Aven emptied an already empty stomach and Cristi lurched forward, her line jerking her upright and back.
Another gust came, then another, and objects skittered across the deck as it rolled first one way then the next, and then it became endless; one long, hungry breath of terrible power. Screams, grunts, groans, and desperately fearful wails were grabbed and tossed away soundlessly, lost to the moaning, seeking mouth of the wind.
Worlds narrowed to a small deck space, each thankful beyond measure for their Captain’s foresight in insisting on safety lines.
Packs hurtled into the air, constricting waists, tearing at ankles and wrists, and paradoxically, pain meant they lived. They were thankful also to be on deck, bad as it was, as the crashes from below penetrated through the din of the wind and sea, telling of appalling injury had they been part of the process.
The Calloway was a sleek ship built for speed. While sturdy, she was no match for a storm of this violence. And violent it was, the sloop tossed like a tiny twig caught in a maelstrom with rapids approaching. Even so, Bertin held her and rode the wind with a degree of success. Faintly they heard him screaming obscenities at the monster enveloping them, his hair wild, his face a frozen horror of concentration.
In the nightmare on deck faces were a pale, strained blur, and Aven and Mordan clung together, Kisha held onto Averroes, with Kylan clinging onto both women. Cristi and Samson clenched each other’s arms about a post, holding on desperately.
Water barrels slapped into legs and cannon rolled in dangerous warning. Ropes snapped under pressure, flailing like whips, one such taking Belun full in the face.
The Centuar roared his pain over the ferocious howling of the wind.
Then the dark water rose in gargantuan ramparts straight out of watery hell, some lifting the ship high above sea level, others were crashing defiance onto the deck, almost succeeding in driving the tiny vessel into a netherworld grave. Without lines they would have swept overboard. They hung on, unable to bellow fear, sometimes tossed like rag dolls before smashing back onto the splintering deck.
Bertin negotiated the storm for over an hour, in deep dark, each turn more sluggish as the sail tore and tattered, and the cabins below filled with water. The hatch had long since vanished into the monster’s maw.
It did not let up; only intensified. Brutal winds screeched and deafened. Every wave was monstrous, every breath a forced swallow of liquid salt. Still they forged on, praying to their various deities, praying for Bertin with all their strength. If the weather did not change soon the beleaguered Captain would surely lose the battle, for his ship already was.
The weather did change.
For the worse.
The sail flapped down in pieces as Bertin released it. It was useless. If they had it bad before, now it became the fabric of nightmares.
The images of Chaos had nothing comparable, for that was beyond imagination, but this terror, this was real and immediate.
Along with wind came rain, torrents and sheets of it, whipping wildly, bruising all in its path. Breathing became a test in survival. Along with rain came thunder and lightning, inseparable, pealing awesome power overhead. The dark mass lowered further, touching the mast, seeking to drive them into oblivion.
Bertin screamed curses, lost his hold on the wheel and crawled back to it.
Aven hung limply with Mordan holding him, blue eyes reflecting terror.
Averroes clung to Kisha, her lips moving in soundless prayer.
Kylan stared over their heads, at the ocean, unblinking.
Belun crouched beside the lifeboat, his expression grim.
McSee stood legs braced, daring the storm, shouting unheard words, one arm wrapped around his safety line.
Taranis gazed at the heavens, wondering what this meant to the game, and how he could get everyone out safely. His face was calm, but he held on as grimly as the others did.
Magic was useless in this pervasive energy, or he would declare his ban void, but, below the surface, where it was calmer?
How to do so without drowning the mortals first?
Llettynn hung onto his line, furious, and it was directed at this interruption, unnecessary and time consuming, and he resolved to jump overboard the instant he heard the tell-tale crack of a sinking ship.
Glint kept determined watch over Samson and Cristi, marvelling at their tenacity.
Saska crouched, as frightened. She knew magic was useless, much like the sail, and fought also to prevent her legs transforming in the ever-present water, teeth clenched in effort … and she constantly sought out Taranis … and Rayne. Taranis would be all right, she knew, but Rayne? Would he survive this?
Rayne hung on, his watch for Aven. He shouted fury when a flailing rope bit into his back.
Lightning struck the mast, splitting it surgically in two.
Glint cartwheeled out over the ocean, white hair smouldering.
