XVI. The Tower
The Meridian; 26 April, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
It was only late April, but already it was far too hot to be standing in the sun with a full suit of armor. Unfortunately, Nassiir had little choice in the matter. King Toorre had ordered for him to stand lookout atop the tower, and so stand there he did, even as he got baked alive in his own armor. It had rained a little just after lunch, which was a mercy, but now the sun had returned with a vengeance. His hound, a large black beast he had affectionately named Daisy, sat by his heels, panting heavily in the heat. She, at least, was not being slowly roasted inside a man-shaped tin. Nassiir wondered if his fellow guards posted at the gates were faring any better. The monks hadn’t been very happy when the king had insisted on posting his guards everywhere, but the Elyrians had no objections, so long as they could post their guards in the same places.
The Elyrian posted with Nassiir was an annoyingly talkative one who belonged to the Verdant Warden. “It’s blisteringly hot, isn’t it?” he asked, taking off his helmet to fan himself with his hands.
Nassiir only looked at him. He was sitting in the scant shade afforded by the parapet, sword laying carelessly on the ground, rather than standing at attention as a guard ought.
“Not much of a talker, huh?” asked the Elyrian. He leaned back against the wall. “Say, what do you suppose all them Lords are talking about in there?”
Nassiir didn’t know, and he wasn’t entirely surprised to hear that the Elyrian didn’t know either. It was strange that the Lords Paramount had decided to meet with the Elyrians so suddenly when the two nations had been enemies for centuries. The last time such a meeting had occurred, they had still been allies, fighting side by side in the Revolution, but well, they hadn’t remained allies for very long after that. Something had gone horribly wrong at that meeting—there were whispers of a young man who had died—and Nassiir could only hope that nothing would go wrong this time. Between the Lords Paramount and the royal family combined, there were only perhaps two dozen guards in the Ajjraean delegation. Nassiir wasn’t sure how many guards the Elyrians had, but he had seen enough of them milling about that he was sure they had at least as many. If a fight broke out, there was no telling who would win.
“I’m not looking forward to the summer, if it’s already this hot,” said the Elyrian. He unclipped a flask from his belt and drank. “Do you think your dog wants some water?”
Nassiir glanced down at Daisy. She was panting very hard, and her ears drooped more than usual. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, thank you.”
The Elyrian walked over and bent down to give Daisy a pat. He poured some water out into his palm, where Daisy eagerly lapped it up. “Do you want some water too?” he asked Nassiir, holding out his flask.
Nassiir hesitated for just a moment, then took the flask. “Thank you,” he said. He took off his helmet. The fresh air felt nice against his sweaty scalp. He only meant to take a sip, but he was so thirsty that he couldn’t help but chug down half the flask. “Sorry,” he said as he handed back the flask.
“Hm? Oh, not at all.” The Elyrian was gazing out to the west, squinting against the light of the sun. “Hey, do you see that too? Or is the heat making me see things?”
Nassiir followed his gaze. “Are they yours?” he asked.
The Elyrian shook his head. “No,” he said, with a look of rapidly dawning horror. “Oh gods, there’s more of them, to the east.”
Nassiir turned. The Elyrian was right. “The Lords,” he said. “Go. They need to be warned.”
The Elyrian didn’t need to be told twice.
Nassiir’s hand went to the alarm horn at his belt. His fingers fumbled with the clasp for a moment, then he brought the horn to his lips and blew.
Captain Fiino arrived in a heartbeat. “What is it—” he began, but then he turned to the horizon and saw it:
Armies, rapidly encroaching, to surround the Meridian from both sides.
The Meridian; 26 April, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
The meeting was not going well.
Lord Syncrest had attempted to begin the meeting by recounting all the various cultures who had some variation of the Harbinger myth, but Queen Oliina quickly cut him off with a scoff.
“We all know how the legend goes,” she said, crossing her arms. “There’s a being known as the Harbinger who is destined to destroy the world.”
“Yes,” said Syncrest, “but there’s more—”
“It doesn’t matter what these long dead civilizations had to say,” said Lord Roniin. “What matters is what we do about it now.”
“And what do we do about it now?” asked Oliina.
“We destroy it,” said Desmina. “If the Harbinger is born of Hallowed blood, then it is our responsibility as Hallowed. It was one of the few points of agreement at the last summit.”
“But we never decided how,” added Avenel. “I wasn’t present at the time, but—”
“And most of us weren’t even alive,” said Lord Thanriiel, “so pardon me, but it remains unclear to me how we know the Harbinger threat is real at all.”
“If you don’t think it’s real,” said Khassan, “then why are you even here?”
Thanriiel looked about to answer, but King Toorre cut him off. “I was in the room at the time,” said the king, “as was Lord Desmina. The threat is real.”
“I meant no offense, your majesty,” said Thanriiel, bowing his head. “I only meant to ask how we can be so certain when all we know of the Harbinger comes from legend.”
King Toorre and Lord Desmina looked at each other. “We know more than mere legend,” said Desmina. “It was kept off the record, but there was a visitor at the last summit. Not a Hallowed, nor an Ephemeral, but…”
“An angel,” said King Toorre. “A messenger from the heavens.”
