Blizzard and Belendale

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Part Three

By R. Krommydas

CCO.

Something had gone horribly wrong somewhen in the long history of Gloralion, with the rot hiding somewhere among several someones. They were known to be persons of extraordinary influence, and though repulsive physical mutations marred their otherwise flawless flesh, this corruption was itself hidden disturbingly well. Neither arcane scrying nor clerical divinations had proven effective in rooting it out.

The more simple, prosaic method of simply stripping suspects down was, unfortunately, greatly restricted by law and by custom. Further, the potential repercussions of such a humiliation on an innocent - potentially vindicative - immortal with whom one could reasonably expect to spend eternity were enough to dissuade even the most devoted Wardens.

And yet, they have a predator more deadly than us on their trail, thought Iorannor, remaining professionally inscrutable despite the bloody horror before him.

This was the sixth victim that had been discovered, but none doubted that others were out there. Whatever had killed them had been kinder than the rot which took hold on death. The bodies were completely unidentifiable, visibly decaying even when purifying spells had been cast upon the remains. At best, a piece of jewellery might survive unscathed long enough to identify the House to which the victim had belonged - and even that was suspect. No Warden would be so foolish as to believe such evidence by itself.

Iorannor, though officially 'just' a Warden of Medel-Ivrin, was something far more. First cousin to the Swan King Baranwë himself, one of only four living elves with claim to the throne, and perhaps most importantly, a good man. These were becoming hard to find of late, with fewer than one in every thousand qualifying according to Baranwë`s infamous metric. Infamous, for it had been delivered as an interruption to a debate at a simple feast, where nothing of significance was ever supposed to happen.

"To do no evil is not the same as to be good!" the king had thundered, shocking all into silence. "For an act to be either it must be the result of deliberate and knowing choice. Yet not one in a thousand of my people seem willing to do anything to either end!"

Whenever he thought back on that moment, Iorannor wished with all his heart that he had thought to examine the faces of those others present. Perhaps one, just one, might have given something away to make this terrible duty easier now. It had not been so long ago that the evil nestled within the Summervale was wholly unknown. Had it been clearer at the time, perhaps Iorannor and his fellow Wardens would have already purged it.

His regret was interrupted by his squire Enmerrion, a young altarim hailing from the lower Ivrin half of their shared city. The boy was showing exceptional promise despite that handicap, for though such prejudices were officially supposed to no longer exist, Iorannor had seen far too many proofs to the contrary to be so naive. The current crisis requiring his services as a Warden was taking him away from his efforts, agonisingly slow and halting, to counter the other, unspoken one.

"Message from Tommal of Salpheran," Enmerrion announced informally, a hint that whilst the message was important, it was not due to the heritage of its author - or perhaps that the message was important because of its author`s lack of heritage.

Iorannor took the proffered note, reading the hasty scribbling with growing dismay, and already moving to his horse. He was needed in Gloralion itself, as much as his presence there would be unequivocally unwanted.

♢♢♢♢♢

The more she moved, prowling from room to room like some freshly caged exotic beast, the more Isolde unsettled him. A half dozen daggers, each designed for a different killing specialisation, had been loosened in their sheaths for an easy retrieval, and she had a certain look in her eyes that warned of incipient violence against whatever drew her ire. At last, Aidan dared to voice his opinion.

"We are deep within the Summervale, inside the walls of Therolan. Eighteen guards of three allied Great Houses stand watch over this property, which is itself owned and staffed communally by the honoured Houses of the city. This is one of the safest places in the entire world."

Isolde hissed at him, marched up to the marble bust of some important figure or another, and did something to it with a hand that Aidan couldn`t quite grasp. The bust`s eyes blazed silver and dimmed to mere stone again, and almost imperceptibly the atmosphere lightened. Isolde sneered at it, then at Aidan.

"Is that why a good half of the statuary has some magical trap or scrying sensor tied to it? Self-important knife-ears thinking us too stupid to notice, or too crude to disable. 'Nobody knows elven magic,' they think to themselves. We can keep an eye on these primitive outsiders and put them down if they act up."

"How did you-" Aidan began, then remembered and wisely shut up.

Isolde smiled at him, all teeth and no humour, looking for a moment much like Embla whenever her natural smile came through. Though they had learned many half-truths and obscured details, one of the few undoubted truths that her friends had learned of Isolde`s past was her tutelage under a dark elven assassin. So as not to offer even the threat of competition, her training had been that of a thief, an expendable tool to be used and discarded as needed in the underworld of the Occupied Kingdoms. It was not difficult to envisage such a master teaching the basics of magical artifice, particularly that of the elven kind, to his prize apprentices.

Instead of pursuing that line of thought then, Aidan chose a slightly safer: "Will you not be accepting the invitations we have, then? Seeing as how you clearly don`t like how my cousins are treating you, with these luxurious guest quarters and clean food and warm bathing facilities."

