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Gathering of the Light


(The First Chronicle of Kohlnar)





by Eric Alan Westfall



Copyright 1998-2017. Eric Alan Westfall.

All Rights Reserved.




ACKNOWLEDGMENTS FOR

Gathering of the Light



A Hearty Round of Cyber-Applause For:


Roberto Quintero, for his absolutely perfect painting for the cover


Samantha Lamb, whose artistry with words created the final version of the cover


Ava Penn and Alexis for their beautifully brilliant beta assistance.

(They said they liked it, so what could be a better beta than that?)




TABLE OF CONTENTS



Acknowledgments



The First Chronicle of Kohlnar:

Gathering of the Light



The Second Chronicle:

Taren’s Tale (Excerpt)



The Third Chronicle

bloodLight (Excerpt)



The Fourth Chronicle

The Dragon Winked (Excerpt)



Author Bio








Gathering of the Light


(The First Chronicle of Kohlnar)







The old city was dying.

Each morning, the sun sent a tsunami of light across the continent from the Western Sea, surging past hills and plains, ancient forests and wide rivers, until it splashed against the mountain wall forming the Spine of the World. It roared upward, dropped back, and rose again to assault the peaks which thundered into the sky. Once, the light would have vaulted over the snowcaps to waterfall joyfully on Kohlnar. Now it merely crept across, oozed down to the lesser range of the Barrakech Heights, becoming trapped in pools and puddles by the walls and towers of the new city. Each tier collected more of the light as the tiers stepped down the mountainside toward the bay, until all that was left for the old city huddled at the base was a faint, thin haze barely illuminating the crumbling homes and businesses crammed against the shattered docks. New city and old, the light was now the color of bronze, the color of copper.

It had not always been that way. Once it had been different.

Before.

* * *


Moments frozen in time.

A century and a quarter past.

The men who were Kin called.

Soft melodic voices drifted across the land like bubbles sparkling in the souls of all who heard. The Folk heard, the land heard, and hearing, gave, and in giving the Kin changed, rising on thermal updrafts and wing strokes from farm and palace, from school and court, from tavern and mine, from bakery and brothel, reaching for sky the color of molten gold. They swam through a sea of brilliant light in the bone-chilling air above the Heights and then up further yet, rising above the tops of the Spine, swooping and turning, rejoicing in His gift, His Light.

Below, laughter and joyous calling drifted up from the city and the land to join them. When the Kin flew, not merely alone, or one or two on patrol, but when they all flew for joy, forming and re-forming in elegant three-dimensional hymns, the city and the land did not grind to a halt—they merely...stopped.

Foreigners fumed, but silently, when the impromptu holidays began. They could do nothing, of course, but watch with varying degrees of amusement, anger, contempt or resignation as all Kohlnar moved outdoors. Ships drifted untended, only a mage’s hastily set spells averting disaster. Children with Kin-designs painted on their cheeks cheered, pointing upward as they ran and leaped on streets of mage-smoothed stone. Farmers lifted hand-shaded eyes to the glory in the sky. An elderly couple gladly paused in languorous morning love-making to experience a greater joy. Servants stopped the changing of bed linens, as each of the Folk answered the call of the Kin.

Come, the voices of red and gold and blue, the voices of leaves and soil and water, the voices of hooves and drying wheat and stone, whispered to the Folk.

Rejoice, the voices of white and black and grey, the voices of tears and tourmalines and stars, the voices of wings and sun and storm, chanted to the Folk in layered harmonies.

Praise Him, the sky-borne chorus sang.

And so they did.

In quiet thought. In the laughter of children large and small. In joined hands. In flowers carefully laid in His myriad shrines, floating on pools of crystal water, waiting for a caress of light from one of the moons to open the petals to celebrate this day. The heart of the city pulsed, as the land pulsed, as the Folk gave, and His land gave, and in giving, the Kin soared.

Great wings lifted on the gifts of Folk and land, a carillon of color and music cascading in intricate patterns, somehow visible against the backdrop of shining gold, until at last they spiraled back, changing. Walking once more among the Folk, cheek-dragons glowing, the Kin herded children back into classrooms to resume lessons, and led the afternoon prayers in His temple. They plowed a field and pleaded a case in the ducal courts. They hurried to get drinks for thirsty patrons, and dined with fellow merchants as they arranged for shipments of grain to the over-populated, drought-starved western lands. Penalties for the Kin-delay were cheerfully paid to the plump, glowering priests from Sirulan who had purchased the grain.

A Kin dancer swayed gently on a street corner, sensuously moving his body to the blended music, soft and sad, of sith and lyrin, and the blue dragon on his right cheek seemed to move in time to the tune. The Folk musicians leaned against the building wall—a rugged man who played the delicate sith, a smallish man who stroked the larger lyrin. The dance ended on one knee, the other leg extended, torso bent so his forehead touched his stretched-out knee, his flowing hair dropping to brush the ground, his arms spread. He straightened slowly to the applause of the passers-by who had paused to watch, and leaned into the hand caressing his cheek. Sith player and dancer smiled for only one another in that tiny moment.

The passers-by dropped coins in the gathering hat, beginning to disperse. Two were brushed roughly aside by Sirulani priests en route to the great docks, muttering hatred and chanting spells of the God to ward off the dancer’s dual evil.

The pair of priests pushed forward in an arrogant, nearly straight line through the increasing crowd. As the docks came near, the younger priest bumped into a black-haired woman holding a little boy in her arms, knocking her to one knee. It was her fault, of course, for priests of the God always had right of way, but still, he was in a foreign land, surrounded by ignorant, but well-armed foreigners, so he stopped and began a cool, perfunctory apology which never would have reached his eyes. He broke it off, though, and recoiled with a hiss of indrawn breath when the pair looked up at him. Contemptuously, he looked at the Kin-signs on their left cheeks: a dragon of black-and-gold on the woman, one of green-and-gold on the boy. Tattoos, of course. Or simply paint to be replenished daily. But for a moment...just for a moment...the eyes on the designs appeared to open, and look at him, and then they closed.

