Chapter One: Visions
“The dark of a moonless night. Anything can happen when nothing can be seen.”
Friedrich jerked his head up at the sound of someone speaking, daring to interrupt him in the middle of a Seeing. Whipping around, he scowled at Karl, the Master Seer and his second in command in the temple. “What do you want?”
Karl bowed, but if ever a man could display impudence in a bow, it was Karl. “My pardon, High Seer. I only came to see how you were doing, as we have not seen you all day.”
“I am Seeing; it is what Seers do,” Friedrich replied.
Do they also drink, the way you tend to drink?
“What?” Friedrich asked, realizing he had paid too much attention to the voice, and missed whatever Karl had said.
“I asked if you were all right. You have been pale these past few days, and more distracted than is normal. We worry for you.”
Friedrich sneered inwardly at that. The only thing Karl worried about was how much longer he would have to wait before he could usurp Friedrich’s place. “There is no need to worry about me,” he said, and turned back to the altar he had been facing.
Normally, the Altars of Vision held obsidian bowls filled with water. When a penitent sought his future, the Seer added the penitent’s blood, the Seer’s blood, and Essence of Moon to the bowl. In the glow of the beeswax candles on either side of the bowl, the Seer was able to foretell the penitent’s fate.
The bowl in front of Friedrich was empty; it had not been used since Friedrich had assumed the mantle of High Seer and the large prayer room had been assigned to him.
Unlike the other priests, Friedrich needed no implements to foretell a future. All he needed was to touch someone; occasionally, all he needed was to stare into the penitent’s eyes.
And sometimes, when he was alone and let his mind float, pieces of various fates came to him: wispy images, whispers in the dark, elusive scents, or the softest brush of fingers.
“The dark of a moonless night,” he muttered again, eyes going distant as the vision overtook him. There was an impression of sadness and a deeply buried rage. “The pure, unrelenting dark of a moonless night. Anything might happen when nothing can be seen. A choice must be made: darkness or shadows.”
He broke off, head throbbing, hand trembling as he pulled out a handkerchief to mop up the sweat on his face and bare head. Movement caught the corner of his eye, and in the moment before Karl realized he was watching Friedrich saw the envy and loathing plain upon his face. “You can leave,” he said. “Assure our brothers that I am fine; merely busy answering the call of our Lord Teufel.”
Karl bowed, and deferentially touched his fingers to the black circle on his forehead: the Eye of Seeing, a mark with which all priests were born, making their fate clear even as they drew first breath. “Yes, High Seer. Please summon us if you have a need.”
Friedrich turned away, and waited until Karl was gone before sinking to his knees and burying his head in his hands. The vision had started several days ago, faint at first, little more than smoke curling in a breeze. It taunted him, teased him, drove right to the edge of madness—and still he could make no sense of it. Could not get a feel for whose fate he was Seeing, why he was Seeing it repeatedly. And he had yet to see the whole of it.
Whatever was going to happen, it was going to be bad. He sensed he knew how the vision would eventually end, when the whole of it finally came to him. Teufel was showing rare mercy in the way the vision crept upon him slowly, allowed him to brace for it.
He loathed visions of death; they hurt and left him drained for days. Friedrich dreaded the day the penitent whose fate he was reading finally arrived to hear it.
Turning, he sat down on the steps that led up the altar, bracing his elbows on his knees. He tilted his head up to stare at the ceiling, the elaborate geometric design in black, gray, and violet. After a few minutes, it added to his dizziness and he dropped his head, closed his eyes to try and make the world hold still.
He heard the footsteps coming in the jangle of sharp spurs, and stood up before the knock came at the door. “Enter.”
Two men stepped into the room, dressed in black leather and dark violet tunics split up the middle. They wore large swords at the left hip, coiled whips at the right, the metal bits at the end gleaming in the candlelight.
Friedrich drew his hands into the sleeves of his own dark violet robes and stood tall, staring down the sorcerer who regarded him with arrogance, impudence. They both bowed low, and kept their eyes downcast as the bolder one said, “High Seer, we apologize for disturbing you. We come with troubling news, and hope that you might offer us your wisdom and power.”
