Chapter 40: AftershockMarch 3, 2020
The dream began like it did every night. An unfamiliar sky consumed by crimson fire. The roar of the flames was all she could hear, and her cries were drowned out as the night itself screamed in pain.
Panicked, Tamarys tried to run, but each breath burned her lungs, and the rocky ground was slick with blood. She fell, tumbling down, down until she landed on the ash-coated floor of a massive crater.
By the light of the shadow-tinged inferno, she looked up—as she did every night—and beheld the Eternal Throne.
Tamarys woke with a start. Gasping, she held her hands out in front of her. They were trembling, but unmarred; no burns, no scars. “Good,” she panted, wiping sweat from her eyes and pushing herself up to a sitting position. As her heartbeat began to calm, she looked around. The travelling mage had spent the night in a small, secluded cave a day’s journey away from the Solist Citadel of Light. She had been trying to confirm the dire warnings of an ancient umbren that she had encountered high on a ruined mountaintop. The radiant’s words, along with a fragmented inscription from deep below the Amaran Desert, spoke of the Eternal Throne as an ancient power. One that should not… that must not be used.
Its power is that of pure potential. It can create, and it can destroy.
…when the Throne speaks, worlds quake, worlds die.
The descent into the Solist’s Archives had been a waste of time. She had spent five days there, sifting through decades of the Order’s records. The curators had been helpful enough, but Tamarys’ requests to speak directly with the Genetrix had fallen on deaf ears.
“The Genetrix is too busy to speak to an itinerant researcher. Once the Knights of the Order return, they may bring answers to your questions” was the only response they would give.
The dream had started on her third night there. Tamarys had awoke screaming, her hands coating with ice as she tried to quell the nightmare’s endless flame. She had fared no better on her fourth evening in the Citadel’s simple guest quarters, and had left the following evening, after a day of fruitless searching.
The fiery dream had come for her again that night. And again tonight.
Something has happened, she thought, gazing out from the mouth of the cave to the starry spring sky above. Whether something had happened to the Throne, or had been caused by it, she did not know. But in either case…
Argenport, she resolved. It was time to return to Argenport.
Tamarys began to hear rumors as she made her way back towards the city.
“A strange land, out past the Shadow,” a travelling merchant mentioned, shaking his head, “can you believe it? Y’could walk there yourself if you have the supplies, just stick close to the Waystones’ light.”
“Land of Dawn, they call it,” a smith in a small mountain village said, “or something like that. Friend of mine hopped a caravan, and said that the Xultans have hard, shining skin, like some kind of stone.”
A new world through the Shadows… Tamarys wondered. The Citadel had been abuzz with stories of a place called Xulta, but she had assumed that it was a distant kingdom like Kosul, not another world…
When the Throne speaks, worlds quake, worlds die.
The next rumor she heard—from a weathered old explorer who passed her on a wide dirt road that wound through windswept plains—was even more worrisome.
“Purple crescent scar, saw it for myself. Helped us fight off a beast that had stalked our group through the jungle. Hood slipped during the fight, that’s when I saw the mark. He didn’t say much, just that he had to ‘free his brothers’ and left.”
The crusty old man had frowned, and looked at Tamarys with a wary expression. “Whole flock of dragons flew overhead just after he vanished. The dark Xulta kind. Mark my words, there are strange things afoot out there…”
Tamarys had heard the stories of the scarred, nearly identical army that had assaulted the Spire. The realization that they had survived a confrontation with the old king, Caiphus, and spread to Xulta only increased Tamarys’ growing dread. After her conversation with the caravan leader, she began to journey by night as well, avoiding sleep until her too-heavy limbs forced her to rest for a few, fitful hours. She told herself that it was to reach Argenport quicker, to warn Kaleb of the Throne and its past, but she knew it was more than that. Whenever she closed her eyes, she saw the rim of the ash-choked crater, and heard the roaring flames.
Worried and exhausted, Tamarys made her way towards Argenport.
If the stories and rumors of Xulta had been a trickle out on the roads and trails, they were a raging torrent by the time Tamarys entered the city. As she skirted a busy market square, she could hear merchants and traders shouting:
“Exotic fruit! Plucked from a mandrakes vine!”
“Xultan steel! Weapons from across the Shadowlands!”
The courtyard in front of the Spire’s heavy main doors was even more crowded. From the chatter, Tamarys learned that Kaleb and the other rulers would be hearing petitions in a few days, and everyone wanted to add their name to the overwhelmed chaplain's list.
“I want to know what they’re going to do about all those dragons over in Xulta,” A grey-haired tinker quavered. “If we can go through the Shadowlands, so can they!”
The roar of the crowd pressed against Tamarys’ ears, and her hands grew bloodless and cold. Stumbling through the press of bodies, she made her way towards the chaplain. “Questions and noise,” she muttered, trying to get her heart rate under control, “there are no answers, only questions and noise.”
“Are you alright, ma’am?” The chaplain asked cautiously as Tamarys approached.
Tamarys looked down at herself. Her robes were muddied from her travels, and she still wore the heavy traveler’s pack that had survived so much. She knew her eyes, sunken from lack of sleep, were flicking back and forth in an effort to survey the crowd. I look like a mess, she thought. No wonder she’s worried.
