Chapter One - Part one
Disclaimer in the Prologue ...
The ruined city of Sharshall, on the borders of Summerset, beyond the Edge - in the world overseen by the Elemental gods
“Watch your step,” Cullie commanded, dropping the torch a little so that the flickering light banished some of the shadows underfoot. “This doesn’t look very safe.”
“What is, around here?” she heard Flux mutter. “Want me to check it out?”
Cullie nodded, letting him ease past her as she stared down into the dimness with a wary eye. This was the third passage they’d explored so far, the first two ending in a tumble of stone and no way to reach the hallways beyond. This one looked a little more promising, even if the descending steps were eroded and smoothed to a semi-slope by years of water damage. There was a faint drift of air wafting from below, and the inevitable clattering of their gear came back to them in whispered echoes, hinting at open space somewhere in the depths.
The walls of the passageway were dank and dripping with slime. Harmless slime, she was relieved to see, although that didn’t stop Flux from keeping well away from it as he made his way cautiously down the narrow steps. There was the scent of green and growing things in the tunnel – moss and other primitive plants that could flourish without much light – and the air held a hint of chill, offering the coolness of damp stone.
“We must be close to the Temple now,” Ashley said from behind her. “Look at these carvings … and there were those glyphs on the pillars back there …”
“Name of the goddess in letters five hands high?” Meldew stepped past Cullie and threw her an exasperated – and somewhat amused - glance. “Might
be a hint that we’re heading in the right general direction …”
Cullie quirked a momentary grin, shaking her head at the way the alchemist wielded his dry humour – quick and wicked and with excellent aim, just like every good weapon needed to be. He wasn’t anywhere near as prickly – or as cynical - as he liked to pretend, of course, but it was a useful defence against Ashley’s wide eyed enthusiasms. Whenever she launched into one of her flights of fantasy he made sure of bringing her back to earth – although never with a bump, and often with praise where praise was due; he’d do as much for her or Flux, of course. He was the constant rock that grounded their group and kept it steady, and Cullie valued his company.
Especially on expeditions like this.
“This must be another of the service stairs.” Ashley had blithely ignored their mentor’s sarcastic comment and was still intent on providing a running commentary. “It’s far too narrow to be one of the main entryways. Although it might have ceremonial significance … do you think this is what the Oracle meant?”
Cullie shook her head a second time, this one echoing some of Meldew’s exasperation. Ashley really had to learn to focus
– because there was a time and a place to discuss the interpretations of obscurely couched and distractedly muttered prophecy, and walking down a darkened tunnel with no idea of what might be at the end of it almost certainly wasn’t it. Her free hand caressed the hilt of her dagger and she tightened her grip on the torch a little, glancing back to make sure nothing was sneaking up on them from behind. There was no room to draw her sword here, let alone swing it – and if there was anything nasty lurking in the tunnel she’d have to deal with it at closer quarters then she usually preferred.
“She said ‘descend into darkness,’ not dankness,
” Meldew muttered, poking at some of the slime with the end of his staff. “And I doubt she meant it literally. Oracles never give exact instructions. Half the time the things they say have no meaning at all.”
“She was right about the ogres,” Ashley protested. “And if the rest of what she said was nonsense, why are we
three days deep into Sharshall and still journeying?”Because we’re a bunch of sharding idiots, that’s why …
It hadn’t seemed so foolhardy, back at the Tower. The town’s Oracle had been shrieking warnings about Ogres for weeks; when word came up from Two Rivers that organised bands of them had been seen in the North, and that half the Second Foot had been dispatched to reinforce the garrison at Lander, Farferry folk had stopped dismissing the warnings as signs of the usual late winter incursions and started listening to what else their young seer had to say. The town’s clerics had sent for Cullie as soon as the crowd outside the enclave had grown large enough to threaten riot, and she, her officers and the rest of her quaternity had ended up in the Quartered hall, listening to the Oracle’s mutterings along with the Farferry elders, the seniors of the elemental orders and a few other notables who felt safer inside the hall than outside with the rest of the crowd.
