Steps Saga Part 9—To A World Departed
Thomas J. Lauser
“He’s haunted by the memory of a lost paradise / In his youth or a dream, he can’t be precise / He’s chained forever to a world that’s departed / It’s not enough, it’s not enough.” – Pink Floyd, “Sorrow”
“He wants what?”
Ferdinand’s eyes glowed pink as he held the Communication Crystal in his left hand. He stood near the window in his bedroom, looking down at the city of Minthera below. It had been a long, arduous night of restlessness, filled with the cries of his grandson and the frustrations of his mother.
“I told you and Alistair, this is my only offer! Either Venomar agrees to it, or Alistair comes back here and goes on trial—where I assure you, he will be executed!”
The Emperor spun around and kicked over a chair, breaking the back off of it.
“This is bullshit! It was Alistair’s job to convince Venomar to take the deal—by Beatrice, his damn life depended on it! Bring him back! Do it right now!”
“Is that what you want, Your Grace?” Francesca replied.
“Of course it’s—”
Ferdinand tapped the side of the Communication Crystal twice with his thumb. His eyes returned to their normal teal color, and he looked to the doorway, where Isabella stood with his infant Seragorn grandson in her arms. The boy began to sob uncontrollably in a deep, harsh wail.
“He just got to sleep, but your yelling woke him up!” she shouted.
“Take him elsewhere! This is Imperial business—business that will determine his future!”
“You may be the Emperor, but you’re still my father! Don’t forget that!” she countered. “And I can’t take him elsewhere, I have nowhere to go!”
The Emperor lowered his eyes and sighed.
“I’m sorry. I’m trying to fix that,” he looked down at the Communication Crystal, turning it over in his hand. “I’ll keep it down, and be with you in a few minutes.”
“You’d better!” she then lifted the crying infant up, rested his chin on her shoulder, and left while patting him on the back. “It’s alright, Isaac. Don’t worry, baby.”
As she walked away, Ferdinand looked at the boy’s pale green skin and teal eyes. Eyes that had been the calling card of his family’s lineage for generations. So innocent, he thought. A life without knowledge of the tumultuous world he would soon enter. Perhaps he would never need to learn. How glorious it would be if he never needed to learn.
Ferdinand glanced behind him, where the morning sun was rising above the Port of Antony. He prayed his next decision would not bring about his end. He tapped the crystal once, returning him to the conversation.
“Ferdinand, where were you? We lost contact there,” Francesca said.
“I needed a reminder. A reminder of who among us has the most to lose.”
Ferdinand sat on his throne in the Julian Assembly and grinned.
“In the year 190,” Letherious said from behind the podium. “The Ascendant was forced to abandon his conquest of Avarad to return home to the then-capital of Italos to quell a slave uprising. This uprising, you might recall, was led by Velmar, who some claim to be an ancestor of Venomar. Whether or not the two men are relatives is irrelevant. But their goals are one and the same! Under Velmar’s leadership, the rebel Orcs slaughtered countless civilians, including The Ascendant’s own family!”
Many Senators and guests applauded. Letherious nodded, taking a moment to soak in the adulation.
“Never forget, my friends, that holy Beatrice and her children were butchered like pigs by greenskins!” he continued. “If they were given freedom, the same would happen again to your families! We cannot afford to put our most innocent at risk! Slavery is the Orc’s natural position! Subjugation is both what they need and what they crave!”
“Are you finished, Letherious?” Ferdinand cut in. “I believe we’ve heard this diatribe before.”
“Of course, Your Grace,” Letheriius replied. “So long as you are ready to make your own closing statements.”
“I believe I am.”
“Very well. My brothers and sisters, I turn the floor over to our glorious Emperor!” Letherious pointed back at Ferdinand. “Let us pray he has the best interest of our people at mind. And an update on the traitor who opened this Summit.”
“Of course,” Ferdinand rose.
Letherious gave a slight bow and returned to his seat next to Lady Scapula. The crowd had thinned out somewhat since the first day of the Summit. The slavers had stayed, dominating the floor with rants that would’ve sickened even the most closeted racist. Reporters from Magazetts all over Theranos remained, though the preceding days had been far less dramatic than the first.