Only the slightly stout woman saw the sudden flash in the younger priest’s eyes, and the faint cold smile flickering across his well-fed lips before vanishing. He grabbed the other priest’s arm and hurried him to the waiting convoy.

A single Kin soared at sun-down, shimmering in the golden light.

* * *


Other moments.

Two years later.

The steady flow of heavily-laden ships around the dangerous tip of the southern continent, hauling grain and supplies from food-rich Kohlnar to the western lands of Sirulan, came to an abrupt end when a Sirulani ship docked and a big-bellied priest came ashore to announce the God, the only true God, the God of blood and death, had told them to buy no more after this final shipment. Kohlnar shrugged collectively, counted the minor profit it had made from the food fleets, and turned its attention to lucrative new markets in the far lands across the Eastern Ocean, beyond the splash of gentle light where the sun faded at day’s end into the distant waves. But still...there was a drought on the Western Coast, making the land sere and barren. So a vast armada of gifting ships from His followers lumbered out of the bay a month after the priest departed. The ships vanished two weeks before landing in the Sirulani capital—under clear skies, in calm seas, leaving behind a faint scent of magic and blood which quickly faded.

From time to time, whispers, pale, trembling, exhausted, struggled across the Spine and down, murmuring of continued Sirulani starvation, of spreading sickness...of rising, priest-fed rage—directed eastward.

* * *


Moments.

A century gone.

Grim and silent in wine-dark robes, the priests huddled safely at the rear of the army, as it began to march slowly towards the Spine under gold-fringed banners the color of blood spouting from a mortal wound. The leading edge of the army arrived just before nightfall, although the main body stretched back to Balinor and beyond. They camped without fire, ate cold food, hating and fearing, and in the morning their priests’ magic smashed the Spine before them, allowing the Sirulani warriors, prepared, shielded, raging, to swarm through and down on Kohlnar.

Stunned, frightened, Folk and Kin nevertheless fought to defend His land. They fought in twisting streets and towering forests, along the wharves and in the air. They fought running battles in trampled fields and on the roads. They fought in savage desperation as Sirulani mage-fire destroyed the ships which were to carry the children away...ships they knew in their hearts they could not have used anyway, though in their fear they would have tried, for Folk and Kin were linked to His land and the land to them, and the link could not be so easily broken. The children could not be saved, as they themselves could not be saved.

So they fought, Folk and Kin, when hope was gone and only pain remained. They fought beyond exhaustion into a realm of exquisite torment, fighting until nearly all were gone and Kohlnar could fight no more.

The streets and the land became still...and silent. The morning light dimmed on the day Kohlnar surrendered.

Victorious, rulers of two-thirds of the continent after nearly two decades of conquests, and consolidation, and conquests again, the Sirulani and their Church of the Blood turned to two new pastimes: the Hunt and the construction of a new city. Tier after towering tier, like hillside terraces built of blood and fear, began to step down from the Heights, in an inexorable march to the bay, as they built massive stone shouts to the sky in honor of the God, atop the bones of the old city.

* * *


Moments.

Now.

The next tier would signal the impending death of the old city, putting it in shadow so deep only the faintest haze of light would pierce the dark, where nothing could survive. The final tier would not be a tier at all but would crush the bones of the old city and rest on its dust. Shipping had long since moved to the wharves and docks the Sirulani had built further along the curve of the bay, their magic gouging a new deep water harbor, and in the aftermath of the war, only the Sirulani were allowed to own businesses or engage in trade. The remaining Kohlnari survived in near-darkness, working at the demise of the old city, hauling its stones and granite and marble upwards for the palaces and homes of the nobility and the great merchant houses.

The Two Kings had even visited once, not long after their mages, wielding bloodLight, Broke the Spine of the World, and the wealth of Kohlnar began draining westward. Princes of the Church of the Blood visited as well, but only far above contamination, in the High Tier.

Had value lain only in the unskilled labor, the old city would have died long ago. What kept it alive was the Hunt...or the promise of a Hunt.

The first Hunt was held shortly after the conquest, capturing three Kin. Willingly the Folk gave, and in giving, the Kin changed, and sought freedom in the upper air. But they died in agony when the priests’ spells stopped their wings high in the sky and they plummeted to become one with His land. The Sirulani never knew that in the moments before their spells worked, the three had turned back, had come roaring down from the Heights, trumpeting rage, because they could no longer reach the Spine, could no longer bask in His Light, nor rejoice in it.

The countryside had been devastated by the war, and the first few Hunts completed the decimation. Now it was only in the old city the priests could find the Kin, could drag them through the streets and up the stairs and ramps to the halls of the Sirulani Kings and their Church, for trial and judgment.

The last successful Hunt, however, had been a score of years past, perhaps more. They had caught a boy, barely into his teens, unquestionably Kin. He could not deny it, not with an iridescent blue-green dragon lying in serpentine coils on his left cheek. It was more than a tattoo, hovering in two dimensional glory above his skin, although to the touch it was a tingling design which was part of his flesh.

And so they hauled him upward, stumbling and gasping, through the empty streets of the old city, where fear shivered behind barred doors, through the crowds gathered at every Tier, stroking him with feathers of hate and fear, until at last he stood trembling in a thin strand of pale light in the center of the Hall of Judgment.

The priests smiled at him, wiping his face with tender cloths, holding a cup of snow-chilled water for a single drink. Then they tied him with spells and rope and gouging manacles, spread-eagling him upright and naked in a tall metal frame bolted to the floor.

