By Melvyn Riley


Riley  


All Books by
Melvyn Riley:

 

AGE OF THE SIGIL: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON—EPISODE ONE: RETURN TO ILLENDALE

The four bearers and their two friends were outside the house of Illendale, still marveling at the success of their first quest and at the change that had come over Deloria Kildri. She had unlocked her Sigil, the first of the four to do so, and seemed wiser yet more somber since leaving Baccus Run, where the transformation had taken place. The Sigil around her neck had turned from black to silver, and it swirled now with a magical life of its own.

The bearers had encountered sadness and horror as well as victory in Baccus Run. Estra Dane’s father, Korvo Dane, the leader of the Northeland Army, was dead at the hands of the High Vassor, Draedan Sifferus. Korvo had attacked the High Vassor to keep him from choking the life from Deloria, but Draedan had slain him before he could strike a fatal blow.

After Korvo’s sacrifice, Deloria, Estra, Reev, and Pim had escaped on dragons with their newfound allies, Finai, who’d been Deloria’s handmaiden at Baccus Run, and Finai’s grandfather, Bartholomew Diehl. The wild Westridge dragons that had lived near Baccus Run were now Deloria’s to command, and her own dragon, the loyal Frey’re, had grown to four times his size during the exploit and was as formidable a beast as any that lived in Austrand.

The four bearers knew that another quest lay ahead of them, and the words Illendale had just spoken were still ringing in their minds: Your time in West Asprus is at an end. But your journey has just begun.

“We understand that, Protector,” Pim said, “But we deserve a moon’s worth of rest before we set off again.”

The shadow of Illendale, shimmering like the sunlit surface of a still pond, smiled benevolently. “You do, Pim, but there is not much time. Dark magic is growing in the Southelands.”

Reev Onid stood up and turned to the south to gaze across the sky.

“Reev, place your reader’s cloak over your head,” Illendale told the young wizard.

Reev covered his head with the reader’s cloak and continued to gaze above the trees, out across the southern horizon, past the far reaches of Illendale Lake, far beyond where a mortal eye could see. Way off to the south he saw a trail of black smoke rising high into the sky. Snakelike tendrils coiled and slithered within the black mist, and small, shadowy vortexes formed and spun and seemed to suck life from the air itself.

Reev shuddered and threw off the cloak and turned to Illendale. “What does this mean, Protector?”

“The wizards of the Southeland Annex are now in league with a dark wizard named Xapreaou, who has climbed the ranks of power among the Southeland wizards for twenty years. He means to incite a rebellion against Draedan Sifferus, to challenge him for control of Austrand. Through manipulation of the dolphenes, Xapreaou has discovered the incantations of the first wizards, dark incantations long forbidden.”

“We’ve shown we can handle wizards,” Pim said.

“Don’t let overconfidence undermine your developing wisdom,” Illendale said. “Xapreaou is growing as powerful as Draedan. Do not take this task lightly.”

Reev nodded his agreement. “Master Saleallé imprinted Xapreaou’s image on the minds of the wizard apprentices of the Keep. Master said he feared that Xapreaou’s desire to control Austrand and humble the High Vassor would one day weaken the bonds that imprison the Void within the Urthe.”

A look of sadness passed over Illendale’s face, like a cloud passing over the sun. “His fear was warranted. With every dolphene that Xapreaou slaughters, the foundation cradling the Southeland Annex is weakened, and another route for the Void to escape its prison grows closer to completion.”

Deloria, who had seemed lost in thought during the conversation, suddenly became alert. “Xapreaou,” she murmured, looking at Illendale. She was about to say more when the Protector held up a warning hand and gave her a hard look.

“Never you mind,” Illendale said curtly.

Deloria blushed and said no more.

Some things must yet be kept secret, Illendale said to her, words she heard only in her mind. 

“What of Lord Draedan?” Estra asked.

“With the destruction of Pemmoth, he can no longer claim the life essence of another and is of no more use to the Void. That’s why you must turn to the Southelands, where bleeding veins are now festering at the bottom of the ocean, polluting the waters and changing ocean creatures into monstrosities far worse than any grimmvoire or changeling you encountered in West Asprus. I fear the Void may emerge from the ocean floor.”

“When must we leave?” Reev asked.