But the abolitionists had dwindled in number since Alistair’s imprisonment, with only Irett and a handful of devoted others courageous enough to stay behind for what appeared to be a losing effort. Even Majesty Yamoaka and Governor Menendez had left, both stating that their Provinces needed them.
An understandable but unfortunate decision, Ferdinand thought. They were about to miss quite the show.
Ferdinand took his place behind the podium, his smirk never leaving his face.
“When I announced this Summit,” he began. “I hoped it would, at long last, resolve the issue of slavery. I hoped that through discussion and debate, we could find common ground. A mutually agreed upon solution, a peaceful way forward that satisfied all parties.”
“But now,” he continued. “I realize that there cannot be a middle ground on this matter. Any man attempting to stand in the center is doomed to be pulled apart by the arguments of both sides. It is all or nothing. With slavery, there can be no compromise.”
Letherious shifted in his seat, looking to his fellow Senators with concern as he wondered where the Emperor’s speech was going. After all this, was Ferdinand about to do the unthinkable? He would not. Surely, he knew the consequences.
“Thus, when it became clear to me that there would be no resolution, I called upon the one resource this Summit handed me. I am referring, of course, to Alistair Blackwood.”
“What?” Letherious shouted. “What have you done?”
“You asked about your brother, Letherious,” Ferdinand countered. “With his assistance, I have arranged a meeting with Arkresh Venomar Ahn’Vas,”
The Assembly erupted on all sides. Ferdinand pointed to his throat. A green beam of magic shot from the tip of his index finger and enveloped his throat, amplifying his voice.
“To resolve the issues between our people for all time. This conference will take place in a month at Alistair’s penthouse outside of Theranos’ oldest city—Patamos. There, under the remnants of our Precursor forbearers, we will work until we can come to an agreement that serves the interests of both Claudians and Seragorn.”
“Did you hear nothing I said?” Letherious rose from his seat and took the floor, his combat robes flowing behind him. “Did you hear nothing any of us have said since the day this nonsense began?”
“Your passionate racism and delusions of grandeur? I heard all of it, Letherious. And I’ve opted to ignore it,” Ferdinand replied. “Thank you for handing me Alistair. You’ve done so much to help the slaves!”
“How dare you ignore the will of the Senate? How dare you ignore the will of the Empire!?”
“I am the will of the Empire!” Ferdinand shouted. “For far too long this Senate has acted as though you are the sole power in our government. You have forgotten your true role—advisors to the Successor of Reman, the Bearer of the Nine Rings, the Emperor of All Claudians. I make the decisions here, and though I respect your input, I need not follow it. That is why I rest on a throne, while you sit in the stands!”
“And you forget what happened to Baudelaire!” cried Letherious as he drew his Gladeon. “Perhaps it is time you suffered the same fate!”
“Sit down, Letherious!”
The Assembly fell silent as Caius Scipio, the oldest active Senator, rose from his seat. A veteran of the Myralian Crusade, the wizened general spoke little, but when he did, it was respected—even if it contradicted something he’d said just a day earlier, as was often the case.
“The Emperor is right. Not his point, but about his own role. An Emperor’s job is to listen to the Senate, but make the decision that is best for the sake of the Empire.”
“He wants to negotiate with Venomar! We’re not talking about taxing peanuts! The man is, and always will be, the single greatest threat to Imperial sovereignty!”
“I concur, Letherious,” the old War Hawk stepped down to the Assembly floor. “The decision is unwise. But that’s beside the point. Ferdinand has, at last, grown a pair.”
The Assembly snickered. The Emperor grimaced from his throne.
“I’m entirely serious. He’s doing what we elected him to do. Acting boldly, with authority, and without care about matters as trivial as political ramifications” Caius took a step closer to Ferdinand’s throne. “So enjoy your newfound balls, Ferdinand. But if they end up wrapped around your neck, do not expect us to cut you loose.”
Once more, those gathered burst into a fit of amusement. Only Letherious and the Emperor remained serious.
“Enough rope to hang himself,” Letherious said through gritted teeth. “An excellent suggestion, War Hawk. Let’s hope the Emperor remembers that when he meets with Venomar.”
“Boast as you wish. I’ll let history be my judge,” Ferdinand rose from his throne. “This Summit is officially over. We will convene after the conference to discuss any treaty the Arkresh and I reach. But if you’ll excuse me, I have negotiations to prepare for.”
