Talon Stormbringer, Volume 1
Chapter 1: “The White Tower”
While most in Talendor slumbered, Talon Stormbringer crept through a hallway dark with moving shadows, his human ears and eyes alert. He’d already slipped undetected past a jhaikan and a mynx, undeterred by their ferocity and taste for man-flesh. Even the dozen sleeping riven in the courtyard hadn’t given him pause, though fully armored knights would have turned away. The little monsters were infamous for stirring at the slightest sound, waking to become a whirling dervish of steel. Talon had been known to unleash the same from the sword gripped in one hand.
Now he heard nothing, not even his own passage, the supple black leather pants and tunic he wore never squeaking as he crept toward the doorway and his prize. The gold figurine of a great bird of prey, said to be magical and worth a fortune, awaited. Stories in taverns had piqued his interest but had also warned him of the dangers. The greatest of those was the wizard whose white tower he now prowled. Some said Viland Shadowbreaker enjoyed unsavory habits when few were looking, his public persona of benevolent charm masking a dark truth.
Talon reached the open doorway at the hall’s end and peered in. Four torches cast their light along the walls. He shook his head at the obvious trap. No one would light so many torches for a room that held nothing but a pedestal, upon which sat the figurine, light glinting off its golden curves. A room without a lock much less a door could ensnare only a fool. And each of the earlier dangers he’d passed had offered an easy way around for a skilled thief like himself. The question was why Viland wanted to capture someone. Talon didn’t intend to find out.
He sheathed his sword, then slipped a light rope from his waist, fashioning a loop on one end. Lassoing wasn’t a skill he had spent much time mastering, but at the fourth attempt he managed to get it around the statue. A gentle tug, and the loop tightened. With a quick jerk he brought the figurine flying through the air to him. He deftly caught it and deposited it into a cloth sack. He hefted his sword, and with a smirk, turned back the way he had come.
“Astiana mer,” said the silky, sophisticated voice behind him.
Talon froze more at the magic words than at the realization that a man was there. He tried to turn again but found that he could not. For all his strength, he could neither move his arms nor the powerful muscles of his legs. Like a statue he stood, imposing in his might, steel-gray eyes smoldering with indignation. The breeze from a near-by open window did not stir the golden hair around his broad shoulders, even though he felt the wind on his face and heard it crackle the torches that sent his shadow down the hall. Joining that shadow were two others—one tall, one short—as quiet footsteps approached from behind.
“Don’t worry,” said the man. “It’s temporary. And you can still talk.” When Talon didn’t speak, the wizard sighed and said, “Mer astiana.”
Suddenly freed, Talon squeezed his sword, flexed his limbs, and weighed some options. Quick as he was, his blade would never reach the wizard before another spell stopped him, for no sword could fly faster than words. And while the taller shadow was likely the wizard, he had no idea to whom or what the other shadow belonged. He had to know before launching an attack. Besides, he could hardly assess foes with his back to them. He slowly turned around, scowling.
A black-robed, balding man stood beside the empty pedestal, a reassuring smile on his swarthy face. Perhaps he was a Marulan from across the Antaran Sea. But Marulans were thought to be mostly savages, their skins as black as their deeds, and not wizards with an air of sophistication and opulence. The man did not have an accent that Talon could hear. The long face, nose, and limbs matched what Talon had heard from stories. The dark eyes of Viland Shadowbreaker observed him coolly.
Beside Viland stood a karelia, all four and a half feet of him covered in dusky black plate armor, the sigil of a flaming sword emblazoned on his chest. Black hair swept back into a tight ponytail and pointed ears accentuated the impression of efficient speed, which drew Talon’s eyes to the sheathed, curved sword at the karelia’s hip. For a pleasant species, he seemed uncommonly sinister, the delicate features at odds with the cocky menace upon them. The translucent lorenia lines, which all karelia were born with, streaked across his cheeks as if fleeing the blue eyes toward his jugular. That the lines faintly glowed blue told Talon that something supernatural was still at play here, or he would have been unable to see the lines from five paces.
