(Note: This is not official version and may be removed in the near future. This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter. I have preserved the rough form for posterity — or something like that. This novel has since been rewritten.)
James had narrowly escaped death. In his mind he could still see the menacing white eyes of the creature, beast, whatever it was, thirsty for his flesh, thirsty for the sweet comfort he would have created inside its belly. Yet, he had survived.
The sword, to his surprise, refused to leave his hand. He tried prying his fingers away, laying there on the beach, but his hand, and the sword, seemed unwilling to let go. The blade itself shimmered faintly as if it were suddenly brand new. He couldn’t quite understand how it had all happened. He remembered thinking desperately about the sword, and then it ripped free and he found himself on the beach, blurry eyed, and exhausted, sword tightly in his hand. Magic, he thought. For some reason he felt as if he were becoming more used to the blurry vision and weakness. He had the energy to stand again; he simply wanted to lay there in the sand for a moment.
But Darl refused to allow him more than a few minutes, and before long, he found himself on his feet and hobbling through the open tunnel mouth and up a winding cramped tube. He dragged the sword behind him. Every so often the blade bumped Pea who in return grunted angrily and kicked it away. Darl, not at all to James’ surprise, became grumpier than before, grumbling to himself as they climbed.
The journey up seemed far easier than the journey down. At least James thought so. The biggest problem he found was drying off. The process made him tremendously uncomfortable and he started to feel the way a cranberry might feel after being drowned. Still, he prayed and hoped there would be a soft bed in Arnur and that he would be able to sleep. And sleep.
The tunnel no longer curved in strange winding patterns; rather, it kept relatively straight in a easterly direction. James took this as an advantage. It meant they would have a full understanding of which direction to look when they managed to get out of the tunnel.
Slowly the tunnel widened allowing everyone in the group to walk fully upright. James sighed as his spine popped. He stretched as best he could with the sword hanging from his hand.
Then a faint light appeared, intensified, and then the end of the tunnel presented itself. Pea quietly put out his torch and placed it in his bag. Darl broke into the outside world first, then James, and Pea shortly after. James breathed in deeply, closed his eyes, and reveled in the moment. He promised himself that should he ever get home he would never go spelunking. Not so long as I have a choice.
In the distance massive bangs filled the air like the sound of two enormous boulders crashing against each other, or a tremendous rockslide ripping away from a rock face. James saw Darl look back and for a moment thought to look too. He stopped himself in mid-motion. He wasn’t sure if he could handle it. Darl’s eyes were sunken; Pea, who had turned a moment later, looked on the brink of tears. The sounds continued and James built up the courage. He turned. The sight before him, a sight he had half-expected and yet could never fully prepare for, caused his knees to quiver, nearly buckling beneath his weight. Fires ravaged anything that could burn within Arlin City. Though he couldn’t see the main gates, he could tell that the walls had been crushed. Buildings buckled from car-sized stone missiles. But the fires hadn’t reached the two towers. Instead chains with links the size of human torsos stretched up the height of the structures. The Adul’pur shimmered. Faint black clouds enveloped the bridge. They grew in intensity, becoming like elemental serpents, surrounding the Adul’pur, but held back by an invisible force. Whatever held the clouds a bay lost its strength and in a sharp flash of light the Adul’pur shattered and exploded out into a green mist and disappeared. The black clouds dissipated just as sneakily as they had come.
Then, the chains became taut. A stone missile ripped low into Naz’ra. It hung in balance with gravity and the last remaining supports within its structure, and then it fell, toppling down in a maze of dust, slabs of stone and pulverized rock. The sound of it all seemed infinitely greater to him. He winced as it crashed and dropped to his knees. He watched the dust settle and tears began to well in his eyes. Then Al’Dul creaked, a long crack opening like the maw of a stone beast along its midsection. Another stone missile burst through it. Then it crashed, hitting the hilltop in two large pieces, fragmenting, and spilling dust down the hillside.
“We must go,” Darl said.
James buried his head into the ground and sobbed.
“James,” Pea said, “we have to go. There’s no time.”
“Fear not. Luthien will pay for this.”
But Darl’s words had no affect on him. He broke down completely, feeling as though one of his parents had died. What have I done? What have all these people done to deserve this? He searched for the answers; none came. It’s all my fault. Every last bit of it. If I had never come here, none of this would have ever happened. God help these people. God help me.
“We have to move now. If his men see us, then all of this is pointless,” Darl said, then searching for the words, “all those people would have died for nothing. Don’t let that hang on your shoulders. Ammond knew there were great things meant for you. Luthien would not want you so desperately if you were just an ordinary boy.”
