Against All Odds- book 2 of the Novel of Shannon/chapter 2 part 1

st.Ignatius 008

CHAPTER TWO                               .

High Passes

Kaava took the lead and guided them south, down a long narrow path that eventually wound around the lake that they had seen from the plateau above. They slipped though a tight passage that twisted steeply down, entering the cloud cover that hung in the lower peaks. Through the frozen mist of the mountains they came upon a wide straight road.

“The road builders here were quite impressive,” Ivan said. “It looks just like that other road.”

“It is one road,” Kaava said. “It runs coast to castle and on down to the southern coast. Other than what was lost in the bog, it remains unbroken… except for some sections lost to earthquakes and volcanoes. It is still a major trade road.”

“That’s huge,” Oirion said. “Thousands of miles.”

Kaava nodded, “Yes, it is.”

“Who built it?” Tavia asked.

“There is little memory of those people. Our city is part of their world. They are all but lost to memory. All we know for certain is that it was their war that created the warps which forced the rest of the world to build the barrier.”

Its unbroken path continued on westward: a wide white line through the forest. It didn’t veer around the mountains, but instead ran straight through. The mountains were either cut away or tunneled through, offering occasional shelter from the ceaseless snow and wind.

“You said this road went to a castle?” Dave said as they rode, Kaava easily walking in pace with the horses.

“Two Castle,” Kaava said.

“Two Castle?” Riven asked.

“Another inventive name, I’m sure,” Oirion offered with sarcasm.

“It’s a city built in a circle with a wall down the middle, deserted now. One side is white granite, the other is gray. The two halves are built exactly the same; built for twin brothers, heirs to an old king. He split the city, the kingdom, and the content – one half to each. That’s the story anyway.”

“Big kingdom,” Riven muttered.

“It’s a story,” Kaava said with a shrug. “Not even the Elders remember the truth, only bits and pieces of it. It was a very long time ago.”

“Have you ever been to Two Castle?” Tavia asked.

“No. We don’t cross the Forest of the Damned, not only because of the forest itself, but the fact that we aren’t so welcome on the other side. That’s where we fled from. The forest is rather warped, as are all lands here. Some just hide it better.”

“I’ll be so glad to get home,” Ivan said. “I like trees that are just trees and women without fur.”

“I have seen Ezeeren women,” Riven said. “I would say they do have a bit of fur.”

“Only at your level, Master Dwarf,” Ivan chuckled.

It was that night that they met an Orcan patrol in one of the tunnels. The patrol already had a fire going and a deer turning on a spit. They welcomed the group, and the group welcomed the fire. Once the horses were seen to, they all sat at the fire and peeled off the layers about their heads.

Kaava translated for the orcs who were trying to ask, but couldn’t get their mouths to form the words right. Kaava laughed at their attempt and spoke for them.

“They want to know how it is that so many men can travel with so few women. We don’t mix gender unless the males and females are evenly matched; otherwise, it causes rivalry between the men. How does this arrangement work for you people?”

“We aren’t as lusty as orcs,” Dave said.

“Some of us aren’t,” Riven said. “Others of us are and just hide it a bit better, or have learned to control it.”

“Or not,” Theo muttered and shot Ivan a look. Ivan ignored him.

“No one gets any,” Tavia said to the group of orcs sitting with befuddled looks on their faces, “because we don’t want rivalry between them. They are more like brothers to us, at this point, than eligible men.”

“Maybe to you,” Salma said. “I know at least one of them I would love to get my hands around.” She smiled at Shannon, who was busy digging in his pack and didn’t even bother to look up at her.

“It’s not natural,” Kaava said. “It is normal in our race and in Elven races that male and female will match up, even if not as mates. Do you not ‘match up’?”

“We are all matched up,” Kelly said to them slowly, “in different tasks, with different partners. We are a small tribe, working to survive as one group. We all have our place in the company.”

Kaava relayed the conversation to the other orcs. They thought about it, talking amongst themselves and trying to think about how to ask more questions that they were so curious about. Kaava finally worked out a question from all their talking.

“So, who is the leader?”

All at once, Riven said, “Dave,” Dave said, “Oirion,” Oirion said, “Riven,” Theo said, “Shannon,” and they all looked at each other.

“It depends on the moment,” Kelly said. “In some places, one of them does better than the other. The hard part is when they disagree on the small things, where to camp and the like.”

“Shannon and Oirion fight a lot,” Salma told Kaava. “Then Theo says something to Dave, who takes over.”

The orcs were baffled by them and let it be that way. They were more interested in food, for the time being. While they waited for the deer to cook, they pulled out a few little drums and whistles and played Elven-sounding songs.

After they had all eaten, the party found warm places to snuggle down into. The fire died down and the group of orcs moved on in their patrol.

Between the fire, the shelter, and the warm clothes they had been given, no one felt cold, and to all of them, it felt good to be out of the city and in the fresh air. Riven, for once felt rather content, all things considered. He pulled out a small pipe that he had traded for in the Orcan city and began to puff it contentedly, blowing large smoke rings that seemed almost mystical.

