The great tome fell open with a dusty thump that nearly snuffed out the candle next to it. There was wind up there in the great tower, and the grey satiny curtains on the window billowed inward with each moaning gust. The trapdoor rattled and thumped in its frame as the air pushed through the room, and the wind whistled through the cracks, echoing down the tower stairs into the castle below. The blood-stained sheets on the bed ruffled and fluttered, eternally held down beneath the weight of the yellow-green-greyish blanket that kept it from flying off into the corner where the circular wall met the floor beside an old brown desk. And the desk held more candles, unlit.
The heat was savage up there, like an oven, and outside the window was a great blackness of cloud that blanketed the pre-dawn sky. No stars shone above, and no one had seen the moon in forty years. The tower room was not dark however. It held its own light, brighter than the candle, a light that could be seen from the town below, a pink-tinted swirling light that danced inside a crystalline stone, swaying and turning in bright shafts from each of the stone's many facets, stretching out like fingers, making patterns on the grey brick of the wall. It rested upon the metal fingers of a standard that sat upon a waist-high column at the foot of the bed. The column looked pink, but was actually white, glossy, and as reflective as glass.
And somewhere outside, above the rafters that framed the conical roof of the tower, there was the sound of a fluttering banner that tried without success to rest limply against its pole between gusts of the bullying wind.
It was near morning, but there was no sunrise. The land was dark, unkissed by dawn's sleepy glow. The thick, black cloud covered everything, the whole country, as far as the eye could see, hanging in the air just above the flagpole, holding in the heat.
Rosdeima brushed the dust from his weathered old hands, and wiped a trickle of sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his robe. He squinted down at the words on the page and mouthed the pronouncements of the ancient text to himself.
"'I give my strength, my essence, my very life. Take these from me and be restored, that you may shine forever more?' What is this?"
There was a man near the trapdoor, some years younger than he, standing in white armour. His hands were on his sword's hilt at his waist. His chest bore the insignia of the Castleguard, red and purple and gold, contrasting brightly in a shield shape against the white of his armour. And the insignia bore an image of the same banner that fluttered weakly above them.
"An incantation of offering, Rosdeima. You are to give your lifeforce to the stone, to renew its strength, or so you told me many years ago."
The older man looked over at him, puzzled. Years?
"I don't remember."
The commander sighed.
"You will, when you touch the stone."
"Why don't I remember now?"
The stone's pink shafts of light waved across the old man's face, flashing over his eyes, causing him to blink and squint.
"Part of the stone's magic is to make you forget. You do not remember now, and you will forget when you have left this room, but you will remember when you touch the stone again."
"And you remember without touching the stone? How?"
The younger man breathed inward, and then sighed through his nose. He looked down at the floor, not answering. The old wizard went back to reading.
"This is my hand writing, and yet I don't..."
He turned a page. The young soldier shifted his weight from one foot to another, sighing again.
"You are simply to read the incantation and place your hands onto the stone. I will take care of the rest."
"But why? What does this stone do?"
"I could tell you, sir, but you would only forget again, and I have other duties to attend. If you please, the incantation."
He gestured toward the stone. He was not impatient with the old man. He seemed more sorrowful, but it was restrained sorrow, that of a soldier who does his duty without allowing himself the indulgence of emotion. He simply wanted to be done with this task and leave as soon as he could.
"Dalmich-mir, though I am old, I am not a foolish man. I do not enjoy being confused. I know you have pressing business to attend, but please tell me why we're here, what the purpose of this ritual is. If ever you considered me a friend. Please."
"The stone will answer you itself, as it always does. You must trust me."
And so the old man, confused though he may have been, resigned himself to the commander's word and turned his eyes back to the text on the page, and then to the stone.
He approached the stone, held out his hands to it, and began the incantation. As the words rolled off his tongue, the light seemed to calm, to pull inward and shimmer. There was a shifting, a shuddering of the column, and the stone seemed to lean toward the old man, as though hungry. The incantation finished, and his hands slapped down onto the stone, yanked downward by some unseen power. The look on his face changed instantly from curiosity to agony. His knees unbuckled and he sagged, almost falling, but he was held by the gravity of the stone. He shook, he cried out, like a man in a nightmare. The shaking intensified. The trapdoor rattled hard in its frame, then flew upward, slamming against the wall, battered open by a rush of wind that flew out the window. The candle flame fluttered violently, barely holding onto its wick. The curtains no longer billowed inward, but were sucked out of the room, whipping and flapping in the sky outside, as though trying to escape. Dalmich-mir stepped forward, standing on the opposite side of the stone, and waited, tensed and ready. His hair was tousled around his face. The sheets on the bed ruffled around the edge of the mattress. The wizard's robes danced in the wind as well.
The stone brightened and faded, as though breathing. Rosdeima convulsed, struggling to yank his hands from the stone. Tears flowed across his cheeks, back toward his ears. His mouth opened and closed, like a drowning man's as he fought for air. He grunted, squeezed by some unseen force. His face paled to a dull white, and glossed over with cold sweat. The tiny purple veins beneath his skin brightened with the strain. Inside him, his heart fought to keep beating, but seemed to be losing the battle. Finally, he opened his eyes, and Dalmich-mir saw the colour in them fading from greenish to pale stone grey. It was time.
He snatched the wizard's hands off the stone. In the instant of contact, he saw the queen, thrashing on the bed, growling like an animal in an agony of pain, but still coherent enough to shout orders at them. Her clothes were in tatters, her beautiful golden hair ripped out in clumps, her face a mess of bruises and deep bleeding cuts. One eye was swollen shut, and her lips dribbled blood and spit as she spoke, sniffling through a broken nose.
"It must be, Rosdeima! We cannot stand against this evil otherwise. It will destroy us all!"
Dalmich-mir snatched the wizard's hands off the stone and flung them away, not even wanting to see that merest flash of the visions that tortured the old man. Rosdeima stumbled backward and fell into the chair behind him, knocking the candle from the bookstand and finally snuffing it out. The agitated pulsing of the stone stilled, and returned to its regular, swirling, twinkling, slowly spinning shafts of light, only now they were brighter than before. The curtains billowed gently inward again.
"My queen! My queen! Oh, my beloved queen!" Rosdeima said in a broken, croaking whisper that seemed to barely escape him. He sat slouched in the chair like a beaten man, his chest rising and falling with breath he seemed unwilling to take. His eyes were wide, frightened, terrified, flashing around the room, as though trying to erase some inner vision with visual gulps of reality. And tears flowed freely down his face.
Dalmich-mir sighed again, and there was more emotion in it now. He turned away from his friend the wizard, deeply shaken, and watched the patterns winding up and down and around the wall. The patterns calmed him. He remembered the horrible events of that day clearly, but the pain of them had not stabbed into his very soul, searing hot and crushing, as they had for the old wizard.
"There are evils in this world that mere hanging cannot amend," the commander said. The wizard's fists balled at his temples and he pulled at his hair, releasing a growling cry of hatred uncharacteristic of such a noble man. Whatever he'd seen seemed to be killing him inside.
"Come, let's go, friend. You will forget again as you descend the stairs."
The commander took his hand and helped him to his feet, bracing him with an arm around his back. The old man faltered on his legs, exhausted, barely able to speak.
"And we must do this again next month?"
"It must be done. You will forget though, until I bring you back here once again."
"But you remember?"
"I alone remember. It is my duty. The queen commanded it."
"Next month then," the wizard said, and they descended the stairs together, holding a torch before them, lighting a path through the darkness, spiralling down into the castle.