“You are brave to release your hold on me,” Talon said, testing Viland’s grasp of the situation.
“No games, warrior. You were smart enough to use that lasso, and you’re smart enough to know I can kill you long before you reach me.”
No kerr shit, thought Talon approvingly. He had little patience for fools. “So what now?”
“You’ve passed my test and—”
“How is being caught a success?”
“That figurine is only a lure to test the bravery of the ambitious. Few will attempt the perils to reach it.”
The swordsman shrugged. “Your dangers weren’t that dangerous.”
“I don’t need heroes, just uncommon men. You’ll do nicely.”
Talon’s eyes narrowed in annoyance. He didn’t care for being someone’s pawn. That he had fallen into a trap, despite knowing it existed, also grated on his nerves. “For what?”
Viland raised a hand, palm outward. “In a moment. I am no threat to you. I give you my word that, if you refuse my offer, I will blank your memory of this night and drop you on a ship bound for Llorus, rather than kill you.”
“Sounds like a lot of trouble.”
“It’s less trouble dragging your living body from my home than your dead one. I would rather avoid attention. Besides, I am not a murderer. And I assume you’d prefer not being killed or seeing a Solon Judge after your theft. Now, if you’ll accept my offer?”
“Let’s hear it.”
From his pocket, the wizard pulled a small vial of brightly glowing, silver liquid that cast dancing shadows around the room. “This is silver elixir, one of the most potent elements on Llurien. I need more. You will get it for me.”
Talon suspected the dangers of doing so were far worse than losing his memory, but he’d never heard of the stuff and wasn’t sure he wanted to know what people did with it. “From where?”
“The Ever Pathways.”
Talon snorted. “They don’t exist. I may be young but I don’t believe in children’s tales.”
“Yes, you are young. Eighteen winters?”
“Not even that.” Even years earlier, his size and bearing had often inspired assumptions that he was a man already. If that meant making his own way and being no stranger to the finer delights of women, he qualified.
“Maybe that accounts for your bravery. You’ll have need of it. I assure you, Everland is real.”
“And so is the Ever Fiend?” Talon laughed. “I conquered my fear of him at three.”
Now the karelia spoke with condescension that was clear despite the almost child-like pitch of his voice. “Your fear will return if you catch sight of him.”
Seeing that Talon was unimpressed, and unconvinced, the wizard said, “Being prepared means knowing the truth. Lies and illusion raise your risk of failure. I don’t want more damned souls wandering the Ever Pathways. They’re an obstacle to my designs.”
He spoke words of magic and stretched out one hand toward Talon as if to grasp his forehead from afar. Talon took one step back before the room disappeared and his mind’s eye filled with visions. A dark landscape with stormy clouds and eerie light. A black tower precariously perched beside the crumbling edge of an enormous crevasse, mist rising from its depths. Stunted trees with bone white trunks beside a pool of shining liquid. Shadowy figures furtively moving just out of sight. And a robed, hooded figure that suddenly appeared between them, sending them fleeing with shrieks of terror.
The visions stopped and Talon realized he’d raised his sword. The karelia’s lorenia lines glowed brighter than before but faded as he watched. Talon lowered the blade and asked, “How do I know that these visions are not an illusion?”
Viland replied, “Once you enter the paths, you will see.”
Realizing he would get no further, Talon asked, “And what do I get out of this, aside from keeping my memories?” Nothing of great importance had happened recently so that he was desperate to recall it, but allowing a wizard to tamper with his mind didn’t sit well with him. That Viland had already done so without his permission strengthened Talon’s resolve to prevent it from happening again.
“Anything you find on the Everway is yours to keep,” said Viland, watching Talon’s eyes drop to the vial, “but you may not take some of the elixir for yourself.”
“What’s to stop me?”
“It can only be contained in vials made from Ever Sand, and you will return the ones I give you. And then there’s my sorelia.” He nodded at the karelia beside him and any trace of amusement fell from Talon’s face.
