Ardalia: Turquoise Water (Book Two) by Alan Spade by Alan Spade - Read Online

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Ardalia - Alan Spade

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Chapter One – MATTER OF CONSCIENCE

Flames were everywhere. Taller than a krongos, swift and dominant, they were dancing a bloody dance of chaos and madness. Just one step forward, and they would seize him in their deadly embrace, scorching his body and feasting upon his soul. Pelmen turned. The tongues of fire behind him drew back, outlining the path to salvation.

He walked, in a shy and reluctant way at first and then gradually with more confidence. Before him sprang the Source of All Things. Pelmen instinctively knew that in order to overcome his fear of the flames, he must fully immerse himself. By embracing them, he would conquer them and become their master.

For the first time in his life, he understood that he could bend fate to his will. He was among the chosen, and the rich and powerful would one-day bow to him. All he had to do was reach the center of this power, where he would experience absolute bliss, and he would reign alongside...

Something was amiss. His mind began a feverish exploration, trying to dispel the swirling clouds of red smoke. Eventually, he succeeded in clearing some of the fog. Pelmen saw a tall malian dressed in a tunic with epaulets topped with a necklace that hid his chin, sitting on a throne. With its scarlet and golden gleams, the throne could have been mistaken for amberrock if not for the liquid fire moving under the surface.

Pelmen’s will was weakening under the oppression of the fog, which wasn’t so much choking his body than pervading his mind. Summoning all of his strength, Pelmen surged forward. Looking the malian more closely in the face, he scrutinized the burns, and noted the sinuous symbol etched into the scorched forehead. A two-headed snake.

The Marked. Sinistan.

The world around Pelmen exploded, and he took his head in both hands. The flames had disappeared in the blast, but he felt as if a cohort of melepeks with heavy hooves had suddenly made his head their playground. He closed his eyes. Gradually, the pain eased. Pelmen was now able to hear his wheezing breath and to smell the aggressive sulfur in the air. He wondered just when he had kneeled? He got up, legs shaking, eyelids blinking. He had not even taken his bow. The dream (a nightmare, it had to be a nightmare) had forced him to wander off from his companions, and had led him somewhere that he wasn’t meant to go. Sinistan... Was he behind this? Or was it the thing Pelmen had felt in the city of the damned? A monster that had the power to consume souls...

He turned quickly on his heel, and coughing walked as fast as he could through the dark, rocky valley, grimacing in pain with every step that he took. It was so much easier walking in the other direction...

Unable to sense the presence of his companions, Pelmen wondered just how far he had strayed from them. He knew that he should have been horrified at the idea of coming back to Sinista, yet he had to admit, there was something fascinating about the city and its incredible wealth.

I must not think about that!

He was exhausted, which raised the question: when did I last sleep?

They were not far enough yet to escape his influence. They had walked for the best part of the day, but never fast enough. The thing (the Master) lurking in the shadows was merciless, and Pelmen had constantly felt as if a noose had been tightening around his neck. Had he not fought them, then the visions would have driven him insane. There was a high price to pay for his resistance though. Terrible stabbing pains made the world a universe of fire and blood, blurring his sight. His defenses were waning due to exhaustion.

Lominan, her shoulders hunched, slimmer than ever. Xuven, thinner too, beard raised to the chest of Elisan, talking with the magician. Turning to stare at him, frowning. Elisan-Finella again, ghastly, both pairs of hands’ fingers curled. Xuven giving instructions in a strained voice.

Snippets of memories gradually found their way through the fog, eventually becoming whole. Along with his uncle Xuven, the malians Elisan-Finella and Lominan, Pelmen had fled Sinista. Teleg, his childhood friend, the blonde-haired hevelen, his face dotted with black scabs, had been carried, unconscious, from the accursed city. So close to the Great Rift and only a few leagues from the volcano Ixal, Sinista was glowing with a dark and crimson seal. Like the malian who gave the city his name...

