“Brother and sister,” Vaelin realised, his gaze switching between the woman and the young man.

“I think so,” Erlin said. “The first time all three were together. But far from the last.”

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Abruptly the memory shifted, the buildings and the people gone to swirling mist around them, as if they stood at the centre of a vortex though there was no sensation of wind. Soon it slowed, the mist coalescing into the city once more, though now the buildings were all complete. Spring had come to the mountains and the air was fresh, the city lively with people; parents with children, lovers walking hand in hand. Music seemed to rise from every quarter, a man with a harp of some kind singing from a rooftop nearby, a cluster of singers a few streets away adding their own voices. There were also knots of people engaged in animated discussion, gesticulating at each other with scrolls and odd devices Vaelin took to be some form of sextant.

“Put more than one philosopher together and you’ll birth an argument,” Erlin commented. “A truism I’ve observed the world over. In fact, I once saw one argue with himself, it got quite violent in the end.” He moved to the edge of the elevated platform, extending his arm in a broad sweep. “I think that’s why he built this place. A haven for thinkers, artists, scholars. In all my travels, I’ve never seen a city like it.”

An angry voice drew Vaelin’s attention to the approach of the dark-haired woman, striding ahead of the bearded man, hands moving in emphatic, negative slashes. Her brother followed behind at a distance. They were all older than before, though perhaps by only a few years. The younger man’s timidity seemed to have vanished, the weary amusement on his face an echo of what he would later depict on the cave wall.

The woman went to the memory stone and Vaelin saw it now had a twin, identical in shape but not in colour, for this stone was black, its surface free of any flaw or vein. Something black, Vaelin recalled Wise Bear’s deep unease as he touched the space where this thing now stood.

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The woman paused to regard the black stone, her face briefly transformed into a mask of confusion before turning back to the bearded man, pointing at the stone, voice raised in emphatic tones. He sighed, moving to stand opposite her with the stone between them. He spoke softly but his words were no less certain than hers, and also carried an unmistakable note of refusal. The woman began to rail at him, handsome features marred by a deep anger. She calmed a little as her brother came forward, moving close to the stone, though Vaelin noted how he put his hands behind his back. He spoke for a short time, shrugging often, his sister evidently annoyed by his apparent lack of concern. Eventually she threw up her hands in an exclamation of angry defeat and strode away.

Her brother and the bearded man exchanged rueful glances but no more words. After a short pause the bearded man extended a hand to the stone, letting it hover over the smooth surface, Vaelin seeing the involuntary shudder in his fingertips. The younger man spoke, just a few short words, but all humour had vanished from his face and the tone was sharp, almost commanding.

The bearded man hesitated, a brief spasm of anger twitching across his features. Then he laughed, withdrawing his hand and moving back, patting the young man on the shoulder before walking away at a sedate pace. He descended the steps to the street below, exchanging good-natured greetings as he moved through the throng, every face around him rich in respect and affection.

The young man watched him go then turned back to the stone, fingers tracing over his chin with brow furrowed in thought. After a moment he brightened and began to walk away, but paused on reaching the steps. His back straightened as if in response to some unheard alarm and he turned, eyes tracking across the platform until they came to rest on Vaelin.

“He sees me,” Vaelin said.

“Yes,” Erlin said. “I always wondered what made him pause at this point. Hopefully, now his next words will make some sense.”

The young man walked forward slowly, his expression one of cautious amazement. He came to within a few feet of Vaelin and stopped, reaching out as if to touch his cloak, though the fingers slipped through the material like mist. He drew back a little, his lips fumbling over a question in a language not his own. “You . . . have . . . name?” he asked in heavily accented but discernible Realm Tongue.

“I have many,” Vaelin replied. “Though I suspect you will know me by only one.”

The young man’s brow furrowed in bafflement. “I . . . Lionen,” the young man said. “I seee you . . . before.” He tapped a finger to his temple. “In dreams . . . In waking . . . Hear your tongue . . . Learn it.”

