Only in harmony can we build. Only in trust can we fulfil our destiny.
They had been tracked for the last five miles of their approach. Sildaan had sensed them but even she had not seen them. Those she brought with her were completely oblivious. They had no conception of the risk they ran. Of course they didn’t. Typical of men. Strangers. Puffed up with notions of their own strength and power. Ignorant. And alive only because she was with them.
Yet she had placed her life squarely in their hands. She sighed to herself. Here, just beyond the sanctuary of the rainforest and gazing on the majesty of the temple of Yniss at Aryndeneth, it seemed a wholly ridiculous decision.
The great green and gold dome of the temple rose over two hundred feet into the air. The dome sat on a circular stone structure. Both dome and walls held multiple windows in coloured glass to beam in light across the rainbow spectrum. Every stone in the walls was carved with one of Yniss’s gifts, whether it be light, water, animal, vegetable or mineral. Great iron-bound wooden doors overlooked a carved path that ran through a grand stone apron and out into the forest.
It was on this carved path that they stood, the thirty men grouped behind Sildaan, staring out, mouths open at the sight of the temple. For a while, they barely registered those that stood on the apron in front of it.
Nine TaiGethen. Three cells of the elite warrior class of Yniss, father of the elven race. The cell that had tracked them joining the two others. Their faces were painted in green and brown camouflage and they wore clothes that mimicked the colours of the rainforest floor. In the shadows of the canopy, they were simply invisible.
Sildaan had never been on this side of them before. Their stillness was unnerving. Their unwavering gaze bored holes in her courage. Swords were sheathed in back-mounted scabbards. Jaqrui throwing crescent pouches were clasped shut. Perhaps that was why the humans appeared unworried. She pitied them their ignorance. A TaiGethen needed no edged weapon in order to kill.
‘Stop, Priest Sildaan,’ said Myriin. ‘They will not desecrate this temple.’
Sildaan felt the first ugly cut of guilt through her soul. She steeled herself. What they had come to do had to be done. She clung to that certainty as if it might escape her grasp and blow away above the canopy, taking her courage with it.
‘Myriin.’ Sildaan bowed her head and touched fingers to her forehead. ‘These are unusual times. Yniss forgive me for the company I am forced to keep.’
Myriin raised her eyebrows fractionally. ‘Unusual indeed. We noted you travelled here free of duress. As if you chose to bring them here.’
‘I did,’ said Sildaan. A ripple of anger spread across the TaiGethen. ‘Because we have no other choice.’
‘There will never come a time when elves will stand side by side with men. And these have seen Aryndeneth. You have brought them to their deaths. Why?’
‘They are not dying at your hand,’ said Sildaan quietly. ‘They are staying. This temple needs greater protection than even you can provide.’
A growl emanated from the throat of each TaiGethen. Behind Sildaan, the men tensed. Hands went to sword hilts and there was a whispering of words that she could not understand.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ hissed Sildaan in the tongue of men. ‘You cannot defeat them with blades.’
‘I will not leave my people defenceless,’ said Garan, the leader of the men.
Sildaan glanced at him, standing just behind her and in front of all of his charges. He was ugly, his chin obscured by coarse hair. He was covered in the sores and blisters of exposure to all the rainforest could throw at him, as were they all. Sildaan could have helped them but she chose not to. It was a fitting reminder of where they were and where the power truly lay.
‘You have no idea, Garan.’
‘I know they cannot beat magic.’
‘You’d better be right,’ said Sildaan. ‘Or we’re all going to die.’
‘Just do what you feel you must,’ said Garan. ‘This talking seems an unnecessary risk.’
Sildaan ignored him and turned back to Myriin. The TaiGethen warrior had moved a pace away from the others.
‘I will speak with you.’
Sildaan felt a shiver run down her back. She prayed Garan’s words would not turn out to be prophetic. She walked out onto the apron, feeling the eyes of the TaiGethen on her. Anger, deference and suspicion. They were sworn to protect the priests of Yniss but were ready to kill her on the instant she proved herself a traitor. She could feel it through her feet and smell it in the air. Close to, she could see the fury in Myriin, evidenced by the slightest tremble in her hands.
‘I bring them here with the purest of intentions,’ said Sildaan.
‘You are a priest of Yniss!’ Contempt flashed across Myriin’s face. She shook her head. ‘You contradict yourself.’
‘And you have spent too long hidden in the rainforest. A thousand years of stability are about to be swept away and the Ynissul are not numerous enough to combat what will inevitably come at us.’
Myriin straightened. ‘You’re speaking of the denouncement of Takaar?’
‘You doubt it will happen?’
‘I doubt Aryndeneth will be a target for Tuali mobs if it does.’ Myriin stabbed a finger at the men. ‘What are they doing here?’
‘Myriin. You know I respect you as I do every TaiGethen. Without you, the Garonin would have killed so many more in the last days on Hausolis. But that was ten years ago and the mood has turned against Takaar. For all those you saved, he cost all of those lives when he fled. His was the backward step. Elves of every thread are shouting betrayal. It was never possible to hide the truth. These men are here to protect the Ynissul and our faith.’
Myriin’s eyes were cold. ‘Takaar’s legacy is a thousand years of unity and harmony. Only the faithless will turn against him. We do not need the protection of men.’
‘Yniss is at the centre of our faith. Not Takaar.’ Sildaan found her anger eclipsing her fear. ‘The faithless are those who revere one elf above their god.’
‘Takaar saved the elven race. Not just the Ynissul thread. Every elf owes him a debt they can never repay.’
‘You don’t sit in the Gardaryn to feel the public fury. Neither do you hear the words spoken in every temple in Ysundeneth. You are out of touch.’
‘Clearly,’ said Myriin. ‘I missed the moment when it became acceptable for a priest of Yniss to bring heretics to the home of our faith.’
Sildaan saw the smallest tension flow through Myriin’s facial muscles. Time was short.
