Year 542, The Ahfara Sea, Elame’s Prison
Ruenna gathered her heavily embroidered skirts and stepped up onto the bridge that connected the mainland to Elame’s island in the inland Ahfara Sea. Flakes of ash fell from the hem of the dress where the embroidered charms’ power had already been used and the charms had lost their integrity.
“Even if you tell me not to I must still follow,” she told her sister, Ruaha. “I cannot leave the other Ruon to fight alone. We have not come this far to back off now.”
“But you will leave me?” Ruaha asked. “The pillars around the island will close and you will be trapped.” She wiped at her eyes with fingers stained with ash. She grabbed her sister’s hand as if that would be enough to hold her back.
“I shall be back before you know it. We will slay Elame and this wretched war will be over forever. And the Airus will open the pillars once more. The Vidolf will be punished for all that they have brought about. This may be our only chance.” Ruenna touched her free hand to her heart. “You wove these charms for me and they will keep me safe,” she smiled.
“Promise me we will see each other again,” Ruaha said, her voice caught in her throat.
“Before the week is out. We will celebrate the coming of peace together in the Ruon House.” She leaned down and kissed her sister on the top of her head. “We will live to see peace and so will our children,” she whispered.
“Go with the blessings of Agrai,” Ruaha said softly and watched her sister run along the bridge, following some of the other Ruon who had already made it to the island. Her red dress, stained grey with ash here and there, contrasted with the blue of the water and the faded wood of the bridge. Ruenna looked back as she reached the island and then disappeared from sight. One by one the runes on the crystal pillars around the island lit up with an indigo light and locked those who were on the island inside. Yet the Airus were nowhere to be seen.
“Agrai protect you, Ruenna.” Ruaha said. “Agrai protect them.”
The blessing was taken up by the other Ruon who stood by her – all except one. The man, black knife in his hand, lunged forward and stabbed her in the chest, shouting: “Elame will live!”. When he withdrew the knife he only lived long enough to see that it was not stained with blood before Ruaha’s husband, Armas, bore him to the ground and ended his life by sending the power of some of the charms he wore on his clothes into him before another of the Ruon stabbed the man with his own knife.
Ruaha felt the pain from the knife, but the strong charms she wore was keeping her alive. She sent the power from the charms embroidered at the hem of her dress to the spot where she had been stabbed and the charms slowly turned to ash.
“Ruaha?” Armas asked, staring wide-eyed at her as he slowly rose to his feet. The other Ruon with them stepped back, scared at the power Ruaha obviously wielded and which none of them had imagined to be so great.
Ruaha touched the ripped fabric where the obsidian knife had stabbed her and looked at her fingers which came away without a single drop of blood on them. Yet she still felt the pain of the wound. “I need to get to Holt Haliern,” she said, trying to force her mind to focus on anything but the pain. “The book must be kept safe.”
“But that will take a week at least!” Armas said as he got out a charm cloth from the bag slung across his shoulder and pressed the numbing charm to her wound. The charm slowly faded and it, too, turned to ash. All colour leaked from the charm cloth.
“Then the charms must last a week!” Ruaha sobbed and looked back at the island. “Agrai keep her safe,” she prayed for her sister and tears of fear fell from her eyes.
It was nine long days’ travel before they reached the sanctuary of Holt Haliern and made their way through the tall guarding pillars to the large stone mound which had been carved into the library of Holt Haliern by the immortal Airus.
Ruaha lay resting on Armas’ lap on the back of a wagon as they reached the famed sanctuary library. Armas had placed a sleeping charm upon her brow and his own clothes were covered in fine grey ash where he had used his own charms to keep her from dying. Yet it was as if a funeral procession had reached the carven library when at last the wagon stopped. Almost no words had been spoken since they had left the Ahfara Sea.
“Ruaha, love, we have reached the library,” Armas said, removing the sleeping charm from her brow and kissing her softly to wake her.
Ruaha’s eyes fluttered open and a smile pulled at her lips before pain jolted through her body once more.
“I cannot believe that we made it,” she whispered.
“By the grace of Agrai alone,” Emlan, Ruaha’s cousin, said. “But come, let us help you. Fetch the Wislic!” she called to one of the librarians passing by. “Tell him that Lady Ruaha has returned from Ahfara!”
The Wislic Taharna rushed from the carven doors of the library just as Ruaha, Armas, and Emlan reached them. He quickly led them through the passages of the library, down into the lower chambers once Ruaha had explained to him in a low voice why they were there. Enormous tapestries made by the Ruon covered some of the walls and showed moving scenes from Airtha-Eyrassa’s history. An ingenious design of passages and windows ensured that lighting was unnecessary during daytime in most of the hallways and lit the Ruon’s work with brilliant colours.
