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The Toltek By Matthew Zepf

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The Toltek

Copyright Š 2013 Waterloo, Ontario

All rights reserved including those of translation. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission of the copyright owners.

Published in Canada By Brav’s Index www.bravsindex.com bravsindex@gmail.com

ISBN 978-0-9918564-2-8

Library and Archives Canada Canadian ISBN Agency 395 Wellington, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0N4

1-866-578-7777 E-mail: isbn@lac-bac.gc.ca

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This Book Is Dedicated To:

Anthony Joseph Hartman That he might always choose the good.

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The flickering light of candles beat against the form kneeling within the sanctum. The young monk, a novice named Lainn, was still, utterly mute, frozen in devotion. His hands were clasped before him, jaw set and brow furrowed. A single sentence cut through his mind like a plough driven by a tornado: “Tonight, watch and pray. Tomorrow, we shall travel into the East.” Lainn’s mentor, Scaith the Erudite, had uttered these words. Uttered them, and departed. And with him left Lainn’s peace, for nothing more terrible or exciting could have been said. The occasion for this utterance was a confession: Lainn was hearing voices. For years, they had been but the barest of whispers, the ghosts of half-formed thoughts, but in time they had become stronger and more distinct until Lainn became aware of two separate voices, and these belonged to two very separate entities. At last, on this morning, Lainn had told his mentor about them. Scaith listened, uttered the momentous words, and left. The words had sent the voices into a frenzy. Within Lainn, they had lit a fuse halfway between horror and curiosity, for the East was synonymous with the blasted lands, an immense swath of land – forbidden to the living – said to be steeped in fell magic. There came a knock on the sanctum door and it creaked open. Lainn roused himself from his meditation. The sun was just breaking from the horizon; its light cut through the doorway, blinding Lainn as he turned. Scaith stood on the sill, no more than a silhouette. He bowed and offered a smile in greeting. “Walk in light!” Lainn stood and returned the bow, “always and forever!” He stepped aside as the brother assigned to the sanctum slid by him to tend to the candles. “Are you resolved to travel into the blasted lands?” “I am.” “I am glad of it! Then let us return to the monastery to gather supplies – we have a small journey ahead.” The two walked side by side, descending the hill where the sanctum had stood for unknown generations. Reaching the vale, the old man and the youth chanted the hours in the ancient tongue as was the custom of their Order. The sun was already high when they reached the monastery. It was a grey building, made of fitted limestone, worn and pockmarked by centuries of seasonal rains. The outer wall was immensely thick, rounded and crested like a snowdrift, an engineering innovation introduced by Markus the Savant during the epoch of the Dark Heavens. Reminders of the conflicts the monastery had weathered were written all over its stone. Their arrival was anticipated: an altar had been prepared and Scaith and Lainn performed the ceremony of four ends, an act of worship to the Creator. Afterwards, in the courtyard, many a monk came to Lainn to wish him well and impart a blessing. It was a rare occasion for any monk, much less a novice, to depart into the East. “You must take plenty of water.” Scaith passed Lainn a satchel made of lambskin and nodded to the well. “There is none in the blasted lands, for all water is sanctified and so was banished by the evil wrought there long ago. All our water must be carried in.” Lainn drew up a bucket and submerged the skin. “Can the rite not be done elsewhere?” “Possibly, but it is the tradition of the Order: those to whom it is given to hear the voices go to the blasted lands to make their discernment.” Scaith made to speak more but he and Lainn saw that the abbot, Dominic the Amenable, was approaching. The two monks bowed as he neared. “Walk in light, Father Abbot.” “Always and forever.” The abbot smiled kindly, returning their salutation. “It looks like you two are nigh ready to begin.” “Yes, thank you for the provisions.” “You will need help in bearing them – Lainn, go into the stable and get that young donkey you’ve been breaking.” Lainn went. He found the training harness and approached the donkey with an apple. “Can you still hear us, Lainn?” 5


“Yes, Father Abbot.” Lainn called as he slipped the harness over the mule’s head. “Good, for this concerns you as well. Now Bo’nom Scaith, concerning that of which we spoke of in our last meeting...” Scaith nodded. “I have watched and seen the signs, even as you said.” “What do you think then?” “I think it best to go – Lainn must make his discernment.” The abbot looked at Lainn as he emerged from the stable with the ass. “Yes, I think so too. It would be dangerous not to have this resolved. Lainn, are the voices already very strong?” “I hear them as clearly as we are talking now, Father Abbot.” “Then there is no question: you must go into the East.” The abbot looked at the young man. “What has it been, Lainn? No more than 16 cycles of the elements since your parents brought you to us? Aye, no more than that. The signs were always strong with you – this day was always going to come.” The abbot nodded. “You have done well here. You have embraced the discipline and lived the rule. You work hard alongside your brothers. But more has been given to you; you have an awesome potency within you, my son, and it must now be discovered. Go forth then, and do not be afraid of greatness, but neither give it place in your heart, for all power is fleeting. Be vigilant, and do not tarry longer than is required. Now kneel and I will give you my blessing.” The two monks knelt and having received the abbot’s blessing, secured their packs to the donkey and passed through the monastery gates. They traveled in silence, only speaking to recite the hours. The lush fields and vineyards tended by the monks ran their course and soon the path dwindled to a dirt rut running through wild prairie. Scaith cupped his hand and glanced up at the sun. “Let us break our fast then,” He flashed a wry grin at his novice, “and our silence.” “Praise be to the Creator!” Lainn exclaimed. The two monks chuckled. Scaith rested his hands on the donkey, bidding it to stop. He opened one of the pouches. “It has been a long time since I have been this far from the monastery.” Lainn stood, fascinated. “I have never seen land untouched by men. There is a great beauty in creation.” “You will see much more besides!” Scaith handed Lainn some bread. “How passed your vigil?” “A wasteland; my mind was feverish with distractions.” “But you fought them?” “Yes.” “This is well done!” Scaith exclaimed. “We merit most when we persevere through desolation.” “Prayer is the very soul of action.” Lainn recited, remembering his years of formation. “I must admit though, I am sorely tempted to ask for consolation.” Lainn looked at his bread. “Over the last month, my soul has become heavy.” “This trip is a consolation!” Lainn laughed. “I cannot deny that I am glad for it! But I do not understand: why are the blasted lands – lands that are cursed with evil – the chosen place for the rite of discernment?” “It is right to ask – the blasted lands are anathema to the wise and protected from the foolish, for the border to those lands is watched over by an Order as ancient as our own. Only monks may enter, and only when one of their number must undergo discernment, for there the candidate must fast and pray for three days, that he might find illumination and choose which of his familiars to embrace as a guardian.” “Familiars? Is this the name given to the invisible beings who speak to me?” “The voices you hear are the two familiars that were given you at birth. They are always present. All men have them, but few are given awareness of them. It is a rare gift indeed, given to those who have a calling to wield magic. Every man chooses in his heart the influences he will 6