‘Because I care for you and your people, Myriin, I will give you this one chance. Stand down and leave the temple grounds. You cannot stop what is coming. Only those I have with me can do that. Gather your people and go. Disappear. It is the only way to save yourselves.’
Sildaan could see the word coming and it brought tears to her eyes and a veil of guilt across her heart.
TaiGethen blades whispered from scabbards. The warriors moved. Myriin held up a hand. They paused.
‘Sildaan, you will consider yourself in my custody, there to await trial for your crimes.’
Sildaan squeezed her eyes shut. She had known it would come to this but she had had to try anyway.
‘I’m sorry, Myriin. Yniss will bless you on your journey.’ She bowed her head. ‘Garan.’
‘Go prone,’ said Garan.
Sildaan dropped. She felt the TaiGethen surge towards the company of human warriors and mages. The temperature plummeted all around her. A howling wind roared over her, chilling her body. She felt ice crowding her hair and blocking her nostrils. Her mouth was raw with frost when she inhaled.
She could hear nothing but the gale of ice. She kept her face close to the freezing stone of the apron. If there were screams, they were lost to her so she added her own. Her voice sounded like her throat was being dragged over rocks. And once her breath was exhausted, pulling in another was agony.
Sildaan thought the gale was brief. Garan had said that most magic was. Yet it seemed a lifetime before the din subsided. Sildaan lay unmoving, waiting for the swift death of a TaiGethen blade. Yet all she heard were the footsteps of the men advancing towards her and her temple.
Sildaan pushed herself away from the ground, her arms unsteady beneath her. She was stunned by the cold and turned a numb face towards the temple. She barely recognised it. Ice sheathed it, obscuring the stone and hanging in spears from ledges and sills. Frost rimed the stone apron and threw a shroud across the canopy at the edge of the temple clearing. All was white.
Sildaan felt a strong hand under her arm and allowed Garan to help her to her feet.
‘Careful,’ he said. ‘It’s slippery.’
Sildaan nodded, watching the frost begin to puddle and run away to feed all of Beeth’s roots and branches. It melted from the bodies of the TaiGethen. Sildaan put a hand to her mouth. Their faces were blackened, ruined by frostbite and burned beyond all recognition. They lay in pieces. Like statues pushed violently onto their backs. Limbs had sheared from bodies, whose attitudes at the moment of their deaths relaxed as the ice deserted them.
A bird called across the apron. Sildaan started.
‘It’s so quiet,’ she breathed. She rubbed her hands together and blew on them to try and get some feeling back. ‘What did you do?’
‘I told you our magic was powerful,’ said Garan.
‘Not the half of it,’ said Sildaan. She managed a timid smile and looked at her hands. The trembling had nothing to do with the cold. Her voice fell to a whisper. ‘Still. It looks like this might be easier than I thought.’
Auum hissed in a breath through his teeth. The damage was an affront to Beeth, the god of root and branch. Crude, careless, ugly. Split branches, broken vine and trampled brush. Caused by those not born to the forest. Those whom the TaiGethen were blessed by Yniss to hunt down.
Auum knelt and traced his fingers over ground that still retained the faintest vestiges of heavy-shod footprints. Here in the middle of the rainforest. Almost as far from the coast as it was possible to get. Auum left his hand in the dirt while the rain cascaded over his body from a huge leaf just above his head. He let Gyal’s tears refresh him and the sounds of the downpour rush through him.
He stood and faced his mentor, the Priest Serrin, whom it had been his honour to protect these ten years since his escape to Calaius. The priest was tall. His head was shaven. His body, naked but for a loincloth and leather shoes, was painted entirely white. Studs and rings adorned his ears and nose.
Serrin was one of the Silent. Dedicated to mute observance of Yniss in his temples, a keeper of archives and relics.
‘Strangers,’ Auum said, rising to his feet. ‘Closing on Aryndeneth.’
Serrin’s large oval eyes narrowed. Auum could see him weighing up a decision to speak. Out here it was permitted, though the Silent struggled with the occasional necessity nonetheless.
‘Which?’ asked Serrin, his voice hoarse and quiet.
‘This is not the Terassin. It’s too clumsy for them. Men. Fifteen at least.’ Auum spat. ‘A thousand years of blessed isolation. Why couldn’t they leave us alone?’
Serrin’s eyes betrayed his concern. The first sails had been spotted fifteen years ago. Men. Promising friendship and stinking of treachery and deceit. They had been warned away from the forest. It seemed that warning had gone unheeded.
‘We’ll catch them long before they reach Aryndeneth,’ said Auum. ‘This trail is fresh and they’ll be slow. They’re carrying too much weight.’
Auum moved off along the trail. The day was half done. Rain had been falling incessantly, feeding the ground and filling the leaves of the canopy that reached up high to grab Gyal’s tears as they fell. Down on the ground it was dark. Banyan, balsa, fig, liana and vine choked the forest floor. Dense low bush spread thick tendrils that snagged the careless foot. Too much had been hacked aside. A pathway had been cut wide enough for three walking abreast.
Auum growled. It was time.
Serrin reached into a pouch on his belt and pulled out a small lidded clay pot, closed with a leather band. He opened it and dipped two fingers of his right hand into it. Keeping his face to the ground he smeared the white paint across his cheeks, nose and forehead, working it to re-cover every pore.
Auum watched him for a moment, seeing the deliberate movements and the intensity in every stroke before re-applying his own camouflage. The brown and green paints felt cool against his skin. And empowering. Auum sent a prayer to Yniss to guide his hands and keep his senses sharp. When he had finished, he saw Serrin watching him. The priest, face startling white and eyes gleaming with passion, nodded.
‘Now we hunt.’
‘Move on, it’s nothing,’ said Haleth, scratching ineffectually at his sword arm through his leather. ‘Just one of those stupid little pig things.’
‘Tapir,’ said Arshul, the whisper-thin assassin.
Haleth shrugged. ‘If you say so.’
‘No,’ said another. Herol, it was. Called himself One-Eye. Confusing considering he was blind in neither. ‘I saw something. Just a flicker. Pale like a spirit.’
