"You are the one," Shilandra asked. "Aren't you?"
Velar frowned. He was lost again. The twisting streets confused him in daylight and the night made things worse.
Pausing in the street, Shilandra released his hand and turned to face him. "Are you listening?" she said.
Velar blinked. "Of course," he said. "One what?"
"The one the Chancellor has chosen to seek the Chalice."
"Uh, well, yes." Could news spread so quickly?
Unless. "Do you know Jocaris?"
Shilandra smiled and continued on with quick steps filled with purpose. Velar had to hurry to catch up.
"I am Secultariate, yes, but I have not had the honor of meeting the Prefect." She gave him a side-long glance dripping with charm. "But I have my sources."
Who else had sources, Velar wondered. If the political implications were as thick as Bockril had stated then wouldn't other regents send agents? The extent of the competition suddenly appeared as an aspect Velar had not considered.
"What sources?" Velar asked.
"I cannot say," she replied firmly.
"Because, some sources have no business being sources and I will not betray anyone who offered me knowledge in good faith."
"Is that a Secultariate bylaw of some sort."
She laughed. "No. But it should be. The populace believes the Secultariates are a political entity devoted to reunification when actually the order was founded on the principle that all knowledge is sacred and the source of true power. If I relinquish my sources to the first handsome knight that comes along, I lose face," she gave another curious glance "and power."
Velar almost tripped on a pebble in the street.
"Ah," Shilandra said. "We're here."
They stood at the mouth of a dark alley. Brackish water swirled down the gutters and Velar heard laughter in the distance. The smells of rot and sewage struck them like a rolling barrier and Velar suppressed a shudder. Many a long night he spent huddled in just such a place, damp, wet and cold longing for the sun and denying the hunger.
"It's dark," Shilandra said. "But I know the-"
Velar extended his hand and imaged light. A bubble of blue-tinted iridescence bloomed from his hand and drifted up between them.
"Oh," Shilandra commented, quickly drawing rein on her shocked expression. "That will do."
"Why are we here?" Velar asked.
"Well, you see, I paid a very fair price for a volume of text, actually one of the books discovered recently in the vaults of Melakra and the businessman I purchased it from has enhanced the price a bit. I refuse to pay."
"And you wish me to intimidate him."
"I will do all the talking. I simply have no desire to be alone with the man without an armed escort."
Velar nodded. "You said this book could help me find the Chalice."
"Yes, I did." Shilandra seemed fascinated with the sphere of light that danced between them. "I found reference to it in my own collection and when I heard of it's discovery, I arranged to have it-"
"Stolen," Velar interjected, and looked at her.
Shilandra pressed her lips together firmly and put her fists to her hips. "Acquired. I arranged to have it acquired and transported here."
"This man is a thief."
"What right do you have to pass judgement before you meet him before you even know his name!"
Velar shook his head. He had no right, but he did have a choice whether or not to associate with the man.
"And besides," Shilandra continued. "You need the book as badly as I. Otherwise you'll go wandering off into the wilderness like the rest and die."
Velar shook his head again and he swore he heard Teacher cackling wildly somewhere in the back of his mind. How quick he was to climb a pedestal and look down. Teacher had warned him time and time again of just such attitudes and at the first opportunity he fell in and wallowed in his own pride. He could live inside his on little bubble of light and ignore or avoid such characters as this but, while his integrity would be glowing, his life would be nothing.
This was a test truly worthy of Teacher.
The truth, Velar, even the truest truth.
Yes, Teacher, I know.
"Lead on," Velar said. Shilandra nodded curtly and turned into the alley. Velar followed as his light weaved its way above them, casting the maggot-riddled garbage that banked the walls in eerie shades of blue. The length of the alley came to an abrupt halt and Shilandra made her way to the far left corner, raised her fist and pounded on the door that Velar could see only when he stood directly behind her.
"Remember," she said. "I will talk. You stand and make warrior faces."
Velar lifted an eyebrow. "Warrior faces."
Shilandra nodded. "That pinched, fierce look. Like you haven't had visited the pits in days." She smiled sweetly.
The door inched open.
"Yes?" came a deep, rattling voice.
"I would speak with Tarigan Hawk," Shilandra said.
The door swung away on the screech of oilless hinges and Shilandra stepped inside. Velar let his light dissipate and followed.
They followed a huge, dark man down a short dimly lit hall to another door. Velar could smell incense and remnants of fragrant cooking lingering in the air. The door opened and they all squinted against bright yellow light.
"Come in," a cheerful voice said. Their large escort ushered them through.
The room was large and plush. A hearth burned merrily on the far side while tapestries and art work covered the walls. In the center of the room rested a huge, ornate table surrounded by equally ornate chairs with thick cushions. At the head of the table sat the man Velar assumed to be Tarigan Hawk. He was thin and wiry with volumes of black hair and a thin beard and mustache. He wore a frilly shirt with a black leather vest and purple leggings as he sat reclined with his bare feet propped on the table top next to the remains of his evening meal.
