Либрусек (книги fb2)
The Colors of Magic Anthology
Richard Lee Byers,Tom Leupold,Paul B. Thompson,Loren L. Coleman,Vance Moore,J. Robert King,Jonathan Tweet,Kevin T. Stein The Colors of Magic Anthology
White is the color of temptation and innocence, purity and civility. People characterized by this color love life and longevity but do so without excess or grandeur. Some see white as childish-a return to youth-but others know it to be filled with focus and a desire to live an uncluttered life. White is for the honest, the righteous and eager, the decent and civic-minded who will stand up to protect justice and honor. It is the color of the plains and temples, the color of the scholar and the virtuous knight alike. White is for those who believe in a cause and believe in themselves, for those unafraid to stand up in the face of adversity.
Richard Lee Byers
Shining like a star, Kotara was soaring among the constellations when she felt the summons. The call came as suddenly and forcefully as a hook lodged in the mouth of a fish. Yet it didn't hurt, because she didn't resist. Long ago, in the morning of the world, a benevolent order of wizards had aided she and her sisters in the first great war against the legions of the Pit. In gratitude the angels had sworn to serve the mages and their heirs whenever they called, and a daughter of the Divine Will didn't chafe at her obligations.
She furled her wings and hurtled toward the planet far below. The summons led her over an island-dotted expanse of ocean and on to the kingdom of Zhalfir.
Flying above the rolling dunes of the Desert of Bones, where a caravan with its grunting, tethered camels and scaly, hunchbacked Viashino guides huddled around its nighttime campfires, she surmised that the call was drawing her to the capital. That was no surprise. In her experience, wizards mighty enough to command an angel often dwelled in the seats of mortal power.
The royal city with its miles of stupendous walls and deep-water harbor, its minarets, bazaars, labyrinthine streets, and communal wells, was larger than when she'd last seen it seventy years ago. Yet the palace itself was no different. At one time the great marble pile had existed in an almost perpetual state of construction, as one proud monarch after another enlarged and improved it, but evidently those days were over.
Now Kotara could actually hear the baritone voice of the sorcerer who called her. Though measured and precise as a mage's diction must be, it nevertheless throbbed with grief, and her heart ached in sympathy. She followed the sound to the apex of the tallest tower of one of the mansions in the Nobles' Quarter.
Her summoner had left the shuttered window open for her entry. Inside was a candlelit chamber equipped with shelves bearing jars, bottles, scrolls, and grimoires, racks of ceremonial staves, wands, swords, and daggers, a silver chalice, a mortar and pestle, a scrying mirror, an orrery, and other appurtenances of the occult arts. The bitter scent of myrrh hung in the air.
The mage himself was young and slight of frame with the beginnings of a scholar's stoop. He wore the elaborate pearl- and ivory-colored vestments of the Civic Guild, the fraternity of wizards who served Zhalfir as jurists and lawmakers. A marble diamond amulet, a source of great power for sorcerers of his guild, hung around his neck. Gray ash streaked his haggard features. Evidently he'd attended a funeral that morning and had neglected to wash afterwards.
He gasped when the angel appeared to him, momentarily overwhelmed, perhaps, as many humans were on first meeting, by the unearthly splendor of her iridescent feathers, the fluid grace of her slender alabaster form, or the radiance of her crystal eyes.
"I am Kotara, " she said gently, "come in obedience to your summons. "
"I feared it wouldn't work, " the mage replied. "It's been a long time since I attempted such a spell. In recent years I've devoted myself to the law and politics, not-" he grimaced. "Forgive me, I'm babbling. "
"There is nothing to forgive, " Kotara said. "May I know your name?"
"Sabul. Sabul Hajeen. "
"How may I serve you, Sabul Hajeen?"
"By bringing justice, " the Guildmage said, a certain hardness returning to his expression. "Five days ago, one of the Ilmieras murdered my young brother Axdan in an alley. "
Upon hearing the name, Kotara immediately knew, as was the way of angels, that the house of Ilmiera was another of the aristocratic families residing in the capital.
"Do you need my help to apprehend the culprit?" she asked. "Has he fled the city or gone into hiding?"
Sabul laughed bitterly. "By no means. The Ilmieras swagger about the streets as they always have, and why not? My idiot colleagues of the Civic Guild have already held an inquest and decided there's no evidence to link the wretches to their crime."
Kotara frowned. "If that's so, then how do you know they're guilty?"
"Because they've been bitter rivals of the Hajeen for years," the wizard said. "They hate us like Mishra hated Urza and have always striven to injure us by every underhanded means at their disposal. Multam Ilmiera, the vilest of the lot, actually had the insolence to attend Axdan's obsequies! When he approached me, ostensibly to offer his condolences, I saw the mockery in his eyes and knew that his was the hand that thrust the dagger into Axdan's throat.
"My uncle Tartesk, the head of our family, knows it too," Sabul continued, "but he will do nothing about it. He says ours is an honorable house. We don't stoop to blood feuds or flout the law to strike at our foes.
"Well, perhaps he doesn't, but I will. I'd challenge Multam to meet me blade to blade, except I'm no swordsman. Even if my uncle and the city guard permitted the duel, I couldn't avenge Axdan. But I can send you to do it for me."
Sympathetic to his anguish and obliged to obey him in any case, Kotara nonetheless hesitated. At length she said, "Sabul-master-no wizard has ever summoned me for quite such a mission as this."
His eyes, red and puffy from lack of sleep, narrowed. "What does that matter?"
She hesitated once more. "I suppose it doesn't."
"Then stand over here." He gestured toward a spot in the center of the floor. "I intend to equip you for your task, to make absolutely certain you succeed."
An hour later, Kotara soared above the city once more. A helm, breastplate, vambraces, and greaves, light as mist, strong as steel, and lustrous as mother-of-pearl, sheathed her willowy form, while an augmented strength sang within her limbs. Both the armor and her newfound might were enchantments, manifestations of the magic of law and sanctity no less than she herself. Yet for some reason they felt strange and indeed almost noisome to her. Had it not been Sabul's will that she bear them, she would have dissolved them away.
She studied the twisting streets below her like an owl searching for its dinner. Though it was late enough that most mortals had long ago sought their beds, a city as huge as this still offered carnal diversions for a privileged and licentious few. Such a man was Multam Ilmiera, whose appetite for wine, dice, and harlots had made him almost as notorious as his prowess with a sword.
For all that she rarely needed them, the Divine Will in its inscrutable wisdom had given Kotara the instincts of a huntress, and they led her to Multam quickly enough. He and four companions were strolling away from a tavern, bawling a ribald song and waving earthen jugs in time to the beat. Even from the air, Kotara could smell the miasma of raw spirit that hung on their breath and oozed from their pores.
Should anyone learn that an angel had slain Multam, the Hajeen-three of whom belonged to the Civic Guild-might well come under suspicion. Thus Sabul had bade her do the deed unseen. She could kill her victim from above, by surprise, then instantly vanish into the darkness, but it wasn't in her nature to strike such a cowardly blow.
She swooped, caught Multam under the arms, and, with a resounding crack of her wings, carried him aloft. He yelped, and his friends spun around. But they didn't think to look up, not quickly enough, anyway. In a second the angel left them far behind. She soared until she sighted a deserted courtyard two streets over, then deposited her captive on the dry, hard-packed earth.
Multam was a lean man with a saturnine cast of countenance, clad in a gorgeously patterned scarlet caftan. Perhaps paralyzed with fear, perhaps calm and canny enough to realize that if he broke his abductor's grip he'd only fall to his death, he hadn't struggled during the flight. But as soon as his feet touched the ground, his hand leaped to the ruby-pommeled hilt of his scimitar. The weapon was halfway out of the scabbard when Kotara alit before him and he had his first real look at her. His dark eyes widening, he froze, but only for an instant. Then he finished drawing and came on guard. From the facility of his movements it was clear that, the alcoholic stink notwithstanding, he wasn't drunk. Kotara was grateful for that at least.
"So," Multam said dryly, "the milksop Hajeen have a bit more sand than I imagined-at least enough to conjure up an assassin, if not to fight their own battles.
Which one of them sent you, spirit?" His voice assumed a mock lugubrious tone. "Was it poor, bereft older brother?"
"Justice sent me," Kotara replied, repulsed by the pleasure he took in Sabul's grief. "That's all that matters."
"Liar," Multam said, "justice set me free in open court only yesterday. But it's all right. I've never killed a creature like you before. I wonder, if I cut you will your master feel the pain, like in all those old tales?" Quick as a panther, he sprang at her.
Kotara only barely managed to block the cut. The edge of his scimitar rang on her vambrace, and then he surged past her. They pivoted to face one another, and he lashed out with a second slash, which she avoided by stepping back. Now she sensed the magic flaring down his nerves, the enchantments that granted him inhuman speed.
