6630 words (26 minute read)

Chapter Five

CHAPTER FIVE


Baron and Melash passed through the arch of maeroth and into the Place of the Golden Tear. Before them stood a great statue of dark marble, depicting a glorious warrior, the old king Samallyn, long of hair and beard, driving a magnificent blade downwards into the Source Tear, a great golden drop that, as legend had it, had once held all the magic of the world. The artisanship of the carving was quite wondrous; the old King seemed to gleam as though in direct sunlight whatever the weather, and the majesty of his bearing was unmistakeable.

Baron and Melash turned towards eirith and the wide steps of the Causeway towards the Capitol. As they passed through the arch, two soldiers stepped forward as if to bar their path with their gleaming halberds. Banners depicting a golden hawk on royal blue trimmed with gold hung from the axe-blades, matching the tabards draped over the soldiers’ marvellous silver plate, but as they noted Bergen’s Oak on Baron’s forearm and on a scarf tied at Melash’s hip, they withdrew their weapons and let them pass. Baron stepped past the guards as they snapped back into position, mirroring each other’s posture, halberds held arrow straight at their sides. Very well trained, these Kingsmen. Bet they’re spoiling for a scrap now there’s no king to guard.

As they started up the Causeway, Baron remarked, “That was easy. Was expecting to be name-checked at least.”

“Guess the Accidentals are akin to royalty these days,” Melash replied. Her tone was light, but she looked concerned for some reason. Women. Always worrying about one thing or another. Baron put it out of his mind.

The walk up the Causeway was not insignificant, and though the steps were wide and shallow, the afternoon sun still held plenty of heat as it dipped towards the western horizon, shining full in their eyes as they made their ascent, and Baron was uncomfortably hot by the time they reached the foot of the Capitol steps. He could feel sweat matting the hair of his chest and armpits and, given the morning’s exploits, he was sure he smelled awful. Thankfully the greisvine had spared him a hangover. Nevertheless when Melash approached the steward, he took in Baron in one appraising glance and immediately ushered them through his gatehouse and into the castle through the small door beside the main gate. Baron, though long-serving, had no skill and even less interest in dealing with the contractual or diplomatic endeavours of the mercenary band, so he had remained happily low-ranking among the Accidentals and had never had cause to be inside the Capitol itself. Melash was a dab hand with the nobles – they seemed even less able to think past their cocks than Baron himself – and she knew the courts of Anahor as well as he knew the brothels of the Wetlands. Which was better than either of them would admit. Even so, he was disappointed that the small door led not into the grand entrance hall of the castle, but instead into a dark and narrow corridor lit by a single wall sconce. The corridor led to another door at the far end, through which the steward led them up a spiral staircase that lasted for what felt like several floors. The stairway was tight enough that they had to walk in single file; the steward went first, followed by Melash and then Baron himself, his wide shoulders brushing dust from the wall on either side. Luckily walking behind Melash afforded him a view that alleviated any claustrophobia he might otherwise have felt.

Eventually they reached yet another door at the top of the staircase, on which the steward knocked softly. A deep, muffled voice from within bid them enter.

The door opened to reveal row upon row of stacked bookshelves, ornately carved of a beautiful reddish wood. Tomes of all description lined the shelves – Baron’s eyes were drawn to some brightly coloured spines that he recognised from his childhood on his father’s estate. The royal hawk was etched into the shelves and the walls and the light was warm and soft in this private reading space, a small circular enclave off the raised walkway that traced the walls on the first floor of the royal library. In the centre of the room stood the Third Councilman, his back – backs? –turned to the newcomers as they entered.

Baron had come across plenty of Hal’iri in his time but somehow he had never grown accustomed to their appearance. For Ixeniot’s head was fully eight feet from the ground, his thick pale golden hair tightly curled to his scalp like the locks of a god carved of marble. His skin was yellowed, enough to give the impression that he stood in a different light to normal beings. His arms – uncovered, as he wore a long and rich sleeveless woollen coat of pure white trimmed with gold, tied off with a rich sash of deep crimson – were long and slim but knotted with wiry strength, and his fingers were long and elegant as they currently leafed through a heavy book.

