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The Hidden Relic (The Evermen Saga, Book Two), страница 1

 

The Hidden Relic (The Evermen Saga, Book Two)
 


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The Hidden Relic (The Evermen Saga, Book Two)


  THE HIDDEN RELIC

  By James Maxwell

  Copyright James Maxwell 2012.

  All rights to this novel are reserved.

  No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the copyright holder. The characters and situations are products of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Cover design by Marc Forbes.

  www.JamesMaxwell.com

  Map

  Prologue

  EVRIN Evenstar had given Killian a quest, and now he must see to his own vital task. If Killian succeeded in destroying Stonewater's magical machines: the harvesting plant, the extraction system, and the refinery; Evrin must work to ensure that the greatest relic of all remained hidden.

  Evrin followed Killian with his eyes until the younger man disappeared from view, vanishing along the pilgrim's trail, heading for Stonewater's heart.

  Evrin had done his best: he'd imbued Killian with as much power as he could, considering the young man's lack of knowledge about the runes, and armed him with the destructive cubes. The boy's fate was now out of his hands.

  Yet he couldn't help worrying. Killian would face perils within Stonewater, and Evrin wished he could help more. He wished the young man good fortune, and prayed they would soon be reunited at the appointed place, the sky temple in Salvation.

  The old man rubbed at his eyes, looking up the mountain, his gaze finally resting on his destination — the very summit of Stonewater, the place they called the Pinnacle.

  Evrin began to climb, his joints creaking as he placed one foot in front of the other, and the path became steeper. Soon, Evrin knew, there would be a fork in the path. The left fork led to the work rooms of the senior priests and templars. It was the right fork Evrin was interested in.

  Taking a series of winding stairs, Evrin paused for breath, leaning on the stone wall for support. He could remember a time when the scenes carved into the stone were fresh and crisp, and the steps sturdy and new. Now each step was cracked and worn, and he could barely make out the whorls and lines that had once created an image on the wall.

  What was it a picture of? Surely he had once known.

  As he waited for his strength to return, Evrin looked out at the vista below. The wind buffeted him, and he again grabbed at the stone for support. He was high, so high that even the buildings of Salvation were tiny, the people like little ants.

  Evrin thought of the Primate. What it must do, for a man's sense of hubris, living up here at the top of this mountain.

  Killian would be inside now. Evrin resumed his climb; he couldn't afford any more pauses. He came to the fork and took the right-hand path, bearing upwards. The pilgrims who took these same steps would be flushed with excitement, about to reach their destination — the place they had journeyed across the world and faced the hardship of travel to see. The Pinnacle.

  Evrin increased his speed, but the next stage was a set of steps without break and soon his breath ran ragged, the muscles in his legs burning. He kept his head down, his hands on his knees, taking one step after another, counting them. It frightened him, how hard this path was compared to days gone by.

  He heard a rumble from within the belly of the mountain and smiled to himself at the sound of the explosion; Killian was doing well. Evrin had been searching for Killian for an eternity, and while he knew the questions Killian was burning to have answered, first he must —

  Some loose gravel rolled under Evrin's foot, and the wind twisted the robe around his ankles. With a cry the old man's muscles gave out and he tripped, falling to the ground, smashing his knees on the hard stone. When Evrin was able to think he realised he was on the ground, sprawled across the steps. Evrin clutched at the wall but pain shot through his ankle, sending stars bursting inside his head. He looked down at his sandaled foot. The ankle was twisted, and already his foot was beginning to swell, the flesh white and puffy.

  Evrin probed it with his hands, and the pain made him gasp. He shook his head ruefully.

  "In the name of all that's holy," Evrin said. He almost smiled, realising how fitting the words were, given where he was, but the smile came out as a grimace.

  The sharp pain settled to a regular throb, timed to the beating of his heart. Evrin needed to get to the Pinnacle before the next explosion. It wouldn't take Killian long to find the extraction system, and then the refinery. He wondered what surprises the Primate had in store for the young man, whether there were templars defending the relics, or something even worse. Nothing the lad couldn't handle, he hoped.