For a long time, Teleg had lain across Pelmen’s nidepoux. The daylight had revealed more scars on his hands and neck—an unpleasant reminder of his stay in Sinista. Pelmen hoped that the necklace of Cilamon’s power—the artifact was wound tightly around his neck—would help his friend’s body to recover. Teleg’s emotional state worried him even more. A few hours into their journey, Teleg had woken up, and Pelmen had helped him get his feet back into the saddle. Unfortunately, his mauve eyes had stayed empty, as expressionless as Lominan’s—who for some unknown reason was also immersed in apathy, with nothing that anyone said able to bring her out of it. They had just stopped once, when Elisan, who had awakened from her magician’s trance, her stern face more closed than ever, had reported two scouts coming from Sinista. The rocky defile was straight, and they all felt exposed, their small group being visible from several hundred yards. With his energies depleted, Pelmen had been incapable of using his bow, and given his weariness, Xuven had admitted to being unable to use his power at such a distance. Their situation was impossible.

Pelmen remembered having suffered a violent crisis at this time. Locked in battle with his inner demons, he had only learned what had happened much later, when Xuven felt able to tell him. Xuven had spotted a small cave, but Elisan-Finella went one step further, and invoked Bubbles of Camouflage, which were mixed and melted around the melepek and their hiding place. While Pelmen, with tears in his eyes and gagged by his uncle, was pulling out his hair, a hevelen and a malian passed close to their hiding place without seeing them. Both were in a poor condition, their skins cracked and burned, yet dressed in leather armor and with weapons that had amberrock tips.

Once they were certain that the danger had passed, Pelmen and his companions had resumed their route. The nidepoux didn’t have any success finding food on the way. Even though they lacked the protection of the magic of the necklaces of Cilamon, somehow the nidepoux resisted the horrific visions. So many animals succumbed to the allure of the Great Rift, and Pelmen marveled at their strength. Despite the corrupt air and the hunger that gnawed at them, the quadrupeds obediently allowed themselves to be guided. The parasites inhabiting their fur had long ago left them, an even worse sign than their hoarse breathing and dull hair. The melepek, for its part, had placed his six paws on the floor with the same unflappable consistency.

More than once, Pelmen had wondered how a hevelen like him was going to find the strength to take on Valshhyk the Destroyer. According to legend, the one also called the Immolated was imprisoned in the heart of the volcano Ixal. However, the word imprisoned was to be taken with a grain of salt.

Pelmen wrinkled his triple nostrils and pulled back a strand of black hair, his bulging eyes gazing at the rock at his feet. For as much as the dark god was physically confined, the fumes of sulfur with which he expressed his will still escaped freely from the Great Rift. The three peoples, hevelen, krongos and malanite, had to be told. In the shadow of Sinista a mixed army was being formed, fearsomely equipped and trained, benefiting from the crimson shamans’ power, servants of the fire of the Destroyer.

Pelmen’s head grew heavier, and he wondered if this was an effect of fatigue or the beginning of a new crisis. He had tripped for the third time in fifty paces when he finally made out, lying on the ground, the huddled up outlines of his companions. All so deeply asleep that they had not heard him get up and had done nothing to stop him from leaving, contrary to what they had agreed. Pelmen decided not to tell them what had happened to him, as he felt that it would be pointless to do so. At least they could sleep! Visions had haunted him in his sleep, when he was at his most vulnerable. In the starlight, he spotted a rock on the ground with an uncomfortable edge and satisfied that there was no danger of him falling asleep, Pelmen sat back and watched Teleg lying against a nidepoux. The necklace around the neck of his childhood friend was no longer glowing. The artifact only revealed the full extent of its power when the fumes of the Destroyer were at their most aggressive, particularly near the Great Rift. A nervous twitch occasionally flickered across Teleg’s face.

At least doesn’t he talk anymore in his sleep.

Pelmen felt as though his stomach was devouring his bowels. Glancing at his bag, he thought wistfully about the dried meat, which had been poisoned by the deadly fumes. What’s more, he was so thirsty! Elisan-Finella was going to have to find the strength to purify their last supply of water, or they would all perish.

