{Where we last left our heroes: Karliah sent men to escort Ebony to her, and Ebony went with them. Melchior made a sinister assertion that Ebony would come to him because she could not stay away…}

Chapter 4: The Covenant and The Dominion

Ebony pushed her long black hair out of her face. Her mind was exhausted from her schoolwork with her mother, rehearsing the play with the Broadway Acolytes, being torn her own world and flung into this, and she was supposed to be making decisions – and the right ones – without fumbling it. Who knew the cost? She might never get back home to her parents if she made the wrong choice. She might even end up dead.

She calmed herself with an effort. She could do this. And even if she couldn’t, the most she could do was her best, and that was what she was already doing. That was that. She shivered a little. Cold, she decided. It was chilly, though not as cold as it ought to have been for November, and she suddenly realized how frozen she really was. Her feet felt like ice cubes.

“How far do we have left to go?” she asked the man with the white plume, who had introduced himself to her as Captain Edrich.

“Another mile or so and we’ll reach a place where the earth falls down a steep incline. If it were level, you could see the city from here. When we descend, the river will be too deep and broad to wade, so though the western gate is nearer, we’ll have to go a little farther to reach the bridge that leads to the main gate.”

“A bit or a bundle with you,” Ebony muttered, drenched in his detailed geographical explanation.

“Everyone says that,” the Captain remarked. “I just tell people what I’d want to know.” He glanced at her and frowned when he saw her rubbing her arms and stomping her feet down hard as she walked. “Oh, stars above, Karliah will kill me!” He gestured to one of his men, who took his eyes from scanning the terrain around them long enough to register what the Captain wanted.

“Oh, right! My apologies, Miss Ebony,” he said, and held out a thick wool cloak to her. She drew it gratefully around her and pulled up the hood, surprised at how much it warmed her.

When they reached the place where the earth dropped away, Ebony could make out a walled city. Its walls were built of cut gray stones, wide at the base and sloping up and inward, rising high out of the dying grassland. Smooth-sided houses with thatch roofs filled it. In the center, a long low building, like the other houses in appearance as far as Ebony could tell in the darkness only about four or five times as large, hulked homily. A stone arched bridge stuck out from the main gate like a tongue, and over the gate was built a stout short tower that overlooked the bridge and the land about.

They crossed the bridge and Ebony was thankful that the night’s journey was almost over. Mentally, she was counting each step to keep herself moving forward, and she had reached a hundred at least three times since she began and looped back to one. She stood still, the blood burning in her veins at the sudden relief. There was a brief exchange at the gate between Captain Edrich and someone she couldn’t see, and then they were let in. Here the Captain left his men and led her up a narrow twisting flight of stone stairs to the watchtower over the gate. Seventy-six, seventy-seven, seventy-eight… They were in a mostly circular stone room with a wide window. A screen of some kind had been placed in it to keep out the chill, and a fire blazed on the broad hearth. A middle-aged woman, wearing a lighter version of the steel plated corselet the soldiers wore, sat in a chair beside the fire, staring at the sword hilt in her hands. She looked up as they entered and motioned to the seat beside her.

“Thank you, Captain,” she said in a tone that clearly said “run along, I’m done with you”, and he obeyed, bowing to her before he left and nodding to Ebony.

“I’m Karliah Shieldmaiden, Covenant Crowned of the Old Covenant alliance. I’m glad you came.” She turned and met Ebony’s eyes, and she saw that the woman meant what she said. Lines of anxiety and care marked her face, which was fair-skinned with strong features. She smiled a tired smile, and her blonde hair glinted almost red in the firelight. It was braided back from her face and ran down along her broad shoulders and fit frame, crossing her lap to dangle a few inches from the floor. She seemed sad and weary, as if a huge weight sat on her shoulders and would not lift.

“What can I do, ma’am?” Ebony asked. Even though she didn’t know this Karliah, she felt… not fear, surprisingly – it was something else. Overwhelmingly sorry for her. Some deep shadow hung over her. “What do you want me to do?”

Karliah snorted a laugh. “End the Apocalypse. Put the wizards in their place. Fix the rot ravaging the land. Make things be like they were in the old days. No, I doubt there is anything you can really do. But perhaps you can tell me something that will be helpful. Now, I know you’re weary, but –”

“There’s no sleep in me just now,” Ebony interrupted. “Ask away, and if I can answer you, I will.”