"Greetings Shilandra," he said. "And friend."
"I want my book, Tarigan," Shilandra ordered, storming forward with her fists clenched.
"I have stated my price."
"And I have paid that price."
The escort closed the door and turned to face Velar. He was almost a head taller and span wider, wearing black mail and spiked bracers. His head seemed proportionally small, his ears predominantly large and a huge gold ring threaded his nostrils and dangled over his upper lip.
"I am Mog," the man said.
Mog nodded. "Nice scar."
"Uh, thank you. Nice ring. But how do you eat?"
"That's what the hole in the center is for," Mog said and grinned a battered smile.
"The price was adjusted, dear Shilandra," Tarigan said. "And you, unfortunately have not complied."
"I would rather bed down with a rotting beggar in the streets!"
"Oh, please, my love. I have not a speckle of jealousy within me. Your other lovers are of no concern."
"Pig! How dare you speak me in such-" She stopped, took a breath, and smoothed her hands against her gown. "How dare you speak to me as such in front of my betrothed."
Velar fought to keep his expression neutral. Mog suddenly frowned.
"What?" Tarigan laughed. "You are to be mated to that?" He pointed at Velar.
"I'd would careful not to insult him or me."
"My dear, you should have told me. If that's all that stands in the way," he snapped his fingers. "Mog! Kill him."
Mog shrugged. "Sorry, Friend."
"What?" Shilandra shrieked. "Wait!"
Mog's hands came up for Velar's throat but Velar was already down to one knee. Cocking his arm, he put his elbow into Mog's gut, then dropped his hand to the man's ankle and pulled. His feet came up and he fell to his back with a grunt. Velar scrambled up and across the expanse of Mog, gripped the nose ring and pulled, not enough to rip, but enough. Mog screamed.
Shilandra smiled. "The book, Tarigan."
Tarigan sighed and let his chin fall to his chest. Reaching down, he retrieved a small leather bound volume and tossed it to the table so that it slid to a stop in front of Shilandra.
"Thank you," she said. The book quickly vanished into the folds of her gown. "We'll be leaving now."
Tarigan lifted his head and looked to the fire. His elbow perched on the armrest as his fingers, closed in a loose fist, covered his lips. The firelight reflected in the moisture rimming his eyes.
Shilandra hurried to the door. "We can go now," she said and stepped through the door.
Velar gathered his feet under him then released the ring. Mog sighed with relief. Velar smiled. "Sorry, Friend."
Mog half-lifted a hand in a wave of dismissal.
Velarquickly followed Shilandra through the door.
They approached the mouth of the alley. Velar cast a glance over his shoulder. No one followed.
"I think you lost a source," Velar said.
"Tarigan wasn't a source," Shilandra scoffed. "He was a tool, a pawn that forgot his place."
Velar smiled. "A pawn?"
A chill fell down his spine. His hand went to his sword.
Something was wrong.
"What's the matter?" Shilandra asked, then spun in a tight circle. "What is it?"
Velar pointed. In the street, amidst the shadowed grays of moonlight, a red point of light appeared and slowly grew.
Velar drew his sword.
The light took shape and the figure of a man became apparent. When the light faded, a warrior remained, armored in black, its eyes glowing bright green.
"Blessed gods," Shilandra breathed. "A revenant."
The warrior's hand came up trailing green light. Velar stepped in front of Shilandra and imaged his shield as lances of green fire shot towards them and shattered against his blue barrier.
"Get back," Velar hissed. Shilandra moved away. The revenant stepped forward, its movement fluid and unhurried as it slowly recovered a shining black sword from its sheath.
Velar closed and waited. The revenant suddenly attacked with unexpected fury but Velar parried the blow and spun bringing his weapon around to strike but found it blocked. Velar stepped back. The revenant circled.
The opponents clashed together trading blows and parries as they struggled for footing on the stone of the street. Velar heard the creak of bone and tasted the stench of dry rot as he twisted away. His lungs burned as he searched for an opening, for anything.
Suddenly the creature's hand ejected a blaze of red ribbon that streaked to Velar and encircled his arm. It burned like fire and he felt his flesh blistering beneath his armor as the revenant pulled at the rope of energy drawing Velar closer. The green eyes flared and harsh, rasping sounds echoed from its throat. Velar made a wild swing with his sword and struck the revenant's helmet. Velar tried again with a backstroke. The creature's head snapped away and clanged on the street.
But it continued to draw him in. Pain fogged Velar's vision. It felt like flames danced on the scorching bones of his arm. The revenant dropped his weapon and gripped the blade of Velar's sword, twisting it away. Its arms encircled him in a grotesque embrace and Velar gasped as the air evacuated his lungs and joints popped. And his arm, gods, his arm. Burning.
Destruction is simple. Creation . . .
Fires . . . image . . .
Image . . . fires . . .
