Chapter Nineteen : The Viridian Sword

The shadows arms elongated insanely, loosing their bony strength as they flex, shifted, became tentacles and wrenched the rider from his saddle. In the same fluid motion they drove him into the cobblestones, a cloud of dust shooting up as the cobblestones shattered and gave way.

"Get back!" Galvard was shouting the order now, wheeling about to get his men's attention. "Fall back. Mages," he barked. "Covering fire!"

With murderous cunning, the shadow sped towards the riders. Shafts of flame, dazzling in their brightness lanced out to meet it but it twisted and contorted, its frame shifting constantly from one shape to another. For a moment it was thin and lithe, the next, stocky and short as it wove its way forward. In an instant it was amongst the riders, its dark form almost invisible as the clouds moved in, bringing snow and blocking the already faint moonlight.

Galvard danced his horse backwards as the riders began to go down. With brutal efficiency the shadow tore through them. A pike pierced its side, but it responded by lengthening one arm, sharpening the claw into a single lethal point. It survived, the rider did not. Yet there was a method to its slaughter, as little by little it inched its way towards him, sweeping aside rider after rider as it bore down on him.

"Demon!" He roared as it finally closed in on him, its form blurring, claws becoming talons becoming hands becoming claws. "Face me."

It didn't bother replying, merely turned those two deathly eyes, like two pale moons, each as bright as a small star upon him. In that instant when their eyes met everyone else fell away, the mages, the riders, none of them mattered. All that mattered, all that he could see was the shadow, its dark body illuminated by its luminescent opal eyes.

"Come," he whispered, barely aware that his voice had become almost a hiss. "Come for me."

The shadow didn't hesitate, nor did it even seem to consider his challenge. Its first strike was directed not at him, but at his horse. The animal bucked, barely evading the razor sharp talons but he tumbled off it, landing on his side and rolling quickly onto his feet. He was winded, but not hurt, and he stood, his sword held in front of him.

He attacked next, his blade whipping up with all his strength behind it. The sword struck true, its metal sinking deep into the shadow's flesh. But he could feel the shadows malevolent energies surging through the metal, rotting it, turning it into a rusted, useless lump of deformed steel that dropped from his hands moments later.

Then the shadow was upon him. It struck out at him, claws catching his cheek and ripping a long, thin cut before the arm changed, became a tentacle and tried to wrap around him. He ducked beneath the appendage, and dived to one side as a razor sharp ribbon of flesh threatened to cleave him in half.

His ears were ringing, the cries of his men and the mages unheard as he broke away form the shadow, circling it as it circled him. It was fast, so fast, and it lunged forward again. He was too slow this time, to avoid the strike, and he took a terrific blow to the chest, one that shivered through every bone in his body. Suddenly he was on his back, gasping on the cobblestones as the shadow loomed above him, its claw coming down to finish him. Blindly he groped for a weapon, one of the daggers at his side perhaps, or a knife. Instead he found the hilt of the Sword of Virinion. There was nothing left to lose now, he though as he closed his eyes and brought the sword up. Nothing left to lose.

Whoosh.

A moment later he opened his eyes as a sound like a roaring flame rippled outwards from the sword. The claw had stopped, its black substance drenched in what looked like green flame, the sword's runes glowing more brightly than the very sun itself.

Slowly, he began to push, strength feeling his veins, unaware that the wounds on his cheek and on his body had begun to heal. He could hear the song of the sword now, a hungry, restless ballad of carefully restrained fury. It longed to be set free, to fulfil its purpose, so he let it go.

He shoved the shadow off him, stronger now than he had ever been in his life. The sword sang furiously as it moved almost of its own accord, carving a glittering viridian path through the air, screaming its fury, giving vent to its rage as emerald fire rippled from its slender length.

The shadow reeled backwards as he cut and stabbed with furious abandon. Everything the sword touched caught flame, and where flame had been the darkness seemed to peel away, to fall backwards as something pushed free of the shadow's flesh. Flowers, he realised, flowers and vines and leaves were bursting from the shadow's wounded flesh and rippling downwards, spiking into the ground through the cobblestones and taking root.

Caught in the burgeoning swarm of vines, the shadow reeled about. Its body shifted, sharp spines ripping through the foliage, but still the sword continued to hammer home, and with each blow more vines burst free from the shadow's flesh. What had once been a visceral gurgle became a wail, its mouth contorting, becoming a beak, a maw, and then, finally, a deep, empty pit of darkness.

