Kale saw the light of Kave fade away into black like everything always did. The darkness clouded over the glowing city with shadowy talons of gloom and despair, the red mist swirling through the black reaches. Kale flashed his head back forwards; the black and grey expanse of a once fertile land stared at him blankly. There was little definition in the sinister black cloak as it rippled away for miles.
The Aemeri pounded onwards, fast and swift. The creature danced across the murk and flew through the heavy air like a shooting star. Its pure white skin glimmered, for it wore a fine coat of diamonds and its mane shimmered like silver silk. Kale held onto the leather reins tightly, the speed slamming against his face like splashes of water. His cheeks rippled like the sea and the winds tore at his eyes, harsh and grating. A single bead of glistening silver ran down his cheek, winding down the flesh.
Ekin sped on beside him, his armor clapping greatly with the massive strides of the Aemeri. He bent low, leaning for speed. Kale did the same, urging his magical creature to move faster. The horse-like animal reared its long neck and thrust its front legs into the air and when it landed, exploded in a heart-stopping burst of speed. The Aemeri dug its long gilded talons into the soil of the earth and pushed with strength and ease. It was so graceful, so fluid… so unnatural. It was fantastic.
Kale’s heart quickened in pace, thudding faster and faster, his throat a drum. It was pure exhilaration. Pure amazement. This thing did not happen to normal people. It was something different. Something special. He liked it.
He pulled up his black woolen cloak Eaon had given him before they departed, the warm fabric scratching against his chin. The air was brisk and chill, but heavy and oppressive as always. The thrashing winds did not help. Though Kale tightened up and drove on, knowing that he and Ekin had to flee. He knew that Kave was under siege.
He couldn’t think about that right now. The radiant city of the last Zeian under the threats of battle? It did not fit; it did not match up. He envisioned all the bloodshed, the Enemy’s black shadow a great mantle over the city. Eaon also came to his mind. He did not want think of it anymore. He did not want to see Eaon dead on the earth. He had to have hope. He had to pray.
He closed his eyes, feeling the rocking of the Aemeri beneath him as if he was on a floating ship, the waves rising and falling around him, foaming over the wood planks. There was a vast black void, where nothing lived. He tried to pray, but nothing came to him. Who was he praying for? Iura had killed off the Zeian all those years ago, she would not let anymore be saved. Would he pray to the Three Brothers? Would he dare? They would bring death down on him. They would orchestrate the talons of mist to pull him away into their kingdom. He couldn’t pray. It would do him no justice.
He thought to himself longer as he rode along the dark road north, following just west of the River Vhaa. He thought about the gods; about religion. There were so many of them, some for each race that they believed to be the creators, to be their makers. They prayed to them for everything, for food, for life, for death, for rain, for sun, for night, for day. But have they answered? Are they truly up there or down below? Are they anywhere? Kale did not see need to prayer to the ones that were only in myths and legends. They were those who only existed on paper, not actual being. He wanted a physical person to lead the way, to give him assistance. The gods in the world are no immortal beings, but those who hold the power, those who can lead. They are the gods of this realm.
They rode a while farther north, the lands barren and solemn with a gloomy haze of curling red swirling along the ground like fire. Soon, after sweeping over a small hillock, the crest flat and rimmed with grey Kale could see in the distance the faint outlines of the Hills of Elleram, hidden in a mantle of shadow and darkness.
The peaks rose like great teeth with flattened tops, laden with age. Their shoulders drooped low and grey, like a ghost, and their ash-laden faces frowned in the darkness. The hills rolled out far to the north and south like a great arm, bending westward. From across the Vhaa, Elleram was tinted with red, like blood, smeared across the flattened tops from the mist. As they dropped, the red shifted to grey and further to black, where the shadows lurked.
The hills wheeled by in a rolling blur, rising and falling like waves. Still, the Aemeri took them north, up the flowing water of the Vhaa. “Why do they not cross?” Asked Kale.
Ekin looked back, his hood writhing against his face. “The water is too deep for them to cross. Eaon has sent them farther north until we reach the Bridge of Ilen-Varr, which will take us to the Valley of Vanndar. Then our roar turns northeast and up to the city of Vorr where Ilmarar sits on the throne of the Ilmari capital.”