follow, but for he who can actually converse with his familiars, he must choose one as a guardian by receiving its particular power. You must choose. You have begun on a path to choose the good, and even though you understand evil, it has been the custom of our Order to bring those who must discern to the blasted lands.” “That they may see true evil?” “That they may see the destructive power of evil. That they may not profess ignorance of it as an excuse.” Lainn finished his meal. He tucked his hands into opposite sleeves and asked no more questions. They pulled their hoods against the wind and again walked in silence. The prairie grasses slowly yielded to a desert plain littered with scree, the shattered remains of great rock faces that had been cast down from the mountains that climbed on their right. Their pace halved, and halved again when the sun disappeared behind them, leaving the land in darkness. “We should soon reach the main road.” Scaith said encouragingly. “You have taken this way many times, Bo’nom?” Scaith smiled. “Yes indeed. In my youth, I was part of the last detachment of counsellors sent to the great city of Barr’Abian. For centuries, our order has supplied advisors – always 12 learned monks, serving for a term of 3 years – to the emperor that he might have recourse to the wisdom of the ages in grave matters and always know what is good and best before both God and men.” “I have never heard of this custom.” “No indeed?” Scaith’s voice became heavy. “Over five decades have passed since it was last observed. All traces of religion have been effaced from the capital. The emperors have taken to following their own minds, and receive advice from others not of our persuasion.” Lainn stumbled and cried out. He rose from the ground. “Bo’nom, the way becomes ever more perilous. Should we not make camp, or at least torches?” Lainn asked. “We must press on Lainn – I know that you have not slept now for the course of a day and a half, but I wish to reach the great road tonight, and to go even a little further still. And although torches would be a great boon, we have nothing to burn.” “What about your magic? I would think it a simple thing to conjure flames.” “Very true, but I chose as my guardian a familiar of light, and magic of the light can only be used to glorify its true source, the Creator. While there is no evil in your request, I would like to impress upon you how sparingly we wield magic in our Order – would you mind if we walked yet a little longer in this darkness?” “I follow your lead, Bo’nom.” Together they picked their way over the scree until they found a great pile of it. They ascended this with difficultly and jogged down the other side, stubbing their toes against the rattling rock. At the bottom, the scree was suddenly absent. Lainn drew his sandal over the smooth ground and looked around in wonder. “We have reached the great road at last!” Scaith exclaimed. “It girdles the land; all roads branch from it.” “Truly remarkable!” Lainn breathed. Even in the dark he could discern its grandeur; it was the breadth of many dozens of wagons, straight and smooth; crude dimples of light, the blush from the star-studded firmament, glowed on the cobblestones. “We are close to rest.” Scaith had already set out upon the road. Lainn ran until again beside his mentor. “In the history of men, this road was the first to ever be set with stone, and indeed, if these stones could talk, what things they could tell! Over them have trod armies innumerable, beasts and creatures long lost to this world, and untold generations of men. This is the furrow from which civilization grew.” “I have heard many of these stories and many names for this road. Is it true, the story behind why some call this the ‘Twilight of Giants’?”

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“It is.” Scaith nodded. “After the final battle that saw the Dark Heavens rolled back, the last of the race of giants were paraded down these very stones – prisoners of war. The world has never again seen their like. So it is with many such creatures known from the days of yore.” “There are many rumours though, Bo’nom...” “Few things are so prolific –“ Scaith smiled wryly, “no doubt, you mean the recent agitation brought by travellers into our monastery, who come in peace but leave unrest in exchange for hospitality.” Lainn smiled. “I too think they speak but idle gossip.” “Gossip perhaps, but not entirely idle. The emperor’s bid to unite the realms under his rule has seen him enter sealed lands, provoking the old things still left in this world.” “You believe then that they still exist?” “Dragons you mean? Yes indeed, and more things besides. But of dragons, there can only be a handful left. For centuries they have lived like shadows, prowling the tattered edges of civilization, content to avoid men. But the emperor means to draw them out, to eradicate their chaos from the world even as he expands his own. But he underestimates them...he shall embroil this realm in a war that will visit misery upon all the living. Mark well, Lainn, the time for great hardship and penance draws close.” Scaith stopped walking and his voice lightened. “Ahead Lainn, what do you see?” “The sky is lighter, but not like the dawn; it is as if a great fire burns just over the horizon – like a dragon’s fire...” Lainn’s eyes became wide. “Praesidium! Are we to pass through Praesidium?” “Yes. And I think that we shall be able to take refuge there tonight.” The monks heard the city before they saw it; a vague dissonance pricked their ears, the undulating cadence of a million voices talking, laughing, singing and screaming, sloshing together and spilling over the city walls in an ambient froth. The roadside, filled with scree, tapered away to bare shoulders which suddenly became populated, crowded with monuments and structures that yawned over the road, casting arches to one another from which hung lit brass lamps on long black chains. “I know this place from the martyrology...this is the Necropolis of Thaggool!” “It is the same.” Scaith nodded. “It is forbidden to bury the dead within the city, for only the living may dwell within its sacred boundaries, but this necropolis was here even before the founding of Praesidium; it descends untold leagues beneath us and houses the remains of untold races. Guards once watched here.” “They do still,” hissed a voice. The two monks spun. Behind them in the road stood a tall man, covered from head to toe in a black cloak. He held a lantern before him; its sickly yellow light sidled into the folds of his garment and refracted off the naked blades of two swords. Scaith bowed and Lainn was quick to imitate his mentor. “Walk in light! You have startled us, sentinel! I am glad to see your people yet keep this place.” “Always and forever. We know you, monk of the Mystical Rose. Praesidium’s visitation is at hand, for your coming here amid the signs was foretold by the prophecy.” “Prophecy?” Lainn asked. Scaith turned to his novice. “Praesidium was intended as a bulwark against the evil residing in the blasted lands. To this end our Order founded the city, imbuing its boundaries with wards of invincibility against all magic, all, except that wielded by our own Order. It was foretold that a monk of our Order would one day rain stone down upon the city, negating the sacred wards, and soon after, the city would be destroyed.” “One of you shall fulfill this prophecy.” The figure insisted. “Far from us be this! We are not here for such matters.” “May Providence determine so. Pass on in peace then and remember the dead.”