The Councilman’s extraordinary appearance did not end at simple jaundice, however; for where a man’s hips would sprout legs, the Hal’iri’s blended seamlessly into rich chestnut fur, spreading into the muscular shoulders of a horse, complete with powerful legs and hooves and draped with the long train of his coat. And the damn tail, Baron mused, watching the latter as it twitched absently. Ixeniot turned as he heard them enter, catching Baron in his startling emerald gaze. His nose was strong and knuckled, the cheekbones proud, the beard thick and lustrous, as golden and tightly curled as the hair. Handsome devil, Baron thought darkly, conscious of Melash at his side. Ixeniot took a step towards them, snapping the book shut with a puff of dust and smiling warmly. He extended a long hand to shake Baron’s as he spoke, and his voice was rich, deep and melodious.

“Welcome, friends. Please, be seated. You must be Melash, and you the son of Sir Tamsillyn.” Sir? Gods, don’t tell me Da has been knighted, I’ll never hear the end of it. “Osgar, some xriullet tea for our guests, please,” the Hal’iri continued as the steward bowed. Ixeniot quirked a golden brow, a smile playing about his lips. “Unless you would prefer something stronger?”

Baron opened his mouth to ask for some rum, but Melash beat him to the punch. “Some tea would be most welcome, Third Councilman.” Baron tried not to scowl, but judging by the twinkle in Ixeniot’s eyes, he failed.

“Thirsty, Sir Tamsillyn? Quite understandable on a hot day like today. Have you tried xriullet tea before? Perchance you have, given your family’s trade.” He spoke slowly as if enjoying the process, luxuriating especially in l and r. “No? It is quite wonderful, I assure you.” He waved Osgar out. “In fact the Tamsillyns of Alm are assuredly the finest purveyors of xriullet outside my homeland. It is far from simple to grow, I understand, in these parts, for Nahol is both cooler and drier than Xurgxoll and the herb thrives in heat and moisture. Such skill in producing such a fine crop. My compliments to your father.” He smiled broadly once more, gesturing them to the two seats around the small reading table. He, of course, remained standing as he continued. “My people have a saying, ‘xriullet orr unlel’liet anradxiur xorviul,’ which translates roughly to ‘he who grows fine xriullet shall know comfort and prosperity.’ The nuance is lost in the Common tongue, of course, but in Xurgxoll the saying is quite elegant, I assure you.” Indeed, when Ixeniot had tackled the bizarre array of consonants that was the Hal’iri tongue, it had sounded quite lyrical, although Baron knew that just looking at how it was spelled would kickstart his headache afresh. The Third Councilman spoke again.

“When the xriullet bulb ripens it opens its flower to the sun and the spores, which were previously enclosed by the petals, are released into the air. It is these spores that are used to brew the tea, so they must be gathered swiftly before they sink into the earth and begin to grow anew. It is an intricate process requiring a great deal of preparation and dexterity.” He was standing in front of the table now, looming over Melash and Baron, and he looked Baron directly in the eye now. “However the xriullet plant rarely survives the gathering of the spores, for though it is pleasing to the eye it is delicate and brittle once the petals open, and farmers’ hands can be rough and clumsy. And so, to ensure a steady harvest of the herb, a herbalist must be careful to retain enough spores to grow the next crop, or soon enough he will find he has no more to sell.” He appeared to notice he was looming, and took a step back, away from the table. “Such skill and dedication should be praised, yes? Perhaps not, since so much of worth is destroyed in the process.” He sighed. “Perchance we can learn from this, for great achievement seldom comes without cost.

“In the meantime – ah! Osgar, your timing is exquisite as always – let us be content with what we have.” He raised the cup Osgar had poured and took a sip of the steaming crimson brew. He smacked his lips appreciatively. “Quite content indeed.”

Baron took a gulp of his own tea and found it more palatable than expected – quite savoury and bitter, but immediately refreshing despite its heat. There was a long moment of silence and Baron shifted uncomfortably, unsure of why he had been invited. Ixeniot appeared quite happy to enjoy his tea in silence for the moment. Probably ruminating on that monologue, Baron thought. He fidgeted again and cleared his throat, and the Hal’iri’s eyes snapped immediately to lock him in that intense green stare. He spoke again as he set down his empty cup and saucer, suddenly less languorous than before.

“Tell me, Roriel Tamsillyn, have you Dominion?”

Baron stared, wrong-footed. “Er… no, my Lord. Well, a little aeneath, but scarcely enough to heat a pot of tea.”

“And you, Melash Lor’Devers?”