  Evrin winced as he tried to stand. Once, he would have been able to heal himself, and the pain would have vanished, the bone knitting together until it was whole and undamaged. It was an ability he no longer had.

  He finally used a mental trick to ignore the pain in his ankle and continue up the endless steps. He had been counting, hadn't he?

  "What's the point," he muttered. Yet for some reason he again found himself counting from one.

  "One."

  Groan. Step. Drag. Pause. Deep breath.

  "Two."

  Evrin wondered if he was going to make it before the extraction system blew. His ears were pricked, listening intently for the rumbling sound of another explosion. The pain of his ankle was a constant distraction, occupying his mind when what he needed most was to plan what he would do when he reached the Pinnacle.

  It was just ahead.

  As the stone wall fell away, Evrin now approached the summit of the mountain. The howling wind blew with strength here, gusting at his body, causing the pilgrim's robe to whip against his legs. With no handholds and a sheer drop to either side of the stairs, Evrin resisted the urge to look down. He'd never had a head for heights.

  The summit of Stonewater, the very peak of the mountain, was a circular space a hundred paces in diameter. Located in the centre of that space, the Pinnacle was the holiest, most renowned place in the Tingaran Empire. The Pinnacle shone on the world, and from here, the light of the Evermen could be felt from anywhere; or so the priests said.

  The Pinnacle was undeniably a work of great power. It was a hemisphere of light, as tall as a tree and wide as a palace, shining with golden radiance day and night. The glowing nimbus of the Pinnacle wasn't too bright to look at, yet its sparkle could be seen for leagues in all directions.

  Stepping into the light was an experience the pilgrims said must be felt to be appreciated. First came a feeling of warmth and a soft buzzing sounded in the ears. Closer still and nothing but light could be seen in all directions — said to provide a feeling of the utmost peace. A few more steps and the buzzing became a crackle. Every pilgrim tried to approach still further, before he or she was pushed away.

  The light simply repelled the visitor, and then the pilgrim was back where they had started. People from all nations of the Tingaran Empire speculated about whether anyone would one day penetrate deeper inside, and whether what was inside was simply more of the light, or whether a grand secret of the Evermen was hidden within its confines.

  Evrin knew the truth. He gazed steadily at the Pinnacle as he crested the steps, limping towards it. The light shone back at him, impassive and unchanging. Evrin knew the truth, and he also knew he would have this one opportunity, and that what he was doing was perhaps the most important task of his life.

  Five pilgrims clustered around the light, staring at it in awe.

  Evrin raised his voice as he approached. "There is danger here. Be gone, all of you."

  A
voice came from close behind him. "You don't give the orders here, pilgrim. I do."

  Turning, Evrin saw a man with the sword and uniform of a templar. Evrin noted the yellow eyes. The templar had the taint.

  "The danger," Evrin said, "is from me."

  He spoke three words, and opened the palm of his right hand. A bronze bracelet appeared at Evrin's wrist and a matching ring at his index finger. Silver symbols decorated the edge of the bracelet, and as Evrin spoke two more sequences, the bracelet and ring flared red.

  As Evrin raised his arm the templar stepped back. A circle of pure light came from Evrin's bracelet, travelling along his wrist. The circle grew tighter and smaller as it approached the ring, finally condensing to a tiny disc of energy too bright to look at.

  It left the ring with incredible speed, too fast for the eye to see.

  The templar looked down at the hole in his chest, an expression of surprise and disbelief on his face. His breath rattled, and he crumpled to the stone.

  The fleeing pilgrims fled, and Evrin turned back to the Pinnacle, thinking about what it actually was.

  A barrier.

  The Evermen once met here at the summit of Stonewater to discuss the issues and plans that affected them all. Their greatest works of lore were conceived at the structure now hidden by the light, from mighty weapons to complex machines.

