Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Unwilling God

by
Michael Doyle

Kindle Copy

Prologue E=mc^2

Captain Erickson strapped himself into the chair of his military cruiser, the H.M.S. Glory. Looking at the aft viewscreen, he saw the blue-green sphere of Orion II from a distant orbit. Orion II: Erickson cursed the day that he had first heard that name. It should be a lifeless ball of rock, orbiting peacefully and slowly around its young star just beyond the edge of the Orion Nebula. Archaic records listed this second colonial expedition to the Orion Nebula as a temporary, wildcat mining dome colony. The H.M.S. Glory’s mission should have been routine and archeological in nature, a view into the grave of an ancient mining colony. It wasn’t. The planet was green, alive with a stubborn human populace.
Nine other colonies had been successfully reclaimed under his command. Most colonies had been glad to rejoin the Union. Those few who had resisted had been easily cowed with a minimal display of superior firepower. With the reclamation of this newly discovered colony, his crew would receive their first rest cycle on Earth in seven years. He could visit his wife and son. Yet this planet that should not sustain life, this population who should not be thriving, confounded Erickson. These people thwarted him at every turn, as if they knew Margaret and Jeremy were waiting for him.
Erickson watched the satellite transmission aimed at the city named Jezric. Observing his troops in front of the main gate, he foresaw no problems. He had issued the forty-eight hour standard ultimatum after the leader of the city had refused entrance to his powered armor troops. Erickson meticulously followed Union procedure during a hostile reclamation.
The leader’s name was Tarkel, the self proclaimed Wizard King Tarkel. Intelligence reports had informed Erickson that Tarkel was a petty, theocratic dictator. The people of the city should be happy to be rid of him. In earlier satellite transmissions Erickson had seen pagan sacrifices, being performed atop the central tower of the city. The Union was justified in putting an end to such barbarism and reclaiming its ancient colonies. Erickson would shed no tears for this man’s death. The forty-eight hour deadline was approaching. Erickson studied the viewscreen for any signs of activity.
The dictator appeared on the Jezric transmission. He was atop the stone tower and surrounded by men and women with naked chests and dresses of bright orange that covered their waists and legs. Erickson watched in shock as the madman stabbed each victim with a cruelly pronged, metallic glove. The sacrifices were as young as his son had been when he had left to command the Glory. They did not resist when the madman, putting his other hand behind his victim’s back for leverage, buried the metal claws into their flesh, and each smiled horribly as Tarkel murdered them. Tarkel pulled out his victim’s heart and showed it to the remaining sacrifices. He threw the organ over the edge of the tower and moved to the next sacrifice. The ritual was completed with remarkable speed, and a bloody pile of bodies lay at the center of the tower.
Erickson, in a strangled voice, ordered the transmission to be cut off. Regulations were clear on this matter: He must wait until the deadline had been breached.
Everyone on the command deck was silent, coping with the sheer brutality of what they had just seen. Lieutenant Peters, the officer on watch, broke the tension, “Captain, I have a target in the planet’s stratosphere about the size of a shuttle. Its bearing is in line with Jezric.”
Erickson immediately thought of pirate vessels. He dismissed that possibility. The H.M.S. Glory’s satellites would have detected a pirate vessel during its entry from space. No, the only technology for flight on this planet was under his authority. The satellite achieved a lock on their mysterious target, and the visual received was beyond Erickson’s fringe of belief: A winged dinosaur was flying toward the city. He relayed the satellite transmission to the head of the Glory’s xenobiology section. Something this size should be on the ground, despite the enormity of its wings. Fascinated, Erickson watched the behemoth fly toward the city while he listened to the extemporaneous report of xenobiologist Waters.
Waters was talking excitedly over the intercom, “Even if it has an avian bone structure, this animal should not be flying. I am employing the satellite’s scans to give us a reading of the animal’s anatomy.”
Erickson could only think that the creature resembled the mythical dragons of Earth as he waited for the computer to analyze the scan. The navigator interrupted Erickson’s whimsical chain of thought, “Sir, the creature’s bearing has changed. Now, it’s heading on a course in line with our satellite.”
Erickson bit back his sudden nervousness that wanted to tell Myers to belay the obvious. His navigator was only doing his job. The creature was now closing in on the satellite. It looked into the scanner. Each eye had twin pupils. Erickson reflexively shrank back in fear as he gazed into the creature’s eyes. The damned thing looked sentient. A sudden vision of being eaten alive by this beast entered his mind. His command crew had dazed expressions on their faces, which mirrored his growing anxiety.
The dragon closed its eyes, stopped flying, and began gliding without changing its direction.
Something whispered ever so softly in Erickson’s ear. He looked around the cramped command module, but everyone was at their assigned posts.
“I have come for you. Your iron dwelling cannot protect you.”
Erickson went stiff in his chair. The beast, the dragon, was a telepath. Erickson stifled the urge to gag at the intimately sensual sound in his mind. He fumbled for the intercom switch. “Waters, what does the scan tell you?”
The xenobiologist replied, “Minimal data, Captain. Eighty-seven percent of the scan did not penetrate the creature’s hide. There’s absolutely no way the creature is that dense. Neither I nor the computer has an explanation for the effect at this time. We believe that the creature’s mass is about twenty tons. Sorry, Captain. All that I can tell you is that unless that creature has a w-axis drive, it can’t fly.”
“That’s all right. Keep trying.” Erickson said. He flipped off the intercom, fingering the switch as he thought. Erickson knew that he had to keep the beast’s telepathic contact a secret. Military Intelligence Central on Earth would remove him from command and pick his brain apart if he complained of hearing voices. The last thing he wanted was Cerberus’ military psychs prowling around the Glory’s personnel. Erickson turned to look at Myers’ blue eyes staring back at him. On the cramped deck Myers smelled of tangy deodorant, despite the sheen of sweat forming on the Lieutenant’s face. Erickson said, “I doubt that thing is capable of equaling any altitude to be a bother to us, but keep a lock on it anyway, Lieutenant.”
In his mind Erickson heard laughter.
Myers said, “Captain, the creature is gaining speed and altitude, possibly due to high velocity winds. Computer estimates that it will arrive at the satellite in two minutes and thirty-nine seconds. Mark. It is already far above the breathable limit of the atmosphere.” Myers controlled his expression, not wanting to influence his Captain in this type of decision, “Sir, shall I target plasma?”
In a dreamlike state Erickson observed the satellite transmission. Paradoxical wisps of smoke issued from the dragon’s nostrils. The voice invaded his mind again, “No, human. Command your men to stay their wrath.”
Erickson looked at his Lieutenant as if he were peering through a thick fog. Slowly, without his volition, Erickson heard himself say, “No. Let’s see what happens.”
Surprised, the Lieutenant obeyed, but kept his eye on the targeting system should the Captain change his mind. Myers gasped as his scanner went blank.
Desperate, Erickson struggled to call for help. He hated not being in control. He watched his personal viewscreen at his console as the dragon opened his maw and vomited forth a black substance. Then, there was nothing more to see.
As he felt himself regaining possession of his body, Erickson heard Myers say, “Satellite destroyed, sir.”
Later, Erickson shivered at the memory of the dragon controlling him. In his private cabin he sat on his bunk wringing his hands together. Although the beast was no longer in his mind, the memory of the intrusion dominated his thoughts. He had just showered. Yet he still felt unclean. Erickson had always considered himself a stoic, but he could feel his emotions rising to the surface. He wiped an unaccustomed tear from his cheek and forcefully exhaled.
His intercom buzzed. It was his second, Commander Jacobson, “We’ve reestablished the visual link with the surface. I think you’d better come up to the command module, sir. It’s bad.”
Taking the chair, Erickson viewed the new satellite’s first transmissions. The dragon lay outside the city next to Erickson’s troops. Its teeth were as long as his arm and predator sharp, bloodstained. He saw his entire first assault team letting themselves be murdered. His trained soldiers were taking off their powered armor and walking toward the dragon. Their bodies were covered with festering sores as they cavorted in front of the dragon. They were completely out of touch with reality by Erickson’s estimation. One by one, they began leaping into the maw of the dragon. Screams could be heard over the comlink. When he saw his last soldier stick the barrel of his rifle down his throat and pull the trigger, Erickson knew that the dragon could not be allowed to live.
One Ocoan week later, without clearance, Captain Erickson destroyed the technologically primitive city of Jezric with a half megaton nuclear warhead, constructed from a back up generator in his ship. The next day, he received the order, via w-axis communique, relieving him of his eleven year command. Erickson laughed when he read the message.
Commander Jacobson ordered a new psych profile on the basis of Captain Erickson’s erratic behavior. The psychologist’s diagnosis was dual personality disorder, coupled with acute paranoid schizophrenia in both personality types.
For three months Jacobson had usurped his command, while he had been restricted to his cabin. For three months he had fingered the little pink pill. Now, he slipped it under his tongue.
Walking down the corridor with an armed escort, Erickson felt the shuttle dock with his–the ship. Satisfied, Erickson knew that his timing was perfect. He felt lightheaded and greeted the new, handsome Captain of the Glory. He shook the naive man’s hand and pitied him.
Erickson felt good about himself. The drug was performing painfully and precisely as promised. The Cerberus abomination would not pick his mind in its burrow on Sol III. No one would ever be allowed in his mind again. He would not face his wife and son with the evil memories. He could see it in his eyes whenever he had looked in a mirror during those terrible months: The creature was there, still whispering in his mind, still prodding him with its hungers. Erickson knew there was such a thing as evil, which defied all modern philosophy. He would not take that knowledge back to his innocent family.
As his heart burst, Erickson wished the new Captain better luck.

Chapter I Breaking and Entering

Nigel plastered himself against the foreign, metallic wall. He hoped the shadows would keep the weary eyes of outworlder guards from noticing him. His partner was late. Elaine was always too casual for her own good. The plasma rifle, which she had somehow acquired from the outworlders, was making her reckless. Thieving was a precise business. Elaine had taught him that; she was Nigel’s mentor. After leaving the ruins of Jezric, Nigel had wanted the most faceless profession he could find. Elaine had provided that for him as well as the knowledge of the invisible lines of political power, drawn about the city. Elaine had grown up in New Candide, and she had wanted someone like Nigel, someone who wanted to be faceless, who could move about the city without being tagged by the eyes of prowling street gangs and outworlder soldiers. Elaine used to be careful, precise. Gradually, during Nigel’s apprenticeship, Elaine had been growing bolder. This raid on the outworlders’ military base was the latest example of her death wish. Nigel fidgeted. If Elaine didn’t show in the next five minutes, he would scrub the job.
Nigel pushed the body of an outworlder guard deeper into a metal recess, which was next to the perfectly square room he knew would be empty at this time of night. Nigel had never regretted spending good money on a good bribe. Dropping the unconscious body, he felt the barrel of an outworlder weapon nudge against his ribs.
“Caught you.” Elaine laughed. “Where’d your friend come from? You’re getting sloppy.”
“I’m getting sloppy?” Nigel hissed at Elaine. Fighting his frustration, Nigel kept his voice subdued, “I had to bust this outworlder’s skull because you, you, were late for the rendezvous.”
“One less outworlder won’t be missed.” Elaine said.
Life had lost much of its value since the outworlders had come to Oco. The short war, as it was called on the streets, had made Elaine and Nigel accustomed to violence. Violence was a fact of life and a necessary means to advance oneself under the yolk of an alien people. Occasionally, Nigel could still see with eyes from a past, peaceful time in his life. Yet remorseful visions rarely visited him anymore. Nigel had never cared for ghosts.
Leading him through the maze of steel walls that the outworlders had constructed, Elaine threw the bag of outworlder money at him. She smiled and said, “I may have been late, but I always come through.”
Nigel felt the odd currency in the bag. Some of it was made of the same stuff that the outworlders had used to construct these halls. Nigel admitted that the outworlders had a magnificent talent for building and crafting. He did not hate the outworlders for invading his world. Separating himself from strong passions was necessary for his survival in clandestine work.
Elaine silently threaded her way through the rest of the corridors with a skill and grace that made Nigel despair of ever matching her prowess at burglary.
Nigel suspected that she had seduced the layout of the building from an outworlder. Elaine was blonde, blue-eyed, and lithe. If a job called for it, she could easily disguise herself as a lad. Yet she knew the arts needed to incite passion in a man, and her beauty had often distracted undisciplined guards from their posts. Long ago, Nigel had realized that sexuality was one of the most effective weapons in her arsenal. Elaine evinced no difficulty when she slept with those whom she hated so passionately. She had quarantined her sexuality from her other emotions. It was merely a skill she used to advance herself; it wasn’t different from killing a guard to gain access to something that she desired. Peevishly, Nigel wondered which act she enjoyed more.
They reached the exit, which Elaine had made with her stolen plasma rifle. The walls had not burned as Nigel had thought they would. The smooth metal had melted like liquid under the light of the outworlder weapon. Elaine had learned how to make her weapon throw different kinds of burning light. The outworlder walls were unlike any he had seen on Oco, his native planet, but their metals were subject to their equally strange weapons.
The words “native planet” sounded awkward in Nigel’s mind. Less than a year ago, no Ocoan knew about the existence of other planets, travel in the sky, or machine magic. Of course, there were legends of their forefather’s return to Oco. Every child knew that Oco was a short word for Orion colony. Still, no one had really known what colony had meant until the outworlders had appeared on the planet to reveal its meaning.
According to the outworlders, colony was defined as an outpost owing fealty to its home world. Fealty was apparently a synonym for slavery. Some Ocoans had welcomed the forefather’s prophesied return; they believed their coming heralded a golden age. Gods! The outworlders educated their subjects quickly. They made laws and shot any that resisted with their weapons of searing light. Curfews, taxes, searchings, and forced labor were routine treatments of Ocoans by their forefathers.
Nigel too vividly remembered the one major opposition to the outworlders at the city of Jezric. The dark Wizard King Tarkel had dared to summon the dragon, Archon, from the caves of Glered-nigh. The dragon had become obese on the bodies of outworlder soldiers.
After that, the city of Jezric had been obliterated by the angered outworlders. And all the land for leagues around had been laid bare. For days afterward, grey ashes had covered the sky over Jezric. Disease and death befell all who entered there now. Wizards, either pure caste or dark, have not challenged the outworlders since that day.
Nigel turned aside these gloomy thoughts as he slipped through the street shadows with Elaine. He hated thinking about Jezric, but it was impossible to get that tragedy out of his mind. Nigel consoled himself, knowing that the outworlders had one good effect: The thieving business soared. As long as some Ocoans were foolish enough to continue their futile resistance, they would hire thieves to reconnoiter. A smart thief could evade the outworlders. Drunk on the power that they exerted over Ocoans, they relied on brute force. Yet a patrol of armored guards could not distinguish a thief from a devoted subject.
Awaking from his reverie, Nigel saw the wooden sign of the White Horse Inn. The night’s work was almost over, and it had been a smooth operation, despite Elaine’s delay. For a moment the quiet of the post curfew city streets was shattered by a scream. Again, Nigel was forced to recognize the increased presence of the unhomed. The outworlder patrols ignored the outcasts just as the natives did, considering them diseased, either mentally or physically. Nigel shivered at the dying of the scream, for he knew, as a street thief, that since the short war, the unhomed were greater in number than any other people, including the outworlders.
The outworlders hadn’t marred the facade of New Candide. Rows of adobe and wooden buildings lined the few cobbled streets, which were rimmed with a gutter to catch the offal of the citizens and animals. Yet the refuse was not constrained to the gutters. Most streets in New Candide were mud alleys with shacks that spoked from the main cobbled arteries. Here, the flotsam of New Candide congregated by small fires and watched the play of outworlders and downworlders; they felt too impotent to do anything else. The shacks along the alleys housed the thieves, vice merchants, and gangs: the nocturnal walkers of New Candide, like him. The outworlders quartered in the center of New Candide inside shiny, metallic buildings; in the past it had been a desolate, ancient section of the city, worn to senility as the city aimlessly sprawled outward. New Candide was crowded by oppressors and oppressed, hunters and hunted, rutting amid the dirt, wandering in their private quagmires.
Nigel and Elaine left the furtive noises that passed through the moonlit streets for the quiet dark of Elaine’s flat above the White Horse Inn: a mattress, a table with two plain chairs, pitcher and bowl, and a candle, rarely lit so that no light would escape through the broken shutters to alert some prowling mind. Here, the thieves allowed themselves to relax. Getting to a safe house signalled the end of the danger. Elaine smiled and glanced at Nigel as she reclined on the mattress and said, “A tumble to celebrate?”
Nigel shook his head and retreated toward the door, but he was careful to keep a smile on his face, always careful with Elaine.
Elaine grimaced and asked, “What is it, Nigel? I know you want me. It’s your wife—-”
Nigel growled, “I don’t want to talk about her.”
“Let it go, Nigel. She belongs to Jezric.”
Nigel left Elaine, slamming the door behind him.
His hands trembled with a frustration that he didn’t understand, didn’t want to understand. Nigel thought, “Damn, Elaine. Why must she pry? Some things shouldn’t be voiced.” He didn’t really believe in the gods, but Nigel didn’t like to tempt fate. The legends of their punishments of the profane were grisly at best. Yet he didn’t fear divine retribution. He just knew that it wouldn’t atone. Nothing could.
Walking down the wooden stairs into the main room of the White Horse Inn, Nigel saw native women, mingling with off duty outworlder guards. The outworlders came here to escape the strictures of their people. Their leaders frowned on this sort of intermixing. Nigel knew from experience that soldiers felt their mortality too keenly to avoid the available pleasures that New Candide had to offer. Always edgy after a job, not to mention the confrontation with Elaine, Nigel didn’t pause, but left the spicy odors of the inn for the familiar dung stench of the street. His safe house was not far from Elaine’s.

***

After Nigel had left her, Elaine sat on her mattress and thought. She shook her head in frustration. “‘Zblud,” she muttered. Nigel was an apt enough student and reliable, but he kept himself closed to her. Elaine liked to have everything out in the open when she was working with a partner. A secret could kill them in their risky line of work. She decided to examine Nigel as if he were a mark. Physically, Nigel was thin to the point of being haggard, which was common enough for a native of New Candide. Yet he had a palpable nervous energy, lacking in the other citizenry of New Candide. His pale blue eyes were in constant motion. That nervous alertness had attracted her to him as a partner, although she had failed to break Nigel of his foolish habit of tapping on any surface when he was not occupied. If he was a mark, Elaine would guess that he was hiding something. Elaine grimaced. Her thoughts were leading her down a nasty path.
Elaine refused to believe he was an informer. His family had been at Jezric. She remembered the stunned look on his face when she had told him about the destruction of Jezric, and she had stayed with him as he had stupefied himself with liquor. “‘Zblud,” Elaine snarled again, “I’m getting nowhere.” She remembered seeing her current mark, an outworlder Lieutenant, at the bar as she had entered the inn. She poured perfumed water from a pitcher into an earthenware bowl to freshen herself. Work would make her feel better.

***

Entering his flat, a run down tenement near the brothels, Nigel’s hand fumbled in his satchel. He pulled out the odd currency that the outworlders used. The slim, multi-colored rectangles felt cool and fitted nicely in the palm of his hand. Like the outworlders, their money was an unnatural intrusion in his life. With the help of these odd trinkets, those idiotic insurgents might be able to bribe a guard. Even so, Nigel doubted that they would get good information for this money without knowing the exact value of the currency.
“Then why give it to ‘those idiotic insurgents’?”
Shocked by the disembodied voice in his safe house, Nigel assumed a crouching stance and whipped out his throwing knife. “Who said that? Where are you?” Nigel spoke with an edge in his voice, nearing hysteria. How did the voice know what he was thinking? Worse, who knew him?
“For someone in your business, you’re not very observant. I’m sitting on your bed in plain sight of you.” The voice spoke with a genteel, mocking tone. “Sheathe your knife. I mean you no harm.”
Nigel turned toward his bed without sheathing his knife. A shrunken, old man, starting to become bald on the top of his head with uncombed shocks of grey hair, sat calmly on Nigel’s bed and casually stroked his tangled beard. He wore an unassuming green cloak with a one piece white wool frock with sandals. He was dressed simply, like any native. The age wrinkles in his face contrasted with the vitality that shone from his hazel eyes. Nigel watched him suspiciously. As the old man stood, his posture, also, spoke of a hidden vitality. His age was like a festival day costume that masked his inner spirit.
Nigel wondered how he had missed the old man. And how did the old man guess his thoughts? Nigel’s eyes grew wide with fear as he quickly sheathed his knife and exclaimed: “You’re a wizard.”
“Mmm, there’s hope for you, child. You’re not as blind and ignorant as you first appeared to be.” The wizard mocked, but softly, as if he were talking to a child.
Nigel felt that the wizard was laughing at him. It was a laughter without malice that frustrated Nigel. He didn’t like the feeling that he was being played a fool.
“Wh-what are you doing here?” Nigel stammered.
Some wizards were reputed to be fey. If he didn’t say what the old man wanted to hear, Nigel was sure that he would end as a charred mark on his floor.
The wizard smiled and said, “I’m here to offer you the chance of your lifetimes.”
“Lifetimes?” Nigel asked. Was the old man after his soul? Nigel caught the cold glimmer of stones, flint chips buried deep in the old man’s eyes.
The wizard’s smile faded. “I am offering you the chance to leave the wheel of birth, death, and rebirth, if you can survive to become a true wizard, like me.”
“Survive?” Nigel clenched his teeth, biting back his mounting hysteria.
“Training can be rigorous, and these are difficult times, as you well know. I, too, was a scoundrel when youth fired my blood.” The wizard’s eyes went glassy, lost in memories.
“You were?” Nigel tried to speak as submissively as possible, not wanting to anger a wizard.
The wizard’s eyes oriented on Nigel, making him uncomfortable. The old man said, “My, my, you are talkative, aren’t you? Yes, I was of low character, once. Often, a mottled soul has a greater perception and durability in the external use of the inner fires. Unfortunately, it is probably more in tune with the wyrd of the world than an innocent soul.” The wizard became dour as he spoke.
Nigel grew pale and trembled, believing that the wizard had come to claim his durable soul. Nigel tried to count his options for escape, but he couldn’t think of any way to extricate himself from this weird and dangerous old man without risking death.
Still staring at Nigel, the wizard frowned. “Don’t tell me you believe the talk of superstitious commoners who think that all wizards and sorceresses are like Tarkel. Fear not. I am not here to collect your soul for some sort of daemonic summoning, as you might fantasize.” He smiled. “In its present state your soul wouldn’t be worth the effort to extract it from your body.”
Nigel wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or insulted. He began to believe that the wizard wanted or needed him for some long range purpose. The old man was too practiced, too contrived. If that was true, Nigel was safe for the moment as long as he didn’t cross the old man. Regaining his composure, Nigel said, “What do you want with me?”
“I thought I had made that obvious. Don’t become a dullard again. I have chosen you to be my pupil and my servant. You are to be the wizard to ease your people’s pain.”
“You’ve gotta be cr—-” Nigel abruptly stopped talking. Insulting this wizard could cost him his life.
Turning away from Nigel, the old man said, “I know that those of us who wield the inner fire have not done well. Yet it is the way that the members of my council have chosen to work: We practice our magic in quiet and stealth. To not be noticed is to not be guarded against. We may yet succeed.” He turned toward Nigel and straightened his shoulders. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Karamindakas, and I am stronger than Tarkel was, as you will discover. I am farsighted, considered so even among my brethren. I see the pain in you. I can end it, if you swear allegiance to me.” He spoke in a low, somber voice that made Nigel feel the stillness in the room.
Nigel didn’t need to guess what the wizard was offering him. He knew. Karamindakas knew the pain that engulfed his life. Although dreading the answer, Nigel felt compelled to ask, “How?”
“I can help you bring your family who died in the obliteration of Jezric back to life.”
Nigel raged at the old man, breaking the charged stillness, “You lie! You lie! None can bring the dead to life!”
Calmly, Karamindakas said, “It can be done.”
At that moment there was a knock on the door. Still sparked by his passionate outburst, Nigel said, “Gods, who else did you tell that I live here? I’m a thief, not an innkeeper for wizards and their ilk.” Drained, Nigel sank into his wooden chair, shaking.
Karamindakas quietly said, “I had to speak with you to know. You are his.” In a louder voice Karamindakas said, “Come in.”
The door opened tentatively. A boy about twelve years of age stuck his head inside the door. He looked at the wizard and said, “Master Kara, the patrols are coming. We ought to leave.”
Karamindakas looked at the boy, whose thin face set off his large, shifting black eyes. “All right, Stephen. Wait for me outside. I’ll be with you shortly.” The boy quietly closed the door.
Karamindakas rapidly spoke to Nigel as he walked towards the door, “I shall return to you in one week. I have an errand that takes me to the Darkenkell forest. I expect your answer when I return.” He was gone ere Nigel could say farewell.
Alone, Nigel wondered about his bizarre, uninvited guest’s last words: the Darkenkell forest. Karamindakas would probably have better luck asking the outworlders for a place to stay. That forest was sure death or ensorcelment to any who entered there. Traders used to say that the Darkenkell forest was home to the hunym-sidhe, who killed or ensorcelled any man who dared their borders. City gossip said that the hunym-sidhe killed humans to honor the whim of their faerie mistress. The outworlders ignored the forest; they preferred to build their strange mines west of the city on the rocky flats. Nigel wondered if the outworlders and the nym even knew of each other’s existence. If they did know, were they at war? or in league with each other? Nigel wished he had the freedom to leave the city, but the outworlders strictly monitored entrance and exit passcards. Perhaps the old man was lying about his business in the Darkenkell forest. Perhaps he was senile or mad. Nigel wanted to believe that. The alternative was too absurd.
However, he could not forget or easily dismiss the wizard’s offer. It opened a gangrenous wound that Elaine had recently irritated. The fantastical hope mocked and seduced his soul at the same time. He knew that he had to talk to someone–to Elaine. She was trustworthy. Who else? Elaine was the only person whom Nigel knew beyond casual association. He decided to find out her mind on the matter. Wound tightly, he didn’t bother trying to sleep and paced his room throughout the night.
The next morning, Nigel headed out the door and walked toward Elaine’s safe house as soon as the night’s curfew had ended. Dawn had passed, and the outworlder controlled vendors were getting ready for the day’s activities. He didn’t bother with a morning meal and walked the streets without looking at his surroundings until he saw the open door to the White Horse Inn and heard the stiff brush strokes of a broom as a peasant swept out the trash from last night’s drunkeness.
Walking up the steps to Elaine’s flat, Nigel heard the sounds emanating from her door that could only be made by ardent passion. The previous night’s activities had worn away Nigel’s patience. He knocked on the door and called, “Elaine, Elaine, I have to speak with you.”
Elaine gasped in shock. What was Nigel doing here? at this time? He knew better than to disturb her when she was busy. Elaine cursed under her breath. She had spent the better part of a month gaining the confidence of this outworlder communications specialist. Nigel had jeopardized everything. Her partner wasn’t a fool. Someone or something must have gotten to Nigel for him to act this way. It wasn’t like him at all.
The outworlder was in an entirely different frame of mind: “Gawd dammit! Go away before I blow your damn head off!” The officer did not take kindly to being interrupted before achieving his satisfaction. He had duty in two hours, and fraternization with natives was off limits. He could get busted down a rank, and he needed the creds to send home to his family. The morning’s activities were spoiled. He decided that someone was going to have to pay. The outworlder climbed out of bed and reached toward his pants, draped over a wobbly chair. He grabbed the pistol from its belt holster.
Elaine cried, “What do you think you’re doing?”
The outworlder said, “What do you think I’m going to do? Give alms?”
Elaine silently grabbed her throwing knife, which she kept hidden under the mattress.
After last night’s weirdness, Nigel was in no mood to be shouted at by a lecherous outworlder. He easily broke the old lock off the door and flung it open. Nigel froze. The outworlder had a gun. Of course, the outworlder would have a gun! He was going to die a fool. The man aimed his pistol as a surprised look crossed his face. The outworlder looked back at his mistress. Nigel saw one of Elaine’s knives sticking in the man’s back.
With a comical look on his face, the Lieutenant rasped, “Elaine?” He coughed once and fell to the floor.
The outworlder’s death throes might have lasted a while longer, but Elaine came forward. She granted him his final release with her dagger, lest he discover the strength to use his gun.
“Well?” Elaine asked in an annoyed tone, going back to her bed and quickly pulling a sheet over her chest. “What was so important that you had to ruin a month’s work? And put us both in danger? You know that the outworlders always discover within a matter of hours when one of their people dies. We’ll have to leave. I want to know why you caused this scene.”
Nigel told her everything that the old man had said to him. He felt a wave of relief in unburdening himself to Elaine. He hadn’t allowed himself the luxury of confessional during his apprenticeship.
When he had finished, Elaine said, “Now, I understand. A wizard, if he really is one, can be dangerous. That’s the first that I’ve heard of their kind around here since a few days after Jezric. Why would he want to train you? And what makes him think that his magic is any better than Archon’s? It’s common knowledge that the dragons of Glered-nigh wield the most destructive magics of any people.”
“Maybe he has uncommon knowledge.” Nigel spoke out of frustration, “I don’t know, Elaine. Gods, maybe he’s some sort of thief, too. He said that he was one. I’ve got to find out. He could bring them back out of the ashes of Jezric.”
Elaine looked at him dubiously. She thought that the old man was playing on Nigel’s pain. If that was the case, she would kill that “wizard” much more slowly than the outworlder slumped at her feet. Elaine did not voice her thoughts, rather she gathered her belongings.
Elaine said, “Maybe he can do what he says, but I doubt it. In the meantime we have got to get out of here. Cover the body. I’ll get my stuff. You’ve just succeeded in acquiring a roommate.”
As they left the White Horse Inn, the morning sun made their eyes uncomfortable. They became accustomed to the light while having honeyed rolls, which they purchased from a street vendor. To Nigel the last twenty-four hours seemed more and more like a strange dream. Their hearts grew light, and they joked about Nigel’s foolishness in not recognizing a fellow thief. Elaine had succeeded in softening Nigel’s mood. The old man’s visit seemed to have rattled Nigel enough so that she could slip through his practiced stoicism in the confusion and ease his pain. Elaine always knew that she could break her way into anywhere. As they walked down the cobbled street, Elaine laughed, but she refused to share the joke with Nigel. She simply looked at him and encircled her arm around his waist.

Chapter II The Two Suitors

While Elaine and Nigel enjoyed their morning meal, the wizard Karamindakas prepared for his journey to the Darkenkell forest. The boy, Stephen, was worried for his Master. Since his visit with the city people, Master Kara had ignored him. He had forgotten Stephen’s daily lessons, which hadn’t bothered the boy. Yet it seemed the old wizard had altogether forgotten Stephen. Master Kara was usually jovial, and he played games with Stephen during their journeys. Now, he took to brooding and he only spoke to the boy out of necessity. Stephen’s anxiety grew quickly. He was attached to the old man. Master Kara was the only family that Stephen had known since the fall of Jezric.
They were camped half a day’s travel outside the city near a grove of ancient trees that towered above the rolling, green landscape. The sky was clear and the breeze cooled and refreshed young Stephen, who was easily depressed by cities. He gazed at the oaks and felt their quiet strength while he thought of his Master. Karamindakas had told him that these trees were a sign that this was a place of power. The magic of Oco grew strongest in the quiet recesses of the world where humans did not frequent. This grove of oaks was unusual, for it was close to a human city. Small, but potent, the place intrigued Stephen’s Master.
Stephen asked, “Master Kara, why is it that there is magic here when we are so near New Candide?”
Stephen knew his Master’s love of teaching and displaying how much he knew. In the past Stephen had nodded off in the middle of one of his Master’s stories and had woken to his Master’s voice, still telling his tale, unaware that his listener had fallen asleep.
To Stephen’s delight, Master Kara took the bait. The old man lost his preoccupied stare and gently looked at Stephen. Suddenly, Kara jumped beside Stephen. He picked up the boy. Grabbing Stephen by his arms, he whirled him in the air. Laughing, Karamindakas said, “So, my boy, you want to learn, do you?”
Stephen giggled as Karamindakas tossed him into the air. As Stephen began to fall, sparkling blue Will with the wisps appeared around the boy. Like thistledown, Stephen felt as if he were drifting gently to Karamindakas’ waiting arms.
Karamindakas said, “I hate to admit it, but I don’t know why there are so many concentrated fibres here. When I have found out the reason, it will make up the lesson that you have missed.” He smiled slyly at Stephen. “You did not think I had forgotten your lessons, did you? A journey to a city is no excuse to halt your education. You must always work if you want to go to Sanctuary and become a wizard.”
Stephen whined, “But we’ve been so busy, and you have so much to do.” Stephen knew that it was useless to complain, but their familiar relationship demanded it. This time, however, Stephen was too happy to have his Master behaving like his old self, and his protest was half hearted.
“It’s no use, lad. Your lesson begins when I have returned from the center of the grove. Be wary while I am gone and let no one see you. If you have trouble, you know what to do.” After a brief hug, the wizard disappeared into the grove of oaks.
Stephen was not worried at being left alone. Soon after the wizard had found him at the outskirts of Jezric, Master Kara had given him a necklace with a tiny blue stone set in it. The stone was no larger than a pebble. Set in a thin silver braid, the jewel hung around Stephen’s neck. Whenever he was in danger, the stone would grow cold against his skin, and it would give off a blue light. Then, Stephen would grasp the stone and think of his Master. Within a few minutes his Master would come to him. He always felt Master Kara was near him when he wore the necklace, so the boy always kept it around his neck.
Entering the grove, Karamindakas’ heart was troubled. The boy had often lightened his journeys. A wizard’s life was grim, too grim, for an eleven year old boy. Stephen’s past had already scarred him. His parents had driven him away when they had succumbed to the outworlder plague that had followed the city’s destruction. They had feared that they would infect Stephen with the fatal corruption. Karamindakas had journeyed there to aid those whom he could, but this corruption had been beyond his meager powers to heal. He had stumbled upon Stephen’s parents, who were rotting, so that they resembled more the creatures of necromancy than living beings. Despite the agonies that they suffered, they had only pleaded with Karamindakas to find their son and take him from the misery of Jezric.
Tracking Stephen in the outskirts of ruined Jezric had been almost impossible. The boy had left a trail that was chaotic and hard to follow. As young as he was, Stephen had managed to survive in an abandoned stable, leaving at night to pilfer the campsites of sleeping deserters. Karamindakas had finally found him, eating with his back against the corner of a deserted stall. The carcass of a horse in the far stall had left an acrid smell in the air. Pests had buzzed around the stable, alighting on the boy as if he were already dead. The wizard remembered gazing into Stephen’s sunken, fearful eyes. He had contracted the corruption. It had not yet taken root in the young boy’s body. Karamindakas had taken him from that abattoir of Jezric and tended him for weeks by a stream of pure waters that flowed from the Darkenkell forest, slowly bringing Stephen back to health. Without any kin who were left alive, Karamindakas had decided to make the boy his young apprentice, not knowing what else to do with him.
Although he did not want to admit his fear, Karamindakas knew that he would have to part with young Stephen. The wizard foresaw the blood of violent death surrounding his future. Nigel and his unknown partner would be burden enough. He could not drag Stephen back into that kind of life. Somewhere, he would have to find a home for the boy.
Drawing his mind away from his worries, Karamindakas cut off his meandering thoughts with a practiced ease. His mind was freed to perceive the outside world. Standing in the center of the grove, he felt the latent magic with every awakened sense. He relaxed his eyes and perceived the fibres in the air that always indicated the presence of life and magic. Unlike the natural magic found in the remote places of the world, the fibres here were strong and concentrated, writhing to an unseen influence, twisting before his second sight. Something or someone had imbued this place with its magic. Bending his aura to match the grove’s aura, the wizard merged with the power of the grove. Loosening his grip on his sense of self, Karamindakas perceived the life in the grove. His thoughts joined the wildlife, running in the grove and scampering among the thick, straight trunks of the oaks. He could feel the firm yet calm heartbeat of Stephen, dozing where they had parted. The wizard woke the grove’s magic and made gentle love to the power that resided there. Tears welled up in his eyes; blood had been cruelly spilt upon this spot.
Any passerby would have only seen an old man, silent and still, standing in the woods. This was not an exercise of magical power, rather of magical sensitivity. Nevertheless, the wizard knew that this was a dangerous exercise. Karamindakas merged his karma with whatever had empowered the grove. The wizard wanted to discover the fate of the being who had died here. In doing this, Karamindakas knew that he ran the risk of accidently perverting his karma to permanently resemble the karma of the one who had empowered this grove. He would be drawn into the being’s destiny. But the dangers he would soon face with his future charges did not allow him to overlook any additional threat on the path they would travel.
The memory was ancient, but there. Karamindakas became one–with a unicorn. They were creatures attuned to the ambient magic of Oco. Karamindakas felt the power in waves of tears. He was trapped. These noble creatures were too great to be dealt with by any wizard.
Run.
A white blur against the land, a unicorn’s power lay in freedom and beauty. They neither razed towns nor delighted in domination. Running through the land and experiencing the land, the unicorn’s love lay with the soil. Run. Karamindakas felt himself gliding through fields and valleys. He laughed joyously, experiencing a freedom greater than he had ever known. The unicorn was named Windweaver, who ran for his rapture in the solitary freedom and the endless chase of life.
In the grove his body collapsed as his spirit merged with the overpowering karma as his soul transcended time to enter a past age. Dimly, the wizard knew that he had lost control of the spell that he had woven, but he didn’t care. It was a small price to pay for the joy. His aged body, barely linked with his soul, executed an absurd parody of a galloping unicorn. Muscles contorted. Joints stretched and snapped. The power of the dead unicorn’s karma forced his nearly unconscious body to respond to the memory of Windweaver while his soul drifted in a past age with the living unicorn.
Karamindakas ran with Windweaver up the vast Steppes before the black mountains and dodged with ease around the mounds of autumnal leaves, which were thrown by smiling giants. Windweaver danced below the caves of Glered-nigh and mocked the lumbering, sleepy dragons. The wide plains of Glered were passed in a day as human savages vainly tried to net the unicorn. With scorn Windweaver charged the net. The hemp burst into a blaze of white fire. Amazed and daunted, the savages scurried to their huts. On and on, Windweaver ran for days without end, racing the sun, circling around storms, or running through them for the joy of surpassing the gusts of the angry thunderheads. None were swifter than Windweaver.
But his purity was incased in flesh, and at last Windweaver thirsted. Ahead some thousand leagues, he spied the Darkenkell forest. Karamindakas shared the ‘corn’s thoughts. A people dwelled there who called themselves the hunym-sidhe. They were the sons of man who, in the days of Mayet, the foal shifter, were placed under the glamour of the perilous Lady Darkenkell, and the unicorn slowed his pace as he considered this delightful choice of direction.
Through Windweaver’s karma, Karamindakas viewed the unicorn approaching a Darkenkell forest that was larger than the one that existed in his own time. The ‘corn came to a halt just inside the forest.
Windweaver thought, “There is hunym-sidhe smell here. Still, this forest is beautiful. I shall trot and listen to the vulgar, nymish music. I remember a spring of icy waters here.”
His horn pointed the way to anything that the unicorn desired. In a short while Windweaver came upon the spring and drank deeply of the earth waters, for he had run fast and far.
Karamindakas’ body gagged as he reflexively swallowed dirt; the wizard mimicked a unicorn who had become dust before Karamindakas had been born.
After drinking his fill, Windweaver heard the weeping of a nymish maiden. The unicorn thought, “This is a fine sound. It moves me. Why should there be tears in such a peaceful land?” Windweaver ambled toward the lamentation, which mixed sobs with moans. There, he saw a nymish maiden who was so beautiful in her sorrow that the dress that covered her was profane in its effrontery to conceal such grace.
The desire to run was wholly replaced by the desire to soothe the gentle maiden.
Windweaver dared to approach her. The forest was silent in deference to her mourning. A tear sprang from the unicorn’s eye. The innocent tear fell to the ground in the form of a diamond, which clicked against a stone. The sound caused the maiden to look up from her weeping. As Windweaver looked on her, the ‘corn fell in love with her and made a silent oath to relieve her of her sorrows or die in the attempt. Windweaver did not say this aloud. Instead, the ‘corn simply asked, “Why do you weep?”
The maiden understood the beast, for she was chaste, and therefore she replied, “I have pledged my love to a dragon, Erador of Glered-nigh.”
Windweaver reared in surprise. The nymish maiden shrank back, afraid of being trampled. However, Windweaver landed his hooves softly beside her.
Shocked, the unicorn tried to dissuade her of such a betrothal, “Erador rules the dragons of Glered-nigh. When he takes flight, the wind from his wings rips loose the trees in the soil. He is a fell and mighty beast. All dragons hearken to his call: the dragons of Glered-nigh and the roaming worms of the world. Yet even his power could not take your love, my lady. Why would you do this?”
The maiden lowered her head and replied, “He came to me in the shape of a nymish prince and proclaimed his love for me. His words were so fair, and his eyes shone with such longing. He was noble and proud saying to me, ‘I love you, Meliane, flower of my heart. I would have you for my own to bear my progeny. We shall begin a new realm with you as my Queen.’ All my people applauded. He had the bearing of nobility, stirring the pride of my people. He evoked visions of a golden age, for he knew the desires of my people. Then, I pledged my love to him.” Meliane began to sob again and cradled Windweaver’s immortal tear against her bosom, as if it were a balm against her pain.
Windweaver was moved to rage. The unicorn said, “It is not right that the jewel of the hunym-sidhe should become a trinket for a foul dragon. I shall bear you away and defend you with my life.”
The maiden looked at Windweaver and said, “Your oath was spoken ere I could stop you. You need not seal your doom with mine, but I thank you for your valor. You must leave me before he comes. I release you from your oath.”
Windweaver replied, “Do not give up all hope, my lady. I do not fear Erador. We may yet escape. Ride me, and let us make haste.”
They raced through the Darkenkell forest, startling the mourning nym. They cheered as they saw Meliane, for they hoped that the unicorn could take her to safety. The wizard knew that they had not yet seen the force of Erador’s rage. Windweaver fled north, away from the caves of Glered-nigh.
Karamindakas’ body convulsed. His breathing became ragged as his body exerted itself in unnatural motions.
In the highest cave of Glered-nigh, Erador slept, contented after trapping the Darkenkell hunym-sidhe. Dreaming of the new people Meliane would bear him, Erador conceived of his children as a vast hord of draconic nym, replete with tails and wings. They would harass the nymish races of the world unto their utter subjugation.
Erador learned of the world and its happenings while he slept in his cave, the first tier at the mountain of dreams. He grew troubled as his sweet dream of conquest became a nightmare. He perceived Meliane riding a unicorn. What business could a unicorn have with his vassal? The foul ‘corn was Windweaver, who had dared to play the jester at the very foot of Mount Glered. His deadly horn pointed away from Glered-nigh. Visions of the running Windweaver sparkled through every facet of his dreams.
The dragon woke as his dream eye returned to his body. Rearing on two legs, Erador bellowed his rage. Other dragons woke in fear of the sound and trumpeted in response to their lord. The caves of Glered-nigh shook with the hot rage of dragons; humans ran in fear. They had long since learned to hide in the Glered plains from their powerful neighbors. Slavery or an asphyxiating death was all the plains’ tribes could hope of receiving from the denizens of Glered-nigh.
The spirit of Karamindakas, trapped out of his time and out of his body, flitted to and fro as he watched the fate of Windweaver unfold. He knew that his spirit was linked to Windweaver’s spirit, but he did not know how to escape the rapids of Windweaver’s karma. He tried to speak, but he could be neither seen nor heard.
Karamindakas remembered that some hunym-sidhe were fortune tellers and seers, honored by their tribe with the title of Mer. The wizard’s spirit roamed the Darkenkell forest ’till he came upon a hunym-sidhe Mer, who tracked his spirit through the woods with her eyes. This Mer could hear him, for the Mer received their visions and prophecies from roaming spirits and incarnate things. She named herself Dahl-mer and listened to his story; thereafter, she woke her brethren and exhorted them to arms.
Erador took flight from Glered-nigh with his two brothers, Malast and Castor. Their flight blotted out the sun in whatever region they passed. Babies wailed and adults screamed, falling to their knees upon seeing the trio in the sky. Erador was twice the size of his brothers. His scales sparkled in the sun, revealing many hues to dazzle and fascinate the eye. The Emperor’s beauty inspired envy even as his vast bulk inspired fear. When a cloud passed under the sun, the iridescence faded, and the source of scintillating motion could be seen: His muscles constantly flexed along his serpentine body, causing his scales to ripple in the sun. His flexing served his hunger. His digestion was always working, even when there was nothing to feed it. Flying past his two brothers, Erador crossed the plains of Glered and the sandy wastes in an hour. He glided into the Darkenkell forest, not bothering to disguise his true form any longer.
Entering the forest on the ground, Erador cleared a path to the nym by slithering on his belly, grinding the trees to a pulp underneath him. Nothing grew normally again where Erador had trod. His bellows mixed with the sharp cracks of the splintering oaks.
The hunym-sidhe ran in dismay and fear at the sound of Erador’s coming. King Terellor led his people to the deepest parts of the Darkenkell forest. He intended to plead to the Darkenkell Sidhe for sanctuary from Erador, but he had little hope that the Lady of the Darkenkell would grant his request or understand it. There were only riddles concerning sidhe in all the tribe’s lore. He felt in his heart that the Darkenkell Sidhe was no friend to any people or things.
King Terellor thought of all that he had heard of sidhe as he ran toward a faerie, whom his tribe feared and loved and never understood. He had felt its presence in the forest. At times it was like a crushing blow; at other times it was barely noticeable. Terellor’s heart despaired; the Lady of the Darkenkell was a fearsome mistress. Yet the King also knew that each sidhe’s life was said to be tied to where they lived. Their life derived itself from the plentiful life around them. Surely, the Darkenkell Sidhe would try to stop Erador in her own interest. Still, that would not stop the dragon from killing his people.
King Terellor heard the coming of Erador behind him and felt the crushing presence of the Sidhe in front of him. The forest, which had always been home and mother to the Darkenkell hunym-sidhe, became darker and towered over the retreating nym with an oppression of age. In their hearts their steps became blasphemies against a thing beyond their ken. As the nym came nearer to the Darkenkell Sidhe, many began throwing themselves upon the ground. Pursued from behind by the sounds of Erador, yet too fearful to continue through the Lady of the Darkenkell’s suffocating woods, they collapsed unable to move. The stout of heart followed their King to the center of the forest.
Erador gleefully devoured the fallen nym. The dragon bellowed after each ghoulish feast to let the remaining nym know of their onrushing fate.
Despite Dahl-mer’s warning, most nym had rushed to gather the Chen, those too young to claim a clan name. Parents had scattered into the forest with their babes. Many had run naked from their homes, for fear of the Lord Predator of the World. As he hurried his people toward the Sidhe, Terellor glanced behind and he wept. Five hundred, less than half his host, had followed their King and of those the dragon had shorn another hundred spirits from his realm. Terellor saw no more than a dozen Chen, clutching their mother’s shoulders. Erador’s bellowing became more frequent, and he could be heard coming nearer. Beyond the next rise a great oak lifted against the earth into the air. Its size made it the oldest of all living things in the forest, save the one who had planted its seed.
King Terellor ordered the remaining nym to bow their heads and clasp hands. Only Terellor, of all his host, gazed at the Sidhe of the Darkenkell forest.
The Darkenkell Sidhe seemed a small thing to be so terrible, no larger than a Chen of thirteen summers. Yet wings sloped upward from her back: a butterfly’s golden wings with black marks, resembling eyes. Two large and thick strands of flesh flowed from her forehead, like antennae. Her hair was long unto the ground, and drops of dew clung to her raven hair, giving off a gentle rainbow. Her feet were buried in the topsoil, and ivy encircled her body like a garment from her thighs to her shoulders. The Sidhe was completely still, enshrouded in a light mist. She was squatting with her back propped against the colossal oak. Her eyes were entirely black without a pupil. Twin voids. As the King gazed upon her, his heart froze; he felt his spirit slipping from his body. The Sidhe half lidded her eyes, and the ensorcelment faded.
The King found himself mute, gazing upon the life of the Darkenkell forest. After a few minutes the Sidhe spoke, “King Terellor, wouldst thou seek my succor? Brave and fey thou art in thy deed to come into my embrace with such a mystery in thy heart. Long have I sought thy edged counsel. We see the world with different, but mutually worthy, wisdom. The folly of thy people have allowed a great evil into my body, which only now I begin to perceive, and thou knowest this danger. What doth approach?”
Once the Sidhe had asked a question, the King found his tongue, “Perilous lady, it is the dragon, Erador, who comes. The beast intends to lay waste my people and breed the fairest of my children to make a mockery of my kind.” The King spoke his thoughts openly, completely contrary to his royal, elaborate style of speech.
The Sidhe’s eyes widened in surprise and shock. The King trembled. The Sidhe spoke in a rumbling male voice that contained within it the sound of a storm, “In thy desire to escape, thou hast wounded me greatly. The dragon’s passing scars my very body. This wound shall pain me forever. Erador shall suffer most cruelly for my injury. For thy part, in recompense for my aid, thou shalt give unto me thy seed and raise the result as thine. This child shall be that part of beauty forevermore lost from my Darkenkell. Thou shalt nevermore rule upon thy throne. Cast out by your own people to raise our child in the wilderness that shall become thy home. Wilt thou?”
The King despaired. He cherished his crown, but agreed to her demand saying, “You shall have it as you wish. I pledge my fealty, my love, and my service to our offspring. I forswear my crown. Your price is generous for the salvation of my people.” As he spoke those words, he saw the Darkenkell Sidhe with new eyes, filled with love for her, and he gazed upon her without fear, for his eyes had become wholly black in the manner of a sidhe.
The King beseeched his people, “Go around my Lady Darkenkell. She will stop Erador.”
Seeing him changed, his people shrank from him. They saw that the Sidhe had ensorcelled their liege. Yet hearing the bellow of Erador, they quickly heeded King Terellor’s words. As the last nym passed by him, Terell, no longer a king, handed him the crown. He said, “My line, as you have known it, has ended. Have the people choose a new ruler.” Terell took his place beside his mate and awaited the coming of the worm.
Soon, the head of Erador was in sight above the treetops. Until the moment when Erador actually gazed upon the Sidhe, his rage had blinded him to the thick, ancient air of the forest surrounding him. Erador coughed, “Who dares to halt the just revenge of Erador, Lord Predator of the World?” His spittle dripped to the ground and burned, giving off noxious vapours.
The Darkenkell Sidhe stood gracefully, not loosing her feet from the soft, dark soil. When she rose, the entire forest trembled. The tremor passed quickly and left the forest unharmed. Looking up at the dragon’s head, the Sidhe spoke with a soft voice that rode a wind to the dragon’s ear, “You may not pass.”
Now, Erador sensed the peril of the lady before him, and he guessed at her link with the forest. He did not wish to be trapped in the forest’s destruction if he killed the girl. Erador decided to ensorcell the maiden with the mist that dwelled in his eyes and the speech that twisted from his forked tongue. Erador bent his long, serpentine neck to the ground and brought his gigantic head within a handspan of the Sidhe’s tiny face. Laughing to himself, he pushed his gaze upon the strange nym before him and prepared to ensorcell her into giving the whereabouts of the other nym. The King, Erador would feast upon afterwards.
When Erador tried to speak, he discovered that he could not utter a sound. He struggled to break free of the Sidhe’s gaze, but the black orbs seemed to pull at his spirit. His brothers were too far away to come to his aid. Never before had his gaze been daunted in this fashion, and he felt a growing fear, replacing the rage and laughter in his heart.
The Darkenkell Sidhe spoke, “Erador, thou hast grown large from whence I first perceived thee as a small wormling in thy mother’s putrid belly.”
Again, Erador struggled to break free of her gaze. The numbing darkness that lurked behind the glistening awareness of the Sidhe’s eyes froze everything around them, except her swaying wings.
For the third time the Sidhe spoke to the Lord Predator of the World, “Now, I shall decree to thee thy fate. I shall let thee suffer with the knowledge that thy death shall come for thee, and thy death shall come soon in the manner that thy kind mark the passage of time. Know this, Erador: Thou hast sown the seeds of thy own death when thou hast dared to enter my domain in the guise of the folk of my husband.”
Released, Erador flew into the air and bellowed in fear and pain of dreadful knowledge that he had received from the Sidhe’s prophecy. His brothers, hearing their mightiest trumpet in pain, flew swiftly back to their dark caves at Glered-nigh.
The spirit of Karamindakas soared toward Windweaver. His warning to Dahl-mer had proved helpful. Erador was frightened. He and Windweaver would live. He hoped his berserk spell would begin to dissolve now that he had changed Windweaver’s karma. Trapped out of time and space with his body, he worried for Stephen, who was alone at the edge of the grove. Yet, once again, he felt his spirit pulled to the running Windweaver.
The unicorn had galloped northeast of the Darkenkell forest for a day and had only halted at night to let Meliane rest. Meliane tired easily, for she was always sending her thoughts toward her people. Great sorrow entered her heart. She felt responsible for the dragon’s coming, although she knew that she lacked any means to resist the cunning of the Lord Predator. Tears rolled down her cheeks even as she passed into slumber.
Windweaver’s heart grew evermore wrathful against Erador for every tear that Meliane shed. She lay on the ground beside his hoofs as the night wind made her shiver. Windweaver knew that they would not escape Erador if the dragon actively pursued them. The unicorn was swift, but he could only gallop slowly, lest the rushing wind should blow Meliane off his back, but Windweaver’s pace was still thrice as fast as the swiftest steed ever born.
In the morning Windweaver watched her rise. She was stiff and sore. Her face was reddened from tears, but she made no complaint and gracefully alighted on his back for another day’s run. But when the midday sun had passed, Meliane swooned.
Windweaver neighed, frantically trying to slow himself as Meliane slid off him. Dropping to his knees, Windweaver hoped to shorten her fall. Clods of grass and dirt were torn from the earth. The ‘corn whinnied in pain as his knees cracked under the stress. Meliane rolled to the ground. Though bruised and bleeding, she retained her life. “Erador devours my people.” she murmured and fell into a febrile nightmare.
Karamindakas’ body shuddered as his knees splintered and bled in response to the spell he had woven.
Windweaver fretted. Each step became a miasma of pain for the unicorn, but his heart was mainly troubled by Meliane’s sufferings. Touching his double spiraled horn lightly against her brow, his lady fell into a deep, healing trance, a sleep to forget all unicorns and dragons, a sleep to remember her people and safety. Windweaver wished he could heal himself, if only to better defend Meliane. But the tip of his horn could not touch his own body.
Meliane would not wake for some time. Rearing, Windweaver said, “Now the time has come for the fulfillment of my oath. While Meliane sleeps, I shall face Erador. Come, dove. Let the Lord Predator’s cunning mind twist and turn, worrying over your true nature. Meliane shall escape his foul embrace, and victory be mine.”
A dove appeared in the sky and glided softly onto the ‘corn’s back. Speaking to Windweaver, it said, “I answer your summons, my friend. I give your flower the wings of my people to bear her to her home. Keep your hope. The south wind has brought me tidings of peace in the Darkenkell forest. The flying scourge rides it in fear and pain. The spirit of the Darkenkell has cast him out of her body. Erador knows defeat.”
Windweaver cantered away from Meliane and replied, “My thanks to you for your valor and glad tidings, my friend. Hold tight against me. I ride my last and swiftest journey.”
Windweaver galloped south, fighting the red haze of pain before his eyes. Windweaver raced, a blur across the land. He lacked joy in this run, not because of the pain in his body, rather it was the pain of parting with Meliane.

***

The hunym-sidhe of the Darkenkell forest burned with anger upon seeing the half eaten bodies of their people, left on the path of Erador. The shame that they felt for running fueled their hatred. A violent rage flamed within them and woke their battle lust, for they walked the path of Erador that retained the dragon’s hate and rage. When they had burnt the pile of their dead that they had gathered, a mighty call rang forth: “Erador must die!” They lusted for revenge and prepared for battle.
They elected their mightiest warrior to be their King. “Torast-ahn, the fey!” the nym shouted in unison, “Lead us to battle, King, King Torastor!”
King Torastor had been one of the Ahn, the hunters and warriors of the tribe. Once, he had slain a roaming worm of the world. It was this tale that had caused the nym to elect him. He had known better than to walk the path of Erador. His people grew mad and violent as they breathed in the taint of Erador. He accepted the crown in the hope that he could lead them to a strategic battle with his Ahn skills. The new King did not wish his people to die in vain. Perhaps they could at least cause Erador some slight misery. He wanted to dissuade them, but they were in the grip of a draconic rage.
King Torastor bade his people to wait for him. They did not follow, preferring to moan and yowl and gnash their teeth over the ashes of their dead on the path of Erador. Torastor went deep into the forest to practice the little magic that he knew. The new King was not a mage, but under the dweomer of the dragon’s passing, the magi could not function safely until their lust was sated. Leaving the tainted path, King Torastor walked to one of the quiet places in the Darkenkell forest.
Amid the sweet smell of wild flowers in the green foliage, Torastor began to sing in a clear, high voice, but he sang no words. His singing was a lure, a simple magic, to call the innocents of the forest to him: faeries of the green, pixies, and sprites. He hoped to gain some sort of insight from them and, perhaps, help. The song echoed against the green, but no descant answered. He despaired, and shouted, “Will no one come to my aid?”
His shout died, but the air began to chill him, and the birds of the forest fluttered from their perches. A black shadow, the incarnate spirit of a worldly human wizard, issued forth from a pool saying, “I will aid you, King Torastor. I hear your people’s sorrow. It moves my heart to pity.”
Torastor’s face turned crimson. He was frustrated and did not fear the spirit. Drawing his sword, he said, “Leave me, foul human. Mock not my people, or I will dispatch you.”
The spirit answered, “And how do you plan to dispatch Erador? Your nymish magi lie under the dragon’s aura. Their magics will be weak, and the earth will not yield to their hate.”
Torastor knew this was true. Also, his nymish magi were unlearned in fierce magics, for the old King had held peace in the Darkenkell for a long age. Now, they were unprepared for the terrible fight ahead. Only a few questing Ahn, such as he, would be of any real use. Torastor said, “What you say is true. Why do you wish to aid my people? I do not believe in your pity. Even I can perceive your lust for power, and the stench of daemons surrounds your shade.”
The spirit replied, “In truth, I care not what happens to your people. My servants have brought me news of the Darkenkell Sidhe foretelling Erador’s death. I wish to be there when the dragon falls.”
Torastor realized with a shudder what the wizard’s spirit meant. It was whispered that humans spoke with their dead. Whatever foul rituals the wizard could complete with Erador’s spirit in bondage would surely make him powerful. Many lost spirits had died because of the Emperor of Glered-nigh. Those vengeful ghosts would obey the wizard for the chance to inflict misery against the spirit of that dragon. The need of his people drove the King to his first decision. He accepted the friendship of this ebony spirit.
They held council together. The King learned that Erador headed to meet Windweaver near the human city of New Candide. There, they would fight. The black spirit spoke of a dove clinging to the unicorn’s back, which must surely be Meliane, changed in form by Windweaver’s grace. They would clash long before his people could reach them. Perhaps the long march would dampen his people’s battle lust. Torastor wished to avoid battle altogether, hoping the fight would be long finished ere his people could march to their deaths.
The shade declared that he would send himself forward to the battle while his servants joined the nym with his body. Then, the shade planned to rejoin his body and fight alongside the nym with his servants when the dragon would be wounded from his fight with the ‘corn.
King Torastor went back to his people. They had armed for war and prepared to march. Sadly, Torastor led them from the Darkenkell forest. Arrayed with spears, pikes, and armor, the Ahn marched to fight the Lord Predator of the World.

***

Erador spied Windweaver in the distance and began to heat his deadly breath. Vapours poured from his nostrils. The joy of ravaging was again upon him, and he had put aside the words of the tiny Sidhe during the long flight. He dived from a great height, hoping to catch Windweaver by surprise. Erador loosed a huge blast of white flame from his maw. Windweaver had seen Erador. He jumped, agitating his cracked knee joints. The dove flew off Windweaver’s back into the jet of flame. Even the ashes of the dove were lost amid the dark smoke surrounding Erador’s breath. Windweaver’s left flank blackened from the proximity of Erador’s flame.
Karamindakas’ spirit watched the battle in despair. Erador’s rage had not been wholly daunted by the words of the Darkenkell Sidhe. In the grove Karamindakas’ left side blistered, and he cried out in reflexive, mindless pain. Asleep, Stephen did not hear his Master’s cry.
Erador swooped high into the air and trumpeted victory, for he did believe the dove to be Meliane in disguise. His surprise attack had worked, and Erador relished the first fulfillment of his revenge. Refusing his lust, Meliane would nevermore savor her flesh. The dragon turned in the air to make another pass at Windweaver. Suddenly, Erador cried out in agony as his wings were beset by flocks of shadowcrows. He tasted mortal wizardry in the air with his serpentine tongue. He could not shake the shadowcrows off his wings, and he could not vent his flame upon them without injuring his wings. Erador knew of shadowcrows, the baleful spirits, made from the very substance of a dark spirit. The living silhouettes pried their sharp beaks under the dragon’s scales to peck at the tender flesh that pulsed there.
Erador shrieked in agony, crashing into the earth with the shadowcrows, stuck on his wings like leeches. Erador righted his bulk off the ground and stood there as he swung his long muzzle from side to side, searching for the wizard who had dared to launch so potent an attack against him. Erador thought, “The human must be close to do this to me.”
The rest of the shade’s substance stood in the shadow of the grove of trees and laughed at the pain he caused the Emperor of Glered-nigh.
Windweaver stood distant from Erador, lest the dragon should breathe his fire again. Windweaver was amazed at his good fortune at seeing the corrupt battle each other. The unicorn bided his time, waiting for the chance when Erador would drop his guard. With Erador grounded, Windweaver could strike. Yet he needed an opening, or the dragon would burn him to ashes ere his charge was completed.
Sitting on his haunches, Erador searched the area. He fought the agony that the shadowcrows inflicted on his wings and kept one eye on the unicorn’s sharp horn. Then, he saw a darkness within a darkness: A mortal wizard’s foul shade floated among the shadows of the grove. Screaming in agony, Erador turned his neck to face the spirit and blasted it with his most caustic bile. The shadowcrows fell from his wings and sunk below the ground, following their Master’s essence.
Windweaver charged as Erador cremated the human’s spirit. His horn pierced the dragon’s scales. Ichor spouted out the wound and covered Windweaver. Blinded by the ichor, the blackened unicorn sprang back from the dragon.
Erador roared in pain, lurched forward, and crushed Windweaver under his bulk.
The dragon launched himself into the air, his mind awash with the pain of his wound. He flew back to Glered-nigh. The gaping chest wound spouted the black ichor that served as Erador’s blood. Striking the ground, the ichor assumed the shape of dark serpents, tunneling into the deeps of the world. The drops of ichor from Erador’s wings became shadowcrows in the manner of the kind that inflicted the wounds. The shadowcrows flew away and mocked Erador with their coarse caws. Humiliation mixed with his pain: These were the offspring that he had dreamt of having. The dragon reached his cave and bound his wounds with his spittle. He slept without dreaming for a full turn of the seasons.
Windweaver started to run back toward Meliane, but the ‘corn stumbled again and again. Reaching the tiny grove, his strength spent, Windweaver collapsed and breathed in short wheezes. The shadow of death silenced the animals of the grove.
In Karamindakas’ proper time, the snapping sounds of breaking bones filled the air as his body contorted to resemble Windweaver’s fractured body.
A dove landed next to Windweaver and melted to the form of Meliane. She had waked from her sleep and had felt the immortal tear grow hot against her bosom. The diamond had reminded her of Windweaver, of her memory, and of her sorrow. She comforted the unicorn until death. Mad with grief at the loss of her perfected hero, she let loose her spirit, and fairest Meliane died with Windweaver.
Windweaver’s death catapulted Kara’s spirit back to his dying body. His eyes lifted to see the translucent shade of Windweaver at the center of the grove. Next to Windweaver, the shade of Meliane stood. Death had not severed the bond between them. Groaning, the wizard tried to get up, but he fell down, gasping in pain.
The shade that had been Meliane spoke:
“Your spell roused the grove’s memory. Windweaver and I crossed back, drawn by the forces your spell invoked. Human, you have linked your destiny with ours. Dig in the earth that you lie upon and find some small benefit in your sacrifices for us.”
The shades departed slowly, becoming more and more ephemeral. Karamindakas grasped the blue stone around his neck with a bleeding hand. He thought of Stephen.

Chapter III Forever Child

Stephen woke in a panic, feeling the stone burn coldly against his chest. Everything seemed peaceful, but the stone had never lied. He grasped his necklace and said, “Karamindakas.” Immediately, Stephen knew that, this time, it was his Master who was in danger.
Stephen ran into the grove, trying to follow his Master’s footsteps. The undergrowth beneath the oaks was sparse, and most of the oaks were tall without any limbs near the ground that would obstruct Stephen’s searching gaze. Stephen cried out for his Master and heard no answer. He spied a charred log and went to investigate it. His Master often amused himself by lighting fires and shaping them with his magic.
“Master Kara!” Stephen cried. The child stopped short of the burned husk he had mistaken for a log. He was afraid to come closer to his Master, although he wasn’t sure why. Karamindakas needed him, but the boy didn’t know what to do. Half the old wizard’s body was blackened and covered with oozing sores. His legs were streaked in blood. Bones protruded from his legs in several places. Stephen trembled.
Kara’s right hand lifted toward Stephen. “Alive” was Stephen’s only thought as he rushed toward his Master. He could see him taking slow breaths.
Kara whispered, “under me–horn–dig—-” The wizard lapsed into unconsciousness.
Cold entered Stephen; he feared his Master was dying. As gently as he could, Stephen pushed his Master’s body to the side.
Kara moaned.
“At least he’s still alive.” Stephen thought. He dug into the earth and quickly reached a hard object just under the black topsoil.
Stephen pulled out the horn of some sort of animal that he had never seen before. It appeared to be two horns gently spiraled around each other. It was slender and two cubits in length. He pressed it against his Master’s wounded flesh, hoping that his Master had asked him to find it to help him, but nothing happened. Crying in frustration, Stephen clutched his necklace and called his Master’s name over and over, trying to make it better.
Kara floated in soothing blackness. He knew he was dying, but he didn’t care. He was too tired. He had lived a long life; his people could uphold the old ways without him. Still, something pricked at him. He saw blue, the blue of the master crystal, the great stone that had first awakened him to his power. The color annoyed him. He just wanted to float down the black river to wherever it took him. He didn’t care where, but the blue radiance would not let him rest. It disturbed the waters. The blue called to him with fear and worry. Its relentless anxiety infuriated him and he shouted in his dream, “How dare the living light bother me. I have served it long enough. I’ve earned my peace. Who would dare deny me my end?”
The blue grew stronger and filled the void with a warm illumination.
Kara realized, “Stephen!” The pains of his body assaulted the old wizard as the black waters receded.
Karamindakas groaned when he regained consciousness. Stephen wiped his hands on his leggings. The child had been clutching the crystal in his necklace past sunset. His hand ached as he flexed it. He bent over his Master’s body and half reluctantly clutched the crystal again. “Master, how can I help? I don’t know what to do. How do I use the horn?” He knew that he didn’t have the strength to use the crystal if his Master slipped away again.
Kara whispered, “The unicorn’s horn–your magic–the necklace. I’m not sure. Must rest.” Stephen watched his Master’s eyes close, but Master Kara’s breathing eased.
Guessing at what his Master had tried to say, Stephen grasped the crystal. He decided to summon the power from himself. He stood, breathed deeply, and closed his eyes. A bird’s trilling disturbed him and he had to start again. He had often seen his Master do this before healing somebody. The crystal glimmered a soft blue and flickered out. Frustrated beyond his years, Stephen threw a temper tantrum, but the crystal did not respond to his anger.
Stars appeared in the night sky. Stephen’s Master lay very still. The boy sat against an oak and despaired. The night brought the cold, and Stephen shivered. The crystal refused to help him, taunting him with only an occasional response from the dirt smudged stone that had worked so readily with his Master’s name. Stephen knew that his Master lacked strength to lend him now. Tired to the point of tears, Stephen cradled the stone in his hands. The horn of Windweaver lay by his side. He was too tired to concentrate any longer. He tried to invoke the crystal to life, but his thoughts wandered. He dreamed of running through a field and laughing with his Master.
Though his eyes were closed, a flash of light blinded Stephen and destroyed the night for a brief moment. Stephen panicked. He ran out of the grove while rubbing his eyes. The crystal in his necklace burned against his chest. Stephen didn’t understand what was happening. He only knew that he had to run away. The crystal had always become cold when he was in danger. Now that the crystal was hot, Stephen guessed that something was terribly wrong.
Blind, Stephen ran for several hours. The crystal’s burning sensation finally lessened, and he began to see. The grass whipped by him as he ran. The waxing moon was beginning to sink in the night sky. Stephen looked at the crystal. It shone with a pale white radiance without any hint of its former blue color. He saw a forest ahead of him that was unlike the grove. It was huge. The trees spanned as far as he could see in the moonlit horizon.
The thought of the grove jarred Stephen’s memory. His Master, still wounded, lay in the grove. Stephen looked around and found that he was completely lost. He knew that he could not have run far when he was blinded, but the moon told him that several hours had passed. All at once, Stephen realized that the forest was rapidly approaching him. Frightened, Stephen turned to run in the opposite direction. His legs wrapped around themselves, and he sprawled down a hill, sliding and tumbling.
When he had finished crying, Stephen looked up and found that the forest was no longer moving towards him. “Why can’t I run?” Stephen cried helplessly in the night, “What’s wrong with my legs?” The boy desperately wanted to run back to his Master, but he didn’t want to fall again.
Stephen cautiously got his legs under him. Grasping the crystal, he said, “Karamindakas.” Two white rays of light flared out from the now white crystal and intertwined themselves into the shape of the unicorn’s horn. Stephen guessed that the ghost image pointed to his Master. In some way that he didn’t understand, the spell he had tried to make had worked. He hoped it had worked for his Master, too. The horn faded as he thought of Karamindakas. He ran in the direction that the ghost horn had pointed. A minute later, he stopped running, although it took an effort to stop. Stephen began to enjoy running in a way that he had never known.
Turning around for a moment, Stephen looked back at the strange forest. It was now far in the distance. Its silhouette was barely visible under the moonlight.
Stephen laughed at himself. His fears seemed smaller now. He said, “The forest wasn’t trying to catch me. I was running toward it.”
Taking off at a sprint, Stephen raced to rejoin his Master. He had no idea how fast he ran. The ground was a blur around him. Yet he never fell again and always felt sure footed. Stephen returned to the grove before the moon had moved another of its lengths across the sky. When he finally stopped in front of his sleeping Master, he let out a laugh of exhilaration that rang throughout the grove. His breath was hot in his lungs, but his chest rose and fell as if he were well rested. He wanted to keep running, but his love for his Master made him stay.
The grove was still immersed in the dark of night. Only the pale radiance of Stephen’s crystal pierced the gloom. Looking at Kara, Stephen instinctively knew that he could heal his beloved Master.
He cradled the burnt body in his slender arms and hugged the old man tightly. The white radiance of his crystal grew and enveloped them both. Stephen thought of the days that they had shared: sitting by a night’s fire, walking through a somber village, watching the harvesters thresh the wheat, and enjoying all the quiet moments of lessons and games through their wandering time together. Still hugging his Master, they fell into a deep sleep and dreamt of a distant age.
Next morning, Stephen woke to Kara’s smiling face. The old man said, “My boy, you’ve saved me and not done yourself a bad turn either, I see.”
Stephen giggled as Kara tickled him. The boy rasped, “What are you talking about?”
The wizard said, “Why look at yourself, little changeling.” Kara reached into his satchel and grabbed a mirror.
Looking into the mirror, Stephen gasped, “I’m beautiful.”
“Indeed, you are, my son.” Kara said proudly, “I worried for your sake, but you fared better than many wizards would have.”
Stephen’s hair was white and the strands were thicker. It had lengthened in a line down his back, going underneath his tunic. He was thinner, and his cheek bones were higher and more pronounced.
Kara’s voice became rough with emotion, “Stephen, until this time, I had worried for your safety in our journeys together. I thought of finding you a home where you could live a normal life.”
Stephen shouted, “No! I want to stay with you.”
Kara replied, “I am glad to hear you say that. I have changed my mind. You can now take care of yourself. If I did not love you before, I would certainly love you after the bravery you displayed last night. Stephen, what I am trying to say is that I want you to be my son.”
Stephen laughed, jumping up and hugging his Master–his father. The child simply said, “I love you.”
Karamindakas and Stephen performed a traditional bonding ritual. It was a peasant form of adoption. The father and the son pricked their thumbs with a thorn, spoke an oath of fealty, and joined thumbs.
Stephen spoke with a suppressed excitement, “I swear to obey, learn, and honor.”
Kara replied, “I swear to protect, cherish, and teach. You, Stephenmindakas, shall have an equal share in my inheritance.” They clasped hands, and the ritual was over.
Rising from his seat in the grassy grove, Kara said, “It is time for your lesson. You are long overdue.”
“But father, it is a time to celebrate. We are together forever.” Stephen ran around his new father with a disconcerting speed.
“All right, my son,” Kara spoke lightheartedly, “let us take the morning to celebrate while we have the opportunity. However, tonight you will have your lesson about the grove. I think you will find it very interesting, for it pertains to your new heritage, little changeling.”
Stephen and Kara woke several hours after the sun had risen. They broke fast with some hardbread and water from a spring in the grove. The sky was a clear blue. Only a soft wind stirred the grasses and the leaves of the oaks.
Kara began packing his saddlebags and said, “We must travel to the Darkenkell forest, and on the journey you must practice with your new abilities. We shall have to discover exactly how enchanted you have become.”
Stephen jumped up and said, “I can’t wait to get started.” Kara’s son raced throughout the campsite, packing the gear and putting it on their horse.
Stephen spoke to the horse, “You must run fast today to keep up with me, brother.”
The wizard’s horse whinnied and stamped the ground in response to Stephen.
Kara was amazed, but annoyed with himself. Of course, Stephen would not have to discover his abilities. The young Stephen was an enchanted creature, not a wizard. The boy would intuitively know when and how to use his abilities. He may even be able to speak with all animals; Kara hoped this was so. He would need all his resources to protect Nigel and his unknown partner.
While watching Stephen run lazily beside his galloping horse, Kara wondered about the transformation of his newly acquired son. The boy had inherited a great share of Windweaver’s might. There were too many crucial coincidences while the transfer of white magic was taking place. Stephen was already receptive to a unicorn’s karma, for he still possessed the innocence of childhood, so similar in outlook to enchanted creatures of white magic. Also, the boy was changed while trying to save a life. Not only was that an act that would promote the transfer of healing magic, but it was also the same act that Windweaver had done for Meliane just hours before the unicorn’s death. Such sympathies created a mutual attraction between the boy and the horn. Finally, before the transference was completed, Stephen had returned to protect his Master from danger, just as Windweaver had died trying to protect Meliane. Kara believed that the journeystone he had given to Stephen had served as an additional catalyst for the change.
When they had stopped for a midday meal, Kara said, “Stephen, let me see your necklace.”
Stephen took the necklace from ’round his neck without a thought. He said, “I think it is much prettier now that it’s white instead of blue.” As he handed the necklace to his father, the crystal in the necklace reverted to its normal, blue color.
Kara nodded approvingly. “Stephen, the power is in you, not in your necklace. Tell no one of this. Let the foolish think that the source of your heritage rests in your crystal. Keep it. It may help you focus your new feelings. The necklace is linked to you more than ever.” Kara handed the necklace back to Stephen, and as the child put it on, the blue from the journeystone melted to a white shimmer.
As Kara unpacked the rest of his gear from his horse, Stephen trotted up to him. He padded his feet on the ground, as if he wanted to be sure of his footing, and Stephen spoke with a nervousness that asked for comfort, “Father, there are people approaching. They have walking sticks and swords. They look funny.”
Stephen pointed in the direction that he and Kara were preparing to go. Kara could not see anything, but he believed Stephen. The boy was keen of sight now.
The wizard was sure that the travellers were journeying from the Darkenkell forest. No human settlements lay in that direction. This was disturbing. Hunym-sidhe did not travel these days, except for some great need. Kara said, “Stephen, go and hide yourself. Nym have not been friendly with men since the outworlders came.” He also knew that nym were also keen of sight; the wizard was curious to see if Stephen could hide from them. The wizard knew that he must soon draw upon all his resources, for Nigel and the other would be a sore test for him. He must know how far he could use Stephen.
Karamindakas relaxed and let his magic seethe inside his breast. Stephen concealed himself in the tall grass. After an hour the wizard saw the nym approaching. Taking a seat on the grass, he awaited them and tried to appear at ease. The two nym stopped at Kara’s campsite, and they regarded each other for an awkward moment.
The nym were wearing a delicate chain mail that seemed more artistic to Kara than practical. The mail bore the handiwork of their kindred in the Koral mountains. Disconcerted by their presence, Kara could not help but recall his experience in the grove. These nym looked just like the maddened Ahn who had lusted to do battle against Erador. All the Darkenkell hunym-sidhe looked unnervingly similar: Each nymish tribe had uncannily unique characteristics. Darkenkell nym, like those in front of Kara, were fair complected, tall, and thin. All nym differed from men by their limbs. Nym appendages had an additional joint: two knees, two elbows, and fingers that they used in a sign language, which no human could duplicate. The walking sticks that Stephen had seen were actually spears. Kara had seen nym throw a spear with those three segmented arms in a whip like motion that would embed a spear beyond the point in a healthy trunk of hardwood.
It was said that nym believed that they were reincarnated and did not fear death in battle, for they knew that they would be reborn. Fey was how peasants thought of nym. Kara knew better. Anyone who could imagine death feared death.
The shorter nym was broad in the chest, and Kara guessed that the nym outweighed him twofold. That one was definitely Ahn by his bearing and his sword’s carefully polished sheathe, whereas his taller companion had yellow cords around his waist that marked him as a member of some other clan.
The Ahn pointed his spear at Kara. “Aged man, what are you doing here so close to our forest? And where is your skulking companion? I see that two used this campsite. Speak swiftly and plainly, or you shall not live to regret your trespass.”
Respect. They needed respect. Karamindakas decided. They needed to know that all humans have not given up the old paths of power. The wizard rose carefully and slowly before the spear point. He turned an iron gaze upon the offender. The taller nym backed a pace as he saw Kara’s eyes take on a soft, blue sheen. The wizard spoke solemnly, “You would do well to point that spear away from me. I am the wizard Karamindakas, and it is you who shall answer my questions. I shall take that overly bold spear, but spare your lives, for you do not journey often and knew naught of your peril. Remember my mercy when you meet another human.”
The nym held his ground, putting on a conscious determination to bite back his fear. He was about to speak when his hand took on a dark shine. It opened involuntarily and the spear fell to the ground.
The Ahn began to draw his sword, undaunted by Kara’s display of force. The other nym grabbed his companion’s sword arm and said, “Hold, Mar-ahn, lest you kill us all. You cannot sense the spirits around this man as I can. He is driven like a dragon. I sense much greater spirits around his invisible companion. Now is the time for words, not war.”
Mar-ahn turned to his companion and pointedly ignored Kara. “Perhaps you are right, Ta-nor, but these humans destroy their dwellings or fill them with their filth. They are an unnatural thing.” Frustrated, he sheathed his blade, which glinted of ivory.
Inwardly, Kara relaxed slightly. Outwardly, he assumed his most dignified manner and said, “Ta-nor is far sighted and speaks true. I have been an ally to the nym for many years, and my magics have always been at their service. I declare to you that it is a time for the Darkenkell hunym-sidhe to celebrate. I have ridden the winds of ancient memory and have brought forth a glamour of ancient magic. I seek the counsel of your King. We must unite against the yolk of the outworlders. Their magic is not all powerful; my people have seen much of it.”
The Ahn sneered and waved his hand, dismissing the wizard’s words. “I do not believe you, old man. All you men are devious and spiteful. Why should nym help men fight for their filthy, sweat-stenched cities? And you speak of ancient magic, yet I see only a wizard using crystal magic in the manner of your kind. Proof, I require, if you wish to enter the Darkenkell forest without nymish blood on your hands.”
Karamindakas roared with laughter. He said, “Then, look beside you, brave nym, for the proof you seek has sought you, though you failed to see him.”
Stephen had started moving to his father’s side as soon as he had heard the sounds of angry voices. He was less than three cubits away from the Ahn when both nym turned to look.
The nym stood mute in surprise. They had never seen anything like Stephen. They were moved by Stephen’s wild, large eyes and beauty. Stephen looked at each nym openly. He smiled at the nym, but remained silently by Kara.
Ta-nor said, “He has a face somewhat like our cousins in the Koral. Yet his hair is coarse, like an animal’s. What is that white jewel around your neck? You are Chen. That is true. Where do you come from, little Chen?”
Stephen remained silent. His only response was to sidle closer to his father. Kara decided to speak for Stephen, “His name is Stephenmindakas. I title him forever child and heir to the grace of Windweaver.”
For a moment the stout Ahn’s face lost its pride. As he tried to regain his composure, he said, “I am sorry for my rash words. ‘Tis true that this Chen has the manner of the running ones. His body speaks it plainly, even if his voice would not. My name is Mar, and I am Ahn, what you would call a knight. This is my brother, Ta, a Nor, what you would call a wizard, I suppose.”
Mar-ahn took a step toward Stephen and continued to speak without moving his gaze from the slight figure, “You must go to the King. He will be glad to see this strange Chen. The battle of Erador and Windweaver is still known to all our tribe. If what you say is soothe, then your son will be greatly honored by our people. We need such a reminder of days past.”
Kara scowled and said, “Once again, you have the temerity to tell me what I must do. However, this time, I forgive you. I have recently learned of Windweaver and your people’s history. Yet I cannot go with you. I have been delayed at the place of that very unicorn’s fall.”
Ta-nor interrupted, “Then, this is the reason for Sol-mer’s vision of the grove. We left the forest because a seer of our tribe felt the spirit of Windweaver near his remains. This Chen must be the creature our scouts spotted, the one who ran swifter than the wind. Some suspected that it was a small unicorn, come to visit the Darkenkell. Now, it seems that they were right. Our people forgot their pain that night.”
Karamindakas stared up at the tall nym and tried to understand what Ta-nor’s pride was keeping from him. Hesitantly, Kara said, “Although I must leave, I shall send my son with you to gladden your people. He shall deliver a message from me to your liege. Know this, too, Mar-ahn, and tell your people: The humans you condemn fight to protect us all against those who would destroy our way of life. We name them outworlders, for they come from where only the sky striders live, and they hunger to enslave our people. My people cannot win the war by themselves. They are an enemy many times more fearsome than Erador. We must unite.”
Mar-ahn grimaced and did not meet the wizard’s eyes. He turned to look at the Darkenkell forest line.
Karamindakas reached into his satchel and pulled out a blue journeystone. He held it cupped in his hands as his eyes took on the color of the journeystone. The jewel glowed in resonance to Kara’s magic. Kara spoke to his son, “This stone is like the crystal in your necklace. Take it with you as you travel among the nym and give it to their King. Be courteous, and await his response. Come back to me as soon as you can.”
The journeystone glowed white as it was passed to Stephen’s hands. Wordlessly, he hugged his father tightly. Turning away, Stephen vanished from sight after a few steps in the high grasses.
A pang of loss entered Kara’s heart that could not wholly be replaced by his sense of duty. Only a child who loved him, Stephen had become his first tool, one of many that he knew he must forge and use if he was to succeed. Bidding Mar-ahn and Ta-nor a stoic farewell, Karamindakas mounted his horse and rode toward his home, the conquered city, New Candide. The wizard thought of Nigel and the other, wherein he placed his meager hope.

Chapter IV Prey

Captain Roberts of the H.M.S. Glory had just finished moving into his cramped cabin. The logs that Erickson had made prior to his death cascaded through his private speaker. The previous Captain’s diatribes were nonsensical. He watched Erickson’s face on the viewscreen and listened to him ramble about “the dragon.” At alternate times Erickson would cry and rage when he had recorded the log, but he was generally calm, unless he was talking about that Ocoan animal.
It was clear to Roberts that Erickson had cracked after the animal had destroyed the satellite. In his first official log Roberts commended his second’s commandeering of the Glory. It was unfortunate that the psych-profile had not discovered Erickson was suicidal. The Glory was not equipped for mindtaps.
The intercom cut through the audio of the log: “Captain Roberts, I’m your new communications specialist, Lieutenant John Moessner. Pleased to have you aboard, sir. I have a w-axis locked message, labeled top priority. Are you ready to receive, sir?”
Roberts replied, “Just a moment, Lieutenant.” Flicking off the log, Roberts slipped his card into Erickson’s decoder. The computer silently processed its new instructions. Roberts gently pushed aside a flap of skin on his forearm and unwound the thin coil lodged there. He plugged the coil into the machine. After it had finished processing, Roberts said, “Send the message, Lieutenant.”
The message appeared in Roberts’ mind’s eye:
To: The H.M.S. Glory. Stop.
Initiate DNA check (pause) From: Cerberus M.I. Central. Stop. Priority 1. Stop.
Locate indigenous life capable of upper atmospheric flight. Stop.
Capture alive. Stop.
Xenobiologist team arriving. Stop. Give team priority clearance A-2. Stop. Priority 2. Stop.
Capture sentient, indigenous humanoid life. Stop. Mindtap specimen. Stop.
Hook up link to M.I. Central computer. Stop. Entry code: 234732189–Force feed. Stop. (pause) Priority Change. Stop.
Do not continue reclamation until P1 and P2 completed. Stop.
Proceed with haste. Stop.
Vital to Union. Stop.
Cerberus wishes you all success. Stop. ENDMESSAGEENDMESSAGEENDMESSAGEENDMESSAGEENDMESSAGEEND Captain Roberts unplugged his personal coil from the computer and pushed it underneath his skin. He massaged the back of his neck and swallowed a pain reliever. Computer telepathic communiques always gave him a malaise and a headache.
Roberts leaned back in his chair to stretch his back muscles. He mulled over the message that hung in his mind. Earth was practically in a frenzy over the animal that had attacked the satellite. Something in the deceased Captain’s neural net copy must have piqued Cerberus’ interest. Poor Erickson, there was a rumor that certain drugs, like the one that was found in Erickson’s body, would distort the neural net so that the death circuit implant would not be triggered at the crucial moment. However, Cerberus’ message indicated otherwise. M.I. Central must have garnered something from Erickson’s memories, something important enough to order a halt on the reclamation of a populous colony.
With a morbid fascination Roberts fingered his left temple. He could barely feel his implant under his flesh. It would lie dormant until the moment of his death, burning itself out in its only function. The circuit would send a copy of its host’s neural net through w-axis space to the massive military information computer on Earth, self styled as Cerberus. All of its host’s memories would be accessible: conscious and unconscious. All military ship captains had the implant. A captain’s knowledge was deemed too important to be lost. Roberts was not flattered. He often wondered just how much of a man’s essence was transferred. Was it merely information? or was it immortality? Roberts toyed with the idea of getting a drug more powerful than the one that Erickson had used.
Roberts rethought the message to get his mind away from his morbid reverie. Erickson had died right in front of him, and Roberts had never escaped the black mood that the event had molded for him. He exhaled and forced himself to the nasty task of politics. Cerberus always sent the least information possible. There were gigabytes of knowledge within that short message.
Priority two fascinated Roberts: sentient, indigenous life form. Roberts had received no data from the ship’s computer that concerned such life on the planet. There wasn’t supposed to be any sentient life on Orion II, except for the descendants of the original colonists. Of course, no one had believed that the planet was even capable of supporting humans outside of domes.
Roberts frowned. Most of the original colony data had been lost during the interplanetary wars when people did not want to be found. The message was worded in a way that left little room for doubt: Cerberus believed that a native sentience was present.
The xenoscientists could certainly help track down the natives with military assistance. A cruel smile appeared on Roberts’ thoughtful face. One of the xenos was bringing a mindtap device. Roberts knew that he could use the device to discover the whereabouts of the Ocoan resistance. He only needed a few live resistance fighters.
Still, a native sentience could present unique difficulties that neither scientists nor the Glory was equipped to handle. The Glory was specifically designed to deal with colonial reclamation operations. She had little to nothing in the way of high grade sensors, labs, or downworld exploratory personnel. Those things were used in studies of a world after reclamation had been secured. Roberts pursed his lips. Something wasn’t making sense. Rush jobs were unlike the methodical Cerberus, and why would a cluster of xenoscientists need an A-2 security clearance? Exploratory data went only as high as B-1. Cerberus must be sending someone else, someone undercover.

***

Captain Roberts woke to the buzz of his intercom. Blindly fumbling for the switch, Roberts’ adrenaline began to flow. His heart pounded in his ears, leaving a hole in his chest. He hated this part of the job with a passion. The fear of attack or calamity pervaded the existence of the captain of a space vessel. The near vacuum of space destroyed life. The ship was only a delicate cocoon of metal, set against the harshness of the void. Duty displaced such fears, so he flicked the switch and gratefully listened to the report of the officer on watch.
Roberts was unfamiliar with the alto, feminine voice that spoke, “We have a military vessel off the port bow in line with us. It wishes to dock, sir. The ship’s name is the H.M.S. Glory Wolf, and its I.D. scan checks with our data. Shall I clear it for docking?”
Roberts jumped out of bed. “Yes, yes, clear it immediately.” The Glory Wolf? She was one of the last of the warships. She was the mother in basic design to his ship. And she was one of the few ships not to be refitted for reclamation after the war. Nothing sane would touch her in single combat. Was Cerberus implying something by this? Perhaps her hold had been refitted to be the cage for the Erickson dragon.
However, after docking, the ship silently headed off, and, making a w-axis turn, the Glory Wolf disappeared. Roberts fretted. If Cerberus expected trouble, it would no doubt keep the Glory Wolf nearby to deal with it in a permanent way. Roberts didn’t like to have the autonomy of his command vitiated. There were a thousand things that he didn’t like about the Union. But they had a virtual monopoly on exploration, and that quelled Roberts’ grievances. Better a selfish benefactor than none at all.
Roberts took his time putting on his dress uniform while his second saw to the needs of their new passengers. It was a matter of captain’s prerogative, and Roberts wanted to be mentally alert for his guests. He was sure that all would not be as it appeared among the xenos. Damn Cerberus’ paranoid secrecy. Just as he was about to leave, his second, Jacobson, informed him that the guests had arrived at the captain’s table in the mess hall. Discreetly, Jacobson also said that one xeno was actually a member of the “Cerberus bratpack.”
Roberts thanked Jacobson for the early warning. Although it was not a necessary courtesy, Roberts had come to realize Jacobson’s flexibility and utility in the short time he had been Captain of the Glory.
So, a guest belongs to IRIS: IRIS (Individually Retrieving Information Sect), or as his second had called their guest not too affectionately, one of the Cerberus bratpack. Roberts knew that this could be politically dangerous. Members of IRIS were not uniform in any way, except that they had a variation of the death circuit implant. The death circuit implants used on IRIS agents were always working, sending information via w-axis to the central, military computer on Earth, accessed solely by Cerberus. What they knew, Cerberus knew. Each member usually specialized in a particular field. Once the field was chosen, Cerberus would acquire the best that the Union had to train, equip, and in any wise aid his agent. This must be how Cerberus intended to fulfill priority two. Roberts wanted to meet this agent, but he wouldn’t forget that Cerberus would be meeting him.
Captain Roberts walked into the mess hall as his guests were finishing their meals. Foil packets were carelessly strewn around the table, save for two clumps of foil properly set in their clips attached to a dark haired newcomer’s and Jacobson’s plate. The enlarged corridor that served as mess and main gangway was, for the most part, empty. He went to the chair reserved for him at the head of the table. Everyone in the hall rose to salute him as custom demanded. The guests resumed their seats and, except for the fastidious one, they eyed Roberts nervously.
Jacobson wore a formal smile and said, “Captain Roberts, allow me to introduce our guests.” Jacobson gestured from right to left while naming them, “Our new xenoscientists, Doctors James, Flaherty, Torin, and IRIS agent Morrison.”
Sean Flaherty, a grey haired man approaching his seventh decade, said, “I believe we’ve met before, Captain. Weren’t you in charge of the reclamation of Ajax IV? I remember studying the peculiar chemosynthesizing flora of that planet.”
Roberts remembered the planet. The flower of which Flaherty spoke produced a mild hallucinogenic gas during the nights of Ajax IV. Continual exposure to the gas had left the colonists’ descendants little more than children, barely able to survive. The colony would have failed if not for the lush conditions on the coast originally chosen for the settlement. It was an easy, but pitiful reclamation.
Roberts said, “Yes, if I remember correctly, you received a grant to study the plant and some kind of award. Am I correct, Dr. Flaherty?”
Flaherty took on a delighted expression. “Ah, you do remember. Yes, it was quite a successful trip for me, and I made a small fortune selling the plant in the private sector for recreational use. I called it the euphoria tree. Do you know that there’s been some talk of putting the plant in correctional and dysfunctional facilities? It practically eradicates violent behavior.”
Quietly, Roberts said, “Yes, I remember.” Flaherty had become excited while talking about his discovery, but Roberts was beginning to feel nauseated. Roberts had no opinion about civilians using recreational drugs, moderately or otherwise, but he had seen the mentally crippled inhabitants of Ajax IV. He wondered how anyone could endorse the forced application of such a drug merely for expediency’s sake. Planetsiders were a strange lot, and Roberts didn’t want anything to do with their ethics. Spacers had their own code. Even among the military, autonomy and individuality was the ethos. Criminals and the deranged should have some say in their enclosed, imposed environment. It offended Roberts sense of freewill, and he didn’t take kindly to Flaherty or his self-centered attitude regarding Ajax IV. Still, Flaherty held great wealth and some power. He was known as the best in his sub-field.
Roberts changed the subject. Addressing the gathering, Roberts said, “You can each make use of the central computer for your initial research information, as you have already been given clearance. When you have finished using the computer, you will have joint access to one of the Glory’s transports. If you have questions, I have assigned Lieutenant Waters, our xenoscientist, to help you. Each of you will be assigned two fully armed guards.”
There was protest concerning this last statement from everyone, except Morrison who sat and watched the proceedings like a relaxed cat.
Roberts continued in a harsher tone, “The colony is offering a stern resistance to reclamation, and some indigenous life forms are very dangerous. I am personally responsible for your lives while you are under the Glory’s authority. Therefore, you will have an armed escort, whether you like it or not. Do I make myself clear?”
There was a disgruntled assent from the xenos. The mood of the meal was ruined. Roberts noted a brief, slight smile of approval from Morrison. The IRIS agent quickly resumed his relaxed expression, and Roberts knew that he was the only one at the table who had caught that message. The xenos were too absorbed in their upcoming studies to notice. Inwardly, Roberts became nervous. He sensed that this IRIS agent was adroit at handling people. Suddenly, Roberts felt as if he were in the middle of a chess game without a queen. Rising from his chair, he said, “My second will show you to your cabins. I’m sure you’re tired. Good rest, gentlemen.” They silently followed Jacobson out the door, for the xenos were not yet familiar with each other, and conversation did not come readily.
Roberts sat in the mess hall and pondered the meeting that had just occurred. Except for seeing Flaherty again, the xenos were what he had expected: scientists who were concerned in their upcoming expeditions and probably hoped to discover something notable in their respective fields. Roberts was sure that they would have plenty to discover if his suppositions concerning Orion II were correct. Roberts felt oddly reassured; scientists still had that eternal, amorphous fear of the military.
Roberts was not reassured concerning Morrison. He fancied himself a good judge of people. It was a necessary trait for a captain to acquire. Morrison was a cunning manipulator. His long, oily black hair gave the IRIS agent a casual appearance. Roberts knew that his outward appearance was a lie. Underneath his wrinkled, loose fitting clothes, Morrison was probably in peak physical condition. His reticence at the table signified the secrecy of his mission. It had to be priority two. None of the xenos specialized in the theoretical fields of xenopolitics or xenomandering. They were a standard field team, interested in plants and microbes and such. Morrison had to be Cerberus’ answer to priority two. That would explain Morrison’s secrecy. His mission was on a need to know basis and the xenos, despite their A-2 clearance, did not need to know. It was simpler that way. Many scientists and civies disapproved of the mindtap device, and a mindtap would be a focal point in the IRIS agent’s mission. Roberts decided that he would quietly arrange for a private transport for Morrison. The quicker that one was downworld the better.
Roberts left the mess hall without eating and decided to find the techs who couldn’t repair the outland satellite transmitter. A new command always had its headaches . . .

***

Arriving in his cabin, Morrison unpacked the luggage that the military had brought to his room: downworld dress, computer fiche, an arsenal of personalized, ranged weapons, a razor sharp sword equipped with microcoil, made to look like the type the downworlders used, his standard weapons, and a mindtap device. He unwound his meditation mat, and assumed the full lotus position, slowly relaxing his body and mind.
His head still throbbed from the neural force feed that he had been compelled to endure to fluently speak the arcane language variant, used by the colonists’ descendants. Considering the amount of time that had passed, the language had mutated only slightly, and its roots were still phonetically in tune with its Union ancestry. However, Morrison needed a complete, subconscious command of the city-state dialects in the event he decided to become a mole, which had necessitated three hours of mindtap therapy, just as the crew of the H.M.S. Glory had undergone before him. It was S.O.P. with every colonial reclamation. Fortunately, the language had maintained its integrity throughout the continent, save for some minor changes in regional dialects. This was a linguistics aberration, probably due to the centralized theocratic governments that allowed free trade and travel, but only under a dogmatic, ritualistic priesthood of dictators, such as Tarkel had been.
Morrison was unconcerned about the theories of Cerberus’ lackeys. Only facts and vectors forming from those facts concerned Morrison, and then only when those facts and vectors intersected with his mission. He decided to reexamine the parameters of his mission and formulate his plans. Locating a sentient indigenous humanoid life form undoubtedly presented an interesting challenge. Although Morrison knew that, with his training, the capture would be unfortunately simple.
The dysfunctional satellites had not picked up any definitive pictures or information on the natives. Some checks of the land near the colonial city of New Candide had registered animal forms near human mass in a forested area, but the data was tentative and subject to interpretation by the sweeper tech. He knew that previous colonial uprisings had focused the Glory’s resources solely on reclamation.
Thanks to Cerberus, Morrison had the use of the Glory for his hunt, although he doubted that he would need it. Still, Morrison believed in doing a meticulous job. Cerberus theorized that the indigenous life may have paranormal abilities. Unlikely and fanciful, Morrison thought. Cerberus tended, oddly enough, toward the fanciful, as the name he had chosen for himself indicated.
Morrison decided to acquire more information before entering their alleged territory, just in case. Mindtapping a rebellious colonist would have a threefold benefit: He could give Captain Roberts much needed information on the insurgents when the reclamation was restarted; he might gain information on the Erickson saurian creature; and most importantly, he could find information on the mysterious forest dwellers and discover if they were connected with the insurgents. It would be logical to assume a connection. Erickson’s destruction of a colonial city must have had some ill effects on the natives. Those natives would naturally resent further Union intrusions.
Morrison silently rose and went to the main computer terminal. The first thing to do would be to find an active insurgent. The colonists who were working on Union projects had already undergone reorientation therapy for hostiles and would not have any clear information beyond their therapy’s interdicts. Captain Erickson had been effective before he had gone beyond the limit of the Union’s standards for accepted behavior.
Morrison found two of the xenoscientists, James and Torin, typing at a computer console. Morrison claimed the console opposite their console. Bypassing the privacy line, he accessed their terminal and eavesdropped. Morrison knew that he was easily the best comp. op. on the ship. After all, he had been taught by Cerberus himself. James, an expert on xenobiochemistry, and Torin, similarly qualified with additional background in theoretical xenosociology, were replaying in slow motion the Erickson creature’s attack on the satellite. They froze the screen and began typing in chemical equations that Morrison didn’t understand, but from overhearing their dialogue, it was clear to Morrison that they were futilely attempting to analyze the creature’s bio-energy. They talked with an eager anticipation of capturing a live specimen. Morrison flicked off the screen. He thought that the xenos would be much less eager when they actually confronted one of these creatures. If it could destroy a satellite with ease, how much simpler would it be to destroy a couple of intrepid xenoscientists? Morrison laughed to himself and began accessing the databank for information concerning his project.
With the listings of the known insurgents, the file for contra-union acts appeared on Morrison’s computer. His search was filled with dossiers of petty thieves, rogues, and standard gang violence. Almost all the subjects were in the fifteen to twenty age bracket. He wanted someone with experience and knowledge who was cunning and observant. The mindtap would not do him any good if he captured an ignorant fool, and the vast majority of people were ignorant fools by Morrison’s estimation.
There were a few dossiers on suspected insurgent bands, supposedly led by some sort of tribal shamans. Most reports seemed to be conjecture, although a few of these tribal bands had been killed in fights with curfew patrols. Eventually, Morrison succeeded in wading through the conjecture and putting together some hard theories. A dossier appeared that seemed to fit the method of operation that he desired. A high ranking downworld communications officer had been assassinated in a dalliance with an Ocoan woman. A seductress–interesting. He was found dead with a throwing knife in his back that had cleaved his spine in two. Competent–good. The investigation turned up minimal information. Evidently, she worked with at least one partner as a lookout. There were radiation signs that a plasma rifle had been in the room for a period between one and two months. Morrison cross referenced and discovered unauthorized security breeches made with the use of plasma always in relation to the downworld script that the troops used. In Morrison’s estimation the woman was obviously behind the thefts to buy native goods. He believed that the mystery lady was easily in the genius range and skilled, like himself, in sabotage. Her thefts were flawless and almost bloodless. She had ties or bribes for Union information. The person whom she had decided to seduce was the highest ranking com. officer downworld at the time. That was no coincidence.
With each line that Morrison read, his respect for the lady went up a notch. And she had only the Union technology that she had stolen. Morrison became supernally gleeful at the expectation of a magnificent hunt, his IRIS specialty. He hadn’t had a difficult downworld hunt for years, and this one promised to surpass all of his past downworld hunts. He had his target. And his target had a name. She had slipped ever so slightly, if a slip it was and not a diversionary tactic. A friend of the com. officer had heard him brag about a native woman, named Elaine.