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Scaith blessed the sentinel and smiled at Lainn, inviting him to continue. Lainn turned to glance back. The figure did not follow, but stood in the road, watching them still. “What is that man?” Lainn asked. “He is a member of an ancient regiment that has its origins in the centuries when Praesidium was ruled by kings. Back then, great families interred their dead with riches seldom afforded even the living. One king, Vidad the Just, commissioned a special guard to see that the graves were never disturbed. These guards were called sentinels, and were the only men in the kingdom allowed to carry two swords on their belt. It seems that they have endured into our own times, having survived countless wars and even the decline of Praesidium.” “I am surprised that such devotion lingers; I have heard the people here have become exceedingly wicked.” Scaith’s face became grim. “Wickedness has grown deep roots in the city. These days, the dead are dipped in pitch and sent over the northern wall, to burn unseen in the gulley below. The braziers you see here are lit more by pride than devotion, for now only the rich tend to their ancestors and only that they may draw attention to their ancient name. Yet, there are those that keep the old ways.” Their pace slackened: Lainn tarried, fascinated by the ornate mausoleums with their carvings and tablets which had chiselled into them the stories of mighty men and women long since dead, people whose deeds read like epic ballads and whose virtues were numbered like the stars. Scaith placed a hand on Lainn’s shoulder and the young monk stopped and stood, mouth agape, for he had failed to notice that they had almost come to the gates of Praesidium. The gates were immense, made from whole trees stripped of their bark and strapped together with iron bands. They loomed open – a boast, for in all its centuries no army had been able to take the city – and the urban lights and noises rushed headlong into the exterior darkness. Lainn tilted his head back, until he was looking straight up into the sky, that he might see the parapets that crowned the walls “What’s this then? An old man out walking his dog?” There was an eruption of harsh laugher. Lainn had never heard such raw, booming voices. He blinked in wonder at the men that kept the gate. They were huge men, with shoulders that flared out like wings and forearms like chiselled stone; their bodies spoke of strength and violence, of flesh crafted from the cradle by the devices of war. Sighing coals simmered in their lanterns, winking at the guard’s burnished metal armour, making it blush. They sat on skins or leaned on their spears, nestled within the folds of their fierce crimson cloaks which encircled them like flames. “Hungry, boy?” One of them swung a spit of roasted flesh from the fire and thrust it at Lainn. Lainn sucked in his lips, finding himself slavering. “I thank you, it smells delicious. But I must decline as I do not eat flesh meat.” “What? You want to shrivel into an old runt like him?” The guard flung his hand dismissively toward Scaith. Lainn had never looked at his mentor in such a light. Scaith was bent over with years, his cheeks sallow and knuckles knobby, but his eyes were bright and burned with a fire absent in those of the guards. The guards snorted and chuckled. One tilted his spear towards the elder monk. “I haven’t seen such a tired old thing in all my life – why have you bothered to live so long, old man? Your body is spent, what is life without pleasure?” “He should have been put down years ago. But the boy is smart – he has brought an ass to carry the body when it gives!” The guards chuckled coarsely and waved on the monks. The hue of firelight stained the monks as they crossed the threshold. Lainn trembled – the city teemed with people; they were hawking goods, drinking, talking and arguing. The black of the night was given no place: torches and fires lit up the shop facades that leaned into the streets, their doors wide open, mouths primed to suck in people off the curb.

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The people glared and sent unfriendly glances at them. Hawkers waved them on with angry cries. One manhandled Scaith who had been pressed into his cart by the crowd. “I’ll have no begging from you! Go find your crusts elsewhere!” And he hurled Scaith to the pavement and spat on him. The crowd jeered. “Disease!” “Parasites!” Lainn helped his mentor to his feet. “Why are they so angry with us?” “They hate what they think we are.” Lainn squinted, suddenly angry. “Such reckless passion! Is this a city of ignorance? Have they forgotten their own history?” “No, Lainn.” Scaith clapped his hand on the young monk’s arm. “You must learn to see with eyes unclouded by hate – to achieve a vision that can pierce through evil and see beyond. This is the true power of discernment. Now come, help me.” Lainn helped his mentor to his feet and the two monks continued through the crowd. Scaith leaned on the donkey, favouring his right leg, but said nothing. Around Lainn, the lights and sounds and buildings became a smear of colour, like a painted canvass over which a careless forearm had swept. “Reverend Fathers!” Lainn stopped and turned to the voice. Three men knelt near the road, their forms distinct from the sea of motion. They beckoned to the monks. “We know you: monks from the Order of the Mystical Rose. We are friends – turn aside and take your rest.” Scaith nodded. They followed the trio through the crowded boroughs until they came to a stairwell that descended from the street level into a basement. The monks unloaded their donkey and entered the apartment; it was so small that they could not stand upright. A candle was lit and the men squatted in a circle to receive them. One of the men checked the monk’s knee. He ran his calloused hand through his grizzled hair and then stroked his soot black beard. “I am Granger, and these are my sons. We have been expecting you – the signs are strong. Evil stirs in the East. Stay and take your rest – you are welcome here.” “Thank you friends, I am Scaith and this is my pupil, Lainn. It is only fair that you know: we are not here for the signs. Rather, we have come that Lainn might make the rite of discernment.” The men’s faces became troubled and they began to talk in a strange tongue. Scaith interrupted them, speaking as they did. They quieted. Scaith turned to Lainn and smiled and then faced the men. “Naturally, however, while in the blasted lands, it would be hard for us not to see what is happening there. If action is required, we will not leave till things are again right. Have no fear.” “Please, but what are the signs?” Lainn asked. “What?” The men became unsettled. “Have you not seen the lights that play in the clouds? Or noticed that the wind only blows out of the East?” “Or that the birds fly upside down? Or that no animal makes its proper sound?” “Enough, my sons,” Granger raised his hands. “This monk is yet young. Time will give him wisdom of these things and much else besides.” He signalled and his sons rose. “We trust in the power you wield, Bo’nom. Should you need anything, knock on the ceiling and one of us shall come. I will stable your donkey.” The men moved to the door. Granger stopped. “Bo’nom, would you honour us by celebrating the ceremony of four ends tomorrow?” “Of course, and I shall bless your home as well.” “Ah, thank you, thank you.” Granger mumbled to himself of these good things as he left. Scaith stifled a yawn. “Let us sleep then...unless you mean to ask about the signs.” “Yes, what are they?” 10