The two halves canted, then fell, one fore, one aft.
Taranis, Llettynn, Samson and Cristi were swept overboard, lines severed. Packs slithered after, still attached.
Only jagged planks remained where the small bridge and wheelhouse had been. They reached out to the storm, inviting it in, embracing it. Of Captain Bertin there was no sign.
McSee and Belun started cutting through the lifeboat ties, their efforts a testament to endurance and strength as they slid uncontrollably on the slick deck. It was a matter of time only; five in the water, their Captain more than likely dead, and the ship, now helmless, was doomed.
Trembling, frozen fingers began untying knots.
Then there was no choice.
The Calloway pitched onto its side, sending them slipping and sliding headlong into the roiling ocean. Safety lines unravelled in hasty, burning jerks, throwing them wide of the sinking ship. There was no time to do anything, not even scream.
The two lifeboats crashed in their midst; one damaged, vanishing into the depths immediately, while the other drifted inexorably away. McSee struck out, unwilling to give up.
In horror, Kisha watched as Averroes tried frantically to untie herself, hanging parallel to the listing deck. Her face was tiny, white, and petrified. Kisha started swimming, fighting Kylan …
Then Taranis was there, grabbing her leg and breaking her determined movement. “No!” he shouted over the roar of the ocean. “You will be caught in the vacuum as the ship goes under!”
Kisha fought him, and she fought Kylan. She saw Averroes reach up to her neck and pull at something, saw her toss it into the ocean, saw her hang limp, defeated. Kisha screamed, struggling harder.
“Kisha!” she heard faintly. “Aven …” And then the Calloway was gone.
Kisha sobbed, collapsing against Kylan, who tread water for both of them, face burning with effort.
Taranis glowered at the empty space. Useless. My magic meant nothing.
There was a sound then louder than the din of the storm, a sound such as water draining noisily from a barrel. A vortex had formed in the ocean where the sloop vanished, and a swell as huge as the storm’s waves raced out, with more power for a time, but it served the watchers in sweeping them up and driving them away from that particular danger.
Rayne, fighting the push, stared stricken at the nothingness. Not magic, not strength, not even sheer will, could have saved her. Not a prayer to the most powerful. She was gone, and Aven … Aven would be heartbroken.
On the swell came the Maghdim Medaillon, glittering on the dark ocean as if alive, seemingly weightless. Averroes remembered, saved it, and it headed directly to its true master. It floated into Rayne’s cold hand.
He glared at it, hating it.
Aven knew nothing. He was unconscious and Saska held his head above water. Rayne gazed in their direction, then his hand closed over the medal, and he made an effort to reach them, turning his back on the emptiness.
The storm gave no evidence of surrendering.
The Infinity Mantle:
Show me perfection and I shall show you a lie. Perfection does not exist. We all are imperfect. The real rightness lies in the ability to acknowledge it … and to set to rights what is wrong.
~ Father Rees
Near the Care River
He sat dejectedly on a fallen log.
Everything was damp from the early downpour, welcome after the dry heat of weeks; steaming now as the heat again intensified.
Storm forerunner, he thought, reading the signs.
The little grove was alive with birdsong; giving thanks for the rain.
Innocent creatures, how lucky you are. What do I have to give thanks for? Everything that was important to me is gone.
McSee rose and paced from the wet log to a puddle caught in a depression between two trees, and back again.
I let them down. I let myself down. Valaris is changing; the evidence is everywhere. I know nothing, for I am no longer part of it.
He stamped his foot, crying out in frustration.
Is it Infinity’s doing? Did I help bring it upon our world?
It started with Rayne being a sorcerer, here on Valaris where it should not be possible. Envy began.
Truthfully, once I knew it as fact, I wanted it for myself, could not understand his reluctance - such a gift. Insipid and weak. That is what I wanted to believe of him, and he is far from either of those, and that nettled. And Taranis, a human of Valaris, another thorn. Reverence, yes, and how not, considering who the man was and is to this world, but I could not cope with the fact he is human with power beyond my wildest dreams, because I lack imagination, don’t I? Taranis and Rayne, thick as thieves, when any sane person could see trouble brewed.
He barked a laugh. Envy, McSee. You wanted to be in Rayne’s shoes, or Taranis’, or even both. How stupid is that? And, admit, you dense oaf, you could not abide the fact the women, particularly Averroes, turned their eyes elsewhere. What a sad creature, my friend.
