Nikkeus ran the fine rasp once more over the edge of the small wooden wedge and fitted it between the oval of glass and the stone in the center of one of the carved falcons. There, perfect fit. He withdrew the wedge with his fingernails, dabbed it with glue, slid it back home, and tapped it with a small hammer that had a piece of felt tied around its head. Done, finally! And none too soon, either.
Nikkeus sat up and looked at the finished product. The talisman rested on the table in the workroom, every piece of glass wedged and locked into place along the third band of Geronlel knot-work. It had taken the three of them three weeks to make, shape, fit, and reshape five score lengths of glass so that they filled in the track of the third band on the talisman. Each piece was really three pieces of glass — one piece, the largest, clear, with two other pieces, one blue, one red, attached to its underside. The work had been difficult and time consuming, but the result was worth it all.
Eldinan had quickly seen the first problem with the proposal to have each segment of the band span multiple intersections. For reasons that made sense to her and ended up being absolutely accurate, each segment of rolled, shaped, and fused glass had only been able to be fitted from intersection to intersection. This had required carving more wedge slots into the stone-composite of the talisman’s base, as well as requiring far more work just to shape that number of pieces. Each and every piece had then required hand-crafting, and the wooden wedges the same, which had all added up to it being the spring equinox with the talisman being unfinished.
But now, it was done. It lay in front of him in all of its splendor, and he could hardly believe it was finished. He removed the felt from his tiny hammer and rapped on the metal bands. The crossings of the bands turned them into collections of individual lengths, much like the glass band, instead of one continuous length, so that when he tapped them in different places, he got all kinds of different notes. He deduced that the variation was caused by the varying lengths between each crossing, plus the different materials that composed each crossing, plus slight variations in the carving of the tracks themselves.
The musicality of the talisman seemed to draw Nikkeus, who had been awake since yesterday morning, into a trance. Elin and Kendil had also stayed up the night, and into the afternoon helping with the last stages of construction, but he had sent them back to their quarters to get some rest so that someone would be fresh for the ceremony.
His mind fogged by lack of sleep and somewhat giddy at having finished the talisman in time, Nikkeus slipped into a strange state. He started tapping methodically around the talisman, slowly at first, and then faster and faster, learning the notes, figuring out how to play this new instrument. On a whim, he wet a finger and stroked it along the glass band, and was surprised by the ringing vibration that rose from each segment. That result he couldn’t explain at all, but he cataloged the tones produced and added them to the developing musical range of the talisman.
Nikkeus thought he had learned more than half of the possible notes when the door to the workshop opened. He stopped and turned, shaking off his trance-like state. He expected that this would be Elin and Kendil come to see if he had finished.
But it wasn’t them, it was Orlebb. Before the still somewhat dazed Nikkeus could tense up, the castellan said, “It is growing late, Nikkeus. The sun has set already. You will need help getting your talisman, your krovelathad, to the roof of Green Tower, will you not?”
Nikkeus took the revelation that Orlebb knew their secret in stride. He nodded — the castellan was right. The talisman was somewhat heavy, and they had planned that the ceremony take place not very long after sunset.
“I must fetch El–”
“No, no. I’ll help you carry it up there. Why should Eldinan and Kendil come all the way down here just to retrace their steps all the way back to your quarters, and then beyond to the roof? Come on, get a good grip and let’s go.”
Orlebb strode over to the table and latched onto the talisman. Swept along by the castellan’s plan, Nikkeus grabbed the other side, and they started toward the tower.
Their progress through the keep was swift and surprisingly uneventful. Nikkeus was almost too befuddled to notice, but they met no one in the corridors they passed through.
In the anteroom to the tower, Nikkeus finally saw someone — a page standing by the door. The young girl opened the door for the laden pair, and Nikkeus saw Orlebb nod to the girl, who turned over the sand-glass she carried in her other hand, causing the sand in the upper bulb to start to flow into the lower bulb.
Nikkeus wanted to stop when they reached the sixth floor landing and fetch Kendil and Elin, but Orlebb said, “No, no. Why don’t we get everything set up up there first? That way you can get started as soon as they arrive. I’ll send a page to let them know everything is ready. It’ll be fine.”
Nikkeus shrugged and followed the still climbing castellan. Two more flights of stairs, and Orlebb opened the door onto the roof. Nikkeus trailed the castellan out onto the chilly, rainy, flat platform at the top of Green Tower and looked around. A low wall surrounded the platform, and the only other structure was the stairwell hood itself. In the center of the platform, a low table had been set up, and Orlebb was moving in that direction. Three lanterns had been set up against the parapet wall, providing just about enough illumination from their magically glowing interiors that he wouldn’t trip over the table or run into the walls.
