|Credit: Roy Lathwell|
It was nearly High Summer, but the wind felt cold through Camac’s empty streets. Harbor Street, the thoroughfare that led to the Western Road, was strewn with litter and the occasional corpse. Many of the latter showed broken bones, and some bore marks of scavengers at work. Jira sent soldiers into dwellings to find blankets and linens to wrap the corpses; some of them came out shaken at the evidence of what had happened indoors.
“Do you think we’ll find anyone alive here, let alone an heir?” Phylok asked Anlayt. The two of them were the vanguard of the march.
“It is possible,” Anlayt ventured. “Any heir to the throne may well be waiting for us in the palace. Or what is left of it. If not, I think any survivors might retire to one of the villas outside the city. There may be crops to harvest, and the granaries were along the Western Road.” He turned to Jira, who had Lifted a corpse to make it easier for two soldiers to wrap. “Protector, how do you intend to put these—these citizens to their final rest? We do not have time to dig graves, and firewood is scarce.”
“We attended to many more than these in the Northern Reach,” said Jira. “Where mundane means are insufficient, magic will serve.”
The iron gates that once protected the Inner City were thrown down, and great holes riddled the walls. “Look,” said Jira, “the rubble is outside.” She pointed to the nearest hole.
“So the walls were breached from inside,” said Phylok, watching as much as he could. “But what did that?”
Jira gasped at a sudden mental image. She saw First Protector Nisodarun, screaming in pain, or anger, or both. He called Earth magic, that had been his primary element, sending it against the walls to tear them open.
“Protector?” one of the honor guard inquired.
“Magic.” Jira forced herself into the present and gave the soldier a reassuring look. “A vision, of sorts. A sorcerer, suffering from The Madness, could have done this. Perhaps the First Protector himself.”
“You have said often that the First Protector fell to The Madness,” said Anlayt. “How do you know this?”
Jira glared at the caption. “I received a message via falcon: The capital is in chaos. Over half the folk have gone mad, all at once, and they are destroying everything. The First Protector is one of them. May the Creator and the lesser gods preserve the empire. A senior apprentice sent it. The local Conclave here did what they could to keep order, but one may as well hold back the tide with a shovel and pail. Shortly after the falcon arrived, the chaos came to the Northern Reach as well.”
“You used these falcons to communicate with Protector Kontir, in Stolevan?”
“No. Protector Kontir has one of the Eyes of Byula. Another was here in Camac, at the Imperial Keep, in the keeping of the First Protector. Three were given to the Protectors in the East, so we could react quickly in case of rebellion. The sixth was in the South Sea Islands. The North was both near to the capital, and loyal in any case. The Protectors stationed in the Land of the Dawn Greeters and the Spine watched over peaceful territory, as well.”
“That tells us little,” said Anlayt.
“I am now coming to the point, Captain,” Jira growled. “The Eyes of Byula lend its holders many powers of an Oracle, including the ability to scry over any distance and to communicate with one who holds another Eye. It also allows a holder to speak to the mind of any other sorcerer, over any distance, which can also be done when two strong Talents share an emotional bond. But suffice to say, Kontir has kept me apprised of events in the south. I have not been able to tell him that we intend to visit the south, nor why, but he will find out soon enough.”
“The Library,” said Phylok, putting a welcome end to the discussion.
The Imperial Library was a complex of several grand buildings, all much the worse for wear after The Madness. Jira grimaced at the remains of books, old and new, strewn about the grounds. Nothing outside, after initial abuse and a winter of neglect, was worth salvaging.
“The most important works were kept in the basement of the main building,” she told them. “I hope most of them remain intact. In any case, we should see.”
To their surprise, the entrance to the main building was blocked. “If I didn’t know better,” said Phylok, looking over the huge stones and smaller rubble choking the portico, “I’d say that was deliberate.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Jira, brightening for the first time. “That means someone thought there was something worth preserving inside.”
“And I presume you can clear the way?” Anlayt asked.
“Of course.” Jira waved the others back. Performing magic before folk always involved unnecessary drama, and long habit reigned. She raised her arms, and called a light wind to toss her hair, then invoked the Earth magic actually needed to do the work. The rubble fell away, the great stones heaved. More stones fell to fill the gap, but Jira’s Earth magic moved those as well. In seconds, the entrance was open.
“Forward, my strikes—hoy!” Anlayt began, then recoiled. “Archers!”