“Ilmarar?” Asked Kale.
“Indeed.” Answered Ekin. “Ilmarar the Cursed.”
“The Cursed?” Asked Kale. “What is he cursed with?”
“That is the title the Alduri have given him, long ago during the Ascension.” Corrected Ekin. “For when he conquered the Northlands of Runir and snatched them out of the hands of the Alduri. Every time the Alduri fought against him, he defeated their forces. He was very powerful, gifted even with the magic of Vven.”
Kale meant to speak again, but Ekin dismissed him, “Put the subject to rest, young one. You need not know anymore than you do.”
Kale did not argue, but pulled his wool cloak further up his face, shielding his exposed flesh against the harsh winds. His face pallid, it felt as if a thin film of ice clung to the surface like glass and every time he cringed it would crack, holing his face tight and stiff. The piercing blades of the cool wind glanced off his cheeks, snagging at him, but never slicing.
He gripped the girdle fiercely his knuckles blood red and ringed with a bone white. He endured, drifting off into the black expanses racing underneath and beside him, the Hills of Elleram speeding past, the faces sad and dismal as they passed. They looked hunched, as if the weight of the dark sky and the black clouds had pushed them down. Their bent and weary shoulders held the burden of the sky, the burden of the heaving Mist. Each day their shoulders withered, and each day they grew smaller, being forced down by the heavy mantle of black that engulfed the sky.
The Aemeri sped closer to the river, flashing up the rocky banks, the current racing the opposite direction, but stagnant as Kale watched the water. The black water shifted like shards of broken glass as it stumbled over the protruding rock bed at the banks. Glints of shimmering silver shone like silver steel against the black through the darkness and the frothing white teeth that broke along the surface glistered with prancing dots of light from Ekin’s plate armor as it flickered under the flapping tendrils of his cloak.
The river hissed, the red mist like fire upon the surface. Fingers of red writhed out from the rippling surface and the shattering glass fizzed out into white foam tentacles, crawling down the black liquid. Under the dark glassy surface, Kale could see, as if veiled by a film of black, a red light pulsing beneath, flickering and wavering in strength. Kale had heard stories of fish of the black rivers of the northlands. Most had been about the Svarrn, a great sea serpent with wings that pushed through the murky waters. But also, he faintly remembered the tales and pictures of the Ravunn, a long, eel-like creature that glowed red with translucent skin and could squirm across the muddy banks for a short time. They were queer things, the fish of the waters, very strange tales had been told of them. Some of how fishers of the ports of Arda and Eaxos and Dairo had been eaten by them, especially by the great Blacksharks of Berkir. It is said that they can become one hundred feet long with teeth larger than an Ashlion’s body. From their name, Kale remembered their reptilian scaled skin to be rough and black as pitch with white cloudy eyes designed to navigate through the dark depths of Berkir and the icy shores were the surface was a great plain of cracked plates of ice and snow.
Kale closed his eyes at these thoughts and the smooth pounding of the Aemeri cradled him into a light sleep. Through the spectral fibers of velvet banded color that burned against a grey and black backdrop, the images floated as if underwater. The smooth gliding strides of the magical Aemeri soothed the emotions and the mind. He watched the intertwining bands of color lace into one another, weaving like string.
He passed from his garish visions to the barren darkness of reality and all its normality. He faded back to the vibrant rings of color curling like the mist, then back to the stark black sky above, streaked with thin blades of deep grey as if the thick curtain overhead was ripping at the stitching. Crimson red mist trickled out of the cracks, seeping through the slivers of darkness and curling around the edges and down into the atmosphere.
Hard hallow clops brought him out of his daze. Blinking, Ekin spoke as the Aemeri slowed to a prancing trot, their bodies glistering as if wrought of crystals. “We have come to the crossing that will take us over the River Vhaa and onwards to Vorr. When we are over we shall make haste through the vast hill lands until the night is at its darkest. Then we shall rest.”
Kale nodded, “So this is the Bridge of Ilen-Varr?”
