A rumble distinct from the surrounding wind and unseasonable thunder sounded from somewhere beneath the leather hood, audible even over the repetitive drumming as droplets of rain hammered down upon it. From the shadows underneath the crimson hem, two bright yellowish eyes glittered in the warm light of nearby lamps, occasionally flashing with an intensity not far behind the lightning as the storm momentarily threw the surroundings into stark, icy contrast.
Those eyes might perhaps have been the first tell tale sign of the nature of the person sheltering beneath the deep red cloak – that is if the towering height, broad shoulders, and conspicuous peaks at each side of the hood had not already tipped off the observer. In combination with the soft, catlike fall of the large boots, and the sinuous, feline tail that flicked agitatedly from under the cloak's trailing edge, it was a fair bet that the garment's owner was not exactly human.
Characteristically bright feline eyes turned side to side, shining with the predatory gleam that was no stranger to all kin of Leonan the Hunter, greatest warrior of the proud leonin race. Even as he watched the darkened surroundings, the imposing feline continued to stride purposefully through the downpour, observing and mentally noting each darkened alleyway, every rooftop that sent streams of rain over the edge and down onto the cobbles below, each curtained window and closed doorway. Every gurgle, every splash and drip continued to have a mundane and explicable source, the townsfolk having very sensibly decided that tonight was not a night to be out of their homes.
There was, it seemed, no sign of the half-expected ambush.
Not that the lack of ambush itself was a problem, since it made it more likely that the instigators of his midnight sojourn were genuine in their intent. And more trouble, strangely, was to be found in truth than lie.
Prince Tiernach Irontooth, the note had read, the letters marked in a deep crimson ink, the handwriting neat and precise. If you still seek power over the endless night, come to the yew tree south of the Barrow's End, at midnight in two days time. Come alone and on time, or you will not find us. We will not offer twice.
It was unsigned, but carefully folded into an envelope, sealed with red wax that bore no imprint.
Another rumble vied with the thunder as Tiernach growled again – not through anger at the driving rain, but frustration at the circumstances through which he found himself out in it. This was not the method in which a scholar would pursue research, not the conduct befitting of a prince, nor a lord, nor even the most junior of military officers. The letter was from a gang of outlaws, most likely, perhaps having found an ancient manuscript, possibly some relic or trinket that they thought to sell for a tidy sum. That or they would attempt to capture and ransom him. And here he was prepared to walk right into their trap, as they politely requested.
But it couldn't be helped. There was just a chance, some slim and tiny possibility that there was truth behind the neatly written words, that information might be gained, and as ungentlemanly as it might be, were that the case then the ends could justify the means many times over. His old master had been pleased at his skills in the healing arts, but this... this was beyond healing. It was the crowning pinnacle, the hope of every mage ever to research the restorative arts.
For a moment as he passed beyond the edge of the town, the moon appeared through a break in the dark clouds above, and he glanced upwards, eyes flashing with reflected light – but in seconds it had vanished again, its glow dulled an apathetic grey disk. Perhaps even Leonan the Hunter didn't wish to see the events that would transpire this night.
And there ahead was the promised yew tree, it's branches wide and high, fanning out around and above the ancient, twisted trunk. How much had that tree been witness to in its long life, Tiernach wondered? From its size, it was old enough to have been there before Barrow's End was named. Silently it must have watched the first settlers constructing their homes along the edges of the nearby river, looking on impassively as the town slowly grew over the centuries. Quietly it had spread its boughs as the small people hurried about their business, observing as they went about their hasty, brief lives, born, living, and dying within sight of the yewtree's shadow.
So terribly brief, Tiernach thought. To be outlived by something as simple as a tree... It seemd so out of balance.
The shadows underneath the ancient yew were dry, and deserted. Still no ambush. Then let them come in their own time. Underneath his cloak, shine dulled by smoke, he wore the finest breastplate ever made by the royal armourer. Close fitting, light, and hard enough to withstand all but a direct crossbow bolt. Down his sleeves and the legs of his tunic he had woven runes of protection, of warding, of grounding. The first attack, be it conventional or magical, would not succeed – and he would need only one opportunity to fight back. Healing, though a worthy and noble application of the art that he was proud to know, was not his greatest skill. The storm itself would work to his advantage, providing great energies for him to channel. At any moment, he could call its fury down with needlepoint accuracy.
