Frentis nodded, stepping forward and turning to address them all, finding his voice hoarse and having to force the words out. “You have all done more than I could ever ask. Wait here, Weaver and I will proceed alone.”
There was no response, nor any change in expression as they all, as one, took a step forward.
“I do not know what awaits us in there,” he told them, hearing the note of desperation in his voice. “But I know many of us will not survive it . . .”
“Wasting time, brother,” Draker said. Beside him Illian hefted her crossbow, meeting his gaze with expectant eyes.
He turned back to the arena as another roar sounded from inside, from the volume and length it seemed the Empress’s spectacle had reached some form of climax. “Our objective is to secure Lady Reva and kill the Empress!” he said, raising his sword and starting forward at a run. “Show her no mercy, for she has none for you!”
Stars. He blinked, trying to clear what he knew must be an illusion, but they were still there, shimmering and bright. And there were so many, more than he could ever count. Some were brighter than others, so bright it seemed they eclipsed those around them. A few were dark, shimmering between red and black. They were all moving like tiny miniature ants on a vast dark blanket of green and blue. Not stars, he realised. People.
“Vaelin.” She was there, floating nearby in the night sky, for he saw now that they were flying far above the earth. He could only stare at her, words choking in his throat, grief and gratitude combining to make him shudder. She smiled and drifted closer, hands reaching for his. “I wanted to show you,” she said. “I wanted you to see what I see.”
“I . . .” He stammered, clutching her hands. “I should never have . . .”
She moved into his arms, her warmth wondrous, banishing his guilt. “All choices were mine to make.” She pressed her forehead to his, then drew back, turning and gesturing to the star-speckled earth below them. “Look,” she said, “the world as it was, about to change forever.”
He held her hand as they drifted closer to the earth, approaching a landmass with a coastline he recognised as that of the Unified Realm. They paused above a dense cluster of stars in the centre of what would one day be known as the Fallen City, the stars resolving into shimmering forms of people as they flew lower. Two figures stood at the centre of the cluster, next to something so dark it seemed to swallow all light, Vaelin taking a moment to recognise its foreshortened shape. The Black Stone.
One of the figures next to the stone differed from the others in the way his light shimmered, flaring bright one second then dark red another. The flicker made it difficult to discern any features, but Vaelin gained the impression of a tall man, a man with a beard. The Ally.
The figure at the Ally’s side was shorter and, judging by the stoop of his back, considerably older. Unlike the Ally his light was constant and bright, the hue a warm shade of blue. Vaelin watched as the Ally placed his hand on the older man’s shoulder in respectful assurance then stood back. The older man stood still for a moment, head lowered as if gathering strength, his light dimming slightly, then he took a step forward and touched his hand to the absolute void of the black stone.
For a second nothing happened, but then a red circle appeared in the centre of the stone. It was small but glowed with a fiery energy, pulsing rhythmically like a heart. The glowing hand of the old man reached for it, fingers extended to grasp it . . . The circle gave off a sudden flare, its pulsing increased to a rapid thrum, and the old man reeled away as something erupted from the stone, cascading up and out in a multi-coloured fountain, rising high into the sky as a circle of pure energy spread out from the stone at ground level, expanding and streaking away to the horizon like a wall of flame. Most of the lights it passed through without apparent effect, but here and there one would flare even brighter as the wall touched them. The power, Vaelin recalled. Burned into the bloodline . . .
The spectral fountain faded slowly, the fiery circle in the stone diminishing in size until it was no more than a pinprick, whereupon it vanished. The old man rolled on the ground beside the stone, jerking in obvious agony, his light shimmering now, but pulsing brighter than before. His agony subsided slowly, reaching up to take the Ally’s hand as he knelt at his side. The Ally, however, made no move to take his hand, staring down at the prostrate old man, his light now more red than white.
Abruptly he reared, raising something dark above his head and bringing it down with all his strength. The old man’s light flared then seemed to fracture, dimming into two faint glows, one big, the other smaller. His head, Vaelin realised. He took his head.
