Shelendra had waited for over three hours before she heard evidence of the men's return. It came in the form of raised voices.
"Let me examine it now nephew. So we can ensure it is the artefact and maybe find what power it contains". Fillian had been pressing this on Joziah impatiently since his nephew had retrieved the book. His eyes looked eagerly at the item now in his presence.
"There is no need. It is my mother's book, and the recording in the ice wall showed me where she sealed it at the end of her life. It is the artefact you have spoken of". Joziah stooped to gather their packs from the main chamber where they had left them.
"The recording, what do you mean?"
"The ice-wall is elemental magic formed by her to record their last moments and identify where the book was sealed as protection against being found; except by me. The recording began to play again when I first saw the wall. I thought I could get to them before my mother created it but in reality it was already in place. My visions uncle; the same recording transmitted into my mind over and over from different perspectives; to bring me here in search of them and the book".
"But who transmitted the images to you. Your mother died in that chamber". Fillian understood something of elemental magic and the ice-wall was not an extravagant idea to him, but Kailin could not have transmitted the visions after her death.
Both men had stopped now just before the entrance to the narrowing tunnel that lead to the stairs and outside into the night. Joziah looked around the vast chamber, its colours now even more vibrant and breathtakingly beautiful. He looked up to the ceiling and could see the silver moonlight seeping through the rock and the air all around him. "My mother is with us".
Fillian decided now was the time he had to act. He was convinced the artefact was genuine and this weapon of myth must be secured for his people, and he wanted to be the one to do it. "Give the book to me Joziah".
"Why, uncle?" Joziah looked at Fillian with no expression of emotion.
"The book must be protected and whilst I do not wish to be insensitive of your situation, your mental state is not... robust". Fillian's words were harsh but he tried to display understanding and love. "I will look after it until we reach home. We can take no risks Joziah, the artefact is too important to our people".
"And whose people are they uncle?" Joziah, while still appearing emotionless, made clear his understanding in his look.
"Ah, I see. You doubt me nephew. May I ask why?"
"Perhaps it's the lack of emotional reaction at seeing your dead brother and his family back there, or maybe I see more clearly now the staged attack to make it appear the Red Hand was hunting us as you said you feared. What was the bargain made with those men Fillian, that their families would be released if they died to make you look loyal to me?" Fillian simply stared with growing malevolence at Joziah, his loathing for his nephew now open to see and boiling up.
"But mainly it's because of the increasing closeness to my divine mother as we got nearer and nearer to this place, and this book. It seems to have wiped away all the barriers and misdirection you have placed in my mind all these years uncle. To stop my magical abilities from developing; to believe faithfully in you, of course, and even to feel doubt in my beloved wife". Joziah stopped. He stood serene, hands at his sides.
"It was you that betrayed them, your own brother and his family. At least in that you spoke some truth. The Hand will sacrifice anything. But more accurately, they will sacrifice anything but themselves".
"Enough! Time's up my nephew". The sarcasm slimed out of Fillian's mouth and backing off slightly he slowly, disdainfully drew his sword. Joziah made no move.
"It appears it falls to me to finish the job I began over twenty years ago. First Jander and his scum family, and now you. The Hand will receive me as a hero when I walk from these caves with the book in one hand and your filthy head in the other. I don't need their help to finish you. As you so rightly say, the attack was an illusion. You have no skill at arms that can match my training from The Hand". Joziah still remained motionless.
Fillian swung his sword up and down in a vertical arc towards the top of Joziah's head. A clash of steel on steel rang out in the chamber as Shelendra appeared from her hiding place to block Fillian's death blow and then knocked him backwards with a side-kick to his chest.
"But I do Red Hand". Shelendra followed up her initial success by forcing back the winded Fillian to an icy part of the floor surface with a flurry of sword blows. He lost his balance and slipped drunkenly to the floor. His elbow bashed into the ground dislodging the sword from his grasp. She began her move to end this hateful man's life, but Joziah's voice stopped her.
