Did the Ancients bring the conflict with them? I don’t think so. What I have found in the little history they wrote in books and manuscript says otherwise. They were m’jikly engineered families, descended from Rago’s original StarChildren, fled here to Vhalla from the Azurian Empire during the dark age of the Barbarian Wars. They wanted to develop a peaceful world where universal m’jik could be studied and perfected. Rather I think the conflict arose due to a certain genetic inheritance of humans that preceded Rago’s work—that of desire and greed, love and hate. Those traits Rago could not change for they are innately human.
Lor’s Annuls of Vhalla, Vol. 1 p. 13
For hours, gloom condensed into mist that didn’t burn off. It hung in the hollows where the winding road tracked. By noon they entered an empty, rolling land of barren heath, hulking, deformed boulders, and weird, balanced stones. The mist dispersed and visibility improved. Nothing grew but sparse bushes and thorny briars. Wild roses were barely forming tiny buds on vast, leafless bramble patches that covered many acres. Brilliant and graceful canes woven into mountains of thorns were in fact berry bushes, just beginning to pop buds. Tiny buds pearled on low-growing, thornless bushes that looked much like the high-growing hackleberry of Skyeborder. There were no trees. The tallest formations were the rocks, numerous as brambles. The land was alive with small creatures. Rabbits and other rodents scampered along tiny trails worn in the lean grass and low-growing gorse. Territorial marmots whistled their challenges from the rock piles; rock hens and quail scattered along the tumbled outcrops and sage in a whir of wings; a glowing red fox with a white-tipped tail sat on a mound and watched three frolicking pups; a badger fled with a whistling squirrel in his mouth—he glanced furtively over his shoulder every so many spans to see if the riders were following; countless nesting songbirds serenaded from the rocks and bushes as they gathered collections of small debris and sticks to weave into new homes. High flying eagles with shining wings soared in lazy circles on the slow updrafts—lithe as drifted clouds, they cast swift shadows over the rough ground. Low cruising hawks coursed back and forth over the gorse, gleaning for an unwary scampering meal. A fast flying falcon snatched a dove in mid-flight and flashed away; a handful of feathers floated to rest on the gorse, tentatively, like a question. Nothing larger than a skulking songdog showed itself and Reed presumed this was too incommodious and bare a habitat for larger animals. Except for the rock formations, the road tracked endlessly through a featureless, rolling waste.
“What is this place called?” he asked Thyme.
“This is the Zamora Heath. The popular name for it is the Stone Soldiers. It is said that once long ago it was inhabited by mythical Wyverins—a winged creature part air, part light, and part human. Legend has it they were some sort of ancestor of the Weavers, but there’s no proof the creatures existed, and there’s no evidence that anything other than small, wild creatures ever lived in this desolate place.”
They halted for lunch in the shadow of a standing stone that cast a weird and wonderful dark shape across the trail. Adjacent tall stones lurched in an inadvertent, drunken circle. Gratefully, Reed sank against the pillar. As he leaned onto the smooth surface there was a slight jolt that tingled between his shoulders. The feeling was dulled by the thickness of the cloak but fragmented bits of melody threaded the sensation. This wasn’t the standing stone song but a fragmented, unfocused memory.
But why? He glanced at Thyme, wondering if he should ask.
Thyme lay with his head propped on a hummock of dead grass, his face shadowed by the cowl of his cloak; he appeared to be asleep. Reed exhaled slowly, and unfocused his mind, exploring the melodic fragments that were more sensation than sound—sensation with no concinnity. What caused notes to be so fragmented? He turned and touched the giant stone with his fingers; the surface vibrated with a feeling not dissimilar to how a luserod felt when it wasn’t working properly. As his hand descended toward base of the pillar, the strength of the sensation increased in his left palm. He touched the grass; the blades reverberated with pinprick shocks in his fingertips. Gently he bent the brittle grass blades aside; a flash like webbed starlight blinded him. He scrabbled in the loamy dirt, touched something glassy and sharp he thought might be a weathered chip of stone. It felt about the size of a hackleberry. He drew it from the dirt, rubbed it to remove the dirt, and let it rest in his palm.
It was a dark blue gem, cut in a brilliant faceted pattern to reflect dazzling light. It was the sort of jewel that might have graced an important ring or brooch, or perhaps the hilt of a dagger. The gem had a wild, clashing song, a mish-mash of unrelated and discordant vibrations. Reed followed the weedy sound of one of the clashing notes and found a vision.
An armed man stood with his back to the pillar. Silver griffins reared across his black leather jack coat. A woman was slumped on the ground at his feet, her head against the stone and her red hair tangled around her face so her features were not visible. There was blood on her green jack coat and from a deep gash on her thigh above tall riding boots. Behind the pillar lay a dead horse, his head just visible at the base of the stone—blood pooled at his muzzle and his red eyes stared at nothing. Five attackers mounted on snarling, scaly creatures with clawed feet drove at the man; except for the glittering arch of their swords the attackers were concealed in dark cloaks. They were Rhakes. The red-haired woman’s hand was slack on the pommel of an arming sword that had fancy, scrolled writing down the fuller and blood on the blade. She seemed dead.