Let them come.
He leaned his back upon the trunk, only an occasional droplet making its way through the branches above to splatter gently against his leather hood. He waited motionless as the rain came down around the tree, the wind gusting against the leaves above, whipping the branches into creaking motion. To an outside observer, the leonin might have seemed oblivious to the world. With his eyes in shadow, head bowed and arms folded across his chest, he might, perhaps have seemed asleep on his feet, almost a part of the tree behind him.
“Why have you brought me here?” he asked softly, his head never rising, gaze never lifting from the grass at his feet.
“They said you were perceptive, Prince Tiernach,” a voice said with equal softness from the shadows on the far side of the trunk. “The rumours are evidently no lie. None other would have heard my approach in this rain. I am unarmed, although you I think are harder to disarm than I. I must trust that you shall lay your words of power aside.”
“Why have you brought me here?” he leonin repeated, his voice still soft but with a hint of steel behind the words, a flicker of sharp feline teeth visible as he spoke.
“I have information that you want,” the voice said, its owner still hidden within the shadows.
“And what would that be?” Tiernach’s head twitched slightly.
“That which you have sought since the incident at the Sancta Arcanum. What you wish is possible. My brothers and I can teach you the secrets.”
Tiernach’s head turned within the shadows of his hood, his eyes glittering. “How do I know you speak truly?”
“Because you already know the name of the one who centuries ago uncovered that knowledge. You sought his research for a time, but you grew to doubt his methods, and looked to find another way.”
Tiernach paused. “Tyrandius Tenebrae,” he stated.
“He is gone from this world. Lost to the past,” Tiernach said dismissively, favouring his visitor with a small shrug.
“Not so. His work was successful, and now he has been found. His plan continues, centuries after the official records mark his death.”
A prickle ran down Tiernach's spine. “Then more fool the finder,” he growled. “Nothing good will come of that discovery. He was the darkest, most powerful mage of ancient times. If his sorcerous experiments did succeed, if he did survive... he will grant no favours. Devil's do not make deals mortals ever profit from.”
“Times have changed. Now this particular devil is vulnerable – or at least trapped. He must make deals, grant favours, bargain for his freedom from his own genius.”
“What deal would he seek with me?” Tiernach asked, his eyes narrowing as his eyebrows drew together.
“That is not for me to say. For that, you must speak to him.”
A soft rustle from behind the trunk sounded as the speaker moved forwards to look Tiernach in the eye.
Dressed in midnight blue leather, the leonin woman stood nearly as tall as Tiernach, the tips of her ears some seven feet from the ground. The moonlight glittered in her bright green eyes as the clouds parted for a moment. Appearing to be in her mid twenties, carrying herself with a grace that belied both strength and agility, she was, he realised, both captivating and beautiful. A true daughter of Leonan the Hunter. A soft smile played about her lips as she looked him up and down.
“Your description does not do you justice. I will take you to one who can bargain with you, if you wish me to,” she said softly. “May I have your word that I am safe in your company?”
Tiernach looked at her for a moment, one eyebrow raising slightly. Without warning, he grabbed her neck in his hand, whirling her around until her back pressed against the tree. Her eyes widened as both her hands gripped his wrist.
“Who am I to bargain with?” he growled, leaning close. She looked back at him from emerald eyes, only the barest fear betraying her as he scrutinised her.
“Tenebrae cannot be spoken to directly. The magic that preserved his essence was unable to do the same for his mortal form. I can only take you to the man who has spent more time with him than any. He can tell you what the deal is to be.”
“And why would I trust you?”
“Because you don’t want to die,” she told him, watching his face before continuing. “And more importantly, because you don't want someone else to die. You have studied and searched long, my Lord. You already know that there is no other way. One person only knows what you want to know.”
Tiernach released her, withdrawing his arm. In the same instant, she leaned forwards, her hands behind his head, pulling him into a kiss. Caught off guard for a moment, disarmed by her charming appearance, he hesitated, then violently pushed her backwards as he tasted the bitterness upon her lips. Backing away, he staggered, feeling his head swim.
