Author’s note: I will post this using the actual mainstream character names; I’ll post a "guide" next chapter so the Journey fans don’t get too confused. All comments welcome
1 Month Prior, Kern Time
Aisling stood before the archway, staring into the dark. She could feel it there, waiting, watching. The archway was rough-hewn out of the living rock, here where no daylight ever reached, deep within Mbi’Mfalme, the King’s How. By the dim light of her candle, she could see the runes and glyphs bordering the arch, wavering, shadowy and solid both.
Warnings, of shadow, of stone, stained dark with blood, fungus, rot.
Her finger traced the shale and granite, smoothing over the rough edges. She did not need those warnings. She knew what was hidden ahead.
She stepped through.
Silver gleamed, inset in the floor, the markings a circle, a compass rose. Carefully, deliberately, she stepped around it, candle held high. She would not cross those lines. Not yet.
It roused, a formless stir in the stale air, a suggestion of shadow spreading over the rock, towards her.
Her breath caught. She would not step back. She would not show fear. Not to this. Not now. Not when need was so great.
Not my need. Not ever my need.
The stir halted, at the edge of the silver circle. Contained, for now.
"Old man," she said. Her voice did not echo, curiously flat and dead, though surrounded by living stone.
Shapeless, it loomed above her, a hole of shadow. Something hissed, and the air tasted of dust and rot.
"Old man," she said, "you want your freedom."
The air stilled.
No fear. She must not show fear. "I bring you that freedom. I bring you that chance."
It watched her, she knew it. Watched, and waited. She could feel it flutter against her heart, stroke lightly against her soul, a feather of night against her skin and heart. Barrier or no, it would have her, it would take her, should she misstep.
O my people, you will never know what I offer for you, what I do for you, what I claim for you…
The silver gleamed again, the barrier in place, a barrier of m’chaw, of given blood, of sacrifice.
"Old man," Aisling said, "I bargain. Your freedom for your aid. Your home for our people. Your redemption for our salvation."
Again that low hiss, the taste of dust and rot, this time tinged with expectation, sly, patient, cruel. It no longer loomed, but crouched, waiting. Watching her, daring.
Her feet were just at the outermost edge of the barrier, barely touching it. She knelt, not in submission, not ever in submission, and her hand caressed the pack at her side, feeling the objects within, before drawing out the first.
Gently, she laid it beside the silver barrier, not breaking the line, not yet. A bridge, a key, built of her need — no, her people’s need, always — and her will.
"A feather of the wind," her voice was low, calm, always calm, "drenched with my heart-vein’s blood. A branch from a traitor’s teind, gathered in the moon’s own hand." Here she paused. She must be calm. Her voice would not break. She would not break, not now, not ever. "The long bone of your grave, claimed with a lover’s death."
Suhe, oh Suhe…
But duty broke all, necessity governed all. Even her, especially her. Her people, her Emperor, her duty.
It watched, patient.
"A bargain," she said calmly.
There was a breaking, an inrush of greed, power, fear. She stood against it, eyes open, refusing to look away, waiting, stone against the wave, until, finally, as she had known it would, it circled her, as a snake, as a cat, winding around and around her until it settled, with the just a hint of whispered snarl and the stale breath of the grave.
Her will had tamed it. Now, to break it, to her people’s need.
Head held certain, gaze steady, she crawled from the tomb of rock into the land’s own sunlight, wrapped in the devouring shadow..
1 Week After, Kern Time
Darkwater paced through the labyrinth, his footsteps silent against the soft sandstone floor despite the weight he carried, slung over his shoulder. The darkness was total, but he did not need light. The silence was total, but he did not need a comforting wash of sound. Out of habit, he noted every detail of the stone and corridors. Out of necessity, he judged, evaluated, planned, his hand never far from his blades. The only others awake were the guards up at the entry stairs, and they gave him only curt nods, not hindering in any way, but edged with uncertain, uneasy fear.
Darkwater was used to that. He encouraged it. It made his duty easier.
