by Allan Maki
Turbine Entertainment Software
She pushed aside the velvet curtain and stepped out onto the balcony. Dawn peeked out over the horizon, wispy and shy. Although she could not relax the clench in her hands, she closed her eyes, pressing her face against the gentle wind. To relax is not to surrender. The words themselves rarely soothed, but thinking of Asheron's gentle face as he said them did. Her flaxen hair twisted in the light breeze. The feeling harkened her back to the time before Dereth, when she was an adventurous girl on Ispar. She stretched her arms wide and relished the memory for as long as she dared.
Had life ever been that simple? Such times now seemed a half-remembered dream. It scared her to think how quickly memory changed, how frail the strands of one's life truly were. What else would she forget over time? Asheron had long ago proven himself to be fallible. She opened her eyes and stared out over the rolling green hills, stained now by bright oranges, dull purples, and earthen yellows. Autumn had arrived nearly overnight.
It had been almost a year since she had last been amongst the people, the fateful night that the Hopeslayer's Thorns had sought to slake his vengeance. The night Arwic died. She pressed her hands down upon the balustrade, took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
She hated this feeling. Yet every year at this time it returned. A bright day containing much to celebrate and enjoy, and she could only think of the things undone, the problems still to be faced. There was some consolation in being alone. Her guards stood without the chamber and would not bother her, unless a matter of importance arose. She gritted her teeth. She knew that she must make a journey today, and the thought of it pained her.
From within the chamber she heard a soft cry. Her son. She wiped away the tears and smoothed her cotton smock, her bare feet padding softly on the stones beyond the curtains.
He was still sleeping, caught in the throes of a dream. His face, more like hers than his Thorsten's, shone bright with a gentle smile. She sat beside him and ran her hand gently over his dirty blond locks. He shifted toward her. This brought a smile to her lips, ever so brief. She leaned down and kissed his forehead before rising and crossing the chamber to the doors. Behind her came a vague mutter--reflexive adolescent annoyance--and the sound of sheets being pulled over wild hair.
The day had just begun. Borelean would sleep for another hour, perhaps two. She had time to deal with other matters before taking on the role of mother.
She opened the door gently so as to not stir the sleeping Prince and stepped out into the hall. The guards, a pair of glittering, white crystal monoliths, turned to inspect her. Pure affectation, she knew. The eyes etched upon their faces were decorative. They did not see with such fallible human organs.
"See that he is not disturbed," she commanded. "If he awakens tell him I will return shortly."
The pillar across the hall--like the Golems, a gift from Asheron--glowed, and faint, foreign whispers floated on the still, indigo air. The Diamond Golems bowed in unison, making a noise like a small avalanche. She winced. Fearsome, yes, but not the best choice for protecting sleepy children. . .
He'd meant well.
She strode through the halls of the keep without meeting the eyes of any of the human guards. They bowed as she approached and she dismissed each such action with a wave of her hand. Her chin settled further with each one, her shoulders drawing closer together. This was not what she had foreseen when hobbling out of the bloody darkness, her body bearing the weight of a cold mountain of a man, a warm mote of a boy, and uncounted tears.
How could she rule those that she could no longer identify with? Already in the cloisters of the Arcanum, acrimonious scholars railed against her return. "Strange wizards hiding away in towers distributing arrows is no way to inherit the divine right of kings!" Her cheeks burned at the words, her teeth set, her hands clutched at a bow that wasn't there. The damned nobles. So what if I'm not blueblood? She darkly mused over the choices as she stalked through the marble halls.
Nuhmudira's plan had worked. Isparians were purchasing their homes and wares to place within at a pace far greater than the carpenters could match. Yet the Monster of the Labyrinth had perfected her art and continued the flawless execution of placing The Keepers. She was capable, ardent, and knowledgeable. Yet Nuhmudira was more out of touch than Elysa. Her obsession grew with each day, dark stains on her soul that pulled apart her sanity. In time her hatred of the Empyrean and drive to harness their magic would be her undoing. One could not rule through paranoia. No, better for Nuhmidira to remain her vizier, and one kept at arm's length, lest Elysa find herself a fly within the spider's den.