Aching from the uncomfortable stone, Pelmen dragged himself wearily to his feet, then walked a few feeble steps before sitting back down again, repeating the process over and over several times before Astar rose, turning the sky a fiery red. One by one Xuven, Elisan-Finella, Lominan and Teleg awoke. Xuven’s side whiskers and beard had turned white, Elisan seemed to feel the weight of Finella leaning against her for the first time, Lominan, just a little smaller and thinner than the magicians, had a hardened face while Teleg’s look was still vacant. What a valiant team! Looking at Elisan with the full intensity of his despair, Pelmen handed her his water-skin.

She made a gesture of denial and Pelmen bent his spine, distraught. Xuven draped his arm over his nephew’s shoulders, meager comfort in the circumstances. Teleg’s nidepoux proving too weak to carry him again, Pelmen went to support his friend. Teleg walked falteringly. Only the melepek, although as hungry as the others, still showed its toughness by agreeing to carry both Elisan-Finella and Lominan on his back. They walked for hours, only stopping for short rest periods. While gathering tauntingly in the sky, the clouds refused to release the so precious water they contained. Gradually, the narrow pass became less barren. They passed a veguer’en stripped of its leaves—its mauve bulbs, bloated, no longer had the strength to breathe the air. Then they passed one of those cacti that contained an aqueous substance in their bulges. At the sight of the greenish tinge strewn with red dots on its trunk, Xuven forbade them to touch it. Pelmen said nothing, not even having the energy to argue, with his parched tongue sticking to his palate. A continuous diffuse buzzing had replaced the terrible stabbing pains from the previous day. Still ubiquitous, the smell of sulfur had stopped arousing the feeling of power just within reach. Pelmen’s last bits of will were his most valuable asset.

The path had bent, and they suddenly emerged in front of a plain of grass and lichens. It extended to infinity in the east, and to the west was dominated by peaks on familiar terms with heaven.

Pelmen fell to his knees, gaping. The Uncrossable Mountains. He could feel it in every fiber of his body, the breath of Aoles was powerful in the Windy Steppes. Swirling gusts swept the end of the narrow pass, reaching them weakened. Almost all of them were permeated with sulfur, but the effect of the fresh air flow on the hevelens was immediate, Pelmen rose and Xuven and Teleg straightened their shoulders. Finally, the supernatural heat that had dried their skin from the border of the Rift faded.

What month is it? wondered Pelmen. It must be at least the second of Aoles.

Teleg also seemed to awaken from a bad dream. Full of life again, he walked straight to Pelmen. Who did not know how to behave.

Alicene is not with us, he murmured. You lied to me.

Before Pelmen could answer, Teleg swung his fist at him, squarely hitting him in the jaw. Pelmen fell on his back while his nidepoux swerved, hissing. Half-conscious, he saw Teleg grab his necklace with both hands and throw it to the ground.

Pelmen leaned on his elbows and spat blood between coughing fits. It’s not possible... not possible. His jaw was a well of pain. Had Teleg’s training made him stronger? Or was Pelmen’s exhaustion holding him back? His head was still spinning when Teleg dealt a masterful slap on the rump of his nidepoux. The beast darted straight ahead, knocking over Xuven before he could use his gnarled wand. The second quadruped, freaked out, ran off in turn.

Teleg had started running in the opposite direction. Pelmen struggled to get up, glancing at the melepek. Led by Elisan-Finella, the animal turned too slowly. Fear was etched across Lominan’s face. Biting his lower lip, Pelmen grabbed his bow. A thorn in the leg should stop him. Teleg’s yellowish buckles jumped on his shoulders. Sorry to do this, but you’ve left me no choice... He had just notched when the buzzing inside his head grew louder. The air was suddenly unbreathable, and everything was rotten. He fell to his knees, gasping. As Teleg disappeared into the curve of the narrow pass, the stabbing pains began to overwhelm Pelmen’s consciousness.

