A gust of wind sent icy tendrils wending through Kale’s thick wavy hair. He shivered as the grating winds barreled through the paths of mountain with piercing shrieks. The ash fluttered from the black sky heavily and the stench of death carried with the winds. Shimmering, the mists whispered in hoarse voices, high and screeching, accompanied by the crackling blades of crimson light that played endlessly at the ash-laden peaks.
The light of Ekin’s plate armor sifted through the darkness and his blade clinked in its scabbard.
“How much farther?” Asked Kale, the mountains defeating him, “Until we are rid of these mountains.”
“The Mountains of Varrin are a great and ancient chain,” Said Ekin, looking around, “It will be long until we reach the other side.”
Kale sighed, they had been in the mountains for ten days now. Or had it? He had lost count and forgotten much of the previous days travels. The Darkness and the Mist consumed most of it. The mountains were wearing him down, spreading him thin and weak. His muscles ached and screamed in agony as he called upon them and his legs weighed down as if filled with lead. He wanted to stop, to give up.
“Why did you abandon us?” Said Kale through the winds. “Truly, the real reason If you knew this would happen, why?”
“There would have been darkness even if we stayed.” Countered Ekin. “We did not abandon you.”
“Then what would you call it?” Said Kale, “A leave of absence? A short break? No. You abandoned us and you know it, but you don’t have the stomach to admit it.”
“You cannot admit what you did not do.” Said Ekin. “You do not understand.”
“I understand completely.” Said Kale, “I understand that you turned your backs on us when we needed you most. You just left, vanished.”
“You were not even born yet.” Said Ekin. “You do not know anything about this.”
“I know more than you think.” Said Kale. “I know that you hardly put up a fight. I know that you deserted the armies that fought beside you, against the Oppressive One and deserted the people you swore to protect.”
Ekin stopped still and shot his gloved hand at Kale’s neck with such ferocity that he lifted off the ground and slammed into a rock wall. “You do not know what it is like to look death in the eyes.” He spat fiercely, “You know nothing, boy. That is all you are, a boy. You are young, arrogant, ignorant. Our Order was meant to protect the people of Runir, and that we did for over ten thousand years. We did not abandon our people… it was not our choice. The only thing we abandoned was our vows, and they will be met again soon.” He set Kale down and seethed away, his cloaks hissing.
Kale touched his neck where it had been grabbed and spat. Caza had always told him he had big mouth. He had to watch it.
He urged himself to continue on, his feet trembling. His breathing had become labored and raspy. His cloak was thin and haggard, and his face was smeared with soot and ash. Ekin had stormed ahead, leaving Kale behind him, a feeble glint of light was all he saw ahead. Kale had found the darkness thicker in the mountains and the ash falls far more vigorous. He did not like it on bit.
He thought again as he stumbled through the jagged mountains passes with the crimson mists above whispering in his ears about his home. He saw Caza, standing before him, urging him on and he saw his parents. He saw them clearly, walking beside them. He had been responsible for their deaths, he had berated himself with that thought each day of his life, and so had Caza. He wanted to go back, to give back his powers, to be normal. The thought sparked like kindle.
His powers, how could he be so blind? He ran the stones through his head and their abilities, belatedly realizing that he was surrounded with stone. The grey faces looked at him plainly all around, cloaked in ash. He laid his hand against the rock, and his powers came to life.
He had never done this before, it was new, it was different. He closed his eyes and in the darkness he could see into the rock wall, where all kinds of stone lay hidden. He navigated through the maze of rocks and stone until finally he came to the stone he needed. It was flint, embedded into a larger rock of granite. Kale took the stone and Crushed it, its power flowing into his. The surge was greater than any before and erupted inside him like a blast of energy and his breathe was taken from him. The magic ran through his veins and rejuvenated his muscles and bones. The supply soon faded, until there was nothing left to Crush and Kale terminated the magic and opened his eyes.
Everything around him was clearer, crisp and sharp. He could see through the thick darkness and through the mists. His body felt like nothing and pulsated with a strange energy. With his enhanced vision, he spotted Ekin through the veil, his plate armor shining like a star. Even from the lengthy distance, he could see the sterling silver ringmail beneath the plates of aldava steel and every buckle and fasten. It was incredible.