They whispered promises to him, of freedom and flight, if he would only change. They murmured threats and pain if he refused. And when he would not, could not, they scored his flesh with razor slices, there, along his back where wings should grow, separating muscles before they could. There, along his calves and thighs, where powerful legs might have grown to hurtle him away from his tormentors. There, removing fingernails and toenails to prevent demonic talons from ripping out the throats of the Children of the God.

They removed his tongue, to prevent the casting of a spell which might harm these devout warriors of the God. They emasculated and hamstrung him with caresses of agony, offering quick and glorious death, and favor in the eyes of the God, if he would but change.

They wove their spells of pain and death as the dragon on the boy’s cheek writhed in matching agony, its wings shredded, its legs crippled, its eyes gushing blood in the moment when the boy was blinded. Until at last, with a roar of despair no human throat, whole or not, could have voiced, dragon-image and boy vanished in a brief flare of eye-searing light. Manacles dangled from the frame, or crashed to the floor, startling the shielded watchers, as ashy residue drifted for a moment in the same stray shaft of dim sunlight.

Sunlight which was, oddly enough, diminished. As the sky was diminished, the brilliant gold fading.

They found no Kin after. Of two abortive Hunts, the first found none, the second resulted initially in just the deaths of two prostitutes foolish enough to have crude dragon designs tattooed on their cheeks. Enraged at being duped, even if only for a moment, and deprived of prey, the Church sealed the doors of the brothel with powerful magics, and then burned the whores and customers and servants alive, as mage-fire exploded in the cellar and rose howling to consume them all in screaming agony.

* * *


Moments.

Now.

Tomorrow was the anniversary of the conquest, the anniversary of the first Hunt. The Sirulani intelligence service had sworn Kin could be found in the old city, and so they would Hunt again tomorrow. A Great Hunt, they called it. The last Hunt, some whispered, or only thought, but not where they could be overheard. Nobles, soldiers, priests and all their retinue, commoners from across the kingdom, had swollen the new city almost beyond its capacity. The Hunt balls were tonight, and as the new city reveled, warships glided ceaselessly in both harbors, and grim galleys blocked the bay’s exit to the open sea far to the north and east. Red-caped soldiers of the Church marched unwillingly with the warriors of the Two Kings, preventing escape from the old city by gates or roads. More warriors guarded forests and beaches and the Irralien River and all its tributaries. Mages set their wards and paced uneasily, unable to explain the tiny bite of fear leaving them nearly breathless.

The old city was ringed and sealed.

At eleven, while the shadows rose from the old city nibbling with sharp mouse teeth, shredding the false light of torches and mage globes, and devouring the bits of brightness falling from the new city’s windows and parapets before the droplets could touch the ground, a thick fog appeared in the east, where the sea and sky became one and the world ended. It began moving westward with unusual speed.

At midnight, only the first moon had risen, dropping a stream of silver-blue on the single flower in the tiny pool of the fountain inside the open-roofed shrine. A thread of fog drifted through the moonlight, and a single crystalline voice rose enraptured, voicing a secret dream in the hidden halls and echoing catacombs of the dying depths of the old city. The clear countertenor set the night shimmering and made the Sirulani patrols nervous, each one certain the voice was coming from somewhere nearby, each one unsuccessful in finding it, more than one becoming lost in a city from which the light had been all but drained. Above, in the High Tier, when the voice began, the Archbishop paused as he reached for wine, bejeweled fingers glittering in the harsh dark golds from the flickering fireplace, and then he completed his gesture, raising the goblet in the sudden stillness. Mage-warded, mage-guarded, they heard nothing...but still, they knew.

At one in the morning the voice stopped abruptly, leaving behind an utterly silent upper city, utterly without light except for the remnants hidden behind now closed drapes and windows and shutters. The voice left behind a city draped in a thick fog which clung to the walls and streets, filling the interstices of the new city and old until an observer from the Heights would have seen no sign of the old city, nor the new, nor a bay, nor anything but an apparently solid mass of softly curved and hilled dark grey running east to meet the cold stars.

He arrived in fog, hooded and alone, just before the song ended, stepping from a small boat onto the remnants of a dock which had lain unused since the war. Those in the Tiers who thought for a moment they had heard wings, intertwined with the now overly loud music and raucous laughter of the Hunt balls, opted for prudence and the silence of the fog-drowned streets of the new city. They saw nothing, heard nothing, said nothing.

Through the rest of the night he walked the old city, pausing here and there, touched and touching, gathering and moving on. Prayers followed him, resting lightly on his shoulders, invisible caring unable to help—an imperfect cloak which kept out no cold, no pain.

Morning.

Or it should have been, but the cities did not know, as the sun looked down on grey hills of mist. And so it was until he turned and stared upward to where the High Tier should have been visible, outlined in the glow of morning. The fog began to disappear then, not evaporating in the warmth of the sun, but pouring out and down, into the earth and the waters of the bay, into the Irralien, as though a hole had been punched in a keg bottom. He stood at the base of the Low Tier, the remnants of fog snake-rippling about his bare feet, almost unseen beneath the ground-drifting black robe he wore. The hood of the robe was up, hiding his face, and his hands were invisible in the deep sleeves.

The foot he placed on the first step was pale white, veins pulsing with a faint luminosity. Not a young foot, nor yet a foot palsied with age, but strong. Head erect, he stepped upward once more. Then again. And again. And again and again through the dawn, through early morning, walking upward steadily, without pausing for breath, for rest, for water, as a crowd began to hesitantly gather at his heels. Those who were exhausted with the pace he set, dropped away, replaced by others as word spread faster than he could walk.