If the man was a Talent he seemed unable to use any m’jik to protect himself; perhaps weariness prevented the use of power or perhaps his power was bound or exhausted. He parried the Rhakes’ sword strokes but his defense was slow, his arm gave way with each clash of metal. There was a gash high on his left arm and blood ran down his face from a head wound; only his eyes were visible—blue as kerrwren’s eggs. Reed saw the leader of the Rhakes knock the man’s sword from his grip. It struck the stone above his head, belling in an agonized clash of metal, and fell out of reach. The man took four mortal strikes before he crumpled beside the woman. He held her as he died and her tangled hair spilled across his breast like blood.
The chief Rhake dismounted and picked up the man’s sword. He turned to the bodies; his black boots stepped into their pooled blood. He leaned over and removed the woman’s sword from her dead hand. Then he laughed, a terrible sound like stone breaking and birds shrieking, and he raised the woman’s beautiful sword—to cast a spell or to hack at their lifeless bodies wasn’t clear.
From the circle of stones winged creatures made of lightening and smoke struck at the Rhakes. Hawk-like they dove at the riders from above. The Rhakes were driven back, the leader using the stolen swords in both hands to fend off the winged creatures. The Rhakes retreated, taking the swords with them, leaving the bodies of the man and the woman in the shadow of the pillar. Many light creatures landed on the dead bodies and lifted them to the center of the circle of standing stones. As the vision faded a huge bonfire backlit the tall pillar.
The pillar that Reed crouched beneath. He sobbed, his breath rushing out as though he’d been kicked by the craggie. The light from the gem was cut off suddenly, the vision broken as Thyme’s hand covered his.
“A powerful talis, harper,” Thyme said thickly, his voice rough with some emotion Reed couldn’t place. The clash of Thyme’s inner melody hammered against Reed’s temples and chest like a headache and a heartache knotted together with broken lute strings. Thyme folded Reed’s fingers over the stone so his own hand didn’t touch the gem.
“What happened here?” Reed whispered.
“Something momentous, apparently,” the dark man said cryptically, peering intently into Reed’s pale face. “What did you see?”
“A battle. Dark riders—Rhakes—riding creatures that were not horses—with clawed feet. They killed a man wearing griffin crests and a woman with red hair. And a horse with dark-see eyes.” Hustler snorted and Reed thought the Stheel growled. “The two people were girded lightly and armed with swords of some blue white metal. The woman’s sword had writing on it.”
“Spin-zeel, made from zelium. The metal of the Old Kingdom engineers and smyths. There were some powerful swords made in the Old Kingdom—they had spells worked into the metal. Usually the spell was inscribed on the blade or the fuller. The Rhakes’ mounts that you saw sound like the demonken from Faery. The slain warriors were Ramaldan.”
“I thought you said there was no evidence anyone had ever been here. Did you know this story?” Reed asked, puzzled.
“It’s an old story. Perhaps no one knows it.” This sounded wrong. Thyme shook his head; it was a sad gesture.
“Then how do you know they were Ramaldan?”
“The griffin is the crest of Ramald. The red-eyed horse a Stheel. In the Old Kingdom, only the Ramald had such.”
“The riders were driven off by flying creatures made of light.”
“Hmmmm. Perhaps the old myth of native creatures here in Stone Soldiers has some basis in fact. Or perhaps you were daydreaming.” Reed started to object and Thyme silenced him with a strong grip on his shoulder. “But probably not. The past reached out and touched you. Perhaps you’ll be able to put words to the song you heard here. Put that gem in a safe place. It called out to you and to no other for as long as it’s lain there—hundreds of years at least.”
“Haven’t you stopped in this spot before?” Reed asked.
“I always stop in this spot. Always.”
“It draws me. Something momentous happened here.” Thyme’s voice was sudden regret and inner clash.
Reed folded the gem into a small piece of chamois that he used to polish his harp and tucked it into a hidden pocket in his vest. The gem sighed—the harp strings echoed the sigh as though wind had played them and the wild disharmony he sensed in the jewel stilled perceptibly. After they mounted to leave, Reed turned back to mark the spot in his mind. Pale lights, like great moths, flitted between the silent stones.
“Look,” he told Thyme. But when Thyme turned around, the lights were gone.
Thyme’s unease increased markedly and he pressed them. They trotted and Reed’s knees screamed in protest. They had ridden only an el past the standing stones when Reed noticed they were being shadowed on the left by a scraggly, black prairie wolf. They trotted down another dip and up. A second pale wolf appeared for just a moment behind a gorse covered hillock far off to their right. Hustler was blowing loudly and making little snorty, rolling nostril sounds. The craggie picked up his pace and was right beside Hustler. The road dipped and rose, curved left, and then right. Reed swiveled in his saddle just in time to see a third yellow wolf disappear into a dip behind them. Had the black wolf on the left moved closer? And was he just imagining warmth where the blue gem lay against his ribs?
