After rattling the hinges and shaking the snow from the lintel, a small man emerged from a dark antechamber, looking as if he’d just arisen from bed. He had ash-white whiskers and a pouf of hair all out of place and he was wrapped snuggly in a gray blanket. At first, he looked annoyed and aloof, but as his deep-set eyes touched upon the golem’s snout, the man made as if to faint.
“He is the man who has hurt me!” Emma cried, and Grimosse grabbed the man by the shoulders, violently shaking him from his semi-conscious state. The golem then tossed him through the open doorway.
“Emma!” the old man cried feebly, his body crumpled against the opposite wall, “What are you doing—!”
She felt no pity. The power she now wielded roused something deep within her, something monstrous, tempting her to command the golem to kill.
“No!” Xandr protested. “The gods know you have your reasons, but we need him alive.”
Watching Mathias be pummeled by the golem’s fists began to feel less appealing to her, and before Grimm could do further harm, she calmed herself and regained her reasoning. “Leave him,” she commanded, and turning to Xandr, added, “You’re right. If I were to do it, I’d be no better than him.”
The old man was slow to rise from the floor, and when he found the strength to do so, he cried out in agony. “You-You broke my back! Why have you done this to me, Emma?”
Xandr, Thelana and Emma followed the golem into the tower. The door swallowed the light with a resounding thump. In the dim glow of Mathias’ lantern, their faces flashed savagely. “How dare you ask me such a question?” she snapped. “As if you do not know! You deserve worse.”
“I . . . !” he exclaimed, his mouth agape. “After all I’ve done for you? Fed you when you were hungry, clothed you when you were cold . . . protected you from the evils of this world? This is how you honor your father, seeking vengeance upon me, bringing these people to murder me!”
“You locked me in a room for a year!” she spat. “You kept me a—a prisoner!”
“It was for your own safety. I never wished ill upon you! You simply have no idea the forces I contend with! Please believe me.”
“Oh, so now you show me courtesy,” she replied coolly. “Now you give explanations. You are a liar. You locked me up to punish me, no other reason . . . to punish me for going into that accursed den of yours!” She glowered over him, but there was no trace of the cruel father she remembered. Where was the man who terrified her with his presence? A feeble old man, trembling at her wrath, had taken his place.
“The knowledge I have collected, if you could have comprehended it . . .” he began. “Trust me when I say it would have destroyed you, brought destruction upon me and all I have worked so long to achieve.”
“Well,” she said, “the day has come for you to open your door. And you will tell me everything.”
Mathias turned from her, to each face in turn. “C-can they be trusted?”
“They are my companions,” Emma replied, “and have my confidence.”
Mathias hurried down to his study. Emma followed closely, having ten years and an adventure with the Ilmar to build her courage to brave those few steps, which she was surprised to find, were little more than half her height, short enough to jump down from. Rummaging in his pocket, Mathias’ ring of keys chimed in his hand. He poked nervously at the keyhole with the silver key, now dulled with age, until the sound of falling tumblers echoed through the tower.
The mass of books had grown considerably since Emma’s ninth year. So much so, it did not seem as if the six of them could find room to stand.
“Please,” Mathias murmured, “be careful. These books have been meticulously arranged.”
The Ilmar nodded politely, marveling at the pages towering over them, lining every wall, piling in every corner. The taxidermy halfman that had once frightened her was entirely lost in the mess. It was as if the room was entirely composed of paper.
Thelana squeezed through more easily than the others, remarking, “I never knew there could be so much to write about.”
His desk was as Emma remembered it—a clutter of candles, astrolabes, compasses, maps, quills, skulls, and other oddities. Holding fast to the edge of the tabletop, he hung up his lantern and descended gradually into his chair.
“So,” he said, breathing heavily, “what do you intend to do now?” The flickering candles cast an eerie pall upon him, revealing a man of ghastly complexion. The balls of his eyes hung so loosely, they looked to fall from his skull, the rims so bloodshot, it was as if he never knew a night of sleep. “Without proper study,” he began, “none of you shall comprehend a thing. I doubt your friends possess even the capacity to read. You are peons, utterly insignificant, going about the motions of your pitiful lives without any idea the enormity that is existence.”
Emma went to speak, but Xandr stepped forward, silencing her. “I am Xandr, Ilmarin, and Batal of Legend.”
“Ilmarin,” he intoned, sitting up in his chair. “I did not think your people still existed.”
“We are few,” Thelana remarked.
“And you say you are the Batal,” he asked. “The same Batal who fought on Sternbrow Hill?”
“I do not know of Sternbrow Hill,” Xandr replied, “but I know men of destiny. My great ancestor helped free Aenya from the rule of the Septhera. I was raised in the Mountains of Ukko, by the Order of Alashiya, to confront the awful fate that now, even as we speak, climbs the mountain that surrounds us.”
He leaned forward, his face split between skepticism and enthusiasm. “What you say is intriguing, but how do I know any of it is true?”
“I have this,” Xandr replied. As the cloth fell away from the sword, the room took on a silvery brilliance, its milky surface mirroring the cluster of candles.
Mathias sprang at the sight of it with a power he did not look to possess, his mouth agape, his fascinated visage contorting about the nodes of the silver skull. “This is neither bronze nor iron,” he remarked, his fingers moving anxiously across the metal. “It’s simply flawless, like a diamond. The element is too heavy for our sun to produce—it is dead matter, stardust, an artifact that could only have been forged by the Zo!”
“There is more,” Xandr said, reaching into his sack. “There is—”
“Not yet!” Emma searched the faces of the Ilmar. “I promised to help you, but I’ve waited too long for this.”
Mathias leaned over his desk. “No, Emma, can’t you see that this is more important—”
“The guardian obeys me!” she cried. “You will sit yourself down, and if you wish to know about the sword, you will first answer my questions.”
“Oh, by all the gods above,” he grumbled, the century-worn wood of his chair creaking as he settled into it. “I have dreaded this day.”
“You’ve dreaded my knowing the truth? Learning who I am?”
“Enough! First, tell me why . . . why do you persist in sitting here? Day and night? Night and day? What is it about this infernal room and these damnable books that so needs occupy your life, making you less than a stranger to me, a mere shadow?”
“All right.” He pushed his fists tiredly into his eye sockets, studying each face anew. “If you believe the answers will ease your burden to know, I will give them to you. But be forewarned, you may not find comfort in what you hear. The truth of things, you will discover, is often disturbing.”
“I don’t care,” she said adamantly. “I want the truth. I am prepared.”
“Very well, then,” he said. “But where to begin? I suppose, the very beginning is best.”
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