‘I saw it too,’ said Rissom, the big bull-headed Racheman.
He was suffering with a fever after a bite from something horrible. He wasn’t alone of course. But at least he wasn’t whining about it though the discharge from his nose and one ear looked bad. Haleth grimaced.
‘All right, you saw it. Congratulations. But let’s move on. Unless you want to be chasing your phantom until you drop dead from snake or frog or burrowing insect. The temple is still a day away. But if it makes you feel better, Herol, drop back twenty. Take three others with you. Rissom, take two and flank right. Kuthan, do likewise on the left. Keep in sight, keep calling out what you find. And nothing heroic, all right? This is a dangerous place. Let’s go.’
Haleth set off, hacking aside the dense trailing vines that grabbed and snagged at clothing and face. Thick branches hung low from trees to grasp them and the damn roots formed hoops to trip them. On Balaia, roots went underground. Haleth cursed the Calaian rainforest, its thick sludge underfoot and its blasted insect life. Why did he ever agree to come back?
His face was a mass of bites despite the poultices and drinks the elves who’d met their ship had given them. And there were eggs in his arms and legs. Apparently, there was something at the temple that would sort that out. A leaf not present in this part of the forest. There was something particularly hideous about having insects hatching under your skin, feasting off your flesh. Haleth shuddered and scratched. He’d rather get snake bite.
‘Fucking place gets worse by the hour,’ said Arshul. ‘Don’t the rain ever stop?’
‘Stop your moaning and get up here and help me,’ said Haleth. ‘I can barely make out which way the sun is going. Your eyes are better than mine.’
‘Well you’re going to have bugs coming out of yours soon, aren’t you? No wonder they’re failing you.’ Arshul came up to Haleth’s left and chopped away with smooth movements of his blade. He looked at the light and shade ahead. ‘We’re still going in the right direction. Mainly.’
‘Good,’ said Haleth. He tripped on a hidden root and stumbled, bracing himself against a balsa trunk. ‘Bugger it.’
‘What happened to our guide? Sildaan promised us one.’
‘Sharp ears are good at promises, not so good at delivering,’ said Haleth.
Something rushed across their path, perhaps ten yards ahead. Light and shade. Quick and gone as soon as he had seen it. Arshul pointed.
‘That’s it,’ he said, voice trembling. ‘A ghost in the trees.’
‘Sighting dead ahead,’ called Haleth, his heart thudding hard in his chest. ‘Ten yards moving left to right. Heads up, One-Eye, coming your way.’
‘I hear you, boss.’
The company was still moving but very slowly. Every eye strained to see whatever it was. Haleth had a nagging feeling he recognised it, but in the downpour and almost lost in the shadows and ridiculously dense vegetation, there was no telling for sure.
He could sense the nerves of those around them. This was not in any of their experience. They’d all been on Calaius for over a hundred days, trying to acclimatise. But there was no getting used to the rainforest. Rumours had run riot about what travelled inside the canopy. Haleth knew.
‘Nothing yet,’ said One-Eye. ‘Wait. Movement. Up ahead, fifteen yards. Haven’t we – ’
The shriek from Haleth’s left was drawn from the deepest well of fear. Birds took flight and a rush of movement was heard in the canopy all around them. There was a crashing on the forest floor. Haleth, Arshul and the eight others in the central group turned, holding their swords ready. Haleth already knew it wasn’t an enemy coming. But an enemy might be right behind the runner.
A young man appeared, his face white in the gloom, his weapon gone and his mind with it. He burst through the vines and fell to the ground just in front of Haleth.
‘Kuthan!’ he wailed. ‘Kuthan’s head… So quick. Nothing to see. Nothing to hear.’
‘Talk to me, Ilesh. I need more sense than that.’ Haleth dropped to his knees and grabbed Ilesh’s shoulders. The young man looked up. ‘That’s better. Speak.’
‘There is nothing more. Kuthan’s dead. Beheaded and I didn’t even see anything. But there was something there. And then gone.’
A keening wail carried over the drumming of the rain. For a moment, Haleth thought it had to be a wounded animal. Then he heard the slicing of vegetation, terribly close. He jerked back reflexively. Ilesh’s head jolted violently to the left. Blood sprayed out over Haleth’s face. He dropped the man and scrabbled back to his feet, grabbing his sword from the mud.
Something jutted from Ilesh’s neck. A crescent blade with indented finger grips at one end. It had carved deep, slicing the jugular and lodging in the windpipe. The poor fool juddered and slumped sideways. Haleth didn’t take his eyes from the weapon. Sildaan had spoken of these things. Jaqrui, she’d called them. A signature weapon.
‘Shit,’ he breathed. ‘TaiGethen.’
A scream rang out from behind them. Shouting followed it and cries for help floated across the forest floor. Haleth turned full circle, seeing another glimpse of the ghost in the trees.
‘Everyone to me. Now! I want a circle. Clear some ground, dammit. And stand together. Stand. Arshul, behind me. One-Eye, get back here. Archers and mages in the centre. To my left. Move!’ Haleth could see fear in every face. Action helped, but only a little.
His men chopped at the vegetation at their feet, desperately trying to make enough space to stand and defend. The rain still rattled down and the gloom had deepened if anything, meaning there was yet more to come. One-Eye was leading his two back to the fold. They were trying to cover every angle, hacking at the foliage in front of them to make a path.
‘We’re watching for you,’ said Haleth. ‘Come on. Quickly.’
A shadow flashed behind One-Eye. Haleth’s throat went dry. The man to One-Eye’s left pitched forwards. Haleth saw the pale gleam of a blade. Gone in an instant.
‘Run, One-Eye!’ he yelled. ‘Run!’
Around him his men were jittery, staring out into the forest, trying to pierce the impenetrable. The ground around them was still treacherous but it would have to do. Tree trunks, vines and thick branches were going to get in the way of free swordplay. And the circle was too small. Haleth could understand their reluctance. Still…
‘Move out. Give the mages and bowmen some space. Don’t wait for a command to shoot or cast. Come on. Space. Space to fight.’