He set off towards him, his legs like feathers as he leaped through the air and swam through the ash. He was fast, faster than he had been before and catapulted himself through the air like an arrow, drifting with the winds. He landed with such grace he hardly even felt the impact and he leapt off again, bounding toward Ekin like a gazelle.
Kale set down beside the knight with a subtle thud, Ekin unperturbed. “I see you have discovered the true abilities of flint.” He said, looking onward. “Quite a useful stone it is, flint, found almost everywhere there is mountains, only buried deep inside.”
“True?” Asked Kale, “What do you mean? I’ve used it before.”
“You have, yes, but not true flint. You have Crushed a false flint, a fallacious stone we call it. Yes it has the same properties, but the flint you will find in these mountains is true flint, with its magic enhanced by ten fold. Back in Vaelon, when you made your living off contract killing, you used false flint, a trick, a deception.”
“It looks the same.”
“And that is the brilliance of it. False flint is genetically engineered synthetic material, made by the hands of Stone Masters, usually done in the cities. They claim to be called Stone Fetchers, bringing back stones from the mountains or the ground, but truthfully, they developed them in the back of their shops, using advanced machines and tools.”
Kale frowned, “I was easily deceived.”
“So are many.” Said Ekin. “The difference is extremely minute, only those who have studied the origins of Arkecny as I have can tell. It is very difficult.”
“How can you tell?”
“The inside.” Said Ekin. “When you break the stone in half, the heart of the stone should be a darker tint than the outside. Though with the synthetic stones, they are lighter, though only those like myself would discover such differences.”
Kale frowned with disbelief. He had been using fake stone all his life. He looked down at his bare hands, angered. Ekin patted his shoulder, “There is nothing to be angry about. You are not alone.”
But alone he felt, wondering through the massive maze of rocks that was the Mountains of Varrin, waking up to eternal darkness and the music of lighting playing against the rock peaks. The mountains were playing with him, with his mind. He could feel it has he felt his energy source dwindling slowly, but surely. Ekin urged him onwards either way, never stopping, winding along through the rocks and the darkness and the mists until they saw it.
Behind a great jagged spire of rock, Kale’s eyes alit as he feasted them on the sight of a stark black spire, shooting into the sky like a spear, the crimson finger of crackling light grabbing at the peak in song. The tower was alit with beacons of red light, sifting through the oppressive darkness like moonlight. It was Tarar.
Ekin led them quickly around the rock spire until the ancient city sat before them, clear and great. The black walls stood stark and striking, and the inner city was a vast array of spires and towers. At the back of the eerie city, seated in the clutches of the mountains, a great arch was set falling off into darkness, with hulking columns cast in shadow standing beside like guards. The entire city was draped with black banners, with the red hand of the Oppressive One emblazoned onto the fabric. They writhed in the screaming winds like waves at sea.
Staring down at the city, illuminated with ominous red lights and shivering torches burning a vibrant red, Ekin covered his plate armor with a heavy woolen cloak of black and threw another hood over his head, “The city of Tarar is under the rule of the Oppressive One. It appears the Ilmari have sworn their allegiance with the greater Enemy. I should have known.”
“What are the Ilmari?” Asked Kale, following Ekin down the sheer mountain face.
“They are the people of the north, the people of Vaerron. They are a grim race of people, with grey skin and black hair. Their eyes are either black or white and their hearts are cold as ice. They were once the people of Vorae, to the far north, but during the times of the Ascension, the Oppressive One dragged them south, along with their fellow Scirr.
“We must be careful when we enter.”
“Were going inside?” Kale seemed distressed as he shot a glance back at Tarar.
“They support the Oppressive One!”
“I know.” Said Ekin. “But we have no other choice. The closest city is Vorr, and that is too far away for us to travel without horses and provisions. We need to stop here.”
“What about the Ilmari?” Asked Kale, “You said they were dangerous.”
“And so are we.” Said Ekin. “The Ilmari do indeed control the magic of Vvhen, the magic of shadows and darkness. I suppose it was given to them by the Oppressive One, as payment for their assistance.”