Chapter V Hunting Beyond the Borders of Reason

Morrison smiled. At the beginning of a hunt, he always felt as if he could take on a world. His transport touched down at night ten kilometers outside the city, New Candide, where the lady named Elaine operated. He planned to run to the city, breaking the newness of his fabricated downworlder clothes and giving himself the proper smell attributable to denizens of regressed societies. The run would also provide him with a chance to familiarize his body with this planet’s slightly heavier gravity and this region’s increased humidity.
The majority of Morrison’s few acquaintances believed him to be a cyborg. Such was not the case, so acclimating to a world was not a simple matter of programming. However, Morrison did have a physical edge over his Ocoan quarry. He was a fifth generational product of Cerberus’ artificial, genetic recombination. Inclusive of this were several synthetic chemical adjustments to maximize his greater than human performance capabilities. His mind and body could be altered via these chemicals to aid him in fulfilling his missions. Morrison secured the transport and swallowed the capsules that the meds at M.I. Central had prepared for this hunt.
Using chemicals was second nature for Morrison. He considered them a tool and a part of his personal biosphere. The chemicals in combination with his superior mind and body allowed him to deal with other people of foreign societies from a position of strength, regardless of his quarry’s intimate knowledge of its home territory.
His forehead broke into a sweat as he ran over the damp, green fields toward New Candide. He stopped concentrating on running and allowed his body to take control. He began to formulate a plan to net Elaine. Time was not a factor. Now mattered. Only the singular act of the hunt could truly fire Morrison. Cerberus, Captain Roberts, and the Union were dim, superfluous memories. He alone controlled the game and the rules.
Arriving at the outskirts of New Candide a few moments after the witching hour, Morrison stopped and applied a contact gel to his eyes to increase his night vision. The drops coated the pupil, transferring some UV rays to the visible spectrum. Morrison enjoyed night fighting. The gel increased the edge his martial skills gave him over his quarry. Even brawling benefitted from good tactical planning and preparation.
He easily climbed over the crude stone wall that enclosed New Candide. Once inside the city, Morrison slowed to a walk. He headed to the gang-ridden section of town that inevitably sprang up in colonial cities that had to be forcefully reclaimed. Morrison slipped from shadow to shadow.
Getting around the patrol vehicles presented no problem for him. The Union, like all institutions run by small men, operated clumsily. Only through fear and domination could the Union maintain its tenuous hold on New Candide and then only because Erickson had taught these downworlders fear. In the shadow Morrison laughed bitterly. They had removed the one man who had given them the world, because the Union had a weak stomach, a softness, that oftentimes could not tolerate to use the necessary force to reclaim its own.
At present the Union had less than a hundred men stationed in New Candide. Morrison marvelled at how people tended to accept their position once the law had been made for them to follow. Discovering they could live under Union rule, the colonists didn’t balk, and troops could be diverted to more rebellious areas. Morrison grimaced. The will of this city had been broken. He hunted game, not sheep.
Morrison quickened his pace. He knew that he was in the wrong section of the city. He had to find the poverty stricken and burnt out areas of New Candide. The people there, who had their sanity intact, would be the rebels. They were rebels before the Glory came to Orion II. They raged against being conquered, not by the Union, but by civilization. Morrison understood those people. After all, he felt the same way.
He was reaching his goal. There was a notable lessening of patrols. Despite their modern armaments, Union soldiers tended to avoid trouble areas. Occasionally, they decided to sweep through the violent quarter en masse to make sure the gangs knew their power, a language that gangs and soldiers mutually understood. The buildings showed signs of wear and disrepair. There were more sounds of life here, as people ignored the curfews where they were not actively enforced. Morrison cocked his head to the side.
The distinctive noises of young toughs were emanating from a nearby shell of an ancient stone building. Morrison edged toward them. Looking through a hole in the wall that once had housed a window, he saw six men and three women. They appeared to be between fourteen and twenty-five years old as colonists aged. They were well armed with knives and swords, but were obviously rowdy drunk. Script, glittering metals, and baubles were strewn across a table. Thieves. IRIS agent Morrison had no prejudice against thieves. In fact, he needed their downworlder money. Any information they possessed would be an added bonus.
Morrison dug through his backpack for a gas grenade. Arming it, he tossed it through the hole in the wall.
“Ey! Whose throwin’ rocks at the Serpents? Someone’s gonna–ack–uh–ah—-”
Morrison heard the “Serpents” collapse, one by one, and he stifled a laugh–lambs at the slaughter. Slipping in nose filters, he entered the room. He retrieved the grenade, which still had two more cylinders of gas within its housing.
Examining the filthy bodies, he discovered additional money and jewelry. He took it as he searched for the likely leader of the gang. A young man of garish dress, who sat slumped over the table, had the most money in his purse and appeared to be the oldest. Morrison administered a stimulant, which contained a synthetic opiate derivative, to the suspected leader. When combined with the gas from the grenade, the additional chemicals should put the rogue in a highly suggestive state. Of course, the addition of the alcohol already imbibed by his victim might kill him.
Morrison was not overly concerned; there were still other gas victims in the room. Medieval style ruffians were hardly worthy of his talents, but he needed the information. When he slapped the young man, he was rewarded with a groan. Morrison dangled one of the baubles in front of the eyes of the suspected leader. Speaking in a sing-song voice, the IRIS agent instilled a hypnotic trance.
Softly, Morrison said, “You feel no pain. I am your truest friend.”
The ruffian smiled and said, “Jarren?”
Morrison replied, “Yes, I am your friend, Jarren. I want to know about the insurgents, the rebels. Tell me about the people fighting the Union.”
The ruffian laughed, “You drunk again, Jarren? You know more than I do. You’re the damn, drunk wizard. Go get us something to drink. Stop bogeyin’ the underground. You’ll get yourself killed. Jarren, I love you. We can’t dodge their magic forever. We got silver. Let’s leave, Jarren. We—-”
Morrison intoned, “Stop. Relax. You feel no pain.”
Morrison fingered the bauble in frustration. This was not nearly as effective as a mindtap. The man’s problems and peculiarities kept interfering with the flow of information. Morrison thought. Underneath the kid’s bravado, he felt like a frightened rabbit. Morrison had identified that feeling in others often enough. He had to have more information; he never afforded himself the luxury of pity. The person named Jarren seemed to be their contact with the insurgents.
Morrison nudged the ruffian and asked, “What’s your name?”
He moaned as if he were sleepy and said, “Phaedros.”
Morrison said, “Phaedros. Phaedros, tell me about Jarren. What is a wizard? How does he get in touch with the other insurgents? What does Jarren look like?”
Phaedros woke, but his eyelids were heavy. The combination of alcohol and opiate derivative was overpowering the stimulant. Morrison didn’t have much time. Phaedros was going to slip into a coma very soon. Phaedros mumbled, “Jarren ish man uv powuh–uh.” He drooled from the corner of his mouth. His breathing grew shallow. “Mshteria could muhk slow no fass yes was tall drink–drink here wi me always wi me. Jarrr—-” Phaedros’ head fell on his chest and lolled to the side. Morrison released his grip on the slack body, and Phaedros slid out of his chair and hit the floor.
Morrison grimaced. The man was a weakling, but he decided to give Phaedros one more chance at life. It wasn’t Phaedros’ fault that his path had crossed the path of a true hunter. Morrison leaned over the fallen body and administered a powerful stimulant.
Phaedros forgotten, Morrison turned to look for Jarren among the other ruffians. Phaedros seemed to think in his befuddled mind that this wizard Jarren was here.
Morrison softly cursed at Phaedros. He wasn’t able to get a clear description of Jarren. He or she could be anyone in the room. Morrison decided to drug everyone. Entrancing each person, he asked, “What’s your name?”
“Melodianne.”
“Eric.”
“Saracel.”
“Ghaus.”
“Jarren.”
Morrison was not sure if he should believe the tall, entranced man. Jarren was covered in his own vomitus. This was a man of power? The boy was blonde, blue eyed, and reeked of cheap wine. A true man of power would never be insensate from strong drink. Jarren must be a skilled fakir, not a hunter at all. It didn’t matter. If Jarren was the gang’s contact with a New Candide based underground, Morrison didn’t care what other lies or tricks he had played on this gang.
Phaedros coughed violently. Offhandedly, Morrison heard Phaedros’ battle for life. The stimulant was entering the boy’s system. His fate would be quickly decided.
Morrison deepened Jarren’s trance. Jarren’s eyes flickered, sparkled. Morrison crouched closer to Jarren, looked into his eyes, but he found no repeat of the glimmer there. His eyes were drugged and bloodshot. Phaedros’ hacking grew louder, threatening to shake Jarren from his trance. It could not be helped. In the matter of life and death, Morrison held firm to his decisions. He could always instill the trance a second time in the befuddled fakir.
Morrison spoke to Jarren, “Who are your underground contacts, and what are their functions?”
Again, Jarren’s eyes flashed crystal blue.
Anxious, Morrison lifted Jarren’s drooping eyelid, but the glimmer had vanished. Morrison had never seen phenomena like this. The IRIS agent hated any x-factor during a hunt. He relaxed his body in the event he had to strike a quick killing blow against his mysterious subject.
Phaedros’ coughing lessened to a phlegmatic, choked wheeze.
Jarren began listing names and contacts. When Morrison probed further, he discovered that all of them were gangland toughs. Apparently, Jarren was the coordinator of the New Candide slum gangs. Several questions ran through Morrison’s mind. This man, Jarren, was a lucky discovery. He would have to be mindtapped. However, Morrison could not wait to ask his key question, “Jarren, relax. You feel no pain. Your memory will be clear. What do you know of a thief named Elaine? Be calm. You will remember everything.”
Morrison could not understand Jarren’s reactions. He was told to be calm, yet his head and arms were swaying and twitching in nervous agitation. Jarren answered, “Elaine is a thief. Works in tandem with a silent partner. His name is Nigel. Nigel is working with my brother, Karamindakas. He has a plan to drive away the outworlders. Hinges on Elaine. Thief. Mercenary. Shivrael. They’re underground. Escaped Union persecution. Communications dupe accidently killed. Nigel keystone to Elaine. Kara knows. Kara knows. Kara, help me.”
Morrison slapped his knee and breathed, “Paydirt.”
Jarren was floating in and out of consciousness and starting to mumble unintelligibly. Morrison could almost taste his prey. His choice was better than he had hoped. Elaine was apparently wrapped in a plot with this fakir’s friend to drive the Union from New Candide. This was big. He wondered if he should ask Cerberus to change his mission priority after he had captured his quarry. These fakirs received respect from the other downworlders, and their plots seemed subtle or, at least, mysterious.
Lost in thought, Morrison absently watched Phaedros as the ruffian exhaled his final breath. Phaedros’ outstretched arm reached toward Morrison and Jarren. The stimulant had caused his capillaries to burst, giving Phaedros a crimson shade to his face, so it seemed the boy was shyly blushing at some indiscretion, rather than coldly dead.
“Phaedros!” screamed Jarren.
Morrison collapsed in agony as he was caught in a blue, burning gel that burst from Jarren’s outstretched hands. Streaks of black were laced into the blue flames. Only Morrison’s training allowed him to block enough of the pain so that he could still think. His martial skills were futile, as the fire made his muscles spasm and his own legs threw him against the wall. He tumbled to his feet and reached for his needler pistol.
Jarren stood, swaying. His voice rang clearly throughout the small building. In a monotone Jarren spoke. His words became louder and colder as his chant progressed:
“The Shi’s ire
Banished your fire.
Banished from yourself
By Shi herself.
You are She.
Hear this hateful plea.
God and man
Ice and fire
Again the Shivrael walks.
Return, the Horror that Walks.
By hate I call thee.
Through hate I command thee.”
The monotone dropped from his voice, and Jarren raved, filled with drugs and grief, “Now, murderer, you shall suffer. Look upon what I have been forced, because of your kind, to study. To study! To know! There is life here from our first mother, our creating mother, our maddened mother. From madness we sprang to madness we return with only a prideful folly between. Oh, how you shall suffer. I would pity you, murderer, if I didn’t hate you. You shall know a greater fate and suffer at its hands. Not all love the Shivrael. Not all. Not all! The gnawing hate comes to claim you, and I shall die happy with that knowledge.”
Morrison was amazed. He had pumped five needler loads into this maniac, who shouldn’t be awake in the first place, and Jarren still lived. The man had to be a fanatic. The blue napalm had disintegrated. He couldn’t see the gun that Jarren had used. The madman must have tossed it aside when he had begun his inane speech.
Morrison waited for Jarren’s mania to expend itself, and the downworlder would be dead. It was a pity he would never get to mindtap him. He watched warily. The man was too far gone to be dangerous, but he might learn some more secrets about his quarry from Jarren’s ravings.
Jarren’s body became wreathed in the same blue napalm. Morrison was aghast. Was Jarren committing suicide? Slowly, Morrison realized that the flames were not consuming the fanatic’s flesh, but danced around the body. Morrison saw fear, replacing the exhilaration in Jarren’s eyes.
The flames froze about Jarren, as if suspended in time. The blue color changed to various depths of black. Confused, Morrison tried to see Jarren, but the fakir was lost in the black flames. The flames began to move slowly. Morrison became dizzy as he peered at the shifting blacks. A small voice in his mind wondered how one black flame could be darker than another black flame.
Losing his balance, Morrison fell to his knees. Stripped of his hunter’s instinct, Morrison gazed in fascination at the ebony flames. The flames formed silhouettes. They were unclear, but suggested his own fears and lusts. The silhouettes played out ideas. Things that Morrison never spoke, things he didn’t want to admit. He watched, mesmerized as the flames formed a lurid play, expanding on his half formed lusts. Revelations mocked him that Morrison had never fully comprehended in himself, feared to comprehend. Nausea and confusion swept through the hunter when he tried to pull his mind from the flames.
He wanted to retch and scream in ecstasy at the same time. There was a horrid, alluring freedom in the flames. There was a sentience in the flames. The silhouette ideas began to swirl and take on new meanings. They changed their lustful content and their size. It wasn’t Jarren. It could not be any young mind. Morrison felt a malice, a malefic sentience, was bent toward him, which cared nothing for the hunt. It loved only the pain: older than he, vile in intent. With a divine mercy Morrison’s mind closed in upon itself in a vain attempt to dismiss this last revelation.
At Glered-nigh Erador writhed in night terrors. Riding toward New Candide, Karamindakas fell from his galloping horse as he was stricken with an anxiety that froze his mind and body. Celiane, the daughter of the Darkenkell Sidhe and the nym Terell, wept without knowing why. On Earth the Cerberus organism overrode the M.I. Central computer and destroyed IRIS agent Morrison’s continuing file. It was not reason. It was simply necessary.

Chapter VI So Wise Man

“Gods!” Kara gasped as he flailed his broken arm. Wizard magic, rending the god Aten-Mayet’s natural order, was loosed in New Candide. Kara’s magical sensitivity worked against him. The spell was chaotic, and the shockwave created in Mayet’s natural order sent pain searing Kara’s body. The pain from the broken arm that he received falling from his horse was overshadowed by the spiritual agony and despair of that spell. In that small part of his mind that was not filled with pain, Kara pitied the intended victim or victims. As he writhed on the ground, Kara felt a great hate within the spell. The spell was anti-life or at least necromantic. His horse had left, sensing just enough to gallop away from New Candide. Kara passed out while he tried to understand what had happened, and the wizard feared that the spell was of outworlder origin.
Karamindakas woke with a moan. A voice called out to him. It reminded him of the time Stephen had called him from the black river when he was about to die. The voice caressing his mind belonged to his friend, the sorceress Meara.
She spoke soothingly, “Kara, join us. There has been a tragedy. The outworlders have found and killed one of our number. We are taking refuge in a merging. Share your pain. We need your counsel.”
The wizard’s body became limned in blue–red around the injured arm. He relaxed and focused his mind past the pain. He went deep into the reservoir of his power, his sense of self. Calling it forth as he had done since he had first been awakened, he sent the power to his injury to heal it, but his life force would not easily obey his command as it normally did. The air had been too strongly tainted by the mysterious spell, and his magics threatened to turn against him. He feared to force the healing and decided to settle into a resting trance. He gently separated his awareness from the outside world, which finally included a separation from his body, that intimate layer of the outside world.
As his spirit left the natural, protective aura around his body, Karamindakas’ senses burst with a black fire. He was aware that he was discorporating, but even that awareness was discorporating. Kara lunged in desperation, “Meara! Aid me.” His thoughts trailed off even as he cried for help. All that was left was a massive fear of a complete dissolution of self.
A soothing blue appeared in the shadowy colors of the shifting spirit world. The crystal blue gathered the splitting, exploding fragments of Karamindakas. With a motherly tenderness the blue held him and nourished him as he slept away his cares.
Karamindakas was not sure how long he had been in the spirit world or how long it had taken the council to find and return his body to New Candide. Time was impossible for a wizard to measure in the spirit world. He was grateful to the council for saving him and relieved that the council had survived the effects of the dark spell, which had emanated from New Candide. The misty pastels of the spirit world finally receded from the corners of his eyes as he completely entered the harsh, physical world.
Osric was standing over him. His bald head gleamed with sweat in the candlelight. Osric was a kind, quiet man who could watch the flow of magic in others. This let him sense the true of heart, though he rarely used that knowledge publicly. Kara tried to greet him, but a wave of ennui washed over him. Osric wore his voluminous healing robes, layers of white lamb’s wool tied with a soft blue sash, and his caduceus was in his hand. Kara noted that he had lost some of his corpulence.
Osric said, “Don’t talk. Try to relax. The council can wait a little while longer. Your aura speaks of great suffering these last few days. You’ll be diminished for the next few weeks so that your aura can mend itself. Rest, or you will injure yourself further. We have succeeded in calming the fibres in the ether around and in New Candide. Fortunately, the disruption caused by Jarren’s final spell was not intended to be permanent.”
Kara tried to talk, but only a whisper issued from his lips, “Jarren? Wha’ happened?”
Osric growled, “Rest.” And Kara’s eyes closed against their will as the tiny azure jewel atop the twin silver snake caduceus shimmered. The silver snakes intertwined around each other seven times with a tiny journeystone fleck of blue at each point where the snakes touched. It was only an ornament to anyone who had not been awakened at Sanctuary. Osric liked the device, for it helped him to focus his mind at the problem spots in others’ auras.
Osric grumbled, disgusted with himself. It would have been better had Kara chosen to sleep. He had worried Kara needlessly. Checking the flow of Kara’s damaged aura, Osric nodded to himself and went to check Meara. Although he didn’t speak it to his patients, Osric was the only one left conscious after the healing ritual and the retrieval of Karamindakas. Like Karamindakas, Meara would be diminished for the next few weeks. They were lucky compared to Tobin. That wizard was permanently, magically crippled beyond Osric’s abilities to aid. Osric sighed, “At least Shere will be fine after a few days’ rest.”
The aftereffects of Jarren’s final spell were terrific, and the cost of reparations to Aten-Mayet had been high. The natural order was tenuous and all life depended on it. Osric shook his head, making the fat in his jowls quake in response. The outworlders were changing the way of life for the people; this had to affect the natural order of Oco. He hoped Karamindakas was right. He hoped the ancient karma ran true in his and Jarren’s discoveries. Osric believed that only Aten himself in his guise as Mayet, the natural order, could hold Oco together against the onslaught of the outworlders, and only the true goddess, Shivrael, could drive away the false dwellers in the sky. He finished tending to all, save one whom he did not have the strength to face. It took all he had to help his friends. He lacked strength for his enemies.
He was the other wizard, the wizard of the outworlders. Osric shuddered thinking of him. The outworlder’s mind had broken under the pressure of whatever it was that Jarren had invoked. Osric could hear the outworlder rattling his chains that bound him in the cellar. Eventually, the screaming in the cellar stopped, tapering off into occasional shouts and growls. The days of healing progressed slowly. Osric felt shame for not doing more, and every patient was recovering slower than expected. He slept fitfully each night, oft times lulled to sleep by IRIS agent Morrison’s inane laughter and growls, issuing from his dark cellar prison.

***

“Nigel, your so called wizard is late, and I’m tired of this hovel. It’s time to get back to work.” Elaine spoke in an annoyed tone that she used lately. It had the peculiar effect of bringing his anger swiftly to the surface.
Nigel tried to speak in a calm manner, but heard his voice getting loud. “What do you expect me to do, Elaine? It’s still too dangerous outside. There are security patrols looking specifically for us. It’s too cursed hot. Don’t blame me!”
Elaine said, “Of course, I blame you. If you hadn’t lost it and forced a confrontation with that outworlder, we wouldn’t be in the trouble we’re in now! We were the most successful independent thieves in New Candide ’til you lost your nerve!”
Nigel clapped his hands over his ears and sighed, “All right, all right. I lost my nerve. I admit that fact. It’s happened. We can still be the best. We only have to hide until the patrols decrease.”
“If they decrease,” Elaine worried.
“They will, or we’ll just have to leave New Candide.”
That annoying tone crept back into Elaine’s voice. “Oh sure, Nigel. We’ll just try to go independent in a foreign land where we don’t know the established gangs and their territories. We’d be dead as soon as we spent the proceeds of our first job. Grow up, Nigel.”
Nigel yelled, “That’s enough, dammit! Maybe you should go to one of the madames. I’m sure you could find employment there. You’ve certainly got the experience for furnishing outworlders with what they want!”
Elaine cold-cocked Nigel. Blue sparks exploded from Nigel’s jaw. He groaned and fell backward.
Elaine gasped, “What was that? Magic? Nigel, you must be a wizard.”
His eyes slowly fluttered open. Nigel gingerly touched his aching jaw. “I don’t feel like a wizard.”
Elaine helped him to his feet and said, “Be serious. Blue fires are the mark of a wizard. Remember the harvest celebrations before the outworlders came? The old man who visited you must be telling the truth. Okay, we wait. We wait. If you can be a wizard . . . hmm . . . This opens an entirely new set of profitable possibilities for us.”

***

It was a dingy room in a burnt out section of New Candide. The thatched roof leaked. Five tired people gathered around a chipped and wobbly rectangular table. They looked more like beggars than the wizards and sorceresses of New Candide. The most haggard of the lot was Osric. He had joined in the healing ritual, and then he had to heal the others from the ordeal. His sparse hairs had grayed considerably. Although the wizard Tobin appeared better, none could look into his eyes. All present sensed his lack of control over his personal aura. His despair was palpable to his friends. Osric knew that it would have an adverse effect on the council session. For several minutes there was a pregnant silence, filled only with the awkward presence of Tobin.
Karamindakas spoke, raising his voice authoritatively and choosing a regal pose, “We must now assume that the destroyers, the outworlders, know of our existence in New Candide. We have become a danger to the very city we seek to serve. Let us not forget the terrible lesson of Jezric. We must leave New Candide.”
Tobin stood. His neck veins bulged as he spoke in a rasping voice, “And where do you propose we go, O farsighted Karamindakas? Shall we travel back to the Sanctuary and sit and study useless tomes and crumbling scrolls whilst these outworlders enslave our people? If they know of our presence, let us strike before we are struck!”
A murmuring clattered around the table as the council members argued over Tobin’s words. Osric was tired and unsure. Kara and Tobin began a shouting match. The two sisters, Shere and Meara, whispered between themselves, taking private counsel. Although sisters, they were very different in appearance and personality. Meara was quiet and brooding with raven locks and pale skin that made her seem mysterious. Shere was outspoken and oft times spoke for Meara. Her pale skin and waist length blonde hair accented the jewelry and precious metals she took from her people. Fire was her avatar as deep water was her sister’s.
Shere stood and put her hands between Kara and Tobin. She spoke ferociously, matching their anger, “Stop your foolish bickering. We are the wise.” She sneered, “Master Kara, one of your great years should at least know better. If not, then be silent and listen to your betters.”
Older than Kara, Osric laughed. Kara made some sputtering sounds, but resumed his seat. Shere chastised him, because she could not bring herself to rebuke crippled Tobin.
The room quieted. Shere spoke calmly now that she had the council’s attention, “My sister and I feel that both Kara and Tobin make worthy arguments. It is clear to my mind that we must leave this city. Yet the underground has come to depend upon our support and our skills. To suddenly leave those few who actively resist the outworlders would be a mortal blow against New Candide. We would be seen as slinking cowards, and we would lose the faith of the very people we are trying to help. New Candide is one of the last bastions of our Ocoan way. Even with our council here, many have left the ways of season and storm to take the cold steel way of our invaders. If we must leave, can we not aid those who remain faithful?”
The candle at the center of the table flickered, casting shadows on the solemn face of Osric as he spoke, “You paint a grim picture, Shere. I cannot deny the wisdom and truth of your words. I believe that our way will be crushed in New Candide. Jarren’s death was only the beginning. I have seen Jarren’s murderer. He is unlike any other outworlder. Though his mind was shattered, his aura remains strong. I believe he is an outworlder wizard. They have conquered our people and now they are sending their wizards to conquer us. They know that Tarkel was not the only wizard, and they are ready to fight as the shattered one did.”
All at the table foresaw themselves fighting outworlder wizards and sorceresses. In their present state, none felt equal to the challenge. Only crippled Tobin lusted after battle, but the others sensed Tobin’s desire as a thinly veiled impulse for self destruction. They were tired, edgy, and confused. No path seemed to wholly answer their problems and every path contained a measure of guilt. Something or some people would have to be the sacrificial lamb, for they did not have the strength to cover all possibilities. Osric had enlarged the enigmatic specter of the outworlders to contain beings like themselves.
Destroying the silence with a small, calm voice, Meara said, “What of the heirs of the Shivrael and Aten-Mayet, Kara? If awakened, they would realize their godhood. If they were only a shadow of their forebears, they could change the balance of power. Moreover, they could be a unifying force for the estranged peoples of Oco.”
Kara replied, “You have spoken of my fondest hopes, Meara. Yet I have seen only the heir of Aten who heals, not fights. And the flow of the heir’s aura is blocked in many places. I have not seen the other, but I have felt the goddess within the heir of the god’s aura. Aten and Shivrael must always be together in whatever reincarnation they become. Their power bonds them more than anything else. They created everything else, after all.”
“Everything on our world.” Osric interjected.
Tobin said, “You hearken after myths and legends that gather dust in Sanctuary. Even peasants scoff at the tales of Oco’s origin. This is a waste.”
Kara glared at Tobin, but suppressed his anger, remembering Tobin’s condition. “You have not felt the tension in his aura. It is like being at the eye of a hurricane. They are the reincarnation of the ones who saved our first fathers. I know it. I am going to take them to Sanctuary and subject them to the awakening. They are the only hope that I have.”
Tobin shouted at Kara. Spittle clung to his short, salt and pepper beard. “Then who are they? Where are these supposed heirs? Do you not trust us? Each person here has proven their loyalty a hundred times over. How dare you hold out on us in our darkest hour of need!”
Kara rose from his chair as the blood rushed to his face. He shouted, “You are a fool, Tobin. You have always been a fool. The others may pity you, because your wizardly might is gone, but I do not! You were too foolish to hold back during the counterspell, hoping to learn Jarren’s secrets, and you paid the price for your greed. Trust has nothing to do with my reticence. I hold the name of the heir of Aten to my bosom to protect him. If they captured one of us, they could drain a wizard’s mind easier than it is to squeeze the pulp from a cella fruit. At all costs this must not happen. You are not completely wrong, though. I do not trust your foolhardiness and your blatant self interest.”
Kara looked as if he would strike down Tobin. Everyone held their breath on the edge of disaster. Tobin leapt to his feet and glared at Kara. Virtually impotent against Kara’s wizardry and too enraged to speak, Tobin turned with heaving shoulders and left the room. The others let out an exhalation of relief.
Tossing her dark hair behind her shoulders, Meara said, “Your rage betrays you, Karamindakas. I perceive that your hands have not been clean these last few weeks.” Her eyes rolled to the back of her head and the whites took on a soft blue color, adding illumination to the candle lit room. She tensed, “You have lied to the heir of the god, most grievously lied.”
Hearing Meara’s telling, Shere said, “How dare you chastise Tobin. By what right can you judge Tobin when you are a liar?”
Kara faced Shere and said, “Curb your tongue, Shere. I warn you.”
Shere threw her head back and roared with laughter, “I am no cripple like Tobin to be bullied. I am a sorceress in my own right. I have purged my land of the necromantic fens and forged my realm in the harshest lands of Oco. I am a Queen, you senile, old scholar.”
So fierce were her eyes and words that Kara was daunted. He took his seat, trying to regain his dignity. The two Queens of Saracea were dangerous, and he had noted Meara’s blue eyes tracking him while her sister had spoken. Kara said, “Of my harsh words to you, I do hereby apologize. However, I do not regret a single word that I have spoken to Tobin, for my words rang true.”
Meara said, “Perhaps, yet harsh truth should be tempered with mercy. Tobin would have shown you mercy for your misdeeds, Master Karamindakas.”
Osric waved his hands, asking for silence. “Enough bickering. I am by far the oldest here. My power may have waned this last century, but my wisdom has not. I did not heal you and summon you to this council to have my ears pained by your caterwauling. People are depending on us. Let us return to the problem at hand and remember our one, true enemy, the outworlders. Our time grows short. We must decide our course of action here and now. If we should separate, as I believe we must, let us not part angrily, for we may never see each other again. You are all my friends.”
Kara said, “All here have lost their tempers save you, old friend. What do you suggest we do?”
Osric laughed softly, “Very nice, Kara. A compliment, followed by a burden. I see no clear road to travel. I am sorry, Kara, but I believe in Meara’s telling. You use people brutally in our cause, Kara. I am sure your intentions were good, but any plan born with a lie is already corrupted. Confess your falsehood to the heir of the god Aten. If he forgives, your plan may yet succeed. However, there have been many generations between our first father and today. The karma is probably diluted. We shall see. I have never believed in reincarnation. Perhaps, it is within the province of immortal gods. I don’t know. Unlike Tobin, I think you were wise in keeping the heir’s identity secret. ‘Ware your anger, Kara. You must hold your secrets close to your heart. Go alone to Sanctuary with your charges. You should have little trouble. The outworlders stay away from the wildlands. They are concerned only with oppressing their lost human sons and daughters.”
Kara said, “Your counsel rings true. I will start as soon as possible.” Karamindakas did not feel as confident as he tried to sound. Telling Nigel the truth about his dead family would certainly alienate the boy. He could not risk the world for one man’s sense of honor, even if it was his own. He decided to reveal the truth to Nigel in a circumspect fashion and encourage Nigel to think of the good he must do for those still alive. Some compassion of Aten must still reside in Nigel. He would have to tread warily with that hurricane.
Shere spoke, “I agree with Osric. But what happens to the rest of us? If we do not protect the heirs, should we not stand fast here?”
Osric said, “No. I believe New Candide is already conquered. We’ve been deluding ourselves. It is dangerous for us here. New Candide needs subtlety, not force. There will be little difference if there are two or four wizards in New Candide.” Osric shifted his bulk to look at Shere and Meara. “Your realms are the two largest human realms in the world. Look to your defenses. I believe an ill wind blows from New Candide to the Saraceas.”
Shere said, “Yes, I have also foreseen this. I have stayed to fight it here to postpone that day. They shall not have Upper Saracea while I live. Meara and I shall return home. Outworlder blood will flow in rivers before they set one foot within the Saracean Empires.”
“No, sister. I shall stay in New Candide a short while longer.”
Startled, Shere was about to say something, but she stopped when she caught the look in Meara’s eyes. Meara continued, “Rule Lower Saracea in my name. Tearenea will help you prepare the defenses of the castle.”
Osric stood and said, “Our tasks are chosen as well as we could. I declare this council adjourned.”
Before Kara left the wooden house, Osric approached him, “Should you reach the Sanctuary with the heirs of the Shivrael and Aten, and should they survive the awakening, send swift messengers. We will have need for hope. I believe we have only seen the smallest portion of the outworlders’ might. They have won every time we have struggled, save with Jarren, who died to defeat one of them.”
Kara’s blue eyes burned for a moment. “We may all have to make that sacrifice.”
Osric surprised Kara with a gentle laugh. “I am too old for that, Kara. I am no youth to go running into war with a spear and a naked breast. Look through the lore at Sanctuary. Perhaps there is some way to force these outworlders to parley. I am not so adamant in my ambitions as you. There may be an answer from the monks of Sanctuary. Heed them. Let not your just desires lead you to folly and evil in good intent.” Osric put his hand on Kara’s shoulder. “If your charges are the karmic heirs to the primal gods, be careful. Be wary before you awaken them. There was great chaos when the Shi was new. Great pain. A great enough pain in the world to birth the god and goddess before Shi’s demise. It heralded a call from mortals that even the maddened Shi heeded. Let the one who carries the burden of Aten be awakened first, else Shivrael again creates a new world. There is no history that predates the awakening of the Shi and her fractured selves. Be careful for all our sakes.”
“I shall do all you ask, my friend. I think you worry too much. The Shi expended herself bringing magic into the land and casting the Nef-Shivrael-e into the underworld. Now, there is only Shivrael left of our creating mother, who is calmer than her predecessor. If you will excuse me, Osric, I have one last distasteful duty to perform before I leave this safe house. Do you know where Tobin is?”
Osric averted his eyes. “I am sorry, Kara. He left the house as soon as he left the council chamber. You don’t have the time to search for him. Your mission beckons you. Besides, you said you did not repent your words, didn’t you?”
Kara straightened his brown, mud stained cloak, being meticulous to avoid his shame. “Yes. But I spoke in anger. I would like to speak with him.”
Osric said, “The destructive force of anger is many times greater in a wizard than in a man. I thought you already knew that. I was mistaken. Now, perhaps you have learned the humility you so desperately need. Farewell, my friend.” Osric walked inside his room and gently closed the door, leaving Kara alone in the hall. Sitting in his chair, Osric tried to meditate, but inner peace eluded him that night.

Chapter VII Birth

Meara brooded in her spartan guest room. Her home, Castle Mearfels, was a much grander place with a garden that was warm, even during the bitter nights, and the iron throne, even the weight of that, she missed. She was unused to being out of contact with her sister. They tended to lean on each other for support and comfort. She could still sense Shere’s aura outside the city as her sister spurred her horse to Saracea. Shere was strong, but sometimes, like Kara, single-minded. Meara was confident that Shere could do a better job preparing for war than she could. The Queen of Lower Saracea hoped to obtain an edge for her Empire against the outworlders. All she had to do was to betray Osric’s trust. For her people it was a small sacrifice to make.
Jarren’s murderer was the key to Meara’s plans. Osric was attempting to heal him to get as much information about the outworlders as possible. In truth, Meara knew that Osric could not stand the sight of another’s suffering. He was a gifted healer. They were two very different people. Osric would never consider doing what she hoped to accomplish with their outworlder prisoner. She planned to break his mind further to obtain specific knowledge. She had seen the devices that the outworlder had used. Though she was loathe to admit it, he had succeeded in killing Jarren. With outworlder sorcery added to her own, Meara believed she could save the Saracean Empires and, perhaps, all Oco. There would be no need to rely on the diluted and questionable karma of the so called heirs of the Shivrael and Aten-Mayet.
She left her room and walked to the trap door, concealed by a throw rug. The trap door was simple wood that appeared, through Osric’s sorcery, to be merely an extension of the floor over which the unawakened would absently glance, but using her second sight, Meara saw the luminescent, bound fibres, clustered around that section of the floor. She groped the floor and found the handle. It opened easily. She descended and gradually dissolved her second sight, watching her footing on the wooden steps.
Meara entered a small room with high basement shutters, lit by the steady flame from a candle. The basement smelled of damp soil. The murderer had his hands and feet shackled. The shackles were connected to chains with the other end of the chains fastened to the far wall. Meara grudgingly admitted that he was a comely creature even in his tattered state. Meara steeled herself for the task ahead of her. She would not allow personal impulses to sway her from her royal obligation.
As she approached the outworlder’s hunched form, Meara saw the mania and fear in the man’s eyes. He scrambled away from Meara getting as much distance from her as his chains would permit. Meara saw that his aura radiated all manner of red pain tones. He strained his chafed, raw flesh against the shackles, trying to escape Meara. It struck Meara that this outworlder was now more animal than man, and he might not be able to show her how to use his magical objects.
Morrison had always hated fear. He used to banish it by inflicting it upon others, his prey. There was only fear left in his deranged mind: fear and something else, the provider of fear. The fear blossomed from the dark visions, and the provider’s voice, his voice, filled his new life. As the sorceress pressed closer, Morrison managed, “I smell magic.”
Meara watched him, curious. No one could actually smell magic. Magic was beyond the material world; sorcery slipped past the physical senses to stimulate the spirit. Meara pondered. Perhaps his experience at Jarren’s hands had separated him far enough from his perception of reality to recognize the existence of Ocoan magic, which his broken mind interpreted as a smell instead of dealing with an entirely new sense of awareness. Although Meara regretted entering his thoughts, she was fascinated by the prospect of what she would find there.
Meara stayed beyond the possible length of his chains, lest he should suddenly charge her. In the authoritative tone that she often used on her subjects, she commanded, “Look at me.”
Morrison lifted his gaze to meet hers and flinched. She repeated her command. Her eyes sparkled a dark blue.
Morrison whimpered, “Please, don’t. Not again. It’s too far. I can’t get out. Please, I don’t want to—-” His eyes became watery, and he began swaying his body to and fro, causing the chains to rattle against the floor.
“Quiet,” Meara commanded. The word hit the wretch like a slap in the face. He became limned in a dark blue, almost black, light. Morrison’s body grew limp as his mind panicked in terror an instant before being paralyzed.
Meara touched minds with the prisoner. Abstract images and half formed thoughts echoed into Meara’s self awareness. Exerting her will, she attempted to impose order on his jumbled memories. She saw Jarren within a halo of black fire. She felt the sentience within the flames, and in Morrison’s semi-conscious mind the sentience answered her, told her what she wanted to know and told her of its lusts. The hunger seemed, at first, an amorphous thought. It began to assume a cohesiveness, a dominance in Morrison’s mind. She lost track of Morrison’s fright inspired images.
With a start Meara felt the hunger echo in her mind. She squeezed her eyes shut and gave a low moan of pleasure. She stumbled backward, revolted by herself and the hunger.
Meara hurriedly left the cellar. Unsettled by the experience, she failed to notice the transformation of the man who was IRIS agent Morrison. His skin blackened, as if afflicted by some great heat. His heart stopped its beating. The shackles on his wrists and ankles smoked and fell from his charred flesh. The body of IRIS agent Morrison died, and in its place was only the semblance of Morrison.
Hour after hour Morrison had told it to leave him alone. He had screamed and howled at the hunger invading his mind to no avail. The bright lady had come, and they were three. It had fed off her. Like him, she had been afraid. Unlike him, she could leave. After she had left, the hunger had become stronger. It whispered a promise: an end to fear and a place to hide. Ecstatic with relief, Morrison accepted.
Shaken, confused, and disturbed by what she had witnessed in Morrison’s mind, Meara determined to leave New Candide immediately. Her body was racked with fever and chills, and sorcery seemed beyond her. She wanted to go back to the Mearfels in Lower Saracea, to home. She pressed her steed ’til it foamed at the mouth. A day and a night passed before her fit ended.
The entity was still in the painful throes of transformation as Meara was riding away from New Candide. It didn’t mind that it had lost her. It knew that the Shivrael walked the world. It could not have come here if its other self was not also in this reality. That worried the entity. Worries had to wait. The sorcerous female had left, but it sensed an older, sorcerous power above him: a wizard whom the Horror that Walks knew. That one had called to it in his fiery youth, so full of hatred and vengeance. The Horror forced itself to remain calm. It was famished. It would soon discorporate without sorcerous vitality. It knew that it would have to wait for a chance to feed.

***

The council had occurred as Osric had expected. He knew that Tobin would have difficulty adjusting to his loss of awareness. Osric did not have the strength to chase after him. New Candide was his responsibility. It would be his sole responsibility if Tobin did not stop pitying himself. Exhaustion overtook him. For the first time the effort it took to act as mitigator while restraining his irritability fatigued his fires. He could not stop to rest. He wanted the outworlder wizard Morrison healed of his mania. Osric sighed and decided to let the outworlder wait. Drinking a glass of wine to ward off the drafts whistling through the shack, Osric welcomed a deep sleep.
He woke feeling ill. The sunlight, darting through the open shutter, made him squint. He stared at the empty crystal glass of wine by his bed, and he felt sure that he had only had one glass. He had caroused and drunk far more than he had last night without such ill effects. “My years,” Osric mumbled to no one, “are finally enfeebling me.” When he began his morning meditation, his inner fire would not easily answer his summons. The sleep had not helped him at all. His magic seemed clogged inside him, as if he were newly awakened at Sanctuary. He checked his aura, and he found no sign of ill health. That assured Osric that he was physically fine. He concluded that healing the others had overextended him more than he had thought.
He could not heal Morrison while he was so fatigued. Osric looked through his books of lore to see if he could find an analogue to Jarren’s final spell. Feeling strong enough to magically read lore, he entered a contemplative state of mind. An awakened person could sense the author’s intent when the text was being written. Writing was a powerful tool for saving knowledge through the ages, but when combined with this empathic response, one could feel how history had unfolded. Osric began reading through tomes of black magic and old tales that contained legends of anti-life magic and daemonic invocations. The effort was tiring and repulsed him rapidly. The memory of Jarren’s spell had faded to a dream like quality; Osric had lost the fresh empathic memory of that dreadful spell. He resolved to face Morrison and his madness for a brief time. Although it was too soon for him to attempt a healing, for Morrison had been the focus of Jarren’s final spell, Osric planned to refresh his perspective of that spell by meditating upon Morrison’s aura. Osric grimaced. It was sure to be an unpleasant task.
As he left his room and went to Morrison’s prison, he felt his fatigue increase. His head ached. Morrison was somehow disrupting his magic. Shifting his awareness, Osric strained to see the glowing magical fibres that were everywhere on Oco. The disruption that he was experiencing made changing states of awareness difficult. The thready luminescence slowly twisted in the air. The aged wizard preferred to think of the fibres as the soul of Oco. Normally, they shimmered and twisted in double spirals, flickering like lightning bugs for anyone awakened to perceive them. Now, however, they were dim and made almost no motion. The tiny spirals were actually bent toward Morrison’s cell, and the fibres became dimmer as Osric approached Morrison’s cellar prison. Morrison’s condition had somehow created some kind of life draining field that weakened the fibres and caused them to align in his direction. Free floating magical fibres that were distorted could cause madness in anyone who had become sensitive to their reality. Osric marvelled that the council had not erupted into a fight. Remembering the meeting, he realized how close his old friends had come to blows.
Lifting the trap door just as Meara had done, Osric descended into the cellar. Noting the complete absence of fibres, he put a mental grip on his aura as he felt himself weaken. The free floating fibres tended to go from high concentration to low concentration, regardless of material objects, until all the ambient magic would be theoretically equal all over the world. Living things jostled the free floating fibres with their own bound fibres as they passed. The world was surrounded by and immersed in drifting ambient vessels of magic just beyond ordinary reality. The cellar was a unique anomaly to this theory. No fibres existed here. They had been bound or removed. Osric felt his loneliness keenly. For the first time there were no fibres nor was there a sign of Morrison’s aura, which Osric should have plainly seen against the fibre barren cellar. “Fah!” Osric thought, “the lunatic’s escaped.”
“Hello, Osric. It has been a long time since I have felt your aura.” The voice came from the far corner of the dirt cellar.
Osric shivered. He had not heard that sound in a voice, that quality of hate, since his youth. It had been when he had been newly awakened and had just left Sanctuary. His brother, Ulnar, had been murdered by barbarian raiders from the northern continent. Upper Saracea had not been in existence then, and the barbarians had frequently raided the land in their tall masted and iron keeled ships. In his grief he had dared to scribe for forbidden visions and when his anger and hate were still fresh and great, the voice had come to him. It had told him how to exact a terrific vengeance. Those barbarians had screamed silent screams for seven days before Osric had released their spirits to an even worse fate in the underworld. After his fever had left him, he had decided to turn his arts to healing. Years later, he had discovered the source of the voice: the Nef-Shivrael-e, the Horror that Dwells beyond Despair. Remnant of Shi, it was the oldest spirit that languished beyond the despair of the underworld, beyond where it could reach humanity.
Osric asked, “How? How can you be here? The Shi vomited you forth and banished you.”
The mockery of Morrison’s voice answered. It echoed slightly against the dirt walls. “Ah, you remember me. That’s good. You’re looking well, Osric. Your power has grown. You have tended your garden well. Let me sample its delights.” The voice was the outworlder’s, but deeper and richer in texture and malice. “Come here, Osric. Your lord commands you. I have one final lesson to teach you.”
Immediately, the pieces of the Morrison puzzle fell into place for Osric: the jostling by Karamindakas of the sleeping reincarnations of Shivrael and Aten-Mayet, the disruption of the natural order by the outworlders at Jezric, and Jarren’s desperate, final invocation. These occurrences had opened its path to this reality. The Horror that Dwelled in the underworld was now the Horror that Walks. The heir of Shivrael’s might would be in grave danger from this obscenity. Kara must be warned. This being had been Shi or at least a part of that primal goddess. It would seek out its karmic antecedent and dominate Shivrael as it had dominated Morrison.
The Nef-Shivrael-e far outstripped his abilities. Osric knew that he was a dead man unless he could effect a reverse of Morrison’s condition. He gambled, hoping that an outworlder wizard might possess a strength to reject the Nef-Shivrael-e. “Morrison. Morrison? Can you hear me? You can fight it. You can cast the obscenity out!”
The Nef-Shivrael-e approached Osric. The old wizard gasped as he beheld the blackened and burnt visage of Morrison. The Nef-Shivrael-e issued a strangled laugh and mocked, “Osric, Osric, your ploy is transparent and useless. There is no dichotomy in my being any longer. You have discovered the truth far too late. Bless poor Jarren! Now, I hunt the greatest game of all: my awakened children of Orion Colony II.”
Osric conjured a dome of magical fibres around himself. He shouted, “Mayhap, Horror, but you may find that your prey has sharp claws.” Osric loosed a column of blue fire that engulfed the corpse, which the Nef-Shivrael-e had infested.
Osric’s fierce demeanor collapsed as he watched the fire dance around the Nef-Shivrael-e and dwindle to nothingness.
“Ah, excellent.” the Nef-Shivrael-e cooed, “It has been so trying, subsisting on the ambient magic in this wretched cellar.” It laughed, “My children are so predictable, because they are so limited. Join me, and I shall liberate you. Am I the horror you call me? Was it not I who first liberated magic from the crystal? I am your lord, a rejected lord, and because of that, I hate. I merely hate. You hated once. You hated enough to pierce the underworld despair that comprised my prison, and I aided you, as I aided all my children who could talk to me. Did I not treat you fairly? Did I not bestow upon you the knowledge that you had asked for?”
Osric stalled. The Nef-Shivrael-e absorbed magic as Shivrael did, whether the fibres were bound or not. He looked around the cellar, desperately seeking for a chance to escape. He said, “Yes, you gave me that knowledge, and I have suffered for decades with the consequences of what I did with that knowledge.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e frowned, a ludicrous, burnt mask of Morrison’s face. “I do not understand you anymore, Osric.” The Horror that Walks advanced toward Osric.
The cellar was bare; he was alone with the Nef-Shivrael-e, and he only had magic as his weapon. His wizardry was useless against this foe. Osric made a final decision. He poured most of his vitality into his dome, hoping to delay the Nef-Shivrael-e.
The dome became a brilliant blue, illuminating the cellar and taking a crystalline shape. Osric brought forth the remainder of his power, adding a portion of his anima, which he had so carefully preserved over the centuries.
The Nef-Shivrael-e said, “Are you mad, Osric? You must realize that no wizardry can hold me at bay. You are no Shi to cast me into the underworld. I have a body now. Shivrael herself would fear me now.”
Osric thought, “That’s it. Keep babbling. I need just a little more time, a little more power. Must relax my self. Let my vitality flow to my control.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e thrust its shrivelled, blackened hands into Osric’s dome. The dome lost its crystalline shape and began to fade. The Horror that Walks let out a guttural sigh of pleasure. The possessed body took on a human color, though deathly pale and gaunt, like a diseased man. The eyes remained deadened. The Nef-Shivrael-e said, “Do I not appear fair to you? Now, I can pass among the cattle you defend from your ancestors and search for more of your ilk. I have you to thank for my new found appearance and vigor. I hope that comforts you as I take your life and bind your essence to that shell to serve me: a fitting end for a traitor, who no longer loves me.”
As the dome faded, Osric whispered, “I foreswear my body. Let my thoughts go to my beloved friend Karamindakas with the strength of a spirit willingly separated fore’ermore with its body.”
A flash of pure, white light blinded The Nef-Shivrael-e, leaving only the husk of Osric, dropping to the dirt floor with a dull thud. The Nef-Shivrael-e carved its mark upon the body, but there was nothing there to imprison. The cellar quieted, leaving the Horror that Walks alone as it had been in its underworld prison. The Nef-Shivrael-e roared in anger, assuaging its sense of loss by mutilating the corpse of New Candide’s healer.

Chapter VIII Vision

Karamindakas walked the cobbled street in his brown pauper’s cloak. He pressed himself to jog. It was already twilight, and the curfew would soon fall. Kara did not fear the outworlder patrols. As a wizard, he felt he was more than a match for the patrols, but the heirs were vulnerable while they remained in an outworlder city. He wasn’t sure if an outworlder wizard could detect the auras of the heirs as he could. The entire notion of outworlder wizards bothered Kara. The outworlders had always relied on devices to his knowledge. If they truly possessed a means to use the inner fire, then he had no advantage, and an outworlder wizard might well pursue him and his charges into the wildlands. The untamed Oco was dangerous enough without having to elude pursuit.
So much had happened to delay him these past days that Kara was worried. Nigel might have decided to flee the city, taking with him the heir of Shivrael. At their first meeting Kara had sensitized his aura to Nigel’s by exchanging bound fibres with Nigel. His heart was eased as he sensed his bound fibres elsewhere in the city in the direction of Nigel’s safe house.
The wizard had decided on how to reveal the truth to Nigel and still bind the heir to his service. Nigel was thankfully ignorant of the capabilities of wizards and his hidden capabilities. Kara hadn’t met the heir of Shivrael’s karma, and that was his greatest concern. They didn’t lead charmed lives. Not awakened to their karmic inheritance, the heirs could die as easily as any fool. Kara didn’t even know if the heir of Shivrael was still alive. Without that heir the outworlders could not be stopped. The heir of Aten was useless in any combative situation. Many peasants made oblations to Mayet’s other guise, Aten, the healing father, not realizing that the god’s karma had dispersed after his primal act and had landed in the heart of a thief. Aten was, in a real sense, dead, having only his karma, blindly seeking host bodies throughout the ages, so Kara believed. The primal gods, from the legends that Kara had studied, were as subject to their natures as humans were, if not more so.
A strong wind blew through the street, clearing the air of the variety of unpleasant smells that clung to New Candide. The city had the less than admirable virtue of being polluted by outworlder contrivances and, for the most part, still relying on Ocoan animals for trade, food, and transport. Horses, oxen, and cattle made life occasionally unbearable even for the most desensitized city dwellers. Karamindakas looked to the sky. A storm was brewing. Kara’s magical predilections were not toward weather control, but the coming rainstorm would be obvious to even an unawakened peasant. Kara focused on the lambent glow of the blue fibres in the sky and watched them spin in agitation, slowly rising into the storm clouds. It was an unsettling sight for Kara. The fibres made the sky look to a wizard’s eyes as if it were going to burst.
Any activity in the free floating fibres meant change, just as a change in a person’s bound fibres heralded a change in that person. Stephen’s aura had been radically altered; the tiny fibres had jostled into new places around his son until Kara could not recognize him as Stephen by looking solely at his aura. The key was in the reading and feeling of the fibres that constituted an aura.
Kara laughed quietly at himself. How often the Sanctuarian priests had tried to pound into his head the importance of that knowledge as a tool to avoid violence. Even then, Kara had known his real ability was in the manipulation of those fibres as magical fire, rather than the interpretation of those fibres. Kara smiled remembering how short his stay was at the stony, contemplative Sanctuary. Jarren had been a Sanctuarian priest ’til the boy felt the need to travel back to his home, New Candide, and his boyhood companions. Interpretation was Jarren’s forte, and he had noticed the heirs, skulking about the city. The memory of his passing weakened Kara. He wished he had had the chance to tell Jarren that he had not died in vain. The outworlders had ruined everything by upsetting the way of things. It was their fault that Jarren was dead. Kara grimaced. Shere had been so haughty in council. When the outworlders turned their eyes toward the Saraceas and reduced Shere to wearing a brown pauper’s cloak in her country, she would not be so arrogant.
At least the outworlders left the wildlands alone. “Stephen,” Kara mumbled, indulging his melancholia. The boy would be safe. Kara felt sure of that. He was one of the running ones. His son had become his greatest tool. Stephen would succeed in delivering the message to the Darkenkell nymish King. Kara placed his hope in King Torastor’s legendary wisdom. They would need a place to rest after leaving New Candide. Nigel and the other heir were probably unused to wildlands travel.
Karamindakas woke from his reverie to find himself standing in front of the dishevelled warehouse that had served as Nigel’s safe house these past few weeks. It was even worse looking than the tenement that had served for the council meeting. A rotting sign in front of the door advertised poultices for all manner of ailments. Bracing himself for the delicate confrontation that awaited him inside, Kara took a few deep breaths as the first drops of rain hit him. He stretched and straightened his shoulders, hoping to appear as the same vigorous wizard who had first met Nigel.

***

Elaine had set safeguards to warn her of the wizard’s approach. She had employed her ratpack. The ratpacks were the children of the city, too young for the gangs, yet old enough to get into mischief. Elaine was one of the first thieves to weld a group of children into a ratpack. The practice had spread quickly among the other independent thieves. In Elaine’s time of trouble the ratpacks served as eyes for “their lady.”
Fang (The children enjoyed using colorful names.) gamboled up some ivy and quietly slipped through a second story window into Nigel’s room.
On the streets Fang led the ratpack. At twelve she would soon be ready to enter as apprentice to an independent thief. Her talent assured her safety from those adults who would prefer to profit solely from her body. In her heart Fang hoped that Elaine would choose to teach her. The girl admired Elaine’s cunning and skill that allowed her to work outside the gangs and cults who used intimidation and extortion to maintain their reputation. Fang knew that everyone in New Candide, except the outworlders, had to answer and pay tribute to those hidden lords.
Fang’s light frame made silent movement easy. She crept through the room and couldn’t resist the temptation to eavesdrop on Elaine and Nigel. She heard Elaine teaching Nigel, “No, no, that’s not the stance.”
Quiet Nige, as Fang’s ratpack called him behind his back, sounded frustrated. She’d never heard Quiet Nige in that way. She snuck closer for a better listen.
Nigel said, “Elaine, you sound as if you were trained in this way of fighting.”
Elaine said, “Of course, I wasn’t. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn it. I saw the outworlders practicing these techniques. The ones who have mastered them can maim two or three people at once. This manual that I stole has pictures of all the moves. Bend those knees!”
Nigel winced in surprise as Elaine shoved his knee. Nigel said, “All right, if you think it’s so important, I’ll humor you.”
Elaine circled Nigel. “I think it would be easier to teach Fang there.” Elaine gestured toward the musty mattress where Fang was hiding.
Fang grinned sheepishly.
Nigel smiled at Fang and said, “Ah, an excuse for getting out of this ridiculous posture.”
Elaine said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be sure to get back to you.” Elaine nodded at Fang. The girl approached. “What news do you bring, Fang? It had better be important for you to break the isolation rule. Are you sure no one followed you? Have you fed and watered our horses?”
“Y-yes, I’m sure no one followed me. And the ratpack is watching your horses.” Fang replied, “I broke the rule, cause there’s an old man coming this way who looks like the mark.”
“What?!” Nigel exclaimed, running to the shutters, “He’s come back.”
“Calm down, Nigel.” Elaine spoke in a manner that left no doubt in Fang’s mind that her lady was not looking forward to this visitor. Elaine gazed at Fang and kept her face impassive while pressing some outworlder script into the child’s hand. “Fang, take this, and fare well.” The script was an absurd amount of money to give to a child, but Elaine felt that she would never again see Fang after this meeting.
Fang looked at the script. She did not clench the odd paper. Fang had known this would come since the day that Elaine had bought the two horses. The child said, “I want to stay with you. You need my ratpack.”
Elaine grimaced at Fang. “Your ratpack? You forget yourself. Go before you make me angry.” Fang left the way she had come, making no noise until she was on the street again.
Elaine was saddened, but satisfied. The girl would soon forget her or die among the myriad abuses of the city. She was a creature of the city. It was Nigel who needed her.
Elaine had been weighing her options since the day when Nigel had barged in on her, and she had been forced to kill an outworlder. It had not been a hard choice. She’d stay with Nigel, just as she knew that Nigel would follow this wizard who offered a false hope. No one could make the dead live. Elaine did not trust this Karamindakas anymore than she trusted the outworlders. He offered too much without any real reason. Everything had a price. Nigel was still naive in the ways of deceit. However, her throwing knives would end any attempt at treachery by this wizard.
Elaine hoped, in a selfish way, that the wizard’s boast to restore Nigel’s family to life was a bluff. Whether it was a bluff or not, it meant either renewed pain for Nigel or back to being a loner for Elaine. Whichever path came to be, Elaine promised to take adequate steps to make the wizard pay for disrupting her life.
There was a gentle knock at the door. Nigel exchanged a nervous glance with Elaine as they went down the stairs and opened the door. Elaine kept her right hand on the hilt of the knife, sheathed at the back of her belt.
Nigel opened the door and said, “Karamindakas, I wasn’t sure you were going to return. Come in out of the rain.”
Nigel watched the wizard enter with a morbid fascination. Karamindakas seemed old. The vitality that had burned within the wizard at their first meeting had diminished. The layers of brown cloaks were smudged with dirt and ripped at the right sleeve. Nigel thought that he might be feigning. To Nigel, Karamindakas seemed to possess the spirit of the theater. Perhaps his ennui was a ruse to cover his tardiness. Still, Nigel noted that same charged atmosphere around the wizard, making him seem larger than life, countered only by the sound of the rain on the adobe roof.
For an awkward moment everyone stood silently as Karamindakas gazed at Elaine. Beads of sweat broke out on Karamindakas’ forehead. If the old wizard was trying to daunt Elaine, he was wasting his time. Nigel would bet on Elaine. The wizard tensed as if he were afraid. Then, abruptly, Karamindakas smiled. He just kept smiling at Elaine as an almost manic glint came into his eyes.
Uncomfortable, Elaine broke the silence, “Well, old man, you look at me as if I were on fire. What matter. From Nigel I gathered that courtesy isn’t your strong point.”
Kara seemed uncertain of his reply. Then, with a feral grin, the wizard said, “Is keeping a dagger’s strong point handy for visitors your courtesy?”
Elaine laughed, “I should’ve known better than to try such bravo tricks with a wizard.”
Kara replied steely eyed, “Yes, you should have.”
Elaine matched his stare, “All right, wizard. I’ll be open with you. I don’t trust you, and I don’t believe you can fulfill your bargain with Nigel.”
Kara turned to Nigel, “Nigel knows what I can do. Ach, I’m tired. Nigel, my journey has been long.”
Nigel said, “Of course, sit down, Karamindakas.”
“Call me Kara as my friends do, Nigel.”
Nigel offered him a pillow on the floor. “Elaine, please get our guest some food.”
Elaine turned and left with a lingering stare at the old wizard with the blood stains on his right sleeve. Such a powerful wizard to have been wounded. She was more sure than ever that Kara was lying to Nigel. She had practically called him a liar straight to his face, and he had backed off. He wasn’t even a good liar. That tired dodge was older than her grandmother. Elaine redoubled her resolve to watch him. She wouldn’t be the one to tell Nigel the fakir’s promise was a lie, but she felt she could protect Nigel if it came to blows. She smiled inwardly. Elaine still had her stolen plasma rifle. “That,” she thought, “would give this fakir something to inspire a more honest approach.”
As Elaine went to the pantry, Nigel sat across from Kara. The wizard massaged his temples and looked at Nigel sadly. “Don’t you understand, Nigel? We are losing this war.”
Nigel snorted, “What war? It’s over. New Candide and the other cities belong to the outworlders. Look around you. There’s no fighting in the streets, just outworlder patrols.”
Kara shook his head and looked at Nigel as he would a wayward apprentice. “We are still fighting them covertly. Covertly, Nigel. I, personally, have lost friends, which I have known before your father was born. How can you be so selfish when the need is so great?”
Nigel leaned back, aghast at the wizard’s accusation. “How am I being selfish? It takes all I’ve got to stay alive between the cracks.” Nigel’s hollow eyes narrowed angrily.
Resting his back against the wall, Kara sighed, “Survive? That is the least required of you. Don’t you realize that there are causes more important than your own life?”
Nigel halfheartedly grinned, “I don’t care about anything that much, Kara. Unless you count the promise that you made to me. Or have you forgotten that?”
“No, I remember my promise to show you how to bring your long dead family out of the ashes of Jezric. Will you oath to be my apprentice? Is it worth that much to you?”
Elaine entered the room carrying bowls of stew on a shield shaped tray. When she heard Nigel and Kara talking, she froze and listened, holding her breath.
Nigel said, “Yes, anything. Show me how to do it.”
Elaine put the bowls in front of them on the dusty floor and said, “Nigel, that’s sacrilege. Let them rest. Your family is gone. Accept it. You have a new life. You have me.”
Nigel kept his gaze locked on Kara. “Shut up, Elaine. This is not your affair. I should have died with them.”
Elaine remained silent. Her emotions roiled. She had thrown away her pride for Nigel. She had never done that for anyone or anything. She had never begged. She felt her life falling to pieces, and a tunnel descended on her eyes that focused on Nigel.
Kara stood. His plans were coming to fruition. “Are you sure? There can be no turning away from this destiny.” He wanted Nigel to feel committed. He doubted that magical oaths could restrain him, although he knew that Nigel didn’t realize his own karma.
Nigel stood and replied, “Yes, Master.”
“Very well,” Kara pronounced, “Take my hand, and start upon the path to awakening.”
Something about the way that Kara had said that last part shook Nigel. He could feel the hairs on his scalp tingle as he reached to grasp the wizard’s hand. He felt sluggish. Time distorted. He seemed to be forever reaching for that withered hand. When he was inches away from clasping Kara’s hand, Nigel fell forward and grasped it. Vertigo overcame him. He lost his balance. He was lying on the floor staring at the ceiling, and he could not feel anything: numb. His field of vision began narrowing. Nigel was afraid. A small portion of the adobe ceiling twirled and orbited nothing. Darkness claimed his last remaining sense.
Nigel found himself looking down upon an ashen plain. He was near Jezric. He didn’t understand how he was in the air looking down on the ground. He felt the wrongness of his position, but he was helpless, as usual. He saw the rays of the moon pierce his body, and he felt the wind pass through him. Nigel thought that he was dead, and it amused him to discover that he was not afraid of death. He experienced a calm he had only wished for in his life.
Nigel looked down at the ground again. He saw the same grey plain, but now it had an altar. A woman was chained to the altar. A man, dressed in kingly robes and laden with precious metals, held an onyx dagger. Beside the man was another woman. She was also dressed richly, but she wore the thick, cold iron ’round her neck of the vassal’s collar. Nigel recognized the woman on the altar. Elaine! Nigel tried to scream, but his insubstantial nature could not create sound. He tried to go toward her, but found no means of moving while incorporeal. The man looked up at the heavens with a cruel smile. Nigel saw himself in the robes.
The doppelganger intoned, “Reality is now laid prostrate before me. The promise that was given unto me lo! those many years ago must now be fulfilled.” He raised the dagger above his head.
Elaine pleaded, “Nigel, if ever—-”
Nigel saw bruises and scars on Elaine. He struggled to do something, but he was impotent. He told himself that this was a wizard inspired dream. Nothing else made sense. He refused to believe himself capable of such a cruelty.
“Please,” Elaine whimpered. Nigel shuddered, listening to her use a tone he never envisioned hearing. He hated the mockery of himself.
The dagger swung down and buried itself in Elaine’s chest. The doppelganger’s free hand burst into a magical black fire. He commanded the woman, “Shere, if you value your life, take the woman’s soul.”
The woman called Shere bent down to the dying Elaine and covered her lips with her own. After a slight pause she stood and backed from the altar. The doppelganger joined her. The body on the altar convulsed. Lightning struck the altar, shattering it and consuming Elaine’s body with fire.
Shere hissed at the doppelganger, “Damn you! I didn’t want to do this. She was an innocent.”
The doppelganger casually put his index finger under the woman’s chin and tilted her head toward his own. “She was hardly an innocent. I knew her longer than you. In any event, she gave herself freely to the task out of her love for her ruler.”
The woman spat. “Out of your damnable sorcery, Nigel Aten.”
“Again, you futilely try to damn me. I shall go that route, but I shan’t go alone. You, my loyal subject, shall travel with me.” His voice was simultaneously mirthful and malicious.
“I’d not go anywhere if I had a choice.” The woman was close to tears.
A short, barking laugh issued from the doppelganger, “You are precisely correct, Shere. You have no choices, except those that I give you. I am your Master.”
“If I had my sorcery,” the woman feebly countered.
“But you don’t, do you? All your might stems from me. You do as I decree. Correct?” He withdrew his finger from under her chin. She looked down at the ground to avoid his gaze. Wind disturbed the ashes of Jezric.
“Damn you,” she whispered hoarsely.
“Say it.” The doppelganger had lost his smile.
Tears ran down the woman’s cheeks. “You are my Master, Nigel Aten. From your dark flows my power. From your breath flows my life. You are my all. You have but to speak, and I shall gladly obey. Let all who hear take heed. I so swear.”
“Better,” the doppelganger smiled with false gentility. Again, he lifted her chin and kissed her. She did not react. The doppelganger said, “Let us complete the ritual. Love should not, at all costs, be delayed.” He laughed at his sarcasm and walked from the plain of ashes with Shere, following meekly.
Incorporeal, Nigel couldn’t cry. He was forced to admit the extent of the evil within him. It terrified him. He wanted to deny this doppelganger. Already, he knew the purpose of the ritual he had watched. He understood the doppelganger’s final laughter and could not reject that incarnation of himself. He was scared, scared to the point of being petrified. Vertigo gripped him.
“–you. You’d better help him.”
Soaked with sweat, Nigel woke in a chair. His vision was blurry, but he could make out Elaine talking to Karamindakas. She was holding her plasma rifle, aimed at his chest.
“What’s wrong?” Nigel could barely hear his own voice.
“Nigel!” Elaine lowered her rifle and knelt close to him. She kept a firm grip on the stock of the rifle. “What happened to you?”
“He gave me my answer.” Nigel stood and rubbed the back of his neck. The strange feeling was ending as suddenly as it had begun.
Kara stepped forward. “What did you see?”
“Don’t you know?” Nigel leaned on Elaine and whispered, “I’m fine. He didn’t mean to harm me.”
Elaine gave him a hard look.
Kara said, “No, each vision is a personal one. I expect your answer was not entirely pleasing. The sorcery you seek is necromantic and dangerous. What did the vision show you?”
Nigel regarded him warily. It was Kara who had forced this vision on him, and damn him for that self knowledge. “If, as you say, each vision is personal, then I think I shall keep this vision to myself.”
Kara searched Nigel’s eyes, trying to guess what he was hiding. For the third time he asked, “Mayhap, I can help you. What did you learn?”
“Can you bring my family back?” asked Nigel.
Kara shook his head. “Such magic is beyond me. I could only show you the path you had to take to return your family to the semblance of life.”
Nigel averted his eyes. “Then I shall keep this to myself.”
Kara sighed, “As you wish.” The wizard ignored Nigel, and he gave Elaine a scathing look, “Woman, now that you see that your beloved is unharmed, perhaps you will put down that outworlder death instrument.”
Elaine felt heat rise to her face. She was used to her relationship with Nigel being unspoken. She gave the gun to Nigel and whispered, “Careful.”
Overhearing the remark, the wizard sagged his shoulders and said, “Do not worry over me. I am quite drained. The vision was much more difficult to impart than to experience.” He sat on his pillow, looking all his years.
They ate the peasant’s stew diligently. Pausing between mouthfuls, Kara said, “Elaine, I wish to train you as well as Nigel.”
Elaine choked on a piece of stew meat. Nigel thumped her soundly on the back, dislodging the errant morsel. After regaining her composure, she eyed the wizard suspiciously. At that moment, eating peasant’s stew, he looked as if he could be anyone’s senile grandfather. Elaine knew better than to trust the wizard’s appearance. “Women can’t be wizards.” she said, trying to dismiss the offer.
“True, but they can become sorceresses of equal might. Have you not heard of the Queens of Saracea?” Kara asked.
“Yes, but—-”
“They are mighty sorceresses.” Kara said with a rueful smile, “Both Shere and Meara forged their realms with the aid of sorcery.”
“Shere?” Nigel asked.
“Yes. She is a mighty sorceress, somewhat like Elaine.” Kara was intent on Elaine and failed to notice Nigel’s shocked reaction upon hearing the name.
The vision had truth, had things in it beyond his knowledge; it could happen to him. Nigel began to shudder.
Elaine, equally intent on the wizard’s offer, cocked a challenging eyebrow and half smiled at Kara as she said, “I’ll study alongside Nigel, if only to keep you from duping him with your fakir tricks.”
“Excellent,” the wizard smiled casually. He resumed eating his stew, but he didn’t notice the taste of it. His thoughts were only of the journey. For the first time he felt he had a chance to do something effective against the outworlders. He had sent the latent karma of Shivrael and Aten-Mayet rising to the surface. They could not deny the truth of their destiny. Kara had them.

Chapter IX Capture

Nigel, Elaine, and Karamindakas slept in the safe house while the rain and winds beat upon the houses of New Candide. A lone man wandered the streets, heedless of the downpour, futilely trying to escape his shame. He was a wizard of Oco named Tobin. A name feared by many with or without magic. A cripple, he had been cut off from the wizardry, which he had wielded throughout his adult life.
He was of average height for a man of Oco with a short black beard and close cropped hair, only slightly salted by age. His eyes were normally lively and dark. Now, they were bloodshot and glinted, hinting of uncontrolled passions. He wore finely woven and dyed dark blue robes, adorned with jewelry of gold, inlaid with lapis lazuli. Such simple things were easy for a wizard to acquire.
“A wizard,” Tobin hoarsely laughed at himself.
A bent peasant shuffled past him and gestured symbols against the strangeness of this man.
Tobin kept walking, unaware of his surroundings. His unguided thoughts touched on Jarren. That little jackanapes had always been favored by the older wizards. The boy was hardly past puberty when Osric and Karamindakas had rushed him to Sanctuary to be awakened. Now, the boy was dead. He, Tobin, had volunteered to be the New Candide gangland coordinator, but he had been passed over by the council machinations of Karamindakas. That fool! The old man had actually blamed him for getting crippled in the countering of the young pup’s final spell. Instead of trying to help, Karamindakas had shamed him. Tobin trembled at the memory and feeling of having no other recourse than to leave the council that he had helped to found. What had Karamindakas expected? That he could fight with his bare hands to defend his honor against a wizard? He had no options, no way of regaining his power. His aura was alienated from him. He had heard of gifted healers in the wildlands. There were prophets and deranged wizards who had gone into the deeps of nature. However, such a journey without his wizardry could be fatal. The wildlands of Oco were filled with hostile predators and savages. Some of which employed alien magics.
Tobin admitted that route was denied him. He had always preferred to practice his wizardry among the people, enriching their dull lives with a touch of his magic. He was not a great healer, but performed aptly when the fit took him. Tobin bitterly corrected his thoughts–had performed aptly. Never again would he see the gratitude in the faces of those he had helped.
A voice from the shadows called, “Look Jer, seems we have a visitor.”
“Jarren?” Tobin exclaimed, “How can you be here? You’re dead.”
Two young men stepped from the shadows. It wasn’t Jarren. The sounds of more people, shuffling and whispering, came from a darkened alley to Tobin’s left. One had red hair and wore some outworlder clothes. The redhead sized up Tobin and said, “This backward’s been hangin’ with the faeries.”
The redhead’s friend laughed. More ugly laughter ensued from the shadows.
Others had not minded the rain, for the outworlders did their patrols sloppily during storms. Tobin guessed that he had stumbled into one of the gangland territories that had refused Jarren’s offer to join the resistance. Their clothes marked them as thieves or traitors. The outworlders never parted with their possessions freely. Tobin had heard the term “backwards” before. It referred to any who still followed pre-invasion customs. The rest was nonsensical to Tobin, although he felt sure that it wasn’t a compliment.
The redhead’s friend, a tall thin boy with an arm that had been broken and poorly reset, answered, “‘E musta been hangin’ with the faeries to be comin’ to our fence wearin’ that much high class.”
The redhead ceased smiling and said deliberately, “Give us your valuables without any problems, and you can leave.”
So, that’s how it was. These thugs would rue the day that they had decided to threaten a wizard. Tobin shouted, “Curs! You dare to rob me?! I wield the inner fire!” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Tobin remembered that he was without his inner fires.
Cowed, the two thugs retreated beyond the scant moonlight. Tobin heard footsteps over the rainfall in the shadows. For a moment Tobin hoped that he could bluff his way out of this situation. However, when the two youths saw no fire forthcoming, they recaptured their nerve.
The redhead said, “You shouldn’t a tried to put the bogey on us, old man. You’re gonna hurt.”
The two stepped toward Tobin, and three more thugs who had not wholly lost their nerve stepped out of the shadows. Tobin had not fought physically since the time of his awakening, when he had assumed the mantle of wizard. He turned to run, but the rain had made the cobblestones slick. He fell face forward on the street. The gang laughed at his clumsiness. They circled him and started beating him. Tobin did not bother to pay attention to the curses they flung at him between blows to the back of his head, ribs, and genitals. They rolled him on his back to loot his jewelry as they continued to beat him. Tobin’s vision hazed, and his ears rang with thunder. After all the battles, magical duels in the spirit world, and fey spells, Tobin could not accept this ignominy in death.
The redhead’s voice shrieked in agony. Tobin smelled burning flesh. For a moment he was confused. Then, he felt it: magic. Magic flowed greatly enough so that even his crippled senses could feel it. Tobin felt magic akin to Osric, yet darker in texture. He heard another scream. The beatings stopped. The curs were running.
Tobin lifted a shattered hand to clear the rain soaked blood from his eyes and fogged his vision further with the blood from his hands. Gritting his teeth against the pain, for the assailants had ground both of his delicate hands under the heels of their boots, Tobin held his cloak and wiped his eyes. He heard two screams and saw two thugs, embraced by a fire that darkened the night. Tobin watched them burn with a cold joy in his heart. Their agony relieved his agony.
After their charred carcasses fell to the ground, Tobin cried, “Who saved me?”
“I did.” A voice answered behind him, “I sensed a wizard near here, and I came in search of you. Why did you not defend yourself?”
Weak from pain, Tobin mumbled, “My magic is gone.”
“Oh.”
Tobin had to gasp for his breath. His left lung had been punctured by a broken rib. “Please, help me. If you can heal me, hurry. My pain is great.”
The voice replied in a tone that inexplicably frightened Tobin, “I cannot. However . . . ” The voice paused as if considering whether to continue or not.
Tobin whimpered, “Anything, anything. I am in agony.”
“However,” the voice continued, “if you oath yourself to me and my cause to free Oco from its tyranny, I can give you a new life and new power.”
Tobin did not hesitate. “Yes, I oath my life and pledge my service to you. Please . . . the pain.”
“That is not enough.” the voice replied coldly.
“What?” Tobin said, “What more could I oath to you?”
“Oath me your soul while you walk Oco.”
“B-but I would lose my freewill with such an oath to you. I risk damnation with that oath.” Tobin’s breathing came in short gasps.
“You do not believe in damnation, wizard. Your lie shows in your fading aura. You do not have much time left. What good is freewill to a dead man?”
The voice knew him. Tobin had always been atheistic, at least until right now as he was about to die and doubt assailed him. He did want to live. Tobin said, “I so swear. Save me.”
Tobin heard soft footfalls approaching. He cried in pain as he was easily lifted into the air by the stranger. Cradled like a babe, Tobin saw the face of his rescuer. It was the slayer of Jarren, the outworlder named Morrison. Yet he appeared different. His skin looked as if it had been burned, and his eyes were sunken and glazed. Tobin could feel the icy tingle in his bones of necromancy, emanating from Morrison. The feeling was strong. Tobin thought that it was greater than Tarkel’s talent had been.
“God,” Tobin wheezed, “What are you?”
The Nef-Shivrael-e replied, “Your lord.”
Hours later, Tobin woke in a small bed. He felt no pain from the wounds he had received. At first he thought that he had dreamt the mugging. When he saw the blasted figure of Morrison sitting on a stool, the memories flooded into Tobin’s mind.
“At last, you have awakened,” the Nef-Shivrael-e said.
Tobin gazed in morbid fascination at the creature who had become his master. He had never believed the peasant tales of the prowling dead who roamed the night and drank the blood of the unwary. Now, he was not so sure. Morrison’s skin was shrivelled against his skull and blackened as if exposed to some hellfire that would not wholly consume the flesh. He had a hood over his head, but it did not conceal the loss of his hair. His hands were long and shrivelled, looking more like the talons of a rotting dragon than the hands of a man.
The Nef-Shivrael-e said, “Does the appearance of your savior appall you? It is your fault I look this way, you know.”
“My fault?”
The Nef-Shivrael-e replied, “The magic that I expended in bringing you to your new state of awareness has made me this way. I have no living aura to draw upon the raw magic of life. By necessity I have had to subsist on raw fibres in that empty cellar, and my disfigurement was the result. I must consume the magic already tamed by living things to survive. Even I, the scion of Shi, must obey the laws of nature now that I walk on Oco. Mayet makes no exemptions.”
Questions abounded in Tobin’s mind, but one was dominant: “What do you mean by my ‘new state of awareness’? Did you not heal me? I feel no pain.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e said, “As I told you when you lay in the street, the power of healing is not mine. You died ere I could bring you to my room. I restored you to the semblance of life. Look at your journeystone.”
Tobin pulled out the stone that hung under his tunic. It was cold in his hand and dull grey. This color journeystone was only found on dead wizards. Even when he had been without magic, Tobin could feel the warmth of the journeystone against his skin. It was not reacting to bodily contact. “I’m dead.” Tobin said, barely believing the evidence of his senses. Tobin sobbed, “Gods, what am I?”
“Don’t blaspheme, Tobin.” The Nef-Shivrael-e laughed. It was the kind of laughter that issued from diseased persons: a phlegm soaked wheeze that contained no joy, but mocked the listener.
The anger in Tobin, which had been building since the council meeting, burst. Tobin lunged at the Nef-Shivrael-e. He raised his fist to destroy the warped smile on that shrivelled face. His fist remained poised to strike, but Tobin could not complete the blow. He was paralyzed.
Again, the Nef-Shivrael-e laughed, “Magic binds you to the oath you have made to me, despite your lack of honor. Sit. I have plans for you.”
Tobin tried to leave the room, but, again, his body refused to obey him. The Nef-Shivrael-e repeated its command, “Sit down.” Against his will Tobin sat on the edge of the bed and trembled. “That’s better.” The smile never left the Nef-Shivrael-e’s face.
Tobin spoke through clenched teeth, “You claimed my oath under duress.”
“True.” the Nef-Shivrael-e replied, “I am not above taking any advantage to further my goals, such as taking this body. Besides, I did save your life.”
“And hold my soul in bondage,” Tobin shot back.
“Yes. We understand each other. Let us continue from that understanding. Tell me what happened at the council of wizards when my body was trapped. I was unaware of much as I was acclimating myself to this reality.”
Tobin acted against his desires. He despaired. He knew at the time he made his oath that he was bartering his humanity for life. He surrendered the hopeless fight. As his mouth spoke, he felt that servitude might not be so terrible if he again had magic to wield. Tobin rattled off all his knowledge of the doings and plans of the wizards in New Candide.
A gleam of avarice entered the Nef-Shivrael-e’s sunken eyes. “The karma of Shivrael has reemerged in the world. I had thought as much when the pathway opened for me. My karma. When I lay in the bowels of the underworld cast out of the psyche of Shi, I would have been content to possess Shivrael and this world. Thanks to IRIS agent Morrison, I have so much more knowledge.” The Nef-Shivrael-e paused and stared directly at Tobin. “Do you know, Tobin, that Oco is just a speck in the universe? I want more. I want to control this realm called Union. They own the stars. When I own the stars, my divinity will be completed. And the memory of Shi and her favored daughter, Shivrael, will perish for the wrong she has done me.” The Nef-Shivrael-e was flailing its arms as the words came out in a passionate, hurt rush. Tobin did not understand and feared he was in bondage to a mad wizard.
Minutes passed as the Nef-Shivrael-e seemed to look at something that was not there. Tobin fidgeted. The Nef-Shivrael-e noticed and said, “I shall give you a task that you will surely relish. Have you felt any pain yet? No? Well, you shall. While you are not deformed as I am, you are walking dead. You shall soon feel the pangs as your body exhausts the magical energy that I have instilled in you. You shall have to kill and take the auric magic found in all living things that is released at the moment of death.” The Nef-Shivrael-e stared with glassy eyes at Tobin. Tobin remained stoic. The Nef-Shivrael-e curved Morrison’s dead lips to frame a condescending smile. “Good. I see, like most wizards, you have no qualms about killing. This should make it easier for you: Kill those people whom you call outworlders. I wish to attract the notice of agent Morrison’s former employer.”
Tobin sensed an overpowering greed and lust in this damned spirit’s aura, but he looked forward to his new mission. He had never surrendered in his heart to the outworlders, as the others had. He, also, realized that his lord was blinded by a great many things: hate, greed, and ambition. Tobin thought, “If I can gather enough necromantic magic, the slave may be able to enslave and, thereby, end his lord’s existence.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e extolled the darker pleasures and lusts of Tobin’s new existence until the morning when they ventured on Tobin’s virgin hunt.

***

Karamindakas quietly rose from bed and gathered his belongings to leave. He wanted to get an early start from the city. He hungered to reunite with his new son at the Darkenkell forest and then deliver Nigel and Elaine to Sanctuary.
Watching him from the doorway, Elaine asked, “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Where I choose to go, apprentice. You are studying under me. Have you forgotten so soon that you chose to be my servant?”
Elaine walked next to Kara. She whispered to avoid waking Nigel, “Don’t play games with me, wizard. I went along with that charade last night to protect Nigel. Why are you up so early? I hope you decided to take a one way stroll.”
“That was no charade.” Kara rebuked her, “You are my apprentice. You will learn the proper ways of the inner fire. You and Nigel possess great karma. It has already forged the primal shape of Oco. It has resurfaced in you for reasons that are undoubtedly linked with the arrival of the outworlders. Buried somewhere underneath that jaded, fanged serpent of an attitude lies the key to destruction through a new creation. Through you, I hope for an end to the outworlders and a new golden age for Oco. We are leaving the city. Pack for a wilderness trek as best you can.”
Delighted to get the last word, Kara left an incredulous Elaine in the room. He had said too much, too soon, but Elaine had a challenging way about her. She threatened his control, a control that he knew he must quickly forge into iron links before his apprentices discovered their strength. Taking advantage of her astonishment, he left for the council house. He hoped to get some last advice from Osric and Meara.
As he walked, he could not stop thinking about Elaine. His heart was overjoyed that he had found the human vessel of Shivrael’s karma so quickly. The first awakened had returned in Oco’s time of trial in spite of their normal appearance. The spiritual factor that gave rise or attracted ancient karma had never been understood. Yet their auras could not be denied. He would have to mold them before they were awakened, whereupon outside forces could not sway them.
Attempting to shake off his gloom, he took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the waking city. No outworlders were in sight and, for a magical moment, Kara reveled in memories. This was a glimpse of how it was before. He stopped by a street vendor and bought some honeyed rolls. Yet there was a difference. He was not greeted with the reverence he used to receive. Wizards were no longer welcome, for they meant trouble from the outworlders.
He checked his horse, tethered in front of the dilapidated council house. The animal nickered a welcome and strained to reach Kara. The poor beast stamped the ground in nervous agitation. Kara put his index finger on his solar plexus and drew forth a portion of his inner fire. He touched his finger to the beast’s head and let his tranquility infect the horse. He searched for the trouble in the spirit of the horse and sensed no indication of the approach of calamitous weather. Street children must have teased his steed. Having calmed the horse, Kara entered the council chamber.
A stench of decay assaulted Kara. Something was horribly wrong. He called Osric’s name. Receiving no answer, he called for anyone. No reply. As he was about to walk up the stairs, he spied the trapdoor and throw rug. Approaching the basement entrance, Kara closed his mouth against the overwhelming stench. Visions of the rotting bodies of the diseased that he had vainly tried to help after the fall of Jezric pervaded his thoughts. Bile rose in his throat. Summoning a magical fire that danced in the air in front of him, Kara looked around the cellar. His eyes saw the corpse in the corner of the room. It was lying chest down, but the head had been twisted around, so that the face stared into the empty air. It was Osric.
All thoughts of Nigel, Elaine, outworlders vanished from his mind. He felt the leavings of hatred. Unsullied by humanity, the noxious spoor his sorcerous senses received forced his mind to retreat. However, his eyes forced belief upon him. He felt himself falling into an untenable mental condition until he willed himself to focus on something else: a fly feeding on the torn and bloodied corpse of his friend.
No. He refused to think of Osric. He only contemplated the fly. When he felt his mind freed, his body could at last weep. He gnashed his teeth and ripped his robe. He moaned. The pain remained.
Time passed. Kara sat silently on the cellar floor. He tried to make the body appear normal, but the limbs had been twisted and the chest, eviscerated. He quickly drew away from the body, repulsed. There was a rune carved in his flesh. A wizard had done this. Oh, when he found that wizard, Kara promised to deal out an equal pain. Goose bumps rose on his skin. He thought that the chill resided in his heart, but the temperature had dropped below freezing and the wind began to howl.
“The wind?” Kara thought, “In a cellar?” Kara felt the force of life magic, tingling and refreshing his body. He saw a shade, the last essence of one who had died. It was more than a ghost; it held the last vestige of freewill possessed by the once living person. The increasing wind forced Kara to step back.
The shade was translucent and amorphous, but the round face was unmistakable, and the patient eyes gazed at him with that too familiar love. Kara ached. It moaned with the voice of Osric, “Kara, my final spell has brought me to you. The rune inscribed in my flesh prevents me from entering it, lest the evil that killed me makes me its slave. Hearken, my time here is ending.”
Again, the wind increased. Kara stood in mute awe of the shade and the sheer power of Osric’s final spell. It slipped passed the natural order, not through black magic that mocked life, but through spiritual will that allowed the true essence of the living to cross back from the land of the dead. The distinction was profound, and the occurrence, as far as Kara knew, was heretofore unknown from any pure caste wizard.
The shade of Osric continued to speak, heedless of Kara’s astonishment, “Often in the past, you did not listen to any counsel save your own voice. Now, I ask a boon from you: Do not seek to avenge me. The inner fire does not harm it. An abomination has possessed the outworlder Morrison. If it knew of the existence of your charges, it would lust after their destruction. Flee to Sanctuary. The outworlders are no longer your only enemy. Beware the Horror that Walks. It is the other scion of Shi and beyond your strength. The awakening of your charges at Sanctuary is your hope. Theirs is the ancient power that first banished the Nef-Shivrael-e.”
A light appeared behind the shade of Osric. Kara knew what the light meant. Already, he began to miss Osric. The shade became more and more ephemeral as the white light increased, filling the cellar. It became too bright for Kara to bare, and he averted his eyes from that eternal realm. As the shade of Osric dispersed, Kara heard a final whispered parting from his friend, “Kara, the Tome of the Damned holds lore about the Horror that Walks. It was called the Horror that Dwells beyond Despair. Gird yourself with knowledge. Leave. Do not delay your journey.”
The room reverted to darkness, and Kara was alone. He went to the final remains of his friend. He lit the candle in the room and touched the body with the fire. With a kiai of grief, he incinerated the shell of Osric, fanning the natural fire with his wizardfire. As the blue flames died, he stood in the dark, gently remembering.
Ascending the steps out of the cellar, he walked straight to Osric’s room. He took the book that was open on the desk and left the room, so filled with Osric’s presence, before he was overcome with grief again. He went to his room and packed a few personal books that his apprentices would need. It seemed trivial now.
He left the house on horseback, listening to the hoofs clack against the cobblestones, trying to put the memories behind him. He knew that his responsibilities would not wait for his mourning. He rode with the attitude of one who knew he would not be returning. There was nothing left here. New Candide had died.
Upon his arrival at the safe house, Kara saw a sleepy eyed Nigel and an impatient Elaine with that outworlder weapon, rolled in a blanket and strapped to her back. The sight of his new apprentices did not fill Kara with hope. They did not believe in the special magic of their world and had only selfish motivations for their apprenticeship. Neither realized that many Ocoans placed their hope on these two citizens of the subjugated city. He had to show them the reason why he and others fought against the cold steel ways of the outworlders as Osric had. Osric. Kara savored the name in his mind. Osric had known the majesty that was Oco. He had felt it in his heart. Kara resolved to show them the Oco of Osric. Feigning sleep sand, Kara wiped the tears from his eyes and told them to mount and ride. He set the pace at a gallop and led the way as he knew he must, until they were ready to take the burden from him.

***

Nigel watched the approach of the wizard. The old man looked regal as he sat stiffly on horseback. The wizard rode to them and said, “Mount up! We ride out of New Candide. Don’t look back.” He galloped toward the southern gate.
Outworlders were posted at every gate. As Kara slowed to confront the outworlder armored guard, Nigel rode next to Kara with Elaine slightly behind Nigel, keeping out of the guard’s line of sight. Nigel saw Kara mumbling at the guard, yet no matter how hard he strained to listen, he could not make sense of what the old man was trying to say.
Apparently, the guard, also, couldn’t understand what Kara was trying to say. For the third time the guard asked, “Speak up. What are you trying to say? You know you can’t leave the city without a Union passcard.”
Kara kept mumbling. Nigel felt queasy as he began to wonder if the old man had gone senile.
Exasperated, the guard took off his smooth, metallic helmet and wiped his brow. Nigel observed that the man was sweating profusely and his skin was pale. The outworlder weaved, breaking his military stance as he addressed Nigel, “Are you responsible for this old goat. You natives—-” His eyes rolled back and he fell down in a neat pile.
Kara spurred his horse through the open gate. Nigel and Elaine exchanged a mirthful glance, and they left the soldier, retching on the ground.
Elaine called to Kara, “What did you do to that guard? He looked sicker than a thief after a three day heist binge.”
Kara replied with a malicious smirk, “He will recover shortly, albeit confused and weak. His mind could not cope with my inner fire that I was allowing him to perceive in my voice. Thus, his body sickened in response as his aura became blocked and distorted. Outworlders are particularly vulnerable to this technique.”
Elaine said, “I want to learn that trick first. That was nicely done.”
Kara replied coldly, “That was not a fakir trick. It was the subtle manipulation of a perceived reality. It was an unfortunate but necessary use of force on an unsuspecting and possibly innocent individual.”
Elaine shook her fist at Kara. “He’s an outworlder. He deserves what he gets. They terrorize our people!”
Kara reined his horse to a stop, and Elaine did the same.
Enjoying the crisp air, Nigel ignored their argument. He rode past them, oblivious to their presence. The green beauty that lay just outside the enclosed city overwhelmed his senses.
Kara focused on Elaine. “Did you ever see that man terrorize anyone?” He didn’t give her a chance to reply. “We are not fighting people. We are fighting a way of life that threatens to overwhelm our way of life. After all is said, are they not our cousins?”
Elaine said, “No. They may be related to me, but they are tyrants. They must be expunged if you want to keep your precious way of life. Or have you forgotten Jezric?”
Kara shook his head sadly. “I have not forgotten. You forget the dragon, Archon, who devoured scores of their people.” Kara held up his hands, stifling Elaine’s angry retort. “That does not excuse their obliteration of Jezric, but it was a war. We lost. Unless Nigel and you, especially, possess the might that I believe you have, we cannot expunge them from our world.”
Elaine said, “Don’t worry about that. If I could do what you do, coupled with this rifle, I could reek some serious damage.”
Kara believed her. Her propensity for direct speech and her body language suggested action. Few could withstand his gaze as Elaine could. He hoped he would not be in her path when the time came for her to reek some serious damage.
Kara said, “I believe you could, apprentice. However, the Wizard King Tarkel tried that approach, and the destruction of Jezric was the result.”
Elaine threw up her hands in disgust. “First, you want to make Nigel and me into wizards or something to save everyone from the outworlders. Now, you say you don’t want another war. What do you want?”
Nigel rode his horse back to Elaine and Kara. He spoke to Elaine, “You should see the copse of trees beyond that hill. It’s beautiful. The trees are tall, and a small blue river flows there. There are birds there, not crows and carrion birds like the ones around New Candide, but song birds and hunting birds. It’s all so different and beautiful.”
Elaine saw the gleam in Nigel’s eyes. Although she wasn’t excited about grass and trees, Nigel was, and the way he beamed at Elaine leant credence to his happiness. She reached across to Nigel, taking his hand and giving it a gentle caress. “Show me what you see.”
Kara slowed his horse and watched Nigel and Elaine ride toward the grove of Windweaver. For the first time since seeing the corpse of his friend, a gentle smile played across Kara’s lips. Already, Nigel had touched Oco’s roots, the same roots that Osric had cherished and died to preserve. He felt the spirit of Osric close to him, and he covered his face as tears again sprang to his eyes.
Wiping his face with the sleeve of his peasant’s robe, Kara knew that his charges had only begun their education and toil. Kara fretted: There was that vision that Nigel had refused to share and Elaine’s violent temper to curb and Osric’s murderer might be after them and they had to cross the wildlands and . . . Kara galloped after his charges, afraid to leave them alone.
That vision was his main fear. Osric had known that it was wrong to oath Nigel to wizardry with a misrepresentation. No wizard had the power to imbue life. Some wizards pursued the darker arts. They created zumbies. They could make the living seem dead and the dead seem alive. Kara knew that Nigel’s vision had to do with the darker arts. If he pursued those arts with the ability that he thought Nigel might one day realize, Ocoans and outworlders would have a new tyrant, far more terrible than the worst imaginings of the outworlders. Kara dismissed his fears. There was little sense in ruining a day of light with dark thoughts.
He found his apprentices, dangling their feet in the stream. They were kicking up the water and laughing. He led his horse upstream to water the animal.
Dismounting and unpacking his saddlebags, he called to his apprentices, “If you can stop playing for a second, I would appreciate a set camp.”
Nigel said, “Why bother? The weather is wonderful.”
Kara muttered, “Save me from city dwellers. The weather may be nice now, but that can change. Also, we are on the edge of the wildlands. Here, there are many creatures that enjoy the taste of manflesh. Why, only a sling stone’s throw from here is where the dragon, Erador, killed the unicorn, Windweaver. Though it is unlikely that Erador would come here now, there are the lesser worms of the earth, who roam the wildlands and do not sleep at the far away caves of Glered-nigh. There are many great cats and wolves. Men and near men roam the wildlands. And,” Kara paused for effect, “let us not forget the outworlder air ships.”
Nigel looked doubtfully at the wizard. Elaine laughed, “The outworlders stay to their conquered cities and mines, unless they make war or go up into the sky. Save your bogeys for the outworlders.”
Kara did not believe what he was hearing. This admonition had always worked with his apprentices of old. However, his other apprentices had endured through some wildlands experience. Nigel and Elaine had been under the outworlder’s travel restriction. No free trade came to New Candide. Only the outlying farms to the west provided their necessities. He hoped that they would not have to learn about the wildlands the deadly way. Kara said, “Fine. Believe what you will. Set camp, because I am the Master and you are the apprentices. If you wish to learn, obey.”
Elaine grumbled. Yet she followed Nigel, who began making a rudimentary campsite.
After an hour Nigel had finished arranging a wilderness blind. Kara walked around it, giving the blind a critical eye. At last, he said, “Marvelous, Nigel. You have protection from the elements and concealment from predators.”
Elaine, who had been sweating over the blind for the greater part of an hour, grimaced. Nigel had been structuring the blind, whereas Elaine had been cutting and carrying the wood. She exuded sarcasm, “I’m sooo glad you like it.”
Nigel brushed a leaf from his tunic. “Why are you so annoyed? We did a great job.”
Elaine glared at Nigel. Her eyes narrowed in anger. Her face, flushed under the sheen of her sweat, contorted in an exaggerated combination of frustration and anger. She pushed Nigel through the blind. The foliage and packed earth tumbled under his weight, and the roof branches fell on top of him. Elaine smiled. “Now, it looks marvelous.” She walked to the stream, stripped off her clothes, and swam, relaxing her tired muscles.
Kara muttered, “Perhaps we can do without the blind, after all.” Nigel scowled at him from beneath the wreckage.
Kara and Nigel pushed the leaves and branches into a ragged circle. Elaine walked back to the campsite looking refreshed with a raw wet beauty in her clean clothes and damp blond hair. Smiling, she said, “Shall we begin the first lesson? I’m ready to perform some magic tricks. Oh, excuse me. I meant some subtle changes in perceptual reality.” She decided that she was finally starting to enjoy this day.
Kara endured her needling calmly. Her mood had improved, and, best, she wanted to learn. Kara drawled, unable to exorcise all traces of irritation from his voice, “No need to apologize.”
Nigel interrupted quietly. “I wouldn’t quite say that.”
Kara ignored Nigel’s grumbling and said, “I am glad you recall my words so well. We shall begin our first lesson. Yet you shall not possess the inner fire until after you reach Sanctuary.”
Nigel said, “What do you mean ‘until Sanctuary’? We’ve been waiting for weeks and going through hell.”
Kara replied while taking a seat on the grass within their camp circle. “If you think that you’ve been going through hell, then you have no understanding of the underworld. At least not yet . . . ”
Elaine sat next to the wizard and said, “That’s very scary, but I’m no child to be bogeyed by you. Nigel may trust you, but you know me better. I want some answers. What is this Sanctuary? What do you expect of us? I want the truth.”
Kara and Elaine glared at each other. Just as Nigel was considering whether to get some food while they held their childish rivalry, Kara broke the imposed silence. “All right, you deserve some knowledge of what you may face, apprentice.”
Elaine and Nigel waited silently. Kara meditated. Nigel fixed dinner, and they ate in silence, not wanting to disturb the wizard. Kara grabbed his dish and said, “My obligation is to get you safely to a place called Sanctuary. Also, I’m supposed to show you the benefits you can receive through the uses of the inner fire or magic as you would call it. Sanctuary is the home of a priesthood of monastic wizards and sorceresses. It is also the birthing place of all human wielders of magic.”
Nigel said, “I wasn’t born there, neither was Elaine.”
Kara sighed and said, “It’s not a literal birthing place. Think of it as where the journeyman finally masters his trade.”
Elaine interjected, “So, all we have to do is get to this place called Sanctuary.”
Kara replied, “I wish it were that simple. We are being pursued by a–a dark wizard. That is the best I can describe it.”
Nigel asked, “Who is he?”
Kara said, “I’m not sure. I have some books that describe this being. However, I haven’t read them yet.”
Elaine shouted, “Are you saying we’re being hunted? By whom? You haven’t researched our enemy? I don’t believe this!”
Kara outshouted her, “I haven’t had time! I found my friend’s body ravaged by that fiend this morning. How dare you cast blame on me!” Blue fire appeared around Kara as he raged, “Do you think that I don’t want to crush the life out of this wight? I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I forsook revenge for the hope of Oco. ‘Sdeath! You will be delivered to Sanctuary, or my life is forfeit. That is my answer to you.”
With a quiet voice Nigel said, “I’m sorry, Kara. We didn’t know.”
Kara’s anger cooled, and, in response, the ephemeral blue fire that he was immersed in immediately died. Kara calculated. Beyond emotion a part of Kara’s mind thought that he could use this tense moment to his advantage. Kara said, “I know, Nigel. Yet you must realize that others and I have already sacrificed much to get you to Sanctuary. You have both sworn to learn the way to use the inner fire. I shall hold you and Elaine to that oath.”
Elaine asked, “So, you are just taking us to Sanctuary. I assume that your haste means that you hope to outrun our mysterious opponent?”
Kara replied, “Yes. This being may not even know of our existence, but I don’t place much hope in this. Such a creature has many sources for power and information. It is reputed to be the father of necromancy and many pray to it in their lust for power. Unfortunately, I must detour to the Darkenkell forest to rendezvous with my son. We may enlist aid from the hunym-sidhe who live there. At the least, we should be offered a place of safety and rest. They are a cultured people. Do not mistake their earthy lifestyle for savagery. Nymish trade routes extend farther than the dwellings of man.”
Nigel said, “Seems like a good plan to me. I’ve never seen a nym up close.” He began arranging a place to sleep. Too much change coming too fast had relaxed Nigel into a quiet acceptance. Kara had moved so suddenly upon arriving that Nigel could not sort it out. His weariness left no room to contemplate his dead wife or his strange surroundings.
Kara created a blue fire in the middle of their camp circle and said, “Not so fast, Nigel. Your lesson awaits. I wish you and Elaine to read this text. It is called ‘The Apology of Enid’ and will help you to think about the proper way to use the inner fire.”
After the display of Kara’s anger, neither Nigel nor Elaine dared to grumble. They read next to the preternatural blue campfire as Kara snored beside them.
Used to the wildlands, Kara woke with the dawn and found two nym cooking a breakfast. “Mar-ahn!” Kara said happily.
“Hello, sleepy wizard. Lucky for you we were not a sly worm come to eat you for breakfast, instead of your supplies.” Mar-ahn laughed. His pale triple jointed hand made the odd and unique nymish hand gesture that meant well met.
Nigel and Elaine slept. They were exhausted from reading late into the night. Kara greeted Mar-ahn’s brother, “Ta-nor, you look well. My son, Stephen, has done me proud, yes?”
Mar-ahn and Ta-nor exchanged a nervous glance. Ta-nor concentrated on the campfire. Mar-ahn stared sadly at Kara. Leaning his stocky body against his spear, Mar-ahn said, “Your son is a prisoner of our King.”
Kara’s mouth hung open in surprise. “What? Why?!”
Mar-ahn began talking swiftly. When the wizard overcame his shock, there would come the flood of anger. Ta-nor sweated in front of the campfire. Mar-ahn said, “Do not blame us. We left against a royal edict to find you and warn you.”
Kara’s eyes flashed crystal blue. Nigel and Elaine roused. Mar-ahn stepped away from the enraged wizard, but kept speaking, “You may not believe this, but Ta-nor and I love the boy, too. We would have stolen him from his prison, but he is too well guarded.”
Elaine unrolled her one unpacked blanket. Nigel was still confused with sleep. A halo of blue flame appeared around Kara’s body. Black flames tinged the blue. Kara shouted, “A prison! They dare! Death shall come for the Darkenkell!” He ran to his horse and jumped on it, not pausing for the saddle. The tether was consumed in a burst of black fire. The horse neighed and reared in surprise. Kara’s blue-black visible aura extended to encompass his horse. He galloped toward the Darkenkell forest at a frightful pace.
Mar-ahn and Ta-nor ran after him. They shouted at him to stop, but the wizard paid them no heed. Ta-nor said, “Hold, brother. We will never catch him this way. He has given his steed his magic.”
Mar-ahn replied, “At that pace we will never overtake him. What shall we do, Ta-nor? No good will come of this rage.”
Behind them, Elaine said, “I suggest you turn around verrry slowly.” She had her plasma rifle aimed at them. “I won’t pretend to understand what’s happening, so you’re going to answer me.”
Nigel stared at the two other travelers. The one called Mar-ahn was shorter than him, but broad in the chest. He wore pitted and ripped chain mail, and a huge broadsword was strapped across his back. The other was as tall as Nigel without any warrior raiment. He only wore a long green, but dirty robe with an exceptionally fine weave. Their walking unnerved Nigel. Their legs seemed to have two knees and their gate was smooth and fluid, as if they glided across the land. Nigel asked, “Are you nym?”
Mar-ahn snarled, “Yes, we are Darkenkell hunym-sidhe, and if you think a woman with a metal club intimidates me, you have obviously never encountered an Ahn.”
Undaunted by Mar-ahn’s bravado, Elaine smiled, “A club, eh? Guess again.” She fired a bolt of white hot plasma.
The ground exploded between Mar-ahn and Ta-nor. A small clod of burning dirt landed at the leather shod feet of the nym. Around the hole, grasses burnt and withered in a small fire that died and left a smoky stench, hanging between the humans and the hunym.
Ta-nor gasped, “That must be an outworlder weapon, and you must be one of the outworlders of whom Kara spoke.”
Elaine grimaced, “Watch your mouth, nym. The weapon may be outworlder, but we’re New Candide. Now, answer: Where did Kara go?”
Mar-ahn said, “We will answer nothing under duress. Your weapon does not frighten me.” He began to draw an ivory colored sword from its rune laden scabbard. Elaine levelled the rifle so that it pointed directly at where the human heart would reside in Mar-ahn’s chest.
Ta-nor put his hand on Mar-ahn’s sword hand. “As usual, brother, you think with your sword arm. Sheathe your lover in her scabbard. We must talk.”
Nigel gently laid his hand on top of Elaine’s rifle. “Elaine, listen to what the tall nym is saying. Remember last night? Kara thought that the nym were his allies. Would he have left us to our enemies? That wizard may be many things, but he’s not a coward.”
Elaine kept her eyes on the nym and whispered, “You make sense, but how can we trust them?”
Ta-nor’s slender ears heard her. “You don’t have to trust us. Merely talk to us. Believe me: We have more to lose than you if Kara reaches our tribe in his present frame of mind.”
Mar-ahn said, “Fah, humans. I will sheathe my sword first. Hunym-sidhe know of trust. We know its value and its price.”
Nigel whispered to Elaine, “Put it down, Elaine. This is obviously not the time to fight. We need to know where Kara went, and what’s happened to him.” He whispered softer, “We still have our throwing knives.”
Elaine smiled, appreciating Nigel’s rare display of cunning and squeezed his hand in affirmation. She lowered the rifle and removed the shoulder strap, gingerly setting the rifle on the grass.
Elaine said, “If a nym can trust, so can I.” Elaine had never seen a nym until this day, but it was a standing policy of hers not to be upstaged.
Mar-ahn frowned, making his high cheek bones and pronounced chin unpleasantly fearsome, yet delicate. He spoke to Nigel, “Man, do you always let your woman defend you from danger? I thought your kind did not train your females to fight as we do.”
Nigel smiled broadly, “Always seemed like a great idea to me.”
Ta-nor waved his slender fingers between Mar-ahn and Nigel. “Enough idle chatter. Mar-ahn, stop baiting the humans. We have a serious problem, namely, an enraged wizard. Let us put aside the differences of our races.” Ta-nor stared at the humans as if lost in thought. “Would either of you be wizards?”
Nigel shook his head and said, “No, we were just apprenticed a few days ago.”
Mar-ahn covered his face with his hands. “Wonderful. Brother, why did we ever befriend the child of a wizard?”
Nigel remembered the first time that he met Kara. There had been a scruffy boy, who had acted as a lookout for the wizard. Nigel asked, “All this trouble because of a kid?”
Ta-nor said, “Master Karamindakas’ son is the forever child with the essence of the great Windweaver, a unicorn whose memory is honored by our people.”
Last night, Elaine had heard Kara mention the name Windweaver. “You mean the boy is some kind of unicorn lycanthrope?”
Ta-nor replied, “No, it is much—-”
Mar-ahn interrupted, “We don’t have time for nature lessons. Each moment that we waste here that wizard gets closer to our Darkenkell forest.”
“It is not our Darkenkell.” murmured Ta-nor.
Elaine paced back and forth on the soft plains grass. “Nigel and I don’t know magic. Our horses can’t match the pace of Kara’s inflamed steed. Logistically, I don’t see how we can catch them.”
Nigel sat on the ground and ignored Elaine’s restlessness. He said, “If we could get to him, I could probably calm him. He sets great value on me and Elaine. Yet he has been under great stress. He may have snapped.”
Mar-ahn said, “No, it was rage, simple rage at his son’s imprisonment. I understand how he feels.”
Ta-nor looked to the sky. “I could delay him. There is one I know who is mighty enough to keep him outside the Darkenkell forest.”
Mar-ahn grabbed his brother roughly by the arm and pushed him away from the humans. He whispered to Ta-nor, “Celiane?”
Ta-nor simply nodded an affirmative.
Mar-ahn intensified his stare at Ta-nor. “Be careful, brother.”
Ta-nor dismissed his worry. “Do not fear, Mar-ahn. I know her.”
Mar-ahn’s eyes narrowed cynically. “None know her. Ta, you play the fool.”
Heat flushed Ta-nor’s face. “We have already discussed this. Celiane is our best hope.”
Mar-ahn resigned the argument. “I will not stop you in your fey course. It is not my right. So be it.” Mar-ahn gestured with his right hand, making a square with his middle finger. Ta-nor nodded and returned the gesture. They walked back to Nigel and Elaine.
Elaine eyed them suspiciously and asked, “How do you expect to catch him?”
Ta-nor smiled. “Nym have potent magic of their own. We have no need of the crystals that your kind uses.”
Nigel asked, “Crystals?”
Mar-ahn looked skyward in frustration.
Ta-nor looked at his brother. “Perhaps you should escort the apprentices while I fly ahead. There is sufficient mana at the grove of Windweaver for me to attempt to assume a guise.”
“It will give me time to teach the humans about their magic.” Mar-ahn grinned, disguising his worry for his brother.
Ta-nor seemed ready to laugh, but thought the better of it and said, “Your time, I think, should be spent in instructing them of the politics at home.”
Mar-ahn gestured, “So be it.”
Ta-nor gestured, “So be it.” Ta-nor extended his hand to Nigel. “Though we met as foes, I hope that I leave you as a friend.” Nigel grasped Ta-nor’s pale, delicate hand. The slender fingers were cool to his touch.
Elaine stared at the odd hand extended toward her. She hesitated until Nigel nudged her urgently.
“Allies,” Ta-nor declared and walked toward the grove.
Mar-ahn stretched and grasped his ankles. He flexed his joints, alternately making triangular shapes with each of his legs. He ordered Nigel and Elaine, “Mount and ride. Leave your campsite. We have no time, and we are just starting. I will provide for you on the journey.”
Nigel asked, “Where is your horse?”
Mar-ahn laughed derisively. “Ahn are self reliant. I do not tire easily.”
As Nigel and Elaine spurred their horses to a gallop, Mar-ahn seemed to glide beside them, running through the tall grass with long strides.
After an hour of hard riding, a falcon screeched overhead, flying toward the Darkenkell forest. Mar-ahn waved and shouted, “Luck to you!”
Nigel glanced at Mar-ahn. Then, he glanced at the falcon overhead and said, “You mean—-” His disbelief would not allow him to frame his question.
Mar-ahn just laughed.