“Damn you…” he sank to the ground, one hand pressing into the wet grass as he struggled to stay upright.
“I am sorry, my Lord,” she knelt down next to him as he collapsed. “My instructions are to deliver you in secret. You will come to no harm.”
Tiernach fought to speak, a spell of protection, of attack, anything… but the drug robbed him of consciousness.
Tiernach found himself suddenly, jarringly awake. Stretched out full length upon a wooden floor, a fireplace at his left side, he gazed up at a ceiling lit by flickering candles and torchlight. Instinctively, his hands went to his pockets.
“You are not in danger. I fear we had to remove your spell reagents. We were not sure what state of mind you would awake in. I would be most upset if you scorched the woodwork.”
The leonin sat up, looking about him, feline eyes glittering warily, ears alert, but the only sound was the soft crackle and spit of the log fire. Curving off-white walls framed the burgundy carpet beneath him. A highly polished oak sideboard supporting a golden clock and a crystal decanter sat awkwardly against the concave wall, while a matching desk held up a stack of leather bound books. In a chair across the room, his back to one of four stone pillars, reclined a man in black robes, upon which were stitched small runes of silver, like stars in the night sky. Tiernach recognised those symbols, some appeared on his own clothing. Was this man also versed in the art?
“Who are you?” Tiernach got to his feet cautiously, glancing around the room, noting every detail, and most interestingly that while the décor had once been opulent, it showed signs of extreme age. The carpet bore patches of discolouration, the plastered walls were cracked and flaking, and several cobwebs hung from the arching wooden ceiling. His gaze came to rest upon a circular table underneath the curved, curtained windows.
“Yes,” the stranger nodded. “Those are your ingredients. You may take them back, if that is your wish.” He spoke slowly, as if choosing his each word carefully. “Though I would entreat you to use them wisely. None here bear you malice.”
Crossing swiftly to the table, Tiernach grabbed the small pouches and shoved them back into his pockets in a carefully rehearsed order. With a quick motion he pulled aside the curtain, but found only the darkness of the night beyond the aged, dusty glass pane. Turning to stare back at the black robed man, one hand rested in a pocket with the last of his components, a powerful incendiary accelerant.
“Would you like to kill me, Prince Tiernach?” the man said, smiling slightly.
“I suspect I should,” Tiernach’s eyes narrowed. “I see a world of trouble in you.”
“Ah, but my death would spell the end of your enquiry. You would never know what you need to, would you.” There was no hint of a question in the slowly spoken sentence.
“Who are you?” Tiernach demanded again, angrily.
“My name, is less important than who I represent. I assume that Katrina has already explained this much.”
“She told me that you found Tenebrae, or what is left of him.”
“What is left...” the man looked thoughtful. “Yes, I suppose that is accurate. What he has chosen to leave might be more appropriate however, since you much understand that this was his choice. His body, of course, has long since been destroyed, but his spirit, his soul if you will...”
“There is no soul,” Tiernach stated, making a slashing gesture with one hand.
“By nature, perhaps not, Prince Tiernach,” the man said. “Even I do not pretend to know if anything lies beyond that final breath. I have no idea what waits in the silence once the heart is stilled. But whether or not the mind and the will continue in this world by nature, they can be coaxed to do so by skill and craft. The essence of life, of consciousness can be maintained, long after the death of the body.”
“And you can tell me how?”
“No,” the man answered calmly.
“Then why did you bring me here?” Tiernach growled, his hand once again dropping to his pocket.
The man smiled thinly. “That I myself do not possess that knowledge, Prince Tiernach, should not be mistaken for inability to get it. We have found Tenebrae, and I know how to speak to him, to make requests, to gather information. That information can be bought – for a price.”
Facing the man squarely, Tiernach stood to the fullest of his impressive height. “I make no deals before I have seen the wares,” he stated, as if arguing with a market stall owner. As he had hoped, the man's face showed his irritation at this demeaning implication, though only for a moment. Within a second, he had recovered himself, his expression placid.
“I am no pedlar of trinkets, Prince Tiernach. I have spoken no lie to you about that which is in my possession, nor that to which I have access. Come, I will introduce you to my master and you can assure yourself of my validity. Come,” he repeated, taking up a candle holder from a sconce on the wall. “Walk with me.”
