The old man was calling to him, but his mind felt heavy and sluggish. “You must get back!” Great trees and fields of corn were burning. “The evil ones will be with you soon.” A dark presence rose up high as a mountain, blotting out the sun. ”You must be gone by the time they arrive.” Children were running, screaming, their faces contorted with fear. “Do you hear me? Help is on the way but you must get back!”
The boy awoke with a start. Cold stone bit into his back and he raised himself onto his hands. As he did so, a flash of pain erupted from his leg and looking down he saw that the right leg of his hair trousers was wet with blood. His vision blurred span as he tried to focus on his surroundings. He seemed to be in a great stone chamber, completely hollowed out except for thirteen stone pillars which formed an inner-circle. A shaft of light fell from an unseen hole in the cavern roof, flooding the centre of the chamber with a pale, ghostly green translucence. Was it illuminating something? Or someone? Slowly he became aware of some unseen force; a howling, gusting gale that he felt in the depths of his soul. It seemed to be bouncing around the chamber, wailing and screeching, cutting and biting. But yet nothing stirred in the chamber
Lying in utter darkness some twenty paces outside this circle, the boy groaned as he raised himself into a sitting position and squinted ahead, the pain in his leg throbbing dully. A man lay prone on the cavern floor; his naked body looked frail, brittle. The boy could make out a deeply lined, bearded face that made something stir inside of him. Was this the man from his dream? Was he dead? Was this some sort of tomb? For some reason he thought he should check on the old man. But he was scared.
The air was even heavier than usual, as though unwilling to allow either heat or rain to escape. Following a deluge the girl had thought would never end, dark clouds still swirled menacingly overhead, as though forewarning her of danger. She had scouted the area and found nothing but the stillness made her wary. Could it be a trap? She kept her senses sharp, mind alert for any signs of company. There was only a small window of time to complete the mission. She had to get in and out without being seen. There was no back-up, no friends to ride to her rescue if things went wrong, her disappearance would not be traced. But she always worked alone. That was the way she liked it. That was the way she had been taught.
She made one final scan of the area from her hiding place before gliding away silently across the sodden earth. Having been crouching behind in the cover of the low stone huts for over an hour her legs felt unusually stiff as she moved into the open ground, her progress slow in the muddy mess beneath her feet. The evening was stiflingly muggy under a blackened sky which offered just the faintest tinge of murky moonlight to guide her. She would not make a sound, she had been taught by the best. But then she was the best they had ever seen.
She crept forward slowly, eyes fixed on the low stone entrance, senses straining for any sign of company. The landscape was bleak and barren. All living things had either escaped or died trying. Charred remains of what might have been the villagers smouldered around her, but it looked like the Reaper’s army had moved on. Of course she knew better! She tried to block out the stinging, nauseating stench of burnt flesh that seared her nostrils as she crossed towards the low entrance to the chamber that had been hewn smoothly out of the black rock. She would be gone before they returned. Get in, get out. It was a job. Nothing more. It was how she survived.
The dream had seemed so vivid. He could still make out the faces of the children running towards him, their eyes red and wild, their skin tear-stained and mouths twisted in pain. Whether they had been fleeing the fire or the dark figure or both he was not sure, but the sense of desolation and hopelessness still felt raw inside him. The old man in his dream had been telling him to get back there. But why? Is that where he had hurt his leg? He reached down and pulled up his trouser leg to expose the wound. The cut ran down the front of his calf muscle, less than the length of his little finger in length, but deep enough to be filled with blood. Gingerly he tried to get to his feet, but as soon as he put pressure on his damaged side, a bolt of pain shot through him and he fell back heavily to the ground.
With a grunt he rolled over onto his side and slid his hand into his pocket. He would at least make sure the old man was not asleep before going any further! He withdrew a small bronze coin, and flicked it through his fingers thoughtfully. On one side he could make out the helm of a knight, crested by a snarling bear, and on the other a cluster of thick trees. Its presence gave him an odd measure of comfort; it felt familiar. His memory flickered dully; he could perhaps have been swapped for a small loaf of bread. He scrabbled around in the darkness, his hands searching for a pebble to use instead, but the cold chamber floor stayed unflinchingly smooth. Gritting his teeth against the pain in his leg, he raised himself into a sitting position, took aim and threw the coin directly towards the centre of the chamber where the old man lay. He watched as it sailed, spinning through air, glinting as it passed through the shaft of dirty, pale green light that descended from the chamber ceiling. But then, as it was about to strike the old man, it slowed, bending as though melting in a furnace. For a moment is flashed brightly. And then it was gone.
The girl touched traced a finger over the ancient runes that had been carved into the lintel over the low entrance to the chamber. Deep groves that told the story of a world before it became cloaked in darkness. Stone dust came away at her touch and she quickly withdrew her hand. She knew little of the old magic, but her training told her to wake nothing if it could be avoided. The night was still as ice. At another time, the silence would have made her suspicious, but her sources had suggested the Reaper was nearby. Few living creatures put themselves in his path by choice and she was not keen to make a martyr of herself. She looked around quickly and seeing nothing, ducked her head inside. It was pitch black inside and she dared not light a torch so she crept along the low tunnel using her hands to guide her. She slipped slightly as the tunnel gave way to a narrow spiral, carved clumsily from the rock. Her heart was beating harder now as she descended gingerly and after twenty steps she stopped and listened hard. A howling wind seemed to be gusting around the chamber below, but she could not feel its touch on her face, but rather deep inside her. What sorcery was this? She tried to block out the clammy touch of the wind and listened intently for any hint that she was being tailed, but could hear nothing up the stairs behind her. She edged more slowly down the remaining stairs, a dim light growing stronger with every step. She paused at the last stair and peered out into the chamber. The wind was now throbbing madly, beating at her chest, and she had to use all her mental strength to block it out. An old man lay bathed in a pool of dirty green light at the centre of the chamber, surrounded by cold pillars of rock. Whether dead or asleep she could not tell. Either way it was not what she had expected.
“Retrieve the prize that lies in the centre of the chamber”. That was all her orders had said. Surely she was not supposed to carry the man back up those stairs? Perhaps the prize lay under his person?
Nothing else stirred in the chamber so she edged out; sliding between the columns but making sure she kept to the outer circle where the light barely penetrated. She was barely a shadow as she darted across the five-pace gap between each structure, always keeping her eyes on the centre of the chamber. Suddenly out of the corner of her eye she saw something flickering towards her from the other side of the chamber. Instinctively she dropped into a crouch beside a pillar and watched in astonishment as a small, glinting object flew, seemingly destined to strike the old man, slowed implausibly, burned brightly for a second and then disappeared. She shrank back deeper into the shadow of the outer circle, increasingly unnerved by the chamber and this incessant, howling wind she felt inside of her. If there was a mage here, then things became markedly more complicated. But she was not in the habit of disappointing her employers and so, quiet as the dead, she started to edge round the outer edge of the chamber. Whoever or whatever had thrown that thing would never see her coming.
The boy felt the bile running up his throat as panic started to grip him with its clammy hand. How was it that an object could just disappear? He could feel his body shaking but not from the cold. The old man had told him to get back, but he had no idea where to. How was he to get there anyway? He could barely walk!
“The evil ones will be here soon”. That is what the old man had said. He looked around him again, nothing else moved in the chamber so he pushed himself onto all-fours and began to crawl towards the centre of the chamber. His mind, barely able to reason over the wind that shook his being, desperately hoping the old man lay over some trapdoor that would take him out of this accused stone dungeon. He had gone no more than two paces when he felt something cold and sharp dig into his neck. He flinched, instinctively trying to pull away from whatever it was he had run into, but stopped as something grabbed his hair pulling his head backwards. He could feel the bite at his neck.
“Who are you?” his assailant snarled. It was unmistakeably a girl’s voice, but it was cold and flat as the chamber floor.
“I don’t know…” he stammered awkwardly, trying to twist around to make her out. In the dim light he caught a glimpse of closely-cropped dark hair, a narrow brown eye and smooth brown skin, before he felt a stinging blow to his temple and his vision went blurry.
