This is the story that won Honorable Mention from Writer’s of the Future. It’s an excerpt from Book 2.
Dane worked to build up their camp fire, his face set in concentration as he added kindling. He kept replaying the events of the day before. I’m a Majister now. I should be able to do more than a dewin. Will I always be weak? What if I can’t do this? What if I can’t recover the refrains of the Lorica? What if I cannot free the Cyntae?
Dane could hear Theo’s heavy footfalls through the undergrowth at the edge of the camp. The leaves made a thick, crunchy carpet. Stooping to look at a particularly interesting mushroom, Theo said. “It isn’t something to worry you.”
Dane’s head whipped up. He scrutinized the large Majister, his blue eyes narrowed.
“Worry me? What would worry me?” Dane asked softly, perplexed. Am I so transparent?
“You couldn’t hear the Song,” said Theo.
Dane kept his face carefully blank, his voice even. “How did you know?”
“I know because it’s happened to me. I saw it in your eyes. You were lost. Silence.”
“The silence. It’s never happened before,” Dane said. “I thought after I became a Majister, I’d know more, be able to do more. Then in my first task, I am less powerful than I was as dewin. Why?”
Theo stroked his beard thoughtfully before answering. “The refrains guide us in all things. What does the first one say? Heedless, heartless, helpless. When you first work with the Song as dewin, walking in its power, many times you will find it easy because the Storm King treats you as a child. But He also wants each of us to grow up. As you grow in the Song, you shall find that you are learning new lessons.
“You will have to take heed. Pay careful attention and train your senses to notice your surroundings and changes in the Song. You must think about the ideas which occur to your mind and notice from whence they come. This practice keeps us from being controlled by Dissonance.
“What were you thinking on when the silence fell? Do you remember?”
“I was afraid,” said Dane.
“Your thoughts, lad, what exactly were you thinking?” What words ran through your mind?”
“I couldn’t hear the Song. I was going to fail. I could not do it, ” said Dane.
“Those thoughts came not from you but to you. Dissonance spawned them, like spores.” Theo gestured to the mushrooms and fungus that covered a nearby tree. His mouth twisted. “You were not prepared and so you were overcome. When such ideas come to your mind you must test them. Are they true? Are they good? Do not agree with any thought which does not pass the test. Dissonance will always try to wrest control of the Song from you. You must be vigilant.”
“But it could have been true.I could have failed,” Dane said, objecting.
Theo shook his head. “You have been chosen by the Storm King himself for this task. You have been equipped with the Song. You will not fail. Believe not in yourself but in the Song, in the Storm King’s power to work through whatever you face. The true Song will never fail, anything else is of the Dissonance.”
Dane nodded slowly, considering this. “So being heedless robs me of my heart. And leaves me helpless. Is that what the verse means?”
“It means many things. But yes, it means this for you, today.”
“It felt so true,” Dane said, shaking his head as if to clear it.
“Feelings are not facts. What feels true is not always true. Discipline your emotions. Remember. It will save your life. Your will can choose apart from your feelings. You can always choose, no matter how you feel. When you heed the Song, you will nearly always have to make choices in spite of your feelings, or even against them.”
Dane nodded slowly, considering. He often struggled with fear and doubt. I wonder how often it’s caused me to fail. Storm King, help me to try.
Theo gestured to the cone of kindling with his staff and sang a bright tune. The tinder burst into cheerful flame. Dane took a step back quickly, and claimed one of the low folding stools surrounding the firepit. Theo settled into one next to him and nodded to the empty seats remaining.
“M’ra said she and N’khum would return after their hunt, but not to wait for them.” He pulled a bundle from his pack. It proved to be an oilcloth-wrapped package of dried mutton and soft cheese. He handed half to Dane. They ate in silence, listening to the fire pop and crackle. The forest around them was thick. Little light filtered through the canopy above. Insects chirped and answered each other and in the distance, an owl hooted. The wind rustled through the leaves.
Dane took a sip from his wineskin, grimacing at the sour flavor. He pulled out his notebook, reading aloud.
“…a large palace with many windows and they spoke to a turbaned man with skin and eyes as black as night. Patterns decorated his face. I saw a lake and standing stones. The sun was setting.”
Dane stopped reading and looked at Theo with an arched brow. “The Fell Folk? I’ve not met one, but I’ve read about them.”
“They don’t venture out of the Fells very often. You would know if they did. They’re very tall, with blue glowing eyes. Tend to attract tongue wagging, or worse.”
Dane bit into his cheese and grunted, arching an eyebrow.
Theo grimaced. “The shepherds of the dead scare even the most learned. You will see. Peasants and nobles alike have been known to cross the street if they see one or to leave the room if one appears. They believe angry spirits will menace any who keep their company.”
