Birds carrying dark messages had come from kingdoms far and wide in the preceding days. White rooks from Covenant and the Shadow Pass, fire crows from the Shattered Cites, ravens from the twin citadels of Freya and Asha. A dozen others were conspicuous only by their absence. Altair Oldblood - twenty-first king of Scarlat and Ironwood, first ruler of the Isles of Fay - supposed that the evils the messages related had gripped the cities with such ferocity that the keepers were not granted the chance to pen their warnings. He did not want to think of what might have happened in those places for the thought of it merely led him to what would come to pass in his own realm. Each shaking hand told the story of an unknown evil that had spawned into the world, turning man against man, brother against brother, bringing all to ruin.
Some said the sky to the north had filled with black, swirling masses that dripped from an uncanny hole in the heavens and swept southwards, slow and steady and ever-creeping. Altair could not believe it at first but now did not need those penned words to tell him. The horror was plain to see once the dark of the night had fled, a blooming cloud of awful aspect filling the sky above the great forests to the north, a sight too terrible to comprehend and growing ever more so the longer he looked upon it.
From kingdoms to the south and west more whispers had come, message birds and Runners bearing tales of the sky tearing open high above the walls of Old Theon, torrents of water falling from the heavens, the city and all her inhabitants lost. Altair had gathered his best men and sent out a scouting party, hoping to learn as much as he could whilst time was on his side.
At the end of the first day – sooner than he had anticipated – the party returned bearing dark news. They had verified the whispers, related to him that the uncanny waters which had drowned Old Theon were rising inch by inch. Altair had tried to keep the fear from his face when the rising of the waters had been confirmed but his men knew the truth already and there was a sense of hopelessness that hung about them all with the inevitability of what would come. They could not help but falter with the thought that they were being shut off, penned in like helpless animals by an enemy which could not be understood, could not be fought.
The whispers of the coming troubles had begun long years past, sprung out from the Giants of Potamia where they had spread across the known kingdoms, mixing with the legends of a hundred other tribes and cultures. There would be a great flood, they said. Night would come and drive out the light. Darkness would settle, night without morning. Fellow leaders in kingdoms across the land had prepared as he had for when the change finally came but none really knew what to prepare for. Some were firing the forges and readying their men-at-arms in case the danger was war from some unknown foe, others were stocking up on provisions as though expecting drought or famine. Some went further and said that everything would end. Others, lesser in number, spoke of a saviour. Altair knew this dream was hopeless; to wait for a saviour was a futile endeavour. No single man could hope to halt the cycle that had now begun. The world was changing and everyone was powerless to halt it.
In the days and weeks before, the soothsayers had come to him to pass on their learning. Altair had done all he could to search through the maddened words to find the few grains of truth. Yet still, for all he had heard and cast aside as fancy, when the Blood Moon rose two nights past and that black cloud of awful aspect burst into the sky there was little that could have prepared him for what was to ensue. All his hopes that the whispers were false faded.
He had been sitting in his chambers on the evening of the Blood Moon, writing a letter by the dying rays of the sun when the first screams had started up from the streets below, a chorus of hellish sounds that bade him drop his quill and smear ink across the page. The sound grew as he froze; an unholy dissonance. He left his desk and went quickly to the window, seeing his guards fanning out from their garrisons to attempt to restore order. The screams had continued for a long time after the guards had vanished into the shadowed sideways of the city and it seemed as though the tumult was happening everywhere. Altair had watched and waited, the words of the soothsayers ringing in his head.
Only three of his men had returned that night and the tales they brought with them had chilled his soul. It seemed the whole city had been gripped by a sudden madness and he believed then that this was the root of the terror the soothsayers had spoken of. There were no demons here, no angry gods swooping down, no enemy intent on their ruin, merely the dark side of men.
Already hundreds had met their deaths in the outbursts of violence that had gripped his people in the two days since. His parents had been slain in their beds by a faithful servant who had been with them since he was a boy. There was no doubt in Altair’s mind that the servant had acted as such until the very last when the evil had turned him. His mother’s handmaids – trusted every one – had carried out unspeakable acts on her broken body. There was nothing he could do to remove the taint that filled him when he had burst into the blood-spattered room and found them, the handmaids – thrumming eyes as black as jet – feasting on scraps of her flesh like carrion crows, his father hanging from the rafters, steaming entrails spilled across the marbled floor. Their deaths had been among the first but Altair knew they would not be the last.
The prisons below the garrisons, empty for the longest time, were now full to bursting with the maddened souls left alive after the first night. They had been rounded up in the morning when their terror had subsided. Most came willingly and said nothing, looking at the blood on their hands and about their garb in teary-eyed disbelief. Altair had watched from his balcony as the captives were led in on chains - men, women and children, pale and stooped and broken. It looked as though there was no fight in them and for a while as he watched he believed that his men would win through, that his kingdom would survive.
