Last Edited: Dec 30 2016
(Listen to an audio recording of this novelette here!)
Snow. If there was one thing the lands of Aluvalia had an abundance of, it was snow. To a foreigner, it was the only thing. The winds threatened to throw you off your feet in their best of moods, and would easily do so if the two feet of snow didn’t anchor you down. Aluvalia was unforgiving. It would take anyone foolish enough to combat the climate for any length of time. Even their footprints would be gone minutes later.
Jadis-Sel spent every morning in these perpetual blizzards. As always, there was nothing to see. Even the white of the ground was hard to differentiate from the white of the sky. Today’s weather was temperate, all things considered. He had no trouble standing, a feat that seemed to be growing more and more rare these days. He stroked his beard as the nothingness stared back at him.
“Jarl,” a voice called from behind. The muffled voice of somebody yelling. He turned to see Darys standing at the mouth of the cave, where the rocks gave some shelter from the blizzard. “News, my Jarl.”
He returned his gaze to the barren landscape. “Another time, then,” he stated. He bowed slightly before retiring back to the cave where the sentry waited. The black flag that marked the entrance to civilization flapped through the storm. He had put this one up himself the day before. Even with secure tethers in place, flags like this one had to be replaced often.
The two men descended into the enlarging cave, Jadis’ leg muscles relishing in the freedom of open air as the snow was left behind. The door to the caverns was a ways down into the cave. “So? What news?”
“A messenger from Kitsuya arrived last night, jarl,” he explained. “She says she must speak to the council immediately. The rest of the jarls are already there, waiting for you.”
Jadis sighed. No doubt they would ridicule him for being late, while deliberately hiding the news from him for as long as possible. He was tired of these games.
Darys jogged up to the tall steel door as they approached. It stood well over fifteen feet tall, with no visible handle or lever. Instead, Darys unsheathed his blade and pushed it into a slot on the wall. He concentrated, channeling magic through the blade. Soon the sound of pistons were heard from within the rock. Soon, the door creaked open.
“Thank you again, Darys,” Jadis said once there was enough room to enter through the doorway.
“Of course, Jarl. I’ll see you tomorrow,” he saluted. Jadis nodded in appreciation before continuing on his way alone, leaving Darys to his post guarding the entrance.
After the echoing silence of the dark, torch lit tunnel, the cavern soon opened up to the colossal depths of the underground city. Aluvalia may have been regarded as a barren wasteland to most of Torreth, but Jadis knew from experience that the Luminous Hollow was one of the most densely populated areas of the world. Looking down at the city was a marvel that contrasted so heavily against the white, empty world of above. In truth, it astonished him every day when he returned from his morning walk.
In most of the underground cities of Aluvalia, day and night had no meaning. The Luminous Hollow was different, because the cavern wasn’t completely sealed from the outside world. Along the roof of the cave there was a large crack through which some indirect light could shine through. It illuminated the cavern, which gave the city its name, so torchlight wasn’t necessary for the better part of most days. It also allowed winds to flow through, which often provided a pleasant breeze.
Jadis walked down the widening path and into the city proper. The sound of music, talking, and the general scuffle of boots across the ground echoed through the streets and brick buildings. Most Aluvalians had long, braided white hair, especially in regards to beards that were, like Jadis’, long enough to be tucked away into tunics of cloth or mammoth fur. As for the women, they focused their time on more intricate braids. It wasn’t unheard of to see people from other parts of the world, here, too, but against the pale whites of the large Aluvalians, even a Kitsuyan looked tan.
A few people smiled a little as he passed by them on the stone walkways, but most who recognized him quietly avoided his gaze, stopping what they were doing and giving him extra room as he moved through the dark streets. A dead man walking, in some respects. He had gotten used to that sort of treatment, but either way he was glad fewer and fewer people knew who he was as thees days passed. Receiving sympathy had recently become a part of who he was, and it was intolerable.
The sound of a bell rang through the city, echoing across the distant walls of the cavern. It rang twice: the bell toll for midday. Jadis wondered how long the council would have been waiting, but didn’t quicken his pace. If it was urgent they would have taken extra action to ensure his haste.
The Clan House was the central structure of all Aluvalian cities: a large, dome building with several stories of various uses. It’s main purpose was government business such as maintaining streets, collecting taxes, or regulating the mines deep below. Council meetings, which were less common, were held on the second story. The third story was a garden: a place that was rarely visited. He walked into the building, guards saluting as he passed, and ascended the stairwell.
The stone room was already occupied, blazing torches placed on the numerous columns. Mammoth pelts graced the floors and there were a few maps about the walls: one of the Hollow, one of all of Aluvalia, and a larger, though mostly ignored, one of all of Torreth.
Six people sat around the table in large, almost throne-like chairs. Five of the other jarls were already seated, typically representing the largest and most powerful clans, as was custom. The repulsive Sathryon-Maw of the Bear clan, the raucous Rauvin-Bek of the Ibex clan, the laid back Cadock-Tir of the Timberhorn clan, and the ever silent two jarls, Thomri-Moth of the Mammoth clan, and Dagan-Pak of the Great Wolf clan. Jadis represented the Sellis clan, for what it was worth. The sixth seat was occupied by a woman only a fraction of the Aluvalian leaders’ size, and Jadis didn’t recognize her.
“There he is!” Cadock-Tir shouted. The others turned to face him. Cadock himself was a cheerful soul. He always bore a smile, even though his hair would soon be too sparse to braid. As for the other jarls, it seemed as though they had just swallowed something distasteful.
“Now we can get this over with,” Rauvin-Bek muttered.
“Did you see anything interesting on your morning walk?” Sathryon-Maw taunted, stroking his beard with an irksome grin.
“Actually, I did,” Jadis replied as he found the only empty chair and seated himself. “I found your humility trying to sneak its way back into the Hollow.”
