Thursday, June 22, 2017

        The Mourna stretched her wings in the dead night and honed her beak against the ancient stones for what must have been the hundredth time. Nissa stood on the central tower and craned her neck to see beyond the horizon. Initially all that greeted her almost human eyes was the black night in a clear eastern sky and faint icy stars. Had there been anything left of her heart, it would have broken. Crippling loneliness had turned her emotions to stone long ago, so that now all she could feel was a kind of soft pain and a thud of emptiness.
        Where is Dornarth? Why has he not returned? She scanned the horizon with those odd eyes and took a deep breath. If Dornarth dies, there will be only one of us left—me. The thought sparked something deep within her like satisfaction. Perhaps it is better that way.
        The Mourna had flown to the tower because of the starling dreams. She had dreamt she was a child again, a human child. Dewy grass had cooled her tiny pink feet and a garland of wild korfra had crowned her golden hair like jewels. It was a happy time, a time of innocence, a springtide of youth.
        How did it happen? How did I become this monster? Oh, yes, now I remember. It was an attack by night, the screams of her mother and father, the sudden silence—the blood. Then he came. Sirdar, the madman, surrounded by his servants, the giant ebony sasarans with their shining black horns, the laminia with their hideous mouths, and a shadow of fear, the daligon. How old had she been? Six? Seven? Nissa did not know or care anymore. All she had known then was fear, then later pain, and still later complete degradation when she woke one morning forever encased in the body of a grim and deadly bird.
        Nissa looked at the wings where hands and arms had been and the taloned claws that were once running feet—human feet.
        How she hated him. How she loathed him for the creature he had made her—and yet, how faithfully the Mourna had served him, as they all had. Her mother and father who died early, her brother who went mad and threw himself from this very ledge, the villagers and royalty of Cortaim, each tortured, broken, and then enslaved by the touch of the catalyst and Sirdar’s compelling persuasion.
        Sirdar said only the most worthy would receive the gift: a nightmarish existence as the black Mourna. That honor went to twenty-five of them. Sirdar created the horrors in the far north and then waited until he could force a human spirit into the feathered monsters. He tortured them into submission, so they could release the deadly cry of the creature’s voice, fill the blank eyes with human fire, and bring to life the lump of ice that served as a heart.
        Yes, they had all served him—and hated him.
        Then he had fallen, had died under the mountain. They were free from his corrupt touch. Their joy was short-lived. People hunted them like the atrocities they had become. They knew no better. One by one, the Mournas fell to the blades of revenge, until deep beneath the blackened waste of Mt. Cortaim, starved, weak, and beaten, the final six hid from sight.
        Season after season passed, and over the long torment, four more died. When the master returned, only two remained—Dornarth the Warrior, and his mate Nissa, the Weaver of Enchantment. When Sirdar came before them with renewed strength and demands, they tried to rail against him—tried to fight the words, the voice, the compelling command of the red fire—but they could no longer resist his will. Again, they served him.
        Nissa could not decide, even now, whom she hated more—Sirdar or herself. She had wanted to live, even if it meant a half-life in the shell of a perversion. No, she thought again, I hate him more. It was the only thing that kept her alive.
        “Do you despise me so much, my pet? Have I not been kind to you?”
        Nissa bowed her head low and closed her eyes to the shadow that had appeared at her back, terror seizing her heart. “Forgive me, master. I did not hear you approach. What is your command?” It was everything she could do to keep the spite from her voice.
        “You can answer my question, Mourna.” The finely manipulated tones of Sirdar’s voice made Nissa cry out in pain. “Do you hate me so much?”
        The Mourna cursed herself for not guarding her thoughts. “Hate you, sire?” She did not lift her eyes for fear they would betray her. “You are my lord, my master. How could I hate you?”
        “It is well to remember that, my pet.” Sirdar then chuckled. “Keep your hate, Nissa. It will serve me, as all things do, in the end.” He crossed to the stone railing and leaned toward the east. “You seek news of Dornarth, yes?”
        The bird lifted her head and regarded the demon’s back. “I was wondering when he would return, my lord.”
        Sirdar folded his hands and the crimson hood tilted. “He will not return. But you already knew that.”
        The Mourna stared at the dark sea, her voice as fragile as spring ice. “Yes, sire. I suppose I have always known.”
        There was a sadistic glower in the eyes that sparkled from beneath the cowl. “Does it bother you?”
        Nissa twisted her neck and blinked at the sky, trying desperately to dig up some emotion from deep within her numbed existence. She knew there should be sadness, loss, or even hopelessness, but those feelings were as foreign to her now as dewy grass on naked human feet. There was nothing left in her—only hate. “No,” she answered flatly. Sirdar’s cruel chuckle
        His voice chocked to a stop abruptly and he staggered back. It was the first time she had ever seen fear in those blazing red eyes and it terrified her. “Quickly, Nissa, take me to the Tower,” he said harshly. He jumped to her back and clung to the feathers until her eyes watered. She leapt into the air and took him high above the castle.
        When they landed on the landing before the tall tower, he stumbled to the railing like a drunkard and stared out at the sea. Uncertainty trembled in his hands as they rested on the ancient stone. The daligon appeared as a shadow behind them and rushed to Sirdar.
