Authors: Pedro Urvi
The Ilenian Enigma
Copyright © 2016 Pedro Urvi
All rights reserved
Illustration by Sarima
Translated by Barbara Salsgiver
This saga is lovingly dedicated to my wonderful parents, for all their love and unconditional support.
“We shall not die here today, my dear friend, of that you can be sure!” promised the traveler, his eyes penetrating the worsening blizzard swirling through the night. “The situation is indeed quite dire but fear not; Haradin is here to protect you from the cold and the lethargy from which there is no return.”
The hostile storm lashed at the majestic Ampar Mountains, blanketing in a mantle of white every step of Haradin’s path. He advanced like a determined pilgrim, wearily but resolutely climbing the winding mountain trail. In the shadow of that immense, rocky formation the traveler fought against the elements like a tiny boat striving not to capsize in raging, icy seas.
With each passing moment he felt his meager reserves of strength waning, devoured by the exertion. His arm felt each reach with the staff; each step on the treacherous snow shot a message of pain pounding through his brain. Even so, the tall, gaunt traveler continued onward, unfazed by the elements, conscious of the danger surrounding him. He shook off the snow that covered his long blond hair and pulled his hood back into place. At twenty-five years of age, due to an especially perilous life he had already faced his share of dangerous situations; unfortunately, this was turning into one of those by leaps and bounds.
The freezing mountain wind howled, forcing its way through his dirty garments, now unrecognizable below the layer of crystal snowflakes. He felt the gale cutting through his thick winter tunic, biting his skin with its invisible jaws of ice. He sought refuge among oaks, taking shelter under one of the mightiest. Leaning his staff against the trunk, he set his satchel on the ground, dusted off the snow that was covering his arm, and pulled his woolen glove off with his teeth.
He partially opened his overcoat and pushed aside the blanket he was carrying tight against his chest to protect his precious cargo: a beautiful child who had just completed his first year of existence in a cruel world. The infant was tied to his torso with an improvised fastener of goat skin and linen cloths. The little one looked at him with enormous emerald eyes and smiled joyfully, far removed from the danger lying in wait and apparently immune to the storm that sought to devour them.
Haradin was acutely aware that time was running out; the cold would soon make its mark on the little boy. He was afraid the tiny body would freeze in spite of all his efforts. He thought of the terrible consequences of not arriving soon to his destination; a feeling of anguish took over his soul, gripping him by the stomach. He pondered for a moment the possibility of seeking refuge in the rocky slopes but, seeing the strength of the storm, there was no guarantee he would find enough protection to save the child. He shielded his eyes with his hand as he tried to estimate how much of the journey remained before they would reach the end of the tortuous path. But the inhospitable night would not allow him to make out what his heart so longed to see.
“We are getting close. The end of this infernal escape is right there, almost within the reach of our hand,” he reassured the child. He recalled the beginning of the frenetic flight he’d set forth on a week ago to save the tot’s life. The escape had been full of danger. Their sinister pursuers had been very close to catching them... too close. Fortunately, he’d been able to hide their trail and elude their trackers in the nick of time.
However, something inside—an uneasy feeling of alarm—continued to warn him of danger nearby. Unfortunately, in the midst of the storm in the middle of the night, it was impossible to confirm anything. By the same token, those who were pursuing them would have serious difficulties finding their tracks. The gusts of wind and the heavy snowfall in the valley would have instantly erased his footsteps, leaving in their place a snow-white blanket. He tried to catch sight of any pursuers in the distance, but it was impossible. He sharpened his ears, paying absolute attention, but all he could hear was the gusts of wind through the trees and the moaning sound as it swept over the side of the mountain. He faced the valley they’d left behind, closed his gray eyes and inhaled deeply. His mind tried to capture any strange odor, anything out of place, but he noticed nothing. The cold was too intense. He relaxed for a moment, though he knew it was a false sense of security.
“It’s all right, little one, Haradin will protect you. Soon we shall arrive at our destination and shall finally be safe.”
He gazed tenderly at the little boy who, on hearing his voice, began to wave his arms and babble happily. Haradin closed his eyes, uttered a spell, and conjured up an enchantment that wrapped the baby in a pleasant halo of warmth.
“Now that’s better, isn’t it, little imp? We can’t let you freeze.”
He covered the child again with the cloak then used the same protective spell he’d used on the baby on himself. Unfortunately there was little else he could do.
I would sell my soul to be able to fight off this stubborn weariness. But my Gift will not allow it. Nor will it alleviate the stabbing pains caused by my overexertion or create a refuge where we might find shelter.
He slung his satchel over his back, picked up his staff and resumed the ascent with an unbreakable determination to reach the summit and find the refuge they so desperately needed.
Several hours later, Haradin crested the summit of the mountain, exhausted but triumphant. From there the path gave way to a large flatland surrounded by oak trees and other vegetation buried under the snow. The plain led to a distant valley between the lower peaks of the mountain range.
Sighing deeply, he tried to release the tension that had been distressing him for so long. He had finally arrived at his destination: the small village of Orrio, situated at the end of the valley opening up before his eyes. It seemed as if they had also gained a refuge from nature; the snowstorm was losing intensity and the icy wind had almost completely died down. This was the end of the journey, the place he had chosen to hide the child from the fatal destiny that was relentlessly pursuing him. In that small, remote town, isolated from civilization, surrounded and protected by these impenetrable mountains, he would be safe.
The region was under the dominion of the proud Norriel, an ethnicity whose origins had been lost in the annals of time. Grouped into thirty sister tribes, they reigned over the highlands and had been doing so since the dawn of man. These lands were rarely visited by strangers, due as much to their inaccessibility as to the distrust inspired by their inhabitants.