Baron knew Melash would be reddening at his side. Few enough knew her family name – just as well since calling her by it normally resulted in a knifepoint alarmingly close to your eyeball. Disreputable filth, she called her family on the rare occasions she acknowledged having one. Rumour had it that her father was a renowned pirate who never stayed on dry land long enough to be arrested and hanged for his numerous crimes. Baron had never pressed her for information, content to form with Melash a bond of friendship based on a tacit agreement never to discuss their respective families. She recovered from her discomfort smoothly enough, however, responding in a cool tone. “A reasonable level of the Second and Third Domains, as could be expected for one of… my birth. I am also an Adept of the Sixth, Lord Councilman.”

“Well spoken indeed. And please, let us dispense with titles. I was given the name Ixeniot, which is a good name. It seems wasteful not to use it.” The Hal’iri gestured for Osgar to take his leave and bent to refill their cups himself.

“You will no doubt be wondering why you are here, and while you must excuse my sesquipedalian nature, I make no apologies for it, since it was for my counsel – however long-winded – that King Carallyn appointed me his advisor before either of you were born. He recognised that in a long tale well explored, one can discover all manner of lessons applicable to one’s own sphere of existence. I was a scholar among my people before my family was exiled, and I consider it difficult to imagine that there are many living souls better versed in the histories of this world than I. Again, you must excuse what you no doubt interpret as my arrogance – among Hal’iri there is no shame in speaking plainly about one’s virtues. Indeed, confidence in one’s abilities is to be lauded, for if one fears to practice one’s talents, then those talents are wasted, are they not?

“It was for this reason that Carallyn later appointed me his son’s tutor and counsellor, and it is for this very same reason that I have summoned you here today. For I understand a little of your recent – ah – experiences, and I do not think you are to blame. Moreover I believe that together we are well placed to seek further understanding of this phenomenon, which I believe will be extremely beneficial to the preservation of this country.”

Baron blinked. This… country? Ixeniot continued.

“I see that you are surprised, Roriel. As well you might be, for my understanding is that you were led to believe your recent endeavour was no more than an ordinary quest to retrieve a stolen heirloom. Am I correct?” Baron flinched, surprised again by the direct question.

“Er… yeah. Though we were told the heirloom was some kind of secret so we weren’t to look at it. We got the job by a note the innkeeper was given. No names, just a drop-off point for the item.”

“That is not unusual, correct?” Ixeniot asked.

“Nah, happens all the time. Plenty of paying clients prefer to stay anonymous, and we pay our innkeepers to take messages as long as the client can prove they’re good for the gold. We were paid well enough that we didn’t ask questions, there was a big down-payment left with Harald.”

“And on arrival at the cavern known as Deepwell, you, Melash and…” the Hal’iri consulted a handwritten note that he tugged free from under the large tome he had been reading, “four other members of Bergen’s Accidentals moved through the cavern, eventually coming upon a group of Anahori noblemen who were in possession of the stolen artefact.”

“More or less, yeah—“

“That’s not all of it,” Melash cut in, causing Ixeniot’s regard to switch to her. “We were told to take back whatever it was, but we had to leave the nobles alive.” She frowned. “I remember on the way to Deepwell I felt uneasy, so did Fenway and Hann, our other two mages. We spoke about it, Hann and I. She said she’d felt a growing pressure in her head, that’s how she knows – how she felt strong magic nearby.” Baron sat back in his chair, anxiety digging at his stomach, and tried to look inconspicuous as Ixeniot motioned for Melash to continue.

“The feeling was growing the closer we got. I told Baron – Roriel – there was something serious in that cavern, and we made sure we went in quietly, Baron and Donal up front as our heavies, Di’Pauli and I next and Fenway and Hann bringing up the rear. Fenway was muffling us and Hann had us warded against the Domains as strongly as he could. Standard protocol for a close quarters ingress.”

“Go on,” Ixeniot said quietly. Melash glanced sideways at Baron – he had crossed his arms, his expression closed – before continuing.

“Well, near enough as soon as we moved inside the wards started to shake and bend as if they were under some sort of assault. Hann cried out that her head felt as if it were splitting in half, and then we were attacked – four of them, clad in black, hidden in the shadows to either side of the entryway. They were cloaked in some sort of illusion, though I couldn’t make it out clearly – it was like they were shifting in and out of sight, as though they were half melded with the shadows. Urdoeth, presumably – I didn’t recognise the entire weave but some of it was familiar at least.