“Do not look at me, boy!” spat the girl in his ear. “Just answer. Who are you?”
“Look! I don’t know!” he said, anger now melding with fear. His head was pounding from her blow and the knife was digging savagely into his neck. “I just found myself here.”
“Do not mess with me boy” she said, yanking back on his hair and pressing her knife in harder against his throat. “Believe me that slicing through your puny neck would be easier for me than skinning a rabbit. And no less enjoyable.”
There was something hideously soulless in the girl’s voice and the boy believed her. “I don’t know” he said, hearing the desperation in his voice. “You have to believe me! I was just trying to reach the old man!”
“Why?” said the girl quickly. “What do you want from him?”
Kal could not explain. “Listen! I don’t know! You have to believe me….” He felt like he had been drinking seawater his mouth was so dry. He thought desperately for some tale to tell her. He had to reach the old man before the evil ones came!
Her mind was racing. The boy bore no obvious marks of being an agent, but it would not be the first time children had been used. Dressed simply enough in a white shirt and brown hair trousers, but his accent was heavy, and his grey-blue eyes were wider and his hair fairer than people from these parts. If this was some ploy to slow her down, why had they sent some blathering child who could not even stand?
“What is this place?” asked the boy.
The girl cursed herself for allowing her captive to take the initiative. “You do not ask questions,” she said, pulling back on his hair for good measure. “What is the old man hiding?”
“I. DO. NOT. KNOW” said the boy, as is speaking to a simpleton.
She could feel him bristling with anger in her grasp. He would need to be taught a lesson. Slowly she moved her foot over to the bloody mess on his right leg and dug her toes into the wound. The boy gasped and went rigid. She could see him biting down hard on his lower lip to stop himself calling out.
“You better start thinking hard boy” she said, slowly releasing the pressure on his wound, “or else my voice will be the last you ever hear. Now, who is the old man?”
“Look I don’t know” the boy said “I don’t even know my own name. I just know that it would be better for me if I can get near him. Please, the evil ones will be hear soon.”
“Evil ones?” she said sharply. Did he mean the Reaper’s army? What would they want with the boy?
“Please!” he said “They must not find me here. I have to get back!”
There was an agitation and a desperation in the boy’s voice that the girl deemed genuine. She had tortured agents before and either this boy was the best she had ever encountered or else he was telling the truth. And if he was telling the truth then she had to find a way to make use of him. If the Reaper’s army was coming then she needed to make her move quickly. Somehow the old man was guarding what she had been sent to collect; he looked frail enough but the powerful wind somehow emanated from him. Perhaps the boy might be able to help her figure out just how dangerous this mission had become.
She released her grip on his hair and removed the knife from his neck. “Go to him then,” she hissed in his ear, kicking him forwards in the small of his back.
He fell forwards onto the cool stone floor, breaking his fall with the palms of his hands. He wished he could remember something, anything to appease the moody bitch. The casual way she had pressed her toes into his wound suggested someone practised in the art of extracting information. There was something horribly menacing about her, not just the knife at his throat, but the narrow eyes gave her a vicious look and a voice that was bereft of emotion. But she knew something about the old man, he was sure of it. Her cool façade had broken with urgency to find out about him and the evil ones. If he could only win her trust somehow.
“But I threw a coin earlier…” he said, not daring to look back at her again.
“Go!” she hissed again, kicking him in the back again.
“Listen, can you not at least tell me where we are?” he asked desperately.
“Go!” she said again, kicking him so hard his head struck the ground.
Groggily he got onto all-fours again and crawled across the cold stone floor of the chamber towards the old man. Perhaps when he was out of range of her boot he could try and talk again. The ground seemed unnaturally smooth as he moved forward, each movement of his right leg agony. As he passed the line of pillars into the pale light he looked upwards. The crack in the ceiling from where the light seeped in was more than thirty paces above him.
He turned his head, looking for the girl in the darkness. For a moment he thought she had disappeared but then but then he caught the flash of a blade urging him on. She must have been dressed head to toe in black for she was barely visible against the outer chamber wall.
“What is your name?” he called back.
The girl did not answer for a while and he was about to start crawling forward again when she said. “You may know me as Katsooni, boy. Pray our paths do not cross again.”
The boy agreed he would pray for that, every night if he got out of here alive.
He crawled forwards until he was one pace away from the old man and reached out to touch him. Would this be the last thing he ever did?
Daine of the Katsooni stared at the spot where the boy had been. He had vanished in front of her eyes, just as the coin had done earlier. The old man lay quite still, but as the boy had reached out his body had warped, bending in on itself, burned brightly for a moment and then disappeared. This was no trick of the light. No conjurer’s trick with a dark sheet and a false-bottomed box. Even the great mages could not disappear without so much as a wisp of smoke. And the boy had been no magician. Somewhat outlandish, but not someone with the wit or guile to deceive her. Seeing the coin vanish had been strange, but the disappearance of the boy was altogether more troubling. Where had he gone? Would she vanish also if she tried retrieve whatever the old man was hiding? Part of her had hoped that the boy could have completed the mission for her; retrieved the prize, then been disposed of. She felt horribly in limbo; more so than she had ever done during a mission before. She had always been supremely confident in her own abilities but the mission was turning more sour by the second: the presence of the old man, the great silent wind that would not rest inside of her, the boy disappearing in front of her very eyes. Failure was not an option for the Katsooni. If she went back empty-handed she would be cast out. “You complete your mission, or you will die trying.” It was not something any of her order could forget.
She ran the mission carefully over in her mind again. She had been taught not to question, just to act, but something was gnawing away at her, chipping away slowly at her composure: normally there was a target – a specific prize to retrieve, or a notable to be eliminated – but this had been different. Of course she did not know who had commissioned it - anonymity was paramount to the Order – but she did know it was old and that its commissioner had chosen her to do it. The Mother had called Daine into her office.
“This is a mission prescribed for you and you alone” the Mother said.
“What is the catch?” Daine had said. Most Matsooni would not dare speak to the head of the Order like this, but Daine had always been different and headstrong.
“No catch Daine” the Mother had responded coolly, her voice blue fire. “The task is simple.”
“But how would someone know to ask for me?” Daine responded, indifferent to the threat in the Mother’s tone. “If this is an old mission, how would they know who I am?”
“You know I cannot say. You must trust me that I know what is best for you.” And with that the Mother had dismissed her.
Daine was just about to make a lap of the perimeter when the hairs stood up on the back of her neck in warning. Some other presence was close; it felt too large and malevolent to be the boy again. She shrank back, deep into the shadow of the outer chamber, making sure she had a clear line of sight to the stairs she had descended. Let the intruders make the first move.
The boy could feel blades of grass gently tickling his cheeks and ears as they moved in the light wind. He was lying face down in a field, his arms splayed out in front of him as though he had fallen. The sky was a clear blue and he could hear birds squawking noisily overhead. The picture of the chamber, the old man and the girl dressed in black seemed to be fading. But the pain still felt so real. He rolled over and slowly sat up, looking down at his right leg. There was no blood on his trouser leg and no wound underneath. He touched his neck where the girl had pressed the knife, but no blood came away on his hand. Something was digging gently into his behind, so he slid over and retrieved a small bronze coin. He stood up, rolling the coin through his fingers, and looked around. The tall grass field was surrounded by high hedges. A narrow river ahead of him ran down the field’s edge, disappearing under a squat windmill, the late afternoon sunshine dancing off its pure white walls. Further upstream, a collection of low buildings the same dazzling white as the windmill, sat either of a wide earthen track. The buildings looked small against the backdrop of a great forest which stretched up into the sky, dark and thick. The village was called Pacullia. And his name was Kal. For some reason that was important.