The last of those was what made Isolde turn and give Aidan the entirety of her attention. The halfling drew herself up to her full height, scandalised and insulted. He blanched as he too late recalled one of the ancient (and decidedly incomprehensible) feuds between her own people and their Stalwart kindred.

"Because of course these 'facilities' are designed for people my size," Isolde growled. "Have a laugh at the Hairfoot trying to swim. Oh my mistake, we don`t swim, because we`re not fish or inbred buffoons without the sense a halfwit was born with being dropped on his head! It`s not natural. Why not just have Brokk paralyse me and throw me in a river? It will look much the same and end much the same as well! If I need to be, ugh, presentable in high society, I`ll ask to borrow Embla`s oils and scraper!"

Aidan blinked hastily, trying and failing not to envisage that particular scenario. However, as a kind of petty revenge for planting that image in his head, he smiled back down at the hellion. She narrowed her eyes to slits in silent warning against whatever foolish bravery he intended.

"What if I buy you that dress that nearly made your eyes jump from their sockets?"

"You wouldn`t," Isolde said sharply, but no longer meeting his gaze.

"Oh my dear sweet little Isolde," he answered softly, taking a page from her book. "To ensure you don`t embarrass me in front of the finest in the land, I would not haggle over a single copper penny piece from the asking price."

Isolde bit her lip, suddenly very tempted.

♢♢♢♢♢

"...and that should be everyone fully housed," Arlgand concluded wearily. "I hope whatever possessed you to claim all four parties as your delegation is satisfied with the result."

Embla nodded, and gave the harmless smile of these weak peoples to the aelfarrir clerk. He made something closer to a grimace in response, and scurried off, clearly eager to be away to a safer locale. It was very strange, since she had made no effort to be intimidating, and there was only one of her next to an entire country of the elves, but it was also becoming ever more certain that few in these realms had been taught how to live.

True enough, exceptions, or something close to that, had been found here and there. Even in the last few days, new worthy individuals had shown themselves. The gnomish delegation had brought with them one who worked the Clever Craft, and being an equal to Brokk was deserving of her fullest respect. The Luvam green-elves, the ranarim of which Aidan was half-blooded, showed a martial prowess in their guards that any true warrior could appreciate.

But it was the Anar humans that most intrigued her. Embla had spoken to one of their kind before, the Duchess Brigid of the Eaglesreach of northern Kelerak, but had not assumed all were as she. Now, Embla wondered if they were more alike than she had previously thought. It was something in the way they spoke, and fought, and even died. It was so very close to how a proper Risarvinni should be. Even certain words and sound patterns in their languages were eerily similar.

Embla knew of one explanation for this, and her conscious mind sought to flee from it with all the same cowardice and weakness shown by the elf clerk. Once again, she carefully blocked the escape routes and forced confrontation with the idea. The tribes of the Risarvinnae had not always been that, those who brought low the monsters of ancient history, but what should have been their glorious triumph had been grotesquely marred. The shame of that aftermath was still taught, thrust into the mind of the impressionable young with all the violence that had brought about the birth of their race, so that no Risarvinni could stomach the thought of any similar repetition.

Going back further still, however, before any of those abominable eras, was to enter a time of mystery. None knew for certain how their earliest ancestors came to be subjugated by their long-extinct oppressors, or from where they had come before then. Yet Embla sensed a kinship with the Anarians, a kinship of spirit, or perhaps even of blood if one went far enough back into the mists of history. Her musings here were brought back to the present, however, by something she had completely failed to understand Arlgand say.

"Hmm, what was that?" she asked, sincerely apologetic. "I was lost in my thoughts."

Arlgand sighed. "I was just saying that I`ve never known something like this to go this well. Or for so many people of so many different cultures to be invited, by the throne itself, to the Summervale. And for there to be just enough spare rooms to hold all these guests among the halls of Houses long-known to be loyal to the throne above even their own fortunes. Without a single objection from any of them."

Embla thought on this for a short while. "You should ask Isolde. This is something she knows better than I, or that poor villtri Aidan, or even wise Brokk."

"What does 'villtri' mean?" Arlgand asked suspiciously, hearing the faintest note of pity on the word.

"It means he is a fool who does not know he is one," Embla answered. "But a friend is a friend, regardless, and I will have to smack you if you call him that. He earned that name bravely and I will not hear him mocked for it."

Arlgand struggled with that. "But, by calling him a fool, aren`t you...wait, I don`t see how that works."

"I have many responsibilities, including to give names where they are earned," Embla explained. "I give names even when others do not know of this, because their ignorance is no excuse. One day I will tell my friends all the names they have earned, and Aidan will understand in full why he is a fool for short."

Arlgand shook his head, too confused to ask for more details.

♢♢♢♢♢

Sag Zammaz, by birth of the lowliest caste, and Brokk Ashknarzglimmsun, last of a time-lost hold, held their secret council as only Loremasters did. Zammaz remained in his private chamber to complete his evening prayer, and three miles away Brokk supped in equally solitary silence. But magic linked their thoughts, and shielded them also so that none might overhear their mental discourse - a thing falsely believed impossible by so many.