"No Shelendra, let him live". He walked over and placed his hand on her shoulder as she halted her attack.
"Why? He should pay for his betrayal".
"He will be judged and punished for his actions. But it is not our place to be his judge, and death is no punishment for him, only rest".
Suddenly Fillian shouted out "Then I'll judge for myself". He moved swiftly for the dagger in his boot, grasped it, and dug it deeply into his own heart.
"We must be prepared for the Red Hand to be outside waiting for us. Once we are passed them, we go for help to retrieve my family". At the same time he spoke, Joziah was thinking of how they might attempt escape or, more likely, fight their way out.
"Don't worry, I have friends with me. I've been sending word of your directions, and those of the Red Hand pack that I've monitored following you. They will have dealt with them". Shelendra smiled at her husband.
"I hope so. We'll see in a moment". Joziah turned and began to walk back to the stairs.
"I can't believe you did nothing to stop Fillian from striking you down. What were you thinking Jo?" Shelendra had been struggling to suppress the question, but she couldn't stop it from bursting out of her any longer.
"I knew you were there".
"Impossible. My training allows me to move silently... like a shadow". Her glare laced with a wry grin was daring Joziah to contradict her.
"Well shadows are pretty quiet, I'll grant you. But you splashed around like Fillian back there". For a moment Joziah felt amusement and there was a connection between the couple. But in a flash the emotion was gone and he continued on his way out.
The circular tunnel was almost dark and they edged their way cautiously to the base of the stairs and looked up into the soft light. All was quiet. They climbed and finally poked their heads above ground level. Joziah's breathe was taken by what he saw.
Twenty grey-cloaked figures stood in a semicircle some five meters away from where Joziah and Shelendra had appeared. The golden light from the torches they held flickered as the cold breeze made the flames dance. Shadows played across their features and their eyes brightened at the appearance of those they had been waiting for. Shelendra reached for and squeezed Joziah's hand and whispered her confirmation that these were the friends she had spoken off.
The arc of women and men looked centred and peaceful. Beyond them to his own left, Joziah noticed a group of other individuals that were sat in a circle, bound and gagged. Their heads sagged, some appearing to be unconscious.
"Your friends have been busy". Joziah looked at his wife as she grinned with relief.
At that moment a blaze of silver shone around the gathering. Joziah looked to the sky and there shone a new moon, the brightest moon seen for a thousand years. He looked back to the people around him to find they now knelt before him. Shelendra too was kneeling at his side. Gently, he helped his wife to her feet and beckoned the others to stand also.
From the centre of the semicircle one stepped forward lowering her hood. "Welcome Joziah, I am Ethraine. We are your guardians and your family. Our people have waited a thousand years for your soul to return to us from the Nightlands. You hold the book, but I believe you already suspect that it is you who is the true artefact, the true power that can lead us from our persecution. We are here to help and guide you if we are needed".
"Thank you Ethraine, I am glad to accept your offer of help; I am in true need of it. I understand much more now but I still feel I am just touching the surface, and passing through these events without control. It's as if I am many people taking over from each other again and again. I cannot properly explain".
"Don't worry; you have explained it perfectly for now. Your soul is ancient beyond measure Joziah, renewed countless times, and it remembers all its previous existences. You are a chosen of the goddess of the moon, a Child of Kore, and she has given you back to us now, renewed... to save us. The book contains the knowledge and experiences of all your lives on this world throughout the ages. Only you can read it, but in time as you remember, you will no longer need to. We can help you learn to remember and also to retain control of who you are now in this life - Joziah Kai, husband of Shelendra and father to Alyndra. It will be difficult, but it will be your source of great wisdom and power; the strongest weapon with which to fight the hate that rages around us all".
At the instruction of Joziah the Koushan Mai priests gathered the bodies of his family and the whole group set off to the priest's camp not far to the North West, their prisoners in tow.