“And what is this magic?” Asked Kale, “I think I should know.”
“Vvhen allows the Ilmari to control the shadows and the mists. It is a very strange magic, dark and eerie. I have read about it long ago, when I read in the ancient texts in our great palace of old, Aberion, before it was destroyed. Vvhen originates from the word, shadow in the tongue of Andiri and was brought over from the far west by the Oppressive One. It’s said that his brother, the ruler of Uttae to the west ruled with such magic and when the Oppressive One killed him, he took t for his own.
“The magic draws upon shadow and darkness and the Ilmari wield the mists and shadow s to act as they command. They are the wielders of shadow and very dangerous to duel. We Knights then developed a shield to such, a veil. With light, the magic can be undone and with my armor, the magic can be reversed. But still what troubles me is how the Oppressive One has taken this city so heavily.”
He leapt down with a deep thud or steel on rock. “Tarar was once a city of the Alduri, long a ago, very long ago. In those days it was named Taer, a city most renowned for its excellence of their weapons and their forges. After many years, a rogue raid of Scirr thundered down from the mountains and tried to sack the city, for reasons we still do not know. The War for Tarar it was called for many years and eventually The Knights helped reclaim the city and protect it form the Scirr.”
“Then when the Oppressive One conquered, he took the city and planted his Ilmari in the city.” Said Kale, climbing down the mountain.
“Indeed.” Said Ekin. “You have read about it?”
“No.” Said Kale, but before he could continue, he heard something.
“Did you hear that?” He whispered.
Ekin nodded and crouched, sliding out his ancient blade of aldava steel, the blade gleaming as if wrought of diamonds and peals and crystals. Kale’s heart thumped rigorously against his ribcage and he held his breathe as he crouched behind a rock. From above, he heard a piercing shriek rattled through the mountains, and another and another. The song slashed at the sky like blades of steel and tore at Kale’s ears until he saw it. Through the thick murk, perched on a spire of rock, a black creature with venomous green slits for eyes and great fangs stained with blood. The creature looked like a wolf, but was far larger and wilder, blood dripping from its mouth.
Its wild hair stood on end and shot off its back, black as pitch. Running down its spine, bony spikes arched back, smeared with blood and grim. Kale shuddered as he shot his head back behind the creature. His heart had stopped and his closed his hands in prayer, praying to the Ancient Ones, and the New Ones. And then it happened… quicker than even lightning.
The creature leapt through the air with a piercing shriek, bolting towards Kale. With its fangs barred, ready to chomp, Kale ducked, the wolf-like animal colliding with a spire of rock. Kale looked down at Ekin, “Run!” He yelled, and Kale followed. The two of them dashed down the sheer rock descent, dodging spires and massive rocks. In the darkness everything blended to a grey-black, ruled with shadow.
Kale could hear the monster’s howls scream through the mists, tearing at his ears. He urged himself to continue running, trying to catch up to Ekin. With his cloak, he kept his eyes fixed on his glowing blade, bobbing this way and that with his strides and leaps. Kale searched through the murk, looking for any identifiable stone he could Crush.
He heard a high screech and growl rom above and the next second he felt his body being thrown through the air. The force was so hard he barely felt his fee t lift off the ground. Though when he fell, he felt it. He landed hard on his back with a crack and a brutal suddenness, stealing his breath. He wheezed, trying to throw the wolf off him, but he couldn’t. His back erupted in flames, pain lancing up like volts of lightning. He tried to size his back to calm the again, but the wolf pounce on his chest with a heavy thud.
In a sudden flash of white-blue light, the wolf was gone, flying through the air like an arrow and tumbled when it the jagged rock. It whimpered, and black blood dripped from its mangled legs, smearing the grey rock. Ekin bound toward the beast, sword in hand, grasping the leather hilt with two hands.
Kale could hardly watch, his vision blinded by the searing pain. He tried to move, tried to crawl, but nothing worked. Each movement set off an explosion of suffering, tears rolling down his cheeks. He bit his lips, salty blood filtering down his throat, determined. He screamed, louder than any time before, and pushed toward the rock wall and drove his hand against the stone, and closed his eyes fiercely, looking inside.
