Another tremor shook the ground, stronger this time, causing the shutters on the windows to rattle and shaking Lionen from his silence. He scraped the last of his stew from the bowl and rose, taking it outside. Vaelin followed, finding him tying it to a length of rope strung between two dwellings. “It’s a long climb down to the river,” he said. “The wind will scour it clean. An empty gesture, but I’ve always found habits hard to break.”
“Did you find it?” Vaelin prompted. “This god of legend?”
Lionen’s gaze shifted to something beyond Vaelin’s shoulder. “I think you know what I found, oh Shadow of Ravens.”
He knew what he would see, even though it had made no growl this time, and its approach had been silent. It was not so large as before, its shoulders level with Vaelin’s waist, though he had long suspected it could assume whatever size it chose.
The wolf trotted closer, nose close the ground as it sniffed the stone around Vaelin’s feet, reminding him of how Scratch would search for a scent. “He can smell you, though you are but an echo cast back from times to come,” Lionen said. “It would seem he wants to be able to find you again.”
The wolf sat back on its haunches, long pink tongue sliding over its lips as it yawned, green eyes regarding Vaelin with placid affection. “He followed you from the ice?” he asked Lionen.
“Yes. I found him so far north I suspect I stood atop the entire world. He was bigger then, every inch the god I expected to find. He came close, sniffed at Essara’s body, used his teeth to pull away the shroud covering her face. For one mad second I thought he was going to eat her, but instead he licked her face, just once . . . And I heard her voice.”
Lionen’s face clouded and he started back to the memory stone, Vaelin following with the wolf padding alongside. “You have more questions for me,” Lionen said. “Please make them quick. Time grows short.”
“The black stone,” Vaelin said. “What is it? Why did he take it?”
“I told you, it’s a box. One we opened together, and this world is the result.”
“You said Erlin would touch it, but not be him when he did. What did you mean?”
“The ancient man told you he was nearly taken before, when he came close to death and touched the Beyond. You know the Ally uses others to wreak his havoc in the world, souls captured and twisted to his purpose. Why do you suppose he didn’t send one of them to steal Erlin’s body?”
Lionen halted before the stone, smiling faintly. “The last one ever to be carved, by my own hand. The stone itself comes from but one mine, deep in the mountains found in the place you call the Northern Reaches. We also found the black stone there, just one huge nugget of it with very singular properties. It was his idea to carve it, of course, though my sister argued against it. ‘Such power should not be placed in human hands,’ she said. He laughed and held her close, saying, ‘All power should be in human hands, my love. For how else can we transcend humanity?’”
“Power,” Vaelin said. “He is drawn to it.”
“As a vulture to a corpse. And what greater power is there than the ability to defeat death itself?” There was a weight to Lionen’s words now, a grave intent in his eyes, the meaning all too clear.
“I will not do that,” Vaelin stated.
“Then watch your world die as I watched mine. The land that surrounds us is barren, and so it is for mile after mile in all directions. Small villages survive here and there, a few towns that somehow weathered the storm, the attentions of what they called the Dermos. In time they’ll grow, build kingdoms and then an empire, forgetting their legends and making themselves ripe for his purpose with their endless greed. For now, he waits. I can feel him, coiling in the Beyond, plotting, planning. Not yet strong enough to capture me when I pass, though I’ve little doubt he’ll try.”
“You killed him,” Vaelin said. “You’re the reason he is in the Beyond.”
“How else would I have gathered followers in such a barren land? With the wolf’s help I sought out those that could help me, a band of brave warriors and those possessed of gifts they barely understood, all grieving over family or lovers lost to his onslaught. The Volarians will call them the Guardians in time. Together we killed him.”
Lionen gestured to the stone, casting an urgent look to the east as the ground shook again. “It’s time.”
“Something is about to happen,” Vaelin said.
“A long-promised ending.” Lionen turned to face the fire mountains, Vaelin seeing their fiery glow grown even brighter, the blanket of cloud above now a deeper shade of red. “An eruption fifty miles from here is about to cast forth a cloud of hot ash that will descend upon this mountain faster than any man could hope to run. It will settle, concealing this place from human eyes for centuries, though eventually the elements will strip it away, and my bones with it. The only vision of my own time I was ever permitted, my own death.”