“The signs are phenomena that have left their natural course. They portend of evil, and it is the belief of our hosts and many of our Order – of those who have been trained to see and to understand – that this evil is being wrought in the blasted lands.” “What evil?” “That is unknown. Perhaps it is nothing more than an agitation of the magic that pervades that land. Or it may be something far more sinister...perhaps a dark monk has some hand in this, or perhaps something evil is stirring, or has been loosed. Whatever it is, the signs are harbingers of some unknown menace.” “What happened that caused the lands to be filled with such evil?” Scaith looked to the wall and his eyes became distant. “The East is a shattered land: untold leagues of earth scarred and wasted with magic. Millennia ago, when people had a strength and held convictions beyond those of men today, two factions of mages and warlocks captained by the most powerful of sorcerers met in battle and destroyed each other there. They conjured spells so intense with power and malice that to this day the land still trembles with the residue of their destructive magic.” “Is there no way to purge the land?” “The damage would seem too vast. Cuthbert the Redoubtable tried. With his abbot’s permission, he entered the blasted lands and absorbed a small portion of the evil from the earth, thinking he could destroy it through meditation and penances. But he was wrong. The intense evil strove against his will, seeking to corrupt him. Upon his return, Cuthbert requested that he be walled in at the side of the monastery chapel. He has been there now for over 50 years, a hermit, fighting a war in his soul too horrible to imagine. We would need an infinite amount of monks, willing to face madness and isolation, to purify even a pathway through that land.” “You do not fear entering such a place?” “I have been there twice; once for my own discernment, and once to guide another. It is a place like no other.” The old man closed his eyes, remembering. “Do you feel fear, Lainn?” “I have a great…apprehension.” Scaith opened his eyes and turned to his novice. “Do not give place to fear. As men who are attentive to our duties and fast in our faith, we need fear nothing – the triumph is ours, and death itself is only but the final prelude to glory.” Scaith smiled. “Now let us pray and take our rest.” The monks and their hosts gathered before dawn that Scaith might celebrate the ceremony of four ends. Afterward, Scaith blessed the home and together they broke their fast. “Your ass is at the door.” Granger handed them their skin, its water replenished. “Be wary monk, I suspect that men have entered the blasted lands, men that have no business there: cultists who wish to ascribe power unto themselves.” “I will see the good through.” Scaith smiled and the two gripped each other’s arm in a token of friendship. The two sons of Granger guided the monks back to the main road, bid them farewell and departed. “So, this city does sleep then.” Lainn said, noting the empty streets. Scaith laughed. “The dawn has few admirers here. Ah, can you smell that on the air?” “An unwholesome reek...” “You think so? Come!” Scaith hurried, turning down one of main roads. Lainn became aware of a dull rumble that seemed to grow in volume; it was like the sound of wheat stalks chaffing against one another in a great wind. The road opened into a vast courtyard bustling with people, and behind them, great geysers of foam were breaking before a backdrop of endless blue. “Ah, the harbour of Praesidium – you can taste the sea in the air!” Scaith inhaled with delight. Lainn pressed his lips tight. “These are men that welcome the dawn.” Around the harbour, fishmongers and fishermen were haggling over the morning’s catch while knots of sailors and 11


fighting men idly eyed them and traded stories. “This bay holds the last water we shall see for many days.” Lainn drank in the sight and his eyes came to rest on the lighthouse that stood in the harbour. His jaw dropped and he pointed. “Aye,” Scaith squinted, “that is the skeleton of Vartok, the warrior champion of the giants. Legend says he was affixed there, kept alive for decades, that all who came and went from Praesidium might be awed by his captivity. And on the side away from us hangs the skeleton of the last giant king, Borth the Towering, a giant even among giants. He fell in the last battle, but his body was taken here and hung as a trophy, a boast to all who reach these shores. It is amazing the sea has not been able to eat away those bones after all these centuries.” Lainn nodded, entranced. “Come now, we must not tarry further.” The sun having already risen, the monks left the city through the eastern gates, following the road into the thick wood beyond. They walked through the morning, emerging from the forest to behold a gigantic wall of towers and columns that stretched the length of the horizon. The road climbed up an incline, ending at an archway between two towers, the sole breach in the great barricade of stone. Scaith and Lainn ascended and two men, clad in leather, emerged from under the archway to meet them. The shorter man twirled a dagger through his fingers. He waited until they were almost at the tower before jamming the blade into its sheath and running his fingers through his dark hair. “Ah, so the monks have finally come! Bravo! Oh, well done!” Scaith tucked his hands into opposite sleeves. He stood resolute in the archway, as if he were refusing the two passage. “Have the guardians become so rude?” “I speak for the guardians! The blood of our brethren has grown hoarse screaming for you! The signs have been clear for weeks – weeks! Must Armageddon happen before you people get off your asses?” Lainn looked at the donkey and opened his mouth to protest the use of the plural but Scaith signalled the novice to hold his peace. “And there are only two of you, eh? You must be scouts at the head of an army! Or does the Order presume itself to have monks more powerful than it did in the days of yore?” The dark haired man strolled up to Lainn and looked him up and down. He looked over at his fellow – who, though silent, was imposing in his girth – and hooked his thumb at Lainn. “This stripling can’t even grow a beard yet! I cannot believe him to be one of the mightiest to walk the earth!” “We are not the vanguard of an army,” Scaith said. The dark-haired man leapt before Scaith. “What are you then? Sight-seers? Tourists? Don’t tell me you are here for this boy to undergo discernment!” “Indeed, we are.” “Discernment? Now? And what of the signs?” “Of the signs I do not know. We shall see what we shall see.” “Bloody monks!” The dark-haired man turned on his heel and clamped his hands to his head. “What is the priority of your Order then? Have your heads all gone soft in the years that the world has forgotten you?” Scaith looked down the length of the ancient wall. “Where are your fires, guardian? I do not see a single man on the wall.” Scaith transfixed the dark haired man with a grave stare. “What has happened here?” “No fires, you noticed that, huh? And no men…” The dark-haired man’s mouth twitched and his face suddenly drained of anger. He doubled over, his hands white against his knees. The heavyset guardian stepped forward to comfort his fellow. He looked at Scaith. “Come and see.” He left his companion and led the monks through the archway. They walked behind the tower and along the wall until they came to great earthwork that nearly reached to the base of the wall. 12