“But not menace the Fell folk themselves?”
Theo laughed, a short humorless bark. “Nay, the Fell Folk themselves make short work of all spirits, angry or not. They wouldn’t dare.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Dane said.
“Oh you will my lad. Before this week is out, you will. Most people pass on to the next life easily. Some however… .” Theo waggled his eyebrows suggestively, letting the words hang in the air.
“Some people are confused. Others are not ready to go. The Fell Folk guide them onward, helping them pass to the next life.”
“But how? The stories say they can bring them to the gates of death, but they never say what the gates are.”
Theo grunted. “Stone rings in the hills? Surely you’ve seen them outside your vision.”
Dane blinked and shook his head. “I’ve never traveled east.”
“On the Fells stand stone rings called henges. Ancient, they were built from bluestone to reflect the night sky. These shine like polished pieces of the heavens with stars imbued in their surface. And they ring.”
“Ring,” said Theo, nodding. “On a clear night you can hear them ringing out their song for miles, like bells. The Fell Folk sing with them and the Song calls the spirits home.”
Dane shivered, thinking about it.
“Do you think we will face a test with them as well? Or will they just give us the refrain?”
Theo stroked his short beard, murmuring to himself before answering.
“I think the refrains have been guarded for centuries and we must be ready for anything. But it would be wise to look through Petros’ notes to see if there is aught to help us.”
Dane pored over the notes, straining his eyes to see by the light of his small lantern. Most of the scrawls were cryptic, referring to things he did not understand. Drawings of insects, diagrams of buildings and precise shapes peppered the pages in between the thick streams of writing. All of it was interesting but nothing seemed to relate to the refrains, to the Lorica.
A phrase caught his eye. Fell Folk.
Dane focused, his breath quickening.
The Fell Folk don’t look so very different than other men apart from their skin markings and the bony ridges the protrude from them. They are a proud race, with black or grey complexions. The men and women wear their hair if they have it, in manes wrapped by turbans of different colors. They ride horses that run like the wind and move according to their own rhythms throughout the hills and lakes of the Fells, from standing stone circle to standing stone circle, where they camp and perform their ceremonies. Farmers and peasants come to them for healing, for fortune telling, or to trade. Some bring tributes of food or gifts.
Visitors do not linger. Their rituals are for the dead. The Fell Folk are shepherds of souls, herding those who refuse to pass into the land of the dead. These are drawn to their circles.
Fierce warriors, the Fell Folk are. To attack them will bring the departed to haunt you.Their palace lies in the center of the Fells, on the highest of hills. And it is, as ever, empty.
Dane’s eyes skimmed over the descriptions of the Folk’s customs and dances, searching for something that might help him. He wasn’t even sure what he was looking for. At the bottom of a page was a sketched pattern, whorls and ridges that seemed to have no meaning. Beside the sketch was one word.
Dane rubbed his eyes and turned down the flame on his lantern. Tomorrow would come and he would meet it.
The next day dawned bright and clear, with puffy clouds filling the sky. They looked like castles and Dane smiled when he saw them. He stretched and rubbed his eyes. He stretched and moved quickly to pack up his bedroll and take down his small tent. He could hear Theo snoring from the tent next to him. Grabbing a tin mug, he trotted down the slope to the creek that burbled at the base of the low hill. He splashed his face and used the mug to scoop up a drink and checked the nets he had set the night before. A few small fish wriggled there. He carefully untied the nets and carried them up the hill. Within a few minutes he had the fish cleaned, wrapped in leaves and set to roast in the coals of the fire. Theo’s snoring stopped suddenly and his tent rustled. The huge man emerged from his low tent, for all the world looking like a bear coming out of a cave. Theo cast a dark look in his direction and stood, coming to warm himself next to the coals. He nodded appreciatively at the fish, and stumbled off toward the creek.
M’ra and N’khum appeared as the two Majisters finished their breakfast. Their ivory skin shimmered in the morning light, making the two Chymaera almost glow. Dane eyes widened, watching them move. It’s like they dance, he decided. The two Wyn, who always seemed solemn, had an especially grave air as they settled into folding chairs next to Dane.
“Did you have a good hunt?” he ventured, unsure of what to say. He wasn’t used to speaking with gryphons, even in humanoid form.
M’ra’s sudden laughter tinkled into the forest canopy, as if Dane had told a particularly funny joke. She did not answer, but instead asked, “How was your sleep?”
“I slept well, milady,” Dane said.
“We go to greet the children of the night,” said N’khum with the air of someone explaining a concept to a child. He spread his hands. “A day of heartfire burning.”
“What is heartfire?”
“That which we hunted,” said N’khum. His grin flashed, catlike, and disappeared just as quickly. “We are ready.”