“It is my duty and honor to assist those who serve our Lord Teufel,” Fritz replied. “Tell me of your troubles, sorcerers.”
The quieter one reached into a pouch at his waist and pulled something out, handing it over. It took Friedrich to realize what it was: a Sentinel scale. It was the size of his hand, and gleamed in the light, black as pitch but with dozens of colors deep within. He did not touch it. “That is the scale of a Sentinel. How do you come by such a thing?”
“We found it dead, High Seer, not far from the village of Deer Run, half a day’s ride up the Haunted Mountains on the path to Sorrow Cliff.”
Dead? A full grown Sentinel? “How was it killed?”
“By blade and magic, though the residue of the magic was nothing like we have felt before,” said the first sorcerer. “Men are guarding the body, and we have priests investigating the locals, but so far no clue has been found. It is like it was slain by a ghost.”
“Absurd,” Friedrich said dismissively. “Come, we’ll go to the Hall of Vision. He led the way out of his private prayer room, down the hall of prayer rooms, beckoning to half a dozen priests as he saw them. Though he loathed Karl, the man was a good Seer and his second, and so Friedrich beckoned to him as well.
By the time they reached the Hall of Vision, he had collected eight priests in total. He walked down the long hall, which was made from gleaming obsidian, heavily spelled to last the ages, resonating with the power of Seeing.
No one should be able to kill a Sentinel, the voice in his head said pensively.
Friedrich flinched inwardly. Well, should does not always mean much. Be quiet. This is not going to be an easy Seeing and your nattering won’t help.
Rumbling softly, the voice nevertheless obeyed and subsided.
Relieved, Friedrich took his place at the vision pool. It was built in the shape of a crescent moon, the black walls making the water dark. As the eight priests he’d brought with him gathered around the outside of the crescent, from tip to tip, he stood in the curve.
Drawing the knives kept at their waists, each priest slit his thumb and let their blood drip into the black water. Friedrich slit his own thumb, but let the blood drip into a small crystal bottle in which swirled the silvery, pearlescent Essence of Moon. It turned pink with his blood, and he poured the whole of it into the pool.
It shimmered, then settled into darkness again, but swirled occasionally with red and silver. Closing their eyes, the priests began to pray. Nine priests to draw from all the essence of the land, eight to anchor, one to See.
The vision, when it came, started out surprisingly gentle. Friedrich wished it hadn’t, because what started easy ended with him unconscious. But such things were his fate, and so he stared into the depths of the pool and let the vision have him.
Darkness. A natural darkness. It was night, and the moon had only just begun to wax. He felt the beast before he saw it, a pool of gleaming black that made the night around it a paltry imitation of darkness. Its breath steamed in the cold air, clawed feet crackling the snow and ice. Its eyes gleamed violet, burning stars fallen to the earth to menace the children of shadows.
Friedrich felt contempt ripple through his mind, but also amusement, as he uncoiled the whip he wore at his right hip. He flicked it with practiced ease, cracking the calm of the night. The Sentinel growled, the sound so deep it vibrated in his chest.
Another crack. Another. Alarming the Sentinel, whose eyes burned but could not see well. With its hearing fractured by the cracking of the whip, it faltered. Reared back, slipped in the snow, and then roared in pain and anger as the whip came down and struck a real blow.
It rushed the source of the sound and pain, only to strike against an enormous, dying tree. Friedrich struck again with the whip, over and over, keeping it disoriented, angry and pained. Then he began to murmur words of magic, the power thrumming through him.
But it felt different. Hot. Almost too hot, as though he had thrust his hand into a fire. Friedrich recoiled from the rush, struggled to break free of the vision, but he was trapped in it, trapped in the past as he witnessed firsthand the killing of the Sentinel.
