“You dare question me?” The goddess Velik’s words were as sharp as the point of her arrows. “You? A lowly human? You dare stir up the same dissent that almost destroyed my city centuries ago?” Velik’s red face quivered. “This is what happens when you anger me. Let this be a lesson to keep your faith. Relive the Night of the Black Arrows.”
Around Sidra, the world swirled, grew dark, and he appeared on Velika’s streets. But not the city as he knew it. The Wheel of Velik stood uncompleted, a skeleton of beams, pillars, and metal. Instead of a temple, Velik’s palace rose in spires, domes, parapets, the entrance lined with colonnades.
Outside, the palace, a battle raged. The air rang with the clash of steel, the cries of the wounded, and roars of defiance. Sidra gagged at the stink of smoke, blood, and burnt flesh.
Next to him strode the goddess.
She held her six-foot bow with practiced ease, its length shining like pure obsidian. Her ebony arrows glowed with their blackness. How did black glow? Sidra knew not, but this blackness shone and wherever an arrow flew, the air blotted like ink trailing across a white canvas.
Each bolt struck true. Each bolt killed. The black trails ending with a splash of red.
Around Sidra, people died. Lit by the sun’s orange, pallid glow and the flames of burning buildings, the cobbled streets flowed with blood.
Whether they were in close proximity or a tiny form fleeing in the distance made no difference. They perished. A black arrow through the heart.
Whether they were human, giant-sized amani or baraka, horn-headed castanic, forever child-like elins, raccoon-faced poporis, or pointy-eared high elves made no difference. They perished. A black arrow through the heart.
Whether they were man, woman, child, warrior, merchant, or passerby made no difference. They perished. A black arrow through the heart.
The goddess Velik never missed.
“I warned them not to be found on the streets at sunset and beyond this day.” Velik said, her tone emotionless. “I declared Velika a place of safety, a place free of war and plunder, but the race wars between humans and everyone else made my proclamation appear a fallacy. No god worth their worshippers can have that. So, the citizens of Velika reaped what they sowed. Seeds of hate produced death, and I was the harvester come to collect. Do not let this be the city’s fate again.”
Sidra cowered and gibbered as the Night of the Black Arrows unfolded around him. Some may have found it hard to cower while stumbling, but somehow he managed such a feat. The words pouring from his mouth were incomprehensible mutters of everything from apologies to worship to dread.
On and on the slaughter continued. The goddess loosed, her countenance grim, her steps sure, her arm never appearing to tire. Time became a blur filled with screams, cries, pleas for mercy and the death rattles of thousands.
Eyes wide with horror, Sidra watched. He could not turn away no matter how he tried. It was if some hand held up and forced him to see the carnage. He choked on his own words, his own sobs, and prayed for the massacre to end.
And so it did.
The heat of the burning city was replaced by cold. Not so cold as winter, but cold enough to bring a chill to Sidra’s old bones. Sidra shivered, not so much from the drop in the temperature as from the memory of what he’d just witnessed. Winds whipped at his robes.
“Open your eyes,” Velik’s razor-edged voice commanded.
Sidra did. Gone was the Night of the Black Arrows, the city, the Great Temple and the Chamber of Prayer. He stood upon a precipice on a towering headland. Below him, waves crashed in a spray of salt from a gray-green sea. “W-where are we, great goddess?”
“Along the Black Cliffs of Dagon on the western shores of Arun.”
An impending storm brewed on the distant horizon, clouds gray and thick. Sidra’s hair flew across his face, and he frowned. His locks were white-streaked now instead of velvety dark. He didn’t have time to contemplate the change in color. Instead, the reasons the goddess had taken him here dominated his thoughts.
“To have a chance to redeem yourself. To have a chance to save your son’s life.”
Sidra started and made a vain attempt to keep his face blank. Had he spoken his thoughts aloud? “The Federation will have my head when I return. If the Prelate or Archprelate don’t find me first.”
Velik arched an eyebrow. “Until today, you’ve been a loyal Son of Velik. Your service is not forgotten. It is for that reason you still live. No one will remember your words today. As far as what they witnessed, Priest Beron uttered the blasphemy with you away on this pilgrimage.” She shrugged. “He’s one of Thulsa’s anyway.”
Beron, a servant of the dark god, Thulsa? The man never batted and eyelid when they slew Thulsa’s vampir and gula minions by the thousands in the Poporia Forests and within the Eldritch Castle. What else had Sidra missed among his own? How many others, like himself, had become disillusioned?
“Enough for it to have become more than a bother, but now is not the time. Now I need my followers the most, especially you,” Velik said.
This time Sidra knew she read his mind. He struggled to clear his thoughts. “Why now?”