Celdiseth, another of the Archmages, was a hermit by choice. He was also a poor choice for a leader. He was a potent speaker and perhaps the most intelligent of her council but too often his study and teaching of the School of the Arm led him to think of destruction before mediation. She chuckled and bit her lower lip.
Jaleh al-Thani, a noble man by birth, with an ignoble heart. His eyes saw the world as profit to be made. He was no leader. He was a privateer, sure as any Viamontian Sea-Captain or other rake, willing to sell his mother for pyreal.
What a menagerie we are, she thought.
She approached her own bedchamber and pushed the doors open, paying no heed to the rumbling crystals that aped a human bow as she passed, a pair for each of them at Asheron's insistence. Her guards scorned them, but they were used to fighting ones weakened by centuries of neglect. The nobles, of course, whispered that it was just like the absent queen, relying on Empyrean magic over her own people.
"Ya damned old fools," she muttered, irritation bringing the highland back to her voice.
Swinging the doors closed, she made her way to the stand where her armor and bow rested. They had been placed down, she had hoped, for the last time after the Hopeslayer fell. She shook her head and listened to the birds cooing in the distance.
Young sunlight blushed the room as autumn wind brushed aside her curtains. It filtered into the room and struck the carapace armor. The dark purple devoured the light. Her brow furrowed as a chill ran down her spine.
A clatter of iron boots on stone sounded in the corridor outside. It was her guardsmen and someone else, steps lighter, unrecognizable. The chill came again, something was wrong.
She strode toward the door and met the group as it opened. Three men entered and bowed their heads. Two she recognized immediately as members of her Royal Guard. The third, dressed in deep blues, eyeing the Golems with considerable suspicion, was unfamiliar. She knew she had seen him once or twice before. The guards bowed their heads as she approached. The man took a knee.
"Queen Strathelar, this is--" the guard began only to be cut off by his queen.
"Antius Blackmoor," she stated matter-of-factly, remembering his name. "What brings the warrior-scholar to my keep?"
The guards lifted their heads and stood at attention. Antius, light brown hair damp with sweat, remained on a knee as he spoke.
Her gut twisted as he presented the back of his neck. "Come sit down," she said briskly. "You look as though you've had a hard journey." She looked to the guards. "Bring me Viamont toast and juice." She dismissed them with a nod and motioned to the chairs flanking a table near the window.
"I am sorry Your Majesty--"
"Elysa," she stated plainly, her voice brooking no argument. "We are two people having a conversation, please." The chair scraped along the stone floor as she pulled it out and sat.
Antius followed suit, obviously unused to such candor from one of Elysa's station. He freed his pack and set it on the floor with a soft groan.
"Now, what have you come to speak to me about?" Elysa asked as she studied the man across the table. His features were softer than most Aluvians, lacking the angular cheekbones and thin nose. His eyes, however, were piercing blue, like the haze left in the wake of lightning across the sky. He was nearing his middle years, and was in his own right accomplished. He had been a student of the sword that became enamored by the call of the Library in Cragstone. Celdisith had told her of him on several occasions. He was a student of the Heart under Fadsahil al-Tashbi's tutelage and showed "a great predilection toward gathering knowledge." She had met him sometime before the Thorns. He was older now, but time had not hardened him, nor taken the whimsical look from his eye.
At the moment, however, his face was creased with worry.
"I have just come from Marae Lassel," he began.
She was aware of the portals that had appeared. She was also aware they were the work of the fallen knight and former Explorer Society, Candeth Martine. Martine had become something of a hero to the people of Dereth, surviving against dire odds and becoming a powerful legend. She knew also that he had assaulted Asheron and lost, and that were it not for the Magus' care he would be dead now. "I discovered much there, so much. . . but the most important thing my qu--Elysa, is the Wharu."
She blinked. The word was wholly meaningless to her.
"The Olthoi, rather. The spirit of decay that the Tumeroks of the island battle."
