Continuum originally appeared in Realms of War (which is now long out of print, never made it into ebook format, and is therefore impossible to find). It’s an important bridge story between the events of Shadowstorm and Shadowrealm, books two and three of The Twilight War, and also heralds the events of The Godborn, so I thought I’d share it to make it easy for those reading the Cale stories to have the full picture.
This is, I suppose, the first appearance of Vasen Cale and his mother in print, though Vasen did not yet have his name. 🙂
Rivalen stood beside his mother at the edge of a forest meadow filled with violet flowers, deep in the wooded realm that once was the abode of the Arnothoi elves. The wind, bearing the woody, floral fragrance of late spring, stirred the leaves to whispers. Twilight painted the meadow with golden light.
A false face masked Rivalen’s intentions. Only his hands spoke truth. In his left fist he cupped the smooth black disc that served as his secret holy symbol of Shar. In his right hand, hidden under his cloak, he held the cool, wire-wrapped hilt of a poisoned dagger.
The patch of avenoran flowers, deep violet petals surrounding the black core of the stigma, stretched out before them. The fading light turned them into an iridescent violet sea. A breeze caused the flowers to sway as one. They undulated like waves, cast a cloud of sparkling pollen into the twilight air. The silver motes tinkled like faint bells as they rained down.
“It is wondrous, Rivalen,” his mother said. She placed her hand on his arm. “Your father will be so pleased when I bring him here.”
“Yes,” Rivalen said, though he knew his father would never see the meadow.
His father, Telemont Tanthul, the most powerful arcanist in Shade Enclave, had taken an interest in botany in recent years. Rivalen had lured his mother to the meadow in secret, with the promise of a unique gift to commemorate his father’s imminent ascendance to the office of Most High, ruler of Shade Enclave.
His mother walked ahead of him, into the patch, amidst the pollen, letting her fingertips graze the tops of the flowers. They shivered under her touch and sent more pollen into the air. The meadow looked otherworldly, a fey land of silver rain, tinkling bells and murder.
Rivalen stared at her back, at the space between her shoulder blades. His grip on the dagger tightened. He tensed as he thought of lunging at her, of driving the blade into her pale flesh, but he hesitated and the moment passed.
She turned and smiled at him. She did not suspect his motives.
He had taken precautions to ensure his crime would not be discovered. He had transported them to the meadow from Shade Enclave, utilizing the Shadow Weave revealed to him by Shar. After the murder he would move his mother’s corpse back to the Enclave. The poison that stained his dagger, painstakingly crafted by his own hand in the quiet of his own manse, would leave no trace on her body and would make revivification impossible. After he healed his mother’s flesh of the dagger’s bite, it would appear that she had died in her sleep. Only Rivalen and Shar would know the truth. It would be Rivalen’s Own Secret and he would bear its weight.
His goddess had ordered the matricide in a vision. He did not know Shar’s purpose and dared not inquire. The Goddess of Loss kept her own secrets, promised Rivalen nothing.
He licked his lips and tried to slow his heart. The hairs on his arms stood on end. He told himself it was the magic in the air.
His mother turned a circle, still graceful and strong even in her middle years, even after birthing twelve children. She drew a deep breath of magic infused air and laughed. Silver motes coated her embroidered velvet cloak, her dark hair, her pale flesh.
“The pollen tickles my nose.”
He smiled, another false gesture on a day of falseness.
She gestured him to join her. “Come, Rivalen. You’d stand in the shadows of the trees when this beckons? Come out of the darkness. Come.”
He did not move. He preferred the darkness.
“I could lay here and sleep under the stars like an elf,” she said, her wistful expression that of the young mother he remembered from his youth. “Your father will marvel.” She looked away and smiled distantly, as if imagining in her mind the pleasure the meadow would bring father. “The elves say that if you inhale enough pollen while standing in a field of avenorani, your wishes will come true. Your father scoffs at such tales but standing her now, I believe it to be so.”
His father was right to scoff. The Art of the elves had only enhanced the beauty and hardiness of the flowers, not granted them the power to grant wishes. The blooms flourished even in winter, changed color with the seasons, chimed in the rain, but nothing more.
“A legend,” he said.
Her expression fell and she eyed him with concern. “You are far too serious for so young a man. Have I raised so somber a son?”
“My studies require seriousness, mother.”
“So they do,” she acknowledged with a nod. “Your father drives you. But do not be so driven that the joy of life passes you by.”
He let his face offer the lie of another smile. Shar taught him that joy was fleeting, that love was a lie. “Do not worry for me, mother.”