“They lie beneath.” Scaith pulled back his hood. “You two are the last?” “The last here,” the big man replied. “The wall lies unmanned for fourteen leagues to the north and south.” “How?” “A horde of insane men!” They turned. The dark-haired man was behind them, shaking with rage. “Whoever they were, dark monks or cultists – savages all! I remember them well, for I was on the wall. In the dead of night they came, men fuelled with malice. They attacked, not four furlongs to the south from where we stand. Not in the memory of men has a host assaulted the wall. The signal fires were lit and the horns sounded. The guardians came together as one, but the assailants breached the wall, tearing through it with some weapon of fire and lightning. We were not ready...we...we simply were not ready.” “I would see the place.” They walked together, the guardians solemnly leading. Vestiges of battle coloured their path and the stink of stale smoke hung in the air. Pieces of stone, scorched black and shattered, littered the ground. The hole in the wall was impressive. “They destroyed one of the seals.” Scaith noted. Lainn looked at the ground and gasped. A wedge of diseased earth had advanced through the breach, a putrid tendril of the blasted lands. “Without the seal,” The dark-haired man’s voice was shrill, “the evil magic of the blasted lands will seep into the world. You must seal it again, monk.” “Evil cannot be indulged.” Scaith acknowledged. “This rift must be sealed from within the lands. Come Lainn, take what we require from the donkey and leave it in the care of these guardians – it cannot be made to come where we must tread.” Lainn did so while Scaith grasped the arms of the two guardians in a token of friendship and turned his face to the east. The beginning of the cursed lands was easy to see: the divide was like a scar, corpse-blue and as jagged as fresh frost. The land beyond was a sickly motley of putrid colours. “The ground is infirm, it yields like a sponge.” Lainn remarked after sending a tentative toe over the divide. “This land has stewed in the dregs of forgotten magic for millennia; the law of nature itself is slowly being cooked from the bones of the earth. Now, cross over, Lainn.” Lainn bid farewell to the guardians and concentrated on the land ahead, steeling his resolve. “Lainn, tell me, what of your familiars who badger you so – have they been talking much?” “No, now that you mention it. They have grown very quiet.” Lainn crossed over the divide. A frisson of electricity went up his body and he was overcome by nausea. “That is normal – it is the magic of the place – and its effect will pass. But, my, what a pair follow you!” Lainn turned and gasped. Two figures stood there. One was tall and pale, his face severe with angelic beauty. He was strangely attired, for he wore a flowing white coat and pants that were trimmed in black piping. A strange artifice sat before his face: two rectangles of glass framed in wire and attached to one another by the same, all floating freely just beyond the bridge of his nose. He held a globe in his hand. It was webbed with hairline cracks and had a great rift through its center from which issued a string that was attached to his index finger. The other man was even stranger, for at first glance he seemed an impossible thing, for he was decked in silver armour that seemed to protrude from his body. Lainn perceived that the armour was, in fact, not being worn, but hovered before the place it protected. In its midst was a man, his hair cropped short and shock white, and he was dressed in clothing that ran several shades of blue. He seemed to glow, so brightly that his features were difficult to discern. His bare feet hovered over the ground. “These...are my familiars?” Lainn asked. “These are,” said the slender one. 13


“I know your voice – Buntu!” Lainn exclaimed. He turned towards the armoured one. “And Rogal!” Rogal tipped his head in acknowledgement. Lainn cleared his throat, suddenly feeling awkward. “Hi!” “Greetings.” “Hello.” Lainn turned to Scaith, finding another man at the side of his mentor. This man was bent over, his arms wound with massive chains that glowed as if heated, with one bare knee bourn against the earth. “Lainn, this is my guardian, Adso.” “Greetings Lainn,” Adso said, his voice steady, as if his burden was nothing. “I have watched you these many years – you have lived well. May you now choose well!” “Aid me Adso, for we must reset this seal.” Adso stood and faced his master. “I am ready!” The two raised their arms, their hands almost touching and began an incantation. Their palms began to glow, the light intensifying until it became a solid orb, separating the two figures. Adso’s chains flew from his arms and wrapped around the orb. Breaking from Scaith, Adso turned and hurled the orb to the breach. It hit the ground and sizzled, like butter on a skillet, before melting into the earth. Scaith nodded, panting from the exertion. “The seal is again set.” “Amazing!” Lainn looked back at his familiars. “You two – for years you have filled my waking hours with talk, why have you suddenly fallen so quiet?” Buntu and Rogal exchanged a look. Rogal stepped forward. “Forgive our gravity, Lainn, but upon your choice hangs our fate, for one of us shall be dismissed and diminish in strength while the other shall become your guardian and wax in power.” “When is the choice to be made?” Scaith surveyed the land. “It is our Order’s custom to fast and pray at least three days before making discernment...” “Only three days?” Scaith looked at his novice. “Greater things have been accomplished in such time!” “See there, Master?” Adso cast a weighted arm toward the horizon. The humour drained from Scaith’s face for the first time. “What is that?” Across the horizon, hundreds of wispy auras were auguring up from the land, gathering into a great winding pillar that seemed to be boring into the earth. “The ancient magic is being siphoned from the ground.” Rogal noted. “.. aye, siphoned, concentrated and returned to the earth...no doubt to imbue some object.” Adso adjoined. Lainn caught Buntu starring at him. The familiar blinked, revealing black eyelids. “Can you feel the power?” he asked. “Something terrible has been allowed to fester here.” Scaith’s face was grim. “Lainn, I am sorry, but you will have to make your discernment during, what I fear, will be a deadly errand. Perhaps I truly did not understand the signs...” “I am ready!” Lainn said. “As are we,” added Buntu. His thin lips curved into a smile. Rogal nodded encouragingly. The group set out across the wastes. The ground beneath their feet squirmed like a live thing, pulsating, with the rhythmic beat of some dark heart. The shifting landscape rendered great wonders; plateaus in the shadow of floating boulders and islands, forests of petrified trees and a vale where iron ingots chased at their heels and pools of fire dripped into the sky. They witnessed flames that moved when approached and explosions sealed in time, slowly blooming into destructive maturity. Ahead, the ephemeral augurs whittled away the unknown horizon. “A host follows us.” Lainn whispered. Scaith glanced behind distractedly.

14


“They are the watching dead, those participants who survived the war in body, but whose spirits were consumed by the immense residual energies. They are no more than shadows – they always follow the living, but remain aloof. Pay them no mind.” “We have found it! Conceal yourselves!” Adso admonished. The party crouched down and slowly crawled to the lip of a chasm. The ring of steel on stone floated up to them. Below was a hive of men amassed in an open pit excavation. “Are these dark monks?” Lainn asked. “They are cultists.” Scaith looked at his novice. “They are men who have no natural facility for magic, but who nonetheless wish to possess it.” Scaith gazed back into the pit. “In all generations there are those who seek to accumulate power that was not meant for them.” “What are they doing?” “They have created a spirit funnel,” Adso explained. “They are draining the magic from the earth and directing it into that shaft...such a massive concentration of dire energy...” “But what could possibly sustain such power?” Lainn asked. “I do not know,” Scaith said quietly, “but we shall descend and see.” “Stay master!” Adso leaned back on his weighted arms. “The air crackles with foreboding: whatever is being wrought is near completion!” “Then we must prepare.” Scaith knelt and began to pray. Lainn joined him for a time, but succumbed to fatigue. Thrice Scaith roused him, but Lainn was unable to sustain another vigil. Night fell and the ethereal magic lit up the sky with brilliant streams of purple, blue and pink. Buntu’s voice broke the silence. “Do you feel it?” Lainn could: thousands of micro-tremors worming their way through the earth. “What is happening?” “We are to be tested!” Scaith said, his voice joyful. The earth began to violently shake. Below in the pit, the cultists were fleeing, running up the ramps even as they crumbled. The shaking intensified, and the cultists were thrown to the ground; they clung to it like insects pried at by an unseen hand. Cracks shot through the rock swift as lightning and some of the wretched men rolled into them, their cries of despair floating back to the watchers on the ridge. “Impossible!” Lainn shouted over the rumbling. “They mean to split the earth itself!” “Worse yet I fear!” returned Scaith. The earth bulged, heaving like the rib cage of a dying man, and then, like a noxious pustule, it burst, releasing a shower of stone. Vicious steam hissed through virgin rifts and the earth crumbled away, collapsing into a massive crater. All became still. Then, up through the deeps of the settling ruin, came an alien cry, like the battle horn of a damned army. The earth heaved and from the crater was birthed an immense mountainous mass. It reared into the heavens, draped with trappings of earth and billowing smoke. The cry was repeated and its eerie violence shook the watchers. The top of the mountain rotated downward and two orbs of hateful white shone through the smoke and rested on the cursed lands below. With a small avalanche, the base of the mountain rose from the crater and two great overhangs flew out from the mountain’s sides and split into peninsulas. “It has...legs...and arms!” Lainn’s voice shook. “Madness! They have reanimated a Toltek!” Scaith screamed over the din. “It can be nothing else, no other creature or conjured being in creation comes close to its colossal size! Lainn, we face a juggernaut of ruin!” The Toltek was almost too enormous to behold. Its horrible cries were juggled by the clouds until a haunting resonance filled the earth. Below, in the creature’s shadow, the dark believers had become like dead men, their shrieks constricted till strangled gurgles. One by one they ignited, bursting into blue flames, consumed like wicks. “Do we fight?” Lainn screamed over the din. 15