“Soon,” Illendale said. “But for now you must continue to rest and regain your strength. To stop the wizards, end the slaughter of the dolphenes, and halt the poisoning of the Southeland Annex oceans, you’ll need far more strength and skill than you needed in West Asprus. And you will have to rely on one another as never before if you hope to find the birthplace of Pim’s Sigil.”

“Can you not tell us where it is?” Deloria asked.

“Alas, I do not know. The birthplace of the knife Sigil was deep within the mountains of the Southeland Annex, but Xapreaou has used the forbidden incantations to shift the plates of the Urthe below the islands and change their geography. Ports once in the north now lie to the west, and mountains seem to have crawled from east to south.”

“Which means the birthplace of Pim’s Sigil might be anywhere in the Southeland Annex,” Reev said.

“Yes,” said Illendale. “The Southeland wizards know the time of the Sigil is upon them. They also know that if you four are able to find the birthplace and unlock Pim’s Sigil, they’ll lose their chance to defeat Draedan, because they draw their newfound strength not only from the dolphene skins, but from the birthplace of Pim’s Sigil as well.”

Pim gave a low groan. His eyes fluttered, and he seemed about to faint, but Bartholomew Diehl grabbed him before he fell. Estra went to him, but he opened his eyes again and stood straight.

“Are you unwell?” Estra asked.

“I’m … fine,” Pim said.

“What happened?” Estra asked.

“I saw a vision—a vision of a fifth Sigil.”

Everyone turned to Illendale.

“Is this true?” Reev asked. “Was there a fifth Sigil?”

But it was Pim who answered. “This Sigil is newly created. It’s a sword, made for one purpose only—to kill me.”

 

High Vassor Draedan Sifferus’s journey from Baccus Run in West Asprus back to Mount Vilner in the Northeland gave him ample time to mull over his plans and schemes. Now that Vassor Kildri was dead, Lord Draedan would place his own son, Draedus Sifferus, on the throne at Baccus Run, but he would wait for the right moment to reveal his intentions. His only regret was losing Vassor Kildri’s wife, who Draedan had flung to her death for attacking him as he tried to choke the life out of her daughter, Vasserine Deloria Kildri. The woman would have made a fine wife. The Vasserine had inherited her mother’s beauty, and it was no wonder that his son was attracted to her. But Draedan had another plaything in mind to provide Draedus his pleasures.

As he rode atop his black steed, making his plans, Lord Draedan worried that he might be losing his battle for dominance. Although his armies were now stationed throughout West Asprus, Pemmoth had fallen, ending his supply of binding bracelets, and wind skaiths had been attacking his Northeland armies, weakening their control over a major path from the north. Adding to his woes, gavel pryors were rumored to be roaming the lands once more, and the Vale of Prevla had miraculously transformed from a stinking swamp into a flourishing green paradise.

But his biggest problem was the escape of the bearers, one of whom had obtained full mastery over her Sigil. He’d had them in his grasp and lost them, leaving him only one option—he’d have to invade the Southeland Annex and kill Xapreaou.

 

The four bearers, Finai, and Bartholomew followed the shadow of Illendale down the chimney entrance of their home below the Urthe. Deloria went last, reluctant to leave the dragons and the zeberilla. She wondered why Frey’re didn’t have a silver ring around his neck, like the other Westridge dragons now bore.

Illendale had conjured a feast of bread, meat, cheese, fruit, and plenty of ale, which was spread on the big oak table in the kitchen. The six sat and eagerly tucked in.

“A meal to rebuild your strength,” Illendale said. “Then you’ll retire to your rooms to prepare for the next leg of your journey.”

“What of Finai and her grandfather?” Deloria asked as she plucked a heel of bread from a serving dish.

“Bartholomew and Finai will stay here in the mountains with me and await your return.”

“I don’t remember volunteering to stay here,” Bartholomew said.

The shadow of Illendale raised an eyebrow at the old man. “What I mean to say is that I would be most pleased if you and the lovely Finai would stay here in my home as my guest. I fear you’ll be unwelcome in Baccus Run.”

“Most generous,” Bartholomew replied with a bow of his head. “We accept your kind offer.”

The four Sigils and Finai laughed at the old man before returning to their feast. As they ate, the bearers regaled Bartholomew and Finai with tales of their West Asprus adventures.

