The Beltane Cycle
“We danced under the leaves, in the forest that was Sucellus. He sat at its heart but he was the branches that we walked upon, the ground on which we played and wind and rain that nurtured us. There was no disease, and no death that he did not allow.”
“That isn’t to say that no one died. Our lives were long but not eternal and eventually the physical body would be laid aside to travel in more spiritual places. But no one ever died by malice or accident. A child jumping from branch to branch was blessed by Sucellus with agility and balance, but he would also find that the branch would move to catch him as well. So great was Sucellus’s love for us that his forest cared for us as well.”
The elven children gathered closer to the storyteller. They could still feel the stirring of their bonds with the forest, but the forests they knew were tombs compared to the forest in the Age of Dragons. The elves still felt deep reverence for them, but the soul of the forest was gone.
“What story would you like to hear tonight children?”
Many answers were shouted back, the storyteller stopped them, surprised by one of the suggestions.
“The Black Mirror? What do you know of that story Cewellyn?”
The boy smiled shyly. “My father said that the Malakim receive visions from a sea of glass that is supposed to bless anyone who looks into it, to make him more virtuous. But that in hell there is one that does the opposite.”
“Yes, there was once a mirror as your father described, but it has been destroyed now. Remember that during this first age, as we lived in Sucellus’s embrace and the gentle Aifons dwelt in the Seas with Danalin, the rest of creation was at war. We were bordered by vast mountains with moving rocks, battle-scarred plains, and the sea. Of those only the sea was safe to travel on. Those few that left to explore other regions never returned.”
“Cernunnos was with us then as well, and had three mortal wives. They all bore him children and all the male children were born with the horns and hooves of their father. They were powerful fighters among the Ljosalfar and used to play games to test their strength. The greatest was said to be Gower.”
“They were powerful sons, but powerful only compared to those in the forest and the occasional Aifon traveler, and they believed themselves to be unbeatable. They spent days watching the great beasts of the gods battle across the plains neighboring the forest, envying the battle they couldn’t join. Until the day Gower defied the laws of Sucellus and left the forest to see what lay on the other side of the mountains.”
The branches reached for the charging satyr, roots and weeds wrapped around his hooves but still he charged ahead tearing plants from the ground. Back behind his brothers called for him and a rustle of warning spread through the forest towards its heart. But Gower charged on.
Leaping from the forest’s edge onto the rocky slope of the mountains was like moving from one world to another. He was no longer within the borders of Sucellus’s lands and he immediately felt the difference. The forest had loved him, nourished him and been a companion from birth. But he felt nothing from the rough stone beneath him now. Beside him the forest lay open, welcoming him back like a protective womb. But Gower pushed on.
In the forest the wind whistled though the canopy of trees, but here it roared against the mountains. He imagined the breath of those great beasts he saw battling on the fields couldn’t be much stronger than this and the higher he climbed the more the wind pushed and switched direction.
Everything seemed dangerous here. In the forest he had been the strongest of his father’s sons, and there was nothing that he couldn’t bend, break, or push aside. But here the stones chipped at his hooves and tore at his skin when he fell and slid back along the steep mountainside. Occasionally the mountain shook, sending rocks raining down on him. One of these rockslides caused a rock to cut deeply into his shoulder. He had bled before, in mock battles with his brothers they would often hurt each other. But where those wounds were the worst he could receive in the forest’s embrace, here it was the very least.
Stopping halfway up he looked back to see he had long ago risen well past even the forest’s tallest trees. He could look down into the emerald lands of Sucellus and see the deep blue sea beyond. To the west the mountains continued and to the east the battle-scarred plains where he had watched so many battles. Now he saw a floating citadel passing over the plains like a giant rocky spike. Fortifications and symbols were carved into the rock and winged creatures surrounded it like a black cloud. As it got closer to the mountain range great giants rose out of the ground and began tossing rocks at the floating citadel. Crashing into it and causing hordes of the flying creatures to swoop down, pick up the giants and carry them up almost to the citadel before dropping them.
But the rocks did little damage to the citadel and the winged creatures were rarely able to lift one of the giants off of the ground. The battle continued for hours as Gower climbed, with little success from either side. Night came and eventually the sounds of rocks slamming into the citadel and the distant war cries from either side faded away as well. The moon hung low over the sea but the stars were obscured by a grey haze.
When Gower reached the mountain’s peak he saw the source of the haze. Beyond the mountains burned. Great red rivers ran from them like blood and tortured smoke poured from peaks and collapsed holes in the mountains.
“Such is the cost of war.”
An angel was sitting in the shadow of the peak. He was old, powerfully built and wore a gold crown decorated with opals.
“What happened?” Gower asked, wary but curious about the stranger.
“A raid on Kilmorph’s lands. This was once a beautiful valley filled with the wide eyed Calculpech and troublesome groundhogs. Now only ash and broken rock remain.”
Gower noticed that the angel had a long spear beside him. It had rings on the end where a banner could be flown but the rings were empty.
“Who are you?” Gower asked.
“Once the champion of hope, but that time is long past. Now I am only another victim of this great war.”
At this the angel finally turned and considered Gower, and Gower felt uneasy in his stare. Unwilling to be read by the angel Gower offered his identity.
“I am Gower, from the domain of Sucellus.”
“Ahh, Gower. Do you come to join the war or to end it?”