Theo stalked up to the fire, red from exertion and gestured vaguely to the forest beyond. “We’ll be ready soon. They’ll be asleep when we get there but ’twill give us a little time to plan.”
Theo’s eyes lighted as he smelled the fish, and he plucked a packet from the coals, inspecting it and nodding. He placed it back onto the coals to cook further and disappeared into his tent, returning with a small basket of berries and a heel of bread.
”Dane, what did you find last night?” Theo asked as he shared the bread with his companions.
Dane rose to retrieve Petros’ notebook from his pack. He turned to the page with the odd pattern and showed it to Theo. Theo leaned forward to peer at it, and leaned back, harumphing. “Tomorrow.”
“Does it mean something to you?” asked Dane.
M’ra cleared her throat and Dane looked at her expectantly. Her smile was warm as she pointed to the pattern. “The children of the night are marked by the waves of time. ’Tis what they call this pattern. They live ever in darkness. It is their sorrow and their joy at once, for they are able to hear the next chimes of the Song. They believe there will come a day when all will be made whole and there shall be no Dissonance at all. The dead shall rise, the Storm King shall return, and their palaces shall be filled. For them, this word is fraught with joy and hope. Tomorrow. They do not use it lightly, as men do. Each day is another step toward tomorrow.”
Dane nodded, understanding dimly. As M’ra had spoken he had seen a vision in his mind, a shadow of what she referred to. Stars burning and wheeling in a dance and the world fresh and new, vibrant, all things perfect and lovely. The vision faded with her voice. He couldn’t help feeling awed. His voice squeaked. “That is what tomorrow means?”
M’ra nodded, her eyes shining.
“So odd for them to value hope in that way,” said Dane.
“Did you think they could face death without it?” said Theo, mildly. “It is part of their purpose and their being. Now come. ’Tis time to meet them.”
Dane finished packing quickly and followed the others through the woods, musing. He was so lost in thought he almost stumbled when they reached the meadow beyond the treeline. M’ra and N’khum transformed, their shapes flowing and melding into two large gryphons. They inclined their forelegs graciously. Theo huffed as he clambered up N’khum’s leg to seat himself with his pack.
Dane hoped he wasn’t hurting M’ra as he climbed, using the silken garment which circled her frame to pull himself up. He settled behind her noble white neck and looped the pack under the garment, securing it.
The words sounded in his mind, M’ra’s voice. He barely nodded, forgetting she couldn’t see him. It didn’t matter. With a few bounds, she leapt and they were soaring into the air, the wind from her wings buffeting. He gasped. The Song roared in his mind, the wings of the gryphon beating time to its tune.
Green leaves and meadows fell away and they soared higher into the clouds. Soon purple hills appeared before them. Lakes dotted the landscape and the hills grew larger. Finally, Dane could see the stone rings, gleaming blue in the morning light. They appeared with more and more frequency, one every few miles on the highest hills. When he saw the spires of a huge palace, M’ra and N’khum began to descend. They glided to a stop in front of the palace, on a strip of purple heather between it and the large lake beyond. Dane slid down from his perch and had barely regained his feet when he heard a deep voice behind him, rich with age.
“Greetings. We have been expecting you.”
The Fellishman towered over them, gigantic. He loomed even taller than N’khum, unwinged. His eyes glowed in the failing light, like beacons, or the eyes of a cat. Dane wondered idly where those beacons actually led. To the gates of death, certainly, but what lay beyond?
He answered as if Dane had spoken aloud.
“The seed can not perceive the life of the oak, Majister.”
Dane blinked and inclined his head. “You hear my thoughts?”
“Nay, but all who come to our lands carry the same torch. My name is Teran.”
The Chymaeara, N’khum and M’ra, both transformed behind Dane as he bowed from his waist and replied. “I am Dane. This is Theo. We are Majisters from Anach. Our colleagues are M’ra nd N’khum of the Wyn aerie. “
“Well met,” Theo added.
The Fellishman did not hide his surprise at their titles. “Long it has been since we met two of the Song-led on the these shores. You are welcome here and may Faron guide you today.”
“May tomorrow come quickly, ” said Theo, responding automatically. N’khum and M’ra drew up behind them, bowing. Theo continued, “The curse of Siarad is broken, the Majisters once again serve at Anach. We prepare for the Storm King’s return.”
Teran considered this news, his features hardening. “Tomorrow is nigh.”
M’ra answered, her eyes filled with reverence. “Indeed, son of the evening. We stand witness. It is so.”
Beside her, N’khum nodded, his face grave .
Theo said, “Long ago you were given a box for safe keeping. It would look like this one.” He drew the first box from his robes, presenting it to Teran. “We must retrieve it.”
