With the sun high overhead, the Woodlands of Liaport glowed with a solemn light. Any nearby Wrei sought protection in the darkness of sheltered caves and hidden shadows. Rantil started along the path leading eastwards to Laybar, knowing that, at least while it was day, he would be safe.
The path veered south; and soon, he was trekking through the wilderness again towards Shieef's cabin, which was waiting for him in the depths of the woodlands.
Rain from the previous night sparkled on the leaves of the trees, making Liaport look serene and alive with a magical life. Rantil kept onwards. It seemed strange to him that in such a place of corrupt darkness, beauty could rise and shine to the world. Flowers were in bloom, bringing colour to a part of Truaine that spent most of the year shrouded in a grey mist. But, as much as he wanted to, he couldn't relax and enjoy the peace for an uneasy weight on his mind.
The images of the dream preyed on his thoughts; his soul was tainted black.
No matter what anyone said, he still blamed himself for Putoko's death. It wasn't the fault of the demon that ended his childhood friend's life – it was his. He could still remember, even in waking thoughts, the eyes of the demon, staring through Putoko's bloodied eyes. He feared that this image, replying in his nightmares, had brought around this new, deadly-foreboding dream.
For months, the dreams had been tame. The voice that plagued his sleeping thoughts echoed through the room when he woke, but nothing more. Something had changed in the past few days, and suddenly, he was struck with panic and fear that these nightmares could be more than just a dream; they were a vision.
He passed through an open glade, where a few edapar cubs rolled around in the long, green grasses. They didn't notice him as he kept walking, and yelped and leapt through the barren grasses in joy. He pushed through the thickly leaved trees on the far side of the glade and ventured back out into the wild.
The sun was moving slowly through the sky, and by the time he spotted Shieef's cabin, sitting alone in the woods, it was nearly evening and the clouds were glowing pastel-orange from the descending light.
Shieef was standing with her back to him, chopping at something on a table beside her home. Her cleaving knife caught the fading sunlight as she scraped at the bones of a wild buckwri. He could hear the slather of its flesh and the tough grinding of its thick skeleton against the blade. She tossed a chunk of meat aside and onto the floor.
Rantil was about to approach her and make himself known, when a wild vunaki leapt from behind a stack of firelogs beside the cabin and began to tear the meat apart. It growled as it pounced around the flesh in some strange, unknown, animalistic ritual. Vunaki could be dangerous, and yet, Shieef didn't seem to react to it at all. It was only when the creature saw him approaching and started growling when she paid any attention to it.
"Shut up, yer stupid animal," she grumbled. "He won't hurt yer. Will yer Rantil?" She looked back over her shoulder for a second, to where he was standing, but quickly turned and continued culling the buckwri flesh from the bone.
"That's Soheter," she replied, reading his mind.
"That's none of yer concern," she snapped, lodging the carving knife into the table with a forceful flick of her hand. Quickly, she turned to face him. There were a few seconds when she stared at him, but eventually her anger started to fade.
"I need to ask you something," he began, by which time Shieef had moved closer, followed by the still-growling vunaki.
Her face was close to his now, and she kept a solid gaze on his eyes as though she was looking inside him for something deeper. Her warm, musty breath couldn't distract him from her prying eyes and eventually, she nodded, seeing something in him she'd been waiting for.
"It's finally time," she grumbled. "Yer wish to know about Ulmak."
Rantil stuttered. "Ulmak?"
She nodded and then instructed him to, "Follow me."
Soheter leapt up to the cabin door, and when he stood, oblivious to the fact Shieef couldn't reach the handle because he was in the way, she kicked him off the steps and back onto the ground. He hissed, but quickly followed her inside, getting under Rantil's feet as he did so.
The fire, in full blaze in the centre of the room, did nothing for the heat that already hung in the air. Soheter growled and hissed from on top of one of the crates, and forced him closer.
Shieef watched him look back wearily at the vunaki, and grumbled at the back of her throat. With a quick delve into her thick coat pocket, she threw some silver dust onto the fire, and immediately it died away into a handful of light, lapping flames. The heat vanished too, and a wave of cool refreshing air blew around the hut.
"Sit," she said, pointing at a nearby chair.
He did what she asked and sat down in the less-than-comfy wicker chair.