She was thankful for that too. It meant he had some chance, however slim. She allowed him to advance into range and attempt another head cut. This time she avoided the blow with a sidestep, then smote him with her wing.
The impact flung him backward onto the ground. He tried to scramble up, but she launched herself at him- half leaping, half flying-and kicked him in the chest. Ribs snapped, and he sprawled on his back again.
Surely he was all but helpless now. She paused, steeling herself to deliver the coup de grace, and his hand darted inside his silken shirt.
She felt magic, the foul power of necromancy this time, surge as he activated some hidden charm. Dizziness and weakness assailed her, and she crumpled to her knees. The world went dark as her vision failed her.
Croaking words of warding, drawing on her own innate power, she struggled to break the curse. Finally the strength stopped leaking from her twitching, tremulous limbs, and the darkness in her eyes thinned sufficiently to permit a murky view of nearby shapes. A shadow loomed over her, raising its curved sword for a killing stroke.
Kotara jerked up her hand and caught Multam's wrist, arresting the scimitar in its descent. Squeezing, she crushed bone, then wrenched the mortal to the ground, where a strike to the throat put an end to him. She felt the scream of terror and denial locked inside his ruined flesh, and then the yawning vacancy when his life force withered away.
As she knelt beside him, shuddering and waiting for the rest of her strength to return, she reminded herself that Multam hadn't denied murdering Sabul's brother. He'd struck the first blow in his battle with her. He'd ultimately assailed her with that sorcery that, drawing its power from darkness and the grave, was forbidden to all but members of the Shadow Guild. This fact suggested he might well have been a secret worshiper of the fiends from the Abyss.
Yet none of these reflections helped her very much. She was still profoundly sick at heart. In the end, only one thought offered consolation. At least her task was over.
Staring, Sabul listened intently to Kotara's story. When she finished, he sat silently for several moments, during which she studied his thin, weary face, seeking in vain for some sign of joy or contrition.
At last he said, "It sounds as if you dispatched Multam quickly. He didn't suffer very much."
"Suffer?" the angel exclaimed. "He died. I ripped his life away."
"Forgive me," Sabul said quickly. "I wasn't criticizing. You did exactly what I asked. Next time I'll make the instructions more specific."
Kotara stared at him in consternation. "How can there be a next time? You've already punished Axdan's murderer. You've meted out your justice."
"Not true," the magician said, rising restlessly from his stool, his snowy vestments swirling about him. "We've only made a start. It was clear from an examination of the ground that several of the Ilmieras waylaid Axdan in that alley. The others held my brother while Multam tortured and slew him. Obviously, they too must pay."
"Do you know who they are?"
Sabul shrugged. "More or less. Multam had certain boon companions who helped him when he got up to deviltry. From what you told me, I'd guess that you saw four of them tonight."
Four of them? By the Divine, how many were there altogether? "Magician," she stammered, "my sisters and I owe your predecessors a debt, and I am happy to serve you. But I beg you to recall that your fraternity is consecrated to the Divine Will as much as any priesthood. Your art was not created for this purpose, and neither was I."
He scowled. "What are you prattling about?"
"The magic of your guild is holy magic," she replied, "meant to nurture, heal, and protect. I, a child of that same power, defend. In times of war, when an aggressor is at the gate, wizards summon me to stand against him. It's not in my nature to initiate violence."
"It's in your nature to obey me," he snapped, "is it not?"
She sighed. "Yes."
"Then I'll hear no further objections." His face softening, he reached out hesitantly and patted her on the shoulder. "It will be all right. You'll see for yourself that all the Ilmieras are wicked men. It truly is just that they be punished, and surely justice is holy work no less than ministering to the sick or driving back an invading army."
"Perhaps," the angel said.
He smiled. "Then we're in agreement, and all's well. Now, no one should see you here, so perhaps you'd better leave. Return tomorrow night an hour after dusk, and I'll tell you whom to punish next."
Like his cousin Multam, Yirtag possessed the signature lanky frame and long, narrow face of the Ilmieras. They gave him the look of a famished wolf, which Kotara supposed was appropriate. According to Sabul, Yirtag, a poor relation, had followed his kinsman around like a faithful hound, eager to assist in any escapade or crime in exchange for the purses of silver that Multam occasionally tossed him.
At present Yirtag and a friend sat drinking arrack in the former's ramshackle cottage on Leather Street. Judging from Yirtag's silence and sullen expression, he and the other toper were holding a wake of sons, though whether they were lamenting the loss of Multam or his money was an open question.
Kotara skulked behind the house in a cramped, malodorous alley, peeking through a barred window. She needed Yirtag's companion to leave him alone, yet dreaded the moment when he would.
Eventually the fellow rose and exited the room to answer a call of nature. At once the angel gripped the wrought-iron grille and tore it away from the window so she'd be able to carry out her captive.
Yirtag's head snapped around at the squeal of tortured metal, but by that time Kotara was already swarming into the room. As he drew breath to cry out, she clapped her hand over his mouth, snatched him off his grimy pillows, and bore him out into the open air.
Kotara flew him to the apex of the domed, tiled roof of a nearby temple. When she let him go, he teetered precariously on the smooth, curved surface. Spreading her wings, she balanced without effort.
"What?" he whimpered. "What are you?"
"What do they say slew Multam?" she replied.
"Some creature," Yirtag said, crouching to lower his center of gravity. "Some roc or efreet that swooped down from the sky."
"I am that creature," she said, "sent to avenge Axdan Hajeen's murder."
"Please," begged Yirtag, "don't kill me. It was all Multam's idea. When we grabbed the boy, I didn't know he meant to knife him. I thought he was just going to knock him around a little."
"It doesn't matter," said Kotara, wishing that she didn't pity the wretch in his dread and desperation. "You still must answer." He had a dagger tucked in his sash. A paltry thing, but she wanted it in his hand. "Draw your weapon."
He shook his head. "Please-"
"Draw it!" she rapped. "Let's not protract this any longer than necessary."
His face gray and his hand shaking, he fumbled out the dagger and pointed it in her direction. With a beat of her wings, she darted toward him.
The blade flashed at her. She brushed it aside with her armored forearm and struck Yirtag a backhand blow across the face. The impact sent him tumbling helplessly down the side of the roof. The dagger slipped from his grasp and bounced clanking along beside him.
He screamed as he shot off the edge of the dome, where the curve met the sheer wall beneath. Kotara swooped, caught him, and bore him up. Twisting his head, Yirtag goggled at her in bewilderment.
"I'm sorry," she said, her opalescent wings beating at the chill night air, "but I couldn't simply let you fall. My master ordered me to give you a slower death."
Yirtag shrieked and thrashed, but his strength was as nothing compared to hers. She lit atop the dome, and holding him down, did with him as Sabul had commanded.
When it was over, and that portion of the roof was foul with spatters of blood, she crouched there weeping, quaking, remorse burning inside her like some excruciating poison. It took her half an hour to compose herself sufficiently for the flight back to the mansion of the Hajeen.
As she spread her wings, she noticed something curious. With her luminous feathers, she was accustomed to kindling a glow in any reflective surface she happened to encounter in the dark. Indeed, she saw smears of light swimming in the glazed tiles. They seemed strangely faint, as if the radiance of her plumage had dimmed.
It was an odd phenomenon, but as far as she could discern, of no particular significance. Very little seemed significant to her now, save for the brutal act she'd just committed. Sobbing anew, she soared away from her abattoir.
Ash still streaking his face and stubble darkening his chin, Sabul listened gravely to Kotara's account of Yirtag's demise. Unseemly as it was for an angel to harbor such a hope, she wished the Civic Guildmage would gloat over her description of her victim's agonies, because that might indicate he was satisfied, or at least becoming so.
But he never so much as smiled, just nodded thoughtfully, like a clerk checking an inventory of goods and finding it in order.
"You did well, " he said when she had finished.
Oh, yes, did well as his torturer! Had she not been bound to his service, she might almost have wished to strike him.
"Perhaps. But despite my efforts to slink about unseen, the Ilmieras know that something is slaying them. Moreover, they suspect that it's something inhuman, some' thing that plunges from the sky."
Sabul shrugged. "If you say so."
"Having deduced that much, surely they will in time surmise which magician sent the killer against them, whether they catch a glimpse of me or not."
Sabul smirked. "As a jurist, I can tell you that what they know and what they can prove to a magistrate's satisfaction are two different things. By the two moons, I think I'd enjoy being accused. Let them discover how it feels to watch your kinsman's slayer saunter out of court a free man."
"They might find a way to convict you," Kotara insisted, "and if they do, you'll go to the block."
"I risk it gladly."
"What of the risk to your family?" the angel asked, shifting her wings in frustration. Her feathers rustled. "If you're exposed, Tartesk and all your other relations will share in your disgrace. The scandal could ruin the Hajeen for all time."
Sabul grimaced. "Exactly what are you getting at?"