“Indeed.” Answered Ekin, raising his arm north. “And that is the Valley of Vaandar.”
Kale clopped over the high arcing stone bridge and passed under the great arch guarded by two stone soldiers clad in grey stone plate armor, scaled and intricately carven. They were Alduri, Kale was sure. The markings upon the arch and their shields and swords indicated so. Though he could also tell by their heavy armor. Ilmari wore lighter armor and the Shenn wore almost no armor at all, save for the leather fittings and mail hauberks.
Down below the stone bridge of Ilen-Varr, the River Vhaa bent west, arcing around the valley that fell in a great and sheer precipice, jagged and rough. The valley ripped through the barren flat lands of the North and dropped as if the gods had grabbed a chunk of the land and ripped it out for the use of a lance. The rock shelves tumbled down the sloping faces, thin slates of stone running down the rock like great leaves.
At the base of the massive valley, through the clouds of red mist and shadow a thin snake of gleaming silver meandered through the winding chasms and chines. The rock was worn and serrated, a fresh blanket of grey ash sleeping on the ridges and outcroppings. The coat of grey slipped off the edges and fluttered down the steep valley walls until it fell into the shadows and was eaten by the mists. Kale wondered what was down there, if anything.
Across the bridge, the ground became rocky and hard, grey and bleak. Long sliver-thin cracks cut through the rock like branches, contorted and vast, falling off into immediate black. The rock floor leveled out further along until in the gloom of night, Kale’s eyes opened up wide.
Looming over the edge of the valley, the deep and jagged rock shelves dropping off into a murky darkness there was a massive castle. The vast stonewalls and turrets and towers were all in ruin and they lay crumbled and demolished against the bitter grey ground. Hoods of ash shrouded the stone structures and the damaged remains of the once grand and great castle were veiled in a cloak of mist and shadow, eerie and foreboding.
The ghostly ruins loomed over the valley like a great and somber shadow the memories of what it was lost and forgotten. All that lived in the expansive halls were ghosts and mist and shadow. The stone castle was lifeless even, pale and dead. Nothing had entered its gates for nearly one thousand years.
“What is this place?” Asked Kale as the Aemeri led them through the wreckage slowly.
“These are the remains of the great and powerful city Amardros long ago. It was once the capital of Runir and the capital city of the Alduri for thousands of years. It held strong and firm against every battle and siege that was thrust at its walls. It could withstand the greatest of barrages and the greatest of armies. And it did. Until…”
“Until the Ascension.” Kale answered, filling in the open spaces.
“Us Knights were positive that if any city could endure the invasion that it would be Amardros. Nothing had ever even made it past the gates and into the city before. It was the strongest the Alduri made and the greatest they had ever built. We knew that if this city fell, then the Adluri were done.”
“And what happened?” Asked Kale, looking up at the ghostly ruins.
“The Ilmari came, great in number and force.” Said Ekin, reliving the battle in his eyes. “They came like a wave of thunder and a wave of fire. They came hard and they came fast. But still the walls stood strong and the Alduri protected the city valiantly. We Knights knew that the Ilmari, the new weapon of the Oppressive One would strike soon enough at the capital city of the Adluri and we were ready. We deployed many Knights there and fought until the end.
“The battle went on for days and days. The waves of Scirr and Ilmari overwhelming the Adluri at long last on the turn of the seventh day and they broke through the gates and into the city. We knew at that moment that this battle would be different. The Ilmari stormed into the city and slaughtered thousands of Alduri men and women and children who lived in the city. And still we fought on, throwing arrows and spears down at them from the turrets and walls.
“Though the one thing that the Ilmari had that Amardros had never seen before were the beasts it brought. The greatest of these creatures I will tell in the battle between the Ardorr, the King of the Alduri and Amardros and the Vvarrug. The Vvarrug was an ancient beast from the Days of Eld that had been thought to be long dead. The beats though had remained under the earth in the mountains of the far ice lands of Vorae, locked away in secrecy.