He began walking towards the village, shaking his head groggily. Surely he had not been asleep in the field all this time? The pain had felt so real! But then where were his wounds? And where had the chamber gone? He was close to the village now, and made for the small, grubby building at its edge. Its walls were more grey than white, the bright sunlight fading away at its touch. The thatched roof had become mottled and clumpy, as though it were slowly balding like an old man. Not much to look at he agreed, but it was his home. A trail of smoke spiralled from a squat chimney which poked out from the roof. Kal followed the smoke greedily; he was hungry and hoped there was chowder cooking on the stove. Few people ever bothered with this end of the village and he saw no one before he entered through the low wooden back door into the large open kitchen. Earthen pots and metal pans were strewn across every surface; vegetables in string bags hung on the walls and the room was filled with smoke from a great cauldron which sat on the stove. His mother sat at a simple wooden table in the centre of the room, she looked irritated and was slapping a rolling pin against her palm menacingly. Kal stopped dead, very aware of the need to keep out of her reach.
“Where is he?” she asked sharply. His mother had never cared much about her physical appearance: she wore a dirty apron which came half way down her wide, blotchy legs, her dull brown eyes drooped heavily and her scraggly blonde hair was flecked with grey.
“Where is who?” Kal responded. He had the feeling this scene had been played out many times before.
“Your fool of a father, that’s who” she snapped, eyeing him beadily. “You went out with him yesterday and never came back”.
“I don’t remember…I’m not sure I was with Father…” he stammered. Surely he could not have been lying in that field all night?
“Don’t be a bloody fool!” shouted his mother, getting heavily to her feet and waddling towards him, brandishing the rolling pin in front of her. “You tell me right now where you’ve been or I’ll beat you black and blue.”
Kal backed away towards the door, looking around desperately for some sort of shield to defend himself with. His paused when eyes came to rest on a portrait hanging on the wall. A man of middle years stood proud and tall in a long black cloak, he had short sandy blonde hair and a small goat-like beard. The man beamed down at him, his green-blue eyes which seemed to dance with some unseen merriment, and Kal suddenly knew that the chamber had not been a dream.
Daine crouched low in the shadow of the outer chamber, staring intently at the bottom of the staircase and trying to keep her breathing slow and even. Straining her senses against the great wind that coursed silently around the chamber, she tried to feel for the intruders. There was something there. A strong, dark, menacing strength that chilled her bones. It was the Reaper’s Army! It had to be! She knew they had been close, but she had thought to be long gone by the time they arrived. The fear inside her began to rise, hollowing out her stomach and she chided herself for dallying too long with the boy. The Order never took sides, but the Reaper would let no one stand in his way. Least of all the Katsooni, who remained one of the few groups out of his control.
She could feel herself beginning to panic so she took a deep breath, trying to block out these fears, they were as unnatural to her as they were unwelcome. Once she had completed the trials and been raised from novice to accepted, her old name Nyafee, which meant river flower in the old tongue, had been discarded. She had been remained Daine, which meant fearless, for she had a single-mindedness that her seniors held in high regard. Daine closed her eyes and dropped into thought. She focused on finding the plateau in her mind, a highered-state from which she could stretch out her senses to feel things others could not. An ability central to the success of the Order. From this plateau, her mind stretched out as though she were on top of a mountain, looking down at rivers and plains below. She could feel the intruders skulking warily down the stairs. The lack of complexity to their thought patterns let her know that these creatures were not human. But a chillingly depraved energy swirled around them.
Delicately she allowed her mind to flow back to her plateau and then opened her eyes, squinting through the gloom across the centre of the chamber. Her worst fears were confirmed as a great hairy leg slid slowly into view, followed by another and another and then she could make out the black beady eyes, and the viciously sharp pincers. It moved slowly and uncertainly, as though it too could feel the silent wind, but slowly its whole form emerged, body slung low to the floor, great hairy legs arched up high over its head. Arrochom. Some said they were the spawn of forest spiders, who forced any beings they captured to breed with them. Others that the Reaper had conquered the forest spiders and forced human slaves upon them. Whatever their origins, the Arrochom were crazed machines of death and destruction. Their pincers that could cut through steel and the claws on their legs would rip through flesh like daggers. Twelve more Arrochom followed the first, slowly encircling the old man who still lay motionless on the chamber floor. Each stood between two pillars, the nearest to Daine blocking her view of the stairs, but the creatures appeared wary seemingly afraid to go into the inner-circle. She had faced these beasts before. One-on-one she backed herself to kill or at least get away, but fighting 13 was suicide. She had to get way. Would the Mother understand? Would she still be cast out? Well, rather that than certain death! Slowly she edged round the outer wall towards the stairs. She knew the Arrochom’s beady eyes were poor, especially in this light, but she moved slowly, keen not to kick a stray rock across the chamber. She was half way when sharp pain ripped across her skull and she fell forward onto her knees.
Kal’s knees buckled and he staggered into a chair next to the thick oak table. His mind buzzed with questions that he knew he could not answer. Why, by Yahn, had he not recognized his father? What had happened when he had tried to touch him? How could he have left him there all alone? What would that girl do to him?
“Well?” said his mother, one hand planted firmly on her hip, the other brandishing the rolling pin. “Where is the old goat? Off playing games with that fool Juquor again?” With her nostrils flaring and her cheeks flushed red she looked like a bull ready to charge.
“He’s lying in a chamber” said Kal weakly, leaning on the table for support, averting his eyes from his mother’s ferocious gaze. “I think he’s in danger!”
“He’ll be in danger the moment he sets foot through that door!” said his mother. “And what is this rubbish about a chamber!”
“I don’t know!” said Kal. “He was lying naked in the centre if a chamber, there was a green light, a girl, I tried to wake him…”
“Naked in some chamber with a girl!” she screeched. “I will burn his balls if he has been playing around behind my back!”
“You’re not listening to me!” said Kal, his rising anger dampening his fear of her. “There was this deep wind that I sort of felt inside of me. I tried to wake father, but then I found myself in the field by the windmill!”
His mother eyed his beadily. “If I find out you have been smoking that damn popla weed with your father, you will both pay a heavy price”.
“Look, he’s in danger!” said Kal. “We need to find the chamber, now!”
“Idiot boy!” shouted his mother, waddling round the table towards him. “I’ve had it with your lies! You go and find him right now! You can sleep and eat with the street children until you do!”
Kal looked desperately up into her pudgy, round face, now red with obstinacy. “She means well, but in truth cannot see past the end of her nose”, he had overheard his father saying one day. He nodded in resignation then walked out of the back door. He walked round the house and began walking up the main street. His father was in danger and there was only one person who could help, his father’s colleague and best friend: Juquor. He was undoubtedly a strange man – Kal’s mother would not even let him in the house – but Kal had always found him to be kind and generous. And in truth, anyone his father liked was banned from his home. Every house he passed seemed to be in slightly better condition than the one preceding it. Kal’s home was one of the most run-down in the village. It was a source of acute embarrassment for his mother, but Kal, like his father, had never really cared. “There are always those with more, but even more with far less” his father used to say. It was coming to the end of market day, a day Kal always loved as it meant a freedom from the books and a chance to catch up with his friends, to perhaps have a game of kickball if the men would let them join in. But today he kept his head down as he dodged between the traders’ carts that lined each side of the street, which were still piled high with fruits and vegetables, carpets and clothes, meats and fish, pots and pans. The traders themselves who called out in loud, friendly voices, each trying to undercut his neighbour; each trying to clear his stock first so he could get off home. But Kal had no time to stop and barter with them. Perhaps he might stop if he came across Aelia, the prettiest girl in the whole village, just to tell her of his adventures but he really must get to Juquor’s as soon as possible.
He emerged from his thoughts and realised he had gone too far he retraced his steps to the house he had visited so many times with his father. At first glance it was indistinguishable from any other building at the smarter end of the street: small and squat, with stonewashed white walls, neat, square windows and a thatched roof. However, the flowerbeds running around the foot of the house were always perfectly maintained and contained the most varied and vibrant collection of plants and flowers that Kal had ever seen. Most people were scared of Juquor and passed his house on the other side of the street but Kal had always been intrigued by it. He paused outside staring at a plant which seemed to have craned its bizarre yellow mouth towards him, considering what exactly he was going to say. Then the front door opened and a small, wizened man appeared in a long green coat, his face clouded by a thick dusty grey beard.
