A stale breeze rushed towards Ethar as he looked down at the field from his vantage point upon the tall inland cliff. The steep slope which divided him from the battleground was insufficient to detach him from the overwhelming feeling of waste.
Hundreds of people, all strangers to him, lay there turning the churned earth to red. Some moved as he watched, and Ethar’s heart was overcome with pity. He dropped his donkey’s lead rope and moved to the edge of the cliff. Coarse grass tore at his arms as he gently lowered himself down but Ethar’s years were something which belied his strength, and his broad arms carried him safely to the bottom. He looked at the carpet of bodies stretching away from him and pulled out the small knife he carried at his waist. He walked amongst the fallen, praying for mercy upon them and swiftly ending the lives of those whose souls had fled their dying bodies. The ghastly air tasted vile and he frequently raised his hand to his mouth to block the stench.
Persons of three nations scattered the floor, some barely old enough to have left their homes. As a priest in the Universal Church, Ethar had seen death of all ages but the willing termination of life still caused an unfailing feeling of disappointment. And for what? The gaining of a mile of land?
One of the figures dragged himself over the ground towards the dead body of a man lying close to him. Ethar began walking over, but the soldier turned towards him and raised his bloodstained palms in a surrendering gesture.
“Please,” he sobbed desperately. “Don’t kill me.”
Ethar knelt before him and looked thoughtfully across at the young soldier. He had light brown hair atop a round face in which blue eyes sparkled. His pale features were splashed with blood and he looked weak and faint.
“I have watched you killing the men who were alive,” he gasped, trying to back away from Ethar.
“Come with me,” Ethar whispered at last. “I am on my way to the city of Pronov.”
“But I am at war with them.”
“No,” Ethar whispered. “From here you are at war with no one. War only destroys, nothing is gained. Look what it did for your captain.” Ethar pointed to the body which lay next to him.
The youth looked on the point of arguing but his firm face became weary and he whispered, “Let me say farewell to him. He was my captain, as you said.”
Ethar nodded slowly before turning to look at the top of the cliff. He could make out the silhouette of his donkey as it grazed the grass, free from the blood which soaked the ground of the battlefield. Turning back towards the young soldier, he sighed as he realised the man had fainted upon his dead captain’s body. Ethar took the man’s arm, pulling it about his shoulders, and dragged him across the field of death.
The stifling summer air only cooled as the sun disappeared from the sky. Ethar sat against the foot of the steep hill and tried to unravel in his mind why he had saved the young soldier who lay unconscious on the ground next to him. He knew he had to reach the annual council of clerics and the company of the injured youth would cripple his speed.
The soldier’s features twitched as though he were dreaming and his bloodless lips silently formed snatches of words. His blue coat with white brocade suggested he was a soldier of high rank in the army of Kandone, a vast wealthy nation whose lands covered three sides of the city state of Pronov, where the cleric council was held, and whose men also scattered the ground in their bright red uniforms. The third army was the mixed races of Anamey, on whose land the battlefield was. Both men and elves in Anamey’s green lay butchered. Each fought for the right to Pronov on the grounds of historical links, but the brotherhood of the Universal Church continued to govern it, hiding in the shadows so none would declare war on them.
Ethar watched over his new charge until the moon had reached her midnight position before the man awoke with a start.
“I must go,” he panted.
Ethar nodded. “Yes, we must. Can you climb? It’s steep but I will help you.”
“I must go,” he repeated, almost delirious.
Ethar helped him to his feet and encouraged him gently forward. The soldier doggedly struggled onwards until, halfway up the cliff’s slope, he collapsed. Tucking his hands under the young man’s arms, Ethar dragged him the rest of the way. His donkey remained lying down but twitched its large ears, watching as Ethar set the soldier down. Leaning his head against the donkey’s back, Ethar watched the sleeping man before allowing himself the luxury of sleep.
When he awoke, the sun was climbing over the hilly horizon to the east. Recalling the events of the day before, he glanced around him to find the young soldier was sitting up, watching him. His face was still splashed with blood, as was his coat which he clutched tightly. Ethar rose to his feet, taking a flask from the donkey’s saddlebag and offering it to the younger man.
“Clean yourself and give me your jacket. You cannot be seen wearing it by the Anamey army.”
“I’m keeping my jacket,” he said defensively. “The Anamey army was slaughtered like mine.”
Ethar shrugged his shoulders as the man took the flask. Coaxing the donkey to its feet, he adjusted the small pack over its shoulders.
“I’m sorry,” the soldier sighed. “My name is Antone Azure.”
“Water?” Ethar asked in confusion.
Antone nodded slightly before struggling to his feet. “My way must part from yours now, though thank you for all you did.”
