First chapter of Black Hallows: Cradle of Darkness

Full novel published on 30th November 2019

A Black Rain Falls

Veils of darkness shrouded Queen Tayem Fyreglance as she sat brooding on the grey powdered earth — residue of a hundred shattered dragon wings from aeons past. The first heavy drops of rain fell from an overburdened sky, wetting her scalp and forming beads on the iron pauldrons of her armour. Beyond this sanctified ground lay a meadow of poisoned grass, together with the occasional contorted, blackened tree clawing its way through sickly greenery, as if drawn upward by some unseen energy. Leaves shed from these arboreal travesties formed a mouldering carpet of death. Yet this inhospitable setting had a special place in her royal heart. A single tear streaked her cheek as her eyes came to rest on her father’s grave. Although it had been five sols since his passing, she had found herself drawn back here daily, the place of his final resting. The shrine seemed to beckon her.

Beside the Queen lay her royal shield. The dragon’s eye boss at its centre seemed to blink as if in mute sympathy with her grief. A dull purple light emanated from the eye and reflected off a small pool of water lying at the bottom of a deep depression in the ground. As Tayem watched, the unearthly crater sent out a wisp of etheric energy, tracing its way upwards to caress the polished stone resting on her father’s tomb.

Tayem had heard the mythos of these hallows from her father, a man whose lasting achievement was to die too soon, a victim of his failure to summon the potential from these myriad fissures in the earth.

She followed the purple finger’s path back to its source, noticing how the pool’s surface bubbled. There was something feeding the energy there in the depths — a subterranean rupture, perhaps? Had she finally stumbled on the very phenomenon her father had quested for all his life?

Her gaze turned to the skies once more, and she viewed the descending cataract of indigo darkness heralding the genesis of the long night.

“I care not for this change in the weather,” Cistre said. The head of the Royal Guard stood on a small mound of earth. She grasped the hilt of her sheathed sword, always ready for unseen attacks. Tayem swore she was the living embodiment of a tightly wound spring, apt to uncoil in an instant.

“This is not weather,” Tayem replied.

“Then what?” Cistre did little to disguise her frustration at the Queen’s growing obsession.

Something auspicious, Tayem thought. “Perhaps an event we should have seen coming a long time ago.”

“You spend too much time here. These persistent daily vigils have yielded nothing.” Cistre’s diminutive stature belied the strident opinions she vocalised, often without consent. It was an annoyance Tayem tolerated given the compensations of the orphan’s unique talents and loyalty. “Why must you brood over a myth your father could never fathom?”

“You cannot deny that this change in the air is significant.”

“Whatever it is, I sense it will not help us.”

“Our writings tell of a great flux of power to be released when Sol-Ar is in the ascendency.”

“You also said they warned against becoming seduced by this outpouring.”

“Our people need something to empower them,” Tayem retorted. “The Cuscosians exact a toll that becomes more unbearable by the week. This day has seen ten more exactments taken from us under the guise of apprenticeship.”

“That much is true,” Cistre said. “They do little to hide the fact that our youngest are but slaves to their expanding dominion.”

“Little Celemon was amongst their number. Barely fourteen sols old and destined to become a chattel in some Cuscosian noble’s household.”

The exactment was something the Dragon Riders had become used to. Indeed, Tayem’s grand parents had signed the treaty that required it — an exchange for Cuscosian ‘protection.’ But Celemon had been close to Tayem, bursting with enthusiasm and a teenager’s curiosity at the world that promised to unfold. And yes … innocence. How long would that innocence last in the place they had taken her to?

“I have said many times that we should bear this no longer,” Cistre said, a steel underlying her naturally husky voice. “Yet, this augury you were called to see, this … hallow … fills me with foreboding. I fear no good will come of you accepting its enticement.”

“Is that what you think it is doing? Tempting me?”

Cistre stepped down from her elevated position, cautiously approaching the lip of the crater where Tayem crouched. “You know it does. We both feel it; a promise of empowerment, the wind at our backs in the battle’s charge, a guiding strategy over our plans and the unstoppable might of a higher power, but what am I to believe when you are obsessed with your father’s legacy?”

Cistre’s admission took Tayem by surprise. Not that it was a revelation, but that it echoed what the Hallows had communicated to her. “If this is from a higher power,” she said, “then it should confirm itself to be true.”

She stood to her feet, the frustrations and trauma of the day’s events boiling over in a cry to the heavens: “How much longer must I wait. Give me a sign!”

But though the rain grew heavier, no answer came from above or below.