Gower considered the question. He only really wanted to see what was on the other side of the mountains, maybe wrestle the beasts he saw fighting on the plains. But this destruction, this kind of war, shocked him.
“I thought I would fight, but I see now that Sucellus was right to stay out of the Godswar. There is too much pain here.”
The angel smiled, Gower thought he approved of his answer but in truth the angel was just amused by the satyr’s innocence.
“We can end this war, but not through diplomacy. Only through more pain. When creation itself shudders, when every angel fights, there will be no choice but peace.”
As the angel spoke he stood up and his gold wings unfurled. Gower had seen Sucellus as the heart of the forest many times and this angel shared a majestic quality with the god of nature.
“That will never happen,” Gower answered, “Sucellus will never join the war.”
“Yes, yes he will.”
Cernunnos, the great horned one, awoke to the whispers of the trees. They spoke of his son Gower, that he had left the protection of the forest. He was instantly up and charging through the forest. The Ljosalfar stared as his passing, unable to hear the trees and scared to see the greatest angel of Sucellus so enraged.
“Where did he go? What of my children?”
The chorus of answers surrounded him, “into the mountains…” “the children wait at the forest’s edge…” “Gower is gone…”
As he ran he felt the presence of Sucellus beside him, calming him although Cernunnos didn’t want to be calmed.
“Why didn’t you stop him?”
Sucellus spoke directly to his archangel, his words resounded within him “This is no prison my child. Gower left of his own will, you cannot follow.”
Cernunnos knew the truth of the words but refused to answer. In a few minutes he was at the forest’s edge where the rest of his sons stood yelling for Gower to come back. Gower was just beginning the ascent, no more than a few hundred yards from the forest’s edge. Cernunnos stopped to command his other sons to return to the forest’s heart, but so terrible was his expression that he didn’t even need to speak to send them all fleeing into the forest.
Cernunnos yelled from the edge. His great voice echoed against the mountain and everyone in the forest heard his call but Gower continued on as if he hadn’t. Frustrated, Cernunnos ripped out a tree and slammed it into the ground. The mountainside trembled with the blow, sending rocks rolling down into the forest and even knocking down Gower as he climbed. But still he didn’t look back.
Even more angry, Cernunnos picked up one of the loose rocks that had rolled into the forest and threw it at his son. The rock hit Gower on his shoulder and he fell in pain. But when he picked himself up he only looked up the mountain and hurried forward even faster.
Cernunnos looked back into the forest’s heart. Sucellus hadn’t moved from the great chamber of root and branches that was his home, but his spirit was there at the forest’s edge. Cernunnos only whispered “I’m sorry” and then jumped out onto the mountainside.
Landing on the rocky slope Cernunnos felt the loss of Sucellus’s arda for the first time. His body trembled and it felt like his soul was pulled out of him. Only the thought of his eldest son scrambling up the slope ahead of him allowed him to continue on. Cernunnos yelled Gower’s name again as he picked himself up.
A shadow fell over him. Cernunnos recognized the god of despair when he saw him and paled when Agares dropped between him and his son.
“You were always my favorite of the archangels, are you as strong as they say?”
Agares stood bathed in black and gold flames, he was beautiful and horrible. His lance was raised above his head and his six wings fully unfurled, blocking Cernunnos’s sight of his son.
Cernunnos summoned the strength to speak, “I only want my son, I have no quarrel with you.”
“If you want him,” Agares smiled, “come and get him.”
Cernunnos charged forward, lowering his head he braced his shoulders for the impact. Nothing had ever resisted his charge, though he had never attacked a god before. Just before the strike a single feather fell off of Agares’s wing. It landed on Cernunnos’s back and drove the charging archangel to the ground. There he lay prostrate before the god of entropy, a single feather on his back. As much as he struggled, dug his hands into the earth and shattered the rocks beneath him Cernunnos could not rise.
Agares knelt down beside Cernunnos, “Maybe next time will work out better for you.” Then Agares was off into the sky, the shadow passed over Cernunnos and was gone.
Cernunnos labored under the weight of the feather for the rest of the day. When the sun finally dipped below the mountains and Cernunnos was swallowed by the mountain’s
shadow a breeze blew along the mountainside. Barely enough to ruffle hair the breeze picked up the feather which circled lazily in the breeze before slipping down and coming to rest at the forest’s edge.
But Cernunnos was already gone. The mountain shook with each thunderous strike of his hooves as he charged up the mountain. He could see the silhouette of Gower at the mountain’s peak, standing, looking over the mountain. Cernunnos was terrified for his son but for a moment he had hope. Hope that he would reach him in time. Hope that his encounter with Agares had nothing to do with Gower. Then Agares stood up next to Gower on the mountain’s peak and that hope was gone.
Cernunnos screamed, the mountains echoed that terrified yell back at him and over the forest below. The Ljosalfar cried in anguish and Cernunnos’s other children echoed their father’s yell.
Agares reached out and grabbed Gower by the throat. The satyr flailed helplessly in the god’s powerful grip. Gower’s muscles strained and turned red, his limbs trembled. Agares reached out with his other hand and opened a portal. There was a dark world beyond, full of ashes and pitch black seas. It was the ruins of a world now ground to dust. And Agares carried Gower through the portal.
Cernunnos reached the top just as the portal began to close. Without thinking he leapt through.
