Ras Dumas – Prologue to Veil of the Dragon
Prologue: Ras Dumas
His black-spotted hands trembled as Dumas drained the cup. The wind and the rain buffeted him against the pale, cool stone of the parapet. But none of these things could quench the fire from which he suffered.
The sea roared against the jagged cliffs of the Karagas Mun beneath him. Within the safety of its dark arms, the bay of the river Shinaras waited still, reaching through the canals of the dead city. There the queer light of the storm gave life to its gray stones. They laid siege to the thin white line that cut across them like a scar.
Here, where their promise had been broken. Here, upon the very symbol of it, the stone wall built along with their towers long ago by the Forgotten Ones, the Evarun, the same ones who had abandoned them to its protection a hundred years ago.
The machinations he and the other Servian Lords had added to it were crude aberrations to its perfection. Seamless stone not cut so much as poured like a moment frozen in time. And it was.
The Evarun had abandoned no one. They had left them something, such a simple thing, such a fragile thing, but something. The Evarun had left them hope, and they had lost it.
In the torch-lit courtyard beneath him, amongst the stables and barracks, slaves and servants harried about despite the hour and the weather as they made the final preparations for his departure.
He had delayed as long as he could. The weather, of course, had helped him in this, but he could no longer ignore their summons. The Taurate and their Council had become far too suspicious of him already. There was no time left for doubt. But there was still time to do what he must. Because hope he had found again.
Dumas let the cup fall to the tower roof. Its chime rang muffled by the storm. He turned away from the battlement and descended through the small door set within the towers’ signal spire.
Darkness swallowed him. He leaned against the wall. His breath escaped. Shutters rattled against the fury of the storm. The dim light of his chambers waited for him below.
The eyeless skulls of beasts he had once thought dragons stared back at him over gold that had long since lost any meaning. His riches lay discarded in piles around the great table that filled the middle of the room. Dead candles still held down the corners of the parchment he had laid there. The cold wax, like amber, had captured objects from the table’s surface.
He hesitated for only a moment at the sight of the map before him. Pulling the quill free, he traced the still dry tip across the map’s surface, along the narrow mark that ran across its length from the place where his tower stood. The Line; the symbol of all they should never have forgotten, its signal towers empty, the promise of their warning lost as belief and memory passed.
From beyond its crumbled ruin, the one true Dragon had already returned. Veiled behind the silk and perfumed masks of the Taurate and its Theocratic Council, its reach had already spread throughout the Pale.
The Gorondian Wizards of old had served the Dragon well. They had been its priests, and it was said that the Taurate had been their reward, their vessel to continue their master’s rule over the Pale. But even if the wizards still lived, they were little more than husks, bent only to the Dragon’s will. Beneath them, the rulers of the eastern city-states which made up the Theocratic Council bent more and more each day.
It would not be easy to do what he knew must be done. There would be no stalemate in this. The end game had come.
Drawing forth a sheet of parchment, he dipped the quill into the shallow well of ink and began to write. The trembling of his hands had, to his surprise, left. The storm and the room faded as he fell into the runes that he traced across the page. Grace, he had once believed, had long since left him. He had not felt it in some time. He had not expected to see it again.
To those few literate people, the single word he scribed would be meaningless. Only those for which it was intended would comprehend. Only they would understand the promise that it held.
As he worked, hope flowered through him, the aches of grief, and of so many years fell from upon his shoulders. His eyes grew wet as a trembling sigh escaped his lips.
As he traced the final mark, the shaking returned to his hands. It had ended so soon, but he had felt it, and the memory at least of its peace remained.
But more would still be needed. The delivery of his message to those who would use it could not be let to fail. To do this, Grace would indeed need to come again.
Carefully, he rolled the parchment and lifting a candle to it, bound it with wax. Marking it with his seal he placed it in a small red leather tube, wrapping it again in oilcloth, and concealed it within his robes.
They were the only ones who could stop this. The very ones he had helped to destroy.
A harried knock hung upon the door. Dumas removed his hand from the scroll beneath his robes. “I said do not wish to be disturbed!”
The cherubic voice of Michalas returned to him uncertainly. “Someone has come, my Lord.”
Dumas caught his breath. Shame overcame him. “I am sorry. I did not know. Please, my child, come in.”