Haleth took two deliberate steps forward and gestured with his arms for those to his left and right to come with him.
‘How many of them are there?’ asked one.
‘Do I look like a seer?’
One-Eye and his sole charge ran into the rough circle. Survivors of the left flank and rear joined too. Seventeen stood and waited. Three of them with bows. Two mages. There was the sound of feet seeking firm purchase. Muttered curses and demands for more room. The whisper of spell shapes forming.
Yet around them, barring the dripping, drumming and splashing of rain, the forest had fallen silent.
After a hundred and fifty years, the bleeding had to be staunched – Serrin of the ClawBound
Auum dropped to a crouch, a curt hand gesture bidding his Tais do likewise. Down here in the leaf litter, dense scrub and brush, the echoes of animals high in the rainforest canopy were muted. Alien sounds met the ear unsullied.
Auum turned back towards the temple at Aryndeneth. The sound he’d heard had been distant and none of the five who faced him had registered it. They were all promising adepts and soon to be placed in active TaiGethen cells for the first time. All were on course to be cell leaders in a decade, maybe two.
Auum studied their faces while they awaited his words, their eyes shining with the honour he bestowed on them with his presence as their teacher. Their admiration embarrassed him but they listened well. Their camouflage had been painted on their faces in the correct manner; in deference to Yniss, father of them all, to Beeth, god of root and branch and to the rituals of the TaiGethen warrior.
None of them displayed fear. Auum knew why: because they were with him. With Auum, who had faced the Garonin and survived. Auum, who had found Takaar and fought by his side to free the elves of Ysundeneth. Auum, the Arch of the TaiGethen. Immortal.
‘But not invincible,’ he murmured. They should be as scared as he was. ‘What do you hear?’
Each of them strained to detect the sound their tutor had already heard. He knew what they would be doing: filtering out the sounds of Tual’s creatures as best they could. His students must also ignore the breeze, the fall of leaves and the sound of rainwater dripping to the forest floor. The sounds that remained gave Auum reason to shudder.
‘It is too big to be a bird,’ said Elyss, the best of them. She was heading for greatness. ‘And there are many of them.’
‘How many?’ asked Auum.
Elyss cocked her head once more. ‘Twenty.’
‘Twenty-two,’ corrected Auum. He turned to the others. ‘Excellent. Do you concur?’
Three of the TaiGethen students nodded.
‘I am shamed that I can hear nothing of this,’ said Malaar, letting his gaze drop.
Auum smiled. ‘There is no shame. But there will be combat. Elyss can hear mages on their wings of shade. They are coming to Aryndeneth, and we might just get there before them. Five-pace spread, attack on sight. Tais, we move.’
With every pace Auum could feel the enemy closing, as if they were walking up the length of his back. The pace of the TaiGethen was matched only by the panther under the canopy. Above them, though, where the dense vegetation and the grasping vines and roots were mere myth and rumour, the humans’ speed was unhindered.
High in the upper reaches of the canopy, bird calls charted waypoints in the enemy’s progress. Hawk eagle cries pierced the clear sky. Toucan bills clacked out a staccato message of threat and fell silent when the shadows fell across their steepling perches.
In the mid-level, the melodic calls of gibbons took on a desperate quality as they tried to reaffirm their territory against the approach of a new and terrifying invader. Everywhere, bird, beast and lizard shrilled, growled or chittered. Each sound was a call to hide or flee.
Auum looked to his right. Elyss flitted through the dense undergrowth. Her footfalls were light, the passage of her body barely disturbing bush or branch, her breathing measured and calm. And when the mages passed overhead, with the TaiGethen still a hundred paces short of the temple apron, Auum saw her react, glance skywards and increase her pace.
She felt it all. She was tuned to all that surrounded her and her mind was open to the forest, each message received through her ears, her feet and soaking into her skin. Elyss was the future. More and more like her were being born. They were the TaiGethen of tomorrow.
‘They are ahead of us,’ said Auum, his voice carrying to his people and no further. ‘But they must still descend through the canopy.’
‘We must call to warn the temple guard,’ said Tiiraj from Auum’s left.
‘They should need no warning and the humans must not know of our approach.’ Auum reached down to his belt. ‘Jaqrui pouches open. Choose your targets carefully.’
Auum slid between the balsa and fig trees that guarded the approach to Aryndeneth, the Earth Home. Growing tightly together, bound by vine and liana and by ivy which trailed to snag at clothes and grab at careless feet, they were impenetrable to any man without a blade.
Fifty paces out, Auum could see the walls of the domed temple glinting in the last of the sunlight before the clouds closed overhead and the rains came again. Gold and green and covered with creepers and climbers, the temple walls were a sight to gladden the heart of any elf fortunate enough to lay eyes upon them. Sanctuary.
Auum and his Tais would break from the rainforest at the right-hand edge of the temple apron. With every pace they closed, Auum could see and hear more. Figures were running from left to right, towards the temple. Other figures darted into cover positions: the Al-Arynaar. Auum felt a small measure of comfort on seeing them; his work training the temple guard had not been in vain.
Twenty paces out, the rainforest shook with explosions and was lashed with sheets of blue fire. Debris flew into the canopy. Splinters of stone and wood sliced into trunk, branch and leaf, whining and whistling through the air towards Auum and his Tais. Auum threw himself prone behind the bole of a balsa tree as the lethal hail scoured Beeth’s root and branch around him.
As quickly as it had begun it was gone and an eerie quiet descended, punctuated only by the cries of wounded animals and the screams of terrified elves within the temple. Auum moved smoothly back to his feet, noting the sound of his five Tai rising with him.
‘Focus your anger,’ he whispered.
The TaiGethen moved soundlessly onto the temple apron. Men crowded it. Men with swords were running towards the sealed temple doors, which still held but bore the scars of the first wave of spells. Others flanked them, driving towards the Al-Arynaar. Behind the human warriors, mages strode across the stone apron, defiling the sacred ground of Yniss with every footfall.