“Yes – the Toltek must be stopped here – otherwise it will go forth and obliterate all creation! That was its purpose!” “Take to the skies,” warned Adso, “– the Toltek radiates an incredible power from its feet, enough to paralyse and ignite flesh!” Lainn threw back his hood. “Wait!” cried Scaith. “You are not ready, Lainn. The powers that you would need to fight this thing are yet beyond your command and far beyond your experience.” Scaith looked over at Rogal and Buntu. “...if I fall...well, then you must make your discernment, trusting in the powers of one of these.” Lainn nodded. “I understand.” “Remember this, Lainn: true power is borne in humility. Have no fear.” Scaith blessed him. Then he turned to Adso. “Adso, old friend, it has been a long time – lend me your strength!” Adso fell to one knee, his palms up, at the ready. “My strength is yours.” A fabulous thing happened then: Scaith rose from the earth. For a moment he hung in the sky, and then a conflagration of white fire erupted from his back. The flames parted, sweeping wide and forming into wings. A single plume of fire shot beneath him, fanning into a rippling tail. Scaith’s wings caught the air and he soared above the Toltek, coming to hover over its smoking hulk with Adso at his side. The Toltek’s roving white eyes espied him. Scaith summoned the wind, conjuring it into a blade, a swath of air as sharp as a reaper’s scythe and endowed with the force of a typhoon. Throwing both hands before him, Scaith sent this blast at the Toltek. For a moment the sky lost its volume; the very breath in Lainn’s lungs was stolen, sucked out to join the fatal draft. The wind blade parted the veil of smoke and struck the Toltek, breaking against its stony midriff; its force dissipated with a mournful howl. A great stillness followed. Scaith and the Toltek regarded each other over the vast gulf of sky between them. The Toltek opened its cavernous mouth to give its reply, and a river of flame burst from its maw. Scaith recoiled and was utterly lost, his body enveloped in the wash of the inferno. The Toltek rolled its head, seemingly vomiting forth hell’s infinity. And then, the molten spew ceased and fell away, leaving a single ember suspended in the air, as if it had been driven into the firmament. Then this too fell, a dying coal plummeting from the heavens and shattering on the ground into countless dancing sparks. Rogal sped to the site. Lainn’s mouth soundlessly formed the name of his mentor. “Lainn.” Lainn spun to the voice. Adso stood behind him, his face drawn and grave. “My master, Scaith, has fallen.” “Fallen…” the word rolled from Lainn’s lips. “Aye…he was not ready…it had been so long…” Adso met Lainn’s eyes. “This burden now falls to you – choose well, fight hard, die with peace.” The familiar closed its eyes and faded from sight. Buntu cast the globe from his hand and let it spin at the end of its cord. “The Toltek will come now; you must act.” “Help me then! Teach me to fly as Scaith, my mentor!” “Seek not to imitate your mentor, rather, discover your own path – you can do better than flight!” Buntu purred. The Toltek heaved a leg from the ground – its foot chased over the land like a dark sun – and smote the earth half a league further. Lainn was thrown to the ground. He rolled to his knees. “What a stride! Another step and it will be upon us!” Buntu fixed his eyes upon Lainn and his orb snapped back into his hand. Lainn felt a strange sensation; red streamers were entwining themselves around his limbs. He struggled, but his head was quickly swathed, and arms pinned. The strength in his limbs failed; they became light, as if dissolving.

16


The red streamers suddenly disintegrated and Lainn collapsed to the ground, gasping for air. “Wha-what was that?” He looked up, beholding the forest. “...this – we are at the border wall of the guardians!” “That was a demonstration. Choose me, Lainn, and I will endow you with the power of instantaneous relocation; the ability to travel anywhere at any moment!” A streak appeared, coming out of the east. It shot down from the heavens and Rogal slid to a stop before them. “Wait Lainn!” the familiar cried, “rather, choose me and you shall have the gift of flight to aid you in times of peril and glory!” Buntu moved beside Lainn. “We have seen the gift of flight and have found it...lacking.” The familiar flashed a wry smile. Lainn got to his feet. “I do not have time for this pettiness! Do you not perceive how the earth shakes? The Toltek approaches! I must warn Praesidium!” “This is no time for pride, young monk.” Buntu pulled back on his globe and caught its string, dangling the orb above his free hand. “You must discern, or how will you reach the city in time?” “I am not ready to choose a guardian.” “Choosing a guardian requires demanding its power on three occasions. This single choice will not be determinate.” Rogal explained. “I see.” Lainn looked at the two familiars. “Then I would have the gift of wings.” “It’s yours!” Rogal smiled. The skin on Lainn’s back suddenly began to itch. Strange bones began heaving, moving through the muscle and then tearing through the skin. Glancing over his shoulder, Lainn watched four wings climb out from himself. They fanned out, magnificent, shields of translucent feathers garnished with iridescent tips. Lainn took to the sky, the skill of flight suddenly innate, and made for the city. The eastern gate was shut. Before it stood an army arrayed, resplendent in crimson. Lainn plunged to the earth and the men drew back. “Wait!” A figure broke from the cowering wall of men. “It is Lainn, the monk!” “Granger!” Lainn landed and waved the man forward. Granger was attired in the garb of the city guard, a whetted spear in his hands and his sons at his back. “Granger, you and your countrymen must fall back! A demon of the ancient world makes for this place!” “No!” The Captain of the Guard, decked in golden armour and silver weaponry, stepped forward and levelled his spear at Lainn. “Stand men! Do not listen to this pretender! He is the harbinger of evil, sent ahead to destroy our resolve! Together, we are strong! Our shoulders can lift the world!” “My Captain! Consider – this monk is one of the illuminative!” Granger shouted. “What good is flesh and steel against magic? This monk comes to preserve us!” “We must stand!” Another guard cried. “What of our homes and treasures? What of our families?” A great haunting roar crackled through the air; all men looked to the horizon. The Toltek’s form appeared in the distance. The men sent up a wail of despair. “A monstrosity!” “An abomination!” Lainn looked to the Captain. “I implore you: disperse your men! The creature is mine to battle and I will heap hell back upon its head! Now go, for this is not your time!” Lainn turned and leapt into the sky. “Fool!” The Captain of the Guard shouted. “Stand with us!” But Lainn was already over the forest and did not look back. “And what will you do, then?” Lainn looked to find Buntu flying at his left. “You will need our powers to fight it.”