“What I don’t understand is why you have flashes of future events,” Finai said to Pim. “That’s a wizard’s skill.”

Pim shrugged. “I have no answer for you.”

“Yet there are reasons,” Illendale said to him. “Reasons you must uncover yourself.”

Illendale glanced at Deloria, who nodded knowingly.

“Where does our next quest begin?” Reev asked.

“Look to your scroll,” Illendale answered.

Reev produced his scroll Sigil and studied it. “Ah, yes, here it is.” He looked at Pim. “We must first travel to Elestria.”

Pim sighed and dropped the chicken leg he was about to devour. “Elestria,” he murmured, gazing at the shadow of Illendale. “I should have guessed.”

 

Inside a dark cavern in the depths of the Killaman Mountains, a group of dark wizards listened to their leader recite an ancient incantation. The incantation, stolen from the dolphenes, was known to only three others in all of Austrand: Illendale, Tennestra, and Ane’vieve. As the wizard intoned the words, a pool of dark red liquid sprang up from an open vein in the Urthe, steaming and bubbling. The man smiled as a long black object materialized on the pool’s surface. Xapreaou reached down and lifted out a sword as black as death. The wizards gazed upon its beauty, marveling at its magnificence.

Xapreaou held the newborn Sigil high above his head and shouted, “Death to Draedan and the Sigils!”

“Death to Draedan and the Sigils,” the wizards of the Southeland Annex echoed.

 

Finai smiled at her grandfather, Bartholomew Diehl, as he sat in front of the fireplace of Illendale’s home.

“Do you think they will wake soon, Pawpaw?” she asked.

“I hope so,” he grumbled. “I need to see the sky and feel the air. But the shadow said we cannot go above until they wake.”

“It’s been three nightfalls.”

“Aye. They better not sleep much longer.”

The shadow of Illendale materialized from the picture hanging above the hearth. “You lack patience, old man.”

Bartholomew was about to note that it was easier for an immortal to have patience than it was for a mortal man when he heard sounds of doors creaking open. A moment later, the four bearers entered the main room, yawning and stretching.

“What did we miss?” Pim asked.

“Three days,” Bartholomew said.

Breakfast materialized on the table, and the six friends sat down to eat as Illendale prepared them for their journey, which would begin that morning.

“What of the dragons?” Deloria asked.

“I have two old friends coming to visit from the Desert Swamps of Dank’La. They will take the dragons and keep them safe for the while, all but Frey’re, who goes where you go.”

“Protector, why doesn’t Frey’re have the silver mark around his neck, as do I and the Westridge dragons?”

The others gazed at Deloria’s neck. The mark had changed from black to silver when she unlocked her Sigil, and it now swirled around her neck like a living thing.

“The Westridge dragons are bound to you because you chose them by calling to them. But Frey’re chose you when he was born, thus he is yours of his own free will.”

“I don’t want to own those dragons.”

“You’ve given them more freedom than they ever had, and in their gratitude they will find you and help you whenever you call them.”

“How will they hear me from so far away?”

“You’ve unlocked your Sigil, Deloria. The very winds carry your voice, across all of Austrand. But take care as you learn to wield your newfound power, because your voice is as dangerous as it is beautiful. It can tame the wildest beast and bring the strongest man to his knees. Like the dolphenes, you speak every language, and those you seek will hear you when you call to them.”

Reev was about to ask a question when the sound of thunder shook the walls of the underground house and everyone looked up.

“We must hurry,” Illendale said. “A storm is coming, one more dangerous than you can imagine.”

 

Lord Draedan gazed up at the sky and swore. He and his men had tried three times to enter the Vale of Prevla, and each time they had come back out where they’d entered. He had caught glimpses of wildlife in the distance but had been unable to penetrate the Vale. He knew there was powerful magic at work, and he sensed that Tennestra had left the Vale. He wondered if the old wizard and Ane’vieve had betrayed him and become his enemy. Two such enemies he did not need.

As he stood outside the Vale, gazing at the distant forest, he heard a voice echo, a laugh that sent a chill down his spine. He spurred his stallion and turned west. He had to return to Mount Vilner and prepare to march on the Southelands. He had to reach the birthplace of the Sigil buried in the Killaman Mountains of the Southeland Annex before the Void did.