Above the back of the temple, Auum saw more mages descend on the village that nestled in its shadow. Each pair carried a warrior between them. He drew a sharp breath. An arrow flew from the left of the temple, taking a mage in the throat. Immediately, three others turned and opened their hands. Deep blue orbs shot with white and red threads flashed away.
Auum saw the Al-Arynaar nock another arrow and shoot at the nearest of the orbs. The shaft vaporised halfway towards its target and, in the next breath, the orbs struck the archer, the corner of the temple and the forest adjoining it alike before flame exploded from them, turning wood, flesh and bone to ash in a heartbeat.
More spells sprang from the open palms and outstretched fingers of mages. Fire crashed into the doors of the temple, making the timbers groan. Flames caught hold. The TaiGethen could feel Yniss roar his fury through the tremors in the ground.
His feet whispered across the apron. His Tais were with him, spreading across the stone to strike. Auum chose a jaqrui from his pouch, cocking his arm and throwing on the run. The crescent blade whipped away, holes along its length catching the air and singing its mourning wail. Mages turned their heads, just as he needed them to. His target saw his death coming the instant before it struck him on the bridge of his nose and sliced into both eyes.
Five more jaqruis flew, striking unarmoured bodies, carving into hands and arms raised to protect faces, and thudding deep into guts and chests. Human blood spattered across the stone. Human voices were raised in alarm. Warriors turned to run back to their magical charges.
Auum sprinted across the open space. Four mages were down. Eight remained, facing their assailants. Auum identified four actively casting. The others were lost to panic and posed no imminent danger. To Auum’s right, Elyss had drawn a blade. She powered into a pair of casting mages. Her sword took the ear from one and drove on down into his shoulder, as her elbow jabbed up into the throat of the other.
Auum took two more paces and leapt, his left leg straight, right leg cocked beneath him. His foot smashed into the head of his target, poleaxing him. Still airborne, he drew both blades from their back-mounted scabbards, drew his left leg back and hacked down to his left and right, feeling both blades bite into flesh.
Auum landed amidst the humans. Malaar landed on one knee next to him, spinning and stabbing into an enemy’s groin, then surged to his feet and slashed one blade through the neck of a second, then buried the other in the gut of a third.
Auum nodded his approval and turned to face the warriors. He cursed. Flames were rising from the village behind the temple. Screams echoed beneath the canopy. The warriors were hacking open the temple doors. The spells had cracked the timbers, melted the hinges and lock, and now men were trying to do the rest.
‘Elyss!’ called Auum. ‘My right. Tais, head around the temple. Clear the village.’
Auum ran towards the doors, seeing the six warriors drag them wide enough to get inside while the flames ate at the ruined timbers. Elyss was at his right shoulder. Auum slipped through the doors, his nose catching the sick stench of magic and fire, and into the cool darkness of the temple.
Beneath the great dome, the statue of Yniss knelt by the harmonic pool as it had done for over a thousand years. The waters still ran from beneath Yniss’ outstretched hand, their sound melodic and beautiful. But it was eclipsed by the harsh shouts of men and the desecrating slap of their boots on the blessed stone. The warriors had split up to run around both sides of the pool, heading for the passageway that led through the temple to the rear doors and out into the village.
Auum could see priests and Ynissul adepts in the shadows, helpless and frightened, trapped between the men coming around the pool towards them and those behind them in the village. Auum ran for the edge of the pool. He planted his left foot and leapt into the air, tucking and turning his body in a forward roll, blades held away from him. He unwound in flight and landed soundlessly between the two groups of warriors, a blade held out towards each trio.
‘You will travel no further,’ he hissed.
At least one of them understood him. His response was a laugh.
‘One elf cannot stop us,’ he said in passable common elvish.
The men ran on. Auum stepped up towards the passage to meet them as Elyss flew through the air feet first and thumped into the left-hand group, bringing two down and sending the third stumbling into the wall.
‘One?’ said Auum. ‘A TaiGethen is never alone.’
Auum left Elyss to her work, hefted his blades and waited. The remaining three men came on, fuelled by the sight of their comrades dying. Their desire to reach their friends made them careless. A blade swung out waist-high. Auum ducked beneath it, coming up in its wake and stabbing the warrior through the centre of his gut, leaving the blade where it stuck, buried to its hilt.
The man stumbled back. Auum moved into the half-pace of space and reversed his other blade into the back of the second warrior’s neck. The third turned, belatedly tracking Auum’s movement. Auum swung round. His right fist whipped out, smashing the warrior’s nose. The human brought his blade to ready, blood pouring over his mouth, his eyes betraying his surprise and pain.
For a heartbeat Auum considered letting him be the one to live and carry the story back to his masters.
‘But it should be one who can fly,’ he said.
Auum swayed outside a clumsy strike and calmly slid his blade into the warrior’s chest, then turned from the falling body and retrieved his second blade. He cleaned both on the clothes of the dead and sheathed them. Elyss had finished her three and was moving up the passageway. Auum ran after her, gesturing priests and adepts aside.
‘Stay under cover. Wait for my word that it is safe.’
Auum and Elyss ran for the rear doors, passing chambers, scripture rooms and sleeping cells, most with elves hiding within them. They were still ten yards from the doors when they burst open, a flood of workers, civilians, adepts . . . of ordinary elves spilling in, climbing over each other to escape the enemy at their backs.
The air chilled and Auum cursed.
‘Clear!’ he yelled. He shoved Elyss hard, sending her tumbling into a contemplation chamber and diving after her. A gale of harrowing cold howled down the passageway. Elven screams were cut off as if a door had been slammed shut against them.
Auum shivered and rolled onto his back. Ice rimed the door of the chamber and lay thick on the floor and ceiling of the passageway. It climbed the walls to create a frozen blue tunnel. Detonations outside shook the temple, where more screams filled the air. Inside the temple, the silence told its own story.