Murmurs of confusion filled the room. It took until Toorre thumped on the table with his fist for the room to quiet down again.
“We are aware of the absurdity of the statement,” he said, “but it is true.”
“She came to warn us of the consequences if we fail to stop the Harbinger,” added Desmina. “The way she spoke to us, we knew it was the truth. We just knew.”
“And what are these consequences?” asked Lord Thanriiel.
“The extinguishing of the sun.”
Murmurs around the room again, this time of alarm.
“Quiet!” shouted Toorre, thumping on the table once more.
“At the risk of stating the obvious,” said Lord Syncrest, “nothing can grow without the sun. Nothing can live.”
“Yes,” said Desmina, “hence the end of the world.”
Lord Roniin rose from his seat and walked to the window, to gaze out toward the sun in the west. “The severity of the situation has been made abundantly clear, my lords,” he said. “And one has only to look at the sun to see that the legend is true. The question remains: what do we do about it?”
“I don’t suppose our predecessors at the last summit left any advice?” asked Thanriiel.
Desmina shook her head. “We meant to decide on a course of action, but the meeting was cut short by… an unfortunate circumstance.”
“‘Unfortunate circumstance?’” asked Toorre. “One of your men killed one of ours.”
“In self defense,” said Desmina.
“So he claims,” countered Toorre.
“I knew the man in question,” said Desmina. “He would never have attacked someone unprovoked.”
“You forget that the man who was slain was our own brother!”
More murmurs around the room. “I thought Toorre’s brother was slain in battle,” said Pellena to the woman beside her.
“Me too,” replied the woman. “I didn’t know he was even at the summit.”
Avenel cleared her throat. “If I may,” she said, “the grievances of the dead can wait. We have a more urgent matter at hand.”
Desmina closed her eyes. “Yes, you’re right, of course. None of our grievances will matter if the Harbinger succeeds.”
King Toorre still looked angry, but he nodded his agreement.
He was about to speak when a horn sounded somewhere in the distance, long and low.
“The alarm?” asked Prince Greoore, rising from his seat. “Here?”
Before he had time to say more, the door was thrown open with a bang. A guard was standing there, whitefaced and panting. “A-armies—” he managed, before a crossbow bolt from somewhere to his left found its way into his side.
Oliina screamed. Half the room reached for their swords, only to realize they had no weapons. A moment later the aggressor appeared, crossbow already loaded again and ready to fire, but Avenel was quicker. She grabbed Ildora’s pen and flung it across the room, where the nib buried itself in the man’s throat. Blood and ink alike spurted out as the man collapsed, his crossbow falling to the ground beside him.
Everyone moved at once.
“Let the King through!” shouted a guard. “Make way for the King!” They had gathered around King Toorre, unapologetically shoving everyone else aside as they made for the door. Itiina was being shepherded by her own guard, but she craned her head to look for her husband. Greoore moved immediately to Garthniiel’s side, but the younger man waved him away. “Take care of Mother!” he called over the din. “I’m fine!”
“Mother has her guards,” replied Greoore.
“So do I,” said Garthniiel. “Go, just go!”
People were stepping over both the fallen guard and his attacker, disregarding whether either was still alive. Lord Ildora’s husband had picked up the fallen crossbow, his other arm wrapped protectively around his wife. Lord Hiikov seemed to have inflated, pufferfish-like, in his panic. He was stuck in his chair, two guards and his son trying to pull him out, blocking the way for those trying to get past him. Across the room, Lord Sylari looked about to faint, but Zachariah put her arm around his shoulders to carry her weight. Syncrest was trying to gather his notes and papers, even as his assistant tugged insistently at his arm. Desmina and Roniin stood by the door, both barking orders to their people, using their height to be heeded over the crowd. The Brother by the door, bewildered, was trying futilely to maintain some semblance of order.
Vallus grabbed Deena by the hand and pulled her through the crowd. “Avenel!” he called. “Avenel!”
“I’m here!” called Avenel, weaving between a pair of terrified looking Ajjraeans. She took Deena’s other hand and held it tight. “Stay close.”
“W-wait,” stammered Deena. “Morven, where’s Morven? He was right next to me.”
“Desmina’s people will have him,” said Avenel. “Don’t worry.”
In the chaos, they joined the exodus crowding out of the meeting room and down the stairs. Someone stepped on Deena’s foot, and someone else brushed past her shoulder. There were so many people, too many people; where had they all come from? Had there been this many people in the meeting room? Avenel was gripping her hand, so tight that it hurt, but Deena’s palms were sweaty, her fingers – Avenel adjusted her grip, but Deena couldn’t see her anymore, only feel her hand on the other side of someone large who had stepped between them. There were people behind, too, pressing against them, pushing them forward. Deena tripped, losing her balance, falling into the person in front of her even as the person behind her pushed still harder. She was being crushed, being suffocated in the throng of bodies, and the only real thing was Avenel’s grip, Avenel’s fingers. She must not lose her, she mustn’t, she had to hold on, but her hand was so so sweaty, and—
“Ah!” Someone knocked into her, and the tether was broken. “Avenel!” called Deena, but she could barely even hear herself over the din. She tried to turn, to find her, to find Vallus, to find anyone, but the tide of people was pushing her forward, buoying her along, and she had no choice but to follow. She was human driftwood, in a human sea. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t—
It was Vallus, his hand just barely catching her fingers. “Hold tight,” he said, and Deena complied, taking his hand in both of hers as he pulled her through the crowd. She thought she might get trampled as the crowd descended the stairs, but at the first landing they pulled away and down a blessedly deserted corridor. “Follow me,” said Vallus. “We’ll find another way down.”