Cernunnos lost his connection with Sucellus when he left the forest. But he hadn’t realized that he could feel the connection with each of the gods until it was taken from him. Passionate Bhall, loving Sirona, vigilant Junil all had some part in his soul and drove him from the forest to save his son. But this world was devoid of their voices. Here only one god remained, the god of despair, Agares.
The world was ash in all directions. The sky was empty and although he had seen a dark river leading to a sea that seemed to reflect the empty sky Cernunnos couldn’t see it now. But Cernunnos was not without talents, he was the archangel of nature and he reached his hands down into the grey earth and called for some living thing to respond. Something with strength, with warmth that could grow and change. The entire world could not be dead.
And he felt it, the only life in this forgotten world, his son being dragged into a pit. Gower was still alive but in horrible pain. And for the first time Gower sensed Cernunnos as well and called out his father’s name.
Cernunnos was up and moving again. Across the endless grey, his breaths the only sound in this empty world and a wake of ashes left behind him. He followed his son’s call until he came to a great pit. In the center a granite island floated and ashes eternally fell like sand from it into the darkness below. Agares stood on the island with the captured Gower.
Cernunnos leapt. He flew across the expanse like a bird in flight and as he flew he heard, he felt, Gower’s cries. Halfway across the expanse Agares squeezed the neck of the
young satyr and he died. Gower’s soul hung in the air, longed for the call of Sucellus to lead him to his eternal home, but Agares reached out and consumed the satyr’s soul instead.
Cernunnos slammed into the side of the floating island. He cried out for his son in despair as he clawed his way up and over the lip of the island onto the top.
Agares stood alone on the flat granite top. He casually tossed the broken body of Gower down in front of him and Cernunnos charged. Agares held out a hand to stop the enraged archangel and the entire world shuddered with the force of the impact. Agares was the heart of this world and he could not be moved. But so powerful was Cernunnos strike that the world was moved around him. Chasms opened up in the surface of the deepest hell, rivers poured into lost caverns, and Agares was laid prostrate before the mighty Cernunnos.
Agares looked down at the horn marks in his black and gold breastplate. It was as great a hit as he had ever received, but he was a god and would not fall to an archangel’s attack.
Agares was on Cernunnos in full force. His lance forgotten, Agares tore into the horned giant like a beast. Black and gold flames sheathed both of them, burning Cernunnos
and he suffered through the physical attack and a similar assault on his soul. Both his body and his spirit were being crushed by the force of Agares. Agares grabbed Cernunnos’s head and turned it to the smooth polished floor of the island, it was a perfect black mirror that reflected the pain and anguish Cernunnos was feeling.
“You were always my favorite of the archangels,” Agares whispered.
From within the black mirror Cernunnos’s image writhed and yelled. He shared all of Cernunnos’s features but they were cast in blacks and reds instead of browns and green of the archangel. As Cernunnos watched in horror the image reached up through the surface and climbed out of the mirror. This dark version of him stood leering down at where Agares held him.
Satisfied with his new creation Agares wrapped his hand around Cernunnos’s throat and squeezed. The world swirled in Cernunnos’s gaze, he could feel his life draining from him and Agares preparing to consume his soul.
A crack of thunder shook the island. Agares screamed in pain and dropped Cernunnos. Another blow destroyed Agares’s breastplate and drove the god back further. The twisted image of Cernunnos charged and was caught by deer hooves and kicked over the side of the island and into the pit. Sucellus stood in the center of the island, an angry god in all his glory. He looked down at Cernunnos but his gaze was caught in the black mirror.
Cernunnos realized immediately what was happening so he struck the mirror with all his power and the mirror exploded around them. Great black shards rained over them and Agares howled in anger. Cernunnos picked up a shard, intending to throw it at the god of despair but Sucellus grabbed him and the grey wastes of Agares’s hell disappeared beneath them.
Back in the forest Sucellus called out to every plant and animal, ordering them to prepare for the coming battle. As his presence raced through the forest he could already feel Agares’s taint invading. The forest was being twisted and corrupted. The grass withered, animals grew sick and fled, spreading their disease in any area they passed through.
Cernunnos began organizing the Ljosalfar. They had never known war but they would soon. One, a young sculptor, looked into the shard of the black mirror Cernunnos still held. She was frozen, transfixed by it. A ghostly image appeared beside her, an image of her but malicious and cruel. Cernunnos crushed the image with his massive fist and handed the shard, face down, to the elf.
“Hide this, don’t ever let anyone look into it.”
She took the shard it and rushed off immediately to perform the task. There was a battle coming, but Cernunnos had a task left to perform before he started it.
He returned to his home beneath the red oak. Gower’s mother was waiting outside. He didn’t need to say anything, as he approached she fell weeping, her head in her hands.
The children sat entranced by the story. Eyes widened with every attack and they quivered and mourned with each defeat.
“What happened next?” Cewellyn asked.
The storyteller considered the question.
“I wish I could say that things were better but things became much worse. Sucellus and Danalin joined the Godswar and creation itself was nearly destroyed in the following weeks. Fortunately, rather than cause that, the gods came together to create the compact and agree to withdrawal from creation. All because of the events begun by Gower.”
“Did Sucellus rescue Gower?”
“No, I don’t believe so. But at Beltane the nations that revere Cernunnos hold a wrestling celebration that is in honor of his favored son. And to this day the satyrs, distant children
of Cernunnos, ally themselves to any nation that follows their great father.”
The storyteller paused. Beltane was only a few nights away and he wanted the children to understand that these were more than just games.