Dave stepped out into the night. It was dark, but the clouds were breaking up a bit. There was enough moonlight shining down for him to see his way from the mouth of the tunnel to the shelter of the trees, a good place to drain his bladder. It was cold out here, but not as bad as it might have been. He hadn’t slept well tonight, having dreams of Cindie, over and over, and her death at his hands. It left him feeling a bit ill.

Kelly startled him as he returned. She sat silently on a bolder at the mouth of the tunnel. She nodded to him. He drew his cloak about himself and moved to sit beside her, attempting to hide the fact that he hadn’t seen her.

“Can’t sleep, either?” he asked in Common Trade.

“I’ve been so tired that sleep has come easier than normal,” she said sadly. “As rested as I am, I don’t think I shall sleep a full night again.”

“So, do you know where Shannon went?”

“South, just after everyone settled. He’s been gone for hours.”

Dave shifted to sit on the stone more comfortably; he was not at all disturbed to sit close to the big woman and made no attempt to not touch her. She, however, gave him more room, scooting over to avoid his innocent touch.

“I meant nothing by it, Kelly,” he said softly. “I’m not Ivan.”

She looked up at the tattering clouds as the wind was picking up, her face lit by the moonlight for a moment.

“You forget what I wear,” she said, speaking in the form of Elven that was spoken on the Water. It was the language of pirates and those who would deal with them. It brought home, all at once, that Dave was a pirate and not just a man. It also said that she knew it. He hugged his elbows, feeling suddenly torn inside over whom he was and what he knew. Being a pirate was not just a job – it was a brotherhood as real as any nation and perhaps more so for many. It was an entire culture that could not be shrugged off.

“I did,” he said honestly, “but then, we are a long way from the Waters. Does it matter so much?”

“For me it does,” she said, “but not for the reasons you might think, Dave.” He tensed, but didn’t get up and leave. Her words made his gut tight and his heart hurt. “It’s not because our tattoos imply opposing factions.”

“What do you mean by that?” he asked.

She drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’ll greatly miss you as it is. I don’t need to make it worse than it already will be.”

Dave looked over. “Does it really matter?” he asked her, more upset than he thought he would be.

“You didn’t hear what I just said.” She switched to Common Trade. Her southern accent was strong and rich. In it, a further reminder of who she was and what she was, and that they were a world apart.

He moved on an unplanned impulse, something he wanted to do for the sake of doing and not for anything else. He reached over and slid his hand under her arm, down to her wrist where her hands were tightly gripped in her lap.

“How very Purtan of me,” he half-laughed at himself. “I try not to do that; it gets a man teased by his shipmates. But then, there are no crew and no humans to tease me here.”

“Are you so Purtan?”

“More so than not. My mother was part elf, but the rest is Purtan.” He looked over, “and don’t let Shannon fool you; Purtans are an affectionate race. Touch is very important to us.”

“Touch is important to all Fair Races,” she said. “Some just interpret it differently.”

“You take my touch however you like, Kelly, just so long as you let me sit here.” He leaned his head back on the stone and watched the clouds move across the sky, tattering and racing. After a short while, Kelly turned her hand to better slip into his. He tightened the hold, but made no other move. It was just nice to sit here and be halfway warm, with someone he felt no need to amuse or prove something to.

There was a sudden bit of guilt when Shannon walked up as he still held her hand. He knew that Shannon could see in the dark, no matter how dark, and he surely saw the unlikely contact. Shannon just glanced at them and then went into the tunnel.

“Beautiful man,” Kelly said.

“Beautiful and dark and powerful,” Dave said.

“He scares me.”

“I think anyone who knew him would be scared of him.”

“Travis isn’t.”

“Nor was I as a child. I used to swing off his hand and leap from the rigging, utterly confident that he would catch me. I would climb in his lap, brush his hair, sleep in his bunk, and have him read me stories.”

“I think you must’ve been quite a child.”

“I was handful, I’m sure. I think he used to come on board just to give my father a chance to go ashore without me, so my father could try to forget about my mother.”

“She died?”

“Swept overboard in a storm, or so they tell me. But, you know, the more I think about it, the more unlikely that strikes me.”

“Why is that?”

“Even I could catch myself from washing over by the time I was fifteen. She was a powerful wizard, my father even more so. It was not that bad of a storm and shouldn’t have had enough force to break her ropes. All I know is that my father was devastated, and Shannon stayed with us longer than normal.”

“He was your teacher, wasn’t he?”

“In many things.” Dave laughed. “I asked him once how to kiss a girl. The men on the crew talk about such things, and I was rather certain that they were idiots and had no idea how to do much.”

“Oh? What did he tell you?”

“He said ‘you are a bit young to be kissing anyone, Tydavrelle.’” He whispered in the Purtan Whisper that Shannon used, if only in a mild form. The volume was low, but carried enough power in it to make it heard. Dave had never used it around the group, but the hint of magic and the softness of his voice was remarkably like Shannon’s.

Kelly laughed softly at the impersonation.

“I, of course, argued that I didn’t plan to at the moment as there were no girls onboard, but that I should be better instructed by someone with a measure of intelligence greater than the crewmen. I was rather a pest, I think. He eventually had me sit across from him, and he looked at me and said: ‘alright then, what do you want to know?’” Dave smiled at the memory. “I learned a lot that day.”