Word also spread when those below glimpsed his footprints in the dust of steps and ramps. Between the Low Tier and the Seventh, the footprints...changed. A man’s foot was clearly outlined in the dust but flickering in and out of sight there seemed to be the outline of a much larger foot, one almost sinking into the stone of the steps, one with...talons.

By the Fifth Tier, the echo footsteps were much clearer, and faint drops of red appeared in the dust. By the Second Tier, the footprints were weeping blood. And still he climbed.

Gates to the Tiers were unbarred, unattended, and he was not challenged as he rose from level to level, until at last he stood before the deeply carved black wooden gates of the Archbishop’s palace. A silent palace. On this morning, nearly noon now, of the Great Hunt, the palace was still. No vendors scurried in and out, re-supplying the stores needed to feed and clothe and bathe and eliminate the wastes of the thousands clogging its halls. No courtiers and hangers-on thronged the courtyard, eagerly awaiting the trumpet calls signaling the start of the Hunt. The gates which should have been thrown wide to let the populace in to celebrate the start were closed. Behind walls topped with impassive guards who ignored the man below, inside chambers and halls, bedrooms and anterooms, power skirmished with power, struggling for primacy.

He waited, while blood pooled at his feet.

He waited, and eventually reached out with wide white-skinned hands to touch the carvings. He left blood behind when his hands disappeared once again into his sleeves.

He waited, as the crowds swelled.

He waited, endlessly patient, until he decided his patience must end.

When he tossed the hood back around his shoulders, the watchers saw a man of middle-age as the Kohlnari knew middle-age, though he was old by Sirulani standards. He was not handsome, this man, with his grey-streaked black hair wild and loose about his head, curling down to his shoulders. His was a wide peasant face, ridged and seamed by weather and endless labor, flat-nosed and plump-joweled, with deep-set eyes the color of storms. Despite the apparent effortlessness of his climb to the High Tier, his face was shining with sweat running own the worn crevices of his jowls and dripped onto his robe. Only two things distinguished him from any other tired old man of the old city: on each cheek a gleaming dragon lay coiled. The dragon on his left cheek, black and gold, had grown, its face now occupying most of his cheek, its body coiling down and around his neck so its tail vanished into the folds of the robe above the right side of his chest. The dragon on his right cheek was green and gold, a mirror image as the green-gold body and tail coiled behind his neck and drifted downward across his left collarbone.

He stepped forward and gently placed one hand on each side of the gate. He closed his eyes and the mesmerized crowd watched in faint horror as the dragons on his cheek began to undulate, their eyes now wide, alert and angry. He...they...reached into the heart of His land, into a core of rippling heat, and drew it upward and out and dragon mouths opened and darted flames which rippled across his cheek, and like waterfalls of fire, rushed past his lips, into his open mouth, to be swallowed in silent gulps. He shuddered then, as if he were trying to pull his hands free of the wood but could not. A silent twin roar pushed the crowd away as the pressure within him built and exploded in rage. A few howled and ran, but the rest realized the fire which burst from his palms was joyfully and with exquisite precision consuming the gate and only the gate.

When the flames reluctantly died, and the dragons on his cheeks were once again quiet, he straightened and walked through the murdered gate into the courtyard. And waited.

And waited more, motionless, until they came for him. Cowled priests chanting atonal incantations to ward themselves against this plain man, standing in silence in the center of the courtyard. The temple birds wheeled high above in the copper sky, calling and crying, while far below the priests stripped him of his robe, gesturing when done for him to turn about so all the watchers could witness the humiliation of his nakedness. He was tall, and heavy, sagging chest and sagging belly, a long, thick cock, and low-hanging balls, an ass which might once have been muscled and tight, legs whose muscles quivered slightly with the strain of his upward climb. A plain, sad man...who was no longer plain when the air quivered around him and then quieted.

He was still old as the Sirulani knew age. His body was still worn from decades of hard work. Only now his body brought terror to more than one of the circling priests. He was clothed in dragons.

Virtually every inch of his flesh held a dragon, from finger-tip tiny to a vast gray dragon whose head lay over his right shoulder, whose body coiled down his back, around under his arm, slanting across his belly, behind again, its long tail spiraling down and around his left thigh, and knee and calves and ankle, so the point of the vicious spike-tip of the dragon tail lay just above his toes. Dragons of all colors, of none, glowing brightly in the shaded courtyard. Even his cock was dragon-jeweled.

Each dragon bore the stigmata of the murdered boy, as the old man bore the stigmata, wounds on back and legs and feet, his body crying blood tears which dropped in slow motion to the ground, while dragon-wounds wept blood as well, dripping and vanishing on his skin only to drip yet again.

The priests’ chant increased in volume and underlying terror as they wrapped him in chains and a spell of great pain, bowing his neck and shoulders under the weight of their metallic hatred. He nearly fell to his knees but managed to remain standing, staring at the ground, at the dust and stone and circling bare feet, his toes curling and uncurling in the bloodied dust.

Above them all was the Archbishop of the Eastern Kingdom, a title he had held since a decade after the Breaking of the Spine, when his predecessor mysteriously died. Immensely fat, nearing the end of even his mage-lengthened life, he watched from the balcony, safe and cool, fanned by slaves, while the priests examined the man, examined dragons, but did not touch and muttered terror among themselves. He sipped a cold drink and casually released the goblet in the general direction of a slave, confident it would be caught before a drop spilled, or there would be a death to enjoy. He leaned forward, gripping the whorled stone of the railing. Just one finger lifted, and no expression marred the carved stillness of his face as a moment later a ship exploded in the harbor, the shock wave roaring upward to batter against the palace walls and surge through the courtyard.