“The nameless one blinds the eyes of the North with lies and deceptions
– remember?” Meldew’s snap was more about where they were and the dangers they might be facing than an attempt to rebuke his apprentice. Ashley shivered nonetheless, pointedly reminded of that disconcerting day. So did Cullie; she’d carried the mark of the Chosen ever since she’d been born, but she and the gods had been on distant terms for most of that time. Her service lay in her sword, not the focus of her soul, and she’d rarely felt the inner presence of her patron beyond the merest whisper of suggestion, the softest of gentle nudges. That day the flame had finally awakened within her. It burned even now, a flicker of holy fire deep in her heart, holding her to a purpose she did not yet understand. “That
much was clear enough. It was the rest of it that came wrapped in riddles and nonsense. Why the gods can’t just come straight out and say what they mean, I shall never know. How about - ‘sorry, we can’t really stop to help you, because we’re still cleaning up after the Fall – but if you pop up to our old Temple in Sharshall, there might be something lying around there that’ll help you out.’”
“I hope there is,” Cullie said, gesturing for the two of them to move forward. Flux hadn’t cried out for help, or come back to declare the way impassable – so unless he’d been completely swallowed up by some fell beast, or struck down by some ancient warding spell, that probably implied they could move down at a little further at least. “Although I thought it was more of a ‘someone’ rather than a ‘something.’”
“They are coming
,” Ashley quoted softly. “Chosen by fate. Chosen by heart. Chosen by deed.
“Yes, but – “ Meldew had been arguing about this ever since they’d left the enclave. He was a great believer in firm facts and physical evidence, and while he acknowledged the power and mystery of the gods, he tended to place a lot more faith in the practicalities of the world and the lessons of history. “All that other stuff – about the shield of Ignis and the sword of Sulis …”Bronze edged and the mind given flight
… Cullie had often dreamed of owning a god-gifted sword, but she wasn’t so full of hubris to assume that she’d be destined to wield one. She knew perfectly well that the message had probably come to their
Oracle simply because the Farferry enclave was the one closest to Sharshall Fell, and that theirs was the best suited quaternity to make the journey. The gods might speak in riddles, but they usually spoke with a purpose.
Not always an obvious one, though …
“I know there are all sorts of stories about the treasures of the city,” Ashley said, a little impatiently. “But if there were artefacts and relics that
powerful, surely the gods would have sent someone to find them long ago. The city was sundered in the Fall. It’s been five hundred years. Why wait until now?”
“Why not?” Cullie motioned them both onward, holding the torch high to help illuminate the uneven steps. It would have been easier if Meldew or Ashley had been able to summon a mage light, but this was no place for casual magic. They needed to conserve their strengths and reserve their power, just in case. “The city is soaked in the shadow. The brothers have filled it with their corruptions, but they war for dominance amongst its walls. Decay owns the upper layers, Blight fills the spaces within – but under it the Lord of Stagnation holds sway. Everything is preserved. Held. Suspended
. And five hundred years is but a breath to the Gods. Who knows what relics still remain?”
“Too many to count and too few to matter,” Meldew said dryly. “Only fools and foolish heroes hunt treasure in places like this. And – ah, look. Where are we and what are we doing? What does that say about us?”
“Favoured of the gods, come down!” Flux’s deep tones resonated up the tunnel, filled with eager command. “You are not
going to believe this!”
The three of them exchanged a look – and then hurried down the rest of the steps, drawn by the unexpected delight in their friend’s voice. It didn’t keep Cullie’s hand from her dagger, not stop her from scanning the walls of the tunnel as they passed, but it added speed to her steps and she was determinedly ahead of both mages by the time they all arrived, breathless at the bottom of the steps.