Deena nodded. Sounds echoed to them from somewhere out of sight: indistinct shouting, the clang of metal, and the sickening squelch of flesh being rent.
“Stay with me,” said Vallus, glancing back at Deena. He was still holding her hand, his other hand flinging open doors at random in his search for another path. Deena’s stomach churned, and it was all she could do to keep from vomiting, but that was fine—her legs were moving of their own accord, following Vallus down the corridor.
There was a loud noise, and the floor shook beneath their feet. Someone screamed, and it was only a moment later that Deena realized it was her. Vallus quickened his pace, and Deena ran to keep up, only to trip over something warm and soft lying on a red streak on the floor. A few feet away, there was an unsheathed sword, and Vallus picked it up as they passed.
They rounded a corner, and suddenly they were face to face with a bloodstained man. Deena screamed again, but it was only one of the monks. “Non-combatants are in the cellars,” he said, and they followed him to a narrow, twisting corridor hidden behind a door. The noises from outside echoed across the stones and inside Deena’s head until it became just that: noise. It wasn’t real, none of it was real, and the only real things were the nausea in her stomach and the rhythm of her feet on the ground.
“Deena!” The world snapped back into focus as she was pushed to the ground, just as an arrow flew past overhead. At the end of the hall was a woman with a bow, and Vallus charged at her, cutting her down before she could notch another arrow. Deena closed her eyes, only opening them again when Vallus returned to take her hand. A chunk of something pink slid off the end of his sword, but there was no time to be sick.
They found a stairwell, at last, and hurried down as quick as they could. There was a bundle of bloody rags and scattered prayer beads by the wall, and Deena did not allow herself to wonder at who or what was beneath it. Boom! The tower gave another shudder, and suddenly dust and rock and debris were everywhere. Something hit Deena on the back of the head, and she fell, rolling down the steps until her fingers managed to find purchase on a splintered banister.
A hand reached out to grab her by the foot. Reflexively, she kicked, and it was only when the hand recoiled that she saw the owner: a guard – she couldn’t tell whose – with legs buried under a mountain of rubble, his armor dented and bloody. “Help me,” he begged.
“I—I don’t—” began Deena, but she didn’t have an end to her sentence.
Vallus hurried forward to pull her to her feet. “There’s nothing you can do for him,” he said. “We have to go.”
Obediently, Deena followed, and behind them the stranger began to wail. She covered her ears, her hands pressing as tight as they could, but it was no use, she could still hear him, and when she closed her eyes she could still see his, wide and terrified and pleading.
“I’m sorry!” she cried. “I’m sorry!” She screamed it again and again, until she could no longer hear the stranger’s yelling over her own, until she could no longer hear him dying.
It was only when her throat was too hoarse to yell that she noticed the monk who had been with them was gone. A part of her thought to wonder where he had gone, but a part of her thought she knew.
The steps ahead were blocked, the wall having collapsed into the stairwell. Vallus took her hand and they retraced their steps, back to the last floor they had passed to look for another way down.
She no longer knew which part of the tower they were in, but it no longer mattered because everywhere was chaos. Vallus flung open doors, looking for another stairwell, swearing when he found nothing but disused furniture draped in sheets. There was a scream from up ahead, and then Morven appeared, clutching his wrist, with an unknown soldier at his heels. The soldier lurched forward and slashed down with her axe, but Vallus caught the blow with his sword before running the blade through her belly.
“Thank you,” said Morven. There was blood seeping through his tunic. “I—I got separated from Grandmother’s guards.”
“Is there a way out behind you?” asked Vallus.
Morven shook his head. “It’s a dead end.”
They retraced their steps again, and this time turned down a different corridor. They were forced to slow their steps, to not trip over the debris or slip where the floor was red. When they finally found a stairwell leading down, Morven descended first, followed by Deena. Vallus followed last, but before he could close the door, a crossbow bolt sank itself into the mortar just beside his ear.
“Go,” said Vallus. “I’ll hold them off.”
Deena didn’t wait to be told twice. She took Morven’s hand and they ran down, down, down—
She turned. Morven had stopped. He was standing a few steps above her, staring down at a lump on the floor, eyes wide.
The lump on the floor gave no indication of having heard him, or of being capable of hearing him at all. From where she stood, Deena could only see the back of the woman’s head, hair wet with something dark, and a single pale hand dangling over the steps.
“Come on,” said Deena. She took Morven’s hand again, and he gave no resistance as she pulled him along. “We have to go,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do for her.”