“Noooo!” The scream was torn unwillingly from the naked man’s throat, long and shuddering. Decades of spell-weaving by the Kin, intricate immaterial blades poised to sever the links of each of the Folk to the land as soon as they were on board the ship—gone in the instant of the explosion. The Folk were trapped. As the Kin were trapped.

In this moment, they might have been alone, these two, there in the courtyard and on the balcony, as the Archbishop’s voice circled, and coiled, and dropped into the souls of the watchers, nourishing the roots of hate and fear. Only the man below, straining to see, saw the merest flicker of cynicism and passionless planning slide across the Archbishop’s eyes and disappear into the ancient shadows behind them.

“You...or your people...bought the mages’ silence, and their ship, and their skills, to escape this day. But you see, I bought them first. And what I purchase, remains mine.”

A second finger-gesture lifted the spell enough for the man to look upward to him.

Confess your heresy, he said. I’ll be magnanimous. His brittle thoughts dropped with a crackle of broken autumn leaves to rustle across the stone to him.

And let me live? He looked down again, at the pool of blood widening at his feet, seeping into the grey stone.

I’ll let you die a swift death. Of my mercy.

Oh, munificent one, he mildly mocked. Such mercy shown to one who does not want to die.

But die you will.

But die I shall, he echoed soft, in secret thoughts concealed from the Archbishop above.

“Today,” the dragon-clothed man said aloud, the chant-spells in the background weaving agony in his stance, in his voice. But his words lifted with gentle, exquisite care, dropping sound but not sense in the waiting ears, for sense only arrives and survives in willingness. “Today will become a story...a rumor of someone who heard it said. A legend, a myth, a fable...and less...fading until it is nothing at all, and what we do here today will die. As we—”

“As you will die.”

“As I will die.”

“Now,” the Archbishop whispered, his voice once again slithering down to the man below.

“Now,” the man agreed, and sighed, and stretched, and twisted his head, and with a roar which startled the liquid light bathing the balustrades, and sent it running, he looked up at the Archbishop, sitting in sudden stone-carved fear on his balcony.

“Do you remember them, priest? Any of them?”

Only the priest’s eyes betrayed his lack of understanding.

Struggling against the Sirulani spell trying again to force him down, the man lifted his left arm, his index finger extended. The tiny dragon on his fingertip opened pinpoint eyes. And looked at the Archbishop. “Do you remember him, great one? He died unborn when his mother died in the first Hunt.” He stroked the grey dragon head on his right shoulder, and vast green eyes opened. And looked at the Archbishop. “Do you remember him? In the second Hunt you bravely hacked him to death in a field.” As he named their deaths, one by one by one the dragons on his body opened their eyes. And looked at the Archbishop.

All but the green and gold dragon on his right cheek.

“Do you remember my son, priest? He died when you Broke the Spine.”

And the green and gold dragon opened his eyes.

And looked at the Archbishop.

The man below began to change.

In all his wanderings through the kingdom during the years of flight, he had learned, and in learning, taught, and so he asked. He could do no less. “Will you stop the Hunt? Will you let the Folk and the Kin live free?”

“Anathema!” the Archbishop shrieked, rising and overturning his chair. “Abomination!” he screamed, cobra-voiced, poison sacs spitting hate.

“So let it be,” the dragon-covered man murmured.

So let it be, he thought.

He dropped to the stone, bringing the chains and the spell of pain with him, ignoring both the chant hammering at him and the Archbishop’s voice flaying his soul. He dropped to all fours, naked and fearful, fighting to complete the change. He gathered to him the cloak of prayer, wrapping it about his shoulders, about his soul. And reaching...he touched them...the weavers of the cloak.

Down in the depths of the dying city he found them, and asked, and rejoiced as they gave.

The voice of crystal clarity was first, concealment dropped, his silver cheek-dragon once more shimmering as he abandoned flesh with no regrets, just as the rest had no regrets. There was the dying ember of the old man, whose dragon was rheumy-eyed and nearly blind, and crippled, but who gave nonetheless as he shivered with a final fever. A whore, a stonecutter, a soldier, a girl who cleaned the privies of the great, a trusted slave. Once hidden, now seen. All the Kin.

Or they had been, until just moments ago, when a Kin-child was born. The kneeling man wept as he touched the child. For had this day not been, the boy would have been the greatest of the Kin, a king dragon of nova white and gold burning on his cheek with a brightness the Kohlnari had not seen in a score, a double-score of generations. A savior. He faltered, and the priests seized on his hesitation, for he was afraid now, afraid he had done wrong, afraid his ego had driven him to this, not the need of his people. But a wave of love from the tiny babe washed over him, uplifting him, pushing the priests back, as the boy freely gave.

There were not many now who remembered, and even fewer were those who prayed at shrines of mind or stone in the belly of the dying city. The Folk were few, but fewer still were the Kin. These nine were the last, but still they glowed, and glowing, gave.

The blaze began inside him, then. A tangible blaze. Visible. He became a man of clear glass of running water of crystal, etched with dragons, carrying within him a tiny seed, a jeweled shape of infinite light which blinded the terrified priests. Dragons roared silently on his skin as every link of the chains surrounding him snapped, and he rose and rose and rose until at last he was upright, a towering shape against the dull sky. He shattered the spell of pain, sending it coursing back to its makers, then arched his neck to look down and down and down on the cowering prelate on his balcony.

Great wings steepled above him and then snapped wide, as with powerful strokes toppling priests into curling balls against the courtyard wall, his change complete, he began at last to fly. Black and gold scales singing the song of the morning sun, the air about him shining with all the colors of those who had been, his wings lifted on the gift of his Kin, and he rose above the courtyard, the walls, the towers, reaching for the copper sky.