With a howl of rage, torn from the very pits of its being, the shadow pulled free of its bonds. It rushed Galvard, and the two of them tumbled over and over on the cobblestones. The sword was no longer simply shining now, it grew brighter with each slash, until it seemed almost as though the sun was rising, an emerald dawn in the darkest of nights.

No longer fully in command of his intellect, Galvard fought on instinct. He kicked, he punch, he hacked, anything to try and get the shadow off him. Wounds formed and healed just as quickly as the sword's song grew ever faster, ever more forceful, a lilting counterpoint to its impossible brightness. But it was burning him, for it was like glimpsing at the sun, and his eyes were watering, his muscles burning, his very being aflame with viridian heat as the sword's wrath grew and grew and grew. Until at last, at last with the force of a star going nova the sword's power exploded outwards, consuming him, consuming the shadow, consuming everything until all that he could see, all that he could feel was the viridian light soaking into his soul.

"So little human," she asked, voice at once soft as a summer breeze, but as sharp as a winter gale. "What will you do now?"

The man swallowed audibly, utterly aware of both the power, the sheer intensity of the woman's gaze and of his own blade, held in her hands and resting lightly against his throat. She ran the blade silkily along his skin, not enough to draw blood, but enough, just enough for him to feel it.

"Kill me," he whispered. "Kill me and be done with it."

The woman smiled, an almost lupine expression, exposing long canines, and yet, even then, there was a sadness in her eyes, an ancient weariness. Abruptly the vines around him receded and he dropped to the ground as more vines sprang up beside her, taking the sword lightly from her hand.

"Kill you?" She asked, full lips drawn into a pout. "What a waste that would be." She smiled again, her expression almost seductive, though the smile never quite reached he eyes.

Cautiously the man got back onto his feet. His hands went immediately to his side, for the dagger he always kept there. It was gone, its metal length just visible in the tangle of vines at the woman's side. He waited then, waited for her to kill him, to have her vines or her wolves rip him limb from limb. He fully expected that, and was prepared for it. He was not, however, prepared for her to simply stand there, regarding him with a quaintly amused expression.

"Tell me," she purred. "Why you came." He moved to speak and she raised a hand, silencing him as her eyes, those ancient eyes pierced his very soul. "The real reason."

Unbeknownst to him, he reached up and removed his helm. The metal clanked as it dropped onto the grass. If only he could find a weapon, something, anything, even a stick, his eyes searched the clearing…

"Don't," she warned gently, eyes never leaving his. Her gaze was hypnotic, irresistible in its force. "I have no wish to kill you." She lifted a hand and the ground beneath him trembled. "If I had such a desire then you," she punctuated each word with a tremor. "Would already be dead. Now speak."

Slowly, haltingly his lips began to move. Horrified he tried to silence himself, but the words tumbled out of him, droplets of rain in a gathering storm. He told her everything, every hope, every desire, every dream, every thought that had driven him here. And at the end she simply stood there, ancient eyes thoughtful, but filled, this time, with genuine mirth.

"You cam all this way, little human, because of a dream?" She laughed, a sound as beautiful as a summer bloom. "Then you are truly a fool." The vine at her side vanished, and his sword tumbled onto the ground. "You came here, to this place halfway between worlds for a dream? For me? What were you planning on doing once you'd caught me, little human, hmmm, what then?" Another laugh, a bubbling waterfall. She tossed his sword back towards him.

"I admire your courage, little human, if not your wisdom." She seemed to shimmer from within, a viridian fire washing over her. "For that, and for the," she deliberated over the word. "Amusement you have offered me, I shall let you live."

The man lunged toward her. "I will find you again, I will avenge my men… I."

She smiled, a heartbreakingly beautiful smile as the lines of her form faded, dissipating like a ghost on the wind, leaving only her words. "Where I go, little human, you cannot follow. I am distant as the moon, as close as the horizon, you could walk a thousand days and never reach, or dream your life away and never see me again."

And then she was gone, leaving him with only the bodies of his men, and the haunting winter wind, blowing harshly across his face.

Alshana sat alone on the roof of the shrine, watching the stars dance in the sky above her. Here, above the town centre, above all the buildings, burnt and crumbling, it was easy, so very easy to find peace.