“Kal, good” the old man said. He did not look the slightest bit surprised to see his best friend’s son on his doorstep. “Come inside. Tempus fugit”.
The pain in Daine’s head was brutally intense. It felt like something had reached into her skull and was gradually trying to extract her brain. It was all she could do not to cry out and alert the arrochom to her presence. She crawled back into her hiding place trying desperately to fight off her unseen assailant who seemed to be boring into her mind. She tried to cool her mind as she had been taught, hearing the words she had heard every day for 15 years. “Close your eyes. Take a deep breath and hold it. Take another and hold it. Breathe out. Feel your muscles relax. Feel your mind as part of your body. Reach out and touch it. Find your plateau.”
But she was not in the safe confines of the training room anymore. This was real and the pain that seared through her head was making her feel sick. Gathering her strength she inhaled deeply and closed her eyes. The usual myriad of colours welcomed her into her mind but the attack was coming at her like a sea creature with many tentacles, each of the dark flows stretched out and sought to delve deep into her mind. She reached out for her plateau, stretching, straining with all her mental strength before it clicked and she felt the familiar wave of mild euphoria, but it did not last for long. Her mountain seemed to be trembling, the scene below her blurry and confused. Slowly, carefully, she formed a subtle barrier around her plateau, aiming to keep the intruder out without alerting it to her presence. The dark tentacles were strong and thick and were already looking for a way around. She eased herself off her plateau and opened her eyes, the chamber swam for a moment in front of her and she sank to her knees as her body became aware of the exertion she had just undertaken. 13 Arrochom and now this. What the hell was going on here? The mission has all seemed so simple at the time. Daine had never been close to anyone but the Mother had always been fair to her, understanding of her moods when others would shun her. Surely she would not have knowingly put Daine’s life in danger? Daine had never known either of her parents. She had never been sympathetic to when other girls cried for their fathers or mothers. But on the rare occasion she had felt less than secure the Mother had always been there, never judging but patiently, maternally, guiding her. Had that been a trace of fear in the woman’s eyes Daine had glimpsed when handing over the parchment detailing this mission?
Her mind snapped violently back to the present when a great shadow moved across her vision, blocking the sickly greenish light that trickled in from the chamber roof. She knew instantly what it was, a form at once both magnificent and terrible, unmistakable with the huge scythe strung across his back.
“The Reaper has long cast a shadow over this world. He was human once, a brilliant prospect, born to lead the King’s army they said. But he was kidnapped by the Erai in his ninth summer and exposed to many dark creatures. Now there is nothing left of the boy that was taken. He destroyed first the Erai who created him, then the family who failed to rescue him, and now the world which has rejected him. They say he is as single-minded as any man, as cunning as any goblin, as strong as any troll, as resilient as any dwarf. To cross him is death.”
Daine still remembered how the words of the older novice, all of five summers before, had made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end as they had huddled together at the foot of her bed. Now the Reaper stood before her: half as tall again as any man, his skin looked scaly and hairy at the same time, his heavily-muscled torso seemed coiled, ready to unleash his power at any moment. He wore just a dirty loincloth, which covered little of his legs which bowed outwards under his great weight. His presence radiated a soulless evil, a mere shadow of which Daine had felt where his army of Arrochom had ravaged and torched the land. Now the Reaper stood not 20 paces from her. She felt numb with terror.
“Are we alone?” said the Reaper. It was as if a hand of ice had wrapped itself around Daine’s heart, the voice penetrated her soul; it was lifeless, deadly, pure poison. Even the Arrochom seemed to crouch lower to the floor as he spoke.
“I am trying, Lord” hissed a woman’s voice, its tone hideously ingratiating. “The wind is powerful down here. It makes it difficult to focus”.
Daine edged marginally to her right to follow the words to a filthy creature sitting cross-legged across the chamber from her. Unmistakably an Erai. A foul sorcerer sent mad by her abilities. The Erai’s head and face were covered with clumps of matted grey hair, whilst her painfully-thin pale body was barely covered by a stained cloak. She had placed its long, bony white fingers on its temples as it rocked back and forth slowly, lips moving in some silent curse. Daine knew now that is was the Erai trying to get onto her plateau, and the pain in her head began to increase again. She pressed herself back against the stone wall and tried to empty her mind; attempting to reach her plateau without first cooling her mind was dangerous but the pain was increasing every second delayed. As she closed her eyes they burned as if sprayed with acid but she forced them to stay shut. The scene in her mind was even more confused than before, a myriad of colours swirled around as if an artist had dropped all his paints on the ground, whilst the Erai’s dark flows wove menacingly around her. She was being pitched and tossed around like a small boat in a storm and her plateau remained out of reach. The presence of the Reaper had set her mind on fire but she had to focus; if the Erai reached the plateau she would lock Daine from her mind. Forever.
Kal stepped through the open door slightly hesitantly after Juquor. It was a house that seemed to exist in perpetual chaos but was undoubtedly the most interesting place Kal had ever been. Parchments lay on the floors and tables, the walls were covered in charts and maps of mysterious, faraway places, whilst strange metal instruments were crammed into every nook and cranny. Kal had always been told to look but not touch by his father, an odd command he thought now, seeing as everything was so messy anyway. Juquor beckoned him over to a table, the surface of which was not visible due to the plethora of books, charts and papers that lay scattered over it.
“Be seated Kal,” said Juquor scratching his chin. “Do you thirst?”
Juquor had an odd way of talking, but Kal had spent almost as much time here growing up as he did at home so he was used to it. Just as the way the old man’s grey hair seemed to stick up at crazy angles seemed natural to him. His father said that Juquor would never visit the barber in the village, instead letting it grow until it got in his way at which point he would fly into a rage and attack it with a pair of scissors without the aid of a looking glass. Looking at Juquor’s hair now Kal remembered how the tears of laughter had rolled down his father’s face as he had recounted the tale and Kal felt a lump in his throat.
“No, thank you” said Kal, his voice oddly croaky.
“Does Galia know you are come?” asked Juquor, sitting down opposite Kal and fixing him with those narrow grey-blue eyes that radiated both enormous warmth and enormous wisdom, from the centre of his deeply lined face.
“She threw me out!” said Kal bitterly thinking of his mother’s refusal to believe him. “And said that I couldn’t come back until I had found father!”
“Perhaps for the best” said Juquor slowly. “Now, tell me of the chamber”.
Kal stared at him in disbelief. “But how…” he began.
“Much I know already Kal, but time is not our friend and you must tell me all you know” interjected Juquor, “explanations for now must wait.”
“OK” said Kal. He trusted the old man implicitly, even if his manner was odd. “He was lying on the chamber floor. He had no clothes on. He seemed asleep.”
“And he breathed?” interrupted Juquor excitedly.
“I couldn’t tell” said Kal, screwing up his eyes as he tried to concentrate on the chamber. “I was a little way away. I had a deep gash in leg. There was this deafening wind…a whirring, buzzing noise, but I could only feel it inside of me. And when I threw a coin towards him it disappeared. Then a girl grabbed me. She had a knife. It was a really strong girl, and she came from nowhere” he added quickly. He did not want Juquor to think him a coward.
“It is well” said Juquor, who did not look the least bit surprised by his tale so far. “She was a I believe a Katsooni” he continued and Kal nodded, eyes wide with surprise “Yes, an assassin of the deadliest reputation. Tell me how did she look?”
Kal was still looking disbelievingly up into the old man’s face where a longing sadness was betrayed by a gentle crinkling of the skin around his eyes, and a drooping of the mouth. “I did not get a great look to be honest. She attacked me from behind. Brown hair, brown eyes – but they were narrow like yours – tanned skin…”
Pride swept across Juquor’s face at these words and he bowed his head breathing heavily. “My sweet Nyafee” he whispered softly. “Be strong in your task”.
Kal was about to ask who this girl was, when Juquor suddenly sprung up and strode over to one of the many cupboards that lined the walls of his house with an agility that belied his advanced years. Kal never ceased to be amazed that Juquor still played kickball with men half his age; indeed he was more often than not on the winning team.
