With the blessings of midsummer upon the land, I will make an expedition into the Wilderness. I have no information regarding any sort of population in the far west of Ektren, but the local people speak of the place with superstition. I attribute their fear to their ignorance and lack of initiative. By all appearances the Wilderness should offer many resources to the Empire and fertile land for expansion—Lord General Kwan Chenomet, Hordemaster, excerpt from dispatch to Darmar Zemthute II, year 779 Atrophane calendar.

“Must you go?” Elendra asked.

Queen Onja set the girl down on a couch and explained, “A Queen has many responsibilities, and I cannot give you all of my time, my sweet little dear. Until I come back, you keep your little brother company and behave yourself with Zanah.”

Elendra obediently nodded as her rys nanny approached.

Onja donned a floor length cloak that swished faintly when she turned away. On her way to the door, the Queen paused by Esseldan who played on the thick carpet. She squatted and put a hand on his plump cheek. The boy stopped rolling around when she touched him and stared at the Queen with wide eyes. He had come to accept the strange blue faces that had abruptly replaced his mother’s face, but he had spent many days wailing his disapproval.

“It is good to be friends now, Esseldan,” Onja said.

The boy’s expression remained neutral, but he intrigued Onja for a moment before she hurried out the door. The Queen went to her dock on Lake Nin, where Hefshul, mute as ever, waited patiently in a skiff.

Onja boarded the skiff and Hefshul pushed off. Oars dipping into tranquil waters sent ripples across the surface. Onja watched the tower slowly get closer. The Tomb of Dacian was the only structure in Jingten older than herself and equally resistant to ruin.

With his usual efficiency, Hefshul grounded the boat in front of the tower. He would wait for Queen Onja in the boat no matter how long she spent in the tower. Sometimes she would stay day and night.

Onja levitated out of the skiff and her skirts hung just over the cold water. She walked up the smooth cobbled path to the great doors of the tower.

Once known as the Jingten Tower, the Tomb of Dacian was wholly mysterious to all inhabitants of Jingten. Onja wrapped the tower in powerful and confusing wardings that she knew had never been properly penetrated by even the most determined rys minds. The tower housed all of Onja’s secrets in its safe chambers oblivious to time.

Onja entered the Tomb of Dacian. The glowing crystals in the walls cast her shadow along both sides of the hallway. Flanked by her dark silent attendants, she walked into the throne room. Opposite the entrance rose the dusty bulks of two thrones, where Jingten’s King had sat by his Queen in the last age. Onja passed between the golden chairs and entered a dark alcove in the stone wall. Marvelous tapestries had once covered this special spot, but Onja had transported the tapestries to the new Keep, where they had long since disintegrated.

Energy flowed along the spine of the Rysamand, originating deep inside the world, where the incredible mountains had been conceived. This energy rose through the very fabric of the land toward the heavens, and the masters of antiquity had designed the entire tower to focus a line of the potent force. The alcove Onja entered connected with a shaft that rose through every level, and it was here that the energy had been focused. Almost any rys could link with the harnessed energy and levitate quickly to upper levels, but the privilege had been reserved for royalty and ranking guests. Any others could use the many many stairs.

Grasping the line of energy was a trivial skill to Onja, but she loved the sensation of flying upward. She passed the lower levels that had once housed guests and bureaucrats and servants. Above these levels were the chambers where Onja and Dacian had once lived. Gliding to a soft stop, Onja hovered over the shaft briefly than stepped onto the top level, known as the observatory. Daylight poured through many skylights, and the bright observatory contrasted with the many dark levels below.

The center of the observatory opened to the throne room below, and a beautifully carved stone wall guarded the precipice. The relief carvings on the stone depicted rys among their beloved mountains and forests. Near the levitation portal sat a crystal sarcophagus where Dacian had been interred for twenty-two centuries. 