The revenant was burning. It released Velar and staggered back as black, putrid smoke poured from the creases and gaps of its armor and blue flames sparkled at its neck. Velar slumped to the ground gasping for air. Purple dragons danced before his vision and his stomach clenched.
The revenant fell and shattered sending smoldering bits of armor skittering across the street.
"Are you alright?"
He looked up. Shilandra knelt down and touched his face. The scarless side this time. Gods, she was so beautiful.
"I just need my breath," he gasped, dropping his eyes. " I'm fine."
"Come," she said, lifting his uninjured arm. "I have herbs and potions at my quarters. You'll need them."
With her help, Velar pushed to his feet. Shilandra retrieved his sword and they turned to make their way up the street.
Velar chuckled and winced.
"What?" Shilandra asked.
"Nothing," Velar said. "I just hope that wasn't another source."
Shilandra didn't laugh.
* * *
Pain pulsed like a heart against the tip of a dagger and Velar attempted to corner it, find its central point and step away. In his mind he circled it with blue light, slowly shrank it to nothing and then only a dull ache remained. But pain hovered close, circling with steel talons and hot breath.
No bones or ribs in particular were broken. But bruises would abound. And he didn't want to look at his arm.
Slowly he released the buckles that secured his vambrace. This wouldn't be pleasant.
"Wait," Shilandra said.
Her quarters were small and cluttered with books and yesterday's clothes. Velar sat in a chair at a small table while Shilandra bustled about mixing herbs and minerals in wooden bowls. She placed a goblet before him, sprinkled a grayish powder into a pitcher of wine and filled the goblet.
"Drink," she ordered and stepped around the table to retrieve a small vessel filled with a vibrant green paste. Returning to his side, she knelt beside him and gently lifted his wounded arm to the table. Velar gripped the goblet with his free hand and drank. Shilandra finished releasing the buckles.
"This could be unpleasant," Shilandra commented.
"To say the least," Velar replied and took another pull of wine.
Suddenly, Shilandra set her fingertips to the edge of the forearm plate and flipped it away with a wet, tearing sound. Velar spewed a mouth full of wine across the table and choked back a scream.
"You could have warned me," Velar gasped.
"Hold still," Shilandra said, dipping her fingers into the green concoction. Quickly she began spreading the salve across the red, oozing area of his arm. "This will harden and be almost like a second skin. It should speed healing and ease the pain."
The pain was subsiding. Velar watched her neatly cover the entire wound the nearly encircled his arm with one coat then a thicker second coat.
"That was incredible," Shilandra said, smoothing down the edges of the blue patch. "I've never seen a revenant defeated. Not that I've seen that many revenants."
"Why did it attack?"
Shilandra shrugged. "The only reason would be the Chalice."
Shilandra cut her eyes to him as she found a square of cloth and began cleaning her fingers. "I take it you haven't heard of the Order of the Cataclysm."
"The Order of the Cataclysm believe that no one entity should rule all the lands."
"The theory of disunion."
"Yes. Disunion brings prosperity through diversity." Shilandra rose gracefully to her feet and dropped the cloth to the table top. "That would be the theory anyway. In truth the Order of the Cataclysm harbors agents supported by various political interests and merchants who would profit from 'diversity'."
Velar sighed. Another obstacle. Another potential threat.
"The Order is lead by one called Gelai," Shilandra continued.
Velar took another sip of wine. "Gelai."
"Would this Gelai know of your search for the Chalice?" Velar asked.
A trace of something, perhaps fear, crossed her features. Slowly she nodded.
"Then the revenant may have been sent to kill you," Velar stated.
Shilandra drew the book from the folds of her robe and again nodded.
"You play a dangerous game, Secultariate," Velar said.
"It is not a game," Shilandra said. She went to a stack of books, selected several and returned to the table. "The Chalice represents power, true power and-"
"What do you plan to get from this, Shilandra?"
She lowered herself into the chair opposite Velar and fixed him with a neutral glare. "What do you mean?"
Velar shifted his legs beneath the table and leaned forward. "Do you expect to achieve anything when the Chalice is recovered?"
"I still don't understand."
"I cannot believe that " He paused searching for words. "Suppose the Chalice is found and placed in the Chancellor's hands. I somehow doubt that you will remain quietly in the background and keep your part in its discovery privy between you and I."
She blinked. "Should I?"
"That's not for me to say."
"You question my motivations."
"Yes, I do."
Shilandra crossed her arms. "I can't say what this would bring me. To be honest, I haven't examined my motivations. I work towards a goal and will be satisfied with the consequences."
Velar chuckled. "I somehow doubt that as well."
Shilandra stiffened. "Why the the audacity! Without me you will get no further than the others."
"Without me, you will never see the Chalice."
Shilandra launched to her feet. "Such arrogance!"
Velar slowly rose. "I'm just another one of your pawns in your strange little game." He smiled, somewhat strangely relieved.