“No,” Ethar said firmly, dragging Antone to the donkey. “You must come with me to Pronov, for the council.”
Ethar would not take a refusal but helped Antone onto the small donkey and began leading the animal.
Antone did not argue, and silence clung to them as they travelled. He continued to slip in and out of consciousness while Ethar guided them forward, and they did not stop until evening when the city of Pronov came into sight.
“I don’t think I have a place amongst clerics.” Antone sat down beside the fire Ethar lit.
“You must come,” Ethar stated before continuing softly. “Something confuses me. Three great armies yet no cavalry, and no victorious side.”
“But there was cavalry. As there was a conquering side. But it was none of the armies which gathered there for war.”
Ethar looked across, puzzled at the response, but remained silent. Antone offered no further explanation but pulled the blue jacket tighter about him and lay down to sleep. Placing a thoughtful finger over his mouth, Ethar tried to decipher the meaning behind the man’s words but eventually weariness overcame him and, following Antone’s example, he fell asleep.
He woke before dawn and shook Antone awake.
“Turn your coat.”
“I’m no turncoat,” Antone replied firmly.
“You will be killed instantly. You begged to live and now you want to die?”
Frowning, Antone turned his coat inward, showing the white fabric that backed it. Helping him onto the donkey, Ethar led them onwards and through the studded gates of Pronov. The cleric walked purposefully through the sand-coloured buildings. He had come for the council every year since he was called to his position.
Antone studied everything carefully. Nothing escaped his critical blue eyes though he drew no attention to himself. Ethar led him into the central market and from there to a great hall.
“What is this place?” Antone asked curiously.
“It is the market hall. But from here we can reach the council.”
Antone watched as Ethar guided him through the hall which was full of stalls selling different wares. When Ethar reached one selling rugs, he stopped. The vendor looked on the point of speaking when his gaze fell upon Antone. Ethar raised his hand slightly.
“Have you a rug with the winter rose?” he began. “He is my guest.”
“I have such a rug,” the man muttered. Leading them to the back of his large store he pulled back a large plain rug. His eyes studied Antone, sneering at him. “You’ll find what you want through there, cleric.”
Ethar thanked him and led his companion through the tunnel which was just tall enough for Antone’s head. The walls were not lit but the tunnel was short and Antone could see sunlight on a cobbled yard before him. He gripped his jacket tightly around him, holding too a small, folded piece of paper. He had taken it from his dead captain’s jacket and could not afford to let the clerics find it. It had to reach his own king quickly.
They walked over the quiet courtyard and through a small alley in a high wall before stepping into an auditorium. Seats carved into the walls looked down onto the arena’s floor. Antone climbed from the donkey’s back and slipped the paper inside his fastened jacket.
“I have no place here,” Antone whispered.
Ethar stopped and turned to him. “If you go now, the clerics will have you killed within the city. If they see you here first, they will spare your life.”
“Why should they kill me?”
“They rule this city state.”
Antone looked across at him, puzzlement on his face while Ethar took his sleeve and pulled him forward. They walked into the centre of the arena but Antone pulled back as the cleric leader, who stood in the centre, began speaking.
“The battle against Kandone and Anamey was lost. We would have won had the beast not rampaged.”
Ethar stopped and turned to Antone whose face paled at the man’s words. The man who had spoken looked at Ethar and whispered, “He is not one of us. He is from -”
“Kandone,” Ethar completed. “But now he has no nationality, Pedro. He is the only survivor of the battle of which you speak.”
Pedro, who was clad in the white robes worn by all clerics, turned his gaunt face to Antone. “Is it not as I said, stranger? Your panic-stricken face tells me I am correct. How did you survive that fearful beast?”
“He saved me.” Antone pointed at Ethar before glancing at the hundreds of faces which filled the theatre. “But I have no place here.”
“Tell me of the beast,” Pedro persevered.
“It’s stronger than ten horses, walks like a man, has powerful wings and jaws that are so big it can eat horses whole.” Antone’s blue eyes sparkled as he spoke, like sapphires in his anguished face. Ethar placed a hand on Antone’s arm as the soldier looked faint.
“How did you survive it?” Pedro persisted.
“Men are too small for it to eat, but it likes sport.” Antone glanced from Pedro to Ethar before he whispered in a trembling voice, “May I sleep now?”
Ethar nodded quickly before Pedro could argue and watched as Antone walked swiftly from the arena, not knowing where he was going, only that he needed solitude. He could hear Ethar’s raised voice addressing the crowd as he walked purposefully through the tunnel, before drawing back the large rug which concealed the entrance. He shrugged out of his jacket, leaving it at the corridor’s mouth and, clutching the paper, walked out into the market hall. The vendor spared him a disdainful look but Antone hurriedly left the shop and stood at the entrance of the market hall. Taking the sleeve of a passer-by, he enquired where he would find a tailor but was answered with a laugh.