Down staircases and more hallways the Wislic led them, his hands twisting in front of him while he glanced over his shoulder at the group of three Ruon ever so often to make sure that they were keeping up. He could see that Ruaha was getting paler by the minute as the charms she wore faded and broke.
Here, in the deepest rooms of the library of Holt Haliern, light was cast by torches lit by perpetually glowing dragon tear stones. On walls carved from the living white stone curled the text of Airtha-Eyrassa’s history; the lines growing and splitting like ivy and the letters themselves glowing with a dim green light. Even as she watched, Ruaha saw one of the lines branch off, the text created in front of her eyes as if an invisible hand was carving it into the stone. She caught a few words as they passed; prison, Elame, Ahfara Sea, pillars, Airus. She dared not read any more lest it was of her own story. But she already knew how it was going to end as she followed the Wislic of Holt Haliern down the corridors.
The colour of Ruaha’s dress, which had been the deep red colour of the dragon’s bane flower, had now started to fade wholly and had even faded to grey in some places. She clutched Armas’s hand tighter.
The inner room of the library’s doors were of the same white stone as the walls around it, but instead of the flowing text they were covered with an intricate pattern of shielding knots and warding circles, interspersed with other charms. Ruaha recognised some of the charms to be the same the Airus had carved into the crystal pillars that surrounded Elame’s island prison.
The Wislic placed his hands on the doors and murmured a few words in an old and almost forgotten language. The doors slowly swung inward, revealing a short corridor and beyond it a room lit by an enormous brilliant white dragon tear stone suspended from the ceiling. Two statues, carved from grey stone, stood at the end of the corridor with their arms outstretched above their heads and their faces turned towards the sky. The circular room Ruaha stepped into was some 70 feet in diameter. Shelves filled with books and scrolls hugged the walls and was arranged in a labyrinth of knowledge. A few scribe’s tables stood directly below the light. The smell of leather and parchment hung in the room.
“The volume will be safe here,” the Wislic said.
Ruaha stumbled and Armas caught her arm, but she pushed him away, trying to smile through the pain and reassure him. She could feel her energy leaking slowly from her. It would not be long now. Her dress had already faded to white in some places and the rest of the colour was fading fast. Hidden on her chemise, though, was the most important and secret charm, woven onto the fabric seven times seven to cover her heart. She pleaded silently for the Khalne and the Creator to only give her enough time to finish this one last act.
Her husband and cousin waited by the entrance as the Wislic and Ruaha entered the room. No one but her and the Wislic would know exactly where it was hidden. As it should be.
Ruaha followed the Wislic through the centre of the room and felt with every step how energy flowed from the charms to stem the blood from the wound and keep her alive a little longer. At the far end of the room the Wislic opened another door with words of unbinding to reveal a small room. It was lit by three small dragon tear stones hidden behind dark mesh. Ruaha could only make out a few volumes on the shelves here. From there they stepped into yet a smaller, hidden room with only one shelf lit by a single, small dragon tear stone. She stepped forward and reverentially placed her book among the others. Her fingers lingered on the blue spine for a moment.
“You know how important it is to keep this book a secret, Wislic Taharna,” she said. The Wislic nodded, his face grave.
“We are not allowed to bar any book from someone who wishes to read it, but the books in this room are not catalogued with the others. The number of persons who will ever know it is here could be counted on one hand and that includes the Ruon who came with you today. It will be safer here than anywhere else in all of Airtha-Eyrassa. I hope that brings you some comfort?”
Ruaha nodded, tears caught in her throat. She turned from the shelves and started the walk back to the room’s main doors. She could feel the stone from the great building pressing down upon her. Colour seeped from the dress with every step she took and she could feel the charms break one by one as the last of the energy locked within them was used and they turned to fine ash.
“I will take you to the healer,” the Wislic said, his face grave.
“It is too late,” Ruaha gasped. She felt the charms over her heart break and pressed her hand against the sudden warm spread of blood.
The Wislic stepped away as the other Ruon rushed to her. Armas caught Ruaha as her knees buckled and lowered her to the floor slowly.
“I am sorry, love” he said, cradling her and threading his fingers through her hair. “Do not leave me, please. Not now.”
“There was no other way.” Ruaha fought against the pain. “I love you, Armas. You will be -” she gasped as the last charm broke and could utter no more words, but knew he would be safe now. The light of the dragon tear reflected in his eyes and she stared at those pinpoints of light while the rest of the world seemed to darken around her.