Two rivers of thought, flooded with information, flowed between their minds. No matter what might threaten the world at any time, the priority of the Loremasters remained the same. First came the duplicating of what was known, to better the chances of it surviving into the unknown future. Second came the actual consideration of the current crisis and its possible resolutions. If there was ever a third, it was to theorise on likely future crises and how to prevent them from occurring at all.

The recurring theme of this exchange was always the attack on the road to Therolan. The attack which had left several dead, but which had only been aimed at a specific individual. An attack by a creature half a world away from its home, an attack exposing something long believed vanquished, an attack coming at the same time as this curious invitation from the Swan King himself. The implications were many and terrible.

Zammaz expressed doubt, supported by formulae and data drawn from the exhaustive records of the gnomes, as to the reach of the evil now rearing its head. Brokk countered, supported by the evidence of their own eyes, that the reach of such a thing could grow far beyond what is reasonable. Zammaz warned that stepping beyond the bounds of reason would lead only to confusion and insanity. Brokk asserted that certain entities had a deleterious effect upon reason by their very nature. Zammaz acquiesced.

Such was the cold and conceptual nature of their debate. There were no words as such between them, nor language or code as most could understand. It was the pressure of one mind against another, blending their acquired experiences, sharing their earned knowledges, dissecting and reforming pure ideas endlessly. What would take the most concise orator a decade to teach, was reduced to this mental merger for a paltry two hours.

It was still a strain unbearable by most minds, and took a heavy toll even on those trained to tolerate such extreme pressures. Zammaz spent the following week without use of his legs, and on the pretense of needing to complete a manuscript, sequestered himself in his chamber to remember how to walk again. Brokk suffered seizures for three days that would send him crashing insensate to the floor, frothing at the mouth and biting his tongue. Had it not been for Arlgand`s curative magic, there was little doubt that Brokk would have ended up severely more injured than he did.

It was after this, whilst Zammaz was still recuperating, that Brokk came to a decision, and took the opportunity to gather his friends together to tell them what he had lied to Zammaz that he would not just yet.

♢♢♢♢♢

The first spell Brokk cast that evening when they were all gathered was one of misdirection. Not of concealing, for that would give the game away immediately. Instead, the great illusion he crafted was of a perfectly commonplace meeting between friends, complete with distractions and arguments and insults as only the life-bonded could dare to exchange. If any had wished to turn their thoughts outward, they would have caught the echoes of this themselves.

But all attention was focused on the second spell, a simpler illusion that projected the image of a hunched rat-man. It was clearly a generic specimen of the sort that had attacked them on the road to Therolan, and Isolde was the first to look at Embla for explanation. Even now, her eyes were devoid of recognition, and she stared blankly back at Isolde as if wondering what that questioning expression was for.

"I release you from ignorance," Brokk said at last, and Embla breathed a sigh of relief. "Do you wish to share your perspective? I want to hear it at some point anyway, for I had no idea that your people and these were known to each other."

Embla nodded. "The nidhgaraf live below Yrrkune. The name means, how to translate, 'they who live deep' or maybe 'the under-people'. They rarely leave their warrens, but after hundreds of years, we have had some contact with them. There is an understanding between us. We have our home, they have theirs, and we both want the Wintervale razed to the ground. That is all I have to say."

"So, this 'understanding' is why you didn`t help me?" Isolde grumbled. "Let me give my perspective. That rat-thing, Ikit Glorysomething, was the single most deadly enemy I have ever fought. Yes Aidan, I do remember the lich, but saying we fought Afej the Black is like saying a castle was threatened by an angry hornet. I`m sure you recall how it took both Brokk and Arlgand combining their power just to weaken those curse-maggot things he planted in you."

"Lest we get too distracted," interrupted Brokk hastily. "The reason I am telling you this now is because my colleague Zammaz-" Isolde made a rude noise. "-ahem, is indisposed and cannot remind me of oaths I swore long before any of you were born. Even you, Arlgand. I do not make this decision lightly. Now, see..."

The illusion of the rat-man shifted under the wizard`s concentration, becoming an image of a grey and forbidding city wrapped in frost and darkness, looking down upon a storm-lashed bay. Embla shifted slightly in recognition, and it was this which revealed its identity before Brokk spoke its name. Or rather, its title.

"The Nameless City, that which is the frozen heart of all evil in this world," he whispered. "Few not in its service have seen it and lived to tell the tale. Again, I want to hear of this someday, Embla. Do not shake your head in denial. I was there on the boat with you, remember, when we travelled to Arden. You were sicker on that short journey than on our return from the Ruin Woods."

"Oh yes, Embla, I pieced the facts together," Brokk continued, and she dropped her eyes so as not to meet his. "I think we can admit amongst ourselves that you passed through the Wintervale to reach our lands from yours. You could not have withstood the true seasickness of taking an Ishian merchantman or Havenish trireme out from Budum-Ishi to come to Farland. Not then, and perhaps not now."