“There’s nothing great about me Darl. Nothing! I’ve brought such pain on these people.”
“That cannot be helped now. Get up. Come to grips with this reality.”
Pea put a hand on his shoulder. “Come, let’s at least get to Arnur.”
He crept to his feet and sucked back his tears, sniffled. Then he turned away from Arlin City, seeing the last of it crashing down in smoke and flames.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Darl led the way; James thudded behind with the sword drawing a haphazard line in the earth. They reached a wooded area and took cover within the branches. The cover lasted only a moment before they were back in the open field. Soon they had crossed enough land and put enough tall woods behind them that they could walk without concern. Even if Luthien’s men were looking their direction, they were out of sight.
Mountains loomed overhead, but cast no shadows now that the sun ran in the wrong direction and had passed high noon. Instead, the mountain-face glimmered—green where knots of brush and trees grew, grey where huge rock outcroppings raised their stony fingers to the sky, and white where ice and snow took over above the snowline. Somewhere in the hills was the golden road that led to Arnur, yet James hadn’t a clue how to find it. Arnur, being such a sacred place, could not be reached by a clearly visible road, and no man would build such a road to a place where one could keep hidden.
Passing through one last clearing of trees, the base of the mountains exposed a single passageway, enveloped on both sides by tall, cracked grey rock formations. The passage looked like an ill-used trail, perhaps once traveled by horses and wagons. In any event, they entered and found themselves in the shadow of tall cliffs. Their footsteps echoed and every so often the rocks would creak and a stone or two would crackle down to the ground. James had an eerie feeling about the place. It reminded him too much of the water filled cavern and he half expected there to be strange and abnormal creatures wandering the rocky crevasses. Thankfully I don’t have swim. His muscles, while still under the influence of the salve, had long since passed the point of exhaustion, instead sending signals that they couldn’t remember hurting anymore. He never understood how the body could forget pain. The body could become so exhausted that exhaustion itself would have little effect. Regardless, he knew that eventually, if this journey kept up, he would collapse completely. Or something worse. He shuttered at the thought.
The passage ran a straight course into the mountain and generously increased in altitude until it split into three directions.
“Great,” Darl said sarcastically. “As if we need more hurdles…”
“Tagron said to find the golden path,” James said.
Darl whirled around. “Really? Do you see any gold?”
He shook his head.
“Then which magical path do you propose we take.”
“Calm down Darl,” Pea said. “It’s not his fault.”
“No, it’s not. I am just not cut out for this sort of thing. I expected to die an old man in Arlin City. Not old and running from Luthien. I’ve run from Luthien before. Didn’t think I would have to again.”
James looked into Darl’s eyes. He noticed the age there in Darl’s pupils and in the grey stubble protruding from the man’s chin. How old is he? And what does he mean by running from Luthien again?
“Let’s rest until we can figure it out.” Pea ended the conversation by taking a seat on a nearby rock and gazing at the paths. Darl grunted and did the same.
James stood there for a moment eyeing Darl. He looked deep for the right words, or any words for that matter. Then, he said in a timid voice, “I’m sorry,” and took off his pack and propped it against a rock. He leaned against it and rested the sword, firmly attached as if by an industrial glue, next to his leg. He let out a deep breath and closed his eyes. The sensation of rest ran through him like a smooth wind. In his last thoughts, he thought of Triska and Gammon and prayed that their deaths had been as painless as possible. He thought of Arlin City and the people, creatures, and otherwise that had been destroyed in the battle. Then he thought of those that would be next on Luthien’s rampage. He wondered about Luthien’s sudden appearance, army in tow. How did he cross so much land so quickly? And how did nobody in Arlin City know about it?
And in those thoughts, he found himself swiftly falling to sleep. He didn’t fight it, rather allowed himself to sink completely into his pack and drift away.
* * *
When James awoke, his first instinct was to ferry his way into consciousness. He had had that desire his whole life and it had never occurred to him to do anything else. Then what he could only describe as his second instinct, the one that found solace in the magic he had only acquired days before, took over. He allowed himself to slip away from the waking world and found himself once again in the presence of Dulien and the warm feeling that followed. Through his fading vision he could tell that it was only a few hours from dusk, orange-red rays of brilliant light shining overhead.
“Death seems to be nipping ever so daintily at your heels,” Dulien said.
I can’t help it. It just seems to find me at every turn.
“So long as you keep one step ahead of it.”
What if I can’t?
“Then it is your time and you will ascend into the Halls of the Great Fathers.”
I am afraid. Luthien is too powerful. I could give myself in. So many have already died because of me.