She turned from him and he began the murder.
He whispered the words to a powerful abjuration that nullified all magic out to a distance of five paces from his person. The wards and alarms that protected his mother would not operate within the area of his spell.
When he completed incantation, his mother seemed not to notice, though the tinkling of the pollen fell silent, as if the flowers had grown sullen.
“I have never seen so many,” she said, looking out over the field of flowers. “Do you think the elves know of this meadow?”
“The arnothoi moved west,” he said, tensing. “The meadow is long forgotten. We are alone here.”
Possibly she heard something unusual in his tone. Possibly she noticed the silence of the flowers at last. She turned back and looked at him strangely.
Are you all right, Rivalen? You look pale.”
For a moment Rivalen could not speak. He stared at her while his heartbeat drummed in his ears and his mouth went dry.
Concern creased the skin around his mother’s eyes, furrowed her brow. “Rivalen?”
She took a step toward him.
His hand tightened on the dagger hilt under his cloak. He swallowed.
She neared him, one hand outstretched. His breath came fast. He readied himself.
She stopped two paces from him and her expression changed, hardened.
“Rivalen,” she said, and the word was not a question.
He jerked the dagger free and lunged at her, blade held before him.
Her reflexes surprised him. She sidestepped his attack and kicked him in the knee, wrenching it. He shouted with pain and waved the dagger at her as he fell. He felt the blade bite flesh, heard his mother curse. He fell amidst the flowers, amidst a shower of silver pollen. He rolled over and looked up, the dagger held defensively before him.
His mother stood over him, a short blade already in her right hand. She held her left hand to the shallow gash that his blade had put in her hip. Her eyes looked as cold as those of his goddess when Shar had come to him in dreams. Her lower lip trembled. He did not understand why.
“I killed fifty men before you uttered your first squall and you think to take me unawares with that?” She nodded at the dagger. “Are you enspelled? Mad? What are you doing?”
Rivalen looked at the dagger in his fist, the black poison on its blade, the smear of his mother’s red blood.
“Murdering you,” he answered, and started to stand.
She snarled and stepped toward him, blade ready, but staggered. Her eyes widened and she wobbled.
“Poison,” she said, and slurred the word. “But….”
“None of your protective wards are functioning.”
She swayed, backed up a step.
“Nor your alarm spells,” Rivalen said, now on his feet. “Nor the contingency spells place on you by my father.”
She tried to back off another step but the poison had stolen her coordination. She fell amidst the flowers and sent up a cloud of silver.
He stepped near her, stood over her, held his holy symbol up for her to see.
She stared at up at him through eyes turning glassy. “Why, Rivalen?”
“Because love is a lie. Only hate endures.”
Shock widened her eyes. “I am your mother.”
“Only of my flesh,” he said. “Not of my soul.”
Tears showed at the corners of her eyes.
“You bitterness is sweet to the Lady, mother.”
He kneeled beside her to watch her die. The tinkling flowers sang a funeral dirge.
She swallowed rapid, reflexively. Her breathing shallow. Her fingers worked, clawed at the ground, reached for him.
“Hold my hand, Rivalen,” she said in a whispered gasp.
He did not reach for her, merely stared into her wan face. “We all die alone, mother.”
She closed her eyes and the tears leaked down her cheeks.
“Your father will learn of this.”
“No. This will be known only to us. And to Shar.”
To that, she said nothing. She stared at him for a moment, then closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.
When her intentions registered, he smiled.
“What did you wish for, mother?”
She opened her eyes and the hurt in her eyes was gone, replaced by anger. “To be the instrument of your downfall.”
He stood. “Goodnight, mother. I answer to another mistress, now.”
She gagged, tried to speak, failed. Her eyes turned distant. She stared up at the twilight sky and he saw the awareness melt out of her eyes.
Looking upon her corpse, he felt…nothing. Emptiness, a hole. He ran his fingertips over the edge of his holy symbol and supposed that was point.
He looked around the avenorani patch, noticed for the first time that many of the flowers were wilted, dead. How had he not noticed before?
His mother was calling him from the dead.
Brennus’s mental voice, communicated to Rivalen through the magical rings each wore, pulled Rivalen from sleep. He sat up in his bed, still groggy, haunted by tinkling bells, the smell of flowers, and the dead eyes of his mother.
A pause, then, Are you well? You sound…different.
Shadows churned around Rivalen. Moonlight leaked through the shutter slats of his room. He ran a hand through his black hair, tried to dislodge from his mind the dream of his mother, the memory of matricide.
I am well, he said. What is it?