Velik’s lips curled, but her smile was anything but pleasurable. “Hasn’t questioning the gods delivered enough trouble to you?” She pointed toward the crashing waves, “Out there, a power is rising. You shall see it shortly. As there are other tasks I must attend to, I need you to stay here. Chronicle what you see. I have bestowed much of your power back to you.”
By instinct, Sidra reached for the Disk at his side. The black feldspar and steel composite was as smooth as ever. The magic fusing the materials together thrummed at his caress. A long time since he’d touched the weapon.
“Make good use of it,” Velik continued, “If you cannot discover what hides within what rises, you will need to find another, more direct way.”
“How will I know when this power arrives?”
“Oh, you will,” Velik said, her body dissipating like smoke upon a breeze. “You most certainly will. And Sidra.” He met her expressionless gaze. “Do not fail or you will regret it for eternity.” With those words, the goddess vanished.
Sidra stood, hugging himself as a shudder passed through his body. Below him, the agitated gray blanket of waves matched the writhing clouds that blotted out any vestige of the sun. Dark and dreary as the worst of midwinter days, the afternoon dragged on.
He flinched and his stomach knotted when lightnings skittered across the surface of those clouds, reflecting among their gorged underbellies. Heartbeats later, thunder cracked in rebuttal, as if the Twelve Deities yet battled among the heavens in a war long dead. The clouds broke, spilling icy rain the swirling winds swept away. Eddies whipped at his cloak as if trying to cast him from his precarious perch.
The raging sea mimicked the winds and swirled, forming tidal waves. The giant waves swallowed any hapless craft unlucky enough to be caught in the unheralded storm. The violence of the storm quickly became illogical, not that much logic existed in the release of this much magical power, but the storm had grown to a scale of nearly mythic proportions.
Sidra focused on his Disk, and imbued it with more magic, reinforcing the weapon with the very power that drove the storm. The Disk rose out of his palm, spinning, slowly at first before its revolutions increased, and it hummed and glowed with power. Becoming one with the weapon, he snapped his hand out, and pushed it away from him. In the same motion, he commanded it.
The Disk flew out, circling him so rapidly only a magic-enhanced eye could follow. Light blue bolts of magic peeled off from it, surrounding him in what appeared to be a tenuous bubble. Nothing could penetrate the shield’s surface. The knots in his stomach eased.
Immediately, his cloak came to rest on the weathered stones beneath him. His hair settled peacefully along his thin shoulders as raindrops drummed against the shield’s surface. He wiped his forehead, and focused once more out to sea in time to witness the elements coalesce.
Emerald lightning pierced the canopy of clouds and flashed into the ocean’s gray surface. First one, then two, then a flood of jagged bolts roared down, illuminating the sea in a veritable kaleidoscope of magic, energy, and power. The sea responded in rage, heaving itself at the incoming bolts, devouring the power delivered into it until a gigantic maelstrom formed.
Although safe where he stood, Sidra’s stomach flipped and flopped, ready to spill the quail and rice he’d eaten earlier that day. Ice crept along his shoulders, and down his spine, like the cold hands of a castanic seductress freezing his blood.
He stood rooted, his jaw unhinged in awe, as a dark mass rose from the center of the maelstrom. The lightnings beat faster and faster until they were columns of iridescent power changing the ocean from grey to emerald blue. The waters rose with the mass before cascading off whatever unworldly surface it hid.
Land rose like some great monolith, exposing the skeletal structures of numerous ships from which the ocean flowed in waterfalls. Magic and power continued to rage across the newly exposed land. The sea subsided, and the lightnings diminished to lancing beams of magic and power.
Abruptly, the elements calmed and shafts of sunlight melted the clouds away, radiating along the distant shore like an unblemished dawn.
There, where once was roiling sea stood an island.
His breath caught at the enormity of it. He flicked his hand out, dispelled the shield, and his Disk dropped to his open palm. Reaching into the Disk again, he drew from the magic around him, and sent probing waves of power out across the vast expanse of water to the foreboding shores.
It had been years since he’d expended this kind of power. His magic touched the island, and instantly opposing forces repelled him. The magic protecting the island brushed his power aside as if it were some paltry annoyance. He drew more magic, sending it forth again and again, until his temples throbbed and pain laced his skull from the exertion.
All to no avail. The island’s secrets remained a mystery.
He sighed. I’m too old for expeditions. But his patron had given a command which in turn left him no choice. Not if he wished to live. Not if he wished to save his son.
He would have to make a trip to the island. And judging from what he’d felt, he would need a small army. He knew just the man to lead such a force. And if that man wouldn’t welcome him? Well, there were ways of convince him.