"There is a man here who wants to see you."
Aria glanced over her shoulder at the doorway, still fastening her earrings, then pulled a cloak over her head. Beth was the head waitress, a stout woman always in aprons with quite a few missing teeth. Aria had known her ever since she'd gotten the job in the Summit Peak Tavern some three years ago.
"Tell him to save his money for some other trash," she growled, and continued to pack her costume into one of the trunks. Her Majesty was the highest mountain this side of the valley, and Aria just so happened to be the lead act in the tavern just before its summit. She was sure that the high elevation and thin oxygen often shrank men's brains, if they weren't shrunk already from booze and gambling. She'd been asked before to spend nights in lonely traveler's beds - some offering money, others offering threats. So far she had succumbed to neither.
"Well, I don't think he's that kind of man."
Aria snorted. "They're all 'that kind of man.'"
"Well I really think you're mistaken."
Something in Beth's voice made Aria look up, and she now noticed the pale cast to Beth's face and the worried look in her eyes. "Believe me Aria, I know trouble when I see it, but this one is different - and he was most persistent with me. You should talk to him."
Aria frowned and stood up, throwing her bag over her shoulder. "Alright," she said quietly, "take me to his table."
Beth led her out of the back rooms where she had been changing, and into the tavern proper, a place filled with smoke, laughter, and hairy men. It reminded Aria of a crust of bread overran with maggots - the wriggling, squirming population was half-hidden in smoke, and the air was so dense it was like breathing lead. She pulled her hood down low over her face as she was lead through the crowd of men - she was never comfortable in such crowded places, no matter how long she had worked here.
She was led to the very back of the room to a table in the corner, where two men sat. The smoke in the air was so thick that Aria couldn't make out their features clearly until she was right in front of them, and Beth nodded to the man in a black cloak.
"Sir, this is Aria, our lovely singer in residence. . . is there anything I can get you two from the kitchens?"
The man shook his head and waved a gloved hand through the air, saying in a surprisingly warm tenor, "No, thank you. That will be everything." From the way he spoke, Aria could tell it was a command to leave, and Beth did so quickly. She was left alone at the table, staring at the two strangers, one swathed in black robes while the other in gray. Their hoods were as low as hers, and their faces were still covered with scarves and cloth, protection from the freezing night outside. They must have just arrived.
"Well, what do you want?" Aria asked - these people were cutting into her dinner time, and if they said one thing about a nightcap, she was going to sock one of them in the jaw.
The larger man, the one dressed in black, spoke again. "We need to talk to you."
"This is official business of Depthia, and anything said from now needs to stay strictly between you and me."
Aria raised an eyebrow, unconvinced. The royal family of Depthia never had business this high up Her Majesty's peaks. The only kind of men who gathered in these parts were those who didn't want to be found - outlaws with bounties on their heads, and other unattractive sort. "Official business" was not something said around here; it would get a soldier pinned to the wall through his naval, or a bounty hunter served for dinner, boiled up in one of cook's infamous stews.
But Beth had said these guys were serious, and so far they seemed decent. "Alright," she said, and sat down at the chair across from them. "Official business, eh? Well, you can count on me not to share a word." She winked, playing along with them.
The man nodded and moved to take down his hood, and Aria's eyes widened slightly as his face came into view. Compared to the rest of the beasts in the tavern, this man was a actually presentable - perhaps he had an afternoon shadow around the jaw and chapped lips from the cold, but his face was clean, and his longish black hair was neatly brushed. She met his light blue eyes, and was struck by the feeling that this man knew more than he was letting on. She swallowed. We don't get his type around here often.
"My name is Wraith Havoc," the man said quietly, "and I am a Magus in the king's army."
Aria's eyes narrowed. A Magus? This far up the peaks? The king's legendary soldiers were only talked about in rumors - some said they weren't even human, though Aria dismissed it all as a load of tosh. If he was after information about any of the men in this tavern, she would be the obvious one to ask - too bad she kept to her own business in these parts, and would keep her mouth shut anyway. She had a job to protect.
"Alright," she said, "so maybe you guys are serious, but I ain't gonna help you." Wraith's eyebrow rose slowly, and her face hardened. "I don't know anything of the travelers around here, we get a new batch every other week or so, you're wasting your time if you're digging for information."
She made to get up, but the man reached quickly across the table and grabbed her wrist, yanking her back into her seat. Aria's mouth opened in indignation, but his next words cut off her protest.
"We're not here for any bounty," he said, and his eyes were serious. "Will you hear me out?"
Their eyes were locked for an intense couple of seconds, and finally Aria swallowed, nodding and tugging her wrist out of the man's grip. She massaged the offended limb subconsciously - she had a few fighting tricks up her sleeve, but as far as brute strength was concerned, this man was a powerhouse. She would hear what he had to say; other than that, she wasn't about to promise anything.