The Sentinel shrieked as the spell struck, a sound like hundreds of nails scraping glass. Friedrich’s mind screamed in helpless agony, but the body in which he was trapped showed no reaction. He simply coiled his whip and put it away, then drew his sword and rushed the writhing, suffering beast.
Friedrich plunged the sword into the creature’s eye, all the way down to the hilt. The body thrashed, shuddered, then lay still. Bracing his foot on the Sentinel’s snout, Friedrich yanked his sword out and cleaned it in the snow. He sheathed it, then checked over the Sentinel, removing a leather glove to place his hand on the beast and assure himself directly that the beast breathed no more.
Light gleamed in the dark, a small rainbow on the man’s right ring finger. Friedrich stared at it—and his world exploded in a painful assault of color and possibilities and countless fates.
Friedrich screamed in agony, stumbling back from the pool, falling over and cracking his head, but still the assault would not stop. He sobbed in agony as the light and colors washed over him, drowned him, threatened to break his mind entirely—
Beloved, hold fast to me.
Drache, Drache, Friedrich said desperately, clinging to that dread voice he could not live without. Save me, Drache.
I will always save you, beloved. Come to me.
Whimpering, sobbing, Friedrich let Drache have, and slumped unconscious on the obsidian floor of the Hall of Vision.
Friedrich opened his eyes, shaking with relief when he no longer saw the Hall of Vision, or that terrible cascade of endless possibilities. Instead, he saw only the familiar temple where he always visited Drache. A dream, only a dream, but more home to him than the walls in which he lived.
It was a temple, or something like that, beautiful white marble for the floor and roof, four pillars all that held it up. There were no walls, just open space, allowing him to look down at the ground far below, stare out for miles at the bright, beautiful landscape beyond. A soft breeze brought the sweet scent of flowers and fresh air.
He wore dark violet robes, but they were not the heavy, ornate things of the High Seer. A bed robe, loosely tied with a silver cord. Friedrich sat up in bed, and stared at the man who stood at the far edge of the large room, staring down at something far below.
Like Friedrich, his skin was dark, the rich gold-brown of topaz. But he was taller than Friedrich, more slender, and instead of a smooth, shaved head he had bright gold hair bound in a braid that fell to the floor. He wore only a loose wrap around his hips, a rich dusty lavender that complimented his dusky skin and showed off a fine chest.
The man turned, features beautiful, the barest touch of delicate prettiness to them, and smiled warmly. “You haven’t come to see me in a long time, Fritz. I’ve missed you.”
“Pardon me if I prefer to avoid these more detailed conversations with the voice in my head,” Fritz groused, and moved to the edge of the bed.
“You know I’m more than that,” Drache chided.
Fritz shook his head. “I don’t know what you are, except a problem. If anyone finds out I hear a voice in my head, they’ll throw me out and replace me.”
“Would that be such a bad thing? High Seer hardly makes you happy.”
“I was born to See,” Fritz said stiffly. “I like Seeing.” When he didn’t have to See someone die, when the visions didn’t make him sick, didn’t depress him. He wished more happy fates came to his Sight.
Drache wandered over to him, planted his hands on his hips, long braid falling sinuously over one shoulder as he stared down at Fritz. “I said High Seer hardly makes you happy.”
“I don’t hate it, I just hate the sorrow,” Fritz said. “So much sorrow should be tempered. But I can only See what fate gives me.” He looked up at Drache, drinking in the vision he made, the beauty and the warmth of him.
Whoever, whatever, Drache was, he made the aches and the pains go away. He soothed something in Fritz, made the world bearable again. But only in the recesses of Fritz’s minds, so deep that even dreams could not reach.
Though in the waking world Drache drove him mad—someday, he feared it would be quite literally—in the safety of his own mind, Drache soothed away the pain. Drache knelt before him, settled between his legs, arms braced on Fritz’s thighs as he tilted his head up. “What did you see, beloved, that almost broke you?”
“Chaos,” Fritz said softly, shuddering at the word. “Too much, too many, impossible to see all, impossible to see just one. I didn’t know what to do, couldn’t stop it, couldn’t control it.”