“This is a city. There are scores of tailors.”
Antone spared him a brief smile before he began walking through the city, looking for a tailor’s shop. He found many and, at each one he entered, he asked for a coat in apple blossom white. He received mixed replies but none were favourable. Dusk was falling when he reached a shop whose doors were closed for the night. "Finest Tailor of Pronov" was painted on a sign over the door with a picture of a fat man holding up a shirt. After trying the door, Antone walked down the small alley at the side of the building and pounded the rear entrance. It was answered by a man carrying an oil lamp in one hand and a knife in the other. He was a thin man and his sunken face held a look of mistrust. Not at all offended, Antone bowed his head.
“I need a coat in apple blossom white.”
The man lowered the knife and raised the lamp. “Apple blossom white? How many buttons?”
“Eight,” Antone replied with certainty as the man stood back to allowed him in.
The back room of the tailor’s shop was dark except for the bright flame of the oil lamp, but the thin man began lighting candles around the room with a splint of wood. When he was satisfied, he blew out the splint and sat at a small table, motioning for Antone to take the other seat.
“Who sent you to me, boy, so deep in the city of Pronov?”
“I came with a cleric. I’m the sole survivor of the Northern Army which was massacred along with those of Pronov and Anamey. I need you to get a letter to the court of Kandone. Tell them that the beast does exist. Send them these plans,” Antone added, producing the paper. “But most important, tell them the Universal Church governs Pronov.”
“I will write your letter, but first tell me who claims such things.”
“My name is Antone Azure, Information General to the Duke of the Northern Territory, who is now dead.”
“You are his spy?”
Antone smiled and rose to his feet, watching as the tailor nodded then snatched Antone’s sleeve.
“Wait,” he hissed. “You should stay here tonight. You may have abandoned your uniform, but your looks betray you. To walk the city at night is unwise.”
Antone scowled. “I will take your bed, thank you. But understand this: I am not a turncoat and I am no more a spy than you are. We cut our cloth to our means; don’t you agree? I turned my coat to survive in the service of Kandone.”
The tailor nodded and offered Antone a genuine smile before guiding him up a flight of creaking wooden stairs. At the top were two doors and, pushing one open, the tailor ushered him in.
“Sleep well and safe, Antone Azure.”
Antone listened as the man’s footsteps triggered the squeal of the stairs, before he collapsed back on the bed, the first bed he had lain upon in too many nights. He was unsure if he trusted the tailor, but his heavy eyelids and the soft bedding betrayed him to sleep.
He was awoken by a timid knock on the door which echoed into his slumber. Taking a short blade from the belt which he had been too tired to remove the night before, he walked to the door. He opened it slightly, lowering the knife as his eyes rested upon the tailor.
“I have written your letter but you must sign it if your claims are to be believed.”
“Do they not believe you?” Antone said, sheathing the blade and following the man from the room.
“I am a citizen of Pronov. You are not.”
Antone remained silent as the tailor led him into the small back room. He looked at the parchment, quickly reading it before taking a pen from the ink jar and drawing his name. It was not a word but a diagram of infinite precision, impossible to imitate. Gently returning the quill, he turned back to the tailor.
“Thank you for the bed. Now I must return to my guide.”
The tailor snatched the letter from the table along with the plans Antone had given him before handing them through the window to a man who stood waiting in the yard. Walking to the door, he stopped as the tailor spoke.
“That letter will find its way. But you will be safer in the hands of the guards than walking the city. Tell them of your involvement with the clerics and they may let you live. Forgive me, but I cannot afford to be discovered.”
Turning to face the tailor, Antone felt the thick cords of the man’s words tighten around him.
“What do you mean?” he asked, his throat suddenly dry.
“Do not fear, the letter will get there,” the thin man whispered before raising his voice and shouting, “He’s here, the man you want is here!”
Antone stumbled forward as the door struck him and four red-clothed guards of Pronov rushed in. Opening his mouth to condemn the tailor, Antone’s words faded on his tongue as one of the newcomers struck his head and he fell to his knees.
“Take him to the council of clerics,” the tailor began. “He has dealings with them.”
Antone felt someone bind his hands but his vision danced and his eyes could not focus on anything. He felt unbearably weary and collapsed to the ground.
Only, now he had returned to the battlefield. He lay upon the ground, watching in horror as the huge blood-coloured creature strutted towards him and, in one fluid motion, snatched his horse in its oversized jaws. All around him, those who had assembled for battle fought side by side to defeat the monster. But swords were useless against it and the best aimed arrows of Anamey’s elves barely penetrated its repulsive form. Its claws were as long as any sword and it took delight in the sport of chasing and slaying the men who fled in all directions.
