“And a great deal more besides,” Erlin said as the bearded man moved to the centre of the platform, halting before the black stone plinth, looking down into the void of its surface. He stood there for some time, until the screams and the last thunderous rumble of destruction faded, leaving only the continuing roar of the flames.
The bearded man raised his visage to the night sky, eyes closed as he extended a hand to the stone. His malice seemed to have vanished now, leaving a depth of weariness Vaelin found almost pitiable. Where before his hand had trembled, now it shook as if afflicted with palsy, the bearded man’s mouth opening in a silent scream . . .
Abruptly he whirled away from the stone with a shout, chest heaving and features livid with rage and another expression Vaelin knew well; the twitching, bright-eyed mask of a prideful man unwilling to acknowledge his own defeat.
A large troop of red-armoured men ascended the steps at a run, bearing several long wooden beams. The bearded man moved away from the black stone as his servants moved in. They placed the beams under the plinth’s wide, mushroom-like top and lifted it up, bearing it away quickly, seemingly uncaring of the weight as they proceeded down the steps and through the corpse-choked streets below.
The bearded man lingered for a moment, eyes narrow as they scanned the platform. There was also a slight smile to his lips, a faint glimmer of humour in his eyes. He knows I see this, Vaelin decided, the freezing chill of realisation coursing through him as he saw the malice return to the bearded man’s face, his smile lingering as he turned and descended the steps without a backward glance. No more than a great stone head waiting for the ages to turn him to dust . . . The Ally.
• • •
“Did you know?”
“I had suspicions.” Erlin raised a hand to the memory stone. “But these memories are so ancient. So many lives have been lived since, a thousand kingdoms risen and fallen, spawning countless mysteries.”
“Lionen said you would touch the black stone,” Vaelin pressed. “But not be you when you did. What did he mean?”
“I think he meant we have much to think on.” Erlin extended his other hand to Vaelin. “Nothing else will occur here, though I once waited the best part of a month to confirm it. Wait long enough and perhaps you’ll see the Lonak arrive.”
Vaelin sighed, casting a final look at the still-smouldering ruins before moving to take Erlin’s hand, then drawing back in alarm as it turned to dust before he could grasp it. The vortex returned in a heartbeat, taking Erlin with it. There seemed to be a new ferocity to the swirling dust now, the colours changing, a more complex dance to the spiral of chaos. It faded as quickly as it had come, revealing the mountain top above the Lathera village. Except now he was alone and it was night, the clouds above turned into a roiling orange roof by the glow from the fire mountains. Their fury seemed brighter now, his eyes picking out a gout of molten rock amidst the flame and smoke, a small tremor pulsing through the rock beneath his feet.
“So,” a voice said. “Do you have happier tidings for me?”
Lionen walked towards him from the cluster of dwellings. He was older, his long hair mostly grey, his face still lean but also lined. He paused a few feet away, frowning as he took in Vaelin’s appearance. “Ah. It has only been moments for you, has it not?”
Vaelin nodded. “My friend . . .”
“This memory is not for him.” Lionen turned, extending a hand towards the dwellings. “I was about to have supper. Would you care to join me?”
“Your knowledge of my language has improved,” Vaelin observed, following Lionen to one of the larger dwellings. He noted the others were all silent, the windows absent any light.
“I have had many years to study it. And several others, though I find it my favourite. Less flowing than Seordah but more poetic and functional than Volarian.” Lionen stood aside at the door to his house, gesturing for Vaelin to precede him. Inside the air was warm, the chamber sparsely furnished with a low wooden bunk and some scrolls stacked in the corner. A small iron pot steamed over a fire, the smoke escaping into a narrow channel in the roof.
“I would offer you some stew,” Lionen said, taking a seat beside the fire. “But it would be a redundant gesture.”
“I can feel,” Vaelin said. “But not touch. Why?”
“The stone captures place and the time, but they are unchanging. As is our conversation. It has already happened, even though for both of us it appears to be happening now. What has happened cannot be changed, and so you cannot touch it. Change is the province of the future.”