Cadock chuckled at that. “You didn’t let it back in, did you?” he asked. “His clan’s entire identity rides on their unparalleled pride.”
“Gentleman,” the woman on the other side of the table said. “I would prefer it if we could speak strictly on the matters at hand.” She was obviously from the isles of Kitsuya. Her stark black hair fell straight down upon a pale blue dress, and she spoke with a high-pitched serenity that didn’t match the coarse nature of Aluvalia. She also didn’t quite fit into the chair they had given her. Jadis estimated that she probably weighed about a third of what he did, if not less.
“Apologies, miss,” Cadock stated. “We’re all here now, you may proceed.”
She nodded and stood, her new height reaching up to the eye level of the Aluvalian men’s while everyone else was seated. “My name is Takeya. I work in the Foreign Relations division of the Preservers.”
“There’s a ‘Foreign Relations’ division?” Sathryon asked, frowning.
“There is now. But please, allow me to explain,” she shot him an impatient glare. “This will proceed far more quickly if you do not interrupt.” Sathryon shrugged at that. She paid him no further heed. Clearly, she found him as insufferable as Jadis did.
“As I am certain you all know, there was an earthquake that was felt across the world about two years ago. The Preservers are now referring to it as the Rupture, and there is talk of archiving it as the dawn of a new Era. If it becomes official, we would be living in the Fourth now.” She held up a finger to silence Sathryon as he opened his mouth to speak. “I know what you are going to say. It may seem presumptuous to divide Eras by such a seemingly arbitrary and meaningless incident. But I am here to inform you that it was not merely an earthquake. The Rupture was a catastrophic event that wiped out the entire nation of Veritia.”
Jadis took an involuntary breath of shock. An entire people, wiped out. He could empathize to a certain extent, but he couldn’t fathom death to such a scale…
“What?!” Rauvin stood from his seat. “You can’t be serious!”
“I am perfectly serious, jarl,” she replied. “What’s more, there is an ethereal rift in the night sky, like a wound in the heavens themselves. All other nations would be aware of this, but your people are sheltered from the sky, and wouldn’t be able to see it past the clouds even if you were not. But it is there. It is why we have given the event its name.”
“If you’ll excuse me, Takeya,” Jadis raised a hand, voice calm.
“Go ahead,” she nodded.
“If all this is true, then this is not a natural occurrence as you say. Have the Preservers discovered what caused this? Maybe something in your history books could tell you?”
She shook her head. “Our speculations point towards this being of magical origin, but cannot take us much further than that. It didn’t simply destroy the land of Veritia. Best we can tell, the Veritian people are also extinct. The Rupture seems to have also systematically killed everyone with Veritian blood. Even the people that were living in other nations. Part of the reason I am here is to ask if you have any people of Veritian descent residing here or in any other known Aluvalian cities. I have already spoken with your Keeper, so I have already verified that there are none, as I suspected.”
“And you can honestly say the Preservers don’t know what caused it?” Rauvin asked.
“I can. All of the Veritian Preservers died that day. Even the ones stationed in Kitsuya.”
“How did they die?”
“That part I am not authorized to disclose, unfortunately. But as far as Veritia goes, we sent a team of researchers to investigate the area about a week before I left to come here. It will be some time before we get anything conclusive.”
“That tear in the sky,” Sathryon added. “Are you sure it’s not Verik’s anger that his people are dead?”
“We don’t know how the heavens tore like that, but it does seem to be related to what happened in Veritia. The Preservers tend to wait for more scientific evidence before they blame the gods for anything. It seems strange that a god would demonstrate his wrath by marking the night sky. But there is one last thing that I haven’t mentioned.” She sat back down, contemplative.
“Well?” Sathryon asked. “On with it, there’s no point in stalling.”
“By order of the Preservers, it has been decreed that no nation, under the exception of dire necessity, is to utilize magic in any capacity until the origin of the Rupture is discovered.”
“No magic under any circumstances, eh?” Cadock-Tir frowned. An alien expression on his cheerful face.
“There are exceptions, of course,” Takeya explained. She glanced around the council room and made eye contact with each of the jarls as they sat in stunned silence. “The most common one being for agricultural purposes. Nations that would have difficulty feeding its people without the use of magic are exempt from the ban for that explicit purpose. Even Calitha is banned from their use of golems.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Sathryon-Maw shouted. “Their entire infrastructure is built around golems! How is a nation centralized around commerce supposed to function without the means to deal with imports and exports? What kind of authority do the Preservers think they have?”
“They will have to manage,” she replied. “I’m sure I don’t have to explain what this means for your country. It is understandable that ore and coal production will decrease, but as your people don’t utilize magic to produce food, you have no reason to use any magic at all. As for the legitimacy of the ban, this is a strong recommendation. Of course, it will be up to the jarls of Aluvalia to enforce it, but the goal of the Preservers is to judge what is best for mankind as a whole, without the prejudices of nation.”
“What about in self defense?” Jadis-Sel asked. “Or wyvern hunts?” The Aluvalian way of life was concerned with those hunts, as well as the trade of wyvern horns as prize. The horns were practically used as the most valuable currency in these lands. Jadis was surprised that neither of those buffoons had mentioned it yet.
“Surely you don’t mean to say that braving those blizzards to die fighting dragons is a tradition worthy of exception? If you are so eager to prove yourselves, killing a wyvern without magic would prove more prestigious, don’t you think?”
“Killing those things is damn near impossible as it is,” Rauvin-Bek grumbled. “We couldn’t possibly hope to do it without magic.”
“Then perhaps for the time being your people should consider abstaining from wyvern hunts.”
“Abstain fro- girl are you mad?” Sathryon fumed, pounding his fist against the table for emphasis. “Aluvalia culture revolves around those hunts! It’s how we determine clan strength! Wealth!”