They emerged from underneath a carved arch, her bootsteps ringing against marbled flags. A vast dome arched overhead, shaped by sculptured ribs of stone and held in place by a parade of delicate columns. Light danced in from high up, shafts of the late afternoon sunlight piercing into the cavernous gloom though a central opening at the very apex of the dome before being reflected back in shimmering ripples from the crystal edged pool that lay beneath it. Cullie’s mouth dropped open. Flux was right. She didn’t
The night after the Oracle had spoken, she’d been gifted with an unsettling dream. A dream of ruined stone and shadowed streets. She’d found herself running, driven by undefined urgency – racing towards something, not flying in fear or retreat. And she’d arrived in an echoing, cavernous space, where water bubbled into a glimmering, crystal basin and flames danced from an endless line of roaring torches.
It had been this
There were no torches lining the walls, and the statues along the walls did not gleam like polished gold. Nor did the floor sparkle with the suggestion of inset gems. But it was the place in her dream, all the same. The floor here was mostly covered with a layer of dirt and moss. Damp slime slicked the pillars and clumps of sickly plants struggled up to reach the lure of filtered sunlight overhead. The space she was standing on was clear of that – but only because the patterns underfoot revealed a telling story. The marble under her feet was worn down into a shallow basin, the result of centuries of rainwater cascading down the tunnel and out into the hall. A narrow – and currently dry – stream ran across the dirt caked floor and through a crack in the edge of the water filled basin. At first glance it seemed as if the Lords of Blight and Decay had claimed this place with the same arrogance they displayed elsewhere in the city.
But looks can be deceiving.
the weight of the shadow – the sense of sullen gloom and desperate hunger that permeated the shattered streets above – held no sway. The space beneath the dome was filled with reverence and thoughtful silences. The air was sweet and held the scent of clean water. And the stone underfoot thrummed with a soft sense of power, the promise of holy ground.
“When the gods speak, they speak well,” Flux grinned, emerging from the gloom with a confident step. His hammer rested against his shoulder as usual, but he’d doffed his helmet so that the curve of his bald pate gleamed, reflecting the rippling light almost as brightly as the dome above him. The helmet dangled from his hand, filled with weight; a glimmering of gemstones lay inside its padded curves.
“And they’ll speak with angry voices if they see you looting their holy precincts,” Cullie shot back, relieved to see the dwarf in one piece. Not that she thought he wouldn’t be, but the city was a dangerous place for even someone with Flux’s experience to go scouting ahead alone.
“Maybe,” he laughed. “But … these belonged to a poor lost soul I found over there. Clutched in a bony hand as if they had the power to bring him back to life. Don’t think they do, though …” He glanced down into the helmet with very unconvincing frown and Cullie found herself fighting down a smile. Flux always seemed to find the humour in a situation – even in the heat of battle – and she suspected that if he ever did
offend the gods with his behaviour, he’d immediate win it back with a quick quip, an easy jest – or one of those convoluted stories of his, filled with heroes and deeds from before the Fall.
“Get Meldew to check,” she suggested warmly. “Just in case.” Her eyes were drawn back to the sweeping architecture, lifted from the depths to the heavens – which was probably just want the ancient architect had intended. “This place is amazing.”
“I thought so.” Flux moved to join her, tipping his head back to admire the same curving arches that had caught her eye. “The enclave in Ironheight has some of this grandeur, but half of that’s natural. And the dome’s half the size. There’s some smaller worship halls down at the far end, but this … this
is the centre of things. And – uh, “ he waved at the wide central basin with its crystal edges, “ - the water’s running fresh.”
Cullie tore her eyes away from the roof and stared at her friend instead. “It is? You sure?”
He shrugged. “I know fresh water when I smell it. Taste it too – it’s as sweet and as cold as the birth pools of the Running.”
“A spring then?” Cullie moved closer to the pool, leaving the fascinated mages to examine the murals that paraded around the walls. Elven work by the style – the stones and the statues were probably dwarf cut and carved. The citizens of Sharshall had obviously employed only the best craftsmen to honour the gods.
“Not exactly. I think most of it’s good plumbing. Pipes bringing water down from the mountains – probably the same source as the Shar … or one of it’s tributary springs.”