“But it is late and more of this story will have to wait for another night.”
The storyteller smiled as the children moaned and begged for a little more time. But they eventually accepted the storyteller’s statement and went off to their beds where they were met by dreams of battling gods, Cernunnos, and his favorite son.
Hemah reached down into the underbrush at the forest’s edge. A storm had ravaged the area and a glint of gold was visible in the dirt. Thinking it a coin he was surprised to find a golden feather. The feather was beautiful, unblemished by its time in the mud despite the fact that Hemah suspected it had been there for a very long time, and it had such a feeling of strong reality about it that it made everything around it seem less real.
Alazkan called for him from the horses. His accent was as perfect as the illusion Hemah’s amulet wove around him. He would appear to everyone as a Lanun trader instead of a Svartalfar assassin. Even his impatience was indicative of his human persona, and Hemah wondered how much of it was an act.
“I’m coming.” Hemah slipped the feather into his robe and brushed the dirt from his sleeves, the signal that they were being watched. Alazkan was already aware of that and resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the mysterious, though talented, mage.
Three days later found them in the heart of the forest. It was Beltane and the city was full of travelers intent on worship and games. A pair of new faces, even human ones wouldn’t be noticed.
Once Alazkan had shuttered the windows and checked the inn room he removed the amulet.
“Have you found it?”
Hemah rubbed his eyes. He had been scrying the city all day but hadn’t slept well for days. The Svartalfar provided him with incense that kept him from dreaming, but the sleep was empty. He was physically rested but it was becoming more difficult to focus his mind.
“Yes, there are three temples in the city. Between the three there is a small grove with a statue of a satyr. It is inside the statue.”
“Inside?” Alazkan asked, “is there a secret door in the statue?”
“I don’t think so. They couldn’t destroy it. So they built it into a statue to hide it.”
Alazkan was a talented thief, but he couldn’t steal a statue from the Ljosalfar capital alone. And trying to chip away at a statue in the middle of a festival was bound to get someone’s attention.
“I’m going to need another illusion, and a time when no one will be in the grove.”
The festival provided the opportunity they needed. The regina procession, a parade of all of the Ljosalfar royalty lead by Arendel herself. Hemah and Alazkan stood waiting at the edge of the procession only a few hundred yards from the grove. Though they would be close to the crowds of Evermore no one would be watching the grove and the cheers should cover any noise they made.
Adepts were preparing for the procession. All were dressed in elven finery and practicing the minor illusions that would enhance the parade. Hemah scoffed at the obvious strain they spent on starlight or glowing effects on the chariots. One adept struggled to make a deer carved in the side of chariot look to leap and dance along the chariot’s side.
Then Hemah saw her. She was going to each of the adepts, making sure they were ready and encouraging them. She went from one display to the next, she had mastered every illusion and easily recreated it for each adept. Showing him how to improve it or making sure it was just right. She stopped at the struggling adept, held his hands against hers and let him feel her movements as she cast the spell. It was perfect and in his next attempt he had it as well.
She was beautiful. For the first time Hemah felt guilty for helping the Svartalfar steal from this city. It had been a long time since he had felt guilty for anything.
The horns rang out and the crowds pushed toward the center of Evermore. The beautiful archmage slipped into the palace and the procession began. As elven royalty began leaving the palace to enter their enchanted chariots, Alazkan grabbed Hemah’s elbow.
Hemah resisted, hoping the she would come back. But gave in at another pull from Alazkan and followed him through the crowd.
Outside the grove their wagon waited. Four bulls pulled it and the open back was reinforced with enough iron to be able to carry the statue. There was a rune inscribed on the wagon bed, though for now it was inert.
Alazkan lead the wagon into the grove while Hemah walked alongside. They could hear the crowd getting louder as each set of nobles got progressively more famous. But not everyone was watching the procession, a disciple was startled to see the wagon cutting through the small grove.
“What are you doing? Get that wagon out of here!”
Hemah started the excuse they had prepared, “I’m so sorry, the road ahead was blocked and we…”
The rest of the story was unnecessary as Alazkan had already killed him. A sword strike, body caught before it dropped to the ground and slipped into the back of the wagon. Hemah was suddenly glad that if he were to die Alazkan’s amulet would stop working and he would be revealed as a Svartalfar in the center of the Ljosalfar capital.
The crowds cheered and horns announced the entrance of Arendel herself.
“Help me.” Alazkan ordered, throwing ropes around the statue.
Hemah did, tying them off and signaling that he was ready for the wagon to pull. Alazkan whipped the bulls forward until the ropes pulled taunt, there was brief second of pause when nothing moved and then the statue fell forward against the wagon’s back.
Alazkan stopped the bulls, then locked the wheels in place and adjusted the ropes. While he set the bulls to be able to pull the statue up into the wagon Hemah inscribed a rune on the ground where the statue used to stand. When he was finished he cast his spell and an illusionary statue stood in the old statue’s place.
By that time Alazkan had the statue in the wagon and was calling for Hemah to hurry up. Hemah jumped into the wagon bed and traced over the rune he had inscribed there. The statue in the wagon bed shimmered and disappeared, leaving the wagon bed apparently empty as long as no one noticed that it sat low on its wheels and its wheels cut heavy grooves in the ground.
Alazkan looked back and smiled, “I don’t think were supposed to be here friend, what say we try to get out to some real roads?”
