Spoiler Sunday: The Fingers of Death

As promised, here is the last (for now) post-Shards-cliffhanger excerpt from The War of the Ravels.  In this scene from very early in the book, we discover why, exactly, the villainous sorcerer Kihantroh has been trying so hard to get hold of the gems.  As before, beware — spoilers lie ahead!  But, of course, spoilers are what you came for, so read on.

Jordneh, Witch-Queen of the Rittandics, sat, alone, in the small office near her apartments, regarding the human who had come from Abacar bearing a message from Lord Korrin. “I have reviewed Korrin’s proposal,” she told him, looking down at the rolled-up scrolls she held in her long blue fingers. “He must, of course, remember that we Rittandics suffered terrible losses when we helped his forefathers drive back the priests of Daras-Drûm. Terrible losses. The curse they inflicted on us is unbroken to this day, and continues to spread through our bloodlines. We are not eager to repeat that against the Banderlundi.”

“Of course. But the Banderlundi are not the death cult.”

“Indeed they are not,” Jordneh said. “They have an army. They have a navy.”

“But at least they are alive,” the man observed, with the narrow focus of those charged with arguing a single issue from a single angle.

“As were the priests. Though the same cannot be said of their footmen.” She regarded the fellow. “What have the others said? The elves, the dwarves?”

“I parted ways with the other messengers at the pass some weeks ago, I’m afraid. But I am confident the children of forest and mountain will perceive the wisdom of Lord Korrin’s request.”

“Mmm. No doubt you are right, although the wisdom they perceive might not be the wisdom that was intended.”

He gave her a puzzled look. “Did her majesty find Lord Korrin’s letter unclear?”

She smiled and shook her head. “You humans. Always thinking everyone sees the world the way that you do. If you tell the dwarves that the sea will be coming to their gates, their response will be to seal the gates and make them waterproof, not to help you build a dike. If you tell the elves the same, they will try to figure out how to grow gills. The Pelts will just turn themselves into fishes. Do you see? Not everyone will immediately take up the sword and begin slashing at the waves.”

“Surely neither the dwarves nor the elves nor the Pelts are so eager to let the ‘Lundi yoke them, your majesty.”

“We are all yoked to something. But tell me, good messenger, what would Lord Korrin have—”

She broke off as an advisor, the neuter Lemdenoh, burst into the office. Its chest heaved, as if it had arrived here running through the castle at top speed. Knowing that her request to be undisturbed would not have been dishonored without good reason, she turned to regard the intruder rather than issuing a reprimand. “A storm approaches, your majesty,” it said, sounding winded. “It has spawned tornadoes in the downs.”

“This is not the time of year for such a storm.”

“Indeed it is not, your majesty.”

“The castle wards will turn it aside.”

“I … think not, your majesty.”

She raised one bald eyelid.

“When the weather system was noticed, spotters went to the towers. They report that the storm behaves oddly. It has generated only two funnel clouds, and both appear to have been …” Lemdenoh trailed off, looking uncomfortable, then said: “Targeted.”

Lord Korrin’s messenger said: “Targeted?”

“The spotters believe the funnel clouds were used to attack specific points on the earth. Each descended, stayed on the ground for a brief period, and dissipated without moving from the spot where they touched down.”

“How can you tell? Magic?”

Lemdenoh cast a questioning glance at the human; Jordneh nodded, almost imperceptibly, granting the neuter permission to speak freely. Turning to the man, Lemdenoh said: “The towers are equipped with fully rotational telescopes mounted on precise compasses, and are spaced sufficiently far apart that we can compare the angles and determine the location of the phenomenon under observation.”

Noting the emissary’s blank look, Jordneh said: “You may consider it magic.” Then, to Lemdenoh: “Take me to where I can see this storm for myself.”

“We believe there is a danger, your—”

“Take me there now, Lemdenoh.”

“As you wish.”

The neuter moved to grasp the handles of her chair, but the messenger, displaying the impulsive helpfulness not uncommon in his species, took hold of them himself. “Lead the way,” he told Lemdenoh.

As they moved with unaccustomed speed through the castle, Jordneh twisted her head around to look up at the man propelling her wheeled conveyance. From his startled expression, she realized that to him it must look like she had just snapped her spine; among their many other limitations, she recalled, humans could only rotate their necks a bare ninety degrees. How tedious. “Thank you for your assistance,” she said. “I did not ask your name, before.”

“I am called Kendrick. Tell me, your majesty, have you no healers who could let you walk again?”

“Some injuries are beyond repair, even for such as me.” They bumped onto one of the wooden ramps that partially overlay all the stairs in the castle that she might desire to ascend or descend. “You realize, Kendrick, that you may be putting yourself in jeopardy by accompanying us. There are shelters available to protect inhabitants from the tornadoes that plague the Ravels.”

“We get some fearsome cyclones off the sea in Abacar in late summer, your majesty.”

“I am familiar with your hurricanes. They are fearsome indeed. But there is a reason some refer to the funnel clouds as the fingers of death.”

He smiled. “Fingers do not frighten me unless there are five of them and they close into a fist.”

