CROW OF VALKYN
THE EMPTY THRONE
Ransom halted, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.
Four steps. Then a last long step to the landing.
The Ranger opened his eyes and slowly exhaled, tasting the early morning air.
It had been too long.
Ransom never forgot the first time he had visited The Pantheon, many years ago. The foundations had barely set, yet people already called it the greatest wonder of the Kingdoms. Built atop Highmount, its central ridge linked a cluster of three hills named, appropriately, Order, Balance and Chaos. Each hill was crowned by its own magnificent temple, delved at immense cost by The Devoted. Yet all were as children to The Pantheon.
The Ranger’s head turned from side to side as he descended the broad steps of the thirteen outer rings. The vaulted ceiling stretched so high the lights from the apertures were mere specks. At night they formed a cunning pattern that mimicked the constellations.
On a typical day, these marbled halls were filled with wide-eyed visitors, most mundane but also many Crows. As one descended, each ring told a unique tale. And all these tales wove into the greater saga, its ending yet unwritten, in which all races had their place.
These were the Rings of the Heroes. Crowded on either side with statuary, murals and paintings, the Rings memorialized the feats and sacrifices of the most remarkable Crows of ages past. The finest artists of the Kingdoms ensured each portrayal was a masterpiece of its genre.
On one enormous mural, a young Queen braced herself, terrible and fair, as she blocked the path of an unseen menace. On another a Guineacean captain balanced atop the foaming prow of a ship, his scarlet cloak billowing as he gestured towards a far horizon. A gilded bronze, ten times the size of any man, portrayed a massive Minotaur, streaming blood from many wounds, as he swept the heads from the grasping horrors encircling him. Some memorials were more modest, yet held their own power. Ransom always felt moved by a small fountain in a quiet alcove, upon which was simply carved: “To Arabella, from her friends.”
Ransom’s first visit had been followed by many others. Despite this, he knew he had seen only a fraction of the Rings. As he continued down the steps, each time he passed a gallery that was new to him, he forced himself to keep walking. He needed to remember his purpose.
He was almost there.
The last steps opened into the great chamber, a vast circular space with a raised platform at its center surrounded by a clear pool of water. Here, at the very heart of The Pantheon, rose the greatest of its works – The Empty Throne. A hundred feet of polished granite carved into the likeness of a kingly chair.
And there she was.
A veteran of many campaigns, Ransom was not easily impressed. As a Ranger, he was used to relying on his own judgment and skill. As a third son, he’d earned his way by merit. When he’d received today’s orders, he’d inwardly cursed. A foolish waste of time. The reports couldn’t be true.
Yet there she was.
Clad in a simple blue dress, the girl sat quietly on a bench besides the pool. She had taken her shoes off and was idly dipping her toes in the clear water. Sensing his approach, the girl rose and turned, running one hand through a mane of shiny black hair that reached far down her back while smoothing her dress with the other.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I lost track of time.”
Ransom fought to hide his amazement. They made no Crows of children, but this girl looked even younger than her years, an impression compounded by her short stature. She carried herself with an assurance that suggested she was well aware of her physical beauty. But there was a sadness around the edges of her eyes. And when she stood, consciously or not, she had fallen into what an experienced warrior would recognize as prelude to a fighting stance.
Noticing Ransom’s gaze drawn to her bare dripping feet, she gave a lissome smile and wiggled her toes.
Oh, she was a dangerous one.
“You know who I am?” asked Ransom.
“Of course,” answered the girl, as if surprised at the question. “Pilkington described you to a T.”
Ransom wondered who Pilkington was. But he reminded himself to keep focus. This wasn’t developing as he’d expected.
Before he could say anything further, he felt a presence behind him. He half-turned as a tall, dark-complexioned woman in assassin leathers strode up. Weaponless as they all were in this sacred place, he could not help but reach instinctively for the empty space on his belt where his scabbard usually hung. He winced, knowing the gesture would be marked as a sign of weakness.
The newcomer placed herself an equal distance from Ransom and the girl. Then she crossed her arms.
“Kitaara, I presume?” he queried.
The newcomer shrugged her shoulders.
Another piece of the puzzle, thought Ransom. But the Order needed answers. Best to get straight to it.
“Then you know why I am here,” said Ransom, turning to address the girl directly. “Pardon my lack of manners. I am Ransom, a Ranger, servant of Arkon and Warden of the Golden Council. Your time in the Kingdoms has been short, but I expect you've heard of us.”
The Ranger bowed.
The girl, who had by now put her shoes back on, returned the bow.
“I am Cembrye,” she said.
Ransom raised an eyebrow.
“Just Cembrye?” he asked.
“You have your answer,” interrupted Kitaara.
“Perhaps,” said Ransom.
“Strange reports come to the Council,” he continued. “A mundane girl slays a Crow in a duel. A tremendous feat for one so young. The fight appeared to be over slaves and gold”
Kitaara shifted, but said nothing.