The return to reality was as sharp as it was brutal. The pain was gone, cut at the root. Pelmen closed his mouth—his lips still quivering from the howl that had burst from his throat. Xuven stood leaning over him, his fingers lightly brushing the necklace he had passed around his neck.

Why did you let him escape? What for? Hoarse and broken, Pelmen’s voice was that of a stranger.

The sagging, gaunt faces of his uncle and Elisan-Finella spoke for themselves.

He wanted to run after Teleg. He barely could walk. No, I’m not exhausted! I am not starving with hunger; I am not thirsty. This is just an illusion. I must catch up with him!

Xuven’s hand fell on his elbow, forcing him to turn.

Don’t do that, my boy, he uttered in a scratchy voice. "All your efforts will only be used to get you caught, to get us caught. Your friend... It was no longer just fatigue burrowing Xuven’s features. Sorrow was in his eyes, too. Your friend is possessed by the energy of the Immolated. You won’t recapture him. Not in your present condition."

No, said Pelmen. That can’t be true. The necklace...

The necklace does not heal! said Xuven, losing his temper. The necklace protects! Teleg was secluded from Valshhyk’s power until he removed it. Of his own free will! Xuven lowered his eyes, and his voice softened. I’m sorry Pelmen, terribly sorry, but if enough self-awareness and willpower had remained in him, we would have seen that yesterday after he awakened. Remember his look, then: lost, astray.

Pelmen, staring into space, whispered without pausing a number of barely audible no’s.

He was in contact with the poisonous breath for far too long, Xuven continued. Valshhyk’s mind knows no rest. Anyone would have yielded.

Pelmen turned slowly toward him. He would have cried if only there had been any moisture left in his eyes. The lump in the throat almost prevented him from talking. So, what have we achieved?

You should know better than any of us, my boy. You’re the one who entered this city.

So, Teleg is doomed, is he? Like all of them... All those who live in Sinista.

Xuven’s eyes widened. What do you call this city?

To be purified, one must first want it.

Elisan, always slender, was coming over to them after having dismounted. She had not lost her fluidity despite the hardships—dehydration was whitening her wide mouth’s lips. Now, she stared right into Pelmen’s eyes as if her words were aimed at him in the first place.

You! You did nothing. Nothing! Neither to cure him nor to stop him from fleeing!

Finella didn’t have the strength, any more than I did. And to heal him, I repeat, it would have been necessary for him to want that.

Her tone was so cool! So infuriating! And especially since she was probably right. Would Teleg have accepted the need for someone to help him get rid of his Master? Pelmen remembered his friend’s spear of amberrock, thrown over the wall and left there, his house and his chests of precious objects. It was mad to presume that Teleg would agree to give it all up! No inhabitant of the dark city would willingly abandon his property. They had lost everything in their first life, and Sinistan and his minions had given them everything they had ever dreamed about, and more. Or so they thought. Former Disinherited’s loyalty to their saviors would be unwavering, whatever the practices of their suspicious partners.

Pelmen stood up painfully and turned around. He would have liked to stop the never-ending cycle of his thoughts from telling him that he had failed, that he had abandoned his best friend. That the master of fire and his henchmen had won, in the end. He passed Lominan, hunkering down on her melepek.

The nidepoux had not gone far, stopping in the steppe to burrow the ground with their snouts. Pelmen, soon joined by his three companions, walked into the plain. The wind whipped him, bringing him back to his true self. He rubbed his bristly chin beard. The breath of Aoles seemed somehow to wake Teleg. Yet he chose to turn around, and that means he has changed. That very idea pierced his heart like the tip of a flint covered with frost, so much so he remained a few moments inert, drained of all emotion. Meanwhile, his uncle struggled to gather the nidepoux—doing it wrong. Wincing, Pelmen walked in his direction. He had to bait the animals with plants cut from the ground to make them leave, resulting in further delays to their journey southward. However, with every step that they took, the air seemed purer and the yellow hue of the grass, less dull. Daylight decreased rapidly, clouds had covered the vast scarlet globe of Astar. To Pelmen, it seemed that the darkness spreading over the land was an extension of the darkness that descended upon his heart. In the late afternoon, it was as dark as if the Sun-God had already set. Thunder rolled, and the sky was streaked with lightning as rain poured from the clouds.

