Authors: James Barclay
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
‘Who?’ asked Auum.
‘The practitioner class. All of them but me. Along with all of the development class, who were watching and learning and were caught in the blast. So much work, so much time and it was all for nothing. All wasted. I’m so sorry.’
‘No effort you make is ever wasted,’ said Auum, though a dead weight sat in his chest at her words. ‘We can rebuild.’
‘Those still trapped in Ysundeneth don’t have the time. We all know that.’
‘They are in no danger if they cause no trouble.’
‘They’re slaves!’ Onelle’s voice rang harshly from the temple walls. ‘We swore to free them.’
‘And we will. Yniss will guide us. Don’t lose your faith.’
‘Auum, you don’t understand.’ Onelle was laughing through her tears. It was a bitter sound. ‘We have been learning how to harness the Il-Aryn for almost a hundred and fifty years, ever since the soul of Ix was awakened in some of us. And in all that time we are nowhere. Don’t you see?
‘All ten of the practitioner class were building the same casting. One human mage blew it apart, and killed them all in a heartbeat. We have no power, no knowledge, which can possibly stand against human magic. It will be centuries before we can stand with you and defend you from their fire and their ice and all the evil they can bring to bear.
‘By then, the elves will be lost. Gone or dying out. What is happening at Katura is a symptom of a disease that will sweep us all away. Humans will rule Calaius.’
Auum bridled. Onelle’s words had laid bare the scale of the gulf between human and elven magic and ripped the veil of hope from his eyes. But despite that he would not turn meekly from his task.
‘No human will rule my country,’ he said. ‘Katura has slipped into a malaise born of a yearning for things long gone. It is you and I and those we lead who must secure the future of our people. You cannot fall prey to despair. There is always something that can be done. Accelerate your learning. I will accelerate the training of my students.
‘What can I do to help you?’
Onelle wiped at her eyes. ‘I’m sorry. It is hard. All that effort, and they snuffed us out so easily. All our confidence and belief in our ability is exposed as a sham.’
‘I can promise you that TaiGethen will once again stand at Aryndeneth as sentinels against desecration. The Al-Arynaar will stand with us. No elf will die at this temple again.’
Onelle nodded. ‘At least those of us still alive will sleep better tonight. But there are so few of us now. We must find more adepts. More potential we can explore.’
Auum watched Onelle begin to think again and with those thoughts came hope. ‘Then we will find more, and we will send them to you.’
‘How do you do it?’ asked Onelle.
‘Keep your spirit so strong and your soul free of doubt.’
Auum frowned and for a moment could not frame an answer. ‘Because I have never questioned my faith or the virtue of my mission. This is our land, our rainforest. I will not rest until all our people are free and man’s stench has been scoured from every corner. Calaius was given to us by Yniss. No human can take it from us.’
A movement in the canopy at the far edge of the apron caught his eye. It was nothing but a shadow against the light, invisible to all but the sharpest of rainforest predators. He began to run, his last words to Onelle spoken over his shoulder.
‘Believe and we cannot fail. Tend to your people.’
Auum’s heart was beating hard in his chest. It had been the merest glint of an eye but he knew who it was, what it was, he had seen.
‘Stop!’ called Auum. ‘Speak to me. Tell me what you felt. Please. You are ClawBound but you are still an elf. Stop!’
But the shadow was gone. Elf and panther had melted away into the canopy.
‘Serrin!’ called Auum. ‘It’s you, isn’t it? Please help me. I am Auum. Remember me.’
Auum stood at the edge of the apron, his emotions choking his thoughts and a brief hope of contact quickly extinguished. He stared into the forest, hoping against all reason to see Serrin walking towards him.
‘Damn,’ he said. He frowned. ‘What were you doing here?’
Auum turned back towards the temple. Elyss and Tiiraj were trotting towards him.
‘Where are the others?’
‘Malaar is working with the priests, preparing the dead for reclamation. Wirann and Gyneev are tending the wounded. A lot of burns. We don’t have enough balm.’