“No great matter by itself,” continued Ransom. “This temple rests on the three hills. Another follower of Chaos or the Balance means little. Our swords give judgement on the battlefield. But that was not the end of it. A mundane child was used in a forbidden ritual. The vessels of the dead, for better or worse, are allowed us. But this ritual stripped the essence from the living and captured it in an amulet.”
“We had nothing to do with that!” blurted Cembrye.
Kitaara looked grim, but remained silent.
“Did you not?” said Ransom. “Now to the last. When a Crow is Called, in the fullness of time each comes to The Pantheon. Their journey ends at the three hills, where they take up the mantle of champion for one of the All-Father’s kindred. Yet this mundane girl, trained by a follower of Malekai, ascended in blood upon prayers to Kane and Illara, has not done so."
“So I ask again,” said Ransom, looking intensely at the girl. “What is your name?”
The girl lowered her head and closed her eyes. Her lips moved as if in prayer. Then she lifted her chin and looked directly at the Ranger.
“I am Cembrye...Bride of Valkyn,” she murmured.
Ransom felt anger welling in him. He turned towards the assassin.
“Kitaara Red-Hand,” he spat. “The Trickster puts this girl in great peril.”
“This is none of His doing,” replied Kitaara evenly. “Else she would wear the spider mark even now.”
Ransom had dealt with Malekai’s followers many times. They were renowned for their lies and manipulations. Yet, as Warden of the Golden Council, he had been gifted with Truesight.
Kitaara was not lying.
He turned back to the girl with growing unease.
“Do you have it with you?” he demanded.
Cembrye shook her head.
“It's in a safe place,” she replied.
Ransom scowled and stepped closer to the girl. Kitaara matched his movement. The air was thick for a moment.
Ransom passed a hand over his eyes. Then he took a pace back. Kitaara did the same.
“My apologies,” said Ransom. “But you must understand. If the Golden Council knows of this amulet, then so do others. The power it unlocks could upset the balance itself. But it is not just the amulet - there is the matter of the title you claim.”
Ransom took several steps towards the pool and looked up at the massive statue.
“The All-Father is gone,” he declared. “His absence frees the Gods and their champions. We contest his legacy but unite to fight the greater threat. All that would change were He to return."
Ransom rounded on the girl.
"Your claim is sacrilege," he said sternly. "If you persist, it will bring down upon you not only the Devoted, but all three Great Councils. They will not care if your beliefs are the fruit of some misguided cult. The fate of a heretic is worse than death."
The Ranger stopped. The girl was pale and shaking. He had gone too far.
Ransom sighed inwardly.
A familiar feeling began to creep over him. A feeling usually associated with the appearance of a noble, but lost cause. It did not help that a pretty girl was involved.
“Do you have any proof?” he asked in a gentler tone.
Cembrye shook her head, eyes glistening.
“Only what is in my heart,” she replied softly.
Ransom gritted his teeth. She was not lying. But none of this made sense. And yet...there was something about her.
A great lesson he'd learned in life was to trust his instincts. But what he was about to do would not only gain him no favor with the Golden Council. It would launch him on a fearful path towards an unknown end.
Ransom took a deep breath.
So be it.
“Know this,” said Ransom. “You have some time. But eventually the Golden Council will gain the agreement of the others. They will bring you to trial. A girl who claims to hear the voice of the Almighty cannot be ignored. Others will try to seize this amulet for their own ends.”
“As for myself,” he continued. “I do not know the Gods desires. But I know what such an amulet could do in the wrong hands. There are those, even of Order, who would not hesitate to use it as a weapon. Yet to destroy it would be another crime. For unless I miss my guess, somewhere a child suffers.”
Cembrye glanced at Kitaara, who gave her a warning look. The girl hesitated, then turned back towards the ranger.
“Yes,” said Cembrye “He is a young boy. I plan to find him and reverse the process – somehow.”
“What of the amulet’s creator?” asked Ransom. “Stoor cannot have acted alone.”
“That is not your concern,” said Kitaara coldly.
“No Kitaara,” murmured Cembrye, placing her hand on the assassin’s arm and giving it a squeeze. “We can't do this alone.”
The girl stepped towards Ransom.
“What about your Council?” asked Cembrye. “Wouldn’t they object to your helping us?”
"Only if they find out,” smiled Ransom. “But I suspect your guardian keeps her ward's secrets well," he added mischievously.
“I am not her guardian,” said Kitaara.
“I am not her ward," said Cembrye at the same time.
Kitaara rolled her eyes as the girl giggled.
“Well,” said Ransom. “We are all taking risks. I will contact you shortly – I need to handle other business first. But watch your steps. I recommend staying in your realms for now.”
Ransom nodded to them both and turned to walk away. He couldn’t help but overhear a last snatch of conversation.
“Why did you tell all?” growled Kitaara. “We agreed to listen and no more.”
“I had an inspiration,” said the girl.
Ransom smiled as he began to ascend the steps.
Lost in his thoughts, he did not notice a hooded figure slip into the shadows as he passed.