"I have my oaths to consider," Embla murmured. "More. Laws I cannot put aside. I must think. For now, I can promise a story in exchange for yours."

Brokk nodded, and drew everyone`s attention back to the Nameless City, as the illusion faded, only to be replaced by a more potent one that could show the tale properly...

♢♢♢♢♢

Brokk`s illusion brought only the sight, and thankfully neither sound nor smell of that terrible city. Even so, that which it showed was enough. Open worship of the Darkest God. Mutilations and executions of unfortunate slaves. Sacrifices in the street on makeshift altars for just such a purpose. No guard or militia marching to and fro, for all here obeyed the law or were already dead. A dreadful glimpse of what the Occupied Kingdoms would one day turn into if they too were not Liberated.

There was no cloud cover, and the pitiless sun glared down. So bright. So painful. The rat-man, wearing his pride like robes, suffered this unflinching. His captors were less stoic, and grumbled and swore and gestured at the blazing eye above. Dark elves did not share the prevalent Wintervale belief that the Walker-in-Darkness observed the mortal world through the sun and moon, and so did not fear His wrath.

Embla could see the iron gates, flanked by terrible statues that were no mere stoneworks, barring the way to the Blood Pits. One memory in particular that was associated with that place came back to her then and she smiled. She sensed the others staring at her in dismay. Irrelevant then. Irrelevant now. They would understand, or not, later.

Even this prisoner would not normally have been enough to bring them out into the day like this, but they had orders not even their insubordinate natures would defy. The officer to which they had been tasked to bring their captive was not understanding of laxness. There was no mocking respect or false courtesy in their bows and scrapings when they were before him, and the rat-man too allowed his pride to fall back long enough to chitter a respectful salute to this great enemy.

Aidan had never met one, but recognised the bruised attendant nearby as a Kunese. Possibly one of their famed eunuch secretary-officials, so loyal and efficient that they were often permitted to act on their own initiative for the benefit of their master. This one held an empty scroll case, likely for a map by its size, that had a broken seal. Aidan guessed that the contents had been stolen by the rat-man. He wondered if perhaps it had been a surveyor`s map of the Nameless City, scribed in preparation for an expansion, which would explain its value.

The dark elven commander stood wide-eyed in the sunlight, truly uncaring of its brilliance. His uniform was perfectly tailored to his unusually muscular physique. Much of it was a rich brown leather, cut through with a sheer black striping so cut as to highlight the honed power beneath his skin. At his left breast was the deceptively simple brass emblem, styled to resemble a total eclipse of the sun, that bore the sigils of his rank and unit.

Isolde recognised it. How could she not? The individual was different, but the markings were all the same. She had seen and heard their monstrous natures first hand. Poor Daisy had died to it. But they had paid for it in the end. She had made sure of that, though it risked everything. Leigdaith had known, but chosen to permit this small insurrection. Such risks became second nature in later years, of course. And since becoming an adventurer, the one surpassing joy of her life was no longer having to see any who wore the badge of the Blacksun Legion.

The rat-man showed no pain as its captors kicked it forward, though fresh blood beginning to pool under it betrayed the wounds suffered in its defeat. The officer listened disinterestedly to the explanation of his underlings, and instead stepped forward to lift the rat-man`s head and peer deep into its eyes. There seemed to be a flicker of recognition, then it was no seeming, and anger replaced curiosity. The rat-man laughed its chittering laugh. The dark elf stepped back and began an incantation.

Arlgand shivered. He could guess the words, guess the curse being invoked here. The rat-man was stoic, but would scream before the end of its life. He did not know where the souls of these creatures went after death, but he offered a prayer to Tal-Allustiel that if there was any justice in the halls of the gods, this one should be rewarded for its sacrifice.

When his incantation was complete, the dark elven commander dismissed his minions. The fate of the rat-man was out of his hands now, and he had more important matters to dwell upon. They floated in the bay now, just below, the frenzied waters tamed for the moment by powerful magics. He looked over the walls, down the cliffs, across the bleak city, to the fleet that gathered there. Within each ship were some of the most capable soldiers the Wintervale had. And each was destined to wreak havoc just across the water at the vulnerable, exposed kingdom of Farland.

♢♢♢♢♢

After the historical illusion faded, and its audience considered what they had been shown, Aidan was the first to speak.

"What I understood is that the Nameless City has a weakness it does not know escaped its masters."

Brokk shook his head sadly. "Wrong tense. That weakness was sealed two hundred years ago. The lesson was far simpler. Danger came from within. It was the Wintervale`s own surveyors who revealed the weakness, scribed it, allowed it to be stolen. Then, as now, a ferek was involved."

"A what was?" asked Isolde, confused.

"It is the name the nidhgaraf give themselves," Embla explained, beating Brokk to it. "Same as you name yourselves hositan or altarim, but we know you as arratti or aelfarrir. Our name is better, of course. It has meaning to it. It is no mere noise like the grunting of swine."