“The thirst has overcome me” Juquor said, his voice firm and confident again, “will you not join me before we go on?”
“Perhaps I will” said Kal whose throat had gone rather dry.
The old man opened the cupboard to reveal an amazing selection of fruits, most of which Kal had never seen before. There were small pink triangular ones that almost seemed to glow, perfectly spherical white ones that looked soft enough to sleep on and long thin green ones which seemed to bend in every direction.
“One of these I think” muttered Juquor, taking a bluey-green fruit about the size of an adult’s fist from the shelf, “and two of these” he continued, taking two of the pink triangular ones down. Kal watched as the old man peeled the larger fruit to reveal an orange interior, which he placed with the smaller fruits in a silver metal box that he extracted from one of the shelves. He closed the box and wound a handle on the lid with such force Kal suspected he was about to get covered in fruit juice, but even as he watched a glorious reddy liquid emerged from a funnel which Juquor skilfully caught in two glasses simultaneously.
“What is that?” said Kal, pointing at the box.
“A rather brilliant contraption indeed” said Juquor, his eyes twinkling, “I procured it from a travelling tradesman just recently. He called it a juicer – rather an obvious name you’ll agree but how jealous your father was.”
Juquor passed Kal a glass and as the liquid cascaded down his throat a sense of peace overcame him. His muscles relaxed and he could clearly feel all his legs and arms. His mind felt clearer and sharper than at any time he could remember.
“Now” said Juqour, “tell me more.”
“The chamber was round” Kal began, “there was an inner circle surrounded by 13 pillars, and with just a single beam of light which came in from a gap in the ceiling. Father lay right in the middle. What was he doing there?”
“Explanations have to wait for now” said Juquor urgently. “Did he feel alive?”
“What do you mean?” said Kal puzzled.
“Your bond with him” said Juquor, “what did you feel towards him?”
“Well, I wanted to reach out and touch him” he began, “but I didn’t know why” he added lamely.
To his great surprise Juquor clenched his fist in triumph, a look of pride mixed with relief on his face. “It is well” he said, “his life force remains intact.”
Kal had no idea what the old man was talking about but it sounded good in any case. “So when can we go and rescue him then?” Kal asked, unable to hide his impatience any longer. They should be getting ready to leave, not sitting around talking!
Juquor looked at him intently for a second, his eyes narrowing and his head cocked slightly to one side. “I will not lie to you Kal” he said eventually, “your father has made a great and noble sacrifice. Now his life hangs by a thread, and only you can catch him.”
Daine struggled frantically to block the dark flows of the Erai. She had never before had she tried to find her plateau with a mind so full of fear. The essence of success in the Order was a cool mind. Katsooni were supposed to go unseen, quiet and stealthy as a cat catching mice. She had always been supremely confident in her own abilities which, combined with a natural shyness, was often mistaken for arrogance. But her mind was now on fire, the power of this Erai was forcing doubts to bubble to the surface of her mind. The bubbles distorted her mind and she could feel her opponent’s cold, dark flowing tentacles beginning to cut her off from sanity.
With her last vestiges of energy she tried desperately to cool her mind, before reaching and scrambling onto her plateau. The familiar wave of euphoria hit her; although as weakly as she could ever remember. The spinning shapes began to slow and the colours became less blurred, but her mountain still shook violently as though in the grips of an earthquake. The barrier she had erected earlier was almost worn through, like the knees on an old pair of trousers. There was no time to build it up again so Daine lashed out wildly. It was risky, and the Erai would know she was there, but she dare not let the crazed sorceress inside her mind. Those possessed by Erai became Phannels – mindless slaves, no longer capable of thought or emotion. Instantly the dark flows recoiled from where they had been encircling her plateau. Daine retreated and opened her eyes. She felt horribly light-headed as she tried to focus on her surroundings. The Erai swam into view and Daine was pleased to see her convulsing on the floor. The creature had not been expecting that! It would buy her some time, but she had moved too quickly to cause the Erai any lasting damage. As the adrenalin seeped out of her Daine felt her legs buckle and she slumped back against the wall, her mind numb with pain. Dimly she could hear the Reaper screaming at the Erai as he crossed the chamber, although she noticed that they too gave the old man a wide berth. The Arrochom nearest to him were backing away nervously, their front legs raised as if expecting him to strike out at them.
As Daine slowly managed to filter out the great wind she could make out his voice. “What is here?” the Reaper roared. “Answer me, Hag!”
The Erai was still convulsing and Daine felt a pride at her handiwork rise up inside her, clouding her thoughts and heating her mind. She tried to force the feeling away: “Take the compliments of others with humility, but never expect anything but the best from yourself”. The power of her strike was testament to the training she had received, she told herself, the feeling of pride was worthless. The Erai was moving her lips almost imperceptibly but she was too far away for Daine to hear.
“What, damn you?” he roared again, lifting the Erai clean off the ground by her neck. She hung limply from his grasp, her heading bobbing madly as the Reaper shook her like a sack of corn. “What did you feel?”
Daine held her breath, praying the Erai would not be able to reveal her location. “AAARRRGGGHHH!” the Reaper roared, turning and flinging the hag behind him. The hag sailed across the chamber and hit the pillar closest to Daine, and slid down to the floor in a crumpled heap. But Daine was only dimly aware of the Erai for the Reaper had turned towards her for the first time. Biting her lip, she tried not to cry out in fear; nothing in her training could have prepared her for this moment. Of course she had heard the other girls talking in hushed whispers of how terrifying he looked. Daine has always thought them a bunch of babbling babies, likely to exaggerate. Now she saw that they did not have the half of it. His skin was green, scaled and hairy like the rest of his body. It looked tough and gnarled like as an old oak. Evil was etched in every line of his face. His pupils shone blood red, his nose was flat against his face and his sharp yellow teeth looked they had been stolen from a sea monster. The dull grey helmet which sat on his head seemed to be melded directly into the flesh of that repellent face. Those piercing eyes passed right over as he swept the chamber looking for the intruder. She dared not even breathe.
“Do not just stand there!” he shouted suddenly, moving with a lightening quickness to strike the Arrochom nearest to him with his left fist. The creature was sent sprawling backwards, hitting the chamber wall with a sharp crunch. “Find the creature who dares challenge me!”
The Arrochom shrank away and began to spread out. Silently Daine lay down and pressed herself right back into the gap where the chamber wall met the floor. She could cloak herself from these creatures but if the Erai awoke she would be exposed. The Black Veil was the first discipline a novice had to master; cloaking your senses was invaluable for those who wished to slip from place to place without being noticed. Daine always enjoyed the feeling that no-one could see her. She had always been a shy girl who found socialising excruciatingly painful. Other novices came to the Order with tales of parties, music and boys; they giggled inanely when they talked in mock whispers of these things that Daine was neither excited by nor cared about. She only ever remembered being with the Order and always assumed she must have been born there. She had been taught all her life to abhor pride and wastefulness, to crave humility and respect. She did her chores without complaint and she practised the disciplines in every waking moment. She glanced quickly at the Erai. She could not even tell if the hag was breathing, but one of the Arrochom was just ten paces from her now so she closed her eyes and reached inside her mind. The heat did not feel so alien now and whilst her mountain still trembled she was quickly reached her plateau and let the Veil descend, shrouding her in darkness. She felt the Arrochom drawing near. With its pitiful sight it would not be able to see her, and with the Veil descended it could not smell or hear her. But what if one of those legs touched her? She could feel it no more than a pace away from her, the could smell the sweat and blood that was expunged from its hairy body, close enough to touch the deadly pincers that flanked its mouth. She was about to make a desperate bolt for the stairs when she felt it move away. She waited before lifting the veil to make sure they had gone. By the time she opened her eyes, one of the Arrochom was ten paces from the Reaper, slowly edging towards him, its torso scraping across the chamber floor as though it was being dragged forward on an invisible leash. The Reaper stood stock still, eyes burning wildly through the gloom. Five paces from him, the creature raised its head and seemed to be speaking. Daine could not hear what it said over the great wind, but it clearly less than his master had hoped for. In a flash the scythe was off his back and descending in a savage killing arc. The blow hit the Arrochom before it had even had a chance to turn, striking it the centre of its twisted face. It fell listlessly to the floor, white puss oozing out of the deep gash in its face. The Reaper seemed to barely notice, instead lifting the scythe above his head and roaring his displeasure to the small patch of night sky.