The ride out of Evermore was uneventful, outside of that single disciple and the hordes of people watching the procession the city was empty. With luck it would take days for anyone to notice the statue had been stolen and by then it would be safely outside of their forest. But the further Hemah rode on the wagon the more anxious he got.
“I can’t leave yet.”
Alazkan eyed him suspiciously, “You are far too useful to be discarded after this mission if that is what you are worrying about.”
“No, I just want to explore Evermore. There may be more artifacts here, it’s supposed to have been the same location the elves once shared with Sucellus.”
Alazkan considered his options. As always, killing anyone who presented a risk to the mission ranked highly in his thinking. But he either decided that Hemah may be right in finding even more treasures in the Ljosalfar city, or the mage truly scared him. Either way, he decided to let Hemah go. He reached into his tunic and produced the pouch of incense that was Hemah’s payment.
“Very well, let me know if you find something worth stealing and we can try it again. Next time I want to be a Grigori nobleman. I have some ideas for some great insults and I plan to ridicule Cernunnos at every opportunity.”
Hemah smiled, “I will do that…the shadows greet you.”
“And you brother.”
With that Alazkan drove the wagon out into the forest. Hemah turned and began walking back toward Evermore.
Although it wasn’t uncommon for disciples to miss the evening bell during Beltane, and not unheard of to still be missing the next morning, it was out of character for the bookish disciple Wyren. He had been the least interested in the festival and outside of his religious obligations hadn’t attended many of the games or displays that crowded the elven capital.
Priest Tuathal watched the flowerbed in concern. The flowers that each bloomed during different parts of the day, arrayed in an arc in order as they bloomed. Numbers marked each section and allowed the flowerbed to function as a large living clock as it was easy to tell the time by looking at the flowers that were in bloom. It was nearly noon and Wyren was still missing.
A squirrel chattered loudly above the priest, hoping he may have some treats. Tuathal scowled back, unhappy to see the animal expecting to be feed rather than gathering the food from the forest himself. But the squirrel wouldn’t give up and followed the priest from tree to tree as he walked into the grove between the three temples.
Tuathal quietly prayed for some guidance. He couldn’t help but feel that something bad had happened to Wyren even if everything else seemed normal. Unhappy at being ignored the squirrel climbed out on the branch closest to Tuathal and then jumped from there onto the satyr statue at the center of the grove. But instead of landing gracefully on the satyr’s broad arm the squirrel passed completely through the statue and landed with a confused thud on the ground.
Tuathal stared in surprise at the squirrel and the statue he had just jumped through. Pulling an acorn from his pocket he scooped the squirrel up onto his shoulder and gave him the nut while studying the statue. The squirrel studied it suspiciously as well.
Slowly reaching out, Tuathals’s hand past effortlessly through the statue, it was only an illusion. The real statue was gone.
Hemah watched as the grove filled up with priests, city watch and mages investigating the missing statue. He wasn’t worried about being noticed, as a significant crowd of curious travelers, disciples and adepts had turned up to watch what was going on.
Devon, an elven man with golden hair and green eyes, was leading the investigation. He wore the garb of a watch captain, but it was obvious from his bearing that he was nobility as well. The captain checked out the statue himself and then after conferring with a shrugging group of mages ordered someone to get Thessa. Hemah leaned forward in interest, this was the first time he had heard her name but he suspected he already knew who she was.
While he waited the captain investigated the rest of the grove, ordering people back. He found wagon tracks leading into the grove, and the heavier set leading out. They lead back out to one of the busiest roads in Evermore, where they were impossible to track. He sent a group of soldiers down the road anyway to see what they could find. He asked another to start questioning the local wagoners to see if anyone had stored or purchased a wagon capable of carrying a marble statue in the past few days. The day after Beltane there were hundreds of wagons in Evermore that fit that description, but the lieutenant accepted his charge and set off to perform it.
Shortly afterwards a beautiful archmagess entered the grove. The theorizing mages became quiet. She spoke softly to the captain, asked a few questions to the mages, who shrugged again, and then went over and knelt down by the statue.
“Is the statue of anyone in particular?” she asked.
Priest Tuathal scowled but controlled himself before responding, “Surely your studies keep you too long from the temple lady Thessa. The statue is of Gower, favored son of Cernunnos, who was killed by Agares during the first age. This statue was erected by the elves of that age in memory of him. It is one of the oldest relics in Evermore.”
“Thieves usually aren’t that interested in history and there are a thousand statues in Evermore that would have been easier to steal. Is there any reason why this one would be more valuable?”
The priest cleared his throat. The eyes of everyone in the grove went to him and the squirrel on his shoulder glared back.
After an awkward silence Tuathal said, “we may need to talk about that in private.”
Devon ordered one of his guards to have the priest taken into the temple for a more private conversation. But Thessa ignored the response, to her it was just another example of
how the traditions of the Ljosalfar were keeping them from moving ahead. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and began to cast.
She was even more beautiful while in the throes of magic. Her dark hair, unusual among the Ljosalfar, fluttered and her body strained as she channeled the power needed to cast the spell. Hemah recognized it, she would be trying to follow the link between the illusion and the one maintaining it. She was trying to find him. But just before her spell was completed Hemah released the illusion and the statue disappeared.
“What happened, did you dispel it?” Devon asked.
With the object of her spell gone Thessa struggled to release the magic harmlessly. A swirl of fading stars flowed from her glowing hands.