After minutes of unearthly silence she said, “No matter. It is as ever before. I must determine the fate of my people alone. Come. We will return tomorrow.”

She turned on her booted heel to leave, yet as she did so she felt a tremor from beneath the ground send vibrations through her legs. Without warning, the earth shook violently as a fissure erupted in the hollow, vaporising the surface water into a violet vapour. When Tayem spun round, she observed purple energy billowing out of the crater, sending wisps of Hallows energy outward, engulfing her father’s tomb. As she watched in horror the stone statue collapsed and toppled towards her.

Is this my sign? The thought flashed through her mind yet she remained immobile, as if resigned to the impact of her father’s falling monument. Yet before the masonry could crush her, she was shoved to one side as Cistre barrelled into her, sending them both sprawling to the floor.

As the dust settled, Cistre said, “My Queen, are you hurt?” She pushed a crumbled piece of marble aside as she scrambled to Tayem’s side.

Tayem muttered a muffled groan. “I will live,” she said, and stood up, her legs still shaking. Then, with a mesmerising movement, wisps of Hallows energy reached out and enveloped the Dragon Queen. The vapour’s touch energised her, sending something akin to dark fire up her spine, filling her being with a tumultuous purpose.

This then was her sign.

She turned to Cistre, who observed her with mouth open.

“My Queen, what is it?” Cistre finally said.

“Call the Donnephon,” Tayem declared.

“At this hour?”

“The full Fyreclave. At once.”

Cistre bowed, jogging into the darkness and leaving Tayem to bathe in the infusion of power that now energised every cell of her body.

Minutes later she heard the beating of drums like a heartbeat in the night. It marked the turning of the tide. The Dragonians had suffered long enough. Her legions would shake off the yoke that enslaved them and rise to claim their freedom.

~ ~ ~

No matter how many times she invoked the ritual, Etezora — Queen of the Cuscosians — never failed to receive a tangible jolt, like electricity running through her wiry frame. Yet today was different. She stood, arms outstretched, absorbing a resurgent dark force rising from a jagged scar in the earth, a bleak rupture lying in the shadow of the disused Edenbract temple.

The Cuscosians had lived peacefully with the peoples of the Imperious Crescent for generations. Now, the prophesied turning of the Hallows energised a change in this balance, a shift she knew would pit the Ruling Council of brothers and sisters against the very people who had brought about this uneasy truce.

Standing next to her trusted consort, Etezora grew stronger with each moment. She gasped as purple-hued regenerative energy from the fissure surged through her body. It seduced her, like a living consciousness whispering promises of domination and a future where she ruled with unopposed force.

“See how the Hallows is initiated, Tuh-Ma,” she said to the hulking warty creature in the shadows.

“Beautiful,” he replied, the distorted words dribbling from cracked lips.

“You are privileged to witness this, my maladroit servant. It has arisen earlier than expected, but this can only mean the realisation of my plans all the sooner.”

“Shall I tell Eétor and Zodarin?”

“Gorram, of course not. I need to absorb the import of this bestowal before revealing my hand. Eétor would only take advantage of the situation.”

The blue-skin looked puzzled for a second, then shrugged. “As you wish, Mistress.”

“Now stand back, I feel the power surging within me.”

Almost involuntarily, she pointed her outstretched fingers to the sky. A crescendo of static built up in the air, followed by the release of etheric fury. With a deafening sound that cracked the night, jagged shards of light shot up to the clouds, seeming to tip the natural order into chaos, freeing an overwhelming darkness and vaporising the still falling rain.

A sound from the undergrowth startled her, footfalls crunching on garbeech nuts. “Tuh-Ma, there was one who saw. Seek them out!”

The blue-skin looked at her with obeisant, slit-eyes and grunted an acknowledgement.

“Now, you knuckle-crawler, or they will escape.”

Tuh-Ma might be faithful, but he was not quick-witted. No doubt he would sulk at her admonishment later, but he recognised the rising of his mistress’s ire and bolted from the clearing. Etezora would have accompanied him but the Hallows demanded her attention at that moment.

The electric aura from moments before had subsided, but she knew it had formed a reservoir within. “At last,” she said with unbounded malice, “I will see the fruition of all I have planned.” She revelled in the euphoria for a time, making the most of it while she could. She knew that tomorrow would be a day of freneticism unparalleled.

Tuh-Ma’s return was heralded by a swishing of branches. He stopped, head hung in shame.

“They got away, didn’t they?” Etezora said.

The creature nodded. “Tuh-Ma sorry, Mistress. He was fleet-footed. But Tuh-Ma recognised him. Tuh-Ma knows where he lives.”