The Ally bent to retrieve the head, raising it up until the stump touched his lips whereupon his light instantly turned a permanent shade of red, a dark crimson glow that pulsed with the same rhythm as the fiery circle in the stone.
The Ally cast the head aside and turned to the crowd of onlookers. They had all retreated from him in evident fear, many turning to flee. Then, as one they came to a halt, all standing frozen and immobile. For a long moment the Ally regarded the crowd in careful scrutiny, then he began to walk among them, pausing next to a frozen man of athletic build and a yellowish glow, touching a hand to his head. The selected man’s back instantly formed a rigid arc as he voiced a silent scream, his light turning the same shade of red as the Ally in the space of a heartbeat.
The Ally moved on touching a dozen more men in quick succession, then striding from the crowd and standing to watch as the reddened figures began to murder their white companions. Some were strangled, others clubbed with rocks or branches for these people seemed to possess no weapons. All the while the Ally stood and watched the massacre, head tilted slightly in dispassionate observation. When it was done, every white glow snuffed out, the Ally walked off towards the north and the red men followed him.
Dahrena gripped Vaelin’s hand tighter as they flew higher, time accelerating beneath them, the Ally’s cluster of red blossoming in the north and spreading, issuing smaller clusters that spread like spores across the length and breadth of the Unified Realm, white lights snuffing out everywhere they went.
“The Ally’s gift,” Vaelin said.
“No,” Dahrena told him, “never a gift. A sickness, a plague. Like the Red Hand.”
“This is but a dream. How can I know this?”
“We know it.” She floated away from him, spreading her arms as more people appeared out of the surrounding blackness, forming a circle around them. They were mostly strangers but he recognised some. The sister from the Seventh Order who had conspired with Alucius in Varinshold. Marken was there too, smiling grimly behind his beard, and Aspect Grealin, still fat even here . . . And one other.
Caenis wore the garb of a brother of the Sixth Order, even though he had died Aspect of the Seventh. “Brother,” Vaelin said, reaching out to him but Caenis only smiled and inclined his head in fond recognition.
“We who lingered when you drew him from the Beyond,” Dahrena said. “It is not just his will that can bind us there. We spent our remaining strength in crafting this vision. It was all we had left to give.”
He saw the circle of souls fading, drifting into darkness, Caenis the last to go, his hand raised in reluctant farewell before the dark claimed it.
“So you are truly gone now?” he asked Dahrena. “Your souls vanished forever?”
“Soul is memory,” she told him, pressing herself to him again, arms enfolding his head. “You are my Beyond now, Vaelin. You and all those I loved, even those I fought. For me to endure, so must you.”
She drew back, hands gripping his face. “Remember, a plague like the Red Hand. And none who caught the Red Hand and lived ever caught it again. And now, you really must wake up.”
• • •
He awoke to raised voices. Lonak voices, angry and aggravatingly loud. He groaned as he rolled upright, his fingers instinctively exploring the growing lump on the back of his head. The voices stopped and he looked up to see Kiral and Alturk retreating from one another, the Tahlessa sparing him a reproving glance before moving to stand in front of the Ally’s slumped form. He seemed to be unconscious, head lolling forward as a trickle of blood fell from a gash on his forehead.
Orven stood close to Vaelin, his guardsmen all around, glaring at the assembled Sentar on the other side of the clearing. He discerned it had been but moments since Alturk had clubbed him senseless. Vaelin extended a hand to Orven, who obligingly hauled him upright. He walked to Alturk and gave a shallow bow. “My thanks, Tahlessa. Lord Orven, break camp. We still have a long way to go.”
• • •
More towns appeared along the course of the road the farther south they went. They were usually sprawling places, having long outgrown the protective walls of the pre-Imperial age. Most had clearly suffered riot and rebellion, a few were little more than blackened ruins, and fewer still had contrived to remain intact by virtue of newly raised walls and barricades, often held by armed townsfolk happy to launch arrows at strangers who ventured too close. Vaelin avoided them all, having no inclination to embroilment in unnecessary battle, though the Sentar often chafed at the need to suffer an unanswered challenge.