Then it moved its attention towards him and its black eyes within its bird-like head caught his own gaze. Tipping back its head, it gave a powerful cry which chilled him to the core before it spread its wings and lunged at him. At the last moment, he rolled to the side, its taloned feet striking his head as it flew away.
When he regained consciousness, he was relieved to find he was once again in the city of Pronov. He was in the market hall at the rug stall where a man with a red plume in his elaborate tricorn was talking with the vendor.
“I knew he would come to trouble,” the merchant sneered. “But I expect the clerics wish to deal with him in their own way. Skilled sorcerers, all of them. They’ll have him telling all his secrets.”
Antone felt his eyes fall closed once again but he was brought sharply back to the waking world as he was pulled forward by the head guard who instructed his men to remain at the stall. Followed reluctantly, Antone tried not to miss a step as he was dragged through the courtyard, and the guard did not stop until they reached the alley into the arena.
From here, Antone looked into the centre of the gathered clerics and felt horrified as his eyes fell on three people whose necks were chained and their hands and feet were bound. A white-robed cleric stood holding each chain, parading the captives as though they were horses at a fair. Antone tried to pull back as the guard dragged him forward but to no avail. When they reached the entrance to the council, they stopped and Antone dropped back against the wall and watched, a chill seeping through him.
The first of the chained people was small and slight. He looked ageless in his albino nature, all colour gone from him but for the red-eyed gaze which darted around the congregated clerics. He was scared. Antone could feel his fear inside his own spinning head. Trying to evade this, he turned away, but he could still feel the boy’s confused uncertainty within him.
He could not hear what Pedro was saying for all his senses were embroiled with those of the three people who stood on parade; the fear of the albino; the anger of a black-skinned girl with beautiful brown eyes; and the resignation of a passive, grey-eyed man who looked almost elfin. Their gaze, although different in colour and emotion, all penetrated Antone’s and each echoed despair.
Pulling his tied hands over the guard’s neck, Antone dragged him from the arena. The tricorn fell to the ground revealing the balding head of a middle-aged man who tried to call out but Antone tightened the cord around his neck and hissed out his command.
“Cut me free and give me your knife and I swear you will go free.”
Antone was surprised at how readily the man agreed, hastily surrendering his weapons after cutting the bonds to his wrists. Buckling the guard’s belt around him, he watched as the man stumbled across the courtyard and returned down the tunnel. He glanced at the sword at his left-hand side and the knife at his right as he walked back to the alley and peered around, listening to the words Pedro spoke.
“We erred to summon the beast but now we have a chance to defeat it. Which brave man will join the four physical elements to contribute spirit? I have found three of the four and the fourth will not take long to come to us.”
Antone clutched the hilt of the guard’s knife and walked forward. A shocked murmur rippled through the arena as he pointed the short blade at Pedro. He saw a cleric rushing towards him and realised it was Ethar but did not stop until he stood only a yard from Pedro.
“Release them,” Antone demanded, but Pedro merely smiled.
“I am protected from your blade, boy. Why did you come back? I gave orders -” He stopped, thinking better of what he had been about to say.
“I was brought here by your city guard, who since left me. He was no doubt as sickened as I by what you’ve done.” He lowered the blade. “You wanted to have me killed?”
Antone stopped as Ethar reached him. “What are you doing, boy?”
“Your heart is too big for the Universal Church,” Antone said coolly.
With a speed Antone was unprepared for in such an old man, Pedro grabbed the guard’s sword and pointed it at Antone.
“Tell me who you really are,” the old cleric growled, “before I kill you.”
Antone paused as he glanced at the three bound figures who anticipated his next move. Taking a step back, he sneered at each of the seated clerics before turning back to Pedro who still pointed the sword at him.
“I will save you the task,” Antone remarked bitterly. “But before I die you may know my name. I am Antone Azure, Information General to the Duke of the Northern Territory. I am the water element you are missing to slay the beast you summoned from the pits of darkness. And may you join it there,” he concluded and, with more courage than he knew he had, he raised the knife to his chest and pushed the blade in.
The cool steel only sank in a fraction of an inch before Antone found he could no longer move. Each tired muscle of his body felt tight and drained and he realised he was captured by Pedro’s invisible spell. The cleric lowered the sword and walked forward until he stood directly before Antone.
“Where is your uniform?” Pedro asked as though nothing had happened. “Where did you go? To your spy in the city?”
“No,” Antone whispered softly, “and you will not find out who Kandone’s servants in the city are.”
“Of course,” Pedro laughed but stopped as Ethar moved forward.