She nodded slightly. “As you say.” They had reached a third-floor landing, and now Lemdenoh pulled open a heavy wooden door. Beyond was a circular verandah, arcaded and open to the elements; they walked along it until they could see to the south, across the Ravels and toward the distant sea. Clouds streamed in from the direction of the Æther, thick and chunky as congealed fat floating in old soup, and of a similar color. They poured along the underside of the sky, rushing in a dense flood, surging as if pressed between panes of heavy glass. Despite this, the sky directly above the castle was clear and utterly empty, a perfect circle, even as the clouds blotted out every other scrap of blue, from the surrounding mountains all the way to the sea. She saw no signs of funnel clouds for the nonce, but Lemdenoh was right; this storm was vastly, unnaturally threatening. “I thought the weather was still over the downs,” she said, not moving her gaze from the sky.

“It was, when I came to get you.”

“It should not be here,” she murmured. “Not so quickly.”

Kendrick moved away from her wheelchair, going to stand near the balustrade, away from the sheltering overhang, looking up at the malignant sky. “This sort of … weather … is common here, then?”

“No,” Lemdenoh said. “Not at all.”

“You should come away from there, Kendrick,” Jordneh said.

“We should all take shelter,” Lemdenoh said. Before he had finished speaking, as if in response to the tension in his voice, the alarm bells in the storm-towers that ringed the town began the clangor that signified dangerous weather. During tornado season the bell-ringers were on duty day and night, but that was months away; and given the evident speed of this storm, it had likely arrived before the towers could even be unlocked, the bells freed of their dampers. The notice was inadequate, but with any luck citizens had seen the storm coming and begun to react even without the prompting of the alarums.

Something was shifting within the clouds, rippling through them, like muscles beneath the skin of a snake as it prepared to strike. She could feel it, a static charge, prickles on her skin. The inner ring of clouds above the castle lurched into a spin, like water around a drain when the plug was pulled. At the same time, tendrils of vapor dropped from it, three, six, ten. Weather magic was difficult, especially here, where the Æther disrupted atmospheric patterns in ways that no one understood. But this storm was clearly being directed, and what was directed could be disrupted. Clutching the arms of her wheelchair, Jordneh focused on the spinning inner ring of clouds rather than on the tornadoes, hoping that by dispersing that she could dispel all the funnels at once. This invited retaliation, she knew, but with any luck, the wards on the castle would prevent the orchestrator of this attack from finding her before she’d had a chance to unravel his mischief.

She realized immediately that she had miscalculated. The ring was not the source of the funnels; it was, in effect, a saw, cutting through the protections of the castle, laying bare its interior. She had just given away her location. Something, some power, followed her probe back and seized her, pressed her into her seat, immobile; she could not even utter a warning to prevent Lemdenoh from stepping forward and taking Kendrick’s arm, obviously intending to shepherd him back to the illusory safety of the castle. Both of them took flight before her eyes, swept up by a debris-laden wind wall that roared by scant yards from where Jordneh sat, untouched, unmarred, pinned behind glass like a prized butterfly in a case. She was forced to watch as the tornadoes danced through the village. There were Kendrick’s fingers, and while they showed no sign of closing into the fist he had feared, they hardly needed to; fingers raked through a sandcastle could destroy it as thoroughly as a pounding hand. And rake they did, relentlessly. She was sure the village must be full of screams, but nothing was audible over the roaring of the wind. Her ears rang with it. The funnel clouds turned sideways, coiled on themselves, seeking out the shelters, pounding and pulling at the doors until they gave way, then sucking out the occupants like marrow from bones. She felt, vaguely, a battering wind from behind her, as spiraling winds tore through the halls of the castle, scouring it of inhabitants, of furniture, of wall hangings, of everything it contained that could be picked up and carried away. Windows exploded outward, and shutters, and doors, blasted from their supports and frames, blown out into the maelstrom of debris and bodies that chewed the town like a grinding force. The storm devoured her village, and passed it as rubble; and throughout it all she sat, safe and helpless, enclosed in a protection that had been imposed on her, forced to watch.

At last, the wind stopped. The pressure that had held her in place, that had protected her from the storm’s wrath, eased. All around she heard crashes and groans: Wreckage falling, damaged buildings collapsing. She couldn’t tell. She took hold of the wheel rims to move herself forward, but a battered, bloodied corpse thudded to the balcony in front of her, blocking her path: Korrin’s messenger, bashed and beaten by windblown projectiles, and now dropped directly in her way. The odds of this happening at random were minuscule, so clearly it was a message; but from whom? The Banderlundi? Doubtful, she thought; if they possessed power such as this, they would have used it against Korrin directly, not against her.

Then the wind deposited another figure on the balcony, a Rittandic neuter, alive and upright. For a moment she thought the storm had by some bizarre chance returned Lemdenoh to her; but no, this was someone else. Of course it was someone else. The architect of the destruction, come to claim credit.

To her surprise, she realized that she knew this creature. She said: “Kihantroh?”