But then she smiled. "Is that what you think?" She stepped around the table and Velar turned to face her. "Just another pawn." She was close now. He could smell flowers again, see the traces of color in her hair and the light of her eyes. "I've researched the Chalice for years and I'm very close. But at this point you are nothing more than a hope." Her hands came up and her fingers slipped into his hair. Pulling him down, she kissed him quickly with soft lips. "As for being a pawn," she wrinkled her nose and shook his head slightly. "You should have such luck."
Shilandra swirled away and Velar forced himself to breath. Turning, his arms held up slightly, he found her standing, holding the door open.
"Don't forget your vambrace," she said lightly.
Velar turned and slowly retrieved the plate. He plodded to the door and paused. She stood their, smiling, one fist on a cocked hip.
"I'll meet you at the compound in the morning with the information that you need," she said. "Goodnight."
He had to say something, anything. He couldn't let her have the last word or last kiss for that matter. His head had been so clear.
Must be the wine. Has to be the wine.
Words wouldn't come. Finally, he nodded and stepped out into darkness and let Shilandra close the door behind him.
"You're ready then?" Colmar asked.
Velar shook his head as he adjusted Akeil's tack. "No sir. I must wait for some information."
"And where would this information hail from?"
Velar pulled the cinch tight and glanced at his commander. He remembered Colmar's stated attitude toward the Secultariates and his heated exchange with Jocaris at the palace.
"A Secultariate called Shilandra," Velar said, and waited. Colmar's eyes narrowed slightly but he said nothing. Velar moved to secure the travel packs at Akeil's flanks.
"You still have gold?" the General asked.
"He should have gold," Olad said as he approached. Bockril and Quanain followed close behind. "The wily bastard slipped out last night without paying for ales he owed."
"He shouldn't be wasting gold trying to fill your bloated gut," Colmar remarked.
"Ah, no sir, he shouldn't," Olad smiled. "But if he's willing. "
"You'll be travelling north?" Bockril asked.
Velar nodded. "I think so unless Shilandra gives cause not to."
Olad pointed at the green patch visible beneath Velar's vambrace. "She got you, didn't she?"
Velar lifted his arm. The thick paste had hardened to a pliable second skin but the pain still lingered as a dull ache. Velar shrugged and smiled almost sheepishly. "She found us a bit of trouble, but we survived."
Olad chuckled. Colmar frowned.
"What kind of trouble?"
"Nothing he couldn't handle obviously," Olad stated.
"Olad, I grow weary of your impertinence," Colmar breathed.
"And I grow weary of watching our own die needlessly."
Colmar stepped forward. "Your standings within the Order are withering, Olad."
Velar shook his head and sighed.
Enough. More than enough. It was time to leave.
Gripping Akeil's reins he lead his mount toward the entrance of the compound. The argument behind him grew in volume and intensity. Velar heard footsteps behind but did not turn to see who followed.
"Velar?" Bockril said. Velar paused and waited. Bockril came up beside him.
"I wanted to tell you, if you travel north, I have a sister in Morcre. She may be of assistance."
"Tymox. She owns an inn there."
Velar nodded. "Thank you."
Bockril smiled and extended his hand. "Luck and the gods be with you," he said.
Velar took his hand and shook it firmly.
Behind them, Olad let out of string of obscenities and Colmar answered in kind. Bockril shook his head. "Your faith is being tested, my friend."
Velar gave a short laugh. "And what a test it is. I'm chartered to find something that may not exist, pointed in a direction that could be wrong, traveling under the shadow of those who have died before me."
Bockril chuckled. "It does sound daunting."
"Yes, but I am a knight of Anocren. I have been given a purpose and I must achieve that purpose."
Bockril nodded. "Just try to stay alive while your achieving."
They stood in silence for a moment. Velar sorted through a sudden flurry of emotions and admitted fear as one of them.
But he was a knight of Anocren. The Grand Order.
"Good morning gentlemen," Shilandra sang as she entered the gate.
Velar had chosen not to consider this moment when he would see her again, glowing in the morning light as she moved towards him with the incredibly tantalizing yet indefinable grace of womanhood. He should choose to be calm, composed, denying the rush of heat and the chill of unknown feelings but that was impossible. He could never hide the desire and that frightened him. It was ludicrous. Her kiss had been a device, another of her tools to cast him off center and leave him confused. He was a pawn. Actually, no more than a hope.
Such beauty. Soft lips and gentle hands.
Look to the sky. No. The ground. Anywhere but her eyes.
"What's this?" she said. "The destroyer of revenants blushes at my approach. How terribly poetic."
If he could be anywhere but here. The forest, the plains, anywhere.
"Revenants," Bockril said. "You were attacked by revenants?"
"Where is he, Velar?" Shilandra said, her voice almost a whisper. "Where is that brash warrior that twice defended me with such flare and confidence?"
"What's this about revenants?" Bockril demanded.
"Do you have the information?" Velar asked through a dry mouth.
"Yes," she said. She smiled and that angered him. Slowly he lifted his eyes and met hers. Her smile faded.
