The Heartstone Chronicles

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Chapter 1

The Heartstone Chronicles: Windchaser - Prologue

By MICHAEL FRASER | Published: January 26, 2011

- Prologue -

The human memory can do strange things to the past. It can bend and colour, magnify or minimise, and the memory can alter truth the way that stained glass alters light. But since the past can never be repeated it can never be offered up to our edition, and so the memory, no matter how flawed, remains flawless…

From “The Learnings of Synamus Treacher”, Vol.1

The night smelled of cooling blood. A sour, deathly stench swirled within the shadows like the fetid breath of an underfed wolf, predatory and hungering. The Windchaser paused upon the overgrown orchard path, a silent sentinel flanked either side by scores of apple trees that had long since shed their last blossom. His nostrils twitched as he caught his quarry’s scent; the beast was close, hunkered down in the darkness, watching him, analysing him. The stinking wind tugged at his coat tails as he crouched low and traced his fingertips through the grass, feeling the sickly residue smeared upon the ground by the creature’s passing.

He could feel its eyes upon him but refused to give it the satisfaction of acknowledging its presence. Twice on the trail it had attempted to flank around behind him, but on both occasions he had quickened his pace and almost caught it, steering it towards the orchard. Now that the beast found itself with a river at its back and a Windchaser before it, all that was left was the fight.

He wiped the mess from his fingers and looked up towards the Shrine. The cold, grey-white stone seemed to glow in the light of the twin moons, casting long black shadows as deep as the Ulgathan Pit. He touched his fingers to his heart, then his brow, and finally his lips – a salute to the eight Saints honoured by the ancient site.

A cloud swept in, smothering the moonlight and plunging the orchard into absolute darkness. The Windchaser remained motionless, at one with the night, listening above the rustling branches for any sound of movement. As the clouds broke, he narrowed his eyes and rose to his full height. He was tall and broad, clad in charcoal leather trews and a pale shirt beneath a long, double-shouldered greatcoat the colour of rain clouds. A dark sword appeared in his hand, its wide blade a torch of shadow. In the fleeting, sporadic light that dripped down between the storm-blown clouds, he waited patiently for the creature to show itself.

The wind dropped and a current of palpable tension suffused the air as silence descended like a blanket. The last of the moonlight was snuffed out once again, the absence of both sound and light throwing a restricting prison around the night itself.

The faintest of noises penetrated the stillness: the slither of smooth skin against grass. The Windchaser cocked his head, attempting to identify the sound. Visibility was restored as a spear of cold luminescence suddenly pierced the clouds and from beneath the shadow of the old shrine, the daemon crept.

Its body was humanoid; lithe and sleek, pallid green in the pale light and streaked with dark veins. Its face, however, was entirely bestial: the eyes were soulless black slits, the mouth too wide for its skull and filled with serrated teeth. Spines adorned its smooth cranium, shining wetly in the gloom; its muscled arms ended in three-fingered hands equipped with black claws as long as daggers, and its slim legs were built for speed and power.

With hollow eyes the daemon regarded the man standing tomb-still and shin-deep in the long grass, and began to move slowly and deliberately around him. It emitted a low growl, rhythmic and menacing – the Windchaser knew it was speaking but he cared nothing for its sentiments. He had not pursued it for two days to bandy notions with it now. He took one step away, bracing his weight against his back foot, holding his dark blade out to one side. It was an invitation.

The daemon accepted.

With blistering speed it leapt towards him, its wicked claws closing in as its legs propelled it through the grass. The Windchaser reacted with a grace and swiftness that should have been rendered impossible by his build, dancing one step to his left, the sword dragging a swathe of blurred shadow behind it as it sliced the air. He felt the blade bite and tear free, and he spun with the momentum of his strike to follow the daemon’s arc as it hit the ground in a tumbler’s roll. The Windchaser smiled in the moonglow when he saw a rising curl of black vapour seeping from its shoulder. Injured now and more cautious than before, the daemon moved back a step.

It tilted its head as though sniffing the air, slinking gracefully sideways like a prowling cat before leaping again. Arius darted into the daemon’s path and slashed his blade upwards; now as the sword cut into its chest, the daemon howled. It tumbled to the ground hard and rolled to its back, legs kicking frantically as its torn chest pumped noxious smoke into the night. In response to the billowing vapour Arius drew up his threft, covering the lower half of his face with the mesh-like mask. He watched the scrabbling daemon carefully, poised to react. Fight or flight would come next – but how much fight did it have left?

Moon shadows danced across the creature’s flesh, glinting where the dull, grey-green light caught an oozing drip of moisture. It became suddenly still and Arius narrowed his eyes. When had playing dead ever worked? He lowered his shadowsteel broadsword, the blade folding in on itself until a strip of shadow no thicker than a foil disappeared beneath his sleeve. ‘Lie there then,’ he whispered. ‘I shall burn you instead.’