"The man who actually murdered Axdan is dead. So is his foremost accomplice. That's two lives for one. Be content with so much, and stop now, before you and your kindred come to grief."
He shook his head. "I can't. Anyway, you needn't pretend that you want to stop because you're concerned about my welfare."
"But I am. From the first moment I heard your voice, so full of suffering-"
"Rubbish. You're just squeamish."
"It's more than squeamishness! I'm suffering too, sorcerer, suffering in a way that-
"I don't care!" he snarled, though immediately afterward, for just an instant, she fancied she saw a flicker of shame in his eyes.
"Go, and return tomorrow night." He turned his back on her.
Her fingers half curled into a fist, then opened again.
Eskander Ilmiera had stationed a pair of sentries on the roof of his house and barred the shutters of his bedchamber. By flying low, Kotara evaded the scrutiny of the former, then made herself sufficiently intangible to slip between the latter. Once inside, she opened the panels to facilitate a hasty departure with her prisoner.
Stouter than most of his kindred, but sharing the usual Ilmiera long nose and wide, thin-lipped mouth, Eskander lay snoring beside his pretty young wife. The sight of the girl, snuggled close to him and smiling in her sleep, made the angel flinch.
Still, she had no choice but to proceed. She plucked Eskander from his bride's embrace, pressed her hand to his mouth, and hurried to the window. The slumbering girl gave a petulant little moan. The angel leaped out into the darkness, dove down almost to street level until she was a safe distance from the guards, then, her wings drumming, ascended. Eskander squirmed helplessly in her grasp.
She set him down on the roof of a warehouse. The plump young man looked utterly defenseless without his clothes, and indeed such was the case, for of course he had no weapon. The realization made Kotara's helly churn.
When she told him why she'd come for him, he said, "But I never laid a hand on Axdan! I only stood and watched!"
"It doesn't matter. My master ordered me to kill you, and I must obey."
"Please," he said, tears streaming down his plump cheeks. "I admit I'm at fault. I should have found a way to stop it. But all my life, I've always felt that I had to do as Multam wanted, not the other way around. Punish me if you must, but spare my life."
"I cannot," she said. "Put up your hands."
Instead he clasped them together and sank to his knees. "I beg you. I can help you. I can warn you about Ilmiera magic."
"I already know about the spells Multam carried. They couldn't save him."
"Those were nothing! My family has wizards as powerful as any of the Hajeen. More powerful, because they don't scruple to invoke the kings of darkness. And I know they're making plans to deal with you. I could spy on them, discover exactly what-"
"I can't barter with you for your life," Kotara said. "I can only execute my master's orders. Stand up and fight."
Eskander curled into a ball and blubbered.
Suddenly she hated him and all the Ilmieras, as if they themselves had demanded that she defile herself with their destruction. Galvanized by a rage which in no way diminished her anguish, she pounced on him.
Later that night, when she glimpsed herself in Sabul's mirror, she realized she'd changed again. Her lucent eyes had taken on a flat, metallic cast that transformed her soft gaze into the predatory stare of a falcon.
Over the course of the next week, the Ilmieras became increasingly wary. Those who dared venture from their homes at night invariably did so in the company of bodyguards or well-armed friends, or, in the case of one fellow, in disguise.
Only slightly inconvenienced by such measures, Kotara continued her gory work, still revolted by it, yet periodically seized by the fury that had come upon her when she slew Eskander. Her appearance continued to alter in subtle respects. Her features sharpened, while the sheen of her feathers dulled. Perhaps she, a creature of the endless heavens, had tarried near the earth too long, and its gross solidity was somehow coarsening the finer stuff of her being.
By day she attempted to purge herself in the sky, to revitalize herself by rising up and up, through the clouds and into the star-dappled blackness beyond. But no matter how high she flew, she couldn't escape the miasma of uncleanness, of savagery and hate, that seemed to cling to her.
When Kotara slipped through the window, Sabul was sitting and staring into space. His brown hair was a tangle of greasy spikes, and his chin remained unshaven. His elaborate white robes were wrinkled and smelled of the unwashed body inside them.
"Master?" the angel said.
The young wizard shifted heavily around to face her. "Did you get Otori?" he asked.
"With some difficulty, " she said. "He set a trap of sorts, with himself as bait. When I flew down at him, a mage befuddled me with an illusion, and half a dozen hired bravos sprang out at me. I had to kill them all, lest one report seeing an angel. " Her sore eyes pulsed, but no tears slid down her cheeks. Perhaps she'd cried them all already.
Sabul blinked. "That's… " he gestured vaguely. "Well, I suppose that if the mercenaries chose to serve the Ilmieras, they share in the guilt of the Ilmieras. "
Kotara glared at him. Her fingers twitched. "Do you truly believe that?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. But in any case, it's over. No use fretting about it now. "
"It's likely to happen again. I've already slain Multam and his chief companions. Now we're down to slaughtering youths who roamed the city with him only rarely and in all likelihood played no part in Axdan's death. It's time you stopped deluding yourself that this enterprise is still a quest for justice and call it what it is-a war of extermination. And every war claims innocent lives. "
"Deem it a war if you like. Whatever it is, I don't have to justify it to you. " He turned away.
As she paced around his stool to confront him anew, she glimpsed herself in the scrying mirror. The last faint glimmer of luminosity had vanished from her feathers. Though still magnificent, her wings were merely snow white now, like the pinions of some arctic raptor.
"Look at yourself," she said. "You haven't bathed or changed your clothes since Axdan's funeral, nor slept or eaten either, I suspect. I'm certain you haven't resumed the duties of your various offices. I'll wager that you simply sit and brood in this chamber all day."
"If all this vengeance isn't healing you," Kotara persisted, "if it isn't helping you to take up the threads of your life, then what's the point of it? Why must we continue?"
"Because this isn't about me!" the sorcerer snapped. "What we're doing is for Axdan."
"Is this the memorial he would have chosen? A pile of corpses?"
He opened his mouth for a quick retort, then faltered. After several seconds he said, "May the gods pity me, I don't know. His was a kindly soul, that's for certain. He didn't even care to hawk or hunt."
"Did he belong to the Civic Guild?" she asked.
Sabul smiled ever so slightly. "No. He didn't have a wisp of magical ability, though it took him a long while to admit it. He wanted to follow in his big brother's footsteps."
"He was proud of you."
"Oh, yes. When I was a student, I had a bad habit of prattling on and on about all I was learning. The arcane powers and heavy responsibilities of my mystical tradition. The sanctity of the law, and how all must respect it lest civilization come unraveled. The rest of my kin learned to avoid me and my tedious soliloquies, but Axdan hung on every word." His mouth twisted.
"Which is a shame, isn't it? If I hadn't filled his head with such pompous nonsense, if I'd taught him that life is chaos and strife, perhaps he'd be alive today."
"But then he wouldn't have been the lad you loved," Kotara said, placing her hand on his shoulder. "Besides, you could scarcely teach him what you didn't credit yourself. I think that, deep down, you still don't believe that any man, let alone a mage of the Civic Guild, has the right to defy the law to seek a private vengeance. It grieves you that you've broken your oath and perverted your art."
He sighed. "Perhaps."
"Soon, I promise."
"Meaning when the house of Ilmiera is extinct? When I've killed every last one of them, even those innocent of Axdan's death or any other crime? By that time you'll be mad and damned."
"As I told you, it doesn't matter what happens to me. You have to understand, our parents died when Axdan was only a baby. I raised him, though of course the various relatives and servants helped. I was responsible for him, and in the end, I failed to protect him. But at least I can make his killers pay."
"No matter how many you slay, it won't bring him back," Kotara said. "Nor could all the blood in Zhalfir wash away your guilt. Rather, it-"
"Curse you!" he cried, striking her hand from his shoulder and surging to his feet. "How dare you strive to sway me from my purpose? You're only a slave. Begone until tomorrow evening."
Shaking with frustration, Kotara turned and moved away. She'd come so close to persuading him, but in the end, his bloody obsession had proved stronger than any argument she could muster. She folded her wings to slip out the window, then realized she didn't feel as if she were being compelled, to go.
Ever since the moment Sabul had summoned her, she'd borne the touch of his magic, like a collar of silk that would swell into an iron yoke if ever she defied him. Now, however, the sorcery had grown so attenuated that she could scarcely feel it at all.
She didn't understand how it could be so. Ordinarily a wizard's conjured agents were bound to him until he perished or chose to release them. But she did comprehend that fate had given her an opportunity to liberate herself permanently.
Sabul was lost in thought again, seemingly unaware that she had yet to depart. Stalking lightly as a cat, she tiptoed toward him. On the way, she lifted an ivory-hilted longsword from its rack. She trusted her own prowess. How could she not, after proving it over and over these past several nights? But she respected Sabul's sorcery as well, and a weapon would help ensure that she slew him instantly, denying him the chance to rattle off a spell. Besides, it would be somehow satisfying to dispatch him with one of his own tools.