Following the man through the doorway, Tiernach found himself at the top of a long staircase that marched downwards to the floor of a great circular chamber. Stone pillars rose from the torchlit floor to a ceiling that was lost in shadow.
“This is the old temple of the sun...” Tiernach mused.
“It is indeed, Prince Tiernach,” the man affirmed as they descended. “A fitting place for a new light to shine in the kingdom, I think.”
“And fitting that you occupy the high priest's chambers,” the leonin said wryly.
“Quite so,” came the agreement, without any hint that the man perceived the irony in Tiernach's voice. “Years ago, I was a humble student of archaeology, a professor of history and ancient times. Now, I am, by all definitions, a prophet. I will prove this to you, in time.”
The stone floor they finally reached was dusty and overgrown with lichens and mosses, but bore many footprints that must have been made recently. There were other disturbances too – a crumbling statue looked to have been rescued from its place on the floor, a number of long wooden pews seemed to have been lifted back into place from where they had once been knocked over. To their right, the circular chamber branched westwards, forming the great pillared entranceway of this once revered temple. Hundreds of years ago, worshippers of the old religion, followers of the sun, had flocked here at dawn as the day's first light shone in through the eastern windows. Many of the panes were dusted dark with age, but here and there a newer, cleaner piece of glass showed the night sky beyond.
Movement in the shadows between the stone pillars drew Tiernach's attention.
“Disciples of Tenebrae,” the man said softly. “Once again this great temple plays host to devout believers. Even now they work to restore this place such that it might be a fitting place for the great mage.” As he finished, a figure in black robes emerged from the shadows, kneeling, head bowed before them. “As you were, my child. Continue your work,” the man said calmly, and the robed disciple rose again and hurried off into the gloom.
“Labour we have, Prince Tiernach. A sizeable body of men have pledged their allegiance, but investment... well, we shall address that in time.”
As he spoke, the man led Tiernach towards a raised dais at the centre of the chamber. At each compass point burned a brazier, the flames unnaturally green, shedding a bilious light upon three concentric rings of stone, a circle of steps that led up to a platform at the very centre of the circular chamber. The flickering light cast shadows that oozed and dripped down the surrounding stone columns, giving Tiernach a constant desire to look over his shoulder. Angry with himself, he focussed on the platform ahead, the stage from which ancient priests had delivered their sermons to the worshippers gathered around them. Now however, the only thing standing upon it was an oaken pedestal. Mounted upon it, clasped firm in a harness of steel, a ring of silver glittered.
“Look closely,” the man urged, stepping aside for Tiernach to move past him.
The artefact shimmered green in the light from the braziers. Its circular outer edge was of silver, spiked projections erupting from it at regular intervals like the thorns of a metallic rose, only these had speared the petals as if to spite the beauty of the flower atop them. Within the ornate silver band, a circular disk of obsidian surrounded an oval shaped ruby at the centre, a slitted pupil in a terrible eye.
“You know, of course, what you are looking at, Prince Tiernach,” the man said, and again it was a statement rather than a question.
“The Eye of Night,” Tiernach whispered, horrified, his own words chilling him to the bone as he spoke them. “The vessel of Archmage Tenebrae. Most have written it of as legend, as a goal that was never fulfilled.”
“It was fulfilled, as you can see. And it is his claim to immortality, Prince Tiernach. In looking upon the Eye, you look upon eternal life. You look upon the very soul of Tyrandius Tenebrae. Preserved. Still alive. Sealed in an immobile state, perhaps, but conscious and capable of one day being returned to a living body.”
The ruby glittered, a swell of light beginning somewhere behind its facets, and Tiernach found himself staring into its depths, unable to tear his gaze away though half of him wished to take the object and hurl it into one of the braziers. If something as ordinary as fire might even be hot enough to damage such a thing. More likely one could plunge this nightmarish creation into a white hot furnace and withdraw it an hour later without so much as a mark upon it. The ruby blazed with an unholy light that beat upon his fingers as he raised them to shield his eyes, a wave of heat. The room shimmered around him.