“Adonis’ gift to Sulis …”
“Exactly.” Flux wasn’t exactly bouncing
, but his enthusiasm was hard to miss. He’d argued for the expedition right from the start, eager for the trip no matter what the outcome. He loved exploring new places and finding new things – and he loved it even more when they were old
places filled with the marvels of long lost knowledge and artistry. He liked a good fight too, so for him the threat of lurking monsters had only added spice to the challenge – and since he never passed on a chance to serve his beloved goddess, their current quest was, for him, the perfect package.
She was rather glad that the Temple had not turned out to be a disappointment. Whatever it was they were here to find – whatever it was they’d been sent to fetch – there was already enough wonder and delight in the discovery of this ruined enclave to keep Flux in tales for weeks.
“Cullie?” Meldew’s voice cut through her thoughts with a hint of excitement in it. “Come and look at this!”
She turned and then turned again to locate him; he’d wandered further than she’d expected from the sound of his words. The hall seemed to carry voices much further and clearer than might be expected in such a vast space. Ashley was using the end of her staff to hold back a covering of roots and vines that had been cloaking part of an alcove, giving access to the carvings within it. Meldew appeared to be busy reading whatever it was she’d revealed.
“It’s old Wisdom script,” he said as she and Flux got close enough to see what he’d found. “But I don’t think the language is human – high elven, or … “
“Draconian?” The hope in Flux’s voice was unmistakable. Ashly smiled. Meldew snorted.
“Don’t be foolish, Flux. That would make it even older than the Temple. Besides – no-one writes odes to the gods in the language that made the world. The language itself would form the praise … Here – “ His finger jabbed out to indicate a particular phrase. “This says – and I’m struggling a little to translate, you understand – ask for …
no, that’s speak to … the watcher of the waters … the sword drawn forth from …
Ashley, is that the word for stone or time?”
Ashley leaned in to get a closer look. Cullie almost immediately glanced round, instinctively checking that nothing was lurking to take advantage of their distraction. “Time, I think. Or … distant space?
“The higher plane …
” Meldew had it now, his voice growing in confidence as he read the rest of the inscription. “Yes, yes – when the way is lost and the shadow looms, the gods provide. Let those who love the land, who cherish the waters, who delight in the air and marvel at the flame, come with humble hearts, and … gifts?
No, boons will be granted. Speak to …
shards, that is
‘ask for’ …ask for the watcher of the waters, the chosen of Sulis, the sword drawn forth … from time and eternity, the higher plane where dwell the creators …
And here, look – “ His hand moved lower, pointing at another passage. “Summon the wielder of the white flame, trust the shield of Ignis, defender of the spirit …
There’s more, but … “
“It’s the words of the Oracle.” Ashley stared at Cullie, who stared back. She was right. It was almost word for word. But how would a sixteen year old child know what was written on the walls of a half buried Temple that no-one – with perhaps the exception of the corpse Flux had found – had set foot in for nearly five hundred years?The gods really were speaking that day …
“It’s the priests,” Flux declared suddenly. “The high priests of the temple. Those were their titles
. Watcher of the waters, wielder of the white flame … are there matching lines for air and earth, too?”
“Yes.” Meldew swept more vines aside to point at other panels. “Here … the hand of Adonis, death re-gifted, the breath of life
… and this … Heart of insight, Terra’s beloved, the earth’s foundation …
He’s right.” The alchemist sat back on his heels and huffed. “It’s just a praise poem. Not …prophecy or instructions, just … a roll call of the great and good.”
“All this way for that
?” Ashley looked stricken. Cullie didn’t blame her.
“There’s got to be more.” Flux stalked away to stare out into the hall with stern determination. “The gods don’t send quests without a purpose.”Maybe not. But it doesn’t have to be a purpose we understand
She could remember the time when the old king, travelling to stare at the sea for six days and six nights, saw absolutely nothing, despite the exhortation of three different Oracles on three different days. “Flux …”
,” he growled. “There is more
, Cullie. Books, regalia, artefacts … something.
There are secrets in this Temple and we have been sent to find them.”
