The Echo of the Elan
Karl fell to certain death. There was nothing to land on. This tower grew out of the precipice of rock that rose above the clouds, and only a long fall awaited them, and then something jerked at his waist and his fall stopped. He slammed into the tower wall with a grunt, followed an instant later by Tewfik’s own impact.
They hung almost on level with one another, on the far side of the tower, out of sight of Malasephus. The feallen must have tied the rope off before Karl crossed the bridge. If he’d seen them, Malasephus gave no sign. Karl hoped desperately that the legends were true, that if Malasephus ever left his prison he would become nothing more than a man, vulnerable to death. If they were true, it meant the fallen Virtue was bound to his tower and couldn’t cross to theirs.
With dread, Karl realized that Eurich’s body was still above them, lying on the tower floor. Tewfik must have seen the look on his face and guessed at Karl’s thoughts. He spoke barely loud enough for Karl to hear. "Hidden behind the parapet."
Karl saw the bronze handle of the Tok blade jutting out of Tewfik’s belt. The Feallen had yanked it out of Eurich’s chest in the last instant. Karl concentrated a moment, focusing on the blade as he deactivated the runes. Tewfik said he couldn’t feel them from more than a few feet away, but who knew how sensitive Malasephus might be. The sun would have to protect Eurich’s body for now.
The cold was bone numbing, and Karl thought he could feel frost growing in his joints as they waited for the fallen Virtue to leave. Though he couldn’t see the other tower, or its sole occupant, he could feel Malasephus’s presence. He remembered a hurricane that hit Jarick long ago, when he’d been an acolyte in the temple. When the eye passed overhead it brought a calm, but the storm clouds circled the city, casting everything in an ominous light, and the air felt heavy with the power of the storm. That’s what it felt like now, a storm on every horizon, and the certain knowledge the calm couldn’t last.
Karl knew it was foolish, but he wanted to look on the fallen Virtue. He’d seen one of the old powers, Fruur, when that behemoth attacked Jarick and took Eurich. To miss an opportunity to see one of the Virtues, even a fallen one, was something he didn’t want to miss. Karl gripped the rope and pulled himself up toward the parapet. Tewfik hissed a warning, and out of the corner of his eye he could see the feallen shaking his head. The climb was painful as his frozen joints protested, but they were only a few feet from the edge. Karl pulled himself up until he could peer over the wall.
The virtue had appeared naked, his back to them, which was fortunate. No doubt he had keener eyes than Karl, and might have seen Karl as he poked his head over the wall. Malasephus seemed unaffected by the cold, and from what he could see, the Virtue must have stood at seven feet tall, perhaps more. His arms and back were powerfully muscled, his skin without flaw. Malasephus turned, and Karl froze, terrified the Virtue had spotted him. He almost fell. Malasephus was perfect. It was the only word Karl could think of. His face was beautiful without being effeminate. His legs and arms were proportioned perfectly; his torso muscled without an ounce of fat to mar his physique. He was every inch a god, and Karl knew why men worshipped him. But there was something wrong. Perfect as it was, Malasephus’s features were marred. Karl studied the Virtue a moment before he realized what it was. Pain, the Virtue was in pain, and more, he was clutching his chest.
Had he been wounded? Was such a thing even possible? Questions raced through Karl’s mind, and he almost lost his grip. The Virtue stood still, gazing out in the distance. Karl slowly lowered himself back down, taking care to make no noise until he hung from the rope once more. Malasephus wounded, and what was more, as the fallen Virtue had stood facing him, naked on the top of the world Karl saw that he was also sexless. The god of lust was himself a eunuch.
How long they hung from the tower was hard to say. The sun blazed overhead, and Karl thought it odd that the sun was still somehow above them, that the mountains didn’t reach all the way into the sky. The sun tracked across a sky so blue it seemed like a vast shell of topaz rested over their heads.
Gradually, Karl found himself breathing easier, as if a weight had been lifted from his chest. Tewfik looked up and after a brief moment began to climb.
Karl whispered a question. "Is he gone?"
Tewfik nodded. "But we are trapped here, for the night at least. We have to get inside the tower, or we won’t survive."
The climb back up was slow and painful. His hands were numb, and his muscles ached. Once they were on top, Karl moved to Eurich’s body, almost frozen solid now, and worked the Tok blade back into the dead man’s chest, activating the runes that would keep his body preserved from the Beckoning.
He turned to face Tewfik, who was chipping away at the ice that sealed the trap door.
"Throwing us over the edge was reckless. You could have killed us both."
"But I didn’t. Would you have preferred to meet Malasephus? Some would consider that an honor."
Karl couldn’t help but laugh. "You sound like Sep." And then he stopped. "Do you think he survived?"
Tewfik didn’t answer right away, and Karl moved over to help chip away at the ice. After several minutes, Tewfik spoke without looking up. "I felt the runes he was carving; more powerful than any runes I’ve ever felt, and then suddenly nothing. No one has ever escaped the dungeons of Malasephus. Sep is dead, or worse. If you ever see him in this world again, have your Tok blade at hand."