And one hell of a treaty he’d bring them, Ferdinand thought as he walked through the door behind his throne, two Knights of Hamilton behind him. He’d get the best deal for his Empire, for his grandson, for all Claudians who would come after them.
But he knew how any compromise with Venomar was likely to be viewed. He could get the Arkresh to apologize for Velmar’s Insurrection and men like Letherious would still have something to complain about.
When he returned from the Conference, they’d call him a traitor. In a year, a madman. In five, a visionary. And in a decade, the herald of a new era of Claudian prosperity.
To Ferdinand, that made all the difference.
“Unacceptable! You’re selling out our people!”
Venomar and the four Sulmarr met at The Compass, a meeting area built by the Ancient Seragorn at the summit of Mount Threk. The Arkresh stood in the center, while the Sulmarr sat on large stone thrones that corresponded with the Hold they ruled over—North, South, East, and West. Each throne was built into the mountainside, and elevated them high above Venomar—a visual reminder of who held the true power in the Seragorn Republic.
“This ‘Conference’ is an insult to Goredemar, a disgrace to Velmar, and a stain on the memory of every Seragorn!” continued Gortaz Bek’Los, Sulmarr of the East.
“All I’m doing is negotiating with him,” Venomar replied. “We will work until we reach an agreement that resolves the many issues keeping us in conflict.”
“You think you can end a thousand years of conflict in one conference? You’re not Nez’Gar!”
“If he frees the slaves and gives us North Avarad, what reason do we have to fight?” Venomar asked, looking to the other Sulmarr for support. “The healing can begin.”
“He’s never going to give you both,” said The Huntress, Sulmarr of the West. “And even if he did, it wouldn’t end the conflict. There’s too much bad blood to expect an instant recovery.”
“And I had my doubts he’d agree to negotiate,” Venomar countered. “But here we are. With time and convincing, he will see our side.”
“He’d best,” said Ekul Gor’Tahn, Sulmarr of the North. “Anything less and you’d be breaking the promise you made to all of us at the beginning of the rebellion. The promise you made, right here, at this spot.”
“I remember,” he replied. “And I have no intention of forsaking my promises. But I did not come here to ask for permission nor approval. Only to inform you of my plans.”
“What?” cried Gortaz. “You came here as a damn curtesy?”
“I control all matters related to war and military, Sulmarr Gortaz. This is my jurisdiction,” Venomar explained defiantly. “But I believed it best to keep a clear, honest line of communication between us—as I have done throughout my time as Arkresh.”
“If only the children who have grown up genuflecting at the mere mention of your name could hear you now!” Gortaz slammed his fist on the armrest of his throne. “Abusing your power so you could sell us out to the Claudians!”
“Surely, this is about your friend Alistair?” Ekul leaned forward. “He was in Imperial custody. Did you do this to get him released?”
“No,” Venomar shook his head. “If that was my only concern, I’d have made a far different decision. This is about ending the perpetual pendulum of conflict, and building a better future for all Theranos.”
“All Theranos? All Theranos? Your job is to build a better future for the Seragorn! To Octavarius with the rest of the world! Let the Claudians, Cryomancers, and Leonii burn for all I care, so long as we are standing atop the ashes!”
“Regardless of what you want, Gortaz, this is Venomar’s decision. The Arkresh has always negotiated treaties,” said Iraka Kor’Vas, Sulmarr of the South. A fellow member of Clan Guldara, Venomar had heavily supported her when she ran for the position.
“Ah, there you are!” Gortaz quipped. “At last, Venomar’s stooge has something to say!”
“Call me what you wish, the laws of the Ancient Seragorn are on my side! This is how the balance of power has always worked!”
“She’s right. Every Arkresh in history has been responsible for such matters,” said The Huntress.
“Venomar has made nothing but cowardly, asinine decisions since the end of the First Rebellion! If it weren’t for him, we’d be beyond the Bulwark by now!”
“I’ve disagreed with many of Venomar’s choices,” said Ekul. “But the Huntress and Iraka are right. This is his call.”
Gortaz balled his fists and groaned.
“Fantakka!” he cried, pointing at the Arkresh with a long, bony finger. The two guards who stood in front of his throne looked at each other nervously. One of them gulped. The other nodded, and then came charging at Venomar.