“I can’t see Shannon giving such answers to a boy,” she said, rather amused at the idea. “What did he say about kissing?”

“He said it was as much about the closeness as the contact – that if it wasn’t pleasant enough to take one’s time and say what you mean with a kiss, one ought not to be kissing that particular person. He said that a man could change a woman’s life with a kiss, if he did it right.” He sighed. “I have yet to manage that, but you know I try.”

“I’m sure you do,” she laughed, “but then, I’d bet Shannon has.”

They sat talking until the chill began to get to them. Reluctantly, they went back inside the tunnel. Kelly lay down next to Travis and offered her warmth to the boy. Dave stood looking at the group, trying to decide where to rest.

Shannon sat in the dark watching him, but saying nothing. Dave picked a spot near his uncle, but not too close.

Lying awake, he listened for Kelly’s slow deep breath and then sat back up. He looked over at the Purtan, who hadn’t moved.

“Upset?” he asked in Norwen.

Shannon slowly looked over at Dave. “You are not a child, David; sit with whom you choose. Just know that eventually you will go home and she will not be accepted there.”

“I’m not asking about taking her home; I’m asking how you feel now.”

“I approve of Kelly more than most,” he said after a pause.

Dave lay back down, struggling with his emotions. The idea of not having Kelly come home with him triggered a rather odd feeling of loss. The truth was, she was one of the Razza – one of the priestesses of the secret and powerful cult of the southern goddess Razz. The very utterance of the name caused pirates to make the sign of the holy star for protection. But there she was, sleeping just on the other side of the fire, her arm over a little child whom sheltered in her strength. What a very odd set of events that had brought them here.

His mind turned, spinning up memories of conversations from the last few months. Finally, he gave up even trying to sleep. He got up and began gathering what bits of wood he could find from where the woodpile had been. There wasn’t much left, but it was enough to get the fire going again.

He glanced around to be certain the others were sleeping, saw that Shannon was gone, and only then did he begin to spin magics into the twigs and bits of bark. It was a magic that he shouldn’t have had. This was not wizardry; wizardry left too much of a mark and was too easy to track. The magic that he used to keep the fire going and warm his comrades was dangerous to be caught using. His father had taught him, but forbade him to use it where anyone might see.

“Nicely done,” Shannon said softly.

Dave, half-startled, looked back over his shoulder to where Shannon stood behind him. The tall silent man had just come in with more wood to add to the fire. He set his armload down as Dave got to his feet.

“I didn’t want us so easily tracked,” Dave said. “The fire itself will burn away all trace,” he explained.

Shannon looked at him for a long moment.

“Your reasons are well founded and you are right. However, that form of magic is very rare, David. If it is linked to you, it would be very unfortunate.”

“The captain said as much. He made me learn, but forbade its use. He wouldn’t say more of it. It comes as naturally to me as any magic. I don’t understand its threat.”

“It is a magic of the Holy Vow, David. It links you to your Purtan bloodlines and that is one thing you do not want to be revealed.”

Dave stood looking at his uncle, a thousand questions running through his mind. As always, Shannon waited for him to ask his question. He’d just have to ask it well.

“No bloodline is of any threat to the powers of Purt now. What would it matter?”

“It is not that you are a threat to them; it is that you are linked to a magic that they can pull out of you.”

“What are you saying? That I’m in one of the lines of kings?” Dave asked, not thinking it so, even for a moment.

“Do not make light of it, David. Do not speak of it and do not use that magic unless your soul is on the line. Still, you did use it very cleanly and nicely; just do not do it again.”

Dave sank down beside the fire. Shannon hadn’t said yes, or no, to the question of bloodline, but it began to make sense. Not just conversations of the last few months, but also of many things his parents had said and done. It left the very big question, though… if he was of the same line as Shannon, who was Shannon?

If he had hoped to get back to sleep before, the questions he now had spinning in his mind guaranteed that he wasn’t going to be able to tonight.

***********

They followed the road for another week, uneventfully, until some sort of ruins became visible through the snow. It was late afternoon when Kaava led them off the road toward the ruins.

“What is this place?” Ivan asked Kaava. He pulled his pack from the horse and dropped it onto the snow-covered ground.

“We can talk later, after the fire is built,” Kaava said. “There’s still something I must do.” He dropped his own pack and left the others to set up camp, striding out of sight without an explanation.

“I like it,” Salma said, looking around the once grand hall they were in. “Feels safe here.”

“Feels Purtan,” Riven grunted, then tore into his tent roll to set it up. They all moved to do the same. The campsite was chosen early today, but they all had made it a habit to set up quickly. Tonight, they would have daylight for a while still and that was rare.

They had been following Kaava for weeks through the great peaks and passes without any real rest. They were all wind-burned, chapped, and ready for a break. With the tents set up so quickly, they were left with little else to do. Tavia pulled out the heat rods to start a meal and warm up the insides of the tents. The tents wouldn’t get truly warm, but it was the best they could do. The magic was just enough to warm them, but not enough to leave a great mark that could be easily tracked.