Chapter X Witch Queen

After the first few hours of running, Mar-ahn slipped into a trance. The nymish warrior silently kept pace with the galloping horses, yet he seemed oblivious to their presence. Nigel and Elaine talked during the smoother stretches of their journey toward the Darkenkell forest. They were out of their element. There just wasn’t anything to steal in the wilderness, and they felt that they still knew almost nothing about Kara or the hunym-sidhe. Twilight signalled the final break in the day’s riding.
Dismounting from his winded horse, Nigel said, “Mar-ahn, tell me about Kara’s son.”
Mar-ahn rubbed his eyes and wiped his brow. His breath shot from his lungs as he worked to regain his wind. Mar-ahn gruffly said, “Not now, apprentice. You and the woman make a camp. I will get food.” Without waiting for a reply, Mar-ahn strung his bow and walked into the night.
Stretching her back, Elaine said, “Talk about nerve. If these nym are like Mar-ahn, it’s no wonder the old man left in such a fury.”
The moon was obscured by clouds. They set camp at the top of one of the rolling hills amid the plains. Nigel and Elaine sat next to each other beside a small campfire, warding off the chilling night wind. Elaine said, “‘Sdeath, I’m sore. I think my legs are going to cramp. Still, I would’ve liked to have gone hunting. We would’ve been eating by now.”
Nigel sleepily replied, “No. Mar-ahn knows the land and we don’t. He’ll be back.”
“Ummm.” Elaine leaned backward to watch the bitter campfire smoke smudge the few stars that flickered between the gaps of clouds.
Elaine woke by the dying campfire when she heard someone trying to move quietly. She drew her dagger from her belt as Mar-ahn entered the camp circle. Mar-ahn’s eyes widened in surprise as he looked at Elaine’s dagger in her hand. “Very good, apprentice. Most of your kind would not have sensed me even after I had sat next to them.”
“You’ll find that I’m not like most people. Next time, announce yourself, or you might find a dagger lodged between your eyes.”
Mar-ahn scowled. “Curb your tongue, woman. I’ll not take insolence from a human apprentice.”
Nigel woke. Elaine replied to Mar-ahn, “If you want my respect, why don’t you—-”
Nigel interrupted, speaking overly loud, “What did you bring us to eat?”
Elaine flashed Nigel an annoyed look. Mar-ahn’s frown disappeared as he held up two badger sized carcasses, which had already been cleaned. He also held up a small leather sack of tubers. Mar-ahn said, “We shall have full stomachs for tomorrow’s traveling.”
Nigel brewed some tea over the fire that they had rekindled, while Mar-ahn brought out small sacks from his pack that were filled with spices. They ate heartily, and Mar-ahn ate enough for three people. When they had finished, they sipped their tea and watched the night sky in a silence that the nym seemed to prefer. The clouds had moved on, and the stars and moon decorated the sky. Abruptly, Mar-ahn pointed at a shooting star. “Look, a sky strider. The ancients walk tonight.” When Nigel and Elaine had turned to see it, the meteorite had burned up and had disappeared forever.
Elaine pointed at a blinking light in the sky. “Don’t put your faith in the ancients, Mar-ahn. See and believe. The outworlders’ shimmering star ship, which brought them and their tyranny to us.”
Nigel became melancholy.
Mar-ahn said, “Our people have stayed away from yours since your star cousins arrived. Their might is awesome.”
Nigel said, “But Kara had a plan. He believed he had a way to rid us of the outworlders.”
Elaine scoffed, “I think that old man is senile. The outworlders wield terrific power. The outworlder weapon that I stole makes any man the equal of a wizard. They can’t be beat.”
Mar-ahn rested on his back to watch the heavens. “You speak with such authority. Yet you know so little about the world in which you live. Trapped in that fetid city, you live with your star cousins and know nothing of the world.”
Elaine prodded the embers of the campfire with a stick and threw it on top of the fire. She rubbed her hands in front of the fire and said, “Tell that to the dragon, Archon.”
Mar-ahn moved his feet closer to the fire. “Ah, yes. You speak of the death of Archon at the city of Jezric. I have overheard humans speak of their star cousins with fear, and they say, ‘The outworlders destroyed our city, and they killed the great dragon, Archon.’ By sidhe! Archon was barely large enough to hold a place at Glered-nigh. I slew the dragon named Carchoroth, and that one ruled an entire tier at Glered-nigh, or so say the Mer of my tribe.”
Nigel and Elaine looked at him with open disbelief. Seeing their expression, Mar-ahn said, “You think I lie? Look.” Mar-ahn drew his sword, and it was a single piece of ivory that shimmered under the glare of the campfire. “This was part of one of Carchoroth’s great fangs. My mother’s cousins in Koral crafted it for me in exchange for the other three fangs.”
Elaine said, “Three for one doesn’t seem fair.”
Mar-ahn replied, “They are kin, and the crafting of such a sword is arduous and delicate. I tell you: I shed my raiment and bathed in the ichor that flowed hotly from Carchoroth’s mortal wound. As lore speaks of Siegfried dragonslayer, so am I now invulnerable to all physical harm. Though I have yet to battle. Our King is cautious.”
Nigel asked, “If these dragons are so mighty, how did you kill it?”
Mar-ahn hesitated. “Well, I was not alone.”
Elaine crowed, “Aha!”
Mar-ahn growled. Would that woman ever stop playing the Ahn? Mar-ahn admitted, “It was a joint effort between the Darkenkell and Koral tribes. Carchoroth had been demanding greater and greater tribute from the mining works of the Koral peoples. Carchoroth’s wormlust was for things that glittered, and the Koral were great miners and enchanters of glowing kor stones. Queen Arienor asked aid from our King Torastor, and he agreed. My brother cast many spirits upon me so that I could resist Carchoroth’s burning blood. The other Ahn were envious, but there was nothing that they could do. They did not have the spirits with them.”
Nigel said, “An impressive story, Mar-ahn. You must be the greatest nymish warrior, now.”
Mar-ahn modestly replied, “True. Yet there is little bravery in fighting when you cannot be harmed.”
As always, Elaine’s mind clicked over possibilities. “The forces of magic, or spirits, can harm you.”
“Yes, but our King forbids fighting or leaving since the plague came upon us, so I have not had the chance to fight since that battle.”
Nigel gazed southward. “It’s a shame Carchoroth’s dead. The outworlders make all manner of shiny things. He might have fought them.”
Mar-ahn said, “Just as well that he’s dead. Worms are not weal for anyone. Erador has given us much cause for grief.”
Elaine perked up, “Erador? Kara mentioned him.”
Mar-ahn paused and thought for a moment, lost in ancient memories.
Nigel answered Elaine, “I have heard of Erador. He lives in the highest of the caves of Glered-nigh in the south, and he rules the other dragons through sheer might.”
Hearing Nigel, Mar-ahn broke out of his trance. He said, “Yes. Might is the only hierarchy worms respect. It is good we speak of these events, for they relate directly into what my brother wished me to tell you on this journey. It is the sad predicament my tribe endures. Listen closely.”
Mar-ahn sat up and shifted so that his legs were under him. His spine bent at the base and he was centered under his nymish legs, which looked like two triangles beneath him. He paused to catch his breath and order his thoughts. Elaine and Nigel remained silent, sensing that they were finally going to learn something. Mar-ahn looked at them without any trace of his usual arrogance. He was a disturbingly solemn silhouette, awash in the shadows from the campfire and the stars behind his back. Nigel felt alone and far from New Candide.
Mar-ahn spoke in a subdued voice, “Please forgive me if my tale is halting or confusing. I am an Ahn, not a storyteller. We have spoken of the Emperor of Glered-nigh, Erador. His wormlust is for pure flesh to capture, possess, and surely corrupt. Thus, when Erador dreamt of Meliane, the most beautiful of our maidens, Erador woke and left his first tier at Glered-nigh. He entered our forest in the guise of a nymish Prince, saying he was from a land across the seas. The worm tried to seduce her, but her purity gave her strength. Yet the cunning worm lured her with honey laden words and false declarations of love. This time, her innocence worked against her, and she was duped. They became engaged. Erador set off for his cave to await the marriage date, but a seer, I suppose you would call her, named Dahl-mer, saw the Prince assume his true guise in a vision, and the Mer warned Meliane. Meliane, retaining her purity, fled with the unicorn, Windweaver. Again, Dahl-mer warned us of the rage of the worm. Erador discovered Meliane’s departure and returned to our forest in wrath and fire. Despite our Ahn’s preparation, he devoured many nym and corrupted everything in his path. The dragon was eventually turned aside from the forest by the Lady Darkenkell.
“It required much sacrifice, and the destruction that Erador wreaked on the forest remains to this day. Therein is the cause of our present misery. When our tribe was fleeing Erador’s wrath, many Ahn stayed behind in an attempt to slow the worm’s dreadful progress. One Ahn, Tal-ahn, faced Erador. He was a great warrior, yet to Erador he was nothing. Nothing! Erador lowered his jaws with his serpent’s speed and crushed Tal-ahn’s armored body in twain ere Tal-ahn could draw his sword. The Lord Predator of the World, as the worm calls himself, spat out his body and roared in triumph, shaking the mightiest oaks of the forest with his voice.
“After Erador had left, the grief and madness came upon our people. They walked on the path that Erador had created, picking up their dead, becoming tainted by the remnants of the dragon’s leavings. They burned their dead, and with the madness of the path of Erador upon them, they proposed to march against the fiercest dragon the world has ever had the sorry fate of birthing. All nym marched, save one. Sirursa-mer, Tal-ahn’s life mate, collapsed upon her beloved’s body and would not be moved. She wailed and gnashed her teeth as the surviving nym passed her, blinded by their frenzy of grief and revenge. Our present King, Torastor, whom they elected, for they wished for a warrior king, marched them to battle. However, when the Ahn reached the grove of Windweaver, they discovered that the battle had already ended, and Erador had fled to Glered-nigh. Then, the madness left the people. All save one.
“When the tribe returned to the forest, they rested. King Torastor went to survey the damage done by the dragon. Already, in the short time that they had been away, the evil path that Erador had carved through the forest had begun to fester. The path had become overgrown with moss trees. These trees were twisted by Erador’s hate and blackened by his lust–without the green. The light in the forest darkened where it crossed onto the path. The only light was from a blood red fungi, not native heretofore in the forest. The fungi grew in random, oblong clumps that gave a pall of malevolence to whatever they illuminated. Dark carrion birds eyed the King as he walked on the path. These, also, puzzled the King for the birds were pitch black; they seemed almost to be a form without substance. In his mind he thought they harbored a foul intent, but he considered such notions to be only fit for a Chen. He spat and walked past the trees on which the black things perched.
“Torastor is a brave King, and these things did not daunt him. Yet when he heard a rumbling from the ground, fear crept into his heart. It, whatever it was, did not dig through the ground. Torastor paused to listen. A hissing sound accompanied the rumblings of movement. Torastor was not a Mer. Perhaps if he were, he would have run. He was Ahn; he drew his sword and followed the sounds.
“The sound was moving away, and my King pursued. Black things that he mistakenly thought were snakes scuttled away from his armored boots. He paced the tunneler. Its sound steadily increased in volume until the hissing and cracking muted the other forest sounds. The tunneler’s noise suddenly increased again, deafening the King with an explosion of rocks and smelling dirt. A moment’s pain, as a rock struck his head, was followed by oblivion.
“My King woke to the murmurs of Sirursa. She cradled the head of her dead lover against her chest. She said, ‘Fear not, my love. The scion of Shi will grant us darkling power. Listen. Do you not hear it, my love? The dwelling digging things obey me. They see my love for you and are eager to help.’ She rocked back and forth, crushing the poison bloated body to her bosom. She kept up a low dirge, ‘Fear not, my love. You will be handsome and strong again.’
“King Torastor held his throbbing head and opened his eyes. The dark forest spun, and he retched. Blood trickled from his forehead where the rock had struck him and had dislodged his crown. An acrid smell assailed him, and he coughed as he said her name, ‘Sirursa?’
“The King and Sirursa had been friends for many years, yet now he could barely recognize her. Her eyes were hollow, and her face was painted red or illuminated red by the patch of fungi in which she squatted. Her silken dress was covered with black splotches, which were not soil. As soon as his vision cleared, he saw a black, amorphous shape slither onto her skin. To her left was a hole about four cubits across. It was covered with a viscous ichor that glistened in the fungi glow. He repeated her name, ‘Sirursa?’
“Her head sprang up, and she looked at my King. Her voice was shrill and raspy. ‘Who calls me that?’ she said, ‘Only my beloved may call me that.’
“Still woozy, my King slowly drew himself up to his full height. He said, ‘It is your King who commands you, Sirursa. Put away your mad grieving and turn away from this foul path.’
“Sirursa shrieked, ‘My King?’ Her eyes became fevered as she looked at him. The black shapes writhed on her skin. She rasped in a voice that was full of an evil loathing, ‘You are not my King, King of weaklings, King of cowards. Only my brave Tal-ahn is worthy. I reject you. I curse you, King of cowards.’ Her voice softened as she looked at her dead lover’s corrupted visage. Whether she talked to herself or to the corpse of Tal-ahn, King Torastor was not certain. She whispered, ‘I serve a new King now. My lord dwells below the earth, not on it. My lord shall bring my Tal-ahn back to me, first of ancients to dwell in the underworld.’ The mania returned to her face, and her gaze unsettled the heart of my King. Then, she spoke her treasonous litany, ‘My lord will not abandon my love to a worm’s embrace. My lord will protect his loyal subjects. Even now, my lord whispers to me from the underworld. My lord is with me always. Nef-Shivrael-e does not abandon the people who love the dead.’
“King Torastor pleaded with her, ‘Sirursa,’ but she became enraged.
“She shouted, ‘Don’t call me that. You have not the right. You may address me as Hecate. I am Queen of these woods, which were created in honor of my love’s heroic fall.’
“My King answered, ‘Hecate? of legend? Why take such a name? It ill suits you. And these woods are no tribute to anyone. Come back to the living, Sirursa.’
“She shrieked at my King, ‘I told you not to call me that! You used my love, and now you mock the tribute to his death. Die!’ Hecate stood on her feet and raised one black parasite covered hand. She pointed at a shrivelled moss tree. The guttural sound of carrion birds filled the air. Hecate screamed, ‘Come, my shadowcrows. You, whose life came from the blood of my lover’s murderer, obey your Queen.’
“Torastor grabbed his sword that had fallen on the ground and ran with the laughter of Hecate behind him. As he ran, he heard the rumbling sounds of the digging creature, returning from the underworld. Panic spurred King Torastor, a cruel blow to an Ahn’s pride. He feared to gaze upon this servant of an ancient. The shadowcrows pecked at his heels, but the forest was too dense for them to pursue, and they were reluctant to fly past the ambience of the path of Erador.
“King Torastor arrived at his council dome safely, but he was sick for months after meeting the Witch Queen as she is now called. That was the origin of our suffering. This tale is told often now. Over the years many of our Ahn have strayed across the path of Erador. None have ever returned to their families. We patrol the borders of her realm now, and sometimes the Ahn see glimpses of their companions through the black trees and twisted branches. Their faces are grey, dead, but in agony; our Mer believe that their spirits are still trapped within their corpses. We hear them shamble across her realm. We do not approach them, for though their faces weep, they are bound to the Witch Queen, and their limbs are cold and strong. Those they have killed they carry to their mistress; thereafter, more cold corpses with tortured spirits walk the path of Erador. We name them zuvembies, for they are, in truth, like the zumbies of legend, but here they still remember the warmth of life and the call of duty, so we say vem, the weeping, of them. And all this suffering was begot of a worm’s lust. Erador has wounded us greater than he has realized. His path is the realm of our enemy. I have no love for worms.”
Mar-ahn looked directly at Nigel and said, “A few days ago, the Witch Queen became inexplicably more dreadful in her sorceries, and she has extended the ambience of the path of Erador. Hecate is the reason why the King has imprisoned young Stephen. The Witch Queen has loosed a wasting disease upon our people that only Stephenmindakas can cure, but the boy grows weaker with each cure. He grows tired in his confinement. That is why Ta-nor and I left. We came in search of Karamindakas to warn him, but his rage overtook his reason.
“In disobeying our King, we may have loosed another evil into our land. Now, you know the situation in my homeland. Tread carefully. Our tribe has grown strong over the last decades. The Darkenkell nym are divided into two general factions: those who wish to use Stephen to counter Hecate’s plague and those who wish to storm her home to burn her at the stake. I had hoped that Kara would help me to convince King Torastor of the latter choice, but he rushed off before I could explain. I truly hope you can persuade him to stop his reckless course, Nigel.”
The campfire had burnt down during Mar-ahn’s story, and the simmering coals reminded Nigel of the fungi in Mar-ahn’s tale. He shivered. “I’ll try, Mar-ahn. I hope the long ride is cooling his rage. Perhaps your brother can delay him, but I do not have much hope in that.”
“My brother is no match for a wizard. He is only a Nor. However, my brother is taking a risk that could more than give him a sword’s edge, if he doesn’t kill himself first.”
Elaine roused herself from her drowsiness. “What risk?”
Mar-ahn said, “I do not wish to speak of it. It is a matter for nym.”
Elaine glowered at him, but Mar-ahn rolled over and went to sleep.
***
The Witch Queen chanted before her dead lover. Her abode was a circle of black moss trees, which formed a canopy above her. Thick vines and twisted ivy stretched between the trees. The interior was little more than a shrine to her dead lover. Tal-ahn’s body had decayed over the years. The corpse stood suspended in the air, dressed in fine robes. His armor, weapons, and gifts from Sirursa lay on the ground, piled under his feet. Around Tal-ahn the red fungi grew monstrously large and illuminated Hecate’s hovel. Small bags of herbs and colored dusts littered the area as well as stale food and tattered blankets.
The years of necromancy and subjugation of Erador’s path had taken their toll on Hecate’s once maidenly body. The black parasites rarely moved upon her skin, unless she willed them to or they reached maturity. She was pathetically gaunt and pallid with eyes that, through some dweomer, had changed from misty grey to a dark red, mirroring the oblong clumps of fungi in her domain. Her once silvery hair had changed to darkest night and shimmered like the shadowcrows, perched on her hovel, and shadowy silk dresses, woven from the silk secreted from the black shapes that scuttled on the ground, covered her body. She indulged in wearing the crown that Torastor had lost when the nymish King had fled her realm. Hecate wanted all who saw her to know that she was the ruler of the path of Erador, although few travelled there. Those who had dared had died and remained to serve their new mistress. Both nymish and human heroes had tried her strength, yet only Tal-ahn had ever touched the Witch Queen, and his hand was cold, without violence or passion. She still possessed her beauty, but it was now a fearful thing.
She squatted in front of her dead lover. “Tal-ahn,” she cooed, “come to me, my love.” She draped her hand against his desiccated cheek. The air around Tal-ahn’s body dropped below freezing. Hecate didn’t notice; it was familiar to her by now. The corpse began to shiver in response. Hecate shouted, “Grant me your spirit by my will, by my love.”
A mist appeared, surrounding Tal-ahn’s corpse. A hollow voice emanated from the chilling fog, “Sirursa, let me rest.”
Hecate smiled, hearing the voice of Tal-ahn. “Not until we are united, my love.”
A dull monotone replied, “Then kill yourself and join me.”
Hecate lost her composure and wept, “Oh, do not be cruel, Tal.”
The mist swirled around the corpse. “It is you who are cruel, Siru. You torture our people and inflict your cruelties upon innocents. Join me, and we will rest together.”
Hecate backed a pace. “No, no, my love. Our lord walks the land. My power over the dead increases daily. Soon, I will have an army of zuvembies to crush the Darkenkell tribe and regain your honor.”
“I have my honor. Let me rest.”
Hecate stamped the ground with her foot. The black parasites fidgeted, crawling on her skin. Hecate said, “Not when we’re so close, Tal-ahn. You must be alive to lead my army. When my lord comes, we will be united.”
“The Sidhe will not permit such an aberration within her domain.”
Hecate laughed at the mist, “Forgive me, Tal, but you know nothing about that one. My domain is a scar across the Sidhe’s belly, and as my land grows, she sickens and weakens. My realm already leads up to her physical body. When all the Darkenkell nym are my subjects, my domain will be free to grow. The Sidhe’s sight is always elsewhere. She cannot see what I do to her. The Sidhe will realize her doom when it is too late.”
“But the Darkenkell Sidhe will realize. Then, there will be a reckoning.”
“Oh, Tal, I know that you watch out for me, but you have no need to worry.”
“It is not you whom I wish to aid, rather my people whom you have forsaken.”
Hecate hid her face from the mist. She said, “Begone, shade. When you live, you will understand. I have duties.”
With a sigh the mist departed the decayed body.
Hecate grabbed an oily, black parasite from her arm and peeled the entity off her skin with a muffled gasp of pain. Like the shadowcrows, the parasites were a form without substance. She released the ebony parasite, and it hung in the air before her. Grabbing an onyx dagger, the Witch Queen stabbed the black parasite. Hecate winced in sympathetic pain. She withdrew the dagger, and black ichor dripped to the ground. A small pool of black vapours grew on the dirt floor of her hovel. Hecate paled. Sweating, she used the black dagger to cut her arm where the parasite had lived. The self mutilation was an act of power, joining her blood with the black pool.
Her subjects, sensing her revealed power, gathered in mute obeisance to their Queen. Trapped within the coils of her necromancy, the zuvembies shuffled in meandering circles. The shadowcrows clung to the branches of her domicile, adding eyes to the black moss trees. The animals of Erador’s path crept toward her dwelling, acknowledging her superior strength. The subterranean messenger–spawn of the underworld–slid and squirmed its shapeless husk toward Hecate. It approached not from a compulsion, rather from a curiosity, which it was only barely aware of possessing.
Hecate felt woozy from the blood that she had lost to her sorcerous pool. Drained of its unnatural life, the parasite disappeared down into the sorcerous pool with the wail of a babe. She looked at the newly formed scar on her arm. “Ahh,” she sighed.
Her mind reeled, and she slumped to the ground. Hecate spoke in tongues, babbling words of power that bubbled forth from her mind. The inane drivel quieted, and the forest was silent. Hecate screamed, shattering the momentary peace. A black jaguar roared its nervousness outside her hovel. Her jaw slackened as her body relaxed. From her open mouth a shadowy mist swirled upward. The Witch Queen was temporarily reborn as a wraith, which saw the spiritual world more clearly than the physical world. Tal-ahn’s refusal to understand had awakened a hunger for her lord’s guidance. Now that the Nef-Shivrael-e walked upon the land, she no longer heard her lord’s whispers from the underworld, and her resolve had weakened.
The wraith of Hecate floated through the canopy that was her dwelling and left the ambience of Erador’s path. Giddy with her recent act of sorcerous power, she could not resist the temptation to look at the coward King, who grieved over his plague ridden wife. Her black spirit floated deeper into the forest, being careful to avoid the area of the Sidhe. Even in her present ephemeral state, she was unwilling to confront that creature who was the Darkenkell.
On the spiritual plane Hecate hovered expectantly. Her desires drifted to the nym village, listening for the wail of the bain-sidhe. With the release of her plague upon the Darkenkell tribe, she did not have long to wait. Hearing the vocalized dry leaves, she glimpsed the black pastel of the bain-sidhe, guarding a Chen’s spirit from the exotica of the spirit world.
The act of the Chen’s death opened a gateway for her wraith into the nymish city. The Chen gasped his death rattle as the last thing the babe saw was the wraith of Hecate hovering over his departing spirit. The room grew cold with her appearance, but the parents were too grief stricken to perceive her ephemeral blasphemy. Only the chill marked her presence to the everyday world, and the wraith knew that only sensitivity could recognize her incorporeality. She savored their grief, which played on her form like warm water. Her eyes saw emotions, hungered for their spiritual energies.
Concentrating past her lusts, the physical world coalesced before her sight. The wraith glided to the royal chambers through the maze of shrubs and cultured trees that were part of the royal aviary, which served to hide the entrance to the walkways, reserved for the nobility. The wraith paused as a queasiness assailed her. Within the green aviary she spied an ivy cage that radiated the sidhe touch of the Darkenkell Ston. She felt their love for the green hard world surrounding the Ston tended ivy and something more rested in their work: guilt. Curious, she drifted toward it, but the touch of the Stons on the cage barred her passage. Their magic assailed her, forced her to remember the green the more she approached, brought her back to days when she did not grieve. The wraith quivered at the memory, expended its strength in renewed sorrow and a rage of hatred for those who did not grieve. She halted, relented the struggle against the Stons’ strength. Although she could not enter the cage, she felt the unmistakable aura of a unicorn, trapped within the ivy. Her courage fled from her, and she left the forest in pursuit of her lord.
Caging a unicorn was far beyond her abilities. A new archmage must have been reborn into the Darkenkell tribe to accomplish such a binding. The unicorn must have been captured to counter her plague. The beast would die soon enough in that ivy prison. It was the one who had bound it she feared. The Nef-Shivrael-e must grant her more power over the dead. Perhaps the power to invigorate a dead unicorn . . .
Hecate felt it. Her lord, the Nef-Shivrael-e, was killing someone. The necromantic gateway opened, and the wraith passed through it. Timelessly, Hecate appeared above her lord, who was feeding upon an oddly garbed human guard. She felt the resonance of her lord’s destructive power, which threatened to accidently consume her wraith. Her eyes watched a rapacious hate that dwarfed her most violent rages. She drifted outside the human city and awaited her lord.
The Nef-Shivrael-e absorbed the essence of the outworlder guard. It was pitiful in comparison to the feast of Osric. That part of the Nef-Shivrael-e that retained Morrison’s memories grabbed the outworlder’s gun. Somewhat refreshed, the Nef-Shivrael-e left New Candide in pursuit of Karamindakas and his charges.
The Nef-Shivrael-e perceived the wraith and to whom it belonged. “Hecate, make obeisance.”
The black shape dipped and quivered before the Nef-Shivrael-e. The wraith of Hecate whined, “It gives me great pleasure to see you released from your ancient prison.”
“Do not fawn o’ermuch, Hecate. You are, after all, my most apt slave. What have you to tell me?”
The wraith whimpered, “I need more might.”
“What? I have already aided you in gaining the ambient magic that resided in your abode. I gave you regency over the shadowcrows, and you tell me that you cannot complete the simple task I have given you?” The Nef-Shivrael-e reached out a clawed hand and grabbed the wraith.
Hecate was too surprised to speak after being physically grabbed in her insubstantial state.
The Nef-Shivrael-e roared, “I warn you, Hecate: I do not tolerate incompetence. Mayhap, I should take your vitality. In your present state you would be easy to consume.” The Nef-Shivrael-e’s hand radiated a black aura, and the flesh of the Nef-Shivrael-e began to appear more human.
The wraith of Hecate screamed, “Ieeeee! No! No! Please, wait! You don’t understand.” Her wraith was held fast by the Nef-Shivrael-e. Hecate could feel her approaching dissolution.
The black aura around the Nef-Shivrael-e’s hand faded. The Nef-Shivrael-e relaxed the grip slightly and said, “Speak quickly. I am always hungry.”
The wraith’s words came in a fearful rush, “There is a new archmage in the Darkenkell. His power exceeds mine. He has caged a unicorn.”
Surprised, the Nef-Shivrael-e released Hecate’s wraith. “This is unexpected. You speak soothe?”
“On my very soul, I pledge.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e eyed the wraith disdainfully and murmured, “That pledge carries little weight. However, your news is alarming. I cannot yet ignore an archmage with impunity. Mmm, I thought I would have sensed the coming of an Er-ston within the Darkenkell forest. Yet a Nor or Ston could not accomplish this. A nym must have ascended to the Sidhe’s secrets to become an archmage. Damn Mayet! He sleeps, but his servants harass me.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e’s anger transformed into a raucous laughter. “So, this is how the Darkenkell nym repay Windweaver–by imprisoning his foals!”
Its necromantic vitality nearly expended, the wraith pleaded, “What shall I do? There are many nymish magi in the Darkenkell whom I could have killed, but an archmage will unify their magics under his sidhe spawned sight. I am lost, unless I have new might.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e mocked, “What of your mighty warrior, Tal-ahn? I should think that he would make an excellent zuvembie warrior.”
The wraith flickered, “No, you said that you would bring him back to me, whole and alive.”
“No. I merely said that I would bring him back to you, and I have. You have the power to force his spirit into his remains. I had fulfilled your request while I languished in the depths of the underworld.”
The wraith floated toward the Nef-Shivrael-e. “No! You promised to restore my love and deliver the Darkenkell tribe for him to rule.”
With the inhuman reflexes that Morrison once possessed, the Nef-Shivrael-e reestablished his grip on the wraith of Hecate.
The wraith quivered. The black form tried futilely to escape her lord’s grasp.
“You try my patience, Witch Queen. You forget: I am your monarch.” The Nef-Shivrael-e tightened the grip, and the wraith began to dissipate. “If you obey me without question, then you and your love shall rule over the Darkenkell.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e lowered its voice as it thought and said, “I want to know about this archmage. I shall travel to your abode. Make suitable accommodations for me. You know my needs. This Er-ston must surely know this Karamindakas. I want that wizard and his companions. Look for an aged human, travelling with two younger humans. If you discover any knowledge of them, you shall come to me immediately. Immediately! Understand?”
Suspended by the Nef-Shivrael-e’s grip, the wraith whimpered, “Yes, lord. All shall be as you wish.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e released the wraith. “Good. I think you understand me better. I am not as you once knew me. I am with flesh now. I will brook no incompetence as I assume my active influence on Oco. I allow you some minor indiscretions, because you have shown yourself to be adroit at necromancy. Do not cause me to believe that my trust has been misplaced.”
Depleted of its sorcerous might, the wraith whined fervently, “It isn’t. It isn’t. My land has grown with the knowledge, which you have graciously taught me. I am weakening the Sidhe as you’ve instructed. I have killed all the foes who have faced me, and I have brought them under my dominion. I control Erador’s path, but I cannot fight one who can imprison a unicorn. Aid me, lord, that I may aid you.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e listened to the wraith’s whining with a growing interest. “Now that I am with flesh, your groveling begins to amuse me. I cannot spare any of my resources to give to you. I shall aid you in a more direct fashion. The potent binding, which you have described to me, must have attracted the wizard Karamindakas’ attention. I had thought that he would have sought the safety and supplies of Saracea before going to the Sanctuary, but I am sure he will stop at the Darkenkell to investigate if the nymish magic threatens humans. Therefore, I shall go to the Darkenkell via your domain and await him. For you, I will sate my hunger on this archmage, who you suspect resides in the Darkenkell tribe. Attend. They come.”
Cawing and flapping, two slivers of shadow pocked the clear blue sky.
The wraith said, “Two of my shadowcrows? I did not summon them.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e smiled. “They obey a greater will. Mine.” The shadowcrows alighted on the Nef-Shivrael-e’s forearm. “I shall keep these as my messengers between you and my other faithful servant. Return to your abode, and prepare for my coming.”
The wraith hovered in the air for a moment in front of her lord, whom she now feared in this new guise. She sensed a death in the Darkenkell forest and let it pull her home, glad to be away from the overpowering aura of the Horror that Walks.
Reappearing in the forest over a dying panther, the witch marked the area in her memory. Necromantic travel as a wraith often provided her with useful servants. Returning to her body, Hecate slept deeply as her parasites replaced her exhaustion with their worm spawned vitality.

Chapter XI The Grey Hungers

Nigel dreamed.
Drifting from yellow blooms, the sweet fragrance of honeysuckle shrouded the dark deciduous trees.
A wind sprang up to cool him as he walked.
Elaine stood before him. She wore a white dress trimmed with elegant blue lace. Her hair was long unto her waist and garlanded with white roses.
He ran to her. No fear, no pain, only Elaine.
Lina appeared, his wife, that bovine face.
Elaine called to him, but her voice answered his fear in its pleading.
Lina crushed him with a hug. Her skin cracked away like old paint, revealing the skull beneath. The scent of ashes stole his breath.
He screamed, long and quiet, “Elaine!”
Dressed as an outworlder guard, she ran to him, but never closer, never next to him.
Elaine dropped her plasma rifle, clutched her heart, and fell to the ground. Her outstretched hands touched Nigel’s bleeding feet.
Lina’s arms squirmed around his waist and dropped to her side. Not Lina, but the sorceress Shere wearing her iron vassal’s collar with head down.
Nigel wore the black robes of his doppelganger. He smiled cruelly at himself in his dream.
Nigel woke in a sweat, which the warmth of the morning sun couldn’t alleviate. A cold was in his bones and he shivered. Next to him Elaine stirred in her sleep. Beyond the ashes of the dead campfire, Mar-ahn was packing their gear onto the horses. Nigel shook Elaine. He was relieved as her eyelids fluttered open.
Leading their horses over to them, Mar-ahn said, “You have a hard ride today. I wish to reach the edge of the Darkenkell forest by tomorrow’s eve. I’ll feed your mounts some silveroot. They shall run ’til nightfall without rest.”
The Ahn took two long mauve tubers from his satchel. The horses eyed the root and sniffed at it before gently taking it from his hands and biting down on the sweet, crunchy silveroot.
Elaine said, “Riding them all day will kill the horses.”
Mar-ahn replied, “No, the silveroot will lend them the strength. Best that you worry about yourselves.”
Knowing that Kara would be well ahead of them, Nigel and Elaine didn’t bother with breakfast. They rode at a full gallop through the fields of wild grasses, and Mar-ahn exerted himself to keep pace. His breath was labored, but he did not complain. The horses were hard to control, wanting to run their course. It wasn’t until twilight that the horses began to show fatigue. Mar-ahn’s chest worked like a bellows, but he refused to admit any weakness to them. Nigel and Elaine, however, groaned and moaned as they eased themselves off their horses.
Wolves howled in the distance. Mar-ahn jerked his head in the direction of the sound. Nigel and Elaine were too busy, muttering curses that damned all horses and whatever daemon had made silveroot.
Mar-ahn reproved them, “You should be praising the silveroot. It is a precious gift. With it we may gain upon your Master tonight.”
Elaine grumbled, “You’re not going to use that stuff again, are you?”
Mar-ahn shouted, “Do you think this is a game? Wizardfire from an enraged wizard shatters spirits. It does not burn the flesh. I have seen humans use it against our people in the past. He could break scores of my tribe in a matter of moments, if my people are not forewarned. And my brother is a fool who will not stop to tell them.”
Elaine shook her fist at Mar-ahn. “You talk about Ta-nor as if he were crazy. I thought you said that he was going for help.”
Mar-ahn replied, “He is, but not from my people. Ta is going elsewhere for aid.”
Nigel laid a gentle hand on Mar-ahn’s shoulder. “Where is your brother going? You mentioned it was dangerous, yet he didn’t strike me as a person who would risk himself foolishly.”
Mar-ahn sighed, “Yes, you are perceptive. Yet where this thing that he seeks is concerned, my brother is fey.”
The howling of wolves became louder. It was not the keening of loneliness, shared with the moon; the howls were a cacophony of growls and barks and whines.
Mar-ahn motioned for silence. “Quiet. I think we’re in danger. It’s time to ride. That sounds like a huge pack of wolves.”
Elaine shrugged. “So? I can handle a bunch of oversized dogs.”
Mar-ahn muttered under his breath, “You’re brave or stupid. The latter, I think.” In a louder voice he instructed her, “You do not understand. This area is not a hunting ground for wolves. My people have tried to keep them toward their original hunting grounds near the fens of Saracea.”
Nigel suggested, “Maybe they got lost.”
The Ahn knew now that his two human companions had no knowledge of the wildlands. Their safety was his burden. Patiently, Mar-ahn said, “It is much more likely that they are being directed by an outside force.”
Nigel said, “Directed? I don’t understand.”
Mar-ahn fingered the hilt of Carchoroth’s fang. “Yes, many evil things can dominate and direct wolves when they are in a pack. They are often used to assassinate lone travellers,” the Ahn looked at them pointedly, “such as us.”
“Or Kara,” Elaine whispered.
Nigel and Mar-ahn looked at Elaine. No one moved.
Nervously, Nigel asked, “Where do you think the wolves are, Mar-ahn?”
“Probably about a half hour ahead of us.”
Elaine asked, “And where should Kara be?”
Mar-ahn said, “I’m not certain. I’m not familiar with wizardry. We’d better ride fast.” Mar-ahn administered an extra dose of silveroot to the horses.
Elaine went to her pack and unrolled the blanket that held her plasma rifle. Nigel hunted among his belongings, searching for the outworlder pistol, which Elaine had insisted that he keep with him. Mar-ahn was already running toward the sound of the howls.
Slinging her rifle over her shoulder, she spurred her horse viscously. Nigel followed on his mare. As they crested the nearest hill, they saw vultures and coyotes, gathered around the carcass of an emaciated horse. Mar-ahn shot an arrow that killed a vulture. He scattered the other beasts with shouts.
Mar-ahn kicked the carcass. “This was Karamindakas’ horse.”
“Efficient Darkenkell scavengers you have.” Elaine muttered drily.
Mar-ahn ignored her comment. “This horse was subjected to unpleasant spirits, black magic or dark arts, as you humans call it.”
Nigel said, “Then Kara must have been attacked. I know he would never use black magic.”
Mar-ahn replied, “Then he would be the first wizard I have ever met who did not employ such forces. And the morning he left us, he was employing those forces on this horse.”
Elaine agreed, saying, “Don’t be naive, Nigel. I’m sure that Kara uses what he can.”
Nigel gesticulated and strained his voice in agitation, “You don’t understand. Black magic corrupts.”
Elaine reined her horse toward Nigel’s and said, “How do you know? How do you think that Kara wins his fights? By healing his enemies? I think not.”
Nigel shouted, “Then what’s the difference. Tell me. Tell me. What’s the difference? Why shouldn’t we learn the dark arts as Tarkel did?”
Elaine peered at her normally quiet companion. “What’s wrong with you, Nigel? Why are you acting so upset? How should I know the differences in magic? You’re the one who wanted to learn magic. You wanted to fight the outworlders. I was happy as a thief. The outworlders are a part of our life, a part of our world. If you want to get rid of them, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty.”
Mar-ahn interrupted, “Your lover’s quarrel will have to wait. We have problems to attend.” A gleam of excitement flickered in the Ahn’s eye. He pointed east. Sparks of blue fire illuminated the horizon. “The wolves are attacking Karamindakas. I’m sure of it.”
They rode, guided by the sorcerous fire. In less than an hour they were in sight of the battlefield among the tall grass between two hills. Two man forms in the center of a ring of wolves faced each other. The wolves ran in a circle, baying and growling. Occasionally, one wolf would trample one of his brethren in a mad dash to nowhere. The beasts’ eyes were glazed. When they weren’t barking or growling, their tongues lolled out of their mouths in vain attempts to cool their sorcerous fevers, but their spittle foamed and the cool wind only teased and maddened the running, hungering wolves. Mar-ahn could see that the circle of running wolves was slowly tightening around the two figures.
As Nigel and Elaine galloped, Mar-ahn ran past them. He shouted, “Your master is being attacked by what my people call witchwolves. They come from the fens of Saracea and serve Hecate. I fear Karamindakas will be dead ere we reach him.”
Nigel shouted, “Kara’s holding his own.”
Mar-ahn replied as his voice faded in the distance, “You do not understand. The witchwolves are preternatural. As long as the ring of running wolves is complete, your master’s wizardry is crippled. The ring of manic wolves forces Karamindakas’ attention on the physical world. No wizard or Ston can do more than rudimentary magics within such a binding, and the Queen of Hecate’s wolves will kill him.”
Elaine cruelly spurred her horse. The wolves were in a tight ring around Kara and a woman. Kara was wreathed in blue fire that kept his opponent away from him, but the fire was dwindling. His opponent was a well endowed nude woman who would have been quite alluring, except that she had the head of a snarling wolf.
At fifty paces from the ring of wolves, Nigel and Elaine dismounted their horses. They could hear Kara shouting epitaphs over the din of the wolves. The she-wolf spoke in a guttural voice, “Join us, Master Karamindakas. My mistress would be most gentle with you, as she is with all of her subjects. Come. Embrace our way. We are the hope of the future. You have tried and failed. Join us.”
Kara raised a bloodied fist. “If you did not deny me my wizardry, I would gladly answer you.” The aura of blue fire surrounding his body noticeably shrank.
The she-wolf growled and came closer to the wizard, but she was afraid to touch the blue flames. “You do me a disservice, Master Karamindakas. I cannot deny your power any more than I can deny your existence in front of me. You have the choice to use your awesome wizardry. Surely, you know that. Use your spiritual might.” The she-wolf laughed. “Play your illusions. The real world remains. My world.”
“Liar! Your magic is as ephemeral as mine. You deceive yourself, Caremunda. Cease your tempting. I shall not forgo my wizardry. I am sworn to my charges and the crystal wizardry of Shivrael. Your mistress shall not have me. Go! Go to Hecate’s lord and tell the Horror that I shall avenge the death of my friend, Osric.”
Mar-ahn commanded, “We must attack now if we are to save Karamindakas.”
“That suits me.” Elaine had the she-wolf in the sight of her rifle and fired. The bolt of super heated matter disappeared when it crossed above the ring of wolves, doing nothing but getting the attention of the witchwolves and Caremunda.
Caremunda snarled at her wolves, and six broke from the circle and charged up the slope toward Elaine. The fiery blue aura around Kara brightened slightly.
The she-wolf snarled at Kara, “Join us or watch my wolves tear apart your charges.”
Kara laughed hoarsely, “Do that and the Nef-Shivrael-e shall be feasting on your entrails this very night.”
“You lie.” But her ears perked from their flattened position against her skull.
Mar-ahn commanded, “Elaine, aim at the circle of wolves. Nigel and I will stop those that are charging you.”
Nigel gasped, “We will?”
Mar-ahn drew his ivory sword and cleaved the skull of the lead wolf. His sword shimmered in Kara’s blue sorcerous light, delineating the wolf blood that stained the white blade.
Nigel fired the outworlder pistol, wounding a wolf and finally killing it with a second shot as it leaped upon him. The momentum of the dead wolf bowled Nigel onto the ground. He saw another wolf charging him as he pushed the dead carcass off himself.
Elaine dropped one knee to the ground and held her rifle with her elbow balanced on her other knee. The plasma rifle seared the night air, incinerating the heads and hindquarters of wolves that were running in Caremunda’s circle. Other wolves in the circle descended on their fallen comrades, but the circle kept moving, and those wolves that paused to feast were trampled by their manic brethren.
A wolf charged past Nigel as he was getting to his feet. The wolf opened its jaws, intent upon Elaine. Elaine cried, “Mar-ahn! Hold up your flank!”
Mar-ahn kicked a wolf in the nose and spared a moment to look at Elaine. He huffed, “I assure you, huh, huh, I am. Keep trying to break that formation!” He threw his sword at the wolf charging Elaine, but Carchoroth’s fang had not been crafted for throwing. The hilt bounced off the wolf’s rib cage, and the blade embedded in the ground.
Elaine saw the wolf, gauged the beast’s approach, and took another shot at the circle. Elaine wanted to shout; life screamed through her veins. This testing lifted her being, made her aware of every second, every detail of the jaws of her opponent, the animal eyes, the ferocity. Here, decisions and actions were paramount with motion and sinew as her servant. This was the other side of creation: the action behind the surface of reality. Elaine, in the struggle, met herself without blinking. When the wolf leapt for her, she dropped her rifle, dodged, and whipped out her belt dagger in one blurring motion. She stabbed the wolf in the back of the beast’s neck, arcing through the flesh and severing the bone. The carcass collapsed at her feet. Elaine hefted Mar-ahn’s broadsword to him hilt first. She shouted, “Here, I think you dropped this.”
Mar-ahn answered, “I’ll grab it when I can.” Mar-ahn had two wolves by their necks, one in each triple jointed hand, lifted off the ground. The wolves snarled and bit at the air, but were helpless, suspended by the Ahn’s strength. Another wolf charged Mar-ahn and was greeted by its two companions that Mar-ahn had hurled at the charging wolf. All three scattered into the night. Mar-ahn grabbed his blood soaked sword and screamed in triumph.
Nigel shivered in fear and loosed several wild shots with his outworlder pistol at four wolves that were charging him. They scattered away from him at the last moment. Nigel murmured, “I think they’re losing their resolve.”
Elaine’s plasma rifle loosed another bolt. She said, “The circle’s breaking apart.”
Mar-ahn swung his ivory sword above his head. “Charge! Charge, now! Yah! Yah! Ieeyah!” Mar-ahn ran down the slope, heedless of the remaining wolves.
Nigel slumped to the ground. No more wolves were charging up the hill. “Well, I guess you can be reckless, if your invulnerable.”
Elaine was still firing at the few remaining wolves that were running around Kara and Caremunda. “If he’s so invulnerable, why’s he bleeding?”
“What? We’d better go help him.” Nigel began to run wearily down the hill.
Elaine shouted after him, “Wait! Hang back. The wolves aren’t attacking Mar-ahn. They’re running from him. That wolf bitch lost it.”
Karamindakas and the she-wolf stood facing each other, ringed by plasma blasted pieces of wolf flesh. The smoky stench of burned meat and grasses drifted across the battlefield. The copper taste of his own blood in his mouth nauseated the wizard.
Mar-ahn charged toward Caremunda, intent upon her death. Kara said, “Stop, Mar-ahn.” Mar-ahn froze, as if paralyzed. Kara spoke softly, “You are defeated, Caremunda.”
Caremunda’s ears flattened against her skull, and she growled, “Kill me! Kill me if you can. My mistress will return me to life. You cannot truly defeat me.”
The blue flames brightened around Kara. Caremunda cowered. Karamindakas said, “You have been grossly misinformed as to the extent of Hecate’s sorcery, or do you relish the idea of becoming a cold zuvembie?”
Caremunda growled, “Liar! Wizard lies!” The she-wolf leapt high into the air, arcing down toward the wounded wizard. Elaine tried to grab her rifle and aim, but she knew that she didn’t have enough time. Her shot went wide as Mar-ahn tried to intercept the leaping she-wolf. The Ahn was still too far away.
Kara made a pass in the air with his bloodied hand. Rings of blue fire encircled Caremunda and her violence fled her. Her aerial momentum vanished. She fell to the ground with a whimper.
Kara whispered to Caremunda in a soothing voice, “This battle is over. Your circle is broken, and the inner fire is mine to command again. In the ambience of your gestalt, you tried to bind me to my darker lusts, but the fires of Shivrael are within me. Had you beaten me, you would have only gained my death, not my services. I shall leave you to the tender mercies of your lord, the Nef-Shivrael-e.”
“No!” Mar-ahn confronted the bleeding wizard. “Kill her. She is in league with Hecate. It is her kind who helped to release the plague on my tribe.”
Kara swayed on his feet. He gulped air, trying to keep his balance and maintain his authority, despite his wound. Kara gritted his teeth and said, “No, Mar-ahn. Like Hecate, Caremunda serves the Nef-Shivrael-e, even as I am infused with the fires of Shivrael. I understand Osric’s parting words now.” Kara glanced at Elaine who was walking toward them. “The primal gods are among us, and I intend to set them against the outworlders. I have Shivrael, but the Nef-Shivrael-e is loose and is using its agents against your people. I don’t know why, but I intend to find out as soon as I free my son.”
The crystal wizard looked at Caremunda. His eyes burned brightly. The she-wolf cringed from Karamindakas’ azure stare.
Karamindakas commanded her, “Tell Hecate that I know her lord. Tell her that she shall precede her lord in its return to the underworld. Now that you are bound, I shall repay your hospitality.” Kara withdrew a journeystone from his satchel. He flung it toward Caremunda. It hung in the air between them. A dome of blue light enveloped Karamindakas and Caremunda.
Nigel peered into the blue dome, surrounding Kara and the she-wolf. It was somewhat transparent, coloring the two within it in shades of blue.
Nigel tapped Mar-ahn on the arm. “What’s he doing? Is he alive? He’s standing so still.”
Mar-ahn slapped Nigel’s hand away. “Why do you keep asking me about wizardry? I told you before that I don’t know about wizards. I don’t even know about Darkenkell magi. I’m Ahn, a warrior, you idiot. Your mentor definitely seems to have the situation controlled, but controlled for whom is what I don’t know. He’s playing a game, a game with us. He’s more concerned about your outworlder cousins than he is about his son.”
Elaine came down from the hilltop with her rifle slung over her shoulder. Elaine nodded upon hearing Mar-ahn’s accusation. She spoke with the remnant of her battle passion, “You see that, too. That wizard thinks in terms of desired ends, but I don’t think he knows much more than we do. He’s gambling, and I don’t like being the coinage.”
Mar-ahn wiped his sword on the grass. “Neither do I.” He saw his sword arm as he sheathed Carchoroth’s fang. He said, “I’m bleeding?” He began to tremble.
“Seems you’re not as invulnerable as you had thought, Ahn.” Elaine said, “You’d better do something about that wound, dragonslayer.”
Mar-ahn favored her with a cold stare. “Some warriors do not rely on outworlder weapons, but a sharp sword and a brave heart.”
Nigel prodded him. “Mar-ahn, argue later. Here, I have some bandages. We’d better clean that bite.”
Mar-ahn mumbled, “I don’t understand. I’m invulnerable.”
Elaine scoffed, “Only in the head region.”
“But the legend . . . ” Mar-ahn stammered.
Nigel answered, “It must have been that: a legend. Stand still while I cleanse the wound.”
As Nigel dressed the wound, Elaine couldn’t resist needling Mar-ahn, “You should be happy that you’re like the rest of us. Now, your warrior’s life will have meaning.”
“This wound has become quite painful.” Mar-ahn grimaced. “A little silence would be greatly appreciated.” He muttered to himself, “I must have a long talk with my Nor brother when we meet again.”
They set camp near the blue dome, which showed no signs of abating. Hours passed as Caremunda and Kara eyed each other: two statues suspended in magic. Coyotes, carrion birds, and other scavengers came to feed on the wolf carcasses. No wolves prowled near the campsite. Mar-ahn idly knocked an arrow to his bow. He pulled back on the bowstring, testing his pain threshold against the pull of the bow. He sighted the arrow at a prowling coyote.
Nigel laid a hand on Mar-ahn’s bow. “Don’t do that. It’s only doing its job. There’s no need to kill it.”
“So be it, Nigel. If you’re that squeamish, I’ll not bother.” Mar-ahn laughed. He eased off the taut string with a sigh. His wounded arm had begun to throb. He unstrung his bow and smiled, “Remember this favor I do you.”
The coyote looked up from its wolf carcass. A sliver of meat dangled from its mouth.
Elaine said, “Look, Nigel. I think it knows you saved it.”
Mar-ahn grumbled, “Crazy humans.”
The coyote tilted its head back and swallowed the shred of meat in one gulp. Cocking its head to the side, the small scavenger gazed at Nigel; then, trotted off into the night.
Mar-ahn said, “We’d better establish a guard.”
Elaine teased, “Worried about more scavengers, mighty Ahn?”
Mar-ahn laughed and allowed a warmth into his eyes as he spoke to Elaine, “Any friend of Nigel’s is no enemy of mine. I am more worried about what our wizard’s dome may attract.”
Nigel asked, “Dragons?”
Mar-ahn shook his head. “Unlikely. Worms do have an uncanny sense for magics of every kind, but any roaming worm would avoid and fear the taint of magic.”
Nigel heaved a sigh of relief. “That’s good.”
Mar-ahn smiled grimly. “Unless, of course, it is a worm who hails from Glered-nigh. If one of those is near, it would not avoid us, rather it would come and investigate and probably kill us.”
“Oh.”
Mar-ahn decided to stop teasing Nigel. He liked the gentle human, though he respected Elaine for her warrior’s prowess. Mar-ahn said, “Fear not, Nigel. The worms of Glered-nigh prefer their dreams to the hard world and travel from their caves infrequently, and we are far from the black mountains. I am only cautious of brigands or a wayward beast, but it is unlikely that we are in danger from rogues this near to the Darkenkell forest. The Ahn occasionally scout here to keep the lands safe. However, this dome does stand out like a beacon. I’ll take the first watch.”
Elaine scrubbed at the wolf’s blood that had dried on her belt dagger. “We are getting a bit nervous now that we’ve discovered that we’re not invulnerable, aren’t we?”
Mar-ahn unpacked his gear with an air of futility. “Elaine, we are still in the wildlands. No king rules here. Curb your sharp tongue, before you impale yourself upon it.”
Nigel chuckled and received a playful whack from Elaine for his indiscretion.
When the first ray of dawn struck the azure dome, the dome became opaque. Having drawn the last watch, Nigel roused the others. They stared at the dome trying to see inside. Nigel said, “Well?”
Brushing the grass and dirt from her clothes, Elaine said, “Well what?”
“Well, what should we do?”
Mar-ahn slid his long fingers around his warrior’s braid. “You two can be quiet while I think.”
The sun rose above the horizon. Grunting and groaning sounds were heard from the dome. Nigel said, “Kara might need our help.” He walked tentatively toward the dome.
Mar-ahn grabbed Nigel by the shoulder. “Are you fey? This is a wizard’s dweomer. You could be struck dead by the slightest touch.”
Elaine said, “How would you know?”
“We know that I know more than either of you,” Mar-ahn spoke sarcastically, “though that says naught of my knowledge.”
Elaine stamped the ground in frustration. “We have to do something.”
Mar-ahn replied, “We are. We’re being patient.”
Nigel sat on his rolled blanket. “I hope the old man knows what he’s doing. I don’t know where we are or what we’re supposed to do. Kara was never very specific with me. He seemed to think I could really help people.”
Elaine interrupted, “More likely, he thought you could help him.”
Nigel moaned, “Whatever. If he dies in there, it doesn’t matter. His hopes die with him.”
Elaine nodded. “We’ll be stuck out here, and now that I’ve seen magic up close, I want to wield it. If I had magic, we wouldn’t need Kara or anyone.” She stopped ranting, noticing a wary look from Mar-ahn. Their nymish companion seemed to fear wizardry. Elaine decided to remember that. She continued in a softer voice, “In any event, we’ll be lost without the old conniver.”
Mar-ahn straightened his posture and declared, “I know no magic–not even the magic of my kind. I am Ahn, what you would call a warrior. I cannot give you what I do not possess.”
Mar-ahn paused and looked toward Nigel. Nigel noticed a fragility just behind the Ahn’s stoic eyes. There was pain there, too. Mar-ahn rubbed the back of his neck, looked down, and then looked back at Nigel as he said, “If Karamindakas should die, I would not feel dishonored in guiding you to where you wish to go.” He bowed toward Elaine. “You fight fiercely with the heart of an Ahn. We could survive in the wildlands. You see, my brother and I became exiles when we left our country to warn Karamindakas. We, also, hoped for the wizard’s guidance. We would have aided him in freeing his son. Yet without his help, we cannot succeed. We have little hope of acceptance among my people. Their suffering has hardened their hearts. They are consumed with the fear bred by Hecate’s plague.”
Mar-ahn quietly finished his proposal, “We are both in a web that was spun by others. I would lend you my strength.”
They stood in despondent silence, contemplating the life of the exile. Only the tall, slender stalks of grasses swayed in the wind around the desolate morning plain. An unseen bond formed between them, born of loneliness amid the rustling of the grasses and the low moans filtering through the blue dome. As one, they looked at the dome. The slow, guttural sounds rose to an inhuman pitch and climaxed to a scream that ended as a whimper. The blue dome exploded with a brilliant flash, blinding the onlookers. Elaine’s and Nigel’s sight cleared first. They saw Kara, clutching his bleeding arm, with a wolf at his side.
The wolf bolted for the Darkenkell forest. Elaine snatched her plasma rifle and took aim at the sprinting wolf.
Kara spoke in a voice that was commanded directly and forcefully at Elaine, “No, Elaine.” The rifle dropped from her hands. “Let the wretched cur run. She has an important message to deliver to her mistress.” There was a cold edge to the wizard’s voice. Elaine finally noticed the yips and whines of the departing wolf.
Elaine picked up her rifle and slung it over her shoulder. “That’s the kind of magic I’m going to do.”
Kara said, “I’m sure you will, but for the present would you be so kind as to tend to my injuries? I have taken the fever out of most of the she-wolf’s evil bites, but it still pains.” He squatted on the ground and trembled as shock finally overcame his aged body.
When Nigel went to the horses for more bandages and water, Mar-ahn said, “That was well done, wizard. Hecate may fear to send more of her minions from Erador’s path.”
Kara gritted his teeth and spoke hatefully, “Yes. I have taught and learned much this past night. Have Nigel haul away the wolf carcasses. I must rest before we meet King Torastor.”
Mar-ahn appeared relieved. “I am glad to see that you have mastered your rage.”
Kara propped himself off the ground with his good hand. Nigel had returned with the bandages and waterskin and admonished him, “Don’t move. I’m trying to cleanse your wound.”
Kara spat weakly at Mar-ahn. “I have not forgotten your people’s shame. If they do not release Stephen at my request, I will drench the Darkenkell forest in nymish blood, as I have oathed.”
He shook his wounded arm at Mar-ahn in anger. Nigel pressed Kara to the ground. Intent on Kara’s wound, Nigel ignored the wizard’s curses and said, “Be quiet. You won’t drench anyone if I don’t bandage this.”
Karamindakas looked toward Elaine. Sweat formed on his brow and his eyelids flickered with a fevered weakness. Those old eyes burned with a sudden passion. Kara said, “Wait, Nigel. Don’t bandage my arm, yet.” He was breathing heavily. Nigel knew that his pale color was evidence of the seriousness of the old man’s wounds. Kara grabbed the journeystone that hung around his neck. It shimmered in the palm of his hand.
Kara beckoned Elaine closer. His hand shook. He handed her his journeystone. “Here, woman. Here is your chance to do some sorcery.” Elaine grabbed the crystal, and it ceased to shimmer. Kara said, “Get back, Nigel. I want Elaine to do this.”
Nigel retreated to where Mar-ahn nervously watched. Kara whispered to Elaine, “Hold the journeystone. Breathe evenly from your gut. Yes, yes, that’s it. Now, half lid your eyes and look at my wound. Clear your mind. No, no, clear your mind. Usually, there’s nothing in it anyway. It can’t be that difficult for you.”
Blue light burst from the journeystone in Elaine’s palm; the dark blue enveloped Kara’s arm. He screamed, “Stop, stop! Your crushing my arm! Release my arm!”
“I–I don’t know how!” Elaine screamed, trying to be heard over the high pitched whine that the journeystone was emitting. She froze, overwhelmed with a feeling of power, a giddy rush of ecstacy like a fire in her marrow.
Kara feinted.
Mar-ahn ran to Elaine and tried to grab the blue journeystone. Another blast of azure fire erupted from the stone and struck Mar-ahn in the face. He stumbled backward, blinded and stunned.
Nigel rushed to Elaine and embraced her. “Easy, Elaine, easy.” He whispered in her ear, “Drop the crystal, Elaine. Drop the stone. Elaine, it’s the stone. Drop it. Drop it!”
“Arhh!” Elaine screamed. She hurled the journeystone. It went dull as soon as it left her hand.
“Oh, Elaine, you did it.” Nigel kept embracing her. “You did it. You will be a great sorceress.”
Elaine pushed him away. “‘Zblud. What happened? I feel funny. What are you yapping about, Nigel?”
Nigel answered quickly. Relief flooded into him when he saw that she was unharmed. “You tried to heal Kara with magic.”
Elaine glanced at where Kara lay unconscious. “‘Zblud! I’ve killed him.” She bent over Kara’s prone form. “No, he’s still alive, but his arm is mangled. I really botched this. Kara should have known this might happen. At least he isn’t bleeding, but I don’t think his arm’s getting any blood. He looks like he’s going to be out for a long while. Anyone got any suggestions?”
“Uhh, oww,” Mar-ahn grunted, “I don’t think you’re ready to become a sorceress.”
“You’ll get no argument from me.” Elaine replied.
Nigel spoke to Mar-ahn, “It’s a good thing that wizardfire doesn’t really burn, or you’d be dead, Mar-ahn. Kara doesn’t seem burned either, but he’s in no condition to travel, even if he were conscious.”
Ignoring Nigel’s tactless remark, for it shamed him to have been caught unprepared, Mar-ahn surveyed the land and said, “We’ll have to rig a sled behind your horse, Elaine. It’s the stronger of the two. I can make a poultice for his arm, but he’ll need more help than I can give him, the fool. What made him think you could heal him? He must’ve been deluded from his battle with Caremunda.”
Elaine shrugged. “It was his fault. He likes to think he knows best. Maybe, he’ll learn something from this.”
During the next hour Mar-ahn constructed a sled from spears and ropes that were part of the horses’ gear. Nigel and Elaine skinned the wolves for a sled covering. They gently put Kara onto the sled and rode to the Darkenkell forest at a slow pace. They reached the edge of the forest by nightfall.
Mar-ahn said, “I think that we’d best camp here and not enter the forest by night. Hecate’s creatures prowl the forest in the dark. Also, I am not necessarily welcome if we run into my people. It is best we wait for Ta-nor and his friend. Stay here. I will go in search of some hedda root, which should ease Kara’s fever.”
Elaine and Nigel were too tired to argue. Although Nigel knew Mar-ahn well enough by now to notice the worry in the Ahn’s voice, their plan to keep watch failed when weariness overcame them. Nigel and Elaine slept away the night in each other’s arms under the boughs of the outermost trees of the Darkenkell forest.
Elaine woke as the warmth of the late morning sun caressed her skin. Carefully, she disentangled her arm from underneath Nigel’s head, not wanting to wake him. Elaine had learned the art of light sleeping as a child in New Candide. The gangs, the squalor of that city was never far from her mind. She grabbed her plasma rifle when she heard voices in the woods, and she realized that those voices had woken her. Not for the first time, she thanked the lucky day that she had stolen the rifle from a lascivious outworlder guard. She checked on Kara and found him sleeping fitfully. The hedda root had not broken his fever. The graybeard had been foolish to let her try such a magic; it should have been Nigel. She bent to his ear and whispered, “I didn’t kill you, deceiver. Be thankful for that, at least.”
Kara’s head swayed. He moaned, “Osric.”
“Shhh,” Elaine hissed.
With her plasma rifle held ready, Elaine crouched and inched her way into the Darkenkell forest. She crept until she was close enough to hear the voices clearly.
A calm, low female voice spoke that sent a shiver through Elaine. “And the midwife of my mother is broken?”
Elaine heard Mar-ahn’s voice answer, “Not broken, just wounded. We were hoping that you could free Stephen. The boy could heal him.”
Elaine moved through the underbrush to get a glimpse of the three shadowy figures, standing under a gnarled maple tree with sap oozing down its bark. The green shrubs and ivy were covered with a chilly dew. She carefully lifted the stalks of grass and limbs of trees so that the trees would not rustle and give her away. She waited to see if anyone else might be hiding. When Elaine was sure that there were only the three, she stood and pointed her rifle at them. She recognized Mar-ahn and his brother Ta-nor. The third was a lady in a grey, mist colored cloak, drawn about her tightly and hooded, concealing her face within the folds of shadows.
Elaine spoke loudly, disturbing the natural solitude of the forest, “Good morning, Mar-ahn. Having a nice chat? Why didn’t you invite me and Nigel? Not planning on leaving us with your new found friend, are you?”
A look of pain momentarily crossed Mar-ahn’s face, but it disappeared, as if the Ahn expected this brutal questioning of his loyalties. He was about to speak when Ta-nor commanded, “Elaine! Put down that weapon before you get us all killed. You don’t understand what’s going on here, human.”
Ta-nor started to approach Elaine. Mar-ahn grabbed his brother and said, “Stop, Ta. The woman is as good a marksman as I.”
Ta-nor shuddered with a fury that confused Elaine.
Elaine said, “Thanks for the compliment, Mar-ahn. Ta-nor, first you explain so that I understand, then I’ll put my weapon away. Who’s the lady?”
Anger still distorting Ta-nor’s thin features, he hissed, “You cannot understand, stupid woman. This is a matter for nym. Go away. You are intruding.”
Mar-ahn put a hand on his brother’s shoulder in an attempt to calm him. Ta-nor shrugged off the brotherly gesture and said, “Celiane is not for human eyes.”
The lady in the grey cloak spoke, “You presume too much, Ta. Be silent. I shall see and speak with this woman.” Her voice seemed to resound softly around Elaine.
Immediately, Ta-nor bowed his head.
Elaine joined the trio. “All right, let’s talk, but remember I’ve got a—-” Elaine glanced at her rifle as she felt the weapon’s balance minutely shift in her hands. She watched her rifle rust and crumble into dust within a matter of seconds. A sudden breeze destroyed the still air and took the dust remains of the weapon with it.
Celiane said, “So we may understand one another. Come closer. I shall not harm you.” She spoke with a calm surety that rattled Elaine more than any bravado from a New Candide thug ever had. Elaine stepped closer to Mar-ahn. Ta-nor looked tired and gaunt, but Elaine paid him no heed.
Elaine’s eyes were fixed on Celiane. Her hands were nymish with that extra joint, yet thinner with a more fragile, translucent quality. Elaine could not help feeling uncouth. Sullied after days of riding, she felt uncomfortable next to Celiane’s cloistered delicacy. Elaine turned to Mar-ahn to question him, but found she had to glance back at Celiane. The grey figure seemed to have no solidity to Elaine, unless she was looking directly at Celiane. This effect only heightened her agitation.
Elaine turned to look at Mar-ahn and willfully ignored Celiane’s presence or lack thereof. “Mar-ahn, have you got any idea what to do about Kara? Is Ta-nor . . . uh . . . are they going to help us?”
Mar-ahn’s stare did not leave Celiane’s figure. “Ask Celiane.”
Elaine looked back at Celiane, half expecting her not to be there. “Will you help Kara?”
The hood oriented toward Elaine. Even this close, Elaine could not see past the shadows of the grey hood. Celiane said, “I cannot prevent the grey death. It is the way of your people. Even for your sake I cannot go against nature. Only you may do that. Forgive me. Let not your rage blind you. I offer you this: ‘Ware your ancient enemy. It shall seek to slay you ere you come to the fullness of your power. I warn you in the hope that you will spare the Darkenkell forest your wrath.”
Elaine had heard this kind of talk littering the streets of New Candide. There was always some proclaimed prophet, predicting doom or greatness at any passerby. Usually, it was the end of the world or the coming of a golden age. Cracked minds, all of them. Frustrated, Elaine asked Mar-ahn, “Does that mean no? Or do all nymish ladies speak that way?”
Mar-ahn pulled his attention away from Celiane. “Did you say something, Elaine?”
Elaine wiped her brow. It was more humid around the maple tree where they spoke than around the rest of the forest. She berated Mar-ahn, “Are you deaf? I asked you if she would help us.”
Mar-ahn replied, “Celiane said that she would help Stephen for you.”
Ta-nor interrupted, “Neither I nor Elaine heard that. The daughter of the Darkenkell is now speaking to each of us individually, as is her nature among foreigners.”
Elaine said, “How is that possible? You—-” The grey cloak and shadows were gone. The giant maple at once became less oppressive. “She’s gone. Wait. No one’s that quiet.”
Mar-ahn nodded. “I, also, did not sense her leave. Perhaps it was an evil magic from Hecate?”
Ta-nor looked at his brother with open contempt. “That was no evil magic. Calm yourselves. Her method of departure may seem odd to you, but I assure you that it is natural for her to leave in this manner.”
Elaine examined where Celiane had stood. The damp soil around the maple tree had neither tracks nor marks, as if Celiane had never been there. Elaine said, “Hmmm, maybe I ought to learn nymish magic instead of studying with Kara.”
Mar-ahn laughed, failing to rid himself of his sidhe spawned nervousness. “That one is no nym, Elaine. Celiane is unique upon the world.”
Ta-nor interrupted, “Yet she does have nymish heritage.”
Mar-ahn eyed his brother. Elaine watched the anxiety creep across Mar-ahn’s face. That weary frustration and nervousness always came when the usually stoic warrior talked about his brother being fey. Mar-ahn said, “You vex me when you say these things, brother. There is nothing of our people in Celiane. She is not for anyone’s flesh. She belongs to the forest. It would be better for all if you do not even begin to think differently.”
Ta-nor tensed. With a practiced, casual grace Elaine put her hand on the hilt of the dagger that she kept tucked behind the back of her belt.
The mania that had left Ta-nor’s eyes with the departure of Celiane had returned. Ta-nor said, “Who do you think you are talking to?”
Mar-ahn gestured with his palms outward, hoping to defuse his brother’s anger. This was a different Ta-nor than the one whom Elaine had met outside the grove of Windweaver. Mar-ahn soothed, “Why are you upset? Brother, I only worry that she has bewitched you.”
Ta-nor spat at his brother and shouted, “She would never do that. Never! You do not understand her. She is lonely, afraid.”
Mar-ahn wiped the spit from his face. His other hand drifted toward the hilt of Carchoroth’s fang, but he balled his hand into a fist. Mar-ahn’s words were slow and measured, “How would you know? Celiane always speaks cryptically. She muddles everything so that she is practically incomprehensible. She does not care about you. She can’t. She is incapable of giving you what you seek.”
Ta-nor scoffed, “You forget, Mar-ahn. I am the mage, not you. I do understand her, and I understand why she speaks the way she does. She is not trying to confuse us when she speaks. She is trying to communicate with us. She just perceives so much more than we that we can’t help but be confused by our own ignorance of the meaning of her words. It is not her fault. It is merely who she is.”
Mar-ahn pleaded with his overwrought brother, “That is what I am trying to tell you, Ta. She is faerie. You are too different to know each other. Don’t you remember what happened to our old King, Terellor? Do you want that to happen to you?”
Ta-nor shivered, and Mar-ahn grabbed him by the shoulders. “Ta, Celiane is a sidhe.”
Ta-nor weakly said, “No, Mar. Only half.”
Mar-ahn retorted fiercely, sensing that his brother was beginning to doubt his fey desire, “How do you know that it is only half? Celiane is unique, and she takes after her mother.”
Elaine said, “Do you two mind telling me what you are talking about?” Ta-nor averted his face from his brother’s stare. Elaine put her hands on her hips and leaned toward the two brothers. “Is this gibberish going to help Kara? We have the only person who might know how to free his son and stop the outworlders from overrunning our land–no, I mean your land–and he’s lying unconscious with a mangled arm! Are you going to help, or am I going to give each of you an arm to match the wizard’s arm?”
Sweating under the strain of his confrontation with his brother, Ta-nor turned his thin face toward Elaine. “We wouldn’t have this trouble if it wasn’t for your wizard’s son, apprentice. This gibberish, as you call it, is not for your ears, human. Celiane fears you.” He pointed at Elaine as if she were a daemon. Ta-nor shouted, “You! A wizard’s apprentice. I want to know why!”
The frustration, which Elaine had felt since leaving New Candide and her old way of life, found a release named Ta-nor. Elaine spoke behind gritted teeth, “Here’s why, you snot nosed nym.” She threw a full roundhouse punch with her weight behind it at Ta-nor’s jaw. The slim Nor sprawled back against the maple and slid to the ground, utterly unconscious. Elaine spun around and walked past Mar-ahn toward the campsite.
A slow smile played across Mar-ahn’s face as he looked at his humbled, now peaceful brother. He said, “We’ll talk later, Ta.” He followed Elaine. He wanted to get the humans–his friends–under some order. As much as he enjoyed the sight of Ta’s comeuppance, it signed that the differing pressures were fracturing their purpose to free the forever child.
When Elaine reached the campsite, she found Nigel with his back against a pine tree. His eyes were half lidded; he savored the cool forest’s natural interplay with the warming tingle of the mid morning sun. He reminded Elaine of the slumped form of Ta-nor that she had just left. Nigel took a lazy pull from his wineskin and said, “You look as if you might want some of this.” He proffered her the wine. “Where’s Mar-ahn?”
“Well, we found Ta-nor.” Elaine replied quietly.
Nigel smiled. Somewhere beyond his enjoyment of the wine and the day, a small voice warned him that Elaine was acting funny, but he didn’t listen to it. The day had started so peacefully for a change. Nigel said, “That’s good. Where’s our nymish friend, Ta-nor?”
“By a maple in the woods,” Elaine softly answered.
The little voice became more insistent and Nigel sat up as he asked, “Why isn’t he here? I thought he’d be glad to see us.”
Elaine licked her lips. “He’s busy.”
Elaine was positively meek. Nigel nervously asked, “Oh? Wh-what’s Ta-nor doing, exactly?” That little voice was now roaring in his head, and it shouted that Elaine and danger walked arm in arm.
Elaine looked toward the forest. “Being unconscious. I punched him.”
“Uh-oh.” He allowed his little voice a snigger of satisfaction before he leaned back, determined to enjoy the day and ignore all else.
Elaine asked, “Want your wine back?” It was unlike Nigel not to be upset about this sort of thing. She guessed he’d already had some wine, and she was glad that he was, for once, relaxed.
Nigel reached out his hand.
Mar-ahn entered the camp. Wine and sun forgotten, Nigel leapt to his feet. He didn’t want to part with Mar-ahn. They would be lost with a febrile wizard if the nym abandoned them.
Elaine stepped in front of Nigel to bear the responsibility. She confronted the stocky warrior. “Mar-ahn, about your brother, I’m sorry.”
Mar-ahn held her eyes with a grim stare. When she held his gaze without flinching, the Ahn smiled and said, “Let it not trouble you. I take no offense. It was Ta-nor who offended. You gave him the controlled response of an Ahn. I salute your strength and thank you for sparing his life.” Mar-ahn made a solemn gesture with his hands, and Elaine tried to return it, but her fingers, lacking the nymish extra joint, could not contort in the fluid manner of Mar-ahn’s hand.
Nigel reclaimed his seat beneath the pine; he was relieved that there would be no more violence, but unimpressed with the military style gestures and solemnity of Mar-ahn. He drained the wine bladder and wiped his mouth on his forearm. Bluster and pomp had succeeded in ruining his carefully guarded pleasure. He asked irritably, “What now? I don’t think that Kara’s condition is improving. I think we’d best do something soon.”
Mar-ahn ignored Nigel. Looking at Elaine, he said, “I believe we should do some planning.”
Elaine nodded vigorously; she added, “I agree. It’s time we form a plan. It’s time to act instead of react.”
Nigel interrupted, “I think that I’ll leave the planning to you two. I wouldn’t want to get too excited. I’d better check on Kara. He’s had a little too much action.” He graced them with a dour smile and left with the limp wineskin.
Mar-ahn didn’t mind. It was Elaine with whom he wanted to confer. His respect for her keen tactical mind and her almost ahnish way of implementing her ideas appealed to him. Mar-ahn asked, “What did Celiane tell you?”
Elaine replied, “I don’t think that she told me anything that would help Kara or us. Celiane told me to beware of my ancient enemy, but I don’t know who my ancient enemy is. Faerie don’t seem very practical.”
Mar-ahn relaxed. He was glad of a kindred spirit and said, “I wish my brother could understand that. As one warrior to another, I must warn you: Celiane is a danger. Her riddles are fraught with meaning. Some say that a sidhe’s prophecies are always true and that sidhe can choose between fates of any of the races of hu who dare to talk with one. The wizard could be of help if he weren’t the one who needs our help the most.”
Elaine cleared her throat, trying to think of a way to tactfully phrase her question. “Couldn’t Ta-nor be of some help? He seems close to her.”
Mar-ahn grimaced. A coldness invaded in his eyes. “No. He deludes himself. My brother is an ambitious mage, but he has not the lore of some magi. The title of Ston is given to those magi who have a true vision into the realm of faerie and have the wisdom not to gaze too long and to respect the dangers within the hidden physique of the faerie’s world. A Nor, such as my brother, must still be disciplined and guided. Heedlessly, Ta has spoken with Celiane more than any other nym, far more than even any Ston has dared. We fear her.”
A friend who risked his life without hesitation and braved the condemnation of his people feared Celiane. Elaine said, “That’s not too hard to understand. Celiane is . . . She is . . . She makes me nervous.”
Mar-ahn nodded. “Do not be shamed by your reaction. I feel the same way, as do all who come near her, save my brother, who has been struck fey by her.”
Elaine distracted herself, searching for a wineskin in her pack. “Let’s forget Celiane for the time being. Our first concern is Kara. The boy should be safe in his confinement.” Elaine paused uncertainly; she didn’t like to broach the subject that had been preying on her mind since the news of the child’s confinement. She asked, “Mar-ahn, they wouldn’t torture the boy, would they?” She added quickly, “I wouldn’t ask, but the outworlders have tortured some of our people. And the practice has become widespread in some quarters of New Candide.”
Mar-ahn hesitated before answering, “No. No, I’m sure they wouldn’t, not intentionally.”
“What do you mean by ‘not intentionally’?”
Mar-ahn replied, “The very act of confinement is inimical to the child’s nature.”
Elaine stared at him in the way she did before a fight. “Speak plainly.”
“The boy’s physically suffering, because he’s imprisoned.” Mar-ahn patted Nigel’s mare and checked its hide for parasites.
Elaine followed him. “And your people know this?”
Mar-ahn was intent on the mare. He spoke softly, concentrating on what he was doing rather than what he had to admit, “Yes. However, my people are also suffering, and Stephenmindakas is the only one who can help.”
Elaine slapped the rump of the mare, and it trotted away from Mar-ahn. She said, “What about your tribal magi? Can’t they help?”
Mar-ahn’s face was flushed, but not from anger. “The plague of Hecate’s is too strong for them to counter. We have no Er-ston, archmage would be the title that you might know, I think. Many of our people just wasted away and died until the mage Kare-ston bound young Stephen unawares while he spoke to King Torastor.”
Elaine paced around the campsite. “So, if we get Kara’s boy back, your people will be plagued again.”
Mar-ahn watched her walk in meandering circles. “Yes. It was a difficult choice for my King and a choice that I found I could not live with.”
Elaine didn’t pay attention to Mar-ahn. She paced, lost in thought. She mumbled, “The witch brings the plague, and Stephen cures it?”
Mar-ahn stared at her. “Yes, yes, haven’t you been listening to me?”
“Listening and thinking, listening and thinking.” Elaine stopped and looked at Nigel, who was wiping a cloth across the wizard’s forehead. “It’ll be just like old times.” Elaine smiled mischievously. “All that Nigel and I need to do is kidnap Stephen. Then, Stephen can heal the wizard and the wizard can kill the witch. Brilliant, yes?”
Mar-ahn rolled his eyes in futility. Perhaps he had misjudged the woman’s competence. Mar-ahn said, “Brilliant, no. I already told you that the boy is too well guarded. Why do you think Ta-nor and I went in search of the wizard in the first place? We need magic to get the boy.”
Elaine laughed derisively. “We need subtlety to get the boy. What Stephen needs is cunning, not magic; and you, lucky Ahn, just happen to have the best two thieves who ever walked the streets of New Candide. Trust me. Next to breaking into the Provost Marshall’s home, this should be a walk through the woods.”
Mar-ahn muttered, “The woods can be deadly.”
Elaine went to Kara’s satchel and withdrew some parchment, quills, and ink. She said, “You worry too much. This is a routine job for us. We’ll get the boy.” She handed Mar-ahn the writing equipment. “Here. Make a map of the guard routines, defence layouts, and as much detail as you can about the boy’s prison.” Elaine jogged over to Nigel.
Eventually, minutes after Elaine had left, Mar-ahn stifled his astonishment and began working on the map.

Chapter XII Entangling Alliances

Stephenmindakas huddled in the corner of his ivy cage and shivered from a fever that afflicted his spirit. Imprisonment was an anathema to those of Windweaver’s ilk. Since that fateful day in the grove, Stephen had revelled in the joys inherent in being related to the running ones, the unicorns. He had never thought that Windweaver’s legacy would hurt him.
The pain reminded him of the misery at Jezric. There, at least, he had been free to roam around the decimated corpse of the city. Even the wasting disease would be better than this seemingly eternal imprisonment. The pain came in waves, tormenting his body as his muscles contracted in response to his anguish. Stephen curled himself into a fetal position, mentally begging for release. The pain receded, and he stopped gasping. He breathed easier, but the days spent in this green cage had warned him that the next wave would come. He stretched flat against the dirt and cried, wishing that they hadn’t taken the necklace that his father had given him. His father didn’t know what was happening to him, couldn’t rescue him. Another wave of pain hit . . .
In the lull before the next assault, he gathered his remaining strength. The ghostly unicorn horn appeared, hovering next to him. He reached out a grimy hand and grabbed it. He stood. His legs throbbed, and vertigo threatened to grab hold of his senses. He charged. His horn hit the circular ivy wall, as if the greenery were made of stone. Stephen twisted his wrist when the horn ricocheted off the ivy wall. The double spiraled horn disappeared to the spirit world before it touched the ground. Stephen wailed, helpless to end his pain.
The forever child swore to himself that if he should ever escape, he would never allow himself to be captured again. Never.
Another wave of agony struck Stephen. This time, the pain was worse. Even curled up with his eyes squeezed shut, his senses swam. Cool and moist, the soft dirt sapped the warmth from his body. His hands and feet felt dead, as if merged into the ground, stripped of the ability to run, although the desire to run remained to torment him. Stephen knew by now what this kind of pain meant. They were going to bring another of the wasting ones to him. Stephen dreaded this more than the pain, for they forced him to heal. They ripped his essence from him again and again, compelling the power within him. He could not count the many plague ridden hunym-sidhe who had come to him. After each healing, Stephen felt weaker than before. Some, he had healed twice, for they had caught the wasting disease again.
His vision blurred by tears, Stephen watched as the five magi entered the room. They were always silent. The maidens and the sick whom they brought were also mute upon seeing the Chen-faerie. The magi in brown robes circled Stephen equidistant from each other, and they stared at him as he writhed on the dirt floor. A sharp crescendo of pain lanced through his chest; a hoarse scream burst from Stephen. His spirit horn appeared a cubit above him. Two maidens, bearing the sickly one, entered within the circle of magi. Stephen smelled the fetid sores covering her body as the once beautiful maiden extended a trembling hand toward the spirit horn. A white aura enshrouded the maiden, cast shadows against the leafy walls. She touched the horn and sighed in relief. Stephen whimpered. The maiden, beautiful again, collapsed into the waiting embrace of the two who served her. The unicorn horn faded.
After one of these sessions, Stephen would fall comatose for a time. Now, he fought against the soporific. Relaxing neck muscles inched his head to the side where a mage entered his field of vision. He begged, “Please, let me free.”
The nymish mage averted his eyes and silently followed his brethren out the cage. The ivy parted for their bodies, but resealed itself after they had left. Alone again, Stephen sank into the induced coma. It was the only surcease from pain that they gave him. He drifted quickly past the realm of dreams, willing himself down into oblivion. Each time was easier than the last.
Stephen woke. He did not experience the normal spasms of pain that occurred when he regained awareness. The pleasurable sensation of the absence of pain lifted some of his weakness. There was a maiden standing next to him. Yet his unicorn persona sensed a difference in the female.
Her face was hidden under a hood, but a few shimmering silver locks of hair curled past the shadowy enclosure. Her robe was grey with an ephemeral texture. She proffered him her hand.
Distrust was a gift of Stephen’s imprisonment. He put his back to the ivy cage and said, “Who are you?”
“I am not here to harm you.” the lady said. Her voice was sorrowful, and she wept, though her hood hid any tears from Stephen. Skittishly, he approached her and peered under her hood.
Celiane said, “Do not look at me so, forever child. I cannot free you. Your cage is formed from my mother’s body. The magi are crafty and draw upon my mother’s strength. I shall not harm her in her time of trial. Have hope. A mighty lady comes to help you and take you to your companions in Windweaver’s destiny. Fear not. Your tormentors shall bother you no more. That, at least, I may do for you.” Celiane turned away from Stephen and flickered out of existence.
Stephen didn’t understand the faerie lady, but he knew that she would try to help him, despite her nymish appearance. For the first time since his imprisonment, Stephen fell into a natural slumber.

***

Kare-ston and Rayek-ston walked down the meditation path reserved for magi. Rayek-ston’s dark skin, shorter size, and stouter limbs were the mark of all the Koral kindred, who dwelled above the Koradesh jungle on the desolate, cold peak of Koral mountain. Kare-ston was the epitome of the Darkenkell Ahn: tall, lean, and wiry. His musculature was well defined, hidden only by his long robes and knotted cord that marked him as a mage. They walked for a long while, each secluding himself with his thoughts.
The Darkenkell mage broke the silence. “I am glad you could arrive so quickly, Rayek. We have only four Stons in our tribe. I didn’t think we could bind the forever child with an incomplete star.”
Rayek-ston huffed as he walked. “We couldn’t have bound the Chen at all, if not for his mixed heritage. When your King’s desire reached our Mer, I was eager to come. My Queen Arienor is gracious and puissant with her Ston, praise her. Knowing my desire, she granted me my leave. The Darkenkell has always been a place of gentle beauty compared to the harshness of the Koradesh jungle or my cold homeland.”
The path was sided with benches where a large patch of oaks dominated the other trees. Ivy grew among the oaks in symmetrical patterns, mimicking the stars in the sky. Rayek-ston said, “You see? We have nothing like this in my homeland. It would be nice to sit here and contemplate this beauty. Even the shade from these trees seems especially conducive to easing the mind.”
Kare-ston sat on a gnarled bench. “The Nor fashion the patterns of the ivy as an exercise in discipline and art, and the seeds of the ivy are theirs to use, having adapted to the Nor’s touch. Farther down, some of my more apt Nor have taken to ivy images of tales, told by the Mer visions. They are quite interesting and prolonged observation can usually produce the desired emotion of the sculptor. Of course, this path is restricted for the Ston. Some more mischievous Nor have taken to interpreting the daemonic visions of the Mer. Those are not healthy to study, so we have tried to forbid the practice.”
Looking at the ivy constellations, Rayek-ston said, “Ah, well, a Nor must experiment. It is the path of growth. We have something similar for our Nor in the Koral cliffs with the shaping of ore veins. As you say, it is a useful artistic and disciplinary device, but our creations lack that vital spark of life, which this ivy possesses. Oh, I’ll pass on viewing those darker patterns, if you don’t mind.” He leaned against an oak and felt the smoothness of the night sky in its ancient bark. Rayek-ston guessed that the Nor who had attended this tree had loved the night.
Not wishing to lose Rayek-ston’s attention, Kare-ston said, “The Darkenkell’s gentility is an illusion, Rayek. Our people are beset by Hecate and her plague. And there are those warring humans, whom the unicorn child’s message stone bespoke.”
Rayek-ston asked, “Did you ever ascertain the nature of that white gem?”
“Not exactly. We believe that the stone is a typical human journeystone, affected by the unicorn Chen’s nature.”
Rayek-ston’s calloused, long fingers rubbed the tree bark. “Are you saying that a human warned you of a threat from other humans? This smacks of deceit.”
Kare-ston replied, “Yes. However, I know this wizard. He is a traveller who, I think, had the sense to know, as we do, how divisive his people are, so he never claimed a particular human tribe.”
“Kare, they can be the most dangerous if he has suddenly chosen a tribe. We could be in some difficulty. They use those crystals to devastating effect. He won’t be pleased when he discovers what we have done with his son.”
Kare-ston stretched, rising from the gnarled bench where the rounded ends were sunk into the soil. “Mmmm, this wizard has a particularly rotten temperament, even for a human.”
Rayek-ston made a crossed gesture with four fingers, crooking them in the symbol for contempt. He returned to the path with Kare-ston and asked, “Does he practice what those humans call the dark arts?”
Kare-ston muttered and echoed Rayek-ston’s previous gesture, “Since the arrival of Hecate those long years ago, I am not altogether sure that magi do not also have these dark arts.” He shook his head after looking toward the center of the forest. “I have never seen this wizard call upon any black fires, but I believe it is not beyond him. He belongs to the New Candide council of wizards, which includes the two Queens.”
Rayek-ston leaned against an oak, crushing a delicate ivy pattern. His voice went faint. “You don’t mean the Saracean sisters? the ones who penned in the witchwolves?”
Kare-ston stopped and wondered at Rayek-ston’s abrupt fear. The Darkenkell Ston said, “The Queens had penned in the witchwolves. Hecate has freed the twins and many wolves are gathering around them. Alia-mer told me that Hecate broke the binding when the sisters travelled to the human city, New Candide, to meet with their brethren. Hecate’s shadowcrows serve her well. The Witch Queen has many eyes.”
Rayek-ston went to a gnarled bench and sat with his hands covering his face. “This becomes worse unto nightmare. Events are causing a nexus of political power, centering on your tribe.”
“How?”
Rayek-ston pulled out a meditation cloth and used it to mop his sweating face. “I think we may be in more trouble than a collapsing kor stone mine. I dealt with the sorceress Meara when she and her sister were carving out the land that would eventually become the Saracean Empires. In many marshes lived perverse humans: necromancers and fetishists, who were in an uneasy confederacy. Meara worked with me in enchanting several of our cheaper stones to glow for use as talismans. They were to lighten the hearts of their troops during the nights in the swamp. That was many decades ago, but I still remember her sensitivity for auras. It surpassed my own. She was the first to discover that the dragon Carchoroth of Glered-nigh was turning his dream eye upon our mines. When Meara arrives in her homeland, she will trace the aura of whoever broke her binding spell to the Darkenkell forest. She will probably bring her sister and their legions to strike down the perpetrator.”
Kare-ston laughed uncertainly. “That is good news. We will have allies against Hecate.”
Rayek-ston said, “No, Kare. I doubt she knows about Hecate, who only harries your people. She probably doesn’t even know about the plague in your lands. Your King maintains this forest politically isolated from the human realms. You have never traded with the Saraceas, as the rest of our people do. Meara would know from her dealings with my people and the Koradesh hunym-sidhe that no magi would make such a bold move against her interests without imperial consent. Naturally, she would have to assume that the reclusive King Torastor has been arming himself against her and has finally made the move to attack her Empire through his Ston.”
Desperately, Kare-ston said, “Surely, she would send an envoy before striking to be certain.”
Rayek-ston nodded. “Meara might. She might, but her sister’s draconic temper is almost legendary among my people. Queen Shere is vain and prideful. She would probably take umbrage and strike without warning, using surprise to cast her harshest vengeance on those who had dared to interfere with her sister’s binding.”
Pulling at his robe as if he might tear it, Kare-ston spoke, “If Karamindakas tells Meara or Shere that we have imprisoned his son, they will surely assume we are hostile and attack. Curse this plague of Hecate’s device!” His voice trailed into whispers, “We would be crushed.”
Rayek-ston said, “Yes. You could not hope to defend against both Saracean Empires and Hecate’s legions. Doubtless, Hecate foresaw this possibility when she freed the witchwolves. Are any of your Nor to become Ston?”
Looking at the ivy and frustrated that it lacked answers, Kare-ston said, “I don’t know. Probably not. I have not seen any display such perceptiveness. Most are content to wander the Darkenkell or enjoy the benefits of families. What of Er-Mene-ston? Surely his might could save us. He could call upon the spirits of the earth and destroy the path of Erador.”
With sign language, Rayek-ston gestured negatively. “Our Er-ston left to go into the heart of Mount Koral. He does not leave his abode, and the travel to him is perilous. Those caverns are as ancient as the world. Many of my people say that he is bored with his long life. He has nothing left to challenge him.”
Kare-ston grabbed the foreign Ston’s shoulder with sudden hope. “Is he truly that mighty?”
Rayek-ston laughed bitterly and said, “No. Those are the fancies of my prideful people. About a season ago two other Stons and I journeyed to him. We left the heart of Mount Koral feeling cursed.” Rayek-ston rubbed his arms. His sweat had chilled in the air. They had entered a deeper, colder part of the forest. The trees were thick here, making the day seem like twilight. Rayek-ston spoke in a subdued voice, “He was lost in a trance when we arrived. I anchored my two brethren as they sought to find his spirit. They succeeded in breaking his trance. Kare, he babbled of visions that we did not understand: the coming of a three headed dog who would devour the world, dead things brought to life, and a rain of death. He spoke for an hour and most of it was nonsensical rambling. I believe he pressed his sight too far into the realm of faerie and unsettled his mind with twisted visions. Er-Mene-ston went into Mount Koral not because he was bored, but because he was afraid.” Exhaling, Rayek-ston asked, “Perhaps, Er-Delia-ston would aid your people.”
Kare-ston said, “No, Rayek. The Koradesh and the Darkenkell do not speak to one another. I doubt that Queen Liennalor would send her only Er-ston into a foreign battle wherein she might die.”
Rayek-ston nodded at the truth of that.
Kare-ston turned from Rayek-ston and said, “Enjoy the peace of this path, Rayek. I must go to King Torastor and tell him of what we have uncovered. He might be able to send messengers to Saracea and explain our situation to Queen Meara, providing she doesn’t know of our treachery to the wizard Karamindakas. Then, I doubt she would believe anything we had to say.”
Kare-ston disappeared beyond a curve in the scented path, leaving Rayek-ston to his brooding. The Koral mage walked farther down the pine sapling bordered trail. Looking toward the center of the forest, he could feel the quiescent tingling of the Darkenkell Sidhe, prickling his skin. Although not a native of the Darkenkell, he loved the vibrant, green beauty of this forest. If he stayed, he would likely die. Rayek-ston had no love for battle.
The path twisted around a dull, grey boulder, where he almost ran into a Darkenkell nymish maiden, wearing a grey cloak and hood, which concealed her face from his eyes. The maiden wore no magi cords on her.
Angry that his thoughts were disturbed, Rayek-ston said, “Lady, you have no place here. This passage is restricted to Ston magi. Leave, or I shall tell your people of your disregard for custom.”
The maiden remained motionless, but said, “There is no place in the Darkenkell that is restricted to me.”
The maiden’s immobile manner and oddly slurred voice warned Rayek-ston that something was amiss. Could this be Hecate? Rayek-ston said, “What are you doing here? Are you a mage? If so, why are you dressed this way?”
Her voice seemed to reach Rayek-ston’s ears from every direction, “I wear what I have always worn. I am no mage, and I have no wish to be one of your ilk. I have come here to aid the forever child in his escape.”
Hecate would want to get rid of the unicorn Chen, so her plague could again ravage the Darkenkell tribe. Rayek-ston knew that alone against Hecate, he would not survive, but he could end her with a single sky born bolt of lightning. The sky fire would consume them both.
Rayek-ston stretched his thrice jointed arms and hands, making gestures, feeling the weather. He shouted with tears in his eyes, knowing this would be his death, “Hecate! Your dark passion ends here. Let it be reclaimed by Erador. You shall not have the child.” Dark clouds gathered.
The hooded maiden spoke, “You have been wrong about a great many things, Rayek-ston of the Koral mountain. My name, though you know it not, is Celiane. I do not seek to possess the forever child. You have harmed one who is favored by my mother. I have stayed from my father’s people, but no more. I shall not allow the child to be destroyed.” Her nymish hand made a pass in the air. Her hand flickered, alternately disappearing and reappearing. The thunderclouds dispersed in the same pattern that they had gathered.
It was an unsettling sight for Rayek-ston. “How?” He backed against an oak, ripping the ivy patterns in his haste to distance himself from the maiden.
Celiane lifted both hands to her hood and drew it back, revealing her face. Rayek-ston stared. Celiane’s curled, silver hair shimmered. Her face had a delicate nymish beauty. Her aquiline nose and pale skin marked her as a Darkenkell nym. Rayek-ston did not notice these features. Two curled antennae unfolded and weaved the air. Still, Rayek-ston paid no notice of that anomaly. Celiane’s completely black, half lidded eyes rivetted his attention. The ebony eyes were the unmistakable markings of a sidhe.
Rayek-ston, horrified, shouted at Celiane, “No! It’s not possible. Sidhe cannot move. You cannot be here. You cannot be.” Knowing his danger, Rayek-ston tried to avert his eyes from hers, but he could not break her gaze. He watched as Celiane slowly revealed her full gaze to him. He felt his awareness drift from his body.
For a mercuric moment Rayek-ston saw the face of eternity even as his lifeless body fell to the ground.
Celiane vanished.