“No,” Thessa answered, “I hadn’t done anything yet. The caster released the spell before I could follow it back to him.”
Devon looked up at the assembled group of spectators, who dumbly returned his gaze. He turned to the last of his lieutenants.
“Have everyone here be brought to the barracks for questioning.”
A few hours later Hemah was still sitting in the barracks waiting to be questioned. All of the citizens of Evermore had been first, and questioning them went relatively quickly. But they were taking their time with travelers. Hemah had already released the spell he cast on Alazkan’s amulet. He hoped it hid him for long enough. And unlike most mages he didn’t carry any obvious magic items or foci. He was less concerned with the questioning than making sure he got the right questioner.
Fortunately Thessa was in charge of examining all the travelers and just after nightfall his name was called. He shuffled into a small office. Thessa looked over the notes a soldier had collected on the group and the items they had taken from Hemah.
“Are these yours?”
“Yes,” Hemah answered.
“What are you doing in Evermore?”
“I came for the festival,” Hemah said somewhat honestly.
“A common answer today, do you worship Cernunnos?” Thessa asked the questions as a matter of protocol. She was more interested in looking through the items he had. She had the golden feather, mask and bag of incense laid out on the table and was carefully examining the feather.
“No, I’m not really religious. Though I do enjoy the sights of Evermore and the festival.”
This was the first time Thessa looked up at him, most of the people she talked to today claimed to be worshipers even if they weren’t. He had a gentle face, almost handsome if he didn’t look so tired. He didn’t match what she would expect from a merchant, mage or one of the many people that flocked to Evermore for the festival.
“What of these items?” she asked.
“The mask is for the festival,” Hemah lied. He wore the mask to keep him from seeing his own reflection. That helped keep him from dreaming about himself, which was an exhilarating and terrifying experience.
“The feather I found on the edges of your empire. I’ve only had it for a few days and I’m not sure what to make of it.”
“It is beautiful.” Thessa was more practical than most of the Ljosalfar, and had never seen much value in spiritual or artistic matters, but she couldn’t deny the attraction of the feather. She tested it several times before Hemah came into the room and it was the reason she wanted to question him directly. It wasn’t magical, but she couldn’t believe the feather’s attraction was purely mundane.
“It’s the second most beautiful thing I’ve seen in your lands.”
Hemah’s meaning was obvious from the way he was looking at her, but Thessa pretended to miss the compliment.
“And the incense?”
“It helps me sleep.” Hemah honestly responded, “I have troubling dreams sometimes, but if I burn the incense in the room with me I don’t have them.”
“This is an ancient elven artifact, I’m surprised to see anyone with it, especially a human. Did you buy it from someone at the festival?”
“No, I met a merchant in Kingsport with it. But I don’t know how he got it.”
Hemah paused before continuing.
“About the feather… I’d like you to have it.”
Thessa looked surprised and suspicious so Hemah continued.
“As I said, I found it at the edge of your empire, so if anything it is yours anyway. It is too beautiful to be stuffed into my tunic for months on end.”
Thessa would never accept a gift from someone being investigated. The fact that he was offering a gift implied his guilt. But she couldn’t help feeling that this was different, that this man was lonely and out of place, but not responsible for the disappearance of the statue or disciple Wyren. And she found herself unable to turn down the feather.
“Are you sure, this won’t affect the investigation at all. You will still likely spend the night in jail.”
Hemah nodded, “I’m sure.”
Thessa tucked the feather in her dark hair and smiled at him. That vision was forever burned into Hemah’s heart and it was all he could do to keep from professing his eternal love for her. Then she leaned across, kissed him gently on the cheek, whispered her thanks and left the room. He was left stunned.
Devon had watched the interview. There were only a handful of suspects that seemed out of place. Though he suspected they were all dead ends. But seeing Thessa kiss the pale human caused a turmoil of emotions that he was unable to understand.
When she came out of the room they met to discuss the results of the interviews. Thessa didn’t know he had seen the kiss but sensed immediately that he was distant. As they went through each of the suspects they easily agreed to hold or release each of them until they came to Hemah.
“Do you think he is a mage without magic, a kidnapper without a victim, an attacker without a weapon and a thief without the goods? We found the wagoner that sold the missing wagon, the man he described doesn’t match any of our suspects. What is it you suspect about this one?”
Devon was unaccustomed to being so directly questioned by anyone except Thessa. It was one of the things that he loved about her. She was right, but even without the kiss there was something about Hemah that bothered him. Devon’s father was an angel in Sucellus’ charge and that divine birthright usually made his instincts correct.
Unable to settle the dispute, they asked priest Tuathal’s opinion. He peeked into the room where Hemah sat quietly and considered him. After a few minutes he simply said, “His soul is not besmirtched, nor is he lying, but I agree with Devon. There is something suspicious about the man that warrants more scrutiny. I would have him held until we find out more.”
Devon gave the order before Thessa could object. Then Tuathal stepped in to cool the stubborn archmagesses temper.
“I heard that Devon proposed to you at the festival dance last night. I am sorry it took me so long to congratulate your betrothal.”
Tuathal’s tactic worked and Thessa let her argument go in the face of the priest’s good wishes.
“Yes, it was an amazing night. I couldn’t be happier.”
Devon was also relaxed by the memories of the previous night, “Now we have only to set a day.”
Thessa smiled. Hemah’s plight was forgotten.