It was almost dawn, another hour, perhaps two, three at the very most, and the first faint strands of light would crest the eastern sky. Everyone else was asleep. The mages were exhausted, both from their exertions during combat and in the aftermath, when they had done their best to deal with the injured and the dead.

Galvard was down there also, asleep, or unconscious, it was hard to say. His sword had shone so brightly for a moment that even now, a few hours later, ever time she closed her eyes she could still see it, his form outlined in viridian light and the shadow, its very essence pealed away, revealing only a deep, malevolent emptiness beneath. When the light had cleared, the shadow was gone, and Galvard was unconscious, but otherwise unharmed on the cobblestones.

A flake of snow landed on her nose and she reached up to brush it aside. Up here, her mind was free to wander. Foxenfal's words came back to her and she certain now that he meant the Tower of Mirrors, but what, or where was its reflection? She needed to get back to the Dreaming Lands somehow. She shook her head. It was time to get some rest, even if it was only for a few hours because in the morning they'd be going back beneath town, to the caverns. She shuddered.

With a small hop she left the roof, slipping smoothly from one outcrop to the other as she worked her way down the side of the building. In the distance she could still feel them, the scrolls, whispering their dark promises. They represented everything that was bad about magic. Sure, they promised power, but the price they demanded, no one could pay it and still remain human. As she landed softly in the snow she wondered, not for the first time, about her translations. That was the thing with old languages, she couldn't really be sure. Were the spells simply to kill the shadows, or were they something worse, something altogether more insidious. Like what, she thought, how to become one?

"Quiet," Alshana cautioned as she led the mages down through the underground tunnels. "The noise carries a long way down here."

It was already past dawn, and she and the mages had just finished the long descent, by rope, into the tunnels. A number of the more able riders were with them, the others remaining behind at the town centre to watch over the wounded. Which, she reminded herself, included Galvard, for he still hadn't awakened.

"How far are we?"

She turned to the mage. "Not far now, but I ask you to brace yourself. It is not a pleasant sight."

Unfortunately, despite her warning, when they reached the large chamber, a number of the mages were sick. Violently so but she could hardly blame them. Most of them were healers by training, and even the others, such as herself who had seen plenty of combat were thankful that they had not eaten yet. Seeing it a second time did nothing at all to lessen the impact.

The oldest of the mages spoke. "You are right, my lady." He peered closely at the circle. "It is not a summoning circle. Whatever power it was channelling though," he blinked. "Is gone."

She nodded. "The spell was motivated using the energies of the dead," she indicated the bodies. "With their passing it was only a matter of time before the enchantment dissipated."

"Who could have done such a horrible thing?"

She shook her head. The mage was young, younger even than her, and her face was still set with youthful innocence. She was too young also, to remember the wars that her country had fought, wars where deeds every bit as dark, if not magical in nature, had been performed.

"There are those who would," she replied. "For power, or money, or a hundred other causes. But I have not seen a spell so finely worked for some time."

"You said the power was flowing to the east?" The older mage asked. "To where?"

"Galvard thought it might be headed towards Virinion. I would be inclined to agree.' There were murmurs of unease at that. "I've already finished my observations. Glean what you can then we will return to the surface."

Later, as she sat by herself on a cold plane of flat rock, the oldest of the mages came to sit beside her. For a while he said nothing, but then he turned to her and spoke.

"Do you recognise this spell?"

She shrugged. "I've seen a number of spells like it but nothing so," she mulled over her choice of words. "So sophisticated." And it was. The lines of power, the warp and weft of the magic were finely woven, the circle the magical equivalent of a chain of adamant.

"So you do not know the legends?"

With that comment, the mage garnered her full attention, and she turned to face him and asked, carefully, "What legend?"

The old mage settled more comfortably onto the rock and favoured her with a weary smile. "You are not from around here then." He sighed. "Virinion was founded more than three thousand years ago by a wandering warrior, sworn to the crown. Though the forest then was wild, the animals canny and ferocious, he and the people he brought with him were never attacked. They say it was because his bride, a lady of great beauty, had a way with beasts, could speak their tongues as fluidly as those of man."

He paused and breathed deeply. "For many years the warrior and his wife were happy, but one day, circles began to appear in the forest, marks and runes of terrible power. A darkness spread across the forest, a great blight, and the warrior's wife, the first Lady of Virinion sickened and wasted away. She was a great mage also, and knowing that her time was not long, she cast a spell of wondrous power. The marks, the runes, all were destroyed, and the blight was banished back to whence it came. But the price, the price that she paid was great indeed. She died. Her husband mourned her loss, and it was said that his grief was so great that the magic he possessed forever fled his body, and forever after only the female side of the line of Virinion could ever wield magic, and ever after the males could only ever sense it."