Theo left the group to wander and examine the structures around them. The ruins were rather stunning in their frozen state. They were very Purtan in design, and yet the masonry was carved with details that Purtan didn’t use. Bold leaves, grape vines, and birds were still clearly cut. They were far more Elven looking, but far larger and more graphic than any Elven detailing would be.

Theo found Kaava’s tracks as they led through the ruins. He turned to follow them, curious where the orc had gone. The tracks took Theo to a remarkably held together great hall. Giant pillars that once stood as buttresses to the ceiling were carved as great trees. Some of the reaching branches full of leaves still remained. Great windows lined the walls allowing light to shine into the hall from both sides. Even some of the ceiling was still intact.

At the far end was a throne of some sort. It was piled with offerings to the point that the throne itself was hidden. Kaava knelt before it with his hands lifted up. Remaining utterly still, the orc held his offering, waiting for something that Theo could not guess.

“Leave him,” Shannon said softly over Theo’s shoulder.

Theo looked back at the tall Purtan who had snuck up on him despite the crunch of the snow.

“What’s he doing?”

“He is buying us safe haven for the night and passage out of the territory,” Shannon said.

“From whom?”

“The lord of this place. Don’t wander until he comes back.” He gestured Theo back to camp.

Theo looked at the man in black. He licked his chapped lips and swallowed.

“I’m not as helpless as I look, you know.”

“I do not think you know what you look like to the world of Power, Tharadon.” His incredible eyes looked directly at Theo, making Theo’s heart stop a moment. Shannon looked back toward the orc. “There is no reason to insult the lord of this place. Go back to camp.”

Theo bit his lip. Shannon always surprised him. At least now he knew for certain that Shannon knew who he was. But how, and why didn’t he say anything to the others, and what did he think about it? Questions ran through Theo’s head. Emotions that were locked up, tangled with a thousand lessons in magic and abuse, threatened to rise up. He shifted his own inner spells and choked them down.

“I do know magics, you know, just nothing very useful for camping.”

Shannon looked at him in silence, long enough that Theo was about to run when the man spoke.

“In another time and place, Theo, I would have much to offer you, but to keep you alive is getting to be the best I can give. You have chosen your Path, in spite of all the teaching you have been offered and all the training you have endured. I admire that in you. Talk to David. He can teach you a great deal of “useful magic,” and the knowledge you have acquired will allow you to adapt that energy into greater things.”

“Oirion will not like to see that.”

“Oirion has bigger problems than David teaching you how to cast Ropes and Blinds.”

“Oirion will heal. He’s also a powerful ally. He is famous and his heart is right, even if he is ignorant of much. I would rather he be in my corner when I get home than not. I will stand very alone if I make it back,” Theo said.

Shannon actually shifted on his feet, almost as if he was cold, but Theo doubted that. He seriously suspected that this conversation was very far out for Shannon, as well as being difficult for him. He was both flattered and a bit scared by it.

Shannon continued, “Oirion, alone, is not the only one here who would make you a powerful ally. You need to ask yourself – for what end do you need them? You have run from your place, you have hidden yourself and your power, and still do so. What good are allies to a vagabond?”

“I have used magics here without being sick to my stomach,” Theo said. “That’s very new to me,” he added. His voice was firmer and stronger than he knew he felt about it. It seemed as if Shannon had told him he was a coward and weak. It stung a bit for some reason. “You don’t know what sort of stain is on the House of Lords. You don’t know what she plots with Gerome, and for what end they would…” he had to stop as his voice cracked and his throat began to tighten. But his voice had been strong for a moment, and that felt good

“No, I do not,” Shannon admitted. “Perhaps I should. My concern for the Houses of Kings died a long time ago. You dare to offer me hope, yet cower behind Oirion? Lucky is he to know you; not the other way around. He hides behind his lies while his eyes have seen the truth, and his heart has endured not much less fear and pain than yours. He wears his ring like a shield and chains himself to dogma, while the faith that he claims to protect is twisted and turned into a sham.” Shannon spoke firmly and harshly, far firmer than Theo had ever heard him.

“I know who Gerome is,” Theo said, pointing his finger at Shannon, his hand shaking and tears in his eyes. “I know who he hunts; I know who you are…” He said it, and at that moment, he realized it. He felt suddenly weak, ill and terrified. The truth was, he did know, and had been afraid to admit it even to himself. But in that moment, and for whatever reason, as he did sometimes, he said what he hadn’t allowed himself to admit until he heard his own words.

Shannon actually twitched just a little in the cheek, then turned and walked away. Theo wiped at the tears on his face, trying to catch his breath. He stood, struggling to calm his breathing, trying to undo the knowledge that he had just slapped Shannon in the face with.

“You alright?” Dave asked, joining him out of nowhere.

Theo nodded and sniffed. He was desperate to escape his own emotions, but not so tired as to show them. Not now, and not with anyone to see. He had gained that much control, at least.

“Guess I’m a little sensitive about being called a coward.” He tried to smile to his friend. Dave tried to smile back.

“Don’t let him scare you, Theo. He likes you, and that’s rare. He’d go to hell to protect those he cares about and you, my pretty friend, are on that list. So feel free to do anything you want; Shannon has your back.” He put his arm around Theo’s shoulders. “And you have friends, you know.” He did smile at that, but then it sank away into seriousness. “Don’t let Oirion scare you, either. I will back you up on whatever happens, so if you need to do something…. to keep us a little better off…” he shrugged, “understand?”