 

The four bearers and their two friends stood with Illendale on the grassy hillock near the entrance to Illendale’s underground home. Above them, black clouds sailed like ships running hard with the wind, and the smell of rain was in the air.

“I’ll hold back the storm until you reach Illendale Lake,” the Protector said. “When my friends arrive, they will help me maintain the rain barrier.”

An old man and woman appeared along the tree line to the west. Tennestra ran across the field to reach his brother, tears flowing from his face. He ran straight through the shadow of Illendale as he tried to embrace him.

“Alas, we cannot embrace as we did in the shadow veil, brother.”

“The shadow veil?” Deloria asked.

Illendale nodded. “I visited my brother and his wife in the shadow veil as you four slept.”

“And I’m glad you did,” Ane’vieve said. “I know my sister is smiling down on us.”

Estra was beaming as she turned to the two visitors. “I’m so glad you two found each other. I knew my love arrow would work.”

“Though we appreciate your efforts, in truth, we did not need your arrow,” Tennestra said. “Facing the lies I’ve been fed these thousands of years was enough to set me free.”

“And I never stopped loving my husband,” Ane’vieve said.

“So, what’s happening in West Asprus?” Reev asked.

“Lord Draedan has returned to Mount Vilner,” Tennestra said. “He tried to penetrate the Vale of Prevla, but we cast a spell of illusion so that he could not pass. He knows he’s losing his grip in West Asprus, so he’s planting more Northeland armies throughout the lands and will soon appoint a new Vassor over Baccus Run.”

“Ill news,” Pim said.

“Not entirely,” said Tennestra. “Others besides us are even now gathering to oppose him. Gavel pryors, wind skaiths, and the wizards Tima and Daepak to the south will all fight to reclaim our lands.”

“What about the dragons?” Deloria asked.

“They’ll return with us,” Ane’vieve said. “We’ve expanded the paradise within the desert to accommodate a third of the dragons. Another third will go to the Vale of Prevla and the other third will go to Zukva.”

“But they’ll be in danger.”

“No danger can threaten the beasts claimed by the Sigil,” Illendale said. “They bear your mark and are protected by the same magic that protects you. They will help protect the lands. But when you are in need of them, call and they will find you. And now, Sigils, it’s time to depart.”

“Which way?” Estra asked.

“Take the path through the woods to the south until you reach the cliff that overlooks Illendale Lake.”

“That’s two days’ walk,” Pim said. “And how will we get down off the cliff?”

Reev removed his Sigil, and a single word appeared on the scroll in the center of the map of Illendale. “Floataerie’tare,” he uttered, and a large wooden barge with a roof made of Eldorand leaves materialized in front of them.

Pim glanced at Illendale, an unspoken question in his eyes.

“Streaomotat’taeo,” Illendale commanded, and the barge rose a foot off the ground.

The four Sigils boarded the boat, which gave slightly under their weight, and then Frey’re shuffled aboard. The dragon lay down in the rear, and Shadoe jumped from Deloria’s blouse to settle on top of him.

“Follow the widened path to the south,” Illendale said. “Take the waterfall into Illendale Lake and sail to the east. Once you dock, travel north to the Mountain Asp Inn. There you will find a man named Skizziks, who will help you find safe passage into Elestria.”

Pim’s jaw dropped and he stared at Illendale. “Skizziks? A man named Skizziks once ran with me and Jinxy.”

Illendale nodded. “I told him in a dream years ago who you were and commanded him to watch over you. Now it’s time for him to see you safely on the first leg of your quest.”

Illendale raised a hand, and the barge began to slowly move forward. Finai ran to it and flung her arms across the gunwale to hug Deloria, who knelt down and caught her up for a brief moment.

“I’ll miss you, Vasserine,” she sobbed as her feet dragged across the urthe below her.

“And I will miss you, Finai.”

“Come back to us,” the girl said.

“I’ll return, I promise.”

Deloria set Finai on the ground and wiped away a tear. The four bearers waved until the others disappeared from view.

As the barge entered the forest path, they felt the presence of gasts, Sigils from years past, surrounding them. The gasts whispered words of encouragement to prepare them for the road ahead. They gazed up at the sky and saw rain falling, but the downpour failed to penetrate the forest. To the south, tendrils of black smoke still licked the sky. Night fell, and they slept, the invisible currents bearing them on.