The sorelian race, though physically identical to the karelian species to which it belongs, is malevolent whereas the karelia are benevolent. Sorelia use the supernatural skills granted by the gods for dark purposes. They keep to themselves apart from the rest of Llurien, holed up in the Sorelian Forest not too far north of Talendor. Talon had never seen a sorelia before, at least that he knew of. Perhaps the sneer should’ve made him realize.
That Viland had a sorelia working with him suggested that the stories of his nefarious living were true. Sending a sorelia into the Ever Pathways could only bring evil on the world. Maybe Talon needed to ensure that this mission failed and that he escaped with his life. There was no telling what this wizard would do with the silver elixir once he had it. Having his memory wiped now almost seemed like the better alternative than getting involved with this, but then Viland would just get another man for the job. Talon didn’t want someone with far fewer scruples than himself helping these two. He might’ve been a thief of late, but he only stole from those who could afford to lose what he took. That reminded him of something.
“You want me to risk my life,” Talon began, “for the chance to find discarded baubles on the Pathways?”
“A bauble here is a prize there,” Viland answered smoothly. “Anything magical left inside for too long becomes enhanced, and even ordinary items can become special.”
Talon’s eyes narrowed. “The place is chaos, the rumors say, as is everything from there.”
The sorelia grinned without humor. “He is smarter than he looks,” he said. “Indeed, warrior, Everland is chaos. Do not put on any armor or clothing found inside or you might never remove it. Weapons, however, are often advantageous, albeit hard to predict. Still, the danger is to the one struck, not to the wielder.”
“I don’t need the help.”
“Suit yourself. He’s Nyborian,” the sorelia remarked to Viland, referring to Talon’s hometown a week’s ride northeast. “The accent is subtle, but I hear the influence of the wagon peoples of Lorne to the east.”
Talon pursed his lips. He didn’t like anyone knowing too much about him, though little could come of that. The wizard seemed to feel the same way, having shrugged indifferently until he noticed the claw on a leather cord around Talon’s neck. Then he perked up and remarked in surprise, “Talon Stormbringer. I should’ve recognized you sooner. I’m delighted. Your reputation precedes you.”
“As does yours, Viland Shadowbreaker.”
Talon had hoped to keep his name to himself while in Talendor, a city that was twin to the kingdom’s capital, Illiandor, across the bay. Beyond that lay Nybor, where he’d lived with his parents until a jhaikan killed them; Talon had killed the beast and taken a claw to remember them by, then fled the memories. Someone had since seen the claw around his neck and called him Talon. The name had stuck, but he should’ve dropped the surname. Too late now. He had no family left in Nybor, and the brotherhood of knights to which his father had belonged didn’t need to know about the dishonor he had brought upon his father by stealing for a living. Hopefully they’d never find out.
He asked the wizard, “If you need someone brave, why not send your pet jhaikan from the courtyard?”
“It’s not real, for one,” Viland replied, “but the Ever Fiend has a special hatred for jhaikan and that would invite trouble.”
“As if this whole mission doesn’t.”
The legendary Ever Pathways could transport people from one place on Llurien to another in days instead of weeks, but few travelers made it out alive, and those who did had often gone insane. The karelia had eventually invented the Moon Gates to use the Ever Pathways at such speeds that one could traverse Llurien in an instant and bypass the dangers, but some still used Everland and the Ever Gates, such as the wizard standing before Talon now, black eyes glittering with forbidden knowledge.
Viland smiled. “The riven were also an illusion, but the mynx was not and will accompany you.”
Talon raised an eyebrow, unsure the large feline could handle the terrors of Everland. “Battle trained?”
“Yes. Few animals have the courage to enter the pathways, but this one is unique. Noren here is his master.” Viland nodded at the sorelia, who smirked.
Taking an animal, however tested, into a land of chaos didn’t seem smart, but he had killed a rabid jaegar once and didn’t doubt he could do the same to this mynx if it got out of control.
“You accept?” Viland asked, eyes gleaming.
Talon sighed. “When do we leave?”