Eventually, the malians began to emerge from their stupor. Lominan blinked while Elisan-Finella raised two pairs of hands, palms open. After this first moment of gratitude, without any delay the magician dismounted, seized the belenite bowl on the flank of her melepek and placed it on the ground. Then ascendant and respondent formed one of the Bubbles to which only they knew the secret and were able to soak up the moisture from the air. They poured the content into the container, and the water was colored turquoise.

Empty your water-skins on the floor! Elisan ordered. Completely!

Complying with her request didn’t take long, given the meager state of the reserves. The magicians invoked two new Bubbles of smaller size, which they set up overhanging the water-skins held at arm’s length by the hevelens. Water of exceptional purity flowed. Aware of the need to gradually accustom their stomachs, they forced themselves to drink in small sips. Elisan-Finella sat in her wide bowl, cross-legged, eyes closed under the soothing patter of rain. Her pale skin was gradually recovering its original blue-gray color. Moments later, Elisan sighed and it seemed she had to pluck up the courage to leave. She emptied the bowl, then filled it again with a new Bubble before motioning Lominan.

The mil’ser remained on the melepek, motionless. Elisan-Finella drew closer and took the young malian by the armpits, helping her down. Lominan’s facial features were expressionless. Her inability to communicate reminded Pelmen of Teleg, to such an extent that he wondered if the malian’s necklace of Cilamon had failed to protect her.

The apprentice stepped over the bowl, but the Turquoise Water did not have the effect observed many times on her. Instead of calming down, she shrank a little more, and then began to sob without being able to hold on. Elisan watched, seemingly unsurprised. Xuven was also staring at the mil’ser. The latter eventually hiccupped, sniffed, took a deep breath and looked at Elisan.

I... I saw Sinistan.

So it was him, nodded the feless’tu, causing Xuven to shoot her a puzzled glance. Sit down, apprentice. Sit down and tell us about that.

Talk? I do not want to talk about that! As her eyes stared at an indefinite point, Pelmen was sure she wouldn’t speak anymore, so much so that he was startled when Lominan’s lips started to move as if by themselves. It was... it was horrible. Mital... became a living torch. Those flames! He carried... a whip. Sinistan had a whip, a whip of fire, which stirred and winded, which was burning and scorched. He yelled... Yes, Mital woke up in the midst of the Great Rift. He yelled and turned into... something... a being, a fire being. She continued to sob.

Perplexed, Pelmen, turned to Xuven.

Yes, confirmed his uncle, there was a distant howl. We heard it.

It was Mital, said Lominan between sniffles. One of the others with me in the carriage.

"One of the mil’ser?" asked Pelmen.

This fire being that you saw, broke in Elisan. Was it a nylev?

This is... this is what it... what Sinistan called him, yes.

Xuven and Elisan stared at each other, in dismay.

What does it mean? asked Pelmen.

Nothing good, my lad. Nothing good.

The Immolated regenerated part of his power, stated Elisan. She was standing near Lominan and placed her right hand’s palm on the forehead of her apprentice, who finally agreed to sit in the bowl—or rather, dropped herself into it shuddering.

It’s obvious, said Pelmen. He’s able to get into our dreams. To influence us. He swallowed. To convert a friend into... something else.

What happened in the city? asked Xuven. You gave it the name Sinista, I think?

Not just yet, replied Pelmen. First of all, let us eat.

Dragging his feet, he walked to his saddlebag, pulled out remnants of dried meat and tried to present them to Elisan. Who made a gesture of denial.

Food is too deeply corrupted, attempting to purify it would be a waste of time. We must get rid of that.