“Trying to, Dave, and thanks.” He cleared his throat. “You know, I don’t know much good magic. You seem to; maybe you could show me some of the things you’re doing. My magic is all… very obscure.”

“Not sure how good of a teacher I am,” Dave grinned, “but I’ll try.”

Theo tried to shake it and feel happy, to welcome the friendship offered, but his own voice kept saying that he knew who Shannon was, over and over. It seemed impossible and so unlikely. He wondered if Gerome knew that he, Theo, was here, and if he had any chance to escape this insane twist of fate. Getting home might not be any better than finding a place to hide here.

“In this place, there is a power,” Kaava said, as they sat and ate their meal of soup and crackers. “It marks the end of the territory that we hold. This section of border is held safe. The things in the lower mountains do not come up this pass. For it, we accept this place as part of us, and yet when we come here, we offer all fair honor and due. “An allied lord, more than a subject, lives here, and we respect that.

“Things have happened here and the power is so real some can see it. We are safe here and can roam the fortress if we like, but I ask that you take nothing and move as little as you must. It is not our place to do so. We are guests of the lords here and safe as long as we stay. There are those who sought to steal and their fate was not pleasant.”

“Lords?” Riven asked, “Angels? Ghosts?”

“Phantoms,” Shannon said softly.

“What?” Salma asked.

“All greater crystals that are held in power must be directed in purpose,” Dave said. “To do that, normally a coven of some sort will bind into it. Their purpose, magnified by the number of devotees, becomes the purpose of the stone. If the stone was to shatter or flare, the coven would be caught in it and flared out, yet bound enough to remain. They become undead, formless phantoms, bound to the stone and purpose, so long as the stone remains.

“I would guess that there was, or is, a great crystal here, or nearby, and they dwell here to guard and command it. The Barrier needed to be raised by many different races and ranks to create a unified balance for the good of the world, not just for Purt. You have to have a very strong Coven made of those with great fortitude and willpower for something like that. Anything less would make for an unstable crystal and unstable magic, either of which would defeat its purpose, most likely shattering it with the effects of unbalanced minds and power. When you are part of such a magic as that, you are bound to the magic in body and soul. You become a part of the crystal and death leaves you as a phantom until the magic is released. Do you see?”

“Do you think this,” Tavia glanced around to include all of the magics of the place in her thoughts, “could be linked to the Barrier?” she asked.

“Likely,” Shannon said, “but not directly.”

“Can you see them, Shannon?” Kaava asked.

Shannon looked at Kaava for a moment. “No,” he said simply.

“But, you know they’re here.”

“Yes,” he said, looking away.

“So, what do you see?” Kelly asked.

Shannon slowly turned his eyes to her for a moment, as if considering why she might ask the question.

“There are layers to this place. It is rather like standing inside a complex glyph. The magic here is far older than the ruins and it runs deeper than any I have yet to see inside the Barrier. It is more likely tied to the builders of Ulam Ar than to the barrier.”

“But this fortress may have been built here for that reason and tied to the Barrier,” Dave said. “And isn’t the Barrier about five thousand years overdue to be taken down? As long as we’re here…”

“It is far more overdue than just five-thousand years,” Shannon said, “but we cannot take the Barrier down, even if we could find it.”

“Why not?” Dave asked.

“We do not have the needed key points.” He looked at Dave from whatever his eyes had been tracking along the walls. “Five races, for one thing. A healer is in absence and three High Priests, not to mention the three racial kings.”

“What happens if the Barrier isn’t taken down?” Ivan asked.

“It will eventually shatter,” Shannon said, looking back to the wall.

“So, how do you get three high priests to do anything together but war?” Ivan asked.

“When you figure it out, let me know,” Shannon said, dropping the topic.

“But, we could find the core,” Dave said.

“David,” Shannon said, looking at him directly, “the inner gate is sealed by the Goddess Razz. It will take a Blood Price to open it. That Blood Price is a Prince of Purt, and it takes the Emperor to Key the stone itself. Unless I am mistaken, we do not have a whole lot of those running around.”

“Purt sealed the Barrier with blood?” Oirion asked, with a shocked look on his face.

“No, Loewen did,” Shannon said, casting a glance at Kelly. “It was the price to get the High Priestess to hold the third point.”

“Loewen was not on such good terms with Purt at the time,” Kelly said. “The High Priestess was certainly uneasy betraying her people for the will of Purt. I suspect that she had every right to protect herself.”

“Hmm.” Shannon didn’t seem impressed. “The current high Priestess might want to keep in mind that she may very well find herself in the very ugly place of dealing with that little detail.”

“I strongly doubt that. As you said, we don’t have a Von Armond Emperor, so the whole thing is void.” Kelly countered.

“If Razz would have been wise enough to understand that the fate of Purt affects the fate of the world… even now if she would aid against Gerome, things might change, at least enough to take the Barrier down.” He spoke in a tone that had, until now, been reserved for Oirion.