***

Kare-ston walked on the polished basalt stones, which marked the path to the council chamber. The two colorfully dressed Ahn guards in front of the wooden domed council chamber stiffened as they immediately recognized one of the few Stons of the tribe.
Kare-ston glanced sourly at the guards, who were posted at the heart of the tribe. He entered the dome, a simple construction of wood overlaid with an adobe mosaic, depicting various Kings from Darkenkell history and legend. Kare-ston tried to straighten his tired shoulders. King Torastor would not be pleased with his findings. Since the discovery of the unicorn Chen, the King had been ruling the magi with an asphyxiating grip. Tonight was not the first time that Kare-ston wished there was an archmage in his tribe. Were he Er-Kare-ston, he could challenge the King.
Kare-ston stopped dumbly staring at the interior mosaic in the ante-chamber when he saw the King’s Vizier, Ram-Erin-nor. This was a dangerous nym and a powerful friend.
Ram-Erin-nor said, “Going to the council, Kare-ston?”
“Yes. I have bad tidings for the King, Erin.”
“Regarding the unicorn Chen? I hope not.” The Ram narrowed his overly light eyes, menacing his attractive, athletic features.
“Yes, and more besides.” Kare-ston thought of disclosing to the Vizier. Erin had been Ram since the King’s coronation and was the most adroit politician in council. Erin was also a Nor, although that didn’t guarantee his support of the magi.
Ram-Erin-nor asked, “Such as? The Mer have not foreseen any immediate trouble from Hecate.”
Kare-ston said, “It is not the Witch Queen of Erador’s path who concerns me. I believe that the Saracean Empires may attack.”
“What? Absurd. They have no cause. They would not attack us.” But the Vizier looked worried.
“Hecate has broken Meara’s binding, which had imprisoned the fen witchwolves. The King must know.”
Ram-Erin-nor said, “Of course, come.” He always gave credence to Ston counsel, particularly when it regarded magics, although Ram-Erin-nor privately noted that their Stons had little in the way of political sensibilities. Magi were, by nature, reclusive and given to idealism. After all, the Mer had declared that the danger to their tribe issued from the path of Erador, which was plainly sensible.
Ram-Erin-nor led Kare-ston past the outer rim chambers into the central, circular dome chamber. The rim chambers were crowded with curious onlookers. Council sessions were a sport to many even in the most trying times. Unlike Kare-ston, who could only be recognized as a councilor by his Ston cords that served as his belt, Ram-Erin-nor wore a red robe with a wide coppery cloth belt and a medallion of the King’s heraldry, a naked arm embowed holding a sword blooded proper. His hood was neatly folded back and his robe was trimmed with silver. His hair was parted to the side in the manner of the younger nym. He was a favorite among the outer chamber, and his off duty exploits were the cause of frequent gossip and exaggeration so that his mating prowess had become legendary. He paid the tales no heed as Ram, but used his popularity to lambaste intractable opponent’s reputations when they did not cooperate or disdained the council.
The advisory council of clan leaders was completed. Sol-mer was there. Kare-ston felt a twinge of hate in his gut. Of all seers, Sol-mer was the most skillful in council. The bone thin, small eyed seer was respected by the King and fully supported the binding of Stephenmindakas, which the Stons had vigorously opposed. Next to the King, Kare-ston held Sol-mer responsible for having to bind a member of the running ones’ ilk. The ossified seer had a complete conviction in Mer visions and would not believe a threat from the Saracean Empires unless a Mer had foreseen it. The other clans were represented, and they would also be a problem; they were isolationists, preferring to cover their eyes with dirt than deal with a problem. The outside world had entered Kare-ston’s life through the unicorn Chen, and that same world would soon, too soon, be crashing down on the rest of the unprepared council. Kare-ston took his chair between Lok-ston and Arle-ston.
The semi-circle of chairs was divided from right to left with King Torastor at the apex of the half-circle, sitting on an oaken throne, which was raised a cubit off the floor by a wooden platform. From the right, when entering the room from opposite the semi-circle, was a single empty chair, set aside for the Chen. The Ahn took the next three chairs. Two Ahn were not councilors, but strategists and advisors to their one military leader, the Kahn. Mella-kahn always came to council fully armored. His helmet’s visor was shaped in the fashion of a warhawk’s beak, and the long red plume on the left side of the brassy helmet symbolized the bloodshed in war. Always, the Kahn clutched a battle plan in his thick hands. Kare-ston wasn’t sure whether it was a battle plan for Hecate or for the debate in council. Mella-kahn was large, having won his position through physical trials as well as battle cunning.
In the next three chairs sat the triumvirate of judges, the Zen, who governed day to day life in the tribe and preserved the traditions. On the throne King Torastor in his presidium green robe picked at a tray of carved liver and quietly talked with Sol-mer. The Vizier, Ram-Erin-nor, took his seat between them at the right of the King. After Sol-mer, there were two empty Mer seats. They sat rarely in council, preferring their private, spirit spawned visions, except Sol-mer who enjoyed politics and fancied himself as having a quick tongue. Farthermost on the right were the four Ston seats of the magi with only Mel-ston absent. An additional Ston seat inlaid with the gold Koral color had been set for the visiting Rayek-ston. In the center of the dome rested a ten cubit diameter table of blackest marble, gifted to the Darkenkell people from the Koral tribe after the battle of Carchoroth.
Ram-Erin-nor whispered in the King’s ear. King Torastor’s white lined face turned to Kare-ston with an unconscious sternness as he fingered the decorative, ceremonial sword, sleeping in his scabbard. Torastor had taken to wearing the knotted warrior braid, used by the Ahn before battle. It added fierceness to his mien. The King said, “Kare-ston, you have my leave to address this body.”
Kare-ston rose. “Milord,” he nodded to the King. “I believe we are in imminent danger from an attack by the Saracean Empires.”
A clamor issued from over the three cubit wall, which separated the outer rim halls from the main chamber. Each councilor fired questions at Kare-ston. He futilely tried to answer each in succession, explaining Hecate’s role in freeing the penned Saracean wolves. The questions were so varied and often minutiae that Kare-ston found himself unable to answer. The Kahn asked the strength of the Saracean armies while Mar-zen wanted Kare-ston to answer if martial law was needed. Even his ally, Lok-ston, was asking what type of sorcerous attack could be expected from the Queens.
Above them all rode the indignantly shrill voice of Sol-mer, “And where did Kare-ston, or should I say Kare-mer, foresee this knowledge? This frivolous notion is an insult to the Mer. We have foreseen the danger arising from Erador’s path and this danger has come. Hecate will not stop her assault with the plague. Now that she has weakened us, she will press her advantage. To split our vigilance on two fronts weakens us further. The Saracean humans have never bothered us before. I suggest that Kare-ston leave prophecies to the Mer and keep his mind on his proper role, the confinement of the unicorn Chen.”
The room quieted. Sol-mer’s self assurance allayed most of the fears of the council. Kare-ston sank to his chair. He could not believe he had been outmaneuvered before he had begun. He hadn’t become Ston to trade words with a sly, overprotective Mer. It had all happened so fast. It only increased his frustration that he truly believed they were in danger from Saracea.
With satisfaction Sol-mer watched Kare-ston resume his seat. Only then did Sol-mer, with a sweeping glance at the councilors, take his seat. The senior Mer had been to too many quorums to allow an upstart like Kare-ston to intrude on his bailiwick. Stopping such conduct before it started was the properly aggressive solution, or everyone would begin to question Mer prophecies. Either the Mer were right or they were lured to false visions, and Sol-mer staked everything on his belief in Mer prophecy.
In his seat at the right of the King, Ram-Erin-nor asked, “Kare-ston, is that all you wished to address to this council?” The Vizier noted the black look he received from Sol-mer, but he wasn’t about to let a veteran councilor like Sol-mer ride roughshod over a cloistered Ston, at least not when the security of the Darkenkell was at issue.
Kare-ston stood again and cleared his throat. “Umm, yes. I, ah, also believe that the unicorn Chen has allies who will attempt to rescue him.”
Sol-mer snapped, “It seems then that your time would be better spent in guarding the unicorn Chen, rather than in predictions.”
Kare-ston bridled under the insult, but held his temper in check. He refused to play into Sol-mer by shouting and revealing himself as immature and lacking tact.
Ram-Erin-nor came to Kare-ston’s rescue with a gentle rebuke, “You know as well as I, Sol-mer, that it is Kare-ston’s duty to disclose any fears he has for the safety of our tribe.” The Ram turned to Kare-ston. “We know that the unicorn Chen served a wizard. Surely, our magi can handle a lone wizard.”
Sol-mer interrupted. Sweat gleamed on his bald head. “Are we to assume that wizards are more adroit at magics than magi?” The council erupted in laughter. Wizardry was considered by nym to be crude when compared to nymish magics.
Kare-ston seethed, “If you had listened to me, Sol-mer, you would know that it may not be only one wizard. Karamindakas shares council with the two Queens. That would be three pitted against the Stons, who are pressed to their limit with the binding of the unicorn Chen. The Nor would fall as leaves in a storm against such a force.”
Sol-mer quietly said, “Then you admit that the Ston are inferior to wizards.”
Ram-Erin-nor was about to speak to the smiling Mer when Kare-ston shouted him down. He waved a fist at Sol-mer. “I said no such thing, Sol-mer. You seek to defile my words. The Mer sit and let the spirits bring them visions, but it is the Ston who must bind those spirits to our will.” The Ram called for order, but Kare-ston ignored him, intent on Sol-mer. “I do not cherish your snide remarks, Sol-mer. The Ston are tired from this binding of a running one. We did not wish to bind and compel the unicorn Chen. I tell you: It is wrong. The Ston are against this binding. It cripples us. We condemn it as evil.”
Shocked, Sol-mer looked at his reflection in the black marble table. Silence descended in both chambers. The councilors became preoccupied. Slowly, realization of his boldness dawned on Kare-ston. The King’s steely blue eyes bore down on him from the raised throne. King Torastor allowed the silence to continue for a moment. Then, he said, “Does the Ston challenge the right of the king’s preeminence?”
Lok-ston said, “No, milord.”
Arle-ston echoed, “No, milord.”
Barely aware of his surroundings, Kare-ston gazed dumbly at his King. How could he have misplayed his position in such a short period? It would have been better if he had not even come to the dome. Lost in regrets, Kare-ston failed to notice the building tension in the council chamber.
“Kare-ston?” The King’s voice rose with anger.
Kare-ston mumbled, “No, milord. The Ston are, as ever, at your disposal. Please pardon my thoughtlessness, milord. I meant no disrespect. My concern was only for the welfare of the Darkenkell people.”
His reign secure, King Torastor afforded Kare-ston some magnanimity. The King’s anger faded, but he held Kare-ston with his weathered face. “I pardon you, Kare-ston. I, too, feel that the binding of one who came to us in peace is an ignoble course of action. However, I, too, hold the welfare of my people paramount. I will take whatever course of action is necessary to withstand that witch brewed plague, regardless of my personal sensibilities. Do you understand, Kare-ston?”
“Yes, milord.” Kare-ston remembered that the King was once the Ahn who had braved the path of Erador to talk with Hecate.
“Does the council understand me?” The King looked at each councilor.
One by one, they assented.
Tess-nor walked into the inner chamber. She was one of the Nor who worked under Kare-ston’s dominion. She whispered to him. Every eye was discreetly focused on the mage.
“What?” Kare-ston exclaimed a bit louder than he would have liked to have spoken.
Ram-Erin-nor took the opening. “Perhaps, Kare-ston, you would like to share your information with the council?”
The color left Kare-ston’s face. He said, “Yes. I have just been informed that the most worthy Rayek-ston of the Koral tribe has been murdered upon the path that is reserved for the Ston. It is unknown how he died.”
Mella-kahn bellowed from across the table, “Could he have been attacked by those wizards of whom you spoke?”
Kare-ston ignored the Kahn. He touched brows with Tess-nor, receiving the Nor’s images and impressions when she had discovered Rayek-ston’s body. He felt her horror at finding the body, as he concentrated on her memory of the body. He could not believe that he had been talking to the insightful Rayek-ston less than an hour ago. He was doubly surprised when he found no discorporating aura around the body. It was as if Rayek-ston had never existed.
Kare-ston opened his eyes and looked blankly across the table at Mella-kahn before shaking off the effects of the rapport. Everyone awaited Kare-ston’s reply. “Yes, I believe he was murdered through some sort of magic.”
A collective groan cascaded through the rim halls. The Ram asked, “Was it human in origin? The Saraceans?”
Kare-ston hand signed a negative. “It is neither wizardry nor magic as I have known them, but it was not a violent death. This speaks of a terrific spirit assaulting Rayek-ston.”
Mella-kahn asked, “What is it then?”
Dismissing his Nor with a nod, Kare-ston said, “I don’t know. I’ve never seen a similar occurrence. There was no evidence of a wizard or sorceress.”
Sol-mer conjectured, “Some of mine have suffered through dark visions of the monstrous servants of Hecate. Could one of those have murdered our visitor?” The news had drained Sol-mer of his acerbity.
Kare-ston murmured, “It’s possible. It must have had ancient spirits to whisk away all traces of Rayek’s magic.”
Mella-kahn said, “Maybe he was taken by surprise.”
Ram-Erin-nor pulled at the joints of his fingers. A habit everyone at the council knew as a sign that the Ram was having unfortunate thoughts. Ram-Erin-nor glanced at Sol-mer who sat to his right. The Ram said, “With respect to the Mer, and I do believe our main danger is from Hecate, is it possible that the Mer overlooked a less extreme danger to our people?”
Sol-mer visibly squirmed. The unreliability of visions was not something that his clan would appreciate him disclosing to the council. The Vizier knew how to phrase a question. Sol-mer said, “Of course, the Mer cannot predict all things that occur. We are subject to the whims of wild spirits. We try to focus our attention on the main problem at hand, and that is Hecate.”
Ram-Erin-nor said after a pause, “Are you saying that the entire Mer is focused on the path of Erador?”
Sol-mer evaded, “Yes, well, Hecate is the only reasonable—-”
Kare-ston interrupted, “Then it is possible that the Saracean Empires could attack us as long as the spirits perceived Hecate as the more immediate threat.”
Annoyed, Sol-mer replied, “Mind yourself, Ston. I am sure one of the Mer would have foreseen—-”
Kare-ston interrupted again, “But you just said that all the Mer were focused on the path of Erador.”
Sol-mer stood, grasping his silver mirrored Mer belt. “Once again, Kare-ston, you presume upon the Mer’s interests. Shall I presume to tell the Ston how to bind its opponents?” He looked at the Kahn. “Shall I instruct Mella-kahn on the art of the bow?” Everyone laughed with Sol-mer; Mella-kahn’s rough laughter punctuated Sol-mer’s argument. Feeling the crowd, Sol-mer raised his voice, “Shall I instruct the Zen on the proper teaching chants for the young?” The Zen smiled crookedly. “Let us all be reminded that we are each worthy in our own acumen. That is why our King chose us to advise him.” Sol-mer bowed to the King amid the applause of the other councilors.
Ram-Erin-nor politely clapped with the others more for Sol-mer’s oratorical skill than the substance of his words. He said, “Very true, Sol-mer. We each represent our crafts, and mine is to insure that the King is as well informed as possible. Therefore, I am reluctantly forced to ask you if the Mer, in concentrating on Hecate, overlooked a possible danger from humans.”
Sol-mer didn’t look at the Ram. Defeated, he sighed, “Yes, it is possible. Possible, but unlikely. The Mer receive specific visions from specific spirits. You know that as well as I, Ram.”
Ram-Erin-nor said, without hinting a condemnation toward Sol-mer in his voice, “Then an attack from the Saraceans is possible, and an attack from the wizard Karamindakas, almost a certainty.”
Ram-Erin-nor left his chair. Facing the King, he kneeled. When the King gave him no command, the Ram rose and addressed the councilors. The King’s indifference toward the kneeling Ram signalled the end of the debate and the beginning of the final advisory round. As Ram, it was Erin’s privilege to decide the order of the final advisory round. He admitted to himself that he thoroughly relished this exercise of parliamentary power. He turned to Mar-zen and asked, “Does the Zen offer counsel to the King?”
Mar-zen picked at a small stain on his grey tunic. He looked piercingly at the serious Ram with his age clouded eyes and then glanced at the Mer chairs, as if he were going to judge between Sol-mer and Kare-ston. Absently flicking a piece of the grime from his tunic at the floor in Ram-Erin-nor’s direction, the leader of the Zen clan didn’t bother to stand as he said, “The Zen advise caution. Maintain our defenses and increase the forest patrols. I have heard only crow calls in this meeting, but that wizard will come. Even humans bond between father and son, and the unicorn Chen said that he considered this wizard to be his father. Maximize the use of him to heal the rest of our Ahn who are with the plague before the confrontation with the wizard. Then, release the unicorn Chen.”
Ram-Erin-nor glanced at the small, empty chair beside the Ahn chairs and announced, “The Chen are not present. They forfeit the round.” This was standard. Age was considered a requirement for wisdom. It was the Chen who were to be protected by the council, for they lacked a mature voice and could only trust in their parents.
Ram-Erin-nor crossed the room and stared into the eyes of Sol-mer and smiled. “Does the Mer offer counsel to the King?”
Sol-mer stood, but grimaced at Ram-Erin-nor. He knew very well that Ram-Erin-nor was aiding Kare-ston by allowing the magi to have the final word and a chance to rebut his say. “The Mer advocate the storming of Erador’s path and the burning of the witch. Then, we can release the boy and not have to deal with a wizard, since our Ston are so very tired. And since everyone seems concerned about Saracea, let’s dispatch Chala-ahn and Mene-ahn as messengers.”
That answer surprised Ram-Erin-nor. Sol-mer was cunning to offer a token solution to the Saracean problem. Sol-mer sat, and custom demanded that Ram-Erin-nor choose the next clan. Perhaps Mella-kahn would see the Mer’s advice as intrusive on his discipline. Ram-Erin-nor asked, “Does the Ahn offer counsel to the King?”
Mella-kahn stood with a broad smile that displayed several gaps between the teeth, which had been knocked out in fights and brawls. He looked at Sol-mer and said, “First, I would like to express my appreciation to Sol-mer for offering to send my two finest Ahn!”
Laughter issued from the councilors and the spectators in the rim halls, and Sol-mer inclined his head toward the Kahn with a friendly smile.
Mella-kahn continued, “The Kahn, however, agrees with the Mer that the time for battle is now. My Ahn can easily overcome the zuvembies of Hecate. With the help of the magi, Hecate could be roasting this very night.” Mella-kahn resumed his seat amid the raucous applause bursting from the rim chambers. The people were tired of living in fear.
Ram-Erin-nor had not foreseen that the Kahn would support Sol-mer. This was quickly turning into a war council against Hecate. He truly believed that Kare-ston’s warning carried some weight, and if there was a war with the denizens of Erador’s path, it would leave them too weak to defend against the Saraceans. He walked up to Kare-ston, trying to convey his hope and his desperation with his eyes. Custom forbade any debate during the final round. “Does the Ston offer counsel to the King?”
Lok-ston leaned next to Kare-ston and whispered, “It’s been your lead, Kare. You might as well keep to the fore. Don’t let them push us into a war that we aren’t ready to fight. The Nor can’t handle it, and, to speak soothe, neither can I. Tell the King that it is impossible for the Ston to fight while the unicorn Chen is bound.”
Kare-ston thought. For someone who wanted him to lead, Lok-ston had plenty of advice. It was sound, but the magi would appear to be impotent if he said all that Lok-ston wanted to say, and Kare-ston still rankled from Sol-mer’s snide comparison of magi to wizards.
Kare-ston glanced at Arle-ston. The slim Ston looked nervous and haggard. A twisted expression passed over Arle-ston’s face that surprised Kare-ston. Arle-ston had always enjoyed the serene arts of meditation and faerie walking, but his voice was vicious, “Look, Kare, I don’t know whether to fight or not, but I can’t stand to use that Chen anymore. Tell Mar-zen that he can go choke on his maximizing. I can’t sleep anymore. Ancients! Kare, I had to break a duel between two of my Nor.”
Kare-ston looked at Arle-ston as if he were a sidhe and said, “Why haven’t the Zen or anyone heard of this?”
Arle-ston looked from side to side and whispered, “I swore them to secrecy. The magi don’t need any rumors of dissension within our ranks. We’re too weak: literally and in council. Kare, get him to release the Chen.”
Kare-ston stood and said, “The Ston advise the King to release the unicorn Chen.”
Inwardly, Ram-Erin-nor groaned. It seemed to the Ram that Kare-ston was deliberately trying to antagonize the King in public.
Kare-ston continued, “The Ston believe that we can then, after a period of rest, prepare for war with Hecate. Also, an envoy should be sent with the body of Rayek-ston back to his people.” As he resumed his chair, he noticed the fleeting look of disgust that Ram-Erin-nor gave him; Kare-ston knew that his advice would not be well received by the King.
Ram-Erin-nor knelt before the throne. “The King has heard the council. Does the King wish to hear his Vizier?”
Torastor nodded an affirmation to the customary question. Ram-Erin-nor addressed the throne, “My liege, we face many choices. I have observed the Ston since the binding of the unicorn Chen. They are tired as all can plainly see. I mean no disrespect to the Ston, but they have been pushed beyond their limit.” He shifted a glance toward the sullen Arle-ston. “Now, our guest, Rayek-ston, has been murdered within our borders. Our Ston are understandably upset. We need healthy Ston if we wish to realistically combat the darkling might of Hecate. Therefore, I must strongly advise the release of the unicorn Chen, so we may begin to plan in earnest for a war with Hecate. In this way we avoid a problem with a wizard. And if a message can be sent to Saracea, we may secure a treaty with the Saracean Queens after they understand the serpent who dwells in their neighboring forest. They might even wish to aid us in our battle, provided, of course, that their friend’s son is free, giving them no cause against us. Once we tell the Saracean Queens that it was Hecate who released the witchwolves, it would not be foolish to expect aid from them.”
The Ram stepped toward the King and spoke in a calm voice, “Hecate would then face fresh Ston and two human Empires’ might against her. We would be assured of victory, a victory won through wisdom, not an ill timed rush for vengeance.”
Kare-ston felt like cheering for the Ram’s words, but the rim chambers were not so stirred as they were by Mella-kahn’s promise to have Hecate roasting on a spit tonight.
Ram-Erin-nor heard the people debating over his words in the rim chambers, but he expected a luke warm response from them; they had great cause to want to see the witch burn. It was the King’s reason that the Ram wanted to reach and convince. He had held his eyes for his entire speech, but King Torastor’s face was an intense, impassive mask as he brooded. Ram-Erin-nor bowed and took his chair to the right of the King.
Eventually, the crowd in the rim chambers quieted, and the councilors waited for their King to speak. “Thank you, Ram. Thank you, councilors for your frank opinions. Once again, you have proven that I did choose well in my selection of councilors. However, I am the King and all decisions must rightly be mine, else I am not worthy of the crown and sword that I wear.
“To the Ston: I grieve with the magi. I lament the treatment of Stephenmindakas, heir of Windweaver. The wrongs that he has suffered I have done to him. The Ston are merely my arm, acting honorably in the service of their King. Regrettably, I must now command the Ston to follow the counsel of the Zen and force this Chen to immediately heal the rest of our sick, beginning with any Ahn who are ill. If he survives, you have my permission to free him. Then the Ston shall rest and prepare for their fight against the sorcery of Hecate.
“To the Mer: Have some of your Mer look to the north for trouble from the Saracean Empires. Hecate is our known enemy; I wish to discover if we have a second enemy before we wage war with Hecate and leave our northern borders ill defended.
“To the Zen: Prepare to lead our Chen deep into the forest away from the Sidhe and the path of Erador. I give to you the last remnant of our people, should the coming tides prove too strong for us.
“To the Ahn: Prepare for the assault on Hecate’s domain. This, at least, will not give me cause for worry. I feel confident that Mella-kahn has the conquest of Hecate’s legions already in his mind’s eye. Our Kahn has thought of little else for the past several months.”
Mella-kahn grinned and bowed in an exaggerated fashion, feeling highly complimented by the King’s assessment of him. Some councilors and many in the rim chambers laughed. Mella-kahn rarely spoke of anything other than the various methods he had painstakingly devised to storm Erador’s path.
King Torastor raised a hand and the laughter quieted. “Also, I wish the Kahn to spare a few of his Ahn for our Ram. I am sorry, Erin, but I must draw upon all my resources of which you are not the least. Take two Ahn, and go to Queen Meara. Explain our present situation in your usual, tactful manner. If you judge them to be honorable folk, sue for a treaty with them. Return as quickly as possible. We will need you at home when the war begins.
“Finally,” the King regarded Lok-ston, “Lok-ston, I wish you to accompany four Ahn to return the body of Rayek-ston to his people. Be sure to emphasize the fact that it was Hecate who killed their Ston.”
A murmur ran through the council chamber.
The King silenced the councilors with a gesture of his hand. “In doing this we may receive aid from his people and not their blame toward us in their grief. Leave as soon as you are finished with the unicorn Chen. I know that this shall press you to your limit, Lok-ston, but I feel while Ram-Erin-nor is gone that you are best suited for this difficult task.”
The King stood and held both of his arms in front of him and proclaimed, “Go in peace while it lasts. This council is dissolved.”
The next morning, the Darkenkell Ston were gathered outside the ivy cage that imprisoned Stephenmindakas. The Nor had been sent to convey all the sick to them, and a crowd of plague victims was already forming. With Rayek-ston gone, the remaining four Ston had argued the entire night in an attempt to figure a way to get Stephenmindakas to cooperate with them. Otherwise, the Chen would surely die long before everyone would be healed. His deteriorating condition had been carefully watched by each Ston. The maiden, Mel-ston, would try to convince the unicorn Chen while the other Ston would try to cloud the young one’s mind and put him in a suggestible stupor. Lok-ston softly chanted and slowly added leaves to a smoking brazier. They hoped a willing focus would change everything.
The crowd was beginning to pester them. Looking into the throng of suffering people, the Ston felt that they must help them, but at the same time they hated themselves for what they were doing. They exchanged a furtive glance, and Mel-ston entered the cage. Before the other Stons could begin weaving the deceit, Mel-ston returned.
Not wanting to get caught in an angry, despairing mob, Mel-ston whispered to the others, “The unicorn Chen is gone.”

Chapter XIII Through Adversity Bound

At the edge of the Darkenkell forest Kara drifted in and out of a febrile dream.
The crumbling stone ruins and ashes of Jezric surrounded him. A cold wind roused the ashes and smelled of death, of decay. The stench of a basement murder in New Candide permeated the plain of Jezric.
Osric stood on a cracked granite boulder. The Horror that Walks infested and twisted the face and body of Osric: arms stretched too thin, eyes of ice, fingers tapered to claws and pale grey, too pale.
Shining blue wizardfire lanced from Kara’s outstretched fingertips. The burning blue struck the ancient, but it was Osric who winced as the Nef-Shivrael-e forced his dead friend to smile.
Kara’s right arm itched.
Stephen’s parents rose from the ashes behind the daemon; they brandished swords, dripping with a grey ichor. The wasting disease accelerated through their bodies, and as they held up their swords to strike the daemon from behind, they collapsed upon the ashes.
Outworlder weapons fired at the wizard from all directions. The ground exploded in burning lumps at his feet where the bolts of plasma had struck the twisted weeds and soil.
Shadowcrows flew overhead, mocking him and darkening the sky.
The thieves, Nigel and Elaine, waited under the corpses of Stephen’s dead parents to strike at him when the Nef-Shivrael-e, in that hateful mockery of Osric, had finished with him. He was surrounded without a plan to escape; no one was left who would trust him or could be trusted by him. No one.
The enemies in his nightmare dissolved as a sudden hurricane wind roused the ashes into a blinding grey storm. Alone.
A shining white light pierced the veil of grey. “Stephen!” His son ran on the winds of the hurricane, heedless of the ashes, ran straight for him.
Over the forever child flew the dragon, Erador. The Emperor of Glered-nigh landed between Kara and his approaching son. The winds died as the dragon folded his wings. The ashes of Jezric covered Kara; he breathed them into his lungs; the bitter taint filled his nostrils and throat.
The beast stood on his haunches about one hundred and eighty cubits tall. Curling his serpentine neck toward Kara, the Lord of Predators gazed at the wizard. The twin pupils in that eye were as large as Kara’s body. The sheer size of the beast daunted Kara. How could Windweaver have ever dared to face this scaled behemoth? It was testing Kara’s sanity to accept that his destiny was intertwined with that unicorn’s tragic destiny.
Erador spoke. His voice was so bass that it was felt more by the body than heard by the ear. This close to the ground, Erador’s voice shook the dust from the ruins and his moist breath blew the ashes from Kara’s body: “No, little wizard, you shall not wake from your delusions just yet. I shall warn you this once, because my nature is generous. I saw you with my dream eye as you and the child inherited the destiny of my ancient enemy. I have heard the bitch daughter of the Darkenkell Sidhe call you the midwife of her mother. They would set you against me. I would fain this not happen. I have no quarrel with you. And you can ill afford another enemy. I know of your charges.”
Kara’s face betrayed his surprise and acknowledged what Erador had guessed. Erador rumbled, “Fear not, Master Karamindakas. I, unlike many, hope for your success in returning the might of the ancient gods to Oco. I have felt the recent death of the most worthy Archon at your human city of Jezric. I have dreamt of these humans, whom you call outworlders. Their empire is vast beyond reckoning, and it is too vast for my poor talons. An alliance between the dragons of Glered-nigh and the wizards of Sanctuary would be of great benefit to both our peoples in this, our gravest time of need. What say you, mighty Karamindakas of Sanctuary?”
Kara sweated under the friendly glare of Erador’s gigantic eye. The great worm’s muzzle was tilted to the side so that his left eye could get a closer look at Karamindakas, and the mists in that eye held the old man. The old wizard’s right arm began to pain him. He wanted to spit in the eye of the worm for all the trouble and misery that Erador had caused over the ages. Yet he knew that the glamour of the dragon’s eye and tongue was upon him. He could not lift his voice to nay say the worm. It was a great dweomer, but only one of many talents that Erador possessed. Against all of his hate Kara wanted the awe inspiring power of Erador on his side. Surely, the outworlders could not face such a terror as Erador. Kara had studied the lore of dragons since his days at Sanctuary, and he knew that all worms of Glered-nigh were consecrated at birth to their specific wormlust. No treaty that did not serve his wormlust would be honored by Erador.
Kara stuttered, “I-I shall need some time to think about your grand offer of alliance.”
Hearing Kara, Erador lifted his head into the sky. His triangular muzzle examined the wizard from several angles. For, what seemed to Kara, long, tense moments, Erador was silent. Finally, the long neck bent down again toward Kara. This time, however, Erador faced the aging wizard. “As you wish, Master Karamindakas.” There was acid in his words. “But when the laws of nature bow to me, you shall beg for succor and the earth shall reject you.” Erador lifted his head into the sky and slowly spread his monstrous wings. With a great heave of his hind legs, Erador launched himself into the air in a direction that Karamindakas assumed was toward Glered-nigh.
The wizard felt wooziness mix with the pain and fever in his right arm. The ruins of Jezric dissolved into a grey mist. He felt the wolf skin that covered him; the hide was damp from his febrile sweat. Opening his eyes and squinting in the daylight, he lolled his head to the right to look at his wounded arm and saw his son, Stephen, with his alabaster white skin and hair, smudged with dirt and mud.
“Father,” Stephen said.
Kara slowly sat upright. “Come to me, Stephen.” Tears welled under his eyes. “It has been a long road I have taken to rescue you, and it was you who rescued me. Thank you for healing me, my son.” Kara stretched his right hand toward Stephen.
Stepping away from his father, Stephen padded the ground in nervous agitation. His head jerked from side to side, and a wild gleam danced in his eyes. The forever child said, “I can’t stay with you, father. I can’t go with you.” Stephen began to cry as he left the campsite. He ran. Within a handful of heartbeats, he was a speck in the horizon.
“Stephen! Come back!” Kara shouted.
Nigel came over to him. His face was still covered with the black mud that he and Elaine had used for the rescue. They needn’t have bothered, as they had discovered that Celiane had made a path for them through the forest. They merely had to burn a hole in the ivy cage with their outworlder pistol and steal off into the night with the boy as Celiane had silently watched. Nigel gently laid his hand on the old man’s shoulder and said, “Calm yourself. Calm down. The lad’s just nervous. He’ll come back.”
Kara snapped, “Nigel, get your filthy hand off of me and help me up.” Nigel slowly got Kara to his feet.
The old man saw Elaine watching him with her usual, cynical interest. A nymish bow was in her hands instead of her outworlder rifle. Next to Elaine sat Mar-ahn who smiled at him and gave him the nymish gesture with his triple jointed hands that meant welcome. Kara saw Ta-nor gazing into the distance in the direction where Stephen had run. Most amazing to Kara, besides seeing Stephen free, was where they were: They stood only a short distance from the first tall, dark green pines of the Darkenkell forest.
With his fever gone and his arm healed, Kara began to collect his thoughts. His charges were still alive, and they were considerably closer to Sanctuary. He remembered the death of Osric with renewed pain, and the other scion of Shi, the Nef-Shivrael-e, which sought his charges. Yet his mind felt clouded. There was something else, something important, plaguing Kara’s mind. It was a hazy memory from the time of his fever. He remembered the terrible battle with the witch-wolf, Caremunda. He remembered the information he forced from her: She served Hecate who, in turn, served the Nef-Shivrael-e. With each recollection he grew more depressed as the responsibility and difficulty of his duty daunted him. The danger was too great and his enemies, too strong. He must take Nigel and Elaine to Sanctuary. Let the monastic wizards of Sanctuary train and discipline his charges. He was tired.
Nigel whispered to Elaine, “I knew he wasn’t ready to stand. Look at him. He’s out on his feet.”
Elaine agreed with a slight nod of her head.
Kara whirled to face them. “I am not so tired as you might think.” His body became limned in a translucent azure. His voice was steady, “You and Elaine shall have to share a horse. The wolves got to mine. We ride today, and we ride straight to Sanctuary.”
Mar-ahn and Ta-nor confronted the glowing wizard. Undaunted by the display of crystal wizardry, Mar-ahn said, “You can’t do that, wizard.”
The glow darkened. Anger deepened the wizard’s voice as he said, “A Darkenkell nym, one of the kind who imprisoned my son, dares to tell me what I can or cannot do?”
Nigel saw the wizard in the way that he had first met Kara: awe inspiring and terrifying. It washed away Nigel’s fears concerning Kara’s health.
Stepping between the wizard and Mar-ahn, Ta-nor said, “My friend, don’t you remember? It was my brother and I who warned you of your son’s imprisonment. We risked exile on your behalf. Don’t you remember?” Although Ta-nor was fully aware of Stephen’s ability to heal, he pretended to talk to Kara as if the old man were still febrile thereby giving the wizard a graceful excuse if his words had been spoken in anger and haste.
The glow that surrounded Kara died. His anger melted to weariness. “Forgive an old man his excesses, my friend. You speak soothe. Yet my apprentices are my only concern, and there is danger to them here. I am sorry, but I must deliver my charges to Sanctuary.” Kara filled his voice with regret.
Mar-ahn angrily stepped in front of his brother and said, “And is this how you take care of your charges? You show them how to destroy their honor and not face their obligations.”
Kara wanted to smite Mar-ahn. It was humiliating for him to be addressed this way. Worse, Mar-ahn’s words rang true. Delaying in the Darkenkell forest would be a great risk, but how much greater would be the risk if Nigel and Elaine wielded their ancient power without honor? Kara said, “All right, Mar-ahn, I admit an obligation to you. How may I and my apprentices fulfill it?” He gave the Ahn a stern look. “Don’t take advantage of my generosity.”
Ta-nor beckoned his brother away from Kara, and they whispered to each other. Kara turned from them and ordered, “Elaine, prepare food. I need strength.”
Elaine grimaced and shot Nigel a glance that meant she was disgusted with her status of apprentice, but she said, “Yes, oh beneficent Master.”
Elaine prepared a variation of her peasant’s stew from the variety of herbs and tubers that they had gathered over the course of their journey to the Darkenkell forest. Everyone agreed that it was delicious, except Mar-ahn and Ta-nor, who were arguing some paces from the campsite. Kara ate like a wolf and left none for the two nym. Finishing his meal, he belched in satisfaction. Wiping his mouth and beard against his dirty tunic, he called to Mar-ahn and Ta-nor, “I am preparing to leave. If you two have a request, you’d better make it now.”
Mar-ahn and Ta-nor kept arguing. Just as Nigel had cleared the campsite, the brothers approached. Ta-nor was thoughtful and stoic, but Mar-ahn’s anxiety showed plainly. They stood over Kara, who had not moved. Kara considered his meal as he digested it, wholly unperturbed by the nym.
Ta-nor waited for a moment until it was obvious that Kara was deliberately ignoring them. Solemnly, Ta-nor said, “Karamindakas, my brother and I request that you accompany us to the Darkenkell tribal council and hear our cause. We request that you take no action against our people, unless they act against you or your charges. It is our hope that once you hear the distress of our people, you shall aid us against our common foe, Hecate, who is a threat to you and therefore a threat to the apprentices whom you cherish.”
Kara breathed deeply and exhaled through his mouth. His shoulders sagged as he said, “I reluctantly agree to all of your requests with one condition: If I choose to aid your people, the people who imprisoned my son, then you shall protect Nigel and Elaine, and you shall accompany them to Sanctuary. Agreed?”
Ta-nor and Mar-ahn exchanged a quick glance. Ta-nor made a brief gesture with his hand and said, “So be it.” Mar-ahn mimicked his brother.
The campsite was obscured with brush to leave no trace for the thing Kara knew would be following them. They decided to lead their horses into the forest, for Nigel and Elaine were inexperienced riders. They walked leisurely, enjoying the invigorating effects of the forested air.
Nigel savored the alien and beautiful sight of the sharp pines. There was a lack of underbrush in the forest that made walking easy and pleasant. Nigel remembered going into the semi-tamed jungles near the Lower Saracean Empire. That land was filled with marshes, parasitic insects, and venomous reptiles. The Darkenkell’s passive beauty was a jarring contrast with Nigel’s singular childhood impression of the wilderness. His family could have lived peacefully here. Instead, they had ended amongst the throng of people in Jezric. They would still be alive, if . . . Nigel sighed and picked up his pace.
Elaine walked next to Mar-ahn, but kept glancing back toward Nigel. He seemed adrift and alone to her. She hated that look on him and wondered why she felt so deeply committed to him. Was it stability? Her life had always been chaotic. Caring for Nigel in New Candide had given her a sense of purpose. Elaine wasn’t sure if she had helped Nigel at all. They dealt with life differently: Elaine was the hurricane; and Nigel, the eye. Elaine never fathomed the passivity of her lover. It often annoyed her. Perhaps it was fear, fear of participation, fear of changing the natural order of things. She shook her head. She had never seen Nigel deeply afraid of anything. Only a great sadness always lurked in him beneath his passive nature. It was as if he felt that changing something would pain him. Better to leave the action of life than to cause pain was his code. Nigel’s intimacy with pain had terrified him into avoiding any possible prospect of serving that dish to another.
This made her love for him a paradox. She wanted change. Craved it. Although painful, change was necessary for life. The ecstasy at being the cause of change overwhelmed her at times. It was a thing that held birth and death, making her mother to a new set of events. Fighting against entropy and stagnation was her way of defining her life, her purpose. This only made her attachment to Nigel all the more puzzling. Pragmatically, Elaine decided to simply accept her love for Nigel. Most likely, their life together would erode his natural passivity. If he lived, he must change. That was axiomatic to Elaine. Then again, Nigel’s view of life could be the proper way to live, and her active nature could be dulled by his passivity. Elaine laughed at herself; abstracts were shit. They solved nothing.
As they penetrated the Darkenkell forest, Nigel noticed that the forest became darker. Deciduous treetops crowded out the light. Yet nowhere were the rays of the sun wholly shut away. To Nigel, it was as if a guiding hand wanted the light of day in the forest. The animals became larger as the interior of the Darkenkell thickened: Multi-pointed stags, bears, and large cats left the marks of their passing. Once, Mar-ahn had to lead them around the den of a basilisk, the king of lizards and fowl. Seeing Mar-ahn’s face when the Ahn heard the hissing in the claw marked burrow told Nigel all that he ever wanted to know about that dreadful lizard. Nigel thought that he had caught a glimpse of a sylph from the corner of his eye, but when he looked, he saw only some grasses swaying in the wind. He dismissed it as a random sexual fantasy. After an hour of walking, they came to their first hunym-sidhe made path, a dark brown trail, barely a cubit across as it wound into the forest.
Mar-ahn announced, “This path denotes the tribal boundaries of my people. It would be dangerous to travel farther without an escort.”
Nigel sat on the grass next to Mar-ahn and asked, “Why can’t you escort us, Mar-ahn? After all, this is your homeland.”
Mar-ahn grinned ruefully and shook his head. “You forget. We left the forest without the consent of our King. If our absence from the tribe has been detected, we would all be shot down within an hour’s travel.”
Kara narrowed his eyes at Ta-nor and said, “Mage, how long shall we have to wait here? You know that I have a need for haste with my apprentices. My patience is not unlimited.”
Elaine smiled and widened her eyes in mock surprise. “You have patience? I never knew.”
Nigel added, “Sure he does, Elaine. Kara just hides it well.”
Ta-nor looked uncomfortable. He was unused to light banter, having spent most of his life in the solitary places of the Darkenkell forest. Mar-ahn stood and gave Kara a formal bow and grinned widely as he declared, “Fear not, Master Karamindakas. We shall shortly have a royal escort that befits your august personage.”
Elaine snorted derisively.
Kara mumbled, “More likely, we will be greeted with a hangman’s noose.” Kara sat and leaned his back against a tree while pulling out a wineskin. “I suppose we might as well relax. There’ll be little time for such foolishness later.”
Ta-nor sat, completing the ring of weary travellers. The Nor said, “Yes, a more comfortable atmosphere might be better when the patrol finds us.”
Mar-ahn nudged his brother and offered him a half limp wineskin. “Relax, little brother. Doom comes at its own pace. Think of them as escorts, not as patrol guards.”
Ta-nor took a long pull from the wineskin and said, “Delude yourself, not me. Our absence has been missed. We accompanied the forever child to the Darkenkell and were absent when he escaped. Now, I shall never grasp the deeper mysteries of the Ston.”
For the first time Nigel realized how much Mar-ahn and Ta-nor had risked to warn Karamindakas. They might be exiled from their family and friends or even killed. They gambled everything for the sake of a child, whom they hardly knew. Nigel was humbled. These brothers had sacrificed everything for their beliefs. Their strength of resolve illuminated his inadequacies and indecisiveness. Nigel felt that he should resolve himself to something, but he wasn’t sure what it was: Should he resolve himself to the monstrous task of bringing his family back to life no matter the cost? or was there something else, a fitter purpose for his life? Only uncertainty dwelled where Nigel wanted purpose to reside in him.
When they had made two wineskins limp, everyone was more talkative. Mar-ahn held his hand out in a gesture for silence. He stood and called into the woods, “Well met, vigilant Ahn. I am Mar-ahn, and I bring friends to the Darkenkell tribe.”
A hunym-sidhe, dressed in pine green leggings and tunic, appeared twenty paces deeper into the forest from where they sat. He had a blade, sheathed by his side and a longbow with a knocked arrow, pointed at Mar-ahn. He called to Mar-ahn, “Well met, Mar-ahn. I am Fel-ahn. Do you remember me? You taught me to use this bow as a youth.”
Mar-ahn exclaimed, “Yes, I do remember. Is this how you would repay your teacher? Put down your bow. We are all friends here.”
Fel-ahn immediately replied, “You know I cannot do that. And you also know that I have two other bows aimed at you from my triad. Our King has told us to watch for and beware of humans. Here, you bring me three humans, teacher. I must ask you to give me their names.”
Mar-ahn nodded slowly and said, “Of course, Fel-ahn. This is Nigel.” Nigel waved merrily at Fel-ahn and took another pull from his wineskin. Fel-ahn returned the human’s gesture with a nod, not taking his eyes from Mar-ahn.
Mar-ahn pointed at Elaine. “And this human, I name Elaine-ahn.”
Fel-ahn’s bow dipped, revealing the wielder’s shock at the title. Keeping the bow trained on Mar-ahn, Fel-ahn asked, “And who is this aged human?”
Kara replied, “I need no introductions from an Ahn.” He drew himself to his full height without the aid of his walking stick and said, “I am Kara of the line of Dakas, a wizard from the Sanctuary of Oco, defender of fallen New Candide, heir to the destiny of Windweaver, and possessor of the hope of the world.”
Fel-ahn oriented his bow at Kara. “You give yourself impressive titles, human. Your name is known to us without the gilt, which you add to it. Already, the second of my triad carries word of your coming to my people. You may kill me, but my people will avenge my martyred death.”
Mar-ahn took a step toward Fel-ahn. Fel-ahn realigned his bow to point at Mar-ahn’s chest. Mar-ahn said, “You shame me and our people, Fel-ahn. Put down your bow and show respect to these friends of our tribe. They have put aside their cause to visit our homeland.”
“It is you who disgrace our people, Mar.” Leaving off Mar-ahn’s title in a formal conversation was a grievous insult. Fel-ahn added, “You have either betrayed our people or you have been ensorcelled by this wizard. For your sake I hope you are ensorcelled. I would fain not see our Kahn disgraced.”
Kara scoffed, “So, the same tribe who survived the full wrath of Erador in his prime now finds itself in fear of one lone wizard? Where is Kare-ston? He once deemed himself my equal. Do not quake, Fel-ahn, if Kare-ston is no longer with you. I would not wish to see your hand slip from your bowstring or your tired muscles weaken for want of courage. Know that I have oathed to Mar-ahn and Ta-nor not to strike a first blow.”
Fel-ahn swallowed and said, “It is not my place to judge. I am only to detain you until others arrive. If you speak soothe, then things may go well for you. We have no wish for more enemies. Go back to your wine. You will not have long to wait.”
Nigel, who had never stood, took an exaggerated pull from a fresh wineskin. “Ahhh. Seems like good advice to me. No sense tenuating an already exacerbatious situation.” He passed the skin to Elaine with a nervous smile. Eventually, all the travellers followed Nigel’s lead, and they quickly resumed the thread of their robust conversation. Even Fel-ahn relaxed somewhat and lowered his bow, although he kept it knocked and watched the travellers intently.
After another two skins were drained, Fel-ahn called to them. Nigel made a rude remark, but was ignored. Fel-ahn said, “I must leave now, but you are still being watched. The emissaries have arrived. I think that you will have a chance to plead your case.”
Elaine answered him, “Move it, nymling, before I decide to start my case with an arrow.” Mar-ahn roared with laughter, setting off a chain of laughter from the others, save for the brooding Ta-nor. Fel-ahn shot her a dark look, but turned and left.
Beneath the cover of trees, Fel-ahn saw the emissaries: Mella-kahn with three Ahn, Kare-ston with a Nor beside him, and Sol-mer. Three additional guard triads, each having two Ahn and one Nor stood quietly behind the three masters. Fel-ahn bowed to the master of his discipline, Mella-kahn, and then bowed to the other two masters. Fel-ahn became nervous talking to members of import within his tribe. He was the kind of warrior who preferred following orders and hunting to words with councilors, a kind of hunting far more dangerous than a lively buck. He dutifully reported everything that he could remember the visitors saying or doing. Mella-kahn directed the three triads with hand gestures to surround the travellers under the cover of trees. Kare-ston touched brows with an agitated Fel-ahn and received direct impressions and images of Fel-ahn’s speech with the travellers.
Knowing Kare-ston’s affinity with mindtouch, Sol-mer turned to him when Kare-ston had finished and asked, “What do you think, Kare-ston?”
Kare-ston furrowed his brows, recalling the memories he spied from Fel-ahn’s mind and added his magical insight to the ghostly image. After a moment Kare-ston said, “I’m not sure. Readings from memories are never certain. I caught no evidence of a compulsion laid upon Ta-nor and Mar-ahn. They led them here under their own desire.”
Mella-kahn grimaced. “What? Why would they do such a thing? The wizard Karamindakas, whatever his lofty titles, is an enemy of our people.”
Kare-ston flexed his hands in idle thought. “I could not discover motive. I could not read the wizard, except he had been in a deep state of grief recently. He may not necessarily be our enemy. I know this one to be a human of his word. Perhaps he still wishes to warn us?”
Mella-kahn’s face showed open disbelief. “After we had captured and used his son?”
Kare-ston replied, “But his son is free now. Besides, who can ever fully understand the motives of humans?”
All the masters acknowledged their ignorance of that subject. Sol-mer said, “I shall go and parlay with them. If we can avert violence, it would be the first good omen the Darkenkell has had since the plague.” Sol-mer grimaced, remembering his recent debates with the Vizier. “Though I have not Ram-Erin-nor’s sleek tongue, I shall try to win them to our cause. Were there any favorable reactions from the other two humans?”
For long moments Kare-ston remained silent. Finally, the Ston said, “They appear to be what they are: wizard’s apprentices. Yet they are somehow linked. Perhaps they are life mates. I am not familiar with human society or their mating habits.”
Mella-kahn grunted, “Hmph. If they are only apprentices, they shouldn’t be a deciding factor when battle comes.”
Sol-mer said, “Always thinking in terms of battle, aren’t you, Mella?”
Kare-ston wondered when these two had become friends.
Mella-kahn locked eyes with Sol-mer and said, “Life itself is an unceasing battle: victory, the seducing prize; defeat, the provocative danger.” Mella-kahn watched the fastidious Mer for a reaction.
Sol-mer grimaced, making his bald head and sharp features take on a vulture like appearance. He said, “That’s a hard outlook, but not an inappropriate one . . . for the Kahn.”
“Ha! A politic answer. A politic answer coming from a Mer. I ask you, Kare-ston, who would believe it?”
Kare-ston muttered, “I would.”
Remembering the council meeting, Mella-kahn burst out laughing. “I bet you would. I bet you would.”
Sol-mer turned from them and looked in the direction of the travellers. He didn’t like his political prowess being discussed. Politics was considered base by many, and so were its players considered by association. Sol-mer said, “I suggest we stop stalling and attend to our guests.”
Mella-kahn donned his red plumed helm and said, “You mean our prisoners, don’t you?”
Sol-mer stared at Mella-kahn’s fierce visage and shook his head. The Mer said, “Perhaps not. If Kare-ston is correct, there might be an amiable solution to be found, particularly since I don’t think the wizard knows about our antagonistic situation with the Saracean Empires. He hasn’t had the time to go to Saracea. I think we should start by separating our people from the humans.”
The Kahn nodded, as if his heavy helm were only the green dilettante’s cap that the Ram preferred. Mella-kahn said, “I agree. I should very much like to have words with the errant Mar-ahn.” Mella-kahn’s face flushed.
Kare-ston rubbed his hand through his hair. The large Kahn was not known to take criticism well. “With respect to you, Mella-kahn, I do not think you should scold him too harshly. If the humans mistake your gentle reproving for the din of battle, we might have a situation on our hands.”
The Kahn advanced toward an increasingly nervous Kare-ston. His voice was softer than what Kare-ston was used to hearing from the burly nym in council, “Kare-ston, if you didn’t know, I shall tell you: We already have a situation on our hands. Yet your point is well taken. I will wait for the proper time to discipline Mar-ahn.”
Mella-kahn called softly to Fel-ahn, “Tell the one who answers to the name and title of Mar-ahn that his Kahn wishes to speak with him.” Mella-kahn glanced at Kare-ston, and Kare-ston nodded. “Also, tell the one named Ta-nor that a Ston wishes to talk to him.” Fel-ahn bowed low and left to meet the travellers.
Fel-ahn approached the campsite openly. He was determined not to give the humans an excuse to fight, knowing that he would be their first target. He hailed them, “Ho, tribe brothers! The masters of your disciplines have come to hear your tale.”
Nigel stood and said, “Ho, Fel-ahn! Have their masters come to us! We do not wish to be parted from our good friends, not just yet.”
Kara pulled at the cuff of Nigel’s leggings. He hissed, “Sit down, you fool. We can’t interfere. You wanted to come here, so sit down and shut up.”
Mar-ahn called to Fel-ahn, “Your manners, at least, have improved since you last visited us. We shall follow you shortly.” Mar-ahn looked at Kara helplessly.
The old wizard whispered, “Mar-ahn, do not betray us. I have entrusted you with all my hopes. Remind them of their honor. Nigel may have drunk too much wine, but he is correct: Your Kahn is splitting us. Without you and your brother, we are too few to escape alive. If Nigel and Elaine die, I will leave none alive on this battlefield. I swear.”
Mar-ahn softly replied. His eyes were cold. “If it comes to that, though I pray it does not, we shall fight by your side.”
Ta-nor gestured and echoed his brother, “So be it.”
The brothers left the humans and followed Fel-ahn. They were soon lost from sight as the brothers walked beyond the straight trunks of pines and maples. Elaine gripped her dagger, mentally vowing that one, at least, would die before her in battle. Nigel sipped his wine, hoping he would not see any more blood. Kara relaxed his thoughts, touching and caressing his center.
The wizard saw the agitated fibres in the air with his preternatural sight and watched for any sudden displacement that would indicate a mage about to attack. They didn’t speak with each other as they strained to listen for any nym who might be prowling just out of sight of their camp.
After Fel-ahn had led Mar-ahn and Ta-nor deeper into the forest, a female nym approached. She wore a plain brown monastic robe with the hood down. The robe was tightened around the waist with a silver chain and a smudged Nor medallion. She said, “Fel-ahn, I am Tess-nor. I will take the burden of Ta-nor from you. My master wishes to have words with him.” Tess-nor put her medallion in her palm and showed it to Fel-ahn. The raised dove’s head proper with her Ston’s oak engraved on the medallion identified her as a Nor under Kare-ston’s patronage.
Fel-ahn nodded, “Good luck to you.”
Tess-nor left with Ta-nor on a different path into the forest. Fel-ahn and Mar-ahn continued only a few more paces when Mar-ahn spotted the red plume of the Kahn. The polished ringlets and raiment of the Kahn glinted in the fading sunlight. The sight of Mella-kahn confirmed Mar-ahn’s worst fears. The eyes of the elders were upon him and his brother. It was not a battle that Mar-ahn could win with his sword arm. Fel-ahn walked behind Mar-ahn as they approached the Kahn.
Mar-ahn saw no anger in his old master’s hardened eyes. Mella-kahn said, “So, you have forsaken your tribe.” Mella-kahn stated it simply, as if he were merely observing a passing rain cloud.
“No, my Kahn. I have not.”
“Did you not aid the wizard Karamindakas in the escape of the changeling?”
Mar-ahn answered, “No. Karamindakas had no part in the escape. He was wounded on his way here in battle with the she-wolf, Caremunda.”
Mella-kahn rubbed his wide chin, trying to make sense of what he was hearing. “Hecate’s servant? Does Karamindakas believe it was Hecate who captured his son?”
Mar-ahn lowered his eyes and tensed, expecting a physical rebuke. “No, I told him outside New Candide that his son was a prisoner of our tribe.”
Mella-kahn spoke quietly. His breath was forced. “Then, you have forsaken your people.”
Mar-ahn looked straight into Mella-kahn’s eyes. His ahnish temper flared. “That’s a lie!” He widened his stance. “I did what I did for my people!”
Although he was prepared, he was sent sprawling by the impact of Mella-kahn’s open handed blow.
Mella-kahn spoke quietly without anger, “Whatever your misdeeds, never forget the Kahn.”
Mar-ahn trembled with a mixture of pain, rage, and humiliation. He had landed on the hand that a wolf had bitten, and he grimaced as he stood. He gave Mella-kahn a quarter bow and said, “I do not challenge the law of the Kahn.”
Mella-kahn’s gaze pierced into Mar-ahn for long moments. Both knew this warrior’s contest. Finally, Mella-kahn removed his plumed helm. “There will be punishment, of course.”
Mar-ahn nodded, holding his wounded hand.
“At least your journeys have discovered the sham of your invulnerability. The Stons have been wondering when you would discover that ludicrous fiction.”
Mar-ahn blushed.
Mella-kahn continued, “And after your punishment you will still have to face the wrath of King Torastor. Follow me to the Ahn tree of humility.”

***

Kare-ston watched Tess-nor approach with the errant Ta-nor. Ta-nor was gaunt and dirty. A vicious bruise was developing on the left side of his face. Kare-ston perceived that Ta-nor had recently assumed the guise of a falcon. That was an impressive magic for a Nor. Ta-nor’s travels had honed his will and abilities. At least the Nor had stopped trying to work magics born of faerie tales. With a flick of his eyes Kare-ston motioned for Tess-nor to leave. His favorite Nor understood immediately and slipped from their sight with a doe’s grace.
Ta-nor recognized the Ston and bowed low.
Kare-ston replied, “No need for false honor, Ta-nor. I already know of your disregard for your betters. I believe Lok is your Ston. I remember that he told all of his Nor to remain close at hand to aid him if he faltered with the unicorn Chen.”
Ta-nor blurted, “Yes, but I—-”
Kare-ston interrupted. “We know of your disobedience. I want to know why. Please face toward the center of the Darkenkell. You will open yourself to me.”
Fear played across Ta-nor’s face. Mind touching was a Ston mystery. Ta-nor gestured, “Couldn’t I just tell you?”
Kare-ston hardened his features and said, “No. This will reveal to me your thoughts and feelings. There will be no room for trickery. You cannot fool me or yourself under the mind touch.”
The Ston and the Nor touched brows. Ta-nor lapsed into unconsciousness as Kare-ston’s stronger sense of self explored Ta-nor’s memories and feelings. Although Kare-ston was the most adroit at the mind touch in the Darkenkell, this was exceedingly difficult. Ta-nor’s training had disciplined his mind. Kare-ston wanted more than simple memories. He wanted to touch the essence of Ta-nor. Hours passed as Kare-ston and Ta-nor touched brows, oblivious to the outside world.
Ta-nor woke refreshed, lying prostrate on the ground. He sat up and lazily stretched his arms. A slurping and crunching caused him to loll his head to the left. He saw Kare-ston eating and drinking, sitting cross legged in front of him. Ta-nor gazed dumbly at the Ston until he remembered where he was and why he was here.
“Do you want something to eat?” Kare-ston managed to say between bites of raw pheasant.
“No, thank you, Kare-ston. May I inquire into what you saw, and what will happen to me?”
It was impossible for Kare-ston not to feel sympathy for the young Nor after touching his spirit. Setting aside the breast bone, Kare-ston replied, “It’s no wonder you’re not hungry. I did all the work.” Ta-nor just gazed at him. “All right, Ta. I will tell you. There is much trouble surrounding you. I believe that you meant to do well for our tribe. However, you ignored the practical, political realities of our time. We are under the rule of a warrior, not a mage. He has never felt the agonies of the unicorn Chen, whom we had to force to do our bidding. Purity must be separate from the world of the peoples. It is the people who must deal with the day to day struggle of life. We must make the hard choices, the gray choices, in life. Your fellow magi understand and share your sympathy for this Chen, but our King has no empathy for Stephenmindakas or us. His concern is for the tribe’s survival, just as yours should properly be. He is our rightful monarch. For this I shall not punish you, but our ahnish King may not be so lenient.
“Yet he is not the greatest danger that you face. You will never become a Ston if you continue with this mad passion you have for a faerie. You will become tainted just as King Terellor fell. I entreat you to leave this path that you have chosen before it is too late.” Kare-ston forced his gaze upon Ta-nor, but to his surprise Ta-nor looked away from him toward the heart of the Darkenkell forest.
“So be it.” Kare-ston whispered sadly, “I do not claim to understand your passion, yet I will not bar your way. To stand against fate casts one to play the fool’s part. So be it.” Kare-ston stood and brushed off his clothes. “Come. No doubt your human friends are even now being brought before King Torastor.”
Kare-ston and Ta-nor walked to the dome structured council chamber only to find a crowd of nym blocking their path. Upon seeing Ta-nor, the crowd erupted in anger. A voice shouted, “There he is!” Cries of traitor and murderer were hurled at the bewildered Ta-nor.
Kare-ston strode ahead of his charge. “I am a mage of the King’s council. Make way. Make way!”
Rass, a young nym in the Zen clan, shouted, “You may pass, mage, but the traitor stays with us.”
Kare-ston turned toward Ta-nor and said, “It seems word of you has outraced our arrival.”
Ta-nor was visibly shaken. He had never been comfortable in tribal society. Now, his society turned on him. Ta-nor wished for the deeps of the forest that were beyond civilized peoples.
Kare-ston stepped forward. “Ta-nor is in my charge, and it is my responsibility to bring him to the King’s justice. I say again: Make way!” Kare-ston forced his gaze on Rass. The young nym backed a pace.
A lady with stringy hair and care lines marring her face pushed past Rass. Her left hand was missing and her waist was covered with a dirty bandage. She faced Kare-ston and said, “The King’s justice? Where is my justice?” She pointed at Ta-nor with her stump. “That dragon spittle helped the unicorn Chen to escape. My only son died because the Chen was not here to cure the Witch Queen’s crawling plague. I would fain lose both my hands to the plague to bring my son back to me. A pox upon you, Ta-nor.” She said his title as if it were a poison in her mouth. “Your brother has paid. Let us see you pay.”
A voice in the crowd shouted, “Take him to the tree of humility.” A roar of approval swept through the crowd, and the throng advanced on Ta-nor.
The sight of his haggard people juxtaposed with Kare-ston’s memory of a little Chen clutching the dirt in an ivy cage. Mournfully, Kare-ston said, “Enough. There is no reasoning with a grief stricken mob, and every moment we delay council is crucial.” In a louder voice he cried, “Away! Away!” The closest people in the crowd were already grabbing at a panicky Ta-nor.
Kare-ston formed the tips of his right hand to emulate the top three points of a star. He placed his left hand under his right hand and formed with his fingers the bottom two points of the star. He raised his middle left hand finger to the center of his “finger tip star.” Raising both hands to the heavens, he carefully kept the formation intact. He shouted, “Aten, protector of our people, keep safe your humble servant in this time of grief and need.” The tips of his fingers were connected by a green aura that completed the five point star.
The crowd became silent. They hadn’t, in their zealousness, expected one of their magi to use his powers against them. Some bolted, while others remained frozen where they were. The star aura expanded, gently pushing outward. It changed colors as it approached different people. The crowd retreated. Many cursed Kare-ston.
Ram-Erin-nor appeared in the doorway of the council dome. He was dressed in travelling leathers, rather than his traditional robes. His tunic was light brown and worn soft to his body shape. Ram-Erin-nor spoke in a booming voice, “What occurs in front of our King’s rightful chamber?”
Having been separated by the glowing star, the crowd of nym had backed into a semi-circle in front of the council dome. Kare-ston dropped his hands to his sides and the auric energy disappeared. The pastel colors faded, leaving only the wary subjects of the King.
“Who answers for this commotion?” Ram-Erin-nor continued with a harsh voice, “The King waits and grows ever more wrathful for each moment his justice is delayed. Which of you will come with me to explain this delay?” None met the Vizier’s owl like visage. Ram-Erin-nor expressed surprise, looking at many of the crowd in their eyes. “Come, come. Surely one of you will allow me to escort you to the King. Anyone? No? Then, disperse!”
After the crowd had left, Ram-Erin-nor smiled at Kare-ston. “One day you will discover words to be more powerful than our magics. I should know. I’ve tried them both.”
“I should like to be your pupil, if I am going to start serving the council more actively.”
Ram-Erin-nor laughed and his cares faded for a moment. “I’m sure you would, and I would enjoy the teaching. Unfortunately, time grips tightly at our lives these days. Come. I did not lie to the crowd. King Torastor is angry.” He glanced pointedly at Ta-nor.
Ram-Erin-nor and Kare-ston entered together, followed by a trembling Ta-nor. The council chamber was crowded. Mella-kahn and his two top strategists, Mene-ahn and Chala-ahn, were clutching the ends of opened scrolls on the black marble table. All the council chairs were filled save his chair, the Chen chair, the Ram’s chair, and Lok-ston’s chair. That Ston had already left, bearing Rayek-ston’s body to the Koral mountains. Three chairs had been brought in for the humans where they were seated by the entrance doors opposite the council semi-circle. The rim chambers were filled with curious tribes people, gawking at the humans.
Ta-nor gasped as he saw his brother kneeling stiffly before the King. His shirt had been rent to tatters and was discolored by his blood. Glistening scars peaked from underneath the cloth shirt, foretelling Ta-nor what was to come for him. Kare-ston bowed to the King and took his chair next to Arle-ston. Ram-Erin-nor escorted Ta-nor to his brother, bowed to the King, and took his chair at the right of the King.
The quiet in the council chamber and rim chambers was noticeable. King Torastor stood. Ram-Erin-nor noticed the creases and pallor worrying his King’s visage, new parasites of grief, born from the plague days that had come upon them. Erin remembered accepting the role of Vizier and the role of friend to this King when they had marched together from the Darkenkell years ago. Even during that terrible prospect of facing Erador, his King had not seemed so weary.
Still, Torastor did not tremble and his voice was firm: “I ask what the council wills in the punishment of those who have disobeyed their liege.”
The King resumed his seat. The Ram stood and said, “Though I am not garbed in my robes of office, I trust the councilors recognize their humble Vizier.”
Sol-mer whispered to Alia-mer, not too quietly, “Were the Vizier masked, none could mistake his ahnish tongue.”
Alia-mer added, “Nor its love of wagging.”
The councilors tittered, and many who had overheard the remark smiled and nodded their heads in agreement. Ram-Erin-nor allowed the joke at his expense with a crooked half smile. However, the King’s wrathful mien silenced the noise. King Torastor’s anger had grown large, feeding upon the chaos that infected his realm.
Ram-Erin-nor’s smile disappeared swiftly. He asked, “My liege?”
The King nodded and settled back upon the cushions of his oaken throne.
Avoiding the bitter gaze of Mar-ahn, Ram-Erin-nor asked, “Have the prisoners been subjected to whatever punishments, if any, which the masters of their disciplines saw fit to set upon them?”
Mella-kahn and Kare-ston exchanged a glance. Kare-ston nodded, giving the robust Kahn the lead. Mella-kahn lifted his bulk from the chair and said, “The Kahn has meted out its punishment. We accept our errant one back into our ranks.”
Kare-ston cleared his throat to exorcise the nervousness he always felt when speaking in council as he said, “I serve in lieu of Lok-ston, Ta-nor’s Ston, since he is not here to tend his errant Nor. We accept Ta-nor back into our fold and forgo punishment.”
“You dare!” Torastor leapt from his throne.
Ram-Erin-nor stumbled toward his chair, shocked by his liege’s sudden outburst. Kare-ston collapsed in his chair, cowed by his King’s rage. Torastor cried, “Why are my magi always defending my enemies?” He drew his sword and approached a terrified Ta-nor. At the other end of the chamber, Elaine silently reached for her outworlder pistol. The cloistered nym had not recognized it for what it was when they had checked her weapons. Kara observed stoically.
King Torastor shouted, “Kneel! Kneel before your rightful monarch.” Ta-nor quailed and fell to his knees. “Prostrate before your monarch, traitor! On . . . your . . . hands.” The King laid his sword gently on Ta-nor’s neck, sizing it for a mortal blow.
Mar-ahn whispered, “Ta-nor, my brother, forgive. I have not the strength to save you.”
Ram-Erin-nor interposed himself between Ta-nor and his maddened King. He put his hand on Torastor’s shoulder. “No, my liege, there must be another answer. We need all our people who are fit to fight.”
King Torastor backhanded his Vizier with his free hand. Ram-Erin-nor sprawled back against the oaken throne. Torastor said, “‘Ware, Vizier, lest you fall from my favor. I shall have none beside me who are not completely loyal to my cause, the cause of the Darkenkell’s people.”
Elaine grabbed her pistol only to find Karamindakas’ cold, bony hand clutching hers with a strength of grip that she would not have attributed to one of his age. Karamindakas whispered, “Do nothing. We may be in imminent danger. The future will give you power enough for vengeance. The strongest of their tribe are here. We cannot overpower them.”
His words forced their way past Elaine’s anger. She relaxed her grip, but trembled with bound tension.
King Torastor raised his sword above Ta-nor’s head and shouted, “Death to all who betray me!”
“No.” a female voice behind the three Mer chairs spoke. As the councilors turned toward the voice, they let out a collective gasp. The King’s sword rusted and crumbled away as a silent wind blew its remains out the council chamber.
King Torastor calmly returned to the oaken throne. He did not turn to look, for he knew who was there. He helped Ram-Erin-nor to his feet and whispered to his friend, “Forgive me. The deception was necessary.”
Surprise and relief flooded into Ram-Erin-nor. The Vizier found that he could not stop stupidly grinning at his liege and friend. He whispered, “You need never apologize to me, my King, particularly for a deception that fooled me.”
Torastor returned Erin’s smile. “I thought that you would feel that way.” King Torastor reached behind the oaken throne and recovered the true royal sword and sheathed it. The King resumed his throne and said, “Come out, daughter of King Terellor and the Lady Darkenkell. Speak with us now that you have honored us with your sublime and magnificent presence.”
Celiane stepped to the center of the chamber in front of the table and faced the King. As she stood there, the scents and sounds of the deeps of the Darkenkell forest filled the chamber. Celiane was allowing all present to see and feel her. Motionless, she said, “You . . . tricked me?”
King Torastor held his face impassive, but decided to risk a glance at the hooded figure of Celiane. He believed that a king must never show fear. “Daughter of the Lady Darkenkell, we face a war that will bring a scourge upon your forest. Our Mer tell us of the coming of Hecate. She bears us a great malice. We need your counsel.”
The half-sidhe said, “This I know, but I see little difference between you.”
The King thought about that for a moment. He wanted to ask his councilors for help, but refused to put them at risk. A sidhe was nothing if not unpredictable and capricious. He decided to do as his predecessor, King Terellor, had done and risk the Sidhe alone. He moderated his tone and said, “We do not twist the Darkenkell forest to a made hate as Hecate does.”
Celiane lifted her shadowed face toward the oaken throne. King Torastor blanched. Celiane said, “Yet you torture innocents and flog your own when they try to correct your misdeeds. You clutch at your pain so that you fail to notice the pain of others around you, such as the heir of Windweaver, who was favored among my mother’s kind. I have little pity for your plight. You seem much like Hecate, who is also a Darkenkell nym.”
Abruptly, Kara stood. His throaty human voice grated in the ears of all the councilors, “You are wrong, daughter of the Darkenkell Sidhe, if that’s what you truly are.” All eyes fixed on Kara, save Celiane’s.
The grey cowl turned toward the kneeling brothers. “Ta-nor, who is this who is neither nym nor sidhe in this council chamber?”
Still kneeling, Ta-nor replied, “My lady, he is the wizard from New Candide.”
“Ah, this is the midwife of my mother. Come before me, wizard from New Candide. Explain yourself.”
Kara looked toward King Torastor and the King motioned for him to step forward. The wizard stepped in front of Celiane. Kara said, “I, too, have many grievances against these people. The one whom you name the heir of Windweaver is my son, and despite the pain they caused him, I would still aid them. Hecate has been banished from the Darkenkell tribe of her own making. She serves a more powerful lord that in its way is more of a threat to this world than Erador. The lord of Hecate is called the Horror that Walks by my people and is called in the legends of all the races of hu by the name of Nef-Shivrael-e. It is the ancient daemon that Shi rent from her soul in her anguish at the moment of creation. It lay incarnate under the deeps of the earth in the underworld until a spell gone awry released it. It treads the world, and with each murder its power grows more monstrous. In my battle with a servant of Hecate, I learned that this daemon was the source of her power.”
Under his breath Ram-Erin-nor said, “Then he is surely going to aid his servant in her war against us.”
Celiane turned toward the back of the dome. She pointed at Elaine. All eyes seemed under a compulsion to follow her gaze. Celiane whispered in every ear, “I am not needed here when you have the essence of the one who first cast out your enemy. I must concern myself with the Darkenkell. Erador will soon wake. He lusts after my mother.”
Mella-kahn unconsciously rolled up his scroll. Sighs of despair were heard in the rim chambers as well as from the councilors. What had started out as a battle between Hecate’s witchcraft and the Darkenkell legions had swiftly turned into a world war. The nym felt very much alone. It seemed to them that all the peoples of the world were bent upon their destruction: Hecate’s zuvembies and shadowcrows on one side, the Saracean warriors on the other side, the Nef-shivrael-e out of the myths of creation; and Erador, their ancient enemy, had returned. Mella-kahn had always considered himself an excellent strategist, but that necessitated being a realist. The Kahn knew of no way to win against so many dreadful foes.
Kara felt that he, of all who were here, knew the true enemy, the outworlders. Just when unity was needed to preserve the ways of the world, its people fought amongst themselves. The leavings of war would be taken by the outworlders without a struggle. And Elaine. Her proclivity toward violence worried him. What would she be like if she received the full extent of Shivrael’s world twisting power?
King Torastor brooded and silence ruled the council chamber. His hopes for his house lay dead at his feet. This bitter truth had come to him through a bastard royal offspring. Only the Chen and the infirm might survive, hidden in the forest.
Kara gazed at the daughter of the Darkenkell. Celiane was as ephemeral and delicate as the beauty in her mother’s forest. Kara said, “Perhaps that would be true if Elaine were awakened, but she is still blinded to her power. I shall take her to Sanctuary where she shall be awakened. Then, she can aid you in your war.”
Celiane argued, “Yet I sensed Shivrael’s power erupt mere days ago. My mother has spoken of the return of Shivrael’s might in her Darkenkell. What need does she have for this awakening?”
Mar-ahn found his voice in council, “It is true. I saw her try to heal the wizard’s arm.”
Kara took a deep breath to relieve his sense of frustration. Then, he said, “She wielded her power because she had a journeystone, which allowed her to tap into the surface layers of her inheritance. She will not be fully capable until she enters the chamber of the master crystal in Sanctuary of which the journeystone is only a bloodless cousin.”
Elaine stood and faced Kara. “Wizard, I’ll stay and help my friends. If you want me at Sanctuary, you’d better stay here and help the fight.”
Nigel sat, sullenly listening while Kara and Elaine argued. He had never coveted the inheritance of Shivrael, but he felt displaced. As a thief in New Candide, he was a faceless understudy in a faceless profession. Kara had made him believe that he was gifted, and now just as quickly he realized that his uniqueness was a sham that, in truth, it was Elaine who carried the hope for victory against the outworlders as the incarnation of Shivrael. It was an absurd jealousy, and he decided that he was glad not to be the center of attention in a war. Elaine was a better fighter, the tough one with a cynic’s shield. He would stay with her; he really didn’t have any identity with anyone else. Yet war was too terrible to contemplate. He had almost lost control of his bowels when those wolves had charged him, and he could no longer stomach the smell of death after seeing the beauty that lay outside New Candide.
Nigel was jolted out of his reverie by Elaine, who was again sitting next to him. “Ay, you asleep? Wake up. The council’s almost finished. We’re going to stay and help Mar-ahn’s people. Aren’t you glad? What’s wrong? Don’t tell me your jealous. That’s not like you.”
“No. It’s not that. You’ll make a fine leader in a fight. You were born for it. Or should I say reborn?”
Elaine smiled. “Very droll, Nigel. If it’s not about magic, then what’s the problem? Don’t you like being told that you’re the incarnation of Aten-Mayet, a healer god? You know you’ll be good at it. You have a way with people. You see the good when others can only see the evil or worse, when they see nothing at all. You’ll be a gifted healing father.”
Nigel laughed bitterly. “That’s just the problem. I do feel the gift of healing or something like it within me. The desire is there, but for all that, I couldn’t save my family from Jezric. Now, we go to another war. This time, it won’t be a complete destruction, but savage, bloody fighting, filled with the cries of pain and grief. I’m not equal to this task. Elaine, I can’t heal my own hurts. What good will I be in this new war?”
Elaine cupped Nigel’s face in her warm hands and said, “You’ve just got the jitters. You’ll feel better once the preparations for war are complete. Ahh, here’s the wizard.” She released Nigel and proffered the wizard a vicious smile.
Kara ignored her and took his seat on the other side of Nigel.
Nigel reoriented his attention on the council’s proceedings. Celiane was speaking to the King, “I shall aid my father’s people so long as my mother does not need me. I demand a price for my aid.”
“And what is your price?” King Torastor asked.
Celiane replied coldly, “That Ta-nor be given to my service.”
The chamber sank into brooding as everyone remembered the tragic loss of King Terellor at the hands of the Darkenkell Sidhe. King Torastor looked down at the kneeling Ta-nor who looked back at the King with an obvious desire for what Celiane had asked. The King thought that the boy was a fool to crave such a fate. “So be it.” Torastor said, “Ta-nor, your punishment for disobedience is bondage to Celiane.” He added quietly, “May Aten have mercy on your spirit.”
Mar-ahn slumped his head against his knees. Despair for his brother joined with the pains of the lash. He prayed for war.
King Torastor carefully examined the three humans who sat in the back of the council chamber. He locked eyes with the old wizard and said, “Karamindakas of New Candide, I perceive the pain that you have suffered at the hands of our enemies. I also know of your grief and anger that is directed at my people. They are blameless. It was I, in my desperation, who ordered the binding of your son to heal my people. Though you may deem me bold, will you aid my people?”
Karamindakas stood, and it was plain to all the Ston that his aura was edged in violence and hate. Kara gritted his teeth and spoke hoarsely, “You are correct. I have suffered, because of you who represent your people. Worse, you have subverted my naive charges into helping you. This delays me and may prevent me from fulfilling the duty laid upon me by my friend, Osric. Yet it was the Nef-Shivrael-e that brutally killed him. Fate has given me a chance for revenge and I shall take it.” Kara resumed his seat, neither waiting nor caring for a reply from the King of the Darkenkell hunym-sidhe.
Torastor frowned, but said nothing, knowing in his heart that the human had cause. He shifted his gaze to Elaine. “And what of you, who have no stake in this matter?”
Elaine stood and bowed toward the King. “Pardon, King, but I do have a stake in this. My friends, Ta-nor and Mar-ahn, may die in this war. I can help prevent that. They helped us when we needed them. Also, Mar-ahn gave me the title of Ahn so that makes me a member of your tribe, at least unofficially.” Elaine glanced at the armored figure of Mella-kahn. “I would like to see if the title is worthy of me.”
Mella-kahn was too worried about his numerous enemies to take notice of her title. He managed a smile and said, “Soon enough we shall all prove our mettle.”
King Torastor frowned at Mella-kahn. Speaking without royal leave was considered a lack of respect in less grievous times. Now, he overlooked the breech and addressed Nigel, “I know nothing of you, apprentice to Karamindakas. What say you?”
Nigel stood with as much grace as he could muster. He had resolved himself to his purpose while the others were talking. His tenor voice filled the chamber with a soothing calmness that infected everyone listening to it, and even Celiane turned to look at him ‘neath the folds of her cowl. Nigel said, “I have seen the pain of war. Should you survive this war, you will still have to face the outworlders. I do not believe that there is an army large enough on all Oco to prevent their eventual victory. So you see, your war is futile, and in the end you only weaken yourself. My words are chaff to you. You haven’t been attacked by them, and you haven’t seen their terrible power, save as lights in the sky. You are hidden here in your fragile, lovely woods. You will learn.
“As for who I am, I am the heir to the legend of the god Mayet, afterwards called by all living things Aten, who is the giver of names to the peoples and the healing father. If I have this gift, I shall attempt to use it for the benefit of all.” Nigel gave a full bow to the King and resumed his chair.
A slight smile played across Karamindakas’ face as he listened to his apprentice.
For a moment after Nigel’s declaration, everyone was silent, pondering Nigel’s foreboding words. Then, Ram-Erin-nor broke the gloom, “Sire, shall I leave for Saracea to parley a truce?”
The King looked blankly at his Vizier until he recovered his wits. “Yes, my friend. Go with all speed to the Saracean Queens.”
Kara interrupted, walking around the marble table toward the Vizier, “King Torastor, I do not know why you believe the Saraceans will attack, but I may be able to help your Vizier.” He reached into his satchel and removed a journeystone. The blue jewel glistened for a moment, then became dull again. He gave the stone to Ram-Erin-nor. “Present this to either Shere or Meara. I suggest that you seek out Meara, if you truly believe that the Saraceans have cause against you. I am sure that she will receive this journeystone with more grace than my last journeystone was received from the hands of my son.”
Ram-Erin-nor winced at the wizard’s vitriol, but accepted the journeystone from Kara. “My thanks, Kara of Dakas.” Ram-Erin-nor turned to the King and bowed low. “I shall return with a truce or not return at all.”
Kare-ston said, “Just return, Erin. We’ll need you with us where you belong.”
Seated next to Sol-mer, Alia-mer abruptly stood and she said, “Yes, Erin. Be careful.”
King Torastor forgot the indiscretion of his councilors and agreed, “So say we all.”
The council spontaneously broke up as the councilors came forward to say their parting words to their Vizier. Erin was taken aback by the affection from the councilors whom he had so often balked during debates. Mella-kahn held his shoulders and shook him with a rough tenderness. “Don’t forget to take some sharp steel should your quick wit fail you.”
Kare-ston poked out from behind Mella-kahn’s broad shoulders and said, “Never mind our Kahn, Erin. Don’t forget that you are a Nor. Those skills will serve you better than steel.”
Mella-kahn menacingly grimaced at the slight mage, but the Kahn’s eyes twinkled as he prepared to debate Kare-ston on the merits of hard steel over magic. Erin thought that he would never get away if that decrepit argument got started.
Thankfully, Sol-mer came to his rescue saying, “You are both wrong. Ram-Erin-nor needs neither steel nor magic, for his tongue has never failed him.”
Erin smiled and gave the wily Mer an exaggerated full bow and doffed his cap. “I can never recall when speech has failed me.”
Mella-kahn and Kare-ston laughed, accepting that answer. The Vizier bowed a final time to his King, catching the worry in the scarred face that only he could recognize in his friend and King. Ram-Erin-nor tried a reassuring smile to his King, but he did not feel it and, for once, the Ram’s acting was half-hearted. Donning his cloth cap, he left the inner chamber.
The councilors made their way back to their seats to prepare the specific plans for war. King Torastor addressed the Ahn chairs, “How does the Kahn advise us in the upcoming battles?”
Chala-ahn and Mene-ahn scrambled through a pile of scrolls, which littered the black marble table. Celiane ignored the council. Mella-kahn pushed the scrolls away from him, except for a map of the forest. His shoulders sagged as his bass voice addressed the council, “Whether or not the dragon Erador will attack, we have only a vague prophecy.” He glanced at Celiane, but she remained hooded and motionless. Mella-kahn continued, “And we are not certain that the Saraceans will attack. They may have the foresight to believe our Vizier and realize that freeing the witchwolves would not be advantageous for either of us. However, there is one enemy we know hates us. One whose twisted heart blames us: Hecate. She has brought down a plague on us, and she has killed and cursed any who dare entrance to her domain. She has bloated the path of Erador by her black sorcery. Let us attack there quickly and kill her before her lord, this Horror that Walks, arrives to succor her. With Hecate roasting at the stake, we can have a warm reception waiting for the Nef-Shivrael-e.” Mella-kahn smiled grimly amid the applause of the other councilors and the cheers from the rim chambers.
Sol-mer relaxed. Mella-kahn had said the very point he had been pounding on during the last council meeting: The real threat was from Hecate, the enemy identified by the Mer. Sol-mer began to feel warm. Initially, he attributed it to the flush of satisfaction at being proved correct. However, when the political Mer’s hands began to tremble and beads of perspiration began to drip down his forehead, he knew that he would soon be in the grip of a vision. Mella-kahn’s speech became garbled as Sol-mer’s hearing faded. He felt weightless and nauseous, which told him that the vision would not be pleasant. He reached his left hand toward his friend, Alia-mer. He could barely feel her tight grip, but trusted that she knew what was happening. He felt himself begin to salivate. “No,” Sol-mer thought, “this will be in tongues.” Inwardly, Sol-mer groaned. There would come a desolate blackness that would be filled with only the empathic resonances of the wild spirit who was about to visit him, giving utterance to the vision while he was confined in a void of safety where he would be blind, deaf, and mute. His vision failed him and he entered the void, clearing the way for what would come. Sol-mer clung to the only thing that he had left: his fear.
Alia-mer had immediately recognized Sol-mer coming under the grip of a forced, spontaneous vision. She interrupted Mella-kahn as he was discussing the supply lines necessary for a sustained effort, “Pardon, Mella-kahn. Sol-mer is having a vision.”
Mella-kahn was irritated at being interrupted, but it quickly changed to worry as he saw his friend rigidly staring at nothing. Sweat rolled down the Mer’s bald head and mingled with the sudden tears, streaming from his blue eyes. His head lolled from side-to-side. His arms and legs twitched violently, threatening to throw him from his chair.
Mella-kahn asked, “Forgive me if I intrude on private Mer matters, but are visions normally so violent?”
Concern deepened the sun wrinkles on her face as Alia-mer replied, “Rarely, only very powerful spirits or very clear visions bring this violent a response. Please, you must help me bind his arms and legs. He may unknowingly hurt himself.”
Kare-ston and Arle-ston glanced at each other and nodded. They threw ivy seeds at Sol-mer. Turning their thoughts to the seeds they had kept on their person for weeks, the Stons bent their wills upon the seeds’ growth. The vines sprouted, giving off a verdant aura and twining around Sol-mer’s arms and legs.
Mella-kahn sprinted to the seer’s side and grabbed his arms. Mene-ahn and Chala-ahn followed their Kahn’s lead, and each grabbed one of Sol-mer’s legs. Despite the vines, the three were hard pressed to hold onto Sol-mer as he convulsed.
Karamindakas, although fascinated by the display of hunym-sidhe magic, pressed journeystones into Nigel’s and Elaine’s hands. He hoped that their latent magic would protect them if he failed his charges. The wizard didn’t trust these nym, so different from the gentle nym whom he had known before the plague of Hecate.
Sol-mer’s mouth began to foam, and he screamed inarticulately. Mella-kahn found himself lifted into the air as Kare-ston’s vines snapped, causing the mage to wince in pain.
Sol-mer hurled Mella-kahn against the edge of the stone council table. Protected by his Koral forged armor, the Kahn tumbled to his feet. The Kahn regained his hold of Sol-mer’s hands before the seer could scratch out his own eyes. Arle-ston, still controlling the remaining vine, snatched some seeds from his pocket. The vines erupted as the quiet Ston bent his full will against the recalcitrant plants, strengthening their fiber with his inner serenity. The additional vines crept around Mella-kahn’s and Sol-mer’s arms, binding the friends together with living chains. Chala-ahn and Mene-ahn held onto the seer’s legs, as if they were riding a wild horse. Gradually, the spasms subsided and Sol-mer stopped screaming. King Torastor gave Alia-mer a questioning look.
Alia-mer responded, “You can relax now. That was what we call the Mer-sis, the precursor of the vision. From the foaming of his mouth and his screaming, I think he will relay to us the vision as his mind refuses to retain the full experience. I have never seen so violent a Mer-sis.”
Exhausted, Kare-ston and Arle-ston leaned back in their chairs. Like Sol-mer, they were drenched with sweat from the exertion of their binding, riding roughshod over the natural order. The vines became limp. Mella-kahn and his two Ahn relaxed, but remained vigilant should Sol-mer relapse. They trusted Alia-mer, but the sight of their friend in such blind, strange agony unnerved them. Guarding was a task on which they could concentrate and maintain an Ahn’s stoic demeanor.
Sol-mer floated into the air. His hands were limp as his arms raised themselves to mimic a crucifixion at the tree of humility. His necklaces and robes swayed in the air, freed from the constriction of the land. Alia-mer shouted, “Do not be alarmed. This is normal posturing in a powerful vision. It merely reflects Sol-mer’s essence and control over the vision.”
Celiane’s voice floated over to Alia-mer, “Then, why is he crucified?”
Alia-mer, surprised at being addressed by the grey cloaked Celiane, hesitated. King Torastor ordered her to answer, so Alia-mer said, “I don’t know. The specific posture is unique and is usually in accordance with the seer’s unconscious comfort or desire. It is a private matter between Mer.”
Kara began to clear his mind of worry as he felt within himself for his inner fires. Time had made them familiar, but no less wonderful in spite of the dire circumstance that always seemed to force him to action.
Sol-mer’s mouth hung open. His tongue lolled out, swollen and purple. He began speaking without any of the normal movements associated with speech. The voice was Sol-mer’s in a dull monotone. A flatness blanketed his voice. Everyone in the council heard an echo within themselves, a sound of utter despair. The voice was devoid of everything, but the certain promise of continued languishing. The chambers were silent as everyone listened to Sol-mer with a morbid, communal fascination.
The vision spoke, “Man now turned away, life’s gleam fades fey. Yet buoyed by passionate hate, despair is barred by a blood forged gate. Cold companion, parasite of the mind, payment wants due from all living kind, extracting it with blood and war, corrupting other souls, spreading evermore—-”
Sol-mer screamed and writhed in the air.
Kara checked the seer’s aura. It was pitch black. Sol-mer stopped screaming and fell to the ground. He landed on his feet with a broad smile, twisting his usual, thoughtful features. Elaine felt a burning in her insides. She gripped her journeystone tightly.
Now, Sol-mer spoke by moving his mouth, and his voice pierced the ears of the listeners, “Sol-mer is such a sweet seer, but he hardly gave a description that befits the twin of Shivrael, don’t you agree? What is this?” Sol-mer lolled his head from side to side in the manner of a spitting cobra. “There is a wizard here, is there not? It must be Karamindakas, or do you prefer Kara of Dakas, an old line that, a lineage filled with incompetence like the dead pilot who was responsible for your being here. But you wouldn’t know that, would you, wise man?”
Kara leapt to his feet. “Enough, murderer. I know you as the Nef-Shivrael-e, and I know what you have done.” Kara laced his hands together and loosed his anger at the Nef-Shivrael-e; it appeared as a blue fire, streaking from his hands and smashing into the body of Sol-mer. The rim chambers became a mass of panic and confusion as onlookers rushed to escape the magic.
The wizardfire dwindled and died. The Nef-Shivrael-e laughed through Sol-mer’s voice, “Ah, so delicious–your passion–and so predictable. That’s just what Osric did before I killed him. Shame your lineage does not hail from a goddess, then you could do this.” Blue fire erupted from Sol-mer’s hands. As it lanced toward Kara, the fire changed to true fire. At the last moment it arced and struck Nigel, burning his clothes. The Nef-Shivrael-e twisted Sol-mer’s face back into a grin. “No, not you, Karamindakas. I have a use for you just as I use Tobin. It is better that I break the heir of Mayet and free that anima.”
“Nigel!” Elaine screamed. A column of blue fire erupted around Elaine and lifted skyward. Lightning coruscated through the column. The bolts shattered the roof and made a hole for the blue column to pass, leaving the smell of ozone and smoke in the air.
Celiane appeared next to Nigel. The half-sidhe passed her hands over the fire and extinguished the flames that threatened the heir of Mayet.
Anger overwhelmed Elaine, and she screamed, “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!” A vertical column shot forth from the column of fire around Elaine and lunged to engulf the possessed Sol-mer.
The Nef-Shivrael-e’s grin faded, replaced with disgust. The ancient covered its host body in a blue dome. “Ah, I have made a costly mistake. Upon her awakened passion, I cannot sate myself, for the dragon who feeds on its tail soon vanishes. I must hie to a safer, more comfortable, body.”
Kare-ston thought that he saw a glimmer of shadow flee Sol-mer’s body. The dome around Sol-mer disappeared as Mella-kahn tackled Sol-mer about the waist with his mercuric reflexes, taking the limp Mer out of the path of Elaine’s column of sorcerous fire and lightning.
Kara’s eyes blazed blue as he struggled to wrest control of the columns from Elaine. Kara shouted, “Enough! Elaine, enough!” His fires laced around the outside of the columns: containing them, diminishing them, and, finally, extinguishing them.
Nigel grabbed Elaine. “Calm down, Elaine. The fire didn’t burn me. It just caught my clothes.” They embraced, mutually relieved.
Elaine whispered, “These magic tricks are potent stuff.”
On the other side of the council room, Mella-kahn and Alia-mer tried to comfort Sol-mer. Mella-kahn gently called to him, “Sol. Sol.”
Sol-mer groaned, “Did I drink too much mead?”
Alia-mer laughed as a tear stung her cheek. She said, “You fool. You were possessed during a telling vision.”
Sol-mer’s eyes flashed wide open. “Aten, help me to forget the torment, the hate. It was a complete hate. It mocks life, belittles love. Hate. It cares for nothing, but self and mockery. There must be war. We must eradicate this Nef-Shivrael-e, or all will be dust. War. There must be war.”

Chapter XIV Edged Diplomacy

The dream eye of Erador left the Darkenkell council chamber and began imagining its home in the uppermost cave of Mount Glered. After all the years since his battle with Windweaver, the dragon knew that it was time to rouse his quiescent body. Erador had waited and watched for his chance to strike at Meliane’s people. The Lord of Predators had roamed the world with his dream eye, searching for the perfect instrument for vengeance. Now, the Darkenkell hunym-sidhe were beset with enemies, unsafe even in their council chamber. While the hunym-sidhe warred within their forest, the Darkenkell Sidhe would suffer and weaken as the Saracean sisters set the forest ablaze. Erador had learned much about sidhe during his great sleep. Meliane was lost to him, but the Sidhe still lived. Erador decided that it would not be a dragon-nym race, but a dragon-sidhe race that he would father. With such offspring he would make nature into his vassal.
In his cave, the first tier of sacred Glered-nigh, his dream eye looked lovingly at his slumbering body and slipped inside it. Erador woke. His quickened breaths echoed against the slave carved walls of his recessed chamber. He scented the air. His brothers, Malast and Castor, were awake. Later, he would call on them. It was time to feed. Erador began to unwind and luxuriously stretch his coiled body. Food. His first stomach was cold. So soon after waking, his acids had not begun to boil in his belly, and his mouth was uncomfortably dry. First food after a long slumber was always best. Erador began moving from his bed chamber when he felt an itching against his chest. He curved his neck around and spied the dry spittle with which he had bound the chest wound that Windweaver had delivered to him. He reached up his left fore claw and gently scratched away the hardened spittle. Black cakes fell to the floor, revealing bright scales, which were still somewhat tender. It had been a grievous wound, but not so grievous as Windweaver’s wounds. Erador laughed and crawled to the rear entrance of his first tier caves.
After launching himself from the edge of the sheer rock into the twilight air, Erador gained altitude and rode the icy dragonwind that would take him to the food lizards. Within the hour he was flying over the eastern sea. The long flight gave Erador time to contemplate. The baleful spirit that had possessed the nymish seer was a new faction to the Lord Predator. If it was the cast out darkness of the mad goddess Shi, it could be a foe that even he could not best. Ancient magic twisted natural laws. Erador shivered in the icy dragonwind; a foe like that could make one’s heart forget how to beat. Yet most baleful spirits were full of deceit. Nef-Shivrael-e’s power was real enough. Even his dream eye could sense that the fool, Karamindakas, was outmatched. If not for the sorceress Elaine, that daemon might have bested them. Erador had no doubt that she was the heir to Shivrael’s might. He had seen her aura with his dream eye, and it was old, older than his draconic aura. Only ancients roamed the world before dragon’s flew. There was more force being gathered in this war than Erador had previously thought, which pleased him. He wanted as great a conflagration as possible to damage the Darkenkell forest. He wanted the Sidhe bereft of the source of her life. Since all the claimants to ancient power had only a shadow of their godly might, Erador knew that he had little to fear. Yes, they were impressive, but he perceived no power in the council chamber that could raze mountains or twist living flesh like clay.
Erador increased the beat of his wings. Ram-Erin-nor was already on his way to the Lower Saracean Empire. He could not allow the crafty hunym-sidhe Vizier to arrive ahead of him. He spied land below him and swooped down. Lowering his speed, a sonic boom shook the air and Erador took another breath. A predator lizard on the ground looked at him and roared a challenge. Erador admired the rows of sharp teeth that were held in jaws large enough to cut a dragon’s neck in twain. However, it had only tiny forearms for its limited prey and no cunning beyond that of any animal. They were here as food and nothing more.
He passed over the beast, and Erador dripped his spittle on the lizard, not wishing to sully his talons. The beast loosed a final roar before his head turned to mush. Erador landed to feast. His talons became messy anyway as he ripped into the belly of the lizard to get at the soft entrails.
Before he had finished his repast, another lizard came forward like the one he was eating, but slightly larger. With unbelievable hubris this beast also roared a challenge. Erador lifted his head from the carcass and regarded the unfortunate creature with some amusement. His belly was hot now: A quick cough against the back of his throat and the gasses lit, a heave from his midsection and a fiery liquid spewed out of his mouth striking the beast in the chest. The flames seared through the creature, decapitated it, and cauterized the chest and neck with an elegant precision. It foolishly ran a few more paces and fell on its side. Erador grinned with satisfaction, revealing his double row of ivory fangs. This was why he held the highest tier in unruly Glered-nigh.
He lamented the waste of meat, for he was full and could not delay to gorge. However, even a stupid beast should have known better than to bother a feeding dragon, particularly if that dragon happened to be the Lord Predator of the World and soon to be the Lord over Nature.
He launched from the ground somewhat shakily, but within moments he had to take a deep breath as he flew toward Glered-nigh with all his might.
Erador knew he might run into difficulty at Glered-nigh. He would need the aid of the twins, Malast and Castor. He had no fear of them, for he had taken pains to beat them into submission. Their symbiotic relationship had only served Erador in teaching them to fear him. Yet they were properly greedy and secretly lusted after his inheritance of Paragrond’s dwelling, which fell to him at his father’s death. Delia, a cousin by blood and a member of fourth tier, nurtured a wormling by Malast and wanted lordship for her son. She had a great influence on the twins who were, for the most part, blind to her machinations. His size had always overruled Delia’s flattery, but Erador was planning a war and, doubtless, Delia knew this, for her dream eye was formidable. Worse, Delia had connection to Torond of fifth tier with his numerous brood who were bound to him in fifth tier’s odd notions of honor. If his and the twins’ absence gave Delia enough incentive to hide her wormling and convince Torond to aspire his blood atop Glered-nigh, then the mountain would shake with violence at his return. Erador put himself in her position: Delia probably believes that she could maneuver her son to win first tier with all the other descendant’s of Paragrond dead, either from his war or from a political conclave of dragons, allied with Delia through Torond.
Erador thought of murdering Delia’s wormling, but did not wish to risk a confrontation with fifth tier. To be held at Glered-nigh for fear of insurrection was intolerable. The twins must join him in battle; the firing of the Darkenkell forest must be an utter razing. Erador decided that he would have to make Delia understand the rock slides of what she was planning. Her problem was ignorance: She would have to be taught just how dangerous he could be.
Instead of landing at his rear entrance, Erador drifted down the rock face of Mount Glered and landed at Delia’s rear entrance. It did not have the elaborate stonework his tier had, which was so pleasant to slither over. It was also completely dark, like all the tier tunnels save the first tier. Erador had to rely on his senses of hearing, touching, and tasting the air with his serpentine tongue.
The hole was a bit cramped for his size, but Erador didn’t mind. It was his immense size that had made him Emperor of Glered-nigh. His father, Paragrond, had been large, but Erador still remembered the despairing look in his father’s eyes as Paragrond had watched his eldest son never cease growing. He often wondered why his father had not killed him when he had begun to be larger than his father at such a young age. Perhaps, his father had realized his own age and his son’s greatness, for Paragrond had lived in the first time after the mad goddess Shi, though he rarely spoke of it. The first born were a strange lot. Erador left behind his childish reminiscences as he entered Delia’s antechamber.
She had smelled him coming and awaited him alone in her antechamber. Delia was slightly less than half his size, which was still large enough for her to secure the fourth tier for herself and keep off any advances that an amorous Torond might attempt. Erador wondered where her babe was. He could catch no scent of the wormling.
Delia’s voice issued from the darkness, “Emperor of Glered-nigh, you honor me with this visit to my dwelling.”
Erador bridled under her veiled meaning. Those niceties were the perverted mark of fifth tier–flattering and then emphasizing her territorial preeminence. But to bring up that her dwelling, all dwellings, belonged to him would make him appear to be petty and insecure. Let her have her words. He was more than twice her size and twice her age. Erador asked, “How is my brother’s babe? Has Senast taken his first flight?”
He heard Delia suck air. She said, “No, my Emperor. It pleases me that you inquire about his health. All fifth tier has been very solicitous and generous with food for me while I nursed.”
Erador flared his nostrils in agitation. He was already tired of Delia’s word games, and time was pressing him. He stretched his neck toward her voice, “I do wish for your son’s continued good health. I must warn you that any untimely ambition endangers your son, so tenderly young and at so high a tier. This grieves me, for my brothers and I must soon take our leave from Glered-nigh. It would pain me to see my nephew come to an end amid Torond’s tier games at such a young age. If I am greeted with unrest at my return, then the sons of Paragrond would have to forcefully make Glered-nigh whole again. You know as well as I that the sons of Paragrond have no equal at Glered-nigh, at least until his grandson reaches his full girth. Mayhap Senast will eclipse us all, should he, through prudent maintenance, reach his adulthood.”
Delia half lidded her eyes and bobbed her head, moving the still air to show obeisance to him. “Of course, I shall keep him secure as best as I am able, but I cannot be made responsible for all the actions of the tiered dragons.”
Erador snorted, “I am well aware of your political capabilities. Your maternal instincts reassure me. Marond, my cousin and most worthy friend of third tier, respects the peace and knows my mind as you now do.” Erador turned his serpentine body around and began to squirm out of Delia’s antechamber. As he was about to leave, Erador called back to Delia, “You might want to pick up some humans from the plains and have them widen your tunnel for me. Malast has a fine eye.” That should put Delia off balance. A wormling from Erador holds more weight at Glered-nigh than any of his little brother’s brood, and a guaranteed position at second tier for any chosen by the Emperor of Glered-nigh would give Delia pause to risk his wrath.
Leaping off a fourth tier entrance, Erador landed on a polished second tier entrance to the chambers of his brothers. Here, the tunnels were carved in the same fashion as his, and there was room to move. He had no need to slither and walked on his claws with a winding gate, letting his talons fondle the raised mosaics on the floor. In about fifty paces he came to the “Y” shaped fork in the tunnels that separated the chambers between Malast and Castor. A brazier was lit in front of the tunnels. The thick, bitter smoke impeded his sense of smell. He swiped the air with his forked tongue. Erador perceived his younger brothers in the shadows of each tunnel.
In the left fork stood Malast. His head swayed to and fro, giving a menacing look to his visage. Despite all Malast’s bravado, Erador could almost hear the fear in his rapid, short breaths. In the other fork lay Castor, silently gazing at him with half lidded eyes. Less fear and more hate shot from Castor’s slitted eyes. This was a new cunning on their part. Malast and Castor were usually prepared to face him with a united front during the times that he had paid them a friendly visit.
Erador drawled, “Is this how my brothers greet me after my prolonged sleep? by hiding in the shadows? Come out, sweetlings.”
Neither moved.
Malast hissed and said, “What business have you with Delia?”
Erador’s twin pupils widened in anger and shock. Malast had found the nerve to confront him. Erador peered over the flaming iron brazier at Malast. He had not grown overmuch during his last sleep. Delia must have been bolstering his courage. Erador mastered his anger and said, “Brother, I merely worry about the welfare of my newest subject: your son, Senast.”
Malast hissed, “Stay away from him.”
Malast advanced toward Erador only to receive a stinging blow from Erador’s left foreclaw. Malast’s head rebounded against the wall of the tunnel from the force of Erador’s blow. Bits of stonework crumbled at the impact. The thudding echo pleased Erador.
Castor remained motionless.
Erador said, “I’d have killed the babe already if that had been my intention. Your comings and goings are of little interest to me, Malast. I care not with whom you lie. Do as you please when your Emperor does not call upon you. I am awake and demand your obedience.”
Malast bobbed his head and replied, “You are the Emperor of Glered-nigh, ruler of all that is beneath the highest tier of Mount Glered, the mountain of dreams. You are the Lord Predator of the World.”
Erador’s tongue protruded slightly from his mouth. “Better. I have a task for you and you, Castor. I am about to go to war against the Darkenkell hunym-sidhe, and it would suit me to have all the sons of Paragrond present as I eradicate a nymish tribe in the same way our father had done to the nym who had once dared to roam the plains of Glered.”
Castor lifted his head from the basilisk sculpture where it was resting and said, “So soon after your sleep? I thought that your lust for battle would be sated. You were always more for the ladies in your younger days. Perhaps Meliane’s preference for death rather than your love has dampened your passions.”
Erador exhaled forcefully, a dragon’s laugh. “Ah, Castor, I see your mind twisting and turning so close to the truth. I never sought Meliane’s love, only her body. My dalliances with nymish maids are at an end. I agree with our departed father that they are only fit for slavery. However, the Darkenkell forest is about to become embroiled in a multi-racial war. The forest will suffer, making the Sidhe suffer. It is she whom I wish to breed. You shall devastate her forest in the midst of the war to weaken her further. I will take her while her suffering is upon her and carry her to Glered-nigh.”
Castor said, “I know naught of sidhe, but burning out the Darkenkell nym is a task I would relish. The peoples of the world need to be taught again that the wrath of dragons is paramount.”
Malast bobbed his head excitedly. “Yes, the races of hu need a lesson. They killed Archon. He was a fool, but he was from Glered-nigh. I will take slaves for my home after they are burnt from their homes.”
Erador said, “Good. I shall be back for both of you in a few days.”
Erador slowly and carefully turned away and left the second tier, ascending to that most prized dwelling, first tier. Slaves would be nice to have, but Erador had to laugh at his brother’s arrogance. Malast considered the races of hu too small to harm him even as he talked of Archon’s death. Human magic had grown great while he had slept, with these outworlders added to their ranks, and hunym magic was also potent. Erador wasn’t worried for himself. However, his brothers were only three quarters of his size, which was only twice the size of Archon. It would not be too calamitous if his brothers came to an end.
Erador swiftly passed through his antechamber, going deeper into the recessed caverns where he rarely ventured. He found the cavern that contained trinkets and memorabilia from his father’s escapades. On one wall hung the skin of Torada, his father’s rival. Paragrond had often stared at it with a milky look in his eyes. Erador ignored the crumbling skin and continued his search. After some jostling and sniffing, he found the war spear of the extinct nymish tribe from the plains of Glered. Next to it was the ossifying body of their last monarch still in his imperial armors and vestments. Paragrond was naturally complete in battle, but he did have an eye for artful weapons. Erador laughed to himself, lost in memories. The Glered nym had been forced into war with their more primitive human plains brethren by Paragrond. It would be most satisfying to begin another war between these two races with the relics of their past folly. It was mete to Erador that dragons lived high above the groundlings, who were so easily impoverished by draconic machination or draconic force.
Erador gently snaked his tongue into the nymish King’s armor and pulled out the remains. He rolled the mummified corpse around his tongue, tasting the nature of the King. His disguise would have to be nearly perfect to fool the Saracean sisters. He grabbed the spear of war and the armor in his foreclaws and left the peak of Glered-nigh, heading to Saracea. He flew high into the icy, night air to avoid being seen on the ground. Although he had to fly much farther than the nymish Vizier had to walk, Erador put his confidence in his superior speed. Still, he pushed himself to his limit.

