In this second book in the series Michael makes powerful enemies but he finds new friends. He has a choice to make, that could bring redemption or the End of the World. Dangers surround him in his own world and in Taleth, can he survive to fulfil his destiny?
Since Michael Oakes was first drawn into Taleth, carrying the spirit of Mikael Dal Oaken, he has walked with the Powers, fought the Tsarg and ridden the fabled Piradi. He has heard the voice of the Corruptor and has conversed with the Wolves. He has found companionship, loyalty and love. He has learned much but he knows that there are still so many questions to answer, and Sorin, the Majann, for all his power, can answer very few. In his own world, he and David have a new travelling companion, Martha Spinetti, Netti for short. Events have conspired to force them to tell her their true situation, but Netti has taken it all in her stride. Michael has experienced the thrill of flying with the Valeen of the Antaldi, a rare offer of aid from the austere people of the Forest, but his journey to Tath Garnir, the King’s city, has been brought to an abrupt and violent end. In his own world he had fled the noisy bar of the White Hart Hotel in Newport and has now woken lost and confused in a dark alley.
A Rare Woman
For a while he lay there, and he tried to calm himself after his fall. Here he appeared to be in a dark alley. In Taleth he would have landed somewhere just inside the city walls, but he had no idea what state he was in. The previous synchronicity suggested that he was there as he was here, winded, bruised, dishevelled and lost, but nothing more. Of course, he could not be sure until he switched back. He hoped that Fah Devin had made it safely to ground and that Sorin, presuming he survived the Garshegan, could halt the effects of the poison. He struggled to his feet and brushed himself down, trying to orientate himself. He had no idea how far he had walked; it had been Friday when he switched but there was little clue to what day or even time it was other than it was dark.
He heard traffic noise and he saw that the alley led out at one end to a road with streetlights. He made his way along, stumbling in the darkness, knocking over some bottles and falling once, against a pile of black bin bags, by the time he reached the road, his frustration at the darkness was such that he decided to make for the first friendly light that he could see and hang the consequences. What he saw on the other side of the street was a fish and chip shop, brightly lit, comfortably gaudy and, what was more, empty. He crossed the road and walked towards the open door. As he did so he caught sight of his reflection in the glass. He looked a complete mess, muddy stains criss-crossed his jeans and his shirt, his hair was dishevelled, and his hands bloodied. He contemplated retreat, but the woman inside the shop had seen him and she had come around from behind the counter; a look of concern on her face.
“Are you alright, love, have you been in an accident? Come in and sit down a minute.” She was a small woman, but she had that natural tone of command that led people to accept proffered help without question. “You are in a mess and no mistake. Do you speak English? My Welsh is very ropey I’m afraid; I don’t try hard enough with it I suppose. Here I’ll get something for your hand.” She left him sitting for only a moment before she returned with some antiseptic wipes and plasters.
Michael was glad that there was no-one else around. “Thank you, you’re most kind.”
“Ah, you do have a voice, good. How did you get into this state?” She asked as she cleaned his hands and knuckles,
“I’m afraid I got lost, I have a condition. I black out sometimes and if I’m not careful, I end up like this.”
“Oh, you poor man, like petit mal, you mean. How unfortunate. Well, it’s Saturday night so the hospital will not be a nice place to be, although it is still early. Are you staying in Newport?”
“Well, just outside, The White Hart Hotel, I think.”
“There are several of those, I think, but we should be able to work out which.” She had finished covering the two gashes on his knuckles with plasters. She now considered the next step. “Have you eaten? No? Right well it’s early, as I said, I won’t get much custom for at least an hour yet. There’s always a gap between those who come in for their tea and the after-hours lot. Here, let me shut up for ten minutes while you have some haddock and chips on the house. I will have a look in the phone book and see which hotel you are in.”
She reached up and flipped the Open sign to Closed as Michael began to protest. “No, no, it’s no trouble really. Come on.” She led Michael through to the back of the shop and sat him down at a table. She continued to question him as she piled a plate with chips and a portion of haddock. “Did you come down from the coast?”