When morning returned, the sun was a hazy orange smear, barely visible through the dark clouds scudding across the sky, and still the barge drifted, hovering just above the ground. When finally they reached the edge of the Illendale Mountains, they heard the sound of rushing water as they headed toward the cliff.

“The waterfall,” Deloria said.

Reev nodded under his reader’s cloak. “The waterfall is marked by magic. We’ve been riding on a stream of magic since we left Illendale.”

And suddenly they were there. The front of the barge dropped over the edge of the cliff, and their hearts dropped to their feet as a torrent of white water crashed in their ears. They crouched low as the barge became vertical, but an invisible force held them in place, as if their boots were fixed to the deck, and moments later they slipped gently into Illendale Lake. As the boat settled on the lake, rain began to drum down upon the roof of Eldorand leaves. The spell that had protected them from the storm was broken.

The barge headed toward the eastern shore. Pim asked Reev what was driving it forward, but the boy wizard seemed lost in a trance as he studied the bottom of the lake.

“Reev, are you all right?” Pim asked.

Reev sighed and shook his head slowly, still gazing down at the lake. “So much painful history hidden beneath these waters. The remains of towns from eons past.”

Pim looked over the rail and down at the lake and felt a wave of dizziness pass over him. He clutched the rail and shook his head. “I have a strange feeling that there’s something special hidden below.”

An hour later they reached the shoreline, and the barge gently bumped up against it. The four bearers and Frey’re disembarked, and the boat shoved off and headed west.

“Where is it going?” Estra asked as they huddled under Frey’re’s outstretched wings to get out of the driving rain.

“Back to Illendale,” Reev replied.

They took a moment to watch the barge recede into the distance and then turned toward the forest.

“How far is the Mountain Asp Inn?” Deloria asked.

“About a day’s walk,” Pim replied. “I say we find some shelter in the woods, and then Estra and I can rustle up some game hens while you two gather kindling and get Frey’re to start us a fire. We’ll eat, get some sleep, and head out in the morning.”

“I agree with Pim,” Estra said.

“Then it’s settled,” Reev said. “Let’s go find some shelter.”

 

Lord Draedan sat in his main quarters overlooking the city of Mount Vilner. His son, Draedus Sifferus, stood silently nearby, awaiting instructions.

“Send a ship to Ivull,” Draedan said.

“Yes, father.”

“Fill it full of gold, silver, and gems. I don’t care about the price. I want the tracker and his pack. The wizards of the Southeland Annex are planning to rise against me. They now occupy the birthplace of the second Sigil, the most powerful of the four. It is there, after we extinguish their clan, that we can continue production of the binding bracelets.”

“And you believe the tracker can find this birthplace, Father?” Draedus asked.

“He can,” Draedan replied. “And his dogs will slaughter the wizards and anyone else who stands in my path. The birthplace is hidden somewhere in the Killaman Mountains, but no matter how deep below the Urthe, the tracker will find it.”

“I wish to accompany you, Father. I want the Vasserine. You promised her to me.”

“And you will have her, my son. But your place for now is between here and Baccus Run. And I must prepare my armies for their march to the Southelands.”

“Why not appoint a new leader for the armies?”

“I can trust no one.”

Draedus frowned, and Lord Draedan could read the disappointment in his son’s face. “Except, for you, my son. Do as I say, and I’ll grant you a gift to help you bide your time.”

“And this gift you speak of, Father?”

“Estra Dane’s younger sister. Even though he’s dead, Korvo will pay for his insolence. I will take his wife, Leria Dane, and you will have the young Lora Dane for yourself.”

Draedus smiled and licked his lips.

 

The four Sigils and their dragon spent the better part of the following day trekking along the tree line hugging the Illendale Mountains. Gasts slipped in and out of the mists, but the bearers knew they were in no danger from the spirits of the mountains, and they knew no human eyes would find them—fear of the Illendale Mountains would keep mere mortals away.

“How well do you know this Skizziks?” Estra asked Pim as she walked beside him.

“He’s as good a thief as my old mentor Jinxy,” Pim replied. “I’m surprised Illendale would trust him.”

