Gift of Light
When he reached the mouth of the cave, Zeventrech wasn't tired. Despite the long and arduous climb to get there, he didn't have a drop of sweat on his brow. He looked to his company and noticed the same. They stood in a cave, the tunnel leading deep into the mountain. The ceiling was an arm's length above Zeventrech's head and he knew that it would stay that way for the entire length. He could remember the last time he had been in the cave, although he hadn't been there sense King Kalmyrid had led him there. He could only imagine the king's anger, were he alive to see what they were doing; the king's greatest secret was revealed. The one named Jursin was brushing dust from his dark gray robes, casually looking around the area as he did. His eyes fell on Zeventrech and his face hardened. He looked down at the dust on his robe as he spoke.
"We should keep moving," he said, "No use standing around like this."
"It's dangerous," said another.
Zeventrech looked to another robed figure, pulling her hood over her head as he turned to her. He remembered her name was Eona. Beside her was Mairdreth and the man to the left of them was Osmair. There was also Ambria, who stood at the edge of the cave. They stared at him, each with a scowl, each waiting expectantly. There were only five.
"We've waited long enough," said the sixth.
She appeared from behind Ambria. Her mouth was fixed in a hungry grin. Two thin curtains of raven hair framed her gaunt face. Her large, gray eyes held eagerness that, when coupled with her grin, was sinister. The sixth approached Zeventrech, her long fingers taking his hand. They were meager in comparison. And yet, Zeventrech felt something lurch in his chest when her hands touched his.
"You'll have it soon, Sarinda," he said, as he brushed her away.
"You have no idea how long I've waited."
"How long we've waited," added Osmair.
"This day will be remembered by all. All nations will follow you," said Mairdreth.
"And they will sing your praises, forever," said Eona.
"Long live Sarinda!" yelled Ambria. Her voice shuddered, her frame shaking as she lifted her arms to the ceiling.
"Yes," said Jursin coolly, "Long live the Matriarch."
"Enough," said Sarinda, "We have work to do. Ambria and Mairdreth should watch the entrance. The rest will follow me. Lead the way, friend."
Zeventrech said nothing. She meant it in condescension, calling him friend. He was a servant. He raised his staff and began marching through the tunnel. Their footfalls were light pats behind him.
They were silent as Zeventrech led the party through the cave. The path was dark, save for the vermillion glow of Nora gems on Zeventrech's staff. Zeventrech looked back at the party to check if they were still following. He knew they would be there when he looked, but he did anyway. The journey through Myridin taught Zeventrech many things about his company. And the most important lesson was that he didn't trust them. He noticed Sarinda's maddened grin, illuminated by the red light of his staff. She was watching him as they moved. Their eyes met and Sarinda's grin deepened. She had made her intentions perfectly clear. Sarinda was after what waited at the end of the cave, nothing more. She would do anything to achieve it, he thought; even bring someone back from the dead. Zeventrech turned back to the path and kept moving. Soon, the walls of the cave widened. The silence was broken by Eona.
"This is it?"
"A little further," replied Zeventrech.
"I was expecting more than dirt."
"He was not very extravagant," said Sarinda, "He liked simple things."
"Yes, but dirt and dust? You'd expect him to be tidier, considering his status�"
Zeventrech clinched his teeth. It was getting harder to keep his silence. Their banter made him boil. His grip on his staff tightened as he thought about it. Ever since they had joined up, at the newly formed cliffs along Myridin, Sarinda's followers had been nothing but annoying and rude. They spoke with such irreverence, even to an elder. And to a member of Kalmyrid's Royal Court! They knew nothing about the throne, about its history; only what Sarinda had mentioned in passing. Sarinda told stories of the great throne room, but they only listened idly. It seemed they didn't care about anything: even as they faced the many perils during their journey, including divine intervention, they seemed disinterested. There was only one thing that sparked any sort of emotion in them. When they spoke of Sarinda, they were suddenly filled with such zeal that they began to shout. They became so animated that it frightened Zeventrech when it first happened. Although he didn't like them, and he didn't entirely trust Sarinda either, he led the party to the throne room. He had no choice. He needed to repay his debt to Sarinda.
"This is it," said Jursin, "This must be the throne room."
The walls had escaped the light of Zeventrech's staff and the ceiling had disappeared.
"He lived like a dog. It's just a cave," said Eona.
"He didn't need gold or Nora gems," said Sarinda.
"He probably didn't want people to find his throne room," said Jursin, moving towards a wall as he spoke, "There should be torches here. Can't see anything."
Jursin disappeared into the dark for a moment. Then, he was revealed by fire light. He found an iron brazier, affixed to the wall by a stone arm. He blinked and hissed.
"Lit itself," he groaned, rubbing his eyes.
As if on cue, other torches began to light around the room. The throne room was circular with smooth stone walls. At a closer glance, Zeventrech made out symbols etched into the stone. At the center was a large rock, carved into a crude seat.
"This is it," said Sarinda.
She moved to the stone chair and kneeled. She began running her hands along the arm rests, her eyes wide with wonder. She still held the same sinister grin.
"The throne of Dalnis."
Zeventrech knew the story. When King Kalmyrid had led him to the throne, he spoke of a god who sat on that very stone and watched his world move. And although it hurt Dalnis, he dared not interfere with it. It was a pact he had made a long time ago, to his co-creator, that neither would disturb their creation. So, instead, he made a pact. This was the part of the myth that Sarinda knew.