But that belief changed when night came and a fresh tide of bloodshed with it. Bodies filled the streets and alleys around the palace at the dawn; some hung from branches like strange fruit, or floated in the moats like pieces of driftwood, fat and bloated; others were so torn and maimed that they were barely discernible as human. It seemed to Altair that there was no fuel behind the killings, no real reason for the apoplexy that filled his people. Father had turned against son, mother against daughter, as the soothsayers had promised. New-born children were taken from their cribs and dashed against walls by their kin. Altair knew he must do something to avenge them, knew that to sit in silence and wait for death was a craven’s choice and that history – if there was yet to be such a thing – would not remember him for his lack of action.
Though it had sickened him to have to do it, he had called for Chaqui, his fastest Runner, heart lying heavy in his chest with the knowledge that the only way to save his children would be to send them to the wilderness, to the lands where his forefathers had once reigned. They left as soon as the dawn broke, Chaqui and the three children on the back of Altair’s own warhorse. Altair had watched them from the battlements until they dwindled to a tiny speck in the forested foothills of the Riven Range, holding back his tears, hoping he had made the right choice. Behind him Elena had let her tears flow, unwilling to watch as the fruits of their love were taken away.
It would be two days at the least before Chaqui would return from the mountains. If he was to return to anything at all, Altair knew his men must be rallied for the onslaught that would surely come with the night. He would gather every spare man this day, arm them from the garrisons and set them to repairing the breaches in the walls before night came.
He glanced at the twin cribs by the end of the bed, achingly empty, and wondered for the hundredth time if his Runner had made it past the foothills. It would be some time, he knew, before the message arrived back, if at all. He would watch the sky above the mountains for the sign for as long as he could and, when the time came, he would gather his arms and fight, fight until every ounce of strength within him was used up.
Elena woke then, springing from the bed with a gasp. Her eyes were puffed and bloodshot. Altair went to her and took her in his arms, telling her everything would be better soon, that they would see the sign in the sky and would know that they had made the right choice. In the city below the screaming started again, counter-pointed by the clang of steel and the heavy pounding of the horse’s hooves as his men made another sweep.
Beside him Elena bowed her head and began to weep.
“What have we done?” she said.
“Only what we knew we must.”
“What if we were wrong?”
“Don’t worry, my love,” he said as he stroked a stray lock of her hair. He gave a soft smile, knowing he must be strong for himself, for Elena, for his people. “They will make it. I promise.” But where they will make it to I do not know.
The children were crying softly at his back and, though they tried to hide it, to be strong as their father had told them, they were too young to comprehend what had happened. Chaqui could see the terror written clearly upon their faces.
They had gathered provisions and left the city early, his white robes glowing like a beacon in the wan pre-dawn light. Chaqui had not yet reached his twenty-first year but he was old enough to know of the dangers that waited on the mountain. He had expected to find those who had fled the city lying in wait somewhere in the dark forests of the foothills, but, thankfully, the journey thus far had uncovered no enemy, and he supposed they were hidden away where the light did not reach, waiting for night or the creeping cloud of black to hide them, to guide them. Chaqui spurred the horse to a gallop once they had made it through the trees, wanting to put as much distance between them and the danger at their rear whilst day was on his side.
The warhorse fell as they crossed a rocky stream in the uplands and threw everyone clear, unleashing a scream as its legs buckled and a bone snapped clean in two. Chaqui shook off his daze and gathered the shaken children, trying his best to placate them. The horse bucked and screamed behind them, the sounds only heightening the fear of the children. Chaqui knew the sound would carry far and wide. He knelt down in the stream and cut the horse’s throat, moving towards the mountain before the blood had time to stain the water.
The Whiteling Pass lay some two thousand feet above, dark and cloud-wreathed, and it was there that he knew he must go if the children were to be safe, to seek out the damned ruins of his king’s forefathers, tainted by evil and unvisited in generations. The twins were strapped tight to his back where they seemed finally to be sleeping. The princess ran by his side, her face filled with fear and confusion, but her small steps merely slowed him for the most part and he spent much time holding back, so he took her in her arms and carried her as often as he could.
It was early evening when Chaqui saw the first signs of trouble. From the foothills below trails of black smoke snaked into the sky, one at first, then two, five, a dozen. He did not wait to see how many more would join but turned back to the mountain and set off at a faster pace, promising the children that everything would be better once the night had passed.
The last moments of the day fell away behind the mountain as dusk came but Chaqui risked no open flame when they stopped to rest by the ruins of an ancient village. He had brought enough provisions for one meal only. A few strips of dried meat, half a dozen hard-boiled eggs, a loaf of bread and two skins of sugared water – enough to keep the children quiet and provide him with his much-needed strength for the final climb.
