In chambers vaulted with graceful arches carved from the living rock, beneath a hill studded with broken towers and dead gardens, under a sky shot through with strands of black smoke from burning cities, they gathered. Tarkan, who loved life’s pleasures, brooded silently at the ruin that had come to their ancestral home. Kong, loyal retainer, waited patiently to for Captain Valharik to speak.
“Any word from our scout?”
“Here, Captain,” said Candonyl the outrider in clipped tones, sweeping into the room and bringing with her the cold of the autumn wind outside and the bitter scent of smoke. Moving to the table she laid hands on the map spread out before the Captain.
“Ulthuan’s advance continues. We have perhaps two days before the fighting is upon us.”
“Why do we wait for the battle to come to us?” protested Kraal, the soldier. “Why do we watch as our lands are invaded?”
His brother Melgin placed a calming hand on his shoulder, while Candonyl fixed him with a glare, “you would have us stand shoulder to shoulder with the cults? They’ve done more to wound our land than any invader!”
Valharik waved her into silence. “You are a patriot, Dyvim Kraal. This is a cruel time to be a patriot. Our nation is caught between invasion from without and decay from within. I fear the chaos wars dealt her a mortal blow, and the victory over chaos a false one,” he said, wearily.
Kraal looked down, glowering at the intricately patterned stone floor. The silence that followed was broken by the arrival of two archers, the twins Sharilla and Feneric. Between them they carried the slumping form of a brown-haired elven woman of unassuming beauty. Helped to a seat opposite the captain, with shaking hands and chattering teeth she reached into a pouch and drank from a phial of dark liquid, until the trembling began to subside.
“Are you alright, Alli?” asked the Captain.
“I am,” she said, her voice unsteady. “It was a long journey, and the effects come on faster when I grow tired.”
“You come alone.”
Alli looked away, “there were no allies for us among my former comrades. I found only animals. Drinking blood and slitting throats. Cannibals and slaves to the poisons they consume. I fear the same fate awaits me. Yishana-”
“Yishana always had a fierce temper,” said Valharik. “You will hold onto yourself. I command it, and you have never let me down.”
“But I could not find us reinforcements. All have either joined the cults or become their prey. Every town I passed through had succumbed.”
“Then our land is cursed. There is no salvation for us here.”
Feneric spoke up, “let us join with the forces of Ulthuan, and drive out the corruption.”
Valharik shook his head, “no, they only bring doom in another guise. Do you believe they would ever trust us, if we remain true to ourselves, our ways? They would demand proof that we were free of the corruption the plagues our kin – proof through abandoning our heritage and our traditions, and adopting theirs. To assimilate and forget who we are. We are not of Ulthuan, and never will be.”
He looked around at his band. “Though it pains me to say it, we must depart. Become exiles. The land cannot be saved but we carry the nation with us, in our hearts. Our ways will live on in us, if we can find a place to keep to them.”
“It will not be easy,” says Candonyl, “the elves of the sea have taken the side of Ulthuan; they will not permit any to depart from our shores.”
Sharilla spoke up, “my father’s apprentice, Theleb K’aarna, has studied the ways of the heavens. He knows paths we might walk between the stars.”
K’aarna’s tower still stood fast, alone on a hilltop against the stars. The staff had been ready for days now, ticking softly as the spheres turned in its crowning orrery, but it stood unused in its stand at the center of the observatory. For years had he worked on it, seeking escape among the stars long before escape became a necessity. But now, with the horizon in flames and the lands around falling into darkness, he felt loathe to depart. The solitary tower and the brooding ruins of the countryside echoed the loneliness of his heart, and in truth it was that from which he had sought to flee. There was a perverse comfort in seeing his inner desolation reflected in the land around, as though the country itself now empathised with his sorrow and isolation, as if it understood him at last.
He smoothed back his dark hair and walked out onto the balcony to brood over the desolate landscape, only to find the courtyard below occupied by a small band of elves, his former master’s daughter among them.
A gracious host, he fed their mounts with raw meat and conjured small refreshments for his guests as Sharilla explained the situation. Theleb sat back and looked from face to face, lingering with curiousity on the silver-haired woman who stood silently in chains toward the back of the group. Alli stayed close to her, and when they took their repast, helped her to eat.
They explained to him that he was needed – by his country, and by the small group of would-be exiles that might soon be all that remained of it. Here was somewhere he could belong, and perhaps, what he had been waiting for.
The following evening, two armies marched upon the tower, one with shining spears and white pennants raised to the smoke-streaked sky, the other with wickedly curved blades thirsting for blood. Before they could reach it a blazing pillar of light rent the clouds, and when the light faded, the entire edifice had vanished into thin air.
K’aarna had to rest for days afterwards. The tower leaned at an angle on its new foundation, an outcropping of rock overlooking a ramshackle city in a land of eternal, starless night. Valharik oversaw the shoring up of the tower’s base, while Alli and Candonyl explored the city below. They brought back word of a lawless place, made up of ruined buildings from different times and places, inhabited by creatures as mismatched and lost as the structures they called home. A city of exiles from different times and places.
A city called Amheer.