Dumas withdrew the cloth bundle containing the scroll as Michalas stepped through the door. Dumas knelt before the boy, the one who would save them. It was as he had watched the cruelty of his own legion set loose upon the boy’s village, as he had watched it set upon the child’s family, that he had seen the boy for what he truly was. Unafraid, even as the tears flowed down his face. To one who had once known it, the boy’s soul cried out with the trumpets of angels.
Dumas seized his hand. “I have something to give to you. It is what I have spoken to you about before. Do with it only as I have said, and until this is done, hide it well.”
Michalas hesitated. But then he took it. The mark of the Dragon which he bore bleached upon his brow like a crown scarcely showed beneath his dark hair. Michalas placed the scroll at last beneath his tunic. “I will.”
Dumas rose. The boy’s hesitation troubled him. “Say what you think.”
“The visitor, Master.”
“What of him?”
Michalas stammered. “I am sorry, Master. It is something you should see.”
Dumas stepped back. Apprehension drew its shadow across him. “What?”
“He is one of the Heretics, Master.”
Dumas felt his strength falter. He reached out to catch himself upon the wall. “How do you know this?”
“By his blade, Master.”
Dumas hesitated, as he felt again beneath his robes for the message that he knew he had already passed to Michalas. “Go now. Do what I have said. Let no one see you leave.” Dumas straightened. “I will see to this visitor and why he has come to me.”
Dumas exhaled as he listened to Michalas’ descending footfalls. The child would do what he had asked of him, and he would do so much more as well. His part in the prophecy would be unexpected.
Dumas’ thoughts spiraled downward as he fumbled for his cloak where it hung near the door. His hand lingered by the hilt of his sword. It leaned against the corner where he had discarded it. The gilt upon its scabbard had dulled since he had last borne it.
The man’s own sword had been left to him. If the visitor had been anything other than what Michalas had claimed, than this would never have been. A groan escaped him.
Dumas seized his cloak and descended the full height of the tower towards his audience chamber, taking the long spiraling stair with greater unease than usual. Beneath him, the dim light sputtered as torches died upon the fingers of cold air roaming freely, freed from the storm. He pulled his cloak tighter about him.
At the bottom of the steps, before the door to his throne room, a hollow tapping echoed amidst the shadows. Dumas stopped. He turned reluctantly to the familiar sound. The visitor would have to wait.
Magus’ silver mask glittered beneath the torchlight, his red robes draping his crippled form. His twisted wooden staff, luminescent from use, rolled gently between his gloved fingers as it rapped rhythmic against the floor.
Dumas scowled and straightened. “I see you have returned.”
The Mouth of the Taurate who came and went at the dark will of his master replied with what Dumas knew to be an obligatory smile, however unseen. It still left him ill at ease. The doll-like mouth of the silver mask held motionless as Magus’ sweet and caustic voice drifted towards him. “And I am safe as well. I see that your visitor is something to be talked about Master. Your position and that of the rest of the Servian Lords is tentative as you go before the Theocratic Council this time. You can dare not afford such talk there.”
Dumas turned away from him. “Do not concern yourself.”
“You underestimate the vulnerability of your position. The Taurate will certainly pose their questions of this to the Council. There will be whispers I am sure among them of the Dragons return.”
“The Theocratic Council and your Taurate both hold great power I know. But do not think that I am so blind as to not see their truth.”
“And what truth is that?”
Dumas tasted the hesitation upon his tongue.
“It is fortunate that I overlook such transgressions, my Lord.” Magus offered. “Do not think that there has not been talk among some, of perhaps, even your own heresy of late.”
Dumas turned away from him.
“Be wary of your comfort in this.” Magus confided. “Do not think that I am against you. I seek only your own protection, as well as the Taurate’s. I sense that this man may be more than what he seems. It is clear that he has come to bring you harm.”
“The Heretics for long now have only belonged amongst the dead.” Dumas returned.
“He clearly carries the Gossamer Blade.”
“Perhaps, but just as clearly…” Dumas grasped the pull of the door, “…until I am through with him, he is no concern of yours.”
Dumas slammed the door behind him and passed into the great hall. The eyes of the tower bored into him, even as the eyes of Magus and that which he served remained behind him, watching, and waiting. Dumas fell into the single gilded chair at the top of the dais. He signaled for the stranger to be brought in.
The central fire, newly rekindled, pressed back the palpable darkness. Glittering tapestries and gilt adorning the round hall concealed what had once been a sacred place. Furs and rushes hid the place where the stone seats of the Council of Twelve had once stood. So much had already been forgotten. So much had already been lost.