Karl nodded grimly. "I would that he could have had a better life. All he knew was hate. He was filled with it. I saw so much of Paeter in him, and after what happened to Paeter, I feared even more what Sep might become."
"Paeter was the man whom you followed, the leader of your Tair who came into the Forest with you?"
"He was a vile creature. I was surprised my master let him go. Nothing filled with hate that enters his realm ever leaves again."
"So you say, but he let Paeter go, and Eurich, and me, and even Sep."
"Eurich was not filled with hate, only guilt. You are not as evil as you suppose, and Sep came to the forest against his will. It would not have been just to imprison him when he had no say in his coming there. As for Paeter, he was tolerated, and I was sent to watch you, well not you precisely. I was sent to watch Eurich and Sep. You, I inherited when you chose to follow them. "
"It was Eurich I followed, and Sep I watched, for fear of what he was becoming."
Tewfik stopped chipping at the ice and grabbed the iron ring of the trap door. Karl moved to help him. They pulled and Karl thought his arms would come out of their sockets before the door would budge, but with a horribly loud crack the ice shattered and the door flew open, throwing them both backward to the tower floor.
Tewfik was laughing, and Karl looked over in astonishment.
"Can you not feel it? Breathe it in, taste it Eurich. Here were the Elan in their glory, before their fall, before the Betrayal of Malasephus and the Judgment of Noss. There is power here still, and hope. "
"Hope. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen hope, Tewfik. "
Tewfik nodded. "It is the thing that drives us all, even the feallen. Hope for love, hope for a comfortable bed after a long day’s toil. Even hope for revenge. We all have hope, or we die, or fall to the lure of the Beckoning. Karl of the Tair, are you without hope now?"
"I was, when the feallen overwhelmed our camp, when Paeter was driven mad, when Malasephus poured the Beckoning upon my Tair in the broad light of day, hope died in me."
"Yet you went after Sep and Eurich."
"They were Tair, and I am Tair. I had nowhere else to go, and besides…."
Tewfik waited patiently, neither of them moving to enter the tower. Finally Karl spoke. "For some reason I never understood, I believed in Eurich. I have lived with the Tair for almost twenty years since I fled the temples in Jarick. They fight, they hunt the dead, but they have no hope of ever winning. Eurich had hope. And like I said, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen hope."
"And what of Eurich? Where did his hope come from?"
Karl laughed. "He believed in Sep. I never knew why. After he was taken I followed Sep to keep an eye on him."
"No, that is not why you followed Sep. Shall I tell you why Eurich had hope, why you followed him, and once Eurich was gone, why you followed Sep?"
Karl stood, ignoring the cold as he met Tewfik’s gaze. Pitch black eyes, but they held no power. Nevertheless, Karl could not tear his gaze away.
Tewfik spoke softly, but with earnest. "Sep was touched by the Virtues. I knew it when I first saw him. I dwelt with the Last of the Elan. I have seen the mark their touch leaves, and so I knew it when I saw it on him. There was more to him than his hate. It grieves me that he did not see it as well, it might have saved him. I don’t know what purpose they had for him, and now we never will, but it still gives me hope. Even in his death, it still gives me hope.
Karl had no answer, and Tewfik turned from him to look back at Malasephus’s tower. "Come, he may return."
They moved down the stairs, and in spite of the darkness, it was a relief to be out of the wind. Tewfik led the way, gifted by the sight of his people. As they went down, Tewfik spoke.
"They’re called the Pillars of Heaven. This one, called Etwa Ahhellena, the Path to Heaven, was built upon the spire, but the twin is cut from the living rock of the mountain. It’s why Malasephus can come to it without breaking the bonds of his prison and becoming mortal. I do not know its name or if it even has one. Both were built before his fall and the judgment of Noss bound him here. It may even be that he took this path when he was led to his prison."
"Then we’re safe for now?"
"I think perhaps, for a time anyway. He cannot cross the bridge, and I do not think he will send his servants after us, at least not right away. If Sep died quickly, he might not even know we’re here, not until he brings Sep back, and only if he can bring him back as a feral. Besides, I don’t think anyone has been here in a very long time, the power of the Elan still resonates in this place and I can feel no trace of the Beckoning here. "
Karl stopped at the import of Tewfik’s words. "How is that even possible? The Beckoning fills all the dark places of the world, it comes out at night. Every room, every cavern is filled with it, unless warded by runes. Why not here? Did the Elan work the runes as well?"
"Power came into runes after the Judgment of Noss, after the Elan vanished from the world. Besides, it takes a human soul to work runes. Perhaps the memory of the Elan holds the Beckoning at bay, or maybe it’s just because men never came here. Malasephus craves the worship of men, and where there are none there is no need to send the Beckoning. Whatever the reason, I think Eurich’s flesh is safe for now."