***

Orbiting Oco aboard the H.M.S. Glory, Captain Roberts set down his journal recorder as his second’s voice came over his private comlink, “Captain? I think we have a problem here.”
Roberts quickly flipped a toggle. Jacobson sounded upset. “Go ahead, Commander. I’m listening.”
“We have another one of the Erickson dragon creatures on satellite visual, which just appeared through the interference in the transmission. Also, it’s much larger than the first one, much larger.”
Roberts massaged his temple, rubbing off the newly formed sweat from his fingers. He ordered, “Turn off the link and track the thing. Use only the radar from one of the outland satellites.”
Jacobson replied immediately, “Done.”
“Good. Keep me informed if it changes course.” Roberts sighed, “Oh, and send the three xenos a copy of the transcript.”
Roberts flipped off the com and the recording toggle. His reclamation was as absurd as Erickson’s attempt had been. Nightmarish indigenous life coupled with an atmosphere that, for some unknown reason, was blocking detailed landsats. Unknown reasons. He was getting sick of hearing the experts repeat those two words. His predecessor went berserk for unknown reasons. Roberts was becoming sympathetic with Erickson’s plight. His downworld guards, outfitted in flexkevlar armor, were being murdered for unknown reasons in New Candide, a city that had been already, supposedly reclaimed and secured. Everything about this world rubbed Roberts in a frightening way. And he didn’t know why.
Three hours later, Jacobson’s voice came over the com again, “Sir, the creature’s lowering its altitude. Shall I try for a satellite hook up and visual?”
Roberts thought, “Great, just great.” He said, “No. Let the xenos go look for it. Roberts, out.” He slapped on the recorder switch to his journal and held his hand until the sting disappeared.

***

Erador flew to flat ground as soon as he believed he was nearing the borders of Lower Saracea. It was a small savannah just before the swamps, which demarcated the southern edge of Meara’s realm. He didn’t want to trip any sorcerous wards that might alert the sisters to the entrance of a tiered dragon into their domain. He considered Shere and Meara to be the most formidable humans on the face of the world. He dropped the polished armor on the ground and pulverized the remains of the nymish King in his mouth. Stretching his neck high into the air, he checked for life. There were only small animals, scattering as they caught his scent. Twisting into his coils, Erador assumed the guise of a Darkenkell hunym-sidhe and donned the armor. Picking up the spear of war, he spied his own aura; Erador laughed heartily in the manner of a nym. He walked at a brisk pace, heading for the castle where Meara ruled. His dream eye had discovered that both Queens were in their respective castles. By reputation Shere was the easiest to enrage, but that would require several additional days travel in this nymish form in which time Ram-Erin-nor might reach Meara.
By twilight he had reached the marshes that were pervasive in Lower Saracea. Flying insects that were beneath his notice in his natural form pestered him constantly, bringing back the ugly memory of the shadowcrows. He had forgotten how fragile these tiny bodies were. His form had only a shadow of its former might. Sweat became an annoyance to his eyes, and for the first time in his life, he felt uncomfortably hot. He still enjoyed the intent in his eyes and his persuasive tongue, for these were gifts of his spirit.
He caught the scent of human musk and was about to hurry away when he heard chanting. He wanted to avoid danger. If he had to switch to his natural form, he knew that both sorceresses would instantly know he was in their realms. He crept closer, hoping some human wizard wasn’t waiting for him. How? His disguise was perfect. No wizardry or sorcery should have discovered the truth. He refused to believe that the races of hu could have become so strong during his sleep. He had taken far less trouble to fool Meliane. As he sloshed through the wetlands, he grabbed a leech that sucked at his chest. He crushed it in his pale, strangely soft hand. The one who had discovered him and had ruined his plans would be taken back to Glered-nigh to envy that leech.
He tramped into view of a man and a woman, chanting over a small, prostrate figure. Apparently, the three hadn’t noticed him. Erador stifled a laugh; this frail form was making him edgy. He listened to the somber, melodious voices.
Erador distastefully observed that the two chanters were dressed in filthy tatters, though Erador himself was covered by the stinking brown muck of the swamp. The humans looked anemic, as if they were ravaged by one of the many diseases that sucked at the cold vitals of humans. Squinting, Erador saw that the prostrate figure was a human wormling. It was slowly sinking into the muck of the swamp. Perhaps the wormling was a threat to their tier position, although Erador couldn’t imagine that these pitiful creatures could grasp the subtleties of rank and tier. Erador wondered if they would consume the wormling after it had drowned, as in the manner of his kind.
As the man raised his head upward and lifted his hands toward the sky, the woman bowed her head and put her hands to her sides. She spoke in a surprisingly clear and youthful voice, “Lord of Anubis.”
The baby wailed.
The woman ignored the child and intoned, “Soon, the morning will end.”
The man responded, “Now, the night is yours.”
The baby disappeared beneath the swamp.
The two spoke in unison: “You, who walk and rule the night sky, hear the pleas of those who served you before you came under the sky. The new flesh of our old flesh, we give unto you. Hear us. Take us. Love us in death as in life.”
Erador hid behind a willow tree and cursed his idle curiosity. They were summoning some spirit as the races of hu were wont to do. Erador had no doubt that he could defeat anything that they could conjure, but that would probably necessitate assuming his natural form. He quietly retreated from the campsite even as a black misty shape rose from the spot in the swamp where the human wormling had drowned. It was man shaped as a dark shadow on a bright day. Yet it had a depth and substance that a shadow lacked: a living silhouette.
The black thing spoke, and Erador, closing his eyes and dreaming for a moment, could tell that this thing was a monstrosity of power. Erador’s heart sank as he saw the wraith point toward him and say, “Most obedient followers, you have given me what I sought. You shall be rewarded. I shall reveal to you the face of your enemy.”
The man and woman turned and saw him. Erador cursed under his breath. The man said, “Oh great Ancient that Walks, what is it?”
The wraith replied, “It is a nym of the Darkenkell tribe who harass our beloved servant Hecate.”
With an unconscious precision the man and woman responded in unison, “Praise Hecate, the favored daughter.”
A hollow laugh emanated from the black form. “This one was sent to make peace with your false Queens. He shall die here so that Saracea will go to war. I will kill him, and you, my favored ones, will return his ravaged body to his people. Then, you shall live eternally as my subjects.”
The man and woman flailed their arms gleefully.
Erador realized that this wraith was the rejected scion of Shi, the Nef-Shivrael-e. He remembered it from his dream eye that had spied on the Darkenkell council. This thing must also have designs upon the Darkenkell Vizier. His nymish form muttered, “Fates be cursed! If we battle here, everyone will know that I’ve come to Saracea.” The wraith floated toward him. Erador dropped the war spear and shed his unbuckled armor as he prepared for the monstrous expansion of dragon flesh.
The black wraith quivered in the air in front of him. “You will not fight? Did King Torastor send his weakest to Saracea?” A wispy hand strayed toward Erador.
Erador did not flinch, but gazed keenly at Nef-Shivrael-e’s wraith. He answered slowly, “Your anger is misplaced. I am not from the Darkenkell.”
The wraith radiated disgust; waves of empathy assailed Erador and woke his draconic temper. The wraith mocked, “Have you no courage? I may have no physical eyes presently, but I see you in more ways than one. Where is your boastful, ahnish pride?”
Anger burned in Erador. To be held in judgement by this vile thing! His nymish form growled as he almost forgot the use of an unforked tongue. At last Erador said, “If you can look, then for the sake of your existence, dismal shade, you had better look harder or we shall regret this battle, although I dare say you more than I.” Erador smiled cruelly. His heart pounded; anger swelled in his breast. He could feel the concentration needed to maintain this form slipping away as it was overruled by a stronger lust for battle.
The wraith of the Nef-Shivrael-e was confused. The ancient could sense that the nym was not employing false bravado. There was no fear in this nym who was helpless before it. For a fleeting moment the wraith’s incarnate senses caught a flicker in the nym’s aura. It was enough for the ancient to perceive the true nature of its opponent. The Nef-Shivrael-e cried, “You’re—-”
Erador boomed, “Quiet!”
The wraith drifted several cubits out of Erador’s reach. The scion of Shi whined before Erador, “Of course, Lord Predator of the World. I am sorry for the misunderstanding. My servants mistook you for a nymish ambassador. I have no wish to test myself against you. What are you doing so far from the peak of Mount Glered?”
Erador mastered his nymish form and said, “Don’t bandy words with me, ancient. I was there at the Darkenkell council, and I observed your grand entrance into the body of Sol-mer. Your slave, who dwells where I traversed the Darkenkell forest and leeches my offal, wishes the death of her kin.”
The wraith radiated pleasure. “Ah, and you also wish for the destruction of the Darkenkell nym. As allies, we could send them to join their cousins who lived in the plains of Glered. You would truly surpass your father.”
Erador spat. “I wish for no alliance with you, unwanted offspring of Shi. You take no allies–only abject subjects like those.” Erador gestured to the stinking man and woman who stood motionless, waiting for the wraith to instruct them.
“Surely, you don’t fear me.” the Nef-Shivrael-e spoke. The ancient knew of this Emperor’s pride. Even in the underworld, echoes of the rages from Glered-nigh had resounded.
Erador shook his head and smiled with genuine amusement. “You really should have a host body, ancient who pretends as a goddess. You are so pitifully obvious when you are incarnate. Do not presume upon what my desires are. Yet I know your true desire. We both perceived the karmic heirs of Shivrael and Aten-Mayet. I will not help you.”
The wraith shook and vibrated. Erador senses swam as the wraith projected waves of anger. “Why? Why? Why do you protect them? What use has a lusting worm for them?”
Erador spoke through gritted teeth, “You had best curb your tongue, or I shall forget my own plans and content myself with you. Even incarnate, you cannot withstand the fires that burn within me. I care nothing for the heir of Shivrael, but the heir of Aten, I, and none of my people, will harm. We remember the pain of our forefathers during the madness when you were half of Shi. Go your way and I shall go my way. For your kind offer I give you this: The nym, Ram-Erin-nor, will be coming this way. He plans on striking a treaty with the Saraceans. Your Hecate will not be a match for the armies of the two Empires.”
“Why do you tell me this?”
Erador smiled wryly, finally mastering his nymish facial expressions. The disguised dragon said, “You have been languishing in the pits of the world for a long, long time, haven’t you?” Erador walked past the wraith and continued his journey to Meara’s castle.
It took another two days and nights of strenuous travel for Erador to pass through the swamps. He avoided further contact with any swamp denizens. The land began to steadily rise as the muck gave way to firm ground, and he saw one of the outlying villages, which littered Lower Saracea. This village consisted of several thatched huts and one large wooden building, surrounded by tracts of cultivated land where the humans toiled. The neighboring villages were collectively known as the Mearians, the regional governments owing obedience to the Queen. Mearians sprawled out in clumps, separated by cultivated lands or patches of forest, easily set ablaze during the dry summer months.
Erador stopped musing about the Mearians and the villages as he noticed that the nearest peasants had paused at their work or play and were staring at him and murmuring. These humans seemed healthier and better fed than the two he had met in the swamp. Their backs were not bent from hard labor, and their eyes held more awe than fear of him. He knew that he must appear strange to them, for even dwelling in far off Glered-nigh, Erador knew that humans and hunym-sidhe associated infrequently or not at all.
He thought of approaching these innocuous peasants, but decided against it. Word of his coming would surely outrace him to the castle.
Within the hour three humans in unkempt, official looking woolen robes, dyed in red with blue trim, walked toward him. They were the only people whom Erador had seen wearing red. The leading member of the triad stood in front of him, wringing his sweating human hands. Erador favored him with a scathing look that caused the man to squeeze his hands together all the tighter. He stood in front of Erador’s nymish guise and tried to articulate something.
Finally, Erador could stomach the man’s nervousness no longer and said, “Why do you impede me?”
The man seemed relieved when Erador had spoken. He wiped his hands on his red robe and extended one toward Erador. Erador looked at it and, after a moment, the human withdrew his hand. It was a frightened voice that said, “Well come to the Athelston Mearian. I am Ulthar. We represent our Queen’s triad for this village. We hope that you come in peace to enjoy the prosperity of our land.”
Erador knew that here it would begin. “I have come for no such purpose. I am here to have words with your Queen.”
An older man with a tanned, hairless pate opened his toothless mouth and asked, “You walked the swamp?”
The third member of the triad also old, but with close cropped hair turned to his aged comrade with an air of impatience. “Of course he did, Alred. Can’t you see the leech sores on him? Look. One still clings to his neck.” The three looked at the bloated parasite with a disgusted fascination.
“Wait.” Alred said, “I’ll get some salt for that. They can be nasty. That’s one of the reasons our men don’t travel the swamps much.”
“Eh?” Erador grunted and reached a nymish hand to his neck and pulled off the leech. He turned it around in his hand and watched it writhe for a moment before tossing it casually to the grass. “No matter. They are not troublesome.”
Alred stepped on the parasite while the other two stared at him incredulously.
Erador continued, “You delay my mission. You also delay your foul Queen’s reception of my message.”
The two younger members stepped back. Alred stared at him curiously and slowly said, “Ulthar, arrange an escort. I shall lead it.”
Ulthar said, “What? You are too old to keep up with the young.”
Alred’s voice was the first that did not have that whining fear, which Erador loathed. “Necht! You overstep yourself. Wise heads, not strong legs are needed here. The Queen must know that the stranger was treated properly.” The bald man turned back to Erador. “I am Alred. How may I address you?”
Erador hesitated for only the briefest moment. “I am Dor-ahn of the Darkenkell tribe. I am an emissary from King Torastor with words for your Queen Meara. Let us be off. My journey has been long and nears its end.”
The other two members of the triad ran to assemble the escort. Before they left the village, Erador and Alred were accompanied by two young men, armed with poor swords and the smell of slaughter animals. Erador smiled. Already, word of his arrival and harsh demeanor had spread.
They walked through two more Mearians before reaching the foot of the knoll of Castle Mearfels. In each village that they had passed, Erador had made a point of showing his disdain for the humans and their Queen. In the last village he had been greeted with jeers and curses at which he had only smiled. They would have tried to stone him if Alred had not been present.
Castle Mearfels stood atop a large, barren rock. One cobbled road led up to the face of the knoll. A basket was at the foot of the knoll, which had been lowered by ropes. The natural rock had been cut so that the surface was a sheer cliff. Erador judged the rock face to be about three hundred cubits high. This was hardly a problem for a flying dragon, but it was too much for his assumed body to surmount. Erador didn’t care. It was not his intention to raze the castle. He only desired to set its inhabitants to arms against the Darkenkell nym. The castle had two towers: one tall thinner tower that rested in the center of the knoll and a fatter, shorter tower was at the edge of the sheer cliff. Armored watchmen were stationed atop both towers.
When they had reached the end of the cobbled road, they found the basket waiting for them. Alred told the two young men to wait for them here. While the basket was being hoisted up the cliff side, Alred asked, “I have watched you during this journey, Dor-ahn. What have we done to deserve your scorn?”
Erador bent his gaze on the old man and filled it with his hatred. The old man blanched and grabbed the edge of the basket. Alred gasped, “You are cursed.”
Erador was so startled by this bold reply that he burst out laughing. His mocking laughter was carried off by the strong winds near the cliff wall, leaving Alred to stare at the stranger’s cruel smile. They exchanged no other words for the rest of the journey as the old man clutched the rim of the basket. When they arrived, Alred scrambled out. Four of the Queen’s guards in polished armor carried long, barbed pikes. Alred ignored the guards and went to hug an elderly woman, who waited behind the stern soldiers. Erador graced each guard with a withering stare until they averted their eyes downward, unable to countenance the hidden rage of the dragon. Erador planted the base of the war spear of the Glered nym on the ground outside the basket. He vaulted out the basket into the midd le of the cowed guards.
The aged woman slowly approached him. Her gray hair was long and dry, but tied neatly behind her. She wore a clean blue robe, embroidered with alternating silhouettes of sylphs and undines. She was pale with a face that had few wrinkles, but her neck was lined with the folds of extreme age, and her hands were bony and covered with brown spots. She carried a gnarled and knotted staff. It had green shoots, thriving at the top of the staff, that hung loosely down around the living wood.
Her eyes were hard and dark, holding no evidence of fear as she said, “You are the rude nym who wishes to have words with my lady. I am Tearenea, first counsel to the Queen. Follow me.” Without waiting for a response from Erador, Tearenea turned away, showing him her bent back. Relying heavily on her staff, she walked through the outer gate.
Huge oak trees grew in the castle courtyards. A large alabaster pool in front of the black doors to the Mearfels gave off a light, cool mist. In the middle of the pool was a sixteen hands high, alabaster statue of a unicorn, reared on its hind legs. Clear water spouted from the end of its double spiraled horn. Hundreds of small birds flew among the trees, adorning the air with their music. Tearenea paused at the pool and spoke without turning to Erador, “This garden is a thing of beauty, is it not? It was created by our gentle Queen. Yet I sense that you have little appreciation of this kind of beauty, do you? You prefer the beauty of the flesh.”
Erador smiled. The old hag perceived his nature well. He decided to begin the deception with her and said, “We have little time in the Darkenkell for aesthetics since the day your frigid Queen loosed her wolves upon us, as she well knows.”
Tearenea looked at him and then quickly averted her eyes. For some reason this disturbed Erador more than her comments. This hag hadn’t shown fear; she felt secure. They crossed through the garden and passed the two onyx doors that the guards had opened for them. The interior of Castle Mearfels was a striking contrast to the outer gardens. The grey, bare granite walls infected his heart, chilled him. Meara held her court in the entrance ballroom. The large circular room had a staircase going up the side of the wall like a coiled snake. Erador’s eyes were immediately drawn to the center of the room. Set atop an alabaster stand was a roughly hewn pentagonal jewel of azure, slightly larger than a human’s skull. Erador winced at the cold radiance emanating from the jewel, which stroked him beneath his skin.
Erador muttered, “Sorcery.”
Behind the jewel was a plain, iron throne, edged with silver coils in a defiance of symmetry. Upon a few red pillows Meara sat in a diaphanous gown that reflected the color of the monstrous jewel. Her dark hair was enclosed by a golden circlet, shaped in the fashion of an ibis. The wings extended around her night hair, and the delicate neck of the bird sloped outward from her forehead. The eyes of the bird were rubies. She sat without moving until Tearenea stood in front of the jewel.
Meara spoke in a soft voice to Tearenea. Her words gently seduced Erador’s ears and left no mark or memory of their passing. Meara pulled her attention from Tearenea and gazed at Erador. He enjoyed her sorcerous touch, a silken wind, caressing his aura. The dragon could almost feel the pale Queen examining his unnatural form. For a moment he wished to tell her everything, but the feeling passed as soon as he remembered who he was.
Just as his sweat was beginning to bother him again, Meara spoke, “Well come to Lower Saracea, Dor-ahn. My servants shall bring you a chair for your comfort. I’m afraid that I must first deal with a supplicant.” She clapped her hands and from a concealed side door issued servants, carrying spartan wooden chairs. After Erador and Tearenea had been seated, a frail woman with nervous eyes was ushered into the chamber by two castle guards.
She knelt in front of Meara. Bowing her forehead against the floor, she trembled.
Meara asked, “You have chosen to appeal the judgement of your Mearian’s triad?”
“Yes, my Queen, but I am innocent. I—-”
Meara held up her hand, stopping her subject’s importuning. The Queen said, “Tearenea, bring in the young woman’s triad.” Like her Queen, Tearenea remained rigidly expressionless as she opened the side door. Three elderly men entered the room and stood by the kneeling prisoner. They wore robes of similar cut and color to Alred’s triad. Erador looked toward Meara as the Queen leaned forward on her iron throne.
Meara spoke with a deceptive mildness, “I created the Mearians and the triads to avoid this type of problem. My sorcery, which is for the good of the people, takes much of my time and effort. And you bring me this inconsequential problem. I despise any interruption of my duties to Lower Saracea.” She gave Erador a glance. “Therefore, I shall not trouble myself. I shall allow this difficulty to be settled by a trial by ordeal. Triad, step forward to the crystal and place your hands upon it ’til it dims.”
The three triad members placed their hands on the blue jewel and screamed in agony. Blue fire played across their hands. Meara closed her eyes and tilted her head back as the flames changed from blue to true, white hot flames. The jewel dimmed. The three triad members fell back and moaned. The palms of their hands were covered with boils and were a mixture of black flesh and raw red blisters.
Queen Meara said, “Woman, on your feet.” The woman began to back toward the exit. Meara gestured languidly and a guard stepped forward with a barbed pike.
The ordeal of the triad was repeated with the woman. With pikes at her back, she was forced to hold her hands against the jewel. Soon, she was moaning with the others. Meara had a fatigued look that caused her to loose much of her aloof demeanor. She merely nodded toward Tearenea.
Tearenea raised her staff and proclaimed, “Pain is life. Woman, your trial by ordeal has begun. If your hands heal before all the hands of the triad heals, then you shall be set free with no onus against you. However, any triad members’ hands that heal before yours shall make you guilty and they,” Tearenea pointed at the triad, “shall put upon you your punishment. Go to your village after dipping your hands in the white pool. Your work calls you.”
The four made a quick obeisance toward the Queen and left the hall.
After the onyx doors had closed, Meara said, “Ahn of the Darkenkell tribe, come before me and speak. I trust that the point I made to the triad was not lost on you.”
Erador stood before the iron throne. Meara made a beautiful Queen, and Erador thought of returning to his natural form and taking her back to Glered-nigh. He held his wormlust in check. He had come too far to abandon his plan for a pretty sorceress. Again, Erador filled his eyes with hate and said, “This is not inconsequential. We of the Darkenkell forest declare war upon your realm in repayment of your aid to our enemies.” He held the war spear of the Glered plains firmly and drove it into the granite floor. The Koral forged spear tip cracked the granite and lodged in the floor.
Meara stood. “What? You have no cause. We have lived in quiet isolation from your people for years. Why? Are you in league with the outworlders?”
That surprised Erador. He was unaware that the Saraceans were hostile toward their star cousins. He kept to his original deceit and said, “You speak gibberish to me. We are making war, for you loosed the wolves and abominations from the fen. They have joined our enemy and harass us. For that betrayal we shall destroy you, and all Saracea will be set to the torch.”
Meara said, “I did not undo the ward on the fen. Surely, your magi know that.”
Erador bent his hate upon her. “Do not speak your foul lies to me. Your time would be better spent gathering your army, for our host shall set your swamps ablaze and tear down—-”
Meara commanded, “Silence. You may be an emissary, but you had best be silent if you wish to keep a tongue in your head.” Meara stepped down from her throne and laid her hands upon the surface of the jewel. The blue fire appeared, but did not burn her as it had done to the others. Meara’s eyes began to glow the azure color of the jewel. “Sister, hear me.” The glow from Meara and the gem brightened until the onlookers were blinded.
Meara began to moan. At first Erador had thought that she was in pain, but the moan turned into an incoherent chant, distinguished only by its steady rhythm and liquid syllables. The blinding light pulsed to the cadence of the chant. The chant began to slow and the light dimmed, sending the room into darkness. Before Erador’s eyes could adjust to the darkness, the jewel was restored to its normal glow.
Meara was seated on her throne with her arms hanging limply to the side. Erador could not ascertain if she was conscious. Although her eyes were open, they were wholly blue, sparkling blue, and Meara made no movement.
Leaning on the alabaster stand was Shere, Queen of Upper Saracea. Her blonde hair curled gently down to her waist. Again, Erador had to check his wormlust. He promised it the Queens after the Sidhe. Shere had a circlet of regency, like Meara, but it was shaped in the manner of a falcon and the eyes were two blue journeystones. She wore a sandy brown dress with a wide gold collar, inlaid with lapis lazuli. Her belt was made of thin silver and encircled her waist three times. She wore boots of wyrm skin. Erador thought that they added nicely to her already formidable beauty. Her face had sharp features, which her crown served only to accentuate, giving her a piercing intent in her eyes.
Shere spoke higher in register and volume than her sister, “So, this is the maggot from the Darkenkell tribe who makes unrest in my sister’s realm.”
Meara interrupted, “Save your venom, sister. The play did not daunt this herald. He cares naught for the pain of others. His blood is cold.”
Shere glanced at Tearenea. The old woman nodded toward the gates where the troop of actors had passed, holding illusion scarred hands. It was an old gambit that Meara had created to impress others who mistook her demeanor for softness.
Shere faced the false nym and said, “What has happened to the good sense of King Torastor? Has he forsaken the wise council of his Vizier?”
A sly gleam flashed across Erador’s face, quickly replaced by his mask of derision. He said, “Do not taunt me, murderous Queen. That Erin’s killer has the temerity to speak her victim’s name shows her lack of conscience. Which of your servants carried his broken and twisted body to the swamps at the edge of Lower Saracea? Did you or your sister carve the cruel runes on his cooling flesh? King Torastor cursed your names a thousand times over. Our King has sworn that he will wage war with you ’til both of your heads are stuck upon his spears and planted in your fetid swamps.”
Shere stared at Erador, tried to understand what she was hearing. Meara said, “Go, cursed emissary. Take your fell presence from my land before I forget myself. I rue the day I met you, Dor-ahn. Pray that we do not meet on the field of battle.”
Shere turned toward her sister as Erador quickly left. “Sister, you are letting him leave?”
Meara’s eyes lost their blue radiance. “Can you not perceive the hate in his heart, sister? He and his tribe blame us for the death of Ram-Erin-nor, who was much beloved by their people. Neither speech nor entreaty would have would have penetrated the hate in that one’s heart. I did not wish to listen to his insults any longer.” Meara stared at the spear of war, embedded in the floor.
Shere followed her gaze. “Then, there will be war.”
Meara nodded wearily.

***

In the swamps at the edge of Lower Saracea, the wraith of the Nef-Shivrael-e watched the retreating nymish back of Erador with a growing frustration. The scion of Shi promised to raze Mount Glered when the heir of Shivrael breathed her death rattle. A dragon daring to insult the ancient was the true insult, an insult to the suffering, the patience, and all that the Nef-Shivrael-e had given to Oco.
The wraith hovered over the two humans, who were fawning before the darkness. The Nef-Shivrael-e’s wraith spoke, “Today, we are free. The eons that we have been languishing in the darkness are over. Finally, Dame Fortune has turned her benevolent gaze on us, as she does for all who are infinitely patient. A dying wizard’s final spell, a magic blind, but vital host body, and the return of my other self’s karma to this world have conspired together to release me from my desolate prison. The wailing and gnashing of my despair laden companions is forever banished from my life, and the stars beckon to us, my faithfuls. You don’t understand me, do you, little servants? Understand this: We have many enemies and one great enemy. Only one person could conceivably attain the might to imprison us once more: the heir of Shivrael.”
The man and woman sensed their lord’s distress and fell to their knees. They whimpered and tore at their skin with ragged fingernails. Their bleeding flesh comforted them.
The wraith said, “Be at ease. We know her. We have seen her. I must leave you to kill that upstart with our loyal servant, Hecate.”
The man and woman stopped at their scratching and repeated their litany: “All praise Hecate, the favored daughter.”
The ancient’s darkness drifted toward them and cooed, “Praise her, but also praise yourselves, for I entrust you with the task of slaying her enemy. I cannot stay with you. I must return to my host. Come here, Alenca. I desire to bestow a gift upon you for your gracious sacrifice to your lord.”
The woman walked toward the ancient’s wraith with a reverent awe. The wraith caressed her cheek with its insubstantial hand. Her aura dissolved as it was absorbed by the Horror that Walks. Her sanguine cheeks took on the pallor of death. Her heart stopped its beating, but her spirit did not flee, held back by the will of the Nef-Shivrael-e. The wraith returned a portion of the anima, which it had stolen from her.
Alenca’s eyes opened, veiled with ecstasy by the sudden inrush of her master’s strength. Yet when it was over, the woman winced in pain, deprived of that flush of vitality.
The Nef-Shivrael-e whispered to her the keys that she needed to unlock the ecstacy: “Sweet Alenca, my servant, you must murder, and by continued murder, you may augment the love that I have given you.” Alenca eyed her husband greedily. The Nef-Shivrael-e remembered Erador’s parting words and put Alenca under a command: “Do not forget the enemy of Hecate, Ram-Erin-nor. You will find that one sweet.”
As Alenca strangled her surprised husband, the Nef-Shivrael-e used the necromantic gateway that opened to return to its host. It slid into Morrison’s body with a practiced ease.
Once inside the IRIS agent’s body, the ancient used the babe’s vitality to restore Morrison to the semblance of humanity. The scion of Shi had been at the point of exhaustion when it had heard the call of the two petty necromancers. Its host body had been pressed beyond natural endurance, depleting the energies the Nef-Shivrael-e had taken from Osric and its other, less satisfying, outworlder victims in New Candide. Travelling south west from New Candide, the ancient was roughly equidistant between the blasted ruins of Jezric and the Darkenkell forest. It didn’t want to travel too close to the forest lest the nym attack it, and the ancient didn’t want this outworlder host body damaged beyond use. Yet it knew that the babe’s vitality might not sustain it to the entrance of Hecate’s domain. The Horror that Walks determined to try the strength of the Darkenkell hunym-sidhe.
After two days and nights of continuous running, the Nef-Shivrael-e reached the edge of the Darkenkell forest. It was famished.
“Human!” A nymish voice called to the Nef-Shivrael-e, “Stand your ground. You are in a forbidden part of our forest. Do not move.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e concealed its smile with Morrison’s hood and spoke, “I am the wizard Tobin from New Candide. I am a friend to Karamindakas. I wish to help you murder Hecate.”
The archer lowered his bow, but kept an arrow on the string. He whispered to someone who was concealed in the bushes. There was a rustling of leaves, which was followed by silence. The Nef-Shivrael-e drew Morrison’s cloak around itself. The archer and another nym appeared and began to advance toward the ancient.
At ten paces away it saw the face of the other nym display shock, and the Nef-Shivrael-e knew that its true nature had been discovered. With the last vestige of the babe’s vitality, the Horror that Walks reached out with its singular desire, hooked the auras of the two nym, and pulled them toward its hunger. The astonished nym found themselves falling sideways toward the Nef-Shivrael-e as their bodies were compelled to follow their anima. The ancient extended its arms and caught both nym by their throats. The archer was killed and divested of his anima, immediately bringing the semblance of youth back to Morrison’s corpse.
The ancient dropped the lifeless husk to the ground and concentrated on its other, more interesting prey. The mage gestured futilely in the air, unaware that her magic was being controlled by a greater will. Thel-nor’s struggles became feeble. She pawed the air uselessly. The Nef-Shivrael-e enjoyed this exquisite expression of fear, decorating the mage’s face. This one knew what was happening to her.
The Nef-Shivrael-e returned a small portion of the stolen anima into the dead form before the mage’s spirit had time to flee.
Her eyes snapped open, filled with the gnawing hunger of deprivation. The ancient explained to her what she had to do, and the once Nor listened attentively, concentrating past the pain inside of her. As soon as the Nef-Shivrael-e released her, she ran into the woods.
The Nef-Shivrael-e resumed its journey toward the path of Erador with renewed vigor. It heard a male nymish voice scream before it was untimely halted. The Nef-Shivrael-e thought, savoring its hate, “Perhaps the little mage would survive. I gave her that chance, that purity.”
At twilight the Nef-Shivrael-e reached the path of Erador, which marked Hecate’s domain. It had no trouble finding the path: Hecate’s manic pain infested the path of Erador, and the Nef-Shivrael-e knew its pawns well. Not one thing in that black dirt, in those black trees that scuttled or crawled or loped escaped the special hate in which the Nef-Shivrael-e had taught its grieving pupil. Hecate had warped a once draconic rage in this path to her grief stricken will.
The Nef-Shivrael-e thought of its servant, clarified its image of the Witch Queen in its mind, and called, “Hecate, your lord has come. I find your abode unpleasant and much like my underworld prison. Come forth, Hecate. I have little time to waste. There is no prey for me here.” The Nef-Shivrael-e saw Hecate’s zuvembies, shuffling aimlessly with distraught faces. The Nef-Shivrael-e said, “Your creations are pale imitations of mine. You leave them with their naivete intact, without the purity that I give to mine. You are a brute compared to my artistry. Come forth, Hecate. I weary and I can get no sustenance from your creations.”
A shadowcrow flitted through the crimson light and landed on a black tree limb. It stared at the ancient and pecked at some red fungi attached to the limb. With a mild effort the Nef-Shivrael-e made the shadowcrow aware of it and its intent. The shadowcrow cawed and flew deeper into the path of Erador. The bird stopped within sight of the Nef-Shivrael-e. The Horror that Walks followed the shadowcrow into the depths of Hecate’s domain. The way became crowded. The wolves, released from the Saracean fens, vied for food and territory and stalked around the aimless zuvembies. They picked out a fresh corpse, one that had once lived as an Ahn from the Darkenkell. They circled the zuvembie closer and closer until they descended on it in unison, devouring the unliving flesh. The zuvembie did not struggle as it went down, and the cold arms embraced the wolves.
The wolves sensed the Nef-Shivrael-e’s strangeness and strayed from the ancient’s path in a casual manner, which did not admit superiority. The ancient failed to see Caremunda or Armunda, who were supposed to keep the wolves under control. The shadowcrow cawed, letting the Nef-Shivrael-e know that it had arrived at the Witch Queen’s lair, a mass of warped trees and overgrowth, forming a dome barely large enough for two. The Nef-Shivrael-e had to crawl on its hands and knees to enter.
The interior was just as the ancient’s underworld messenger had whispered to it. Hecate was squatting in the center of the hovel, watching her lord silently. Her home glowed with the pall from the blood fungi that clung to the eldritch trees and massed underneath the upright, floating corpse of Tal-ahn. His flesh was dry and his eyes were shrivelled, but his armor and clothes were new and befitted a king. Coal make-up had been applied to Tal-ahn’s face in a ludicrous attempt to restore some beauty to the dead warrior. Hecate stank, and her black silks were smudged with powders and dirt. Her tarnished crown barely reflected the red light.
A splotch that covered Hecate’s body began to move intermittently from her forearm to her palm. The Nef-Shivrael-e gazed with an obvious fascination; the parasites were no gift from it, and the ancient did not fathom their existence. The thing began to pulsate on her palm and assume a more three dimensional appearance. Hecate bit her lip and spat blood upon the growing, ebony form. The change was immediate: A glistening shadowcrow now rested on her palm. It cawed at the Nef-Shivrael-e and flew over it and out of her lair into the night.
Hecate laughed, ending it with a choked sputter, “The living also have their power, Lord over Anubis.”
“But who judges the living from the dead, Hecate?”
Hecate stared at her guest. The ebony shapes twitched. She didn’t take notice of her parasites. All at once her expression changed, “The time of my vengeance is nigh. Tobin told me that the Saraceans are preparing for war.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e controlled its shock, not wanting Hecate to realize that it was unaware of their communication. The ancient knew that it could revivify magic weak or magic blind servants with impunity, but Hecate and Tobin were adept and aware. They could use the stolen anima they attained for complex tasks. They could threaten it.
The Nef-Shivrael-e calmed itself. Life after imprisonment was naturally swift and complex. The ancient would not allow its patiently planned devices to be interrupted by hasty conclusions. Tobin could never harm the ancient; he was bound by an unbreakable oath, and Hecate’s desire to restore Tal-ahn made her actions predictable. In the end, its servants were merely the trappings of power. The true strength was the Nef-Shivrael-e’s, as well as the true danger.
The ancient said, “Tobin cannot help us in your fight. He has other duties. He is correct. The Saraceans are involved. They are coming to fight, but I am not sure who it is that they plan to attack. A, ah, friend of mine stirred them up. There can be no more delay. Your servants devour themselves. They must be given the leavings of battle.”
Hecate gazed up at her dead lover and spoke, “Now is the time for you to lead us to war.”
The desiccated corpse of Tal-ahn tilted its head in abject submission.

Chapter XV WAR

Her name had been Alenca. Last night, her lord had initiated her into a privileged group. She applauded herself as she squatted on a limb of a mossy cypress tree. How wrong the village bound peasants were. They huddled in their huts while creating fanciful stories to scare themselves. They thought that the unliving preyed upon the corpses in their cemeteries. She laughed at the absurd notion. Her gypsies had known the lie to that before they had died. Over three hands of anima bulged in her body, giving Alenca a giddy sense of vitality.
Life, rather unlife, held an intensity, which her former existence had only attained for brief moments. She reached from her limb and crushed a passing dragonfly that was the size of her fist. She sucked air furiously as she admired her newly acquired reflexes, made mercuric by her surplus of stolen anima. It was hard for Alenca to remember why she waited on this branch, dazzled as she was by her new sense of reality. Physical pain was no longer an important part of her existence, but the act of waiting made her feel uncomfortable. She wondered why she must wait when the world was always in flux.
Her lord of Anubis, she remembered. The Nef-Shivrael-e had bid her to wait. Alenca twitched and played with her greasy brown hair as she pummeled her mind to remember the reason for this annoying wait. Ram-Erin-nor. That was the name that reverberated through Alenca’s mind. This not-man was coming, carrying with him a surplus of anima beneath his foreign, physical form. Her lord wished her to feed upon him. She loved the Nef-Shivrael-e. Alenca could not imagine the feelings she would have after Ram-Erin-nor, but she longed to taste them. She glanced at the sky, and to her surprise she found that it was already late afternoon.
The woods stirred below her with the breaking of branches, and the sound of voices softly echoed in the hollow. Having already hunted down her gypsies who had frequented this path, Alenca hoped that this was the Ram-Erin-nor. She made fifteen to twenty cubit standing leaps from tree to tree and dug her hands into their barks with her fingers. She looked down after the fourth such jump to find three thin faces staring up at her. Two of them held longbows and carried wicked looking knives at their sides.
The third called to her, “Come down, human. We wish to speak with you. We mean you no harm. We are in search of the noble Queen Meara.”
She felt it. This one held the aura, burnt into Alenca’s mind by her lord: the Ram-Erin-nor her lord wanted murdered. Alenca threw herself from a height of over twenty cubits. She screamed in rage as she fell. The two nym loosed their arrows. Both arrows struck her in the chest and bit deeply into her cold flesh. Unbalanced, Alenca missed Ram-Erin-nor, only scratching his face with the nails of her outstretched hand. She landed on her back, breaking her spine with a sharp snapping sound. She jumped up preternaturally swift, barely aware of her injury.
Bass-ahn cried, “Get back, Erin.” He pushed the Vizier away from Alenca and off his feet as Bass-ahn and Chala-ahn drew their swords.
Alenca grabbed Bass-ahn’s thigh with both of her hands. She tore his leg from the trunk of his body. Bass-ahn collapsed in shock as his dying heart forced blood out of the fresh stump. Alenca greedily began stealing the Ahn’s fleeing anima, powerless to resist her new passion.
Trained by his Kahn, Chala-ahn was startled by the loss of his friend for only an instant. He came behind the hunched form and brought down his short sword, hewing off her right arm at the shoulder. Unlike Bass-ahn, only a little cold blood oozed from her stump. Alenca shrieked at being driven from her joyous feast. She grabbed her flopping limb and threw it at Chala-ahn.
Chala-ahn brought up his buckler in disgust, but the limb clung to the edge. Horrified, Chala-ahn flung the thin leather shield into the swamp.
Alenca jumped at Chala-ahn only to meet the point of the Ahn’s sword. Alenca was shrieking continually now. She no longer felt the thrill of stolen anima as she expended it in battle, and it seeped away from every new wound, incorporeal, but painful in loss. In desperation she gouged at Chala-ahn’s eyes, but missed as the Ahn ducked his head.
Chala-ahn lifted her off the ground by his sword that was buried in her to the hilt. He was about to throw her when Alenca grabbed his shoulder and squeezed her hand into a fist. Chala-ahn screamed and dropped his weapon. Alenca gouged at the wound as Chala-ahn ineffectually punched at her with his good arm.
Alenca gave a final shriek as her head was severed from her body by Bass-ahn’s sword. Dropping the blade, Ram-Erin-nor watched Alenca’s headless body writhe on the ground until Chala-ahn’s moans drove his attention from the morbid sight.
Ram-Erin-nor bound Chala-ahn’s shoulder with strips of leather from Bass-ahn’s clothes. Sharp bones protruded from the deep and bloody wound. He did not tell the Ahn of the mortal fever he foresaw in his aura. After purifying the remains of Alenca with fire, the Vizier buried Bass-ahn. He collapsed next to Chala-ahn and wondered if all the Saraceans were such horrid fighters. He fell into a febrile sleep, having forgotten to cleanse his scratched face.

***

Outside the gardened paths, which surrounded the Darkenkell council dome, Elaine’s eyes sparkled with azure magic. She concentrated on the warhawk that was perched on Mella-kahn’s arm. The bird screeched and liquified, dripping on the Kahn’s arm and dropping to the leaves on the forest floor. Surprised, Mella-kahn jumped back and shook his soaked arm. Nigel flinched at the sight.
Mella-kahn growled, “This is why you dragged me from my maps? to watch this sorceress make some sort of macabre hawk soup with one of our precious warhawks?” He wiped the brown ooze that covered his leather wristlet on his trousers, and then looked at his stained trousers in disgust.
Kara walked over to the master warrior and craned his head upward in a futile attempt to see eye to eye with the Kahn. “You don’t understand. We know that your hawks can’t defeat Hecate’s shadowcrows.”
Mella-kahn said, “That hasn’t been proven.”
Kara cocked an eyebrow. “You know as well as I that those shadowcrows once bedeviled Erador. Now, Elaine is the heir of Shivrael who, in her time, shaped and infused strength into living flesh when she remade the peoples of the world. If Elaine can improve—-”
Mella-kahn waved his soaked wristlet in front of the wizard and said, “I understand, but we don’t have the time or resources to waste on this.” He waved a hawk stained finger under Kara’s nose.
Startled by the sickening smell, the wizard stepped back and gasped for air. “Ah, uh, yes, I see. But we’re only using this one hawk.” Kara became animated as he spoke, “You forget that we also have the heir of Aten.” He gesticulated toward Nigel. “Come over here, Nigel, and show the Kahn what you can do.”
Nigel walked toward Kara with a milk curdling expression on his face, but Kara seemed oblivious to everything except his excitement. Wordlessly, Nigel bent over the brownish red liquid pool that constituted the majority of the hawk’s remains. He began to sweat, and tears squeezed out from his blazing azure eyes. The pool surged up into the shape of a hawk. Gradually, its features became more defined. Feathers of liquid mush became true feathers for flight. Dull unseeing eyes began to glint with a predatory awareness. A moment later, the bird screeched and flew into the night sky. Exhausted, Nigel fell on his posterior.
His eyes had lost their blue sheen. Nigel panted, “This stinks. You stink, wizard.”
Ignoring him, Kara watched the hawk circle above him with a manic expression of joy. In that hawk he saw the proof of his charges and the death of the outworlders.
After recovering from his astonishment at Nigel’s feat, Mella-kahn said, “So be it. When you’ve successfully augmented a falcon, send for me–but not before.” He walked briskly back toward the council dome.
Employing his inner fires, Kara bent his gaze upon the hawk, and the bird began to swoop downward. Kara muttered, “Mmm, It’s getting harder for me to bring it back.”
Nigel looked at the self absorbed wizard and felt his exasperation turn to rage. Nigel said, “Of course, the hawk’s getting harder to bring back, you doddering, old fool. I’m surprised that hawk doesn’t rake your damned eyes out.” Nigel’s neck veins stood out in mute testimony to his anger.
Elaine sat next to Nigel and took his hand in hers, “Nigel, I thought you wanted to help these people. Why fight with Kara? He’s only doing what you and I asked him to do.”
Nigel violently pushed away Elaine’s hand and stood. He shifted his glance between Kara and Elaine as he spoke, “Can’t you see that you’re torturing that bird? I can feel every pain that it feels. You two are becoming no better than Hecate. And I can’t stand it. Every time I look at something I feel its hurts.” He pointed accusingly at Elaine. “All except your hurts and you’re the one who’s skragging the hawk. What a joke! I can’t take this. That bird’s not a weapon. It’s a living thing, and you’re abusing it, Elaine. And you’re happy about it.” Nigel glared at Kara.
Kara had never seen Nigel this extreme. His quiet nervousness had disappeared or changed. Kara distanced himself from Nigel’s rage and watched Nigel’s aura. He was somewhat afraid of this vibrant Nigel, so different than before the Darkenkell council. Kara said, “You’re changing. You’re realizing what you can do, what you may be able to do. Now, do you believe what I’ve told you?”
Nigel screamed, “Is this what it’s going to be like? Is this what it’ll be like when you’ve put me through that ritual? Only maybe a thousand times worse! I can’t take this. I won’t take this, not for you or you, or for the whole damn world. You can all drown in your own violence for all I care.” Nigel hugged himself tightly. Elaine tried to comfort him, but he turned his back on her.
The warhawk dived at Kara. Before anyone knew what was happening, the hawk raked Kara’s face with its sharp talons. Kara put a hand to his bloodied cheek as the hawk flew off. He did not cry out, gritting his teeth against the pain.
Nigel grimaced and stared at the filthy wizard, who looked all his years, a ridiculous age to be fighting a war. The wizard’s bony fingers clutched his wound. Softly, Nigel said, “At least this time I feel the pain, too.” He touched Kara’s cheek and the wounds closed and left no scar, as if the scratch had never been inflicted. Nigel walked away from them into the cultivated forests around the tribal grounds.
Elaine watched Nigel leave until he was lost to her sight among the short pine trees. She turned to the crystal wizard and asked, “What’s happening to him, Kara?”
Kara peered at Elaine. Contrary to his and Nigel’s appearance, Elaine seemed robust. Her blonde hair was back in an ahnish braid and the new leathers, bow, and spear the Ahn had provided her gave her a vigorous, almost fearsome demeanor.
Kara said, “Perhaps a better question would be to ask, ‘What’s happening to both of you?'”
“I don’t get it.”
Kara took a deep breath and exhaled. Sitting on the grass, he rummaged through his pack and brought out a loaf of bread, a round of cheese, and a wineskin. Mar-zen had taken the time from his duties to provide the food for them. Elaine sat next to him and waited out Kara’s feigned weariness. She had become familiar with his melodramatics. Kara took a light pull from the wineskin and passed it to Elaine, who set it by her side. Kara took another deep breath and shifted his legs for comfort. Finally, he said, “Providence seems to have had a hand in this, which is not surprising, considering who you two are. Ideally, I should have taken you immediately to Sanctuary. Once there, you would have been subjected to the ritual of awakening, surrounded by wizards and sorceresses who have chosen a more monastic and contemplative life than I have chosen. Those monks would have eased your adaption to the realm of true power. Unfortunately, you and Nigel forcefully and eloquently dissuaded me from my direct path to Sanctuary.
“Even before we came here, your latent heritage started coming to the surface once you had met a man of power, once you had met me. We had taken this into account. We wanted to clear your aura, getting your senses out of the ordinary, everyday, physical world.”
Elaine interrupted, “I’d hardly consider the life that Nigel and I had in New Candide to be ordinary. And who else knew about your plans?”
Kara replied slowly, “They were my fellow members of the New Candide council. The council . . . is dissolved now.” Kara coughed and leaned forward, trying to regain the thread of his thoughts. “Oh, your life in New Candide may have been unusual, but it didn’t partake of the mystical. As I was saying, clearing your aura through your association with me and contact with my awakened aura was supposed to ease your awakening at Sanctuary. However, this impending Darkenkell war has changed everything. More specifically, the council meeting we attended changed everything. I had to give you those journeystones, and the stones adjusted to your auras as if you and Nigel had already been awakened.
“Then, when Sol-mer was possessed by the wraith of the Nef-Shivrael-e, it stirred your heritage to the surface as well as Nigel’s by his association with you. You see, you and the Nef-Shivrael-e share a bond. You both share the karma of Shi. So, while you haven’t been truly awakened neither are you ‘sleeping.’ My best guess is that you’re in some sort of transitional state of awareness. Pass the cheese and the wine back. This yapping’s dried out my throat.”
Elaine passed the food to him slowly. An angry frown creased her face. She said, “You’re not saying that I’m related to that thing that tortured Sol-mer?”
Kara looked at her with a mouthful of cheese and bread. He quickly swallowed some wine when he caught her expression. “Of course, I’m not positive. Most of the things that we know about Shivrael and Aten-Mayet are legends, if not outright mythology, but both Shivrael and Nef-Shivrael-e are the two scions of Shi, the mad goddess. There are records and people at Sanctuary who could help you more. Do you want to go? We could be there in a week’s time.” A hopeful gleam shone in Kara’s eye.
Elaine shook her head. “I don’t run from fights.”
Kara tore off a piece of bread and stood. “So I’ve learned. We’ve got to find another hawk.”
Elaine followed him after stuffing the food back into their cloth pack. She asked, “Why not augment the warhawks yourself? You can always train me later.”
Kara laughed bitterly and said, “It’s quite beyond my abilities or any wizard’s. Only the Shivrael or her progenitor, Shi, could shape flesh like clay. At least, that’s what was written about them.”
They walked through the village square. The infirm and the Chen had already gone to a secret place in the forest. Only the Ahn were in plain sight, practicing their warrior’s skills or tending their armor and equipment. Elaine saw Mar-ahn in the lead rank, meticulously sharpening his sword; he had volunteered for that rank. There was an edge to the air. Everyone who was left in the village awaited the battle that the Mer had foreseen. The magi, Ston and Nor, could be heard in the distance, chanting. Even Kara did not fathom their purpose, but his second sight watched the fibres in the air, writhing and twirling to the andante harmonies of the Stons.
Mella-kahn burst from the council chamber as he buckled on his chest armor. He had his long, Koral tooled war spear, the Kell da Mor, strapped to his back. He bellowed, “To arms! To arms! Alia-mer has foreseen the attack! Like a fool, Hecate strikes directly for our village. Take heart. The day will be ours.”
A clamor arose from the Ahn, which drowned out the dull chants of the magi.
Mella-kahn paused by Elaine and Kara and said, “It seems your bold experiment is a bit late. The warhawks will have to rely on their mettle, and you will have the chance to test yours, Elaine-ahn.”
Elaine smiled coldly. “There’s no chance involved on that account. Go. Your troops await you.”
“And my eyes await to feast upon your prowess.” He left them with a lightness of step that looked odd with one of his great bulk and heavy armor.
Mella-kahn stood in front of the troops with the Kell da Mor in his left hand, raised above his head and said, “My Ahn, we know where she is going to attack. Prepare yourselves. She has plagued your children, your mates. Like a basilisk, the Witch Queen has hidden in her lair, afraid of our prowess. Show her the truth of her fears. Sharpen your courage with your blades. Remember the pain of your kith and kin when we have joined the battle. Let their suffering ease your conscience and stoke that smoldering rage that you have felt in your heart since the plague began. We go not to hunt: We go to battle. Be as the oak in your ranks, locked side-by-side with your brother Ahn, and her sorceries will not amaze you. See the glint of your steel in your heart, and her witchcraft will not daunt you. Let loose the shame you have felt at this waiting enemy, who strikes from afar and skulks behind the field. Strike down the blood that has disgraced our blood. We are the Ahn: We carry the honor. And that honor will wait no more. After all the years the Ahn is loosed against our ancient enemy.”
The Kahn waved the Kell da Mor and shouted, “This day! Hecate’s head will adorn this spear of war.” The ranks of Ahn began to beat their swords against their shields. First one, then more until a thunderous noise filled the forest with violence. The Ahn was on the march.

***

In her fourth tier cave Delia woke to the war cries of the three sons of Paragrond. Their raucous bellows reverberated against her cavern walls and, most likely, had awakened every sleeping dragon in Glered-nigh. Delia consoled herself. Those brutes would get no help from the others. Erador may be Emperor, but no tiered dragon would help another’s lust. His younger brothers owed him the allegiances of blood and tier, but fifth tier and below would let Erador beg for his meats. They had their own lusts to pursue. Delia shambled to the north entrance of fourth tier. She had her son and her ambitions tied to the giant sons of Paragrond.
The fresh air tingled her snout, but only made her drowsy. Senast would soon be ready for live game, and then she could–would have to–sleep without dreaming. However, she had to secure her position before the sleep came if she wanted to be sure of waking afterwards. The three went to war, leaving her and Marond vulnerable as the highest tiered at Glered-nigh. If the three should die, she would be the first target for the bloodletting that would naturally precede a new order, and many would seek her son’s death. Senast would be the last of Paragrond’s line; many despised the unnatural girth of Paragrond’s sons. They would not allow another of that line to achieve adulthood and have to suffer another complete emperor.
A black shadow fell over Delia, which was accompanied by a downward draft that made her dig into her perch with her talons. She looked upward to see the scintillating behemoth, Erador, flying toward the Darkenkell forest. A moment later, more swirling winds marked the departure of Malast and Castor from their second tier caves. Delia watched the sunlight play off the twins’ scales in identical colors. The three magnificent forms against the sky dispelled her fears: There flew the three mightiest beings to ever grace the world. It was absurd to believe that the tiny races of hu could do anything but die against them. She watched Castor and Malast flank Erador as their forms dwindled in the distance. Reassured, Delia returned to her tunnels to care for her Senast.

***

The Nef-Shivrael-e, Hecate, and Tal-ahn stood behind the ranks of the Witch Queen’s host. The Nef-Shivrael-e appeared just as IRIS agent Morrison had appeared the day that he had succumbed to the Horror. Hecate had provided fresh captives for her lord’s arrival in her domain. Tal-ahn stood silently in his gleaming armor. Sidling next to him was Hecate. She was pallid and gaunt, arrayed in the layers of the black silks, unique to the path of Erador. Her crown gleamed a polished gold, and she wore it with a proud, fierce demeanor. She began marching behind her troops, shouting encouragement and fiery words to deadened ears. Her army was a silent one.
Hecate walked in front of the Nef-Shivrael-e and with a flourish of her arm, presented her host to her lord: “Are not my legions magnificent? They hunger for my vengeance. They want their chosen to take her place as the Queen of the Darkenkell forest. I have brought forth this day the mightiest warriors of the centuries.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e eyed her mania warily and said, “Just be sure that any humans who are found are to be captured, not killed. I want those three brought before me. My plans extend somewhat beyond this forest. The sooner that you meet my needs, the sooner you will have this forest to yourself. May you enjoy it.”
Hecate smiled broadly up at the Nef-Shivrael-e and bared her decayed teeth. The Witch Queen said, “Of course, milord, I have no wish to detain you.” Hecate cooed, sending an unaccustomed shiver through the Nef-Shivrael-e, “We await only the coming of our beloved messenger, whom you granted me long ago.”
“You await what?” The Nef-Shivrael-e grabbed Hecate by the neck and lifted her off the ground. Tal-ahn remained impassive. The Horror that Walks’ voice groaned a dirge of hate, “You still have contact with that creature of the underworld?”
Hecate pawed impotently at the arm that held her. The Nef-Shivrael-e threw her to the ground. She scrabbled away from him. The juices of the crushed blood fungi stained her silks. She said, “O-of course. It was your first gift to me. It was my only means of contact with you when I was awake.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e ordered, “But I am here now. You have no need of it. Send it away.”
For the first time since her lord’s coming, Hecate thought that she heard fear in her lord’s voice. She said, “It has served me faithfully, and I need it to assure that I am victorious. It can sense the living.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e muttered, “It was never my servant. It served its own curious ends. The thing is a deviant even among its own perverse kind.” The Nef-Shivrael-e examined his blackened nails. “Yet your follies are your own. I’ll have naught to do with the damned thing.”
Hecate smiled. “As you wish, Nef-Shivrael-e. We need not wait. I will receive my messenger after the first skirmish. The violence should bring it around. Witness our carefully accrued strength.” She walked over to her troops and left the Nef-Shivrael-e with the dull Tal-ahn. Her host advanced, shuffling and shambling over the black moss and fallen tree limbs.
Hecate cried, “Offspring of Erador’s pain, your mistress commands.” A flock of shadowcrows began to coalesce, flying from the path of Erador.

***

In the first rank of Ahn who approached the path of Erador, Mar-ahn pointed his sword in the air and shouted, “Look, Hecate’s shadowcrows.”
The shadowcrows flew over the treetops in a single swarm. Their separate silhouettes could not be easily distinguished. A dragon sized, black, amorphous form descended on the lead rank of Ahn. The Ahn raised their shields to ward off the attack and arrows shot from the path of Erador. Half the Ahn in the first rank were injured or killed by the shadowcrow’s distraction. Ranks of ten zuvembies marched through the crimson darkness.
Mella-kahn sounded a brass note on his curved war horn, signaling the release of the warhawks. Two dozen birds of prey flew toward the black swarm. The mocking crow calls mixed with the high pitched screeches of the warhawks. The first rank of the nym and the zuvembies engaged each other. The Ahn’s strikes had little effect. A hewn arm did not send a zuvembie down in pain as it would a living Ahn. Mar-ahn’s anger descended upon him. He jumped recklessly inside the thrust of a pike and swung his ivory sword, severing the ossified head of his silent opponent. Its body gamboled about for a moment and fell on its side.
“IIEEEYA!” Mar-ahn cried in victory.
The other Ahn saw his feat and began to emulate him. The Ahn struck for the necks of their opponents again and again ’till a head fell to the dirt forest floor. The second rank of Ahn surged forward and began striking at the first rank of zuvembies. The zuvembies stumbled and faltered when matched by the sudden increase of Ahn. The cold warriors of Hecate did not evade the blows of the Ahn’s polished axes and swords. Yet more zuvembies came forward to replace the destroyed first rank.
The black cloud of shadowcrows engulfed the warhawks. Within seconds bloodless hawk carcasses fell to the ground. Afterwards, the shadowcrows dispersed among the first three ranks of Ahn to peck and rake at their eyes and unarmored parts. The Ahn panicked and the ranks dissolved into chaos. Mella-kahn didn’t dare to wait any longer. He sounded the note for retreat, although a few Ahn had not waited, running as they saw their brethren crushed and broken by the inhuman, necromantic strength of Hecate’s zuvembies, ponderous but relentless. Mar-ahn was the last to leave, deftly striking with his shield at any shadowcrow that flew near him. The first two Ahn ranks rushed back, and the third and forth ranks retreated in a more orderly fashion, guarding their comrade’s backs with large shields. The shadowcrows did not harass the Ahn past where the zuvembies had fought, rather they glided slowly, circling above the zuvembie host.
Elaine and Kara looked at the black cloud from high ground. Mella-kahn pounded a tree with his cestus. “Those shadowcrows are too small and swift to fight with a sword. My Ahn can’t fight Hecate’s zuvembies and those birds at the same time. Why aren’t the magi prepared? Where are they?”
Elaine pointed at the battlefield. “The combined third rank can’t retreat fast enough. They’re fighting and losing. Mar-ahn’s in there!”
Many of the third rank stopped to drag wounded comrades. Groans and pleas from the wounded first rank plagued the young Ahn as the shadowcrows swarmed around them. The Ahn had difficulty seeing as the black birds dived at their faces. The third rank lost its cohesiveness. The zuvembies shambled into the first three Ahn ranks. Hecate’s servants hacked at anything around them. Screams of pain and terror cascaded over the dull moans as Mella-kahn watched his Ahn fall. Four more ranks of zuvembies appeared at the edge of the path of Erador. King Torastor and his royal guards left the fourth rank and joined the Kahn at the top of the Kahn’s command hill. The swarms of shadowcrows made it difficult to see what was happening, but Elaine heard the screams, and she clenched her fists in frustration as she helplessly listened to the rending of chainmail by the hands of Hecate’s zuvembies. Again, Mella-kahn blew the note for retreat.
Elaine thought of her failures with the warhawk as the shadowcrows impeded the Ahn. Abruptly, she grabbed the Kahn’s shoulder, turning the big nym from the field and said, “Mella-kahn, I may be able to help your retreat. I can’t strike at the zuvembies among your Ahn, but at the ranks behind them, I—-”
Mella-kahn said, “If you can do anything, do it now. We’re getting slaughtered. We must have an orderly retreat.”
Elaine grasped her journeystone and thought of the hawk. She focused on the forty zuvembies behind the battle. The fist that held her journeystone burst into a blue fire. Her eyes sparkled. The four ranks of zuvembies halted. Like the hawk, they began to liquify, covering the forest floor with a grey scum. The shadowcrows, called by an unseen hand, retreated to the safety of the path of Erador. The few remaining zuvembies were isolated. The Ahn formed two tight wedges and crushed the zuvembies between them. Elaine fainted. Her journeystone exploded as she fell to the ground. The shards of the azure jewel shredded her hand.
Kara ran toward her. He had been staying on the other side of the hill safely out of sight of the battlefield. He said, “‘Zdeath, a journeystone was never meant to focus that kind of magic. Too much for it. Too much from her.” He held her hand in his. “I’m a poor healer, but I’ll try to block out her pain.”
Elaine moaned, “Nigel.” The wounds on her hand sealed as new flesh visibly grew and displaced the dangling meat that had been her hand.
King Torastor smiled and said, “It seems that we have Nigel’s help, after all. No relation of Aten could refuse a plea for healing.”
Kara looked at the scarred King and nodded. “Yes. No doubt, he is on his way here.”
Privately, Kara muttered while staring at the virgin hand, birthed from magic, “This is more than I had hoped for. They surpass any wizard of Sanctuary. What will happen to them when they’re awakened? Even the outworlders would be better than two driven mad by power. Their link is too symbiotic and their natures, too opposite in spite of their feelings for each other. If they fight each other as gods, what could any man do, but despair?”
Mar-ahn’s triumphal shout roused Kara from his reverie. “The zuvembies are pursuing our Ahn.” The pallid warriors of Hecate shambled across the grey scum that had so recently been their comrades.
King Torastor set his metal edged shield next to a tree. “Good. Elaine-ahn has given us the distance we needed. Mella, signal the sixth rank. I want them ready.”
Mella-kahn turned to Mene-ahn and ordered, “Go to the sixth rank. Tell them that our Ahn are coming, followed by the zuvembies.”
Mene-ahn quickly bowed to the Kahn and removed his torn linked mail and tossed it to the ground. Mene-ahn ran, as silent as one of Hecate’s zuvembies, but swifter.
Kare-ston approached the command site from the far side of the hill. His cowl was down and his hair clung to his damp forehead. His brown robe was smudged with dirts and ointments. Gulping air as he knelt before King Torastor, Kare-ston said, “My liege, the summoning is complete. We await their arrival, probably in two hours.”
The King gazed sternly at Kare-ston and rebuked him, “No sooner than that? That is a disappointment.”
Kare-ston stared blankly at his King. “They have far to fly, my liege. We’re not sure. The Ston have never dared to call anything so formidable.” He stood with a bowed head. Only Karamindakas noticed him tremble from weakness. The Ston asked, “May I go to lead the Nor at sixth rank?”
King Torastor curtly nodded.

***

Fel-ahn patrolled the northern hills that sloped outside the Darkenkell forest. He left his leather jerkin open to release the heat. It was improper for Ahn, but this was a lonely patrol. His Kahn had wanted the eyes that had first spotted Karamindakas in the Darkenkell to watch the northern borders. The other ranks of Ahn were deep in the forest in battle against Hecate. Although he had trained for war, Fel-ahn was glad that he wasn’t fighting. Pain scared him. It was that simple. He had glimpsed the nymish zuvembies of Hecate during previous border patrols. It was the anguish on their faces that branded them as her servants. Fel-ahn feared capture more than death.
He climbed a pine tree atop a hill for what seemed to him to be the hundredth time today. Weary muscles went through the motions of climbing with a practiced ease. Scanning the horizon, he almost missed the movements in the north-north-west. It was too far away to clearly see, but for the Ahn the motions of a marching army were unmistakable. Fel-ahn shimmied down the tree and lit the damp wood in his firepit to signal the other sentries. He marked the tree with his scent, so the others would know which tree he had climbed. He began running toward the Saracean armies.
Sprinting the entire distance, Fel-ahn came to within two thousand cubits of the army. He climbed a near hill and watched the marching army as he etched every detail into his memory. Hung on brass rods, the decorative blue and red banners of both Saracean Empires boldly advanced. The force was easily ten times the size of the healthy Ahn and twenty times the size of the Ahn who had not fallen to Hecate’s plague. Draft horses pulled two score of wooden supply carts. They were coming for a long visit. Fel-ahn strained his eyes to find the sorcerous Queens, but he only saw a large land barge, carved of oak with metal reinforcements. The sides of the barge were shaped and painted to resemble the folded white wings of an ibis. It rested on eight horizontal round columns that were pulled along by two teams of eight white mares with knotted manes. Their heads were haltered with a metal armor that glinted in the sunlight.
None of the men were mounted. They were armed for forest warfare. The Saracean swamps had taught them the art of infighting. They carried swords and machetes, and most men had light leather jerkins. Worse, most of the humans carried longbows, useless against zuvembies, but deadly against nym. To Fel-ahn, that was the clearest statement of Saracean intentions.
Their troops wore no uniform. It seemed to Fel-ahn to be formed of a part time militia. He could see no sign of Ram-Erin-nor. Mounted outriders approached his hill. Fearing he had been discovered, Fel-ahn ran back to the forest.

***

Tess-nor waited with the sixth rank. The summoning that Kare, Arle, and Mel were performing was a Ston mystery. When she saw Kare-ston coming from the area of the King’s tents, her heart sank. Kare-ston had such a vile look upon his face that she knew they had failed. Tess-nor felt that it was foolish of the King to send Lok-ston on a task that a Nor could have handled.
When her Ston approached, Tess-nor said, “I’m sorry, Kare.”
Kare-ston regarded Tess’s anxious face. “That’s Kare-ston to you, Nor. What are you sorry about?”
“The summoning failed.”
Kare-ston tightened the cord about his waist. “It didn’t fail. It just isn’t complete in time to suit the King’s patience.”
Tess-nor said, “Oh. We serve as best we may.”
“Tess?”
“Yes?”
“Please spare me the Zen proverbs. Are the Nor ready?”
Tess fidgeted with her long, silver-black hair. “Yes. I think we are ready, although none of us has tried this sort of thing before.”
“That’s why I’m here.” Kare-ston muttered.
“Yes, Kare-ston.” Tess turned to her fellow Nor who were positioned by the line of oaks on the western side of a grassy hollow.
Kare-ston let go of his anger and watched his favorite Nor. Her Nor medallion was smudged from excessive rubbing. She had acquired that nervous habit shortly after attaining her title. She was proud of her position and competent. Kare-ston noticed the scratches on her hands and arms, received by working side-by-side with the sixth rank Ahn. The other nineteen Nor looked as exhausted as Tess.
Kare-ston said, “You’ll do fine. I have total confidence in the Nor.”
“As do I, but war?” Tess-nor asked.
Kare-ston said, “I know. I’ve seen many die already. Let’s just keep going. We don’t have any other choice.”
Tess-nor managed a smile. “A few tricks for the troops?”
“Why not?” Kare-ston said, and he and his Nor conjured glowing Will with the wisps to relax the troops with their soothing colors. The balls of light slowly danced and arced around the quiet Ahn.
Kare-ston’s concentration was interrupted and the mock wisps disappeared. Angrily, Kare-ston turned to the source of the metal clamor and stood facing an angrier King Torastor. Two of his royal guard were missing. His shield had a claw mark gouged from the left side, and the King bled from a wound on his sword arm. Torastor said, “Mage, what are you doing?”
“My liege, I hoped to distract the Ahn from their griefs.”
Torastor shook his head, disgusted. “We are in a war, fool. It is nothing but grief, grief or death.”
Kare-ston said, “My liege, most of sixth rank are too young to have ever been in a war. Ahnish games are no preparation for this. Many have already lost kith and kin. They cannot live on grief.”
The King held out his arm as one of his guards automatically walked forward to cleanse and bind the wound. Torastor said, “Then, they will die. Life and its grief are all the sustenance they shall have. During the flight from Erador, many failed the test and did not brave the Sidhe. Erador consumed them. Do you know, mage, of the smoke in the north? It means that the Saracean armies are on the march. They are probably less than two days travel from us, with a forced march, perhaps one day.”
“You think we’ve already lost.”
Torastor lowered his voice to a solemn whisper, “Mage, before I was King, I was Ahn and mercenary. In those days the Darkenkell Ahn often roamed the world. I know of humans. Erin has not returned. I must assume the worst.”

***

Inside the ornate land barge of the Saracean Queens, Meara sat at the foot of her down feathered bed. Her hand rested on the slim ankle of her guest while her handmaiden fed the visitor grapes with a nervous hand, for she had never seen his like.
Peevishly, Meara snapped, “Away, girl. I will attend to the noble Erin of the Darkenkell.” The girl rose quickly, glad to avoid the febrile, yet sometimes keen stare of the stranger. Once the handmaiden had left, Meara moved closer to Ram-Erin-nor. She lamented: His worries had weakened his resistance to the virulent infection. Yet she breathed easier as her second sight revealed a strong aura; his fever had broken. Altering her aura to match his, she knew that this was the last time he would need her help. That bothered and gladdened her.
Ram-Erin-nor’s eyes opened. They were free of pain. Meara smiled. Erin sat up on the bed and looked at her. “Meara.” He clasped her hand in his. Confused, his face reddened. He let loose her hand and said, “How do I know you? I mean, I know you, but—-”
Meara soothed, “I know. You were very sick and wounded when my men finally found you. Erin, I had to touch your essence to bring you back to me. We exchanged, ah, mingled the self of our being. I’m sorry you had no choice in the matter.”
“I don’t mind. I feel fine. Meara, I’m glad it happened, truly glad, but my people need me.” He anxiously looked around the bed. “The journeystone. I must find it.”
Meara gently put her hands on his shoulders and said, “Don’t worry. I found it on you and divined Karamindakas’ message within it. My people have no cause against yours, especially now. Erin, I must tell you that your people have a traitor in their midst. His name is Dor-ahn.”
Ram-Erin-nor kissed her. He drew back, startled by his forceful reaction. He looked at her and realized what she had told him. “Dor-ahn? I’ve never heard of him. And Meara? Are we moving?”
She pulled a silver comb through his hair. “Yes. We are on my barge, heading toward your homeland. I saw the necromancy in my swamp through the Castle Mearfels’ jewel and went hunting for it and found you instead. I have convinced my sister of the political value of aiding nym.” Her painted red lips half smiled.
Ram-Erin-nor said, “You sound like me.”
“We have much in common, Erin. I felt your people’s distrust of us through you. You are rightly cautious. Your enemies, this Hecate and the Nef-Shivrael-e of whom Kara spoke in his journeystone, are cunning. They almost succeeded in setting us against each other. They would be shocked to discover just how their deceits ended.”
Ram-Erin-nor jumped out of the bed. “They don’t know yet? I must go to them.” He walked out onto the deck of the land barge and quickly returned. “Meara, my clothes?”
Meara laughed, enjoying his modesty. The Queen of Lower Saracea said, “Your hurts were thorough and your clothes had also suffered. My handmaidens have cleaned them. Horses have been prepared for when you awoke. I know how you love your homeland. We must journey together. If we parted so soon, we would both relapse into your fever.”
Putting on his leather wraps, Ram-Erin-nor said, “I would enjoy your company and a chance to know you in a more conventional manner.”
“Thank you, Erin. The day we met shall be blessed in my realm.” Queen Meara left, allowing the Vizier to dress in privacy.

***

The Kahn’s horn trumpeted the note for full retreat. The remnants of the first and second ranks had filled into the third rank, forming a united front against the perpetually advancing zuvembies. The Ahn did not task them while the shadowcrows circled overhead. Hearing the horn of their Kahn, the Ahn sprinted away from their melancholy opponents.
A howling rose from the pines southwest of the hollow. Wolves, in a pack thirty strong, ran down into the hollow. Armunda, a creature like in form to Caremunda but male, howled loudest, directing the wolves. Weary from battle and march, the third rank could not outrun the advancing wolves. They were caught from behind. The grey hungers did not form into a circle; however, they attacked more ferociously than their natural manner, focusing three or four wolves to each victim. The third rank was forced to turn and meet them.
A wolf bit into the sword arm of an Ahn. She fell. Sensing weakness, other wolves rushed in for the kill.
From the side of the hollow, Tess-nor screamed, “Ari!” She started running down the slope.
King Torastor shouted at Kare-ston, “Stop her. It’s too soon.”
Wondering who Ari was, Kare-ston blankly stared at his King. Torastor drew a dagger and pointed it at Kare-ston. “Stop her!”
Kare-ston gestured and Tess-nor slipped on the flora.
“NO!” Tess screamed.
A wolf bit into Ari-ahn’s side while another sunk its jaws in her throat. A third bit her face. Under the direction of Armunda, the wolves did not stay to feast. Instead, they went to find another victim. Ahn tried to rush around their comrades who were surrounded. The Ahn hacked at the exposed backs of the manic wolves. Tess-nor took her carving knife and sawed at the vines around her ankles to no avail. Kare-ston’s magic had coarsened the plant fibers. The Nor was bound by the Ston.
The zuvembies reached the deepest part of the hollow that was now the field of battle. Hecate’s host was no longer in a formation of rank or file. They were a walking horde, wading into the fight. Amid the wolves they struck indiscriminately at the Ahn with their decrepit swords and rusted pikes and withered hands, backed by their mistress’ necromancy.
Mella-kahn blew a charge on his horn. The seventh rank charged at the zuvembie horde from behind a Nor crafted net of ivy on the near side of the hollow. The sixth rank of Ahn appeared at the far side of the hollow. The Kahn did not charge in the forefront, but bellowed orders to his Ahn, exhorting them to stay in formation. Seventh rank formed a marching wall to prevent retreat with pikes sticking wickedly out between shields. Armunda looked around himself and panicked. The starved wolves immediately began feasting on the Ahn who had fallen.
Torastor commanded, “Now, Kare-ston, release the trap.”
Kare-ston said, “What about Tess? and the third rank?”
The King shouted, “Obey, curse you!”
Kare-ston turned and usurped the anima of the giant oaks on the western side of the hollow. Tess-nor, finding herself free, rushed toward the remains of Ari-ahn. All other Nor harnessed the death of the trees, consuming their base with a wedged shaped, preternatural fire. The trees fell, crushing those in the field and burning the glade at the bottom of the hollow. The clearing erupted in fire as the burning branches caught the zuvembies. Armunda howled as he fell under a burning limb. There were only wolf yips and whimpers; the zuvembies did not cry out as they burned. The shadowcrows escaped the blaze by swooping above the fire. They called a mocking defiance as they retreated toward the path of Erador.
Kare-ston ran to Tess-nor. She had been caught by the fires while she had crouched over the remains of Ari-ahn. On the other side of the fire, the seventh rank slaughtered the few zuvembies and wolves that escaped at the edge of the fire while the sixth rank skewered the wolves that dared their exit. Kare-ston cradled Tess-nor’s body in his arms. She laboriously forced breath into her burnt body. Everywhere from her torso to her shoulders had been burned by a fire he had created. It was beyond him to heal her.
Kare-ston screamed, “Find Nigel! Someone, please, please find Nigel!”
Above the glade at the command hill, Mella-kahn watched the retreating shadowcrows. He pointed and told the King, “Those things show our enemy’s mind.”
The shadowcrows stopped above a stand of maple trees at the southern end of the hollow and began to circle. The Kahn saw over what they circled: a second zuvembie horde not made from the fallen bodies of the races of hu, rather they were the remains of large animals who had died in the forest. Mella-kahn could not discern their number from his distance, but he saw bears among them. He raised his horn to his lips and blew the note that signalled the Ahn to disperse from the hollow and into the forest. Mella-kahn intently watched the second horde, wanting to get a force count.
King Torastor shook Mella-kahn’s shoulder excitedly. “Look! The Ston succeeded.” In the western skies a flock of white doves appeared. They matched the size of the black swarm. The shadowcrows broke from their circling formation and flew toward the doves. Both flocks headed directly for the other. Mella-kahn wished he could hear the sounds of the dove’s wings, a song said to bring peace to any soul, but the fire raged in his ears. He watched the flocks clash, but, to his surprise, there was no violence in their meeting.
The air above the glade became the stage for a lurid dance. Each dove singled out a shadowcrow from the black swarm. The shadowcrows swooped down from above to strike the doves, but the doves vaulted from the paths of their attackers. When a shadowcrow began to lift from its dive, a dove pirouetted around its chosen shadowcrow, closer and closer, until the dove merged with the ebony silhouette. The result was neither dove nor shadowcrow, rather a grayish bird with ruffled feathers and an oily iridescence to its wings. Each new hybrid flew for only a few beats before it arched in the air, racked by internal convulsions.
Their wings and necks twisted and cracked to unnatural angles. Their shattered forms plummeted to the ground. The sky was cleared, save for the crematory smoke from the fire in the hollow.
There was a tear in the Kahn’s eye. “The day is ours. Our traps worked.”

***

Nigel walked through the forest toward the path of Erador. He travelled alone, unwilling to be around others. People disturbed his thinking. His world was changing and he felt powerless to do anything about it. Ever since the nymish council, he had been having strange feelings. His surroundings had altered. Intuition had replaced reason and emotion had become almost physical. He felt Elaine in his mind. It was a vitality, a bright spot, that he could see when he closed his eyes. The light was surrounded by a grey background that Nigel identified as himself. The brightness flared in his mind’s eye, and he stopped walking. She was using her magic to kill; he could feel it. The light dimmed and took on a red hue. She was hurt. Nigel removed the red from his mental picture of Elaine. The light became white again and tranquil.
Nigel steadfastly resumed his course. He wondered if he had done the right thing in healing Elaine. He cared for her, loved her, but she was using her magic to kill. Nigel kicked at the leaves and twigs on the forest floor. That was the problem for Nigel: the war. Everyone had decided on something that they really didn’t understand. War was death. It was final. The reasons were a fleeting mist. The only way to stop the beast was to strike its head, Hecate. He had used his new senses to orient on her. Her hate and pain stood out like a beacon even through the twisted pains that were riddled through the life in the path of Erador.
The sunlight dimmed as he reached the edge of Hecate’s domain. He felt queasy. The Witch Queen’s passion was infused in every twisted tree branch, fungi, and animal, making a mockery of nature’s beauty. Throughout the black forest a death urge, grief urge, pulled at him. In New Candide the people would say that it was haunted. The pall struck Nigel beyond the physical; here was a damnation of one creator’s solitude amid all her blasted life on the path of Erador. Nigel’s eyes teared; whether from emotion or the air, he knew not. But he forced his sight to adjust to the febrile, red light given off by the fungi.
He leaned against a tree to rest and jumped away from a shock of emotional pain. “How can a tree feel pain? What place is this? Oh.” Nigel dry heaved. Afterwards, he rested with his hands on his knees. Nigel cried to the tree, “Nothing makes sense here. I think I’m losing my mind.” He cleared his black hair from his eyes and patted the strands against his scalp. “Gods.” Nigel laughed and wiped at the nervous tears, which now streamed down his face.
“Okay, okay.” He caught his breath and focused on the strange, grieving hate he felt was Hecate. He marched toward it. Something shuffled through the leaves ahead of him. He focused on it for a moment and forgot Hecate. Empathic pain assailed him, as if a sword were thrust through his skull. Nigel sank to his knees as a nymish zuvembie approached. Instantly, Nigel knew that its soul was still imprisoned in the decaying body. He could not bear their solemn expressions and tired eyes, forced to agony and life by Hecate’s sorcery.
Trying to deaden the pain he felt, Nigel surrendered to it. He felt the ground tremble under him as he walked, supported by the zuvembie. Four more zuvembies gathered around him as an escort. They did not harm him. They only laid their cold hands on him. Beneath Hecate’s compulsions, Nigel sensed that the zuvembies felt pity for him. He clung to that feeling, trying to stem the flow of pain running throughout his mind.
The entourage came to a halt in a wide, barren path with a crusted ground. Nigel guessed that he must be on the original path of Erador where the dragon had slithered. He saw the black clothed form of Hecate, standing next to a dark hole, which was wide enough to swallow a man into its darkness. She chattered to the empty air above the hole. The dim, red light hindered Nigel’s eyesight.
Hecate stroked the air above the hole. “Again, you prove true, my loyal messenger. The hour of Tal-ahn’s salvation is upon us.” She pointed with her other hand at Nigel. He recoiled when he saw that it was covered by black parasites, writhing in patterns that his new awareness knew were emotions. The parasites fed off her mania.
Hecate said, “Greetings, Aten. I hope our friendship will be a long and fruitful one.”
Nigel gulped air. He felt as if he were suffocating. “My name is Nigel.”
Hecate bared her teeth. Her calm demeanor abruptly vanished. She screamed, “Don’t lie to me! I know who you are. My knowledge is as deep as the world. Your spirit is plain to my sight. My messenger knows you. I know you.”
Nigel shivered. The pain and mania around him became overwhelming. Her parasites called to him, desired to share his fear, his anguish. Horror of the unnatural, the perverse, enveloped him. His voice cracked, “What’s in that hole? Answer me. If you know of my inheritance, then you know I can destroy you.”
Hecate giggled, covering her mouth with her hand like a modest, young woman. “Your own question displays the truth. You really don’t know who you are, do you?” She began giggling again. Nigel clutched himself. Hecate gasped for breath and said, “The gentle god within you blinds you to my faithful messenger. You are the gift to the world, blind to the damned of the underworld. As for me, I have little to worry from you. Please, destroy me.” She started her high pitched giggling. “Aten, the destroyer.” Her giggling transformed into a rough, mocking laughter.
Nigel felt trapped. He cursed his new found empathy. Despite Hecate’s blatant maliciousness, he could not help but take pity on her. She had spent years torturing herself in a vain quest for power, feeding on her hate and her lord’s twisted perceptions. Nigel sank to his knees and said, “What are you going to do with me?”
Hecate paused, calm again, and scratched at her arm before replying, “I do not want you here when the Nef-Shivrael-e returns. We shall heal my love later. I want him to survive the task I have set on him. It shall be a proof of his love for me. I shall meet you upon your return.” She walked up to the first zuvembie whom Nigel had met. She spoke to the zuvembie with a softness, which eased Nigel’s pain, “Go, my love. Our victory is in your hands.” She turned to Nigel; her face twisted in a sudden shift. All tenderness was forgotten as she said, “To you, Aten, I say this: Should you seek to escape Tal-ahn, I shall slay every Chen when he returns with them.”
“What? The Chen are hidden.”
Hecate stroked the air above the hole. “Such young life is easy prey for my messenger, though I daresay we are all Chen compared to it.” A shadowcrow alighted on her shoulder. “Leave. Nef-Shivrael-e comes.”
Nigel wished that she hadn’t called him Aten. The whole idea made him sick and burdened. Tal-ahn gestured for him to move. The dead warrior’s cold hand shoved him as soon as he had pushed himself off of his knees. Nigel found himself bearing the thing’s touch with more strength. The pain had lessened, or he had become acclimated to it. Nigel wasn’t sure. Nothing on the path of Erador was as it should be.
When they had left the path, the cooler, fresher air eased his pain; the green trees soothed his eyes. Nigel attempted to talk with his guardian corpse, “Tal-ahn.” The zuvembie gazed at him dully. “I know you don’t want to serve her.” Nigel steeled himself against the pain he felt through Tal-ahn. Nigel forged onward, “Let me go, and I’ll lead the children to safety.” The zuvembie stopped walking and stared at Nigel. Nigel dry heaved as Tal-ahn’s sorrow overwhelmed him, roared through his empathic heritage.
As Nigel fell to the ground unconscious, the zuvembie spoke with a strangled passion, “Sirursa.”
Nigel woke within Erador’s path to the taut, tanned faces of nymish children. The Chen clung to him. They had recognized him as the new human with the elders the day before the evacuation. Their simple fears and pleasant wants freshened him against the ancient pains within Hecate and her domain. Nigel breathed and coughed. The air was full of a thick smoke that stung the nostrils.
“At last, you’ve awakened.” Hecate’s voice was behind him. A few of the Chen squealed in fear and crowded around him. He welcomed their tiny embraces. Hecate was frantic. Her voice trembled and shouted. There were tears in her eyes. She wailed, “Erador has returned to the Darkenkell. And he has brought his two bloated brothers with him. They are setting the entire forest to their deadly breath. Aten, I implore you: Heal my betrothed now.”
The smoke made Nigel’s head pound and his sight blurry. He wobbled as he tried to stand. “I-I d-don’t know if I can. I’m not Aten. I’m Nigel!”
Hecate grabbed him by his wool tunic. Nigel was dimly aware of a child screaming. He couldn’t sort out the rush from his empathic heritage. He gave way as Hecate’s emotional assault dragged him down, burst his control, made him want to run, run, run from this Erador’s path, this blasphemy of nature. So many feelings deluged him that he could no longer separate them from each other or from himself: He became the war, the hate, the envy, the pain, the fear from every living thing in the Darkenkell, every trapped spirit in the zuvembies, every burning draconic lust, every Chen’s longing for their parents. Nigel was obliterated, washed away into the sea of war.
Hecate screamed shrilly, “This war is over! The three are burning the entire forest down! Glered-nigh has come to the Darkenkell and we are all undone. The world is ending. Aten, I beg you! Please, please, save my Tal!” She fell to her knees in front of Nigel.
Nigel blacked out, but remained on his feet. He spoke, yet his voice was drowsed. Nigel looked straight at Hecate and then at Tal-ahn. “I was named Oco’s healing father. I hear you. I hear your pain. But my children neither heeded nor understood me. I am Mayet. What you ask is inimical to me. This is my Nigel’s time. I deserve my forgetfulness. You stirred me from my slumber, never heeded my order. My gift must sleep. You scar my image. This wrongs me. I shall set you to Mayet.”
Tal-ahn’s eyes lost their dull complacency and the dead Ahn looked at Hecate. Tal-ahn spoke. His voice was a strained, hoarse whisper, “Sirursa, my love.” He walked toward Hecate with his ash grey arms outstretched to embrace her. His steps grew more labored as the anima flew from his corpse. “No more mourning.” Tal-ahn said, “There is still beauty in you.” The zuvembie embraced her and kissed her. Hecate returned his favours with full vigor. The zuvembie of Tal-ahn crumbled in her arms and dropped to the ground in dry fragments.
Nigel’s body turned around and surveyed the land. The drowsing voice slurred, “Shi, what is this wound that still keeps you from me? Beloved, you are not whole.” Nigel collapsed on the ground.
Hecate stared unblinkingly at empty space. She moaned, “It’s over. Why?–what happened?–why?–why?–where am I?–Tal-ahn?–why?–where are you?” She droned seriatim to the empty air. The fire raged around her. Her voice was a monotone. The dark parasites that covered her body slipped off her skin and fell to the ground, unable to recognize their host. When the last parasite had left her, the other zuvembies around the Chen fell and crumbled.
The underworld messenger of Hecate extended a tentative pseudopod from its bulk. Its squirming mass took on an orange sheen among the fires that raged through the path of Erador. Gingerly, the pseudopod touched her. Hecate stopped chanting and wailed softly at the smoke as the Witch Queen followed the wisps with her eyes. The underworld ancient poured more of its substance through the pseudopod that connected to Hecate until, at length, Hecate was enveloped in the daemon’s shuddering body. She did not relent her wailing while inside the underworld ancient. With that same fluid locomotion the messenger of Hecate descended, bearing its addled mistress down the tunnel. The ancient abandoned the fires of the natural world for the darkness of the underworld.

***

The Ahn had gone into hiding as the three dragons flew over the forest. At the edge of the hollow, Mar-ahn came to the aid of an Ahn who was pinned against a tree while trying to fight off two nymish zuvembies and a zuvembie stag. Mar-ahn was about to strike at the stag when all three zuvembies fell to the ground, quiescent. The freed Ahn rested on his nicked sword, stained with the dust and ichor of Hecate’s servants. Mar-ahn furiously hacked at the still corpses. Zuvembies collapsed throughout the hollow. From his vantage point Mella-kahn sounded the victory note on his horn, forgetting the sons of Paragrond.
Kara clenched his fist and raised it to the sky. “Your day over us ends!” The true source of the zuvembies’ fall was utterly apparent to the wizard. He had long ago attuned his aura to Nigel’s. Nigel had come into his inheritance, freeing the dead to continue their natural journey. “Ah, Erador,” Kara thought gleefully, “look to your tail. A god has awakened.” As soon as he thought this, the feeling subsided. Kara fretted. “It should not be this way.”
Like a ghost, Ta-nor appeared beside Kara, interrupting his frenzied thoughts. “Come, wizard.” Ta-nor said, “Celiane needs you and your apprentice.”
“Elaine?”
“No. First, we must go to the Darkenkell Sidhe. That is Erador’s true goal. He seeks to subjugate her.”
Kara grabbed his walking stick and said, “We can’t make it in time. Erador’s too swift. ‘Zblood, Ta-nor, what do you think I am? I’m a wizard, not a god.” Kara saw Ta-nor: The nym’s eyes were wholly black. “Ta-nor. Oh, Ta-nor, what has she done to you?”
Ta-nor gripped his hand and said, “She has shown me a way to help her, Kara. That’s all I ever wanted. Come.”
Kara’s senses, natural and sorcerous, stung him and blurred the world around him. He wasn’t sure how long the feeling lasted. When it abruptly stopped, he found himself in the crushing presence of the Darkenkell Sidhe. Although he was over a hundred cubits from her great oak and her comatose mate, Terell, he could see the agony on her face. Her left hand was burning unceasingly. The left half of her face was blackened, as if by tar smoke. Kara glanced to his right and saw Celiane at his shoulder. Her grey cowl was down. Ebony tears rolled down her face.
A shadow eclipsed the sun. Ta-nor said, “Wait. It has not yet begun.”
Kara stifled the urge to cry out as he was thrust again into the blurry void. Fire was his first sight out the void. He smelled the smoke from the burning trees. His eyes pained him and watered. He coughed. “We’re at the edge of Hecate’s domain. Ta-nor, why did you bring me here?”
Ta-nor replied, “You must go in there and get Nigel.”
“Nigel’s in there?”
Ta-nor tightened his grip on Kara’s arm. “Yes, wizard. Listen. We have little leeway with time. As you saw, the Darkenkell Sidhe is dying.”
Kara asked, “You want him to heal her?”
Kara started when he heard Celiane’s voice behind him, “No. That is still beyond him. What must be, will be. We cannot enter Hecate’s domain. It is not part of the forest. You must act as midwife, bringing me to Mayet.”
Kara nodded. “I can sense him in there.”
Ta-nor pushed him roughly. “Hurry. Our time is restricted. Erador struck more potently than Celiane had guessed.”
Celiane cried out in a piercingly high pitch, “Ahh! He is with her!”

***

From above, the forest looked like a child’s puzzle made of wood and fire, save for the dark scar that was his legacy to the Darkenkell. Erador flew over Hecate’s domain with the idea of burning the abomination he had met in the swamps. He had not seen the Nef-Shivrael-e, but he set Hecate’s domain to his breath anyway. It was a convenient and nostalgic path for Erador to take to the Sidhe. He glanced at his brothers who were flying randomly over the forest, blasting the green with a casual arrogance. Castor would occasionally drop down to the forest’s interior and grab a nym whom he had spotted. He would fly high into the air and drop the nym to watch the body flail as his victim fell to the ground. Most of the forest was burning. The fire spread quickly, augmented again and again by the burning acids from Castor and Malast.
Hecate’s domain narrowed below Erador. It stopped at the resting place of the Darkenkell Sidhe. Erador landed in front of the tiny form and crushed the oaks under his scaled belly. The ground shook from his violent landing. He extended his left foreclaw to grab the Sidhe, but hesitated at the last moment to say, “I am not sure I still want you. You are not so beautiful anymore.”
The Darkenkell Sidhe stood without removing her buried feet from the topsoil. A quake shook the ground, mocking the tremor Erador had caused. The Sidhe held out her burning arm and said, “See what you have wrought. My arm burns. The great Erador must still desire me, for he burns the world to find me among the ashes. See what you have done.”
Erador knew from bitter experience not to look at a sidhe. He replied with surety, “Lady, I am my world.” He groped blindly for her body ’til he found her with his left foreclaw. He grabbed her, and his talons entombed her. Erador said, “Do not be disconsolate, my lady. Soon, you shall be at Glered-nigh, where we shall foster offspring. You will be mother to a new race, who shall bring the fruits of the world to Glered-nigh, to their father. Though you will be forgotten, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you were instrumental to the Great Change. Take comfort in your new destiny.”
Erador beat his wings furiously, blowing down the nearest trees. He felt himself begin to lift and he jumped to become airborne, but crashed cruelly into the ground.
The Sidhe’s voice, riding a wind near his ear, whispered to him, “You can never separate me from my Darkenkell.”
Denied, Erador roared in rage. His failure was embarrassing, for his brothers watched him from the sky. He released the Sidhe. To his surprise Erador found her undamaged by his embrace. Her delicate, golden butterfly wings still wafted through the smoky air. Her body was defiled only in reaction to the forest’s burning. Erador realized that he had never felt her body in his grasp. His talon had seemed to freeze just before touching her. He considered burning her, but that did not suit his plans. However, the flame on her arm was burning her shoulder now.
Enough smoke was in the air to prevent the Sidhe from locking eyes with Erador, whose head towered over the tops of the oaks. Erador bellowed, “Yield, my lady. It is finished. I may not force you to Glered-nigh, but I will raze this forest if you do not come with me. I can be generous. Come, be my Queen, and I shall spare this forest. I shall even spare your previous lover’s kindred.”
Her antennae lay flat against her skull. Her words were filled with gasps of muffled pain. “My time is upon me. No, Erador. From the beginning my sisters and I were the chosen, favored by Mayet. We faithfully preserved his order to prevent the madness of Shi from destroying the land. We maintained the order, but as its keepers we are not bound to it, as all others are.”
Erador tried to move, but discovered himself strangely trapped. Not only Erador but also the air and smoke was motionless: frozen. Everything was still and silent, save for the Sidhe’s gently swaying wings. He tried to call to his brothers, but could not speak.
The Sidhe’s voice surrounded him, penetrated him, “I knew I would fail my trust, but in so doing stop a greater, hidden threat to nature. I cast off my vows. I renounce duty. I banish myself forever from the sight of Mayet.” The Darkenkell Sidhe freed her feet from the topsoil and walked toward Erador. The ground opened beneath her without sound or warning. The Sidhe fell into the darkness. The smoke began to drift; the forest fire resumed its raging.
The air was filled with the thunderous sound of wailing, emanating from the depth of the new chasm. The Chen cried, instinctively hating the sound. The Darkenkell tribal Mer writhed in visions of despair and held each other for comfort. Hidden within Hecate’s domain, the Nef-Shivrael-e screamed in fear, for the wailing resonated with its memories of imprisonment. The Nef-Shivrael-e heard a new voice in the damned chorus, the voice of his servant, and the scion of Shi ran from Hecate’s domain, terrified.
As the ground collapsed under him, Erador discovered that he could move. The chasm was not wide enough for him to flex his monstrous wings, yet he managed to hook his left foreclaw to the edge of the chasm as he began to fall. Seeing the Sidhe fall beside him, he reached out his other foreclaw to grab her. The edge of the chasm could not support his great bulk, and the ground collapsed under his one hold to the surface. He looked toward his brothers and bellowed for help.
Erador fell into the chasm and careened brutally off the side walls. His last sight of the sky was the cowardice of his brothers, flying toward Glered-nigh.

Chapter XVI Pax Celiane

Erador had spewed his bile over his ancient path in the forest. Hecate’s demesne burned and guttered. The fungi burst, too near the dragon spawned flames. A red juice bubbled on the forest floor, and an acrid steam rose where the patches of fungi had been. The black trees were ash blackened now as smoke hung thickly in the air. Above all was the roar of the natural fire, purifying through destruction Hecate’s legacy to the Darkenkell forest.
Karamindakas walked into the Path of Erador and watched his every step. Although he did not sense Hecate near, he knew her magic could end his life and his duty, for she harnessed the ancient rage of Erador with her witchcraft. He wondered if Hecate could mask her aura from his second sight. A crashing din erupted to his right, and he turned to see a black moss tree burning on the ground. He ran; the fire was a greater danger than Hecate. He stopped and smiled grimly as he walked over an inert zuvembie corpse. The land still wreaked of Hecate’s meddling, but her back had been broken. He had trouble accepting that Nigel, unawakened, had accomplished this breaking. Yet the wizard had clearly felt the momentary rise of Aten-Mayet.
Kara found Nigel on the actual path that Erador had trod many years ago. Surprised, he saw Nigel lying unconscious, surrounded by at least two hundred nymish children. The tiny nym huddled behind Nigel, not trusting the wizard. Kara thought that the marks of his human aging probably frightened them amid all this destruction and insanity. They were dirty. Many had evil cuts, bruises, and burns. Young faces were wet with tears and black with ash. Kara put on a gentle smile and walked slowly toward the children with his palms outward.
Kara spoke soothingly, though the smoke had further coarsened his aged voice, “Do not be afraid.”
A taller Chen with a burn on his shoulder cried, “Nigel!” He shook Nigel.
With a soft groan, Nigel woke. He stood and rubbed his temples with his thumbs. The Chen crowded around him. “Kara, my head . . . it hurts. We’ve got to get out of here. The Chen, Hecate’s zuvembies want them.” Nigel looked at the throng of small bodies pressing against him.
Kara pushed past the Chen who stood in front of Nigel and said, “The zuvembies aren’t the problem. We’ve got to get to the Darkenkell Sidhe. Celiane says that her mother’s about to die. The forest needs your help. Can’t you see the fire? There are dragons over the Sidhe and they’re burning down the forest.”
Nigel looked at the trees. Almost all of them were burning. Only the path that they walked seemed safe, for only the black ground, blasted by Erador’s first visit to the forest, remained free of the now burning life of Hecate’s demesne. Nigel said, “This smoke’s making my head pound. How can we get out of here?”
Kara said, “The fire is worst in this area. Erador flew over Hecate’s domain. Once we’re out of here, the forest is only burning in sections. We haven’t time to walk the path of Erador to the Sidhe. Celiane’s waiting for us in the Darkenkell forest proper. We have to risk the fire. It’ll consume the entire forest if Erador kills the Sidhe. Follow.” Kara began to retrace his steps.
Nigel bent down to eye level with the Chen and said, “Hold hands, children. Now, we are brave Ahn going to save your people. Do not fail. Make your parents proud.”
Many still cried, but the older Chen took heart and helped the younger to follow Nigel.
The forest of Hecate burned around them, but Kara was sure of his step. When the fire threatened to block their path, blue wizardfire erupted from Kara’s outstretched hands and laced around the natural fire. The blue smothered the orange and they hurried forward.
Kara sighted the natural green of the forest proper when Nigel began to scream. All the Chen cried, and all of them tried to hug Nigel at once. Kara was about to put them in a trance with his magic to free the Chen from their sudden panic when an earthquake shook the ground. Everyone tumbled pell mell over each other. A burning tree fell, and one of its outstretched branches caught three of the Chen who were outside the mass of bodies huddling around Nigel.
The quake subsided.
Kara stepped around the Chen to get to Nigel and helped him to his feet.
Nigel gasped, “The forest is gone.”
Kara peered at Nigel for a moment, but he knew that Celiane was waiting for them. “What? Forget it. Let’s go. We’ve almost reached Celiane and Ta-nor.” A dark halo burned around the children; Kara compelled them to follow him. One girl still lived under the fallen tree. Her legs were crushed. Kara saw in her aura that she was swiftly approaching death. The other Chen were at risk, and Nigel’s safety was paramount to him. All his hopes rested on him.
He left the girl.
Putting his arm under Nigel’s shoulder, he half carried him from Hecate’s forest. Compelled, the Chen sluggishly followed the wizard.
Celiane waited, silently watching Nigel appear with Kara from the Witch Queen’s forest. They were followed by a pack of limp faced Chen. Celiane had no eyes for them. She was fixated on Nigel.
Ta-nor shouted, “Hurry, hurry!”
A noise assaulted the people, the forest, the air. Kara had never heard such a sound in his life, but he knew intuitively that it came from far away and from something living. The sound was akin to human voices in anguish, but amplified and augmented so that they never faltered for breath. It was undeniably sentient, for the lamentation Kara heard transcended physical pain. He wept. The little Chen screamed and ran into the forest in all directions.
Celiane said, “Come, Mayet. You have a duty.”
Nigel languidly reached for Celiane’s hand and gripped it. His weakness left him. “Don’t call me that! I am Ni—-” He lost his voice as the sidhe spawned void engulfed him.