"Well?" he asked.
Shilandra took a half-step back. "The text we recovered was the key. I was able to draw reference and calibrate the various possible locations and narrow them down based on established criteria."
"Where is it?" Velar said flatly with a hint of force.
"In the northern deserts," Shilandra said. "But not where the Prefect believes. There are temples in the foothills of the mountains of Darklight but most are forgotten."
"I simply need the location, Shilandra."
"The text refers to it only as the Canyon. It should be north and west of the ruined city."
"Velar, I intended no insult."
"Then exactly what did you intend?"
"I . . . I don't know."
Velar shook his head and turned to mount Akeil.
"I don't know, either," he said as he settled into the saddle.
"Take care, Velar," Bockril said. "Give my love to Ina, if you see her that is."
Velar nodded. "I will." He shifted his gaze to Shilandra and felt only a twinge of satisfaction from the suppressed look of panic on her features. "Good day, Secultariate."
She opened her mouth to speak then closed it again. Crossing her arms, she turned away. Bockril shook his head and smiled.
Velar returned the smile as he urged Akeil through the gate and into the city.
He couldn't allow the factors involved to overwhelm him.
Velar nodded to himself and lifted his eyes. Two days on the road traveling north and east along the banks of the great river Shaelon and only now the realization struck that his true goal was fairly simple. Recover the Chalice. At least until he accomplished his mission all the various facets of the situation remained unimportant. Shilandra and the Secultariates, Colmar and the Order, the Chancellor and his dreams all became moot issues. They sat sheltered within city walls and guarded palaces. Velar's failure would only cause dissatisfaction and perhaps a bit of remorse. Velar smiled. Those left in Sareon were no longer a consideration.
The sky sparkled above and the river gargled and flowed only a stone's throw away. Akeil still stepped strong and sure down the firm road but nonetheless Velar considered finding a suitable place to camp for the night. Pangs of hunger urged the consideration into an outright decision and Velar guided Akeil into the forest and dismounted. With quick efficiency, he made camp, imaging fire onto gathered wood and tethering Akeil amidst a patch of rich grasses. A meal of hard bread and cheeses eased the hunger as the sun kissed the horizon with red and orange passion and soon Velar shed his armor and reclined against a large tree, satisfied and weary.You forget.
Velar's heavy eyes snapped open.
Forget what?Not all considerations were left behind.
Velar sighed and let his head rest against the tree.
True. Very true. But the only consideration he truly counted would be the Order of the Cataclysm and contemplation would be futile. He knew nothing more than what Shilandra had told him. An association dedicated to the disunion of the lands.
"Politics," Olad would have scoffed. But in actuality, the reasons, whether political or commercial, meant little. They were the adversary and considered Velar a threat.
And they commanded revenants, dead warriors dragged from heavens and hells to serve. Velar shook his head and dropped his chin to his chest. He could attribute his victory over one to luck. What if more came? What if many more came?
A tingle crept into his wounded arm as a chill shot down his spine. Lifting his eyes he quickly scanned the growing shadows for green eyes and dark forms. The sudden uneasiness held firm and he knew would follow him into sleep. But he was tired and the journey had only begun.
From the shadows. Waiting.
Glowing eyes. Dark forms. Cruel laughter. And fire.
Bitter, bitter fire.
* * *
On the fifth day it rained.
Close to midday, Velar lead Akeil beneath the sheltering limbs of a massive tree to wait out the downpour. The cold seeped through his cloak and numbed his fingers and toes and he cursed no one in particular, except perhaps misery. And whatever god sent chilling rains to douse weary travelers.
The border should only be another half-day's ride, Velar decided. A half-day's ride, that is, if the weather would hold. Another three or four days past the border, he would arrive at Tymox and beyond Tymox lay the northern deserts. Velar doubted the provence of Morcre would give rise to any difficulties. The deserts on the other hand could offer a wealth of problems.
He knew little of the Black Sands, the great expanse of desolation that covered the northeast corner of the Lands. Stories and legends abounded but they were of little consequence. There were shrykes, strange beasts that roamed the sands hunted by men seeking profit from the creature's black and red hide. But again the tales lay shaded by the tongues of bards desperate to entertain drunken clients.
Velar shook his head. He was trying to think to far ahead. The border first. Then three days to Tymox where he would locate Bockril's sister, Ina. Perhaps she could offer information and advice as to dealing with the desert. Until then, the matter required little thought.
"Come along, boy," Velar muttered and guided his mount to the road. "We still have a ways to go."
* * *
A cluster of weathered buildings clung desperately to the road. People moved from structure to structure or tended wagons and pack animals while others lounged in the early morning sun and observed the activity with occasional comment. Velar rode to the nearest wagon.
"Is this the border?" he asked a man perched atop a precarious load of barrels.
"Well, ah, actually you crossed it a span back," the man answered, motioning down the road. "You're afoot in Morcre now."
Velar nodded. "Where can I buy provisions?"