She glanced at the Magus' silent companion, a shorter man and thinly built, shrouded in gray clothes. She could see a piece of white-blond hair poking from beneath his hood, almost as light as her own platinum coloring. He hadn't made any move since she had sat down at the table, and his hidden face was disconcerting.
Wraith leaned forward. "I'm going to cut straight to the point," he said, his voice low. Aria had to strain to hear him above the uproar of the tavern. "We are having a crisis in the realm, and the king has given direct orders to gather all Rhathian singers and bring them to the palace. I cannot say more in this place, but I have been sent to retrieve you."
Aria was shocked for the second time this evening. Her hand few to the hood of her cloak, and she blinked at the two men. "Rhathian? W-What do you mean?" she stammered. The annoyance in her gut turned to fear. If she was identified as a Rhathian to the rest of the tavern, she wouldn't only lose her job - something hard to come by for her kind - but she'd most likely lose her life.
"Lower your hood," Wraith ordered.
Aria shook her head firmly. "Do you have any idea what would happen to a Rhathian if they were seen openly in public?"
Wraith leaned forward again. "Listen, I know why you wear those head bands to cover your ears, and I know why you pull your hood over your hair. The king is demanding that all Rhathian singers come to the palace, it is a matter of life or death. Will you come with me?"
Aria narrowed her eyes, her temper flaring. She was being blackmailed, and she didn't like it one bit. "Listen here, you can't just order me around - I'm a citizen of this damned kingdom, and if you're going to demand that I come with you, I'm going to demand some answers!"
Wraith looked at her steadily, but Aria held onto her nerve. She wasn't about to bow her head complacently to a kingdom that would rather have her dead. "What is this about?" she demanded.
"It's about the Omegas," he murmured.
It stunned her to silence. The Omegas?
At that moment an explosion erupted from the left side of the building - heated air blasted in Aria's face, and she sat back in her chair, a yelp ripping from her throat. The walls shook around her and she could hear the sounds of crashing tables and yelling voices - what in the hells? Her chair tipped out from under her, and she fell backwards onto the straw-covered floor.
The screams and shouts that followed were lost on her as Aria hit the ground, rolling beneath the table when a stream of fire hit the wall next to her. She gaped in shock, at first too disoriented to think straight, then she stared in surprise - the fire was. . . black?
"Get up!" a voice yelled, and Aria found a hand dragging her to her feet. Wraith Havoc's face was pale and sweating, and she noticed that his companion was standing slightly behind him, as silent and shrouded as ever. The opposite side of the tavern was being torn apart by the strange black flames, and Aria felt as though the fire was burning her by just standing this close to it. She couldn't stop staring at the alien sight.
"Get out of here!" Wraith roared, shoving her towards the collapsed doorway - she stumbled, her legs wobbly beneath her as her shock began to fade. There was a hole in the wall to her right, and she could see the freezing, swirling snows of the mountain peak outside. She didn't have her extra layers on - she would freeze during the night like this.
"What in the nine hells is going on here?" she yelled, her voice barely audible above the roaring flames and screaming men. People were panicking on the other side of the room, and she spotted the figure of Beth, wrapped in about five layers of clothing, scuffling her way out of a similar hole in the wall. A few men were scrambling around on the hay-strewn ground, trying to gain back their spilled coins, while others were perishing in the black fire. Aria shuddered and turned away, her question going unanswered. Better to go into the night, where I can at least die peacefully.
She leapt through the gap in the wall just as the ceiling beams tumbled down behind her, and found herself sinking into the snow outside, already knee deep. Her pants were soaked through, and immediately her toes grew numb, yet her back still felt burned from the heat of the building. She turned, wondering what had happened to Wraith and his strange companion, and a new sight stunned her for the second time that evening.
What in the hells in that?!
A strange creature, black and oblong with a horrible limping gait, was creeping through the fire of the building. It was partially consumed by the dark glow of the flames, and Aria could make out strange tentacles drifting from its arms and back, licking at the ceiling and floor as though feeling its way forward. A panicked man got in its way, and Aria watched in horror as the man was sucked, screaming, into the beast's body - and was absorbed by the darkness.
"By the gods!" Aria screamed, and stepped back. "What in hells is that thing?"
"A Nightmare," a voice answered her, and she turned to see Wraith standing near her side, mostly in the snow but with a foot partially in the building. "I thought it would take them longer to reach you."
"Yes - now quiet, and stand aside! I have to do this quickly before it senses you." She watched, puzzled, as he moved forward and put two fingers in front of his lips - then he blew across his finger tips, and Aria saw a strange, silvery wind gust forward, enveloping the body of the small, gray companion by his side. She watched with wide eyes - she had never seen magic before, she wasn't even sure that what she was seeing was real.