As she glided closer, she felt the magic of the summoning gather itself and fumble at her like a palsied hand. Too late, she thought. A final step carried her into striking range. She raised the blade for a decapitating stroke, and then, even from the back, his appearance struck her anew.
How miserable he looked with his bowed head and hunched shoulders, his stale vestments and unwashed neck, how sorely in need of help and solace. Suddenly her murderous intent seemed not merely alien but despicable, and the cruel pleasure she'd found in her purpose, fouler still. She hesitated, and in that instant the power of the summoning came back full force like a set of manacles snapping shut.
She grimaced in vexation but not despair, because she could feel that the magic still wasn't as strong as it had been originally. Something was chipping away at it, and soon she'd shake it off for good.
Kotara alternately crept and flitted through the maze of towers, rooftops, balconies, walls, and windows that together constituted the upper stories of the Ilmiera mansion. Even those members of the family who normally resided elsewhere had moved into the great house for the duration of the crisis, just as they were all keeping indoors after dark. If the angel was to continue slaying them, she would have to extract one from their stronghold itself.
The aristocrats clearly expected her to attempt precisely that. The exterior of the mansion fairly bristled with sentries, as well as alarms and snares both mechanical and magical in nature. Evading them all, she peeked in one casement after the next, searching for Ferren Tynlo, an Ilmiera by marriage, the night's appointed prey.
Chancy as such a venture would be, she might actually have to search around inside to locate him. But not if Sabul's magic failed utterly, and she sensed that the binding might well crumble away before the night was through.
The prospect wasn't entirely pleasant. Bewildered by the stranger who'd nearly struck Sabul down from behind and taken vicious pleasure in the deed, she'd spent the day pondering her situation, and her reflections had borne fruit. She believed she now understood why the sorcerer's magic was failing, and if she was correct, she was paying a heavy price for her liberation.
But not too heavy. Not if it afforded her the opportunity to pay Sabul back for misusing her, then leave this charnel house of a city and its demented blood feuds far behind.
She contemplated her master's spell. As best she could judge, it was still potent. Time to go inside then. She climbed through a window into a vacant bedchamber, and at that moment, the whole world seemed to beat like a colossal heart.
Tainted with decay and damnation, the pulse of power grated on her senses like the throbbing of an abscessed tooth. Elsewhere in the house, some mage was performing infernal sorcery-not a simple spell like the one Multam had unleashed against her but a far more elaborate conjuration.
Eskander had warned Kotara that his kin planned to raise some dire power against her. If that was what was happening now, she supposed she'd better find out about it. Keeping a wary eye out for members of the household, she skulked through corridors and down stairways, following the magical emanations to their source.
At first she encountered no one. Lacking her more rarefied perceptions, the Ilmieras and their retainers could scarcely have registered the malign power surging through their home. Even so, they must have recognized that some fearful enterprise was afoot and therefore abode in their personal quarters.
Eventually the pulsations led her to a narrow match-boarded door and the two sentries stationed before it. Peeking at them from behind an enormous vase, Kotara saw that they were edgy, and small wonder. The snarling sound of the chant murmuring through the portal at their backs was enough to jangle any mortal's nerves, even if he didn't comprehend the tongues of the Abyss.
Sabul had commanded Kotara to conceal herself from human eyes, but the erosion of his influence left her considerable leeway in how she carried out the directive. She simply waited until both guards were looking elsewhere, then charged down the hallway at them. Closing the distance in an instant, she struck them unconscious before they could level their spears, shout an alarm, or even, presumably, discern what manner of creature had assaulted them.
Cautiously passing through the crack between the door and the jamb, Kotara found herself at the top of a long staircase, which descended into a subterranean chamber. On the floor below, greenish flames, the sole source of illumination, flickered in an iron brazier, casting the dancing shadows of five humans on the rough stone walls. The sorcerers were all middle-aged or older, no doubt ranking members of the house of Ilmiera, and each wore the regalia of an initiate in the mysteries of darkness. Sickly sweet smoke hung in the air, the product of some narcotic substance smoldering in the flames.
Crouching down, grateful for once that her feathers no longer glowed, Kotara watched as the chanting rose in a climactic crescendo. On the final syllable, the emerald flames shot upward, and the strongest pulsation of magic yet, so potent it seemed to stab her like a lance, split the air.
Nothing else happened for the next few moments, save that the fire shrank back to its former height. If she hadn't known better, the angel might have imagined that the ritual had failed. Gradually, however, the temperature dropped, until the crypt was as frigid as a hollow inside a glacier. At the same time a portion of the darkness seemed to gather itself, to clot and take on definition, until it became a huge figure with scaly hide, batlike wings, and the curling horns of a ram. Eyes as green and lambent as the fire shone beneath a bony ridge of brow. Kotara tensed, for she recognized the fiend for what it was, a knight banneret in the hosts of darkness. She recalled the first time she'd seen such a creature, riding at the head of a column of lesser fiends, during that primordial rebellion when the spirits of darkness had nearly overthrown the Divine Will, destroyed her people, and extinguished the sun, moon, and stars. Despite herself, she shivered.
The five mortals bowed to the fiend.
The eldest of the Ilmieras, a stooped, wizened woman with spotted skin and thin, silvery hair, quavered, "We bid you welcome, spirit."
The harbinger of night merely smirked, baring rows of jagged fangs.
If the old woman was nonplussed by the fiend's response, or lack thereof, she didn't show it. "My family is in desperate straits," she continued. "Some agency is murdering-"
"I know about your troubles," the monster rasped, "just as I know that, as you suspect, the Guildmage Sabul Hajeen is responsible. I will kill him if you meet my price."
A sorcerer with a grizzled beard exclaimed, " Trice?' My family has a covenant with your kind!"
The paladin of darkness stared down at him. Kotara couldn't tell what the Ilmiera elder read in the fiend's eyes, but it was enough to make him blanch.
"Your pact scarcely gives you the right to command a captain of the legions of darkness," the spirit said at last. "Conjure up some wurm if you think it capable of overcoming a wizard of order. It will serve you docilely, demanding nothing in return. But if you wish the aid of a true champion of the night, you must meet my price."
"Which is what?" the old woman asked.
"License to slaughter other mortals for my sport."
"Done," said a necromancer with an embroidered patch covering his right eye. "Kill everyone you find in the mansion of the Hajeen."
The fiend leered and shook his head. "I fear it's not that easy. You must grant me liberty of the city for three nights, to hunt whomever and wherever I will. Only the house above our heads will be off-limits."
The Ilmieras gaped at him.
After a time, the man with the eye patch said, "But why? Why can't you simply kill the Hajeen?"
"Because their annihilation would delight you," the creature replied, "and that's precisely wrong. You must squirm and bleed a little to enlist my aid. Such is the custom of my kind."
"We will pay your fee," the elderly sorceress said. "You have my word on it."
"Good," said the creature. "Toss more resin in the brazier, and feed me. I wish to manifest my arms and armor." Kotara turned and slipped back through the door.
As was so often the case of late, the angel's mind seethed with contradictory emotions. She'd loathed the captain of darkness on sight. How could she not, when its race and hers had been at war since the dawn of time? It sickened her to imagine it wreaking havoc in the city.
Yet she'd come to despise the mortals of Zhalfir, so what did it matter if they suffered and died? Indeed, since the fiend was here to slay Sabul and so end her servitude, she supposed she ought to rejoice at the creature's advent, even though it would deny her the chance to take revenge on the magician herself.
Well, however she ought to feel, she needn't fret over what to do. Thanks to Sabul's magic, she had little choice but to remain here in the mansion of the Ilmieras and seek her designated victim. Never mind that meanwhile the dark spirit would be closing in on its own.
Or so she thought. But as she stepped past the unconscious sentries, she felt a tingling across her skin and realized that the power of the summoning had finally faded to nothing.
Laughing and crying at the same time, heedless now of who might see her, she raced through the house till she found a window. Kotara sprang through, spread her wings, and hurtled across the city.
When she climbed into Sabul's chamber, the wizard's bloodshot eyes widened in surprise. "That was fast, " he said. "I thought you'd have more trouble, considering that Ferren had taken refuge in the Ilmiera citadel itself. "
"Oh, I could have slaughtered him easily enough, " Kotara said, "if I'd cared to do so."
The gaunt young wizard peered at her uncertainly. "What?"
"But I didn't care to, " she continued. "Instead I choose to do this. " With a flick of her wing, she overturned a trestle table. An intricate alchemical apparatus constructed of glass retorts and tubing smashed on the floor. "And this. " She pushed over a rack of clattering wands and staves. "And this. " She snatched him off his stool and hurled him across the room. He slammed into a bookshelf, then fell on his backside. Volumes bound in cracked white leather and rolls of parchment tied with creamy ribbons showered down around his head.