Ice crept along her neck and scalp. This was too much to be a coincidence. Antius paused as she leaned back against the chair and cast her gaze outside. Curtains plumed behind her, a stronger wind was rising. She locked her gaze on a tree that clung tightly to its leaves, defiant of the wind and the oncoming storm. Already, far in the distance, rumbling thunder sounded and dark clouds gathered in the sky. The morning sun was all but blotted from the sky.
Holding her gaze, she spoke. "Go on, Antius."
"They fought an Olthoi Queen once, Elysa." Darkness, like the roiling storm clouds, filled his voice. "They think she is returned, or a fledgling at the very least."
A heavy silence filled the chamber.
She sat in the wooden chair, bare feet planted firmly on the cold stones, her cotton smock and pants rippled in the rising wind. She could not speak. No words could break the memory in her mind, the sound of the Queen's death knell and the shattering of her own heart. The silence hung until a thunder of footsteps in the corridor forced them both to turn to the door.
A guard and a cook entered carrying a tray with two cups of juice, two plates of toast and two apples. They, too, glanced nervously at the glittering sentinels.
She stood suddenly and walked to the black breastplate perched upon its stand. No--not black. A purple so deep it could only be seen where in the highlights the guttering sunlight glittered.
"Antius, eat and use the library in this place if you wish." She turned to the guard. "See that Sir Blackmoor gets all that he requires." She pulled the breastplate off the stand and laid it on her bed. Opening her armoire, she removed and began to don a set of heavy quilted armor. The guard had wheeled and left the room already, leaving Antius alone, she noticed his nervousness from the corner of her eye, such manners after all were not befitting of a Queen.
"Elysa--" he began, and faltered. An awkward moment passed as his face contorted as he searched for the right words. She looked toward him and wanted to laugh, even in the dark depth of the moment. "--Where are you going?" he finally managed.
She smirked, and went on about her dressing leaving him to wonder as she strapped her leggings and reached for her bow. Her hand hovered over the glowing wood, eyes going away for a moment.
Antius tugged a piece of the toast free and popped it into his mouth as she pulled her helmet over her honey-colored locks and made her way back toward him.
She snapped a stern gaze on him and he straightened, blushing. "I am going to talk to a friend," she said firmly. "I need you to do something for me, Scholar Blackmoor." He nodded.
"I need you to watch Marae Lassel for me, do what you can to learn about the construction of the portals to that place, and about Candeth Martine. We--" She stopped, her mouth left open on an unuttered word, and shook her head. "Will you do this?"
"Yes, my Queen." She allowed his use of the honorific to go un-chided. After all, Antius had realized the difference between friendly chatter and a regal request. I hate having to do this, she thought.
"Very good. I'd appreciate weekly reports from you for a while." She tightened her gloves and left the room, passing her guards, who bowed their heads. She stopped in her tracks and skipped back into the room.
She made her way to the table and snapped an apple from the plate. "Sorry for running out on breakfast, Antius, but I have very little time before Borelean wakes. Thank you for your warning." She turned then and disappeared through the doorway, her footfalls grew more distant until they faded behind the rush of the wind and the thunder in the distance.
He wouldn't do that, she thought as she walked past her guards and into a private antechamber beneath the main floor. Asheron told me how injured the man is, body and soul, but he would not purposefully bring the Isparians to harm. Her thoughts rested on her discussion with Antius. She could not fathom that Martine would open portals leading to a land under the sway of an Olthoi Queen.
Looming shadows concealed her as she pulled an orb from a belt pouch she carried. Incanting a phrase taught to her while she was in her self-imposed exile, the sky split and enveloped her in running streams of liquid silver.
There it was again--on the edge of hearing. A certain squealing that no thing on Dereth or Ispar could make. She strained to concentrate on the sound, to pull it from the cacophony. . .
The silver threw itself past her, and the world snapped back into place, the air trembling slightly from the abuse. The smell of seawater teased her nose. She walked over to the cliff edge and looked out over the ocean. The view from this place was what had brought her to his island the first time, secluded and removed from the bustle and responsibility. Borelean had liked it here because he could spend more time with his mother. Why did I ever leave?
