Naia 13, 1014.
Corridom Silver Mine, just outside Port Andestn, Duchy Monrodya.
Kimmentari stepped from the Merstaln into a canyon and reached for her perception of the Dance. Her thread showed that she was following her path perfectly, and she opened her eyes and started walking west. The canyon curved slightly north and when she came round the curve, she saw the wall that closed off the end of the box canyon before her. The Dance showed that her current task lay within those walls, as well as the danger atop the two towers that flanked the gate, and she crept into the shadow of some rocks by one of the canyon walls to hide while she rested for a moment.
She thought about the two dreams that had driven her from Castle Pentamorlo and into this Dance. In one, the room full of innocents being rescued, in the other, every one of them being killed. She hadn’t been bothered by those dreams since leaving the Castle, but she could now see where they fit into the patterns of the Dance she was following and facilitating. Both predictions were still equally likely to become reality, but only one could lead to the preferred ending.
And there was still much hidden from her. While the Dance encompassed the whole of what was happening here, it wasn’t given to her to know what each and every thread represented. She still didn’t know what the doom was which loomed as the reward of failure. She still didn’t know who the face in the bloody dream was, though it was very familiar. And while she knew that the young man, Chandras, whom she had met and directed yesterday morning, was an important player in this Dance, she didn’t yet know in what way.
It would have been frustrating to her to have such limited knowledge of the paths involved in such an important Dance, if she wasn’t used to it by now from long experience. Even so, she sometimes wished for the chance to be a little more free of the guidance of Thyerin’s Dance — to make decisions that weren’t weighted by the knowledge of the complexities of the consequences that resulted from it. The fast-livers did it all the time, like her mate going off to fight a war that he had no way of knowing the outcome of. What freedom!
She turned her attention back to her immediate situation, and saw that the guards were distracted enough for her to pass the walls. She stood, and took the sideways step that let her enter the Merstaln. She knew which direction she needed to go, and she was glad to see that she was able to do so. One step was all she needed, and when she stepped back out of the Merstaln, she found herself behind the walls.
She looked around the space enclosed by the artificial walls and the cliffs of the box canyon. All of the buildings within the compound were built against one or the other kind of wall, leaving a large open space in the center. And then she saw the dais and recognized the design painted there, and with a sinking sensation, she knew — someone was using part of the Shadowstone here!
She knew whomever had taken possession of the Shadowstone shard would keep it near. She refocused her perceptions, and immediately saw a faint glowing image of the stone hovering above the center of the dais. She also saw a trail of light that she knew traced the path the stone had traveled as it was carried around. She followed the trace directly to a large building built against the back wall of the canyon, and since there were no other traces to indicate that the stone had been moved from that building, she knew the stone had to be inside. She took a moment to be sure that she was still alone, and then entered it.
The light trace led her to a room on the top floor of the building. She had been cautious in her advance, but she had seen no one, nor had she felt any sort of warding or warning spell being triggered. Now she could sense the presence of the shard on the other side of the door she stood before, so she took a moment to readjust her perceptions to the purely physical and prepare herself for the discovery that was coming. When she felt herself ready, she opened the door and passed through.
She found herself in some kind of audience chamber. It was a large room sparsely decorated with out-of-place tapestries and patterned rugs, backless benches against the side walls, and a throne against the wall opposite the door. On a carved wooden stand rested the Shadowstone shard, and seated in the throne staring at the pulsing shard was the one who had bonded with the shard. Kimmentari felt a pang of regret as she recognized the person — her cousin Olmehri, a half-Araf, half-human outcast from Araf society.
“Greetings, Olmehri,” she sang in pure Araf. “It has been long since our Dances crossed. How do you fare?”
The green-haired, blue-eyed half-Araf looked up and sneered in contempt. That sneer seemed to emphasize the human qualities in Olmehri that blunted and coarsened her Araf heritage, and Kimmentari was surprised to find herself slightly bothered by that blending. She felt that the two physical types didn’t blend well at all, which was disquieting considering her own involvement with a human.