He was standing upon the cliff edge at the Sancta Arcanum – Sanctuary – the home of the ancient and revered Order of Magi. His robes were the simple design of the apprentice, such as he had worn years ago, flapping loosely in the wind that blew against his suddenly fourteen year old body. Before him, the chaotic ocean heaved in the storm, the white caps of the waves pounding upon the rocky shore fifty feet below. The salt spray reached high up the cliff as if the sea were trying to crawl onto the land, liquid fingers eternally denied a grip on the rock as they slid back defeated once again.
Looking to his left, he exchanged a glance with Lanna, the human girl who had accompanied him. Three years older than he, and yet freely admitting that his talent with the art was greater than hers with no sign of jealousy. Quiet, studious, but with a hidden, wild edge that longed to taste excitement and freedom, she had supported him since they first met, always urging him on, nudging him to find and extend the limits of his abilities, helping him discover new and untapped potential. Tiernach had always been able to see that part of her, the way passion burned behind her calm exterior, that glitter in the eye, that slight quickening of breath that came with the use of magical power. He knew even before he told her of his plan, that she would accompany him gladly. This night, he had promised, she would see power that the elders of the order tried to keep hidden from their younger students. There would be no more going slowly, taking it carefully, or finding the safest path. This night, he would prove he was every bit the equal of magi twice his age, a true prodigy worthy of their respect.
Now she sat quietly upon a rock, unmoving, her brown hair shining wetly in the rain, her trust in his power unwavering and complete. His most staunch believer, his greatest motivation, the person in from of whom he least wished to fail. He nodded to her, and she returned it, smiling, grinning, urging him onwards. She knew he could follow through his promise, even more certainly than he himself.
The air trembled in agitation, the wind, clouds, and waves seeming to shiver in anticipation.
The time was now.
In one hand, the young leonin held a block of polished amber, inscribed with magical symbols, and he raised it high above his head. His master, he knew, would have forbidden him to cast the spell he was about to invoke, but he was ready, Tiernach knew he was. The words were simple, he had memorised them easily, hardly needing to scan them twice. Same predictable pattern as always, even if most students his level seemed unable to see it. Magic was a language not a random arrangement of syllables, didn't they understand that? No matter. Let them bumble slowly onwards. Now he would prove his worth, his understanding, his capability. After this, nobody would doubt that he was the brightest of the rising stars that the magi cultivated, that he was worthy of respect and encouragement.
As he began to speak, he felt the surge of energy beginning to flow through his body, the warmth that spread from inside him, the tingle at his fingertips, telling him the power was his to command. The air around him seemed to crackle and energize as he continued, standing his tawny fur on end, sending adrenaline pumping through his veins.
He focused upon the point ahead of him, a single column of rock that jutted from the waves a hundred yards out from shore. There, he decided. There. That would be the target point.
As the power of magic flowed through him, he brought his hand down in a sweeping motion, making a circular gesture with his fingers. The water around the rock swirled, then bubbled upwards, encasing the rock in a liquid shell clear as glass and rippling with motion. At Tiernach’s command, the water stretched upwards, a thin stream issuing skywards, a narrow channel that would guide the power of the storm to his target. Thunder rolled in the clouds above, but he knew it was nothing compared to what would come.
Tiernach traced the movement of the water column with his gesture as it flowed upwards, barely an inch wide, but strong and uninterrupted it reached higher into the stormy sky, the binding force of the young mage’s magic compelling it to hold its form.
Bounding to his side, Lanna watched in awe, her eyes fixed on the tip of the watery column, her breathing shallow and excited. “Go on,” she said softly, gripping his shoulder. “Go on Tier, I know you can! I know it!”
The wind gusted against them, blowing rain into Tiernach’s face and he sputtered for a moment, the water almost collapsing back into the waves. To hold it at this height was almost physically painful, the energy required almost beyond him.
But not quite.
Tiernach refused to give in – he never gave in, ever, under any amount of strain he never accepted defeat. There was always, always, a new reserve of energy somewhere within him, a reserve that could only be found be depleting everything he had ever accessed before. Find it... find it... look deeper... there! The water rose skywards once again, Tiernach's gaze focussed upon the ever-rising peak, now seeming to touch the grey clouds above. That, he knew, was an illusion – by the time the water could truly reach the clouds it would be impossible to see, but it was good enough. It was higher than anything nearby, and it was salt-water, and it would ground the energy of the storm onto his chosen spot.