Behind her the sun was peeking through wispy clouds, pitching shadows from the ivory tower that stood at the center of the alabaster castle. Birds chirruped and butterflies danced from flower to flower. Though the signs of autumn were apparent in the red and yellow leaves, there remained an eternal, near immortal feel of this place.
She returned the orb to her pouch and walked toward the door beyond the silent guardians. Her presence was known, of that she was certain. Not a soul who entered could go unknown.
Ornate tapestries graced the walls, woven in the finest silk, depicting a time long before the arrival of the Isparians. The flooring, tables, and chairs were all a testament to the beauty and glory of a lost civilization. They were all slightly larger than those that the Isparians used but they were more like home to her than the keep where she lived now with her son and guardians.
Running her fingers along the edge of a perfect marble table she found herself smiling, remembering a tender moment spent with Borelean. She shook her head to free herself of the vision. There was little time for whimsy now. Her melancholy all but forgotten she strode to the main hall, toward the tower.
The door was open, and the guardians stood unmoving. A warm red glow beckoned from within; she steadied her pace, controlling her eagerness. It had been some months since she had been to see him, now though she wanted nothing more than to trade memories over an ancient wine, she knew that she must tell him. . . warn him of the coming storm.
His royal blue robes, trimmed in golden brocade, were perfect. He sat beside a spinning vortex of red energy, watching something within that only he could understand. She cleared her throat to announce her arrival.
Again she cleared her throat, and Asheron finally looked her way. With a wave of his hand the vortex swirled in upon itself and collapsed into darkness. He turned from her and motioned to the seats where they had discussed goings-on many times before. He wore a solemn expression, as if he knew already the words that she would speak.
"Ash. . ." She spoke to him as she would any other. ". . . there is much changing on Dereth." He regarded her in silence and nodded. "We have established a vanguard of our own against any enemies that we may face and it appears as though we have driven the Virindi back." She was dodging.
"I'm worried for you." She paused and waited for his reaction. None came. "Nuhmudira means to prepare for war. Martine, it seems, has opened portals to a place where a new Olthoi brood and their Queen live. I worry. . . that they do these things to strike against you."
"Do you worry that they mean me harm, or that they bear ill against you?" he asked.
She sighed and slumped into the chair opposite him. "I don't know. I never wanted this, Asheron. This was never what I wanted. I wanted a simple life for my son, but--" She stopped, looking at him. "Did you know?"
"About the Island, and the portals, yes." He walked to the chair opposite her and sat. "Of Nuhmudira, no. My attentions have been. . . elsewhere."
"What can I do to help you, Ash, these people, they have no idea. . . they blame you for everything that they face."
"Elly, there is nothing you nor I can do. . ." He turned from her. Stunned, she rose. "There are forces at work here that you cannot understand," he stated. Distant.
"But--" she began to protest. He turned back to face her.
"This is that time of which I warned you. I cannot--your people need a strong leader. You stated that to me, when you chose to leave with Borelean. They need you, Elysa. As the Empyrean needed me." He paused and looked at her; she remained stone-faced, fighting the frustration mounting within, and finally nodded. With a wave of his hand and a final parting word, "Go to your people, Elysa," she was returned to the shadows.
She sighed and leaned against the wall. Making her way back through the hallways, she stopped in her bedchamber to remove her armor and found that Antius had left. She made her way onto her landing and leaned against the balustrade.
She played the memory over in her mind. They sat, looking over the sea from a landing; they had been talking about Cragstone while Borelean napped, and she had fallen to tears. Asheron had turned to the sea and with a heavy heart spoken:
I have done much in my life that I regret, Elly, but none so much as the pain that I have caused you. I have taken your life, your love, and left your son without a father. But my greatest regret is that there will come a time when you need me most, and I will be powerless to aid you.
Thunder crashed as a bolt of lightning tore the sky. Rain fell in heavy drops, turning the light gray granite of her keep an ominous black. She lifted her head to greet the rain with the same candor she had the wind earlier this day. There was much to do once Borelean was awake.
Outposts needed fortification, the people needed guidance and protection, and she needed to be there for them. She lifted her head to the rain to feel the drops wash over her face.
Again the thunder came and the High Queen returned to her duties. Alone.