“Yes, we’re well aware that image is very important to you, Sathryon,” Rauvin said, arms crossed as he sat relaxed in his chair. “Maybe now you won’t be so inclined to throw lives away in the name of attaining more horns.”
“It’s easy to ridicule the group at the top when you have no hope of achieving their renown,” Sathryon countered. “You’re all so fond of mocking me and my people. Perhaps I should remind you that this last month the Bear clan has slain more wyverns than all of your clans put together. Not that that’s saying much since the Sellis clan is included in that tally.”
Jadis clenched his fist. “And how many hunts were you present for?” he asked, though he already knew the answer.
“My shield brother lead them. There’s no reason to have both of the clan jarls attend the same hunt.” Sathryon made eye contact with him. “I learned that one from you, actually, Jadis.”
The image of his shield brother’s face flashed through Jadis’ mind. A smiling, cheerful man in one instant shifting to a bloody, broken mass in the snow. So much blood had been spilled that day.
The room went silent, the sound of the burning torches enveloping the table. An insult like that was grounds for a formal duel. Takeya looked quite bothered that the discussion had descended to this level, but it was no longer her place to speak. Everyone looked to Jadis, now.
He stood from his chair, staring directly across the table to the man that opposed him. “I admire your courage, challenging a jaded soldier with nothing left to lose, but I think the days to come will be hard enough. Let’s not make it more difficult by thinning our numbers even further. I warn you, though, Sathryon-Maw. Cross me one more time and Aluvair himself will not be able to save you.” He addressed the Kitsuyan woman. “I’m through with this discussion. I’ve heard all I need.” He adjusted his belt and beard before retiring from the room.
As he left the Clan House, he heard hustled footsteps behind him. Cadock-Tir hurried after Jadis, cane slamming on the stone repeatedly as the aged man moved.
“What is it, jarl?” Jadis asked. “Must I return?”
“No, no,” Cadock replied. “I just wanted to speak with you awhile. I can only suffer their brooding for so long before I need to hit someone.”
“So you choose to suffer my brooding?”
Cadock laughed. “I suppose. There’s a change in the winds, Jadis,” he explained, quoting an old proverb. “Would you care to join me for some drinks at my clan hall?”
“I’d be honored,” Jadis said.
They took their conversation to the dining room of Cadock’s clan hall: the room of revelry and relaxation for all Timberhorn clan members. The entire building was made of wood, which was unusual for Aluvalian structures. The Timberhorns embraced their animal’s likeness to a degree some found unnerving. The dining room was decorated with the animal’s skins, and desert trees that resembled the lizard’s horns were placed all round the room.
For an animal that even still was used as a beast of burden, the clansmen took pride in their identity. Jadis couldn’t help but respect them. Even at it’s prime, none of his own clansmen could have regarded the Sellis clan hall a home the way the Timberhorns probably did. “I was very impressed with the way you handled Sathryon’s insult,” Cadock said as the first couple of steins were passed to them. The two jarls were given a wide berth of space in the room. Many people even nodded their recognition of their obvious seclusion and moved to a different table. “I half expected you to demand a fight then and there.”
“That man is insufferable. It took every ounce of strength I had not to challenge him. I doubt he’s lifted a blade in the last decade.”
Cadock guzzled his manna, getting at least half of the blue-tinged liquid on his beard. “I will admit part of me wants to see you relieve his shoulders of that proud head of his,” he said, wiping his chin dry as he gestured for a refill.
“Perhaps one day, friend,” Jadis concluded. “But I’ve been thinking about what you said about him a few weeks ago.”
“You can’t possibly expect me to remember that far back, son,” he grinned.
“Son? Cadock you’re not eight years my senior. You just like to play the part of the wise old man.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he whined, groaning and massaging his back with an exaggeration that brought a smile to Jadis’ face.
“You remember when we were talking about the clans. You said Sathryon is just trying to keep the Luminous Hollow strong when he holds so many wyvern hunts, and how he wants me to abdicate my seat on the council so a larger clan’s jarl can have my seat.”
“That does sound familiar, now that you mention it,” he held up his beard, wiping any spilt manna with a bare hand.
“It’s almost as if he’s preparing for something,” Jadis proposed.
“And you know what that something is?” Cadock asked.
“I think he’s trying to gain a quiet control over the entire Hollow.”
“That’s some accusation, Jadis.”
“I know, but hear me out. He presents the Bear Clan as the superior clan. At least the best warriors. He wants me off the council because he knows I’ll oppose him, and with my clan where it stands these days, I’m an easy target. Rauvin agrees with whatever anyone says if you pester him enough, and you’re too powerful. Nobody would take him seriously if he tried to remove you.”
“What about Thomri-Moth and and Dagan-Pak?” Cadock offered.
“What about them?”
“You seem to forget they are also jarls that have chairs in those meetings.”
“They’re easy to forget. With Dagan’s vow of silence and Thomri’s refusal to offer his own opinions, I’m surprised they’re still on the council.”
“Then why doesn’t our favorite Bear Clan jarl target them?”
Jadis took another gulp from his stein, thinking. “Why indeed. I just assumed Sathryon either paid them off or didn’t concern himself because empty chairs are easier to deal with than opposing ones. Either that or he’s concerning himself with me because my clan is by far the smallest in the Hollow these days.”
Cadock chuckled, shaking his head. “Not everything is about you, Jadis.”
He furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”
“What if Sathryon is just worried about you?”
Jadis burst out laughing. “You must be joking. Sathryon insulted me in front of the entire council today, Cadock!” He all but spat as he said the Bear clan jarl’s name. “He ridiculed my absence in the wyvern hunt that ravaged my clan two months ago! You can’t imagine what it’s like to walk through the Sellis Clan hall in the silent darkness. No torchlight, no laughter. Just memories.” Tears fell upon clenched fists as he struggled to speak. The thought of his shield brother, Serandis’ smile stabbing his soul once more. “I’ve lost what little respect I had left for that man today.”