“‘How do I fare?’” Olmehri repeated. “Quite well, actually, despite being disinherited by my own kind!” Olmehri spoke in the local human tongue, and instead of the rich musical tones that always accompanied Kimmentari’s speech, she was accompanied by faint, somewhat atonal notes. Kimmentari supposed that the sound wouldn’t be unpleasant to a human unless they had heard a full-blood Araf speak.
“Your expulsion from Araf society was as much your choice as that of the Elite. If you hadn’t pursued your infatuation with the Leader’s eldest, the Elite wouldn’t have been forced to deal with you in order to maintain the purity of the succession.
“But that’s old music now, Olmehri. I’m here about the Shadowstone shard.”
“Trying to cheat me of my heritage again, cousin? Not this time.”
Kimmentari frowned, and said, “History has nothing to do with this, Olmehri. I do not have your discomfiture always uppermost in my thoughts. And that it was my words that led the Elite to rule as they did should not lead you to believe that I harbor some kind of vendetta against you.
“The care of the Shadowstone may be our family’s heritage, but if you were serious about that heritage, you would know that the shard should never have been awakened. It’s far, far too dangerous.”
“Too dangerous for those timid fleerings among the Elite who refuse to use the power they have access to. Too dangerous for you, but not too dangerous for me!”
Kimmentari took a step closer to her cousin and said earnestly, “Listen, Olmehri, the lore that surrounds the Shadowstone is not fiction. Tell me, why haven’t you stood up to face me? Feeling tired lately? That’s because the shard is feeding off of you. If you don’t give it enough essences, it takes some of yours. And its need grows with every essence you *do* feed it. That group of Raiders you captured and gave to the shard will abate the need for a short while, but when it returns it will be at three times strength. And then where will you get enough lives to feed it?”
Olmehri looked uncertain for a moment, then rallied. “As my Minions grow in number, finding further subjects will become easier and easier. And when we reach the completion number, the need will be sated and my power will be supreme!”
“But you will never survive to reach that number! It’s too great. The total population of Port Andestn — even of all of Monrodya! — isn’t enough to satisfy even the shard in your possession. And when you are overcome by the Shadowstone, the shard will continue what you have started, except there will then be no way to stop it until it consumes everyone!”
Olmehri flinched at that. But then she rallied again, regaining her composure. “I *will* succeed, cousin. I am Mistress of the shard, and I shall receive the reward. And you, Kimmentari, shall receive only death! Now, my knights!”
The door crashed open, but Kimmentari didn’t turn. She reached sideways and touched the shard briefly. Olmehri shouted “No!!” and lunged from the throne at the shard, but Kimmentari knew that taking it away wasn’t a solution. Separating the stone from Olmehri wouldn’t break the link between them, it would just make it impossible for Olmehri to feed it and thus hasten the half-Araf’s demise and set the Shadowstone free from all control. Instead, she took a risk and stepped into the Merstaln, vanishing from Olmehri’s throne room in a flash of violet light.
Within the Merstaln, Kimmentari surveyed her options. The alien landscape that surrounded her conformed only somewhat to the shape of the physical plane she had come from, as was normal. There was a pulsing node of light next to her which represented the Shadowstone shard’s presence on this particular order of form. It represented another danger the Shadowstone presented — the natural denizens of this place would be attracted to such an alien presence, and some could probably use the node as a portal to the first order of form. She hoped that none of those creatures were near.
She scanned the nearby terrain features, and was able to associate the slight ridge that ran around her on three sides as the walls of the end of the box canyon. She stepped over to the ridge, and exited the Merstaln. Sure enough, she found herself on the top of the cliff above the building that contained Olmehri’s throne room. There as a flurry of activity below as Olmehri’s Minions ran back and forth across the center of the compound, but none of them looked up. Kimmentari backed away from the edge and out of sight from below, and contemplated her next task.