Etezora smiled, an expression mutated into a sneer from the dark energy she had just absorbed. “Then our friend will receive visitors tomorrow.”

“Tuh-Ma will crush his skull into powder,” the blue-skin said, his tone conveying the need to appease her.

“That you will,” she said, “that you will.”

~ ~ ~

To fly, to soar through silent canopies of the night and feel exhilaration from the air passing over one’s wings.

This was the dream of so many, yet something Wobas experienced repeatedly on his forays into the Dreamworld. On this occasion, however, he did not venture to sate an appetite for pleasure. In fact, there were dangers if he remained in this state. Oft times he found himself longing to become distilled into the night, to have nothing remain of himself, not even a shadow. Such an elevation would be enlightenment supreme, but the shaman of the Gigantes had a higher purpose in mind. The keen, nocturnal eyesight of his dream avatar picked out the quarry ahead, acute hearing confirming that the beast stepped majestically through dense undergrowth.

Wobas smiled inwardly. Quarry? He was no hunter, despite the feathered predatory form his avatar took. Besides, that which he sought was entirely aware of his presence.

He swooped lower, tilting his body to avoid burred trunks and prickly branches. He perceived the thicker drapery of chasquite bushes ahead, recognising the potential for the spirit-beast to vanish. Alarm gripped his fluttering heart at the prospect of a convocation denied — as had happened so many times before. This was where the Spirit Guide — part horse, part reptile, part bird — would disappear into the ether, diminishing the hope of a meeting he suspected death would finally extinguish.

However, this was not to be a normal play of events. Wobas sensed the creature stop, turning on its hooves, waiting.

He stalled his flight, alighting on a garpine branch, allowing his talons to grip the gnarled bark. The Spirit Guide stood on a floor of leaf litter, observing him with avian eyes, cold, ancient and unblinking.

At last, the venerated one was to grant him an audience. Yet Wobas dared not speak, despite sols rehearsing his entreaties.

You take the form of a wise bird, it eventually communicated in dream-speak, breaking the silence, yet you seek greater enlightenment. You think yourself worthy?

Wobas remained speechless. What words could he utter to impress the guide? The beast stamped on the ground, snorting — a sign of impatience, or of offence?

Are you insulted that I have sought you all this time? Wobas sent.

Insulted? The Spirit Guide replied. You are a seeker — a persistent one at that. I respect those that dream the inconceivable then make it a reality.

Wobas forgot his pre-planned overtures and blurted out the burden on his heart. I seek these things not for myself, but for the good of my people. I know there are those who enter this realm to realise the fulfilment of their own desires, but I have learned the folly of such selfishness.

The Spirit Guide nodded its eagle-like head. I sense your sincerity, and have observed the refinement of your quest over the sols, like a precious metal purified in the crucible of perseverance.

Why, may I ask, have you now acquiesced to address me? Wobas sent.

The Spirit Guide’s beak could not form a smile, yet Wobas sensed it humoured him. Time is short. I know you seek the interpretation of your dreams, that you have detected the onset of the Great Darkness, and yet you are not aware how the scales are tipping even as we speak.

The Black Hallows? Wobas said, they are upon us?

Varchal enters the influence of Sol-Ar tonight. It has tracked through the heavens and passed across the last few megiarchs in the blinking of an eye.

So soon? Wobas said. I … we are not prepared.

It is as it ever was. The peoples persist with their petty concerns and ignore portents, the lessons of history.

Wobas protested, I have not turned my eyes from that which was foretold. I simply lack insight. My dreams are without form, allowing me only the opportunity to use them for malign purposes.

The physical manifestation is so often the grotesque result of the unworthy dreamer’s desire.

You know that is not my intent.

No. But I cannot grant you the knowledge you seek. It is beyond even my authority and abilities.

Then what?

Advice, The Spirit Guide sent. Your dreams and visions will coalesce once you have an unburdened heart.

I have reached a plane of enlightenment unprecedented amongst my people!

And yet there is enmity between you and your seed.

Milissandia?

The Spirit Guide nodded again.

But I have no influence over her, Wobas continued. She is a renegade, estranged from me.

The creature inclined its head. You must make reparations. Yours is the greater responsibility.

But —

We have no more time. You must witness the unfolding of events. There are acts you must perform.

Surely there is more you can —

But the creature had already turned and galloped off into the night at a speed even Wobas could not match. He was tired, the intensity of his audience with the Spirit Guide having sapped him of energy. His vision clouded, and he sensed his form returning to the corporeal world.