A few minutes later guards came and told Hemah he was to be held for further questioning. They led him to a cell where he was locked up with a few pickpockets and a handful of others that were suspected of having something to do with the theft. He went peacefully to the cell, and only argued that he needed his incense so he could sleep. They refused to give it to him and ignored his requests.
Hemah stayed up for most of the night but as the hours went by he found himself drifting off in short bursts. The sleep from the incense wasn’t that restful and it had been weeks since he had really slept. In this short bursts of dreams he saw visions of Thessa, the satyr statue, the golden feather as part of the wings of an ancient god, and that gods’ attack on this very forest. Visions of withered trees and disease.
He shook himself awake. These dreams were horrible but he was so tired that he was falling asleep even as he paced back and forth. Eventually the dreams won. A terrible corruption began spreading through the woods around Evermore.
When he awoke the barracks was full of concerned guards, mages, and priests. Devon was organizing the efforts and getting reports from scouts checking in from various edges of the forest. After a few hours the guards remembered the travelers they had detained. Seeing no opportunity to pursue the investigation and little hope of finding anything if they did, they released the prisoners.
Hemah’s mask, incense and other items were returned and he was released onto the streets of Evermore. Devon excused himself from a meeting and caught up with Hemah as he walked away from the barracks.
“You, where are you going?”
Hemah couldn’t believe he was going to go through this again.
“The guards released me, they said the investigation was suspended.”
“I know,” Devon responded, “I mean you will be leaving Evermore. You will be leaving our forest. You won’t return.”
The captain looked angry and Hemah noticed that the other suspects that had been released weren’t given the same speech.
“I was hoping to talk to the woman who questioned me before I left. Do you know where she is?”
The captain’s eyes narrowed, Hemah had found the point of the captain’s anger and immediately regretted asking the question.
“Her name is Thessa. She is my betrothed. You will not speak with her again”
At that Devon called a pair of guards over and ordered them to escort Hemah to the edge of the forest. Wth a final glare from Devon, Hemah was lead away from the barracks.
As Hemah walked beside the guard he put on his mask. He was a wizard of high rank and could cast several spells simply through sheer strength of will. Especially after the prior night’s sleep, he felt more rested than he had in months. He reached out to the minds of the guards as they walked. They would travel beyond the forest’s edge alone, all the while believing Hemah walked beside them and was finally released from custody along the forest path.
After the spell was firmly in place Hemah cut down an alleyway and headed to the mage guild of Evermore, where he guessed Thessa would be searching for a cause of the corruption that occurred last night.
There were three ways to become invisible. Bend light around your body, create an illusion on your body of the surface behind it, or simply trick the minds of those looking at you. It was this last form that Hemah used as he walked into the Mage Guild. He scanned ahead, finding elves and blocking their mind to his presence. Technically everyone he walked by saw him as he wandered through the hallways and studies of the guild, but they didn’t realize it.
He didn’t try to include Thessa in the spell. She was looking through piles of ancient tomes when he entered the room. She still had the golden feather in her hair.
She didn’t recognize the voice and it took her a second to match the mask with the one she examined the day before. He now had a commanding presence and she could feel the magic radiating from him. This figure was much different than the lonely young man she interviewed yesterday. A quick touch of her ring warned Devon that she was in danger.
“Hemah? What are you doing here?”
She reached out and felt the magic flowing through the ether, mentally preparing to defend herself against any magical assault. Without thinking she pushed the tomes aside to keep them from getting damaged.
“I came for you. The blight consumes hope. It will destroy you and perhaps all of Evermore. You must get out of here.”
“Did you create it?” What she had seen of the corruption growing in the forest was beyond anything in her experience. She sensed a great deal of magical power in Hemah, but the corruption came from a different and greater source.
“No,” Hemah replied “You did. It’s a memory of an affliction that struck the forest long ago. It was eventually stopped by an angel, but no such angel exists to stop it now. Come with me.”
“How do you know about the source of this corruption?”
Hemah could feel her gathering power. She was planning to attack him but she wanted to see what could be learned from him first.
“Thessa, I don’t know the answer to that, things are revealed to me in dreams. Like I know that if you come with me, we will be safe.”
Devon burst through the study door with sword in hand, followed by mages loudly claiming there was nothing threatening the guild. Devon raced across the room, yelling for Thessa to get back, but she didn’t listen. Instead she channeled a pulse of arcane energy into the room to disrupt any spells Hemah might be maintaining. The mages stopped in alarm as Hemah’s masked figure popped into view.
Devon ducked under Hemah’s arm and sliced up along his ribs. Hemah screamed in pain and visions of a sleeping god danced briefly in front of his eyes. In a distant place that god stirred. Thessa prepared another spell as Hemah fell to the floor.
Looking up Hemah only said, “Forget.” and the impact of the word on the room was dramatic and sudden. It was as if Hemah had never been there.
“Why did you set off your ring?” Devon asked in exasperation.
Thessa stood confused, the mages behind Devon continued their objections and claims that there wasn’t any danger here.
“I don’t know,” she answered, “I’m sorry, it was an accident.”
Devon took a deep breath and sheathed his sword. After a few minutes of apologizing to the mages, they finally left him alone with Thessa. She pulled a golden feather out of her hair and stared at it in confusion.
“Are you okay?” Devon asked.
He sat down and wrapped his arms around her, kissing her lightly on the cheek. She relaxed in his arms.
“Did you find anything?”