***

The Nef-Shivrael-e wept as it squatted on the black ground at the edge of Hecate’s domain. The Horror that Walks had not escaped Erador’s notice without some cost: The Nef-Shivrael-e’s skin was blistered on its left arm. It listened to the wails that emanated from the chasm. All of its plans had failed, crushed under Erador’s ambition for a Sidhe. The Nef-Shivrael-e sensed that Elaine still lived. She was coming closer to her inheritance from Shivrael. His withered finger slowly scratched a circle in the black, crusted soil. The futility of his short life beyond the underworld brought disgust. The wailing, though horrid, began to comfort the ancient. The despair was familiar, ageless, secure. The Nef-Shivrael-e moaned, matching the pitch of the lamentations that filled the forest.
The only chance to stop Elaine was at her final goal, Sanctuary. There were too many allies for Elaine in the Darkenkell now that the Nef-Shivrael-e’s idiot servant, Hecate, had failed it. Sanctuary. The thought of it sent an involuntary shiver down the Nef-Shivrael-e’s cold spine: the place where Shi had broken her wholeness, the place where the Shivrael had cast the Horror down. The wizards at New Candide had been weakened and taken by surprise. Those at Sanctuary were vast in number, secretive, and well guarded. They would spot the Nef-Shivrael-e’s unliving aura immediately. The Horror pictured itself fighting one wizard while others burned away its fleshly casing and more awaited to imprison its spirit once again in the underworld.
It would be easier, after all, to merge its spirit with the lamentation from the chasm. The Nef-Shivrael-e knew them. They had been its constant companions since the Horror’s conception: painful, but tolerably familiar.
“Then why not just leave, you sunuvabitch?”
The Nef-Shivrael-e looked around the black path, but saw nothing, except charred trees and smoking embers. The Nef-Shivrael-e spoke, “Who is this? Where are you?”
“How does it feel to be on the receiving end, daemon?”
The Nef-Shivrael-e shut its eyes and said, “Morrison? Is that you? I thought I had extinguished you. Y-You’re trying to reassert yourself.”
“You’re damn right. I know you from the inside out. You disgust me. You’re such a simple, whining bully. I felt every murder you did.”
The Nef-Shivrael-asked, “Does that not daunt you?”
“I’m no sheep. The only thing that daunted me is your sloppiness. You’ve misplayed every card you were dealt. Now, you want out. No deal.”
Sitting in the barren, burning woods making a dialogue with the thoughts of Morrison, the Nef-Shivrael-e asked, “You don’t fear me?”
Morrison replied vocally, “At first, yes. Once I learned you couldn’t completely destroy my inner voice, I meditated and quietly reassembled myself while I watched your hunt. You failed, and your pitiful whining let you hear me. You’re suiciding or thinking about it. I’m not going to let you take me with you. Listen to me before you join your wailing companions. I’m not your enemy. I realize that I’m walking dead. Without you I’m just plain dead. I felt you being pulled from my corpse to the underworld, so I made the big push to talk to you.”
“Why? It doesn’t matter. Elaine is—-”
Morrison roared, “Shut up! You’re losing your resolve. Remember who rejected you. Remember your hate. Do you want to spend eternity with daemons with the knowledge that Shivrael is free?”
“No. No, I don’t. Shivrael must suffer. But there is nothing I can do. My wounds weaken me. There is no prey.”
Morrison said, “Just leave it in my hands for a change.”
The Nef-Shivrael-e could feel Morrison’s mental grin. The Horror that Walks’ peripheral vision receded until it was a dim tunnel. IRIS agent Morrison acquainted himself with the sensation of having cold, stiff limbs. At the mental nudge of the Nef-Shivrael-e, Morrison began his journey to Sanctuary.

***

Celiane, Ta-nor, Karamindakas, and Nigel appeared at the edge of the chasm from the void that Celiane had traversed. The Darkenkell Sidhe had abandoned her forest. Terell was gone as well as the colossal oak. A vast chasm, deep unto darkness, stretched across the very center of the Darkenkell forest. The sounds of lamentation issuing from the darkness were deafening. No dragons could be seen or heard. Nigel fell to his knees.
Kara turned to him and put his arms around his apprentice’s thin shoulders and asked, “Nigel, are you hurt? What happened?”
Nigel pointed an accusing finger at Celiane.
Impassively, Celiane said, “It was necessary to come here.”
Nigel gasped for breath as the pain subsided. He looked up at Celiane. Nigel said, “How dare you violate me. Mayet set you above nature. The others were not meant for this. You were set apart from the beginning. You cannot take them out of his symphony. That void was against all Mayet’s orchestra, and I am the inheritor of the masterwork. You may not treat me casually.”
Kara loosed his grasp of Nigel and asked, “Where did you get this lore?”
The moaning wind whipped them with a cold lash. Getting to his feet, Nigel said, “It isn’t lore. It isn’t ancient. It is now, all around us. I’ve been feeling it since this war began. The contrast of lands made it clear to me. Hecate had to be removed. The witch had distorted the symphony, as you just did, Celiane, by taking others with you. You are not your mother.”
Celiane interrupted, “I have no time for this prattle. Later, I will have my time. Look at me, Nigel.”
Her compulsion struck Nigel unawares. His eyes met the half-sidhe.
Kara started to move between them.
Ta-nor lashed out with a vicious blow to Kara’s midsection. The air rushed from the wizard’s lungs. The old man fell on the ground and gasped for his breath. Ta-nor stepped back, like a dog at his mistress’ heel.
Looking at Nigel, Celiane opened her eyes fully and spoke, “I have no need of you. The world has no need of you. I need your progenitor, Mayet, who ordered the madness. Look deeply, and step away from the superfluous layers of your existence. Mayet, Mayet! Your servant needs you!”
Far from being rendered motionless by Celiane’s ebony stare, Nigel became livid: “Meaningless?! Your father must have been Erador. Didn’t your mother teach you anything? Nothing is meaningless! Nothing! Every breeze that blows is as important as the dawn. Every life is woven into Mayet’s order. Every natural action upholds the integrity of that order. It keeps at bay the Shi’s madness and values Mayet’s work. Any force entering from outside disrupts that order. My life, who I am, is a part of that order. Your mother knew these things. She gave her life to protect Mayet.”
Nigel closed his eyes of his own volition and spoke, “Between Shi’s actions and Mayet’s, great pain of chaos cursed life. The world was warped until Mayet intervened. You, Celiane, have chosen to guard that order, to stand outside and alone.” Nigel screamed to be heard over the winds rushing over the chasm and the wailing of the underworld, emanating from the cavern’s nether edge. Nigel took some topsoil from the ground and put it into his palm. He covered Celiane’s eyes of void with the dirt and held his hand firmly over her face. He asked, “Will you join me in my cause and separate yourself from me?”
Celiane shouted, “Yes! I shall join you, Nigel-Mayet and take up my mother’s cause.”
The wind from the chasm subsided. The dirt fell from her ebony eyes. Celiane lifted her hands toward the heavens, and a fog descended over the chasm. The sounds of lamentation vanished.
Her grey cloak fell to the ground. Her body was sculpted in youth. Large white wings unfolded from her back. The charred forest quieted for the first time since the Darkenkell war had begun. Rain fell. The droplets were almost indistinguishable from the thickening mist over the chasm. Celiane walked into the mist, but she did not plummet into the chasm. Lightning flashed and the rain became heavy. Celiane shouted. Ta-nor whimpered.
Lightning flashed again, accompanied by thunder. Nigel said, “Let’s go. Birth is a private matter. Besides, I don’t think the rain is going to stop any time soon.” He bent down to help Kara to his feet. The rain dripped from the wizard’s hoary beard.
Ta-nor murmured, “I must stay with her.”
Nigel laid a hand on his shoulder and said, “No, Ta-nor. Your part in this is over. You know this; you felt it. Your eyes have returned to their natural state. The forest is about to begin its new life under the new Sidhe.”
Kara leaned on his walking stick and declared, “You accept who you are.”
Nigel grimaced and walked toward the nymish village. He spoke with his back toward the wizard. His voice was barely audible over the drumming downpour as he said, “And you need to change.” His empathy had felt the agonizing death of a girl under a burning limb.
Ta-nor followed Nigel for lack of a better place to go. He mumbled an apology to Kara, “I guess I didn’t know what was happening. Sorry I hit you. I’m confused. I don’t understand.”
Kara nodded and replied, “I don’t either. I don’t know Nigel anymore.” He had not listened to Ta-nor, for this forceful Nigel posed an obstacle to his duty. This Nigel might forget his oath. Karamindakas needed a lever to push the heirs to Sanctuary before their might grew too far beyond him, allowing them to choose their own path.
The journey back to the village took several hours. The rain gradually lessened to a light mist. The three soaked travellers exchanged quizzical glances upon hearing the voices of a tremendous throng in the village.
A celebration was underway. Ram-Erin-nor had arrived with the Saraceans and their supplies. The war weary nym gratefully accepted their friendship as well as their stock of wines, meats and flour. The viands, which had originally been brought to be rationed in a protracted battle, were now more than plenty for a night’s feasting.
Many had died either in pitched battle with Hecate’s servants or in the fires of Paragrond’s sons. However, the hunym-sidhe celebrated to honor their dead and welcome the humans. The main congregation of revelers was not in the village, rather it was north of the village near a large, lonely oak that had escaped the fire. The dragon, Castor, had burned the village. Save for the main dome mosaic, the buildings could be replaced. The first torrential rains that had inaugurated Celiane had dampened the fires.
Old Mar-zen spread the word among his clan that there would be partitions for a new village, and ere spring there would come new wood for building.
As the first stars entered the sky, a bonfire was built. Nymish dances were performed to the delight of the Saracean men. The dancers’ fluid movements told tales of love for those with a trained eye. Several men brought a makeshift, raised platform. The wooden dais was set in front of the bonfire. King Torastor, his Vizier, and the two Queens of Saracea mounted it.
King Torastor lifted his hands and the crowd quieted. Hundreds of men and nym in the throng turned their eyes toward their leaders. King Torastor spoke, “The Mer have declared that Hecate has left the Darkenkell.”
Cheers rose from the nym. King Torastor continued, “But her witchery has shown us our weakness. The isolation of our forest is not proof against attack. The verdant boughs that so faithfully embrace us cannot withstand the angry axe or hateful sorcery. The Darkenkell woods call to us for defense in just recompense for the home they and their mistress have given unto us. As we celebrate life with our new friends,” he gestured to the two Queens, “I open the routes for trade with the Saracean Empires. Man has come to the aid of nym. It is a new age, an age where the races of hu, man and nym, are friends and, perhaps, more than friends. To strengthen our bond, it is my honor to announce the betrothal of our Ram-Erin-nor to the Queen of Lower Saracea.”
A roar broke from the crowd as Meara and Erin kissed. King Torastor and Queen Shere left the platform together while the cheers were still at their loudest.
Trumpeting his warhorn, Mella-kahn, on horseback, entered the crowd. Ranks of Ahn escorted the Chen into the crowd to find their parents. Sobs of joy mixed with the sounds of revelry as parents were reunited with their children.
Trying to get to Shere, Karamindakas pushed between revelers. He desperately wanted to know any news about the outworlders. Nigel followed, but looked at the dancers and the clumsy Saracean soldiers who tried to mimic the fluid movements of their nymish hosts. The music of the nymish trumpets and drums meshed with the few Saracean lutes and recorders that had been brought by the men. Nigel found himself walking to the music. He relaxed. His empathy had dimmed since the fall of Hecate, and his brows weren’t knitted with tension. The ache in his shoulders had left. The relief in the air was palpable and made him involuntarily smile; he didn’t fight his empathy this time. There were barks of laughter and shouts of rowdiness. On a muddy hill the Chen played, sliding down the slope and running back up and sliding down again.
Intent upon the crowd, Nigel bumped into Kara as the wizard came to an abrupt halt. He looked over Kara’s shoulder to see Shere, squatting on a pack with her travelling robe around her to protect her royal silks from the mud. It was not her appearance that rooted Nigel’s eyes to her form: It was his first vision, which showed him subjugating this woman for an old family he had known. The sounds of merriment amid rainfall died in his ears, closed off by his foreboding.
“Nigel!” Elaine called.
A wineskin hit him in the chest. He fumbled with it for a moment and caught it. Elaine was sitting next to Shere. With an effort he dismissed his thoughts and sat next to Elaine. Nigel said, “I’m sorry about being angry with you. I guess it was just pre-war nerves.”
She put her arm around him, and Nigel leaned against her, welcoming her unconditional embrace.
Elaine kissed him playfully and said, “You worry too much. I’m glad you’re alive.”
Elaine spared a moment from her pleasure with Nigel to look at Kara and say, “I figured you’d make it somehow.”
A laughing Saracean soldier ran from the embrace of a nymish maid; they kicked up mud as they skipped through the gathered circle.
Kara grumbled, brushing the black mud from his robe and saying, “Where’s the wine?”
Sitting to Shere’s left was Kare-ston, who gestured with his hand. The Saracean slipped in the muddy grass and was caught by his paramour. Kare-ston laughed, “That should keep them from running around for a while.” He tapped Tess-nor, “Another cup of wine?”
Tess stared at her empty cup for a moment and said, “No. No, thank you, Kare.”
Kare-ston chided her, “One cup. Everybody fill your cups. A glass of wine in honor of our noble Vizier’s happiness.”
Shere interrupted, “And my noble sister.”
Kare-ston inclined his head while smiling and said, “Of course. To love.”
Cups were raised and brought to drink.
When the toast was over, Shere eyed Nigel and Elaine. “So, Kara, are these our saviours?”
The other conversation in the circle died down. After wiping the wine from his beard with his filthy tunic cuff, Kara replied, “Not yet, Shere. There’s the matter of Sanctuary and the awakening. But there’s no doubt that these are the two. Nigel stared down the Sidhe and then proclaimed Celiane to the forest.”
Kare-ston and Tess-nor looked at Kara, astonished. Kare-ston said, “The Darkenkell Sidhe has fallen, replaced by her daughter. What of her father, King Terellor?” Hope gleamed in the Ston’s eyes.
Putting his cup on the ground, Kara said, “I’m sorry, Kare-ston. Terell fell with the old Darkenkell Sidhe.” Kara raised his voice. “His sacrifice wasn’t in vain. Terell’s ancient enemy, Erador, fell with him into the abyss.”
Shere said, “Yes, I scried their passing in the village pool. It is a double celebration for these people. Triple. They marry into an alliance with Lower Saracea and therein have an alliance with Upper Saracea.”
“Don’t.” Kara said, “Be thankful you didn’t have to fight. It was a near thing and grisly.”
Kare-ston and Tess-nor nodded. Nigel and Elaine had dozed off in each others arms.
Seeing the two asleep, Shere leaned toward Kara and whispered, “All war is necessary for civilization’s advancement. This triumvirate could bring those plains city-states to heal.”
Meara and Erin greeted the circle. Smiling, Meara addressed the informal gathering, “Now, you see why there are two Saraceas. Dear sister always wants to expand. Why not sail north to the barbarian lands if you must have a larger realm?”
Shere glared at her darker sister and said, “Sister, you talk too much. Wine and love have addled you.”
Meara laughed, “You’re actually thinking of doing it, aren’t you?” Shere remained silent. Meara put a hand on Shere and said, “Sister, the northerners would rend your ships to driftwood in naval conflict.”
Shere replied, “My magic would even the odds.”
Meara pressed her hand on her sister’s shoulder. Meara smiled at the others, but her eyes narrowed as she said, “It takes your magic just to keep their longships from your shore. What makes you think that they don’t have magics to sail those stormy seas so confidently? Perhaps some ocean sidhe befriends them, for no ship of yours has ever come back from a voyage to their coast.”
Kara listened attentively. In the New Candide councils the sisters rarely spoke of the politics in their realms. This was a new Meara speaking.
Shere filled her cup and said, “Sister, the wine loosens your tongue o’ermuch.”
“Ah,” Kara thought, “so Shere has tested the northern continent.”
Meara stood up and grimaced. There was a weary sadness in her voice. “Shere, I have drunk no wine, rather you mew up your heart. We are among friends. Leave off these talks of war. They are tiresome now. What do you want? Plunder to construct more of your strange obelisks on the backs of your people?”
Shere’s voice lowered to mask her anger, “That is my tomb, and its growth measures my life. Do not speak of things that are beyond your atheistic ken. My people are glad to build it. They work with a light heart, for they take comfort in their destiny to come in the afterlife. Further, my people rejoice in their reward of plentiful grain in this life.”
Ram-Erin-nor put a gentle hand on Meara’s shoulder, but Meara scoffed, “I know of no afterlife, and my fields are plentiful without pyramids or obelisks.”
“Your blood you share with me and the proximity of your land to mine allows you to share Upper Saracea’s blessings. You should be thankful, sister.”
Tess-nor looked up from her wine. She strained her bandaged torso, causing her to grimace. Tess-nor said, “How can you think of starting a war? Are not these outworlders of whom Kara speaks enough of a trial for you? Of course, I have never seen one.”
Kara said, “They are there. I don’t know why they’ve stayed away from your people.”
Ram-Erin-nor quietly entered the conversation, “Probably because they haven’t finished subjugating your people yet. From what Meara tells me, they have already conquered the city-states, except ashen Jezric. It makes sense. The city-states are independent of each other. They’re easy prey for a unified force, just as Shere was implying what she wanted to do. It seems the outworlders moved faster. Their next step should be to consolidate their hold on the city-states. Then, they can divert their attention and commit their Ahn safely to their next goal, which if Meara is correct about the situation in New Candide, should be soon. Lower Saracea is geographically closest to the city-states.”
Aghast, Shere said, “How could you tell him of our councils, Meara?”
Meara smiled and said, “Sister, don’t be absurd. He is my betrothed. I have no secrets from him. Besides, Erin deduced more than I had actually told him. I had never told him what Osric had said. You’d better get used to us. Erin will have an equal share of my realm.”
Kara interrupted quickly, not wanting to see a power block broken by petty family jealousies, “The time for secrets is almost at an end, thanks to Nigel and Elaine.”
Shere looked at the bedraggled sleeping forms of Nigel and Elaine and said, “I’m glad you brought that up, Kara. They don’t appear to be anymore than a sorceress and a wizard.”
Kara smiled coldly, “Shere, you forget. They haven’t been to the master crystal. They’ve never even seen it.”
There was fear in the look that Shere gave Kara. No one spoke. Shere busied herself in cleaning the dark mud from her wyrm skin boots while Kara drank another glass. Kare-ston slid a glance toward Nigel and Elaine, as if they might bite him. Shere whispered, “And what will they do after they’ve driven away the outworlders? What will they be capable of doing?”
Kara sucked air. “Aye. It won’t do us any good to exchange one master for another. They don’t know the old ways.” Kara felt a twinge in his gut. His charges had become his friends. But the guilt of betrayal passed as his fear grew. He said, “They are very independent. Pardon, Kare-ston, but it was not my choice to aid the Darkenkell nym. They forced me to stay and fight. They’re not stupid, only ignorant. How forceful will they be when they’ve been awakened with naught to oppose them?”
Meara said, “Perhaps Sanctuary will have an answer. Besides, we really have no choice. The outworlders are intolerable. Jezric must not be forgotten.”
“Agreed.” Kara said firmly, “I’ll start our journey in the morning.”
Tess-nor said, “I’ll go. Now that Hecate is gone, the King has no reason to bar us from travel.”
Kare-ston ordered, “No, Nor. I’ll go. You need to recover from your wounds. It’ll be good to get away from Torastor and his Ahn policies.”
Ram-Erin-nor left Meara’s side. He walked behind Kare-ston and rebuked him, “You’re a little naive to be voicing displeasure at our King’s policies and discourteous to his address among foreigners.”
“What?” Kare-ston craned his neck to look at the Vizier. “You can’t condone his treatment of the magi?”
The Vizier stretched calmly and replied, “Because he’s curt to you? You don’t get the respect you feel you deserve? Wake up, Kare. Stop looking at everything through the eyes of a Ston. Was it the magi who went into pitched battle?”
Tess-nor hissed, “Nor died in the fighting, Vizier.”
Ram-Erin-nor looked gently at the fierce, young Nor before continuing, “Yes, I know. I don’t begrudge anyone’s valor, but many more Ahn died than Nor, and what respect do they get?”
Kare-ston said, “Plenty. The King is Ahn.”
Ram-Erin-nor shook his head and said, “If you had attended more councils, you would have known how hard he has been on the Ahn. Do you know how many patrols they’ve been doing since the plague started?” Kare-ston was silent. Ram-Erin-nor leaned closer to the sullen Ston and said, “What thanks do they get? The magi look down on the Ahn even as they eat the meat the Ahn bring them. All the Chen dream of having magical powers to the chagrin of their Ahn parents. If your pride is offended, it is only because it has grown too large.” Erin gave the others a polite smile. “The evening grows late. I bid you a peaceful sleep.” He left, heading toward the Lower Saracean camps.
Meara said, “Good evening, sister. We’ll talk more tomorrow. Erin tells me that King Torastor has called a council. You have all been requested to attend.” She left, following Erin’s path.
Nigel slept fitfully. He saw his home in Jezric. A city guard’s pay was meager, and his family could not live in the barracks. He opened the door. He was tired. It had been a long, difficult day, and the night was not over. He hated his night job as a bouncer for The Dark Fox Inn. It was almost as bad as being a city guard, but his family needed the money. A decanter of wine waited for him on the table. His wife’s two sisters and their five children crowded him. His boy, Alexander, had left home after his aunts had moved into Nigel’s shack. Nigel missed the boy. He was probably dead now. The sisters were in black. They were always in black. Gloom and mourning perpetually filled his home with the scent of myrrh. His wife had changed while serving her sisters during their prolonged grieving. She gave him a piggy, tired smile as he poured himself some wine from the decanter. He swallowed hard to get the cheap wine down his throat past the bile that rose there. The wine had one redeeming aspect: It was strong. He poured another glass. It went down easier now that a path had been forged by the first glass. He nodded a goodbye to his wife, didn’t wait for a kiss. Those had grown cold of late. The beggars ignored him as he walked down the street. They knew his temperament at this time of the night. He looked inside the Dark Fox. All manner of debauchery could be heard from the main room. It would be a busy night. He ignored the inn and kept walking. The guards at the city gates knew him; they had shared shifts together. They opened the gates for him, and Nigel walked out of Jezric, determined never to see the city again. There must be something better ahead. It began to rain ashes.
Elaine shook Nigel awake. “Get up! Or you’ll miss the breakfast our hosts have prepared.”
“Where am I? Oh.” Nigel got to his feet and wiped the sand from his eyes. The dream was already fading from his mind. His hunger assailed him as he smelled the roasting meats. Breakfast was plentiful. It was laid out on one long table made of many different tables that had survived the fires. There were a variety of meats, honeys, cheeses, and breads of all kinds, brought from the Saracean supply carts. Everybody seemed to have a strong appetite now that the stench of dragons’ smoke had left the air. After relieving himself, Nigel approached the table for a second go at the honey and soft bread. He noticed Ta-nor speaking to Elaine. She rose from her seat and beckoned Nigel to follow her.
After he had grabbed a biscuit, he caught up with them. A hollow eyed Ta-nor said, “King Torastor is holding a council at the Ahn trial field. Follow me.”
Nigel munched on the soft, warm bread as he followed Elaine and Ta-nor. They reached the clearing after passing the ruins of the council dome. The open field council was already in session. The heads of all the clans were present. Tess-nor was sitting beside Kare-ston in Lok-ston’s chair. Lok-ston had not yet returned from the Koral tribe. Nigel and Elaine were escorted to two vacant chairs next to Karamindakas in front of the semi-circle. Ram-Erin-nor and Meara stood in front of the King.
Ram-Erin-nor spoke toward the oaken throne, which had been blackened by Castor’s fires, “I thank you, my King, for allowing me to be your Vizier these many years. However, I now hope to have duties of a more domestic kind. It has been my privilege to serve this council.”
The councilors slowly applauded.
The King rose from his chair. The applause ceased. King Torastor said, “Ram-Erin-nor, I believe you have placed too much faith in our friendship. A king must always serve his people. Or do you forget that it was you who instructed me on that principle? You, also, told me that a king must hold onto every advantage he has or he shall not be a king for long.” Erin bowed. Meara grimaced. Torastor continued, “I will not release you from my service, Ram-Erin-nor. I still have need of your keen eye. Yet it would be tempting the fates to bar you from your obvious love for Queen Meara. Therefore, if the Queens are willing, I appoint you as ambassador-councilor to our three realms, so the friendship we have established between our realms shall endure and ensure that our sacrifices in this war will not have been in vain. We have learned most painfully that our forest is not inviolate. Long live this triumvirate.” He raised his voice with a swift crescendo, signalling for applause.
The councilors stood and cheered. The lovers kissed before the council. The cry rang out, “Erin and Meara!” Nigel softly clasped Elaine’s hand.
As the applause died, King Torastor spoke from his scarred throne, “Before you leave, tradition demands another duty from you while you still hold the title of Ram: Choose a successor.”
Erin bowed. He walked around the semi-circle, looking each councilor in the eyes. Erin savored the moment and grinned as he stared down at each seated councilor. Mella-kahn: His eyes were guarded, but Erin saw that those eyes held the fear that knew what great responsibility meant. No, the council could not tolerate an Ahn style king and an Ahn style vizier. The council needed balance. He ignored Mene-ahn; he was only a strategist, not a councilor.
Mar-zen: The old judge was better at compassion than at enforcing the very laws over which he presided. His age and his love for the people were what drove him to be a Zen, unlike the other two on council, who were little more than technicians and enforcers. Mar-zen understood the heart of the law. Erin locked eyes with Mar-zen, and both knew that peace would not last when so many had been girded for war for so long. Mar-zen was near to blindness; his eyes were so clouded with age, but it was only a physical dimming. An almost imperceptible shake of Mar-zen’s head told Erin that the old nym had no desire or strength to be in the thick of the coming debates. The other two Zen looked hopefully at Erin, but he passed them with only a glance. They only wanted the preeminence of Zen law.
With a wicked grin Erin bowed to the King and went to the other end of the semi-circle. He passed Lok-ston’s chair and thought that the crafty mage would enjoy playing Ram. However, the position was not a game. Arle-ston and Mel-ston did not even look at Ram-Erin-nor. They had no interest in councils. Those two were consumed by the mysteries of the Ston. Erin fervently wished them success. The tribe could use an archmage in the days ahead. Kare-ston: His eyes held such a longing for the position that Erin almost stepped back to escape the intensity of his gaze. Instead, Erin met his gaze calmly. Such intemperate passions spoke volumes of Kare-ston’s desire, but nothing of the impartial attitude needed to be vizier. Kare-ston’s veiled hostility toward King Torastor made it impossible for Erin to consider the passionate mage. As he turned away, he saw Kare-ston’s hopefulness turn to a sullen anger. King Torastor needed a vizier whom he could work alongside with mutual respect.
Alia-mer: As young as Kare-ston, she was milder in temperament than the mage. Alia possessed a compassion that rivaled Mar-zen’s. Erin could feel it as he stared into her eyes. There was something else. Alia averted her eyes from his. Erin stood there, shocked. Always, her compassion had been directed toward him. Memories tumbled into his mind and took on a new meaning: a kind word from her, an inquiry into his mood, and her rapt attention while he spoke. He wished he could say something to ease her pain, but that would only humiliate her. He couldn’t change what had happened with Meara and didn’t want to change his feelings. He moved to Sol-mer. Sol-mer: The seer returned his gaze with an infectious half smile. Erin would miss his struggles with Sol-mer. He was the craftiest orator of the lot. Erin fondly remembered debates with Sol-mer that were not so fond at the time as the seer always strove to map out the course of the tribe through visions. More often than not, the Mer visions were an excuse for Sol-mer to vent his opinions on whatever the matter was at hand. Erin had always been hard pressed to defend less skilled councilors from Sol-mer’s caustic wit. Add to that his love of oratory and it was almost impossible to get the last word. This time, he would be sure to succeed. He widened his grin maliciously and watched Sol-mer’s usually small eyes balloon in disbelief. Erin hoisted Sol-mer out of his Mer chair and put his arm around his old opponent’s shoulder.
Erin tried not to laugh at Sol-mer’s mute astonishment. He proclaimed, “My King, councilors, I give you Ram-Sol-mer.” He whispered to Sol-mer loud enough for everyone to hear, “This once you won’t be able to debate me.”
Cheers rose up, accompanied by scattered laughter. The warmth and acceptance put Sol-mer into an even deeper state of amazement.
When the cheers died down, King Torastor said, “Erin-nor, your choice is accepted. Welcome, Ram-Sol-mer, to your new chair. The King gestured to his right. Ram-Sol-mer awkwardly took his new chair.
Erin-nor said, “Councilors, if you have petitions, you’d be best advised to speak them now, before our new Vizier finds where he has misplaced his tongue.”
The sun rose over the tree tops and cast its rays upon Karamindakas’ face. He stood, shielding his eyes from the glare with his left hand. Ignoring propriety, Kara said, “King Torastor, it gladdens my heart that you have decided to join the world fraternity against the outworlders, who have committed so many atrocities. Yet it saddens me to have to say that Nigel, Elaine, and I must leave for the Sanctuary of human magi.”
Ram-Sol-mer stood and glanced at his King. Torastor nodded. Ram-Sol-mer drew a nervous breath and said, “Honored guest, I believe that it is my new duty to correct you. Noble Karamindakas, while the Darkenkell tribe welcomes the new alliance of trade and friendship, we, in no ways, intend to commit ourselves to an intramural human war at this time. We would, of course, consider aiding our allies, but to my poor knowledge, the Saraceans are not presently at war with these outworlders. Am I correct, Queen Meara?”
Meara and Erin nodded in unison. Erin noticed that the war hadn’t dulled Sol-mer’s–Ram-Sol-mer’s–ability to praise and reprove at the same time.
Hardly pausing for Meara’s nod, Ram-Sol-mer said, “We wish you well on your journeys. In gratitude for your aid, we will do our utmost to speed you on your way to the borders of our country.”
Erin-nor chuckled. Set the instigator packing with a smile. He covered his mouth with his hand to quiet himself.
Not knowing what to say, Kara blankly stared at the Vizier. He sat as he tried to collect his wits.
Ram-Sol-mer smiled and took his seat to the right of the King. The new chair suddenly became more comfortable for the seer.
The King said, “It saddens our heart, also, that such noble allies should so soon take their leave of the Darkenkell. I should like to give you a bit more than what our new Vizier suggests. He is rightly conservative and worried for our people’s welfare amid the ashes left after war. However, we are not so destitute that we cannot offer you some aid in your arduous travels. Perhaps, if Nigel receives his inheritance, he will make our lands plentiful again. I have no doubt of your good intentions, Nigel Aten.”
Nigel looked at the King, unsure of what Torastor had meant by making the lands plentiful.
The King did not give any notice to Nigel’s naivete. King Torastor was used to that confused expression; anyone who was not a councilor or diplomat tended to become confused by the formalities of a council session. Political niceties were for the titled, not the common folk. King Torastor said, “I leave it to you councilors to find some people, noble of spirit, to accompany our friends on their journeys.”
Mar-ahn approached from outside the semi-circle, where he had been watching the council. He laid his sword at the King’s feet and said, “If it is your wish, I shall gladly go.”
King Torastor smiled knowingly. “Good. Go with my blessing, and if you must, fight with the same valor that you demonstrated against Hecate’s legions.”
A grimness in Mar-ahn’s hollow eyes hungered for battle. King Torastor was well pleased to see the back of that Ahn. Mar-ahn’s brother, Ta-nor, shouted from outside the council, “My King! I have no wish to venture forth from my homeland.”
Mar-ahn’s eyes searched his brother’s, but Ta-nor would not look at him.
The council was silent. King Torastor said, “I know what is in your heart, Ta-nor. I have seen it in King Terellor’s heart before you. I will not force you to accompany your brother. I do not think that familial obligations should bind one who is fey. I know not what solace I can give you or your brother, whom your mad passions have caused you to forsake.”
Sneering, Ta-nor’s thin frame bowed low, too deeply for respect, to the King. Without looking at Mar-ahn, Ta-nor ran into the forest.
Tess-nor watched her fellow Nor vanish beyond the trees. She stood before the council and said, “I will go in his place, if it pleases my King.”
“Your valor does please me, Tess-nor,” the King said, “but your burns are too serious for you to travel the wildlands. I will not tolerate foolish heroics from my magi.”
With a greater will than he thought he possessed, Kare-ston held his face impassive.
Abruptly, Nigel jumped from his seat saying, “Tess, I’m so sorry. Let me help you.” Nigel ran over to Tess-nor and laid hands on her. To his astonishment Kare-ston watched Tess-nor’s burns flake off her skin with new skin beneath it. It was a healing to rival the forever child, Stephenmindakas.
Everyone in the council field stared quietly at Tess-nor as she took off her bandages. It had taken all Kare-ston’s might just to keep her alive.
King Torastor softly said, “There have been many others who have burns from the dragon fires, and more have wounds, received from Hecate’s zuvembies.”
Kara tried to stand, but Elaine jerked him back into his seat.
Nigel said, “Of course, of course, I’ll help the others. It all just happened so fast. A few days ago, I didn’t even believe I would become a wizard. I’m sorry if I have caused more unnecessary suffering.”
King Torastor said, “Thank you, Nigel Aten. You prove yourself Aten’s heir. Tess-nor, go with them. In that way you may return Nigel’s aid.” King Torastor paused. “But when you are no longer needed, come back to us without delay; we will welcome your tale upon your return to us.”
The new Ram smiled almost imperceptibly; his King meant to be informed in his new dealings with the world beyond the borders of the Darkenkell.
Kare-ston stood, but King Torastor motioned for him to remain seated with a wave of his hand as he said, “I know you wish to accompany Tess-nor. However, we cannot afford the absence of another Ston with Lok-ston still visiting our Koral kin.”
Kare-ston bowed his head submissively, keeping it there so that no one who could not read his aura would notice his anger.
King Torastor looked to his left toward Mella-kahn and said, “Have one of your Ahn escort Nigel Aten to the wounded.”
Mene-ahn touched Chala-ahn’s empty chair, but knew that even Nigel could not return the dead to life. He rose at a glance from his Kahn and escorted Nigel to the field of the sick.
The numbers of the wounded appalled Nigel. About three score Ahn had received life threatening wounds from Hecate’s zuvembies. Almost twice that number had severe burns. Many burned were from the third rank of Ahn who had been caught in the Nor trap. Their pain made Nigel wince. He went to work immediately. When an Ahn who had been skewered in the stomach had been healed, the Ahn rose and shouted his thanks. The other wounded, seeing the healing, crowded around Nigel, pushing against him, trying to touch him. Nigel thought that he would suffocate. The smell of infection mingled with the smell of dried blood and urine, making Nigel’s stomach go small. For each person whom he grabbed and healed, another pushed its way in front of him. He had to reach down and lift a child who was about to be crushed by the press of people. Toward the late afternoon most of the people had been healed, and they dispersed, leaving him to work in peace.
In the back of his mind, Nigel was deeply troubled. He had just come to accept his role as Aten, the healing father. He was the god who had set nature in balance in his guise of Mayet. Yet he was saving people who, if left to the natural way, would have died. He didn’t make the natural order. He never chose to be a part of it–much less its defender. Everyone whom he had met had wanted to cast him in that role, as if they were unsatisfied with the very order that Aten-Mayet had chosen, despite their open awe and respect for the god. Even Celiane wanted to call Mayet back to reassure herself that she was right to defend that order. Perhaps they expected him to change that order by filling some gap that everyone felt, but no one would voice over their reverence for Aten-Mayet. He hated to disappoint them. He had no answers. Nigel had no desire to change anything, lest he become responsible for the adverse effects of that change. He could not predict anything: the ripple effect. One change tended to affect other people in indirect, invisible ways. Nigel felt he would still be culpable no matter what he did. If this awakening of which Kara spoke gave him the ability to change the natural order, his very abstinence of that ability could make him culpable–a god with the fears of a man. A child made Nigel pause.
A nymish lady approached with a young boy. She addressed him respectfully, “Milord Nigel Aten, I am Se-ahn and this is my boy, Da-chen.” She held up the drooling toddler for Nigel’s inspection. Nigel stared awkwardly back at her. She set the boy down and continued, “I beseech you, milord. Do not heal that one.” She pointed at a young nym who lay on his chest. The skin on his back had been flogged off. “He is a deserter from the second rank. If he had not run before the retreat had sounded, my lifemate might still be alive today.”
Nigel walked past Se-ahn and knelt beside the prostrate deserter. The nym was barely conscious. Nigel placed his hands on the deserter’s back and watched the new skin immediately displace the wounds on his back.
The deserter rose with downcast eyes and said, “Thank you for your mercy. I shall try to be more courageous.”
Nigel replied, “It wasn’t mercy. Good luck to you.” Nigel walked past the stare of Se-ahn toward the next wounded. That healing drained away some of his loneliness. Others knew the pain in abandoning friends, the guilt found in reckless action. He had seen it in the deserter’s eyes. That one had just tasted the ripple effect, the consequences of actions, too varied to grasp, too invisible to control. The deserter would, like Nigel, have to deal with the ripple effect for the rest of his life. Such knowledge could not be forgotten. The rest of the day went quickly, but Nigel felt Se-ahn’s accusatory stare at his back. There was no doubt, of course, that some of those whom he had healed would go on to commit atrocities. He had no way to judge them. There, again, he was trapped, culpable. He was finished before the dinner bell tolled.
Nigel joined the other travellers for dinner. Bulging packs, which had been prepared by the Zen for each of them, rested on the table. Kara motioned Nigel to take a seat between himself and Elaine. Nigel sat and propped his head up with his hands. He noted the grizzled beard on his face; he had not shaved since leaving New Candide. His elbows rested on the oaken table.
Kara peered at him and said, “Tired of your altruism, Nigel? Fear not. It should only cost us a day’s travel. We can make up that time with the help of our new supplies.”
Nigel said, “We’ll have to make up another’s day travel. I intend to visit the new Darkenkell Sidhe before we move on to Sanctuary.”
“What?” Kara sputtered, “We cannot afford these delays. Absolutely not. We are expected.”
Mar-ahn gulped a mouthful of food and asked, “Why do you want to see the Sidhe? No good comes from her.”
Nigel sighed, “She knows more than any of us.”
Tess-nor said, “Only within the Darkenkell forest. I was under the assumption that you intended to leave the Darkenkell.”
Nigel replied, “True. Her knowledge is not wide, but it is deep. I want to know about Mayet, specifically about his guise as Aten. The Sidhe claim to be his direct servants. They should know more about what Aten-Mayet was like than anyone.”
Kara pushed his food around his plate. “You will find out all you need to know at Sanctuary.”
Elaine said, “I agree with Nigel. You said that you didn’t even know the facts about Shivrael and Aten-Mayet. Another day won’t hurt.”
Kara slapped his fork against the table. The wizard said, “How do you know another day won’t hurt? Every day that our people slave under the yolk of the outworlders, more of them die.”
The corners of Elaine’s mouth lifted in a wry grin. She said, “You’re being melodramatic again. The outworlders have already conquered the city-states. They’ll be more concerned with organization and labor than outright slaughter. You seem to forget that I lived in New Candide. I know how they operate. I’ve talked to a lot of outies. They’re interested in the same thing most of our people are: profit.”
Shere, who was farther down the table, leaned forward and spoke to Elaine, “Perhaps their serfs are like our serfs. Then, surely their Queen is like our rulers. And she will be interested in the profit of another realm. Most likely, the people of the city-states are being conscripted for use against Lower Saracea.”
Nigel waved his fork at Kara and said, “It doesn’t matter to me whether profit or war is what the outworlders do. Either reason precludes mass slaughter of innocents. We have time and we will stop. It will only be a short delay. I must speak to the new Sidhe. I have doubts.”
Mar-ahn groaned a disapproval with his bass voice, “If you have doubts, that is all the more reason to stay away from a sidhe. You will be bewitched by her.”
Elaine voiced Mar-ahn’s unspoken thought, “Like your brother was bewitched?”
Mar-ahn stared into his copper cup of wine. “I have no brother anymore. Ta-nor is a vassal for that foul Sidhe.”
Kara said, “But the Sidhe released him from her tryst. His eyes are normal now.”
Mar-ahn shook his head. “Physically, perhaps, but his spirit is in bondage to her. He would betray all for her slightest whim. Do not go to her, Nigel.”
Elaine laughed. “If she tries anything against us, that Sidhe’ll regret it.” Her voice was cold.
Everyone turned their attention to their plates, except Kara and Shere, who eyed the nym proclaimed Elaine-ahn nervously.
Twilight deepened the shadows of the forest and even Kara did not want to set out for the Darkenkell Sidhe at night. The next morning as they were preparing to leave, Ta-nor approached Nigel. The nymish mage was outfitted in travelling leathers. It was obvious from the direction of the wind that he hadn’t bathed. Ta-nor had a haggard look about him as he said, “I heard from Tess that you plan to go back to Celiane. May I go with you?” There was a pleading tone in his voice.
Nigel felt Ta-nor’s discomfiture. Despite his new found empathy, he couldn’t fathom Ta-nor’s shame. Nigel replied, “Sure, Ta. Come along, if you want. We’ll be meeting at the oak, south of the village.”
“I know of it. I’ll go there.”
Nigel added, “Your brother’s coming.”
Ta-nor walked toward the oak and left Nigel to follow him. The rest of the group was already there. Kara led the way with Mar-ahn beside him. Elaine and Nigel followed behind Tess-nor. Ta-nor was in the rear, keeping his thoughts and his visage to himself. Meara had arranged for horses to meet them at a designated spot outside the forest toward Sanctuary. Their travel was quick and free of difficulty with Mar-ahn as guide. By late afternoon the troop was passing through great patches of burned areas that paralleled Hecate’s domain. The ambient malefic feeling, which Nigel perceived their yesterday, persisted despite the absence of its mistress. But it was a passive feeling, a memory. He noted a small black stream, flowing and gurgling in the Path of Erador.
They reached the area where Erador had met the first Darkenkell Sidhe. Delicate water sounds had replaced the wailing of the damned. The chasm had been covered by a lake with rivers on the far ends where the chasm had rent the earth. In the center, at the widest part of the lake, a moss covered boulder jutted slightly above the water. Nigel estimated that the squarish basalt boulder stood above the water at a height between one or two cubits. It was roughly thirty cubits on each side. Sitting on the boulder with her feet dangling in the water was Celiane. She faced them. The new Sidhe looked quite different from her predecessor. Her hair draped into the water and moved as the water gently lapped against the basalt. Her silver hair was her only garment, and she wore it loose in front of her so that it covered and uncovered her more intimate self. Her most striking features were her vast, white feathered wings that were fully extended, waving gently to and fro behind her. They were the wings of an ibis. The same bird that served as heraldry for Meara.
Shouldering past Mar-ahn, Ta-nor pushed his way to the fore of the group. He stepped to the shore of the lake and cried, “Celiane! It’s me, Ta. I nuh-nuh-need you. I love you!”
The Sidhe gave no response.
Mar-ahn whispered to Nigel, “Let’s leave. Celiane is changed. Leave my brother to his folly.”
Nigel shot Mar-ahn an angry glance. “No.”
Kara grabbed Nigel’s shoulder and said, “Yes, Nigel. This is a pointless risk. It boots you nothing and endangers us all.”
Not wishing to look upon the visage of a sidhe, Tess-nor had stayed behind in the woods.
Nigel called across the water, “Darkenkell Sidhe, what is my duty?”
The Sidhe’s head oriented toward Nigel. Although the Sidhe was over a hundred cubits distant, her voice caressed his ear as if it were whispered, “You have fulfilled your duty to me, Nigelminmayet.”
Nigel cupped his hands around his mouth and called across the lake, “What is expected of me? Am I part of all or separate? Tell me!”
“I have no answer for you, Nigelminmayet. You are beyond me.”
Nigel muttered an oath and turned toward Kara. “What does ‘min’ mean?”
Kara looked blankly at Nigel for a moment. “It just means ‘of’ as in ‘the family of.'”
Mar-ahn asked, “Can we go?”
Nigel snarled, “Not yet.” He shouted, “What will you do with Ta-nor? He served you well.”
The Darkenkell Sidhe whispered, “He is of no consequence to me, Nigelminmayet. Do with him what you will.”
Ta-nor sank to his knees as his body shook with nervous spasms. He whispered something unintelligible. Mar-ahn gritted his teeth and sucked air, but his fear of the Sidhe held him quiet amid his grief and anger.
The Sidhe oriented on Elaine and said, “Do not forget your promise to me, Elaineminshivrael. Do not harm my sisters.” Kara noted the tremulous quality of the Sidhe’s voice in that last statement.
Frustrated, Nigel called, “Will you tell me anything about who I am or who Mayet was?”
“No.”

***

The horses, tethered to a tall pine, were at the prearranged spot just outside the Darkenkell forest. The full moon cast shadows among the travellers. Kara hopped on a black mare with a surprising lightness of step. Nigel awkwardly mounted a grey mare. The horse was not as calm as the city cart pullers that he preferred. All the horses had saddlebags, loaded with supplies from the Saracean wagons. Nigel got the feel of his horse as Elaine cantered her mare around the travellers. They rode from the edge of the forest with Kara leading, for he was the only one among them who knew where Sanctuary was hidden. He set a fast pace, intending to break camp later that night.
Tess-nor looked homeward wistfully. Nigel felt her bitter sweet sense of parting. He also felt her nervous anticipation. Nigel glanced at Elaine riding beside him and found her eyes looking back at him. He couldn’t feel Elaine as he could the others. His gift was blind to her. It made Nigel nervous, but glad that there was someone he could be near without the crushing intimacy that his newly discovered heritage forced on him. He looked back at the dwindling line of the Darkenkell forest, silhouetted by the moon. A memory of his first approach to the forest clashed with his present view. The difference was life. His first view was of an object. Now, the forest appeared as a viable, fragile being. Mysterious. Precious.

Chapter XVII The Tortured Garden

Soft, white wings arched to catch the gusts that billowed across the sea. A creature of light, the dove circled above the longship with its iron keel, listened to the shaman make his chants while beating the drums for the oarsmen, and enjoyed the winds the shaman brought into being. His sticks were made from the bones of some small wyrm, wrapped in its own leathery skin.
He was dressed in furs, and tusks on a golden necklace adorned his chest. The shaman scowled up at her, but she didn’t mind. The sailors were glad to see her. They knew she meant them no harm. She was more than animal and quite beyond the shaman’s fetish magic. She followed the ship as it plowed the waters near the coast and dragged its nets for fish to feed the families whom the sailors held dear. That was why she had come. Their work for their brethren attracted her, pleased her.
The sight of a dove’s white feathers was a comfort to them, to all save the shaman, who mired himself in brute nature and ignored her shining grace. But the fishermen loved the gleam of light around her form as she danced through the sky around their billowing sails, and they waved merrily at her.
She was content. It was good to keep the thunder and storm away from these men, who burned their vitality against the unrelenting sea to feed the old and young of their village.
Suddenly, the salt air and the shaman’s cool wind vanished from her mind, replaced by a moist warmth and the smell of green life. The ship still moved serenely below her, but a foreign wind beckoned her, called to her. Like the wind called forth by the drum beating shaman, this was no natural wind.
The scent was known to her. It had been thousands of turns of the seasons since she had flown through such a wind, but she remembered. The air hailed from the Darkenkell forest. Something pleaded to the sisterhood. She forgot the sailors; a greater need called her.
She arced and dived and pirouetted through this foreign gust, savored its texture, its strength. The Darkenkell Sidhe had not made this thing, had no reason or desire for a dove’s light. The Sidhe, like the shaman, concerned herself solely with the green. A need rode with this wind, a plea. Only the Darkenkell hunym-sidhe, the Darkenkell Ston, had the sight to make such a calling with their mistress’ forest scent.
She beat her wings with the wind and flew toward the Darkenkell forest. Occasionally, she would dip from the Ston’s wind and savor the natural winds blowing out from the Darkenkell. They brought her tales of dragon smoke and forest fires. They also brought her feint rays of light, light from her sisterhood. Others were answering the call of the hunym-sidhe.
The land now ran below her, green fields scarred by the paths of the wingless. A human city cast its walled silhouette against the horizon. The humans loved such strange places, crafted such places to huddle against the night and ward off the dark spirits with the comfort of their fellow man. Too often, the dark spirits found entrance into the city, where stone walls could only stop the body and not the spirit. She spied one such spirit, boldly standing atop a human nest in the city. This ebony thing was shaped as man and dirtied the spirit world with its lusts; the humans would undoubtedly suffer. The dove wanted to help, but the need of the hunym-sidhe called to her. The east winds from the Darkenkell spoke of violence and mania, dragons and shadowcrows.
She felt it: pain, twisted wings, cracked necks, the fall to the hard ground. Many of the sisterhood were dying. They had answered the summons and given the Darkenkell people all they had to offer. She caught the red gleam of shadowcrows on the spirit winds. But that gleam vanished with the death of her sisters. The sisterhood had done their work well.
She did not weep for them as the night came coldly on her. Her pride warmed her. Her sisters had annihilated the ebony spirits, who preyed on the weak hunym-sidhe. The spirit wind from the Darkenkell quieted; the need was gone. She wanted fulfillment, purpose. The call of the hunym-sidhe had awakened her to her slumbering nature. Escorting sailors was not enough. There was too much suffering, too much degradation on the hard world, which she could end.
She glided silently on the moon tugged winds, let the wind carry her through the clouds and toward the city. The thing might see her. Unlike her, the thing was rooted in the flesh of a human. Her talons could not pierce that flesh; violence was inimical to her nature. The shade infesting the husk was beyond her reach. She needed help. Her sacrifice was not assured, and she feared she could not find help, for the spirit world was dark around the entire city. The manic violence and despair assaulted her. She circled the city, looked for any light that might help her, but she found none. This thing had also done its work well.

***

At night the city of New Candide took on a brooding quality under the waxing moon. The nocturnal open festivities and brawls had passed into memory with the arrival of the outworlders. Tobin stood at the edge of a roof on an old tenement building near the center of the city. In the distance he could see the lights and hear the hum of the outworlder patrol carts. They rarely came into this impoverished section of the city. To Tobin, it signed that they were weak.
Looking down, he saw his final gangland contact enter the building. It had been a long and tedious night, for he had spent it in binding the leaders of the major gangs: The Serpents, the Illdevari, the Silent Daggers, and the Hunters were now mastered by dead leaders, who served him as he served the Nef-Shivrael-e. Tobin chuckled, thinking how in days past he had simply wanted to be the gangland contact for the wizards. Now, he ruled the streets. It was late, and he had done more sorcery this night than any he had done since falling to the Nef-Shivrael-e.
Tobin was hungry. He knew that he had to control his urges and feed selectively. Unlike his lord, the Nef-Shivrael-e, Tobin would always appear human in spite of his unnatural existence. He had been born into humanity, but that didn’t comfort his new hunger. Presently, the outworlders provided his sustenance. After their defeat he wanted to be in a position to feed with impunity. He was the only one left to fill the power vacuum that would come when the outworlders finally relented. Jarren and Osric were dead, and that windbag Karamindakas was off on his fool’s mission. New Candide was the greatest of the city-states. Tobin could rule as the city’s only wizard, but the outworlders persisted in their occupation.
His opposition to the outworlders had to be selective. The fate of Jezric lurked in the back of Tobin’s mind. If he could only discover the secret of their awesome power, he could turn it against them. That knowledge would rest with the lords of the outworlders, whoever they were, in their sailless skyships. He often saw their ships rise into the air. He could acquire one at some risk. His outworlder victims had been remarkably cooperative when they had thought that their information might buy them their lives. Much like their downworlder cousins, they faced pain with blind panic. When they were powerless, they would do or say anything to save themselves. They never comprehended that information would not appease his hunger. Tobin smirked at the memory. How hopeful his last victim had looked at him as the guard had told him everything, quickly followed by the terror on the guard’s face as he had realized the mortal truth.
Flush with the roof, the door swung open with a groan and banged onto the roof as the youth finished climbing the ladder. Tobin drew his cloak tightly around himself. He didn’t have to read his aura to know that the young pup was afraid. In his early twenties this gangland leader was full of the desire for quick change in the world around him. He was a perfect soldier for Tobin. The youth wouldn’t know much of life before the outworlders had come, and only a slight change in his gutter existence would be needed for him to accept Tobin as his liege. He decided to let the boy fear him at this point.
Clambering through the door, the youth gained his footing on the wooden roof. His gaudy gang jewelry jingled and glinted in the moonlight. The youth craned his head in all directions, unable to spot Tobin’s motionless form.
“What you are seeking is five paces behind you.”
A nervous tenor spoke, “Is that you, wizard Tobin?”
“Of course, it is. The outworlder weapons are in the satchel behind you. I trust you know how to use them.”
The boy gaped toward the sound of his voice and nodded.
Tobin said, “You are not the leader of your gang, are you?”
“N-no, milord. He couldn’t be here.”
Tobin approached. The youth stepped back and tumbled over the satchel. Tobin bent down and stared at the youth face to face. When Tobin judged that the boy was suitably cowed, he hauled the boy to his feet.
Tobin said, “Tell your leader that his future King does not deal through menial operatives.” Tobin reached in a leather satchel around his shoulder and drew forth a pistol. “Take this as a show of my good intentions. I will be here again in one day’s time. It was not wise to treat me casually. When you return with your leader, I will heal you.”
The youth replied, “But I’m not sick.”
As Tobin passed the pistol, he grabbed the youth’s wrist and gently nicked him with his sharp nail. He smiled as he watched the youth’s aura begin to dim ever so slightly. Tobin said, “Go. Hie to your master.”
The youth slowly backed to the open door and climbed down. Tobin smiled as he looked down at the boy on the street. Already, the young tough was weaving in his gait as he strove to reach whatever hidey-hole that he called home.
Satisfied that the leader would be punctual tomorrow, Tobin left the tenement building and headed for the outworlders’ metal domes. He wanted something more than a guard this time. He wanted someone with the knowledge of the outworlders’ ways and means: the New Candide Provost Marshall, as the outworlders called their downworld leader.
His last victim had been a personal guard for Thomas Hereford, the Provost Marshall. Before he had died, the guard had babbled to Tobin that Hereford enjoyed the native women. A privilege of rank was what the guard had said. Hereford was due to meet his mistress at the Long Ox Inn, which doubled as a bordello. The new government had seen fit not to raid this establishment, despite its public reputation as a brothel. The only thing of importance about the Long Ox Inn to Tobin was that Hereford dallied there. Such passions that the Long Ox could fulfill had died days ago with Tobin on a rainy street.
New passions had supplanted the old. Murder had become a fiery passion for Tobin. Murder was the act of power. Violently breaking the line between life and death, Tobin garnered the sudden release of auric energy, giving him an ecstatic rush of vitality. The memory of that flaring as a victim’s aura neared death caused Tobin to quicken his pace. His thoughts had made his appetite swell to enormous, almost painful, proportions.
He felt the eyes from the shadows of the city alleyways. Even in the dark he could see the auras of the urchins and unhomed who watched from their gutter sanctuaries. Most were young, too young to be in gangs. These ratpacks of children roamed in the darkest hours of the night and stole from shadow to shadow, sharpening their eyes and knives for victims. Here was the future of New Candide. Tobin did not worry as he walked. The street knew him now. The slaughter of the gang that had assaulted him that rainy night and the grim disposal of their bodies in the other gang territories had been the talk of the gangs and the ratpacks.
He heard the ratpack in the alley scurry through some garbage, futilely trying to hide from him. A drunkard moaned as he was stepped on by one of the children. Tobin laughed, but his hunger deprived him of even that malicious joy. He had to feed, and he knew the victim. He saw the yellow gloom of the torch, masked by the fog, in front of the inn. He walked up the wooden steps of the Long Ox Inn.
A large, loutish male blocked Tobin’s passage. The bouncer spoke with a forced bass, trying to impress Tobin, “I am sorry, sir. This establishment has a dress code.”
Tobin looked at his robes. He had neither changed nor bathed since the mugging. His dark blue robe was torn and stained with his blood and the blood of his victims. No doubt he reeked, but had adjusted to his stench. It was odd, for he remembered himself to be a meticulous dresser. He hadn’t slept either, but did not feel deprived. In these last days all his traditional habits had been eradicated. Fear added to the hunger in Tobin’s muddled mind. The passions and experiences of his new existence had devastated his normal routines to a greater extent than when he had first been made aware of the magical reality of Oco. This new, necro-magical reality was just as potent, but thicker, darker in taste and texture than the old, blue fires, which had burned within him. Within his mind alone, these exotic feelings roiled without the empathy attached to wizardry. The solitude made the passion more intense.
Tobin didn’t care if he had changed. It didn’t matter. He had greater ambitions and more power than he had ever garnered in that suffocating wizard’s council.
Tobin felt a meaty hand press against his left shoulder. His confusion gave way to anger. With his right hand Tobin pulled down his cowl and locked eyes with the bouncer. He revealed his hunger.
The big man blanched while quickly lifting his hand from Tobin’s shoulder. The bouncer stepped back and mumbled, “Go in, good sir. Excuse me. I took you to be someone else.”
Surprised at how quickly the bouncer had given way, Tobin entered the inn warily. He remembered the youth’s fear on the darkened rooftop. It seemed that people had an intuitive response to his new nature, though they were unawakened. His new magic–his new freedom–made the sedate cattle fear him. They could not tolerate seeing openly in his eyes what they hid in their hearts. He revised his plan for New Candide slightly. A crown, a paper crown, would have to rest on another’s head.
The main room was small, dim for men who hated the bright day, who wanted their anonymity in their drunkenness. A bar and long bench ran along the far wall, ending at a staircase that led to the second floor of the inn. Two men in outworlder clothes stood near the staircase at the end of the bar. They were rather wan to be guards. Yet they had pistols strapped to their belts. A tired woman at the bar was staring at him until he met her gaze. She quickly turned to clean some clay cups. Three men were at one of the four small tables that had been set up in a square pattern around the candle lit room.
Tobin recognized one at the table whose square jaw still retained a vestige of strength from a long forgotten youth, though the eyes were weak, tired, and morose, like most old eyes in the citizenry of New Candide. This man was the father of a child whom Tobin had once healed of a shattered hand two years past. The recollection disturbed Tobin, and he walked toward the table.
The men looked up at him. They were nervous, except the one whom he had recognized. That one said, “Master Tobin, it’s good to see you again. I’m glad you’re still here. Word’s out that your kind had left New Candide to them.” He nodded toward the two men at the end of the bar. “Are you all right, sir? You’ll forgive me, but you seem a bit, ah, dirty. Sir, are you hurt?”
Tobin replied, “No. Reynard, isn’t it?” The old man nodded vigorously at being remembered. “How’s your daughter, Giselitta?”
Reynard frowned and said, “I don’t know. To tell you truly, Master Tobin, I just don’t know. She left me to join some street urchins. Ratgangs, I think they call them. Fell in with a bad lot. Could be worse, I guess. She could’a fell in with them.” He nodded again toward the outworlders.
“Mmmm.” Tobin paused. “You had better leave, Reynard. I have business with an outworlder upstairs.”
The man said, “Sir, you don’t wanna bogey him. Do you know who he is?” Reynard reached a drunken hand for Tobin’s cuff, but Tobin turned and headed toward the end of the bar, forgetting Reynard, although he did hear the three men behind him leave the inn.
Watching the two outworlder guards, Tobin considered how he could pass them. His ravenous hunger decided for him. He placed a hand on each of their shoulders. Surprised at being addressed by a native, the guards looked at him.
Tobin relished the shock on their faces as the ennui enveloped them. Tobin sighed. He let go of them as their husks fell to the ground.
Tobin was starting up the stairway when he caught sight of the woman who had been tending bar. She was shocked, walking hesitantly toward the bodies, as if she wanted to deny the truth of her eyes. Curious, Tobin watched her. She embraced one of the dead guards and looked up at Tobin with her face stretched in grief. “What did you do to Mally?”
Tobin said, “Why do you care? He was an outworlder, guarding a despot.”
Her tears dropped to the guard’s cooling face.
Disgusted, Tobin shook his head and left the sympathizer. He thought of taking her, but he was newly sated. The top of the steps stretched out into a hall with two doors on either side. He opened the right door to find a man and a woman, drinking a dark liquor. The man flushed and looked at Tobin with an annoyed expression. He didn’t fit the description of the Provost Marshall. Tobin shut the door as he heard the other door open. This time, it was the Provost Marshall, leaving his room. The short, stout man was dressed in outworlder clothing and had a satisfied, placid bearing.
Tobin stepped in front of his path. Hereford tried to walk around the stench ridden beggar, but Tobin grabbed him and fed off his aura. He was careful not to kill Hereford.
The Provost Marshall’s eyes sank to the back of his skull. He took on a pallor as he attempted to cry out for help. Only a whisper escaped his lips. Tobin released his grip. Hereford sagged against a wall. He asked in a gravelly whisper, “Wha’s happening to me?” His eyes were half lidded from the necromantic malaise.
Tobin spoke in a resonant voice, mocking Hereford’s weakness, “Your vitality is waning. You are not yet dead, so you may recover.”
Hereford attempted a shout, “Guards.”
Tobin shook his head. “I am sorry, but your guards are quite beyond their ability to recover their life. Do you understand me, outworlder? They’re dead. Now, you will answer my questions, and I will leave you weak, but alive. How did your people destroy Jezric?”
“A-atomic accident.”
Tobin asked, “An accident?”
Hereford said, “Insane Captain. Was Erickson. Please, let me go.”
Tobin regarded Hereford’s face. It was a mask of fatigue and pain. His aura was dim, but it showed that he was not dissembling. Fear colors dominated Hereford’s rapidly dwindling aura. Hereford’s superiors probably used the insanity claim as a cover story to maintain the just and merciful image of their government. Tobin admitted that it was a smart tactic and worthy of emulation.
Tobin said, “Where can I find this wizard Atomic. Where does he live?”
Hereford mumbled unintelligibly. His aura colors mixed in confusion. Tobin pressed him, “Is he at your star in the night sky?”
Hereford rasped, “Who?”
Tobin’s eyes narrowed in frustration. “This wizard Atomic. Don’t play games with me. I can prolong your suffering.”
Hereford moaned, “Not a man–a thing.” His eyes opened slightly, becoming more lucid.
Hereford was about to say something, but seeing him regain his strength, Tobin pressed him with questions, “When are you going to continue your attacks? Who are you going to attack? The hunym-sidhe? The Saraceans?”
Hereford replied, “Don’t know what you mean. Don’t know Saraceans. Reclamation has stopped. Want to find dragons–non-human life.” This last effort drained Hereford, and the Provost Marshall lapsed into unconsciousness.
Tobin stole the remainder of Hereford’s vitality and dropped the Hereford husk to the floor. The outworlders were interested in more than just human affairs. They were looking toward Glered-nigh. It was obvious that they had been impressed by Archon’s might. They had lain waste an entire city’s resources to kill that dragon. Yes, that would interest a military society like the outworlders.
Walking down the creaking wooden steps to the main room of the Long Ox, Tobin saw the Ocoan woman, still weeping over the outworlder guard. He killed her. Her vitality flooded into him. He had a better use for it, and he relieved the poor woman of her grieving at the same time. Tobin looked down at the bodies, momentarily shocked by his own callousness. He shrugged, took the two pistols from the outworlder corpses, and continued toward the door. He dismissed the obvious conclusion that murder was evil. It was bravery; it was a courageous act to commit such an apparently malicious deed while in actuality he had relieved her of the burdens of life and grief. He had to continue. He was bound by oath and destiny. Tobin knew that life was burdensome and tedious for most small people. Leaving the bordello, Tobin wondered why he hadn’t reasoned that out until now.
The next night, Tobin waited on the rooftop as he watched five men walking toward the building through the fog. One of the men was carried by two others. Tobin guessed that the prostrate man was the youth whom he had met last night. Within a few minutes they were facing Tobin on the rooftop. He saw that their agitated auras evinced a mixture of fear and anger.
The leader stepped forward and said, “I’m the one you wanted to see. My name’s Lar, and I’m the leader of the Ankheral.” Lar gritted his teeth, suppressing his hostility. “We ask that you heal Terard of his sudden illness. If you do, we can talk.”
Tobin silently admonished himself. His arrogant ploy with the Ankheral gang had only succeeded in engendering a feeling of hostility toward him. He hadn’t expected that they would value the life of one youth so highly. Tobin said, “Of course, I will do my utmost to heal the lad. Take him to my room.”
Lar and his men followed Tobin down the door to his cubicle. Tobin said, “The rest of you must leave him with me. The magics that I must invoke would destroy any onlookers.”
Lar said, “We’ll be waiting outside your door.”
Lar shut the door gently and waited in the grimy hallway with his men. After an hour Tobin emerged from his room with the youth walking silently behind him. The Ankheral nervously stood. Lar stared at Tobin and his men stepped back. A shadowcrow was perched on Tobin’s forearm.
Lar coughed, stalling to find his nerve. Finally, he said, “Terard, are you all right?”
The youth replied quietly, “I am fine.”
Tobin tried to grin pleasantly, but it felt awkward, and the men were not comforted. Tobin said, “Yes, my healing was a complete success. In gratitude young Terard has agreed to run an errand for me to the city-state of Florinda.” Tobin nonchalantly passed the shadowcrow to Terard’s outstretched forearm. The rest of the Ankheral regarded the black silhouette with open fear.
Not wanting to be cowed in front of his men, Lar stepped forward and said, “What have you done to Terard?”
Before Tobin could answer him, Terard said, “He has done nothing to me, Lar. He has only shown me a better way of living. I am going to help Master Tobin in his fight against the outworlders. I thought that was what the Ankheral wanted.”
Lar studied Terard’s placid eyes. He glanced at Tobin and looked back at Terard. Lar said, “Are you sure that’s what you want?”
Terard replied with that same quiet tone, “I am sure. Master Tobin has shown me the way. At Florinda the outworlders will pay.”
Lar said, “You can’t leave. It’s the middle of the night.”
Tobin interjected, “My shadowcrow will guide him safely on his journey and bring back news of his successes, news that I will share with you if you aid me in my struggles here, in New Candide. I will also share six outworlder pistols with you.”
Lar tore his eyes from Terard’s retreating figure and nodded to Tobin. “What do we have to do?”
Tobin said, “Merely use them against the outworlders. As the anarchy grows in New Candide, the outworlders will want a native governor, one who understands the wyrd of Oco. I intend to be that person. With these weapons you will be able to defend your territories from outworlders and rival gangs alike. And I will be forthcoming with more gifts should you prove loyal.”
Lar saw the pistols on Tobin’s bed beyond the open door. It was too tempting. Lar nodded and said, “Ya. You got a deal. No black bird. We’ll keep in touch with you.”
Through his tiny window Tobin watched them leave the building. They had done a good job of concealing the pistols in clothes, which Tobin had provided. They would serve him well as would his new servant heading toward Florinda. Terard was now dependent on him for his life and for the anima his shadowcrow would carry to his servant at Florinda. The Nef-Shivrael-e had been foolish to give him such power. Tobin would not make the same mistake. His servants would never be weaned from him. He had wanted to enslave Lar, but his failure to judge their reactions had given him pause.
Tobin could wait. The outworlders were not the only people who knew how to conquer, to subdue. Eventually, he would put his necromantic collar around Lar’s neck. He had time; he had New Candide. On the street below his room, Tobin heard the mournful, stuttering prayers of the unhomed man who lived among the garbage in the alley. Such prayers fitted well with Tobin’s plan for New Candide: Let them pray. That little hope he would not begrudge his livestock. He could be magnanimous. After all, utter despair breeds violent rebellion. As King, Tobin would institute a priesthood, owing allegiance and devotion to him. So many aspects intruded on his plans to dominate New Candide it sometimes daunted Tobin’s muddled mind, but the glory and the hunger drove him.
Should the outworlders turn their attention toward Glered-nigh, they would need Tobin. Their scattered patrols indicated a shortage of man power. If they were foolish enough to attack dragons, Tobin would be in a position to take functional control of New Candide, and therein he could start moving toward the other city-states. He had already begun with Florinda.
Even under servitude to the outworlders and the Nef-Shivrael-e, his ambition offered him limitless power, freed from the normal constraints of the living. All aimed at power over others. More than Terard and the leaders of the New Candide street gangs would be bound to him, tighter than he was bound to the Nef-Shivrael-e. Karamindakas was wrong: The outworlders were soft. They would not destroy, could not destroy the natives. Jezric had only been a demonstration. When the outworlders had finished with martial law, then civil order would grow. Tobin would already have a silent group of functional Ocoans whom other Ocoans could look to for leadership and the Ocoan way of life. If he had to cull a few of the natives to feed himself, he had earned that right.
In the end, it didn’t matter if the outworlders stayed or if the dragons of Glered-nigh drove them away or if the ossified monks at Sanctuary drove them away. Tobin knew that he was the only man of power in New Candide. He intended to rule New Candide, to achieve a glory that no simpering crystal wizard could ever hope to match. And if the outworlders did leave, he would shut fast the city gates to the crystal wizards as Tarkel had done. Trapped within those walls were a people who had grown used to confined living, restricted travel. Among them he ruled and feasted as he pleased on dwellers imprisoned in a walled garden, the richest city-state of Oco. A scream echoed through the night air; one of his servants was harvesting.

***

It was the unhomed man in the gutter who had watched the meditations of Tobin even as Tobin had listened to his prayers. His face had old scars and pits, gifts from the coarseness of the streets and the viciousness of his neighbors. His eyes were always veiled and fearful, unless closed in prayer or sleep. He had watched Tobin’s machinations with a particular interest in the wizard. He had little better to occupy his thoughts while he begged. But at night he dug through the layers of dirty wool for his wooden bauble. A lean priest had dropped it into his bowl with a passing blessing. He needed the trinket when night dulled his bruised senses and his ignorance gave rise to fears born of past suffering. The night was the foreshadow of Tobin’s rule. The unhomed man knew that.
Lying amid the refuse and parasites of the streets, the afflicted man had watched Tobin gather the leaders to his bosom. In his perdition, cast down at first by a low birth and then by outworlders, the old man steadfastly clutched at the wooden bauble. And though he knew not which god it honored, he prayed. He hoped. He knew that soon this necromancer Tobin would assure his continued poverty, but he did not despair while the night wind chilled his loins and the children of the streets mocked him; he prayed to the anonymous god for New Candide and not himself. At those times his mind was lifted from the filth and the cold. Harsh reality, past suffering, and old failures melted in the center of his being. He had preserved and caressed his hope for so long that the path to that tranquil abode in his mind had become a short and pleasant walk.
The tortured garden of New Candide stuck its barbed thorns throughout his wracked body. His destitute condition pleased the necromancer. The outworlders oppressed New Candide; soon, the beggar knew, Tobin would oppress New Candide; others would surely follow Tobin. The hard world had oppressors aplenty. Yet the tortured garden was not its people; and the unhomed wretch smiled with the knowledge that neither his hope nor his enlightenment could be taken, even within the degradation of a necromancer’s house, which was surely his beloved city, New Candide.
He closed his eyes and travelled to that cache of light he kept in his heart, serene in the belief that it could not be sullied by Tobin.
He felt someone near him. His fear drove him from the light. The children of the streets would hurt him again. He opened his eyes, but there was nobody there, and the feeling had disappeared. He rolled over and put his face against the wall of Tobin’s home. Closing his eyes, he drove the fear from his heart and found the light again.
Someone was near him, in the alley, above the alley. The light receded from his mind’s eye.
He pushed off the old rags and torn coats he used for covers and stood in the alley. Looking up, he saw the lantern glow from Tobin’s room. The necromancer never slept.
He should move, sleep somewhere else, away from the necromancer. Tobin was after his light. The old man trembled; he thought that it couldn’t be taken from him, but the feeling of someone else’s presence always came upon him when he touched his inner light.
Death was preferable to the surrender of his light. He had nothing else. He went to his light again, determined not to leave it. He gently smiled as he felt his inner glow.
Above the alley, something passed over him. He clung to his light, refused his fear.
It touched his light. It wasn’t Tobin, could not be Tobin. The old man felt a kindred light, but stronger, brighter, free from the degradation of New Candide. It wanted entrance, wanted to touch his light with its light.
The old man had been alone for so long that he could not refuse. He shouted, “Yes!” and opened his eyes.
High above the city, he saw a white bird that gleamed brighter than the moon. A streak of light against the night, the dove dived toward him.
He felt no fear at the swift form, could not fear something that knew him so intimately. He heard its whistling wings and cried as he felt a mirror of his light.
The dove alighted on his shoulder and whispered to his heart. It whispered of light, of New Candide, and of death.
The old man nodded.
The doors to the rooms in the building were closed. The people here did not trust their neighbors; they knew of the strange wizard who lived above them. The old man climbed the stairs slowly, relished the feeling of light that filled his heart without the need to close his eyes. The light blazed within him now.
His door was unlocked. The old man hadn’t expected that. But it made things simpler. He pushed the door open and saw two dark eyes staring at him. Tobin sat rigidly on a stool. A soft wind whispered through the open shutters. Scrolls and books were piled on an oak table. His eyes pierced the old man as he said, “You are a healthy beggar. I’ll give you that. What do you want, beggar?”
“I want you to stop.”
Tobin stood and approached him. The lust in those eyes frightened the old man, but he concentrated on the light.
Tobin said, “I cannot stop. You’ve been watching me long enough. I am bound.”
“I can help you. You don’t have to do this. You can share the light.”
A cloud passed over Tobin’s eyes. He breathed heavily and clenched his teeth. “I’ll kill you for that. I’ll kill you for reminding me of what is dead.”
His cold hand gripped the beggar’s neck and Tobin said, “You’re healthy, strong. Are all you beggars so healthy? I think I have been neglecting your kind.”
The beggar felt the weakness envelop him. Black scars streaked across the light in his mind.
Tobin said, “I shall bind you to me. You reminded me of the inner fires, so I shall let you be like me and what you are now shall only be a memory.”
The beggar uttered a croaking shout with all of his strength, “Now!”
The dove flew into the room and landed on Tobin’s outstretched arm. The dove glowed, burned, blazed.
Tobin groaned, but would not relinquish his hold on the beggar. Light flooded into him; the dove’s light touched him, stole the place of the beggar’s anima. Tobin thought of it as power, as strength to feed the gnawing in his insides. But the light of the dove burned.
The beggar struggled and gasped for breath, but Tobin held him firmly.
The necromancer’s eyes bulged. Tobin cried, “What is this? What is this madness? Where is your strength? Beggar, you wound me. I am your King.”
The dove lost its sheen and fell to the wooden floor. A white corpse rested at their feet.
Tobin began breathing. The beggar noticed a soft blue glow, shining from a jewel that dangled on a string around the necromancer’s neck.
Tobin followed the beggar’s gaze. He said, “My journeystone?” He kept squeezing the beggar’s neck, but cupped the journeystone in his other hand. “It’s not possible.” Tobin grunted. Pain assaulted him, pain from his body, his muscles. Despairing, he watched the blue fade to a dull grey. He fell to the ground on top of the dove.
The beggar fell with him, pulled down by Tobin’s death grip. He pried the cold fingers from his neck. They were stiff, as if the necromancer had been dead for a long time.
The beggar was frightened of becoming like Tobin. He felt his own neck. A steady pulse beat there, reminding him of a shaman beating drums on a ship. It was a curious memory, but a warm one.

Chapter XVIII Arabesque Masquerades

Castor flew behind his elder brother, Malast. He had trouble believing what he had just seen. Erador, Emperor of Glered-nigh, had departed the face of the world. Malast would now be first tier at Glered-nigh. Malast, whose wormlust was oriented toward simple familial propagation, would bring no glory to the dragons of Glered-nigh. At a time when dragons were losing their influence on the world, Malast would withdraw into first tier and never come out, satisfied with simply ruling Glered-nigh and mating with Delia of fourth tier. For a son of Paragrond, Malast had a remarkably limited vision. Castor watched his eager, stupid brother fly unerringly back to Delia’s clutches. She would hold Senast in one claw and Malast’s tongue in the other. The line of Paragrond would continue, but only as a shadow of its former glory.
Rising higher in the air to look down on his brother, Castor decided: Let Malast enjoy Glered-nigh’s fast fading glory. It would be left to Castor to restore it. Then, the other tiers would abandon sedate Malast in favor of a dragon who could offer the others the means to fulfill their lusts. His brother would suspect nothing. Malast had always confided in Castor, engendering a bond in their previous submission to Erador. Castor knew Malast, but so self absorbed, Malast never realized that while Castor offered advice to Malast, Castor had never spoken of his thoughts. Erador had known him, but Erador was gone.
They drifted silently into first tier. Castor smelled Erador’s aroma permeating the antechamber. Erador was bold, but unlike him, he had never realized where the true power lay. The sidhe were powerful as Erador had discovered, but their strength was dormant unless provoked. The human outworlders used their powers actively. The other dragons of Glered-nigh blamed Archon’s death on foolhardiness. Castor knew better. Archon had been obliterated instantaneously. That was power, power to rule a Glered-nigh under Castor’s direction.
Settling his bulk in the center of first tier’s antechamber, Malast said, “Brother, the day we have long awaited is here. Erador’s mad schemes have finally destroyed him.” Malast appeared absurdly diminutive where Erador’s bulk had once reclined. He exhaled forcefully, “Our brother finally found a maw large enough to devour him. Now, Glered-nigh stands and shall continue to stand under me and then my son Senast.”
Delia poked her head up from the inner causeway that led to second tier and said, “Well come, Malast, Emperor of Glered-nigh, father of Senast.” She slithered into the antechamber, carrying Senast in the crook of her right foreclaw.
Malast gazed at his tiny son with a dull eyed affection. “Is my son not magnificent?”
Castor dipped his neck in obeisance toward Senast to please his brother. “He will grow strong when he is older and will continue your line, brother.” If he survives.
Malast’s tongue lolled slightly out of his jaw, indicating his pleasure. “Our line, brother. Senast is your nephew. We have an heir. We will finally be secure.”
Again, Castor dipped his long neck, choking back his contempt as he had done thousands of times whenever Malast spoke of security. Castor said, “Aye, brother. Yet today is your reign. Do not start counting the years before Senast must take first tier.” Count the days. “You must insure a stable, secure tier for your son.”
Malast’s tongue protruded further. “Castor, your words calm my stomach. With your help stability at Glered-nigh is secured. Fifth tier will remain quiet with my Delia’s help. A new era of stability will crush the memory of Paragrond’s and Erador’s aggressive reigns. You are dismissed. I wish to be alone with my son and my mate.”
“As you wish, my Emperor.” Castor slithered his bulk past Delia down the stone passageway to his cave in second tier. Castor wound his body around itself, trying to dismiss Malast’s sycophantic predictions for Glered-nigh’s future. He was happy to leave Malast alone. Let his brother enjoy himself until the very moment of his death.
Relaxed, Castor loosed his dream eye to trouble the crux of his plan. Only he had dared to venture his dreams beyond the green world to the outworlder sky vessel. He had learned more than any other dragon of the ways of the human star cousins and one human in particular: xenobiologist Sean Flaherty of the H.M.S. Glory. Castor had been plaguing the man’s dreams for weeks. The sudden entrance of Malast’s reign forced Castor to hasten his plans. He did not wish to become embroiled in the minor political upheavals that would accompany the transition of power at Glered-nigh. This time, he would contact Flaherty while the human was awake.

***

Sean Flaherty slowly stretched, preparing to get out of his small military bed. At seventy years of age, the body that had taken so much abuse began to give that pain back. Flaherty consoled himself. After he had captured one of those Erickson creatures, he would be set for life. The profits from the plant that he had discovered on Ajax IV would pale in comparison to an Erickson dragon. The lecture monies he would receive for talking about these beasts that looked as if they had come straight out of mythology staggered his greed. He must manage to get some holos of whichever beast they eventually captured. The military or Cerberus at M.I. Central would certainly want the live specimen. He got out of his bunk and put his hands on his lower back, massaging the dull pain there. Flaherty sighed contentedly. He had enjoyed his first dreamless night of sleep in weeks. He must finally be getting used to the stress and excitement of a new mission.
“It was not stress. I am the cause of your troubled sleep.”
Flaherty hurriedly put on his pants. He looked around the room expecting to find someone there. Flaherty said, “Who is it? Where are you?”
“There is no one else in your room. I am speaking to your spirit, Sean Flaherty. You desire riches, but I can offer you more.”
Flaherty sat on the edge of his bunk. The disembodied words were self evident. He wasn’t hearing with his ears. The Cerberus organism had given Flaherty a retinal transcript of Erickson’s final thoughts; there had been a new dynamic in Erickson’s mind when the dragon had destroyed the satellite. It wasn’t a case of multiple personality disorder on Erickson’s part who, until that time, had tested within the normative psych profile parameters.
Flaherty shivered and asked, “Am I going to go the way of Erickson?”
“No. That dragon was attacking that human. I wish for an alliance. I am Castor and much different from Archon. I can offer you more than riches. I can offer you an extended life. Certain humans, called wizards, can live for centuries. I can arrange for you to become a wizard should our venture prove successful.”
Centuries. Centuries! Flaherty’s voice begged, “What do you want me to do?”
“I merely wish to be the one examined by your people so that I may examine your people: an exchange of knowledge.”
Flaherty’s heart skipped a beat. “How do I find you?”
“Go to the southern edge of the ruins of Jezric. I will know where you are, for I will be with you in spirit. Go. Talk to Captain Roberts. See? I know your people. They and you in particular have a great future on my world. Tell your Captain that you have solved the problem of priority one.”
Flaherty timed his breathing in an attempt to calm himself. He asked, “How do you know his orders?”
“I have visited his sleep, also. Go.”
Dressing in his dirty fatigues, since they were the closest clothes on hand, he jogged down the gangway to the conference room. A weary janitor was scrubbing the gangway to military specs. Attempting to assimilate what he had just experienced, Flaherty decided to believe in Castor. There was a certainty and, more importantly, an ancient quality in that voice that lent credence to the dragon’s words. The xenobiologist knew that it wasn’t an hallucination. In his long life Flaherty had suffered from various induced hallucinations. None of those had such a real quality: Castor was no mirror of himself, rather an uniquely alien intelligence. Besides, centuries of youthful exuberance was a lure that he could not risk ignoring.
Stepping inside the clinical smelling conference room, Flaherty sat in a white plastic chair. The other two xenoscientists were seated, facing him across a grey, rectangular table. The room was unadorned, for the military disliked distractions. The other xenoscientists looked haggard. They had an understandable dread of the reports they were about to give to Captain Roberts. With only the limited data on the Erickson dragon, a radar image of another flying behemoth, and a glimpse of three dragons flying over and burning down a forest, they had only sketchy theories, which were barely enough to fill a three page report. The dragons’ reflective hide had made satellite analysis futile.
Torin, who had some training in xenosociology, had only the vaguest ideas of their interactions and possible habitats. He had decided upon the simple belief that physical prowess determined their social hierarchy and mating habits. The three of them had settled on the nomenclature of draconis ocoa for lack of anything better to do with their studies. After the brief glimpse of the three dragons over the forest and the virginal sacrifices that had taken place just before the arrival of the Erickson dragon, their resemblance to the myths of terran dragons was undeniable.
Despite James’ frame by frame examination of the data, the xenobiochemist could only guess that the dragons hailed from somewhere in the vast mountain range at the southern edge of the continent. The inability of the satellites to get any image at all from that section of the continent foundered their efforts. The technicians had declared the equipment to be fully functional and had cited unknown atmospheric conditions to be the cause of the fouled transmissions.
Torin glanced at James, who was periodically wiping his sweaty hands on his wrinkled shirt. Torin spoke in a conspiratorial whisper, “What are we supposed to tell Roberts? Think he’ll go for an extended search of that mountain range?”
James replied after gulping some bitter coffee, “Forget that idea. Even with a fully equipped atmospheric craft, which we don’t have, we couldn’t find them. You said that they were probably reclusive and hibernated. A search of that size and difficulty would take months, unless we got lucky, and we haven’t been lucky so far. The damn things are so sweep resistant I can’t get any idea of their internal composition. The whole damn planet seems to be sweep resistant. I still don’t know how the Erickson draconis ocoa was capable of upper atmospheric flight–or any flight at all. Let’s face it: This mission isn’t going to brighten our professional prospects back on Sol III. Captain Roberts wants information now, and you know what that means.”
Torin licked his lips and softly said, “Yeah. The Cerberus is the one who wants that information. I wish I were home.”
James gazed at his cup. He wanted to throw it at something. “I knew I shouldn’t have taken a military assignment. Once M.I. Central has its hooks in you, you’re his. I don’t want an implant. Not me.”
Sean Flaherty listened assiduously. Their fears seemed small compared to his new goal. Castor had not directly told him to maintain secrecy, but the dragon’s tone implied it. The more Flaherty considered his thought-speech with Castor, the more the memories impressed upon him their nuances of meaning. Flaherty fretted. It was almost as if his impressions of Castor were still in his mind, still suggesting, still prodding.
He subdued the urge to keep his counsel to himself. With an air of confidence that he didn’t feel, Flaherty said, “Gentlemen, I believe I have a solution to our problems.”
James looked at him with a pitiably hopeful face and said, “You’ve succeeded in analyzing the composition of the draconii ocoa’s bio-energy?”
Flaherty checked his desire to smile. They were all too eager to follow his lead. He chastised himself for thinking in such a manipulative manner. These were scientists, his colleagues. Flaherty replied to the beleaguered xenobiochemist, “No, I haven’t. I’ve discovered something much better. Listen closely. Roberts will be here soon. As you know, the Cerberus organism theorized from the late Captain Erickson’s neural net copy that the draconii ocoa may have a telepathic or empathic capability. I have personal evidence that this is true. I have arranged through this extra-sensory contact to meet with a willing draconis ocoa. This must remain a secret from the military for now. I don’t want any heavy military intervention that could scare off our one opportunity or provoke a confrontation, which is what happened the last time the military was involved. I don’t need to remind you gentlemen of the military’s respect and vast comprehension of scientific methods of discovery and exploration.”
James smirked. Torin laughed more from relief than from Flaherty’s sarcastic wit. Torin’s laughter died abruptly as Captain Roberts entered the room, followed by his second, Commander Jacobson.
Roberts appeared tense and in a foul mood. This was enhanced by Jacobson’s unusual stoicism as he took an available seat next to the head of the table. Captain Roberts stood stiffly at the head of the table, leaning on the back of the chair as he said, “It is my unfortunate duty to begin this meeting with the announcement of the deaths of IRIS agent Morrison and our Provost Marshall for New Candide, Thomas Hereford. I have just received a w-axis communique directly from Cerberus. Morrison’s IRIS neural net stopped broadcasting several days ago. As the only known causes for this are neural surgery or death, I believe that we must conclude that he is no longer with us. As an IRIS agent, Morrison was specifically trained to deal with insurgents. Yet he was killed, we believe, by technologically primitive natives.
“In addition to this, over the last few days we have had five downworld soldiers killed and mutilated in the city of New Candide. At present we have no clue as to the identity of the murderer or murderers capable of killing armed and trained soldiers. We assume that the assassins responsible are part of a religious cult of rebels. Since I have already received orders to halt reclamation, I have decided to put all downworld personnel on wartime alert status with only platoon patrols venturing into the native sections of New Candide. I don’t know how these bastards are killing men with flexkevlar armor jackets, but it stops here and now. Therefore, although I know you need more information for your field studies, any trip that you might be planning to the downworld cities for interrogation concerning the Erickson creature is not possible at this time.” Roberts sat and waited for the inevitable complaints of military fascism and narrow mindedness from his civilian scientific team.
Torin glanced furtively at Flaherty. James simply stared at his empty cup, as if it were some mathematical equation that he couldn’t quite comprehend. Jacobson studied the scientists, looking for an explanation of their odd reactions to his Captain’s gloomy news.
James looked up from his cup at Captain Roberts and said, “Sir, I don’t think we have a need for interviews with colonial descendants, after all. Professor Doctor Flaherty has discovered a solution to our draconis ocoa problem.”
Roberts was skeptical. This reclamation had taught him not to expect good news. The recent w-axis communique had left him with another headache, which the pain relievers couldn’t alleviate. Roberts massaged the bridge of his nose and looked at Flaherty from the corner of his field of vision as he asked, “Would you please enlighten me and Commander Jacobson, Professor Doctor Flaherty?”
Flaherty’s breathing became shallow. He was not used to lying, particularly under the close, cynical stare of Commander Jacobson, seated next to him. He told himself that it was no different from the exaggerated field reports he had sent to nervous financial backers. Flaherty said, “Captain, my efforts in combination with my colleagues have yielded results. We believe that the smallest of the three dragons, sighted over the forested lands, will most likely be within one hundred kilometers of the southern edge of the radioactive area of Jezric. Flight patterns and feeding patterns indicate that this draconis ocoa will have just finished his prolonged feeding at that forest and will be in a docile state. It is a perfect opportunity to contact a possibly sentient, alien species. I believe we should leave immediately in order to have time to set up our equipment.”
Commander Jacobson leaned back in his chair. He frowned and narrowed his eyes as he asked, “Exactly how did you determine that the creature would land in the area that you described?”
Flaherty covered his nervousness by showering Jacobson with disdain, “As I have just said, the flight and feeding patterns were the obvious determining factors. Of course, it is an educated guess. This vessel has been incapable of providing us with any exact data.” Flaherty pressed his brain for more pseudo-reasons. He needed anything to say, except the truth, which would land him under a mindtap device. “Also,” Flaherty continued, “the caloric expenditure of flight and the bio-energy expenditure indicate an extremely short flight to a safe place to digest his food and replenish his energy. The huge amount of food this creature has eaten makes a prolonged flight virtually impossible. Given current climactic conditions, we deem the aforementioned location to be the most likely area to find this sated draconis ocoa.” Flaherty turned his attention to his fingernails with a forced casualness.
Commander Jacobson scratched behind his ear, looked at his Captain and then back at Flaherty. “I thought that you didn’t know the composition of its fiery exhalations, and—-”
Captain Roberts waved his arm downward, dismissing his second’s objections. Wearily, he regarded Flaherty and said, “Doctor, I, like my second, have doubts about your theories, although I confess a certain ignorance about what you were trying to say. Frankly, gentlemen, I’m out of options. I don’t need to tell you to whom I must answer. Cerberus expects priority completion from his captains. With all the setbacks we’ve encountered, I’ve got to throw M.I. Central a bone. Maybe you can give me that bone. A shuttle awaits you. Good luck.”
Captain Roberts abruptly departed. Flaherty watched him leave with a sigh of relief and exhaustion. He caught his breath as he weathered a parting, skeptical glance from Commander Jacobson as the second followed his Captain out of the room.
James grinned widely as he watched the two military clones leave. Then, he said, “That was the finest bit of impromptu bullshit that I’ve ever heard. Fellow explorers, we are on our way to scientific glory.”
Sean Flaherty found himself returning James’ smile, but for a different reason.
The shuttle was ready before any of the xenoscientists had expected. The ride to the planet’s surface was smooth and uneventful. However, the shuttle was crowded. Captain Roberts took no chances. Six guards accompanied the three xenoscientists, and they weren’t wearing the normal flexkevlar jackets and helmets that were supplied to the city guards. They used a self contained powered armor suit, used by elite infantry, which carried a variety of built in weapons that ranged from light anti-personnel needler plasma to surface to air plasma ballistae. The six nine foot man shapes took up most of the personnel room on the shuttle.
The pilot’s voice issued from over the door to the cockpit, “Ah, Dr. Flaherty? We’ve sighted your–ah–creature. It’s right where you said it would be. It’s huge. Where do you want me to set her down? Not too close, mind you.”
Flaherty said, “Don’t worry. You have nothing to fear. Set your craft about six hundred meters from the target. We’ll do the rest.” Flaherty strapped himself in, preparing for the landing. His heart fluttered with anticipation. Castor was serious about his offer. Flaherty was finally, completely certain that his morning conversation had not been a delusion. The whine of the engines increased as the shuttle shifted to full VTOL. The landing was soft.
After unbuckling his harness, Flaherty turned toward James and Torin and said, “Leave the equipment in the shuttle for now. I want to reestablish communication with the . . . dragon. His name is Castor.”
James stared at the old xeno and said, “All right. You seem to know what you’re doing. We’ll follow your lead, since you’re on a first name basis with it.”
Torin nodded slowly, remembering the transmission tape of the Erickson dragon.
The six guards surrounded the xenoscientists after they had disembarked. The land was flat and bare with only a few patches of grass and strangled trees to disrupt the monotony of the desert. Flaherty could think of no way to deny the guards, so he didn’t bother with a protest. He trusted that Castor would know that some precautions would be taken at such a meeting.
Everyone stared at the motionless form of Castor. Even at a distance of six hundred meters, Castor’s immense bulk was self evident.
Torin murmured, “That thing must be at least twice the size of the Erickson dragon.”
James tittered, “Whew! You’ve sure caught us a whopper, Sean.”
Flaherty said, “Shut it down. I told you that Castor is telepathic. He could be aware of your flippancy and mistake it for an insult. Get hold of yourself. That goes for the rest of you, too. Keep your minds solely on your jobs.” Flaherty set a slow pace, not wanting to startle Castor, though he felt sure that Castor was aware of their clumsy progress. At a hundred meters distant Flaherty paused to take in the scope of his ally. He was sure that Torin was underestimating Castor’s size. The Erickson dragon–Castor had called it Archon–had entwined its serpentine body around the central tower of Jezric. That tower could never have supported Castor’s girth.
Flaherty could see Castor’s scales as they approached. They had the lustrous sheen of a true serpent. His ally’s body markings were superbly colored. The snakes of Earth paled to a dull grey by comparison. As the xenobiologist approached, he could see, set against the vast majority of brown scales, multitudes of red and green scales, arranged in helix patterns. The colors interlocked and moved as Castor slowly exhaled and inhaled vast quantities of air. At twenty meters it became difficult to see all of Castor in one glance. The dragon was coiled with its head resting on the ground at the outermost edge of the living coils. Castor slowly revealed the eye that was facing the outworlders.
Flaherty stopped. It was difficult for him to find his breath, staring into the twin pupils in that eye. The pupils were not black, but smoky, surrounded by a soothing, blue iris. It felt to Flaherty that Castor wasn’t gazing at him, but in him. Dumbfounded, Flaherty stared at the round eye that was half as large as his entire body. It had a quality of gentleness and surety that only a martyr could obtain. That eye forgave without needing to be asked for forgiveness. At his next heartbeat Flaherty could see curiosity, desire, and, without a doubt, compassion. Within the twin pupils was the playfulness of an intimate lover, combined with the innocence of a child. Flaherty squeezed his eyes shut and gasped for breath against the intensity of the emotions that were stirred inside him. Without looking back at Castor, he studied his companions. They were also staring breathlessly at the magnificent eye that was fixed upon them. He jostled James and watched the trained xenoscientist cover his face with his hands to hide his feelings.
Swiftly and silently, Castor’s triangular head lifted and towered high above them, supported by his apparently endless serpentine neck. Amazement and wonder at the shimmering giant displaced the fears of the scientific team. Everyone craned their necks to try and keep sight of Castor’s head.
Bending his neck downward, Castor parted his jaws and spoke, “Thank you for coming, Sean Flaherty. I have looked forward to our meeting.” Castor’s jaws never moved, but Flaherty could hear the tongue, sloshing around inside the dragon’s cavernous mouth, contorting to mimic human speech. Castor’s enunciation was slurred, but the power of the double bass voice was felt in the bones of the listeners.
Flaherty beamed at Castor, pleased to be addressed as an equal by so great a being. He was completely confident that Castor had the ability to make him immortal. Flaherty shouted, for he was uncertain whether Castor could hear his tiny voice, “We are here to learn about you and your kind. We are humans from a distant place. We wish to study your kind for many years. We have many devices to study you.”
Enjoying the game, Castor replied, “How do I know that you will not harm me with your devices?”
Spontaneously, Torin shouted, “No, no! We only wish to study your kind. We would never harm such a unique creature as yourself.”
Castor exhaled a gust of breath, satisfied that his dweomer was effective. The Prince of Glered-nigh said, “I will take one of you to my dwelling so that you may see where I live. We will study each other and become friends.”
“Me! Take me!” Torin cried.
“No! Not him, me!” James shouted.
Flaherty said, “Silence. I am the one who contacted him first. I shall go. Castor and I have already agreed to this.”
Despite his dweomer, Castor was astounded by their reckless curiosity. He stretched out his left foreclaw on the ground. “Sean Flaherty, if you would accompany me to my home, we can discuss the mutual relations of our kinds in comfort.”
Flaherty eagerly climbed onto Castor’s claw. The guards made no motion of protest. They were incapable of conceiving Castor as a threat. James and Torin watched Flaherty enviously. The Prince of Glered-nigh unwound his body, freeing his folded wings. Lifting himself into the air, Castor threw a shadow over James, Torin, and the armored guards. Flaherty was entombed in his claw.
Castor landed after an hour of flight. He released Flaherty at the northern edge of the plains of Glered. Flaherty asked, “Is this where you live?”
Flaherty felt Castor’s hot breath envelop him, like a tropical gust. “No. I do not live here. However, you said you wanted the secret of immortality, and this is a good place to find a wizard to help you. Let’s discuss an exchange of information. Tell me about yourself. Come. Speak to me. You know that I am your friend.” His jaw never moved, but the dragon’s forked tongue would occasionally slip past the jagged teeth as it twisted to mock human speech.
Flaherty talked. He babbled about himself. Memories that he had thought long forgotten spilt out from him as he bared himself before Castor. Childhood reminiscences, adolescent triumphs, and adult ambitions came out from Flaherty in a passionate rush as the xenoscientist unburdened himself, looking into the compassionate and understanding appearance in Castor’s eyes. He spoke of his parents and cried for their absence. He spoke of his studies and bragged about his knowledge of science. He spoke of Ajax IV and boasted of his euphoria tree. He spoke of his final ambition for immortality and looked at Castor plaintively.
Sean Flaherty watched as only a shadow of fear entered his heart. Castor’s tongue swiped at the air above him. Gripped by a morbid fascination, Flaherty stood paralyzed as Castor’s tongue stretched from his jaws to grab and entwine him. Flaherty tried to scream, but was bound so tightly that the air was forced from his lungs. Lifted off the ground, Flaherty shut his eyes, not wanting to see the open maw looming in front of him. Flaherty thought that it was odd that a draconis ocoa swallowed his prey whole. Yet Castor held him inside his mouth, savoring the taste of his victim. Flaherty struggled for breath, but the forked tongue gripped him too tightly. Blacking out, Flaherty made his final discovery: Draconii ocoa asphyxiate their prey.
Castor reclined on his haunches. The essence was hollow and lacked the more exquisite, vital aura of youth. He swallowed the wan meal. However, he was glad to have an outworlder subject to mimic. They tasted different, and Castor doubted that he could have successfully disguised himself from the close scrutiny of James and Torin without Flaherty’s memories and aura to add credence to his masquerade.
Castor regurgitated the nonliving things that Flaherty had worn. He coiled in upon himself, twisting around himself, becoming smaller and smaller. He shed his scales and assumed the semblance of the late Professor Doctor Flaherty. He donned the clothes and began the walk back to the shuttle, as the outworlders called their vessel. During the long journey, Castor amused himself by imagining his brother’s downfall and subsequent demise.
James and Torin came running toward Flaherty when they saw his figure at the top of a nearby hill. The guards plodded behind them. Castor forced himself to accept their soft touches of welcome and returned their gesture with a concealed distaste. The doppelganger said, “Castor did not wish to be exposed to our devices, so he sent me back.”
Excitedly, James asked, “What did you talk about?”
“Castor told me many interesting things before he departed. Wait for my report, will you, James? I have much to do aboard the H.M.S. Glory.”