He struggled upward as his Light began to fade, struggled as he sought the heights and the freedom of the air, struggled as the priests recovered and lashed him with ropes of fear, dragging him away from the dimming sun. The old city and the new watched his battle high in the sky, and in the old city, a child clutching her mother’s hand looked up, and cried out to him and in crying, gave, and in giving, died, and in dying, became free. There was the merest whisper of power to his wing strokes, and then they faltered again as the Archbishop tore at him with silent hate.

The mother who had looked down at her still and silent daughter, and then up to the sky to rejoice in the faltering wings, recognized her Kin at last, and shouted then, “To the Light!” And shouting, gave, and giving, died. Her voice was carried on the winds, was carried on love. Soon another, and then another, and another, a flurry, a furor of voices, down in the suddenly glowing heart of the old city, shouted “To the Light!”

They shouted then, all the Folk, for the Kin were gone from Kohlnar except for he who flew. And as they shouted, the land...trembled.

A tiny pebble washed by a stream grown sullen and dark over the century of dimming light cracked! and a mote of light flew upward. A sparrow sang and in singing gave, and in giving fell to His earth. A forest became rich with the lush greens of high summer, a meadow burst into blossom, a fat worm burrowed deep in the soil, enriching it—they all gave and in giving died, and in dying shining specks rose to join the Light. Buildings in the old city shimmered, becoming translucent, surrendering the Light holding them together.

The land trembled again...and yet again...and at the third trembling the land itself shouted: “To the Light!”

And in shouting, they gave, all His people, all His land, and in giving, died, and in their dying He gathered the Light given freely.

The new city watched in awe and dismay as in a timeless moment before he should have plunged to his death, a new sun blossomed in the sky, and in its glow, the last dragon lifted his wings in joyous flight once more, soaring toward the stars, tearing apart the hammered copper of the sky. The glowing dragon took the Light, offering it up with a hymn whose glory outshone the sun, and in His turn, He gathered the Light given freely, calling His people and His land to Him and for one brief and glorious moment the skies of Kohlnar flared with brilliant radiance as they had not for long years. Blinded by the light, the residents of the new city looked away, and when they could see again, he was gone. The sky was dull bronze now, faded and aged.

The old city died that day, although they found no bodies of Kin or Folk amid the rubble where buildings had quietly crumbled with the passing of the Light.

* * *


Moments frozen in time.

To come.

Six months.

When the Cardinal and the Prelate’s Guard arrived to arrest the Archbishop, and take him back to the Court of the Two Kings for trial and execution, he was gone. The servants and slaves were dead, and the palace reeked of blood magic.

On the Archbishop’s desk, the Cardinal found a tiny piece of wood the color of fresh, spouting blood: a hand’s-width long, half an inch in diameter, two slight curves the Cardinal’s curled fingers could grasp, a small knob at the end that appeared almost carved. The finest bloodwood, given that color, but so paltry a wand. Though there was something almost...soothing...about its feel under his thumb, as he caressed the knob. The fat old bastard had escaped somehow, and now the Cardinal would have to ensure no blame fell on him. He raised his arm and threw the twig out the window.

He never noticed he had not actually thrown anything, but had instead carefully put the stick into an inner pocket of his robes.

* * *


Moments frozen in time.

To come.

Two years.

The Tiers step silently down to the bay from the Heights. The Last Tier is only partially built.

It is cold and grey here in the new city, although it is midsummer noon elsewhere on the continent. Summer winds do not caress burgeoning soil; the worms are gone; the land is brown and parched, the water in the bay is dark.

The city is empty. A crumpled parchment skitters across a dusty street in a vagrant whisper of stagnant air.

The Light has been gathered. It will not be gifted again.



Unless....








Taren’s Tale


A Preview Of

The Second Chronicle of Kohlnar







Time past.

A thousand years past.

As the war with Sirulan raged on the western borders of Threld....

* * *


“We need to fuck.”

Well, hells.

While true, achingly so, there was supposed to be a different four-letter word at the end of the sentence: “talk.”

That was a much more appropriate sentence to start the conversation which would, I was determined, lead to fucking. A great deal of it. If not there and then on the kitchen table, then somewhere else. And soon.

The correct four words would not have led to mouths dropped open all around the kitchen—seven, count them, seven—in variations on the “O” theme. Only one mouth was not open. It was clamped shut, the thin lips compressed to the point of near-invisibility. The lips I had envisioned so many times opening wide and closing down on my cock, then slowly moving down until his arrogant, aristocratic nose was smashed against my belly, inhaling my scents as my knob pressed into his throat. All the while stroking my cock, alone in my bed, or in whatever other location offering even a modicum of privacy, when the overwhelming urge to make good use of the fantasy overtook me.

The seven—cook, two servants, three apprentices and Third Mage—unquestionably knew the four words were not directed at any of them. Particularly so, since on hearing my words and seeing my sudden stop, as I’d not bothered to check whether anyone else was in the room before entering, all seven heads turned toward me in unison, and then all shifted back to look at Taren, precisely like spectators at a netball match, expecting an entertaining volley of words.

There was no volley. He let a single word through the barricade of his tightened lips. “Out.”

No one bothered to look at me to see if leaving was anywhere between merely acceptable to extremely desirable, much less permissible. They scrambled up, abandoning food and drink, and hurried out.

Leaving just one to face the anger.

When Senior Mage Taren was truly angry—in a royal rage, though he did not have a drop of royal blood in his veins—the mountains forming the Spine of the World trembled. The Kin knew, and one by one by three by twelve they spiraled down from the skies over nearby Kohlnar, on the other side of the Spine, abandoning their dragon selves on hurried landing, then blending once more among the Folk to wait it out before venturing aloft again. Thunder snarled across the continent atop gathering dark grey clouds, following by storms and lightning. As far away as Sirulan, priests of the Church of the Blood cringed, and paused for a moment in wielding the knives which let loose the bloodLight used in fueling their spells of Art and Craft. In the capital, in the vast palace comprising the Court of the Two Kings, even the kings cowered, though they were uncertain why they did.