“You have the gift of scrying,” Vaelin said, elaborating in response to another baffled frown, “You . . . see what is to come.”

“Sometimes . . . Sometimes it . . . changes. You, always same.” His gaze went to the black stone. “So too this.”

“What is it?”

Lionen’s face tensed in consternation and Vaelin realised he was fumbling for words to describe something even he didn’t fully understand. “A box,” he said finally. “Box full . . . of everything, and nothing.”

“Your sister fears it.”

Lionen nodded. “Essara sees great danger in this. Her husband great . . . use.”

“And you?”

“I see you, and it.” His gaze tracked to Erlin. “And him . . . But he is not him when he touches it.”

His face clouded and he turned towards the city, now bathed in a faint orange glow as the sun began to descend below the western mountains. “In your time . . . this place is gone, yes?”

“Yes. Brought to ruin many ages before.”

Lionen lowered his gaze, features dark with sorrow. “I . . . hope I see it wrong.” He took a breath and straightened. “If . . . I see you again. Bring . . . happy words.”

“Wait.” Vaelin reached for Lionen as he began to walk away, though of course his hand made no purchase. “You have knowledge I need. We face a great danger . . .”

“I know,” Lionen replied with a shrug. “I . . . face danger too.”

Vaelin caught a glimpse of his face before the memory broke apart once more, his half grin returned for an instant, then sublimed into mist as the vortex swirled.

“What did he mean?” he demanded of Erlin.

“I wish I knew, brother,” the ancient man replied. “But I suspect we have now ventured far beyond the limits of my knowledge.”

This time the vortex coalesced into a scene of chaos, the city burnt and tumbled around them, accompanied by the screams of thousands in torment. Vaelin ducked instinctively as a thunderous tremor shook the stone beneath his feet, his gaze immediately drawn to the tower, standing tall and glorious in the night sky, but only for a moment. The ground shook again and the tower fell, its stone flanks bent like a bow as it tumbled to earth, shattering the houses beneath in an explosion of stone and flame.

Vaelin went to the edge of the platform, drawing up in shock at the horrors unfolding below. A woman staggered through the streets with a headless child in her arms, face blank with madness. A portly man in a long robe ran past her, screaming in fear, chased down and dismembered in seconds by a group of men in red armour, laughing gleefully as their swords rose and fell in a joyous frenzy.

Vaelin’s eyes roved the dying city, finding scenes of slaughter and torment everywhere, Sella’s words from years before coming back to him, They had lived in peace for generations and had no warriors, so when the storm came they were naked before it.

It raged on for an hour or more, the city tumbling down around them as its people died. The men in the red armour were inventive in their cruelties, delighting in the screams of those they raped or flayed, though apart from their laughter they were mute killers, going about their bloody work with no words exchanged.

“What are they?” Vaelin asked in a whisper.

“In time the people who will build the Volarian Empire will call them the Dermos,” Erlin said. “Imagining them the product of some fiery pit beneath the earth. When they’re done here they will cross the ocean to assail every place they can find where humanity resides, birthing legends and gods in the process.” Erlin pointed to something in the smoke-shrouded streets below. “Their onslaught will continue until the one who commands them falls.”

The figure moved through the carnage without seeming to notice it, stepping over corpses and striding through pooled blood in a steady, untroubled stride. The red-armoured men moved aside at his approach, not in respect, for they made no bows or other show of obeisance, but as if in answer to an unspoken command. Once he had passed they would return to their ghastly amusements without a glance in his direction. His face became clear as he neared the platform steps, pausing to gaze upwards, brow so deeply lined now it appeared scarred, the glow of a thousand fires flickering on the grey of his beard.

He grimaced as he began to climb, his legs stiff and back stooped from the effort. On reaching the platform he paused, issuing a loud, weary groan, then glanced back at the chaos below. The expression on his aged face was one Vaelin knew all too well. The one who commands them, he thought, seeing the hungry malice that twisted the bearded man’s features.

“He did this,” Vaelin realised aloud. “He destroyed his own city.”

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