"We got extra," the man replied, stroking his stubble-ridden chin. "Hard meat and breads, y'know. If you're paying." He squinted and cocked his head inquisitively. "Anocren? A knight of, I take it?"
Akeil nickered at a passing mare and side-stepped anxiously. Velar tugged at the reins and drew his mount back to the wagon.
"I'm of the Order, yes," Velar replied.
"I never heard of the last one going back."
"He never did as far as I know."
"Oh. Well, more luck to you, lad." The man carefully lowered himself from the stack of barrels. "I'll get your provisions."
The man stepped into the shack and soon returned with a cloth sack that he offered up to Velar.
"Would ten be to much to ask?" the man said.
Velar opened the sack and examined the contents. The meat looked fresh, the breads free of growth. "Ten is fine," he said and dropped the bundle into a travel pack, then counted out ten gold into the man's palm.
"My thanks, Sir," he said. "And remember to keep to this side of the river from here on north. Across the river is Eshlex and you shouldn't go there." The man's eyes suddenly widened. "Not that your abilities are lacking in any way, mi'lord. I just-"
Velar held up a reassuring hand. "Have you ever noticed individuals bearing an Eshlex standard either here or further north?"
He shrugged and looked to his shifting feet. "On occasion." He lifted his eyes. "But chances are they wouldn't try nothing outside their own province."
Velar nodded and looked to the northern road.
"You're going that way, Sir?"
"Yes, I am," Velar said and spurred Akeil forward.
"Good day, Sir!" the man called out. "All the luck to you."
Velar smiled and shook his head.
All the luck.
They barred his way, spaced apart, their stances neutral.
Did the others come this far? Only to be struck down by revenants on the road a day's ride into Morcre?
Impossible to know, Velar decided, and perhaps even irrelevant.
His options seemed few. He could attack and hope, or run and deal with the consequences of guilt and cowardice. Very few options indeed and neither had much chance of success.
Velar urged Akeil forward but the dark figures failed to react. Quickly, Velar worked to calm the flurry of expectation and fear that danced in his gut. His mind had to clear if he wanted to image effectively. With a minute tug of the reins, Akeil stopped and Velar drew his sword. The revenants stood as stone.
Should he speak? Would they respond? Where they capable of responding? He knew so little of these creatures. A battle with one could have destroyed him, should have destroyed him and now he faced two. Velar truly wondered if perhaps one of those that went before lay somewhere close in a shallow grave. This was the only northbound road into Morcre. What better place to lay a trap?
The revenant to Velar's right suddenly took a precise step forward. Velar braced himself and imaged his shield.
But the revenant lifted his hand and pointed. East. Into the thicket of gnarled trees and thistle.
Velar slowly turned his head in an attempt to keep the revenants in the corner of his eye and looked in the direction indicated. Through twisted limbs and clinging vines a light could be seen.
The true teeth of the trap? Velar shifted his gaze to the revenants. Probably not. They could destroy him now if they wished. Something else waited, something he needed to see.
Velar dismounted and lead Akeil to the brink of the thicket. With some work, he cleared a corridor with his sword and guided his mount through to the relatively clear space beyond. The ground felt firm and with the tip of his sword, Velar discovered stones set to form a pathway or road that lead to a dark structure sulking in the dusk.
Before starting forward, Velar cast a wary glance at the revenants who still only stood and watched. The air felt dead. Velar fixed his eyes on the yellow glow that emanated from the open door of the building. As he drew closer, details became apparent. Two stories. Cut stone. Rotting woodwork and twisting vines that climbed the walls and smothered carvings and statuettes perched and suspended on eaves and overhangs.
A bird called out a screeching cry and Velar spun around, sword ready. The road behind lay empty and Velar hissed through his teeth and shook his head in disgust. Turning, he lead Akeil to the foot of the wide steps that garnished the center of the manor and secured the reins to one of the stone guardians. Quickly, he mounted the steps but halfway up he paused, looked at the sword in his hand then sheathed it. Someone waited and he somehow doubted they harbored ill intent. At least not for now.
He finished the climb and stood before the open door, allowing his eyes to become adjusted to the blaze of light from within. Slowly Velar approached the portal. he could see sconces burning on the walls providing the light and the pitiful state of the interior with peeling walls, sagging ceilings and warped woods. The glory had evacuated this place and Velar wondered why. Loves, hopes, furies, hates, echoes of an unknown past assailed his imagination.
Velar stepped inside, into the foyer. Directly ahead lay a parlor or sitting room. To his left, a hallway extended into darkness with doors marking its length. To his right, a large room lit not only by sconces but a huge hearth that covered the far wall. A long, elegant table stretched across the chamber, clean and polished and out of place in its framework of destruction. Two plush chairs, one at each end of the table, sat waiting.
Velar looked to the ceilings and the winding staircase that lead to the second floor.
What to do?
