-FORTY YEARS EARLIER-
High above a shimmering desert, the sun burned so fiercely that the sky was bleached to the palest shade of pink imaginable. Dunes rolled into the distance like frozen swells on a sea of copper, casting weak shadows upon golden-red sands. The horizon was a jagged line of broken teeth, a mountain range of mystery and foreboding. Nothing disturbed the silence, no breeze shifted the stillness. Harsh and unforgiving, the desert of Mirage was not the most welcoming realm among the Houses of the Aelfir.
Amidst this barren, lifeless landscape, a huge monument of rock protruded from the desert. It was named the Giant's Hand, for it resembled the wrist and hand bones of a long-ago buried behemoth. It rose from the desert as if offering its palm to the sky. The ledge of its fingertips was thirty feet above the hot sands.
Two frames stood in the palm of the Giant's Hand. The first held a bell made from red glass lined with veins of gold that reflected the sun with dazzling sparkles. Bulbous and heavy, the bell hung from a rope dangling from the sturdy stone frame. The second frame, also made of red glass, held a simple wooden door. Set high on the door was a metal plate which had been engraved with three concentric squares: the House symbol of the Labyrinth.
A hum filled the air. The wooden door opened to reveal a sheet of viscous whiteness, churning and moaning. When the whiteness parted, the desert plains of House Mirage greeted a tall human with dark brown skin, holding a cane of green glass.
Van Bam stepped from the doorway and shielded his eyes against the glare of the sun. The heat took his breath away. Squinting, he looked out across the golden-red landscape that stretched all the way to the mountains. The shimmering sands and copper dunes made for a majestic view, but the illusionist was immediately struck by how empty, how lonely the desert seemed.
He looked down at his sandals. They protected the soles of his feet from the burning stone of the Giant's Hand, but he didn't much like wearing them. Van Bam always preferred to feel what was real against his skin, and they said that everything was hidden in Mirage.
Twirling his green glass cane in his hand, he watched Angel emerge. The healer was dressed similarly to Van Bam, in a loose fitting shirt and trousers of white cotton. Her long black and grey hair was pulled back into a tail, and she had prepared for the journey by bringing along a lace sun-umbrella.
Angel gasped and fanned her face with her free hand. 'Timewatcher's arse!' she said. 'I'd forgotten how bloody hot this place is.'
Van Bam shrugged. 'It is not too bad.' He wiped away the beads of sweat that had already formed on his bald head. 'Certainly not as hot as the Floating Stones of Up and Down.'
'Hardly a fair comparison, Van Bam, seeing as the Floating Stones are volcanoes.'
'Ah, yes, there is that.'
Angel puffed her cheeks and flapped the collar of her shirt. 'I'm really not made for this kind of heat, you know.'
'Perhaps it is your age.' Van Bam grinned. 'I have heard that it is the province of the elderly to find complaint in all things, including such a pleasant change of climate.'
'I'm forty-four, you cheeky bastard.'
Van Bam gave her a mock bow. 'Of course, my lady. Perhaps it is time for your nap, yes?'
Beneath the shadow of her umbrella, Angel's smile was lopsided. 'Why are you in such a playful mood?'
It wasn't as if Van Bam didn't appreciate the seriousness of the situation. He and Angel were following the trail of a delegate of House Mirage, a dead Aelf by the name of Ursa who had been complicit in bringing Fabian Moor into the Labyrinth. Who knew what dangers they would encounter in this desert realm? Yet Van Bam's mood was indeed light, and there were a couple of answers he could've given to the healer's question.
After two years of isolation, Van Bam felt great relief at having swapped the squalid streets of Labrys Town for the open wonder of an Aelfirian House – a House he had never visited before. It would also be true if he said that he still felt the warmth from the previous night when he and Marney had admitted their true feelings for each other.
'Oh, I get it,' Angel said. 'Is being in love agreeing with you, Van Bam?'
The illusionist chuckled. 'It is that obvious?'
Angel rolled her eyes. 'I've been around long enough to recognise the look.' She sighed, fluttered her eyelids, and her voice became wistful. 'The eyes become glazed, and a sort of dumb, vacant expression appears on the face. And everything in the world is sugar-coated with dreamy romance ...' She gave a pitying pout. 'The young are masters of looking stupid in love, even illusionists. It's a little bit irritating, to be honest.'
Van Bam gave a twirl of his cane. 'I will take your jealousy as a compliment.'
Angel scoffed. 'I'm happy for you, Van Bam, but you need to be careful.'
'Angel, if you are worried about Marney ...' He shook his head, smiling at fond memories of his lover. 'Believe me, she can look after herself. Honestly, have you ever tried to hide your feelings from an empath?'
'Oh, I've no doubt Marney knows how to handle you,' Angel said. 'But that's not what I'm talking about, Van Bam.' She paused for a moment. 'It's the Gideon factor that should be worrying you.'
At the mention of the Resident's name, Van Bam's good mood ebbed a little. From the open palm of the Giant's Hand, he surveyed the barren desert and the shimmering waves of heat rising from the copper dunes.
'Gideon is not in favour of our relationship, this much I have come to learn,' he told Angel. 'But Marney and I understand our commitment to the Relic Guild. We will work hard to ensure our relationship never hinders our duties.'
'No, you don't understand,' Angel said, her voice sad, expression serious. 'Gideon doesn't care if your relationship never causes problems to the Relic Guild. He just doesn't like his agents being romantically involved, full stop. Trust me, Van Bam. I know that from personal experience.'
Van Bam frowned at Angel, waiting for an explanation. But before she could speak further, the Nothing of Far and Deep began churning, and a hum vibrated the rock beneath their feet.
'We'll talk later,' Angel said, and the portal opened to release the rest of their travelling companions.
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THE RELIC GUILD (and other stories) Updated regularly.Fantasy
Magic caused the war. Magic is forbidden. Magic will save us. The Relic Guild is the award nominated first book in The Relic Guild trilogy. It was said the Labyrinth had once been the great meeting place, a sprawling city at the heart of an endless...