  In days long gone, the chamber at the summit of the mountain was open to the sky. Only later was the barrier conceived, activated to repel any unwelcome visitors and keep the chamber concealed.

  Evrin was here now because the barrier was about to vanish. Before today, he'd always been confident that the secrets preserved within its confines could never be discovered, especially by someone such as Primate Melovar Aspen. Evrin himself could not break through to the chamber hidden within the light.

  But the barrier had a weakness: it was powered by the refinery, deep in the bowels of the mountain.

  The refinery Evrin had just asked Killian to destroy.

  Evrin dragged himself closer to the light. He cocked his head to the side as he listened.

  The explosion was bigger than he had imagined it would be. When he felt it, Evrin's first thought was relief that Killian had come this far: he'd destroyed the extraction system, and only the refinery remained. The rumble grew in intensity, becoming a series of explosions as each part of the massive system caused the next to detonate, while the ground trembled under Evrin's feet and dust rose into the air. The noise was deafening and Evrin put his hands to his ears. If the templars didn't know about Killian's intrusion before, they would now.

  The barrier still held. It wouldn't be until the destruction of the refinery that the light would fade, revealing the secret chamber within.

  Evrin withdrew a destructive cube from his pocket. When the device was unleashed, the magic within would feed on other magic, increasing the cube's destructive power while devouring anything it encountered that was built with essence.

  The moment the barrier came down, Evrin planned to destroy the chamber at the Pinnacle. The last great project of the Evermen would remain secret for all time.

  Evrin took a shaky step forward into the light, waiting for the final explosion, yet when it came the destruction of the refinery still took him by surprise. The quake threw him to his knees, the pain from his ankle shooting through his leg. Even here, at the top of the mountain, the sound of falling rock was a deafening cacophony. Evrin tried to stand but the quakes still grew in strength, and it wasn't until the shaking subsided that Evrin finally struggled to his feet.

  The hemisphere of light surrounding the chamber was gone. Where it had been was a level space, and in the middle of that space stood a solitary structure, the highest building in the world.

  As the ground continued to tremble, Evrin limped forward. Killian had done it, that much was clear, but whether the boy was alive and unharmed by the explosion was an unanswered question. Evrin prayed he would be well. They still had much to discuss.

  The low structure had four arched entrances, one at each of the cardinal points. A myriad of symbols decorated each arch, appearing untouched by the centuries. Evrin limped forward, for the first time seeing it as a temple, with its dramatic entrances and intricate stonework. This was where the Evermen came to acknowledge their own magnificence.

  The mountain rumbled again. The explosion must have been immense. How could Killian survive such a thing? With an effort, Evrin pushed thoughts of the boy out of his mind. Killian had achieved his objectives. Now Evrin needed to complete his.

  He stepped into the structure. It was laid out as two concentric squares: an outer chamber where glorious artwork described the wondrous feats performed here, and an inner chamber where the actual work was done. Mosaics decorated the floor of the outer room, scenes of the Evermen working in concert, creating works of lore that none of them could ever have made on their own. The walls burst with colour: golden suns shining on green fields, silver stars sparkling from a midnight-blue sky, a tall mountain that could only be Stonewater looming over a crowd of men and women.

  Evrin gripped the destructive cube tightly in his fist, surprised at his reaction after so long. Emotion gripped him, and he suddenly felt alone, more alone than he'd felt in a long time. He'd thought himself accustomed to his place in the world, but it seemed his heart knew better.

  Evrin reached the inner chamber and stepped forward, his heart hammering and the pain in his ankle momentarily forgotten. Diagrams and symbols were everywhere, etched into the marble with veins of gold. Runes covered the floor and the ceiling, matrices and patterns too complex even for Evrin to grasp alone.

  In the middle of the room was a raised series of steps. On the highest tier stood a pedestal, and on the pedestal lay a closed book.