He reached a certain spot, stopped, slung his burden down, heard its gag-muffled groan. The after-feeling of wild geas still burnt the air and gleamed in the rock, a sacrilege to stone soaked with the blood of Land’s sacrifice.
His face set in its impassive mask, ignoring the pleading whimpers from the bound shape on the stone. Darkwater had placed his trust badly, in those outsiders, those Ayoans, and that sacrilege that would be returned in those offenders’ blood seven-fold.
They stole my king.
Darkwater had known that the one was not Faolán, had decided he was an innocent. The protests and escape attempt had been real, the binding geas well-hidden. Darkwater had kept his silence, had accepted the man publicly as king, had pitied the man, but could not help, not with both Donn and Vicari watching so close, not with a chance to uncover the truth so near.
He had seen the Land take the man, overshadow him, and claim him for Its own.
My king. Land’s king. Faolán’s true successor.
But Vicari had aid beyond Donn, Darkwater was certain of that. The geas at the aborted bonding had required more than one geasarladh, but the field of teind muddled all signature-trace beyond recall.
The blood given to Land hides bloodied hands.
Another geasarladh, with the power to cross worlds, the power to force an innocent into being his pawn, someone who had tried to eliminate all evidence of his involvement.
Someone who is still a threat.
Those others, those Ayoans — he had pitied one, trusted two of the others, had watched the last, not close enough, not close enough. Plots within plots, turns within turns.
I shall uncover it. I will find the rest of Faolán’s murderers. I shall avenge Faolán. I swear it, by water, by tree, by my own blood.
Grief was heavy in Darkwater’s throat, ruthlessly ignored, never forgotten. He was tired. He wanted to lay it all down and accept the peace of the Land. After five hundred turns, he was more than ready.
Darkwater breathed out, found his calm. He had his duty, his oaths, his love. Faolán’s line had to continue. Kern balanced on a blade’s edge, both outside, from Chulain poised to attack at any hint of weakness, and inside, from the lairds adamant that they held blood-right and willing to rain blood on the Land to prove it. War, that Faolán had strived all his life to stop…
There was no other choice but to bring the other back. That was the whole of it, no matter Darkwater’s personal feelings.
There was light, faint, silvery, glowing in ebony-skinned hands.
“Blood Guardian.” A deep female voice with a rolling accent; the speaker was silver-haired, silver-eyed, dressed in white with a gold-threaded over-mantle emblazoned with the newborn Sun. Aisling, the new High Geasarladh. She had arrived with the Chulain entourage, as the lady Elena’s oath-guard, one of the river-people from the fens between Chulain and Y’shar, and had challenged for and won the Kern title soon after Vicari’s downfall.
Darkwater had watched that contest. He had no wish to take on Aisling in a fight.
He nodded at the wall. “Build. We have delayed far long already.”
“You ask blasphemy,” Aisling said. “You ask what the Land condemns seven times seven-fold.”
“Necessity,” Darkwater said.
“So always is it justified.”
“And so is it demanded,” Darkwater said quietly, “by the Land, for Land’s king.”
Aisling touched the spot on the stone, gleaming with the wild geas. “I have studied this. It has the feel of Ayo’s shadows.”
“Those Ayoans,” Darkwater said, “those tangled with Vicari.”
“You ask blasphemy. You ask murder. You ask to send the pair of us into the shadows. Only the pair of us.”
“Circumstances,” Darkwater said. “I will not risk more lives than I must.”
“Save ours.” She was back to staring at the stone, though she spared an uneasy glance towards the bound shape on the floor.
Faol dead, dead and buried in a common grave with all of Vicari’s victims. Dead, while a false king still lived…
“Build,” Darkwater said. “Or step away and step down. I will find one willing.”
Aisling was silent for a long moment. “One willing,” she said, “would be greater blasphemy.”
Darkwater said nothing.
“I will,” she said, “because I must. Because you are Guardian.”
Kneeling, Darkwater pulled the bound shape’s hood back, yanked the man’s head back, baring throat, setting blade.
Resolutely, Aisling turned away, leaning heavily against the stone. “To cross back will require another.”
“The Land will provide,” Darkwater said, and slit the bared throat.