“What is the meaning of this?” Ethar began, placing his hand upon the hilt of the knife whose point still rested in Antone’s body. “If you need his help then swallow your pride and ask for it.”
Ethar pulled the knife from Antone’s chest and threw it aside. Released from the hidden bonds of magic, Antone collapsed to the floor before stubbornly and shakily rising to his feet. He turned his watering eyes to Ethar who returned the gaze with an apologetic expression but, before either spoke, Pedro began talking.
“I don’t ask favours from spies, for that is all he is.” He turned to the cleric who held the albino’s chain. “Take them all away. I wish to speak to the spy later.”
Antone felt a firm grip dragging him backwards. He did not struggle but kept his eyes upon Ethar’s until he was taken through a door and pushed down a flight of stairs.
Ethar watched the four captives being led from the arena before turning to Pedro.
“Your methods are not commendable. The boy is something you need. Now, he would sooner die than yield anything to you.”
“Pronov is still ours and I will not surrender it to Kandone. That’s why we summoned the beast.”
“That’s why you summoned it,” Ethar replied curtly. “I shall represent spirit, for you have proved you have none.”
Ethar turned on his heel and walked from the stadium uncaring of the shocked cries around him. He descended the stairs to the dungeons and walked on until he came to the metal cage in which Antone sat.
At the sound of footsteps, Antone opened his eyes but didn’t rise. His right hand held his chest where the white shirt was soaked red and his round face was the same ghastly white as when Ethar had first seen him. Placing his hands upon the bars, Ethar looked through at the young man, little more than a boy to his eyes.
“Why did you tell them who you were?”
“Why didn’t you? Besides, I owed it to them.” He waved his hand vaguely towards the three cages occupied by the other captives.
“I will be joining you.”
“Spirit,” Antone whispered. “You will be martyred while we are murdered.”
“It may not end that way. Have faith.”
“In what?” laughed Antone, pulling himself to his feet. “The Universal Church?”
“No,” Ethar said firmly. “In faith itself.” He paused to regain his temper. “We leave tomorrow. I must go.”
Antone walked over to him. “Go and enjoy your feast, while I have all information drawn from me.”
Ethar reached his arm through the bars and placed it upon Antone’s cold hand. “I am sorry.”
“You have done no evil,” Antone replied softly. “I took an oath that I would die before betray my country, and I will not forget it.”
Ethar offered him a weak smile before walking from the dungeons. As he ascended the stairs, he met Pedro. The man grinned but Ethar felt anger seep through him.
“Do not harm him,” Ethar cautioned. “We need him.”
“I will not lay a finger on him.” Pedro smiled before he vanished down the stairs and into the dungeon.
Ethar attended the feast in his honour, feeling awkward in the gesture. He had no right to eat as a king while the four others sat in cells. He excused himself early and returned to the rooms he always occupied during his stays. The night was still young when he fell asleep, his head full of the events of both the past and the impending future.
He awoke before dawn and carefully began filling his leather saddlebags with everything he had brought, his mind unable to focus on anything. He flung his white robe over his other clothes and picked up his bag before walking through the meandering corridors until he reached the stables. The horses in the stalls stamped their hooves and threw their heads up in self-importance but Ethar ignored them all until he reached his donkey. He fastened the pack about it and fitted its halter. Finally, he led it to the courtyard before the high wall of the arena. The sun’s first light was visible in the sky but Ethar saw no sign of anyone and allowed the donkey to sit while he leaned against it.
When the sun became visible over the stadium, Ethar saw his companions being led out. All of them looked fearful, except Antone who had covered his head with a scarf so only his eyes were visible and no emotion could be gleaned from their dazzling blue. Ethar offered each a sympathetic smile before he turned to Pedro as the man began speaking.
“You will be escorted from the city. From there, you must journey west. A day ahead of you is the valley where the beast lives.”
Ethar nodded slightly before leading the small column through the hidden tunnel. Each of his comrades was bound at the wrists and they looked like criminals being led to execution. They had passed through the city gates before anyone spoke. Here the escorts released their hold upon the captives and one turned to Ethar.
“They are your charge now. They each have the provisions they need for two days, there and back, should they survive. If this one does,” he placed a heavy hand upon Antone’s shoulder, “bring him back. He still has not revealed who his city spy is.”
Without another word the clerics turned from them and vanished into the city. Ethar looked across at his companions and smiled warmly.
“I am Ethar,” he said simply, as he severed the ropes at their wrists. None of them volunteered their own names and Ethar left the hope of conversation. Antone raised his released hands and untied a strip of cloth from beneath the scarf he wore. Ethar glanced across at him.
“You were gagged?”
Antone nodded in reply.