He unclasped one of the small, square compartments on his utility-belt, but even as his fingertips brushed the cold glass orb within, instinct erupted inside him. Before the daemon had regained its feet, Arius was stalking towards it, the shadowblade back in his hand – but the beast twisted in its rise and raced away, its long legs driving at the dirty ground. He retracted his blade, threw back the right drape of his greatcoat and snatched the windcannon from the holster on his thigh. Arm extended and braced, he sighted down the flat barrel, thumbed the converter and squeezed the trigger embedded in the weapon’s grip. Bucking in his hand, the cannon whirred, spitting out a bolt of white-hot air that cut the night cleanly, tearing a coil of shimmering wind in its path.

The daemon’s back exploded, the force of the impact pushing its torso over its galloping legs and driving its head into the dirt. It lay twitching and squealing, less than two metres from the shadowed trees that surrounded the orchard. A moment longer and it might have escaped.

Holstering his windcannon, Arius came abreast of the fiend and his blade slid free, whistling down. The head bounced twice, spewing black steam. He reached into his greatcoat to produce a small rounded prism, which he held above the daemon’s corpse, dragging every wisp of daemonic essence into its crystalline depths. When the prism was sated, the withered, semi-tangible husk that had housed the daemon’s soul for two days began to desiccate and harden, crumbling like sand. The wind took it, scattering it into the night, leaving only a dark, greasy smear upon the grass. A smaller stain a yard away marked the ground where its head had lain.

The darkness of the night sky was deepening with the coming rain, and a cool wind whistled out from the sanctuary of the trees, cutting a flickering scar through the dead grass. The breeze carried with it a voice and Arius spun, blade once more at the ready.

‘Neatly done, Captain, though one would have expected a cleaner kill.’

Facing the newcomer, Arius retracted his shadowsteel weapon and tossed the prism. ‘They are faster than they look, Your Grace,’ he replied.

Eldebart Gennen caught the device deftly, raising it to his single, ochre-coloured eye for a closer inspection. ‘A hunter-daemon, was it not?’

‘Aye, it was a kolarant. I found its Hellspring at the northern edge of Venhim.’

‘And went out of your way to track it, despite the urgency of my summons? As thorough as always.’

Arius shook his head. ‘Not particularly. I merely herded it here and trammelled it between myself and the river.’ He watched as Lord Gennen continued to examine the device, turning it this way and that in his three-fingered hand. His cyclopean race – the dru’un – were naturally shorter than humans, their arms elongated, frames slight. This one’s skin was the colour of burnished copper, his one-eyed visage mostly concealed by a heavy black beard.

‘This will fetch you six platinum ren – I will pay you once we reach Lothos Par.’

Arius smiled. ‘I trust you, Your Grace.’

‘Ah. High praise indeed.’

As a Windchaser of some standing in the House, Arius had spent plenty of time in the company of Eldebart Gennen, but the dru’un magicker still had enough quirks to keep even his friends guessing – if, indeed, he had any friends at all. Magickers were often viewed with suspicion, and not only was Lord Gennen one of the most powerful Luveers in the land, he was also the High Chancellor of the Arcanum Council, a position of great political sway. Add to this the racial prejudice that still existed towards the dru’un and it was plain to see why Lord Gennen did not easily engender trust. ‘You summoned me here, Your Grace,’ Arius said after a moment. ‘Might I know the reason?’

‘All in time, Captain Jhaydn. All in time. You have earned six hundred ren for honouring my summons – be thankful for all that comes to you.’ The magicker concealed the prism within the folds of his heavy violet robes and moved towards the Windchaser until he was standing beside him, looking along the length of the orchard path. ‘Is it not beautiful?’ he whispered, his sepulchral voice thick with awe.

Arius followed Gennen’s gaze, even though he already knew what he was referring to: the Shrine of Saints, standing in proud decay at the farthest end of the orchard, a colossal carving of the eight canonised saviours of the Mortal Realm, seated together upon identical thrones. Time and the elements had worn so much of it away, yet still it remained, aloft, indomitable.

‘Do you still have faith in the Saints?’ Gennen asked him.

‘Faith? It is hard to have faith in anything in this day and age.’

In this day and age… Ah, you refer to the Weakness? I share your concerns, of course, but you misunderstand me. I meant: do you believe in what they stood for? What they still stand for.’

‘Freedom, hope, courage, defiance? Yes, I believe in these things – but I have little faith in any of them.’

Gennen laughed aloud, clapping his hands. The sound shattered an unspoken spell and the dru’un reached up to slap the towering human on the back. ‘Ah, I had forgotten what a joy you are to speak with, Captain Jhaydn. So simple, so intricate.’

