Four: Obey the King
Two men approached one another in a darkened forest clearing. The world around them was unfocused and blurry. It was cool, after full dark, and the clearing was silent. He looked down and saw nothing but the leaf-strewn ground. He had no body in this place, although it felt as real to him as the waking world.
“Ha’tar,” one of the men said, drawing Hyleth’s attention. “Where are we?”
It couldn’t be the Ha’tar, could it? The men were similar enough in build and complexion they could have been brothers. The one who spoke was just a hair shorter, though he still would have towered over an average man. He wore a leather breastplate over a teal shirt and had a massive trident strapped across his back. The other wore matching armor over crimson and carried a broadsword.
“Eridonta,” the one called Ha’tar replied. “Don’t you recognize it? There is snow to the north, but it hasn’t moved this far south just yet.”
The other shrugged. “One world looks much the same to me as another,” he said. “Why have you called me here?”
“The winter,” Ha’tar said. “This world is caught in the grip of an unnatural winter. It is creeping across everything, in defiance of natural laws.”
The other man nodded. “I see. What does it have to do with me?”
“Come now, Gundaar,” Ha’tar said. “Surely you can feel what I have felt. Something is happening here. Dithregar has vanished. Kina claims she has not brought this snow. Tolath is rousing the guardians as we speak. They too have felt something stirring on this world.”
“It feels like Elistar,” Gundaar said. His voice was a whisper, filled with dawning horror. “Is it him? Has Altrimus returned to plague us?”
“Not directly,” Ha’tar replied. “At least, not that we can tell. Something else is happening. It may have something to do with him, but for now he remains a mystery.”
Both men regarded each other in the dark for a moment. Somewhere nearby, a night bird issued a shrill call. Hyleth shivered. The air was growing colder, he realized. What am I seeing? If this was really Ha’tar and Gundaar, gods of war and sea, they were speaking of things beyond his comprehension. Tolath was god of thunder. He recognized some of the other names but who was Altrimus? Who or what was Elistar?
“Who is the mortal?” Gundaar asked, waving his hand in Hyleth’s direction. “I can see him there, though I imagine he isn’t here physically.”
“Unimportant,” Ha’tar said. “I have brought along a mortal to witness what we’re discussing. His world is threatened. They will need to rise to the occasion.”
What threatens us? He tried to say, and found he had no voice. The gods continued speaking, moving on from his presence. So clearly, he wasn’t invited to participate, merely to observe and glean what he could.
“What do you want from me?” Gundaar asked.
“Nothing yet,” Ha’tar replied. “Just be ready for now. Something is happening in the west and the Pillar of the Sky is trembling. The time may come when we have to fight.”
“The Pillar?” Gundaar said. “That could mean…”
“I know,” Ha’tar said. “That’s why I need you to be ready. I’m going to speak to some of the others. Maybe it won’t come to a full-scale war, maybe it will. It is important either way that we’re prepared. The centuries have made us soft.”
“Speak for yourself,” Gundaar scoffed. “I’m as ready to fight as I’ve ever been. Send to me if you have need. I will honor my word.” Then Gundaar was gone. He simply vanished. Ha’tar stood facing the empty space for a moment longer and then regarded Hyleth.
“Remember what you can,” the god of war said. “Altrimus, the Pillar of the Sky, everything you can when you wake. Your world is in great danger.”
Hyleth woke in an instant, fully alert. Words, nebulous memories of his dream floated in his head. He scrambled out of bed and fumbled around in his room, stumbling over chests and discarded clothes. He found his desk, still littered with dispatches and reports from his subordinates. By the flickering light of his slowly dying hearth, he dipped a pen in ink and wrote on the back of a piece of paper. Altrimus. Pillar of the Sky. Then he paused to consider. There was something else, something just at the edge of his recollection. It came to him; a sudden flash of insight and he wrote again. Something stirs in Shandar.
Then it was gone, all but a vague sense of his dream. Had he really seen two gods conversing, or was that the unconscious babbling of his mind? Yawning, he left his scribbled paper to dry and went back to bed. There would be time to decide in the morning what to make of his dreams.
General Meershen Toiran was not a man accustomed to fear. In a lifetime of service to Auroth, he rarely found himself afraid or uncertain. A good soldier, he figured, always knew his place in the world. It was one of the things that had drawn him to the army during his youth. Even as an officer, climbing the ranks and taking on more and more responsibility, he’d always felt a sense of surety, or purpose. Soldiers fought, they protected, they patrolled and lent their skills to the people in times of peace. His role was to lead them, train them, command them. And for the first time in his memory, he wasn’t sure how to do that. The uncertainty made him afraid.
He sat across from King Leiton in the younger man’s personal dining room. Like his father before, Leiton preferred to conduct even official business in his own space. He typically used the Nest’s public rooms only for the most auspicious things unless he needed a larger space to host his gathering. Today, only the two of them were meeting at breakfast. Toiran wondered if he knew how much these meetings flouted tradition. Aurothian kings before old Tharon had been men of deep devotion to ceremony.
“How does the army fare, General?” Leiton asked. He always started with a vague question about the army. Toiran smiled. So like his father.
“Which part, Your Majesty?” Toiran replied. “Yours is one of the largest...