They reached the table and set the talisman onto it. Nikkeus shivered as chill rain blew across the platform, and Orlebb said, “Not the best of nights for an important ceremony, is it? Come, I’ve brought you a robe. The page will make sure your companions bring theirs as well. It’s over here behind the stair hood.”
Nikkeus followed Orlebb into the narrow area between the stair hood and the parapet wall. He looked over the edge and took in the view out over the keep and the village beyond. He looked left and saw the faint lights of the ships moored at the docks on the other side of the Coldwell. He looked back toward the village, and saw the circle out on the edge of the village where the more traditional krovelathan ceremony was getting ready to take place. Large bonfires ringed the circle of people, and smaller ones dotted the space inside. He had no idea how many people were getting bonded in the ceremony below — he had been far too busy the last few months to listen to keep gossip about that sort of thing. With a little sigh of happiness at the fact that their own ceremony was really going to happen in just a little while, he turned back toward Orlebb, wondering wher e the robe was.
He just about had time to notice that the robe was on Orlebb when the castellan’s knife hilt caught him in the temple. As he crumpled into darkness, a flash of lightning lit up the top of the tower, the crash of thunder following soon enough that he heard it as he dropped into unconsciousness.
Another bolt of lightning illuminated the storm-dark night as Orlebb rose over the prone body of Nikkeus. He sheathed his knife as he watched the trickle of blood at Nikkeus’ temple wash away in the driving rain. He had judged the blow of the knife hilt properly: hard enough to render Nikkeus unconscious, not hard enough to kill the young man.
Everything was going smoothly. He had lured Nikkeus to the roof, and had taken his place. The others would be up at any moment, and the rites could begin. All he needed to do was take up his place by the table, standing in for Nikkeus in the ceremony, and wait.
Orlebb took a step and looked down at the splashing sound he made. The drainage up here wasn’t as good as it should have been. He took a moment to stoop over Nikkeus and turn the young man onto his back. Another lightning flash revealed Nikkeus’ pretty face framed by blond hair. “I’m sorry, but it all will be well very soon,” he whispered to the unconscious young man.
Orlebb walked over to the table and the talisman and stepped up onto the low pile of lumber he had placed on one side of the table. When he was on top of the lumber, he gained the two inches that Nikkeus had on him. Next, he fished a small wooden token out of his belt pouch and looked at it. It was a flat oval etched with runes of a sort that he wagered no one in this keep could read, except for himself. He touched the token to the blood that was still on his knife hilt, and then placed the wooden oval into his mouth. He clamped it between his teeth, closed his lips over the outer edge, and touched his tongue to the inner edge. Then he subvocalized, concentrating on the token, and the words, “Time to begin.” issued from his closed mouth in the exact tones of Nikkeus.
Lastly, he pulled the hood of the robe up to cover his face. Fortunately, Nikkeus didn’t wear rings, and with the rain and the clouds, and the dim lantern light, he was pretty sure that the others weren’t going to be able to tell that his hands weren’t quite as long-fingered and graceful as the musician’s.
Now all he could do was wait. His plans were finally working out. Nothing could go wrong. The page he had signaled downstairs would climb to the sixth floor when her sand-glass ran out and inform the residents of the master suite that Nikkeus was ready on the roof for them. She would also inform them of the weather, and tell them to bring cloaks.
Then all that would remain would be some blessings and the invocation, and the group binding would be finished. And he knew that the results would surprise everyone involved. Except him, of course.
The door across from him opened, and the remaining two members of the group stepped out onto the rooftop platform. Their greetings to the one they thought was Nikkeus were drowned out by another clap of thunder that followed almost on the heels of a bolt of lightning striking the ocean.
The thunder also drowned out the laughter that Orlebb couldn’t suppress. Soon, soon, soon!
Eldinan felt well rested and relaxed as she sat in the main room of their quarters that evening. Her state made her feel a hint of guilt, since Nikk hadn’t taken the break he said he would, and so must still be down stairs working on the talisman. But when she had started fumbling with the precisely crafted glass pieces, and had actually dropped one — it hadn’t been damaged — she decided that she was in no shape to continue the delicate work required. Kendil had agreed, but Nikk assured them that he had the stamina to continue. She knew about his stamina, so she reluctantly left him to work, returning to their bedroom with Kendil and falling almost instantly asleep.
Kendil had just finished dressing and joined her in front of the fireplace. She snuggled up next to him and just sat that way for a bit, excitement building inside her at the impending event. Finally, she said, “It is getting pretty close to time for the ceremony, don’t you think? Nikkeus hasn’t returned — I hope he has finished by now.”
Kendil kissed her forehead, and said, “Of course he has. It just took longer than expected. We should probably head down there to make sure, and help get everything ready upstairs.”
Eldinan nodded and was just rising when a knock came at their door. Kendil called out, “Yes?”