He lifted the lid on the stewpot, tasting a sample with a small spoon. “Quail with wild thyme and mushrooms,” he said. “Pity you can’t have any. I’ve had a great deal of time to perfect the recipe.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Fifteen years since I built this miniature city. I had companions then.”
“What happened to them?”
“Some left, bored with my inactivity. Others disappointed by my lessons and seeking wisdom elsewhere. The remainder I sent away. I find youth tedious these days, they’re always so terribly earnest.”
“The stone outside, you carved it, filled it with your memories.”
“And more besides. The stones were not simply repositories for memory. They were also a means of communication, each one connected to the other. A useful innovation for a civilisation that spanned half the world.”
“All brought down by your sister’s husband?”
“Yes. Whilst I roamed the ice searching for the impossible, he had other work in mind.”
Vaelin recalled the cave paintings, the three visitors who became two. “Your sister died saving the ice people. You brought sickness and she healed them, though it cost her life.”
“She was a healer. She saw it as an obligation, though we begged her to stop.”
“Is that what changed him? Made him hate what he built?”
“Essara’s death may have darkened his soul, but I suspect his first steps along the path to what he is now were taken long before. It was the disappointment, you see, the constant dissatisfaction. He tried so hard to build his perfect world, a civilisation that would see humanity ascend to something greater. But people are still people, however comfortable their surroundings. They lie, they feud, they betray and however much you give them, they always want more. Without my sister’s influence it grew harder and harder for him to keep giving, keep guiding in the hope they would one day fulfil his great vision. And so, having proved themselves unworthy of the world he had crafted for them, he resolved to bring it all down.”
Lionen took a bowl and began filling it with stew, from the aroma Vaelin judged his liking for the recipe to be well-founded. “Tell me,” he said, settling back, bowl in hand, “did the Eorhil woman find the stone I left for her?”
Vaelin recalled Wisdom’s tale of her journey to the fallen city, the meeting with the shade of Nersus Sil Nin. “She did, with help from a blind woman who shared your gift.”
“Ah, the blind woman.” Lionen smiled fondly as he ate. “Often seen in my visions, but never spoken to. Such a comely thing in her youth, I should greatly have liked to meet her.”
“You crafted the stone that gave Wisdom her name,” Vaelin said. “Knowing she would find it one day.”
“The vision changes, sometimes she finds it, sometimes she doesn’t. I suspect the blind woman saw the need to give destiny a small nudge. I journeyed back to the city after my time on the ice, finding long-rotted corpses and destruction, a scene my gift had never revealed to me for it has always cast my sight far into the future. The black stone had gone and the memory stone lay shattered, though I was able to pull enough knowledge from the fragments to divine who had done this thing. I spent years amidst the ruins, lost in grief, diverting myself with learning the language and lore revealed by my gift. One day it brought a vision of the Eorhil woman holding a perfectly square stone fashioned from the same material as the memory stone, except such an artifact did not exist in this fallen city, so I made it. I recrafted the memory stone, chiselling away for the better part of a year until it was just a small cube, and into it I poured all the knowledge revealed by my gift. I hope it made her happy.”
“It made her . . . of great use to her people, and mine. For which I thank you.”
Lionen gave an affable shrug and returned to his meal. “What were you looking for ?” Vaelin asked him as the silence grew long. “Out on the ice where you took your sister’s body.”
“A legend. I know to you my people are little more than myth, but in this time we have our own tales, old songs from the days when the earth was young. I’ve seen much that would suggest this world is far more ancient than we could ever comprehend, a mother to countless wonders. I went in search of one, a being the people of your time would term a god, said to have the power to return the dead.”
His gaze grew distant and he resumed his meal, eating in silence. Vaelin wondered if this meeting was so familiar to Lionen he had become wearied with the repetition. It occurred to him that his gift was truly a curse, filling his mind with visions of a future so distant and removed from this time but holding a terrible truth, robbing his own age of meaning.