Inside the rock wall, he navigated the thousands of stones, looking for the one he needed, ore. It searched rapidly, in mad pursuit, until he had delved so far in there was moisture. There, he tapped into the ore, black and sheeny. He grabbed onto the stone, Crushing it and let the magic flood into his body. His back became washed over in a wave of soothing liquid, washing away all ailments. His back mended, and he could feel his spine cracking back in place and the rest of his body healed.
He was suddenly then washed over with a great fatigue, his body going limp and leaden. He remembered what Ekin had told him; ore consumed the most of an Arkentites energy supply. Kale terminated the magic as soon as he could and pulled himself out of the rock wall, and retired his hand back to his side.
His vision cam back to him and he tried to heave himself up. With a moan of exhaustion, he saw Ekin battling the monster, his sword dancing through the air. The knight jabbed at the wolf, but the creature leapt aside and sprang at Ekin’s shoulder. In a flash of blinding white, Ekin nocked the creature away with the flat of his blade, his hands reverberating with the connection. The wolf circled him until Ekin lunged again, his sword jabbing through the air like a serpentines head, slithering and hissing.
The two dueled, until Ekin nocked the creature under the jaw, sending it hurtling into the unyielding rock wall, the monsters body limply hitting the ground in a yelp. Ekin shot a glance back at Kale who had finally lifted himself off the ground.
Ekin called to him, “Down the mountain, we must make for Tarar!”
Ekin’s words were cut short as the creature leapt onto the Knights back, sending them both toppling to the earth. Kale looked down the mountain and then back at Ekin, struggling to free himself. He looked down the mountain again and bolted, sprinting through the convoluted paths with ash spraying his face like rain. From behind he could discern with out a glance back the high chinks of Ekin’s greaves clang against the rock as he navigated his way down the mountain. The blood curdling shrieks of the wolf in relentless pursuit accompanied the chinks closely.
Kale’s foot caught at a loose rock at the ground, sending him flying forward, and rolling down the mountain wildly. With one last twirling flight and a rumbling thud he was out of the mountains, bruised and ailed, but out. Ahead, Tarar rose up stark and massive, the walls impregnable. The towers and spires pierced the shifting red mist high above like spears. The ground underfoot was still rocky, but rippled away in small hillocks. Kale felt a great weight come off his shoulders as he lay on the earth, the mists no longer beating down on him like a great boulder he had to hold up.
Ekin’s sword gleamed through the darkness from behind him as he was on his feet, battling with the wolf. The knight slashed and hacked, sending his ancient blade flying through the air with such speed and grace it seemed unnatural. The wolf though met each strike with a dodge, then pounded onto Ekin, its long hooked talons directed at his chest. The wolf struck Ekin in the chest with a high scrape as the talons lashed across the aldava steel plate armor beneath his cloaks.
Toppled to the ground, the two wrestled, the wolf on top of Ekin. Kale struggled to his feet, his mind springing this way and that. He looked for stone, stone that he could use, stone that he could Crush. He had to be useful. I have to prove myself.
In the stray rocks that he had brought with him as he fell he grabbed one, unsure of it. It was rough and wide, and thin, its color cast in shadow, this would have to work. He had no other choice. Kale Crushed the stone, letting the energy surge into his veins, the power far greater than any stone he had ever Crushed before. This one was different. His entire body pulsated with an echoing beat, pounding against his skull until finally he released the magic. He held up his hands towards the wolf, unsure of what would happen.
From his palms, he saw tiny blue flames lick and the skin and leap to life until they swirled into a ball of energy and flame. The power was overpowering, rumbling in his grasp, the sapphire flame cool as ice. He let the force go, sending a bolt of white-blue light through the air, colliding with the wolf and driving the beats off Ekin until in a flash of brilliant blue flame, red mist drifted up into the sky to join its fellow dead.
Ekin picked up his fallen sword and sheathed the blade in its scabbard with a high clink and scrap of steel. Kale simply stood, rooted to the spot, staring down at his trembling hands. How? He asked himself.
With his hand rested on the sapphire pommel of his sword, Ekin laid his other on Kale’s shoulder, “Don’t ever save me again.”
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