***

Morrison spied a black snake, hiding in the desert scrub. He whipped out his pistol and shot the serpent, cleaving it. He ran up to the snake, picked up the struggling thing, and bit its head off. He drank its anima as he had done to several small animals since leaving the Darkenkell forest and entering this wasteland.
He spit out the head and dropped its flesh to the ground, having no use for it. “Hail the mighty hunter, IRIS agent Morrison!” He shouted at the wasteland. “No, not IRIS. I’m a freelancer. The first ever to free himself from Cerberus. So. So what? I’ve traded one master for another.” Snakes and desert vermin had little anima to feed the gnawing hunger that pervaded his entire being. He looked up at the sun, shielding his eyes with his hand that had been withering since they had entered the desert.
“Keep moving,” the rasping voice in his mind insisted.
“Shut up!” Morrison screamed, “If it weren’t for me, you’d have joined your weepy spirits in the chasm, and I’d be a corpse.”
“You will be a corpse should I choose to vacate this body.”
Morrison coughed a scratchy laugh and said, “And go where? You care to possess this?” He kicked the tail half of the snake. “Or would you prefer to politely ask one of the wizards at Sanctuary to vacate his body for your use? Understand this: I’m in control of this corpse that you’ve made. I know how to stay alive. I’ve silently watched and felt you do it too often. I can do it myself now. You wait until we get to Sanctuary. Maybe I’ll get you a peasant or beggar to inhabit.”
“Are you sure you’re up to it? Your last victim ended you with me as a soulmate.”
“We are not soulmates,” Morrison roared, “You’re an uninvited parasite. A tick. Lice is what you are.”
“We are more alike than you care to admit, freelance agent Morrison. How quickly you learned my means of sustaining myself. There is much of you that is I. All men are like me. I am the urge in all hearts that brings about change–the need to exist, the need to destroy, the need to hate. Worshipping me, mankind shall gain the freedom from and the power over their moral fears; they will be raised in my image of unrestrained action, etching their self on the face of the world, mirroring my divinity. I am the urge that Shi could not tolerate, though I fostered her greatest creation, forged her greatest mirror. I dared this world into being, not Shivrael.”
Plodding up a desert dune, Morrison thought his reply, “Don’t try to confuse me with your inane myths. You forget that I’m no primitive of this world. Your past doesn’t concern me. Magic is just another force of nature. It’s the holy grail of physicists: the unified field energy. I wielded it against that snake, and I didn’t feel any divine mystery. It’s a tool, and I am a master of tools and weapons.”
Mocking laughter echoed in Morrison’s mind. The Nef-Shivrael-e said, “Your blindness confounds me. Since I first comprehended you through Jarren’s obsidian flames, I knew that you had no conception of the workings of this world. Your long association with me has shed no light on that darkness.”
Swallowing back an angry retort, he walked over the sands while listening to the Nef-Shivrael-e’s prattle. The dry heat did not bother Morrison’s dead flesh, but the sun was bright and all pervasive; he felt open and vulnerable against the light. In the lonely wastes even a vile companion was better than none.
After a week of continuous travel, plant life began appearing with greater frequency. But his pain had grown over that week: his skin seemed to pull at his bones while his insides burned unceasingly. Movement was agony, as if the grave were beckoning for his corpse. And the Nef-Shivrael-e cursed him for every small animal he failed to find. Only hunger moved his legs. Yet Morrison stretched his ossified lips into a grin as he saw the first of the Steppes in the distance. He estimated it to be roughly a two hundred meter cliff with a sixty degree slope. The cliffs were covered with greenery. Far beyond the Steppes, Morrison could see the outlines of the black mountain range and its tallest peak, disappearing into the clouds: Mount Glered. Morrison passed the first of the pioneer trees that heralded a small woods, bordering the beginning of the first Steppe. By a particularly large pine Morrison came to an involuntary halt.
“Be wary. Here is a glorious oppurtunity. Look at the oak ahead of you. And you imagine yourself to be a hunter.”
A massive figure crouched behind an oak. Although it was stooped over, the figure was at eye level with Morrison. It was humanoid and perfectly still, staring at him. Morrison thought to the Nef-Shivrael-e, “How does it fight? Does it travel in groups?”
“I am unsure. A wizard called my name against one, but he never called me again. He lacked the necessary passion.”
“Enough, enough,” Morrison whispered in agitation, “It doesn’t matter. I’m too hungry to let this pass me by.”
Morrison gradually drew his pistol while keeping his eyes fixed on the form behind the oak. He fired. A thin bolt of plasma exploded through the giant’s right shoulder.
The giant jerked upright at a height of three meters. It howled in a low, nonsensical fashion. Its left hand clutched at the fresh wound with fingers that ended in rock hard nails four centimeter long. In a panic the creature dug it’s claws into its muscular flesh. It stooped and picked up a carved cedar spear as tall as itself and hefted it over its head. Another plasma bolt from Morrison’s pistol struck it in a thigh that was the size of an oak stump. The giant dropped to the ground and howled again.
“Ha!” Morrison shouted, “This is the most fun I’ve had since coming to this filthy planet. Ya! Yaia! Look! Our quarry’s trying to run.” Laughing, Morrison squeezed off another shot from his pistol. It struck the grey skinned creature squarely in the other thigh. It toppled to the ground, frantically trying to pull itself away from Morrison with its hands, dragging its massive bulk. Morrison sprinted and caught the nude creature from behind. He stared into the large, crying, human like eyes and grasped its head between his hands. The Nef-Shivrael-e’s sigh mingled with Morrison’s vocal sigh of pleasure as the giant’s anima assuaged their hunger.
The giant moaned, “Ahohumm—-” The thigh stopped twitching. The grey hand hit the ground. The giant’s face lolled to the side. Its anima fled from its body.
Morrison and the Nef-Shivrael-e were caught by surprise at the giant’s sudden suicide. Greedily, they sucked at the invisible anima that they had captured in their necromantic hooks.
“The creature did the same absurd gesture that the traitorous Osric did to me at New Candide. It killed itself before we could fully prepare for the sudden transition ‘twixt life and death. Twice, victims have chosen martyrdom rather than service to their lord. Unbelievers, all.”
Morrison spoke, “So what? He was in our grasp. We got most of his juice before he completely fell to Death. I feel much better.” He looked at his hands that still grasped the giant’s head. They were no longer shrivelled. Only the pallid color of death marked him as an abomination.
“Huhn,” Morrison reflected, “I just finished my last mission as an IRIS agent. It’s a certainty that this thing was an indigenous life form.” He peeled back the giant’s rubbery lips that were a slightly darker grey than the rest of its body and said, “Teeth mark it as an herbivore. Texture of its skin is funny: pliant and dry. Cerberus would’ve been satisfied with this freak. Doesn’t matter anymore. Huh, Cerberus doesn’t matter. I like that.”
“Keep moving.” The incarnate prodded.
Morrison came to the incline that marked the beginning of the first Steppe. The slope was not as gentle as it had appeared at a distance. Climbing the first half of the Steppe, he grasped the trees and flora. He strove the rest of the way by supporting himself with his fingers on the bare rock. Reaching the top, he saw the second steppe, clearly visible in the distance beyond a horizon of grassland. “We’re through the forest. Where now?”
“I am unsure. The location was given to me by a wizard, whom I had subjugated in New Candide. He told me that the entrance was a small ravine at the edge of the first Steppe near those woods through which we just passed. To the southwest lies the Koradesh jungle where another tribe of hunym-sidhe dwell. I no longer have any interest in them anymore, and I don’t think the humans would have their entrance near the influence of the Koradesh Sidhe.”
Morrison walked briskly along the northeast edge of the first steppe. He journeyed into the night, keeping a watchful eye for giants, but his travel was undisturbed. The first Steppe took a more easterly turn and Morrison gazed at the black mountains in the twilight. He stumbled and fell headlong down the Steppe. As he fell, the Nef-Shivrael-e berated Morrison’s carelessness.
Grabbing hold of a small tree, Morrison halted his fall. He regained his bearings. The Steppe had taken a sharper than perpendicular turn from his path. He looked across and saw that the Steppe resumed its east north easterly direction. It was about a fifty meter gap. He hadn’t noticed it walking as he was because the Steppe resumed its course at the exact same height: It was a sudden drop. Yet he was a hunter. He was the best the Cerberus could make. He was rarely so casual; Cerberus had made his alertness an instinctual part of his awareness.
The Nef-Shivrael-e thought, “Rattlepate, you must be more careful. We must be at the very entrance of Sanctuary. Such Will with the wisp distractions must have been put here by the monks to keep others from their power and dwelling. They are a jealous lot. There may be more traps. Remain the hunter. You have no use to me otherwise.”
Morrison mentally nodded. The Nef-Shivrael-e’s explanation was easier to accept than a lapse in his hunter’s instincts. The side of the ravine, where he clung to the tree, ran east south east as far as he could see in the moonlight. The other side of the ravine also ran a near perfect east south east, slanting at a forty five degree angle from the cliff of the first Steppe.
Morrison figured that it would be hard to find without an aerial view. From the woods below it would appear as an indentation in the cliff, unless one were angled directly opposite the ravine.
Morrison climbed down to the ravine floor and entered it. After an hour of walking, the ravine began widening. The far side was lost in the darkness, but Morrison saw the glow of lanterns in the distance. He padded through tilled fields, damp with dew, as he cautiously approached the light. He heard voices engaged in some sort of religious service. The presence of the Nef-Shivrael-e in his mind painfully surged as the incarnate became excited. Just beyond the edge of the lantern light, they saw more than a score of people, gathered in what appeared to be a village square, though only the thatched roofs of a few huts were within Morrison’s sight. The peasants were encircled around one woman in a blue robe, who was addressing them. He couldn’t make out what she was saying, but from her pantomimes and the crowd’s reactions, she was telling them a story. The night deepened as Morrison patiently watched.
The Nef-Shivrael-e sniggered at Morrison’s idea of himself as a tiger. “Morrison. She is the one. No doubt she is a sorceress, entertaining the crowd with a piece of trivial history. I want her.”
Morrison clutched his head as the Nef-Shivrael-e’s growing lust threatened to unbalance his hunter’s instinct.
The Nef-Shivrael-e incessantly whispered in his mind, “You must not kill her. Render her unconscious. Another corpse to inhabit will do me little good in infiltrating Sanctuary. There will be anima enough when we reach the birthing crystal.”
Morrison gradually shifted to another squatting position to ease his aching thighs. The stolen anima from the giant was almost exhausted, and he felt increasingly uncomfortable. He mentally voiced, “Keep your birthing crystal, whatever that is. I know how to sustain myself as a hunter now. All I want is to get rid of you, so we can go our separate ways.”
Morrison began feeling queasy. He smiled when he heard the applause of the crowd. They dispersed, carrying their lanterns. Morrison crept closer as more and more lanterns retreated with their owners. When only the sorceress’ lantern shone, he picked up a fist sized stone.
The woman took hold of her lantern and called, “Who’s there? Anatoly, is that you?”
Morrison froze. His hand was cocked to throw.
Her voice was clear, but trembled slightly. “If this is another of your perverse games, little wizard, I’ll have you on blanket duty for a week.” She held up her lantern, and the flame turned blue and brightened, throwing an azure shadow onto Morrison.
Morrison loosed his stone. It struck true. The sorceress stumbled back, holding her bleeding forehead. Morrison walked to her, exposing himself to the now natural glare of the fallen lantern.
The sorceress wobbled on her feet. The blood pulsing from her forehead gash blinded her. Morrison struck her with an uppercut and followed it with a right cross. She crumpled to the ground. Morrison leaned down to make certain she was unconscious. He didn’t want to make the same mistake that he had made with Jarren. She was unconscious. He extinguished her lamp. He had made a mess of her face, but Morrison didn’t think that his parasite cared about beauty.
“Quite correct. Goodbye.” Morrison’s body convulsed. He felt as if he were vomiting forth the Nef-Shivrael-e from every part of his body. It was painful, but good: a cleansing. Morrison sagged to his knees and watched the sorceress rise to her feet. The gentle smile of the story teller was gone. Her eyes glinted with a maliciousness that Morrison knew intimately.
The former IRIS agent struggled to his feet. For the first time he realized the Nef-Shivrael-e’s impending betrayal. He reached for his pistol, but the sorceress’ slender hand grabbed his wrist firmly.
“Did I not tell you that you were a rattlepate?” The Nef-Shivrael-e’s thoughts issuing from that feminine voice unsettled Morrison. The voice took a sadistic tone as living lips formed the Horror’s words, “Did you really believe that I would allow you your life after knowing me? Did you think that I would let you run amok here with the knowledge of my delicate plan?” The grip tightened and Morrison’s wrist shattered. “Ah, of course. You wouldn’t realize. I’ve directed your thoughts as easily as that wisp spell on the edge of the Steppe fooled you.” The sorceress laughed and said, “You, a walking corpse, believed that you had freewill. You really believed it, didn’t you?”
Morrison’s sight dimmed. His free arm hung limply at his side.
The sorceress’ voice grated as her vocal cords scratched and stretched to give voice to the Nef-Shivrael-e’s unbound passion, “You did aid me. I’ll grant you that. In the Darkenkell forest I had a dire need of your human foibles and your human blindness of the underworld spirits.” The sorceress’ face became livid: gentle features twisted by mania, painted in the blood trickling from her wound. The Nef-Shivrael-e shouted at Morrison, and the sorceress’ voice cracked in a strained falsetto, “Don’t you understand? Even now? You don’t have any purity. You hunted. Yes, you hunted, but your quarry always changed. You hunted for others, because you lacked the purity of purpose you need–you must have–to attain power: the ability to force change, to force others to recognize that you exist, that you are alive, and, above all, to hate those who fail to perceive you. You lacked the hate that crushes despair. You gave me that hate back. It is you whom I hate, Morrison. You! Trapped with me in your corpse, you still failed to perceive my divinity. When the underworld spirits from my prison called to me, your voice filled my ears with your ignorance. You, who were closest to me, did not believe in me. You believe now, don’t you, Morrison? Do you feel it, Morrison? Power forces belief. I am killing you and your death proves my existence. Do you hear me, Morrison? Do you?” The sorceress’ pale arms shook the body of Morrison with a fury.
Drained of its unnatural anima, the IRIS agent’s corpse fell backward into the dust. The possessed sorceress doubled over in a fit of laughter.
Picking up the corpse, the Nef-Shivrael-e walked away from the village to search for a place to hide it. The Horror did not wish to use its magic to cremate the body when so close to Sanctuary. Wild shrubs and grasses at the edge of the ravine covered the corpse.
The Nef-Shivrael-e gulped for air. The forehead throbbed where Morrison had inflicted the wound. The Nef-Shivrael-e lamented that it had to keep the sorceress alive. The Horror that Walks had never dealt with the pains of the living and reluctantly accepted a living host, not having any other choice. The monks of Sanctuary would recognize the lack of living auric energy immediately. A living host was perfect, if uncomfortable, camouflage.
Walking back toward the tiny village square, the Nef-Shivrael-e blocked the sorceress’ last memories of Morrison, implanting the suggestion of a simple fall. The Nef-Shivrael-e decided that all Shi’s creations had to be obliterated, especially the heir. It would be better to start fresh, to use the master crystal to shape the face of the world in an appropriate guise that would reflect its new goddess.
The Nef-Shivrael-e felt the quickening of the sorceress’ consciousness. The parasite laid its host in the grass with the forehead gash leaning against the rock that Morrison had thrown. The woman groaned, and the Nef-Shivrael-e’s wraith retreated to the woman’s sleeping psyche. Silently, the Horror felt, watched, and listened to the sorceress’ confusion as she rose and limped toward Sanctuary.

Chapter XIX Sanctuary

Nigel and Elaine were uncomfortable in the desert. The hot sands were an aspect of Oco that neither had experienced while living near the agricultural city-states. The group allowed their horses to amble under the desert sun to preserve the strength of their mounts. Kara rode ahead of the rest, for he knew the location of their destination. Tess-nor rode behind him on her mare and looked at the landscape with its scant flora, so different than her lush homeland. Several horse lengths behind Nigel and Elaine rode Mar-ahn in grim silence, doggedly staring just ahead of his horse. He did not sip from the waterskins as the others had. No one disturbed his self imposed isolation. However, Nigel’s empathic nature felt Mar-ahn’s shame, resonating and grating with his own confused feelings from the war.
They camped under a cloth tent long before the sun had set and brought out the food from their saddlebaags in an uncomfortable silence. The dry heat had made everyone weary and had drained their appetites. Eating became a necessary chore. Mar-ahn chewed the food mechanically without looking up from his plate. Nigel stared at him with a frustration, which was quickly turning to anger. The others awkwardly pretended not to notice Mar-ahn, but Nigel could sense the warrior’s mood infecting the others. Having finished his meal, Mar-ahn began packing his supplies in the same grim, clockwork fashion.
Nigel muttered, “How long are you going to be like this? How long are you going to stew in your pain?”
Mar-ahn returned Nigel’s gaze with an edge of violence. “What are you talking about?”
“Who do you think is being deceived here, Mar-ahn? I’m Nigel, proclaimed by your King as the heir of Aten. Remember? Your bitterness stands out to me. You can’t be your brother and you can’t fight the Sidhe. Stop it.”
Elaine awkwardly swallowed a mouthful of thoroughly chewed dried venison. Then, she said, “Who are you to preach? Since I met you back in New Candide, you’ve blamed yourself for everything around you ’till you’ve become paralyzed with doubt. Who are you to talk about responsibility? You don’t even understand the word.”
Kara held his breath, waiting for the worst. He had been dreading this eventual clash, for he became increasingly powerless to manipulate the heirs as they approached the discovery of their true natures; at such a point any attempt at manipulation was futile. But they had not yet mastered themselves. Karamindakas hoped that his training could hold them on the path toward Sanctuary and their love could keep them from destroying each other. The wizard knew that they were already beyond him; the heirs were immersed too deeply in the magic and wyrd of Oco. Their feats during the war had proven that. He would need all his guile to use these budding gods: To use Nigel’s tormented but simplistic guilt over a mortal family was in Kara’s mind his best weapon, followed closely by Elaine’s attachment to Nigel and her natural impetus toward action. With these tools Kara hoped to goad them to the master crystal. If he was that lucky in guiding these two hurricanes, he would leave the awakening to the monks of Sanctuary and allow fate to buffet Nigel’s and Elaine’s awakened selves–after the monks had helped Elaine to dispatch the outworlders. Karamindakas wanted to end this filthy business, but he would not climb from his torturously created quagmire until the outworlders had been defeated, until he could again walk free as a wizard among his people.
Nigel’s empathy was not focused on the wizard. Elaine had once again struck at him as only she could–with the intimacy of his love for her. Although he could not feel her with his empathic heritage, he knew she held his secret. She knew that he could not play recklessly, like some fabled hero. The invisible ripples of any action drew too much culpability upon him. She never understood the pain he felt at any action, but she knew the wound and lanced it.
He stared at Elaine with hurt in his eyes and angrily retorted, “What do you know about me, Elaine? It’s different for me. I feel what others feel, thanks to that wizard. You can’t possibly understand that, Elaine, the thief, the profiteer, the heir to a mad goddess’ inheritance. Where do you get your sudden insight?”
Elaine’s eyes sparkled dark blue. She lifted her hand to strike Nigel, but dropped her hand to her side. Her eyes lost their radiance. She breathed slowly, squeezing her eyes shut in pride, futilely trying to stop her tears. Her breathing became easier. After a moment she said, “It doesn’t take any great insight for me to know you. I only have to care about you, fool. If you weren’t so blind—-”
Elaine looked away and immediately looked back at Nigel with that angry blue sparkle in her eyes again and said, “You should worship the ground that Kara walks on for opening you to your heritage. Do you really think that your special nature gives you an exclusive view into the pain of others? If you weren’t so ‘zblud selfish, you’d realize that I understand your pain better than anyone else, better than you do. You don’t have to be the heir of Aten-Mayet to care, to care about something other than the dead.”
Consumed with his anger, Nigel was about to retort when he was interrupted by another’s voice. Mar-ahn was laughing at them. At first it was a quiet smile, then a soft chuckle that exploded into a clear, raucous laughter. Nigel and Elaine turned on him, thinking they were being mocked. Mar-ahn held one hand to his side and held another hand between himself and Nigel while he tried to stifle his sudden outburst.
With an effort, grinning, Mar-ahn said, “It seems that even the heirs of the gods have their burdens like the rest of us. Ha! There is no easy road for any of us, and I, for one, am glad of the company!”
Kara assumed an attitude of austere authority and said, “To live is to be troubled. Peace is reserved for the dead.”
Elaine smiled and scoffed, “That maxim certainly hasn’t applied so far. Since we’ve been with you, the dead have been dancing better than the living.”
Tess-nor laughed spontaneously. She covered her mouth quickly. The Nor chastised, “You shouldn’t say such things. Blasphemy portends bad omens.”
Kara shifted his body. The sand heated the skin quickly, even through his robes. Kara said, “Tess-nor is correct. Since we left New Candide, an abomination has been stalking us. It was the discovery of you, Elaine, and the death of the wizard, my friend Jarren, that released it. None of the dead can rest at ease until the Nef-Shivrael-e is bound or destroyed, if such a spirit can be destroyed.”
“Huhn,” Elaine said, “you talk as if you blame me for this thing’s existence. I didn’t choose to be the heir of Shivrael, and I didn’t set out to awaken that heir. You chose that, Kara. You chose that, because you hate the outworlders more than you fear me or fear what I will become.”
Kara said, “I don’t fear you, Elaine. I know you too well.”
Nigel put his hand on Kara’s shoulder and spoke softly with a tinge of sadness in his voice. The wind stilled, and no other sounds in the desert intruded on the heir of Mayet’s voice, “Kara, you’re lying. I’ve felt the fear you harbor toward Elaine whenever you look at her when her back’s toward you. We know the legend. You told us yourself. When Shi first stepped into the master crystal, she became the mad goddess. Shi tore the world apart and recast it with her own chaotic images. You know as well as I that to create something new she had to destroy whatever was here previously. And her creation was flawed. Despite Shi’s power, she was a human filled with the same conflicts as others. It wasn’t until after the creation, when she saw the pain in her half formed children, that she argued with herself whether or not to destroy this world. Tearing that urge from her brow and throwing it into the earth, Shi became Shivrael and decided for life, raising up her lifemate into Mayet. But, Kara, Elaine is a human, just as the Shi was before Shi had touched the master crystal. When Elaine steps into the crystal, what’s to stop her from going mad in the transition, just as Shi did, and recasting the world? What would happen to the rest of us?”
Kara gently pulled on his beard and smiled, “Nigel, you’re being absurd. What I told you and Elaine at the Darkenkell was only a myth, found in some scrolls and folktales around Sanctuary. Shivrael and Aten-Mayet were merely abnormally adept with the inner fire. Every land from Upper Saracea to the Glered plains has creation myths.”
Tess-nor felt the heat in her face. She didn’t know what place she had with her new companions. The conventions of her Darkenkell people didn’t apply among humans. Tentatively, Tess-nor said, “There is a difference, Master Karamindakas. When that baleful spirit possessed Sol-mer, it identified Nigel as an heir, and it said something about Elaine, too.”
Elaine grimaced. “I remember. It said, ‘The dragon who feeds upon its tail soon vanishes.’ It said that after it had tried to burn Nigel. I guess it thinks I’m the same as it.” Elaine wiped the sweat from her brow and sipped some more water.
Kara shook his head. He, also, sipped a small portion from the waterskin to wet his throat. “No, Elaine. The Nef-Shivrael-e was mocking you. That’s the main pastime of daemons. Mocking and making worrisome speculations and false prophecies are its meat and drink. After the last meeting with the King, I had a chance to read Osric’s book. His murderer, whom he named the Horror that Walks, was originally known by two other names: The Horror that Dwells beyond Despair and the Nef-Shivrael-e. It is the destructive impulse that the Shi tore from her brow and cast into the deeps of the world. By that act Shi transformed herself into Shivrael. Providing that this is true, which I don’t necessarily believe, you are related in a vague sense, but not as the Nef-Shivrael-e’s wraith had suggested to you. Both of you together make up the Shi, if you believe in myths. The book goes on to name the Nef-Shivrael-e as the mother of all necromancy, which would explain its association with Hecate, at least. This, I believe, for pure caste wizards and nym magi have no natural domination over the dead.”
Casually, Elaine said, “Then, the Sanctuary myths are true. There was a Shi who went mad and created, sort of, this Nef-Shivrael-e and Shivrael. And I am the heir, whom you are taking to a place that will drive me mad. Doesn’t sound like much fun.”
After squeezing the last precious drops of moisture from his waterskin, Nigel said, “How are you going to protect her? You can’t deny Elaine’s in real danger. That myth isn’t a myth. Hecate named me as the heir of Aten, the healing father, and the new Darkenkell Sidhe called me the heir of Mayet. You knew this when we were at New Candide, even when you first approached me. You must have guessed that you would be risking Elaine. You must have a plan. ‘Zdeath, don’t tell me you dragged us all the way out into this hot desert without a plan.”
Mar-ahn and Tess-nor exchanged worried glances. Kara exhaled his exasperation and said, “I just don’t believe you two. You are not gods. You stink like the rest of us. Maybe, I say maybe, Aten and Shivrael were godlike, but they were never worshipped. You were thieves in New Candide less than a month ago. You didn’t even believe that I was going to make you a wizard, and now you’re telling me that you’re a god? Please, get hold of your imaginations. Besides, you’re simply the heirs. Also, Shi had all the magic, which Shi then dispersed. Most of it is still dispersed and bound. The master crystal no longer retains its virginal potency. Now it only burns during an awakening. Ask the monks at Sanctuary. They live near the master crystal every day.”
Putting her supplies back into her saddlebags, Tess-nor asked, “All magic comes from this master crystal? Even nymish magic?”
Glad to be away from that dangerous conversation, Kara shook his head and quickly said, “No. All magic came from the crystal until Shi supposedly took it and flung it pell mell into and around her creations. I take Kare-ston at his word when he says that magi draw their power from the forest, which is in turn a part of the Sidhe. Wizards enter the crystal and withdraw a portion of its might to awaken their inner fires. I know this to be true, for I have experienced it. Some say at Sanctuary that a day will come when the last wizard has drawn the last magic from the master crystal, and all magic will be loosed on the world in some form or another. This will herald the beginning of the apocalyptic days. Personally, I think that’s a myth. Whatever. The point is that Elaine won’t have enough available magic from the master crystal to do her harm.”
Elaine was giving her horse some water from the palm of her hand. She had ceased listening. However, Tess-nor was curious and asked, “Where did this master crystal come from? It sounds more like a container than a crystal.”
Kara got up from where he was seated and brushed off the sand while continuously talking, “Indeed, the crystal does serve as a container. Some believe that it is like the cork in a wineskin and is only the entrance to a larger, hidden source of magic. As for where it comes from, you might as well ask where the sky comes from. Surely, it is eternal.”
Mar-ahn grunted as he leapt astride his horse. “It all sounds like a myth to me. You talk as if magic were cuts of venison to be divided among hunters–strange. I remember when I believed that the blood of a dragon would make me a perfect Ahn. Even my brother . . . ah . . . my brother believed it.” Mar-ahn looked up at the sun. “I just think that you shouldn’t pay heed to every tale you hear . . . Some are true, though.” He lightly slapped the reins and his horse trotted. The others hurried to catch up with him.
The days spent crossing the sandy wastes became tiresome for Tess-nor. Without her direction her horse drifted to the back of the group next to Mar-ahn’s horse. Mar-ahn noticed her sleeping and said to rouse her, “What troubles you, Tess? Do your thoughts travel back to the war and our people?”
Tess-nor languidly nodded. “I lost friends.”
Mar-ahn nodded a stoic assent. “Yes, they died with valor.”
Tess-nor replied, “It is for the rest of the Darkenkell that I fear, Mar-ahn.” She stared at Elaine, riding in front of them next to Nigel.
“Why? I have known Elaine-ahn through many trials. Her courage is unquestionable.”
Tess-nor rubbed her silver medallion, wondering why she still had moist fingers in this dry heat. “It is not her bravery that I question.” Tess-nor lowered her voice to a whisper, “It is Kara’s cunning that worries me. It is a Ston teaching that human wizards are never in touch with the world, for they are foremost involved with themselves. Did you hear how reverently he spoke of his inner fires? Wizards want things in their inner image, just as Shi, in that legend, wanted the world in her image, just as Kara wants it in his image. Remember, Mar: The world before Shi was never known to us. It was obliterated from the hearts and minds of us by the mad goddess. What will happen if humans get that power again? Their star cousins obliterated Jezric.”
Mar-ahn hissed, “You speak treason.”
Tess-nor replied, “Forgive me, but you think like an Ahn.”
“Huhn. That is no offense.”
Tess-nor smiled. “I suppose not. Yet you should think where your duty lies. Our King is old and has not held his mantle for so long by being near sighted. Perhaps King Torastor doesn’t believe that Nigel and Elaine are gods or the heirs of gods. Perhaps he was merely humoring them. Yet during the war he saw how Elaine devastated more than two score of Hecate’s servants in the blink of an eye. Also, he saw how easily Nigel healed me. King Torastor doesn’t know whether they are gods or mortals, but he knows that their capabilities dwarf our Ston. He sent us here for more reasons than to act as a simple honor guard. As much as King Torastor feels that he owes them, he still fears them. He fears how they will be used. I say again: I do not trust this Karamindakas.”
Mar-ahn nodded soberly. “He has the bearing of a councilor. That is true.”
Tess-nor said, “Yes. And he counsels Nigel and Elaine. He is always talking to them and coaxing them to Sanctuary. For what purpose? Outworlders? Or something more? Nigel and Elaine are young, even for humans. The wizard has filled their ears with notions of heroism and hatred for these outworlders. You said that Elaine and Nigel are not cowards. Then, what need for the wizard’s constant prattling? They have been dutiful to him and us. Why does he push them ever more quickly to Sanctuary? Would it not be better to hunt this Nef-Shivrael-e that killed his friend? Yet he delays his vengeance. Some purpose is greater to him than to avenge the murder of the human named Osric, whom he professed to love. That wizard’s blood is cold.”
Mar-ahn rode in silence next to Tess-nor for several minutes. With a furrowed brow he said, “Your words trouble me like bloodflies, Tess. He is not an evil man. He delays his vengeance to help his brethren in their war against the outworlders.”
As she rode, Tess-nor bound her long silver-black hair into a pony tail behind her. Without looking at Mar-ahn, she said, “Evil may wear many masks, so many that it fails to recognize even itself. Queen Meara declared that the outworlders were not presently at war. They had stopped after conquering the five human city-states. Still, Karamindakas hungers for their destruction.”
Mar-ahn said, “Their human star cousins are cruel, like Hecate, and enslave Kara’s people.”
Tess-nor tied the leather thong around her hair and put her hand on the reins of her tired mare. “Perhaps you are right, and my time in council has made me devious, like an old councilor. Nevertheless, I will watch Master Karamindakas most carefully. I suggest that you do the same.”
Mar-ahn gestured in sign, “So be it.”
Tess-nor returned the sign and kneed her horse to move faster. She rejoined Nigel and Elaine.
By the late morning of the next day, the travellers entered the small forested land that bordered the beginning of the first Steppe. They were all relieved by seeing the shade, feeling the cooler air, and hearing the trilling of songbirds among the greenery. A stream added its continuous music to the chorus, a welcome addition for the desert weary travellers. They led their horses through the forest by their tooled, Saracean made reins. At midday Kara motioned for them to stop for the afternoon meal. They dined on cool spring water, tubers, and hardbread that was left from their supplies with the never ending surplus of dried venison.
Leaning her back against an evergreen, Tess-nor said, “I am glad to be out of the wastes, but this forest seems . . . feels empty. It’s not anything like the Darkenkell forest or even the Koradesh. It is hollow or small. That must be the reason.”
Assiduously washing his hands and face in the stream, Kara looked up at Tess-nor with a drenched beard and said, “You miss the presence of a sidhe.” He pulled at his beard, ringing out the water. “This forest is too small for a sidhe to notice, I suppose. But it is a relief from the waste, and the waste that Jezric has become, I truly hate. Things will change.” He stretched and Nigel could hear his aged joints popping, though the old man displayed more energy than anyone else.
Mar-ahn spit out a mouthful of dried venison and leapt to his feet. “Something is approaching.” A tense silence began as everyone strained to hear what Mar-ahn had heard. The violence of the Darkenkell war was fresh in their minds.
Nigel whispered, “Maybe, it’s game. ‘Zblud, I hope it’s not a deer. I’m sick of venison.”
“Shh.” Mar-ahn hissed.
The sounds of moving branches overcame the local bird songs and insect buzzings. Twigs snapped, telling Mar-ahn that there were more than one and they were two footed. He drew his ivory sword. Kara rose and cleared his mind of fear and worries. His eyes shone blue. Tess-nor palmed some seeds that she had brought with her from her homeland. Elaine knocked an arrow. Nigel noisily stood and fretted, forgetting the outworlder pistol in his saddlebags.
Three giants appeared from behind a glade of oaks. They stood between eight and nine cubits high with stocky frames. Spears as thick as Nigel’s thigh had stone chipped heads. Two of the giants were females and one was male. They wore no coverings. One female walked behind the pair. The straggler’s eyes were bloodshot and she was stooped. Their spears, doubling as walking sticks, supported their massive grey frames and were carved with tiny runes and pictures. Nigel discovered that they lacked emotions or that he was blind to them, as he was with Elaine and the Sidhe.
Kara exhaled and said, “You can relax, Mar-ahn. The giants of the first Steppe are a peaceful people.” The crystal wizard bowed to the trio and said, “How may we aid the silent servants of the forest?”
The two females stopped and allowed the male to walk forward. Awkwardly and slowly, he kneeled before Nigel. Tess-nor and Mar-ahn exchanged a thoughtful glance. Gripping his cedar spear with both meaty hands, the giant hoisted himself with an excruciating effort to his feet. The giant turned toward Kara, and widening his stance, he presented his spear horizontally to the wizard. The mammoth biped gripped the spear in the middle, balancing it. With his free hand he pointed a sharp claw to a rune, carved at the very tip of the spear.
Kara said, “It’s an inverted ankh in a cartouche: death.”
Elaine asked, “Death? Whose death? Mine? Nigel’s?”
Exhausted from holding the spear aloft, the giant planted the butt of the spear on the ground and leaned heavily on it.
Kara answered, “The Steppe giants are mutes. They are not prophets. He means that a death has already occurred. It must be important. They rarely communicate with the monks from Sanctuary. They use a type of runic system, only found in Upper Saracea. I think Shere copied it from them. I never thought that I’d wish she were with us.”
The male giant returned to the taller female and the pair left, leaving behind the other female, who stared flatly at them.
Nigel said, “She must have known whoever died.”
The wizard asked, “Nigel, can your heritage feel her grief?”
“No. But, you only have to look at her to see that she’s grieving. I want to help her.”
Tess-nor looked at Kara from the corner of her eye and said, “Yes. It is obvious that they are more than simple savages. You won’t mind the delay, will you, wizard?”
The giantess was motionless as well as mute. Kara said, “No, Tess-nor. I do not mind this delay, especially since there is nothing in these woods that can kill one of these folk, and they do not fight amongst themselves as we do.” Kara levelled a stare at Tess-nor. “Their auras are bound tightly to their bodies so, like Nigel, I can’t tell you her relative state of mind, but I agree with Nigel. The giantess is obviously grieving. Saddle your gear.”
One more test for Nigel and Elaine nagged at Kara’s mind. He had to see how they would react to a threat in unison. They had faced the Darkenkell war apart, but at Sanctuary they would face the master crystal in each others company. The old wizard decided that he had to know and watch for himself how the two would face their common enemy, for if it was the abomination that he guessed, their magic together could bind it with his wiser guiding hand. And, as another twinge of guilt blossomed in his gut, mayhap the Horror, in a guided banishment, could take with it a portion of Nigel’s and Elaine’s gifts. Sanctuary did not need gods to deal with the outworlders, only a unifying force to rally the monks. But if the Horror should win, what of his vengeance against Osric and the outworlders? Kara gnawed at his lip and cursed this new choice, but the others were obviously adamant. He had to be careful with them.
As the humans and the hunym-sidhe stowed their packs, the giantess turned westerly, not slowing her shambling gate for her new companions. She walked, uncaring whether branches slapped her face. Just as she was at the edge of Mar-ahn’s sight, the giantess stopped, turned, and waited. When they reached her, she began outdistancing them again, moving in the same westerly direction. She repeated this pattern of striding and stopping for an hour. Then, she stopped next to the remains of a dead giant.
They walked closer to inspect the massive corpse while keeping an eye on the grim giantess. Mar-ahn gestured toward the dead giant’s thighs, which had burn holes in them. The burns had scored through the bone and shattered the flesh. Insects roamed the carcass. The corpse’s eyes had been closed while the jaw was open, as if the corpse were eternally struggling to scream.
Squatting next to the body, Mar-ahn looked up at Kara and said, “I have never seen burns of this sort before in all my years as an Ahn. And I have fought many fires.”
Elaine impassively examined the grisly wounds and said, “They’re plasma burns from an outworlder weapon. Poor bastard, he was hit in the thigh, too. His murderer was playing a sadistic game with him. Whoever they were, they knew what they were doing. They’re clearly intentional hits. Wounds are fairly cauterized and none seem lethal, unless giants are more fragile than humans. I find that hard to believe.”
Kara backed away from the corpse. His sensitive nose was already detecting the smell of decay. “Mmmm, we are too late. You are correct, Elaine. They are a sturdy folk. Perhaps there is another wound on the giant’s chest. Maybe we should turn it over.”
Tess-nor was standing several cubits from the corpse and the giantess. She spoke to Kara, “I thought your star cousins were satisfied with your cities. What are they doing here?”
Kara said, “I don’t know. There is one explanation.”
The giantess took a step toward Kara. Elaine and Mar-ahn carefully retreated from the corpse, being wary of the grieving giantess. The giantess put the spear tip in the dirt, turned it slightly, and pointed at a rune near the middle of the shaft.
Kara peered at the ruin, not wanting to get closer to the giantess than was necessary. “This one’s in a cartouche also. It’s a name. Wait. Of course, I studied that rune and everything else pertaining to it when I found Elaine. It’s the Upper Saracean ruin for Shivrael. I couldn’t recognize it, because . . . ” He looked at the giantess and then at Elaine, “because its inverted.”
Elaine said, “Is she trying to say something to me?”
Kara replied, “No, no. It hasn’t anything to do with you. I think she’s trying to name the Nef-Shivrael-e. That ancient spirit wants to kill you as it killed Osric and to take your inheritance for itself. The Nef-Shivrael-e’s followed us to the very gates of Sanctuary for you.”
Elaine scowled. “What are you trying to do, Kara? Scare me?”
Nigel stepped closer to Elaine and said, “You’ve got to be wrong. This wasn’t done by magic. It was an outworlder weapon. Why would a daemon use an outworlder weapon?”
The giantess watched their exchange of words with a suffering stoicism.
“I’m sorry. I should have made this clearer to both of you.” Kara said, “The Nef-Shivrael-e isn’t a bogey that stalks wayward children. It isn’t a legend, but it is incarnate. That is, it has no physical body of its own.”
“We know what incarnate means, wizard.” Elaine said impatiently.
Kara said, “I’m not sure that you do. The Nef-Shivrael-e is essentially the damned fragment of Shi’s spirit, released from the underworld. It has never had a body, no physical form whatsoever.”
Nigel asked, “I still don’t understand. If it’s only a spirit, how can it harm anything physical?”
Kara stopped peering at the rune and straitened his back. Turning to look Nigel in the eyes, the crystal wizard said, “By dominating other incarnates who dwell in bodies such as people, people like Sol-mer, like a certain outworlder wizard who was sent to kill Jarren.”
Elaine slowly ran her hands through the close cropped blond hair on top of her head and said, “Then, if the Nef-Shivrael-e possessed an outworlder, it could gain access to outworlder weapons like the rifle that I had or the gun that did this. The bastard must want me fiercely.”
Kara nodded and said, “It’s easy to see why. The Nef-Shivrael-e must feel a kinship with you that it can’t tolerate. It acts on the damned spirit like a sibling rivalry, although I’m sure it would want to kill Nigel, too.”
Nigel put his arm around Elaine’s waist. “Great. Wonderful.”
Mar-ahn walked toward his horse and said, “What now? Do we wait here, quaking in fear for an enemy who lurks nearby? I say we press on to our destination. Let this Nef-Shivrael-e deal with Elaine after she’s become a Ston.”
“A sorceress,” Kara corrected.
“Whatever.” Elaine said, “I agree with Mar-ahn. Let’s not delay, but take the advantage for ourselves. I bested that thing in Torastor’s council chamber, and I’m not even a full sorceress.”
Nigel stared at the corpse. “What do we do with him? Bury him?”
“I don’t know.” Kara said, “I told you they were a reclusive people. The monks at Sanctuary know almost nothing about them, except for their occasional and limited rune speech with us.” Everyone quietly waited and watched the solemn giantess.
She strode to an oak tree and grabbed a branch that was well beyond the reach of human or hunym-sidhe. She shook the branch and a spear like her own fell. Catching the spear before it could touch the ground, the giantess reverently leaned her spear against the oak and walked toward the corpse, laboriously carrying the new spear hefted in the air. She stood over the prostrate body with her legs in a wide stance on either side of the body. The giantess lifted the rune spear above her head and plunged it into the grey chest of the corpse. She drove the spear a full cubit into the ground so that the butt of the spear pointed firmly at the western sky. With slow, heavy steps she returned to the oak tree and retrieved her spear. Facing Kara, she showed him a fresh rune that was chiseled just below the stone tip of the spear. She leaned on her spear and exhaled, exhausted from her effort.
Kara coughed. Her voluminous breath reeked. Regaining his wind, Kara nodded toward the giantess and said, “You’re welcome to travel with us. We will punish the thing that did this atrocity.” He slowly backed from the giantess with his arms by his sides and said, “We’d better move while we have some daylight left. I have no desire to camp at a burial ground.”
They led their horses south east under Kara’s guidance. To everyone’s surprise and discomfiture, the giantess followed beside them. However, when twilight came and the camp was being set, the giantess walked into the woods. The next morning, she had returned. Her spear was clean, but her mouth was stained red, and she held a raw haunch in her left hand. Kara watched her, alarmed at seeing her with meat when he knew her kind ate of the green. He kept his suspicions to himself, not wanting to upset an already panicky Nigel and Elaine. They were too close to his destination.
By the end of the next day, they entered the ravine that Morrison had stumbled upon days ago. Kara cantered his horse around to face the other travellers and declared, “My friends, this is the entrance to Sanctuary.”
Mar-ahn spit out a slug of dried venison. “Looks like a canyon to me. We travelled across the burning waste to visit a canyon?”
Kara scowled. “Don’t be obtuse, Mar-ahn. I wasn’t speaking literally. At the end of this canyon is the gate to Sanctuary, the seat of knowledge. Do not complain of a hard journey.” Kara smiled. “Your pains shall be assuaged and your pleasures shall be excited. We might as well camp here. This land falls under the dominion of Sanctuary. We should be safe here.”
“Even from the daemon that pursues Elaine?” Tess-nor spoke as she dismounted and rubbed her second calves just below her second knees.
Scraping the sweat from his forehead with his dirt crusted sleeve, Kara replied, “I think once we entered these lands we’ve left the Nef-Shivrael-e behind. It is a custom among the monks at Sanctuary to keep this place hidden from the minds of the curious and the hearts of the shallow who seek the monastery. The inner fires are more effective at stopping the thought before the deed than taking direct action. The monks are particularly effective when many are gathered with one heart and mind in a meld to use the inner fires. That is why we keep private council and many never venture forth from Sanctuary. Your order is like that, isn’t it, Tess?”
Tess-nor flicked her pony tail behind her with a toss of her head. Her thin, nymish face regarded Kara’s curiosity warily for a moment before she said, “No. It is our beatitudes that make our order: awe of the Sidhe, love of her domain, and love for our brethren. These precepts empower our trust.”
“Mmm, that’s a nice sentiment.” Kara replied while scratching at a tangled knot in his grey beard. “As you can see, our lands are just as plentiful as the Darkenkell forest.”
Inside the canyon the land was notably greener, as if a line had been drawn at the mouth of the canyon. There were many burr bushes and poison skin plants just outside the canyon, but none prospered within the mouth of the canyon. Tess-nor guessed that within this boundary there were no poisonous fauxworms or any other things of nature that the wizards found unattractive. She frowned and said nothing, not wishing to anger the elderly wizard. She left him and began making her sleeping arrangements next to Mar-ahn. Conversation quickly died down as all the travellers were weary, save Kara, who meditated and watched everyone in turn go to sleep. Nigel and Elaine slept under one blanket. Mar-ahn, who had mastered the Ahn meditation of light sleep, was dimly aware of the giantess slipping away into the deep of night.
Tess-nor grudgingly confided to Kara that the new day’s travel in the canyon was light. A cooling breeze blew, and the earth was rich and smooth for the horses’ travel weary hooves. Even the giantess seemed a little less grim this day, though she made no gesture to communicate with anyone. By midday they reached a wide path and the beginnings of cultivated fields.
Tess-nor marvelled at the strange, disciplined rows of plants. She murmured to Mar-ahn, “Mark you how humans have dominated the very trees to their designs? They dare to usurp the place of a sidhe.”
Mar-ahn said, “You forget that there is no sidhe here. Quiet. There are humans ahead.”
The travellers were stared at by a score of humans, dressed in wool frocks and tunics, dyed in varieties of yellows and reds. Most were elderly or children. The giantess walked, oblivious to them or their open awe of her girth. Mar-ahn tried to imitate her stoic aloofness. Kara ignored the villagers, kneeing his horse to a faster trot. He hungered to see the place of his second birth.
Before they had entirely left the farmlands, the end of the canyon was in sight. It was a box canyon: The back was a sheer cliff, several hundred cubits high. Kara opened his arms, welcoming the familiar sight. The others couldn’t stop gawking at the walls of the canyon. The giantess craned her neck, showing interest in something for the first time since the burial ground. The back and sides of the canyon were covered with engraved images and runes. In the center of the back of the canyon were two open doors that were carved from the stone wall, large enough to accommodate a giant thrice the size of their stoic companion.
To the right of the double doors was the graven image of a woman, enlarged to the size of the door. Upon her head was a disc that represented the sun. Her right hand was over her heart and contained the image of a serpent, coiled around the fist. Her left hand was raised above her head with a slightly bent elbow. It clenched a diamond. The jewel was stained blue. It was the only color on the cliff faces and it sparkled in the sunlight. Flanking the other door was the image of a man almost as tall as the woman. Upon his head was a single feather curving toward the sky in a precarious balance. His left hand was over his heart, and his palm was outstretched and covered with leaves. On top of the leaves in the man’s palm was the figure of a woman with butterfly wings. Nigel immediately thought of the old Darkenkell Sidhe. Like a mirror image of the woman, the man’s right hand was raised over his head, but it clutched an Ankh. Nigel murmured softly so that only Elaine heard him, “Aten and Mayet as one. How can it be?” Both images had round open eyes without pupils, gazing with eternal indifference above the travellers who passed under them to Sanctuary.
The two monoliths were the largest figures in the murals, although Nigel saw a dragon to the left of the woman that was nearly as large. Many carvings depicted scenes of war and hunting or rare animals like unicorns, gathered next to a pool. There were five people, obviously wizards and sorceresses, for they were limned in an azure light as they clung to spikes embedded in the walls of the canyon; they studied or worked on the cliff murals with a hand held pick and hammer. Nigel wanted to stop and admire the carvings himself, but Kara headed unerringly toward the opening. The wizard reined his steed and dismounted, walking toward the open double doors. The others exchanged glances and followed the wizard’s lead. The horses wandered off the dirt path and began grazing on the cultivated plants, tended in rows on the canyon floor. The long, hot journey through the desert had stripped them of the desire to run.
Kara saw a small figure standing within the center of the entrance to Sanctuary. The gargantuan doors only exaggerated the boy’s small size and ludicrously proud stance. He appeared to be only slightly older than Stephen. His hair was sandy brown and neatly combed. Eyes of hazel gazed at Karamindakas with nervous confidence, wanting acceptance, but too prideful to ask for it. His face had not lost all of its baby fat and betrayed his stern demeanor. His robes struck Kara as completely incongruous for a boy’s attire. They were layered and fanciful in the manner of the wizards and sorceresses in a Sanctuarian inner council. Underneath the blue robes was a crystal azure tunic, and his leggings were a softened blue calfskin. Round his neck was a journeystone, hung on a silver braid. The stone glimmered a clear azure.
When Kara was within ten paces of the entrance, the boy gave him a deep bow. Everyone waited for Kara to react. With a flourish of his arm, the boy proclaimed in a forced tenor, “I am the wizard Anatoly, here to welcome you weary travelers to the Sanctuary. Welcome, Karamindakas. We have anxiously awaited your arrival with your charges, Elaineminshivrael and Nigelminaten-mayet.” Having finished his prepared speech, Anatoly paused for their response.
Kara walked in front of the boy and stared down at him. “Is this a jest? Who sent you here, boy? Where is Peri?”
Anatoly stepped back a pace and puffed out his chest defiantly. He met Kara’s gaze. “I am your brother, bound to you as you are to me by the inner fires that we share. Despite my age, I am accounted a full wizard here, and I was reborn as you were. I won’t let you speak to me like that.” Anatoly trembled, but he did not falter. His journeystone began to glow. His eyes shifted from hazel to blue.
Now, it was Kara who stepped back a pace. “So, it has come to this. I beg your pardon, honorable wizard Anatoly of Sanctuary. You spoke well.”
The fires in Anatoly’s journeystone died. The boy stared at Kara with an open mouth. Elders were usually curt to him despite his position. Anatoly said, “You’re pardoned, brother. As I said, you’re welcome here. Peri, ah, the sorceress Perigrine could not be here to greet you. She has taken ill, but she asked to see you in her chamber as soon as you arrived. I was sent by her to escort you.” Anatoly regretted those last words. It made him sound like a servant, not the equal that he felt he was. He resolved not to contradict himself and have the newcomers, particularly Karamindakas, take him for a fool.
“Thank you, brother.” Kara strode into the entrance without looking backwards. Nigel followed him, quietly encircling Elaine’s arm with his. Her simple warmth, which his empathic affliction could not vitiate with that terrible intimacy, comforted him. Tess-nor clutched her medallion and followed Nigel into the stony hall. Mar-ahn advanced, poised on the balls of his feet. His hand rested on the hilt of Carchoroth’s fang with a deceptive casualness.
As they walked close together into the dim hall, Anatoly asked, “What of your companion? Her size presents no problem. There are many halls and rooms in Sanctuary large enough for her.”
Kara turned to see the giantess standing outside the threshold. He gestured for her to enter. The giantess smiled at Kara. Her smile was filled with broad, flat teeth, colored a dim yellow. At first Kara thought that it was her way of saying goodbye, but her eyes were cold, making her smile cruel and utterly lacking in charity. She turned her backs on them and left, plodding with her walking spear, steadily distancing herself from the gates of Sanctuary.
Nigel asked, “What was that about? Why did she even come with us in the first place?”
Kara wiped his nose, assaulted by the suddenly cooler air. He said, “I don’t know. She is a mystery to me. She’s probably unhinged from her grief. It’s a shame your heritage cannot sense her. Ahh well, it doesn’t matter anymore. We’re at Sanctuary. We’ve arrived. Lead the way, Anatoly.”
Mar-ahn grimaced and whispered to Tess-nor, “It is obvious to me that the giantess seeks vengeance against the one who slew its kindred. She followed us, hoping that we would lead her to the daemon. She leaves us, because she thinks we made a mistake in coming here.”
Tess-nor shivered and tightened her robe. “I think you’re correct. But it is Nigel and Elaine who concern our King, not a daemon.”
Elaine overheard their conversation with interest.
Mar-ahn drew close to Tess-nor and Elaine strained to eavesdrop. Mar-ahn said, “I do not like this place. It is too large for common sense. Why make such a place? Who toiled to make it? And everything is stone and cold to the eye.”
Tess-nor whispered, “I agree with you, Mar, but as you have said, we are not among nym and we are not in our homeland. These are a different people.”
Mar-ahn gestured slightly and quickly, “I am just beginning to understand that.”
Anatoly faced them, suppressing a grin. He spoke with the anxious delight that was common to happy children, “If you are ready?” He raised his hands high in the air. The monolithic doors were covered in a blue light, mirroring the light emanating from Anatoly’s journeystone. The low grinding sound as the two doors closed oppressed the Darkenkell nym, who had never heard such working of stone against stone. Just before the doors shut out all the outside light, Nigel thought that he caught a glimpse of Stephenmindakas, standing forlornly outside. He dismissed the idea as a trick of the blue light and the desire for someone who would be a balm to his uncontrollable empathy. The doors shut with a low thud.
Anatoly grasped his journeystone. Lanterns, which lined the side walls in three horizontal rows of different heights, filled the room with a light azure radiance.
Between the lamps on each wall were stone faces of men and women of various ages and countenances. “Don’t let the faces spook you.” Anatoly said, “They’re just death masks of the past members of Sanctuary. Some are pretty funny, like old Engel.” He pointed to his left at a stone face between two lamps in the middle row.
Mar-ahn squinted to see. Despite the illumination, the hall was a full thirty cubits wide, making it difficult to see the carvings. A look of mirth decorated the aged stone face.
“‘Man’s perverseness,” the Ahn muttered.
The end of the hall opened into a square chamber. Their footsteps echoed through the silence, careened against the carved walls. All the grey walls had azure lamps, which gave off neither smoke nor smell. The center of the chamber contained a spring, enclosed by a cubit high cylinder of bone colored rock. The waters were still at the moment, but steam curled from the surface of the hot pool. A figure, squatting next to the pool on a fur, had his back to the entrance.
Anatoly put a finger to his lips, bidding them to tread quietly in the chamber. Three sets of wooden doors were flush with the far wall of the chamber. Anatoly led them to the left door.
A grating voice issued from the man by the pool, “Whose aura is that? Is that you, little Kara? Come back from your wanderings?”
The man moved his body carefully on his furs, as if unsure of his movements. Nigel was shocked by the figure’s appearance: He had never seen someone of such advanced years. The man was totally lacking in hair, except for some scraggly white eyebrows and the few thick hairs that sprouted from twin moles on his left cheek. His neck was ribbed with folds of skin. Nigel saw that his eyes were a clouded blue, and his cheeks hung down on his face. His lower jaw dangled open, rudely sucking air and displaying his complete lack of teeth. His bones were like knobs and slats against his skin, and his spine ridged down his bare back like rocks aligned under his skin. He wore only a simple loincloth. Nigel followed Kara toward the pool with a morbid fascination. Tess-nor and Mar-ahn simply waited, not knowing what to make of the odd looking human.
Anatoly rushed in front of Kara, faced the old man, and said, “Pardon, wizard Andelius. Sorceress Perigrine asked me to take these visitors to her.”
Andelius smacked his lips together, preparing to speak. “Off with you, wizard Ana. To your lessons or I’ll give you a lesson you’ll truly learn.” Nigel was surprised to see such vitriol from one so old. Nigel’s heritage noted, however, a lack of anger.
Anatoly was without Nigel’s unique perceptions. The boy quaked with indecision. Andelius leveled a stare that flashed blue at the boy. “Yes, brother Andelius.” Anatoly said. The boy departed the chamber through the left door.
“It’s good to see you again, Andelius.” Kara proffered a small bow to the aged wizard.
Andelius sputtered a wet laugh and said, “You mean it’s good to see me still alive. Yes?”
Kara smiled. “Yes, that’s exactly what I meant.”
Andelius said, “Ha, I always liked you, Kara. You’re honest–for a wizard.” Andelius squinted and peered behind Kara. “What’s this?” He laughed again and said, “Nym are invading Sanctuary. Heh, you haven’t seen my like, have you? No, no, nym don’t get old. They just fall right over on their faces. Hmph, lacks the honesty of humans. We show our years.”
Mar-ahn stepped forward. “The Ahn always deal honestly and quickly.”
Andelius held out a moist, trembling palm and said, “Peace, warrior. So be it. I meant no offense. I see that you truly haven’t met old humans before and so you haven’t learned to ignore their words and treat them foolishly like children, as others do. You and yours are welcome here. What is this?”
The old wizard reached under his furs and pulled out a gnarled, polished staff. He leaned heavily on it to get to his feet. Nigel was amazed that age had not stolen all of Andelius’ strength, but he swiftly forgot his thoughts of inferiority when the old man locked eyes with him and said, “What are you doing here? Mmmm, if you’re here . . . ” His eyes caught sight of Elaine, and Andelius began to laugh. He gasped for breath between bursts of laughter with such difficulty that Nigel was afraid Andelius would choke. Although the laughter was not malicious, it had the rattle and phlegm of death about it and an intensity that reminded Nigel of someone unhinged.
“Andelius!” A feminine voice called from the back of the chamber.
Andelius stopped laughing so abruptly that there was a clear echo of it in the chamber. Andelius spoke softly, letting the stone walls insinuate his voice to the sorceress, “Peri, have you met my friends? They are most welcome, most welcome.”
The sorceress Perigrine approached rapidly, though she walked with a staff, and her head was heavily bandaged.
Perigrine said, “Andelius, I sent Ana to bring these people to me and you send him to lessons that he has already completed.” Her initial anger expended, Perigrine continued with an air of weary tolerance. “Please, Andel, don’t interfere with people who are running my errands.”
Andelius snapped peevishly, “I wasn’t interfering. I wield the inner fire, too. Don’t forget that, Perigrine. Don’t forget that.”
Perigrine’s expression softened further. “I know, Andel. It’s just that—-”
Andelius interrupted her, “How did you hurt your head, Peri?”
Exasperated, Perigrine glanced at Kara. Her eyes silently asked for patience. Then, she looked back at Andelius as she emphasized her words, “I told you twice already, Andel. I tripped and hit my head. And yes, I’m fine. Why don’t you scry at the pool? The meld needs all our help.” She advanced toward Andelius to help him regain his seat at the pool.
Andelius’ eyes flashed crystal blue. He brandished his staff and said, “I don’t need your help. I can sit, thank you. You’d be best served by tending to yourself. She’s here. Go on. Go on. I can sit. I still wield the inner fires. Don’t I? Well, don’t I?”
Perigrine backed away from Andelius as did Karamindakas, surprised at the old man’s sudden vitality. Perigrine said, “Of course, you wield the inner fires. No one doubts you.”
Andelius calmed himself and sat by the pool. He reached into the pouch, lying at the edge of the white rimmed pool and withdrew a journeystone from it, then dropped the jewel into the water. The others followed Perigrine, save for Mar-ahn who listened to Andelius’ mumbling. The old wizard became oblivious to everything, except the now shimmering pool. He muttered, “Mmmm, ahh, let’s see. The sightless see. Mmmm, Erador. How are you now, eh? Proud, o’erproud worm to contest Mayet himself. Mmmm, your brother Castor dances with death. Perhaps you’ll have company, bloated Emperor. Perdition’s black flames. Worms, worms, worms. You can’t hide from me, Castor. I am as brave as you. I see the hate you have for your docile brother. So bold, so bold, so cold where you go with the little men. Oh, you measure yourself clever. It’s all for naught, you fool. She’s here. Better, if you’d slept. That way you wouldn’t have felt it. Worms. Pah! They never learn. Sly, sly worm. You should have slept and dreamed and watched, like me. Now, there’s naught—-”
“Mar-ahn, are you coming?” Tess-nor called from the left door that the others had already entered.
Andelius jerked his head from above the rim of the pool. A line of spittle dripped from his mouth into the water. Andelius looked at Mar-ahn and asked, “You’re interested in my scryings, nym?” He lowered his voice to a whisper, “Something is wrong. A warrior knows. An Ahn knows. Ahn listen to bodies, not words. The scrolls say that. I knew you were Ahn the moment I saw you.”
Mar-ahn walked away. He didn’t wish to be left behind with this sidhe touched one. Yet the wrinkled human mirrored his feelings too closely. Mar-ahn faced the wizard and hissed, “What do you want of me? I am nym and do not belong here.”
Andelius grinned, baring toothless gums. “Yes, you are hunym-sidhe, but you are also Ahn with honor. Come visit me alone and talk with me. Then, decide what Ahn honor calls to you. You may have the blood you crave to spill. Or maybe not.” He laughed.
Forgetting his dignity, Mar-ahn ran to rejoin Tess-nor as he was chased by Andelius’ inane laughter. He closed the door to the chamber and gripped his sword hilt tightly. The muscles in his back tightened–a feeling he often had before battle. He couldn’t help thinking that this corridor was too small for the giantess had she chosen to enter this so called Sanctuary. He had a new respect for the people of the first Steppe.
The corridor was paved with large onyx rocks, polished to reflect the light from the azure lamps. A black stained door was on the right of the corridor. Perigrine entered through the door to a small room. It was undecorated, except for the books and scrolls that littered the room in disarray and a large chair, covered with brown furs. Perigrine wearily sat. Her breathing was labored from the short walk to her room.
After a pause her breathing calmed, and she said, “‘Tis good your friend declined our welcome, or we would truly be cramped in my small room.” She favored them with a wan smile.
Seeing that Perigrine was in pain, Nigel sidled past Elaine and Kara to face the sorceress. He was careful to step around the books on the floor. He said, “Perhaps I can cure you.”
Perigrine tensed and frowned. “No! I mean no. That’s not necessary. The wound is not fatal, and it’s my testing, if you will. You should rest. Tomorrow is the day for your test. Your offer does you credit, Nigelminaten. After you awaken, you could heal poor Andelius. I have treated him twice these last few days, but his mind is slipping.”
Anatoly, whose small frame was hidden behind Mar-ahn’s broad back, spoke, “Peri, you must let someone help you.”
Perigrine’s eyebrows knitted in agitation. “Hush, Ana. You are young yet. Go and tell Sara that we need novitiates to escort these tired ones to places of rest, and tell her to prepare festival food for them.” She smiled at Kara. “They have subsisted long enough on dried rations in their haste to join us.”
Anatoly pushed himself past Tess-nor to reach the door. His face was red. He slammed the door behind him when he left. Perigrine continued, “Ana will mature. Do you know that he was the most receptive to the master crystal since you brought us Jarren? A noble death he had, and a great purpose he served.”
Kara nodded grimly.
Elaine pushed Nigel aside and confronted Perigrine. She said, “Exactly what is going to happen to us, and what is expected of us? I’ve just about had enough of this blind faith.”
Perigrine froze a smile on her face. She talked with a rhythmic calm, “I understand how you feel, but we have traditions at Sanctuary that we must follow. As a pledge, all the risks and obligations involved should you decide to become a wielder of the sacred inner fire will be made known to you. You can always refuse, Elaineminshivrael.”
Elaine cocked an eyebrow. “Huhn. Let’s leave it just as Elaine for now.”
Perigrine nodded and clutched her head. “My headache is returning.” There was a knock at the door.
“Come.” Perigrine beckoned.
Five figures in yellow robes stood with heads bent in respect. Perigrine said, “These novitiates will see you to your rooms, except you, Kara. I’m sorry, but you will only have time to eat quickly. You have been invited to attend the azure meld that is forming even as we speak. Your wisdom and experience with the outworlders is needed, since you are the only member of the dissolved New Candide council who is present.”
Kara responded politely, “My honor grows with this invitation to meld with you and the Sanctuarian community.”
Perigrine’s smile faded. “No. I’m sorry, but my ill health would only discolor the meld, and we are stressed enough with our contentions against the outworlders.” She yawned. “I’m afraid I must have some sleep. You’ll excuse me.”
Kara said, “Of course.” He turned to the others. “Let’s leave Peri to her rest.”
As soon as the door closed behind them, Elaine asked, “What’s going on here, Kara?”
“What do you mean? Isn’t it clear to you? You’re here to become a sorceress who can deal with the outworlders.”
Elaine grabbed his shoulder as he tried to follow the novitiates. She said, “That’s not what I mean. I expected a bunch of people, like you, Shere, and Meara: a bunch of wizards and sorceresses, eager to fight the outworlders in some sort of palace called Sanctuary. So far, I’ve only seen some odd sculptures, a dank, forged cavern, and a boy with a couple of sick people. Now, we’re being escorted by these yellow zuvembies to who knows where.” Elaine stopped Kara. Nigel, Mar-ahn, and Tess-nor crowded around them. The yellow robed novitiates silently waited. Elaine said, “I’m asking you again: What’s happening here?”
Kara replied, “Calm yourself, Elaine.”
Elaine spoke through gritted teeth, “I will not calm myself. Nigel and I have risked our lives to get here and we’ll probably die for you fighting the outworlders. The least we deserve is some honesty.”
Mar-ahn interjected, “This Sanctuary is not what I expected to see, either.”
Kara’s shoulders sagged. “I understand your concern. When last I was here, Elaine, you would have seen the robust place that you expected. You must understand: Sanctuary is engaged in a silent war against the outworlders. Everyone is probably doing what they can to prepare the way for you. Through their scrying they have known of our trials. Undoubtedly, their hope is our hope. We are at war, and it is no time for festivals. As for them,” he gestured toward the novitiates, “they serve willingly. They hope to wield the inner fires one day. Yet they do not have the karmic inheritance with which you were gifted, so they wait until a rebirth fails, and then one is given the chance to take his place.”
Nigel asked, “A rebirth fails?”
Kara nodded. “Rarely, the inner fires will reject the host and consume him. The fires in the master crystal remain restless until a suitable host is found. The novitiates hope to be picked as a replacement host. They probably view you with envy.”
Nigel asked, “Aren’t they risking their lives by being a replacement?”
Kara began walking, knowing that he was pressed for time. “They do so willingly and gladly. Please, understand. It is very rare when the fires consume their host. And you two certainly have nothing to worry about. Your ascendancy is assured. Come. I want to eat a decent meal before entering the azure meld. It would be the height of rudeness to taint the meld with my hunger pangs.”
The novitiates led them fifty paces from Perigrine’s room to another door on the right. It opened to a room twice the size of Perigrine’s. Inside were two beds, two plain wooden chairs, and a table with an earthenware bowl, filled with steaming victuals. A male and a female novitiate entered the room. The male novitiate spoke softly, “I have prepared this room for you, Mar-ahn. As a guest from the Darkenkell, it is my honor to serve you.”
The female novitiate said, “And my honor grows to serve you, Tess-nor of the Darkenkell hunym-sidhe.”
Kara said, “Do not fear. I will make sure that you will be present at Nigel’s and Elaine’s awakening.”
Elaine said, “I’ll make sure of it, Mar. I’ll want a fellow Ahn there.” Elaine tried to make the hand gesture that she had so often seen in the Darkenkell forest.
Mar-ahn smiled and returned her gesture as he said, “So be it, Elaine-ahn.”
Leaving the hunym-sidhe to their repast, Nigel and Elaine followed Kara and the yellow robed monks deeper into the catacombs of Sanctuary. Their journey sloped upwards, passing other hallways and rooms and making turns into different passages. Elaine was afraid that Sanctuary was turning labyrinthine. She wasn’t sure that she could retrace her steps back to the entrance. The catacombs seemed endless, gradually changing from hewn stone to natural caverns with paths worn slippery by age and use. Being a tactical thief, Elaine always liked to have an escape route in her mind, but she realized that she was already committed, that she had been committed since New Candide.
She grumbled, “Why couldn’t Tess and Mar be quartered closer to us?”
“Politics, Elaine.” Kara said candidly, “Remember the difficulty we had entering the borders of the Darkenkell tribal lands? As much as we trust Tess-nor and Mar-ahn, they’re still strangers to Sanctuary. Humans and hunym-sidhe have not always been friends.”
Elaine nodded. The distrust was necessary to keep out infiltrators. She had learned that in her days of contracts with the New Candide gangs.
They came to the end of a natural passage that widened to a roughly oval shaped room. The high ceiling was littered with stalactites, some of which dripped water into a natural pool in the center of the chamber. The floor of the chamber was smooth and polished. Some work had been done to the ceiling, for the only stalactites were directly over the pool. Azure lamps were fastened to the walls. The bed in the room was piled with cloth blankets, a towel, and a white robe. The room was cool and quiet with only the tiny splashes of mineral water to disturb the silence as the drops ran down the stalactites to strike the mirrored face of the pool.
Kara said, “Elaine, this is your room. I’m sorry there’s no food, but it’s better that you fast before the awakening. Get some rest. Tomorrow, you begin a new life.”
“Where are you taking Nigel?”
Kara shook his head. “After all we’ve been through, Elaine, you still don’t trust me?”
“Huhn. When you put people before your own desires, that’s when I’ll trust you, Kara. If it’s any consolation, I do respect you.”
Kara bowed his head. “Thank you for that, at least. Don’t worry. Nigel will be sleeping in an identical room, not more than two hundred paces distant. These are the purification chambers and are the closest rooms to the master crystal. Staying in these rooms will cleanse your auras so that you will have the optimal chance of withstanding the naked fires. After tomorrow you can cleanse your aura without anyone’s help.”
Nigel said, “I still don’t know what an aura is.”
Kara laughed, “Don’t worry about that, either. You’ll know soon enough when you have your second sight. I don’t think you’ll find it nearly as useful or as easy as your natural empathy. That is a greater gift from Aten-Mayet. Keep your minds on the good that you’ll do.”
Nigel could feel that Kara genuinely believed in what he was saying. He didn’t think that the grey beard knew what he was talking about this time. True pain could never be healed. A wound couldn’t be mended if it existed solely in the mind of the victim, unless the entire scheme of life was changed to exclude the pain of responsibility for everyone. He would have to break Mayet’s covenant with the sidhe and establish something better. Or worse? Nigel shivered.
Kara and the last novitiate escorted him to his room. As Kara had said, it was identical to Elaine’s room. He bid Kara farewell and didn’t listen to the wizard’s reply. Taking the real pain from the peoples of the world seemed more than even Mayet could do, but everyone seemed to want that. Nigel wondered what was the point of assuming his karmic heritage. His order worked without his consent or action. Yet Mayet’s order was flawed. Pain couldn’t be intrinsic to the universe. Pain had to have been born by Shi’s initial tampering of the world. A truly natural order should not need pain. Everything should work correctly. Everything would be done in accordance with nature. All responsibility would be taken on by nature itself. People could not be held responsible for nature and their nature. There had to be a cleaner path.
He remembered an old proverb: “When the winter is too cold and becomes my enemy, I do not take up my sword and hack at the snow.” Nigel scowled; he had the sword made to hack at snow. He could reorder the snow as fire. He could change the nature of Shi’s creations and Mayet’s false laws. He could make men act according to nature and not struggling with the pains, desires, and ambitions that were inherent in Shi’s and Mayet’s false order. Nigel admitted that he had no idea what the natural laws were. Would they prevent pain by preventing the existence of man? But Shi was supposed to have been a woman who existed before Mayet’s order. If Shi was without pain, why were her creations filled with pain? So much pain that she tore herself in twain, that she created a healing father.
Nigel wasn’t sure that he could do better than his karmic antecedent. He lay back on his bed and contemplated taking the ultimate responsibility for everyone. He might end by taking all the pain through the assumption of everyone’s guilt, everyone’s actions, if he changed Mayet’s order for the world.
No wonder Shi went mad.

***

Kara sat at the foot of his bed and gazed at the memories that populated his personal chamber: a portrait of Stephen before he became the forever child, favorite books of lore and philosophy, a musty white robe he had used once over a century ago, and a writing desk with an ibis quill–a gift from Meara. Resting on the desk was a journeystone that pulsed out a soft azure light at quickening intervals. The meld was beginning, and the time for indulging memories had slipped through his aching fingers.
The meld was the most intricate and intimate form of communication that he knew. No holder of a journeystone, no nymish mage, no outworlder could even enter a meld, and if entrance was somehow gained, then there was no hiding. The meld was an indefinable place that expressed the natures of the awakened monks who embodied it. Kara watched the azure stone pulse greedily as his eyes were filled with a blue radiance. The sound of blue filled him. The old man reveled in a temporal flash of pleasure, followed by the pang of abandoning his flesh. Even that died as he entered a new state of being, freed from carnal desire. Here, the inner fires were unconstrained by the limitations of the physical world. Yet it did not preclude the use of reason or restraint. “Self denial,” Karamindakas thought, “is the key here, or I’ll lose myself in another’s thought whorls. Purpose–what was my purpose? Elaine and Nigel must be awakened.”
A wave of approval washed over his consciousness from the other wizards and sorceresses at Sanctuary who shared his awareness in the meld. Anonymity was assured so long as one didn’t wander too far into another’s feelings. There were no senses to discern one speaker from another, and the thoughts of others reached his “ears” as raw emotions. Kara thought, “None oppose me?” Their approval was ecstasy, but doubt worried at Kara. Other melds that he had entered were disconcerting and cacophonous. He usually couldn’t get a clear response on his thoughts, rather he usually felt others. The awakened monks of Sanctuary were a very self willed group. Complete agreement was unknown in a meld. He knew that he was at the center of the meld. For the first time in his awakened life, he directed the discussion. His thoughts drifted to Elaine. He sent his feelings and respect for her into the sightless meld: “Elaine will defeat the outworlders.”
A unanimous chorus of disapproval erupted around his sense of self. Kara guessed that a meld had already been done and had decided the matter before he had even entered the doors of Sanctuary. He stopped emoting and waited in the sensual void to hear their decision. He cleared himself of worry and strain. Images of Elaine floated in his mind. A sorceress, adroit with the meld, had taken control and was sending directly to him. The image turned into a feeling of terrified imprisonment, mixing with the jolt of awakening. Loathing what he felt and intimated from the image, Kara withdrew from the meld.
Kara stared at the dull crystal on his writing desk. The shock of his return to corporeality quickly turned to an avalanching anger. He rose from his bed and opened his door.
The prophet Carter stood outside his door. Kara recognized him from his early days when Kara was new to the inner fires. He looked at the prophet with open awe. Carter seemed to be only about fifty years of age with silvery hair.
Eyes of blue flecked with violet stared back at Kara with a composed compassion. A soft tenor said, “May I come in, Master Karamindakas?” Those eyes were the mark of someone who had come to terms with the inner fires that raged in the breast of other wizards. Carter had conquered age by letting no life force leave him. Only a handful of wizards were that adept in their conservation, and most were already enfeebled with age when they had finally achieved that mastery.
Kara believed that Osric would have achieved those violet flecks had he not died violently. He opened the door wider and said, “You may enter, but I thought you had left Sanctuary to become one of those wandering ascetics, chained to the visions brought out by the barren wastes.”
Carter entered quietly. He wore a simple brown wrap. He carried himself with a measured dignity. Shutting the door behind him, he smiled and said, “‘chained to the visions brought out by the barren wastes’: I like that. It sounds very romantic. Despite the violence you have experienced, you haven’t been jaded. Yet this is no time for romantic notions. You face a hard choice. I assume you have participated in the meld? Although I no longer consider myself a member of the Sanctuarian community, I have agreed to speak with you on their behalf.”
Kara’s face flushed. He shook his fist at Carter. “If they expect me to betray Elaine—-”
“Peace. I understand your anger, but it will not help you. I am here to speak with you. I don’t want to fight.”
Kara exhaled, letting go of his rage. It became too tiresome and childish to maintain in front of the prophet. Kara sat at the foot of his bed while the prophet pulled out the chair in front of the writing desk. Kara bowed his head and said, “How do they expect me to make such a sacrifice?” He looked up into the prophet’s eyes. “Are you here to convince me?”
Carter frowned. It wasn’t anger, more of a frown of careful consideration that showed the veils of much time imbued reason in his eyes. Carter said, “I suppose I could say that you brought me here. When you discovered Elaine and Nigel, I became aware of your action. I fasted in the desert until I foresaw that you would eventually come here with them, so I returned to the place of my rebirth. As soon as you touched their lives, you set their dormant fires smoldering. You began a fire that once started can only be smothered by death or madness. You placed them on the mystic’s path: the dangerous struggle to self awareness. Your choice to confront them with the knowledge of who they are inevitably led you to the decision you must now make.”
Kara waved his hand, dismissing the prophet’s words. “There is no decision to make. Who knows what would happen to Elaine if she was imprisoned within the master crystal. I won’t abuse her psyche in that way.”
Carter leaned close to Kara and said, “Don’t play the innocent with me. We’re both too old to play those games. You’ve allowed others to perish to protect your aim at forcing the outworlders off this world. What’s so different now that you’re close to the fruition of your plans?”
Kara met the prophet’s gaze and said, “There have been times when I’ve disregarded the needs of others. I must freely admit that, but what you are asking me is a betrayal. I would be damned tenfold by my heart should I do such a thing.”
There was something of disgust in those eyes that made Kara wince, but Carter’s voice was soft, gentle, “I suggest that you consider the alternative. If you don’t do as the meld dictates, then you face the possibility of damning everybody else to the chaos of a world formed by the reborn Elaineminshivrael. She may not even have a choice once she departs humanity. What will she do against the outworlders? Shatter them? Then, more will come. I have foreseen this possibility. The outworlders have worshipped Mammon for so long that they have mastered the laws of nature in ways that we cannot even fathom. The resources, which they greedily hoard, could be draw upon to be used against our world. They would come down against us with their mastery of the hard world as they have shown at Jezric, and how much greater would their vengeance be after their first assault was shattered by our new goddess? Their weapons are so great as to be limitless, while we would be babes, learning to serve a new mistress. Elaine’s fires are too great. They must be enslaved. Only our brothers here in Sanctuary have the subtlety to fight the outworlders successfully.”
Grabbing a bedpost, Kara rose to his feet. He paced the room. “I remember Tobin saying that I should not run to Sanctuary and study scrolls while others do the fighting. This is a time for warriors, like Elaine-ahn, not scholars.”
Carter’s tanned face turned from Kara. The prophet glanced at the portrait of Stephen as he said, “You are trying to lie to yourself. You hold yourself too highly. That meld was not composed of wan scholars, but wizards and sorceresses who are ready to fight, who have been fighting. Once you had left the city-states, did you encounter outworlders? No. That is because all who are healthy and awakened at Sanctuary have been clouding their minds, blinding them to the unconquered regions of Oco. Only the Darkenkell war in the height of its tempest was too great to hide from them. Don’t mock those who serve silently.”
Kara stared at the dull journeystone, sitting on his dusty desk. He said, “They are unjust. They force upon me a choice of only two evils.”
Carter said, “Who are you to say what is just? You, who presumed to meddle with gods, have strayed beyond your moral ken. Now, you must live with your arrogant choice as best as you may, as the man that you are and not as the god you might wish to be. You must make a gray choice: whether to tell Elaine what you know or keep silent and allow the monks of Sanctuary to wield her fires. What is your decision?”
Kara froze and asked, “What about Nigel?”
The prophet gracefully stood. His moves carried the unconscious firmness of self assurance. “You are avoiding your dilemma. This conversation is not about Nigel. He will be allowed to complete the awakening. The monks do not fear the one who is partaking from the legacy of Aten.” Carter gently laid his hand on Kara’s shoulder. “You wish a return to the past. I think you will be disappointed. However, should Elaine achieve her inheritance, unfettered by anyone less passionate, then everything will change. Nigel cannot stand against her whims; he can only inherit the karma of a healing father, not the Shivrael. In the desert I have heard the sidhe whispering to the ground of their fear of her. Elaine must be bound now, before she awakens of her own accord. The fire in her has been lit. And you are the cause of that.” He withdrew his hand from Kara’s shoulder. “The final decision rests upon you. No other will consent to lead Elaine to the awakening. She is your pupil. I would wish you a good rest if I thought that you would sleep tonight.” As quietly as he had entered, the prophet left the room.
Kara gripped the edges of the bedpost with a strength that pained his hand as he stared at the portrait of his adopted son.

***

Mar-ahn pushed away his earthenware bowl. Between spoonfuls of the rich stew, Tess-nor said, “Why don’t you eat, Mar? The meat is rather bland, but the vegetables are delicious.”
Mar-ahn rose from the table. “I can’t relax, Tess. This place unnerves me.”
Tess-nor put down her spoon, seeing that Mar-ahn intended to remain agitated. “I never thought I would hear an Ahn admit that. I thought your clan was supposed to be fearless.”
Mar-ahn opened the door. “I’m not afraid, just cautious. I have a meeting with that odd wizard, Andelius. Do not sleep until I return. I do not feel safe here.”
“Andelius?” Tess-nor asked, “What can you hope to learn from that sidhe touched one?” I admit this place is strange, but we are in the hands of humans. This is their home, not ours.”
Mar-ahn glanced at Tess from the hall. “You’ve become fond of reminding me of that, haven’t you, Tess? Thank you for caring. Still, I wish to reassure myself.” He closed the door.
Tess-nor whispered to herself, “So be it.”
The corridor seemed larger now that Mar-ahn walked it alone. He passed the door to Perigrine’s chamber and saw that it was open. He peered inside. The one small table in the room had been overturned. Some scrolls and papers on which the humans love to write were shredded into pieces and strewn about the room. Mar-ahn entered for a closer inspection. He was wishing that his friends had never come here. Nigel and Elaine would have remained honored guests in the Darkenkell for their help against Hecate.
Something offended his nose. The smell of disease permeated the corner of the room where Perigrine’s chair was. He walked toward the chair, sniffing until he gagged on the fetid smell. Mar-ahn was used to the smell of gangrenous flesh as an Ahn, but rarely was it so pungent, except among the dying and dead on a humid battlefield. Behind the chair he found some old bandages lying on the stone floor. Mar-ahn coughed, disgusted. The humans knew nothing of treating the sick. He kicked at the bandages to get a better look. The filthy strips of cloth left a wet spot on his boot. Mar-ahn wiped the sudden sweat from his face. A thick, grayish-black pool was concealed by the bandages. There was no doubt that the oily puss was the source of the stench. Mar-ahn perversely thought that there was enough infectious refuse to fill a wineskin. He shuddered and withdrew from Perigrine’s room.
He waited in the corridor to catch his breath. A slight breeze came to freshen him from the entrance chamber. At the other end of the hall, he saw that the azure lamps in the entrance chamber were dimmer than when he had first entered. Andelius remained at his place by the pool, but there was a figure crouching over the ancient. Mar-ahn shivered at the sight of her with the old human. He crept toward them. Mar-ahn discovered that Carchoroth’s tooth was out of its scabbard and in his hand. The figure stood and Mar-ahn fully recognized her as Perigrine. The stench of her discharging head wound offended his nostrils again. The sorceress walked directly to him.
“You seek a confrontation, Ahn warrior? Haven’t your people had enough of their blood spilt?”
His hand trembled as he sheathed his sword. He tried to look at her eyes, but the blue light was too dim and the shadows that clung to Perigrine were too dark. He looked behind her at Andelius and said, “No. I do not seek a confrontation with you, Perigrine. I agree. Enough blood has passed into the ground.”
Perigrine grinned. “Good of you to agree with me. Andel said that you were coming to talk with him. I think you’ll find him receptive. Excuse me, Ahn. I have a matter I must attend.”
She left. Her stench took its time departing. He leaned against the back wall of the entrance chamber while he measured his breath. Even the dragon Carchoroth in the grip of his worm lust had not affected the Ahn in such a personal way. For an agonizing moment Mar-ahn fought a nebulous despair of self revulsion. It was the way that Perigrine looked at him, cast him in such a pathetic light.
When the fit passed, he looked again toward the ancient, Andelius. The old human seemed asleep with his head on the pool’s edge. Peering closely, Mar-ahn discovered that the old man was awake. His eyes stared glassily at the nym. Mar-ahn thought about getting Tess-nor, but he was reluctant to face Perigrine again. Andelius looked ill–even for an aged human. Mar-ahn knelt next to the pool and said, “Can you hear me? You said you wanted to talk with me. You called upon my honor to speak with you. I am here. Say something.”
Mar-ahn was beginning to doubt the old human’s obscure ranting and warning, but he couldn’t discount his feelings about Perigrine. Whether her demeanor was a result of her illness or it was her nature, Mar-ahn could not ignore his violent reaction toward her. He had been trained since the inception of his adulthood to be constantly looking for threats and dangers to himself or his people.
A rasping issued from Andelius, “Ach, so you come, little nym. What are you doing here, little nym? Are you the barbarian that they say you are? No, no. You are Ahn and true.” His voice strengthened, and Andelius began humming tunelessly.
Andelius was sicker than when they had first met. Mar-ahn thought he saw his own fear in Andelius. Hesitating, for it seemed that his words would be enough to shatter the fragile ancient, Mar-ahn said, “Ancient, tell me about Perigrine.”
Andelius’ humming abruptly halted, and he laboriously lifted his head to stare into the pool. Mar-ahn followed the human’s gaze. In the dim blue light that the lamps provided, the waters appeared black and bottomless. Mar-ahn made several more attempts to speak with Andelius. However, the old man would not be disturbed from gazing into the ebony pool.
Tess-nor rubbed the sleep from her eyes as Mar-ahn slammed the door behind him. He looked into her eyes to be sure she understood him; then, he said, “I do not think it is wise to sleep here. This is a troubled clan.”
Putting on her robe, Tess-nor asked, “What have you learned to say such a thing? What did the ancient tell you?”
“He told me nothing. He is very ill. I saw him with Perigrine, and she is not so ill as she pretended. She walked smoothly without the cane she used this afternoon. There was something about her that shook me. I felt as if I were going into battle. I want you to try to heal Andelius.”
Tess-nor tied the silver chain that held her medallion around her waist. “I can’t do that, Mar. We are far from the Darkenkell forest, and he is feeble from age, not from disease or injury. I am not a Ston, and I don’t think a Ston could help him. Perhaps, Nigel?”
Mar-ahn slumped into a chair. He folded his triple jointed arms in front of him. “Something is amiss here. We do not know our way here, but Kara knows this place. It is his home. I will tell him tomorrow of my feelings, before Elaine and Nigel come to some harm. This Sanctuary is cursed. I should have brought a spear with me. An Ahn can tell when Death is near.”
Tess-nor brought him a bowl of cold stew. “You’re being superstitious. You’re just nervous around so many human wizards and sorceresses.”
Mar-ahn grimaced. “Nevertheless, I will not sleep in this Sanctuary tonight.”

Chapter XX Awakenings

Nigel relished reclining on the down feathered bed and pillow. The luxury was a new experience, so the pleasure brought no painful memories. Still, sleep evaded him. The azure lamp on the wall dimmed. Nigel sat upright. The lamp was under his control. He toyed with it, willed it brighter, then softer, then brighter again. It was an amusing distraction, which allowed him to forget the impending awakening for a few seconds. He wondered what Elaine was thinking. As usual, he had not bothered to ask her. He knew that she worried, but Elaine always seemed to know what to do. Nigel was vexed. He should have cared enough to talk to her. He was the only person whom she trusted, but talk with Elaine seemed superfluous. Elaine was adamant once she had decided a course of action. Perhaps, in the morning they would get a chance to talk before the awakening began. He willed the light to dim and slumped on his bed.
Sleep descended on him, aided by the soft, warm blankets and his long journey. The nightmare returned to him. This time, the dream was different: Nigel was aware that he was dreaming. He wondered at the peculiar reality that some dreams could evoke. He was standing in his crowded shanty at Jezric, wearing the leathers, which the Wizard King Tarkel provided for his city guards. His two perpetually grieving sisters in law had their backs to him. On the table was a decanter of cheap wine and a glass. He fought the dream’s urging to drink the wine, and he looked around the room and wished he would awaken from this hateful dream. His wife entered and gave him the languid smile that she had always proffered him in this nightmare. Yet her eyes no longer contained that bovine docility. A vindictiveness lurked behind his wife’s eyes, lanced out at him. His guilt surged, for he knew where he was about to go and knew that he would go.
She spoke. Her voice had an unfamiliar edge to it, “Why don’t you drink your wine, Nigel? Have the obligatory cup of wine. Let’s keep this true. We want no sham. You can’t run from your memories, Nigel. You know that.”
The dream commanded his limbs, and he poured some wine from the decanter into his glass. He downed the cheap wine in one stinging draught. He poured a second and a third. He set down the glass and the decanter, just as in the other dreams. His wife, who had ceased playing her accustomed role in the dream, watched him with a satisfied smirk. Nigel tried to lock eyes with her, but he was daunted by her strange demeanor. Anxiety welled up in his chest and strained to get out. Nothing was quite so horrid to Nigel as the familiar, suddenly and subtly changed. At least he tried to fool himself into believing that was the worst of it, but it was his heart within where the horror resided: The dreams always forced him to admit that. He wanted to faint or do anything to escape the frozen knot in his chest. He tried to resign himself to replay the whole dream. He knew it with the certainty of the gallows.
The thing that looked like his wife spoke again. Its voice was his wife’s as she would talk to a child with the singular addition of bleak condemnation, “That’s a good boy. Lina made sure you drank all your wine. You do remember my name, don’t you? Move along. I wish to see you abandon me to the fire and destruction of Jezric. We wouldn’t want you to forget the one real decision that you’ve ever made, my sweet Nigel.”
Nigel left the room and entered the dirty streets of Jezric. The city exploded in lurid, red fire. The wailing of children mixed with the full throated screams of adults. Nigel stood there, unable to move as an endless line of people paraded past him. He watched them as they gnashed their teeth and ripped at their skin in vain attempts to relieve the fire burning through them.
Nigel bolted upright in his bed. His heart was pounding in his ears. Sweat covered his body and his clothes. Wanting some light, he willed the lamp to brighten, but it stubbornly remained dim. He became aware of a faint pressure against his left ankle. Looking toward the foot of the bed, Nigel saw the outline of a figure who gripped his ankle with a moist hand.
The figure spoke with the voice of Perigrine, but she had the same edge in her voice that was in his dream, “I am sorry to rouse you, heir of Mayet.” She mocked his title. “I sensed your distress when we first met. I came here to comfort you and allay the natural worries you must have before the momentous event tomorrow. I saw you in bed. You were dreaming.”
Perigrine leaned closer to Nigel. Her eyes reflected the eyes of his wife. He watched, paralyzed with the recent memories of the dream. He couldn’t feel his heritage. It was drowning in his own fear. Perigrine whispered to him, “It is written.” Perigrine paused and continued in her rhythmic, insinuating voice, as if they shared a secret, “The dreams of the last night of the old life are prophetic. They are the guide and the way. You are fortunate to be thus blessed. Your dream has revealed your true self and role as a wizard. Heed it and cease the pain in your heart. I know your heart. Do not trouble yourself with worries. Elaineminshivrael will be enough for the master crystal. You are not Mayet, and it is not necessary for you to make decisions. Merely be passive and let nature run as it will. You are but a man. Be satisfied with that. Do not aspire to things beyond you, for you will only succeed in causing the fell damnation of yourself and those around you.” Perigrine left the bed and strode out of the room. Nigel didn’t notice her leave. His eyes were squeezed shut. He fell onto his pillow as he fainted.
The azure lamps died as Nigel plummeted into an exhausted, dreamless sleep. He woke to the sound of his name being called. He wanted to remain sleeping, but he was being prodded awake by bony hands. He brushed off the grasp of Karamindakas. For once the wizard looked clean, wearing a shiny, silken robe of blue material that flowed down his shoulders and concealed his aged physique. It was the robe of the monks of Sanctuary.
Nigel sensed the concern of Mar-ahn and Tess-nor in the room. He craned his neck, which was sore from sleep in unaccustomed softness, and he saw his nymish friends. They stood behind Kara and wore false smiles to comfort him. Nigel wished he could be deceived, if only for that moment. Still, their care for him was also evident through his heritage.
Kara said, “I’m sorry I had to wake you so brusquely, but you were in a very deep sleep. You have a new life ahead of you. Today is the day of the outworlders’ downfall.”
Despite Kara’s light mien, Nigel’s heritage sensed that the wizard was morbid. He was radiating anxiety. Nigel hid his face in his hands. Silently, he cursed the heritage that he possessed. He wanted to kill it. He didn’t want to know of Kara’s anxiety or Mar-ahn’s loving concern for him. His heritage drew him forcibly to them. It bonded him against his freewill, bonded him into their lives, their messy, burdensome lives.
Mar-ahn asked, “Is something wrong?”
Nigel’s bloodshot eyes looked away from Mar-ahn. Kara perceived that Nigel’s aura was tightly bound to his body. That was contrary to what it should be after a night in this room.
Nigel exhaled shakily. “I don’t want to go through with it. I don’t want to be your god.”
Kara’s light facade dropped away. As a man affronted, Kara said, “No one is asking to worship you. We want a champion, not a god.”
“You have Elaine for that. You don’t need me.”
Nigel shrank from the rage he felt from Kara.
Kara shouted, “How dare you say that! How can you, the one she’s sacrificing for, do less!”
Mar-ahn gripped Kara’s shoulder. “Stop it, wizard. You’re scaring him.”
Kara turned to face Mar-ahn and loosed his shoulder from the Ahn’s grasp with a sudden jerk. Kara said, “By the underworld, do you think this is a game? People have died to get Nigel and Elaine here. Your people have died because of the need for Nigel and Elaine.”
Tess-nor’s eyes narrowed, and she dropped her medallion, which she had been rubbing. Softly, she said, “Explain, wizard.”
“Tess!” Kara scowled. “We don’t have time for this.”
Mar-ahn laid his hand on his sword hilt and said, “Now, Kara.” For a second, Mar-ahn and Kara faced each other.
Kara averted his eyes and put on the airs of someone who had been hiding a guilty secret as he said, “Your enemy, Hecate, would never have dared to attack you openly if her lord did not walk the world. The discovery of Elaine set up a sympathetic link with the Nef-Shivrael-e, providing the damned spirit with the opportunity to be free should someone have the strength to invoke it through the veil of underworld despair. That someone turned out to be the wizard Jarren in a battle for his life. The Nef-Shivrael-e prodded Hecate into open war when the damned ancient discovered Nigel and Elaine were in the Darkenkell forest.”
Nigel shut his eyes as if he were in a swoon and said, “Then, my very existence brought on the war.”
Kara said, “I wouldn’t quite phrase it that way, Nigel. However—-”
“Neither would I.” Tess-nor interrupted, “Nigel, it was the wizards who brought you and your love into this conflict, and it was the wizards who released Hecate’s daemonic lord onto the world. Why should you trust him? Come back with us to our tribe. You will be honored as a healer. Forsake those who have used you. Our King would welcome you. Mar-ahn believes this to be a cursed place.” Tess-nor’s voice trembled with an edge of too much eagerness; Nigel saw a fear in her, a fear of Sanctuary.
Mar-ahn said, “Yes, this place will do you no weal. The people here are all crafty councilors, not the least is Perigrine. That one is hateful.”
“Perigrine?” Nigel whispered, trying to recall something he had dreamt about her.
Kara glowered at the nym. “Nigel is bound to me by oath. Besides, what can nym know about Sanctuary? I tell you this: Were it not for the monks of Sanctuary, the outworlders would have enslaved your people by now.”
Mar-ahn laughed and said, “Again, you speak of these Will with the wisp outworlders to intimidate us.”
The door swung open, and Elaine stood there, flanked by two yellow robed novitiates. She was wearing the white gown for the awakening. “I see you’re already here, Mar. I told these two to take me to you, and they brought me here.”
Kara said, “Yes, I brought them here. Nigel, if you’ll bathe and get dressed, we can go to the arena and be done by the mid day meal.”
Nigel ignored Kara and spoke to Elaine, “Tess-nor has offered us a home with her people. We can leave here right now. Let the outworlders have New Candide.”
Karamindakas held his breath.
Elaine stared at Nigel with wide eyes. She said, “Are you serious? Why do you think we came here in the first place? Turning back now would be ludicrous. You’re just jittery, Nigel. Come on. Get out of bed. If you don’t want to be a wizard, that’s your decision. I, however, want to make the outworlders chew on their tails. What a time for hysterics,” she added peevishly.
Nigel forced a smile on his lips. Elaine deserved that from him, at the least.
Nigel said, “As you wish, Elaine. I wanted to be sure that you were resolved in this. I can’t read you like the others, despite my feelings for you.” Nigel felt as if he were riding a river current. Everything and everyone around him possessed a degree of certitude that he lacked. It was too much. Let them be the guide. Let them suffer the aftermath of Jezric in their hearts. He had endured enough for this life. Nigel knew that they were all ignorant, that the Darkenkell Sidhe had known something, and that, mostly, his damnation was inescapable. But he refused to tolerate a burden thrust upon him in ignorance, refused to bear this guilt. He was tired, so tired of ignorance and ambition. Something was happening to him. He felt it, a moment, a time–no, all time, and he went headlong into it with ignorance, an ignorance that they all shared, but only he was aware of this lack of the Knowledge, a lack whereof all action sprang.
Kara interrupted his thoughts, “There’ll be time for the outworlders later. Hurry, Nigel. Get bathed and dressed. The novitiates will aid you.”
The others left the room and waited for Nigel in the corridor. Mar-ahn said, “I suppose I owe you an apology, wizard.”
“You owe me nothing.” Kara looked down the corridor toward the arena. “You said what you felt you had to say just as I must now do what I have to do to save us from the outworlders. The outworlders must be defeated. You must realize how important that is. I hope your people never have to face such an enemy.”
The door opened and Nigel joined them. He looked better for the mineral bath and white gown. The hall inclined and changed from a natural corridor to an elaborately hewn hall. The floor was paved with a clear quartz, and the rough walls were scrolled with circular etchings and curved symbols that neither Elaine nor Nigel could fathom. The hall opened to an amphitheater.
The first thing that Nigel saw was the sky: It was changing. It had the silky blue of either twilight or dawn. Nigel wasn’t sure which. The arena where Nigel and the others stood was only about a hundred cubits across. There were five rows of wooden benches in widening concentric circles above the arena.
Above the topmost row of seats at the edge of the bowl stood the giantess. A slim, tiny figure twitched nervously beside her, but the giantess took no notice of her silent companion. The amphitheater was carved from a huge crater. The giantess looked from side to side at the seated people in the stands. Her eyes had exchanged their grief for an aspect of poorly restrained frenzy.
The second row of seats was entirely filled with people in blue robes. Every eye was fixed on the group at the hallway entrance. Nigel could see young Anatoly in the front row with his cowl down; the child was smiling at them. Nigel waved and Anatoly waved back, delighted. Nigel relished the innocent festival day excitement in the boy. Sitting next to Anatoly was Perigrine, leaning forward on her cane.
The most striking feature in the amphitheater was set in the white sands at the center of the arena. A jagged blue crystal as large as the giantess gleamed in the sunlight. A humming sound began to emanate from the azure crystal. The second row of monks began to hum, matching the crystal’s pitch.
Shouting to be heard over the building tone, Kara said, “Now is the time for you to go, Nigel. You must walk up to the crystal. At the height of the ritual, the crystal will become permeable. Enter it. That’s all you have to do. Good luck.”
“I–I’m not sure.” Nigel stammered.
Elaine pushed Nigel aside and said, “I’m going first. I still don’t trust you. Better me first than Nigel.”
Kara looked at her. Elaine’s eyes were glowing crystal blue. Kara was afraid of this. The heir of Shivrael was too sympathetic with the crystal. She would have to go first. A building wind began sweeping through the arena. Nigel’s reluctance defaulted him. Kara said, “Go! Go, Elaine!” The wizard mouthed silently, “And a curse on me for giving you to these monks.”
Elaine entered the arena sands. A torrential wind almost knocked her off her feet. The wind circled the crystal so that she had to lean sideways to approach it.
Discarding her cane, Perigrine stood at the edge of the second row and jumped to the arena floor. The wind abruptly changed direction, knocking Elaine to the sands. The giantess, her war cry lost to the wind, bounded down the steps of the amphitheater. The monks faltered in their humming, confused by what transpired on the arena floor. Elaine saw Perigrine’s twisted expression and remembered the possessed Sol-mer as her lips instinctively framed the name of the Nef-Shivrael-e with an ancient memory. She got to her feet and redoubled her efforts to reach the master crystal. The sound of the wind drowned out the hum, and the sands were whipped up in a stinging swirl around the crystal, making it difficult to see into the arena.
Perigrine, intent upon Elaine, did not notice the giantess, approaching behind her through the sandstorm.
Anatoly screamed, “Peri!”
The giantess drove her massive spear through the body of Perigrine, almost cleaving her in twain. Black fire rifled up the spear shaft and incinerated the giantess’ hands. The massive body collapsed on the shifting sands. Elaine touched the master crystal. A black mist departed Perigrine’s dying body.
Perigrine murmured, “Free.” She closed her eyes.
The side of the master crystal rippled like water as Elaine plunged. The ebony spirit, unhindered by the wind, followed Elaine into the master crystal. Elaine and the Nef-Shivrael-e were lost within the blue depth of rock at the center of the amphitheater.
The wizards and sorceresses in the second row argued. Fearing the worst, some ran from the amphitheater. The wind died. Shades of blue mixed beneath the surface of the master crystal.
The prophet Carter stood on the railing and shouted, “This changes nothing. Nothing! The Shivrael has been reaccepted. Her might is our might to wield. If we are to banish the outworlders, it must be now. Begin the spell!”
“Spell? What spell?” Nigel shouted at Kara. “What’s happened to Elaine?”
Kara shouted, “Nigel, you must get inside the hall. It’s going to be dangerous for anyone who hasn’t been awakened.”
Mar-ahn drew his sword and held it to Kara’s throat. “Get Elaine out of there.” Mar-ahn began to tremble violently. Carchoroth’s tooth dropped from his hand and fell to the arena floor. “What are you doing to me?”
Kara said, “You challenge me? here? I am sorry, Mar-ahn.”
Mar-ahn saw Tess-nor faint just as his world went black.
Nigel wobbled on his feet. He looked at the second row of the amphitheater. All the blue robed monks who remained were limned in blue fire. It crackled against the howling wind, which rose again from the master crystal.
Kara turned to Nigel and ordered, “Get out of here!”
Nigel said, “N-no. What did you do to them? What are you doing? I must go to the crystal. Elaine needs me. I love her.”
Kara grabbed Nigel by the shoulders and shook him. “Fool. The Nef-Shivrael-e is in the crystal with Elaine. There is nothing anyone can do for her. Perigrine must have been possessed. Elaine is lost. You must leave before your sympathetic heritage with her draws you into the master crystal forever with the murderer of Osric. Leave it to the monks. Get out! If you don’t go, I’ll force you! Arhh!”
Blue fire lanced from Kara’s hands as he tried to compel Nigel, but the flames arced back at the wizard and altered to true fire. The orange fires danced across the flesh of his hands.
Karamindakas stumbled backward onto the sands of the amphitheater. A column of blue fire erupted from the master crystal, hurled toward Nigel, and engulfed him.
The column, a man sized streak of blue fire, did not disappear, but remained, linking Nigel to the swirling blues of the master crystal.
Images, scents, and sounds rumbled through Nigel: the heavy gold of a crown falling to the mortal pain of a traitor’s sharp thrust, the scent of salt and the grip on a massive oar with the grip of iron around his wrist dragging him under the icy waters, the enfeebled baby falling to pestilence without a second breath. A multitude of false humanity culminated in Nigel, horrid in its unenlightened futility, pathetic in its mockery of the races of hu.
But that was now finished.
Nigel, Nigel-Mayet now, knew that. The time had finally come to shed the costumes of flesh he had worn to be with his lover. It was an imperative for Nigel-Mayet to discard his false wheel of birth, death, and rebirth. His lover had gone beyond and he knew he must follow her.
The blue fire roared over him, threatened to shred his flesh if Nigel-Mayet did not relent humanity. The fires would not tolerate any seeming.
“Oh, brave hu. The ignorance joined to such valiant arrogance, such wonderful impudence,” moaned Nigel-Mayet, weaving amid the blue flames.
Kara rose to his feet, using his inner fires to block the pain that lanced through his burnt hands.
The Knowledge flooded at last into Nigel-Mayet, but he knew with some feeling that he still straddled that line: that line where humanity huddled, that line between and partaking of the finite and the infinite. His flesh held onto him: Nigel’s body was still young. How he longed to go home! To leave this craggy, ever-mortal finity and join his lover in the perfected infinity, perfected peace beyond the master crystal whereof the races of hu could only dream, and they in turn became only a dream.
The wizard stood in his path to the master crystal.
And the sweet chains of infinite stillness had already begun to enshroud him. The wizard seemed a dream. But Nigel-Mayet remembered that it was an important dream, his reason for being, his laws and his nature. Nigel-Mayet lovingly remembered weaving the tapestry of the world with the threads, which Shi had provided. In his mind the tapestry formed the world, where the races of hu could play, a tapestry made to exclude him naturally, for he had no desire to mar the finite, hard Oco with his meddling hands. The souls of Oco deserved their own world, their own worth amid the nature he had ordered. He would not render their existence meaningless, would not care for them as babes, deprive them of valor, of vitality.
The infinite power and quiescent majesty of his being returned to Nigel-Mayet. The races of hu had called him Aten, the healing father–a lie. Perhaps, he thought wryly, he was the giver of names and shapes, stolen from his first mortal past. But healing father? No, he was without mercy to them. He did suffer with them when he had dreamt of them. In the infinity that lay beyond the master crystal, he had wanted to help, to relieve their pain, but that would be an infinite act by an infinite being: relieving all pain, all choice, destroying his weave. That was before he had longed to find his torn and bewildered lover, Shi, lost on the finite, hard world. He loved them too much to deprive them of their pain. He would not reveal to them their infinite, complete nature: That was their secret challenge, their secret joy that he could not share. His time for consoling came after the hard world, came beyond the mantle of limiting flesh.
Nigel-Mayet remembered a compassionate act: He had given the hard world avatars of himself, created the Sidhe, the singularities, among the finite Oco to guard his order, to guide the people, but one had left his service, the Darkenkell Sidhe. Why? He pondered between the spaces of time. He remembered the outworlders, who did not belong in the tapestry. They disrupted the tapestry.
With a passing thought he banished them from Oco, from his tapestry.
Nigel-Mayet felt groggy. He reluctantly remembered his body and opened his eyes. Karamindakas’ bulging eyes stared back at him.
The wizard stood in the column of blue fires and blocked Nigel-Mayet’s path to the master crystal. The wizard shouted, “Nigel, you can’t go. I won’t let you. It’s a prison. I–I—-”
The old man was quickly losing his mind as he was pushed wholly into the infinite crystal blue, yet too rooted in his true, finite body.
Nigel-Mayet thought. He loved the old trickster dearly. He could save him. But justice, in the infinite, was a whole thing. He could not save him and let others in his tapestry unjustly perish. The master crystal’s flames were holding Nigel-Mayet now. He could feel beyond the master crystal and remember who he was.
Elaine-Shivrael and the Nef-Shivrael-e were reconciling: merging. Soon, Shi would be whole again. Elaine! Whole! Not finding him with her, Shi who was Elaine would come out through the master crystal in search of him. Shi would begin to dance as her infinite nature, soon complete again, would compel her. And he would have to start weaving a new tapestry. The races of hu would all have to be reborn in ignorance of all they had done.
The wizards in the gallery above the sands chanted, crafting an impotent spell. The prophet Carter sensed that something or someone had wrested control of the master crystal from the meld he spearheaded. It was, he felt, the apocalypse, and the prophet did not relish the prospect of dying as an afterthought of gods.
No. Nigel-Mayet decided. He loved Oco, this Oco. It was time to rejoin Shi. Love! He must plunge into the master crystal and let the blue rock consume his finite body. But the wizard Karamindakas stubbornly held his ground, deprived of all sense but his force of will as the blue fires snapped at his mind.
To force Kara from his spot in the sands would be an act upon the face of Oco. He would be responsible for it, and he would be responsible, then, for all acts within his tapestry. There was no middle ground for the infinite: all or nothing. He belonged beyond the master crystal.
Shi was coming. He could sense it.
Karamindakas had, at first, enjoyed the heightened awareness within the blue column. It was like a second awakening. But it soon became too much. He felt nauseated. Disconnected. Some of his thoughts left his body going where he could not tell. Surprise. Kara realized that Shi was restored and the Nef-Shivrael-e was gone. Elaine was the goddess, yet the goddess was more than Elaine. Kara shuddered. He forgot who he was. He forgot where he was. Thoughts, sensations came and went as they pleased, trampling through his mind and body. There was blue fire. He knew that. Blue fire surrounded him: the blue of the sky, the blue of ascending spirit. But it wasn’t his fire, not his inner fire. He couldn’t stop trembling. He tried to remember who he was and failed. He tried to remember anything and caught a passing, dear, sweet memory. He remembered he had a child, a lovely child who trusted him. He clung to that memory. He thought he must have been very good and wholesome to have raised such a child. He embraced that memory, cherished it, and hoped to keep those outer, twisting fires away from his mind. Blue fire was everywhere, swirling around him, carrying his thoughts in thieving eddies into the master crystal. The blue fire wasn’t his. He despaired. Then, he remembered a word. It just thrust itself into his mind, though he had forgotten what words were.
And though he had forgotten his voice, he pitifully shouted with instinct, “Stephen!”
Stephenmindakas stood at the rim of the bowl. He was fearful of the humans and the unnatural wizardfire on the sands. He feared the races of hu, but loved his father, so he had followed him with a unicorn’s silent grace. The escaping winds from the crater buffeted Stephen’s thick hair around his face. His shock white hair ran down his back, and the wind whipped the strands against his skin. It didn’t bother Stephen. His pace was faster than those winds on his restful days, but it was the suddenness of the winds that disturbed him. These were winds connected to the races of hu, not the green nature that the forever child cherished. There were so many wizards like the Ston. They were just like the Darkenkell Ston, standing around the gallery with grim faces. They would imprison him in that rock. Stephen feared that rock. He feared it greatly without knowing why.
At first Carter had led the meld, but the prophet had abandoned it as the futility of the monks’ so called master spell became apparent. He heard Kara’s plaintive cry. Fixated on the fey wizard, the prophet had been looking for a reaction, a sign, or any hope at all when that name burst from Kara’s throat.
The prophet shouted, “Stephen! Aid your father!”
Carter watched the boy who stood motionless at the rim of the amphitheater. He had recognized Stephen from his similarity to an old beloved portrait, which the prophet had seen Kara stare at the day before.
But the boy seemed to disappear the moment after Carter had shouted. The prophet looked about wildly, hoping for some help from a unicorn-child. Oh, if only Stephen could bring a unicorn! Carter knew that one of those beasts could somehow make things right–so pure, so much more than a base man. A unicorn could help. But his heart despaired, for he saw Stephen standing forlornly beside Kara down on the arena sands. The boy had run to his father’s side in the span of a heartbeat. Yet the prophet knew that the boy was a simple child, incapable of understanding the barrier in which Karamindakas was now engulfed.
Nigel-Mayet felt it: Shi touched the edge of the master crystal, the edge to the hard, finite world.
Stephen padded beside Kara, leaving only slight marks in the fine sand. The whooshing blue fire, stretching between the master crystal and Nigel, had entombed his father. It frightened the boy, but he loved his father more than the running. Stephen touched the fire and withdrew his hand. At the point of impact, white and blue sparks burst from his fingertips and scalded him.
Nigel-Mayet savored the sudden change in the column of fire. Another’s infinite touched him: love. It increased his desire for Elaine-Shi. But the love was for the impudent wizard, the old trickster, who barred his way to her. The love came from one infused with the white fire, the substance of Shi’s noblest impulses, woven by him into some of the governed beings, the doves, the unicorns, to give the races of hu hope and support in their despairing times, for Mayet knew that their struggling freewill would bring such times, as would the darker thoughts of Shi, which he had instilled within the raging breasts of the dragons.
The pain from the blue fire made Stephen wince. An agony encompassed the child, filled his body and froze his limbs. The fire stole his desire to run for an awful moment. But the forever child had felt worse at the hands of the Darkenkell Ston in their ivy cage, and this time, the child had a choice. He prepared to hurl himself at his father with a unicorn’s vitality and push him from the column.
Yet at that moment of self-sacrifice, the old man turned his head toward his son and looked at Stephenmindakas through the roiling sheen of blue fires. His eyes remained vacant, as if he were looking at air. Stephen jumped toward his father as warmth and recognition spilled into Kara’s blank mind.
The old man hurled himself toward the source of warmth and caught Stephen in his arms at the edge of the column. They tumbled from the column in a mutual embrace and landed in the sands of the amphitheater.
They smiled at each other.
“Yes!” Nigel-Mayet screamed in ecstacy, and his voice rebounded throughout the amphitheater. His feet lifted off the sands and he hurled within the column of blue fire toward the master crystal.
An explosion erupted from the master crystal at the moment of Nigel-Mayet’s impact. The entire amphitheater was covered in blue flames that resounded into the morning sky. But the fires did not burn the flesh and passed quickly. The master crystal quieted.
At that moment, everyone from young Anatoly to the ageless prophet to the dying giantess stricken on the sands felt a love whether they had ever experienced it in their lives or not. This moment, they felt the reunion of lovers long separated, and it passed the next moment, but left no ache of regret, only a memory to cherish, which warmed their hearts. Some cried; some bowed their heads for privacy; Kara and Stephen embraced again.
Mar and Tess woke in each others arms and looked at the blue sky. They had a great desire to go home–to the Darkenkell forest—together.