But he had lost track of the base of the watery column. Focused upon the summit, he had not noticed the wind picking up around him, how the bottom of the water had blown away from the rock and towards the cliff. Only when it was close enough to intrude upon his peripheral vision did he see it, and by then, with Lanna suddenly clutching at him as she saw the same thing, it was too late.
The lightning followed the path of least resistance, lancing groundwards along the thin guide of salt water. The column vaporised instantly, but it didn’t matter. The storm was committed to the strike, and so was Tiernach.
The blast threw him backwards, landing upon the wet rocks, the gravel cutting into his burnt skin, adding to an agony so intense he couldn’t scream. His head rolled sideways as the thunder crashed over him, his eyes looking out over the rocks around him.
Lanna. Where was Lanna? He couldn’t see her, he was facing the wrong way. All he could see was shadows – dancing, leaping shadows.
The shadows of death. Cold and dark, and remorseless, he could feel it upon him, reaching for him, drawing him into blackness.
So this was how he was to leave the world. A victim of his own power. So be it, Tiernach thought, closing his eyes. At least he had proved himself. He had done much good in his life, young as he was. Given a free hand by his father, born into a position of power that could have seen him spoiled and petulant, he had taken it upon himself to aid the poor, defend the weak, and see to it that all the best aspirations of the kingdom received attention and funding. Surely he had earned his place in the great hall of Leonan. Let it happen. Let death take him, and let it move him on to the next plane. Let him meet the Hunter, let them ride together, hunt at each others side. Let them feast and share stories. He was ready.
The storm faded into blackness, and he remembered no more.
His head hurt. That wasn’t supposed to happen in the afterlife, was it? The hall of Leonan was revered as the place where one could act without consequence – how could his head hurt?
“Tier, come back. Come back now, lad...”
He opened his eyes, flat on his back in bed, his master at his side, an expression of deep concern on the old man's face.
Licking dry lips, he fought to speak. “Where...?”
“The medical wing. You gave us a good scare. They say you’ll be fine in a few weeks.”
The young leonin smiled, though it made his face hurt. “I thought I was dead...” he admitted.
A shadow seemed to cross his master's face for a moment. “You very nearly were. Your heart had stilled when they found you. A few more seconds and they might not have been able...”
Tiernach didn’t hear the rest of the words.
Dead? He had died? Surely he had passed all definitions of the word, at least for a time. But... there had been nothing. He had always believed that the power of the mind continued after the death of the body, that something of the spirit would endure. That was the promise made by Leonan the Hunter! Be true to your heart, be worthy, live as a true child of mine and join me at my table when your great journey is finally at an end. Why had there been nothing? Why only darkness and silence? Why... Lanna?
“Where is Lanna?” he demanded, forcing himself to sit up, looking around. The other three beds in the room were empty.
“No...” he whispered, knowing the truth without even looking at his master's face. “No...”
“No!” Tiernach shouted, throwing himself away from the shining ruby within its silver and obsidian cage, his hands raised to ward off the gaze of that fearsome eye. It dimmed as he staggered backwards.
“The evidence is now before you, Prince Tiernach,” the black robed man said slowly, apparently not having moved from the step below the platform. How much time had passed? “You recognise this artefact. You understand its power. You know what awaits you after death – better than I, in fact. I still hold hope for divine interventon, but you... you know that your existence will cease, and all your work will come to nothing. The power of my master could prevent that – if you are prepared to do a service for him.”
“No,” Tiernach gasped, struggling to his feet. “Tyrandius Tenebrae was…”
“Misunderstood,” the man interrupted smoothly. “He was ever misunderstood. Evil, the people called Him. A dark mage, a black sorcerer, the list goes on. What He was in actuality, Prince Tiernach, was a genius. He alone unravelled the secrets of our mortal coil. He alone had the courage to walk the paths that others had forbidden in their fear and wilful ignorance. He alone knows how to anchor His living essence to this world! He alone has stood the test of time. He alone,” the man approached and stood a single pace before Tiernach, somehow seeming imposing despite being a head and a half shorter than the feline. “Can tell you what He knows. The question, Prince Tiernach, is will you help Him to help you?”