Karliah looked startled, but she nodded. “Don’t be so trusting of strangers. Of course, most of my followers don’t even know how to be tricky or deceitful, but you should be careful all the same. So, tell me, what did Melchior want with you?”

“Melchior?” Ebony searched her memory rapidly, but came back with nothing. Then, without knowing why, she guessed what Karliah meant. “The wizard dude? He said he just needed to ask me some questions. I refused, because he’d tried to grab me and it’s hard to trust someone with a first impression like that.”

“I daresay. How did you know Melchior?”

“I don’t know. I just sort of knew who you meant when you said his name.”

Karliah looked puzzled. “No, I meant before you arrived here. You mean you didn’t know his name?”

Ebony squirmed a little. “No. Well, not that I remember.”

“But you knew who I was talking about, anyway.” Karliah gave her a long look, and shook her head. “So… how did you know him?” she asked again after a moment.

“I hadn’t ever seen him before. Not until I was sucked into the sky through some sort of light portal that I think might be that magic Gate thing, and dumped on a stone dais. Then he and his retinue tried to grab me and I ran off.”

Karliah chuckled. “They aren’t exactly a retinue. They’re the followers of his Dominion cult.”

Ebony shrugged and leaned closer to the fire, holding out her chilled hands. “Well, then he told me he wanted to ask me questions, I told him no, and then I left. And then your Captain Edrich and his soldiers found me and brought me here. That’s all I’ve got, I think.”

“But why did they want you? You must understand, that Gate is more than difficult to open. It requires vast amounts of the Essence strength directed into it to open it, and the Essence is all but run dry. There just isn’t the power to open it, plain and simple. I’m not even sure how they managed it. They’ve been trying for many years, and even though the Gate is on our doorstep I’ve let them go on trying as it gives them something else to focus on besides fighting us. Frankly, I have no idea how they did it, but to go to all those lengths to pull you through? Why?”

Ebony frowned, pinching the bridge of her nose in thought. She was remembering the expressions on the wizards’ faces when she’d first seen them.

“You know, I don’t think they expected me any more than I expected them. They looked beyond flabbergasted when I showed up.”

“Well, then why would they close the Gate right after you came through if it wasn’t simply the end of their task?” Karliah asked. Ebony shrugged, but she didn’t seem to expect an explanation from her.

“Melchior, you old rascal, you weave your plotting deep,” she muttered to her sword hilt. “But I’ll find them. I’ll cut them. I’ll see you face the justice of the Old Ways.”

“Um, can you back up a little for me, please?” Ebony asked. “Just who are the wizards? And why are you at war with them?”

Karliah sighed and rubbed her eyebrows. “We’re at war with them because they want a new way. They are a cult, striving to pull away from the Old Ways, the laws and customs that guided our people for thousands of years.”

“I don’t understand. What are the Old Ways, and why do they have a problem with them?”

“I’ll tell you, but in a nutshell. I have need of sleep and thought and cannot spare long. Long ago, after Rome fell and the western world was in chaos, a great Sha rose to the throne in the Middle Kingdom. He joined the Coldlands to the north and west to it, uniting them into one great kingdom that rose from the ashes and became a mighty bulwark of the world. It was as great as Rome of old, but more internally focused and dedicated to keeping itself connected, at peace, and happy. That was the Golden Age. But the kingdom waned, and since the last Sha was brought down, we have struggled to maintain the Old Ways. We are a shattered and split kingdom, and I am not equal to the Shas of old. My hands could not hold the kingdom, nor can my leading cling so true to the Old Ways as did theirs. But at least I try.” Her face darkened. “I come from the far north and west, where ice is our always and war is our blood. My husband was from this land. He is gone now, and these wizards –” she broke off, seeming both angry and sad at once. “My griefs are not the only ones they are responsible for. This war is because of them and their heretical ideas. They want a ‘new era’. When the old Shas fell, so did their ways, they say. They want to have no restrictions, no guidelines or governing on the use of the Essence. The earth is tortured beneath us. I’m no mage, and I leave the Arts to others, but even still I know that this is folly and death. They will destroy us and themselves with their free reign ways. They’re a cult and a danger that must be stopped at all costs.”

“Can’t you just kick them out of the kingdom?” Ebony asked.

