Under his feet, the last remains of the Library choked the weeds with flaking ash. Softly, so softly did he walk upon those scorched bones of knowledge, though exactly why he took such care... well, he scarcely could have said. The long train of his robe swept across the wastes, picked up particles of the stuff like a mourner sifting through the treasures of the deceased, eyeing worthless trinkets for the fading memories therein.
Four days. He had been gone that long, and no longer, and in four days... no. "Regret is for the weak, shame is for the lost." Fourth mantra. Psalms of Tragien. Yes, he still remembers. Does anyone else? A flower, brittle and burnt, turns to wind before the soft tremors of his boots. Even on this blanket of death, reflects the scholar Andreas, the passing of one man rocks the truth of the world.
Perhaps he should leave. But where would he go? Everywhere, the clouds, and everywhere this death. Above the skies are gray and narrow, and far away the mountains are the only solace for his eyes. He has heard of places in the west, Ans and the great expanse of the Malorn, where a man may lose his woes in cheap drink or memory-grass, whichever takes his dying fancy, but his pride is not that far gone, and recoils like a snake before dooming talons.
It is not alone. He is not alone, and the realization strikes even as his body begins to shoot to one side, the wrong side, and takes a hefty blow that knocks the wind from his lungs and the good sense from behind his furrowed brow. The Veilmen, he thinks. The Veilmen have come back, specially for my cobbled old soul. And pride, pride, pride, like a swordsman much roughed and coarsely amputated, limps to ragged attention. Is it his arm reaching for the blade in his robe, or that of an animal, the beast within, that refuses a sensible end?
Never matter. Never think, and certainly the yell is that of a madman, and the face caked in white death is a lunatic's and the arm reaching out, yes! - whipping through air and fueled by the fire of the damned and the angry and...
Stopped. Like nothing, really, for a frail man is a frail man, never mind the oil burning in his chest. He says so, this assailant, and something else besides, that knocks down the fire like a child's snowman in the spring.
"Is that you, Brother Legorvly?" Knuckled eyes, rich brown skin, a frame both tough and looming far above his own. Yes. No. Who?
"It's me. Rogen. Don't you recognize me, man?" Is that concern, or mockery? What is this devilry? "Put down your blade."
"I... I don't..." Silent misery, wild grief like a burning lion. "I'm sorry. They're dead they've burned I'm sorry. So sorry."
"I'd thought you a Veilsman... I do hope you're not too hurt." The pain is minimal, and as he has no trouble standing the weary Archivist lets him be. "I've just ridden in from the east. Altimor has sent sentries behind me, they'll arrive in a day." Rogen looks about him with a tired will. "Everyone?"
What can a man do, under the weight of such a question? For it is certainly not just a word. It's the weight of friends. Children. The sleek ginger cat in the eaves that purred when the sun hit its flank in the summer mornings so that the entirety of the place was filled with primal happiness and the warm smell of knowledge spinning forward. What is the use of progress, wonders Andreas, if savagery and fire are all that is needed to destroy it?
A century later, he manages a weak nod, which Rogen follows with his eyes. The skull is neatly stacked on what was once an obseri dome, but is now a piecemeal mosaic of withered shrapnel.
"Most of a person I've seen before you came," he mumbles. "'Quiet is the shore, where the bravest men depart/in dignity and sorrow to dark lands now long forgot'... gods bless them."
His expression is dark, but Rogen's robes are a bright and painful red. Red, in a blank sea of whites and grays. It'd make a nice painting, Andreas thinks. In his mind he sees it hanging in Limuvias' shrine, in some eastern wing where the mornings can cast it in golden splendor. A moment passes in which he wants to sprint to the ruins of that place, and dig with his hands for even one scrap of bronze, that beautiful bronze, which framed so many masters and miracles of human hands. But no. The Veilman eats steel like flame consumes paper. Nothing has survived. No one has survived.
Can the Archivist read thoughts? Certainly his eyes are sharp. "The Veilmen. Where?"
"Wha"- A good, good question. Andreas looks about him, brown cloak a-swirling, but ends with an imploring look. "No, not here." His voice isn't flat - but full of wonder. A child on their first Christmas is not just joyful but also afraid, for delight at the unknown implies a dangerous uncertainty. "I am glad to be alive, and if I am alive they are not here. But, then..."
"Grove-Path." Rogen is cursing himself. "No, no, no... those fools! I must ride."
"Your horse is gone."
"What?" Turns. Terror? More shock. The implications are not yet there.
"The ash kills. My donkey and apprentice can attest. I buried them half a mile from here, where the caves offer brief shelter to the coward."
Rogen squints at the sky. "Nothing falls. And my mount is nearb"- A rushing of wind cuts him off; a rushing and a screaming, and a silence like tears given noise. Where the white grains touch his robes, the garment turns black as a mourning widow.
"What we have done, what we have done, oh, what we have done! 'Ilturcara em baschrent! The frozen bring the damned one inch closer to their gate!'"
The man has lost his mind. That is clear enough. But Rogen closes his eyes, gathers his strength, tunes out the raving tones, but too late. He has seen it. Brother Legorvly prays all the harder, now that his hands have burned to dust. Think, Archivist. Death comes to all you love. Gods have no place in this devilry. Think of the spires, the Tower of Harmony, the golden streets and stately air. Think of Syra and the children, and the ash, the ash that kills. THINK!
And he does. He tries.
And opens his eyes.
"Brother!" He turns, still mumbling and cursing in a whole host of harsh tongues. "Your... your kind, your ilk, dabbles in the forms of Aermun, do they not?"
That's gotten his attention. He pricks up a pair of warty old ears, and his whimpers first slow, then subside. Certainly it is not hope in his eyes, but a bit of strength has returned to shoulders that are not as old as their stature suggests. "You speak of sorcery."
"I speak of magic."
The air thrums.
"Bah! Magic is for children and old wives. No, no... but sorcery, yes, the word of the Old Lord, the tome of the God Who Has No Shrine. Yes. Yes. But the Veilmen eat magic like a child with spoons of honey."
"Never mind that. I need instant transport to the junction of the Hendomire Trail where it meets the Grove-Path. Half a turn to the Malorn, then a hundred paces past. Are you capable of such a feat?"
"Virtulan's tenth precept, written in the Book that Weeps."
"I've no time for riddles"-
"'All that is willed is done, yet all that is tarried, in eternity lost.' Come, Archivist." A cracking and sawing, like an eggshell broken very. Very. Slowly. And now Andreas raises new hands, of no difference from his old pair, but caked in the fluid of his being and blood that may yet prove useful. They rise, those hands, imbued with a casual blue pulse, rising in intensity, rising in light. "Let us go to find your kinsmen."
The ash falls, falls, falls, on no one and nothing at all.