The Wislic stepped closer, but Emlan pulled him away. “Close the doors and call a healer.” She took a deep, ragged breath. “Tell them to ready a shroud.” When he had left she could no longer contain her tears and sank down on the floor, leaning back against the wall and the tendrils of glowing letters. She laid her forehead on her knees, feeling tears fall from her eyes while Armas held Ruaha, rocking back and forth as if he was soothing a sleeping child.
“Do not leave me now,” he sobbed over and over again. “The war is over now, do not leave me.”
Year 934, Elame’s Prison
Inside the enormous circle of pillars which surrounded the halls of Elame and had became her prison, light flickered as time slowed down. Outside days flitted by, the nights casting mere shadows as if clouds were passing overhead.
Ruenna and the Ruon who had accompanied her walked to the great hall where Elame hid. Though most were unarmed except for the charms they carried, none were defenceless as their clothes bore the rich embroidered charms of the Ruon. Nilja, some twenty years older than Ruenna, carried over her shoulders a shawl of lace knitted from wool spun as fine as a spider’s web. When they reached the closed, wooden doors of the hall, the woman stretched out her hands and pushed all the energy from the shawl into the wood so that it burst asunder while the wool turned to ash which blew away in the breeze.
“Stand ready!” Ruenna shouted as the pieces of wood burst inward, injuring those inside the hall which had stood too close. Three of the Ruon loosed arrows before two of their own succumbed to the thick arrows the Vidolf fired from within.
An arrow struck Ruenna’s arm, but glanced away, the spot on the dress there turning white as the guarding charm lost its integrity. She stuck out one hand before her, striding into the hall and daring anyone to challenge her or the other Ruon.
“Where is Elame?” she shouted and her voice echoed between the dark stone pillars and vaulted roof. “Elame, show yourself!”
The Vidolf in the hall cowered in front of them, most slinking into the shadows of the pillars. Beyond the prone figures Ruenna saw Elame.
She was on a stone slab almost three quarters of the way into the hall, lying there as if in the deep sleep of death. Her hands were folded on her chest and Ruenna rushed closer, but could not tell whether Elame was breathing or not. Yet she still held the colour of one alive.
Charms turned to ash as the Ruon and the Vidolf fought around her. Cries of pain and death echoed in the chamber as Ruenna stood staring down at Elame. She reached out a hand to touch her, but the Ruon Nilja grabbed it.
“Sister Ruon, no!” the elderly Ruon said. “To touch her will surely mean death.”
“If that is my price -”
Nilja pushed her away.
“It is not,” she said and laid her hands on the sleeping form of Elame. Nilja cried out and shook as the charms on her fine clothes turned to ash. Ash, too, spread over Elame’s clothes as one by one the Vidolf charms she wore broke and the power faded. Elame’s eyes flew open and she gasped for air. Her eyes locked on Nilja’s, but the woman’s life was already failing and her eyes fading.
“You will be cursed!” Elame gasped. “You and anyone of your blood!” She grabbed at Nilja’s unmoving hands, trying to push the woman away. Nilja slowly sank to her knees.
“Finish it,” she mouthed at Ruenna.
Ruenna grabbed Elame’s arms to keep her still. It was easy to press her back onto the stone slab and Ruenna could see the life seeping from her features. The Vidolf’s clothes turned white as a death shroud.
“You will pay for what you have done, Elame,” Ruenna said. The charms on the hems of her sleeves started turning to ash. “Your power is broken.”
“I may die, but my master lives with my death. He, and all my kin.” A ragged cough wrecked her body, before she started chanting something Ruenna could not understand. Elame turned her face away from Ruenna towards a stone sarcophagus not far from where she lay.
Ruenna let go of Elame and stepped back when five of the Vidolf pushed away the stone slab that covered the sarcophagus. Then it is not an altar, she thought. Once it started to move the slick grey stone slipped away easily to reveal a corrupted body inside. As Elame let out her final breath, she breathed the name Harhas and the body inside the stone coffin inhaled deeply as if it stole her last breath. He opened his eyes, but the shrunken sockets were empty and as the body rose Ruenna could see that there were only shadows where the eyes had once been. The clothes which must once have been the most costly money could buy, was hanging from him frail and faded. Harhas started to breathe again with an awful grating of ribs and cartilage. He slowly turned his face away from the Vidolf surrounding him towards Ruenna.
The whole world seemed to fade from her sight as she stood transfixed by the living corpse. When he spoke to her it was not by moving his mouth, but by shouting within her thoughts so loud that her skull was pounding and it felt as if her brain was on fire.
“Who are you?” he screamed.
“Ruenna, daughter of Relajia,” Ruenna whispered in her mind, unable to stop herself.