Dressed in bright clothes, their painted faces veiled against the plague which he knew already consumed them, the courtesans and scribes gathered around the edges of the chamber, drinking wine and whispering amongst themselves amidst the shadows, little more than whores and thieves. For so long, he had used them, as well as the trappings around them. Either to intimidate or impress, in the end they meant nothing. Now he saw only death when he looked at them.
A dramatic hush descended as the heavy doors above them opened. The centurion and two legionnaires in full hauberks led the visitor in, his hands bound. His shoulders sagged as they half carried him down the rightmost stair that curved down into the hall.
Blood matted the old man’s thick gray hair upon his brow, but his eyes, worn and deeply set, missed nothing as they swept across the room. His sword still hung from his waist, devoid of the scabbard, its bare steel bound by plain white strips of gossamer.
Spellbound, Dumas ordered him to be untied. The legionnaires withdrew as soon as they had done so, fear set deep within their eyes. The centurion lingered only slightly longer. Dumas smiled. The power of ignorance can be so strong, even for himself. It seemed that the ones he had sought had found him first.
“Tell me your name,” Dumas said.
The Servian exile did not reply, but instead moved his hand to the hilt of his sword, as a dozen cries rang out, along with just as many blades. Still, Dumas noted with wry skepticism, their hesitation as they placed themselves before him.
The Servian exile lowered himself to his knees, his head bowed, as he lifted the gossamer blade out before him with both hands. The blade gleamed like a lost jewel from beneath its covering as he set the sword on the rush-covered stone before him.
Dumas felt his breath escape him. He gathered himself. “I will not ask you again.”
“My name means nothing.” The Servian exile replied. “You need only know only that I have come to you, Ras Dumas, with a warning.”
Dumas felt the eyes of the host surrounding him. Irritation beset with doubt took over him. He could not reveal to the gathered eyes ears and tongues what he sought from the man who knelt before him, from his order whose survival he himself had kept secret now for so long. Why would they do this? But more than that, he could not take to safety the last hope that they held. “You will not decide what I need.”
The Servian exile’s stare did not waver. He straightened, growing it seemed, as he spoke. “The final stones of the prophecy have been cast. The Shadow of the Dragon has fallen. Once you led us. The time has come for you to lead us once again.”
Mingled gasps echoed around him. Dumas shook in disbelief. He stood from his chair. “I warn you. Do not speak words that are so careless here.”
“But it is a truth that you already know.”
Silence pounded in Dumas’s ears. Fear strengthened its hold on him. No. This could not be. Dumas slumped back into his chair. Perhaps he had been wrong. Perhaps indeed Grace had already passed.
The silence grew painful. The Servian exile’s all-knowing eyes looked through the very soul of him. Too many years had passed since he had felt the compulsion of eyes such as those. The press of his fever washed through him.
The Servian exiles’ voice brought him back. “Do you not still believe?”
Dumas motioned to the centurion. He had no choice. Not here. Not before them. His hope fell away.
The heretic smiled.
“Take him from my sight,” Dumas said. His voice sounded hollow and empty as it echoed within the tomb of his own failure.
The silence of the hall shattered as the heretic rose suppliant beneath his captor’s hands. His eyes still fixed before him. Dumas lowered his own as they took him away.
“Leave me!” Dumas said, breaking through the clamor of the voices. He raised his eyes to the sword that remained where the heretic had placed it. “Everyone!”
Dumas waited but a moment after all had left, before he fell upon the sword, clutching it to him through the fabric of his robes, cautious that no part of his skin might touch it. Bowing over it, he wept.
Stumbling to his feet, he seized a torch from the wall and staggered behind the throne, pulling away curtain and shadow. He held the torch out before him and entered the narrow passage, searching until he found the place where the floor descended to stair, leading down into a darkness against which his light turned feeble.
The white stone of the tower walls gave way to the bleak gray of its foundation as he descended, and the stairs themselves became little more than ledges in a crack that had been stabbed into the earth long before. Beneath him, he could feel its roots darken further as they neared the heart of the place upon which it stood.
The steps came to an abrupt end in a silent cascade of broken black stone. Feeling and sliding his way down from the mound, he thrust his feeble torch out into the darkness.