The space two paces before him twisted and Velar took a step back hand instinctively snapping to his sword grip. Red and yellow lights swirled and coalesced into form. Slowly, features became apparent and the woman before him smiled and lifted her hands to show them free of weapons.
"Greetings, Velar," she said, her voice smokey and deep.
Velar eased out of his defensive posture. She knew his name but he could hazard a guess, a very good guess and perhaps even the ground a bit.
"Greetings, Lady Gelai," he offered, and gave a courtly nod of his head.
"Well at least we know one another." She smiled again. "Or at least, of one another."
She was radiant. Tall with red hair, dark eyes and wearing a brilliant green gown. Tiny wrinkles at her eyes and the corners of her mouth belied her age otherwise he would have approximated her harvest close to his own. Strangely beautiful. Subtle almost. Not as direct or obvious as Shilandra.
She shimmered. Not her dress or eyes but her entire being. Velar suddenly realized he could see through her somewhat into the dining chamber beyond.
"You're projecting," Velar stated.
Gelai nodded her head, obviously impressed. "Yes, I am."
Teacher had explained such things, even demonstrated once. It took a level of discipline far beyond Velar's current abilities to achieve. She had no need to know that though.
"I thought we should speak," Gelai said.
She gave him a slim smile. "Oh, I think you know what of," she said.
"I fail to see the need for discussion."
"Come now, Velar." Gelai stepped to him and put her ghostly hand at his elbow. "We must make every effort to be civilized." She guided him to the dining table. "It's a responsibility we inherit as higher states of animal."
"I could argue the point," Velar commented dryly.
"Could you?" Gelai said. "How refreshing." Approaching one end of the table, they paused. Gelai reached out with her free hand and patted the cushioned back of the chair. "Manners, Velar."
"My apologies," Velar stated and stepped around her shimmering image to pull back the chair. With a flourish of skirts, Gelai settled herself and Velar eased the chair forward then moved to the opposite end of the table, seated himself and waited.
"I must admit I'm a bit incredulous," Gelai began. "I have several methods of restraint available in case you had no intention of cooperating."
Velar shrugged. "I can only learn."
Gelai mimicked his shrug. "You could easily die."
Velar smiled. "The Chancellor would send another and you would have accomplished nothing."
"Not necessarily." Her eyes narrowed. "I would gain time."
"For what? To find the Chalice for yourself?" Velar shook his head. "I believe certain temptations would follow. I think your organization would prefer that the Chalice remain where it is."
"So I'll continue killing your knights as they leave the city. Eventually-"
"Eventually someone will find the Chalice. Most likely while your attention is diverted elsewhere."
"So you've waylaid me in an effort to postpone that eventuality. Most likely with offers of gold. I wander aimlessly and send an occasional note to Sareon stating I'm one step closer and still alive. No more knights are quested and you can concentrate on other threats."
Gelai glared and drummed her noncorporal fingers silently on the tabletop. "How very astute, Velar. But did you perhaps think that I might attempt to reason with you."
"No, I did not."
A smile slowly formed on her thin lips. "No, I guess you wouldn't, would you? You are, after all, a warrior. A Knight of Anocren. Honor bound and unswerving in your loyalty to lords and generals. Questing without delay or fear towards and impossible goal all for the sake of duty." She rose gracefully to her feet. "Unthinking. Unknowing. Uncaring." Slowly she rested her hands on the table and leaned forward, eyes filled with menace. "Is that you, Velar?"
"Yes," Velar said, meeting her gaze. "It is."
Gelai sneered. "I think not."
"Think what you will."
Gelai snapped to her full height and crossed her arms. "Can you admit that honor and duty are nothing more than the avoidance of personal responsibility?"
Velar felt his face flush red. "There's no truth in that."
"Oh, isn't there?" She spread her arms wide in an all encompassing gesture. "Wars are fought over duty and honor."
"No. Wars are born out of misguided political energies much like those that guide you."
There. He had turned it around a bit.
"And honor and duty?" Gelai continued. "What do they serve then?"
"The men who cherish them."
Gelai threw up her hands and collapsed back into her chair. "Hopeless," she sighed. "Utterly hopeless." She shook her head. "Do you have any comprehension as to the destructive capabilities of the Chalice?"
Velar interlaced his fingers and leaned forward. "The Secultariates believe the Chalice is the key to a lasting peace. Whom am I to believe?"
Gelai nodded. "No one would be my guess. You blindly go where they tell you, announcing in earshot of bards that duty calls." She gave a short laugh followed by a perfectly sullen expression. "How pathetic."
Suddenly, she straightened herself, smoothing her hands across the green folds of her gown. "They saved you didn't they? One of your order pulled you from a fire when you were young. That's where the scar is from. That's why you harbor such intense loyalty."
Velar fought down the traditional blush that normally accompanied a comment on his scar. "Actually, I pulled myself from the fire. I wasn't discovered by the order until two harvests later."
Gelai slowly nodded, her tongue probing the inside of her cheek. "Well, I am disappointed. I had hoped for more . . . progress. But you are very well versed in established rhetoric."
