The next morning, two piteous boys entered the tent. Ghyll saw them coming, but he said nothing and went on dressing.
‘Ai, what’s that stink?’ Zino cried, with two fingers to his nose. ‘Oh, it’s you, Torril. You know, if I were you I wouldn’t report to Ghyll in that condition. As king, he has a reputation to uphold and a squire who smells like a drunken zibul is not helpful. You know how to find the river?’
Torril moaned and Anliin, his tanned skin gray, made small sounds in his throat.
‘Get out, you two!’ Zino said hastily. ‘Don’t you dare to be sick in here.’
Without a word, the boys turned around and staggered away, followed by the merciless laughter of their friends.
When they came back an hour later, they looked more or less presentable again. Anliin’s grayness had disappeared, probably with his stomach contents, but their eyes were bloodshot and their hands trembled.
Ghyll glanced at Torril. The boy flinched and began quietly to pack his luggage. Over his head, Ghyll saw how Zino grinned at him and he gave a silent wink.
Anliin was walking aimlessly back and forth, touching a bag here and there, as if he wanted to engrave it all in his memory. Suddenly he sank down on the floor and hid his face in his hands. The tears dripped through his fingers to the ground.
‘What’s wrong with him?’ Ghyll asked.
Torril went to his friend on the floor and put an arm around him. ‘He’s sad because I… because we’re leaving,’ he said. ‘Soon he will be alone again.’
‘But there are plenty of other boys here.’
Torril shrugged. ‘Yes, but nobody wants to hang out with him. Perhaps because his father is the chief? I never had real friends at home either.’
Silently Ghyll blessed Uncle Jadron for giving him Olle. Otherwise, he would’ve been alone as a child, too.
‘Finish your packing later,’ he said. ‘Come with me, both of you.’
They walked to the chief’s tent and ducked inside.
Zenyuun was sitting in his usual spot, with the priest beside him. Anliin bowed to his father. The chief looked at his son. ‘You were enjoying yourself last night?’
Anliin blushed and nodded.
‘My son, a tianthuu cannot afford that kind of debauchery,’ the chief said sternly.
‘But… everyone knows I never will be tianthuu,’ the boy said miserably.
‘That’s in the god’s hands, Anliin-an-Shi.’ The old priest plucked a bone from his hair and gave it to the boy. ‘Here, sew it somewhere on your robe. And your father has something to tell you.’
Speechlessly, the boy took the bone and turned to the chief.
Zenyuun sighed. ‘Son, we have decided that it is better for you to go elsewhere for a time. Maybe your magic needs more time, or maybe it needs room you don’t get here with everyone watching you. Ghyllander of Rhidauna is willing to take you with him. Maybe the… Owan Abai will loosen your powers.’
‘Oh,’ Anliin cried and grabbed Torril’s arm. ‘I’m to go with you!’ Then he fell on his knees before the chief. ‘Thank you, father. Oh, now everything is well again,’ he said, while the tears ran down his cheeks.
‘Is it so bad here?’ the astonished priest said.
Anliin took a deep breath. ‘I’m so very alone here,’ he said. ‘The other boys laugh at me because I can’t do anything. I can’t speak with the dead nor succeed my father, nothing.’
The tianthuu nodded. ‘Then your father’s decision was wise indeed, young Anliin. So much pressure is not good when you have a difficult talent to develop.’
Heavily, Zenyuun said, ‘Maybe you’re right. Nevertheless, it’s not easy. Go to your mother, boy, she’ll miss you. She has packed your luggage on your own horse. Tarry not; King Ghyllander wants to leave quickly.’
Quick as a steppe hare Anliin ran out of the tent.
As the companions traveled westward, Damion’s speck on the horizon grew to an impressive mountain massif that rose up from the flat grassland like a row of giant fingers. The snowy peaks stood out sharply against the blue of the sky and sparkled in the bright sunlight. It was the tenth day after they had left the Commandery and the twentieth in total, when they saw a solitary hill rising up from the flat steppes. Up close, the hill proved to be an overgrown step pyramid, with a weathered building on top.
‘It looks like a temple,’ Bo said. ‘I would like to look inside – any objections?’
‘Then we’ll all go,’ Ghyll said. ‘You never know if there are scorpions.’
Quickly they rode to the waiting temple.
‘No! Wait!’ Avelore cried suddenly. ‘Don’t go; it isn’t safe.’
‘Why?’ Bo laughed. ‘We’ve seen greater dangers, you know.’
He got off his horse and looked up at the temple. Under the grass, a staircase was visible. He started walking towards it. Avelore ran after him.
‘Come back! There’s… the Dar’khamorth, it’s a trap! It’s a prison! I…’ Then she screamed, high and hysterical, and slammed her kitten against the stones of the temple. In horror she stared at the quickly swelling scratches on her hand and forearm. Uwella rushed up with her aid kit, but the blonde girl shook her head. ‘Too late!’ she moaned. ‘Poison! His claw had a hollow nail. Listen… to me.’ Desperately she looked around. ‘Bo, it was all false. Everything…’ She gasped. ‘I’m not Avelore.’