“Anyway, they jumped us but Baron and Donal both got their shields up and Pauli and I were able to slip round and take out the first two, then Fenway blasted the others to hell with a mix of maeroth and aeneath. His preferred offensive spell, comes out like forks of lightning. They were quick, these guards, but… well, we’re quicker, I suppose.

“I think Fenway’s attack and all the noise must have given the game away, though. We moved into the next room – a bigger cavern, lit up in green and purple from some sort of magical energy swirling around the middle. They – the nobles, three of them – were all lined up in a semicircle around the energy, hands outstretched like they were warming their hands before a fire.” Her gaze was distant as she recounted her experience, her voice hushed.

“They had three or four other guards with them too, weapons out. As soon as we made a move towards them, there was this awful noise – like the rock itself was in pain, a terrible shrieking noise – and the ground burst underneath us. I was flung clear and I saw Baron fly the other way. He hit the wall pretty hard I think.”

She paused, taking several deep breaths, and reached for her tea. Baron noticed that her hand shook slightly. “I was dazed too but I managed to roll to my feet. Just in time, because one of the guards was on me. I managed to get my sword out and – well, the short version is that I killed them, and when I turned around I saw Donal on his back with a sword in his gut, though there were two bodies at his feet so clearly he’d given at least as good as he’d got. Pauli—“ her voice caught and the teacup rattled. Baron found he couldn’t look away as she set it down again, her eyes wet. “Pauli was on the floor between Donal and me – well, most of him was, though he was barely recognisable, all – all whitened, and twisted, like a burnt out log.” She stopped, and Baron watched as she took another shuddering breath, wiping her eyes. Ixeniot waited patiently for her to resume her tale.

“Eventually I managed to…. to look away, and I saw Hann and Fenway. They were both channelling their Domains, I could feel the power coursing through them, and I could see the waves of energy flying out of them, but the waves were being stopped, beaten back by... tendrils of dark purple and black and blinding blue-white, flowing from the nobles to my right. It was strange, horrifying – thick with urdoeth, thicker than any I’ve felt before, but the weave was impossibly complex, threading all six Domains together in ways more chaotic and intricate than I’ve ever seen.” Her voice was loud now, and steady, her eyes wide. “It was like it was consuming Fenway and Hann’s power, just inexorably working its way towards them, and I could feel they were pushing themselves too far, that they couldn’t last. The noise was incredible, like a thunderstorm, and I could barely keep my footing for the wind.

“But then Baron reappeared, and the fool rushed towards the nobles. He didn’t even have a damned weapon. I screamed for him to stop, that he’d get himself killed… the nobles didn’t even look his way, they looked like they weren’t even conscious, hanging limp in the air with these dark tendrils worming up from a bundle of rags on the floor in front of them, and through their bodies and out towards Fenway and Hann. They were twitching,” she recounted, revulsion plain in her features. “Their heads were lolling like their necks were broken. It was like the power was using them rather than the other way round.

“Baron didn’t stop though, he dived to the floor and grabbed the bundle of rags, and he pulled out an axe from inside, and then—“ she stopped, and when she spoke again, her voice was shaking, quiet as a mouse in the expectant air. “Everything happened at once. There was a snap like a mast splitting, and the tendrils turned on themselves and flailed around in the air like they were being sucked back into the axe Baron was holding. The nobles seemed to bend backwards on themselves and their backs must’ve broken, but Baron brought the axe round and in one swing he cleaved them all in two. All three in one swing.

“Then he turned round, and as he turned I saw his face.” She broke off. Several seconds passed before she spoke again, her voice weak and tremulous. “It was white, whiter than death, his eyes were rolled up and there was something pouring off him… nothing physical, it was something… draining, somehow. Like… like I knew I was going to die.

“And he charged at Donal – so fast – and he swung the axe again, and…” she broke off again, and Baron saw she was clutching her arms to herself, her knuckles white, staring wide-eyed at nothing. Baron found he was sweating, and felt a desperate desire to run away, but his legs failed him.

“And he took the axe to Hann, and then to Fenway,” Ixeniot finished for her, his voice feather-soft. Melash only nodded, looking now at her feet. “How did you escape?” the Hal’iri asked. She spoke to the ground when she replied.