Erevis Cale has a woman.
Rivalen grew alert. A woman? A wife?
No, Brennus answered. But a woman he cares for. I am unable to scry Cale, but he may return to her.
Where is she?
She lives alone in a cottage northwest of Ordulin.
The shadows about Rivalen spun, coiled as he considered possible courses. Watch her.
Yes. If Cale appears, inform me immediately.
Very well. Rivalen, she is pregnant.
With his child?
Yes. But she does not know it yet.
Rivalen blinked. How do you know it, then?
His brother spoke in the self-satisfied tone of one who has mastered his art. Brennus was a diviner without peer.
Discovering things is my gift, he said.
The magical connection ended.
Rivalen tried to turn his mind to Erevis Cale, to the events in Selgaunt, to his plans for all of Sembia, but the thoughts of his mother dominated his mind.
He had healed the dagger wound in her flesh, magically concealed his involvement with the murder, and returned the body to her bed in Shade Enclave. As expected, his father had despaired upon finding his beloved dead.
His despair, however, had turned to rage. Rivalen’s mother’s body had been found without the inscribed platinum and jacinth necklace with which Telemont has gifted her the night of her death. He had put it upon her himself.
Suspicious of his wife’s death and his inability to have her revivified, Telemont had obsessed over the missing necklace, had sought it for years. He knew for certain that it must have been taken, that she must have been murdered. He had driven Brennus to focus his magical studies on divinations to assist him in finding the culpable party.
Rivalen had lived in terror of his father’s wrath and his brother’s skill for years. But even Brennus’s divinations proved unable to locate his mother’s necklace or learn of Rivalen’s involvement.
Shar had protected her priest.
Often Rivalen had returned to the scene of his crime in secret, had scoured the area for the necklace, but found nothing. He told himself that a servant had found the body and stolen the necklace before announcing the news to the rest of the staff.
The death of his wife drove a spike of bitterness into the soul of Telemont. The loss of his beloved drove him, at Rivalen’s urging, to the worship of the Lady of Loss. Rivalen marveled the subtlety of the Lady’s plan, still did, though he wondered why his mother had returned to haunt his dreams now. He had not dreamed of her in centuries.
“Why trouble my sleep now, Lady?” Rivalen asked Shar.
After all, the moment of her triumph, and his, was nearly at hand.
* * * * *
A distant rumble pulled Varra from dreams of shadows. She opened her eyes and rolled over in the bed. Save for the soft glow of starlight, darkness shrouded the cottage.
The air felt strange, gauzy against her skin, wet in her lungs. The empty space in the bed beside her – the place where Erevis should have been – looked like hole.
Blinking away sleep, she saw a figure of shadow standing in the far corner of the room. Surprise stole her voice. Her heart hammered.
She lurched out of bed and the abrupt movement caused the room to spin, to close in on her. Her stomach turned. She reached frantically for the chamberpot on the floor, put her head over it, and vomited.
When she looked up again, the figure was gone and she realized that sleepiness and the darkness had summoned a phantom of her hopes. Erevis was not with her. She was alone.
Pulling the blanket around her shoulders, she walked to the shuttered window. Pre-dawn light leaked through them, ghostly, pale.
Thunder rumbled again but Varra knew the sky to make a poor prophet. Thunder rarely brought rain. Her garden was parched under the ungenerous sky.
The rumble continued, took an odd pitch, rose, fell. She pushed open the shutters and looked out on the meadow, the elm, her vegetable garden, the wildflowers, the rough chairs Erevis had crafted from dead wood, the chairs in which they had sat when they said goodbye.
The western sky was clear. Dawn lightened it to gray. But the lingering darkness felt odd, unwilling to depart, and the plants in meadow looked hunched, braced against the coming storm.
The roll of thunder continued, and it settled on her that she was not hearing thunder.
Barefoot, she hurried out the door and into the meadow. She turned a circle under the sky, scanned it for the storm, for the source of the sound. When she looked south and saw the sky, she gasped.
Clouds as black as a pool of ink marred the southern horizon. The churned, swirled, and roiled purposefully, like living things. Veins of green lightning lit them from time to time. The bank of clouds expanded incrementally as she watched, devoured more and more of the pre-dawn sky. She stared, agawp, unable to process what she was seeing. It was not natural. It was no storm. It was her nightmare made real. Shadows had swallowed the man she loved. Soon they would swallow the world.
Clouds of birds thronged the sky, riding the wind northward. Movement from the edge of the meadow drew her gaze and a dozen animals streaked out of the trees, boiled around her, and through the meadow– bounding deer, chittering squirrels, a raccoon. She had no time to respond and froze as they flowed around and past her.