"An argument for later!" Brokk hastily interjected, seeing the indignant looks on all three other faces. "My point is this, and mark it well. For a ferek, or nidhgaraf, or rat-man, to be so visible about its business indicates the immensity of the situation. There is a threat, here, in the hallowed Summervale itself, to match that posed by the Wintervale. Our furry friend is attempting to prevent it from coming to fruition. I will, in due course, explain why I am convinced of this. Zammaz and I need more evidence before we can present it...and even so, I do not want to believe in what-"

Brokk trailed off, his thoughts wandering suddenly along a new path he had not previously considered. It was seeing Arlgand and Aidan together, and how they were at once similar and different, that had opened up this path. Like a thunderbolt from a clear sky, one possible explanation for many different peculiarities had struck him and left him just as bemused. But even if true, it was such an extreme accusation that Brokk would absolutely need more evidence - not even Zammaz would share in this thought.

When it became clear that Brokk had become lost in his thoughts, Aidan quickly reached over and snapped his fingers in front of his eyes, bringing the aged wizard back to them. For a moment, Brokk had seemed to revert to the way he had been not that long ago, liable to step away from his senses whenever a particularly challenging problem presented itself. The perverse derro at Arden and the wolf-fiend at Fisherman`s Solace, together with the near-death experiences Brokk had suffered overcoming each, had mostly cured him of that ill. Aidan often found himself worrying that those few lapses back into such obsessive contemplation would someday return in full.

"What I still don`t see is why your history lesson is relevant here," Aidan said slowly, luring Brokk back into the discussion. "The Wintervale had a weakness. Fine, I accept that. Nevertheless, it still stands. The Summervale has a weakness, you say. I will, grudgingly, accept the possibility. It will stand long after the Wintervale. Even at the height of its power, the Wintervale did not trespass into this realm."

Brokk stared. "Do you not know how Farland fell? Why they succumbed so swiftly when the war ought to have lasted years?"

"Everyone knows that," Arlgand scoffed. "The Wintervale attacked across the Bay of Winter. The tempest was calmed, the fleet crossed, the Isle of Night was taken as a forward site, and the Far City was overrun shortly thereafter. The rest of the country all but surrendered to avoid being caught between two advancing fronts. Nobody expected a naval assault to succeed, least of all from the Isle of Night."

"And do you not think that strange?" Brokk pressed the question further. "The vulnerable flank of the Jewel of the East, left without watch or guard? No contingencies in case of invasion? Some of the foremost minds in the lands, heirs to those who once held dominion from Wawmar to the Wild Lands, caught completely by surprise?"

Isolde muttered at that, then at the questioning looks spoke louder: "I never did like that story. The Dark Folk were always boasting about it, even more than any of their other victories. You`d think the Breaking of Rowanspeak would take precedence."

"Very well then," Brokk said firmly, raising his hand in preparation for another spell. "It seems a more clear lesson is needed..."

FOURTH INTERLUDE

Nukkein Goldmane watched the crumpled vessel limp its way past the breakers and collapse in pieces on the shore below. It was no fisher`s craft, for even in the bright morning sun, a darkness lay thick and heavy around it. Had he not been an East Watcher this day, Nukkein could not have seen the bedraggled occupants - though perhaps he might have guessed.

Beneath his feet, stretching end to end on every stone of the East Bastion, runes glowed with ancient magic, lending him the power to pierce that unnatural darkness and see true. Yet their soft light was already quivering with the effort, as if somehow wearied. They were relics of an older age, when Nukkein`s people and the forest folk would work their art together, and now beyond the ability of any to replicate or reinforce.

Nukkein noted this as he did all else, and thought on what to do. It did not seem plausible that those few creatures on the wreckage were responsible. He counted them carefully. Three who were tall. Two who were short. One other, perhaps, if that one was badly wounded, and had been laid out on the sands to rest. A mere six to challenge the East Bastion, to make it shiver in its duty? May as well spit at the sun to douse its eternal flame!

Nukkein raised a hand to his lips, whispered certain words, and kissed the tips of his fingers. Gently and with all reverence, he touched them to the appropriate rune and sent the message hurtling north and south to all other East Watchers. To his knowledge, it would be the first time such a message had been sent in a thousand years, if not more. It was unlikely any on the mainland would appreciate this, but Nukkein was of a more loyal stock than they. His people had safeguarded their flank from the Isle of Night for generations beyond count, and it was a heritage that he was proud of.

The morning passed into noon, then after, before Nukkein saw any response to his message. Meanwhile, the creatures below waited patiently, it seemed to him, as what remained of their ship washed out with the tide. It broke apart soon enough. Nukkein could see it clearly, even without the help of the East Bastion, for almost as soon as it was out on open water, the darkness swaddling it lifted - but did not vanish, for it was tied to the creatures and not the craft. That alone confirmed what Nukkein might have suspected.