Onja approached his resting place and put her slender hands on the edge of the sarcophagus. Inside the crystal, Dacian’s eyes were open as if forever contemplating his cruel destruction of his cousins in Nufal.

Onja had come to this refuge to meditate. Initially in her pride she had disregarded Shan’s recent threat to overthrow her, but his words had lingered stubbornly in her mind. And his conduct with the Rysmavda Nebeck in Fata Nor four days ago had not escaped her attention. Shan had publicly dared her to strike him with her magic and she had to respond. Onja knew her killing magic could not reach him in the foothills, but she could still watch him. She had not expected him to reveal her waning power to the humans, and she regretted not attacking him while he was still in the Rysamand. His protests had to be stopped before the rysmavda could no longer enforce the faith.

Looking now upon Jingten’s fallen King, Onja admitted that Shan was perhaps the equal of Dacian. She had always known Shan was powerful. When she had held Shan as a tiny rysling, new to the world, she had known he was extraordinary, a rys of rare quality that only came along once in an age. And Onja had known that he would have to be controlled.

Onja had tried ensnaring Shan to her will as she had Dacian, but even in his youth Shan had been difficult to dominate. He was not her contemporary as Dacian had been, and the gulf of time that separated her from Shan had made it difficult to cultivate his trust.  Since winning their battle when Shan had turned one hundred, Onja had been able to intimidate him at least, but now Shan had matured and his strength made him more dangerous to her than ever.

I should have killed him, and damn your law, Onja thought.

Aloud she said, “Dacian, let us survey our realm and find the pretentious Shan.”

Swiftly Onja’s awareness radiated westward through the mountain pass, flying down the slopes to the lowlands where the human tribes dwelled. Her mind easily spotted Shan. The rys rode at the front of a column of warriors, and Onja recognized King Taischek by Shan’s side. Briefly she wondered why Shan valued human friendship so much. To Onja, humans were useful resources, but little else.

That skinflint Taischek will regret the company he keeps, Onja thought.

The Temu force moved in the opposite direction from Jingten, making Onja surmise that Taischek currently pursued one of his petty rivalries. This created no concern for the Queen, but she longed to pick Taischek’s mind and know what Shan had been saying to him. However, the proximity of Shan and his warding crystals blocked Onja’s probing awareness. Mindreading through a warding at this distance would take considerably more effort.

She saw Shan look upward with a suspicious expression on his blue face, and Onja withdrew her mind, trying to elude his alerted perception. While retreating she noticed the light haired easterner among the warriors and quickly tried to probe his mind. But a warding crystal protected him as well, which displeased her. It would require much patience on her part to catch Shan conversing with his friends about his intentions, so she could listen. She preferred reading the minds of her enemies at her convenience.

Thwarted from gaining any useful knowledge, Onja ended her observations with disgust. Blue light faded from her eyes and her awareness returned to her body, which was now leaning on Dacian’s sarcophagus. Even without reading any minds, she had learned enough from Rysmavda Nebeck to know Shan meant war. Although it stung her pride, Onja decided to strike first. She had supreme confidence in her powers, of course, but avoiding a dangerous confrontation with Shan would be the prudent alternative.

Even if Shan survives to reach Jingten, being hunted will wear on his mind, she thought. She would send instructions to her human servants to begin dealing with him.

“Nufal.” The thin thought of Dacian’s voice surfaced in Onja’s mind.

Blue light pulsed through the crystal sarcophagus and startled her. It had been a long time since he had tried to communicate.

With disinterest she started to disconnect her mind. She did not want to hear his regret about destroying Nufal again.

“Look!” His plea had a surprising note of command in it that convinced her to pay attention.

Onja settled into another meditation and followed Dacian’s mind into the Wilderness. She passed over the desolate Quinsanomar where thousands of imprisoned spirits stirred beneath the mind of their heartless mistress, expecting to be released on some vicious errand. But Onja ignored them and continued east. The prairie rolled onward toward the Tabren Mountains, where the chatter of a beautiful civilization had been replaced by the lonely moan of wind through crumbled buildings.