‘What…?’ The firemage took her in his arms. ‘Who…?’
‘I’m… Ruchelle thu Failan… Priestess of the Dar’khamorth. Lay me down!’ she ordered. When Bo eased her to the ground, she said, ‘I’m not worth your tears, firemage. From the beginning, I have deceived and betrayed you. That kitten wasn’t real. It was a kind of… golem, steered from… this place, by my superior, Thadziwill. He saw and heard everything you did and discussed. Everything, you hear!’ She moaned. ‘Ah, the pain.’
‘Why were you in Rabogst?’ Ghyll asked softly.
‘To spy on your men. We were a team, Thadziwill, Kirogall and me. I was a spy in the Red Temple.’
‘Why?’ Bo asked desperately. ‘You’re so young, why the Dar’khamorth?’
‘I’m not young, Bo, I’m old enough to be your mother. The Dar’khamorth made me young. I did not want to be old and ugly. I…. Oh gods, I’m burning, I’m burning!’
Her eyes were glassy and a trace of spittle leaked out of her mouth.
‘Why did you warn us now? You wanted to lead us right into a trap, didn’t you?’ Ghyll frowned down at the trembling girl.
‘I… could not. Bo… I could not let them murder you. The temple. The Exhumyst… he… Oh, Bo! ‘
Then her head with its blonde locks turned aside and she was dead.
Bo screamed. His face contorted as he raised his staff over his head, and a fiery aura appeared, changing his whole body in a conduit for power. A terrible cry echoed against the temple walls and then he swung his staff toward the building at the top of the temple. A huge lightning bolt shot from the bone dragon head and the ancient temple exploded in a fountain of debris.
‘Bo! Stop!’ Ghyll cried.
The firemage was mad with anger and began to build a second massive flash.
‘I’m sorry, Bo,’ Ghyll muttered, and with the hilt of his sword he knocked his friend unconscious. The magic light around Bo, now unguided, poured into Childegard, and for a moment, Ghyll was at the center of an energetic storm. Then the lightning died and with it, the sword turned dead. Ghyll stared aghast at the lifeless weapon in his hands. ‘Childegard?’ he thought frantically. ‘Answer me!’ The sword remained coldly silent.
Olle ran to the top of the temple, with Torril, Anliin and the beastmasters on his heels. They disappeared into the temple.
Ghyll knelt down at Bo’s side and felt the spot where he had hit him. His fingers found a bump, but nothing seemed broken. Bo groaned, but before Ghyll could do anything, Uwella pushed him away.
‘Go with the others,’ the wikke said calmly. ‘They need you more than Bo.’
Ghyll nodded and ran up the temple steps. The top was a large, flat area now covered with rubble. As he peered into the stairwell leading inside the pyramid, he heard fighting. Without thinking, he jumped down and landed on a stone floor. To the left was an open space, where some golems were fighting Olle and the others. In a small room to his right he saw a man in a black robe, intensely following the fight.
‘Kirogall?’ Ghyll thought. No, it was someone else. Suddenly he felt his sword vibrate. ‘Childegard! ‘
‘Gods, Sire, never do that again.’
‘Overload. When you knocked the firemage down, all the energy of his spell poured into me. I went out like a candle, but you must have noticed that.’
‘Man, you frightened me, I thought you were dead.’
‘If it were that easy, Sire, I would have done it centuries ago. Now, what do you think? Were we going to do something?’
Ghyll smiled grimly and went for the sorcerer.
The man was concentrating on his golems and hadn’t seen him coming. ‘No,’ he shouted. ‘Go away! I…’ Then he died and slipped from Ghyll’s sword to the ground. At the same time, all the golems dropped as so many bags of sand.
Olle and Torril looked blankly at Ghyll while.
‘Cursed,’ the squire said. ‘What a sneaky trick.’ Then he looked at Anliin and smiled broadly.
‘What kept you?’ Olle said.
‘Excuse me.’ Ghyll grinned wryly. ‘Things didn’t go as planned.’
‘Thought so.’ His foster brother put his sword away and straightened his back.
The young king looked around in the dimly lit room. ‘Not really cozy,’ he remarked. He inspected the tables covered with unknown devices and instruments. Then his eye fell on a brass ring in the floor. ‘What is that?’
Torril shot forward and pulled on the ring. Something grated, but that was all. Then the boy spat in his hands. He planted his feet firmly on the ground and began to pull in earnest. Suddenly, with a sound of stone on stone, a part of the floor slid aside and the boy tumbled backward to the ground.
‘Thank you, Torril,’ Ghyll said politely, while the boy sat rubbing his head.