“Thyme—” he said softly, sensing a more immediate concern than gloomy weather.
“I see them,” the Spokesman for the High King answered, drawing his sword. “Ride in front,” he said, reining Hustler to one side. For once, Hum-Hum didn’t refuse Reed’s urging. One-handed, Reed scrabbled at his belt for the short-bladed utility knife he carried. When he opened the blade, less than half the length of his hand, he felt foolish and defenseless.
Hustler pushed the Craggie faster until they broke into a choppy lope. The warhorse was blowing great huffs of air with each bunched stride. Reed glanced to the right. The pale wolf had closed the distance and was pacing them, its tongue lolling over its white teeth. Reed glimpsed red eyes. The mountain wolves in Skyeborder had yellow eyes, or blue in the rare white wolf. None of them had red eyes. Red like a Stheel.
Hustler growled deep inside. Reed distinctly heard the word, demonken; the Stheel had snarled the word in his mind. Reed had no idea what demonken were but he knew it wasn’t good. He gripped the knife and tried to push Hum-Hum faster. The blue gem throbbed wildly.
“Make for that big stone,” Thyme shouted.
Reed veered the Craggie off the trail, cutting left toward a single humped rock several hundred spans in front of them. The wolf on the left was only half a dozen spans away. The beast caught his eyes.
Cold darkness washed over him.
“Don’t look in his eyes,” Thyme hissed, urging Hustler forward between them. The blue gem seared his side and Reed blinked. The giant stone was right in front of them. The black wolf on the left cut between them and the stone, and faced them, its red eyes on fire. Hustler snorted and lowered his head. The wolf reared up, and up, and grew taller, its forearms lengthening and thickening, toes curving into claws. The Craggie shied to the right; Hustler reared up and struck the beast; it snapped futilely at the Stheel’s forelegs as the warhorse hammered it down with his hooves.
A weight struck Reed, knocking him from the saddle. The wolf smelled of sulfur and an acrid sharp musk. Reed hit the ground and rolled, tried to stand and tripped on his cloak, cracking his head on the boulder. If he hadn’t fallen again, the pale wolf would have clamped his teeth on the back of Reed’s neck. Its hot breath burned his cheek as the jaws snapped with horrible force above his head. He struggled to his knees, dizzy, and faced the creature. Cold stone bumped against his shoulder and he turned slightly, set his back against the massive boulder. He tried not to stare at the wolf, looked over its shoulder, and observed helplessly as the yellow wolf leapt on Thyme’s back. The man’s great sword swung up over his shoulder, caught the creature on the head with the flat of the blade. Reed’s attacker snarled, its fangs lengthened, and its paws became claws. He resisted its eyes—burning and furious. Reed wrapped his cloak around his arm as the wolf came at him, low and snarling. It went for his face, or throat, Reed never knew. He blocked it with his cape-wrapped arm and the wolf’s jaws locked down on the bunched cloth. He stabbed the beast in the eye with his short knife, and then in the neck, once, twice, and again before the creature let go of his forearm. Angry and blinded, the creature snapped at Reed again but misjudged. Reed knocked its head aside, gagging on the fetid breath. The thing bit at his legs and he kicked at it. The wolf snarled and whipped back toward his face then collapsed on his legs, blood pumping from its mouth. Thyme’s sword had pierced him through. In disbelief, Reed sank back against the stone and stared at the dead beast. It was no longer a wolf, but something far deadlier, with fierce clawed paws and a cruel wide mouth.
Thyme stood over the headless yellow wolf; its grim head had rolled a few feet and stared at the sky from empty, red eyes. It too had changed—become some terrible combination of lion and dragon and wolf. Hustler still stomped the now unrecognizable body of the black beast. Hum-Hum stood trembling behind the boulder, looking as though he wanted to bolt home but was too frightened to move.
“Are you alright?” Thyme asked, wiping his blade on the shaggy coat of the creature.
“I think so,” Reed said, his shock settling in. He shivered and unwound his cloak. It was torn badly, but he bundled in it and tried to stand. His hands were covered with blackish blood. Thyme steadied him.
“Did he bite you?”
“No, I hit my head on the boulder. He tried.”
“Nasty bump,” he said, feeling Reed’s skull.
“What were they?” Reed asked, still stunned.
“Demonken. They are part demon and part animal. A nasty little creation of Angzik’s. They can shape change some. They live on blood and human flesh.”
“Angzik was a geneticist?”
“Something like that. Rhakes certainly were genetically engineered—half human, half something evil. For the most part, they look human though, when they want to.”
“I read biogenetics ended with the Ancients.”
“The Ramald were great enthusiasts of bioengineering. Stheels are one of their supreme achievements.”
“Was Ramaldan. And lived in the Old Kingdom, just after the fall of the Ancients.”
“Oh. Right.” It was a chilling thought.
“The question is, why were there demonken here?”
That was even more chilling a thought.
They found a stream and cleaned up. Thyme didn’t press the young harper’s ruminant silence. Reed had trouble with the idea that someone could want to create such a terrible living creature.