Cadock’s humorous demeanor was gone. He placed a soothing hand on the table, leaning close. “What if Sathryon’s comment wasn’t meant as an insult? What if he meant to imply that you would have died that day, too, if you were there? Look, forget about him for now. What if you and the rest of your clan joined the Timberhorns? All the clansmen here respect you. You’re a respected fighter, and I think you’d find peace here.”
“Cadock, I appreciate the gesture but–”
“I know what you’re going to say, so don’t waste your breath. Just know that this is a standing offer, and we won’t discuss it further. All that being said, why don’t you join us on tomorrow’s wyvern hunt? Both I and Walen-Tir are going.”
Jadis found it amusing that both Timberhorn jarls would be going on the hunt after Sathryon had scorned the idea today. “Thank you, jarl. I’ll consider it.”
Jadis stood from the table. The crowd of Timberhorns had diminished. Night was approaching, for as little as it meant deep in the caves.
“But, truth be told, Cadock, I’d rather have died in battle with my brother that day than live to see the world forget him and my clan.” He bowed his gratitude for the company before leaving the hall unattended.
Jadis hadn’t gone to bed that night. Instead, after some hours at the Sellis clan hall, he had decided to take his morning walk a little sooner than usual. It had been so early in the morning that the guard shift hadn’t changed, and Darys wasn’t there. It took some effort to convince the night guard, a young man he didn’t know, to let him out. Luckily the authority of a jarl carried weight everywhere he went.
Jadis had spent the entire morning in the snow thinking about Cadock’s request. Merging the Sellis clan into the Timberhorn clan would certainly revitalize his people, and it was an offer he would never receive from any of the other jarls. For that he was grateful. Cadock’s kindness was genuine, and despite their small age and rank difference, he couldn’t help but look up to the man.
Still, the clan was a family he couldn’t bring himself to let go. The clan didn’t begin with him, and it would forever stain his consciousness if he let it end with him. Once again, he found himself thinking of his brother Serandis. He took these walks to pay his respects to him. Shield brothers always died together, and it was hard to live on without your second half. Most found it impossible. Jadis was the only man the Luminous Hollow had ever known to survive over two weeks after his shield brother fell. There was an inexplicable bond between men who grew up fighting side by side. He understood now why so many men joined their brothers among the stars soon after one died. Fasting was most common, but it was heartache that really killed a man unfortunate enough to outlive his shield brother. If only he had died alongside Serandis. At least then his legacy, and the legacy of his clan, would have suffered a clean death, rather than live on, permanently crippled the way it was now.
But, crippled as his clan may have been, it lived on. He couldn’t change the past, but he could atone for it, and the last time he had the opportunity of joining a wyvern hunt and declined, he deeply regretted it. He would join this one, and if he lost his life, in a way things would be made right. Jadis grasped the hilt of the claymore that rested on his back. He had spent over an hour sharpening it after he had returned home. The anticipation of the hunt brought an anxious tremble to his hands. He could already hear the drums in his head. The cold of the blizzard had helped subdue his doubt. The chill solidified his nerves.
“Well,” Cadock shouted. Jadis turned to address the man. The jarl held a massive longbow that was nearly as tall as himself. The limbs of the bow were decorated in carefully placed wyvern scales, each blackened under intense heat. The legendary Flame Song. With it, Cadock had slain Niruth, the largest wyvern ever seen with a wingspan of nearly fifty feet. The dragon’s horn now served as the bow’s quiver, despite the trophy’s immense value. In addition to the bow, Cadock also wore a fierce grin that somehow matched his armaments perfectly. “It seems you either decided to bring your sword with you on your morning walk, or you intend to accept my invitation to the hunt.”
“I don’t expect one extra sword will change the winds for this battle. Especially if you intended to bring Flame Song with you,” Jadis smirked.
“Well, we’ll see. It’s been so long since she’s been on a hunt herself I’m not so sure she remembers how!”
“Don’t give me that, Cadock.” Glancing behind him, he realized the two were alone in the snow. “Where’s Walen? Or the rest of your clan for that matter?”
“Oh, everyone should be right behind me. Walen kept them all behind to tune their instruments. He’s always been a little neurotic about these things, you know. It’s not like wyverns won’t come if the song isn’t played at the right pitch. Speaking of which, do you have something to play?”
Jadis pulled a small brass horn from his belt. Cadock nodded his approval.
“I do have one question, though,” Jadis offered.
“And what’s that?”
“Are we planning to do this without magic? The Preservers do have the authority to forbid it, as much as we hate to admit that.”
Cadock scoffed. “To be honest I don’t bother much with the Preservers anymore. We couldn’t even open the door to the outside world if it wasn’t for magic. If The Rupture is really as colossal an event as that girl said, two more years of using magic should have killed us all. She expects all of Torreth to give up thousands of years of tradition and progress because one nation misused it? Why, if Walen had been in that meeting in my place, he would have tore her head off.”
“Whose head are we tearing off?” a newcomer asked. At the mouth of the cave stood a man carrying a large shield. The crest of the Timberhorn was painted white over the sleek metal. He bore a striking resemblance to Cadock. Even his smile reflected that of his shield brother’s.
“Yours if we have to wait for you any longer!” Cadock chided.
“Well it would have gone more quickly if you had helped prepare!” Walen retorted as he approached his brother. “All you want to do is go out and kill a dragon. Maybe you’ve forgotten that precautions are needed for every single wyvern hunt!”
“Precautions! You were tuning the brass!”
“We’ve already talked about this! If the instruments aren’t synchronized, the sound won’t carry as far!”
The two kept bickering. It was sort of like seeing a man argue with his reflection, but it brought a smile to his face. He remembered the playful arguments he had gotten into with his brother. How he missed Serandis.