Looking at the sky, a primal part of her understood that the animals had it right. She must run, too. Everyone must. The storm was coming and to be caught in it was to die.
Fear freed her to act. She ran back to the cottage and pulled a large sack from among her things. She filled it with turnips, carrots, string beans, and potatoes from her garden, nuts and wild pears from the forest. She had little meat, only a fistful of jerky. She threw on her cloak, pulled on her boots, rolled a blanket into a ball, and headed out the door.
Water. She forgotten water. She dashed back inside the cottage, located a water skin, and filled it from one of the buckets she had drawn the night before from the drying creek nearby.
She stepped out into the meadow, under the eye of the storm, and headed northwest, into the unknown, following the fleeing forest animals. She did not know Sembia, but she knew there was a north-south road not far away.
Only after the sun rose to make a losing war in the heavens with the darkness did she think of Erevis and wonder if he was safe.
* * * * *
Brennus, standing before the enormous cube of smooth metal, the faces of which served as his scrying lenses, turned the focus of his divination to the magical storm that had frightened Cale’s woman.
When the roiling, lightning-veined clouds took focus on the cube’s face, the twin homunculi perched on his shoulders whistled. Their small claws dug into his flesh.
He recognized the storm immediately for what it was – a planar rift. The Plane of Shadow had been released onto the Prime. But how had it been done, and who had done it?
“What is it?” asked one of his homunculi in its high-pitched voice.
“Silence, now,” he said, and intoned the words to a divination.
When he completed the spell, he focused it on the image of the storm, felt around the edge of the clouds and learned what it could tell him. He cast another divination, another, forcing his magic to worm its way into the core of tenebrous sea, to unearth its secrets. Undead shadows teamed in its depths. Shadow giants stomped through its murk.
Ordulin lay festering and twisted on the Sembian plains, its buildings, parks, and citizens transformed into places and creatures of darkness.
And the storm whispered two names.
“Shar,” said one of his homunculi in a hushed tone.
“Volumvax,” said the other.
Brennus tried to make sense of events. His brother was Shar’s Nightseer, yet Brennus knew Rivalen did not cause the rift. There was no purpose in it. Shade Enclave wished to annex Sembia, not destroy it. But the creation of the rift could not have been an accident.
“Look,” said one of his homunculi, clapping with delight as a cascade of green lightning ripped through the mass of clouds.
“Be silent and let me think,” Brennus said.
The destruction of Ordulin changed the dynamic of the Sembian civil war, perhaps changed the dynamic of his brother’s relationship to his goddess.
The homunculi giggled as a swarm of shadows flew before the scrying lens, their eyes like glowing coals.
“Enough,” Brennus said, though he was speaking to himself as much as to his constructs.
Both homunculi, book ends to his ears, glared and stuck out their tongues.
Despite the seriousness of the moment, Brennus smiled at the audacity of his constructs. He endured their insolence with a father’s patience and pride. While his own father had forced him to take the path of the diviner, his mother had nurtured his fascination with constructs, automata, golems, and clockworks. Some of his fondest memories of his childhood were of showing off to his delighted mother the crude mechanical toys he had fashioned. He still missed her sometimes. She would smile at how far his craft had progressed.
He wondered why he thought of that now, of her.
“Treat,” one of the homunculi said, and the other turned it into a chant. “Treat. Treat.”
Brennus pulled a sweetmeat from an inner pocket and unwrapped it while the homunculi clapped and smacked their lips. He offered it to them and they devoured it. While they ate, he triggered the magic of the communication ring he wore, felt the connection to Rivalen open.
Rivalen. I have news.
His brother’s mental voice, fatigued, answered him. Erevis Cale?
No, Brennus answered, and related to Rivalen all that he had seen and learned. Rivalen answered him with silence.
It will have to be stopped or little of Sembia will remain to occupy, Brennus said.
Still Rivalen said nothing.
Rivalen? Are you unwell? Shall I inform the Most High?
The tension crackled through the magical connection. No. I will inform our father. Continue to watch the woman. Erevis Cale will come.
Erevis Cale seems hardly to be—
Watch the woman, his brother said. I know the name Volumvax, Brennus. He is an apostate. He once served Mask before turning to the Lady of Loss.
Mask? Brennus said, and the shadows about him roiled. Erevis Cale serves Mask.
Watch the woman. There is more to this than we yet see.
Brennus did not doubt it.
