Authors: James A. West
Tags: #Epic Fantasy Adventure
Adham glanced at the sunlight passing through the circular portal in the chamber’s domed ceiling. At least two hours had passed since Leitos distracted the Fauthian archers, allowing everyone else to reach the palace grounds. Adham thought of what his son had said:
“The Faceless One and Peropis are the same, and she’s coming.... Time is short.”
He checked the angle of the light, and thought that maybe three hours had had actually passed.
that blasted boy?
Considering the way Leitos had thrown himself into the task, as if he had
to get away from the others, and the eagerness that had lit his face as he darted into the street, Adham guessed his son might have decided to take the long way back in order to collect a few trophies. He prayed the boy was safe, but could not escape the idea that something had changed about him. A change that might be dangerous to himself, and to the others.
Along the way to the palace, Damoc had insisted they retrieve the last of his clan—a score of warriors who Adham and the others had left behind when hounding Adu’lin to the Throat of Balaam. A few Yatoans had succumbed, but only the most seriously injured—men and women, to Adham’s way of thinking, who should never have left the field of battle in the first place.
Not for the first time, it struck him that the Yatoans were either a very resilient lot, or they had wills forged of the hardest iron. A prolonged study of Damoc hobbling about the chamber heightened Adham’s suspicion that the Yatoans contained within them an unusual resistance to injury.
Damoc was clopping from one nasty statue to another, looking a challenge into each twisted face. He was moving about rather well for a man who had just that morning taken an arrow in the thigh, another in the shoulder, and had his ankle crushed when Leitos destroyed the Throat. A few days at most, and Damoc would be getting on as if he had only taken a few scratches.
“I have them!” Ulmek said, coming out of the next room. He held aloft a ball of leather thongs, all hung with teardrop-shaped amulets.
Damoc paused in his study of a figure that could have been a woman, save for the dozen tentacles waving off her body, and the obscenity of horns and mouths that represented her head. “What are they?”
Ulmek raised an eyebrow. “They are stones of protection,
. What else would they be?”
Damoc came nearer, his crude walking stick thumping against floor tiles. He fingered one. A frown crossed his brow. “You said ‘wards’ ...... but what do they
“Surely you jest?” Ulmek said.
“It keeps Mahk’lar from possessing the living,” Adham said, stepping closer.
The elder’s eyes widened. “So it is true—though I suppose I knew that already, after what Adu’lin did to your company. With all that has gone on this day, it slipped my attention.”
“Speak plain,” Ulmek ordered, drawing the stones out of reach.
Damoc scrubbed a hand through his dark, close-cropped hair. “Long have my people heard unbelievable tales of Mahk’lar possessing the flesh of anything that breathes.”
“I assure you, they are not tales,” Ulmek said.
“Tell us, Elder Damoc,” Adham invited, “how have your people escaped for so long unprotected?”
Damoc scowled. “Is it not enough that Alon’mahk’lar have ravished our women for generations, forcing them to birth Na’mihn’teghul, and having their souls broken in the process?”
“What your people have suffered is beyond tragedy,” Adham said, soothing the man’s temper. “But that is not what I meant.”
Adham cast a furtive look at Ulmek, but the Brother was focused on the elder. A year ago, out of mistrust for the Brothers of the Crimson Shield, men who were strangers at the time, Adham had told Leitos to keep their secret close on the way to Witch’s Mole. So far, he and the boy had done just that. He wanted to believe they were beyond secrets, after so long amongst the Brothers. He took a deep breath. “Resisting Mahk’lar is a rare gift—”
“Rare?’ Ulmek blurted. “It is
“You are wrong,” Adham said calmly. “Those washed in the Powers of Creation, and their offspring after them, have no need of such wards.” Before Ulmek could argue, Adham began to explain what he had told Leitos a year earlier. “After Prince Varis Kilvar destroyed the Well of Creation—”
Damoc began shaking his head in confusion. “Who is this prince, and what is a Well of Creation?”
With an effort, Adham remained outwardly calm. He had never been one to suffer interruptions. “It’s enough to know that the princeling is dead. The Well of Creation, however, was the gathering place of all the Powers of Creation once wielded by the Three—you know who the Three were, yes?
“Now then, as a penance for creating the Mahk’lar, creatures who were entirely evil from the beginning, the Three made Geh’shinnom’atar. And therein they imprisoned their first children, including Peropis, herself a Mahk’lar, and sealed the Thousand Hells with the Powers of Creation.” He paused until both Damoc and Ulmek nodded in understanding, then went on.
“After Prince Varis broke that seal, the Powers of Creation spread into all the world, like ripples across a pond. My father, Kian Valara, always believed the release of those powers caused the Upheaval, or at least played a part.” Speaking of his father so soon after learning of his death pained Adham, but these men needed to know the truth.
“Gods good and wise,” Damoc breathed. “You mean a
is at fault for all of—” he spread his arms, eyes roving over the chamber and its stone menagerie of grotesques “—all of
“Yes,” Adham said.
“Tell me more about these people who can supposedly
Mahk’lar,” Ulmek said flatly.
Adham collected his thoughts. “A random few, Kian included,
some of those powers, which in turn granted him the ability to repel Mahk’lar from taking his body. And that is not all. For a time, he was able to heal his companions, even bring them back to life, though he lost that talent. He kept his strength, endurance, and long life, which are attributes he passed on to me, his only child, and which I then passed to Leitos. I believe the same holds true for the Yatoans ... seemingly all of them.”
Ulmek refused to put his skepticism to rest. “You expect me to believe that your father lived two hundred and more years?”