McSee started pacing again, rubbing his red hair into frenzy. His beard was unkempt, his clothes dirty and he was hungry. He did not want to go near people, certain they would know him for the traitor he was.
He halted. Was he? A traitor?
Yes, he listened to Infinity in Luan while Samson lay snoring drunk on the adjacent bed. He thought it a dream, but was nonetheless titillated by the naked woman straddling him. She had not touched and he was sorely disappointed, and she hooded her eyes so he would not be drawn in - not that he looked at her eyes.
A dream, yes, but later, when wide awake on the streets of Actar, she accosted him again and he listened as she spoke to the envy within, his dissatisfaction, and he let her weave a spell to unmask him if he mentioned the meeting, not that he had choice in the matter.
Meant to cause dissent, he would report on their progress, prevent quick success, for she had not wanted vengeance swiftly achieved … or she was not ready, he now realised.
He sought the power she promised, but did not do anything. Until the unmasking, matters proceeded slowly enough and there were sufficient undercurrents in place. There was naught to report, except perhaps the hogwash of Valleur theories and, honestly, he was inclined to regard all that as the product of over-active imaginations, even believable as the Guardians were.
Yes, he was contrary, caused dissent, but that was his nature anyway, ever the devil’s advocate. That was how the mind learned, by seeing all sides.
Unwittingly unmasked at the Pyramid … but I did no more than listen to the witch. Everything until then was the truth.
The only one I was traitor to was myself.
McSee paced faster. In truth, he was not a traitor! Almost had been, but by my ugly beard, I was unmasked before I could be, and praise be to all that is good, for I am glad of it!
The witch has no hold anymore.
He patted himself as if to ensure it was really him there in the grove. A pleased smile lit despondent features. Not sure where he was going or what he would do, he retrieved his meagre pack and headed towards civilisation. His step was light, his heart lighter still.
McSee grinned and started to whistle.
The Kinfire Tree
Oh, oh, cockles and shells! Very sharp!
~ Tattle’s Blunt Adventures
Torrullin took them to that point on Emleth Isthmus closest to Aqua Islet, recalling it from the time Raken sailed Little Paradise through the heads formed by the two narrow strips of land.
Considering what could happen, he was glad the ship anchored off the east coast and not in the Sound.
Raken thought similar thoughts, and thought she had not had opportunity to stir the population of Two Town against fleeing soltakin and darklings. Then again, the ritual would nail the creatures before they could ‘disappear’ into the city.
They were on a small stretch of beach with sheer cliffs at their backs. They sensed rather than heard darklings patrolling above. Margus was taking no chances. High tide would immerse the little beach and was probably the reason no soltakin was in sight. That, and the thin wetness of rain.
Across the water Aqua Islet loomed through the diminishing drizzle, a sheer cliff petering swiftly down to sea level, the whole a fertile strip entirely covered in trees, the remains of an ancient forest. Even from this distance, the huge old trees were a presence.
“Mnullik,” Vannis breathed. The Land of Trees.
It had once been the most beautiful place on all Valaris in his opinion. He knew a moment of profound sadness at the loss of such a wonder and understood it was the truer reason for staying away. Not the reminder of selfishness, nor the memory of long incarceration, although, admittedly, they were not to be discounted; it was seeing how it had changed, this incredible place, his once true home.
Palace gone, trees gone, even the land sundered.
Islands remained, and a few old souls in their ancient trunks. Valaris was his home, but was the broader sense of belonging; Mnullik had been tangible, filled with perfumes and birdsong, night croaking, stars wheeling when viewed from Palace balconies - true hearth, where he laid his body to sleep, his mind to dreams, where he ate and bathed, laughed and loved.
Until this moment, Mnullik had been unsullied in his mind, and now he could not return to that perfection.
It is not your home and can never be. Now your home will be where you find peace and happiness … you, not as Vallorin, not as Valleur, but as yourself.
An image of a laughing Raken sprang to mind, chasing him through the broad corridors of Mantra’s Palace - a prophetic image or wishful thinking?
“He has the Horde on alert,” Torrullin whispered, “but it can work in our favour, I think. With sorcerous creatures about, brandishing nasty blades, chances are our use of magic will go unnoticed.”