The Arkresh squared up. He knew this guard—Ledak Ata’Kor, from Kholdros. He’d told him over a drink after the last time Venomar bested him in such a challenge. This time, Venomar thought, he’ll deserve two.
Ledak lunged, but the Arkresh stepped out of the way. The guardsmen stumbled, pivoted, and came at Venomar with a pair of hooks. Venomar avoided both strikes, and kicked Ledak in the gut. With a cough, he stumbled back. The Arkresh then took a step forward, wrapped his arms around his opponent’s waist, set his feet, and suplexed him over his head.
Both men crashed to the ground. Ledak groaned and rolled in agony. Venomar lay on the ground for a minute before picking himself up, wondering how long it’d been since he last performed such a maneuver.
“Will that be all, Gortaz?”
“Very well,” the old Sulmarr said through clenched teeth. “But if the results of this negotiation are anything less than a coup, we will be revisiting the issue of your recent performance at our next meeting. Many in my Hold have begun to wonder if it is time for a Rite of Worthiness.”
“I can assure you that will not be necessary” Venomar replied. “I’ll see you after the Conference.”
Venomar left The Compass and walked further down the mountain path, where Bazra and the Arkresh Elite were waiting for him.
“How did it go?” Bazra asked.
“As usual,” Venomar reached into a pouch on his belt and withdrew a small letter. “Have this sent to Iranok straight away.”
Bazra went to open it, but Venomar waved his hands.
“Don’t read it!”
“A surprise?” Bazra smiled. She handed it off to one of the Elites, who went to take it to a messenger.
“Perhaps. Come, we have another stop to make before we return to the Palace.”
Meldah awoke to the sight of Venomar, his hands folded, sitting at her bedside.
“I could get used to this,” she said, smiling. She looked down at her right arm, and realized it had been re-bandaged by Osiren while she slept. Ridiculous, she thought. This was her badge of honor, not a mark of shame.
“How about this?” Venomar replied.
Meldah’s daughter, Vakera jumped out from behind the Arkresh, her five year old face beaming with pride.
“Oh, Kera!” Meldah cried. “It’s so good to see you!”
Vakera leapt up onto the bed and embraced her mother.
“I was so worried about you, mom! Are you gonna be okay? Veenomar said you’ll be fine.”
“I’m going to make it, memora,” Meldah grasped her daughter tightly with her left arm. “Thank you for bringing her, Ven.”
“Of course,” he replied. “Knew it would cheer you up. Once I received the details of your condition from Osiren, I knew it would be safe to bring her.”
Venomar’s sorrowful violet eyes turned to her bandaged arm. Meldah shook her head.
“Ven, I’m going to be alright. I asked Osiren to remove these bandages. I’d have you do it if not for obvious reasons.”
“What’s wrong with your arm, mamra?”
“Nothing, memora,” Meldah patted her daughter on the head with the hand of her uninjured arm. “I hate to ask. But could you wait outside for just a few minutes? Mamra has work to do.”
“Aw, but I just got here!”
“I know, and you’re going to stay a while—even after Venomar leaves. But first, he and I need to talk.”
“Meldah, you’re injured, there’s no need—”
“No. I want to hear about what’s going on.”
“Of all the Seragorn,” Venomar said proudly. “You’re the strongest I know.
“I’ll be back! Make it quick!” Vakera said as she hopped off the bed.
“While you’re out there, take a look at these,” Venomar stood up shoved a deck of Quippa cards into her tiny fingers.
“Cards? From the Aarkreesh? How did I get so lucky?”
“Enjoy them, Vakera. They’re all yours.”
“Thanks Veenooomar! You’re the best!”
Vakera hugged Venomar’s right leg and then exited the room, gleefully looking over her cards.
The Arkresh then brought his chair closer to Meldah’s bed, sat down, and told her about the past few day’s events. He told her about his hunt for the Reavers of Odahn, the surprise letter from Alistair, the meeting on Stiiros that followed, and the Conference to come.
“Well, I picked a terrible time to get wounded,” Meldah began. “If I had been there, I’d have tried to talk you out of meeting with Alistair at all. But this conference. . . I can’t believe you’d go this far for one man.”
“A man who’s done more for the Seragorn than any other Claudian. And some Seragorn,” Venomar replied as he thought of the Sulmarr. “But this is about more than that. We’ve an opportunity to end the conflict in finality and bring about true peace.”