Soon, Timberhorn clan members started emerging, single file, from the mouth of the cave. They were all equipped with various sorts of weapons: blades, axes, and bows they would each have forged with their own hands. It was the only way for an Aluvalian to channel magic. In addition to their weapons, however, many carried instruments over their shoulders or in both hands. Brass and percussion. Tools for a war song that would, with luck, summon a wyvern.
As they marched into position, Jadis thought about Cadock’s remark about the magic ban. The entire point of the Preservers was to archive knowledge and use it to better mankind. If it was their judgment that using magic put Torreth under threat, who was he to argue? They had teams of researchers all over the continent. If the jarls ignored their authority, it could have dire consequences.
“Jadis,” Walen called. “Will you be joining us today?”
He glanced to the rest of the clan. There were nearly a hundred men here, standing in a formation that grouped up all the percussion and brass, along with the few string-based instruments that were added not for volume, but for effect. “If you’ll have me, Jarl,” he replied.
“Of course, of course!” Walen said. “It’d be an honor to fight alongside you. We’ll be playing ‘The Fall of Er’Alanya’. I’ll be conducting today.” Jadis nodded and took his place among the other men holding brass.
The art of the war song was an ancient tradition. For millennia, wyverns preyed upon anything foolish enough to brave the mountains. They were smart, too. They understood the blizzards, and took advantage of mammoth breeding grounds and travel patterns. A human wouldn’t even qualify as a meal for one of the monsters, but they almost seemed to enjoy killing humans when given the opportunity.
The war song was a defiance to the masters of snow. A challenge. ‘We are here,’ it said. ‘And we don’t fear you’. Wyverns knew what the song meant. It wouldn’t be an easy battle for either side. The wyverns that appeared were either ones desperate enough to risk death, or the ones strong enough not to fear it.
Walen began by pounding a mallet against his shield. A steady, anticipatory beat. The drums came next, enforcing the rhythm and pumping the blood that flowed through the soldiers. There was a unity in song.
Next, the lowest brass sung their slow, contemplative notes. “The Fall of Er’Alanya” was an old favorite. It’s momentum was gradual. Low beats and notes before the strings flowed their harmony in and the tempo rose. There were words, but they were never sung amidst snow. It was bad luck to sing before a battle.
Jadis added his tone to the song. A simple horn that could only play a few notes, but it was loud if one had the lungs for it. He watched Walen, pounding his improvised drum, and his shield brother next to him, not playing anything. Instead, Cadock watched the skies. He had an arrow nocked and ready to be drawn.
With the first crescendo of the song was the distant yet unmistakable roar. An answer to the challenge. A wave of adrenaline coursed through Jadis, along with the entire Timberhorn clan. It had not been an outcry of a starving juvenile. It was the booming thunder of a dragon warning his adversaries of his approach.
With the wyvern’s approach, the power of the war song wavered. It wasn’t fear that struck the heart of the clansmen, but anticipation. Many warriors retired their instruments in front of them, backing up as they readied their weapons. Bows, glaives, and swords of all types were prepared, and “The Fall of Er’Alanya” slowly succumbed to the winds around them. Soon the entire clan had lowered the instruments in favor of weapons as they retreated towards the cave’s entrance.
Jadis watched the two Timberhorn jarls as he pulled out his greatsword. Cadock watched the skies, arrow nocked. The head of the arrow sparked into life, engulfing itself in an impatient flame from Cadock’s willpower. The Flame Song was ready for battle. Walen secured his mallet, putting it on his belt once again as he turned to the skies alongside his shield brother.
Movement flashed in the distance. Not the constant sheet of snowfall. A white promise of death. Another roar: much closer this time. I hope you’re prepared, that call said. I want a real challenge. By now every warrior had his weapons ready. Jadis felt his hands tense against the grip of his sword.
Then, they saw it. A huge mass of white feathers, perched upon a rock outcropping some sixty feet away. The beast’s horn rested upon its snout, proof of its sovereignty in this blizzard. It watched them, studying its adversaries.
“Archers!” Walen yelled. “Fire!”
Cadock’s was the first arrow to loose, the Flame Song humming it’s famous note of death as the arrow flew towards its target, leading the charge of twenty others.
The dragon roared, and the winds suddenly reversed directions, throwing every arrow off target. It wasn’t a normal blast of wind.
The wyvern had used magic. It didn’t give the clan time to prepare. Swooping down towards them, it threw its wings out and stared directly at Jadis.
Jadis channeled power into the blade, then swung it upwards in an arc that threw a wave of fire directly into the wyvern’s path. It dove low and under the blast, holding its back claws out to attack.
“Jadis, move!” Walen yelled. Jadis glanced to his right where the man stood. He held his shield up, and pushed it forwards, towards Jadis.
In a matter of moments, an arcane blast threw him off his feet, tossing him out of the path of the dragon.
It bellowed its rage as it ascended, the beat of its wings oppressive as their force pushed them back. Clansmen yelled their battle cries as they fought back, the sound of metal slamming against metal and arrows flying through the wind.
As Jadis stood, the wyvern circled around, dodging all manner of arrows and elemental blasts. It roared again as a few arrows and blasts clipped its feathered wings, landing on the opposite side of the formation.
It slammed its claws down into the nearest clansmen, crushing him. Then, it bellowed a blast of its own into the clan: an icy wave throwing dozens of men into the air. Orders were yelled somewhere to hold ground. The most important thing in a battle like this was to never lose sight of the dragon.
Jadis charged. His feet pushed through the snow with a sudden exertion, closing the gap between him and the dragon. Wyverns are arrogant, he thought. They don’t consider any one man worth more effort than a single blow. Just dodge that blow and you’ll be fine.
As he was the only one attacking head on, the wyvern raised a claw to fend him off. As he swung, Jadis thrust his sword up and summoned an earthen shield.
It’s wing slammed against the unexpected barrier, and Jadis followed up with a downwards swing across its face. He channeled power through the blade again, and the fire augmented sword slammed into the dragon’s scales.
