Authors: Gregory J. Downs
Song of the Aura
A Novel by Gregory J. Downs
This book is dedicated to
The memory of:
Four men who had the spirit of fantasy,
And used it.
Chapter One: Mirrorwave
Time was short. Too short.
The two Striders and the three guards buried their fellows under the four great arches leading towards the Inkwell. Each grave was marked by that man’s sword stabbed into the turf at its head. The draik was left to rot and rust- none of them would touch it.
Gathering what they could from the piddling amount of rations and water left untouched by the draik’s attack, they sorted the remnant into five packs, one apiece for the survivors. Then they set off into the morning mist for the Zain encampment they hoped to find on the shore of the Endless Ocean, led on only by Byorne’s memory and the occasional sight of glittering water miles ahead of them.
By mid-morning the fog had cleared and the sun shone brightly on the travelers down between the mountains. The ominous depression Gribly had felt since Lauro’s unexpected announcement the night before lifted enough for him to question the prince about it.
“What do you think, Lauro?”
The thief snorted. “You know what.”
The prince was silent for a few moments as they hiked up a particularly rough patch in the old road. Once at the top, the five survivors could see that they were no more than three miles from the edge of the Inkwell. In the distance rose a number of indistinct dark shapes that could have been anything. “Zain,” he heard Lauro whisper hopefully.
“That doesn’t answer my question, princey. You saw the Pit Strider, so you tell me- why did it have my face?”
Lauro turned slowly, shielding his eyes with one hand as he scanned the horizon. Finally he lowered it and stared at Gribly for a while. “I don’t know,” he said at last, “I just don’t know.”
“Whaddya mean, you ‘don’t know’? You
it- or him- or
, whichever it was!”
The prince shrugged uncomfortably. “It seems fanciful, now. I don’t know why I thought it, it’s just that… well… He didn’t just
like you, he
“Correction: He fought much better than me.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I hope you’re not just saying this so you have a reason to get rid of me when we reach the water-nymphs.”
“No! Of course not!” the Wind Strider seemed horrified at any such question against his honor.
“I’m saying…” the prince paused in the middle of his sentence, narrowed his eyes at Gribly, then started up a new one. “Say, Grib… do you have any
?” This earned another snort from the thief.
“I’ve already told you the answer about five times since we’ve met: No. A gypsy raised me and I’ve never met my… oh.” The thought suddenly struck him as particularly appropriate. He
ever met his parents- or any brothers, uncles, cousins, whatever- that he might have.
“Go on ahead,” Lauro told the three silverguard. “We’ll catch up after we discuss this new development further.” His crisp, military tone elicited a quick bow-and-salute from each of the guards, who headed off as one down the hill, hoisting their shields across their backs and trudging forward with nary a complaint. The two friends followed some distance back, out of earshot.
“So you think I may have a brother or relative who pit strides and attacks innocent travelers in his spare time, eh?” Gribly smiled ruefully. “That’s justice for you- a brother thief and a brother sorcerer. Just who you wanted to know before you got crowned king, I wager.”
Lauro didn’t change his expression at all, besides frowning a little deeper. “I don’t exactly know if it’s true, but yes- it would make a certain sense, would it not?”
“I just said so, didn’t I?”
“…I mean,” the prince continued, ignoring him, “That I wouldn’t be surprised if you were stolen as a child instead of abandoned. That somewhere you have a family… people who can Stride just as well as you.”
For some reason that made Gribly sullen and quiet. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he snapped. “And besides, I stride sand, not fire, or ash, and I can’t make little flame demons out of coal.”
“But you might be able to if you knew how,” protested the prince.
“I don’t want to talk about it. Ask Wanderwillow when we meet him,
we meet him, if it’s so important to you.” His tone was blank and low, but it stopped Lauro from inquiring further. Quickening their pace, the two young Striders soon caught up with the rest of the party.
About midday the ragged band tramped out of the mountain eaves and onto a wide band of pebbly sand that ran to the edge of the water. The blotches of color they’d seen from the Arches of Linolen were indeed the dwellings of the Zain; apparently the survivors had been spotted by the nymphs, who sent a greeting party of equal number out to meet them in the middle of the beach.
“Greetings, travelers of Beyond,” called the tallest nymph as the two groups approached each other. His hair was light brown and wavy, flowing back from his head like the sail of a ship, bound by a silver circlet with a white diadem on his brow. His gaze was steady and his speech kingly, if a bit odd. A blue tunic and bound sandals gave him the appearance of a simple peasant, but Lauro knew better. His circlet identified him as a cleric, as did the slim gray staff with an unlit candle affixed to the top.
“Greetings, holy one,” the prince returned, placing a hand on his heart and bowing low. His companions repeated the gesture behind him, carefully imitating his composure.
“There is One who is Holy, and He is not I,” replied the nymph cleric, frowning. His companions, shorter but dressed in serviceable leather armor and carrying javelins, hung about uneasily.
“My apologies. I meant no disrespect,” Lauro assured him. Gesturing to Gribly and the three silverguard, he explained their plight. “My men and I hail from the lands south of here. We journey with all haste to Grymclaw, bearing news of trouble and a plea for advice to the Aura rumored to make his abode there. Our party is much diminished after an attack last night, and we would seek aid from your people if you can spare it.”
“We have not had news or sight of our allies from Beyond for some time. The mountains have been barred to travelers for many cycles of the planets. Have you proof of friendship with the Zain?”
Lauro was at a loss until Gribly piped up impertinently from the side. “We were guided by Byorne the half-nymph.” The cleric turned his head slowly to gaze at the thief.
“Know you Byornleo Hallifar, the Longstrider?”
“If it is the same man as brought us this far, then yes,” the prince told him.
“Then where walk he now?”
“Nowhere.” It was Gribly again, fumbling in his pack for something. “He died in the attack on our camp, only last night. He gave me this, with a message to deliver it to Wanderwillow when we met him.” Out from his satchel he brought the wood and metal contraption Byorne had passed on to him. Gingerly holding it in his hands, he stepped forward to allow the Zain cleric a closer look. One of the nymph soldiers moved to intercept him, but the cleric stopped him and took the device carefully from Gribly.
“This comes from the Longstrider.” He said at last, “But it tells me not how it came to you. If Byornleo is truly dead, then tribulation will not far off be… Tell me, how did such a mighty ranger such as he perish whilst you, young one, did not?”