* * * * *
Varra trudged the game trails, trusting that she was headed west, until at last the forest thinned and finally gave way to the sun-bleached grass of the Sembian plains. Wind stirred the tall grass. Copses of trees dotted the otherwise empty landscape in the distance, lonely sentries bending to breeze, as if paying obeisance to the coming storm. The ribbon of a packed-earth road split the plains. Pleased to have gotten so far so fast, Varra put the expanding storm to her back and hurried to the road.
Hours passed. The landscape appeared empty, populated only by ghosts and the threats issuing from the rumbling sky. Either the famine or the magical storm had driven most from their homes already. The wind from the south, from the storm, pawed aggressively at her cloak. The darkness weighed on her, dogged her steps, gained on her. She pulled her cloak more tightly about her and hurried on.
Nervousness rooted in her stomach as the sun moved from east to west. She imagined herself asleep on the plain, exposed at nightfall, with the darkness closing the distance. Fighting down the panic, she resolved to walk through the night. She would not stop until she found someone else, anyone else.
The storm growled at her resolve.
An hour later, as the sun shot its final, defiant rays into the darkening sky, she heard the creak of wagons and the low murmur of distant voices from behind her. She turned, hopeful, to see a ragtag group of five wagons winding up the road toward her. Perhaps a dozen men and women walked beside the wagons. Most carried packs stuffed with blankets, pots, tools, the leftovers from a home abandoned.
Almost tearful at the realization that she would not have to face the night alone, she stopped and waited for them to approach.
Tired, fearful eyes looked out of faces creased with anxiety and caked with road dust. A few smiled, nodded greetings. Most simply looked away. All spoke in hushed tones, as if they feared someone would overhear.
“Keep moving, lassie,” said an elderly man. “They say Ordulin is destroyed. That everyone’s dead.”
A woman made a protective sign with her fingers. “I heard Shar herself stepped out of the sky. It’s the Time of Troubles all over again.”
“The darkness is following us,” said a middle-aged man with a pronounced limp. “It has eyes. The Dales and Elminster are our only hope.”
Mutterings, nods, and muffled tears greeted the pronouncements.
Varra was too tired and afraid to try and make sense of the words. Frightened people spoke frightened words.
“We know nothing for certain,” said the heavyset driver of a mule-pulled wagon. Household furnishings were piled high in the wagon, furniture, blankets, buckets, hand tools. A leather hat capped the pot of the driver’s head and his belly hung over a wide leather belt. Gray whiskers dotted his unremarkable face. “For now we just keep moving. They’ll be safety in the Dales.” He looked around the caravan, holding the eyes of any who looked at him, speaking loud enough for all to hear. “There’ll be safety there.”
His words quieted the murmurings but fear hung over the group. The man halted the mule and looked down on Varra.
“You alone, little sister?”
The words struck her oddly and a pit opened in her stomach.
“Where are you going?”
She gestured vaguely down the road. “I am…not sure.”
“Where are you from?”
She waved vaguely back at the forest.
The man shared a glance with the elderly women seated beside him in the wagon. She wore a homespun over a veined, age-spotted frame that made a scarecrow look hale. Thin gray hair poked unevenly out from under her shawl. A thin, dark haired man in black leather jack slept in the seat behind them.
“I am Denthim,” the heavyset driver said. “This is my mum. That other is another wanderer like you.” He extended a calloused hand to her. “Up you come, if you will it. You’ll be safer with us, I think. And I’d wager a fivestar that there’s naught but abandoned villages before us for leagues.”
“And darkness behind,” said the old woman.
The sleeping man stirred in his sleep, mumbled something incomprehensible.
Varra took his hand, smiled in gratitude, and climbed aboard the wagon. “Thank you, goodsir.”
The elderly woman grinned at her, showing age-blackened teeth, and gestured her to sit. Varra squeezed onto the reach bench of the wagon, amidst the sleeping man and pans and blankets and barrels.
She glanced back once at the storm. It was gaining on them.
The sleeping man chuckled in his dream.
* * * * *
Rivalen’s room darkened, as did his mood. The shadows around him churned. He sat on a divan, wrapped in shadows, in questions, and turned in his fingers the burned silver and amethyst ring Elyril Hraven had left in his lockbox for him to find, to announce that she had stolen the Leaves of One Night. He took the ring between thumb and forefinger and crushed it.
A rap at his door jarred him.
“Speak,” he called, too harshly.
The voice of the Hulorn’s chamberlain, Thriistin, sounded through the wood.
“Prince Rivalen, the Hulorn requests your presence. There is news from Ordulin. Something…strange is afoot.”