"That is an interesting legend, indeed," Alshana said. "Do the legends speak of what spell she cast?"

The mage shook his head sadly. "That part of the tale, and most likely the magic used to defeat the blight, is passed down only from mother to daughter along the line of Virinion. It is lost to us now."

"Yes," She said. "I have heard. Galvard's sister, she passed away."

The mage moved closer. "Passed away?" He said. 'Is that what you have been told?"

"What do you mean?"

"We no longer speak of it, for it pains Galithras much, and he has always been a fair and noble leader, so we honour his desires. But his daughter, she did not pass away. She was taken."

"Taken?" Alshana's eyes narrowed ominously. "Explain." Her tone brooked no contradiction.

"On the even of her eleventh birthday, she disappeared. She had gone for a ride in the forest with a retinue of riders. We searched for her for days, weeks, and found nothing, neither hide nor hair of her, or even of her escort. We suspected magic then, and we suspect it now. She alone would have known the entirety of the legend."

"Lady Alshana," one of the mages called, looking distinctly paler than when they had first entered. "We have finished here. Let us return to the surface now."

The first person to greet her back in the town centre was Galvard. He was a little hesitant in his movements, as though the light of the sword had done more than simply burn the shadow, as though it had burnt him as well

"Did you find anything new down there?" he asked.

She scowled at him, just a little quirk of her face before she stopped. Physically he seemed all right, but when she delved into the essence of his being, into the energies that powered him, she was more than a little surprised. There was magic in him now, not the small, negligible amount he'd always possessed, but a furnace of mystical power, and none of it was really his. Instead the magic that wrapped around his very being, that curled, cloak-like around his soul belonged to the sword. Very curious indeed.

"What happened, Galvard?" She asked. "Your sword. You are different now. What did it do to you, what have you become?"

"What do you mean?" he shot back. "I don't feel any different, tired perhaps, but not different. As for the sword," he said, face earnest. "I haven't got the faintest idea of what I did or how." He gave her a hopeful look. "I was hoping you could clarify that."

She should have been irritated with him, but he had such a well, un-Galvard like look on his face that it was hard to refuse. "All right then," she said at last. "After breakfast maybe we can talk. Perhaps it will make more sense on a full stomach."

After breakfast, Alshana found herself sitting beside Galvard on the steps of the town's shrine. Behind them, the old building was a reassuring mass of granite and sandstone, burnt in many places, and scorched all over, but still standing, strong as a mountain.

"I've never seen the sword like that, Galavrd. It seemed… alive, almost, if that makes any sense."

Galvard nodded, his eyes darkening as they fell onto the hilt of his sword, tightly sheathed at his side. "That isn't too far from the truth I think. When I drew it last night, the blade, it moved almost of its own. I'm not bad with a blade, better than most really, but I've never been that fast or that accurate. The blade did that all on its own, and the it's song…" he trailed off. "It's such a strange sound."

"Its song?" She queried. "What song?"

"When you hold it," he explained. "It sings. It sings of many things, of the winds, of the forest, of the snow and sky, at least that's what I think. Most of all it sings of its wrath, and it sounds, even though I can't understand the words, or even hear them properly, so angry, angry enough to destroy, to kill, to obliterate whatever stands against it."

She was about to speak, but at he interrupted. "And at the same time its calling to the land," he said. "You saw what happened. You saw those vines and those flowers. All the while it was screaming and beneath it all it was whispering for those things to come, for the land to bind the shadow."

"That is very strange," she admitted. "And not something that I fully understand. Though I believe that the sword may actually be bound to this area, much like a spirit or ghost may be bound to its resting place."

He nodded. "But it's so hard to let go of, you know. Because once you've got it in your hand all you can feel is its power, all you can hear is its song and then when it starts to shine, so bright that your eyes begin to water and you're afraid you might go blind," he took in a ragged breath, lost in the memories. "It doesn't matter, because you've got the sword and somehow, somehow you know it's going to be all right."

Another pause and then he pushed on. "But that isn't the only thing." He was looking past her now, past the clouds in the sky, past the very sky itself. "I saw them again, the man and the woman…"

"What were they doing, Galvard?"