Tiernach shivered convulsively, darting a glance at the Eye upon its pedestal, staring at him with its unblinking gaze. Even as he did so, he could sense the darkness of the great temple closing about him, the same dark emptiness that awaited him at the end of his life. The end of everything he was and ever might have been. The nothingness of death, that great waste of all effort and knowledge, that inevitable decay and loss of all that had been learned. With death lay the final futility. What was the point of anything if one must die? Why strive and fight when the battle could only ever be lost? What might be achieved if the life of an ancient yew tree might seem as a passing season? How much might be learned and achieved if one had centuries, perhaps millennia? How much good might be done by a person with the knowledge and wisdom of having lived through all of history?
“What price do you ask of me?” Tiernach whispered hoarsely.
Cool green light glittering in his eyes, the man smiled.
“Welcome back, my Lord,” the leonin woman smiled charmingly as Tiernach entered his chambers. Standing by the window, she turned to look at him, brushing one ear back lightly as she spoke.
“What are you doing here?” Tiernach demanded, his eyebrows drawing together.
“I am part of the deal, my Lord. I believe it was explained to you that some of our brotherhood would be sent to work closely with you.”
“You don’t,” Tiernach said slowly. “Look like a brother to me.”
Katrina shrugged. “The term is a loose one. The important thing is that we serve the Eye, and the First.”
“First? Is that what you call him?”
“It is the title he prefers, a constant reminder that it was he who first came to the Eye, and he whom the Eye chooses to communicate with above all others. Repugnant little man, but for now, at least, I am bound to do as he chooses. Annoyingly.”
“You want the secret of immortality?”
“I want power. I want control. I want to never again be at the mercy of someone else's whims and desires, to never be among the expendable, faceless ones who remain neglected and ignored and who are sacrificed in their hundreds to amuse the kings and princes of lands such as these. I will not be anyone's pawn, especially not yours, nor the First's if I can help it, and I know what the Eye will have demanded of you.”
“The empire of Tyrandius Tenebrae...” Tiernach said quietly.
“An empire that I intend to rank highly in. If I can do so for many millennia, so much the better, but I have no fear of death.” Tiernach raised his eyebrow. “I have given death freely,” Katrina continued. “As is the right of the strong. One day, it may be my destiny to receive death at the hands of one who is stronger. I will know nothing of it should it happen, since I will be dead. If that is the way of things, I cannot complain. It is my fate.”
“You believe in fate?”
“I believe certain events can never be escaped, be they past or future. Some things are too big, too important, too necessary to skip or alter. But these events are rare and huge, and everything in between is choice, and I choose to take control of as much as I can.”
“Do all of your ‘brotherhood’ feel the same?”
Katrina smiled. “Including yourself, only three people know of the true power of the Eye. The rest of those who serve know only that they can gain from it, that they will be rewarded with wealth and power in a future empire. I suggest,” she moved close in front of him, looking up into his face, her expression cold. “That you do not let them know anything beyond this.”
“Because they will want the secret of immortality?”
“Precisely. And because an immortal man would very soon become an ambitious man, and there isn’t enough room in this world for very many ambitious men. Let them go on as they do now. They will volunteer to serve the Eye in the belief that it will reward them with wealth, power, or whatever other fantasies are in their minds.”
“Possibly,” Katrina turned to look out of the window with a shrug, looking down on the city beyond. “They may be of some use, after all, and the Eye may choose to reward its followers in order to assure the behaviour of future recruits. Fear only works so far, and if Tenebrae has the power to reward as well as punish, I'm sure he will use the combination wisely. But they are minor in comparison to you and I, my Lord. I can only guarantee our rewards, not theirs.”
“And what makes you so worthy of reward?” Tiernach asked shrewdly.
“I shall captain your troops, my Lord,” Katrina answered him. “You are an intelligent man, one with great power… but you have no military prowess.”
“And you do?”
“The Eye believes so, as does the First. That is enough.”