“I need to speak with Kaleb, please,” she said in a low voice.
The chaplain blinked, and looked at the mass of people behind Tamarys. “Then you’ll have to get in line—”
“No,” Tamarys hissed, slashing a hand through the air. “I am no city busybody. This is about the Throne itself. It may be dangerous.”
The chaplain blinked, her emerald armor creaking as she took a half-step back, and gave Tamarys a carefully neutral glance. “I see,” she said. Turning, she gestured to one of the soldiers behind her. “Please follow this guard. He will show you to someone who can help.”
They took the back stairs. Simple, ancient stone steps that wound up the Spire’s many floors. They passed barracks, where Tamarys saw women in furs and riding leathers bantering with men wearing full Crownwatch plate.
Finally, just as her legs were starting to burn, the guard stopped at a small, unadorned iron door and knocked twice.
“Enter,” a gruff voice that Tamarys did not recognize called. Tamarys frowned.
“This isn’t Kaleb’s office or quarters,” she said.
“No ma’am,” the guard replied as he opened the door. “Any request for an immediate audience is reviewed by the First Warden.”
The man rising from behind a simple wooden desk was older than Tamarys would have expected. He was of middling height, and wore armor that made him look even stockier. He was bald, with a greying, close-cut beard, and a collection of old scars that covered his face and forearms; long, gnarled cuts that must have come from heavy blows. The grip of a well-worn broadsword protruded over one shoulder, with another blade belted at his hip.
“Have a seat,” he said, gesturing to a chair in front of the desk. As Tamarys did so, she heard the door close quietly behind her.
“Apologies if I am not who you expected,” the soldier behind the desk said. “But it’s my job to ask why strange mages are muttering vague prophecies about our Throne.”
Tamarys took a long, slow breath. The man’s tone was reserved, and he wore Crownwatch colors, faded by years of sunlight and everyday use.
“Are you going to arrest me?” she asked.
The old soldier’s tone didn’t change, but Tamarys saw his eyes sparkle as he shook his head, “No, not unless you give me a reason. Vague warnings aren’t illegal, just damned odd.”
“You’re not normal Crownwatch, are you?” Tamarys asked, relaxing somewhat.
This time the man did smile. “Aye. I am a Warden of the Throne. The First Warden, in fact. But you can call me Gerrit.”
“A warden…” Tamarys repeated, looking down at her hands. Then her eyes snapped up to meet Gerrit’s gaze, “so you guard the Throne itself? Do you speak with Kaleb and the other rulers? Has anything happened to the Throne? Has anything changed? Ha—” Tamarys heard the panicked note in her voice and swallowed her next question. Slowly, she took a deep breath and exhaled, trying to ignore the roaring in her ears.
“I have been digging into the Throne and its past for a while now, and I am worried that it may be dangerous… or in danger itself.”
At this, Gerrit’s eyes hardened, and he sat up straight, one hand dropping down to the hilt of his sword. “In danger?”
Tamarys nodded. “Something to do with Xulta, or possibly its dragons.” She thought of the wall of flame again and shuddered. “I’ve been dreaming of fire, again and again. And men like those that were said to have attacked King Caiphus have been seen in Xulta.”
She heard Gerrit’s grip tighten on the leather-bound sword hilt as he responded. “I’ve heard the rumors too. And those that sit upon the Throne are aware as well. But if that lot stay far from Argenport, there is little we can do.”
Tamarys shook her head. This isn’t right. How can I explain it to him? “If you brought me to Kaleb, or one of his family, I could explain—”
“No.” Gerrit snapped, the word steely and absolute. He shook his head again. “The leaders are busy folk. I understand your concern, but for a general audience you will have to contest with everyone else who wants their attention.”
“But these dreams—”
“Sorry, but rules are rules.” The warden’s tone softened, and he said. “I stand by the Throne most every day, and trust me when I say that nothing has changed. Argenport and the Spire persevere.” His posture relaxed, and he added. “And I know a thing or two about bad dreams, ma’am.”
Tamarys frowned, but Gerrit continued. “I still remember the crack of thunder that leveled the city’s gates, and the call of the Clan horns that followed.” Gerrit looked up at her. “They fade with time, like all scars.”
With a nod, he touched a finger to his forehead. “The bad nights will lessen, I promise. And you have my word that the Throne is unharmed.” Gerrit glanced out a small, high window at the sun, and then back to Tamarys. “And unfortunately, that is all the time I have at the moment.”
Tamarys’ shoulders slumped. She was so tired. As she stood and turned to leave, Gerrit added, “If you decide to join the petitioners, I’ll put in a good word for you. Get some rest, if you can.”
“I will,” Tamarys lied.
Without another word, she was led back out of the Spire.
“You can dodge the crowd this way,” the guard murmured, and showed Tamarys to a small, nondescript gate that lead out to a wide alley.
Blinking, she stumbled out into harsh afternoon sunlight, and the gate was shut behind her; leaving Tamarys alone in the shadow of the Spire.
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