Estra shrugged. “Illendale trusts you.”

Pim laughed and gave her a playful shove. “I’ve seen Skizziks do things that still haunt my sleep.”

“What things?” Deloria asked.

“Things that the tender ears of a Vasserine should never hear.”

“What about the ears of a bearer?” Deloria asked.

“Let’s just say that his ruthless reputation far exceeded mine in the Southelands. I wouldn’t want to be on his bad side.”

“Pim the Capon,” Estra said.

“Make your japes, Bow Girl. I like the man, but I always slept with my eyes open when we traveled with him.”

The day wore on and night returned, but they kept walking. A small billow of smoke appeared to the east of the tree line, rising against the disk of the glowing moon.

“We’re here,” Pim said. “And just in time. I’m starved.”

“We can’t just march into that inn,” Reev said. “People will know who we are. Remember what happened last time.”

“Relax,” Pim said. “People who come to the Mountain Asp Inn aren’t looking to be noticed.”

“Then why did they chase us last time?” Reev asked.

“I’d say that was the inn owner’s doing. He was pretty angry when we cleared the place.”

“I’m betting he hasn’t forgotten us.”

Pim shrugged. “Inn owners don’t last long here. I’ll be surprised if he’s still in charge. I’ll be surprised if he’s still alive.”

“What about Frey’re?” Deloria asked

“He should stay in the forest,” Pim said. “He can do some hunting until we return for him, maybe roast a farmer or two.”

Deloria whispered to Frey’re, and he took to the skies, heading west toward the mountains. The four headed to the inn’s front door and stepped inside.

The dining room was warm and crowded, filled with music and laughter and the hum of conversation. Several runes games were going on in opposite corners. The place was so packed that there was only one table left, at the very front, near the door. No one paid them any mind.

“I don’t like this,” Estra muttered as she tugged her hood down over her head. Deloria and Reev did the same, while Pim walked to the bar, not bothering to hide his identity.

At the bar, a large, muscular man with one grayed-out eye and a scar from his forehead down to the tip of his nose rubbed the counter with a wet rag.

“I need four ales and four bowls of whatever is responsible for that stench I smell, which I’m guessing is your stew.”

The man frowned and eyed Pim up and down. Pim removed a handful of silvers and slapped them down on the counter, leaving his hand over them. “Do you think you can count this with your good eye?”

That good eye narrowed on Pim as the man continued to frown. In a swift movement, the man swung a dagger straight down into the counter, burying the tip in the wood between Pim’s middle and ring fingers. “I believe it was I who taught you to count, you little good for nothing thief.”

Pim smiled. “I believe you also taught me how to throw knives, though Jinxy would say it was him.”

Skizziks laughed and reached across the bar to hug Pim, lifting him off the floor and pulling him across the counter. “Ah, Pim, you little pest, how I’ve missed you.” As he let him go, he saw three youths standing at the bar, ready to pounce. “Who’re these then? Friends of yours?”

Pim nodded. “Deloria, Estra, and Reev, meet Skizziks.”

“Any friends of Pim are … sure to be trouble,” Skizziks said before breaking into gales of laughter.

“So, you’re the new barkeep, eh?” Pim said.

“Actually, I own this place now.”

“What happened to the last owner?” Reev asked.

“It was in his best interest to part ways with this old barn,” Skizziks replied.

Reev raised an eyebrow, and Estra and Deloria glanced at each other.

“Told you you’d like him,” Pim said to Estra.

“So, it’s true,” Skizziks whispered. “You’re the four bearers.”

“And how would you know anything about that?” Pim asked.

Gesturing for the four to come close, he whispered, “Illendale has been speaking to me in my dreams for a month now, just as he did when we found you when you were ten.”

“What’s he been saying?” Deloria asked.

Skizziks removed a brass key that was hanging from a strand of twine hidden beneath his shirt. “This is the key to the under dungeons of Elestria. Illendale said I was to find it, give it to you, Pim, and lead you four into Elestria.”

“What are under dungeons?” Estra asked. “And what’s in them?”

“The castle of Elestria was built on top of an old prison,” Skizziks replied. “These are the under dungeons, known to only a few. As for what’s in them, I don’t know.” He looked at Reev. “Illendale said the boy wizard would have the answer.”