“Razz has grown angry and silent. Do not look to Her for any aid. Only wrath will you get, at best. Just enough to let us know that She’s still around.”

“Razz has spent far too long in the form of the serpent. She has lost her Mind. There is nothing there but the simple thoughts of a dumb snake,” Shannon said in a cold disregard.

“You are not the first to say that… but, most who do, get eaten by that dumb snake,” Kelly said with a hint of annoyance to her normally even tone.

Shannon almost smiled.

“I have no fear of Razz. Her power is as weak as Her priesthood has become, and that is due to Her own selfishness. When She wakes, it will be too late. She will find Her empire reduced to nothing but sand and a dozen warring, wifeless brothers.”

“Might I oppose this line of topic?” Oirion cut in. “I do not think it so good to have a Purtan talking of the god of the Loewen as if she was truly God.”

“Gods are gods, Oirion,” Shannon said. “They are what they are, label them however you wish. The God you are supposed to herald in the True Church does not deny this, but steps beyond even that. You call Armond an Arch Angel. The rest of the world calls him a god, and we all give him the respect due to a god. He just has no church, as he offered us his God instead. That is the truth of the Church. Anything else is a sham made by Gerome and his demons.”

“Man cannot devote his soul to what he cannot comprehend, and what you have said is beyond the mind of men. It is the wisdom of the priesthood, not a thing of daily life or of common men.”

“You amaze me, Oirion,” Shannon said after a moment. “You are far too intelligent to be so stupid.” Ivan burst out laughing, despite himself. He covered his mouth.

“Sorry,” he said to Oirion, as Oirion shot him a dirty look.

“A child cannot understand what a man can, and man cannot understand what angels do. You cannot send a child to do a man’s job,” Oirion argued.

“You can also keep a child ignorant of the things of men, if you hide all truth and the world from him. Both are wrong. Man’s soul will understand what it is ready to understand. To hide the truth and create false truth is a sin against men, God, and all creation. You, as a priest, should know that… so much so that to do such would feel as foul as black magic.”

“Only offer what man is ready to take,” Oirion insisted. “There’s no need to offer more.”

“Who are you to say what another man is ready for?”

“Back to the topic at hand, you two,” Dave said. “Could these ruins be one of the side gates to the halls of the Barrier Stone?”

“It might be,” Shannon said, distracted and annoyed at Oirion.

“So, should we explore?” Dave asked. “If it is a gate, then the powers here will not be offended if a couple Purtans and a couple priests look for the links to a Barrier that should’ve been down a long time ago.”

“Or, they will object,” Riven said. “Time limits on such magic are put in place so that purpose is not warped. The very guards put in place as aid might turn out to be the greatest threat.”

“It is a mute point,” Shannon said. “With Gerome in place, there is nothing that can be done… and there is no Armond prince that is about to be blood sacrifice for the world. I am sorry, but I will let the gods, with their blind eyes and cold-shouldered choices, rip it all apart before I allow any more abuse of the line of Von.”

“There are no Von Armonds left,” Kelly said. “So even if Razz was to act to depose Gerome, it would be still a mute point.”

Shannon looked at her a long moment before he said anything, and he spoke in Loewen when he did. He cut the others out, all but Riven and Tavia.

“The Sun does not set on the Bridge of Aummen Rah, and Gerome yet lives. He has the key to the palace gates, and that alone would tell Razz the truth if She was not lost in Her own selfishness.”

“Tyredelle is lost,” Kelly said, also speaking in Loewen. “His soul is cast to hell and is beyond the reach of even Razz. There is no aid for him, and his flesh is no more. Von Armond is no more than a trophy for demons now. Whatever fragments of what Tyredelle might still recall are not enough to deal with, or Deal with. The line was hunted by Stalkers, and now it’s gone. There are no Von Armonds left…. and you know that. You are far too powerful to not know otherwise.”

“You’re wrong,” he said simply.

“Shannon, you’re a Purtan, and you hold to your hope. I understand, but I am neither young nor naive. I know who Gerome is in bed with, and I know that not even Razz in Her full power could fight that head on. Tyredelle’s fall is the grief of the world and the price all men must bear. The selfish greed and fear of men have manifested in this last lesson to the world. Gerome, for his crimes, is condemned and cast out. His beloved is destroyed beyond this realm. Nothing is manifested in this world by one soul alone; this crime rests on all. A beautiful soul was destroyed and we all pay for it.”

Shannon slipped his hand into his surrcoat and pulled something out. He offered it to Kelly. She was uneasy and clearly not comfortable being spoken to openly, even if she thought the others didn’t speak her language at all. Still, she got up, walked around to him and then held out her hand. He held whatever it was in his fingertips and set it in her palm with a sharp motion. She nearly fell over but held, her eyes locked with Shannon’s. His look seemed to hold her in place.

Kelly caught her breath, and she was gone… a thousand miles from the snowy mountaintop. The world was dark. There was no light at all. The strain to the mind and eyes of utter darkness was not there, though. She tried to relaxe. Slowly, she could make out her surroundings, as if her eyes were adjusting. She was in what appeared to be a garden. The ground sloped to one side, dropping down to a dark wide river. Trees grew ancient and tall with weeping boughs and vines.