Overhead the clouds broke and Arius threw up his hood as a deathly cold rain began to fall. Gennen took hold of the big Windchaser’s arm, turning him in the sudden downpour. ‘Come, shelter with me a while. This weather is no boon to my aging bones.’

Arius smiled, allowing himself to be led towards the Shrine. Once below the wide lintel the rain was a drumming patter, and he had to wonder at Gennen’s choice of meeting-place. Out of the rain-greyed night came the hoot of an owl, barely audible above the deluge.

Now in shelter, the magicker raised his voice above the growl of the rain and rephrased his question. ‘Do you believe that the Saints were truly heroes?’

‘An odd query, Your Grace, considering our surroundings.’

Gennen gave a wry smile. ‘Indulge me.’

The Windchaser shrugged. ‘Who knows? I’ve seen little evidence pertaining to their personalities. I know what everyone knows: the historians believe that they averted the complete destruction of Lor, nearly two millennia ago – that they saved the whole world. But it’s all wrapped up in legend now – the truth of it is long buried.’

‘The truth? Ah – that mythical beast. But what if I were to tell you that we have found evidence to substantiate their legend?’

Arius cocked an eyebrow beneath his rain-polished leather hood. ‘Go on.’

‘Not long ago, our Searchers made a discovery in the Celental Fields. Three ancient stone tablets, similar to the one found at Tallos Bar eight hundred years ago.’

Arius narrowed his eyes; the magicker now had his full attention. The historians and Searchers of the Arcanum Council had torn the land to pieces all over the subcontinent of Coriathir, erecting archaeological dig sites and field labs to facilitate their obsession with the era before the Eldarican Cataclysm, a disastrous event that had obliterated an entire civilisation and almost taken the rest of the world along with it.

Many strange things had been uncovered through the Council’s efforts: machinery now so worn and decayed that its purpose might never be understood, whole settlements that had rotted to their bare foundations, fossilised bodies, countless treasures, and shrines erected to the Old Realm Gods, whose influence and followers had departed the world of Lor millennia ago. Each of these discoveries provided months of conjecture and excitement, but none were of a quality high enough to serve as substantial bridges to the past.

The tablet found buried beneath the great tor known as Tallos Bar, however, was under almost permanent scrutiny at the Illuminus Tower. Arius had seen it once before. The eroded script carved into its face – once translated – spoke of a Weakness, a terrible malaise that would cause the very planet to sicken. What was frightening was not the Prophecy itself, but that it had largely come to pass.

‘The three tablets were found in a tomb beneath Celental, along with an embalmed cadaver, all but dust and ash…’ Gennen paused, seemingly for effect. ‘We believe they are the remains of Saint Aranaziel himself.’

Arius glanced upwards for a moment, picturing the image of Aranaziel carved into the shrine beneath which they now sheltered. ‘Surely not. According to all accounts his body was never found.’

‘New discoveries are made daily,’ Gennen snapped. ‘The writings on the tomb wall confirmed it. And the tablets interred with him? A cipher, with which to decode history.’

The rain had lessened but the wind began to rise, snapping at the drapes of the Windchaser’s greatcoat like an excited pet. He wanted to believe Lord Gennen – of course he did – but how could he? How could he pin any real hope for salvation upon a single find?

‘The first tablet,’ Gennen continued over the wind, ‘is a list comprising the names of all one thousand, one hundred and eleven Archangels who existed at the time of its creation. The second is a cryptograph – detailing the location of the Heartstone itself!’

Arius blinked against the rain, his mouth suddenly dry despite the damp air. The Heartstone… the large chipping of Heavenly coral carried to Lor by the Archangel Ryalac after the Cataclysm, an offering from the One God Himself with which to rebuild a shattered, self-destructive world.

The Heartstone had breathed new life into Lor, its raw energy – known as Allarei – restoring the equilibrium that the Cataclysm had destabilised. Ryalac had constructed a score of Reactors across the continents of Lor to channel the life-giving power of the Allarei throughout the entire planet. The residue of this process was called Essa, and it was from this energy source that magickers drew their power. The Weakness that had struck the Allarei in recent decades had spread through the Reactors, causing a breakdown in technology and a weakening of Essa-based magery – and it was believed to have originated at the source. The Council believed that if the Heartstone could be found then it could be healed, and the Allarei would be restored.

If this proved to be true then not only would all Essa-powered technology and magic be revived, but the Veils between Realms would be strengthened again, preventing the opening of daemonic Hellsprings. Even the planet itself would be renewed, and the spate of unnatural tremors and maelstroms that were currently ravaging the globe would finally be brought to an end. It was a lot to hope for – perhaps too much.