“There was an arrogance in the mortal races that brought about the Fall.” Meldew’s tone held sympathy, but made its point all the same. “We are diminished, and that’s the truth of it. Even if we found artefacts, it could take years
to unravel the way to use them.”
“Maybe there is
a sword – and a shield,” Ashley suggested. “Someone could make use of those. And Flux is right. We do need to look further. Even a battered spell book could help us. And what about holy relics … those
don’t need instructions, just faith. This is
“It wasn’t some thing
,” Cullie recalled hollowly, disappointment churning in her gut. “It was some one
. They are coming
… Someone we had to meet. We had to be
The sound came first; a hissing, roaring sound, like the breath of a god, drawn in sharply. All of them looked up in alarm as something
hurtled down from the heavens, punching straight through the dome, scattering stone and toppling pillars. Cullie dived to the floor, covering her head as debris shattered around her. Somewhere she heard chanting; Meldew raising a magical shield, Flux muttering a hasty prayer Smoke and fire briefly billowed across the air, only to die in an agonised hiss as the source of it hit the water. Heat and steam fountained upwards. Cullie was soaked by a sudden downpour, drenched in hot water as the contents of the pool descended back to the earth.
And then silence fell – a return of sacred stillnessess, broken only by the sounds of rock splinters hitting the floor, and the soft cough of mortal souls trying to regain their breath.
,” Cullie cursed, springing to her feet and staring through the billows of smoke and steam and shattered stone dust. Half the dome was down, collapsed into a tumble of rubble. The pool was completely empty. A remnant of fire flickered in the far corner, dying quickly as it used up whatever it was that had given it life. Her eyes darted skywards, nonsensically seeking the source of the attack. “A little warning
would be nice!”
“I think we had that,” Flux said, climbing back off his knees. He was glowing slightly, evidence that his prayer had been answered. Cullie glanced down at herself and let the anger go. She had a hint of the same glow. “Point
,” the dwarf called over his shoulder, to where Meldew and Ashley were emerging carefully from the alcove. “In future, we don’t read inscriptions out loud until after
we check for magical triggers, okay?”
“Duly noted.” Meldew nodded, staring round at the destruction with wide eyes. “I know they say that shards still fall in the wastelands sometimes, but …”
“You think that was a shard?”
Ashley’s reaction came out as a squeak. Cullie swallowed. Hard.
“Oh, I hope not,” she said, striding forward to take a careful look into the now empty pool. She’d half expected whatever it was to have smashed straight through, but the bowl shaped basin appeared to be unblemished. Fresh water was beginning to trickle back in from a series of grids set into its lowest curve, but there was nothing else to be seen.
Another cough – and a quiet groan – lifted her eyes; her hand immediately went to her sword hilt, but she didn’t draw it. Not yet. “Flux?” she called softly, and he moved to join her, hefting his hammer with commendable caution.
On the far side of the pool – the one closest to the tumbled stone and the collapsed pillars – a body was stirring. It was draped in scarlet fabric, and looked to be human – it had two legs, two arms, a cascade of copper red hair, and a jangling of bracelets sitting at wrist and ankle. It looked like a young woman at first glance, a little older than Ashley perhaps, but certainly no older than Cullie herself. She groaned and started to push herself upright, clearly groggy and disorientated from …
… from what
“Where did she come from?” Flux threw her a disbelieving look, and then pointed his finger skywards. Cullie sighed. “Yes, all right, silly question. Next one – who is
They advanced on her together, coming to a halt a sensible distance away. Only a fool would waltz straight up to a stranger who appeared from utterly nowhere. No matter how attractive that stranger might be.
Elegant legs emerged from the drape of her gown – legs that seemed to be coloured or tattooed in someway, the design disappearing beneath the fabric to remerge on either arm. It was as if someone had swept her skin with a dusting of copper, painting her in swirls like shimmering flames. Her hair shimmered too, dancing with a hint of light, gleaming to match the metal jewellery that encircled her slender limbs. She groaned again and sat up, lifting a hand to push back the tumble of her hair. The movement brought her face to face with Cullie, whose fingers twitched against her sword hilt. The woman didn’t look
dangerous, but that didn’t mean a thing.