Harhas’s voice and laughter beat upon her mind with the weight of tombstones.
“You are the Ruon that they sent to fight me? A mortal? Where are the precious Airus now? Where are the Khalne? Long I have slept and waited for this day.”
Ruenna wanted to turn and run, but could not even move her lips to answer him as fear rooted her to the spot.
He laughed again and then slowly lifted his arms.
“You have failed,” Harhas told Ruenna. “First your followers will die,” he said and then chanted a Lewjan spell. One by one the Ruon’s energy were consumed and their charms broke and clothes faded. One by one they sank to the floor where they stood. He grinned, showing black teeth. The robes he wore became whole again and the golden embroidery glimmered in the flickering light which streamed through the hall’s windows.
“Then the pillars will fall.”
From his hands rushed light of pure white that streamed out of the doors towards the pillars. Where the light struck the pillars the crystal shattered and Ruenna could hear the screams of the dying Ruon for the first time. Her stomach lurched, and she fought back the bile rushing to her throat. But anger got the best of her fear and she managed to take three steps towards Harhas. She lifted one hand before his voice screamed her to a stop once more. She grabbed the sides of her head and fell to her knees, but could not get away from the voice.
“Now my followers will walk free once more,” he shouted at Ruenna, burning her mind. The surviving Vidolf all rushed towards the door, and Ruenna was unable to stop them from where she crouched on the floor grabbing at her scalp, trying to lessen the pain that pulsed through her veins.
“And you will die last, looking upon all you and your kind has wrought while the Khalver rise from their tombs to take their revenge.”
Ruenna glanced at the retreating Vidolf and then back at Harhas. But the Khalver had already lain down once more and it was as if he had only been a spectre she saw but for the pain that had taken her breath away. The pain in her head faded and she stood, still reeling.
Ruenna realised what it was that she needed to do. Taking a deep breath, she gathered her skirts and started running after the escaping Vidolf. As she ran she could feel some of the energy already leaving some of the charms she had embroidered on her dress. But even the Vidolf did not know the strongest charms she and her sister had created and which she wore embroidered over her heart.
She rushed through the doors of the hall and stepped into the dawn light outside. She saw that the pillars were all cracked and broken and the Vidolf were able to just run through the barrier which had been designed to keep them locked inside until the final sundering would bring the whole prison tumbling down. Had the Airus known about the Khalver in the hall?
Some of the Vidolf had been strong enough to already reach the shore. But she did not follow them immediately. Rather she walked to one of the pillars which had not broken wholly, but only showed cracks on its surface.
The runes carved into the crystal was still glowing with a faint indigo light and Ruenna placed her hands on the warm surface. She closed her eyes and, in one moment, pushed all the energy of all the charms embroidered on her dress into the stone.
As the energy hit the stone it was turned into light which not only shone from the crystal, but also refracted from the cracks. Ruenna kept her eyes closed and even through her closed eyelids she could see the searing light.
Indigo light shot from the crystal pillar, hitting some of the other broken ones and refracting from them as well. Some of the light hit Vidolf and they fell where they were, some drowning in the waist deep water as they remained pressed down by the force of the light, some being burnt where they were running along the shore. But many escaped unharmed.
Ruenna let go of the stone and the light faded. She blinked her eyes a few times and tried to see clearly. She blanched when she saw what it is that the light had done. What she had done.
Retching, she made her way to the shore, wading through the water. Somehow the bridge had been broken during the time she had been inside the prison. She dragged herself along the shore, trying to get away from the bodies surrounding her.
“Ruaha!” she shouted, using the last of her strength. Her sister had to be here somewhere. Surely they could not have been inside the prison for more than a few days.
“Ruaha!” She bit back tears. “It’s me, Ruenna!” She lay down on the sand.
“Sister,” she moaned. Then the Vidolf has won, she thought. The Vidolf and the Khalver.
“No.” This voice, though in her head as well, was a soothing whisper.
“Ruaha?” she asked. But the face above her was not that of her sister.
“I am Valarja,”
“Khalne?” the word slipped through Ruenna’s lips.
The blue robed figure cradled Ruenna’s head on her lap.
“Be still,” the Khalne said. “It is all over now.”
Ruenna squirmed when she saw the glimmer of the Veil all around her. “It is not, I have to-”
“You have served Agrai well,” the Khalne said. “It is time for you to rest.”
An eagle’s mournful cry drifted towards them on the wind and Ruenna turned her head towards the shapeshifter soaring high above them.
“The Tellerassar,” she smiled. “Ruaha will be with the Tellerassar.” She closed her eyes.
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