“I… I don’t think he’d seen me. Fenway managed to get his defences up and slowed the swing partially, though it still cut his arm clean off. I think it was his scream that woke me up,” she said bitterly, her mouth twisting. “Only then did I move. Fenway managed to dodge the next blow – somehow, even one-armed, he still had enough in him to use a wind-whip and fly backwards. Baron – or whatever was in his body – had his back to me, and I finally managed to get my fucking legs moving. I managed to close the distance and clobber him in the back of the head with my pommel. Even then he didn’t go down, and I hit him hard enough that I bruised my fist. He just… turned to me, death all over his face, and my… my legs gave way. That terrible face… it wasn’t the Baron I know. It couldn’t have been. It was something unnatural, something… otherworldly. I knew in that instant that I was going to die, and there was nothing I can do. I couldn’t even cry out. But then Fenway… one-armed Fenway managed to blast him with maeroth, a huge surge, while Baron’s back was turned. It threw him against the far wall and the axe came out of his hand. He didn’t get up.”

Silence hung in the air and Baron held his breath, unable to meet Melash’s or Ixeniot’s eyes. A long moment passed before the Councilman spoke again.

“Please tell me what happened next.”

“I… I tied Fenway’s arm up tight to stem the bleeding.” She sniffed loudly, her voice more steady now, and cleared her throat. “He’d gone almost as white as Baron and couldn’t stand up, and he was weeping, just sitting there silently with tears running down his face, looking over at Hann… I couldn’t get him to look away.

“He passed out before long though. I sent a message out through the Sixth Domain to any Accidentals in the area – we have plenty of scouts and other teams roaming around at any one time. Fortunately there was a group on an escort job only a couple of hours away – they said they’d come and help us back to Anahor, take care of poor Fenway.

“In the meantime I did a bit of healing magic on him – enough to keep him going, though I had to be careful not to use up too much of his body’s energy doing it. He came round enough for me to get some water down him before he lost consciousness again. I was alone in the cavern and it was near enough pitch dark; I dug a couple of torches out of the nobles’ supplies and left one near Fenway, then I… I covered the… bodies. With some blankets.

“Eventually I had to go check on Baron. I hoped it was just Baron anyway… He was lying near the wall, blood all over him – he must’ve hit the wall face-first. He wasn’t moving and his breathing was so shallow. He looked… well, unconscious, battered, but he didn’t look like whatever had overtaken him was still… in there. Though I did spot that big scar on his hand, the hand that had held the axe. Couldn’t really miss it since it was steaming.” Baron felt Ixeniot’s eyes burning into his palm as Melash continued.

“Then I found the axe… not that I needed to look very hard, I could feel the damn thing as though it was digging into my brain. I used my sword to poke it over to the blankets it was wrapped in before and managed to re-wrap it without touching the cursed thing. Must’ve taken a while, since not long after I was done, Pruld and his team arrived and loaded us all up to head back to Anahor. They were on an escort job, bringing a rich merchant back with his latest hoard of mined silver.”

“Your tone suggest… anger?” Ixeniot queried.

Melash snorted, her usual forthrightness back in place now. “I’m angry all right. The merchant must’ve sent a man or two ahead after he saw us in the cavern – turns out the nobles we’d killed were friends of his and he sent word to Anahor that we should be arrested on arrival. And so we were.” She snorted again. “I suppose I should be grateful that they did at least take Fenway to be properly healed at the Cloister before they threw him in a cell.”

“And he has recovered, this Fenway?”

“Yeah, he’s OK. Down an arm, but he hasn’t lost his Dominion. Just his wife,” she spat.

Baron winced at this rejoinder, but Ixeniot did not show any sign of anger. He turned away, looking over the library, and spoke to them with his back still turned.

“I am truly sorry for the loss of your friends.” His voice was heavy, and Baron detected genuine sorrow. There was a long silence while Baron and Melash watched Ixeniot’s shoulders rise and fall with his deep breathing.

“I am aware that often these secretive orders come from the Council of Anahor. I have issued many myself over the years. We prefer not to alert the populace to our heavy reliance on what it essentially a mercenary band, not under our direct control. I can assure you, however, that I have uncovered no evidence that this order was issued by the Council. I do not know whence it came.”

Baron felt Melash sigh next to him. The Councilman extended a long arm to run his fingers down the varnished wood of a bookshelf before he turned around and regarded them both again for a long moment.

“You are of course familiar with the tale of the old King Samallyn and the Golden Tear?” Ixeniot asked. Baron nodded, confused by the non-sequitur. Melash grunted her assent. Ixeniot smiled faintly.