        “Master!” the shadow hissed urgently. “I felt…”
        Sirdar leaned against the railing and intently watched the horizon. He spoke fiercely under his breath in a language Nissa did not know. Then, for a long time he stood very still. A small breeze lifted from the east. As it picked up speed, Sirdar swayed to its rhythm. In a startling movement, he brought a black-gloved fist hard against the stone railing that shattered the ancient granite.
        “No! I am not ready!” Sirdar cried at the stars. He put a finger to his lips and thought for a long time. He finally whirled on the shadow at his back. “What strength have we left in reserve?” he spat at the daligon.
        “Nearly three-quarters, my lord,” the shadow whispered. “They prepare for the final attack.”
        “How is our progress on the field?”
        The daligon moved closer to Sirdar. “Would you have me speak truthfully, lord?”
        Sirdar’s eyes flashed brightly and the cloud surrounding his head swirled in violent eddies. “Do you imply the reports are false, demon?”
        The shadow lowered before the hooded Sirdar. “Not false, sire. However, your generals are perhaps more optimistic than the facts warrant. The troops move the humans back, yes, though slowly, mere inches in days rather than leagues, as they should. There is a captain among them, a westerner named Sark DeMontaire. He drives his people with hope and fills them with such strength of will, everywhere he appears the humans sing as they fight. The idiot laminia flee from his bright eyes and many southern humans have deserted our ranks to join the Thrain scum. Wherever he rides, he cries the emperor’s name and his soldiers take up the challenge until the field rings with the noise.
        “Lord,” he continued urgently in that dark whisper. “If I could have your leave, I would take half of those that yet remain and march them against this cur from the west. We will trample him under our beasts’ hooves to capture Thrain. I would deem it a personal honor, my lord, to rid the Palimar Plains of this menace Sark, whom I am certain would flee like a frightened mongrel at my approach.”
        “You think so, daligon?” Sirdar said quietly. “Then you do not know this mercenary or the master he serves so well.”
        “You know him, my lord?”
        “It is the breed I know; the hero who fights for what he thinks is right, then finds in the end it is all for nothing, save the vile taste of honor.” Sirdar’s bitter words robbed the air of substance for a moment, and both creatures gasped for breath until his rage passed. “We have little time, watchman. I will give you what you wish…indeed, more. Release all that remain tonight and smash them down!”
        “All, lord?” the daligon hissed. “That would leave Cortaim without protection.”
        “It will matter little, daligon. You will do as I say.”
        The shadow bowed low. “Immediately, my lord.”
        “Now,” Sirdar said to the shadow, but regarded Nissa, “that boy, the one Balinar said the deinos captured. Where is he?”
        “We still have not been able to locate him,” the daligon replied. “We suspect he must be somewhere east of Dru. I can send the tarsian out again to search if you wish, sire.”
        “No,” Sirdar replied thoughtfully. “I will attend to it personally. How long will it take the soldiers to reach the Palimar Plains?”
        The daligon remained silent as he calculated. “From here, lord, a fortnight, perhaps a day or two longer.”
        There was no passion in Sirdar’s smoldering eyes. “You have fifteen days, no more, watchman. Do you understand?”
        Again, the daligon bowed. “Yes, my lord, fifteen days. With your permission, I must make haste to the camps.” Sirdar nodded and the daligon rushed down the wide ramp, disappearing into the night.
        Nissa returned her master’s gaze and lowered her head. “What is your command, lord?”
        Sirdar ran a gloved hand seductively along her neck, sending a repugnant chill through her spine. “A special task for you, my sweet, to prove your loyalty.” She looked down at him and those crimson eyes narrowed. “No, I do not trust you, but I do not need to. After you take me on a small errand, you will fly to the Isle of Dru. If you succeed, we will reunite you with your lost humanity. What would you do for that?”
        Desire flickered unguarded through her mind. “Anything, my lord,” she whispered.
        Sirdar pointed to the east. “You are about to witness the end of many things. After you have watched, then give me your answer.”
        On the horizon, looking like the rosy haze of sunrise, a faint light began to shine. The hour was too soon for dawn. She suddenly realized what it was, a pillar of fire rising in the sky.
        “You witness the fall of Sanctum, Nissa, the fall of wisdom, knowledge, and the last hope of peace for these people. You also witness the destruction of Dornarth your lover, Balinar the Heretic, and Palarine the old fool. An era has passed, my pet, and a new world is about to emerge. The Sight is born tonight.” The unbridled fervor in his voice startling Nissa. “Watch well. For a force has awoken in the world you will never see again. Trenara will be mine—all of creation will be mine—and Joshan will fall to darkness, as the island has. Light will be gone from the universe forever. Such is my revenge.
        “I now ask you again, Mourna. What would you do to become human, faced with only eternal darkness?”
        Great tears formed in her cold, almost-human eyes for the first time in twenty seasons, but she did not speak. “What will you do, Nissa?” he breathed into her ear.
        “Anything, my master,” she whispered.
        Sirdar’s voice was as cold as death. “Then this is what I command…”
        As the light faded, a great rolling thunder of drums echoed across the valley floor beyond Cortaim, heralding the troops that would march to crush the empire.

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