Nothing had changed. The evarish chair still remained where he had left it before the shallow of the well of the cenotaph. But its preservation there brought him no comfort. Comfort could not be felt here. But still, he had so often returned, to watch and to wait. But now it had come to him. He placed his shaking hand upon the back of the chair. The gentleness of its engraving pressed back into his hand.
His mind collapsed into a maze of remorse. Walls of fire and blood grew around him. The visions of everything he had done.
The chair toppled as he did. His torch and sword fell at the base of the cenotaph.
He succumbed again to tears. He held out his hands. The black spots upon them quivered, the Dragon’s poison turning within him.
A rhythmic hollow tapping sounded out behind him.
Magus waited at the edge of the shifting darkness, his bearing had straightened, the torchlight setting a fire upon his silver mask.
Dumas silently cursed himself.
Magus cooed from behind his mask. The air bent around him. The mask faded. The face of the Servian knight smiled from where it had been. But the eyes which had held him had passed. Only soulless wells remained. The mask shimmered back. “I am glad to find you here, Master.”
Dumas stiffened. “It seems I have come to wait for you.”
Magus reached down and lifted the gossamer blade from the floor, holding it leisurely. “Tell me. Do you know what damnation is?”
“I will play no more games with you!”
“I will tell you. It is such a simple thing, really. It is to have once known grace and then to have lost it.”
The ground shook. A scraping hiss sounded out from the well of the cenotaph behind him. Thin cracks opened between the stones of its basin. Black and acrid fluid bubbled forth, a darker shadow turning within its eddy.
Magus’s voice descended. “Do you see what I mean?”
The long black tendrils flailed around the pool in hungry chaos. Their voice, the voice of the Dragon, whispered its rage. He already knew it well, and as he looked at them, the full weight of his own guilt descended upon him.
They seized him, their touch like a thousand unseen blades. He flinched and bled beneath them. But he struggled for only a moment. He had struggled with them unseen for long enough. They coiled about him. Dumas wept once more.
They lifted him above the pool. He hung limp within their grasp. The world seemed both heavy and light, though his mind no longer swam in drink. The darkness itself moved, quivering with a sick anticipation.
Magus stepped beneath. Wings of a deeper darkness turned and billowed, stretching out behind him, wings that should not have been. Magus placed the point of the Gossamer Blade against his chest. Its cloth binding looked sullen. “If there ever was a time for fear, Master, I assure you that it’s now.”
The tip of the point pressed into him. Dumas tried to pull away. The warmth of his blood snaked down his skin. He strained to keep his wavering sight upon Magus’ silver visage, easier somehow now than the truth that it had hid. Magus did not serve. Magus was. Behind Magus, spirits of the other ten Servian Lords, bearing the arms of a hundred years before, waited for him. “Then take me. You still cannot have the twelve. Malius is already dead and beyond your reach. My loss means nothing!”
Magus, the Dragon, tilted his head. “Oh, far from that my love. It is the blood that is bound to the promise that was broken. And there is blood that yet still remains.” He gave a slight turn to the blade. “Did you really think that returning to the promise you had broken would help you? The time of its wielding has long since passed.”
The first of his blood touched the edge of the gossamer wrapping the blade, the mark of the promise he himself had forsaken. It passed quickly through it like a dike burst asunder.
Dumas sputtered. “They do not sleep as we did.”
“Do not fool yourself with your sudden change of heart. The time has come for recompense, and I have waited for this for a very long time. In fact, I suppose I should thank you and your kind for handing me the key to my return. Your weakness is predictable. It defines what you are.” A deep noise of satisfaction escaped the mask as the Dragon pressed in the length of the blade. The blood soaked gossamer which had bound it crumpled at the base of the blade.
Fire burned in Dumas’s chest, wrapping around his heart. Everything faded around him.
The lurid voice of Magus, the Dragon, pulled him back. “It is a joyful pity, the weakness of you and your kind. How ironic that it is your greatest and only strength. But oh, how you fear it so.”
The Dragon’s words echoed within him. The press of the vise upon his heart hardened. Darkness overcame him. With relief he heard more than felt, the creak of the press as it made one final, fatal turn.
The Dragon’s voice descended to a whisper. “No. Not for you. For you there will be no rest. Not even that offered by death.”
Then in the silence that was left a light from some unseen place descended upon him. The darkness at its edge struggled back, screaming as it did.
The softest of sounds came forth from the light. It was a voice, though no words came forth. Dumas smiled. He had not heard it in some time. It was the gentlest of laughter.