The Dance showed that she should travel to the place where the remnants of Thornodd’s Raiders were gathered and inform them of their choices. She knew that Chandras, the young man she had first met with, was with them and she knew she had to keep clear of him — he had touched the power of the Shadowstone when he had assaulted that Minion, and it gave him perceptions beyond the normal, at least when it came to Araf magics. What she had sensed of his grasp of the Dance had been nothing short of amazing, but she couldn’t let such clear knowledge cloud the decision-making processes required from here on.
Taking a deep breath, she started the next leg of her journey.
Naia 13, 1014.
The Refuge of Thornodd’s Raiders, in the Hills outside of Port Andestn, Duchy Monrodya.
Chandras came awake abruptly, and groaned at the pain in his head. He reached up instinctively to probe the injury and encountered a bandage wrapping his head. He groggily opened his eyes and looked around, and found himself lying on the ground in a large cavern along with maybe twenty others, one of whom was standing over him with his sword drawn, obviously on guard.
“Wh-where am I?” Chandras shakily asked.
“The Refuge of Thornodd’s Raiders, with the sole remnants of those raiders,” answered the guard. “And you’ve asked your last question until you give up some answers. Who are you? Why were you running away from that mining compound in the middle of our attack?”
Chandras sat up slowly, still clutching his bandaged head, and replied, “I – I’m Chandras. I live in Port Andestn. Um, I happened to be trying to reach your camp in the hills just as it was attacked. I followed the attackers back to their lair, and then sneaked in. A guard caught me and as he was taking me to their leader, there was this explosion at the gate. In the confusion, I escaped, but I guess I tripped or something, because the last thing I remember was a shape rising from behind a rock, and then I was falling …”
“Well, that sounds like a good story, to a point. And it’s not like you had a great deal of time to make it up while you were unconscious. So, you’re probably not one of the enemy who attacked our valley camp. Still, it’s not my call.” Raising his voice but not taking his eyes off of Chandras, the guard called out, “Captain Thornodd! Our guest is awake.”
A tall, handsome, imposing woman came over and looked down at Chandras. “So, comfortable? I apologize if our hospitality is lacking, but we are somewhat short-handed these days. How’s your head? I trust Dzory’s ministrations are satisfactory?”
Chandras frowned, confused by Thornodd’s somewhat odd questions and manner. She didn’t seem anything like his idea of the leader of a band of cutthroat raiders, but more like a Baroness hosting a guest, or something. He said, “Ah, my head hurts a bit, but besides that I’m fine. I guess.”
“Good, good. And now that the niceties are past, perhaps you can repeat for me what you told Dzory here about who you are.”
Chandras repeated his short description, and then elaborated when Thornodd asked for more details. He even ended up telling her about the strange woman who had given him those choices on the hill above the attack, though it was obvious that Thornodd had the hardest time believing this part.
Finally, the Raiders’ leader was satisfied — or satisfied enough, since Chandras had a feeling that she wasn’t completely convinced.
Thornodd said, “Thank you for your patience, Chandras. I would appreciate your aid when we plan our next assault, and that meeting will be after we have all had something to eat. Dzory will show you the necessary, and where you can wash up. See you in half a bell.”
Every single remaining raider had gathered for the planning meeting around a makeshift table consisting of 4 barrels and a large plank. Chandras felt very out of place standing with the rest of them at the table, and he really just wanted to be on his way back to Port Andestn and just maybe the arms of Delebye. But the Captain had specifically invited him to this meeting, so he had little choice.
Thornodd began, “Before we can effectively plan our second rescue attempt, we need to know why our last try failed. Any ideas?”
“It must have been my explosive packets, Captain,” said a slim, almost scrawny, young man. “I should never have attempted such a contrived setup, too many things could go wrong. But we just don’t have very many supplies here, so I was forced to make do.
“The theory was sound though, and I followed the directions in the grimoire to the letter. Two secondary packets, primed by the presence of the guards in the towers, would when detonated feed energy to the primary packet at the gate, enabling the fairly weak explosive there to do enough damage to breach the gate. But it didn’t work that way — one of the secondary packets didn’t even go off!