Auum pushed himself to his feet and ran out, slithering on the ice-bound floor. He dropped to a crouch, scrabbling with hand and foot to make headway towards the doors and the village. Elyss followed more slowly. Ahead of him, the passage was clogged with the bodies of defenceless Ynissul elves frozen in the attitudes of their slaughter. Hands outstretched for help, mouths open in screams of brief agony.
Beyond them, mages stood framed in the doorway. They were casting. Auum tried to increase his pace but the ice on the floor gave him precious little purchase. He snatched a jaqrui from his belt and threw it backhanded. The blade whispered away, thudding into a mage’s legs. He cried out and fell. The three others opened their palms to cast, and Auum commended his soul to Yniss.
A shadow passed across the doors; the castings were never released. A figure whipped in from the left. One mage was decapitated, his head bouncing and sliding across the ice of the temple floor. The head came to rest at Auum’s feet, its eyes staring into his, its final confusion fading away.
Auum spat on the face and lifted his gaze to the doors. The elf who stood there had a wildness about his expression that he would never lose. Nor would he lose the haunted look in his eyes. Swords were dripping blood in his hands, and at his feet human mages were bleeding and dying.
‘You took your time,’ said Auum. ‘Perhaps a little more practice is required.’
The elf ignored him, muttered to himself and knelt at the body of a still-breathing mage.
‘You will take the tale of your failure to your masters,’ he said. ‘But only after you have told me what I desire to know.’
Auum shook his head and began to walk towards the door. He felt Elyss come to his side. Together, they moved past the elf and into the burning village.
‘Is that . . .?’ asked Elyss.
‘Yes,’ said Auum. ‘It is Takaar. Or what’s left of him.’
Auum led Elyss into the fresh rainfall to witness the carnage the human magic had created.
Only in the direst need does the TaiGethen body first seek its full potential through the subconscious mind – Auum, Arch of the TaiGethen
Ollem prayed that his feet would find safe purchase on the sodden, sucking ground and pushed yet harder through the slapping leaves and whip-like vines of the dense rainforest growth. The sudden downpour was both blessing and curse, obscuring his scent and sound from the quartet of rogues hunting him while misting the way ahead and turning the ground to a dangerous sludge.
He was tantalisingly close to safety. To reach the cliff tops of the Verendii Tual and begin his descent there would allow him to escape the rogues’ jaws. But they were fast and merciless, too fast for a TaiGethen to outrun, and they would tear him apart if they brought him down. The temptation was to climb to evade them, but the boughs of the banyans were broad and low to the ground and the rogues would be able to follow him into the trees.
Ollem ducked a branch and jumped down a steep bank into a stream which was already swollen with rainwater, the current running swiftly over the slick stones. His right foot slipped momentarily before finding new purchase and he hurried on. In the stream he was free from the snagging foliage, but much easier to see.
Easier to kill.
The stream he had chosen cascaded over the cliffs into the River Shorth hundreds of feet below, but in the fog of the rain he couldn’t tell how far he was from sanctuary. Ollem pumped his arms harder, trying to find that fraction more speed. He leaned forward, taking the risk that his feet might slip again but knowing, deep inside, that to risk anything less would be to fail.
He cursed his fortune. Had he achieved the state of shetharyn already he would have escaped the rouges comfortably. But here he was, seven days into his emergence cycle and not yet feeling the joy of it, the sheer speed and clarity of it. When Ollem had begun the cycle he’d had no idea what would happen to him . . . but it shouldn’t have involved rogues. No one controlled them. And there was no one nearby to save him.
Ollem quashed any thoughts of injustice. He was TaiGethen. He would save himself if it was possible to do so. Chanting prayers to Yniss that were lost in the thunder and rain, he ran on. His ears twitched at a whisper to his left and he glanced over his shoulder.
A low dark shape was streaking through the forest above the stream gully, slipping easily through the packed undergrowth, gaining on him pace by pace. Ollem didn’t need to look behind or to his right. He knew the pattern: one on each flank to get ahead of him and the other two behind. Once they surrounded him, the kill was inevitable.
He had no option but to carry on running and pray he would reach sanctuary. Ahead, the rain and low cloud disguised his path. Ollem found himself laughing deep down in his throat, imagining himself escaping the jaws of the rogues only to fall to his death on the rocks that bordered the Shorth.
He heard a roar behind him, close and loud. A shiver ran the length of his spine but he kept running. Through the din of rain on rock Ollem could hear the splash of paws, fleet through the stream. To his right, the rogue was now level with him and moving ahead fast, its sleek dark body hard to follow as it wove through the trunks and bushes that bordered the gully.
Not long now.
Ollem ran on, experiencing a growing anger at his fate coupled with a refusal to believe he could not avoid it. It burned at him, sending needles through his body, re-energising his aching limbs and sharpening his vision. And there, through the mist and rain, he caught a glimpse of the edge of the cliff. There was still a chance.
The first pair of rogues leaped down into the gully ten paces ahead of him and turned to face him. Ollem screamed in frustration and slithered to a halt, his chest heaving. Behind him, the other pair slowed. They knew he was dangerous; they recognised his garb, the paint on his face and the twin scabbards on his back. But he was cornered. They knew they would kill him; they just wanted to do so without being injured themselves.
Ollem weighed them up just as they did him. They were panthers, black and slate-grey, which had shunned the touch of the ClawBound and chosen to run free. There were few rogues but they were exceptionally dangerous. They followed his every move, every twitch of his hands. Ollem glanced back to see the pair behind him had stopped and were hunkered down, tails twitching, waiting their moment to strike.
Ollem took a deep breath and looked beyond the pair ahead of him. The safety of the cliff face was close enough that if he could evade them just once, he would save himself. Even so, he reached for his blades. The rogues growled in response and settled themselves for the charge. Ollem let his hands fall back to his sides.
‘Yniss guide my steps.’
