Chapter 16
Messages from the Past

Ban Desert, Byrn; Anno Regis 1275

"Prophecy is a funny thing. So many people seem to think it's some great revelation from God. In some cases, I would agree, but most of the time it's simply a matter of observing the patterns in history and making a projection. In that regard, the gift of prophecy is available to anyone who cares enough to pay attention."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

The story behind the Ban Desert goes back nearly five hundred years. The Great War had already raged across the globe for centuries, but not all humans rallied to the Bannite cause. With the help of these dissidents, the nonhumans launched an attack on the heart of the Kingdom of Ban. The massive magical onslaught laid waste to the castle and surrounding city and turned lush plains to desert for miles all around.
That attack led to the birth if Byrn and ever since, the people bore mixed feelings for the misplaced desert. Some saw it as a blight on the land, the legacy of a double treachery. For others, it was a monument to the long overdue ouster of the Old Tyrant's empire. And then there were those who resented Bannite oppression and vilified the traitors to humanity in equal measure.
The monotony of the desert made it easy for Mark to think on its history. Although it was minuscule when compared to the vast, seemingly endless Nine Deserts of the Central Continent, the unbearable sameness of his surroundings was all rather tiresome. Thankfully, it only took a day to reach the ruins from the outskirts of the desert.
Arkady was eager to begin his work right away, but Catherine insisted that they set up the shelter and rest before getting started. By sunup the next morning, Arkady had his gear all spread out and was busily translating the remains of the inscription on a broken pillar. To keep the others from growing listless, they were given tasks to assist Arkady in his work. As the only other literate members of the group, Mark and Catherine transcribed inscriptions to be translated later. And although Arkady was rather pleased with their penmanship, he also wanted complete copies of key inscriptions to be studied at length. To that end, Stefan, Ignatiy and Olofer were kept busy by making charcoal rubbings of three particular walls.
To stave off tedium, Arkady explained where they were and what they were doing. It was a welcome gesture.
"We are in the remains of the throne room," the young scholar said. "These three walls are of interest to us. On the left side of the throne is the Wall of Past, a mixture of history, legend, and myth. It covers everything from the birth of the world to the founding of Ban.
"Behind the throne is the Wall of Present. All the events that happened during the reign of the King were inscribed here and plastered over when his successor took the throne. As you can see, the last record here was for Isard IV, but the layers of plaster have flaked off over the years.
"On the right side of the throne is the Wall of Future. This is the one Miss Catherine wants me to focus on. It is said to be full of prophecies of the future. I do not know how reliable these inscriptions are, but the chance to study these ruins makes it all worthwhile."
"How far have you gotten?" Mark asked.
Arkady shuffled through his pile of parchment. He picked up a page and read aloud, "Something about 'Eight Stars' and 'the inhuman beasts shall fall before their fury...'"
"The Eight Stars..." Mark trailed.
"What's that?" Ignatiy asked.
"They were the eight generals who ended the War of Ban," Mark said. "They were legends in their own time, celebrated heroes."
"A good story," Catherine interrupted, "but best saved for another time." To Arkady, she said, "Please continue."
Arkady went to another page. "'The King's scepter shall be broken...' That is probably the fall of the old kingdom. 'A dragon will take the crown...' Perhaps King Abdiy winning the throne from Aleksei IV..."
"He's getting closer to what we need," Stefan remarked.
Ignoring Stefan's comment, Arkady did not skip a beat. "'From the demon's tower... shall bind the dragon. His might spilled out on the land...'"
"Keep going," Catherine said, the anticipation in her voice building steadily.
"'Five shall come... From Gaia's mouth... tears of the Elementals... come together... the knight that shines like diamonds...' A section of the wall is missing after that line. From there it takes a different tone. 'When the eagle flies, the wolf shall come... the dragon shall be consumed... the children of this land will be put to the sword...'"
"It sounds like the end of Byrn," Mark said.
"I am afraid it gets much worse..." Arkady replied grimly. "It goes on to say, 'The world will be consumed by the flames of war.... The sons of Man will flee this world... As the world once was, it shall be again...' And that is where the wall ends..."
Stefan stared at the wall. "The end of the world..."
"Not necessarily," Catherine replied. "The end of humanity, most likely... The world can easily go one without us." She paused for a moment and shook her head. "We cannot concern ourselves with that. We need to focus on the lines just after the part about the binding of the dragon. 'Gaia's mouth' must be a place. We have to find it." She looked to the others. "Do you have any ideas?"
"What's Gaia?" Ignatiy asked.
"She is a goddess worshipped in some cultures as the Earth Mother," Arkady replied.
"That would mean Gaia's mouth is a hole that leads underground," Mark said, "a cave or something like that."
"In that case, I've heard rumors of a cave behind Draco Falls," Stefan said.
Ignatiy frowned. "There's dozens of caves in the plateau. What makes you think that's the one we're looking for?"
"Because all the other caves go up." Stefan emphasized his point by hitting Ignatiy upside the head. He followed through by bringing his fist down on Ignatiy's crown, saying, "It's supposed to be the only one that goes down."