“No, chaos cannot be controlled, only guided by fate. Night and day, life and death, chaos and order. One does not exist without the other, and neither should be greater than the other.”
Fritz stared at him in horror, fear running through his veins. “Blasphemy.”
“Truth,” Drache said. “You saw chaos for yourself.”
“It was out of control, in need of taming. People need to know—”
“People need to choose,” Drache cut off. “But you did not come to me to argue, beloved. You came to me to heal. Let me soothe you, ease you, restore you.”
Fritz sighed softly, and let his fingers slide into Drache’s soft, gold hair as Drache leaned up far enough to bring their mouths together. He smelled like sunshine, on one of the rare clear days that Schatten enjoyed, and wildflowers along the bank of an icy brook. He smelled like the home Fritz had not seen in twenty-odd years, and tasted like a hundred memories from that same lost place.
He clung to Drache, went easily when Drache rose and pushed him back onto the bed, that warm mouth gliding along his skin with a familiarity that spoke of having done it a thousand times. Drache knew every place to nuzzle, to lick, to bite down hard or nip lightly. He pushed Fritz’s clothes away with the ease of a thought, his own wrap discarded even more quickly.
Their bodies fit together easily as he pressed Fritz deeper into the bedding, his braid tumbling to one side. Fritz wrapped it around his hand, tugged lightly, drawing Drache down into a long kiss, exploring every crevice of his mouth, losing himself in the feel and flavor of his imagined lover.
It was for the best that being a priest generally meant a lonely life, and being High Seer guaranteed it. What real lover could ever compare to Drache, who was everything he needed and everything he craved.
Fritz slid his mouth from Drache’s delectable lips, tasted the skin of his jaw, his throat, before Drache pulled away to put his own mouth to work down the length of Fritz’s broad body. “Relax,” he whispered against Fritz’s chest, looking up at him through lashes as golden as his hair, his eyes a rich, royal purple. “I said I would take care of you. Let me.”
“I don’t think it’s possible to relax when you’re doing that,” Fritz said, but lay back on the bed, hands resting on the blankets on either side of his head, and gave up doing anything but surrendering all the noises and pleading words that Drache wanted, groaning loudly when that hot, knowing mouth slid over his cock, took him deep, rendered him incapable of doing anything, but losing himself to Drache.
No matter how hard he tried to ignore it, no matter how much he drank to drown it out, the voice that had whispered to him since he was a child got through to him, pulled him under over and over. An invisible friend as a child, a dream lover when he was old enough for such things.
He could not live with a voice in his head, but he would rather die than go a day without it.
Fritz thrust up into Drache’s mouth, crying Drache’s name as he came. He whimpered softly when Drache took his mouth, pushed slick fingers inside him. When Drache finally pushed inside him, the fear and panic that had driven Fritz into the dark of his mind in search of peace finally washed completely away. His world narrow to the soft bedding stuck to his back with sweat, the warmth of the skin beneath his fingers and the fluid movement of the muscles beneath. They smelled of wildflowers and sex, and nothing felt more natural than the way he rose to meet every thrust, they Drache pushed in deep, the sting of his biting kiss as Drache came, and drove Fritz over the edge once more.
He woke with a cry, choking on a name he dare not speak lest someone ask questions. Friedrich lay in bed, cold, trembling, aching. His hand was bandaged, and the uncomfortable fog of medicine clouded his mind.
The room was dark, but thin beams of light snuck in through the edges of the tapestry over the window. The smell of wax and smoke was sharp; a candle must have recently gone out. Friedrich threw back the blankets damp with his sweat, and strode to the tapestry, yanking it away to let in dull, gray morning light. At least, it seemed like morning, but he supposed it might be evening. Without the sun, and hearing no bells, it was hard to say.
Leaving the window, he went to his wardrobe and pulled out fresh clothes. Someone had filled the pitcher at his wash stand, and Friedrich poured the water into the bowl along with a sliver of rough, gray-ish colored soap.