“You two surely know how a show a girl a good time,” Raken joked. Nothing scared her, except boredom.
Torrullin grinned and Vannis shook his head, his thoughts dwelling on Mnullik.
“I have a problem,” Raken continued. “You clowns never gave me a chance to change, and I stick out like a sore thumb.” She gestured at her eye-catching robe.
“Dear me,” Torrullin took up the challenge. “What are you wearing under that?”
“What do you think, my sexy friend?” Raken gave a broad wink. “Why, sir, nothing, of course.”
Vannis looked sharply away and Raken grinned at his back, causing Torrullin to splutter.
“Serious now, Raken, you do stand out. Are you wearing anything underneath?”
“I hate to admit it, but, yes, I have a man’s hose on.” She lifted her robe to peek at her legs. “Dark blue, so that will blend - it’s comfortable, all right?” She defended her tastes when Vannis endowed her with an astonished look. “At my age I need to stop the pull of gravity and I am a pirate, remember? One never knows when the proverbial dung will fly, so have to be ready to run.” She winked at Vannis now, enjoying his discomfort. “But that’s it, besides my boots.”
Deep burgundy leather, custom made to fit her feet to mid-calf like supple gloves.
“No top or something for gravity to the north there?” Torrullin queried with a leer. When she shook her head, he pulled his tunic off - a long-sleeved woven garment, black like his breeches - and presented it. “Vannis should keep his Dragon covered.”
Raken smacked her lips dramatically at the sight of Torrullin’s chest and shoulders, and flicked him playfully.
“Enough, you two,” Vannis said. He turned his back on Raken as she unselfconsciously lifted her robe, jamming his fists into his pockets.
Torrullin shamelessly watched her slip into his tunic. It was too big for her, but she rolled the cuffs up and pronounced herself well pleased.
“You fill it better than I,” Torrullin said.
Vannis growled and Raken giggled. She stuffed her robe in a recess in the cliff, scattering sand over to camouflage the brightness. She rejoined the two men, resting her hand on Torrullin’s naked shoulder and leaning in to kiss him on the cheek. Vannis growled again and Raken and Torrullin grinned at each other.
Serious once more, the three stared across at the tree-filled island.
“When you and Lycea brought the Medaillon to me I fixed on your position on Tor Island and transported out. I did not see how much the land had changed here. I knew there was an earthquake, and I knew the basin flooded, but I did not want to see it. It was beautiful once …” Vannis mused, blue eyes on the trees.
“It’s beautiful now,” Raken said, understanding.
Vannis nodded, but for him it was not the same. “The Valleur regard water as sacrosanct, but trees are friends; to lose one is a personal grief, a wrenching. Trees are one of the few species able to live as long as the Valleur.” He drew breath, exhaled. “Some still stand.”
“Aqua Island is densely forested, but most of the trees are young,” Raken said. “Two hundred years ago they began clearing the island of its ancient trees, wood being a precious commodity and what with aversion to the Great Forest up north. Then they cleared it for habitation.” She noted how he smiled. “You’re smiling because you know the land refused to stay cleared. When a tree fell the one day, by next morning another was growing, hardy little saplings that refused to budge. Within a week, those saplings were as tall as the felled tree, if not as broad. Eventually Aqua Island was left to its own devices, and folk today believe it haunted by the spirits of murdered trees.”
“I remember that,” Torrullin muttered. He was Ultrain at the time, and found an excuse to be there, afraid of what they might find if they dug too far, but returned to Farinwood smiling. The forest held on, and everyone was afraid of the strange ruins discovered in the midst.
“The ancient ones will return under renewal,” Vannis said. “The younglings will move on to where they are needed. The Lady of Life can use them somewhere in the universe. The water, however, will remain, a natural change, and perhaps that is how it should be. A new world, a new life, a new environment for the Valleur Throne. One can seldom go back.” He looked at Torrullin. “It will be yours.”
“I am not sure I want it, Vannis.”
“It is not your choice, and there is a prophecy.”
Urgency replaced Torrullin’s look when a shout resounded from the cliff top above them.
“Time to go,” Raken whispered.
They grabbed her and transported to the opposite shore with another cliff towering over them, and Raken said, “There’s an underground shelter about two sals up on the ocean side.”
“Picture it,” Torrullin said as darklings rushed from the trees.