“You have seen my future?” Vaelin asked. “You have seen what happens to my people?”
Lionen glanced over his shoulder and smiled. It was a smile of genuine regret, rich in sympathy and absent any irony. “I have seen enough to pity you, Shadow of Ravens.” He turned back to the fire mountains as the ground shook once more, the force of it making him stagger.
“You need to kill his creatures,” he said. “Trap them in their stolen bodies and kill them. Without tools in this world his need to act will be even greater, the lure of power impossible to resist. The black stone resides in the arena in Volar. When it’s done, take him there. One touch and it gives. A second and it takes.”
A booming roar came from the east, accompanied by a huge gout of lava, ascending in a fountain of fire before streaming down the flanks of the mountain that had birthed it. The mountain top shook, sending Lionen to his knees, the sky above turning black as the fire mountain’s glow diminished, a thick fog vomiting forth from its sundered summit and sweeping down its slopes with impossible speed.
Next to Vaelin the wolf gave a soft but urgent whine, nuzzling his hand and pressing him closer to the stone. He reached out to it, though found he couldn’t look away from Lionen, now kneeling with his arms spread wide, the burning ash sweeping towards him in an unstoppable black tide.
“My sister spoke my name!” he cried out as the ash crested the mountain top and swallowed him. The heat was unbearable, the ash choking as Vaelin pressed his hand to the stone . . .
. . . he blinked, the instant change in the air making him gasp. His eyes went to the spot where Lionen had been kneeling a second before, embracing his death. The stone was bare, without the faintest sign of his passing.
“What did you see?” Erlin asked, his brow creased in an uncertain frown. “It kept you. It must have shown you something more.”
What greater power is there? Vaelin looked away, finding the confusion in Erlin’s eyes hard to bear. I will not do that. He moved back from the stone and started towards the steps. “As you said, we have much to think on.”
• • •
Lorkan blinked into existence and slumped down beside Vaelin, ignoring the agitated murmur from the Sentar. Astorek’s wolves also began a distressed chorus of whines until he calmed them with a look. “I’d guess about five thousand people,” Lorkan said. “All crammed into the guts of that mountain.” He pointed to a steep-sided peak little over a mile away, a jagged scar visible in the rock a third of the way up its flank. “I didn’t go too far in, but saw enough to know they’re in a grim state, plenty recently wounded, some dying. Perhaps half are children. The older ones don’t seem to be getting on, sitting in different groups and glowering at each other.”
Vaelin had been angered to discover Dahrena had flown once more in his absence, returning to the camp to find her slumped next to the fire with Cara and Kiral pressed close on either side. “No more of this,” he said, sinking to his haunches before her, smoothing a hand over her ice-chilled brow. “Even if I have to drug you unconscious.”
“Oh don’t grumble,” she murmured with a smile, lips pale and eyes dim with fatigue. “I think I may have found some allies.”
“Did any see you?” Vaelin asked Lorkan.
“A little boy started pointing and screaming when I tried to go farther in. Assuming he was gifted, he was the only one amongst them.”
“We should go alone,” Erlin said. “A large party will arouse too much fear.”
“Fear can be useful.” Vaelin turned to Astorek. “Tell your father to bring the full host to this valley.”
He waited until midday then guided Scar towards the mountain at a walk, coming to a halt at its base. He gazed up at the jagged scar in its side, now revealed as a cave mouth, dark and silent, not even a tendril of smoke emerging to betray its occupants, though he had little doubt they had seen his approach.
He relaxed his grip on Scar’s reins, allowing him to nibble on the sparse grass of the valley floor, eyes fixed on the cave mouth. He had no real certainty of achieving his aim. Pertak had laughed when Erlin related Vaelin’s request for an alliance. The Lathera chieftain had a fresh scar on his jawline and a newly dug grave had appeared outside the walls of his settlement. He kept one hand close to the pouch on his belt and moved with the hunched, narrowed-eyed pose of a man in constant fear of attack. His laughter though, was entirely genuine.