Clutching his diamond amulet, he babbled an incantation intended to reestablish control over her. She felt the mana pulse from the gem and sensed the spell take form, but it never touched her.
"It's no use," she said. "You can't command me ever again. Shall I tell you why?"
Still sprawled among his texts and scrolls, eyeing her warily, he nodded.
"Because I'm no longer a creature of celestial magic," she said. "I can understand why you never anticipated such a thing. You humans remain human no matter what you do. But we spirits are fundamentally beings of mind and soul, for all that we wear the semblance of matter, and it turns out that our very essence can change if we do and feel the wrong things. You corrupted me, Sabul, made me your torturer and assassin, and in consequence, I'm not an angel anymore. I'm just some sort of… bird! Can you imagine how that grieves me, to have my very nature, my identity, my connection to the Divine Will, stripped away? At least I possess my liberty again, and that means I'm free to deal with you." She moved toward him.
He gazed up at her aghast but not, she sensed, because he feared for himself.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I never intended to harm you. I noticed that your appearance changed in small ways from one meeting to the next, but you never told me what it meant."
"Because I myself didn't comprehend until recently. But suppose I had told you. Would you have released me?"
"I–I wish I could say yes, but…" He composed his features and clambered to his feet. "Do what you will, Kotara, I won't resist. Mete out justice on your own behalf."
She had never hated him as much as at that moment. Had he either fought or pleaded for mercy, like all the men she'd slain at his behest, she could have gleefully torn him apart, but there was something about his calm contrition and acceptance of his fate that locked her rage up inside her.
Fortunately, it didn't matter.
Grinning, she said, "Actually, I don't have to soil my own hands with your blood. Like you, I choose to act through a surrogate."
He shook his head. "I don't understand."
"The Ilmieras have raised a knight banneret of the Abyss to kill you. It may be on its way here even now, and I'm content to commend you into its hands. My recent experiences notwithstanding, I'm sure that it's still a far more able torturer than I am."
"But- ' Clearly shocked, Sabul ran his fingers through his dirty, uncombed hair. "Kotara, I know something of the spirits of darkness, even if sorcerers of my order never summon them. I know about the champions of the Pit. Such a spirit wouldn't fight for the Ilmieras unless they paid it. What price did it demand?"
"License to hunt mortals throughout the city for the next three nights."
"No! Even the Ilmieras wouldn't agree to that."
"They're frightened of you, magician. They'd do almost anything to rid themselves of you and me. I warned you that if you continued to wage war, innocent people would come to grief."
He grimaced. "Yes, you did, and I refused to heed. Thus I have absolutely no right to expect you to listen to me now. But if the fiend slays me, it will afterward slaughter scores, perhaps hundreds, of others. Whereas if you stand with me now, there's at least a chance we can destroy it. Will you aid me?"
She laughed in his face.
He attempted to take her hands. "I beg you. I'm not asking for myself-"
Kotara stepped back out of his reach. "Were I still an angel," she said, "no one would have to exhort me to take up arms against a dark spirit or to pity the folk who might suffer at its hands. But thanks to you, Guildmage, I'm now a baser creature. I can put my own well-being first, and I see no reason to risk my life to aid a city that has given me so little cause to love it."
"Then there's only one solution," said Sabul somberly, picking up a ritual dagger with a silver crosspiece and pommel. "If the fiend must kill me to claim his reward, I'll simply have to deny it the opportunity."
Kotara chuckled. "I'm sorry, but even your suicide wouldn't answer. The creature merely promised the Ilmieras you'd be dead before morning. It didn't swear to take your life itself, and thus your self-destruction would fulfill the terms of the agreement. No, if you hope to save your fellow mortals, you'll have to fight the fiend. I wonder how long you'll last with your mind clouded by hunger and lack of sleep. When you haven't purified yourself since Axdan's burial. When your ceremonial robes are dirty and foul."
"Damn you!" Sabul cried. "How can you be so spiteful, considering what's at stake?"
"I am as you made me," she replied lightly. "Farewell,
Guildmage." She strode to the window and leaped into the night.
Within a minute, she was clear of the city. She had an urge to climb until she left the globe itself behind but was no longer certain she belonged among the stars. What if she encountered one of her sisters and that other spurned her for the altered and degraded creature she was? She didn't think she'd be able to bear it, so she simply flew out over the ocean. The black waves gleamed in the light of the two moons, and the wind carried the tang of saltwater.
She realized that she had no idea where to go. She told herself not to worry over that or anything else for the time being, to simply soar and enjoy her freedom. But she couldn't. There was a deadness inside her, and visions crept unbidden into her head.
She saw Sabul, famished, exhausted, and still wracked with grief, yet behaving like a mage devoted to goodness and justice at last, ready to sacrifice his own life to save his city. Of course, he was only seeking to undo a catastrophe that was ultimately of his own making, and that scarcely absolved him of his sins. Yet sorely as he'd injured her, she suddenly found it difficult to hate him utterly, knowing he'd transgressed for love of his brother.
She also saw the bloody, twisted faces of the young men she'd slain and imagined the captain of darkness committing similar atrocities on a far grander scale until the streets of the capital were awash in blood. She'd professed to hate the city with its greedy nobles fighting over the crumbs of wealth and power that slipped through the fingers of its decadent royalty. In point of fact, most of the inhabitants were commoners who took no part in the feuds of the upper classes.
Kotara no longer felt a profound and abiding love for all humanity, nor a reflexive, unquestioning desire to act in accordance with the Divine Will. Those gifts had perished with her angelic nature. Yet she could still distinguish between altruism and selfishness, magnanimity and malice, responsibility and abdication, and she recognized that it would simply be wrong to abandon Zhalfir to its doom. Moreover, this time she wouldn't be able to absolve herself with the thought that a mage had compelled her. This time the sin would be her own choice, and she suspected the guilt might ultimately prove as crippling a burden as Sabul's grief had been to him.
Shrieking like an enormous eagle, she wheeled and sped back toward the land.
She saw flares of white light and the bursts of inky blackness, alternately brightening and darkening the sky over the Nobles' Quarter while she was still above the harbor. Racing on, her shadow flowing across the rooftops of the city, she discerned that, as she'd expected, the emanations were blazing forth from the windows of Sabul's tower.
When she peered inside, she saw her erstwhile master chanting at the center of a ring of pale phosphorescence, a barrier against the minions of the night. A slender ritual sword shone in one upraised hand and an ivory staff in the other, while the marble diamond amulet burned like a star on his breast.
The fiend loomed over him, its enormous wings seeming to fill the chamber from wall to wall. A vest of blue-black mail armored its torso, and a helm with a jagged crest protected its head. Roaring with each stroke, it hewed at Sabul with a dark, two-handed sword. The weapon looked peculiarly insubstantial, as if it were forged of shadow, and it sizzled like meat on a griddle when it swept through the air. Every stroke penetrated a little farther into the zone of warding established by the magic circle.
The monster struck yet another blow. With a sharp crack, Sabul's amulet shattered, and suddenly no longer impeded by the ring of luminescence, the shadow sword streaked toward the young mage's head.
Sabul hopped frantically backward, and the cut missed him by a hair. But his foot came down on the leg of a broken chair, which turned and threw him off balance. He fell, and the knight of the Abyss pounced at him.
Fleetingly grateful that she was no longer too chivalrous to attack an opponent by surprise, Kotara scrambled into the room, snatched up another ritual sword from a blond-wood rack of such implements, and charged, intent on stabbing the dark monster in the back.
The fiend must have heard her coming, for it pivoted smoothly. Her weapon rang as the knight of darkness parried her thrust. The fiend riposted with a horizontal head cut, and when she attempted to counterparry, the shadow sword swept through her blade as if it weren't there. Evidently the infernal glaive was solid only when its master wanted it to be.
She ducked, but didn't quite manage to avoid the blow. The shadow sword missed her head but grazed the top of her left wing. She felt a sting of pain, and a bloody white feather drifted toward the floor.
From a crouch she thrust at her opponent's three-toed foot, and the monster stepped nimbly out of range. Her point grated on the hardwood floor. She straightened up, and they both came back on guard, then regarded one another, looking for openings.
After a moment, the fiend's burning jade eyes narrowed in perplexity. "I've never seen a creature like you before," it rumbled. "What are you?"
"Something the Divine Will created to oppose abominations like you," she replied, and by the firmament, that was still true, no matter what had happened to her since. She flung herself at her foe.
Kotara knew she was overmatched. Though she was quicker, the fiend was stronger and had a longer reach, and together with the shadow sword, which could parry but not be parried, those attributes gave her foe the advantage. But perhaps she could keep it busy long enough for Sabul to cast a spell potent enough to deal with it. The magician had already clambered to his feet and resumed his chanting. Veils of pearly light swirled around him as his conjuration took shape. The winged woman prayed that the destruction of the marble diamond hadn't so diminished his magic as to render his efforts futile. Now he would need to draw all his power from the wide world itself, specifically from those expanses of grassland to which he'd established a mystical link.