“I am sorry to lay this burden upon you” said Juquor, his eyes and mouth crinkling at the corners in concern. “It must be as though a heavy weight is placed on your skull.”
Kal could only stare dumbly back at him. He thought his mind would explode with all the thoughts, questions and worries that were jostling for position.
“There is much we must discuss” said Juquor methodically, “but we must move fast. Tempus fugit, Kal. Time flies. All your questions will I answer although much, inevitably, will be left unsaid.”
The old man paused for a moment and took a sip of his drink. Kal followed suit and once more was glad of the soothing power of the juice. It seemed to fill the gaping hole that had opened in his stomach, and he could feel his heartbeat slow.
“The chamber in which you father lies is not of this place” said Juquor. “It is far, far away from here. Although not so far from the place in which my mother bore me.”
“How can we get there?” said Kal, eager to get on with it.
“There is no simple answer to that” Juquor replied slowly. “The chamber is not of this world. Neither am I.”
Kal looked back in stunned silence. “Well, I suppose it would explain a few things…” He tailed off looking intently up at the old man.
“Your father’s son you are Kal” said Juqour, beaming back at him, “as perceptive as he you will one day be, I am sure of that.”
“Perhaps the vagaries of language are something that led you to this conclusion. Yes, but let me ask you, could converse with the girl you speak of in the chamber?”
Kal took another swig of the juice and thought back. Yes, he had understood her well enough, even if she was the type of girl who preferred actions to words. He nodded.
“It is as I thought” said Juqour eagerly, mirroring Kal’s nod. “Sometimes the words appear in a jumbled fashion but we get by, I think. In that Chamber, the barriers between my world and yours had been broken down. Tell me more about this great wind you mentioned?”
“I could not feel it on my face” said Kal. “It sort of felt, deep inside of me.”
“Yes, perhaps the friction caused by the two worlds colliding and you so close to the fault line. Yes, it seems plausible to suggest you could both have been speaking in your own tongue, either that or she remembered…” he broke off staring out through the window on the left of the front door.
“Remembered what?” asked Kal, tentatively. Juquor suddenly looked old, his face a weary mask of regret.
“Remembered what I taught her” said Juquor in a heavy, low voice still staring, unseeing out of the window.
“You know her?” Kal said disbelievingly.
“She is my daughter.”
Kal stared wide-eyed and opened-mouthed at the old man. How had this mild-mannered, quiet, studious old man had spawned such a thing? He was about to ask the old man why he had left her behind in that world which had obviously turned her into a sadistic maniac, but stopped as he saw a single tear rolling down the wizened face. It dropped with a tiny splash on the table and Kal looked away from the old man, fearing he was intruding on a very private moment. Juquor did not seem to have noticed and continued to stare blankly ahead.
“Forgive me” said the old man after a short while and Kal looked up to see that the look of grief had been replaced with a more steely expression. “I will tell you now what I have told no-one in this world, except your father. I tell you this because I trust in you and I trust in your love for your father. But be warned, from this point on there is no turning back. You cannot escape from that knowledge I will impart. Your life was never to run a normal path, Kal, yet we embark now into unchartered territories which will be both wondrous and yet terrible. Do you have the stomach?”
What choice did he have? His mind was trying to process everything that had happened today but it was struggling to keep pace with everything that he had seen or been told. He did not understand what Juquor meant by “not being able to turn back” Had he not already reached the point of no return? Some part of him thought he should be more scared by what he had just been told, but the image of his beloved father, lying unmoving on the cold floor of the chamber drove any concerns he might have had from his mind.
“Yes, I do” said Kal defiantly.
At his words Juquor closed his eyes with a sigh and placed the fingertips of his long bony fingers together in front of his face. For a moment Kal was worried he had said the wrong thing but Juquor said: “Kal, you can have no idea of what you must face,” neither lowering his hands nor opening his eyes, “that youth can blind you from fear is to be celebrated. But that it can lead you down the path to foolishness is not to be ignored.”
Kal felt his face grow hot and he looked down at the dusty sandstone floor. “Sorry” he mumbled, “I didn’t mean to sound arrogant.”
“My dear boy!” exclaimed Juquor reaching over the table and grasping him tight on the forearm, “do not take what I said as a rebuke. The challenges and dangers you face cannot be known in full. That you do not fear the unknown is your greatest strength. I sense in you what I sensed in your father. And that is courage. Courage to do what is right, even if it means putting yourself in danger.”
“I just want to help father” said Kal quietly, feeling his cheeks burning again. Juquor’s praise was misplaced; he would run away from the older boys in the village when their taunts threatened to turn nastier. He wished he could have stood up to them, especially when Aelia was around, but he was not strong enough to fight them – they would beat him to a pulp.
“I talk not of the size of your arms” said Juquor, reading the look of pained thought on Kal’s face, “but of the size of your heart. The bully never seeks out a target of greater stature, their prey are those weaker of arm. But a man of great heart will seek out the bully and seek to end him, be he one third the size of the other. Is your father a big man? No. Do his arms bulge like a great oak tree? No. But is he a man who seeks out a bully, perhaps the greatest bully of all time? Alas, yes. The bully of which I speak is as vile, loathsome and dangerous creature as can be imagined. He is known simply as ‘The Reaper’.”
As Juquor spoke Kal felt himself shiver although it was quite warm inside. There was fear and loathing etched into Juquor’s face, and now his stomach felt as though he had swallowed a huge block of ice. Images from the chamber flashed across his mind again: the burning fields, children screaming, a dark presence which blotted out the sun.
“His power comes from the grip of fear” said Juquor, his grey-blue eyes flat and hard. “He is undoubtedly strong of both mind and body, but his true control is that of fear. He is feared by friend and foe alike – although I use the term friend is used in the loosest possible way. He has many followers – those seduced by power or too scared to stand against him. The weak who feed off the scraps from his table. Those sadistic enough of mind to revel in his bidding. But I believe the Reaper to be too bereft of true human feeling to really enjoy the company of others. You have been to his world Kal albeit briefly, that which was my world. It was once a beautiful place, but it has been ravaged and torched at the Reaper’s behest. Death and decay now invades every pore of every sorry being unfortunate enough to call it home. There is no law, no order, no peace. Alas, you have now been tainted by misery of that place.”
“I saw terrible things” said Kal quietly. “Children running and screaming for their mothers, trees and fields were burning. And all the while a dark presence loomed over them. Was that the Reaper?”
“Yes,” Juquor said looking pained, “that is the evil we face.”
As Daine lay in the darkness, she tried to blot out her fear. If she crawled forward
like a snake around the edge of the chamber, perhaps she could reach the stairs
without being spotted. But the Reaper would not descended without leaving the
entrance heavily guarded, perhaps by creatures with far better night vision than
the Arrochom. She did not want to die cowering like a cornered rat, but she still
remembered the gruesome tales of what the Reaper did to those who defied him,
like the village chief who had refused to reveal where they kept their food
The Reaper had the man’s wife brought out into the village square and stood behind her facing the Chief. With one hand pulled the Reaper pulled on her left arm whilst with his other he held her left shoulder still. As the ligaments and tendons tore the woman screamed to the heavens for mercy from this monster, until the Reaper pulled it clean away and threw it towards her husband. The wife collapsed into a pool of her own blood on the floor but the brave chief would not give up his secret for he knew that the Reaper needed to feed his army, and that their progress across the lands would be slower if he held firm. Other men and women and children of this land depended on him. So the Reaper brought out the Chief’s firstborn and again mutilated him in front of his father whose gaze did not leave his son. Even as the shoulder bone splintered with a noise like the branch of a tree being pulled away he did not flinch. The Reaper continued onto the second, third and fourth-born and finally to his only daughter, Paeole. A girl so pure she knew neither sin nor indiscretion. She whose singing woke him every morning like a cool summer breeze on a hot, sticky day in the fields. She whose hair cascaded down her back like a dark waterfall. She to whose dark brown eyes he could never tell a lie. She with whom he had only been blessed these last six years. She to whom he had promised to protect with his life. They dragged her out to the Reaper whose face creased into a lurid smirk as he sensed the will of the chief begin to crumble. Paeole did not cry, but held her little head proudly upright and bit her lip. The Reaper turned her to face her father and placed his hand on top of her head, wrapping his talons around it. The Reaper looked at the chieftain straight in the eyes and began to squeeze. The poor little girl held on as long as she could to make her father proud but as her eyes began to bulge, her murmurs became sobs, and her sobs became a wail, and her wail became a scream as she cried out for her father to save her. And the chief broke. He fell to his knees and tears flowed from his eyes as if a great dam had burst. The Reaper casually backhanded the girl round the face to stop her crying and laughed. The chief guided the Reaper to the secret underground store where the grain was kept. Shackled to a post down there he was forced to watch as the store was emptied by the Reaper’s army and then as one by one each member of his family was brought down to be brutally savaged and murdered. The Reaper left Paeole until last, laughing as he finished what he had started in the square. The passage to the store was caved in as the Reaper left, burying the chief alive with the bodies of his loved ones.