“I should hope so, since we in Anahor pass under his gaze every day. There are… conflicting accounts of his great quest to find the Golden Tear, the source of all the world’s magics. Each appears more fanciful than the last, but there is enough common ground between the various histories that we may distinguish what has been embellished over time, from what most as like came to pass.

“What is beyond doubt is that Samallyn, the High King of all Nahol, was a formidable man. A mighty warrior, a fine and honourable diplomat, a just ruler and a fearsome commander. He represented everything that men aspire to be, for he never lost sight of his most central philosophy – to rule as he would wish to be ruled himself. His courage was iron-shod, both in his convictions and in his prowess. And he recognised in himself the ability, and the will, to change the course of history. If he had a flaw, it is that he saw in himself limitless capability. He saw nothing as impossible, and he knew in his very soul that if he could take something under his control, he could use it for the purposes of goodness and justice. For he believed in his own ability to rule, and to control, above that of anyone else. And he may well have been correct in this belief, for such was his indomitable nature that he brought countless regions under the banner of Nahol, which in his time was a far larger land than it is today.

“As difficult as it may now be to believe, in the days of Samallyn, the inhabitants of this world had no Dominion. The Six Domains existed, intertwined in all things as they always have and always will, but they were simply the component energies of the world, intangible, inaccessible and impossibly distant, locked away from the prying manipulations of mortals. We could use the Old Ways, of course, but that is not a direct manipulation – more of a redirection, or amplification, of forces already present in the materials all around us. We are all comprised of the Six, are we not? And we always have been. But we have not always been able to summon flames from our fingertips, nor command the winds to lift us into the skies like the most powerful sorcerors of today. For such displays are manipulations of the Domains in their purest forms, as impossible using the Old Ways as reaching into the sky and plucking the sun down from its roost.

“But Samallyn, a profound and ambitious thinker in his own right, wished to control the Domains. He believed that all the power of the world could be harnessed and shackled to his own ends. It may sound preposterous to you or me, but remember that Samallyn’s charisma and persuasiveness knew no bounds, and his self-belief was contagious. He instructed his finest scholars to research the Domains, and to find out what they were and whence they came. And they discovered a Golden Tear, hidden away at the heart of the world, from which all the world’s energies poured forth. Of course the details of this were likely different, the finer realities lost to the annals of history and replaced with fanciful mythology and legendary grandeur.

“What appears irrefutable, however, is that Samallyn ventured forth from his kingdom with his three closest companions – the Chim’ra twins Celr’ut and Dandr’in and the great Dari huntress Orianwyn – to reach the Golden Tear. And – once again I must confess that the details are unclear to the point of implausibility – at the end of their quest, they discovered it, deep underground in a small, unassuming cavern, bathed in an aura of lambent gold emanating from a teardrop-shaped mass of solid energy. It floated above a plinth of rock, as if the earth itself held it aloft in reverence, and its wondrous appearance was said to have far exceeded any of the heroes’ imaginations.

“They were overjoyed to have succeeded in their venture, and after they embraced one another in elation, they agreed that Samallyn himself, as High King and the greatest hero Nahol had ever known, should approach the Tear. And so he did, stepping with careful reverence up onto the stony plinth. The Tear shone with such brilliance that it etched its golden light into his armour and his great sword Duralneir, which, in the old tongue of men means “Maker of Myths.” It is for this sword that the land of Duroc is named – the home of myths, and the seat of the most powerful kingdom of men between the first fall of Anahor and its rebuilding.

“Samallyn approached the Tear and…” Ixeniot frowned. “Well, it is not for you nor I to presume the intentions of men like High King Samallyn, for who can tell what was in his mind when confronted with such pure power? But when he rose before the Tear, he took Duralneir in his hands and, raising the sword above his head, he brought the point down, piercing the Golden Tear and driving the sword into the rock beneath. The Domains burst forth and flowed unbound to all corners of the world, washing over all things, living and dead, and the Domains have been accessible to us ever since. And so, as he had foreseen for himself, he changed the course of history. Samallyn and his companions were consumed entirely, for they at the epicentre were overwhelmed with more magic than any living being could sustain. Too much magic to survive… too much even to die.