A whip-snap beat of her wings carried her high enough to thrust at the dark spirit's eyes. The harbinger of night struck her blade out of line, then slashed at her shoulder. Remembering that unlike her foe, she couldn't parry-she must remember that, every instant! — she swooped beneath the stroke and cut at the creature's ribs. Clashing, the fine links of its dark mail turned the blow.
The shadow sword swept down at her, and she barely managed to wrench herself out of the way, blundering against a small round table in the process. An hourglass toppled from it and crashed to the floor. As she struggled to recover her equilibrium, the fiend wheeled and rushed at Sabul.
Caught by surprise, Kotara couldn't pursue fast enough to keep the knight of darkness from reaching the mortal. She cried out as, hissing and crackling, the shadow sword leaped at its target.
Sabul shouted a word of power. The ring of phosphorescence flared, and his staff glowed. Though the monster's sword never touched anything but air, it rang and rebounded as if it had struck a shield. At the same instant the staff snapped in two, and Sabul stumbled backward, out of the glowing circle.
His adversary laughed and strode after him. Her wings fluttering, the wounded one throbbing with every beat, Kotara threw herself between them. Her sword flashed out in a stop cut to the fiend's upraised sword arm, and at last she succeeded in drawing a little blood-or rather a steaming, malodorous ooze.
The fiend snarled and struck back with a blow that would have shorn her wing off if she hadn't twitched it aside. She feinted to the left of the monster's blade to draw a parry, then disengaged and thrust on the other side, but the shadow sword shifted back in time to deflect the attack. Kotara instantly retreated to forestall a riposte, and the two spirits paused to study each other anew. Behind his protector, Sabul resumed his incantations.
"You fight well," the knight of the Pit told Kotara.
"On another occasion, I might enjoy prolonging our duel, but alas, I find myself impatient to get on with murdering the city. Do you think it possible that in three nights I could slaughter everyone? Imagine the oh-so-ambitious Ilmieras emerging from their refuge to discover there's no one left to rule. What a rich jest that would be."
The creature's wings beat with a thunderous boom, propelling it forward, and it cut at her chest. She spun out of the way and slashed at its throat, but it parried.
In the moments that followed, Kotara decided that her foe might well have been holding back hitherto, for now the infernal knight's sword was everywhere at once. Its cuts kept her so busy dodging that she rarely managed an attack of her own, and when she did, her foe invariably bashed it away with a forceful parry. One actually knocked her off balance and threatened to send her weapon spinning from her grasp. Clutching frantically at the hilt, she managed to hold on to it, but the shadow sword was streaking at her again. Her wings beat, but she knew they couldn't carry her out of the way in time.
The shadow sword halted inches shy of her head. For an instant she had no idea why. Then she felt the surge of magic in the air and realized that her last series of advances and retreats had landed her inside Sabul's ring of luminescence. Discerning her plight, the young wizard had commanded the enchantment to shield her.
Her foe attacked again. As she desperately evaded his blows, heart pounding, sword arm half numb from the pummeling it had endured, the dark blade plunged closer and closer to her body. She was tiring, slowing, and that meant that soon, perhaps in scant seconds, the shadow sword would cleave her flesh. A shrill voice inside her, one she'd never heard when she was an angel, yammered that she must save herself by fleeing. She ignored it as best she could.
At her back, magic glittered and seethed in the air as Sabul's conjuration built to a conclusion. But it wasn't accumulating rapidly enough. She was all but certain that the fiend would dispatch her and turn on the mage before he could finish.
She had to buy Sabul some time, and she could think of only one tactic that might serve. The knight of darkness cut at her, and instead of seeking to avoid the shadow sword, she simply threw herself forward in an all-out counterattack.
Her enemy's weapon ripped through her breastplate and into her shoulder. Though she didn't feel any pain just yet, she sensed that the blow had done hideous damage, nearly severing both her arm and her wing. But at the same instant, the point of her blade punched into the monster's throat and out the back of its neck. The fiend hadn't expected her to abandon all hope of defense, and her reckless ploy had caught it unaware.
Kotara collapsed to the floor. It required a titanic effort merely to turn her head sufficiently to see how the knight of darkness was faring.
The hulking creature had dropped to one knee. Making an ugly choking sound, its wings shaking spastically, it took hold of the weapon transfixing its neck and began to pull it free. It emerged in a series of little lurches, one agonizing inch at a time.
But at last it was out, and the twin bubbling wounds started to close. The fiend gave Kotara a leer that told her, as plainly as words, that her sacrifice had been for nothing. Then it picked up the fallen shadow sword, sprang to its feet, and pivoted toward Sabul-who calmly spoke the final word of his incantation.
Power sang through the air. The fiend staggered, the holy magic as damaging to it as the infernal energies released by its summoning had been to Kotara. Shaking off the effect, the foul creature sprang at Sabul. Perhaps it imagined it could dispose of him before the spell, whatever it was, took hold.
If so, the fiend was mistaken. Stone and timber crashed down as some irresistible force wiped the ceiling out of its way. A white, scaly, translucent claw as large as the creature's entire body plunged through the ragged opening, gripped the dark spirit, and lifted it out into the night and up to a set of colossal jaws. Stray bits of the fiend showered back into the chamber as its nemesis chewed it up and gobbled it down.
The dragon, assuming that its hind feet were planted on the ground, was taller than Sabul's tower. From its prodigious size and ghostly semitransparency, Kotara realized that it was no summoned creature like the fiend or herself but rather an artificial thing the Guildmage had fashioned from his wizardry. It swallowed a final time, then simply melted away.
Sabul flung himself down at Kotara's side. For the first time she observed the charred hole in his vestments and the blistered, seeping skin beneath. The marble diamond had burned him when it burst. He had a scraped, bloody mark on his brow as well. Probably a piece of the roof had clipped him as it fell. Gripping her numb, useless hand, he said, "Kotara, I'm sorry! I'm a healer, but-
"I know," she said, "no one could mend this wound. The fiend cut too deep."
"I'm sorry," he repeated, "for everything." She could barely make out his face now. The chamber seemed to be growing darker, though she knew the gloom was actually in her eyes.
"I forgive you," she said.
"What"-his face twisted-"what will happen to you when you go?"
"How can I guess," she whispered, straining to force the words out, "when I no longer even know what manner of creature I am? I'm not afraid. Perhaps I'll be reborn into my former state. I was still a bit like an angel, wasn't I, at the end?"
He started to reply, but she never heard what he wanted to say. The darkness flowered into prismatic light, and she was elsewhere.
I grew up in the tiny village of Tyarel, some eighty miles outside Jornstad, the seat of power of Eastern Kjeldor. Although Tyarel was a small town, it was located along a major trade route. It was constantly busy, caravans and travelers arriving at all hours of the day, soldiers and diplomats faithfully executing the orders of the king, and merchants offering their wares to those who passed through.
My uncle was one such merchant. He was a successful jeweler and a man of deep wisdom. When my parents succumbed to the plague, it was he who took me in and raised me as his son. He taught me to think critically, and he taught me his trade.
We both knew I was not destined to be a jeweler. I wanted to be an historian, and my uncle graciously agreed to provide financial support. So the day after my eighteenth birthday, I left for Jornstad to pursue my studies at an institution of higher learning.
Although I was anxious to leave home, I did not relish the journey. By law, we were required to travel under armed escort. Dangerous creatures of both the two-legged and four-legged variety roamed the wilderness.
The Dominarian landscape had been changed forever by the Brothers' War. The fury unleashed by Urza and Mishra had caused massive climate shifts from which the land still had not recovered. The apocalyptic war ravaged the whole world, bringing with it colder weather and upsetting nature's balance. The lower temperatures caused terrible food shortages, and creatures that did not die outright became more aggressive hunters.
Some of the larger ones were notorious for harassing travelers. Giant insects, dog-headed serpents, beasts of every ilk ruled the wildlands. Of these, the most feared were the wurms: massive creatures that slithered upon the ground, similar in every respect to their dragon cousins but without wings or legs. One in particular was said to plague the city of Jornstad. Indeed the locals had named it Rhindle. He was enormous-even for a scaled wurm-with sparkling, orange eyes and the scars of a thousand battles, or so I was told.
Many a merchant's caravan was lost on the road between Tyarel and Jornstad. I don't know how many went down to Rhindle's wicked claws, but survivors told frightening tales. They told of a massive creature, as stealthy as a shadow that lurked just beyond torchlight and waited for the proper moment to strike. The beast was said to possess an unusual intelligence, and perhaps that was the most frightening thought of all. Few people ventured outside of town after dark.
Thankfully, my little party did not encounter any such horrors. There were no fantastic two-headed creatures or winged predators. The true wonders awaited me in Jornstad.