She saw that she cast her own light here, as if her body was a lantern of soft blue. She looked down to see her true body…the one she had lost so long ago. She started to weep for it. Her body was lean again. She ran her hands over her muscular stomach and hips, the body of a dancer… she touched the length of the fine fabric of her long kilt. She ran her fine slender hands though her long braids of hair, over her face, feeling her own true features. She ran her finger tips down her neck to her collar bones, down toward her breasts…over every lost detail.

Just as it was all sinking in, tears filling her eyes, she saw him moving toward her through the garden. At first, she had no idea who it was, but as he drew close, she knew. She forgot about her body and the feeling of it, her hands falling away. She watched as he brushed aside vines and stepped through to her sight.

He was stunning. She couldn’t help but catch her breath. He looked as Purtan as Shannon, and was robed in black leather that moved like grass in deep, slow moving water. It flushed with power like light reflecting off of black oil. He had bat wings that mimicked an angel’s in shape and form. He was crowned in barbed cords of power that twisted about his head. His eyes were utterly black and his skin white. His left hand was on fire. The flames coiled and curled up his wrist and arm, never leaving its bounds, but ever-there.

He walked right up to her, reached out his hand and took her chin in his fingertips. The touch was both fire and ice. It stole all breath from her body and made her feel naked and terrified, and yet beautiful in a way she had not felt in so terribly long. She was utterly enraptured by his power and beauty.

He was absolute seduction. The very air about him was like a drug that she ached to breathe in. She knew that she should put up barrier-shields and ask Razz to protect her from him, but reasoned that Razz would not do it. It would seem rude and possibly insult him.

“Few have ever come to the garden,” he said, giving her a glimpse of his fanged teeth. His voice was more vibration than sound – like thunder that rolls so close that the bones feel it, yet so quiet that it was almost a whisper.

“You rule Norwood?” she asked, breathless and awed, as well as terrified. She had to know, to confirm who he was. It was he that she had traveled north to see, and yet she could not believe that he stood before her.

“I do,” he said. He let her chin go, his hand sinking down so close to her and yet not touching.

“Why did you bring me here?” she asked, trying to calm herself and yet failing to do so.

“Already one great religion is lost. Why make it two? Truth is standing before you. Purt has paid for its sins. My voice is unheard by the powers that must unite to save the world. I need to be heard; and you, Priestess, have the training to be here. You can stand here with me and still walk away without any harm to your soul.”

“A demon who would safeguard his victims? That’s new.”

He smiled faintly. “A Razzan Priestess who would fall in love with a Von Armond, that’s new,” he said back.

“I am hardly in love with you,” she half-scoffed.

“I do not speak of me,” he said with a hint of humor and a smile. His smile made him seem almost touchable for a moment.

“I am certainly not in love with any other,” she shot back.

“Do you think a Master Vampire cannot smell your feelings for Tydavrelle?” His smile vanished. “You hurt him, and I have a very dark side you will meet. Your God will not be able to protect you.” He was so close she could almost smell him – ached to feel him.

She swallowed hard. “Dave is a Von Armond?” she asked, her stomach knotting as she considered it.

“He is.”

“Razz will…” She looked away with the reality of it suddenly, the realization so terribly bitter it made her feel sick. She had felt Razz’s jealously before, but that was nothing compared to Razz’s rage should Kelly know love had been given to a Von Armond.

“You stand warned, Kelly. She is a jealous God. You know that from your past… but David is honest in his affection for you. He is a bit confused due to his vanity, but honest.”

“Razz will not allow it,” she said, a bit terrified. “She would come after Dave Herself if She were to know what bloodline he is…” She felt as if she was going to cry.

“That’s why you’re here.” He offered his hand to her. “A Deal,” he suggested.

“What?”

“Power to fight in a specific place and time has to be channeled. I detest this form,” he indicated his body. “Should it be manifest in your world, I would grow ill and suffer a great deal, not to mention I am ever hunted there. Every moment I am revealed runs the risk of capture; but give me your hand and I will give you the key to summon me in your need. To protect you from Razz and Her jealously, I will offer this to you. In turn you must agree to never harm the house of Von Armond. You must only protect and serve David as a friend….. and lover, if that is what both of you desire.”

She looked at him, half-confused and very scared.

“What’s the catch?” she asked. “You know I am no child to grab so easily. Just tell me now. You choose your words carefully. You are a demon, after all.”

“I am of the house of Von Armond as well. You will never harm me nor risk my safety, except for the risk incurred if you ever need to call on me. You will not tell of this place and should your mind be searched, you will not reveal it at any cost.”

“And I will have your aid against Razz?” He looked to his hand. “I do not Deal for your sake or mine, Kellaarahen, but for David’s.”

She reached out slowly and folded her hand around his. As the magic hit, her knees nearly buckled. Instantly, she was back in the cold, back in her exiled form, and holding Shannon’s hand to keep from falling. She blinked and caught her feet.

Kelly pulled her hand slowly from the grip of the man who held it just tightly enough to be felt.

“You know?” She asked him, regarding what she had just learned of Dave’s line and of the living truth about the King of Norwood

“So will the world shortly,” Shannon said softly. “Do not waste what you have been given. Remember yourself.”