"You’ll be safe here, little one; no one will find you in these faraway mountains. Just a little while longer... one last effort to get to the entrance of the valley and we will be safe, my happy little companion.”
Suddenly Haradin heard a strange sound, like a muffled whisper behind him. Alarmed, he immediately stopped in his tracks, spun around, and saw a dark figure huddled down just a few steps away.
One of their pursuers!
An Assassin, without a doubt.
The killer was well-concealed by a dark cloak; the only visible feature of his face was the glimmer in his lethal eyes. His arms, hands, legs—his entire body—was covered in black, as if a shadow had come alive; as if a malignant darkness had been reincarnated as a living being. Fortunately, on that terrain covered in snow he was discernible. Haradin studied him carefully.
I was not mistaken; my instincts faithfully warned me
I sensed that danger was near. Something inside whispered to me and here he is, ready to end our lives
“What are you looking for, servant of the shadows?” Haradin asked coldly.
“You know full well what I am looking for, Mage of the Four Elements; it is what you are hiding beneath your robes,” whispered the Assassin, his voice revealing the accent of a faraway land.
“Turn around and return to the world of shadows from whence you came.”
“My mission is to end the life of the Marked,” responded the Assassin in a calm voice, sure of himself. “My lord and master has entrusted me with a mission of blood and blood must be spilled. Deliver the Marked to me and I will allow you to leave here with your life.”
Haradin smiled, a hint of irony on his face.
“Do you truly believe that I am going to hand over this defenseless child so you can sacrifice him? I am his protector and you will have to finish me off first; no harm shall come to him as long as I am alive.”
“My daggers are poised, waiting for the order to spill and drink the red fluid of life.”
Haradin was not intimidated.
“Another of your dark brothers caught up with me three days ago; he, too, was sure that he would finish me off but the only thing he managed to do was to kill my poor horse. I had no choice but to send him to the abyss from which you both came. If you wish to follow the same destiny, the decision is yours. I will not allow you near this baby.”
“If that is your desire... We shall see who survives this time, Mage.”
Haradin tensed, wielded his staff in a defensive stance, expecting the Assassin to attack. It was not the first time he’d faced off with an enemy like this; he had already established in the two previous encounters that they were deadly—supremely deadly. He was not familiar with the secrets of the arcane art they used, but he had withstood the superhuman agility and speed of these executioners, as well as their dark abilities. After his first encounter with them—which he survived by sheer luck—he had ended up poisoned. As a consequence of the second encounter he wore two deep cuts on his chest and back that were not yet healed. And his left arm was still partially crippled.
The black silhouette crouching in the snow showed two daggers with curved blades. He made a sudden gesture as he whispered the words of an incantation. A brief flash of reddish light washed over the Assassin’s body and daggers.
Haradin instantly identified this as the use of dark magic. The Assassin had invoked a mortal ability to be used against him. This enemy was not a Mage as he was; he could feel that. The Magic wasn’t as strong in the Assassin, but he possessed a source of power. He was a man who was graced with the Gift. Haradin could recognize them—men with the ability to carry out the impossible.
“Much time and discipline are required to master the Gift... Who is your master?”
“Of my lord and master you shall discover nothing.”
“You are not from these lands... What faraway land do you come from?”
“Quite perceptive of you, Mage, but you will not get me to reveal a single thing to you.”
In the blink of an eye the Assassin attacked. He vaulted forward with an astounding agility, more like a great feline than a human, and reaching an unimaginable height. As he executed the leap, with a snap of his right hand he threw a metal object while bounding forward.
Haradin reacted instinctively. He invoked the force of the wind and fixed his eyes on the Assassin who was midair, directing his aim and increasing the power of the spell with his staff. The spell exited it with a short but intense explosion of blinding white an instant before the Assassin reached him. Its energy struck the Assassin full on, with the strength of a gale-force wind, exploding on contact. A deafening
surged forth from the impact, as if a massive branch of a tree had broken off. The Assassin shot through the air, forcefully driven back. He slammed into the ground, then tried to get up but could not. He grabbed for his ribs; he was wounded.
“You are powerful, Mage... very fast... extremely fast,” said the dark figure as he let out an agonized moan. “Before we set out in search of the Marked, the lord warned us of the dangers we would face.”
“You will not catch your prey this day, Assassin. Only death awaits you here.”
“Perhaps... but nothing will stop me from achieving my goal. Dishonoring my master is punished by torture and an unbearable death.”
The Assassin placed his right hand on the snow and managed to push himself up. The pain showed on his face. Seeing an opportunity, Haradin began to cast another spell. But with inhuman velocity the Assassin took a black ball from his belt and shattered it on the ground in front of the Mage.
A cloud of black smoke engulfed Haradin.
Disoriented, he hesitated a moment; he couldn’t see the Assassin and therefore wasn’t able to aim the spell at him. He could not get his bearings.
Suddenly, as if materializing out of nowhere, the Assassin appeared in front of Haradin, poised to slit his throat. The two bloodthirsty daggers, crossed in a slashing motion, sought his jugular. Haradin tried to take a step back to avoid the attack but could not. His left leg was paralyzed; it simply would not move. His heart skipped a beat as the daggers lunged toward his neck. He managed to pull his head back just enough to escape their reach at the last second. A stinging on his chin told him he had been cut. He looked at his useless leg and saw a small metal object he had not noticed before sticking out of his thigh.
He’s crippled me with a stunning poison!
Haradin lifted his staff and quickly conjured a powerfull flash of light. The explosion blinded the Assassin. Haradin leaned to one side, dodging his opponent’s attack as it brushed past his cheek.
I have to finish him off right now. This Assassin is too dangerous; now’s my chance.
He pointed his staff at his enemy who was already preparing to attack again. Haradin immediately muttered an incantation.