He shook his head. "I can't tell you… I… it's just not clear enough, I remember, but not all of it… it's just…" he trailed off. "Not yet."

She'd never seen him like this, never seen him so unsure. So she laid a comforting hand on his shoulder and stood. "It's all right. The mages have finished up, and the injured have been cared for. If we want to get back to the city by night fall, we should probably get going."

Balivan wasn't entirely sure how he made it all the way to the travellers district in one piece. Suffice it to say that he'd seen better days. Sure, he wasn't buried alive, or floating down some underground river, but after all the adrenaline that had been coursing through him, his injuries were only now just catching up to him. As it was, he had the benefit of a cane, kindly lent to him by the healers, and a scrap of parchment with the name of an inn. Perfect.

Luckily for him, even though he didn't know the city as well as he used to, his family did. They'd dropped by almost immediately, although how they'd found out about him he couldn't be sure. His father, retired thief that he was had eyes and ears everywhere, while his mother, more law abiding, but no less formidable had her own sources. Whatever the case, his entire family, a collection of brothers, sisters, his mother, his father, aunts, uncles and a few people he was sure weren't any relation of his had visited him. It had taken him the better part of an entire day to escape, because while he appreciated the attention, it tended to nauseate him.

After more than an hour of hobbling, something that was really becoming a habit of his, he reached the inn and shambled up the stairs and into the tavern area. The barkeeper wasn't exactly the most friendly looking fellow, but he responded easily enough when Galvard asked about Alshana.

"Gone off with the riders," he muttered gruffly. "Won't be back for a few days. Still got the room though, some of her stuff is still up there."

"Thanks," Balivan replied as he sighed and leaned heavily on his cane. Well she had warned him that she had business to take care of. He had, incorrectly it seemed, assumed that she'd be around the next few days. He was just about to leave when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

"Are you looking for Alshana also, bard?" He turned to find himself looking at a stocky man, a former soldier by his build, with stern, but kind eyes and a small, cute looking child attached to his arm.

"Do I know you?"

The other man shrugged, while the girl, looking more like a barnacle with each moment, remained firmly at his side. "I was back at the last town you performed in, with the drunks," he clarified. "Who Alshana dealt with."

Recognition dawned on Balivan's face. "You must be that merchant," he said. Looking the man over he grimaced. "You look very different without the merchant's robes on, you know."

The stocky man chuckled. "The name is Allidor, and I was a soldier first, a merchant second."

"I'm Balivan, a bard as you well know," he replied.

"Come, sit," Allidor said. "I myself was looking for Alshana, I have it, on sound authority, that she should be back either late this evening, or early tomorrow morning."

Balivan followed the pair back to their table, not too far away from the door.

"A drink," Allidor said. "Ale for me and my friend," he turned to Iria. "And water for my daughter." At that the girl made a face, giving Balivan a look as it to say 'why don't I get ale?'

"So," Allidor asked as they sipped their drinks. "Why are you looking for Alshana?"

"Other than her saving me from drunks?" The bard quipped. "No, she helped me with an injury of mine. Let me add, also, that I've had a hard couple of days, a pretty hard week actually, and well, I think Alshana might be able to explain some of it to me."

"A hard week?" Allidor queried. "What do you mean?" When Balivan hesitated, he chuckled. "I am sure it is a fine story bard, might as well practise tell it now."

Balivan chuckled. That was true enough. He'd told tales of others for quite some time, now he had a tale of his own. Imagine that. "Well," he began. "It's like this." And so he told Allidor what had happened, although he did take some poetic licence, he was, of course, a bard. By the time he had finished it was already well past sunset, and the two of them were both a little tired.

The little girl on the other hand seemed not the least bit tired. In fact, she seemed rather fascinated by Balivan's story. He took that as a good thing, a thought he promptly retracted when, with the honest curiosity that only a child could ever possess, she began to question him mercilessly about it.

"You're a curious one, you know that," he said, fending off another barrage of questions.

"Everyone says that," Iria replied, not even missing a beat as she moved onto her next question. Magic was one of her passions, the other were stories, of adventurers and warriors, and well, it wasn't everyday you got to meet someone who'd actually lived a story like the one's she'd read about.

"You know, Balivan," Allidor said, eyes glittering with humour as his utterly formidable daughter continued to interrogate the hapless bard. "I don't think you're week is going to get any easier."