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The Watchers had guarded the Border of Thimhallan for centuries. It was their enforced task, through sleepless night and dreary day, to keep watch along the boundary that separated the magical realm from whatever lay Beyond.
What did lie Beyond?
The ancients knew. They had come to this world, fleeing a homeland where they were no longer wanted, and they knew what lay on the other side of those shifting mists. To protect themselves from it, they encompassed their world in a magical barrier, decreeing that the Watchers be placed on its Border—eternal, sleepless guards. But now it was forgotten. The tides of centuries had worn away the memory. If there was a threat from beyond the Border, no one worried about it, for how could it pass the magic barrier?
The Watchers kept their silent vigil still—they had no choice. And when the mists parted for the first time in centuries, when a figure stepped out of the shifting gray fog and put his foot upon the sand, the Watchers were appalled and cried out their warning.
But there were none, now, who knew how to listen to words of stone.
Thus the man’s return was unheralded, unannounced. He had gone forth in silence and in silence he returned. The Watchers shrieked, “Beware, Thimhallan! Your doom has come! The Border has been crossed!”
But no one heard them.
There were those who might have heard the silent cries, had they been attentive. Bishop Vanya, for one. He was the highest ranking catalyst in the land and, as such, it seemed likely that his god, the Almin, would have called His minister’s attention to such a calamity. But it was dinner time. His Holiness was entertaining guests and, though the Bishop prayed beautifully and devoutly over the meal, everyone had the distinct feeling that the Almin really hadn’t been invited.
Prince Xavier should have heard the warnings of the stone Watchers. He was a warlock, after all—DKarn-duuk, a War Master, and one of the most powerful magi in the land. But he had more important matters to consider. Prince Xavier—pardon, Emperor Xavier—was preparing for war with the kingdom of Sharakan and there was only one thing more important to him than that. Or rather, it was all tied together. How to retrieve the Darksword, held fast in the arms of a stone statue. If he possessed this powerful sword—a weapon that could absorb magic—Sharakan must fall to his might.
And so Bishop Vanya sat in his elegant chambers at the top of the mountain fastness of the Font, dining on boar’s head and piglet tails and pickled shrimp, discussing the nature and habits of marsupials with his guests, and the warnings of the Watchers were swallowed up with the wine.
Prince Xavier paced about his laboratory, occasionally darting over to read the text in some musty, brittle-paged book, consider it, then shake his head with a bitter snarl. The warnings of the Watchers were lost in his curses.
Only one person in all of Thimhallan heard the warnings. In the city of Sharakan, a bearded young man dressed in purple hose, pink pantaloons, and a bright red silken waistcoat, was wakened from his afternoon nap. Cocking his head toward the east, he cried out irritably, “E’gad! How do you expect a fellow to get any sleep? Stop that fearful racket!” With a wave of his hand, he slammed shut the window.
Beware, Thimhallan! Your doom has come! The Border has been crossed!
The man who stepped out of the mists was in his late twenties, though he appeared older. His body was that of a young man—strong, muscular, firm, and upright. His face was the face of a man whose sufferings might have spanned a century.
Framed by thick black hair, the face was handsome, stern, and—at first glance—appeared as cold and unfeeling as the stone faces of those who watched him. Lines of care and of grief had been chiseled into that face by a Master’s hand, however. The fires of anger and hatred that had once burned in the brown eyes had died out, leaving behind cold ash.
The man was dressed in long white robes of fine wool, covered by a wet, mud-stained traveling cloak. Standing upon the sand, he looked about him with the slow and deliberate gaze of one who looks about the home he has not seen in many, many years. The expression of sadness and of sorrow on his face did not change, except to grow deeper. Turning, he reached back into the mists. A hand took hold of his, and a woman with long, golden hair stepped out of the shifting gray fog to stand beside him.
She glanced about her with a dazed air, blinking her eyes in the rays of the setting sun that stared at them from behind distant mountains—its red, unblinking eye seeming to regard them with amazement.
“Where am I?” the woman asked calmly, as if they had walked down a street and taken a wrong turn.