17


“Trust in me,” Rogal called. Lainn turned to find Rogal at his right, “and I shall give you the white lightning of the heavens to wield!” “Lightning is but tinsel!” Buntu scoffed. “Your powers are capricious, to be begged for even when in direst need – but I, Lainn, I offer you despotic control of my potencies; infinite power to be used as willed, increasing in intensity as you increase in its mastery!” “It is true,” Rogal said evenly, “that in choosing me you may have those boons I can grant, but only when necessary, and only for the glory of God. But these powers are infinite in potential, being limited only by your belief.” Buntu shook his head. “Limitations are found only in the abilities of the weak! Choose me now, and I shall give you the magic of adherence – you can raise the earth itself to encumber and suffocate the demon!” “You promise great things, Buntu, but this only makes me cautious. Rogal, lend me command of this lightning!” “It’s yours!” Lainn flew at the Toltek, a mounting thunderhead chasing behind him. The Toltek tracked his path and sent a jet of flame to receive him. Lainn cut above it and threw his arms forward. The world was dissolved in a brilliant flash; a bolt of lightning arced over Lainn, bleaching the sky, and struck the Toltek’s brow, boring a hole in its earthen head. The gaping wound spit rock and bled smoke but the Toltek was unfazed; it brought up its left arm and beams shot from its wreathed fingertips. The beams razed the horizon and one caught Lainn’s wing, knocking him from the sky. Lainn pinwheeled into the ground. For a moment he was stunned, but the shaking earth helped percolate his senses. His wings rejuvenated themselves and Lainn crawled to his feet “Lainn, you need my power!” “No Buntu,” Lainn wiped blood from his brow, “it was power like yours that created the Toltek in the first place.” “Why do you fear greatness? Power is only evil if you use it for evil. Good and evil are choices made in the will, not commodities that can be bartered and sold! Take my power – the power to stop the Toltek!” Lainn looked at Rogal, but the other familiar said nothing. “Choose to create a different end!” Buntu urged. Lainn bowed his head. “We shall see; I accept your assistance, Buntu.” The familiar smiled and flicked its globe to the ground. It spun there. “Then I grant you power over the earth – the power of adherence to entomb the Toltek where it stands!” Lainn barely kept his footing as the Toltek took another step. Scooping his hands down towards the earth, Lainn heaved upwards. The land around the Toltek leapt upward, leaving great wounds in the earth, and from these spouted massive geysers of magma. The geysers tickled the clouds and arched over the Toltek, dousing it with lava. The Toltek became enraged: it pivoted, swinging its arms through the geysers, but the magma shut upon it like a collapsing umbrella, enveloping the creature in a sheath of molten slag. Lainn then summoned a fierce north wind. The hot crimson faded to a obsidian resin: the Toltek was entombed. “Masterfully done,” remarked Buntu. Lainn did not reply. Already deep cracks were running through the fresh igneous. From its core came the booming rumble of the Toltek and the cooling rock exploded. Massive chunks, some as big as city blocks, flew into the air and cartwheeled along the ground. Dull thuds of far-reaching debris echoed back over the forest. A skeletal hand burst from the Toltek’s crumbling mould and tore around furiously, widening a rift. A second hand plunged through, and then a giant metal skull – glowing red hot with burning eyes – broke from the cooling crust and uttered an infuriated cry. The Toltek, tearing at itself and stomping its feet, shook the dross from its limbs. The earth rocked and the trees of the forest shook like stalks of grass. Lainn took to the sky. With a deafening fusillade of clapping stone, 18


the Toltek emerged from its chrysalis, stripped of its earthy flesh and revealed as a thing of gears and metal. “A demon mechanical!” Lainn gasped incredulously. “You see the dark aura that imbues it? Such intense power!” Rogal remarked grimly. “Through Buntu’s power, I have restored its original form!” Lainn cried in dismay. “And more besides,” Buntu said cryptically. “Lainn, we will have to grow stronger still!” Lainn looked around and his eyes came to rest upon the trees. “Rogal, I need to be master of this forest!” “Hold master!” Buntu cried. “You have chosen his powers twice now, if you choose again, you shall have made your discernment and lost my aid!” “This is true, Buntu,” Lainn replied, with resolute calm. “Oh?” Buntu hissed, real menace in his voice. “I am more powerful than Rogal – without restrictions! With me, nothing is impossible: with me you shall define what is good and evil!” “That is not my purpose, Buntu. Rogal, can you grant me mastery of the trees here?” Rogal bowed his head. “All creation is ready to serve you.” “Master!” Buntu cried in despair. Lainn rose up over the forest. He splayed his fingers and raked the air before him. There was a thunderous snapping ripple and the entire forest below was denuded to the trunks, every branch brought down to the forest floor. Lainn balled up his hands and swivelled his wrists and a terrific crack resounded over the earth – every tree broke from its roots and stood in the air. Lainn hurled his arms towards the Toltek and a forest of spears sprang at the Toltek. The Toltek unleashed a jet of fire, vaporizing the center of the barrage, but many a tree found its mark. Stuck with thousands of bolts, the Toltek roared; a frisson of blue fire shot up its body and the embedded trunks burst into flame and crumbled away. “Is there no way to stop it?” Lainn cried in despair. The Toltek roared and resumed its path. Lainn retreated, flying to what had been the far end of the forest’s edge. The host of men stood there yet. The walls of Praesidium were studded with boulders, the cityscape beyond resembling a mouth of chipped and broken teeth. Many men were dead, having been crushed by falling rocks. Lainn landed in their midst, his coming the final knell for a tower, which ducked below the wall and shook the city in its destruction. “What has happened?” The Captain of the Guard crashed through his men. He grasped Lainn by the neck and raised his sword. “You...monk! You have destroyed us! The city’s ancient wards are broken, shattered by your rain of stone!” “I did not rain stone upon this city...” Lainn’s voice failed and his eyes became wide with understanding. The earth trembled and the Toltek filled the land before the host. With two strides it crossed the felled forest, sending every man to his hands and knees, clawing at the earth for a hold. The Captain fell, his vengeful blow unrealized. Another stride and a massive foot swung down upon the men below, but it was stopped in its descent: Lainn held it fast, his arms crossed against it. The possessed mechanical screeched in frustration and leaned forward. The earth buckled, sinking several cubits, but Lainn held aloft the fatal limb. Infuriated, the Toltek rained down blows, but Lainn’s shield held, though he cried out from the strain. The Toltek relented, retracting its foot and Lainn fell to his knees, exhausted. Blood trickled from his nose and ears. The Toltek paused, then screamed and sent its foot back down. Lainn caught it again, but too late, for it hovered just above the surface. Around him the men of Praesidium shrieked and ignited; they tumbled like beams falling from the loft of a burning barn. Lainn collapsed and the massive foot slammed down.