Teran frowned. “We were cautioned to keep the box in safety, and have guarded it for centuries. However only one of your brethren may retrieve it and not without danger.”
Dane waited with foreboding, certain of what the Fellishman would say next.
“The box is hidden outside of time, beyond the gates of death itself. To travel to that realm you must have the key in our palace beyond. To gain entry there, you must answer one question.” He paused, significantly.
“What is the seed of all action?”
Dane hesitated, then quoted, “The seed of all action impels you to see
One will destroy but the other sets free.”
Teran nodded, his eyes glittering as he regarded Dane. He repeated the question. “What is the seed of all action?”
Dane frowned. The seed of all action? Desire? A need?
No. One can need or desire something but not move in response. Actions are compelled by …by…
M’ra broke into his thoughts, communing, though her face remained impassive. Thought. No deed is done apart from a thought. A truth taught to all our young. To properly manage heartfire, one must manage their thoughts.
Theo smiled, encouraging.
“The seed of all action is thought,” said Dane. His mind reeled. What thought destroys? What sets free? He made a mental note to explore that idea later.
Teran smiled, his face splitting unnaturally to display perfect white teeth. He turned, gesturing to the palace beyond. “Enter the Hall of Waiting with our blessing.”
“You will not go with us?” asked Dane.
Teran shook his head. “All but Majisters are forbidden to enter, and we know not what shape your key might take. For each soul the path is its own. We shall welcome you upon your return. Go with Faron.”
M’ra nodded, “We shall set up camp and wait for our companions. Will you guide us to the best place?”
Teran bowed, “But of course, eldest one. Follow me.”
“We shall await your return,” said N’khum. “Remember the seed of all action.”
Theo shouldered his pack and started walking toward the palace. Dane followed, quickening his pace to catch up.
“Do you know anything about this place?” he asked.
Theo smiled. “A little. It lies empty to our eyes, but these are Faron’s special people. The warden of time himself gave them this home. Within its walls, time flows differently. Our best and only hope is to follow the Song. But ‘tis true for each day’s tasks. Even the ordinary ones. “
Dane looked at the big man, startled. “We use the Song for small things?”
Theo chuckled. “Listening to the Song, moving in harmony with it, is our highest calling. All things are small to the Storm King, lad. Yes. We use the Song for small things. We may not actually be singing, but we are always listening.”
“But what of Dissonance? Won’t it steer us awry?”
Theo nodded, thoughtfully. “It can, but even that can be made whole in the Song. The key is to know the Lorica and the Storm King. You’ll come to have a nose for Dissonance. You’ll learn not to mistake it for the Song as you grow.”
“And in the meantime, if I do the wrong thing….”
“You will learn. There’s no failure so deep it cannot be made right. Even the most horrible mistakes can be made right.”
The high walls surrounding the palace were broken by large wrought-iron gates. These swung open noiselessly as they approached. Beyond, a stone bridge stretched over a moat, leading to a grand entrance. Its vaulted arched entry stood twenty feet tall, ornate designs carved to resemble trees, leaves and vines surrounding massive ebony doors. These too swung open as they approached. Dane could see a marble-floored hall beyond.
Theo stopped. “We must enter one at a time. You may not see me. Time flows differently beyond those doors. The key should be something you’ll recognize when you see it. Follow the Song.”
Dane nodded, gripped his staff more tightly, and entered the Hall of Waiting. The door shut behind him.
The hall stretched before him, glowstones in sconces at regular intervals. To Dane’s left, double doors opened into a grand empty room. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling, their candles unlit, and fine cloth-of-gold curtains lined the walls. A large fireplace dominated the far end of the room, the hearth cold. A dais stood to the left of the fireplace. It held two ornate, gilded thrones. The room was lit by light that descended from the ceiling, painted to resemble the night sky. The painted stars glowed with an ethereal light which fell into the room, bathing the marble floors.
Dane stepped forward. Disembodied voices whispered as he crossed the threshold. Whispering or gasping? He took another step and the chamber fell utterly silent. His footsteps echoed as he strode across the floor. Dane walked the perimeter, moving aside the hanging fabric to check for objects hidden behind them, or beneath. The dressed stone walls concealed nothing.
He examined the dais. Three short steps led up to a round platform. It could easily conceal a drawer or compartment. He looked for signs of scuffing or wear. But the dais proved seamless, its marble shaped and fitted perfectly to form the structure. The thrones, built not for humans but for a taller race, likewise yielded no secrets. Their upholstered seats were tacked down firmly and there were no loose pieces, no hidden buttons.
Dane sighed and sat down in the closest seat.
