The day’s sun began to sink over the western mountains by the time Nalya’s scouts had returned to her. They’d been sent out and ordered to investigate a pillar of rising black smoke that marred the southern sky early in the day. Nalya’s maps told her a small village that went by the name of Stone’s Mouth rested in a long valley that lay between the Aegel Mountain coast to the east, and the Senta Pass to the west. She’d remained optimistic that the column of smoke could be explained by a bonfire, or perhaps an accident. When one of her scouts came back, grim-faced, Nalya knew before he spoke that she was to be disappointed.
“Lady,” Teslan Nikol, her scout, greeted. He climbed from the back of his myrnah, a tall, sparsely feathered riding bird favored for its rapid speed and agility. Nikol knelt before her, ready to make his report.
Nalya swept a lock of blond hair from her face as she looked down at him with determined blue eyes. She bade him to stand. “Report,” she said.
Teslan nodded, then stood up. “We traveled several leagues south when we came across Stone’s Mouth,” he said, “the village was in ruin. We spoke with the Elder of the village, a man by the name of Akris Holm. He claims they were beset upon by Vectoran raiders early in the morning. They destroyed many of their crops, made off with much of their livestock and forcefully conscripted those young and strong enough to serve.” Teslan wore a grim look on his face. “They took their sons to act as slaves and their daughters to serve as whores.”
Nalya’s face turned graven. “You’re sure of this?” she asked silently.
Teslan nodded. “The Elder claims it. From the state the village was in, there’s no question of whether he speaks truth. The only people there were children and elders. A small number of young men and women made it through unscathed, but many others were slaughtered. They still burn the bodies, even now.”
Nalya pored over her map. She frowned. “Thank you, Private,” she said. “You’ve done well, help yourself to dinner and get some rest.”
Teslan nodded his head, then stood. “Lady.” He turned and walked off, deeper into the camp.
Her name was Nalya dels Avirne el Ruus, and it was her charge by the King Nadus Hillbreaker the twenty-third to bring a force of a thousand men deep into the Disputed Lands, a lawless land south of the nation of Halen that lay unclaimed since the days of the Signing of the Pact, some thousand years hence. It was not that the lands offered no resources from which to reap, only that the land itself lay within political turmoil during those years. All who had ever laid a claim to the lands could not support them.
But then the nation of Vector, to the south, had done something unprecedented since the Signing of the Pact. Emperor Tammil Cuerian, a shrewd man who claimed the throne through trickery and cunning, had declared to the High Magus Council, the Pactkeepers, his intention to claim the Disputed Lands under the banner of Vector. The Council had conferred on the subject, and could find no reason to deny him the right to claim the lands.
However, the lands still needed to be occupied. A city would have to be erected that claimed allegiance to Vector. A complete occupation of the lands would have to take place. Then, and only then, would the Disputed Lands pass into eager hands. That task had been left in the hands of Ajjiro Ryde, Cuerian’s right hand. A man just as shrewd and cunning as Cuerian himself, and the Lord General of the Vectoran forces.
“Ryde moves fast,” came Keltz Wicket’s voice. Nalya turned her head away from the map and looked to her First Lieutenant. She had known Keltz Wicket for years. The two had gone to the Academies together, studying under the Hall of the Swan. They’d become fast friends. She, a noble from the House of Roses, and he, a commoner awarded a scholarship by a Lord from Kura, along the northern coast of Halen. They had studied together, got into mischief together, and eventually graduated together.
Now, under the banner of Halen, they served together.
Nalya observed the young sandy-haired man for a moment, then offered a nod. “He does,” she said. “If he’s already conscripting Freemen, then that could only mean he’s claimed a city.” She looked back to the map. “The only question is where?”
“Conscripting Freemen?” came another voice with a thick southern Raszan accent from behind her. Nalya turned to regard her bodyguard, Bayne Dalon, as he walked towards her. Bayne was nearing the twilight of his life, his hair having turned white years ago. He was a thin, gaunt man, but quick with a sword, and deadly with a blade in his hands. Many a young man had met their match when challenging Bayne. “And where’s the point in tha’?” he asked. “Bloody Pactless fools wouldn’t know where to find the sharp end of a sword!”