The door opened, and a young page was standing there. She said, “Nikkeus sent me to tell you that everything is ready upstairs, and to come up. He also said that it is raining and chilly, and to be sure to bring your cloaks. Thank you.” And she turned and left.
Eldinan looked at Kendil with astonishment, and said, “Our boy’s been busy, hasn’t he? How nice that he took care of everything. I guess his stamina really was up to it.” Kendil laughed in response, and they both fetched their cloaks and started for the stairs.
Two flights up from their sixth floor quarters they came to the end of the stairs and the door to the roof. Kendil opened it and they stepped through into a dark, stormy night. In the center of the watch platform that occupied the top of the Green Tower was a low table, upon which rested the completed talisman. The light from three lanterns set against the parapet of the platform was just enough to illuminate the scene, and even from over here the talisman looked fantastic. Also revealed was Nikk, standing on the opposite side of the talisman from the stairway door. He wore a grey cloak, not his usual one, draped over his frame, its hood up and shadowing his face completely.
Eldinan waved and called a greeting, but her words were drowned out by a clap of thunder that followed hard on the heels of a huge bolt of lightning that slashed down out over the ocean behind Nikk. As the rolling boom faded away, she and Kendil walked over to the table. She stood at the side of the talisman which bore the two falcons that represented her, and stared down at the thing of beauty the three of them had created. She reached out and traced the bands, especially the glass band, the one that hadn’t been finished when she had gone to bed. It was finished now, those last few segments just as perfect as all the other ones that had been crafted and fitted over the last two weeks. But the final product was definitely worth the effort — it was magnificent!
Another bolt of lightning flashed, not quite as close, and Eldinan looked around. From the center of the tower nothing was visible but distant flashes of lightning — she knew she was standing on the tallest thing around. Eldinan asked, “Do you think this is totally safe?”
Kendil shrugged, and said, “It should be. The lightning wards should be in place. Orlebb might be a number of unsavory things, but he is certainly efficient when it comes to taking care of this keep. A lightning strike up here might not start a fire, but it could still do significant damage to the structure of the tower. He must have had the wards activated as soon as the storm approached.”
“Ah …” said Nikk, sounding nervous. Then he continued, “Right. Still, we should hurry. It is cold …”
Eldinan laughed and said, “That it surely is. And I’ll feel safer back in our quarters, wards or no. Is everyone ready?”
They each reached down and touched a hand to each of their totem beasts, then nodded. Eldinan began chanting the traditional words of invocation, words that had been said over krovelathads for centuries. She forgot about the lightning flashing around her, and the chill wind trying to bite through her cloak. The two people standing around her were all that mattered just now, that and the bond they were cementing here, and the relationship that had grown over the past months to this milestone.
She finished with, “In the name, and under the eyes, of Reesera, god of love, I pledge my life and love, from this day forward, to both of you. Kendil, Nikkeus, by virtue of our love and through this krovelathad, you both become part of me from this day, until there are no more tomorrows.”
She looked at her two lovers, her two loves, and smiled. And then she looked down at the talisman, and gasped when she saw that her falcons were glowing, as were the glass segments of the knot-work band that stretched from one raptor to the other. Purple light that sometimes flickered to red or blue shone along the winding, weaving trail around the disk of the talisman, and the falcons themselves radiated a faint greenish-yellow light.
This certainly wasn’t a normal part of a krovelathan ceremony!
Kendil listened to Eldinan recite her part of the ceremony, and the faintly queasy sensation in his stomach that he had felt in anticipation of this bonding faded away. It was the right thing to do. The three of them belonged together. They were already bonded; this ceremony just made it official, as far as that was possible, considering the nature of what they were doing and how it ran against tradition and law. But it was official to him, anyway.
Elin pledged her life to him and Nikk, and then her falcons and glass band began to glow. They shouldn’t have done that! The talisman hadn’t been given any inherent magic. Then again, some of the odds and ends that had gone into its making might have been magical, and Elin’s anhekova was made of an innately magical substance, even if it no longer had any powers.
But to stop now would mean that the ceremony was broken, and he didn’t want that. So, Kendil started reciting his part of the ritual. The words flowed, and their familiar nature calmed and soothed him.
He came to the last words, and said, “In the name, and under the eyes, of Reesera, god of love, I pledge my life and love, from this day forward, to both of you. Nikkeus, Eldinan, by virtue of our love and through this krovelathad, you both become part of me from this day, until there are no more tomorrows.”
And his two foxes began to glow with the yellowish green light, while his goldish, brassish band began to glitter and sparkle as if the metal was glowing.
Kendil barely had time to register and react to this change in the talisman before Nikk began to speak. Kendil stared at the gold band circling around the talisman, and the glass band where it glowed in its path. Where the gold and glass bands crossed, there was an odd combination of glows that resulted in a different color, a combination of red-purple and gold-yellow that wasn’t a color he could name, but that looked very pleasing to his eye.