Still, it was strange - unsettling, even thrilling perhaps - to have it so clearly shown to him. The ancestral homeland was far beyond their reach now. That most ancient war had not ended well for them, and for a time only the cruel oni and other hideous yokai had walked the decaying farms they had once tilled, and capricious kappa swam in the waters they had once milled. Then the true Dark Folk had come in turn, clearing out those savages and erecting their own crude cities instead.

Hardly anybody believed that any of their people still lived out there, and fewer still thought it possible for refugees to reach them. Small wonder it was taking so long to assemble the right delegation, and from a distance, confirm the truth of the matter through careful divinations. As Nukkein recalled the warning, even the last time this particular message had been sent, over ten centuries earlier, it had been a false alarm.

But as the sun dipped ever lower in the sky, Nukkein saw the procession hurrying towards his position. No doubt there were healers among them, ready to do what they could, and the most skilled of speakers, ready to apologise for taking so long. After half a day watching the creatures below, however, Nukkein had little doubt they would be angry. It was not in his nature, nor in the nature of anyone he had ever known, to be unreasonable at caution and hesitancy. Why should it be any different for his long-lost cousins on the shore below?

After all, nocticians, the night giants for whom the island was named, were an inherently sensible people.

♢♢♢♢♢

The story of the heroic crossing swept the Isle of Night in mere hours. In defiance of protocol, Watchers on all four Bastions sent the messages on as they received them, but none were reprimanded for this. None had the heart to do so, for this was the most joyous of occasions. After a thousand years, longer, some of their people had reached them out of the lost east.

They spoke strangely, with a rolling rhythm to their words that turned the language into something more akin to a song, but it was a beautiful strangeness. As the six, for Nukkein had seen truly that one had been wounded, regained their strength and walked the isle freely, more and more fell in love with them. It was impossible not to, for they had all the guile of a new born and all the wide-eyed wonder of a child, and all the knowledge of a people out of time.

The three women, tall as Nukkein had seen, hummed or sang with each step they took as though it were as much a necessity as breathing. The three men, short as Nukkein had seen, taught again a dance that had been lost in the flight westwards - though he who had been wounded begged forgiveness for his clumsy footwork, and was so earnest and shame-faced at his performance that compassionate tears fell from many eyes.

All had the most alluring ridges, left boldly bare, for they had neither paints with which to dye them nor hair with which to cover them. It was an almost erotic new style that many impressionable youngsters began to emulate. Nukkein himself even cut back his famous golden locks to better show off his own ridges, though he did not go so far as to stop painting them each morning. He was neither prude nor wed, but that did not mean he was going to abandon all sense of propriety just like that.

If there was any complaint regarding the newcomers, it was their reflexive urge to cloak themselves in darkness at all times - and what a darkness it was. Though they claimed to have no difficulty seeing through it, other nocticians were blinded as effectively as might be a human on a moonless night, despite normally the dark being no impediment.

Those who, like Nukkein, often stood as Watchers were the most usually heard to apologise for their sudden irrational fear when plunged into this true darkness. One or two even admitted to thinking, if only for a moment, that the other noctician was grinning maliciously at them from behind the all-concealing black, teeth bared and eager for a throat to sink into. It was always laughed off.

In hindsight, that was not the only thing that was always laughed off that should have been taken more seriously. The private jokes only they could understood and which apparently had no explanation. The silence of bird and beast in their presence, where other nocticians were largely ignored. The tendency of food and drink to spoil more rapidly if one had forgotten to extinguish their darkness. And most of all, the trembling magics of the Bastions that struggled to pierce their darkness.

Enamoured as they were by these exotic cousins, not even the Watchers saw when the first of the spells built into the Bastions quivered one final time, and after so many thousands of years of faithful service, at long last failed. By the time that happened, of course, it was already too late.

♢♢♢♢♢

Nukkein woke to screaming and fire and blood. The earth shook under him and a choking blackness enveloped him. All was confusion in the communal rooms of unmarried or widowed Watchers. A body crashed against him, its life already bled out, and all he knew for certain was that he was not the one humming that gleeful, capering melody in the impenetrable dark.

The heat at his left side was great enough that he suspected the winter`s fire had been deliberately unleashed from its hearth. That would explain the unnatural loudness of its crackling, and that growing smell of burning hair and flesh from those unfortunates nearer the warmth. Given the situation, there was only one thing to do if he wanted to escape this with his life.

He reached out blindly, seeking out the hottest part of the room and screaming wordlessly as his hand closed around a firebrand. The pain was beyond anything he believed possible. Then he turned, still screaming in agony, and hurled the firebrand towards the source of the humming. He did not see its flight, nor the first flickerings of the flames catching to cloth, but with the momentary distraction it brought, Nukkein came to know true pain.

Startled by the sudden pain at her feet, the noctician now beating at the fire trying to crawl up her legs had let her shield of darkness slip. Her head was devoid of hair and her ridges were unpainted. Her face, however, was clearly marked with maniacal hatred, and the blood of Nukkein`s fellow Watchers was paint enough. A hideous weapon, as much sword as axe, and seemingly manifested out of the darkness itself, roiled of its own accord in the shattered chest of a Watcher so mutilated they were no longer recognisable.