Wide green eyes stared at her in startlement. Lips parted in an oh
of surprise. “Uh – hi?” the stranger offered tentatively. Her eyes darted round, clearly finding nothing familiar in her surroundings. Then she looked up, at the broken edge of the dome and her eyes went wider still. “Did I do that?”
“I’d say so,” Cullie responded guardedly. The woman’s voice had a pleasant note to it – along with a strange accent she couldn’t place. But at least she was speaking the King’s Summers.
“Oh. My. Uh – I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. But I had to make something
for us to stand on, and I guess I … I didn’t mean to break your roof, honestly I didn’t. I hope no-one got hurt. It’s just we had to … and I didn’t have much time, and …and …” An odd look passed over her face. “I feel most peculiar. Me and – not
me. That is, me
, but not entirely the me I’m used to …”
“Oh, sweet elements
,” Cullie groaned, letting go of her sword and bringing both hands to her hips instead. The woman was befuddled in her wits. Even if she did have magic to call on, she was far too dazed to use it. She was about as much threat as a blinded beholder in a hall of mirrors. “All of that
– the Oracle, the long walk here, the risk, the sharding shard
– and this
is what we get? A chit of a girl, bereft of her wits, and painted like a street dancer? One look
at an ogre and she’ll run screaming into the night, let alone an entire army of them! Gods be praised, I thought this was supposed to bring us help
help. Not land us with yet another
innocent to protect!”
“Well, I don’t know,” Flux considered slowly, tapping the head of his battle hammer against his thigh. He wasn’t looking at the woman, but staring past her with wide eyes. “The girl might not look like much – but … if you ask me? I’d say the dragon was pretty impressive.”Dragon?
Cullie looked up. The rubble of the dome’s collapse was beginning to stir. Stone debris dropped away as a richly sheened metallic body gingerly extricated itself from beneath the scattering of stones and the angles of displaced pillars. A finned tail was sliding out of the rubble. A sturdy body followed, pushed out from the tumble of stone. Wings carefully unfolded and stretched, shaking off dust and detritus. Taloned limbs untangled themselves from ungainly sprawl as the beast climbed unsteadily to its feet and – last, but not least – an elegant neck rose from beneath the rubble, lifting a jewelled and horned head into the light. The head twisted, and the back crest rippled as the dragon stretched and shook itself, shedding stone rubble and dust as if it were a dog, shaking off excess water.
” Cullie murmured, unable to believe her eyes. It wasn’t quite as big
as she might imagine a dragon to be, but it was big enough – twenty five … maybe thirty feet from nose to tail - and there was no mistaking it for anything else. Wide wings curved down to blanket its flanks, disclosing the ripple of the fin across the curve of its back. White talons bit into the stone of the floor, and equally white teeth gleamed as it opened its mouth the taste the air. And it was beautiful
. This was no twisted echo, a terror wrought from a dying dragonkin by the corruption of a tainted shard. This was the real thing, a child of the old forging, whose kind had not been seen on earth since the Fall. It was sturdily built but on slender lines, all muscle, not fat - and its body was shaped to cut through air and water with equal speed. Soft, glimmering scales painted it with patterns of bronze and iridescent greeny-blues. Deep green eyes dominated its face – and there was a little patch of amber nestling in the corner of one of them, adding just a hint of character to what seemed to be remarkably expressive features.
The figure in red turned at Cullie’s exclamation, blinking with almost as much surprise at what she found standing behind her. The dragon’s eyes narrowed and it dipped its head, staring at the sprawled figure on the water soaked stone. “Willow?” it questioned softly in a surprisingly warm male tenor, the timbre of it rumbling through the air and setting Cullie’s heart pounding. “Are you all right?”
The young woman – Willow, her name is Willow
– stared in wide eyed alarm. Her mouth dropped open. One hand flew to cover it, while the other thudded back onto the stone in search of much needed support. “Oh, sweet goddess
,” she gulped. “Giles?”