A form shimmered on the dais before him, a skeleton wearing a tall bejeweled crown. He carried a golden scepter and gestured to the room behind him. The chamber filled with other beings. They appeared hale one moment, skeletons the next, as they twirled across the parquet floor, foot-bones clacking. Some wore the robes of Cantors. Others were dressed in peasant rags. There were nobles in finery, children, sailors, soldiers in armor, Fennishmen in their veils. Chymaera of all types, gnomes, dwarves and even tiny merrow whirled in time to music that Dane could not hear, their bony skulls nodding.
The skeleton king gestured again and the room was empty save for a table. A candle, an acorn and a compass waited there.
“Take them,” said the skeleton king. His voice sounded like the wind blowing in the eaves of Dane’s cottage. Dane stood and descended the dais, taking up the gear. The skeleton touched Dane and they were outside, in a long green courtyard, surrounded by stone arches. The courtyard was empty save for a lush, manicured lawn and a twelve foot, moss-covered standing stone. It loomed, dominating the center of the space. The king walked to the stone, turned and faced Dane.
“The gates of death lie beyond the stone,” he said. “Choose wisely.”
Dane turned in a slow circle. The walls surrounding the courtyard were double-layered. Arches formed the inner walls, looking almost like an aqueduct or an odd cloister. The outer walls beyond were solid grey stone, unmarked and nondescript. Dane could see no exit.
Dane closed his eyes and listened for the Song, but heard nothing. Not even wind. Opening his eyes again, he looked at the tools he had been given. The acorn was greenish, as if it had just fallen. The candle, a long taper, gleamed. It held no marks. The white wick testified; it had never known flame. The compass arrow turned in its ancient wooden case as Dane slowly turned in a circle. He nodded to himself and faced north, heading for the nearest arch.
Dane felt a chill as he passed under the arch. The space between the walls formed a featureless passage that surrounded the courtyard, broken only by the arches. As he glanced back into the courtyard, his brow furrowed.
Something was different. Dane squinted and rubbed his eyes. The stone in the center of the courtyard had been covered with moss. Now it stood bare, a deep blue that approached the black color of night. The stone shone, riddled with white pinpoints as if it were a piece of the night sky protruding from the lawn. The sky was also changed. Twilight was falling, though it had been early afternoon only moments before.
Dane knelt and used the edge of the compass to dig a clump of earth from the ground beneath his feet, turning it over and scrabbling with his hands to remove it. He stopped and looked at the small amount cleared, frowning. He reached for the Song, listening, and sang the tune in his mind. A small circle of bare earth broke through the perfect lawn, a marker to show where he had been. Dane’s mouth twisted in a wry expression. Use it for small things.
He stepped back through the arch he had entered, into the courtyard and looked down. The circle remained. He checked the stone. It was still bare. Dane walked around the stone, viewing it from all sides.
“The gates of death lie beyond the stone,” Dane murmured to himself. He brushed earth from the compass lid, inspecting it. The needle pointed toward the arch he had marked. Shaking his head, he chose the arch to its right and passed through.
Again, cold air blasted Dane and he choked, gasping as it swept over him. The light changed, the sky above him turning the pink-gold of dawn. Dawn whirled and looked at the stone. It was shorter, about a quarter the size of its original height, and completely covered now with a thick green moss, making it look like a small mountain rather than a monument. Dane sniffed and retraced his steps, returning to the first arch he had entered. The circle of earth he’d dug was gone, the grass, undisturbed. Looking through the arch, he noted that the stone was once again tall and black as night. Dane stepped through this arch again and looked back. The round circle of earth appeared beyond the archway. He strode through the arch to reach his marking again. Glancing behind him, he saw the last light of dusk fading over the moss-free stone. He quickly hopped back through the arch, shuddering as the cold air bit into him.
Dane looked at his acorn and his compass, considering. With a short nod to himself, he paced ten strides off, west from the stone. He began to sing again. This time, he dug about a foot down into the earth and dropped the acorn inside it. Sweat dripped into his eyes, stinging them. The scent of the soft loam rose up in his nostrils. Dane replaced the displaced earth, patting it down over the seed. He looked up. The moon had risen.
The Song blazed within him, encouraging, with a wordless but triumphant melody that sounded like a dawn chorus of starlings. Dane smiled and dusted his hands together. He bowed to the stone as if it were a person and stepped back through his marked archway. He turned and walked to the archway beside it, almost afraid to peek through. The stone was once again shorter and thick with velvet, bright-green moss. But next to it, overshadowing the stone and the courtyard, stood a mighty, centuries old, oak tree.
Dane blinked, surprised to discover his hunch was correct.
Each archway leads to a different time.
He looked at each archway in wonder as the full impact of his discovery hit him.
It’s a labyrinth.