“Oh, they are forbidden on our land, except when I grant them permission for their futile Gate-opening attempts. But the land that is left in my hands is but a fraction of the kingdom that was, and anyway, it wouldn’t change things. It is the earth itself that groans and dies. We must fight, but we will lose. The Apocalypse is upon us. Somehow I always thought when I thought of the prophecy that it would be a matter of hundreds of years of rot and decay that would slowly spiral down to the end of the world itself. But this… it hasn’t even been twenty years and we are staring our final moments in the face.”

“Is that why everything is so faded and dying? What about the Dragonborn? He can stop it, right? You just have to find him.”

Karliah laughed dryly. “I’m surprised you know about the Dragonborn. Edrich is imaginative and places his hope on a fantasy. The thing is, the Dragonborn does not exist. No one is even sure what the term was meant to mean, but whatever it was, it was a metaphor, representing the hopelessness of it all, the impossibility of a different outcome. Think of everything this hypothetical ‘Dragonborn’ is capable of: making the stars dance, holding some mysterious lost power, and can somehow right the wronged, repair the broken, return the stolen, and restore the dying, do and be what no one has ever before done or been. The Apocalypse will bow before them, and they can reverse it. And then there’s the bit about the fate-changer and the Pendant-bearer… I mean, no one can change fate. It’s just all impossible, and is illustrating how the Apocalypse cannot be stopped. The earth is drunk dry and we will fade. This world will end. There is no hope.”

“But I thought it said the Dragonborn, the one foretold, would come,” Ebony protested. She was suddenly afraid. If this world ended before she could get back…

Karliah waved her hand. “That’s just to say that if all those things could happen then you would have a Dragonborn, like if I said I’d be friends with Melchior the day the sky rained gold – it won’t happen. It might even be an error in the passing down through the ages, mauled by the changing language and time, who knows.” She sighed wearily and gazed into the fire, as if seeing some other sight in her mind. “If only we had the Dragon Stone, then something might happen. With that power we could crush the wizards once and for all, beat them at their own game. We could restore the world to its life and growth, and if that failed, it would be simple enough to open the Gate; do it the wizards’ way.”

“Wait, what are you saying exactly?” Ebony asked in horror.

Karliah stirred and glanced at her. “Oh, well, I thought you knew that part. The wizards want to open the Gate so they can access your world and abandon this one to its death. That’s why I let them, because if we don’t all want to die we’re going to have to leave. Don’t be afraid, I intend to keep the wizards in line, and they won’t touch you. Whatever can be said for us, the people of the Middle Kingdom are kind and just rulers and we look out for each other.”

“Rulers?” Ebony’s eyebrows shot up. “You would have another war on your hands if you tried to take over our world. Don’t do it. It would be a little thing called World War III. That means everyone else in my world gets together to trounce you, and a lot of people die. Not smart, especially if the point is to stay alive.”

Karliah stood up. Her face was hard and unreadable. “Thank you for your war advice, but it isn’t necessary. Understand this if nothing else: I will do whatever it takes to protect my people, and if it means taking over your world to save them, I will. I do not thirst for bloodshed as some do, but I will fight if I need to, and whomever I need to. Such was the oath I swore, and Covenant followers do not break their words, nor do the Shieldmaidens. I think we’re done for tonight. I’ve given arrangements for your welcome here; don’t abuse it. Make your own choice about what you will do, but do not think you can dictate ours.”

Feet raced on the stairs, and Karliah turned. A man, breathless from running, stood in the doorway. He bowed hastily. “Karliah Shieldmaiden, Covenant Crowned, I hate to interrupt you but…”

“We’re done anyway. What’s the matter?”

“Wizards are attacking Fort Mohowtuan. It’s weakened and they think it will not stand through the night!”

Karliah snatched a helmet from a table in the corner and sped to the door. “Muster the auxiliary in the yard and prepare to ride swiftly. And send someone to look after her.” She was gone, and the man too. Ebony was alone beside the fire. Her head spun with too many things to process and consider. She needed sleep. She had thought she liked Karliah and that she was an honest woman, but sudden doubt was blossoming in her mind. Just what exactly was this woman planning to do?

Author’s Commentary: Bam, Bob’s your uncle. Class-A information dump. Okay, class, we can now move to part 2 of the information dump, and on the interesting side, witness what Melchior spoke of with his sinister prediction. Don’t tell anyone I hinted at that.

{Read Chapter 5: When the Stars Dance}