“Then I suspect you’re willing to change your position?”
For several moments, Venomar remained silent.
“No,” he said at last. “I will not break my promise. And that’s what concerns me more than anything. How do I get Ferdinand to give me North Avarad and freedom for the slaves?”
“You need to give him more than he’d ever imagine,” Meldah quickly replied. “A deal so enticing he can’t afford to pass it up. You need to give him his military alliance plus more.”
“But that’ll be a second slavery!”
“If you died today, they’d talk about how you failed to end the first slavery. The literal one.”
“Never fear the horrors of tomorrow when the demons of today reign supreme,” Venomar nodded, repeating a line of Ancient Seragorn philosophy.
“With all that Stokossism you recite, you really should take it to heart sometime.”
“This is true,” Venomar chuckled. “But what could I give him?”
“I’m not going to be able to make the Conference. I’ve spent too much time here, in bed, away from my daughter. I’m not asking for your approval, because I know you’ll accept it. But as soon as I am able—in the next few days—I’ll begin drafting proposals. I’m sure one of them will be acceptable to both you and to Ferdinand—so long as you pitch it to him right. Alistair can help with that,” Meldah said, a slight grin coming to her face. “But I want to make one thing clear.”
“I want my name on this deal,” she said sternly. “Should Ferdinand accept it, I want historians to know exactly what type of role I played in making this happen.”
“Of course,” Venomar looked bewildered, the reason for Meldah’s request escaping him. “Meldah’s Treaty. You have my word.”
When Venomar left a few minutes later and Vakera returned, Meldah could do nothing but smile. If the Reavers of Odahn had planned to dispose of her, they would soon learn that their attacks did not deter the young advisor, but brought about a time of renewal. An escape from the contentment that crippled her, and desire to find a path to her greatest dreams. Someday, future generations would look at the day she was attacked in Venomar’s bedroom as the moment she was truly set free.
As she talked and played with Vakera, ideas for proposals ran through her head, fully confident she’d come up with the perfect solution to Venomar’s bind.
Her ascent to the top had only just begun.
“I’m just glad you’re alright.”
Alistair Blackwood and Chander sat on wooden chairs in what once was the courtyard of Soldrafor Manor. Most of the rubble had been removed, and the hole where the statue of The Ascendant and Beatrice once stood had been filled with dirt. The abolitionist had begun thinking about ways to rebuild the courtyard, but decided such matters were best saved until after the Patamos Conference. If all went well, he told himself, perhaps a statue of Venomar and Ferdinand shaking hands would be a suitable addition.
“Alright?” Chander asked, as he passed a Troll cigar over to Alistair. “Your brother hits hard, I’ll give him that. But my grandmother? She hit harder.”
The two men shared a long, boisterous laugh. The abolitionist then lit his cigar, popped it into his mouth, and took a drag.
“Thank you for agreeing to come to the Conference.”
“You’re paying for it,” Chander replied. “So much that the wife ain’t complaining.”
“I’m finally putting the family fortune to good use, I suppose,” Alistair said. “You mentioned your wife was with you when you met Venomar.”
“Yeah. Was nearly twenty years ago now. He was on his Windswept Walk. He toured the Frontier and the Principalities. Had a whole group that went with him. Rhea and I were some of the first people he met.”
“Helped us find a place we could get married, if you can believe that,” Chander smiled. “Good times. Been too long. Can’t wait to see that big green bastard.”
“I’m sure he’ll be pleased to see you. But this isn’t a vacation, it’s a business trip. I’ve got to bring Ferdinand and Venomar together. Although they’ve both agreed to this, at the moment they’re too far apart for any kind of resolution.”
“Get them drunk.”
Alistair laughed and knocked some chafe from the tip of his cigar.
“I’m serious,” Chander continued. “Take any two men who don’t like each other, give ‘em some Quippa cards to play with, a ring to box out their struggles in, and a few cases of beer. They’ll be friends in a few hours. In a day, they’ll be swapping war stories—on the battlefield, and with women. And in a week, taking arrows for each other.”
“True,” Alistair replied. He and his own closest friend, Lucius, had come together in a similar fashion. “But resolving race relations is far more complicated than that.”
“Is it, though?”