After fetching a few more things, she came to a final standstill on the other side of the fire. In the faint light of the remaining flames, he could just see her as she asked, "Tell me what yer know, from the beginning."
For a brief second, he didn't know where to start; there was so much to say. The light above the city, the voice he could hear inside his head, calling out for help, the demon General, the great stone sphere, filled the light.
What was the most important part of the reoccurring dream?
"Every night, I have the same dream, over and over again," he began. "I'm running through a city, far from here. But it's not me. I'm someone else. Someone in danger - in trouble. I'm there, with the demons, on their world... and I can see a rock, no a boulder, filled with light. Just like the Quilnar Mast, but... there's something different about it, the light looks ill, it looks unhappy." He paused, and looked to her, expecting her confusion to be evident. But she looked in concern more than anything else.
"So that's what he meant," she muttered to herself, rubbing her chin.
"Who?' Rantil asked. "Ulmak?"
Shieef nodded. "The rock you see in your dreams... it's called the Galithium Sphere. Only a few people know of its existence at all." She grumbled. "It contains the power of the universe and governs the laws of reality. With it, the demons could use it to leave Dremnor. I only hope we're not too late."
Rantil shifted in the chair, feeling uneasy. "But how could the demons've gained such power?"
"The Sphere is far older than yer can imagine, Rantil. And its fate was once destined to a far greater cause. It brought life to the universe; when there was nothing but gas and light."
As Shieef began explaining the story of the Sphere's creation Rantil was transported to another place. He could see, so clearly in his mind, the world she was creating. He could see the dancing patterns of light that floated without purpose through the never-ending void of space and the large gas nebulas that pulsed in time with the movement of light.
"And in a sudden explosion of matter, they collided together and were forced through a black hole. They were compressed into each other, and the Galithium Sphere was born."
His mind turned back to the rock he saw in the tower, on that forgotten world.
"When sentient life finally emerged from the shadows of the universe, they worshipped the Sphere. It was their God. It gave their icy home a breath of warmth and the cold finally gave way to heat. Animals and plants flourished in what would otherwise have been a baron world and waited to be tamed by those who saw the Sphere as their saviour."
Rantil could see a fantastical world through the eyes in his thoughts. The white stone of the towering pyramids glistened through streams that flowed across the rock, carrying water to the city in great viaducts. The land was lush and green, filled with flowering plants he'd never seen before. The sky was clear, and the people rejoiced to the warmth of the sun in a world without fear of the future.
But as Shieef continued and said, "But there were those who thought the Sphere was a curse," clouds quickly gathered and a layer of secrets and shadows washed across the land. The only light that could be seen, still shining through the gloom, was the light of the Galithium Sphere, sitting atop of huge stone plinth at the summit of the largest pyramid in sight.
Rantil felt his grip tighten on the armrests of the wicker chair.
"The power of the Sphere was quickly deemed unsafe. What if its power should fall into the hands of those who wished to do harm? And so, a group of men joined forces with the intent to destroy the Sphere. They climbed the steps to the Priesthood's Realm, armed with swords and minds filled with rage and destruction. Fer yer see, while the Sphere contained all the love and joy of the universe, it also contained all the hate, and anger."
His mind followed the men as they climbed the steps, and burst into the chamber where the Sphere was being held.
"Yer cannot have one without the other."
The Priesthood couldn't contain their rage and were slaughtered trying to protect what they believed was their god. Blood strewn around the room, the men advanced on the Sphere, sure that what they were doing was for the good of the universe.
"It was to become the darkest day."
The leader of the rebellion group raised his sword, still stained with the blood of the Priesthood.
The whole of Rantil's body tensed when the sword struck the side of the Galithium Sphere. Light exploded from the top of the pyramid and spread like a cleansing flood between the streets and alleys at the base of the building. But, unlike a flood of water, the light flowed through the city with a strange silence and grace. It devoured the world of darkness, until not a single shadow was free of its serene majesty.
"What the men didn't understand was the true nature of the Sphere. It too was a living thing, intent of surviving. And though it gave its life that day, it stole the souls of the entire planet. Fer years it had provided fer those people, and then, in a single act, it ripped away what it was to live."
The light flowed through the streets of the city, and for every man, woman and child, that it touched, an aura passed from their bodies and joined with the cascading tsunami of light around them. Their limbs fell limp, and they collapsed to the floor, wherever they stood.