“Thimhallan,” the man replied in an even tone of voice that spread like salve over some deep wound.
“Do I know this place?” the woman questioned. And though the man replied and she accepted his answers, she did not look at him or appear to be talking to him but continually sought out and spoke to an unseen companion.
The woman was younger than the man, about twenty-seven. The golden hair, parted in the center of her head, was tied loosely in two thick braids that hung down to her waist. The braids gave her a childish look, making her seem younger than her years. Her pretty blue eyes enhanced this childish appearance as well—until one looked into them closely. Then it could be seen that their eerie brilliance and wide-open stare were not expressive of the innocent wonder of childhood. This woman’s eyes saw things that could not be seen by others.
“You were born here,” the man said quietly. “You were raised in this world, as was I.”
“That’s odd,” said the woman. “I would think I’d remember.” Like the man’s, her cloak was splattered with mud and wet through. Her hair, too, was wet, as was his, and clung damply to her cheeks. Both were weary and appeared to have traveled a long distance through a soaking rainstorm.
“Where are my friends?” she asked, half-turning and staring behind them into the mists. “Aren’t they coming?”
“No,” the man said in the same calm tones. “They cannot cross the Border. But you will find new friends here. Give them time. They are probably not accustomed to you yet. No one in this land has talked with them in a long, long while.”
“Oh, really?” The woman brightened. Then her face grew shadowed. “How lonely they must be.” Lifting her hand to her forehead to block out the beaming rays of the sun, she peered up and down the sandy shore. “Hello?” she called, holding out her other hand as she might to a wary cat. “Please, its all right. Don’t be frightened. You can come to me.”
Leaving the woman talking to the empty air, the man—with a profound sigh—walked up to the stone statue of the catalyst; the statue that held the sword in its rock hands.
As he stared at the statue in silence, a tear crept from one of his clear, brown eyes, disappearing into the deep lines that cut into the stern, clean-shaven face. Its mate slid down the other cheek, falling in the thick, black hair that curled upon the man’s shoulders. Drawing a deep, shuddering breath, the man reached out his hand and gently caught hold of the orange silk banner—now tattered and torn—that fluttered bravely in the winds. Taking it from the statue, he smoothed the silk in his hands, then folded it and placed it carefully in a pocket of the long, white robes he wore. His slender fingers reached out to stroke the statues careworn face.
“My friend,” he whispered, “do you know me? I have changed from the boy you knew, the boy whose wretched soul you saved.” His hand pressed against the cool rock. “Yes, Saryon,” he murmured, “you know me. I feel it between us.”
“He smiled, a half-smile. This smile was not bitter, as his smiles once had been. This smile was sad and filled with regret. “Our situations are reversed, Father. Once I was cold as stone, warmed by your love and compassion. Now it is you whose flesh is icy to my touch. If only my love—learned too late—could warm you?”
He bowed his head, overcome by grief, and his teardimmed gaze fell upon the statues hands that held the sword in their stone grip.
“What is this?” he muttered.
Examining the statue’s hands more closely, the man saw that the stone flesh of the palms on which the sword rested was cracked and gouged as though it had been struck by hammer and chisel. Several of the stone fingers were broken and twisted.
“They tried to take the sword!” he realized “And you would not give it up!”
Stroking the statues injured hands with his own, he felt the anger that he thought was dead flickering to life within him once more. “What suffering you must have endured! And they knew it! You stood there, helpless, while they gouged your flesh and broke your bones! They knew you would feel every blow, yet they didn’t care Why should they?” he questioned bitterly. “They couldn’t hear your cries!” The man’s own hands went to the weapon, touching it haltingly. Reflexively, his hand closed over the hilt of the stone sword. “I have come upon a fool’s errand it seems—”
The man stopped speaking abruptly He felt the sword move! Thinking he might have imagined it in his anger, he gave the stone weapon a tug, as though to draw it out of its rock scabbard. To his amazement, the sword slid out easily, he nearly dropped it in surprise. Holding it, he felt the cold stone warm at his touch and, as he watched, astonished, the rock turned to metal.