Dane began to walk the circuit, looking through each archway. The walls surrounded the courtyard entirely, with 8 arches inset on each of the longer sides and four arches on the shorter. The next arch showed the stone with a light sheen of moss, while the next had no moss. He turned right and discovered the next arch showed the stone covered with thick moss. The massive oak tree stood beyond the stone, shading it. The next arch again showed the stone with light moss. The pattern repeated as he made the circuit, until Dane once again arrived at the arch with the marker he had created.
Dane frowned. The gates of death lie beyond the stone.
He walked through the marked arch once more, pacing around the inside of the perimeter, but the passage beyond did not change. The stone was bare. When he reached his marker again, he counted off two arches and walked through to the passage beyond. Looking back, he saw the stone, now covered with a light sheen of green. Dane tapped his foot, perplexed.
“This is the present. The stone with no moss is the past. The stone with the thick moss and the Tree is the future. But how do I get beyond the stone?”
He sat down, frustrated, and listened for the Song.
A soft breeze stirred. He heard the Song in his mind. A gentle flute played, welcoming and sweet. The notes rippled up the scale, rippled again, over and over. Dane stood. The flute faded and he heard drums, boom, boom, boom. He took a step and the drum boomed with it. He paused and the drum paused as well. He took another step and the drum boomed as his foot hit the ground. Dane laughed and took another step. He turned the corner and walked through the next arch with the oak tree. The drums boomed, encouraging him. Dane kept walking around the perimeter and when he reached the end of the short wall and turned, a horn blared. Dane stopped and turned around, walking toward the last arch in the row. The drums boomed again as he walked, encouraging him. He began to turn left, back the way he had come and once again, a horn blared. Dane stopped. He turned to the last arch in the row and took a step toward it. The drums boomed. Dane went through.
This time, when he looked backward, the tree had withered. The stone was shorter. Dane’s brow furrowed. He turned the corner. The next archway showed the tree flourishing, the stone covered in thick moss. The arch beyond showed the stone covered in light moss. He stopped before the next arch. Inside the courtyard, the shorter stone and withered tree stood. Flute music rippled and the drum beat. He turned to approach the arch beyond and a horn blared a warning sound. Dane blinked as understanding dawned.
“There’s no bare stone, now.”
He stepped through the arch. Quickly, he skipped two arches to his left, the Song booming in his mind. He stepped through the third arch. When he looked back, the stone was only knee high. The tree was grey and fallen.
“I’m going into the future.”
He turned and counted two more arches and stepped through. Dane ran to the first arch after the next turn and walked through, shuddering as the cold air hit him. He passed two more arches and walked through. The stone was gone, and there was no sign of the tree. Dane passed the next two arches and stepped into the empty courtyard, walking quickly to where the stone had stood. A flat, weathered stone shelf lay in the grass. Dane knelt to pick up the object that rested there, turning it over in wonder.
It was a knife in a sheath. The sheath was hard, formed from some sort of shell-like material, cleverly inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Its craftsmanship was perfection. The handle was plain, carved from ebony. A small golden chain ran from its sheath to the handle of the slightly curved knife. Dane drew the knife. The steel of the blade carried intricate patterns. Dane turned it over and over, examining it. So engrossed was he, when Theo drew near, he didn’t notice.
“Unless I’m mistaken,” said Theo, “You’ve found your key.”
Dane jumped to his feet, startled. As he turned to face Theo, the sharp blade slid along his wrist, biting deep. Blood spurted, flowing onto the stone shelf. The shelf shuddered. Dane backed away, desperately holding his wrist in an effort to stop the bleeding. Theo scrabbled in his pack for a cloth. Above the shelf, a piece of the night sky grew, taking on the shape of a standing stone. Theo shook his head in disgust, “You’ve got to go through. I’ll wait here.” He strode to Dane’s side and grabbed his wounded wrist, examining it. He sang quickly. Dane did not understand the words, but the bleeding stopped as the Song enveloped him. The wound closed and knit together, leaving a thin scar. Theo stopped abruptly and shoved Dane toward the gate. “Keep the knife with you. You might need it to get back. Follow the –”
But Dane didn’t hear the end of Theo’s warning. He had stepped through the Gates of Death.
Dane blinked as his eyes adjusted to the bright light. The landscape before him, a meadow filled with flowers, surrounded a large circular stairwell. The stairs led up, disappearing into the clouds. They also led down. The meadow itself captured his full attention. Bright reds, greens and yellows dazzled him. Each bloom sent up a heady fragrance that washed away his fatigue, soreness, and tension. Birds trilled like harps, their song reaching into his inmost heart with something akin to a healing rain. The meadow stretched in all directions, rimmed by low mountains. Dane saw a river flowing in the distance, to his left. It meandered through the meadow at a stately pace, until it met a precipice. At the edge of the precipice, it flowed straight up into the clouds. Dane slowly walked toward the stair.