Some hours later he fancied he heard the sound of a horn from below, but when he stopped to listen and gauge the distance he heard no more. One thing was growing ever-more certain – sooner or later someone would find them. The white of his cloak would be like a beacon against the mountain but this did not matter. He was proud of his cloak and what it stood for, what it said to any who stood against him. It was his duty as a Runner to ensure that the enemy, whoever they were, wherever they would come from, would not be offered the chance to carry out that which they wished. The only way to be certain was to keep moving, to run and run.
The night brought cold with it and the children began to shiver, gathering themselves closer into their furs. Chaqui climbed over a rocky knoll and was faced with the first great obstacle on the mountain. The path he had been following was swallowed by some ancient landslide and he found himself with no way to proceed but by a slender cleft that zig-zagged up the rock face to his front. He glanced to his back to see if the tell-tale wisps of smoke had come any closer but saw nothing in the rising darkness. He stood and listened to the crosswinds keening across the open rock high above the narrow cleft and, as soon as he felt ready, he gathered himself and began the ascent.
It was slow going at first with every twist and turn offering some gnarled tree root or brittle outcrop to halt his progress. A number of times on the first section of the climb he saw only bare rock offering no purchase to his front, but repositioned himself and pressed onwards and upwards, finding passage when there seemed to be none. The moon crept across the sky as he ascended and, before long, the solid ground below had faded into the growing shadow so that the narrow crack high in the cliff face and the ever-increasing weight of the children became the only thing in his world, each straining to cast him off to the earth below.
More than once the children cried against the darkness and the whipping winds but their wails of fright were coming ever farther apart as the night wore on. Chaqui, drained as he was by the climb, no longer had the words to pacify them and focussed only on making it to the top before tiredness overwhelmed him. The girl was sprightly and climbed by herself as Chaqui struggled with the boys, clinging close to the rock, waiting quietly for them each time she got too far ahead, the tracks of her tears glowing in the moonlight. He had never believed she could be so strong.
Then came the sight Chaqui had dreaded since beginning his ascent – tongues of fire from the forest below. In no time the canopy was ablaze, the whole world wreathed in flame. Whoever had followed their trail was hoping to smoke them out. It would not take them long to discover that the forest was empty. Then they would turn to the mountain.
On and on they climbed, covering their mouths against the acrid smoke that billowed all about. The noise of the growing inferno came to them on rising swells, distorted and magnified to other terrors in their minds. Chaqui fancied he heard voices amongst the tide, screaming and laughing, but this merely drove him on with renewed vigour. At one point the brittle rock at his feet gave way and a large boulder broke free and fell down the cleft as he scrambled for purchase. He thought he heard a blood-curdling scream rise up from below and knew his position must surely have been given away.
Just when he thought the smoke in his lungs and the ache in his limbs would overwhelm him, the crack widened and the ground began to level. They found themselves in the opening of a rocky gorge that meandered up to the Whiteling Pass no more than a few hundred feet above, and Chaqui was glad to remove the boys from his back now that they were so close. They rested for a while as the night began to softened, eating the last of the provisions between bouts of coughing and retching. Chaqui rubbed the smoky grime from his eyes and look down across the land below for a final time, seeing the walls of his home, small and pale in the distance, obscured by clouds of smoke. He chanced to peer over the edge and saw nothing, but when he picked up a hefty rock and dropped it down the narrow crack, the resulting scream came sooner than expected.
The idea came that he should use the narrow passage to his advantage, send the children to gather rocks, but he knew that to wait in ambush was nothing more than to play into the enemy’s hands, keep them from the one place they must reach. With this thought in mind, Chaqui removed the Oculus from his robes and placed it to his eye, turning around full circle. Nothing happened for the longest time – as he had feared – but then he saw a flash, a tiny explosion that filled his sight with colour as he moved his gaze across the pass for the second time, standing out like a beacon. There, set in the sky above the rise, was a small blot, no more than a hand-span wide, glowing white. He pulled the Oculus away and looked to the same spot but saw only sky.
Moving together, they set off from the narrow landing and followed the winding trail, each turn bringing them closer to their destination, farther from the terror at their back. From their sheltered position they could not see the cloud of black in the sky to the north and Chaqui was glad of the fact, even if he knew they would have to face it soon, that it would fill the heavens when they reached the pass.
It was the princess who saw the threat from behind first. They came around a corner in the narrow defile, barely two turns from where the path widened out to the flat opening of the pass, and she turned and pointed to the spot below where they had found their way from the cliff face. Figures were emerging there, pulling themselves across the lip one after the other. Gathering the twins on his back again, Chaqui dipped into his reserves and ran with all his might, knowing they were trapped and defenceless in the narrow pathway.