"The Sphere was merciless," Shieef stated. "But it only took as much as it gave, and in doing so, it restored the balance of the universe. Once the light had encompassed the entire planet, it began to freeze, and once again, the world that was once frozen and buried in a thick layer of ice became baron and inhospitable again."
Rantil reopened his eyes and the world he'd imagined fell away from his thoughts. But before he could ask Shieef any questions he had about the Sphere, she turned away suddenly and passed over to the window.
She stared up at the sky, filled with birds, fleeing from the treetops. Her brow lowered and she grunted. From Rantil's point of view, all he saw was the look on her face as she took a stumbled step backwards, and away from the window, before the glass smashed inwards and the whole cabin began to shake.
Just a short white after the initial blast, an explosion tore through Liaport, making the hut judder and jolt to one side. Following his instinct, Rantil rushed around the fire and came to Shieef's aid, who had fallen to the floor. There was horror in her eyes, but it was more deeply lodged in her heart than he realised.
Her home was collapsing around her, and she expected, at any second, for the walls to give way, and for the roof to crash down on top of them. The vast array knickknacks and strange carvings scattered over shelves and in bookcases fell to the floor and most smashed into tiny pieces. Soheter leapt through the hailstorm of trinkets, put aside his dislike for Rantil, and cowered beside Shieef.
But it wasn't what was happening inside the cabin that frightened her, it was what was happening outside that she feared and dreaded.
The shaking continued for a minute or so, and when everything finally came to a standstill again. Shieef wheezed as she pushed herself from the floor and rushed towards the door.
"Yer must follow me Rantil. There are still things yer do not know."
Soheter watched them quickly leave, and as the door shut behind them, he curled up in the warmth of the fire.
"Where are we going?" Rantil asked, trying his hardest to keep up with Shieef, who quickly battled her way through the trees, and away from her cabin.
"Your past is finally catching up with yer," she explained, but was quickly becoming short of breath. Her legs were only small, and though she was weak, she fought the wilderness of Liaport with all her strength. "Yer great ancestors are calling for yer help and I hope, fer all our sakes, that yer can help him."
Rantil paused, and just as she noticed and looked back, he said, "Ulmak?"
Slowly, she nodded. "He came to this world many many years ago, from Ciameth. He was the first Watcher, and is why you took so easily to the skill. He helped build Siale into a city capable of being the Capital of Truaine. You are one of his descendants. And now he needs yer help."
"But he should be dead."
"Aye," she declared. "But time is not what yer perceive it as; it's more complicated than even I can imagine. He is alive, and just as yer saw him in the dream, he is in trouble." She turned from him, and he quickly followed her on through the trees. Her thoughts drifted away from him and she spoke to herself, "He said he would be back. He said he wouldn't stay away."
"Wait," Rantil urged, "you knew him?"
She stopped walking again but couldn't turn back. "When I first saw yer, yer reminded me of him so much. But not for five thousand years have I seen him. I am still waiting fer him to return."
Rantil shuffled towards her quietly. Quietly enough, in fact, to hear her faintly sobbing. But by the time she turned and looked up to him, any tears were gone.
"He said he was in search of something, and from what yer've said, it seems like he found it. The Galithium Sphere." She stamped her foot down and continued walking, "And now the demons have it, and are using it to open a portal from their world to this."
"Then where are we going, we need to warn the city!"
"No!" Shieef spat. "You must find Ulmak. He is yer only chance of stopping the invasion." Rantil could hear water faintly in the distance. "I am taking yer to the Nefca Falls, the last place I saw him. The link between the worlds is weakest there, and if a portal has opened, it will be there."
Their pace quickened, and Rantil realised they were following the path of a small stream. Its banks had burst and the water seeped over the floor with a thin layer of dirt. Shieef trudged though the slime and pulled at her feet, which kept sinking into the mud.
"When you destroyed the Temple, the barrier between the worlds weakened. So, five thousand years ago, when I helped Ulmak travel to Dremnor, time shifted to that weakest moment. Ulmak is back in our time but so many miles away."
They rushed on through the woodlands, until they finally came to the small clearing, where the Nefca Falls crashed into a pool from the cliff-top above. Even more so than the rest of Liaport in the Kirathun season, the whole area was covered in flowers and the trees were burdened with more, lush leaves than anywhere else on Truaine.