The gray man, who had been quietly standing, suddenly twitched to life. Aria watched in fascination as the body jerked forward, then lifted smoothly into the air, gently floating.
"Luz's flame!" Wraith called, and suddenly the gray man's figure burst into white light, so bright and Aria was forced to turn away. The light consumed the small place, overcoming the flames and washing out all color, and the nightmare creature burst into white fire. A screeching cry raked across Aria's ears, making her scream in pain, and then there was a sizzling crackle. She found herself falling to the snow, her body consumed by the freezing drifts, and the brilliant light filled the clearing and the trees around her. She wouldn't have been surprised if every town on the length of Her Majesty saw the flash in the sky. The roar of the flames diminished, and everything grew still behind her. When she finally gained the courage to look again, she found the gray man back to normal, standing quietly in the building's parameter, and the fire had mostly diminished. What flames were left were small and orange.
"We need to get out of here before more turn up," Wraith said, and she jolted in surprise when she realized he was right next to her. He leaned down and offered her a hand, which she took after a moment's pause. She couldn't stop staring at him, remembering the strange magic he had summoned. Once standing, they began walking forward through the drifts, and an icy wind blew from the east. Immediately Aria was brought back to reality.
"Wait!" she called to him, "I don't have enough layers to last outside like this! And all my clothing was just burned up with that tavern!" She turned, looking at the wreckage behind them - her eyes tried to avoid the heaps of smoldering bodies. "What was that thing?" she asked, but this time in a whisper.
"Shadow," Wraith said, and suddenly Aria found herself being picked up by the blond man in gray, and carried easily above the snow. Again she hadn't noticed his approach - and she was shocked that such a small frame could lift her so easily. Was that his name, Shadow? Or did it mean something else?
"Hold on, I didn't say I'd come with you!" Aria said shrilly, more out of surprise than of annoyance.
"We will set camp a ways from here, we have some extra pairs of clothing in our packs. I'll explain everything once you're warm," Wraith said, then turned back to look at her with those piercing blue eyes. "But if you ask me, there's no home you have to return to, so you might as well come along."
Aria's eyes widened, then she glared - she couldn't exactly be blackmailed anymore, though she couldn't very well survive on the slopes alone either. "We'll see about that," she muttered, and they continued into the night.
- o - o - o -
"Gods bless the fire," Aria whispered, and held her hands over the open flames. They had found shelter in a small cave a brief trek down the mountain, and had started a fire there. Wraith had picked up a few pack animals along the walk, two giant, woolly yaks laden with bags of supplies. Here they had taken a stone and flint to start a fire, and she had been given some warm outer layers of clothing, a thick bison-skin cloak and water resistant boots. They were now cooking a modest soup over the flames from a brown package, and Aria could feel her stomach rumbling.
She looked up at Wraith, swathed in his black layers of clothing, and she could see now the red emblem of the Depthian royal court stamped across his shoulder. He seemed pale and drawn, and hadn't spoken since their arrival. She wondered if working magic took that much strength out of him.
The man in gray sat by his side, still as stone - he hadn't said a single word as of yet.
"So does he ever say anything?" she asked, nodding to Wraith's companion, and the Magus looked up at her.
"No, he is mute. . . but he understands things more than I do, at times."
Aria wondered if the man was joking, but he held no smile with his words. She looked over at the silent man again, and asked, "Is he. . . human?"
Wraith raised an eyebrow. "No," he said plainly.
Aria looked back at the gray man, now even more uncomfortable than before. "What is he, then?" she asked slowly. She was beginning to think the rumors about Magi were more true than she'd originally thought.
"My Shadow," Wraith answered.
Aria looked at him, her expression prompting him for more information.
Wraith nodded to the Shadow, then looked back at her. "When we finish our training and become Magi, our shadows are taken and formed into real beings. We use them as tools to create stronger spells."
Aria nodded, though she wasn't quite sure she understood. Magi were trained? By who? And how did one make a shadow into a man? She quickly observed the area around Wraith, and noticed for the first time that indeed, he did not have a shadow laying on the ground or the walls around him. Now that she noticed it, the fact was glaringly obvious - he seemed to stand out from reality like something that hadn't been painted quite right in a picture.
"Shadow, take down your hood," Wraith said softly, his eyes still trained on her. Aria swallowed and turned to watch.
The smaller man complied immediately, and pulled back his hood, but the scarfs stayed in place around his mouth. Aria was surprised - she wasn't sure what she had been expecting, but the face was more human than she had thought. The hair was wispy and pale, an ashen blond color, and the eyes were like large crystal almonds, the color of white smoke. The face appeared to be young, almost boyish, but she couldn't be sure with the scarf covering his mouth. She didn't ask to see any more.
She turned back to Wraith as he started dishing out the soup, giving half to her and the other half to himself - apparently Shadow didn't need to eat anything.