The silence of the travelling bore down heavy upon Ethar, who felt responsible for the unhappy faces that glanced at him. When night fell, he stopped the donkey and removed some sticks from the saddlebags. He knelt down and arranged them into a pyramid before holding his hand over them. Flames suddenly burst from the wood and he sat down, smiling. The four of them followed his example and gathered at the fire.
“You must all be hungry.” He glanced around at them.
The tall, grey-eyed man smiled back. “My name is Sasilph. I am one of the half-blooded people, despised by both men and elves.”
“The elves of the north?” Ethar whispered.
“Yes. I am from Anamey. I should have fought at the battle against Pronov and Kandone, but I was arrested before I could. The two opposing races of Anamey waste no time in handing over a man who is caught between them.” He looked across at them all. “I am the air element.”
“I am Agni, the fire element,” the young albino offered quietly.
“And you?” Ethar asked gently, turning to the black woman. “You must be the earth element. What is your name?”
“My name is Kishar,” she replied. “I was kidnapped by your people to fight the beast you summoned.”
“It was not I. Some clerics think more of Pronov than the faith. They wanted to crush the opposing armies.” Ethar stopped and looked across at Antone who met his gaze neutrally. “We should all eat.”
He took out his food and watched as Kishar, Agni and Sasilph did the same. Antone rose to his feet and dropped his leather bag to the ground, startling the donkey into releasing an anxious bray.
“I’m not hungry,” Antone announced, placing his shaking hand upon the scarf covering his features. He walked a short distance away and stood looking out at the view.
They were camping near the top of one of the tall hills which provided a wall to the deep valley where the creature lived. Ethar watched Antone thoughtfully but did not say anything as the four of them ate in silence before Kishar and Agni fell asleep. Sasilph turned to Ethar and smiled.
“You have the powerful green eyes of the elves.”
“Yet yours are grey,” Ethar whispered.
“My mother had blue eyes, almost as dazzling as his,” he pointed to Antone. “My father was elfin.” Sasilph paused and looked across at Antone. “He is brave for someone so young. He has seen the beast yet returns to fight it.”
Ethar nodded thoughtfully and whispered a goodnight blessing before waiting until Sasilph had fallen asleep. When he had, Ethar rose to his feet and walked across to where Antone rested. His eyes were closed and his chest rose and fell in slumber. Crouching down, Ethar moved his hand towards the scarf. As fluid and rapid as river tides, Antone drew a concealed knife from his boot and slashed it towards Ethar, stopping himself as he recognised the cleric. Ethar sat next to him and shook his head.
“They gagged you yet allowed you to carry a knife?”
Antone returned the blade and shrugged his shoulders.
“What use is a knife when your opponent can strike you at twenty paces?” He turned to Ethar before continuing. “You wish to see beneath the scarf?” He drew it back carefully and looked across at Ethar. His blue eyes sparkled with moonlight above his bruised and blackened cheeks. “He was far beyond the reach of my knife.”
“Pedro did this to you?” Ethar asked incredulously. Antone nodded. “Then, in the least you should eat and drink and let your body heal itself.”
“Then bring me my pack and I will eat all the provisions in it.”
Ethar hurried back to where Antone had discarded his bag. He was surprised at how heavy it felt but carried it over to Antone who reached out his hand and flicked back the lid. Ethar looked down in disbelief at the collection of stones which filled it.
“Not much to eat,” Antone laughed without amusement.
“Why did you not say earlier?”
“The food you have is your own.” He paused before smiling. “I told you I would not give in, and I didn’t. Now the forces of Pronov are pushing me further into the chasm of death.”
“I had nothing to do with it,” Ethar said, placing his hand upon Antone’s arm.
Antone raised his hand to his head before he fell backwards, unconscious. Ethar rolled up the boy’s sleeve and looked at his arm which was as black as his battered face. Picking up Antone’s bag, he looked angrily down at it. Pedro had become too interested in Pronov and had neglected the faith. After placing his hand upon Antone’s head and muttering a blessing, he gathered his own provisions and waited until the man’s consciousness returned enough to feed him. Watching as Antone settled into a calm slumber, Ethar lowered his guard and fell asleep.
He was awoken by Kishar who shook his arm gently and smiled down at him. She sat next to him and began speaking in her deep, flowing voice.
“I am sorry for my cutting words. Your friend, the one who hides his face, said you are unlike the others and follow the faith before Pronov.”
Ethar smiled across at her glancing around in confusion, for they were alone. Following his gaze Kishar smiled.
“They have gone into the valley. We should join them.”
Ethar nodded and rose to his feet. He led the donkey down the steep hill while Kishar followed, moving easily on the sloping ground. When they reached the bottom, she pointed across the valley to where smoke was rising.