I was used to the hustle and bustle of a busy town, but Jornstad staggered my senses. During the day it was a swirl of color and sound like a perpetual carnival. Merchant and passenger caravans constantly came and went through the city's sturdy gates.
The main avenue was adorned with towering poplar trees and colorful banners, and it ran through the well-kept public gardens known as Rothchild Park. An exquisite marble fountain adorned Rothchild Park, where two stone lions wrestled amid the splashing water.
In the summer, short as it was, the park was alive with the buzzing of insects and flowers of a thousand hues. Musicians and theatrical performers sometimes offered free shows where crowds could enjoy a brief respite from the chill.
When the colder months came, and the trees had lost their leaves, the gardens were no less enchanting. The stillness wove a different kind of magic. It was a world of mute snows, punctuated only by the laughter of children building snowmen and throwing snowballs at each other.
Beyond the gardens was the huh of activity in Jornstad. Shops, pubs, and meeting houses lined both sides of the street. Tobacconists mingled with wizards, beggars, and sculptors. Preachers and blacksmiths walked alongside carpenters and scholars. Street performers with trained animals tried to impress passersby, as messengers rushed past delivering correspondence between businesses. The aroma of bread and fish cakes wafted through the air from the street vendors who were selling their wares to hungry travelers. It was a delightful mix of diversities.
My first introduction to Jornstad was an intoxicating experience. After attending the college for almost two years, I was at last beginning to feel comfortable with the city, and it was a place I was proud to call home.
The sun had just reached its zenith on a cold, cloudless day, and I was trying to work up the courage to ask Evara, the baker's daughter, to accompany me to the Snow Festival. I leaned on a tree some distance away, admiring her long blonde hair woven into a single braid. She'd enchanted me with her blue eyes and a teasing grin. I breathed deeply and prepared to make my move.
"My young Finroy, may I have your assistance?" a familiar voice called from behind me. I turned to see the schoolmaster, Jerod, a warm and affectionate man in his late fifties with hair as white as his smile.
He was kind to everyone, and I was his favorite. Rumor among the boys was that he was quite a warrior in his day, but I never really could believe it. His unassuming way made him an instant friend to one and all, and he seemed to know everyone in town.
"What is it?" I asked.
He breathed deeply, savoring the moment, I think.
"Duke Devareaux approached me this morning about finding a young man from the school for a special job in the royal court. I thought you might know someone from among the boys ready for such a challenge. He would have to be a bright boy with a hardy sense of adventure, able to think quickly on his feet."
I shrugged, deeply disappointed. Had I even been considered? "I'm not sure, sir," I answered. "Thaddeus, or Shaboo maybe? They're quite smart."
A broad smile broke through his weathered features.
"I recommended you," he said after a brief pause, shaking my hand. "Congratulations, Finroy. The job's yours if you want it."
After a stunned silence I regained my composure. In my excitement I almost forgot to ask, "What job is this, exactly?"
"Well, Duke Devareaux didn't say, but he's a very powerful man, and if he said it was an important job, you can bet it's the opportunity of a lifetime. He said you may even have a chance to work under Lord Rothchild himself!"
Lord Rothchild. The region had had many good years under his reign. Farmers and merchants alike prospered under his rule. Men idolized him. Ladies swooned for him. Every child emulated him.
Peace with Balduvia, uneasy as it was, had begun to take root. Food was plentiful. Everything was going well, and Lord Rothchild got all the credit.
During the fifth year of his reign, a popular movement began to immortalize his likeness on the currency. Everything was paid for in Rothies, which bore the inscription Lord Rothchild: Will of iron, tongue of silver, heart of gold. Rich traders donated money to erect larger-than-life statues of him in town squares. Competition broke out, as each wanted to be the sponsor of the largest, most beautiful statue. His face was everywhere.
Working for Lord Rothchild would be an amazing experience. Shoulder to shoulder with one of the greatest leaders alive, I could study his every move and see what made him shine. I was enormously flattered that Jerod would recommend me for such important work. Of course I would seize the opportunity.
But taking the position would mean leaving the college, and my studies were not yet completed. All would be for the best I thought, because they did not teach what I wanted most to learn. I was no wizard, but I was seeking to understand the meaning of white magic and the significance it has for all Kjeldorans. I knew only that it was our history, our present, and our future.
I got no sleep that night. The thought of meeting Lord Rothchild the next day had my mind racing in a million directions. The dormitory seemed too quiet.
There were none of the usual shenanigans of boys sneaking about after dark, playing cards or dice by candlelight. I wished there was something to distract me, but it seemed to be just me and the night.
The next day I woke early. Donning my finest raiment, I made my way to the palace. A gate guard ushered me inside to the sitting chamber, where I was to be interviewed. We made our way through the stone corridors to a lighted doorway.
My nerves were rattled to the edge of fear. I was to meet the man whom many insisted would someday rule all Terisiare. I swallowed hard and continued down the corridor.
As I approached the threshold, I heard two men talking. I could tell by the unmistakable smooth drawl that one of them was Lord Rothchild.
He began with a chuckle, "I really don't need a valet, you know. That's what I have you for."
"Milord," replied the other man, who could only have been Duke Devareaux. His voice was as crisp as a ringing bell, "As distracted as I am over affairs of state, I am unable to devote my time exclusively to you, as a man of your standing rightly deserves."
"Ah, well," sighed Rothchild, "just see that he doesn't get in the way."
"I'm sure Milord will find the boy most capable and trustworthy and in time grow to rely on him."
The conversation stopped abruptly as I entered the room. Lord Rothchild was stretched on a low couch, loosely clasping a goblet of mead. He had an easy, friendly manner and sipped the mead often. His sandy hair and sparkling, blue eyes complemented a pristine blue tunic that had likely never known a crease. A sly, lopsided grin spread across his boyish face.
To actually be in Lord Rothchild's presence was thrilling, and I felt a little dizzy at first. The man radiated charisma and seemed to be the embodiment of every noble trait.
He bade me to sit on a high stool in the center of the room, and the interview abruptly began.
The two quizzed me for almost two and a half hours. Lord Rothchild asked me simple task-related questions. Did I know how to read and write? Could I demonstrate my knowledge of courtly etiquette?
Devareaux contrived strange scenarios for me to work through. If Lord Rothchild spilled a spot of soup on his shirt and was unaware of it, how would I handle the situation? What was the proper thing to tell a foreign dignitary if Lord Rothchild was unavailable?
I answered all the questions as best I could and must have impressed them. They asked me to leave the room for a time so they could discuss my performance. When I returned, Lord Rothchild stood up and offered me his hand.
"It's my pleasure to appoint you to the honored position of interim Regal Overseer, " he said, as if speaking at an official gathering, "and I wish to welcome you to the royal court with all the honors and privileges thus conferred. You shall perform all the tasks required of this noble position for a period of one month, after which your performance will be evaluated. If your performance pleases me, you shall stay on permanently." We shook hands, and the lord excused himself to attend to important affairs.
Devareaux took me aside as Lord Rothchild left the room.
"Son, I want to explain a few things to you," he said, getting right to the point. "The regent is a high-maintenance man. I expect you to fulfill his every need in a timely and respectful manner. But that's just the beginning. Lord Rothchild loves the people of Kjeldor, and he expects them to love him back. His untainted public image is very important to him, and it's up to you to see that it stays that way. Let me be perfectly clear about this," he said, pronouncing each word carefully, as dark clouds gathered across his face. "The price of failure is high, especially for a young man like yourself with his whole life ahead of him."
It began to dawn on me that maybe I was in over my head.
The next day I arrived at the palace gate at the appointed time with my possessions in hand and waited for Duke Devareaux to lead me to my quarters.
On either side of the gates stood a soldier of the Royal Guard, sworn to protect Lord Rothchild from harm. As merchants, servants, cooks, and carpenters passed through the gates, the guards made note of who came and went and inspected their wares. Other guards patrolled the outer wall high above, but in general, the atmosphere was relaxed. Lord Rothchild could afford this lax security, because there was not a soul in Jornstad who had not prospered under his reign.
My quarters were located in an area adjoining the royal palace. It was an area that was restricted to most but to which I was to have free access because of my duties. The quarters were comfortable but by no means extravagant. With stone walls and only one window, it tended to be a bit dark most of the day.
I stashed my belongings quickly and made my way to the meeting hall, where I was to convene with Duke Devareaux for a briefing.
"The task before you will not be an easy one," he said sternly. "I hope you're up to it. You were selected because you are the brightest in your class and a quick thinker.
"Things will not always be the way you expect them to be, but your job will be to always put Lord Rothchild first. If he stumbles, you are to make sure he does not fall. If he should make a mistake, you are to see that it is corrected."
He reviewed my duties and his expectations. He stressed the importance of the job I was undertaking. Kjeldor's enemies were forever looking to our borders for a sign of weakness. Our leader was more than a symbol of our freedom; he was the foundation of our freedom.