"So how about telling me what that creature was back there, and what I have to do with anything?" she asked, hoping to find a more normal topic.
Wraith took a sip of the soup, brushing a few black strands of hair behind his ear. Then he looked at her. "You know of the Omegas?" he said, "The great beasts that slumber deep in the bellies of Her Majesty and Her Majesty's Twin?"
Aria nodded. The Omegas were said to be creatures of great magic, doorways between the mortal realm and that of the gods - the beasts were contained within the two mountains, Her Majesty and Her Majesty's Twin, separated by a broad valley. One Omega reigned over the light in the world, and was the giver of life and good fortune - the other Omega reigned over the opposite, death and darkness. If either awoke, the balance of the world would be disrupted, and disaster and chaos would rain down upon the land - or so the legends said.
Wraith looked at her. "And you know about the sacred duty of the Rhathians?"
"I'm surprised that you would know," she growled - did he think her completely ignorant? Perhaps she did not know much about the Magi, but the Rhathian heritage had been ingrained in her by her parents; it was all her race had to hold onto. "We were supposed to be the caretakers of the Omegas, until your kind killed us all."
Wraith continued to hold her gaze, and for a few moments Aria felt ashamed of her words, but there was much hatred between their two kinds.
"This business goes beyond that," the Magus said quietly. "The Omega of Light is growing restless and she sleeps fitfully. She is having nightmares-"
"How do you know that?" Aria cut in. "The Omega of Light is hidden deep within this mountain, and has slept for more than ten thousand years. How could she be having nightmares now?"
Wraith frowned at her. "The Depthian royal court has tried to shoulder the responsibilities of caring for the Omegas, and we watch her constantly. . . about a year ago, she began to twitch and turn in her sleep. We know she is having nightmares. . . because her nightmares are becoming real."
She looked at him skeptically. "Real?"
"That creature that attacked the tavern is an embodiment of one of her nightmares."
Aria's eyes widened, for a moment unable to believe it. "Are you saying that something that gruesome could come from the Omega of Light?" she asked.
Wraith nodded. "We have witnessed it first hand."
Aria shook her head slowly, but she could remember what the beast looked like clearly, and it was nothing from this world. Her mother and father had taught her of such things when she was young, before their deaths. If one of the Omegas woke up, the balance would shift and horrible creatures would escape from the realm of the gods into the realm of the mortals. If the Omega of Light was having nightmares it could only mean one thing.
"The king fears that she will wake soon," Aria said, "and is summoning all of the Rhathian singers to try to calm her. I see."
"Yes," Wraith said, taking another sip of the broth. "That is exactly what is happening. Disturbingly enough, we have discovered that the nightmare creatures are hunting down the Rhathians too."
Aria's eyes widened. "That doesn't make sense," she murmured. "We are the caretakers of the Omegas. . . why would She want us dead?"
Wraith shrugged. "We don't know, but we are trying to find out." He waved a hand to her idly. "Now, since you know the full story, will you please take down your hood? I was sure you were Rhathian when I heard your singing tonight, but I want to see it for myself."
Aria stared at him for a long moment. The Rhathians had once been the upper crust, a rich society and culture, but then the Depthian slaves had rebelled and slaughtered them. Now if Rhathians showed themselves in public, they were loathed so extremely that they were often killed by mobs. She sighed. It had been a long time since she had walked freely.
With a slight nod, she lowered her hood, feeling oddly exposed in front of the Magus. The firelight revealed her light silver hair, tied in knotted braids. She had also wrapped an extra cloth around her head for protection, but now she undid it too, revealing her pointed ears. Wraith let out a small breath when he saw her forehead - in the center was a pale blue stone the size of a third eye, embedded into her skin and skull. The stone's color betrayed a Rhathian's family heritage, passed down from father to child. If the head stone was removed, then the Rhathian would die, and in the past hundred years the stones had become popular on the black market as cures for certain diseases and infertility. All a myth, Aria knew, but that didn't stop her race's slaughter. . . or the slaughter of her parents.
"Yes, Depthian, I am one of those singers,"she said quietly, and tied the cloth around her head again. "So that is all I must do? Sing the Omega back to sleep? You know there are only certain spells that can do that."
Wraith nodded. "We have the spells ready, all we need are the singers. You will be the last one we can gather."
Aria nodded slowly, thinking it over. She hated most Depthians and couldn't care less what happened to their race, but the fate of the Omegas was personal, a part of her own heritage. Perhaps the last thing that the Rhathians were useful for.
"I'll go with you," she said quietly, "but only for the Omega, not for your king. And I expect some kind of payment. . . I don't exactly have a home or a job anymore, you know."
Wraith's lips turned upwards in a small smile, and Aria was surprised by how attractive the expression was.
"Deal," he said, and they continued to eat their food in silence.