The North Tower doors flung open, startling both the abolitionist and his Rhinox bodyguard. Olivia, Alistair’s only child, stepped into the courtyard.
“Liv!” Alistair exclaimed as he shot up from his seat.
“So, I get to meet her at last!”
The two embraced for several moments. Alistair kissed Olivia on the cheek, and then returned to his seat. Olivia levitated a chair from the opposite end of the courtyard and dropped it down beside her father.
“Could I get one of those?” she asked as she sat down.
“I like her already!” Chander replied as he tossed Olivia a cigar. She stuck it between her teeth and lit it quickly.
“Where did you learn that?”
“College. Where else?”
Olivia had been studying at the Hibernos Mage’s Academy for two years, where she was majoring in Arcane Research. Alistair had not seen her since after he released his slaves, when she was home on holiday before her final few months of education. She had the long black hair, grey eyes, and pale skin of her father, and wore a sleeveless purple dress.
“So that’s what all my tax payments are going to?”
“Not just that!”
“Is this what I have to look forward to when my daughters are teenagers?” Chander asked.
“I’m not a teenager! I’m twenty!”
“Please, what’s the difference!”
Alistair and Chander both laughed, Olivia only slightly so.
“I’ve passed my Magarrum, for one.”
“Liv, that’s fantastic news! I knew you would!” Alistair patted his daughter on the back. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be there and support you.”
“It’s alright, father,” Olivia replied. “I’m actually glad you weren’t. To be honest, I think the whole concept of parents attending their kid’s Magarrum is bizarre. It’s a test. Not a sporting event.”
“You’ve got a revolutionary here, boss. I’d expect nothing less.”
Alistair nodded and smiled.
“It is odd, true. Who were you paired with?”
“Eloisa Handle. Majored in Sword Arts and Politics. Damn good at both, too.”
Alistair leaned back in his chair and nodded. After two years of study, Mage-Scholar underwent a Magarrum—a test of skill administered while in a dream state—to determine if they were ready to graduate. Magarrums were usually administered in groups of two or more, and Mage-Scholars were paired with peers who their teachers believed best complemented their individual talents. Typically, parents and family members of Mage-Scholars were permitted to watch through the lens of an arcane device.
“Well, I’m pleased you passed. Not that I ever had any doubt, of course. Graduation is in two weeks, I assume?”
“The 26th, father.”
“I’ll be there.”
“According to the Magazetts, you have a conference to prepare for,” Olivia frowned.
“I’ll be there. I wouldn’t miss it.”
“Father,” Olivia said before taking a long drag. “This is the moment you’ve been building towards. Your chance to help bring about true change. If you need—”
“No. As important as the Conference is, I’m not going to miss my only daughter’s graduation,” Alistair shook his head. “But we do need to discuss the Conference. Chander, if you could give us a moment?”
“Of course,” the Rhinox replied. He stood up and walked over to three of Zehren Tusks, who were standing by the East Tower gate.
“Do you still plan on going to the Frontier to look for work after graduation?” Alistair asked.
“I do,” she replied. “There’s no finer place to research the arcane. New materials, less restrictions, less Imperial oversight, and a healthy tax break.”
“A good plan.”
“Don’t worry; I’ll be back for the Festival. I wouldn’t miss our weekend at the Leros’ for anything.”
“I’m going to need you stay back a bit more than that,” Alistair said.
Olivia looked at her father with confusion, her cigar gripped between two of her fingers and sending smoke off into the courtyard.
“I nearly died in a shipwreck. Thought I’d be executed by Venomar. Had assassins try to off me in my own home, got throttled by my brother, and expected to be executed again by Ferdinand,” Alistair took a long drag. “I’ve walked a path of constant danger to reach a future of promise. At some point along this path, my luck, my good fortune, is going to run out. And when that day comes, I need to know that Blackwood Company and this manor, the home of The Ascendant himself, is in good hands. Yours’ are not only the best I could find, but the only hands I want building our family’s future. You will be the Lady of Soldrafor Manor when I am no longer here, and we need to prepare for that time.”
Olivia looked up at the darkening sky.
“Don’t talk like this, father. You’re going to a Conference with a Seragorn Arkresh and a Claudian Emperor. Two of the most well-protected individuals in the world. What could possibly go wrong?”