“Greetings, your majesty.” Kihantroh looked down at Kendrick’s body, nudged it with his foot. “Still consorting with lower beings, I see.”

“He … he carried a message from Lord Korrin,” Jordneh said. “Kihantroh, why have you—”

“Did he?” The huge eyes closed for a moment, and when they opened again, she saw the fading trace of a human iris in their black depths. What had Kihantroh been doing? “Yes, I remember, Korrin dispatched four riders. One to the Pelts, one to the dwarves, one to the elves, one to you. None returned.”

She divided her mind, giving some of her attention to him, while beneath the blanket that warmed her withered legs, she began shaping a spell with the clever fingers of one hand. “What do you know of Korrin’s messengers, Kihantroh?”

“I know the dwarves still have theirs, shut up like a prisoner beneath the mountain while they pursue the machinations that his message set in motion. I know that the one sent to the elves no longer exists, save as an echo in my memory that drew me back to Korrin’s court—a service for which I am, perhaps, insufficiently grateful. I know that the one sent to the Pelts still fruitlessly seeks someone who will hear his tale, unaware that the lord who dispatched him—the lord who was your puppet—has passed from this world. I know that you seek to distract me with talk while you prepare a glamour, which you will never cast.”

She felt a crushing pain in her hands, as if they’d just been closed in a vise; with a gasp she clutched them to herself, pressing them between her arms and her body. The magic she had been hoping to prepare unnoticed faded as the strings slipped from her suddenly crippled fingers. “Why have you done this?”

“The Tellehi told me I must,” Kihantroh said, “so I did.”

“The … Tellehi?” This term referred to the followers of the sorceress Untelleh, who had been cast into the Æther along with their mistress during her disastrous attempt to harness its energy; more generally, it was used in a derogatory fashion to describe anyone who went along with a venture even though it was clearly doomed. “What do you mean?”

“You needn’t play the fool with me, my queen,” Kihantroh said. “The Tellehi told me the truth about the Æther.” Its thin lips pulled into a smile, or a grimace; it was difficult to tell. “All those years I spent studying it, bringing you those slates, waiting on your convenience as you dealt with matters of more importance, and all the while the shadows knew the secret.”

“What truth do you think you have learned, Kihantroh? What secret justifies this destruction?”

“They followed me, you know,” it said, as if she had not spoken. “After you sent me away. They had been watching me, from the mists. They knew that I would do what others could not. That I would free them. They sought me out in the Slash.”

“I relieved you of your position because your experiments with the Æther were becoming dangerous. I never sent you away. You chose to exile yourself. You are seeking revenge for a wrong that never happened.”

“Dangerous? I was close to learning what went wrong with Untelleh’s attempt. That is why you relieved me. I had become a threat to your dominion. The Tellehi told me about the secret scrolls you hoard, describing the history of the Æther, how to draw upon the power it contains. Your long-term study of the Æther is but a pantomime. You already know why the Æther seethes and spreads; it is because you unravel the realm itself to power your glamours, to keep yourself alive. Oh, yes, I know you! You are the same Queen who sat the chair when Untelleh lived. You could have helped her. Instead you lolled on your fancy throne and let her cast herself and hundreds of innocents into the void, then claimed the energy for yourself! You style yourself the most powerful sorceress in the world? Feh! I name you a street magician, the worst kind of charlatan. You sacrifice your land, your people, your very world so that you can siphon off the energy released by churning stuff into nothing!”

She stared at Kihantroh, aghast. The pallid blue of its face had darkened, become mottled with rage as it ranted.

“Yes, they told me,” Kihantroh muttered, seemingly more to itself than to her. “You are a fly, feeding on the wound that is the Æther, never letting it heal, always causing it to grow. I am here to swat you.”

“And them?” She gestured with a gnarled hand at the ruined village. “What did they do to earn such punishment?”

“They were there.” Kihantroh shrugged its narrow shoulders. “When one fly departs, another takes its place, unless they have all been crushed. And now, my queen, it ends. I know now that your chair is an affectation. Stand up.”

“You are a fool, Kihantroh,” she said.

“Stand up!”

“I know not whence came these Tellehi that enlightened you, but they’ve ladled you a soup of lies beneath the thinnest skin of fact.”

“Feh. Lies? Then let me show you some truths.” Kihantroh plunged its hands into its voluminous pockets, and pulled out two objects. She recognized one immediately as the Maul of Abacar, the Jewel at its tip casting a kaleidoscope of light through the gem-encrusted head; the other was a crude iron claw, the ends folded into tines to enclose a second glowing stone. Although physically indistinguishable from the Jewel in the Maul, its radiance was subtly different, and she recognized it as the Illata, or the Brisindeld, depending on one’s point of view.

She drew a sharp breath.

“Yes, my queen. Now you see what I possess. What the Tellehi led me to obtain.”

“You cannot reunite the gems, Kihantroh! It would mean—”

“Enough! Stand, now, that I may strike you down!” The jewels flashed and Jordneh’s wheelchair shot away from beneath her; she fell heavily to the stone floor, and lay there for a moment, glaring up at at the intruder.

Then, slowly, she stood.

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