When he was scrubbed clean and felt reasonably awake and aware, he dressed: small clothes followed by a black wool under robe, over which he pulled the heavier, dark purple robe embroidered with geometric designs in white, silver, gold, and light purple thread at the cuffs, along the bottom, and around the edge of the hood.
He folded the right flap of the robe over the left, small, hidden hooks holding the fabric in place. He cinched it with a belt of heavy purple and gold fabric. Into a hidden pocket went the master keys, and around his neck went a circle of prayer beads carved from amethyst and onyx.
Pulling on sturdy black ankle-boots, he finally felt ready to face the questions he knew were waiting. It was not often the High Seer of Unheilvol was overcome by a vision to the point he passed out.
He opened his door, and was not surprised to find his way blocked by a guard—one of about thirty sorcerers kept at the temple for security reasons, since not all people were able to hear and accept their fates with grace. Every priest bore the scars of the anguished and enraged. Friedrich had been punched, kicked, bitten, shoved, and on three occasions stabbed or slashed with his own knife. People could be alarmingly quick when they were in a panic.
“High Seer,” the guard greeted, turning to face him. He sheathed his sword and bowed, deferentially touched his forehead, which bore a black diamond—the mark of sorcerers, it appeared when a person came of age, had the strength to wield magic. “I am happy to see you are well.”
“Thank you,” Friedrich said. “Where are the men who came to see me?”
“They were given quarters, and await your summons.”
“Summon them, then, and bid them come to me in the library. The Master Seer, as well,” Fritz said, and walked off after the guard had bowed.
The great library of Unheilvol was enormous, taking up the entire back half of the temple, with the archives extending into special rooms below the temple. He trailed through the stacks until he came to the section he wanted, touching the mark on his forehead, and then the symbol carved into the archway that prevented any but he from passing.
With a soft shimmer of permission, the protective seal let him pass, and Friedrich wandered the shelves of restricted religious texts. Only the High Seer, the High Sorcerer, and those of greatest and deepest devotion could read the blasphemous texts upon the shelves. Books written by nonbelievers, by those corrupted by the whispers and lies of chaos.
Chaos led only to tragedy, for people were not capable of shaping their own lives. Fate was necessary for the good of all, and fate was a matter for the gods. Anyone who said otherwise was blasphemous and not to be tolerated.
Fate should be tempered by chaos, and chaos should be tempered by fate.
If you cannot say something reasonable then be quiet.
It is not that I need to watch what I say; it is that you need to learn to listen.
Shut it. Friedrich yanked a book from one of the shelves, an old book of Seeing that had some useful points despite its flaws.
Agreeing with me is never a flaw.
Yes, it is, Friedrich retorted.
He read through the chapter he sought, then read five other books before he gave up, resigned that he had seen exactly what he feared. The sound of footsteps, someone clearing his throat, drew his attention, and Friedrich slowly left the restricted area, joining the sorcerers and Karl.
“High Seer,” Karl greeted. “I am glad you are all right. You slept a day and a night. We feared you would not recover.”
“I’ve slept longer,” Friedrich dismissed, though those instances had been when he was still an acolyte. “Unfortunately, I have no good news to share. You will take my words to the High Sorcerer at once. A stranger in our land slew the Sentinel, and I Sense he will continue to kill them, though I did not See why. What I did see was chaos—”
He stopped as they all gasped, making signs of protection. Karl frowned. “That is not possible. We are a land of fate, and dread chaos holds no sway here.”
“It has breached the walls and entered Schatten,” Friedrich said. “The visions I saw were true. Too many possibilities, too many fates, chaos that leads to madness which eventually will lead to destruction. Tell all to the High Sorcerer, and tell him to come to me at once that we might plan against this threat. I must pray, and hear all that Lord Teufel cares to tell me about the matter. Do not disturb me.”
They bowed, and Friedrich left. He could feel Karl’s eyes on him, but did not care. He was far more concerned about the presence of chaos in Schatten, and Drache’s dangerous, rebellious whispers.