Daine had not slept properly for a week after hearing the story. “Only by fearing the Reaper can the Order truly work around him” her mentor told her. Perhaps the story has passed into legend and become distorted, but Daine has seen just tonight the devastation of the Reaper’s army, and she was loathe to chance her life on this poisoned mission. If she ever got out, she would put in a plea to the Mother for mitigation. If that fell on deaf ears, well then she would take her chances as an outlaw. She had known that the Reaper’s army would be close but she had expected to pass through unnoticed as she had so many times before. There was too much here she could not explain. The old man, the boy, his disappearance, the great wind that howled though her being…
The Reaper was now striding back across to the Erai where she lay as still as the old man. Fury was etched into every line of his face and skin, his eyes blazed with a maniacal fury and the veins in his think arms were bulging and pulsating violently. Daine wanted to cry out in terror.
“FOUL HAG!” he bellowed as he scooped her up again in one hand, “DEFY ME AND I WILL CRUSH EVERY BONE IN YOUR BODY! I WILL BURN YOU IN YOUR CESSPIT! MOVE!”
“ARRRRGGGHHH!” he roared again as he threw her against the next pillar. The Erai landed with an audible crack, her milky white face twisted round to stare at Daine, soulless black eyes looking straight ahead, unblinking. Volatile and explosively dangerous, Erai had been known to destroy whole villages on a whim. The Reaper always had at least one in his service, but they tended not to last very long.
He was now prowling around the centre of the chamber in a wide arc around the old man, smelling the air, like a panther trying to find its prey’s weakest point. Evidently, the power radiating from the centre of the chamber was so strong that even a being as fearless as the Reaper would not dare put it to the test. Daine had heard people say that the concept of magic was a myth, created by lower beings to explain the unexplainable, but the great wind that coursed through this dark place was like nothing she had ever felt before. A group of Katsooni on their respective plateaus could generate an incredible force, but what she felt in this chamber was altogether a different sensation. It was a foreign force and she had no idea how to control it, and judging by the growing frustration of the Reaper she was not the only one. He continued to stalk around the prone form of the old man.
The old man had not moved a muscle since Daine had entered the chamber although she almost certain by now that he was not dead. The Reaper was still circling, markedly keeping his distance; his eyes were fixed on the frail white body. Sensing an opportunity to plan her escape, Daine closed her eyes and entered her mind. The frustration of the Reaper was instantly noticeable in the clouds of dark colours that greeted her, but with his attention fixed elsewhere she was able to glide onto her plateau quickly. Her mountain still trembled slightly but she had expected it this time and felt in complete control. She stretched out to feel the Erai’s life force which was still flickering dully – the creature would not pose a threat for a while so she reached out further, towards the old man. As she moved closer she became acutely aware of the dark presence of the Reaper, and was careful to avoid his thoughts which burnt a dangerous blood red. Daine had no idea what powers of the mind the Reaper possessed – that he needed the Erai hinted at his limitations – but she knew he was as good as impervious any attack she could have launched. Her Order were not in open conflict with the Reaper for they did not take sides, but they would tread where others would not. The Mother had received offers to take him out. How long before someone put a price on his head that was too good to refuse? Daine knew the price paid 17 years before for this mission had been a small fortune killing the Reaper was something that would have to be planned. She could hope to spring on him from her dark corner and expect to topple him. In any case that was not what she had been paid for! So, she skirted skilfully around the Reaper’s thoughts. The power did indeed seem to be coming from the old man and it dragged her onwards. Moving faster and faster, she had lost the discipline of the stalker, overcome by the chase and the scent of the prey. She was almost there! Then a great wall reared up in front of her. She was moving too fast. She hit it hard, and everything went dark.
“How do we stop him?” Kal asked. Quite how he was supposed to help, but he assumed Juquor must have a plan.
“My life’s work it has been to stop the spread of disease that is the Reaper” answered Juquor. “He will have ravaged my world beyond recognition and anyone who remains will live in the unremitting darkness of fear. He is now crying out for fresh meat, for fresh blood, for fresh souls to torment, but I knew of this plan and in your father I found an ally more loyal and more courageous than I ever imagined. With his help I have done what I can to slow the Reaper’s progress into this world, but now all our lives are in grave peril.”
“Can he not come here the same way I did?” asked Kal.
“Your father lies over a gateway between this world and the Reaper’s” said Juquor. “His presence prevents the Reaper, although not others, from crossing. The Reaper cannot enter this world because your father has placed his life in parallel to that of his enemy, but there is ever balance and one life force is only worth one other. The Reaper is blocked but his minions are not. Were one hundred souls from this land to lay their lives down at the rift it would not be enough. His army will cross the great chasm – weaker for their leader’s absence certainly – but they will come to hunt and kill.”
Kal was struggling to stay with the old man, but the last part sounded ominous. “What will they be hunting for?” he asked.
“This is the hardest part, Kal” groaned Juquor pulling at his tufted grey hair absentmindedly. “A being cannot move from the world of his conception to another without leaving upon the first a mark of himself, a place in which his life force from that world is kept. Without this his life force would fade as he crosses the great chasm between our worlds. Therefore he must place his mark in something or someone when he departs - his vessel. As long as this vessel’s life force remains strong the person may survive in the world to which they have crossed.” He paused again and rubbed his forehead hard with his knuckles as he went on. “In the same way your father had to leave behind him a vessel to carry his life force when he crossed into my world. It is this which the Reaper must destroy if he wishes to break into this world. And it is this therefore that his army will hunt down.”
Juquor paused and sighed. Was that regret on his face? Or pity? Then with a sickening lurch he realised what the old man had been saying. The realisation hit him as hard and unexpectedly as a blow to the back of the head from an unseen assailant.
“Why me?” he forced out weakly. He felt utterly sick.
“I would take this burden Kal but I am not of this world so cannot take it. You are his flesh and blood and there is no one who loves your father like you do, no one who would guard his life more closely. Your father knows this and knew you were the right choice. It is far too much for one so young, but everything is set and so time presses us like never before. I believe you have the strength for the task, your father believed it too. Now, you must believe it too.”
“I will try” he muttered quietly. He had little enough skill with the sword and was not especially intelligent. He had only really ever excelled at running but that would be simply prolonging the agony.
“I know you will” said Juquor. “Now, I know not how much time we have. When his minions come you must not be here. They hunt relentlessly and show no mercy. I can give you a head start but then you will be on your own…”
“What?!” Kal butted in. “Are you not coming with me?”
The old man puffed out his cheeks and spread out his arms as if asking for forgiveness. “I would only slow you down and I must run a diversion. We will go our separate ways. They will be seeking both you and me. It is too valuable a prize to have in one basket.”
“But where shall I go?” Kal asked. Panic had risen up inside him like a tidal wave. He was drowning in fear.