“Sasilph said he would light a fire to show us where they were. We must hurry or the beast will awaken before we reach them.”
She began running leaving Ethar to follow at his own pace. Sedately, he led the donkey over to where Agni and Antone sat by the fire and raised a querying eyebrow at the absence of Sasilph and Kishar. Agni’s chalk-white face smiled across at him.
“Kishar has gone to fetch Sasilph.” He paused and glanced from Antone, who still wore the scarf, to Ethar. “How are we going to kill it? I have no weapon.”
Antone shrugged his shoulders and looked at Ethar who smiled back at him and spoke.
“Thank you for your words to Kishar.”
“You deserved them,” Antone whispered, before turning to where Sasilph and Kishar ran towards them.
“How do we defeat it?” Agni repeated, his voice frantic now. “I know nothing of fire.”
“Nor I of air,” Sasilph added quietly. “We have only one cleric so magic will not aid us.”
Antone stared at the mouth of the cave in the hillside where Sasilph and Kishar had just come from. “I know nothing of magic nor the power of water but I know how to stop it.”
“How?” Kishar hissed. “It will emerge soon.”
“Hypnosis,” Antone announced wearily. “You have only to meet its gaze.”
“What?” she cried in disbelief. “It is that easy?”
“Easy? It is not easy to meet its gaze, believe me.” Antone shook his head. “Look at each one of our eyes. Red for fire, brown for earth, green for spirit and grey for air.”
“And blue for water,” Agni added excitedly.
Antone nodded before adding, “Whatever else happens, fix your eyes upon its eye, as black as its heart.”
Agni rose to his feet and Antone struggled to his. His companions looked at him expectantly and he walked forward slowly, trying to steady his feet. But the pain which shot through his body at every step was almost too great to withstand.
Sasilph and Kishar walked silently at the head of their small column, then Agni, and finally Antone who was steadied by Ethar. The cleric pulled out the flask from his pack and offered it to Antone.
“No,” Antone answered, wafting aside the offer. “You need it for the journey back.”
“If you don’t drink, you will not live to see it.”
“All that awaits me at Pronov is a painful death. Why not here where I cannot betray anything?”
There were no more words spoken until they stood before the chasm in the valley’s wall. Each one looked at the others through their strong eyes before Agni whispered, “I thought it was awake.”
“It was,” Kishar began. “I will go and fetch it out.”
“No,” Sasilph hissed, grabbing her arm. “I have speed to escape.”
“And I have stealth,” Kishar replied, before running into the cave. Sasilph walked forward to the entrance of the opening and waited anxiously. A quiet fell over the valley before Agni’s high voice whispered,
Antone turned towards the high hills and felt the same sickening fear he could remember from the battlefield as the huge red beast swooped down towards them.
“It’s here!” he shouted. “Its eyes! Look into its eyes!”
The huge beast crashed to the ground scarcely ten feet from them and began strutting forward on its rear legs. It stood as tall as the Pronov market hall and flapped its wings aggressively. The five unlikely companions backed off slowly as the beast walked towards them. The sense of fear which turned to terror within them meant all were reluctant to meet its gaze, while Ethar’s donkey fled completely. Antone’s head spun as he tried to combat his fading senses and he attempted to gather his thoughts as Sasilph shouted,
“It’s pushing us into the cave!”
“Look at its eyes,” Antone repeated in a subdued whisper.
Each of them raised their gaze from its expansive body to its huge eyes, as big as a man’s head. Agni turned his head away in fear but Antone took his shoulders and forced him to face the beast. Instantly, the creature became enwrapped in a whirlpool of red, green, grey, brown, and blue, the five colourful threads circling wilder and wilder. But still the creature continued to force them back. If it succeeded in pushing them into the cave, it would be too dark to meet its gaze, and the monstrous beast would have won.
As he stepped back, Antone’s legs burnt with tiredness. The blue strands in the encircling glow faded, before they died completely as he fell to the ground. He realised the creature towering over him but he could not move. He was inside the whirlwind of colour and could make out the silhouettes of his four comrades beyond the translucent wall. The sharp talons of the beast sliced into his side as it raised his barely conscious form towards its mouth which, Antone noticed, began to open. Struggling to reach his boot, he drew the concealed knife. He had to grip it in both hands to hold it steady. He could hear Kishar’s voice, distant and fearful, and it took him a moment to discern her words,
“We’ve reached the cave!”
Spurred on by this desperation, Antone forced himself to glare into the black eyes of the beast. He slashed the small knife across the creature’s palm. Its skin, which none of Anamey’s elf arrows could penetrate, sliced like velvet under his blade. The sharp claws opened out as the creature tipped back its head and issued a cry of pain.
