Blades of the Banished - Robert Ryan

1. I See a Dark Tower

Lanrik watched patiently, but he did not like what he saw.

A cold breeze blew through the night, cutting across a dry and weathered land. It brought dust; the same powdery grime that had coated his boots, clothes and face for days. He tasted it in his throat. Or maybe that was fear.

He looked at Erlissa. The breeze tugged at the fringe of her hair, tossing thick strands before her eyes. She made no move to flick them away. She could not.

The flurry died, and the dust settled. Erlissa’s hair fell still. From afar, he caught the scent of cedar. The crisp smell was fresh and full of life.

Southward, the brooding shape of the Graèglin Dennath mountains bulked against the starry night. The cedar trees grew on their high and remote slopes. The final destination of their quest was somewhere among them, but that did not concern him now.

He curled a finger behind the lock of Erlissa’s hair and gently pulled it clear of her eyes. She had not moved for minutes. Placing a cheek near her mouth, he sensed no breath from her lips. Nor did he see any rise and fall of her chest. He felt her skin and found it cold.

But she had warned him of those things.

The trance was her idea, and he had begrudgingly agreed. It was nothing that she had learned from Aranloth. It was her seeker sense, the gift that she was born with that allowed this. But the lòhren had taught her other skills, and she blended them now, using them to delve deeper into her natural talent than she had ever done before. For to save Aranloth, they must not only seek out where his enemies held him captive, but also how. Assuming, of course, that he was still alive.

While they journeyed southward from the tor to the Graèglin Dennath, she had done the same thing several times. On each occasion the effort taxed her more. But the closer she approached the clearer her visions became. They now knew Aranloth’s location in the mountains. What they needed was a better vision of his surroundings, of those who held him captive and their means of doing so. Only with that knowledge could they hope to form a plan of rescue.

Her chest heaved for sudden breath. Her crossed legs, on which she sat, twitched. Then her eyes flicked open, but her gaze was distant as though she did not see him.

Yet still she spoke.

“I see the land,” she said. “It is barren. The bones of the earth stand tall. The mountains rise steep. Their jagged peaks, sharp like teeth, pierce the cold of the high airs. Wind shrieks over ridges and moans in the gaping mouths of ancient caves.”

She paused, and her body shuddered. Her eyes darted left and right, but they saw nothing of the camp where Lanrik sat and watched nervously. He reached out to hold her hand, and she latched onto him.

“I see dust and smoke in the air. And ash so fine that it barely exists. Yet it chokes my throat and burns. It burns like the sun, and the clouds, as though they are red shrouds, blaze in wind-blown trails across the fiery sky.”

As though in answer to her strange words, the breeze stirred again. Now, it blew from a different mountain and Lanrik smelled fumes and sulfur.

Erlissa paused, her breath ragged as she gasped at the dry air. But when she continued, her voice was calmer.

“I see smoke riding the wind, and white ash layering the barren ground. Rock and sand and withered grasses lie under a choking blanket. Everywhere is … despair. It is a dying place, full of misery. The land groans. Jutting from the mountains is a ragged peak. It thrusts its head above the clogging pall. It draws me. The land flows like a river. High runs a winding path. Far up the mountain’s shoulder is a ridge. Atop the ridge stands a tower – tall and dark and grim, made of black stone, dull and void of light like long-dead embers.”

Erlissa drew a deep breath. The air whistled in her throat.

“Long-forgotten sorcery hangs over the mountain like slow-drifting fog. It slumbers, quiet and restful, on the breast of oblivion. Yet still it might waken, if I am not careful. It is everywhere. The place reeks of it. And of death. And the tower is the beating heart of the age-old darkness.”

Lanrik wished he could help. But he felt powerless.