Nalya shook her head and sighed. Like so many others in the Pactlands, Bayne viewed the Freemen as nothing more than nuisances. Men and women who lived in lawless lands not by necessity, but by choice. Criminals and transients who, rather than face the laws of the Pact, chose instead to flee them. It had been that way since the fall of Eventide. The truth was, however, that the Freemen who inhabited the Disputed Lands were only descendants of those who had fled from the other nations of the Pactlands. These new Freemen had no choice in their birth, but most preferred not to consider them in such a way. Nalya was one exception. Her father had always taught her to view every living man, women and child as her equal, and those lessons had held true.
“Must your memory be so long, Bayne?” Keltz asked. “Those who were stolen by Vector likely have no knowledge of the Pactlands at large. They’re merely descendants of the old lawless.”
“Bah,” Bayne said. “A Freeman is a Freeman, no matter what his tale,” he said. “A Raszan’s memory is as long as his–”
“Bayne!” Nalya barked. “That’s enough!”
Bayne grumbled something under his breath, but Nalya ignored it. She went back to poring over the map while Bayne and Keltz watched over her in the waning daylight.
“Still,” Keltz said. “It’s evident of a dire plot if he truly is conscripting the Freemen.” He looked over the map. “Stone’s Mouth. Is there any strategic value to the village?”
Nalya nodded. “It lays in a valley between the Aegel and Senta Mountains,” she said. “It would be an invaluable location to any seeking to oppose their claim.”
“No doubt why they laid the torch to it,” Bayne said. “Leave none to defend the village for when they come to reclaim it.”
“It would be an ideal staging ground,” Nalya said. “If Vector’s already raided the village, they may not return for some time, and Stone’s Mouth may welcome us in exchange for supplies and protection.” She looked up to Keltz. “Are you up for a short journey?”
“To Stone’s Mouth?” Keltz asked. “You really think that the best course?”
Nalya nodded. She turned back towards her tent. “I must speak with the Elder there,” she said. “Gather a force of twenty men, we’re to leave now.”
“Now?” Keltz asked. He looked to the setting sun. “Do you not think it late?”
Nalya shook her head. “Fetch Lieutenant Syrel,” she said. “Have him prepare the men to move out come morning. Tonight, we shall discuss terms with the people of Stone’s Mouth. It’s a few leagues to the south. We’ll arrive when the Dream reaches its peak.” She pointed to the now-rising form of the Azure Dream in the distant sky. During the night, the last remnants of the day’s sun would reflect off of its distant waters, lighting the way for travelers. Only during the Low Dream, when it hid itself in a dark shadow would the nights be truly dark.
But thankfully, Low Dream had ended a week earlier. It would be another three before the night was too dark to traverse without the light afforded to them by a Pyromagi.
Keltz looked at Bayne, who smirked from the corners of his mouth. “Aye,” he said. “Just like her father, she is. When she gets an idea in her ‘ead, it’s best to see it through, lest ye invite ‘er wrath.”
Nalya simply ignored Bayne and stepped into her tent.
It had taken a few hours to reach Stone’s Mouth. It was by Nalya’s insistence that they travel by foot rather than horse or myrnah. Although the Azure Dream did a good job of lighting their way, beneath the dark canopy of the forest, torchlight was the only way they could truly navigate.
It was some time past midnight when Nalya announced she could see the fires that marked the way to Stone’s Mouth. She could see them through the trees, a beacon in the night.
“You men remain here,” Nalya announced to the small force of soldiers she had chosen to accompany them. Her men agreed, then settled in to rest for the time being. Nalya looked to Keltz. “You and Bayne come with me,” she said, then turned back to the village.