Ollem ran at the rogues, veering to the left to reduce the chances of both hitting him simultaneously. The panthers crouched to spring; he saw their muscles bunch and their eyes fix on his head. Ollem’s body chilled with the certainty of his death. Yet, in his mind, a voice insisted that this was not his time and that there was a way to survive. He felt energy surge within him from his toes to the top of his shaven head.
Ollem relaxed and his body felt fluid and clean, his movements suddenly easy, free of tension and the fear of death. In front of him, the scene cleared; the rogues were moving slowly, their paws making lazy splashes in the stream, their mouths opening as if in a long, luxurious yawn.
He smiled, seeing the beauty of their movement and the shimmer of muscle beneath their shining coats. He could see the individual drops in the teeming rain and could pick out the sound of each drop as it struck rock or water. He could feel his body moving faster than he’d ever experienced, reacting instantly and balancing perfectly.
Ollem swayed left and saw the panthers track his movements. One of them, its claws outstretched and its teeth bared, travelled steadily through the air. The other was leaping too, aiming to pin his legs while the first took his head.
He ducked and turned a forward roll through the stream, feeling the rush of water across his already soaked body. The first panther’s jaws snapped shut on fresh air. Ollem came to his feet and jumped high, seeing the second rogue pass beneath him, his momentum carrying him well beyond it. He spread his arms wide and dropped gracefully back into the stream.
Ollem spun round. The rogues were already twenty paces from him, almost as if they’d stopped to watch him. They were regarding him cautiously, no longer approaching, no longer a direct threat. Ollem frowned and began to walk back towards them, not reaching for his blades.
‘You cannot harm me,’ he said. ‘And I am not your enemy.’
The rain was falling in a blurring torrent once more. The panthers ran easily out of the gully, and Ollem watched them go, feeling the energy settle in his body but not leave it entirely. It remained at rest, ready to be called on at will. The panthers disappeared into the forest and the calls they sent up were carried by the voices of elves too. They were calls of celebration.
Ollem frowned and turned back towards the Verendii Tual cliffs. Two elves stood there, their arms wide in a gesture of welcome. One was a ClawBound, tall, thin and with half his face painted white and the other covered in piercings and tattoos. The other was TaiGethen.
Auum smiled and walked towards him.
‘Welcome to the ranks of the emerged,’ he said. ‘Welcome to a joy so pure you will wonder how you existed without it. Welcome to a new phase of your life with the TaiGethen.’
‘The rogues—’ Ollem began, his heart racing and his excitement barely in check.
‘Claws can imitate their lost brothers and sisters much as we can ours,’ said Auum.
‘I thought they were going to kill me.’
‘As you were meant to,’ said Auum. ‘Because only in the direst need does the TaiGethen body seek its full potential through the subconscious mind. Only then can a TaiGethen emerge and join the shetharyn.’
Ollem shook with relief and tears began to flow down his cheeks. Auum took his head in his hands and kissed his eyes and forehead.
‘I’d begun to question everything,’ said Ollem. ‘I had no idea seven days spent alone could seem so long.’
‘And now you need never fear isolation. You are joined with the energies of the earth and can never truly be alone.’ Auum smiled and stepped back. ‘Now, come and speak with Serrin. I always let him tell the emerged why they must never reveal the secret to any yet to enter the cycle.’
‘He is the most persuasive,’ said Auum. Ollem shuddered. ‘Remember that fear and respect it. You might be faster than a rogue but you are not faster than him. Never him.’
Ollem followed Auum along the path to his new life.
Nerille was ancient. She was surely the most long-lived Gyalan in the bloody history of the elves. Had she been Tuali, she’d be old . . . and even as one of the Beethan she’d be getting on in years. She’d outlived all of her children, and the only mercy in that was her six grandchildren, all of whom were still alive though well into middle age themselves.
She was sitting on a bench in front of the flagpole as she had so often during the long centuries of her life in Katura. Today she was here for the last time. Around her she could still picture the bustle of the market, the scents of spice and herb and meat, the chatter and bustle of offer and deal, laughter echoing from the walls of the buildings surrounding the central circle.
All gone now, of course, consigned to memory just like the rowing tournaments, the excited babble of children during the lake race, the climbing tournaments and the feasts; all the things that spoke of a city blossoming in the wake of war. Nerille smiled to herself and pressed her shaking hands to her mouth.
She should have known it wouldn’t last for ever. With the rout of the humans and the freeing of the enslaved cities seven hundred years ago, their reasons to come here, to live in the Palm of Yniss, were gone. And one by one the Katurans had felt the call to return home. She couldn’t blame any of them for desiring a return to their old lives.
Thousands had left after the war, choosing to help rebuild Tolt Anoor, Deneth Barine and the capital, Ysundeneth. And over the years the trickle had continued until it became clear that Katura was unsustainable. So the city had been dismantled, timber and stone, and the materials taken to help rebuild elsewhere, cities whose repair was yet to be completed. It never would be. The scars of man would always remain.
All that remained of Katura now was the Wall of the Fallen, which held the names of every elf from every thread who had given his or her life to the cause: for the salvation of the elven race. The wall had been built from the temple stones and was a spiral structure that led to a central shrine to Yniss and all of the elven gods. The flagpole stood proud above the shrine.
There was not a day that Nerille had failed to walk the spiral, her trembling hands trailing over the thousands of names, the memories of struggle still fresh despite the passing of the centuries. They mingled with more recent acts, equally brave though not undertaken in warfare. The images that played in her mind gave her a reason to draw her next breath.
Nerille never ceased to be amazed at how quickly Beeth’s root and branch had returned to the deserted city, grabbing greedily at the land vacated by the elves and erasing the wounds of civilisation. The wall and flagpole would soon be covered, hidden beneath vine and leaf, and that was as it should be.
The mists that dominated the Palm of Yniss had already returned, sweeping from the cliffs and sitting on the lake, swirling around her ankles and giving the ground in all directions a ghostly, ethereal aspect. As the vegetation gained ground, so the mist would deepen.