Arriving at a disintegrated Nufalese town upon the prairie, Onja understood Dacian’s insistence that she inspect her eastern domain. More humans had entered the Wilderness, and this time it was a large force of soldiers.

Onja inspected them freely without fear of detection. The eastern world was a wasteland of humanity that had no grasp of magic, and these soldiers clearly came from an eastern kingdom. She saw that they were richly accoutered with fine weapons and armor and good horses. Onja admired the military force and recognized that it was the product of an advanced and flourishing civilization.

The children of the east appear to be prospering. They have come far since I closed the Wilderness. Who would have guessed those enclaves of savages could make so much progress in two thousands years? Onja thought. Perhaps the time has come for the east to know their Goddess.

She watched the soldiers dismount and roam the ruins, puzzling at the city barely visible after centuries of decay. Onja quickly determined the leader among them by his splendid gear and the attention focused on him by the others. The leader’s white hair accentuated his tan and he stroked his goatee while pondering the surroundings. The winged creature holding two spears emblazoned upon his armor seized Onja’s attention.

How perfect, she thought pleasantly.

This time the Deamedron would not consume the intruders with mad slaughter. If she could dominate these well-armed men, it would begin her influence over the eastern peoples, whose servitude she had ignored too long.

Having seen enough, Onja returned her mind to Jingten. The long distances she had covered had made her weary, but she had plans to set in motion. She rubbed her temple while organizing her thoughts. Rebellion on the horizon and a small army of foreigners in the Wilderness shocked Onja after so many changeless years, but she was the Queen of Jingten and would adapt.

~

The brow and eye socket of a skull peeked out of the turf and Lord Kwan squatted to examine it. The ground had almost consumed the weathered bone, and Kwan wondered what thoughts had been in the ancient mind.

Next, Kwan walked through the arched doorway of a crumbled building. Most of the roofing had long since collapsed, and he picked his way through the overgrown rubble. In the central area of the ruin he saw steps leading to a lower level, and he descended into the gloom. A little daylight filtered down into the buried chamber and revealed a depressing scene. Skeletons littered the entire chamber and the bones, connected by cobwebs and a deep layer of dust, extended beyond the light.

Staying on the steps, Kwan bent and saw the sad sight of a child’s skeletal remains mixed with the bones of possibly a parent. He picked up the little skull, but it promptly disintegrated in his hand. Gingerly he examined a few more bones but he saw no conventional marks of violence.

He noticed the jewelry of the dead scattered beneath the blanket of dust. Within his reach, Kwan found a well cut diamond ring that sparkled gratefully once he wiped away the grime. He considered it very odd that the treasures had not been gleaned from the ruins. He pocketed the ring and brushed the morbid dust from his gloves before departing.

The sunny day greeted him, but it did not ease the troubles this ancient place of death brought him. Lieutenant Sandin approached and saluted the Lord General.

Sandin reported, “My Lord, there are skeletons among all of the ruins and scattered outside too. Most of the bones are crumbling and I would say this happened a very long time ago. Maybe even thousands of years. I suspect there are more remains that the soil has overgrown.”

Kwan nodded. “I am sure you are right, Lieutenant. And it seems these people died all at once.”

“What do you think happened, my Lord?” Sandin asked.

“I am thinking a plague…but I am not sure,” Kwan replied.

“Plague,” Sandin murmured with a shudder. Plague towns revolted him, even one from antiquity.

“We shall make camp outside the city,” Kwan decided.

“Excellent, my Lord,” Sandin acknowledged readily. “One more thing, the men are finding wonderful bits of treasure, but some are concerned that a curse protects this place. Why do you think the valuables have been left untouched?”

The Lord General swept his gaze over the empty land that looked peaceful and green except for the secretive ruins. Indeed the worries of his men had occurred to him, but, because he was a great conqueror, Kwan was an optimist and had faith in a simpler explanation.