"Yer must enter the falls, as he did all those years ago, and find your way to Dremnor."
In an instant, she bent down beside a large rock, half buried in the vivid-green grass beside the plungepool, and placed her hands on either side. Rantil could see strange patterns carved into the moss-covered stone. He could barely hear her whisper faintly, which lit up the engrained grooves in the rock with a faint blue glow.
Like birdsong on an early morning, there was a whistling in the air. It floated through the clearing and soothed Rantil's beating heart. But it did much more than calm his nerves. Slowly, the droplets of water began to slow and floated in place as though all effects of gravity had vanished. And as they hung so delicately in the air, they began to part like the opening of curtains at the start of a great performance.
Now that the rushing froth of water at the bottom of the falls had faded, he could see a series of deeply weathered steps leading from the bottom of the cliff and into a newly revealed tunnel behind the waterfall.
He turned back to Shieef, just as she said, "Your path is clear. Mine will lead me back into my past, I fear. In yer absence, I will do my best to keep Truaine safe. Be careful, Rantil."
With nothing else for her to say, she vanished back into the woodlands, leaving Rantil suddenly alone.
When he looked back, the opening to the cave ahead took the full force of his gaze. Everything else seemed to fade away into nothing and the gaping cave entrance widened in his mind's eye until he thought it had swallowed him completely.
He passed around the edge of the pool and took his first, unsteady step onto the ledge at the base of the cliffs. The effects of the water made damp moss grow over the stone stairway that left them slippery and uneven. Even so, it didn't take him long to make his way across them and venture up and into the cave.
Once he was far enough inside, the water suddenly crashed down into the pool and resumed its flow. The steps vanished back under the resulting froth and left Rantil stranded inside. The spray from the falls brought a chill to his face, which he was thankful for in the stuffy heat of the evening air.
The sun reflected off the ripping pools of water inside the tunnel and cast magical dances of light across the rocky walls. Rantil couldn't believe his eyes when he saw how much writing was inscribed throughout the length of the passage. It was written in a language he knew was long dead and presumed they had been written by Ulmak – a man who he had never met. But from what Shieef had said, he played a larger part in his life than he realised. Rantil recognised the language on the walls with the scrolls he had the read when he was an apprentice Watcher, under Hamsol's instruction.
A strange feeling washed over him when he thought about his old master. More so than ever before, he felt Hamsol's presence, as though he was there in the tunnel. In fact, he didn't just feel the one spirit, he felt hundreds, even thousands. The strength of their thoughts played on his mind, and even from the corner of his eye, he swore to himself that he could see the faint impression of a figure, leaning against the rock.
But, as he moved further into the tunnel, the feeling passed.
He shook his head, and continued following a stream of water that led him away from the mouth of the cave and deeper underground.
Above the roaring of the waterfall, he could hear something else. It was a distant voice, whispering in the shadows that now were all around. Rantil stood silently, and listened, unsure if he was hearing anything else but the rush of wind.
"And so." Cackle. "She cannot take without then giving." Laughter. "His death..." Thud. "...shall be repaid." Snigger. "Living." Cackle. "Is not so easy." Thud. "When life... is all too painful."
Rantil shook his head again and straight away, the voice vanished like it was never there. He felt his way along the wall; the rock was sharp, cold and wet, until he could see another, brighter light flickering from the very depths of the cave.
He approached it with all the caution Shieef had asked of him.
She was right; a portal had opened.
A tear, like a long, thin clawmark, tore the air of the cavern in two. Purple light crackled along the precipice and burnt with the power of the universe. Particles of energy spiralled around the rupture in space and worked tirelessly to widen the rift. It sputtered and distorted with intermittent light and through its contorting centre Rantil could see the city from his dreams. The city the demons called their home.
The portal crackled and grew in size. It wouldn't be long before it was wide enough for the demons to pass through. For now, it gave Rantil to chance to slip through and close it, before it opened fully.
Staring into the rift, this was the moment he had feared for the past year and a half. The demons were coming, and if Shieef was right, Ulmak was the only one who could stop them. Rantil had no choice but to put the fate of Truaine into the hands of a man he had never met. A man about whom he knew very little.
He didn't have any other choice. He stepped through the portal.
And as he did, the light briefly vanished from the room.
When it returned, he was gone.