“No,” Thessa answered, “not yet.”
“Have you decided on a day for our wedding yet?”
Thessa smiled, she wasn’t accustomed to pushing off decisions. But she hadn’t been able to pick a day yet.
“Soon, I promise.”
Hemah watched Thessa and Devon leave the mage guild late that night. Devon held her hand as they walked. Despite the corruption approaching the city, they were enjoying the time together. Hemah dumped his incense onto the street. He was no longer afraid of the dreams.
Thessa was only forty summers old when she first laid eyes on Devon. She was sitting on the branches of one of the ancient trees when he came walking along the pathway below. She had heard of him, his mother was said to have been so beautiful that an angel fell in love with her. It was their union that produced Devon, who was talented and graceful even by elven standards.
As Thessa leaned further out on the branch to get a closer look, he turned his gaze upwards and looked straight into her eyes. She was so shocked she lost her grip on the branch and tumbled down into the undergrowth below. She lay there stunned, but she was unsure if this was because of the fall or her embarrassment. A tender hand gripped hers, and she was pulled gently to her feet. He addressed her by her elf-child name.
“Be careful Parvulus, those branches can be treacherous for the unwary. Especially those who focus their attention elsewhere.” He smiled, and that smile would later be counted among her most treasured memories.
Thessa grew to become one of the most powerful mages in Evermore. In her early years she outdid her fellow students in most disciplines, and sometimes she even surpassed her teachers. Once she managed to make an oak grow to its full size overnight from an acorn she had found on the ground. That effort left her unconscious for several days.
Only one incident served to disturb the teachers’ high opinion of her. She was once discovered reading a grimoire of necromancy, a book stolen from the Calabim in earlier times. Most of the senior mages had believed the book was long since destroyed, or at least locked up safely. The book was immediately confiscated and it certainly seemed the young girl had not been lured by the forbidden spells. The incident was soon forgotten, as Thessa proved such a brilliant and diligent student.
When her formal education came to an end, she was offered the position of archmagess. Her strong sense of duty compelled her to accept, even though her most urgent desire was another entirely.
At the Beltane festival she and Devon danced all night. Thessa’s long black hair, decorated with a single gold feather, flew around her head in time with the elven songs and music. The village danced and played beneath the trees and starlight. It was the most brilliant night of her life.
Trouble had arrived to the tranquil forest of the elves. Scouts came from the borderlands with horrible tales—not of an intruding enemy army, but of something more sinister. A strange corruption had started to appear. It made grass wither and die, and turned the more sturdy plants into twisted, pus-filled growths which further spread the corruption along with their seeds. Something had to be done before the animals started dying. The necrotic disease was most certainly other-worldly in nature. Both the clerics of Cernunnos and the druids of the far woods were mystified. Naturally the help of the archmagess was sought.
Thessa gladly accepted the challenge. By then she was so accustomed with her own tremendous power that any task she received seemed easy. Yet the corruption proved too strong for her. Even her most powerful spells of cleansing could only provide momentary relief for a small area, and at the cost of several days of fatigue. So the corruption was left to roam freely, and it slowly crept towards the center of the forest and the ancient trees of Evermore.
Devon wished to marry her. He had made that plain to her at the festival and she could sense his impatience growing. Finally she gave in, even though she had become preoccupied with the problem in the woods. Their families started preparations for the grand party, the divine union of the archmagess and the High Protector of Evermore.
Meanwhile, Thessa continued to fight her losing battle against the evil force at work in the forest. She traveled towards the source of the taint, but could not locate a specific
place of origin. It seemed to have appeared in many places simultaneously. Research into the outer realms confirmed that such a necrotic force could only be unleashed by the most powerful archmages or high priests harnessing the energy of a divine or fiendish entity. On her way back home, she found a clearing where two deer lay dead, their corpses a sickening purple-black. She sat down on the ashen ground in despair, but then she had a sudden, horrible epiphany. Only the life-force of a divine being could counter this corruption.
The dark book she had hidden for so long confirmed what must be done. She grieved for the life that had been lost here, and for the life that would be lost in the near future.
The wedding party was truly magnificent. There was a banquet of exotic fruit and excellent wine, there were a large number of skilled musicians, there was singing and dancing. Thessa seemed oddly preoccupied during the event, but most of the guests assumed, as did her fiancée, that it was merely stress from working too hard. As night fell, the guests left the clearing under the great red oak tree, leaving the newlyweds alone at the place of the ceremony to consummate their marriage in accordance with elvish custom.
They both stood there in the twilight, Devon’s eyes so bright with joy and expectation that Thessa could hardly bear to look at him. Yet she forced herself to smile, and gently drew him closer. Devon was too gripped by the moment to notice the lack of light in her eyes, and the tears that had started to appear. He tried to kiss her, but she pushed him away, looked into his eyes one last time, and gently whispered:
“I am sorry.”
Before Devon could reply, she drew the ceremonial obsidian dagger from her dress and stabbed him in the heart, muttering incomprehensible words of necromancy not heard in that forest for a thousand years. The divine spirit was drained from Devon’s body and into her own. Filled with such vast energies, Thessa’s ritual spell of cleansing held the power of the gods. A shockwave emanated from the clearing, flowing through air, earth and trees, and as it swept by, the forest was healed.
Morning came. The sun shone brightly on a lush and green forest, teeming with life. All except a body in a clearing, and the woman weeping beside it.