She nodded, turned, and tried to walk away, but stumbled. She needed to be alone and to shake the allure of Tyredelle out of her. She needed to walk in her own Garden. She needed to adjust to the idea that Shannon was something more than she had thought. He served his true Emperor in all things. He was likely the most powerful man in the world, and that was why Gerome was hunting them. It had nothing to do with her, as she had initially feared.

Shannon stood alone watching snow fall slowly out of the low sky. The mountains all about them were lost in the whiteness. Even the walls around them faded into gray. He watched the flow of magic as a living web of power. He wanted to touch it, to trace it, and to understand its full scope, but he knew to do so would push him too far and leave him shifting out of self control.

He had tapped the energy around him gently to breathe in just enough power to talk to the exiled High Priestess of Loewen in a way that she couldn’t deny. That had been dangerous on many levels and he knew it. Now, he had to shake the desire and seduction of the power about him, just as she would have to shake his touch and breath on her. It had been necessary. He had to protect David and that was the best way he could think. He had known she was a priestess, her tattoos said as much, but he had not known who she really was until now. He was glad he had done what he had. Razz would not be kind to Kelly’s relationship with David.

“What did you do to Kelly?”

He looked back to Dave, who had walked up. In the calm of the ruins, Dave had taken down his scarf, revealing that he had grown a dense beard of dark red. Age would soon start to turn his hair black, and then his heritage would begin to be a danger to him. Shannon did not look forward to that day coming.

“More than I should have.”

“What did you do, Uncle?” Dave whispered at Shannon’s elbow.

“I offered to help her… should she need it.” He half looked back. “I gave her a key of power – nothing more. I may regret it later, but then again, I know that I would regret it more if she was left on her own.”

“A key? To what?”

“Why?” Shannon turned to look at his nephew. “What are you asking me? You’re not a child to be so vague in your questions.”

Dave stood still and thought his questions out for a moment, weighing between the belief of what he thought he knew, and what he really wanted to know. Shannon was going to stop talking to him if he was too childish or uncertain of himself to ask the right questions.

“Razz will punish her for any affection toward any other? She is not allowed to have friends?”

“Yes, more or less.”

“And you fear that Razz will use her to get to us?”

“She will try.”

“And you would rather fight to defend Kelly than run the risk, so you made a Deal?”

“So what is your question, David?”

Dave bit his lip and looked away a little. “Nothing really worthy of asking you about.”

“What is your question for me, David?” Shannon asked again.

“Why do I care at all and what does she feel?” He looked to his uncle for such mundane answers as to what emotions were in another. “You make me feel twelve again to ask such things,” he accused with injured pride.

“She is far more than she would seem, and you are heir to a heritage that allows you to feel it, if not know it. She cares enough for members of this company that she knows she will pay for it, and she was willing to make a Deal that she knows could cost her soul.”

Dave chewed on his bottom lip beard hairs as he looked at the man. “You say that as if you were a demon and that you hold her soul in your hand, locked into a Deal that you need not have made.”

“Is that a question or an observation?” Shannon asked him, not looking away.

“That’s cruel,” Dave accused softly. “You set her up, Shannon.”

“Oh yes, I did.”

“You know that I would defend her and aid her. You know how I feel about her.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Then why? Why spin it so that I must choose, and do so with you reminding me how terrifying you can be?”

“I ask no choice of you, David,” he said.

“You set out to scare me! Why do you do that? You didn’t used to do that when I was little. Now you do it every time I stop having fear of you.”

Shannon drew a slow breath and exhaled. Dave felt himself chill a little at the fact that Shannon’s breath didn’t steam at all in the cold.

“Sometimes I hate you,” Dave said softly. “Why must you push me and make me take step after step toward a power and alliance that I do not wish to know.”

“It is you who walked here to me. It is you who ask the questions. If you wish to remain a child, do not sit at the table with the men.”

“That’s not fair! You’re my uncle! You deny me my own name if you ask that.”

“I am your name,” Shannon said back firmly. “You cannot have your name and ignore the reality of me. You do not get one without the other.”

“You’re my uncle, not my father! I don’t have to follow your line!”

Shannon grabbed the choker at Dave’s neck and held the small disk in his fingers. He pulled Dave a step closer.

“You are my heir. So, as far as my enemies consider, you are mine and your father is merely your babysitter, as it has been since you were born.” He pushed Dave back a step. “There are only two things that will spare you that. One is death; the other is if one of my sons rises from the dead and lifts the cloak off of you…. and that, I seriously doubt. But why don’t you ask the Razzan Priestess to appeal to her god, to see if she can raise the dead. It is beyond me.”

“I am not your heir. I am a sailor,” Dave said, shaken and scared.

Shannon looked back to the snow.

“Then do not think you have the place to question me, or ask questions of me. If you wish to be a child, then mind your place as one.”

Dave didn’t even argue. He just backed off. He was glad to escape, but remained feeling very shaken. That cold, angry master was the Shannon that he knew from the ship, the one who would kill a man for the slightest offence. It was chilling to even think of it, let alone add it all on top of what he had learned far too recently.

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