And slowly, he realized that something was wrong. Something seemed … different, not as it should be. Kendil concentrated on the words that Nikk was saying — maybe the musician had misremembered something. And as he concentrated on the words coming from Nikk, he slowly realized what was so strange.
It was a subtle thing, but for some reason he was sure about what he was hearing. The voice was Nikk’s, but the style of speaking was not. The way the words were inflected, the pronunciation, the *accent* … were Orlebb’s!
The ersatz Nikk was almost finished with his part of the ceremony by the time Kendil came to this realization. He was saying, “In the name, and under the eyes, of Reesera, I pledge my life and love, from this day forward, to all of you. Eldinan, Kendil, Nikkeus, through this krovelathad, you all become part of me from this day, until there are no more tomorrows.”
Several things happened almost at once: Nikkeus’ section of the talisman began to glow, the two cats a greenish yellow, the grey metal band gaining a peculiar cold luster; the hood of Nikk’s robe blew back in a gust of wind, revealing not the blond Nirmalel face of the musician but the squarer, raven-haired and moustached, pale face of Orlebb; and a groan was heard, carried perhaps by that gust of wind, coming from the direction of the stair hood.
And as the realization of what had happened sank into Kendil while he stared in shock at the blue and brown eyes of the Cherisk native, a lightning bolt struck the center of the glowing talisman.
The rat reached the top of the tower and scurried from the drain pipe into the rain, cold, and noise. People were talking, but that didn’t bother it. It knew that if it was careful, the people would never see it.
It made its way around the tower by following the wall, sliding through the shadows there with ease. It came to a lantern and climbed up over it, rather than move in front of the beam of light and cast a shadow.
It happened to be looking toward the center of the rooftop, where the three people were standing around a table, when the lightning bolt hit. It saw the way the bolt caused the thing on the table to glow fiercely. It saw the tiny bolts that leapt from the thing to each of the three people standing around it, making them glow as well. It also saw the fourth tiny bolt that snaked off to one side, striking a person that was beginning to sit up behind the stair hood.
Then, it saw the object on the table fragment into six pieces, which flared an intense blue and vanished. Moments later, the four glowing people also vanished. The thunderclap that followed was so loud that it just overwhelmed the rat, which raced for the drain pipe and vanished back down it.
The lightning strike could be heard by everyone in any proximity to the keep. The people in the krovelathan ceremony circle outside the village looked up, eyes drawn by the flash of the explosion atop the seaside tower of the keep.
When those guests reached the tower, they first noticed that the lightning wards had not been set. Upon reaching the top of the tower, all that they saw was an empty watch platform, three glowing lanterns, and some charred sticks of wood that had been the legs of the table. But there was nothing else to be found; no talisman, no bodies, nothing.
Which left no clues for the mystery of the disappearance of the castellan, Captain Eldinan, Alkant Kendil, and Terant Nikkeus.
At the moment that the lightning bolt hit the talisman, six people around the world were struck by a prophetic vision. In the midst of their fits, they each came out with the same words. “The three make the one, which then binds the four. Cataclysm falls, and the one becomes six. The six must be one again; to this are the four yet bound. Only when six is one will four be none.”
Four of these prophets were alone at the time of their vision, and so it was lost. The recordist of another jotted the words down on a parchment, but did not live to produce an official copy, and the parchment was scraped and reused, destroying the record.
The last prophet’s words were properly recorded, and transferred to an official scroll, which was then filed to be distributed to the other churches for study. But before that could happen, the village wherein that church resided was attacked and burned, and with it the document. And so the prophecy was lost.
A moment after the lightning bolt struck the talisman, the cwicustan crystals atop six anhekovel around the world flared with a bright light briefly. When the flash faded, each anhekova had, lying beside it or near it, a roughly wedge-shaped piece of carved and inlaid stone.
Only one of these occurrences was noted as it happened, but the old drunk in his shack full of odds and ends was never believed when he told his story.
Approximately nine months after the lightning bolt struck the talisman, there began a series of four births over two months in a small village in the south of the continent of Cherisk. The first one born had one blue eye and one brown eye. The next happy parents’ child was blond, with grass-green eyes and what promised to be a prominent nose. The next baby born had brown hair and eyes, and a somewhat swarthy complexion. And the fourth birth resulted in a child with chestnut hair and grey eyes.
The blond child died within a week, having been sickly from birth. About nine months later, in a town two hundred miles east along the coast of Cherisk, a baby was born with blond hair, grass green eyes, and what would one day be a prominent nose.
The baby girl with black hair and the mismatched eyes died in an accident when she was five. Nine months later, in the imperial city of Frethemak, a baby was born to a very happy couple. It had black hair, and one blue eye and one brown eye.