‘The priests will provide. How many of the injured will survive?’ asked Auum.
‘How far can a TaiGethen jump?’ responded Tiiraj. ‘Olmaat survived burns that should kill any elf. It depends less on the wound, more on the spirit and the will.’
‘That is not an answer. How many have burns that should kill them? How many should live because their wounds are superficial?’
Tiiraj jerked his head back towards the temple. ‘I think you should come and make that determination for yourself.’
Auum shrugged and gestured for them to precede him, and they trotted into the cool of the temple. The stone flags surrounding the harmonic pool were covered with wounded adepts and priests. The stink of charred flesh was in the air and the dome echoed mournfully with moans of pain.
Auum walked slowly around the dome, kneeling by each victim to speak words of comfort or join the prayers when the priests’ ministrations could not save their patients.
At the end of his circuit, Auum understood why Tiiraj had been so uncertain. He had seen those with hideous wounds across their faces, clothes burned into their bodies and hands scorched almost to the bone whose eyes shone with a fury and an energy that would drive their survival. And he had seen those with relatively light injuries but for whom the shock of the attack threatened to steal their souls away to Shorth’s embrace.
‘Tais,’ he said, ‘let us leave these fine elves to their recovery. Yniss bless you all and return you to health and your studies. We will pray for you and will be honoured to stand with you on the day we take back our land from men and free our people.’
Auum led his students outside, signalling Onelle to join them.
‘I need to know about Takaar,’ he said.
Onelle’s expression was answer enough. Auum felt a little strength leave him.
‘If he’s proving a negative influence, I can organise to move him.’
Onelle sighed. ‘No, no, I don’t want that. We need his insights, however they are delivered.’
‘And is he casting?’
‘Not at the moment. He doesn’t have the concentration. Too many people in his head, I think.’
‘All right,’ said Auum, feeling a familiar conflict of emotions concerning Takaar. ‘Keep me up to date when you can. Don’t let him unsettle the adepts.’
‘Unsettle them? You should see them. They love him. The tales he weaves and the understanding he gives them about the earth’s energies spellbind them, if you can excuse the pun.’
‘And is he still making his . . . visits?’
‘More and more regularly at the moment. I suppose it’s no surprise given his mental state.’
Auum cursed. ‘Why must he do this?’
Onelle shrugged and Auum understood her frustration. ‘He always says he receives vital information, but the fact is they’re friends and they like to talk.’
‘How can anyone be friends with a human?’ asked Malaar.
‘I don’t know,’ said Onelle. ‘Though I suppose if there was a man you could trust, it would probably be him.’
‘It cannot be right,’ said Auum. ‘Whether or not he means to, he will betray our secrets. Looking around, I wonder if he already has.’
Onelle made to speak but stalled as the deep-throated roars of panthers split the air. They were joined by the hard, ululating, guttural cries of elves. The sound was angry, demanding vengeance and action. Auum shuddered, listening to the calls and responses echoing across the vastness of the rainforest. Eventually they fell to a silence that gave every one of Tual’s creatures pause before taking up cries of their own.
Onelle was shivering. Never before had the Calaian rainforest heard such a chorus.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
‘ClawBound,’ said Auum. ‘Calling themselves to muster.’
‘Why?’ asked Elyss.
Auum shook his head. ‘I don’t know but I fear their actions will be precipitate. Serrin was here. He saw the desecration.’
‘You think they’ll exact revenge?’ said Tiiraj.
‘They are the ClawBound. And humans have attacked the temple of Yniss.’
‘But—’ began Elyss.
‘I know,’ said Auum. ‘But those threats are of no concern to the ClawBound. They consider those enslaved in our cities to be capable of defending themselves. This is an attack on the centre of our faith. And they will avenge it.’
Auum could see that his students either didn’t understand him or didn’t believe him.