“Yes, we stayed in Aberystwyth on Thursday.”
“I like Aberystwyth, I have an aunt up there, by marriage, not that I am now, not since his lordship took off. But that will mean you either came down through Llandridnod Wells, through the beacons, or you took the coast road.”
“We took the coast road. But we didn’t join the motorway, we came across on the minor roads.” Michael hadn’t realised he was hungry, but the fish and chips were genuinely delicious. “This fish is excellent, sorry, I don’t even know your name?”
“That’s because I didn’t tell you it’s Dianne, and you?”
“Michael, this is really good.”
“Best chip shop in the street.” She laughed at her own joke. “So you didn’t take the motorway.” She sat down opposite him, she had an old Yellow Pages in her hands. “My son says that I should get a computer to look things up on, but I like the feel of paper personally.”
Michael was able for the first time to look at her properly. Her hair was mainly hidden by a hairnet and a white cap, but what he could see was black. Her face was careworn, but still handsome, although her nose was a sharp thin one that gave her a rather severe countenance. She was slim but not thin and she gave off an air of confidence and control that probably stood her in good stead late at night. “Right, if you came in from Aberdare or Caerphilly then you would be on the north side so … ah, here we are. There’s only one White Hart up that side, which makes it easy. I’ll ring you a taxi, while you finish your supper.”
While he was eating Michael realised that he had no way of paying, but when Dianne returned, she had anticipated this, and she produced a twenty-pound note from the till. “Here, this will get you home.”
“I can’t take that, although you’re right I have no money on me. I will come over tomorrow and pay you back.”
“There’s no need, really, I rarely get the chance to play the Good Samaritan and maybe it will store up some reward for me if the Lord sees fit.”
A car horn sounded outside. “That was quick, business must be slack. Here, I’ll wrap the rest of that, and you can take it with you. The driver knows where he’s going. Now you watch yourself, Michael, it’s a big scary world out there and you need to take care.”
“Thank you, you are a rare woman, Dianne.”
“That’s what I told his lordship, a rare woman, because I let him walk out. Most of the women round here would have broken both his legs for him. Off you go, I’ve got customers on the way.”
So, armed with a twenty-pound note, a half-eaten haddock and the remaining chips Michael set off in the Taxi across Newport. The incongruity of his life made him smile as he continued to enjoy the fish, while the driver chatted away in the front. Not an hour ago, he had been high above the capital of Taleth, beset by storm and demon and now he was in the back of a rather dirty black cab, which was struggling through the Saturday night traffic in Newport.
After a rather stop-start fifteen minutes they arrived at the White Hart. Michael paid the driver and deposited what was left in a charity dog by the entrance. He put what was left of his free meal in the nearest bin and trying to appear more nonchalant than he felt, he walked up to the reception desk.
“Good evening, I …”
“They’re in the bar, sir.” The duty receptionist was a man, and by the look of him a rather surly one.
“Your friends, they’re in the bar. They were out looking for you, now they’re in the bar.”
“Oh, I see.” Michael was going to thank him, but since he had turned away, he decided not to bother. Instead he walked into the bar and he spotted David at the counter downing quite a large whisky. Netti was nowhere to be seen.
David spun round on hearing his name; his face was drawn and tired, he had obviously had little sleep. “Michael, where the hell have you been? Quickly grab those drinks and follow me. Netti is about to ring the police.” Michael did as he was told and picked up the two large glasses of wine and followed David out of the bar and up the stairs. Their two rooms were at the top of the building and it took several flights to get there. As Michael reached him David was knocking on the door of Netti’s room. “Netti, it’s alright he’s turned up. He’s …”
The door flew open and Netti threw her phone onto the bed. “Thank God, Michael, we’ve been worried sick. We spent the whole day searching for you.”
There was little he could say except. “Sorry, I went out for some air and I switched while I was walking. I‘ve only been back for forty minutes or so.”