Is the water a column? Does it flow downward? It’s a column.
He watched for a long moment before realizing there were creatures moving in the water, swimming up and down. The river sparkled like an amethyst, pure blue in the sunlight. And the sunlight! Bright without being harsh, it embraced him softly. A gentle breeze ruffled his hair and kissed his face. Other beings wandered the meadow, none speaking to each other, though some exchanged nods. Some of the humans had blank expressions, gaping as if blinded.
Dwarves lay on the grass, napping. A dog barked and played with a colt. A few moved toward the stairs. Dane saw Fenfolk with their veils next to Forgemen, Chymaera in all their many forms and myriad animals. Dragons swooped above the meadow with lions made of flame. Gryphons glided toward the mountains, racing winged horses. Some of the men fought mock battles with invisible enemies, shouting battle cries. Others huddled alone, weeping. Children played next to old men wailing, their shining faces unconcerned.
The entire place teemed with life, peace, except for those in distress. Studying their faces, Dane saw equal numbers of creatures upset and ecstatic. Extremes ruled. Dane himself felt as if joy were welling up in him, blotting out all memory of sorrow or need, except for one thing.
The awareness of Sara, nestled in his mind, was absent. Since their bonding, he had felt her near, as if he could turn to speak to her and she would be there to answer. The loss was real. Even as his delight rose, her absence deepened. It was like losing his sight.
A horn sounded and some began to move toward the stair. Folk descended, following some silent call. Others climbed. Dane could see no discernible pattern or anyone directing. Where are they going? He looked more closely. Those in distress were descending. The children raced up the stairs. The dragon flew up, up until it vanished from sight. The other winged creatures followed as if chasing him. Most of the animals climbed.
How do I find the box?
Dane closed his eyes, breathing in the honeyed air, savoring. He listened for the Song.
The wind and the soft burble of the river, the birdsong and the hum of other voices mixed. They swirled together in his mind resolving into a chord. Pain and joy mixed in that Song, overwhelming him. Dane staggered, overwhelmed, and fell to his knees, weeping and laughing at once. The Song filled him, strong and pure. Deep misery and unending joy together, it threatened to leave him helpless. He gasped and threw up a hand to shield himself.
The chord faded. Dane lowered his arm, blinking. He knew what he had to do.
Dane stood and began walking toward the river.
The creatures swimming there, water leapers, fish, merrow, all ignored him, intent on their own goals. Those that chose the path down spiraled into a dark crevasse, a sudden cliff facing, rocky and unyielding, that broke the surface of the meadow like a wound. Dane followed the riverbank until he reached the place just before the water diverged, flowing up into the merry column or down into the dark pit. He took a running start and dived.
The water chilled him. Fish and alligators and turtles gave him a wide berth as he paddled down, down into the darkness. Dane swam with all his strength and realized he was rising instead of falling. He redoubled his efforts. A merrow yanked at his robes in passing. He was rising faster. Finally, he stopped swimming altogether. A few minutes later, he was thrown up on shore, ejected from the stream like a brawling drunkard is thrown from a tavern. He lay on the shore, coughing. Finally he sat up.
The water wasn’t moving. In fact, it hung suspended in midair, a great liquid cylinder. None of the other creatures moved. Dane turned around. Nothing, anywhere, was moving except for the old man striding toward him. Tall, dark skinned, with a white beard, a dark staff and an air of authority, he advanced on Dane. Dane stood to meet him. He bowed formally as the man approached. “Lord Faron.”
Father Time’s eyes crinkled at the corners and he laughed. “Young Danethor. You called me. Well done.”
Dane blinked. “Milord?”
“No living soul may journey on that river,” answered Faron, pointing to the column. “Your time is not yet complete. Come, I shall lead you back to your rightful space in His story.”
Faron turned and walked away, without looking back.
Dane scrambled to his feet and ran after Faron, overtaking him in the space between two breaths. “Please sir, I have come for the Lorica.”
Faron kept trudging, and answered as if Dane had not spoken. His ancient voice creaked, much like a tree in the wind. “They can’t bear it you see,” he said, pointing to one of the writhing women close to the stairs. ” The light hurts their eyes. They will do anything to find the darkness.” He shook his head.
Dane glanced, mystified, at the woman. “What was her crime?” he asked.
Faron looked at Dane, his eyebrow arching, and sniffed. “‘Twas a series of small failings which set her on her journey, a lifetime of rejection of the Storm King’s Solace binds her now. She can no longer recognize it or enter.”
“A tiny word can point a seeker toward his doom,” said Dane.