“The Ilmari knew of this beast and went to the north reaches of Vorae and captured the beast until the Oppressive One before it. In his ancient and godly language, the Oppressive One enslaved the creature of shadow and death to fight for him and destroy the Alduri. It was there,” Said Ekin, pointing to a crumbled bridge half-way across the Valley of Vaandar, “It was there the two fought and much is told from that battle in the great texts of this realm.
“It was on the turning of the tenth day of battle that King Ardorr and the Vvarrug clashed on the Bridge of Amardros. The two battle for some say a day, the black demonic figure of the Vvarrug looming over Ardorr like a mountain. But still the Alduri fought, never loosing hope until the Vvarrug knocked King Ardorr aside when the King had been swinging with his sword, Goldhammer, for the blade glinted a golden tint. The King’s sword slid off the bridge and down into the abyss of the valley. It was then that the Vvarrug raised the King in his arm, looking to finish him off, until the bridge began to crack and splinter until the entire stone structure collapsed, sending both the Vvarrug and King Aldorr to their deaths.
“Much is said about the death of King Aldorr, but what I say is that after his death, the Alduri lost hope. They stopped fighting like they had before and the city was taken within two days of the King’s death. I also say that after King Ardorr’s death that the sun began to fade and the darkness began to creep into the sky. I believe that his death was the darkening of the realm, the turning point, for after the Fall of Amardros, the rest of the Alduri cities fell to the power of the Oppressive One.”
“But you fought back one last time.” Said Kale. “Didn’t you?”
“Indeed.” Ekin answered. “The Alduri and Knights combined one last time to fight against the power of the Oppressive One. We assembled in our Kingdom of Abelon along the Mountains of Shadow, or as they were known then, the Mountains of Abberion. It was on the shattered and cracked rock lands of Abelon that we made our last stand against the hosts of Harfir and Moram. It is known as most refer to as the Battle of Shattered Dreams, for after the long battles the Oppressive One defeated us for the last time and the cloak of shadow was draped over the realm for good.
“After our last defeat, our Kingdom of Abelon was destroyed and our cities and temples and castles were all demolished by the hosts of Harfir and they laid waste to the land, plunging it first into darkness. Though they had not discovered out secret Hall, under the earth. For this hall you would need a Blade of our make to enter into the Long Spire and down into the Hall of Aerrin where we came to at last to decide the fate of Runir and us Knights.”
“So it is there that you abandoned your oaths.” Kale said.
“That is the very place, Kale.” Said Ekin. “Deep in the bowels of the earth we at and conversed in the small round hall of rock over our purpose and our survival. When we left that hall for the last time, the Oppressive One had finally one the War of Ascension and the darkness had fallen completely over the land.”
Kale looked out across the fields of barren black, the ruins of the Alduri capital.
Ekin rested a hand on his shoulder, “What is dead may never truly be gone. It will always live on for a reason. Remember that, Kale. Remember what dies will never truly be gone. Now let us be off, for the road to Vorr is still far ahead of us.”
The Aemeri picked up pace again soon after they left the Fields of Aldorr and sprinted along the barren black waste lands, the Hills of Elleram began to fade away and fall down in rippling waves of low hillocks and foothills that rose farther off into the high rises of Elleram where the mist curled off the beaten shoulders and the hoods of ash draped down over their somber grey faces.
They rode on for a while longer until the Mist burned its brightest and the dark skies were a single mass of black. Ekin led the Aemeri to a slight overhanging rock formation, for shelter. It was the Hook of Aderion, for the gallant and ancient hero battled the Dragon of Eld, Glorrung from the land north in Vorae in the Mountains of Charras. Aderion emerged victorious, wielding his famed blade, Dragon’s Bane, forged of mithron, a steel from Aesairia, now lost under sea.
“We shall rest here tonight.” Said Ekin, dismounting the Aemeri and tied the leather reigns to the rock firmly. He did the same after Kale had gotten off of his Aemeri, his thighs burning with hot and dry flame. He walked oddly over the overhang of the rock and lay against the prickling blades of dead grass, crunching as he lay. He looked up into the shifting currents of the Mist, and then closed his eyes.
Kale awoke to a kiss of cool steel on his forehead.
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