Tewfik was right. Karl could sense no pull from the Beckoning, not even the slightest echo, but there was something else. Much as Malasephus’s appearance had pressed down on Karl like a physical weight, Karl sensed something similar here, though less oppressive. It reminded him of apples in the summer, and the smell of growing things, sunlight and laughter. The feel of it on his soul was like the cold sweet taste of a mountain spring to a thirsty man. Unable to help himself, he wept at the loss of the Elan. If this was their echo, three thousand years old, what must they have been like at their height?
Karl felt rather than saw the stairway open into a larger area. It was pitch black, and he doubted even Tewfik could see anything. It was then he remembered the amulet Sep had always carried, a funerary stone in which a bit of sunlight had been bound with the rune whose name he bore. They’d hidden it away in a box made from the same wood of the scabbard that sheathed Sep’s sword, lest the great rune at its heart attract attention.
Karl stopped and opened the pack that had been Sep’s. He felt around for the smooth wood of the box, and after a few moments pulled it out. A faint light glimmered around the edge of the lid, and when Karl opened it, the light, faint though it was, hurt his eyes. He focused on the rune at its heart. Great runes were always active, always drawing on the force that gave them their power, but they slumbered, for lack of a better word. Karl woke the rune and fed his will into it. The stone flared, its light caught on a thousand surfaces and reflected back, and Karl gasped in astonishment.
From the outside, the towers were plain, weather worn pillars made of the same grey stone of the mountain side. If they’d ever been adorned, time had long since eroded it. But inside, the Elan had transformed the cold, lifeless stone into a memory of the things they loved. Gold and silver gleamed untarnished beneath the frost, glowing from the captured sunlight. Precious gems sparkled like a thousand stars, casting the light back in a myriad of colors. And everywhere the light fell, a soft glow was reflected back by the frost that covered everything.
The Gardens of Malasephus had been perfect in their form and artistry. Every leaf a perfect representation of what grew in the world above. There was no flaw in anything, for Malasephus had been the Virtue of artistry and to him had been given the task of shaping the form of every living thing when the world was made. He had imparted this to the Elan, and their skill was not one whit less than his.
The inside of the tower had been fashioned as a clearing in a forest, with the walls cut to look like trees in the distance. Birds perched in the branches. A deer peered out from the shadows of the forest, its eyes cut from smoothly polished ebony. An apple tree grew out of the stone on either side of the hearth; giant emeralds cut in the shape of fruit adorned the limbs of the tree to the right, and on the left, rubies.
Leaves of gold and silver frozen in an unfelt breeze as dew drops made of pearl clung to their edges. Overhead, constellations of precious gems adorned the ceiling, reflecting light from the stone. It should have been gaudy, but the mastery of the Elan, the gift of Malasephus, made of the tower’s inner forest, a thing of sublime beauty.
Spaced around the room were the boles of trees paired to either side of doorways, their branches intertwining over the dark openings that led to other rooms within the tower. It was a place of incomprehensible beauty and wonder, for where the Gardens of Malasephus had been crafted by a master too proud in his skill; the tower had been made as a tribute to the things the Elan loved.
Yet, for all its beauty something about the tower unnerved him. It felt familiar, as if he’d been here before, though that was impossible.
"Why did they build it here?" He spoke aloud, without meaning too, and for a moment he worried Tewfik would hear the unease in his voice, but the Feallen was busy trying to start a fire in the large hearth.
"Not for wealth, or glory, but simply for love of life. No forest could ever grow here, so they made one of stone and gem, of gold and silver."
Karl tore his gaze away from carvings and turned his attention to the fire. "Is it wise, I wonder? Where does the smoke come out, and will anyone see it?"
Tewfik shrugged. "I don’t know, but we need a fire. I also think we can cremate Eurich, if we can find enough wood. It will make our journey down easier. Let’s rest and maybe explore a little. This tower was built for people to come to, which means there must be a way down to the plains, and things to help us make the descent."
Karl nodded and moved toward one of the doorways, holding Sep’s light. He could hear the wind picking up outside as it played around the cracks and chinks in the stone, and it sounded like laughter from far away and long ago. Were the Elan laughing at him across the centuries? They had been the shepherds of all living things, the essence of life itself made manifest, but even they had fallen to Malasephus’s treachery. Was that why this place unnerved him?
No, that wasn’t it. There was something familiar, something that nagged at the back of his brain until it made his head hurt. He shrugged it off. He’d been through a lot these past weeks, and it was probably nothing more than nerves. He turned back to ask Tewfik if he knew anything about where supplies might be stored, and he froze.
He was standing in one of the doorways looking into the chamber. A powerful feeling of déjà vu swept over him. He had been here before. Not this place, not this glade on top of a lonely mountain peak, but another glade the mirror image of this one. It was impossible, but he recognized this place. It was the glade where he had found Eurich and Sep over a year ago.