Although he did not hit Ignatiy very hard with either blow, Stefan found Olofer holding his sleeve to keep him from doing it again. Mark joined in the intervention.
"Don't be so rough with him," the swordsman said.
Stefan gave Mark a dirty look, but did not say anything. With the situation seemingly resolved, Olofer let him go. Ignatiy was holding his head and whining about being mistreated, but other than that, things settled down. Completely oblivious to the others, Arkady sat there adjusting his spectacles, a habit of his when he was thinking.
"It may not be a cave," the scholar said. "There is also Ban Gorge to the east of Sagia."
Catherine nodded. "They are both good ideas," she said, "but the falls will be difficult to reach given how close they are to the castle. Kyrios' influence is strongest there."
"Well, there's an underground passage that runs to the castle," Mark said. "It was made during the war with Gladius. Few people know of its existence and the entrance isn't far from here."
Catherine started to walk away. "I need to meditate on this," she said. "I would rather not have us face the danger of approaching the castle if it is unnecessary. Perhaps I can learn which path we should take. In the meantime, continue your work. We need to move out tonight."
Ignatiy looked skeptical. "That's it? You're gonna stake our lives on your witchery?"
Stefan hit him upside the head again.
"Let the chovexani do her thing. You won't have time to worry if you're working, so get to it."
"You're not the boss of me," Ignatiy grumbled.
Ignatiy would have surely gotten another blow or two if Mark and Olofer did not get in the way. Stefan was not trying to pick a fight, so he backed down and that was the end of it. Catherine went back to the shelter to meditate and everyone else resumed their tasks from before.
For those who did not have much faith in Catherine's powers (Ignatiy in other words), her meditation was nothing more than an excuse to rest in the shade. Mark could tell that was anything but the case. For hours, she did not stop to eat or drink even once. In fact, it did not look like she moved a muscle the entire time. The sun was just beginning to set when Catherine's eyes finally opened and she emerged from the shelter.
"I believe I have the answer," she said. "We should go to Draco Falls."
"What makes you think that?" Stefan asked.
"I contacted Kyrios himself."
Her words sent a shockwave through the group. Arkady, the one with the least appreciation for the threat from Kyrios, was the only one to speak up.
"How can this be?"
"I told Mark once that I had touched Kyrios' mind," Catherine said, nodding to the swordsman. "It was difficult the first time, but once I have come into contact with a mind, it is much easier for me to contact it again. Naturally, I am not so foolish that I would speak to him directly. I merely hovered on the surface of his consciousness, planting a few thoughts and seeing how he reacted."
Stefan arched an eyebrow. "And?"
"He did not react to the gorge," she said, "but there was a distinct feeling of uneasiness when I brought up the falls."
"That doesn't mean anything," Stefan argued. "How do we even know he knows about this 'Gaia's mouth' holding the key to his destruction?"
"We cannot," Catherine conceded, "not as long as my powers remain as they are, but I did not stop there. I also looked into the future and I saw us in the castle."
"What were we doing?" Ignatiy asked, his voice thick with derision. "Getting caught by the guards?"
"If that happens, I did not see it," Catherine replied flatly. "I realize it is not the most solid foundation for such a critical decision, but it is something. It is better than guessing at random."
Ignatiy was hardly satisfied. "Why don't we go to the gorge first? It'd be a whole lot safer, right?"
"We are running short on time," Catherine said. "I have said it before, have I not? Every moment we spend searching for the key, Kyrios increases his power." She stood up and crossed her arms. "If you are not willing to trust my vision, then I will go alone."
Mark quickly rose to his feet. "I won't let you do that," he said firmly. "I trust you, Catherine. If you're willing to put your life on the line for this, I am, too."
Stefan looked at the wall, tapping his staff on his shoulder. "If things go wrong, you're gonna need all the muscle you can get." He looked back to Catherine and flashed a cocksure grin. "I'm in."
A silent nod from Olofer added his assent. In deference to their show of support, Catherine bowed.
"Thank you, Mark, Stefan, Olofer." She paused, looking to the one who was most likely to be the voice of dissent. "Well, Ignatiy, what will it be?"
Facing the unanimous front formed by the others, Ignatiy sighed. "I'm gonna regret this..."
Catherine smiled. "It is settled then. We make for Draco Falls. We will take the hidden tunnel Mark spoke of. In the bowels of the castle, we will sneak through one of the main drainage pipes into the moat and swim across to land. From there it is simply a matter of getting to the falls and exploring the cave. If we follow this plan, the risk of encountering the enemy should be small."
"When you put it that way," Ignatiy replied, "it doesn't sound so bad, but there's just one problem: I can't swim."
Catherine closed her eyes briefly. "Neither can Olofer, it seems." The problem did not seem to weigh on her too heavily. "Not to worry," she said. "It will be more difficult, but the rest of us can carry you two across. Now, let us rest an hour or two and then we will head out."
It was early in the night when they packed their gear and started to make their way out of the desert. It was a dangerous prospect, placing their faith in the words of ancient diviners and fragmented visions of a contemporary psychic, but it was all they had. As Catherine had warned, their time was growing short. They had been fortunate thus far to avoid Kyrios' servants for so long, but soon there would be no place in all the kingdom that would be safe. Mark had already made his decision. It would be better for him to face possible dangers now than certain doom later.