At once a loud keening noise started, rising up from everywhere, filling his head with its piercing whine. Without intending to do so, he froze and became enraptured by the heady, portentous sound, ignoring the pull of the princess on his arm, ignoring the murmured cries of the twins at his back.
The next few moments passed in a blur of frozen images, as though the world and everything in it was bursting out, rushing to some unknown crescendo. A patch of darkness descended from out of the sky overhead, gaining momentum impossibly fast, thick and black like a swarm of insects, changing the timbre of the sound in his head from a gentle drone to a harsh, invasive buzz. The knees of the children buckled at the sight and they fell as the ungodly swarm came down amongst them, letting out a fanfare of screams. Chaqui came to his senses and dragged the children to their feet, knowing he could not permit failure when they were so close, gritting his teeth as he stumbled onwards.
With the buzzing cloud enveloping him, filling his mouth and nose, he reached down and removed the Oculus, pulling his arm against the uncanny grip of the blackness.
The sight that greeted him made him forget about the throbbing invasion. It was as if the blackness had been blown away, as if the turmoil he saw was not true reality but some lesser void, there to trick him, to keep him from the revelations his new sight promised. He saw the tiny tear in the sky as the blackness dwindled – so close now – throbbing, glowing golden-white. He drew his gaze away and looked to the children, saw terror and loss in their faces as the mire swirled about them, saw the drips of blood that fell from their eyes and flecked their lips, saw the bubbling grey growths that had burst into being on the back of their heads, writhing and folding upon themselves. The princess dropped to the ground with a scream and, though it pained him to entertain the thought, Chaqui knew she was beyond his help, that he must focus every ounce of his being on seeing that the twins did not go the same way.
He could taste blood and bile in the back of his throat, feel the change burrowing into his skull like a solid nightmare as he reached down and pulled the boys close, finding his feet and struggling onward. He felt the nip of tiny teeth tearing the flesh of his hand as one of the twins bit him and, as the face emerged from the cloud he saw pools of black and malice where the eyes should be, and knew the change had already gone too far. He pushed the boy away, reached for his brother and broke free from the cloud, running the last few feet to the rippling light.
He reached behind the child’s head as he ran and scratched at the bubbling greyness, pulling it free from his flesh with a pop and felt the warm rush of blood seeping across his palm. The child cried out in pain – a sign that he was not yet lost – and retched as the blackness filled his mouth, but Chaqui did not stop. He ran on over piles of rocks and fallen trees, heading for the glow with the Oculus held in front of him like a searchlight, the sounds of their pursuers dwindling, and, as a ray of sunlight pierced through the mire – such an anachronism in this world of black – he saw the passage. It was like a pool of water floating in the air, the small tear moving softly like an opening mouth, begging him with silent words to break through and enter. Chaqui had no time to dwell on the sight but took the Oculus and placed it in the boy’s tiny fist, closing it tight as he lunged for the gaping portal, breaking through the flimsy barrier to the unknown space beyond.
A gasp escaped him as he plunged into a realm of pure, unadulterated sensation, straining at every fibre of his being, a world of liquid silver flashing bright. He looked down upon his body, saw it flay and fall apart beneath his gaze and realised that his body was not important. It was nothing but a shell, hiding the truth of him. Everything was shades of whites, rippling inches from his face, a vast flock of doves in tempest gathered close around him. The world behind them and the terrors it had held were forgotten. There was no fright here, no fear, only hope.
“Where are we?” came the voice of the boy, fragile and tenebrous.
“I don’t know,” Chaqui replied. Then: “Safe. We are safe.”
But he could feel forces pulling him back, confusing, desperate forces, and he knew as he felt himself moved that it was not over yet, that only one of them was truly safe.
He reached out through the glistening nothing to the rippling barrier to his front, felt his ghost fingers move easily through the strange skin as though it was no more than sodden paper, and thrust the child forward to the cold space beyond. Time seemed to stop as he moved his hand down to rend the veil; the cacophony of life around him seemed to sputter and dim like a spent flame. He felt a sense of suffocation as the boy went through and everything fell silent. Then, when it seemed as though he might float there in that opalescent void forever, he felt himself lifted up, pulled back through to the world he had left and the darkness that waited, back to the world of muted sensation, to the warm shell of his reforming body and the pain that filled it.
The last thing he saw before the doorway pulled its edges together and the blackness overwhelmed him was two faces staring back at him from the hidden place on the other side; a man and a woman dressed in curious garb, a thin dog burying its head in the earth, fantastic glass and stone structures filling the snowy sky behind them, rising up like grasping fingers.
And the boy, smiling softly, safe.