Pelmen felt a stabbing sensation tear through his heart as he forced himself to obey her. A feverish search in the rain followed. They eventually found enough berries and mushrooms to make the most frugal of meals. Pelmen enjoyed every bite, until the sour taste of red berries, whose juice seemed the best of liquors. His hunger partly alleviated, he told in a flat voice the story of his journey into Sinista. Elisan turned her face at the reference to malians being immersed in mud while Lominan, having regained some liveliness from her bath in the belenite bowl, looked at him without hiding her disgust. She did not seem overly surprised.

Pelmen told of how he watched hevelen and malanite soldiers of Sinistan training, his fear that he had been spotted by a crimson shaman and his subsequent flight, and how he burst into Teleg’s house uninvited. He almost pierced me with his spear when I woke him up, he said in an even tone. To convince him to go with me, I had to make him think his sister Alicene was among us. That’s not something I’m proud of. He continued with the story of how he and Teleg withdrew into the depths of the amberrock mine, describing with a shudder the burned hevelens and malians and their stiff gait. While talking about Teleg’s delusions, he realized how the visions of power and glory of the hevelen who became Sinistan’s carpenter were close to his own dreams—or at least those that had haunted him in recent nights.

His companions were watching him with dismay. Xuven, who had been silent up until this point, nodded.

This is very good work. Now we know where our enemies’ vast resources come from.

It’s not surprising that they have managed to trigger an exodus, agreed Elisan. The only other known deposit is that of the amberrock Caverns, to the east of Lake Iogar.

Xuven’s gaze became absent, lost in the distance.

What do you think? asked Pelmen.

Xuven turned to him. The closeness of this new amberrock mine and the Rift is unsettling. It’s as if the God of Destruction is using enticement as a weapon.

So what?

According to all the records I’ve read and the stories told by the elders, he has never used that—only force mattered to him. All this is very unusual.

This change makes him all the more dangerous, Elisan stated, to which Xuven nodded.

Pelmen once again saw the flames dancing before his eyes, spreading aside to clear a path to Sinista. He blinked and pushed back the memory with a shudder.

What was that? asked Xuven.

Nothing, said Pelmen. I wish Valshhyk wouldn’t exist.

The silence weighed heavily upon them. The rain had stopped, replaced by the cool night air. Pelmen rubbed his wet arms and moved. Lominan was studying her fragment of amberrock thoughtfully. Eventually, she stuffed it into her pants, a disillusioned fold marring the corners of the lips. The decision was quickly made to camp for the night. Everybody was exhausted, and the beasts were moved in order to provide a protective circle so that there was a chance that everyone would wake up in time, in the event of an invasion. Pelmen didn’t approve of putting the mounts at risk, however his eyelids were so heavy that he didn’t have the strength to argue. As soon as he lay down, he fell asleep. Astar was at his zenith when he woke from his slumber the following morning. Xuven and Elisan-Finella were busy preparing the nidepoux and the melepek. Lominan was for her part sitting quietly cross-legged in the belenite bowl. The sky was bright yellow, washed clean from the previous day’s clouds. The Uncrossable Mountains’ first foothills loomed much more significantly. Behind the steep peaks, in the heart of the Canyons in the city of Alveg, Alicene was waiting for news of her brother. Pelmen bit his lower lip.

Where are we going? he asked, grasping a handful of mushrooms handed to him by his uncle.

The Three Rocks encampment, Xuven replied. The Cilamenites should be the first to be warned. They are the ones on the frontline.

If only there were a way to find Teleg and make him see sense... Pelmen broke off mid-sentence upon seeing Elisan’s disapproving gaze. I know, I know, he should want to free himself of Valshhyk, he sighed.

They walked at a slow pace the rest of the day. The nidepoux frequently stopped to dig the soil and feed on sprouts and roots. Xuven and Elisan-Finella would have liked to go faster, but their mounts were still recovering, and Pelmen urged the others to show mercy upon them. He could sense their weariness nearly as well as his own, guessing their mood at an inclination of snout or at a sniff.