"Go on, Sarinda," said Eona, "See if it suits you."
His pact was a simple one. If anyone sat on his throne and asked for his help, then he would help them. As long as their intentions were good, Dalnis would grant them whatever they asked for. Sarinda lowered herself into the throne. She rested her arms on each armrest, brushing dust away casually as she did. Then, she looked to her followers. She looked to each one and smiled with a warmth Zeventrech had never seen in her.
"Thank you," she said, "You have all done so well. I will remember all of you. You will not be forgotten."
"Glorious Sarinda!" shouted Eona.
"Go on, ask for it," said Jursin.
Sarinda bowed her head and closed her eyes. She began to speak.
The next few moments happened suddenly, yet Zeventrech could recall them clearly; as if they had happened over years. Sarinda was filled with a brilliant light. It shone through her skin, illuminating her inner workings. Her gray eyes became two stars, filling the chamber with celestial light. The light had a warmth to it, which intensified as the light did. Zeventrech felt as if he were lying in the sun. His heart was light, as if the burden of Sarinda and of her crew had dissolved. The light grew brighter. Sarinda's shining eyes were now suns, her skin and hair were constellations. He couldn't bear to look at her. And then, the room was dark. The party stood in the darkness. No one spoke or moved, not even a breath. Zeventrech felt the dark weigh on him like a cloak and the cold of the cave bite at him.
"Sarinda?" called Eona.
Someone stumble into the chamber, groaning and spattering. Zeventrech lit his staff and held it to the source. The light revealed Ambria, lying on her side and nursing her stomach. Her hands, pressed against damp robes, were covered in blood.
"They're coming," she rasped, "We couldn't hold them off."
"Where is Mairdreth?" called Jursin, trying to pull her up as he did. Ambria stumbled, stood, and then collapsed to the ground.
"They took her."
Ambria didn't respond. She rolled onto her back and the glowing blue light faded from the wound. The next moment, there was a rush of air and a wisp of smoke rose from her body. It twisted and swirled, then it began to speak in Ambria's voice. This time, she was more relaxed, almost casual.
"Two of them pulled her into the sky. I'm not sure where they're headed to. There must have been at least eight of them on us at once, maybe more. I finished off one, but another got the better of me."
A scream echoed through the tunnel, a faint whisper.
"We need to leave. Sarinda?"
There was no response. Osmair motioned for Zeventrech to illuminate the throne. The staff-light moved over the stone seat. It was empty. There was no dust, no remains, not even a scrap of gray robe. They were silent again, each staring at the throne. Osmair gawked at it, placed a hand to his gaped mouth and then was still. Eona grabbed Jursin by the arm and began to gasp, as if she were choking on her own tongue. Jursin was silent, staring morosely at the empty seat. The screams of their pursuers grew louder, but they didn't move. A rhythmic beating, of feet and of wings, slowly rose with the screams. Zeventrech's debt was paid. Sarinda made it to the throne room, accepted whatever gift she asked for, and was gone. He had no more to do with the group. Jursin drew a short sword and shook away Eona. He faced the tunnel. Then Osmair drew a dagger and Eona a silvered mace and they faced the coming wrath. Zeventrech recalled an old teleportation spell, fumbled for a moment with remembering the incantation, then corrected his memory. As dark figures began to flood the room, with wings fluttering madly in the red light, Zeventrech raised his staff and spoke the spell. There was a flash of blue and he was standing on a plateau. He watched the sea churn against broken rocks and shattered peaks. The world had broken and there was nothing they could do to fix it. Was he wrong in helping Sarinda? He was forced to do it, forced to lead Sarinda to the throne. He owed her a tremendous debt and this was her repayment. Surely they would understand. He wanted no part in any of it. Zeventrech raised his staff. A second flash and he was off.
At first, Riemarn couldn't believe his eyes. He knelt in the brush, his obsidian knife drawn in front of him. His black fur bristled as he peered between the leaves. He saw the thing clearly, but couldn't understand how to put it together in his mind. It was built as tall as a Leoss cub, with two arms, two legs, a body, and a head. But this was where the comparison fell apart: its arms and legs were made of wood and bones, bound together with leather and crude nails. The body was a wooden post, possibly from a scout's mark or sign, with straw and leather bands wrapped loosely around it, acting as a sort of clothing. It wore various ornaments, taken from the Chirai: a padfoot's training belt around its waist and a shaman's necklace around its upper body, along with sashes stuffed in various places. Its fingers were jawbones and sticks, moving stiffly as they tried to grasp around a plant. What Riemarn remembered best was the face. It was a Chirai deathmask, worn by the Shamans to frighten lost souls away; a long and bone-white mask with small ascents of obsidian around the edges and the eyes. The creature turned away from its task and peered into the jungle. Two red dots glowed from behind the small eyeholes, slid from side to side as it glassed the area. Riemarn crept closer, his obsidian blade ready. He reared back, ready to leap at the creature. He would take it home as a prize, as proof of his tale. But as he did, the creature froze. It turned to him and stared with its red eyes. He could feel a strange sensation behind his eyes, as if something were prying at his skull. Then, it ambled off into the jungle. Riemarn sighed and sheathed his blade. Perhaps, he thought, the tale would be enough. But, without its piecemeal corpse as proof, who would believe such a crazy thing?