David was concerned about whether Netti had instigated a full search or not, but Netti reassured him. “No, I was still on hold, fortunately. But I did ring the hospitals again, not that they keep records of calls necessarily.”
“I suppose not, but Michael you look a mess. Have you eaten?”
“Yes, I have actually; a Good Samaritan by the name of Dianne gave me a fish and chip supper and the taxi fare to get back here.”
“Well, there’s a rare woman in this day and age.” Netti was surprisingly calm about it all.
“That’s just what I told her. Look, I’m really sorry, but I don’t think that anyone is going to let anything really awful happen to me. I mean they all seem to have too much invested in me to let that happen.”
David was extremely sceptical. “Are you saying that there are people who will not allow you come to harm because you are important?”
“Not people exactly, but certainly major players in the game that they are playing.”
Netti took one of the wine glasses from Michael. “Okay, we’ve both had an awful fright and worn ourselves out all day looking for you, but that’s done with, I have fuel in my hand now and I want to know what has been happening to you and don’t go leaving bits out, I will be able to tell, we deserve all of it after today.”
So, with Netti and David sitting sipping their wine, Michael sat on the bed and he began to recount the last few days in Taleth. He did leave out some things, his starlit encounter with Ayan, was not their affair; also the dream about Sorin and the two promises. All of that seemed too serious and sacred to be banded around a bedroom in a hotel. He also left out the house of the Mualb entirely, although he was not quite sure why, perhaps because he felt a personal attachment that was not necessary to share. Even without these there was enough to sate Netti’s curiosity and she seemed fairly satisfied when he had reached the encounter with the Garshegan.
David was still concerned for Michael’s safety. “But how can be sure that you have survived that fall?”
“I can’t, David, not for certain, but I’m alive here and so it seems logical to assume that I am alive there.”
“Logical, since when has any of this been logical. It has been one crisis after another and now we simply have to find somewhere where we can at least lock you in, even if you walk around and around the house in your trance or whatever it is.” David was definitely in need of sleep. “The sooner we get to Street the better; I may buy some chains on the way to make sure that you stay in one place at a time.”
Netti had clearly been weighing things up in her mind. “Now, now, David, calm down. I think I have a better solution. While the flat over the clinic is being refurbished, I am ‘house-sitting’ a really nice house in Glastonbury, on a semi-permanent basis. It is set back away from the main road; four big bedrooms and a study and a conservatory which opens onto a very private garden. It would serve us all very nicely. You could set your chain to a spike out in the garden and let Michael walk around that to his heart’s content. It would save on carpet at the very least.”
The notion of Michael chained to a stake endlessly walking round in circles obviously tickled David and he began to laugh, which caused the others to do the same. With the tension thus eased, Michael asked if he could have a shower before getting some proper sleep and David was now quite happy to let him. David and Netti returned to the bar to leave Michael to wash, so he stripped off his dirty clothes and he entered the bathroom. He knew that he would be disappointed; nothing now would match the exhilaration of washing in the house of the Mualb, but it was clean, serviceable and warm.
He took his time, letting the water cascade over his head and massage his shoulders. It was strange to think that his other self could be lying in the dirt somewhere close to the walls of Taleth, but perhaps he was being washed by the rain of the storm. He suddenly remembered how swiftly the storm had thrown itself against them; no natural weather could have appeared so quickly, perhaps closer to the mountains, but not out in the open plains. There was too much that made no sense about the attack. How had they known that there would be flyers? How had they known where they were? Were they so numerous that they could wait in ambush at every possible point on their journey, surely not? Was it his fault? Perhaps the Corruptor could always tell where he was. With that thought in his mind he dried himself, slipped into the bottom half of the pyjamas that David had given him, and lay down to try and sleep.