Strange, indeed, Rivalen thought. He inhaled deeply and adopted his false face.
“Inform the Hulorn that I will attend him apace. I have only a small matter to consider first.”
“Yes, Prince Rivalen.”
The moment Thriistin walked away, Rivalen snarled and flung Elyril’s ring so hard into the door of his townhouse that it dented wood. He jerked the enameled black disc that served as his holy symbol from around the chain at his throat and stared his rage into its black hole.
She had kept her secrets from him, led him to believe one thing while doing another.
“I am your Nightseer,” he said to the shadows.
The darkness made no answer.
He engulfed the symbol in his palm and started to squeeze.
“It was I who was to summon the shadowstorm in your name. I.”
The disc bit into his skin. Warm blood seeped between his fingers even as his regenerative flesh tried to repair the damage. Still he squeezed, his rage building, his blood flowing.
“Why?” he said, his voice rising. The shadows about him swirled through the room, mirrored in miniature the shadowstorm over Ordulin.
“Why?” The disc snapped in his hand with a loud crack and the sound brought home the realization of what he had done. His rage abated. The shadows around him subsided. He opened his palm to look at the symbol of his faith, broken and bloody in his palm.
“I had hoped to be your instrument, Lady.”
The words caused him to think of his mother. He did not know why. And they also brought him revelation. He realized, with a clarity born of pain, that hope had been his transgression.
Accepting what he had done, he composed himself, stood, placed the cloven holy symbol in his pocket, and walked out of the room to attend the Hulorn.
* * * * *
The caravan arranged the wagons into a circle at nightfall, on the road but near the edge of the forest. Denthim organized the able-bodied men into watches and tried to calm the rest of the group. He distributed thin brass rods to the watchmen. Varra did not know what they were.
Denthim’s mother, assisted by a few other women in the caravan, cooked several kettles full of thin broth. Children cried and laughed and played around the fires. Men and women spoke softly, fearfully, and looked back on the storm.
Varra helped as she could but mostly tried to not get underfoot. A wave of nausea prevented her from enjoying the broth.
“Feeling unwell?” said the sleeping man.
His voice startled her and she disliked his smirk, the knowing look in his dark eyes, though something about him reminded her of Erevis. “I am fine.”
“Something in your belly, no doubt,” he said with a wink, and turned away from her. She decided to ignore him and he seemed to content to ignore her.
The camp eventually settled into sleep. When Denthim returned to the wagon, his mother and the dark man were already asleep in the wagon. Varra’s nausea had kept her awake and she smiled a greeting. Denthim smiled in return though he looked weary.
“Wind is picking up,” he said. He grunted as he pulled his girth up onto the wagon.
He patted her hand. “Try to get some sleep, little sister. Tomorrow we move quickly. That storm is closing on us.”
She nodded and decided not to look south. Denthim took more of the brass rods from an inner pocket. Varra saw that each was tipped with a dollop of a translucent substance.
“Sunrods,” Denthim explained, no doubt seeing her curious look. “Tap the end on something and it glows like a lantern. Bought them from a peddler once. Had them for years. Here.”
He handed her two. They felt warm in her hand. Denthim settled into the bench and soon his snores joined the hiss of the wind. Varra rolled up in a blanket that smelled like hay and slept.
She awoke later to a howling wind and a roiling stomach. Denthim and his mother slept near her in the wagon, stirring fitfully. The dark man lay curled up in the far corner of the wagon, difficult to see in the darkness. She realized that she had not learned his name.
Her stomach grew worse and she knew she would need to retch. Unwilling to wake the others with the sound of her vomiting, she climbed out of the wagon and hurried toward the forest. She patted the shoulder of one of the men maintaining a watch as she passed.
“Need privacy,” she said, and he grunted in reply.
She made it into the darkness of the trees, put her hands on her knees, and vomited. When she was done, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
A violent gust of wind rattled the trees, sent them to whispering. Goosepimples rose on Varra’s skin. She felt the air change, felt it cool, felt it grow heavy. Something was wrong. She dashed for the camp.
Before she had taken five steps she tripped on an exposed root and fell. The impact knocked the breath from her and her warning died in a painful wheeze. The wind picked up still more, a gale that tore leaves and limbs from trees, and it carried on its currents hateful moans that made Varra’s bones ache.
Screams erupted from the camp. One, another, another. Lights flared to life in the watchmen’s hands – Denthil’s sunrods. Varra half-crawled, half-ran back to the edge of the forest.