Deeply concerned, Joziah now believed the souls of all his family had been sealed within the chamber as power to sustain the magic of the ice-wall and its record. Ethraine did not believe it possible for them to make the Ascent to the Nightlands. Their souls would either be too weak or most likely already extinguished.
On the journey, Joziah and Shelendra swapped their stories of the last thirty or so days. Joziah also explained how Fillian had manipulated his mind and he apologised for his doubts about her. But during their talks Shelendra recognised he was keeping a space between them, physically and emotionally. She hoped it was just a short-lived symptom of the events he had endured.
The group arrived at the camp in the early morning where Joziah was encouraged to rest. He resisted, desperate to talk with Ethraine about the ritual, but finally he acceded and slept.
He wasn't surprised to find his first sight upon waking was Shelendra. She smiled but he could tell she felt concerned and he understood why. Since seeing his family die that last time through the recording his emotions were scattered. The sight of their real bodies gave him finality of their physical fate but he didn't feel he could move on. His mortal mother and father sacrificed everything for him including Folen and Mythra.
"Is everything being prepared for the ritual Shelendra?"
"Yes. The time is set for midnight. Joziah, can we talk?" Shelendra continued before he could say anything. "I want to help you but you are so distant. You've barely spoken and you haven't come to me, or kissed me. I have always loved you Joziah, as I still do".
"I understand, and know that I love you and Aly, but I can't shake the images or their voices. I feel numb. I must focus on the Ascent tonight and then maybe..." Joziah's words trailed off. He couldn't make promises he didn't know he could keep.
Shelendra simply nodded. She could feel and understand his mental anguish and she also knew that somewhere inside he was in enormous pain, which he had hidden away. But despite all her understanding and love, right now she didn't know what to do, and feared her husband might never return.
By midnight all was ready. The sky was clear, the winds gone. Moonlight bathed the gathering, its silver illumination complementing the winter cold.
The bodies had been placed onto makeshift pallets fashioned from hides, with the priests forming a large circle around them. Next to the pallets sat a stone bowl of sanctified water used to cleanse the deceased bodies, washing away any harmful spirits that may prevent the Ascent. As the closest blood relative it fell to Joziah to complete. The task was a particularly difficult one but he did it without display.
Ethraine then stepped forward and called upon the souls to fly to the Nightlands with words that had been spoken for hundreds of years. Joziah nervously joined Ethraine in the centre and set the pallets ablaze. The whole gathering then retreated from the flames, seated themselves on the ground, and prayed.
The priests directed their prayers to Lilika and Fain, the twin child gods of death, whose realm was the Nightlands. They looked up to the stars in the clear night sky, acting like a reflection of the millions of souls that resided, for now, on the mortal world below. The priests asked the twins to watch out for the souls of the Kai family and welcome them to the endless fields where they could rest and in time be renewed. But as they did do so, Joziah instead prayed to Kore. He begged his goddess to use her vision now to search for his family's souls and show them the way, as she had done for him on his own journey.
The priests completed their prayers and although the bodies would be left to burn for most of the next day, the ritual was complete. Shelendra shifted closer to her husband's side, watching him intently. Joziah had not once lifted his head from his prayer and he still continued. Two hours went by and no one in the gathering had left their position. They would not do so without Joziah. Shelendra looked over to Ethraine who returning her gaze, shook her head sadly.
Whispering gently Shelendra spoke to him "We should return to our tents Jo, the others won't retire until you do. I'm afraid there's nothing more to be done". There was no response, or pause in his prayer. Shelendra could do little else but remain quietly by his side as the minutes went by.
And then suddenly she saw Joziah begin to cry. His body heaved as he openly sobbed with tears pouring from his eyes like rain onto the ground in front of him.
"Jo, I'm so sorry. We'll get through this, I swear".
At her words Joziah looked up to her and she was startled by what she saw. His tears still flowing like rivers down his face, he was smiling at her, his eyes bright with happiness.
So confused she pleaded with him. "By the stars Jo, what is it?"
"They've made it to the Nightlands Shel. I can hear them singing!"