He found himself dreaming, before him was another mountain range and he seemed to be drifting down to it from above. The jagged peaks reached up like claws out of the snow which lay everywhere, frozen into great drifts. As he drew nearer, he became aware of a figure moving through the snow, a figure with the stature of Uxl of the Tarr, but as he finally came to rest upon the snow, he realised that this figure was not of earth. It was thinner, paler, fluid, like slowly drifting clouds moulded into shape and given limbs and a head. He surmised this to be a First One of Air, the Auwinn, long since thought to have faded from Taleth. The figure strode effortlessly through the deep snow, which seemed to part before it as it moved forward, and close behind it after it had passed. Its goal was a cave, the mouth of which sat beneath an overhang of rock and was thus protected from the snow. He followed now on foot as the Auwinn entered the cave.
They passed through several sets of great doors as they made their way into the mountain, each was differently decorated, but the detail of their decoration was blurred to his dreaming eyes. Finally, they reached an inner chamber, the walls carved and decorated with painted images. Around the edges were shelves and tables that obviously held objects of great value and import. Three other Auwinn stood around a great casket of green crystal. Upon the casket, a great wolf with pure white fur lay dying. She raised her head as they approached and howled painfully one last time before a shudder indicated the end. Michael sensed her spirit leaving her body and he knew in that moment that this was one of the Veyix, the Lost, and that her spirit was now condemned to wander just as Lonett must. The Auwinn bowed their heads and they began a long slow chant to honour the departed, but Michael’s eyes were drawn inevitably to the casket. He began to have a terrible premonition that he would soon be standing there in the flesh and that meant that the casket contained one thing and one thing only. The Chiatt Crystal. The Doom of Taleth.
The next thing Michael knew was David shaking him awake.
“Come on, Michael, we need to make an early start.” David was already dressed. “I’m going down to settle up and then we can set off. We’ll pick up some breakfast on the way, that way we can miss some of the traffic. The weather’s turned, sadly, it’s been raining all night.”
“Oh, okay, can we stop off to repay Dianne, the fish and chip shop Samaritan?”
“I suppose so, if you can find it.”
“I think so, I’d like to try anyway.”
“Alright, all the more reason for a swift exit this morning.”
“Yes, sure, I’ll be dressed when you get back.”
Michael was as good as his word and with their few belongings gathered, the three of them made a dash across the car park in the now hammering rain and set off. Despite David’s misgivings they found Dianne’s shop without too much trouble, Michael mentally retracing the taxi journey, and he pushed thirty pounds through the letter box with a hastily written thank you note.
Driving became very difficult; the rain was so severe that the windscreen wipers hardly made any impact at all. David was finding it increasingly difficult, and he made the decision to stop for a while until it eased off. They found the first available roadside café and they decided to have something to eat while they waited for a pause in the onslaught.
The food was really quite good, and they settled down to eat while it continued to rain. David and Netti were in better moods today as they had had some sleep, but for some reason Michael became uneasy. Something was wrong, he didn’t know quite what, but there was a nagging doubt growing in the back of his mind.
He voiced his misgivings to David, but he was unconcerned. “I can’t see what’s bothering you, Michael, it’s probably just the stormy weather getting to you.”
“Maybe, it is, but there is something, I’m sure of it, I just can’t quite put my finger on it, that’s all.” He cast his eyes around the rest of the half-filled café; no-one seemed to be paying any attention to them. It had that bleak impersonal look that places attain when no-one has any reason to invest real care in them. He had been in many such, airport lounges, hotel lobbies, doctor’s waiting rooms; each cleaned and swept and serviced with soulless indifference, each as sad, crowded and lonely as the dayroom of a care home, where time passes despite the inertia of age. All of the others were doing what they had done, having a break from the terrible weather. All were eating or drinking, except two men who were paying their bill and talking to the woman behind the counter, nothing that was in anyway unusual. He tried to ignore his unease.
After a while the rain eased a little and David suggested that they continue their journey. As they settled into their seats in the van, Michael looked across the car park to where the two men, he had seen paying a while before, had also chosen to leave.
“Why did they wait so long before going to their car?”
David was more concerned with pulling out on to the wet road. “What do you mean, ‘why did they wait so long’?”
“Those two men in the blue car, the BMW.” David was now on the road itself, “that left just after us.”
“What about them?”