“Indeed it may,” said Faron, his eyes twinkling. “Do you know what that word might be?”
“No, ” said Dane, honestly.
“Correct,” said Faron. “Almost there.”
He stopped and smiled broadly, producing an octagonal box from within the folds of his robes. He handed it to Dane and waited, expectant.
The box, like the last one, was divided into sliding pieces. Dane cautiously listened for the Song and heard two melodies playing at once, bound together with a sacred chord underlying each. He sang them, one after the other. There were two songs, One was a birthday song, the other a dirge. The box rotated as Dane twisted the layers, singing the notes as the box chimed.
It popped open.
Inside lay a scroll. Dane unrolled it with eager fingers and sighed. He read aloud, slowly, for the words were written backward.
“The root of all habits settle the path.”
Faron nodded and extended his staff. “Remember,” he said, letting his staff touch Dane on his temple.
Dane’s life flashed before his eyes in its entirety. Playing with his father, helping his mother. Chasing his dog, Chance. Climbing trees with Poll. Listening to Pezzik’s stories, the gnome’s wizened face smiling. His lessons, learning to handle the Song by starlight. His walks with Bell. His parents death. Bell. Fae flashing. Hunted, his journey to Sundered City. Healing the World Tree. Sara’s face holding him through torture at hands of the Cantors. Escape. The Harmony Bond. Meeting the Storm King. Dane saw it all.
And he opened his eyes. He was back in the courtyard with Theo.
Faron stood at his side.
Yet Faron was already fading. He smiled at Dane. “We’ll meet again, my son.” And he was gone. A bell tolled. Theo, uncharacteristically silent, waited until the Cyntae disappeared before speaking. He appeared relieved.
“We must go, quickly,’ he said. Turning, he led Dane out of the courtyard. He sped up when he entered the palace. It was still empty and quiet. Too quiet. Dane couldn’t hear his breathing or footsteps. His back prickled as he followed Theo through the ballroom. When he got to the passage, he suddenly heard whispers all around. He quickened his pace. Was the passage this long before? He didn’t remember.
He kept his eyes on Theo, following him down the hall. Finally, they reached the front door. Theo yanked it open with the air of someone escaping and burst outside, Dane at his heels. Teran waited for them outside the gate. Theo and Dane ran through the gate and stopped, breathing heavily. The gate swung shut behind them.
Dane turned around, looking through the wrought iron bars. But as he watched, the palace and its walls shimmered and disappeared.
“It will return when we have need,” said Teran. His voice resonated like a bell in the fading twilight. “But you found what you sought?”
“Indeed, “ said Dane.
Theo smiled. “We found Faron.”
Teran blinked. “Truly? You saw him?”
“We did. Tomorrow hastens, my friend,” said Theo.
“Thank the Storm King,” said Teran. “We shall celebrate. Come.”
The Fellishman took them to his camp. It was only a short walk away, close to the lake. When they got close, Dane could see round tents scattered around large standing stones. The stones were huge, arranged in a circle. They stood, huge pieces of the night sky, connected by equally massive horizontal pieces.The Fell Folk moved among them. Fellishmen and women crouched next to the stones with small mallets. They struck the stones, making them ring like bells. Others danced in the midst of the circle, joining their voices with the music from the stones. Their thin ebony bodies bent and twisted in time to the throbbing melody. Behind it all, the sun set over the lake.
Dane’s breath caught in his throat at the beauty of the scene.
And he saw the spirits. They streamed over the hills, hovered above the dancers, watching. Fifty of them, with more joining as Dane watched. Spectres, they were transparent like fae, yet devoid of all color. As the dancers swirled, each drew closer until finally, they danced among the Fell Folk. Dane could see them. They whirled with the dancers, and the dancers steered them to the stones. Each new wave of ghosts descended into the circle, but they vanished as they came near a stone.
And then it was over. The music slowly wound down and the Fell Folk rested, exhausted with their night’s work. They dropped where they stood, spent. Teran waited, just outside the circle, for the music to stop before wading into the center of the group. Their eyes, glowing blue, watched Teran with a palpable intensity. No one seemed surprised to see him, though a few did look askance at Dane and Theo, who trailed behind. Teran raised his hands when he reached the center of the circle. A hush fell. Dane spotted M’ra and N’kum in the crowd, glowing ivory in the pale starlight.
“Faron has been restored to our world,” Teran said. “These Majisters have braved the gates of Death and brought him forth. Father Time is once again free. We shall feast!”
The crowd erupted, jubuliant. They whooped and cheered, surrounding Dane and Theo. Tables were set up with food and before long, they found themselves seated with the Chymaera, They ate with the Fell Folk and toasted the recovery of the refrain, and the release of the Cyntae, Faron.