It bit hard into its snout, and the beast thundered a call of anger.
The wyvern leaped forward, sending Jadis into the ground below as it fell upon the crowd of staggered men. It slammed its jaws into a warrior scrambling to nock an arrow, and flexed its wings outwards.
Suddenly, the snow turned into shards of ice, and began raining down on them. Jadis threw his sword above himself and formed a flimsy arcane ward. He was exerting himself too much. This was probably the last spell he dared cast.
Around him, clansmen were dying, shouts of anger and defiance turning into screams of pain and terror. Some had managed their own wards to shield themselves from the ice, but many had already been impaled. The snow was once again stained with red.
He had never seen a wyvern do that before. Outward blasts of force were common, but pelting the surrounding area in ice? Perhaps their understanding of wyverns was entirely wrong. Or perhaps there was more going on.
Either way, this battle wasn’t one they could win. The wyvern was wounded with a few arrows and burns, but this was an opponent that knew where to strike.
They had to retreat.
“Walen! Cadock!” Jadis scanned around for any sign of the Timberhorn jarls.
He spotted Walen, holding his shield above his head. He held a sheet of snow aloft: a huge ward that already protected over a dozen clansmen from the shards. Cadock stood beside him, covered in blood, launching another flaming arrow at the dragon.
“Walen!” Jadis repeated, rushing over to him and dropping his own ward once he was under the jarl’s shelter. “We need to leave. We’ve suffered enough losses.”
His face was grim, staring at the limping clansmen that made their way to the protection of his ward. “Agreed. This one is different.”
“Damn it all,” Jadis muttered, fist clenched against the sword he still held. “Hundreds of years of tradition and now they can use magic, too?”
Walen nodded. “This doesn’t bode well. Get my brother to safety. I’ll save as many as I can.”
Cadock scoffed at that. “If you’re going to die, then I will, too.” He paid no attention to Jadis. “I won’t end up like him.”
A stab of guilt. Pain. Serandis’ smile grinning back amidst a lake of blood.
He looked back to the dragon. Under the rain of ice, it was crushing and eating leisurely. This was no battle anymore.
At least by now several dozen men were under Walen’s shield, but it stood between them and the cave entrance.
“Walen, we have to run. I’ll distract the dragon, you charge around it to the cave.”
“You can’t be serious. You can’t fight it all by yourself.”
“I know. But nobody will care if I die.”
There was no point in arguing, and they both knew it. Walen simply nodded again.
Jadis charged back out of the cover of his snow.
Extensive use of magic takes its toll on the body. It’s why Cadock was so harsh to Jadis. He was surprised Walen hadn’t seemed to have hit that point already.
Earth magic atrophies the physical self. But he had already lost everything else.
Jadis held his sword with both hands, blade down. He could only hope a shard didn’t kill him before he was finished.
Summoning all the power he could muster, and even some he couldn’t, he thrust the blade forwards at the wyvern.
Earthen spikes lunged out of the ground at the dragon’s feet, impaling three of them and immobilizing it. It bellowed in fury, staring hard at Jadis but being unable to move.
Then he felt his body give out under his own weight. An overload of magic. His muscles withered and shrunk, and he barely felt himself collapse into the snow before he lost consciousness.
Jadis was roused by the sensation of heat. He stirred, opening his eyes to see Glires, one of the older clan matrons, reviving the fire place. She held a knife to the fire, using it to channel flame without the use of fuel.
He was in his bedchambers. Back in the Sellis clan hall. Safe.
But what of the Timberhorn clan?
“Glires,” he stated.
The woman jumped at the sound, scrambling to address the jarl. “Oh, my,” she stammered. “Beg your forgiveness, Jarl. I didn’t mean to wake you.” She bowed several times to augment her apology.
“It’s no fault of yours,” he replied. “How long have I been asleep? Did Walen and Cadock-Tir make it home safe? How many people died?” He moved to get up, but his legs were so heavy he could barely lift them.
“My lord, please!” she urged. “Stay in bed. You need rest. The Timberhorn jarls are both relatively well, and night is just approaching. You haven’t been unconscious eight hours. I’m surprised you’ve awoken at all with how much earth magic Walen said you used.”
“About that. I need to speak with Takeya.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know who that is, Jarl.”
“She’s the messenger from– ah forget it. Look, I need you to go fetch Tarres. Have him send for her.”
She looked confused. “I’m sorry? Is something the matter?”
“Just do as I say.”
“Yes, Jarl.” And with that she was gone.
The woman would probably know something about wyverns and magic. It was too much of a coincidence for a messenger from the Preservers to arrive and ban the use of magic, only to see the dragons using it for themselves the next day. He needed to speak with her. Find out what she knew.
An hour later, after the poor Tarres’ running back and forth throughout the entire Hollow, he had arranged a meeting with the Kitsuyan woman. She had made arrangements to depart that day, but accepted the jarl’s request to talk.
To Glires’ distress, he wouldn’t allow the fatigue of the earth magic to keep him bedridden. He could walk with the help of a cane, though it was difficult to manage even that.
Takeya greeted him downstairs, in the lounge of the Sellis clan hall. Most of the remaining clan members would have business to attend to around the Hollow, or simply be spending their time elsewhere. With the current state of things, the clan hall was primarily used as a housing structure for beds rather than a gathering place. They didn’t have to worry about people listening in.
“We meet again, Jarl,” she smiled.
“Please, sit,” he winced as he descended the last step. She accepted the seat, but didn’t get comfortable.
“I heard about what happened this morning,” she said. “You apparently saved many lives.”
“So I’m told,” he replied, sitting down opposite her. “If you heard about that, you must also have heard about the wyvern’s strange capabilities.”
She crossed one leg over another as she thought about her response. “Not strange at all, actually.”
“What are you saying? You knew about this?”
