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.