Tiernach walked up behind her, his lips close to her ear. “It's a dangerous game you are playing, Katrina. If you fail...”
“I will die,” she finished. “Whether by your hand or another’s is of little matter. Perhaps that is my fate. I will probably never know it. But if it is not... I will bring us glory and power beyond your imagination.”
“I can imagine a lot,” Tiernach hissed. He turned, and sat behind his desk. “I assume I have little choice?”
“I fear not, my Lord,” Katrina shook her head. “The First does not yet trust you, it would seem.”
“And yet he leaves the Eye minimally guarded in a location I know of, and to which I could send a legion!”
“You think they have the power to remove it without its will?” Katrina countered.
Tiernach did not answer. There was a very good chance they could burn down the temple without destroying the Eye, and any attempt to touch it would likely render the attacker immobile or dead. He spoke none of these thoughts aloud. “I suggest you enroll into the army,” he said instead.
“I already have. I await your promotion order promptly.”
“I see...” Tiernach frowned.
“The papers are in your top drawer.”
Tiernach opened it, and discovered she was quite right. “General?” he raised an eyebrow.
“I need complete freedom and command of the troops. Anything less would be problematic,” Katrina moved to sit on the edge of his desk, her leather skirt rising to expose a length of toned thigh. “And we don’t need extra problems right now.”
“You seem to be anticipating the need to control my entire army.”
“I would be impressed if you can find another way to fight a war,” she responded. “I do know everything the First has shown you these past days, you know. Interesting finds, but I have no intention of relying on them. Oh,” she went on airily. “I realise that you will use those beastly creatures to great effect, if you can. What I won't rely on is whether you can.”
“I can. In time. We will, of course, require a base of operations – something more than a tumbledown temple, and further from prying eyes – but I think I can arrange that.”
“Yes?” Katrina raised an eyebrow.
“Yes. Chasmhold should suit our purposes.”
“But it’s been abandoned for centuries! Ever since the barbarians overran it in the last of the highland battles. Probably still full of the cretins.”
“Precisely,” Tiernach touched his fingertips together and smiled. “I’m quite sure your brothers will be able to regain it for us. The barbarians do, after all, have a love of wealth, and the promise of such. I think we should hire them.”
“Hire the barbarians?” Katrina half laughed, then hesitated, her eyes narrowing. “You’re serious...”
“Quite,” Tiernach said dryly. “We are, I foresee, going to require.... for want of a better word, thugs. I see no reason not to use the resources available to us. Promise them wealth, promise them power, and if they don’t accept the promises, demonstrate both. And I cannot sign this order,” he tossed the sheaf of papers back towards her.
“Why?” she demanded, turning to face him, her hands thudding angrily into his desk.
“Because I cannot promote a second lieutenant to a general. You may have been able to buy that officer’s commission, but I can jump you two ranks further, no more. Beyond that, the law will not allow, and it would be questioned and investigated at the highest level. My father is quite dedicated to the preservation of the law – he himself would not issue such a command on his own behalf, and he would make a point not to issue it on mine if I were foolish enough to ask.”
Katrina swore. “What use is that?”
“I can advance you in stages. It will take time, but I can bring you to general, if you are patient, and if you show some aptitude for the task.”
“Six months, perhaps. If you perform your duties well enough,” Tiernach favoured her with a humourless smile.
“So long?” Katrina showed no sign of doubting her own ability.
“It will take me at least that to make use of our unique new assets. I suggest you accept the wait with grace.”
“I have to report this,” she said angrily.
“Of course you do,” Tiernach told her placidly. “But if your brothers don’t want a full investigation to occur, and your involvement to be uncovered, I suggest they accept it also. You have waited long enough so far, I’m sure this much time more will not hurt.”
“Damn you,” Katrina turned away. “You speak like this is all your plan.”
“As soon as your First made a deal with me, it became my plan,” Tiernach's smile showed a predatory tooth.
Katrina raised an eyebrow.
“You are an intriguing man, my Lord,” she said, looking at him with renewed respect. “I look forward to working with you. If you are everything you think you are.”
“My dear Captain Katrina. I am probably more than that.”
There was a confidence in his amber eyes that made Katrina shiver right to the tip of her tail.