“Perhaps no one else has ever been here,” he suggested.

The loneliness of the Wilderness had also impressed Sandin and he nodded. “Truly then we are the first, my Lord.”

“It would seem so,” Kwan said but he frowned at the snowy barrier of mountains to the west beyond the rolling prairie. “Yet I do not feel alone.”

Later that day, Kwan sat in front of his tent facing west. The expeditionary force of five hundred had camped a fair distance from the ruins near a small spring-fed lake. Kwan’s squire, Jesse, roasted a pheasant, and Kwan let his thoughts wander while waiting for his supper. So far the historic expedition had been entirely uneventful until reaching the ruins that day. They had traveled north from Droxy along the nearest chain of mountains. Kwan planned next to head west and reach the higher mountains. Regarding the western peaks, which were greater than any he had ever seen, Kwan doubted he would travel their slopes this year, but he would have enough summer to go and look at them. Then next year he could come back and try to breach the barrier to the other side of the world.

Although dreams of discovery thrilled him, Kwan also felt very far from Atrophane. The Horde road had always been his first love, and his times on his lovely estates were mere holidays between adventures, but suddenly his homeland tugged at his heart.

It is this desolate place. Nothing has prepared me for this emptiness, he thought. He admitted that the lack of human habitation made him uncomfortable. In all of his other travels, defending armies had come to face him, but the Wilderness confronted him with only countless empty elti and mysteries. His instincts warned him that danger lurked in the fragrant fertile land. The ancient holocaust within the ruins told him as much, and the more recent disappearances of Hydax and Gennor continued to bother him.

Now Kwan thought about Dreibrand. Privately he would consider that the young officer had deserted, but the notion sickened him. He knew many others thought Dreibrand had deserted, but he would not sanction that idea. To accept that truth created a rage Kwan did not want to feel. He missed Dreibrand and preferred to think that a Bosta had killed his errant lieutenant the night before the conquest of Droxy.

In retrospect, he wished he had chosen Dreibrand for the expedition if it would have meant that the intelligent young lieutenant would still be alive. Kwan had not expected Dreibrand to become so wildly upset about being left behind. Dreibrand should have considered the assignment to the chattel caravan a reward and a holiday after two years on the Horde road. But the ambitious son of the censured House had only wanted the Wilderness.

Kwan sighed and removed his thoughts from Dreibrand. The disappointment hurt too much.

You are getting old, Kwan, he thought.

The first chill of evening came across the land with a north breeze while Jesse served supper. Kwan savored the fresh pheasant and shared the bird with his good squire. Out in the Wilderness, Kwan had relaxed the formalities. There was no one to impress and everybody was completely loyal to him.

As he ate, Kwan watched the sun sink behind the mountains. Riding the last gleams of light from the west, Kwan saw a black speck in the sky. Surprised to see a bird at such a distance, he doubted his eyes.

“Young man, do you see that?” he asked.

Jesse squinted carefully, hoping that the dusk fooled his eyes as well. Reluctantly he replied, “Aye, Lord General.”

“It must be large,” Kwan speculated.

In silent agreement the squire nodded. He faced his lord, who he trusted completely, and Kwan noticed the fear on his squire’s face, which was no doubt aggravated by the dismal discovery of the ruins.

“Shall I get Lieutenant Sandin, Lord?” Jesse offered.

“No. I will do it myself,” Kwan said dismissively.

Before the sun completely left their half of the world, Kwan determined that the flying object seemed to be coming toward him. Resting his hand on the hilt of his sword, Kwan walked over to Sandin’s fire. The lieutenant lounged half asleep but he started awake when he noticed that the Lord General had come over to him.

Kwan told him what he had seen, expressing his concern that they would soon have a visitor.

“I will assemble the archers. It is probably a large predator and we should shoot it from the sky,” Sandin decided.