In the early evening, they paused for the night. Pelmen tied his nidepoux to a cactus and went hunting. When Lominan rejoined him striding, he barely even glanced in her direction. A concerned fold crossing out his forehead, his lips closed, he was trying in vain to smell the air—the necklace of Cilamon prevented him from opening up to odors. After a while, Lominan’s clear voice rose.

You have shown great courage in going for your friend in this... this place.

Pelmen replied with an indefinite growl.

I could not have. I wonder how you did that.

He shot her a warning look, and they both walked on in silence. Astar was now half immersed under the skyline—Pelmen was sheltering his eyes to enhance his visibility. Although the Halenor had taught him to use all his senses under such circumstances, he was missing the sense of smell.

He shook his head. Turning toward Lominan, who at her full height, towered over him, Pelmen looked up. The snub nose, as strange it was along with her two lone nostrils, combined with her glittering emerald irises and the dimple on her chin would probably have made her pretty—for a malian, at least—had not the right corner of her mouth been most often marred by a bitter fold. I didn’t need courage. I had no other choice.

But you were the one to get it right. By refusing the amberrock.

Pelmen smile reflected his bitterness. I know what you’re trying to do.

Oh yeah? said Lominan whose complexion turned dark blue.

What use is that, when it’s going to be me that tells Teleg’s sister what happened.

"And what exactly did happen? Lominan retorted without giving him a chance to answer. Your friend ran away, so what? You are not accountable for his decisions."

DON’T YOU SEE THAT TELEG IS RUNNING TOWARD HIS DOOM?

Lominan recoiled. For his part, Pelmen clenched his fists until the joints whitened, a fire burning in his eyes as he struggled to control his raging emotions.

I am fully aware of what is going on there, she said in a trembling voice.

Excuse me, he said. If only I had not played this like... like a hungry nidepoux in a stainflowers’ garden. I should have tried to convince him rather than forcing the matter.

Lominan’s facial expression reflected her disapproval. You acted in an emergency. Why blame yourself?

I ... I had given my word to his sister.

Big deal! But you’re not the only one involved. We all played a part in what happened. Let me remind you that neither I nor your uncle or Elisan-Finella was able to prevent your friend from escaping.

Pelmen didn’t reply and motioned to continue. Twilight was waning when he turned again toward the malian. Thank you, he whispered.

You know, I think that if...

A sudden trampling interrupted her. She turned her head, and her eyes widened.

Pelmen reacted in a flash. Grabbing her by the waist, he drew her so hard that she lost her balance and collapsed.

At the very spot where they had stood less than a second before, horns of ivory met the vacuum they had left behind. Unable to stop, the monster sped past.

Pelmen leaned bluntly on the mil’ser to pull himself to his feet. The growl of disappointment close by ruffled his feathers.

With a move repeated a thousand times during his exercises along with Symen Halenor, he seized his bow and notched.

Shoulders prominent, curved horns on the forehead and low black spotted coat to the back, what could only be a sanrkhas was huddled, the drool dripping from its bared teeth. He leaped when Pelmen released his thorn. Sinking into the half-open mouth, the arrow broke the momentum of the predator, which fell back on Lominan.

She screamed. Impervious to pain, the beast had just closed his teeth on the malian’s flank.

Incredulously, Pelmen dropped his bow. Cold anger seized him as he grasped the thin fragment of flint still usable in his belt—the stone would be forever linked to that memory of him knocking Teleg unconscious. He threw himself on the sanrkhas that had still not let go and, his left arm under his neck struck him with the right hand. The sticky blood splashed and spread over Lominan, but Pelmen refused to stop. His forehead drenched with sweat, he continued to punch the side of the beast, ever more deeply despite the pain in his shoulder, despite his flint cutting his fingers. Finally, he felt the carcass stiffen. Then, ignoring Lominan’s intensifying screams, he removed the wet jaws of the creature and threw it aside before slumping down, exhausted.