They transported into a dank cave of hollowed-out sand, tree roots exposed in the ceiling, dark and wet, the sound of twittering. Torrullin brought forth a globe of light, sending numerous furry creatures into headlong flight towards exits only they knew of. A few wooden crates were half-buried in the dirty sand floor.
“Now he knows we are coming,” Vannis commented. “We dallied too long.”
“No doubt,” Torrullin affirmed. “Not a nice place, Raken.”
“It’s merely a temporary place to store plunder.”
Go, Enchanter; the Horde is directly above you, Quilla’s warning sounded.
“Raken. Another place. Quickly!”
“Ah, ah … tree house! If they found that, they’re …”
Raken concentrated with the two men holding onto her.
Torrullin took them out as darklings crashed through the ceiling. They did not see anything of the tree house. More darklings waited … he took them away … a clearing, more darklings … he swore, transporting out again.
Aqua Island, Torrullin, to the west.
The Enchanter made another hop in space, a darkling sword nicking him as they vanished.
The Drowned Throne
The place they materialised in was a depression near the Galilan River, one of many such depressions.
“The graveyard?” Torrullin frowned, looking around.
Most of the bodies and ancient skeletons washed away in the horrendous flooding. The graves then filled with mud and debris, only to settle into these shallow depressions now in evidence. Reports of old bones discovered further down the river’s banks caused quite a stir a while ago. They were reconsecrated and reburied with due ceremony on higher ground.
“What’s up with you and Saska?” Belun asked.
Torrullin eyed him, well aware the Centuar regarded themselves as Sylmer protectors. “Nothing.” He lifted his gaze back to the surrounds. “Why are we here?”
The Centuar sniffed and led the way to a small grove of trees. As he walked, he said, “The girl’s name was Lissa and I saw her just yesterday at a gathering of musicians. I saw her leave that get-together and was thus one of the last to see her alive.” He halted and pointed at his feet.
A flash of red.
Torrullin kneeled and picked up the crumpled material. A scarf.
“She wrapped that around her head as she left,” Belun said, a catch in his voice. “They are so young, Torrullin. This isn’t fair. It isn’t right.”
Torrullin said nothing. He stared at the nearby trees. They would offer the security in which to lay in wait for an unsuspecting victim. He glanced at the fast-flowing river. The torrent would be a convenient excuse for folk to use as proof of death - he/she fell into the river; the current took them.
As a potential crime scene, the pieces fit.
He glanced at the red scarf in his hands. Unsoiled. The girl possessed the energy to keep her clothing spotless. She was not the kind, then, to tumble inadvertently into the river. There were long blond hairs caught in the folds - he lifted one and ran it between his fingers. It squeaked. Clean. The kind of girl who looked after her hair despite the circumstances she lived in.
As a potential accident site, the evidence went against it.
The evidence fit an actual crime scene, although the perpetrator was sloppy.
Torrullin glanced at the abandoned graveyard.
He noticed the ancient chapel where the Mantle used to meet. It no longer possessed a roof and one wall listed; how everything had changed.
“They come to walk here,” Belun murmured, “because it’s quiet. No souls here anymore, they say, therefore no danger.” He swallowed hard. “She is the third I have tracked to this place, but this is the first evidence I found.” He kneeled beside Torrullin and carefully moved the grass aside. “Signs of a struggle, do you see?”
He did. The ground below was churned, freshly churned. Someone had waved a hand to restore the grass to an upright mien in order to fool investigators. Still, sloppy. Leaving a red scarf lying about was a rag to the bull, in this case a bull-headed Centuar.
His gaze flicked to Belun. “Use of magic leaves traces.”
“Exactly. That is why I left it as is. A tad too old for my nose, though.”
“Right.” Torrullin leaned closer and sniffed at the ground. He straightened to snuffle at the air, and rose to wander through the trees. After a few minutes he walked over to the river’s edge and stood there staring across the wide expanse.
“Well?” Belun demanded.
“Traces, yes. Definitely corrective sorcery.”
Torrullin shook his head. “Can’t tell. Too little to go on.”
“It is him. Like you, I feel it in my gut.”
Belun deflated to rest hands on knees. “Knew it. Just knew it. I’m going to pull every hair from his body, strand by strand, and then …”
Torrullin gripped the big man’s shoulder. “I hear you.”