“You must get to the old mill. A sign there will link me to you. Then the path will become clear.”
Kal exhaled heavily and scratched at the back of his head. It was all so vague! He had only ever been out of the village with his father before. The thought of doing it alone was terrifying. Not least as Juquor was suggesting he would be hunted. “Could you not tell me what this sign is?” said Kal. He could feel his eyes gently stinging and hurriedly looked down at the floor
“Do you believe I will would purposely do harm to your father, Kal?” said Juqour, his voice soft but authoritative.
“No,” said Kal reluctantly, not looking up from the floor. He was disappointed. Juquor seemed confident of the plan but Kal felt abandoned, empty and helpless. He thought of his father lying back in the chamber and a shudder of anguish ran through him. He felt a ball rise up in his throat and his eyes start to moisten. He tried to fight back the tears and cuffed at his damp eyes with his sleeve.
“Do not believe that I have left any of this to great chance” said Juquor, who was now rummaging around in a cupboard low to the floor. “There has been high risk in everything we have done thus far and yet more lies ahead; alas, we could not succeed without it. But we discussed this many times – your father and I – and he convinced me you would not fail him. He told me that you would stay strong and do your best to see this through to the end. He said you would trust me of all people. Ah, here it is!” he finished, pulling out a shabby brown haversack.
Guilt washed over Kal at these words, chilling his insides as if he had eaten a mountain of snow. “I do” he mumbled awkwardly. He wished the two of them could have just prepared him a bit more for all this. It was too much to throw onto him at the last minute!
“This will help you refrain from returning home” said Juquor, handing the haversack to Kal, squeezing his shoulder gently and leading him to the door.
Head straight for the old mill and hide there. I will only say farewell and good luck.”
“Will I see you again?” Kal said. He wanted to be angry, but he was too terrified.
“Oh, undoubtedly” said Juquor. He opened the door and ushered Kal out onto the street.
When the darkness subsided Daine almost wished it had not. Her face was wet with tears and her throat was as dry as sand. Her mind felt bloated and her head was throbbing incessantly. Why had she acted like a dog on heat? The Discipline of the Hunter taught a Katsooni that prey was caught through patience not haste. If discovered, novices not caring to cool their minds before entering their minds would not forget it. Even as Daine lay in an awkward heap against the cold cavern wall she could feel the scars throbbing on her back from the last time she had tried to get ahead in her training. If she tried to reach her plateau now, the bridges she had spent years building between her mental and physical state could crumble a like a ship dashed against the rocks in a high wind.
Thankfully her mental collision seemed to have gone unnoticed by the Reaper. The Erai too still lay unmoving. But for how long? The Reaper feared hurled himself at everything that stood in his way with the force of a tempest. He would find another way even if the Erai was dead. He had never failed because he knew no fear and he knew no fear because he had never failed. Then the Reaper nodded his head almost undetectably as though having come to some decision. Raising his head he looked at the hissed an order Daine could not decipher at the Arrochom in front of him. The he gestured towards the old man and Daine could see the muscles in his shoulders throbbing dangerously, but none of the Arrochom moved. He was a leader who ruled through fear, rather than love her mentor had told her:
The leader who ruled with love could always be sure of the strength and authenticity of his support amongst the honest, whilst the leader who ruled with fear never knew who supported out of fear, and who out of belief. But the leader who ruled with love could often be blind to those mistaking his love for weakness; mutiny might grow as slowly and quietly as a sapling but which would surprise the leader who believed he was just and fair to all. The leader who ruled with fear ted mutiny every day– he was never secure and never felt safe, and trusted no-one. The Reaper only lust was for power – no matter the means or consequences –so he ruled through fear but this made him wary. He knew that those he oppressed would rise against him, time and time again – but he would be ready. He was always ready.
But the Arrochom were not moving. In a flash the Reaper leapt forward and grabbed the creature closest to him its hairy neck. It struggled wildly, the claws on its legs scratching manically at the floor and at its assailant’s face and body. The Reaper barely seemed not to notice as he lifted the creature above his head, and hurled it towards the centre of the chamber. Just as the coin and the boy had done, the dark figure slowed as it neared the old man. Its body seemed to bend, to burn. And then it was gone. She could see the Reaper pause, uncertain. The fire seemed to have dimmed, leaving behind empty black shells. He was not used to surprises. The incessant urge to control everything was the Reaper’s purpose, for if he had complete domain over all beings then nothing could ever shock him again.
But this was a challenge, and the Reaper never backed down from a challenge. He always sought out his enemies lest they find him first and even as Daine looked at him his eyes narrowed, and burned an even darker, more savage red. Tales of the Reaper’s brutality with those captured trying to obstruct him in any way were spread by his agents to increase the legend. The Reaper would not spare a Katsooni who got in his way; stories of baths of hot coals and live burial in maggot-ridden earth were rife in the Order. “Mosquitoes may buzz harmlessly around a great bear, but the beast would eventually catch a fatal disease if the insects were not occasionally culled” her mentor said.
Suddenly Daine felt very alone. Katsooni worked on their own. There was no comrade riding to her rescue. Self-sufficiency made her faster and less noticeable but now huddled in the dark she felt the bitter chill of loneliness cut at her more acutely than ever before. Fear was not a new sensation to her, but it had been rare over the last two years. Ever since she had passed the trials and been raised to Katsooni her confidence had grown, as she was entrusted with ever more important and daring missions. But her poise had been shattered, to be replaced by the gnawing, clammy hand of self-doubt. Had she grown over-confident? Was she now paying the price? Would she pay the ultimate price?
She was snapped out of her misery by a low groan emanating from the pile of rags in front of her. If the Erai awoke Daine would not be able to hold her off; her mind was still stinging from her collision with the invisible force in the centre of the chamber. The time for hiding had passed; she would have to think fast and trust her instincts. The Reaper appeared not to have heard the groan for he was circling the old man again but it could not be long before he did. Her options were limited: the only three exits were the stairs, the sky light and the way the boy had gone. The Erai groaned again, lifting her head groggily from the floor slightly. The movement caught the Reaper’s eye and he strode towards her, lifting the hag off the floor by her hair.
“Mudspawned witch!” he roared over the noise “What else is down here?”
The Erai’s feet were kicking desperately at thin air and her scrawny neck looked as though it would break at any moment. She emitted a gurgling scream “Attack!”
Dropping the Erai carelessly, the Reaper spun on the spot, his red eyes boring deep into the darkest recesses of the chamber. Daine closed her eyes and willed herself not to cry out. She opened her eyes a fraction when she heard a high-pitched scream. One of the Arrochom was scuttling madly at the foot of the stairs apparently trying to escape, but the Reaper had it by one of its legs. He yanked it hard and then caught the Arrochom by its hairy throat as it sailed towards him. As the creature hissed madly in his face, snapping its pincers, the Reaper nonchalantly delivered a stinging blow with his right fist to its face and then hurled it at the old man, where it too vanished from sight.
Somehow Daine knew this was her moment. There was only one way out. She rolled into a crouch, took a deep breath and pelted towards the centre of the chamber. She covered the first ten strides in a flash. As she approached the inner circle of pillars she was dimly aware of the shouting and hissing getting louder. A great black hairy leg shot out to smack her in the face from her left hand side she rolled forwards onto her right shoulder, before springing to her feet. She was a panther emerging from a shadow to run down a deer. Across the chamber, the Reaper was charging towards her, withdrawing his scythe as he ran. But he was running in an arc around the old man. He would never get to her in time. Just two more steps! Suddenly something sharp closed around her left leg, dragging her down to the ground. She could hear herself screaming as she kicked out wildly at the Arrochom’s leg. White hot pain seared through her knee as the ligaments detached and snapped. Suddenly she was free; she hopped forward on her right leg and through herself forward, fingers outstretched. The Reaper roared his displeasure and threw himself forwards, scythe outstretched in front of him, its wickedly sharp point ready to slice into her skull. His mouth was wide in a roar but Daine could not hear him. The chamber was getting smaller. She felt suddenly light, as though her body had turned into this air. Was this what death felt like?