‘Study Lysael’s texts,’ said Onelle. ‘Better still, talk to her when you are next in Katura, if she’s still there. It may only be a hundred and thirty years since the first ClawBound pairing was forged, but the minds of the Bound elves are already so far beyond what we understand that you cannot apply your notions of sense and intelligence to them.’
‘Nevertheless, we must try and stop them,’ said Auum.
‘How?’ asked Tiiraj. ‘We can’t track them. How do we know where they’ll go?’
‘A good question.’ Auum spread his hands. ‘Anyone care to volunteer an answer?’
Elyss responded first. ‘They’ll want to make a statement. Something that’ll be seen quickly by the humans and make them sit up and take notice.’
‘Good,’ said Auum. ‘Malaar?’
‘Something of high value, then. Pelt hunters or rare plant gatherers?’
‘No,’ said Auum. ‘Men’s money has no meaning to the ClawBound. Think. Wirann?’
‘A high-density operation, then. Something close to Ysundeneth.’
Auum nodded. ‘Right. Why Ysundeneth?’
‘It is their power base,’ said Wirann. ‘It’s home to Ystormun.’
‘Good,’ said Auum. ‘Gyneev, if you were ClawBound where would you attack?’
‘Logging on the River Ix,’ said Gyneev without hesitation. ‘It’s heavily guarded, there are high numbers of slaves and guards, and it’s the greatest desecration of the rainforest.’
Auum knelt, Onelle and his students following his lead.
‘Tais, we pray.’ Auum placed one palm on the stone and the other he held to the sky. ‘Yniss, hear me. Beeth, hear me. Bless the ground on which the TaiGethen must run. Show us our path and guide us as we seek to stall the hand of your servants, the ClawBound.
‘Shorth, hear me. Let those sent to your embrace this day by the malign hand of man feel the grace of their passing and the welcome of our ancients. Let those men who stand before you feel the full force of your fury.
‘Ix, hear me. Guide Onelle’s hand. Bless her work and swell her spirit as she rebuilds the order of the Il-Aryn. Open their eyes to the control of their power. Speed them to strength so they may stand by us to throw down the evil of man.
‘I, Auum, ask this.’
Auum rose after a moment’s silent contemplation. Onelle stayed in prayer a while longer. When she stood, tears were in her eyes once more.
‘Ix cannot deliver me more adepts. Only Yniss can do that.’
Auum nodded. ‘I hear you, Onelle. Elyss, Malaar, you will travel with me. Tiiraj, you will lead Wirann and Gyneev. Guard the temple. Don’t leave here until I return.
‘Tais, we move.’
Anyone who wondered why the elves did not seek to attack Ysundeneth sooner was not present the moment Ystormun killed our beloved Katyett.
A Charting of Decline
, by Pelyn, Arch of the Al-Arynaar, Governor of Katura
There had come a time, and he couldn’t remember when, when he made a game out of it. It was the only way to manage the pain. Manage . . . no, that was the wrong word. Endure, that was it. The game was to identify exactly which organ, muscle or bone hurt the most on his occasional journey to the temple of Shorth in Ysundeneth.
It began with taking a breath. That was difficult. Something to do with the fragility of his chest muscles, apparently. The problem was they were locked solid, so his ribcage wouldn’t rise and each breath was like a pathetic gasp. That pain never won the day though, it was too regular, too easy to forget.
While he was climbing the stairs in a more tortuous fashion than ever before, he compiled a shortlist to consider on the long, long shamble from the stairs to the panoramic chamber at the far end of the corridor.
His head, now there was a new entrant. Ystormun had done something to stop deterioration in his brain function. He had no idea whether it had worked or not but his head was pounding away as if his brain was trying to get out through the top of his skull. His left hip was a candidate too, the result of his last attempt on his own life.
He’d thrown himself down these very stairs and broken every bone in his left leg and a few others besides. Most had been readily healed with spell and splint but his left hip was a total mess. Shattered and cracked, he was told, beyond what magic could heal, and it made every pace agony, with fire racing down to his foot and sheeting across his lower back.