  Made of the same metallic fabric the Evermen used in all their works, the book was as thick as the span of a man's hand. On the cover was an androgynous figure wearing a crown, head tilted, looking up at the sky.

  The skin rose on the back of Evrin's neck; the room fairly reeked with power, and even through the urgency of his task, Evrin couldn't help himself.

  "Tuh-ruk. Suh-ran. Tuk-ruk Evrin Evenstar," he spoke without thinking.

  The room came to life. Soft music sounded, fluting and triumphant. The runes on the walls, floor and ceiling shone in a multitude of colours. The Evermen's final plan was revealed in all its glory, and with a word or a gesture Evrin could call forth any detail, examine any aspect of the project. For a moment he was filled with awe at the magnificence of it; this was the greatest work of lore the world had ever seen.

  With a sigh, Evrin spoke the words, and the room was empty once more. He reminded himself; the location of the relic must be kept from the templars at all costs. Destroying the chamber filled him with sadness, but the risk was too great not to.

  Evrin climbed the steps up to the pedestal, placing the destructive cube on top of the book. "Lot-har," he said, activating the device and turning away. There, it was done. He had several seconds to depart.

  The ground trembled again. Evrin stumbled as he stepped off the last step, and his ankle turned, pain shooting up his foot and through his leg in waves. He fell to the floor.

  Evrin looked back at the pedestal, and the book that sat atop it. The cube fell from the book and landed on the topmost step. The mountain shuddered again, and the cube fell down to the next step with a tinkle.

  The device had been activated. It would explode at any instant. More than anything, the book must not escape.

  Evrin launched himself at the cube, but it was just out of reach. Ignoring the pain in his ankle, he reached for it but it moved away from him, tinkling as it rolled along the floor, gathering momentum as it left the inner chamber completely.

  Evrin realised he wouldn't make it.

  He rolled onto his stomach and covered his head with his arms.

  The cube exploded.

  Far below, in the town of Salvation, people looked up in awe as smoke b
illowed from Stonewater like a volcano.

  1

  MIRO deployed more troops to the northern regions of Halaran. Immediately the weakness in his eastern defences became apparent: the Black Army would push through all the way to Sarostar. He rubbed at his eyes and reset the simulator.

  The simulator was the size of a large table and occupied a special room inside the Crystal Palace. Miro ran his dark eyes over the lands of the former Tingaran Empire, represented in incredible detail, suffused with the colour that millions of tiny runes projected onto its surface.

  To the extreme west was Altura, bordered by the Dunwood in the north and the land of Vezna further still to the north and east. In Altura's west, the Great Western Sea stretched endlessly. Some said the world of Merralya ended here, while a minority said no sea was endless. Only the Buchalanti could know, but the sailmasters of Raj Buchalantas weren't known for being informative.

  Bordering Altura on the east was the land of Halaran, now occupied by the enemy. Miro could only wonder at the horrors the Alturans' traditional allies must be enduring.

  South of Altura, across the blocked Wondhip Pass, was the homeland of Raj Petrya. Miro never stopped fearing an attack from that direction, although he knew of only the one route, and passage that way had been barred by massive blocks of stone.

  Further south, past Petrya, was the great Hazara Desert. Never part of the Tingaran Empire, the tribes had hitherto kept to themselves. In this war, that was no longer an option.

  To the east of Halaran was the heartland of the enemy: Torakon, the homeland of the builders; Loua Louna, where the Black Army had driven through in a surprise attack; Aynar, where Stonewater formed the spiritual heart of the empire; and Tingara itself, where the Emperor had ruled his dominion from the city of Seranthia.

  Each land's borders were shown, but all lands except Altura were darkened, now under the dominion of the enemy. Two dots still glowed on Altura's southern coast: the free cities of Castlemere and Schalberg. Another region, the Hazara Desert, was also free from the enemy's grip, but who could say what occurred in the yellow sands of the far south?

 
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