He blinked, and when his eyes reopened, he was once more seated cross-legged on the bare floor of his cave. Outside, the heavy patter of rain struck granite boulders.

Something was different, a smell of ozone in the air and the sound of crackling energy.

He rose to his feet, ancient bones and muscles protesting at the exertion, and stumbled outside.

Below the crag which served as his retreat, a rupture in the mountainside drew his eye, a site of archaic and holy significance. It glowed purple, shadow-hued like venom-vapour reaching out from the rock scar.

“By the spirits,” he said. “The Black Hallows rise from their cradle.”

~ ~ ~

“It ees beyond a joke!” Gribthore said, saliva dripping from a mouth rendered slack on one side by a childhood disease.

“You see me laughing?” Magthrum said and raised a pewter tankard to his cracked lips. He quaffed the root-ale, throwing the potent liquid to the back of his throat. There was a time when its pungency tasted rich and satisfying to his tongue, but that time was long past. All that remained was the mule kick it gave him. It was enough. It helped him forget, albeit for an hour or two.

“Are we going to let the Cuscosians get away with it?” said a squat stonegrabe. Bilespit was his name, and Magthrum trusted him about as much as he did a stone scorpion not to sting the hand that grasped it. However, he had talents, skills Magthrum could use. Once they were exhausted, he could consign Bilespit to the slag pits, or better still — slit his throat.

“How much, exactly, have they got away with?” Magthrum demanded.

“Our spies observed cartloads of ore moving out from Bagshot Defile this morning,” put in Gorespike.

“A new mine? On our side of the divide!” Magthrum picked up an axe and hurled it across the room. It thunked into an ironwood pillar, narrowly missing Gribthore who ducked just in time. “I could chew on that Cuscosian schjek’s throat. If they undercut our price on cryonite we’ll be eating our toenails within a month.” The thought of eating Etezora’s flesh filled Magthrum with a yearning that eclipsed the memory of the hermit’s leg meat he’d just finished.

“Surely da time for skulkeeng and bideeng our time ees past,” Gribthore said, warily lifting his head above bench height again.

Magthrum growled in response. He was thinking. The rusty cogs in his former gin-trap mind turned ever so slowly these days, but that did not mean he was beyond resourcefulness. “How have the Dragon Riders responded to the sabotage of their latest construct?” he said, when a strategy did not present itself.

“The bridge? As expected,” Gorespike replied. “They blame the Cuscosians.”

“Do they plan retaliation?”

Gorespike shook his turnip-like head. “In time perhaps. But Nalin did not report any outriding today.”

Magthrum grunted again. His Kaldoran Rockclave remained silent, knowing better than to interrupt their Fellchief’s thoughts. After several minutes Magthrum cocked his head, listening. “The rain falls heavy above,” he said.

“It ees a storm that will pass,” Gribthore replied.

“No. The thunder cracks louder than Belthraim’s hammer and the air seems … electrified.” Even though hundreds of metres of limestone separated Magthrum’s hordes from the open air, his preternatural Kaldoran hearing detected the sounds acutely.

“To the surface,” he said. “Something is afoot.”

The sound of tankards slamming down accompanied the Rockclave’s departure from Magthrum’s chamber. They moved as a pack, like rats scurrying through the upwardly sloping tunnels.

By the time they reached the entrance to their stronghold, a black rain was pounding the rocks with the fury of a stallion herd.

“See the sky,” Gribthore said in awe.

Magthrum observed anvil clouds roiling across a moon turned violet. Sheet lightning flashed across the blackness, illuminating Jagga’s Peak in the distance, and beneath it all he heard a drone-like hum emanating from a gash in the opposite side of the valley.

“What is it that rises from Spidersnatch Cavern?” Gorespike said, his toothless mouth hanging open.

As he watched, Magthrum regarded a raisin-coloured vapour reach across the valley towards them. Fear clutched his entrails along with something else — a lust for what that vapour’s tendril seemed to offer. It closed the distance with unnatural speed, permeating the air around the Kaldorans.

“Retreat below,” yelled Gorespike.

“Too late,” Magthrum said, breathing in the energised cloud. As he did so, a sensation like that of an irrepressible fist closed over his mind, followed by the lifting of confusion. For the first time in many sols he could think clearly again, yet his cognition seemed tinged by a mischief and cunning beyond anything he’d imagined before, a diabolism even.

There, on that mountainside, Magthrum imagined at last how his desires could be realised. Kaldora could be great once more. Etezora could crush the Dragon Riders if she wanted, then he would strike at the distracted Cuscosians, and their haujen-queen would become succulent meat for his table.

~ ~ ~

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