A ladder led down to a cold room lined with iron cages, mostly empty. The nearest held a decaying body, and in the last, like a carelessly discarded pile of rags, lay a girl. Ghyll saw she still breathed. He rattled the cage door, but it was locked. Quickly he looked around, but there were no keys in sight. He ran up the ladder and almost bumped into Olle. ‘Get Uwella!’ he shouted.
His foster brother was gone before he had finished speaking. Ghyll searched the pockets of the dead sorcerer and let out a triumphant cry when he got hold of a bunch of keys. Hastily he jumped into the stairwell and limped to the cage. The third key fit and the cell door swung silently open. Ghyll fell on his knees beside the girl.
‘Where is Uwella?’
‘Busy with Bo.’ Kerianna pushed him with her knee. ‘Move aside.’ She crouched down and turned the girl on her back. A long, blond strand of hair fell over her hand and Ghyll suddenly thought of that other girl lying dead outside. Same build, same hair. Even the faces resembled each other. ‘The real Avelore?’
Kerianna nodded. ‘That’s what I thought. The resemblance is uncanny.’
‘Good gods, Bo…’
‘He’s unconscious. Uwella is with him. I asked the others to set up the tents; we’re going nowhere today.’
‘No, no, of course not. Good for you. I don’t really get it all. First Avelore or whatever her real name was. Then Bo… I hope I didn’t hit him too hard. I had to stop him and I knew no other way.’
‘There was no other way.’ Keri looked at him. ‘Uwella said you should’ve been dead yourself, you idiot. Bo had gathered so much energy; it had to go somewhere.’
‘Childegard,’ Ghyll said shortly. ‘He absorbed all the energy and went dark. I thought I had killed them both.’
‘Sire?’ The girl’s voice was a flutter in the silence. ‘Is it really you?’
‘As real as anything. And who are you?’
‘Avelore anThelander,’ she said faintly. ‘I saw you in the temple of Fantus in Leudra.’
‘Where you let that branneman escape,’ Ghyll said, without even thinking.
‘No, that was another girl. Ruchelle, with that weird kitten.’
‘What do you mean, weird kitten?’
‘It didn’t grow,’ Avelore whispered. ‘It stayed small for months.’
‘How long have you been here?’
‘I don’t know. What day is it today?’
‘The 8th of Ogstall,’ Kerianna said, with her hands on Avelore’s shoulder blade. ‘Does this hurt?’
‘No,’ the girl said and paused. ‘That long? Five weeks ago, I went to Rabogst. The temple had appointed me portal mistress. As I arrived, I found her waiting for me.’
‘Who?’ Ghyll asked.
‘That other girl; Ruchelle. She said hello and gave me a hand, and that’s the last thing I knew. When I woke up, I was here… with him. Where is he?’
‘Who do you mean?’
‘That monster, Theorg Thadziwill. The… the…’
‘A little man with a big nose?’
‘Yes! Is he dead?’
‘Absolutely,’ Ghyll said cheerfully. ‘Deader than he is hardly possible.’
‘Beautiful.’ She began to cry softly. ‘I want out of here. Do you think you can take me outside, Sire? I don’t think I can walk.’
Kerianna nodded. ‘Go ahead and carry her. Fresh air and sunlight do wonders.’
Ghyll lifted the girl gently. She weighed almost nothing. On the way out he said, ‘Don’t be alarmed, but Ruchelle is here. She’s… dead too.’
The real Avelore moved in his arms. ‘I don’t understand. What was Ruchelle doing here?’
‘She joined us using your name.’
‘Mainal help me,’ the girl said weakly. ‘I don’t know what’s happening.’
‘We will explain it all later.’
‘Please. This is so confusing.’ She raised her head to the sun. ‘Am I free now? Is this really true?’
‘Do I feel so little solid?’ Ghyll said, smiling. ‘You’re free.’
He carried the girl to the tents and put her down in the grass.
‘There you are,’ he said. ‘Hungry?’
‘Food?’ The girl stared at her hands. ‘I dreamed of eating. My mother’s soup, the smell of roasting meat when there was money, of freshly baked bread. Then he came with a big plateful, eating it all while I watched. I caught the lizards and beetles scurrying through the cells and ate them raw. There was a rat; I was watching him for days, until he came too close to the bars. Rat…’ Then she looked at Ghyll. ‘Yes, Sire. I’m hungry.’
‘Wait.’ Ghyll limped to his horse. When he came back, he gave Avelore two small buns. ‘They’re the last two our Yinno friends baked; with sun seed. Chew slowly, please. The next course is underway, but the water isn’t boiling yet.’ He looked a little crestfallen. ‘Bo always did the fire and now we have to try the old fashioned way, with a tinder box. None of us is very handy with it.’
The girl closed her eyes, and a moment later, the tears rolled down her cheeks. ‘I can’t,’ she whispered. ‘All my mana is gone. I’m no longer an adepta.’
‘It will pass,’ Ghyll said reassuringly. ‘The mana will come back, but first you need sleep and food.’