Chapter XXI Banished and Forgotten

The prophet Carter with those who had been on the sands of the amphitheater that morning were gathered in Sanctuary’s great foyer with the wizard Andelius. The stony hall was lit brightly now by the azure lamps, and a warm breeze filtered through the open halls. Perigrine’s room had been cleaned. Only the slight incense of myrrh in that room escaped to trouble the few people by the pool.
The prophet Carter had restricted the audience, so as not to overwhelm Karamindakas. The wizard had come through his ordeal changed: Kara’s irises glinted a crystal purple, which impressed and mystified the prophet. It was clear that the wizard would no longer age, but his mind had been somehow strained in the column of crystal fire with the Nigel-Mayet. Kara’s aura was clear and hale, but he was a different man. When the prophet delivered the news of the outworlders’ departure to him, only a gentle smile played across Kara’s face, giving the bearded wizard a beatific appearance.
They sat around Andelius’ scrying pool and reclined on furs. Andelius wheezed and stared into the pool, dropping journeystones into the water at a careless rate, but he had used the pool for so long that it would not yield to another’s aura. Everyone quietly watched the fall of the journeystones as they created ripples when they struck the clear waters. Occasionally, Andelius would look up at his guests with a queer smile on his dry lips. Mar-ahn was glad to see the old human. Andelius seemed to be in better spirits since the prophet had begun to tend him. Tess-nor couldn’t stop staring at Karamindakas; her Nor intuition was confusing her. He seemed to be someone wholly changed, as if he were sidhe touched.
Finally, Mar-ahn felt the silence too burdensome and spoke to the prophet, “Where are the monks? Have they made the spell to banish the outworlders?”
The prophet turned toward him, but it was Andelius who answered him, “He-he-he, politic Ahn, you know better than that. It was your friends, your god-friends, who banished them. And the monks,” Andelius laughed, “are too serious and weighty to understand something as simple as love, so they’ve gone to their stony cubicles to meditate. Soon, the feeling will depart like a bothersome guest, and they can lock the memory of it in their hearts and return to studying tomes. As for the outworlders,” Andelius stared into the pool, “they are like cattle–no, calves–climbing in their metal ships with dull eyed affection for their sterility. They remind me of Kara when he was a babe and had gas.”
The prophet took on a stern demeanor and admonished the enfeebled wizard, “Andelius, you should have more respect for Master Karamindakas. He was the one who united Shi and Mayet.”
“Elaine and Nigel,” whispered Mar-ahn too softly for anyone to hear him. His heart ached for his friends, but he knew they were beyond him. This impossibility of reunion only made these feelings in the weary Ahn more poignant.
Not hearing Mar-ahn, Kara slowly answered Carter, “It’s all right. Andel and I are friends. He meant nothing by it. I’m pleased he should remember me as a babe.”
“Hah,” Andelius crowed with a surprising outburst of vigor, “I told you he was an honest wizard, didn’t I? didn’t I?”
Mar-ahn nodded. He had gotten used to the age marks on the human and Andelius’ wrinkled skin. Mar-ahn softly grinned and said, “That’s correct. You did say that.”
Andelius emphasized with greater strength, and spittle flew from his mouth, accidently striking the prophet, “See? And Ahn are honorable. Hmm, that rhymes.” He stared off into the pool, as if he were searching for more rhymes.
Kara burst out with a clear, delighted laugh, “Yes, yes, it does.”
The prophet wiped his sleeve against his cheek, knowing better than to take offense at the senile wizard.
Tess-nor said suddenly, “Your master crystal is normal now, isn’t it?” Tess-nor averted her eyes toward Mar-ahn. She was uncertain about the propriety of her question.
But the prophet answered her without rancor, “Yes. It is as if nothing had occurred to it this morning.”
“But something did occur.” Kara said, and a cloud passed over his eyes. He took on that lost expression of someone who had misplaced or forgotten something. Everyone stared at him. Tess wondered if he was feigning. She knew that the wizard loved theatrics almost as much as Ram-Erin-nor–ambassador Erin-nor, she reminded herself.
But Kara simply shook his head and turned to Mar-ahn and asked with a wide eyed innocence, “May my son and I come to live with you in the Darkenkell forest? I would like to be near one of Nigel’s sidhe. I miss him.”
Mar-ahn was momentarily dumbfounded. It was clear and even disturbing to his Ahn stoicism that Kara was speaking candidly and without his previous gestures and bravado. He didn’t know how to answer his appeal. And Stephenmindakas, would the forever child return to the Darkenkell?
Kara had been watching him and reading his expression. He said, “I assure you: Stephen holds no hatred in his young heart. We would live quietly by ourselves.”
Tess-nor came to Mar-ahn’s rescue, which pleased her. Mar-ahn was always so confident and liked to lead. All things were sword fights to Mar-ahn, but with words he was often caught unarmed and needed her. It would be their way together. She spoke gently to Kara, as if a harsh tone might wound the suddenly gentle wizard, “Master Kara, you may journey with us, but it must be the decision of King Torastor if you may stay in the forest.”
Andelius mumbled, not taking his eyes off the pool, “Torastor should be so lucky. Ahh, worms, worms, worms . . . ”
The prophet was startled out of his reverie by Andelius’ ravings. Carter said, “Andelius! Let sleeping dragons dream. Do not set your gaze toward Glered-nigh, lest you wake one and cause misery to some innocents.”
Andelius looked from the pool toward the prophet and laughed, “He-he-he, and who praytell is innocent, hmm? Save perhaps our mutual friend, Master Kara, who shed his wiles into the master crystal.”
The prophet interrupted, “Hush! You offend him. He deserves better treatment from us.”
“Who doesn’t at the hands of Sanctuary?” Andelius irritably answered.
Kara spoke, seeming to hear them for the first time, “Peace. I know I left something in the sands this morning. Who would not shed the burdens of his heart and keep the joys, if he had the chance or the choice? And which would he hold onto tighter: his burdens or his joys? I do not think that you need to pity me, my friends. I am pleased and, for the first time, I do not feel tired. And my fires are strong.” He turned toward Tess, “Your King could use a wizard, yes?”
Tess-nor nodded slowly. Kara was changed, she thought, but he had not altogether lost his wits.
“Nevertheless,” the prophet began again with a barely restrained patience (The futile meld had tired him.), “Andelius, you must not search Glered-nigh. The dragons could dream of you if you pester their dreams.”
Andelius shook his head, “Ach, you think me a fool. I gaze at a Prince—-”
Kara said, “I thought you just said you were looking at worms.”
Color ran to Andelius’ face as he snapped, “Yes, yes, a Prince and a worm, but he is not sleeping and it is none of your business, nor yours, prophet.”
“As long as it is not a sleeping dragon.” The prophet Carter could tell that he would get no more assurances from the old wizard. Andelius wanted to cherish whatever secret he knew and the telling of it would spoil the cantankerous pleasure of an old man who had few pleasures. Carter thought that it was more than likely merely a senile fantasy.
Mar-ahn disliked talk of dragons and made to change the subject, “So the outworlders are leaving. They will always remain as Will with the wisps to the hunym-sidhe.”
Kara said, “I am glad of that. I think I once said that I hoped it would be that way for your people, Mar-ahn.”
Another journeystone plunked into the ebony waters. Andelius murmured, “Prince worm, ahh, not bold, not cold, not sly, so far away from your cave. All for naught and folly.”
The others politely ignored him. Tess-nor asked, “What will happen to the sorceress Perigrine?”
Andelius spoke louder, “Yes, where is she? I want to speak with her. She is ill. I–I don’t want her to care for me anymore. There is a sickness in her.”
Carter said, “Would that I had heeded you earlier, Andel. Do not worry, old friend. Anatoly will care for you.”
Andelius coughed, putting both hands to his mouth. He washed the phlegm from his hands in the waters of the pool. Carter stared, astonished at such sacrilege. Kara chuckled and nodded his approval, as if such relics were appropriately rewarded by spittle. Kara said softly to Andelius, “But treat Anatoly better, I pray you.”
Andelius said, “That child? How can he help me? He must attend to his studies, or he shall never be a wizard, and I love the boy dearly.” Tears glistened in his sunken eyes. “I would not see him fail.”
Kara laughed. Carter shook his head despairingly and said, “Andelius, young Ana is already a wizard and has asked to serve you.”
Andelius dragged his fingers languidly across the surface of the pool and said, “Well, that’s all right, then. But–but, where is Peri?”
No one spoke. The nym looked expectantly at Carter. Finally, the prophet said, “Perigrine is dead, Andel. She was the pawn of the Nef-Shivrael-e that is no more.”
Kara said, “She is dead and grateful for it, I think.”
Tess-nor flared her eyes at Kara. “That was ill-spoken, Kara. She must have suffered horribly.”
Kara seemed distressed by her anger and said, “Yes, yes, of course. I meant only that her suffering is ended now.”
Carter nodded, “Her suffering and the giantess’ suffering has ended. The giantess gave up her life, despite several of our wizards’ best efforts. Yet the giantess did not die in vain. She gave the Shivrael time to reach the master crystal.”
“Elaine,” Kara whispered under his breath and smiled, remembering a fierce demeanor in a New Candide warehouse and a dagger she had held behind her back. “She protected Nigel to the end.” He spoke that somewhat louder.
Mar-ahn, wanting to preserve his Ahnish pride, quickly said, “Yes. They are together now. They are home . . . as Tess-nor and I should be.”
Carter pushed himself off the furs and onto his feet. The others, save for Andelius, who had no intention of leaving his beloved scrying pool, also stood.
They leisurely walked through the hall of masks, and, this time, Mar-ahn stopped to look at each stone carving, shaking his head and sometimes muttering, “Humans.”
The gargantuan stone doors were open and daylight entered Sanctuary with the fresh breeze. The prophet whispered to Kara as they were leaving. His voice was agitated. “Do you think they will ever return?”
Kara asked, “Who?”
“Your friends, Elaine and Nigel.”
Kara laughed, taking in the prophet’s agitated aura. “You are asking me if the gods will walk Oco again, yes? I don’t think so. Why should they want to? I wouldn’t want Shi and Mayet interfering with my life. Besides, they are together. No, prophet, we are left to muddle through our affairs on our own.”
Remembering her duty to her King and home, Tess-nor had listened and added, “Good. I wish them the best.”
Kara smiled, though not condescendingly to his friend, as he said, “Better to wish the best for us. Their happiness will not change, I think, not until the world is over, not until we are over. Then, perhaps, Shi will dance again.”
Kara heard laughter just beyond the doors of Sanctuary. That music burst over the green fields and mocked the grim cliff carvings.
Anatoly and Stephen were playing a game amid the lush grasses. The young wizard would release a bolt of blue fire and have it curve back to his hand while Stephen would race the arc of the fire and reach Anatoly a second before the fire and tag him. Then, Anatoly would try to tag the quicksilver youth with another stream of wizard fire. Each time Stephen was caught by the empathic fire both children would burst out laughing.
The prophet murmured, “Ana should not use his fires so carelessly.”
Kara replied, “Nonsense. It is magic. What better use for it? Isn’t it what we fought for? It’s better than the cold steel ways, surely.”
Saying that, Kara ran into the field and joined them so that Stephen was hard pressed to dodge the tickling fires racing around him, but the forever child would disappear behind the tall grass only to reappear behind his merry father; and their laughter entered and warmed the stony Sanctuary.

Epilogue E=mc^2?

The H.M.S. Glory had docked on the orbiting space station, Lizavetta. No one on station paid overt attention to the Glory’s presence, but it was in the back of everyone’s mind. The Glory was under quarantine by the order of the Cerberus organism, the head of IRIS, which was the functional leader of Military Intelligence Central.
The atmospheric haze of pollution and orbital debris floated far above his underground complex while Cerberus was accessing the neural nets of the hundreds of scientists and military strategists who had lived over the past three hundred and fifty years. They were the ghosts of ghosts: the preserved memories of men and women who had agreed to the neural implants. At times Cerberus thought himself to be one of those pale images, rather than their caretaker. They obeyed his whim, but they weren’t arriving at any satisfactory conclusions.
Every person aboard the H.M.S. Glory suffered from a complete amnesia involving any of the events relating to Orion colony II. The satellite’s recordings contradicted Captain Roberts’ log. Roberts had stated that the satellite transmissions were defective. However, they were perfectly clear when Cerberus replayed them. The transmissions displayed holos of the most diversified forms of life found on any planet other than Earth herself and revealed the definitive existence of another sentient, humanoid species. Other animals appeared on the holos: dozens of creatures that had no evolutionary background. Much of the native life had its roots in Earth’s mythology: dragons, unicorns, sea serpents, faeries, and a host of others around the main settled continent. Unfortunately, the satellites had only taken a cursory glance at the other continents. Captain Roberts, under the delusion that the satellite transmissions were garbled, had focused his scans on the reclamation areas.
The original colonists had neither the scientific knowledge nor the technology for any gene splicing techniques. Some scraps of pre-trade war information on the original colonists showed them to be equipped only for simple dome mining. According to its distance from its sun, the planet should have been a dull ball of rock, like Mars. The colonists were not supposed to be prepared for terraforming, yet the entire planet had been terraformed without the use of domes and on a planetary scale: a technological impossibility for the original colonists as well as modern man. Cerberus shunted his consciousness from his central core net and into the IRIS installation on the above ground levels of the IRIS complex.
His doctors were examining several members of the H.M.S. Glory. Tests of Roberts’ neural net revealed that the amnesia was complete regarding all his experiences and knowledge of Orion colony II. Cerberus was about to go back down to the central core net when he scanned a report on Professor Doctor Sean Flaherty. Bio tests revealed him to be in perfect health; moreover, his health was better than it had been upon joining the Glory. His organs showed no sign of wear and his arteries were as clean as a young child’s. A psych profile was run on the doctor: It revealed intense homicidal tendencies, coupled with paranoia. A mindtap revealed the doctor’s deepest memories were only held on a superfluous level and deeper levels of consciousness were a tabula rasa. Cerberus issued the order to have him permanently restrained and jacketed in his IRIS facilities. Flaherty was in a mental state to commit murder. This anomaly plagued Cerberus. Flaherty had been the only person aboard the Glory who had experienced any persona change. He allowed the doctors to begin surgical and chemo-electrical therapy on the unfortunate xenobiologist.
Within the bowels of the Military Intelligence Central computer, Cerberus called for an evaluation of what had happened to the reclamation of Orion II from the preserved, cybernetic minds within his core net. The only explanation was no explanation: The colonists had succeeded in bending the laws of physics to fulfill their conscious or subconscious desires. It was this ability that was used in the defeat of the reclamation process. End Net Transit.
The Cerberus considered that meager theory. It was not satisfying and chillingly familiar. His own genesis from the simple, synthcerebral amalgam of neural nets to his individual consciousness as the self styled Cerberus had never been explained to anyone’s satisfaction. Of course, he wasn’t about to allow any non-neural netted computer techs access to his core facility.
The colonists had learned to externalize their spirit into the physical world just as he had asserted his consciousness on the central neural net: unexplained phenomena, based upon the spark of identity. However, the colonists’ descendants had succeeded in completing physical tasks, based on will alone. They shattered the line that separated spirit and action.
They had not only defeated the reclamation, they had also routed it and sent the H.M.S. Glory home with blissful ignorance. If the colonists’ descendants had retained their knowledge of technology, Cerberus didn’t doubt that they would have erased the satellite holos and traced the w-axis communique and erased his own memory.
The military had failed. His IRIS agent had failed. They opposed a force that contained the secret link between spirit and the material universe, twisting the laws of reality with what could only be classified as magic.
In the deepest levels of the computer, the Cerberus organism shuddered. He hoped they weren’t a vengeful people.

The Lost Souls

 1

 

On the nineteen inch television a dough faced news anchor droned on about some famine somewhere. The rabbit ears were two wire coat hangers, crooked. Electric snow and white noise drifted across the screen every two seconds.

“So,” squeaked through tightly pressed lips, “what’s He do all day, anyway?”

“How the hell should I know?” Kelt peevishly answered.

Kelt watched the whoosh of breath–a column of light grey cannabis smoke–erupt to obscure his guest’s chapped lips. What had possessed him to invite them to stay?

He had only met this man today and the other, using the shower–Kelt heard the stream of water through the thin apartment walls–but they had insinuated themselves into his life, his thoughts immediately. Kelt frowned and sipped at his vodka. It didn’t sting much; he’d been drinking for over an hour. The idiotic abstract questions they asked annoyed him.

His guest–he said his name was Chris–had pale skin, close cropped black hair and an eighteen inch bong in his left hand. He looked slyly at Kelt from the corner of his eyes, but the effect was ruined as his mouth hung slightly ajar with an insensate grin.

Chris said, “You’re the one who professes belief in Him. I don’t see how you can do that. It goes against all rational sense. In fact,” the grin did become sly, as if amused at his own wit, “you can’t even sense Him. What good’s He for? Huh? If I were you, I’d be pissed at Him for hiding.”

Kelt stood from the cloth couch for no reason, ran his fingers through his hair, plopped back down. He never gave much thought to his furniture: two lime green cloth chairs extra padded and a faded plaid couch, all looking like rejects from a college dorm room. A pine green trunk, made of pressed wood shavings, served as his coffee table.

Kelt replied, “I don’t–I only said I was agnostic, anyway. Maybe, He keeps social order, keeps the people in line. Sort’a the adult bogeyman.”

Chris laughed, a short bark, dismissing Kelt and his words. He set the bong on the floor, propping it against his chair; then, he popped open a Heineken bottle with his teeth, spit the cap across the room, and took a long pull. He acted as if the beer immediately ordered all his muscles to relax.

“That the best you can do?” Chris said and pulled a stained white sleeve across his mouth in a swaggering fashion.

The man’s an asshole, Kelt decided and sipped again at his drink, finishing it. He poured another for himself, not offering the bottle, but keeping it on the floor in front of the green trunk. He looked at his glass, felt a bit disjointed, but drank half a shot anyway.

Chris watched him and still wore that condescending smirk. “You know, Kelt, I don’t think you have a clue about Him–about whether He exists, about anything.”

“Go to hell.”

“You sure like that word.”

The vodka roiled in his gut. “What word?”

“Hell.” Chris paused and then went on, leaning conspiratorially toward Kelt, “Maybe that’s where you are.”

Kelt said, “You’re being asinine and childish. But I hope you’re right; that way, you’d be there, too.” This time Kelt smirked, but the booze fouled his concentration, giving his face a clownish grin on one side and a disgusted frown on the other.

Kelt heard a rapid, forceful knock on the door.

Chris poked him in the thigh with his cold index finger. “That’s where you’re wrong, Kelt, my friend, and I do love you though you don’t believe it.”

“I believe you.” Oh, not a sloppy drunk, please. “But how am I wrong?”

The knocking returned, louder.

A tall black man strode from the second bedroom of the apartment; he was Kelt’s other guest, said his name was Carter, just Carter. He wore Kelt’s white terry cloth bathrobe, cinching it around his waist. “I’ll get it.” he said; his frown meant, “I’ll have to get it, since you two won’t.”

Kelt forced his slogging concentration on Chris. Rather than answer his question, Chris gleefully watched Carter move to the door.

Just before the door opened, Chris turned and stared directly at Kelt, and said, “We, that is, everyone always, everywhere, everywhen travels alone. And it’s time for me to go.” He stood up resolutely from his chair and promptly passed out, falling over the green trunk.

Carter opened the door.

A police officer pushed his way into the apartment. His gate was stilted, like a partially paralyzed man straining through physical therapy. He breathed in rapid short breaths. Silver wire rimmed shades disguised his eyes, though it was eight o’clock, an hour past twilight. Upon seeing Carter, he laughed, as if at a practical joke, kept laughing, going into hysterical peals.

Kelt felt like puking.

Chris groaned and stood. “Where am I? Who are you?” He looked at Kelt.

The officer swiveled his head toward Chris. His laughter dried up, replaced by a manic grin.

Kelt thought the cop was going to pull out his gun. A malicious grin spread across the cop’s face.

Abruptly, he collapsed, his billy club clattering against the hardwood floor.

Carter went rigid, as the cop had done before passing out. His hands twitched, as if he plucked the strings of an invisible harp. His head shifted in a spasmodic fashion. Kelt watched him track something, like a fly buzzing through the air in front of him.

Carter’s mouth went agape and his body pitched forward, as if he were punched and the breath went out of him. He smiled and put his slender fingers to his chest, lovingly rubbing his salt and pepper chest hair.

Kelt smelled his musky body odor, though Carter had just gotten out of the shower. A sheen of sweat glimmered on his skin, lit by the bare overhead bulb. He sat down on the couch next to Kelt with a weary air.

Carter said, “It’s over, for now. Get that bong hidden, idiot. Or do you want to be arrested when that officer wakes up?”

The cop groaned, almost exactly as Chris had done.

And Chris looked hysterical. “What bong? Who are you? Dammit. Where am I?” He pleaded, half angry, half trembling, very stoned, very scared.

Suddenly, “Get out!” Carter shouted at him. “Get out now, or you’re going to jail!”

Chris peeped and stood for a moment, trembling all the more. Then coming to a decision, he bolted out the open door.

Carter murmured, “Oh, I’m tired. I didn’t need that. Can’t trust a Form, particularly that one.”

Kelt said, “He seemed pretty scared of you.” Actually, Kelt could feel his own heart beating against his rib cage.

Carter looked at Kelt and grimaced. “No, no. Not him, the one he had been, though.”

The cop groaned again.

Carter seemed to ignore it. By this point Kelt felt too confused, not comprehending anything. What the hell is going on? He wanted to scream that, again and again, but he felt as tired as Carter looked. Kelt had always felt stupid–no, not stupid but ignorant, terribly ignorant. Yet he usually felt somewhat–not much, but somewhat–at ease talking to people. People reacted the way they were supposed to. “Hi” often brought “Hello” or a grimace or some understandable communication. But people barging in and passing out and cops giggling—-

“I didn’t think I could get more ignorant.” Kelt mumbled and heaved a shaky exhalation. He hid his face in his hands.

The cop stood. Carter watched him, but the cop just wobbled on his feet and stumbled out of Kelt’s apartment while rubbing his head.

Carter patted Kelt on the shoulder. “I like you, Kelt. I really think you’re trying.”

“Trying what?” Kelt sipped at his vodka.

“This’ll never work.” Carter leaned down and grabbed the vodka bottle. He flung it against the wall. The bottle left a dent in the dry wall just below his plastic framed Escher print. The glass shattered with one great, lonely crack when it hit the hardwood floor.

“Hey!”

Carter said, “I need some help, and you want answers. You just don’t have the right method for finding what you seek.”

Kelt stood. He was drunk and oh, so confused. This was too much. “Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just a working class grunt. I manage a Taco Bell, that’s all. I’m not looking for anything, dammit. Just a good time, a few laughs, a few drinks. A girl, maybe. I don’t know.”

Carter stood. He was 6’3″ to Kelt’s 5’11”. His eyes looked down on Kelt: stern, brown, and glittering. “Really? Is that why you majored in philosophy for six years? I saw the diploma in your bedroom. Your books are well thumbed. I didn’t know fast food was so demanding a line. And so very satisfying, spiritually speaking.”

“You’re just as bad as Chris.”

Carter laughed, deep but quick. “No. Not nearly.”

“Why’d you run him off?”

Carter asked, “Why’s a philosopher managing teens looking to make their tux payments in time for the prom?”

Enough. Kelt said, “Who do you think I am? I’ve got bills to pay like everybody else. I don’t have anything for you, for anybody. Go away.”

Carter softly interjected, “You could have taught.”

It was an old argument his mother had always whined at him, and it always pricked at him. Kelt almost shouted, “Taught what? Huh? Meta-ethical bull? The mind life is crap. It doesn’t exist to any point but vanity. I think; therefore, I suffer. Got me? Theosophy, philosophy’s nothing more than people running around trying to find an answer to their pain, but there’s no answer–Deus absconditus, man. Nobody’s home, so I stuff some tacos and I try to make it day to day, as I am, as I am now.”

Carter whispered, “You sound like you have no hope.”

“Pandora can keep her damn box!”

Carter slowly grinned, white, broad, and straight teeth. “You wouldn’t be so angry, if you weren’t still searching.”

Kelt flung his bony arms above his head and threw himself into a chair, trying to get some distance between them. “What am I? Talking to air? I’m through. There ain’t no holy grail. Leave me alone.”

Carter walked over to Kelt, bent down and leaned close to him. He put his hands over Kelt’s, lying on the armrests of the chair. He whispered again, “I can give you purpose.”

Kelt turned his head to the side and down, looking at the shattered vodka bottle. The bottom of the broken bottle still held about a shot’s worth. Kelt said, “Purpose is illusory. Do–to what end?”

“Are you so enlightened, then, that you neither need nor want a purpose?” Carter whispered more softly, as if they were exhausted lovers in bed.

“You got me. There’s no such thing as enlightenment. None I’ve found, anyway. What purpose?”

“Saving souls. And on the way, you can search for your holy grail.” Carter softened his smile. Just two thin lips below a wide, flat nose, a face daring him.

Carter? A holy roller? It didn’t fit; he was too human, too strange, transitory in his words, too frighteningly open with him.

Kelt asked, “Save for whom?”

Carter released Kelt’s hands and stood tall, imposing. “Not save for, save from. I save people from dragons. I’m a lost builder, a mystic, and a hero.” He grinned at his own pretentiousness and gave Kelt a stiff quarter bow from the hip.

“You fight dragons?”

Carter said, “I just dispatched a minor drake, infesting that poor officer. But some are tougher and older than others. I could use some back-up, to keep to the police lingo.”

“Uh-huh.”

Carter frowned. “That’s our first problem, Kelt. You don’t see, so you don’t believe, though I notice you use a microwave oven.”

Kelt replied, “Cause and effect. I don’t see the microwaves, but I taste hot food.”

Carter said, “You didn’t see the Trickster in Chris or the dragon in the officer, but you saw them faint and get up as different people.”

Kelt chuckled, expelling some of his nervousness. “I didn’t know either of them. How do I know they were different?” But the look, the malicious grin and laugh on that cop’s face scared Kelt. “Look, you’ve got a helluva line of patter, but I’m not in the market, ok? I don’t get into organized religion, or cults, or whatever you think you represent. I just stuff tacos. Burritos, sometimes.”

The older man’s face grew stern and tense. “As you wish. We do this the hard way: Experience first, my little rationalist; talk later.”

 

2

 

Dark claimed the light. A sheet of nothingness covered Kelt’s eyes. He couldn’t feel the chair under his butt, couldn’t smell the faint tangy scent of Carter’s body odor, couldn’t hear the drone of the television. Kelt went cold inside. Loneliness assailed him: He had never felt so utterly alone. He felt nothing, touched emptiness, could not breath.

“Oh, God, help me.”

“I’m here.”

“What?”

Then, he heard a soft laugh, Carter’s voice.

Kelt shouted without air in this void, without feeling his lips move, “Where are we? What have you done to me? Take me back.”

“Stop whining, Kelt. I’m here. You sound like a baby. You must find your courage to fight dragons, Kelt. Your fear would rouse every sleeping dragon if we passed beyond my first void.”

“Where are you? I feel so alone.”

Carter’s voice soothed him. “Look behind you.”

“I can’t. I can’t feel my body.”

“You’re outside of your body. Just think of looking behind yourself–your self.”

Kelt saw Carter naked, surrounded by a soft and white light, not radiant. The darkness overpowered everything else, a brooding, mindless precense. Carter smiled, as if Kelt were a lost toddler in a mall.

Kelt shouted, “Damn you, get me out–“

The television advertised a sweet and crunchy cereal, even in milk.

Kelt shivered and clutched himself. Carter bent down and grabbed the terry cloth bathrobe that had fallen to the floor. He put it on again as he said, “That was well done for a swimmer. I think you have the knack. I think I chose well.”

Kelt pushed himself down into the chair, savored the feel of a body, of the cushions pressing against him. “I believe you now, but I think you’d better get someone else. I never liked amusement rides.”

Kelt heard a sharp but feminine voice behind him: “So, Carter, you’ve retired to escorting swimmers around your first void?”

Kelt jumped up from his chair and looked at her. Tall and thin with long dirty blond hair, this woman stood naked in front of him. Kelt stared. Her breasts were small and swayed slightly with her shuddering body. With no clothes she was probably cold. He noticed her trembling and sweating, as if she were in a fever. A red tattoo of a bird’s claw appeared on her forehead. The tattoo squirmed and a beak, maroon as blood, jutted from her brow.

It squawked at Kelt and burst free from her body. No larger than a sparrow and translucent, the bird flew around the room, tethered to the woman by a thin and rope like white light emanating from her forehead. The bird plunged through a wall.

Carter said, “Hello, Carol. When did you become lost? Or did you turn assassin?”

Kelt watched them lock gazes. History and jagged daggers passed between their eyes. She spoke diffidently, “I’m not an assassin. I’ve just gotten back from being lost, and I admit I’m waxed.”

“Then be sensible. Get some rest and don’t intrude.”

She laughed, a somewhat ragged sound from exhaustion. “You sound as if you want to duel. Is that it, Carter?”

The whites of Carter’s eyes sank into the folds of his lids. “I didn’t ask you to come here, Carol.”

“But I’m asking you–Hey, pal, damp it down, will you? You’re confusing my harpy.”

Kelt asked, “What?”

Carter said, “Kelt, your light is in your eyes, your builder’s light. Relax and it will go away.”

Kelt’s eyes glowed, fireflies on a june night. He saw the reflection of light on his skin when he held his palm close to his face. He checked his breathing, timed it: The light dimmed. “I don’t believe this.”

Carol said, “Yes, you do believe or you couldn’t have shone that way. You have a mind harpy?”

Carter quickly interrupted, “Don’t answer that, Kelt.”

Carol gritted her teeth; then, looked away. She muttered, “I’m not here as an assassin, you paranoiac.”

A moment later, her bird flew into the room and plunged into her forehead. Carol’s head snapped back slightly, but she caught herself.

Carol faced Carter and said, “I was only having my mind harpy do a sweep of the area. I ran into the Trickster a moment ago. A lie’s as good as the truth with him, but he said you were here. A dragon crouches in a church steeple just outside of Teaneck, New Jersey. I could use that monster of a harpy you’ve got, or have you altogether retired?”

“All right, Carol.” Carter turned to Kelt and said, “I’ve got to go. You’ve been awakened, Kelt. You can swim through the first void, your first void, if you want. Practice. It will speed things. We’re a busy lot. I’ll be back.”

Carol smirked at Carter. “If you survive.”

Both became darker and darker, though Kelt’s apartment was brightly lit. Two shadows stood before Kelt; then, nothing. He was alone again. The terry cloth bathrobe hung in the air for a second; then, the folds of cloth dropped to the ground.

Kelt shut and locked his door.

 

3

 

A week passed, but they–Carter, the Trickster, Carol–never left his thoughts. Fixing tacos, punching in the time clock, wandering through the grocery store, and mostly sitting in his apartment with the TV blaring and the lights burning never stopped the unreality of that day from dominating his mind. They hadn’t returned.

Kelt wanted it to be dream. He wanted to dismiss it all. But they, whoever they really were, brought it all back with painful clarity: the life of the mind.

“It’s all crap.” he mumbled to himself throughout each day, and still Kelt couldn’t deny it. The whole idea mutated in Kelt’s mind, changed to fit every mood. The first day he was angry; the second, confused; the third and other days he was simply frightened, frightened of returning to the old way: the life where he had wasted a youth looking for something more in life, something that had never existed.

Now, there were dragons for him to fight.

On the tuesday of the next week at twilight, Kelt decided to take a swim. He turned off the television, the lights, and settled into his worn chair. Closing his eyes he pictured–felt the void.

He moaned. It was painful, that truth, his void. Instinctively, he wanted to deny it, but knew Carter wasn’t here to push him into that truth of loneliness: his first void.

“Oh, no, no, yes.” he said and it was not with his voice. The darkness claimed him, and it wasn’t Carter’s, but his, his nights spent alone with no one and nothing, and now no senses, no distractions. There was only KELT.

“This can’t be all there is. I couldn’t be right. I don’t want to be right!”

Then, an answer softly replied to his mental scream: a light, burning in his first void. Kelt gazed at it, loved it, adored it, a somber light, like a candle flame just before the liquid wax drowns the wick, with that same transience. He was scared it would leave, taking its gentility and serenity to be swallowed by that terrible first void. He willed himself closer, closer until he felt himself burn, the fire a hot poker in his skull, yet never close enough. The void remained, the darkness patiently surrounding the light. He felt compelled to touch it, to be with it. The light seemed whole, complete, to be just what he had always wanted.

But the closer he approached, the more he burned, his thoughts consumed, his skin blistered. Pain: Blades of light cut him into little pieces. One moment he thought he was five years old playing with stalks of grass, weaving them together, and then that memory was gone, shorn by that light. It had been a precious memory, one of the few he had remembered from his early youth and he felt the loss, the loss of something he had forgotten, ripped from him.

Kelt panicked and the soft chair and cool musty air of his apartment surrounded him. But that memory was gone, that piece of himself. He knew he had been cheated, knew he had left something behind him.

He mumbled, “It’s just another lie, another fakir’s sham. Oh, God.” His flannel shirt stuck to the sweat of his chest; the sleeves clung to the oozing blisters on his arms.

“There you go again. For an agnostic you sure call on Him a lot. Oh, I hope you don’t mind, but I turned on your television. I do so love distractions.”

Kelt listened to the small dog sitting at his feet and talking to him. No, it wasn’t a dog, but the thin, laughing face of a coyote, tongue casually lolling from the side of its muzzle.

Kelt asked, “How? What?”

“Good questions,” the coyote replied, “Let me guess: You’re not used to listening to animals. I wore Chris last time we met. Now that you’re a builder, you can see me–and other things–without a mask of flesh. There’s no turning back now, boy. Once you’ve eaten a peach you can never forget the taste.”

The coyote turned around itself twice, settled on its haunches, and nipped at its thigh, jaws working like a sewing machine. Then, “Ah, that’s better. But you, you almost got yourself lost just now. I like that.”

“Was that my soul?”

“Beats me. I don’t have a soul. Too much trouble. What’d you see?”

“A light.”

“No tunnel?”

Kelt shook his head.

The coyote said, “Hmph, on TV they always say you see a tunnel before you die. Maybe that wasn’t your soul, but someone else’s.”

Kelt shivered. “I’m cold. My arms hurt.”

“Look at your skin. You’re waxed. That’s the buzzword for a builder who’s been pushing himself too hard. Shame for you Carter’s not here.”

“Where is he, dammit? He said he’d teach me.” Kelt brought his hand to his face. The flesh was pale and rolled under the pressure of his thumb on his palm. The palm reader’s lines twisted, merged, broke. The flesh evened out, like water seeking its level, with a sensuous tingle. Slick, too, like plastic. Kelt swallowed, shuddered. There’s no turning back.

The coyote put his paw on Kelt’s leg. It seemed like a friendly gesture. “Maybe you should try and touch that light. That’ll tell you if it’s yours, I bet.”

“But you said I was waxed.”

“Well, if you’re not going to play anymore, I’ve got better things to do.” The coyote disappeared.

Kelt looked down. A puddle of urine rolled across his floor. He mumbled a curse word, tried to get up from his chair to clean it, but he felt as if barbells were strapped to his legs and arms.

Kelt’s chin dropped to his chest. A pounding on his door echoed in his dream, that pure fire pulsing to the beat of his heart, beating too fast. Sleepsand crusted around his eyelids. He woke feeling well, refreshed, but still confused by what had happened–was happening to him.

A voice from outside: “Hey, open up! I know you’re in there. C’mon, builder. I haven’t got all day. Carter sent me.”

Kelt jumped from his chair, ran to the door and pulled off the chain. Opening it, he saw a young blonde kid, a teenager with a buzz cut and leather jacket draped over a red t-shirt. He wore a silver chain; a single edged razor dangled from it. Dark shades covered his eyes; he lifted them to his forehead. Kelt saw the white light dancing in his pupils.

“You’re a builder.” Kelt said.

“Yeah, but you won’t be.” A stream of light ran from his left eye and down his arm to cover his fist. It grew, lengthened like a sword of light.

Mr. Barnes, Kelt’s neighbor across the hall, carried a bag of groceries, celery and Cheetoes poking from the top of the bag. He nodded at Kelt as he unlocked his door and went into his apartment. He perceived nothing–blind to the furious light around the boy.

Kelt tried to slam his door shut, but the boy was quick, stepping halfway inside and shoving the door hard. Kelt was thrown against the back of the chair. He said, “You’re a dragon.”

The kid laughed. “Man, you don’t have a clue, do you? I’m a man, a real man, not some freakin’ doppelganger lost builder. We’re puttin’ down the law. We don’t want you people anymore. No more messing with the Forms, no more rousing the dragons, no more craziness from you turds.”

What the hell? Kelt turned to run into the kitchen; maybe grab a knife.

His insides burned, where his left kidney was. Ennui washed over him. He looked back and saw the sword sticking in him. His muscles sagged, flaccid. He crumpled over the arm of his chair. Eyelids drooped.

The kid said, “Tell Carter this: Earth is off limits for lost builders.” He twisted the light; it writhed in Kelt’s insides. “Real builders will take care of the dragons. There’s no place for lost builders on the hard world.” He withdrew the light; it retracted from Kelt’s body, up the boy’s arm and into his eye. “You don’t mess with us. Give him my message and turn him away.”

Kelt slipped into darkness. He roused occasionally; someone forced water down his throat; someone carried him into the bathroom to urinate. He was unaware how often this happened or how much time was passing. He slept deeply, beyond dreams, and liked it that way.

He woke without opening his eyes and heard voices:

“How’s he doing?” That was Carol.

“Better, but I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to shoot a soul bridge. I should never have told you to become a lost builder. Maybe they’re right. Maybe we are insane.” That was Carter.

Carol’s sharp edged laughter roused Kelt as she said, “Too late for that now. Besides, who’s more insane? Us for trying to find the Answer, or them for willingly closing their eyes when they’ve been gifted to see?”

Kelt lifted himself off the couch. “No. You’re right. I was wrong to turn away, to give up. I won’t leave the world to violence. I don’t want to die only knowing the dance of Maya.”

Carter grabbed him roughly by the shoulder. He looked into his eyes for a long moment, searching for what Kelt didn’t know. Finally, Carter smiled and said, “I do think you’ll shoot a bridge again.”

“Who’s Maya?” Carol asked, but she seemed relieved to see Kelt awake.

Carter said, “She’s an east indian goddess, a Form of the physical world. Kelt’s decided he wants more. Am I right?”

“I want the All.” Kelt replied.

“There’s a price, Kelt,” Carol said, “and we’re in a war with more than dragons.”

Carter said, “She’s right, Kelt. The mystics are in conflict. Some builders just shoot the bridge, play with the anima, the energy of the soul, like Jax, the assassin who attacked you. Lost builders, like Carol and me, have forfeited our bodies. We build bridges through the soul fire, to God knows where, to maybe where the Answer is.”

Kelt interrupted, “Show me how to be a lost builder.”

“You already know what to do.” Carol said.

Carter said, “You’ll be safe until you shoot a bridge. The builders can’t conceive of anyone being as hungry as you are. They think they blinded you, but lost builders have the thirst.”

 

4

 

Kelt closed his eyes and pictured Jax, the boy, with all that hate in his gut. That wasn’t the path. Turning away wasn’t the path. Shoot the bridge.

His heart thumped and pained him, as if swelling to burst. It locked his jaw. His tongue bled, but the taste left him, the sound left him, and sight, too. The first void greeted him, but he felt tired, still wounded.

Then, he saw it: his hand. He ran his fingers along his body. In the first void, a soft white light gently illumined his body, like a halo. A wide arc of light shot out from his heart and plummeted across the void until it struck that small candlelight that had burnt him last time.

“My light. The Answer!”

Kelt willed himself toward it with all his hunger. He floated on the white light shooting outward from his heart; it grabbed his feet and propelled him toward the light. His flesh and his mind burned:

A childhood fall against the side of a wooden sandbox,

Eager touch of a young woman’s breast,

The accomplishments of Kelt, the student,

Working at a job, with the smiles, the anger;

Endless streams of idle chatter,

Lost lust, almost love, that sandy brown hair.

His body entered the light. The eye searing brightness consumed hundreds of memories, leaving nothing, not a shred left of Kelt, except I AM. And then, though the moment seemed golden and serene, without guilt, without ambition, the essential Kelt added another thought as his flesh melted away in that light: I am alone. Pain returned and the light vomited him forth into—-

His naked feet touched cold grass on a lonely hill. Everything seemed cold compared to that light. Nothing but grass and weeds and rocks, save for one tree, an oak. Where had it gone? He wanted to ask, but walked toward the oak–nowhere left to go. Something caught his eye, moved in the branches.

“Hello again, miss me?” The Trickster walked beside him and now looked like Kelt, except his skin was tinted green. The playful shine in his eyes was unmistakable.

“Where am I?”

“Always questions, Kelt. Tsk. Guess you didn’t find the Answer, whatever the hell that means. You’re on the other side, one of many sides, but this is your side, and I am you.”

“What?”

Suddenly, two green tinted Kelt’s talked to him in stereo, “I’m a Form; you, that is, humanity created me. So, in a way, I’m you and I’m your son. Are we understanding any of this, daddy?”

Kelt shook his head. “No.” What had happened? He felt disjointed. The memories returned, vomited forth from the light, but that light wasn’t the Answer, and now his memories felt as if they were someone else’s. “I’m not me.”

The Trickster sighed, “That’s what every new lost builder says. Why don’t you grab your mind harpy? It’ll make you feel better.”

Thick branches twisted outward from the giant oak. Birds perched on them. Most slept, beaks tucked under wings. On the lowest branch a falcon dozed imperiously. Above it a red bird squawked at Kelt, but couldn’t stretch its wings; it was tangled in a chaotic network of small, brittle branches. At the top of the oak a single white dove gently glowed, but it slept, too. A vulture, the only other bird awake in the tree, sat on the branch extending farthest out from the rest of the tree, a rotted branch.

Kelt asked, “Should I take the vulture, too?”

Both Tricksters chuckled and slapped Kelt on the back. “No, no, that one’s angry with you. This’s your tree; that vulture is your death. You woke him after you destroyed your body in the light. It can’t quite figure out why you aren’t dead yet. My, but I do love the pastoral way you pictured your karma.” The Tricksters stuck their tongues out at the vulture. The vulture did not stop gazing at Kelt.

“Go on, Kelt. Claim your mind harpy.”

Kelt slowed his breathing. The warm sensation rushed through his chest; the light burst from him in a thin line that wound its way to and around the mind harpy, freeing the bird from the tree and tethering it to his light.

The Tricksters shouted, “That’s it, Kelt! Reel it in! Boy, you caught a whopper!”

Kelt pulled the bird to his chest and at the last moment the bird plunged inside his body.

“Ah!” Kelt cried. It’s hurting me–no, it wants–it wants to wander, to find home, but it knows it has no home, like me.”

“Like you.” the Tricksters laughingly replied and vanished.

 

5

 

He stood in front of his tree. The mind harpy clawed inside of him, clawed his memories, his alienated memories. Each memory was like a twig, woven by the little bird inside him into a nest.

Kelt wanted to shout, “Stop! That’s I!” But his builder’s light only caressed the mind harpy, his mind harpy. The bird wove these foreign, once intimate, memories, interlocking them.

Kelt wanted to shatter, to explode and pursue each memory and each old desire, linked to each memory. But some frightened him, seemed unwholesome and dark: his nightmares and fears of what he had been, what he had done wrong–a father left to drive drunk one summer night, a girl he had wronged, the one with the sandy brown hair.

The mind harpy quietly took these things from Kelt, wholly appropriating them, calmly building its nest inside his chest as if no thought, no horror were repugnant or alien to it. Then, when it was done, Kelt wept for no reason that he could articulate.

“I’ve lost myself.”

Kelt’s mind harpy squawked in its nest, “We are a lost builder. I want to fly.” Not in words, but bubbling up from his chest, from his heart erupted those feelings from his harpy: “Move, move, move, seek, seek, seek.”

Kelt said, “Let’s go.”

The mind harpy leapt from its nest, dove out, and flew into the air. Kelt shot a white rope of light from his heart and tethered the harpy. He desired it and the energy came. It made him feel giddy, powerful. His bird pulled him into the air.

The grasses faded; the tree vanished; Kelt wondered if he would ever return to it, if it would look the same.

The darkness returned, but Kelt felt a difference: This wasn’t his first void. This darkness stretched beyond himself, as if the Flying Dutchman with ragged sails and skeletal oarsmen plied this empty ether along with all the other secrets of the night hidden from Kelt. His mind harpy loved the feeling and flew faster, pulled Kelt along, skiing on and under a bottomless black ocean. The emptiness screamed to Kelt he didn’t belong here. His chest hurt with the fear of it. Too much strangeness. Too soon.

A red star twinkled in this sheet of ebony and the harpy flew toward it.

“No!” Kelt shouted and pulled at the tether of light.

His mind harpy squawked, but obeyed, plunging into his chest.

The star grew like an ocean of blood with bat-like wings and an elongated jaw. Hunger rested in its ebony eyes.

Kelt thought of his apartment, pictured it in his mind and shot the bridge with a gasp. The white bridge arced from his forehead and spanned across the void. Kelt willed himself along the bridge, faster and faster.

It pursued, opened a burning maw, engulfing the white light bridge that Kelt left behind him.

Then, his apartment enclosed him–blessed familiar! He shivered, cold and naked and sweating: waxed. Kelt collapsed on the couch.

Carter leaned over him. Carol wore a soft blue dress with a silver sash; she peered through the dusty venetian blinds. “One followed him.” she said.

Carter went into Kelt’s bedroom and returned carrying a pair of jeans, sneakers, flannel shirt, and trench coat. He tossed them to Kelt and said, “Get dressed. I know you’re feeling sick, but we’ve got to move. By the way, congratulations: You’re one of us now.”

Kelt fumbled with the clothes, unfolded the jeans. “It looked like a dragon, just like in the story books.”

Carol said, “Kelt, you’ve lost your body. You’re in the world of the mind now. We need names for those things in the outer darkness; our minds give shape to the names. Everyone is alone; everyone sees things differently.”

Carter asked Carol, “How big a flare did his dragon give off?”

Kelt asked, “Hasn’t that always been true?”

Carol replied to Carter, “Big. He must have gone deep into the outer darkness. Did you have help, Kelt?”

While pulling on his jeans, Kelt said, “The Trickster was with me. If I have no body, why the hell am I putting these clothes on?”

Carter said, “If you hurry up and dress–don’t forget your bankbook–I’ll tell you. You created a doppelganger of your body with the tail end of the energy of your soul bridge. That’s why you’re waxed.”

Carol said, “I think his dragon came down near the urban development district. Figures the violent empathy residuals would attract it to–uh-oh.”

Carter and Kelt asked in unison, “What?”

“Got three more flares coming down; they’re white tailed, not red. Must be builders, and they’re bearin’ down right for this apartment.”

“Damn.” Carter cursed. “Kelt, shoot the bridge, now. Now!”

Kelt trembled. He hadn’t seen Carter this upset. At their first meeting, he had been coy and sly and amusing, but the facade dropped, telling Kelt he was in danger.

Kelt asked, “Jax?”

Carol answered, “Yes, he’d have to be one of them. And he’s tough. We’ve got to go.”

Kelt closed his eyes, felt the energy seething within him, but it was sluggish, slow like syrup. His mind harpy squealed in agony and clutched the memory of his father’s death. Tears welled up in Kelt’s eyes. “Damn that harpy. I can’t. I–I’m too waxed.”

Carter said, “But you do have a harpy. It’ll guard you. We’ll have to stay and fight. Carol?”

“I’ll stay, Carter. Sane lost builders should at least try to stay together. We are a lonely breed.”

Kelt tugged his arms through the sleeves of his coat.

Carter turned to him and said, “Release your harpy. Let’s see what we have.”

A shotgun blast shattered the lock on the door as Kelt’s mind harpy burst from his chest. Ropes of light appeared on Carter’s body at his chakra points of head, heart and groin. A mind harpy, a deeper red than Kelt’s and thrice as large, burst from Carter’s chest. Carol’s burst from her forehead, sleeker and smaller than Kelt’s, like a red swallowtail. Another free floating rope of light emanated from Carol’s chest.

Jax strode into the room, followed by two others, all wore trench coats. Jax said, “Sorry we’re late, but we stopped for clothes and supplies.” He grinned as he pulled out his shotgun and blasted a bloody hole in Carter’s chest.

Carter’s body collapsed into a fine grey silt. His harpy vanished.

Carol’s mind harpy dove into the body of Jax’s taller friend. The builder dropped to his hands and began crying, “Marlena! Marlena! Oh, God, why’d you have to die?” He moaned.

Jax dropped his shotgun. A blade of light slid down Jax’s left eye and lengthened in his hand.

Kelt’s mind harpy swerved from the blade and toward the third intruder, a tall woman, dark haired. Her light was still running down her forearm to her fist as Kelt’s mind harpy plunged into her groin chakra. Then, her builder’s light retracted. She paled. Her lips drew back; her eyes widened. “No, no, don’t touch me! Don’t touch me there! No!” She collapsed in sobs.

“Bitch.” Jax said, “I know how to hurt, too.”

He arced his blade across the tether connecting Carol to her mind harpy; then, instead of advancing toward Carol, Jax swung his soul blade around in a wide arc cutting through the head of his male compatriot. Jax’s blade did no material damage; it slipped like a ghost through the man’s head.

Carol screamed, “My baby, my harpy, my thoughts!”

“War’s hell.” Jax snickered. “One, down; two to go.”

Kelt summoned his mind harpy back to him. The anguish on Carol’s face frightened him. But Jax ignored him. He grabbed hands with his compatriots and said, “Shoot the bridge.”

They were gone. Their clothes dropped to the ground. Carol stared at the ceiling and hugged herself.

Carter appeared again, his body trembling, his skin waxed. His harpy roared from his chest and circled the room. “What happened?”

He saw Carol’s face and his other questions caught in his throat.

Kelt said quietly, “I think–I think Jax killed her mind harpy.” He had to stem the feelings of pride from his bird that bubbled up to his waking mind. “You’re–you’re alive?”

Carter hugged Carol. She pushed him away.

She said, “I’m barren. No body, no harpy. We’re all just damned poltergeists. Jax was right. Only a lunatic would become a lost builder.” She turned on Kelt with fury in her eyes. “You are a fool, boy. Great seeker of the Truth! There is no Answer. You’re all arrogant jackasses. I–I want my harpy. I–I’m sorry. I’m going to shoot the bridge. Maybe turn assassin. I need a harpy. I’ve got too many dragons on my scent.” She kissed Carter lightly on the forehead and then Kelt. “But truce with you. Good-bye.”

A blade of light ran down her left eye and into her palm. Then she disappeared, her blue dress wafting to the floor.

“Damn them,” Kelt cried, “She didn’t deserve that pain. She didn’t deserve this. No one does. Why do they hate us so?”

Kelt was frightened; his harpy tended all those memories for him, all the ones of his old life, before he had become lost to the world, all that said Kelt. He was scared of becoming like Carol.

Carter slumped on the couch and held his head in his hands. “I don’t know; I don’t know; I don’t know.”

 

6

 

Carter and Kelt hid on the streets, chose to become homeless. It was a clear night, but chilly. They stood by a rusty barrel and warmed their hands by the fire, occasionally tossing in refuse: old boxes, rumpled paper trash, cardboard. Others came near them, the homeless ones, the lost drifters, not builders, just lost; the street hustlers always had some better place to go. For the first time Kelt observed them up close. Carter didn’t turn them away with his mind harpy. Kelt followed his passive lead.

Carter and Kelt talked freely among them. The homeless were not some unified group: some down on their luck, some very neurotic, some delusional, but all travelled alone, just as, Kelt remembered, the Trickster had told him.

Kelt asked, “Where do you think she is?”

Carter mumbled, “In the outer darkness, probably. She’s roaming around Forms and Ideas looking for another lost builder to maim for a replacement harpy. She’ll probably kill her victim. Many lost builders’re insane anyway. Carol might be insane by now. It’s hard living as thought.”

Abruptly, Carter pointed toward the heavens and said, “There’s another one. See it?”

“Yes. What–who is it?”

A white flare plunged down to the city; three red comets streaked across the sky and plummeted after it.

Carter rubbed his palms together as the wind picked up. He said, “Probably, Carol. She maroons her dragons on the hard world. She’s good. Look.”

A white comet shot upward from the city and into the skyline before flickering out. It was not pursued.

Kelt said, “She must be terribly waxed.”

“She’ll shoot bridges until she gets too slow for the dragons; then, death. It’ll be a mercy.”

“Shit,” Kelt muttered, “what’s the point? How’s this war help us find the Answer. Fighting builders, fighting and running from dragons, it leads only to misery.”

Carter said, “You have to be alive to search for your answer. The world won’t stay at rest and wait at your leisure.”

The night faded to dawn and then a bright morning. During the rush hour Kelt saw it, shuffling with the busy pedestrians rushing to their jobs: a man with hungry eyes. He was short and stocky, dressed in a dark blue suit with a pinstripe tie, yellow and black. He seemed like the rest, and everyone in the crowd, conscious of their personal space, paid him no notice. But the man stared only at Kelt, did not even bother watching where he was going, save for staying with the crowd of pedestrians travelling toward Kelt.

The nape of Kelt’s neck tingled. He saw the man staring at him. Kelt returned his gaze. The little man picked up his pace, craning his head toward Kelt, eyes bulging.

Carter watched Kelt’s expression. “What is it?”

“I don’t know.” Kelt replied. He brought his builder’s light to his eyes; a crimson sheen in the stranger’s eyes answered the call, and Kelt felt a tremor in his gut, an empathic backlash of hunger, not only for food, just ravening hunger, for flesh, food, love, sex, the Answer–hunger.

Kelt’s mind harpy squawked and jumped from Kelt’s nest, making Kelt feel alien and separate from himself, his old memories not tended, lying like a sack of flour at the base of his mind. Pride filled that loss when he saw his sleek mind harpy burst through his chest and head straight toward what he intuitively knew was his dragon.

“Tether it!” Carter shouted.

A bemused teenager, black with a short afro, watched the tall black man shout at the air. He backed a pace as he scarfed down a slice of cardboard-like mushroom pizza, bought from a curbside vendor.

A white tendril of light streaked from Kelt’s chest and lassoed his mind harpy. Carter’s burst from his heart chakra already tethered. He asked, “Where is it?–Oh.”

The possessed man fell to the pavement. A gaggle of pedestrians gathered around him. One bent over the prostrate man and administered CPR. The dragon spread luminescent wings of blood, flapping through the bodies in the crowd as if nothing were there.

Kelt’s harpy looped, then dived to land on its back. Its beak dug into the maroon hide.

Carter’s harpy flitted around its head, raked at its eyes; but never quite caught them with its talons. The dragon howled and opened its maw.

Suddenly, Carter screamed in pain.

Kelt turned to look. A woman stood behind Carter with her soul blade embedded in the older man’s back. She was petite, barely five feet with long and tightly curled hair. Her smile was both joyous and sadistic: lips stretched wide to reveal pearly teeth, eyes squinted almost shut but glinting cold and dark brown. She wore a black dress, not elegant, but plain, as if she were a business person.

Carter fell to his knees. The tether to his mind harpy dissolved. His bird dove and landed on the dragon’s serpentine neck to feed. Kelt felt a pain in his insides, stabbing and burning–a familiar pain.

And he heard Jax’s voice behind him: “What, Kelt? You think only lost builders know how to track dragons? This ends it. I thought most of your kind were too crazy to work together. Carter was different, but Julia’ll take care of him.”

Kelt stumbled back against the side of a concrete building and looked into Jax’s eyes. He was rushing, like a junky, sucking up Kelt’s anima through his soul blade. The dragon loomed above both of them. He had to escape, to shoot the bridge. He trembled and tried to call his harpy back to him. But along the tether he felt rebellion; his harpy gorged on the fiery energy of the dragon and refused to leave.

An idea blossomed in Kelt’s mind as he watched Jax’s face express joy at his pain. So puerile. Jax needed to understand: Pain is universal. Jax was right here, right in front of him. Such a short distance from him, yet so far in the world of the mind.

Shoot the bridge.

The bridge arced from Kelt’s chest, just above where his tether to his mind harpy pulsed.

Jax’s soul blade dissipated. Shocked, he exclaimed, “What?”

The bridge struck Jax in the chest. Kelt’s doppelganger dissolved as he willed his essential self along the bridge—-

KELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAXKELTJAX

Jax howled, a guttural belly deep call for help; then, “No!” He trembled, tore at his chest with his fingernails. “It can’t be like this! How can you live this way! No! Parasite! Get out! No! I w-w-won’t accept this. Oh, please.”

A shining white light blinded Kelt as he floated in Jax’s first void. He moved closer; his mind throbbed hotly as images pounded into him, images of Jax, partying with friends and beers in a dark bar to the raucous electronic bellows of bass and guitar music, being punched in the face and gut and kicked in the genitals–left for dead, his first swim into his first void as if an amusement, fucking a parade of women floating through his mind–some fantasies, some true, living in the riotous moment of every day because there was no tomorrow for Jax and no one else existed for Jax who actually lived on the world. People were things to be used, not entities, no more than a chair was an entity. Kelt wanted to puke, but he didn’t have a body.

A burning pain-pleasure engulfed both Jax and Kelt. Fires erupted from the dragon’s maw, paralyzing both at the point of an orgasm that wouldn’t cease. All of Jax’s muscles tensed. Unbalanced, he fell to the ground. Kelt wanted it to never end; it eased every ache, spiritual and physical, with mind numbing pleasure.

Jax’s light flared in his first void, like a sun about to go nova. Horrified, Kelt felt himself pulled toward Jax’s light and he lost a memory to that void–the anguish of Carol’s face left him, the anguish of losing a mind harpy. Kelt panicked, pictured the street, the last place he had been on the hard world and shot the bridge.

Kelt woke on the city street on top of his clothes. His body jerked spasmodically as his mind harpy plunged into his heart chakra. He was waxed, limbs like water with a pounding headache. Carter might still be in danger. He rolled over, felt too weak to stand.

His dragon was nowhere to be seen. Carter stood over him and the woman stood over Jax, who curled up on the ground in a fetal position, murmuring unintelligibly. She was a threat. For a moment Kelt looked at her only as a threat, nothing more and an intense hatred for her welled up in his gut. His harpy squawked in his mind, unable to understand the alien memories floating pell mell in Kelt’s mind. It plucked one it recognized that had drifted from Kelt’s conscious mind. It pushed it into its nest.

Kelt felt his pity for Carol’s dead harpy with renewed vigor. He pushed aside that Jaxish way of looking at the world. Yes, the woman was a threat, but she was a person. But he wasn’t wholly convinced. His harpy fluttered its wings, making him more nauseous. It didn’t like Kelt’s fear. Kelt’s new doppelganger shivered.

Carter bent down to him and touched his forehead, as if checking for a fever. “Where did you go? You’re waxed.”

“Into Jax.” The gravel in his voice surprised him, a whisper when he had meant to speak.

“God. No wonder. I’ve only heard of lovers doing that and then only for a moment. You got caught by the dragon fire?”

“Y-yes. What happened?”

Pity and revulsion momentarily passed over Carter’s face. Then, he spoke soothingly, “Julia and I dispatched it. Try and get dressed.”

Carter helped Kelt to his feet and handed him his clothes. Then, he turned to the woman. “Julia, I want a truce.”

The woman faced him, not standing from Jax’s huddled form. “Yes, we’ve both had our losses. Your friend is impetuous. I suggest you use him while you can, Carter. I’ve seen lost builders like him before. Invariably, they go insane,” through gritted teeth, “never knowing when to stop pushing.”

Carter said, “He’s my problem.”

Julia said, “I’m glad of it. All your soldiers are unstable, like him, like Carol Foster. They’ll only bring more dragons to the world, more wars, more suffering. Is that really what you want, Carter?”

Carter asked, “The truce?”

“Damn you,” Julia muttered, and then, “You have one month in Kelt’s apartment. Anywhere else, coming down from your first void, coming down from that outer darkness you love so much, or on the street, you’re vulnerable, ghost-man.”

Carter put his arm around Kelt’s back and helped him to walk. Kelt listened to the sobs of Jax as he walked down the street until Kelt heard himself speak in a childlike voice, “Home?”

“Yes, Kelt, home for a month. Savor it. Rest.”

 

7

 

Carter watched his pupil, sitting languidly in the ugly but comfortable green cloth chair. Kelt was no longer waxed, but his eyes were blurry and his speech, slurred. Carter slid his gaze to the trunk and looked at the bottle of whiskey, a black label “Old No. 5” across the surface of the bottle, half empty. He was losing Kelt, he felt it.

Kelt said, “What are you looking at? crazy old man.”

Carter watched him carefully. He didn’t know what tack to take with the boy. He drawled, “I see you’re making the most of this truce.”

Kelt lifted the bottle to his lips and took a small pull, more for show; his head felt numb, but anger burned away that cottony feeling. “Why the hell shouldn’t I? I’ve got a free month to enjoy the way things were, the easy way life had been before you arrived.”

“So you’ll just backslide, huh? What about your search for the Answer?”

Kelt said, “Shit.” He belched. “Just shit. Metaphysical bulldoodey.” Kelt laughed, too loudly for sense. “That was good. Hell. Grab what you can, when you can. That’s what Jax would say.”

Carter leaned closer to Kelt, tried to catch intent in Kelt’s eyes, but they were too blurry from alcohol. Carter spoke softly, trying to defuse the situation but get Kelt back on track, “Since when have you liked whatever Jax had to say? You’ve gotten nothing but a stab in the back from him, literally.”

Kelt shouted, “Dammit, you know when! You know when! This ain’t no gawd dammed movie. You ain’t no freakin’ Yoda the hut. You put me out in the streets to confront that damn dragon as a lesson, old man. You were usin’ me. You put my soul in danger–I feel so friggin’ filthy.”

Kelt sighed, stood, went to his kitchen, drank down a glass of water, left the glass on the counter, and stumbled into the bathroom.

A long moment later, Kelt came out grinning and said, “Ah, much better,” and reached for the bottle, taking another pull. “And that, my dear lost builder, was even better.”

Carter asked, “Was it that terrible?”

Kelt smirked and said, “Oh, no, man. It was good, real good, being in the scum effin center of Jax and then ejaculating. Oh yeah, that’ll get you thinking right. I can’t–oh, forget it. You’ve got to be there to know what I’m talking about. Everybody travels alone. The Trickster said that and he–it? Whatever–He was right, so very right. But I ain’t listening to your shit anymore.”

“If you don’t want me around, I can leave.”

“And have you gettin torn up by builders on my conscience? Uh-uh. C’mon, relax. I’m sorry I shouted at you. Have a drink.”

“No.”

Kelt snorted and took another small pull from the bottle. “Prig,” he muttered and set the bottle down. His aim was poor and he only set one corner of the bottle on the trunk before releasing it. The bottle tipped over and the brown liquor splashed to the floor. “Shit!” Kelt yipped and lunged after the bottle. Only a few shots remained. “Eh, I feel like pukin’ anyway. I always feel like pukin’.”

Kelt wrenched his stare from the bottle to look into Carter’s eyes. “Are you searching for the Answer, Carter? I don’t think you are. I think you’re a soldier in the same way that woman was talking about me and Jax. You some sort of lost builder generalissimo?”

Carter leaned back into the couch. He inhaled and then spoke, “I’ll tell you, Kelt, though you probably won’t remember any of it in the morning. I understand your hunger for an answer to existence–“

Kelt interrupted, “Incompleteness, that’s my question.”

“Any way you want to phrase it. But I don’t share it. I just try to get by–“

Kelt interrupted again, “But that’s what I was doing before you came. Just trying to get by, day to day.”

Carter grimaced; then, he sighed and said, “You’re right, but not precisely. I’m trying to get by in helping my people, not in hiding in a fast food dump.”

“Blacks? Uhm, I mean African-Americans?”

Carter shook his head. “Lost builders. We’re a fragile breed. One stroke of Jax’s soul blade sent Carol over the edge. Some go over the edge by themselves. And all of them, as you say, travel alone. You want some god or Brahma to give you enlightenment; some just want oblivion; some just want to relieve their ennui. All of them at one point had to be hungry enough for something to lose themselves, their identity, their memories, if only for a moment.”

Kelt drained the last shot from the bottle and pointed a wobbling index finger at Carter. “Yeah, that’s them, old man. Me. But what about you? Huh? What the hell are you doin’ this crap for?”

Carter glanced at the empty bottle, leaned back and said, “Builders aren’t crazy-hungry like lost builders. They have the patience to sit and plan, like a murder of crows harassing an owl. Someone has to fight for the lost builders.”

Carter looked over at Kelt for some kind of reaction to what he had said, but Kelt had passed out, his arms hanging over the sides of the chair, his head lolling back, and a soft and rough snore passing from the back of his throat.

Kelt woke with a sore neck and a blinding headache, which a glass of lukewarm water mollified, but his gut and his chest felt like a mass of spaghetti instead of bone and muscle and sinew. Hungover. He couldn’t drag himself into the shower; the water would be too unpleasant, smashing into his skin. He grabbed a pair of sunglasses and walked down the steps of his apartment building. The smell of paint made him queasy again, but he forged on. Standing still only made it worse.

It was late afternoon. His shades blocked the sun from his too sensitive eyes. Gulping fresh air, Kelt convinced himself he felt better. He stretched once and headed for the store to buy a six pack. He looked at the buildings, the ornate cornices–anything to distract himself from the depression that weighed on him.

“Kelt,” a voice hissed.

Kelt turned to look down a narrow alleyway between two grey stone buildings that were tall enough to block the sinking sun from the narrow passage. Loose garbage–beer cans, cigarette butts, old newspapers–and twin dumpsters crowded the alley. A man shape stood tall and Kelt saw a glowing white soul blade in his left hand. The white blade didn’t disturb the shadows.

Kelt pushed his anima to his left eye and the energy started to run down to his palm.

But the voice–Jax’s voice cried, “No. Wait. I want to talk.” He held up the blade and Kelt watched it slowly shrink as the white anima rolled up Jax’s arm like liquid dancing a defiance against gravity. “Truce?”

“What do you want? I don’t want to talk to you.”

Jax’s voice was frantic. “But you must, must! Come here. I won’t hurt you. God, Kelt, you’ve been inside of me.”

“That’s why I don’t want to come any closer. Or have you forgotten you stabbed me twice?”

Jax took a step toward Kelt; he was half in shadow and half in twilight. Jax said, “Now, do you see? Come here. I’ve got no clothes. I don’t want to attract attention. Julia’s looking for me. I couldn’t come down from my first void in any of my usual haunts–haunts . . . heh, heh, like that slang? Already, I’m starting to sound like a lost builder. Come here.”

He was naked and shivering and sweating. Kelt saw all that before Jax retreated to the safety of the shadows. He took two steps into the alley. Jax clutched some sort of lump in his right hand. Kelt halted.

“Fine, that’s fine.” Jax said. His voice wavered and he shifted from foot to foot.

Kelt asked softly, “What are you holding, Jax?”

Jax broke into a ragged laugh; then said, “I’m holding me, or what I used to be. That’s why I need to talk to you. Heh, want to see?”

Kelt’s harpy rustled in its nest, squealed to be released, bothering Kelt’s concentration. But Kelt wanted to learn something from Jax, for Carter, for the shitty way he had treated him since the truce. Kelt only wanted the Answer, but Carter was his friend, deserved some help in his war. Anyway, fighting with Jax wouldn’t solve anything. And looking at him was almost like looking into a mirror; he identified with Jax, had identified with him since the fight. Confronting Jax would be a purging–he hoped.

“Show me what’s in your hand.”

Jax thrust his right arm into the light; the shadows started at his forearm. Clutched in Jax’s hand was a large city rat. Its sharp teeth embedded in Jax’s hand where the thumb and the forefinger joined. The rat glared back into the shadows at Jax. Its bald tail poked freely from the bottom of his hand and swayed as Jax trembled.

Jax spoke proudly, “See? Do you see? It was me. Look at his eyes, Kelt. What a hunter, what a party animal.” Jax broke into another stream of ragged laughter.

Kelt said, “I don’t want to duel with you anymore, Jax. You’re waxed and not making sense. Go get some rest.”

The rat released its bite only to get a firmer purchase on Jax. Blood ran down in a thin line from Jax’s forearm and dripped to the ground from his elbow. Jax tightened his grip.

He said, almost shouting, “Stop pretending. You’re not ignorant. You see the rat. You know what I’m talking about. I–and I think almost everyone, except for lost builders–is like the rat. How did they say it in school? Eating, drinking, fucking, shitting–not exactly those words, but that was the definition of life, something like that. And that’s all I was, until you infected me like a damn virus. I can’t–I want to be the way I was. Like this rat.” Jax held the rat close to Kelt’s face. Fleas jumped from the rat to Jax and back.

Kelt gritted his teeth. The blood rushed to his face. “Damn you. Don’t call me a virus. You’re the one who infected me with your filthy thoughts, with the way you look at the world, nothing but pain and pleasure.”

Kelt heard Jax cough–or sob? He wasn’t sure.

Jax said, “Th–that’s not the way I am, but–heh, I’m glad I gave you something else to think about besides your own damn loneliness and your own damn lust for God–or is it just you who you lust after?”

Kelt whispered behind clenched jaws, “What do you know about my question? That’s me, not you.”

Jax shouted, “You made it my question! A question I can’t even put into words! You bridged your horrible question into me. I never had a choice!” As he raged, he squeezed his right hand tighter and tighter. The rat died squealing. Jax vented his anger by slamming the little carcass into the ground. Rat blood flowed with Jax’s blood on his mangled hand. He seemed unaware of his injury.

Kelt answered quietly, “No one has a choice about that question. Who would choose such an impossible task?”

“Someone bridge the question into you? Is that how lost builders get started?”

“No, Jax. I was born this way, I guess. It just came into me. I don’t know.”

Jax laughed, more nervousness than anything else. “How could you live? We’re just drops of oil in an ocean that never joins the two, no matter the same moon, the same currents, the same dreams. I d-don’t understand how anyone could live with such loneliness–always hungering, never knowing. Is that love and hate and all that’s me seeing all I see behind your eyes–oh, please.” Jax hugged himself, squeezed his ribs and rocked back and forth. “Or–or just another predator or just nothing, nothing at all behind your eyes–the abyss behind all those eyes in the city and I’m alone. I can’t bear it, I tell you, I can’t. Don’t take off your sunglasses; I don’t want to see your eyes. I’ll stay in the shadows so you can’t see mine. Do you understand? Even with the same question–the one you gave me–we still see everything differently. I want to pretend that we see it the same way, just pretend, like you pretend there’s a god, who’ll make everyone together and make everyone see everything the same way. Huh. I’m not so ambitious in my pretending. I’ll just pretend we both see the question the exact same way.” His voice quieted. “Kelt, I–I’m going to become a lost builder, too, just like you. It’ll help me pretend that I’m not alone, that you understand me perfectly, ’cause we’ll be the same, then. The only two together in the whole damned history of the world.”

Kelt wanted to dismiss Jax as a lunatic. The way he talked, all manic and naked and shivering. It would be easy. Jax mirrored his thoughts too closely, too insidiously mirrored his fears–a black mirror that only reflected the darkness and not the light. The way he, Kelt, had acted since the fight–the merger with Jax, Kelt admitted to himself. He pitied Jax, his manic pain, and at the same time he pitied himself, for Jax did think like him now.

Kelt said, “Good. Become a lost builder, and if you find the Answer, come and tell me what it is or where I can find it.”

Jax moaned, “Oh, It’s hard, Kelt. I go close to the light in my first void and I feel my body start to burn–and–and my mind, too. I’m afraid of dying.”

“You won’t die. Am I dead?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s not funny, Jax. I exist. You can’t deny it.”

Jax spoke hurriedly, “No, no, I want you to exist. How else could I pretend I’m not alone? But it’s hard, that light. I’m scared. Hold me.”

Kelt stepped away, repulsed. “Get hold of your own damn self.”

Abruptly, Jax stopped shivering. He spoke softly, “I lied, Kelt. I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of living, living forever and ever as a lost builder. Don’t you know you’re immortal? If something from the outer darkness, like a dragon, doesn’t eat your soul energy, you’ll never pass Beyond, where they say you meet your Maker. Isn’t that what you want to do? Meet your Maker? Ask him a few questions, like why? Why don’t you kill yourself?”

Kelt turned from Jax. “Go home. Sleep. You’re perverse from being waxed.”

As Kelt walked away, Jax shouted after him, “You’ll help me, Kelt! You did this to me; you have to help me. I’ll become a lost builder. Kelt! Kelt!!”

Kelt stopped.

“Kelt! Watch out for Carter. Watch out for Julia. They’re not much more than rats. You’ll see. They want to distract us from the question, from the Answer. Do like me. Stay away from them.”

Kelt walked away; he almost thought he could hear Jax sobbing over his dead rat.

 

8

 

Kelt made his way to the convenience store and poured himself a diet cola from the soda fountain. He payed at the cash register. The sales clerk, a slim man, balding on the top of his head, had an infection, an open sore, on his right cheek, which he didn’t bother to cover. Kelt stared.

The clerk said, “Your change, Kelt.” He smiled.

Kelt watched the man’s complexion shift to a green tint. “Trickster. I’m not in the mood.”

A coyote jumped from the clerk’s body and strolled through the doors, squatted on the pavement and waited for Kelt. The clerk plummeted to the floor–unconscious. Other people in line peered over the standing trays of snacks and candies, but no one moved to help him. Most seemed annoyed at having to wait. Then a young man glanced furtively at the motley crew in line and advanced around the counter as he wondered what to do.

Kelt knew the man would recover. Already he started to moan, so Kelt went outside and joined the Trickster.

Kelt asked, “What do you want?”

Kelt kept walking; the coyote trotted after him. “I’d have thought you’d had enough honesty for one day. Carter asked me to see you. He thinks I can help you, but you look fine, just fine to me. I think Jax did you worlds of good.”

“You were there?”

The coyote snickered. “I’m everywhere; I’m a Form, get it? I’m you, so of course I was there.”

Kelt picked up his pace toward his apartment. His head throbbed again, so he sucked at his diet soda. He tasted the plastic straw and paper cup more than the liquid.

He looked down at the coyote and said, “I’m going back home and taking a nap. Don’t stay on my account.”

“You don’t have a home, Kelt. You’re a lost builder, remember? You don’t even have a body. Besides, your apartment isn’t safe. Julia broke the truce and kidnapped Carter.”

“What?”

“You really are naive, Kelt. Stop dreaming so much and look around yourself, listen to your world. Do you think I’m the only one capable of lying?”

Kelt bent down to eye level, but the coyote shimmered and changed his shape to that of a green tinted Kelt.

Kelt said, “Why?”

The green Kelt laughed and said, “I told her to, because Carter told me to.”

“You’re not making sense.” Kelt wanted to choke the life out of this twisted mockery of himself. Could Forms be hurt? Now seemed a good time to find out.

Kelt tried to grab the Trickster, but his hand slipped off the Trickster’s shoulder, as if the Trickster were covered in grease.

The green tinted Kelt backed a pace, feigning fear, “Oh, please, please, don’t blame me! Hah! Carter asked me to play a trick on you to sober you up, so I had Julia kidnap him. See? You’re sober already. Look, I can almost see the tiny wheels turning in your mind. Well, I’ve done my job.”

The Trickster disappeared.

Kelt shouted, “Wait! How do I find him?”

Other pedestrians on the narrow city sidewalks gave the crazy man who shouted at air a very wide berth. Kelt took a final look around, saw a blue city patrol car turn onto the street. He cupped his hands around his soda cup and moved at a fast walk toward his apartment.

Twilight deepened. Kelt watched his long shadow move ahead of him as he walked, a doppelganger of his doppelganger. He had no idea how to find Carter. He didn’t even know the man very well, the man who had opened his eyes to this mystical reality.

Kelt ran toward the alley where he had met Jax. Jax had been one of Julia’s soldiers, maybe still was. Kelt wasn’t sure if Jax had meant the things he had said, or if it was just stress and being waxed on Jax’s part. Still, the old Jax was gone; the Trickster had said that Jax spoke the truth. Never mind that, Kelt told himself. The Trickster couldn’t be trusted; he even seemed to be overtly malicious and self centered.

When he reached the alley, he found only a panhandler violently asking people for a quarter. The tall man would approach someone and lean down into his mark’s face and shout, “C’mon! Gimme a quarter! Now! C’mon! You won’t miss it!”

The panhandler surprised his quarry, too, by stepping out from the corner of the alley directly in front of his mark’s path. Kelt watched him work while lost in thought.

The panhandler always used the same procedure, and the marks reacted in an astonishingly predictable manner. Perhaps, the panhandler had some way of detecting who to hit up for change. Each mark came to an abrupt stop. Their faces, which had distracted frowns and pinched eyebrows, collapsed for the briefest moment to a blank slate, without emotion or recognition; fear blossomed on their faces even–it seemed to Kelt–before they knew what was happening: lips hung open, tongue to the edge of their teeth, eyes wide. But that changed quickly: Some mollified their fear as they tried to regain their dignity by taking a breath, oftentimes a gasping breath; some averted their eyes downward and stretched their faces into a mass of irritation even as they dug through their pockets for change.

One young man, though, gave nothing. A tall blonde youth with a dirt stained t-shirt. The youth’s features collapsed to a blank slate for a brief moment, but his face quickly flushed; his nostrils flared; he displayed his teeth, somewhat crooked, firmly clenched together. He didn’t say anything to the panhandler, just glared and glared. He reminded Kelt of some wild beast, as if the boy wanted to distance himself from his humanity. Kelt grinned as he saw the panhandler’s face go through the same relaxations and contortions as his victims’ faces had. The panhandler withdrew to the alley.

Abruptly, the youth spun and glared at Kelt. “What’re you looking at! Mind your business.”

Kelt’s mind harpy broke unbidden from his chest and plunged into the youth’s forehead.

The boy started to cry and moan, “I lost my job. How will I eat? How will I survive?”

After only the briefest moment, Kelt’s mind harpy returned to its nest. Kelt caught flashes of nervousness and niggling fears bubbling up from his mind harpy’s nest; the impressions were the flotsam and debris of the youth’s mind that still clung to his harpy’s talons.

The panhandler poked his head from the mouth of the alley. He didn’t notice Kelt quietly standing in the twilight shadows of the building. The panhandler simply looked at the youth, now curled and moaning on the ground. He shook his head solemnly and walked toward uptown, away from Kelt.

No one here was going to help him find Carter. He needed a lost builder, but Carter hadn’t taught him how to find other lost builders. The only other he knew was Carol Foster, but she was in the outer darkness, which seemed an endless place to Kelt. Hopelessness flooded him. The youth stood and ran from him. His despair was not his, but the youth’s. His mind harpy was amazing and dangerous. He could lose himself if this incredible bird turned against him.

His harpy squawked, dismissing any such possibility.

He did have one tool, which had been staring him straight in the face. His father had always said that intellectuals lost sight of the real world. His harpy had sent him that memory, had made him feel the very spring day that his father had said that to him. It was precious, a timeslip into the past to relive a moment with a father who moldered in the grave.

“Why?” Kelt growled to the chilly air. The sun had set.

He shook his head. There was nothing to be done about his father’s death, about existence, about his Answer until he retrieved his teacher. Such a magnificent bird to bring back his father’s image with such biting clarity.

Sensing his desire, his mind harpy left the nest and alighted on Kelt’s arm, though Kelt could never feel the clutch of its talons.

Kelt said, “Take me to Carol Foster.”

The mind harpy peered at its master quizzically.

Although Kelt still felt somewhat shaky from his hangover, he was not waxed, hadn’t bridged since the fight with Jax. The anima seethed inside him as a slender rope of white light emerged from the spot on his chest where his heart chakra lay. The rope entwined the harpy.

His mind harpy cheeped and flew from him.

Kelt felt an urging flow backward through the white tether: “Shoot the bridge!”

Kelt launched himself into the outer darkness. With his mind harpy pulling him, he passed through his first void and light before he realized it. His harpy swung around and plunged back into his chest. It ordered the fresh memories that Kelt had brought with him through the light of his soul.

It didn’t hurt much. Kelt guessed that he hadn’t had as many memories for that burning light to rend from him, and he was used to the harpy tending the majority of his life experiences. He even liked it: no more baggage, no more mental crap. It was the freedom of being lost, a freight car tramp with no ties to anyplace, or any memories, or any guilt, for the harpy dealt with his memories. Kelt laughed, surrounded by the quiet, seemingly endless, outer darkness. It was good to be lost.

“Damn.” Kelt cursed himself. He acted no better than the childish youth who had no control over his passions just when he needed the cunning of the panhandler. Carter was still kidnapped, though Kelt had no way of figuring how anyone could hold a lost builder. He needed Carol.

His mind harpy stubbornly tended Kelt’s latest batch of memories from the burning passing through Kelt’s soul–possesive of his past, motherly, stern. Near the center of its nest, the harpy nestled the taut face, the garbage scent, rising unwanted in Kelt’s mind: Jax pleaded with him while slamming that rat against the ground.

Kelt didn’t have time to waste waiting for his harpy. A rope of light, formed from his urgency, emanated from his chest. It twisted and arced back into his heart chakra and lashed around his mind harpy’s neck. The bird cawed and shrieked. Kelt yanked the harpy from his chest and sent through the tether: “Find Carol Foster. Now!”

Waves of anger rippled back through the tether. His harpy flexed and closed its translucent talons, as if it wished to grab and squeeze one of Kelt’s memories. But the bird flapped its ruby wings and pulled Kelt through the filmy darkness.

Red stars twinkled against the black horizon. Dragons, four. Kelt panicked; the stars formed serpentine shapes. His harpy swerved toward them. Kelt felt its eagerness to feast on the dragon’s fiery energy.

“Damn.” Kelt muttered. He reinforced the image of Carol’s thin face in his mind, pushed that memory through the tether and watched the beat of his harpy’s wings increase. The dragons moved swifter than his harpy, as if magnetized to him. What was it Carol had said? Lost builders lived in the world of the mind. Then so did dragons. How else could they perceive him so easily? What attracted them?

Kelt projected his respect for Carol Foster, her courage in the fight against the builders, his pity and sorrow for the pain that Carol had to endure, urging his harpy on.

But the dragons kept coming. Their four shapes were distinguishable and just as Kelt had pictured the first dragon he had fought on the city streets: long fiery red wings with veins pulsing through the wings some amber blood, maws open and dark with a soft red fire sedately glowing that promised a paralysis of pleasure. Part of him wanted to turn back, to feel that hot rush again.

The dragons chanted a low bass that rumbled through the outer darkness and sent quiet shivers and tingles through Kelt, a taste of what could be his: that relief, that surcease from problems, possible futures and fears, washed away in shimmering, burning ecstacy, devouring him with pleasure. Confused by what it felt through the empathic tether, his harpy stopped beating its wings and looked back at Kelt.

Suddenly, a white arcing plane of light ripped through the outer darkness. It burned toward the dragons. They stopped their chanting and beat their wings in confusion, breaking their formation.

Kelt watched, but feared to approach.

A new sound rippled through the outer darkness. A clear alto voice sang; it went slowly sharp as if begging to finish the musical note, but hung their waiting to finish, pleading to finish. Sharper and sharper the note grew but never quite reached the octave.

Carol Foster stood at the tip of her soul bridge in front of the dragons and sang, never faltering for breath. The dragons twisted their bodies, performed loop de loops around Carol Foster, but never touched her, never sank their dark maws into her soul bridge.

Was she committing suicide? But her bridge sparkled much brighter than any he had shot across the outer darkness. His harpy caught his conflicting emotions and slowly pulled him toward Carol. She stood tall and proud at the end of her bridge, not waxed at all.

The four in the outer darkness turned their serpentine necks away from Carol Foster and sulkily withdrew from her shining presence. They dwindled until they once again appeared as little red stars; then winked out of the darkness.

“Carol,” Kelt projected to her.

“Not here, Kelt. Follow my bridge to the Realm of Forms. I’ve carved myself a residence there–a temporary residence, I suppose.” Her voice chilled him and her alabaster skin seemed frozen in place.

Another soul bridge erupted from Carol’s forehead and burned through the darkness. She floated across the bridge faster and faster. She stopped and looked back at Kelt impatiently.

Kelt ordered his harpy to pull him onto the bridge. The bird complained in shrill cheeps and caws. Kelt firmed his will and the harpy obeyed.

Setting down on Carol’s bridge, a wave of energy washed over him, bright and burning and whispering Carol’s name to him, her being–healthy, assured, hungry. It cascaded over him like a warm summer thunderstorm, removed his weariness and any tremor of being waxed. But it was loathsome to Kelt, too. Being this close to Carol reminded him of the merging with Jax, the loss of his identity, an identity that was already tenuous, not having the layers of memories that told him who he was.

Kelt tried to distance himself from the touch of Carol Foster upon his soul.

Carol halted her progress. She watched Kelt hovering on her soul bridge and said, “Do you find me so repulsive?” Cold amusement laced her tone.

Kelt replied, “N-no. No. It’s just that you’re too close; I don’t want to lose myself in you.”

“Why Kelt, are you falling in love with me?” Empathic laughter issued from the image of Carol Foster in front of him.

He was more reluctant than ever; she reminded him of Jax–no, of the dragon’s ebony eyes. She was too alive in the midst of the cold darkness surrounding them. “It’s not love. I don’t want to lose myself. That’s the truth.”

“You don’t have that choice; you can never lose your self, not without destroying yourself. Kelt,” and Carol’s voice took on an edge to it, “Kelt, are you in league with Jax?”

A red star appeared in the outer darkness.

“No!” Kelt shouted.

His harpy leapt from its nest and screeched in anger, but Kelt tethered it inside him, not wanting to duel Carol. He was sure he would lose. Carol talked–emoted with him and crafted a soul bridge at the same time. The woman had an endless supply of anima.

“Have you dueled him? You must have won. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. Your aura reeks of Jax. Did he gain a harpy for you to take from him after you killed him?”

The dragon came closer, a deep orange silhouette against the darkness. Carol paid it no mind. But Kelt shifted his awareness between it and Carol nervously. He had no delusions: He was out of his depth. And Carol was not acting like his friend. He was a lost builder, too; but he only caught coldness, hunger, and tiger like ambition from Carol.

He tried to silence his fear, knowing that Carol could read him here. “I didn’t duel Jax. He surprised Carter with another builder, named Julia. She took Carter with that damn Trickster’s help. I–I bridged into Jax–a desperation move. I haven’t been doing so well, I guess.”

“Bridged into Jax?” Carol said, “You have my condolences. This isn’t the place to talk, though. I’ll help you follow me. Carter should have taught you better discipline; you’d move faster.”

The dragon opened its maw, consuming Carol’s bridge where they had first met.

A tether lashed out from Carol and entwined Kelt, as if he were a mind harpy. The next moment, he plummeted–fell across the soul bridge always a step behind Carol.

A gate of bars, cold black, but glinting of iron, stretched across the darkness ahead of them, but Carol’s bridge arced through it. Kelt screamed, fearing he would smash into the iron bars at the tremendous speed they were travelling.

The darkness disappeared. Carol stood in front of him.

White light permeated this new realm. It swirled and arced around Carol, coming close but never touching her. Yet the light streaked through Kelt and soothed him, softly, gently closing down his fears and worries, imposing order on his thoughts, slowing them down. Kelt sighed in relief. His harpy sleepily nestled in its nest. Kelt watched cubes drift in vertical lines across the horizon. Human like shapes, multi colored, coalesced from the diffused light and drifted back into it: A parade of concepts being born and dying flowed by him.

An image of Jax and his rat floated past him, frozen and stony; then, it broke apart into a twinkling mist of lights. Other images–his father, a church, old and moss covered–all memories, but the harpy’s nest was undisturbed. And the images weren’t quite what he remembered, but had an acuteness about them, more solid than the real structures and people were, as if their true meanings were more manifest here. A black cloud drifted across his vision, and Kelt knew that to be an image of the Trickster. Carter appeared for a moment before dissipating into little stars: tall and firm, with compassion resting quietly in his eyes, not a martyr, rather ready to move.

Within Carter’s image Kelt imagined a core of peace, of a lost builder reconciled with himself, with an answer to his life that satisfied him. Kelt bit down his envy. Jax had been right: Carter was a soldier for lost builders, not a lost builder himself.

Kelt whispered, “What is this place? It’s beautiful.”

Carol laughed derisively. “What do you see?”

“Light, beautiful light. And images, more real than real.”

Carol shook her head. “You really are a romantic. No wonder you keep rousing the dragons. We’re at the edge of the Realm of Forms. With your lack of self control, I wouldn’t advise going any deeper into it. Farther down, things move.”

Kelt reminded himself that everyone perceived these supernatural places differently. “What do you see, Carol?”

“Grey muck. Tons and tons of stinking ooze dripping on everyone and everything. You’re neck deep in the stuff, so clear your mind of its romantic notions and stop rubbernecking or I’m going to lose you, and your harpy will have to pull you back home. That little bird of yours is no match for what dwells here.”

Kelt didn’t want to be in debt to this Carol, so different than the fighter he had first met, so much more vicious. Her wise cracking humor had become malicious condescension, though she made an effort to be civil to him. Without Carter he needed help and information. “How do these dragons keep finding me in the outer darkness?”

“Carter really was a slow and careful teacher.” She reeked of sarcasm. “It’s a wonder you’ve survived this long, even with a mind harpy, though I no longer need one. The dragons feed on passion, Kelt, as we all do; they just do it more directly. Steel your mind and you can drift past them.”

“How did you get those dragons to leave?”

Carol moved closer, and her image blocked off most of the light sparkling through this realm. She spoke softly, but his empathy shook from the restrained rage she broadcasted. His harpy woke and squawked in confusion.

Carol said, “We have a truce. Don’t presume on its strength.”

“I–I didn’t mean to. Keep your secrets. I just want to help Carter. If you help me, I’ll promise to help you get a mind harpy.” He’d probably have to duel for one, to kill another lost builder, or even sacrifice his own to Carol. But Kelt wasn’t sure how much time was passing in the real world. He needed Carol’s strength on his side. If Julia had the means to restrain a lost builder, she might have the means to kill a lost builder.

But Carol just laughed at his offer and said, “I’m as far beyond a lost builder as lost builders are beyond builders. I no longer need a harpy. That’s more than I should tell. No, Kelt. I no longer require an insipid, constricting order to all the little bits and pieces of my past life. It’s all detritus. Now matters to me. You don’t have what it takes to buy my time.” Her image went blurry of a sudden, lost its cohesiveness with Kelt feeling a jumble of emotions–sadness, love, anguish–from her, but then the shape of Carol came back into that icy crystalline focus. “No, it’s–it’s best our paths do not cross again.”

“You’ve got to help me. I don’t even know where they’re holding him or how they’re holding him.”

“I don’t have an interest in walking on the hard world at this time.”

“Dammit, you were his friend.”

Carol nodded. “If we were in the outer darkness, you would have just raised a hundred dragons. As you’ve been so fond of reminding me, I no longer have a mind harpy. Perhaps, you’re too reckless to travel with safely.”

“That’s a lie! You have powers over the dragons. Remember? You’re above poor lost builders like me.”

“I’m no child to be baited by you. I still have much to learn here and farther out. Places where even Carter has feared to bridge, but that’s natural. He has given himself over completely to that bloated harpy of his.”

Kelt spoke without thinking, “That’s what’s wrong with you. You don’t–can’t care about anyone but yourself. You’re a lost builder without a harpy. Your memories are foreign to you; every time you jump into your light, you alienate even your recent memories. You’re like a sociopath–like Jax was. It’s not that you don’t want to care about Carter, you just can’t care about Carter, about anyone anymore. Oh, Carol.”

Carol screamed, “Blind man! How dare you pity me!”

An amber fire, like dragon’s blood, rose in her eyes. A rope of builder’s light erupted from her gut and shot into Kelt, not a full blown bridge, but a sharply defined, razor thin rope. It twirled around Kelt’s mind harpy.

His harpy squealed and thrashed in its nest before the rope bound its wings and talons, finally spinning a web of light across its beak.

Kelt gathered his energy to shoot the bridge into Carol. He didn’t even want to think of the pain he would encounter. If he let himself think, he wouldn’t dare it.

But Carol spoke his plan before he could execute it, “Bridge into me and I’ll kill your harpy.”

“You promised truce.”

“And I told you not to presume on that truce. You are pathetic, Kelt. Easy meat. You have no discipline.”

Kelt radiated fear and Carol smiled. Kelt caught an empathic flash from Carol, an image of her bathing in his fear, eating it. “What are you?” Kelt moaned.

Carol withdrew her tether. “Finally, you admit I am beyond your understanding. My passions for people are greater than yours, little Kelt. I don’t spend my anima searching for some metaphysical answer. I am in the stream of people and life.”

Kelt was half tempted to bridge to the hard world just to escape Carol. He knew nowhere else to go.

“Kelt, I won’t come back to the hard world. But I still want Carter alive. See this through my eyes.”

Another rope shot from Carol’s forehead and pierced Kelt’s. The shining lights dimmed from Kelt’s sight. A scent of burning tar filled Kelt’s consciousness. A grey ichor, almost gelatinous, washed over him, blinded him; he wanted to retch. Stripes of serrated edged blackness cut him. Occasionally, the black strings congealed into childlike drawings of buildings and people, but only for a moment before the tides of grey muck tore the black strings apart. The muck was disgustingly sensuous against him, and lukewarm. The ooze whispered to him, cutting him with sound the same way the black strings cut him: whispers telling him he was blind as a blind walker on the hard world, promising him the Answer if he would only let go of all the silly rules in his mind that were only inferior versions of the false Ten Commandments.

His harpy hid in its nest and wailed at Kelt to leave, leave, leave this place and go, go, go to the soothing, wide undiscovered oceans of the outer darkness. Carter could go to hell. Kelt wanted out of this nauseating place.

As Kelt gathered his anima to shoot the bridge, the grey ooze receded from him. It covered the air and hung over him, threatened to fall and encompass him in a grey quagmire. Carol stood in front of him, watching and smiling at his reactions. Carol’s rope still writhed between them.

She talked to Kelt as if he were a child, “You see, Kelt? I have many talents, talents that even Carter has yet to discover within himself. And I owe it all to a deft thrust of Jax’s soul blade. Now, I’ll show you discipline, Kelt.”

For the first time, the whiter pallor of a builder who was waxed crawled over her arrogance; her face creased in lines of mental exertion. A twin rope emerged from her forehead, wound slowly around its brother as it approached Kelt.

Carol spoke in a hoarse whisper, “Don’t fight this, Kelt. Carter isn’t worth that much to me to try this again.”

Kelt relaxed and his empathy expanded. Surprise. Carol didn’t burn such tremendous amounts of anima to send this rope to him. She strained to hold the rope to its size, to keep it exactly in the shape she pictured it to be. It made no sense to Kelt: Why did he get such a roiling chaos from her when she preached discipline and order? Why did she not want a harpy to discipline her memories?

Carol answered him in a voice rent with exhaustion, “Discipline comes from the self, not from some moral bird.”

Carol’s rope struck him, just under the other rope that pierced his forehead. An image bloomed within him: The scent of freshly cut grass and pollens of wildflowers and trees tickled his nostrils sweetly; the sun warmed his skin; the humidity clutched his skin; a house squatted on a hill shaded by several large oaks–a small house with white peeling painted shutters and a seven foot fence of untreated lumber, new, with the smell of upturned earth.

Beneath this physical image, Kelt felt a hungering, a soft note singing off key, sharp, and it didn’t belong with the breeze or the picture. It belonged with Carol. Curious, Kelt concentrated on it, and the note increased; the house dissolved in a blaze of fire. A shadowy dragon fire, Carol’s memory of dragon fire: It played with Kelt, sweet and repulsive simultaneously. Hunger always dominated every aspect in the flames, even beyond the numbing pain-pleasure, a hunger like his hunger for the Answer. But something overrode it–discipline? Steel walls? As he concentrated, he saw them, definitely steel and glistening, but shadowy, as if seen through a curtain of drifting smoke, a maze of steel walls subtly directing the fires, moving—-

The shining lights of the Realm of Forms returned to Kelt. It was his vision of this place. Carol had retracted both tendrils of her light.

She was definitely waxed now, trembling and shivering. Her image lost all traces of its disciplined icy clarity. “So, Kelt. You are ambitious, maybe even dangerous. You’ve gained some respect in my eyes. Trying to learn my secrets through my own tether. A nice try. Do you really think you could survive a duel with me?”

Kelt was tired of being in fear of her and of being pushed around by her, by dragons, by Jax, by Julia. “You look like easy meat. You’re waxed.”

“Bluff and bravado, Kelt. I peeked at you, too. You’re meek, got no killer instinct. You’re just clever. You’re a lot more ignorant than you think you are. And not on the metaphysical way you think of ignorance. You’re learning fast, though, despite Carter’s prudish ways.” She wiped her brow, her soul image conforming to how she felt. “Go. Go to Carter. You’ve got the anima to bridge.”

Kelt gathered his anima, preparing to shoot the bridge. He concentrated on the image of the house Carol had left with him. His mind harpy roused from its nest and gazed curiously at this new memory.

As he left the borderl