“The Preservers have no direct authority over how a nation leads its people, Jadis.”
“Your institution seems to think otherwise.” He furrowed his brow, curious at the sudden change in subject.
“Naturally. We are equipped with the information gathered from millennia past. Our judgments, in the very least, are quite well informed.”
“And the Preservers love to keep it that way. You tell us what we should be doing without even offering a reason as to why. You want to keep the rest of us in ignorance so you can all go about your lives being the smart and ‘informed’ ones lording over the common folk whom you’ve shared no knowledge with.”
Her expression darkened. “Some information is best not given in to the hands of the public.”
“Allow me to be the one to make that decision. A jarl cannot lead with only conclusions. He needs the information that lead to them.”
Takeya sighed. “The Rupture was a phenomenon that changed the entire world, Jarl. Nothing is the same anymore, and the Preservers are scrambling to make sure it doesn’t take more lives. It’s already wiped out the Veritians, but it has also indirectly caused the deaths of thousands of others.”
“The nation of Cedria has gone nearly silent,” she explained. “The vine domes that protect their cities now confine them. They are deadly to the touch, and absorb all magic they come into contact with. Some cities have been killed outright in bloodbaths we can’t source. It’s almost as though the vines cut off their ability to think clearly, and they killed each other. The Cedrian Keeper has also been missing since the Rupture occurred.”
“Blood of the Archons,” Jadis murmured.
“It is our current hypothesis that the Rupture has somehow given the fauna and flora of our world the ability to absorb or otherwise interact with elemental magic. It isn’t strange to hear that wyverns can do that as well.”
“You should have told us this in the council meeting.” His fists were clenched.
“If word of this spreads, there’s no telling what people woul–“
He rose to his feet, as much as the effort pained him. “People died today because you didn’t give us that information. We wouldn’t have fought a dragon that could throw our own magic back at us!”
“I told you to refrain from hunts for the time being.” She did not raise her voice. “You cannot blame me for their deaths.”
“You can’t use our ignorance as a weapon against us when you have the power to dispel it. You hold as much blame for not informing us of the danger we were getting into.”
“You can hardly hold me responsible. Even if wyverns couldn’t use magic they could easily have died just the same.”
A thunderous roar echoed through the Hollow.
Takeya snapped her head to look at Jadis. “What was that?”
A mass of blood. His brother’s corpse. “Death,” Jadis said, staring out into nothingness.
“I’ve never heard a wyvern call. I didn’t expect one to be that loud.”
“They aren’t. Not in the Hollow. The sound of the city would drown out anything going on outside.”
“What are you saying?” she asked, terrified.
“A wyvern has somehow managed to find its way inside.”
Tarres burst into the lounge of the clan hall. “Jarl!” the young man stammered, obviously distressed. “There’s a dragon in the Hollow!”
Takeya was on her feet immediately. Jadis simply nodded. “I heard. Help me up,” he commanded, holding a heavy arm up. Tarres obeyed, pulling the jarl up to his feet.
“What do we do?” Takeya asked.
“We have no choice. We fight. Get me my sword, Tarres.”
Tarres nodded quickly and flew up the stairs.
“You can’t fight in your current state,” Takeya scolded. “Your body is still too spent from so much earth magic.”
“As a jarl of the Luminous Hollow it is my duty to protect its people from harm by any means necessary, Preserver. I won’t ask you to fight. This isn’t your home.”
The sound of the dragon’s roar echoed through the city once more, muffled as the sound came through the walls, but loud. The sound made Takeya shudder. This obviously wasn’t what she had expected when she came to this nation.
“But I’m here. I’ll lend what aid I can, but I’m afraid I’m not trained in conventional weaponry. Is there a way to defeat it without magic?”
“We’ll make one,” he said as Tarres returned with the jarl’s greatsword. Swords don’t weigh as much as common folk unfamiliar with them would guess, but with his muscles as exhausted as they still were, he could barely lift the thing. “I want you two to go around the city spreading the word that magic is not to be used by order of Jarl Jadis. I don’t care if they ignore you, I just need the word to spread as quickly as possible. Understand?”
“Yes,” they both replied. Tarres added a ‘jarl’ at the end.
“You can’t possibly intend to fight that thing on your own,” Takeya said. “You and the Timberhorn clan didn’t stand a chance before.”
“This time I’m equipped with knowledge I didn’t have before. ‘When there’s a change in the winds. The weak must follow, but the strong can fight against it.’ Now go, we don’t have any time.”
They nodded, leaving without saying another word.
Today, he would join Serandis among the stars.
He wrapped the sword’s sling over his shoulder like a sash, the blade resting on his back. It would be easier to carry with its weight so evenly distributed. Then, he left the clan hall.
The dragon soared through the cavern, dodging all manner of spells and arrows as it flew. It was the same beast from this morning. But how did such a behemoth find its way inside? None of the doors to the outside world were even large enough for an adult wyvern to fight through. That meant it had to have found an opening in the crack that light shone through.
But investigations would have to be left for later. For now he had a dragon to kill. But first, he had to get its attention.
The Clan House was one of the tallest structures in the Hollow, and being in the center of the city, it was the perfect spot to lure a dragon. Of course, there was a much more important reason why this was the best place, but it required preparations.
The guards that stood outside the dome shaped building were still there. They were, of course, on alert, but they couldn’t leave whoever important may be inside unprotected.
“I need this entire building evacuated,” Jadis commanded as he approached them.
They didn’t react immediately. Instead, their brows furrowed in confusion.
There was a crash as the dragon landed upon a building and toppled it. The sound of several screams made a terrified reply.
“There’s no time. It’s for everyone’s safety. The longer we wait the more lives may be lost! Do it now!”
At that, they jumped into motion. “Uh, yes, jarl!” one replied before they rushed into the main room, whose large doors were, as always, open.
“By order of the Sellis Jarl,” the guard yelled as loud as he could. “The Clan House is to be evacuated immediately!”