When he was simply angry, the effects were less wide-spread, confined for the most part to Threld itself. Storms, naturally, as he was fond of lashing rain and lightning; earth tremors; the occasional stream changing course. The Spine did not tremble, though there was the sense of the mountains...leaning away from our border. The Kin simply flew farther to the south until the still-clear northern skies were once more clear of Taren.

When he was merely annoyed, it was mostly felt by those of us in the Tower. An almost tangible force pushing down from the floors at the top where he lived and worked, keeping assistants, apprentices, and servants, as well merchants and nobles who came to buy or beg his services, away. The occasional chairs splintering into tiny slivers of wood and shreds of fabric, regardless of whether someone was sitting in them, or the carving knives evincing a sudden interest in flying across the kitchen to embed themselves in the walls, were persuasive stay-away arguments as well.

Everyone was only too happy to oblige, until someone assured them a return was, if not precisely safe, reasonably so.

As First Mage, the highest rank in the cadre of “assistant” mages who helped Taren in serving and protecting the Kingdom, I did not have the luxury of avoidance or waiting it out when there was work to be done which he needed to do. Especially since he once confided to me, some dozen years earlier when he was drunk on a bottle, or perhaps two, of the most excellent and expensive of the vast array of excellent and expensive Kohlnari vintages, “Gain, my dear boy, requires pain, and the pain you’ll gain from standing up to me will strengthen you. If you survive.”

I survived, grew strong. I needed all my strength now.

He was no longer Senior Mage, might never be again. But still, Taren was angry.

Rightfully so? Perhaps. But there were no side effects to his anger any more; had been none since Vinir’s betrayal six months ago. The Sirulani conquest of the continent was almost complete. Indaehr in the south-central part, Threld, and Kohlnar were the only ones still free. Indaehr, I thought, had bought its freedom. Kohlnar still held behind the safety of the Spine.

We of Threld had won our war...at least for now...though at terrible cost. The Second and Fifth Mages died, holding the shield which prevented the entry of the Sirulani army and the Church’s blood mages into our country.

When the wars began in the West, the nations spreading eastward towards our borders, vast Isten, tiny Sofri, modest Kesh, Lirilia and C’loshan, the others, convinced themselves each Sirulani-born conflict was merely local and did nothing. Some here, many even, felt the same way about far-off wars involving countries barely known, and rarely traded with.

Whether it was some sort of foreseeing, a passing comment from one of the gods with whom Taren often spoke, or just the brilliance of his mind, I never knew, nor did anyone else. But Taren compelled and cajoled compliance with his instructions to gather the Light of the sun, moon and stars, store it in mage-wands of golden sunwood, blue-grey moonwood, silver starwood, store it in crystals until they threatened to shatter if a single beam more was added. Then gather and store some more. And gather and store.

It was almost not enough. When the attack on Threld finally came, by the last day, our stored Light had been nearly exhausted. Anyone with the slightest shard of the Gift had been conscripted, regardless of age. We had even required each citizen to surrender all Light for the war effort, banning all spells of Art or Craft not directly supporting the war. That Threld survived was solely because of the ego of the traitor Vinir, Sixth Mage. He had been planted on us by the Sirulani we later learned, several years before my own arrival as a ten-year old apprentice, as a weed whose poisonous blossoms would not bloom until they were needed.

Vinir had not acted at the height of the battle, when we were hardest put to keep the shield up. Not when the priests of Sirulan were slaughtering their soldiers by the dozens, by the hundreds, all of whom went willingly to a martyr’s death, convinced by the priests their God would welcome them to a personal heaven for their sacrifice. Not when the bloodLight from all those deaths was used to power the hammering spell-blows at the shield. Had he struck then and struck well, a quick murder from behind, without flourishes to show us all how wrong we had been in our judgment of his talent, we might all have died, whether before, or with, or after the falling of the shield.

I would thank the gods for Vinir’s ego, but since the gods only help those who help themselves, and then do nothing because you have already solved your problem, or died from it, I won’t bother. I curse them instead. I almost lost Taren!

While we all stood on the city walls, facing west to focus on the shield, the Sirulani could have won with a sudden thrust of sword or stiletto in Taren’s back and through his heart. Vinir, though, was a small man in every way, frightened of weapons, and even with twenty years of treachery had never bothered to train himself. So he chose a death for Taren wrought with Words of Art to prove his worth. As if he had any.

A small man, a stupid man, whose arrogance would not allow a simple fireball spell apprentice mages learned early: recite the Words, call and blend the right amount of Light and throw at the back of Taren’s head, exploding on touch. That spell would have won all. Instead, he chose a fire acid spell.

A spell which wouldn’t instantly kill an unwary mage stretched to the limit of his talent and reserves of Light defending his people, but a spell which would melt his body away like flame held near a wax figure, all with the most excruciating pain imaginable. A spell requiring an uninterrupted flow of Light from the caster, until the spell’s work was done. The fool even screamed “Die, Taren!” the instant before he launched it at his victim’s head.

For all Vinir’s stupidity, despite which should have given me enough time to protect Taren if I’d been sufficiently alert, I could not save the man I loved. His life, yes, though at times he resents me, perhaps even hates me, for doing so.

I was at Taren’s left and at the sound of Vinir’s scream, I...split. A part of me, the largest part necessarily, kept the Words of Art spilling from my lips westward bound to the shield, kept the draw on the crystals steady. The other part twisted my body, raised my right arm and sped the knife from my forearm sheath into Vinir’s throat. The fool hadn’t bothered with a shield against physical weapons.