‘And the third tablet, Captain, is the final part of the Prophecy of Aranaziel, concluding the predictions he began on the first tablet we found. The completed Prophecy gives details not only of the Weakness – but of the cure…’

Arius looked sideways at Lord Gennen. ‘Cure? I had wondered when this conversation would swing around to fairytales. I’ve had this one read to me before – about some sacred child who will heal the Heartstone.’

Gennen raised a clawed hand. ‘I empathise with your apprehensions, but the truth is that this is the first historical find to speak of present day affairs. It proves beyond all doubt that the Saints were real people – that they existed, and saved us, as our annals suggest.’

Darkness descended for the briefest of moments as the rain clouds blinked out the moon. Arius had to admire the timing of such an occurrence. He lowered his voice, leaning closer to the magicker. ‘I recall also the darker side of such legends. Of the Daemon War that led to the creation of the Saints. What of those tales?’

Gennen considered his words. ‘We simply do not know,’ he admitted. ‘The Prophecy, now fully translated, speaks of an Amberchild, who will be borne to Lor from the Heavenly Kingdom of Shanduskala to cure the Weakness. If a pathway to Shanduskala is opened then other, darker pathways may be opened along with it. The Daemon-Gods would surely not shirk an opportunity to exact vengeance upon the descendants of the mortal races who defeated them. They have long memories – and endless patience ’

‘So, are you telling me the world is about to be saved? Or damned? From where I’m standing, either outcome seems likely.’

‘Yet, either way, something must be done. Hellsprings are opening with frightening regularity, unleashing fiends far worse than the kolarant you soul-trapped tonight. Add to that the earthquakes, floods and storms laying waste to the land, and it becomes clear that Lor is a world in grave peril. The straits we sail are dire indeed, if it is to a two-thousand-year-old prophecy that we must entrust our future.’ Gennen paused, perhaps allowing the gravity of his words to sink in. ‘There is to be a Summit of the Concordance,’ he said at last, ‘at the Greathouse in Lothos Par.’

‘Again? The mid-year Summit was less than two moons ago.’

‘This is different. All four factions of the Concordance will be summoned, two days hence. Rackyard is using the Call, beckoning all Windchasers to the city. By my reckoning, it will be the first time so many of you have come together since Unity. Your… friend will be summoned. Whether or not he chooses to attend remains to be seen.’

‘I was wondering when he would be mentioned. He will come – if he is made welcome.’

‘If he can elude the Paladins and their marshals, you mean?’ Gennen barked, his voice dripping with disapproval. ‘That it does your untarnished reputation no good to rub shoulders with that man should not need to be said.’

‘Then do not say it. Darkmalian is not so bad. Sometimes I see the good in him – or at least the potential for it, as you once did. There are few more accomplished Windchasers, and he remains untouched by Havoc when many others have fallen victim to it. It is hardly his fault he has darkling blood. The Concordance should save their venom for the Rogues, like Warwick Munmartyr – especially that one. Darkmalian has lost his way, that is all.’

Gennen sneered. ‘You saved his life, Captain Jhaydn. That is all. When that debt is paid, then you shall see his true creed. There is a reason he has spent these last three years banished from Lothos Par. Defending him does you no favours.’

Arius shrugged. ‘My choices are my own,’ he stated, raising a hand as Gennen bridled for further debate. ‘Now come, Your Grace, tell me why I was summoned here when I could have awaited the Call, like the rest of us.’

The magicker harrumphed, shaking raindrops from the various animal tails hanging from the belt of his robes. ‘The city is no longer safe. The walls not only have ears, but mouths to spread what they hear as well. The tablets will not be discussed at the Summit; they contain far more than I have revealed to you tonight. You will keep all that I have said close to your chest. Rackyard was informed of their existence in a similar fashion. And… I have a duty to ask of you. On the recommendation of Windchaser-General Rackyard, you have a part to play in all that is to come.’

‘Which is?’

Gennen turned to face Arius directly beneath the rain-beaten lintel. His single eye shone in the reflected moonlight, his flat, white teeth aglow. ‘Would you trust the Concordance to never steer you wrong? Would you accept a duty bestowed by them unquestioningly, no matter the cost to yourself?’

‘You know that I would.’

Gennen’s sombre tone almost belied the sentiment of his reply. ‘Good. I knew we could rely on you.’

Arius grimaced in response to the magicker’s words. ‘But you’re not going to tell me what I must do?’

Gennen’s expression became guarded once more, devoid of emotion. ‘Come, before this weather is the death of me.’ He stepped out into the steady rush, the rain pit-patting against his head and shoulders. He turned back once more. ‘All will be revealed, Arius Jhaydn of the House, at its proper time. Now, do me the honour of walking me back to the city.’

Arius smiled inwardly as he passed out of the lintel’s shadow and into the rain’s cold embrace. ‘Lead on, Your Grace.’

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