Velar stiffened. "Rhetoric?"
Gelai feigned shock. "Oh, I do apologize. I did not intend to insult your beliefs. Test them perhaps. But never insult."Velar rose to his feet. "Test?"
Gelai smiled coyly and bit the end of her finger.
Her eyes sparked. Her image shifted.
Before the hearth where the fire roared and cackled, Velar saw them materialize. Two revenants. And Shilandra between them.
"What kind of test, Gelai?" Velar demanded.
Gelai cackled. "We are not that different, Velar. We both have our loyalties. We both have our reasons. The only question that remains is how far do we go? At what point do we set our loyalties aside and forsake our reasons?"
"Which, at this juncture, is more important, Velar? Your search for the Chalice? Or the life of this pitiful little girl?"
Velar looked to Shilandra. Her right eye was swollen shut and she trembled in the grip of her captors, eyes darting from Gelai to Velar and back again like a cornered doe.
"You have generated an interesting point," Velar said evenly, forcing a calm he did not feel.
"Yes I have," Gelai said. "My servants will tear her apart and cast the pieces into the blaze behind them."
Shilandra uttered a meek cry of despair.
Velar shifted his gaze to Gelai. "And if I state that I will leave and discontinue my search for the Chalice?"
Gelai nodded. "If you were to travel west let's say, beyond Eshlex, beyond Vrolos, into the wilds of Cronor. You may find this girl in the city of Cratosh unharmed and alive."
Velar nodded. "That along with the aforementioned scroll sent to the Aylos hierarchy stating my imagined progress?"
"I would even relieve you of that detail and forge such documents myself. You and she can start a new life together in the frontier. "Your looks compliment one another. You'd make a charming pair."
Velar crossed his arms. "Why not kill us both?"
"Please," Gelai scoffed. "We are attempting to maintain at least a sense of civility. Besides. You may be required to make an appearance or two." She wrinkled her nose briefly. "Every now and again."
A window three, maybe five paces behind him. The revenants stood with the backs to the fire and in essence shielded Shilandra. Gelai projected so the threat from her was diminished.
"Oh, come now, Velar," Gelai snapped. "the options are fairly evident."
"True," he said. "Very true."
His mind cleared. He focused. He set his thoughts to states and the states formed the energies and energies shaped reality.
A force. Expanding in the foyer. Injecting a sharp gust of air into the dining chamber extinguishing the sconces and blowing the flames of the hearth into the flume.
"Don't be foolish, Velar," Gelai quipped, her eyes glowing red in the semi-darkness.
Flame. Growing, feeding, reaching. From the flume to the hearth and out, instantly enveloping Shilandra and the revenants.
"Velar!" Gelai screamed.
Shilandra shrieked and the revenants twisted away as their cloaks burst into flames. Velar took a step back and up onto the chair, stepped to the table and launched towards the nearest revenant slamming his body into the creature, plunging it into the fire. Velar fell hard to the stone floor and rolled to his feet.
"My hair!" Shilandra screamed. Velar swirled his cloak from his shoulders and enveloped her upper body with the thick cloth. Scooping her into his arms, he dashed for the window.
Cut glass panes set in a lattice work of soft metals. Velar set his teeth and after two bounding steps he jumped and twisted to put his back through the window. The glass shattered and Shilandra screamed but they did not fall through. The soft metal frame bent to conform to Velar's back perfectly but it did not break. Stunned, with Shilandra squirming violently in his arms, Velar looked down at a smiling Gelai and a smoldering revenant.
"A worthy effort," Gelai said. "Monumental, even."
The revenant's green eyes flared and its hand rose. A blaze of pure light erupted from its palm and Velar hunched forward cradling Shilandra on his knees, struggling to remain balanced on the sill. Behind and above, metal and wood sizzled and vaporized.
"Idiot!" Gelai screamed.
Velar had to stand or fall into the room. Velar rose, Shilandra kicked and they fell back, through the hole the revenant created and outside. Velar felt the air vacate his lungs as they hit the ground with Shilandra on top.
"I can't breath under here," came a muffled scream from beneath his cloak. Velar gasped and coughed as bile erupted into his gorge.
Had to move. Get up. Find Akeil.
With Shilandra still struggling in his arms, he gathered his legs beneath him. Blue and yellow lights blasted from the window followed by desolate, soul-wrenching screams. Staggering, Velar forced his way through undergrowth toward the front entrance. Spots and blobs clouding his vision but he saw Akeil, waiting, ears perked.
With some effort, Velar draped Shilandra over Akeil's neck then swung himself onto the saddle and pulled Shilandra into a more secure position in his lap.
He looked to the entrance. Gelai stood there, shimmering, eyes burning red.
"You haven't escaped me," she said evenly.
Velar looked to the shattered window where colored lights still flexed and ebbed. Slowly, he shifted his tired gaze back to her projection.
"I have today," he said and spurred Akeil away into the dark forest.