There was a deep sigh, a long airy breath that echoed in the back of his mind. Then Dulien said, “In my many years I came to understand that death is only the fault of the one that gives it. Luthien’s rage may be driven by your presence here in this world, but he makes every decision to destroy the lives of the innocent. You did not choose this fate for them. Fate is simply uncontrollable. Don’t bare such a burden.”
James hadn’t thought of it that way and having heard it from Dulien he started to understand how little control he had over the past events. How was I supposed to know that coming here would cause all this?
Dulien’s response startled him, and then he realized that he couldn’t think anything without announcing it to anyone swimming around in his mind.
How did Luthien get here so quickly? And without being spotted?
“Luthien is powerful, but he is not powerful enough alone to move an entire army unseen over such a great distance.” The concern in Dulien’s voice brought a new sense of doubt to James.
But it is possible?
There was a long pause, eerily silent. James shivered.
“In theory, if one could acquire enough power, he or she could do just about anything.” Another pause. “Our time is running short. Don’t blame yourself. Study hard and learn your magic. Use it wisely and all will right itself.”
I have one more question. How did you die?
Then he crashed wildly back into reality, all the while bewildered. When he came to, a soft pain throbbed in the back of his head and a moment later it dissipated into nothing. He reached his hands up to his face and rubbed his eyes. Then he noticed that the sword no longer clung to him, instead lying in the dirt next to his leg. He almost smiled, but stopped in mid-motion.
“Sleep well?” Pea said, leaning over a nearby rock.
“Good enough,” he said.
“Good. Darl is quite grumpy. I suggest keeping your distance.”
Then Darl bellowed, “I am not grumpy!”
“How can you tell?” He snickered.
“He starts mumbling incessantly to himself about events that probably never happened.”
The two of them laughed before Darl tossed a rock their direction and they were forced to dive out of the way. Then they decided it would be best to laugh in a calmer manner—hands over their mouths and gently vibrating with a sustained bout of chuckles.
After several minutes they stopped and James looked back where they had come. He hoped to see the remains of Arlin City. Instead he could only see the long plume of black smoke fading into the dying dusk sky, the remnants of that great city hidden behind a wall of rock.
“Any luck with the paths?”
Pea shook his head. “None yet. Darl has been sitting there for a while, staring. I imagine he could win a staring contest against any child in all of the Farthland if he were put to the test. How was your talk with Dulien?”
Dulien had a way of confusing him. It always seemed as though each conversation left him with even more questions. Dulien didn’t choose him, nor had Dulien died, but he hadn’t a clue what that all meant. And James could only make wild assumptions as to how Luthien had managed to transport an entire army undetected across the Fire Rim and on the several month journey to Arlin City. Not to mention keeping the immense supply line needed to keep that army combat ready running without a single soul noticing it. It was just as impossible for Luthien to take any other city in the Farthland without some form of word reaching Arlin City and ultimately the dozens of other settlements. Luthien might stop a messenger riding by horse, but it would be difficult even with the help of flying beasts like the gryphons to stop a volary of messenger birds—not to mention that gryphons were too bulky to be as agile as a hawk or falcon. That was the cost of having the muscular strength to tear a man in two.
Finally he said, “It was as confusing as the first time. He told me that I’m not to blame for what has happened. I’m not convinced. I still feel responsible.”
“It can’t be helped James.”
“I know that. But would all this have happened if Laura and I had not come to this world?”
“Yes.” Pea didn’t hesitate.
“How do you know?” James cradled his legs in his arms.
“The peace, if you could call it that, between Angtholand and the Farthland has been failing for years. Luthien only stayed back because he didn’t have the military might to crush us without sending his own people into poverty. He could win, sure, but such might cost him the relative social order in Angtholand. People might turn on him. The gryphons that have gone to his side might flee. The Daemonkind would likely usurp him of his power, possibly try to kill him. Luthien is powerful, but he cannot stand up against a legion of thousands on his own.”
“Then why would he come now? Wouldn’t the same problems exist?”
Pea rubbed his chin. “I would assume so. There is so much I don’t know about what has happened. I have the same questions as you. I know Luthien is powerful, but it seems impossible for him alone to have come so far without anyone knowing. We have few allies in Angtholand, but even they would have sent some sort of notice that his armies were on the move. This is all very strange.”
“Strange indeed,” James said under his breath.
“Listen to Dulien. You cause no undue hardship on these people. You simply brought forth an inevitable event.” Pea smiled half-heartedly.