Approvingly Kwan nodded but added, “Only shoot if and when it attacks. I suspect that it is a great beast spawned by those great mountains, but we should not anger it needlessly, and I would like the chance to observe it.”

News of a large flying beast spread quickly because several men spotted it. The sentries around the horses were tripled in case it attacked the horses, and the remaining men gathered near the archers. After the beast disappeared in the deepening gloom, the soldiers watched the night sky expectantly. A full moon ascended the sky and provided some illumination.

The beast announced its arrival with the distinctive scream of the Tatatook. The predatory shriek rattled the nerves of the normally fearsome soldiers, and the archers drew their bows anxiously. Lord Kwan commanded them to stand steady and not shoot in panic.

The large wings flapped loudly as the intelligent beast controlled its landing in the midst of the soldiers. Men fell back cautiously to give it a wide berth. The taloned feet touched the ground, and it walked a little awkwardly like an eagle, but all who were near it clearly saw that it was much more than a colossal bird. The glistening black wings folded over a man-like torso and feathered arms ended in hands with talons.

The winged beast on Kwan’s armor glittered in the torchlight and many immediately contemplated the similarity. The incarnation of the symbol of the Chenomet Clan was a potent sign, and some wondered aloud if it could be a divine messenger to the Lord General.

The Tatatook boldly stalked toward Kwan, who accepted that if the beast struck him down, it would be his fate. Only Kwan’s orders restrained Sandin from commanding the archers to shoot. Bravely Kwan faced the beast. It turned its head after the fashion of birds and eyed him carefully. Queen Onja had been very specific about whom to deal with, and the Tatatook had no desire to make a mistake.

Satisfied that it had the right man, the Tatatook extended an arm. The talons opened to reveal a crystal orb glowing with blue light that twinkled on the sharp talons. The beast offered the orb and waited patiently for Kwan to realize that it was a gift. The Lord General experienced the unfamiliar sensation of fear, but he would never let his men see him hesitate. As he reached over the pointy talons, Kwan fully expected to feel them quickly slice into his wrist, but the beast did not move.

Grasping the orb, Kwan barely glanced at it because he would not take his eyes from the feathered intruder. With its assignment complete, the Tatatook abruptly unfolded its great wings. Soldiers scattered as it bounded for the open and leaped into the air. The Tatatook circled once overhead, and Kwan felt the wind created by the wings blast across his face. Then it flew higher, crossed the face of the moon, and disappeared into the night.

A hush remained over the Atrophane soldiers, and Sandin was the first to emerge from the shock. He ordered the archers to maintain a doubled watch in case it returned. Personally he doubted that the bird had been sent from some Atrophaney deity, as some had whispered, and he mistrusted the abomination.

Seeking instructions, Sandin returned his attention to Lord Kwan, but Kwan stared at the crystal orb in his hands and did not speak. The magical light intensified from the crystal, glowing upon Kwan’s face and transfixing his eyes.

“Lord General?” Sandin said twice without response.

Kwan gazed into the blue light, oblivious to his surroundings.

Unable to tolerate this, Sandin grabbed the orb from his commander’s hand and hissed, “What is this evil charm?”

When Sandin’s gloved fist closed around the orb, Kwan blinked hard and turned angry eyes upon his lieutenant.

“What kind of behavior is that, Sandin?” Kwan demanded harshly.

“It had you in a daze,” Sandin hastily explained. “Forgive me, my Lord.”

“Yes, yes,” Kwan agreed impatiently. “But I must have it. She is trying to communicate with me. I could hear her in my mind. I could almost see her.”

“My Lord, what are you talking about?” Sandin cried.

“Give it back,” Kwan ordered firmly, and Sandin reluctantly complied.

“My Lord…” Sandin tried to argue but the Lord General ignored him.

Kwan retreated to his tent with the crystal orb. Too overwhelmed by his commander’s bizarre behavior to react, Sandin watched him go.

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