“I’ve walked this world for over one hundred and sixty-seven years,” Adham said. “Ba’Sel himself was present with my father at that forsaken temple.”
“He’s never spoken a word of that to me,” Ulmek said, as if that proved Adham was a liar.
Having gone so far, Adham kept pressing. “How long have you been with Ba’Sel and the Brothers?”
“Over thirty summers have passed since Ba’Sel took me in,” Ulmek said. “For the last twenty summers, I have served him in commanding the Crimson Shield. If he kept such a secret, I would know it.”
Adham laughed ruefully. “Thirty years. You must’ve been a child when you met Ba’Sel?”
“What difference does that...?” Ulmek trailed off, his scowl deepening. After a long moment, he said, “Thirty years ... and he has not aged a day.” He gave himself a shake, glanced back at Adham. “Those who were old when Ba’Sel found me oft spoke of how Ba’Sel had found
in their youth.” Wonder flashed in his dark eyes. “Damn me, I never saw it!”
“You never let yourself see it,” Adham said.
Ulmek peered at him. “But you ... you are so
Adham shrugged irritably at the reminder, although he liked to think he did not look all that aged. “I began to look older than my father after my seventieth year. While I age slower than other men, the years do stack up upon my head, where they did not touch Kian, and all those he touched with the Powers of Creation—my mother, Ellonlef, and his friends Hazad and Azuri.” Adham thought a moment, then said, “I suspect that over time the Powers of Creation must get diluted. If there’s some other reason, no one has learned of it. Constantly fighting for your life has a way of discouraging close study of everything, save survival. Were it otherwise, humankind might have been able to find a way to best the Faceless One—pardon me,
Ulmek’s gaze cut toward Damoc. “I suppose you’re an ancient, as well, walking about in the skin of a young man?”
“Among my people, I am considered old,” the elder said. “But I’ve lived no longer than you.” He bowed his head, a look of sorrow shadowing his face. “Our Fauthian masters, with the aid of their Kelren and Alon’mahk’lar pets, have seen to it that we Yatoans never live to old age. Our women die young in birthing abominations, and many of our men end up in chains and are never seen again. We never knew our blood was useful to them.”
“There’s one thing I do not understand,” Ulmek said, drawing Adham’s attention. “If this temple you spoke of contained the Well of Creation, and the Powers of Creation spread throughout the world, washing over only a few here and there, how is it that
Yatoans ended up like your father?”
Adham considered that. “When I first saw the light within the Throat of Balaam, it reminded me of my father’s story of what happened at the temple. He said a strange column of blue fire burst free of the temple, and when that glow touched him, he thought sure he was dying. Somehow, that radiance plays a part in transforming humankind. If I do not miss my guess, the Throat of Balaam was somewhere the Powers of Creation collected in greater quantities than in other places.”
“Yes,” Damoc said slowly. “Those who found the Throat were
until they entered that place. When they came out, they had been changed into the men you knew as Fauthians. Even then, stories say, Adu’lin was their leader. Our forefathers believed the Fauthians had been blessed, and so revered them.”
Silence held among the trio for a time, then Adham said, “We should get back and see how the others are faring.”
Ulmek looked up from hanging one of the stones of protection round his neck. “Leitos will be fine. I’m sure of it.”
Adham desperately wanted to believe that, but a finger of doubt was busy twisting his insides into knots.
“Four lifetimes of men,” Ba’Sel murmured in a singsong voice, not sure why he was saying it, but unable to stop. “Four lifetimes of men, I have trod the face of a broken world. Four lifetimes....”
Neither did he know where he was. He blinked at the sunlight filtering through a narrow window set high in the wall of a dusty room. There was also a mustiness in the air.
A basement? How....
He fled the silent question, just as he had fled ...
else, some stalking danger. Always, there was danger. Danger at every turn, never giving him a moment’s peace.
“Damn you!” he cried querulously. “Leave me be!”
The listening silence that followed turned his bowels to water.
“Four lifetimes of men,” he began again, wandering around the room in overlapping circles. “Four lifetimes of men, I have trod the face of a broken world....”
Warm sunlight played across the dark skin of his hands. He jerked back, as if that golden radiance were fire. There had been thunder and rain before, he was sure of it.
His eyes rolled, seeking signs, seeking truth.
He found a puddle under the window, its surface covered with loose rafts of dust. A gently rippling band of water trickled down the wall to feed that miniature sea.
Ba’Sel snuck away from the sunlight and blanketed himself in the darkness of a far corner. Darkness was better for hiding. He needed to hide. All men needed to, for all the good it would do.
His gaze flickered back to that growing puddle ... that tiny sea. The memory of the smell of saltwater flooded his nostrils, and with it the mingled scents of seaweed, tar, and bird droppings. He fancied he could hear cackling gulls, and the lapping of water against the wood ... against longsuffering years ... against lifetimes ... four lifetimes of men....
~ ~ ~
“Kula-Tak seems to have survived,” Nazeen said, striding down the gangplank. As he went, he snugged his saffron-colored head cloth tighter around an unruly mop of black curls. “Better still, it’s warm as ever in Geldain.”
Close on his lieutenant’s heels, Ba’Sel nodded in agreement. Getting free of Aradan after leaving Kian and his companions behind had been no easy task, what with roving bandits, and the thick haze from countless fires turning the sun red and the nights black as pitch. But the cold that had fallen on them after the skies cleared, soon after they crossed the border from Aradan into Tureece, had been worse than any he had ever suffered. Worse yet, the stars they had seen on that first clear night had formed constellations of the far north, as if the world had shifted its seat in the heavens. But then, a good many things had shifted and changed, and there was nothing for it, save to press on.