Lominan’s cries were now interspersed with sobs. Although the anatomy of malians was not familiar to him, Pelmen estimated after a quick review the wound, not to be a serious one. Fortunately, the thorn across his palate had hindered the sanrkhas, preventing him from doing more damage. Pelmen took Lominan’s cool hand and patted it. It’s okay, it’s okay.

That’s easy... for you to say she moaned, triggering a smile from Pelmen. Even in times of drama, the malian continued to contradict him.

It’s time to return to camp, he said.

Lominan did not react.

Rather than insisting, he bent over the remains illuminated by the day’s last reddening rays. The frenzied expression on the features of the sanrkhas wasn’t unknown to him, he had already noticed it in the animals affected by the reeks of the Great Rift. Those who yielded to the power of Valshhyk no longer considered their instinct, devoted body and soul to the urge to kill or to the fascination with the abyss. Such corrupted animals were acting on an individual basis, without any respect for their life. The flesh of this one, poisoned, was worthless. Pelmen tried to collect the precious horns by pulling them out with his piece of flint before facing the fact: he would lose too much time.

Come on! The smell of blood may attract other animals. We must get away.

Lominan groaned but rolled over and tried to get back on her feet. Pelmen helped her. Hobbling, they returned to the camp.

Chapter Two – SACRIFICES

In turn the two moons, Tinmal and Hamal, found themselves hidden by the cloud cover. The swirling wind made Pelmen’s hair flutter—Lominan, like all malians didn’t have any hair.

Xuven and then Elisan-Finella rushed towards them. Pelmen greeted them with a grimacing smile. Lominan groaned again, and Pelmen helped the fused to support the injured malian for a few more steps.

Are you all right? Xuven asked his nephew.

The sanrkhas attacked Lominan. They dropped off the apprentice close to the melepek. Elisan, in deep concentration, joined her fingers in a circle and soon, the center of the circle started to show a bluish glow.

Pelmen recounted in a few words what had happened while a Bubble began to take shape. Stabilizing, it floated above Lominan’s closed hands on her injury. Pelmen quickly moved them apart. The Bubble made several two-way trips brushing past the wound, after which Xuven, who had gone to fetch a water-skin, cleaned Lominan’s mauve stained skin. Lominan’s moans had weakened.

Are you sure that the sanrkhas was corrupted? asked Xuven, righting himself.

An animal that were not possessed would have protected itself against that, said Pelmen, displaying the bloody fragment of flint. I hit him over and over again but nothing worked, it took its anger out on Lominan. Pelmen shook his head. That was its downfall. He tried to make out his uncle’s expression, but it was too dark.

Let us hope this was an isolated attack, commented Xuven.

Something in his tone troubled Pelmen, and it seemed to him that Elisan was also examining Xuven, perplexed.

What do you mean by that? he asked thoughtfully. You think... it could have been sent on our track?

I wonder. The smell of sulfur has never made the creatures of the steppe smart. Quite the contrary, in fact... But so many things are changing. We’ll have to protect ourselves and fast!

Grabbing his gnarled wand, Xuven carefully conjured up a cavity in the ground. Then, he gathered the earth around the base of the stick. On his instruction, the air currents of the steppe became focused like on an anchor before surrounding the companions and their animals, isolating the bodily smells that could have betrayed their presence.

Their stomachs barely soothed by a meager meal made of plants, they lay down for the night. Elisan-Finella used magic once again, and soon disappeared behind a curtain of humidity that also encompassed Lominan and the melepek. The next day, as soon as the spell of Camouflage was dispelled, Pelmen went to ask about Lominan’s health. The young apprentice gave him a reassuring gesture. All that remained was a series of dark blue dots where the sanrkhas’ fangs had dug into her flesh. Sitting cross-legged, and with eyes closed, Elisan-Finella held her hands apart.

The Bubble of Vision, Lominan said following Pelmen’s gaze. She is exploring the surroundings.

Pelmen lowered his chin. Elisan-Finella’s eyelids opened, and then the fused straightened. They are following us, she dropped icily. Fifty, at least. They have warriors and crimson shamans.

So soon? How can this be?