The wind sent a fog of dirt and dust through the camp. She made out dark, roughly humanoid-shaped figures with eyes like burning coals whirling in the wind, whipping through the camp, a storm of clotted forms. There were three living shadows for every person in the caravan.
The shadows, perhaps attracted to the light, swarmed the watchmen with sunrods. Dozens of forms whipped around the men, blotting out the light, reaching into and through the watchmen’s flesh with cold, black arms. In moments all of the watchmen were dead, all of the sunrods extinguished.
Children cried. Women and men shouted, screamed. Varra could barely hear them above the moans of the shadows, above the wail of the wind. The shadows flitted through the camp, reaching out for warm flesh. And where they touched, they killed.
The camp devolved into chaos. People scrambled from their wagons, panicked, desperate. Horses and mules bucked and kicked against their tethers. Shadows swarmed the site, moaning, killing.
Varra heard Denthim shouting orders. He stood near his wagon, holding the bridle of his panicked mule, even as the creature sought to break free of its yoke.
“Here!” he shouted. “Here.”
Others took up his call and a pocket of fighting men and women – sheltering the children, elderly, and those who could not fight for themselves – formed a rough line and hurried toward Denthim.
A dozen corpses dotted the plain. Shadows wheeled everywhere.
Varra knew no one would escape, not unless the shadows could be drawn off.
She acted before she thought. Sheltered behind the bole of a tree, she struck one of her sunrods on the trunk and it burst into light. She hurled it into the forest away from her.
A dozen pairs of red eyes turned from the attack and darted for the light. Varra ran further back into the forest and struck another sunrod, casting it in the opposite direction of the first. The shadows’ moans chased after it.
Varra ran deeper into the trees and ducked behind the bole of a tree, breathing heavily. She poked out her head to see that the shadows had already extinguished the first light and, as she watched, they squelched the second. She had not delayed them long. She could still hear shouts from the caravan’s camp site.
She held the last sunrod in her hand, stared at it, considered, her heart bouncing around in her breast.
She made up her mind, closed her eyes, and struck it on the tree.
“Here!” she shouted. “Here I am!”
She held the sunrod aloft and ran for her life into the forest.
Bone chilling moans chased her into the trees. The sounds from the beleaguered camp faded. She heard only her own breathing, only the threats on the wind, the moans of the shadows.
She resolved to hold onto the rod until she had gotten far from the camp.
Sweat dripped into her eyes, felt cool on her skin. Limbs slapped her face, snagged her cloak. She stumbled once, twice, and little exclamations of terror escaped her lips. Fatigue and terror drained her strength rapidly. She threw her legs one in front of the other but felt as if she had sacks hanging from her belt sash. The shadows were drawing nearer. The air grew chill, the moans more pronounced.
She could not go on. Cast the sunrod as far from her as she could, she staggered off in the other direction. She did not make it far before she sagged against a tree and tried to catch her breath. She heard the shadows moaning behind her, around her, but dared not peek out.
A hand closed over her mouth and panic caused her to utter a muffled scream. She went limp; her body had no strength left with which to fight.
“Quiet,” said a voice, and she recognized it as that of the dark man from the caravan. He removed his hand.
She could not understand his presence but fear caused her mind to work slowly.
“What are you doing here?” she whispered at last.
“Fiddling around the edges.” He grinned, the smile of a madman, and touched his hand to her belly. A stabbing pain wracked her abdomen. She screamed, doubled over. The shadows heard and answered her scream with moans.
* * * * *
“Who is she speaking to?” one of Brennus’s homunculi said and cocked its head.
The other homunculus leaned forward and peered into the face of the scrying cube. “I thought I saw someone.”
Brennus cast several divinations in rapid succession to determine if Erevis Cale, perhaps invisible and warded, had come to Varra’s aid. He had not. But for the shadows, she was alone.
“She speaks to herself,” Brennus answered. “She is terrified. And she may have just lost her child to the strain.”
* * * * *
Rivalen waited for moonset, pulled the shadows about him, and flew into the cool night air high above Selgaunt. The city stretched out below him, its torchlit thoroughfares like glowing snakes. The Elzimmer River looked like a black gash in the plain, a jagged open wound. A few ships floated in the harbor.
Rivalen looked northeast, toward Ordulin, toward the Shadowstorm. He could not see it but knew it was there, summoned by Volumvax the Mad.
Shar had not chosen him, and his dreams had died in the darkness of her secrets. He looked into the moonless sky and shouted his rage into the void.
* * * * *
Varra, still gasping from the memory of pain, said, “What did you do?”
The man nodded at her belly. “Mind that child.”