James still couldn’t help feeling terrible. Brief images of Triska flashed through his mind—happy images. He remembered her warm embrace and the cozy feeling he had when he had entered her home. Even the thought brought warmth to his body, something he suddenly realized he would need soon. With the sun setting it would be very cold. The mountain regions of the Farthland suffered from colder temperatures than the valley floor. At night it dropped to an average of forty degrees and even colder during the autumn and winter months.
The last glimmer of light from the sun cast a ray overhead, giving the three paths a last flash of crimson light.
“Let’s just get to Arnur,” he said. “I’d like to finally get a lesson from you.” He grinned.
Pea pointed up to the three paths; James turned to look. A silhouette, for that was all you could call the figure that blinked into reality, came forward with shadowed arms held out in a peaceful gesture. Darl was upright before anyone else ready with his sword to attack anyone who came close enough.
The figure gave James the chills. It looked human, but bore no features other than two pinpoints of white light where its eyes were. It was literally a walking shadow completely unaffected by what little light the sun provided. When it walked its feet never touched the ground.
“Who wishes to pass through the golden path?” Its voice was eerily human, yet soft and neutral.
“We do,” Darl said firmly.
It eyed Darl, or made the gesture that would accompany such an action with the shadow of its face, and said, “Then I will tell you a riddle. Give me the right answer and your passage shall go unhindered. Answer me incorrectly and you can leave your path to chance. Two of these paths lead to death. Do you wish to answer my riddle?”
“Tell me your riddle specter. Take our answer as you will and leave us in peace.”
James thought he saw the silhouette smile, but shook his head thinking better of it. Then, as unexpectedly as it had come, the shadow began to sing in long sinuous tones, weaving interconnecting rhythms in major and minor chords:
“Through time and wind you bring me strength,
and beat back my chills forever,
but in my time you’ll sound in length,
the ghostly thump of love so clever.
I cling to you in nightly terrors,
in hopes that you might live on,
but give to you my lively errors,
to my end so shall you be gone.”
Then the song ended and the shadow leaned back in a gesture of relief at having finished. Darl took a long moment to contemplate. James knew instantly that Darl hadn’t a clue what tell the shadow.
James looked to Pea. “Any idea?” he said.
“The sun and the moon?” Pea said.
“Can’t be,” Darl said, “it’s something more specific. The sun and moon have little to do with clever love.”
“It’s a stretch. On Earth many find watching the sun set and rise to be romantic. And some feel the same about the moon.”
“Still, it’s something else.”
He started to run ideas through his head. What brings you strength, fights back chills, and brings about love? And we cling to it to live on, but know by our own fault that when we die it dies too. He was silent for what seemed like ages. Pea and Darl were much the same.
“A blanket?” Pea said.
“What does that have to do with love? Or death for that matter?” he said.
Darl laughed—a loud throbbing laugh so loud James thought it shook the very foundations of the mountain. “I think the answer to that question should be left unsaid. You’re too young for that now. A blanket is loving enough. And if you treat it poorly you have to get rid of it.”
He glared. “I’m old enough!”
“I think it’s a blanket. It has to be.” Though Pea didn’t seem quite sure.
Darl nodded in agreement.
“I don’t think so,” James grumbled. Then he ran thoughts through his head again. Strength, beating, love, pain, and death. He repeated the words in his head.
“We have your answer,” Darl said.
The silhouette waited patiently.
James ran forward and blurted out, “heart!” Darl’s bitter face forced James to curl away, but the answer had been said.
“You may pass,” the shadow said.
Darl started to question, but the shadow disappeared just as swiftly as it had come, leaving Darl in utter bewilderment. The rightmost path sparked brightly and, as if a can of paint had been poured over the edge, the walls became a shimmering gold.
He sighed deeply, overwhelming glad that his answer was correct; he didn’t much like the idea of randomly selecting a path, nor did he enjoy the idea of dying. But he was right. Right as rain.
Pea patted him on the leg and scuttled by. Darl stared angrily.
“Well,” Pea said, “let’s get out of here. We don’t want to be caught up in the cold.”
James retrieved his things and followed Pea. Darl shuffled behind, grumbling again. The road to Arnur, the golden path, stretched out of sight, probably several miles—though he couldn’t be sure. Either way he would be someplace he hoped would be safe, away from Luthien and the army that would likely move on from burning Arlin City to the ground to burning crops, settlements, and anything else.
So he walked, slugging his damp pack over his shoulder. He had fixed the sword to the pack; he figured that one of the two swords that Darl had brought was going to be his. Having it magically cling to him had created a strange bond and he didn’t want to part with it.
He took one last look back at the skyline and the plume of smoke that still rose into the sky. Then he turned and trudged on.