“I know that Rhand’s arrows reached their targets, so the packets should have been in place. So it must have been my preparations, unless the guards weren’t at their posts …”
Chandras said, “Oops,” without realizing it, and when Thornodd looked at him with a questioning expression, he said, “The guard that captured me must have come from the tower. He probably saw me from up there and left his post. I didn’t even think of being spotted from above. Stupid mistake, especially for a rooftopper. Sorry.”
Thornodd digested that quickly, and her brief frown was replaced by a resigned expression. “What’s done is done, and it wasn’t done of a purpose. I never doubted your magical abilities, Jerek, and now you needn’t either.” The slim youth smiled in response. “At least we know that it wasn’t some kind of damping or warding magic being used by those people.
“But now for the future. The walls of that mining compound are still our most formidable obstacle. Do you have enough materials to build more explosives, Jerek?”
Jerek didn’t look hopeful. “Enough for a primary packet, but not enough for more than one secondary, and there needs to be at least two to get the feeding effect. All told, we can’t muster enough explosive power to breach that gate.”
“That’s all right. We had surprise on our side before, but now without it, we don’t have enough of a force to charge through a downed gate considering that they must be prepared for such a move. But we still have to figure out a way to get our people out of that compound, and …”
“Excuse me,” Chandras said, interrupting Thornodd, “but I’m not sure that is possible any longer. I mean, what with that ceremony and all …”
“What do you mean?” Thornodd asked.
“Well, um, I don’t think that that ceremony was just some way to keep their captured prisoners docile. One of that woman Olmehri’s knights said something to one of their victims about ‘joining the Mistress’s service’ or something like that. That doesn’t sound like they can just be rescued, does it?”
Thornodd frowned and said slowly, “So, if your story is true, and if that apprentice you attacked *is* associated with the people who are in that compound (though I don’t see the connection), then what we’re up against is a group that seems to be indestructible, that seems to be bringing down some kind of doom on our area, and who have been ‘converting’ our captured fellows to their cause (whatever that means) since the middle of yesterday. This does not sound hopeful.”
“Excuse me, Thornodd, but I think there’s another aspect to consider here.” Jerek sounded like he didn’t really want to say this, but he needed to. Thornodd gave him an ‘I’m listening’ look, and he continued, “I’m just guessing here, using what our guest has told us, but it seems to follow that if this Mistress Olmehri has somehow possessed our former comrades to the extent that they will now fight in her army, then she should also have access to their memories. The knights that Chandras told us about didn’t seem like zombies, after all. What I’m getting to,” he said in response to the ‘get on with it’ look from Thornodd, “is that Olmehri must know where this Refuge is — if not yet, then soon — if she can get information from her converts. We aren’t safe here. Not for very long.
“I’ve also been trying to remember why some of this sounds so familiar, and I think I recall reading a collection of legends and fables some time ago, one of which had some similarities to this. Maybe if I could find it — I’m sure the book is packed away in my treasure chest somewhere — it could provide some clues.”
“Well, we don’t have much else to go on, do we? Frankly, I am beginning to doubt that we have a chance, here, but I will reserve final judgment until Jerek finishes his research. See to your weapons and gear while we wait — we may have to ride at a moment’s notice.”
She followed Jerek through one of the several openings in the cavern’s wall, and the group around the table broke up, some gathering into smaller groups to talk quietly, some going through other openings that Chandras had seen led to chambers reserved for sleeping and gear storage. Chandras didn’t know anyone well enough to join in any conversations, nor did he have any gear to get ready, so he stood against a wall and watched.
Suddenly, a violet flash from the opening that Thornodd and Jerek had gone through drew Chandras’ attention. The color reminded him of something, but he forgot all about that when he noticed that one of the raiders was standing by that opening, and as the raider’s eyes scanned the main room again before returning to the side chamber, Chandras noticed that his eyes were not surrounded by white, but by smoky grey!