Alistair thought back to the Precursor Tower that had mysteriously activated on Stiiros. Venomar’s explanation, that the sounds of their conflict had awoken the ancient technology, didn’t make any sense to him. He’d meant to bring it up with him, but there were far more pressing issues at the time. From his studies at the Academy, he knew that the chances of a Precursor device coming to life on its own slim.
Someone had to have turned it on, someone with knowledge of how such things typically operated. Someone who needed the conflict between the Seragorn and Claudians to continue at all costs. And there could be no better to way to ensure that goal than attacking the Conference.
“A great deal. So I need you here, at least until I return.”
“Very well, father. But I really do believe your concerns are unfounded. The Conference will go as planned, and you’ll be home safe and with your greatest work complete.”
“I pray so, Liv. I pray so.”
“How much oversight will I have on the repairs?” Olivia glanced around the courtyard.
“By Beatrice, why?”
“It’s about time we freshened things up around here! The statue of The Ascendant and Beatrice was fine, but the rest was insufferably tacky! The statue of grandfather didn’t even look like him! He looked damn near demonic!”
“It was a gift from the Leonii! What was I supposed to do?”
“Leave it in some corner of the Manor no one visits! Not in the bloody courtyard!”
Alistair sighed, shook his head, and smiled.
“Then have at it, my dear. I leave it entirely in your hands.”
Venomar and Bazra returned to the Palace of the Arkresh and walked into the entry hall, where statues of every previous Arkresh lined the walls.
“What do you think they’d think of this?” Bazra asked.
“About the Conference?” Venomar replied. “I hope they’d approve. I’m certain Vakera and Goredemar would.”
“Arkresh, here is the information you requested,” said Iranok, who made his way down the hall with a small scroll in hand.
“Information? From Daggerface?”
“Not quite,” Venomar unrolled the scroll and read it. “Ah, perfect!”
“What is it?”
“There’s a Yaeldak in the Toranas Valley.”
“A Yaeldak? I’ve always wanted to hunt one!” Bazra exclaimed. “You remembered, didn’t you?”
“Of course. Now go on and get your things, it won’t be there long.”
An hour later, the Arkresh and his bodyguard stalked through a forest of tall trees with yellow trunks and orange leaves, the light red earth of the Toranas Valley beneath their feet. According to legend, it had been that way since the first Scourge, when Arkresh Prime defeated the Gol’Kar hordes pouring out of the nearby Kalceran Fault.
“How did you find out about it?” Bazra asked. They had both changed into light hunting armor, and were carrying longbows.
“Heard a rumor about one in the area, so I had the Elites look into it,” Venomar said. He carried his longbow awkwardly, his inexperience with the weapon evident. A child picking up a musical instrument for the first time.
“I just can’t believe you remembered,” Bazra said as she slid between two thick trees.
“You’d be surprised,” Venomar replied, going around them.
“How are you feeling?”
“Honestly?” Venomar looked up at the sky. Twilight was not far, and the Violet Moon of Naamans was beginning to poke through the clouds. ”Better than I have in years. In a month, this war will be over. I can focus on building a stronger Republic, instead of fighting an Empire across the sea.”
“If the war is over.”
“It will be. When I visited Meldah, she agreed to begin work on a proposal that will convince Ferdinand to give us North Avarad and free the slaves.”
“It’ll take a higher price to get all that.”
“I know,” Venomar replied grimly. “But a full restoration of our Republic is worth any cost.”
“Look!”Bazra whispered, stopping suddenly. “There it is!”
Past the trees, down in a small clearing, the Yaeldak drank from the cool blue waters of an oasis. Venomar was mesmerized by the sight of the creature. He’d heard stories about them and seen paintings, but the real thing was more magnificent than he’d imagined. It had the head of a deer, four horns, a cat-like body, and four thick, stubby legs. Its flesh was silver, and glowed in the darkening light like armor.
“It’s so beautiful,” Bazra said as she crouched closer. “It’s almost a shame we’re going to kill it.”
“Indeed,” Venomar replied. “So, I suppose you’ll take point?”
Bazra laughed as quietly as she could.
“You don’t hunt much, do you?”
“I was a slave! We didn’t get to go out on hunting trips. I worked the fields and forge, fought to stay alive. Never had the pleasure of killing to eat.”
“We’ll have to do this more often, then.”