‘Nerille?’ She started and looked up. The silhouette of a tall elf was before her. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.’
The figure approached and knelt before her, revealing the face of an old Tuali warrior, Arch of the Al-Arynaar until his advancing years had forced him into a very active retirement. His eyes were hooded and his hair all gone but still he pulsed with a zest she envied.
‘Hello, Tulan. I hadn’t thought to see you here again.’
‘How are you feeling?’ he asked, taking her hands in his and raising them to dry lips.
Nerille thought for a moment and shook her head.
‘I don’t really feel anything,’ she said. ‘Is that bad?’ Of all the things she had expected – sorrow, relief, even a weary acceptance – it certainly wasn’t this.
‘Nothing you have ever done or felt could be described as bad,’ said Tulan. He levered himself back to his feet and sat beside her. ‘All that Katura and its people have become since the war is because of your work and your sacrifice.’
Nerille could feel herself blushing, and her smile was warm with the recognition of her efforts.
‘You came all the way from Aryndeneth to embarrass me?’
Tulan laughed. ‘In front of who, the macaques?’
‘So why are you here? Bit old for a bodyguard, aren’t you?’
‘That depends how slow the attacking animal is. I’m still more than a match for any sloth.’
‘Well, that’s a relief.’
Nerille looked at Tulan, saw the smile cracking his face and laughed hard, her shoulders shaking and tears filling her eyes at the idea of a ferocious battle against a sloth.
‘And I’m still highly skilled at crushing ants.’
‘Stop!’ said Nerille, smacking his arm with a bony hand. ‘I’ve missed you, Tulan. You were always too long away from here.’
Tulan’s smile faded. ‘I know. I could hide behind my duties, but the fact is that when you started dismantling the city it became too hard to come back here and see what was happening. I still think it’s a mistake.’
‘You and me both, but we are very much in the minority.’
‘I still feel the pain of Pelyn’s death and that was seven hundred years ago. She died protecting Katura, and we’ve abandoned it.’
‘No, Tulan,’ said Nerille. ‘I wanted Katura to survive because it was my home. But the fight was never for the city, it was for the elven race. That’s what Pelyn died defending, not the buildings.’
‘But this place should have become the focus of our renewal. The energy and harmony should have been the beacon for all to follow.’
‘Yes, but it was the same in all the cities. After all, in the end humans managed to do more for elven harmony than Takaar ever managed. And, romantic though our notions were, Katura is just too distant and difficult to reach.’
Tulan shrugged. ‘I know you’re right but it still doesn’t feel . . . fitting. Not elven.’
‘The memories will always be here for those who wish to find them,’ said Nerille. ‘So tell me, what are you doing here?’
Tulan smiled again. ‘Sloth attacks notwithstanding, I’m not here as your bodyguard. Honour guard would be a more accurate description.’
Nerille felt heat in her cheeks. ‘There you go again, making me blush. It’s lovely of you, Tulan, though you didn’t have to. There are seventy or so of us making this final trip after all.’
‘Respectfully I must disagree,’ said Tulan. ‘This is one journey I would not miss for all the years of an Ynissul. And I’m not the only one.’
Tulan pointed behind them at the wall, where two elves stood studying the names and whispering prayers when they touched that of a loved one. Nerille gasped to see them and her hand went to her mouth. She felt giddy as a youngster excited at the sight of a hero, and she was most certainly in the presence of heroes.
Nerille pushed herself to her feet, feeling a moment’s unsteadiness. She reached out a hand, which Tulan took, and the pair walked to the wall together.
‘This is where we met for the first time,’ said Auum, not turning.
‘Not precisely,’ said Nerille. ‘You were balanced atop that flagpole after all.’
‘Will you ever let me get away with the slightest inaccuracy?’
Auum turned, Ulysan with him, and Nerille shook her head.
‘Not while I draw breath,’ she said. ‘Gyal knows it’s good to see you.’
Auum embraced her, and Nerille clung to him hard, feeling the lack of strength in her arms and remembering the energy she used to have.
‘There was nowhere else I could be.’
‘Don’t you start,’ said Nerille.
Auum broke the embrace and kissed her eyes and forehead.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Ask Tulan. What are you doing here, then? Come to watch me walk extremely slowly into the forest?’
Nerille studied Auum’s face. How old he must be. He’d witnessed thousands of years and yet he retained such vitality. And it would be thousands more before he showed the signs of a tiring body. But his would never deteriorate like hers, to the point where death seemed a sensible option. She knew why and she envied him the sheer joy that serving his faith gave him. Every day in the rainforest was a renewal. How magnificent to be inspired that way.
‘I heard a rumour that the Mother of Katura felt she was unlikely to survive the trip to Aryndeneth. I am here to ensure that she reaches her destination very much alive.’
‘Blabbermouth grandchildren,’ muttered Nerille, but she could not stop a smile crossing her face. ‘Well, whatever the reason, I’m . . .’
It hit her then – the enormity of today and what it meant to have the Arch of the TaiGethen escort her away. She stepped away from Auum and looked quickly around at the huge open space where Katura had once stood and where the lines of foundations still ran like veins across the ground. A cascade of memories ran through her and with it came the tears, the weakness in the legs and Tulan and Auum’s arms about her, supporting her body and soul.
‘I don’t want this to end,’ she managed eventually. ‘I should have died here.’
‘Yniss blessed you with long life. So this is not an ending; it’s another step on the journey for you, and for Katura.’
Nerille composed herself, taking her time to wipe the tears from her face and stand unsupported again with her skirt smoothed and her shirt arranged properly about her shoulders.
‘You talk such rubbish sometimes, Auum,’ she said. ‘Still, at least you stopped my whimpering. Let’s go.’
‘It’s a long way,’ agreed Ulysan. ‘Best not waste time.’
‘That has nothing to do with it,’ said Nerille, recovered and beginning to feel mischievous like she was a child once more. ‘I fear staying here might lead to more pomposity from the Arch, and no one deserves having to put up with that.’