Varra stared dumbfounded. “Child?”
“Yes, child. Worry over it later. Go, now. They are coming.”
But Varra was too stunned to move. She was with child? How could she not have known? How could he, a stranger to her, have known? She stared into his handsome face.
“Who are you?”
The moment she asked the question she felt a nervous flutter in her stomach, fear that he might answer her truthfully.
He looked down, smiling, and poked a finger through a hole in his leather jerkin. “Interesting question.” He sighed and looked up. “I am an actor. And we have a mutual acquaintance. Let us leave it there.”
The shadows moaned and she felt the cold of their coming.
“Come with me,” she said. “We can hide.”
He shook his head. “I must leave this place. But you cannot come with me.” He pointed over her shoulder. “There is…safety there. Trust me. Do you?”
From his expression, she thought much depended on her answer. She nodded and he smiled. There was sadness in it.
“Then run. Now.”
She looked around the tree and the shadows saw her. Their red eyes flared and a dozen black forms streaked at her. She looked back at the man and he was gone. She had no time to think about where he had gone. She turned and pelted through the underbrush, cracking tree limbs, stumbling, cursing, but never stopping. The thought of her child, Erevis’s child, pushed her. She felt the shadows on her heels, moaning, reaching with cold fingers to drain the life from her flesh and that of her child. They were right behind her, closing, haunting her steps.
She burst through the trees and into a meadow of flowers. She did not slow. The shadows moaned, the sound right behind her. She heard the tinkling of distant bells and thought herself going mad.
Tears mixed with sweat on her face. She had trusted the dark man but he was a liar. There was no safety, only flowers and death. Her legs gave out and she fell amidst the blooms. A shower of silvery pollen floated into the night air.
The shadows swarmed over her. Menace and cold chilled her flesh. She screamed at their touch, felt it pulling the life from her flesh, turning her cold. She curled up, placed her hands over her stomach, over her child, and wished that she were somewhere safe, anywhere, somewhere where she could raise her child in peace and light….
* * * * *
Brennus stared into his scrying lens. Shadows leaked from his flesh.
“Where did she go?” one of his homunculi asked, peering into the scrying lens.
The other sagged with disappointment. “They were going to kill her.”
“What happened to the flowers?” said the first.
Brennus shook his head, watched the meadow for a few moments more. Every flower in the glade was black, wilted, dead, and the woman was gone.
The shadows wheeled about in frustration then darted off.
Puzzled, Brennus cast a series of divinations through his scrying lens, thinking that perhaps the woman had turned invisible or otherwise masked her presence. No. She was gone. He tried to refocus the eye of his lens on Varra, wherever she’d gone, but the lens showed only gray.
“How?” he said.
Both homunculi shrugged.
Brennus turned the scrying lens back on the meadow, studied it for a moment. He pulled the darkness about him, let his mind feel the correspondence with the darkness in the meadow, and transported himself there.
He materialized at the edge of the meadow. The dead flowers crunched under his boots. Were the flowers somehow involved in the woman’s escape, or were they killed as a side effect of whatever magic the woman had used? A divination revealed the residuum of powerful magic, but he could not determine its nature. He attempted a magical trace to determine where she might have fled but the spell showed him nothing.
“Where are you, woman?”
He could not leave the question unanswered. He spent the next hour scouring the surrounding forest, the meadow, casting one divination after another. He found nothing until one of his minor spells showed the faint glow of something magical buried just under the earth.
“There is something buried there, under the earth. Retrieve it.”
His homunculi squealed, leaped from his shoulders, and fell over each in their effort to please huim. Both tore through the dead flowers, the soft earth, until they pulled something from the dirt.
They pulled at the small, dirt-covered item – a chain perhaps, or a necklace.
“Enough,” Brennus said, and took it from them.
Both homunculi stuck their tongue out at the other.
Brennus saw that they had indeed unearthed a necklace, coated in the sediment of years, probably something dropped accidentally by some elf or traveler. He whispered the words to a minor cantrip to clean the piece and when it lay exposed in his hand – a platinum necklace with a large jacinth charm – it chased from his mind all thoughts of Cale’s woman.
“Pretty,” one of his homunculi said, as it climbed back to its perch on his shoulder.
Shadows swirled around Brennus, his own personal shadowstorm. He could hardly breathe. “It was my mother’s.”
He turned over the charm and saw there the inscription – For Alashar, my love. “How did it get here?” the homunculi asked in unison.
He closed his hand over the necklace. “I do not know.”
But discovering things was his gift.
* * * * *