Nukkein screamed again, as much out of horror as disgust and pain, and fled. He ran until the pain and shock grew too much to bear, and collapsed. Some instinct had taken him to his usual patrol atop the East Bastion, and this should have heartened him, but for the sight of the evil being wrought across the Isle of Night. Fires were engulfing the villages and farms, and doubtless the other five treacherous monsters were behind it. Then a greater terror gripped his heart, and he forced himself to stand and look towards the sea once more.

There, making the crossing from the east, was a vast fleet that the Isle of Night was now helpless before. The sails were daubed with the vile symbol of the Wintervale, and Nukkein would have sworn the wind carried the obscenities of their crew to his ears. Beneath his feet, the Bastion was dark. If it had any magic left in it, this was already seeping out under the pressure of depraved sorceries from that approaching fleet. By the dawn, the Bastion was mere stone and mortar. Its three fellows followed suit soon after. With all four Bastions subdued, and the Watchers scattered or dead, no warning message could be sent to the mainland.

Shocked almost beyond rational thought, Nukkein wondered if he should blame himself for this. He had been the one to decide the traitors were friends. Behind him, the disturbingly gentle sound of a long-forgotten song came to him. Nukkein knew his death approached. He stood his ground anyway. When the darkness fell on him, he trusted his instincts and struck out with all the fury of the betrayed. The blade found him all too soon. He died quickly.

The Isle of Night held out for eighteen days. This was seventeen more days than the fleet masters had expected, and many of their subordinates were executed for incompetence. This spurred the survivors, and the replacements, to greater and crueller action. The Far City was captured in only three. The Dark Occupation proceeded almost exactly as planned thereafter.

♢♢♢♢♢

Isolde was the first to doubt. "Nocticians are second only to trolls in instinctive cruelty and petulant sadism. I know of Dark Folk, as much as it pains me to admit this, who have at least some potential for good in them. But nocticians? No. I have more trouble believing that any of them were ever capable of compassion, let alone once being benevolent and wise defenders of Farland sadly betrayed by their own, than...than...I don`t know. What else do I have trouble with? Oh there must be something, but what is it?"

She trailed off, muttering to herself. The others looked little more persuaded by Brokk`s historical revelation. Night giants were not especially numerous in the Occupied Kingdoms, being mostly centred around Old Cadez in Orland, but they had a reputation which made even the average Dark Folk nervous of them. And it was the first time any of them had heard of women night giants. Personally, Aidan had always thought them a one-sex race like hags, and tried his utmost never to think of how either reproduced.

Seeing their expressions, Brokk took a deep breath and stated the facts bluntly: "Farland fell because its greatest defence was brought down from within. The Nameless City had its weakness exposed due to the workings of its own agents. Now, the Summervale is at risk of a similar subversion, and the work of traitors is already underway. I believe we, and others like those we met on the way, have been invited here specifically to help deal with this."

"All the proof points towards this, you see," he said. "A royal invitation to the ranarim after so many years apart. A delegation from neighboring Anaria, representing all four tribes, arriving at the same time as gnomish scholars and ourselves, accounting for two Loremasters meeting in the flesh. An old friend of ours from Daven, who knew of those devices beneath the cities and of our role in discovering their secret. So much more besides. I am convinced this is all part of a plot by Baranwë to unearth the danger to his realm."

"Is that why you were so insistent on my reaching out to see which Houses would be willing to meet with us at some event or other?" Arlgand asked. "I had thought that a little strange. I know we were technically invited here to join in the solstice festivities, but these preliminary gatherings that will be happening before then are not really...well, they are more personal affairs between Houses. Not something, um, well, just anyone can go to. Outsiders are not welcomed even if they are from the same city, let alone foreigners. Let alone, ah, non-elven foreigners. That was embarrassing to admit."

"Exactly right," said Brokk. "Which means it is likely that anyone who invites us to attend is aware of the king`s issue, either due to being an ally of his and therefore us, or by being an ignorant, hopefully, suspect of his. I don`t know what the others are doing - though I suspect the Anarians are more clued in than they give away - but this is a golden opportunity for us to confirm there is no danger to the Summervale, and to stamp it out if there is. And besides, given how much work will be involved-"

"Ah-ha! That elves are not inherently supercilious and arrogant lunatics who believe they are voluntarily penned up in their forests instead of being like the Wintervale`s diseased cattle!" exclaimed Isolde triumphantly, a smug smile on her face. "I have more trouble believing in good nocticians than in that. There you go. An excellent point, excellently made. 'Thank you, Isolde, that was very well said, we understand completely now.' You don`t need to say it aloud, I know, I know. But do tell me all the same."