The fire acid spell died with Vinir. Part of me died, too, as the man I loved collapsed to the ground, half his face, part of his neck, part of his shoulder melted by a heat greater than a blazing winter fire.

I gambled with the safety of my country, my colleagues’ lives, my own, by diverting enough Light from the shield to cut him off from his pain and knock him out.

In my own way, I was a traitor to Threld for taking that risk. But...Taren lived.










bloodLight


A Preview Of

The Third Chronicle of Kohlnar







Time now.

A thousand years past the long-forgotten gathering, or if it is remembered, it is never discussed.



* * *



ANDOR

Fall 2, 1...early morning



I do not like being laughed at.

I like it even less when the laughter is faintly malicious.

And when I cannot blame the laughter on something other than my own carelessness, I like it even less than that.

Walking too fast, afraid for Kellon, wondering if I should have left him alone despite his insistence, late for work, yes, a surfeit of excuses for stepping on the...thing...which resolutely resisted whatever inclination it might have had to be crushed into powder by being trapped between the irresistible force of my right buttock and the immovable object of the cobblestones. Of course, had it been between my head and the street it would most certainly have crumbled.

The laugher-at-me has apparently scuttled away, so I am now alone with my embarrassment. Staying flat in the mud and cold puddles just a bit longer won’t get me much more wet and dirty, but it will postpone the pain of moving. Nevertheless....

Ahhh. Gods damn it. I hurt.

I lever myself to a sitting position with a whimper and a moan from the spikes which seem deeply jammed into ribs, head, hips, buttocks and back, indeed, everywhere. I do not handle personal pain well. I lift my hip and pull the cause of it all from under me. A stick: hand’s-width long, half-inch diameter, two slight curves, a brilliant red, the color of spouting blood, a small knob at the end which appears almost carved. Nothing more than a smooth, dry stick, yet it feels...odd, almost sensual under my stroking finger.

Ridiculous. I must have hit my head harder than I thought. Now I am finding a strange little twig which has somehow made its way to a treeless part of the City—erotic.

I twist, roll onto my knees, kneel with my head bent, begging any kindly disposed god who might be in the vicinity to let me die right now, despite knowing none of them are, as all their attention is north. Two gasping breaths, and I push myself to my feet, making a brief, futile effort to wipe myself moderately clean. The rest of the trip to work is accomplished with a minimum of staggering, and an odd blank period. The Tower’s bells are chiming ten when I arrive at the Hospital, and it should be no more than half-nine.

I must have hit my head harder than I thought. Unfortunately, anyone who might have seen the City’s Senior Healer wandering around would have assumed a purpose on my part, and would not have approached me except with an emergency.

I stop at the gates. Gods damn it again.

Naturally, this can’t be a quiet day where I can slip into my office, clean up and begin rounds before anyone notices. They are all waiting in the courtyard for me: three Healers, four journeymen, an apprentice whose presence shows more courage than sense, the cook holding two scrub boys in a painful-to-the-boys grip, five nurses—in short, nearly everyone who is supposed to be on duty. Plus Trader Shann and his assistant.

They all notice...and not just the fact I’m standing there.

But they do not notice, of course, before they all begin speaking at once. It is only when sight finally connects with mind, there is a vast silence broken only by the high-pitched keening of Sera Maden from her room five stories above—a sound to which we have all become so accustomed we no longer hear it except in a rare sound-void such as this. They inhale in preparation for launching a new barrage of speeches at me—these composed extemporaneously on the subject, “What happened to the Senior Healer, and how can I use it to my advantage?”

Gods. I don’t know whether I’m cynical because I am getting old, or getting old because I’m cynical. No time to figure it out now. I cut them off with a look. I’ve become good at looks requiring silence—practice helps.

“A foolish accident.” True.

“Entirely my fault.” Mostly true, with the twig to share blame.

“I’m not in any pain.” Almost completely false.

“Merely dirty.” Patently true.

“I will clean myself up and we will begin rounds in ten minutes.” True.

“Anyone who has a serious problem requiring my immediate attention can have two of those minutes, but I suggest the problem indeed be serious before anyone uses a second of the allotment.” Very true.

“Ser Shann, my apologies for the delay, but our patients must come first.” The greatest truth of all.

I look up at the usual creaking of the main doors. Ah.

“Ser Shann, if you will be so kind as to wait until rounds are complete, I can devote my full attention to you.” I gesture toward the man standing at the top of the steps. “Master Healer Teil will take you to the staff lounge, and Cook—if she ever has a hand free—will serve you something warm.” I lift one eyebrow, and the boys quickly escape, not noticing the glance from Cook telling them retribution has merely been delayed, not denied.

No one takes me up on my generous offer of time, and the courtyard empties quickly. Except for Herath. I hadn’t noticed him at all. For such a large man he can be remarkably invisible at times. A benefit in his profession, I am sure. He follows me to the office, closes the door behind us.

“How....”

I cut him off as I remove the pouch from my waist and drop it on the table. It lands with a dull clunk. Odd. I don’t recall putting any coins in it this morning, although the sound is not quite metallic. “I’m fine, so if you....”

It is his turn to interrupt with the right of very long friendship, and the fact I am married to his brother. “You’re lying, Andor. The only one who believes your ‘fine’ lie is perhaps the young journeyman who is so infatuated with you, if you told him the sun rises in the east he’d believe you. It might have worked with most others if you’d bothered to exert yourself out there to make them believe. But you know I was asking another question.”

He pauses, clearly not wanting to ask, but his desire for truth is greater than any fear of it. “How is Kellon?”

The question, the caring, drain away the little energy left in my façade. I drop to the chair, biting my lip at the touch of the wood against several major bruises. “No better.”


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