“I’d like that,” Venomar crouched down beside her.
“They say that Gochono, The Wild Prophet, so loved the Yaeldak that he coated it with armor and blessed it with ears attuned to the whistle of an arrow,” Bazra explained.
“Then how do we slay it?”
“Team work. It has a single weak spot, the part of its body with the softest skin. Right there,” she said, pointing at the Yaeldak’s rear.
“No. You’ve got to be joking.”
“I’m serious. If we’re going to kill it, I’ve got to shoot it in the ass.”
“Is its brains in there or something?”
“No! I’m going to use a fast acting poison. Venom from a Pictan Viper. Hits the bloodstream, but won’t spoil the meat.”
“But if it can hear arrows that well, how are you going to get the shot?”
“You’re going to distract it. Get in front of it, keep it busy and I’ll do the rest.”
“So I’m going to distract it while you shoot it. In the ass?”
“Exactly,” Bazra replied, before smacking Venomar on the lower back. “Go get em!”
“Alright,” the Arkresh said. “I’m on it.”
With haste, Venomar snuck around to the opposite side of the oasis and got in position. He looked over to Bazra, who drew an arrow and gave him a nod. The Arkresh then charged into the clearing, waving his hands in the air.
Startled, the Yaeldak looked up from the oasis, roared, and belched acid at Venomar. The Arkresh just managed to leap out of the way. The acid collided with the trunk of a tree, burning a hole straight through it.
The Yaeldak let out a wail and turned to face Bazra. Her arrow had struck its mark. It let out at a second roar and rushed at its attacker. Clearly, the poison was not as fast acting as she had believed.
“Look out!” Venomar clapped his hands together, and wall of red earth rose up from the ground, blocking the Yaeldak’s progress. Confused, the creature turned back to Venomar, took two steps forward, and let out another belch of acid.
This time, Venomar countered with a shield of fire, snuffing out the attack. Bazra then came around the wall and loosed a second arrow. With a yelp, the Yaeldak collapsed as the poison took effect. It rolled near the oasis, foamed at the mouth, and then fell limp.
“By Goredemar, you didn’t say anything about the acid!”
“Thought it would make it a bit more fun for you.”
“Fair enough,” Venomar shrugged and approached the Yaeldak’s body.
“We had Yaeldak once when I was quite young. You’ll love it, trust me.”
“I’m sure I will. But meat isn’t the only thing this creature will provide tonight,” Venomar said as he knelt down next to the dead creature. Bazra turned her head slightly.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
Venomar grabbed hold of one of the creature’s horns, and tugged until he pulled it clean out of the skull. He then took it over to the oasis, washed it in the water, and presented the cleaned Yaeldak horn to Bazra.
“Bazra,” he said, holding the horn in his outstretched palms. “These past months, you’ve helped me to guide Theranos toward a better future than it has ever known. I want to face that future with you not only at my side, but with our hearts intertwined. Thus, I present to you my Amoratt, my symbol of affection.”
“Ven, I,” Bazra said, as she surveyed the horn. “Are you certain? Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
“As ever,” he replied.
Bazra quickly shoved the horn into a loop on her belt, brought Venomar closer to her, and kissed him beneath the violet sky. They then tumbled, together, into the oasis, where a night they’d never forget began in earnest.
Under the light of Naamans’ Moon, a brave and frightening future had begun.
In Theranos’ deepest depths, in a prison long thought lost, something ancient stirred from slumber. For eons, He had watched with great interest the movements of mortal races, nudging events when necessary, and accruing assets so that when He was at last whole, everything would be in its proper place.
Each night, he spoke to his followers. Those new, and the few he left behind. Most nights, it was but a cold, dry whisper carried on the evening air. A pallid poem laden with hieroglyphics only comprehensible to the last linguists of a forgotten tongue.
But when he learned of the Patamos Conference in his dying dreams, he spoke to his chosen at once. In not a whisper, but a yell, and not in riddles, but with an order.
Thomas J. Lauser – TJ to his friends and family- is a writer and special education teacher from Wallingford, Pennsylvania. “The Price of Abolition,” is his third published story, and continues the “Steps Saga,” that began with his first story, “Business of Change”. He is currently working on several more short stories and a novel. His writing blog is www.adreamdeferredband.wordpress.com