"-and anyway, it will take time to gather enough evidence to present to the king," Brokk pressed on, ignoring her. "We won`t be leaving here until the late spring at the absolute earliest. Maybe even the summer. So it`s important that we make what friends we can here as quickly as possible. Which is why we will be attending the various balls and feasts and functions offered by those Arlgand suggests are amenable to reason."

Arlgand shifted uncomfortably. That was a lot of responsibility, and assumed many things would be far simpler than they actually were. The biggest problem he foresaw was that only accepting certain invitations would mean refusing others. That would be seen as an insult, not even politely veiled, and would guarantee many enemies for merely the chance of one ally.

Which, on reflection, was incredibly unlikely to work anyway. Nobody would offer help to someone so crude that they openly scorned numerous powerful families, lest they be considered with equal enmity. And this did not even begin to take account the long histories between the various Houses, traditions and customs involved in the whole process, the legal ramifications of accusing people as traitors even if that was true, and so many other problems.

He started to voice these concerns, then decided to skip ahead to the conclusion: "Since you`ll need to trust me on many things, start with this one. We will only be attending one gathering. Everyone who is anyone, and a lot of people who aren`t, will be there because of the importance of the host. We will stand a better chance of success there."

Aidan and Isolde frowned, sensing a trap. But it was Embla who asked, "And who is the host?"

Again, Arlgand shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "One of my family`s, and the royal family`s, most outspoken critics. Perhaps the most influential, dangerous person in Therolan. Lord Jerroth Salpheran."

"All right Aidan, you win," Isolde said tonelessly. "I can see exactly where this is going, and we are going to need every weapon to hand. You buy me that dress for the Salpheran ball, I will...by Bunga, Bucca, and Bel as my witnesses...bathe. In water."

♢♢♢♢♢

Twenty miles to the north, a pair of Wardens tried to ignore the smell from their charges, the barbaric Anarian humans, and steel themselves to complete this escort detail all the way to Gloralion. The orders had come through earlier that day, signed by an authority even High Captain Salpheran had not dared to question - though he had certainly threatened dire things for this apparent overstepping of boundaries. Whilst the other foreigners were to remain in Therolan for some days yet, the Anarians had been requested to attend a special meeting in advance of the solstice, with none other than unofficial-prince Iorannor of House Vathor.

Their High Captain`s open hostility following this invitation left many of the Therolan Wardens uneasy. The politicking between Houses was an important part of their culture, but it was a thing that most Wardens felt should be put aside when actual and potentially dangerous foreign peoples were inside their lands. Left equally unsaid was the feeling that somehow this politicking had reached even into their own ranks, for a certain minority of Wardens - two of which had been chosen for this escort duty, in fact - clearly approved of the High Captain`s behaviour.

They were passing by an empty waystation, its covered well flanked by rose bushes and bearing a copper plaque with some inscription or another, when Tapio, the great shaman accompanying this delegation, paused briefly with a look of recognition. He had seen this place the night before, in a prophetic dream. Yet he knew this dream had not been sent by the gods, at least not in its entirety, for it had been heralded by an apologetic message from the wizened dwarf adventurer they had met on the way.

On waking, Tapio had considered it more than likely to be a stillborn warning of a mere possibility. The message had even said that the magic involved in sending this dream, whilst powerful and incredibly draining, could not guarantee any truth - only what was, perhaps, able to happen. Now that he saw this place, however, Tapio wondered if the rest of the dream would come true as well. He did not have to wait long to find out.

Nothing overhead made any unexpected sound. There was no unusual shadow on the ground below. Seven hundred years of combined experience did not avail the Wardens, nor did familiarity with this route. Ikit Gloryshadow fell from the branches upon the Warden at the rear, slaying him with a perfect three-point strike to throat, sternum, and by means of his long poison-tipped tail, lower belly. Nobody noticed until it was already done and Ikit was disappeared again.

At the front of the group, Tapio called for order as the surviving Warden panicked, screaming at the trees. There was no doubt about it now. Even without his dream, Tapio would have understood this was no normal behaviour, for the Warden was shrieking in a tongue that did not sound like the delicate elven language he had heard thus far, and she kept stealing paranoid glances at his people as she whirled about in search of the ambusher.

The Anarians, used to obeying the orders of their superiors, especially when in dangerous foreign lands, clustered together and trusted in Tapio. He waited patiently as the Warden stepped further away with each terrified spin. Lesser men might have broken, but not he, and not his people. One by one, they put aside their weapons and sat down on the trail, as if relaxing by a roaring fire. Their intentions not to interfere with the doomed Warden were obvious.

Once again, Ikit Gloryshadow descended, killed, and vanished before any might have stopped him. For the sake of courtesy, Tapio did not try to follow the assassin`s movements, and waited several minutes until all was clear. Only then did he stand and move to examine the fresher corpse. Just like in his dream, the insides were a monstrous and twisted aberration that belonged to no elf.

"That ancient wizard spoke true," he whispered to himself grimly. "By the Seal, we could not have come at a more crucial time."

TO BE CONTINUED