19


Rearing back, the Toltek crashed its metal jaws together and seethed at the sky. It swung its leg through the walls, invincible no longer. Straddling the city, the monster unloaded rivers of fire into the streets. Horrible cries rose from the cellars and attics of Praesidium. And from the ruin of its passage, Lainn emerged, his wings gilded with fury, glowing and radiant, grief and anger playing on his face. His eyes surveyed the pockmarked, powdered earth and the city wall reduced to chaff. For a moment, Lainn saw the many villages and kingdoms that lay beyond, and heard the inexorable gait of the machine. “Lainn!” Buntu’s fading form appeared. “Even now you can choose me – reject Rogal – save me!” “I have chosen Rogal.” Lainn’s eyes became distant. “Defeating this thing may be given to another, but it is better that I die having embraced the light than to live out my days as a champion of darkness. Rogal, tell me, by what power can I defeat the Toltek?” “Perhaps do as was done before: send it back into the earth.” “A fool’s errand!” Buntu wheezed, the globe clutched between his hands. “The Tolteks were never defeated! They fought until their magic was spent!” “No more, Buntu!” Lainn said sternly. The familiar’s face twisted with rage. Manacles suddenly appeared on his wrists and yanked Buntu down into the earth. “I will not forget this, monk! But perhaps I will forgive! I will wait for you, Lainn! Buntu – remember my name! You will know despair one day, mortal – and weakness! When death comes for you, call my name! I will wait for you!” Buntu gave a final grimace and was swallowed up from sight, the globe following last, sucked down by its string. “Toltek!” Lainn screamed. The monster paid him no heed. “Toltek!” Lainn repeated, sending a bolt of lightning with his cry. A fresh scar of brilliant white tattooed on the back of its head, the Toltek turned. Perceiving the monk, it shot a little snort of fire. It slammed its fists into the ground; entire boroughs flew off the ground, blown off their foundations by the wave blasters in its palms. Lainn raised a hand and slammed it to the earth. “Down!” The earth between the two combatants was rent, opening into a vast chasm that pierced into the heart of the world. The effort was intense; Lainn clenched his teeth until they threatened to break with the strain. Unfazed by this manifestation of power, the Toltek stood and made for Lainn. Its great stride spanned the chasm and its foot scuffed the cliff before Lainn, but it failed to gain a hold and, without a sound, the Toltek pitched into the chasm. Lainn closed his palm and the two halves of the earth slid home, resealing with a thunderous boom. His body convulsing, the young monk hit the ground, having nearly snapped the cords of his mortal coil. Rogal came to his master’s side. “Good Rogal, I think...I think I shall die now.” Lainn panted. Rogal did not answer; giant fists erupted from the earth, showering the pair with molten rock and ash. The Toltek remerged, a dull red sheen to its bones, for it had bathed in the blood of the earth. Lainn shook his wings, tossing off the burning stone. He rolled, spat blood, and took to the air like a crippled bird. Evading blasts of fire and searing light, Lainn came to circle above the monstrosity. The Toltek blared its battle cry and a wave pulse issued from its body. Praesidium was razed in an instant, not one stone was left atop another. “What will you do, Lainn?” Rogal hovered at his master’s side. “Lainn!” Below, in the hole burrowed by the Toltek, was Buntu, his flickering form rooted within the earth, fixed there by his chains. “Call for me!” Lainn looked down upon the fiend. “The power I wield is not my own...I am but a conduit.” Lainn threw his head back and gazed into the clouds, parting them that he might see the sun. “I will absorb the magic in the Toltek!” “Lainn, no!” Rogal recoiled. “The light cannot support it!” “Do it, Lainn!” Buntu rasped. “And embrace me as your guardian, for together we can transform the Toltek’s power – and you! An apotheosis!” 20


Lainn opened his arms and a violet stream of magic sprang up from the crown of the Toltek’s head. It weaved through the air, suddenly shooting forward to strike Lainn in the chest. “Lainn!” Rogal screamed. “This cannot be done!” The fell magic rushed from the Toltek into the monk. Lainn’s body spiralled in the air, muscles taut and mouth open, racked with pain unimaginable – the mortal form disintegrating. Lainn extended a single arm, pointing towards where the city was bleeding out into the harbour, where the ocean lapped at the broken docks, licking the wound of civilization. Then, from the monk’s fingertips, the magic poured anew. The ocean received the stream and began to boil, purifying the fell magic in its waters. The Toltek trembled as its life was withdrawn. It staggered, with agonizing steps, towards where Lainn hung in the sky, but came short. The Toltek toppled, a marionette cut from its strings, and smacked down into the waters, crushing the ancient lighthouse and the bones of giants. In silence, the ocean exploded. Its bounty fell upwards as a torrential rain to drench the clouds. Then the sky fell, all the water returning and tearing the clouds down with it, slapping back against the denuded clay and slime and sending rippling tsunamis over the ruin of the earth. The evil magic had been utterly dissipated. The angry water cleared, revealing the Toltek’s ruin splayed over the bottom of the harbour. And moving over the waters was Lainn, borne in the arms of his guardian, Rogal. The young monk’s robes flapped around his limp form like a tattered winding sheet, but Lainn was not dead, only spent with exhaustion. For three days he slept, hidden within the ruins of Praesidium, his guardian Rogal ever at his side. Finally, on the third day, Lainn rose and emerged back out into sun, whereupon he and Rogal walked back to the monastery, as was the custom of the monks of his order. Lainn would grow in wisdom with the years and become famous, but not for the deeds related here, nor the many others he wrought in the service of his Order, but rather for his penances, for to his last day, he strove to make atonement for his choice that caused walls of Praesidium to be breached and its people destroyed. And to match his penances was the vigour of his life, for he had no fear and shirked no duty, and his faith and courage were such that no ill word left his lips and no vile deed was done through his agency, and so he was called Lainn the Magnanimous: “the Great Soul”. And at his death, many attest that he was visited by a spirit, the same familiar he had rejected in his youth, but none can say for sure, for when asked he would not give its name, only saying, “I have chosen the good.”

21


The Toltek