Keltz nodded, then pushed his way through the trees, emerging in a small clearing just on the outskirts of the village. He caught something reflecting in the dreamlight, and looked over to see the skeletal husk of an old mine skulking in the shadows of a high mountain. The villagers plied their trade through mining. Suddenly, his nostrils were flooded with the scent of roasting pork. He looked over to the large bonfire and watched as villagers threw a wrapped bundle into the fire.
His stomach suddenly twisted as he came to the sudden realization that they were no mere bundles. It wasn’t pork he was smelling.
Suddenly, several villagers noticed the advance of the three. There were quick, sudden movements as the people of Stone’s Mouth scrambled about, attempting to hide, but as Nalya finally approached, she knelt to the ground.
“I would speak with the one called Elder,” she said aloud. “The one that goes by the name of Akris Holm.”
A tall, gaunt man with hollow cheeks stood up before the fire. He merely observed Nalya for a moment, then approached her.
“Are you Akris Holm?” Nalya asked as he drew near.
“Yes. Yes, Lady. I am Akris,” the man replied slowly. He fidgeted around nervously. Nalya could understand why. Besides the odd feud with other villages in the Disputed Lands, the Freemen had lived in peace. Wars between families took place. Sometimes there were wars which has involved a number of villages, each with a common interest. But those feuds would never have resulted in what befell Stone’s Mouth that day. The damage was considerable. Several homes were nothing more than burned-out husks, still smokey and smoldering. The simple construction of the wood and straw homes could not stand up to Vector’s fires.
It made little sense to Keltz. Why not simply hire a Geomagi Architect?
“You are… the Lady Nalya?” the old Elder asked.
Nalya nodded. “I am,” she said.
“Yes,” Akris said. “Your scouts. They came earlier. They had said that you were near.” He looked around nervously. Several people still lingered around the fire, watching Nalya and the others with a sense of distrust. “My people, they believe you will hurt us, like the Vectorans.”
“We mean no ill will to the people of your village,” Nalya said. “In fact, we come to offer a proposition.”
“A proposition?” Akris tilted his head to one side. “Go on.”
“I command a force of a thousand Halish men,” she said. “We wish to make our base camp just to the north of your village. In return, we will offer you food, labor and protection should any future Vectoran raids take place.”
Akris considered her offer for a moment, his face expressionless. Nalya was about to speak again when he put his hand up, stopping her.
“We did not invite the Vectorans to this place,” he said. “They came upon us at noon, surprising us from the forests. They took everything we had. I’m afraid we have little to offer your men, but I would be a fool not to accept your offer.” He sighed. “Only that I wish you had come sooner. They took my son, my daughter. My wife they killed without a second thought.” He motioned towards the bonfire. “We’ve been burning the bodies since they left.”
Nalya nodded. “I am sorry for our timing,” she said.
“Will you fight the Vectorans, Lady?” Akris asked.
Nalya sighed. “We will defend you,” she said. “But it is not our place to begin a war between Vector and Halen,” she said. “We only come to monitor and report on their activities.”
Akris closed his eyes, then sighed. “Very well,” he said. “Then I accept.” He looked up and gestured towards a nearby house, untouched by the violence from the day. “Korin Paltz was returned to the ashes this afternoon. His home lies empty. It should be more than enough to accommodate you three.”
Nalya nodded. “I thank you, Elder,” she said, then bowed. “I have a small platoon of men in the trees behind us. Where may they set camp?”
Akris looked past them to the trees. Finally, he pointed to a small grassy area across a small creek that ran through the village where a large fruit-bearing tree stood. “Your men can camp there for the night,” he said. “We shall still be awake for some time. We’ll not rest until those lost have been returned to ash, and it wouldn’t do to have them in the way.”
“I understand, Elder,” Nalya said. “And once again, I thank you.”
Akris only nodded. “I should be the one to thank you, Lady,” he said. “Just your being here will give us a peace of mind we’ve not had since before our world was torn topside-down.” With that, he turned back to the other villagers, and told them of what had transpired.