Some of the people left without any further pushing. Many, however, required force. The guards grabbed their arms and pulled them in the direction of the door, and within minutes the building was clearing out.
One of the last to leave was Sathryon-Maw. He did not look happy. “Evacuating one of the safest buildings in the entire city, Jadis?” His eyes narrowed. “What game are you playing?”
“That’s the dragon the Timberhorn clan and I fought this morning,” Jadis replied. “It can use magic, especially if you use magic against it first. That’s why the Preservers are banning it.”
For once, Sathryon didn’t reply immediately. “Merciful Archons,” he muttered under his breath after a moment.
“We have to kill it without magic, and I know exactly how to do that.”
“We could hardly kill those bastards before,” he wondered. “How do you thi–“
“The phoenix flowers,” Jadis interrupted.
Sathryon took a step back. “You can’t be serious. Those are sacred.”
“Human life is more sacred. Look, I’m too withered from when we fought it before. I can’t use magic at this point anyway. It’s the only way.”
The Bear jarl thought about that. “If what you say is true,” he said. “You’ll need all the help you can get.”
“Sathryon there’s no time to argue, jus– excuse me?”
“How do you intend to lure it here all by yourself, Jadis? Are you too stupid not to have thought that far ahead?”
Another crash as a building was destroyed by the wyvern’s crushing weight. The two jarls stared at each other. “Thank you, Sathryon,” Jadis said, holding a hand out for the man.
Sathryon took it and nodded. “With something as spectacular as what you’re planning, you can’t be allowed to hold all the glory for yourself.”
The two men charged back into the empty Clan House. It was unsettling to see such a large room vacant, but that would soon change.
They didn’t slow as they ascended the steps. It was far more difficult for Jadis to climb with his muscles still fatigued, but the adrenaline helped him to forget all that. They flew up the steps onto the second floor where the jarls’ council was held the day before, but they continued on up the last flight of steps to the building’s roof.
On the roof of the Clan House was a garden. It was only rarely visited, most often by jarls on certain holidays or the people that watered it. This garden was sacred, and only contained one type of plant: the phoenix flower.
Before them stood a small field of red. The flowers flowed lazily in the light breeze.
In the days before magic, the Aluvalian mountains were inhospitable. With little access to the basic necessities of life, the land of perpetual blizzards was used as a place of exile for anyone stupid or brave enough to oppose the Autlan Empire. That was until the phoenix flower was discovered. This plant was a miracle of life that made it possible to brave the harsh weather here. It grew quickly and required little sunlight or water.
Most importantly, though, when the plant was threatened, and its insides were exposed to the open air, it burst into flames. The plant would incinerate itself, and plant its seeds in the ashes.
“Are you sure you can lure it here?” Jadis asked. Below, the dragon was terrorizing the streets, snapping at citizens and smashing its head against buildings. Virtually no magic was being thrown at it at this point, which was a feat he hardly believed Takeya and Tarres capable of. It would probably have been hard to convince people that the best tool you had to fight something terrifying would prove ineffective.
“If that thing is looking for magic, I’ll give it magic,” Sathryon said, stepping forward to the edge of the roof. “You just make sure not to kill us before we’re ready.”
Sathryon pulled out a dagger that was hidden beneath his furs. He aimed the knife at the wyvern, which was both far away and distracted.
He swung the blade three times in a flourish that ended in a stab. Three waves of fire flew towards the dragon, followed by an icicle that shot out of the knife with the same speed as the thrust.
The three fire blasts flew right by the wyvern’s head, and its head snapped towards the two jarls just in time for the shard of ice to jab it in the neck. Its roar of pain boomed across the Hollow, and it leaped into the air towards them.
“That was an incredible shot,” Jadis said, awestruck.
“My shield brother taught me that one,” Sathryon smirked. “After seeing so much fire wyverns never expect to be struck by ice.”
The dragon landed on a nearby building. The thing was huge. Jadis wondered how much magic it could use from all the attacks its suffered since breaching the Hollow. It didn’t even look scathed.
Sathryon turned back to Jadis. “I’ll lure it inside the building. Don’t ignite the flowers until I give you the signal.”
“Take care of the Hollow for me,” he finished before lashing his knife out again, casting a pole of ice down to the ground below and using it to slide down to the first floor.
The dragon roared again and pounced onto the ground, smashing into the pole and rushing into the building behind Sathryon.
“That man is far more capable and noble than I have ever given him credit for,” Jadis mumbled to himself. His finesse with magic was unlike anything he had seen in some time. He wondered what signal he had intended.
The ground beneath shuddered. He could feel the wyvern charging into the pillars that held the building up, but it didn’t collapse. Jadis himself hadn’t thought of a way to escape. He imagined setting the garden on fire first before luring the dragon inside. Still, with no magic, there was no way for him to safely get to ground level before the building came down.
Soon, he felt a large crash, and the Clan House wavered. The field of flowers he stood amidst split from underneath him, and at the same time, something pierced the ground and shot up into the sky above: a bear claw made of ice.
Jadis pulled his sword off his back and, in the same motion, swept the blade down horizontally across the field of flowers.
They burst into life, the sudden flames eating each other and consuming. Soon the entire garden was ablaze, and the building shook. He felt it tilting to one side, and the garden of flames broke from the rest of the roof and fell into the floor below. The council floor that was filled with wood.
No time left.
Running down the listing side, he threw the sword down and leaped off the edge of the roof as the building fell. As he fell to ground level, he felt his legs give out from beneath him as they snapped. He cried in pain, collapsing to the stone below.
He felt his vision clouding as he started to lose consciousness. He watched the Clan House erupt into flames. The other jarls and people that handled city affairs wouldn’t be happy about this.
Serandis would be jealous of him for coming up with a plan like that. It at least felt good to have fought alongside a capable and selfless warrior one last time.