“Their undertaking released the Domains in their purest form to beings across our entire world, and civilisation has developed beyond our wildest dreams as a result. We now have fire at our whim to heat our homes and our food, we can conjure water to drink, we can mould edifices and art that our ancestors could not even have imagined. But such a wondrous discovery came at a terrible cost. For not only was Samallyn, the greatest among all men, destroyed utterly along with his three legendary companions, but they were taken in the grip of an overwhelming surge of urdoeth, which is the most subtle and fickle of all the Six. Their souls were torn from their bodies and they remained on our mortal plane in eternal undeath. And as the Sixth Domain bled across the world, it reached its ethereal fingers into the very earth and plucked at the souls of those interred in grave and tomb, and it drew forth their spirits to walk the earth again. Samallyn’s sacrifice, in delivering new levels of power and capability to the denizens of our world, was to birth a new kingdom, that of the Threal, the spirits of undeath, and it is said that High King Samallyn sits forever on a new throne, one of his own creation, where he will endure in torment past the bounds of time itself.”

Ixeniot finished his tale and took a sip of his tea, his features unreadable, lost in thought. As am I, Baron reflected. Much of the history of the High King had already been known to him – the quest, the Tear, Samallyn’s fall. Indeed Samallyn’s name was now in folklore as a cautionary tale against children who misbehaved – don’t go the way of Old Allyn, mothers would say, wagging admonishing fingers. That’s what happens to boys who don’t respect their elders, who don’t listen. Baron had heard that adage plenty in his youth. Still, the revelation that the Threal were conjured into being by Samallyn – he had never heard that before, and Baron knew he was better educated than most, however he may pretend otherwise.

After a second sip Ixeniot reached down to deposit his cup. He rested the tips of his fingers on the thick-spined tome he had been reading.

“I see you are both digesting my tale, as one might expect since these are events of which only a small few are aware. Indeed most do not even know that Samallyn had companions on his quest. But that brings me to my reason for summoning you here this evening.” He paused again and stood for a long time in silence, lost in thought, his brow furrowed. After the silence stretched to the point of discomfort, Baron wondered if perhaps he ought to speak, but the Hal’iri’s eyes suddenly refocused, as though he had reached a decision about whatever troubled him so. He continued.

“There are a great many powerful artefacts in the world of Enai. Of course you know this. The… the sword of Samallyn, Duralneir, is still said to rest where the King himself left it, driven point-first into the rock in that golden chamber.” He tapped his fingers against the book. “There are tales throughout time that reference Duralneir after Samallyn’s demise – tales of those who claim to have found the chamber’s location. But none have come close enough to behold it, for the Domains are said to be thick and twisted around the site, and a man can no more walk through the powerful magical aura than walk through solid rock. Yes, there are many powerful artefacts indeed… some, like the one you found, appear to be so rich with Dominion that they overpower the one unfortunate enough to wield them.

“The axe you touched must be one such artefact, steeped so strongly in magic so as to be a source of magic in itself. And I suspect that the noble wizards who stole the axe understood this as well, for the sorcery they used on your group no doubt awoke some of the power within the weapon.

“I do not believe that you murdered your colleagues, Baron, for the power invested in this weapon is horrifying in its potency. It overwhelmed you as soon as you touched it, and indeed I suspect that the mages tapping its magic were dead long before you struck your mortal blow, burned out from the core by an excess of Dominion. This is a virulent and corrosive force, and it speaks volumes as to your resilience that you survived the ordeal, Baron, though I must be candid and admit it causes me to fear your capabilities too, especially since you appear to be unaware of them.”

Baron mouth was dry. He swallowed, his tongue overlarge and sticky in his mouth, and he glanced across at Melash, who was regarding him with an expression he hadn’t seen on her face before when looking at him – apprehension, wariness, even fear. The look you give an unfamiliar hound that might bite. It annoyed him, and he set his jaw, discovering that he had risen to his feet, though he still had to look up to stare a challenge into Ixeniot’s statuesque face.

“So what are we supposed to do about this? We delivered the Six-damned axe, though it nearly killed me and it did kill Hann, Pauli and Donal, and near enough Fenway too.”

Ixeniot sighed and passed an elegant hand across his eyes. “I understand your pain. Would that I could simply point you towards those responsible for you to exact your revenge.” His eyes glittered at Baron’s expression. “You did not expect me to advocate the principle of vengeance? The retribution of a Hal’iri is terrible to witness. Indeed, were it not for vengeance, the name of my kin would not be anathema in my homeland.

“In any case, however, I cannot set you on a path of righteous fury – not directly, at least. For the axe has gone missing, and I need you to find it.”