A few hours had passed when Nalya suddenly woke. A strange dream had plagued her, causing her to shoot up from her bed, and she let out enough of a shriek to stir Keltz from his slumber.
“Lady?” Keltz asked. “Are you well?”
“A dream,” Nalya said, her breath heavy. “Only a dream.”
“Dreams are the windows into souls,” Keltz replied. “What was it about?”
Nalya shook her head. “I couldn’t say. I could only see a deep violet light.” She got up from her bed and put a coat on over her shift. “I can’t remember what it was about.”
“A violet light?” Keltz asked. He watched Nalya as she walked over to the window, which offered a view of the Aegel mountains. “A strange thing to dream of.”
Nalya nodded and looked out the window. “Indeed,” she said. She said nothing for a moment, then looked up to the sky.
Her lips parted in shock.
“Nalya?” Keltz asked.
Slowly, she raised a shaky hand and pointed out the window. “Keltz, do you see… can you see that?”
Keltz rolled out of the bed and walked to the window, looking to where she had been pointing. Keltz looked on in alarm.
There, high in the sky above the Aegel Mountains, was a light. A bright, violet light that seemed to pulse in the air.
“What is that?” Keltz asked.
Nalya looked back at Keltz. “I can’t be sure,” she said. “But it was the same in my dream.”
A sudden stirring came from behind the two as Bayne sat up in his bed. “Aye, but ye lot are noisy,” he grumbled. “What are ye prattlin’ on about now?”
He’d barely gotten the sentence out when the ground beneath them started to shake. Objects rattled off of shelves and crashed to the ground. Bayne looked around in shock as jars of porcelain and glass began to fall and shatter against the wooden floor.
“What magicks?” Bayne exclaimed. He grabbed hold of a bed post, bracing himself.
Suddenly, a strange, inhuman light began to flood in through the window. Nalya and Keltz yelled out in shock as the light above the Aegel mountains began to expand quickly, causing the ground to shake even more violently.
Light poured through the window, but it was unlike any they had ever seen. Nalya watched in dismay as the whites of Bayne’s eyes lit up, along with pieces of cloth and flecks of porcelain that lay on the floor. Pieces of sand and white stone glowed brightly, but still the room remained dark. The strange light which passed through the window could only cast its strange hues onto white-colored objects.
“What is happening?” Keltz asked, the shock in his voice rising.
Nalya could only watch as the strange light began to envelop the mountains in the distance. It spread far to the south, and to the north. It covered a distance of leagues, and swallowed the tops of mountains along the Aegel Coast. Suddenly, the light slowed its rapid expansion. The ground stopped shaking, and Nalya was able to take one good look at the halo of dark light.
Finally, there was a sudden, blinding burst that forced Nalya to turn away quickly. She looked back to room, and watched as the light flared up once more, and then died altogether.
As quickly as it had begun, the strange light had gone.
“What in Maer’s Sight was that?” Bayne asked.
Nalya kept her eyes trained on the mountainside. She couldn’t be certain, but she felt the shape of the mountains had changed somehow. The rugged peak which she had seen only moments before was now gone, replaced by a smooth ridge that simply hadn’t been there. A little to the south, another mountain stood where before, there had been none. It was as if the entire landscape had changed.
Suddenly, something someone once told her came to the forefront of her memory, and with a gasp, she realized what had happened. She wasted no time. She turned around, and set herself to the task of getting dressed.
“Lady?” Keltz asked.
“Go wake the men,” she said. “Have ten of them come with us. The rest are to stay and wait for Lieutenant Syrel and the others.”
“Come with us where?” Bayne asked. “What madness are ye spouting off?”
Nalya only looked at Bayne with a steady gaze. She pointed out the window. “We’re going out there,” she said.
“Out there?” Bayne asked. “Ye can’t be serious, lass. It could only be dark magicks which–”
“Bayne,” Nalya barked. “I’ll not argue this with you .” She looked out over the window. “We leave for those mountains,” she said. “Now.”