Antone fell from its grip to the ground below, clutching his bleeding side. He thought he had struck his head, for the animal was becoming a blur. He felt the heat of fire, the heaviness of earth, the blowing air, and the glow of spirit before the chill of water hit him and he let his exhausted senses flee his body.
As the beast was consumed by the colourful five-stranded glow, a quiet fell upon the companions. Where, moments earlier, the creature had stood lay Antone. Ethar rushed to his side, kneeling down while Agni crouched on Antone’s other side. Sasilph held Kishar to him and looked across.
“Is he dead?” Agni sighed. “He was so brave.”
“You were all brave,” Ethar said gently. He picked up the discarded scarf which had concealed Antone’s bruised face. “I don’t know what to do with him. If I carry him back to Pronov he will be killed, but I cannot leave him here.” He glanced at the others. “What will you all do?”
“Sail across the Northern Ocean,” Kishar sighed.
“There are islands there which welcome all,” Sasilph added. “Even my mongrel kind.”
Ethar looked thoughtfully at them for a moment, an idea forming in his mind. “Then, I wish you both good luck, though I have a favour to ask. Help me bear Antone to Pronov so we may face the man responsible in the way we did the beast. If we do not, he will have Antone killed.”
The three glanced at one another before nodding in reluctant agreement. Sasilph helped Ethar make a stretcher for Antone from the cleric’s robe and two thick branches that Ethar cut. The journey back was quiet but companionable. What food and water were left was shared equally amongst them. Ethar used Antone’s shirt to bandage the young man’s wounded side, but Antone remained oblivious to it all, locked in the dreamless state of deep unconsciousness.
Antone was awoken by the sensation of the irregular movement, but opening his eyes seemed an impossible task. He could hear footsteps close to him but only found the strength to peel back his eyelids as he felt someone pull him forcefully to his feet. Glancing around, his flickering eyes told his spinning head he was standing in the cleric’s courtyard and, before him, stood his four companions and Pedro. Realising it was Pedro’s spell which held him upright, and certain he could do nothing to defend himself against it, he felt his eyes drift closed once more. Almost instantly the bonds vanished and he collapsed to the ground. Two guards took his arms and began dragging him away but stopped as Ethar spoke.
“Pedro, you have stooped too far from the faith, summoning creatures which are the weapons of darkness.” Ethar walked over to Antone and pulled him free of his captors. “Look into his eyes,” Ethar whispered, supporting Antone’s body.
Leaning back against Ethar’s chest, Antone tried to open his eyes long enough to meet Pedro’s gaze, but the wound to his side and the exhaustion from his torture at the hands of the man before him made even this simple request into a battle. He could hear Pedro’s laughter and angry, scornful comments as though he was hearing his voice through water, distorted and vague.
Driven by this, he determinedly turned his weary head and forced his eyes open, fixing his gaze upon Pedro’s eyes. As his comrades did the same, the cleric was swallowed in the same five-coloured cloud which had encircled the beast. Antone’s head spun as the colours faded. Pedro no longer stood there, nor was there any indication he ever had. The faces of the gathered clerics went from an enraged red to pallid with fear.
Sasilph wasted no time in this frightened stupor but rushed over towards the stables while Ethar began addressing the assembly.
“We have rid the world of the beast and he who summoned it. The Universal Church must focus on faith, let the people rule Pronov.” Glancing at Sasilph who guided three horses into the arena, he pulled out a purse and dropped it into the centre of the courtyard. “This should pay for the horses.”
None of the stunned clerics stopped them leaving, nor did any of the companions cease their silence until they stood in an alley close to the city gates.
“I must return to my homeland. The clerics will not rest easy,” Ethar warned, as he helped Antone onto the saddle of a tall grey horse. Kishar and Sasilph mounted their own steeds easily.
“And I am eager to return to mine,” Antone muttered. He turned to Agni and smiled. “I am in need of a new agent, for the tailor proved false. I shall contact you when I reach court.”
Agni nodded eagerly before disappearing into the throng of city dwellers. The remaining four rode out of the city and, at its gates, Kishar and Sasilph departed to the north. Antone turned to Ethar and offered an exhausted smile.
“Are you sure you will not ride?”
“I walked here, Antone, I can walk back.”
“I owe you more than anyone. What can I give to repay you?”
“Friendship,” Ethar whispered. “You saved us all, Antone.”
“You have my friendship. Goodbye Ethar. If fortune smiles upon us, perhaps we will meet next year at your council.”
“Take care, friend.”
“And you, Ethar.”
He watched as the cleric began walking northwest, never looking back. Turning his grey steed to the south, Antone Azure rode into Kandone, the last survivor of the Northern Army.