He explained to me the politics of the court, as well. The king and his wife, Lady Rothchild, were not on the best of terms. He warned me that Lord Rothchild was what the duke referred to as a "free spirit," and that didn't sit too well with Lady Rothchild.
It was a politically motivated marriage: a Kjeldoran king and a Balduvian queen-just the thing to bring peace to the warring factions. It worked for a time, too. The war had moved off the battlefield and onto the domestic front. The sides had, for a while, ceased to be represented by wily generals and battle-scarred troops and instead had been traded for a pair of bickering spouses.
Although the court tried to portray the royal couple as close, the cold, political nature of the marriage was common knowledge. She was unpleasant to look at and not well liked, but even if she'd been the fairest creature in all of Terisiare, all the women of Kjeldor would have hated her for envy.
After the conversation, I set out on my own, armed with Lord Rothchild's official schedule. I headed to the archery range, where I'd been told Lord Rothchild would be practicing until late afternoon. The range was deserted, so I wandered the palace grounds trying to find him. I acquainted myself with my new surroundings as I walked, asking the servants and gardeners I encountered if they'd seen Lord Rothchild.
By late morning, I at last caught up with Lord Rothchild. He was sitting on a box in the royal distillery, sampling the various spirits.
He noticed me immediately. "Come hither, young Finroy," he called. "Sit with me and share the solace of a smooth port wine."
"Yes, Your Highness," I answered, as I pulled up a crate and sat with the most revered man in all Kjeldor. Although my nerves were rattled by the presence of His Majesty, his easy way helped to temper my nervousness.
"I'm sampling a variety of blends for my upcoming meeting with Lord Barsus of Ojum," he said gesturing to four half-empty bottles beside him. "It's so important to have the right beverages at meetings between leaders. The proper drink can lubricate the political machinery. That's the secret of diplomacy.
"The Balduvian's bloodthirsty urges could never have been subdued with a fine wine such as this. A harsh people like that require a harsh drink-a drink with savagery and bite, the kind of drink that hacks at your tongue and leaves you for dead. Once you understand the people, it becomes plain that only cackleberry gin is right for ones such as they. Serve it at negotiations, and you are bound to earn their respect."
I sat with him for hours as he expounded his theories of diplomacy through alcohol. Lord Rothchild could engage a listener on just about any topic.
In the days that followed, I discovered that Lord Rothchild's official schedule was to be interpreted loosely, and he was most often in the place you least expected him to be. Searches would often yield surprising, or occasionally embarrassing, results. He could often be found in the royal gardens deflowering one of Lady Rothchild's many handmaids or rolling in the hay with the stablemaster's daughter.
If he wasn't in either of those two places, a trail of empty bottles usually led the way. I began to wonder that with all of Lord Rothchild's "commitments, " he managed to find time to rule. Devareaux always seemed to be at the events of state, though, to cover for him.
The best course of action seemed to be to leave Lord Rothchild to his own affairs, but my job wasn't any easier because of it. If Lady Rothchild wanted to take a stroll through the gardens at the wrong time, it could inspire a domestic incident. I had to make sure that didn't happen.
The lord was reckless with his reputation, so I learned to be everywhere at once. Lady Rothchild hated it when he drank, and he drank constantly. The best I could do was to try to keep the conflict to a minimum.
But for all his failings, when Lord Rothchild took the podium the magic began. He could spellbind an audience with his smooth and easy ways, whipping them into a patriotic fervor or soothing them to a quiet hush. It was as though he were a conductor leading a symphony orchestra.
For his part, he loved the adulation and would promise them anything just to hear the applause. Sometimes I wondered if he really knew what he was saying, but his words were so sweet that it didn't matter.
His public appearances were always great events, but the people of Jornstad were especially excited about seeing him at the Snow Festival, where he'd promised to joust with Sir Udo, champion of the lance.
Devareaux informed me that there were big plans for Sir Udo. He was to be assigned a regional governorship or a diplomatic position. Devareaux and Lord Rothchild wanted to bolster Udo's popularity, and what better way than public association with the most popular figure in the land? It was his concern for how the masses felt that kept our nation strong and stable, said Devareaux.
The contest was to be the following day, so after my usual duties were completed I headed to the armory to polish Lord Rothchild's armor. I stepped into the room where few were allowed to go and set down the cloth and bottle of whale oil I'd brought with me. I took a moment to gaze upon the contents of the royal armory. I'd never seen so many weapons in my life: rows upon rows of pikes, halberds, hammers, and swords. Every sort of ranged weapon was there, from fine elven bows and javelins to ordinary slings and armor of every sort. Some of it was comprised of tiny links, looking almost like wool sweaters. Other pieces were plated with great sheets of overlapping metal. Still other pieces had scales like dragon skin. These were no mere weapons; they were treasures, and the place was more museum than armory.
Draped over a mannequin in the center of the room was a breastplate and helmet, the armor that would protect Lord Rothchild from Sir Udo's ferocious lance. On its front, inlaid in gold and silver, was a stylized picture of a lion, mouth open in mid-roar, paw raised and ready to strike. The eyes of the lion were rubies, which shone like the setting sun. Its claws were of inlaid ivory and lapis lazuli.
A high-crested helmet sat atop the breastplate. It was plated in gold and bore an intricate flower pattern. Around the sturdy visor, where there should have been blossoms, the artisan who fashioned the helmet had instead set a variety of precious and semiprecious stones. The crest was adorned with huge red feathers that were not from any bird I'd ever seen, and the helmet's metal surface was unmarred by even the tiniest scratch. I wondered if it had ever been worn.
Most kings would be satisfied if this armor were their entire treasure trove. The workmanship was exquisite, with a level of detail that only magic could produce. I didn't know how Lord Rothchild had acquired the breastplate, but I was pretty sure it wasn't made locally.
For almost two hours I polished the armor. When I was done, my arms ached and my back hurt but the armor shone like the moon on a clear night. Looking at it, I could see my reflection clearer than in a still mountain lake.
The next day, it seemed as though every man, woman, and child in Jornstad had turned out to witness the festivities. I was as anxious to see Lord Rothchild square off against the popular Sir Udo as anybody in the crowd, but I was a little nervous. I made my way past the concessionaires, staggering under the weight of Lord Rothchild's armor, which I'd brought in a canvas sack.
It was a little too warm for a Snow Festival, but everyone seemed to enjoy the chance to set aside their work and socialize. Children tugged on their parents' clothing, coaxing them to buy a sugar stick or rag doll. Kjeldorans, young and old, perused the wares of the local artisans, admiring the workmanship of a designer cloak or haggling over the price of a commemorative "Lord Rothchild: Fifth Anniversary" plate.
A band was playing "Live Free, Kjeldor"-a happier version of the traditional march. Lovers danced to the strains of flutes and elven lyres, music caressed the clouds, and a smile was on every face.
I walked to the stable area, from where Lord Rothchild would enter the jousting arena, and positioned myself in the doorway. There I could watch the people go by as I awaited the lord's presence.
I listened to the music and searched the passing faces to see if I could find Evara. She'd sure be impressed if she came by and saw me working for Lord Rothchild. In the huge sea of faces I was unlikely to find her, but I decided to lean against the wall and look bored, as if I hadn't a care in the world, in case she could see me.
Time passed, and still Lord Rothchild did not arrive. People began to assemble in anticipation of the joust.
A harlequin dressed in red and white taunted passersby in a playful fashion. He imitated their mannerisms through a dancing puppet. The creature almost seemed to have a life of its own, its strings the only giveaway.
My thoughts turned again to Lord Rothchild. He still had not appeared. He's a responsible leader and the most powerful man in the province, I kept telling myself. Of course he'll show. If he can run a kingdom, he can certainly show up for a major event like this one-especially one as important as this, where he's the main attraction.
It wasn't working. I was as apprehensive as ever.
I stared at the arena's great sundial and watched the shadow crawl across its face. Each moment felt like an eternity, and the crowd began to grow restless. Devareaux entered the stables and looked around. I fidgeted nervously and tried to avoid eye contact. Saying nothing, he shot me a stare that could kill a charging war beast, glaring at me until I thought he could see what I was thinking. His eyes slowly wandered to the empty armor sitting on the floor. Abruptly, he turned and left.
Even now Devareaux was probably headed to the palace dungeon, to find the most wretched, dank cell in existence, a place where night and day would have no meaning, and rats would nibble on my frail, undernourished body. A place that would be my home until my dying day.
I ran from the stables into the deserted streets. Dashing from place to place, I checked all of the usual hideouts for any sign of Lord Rothchild. There was no sign of him in the bathhouse, nor on the gaming field. He was not to be found in the distillery or the wine cellar. He wasn't in the armory, and I doubted that he'd be anywhere near the library.
My desperation grew, and I was all too aware that time was passing. I returned to the arena, foolishly hoping that he might have shown up during my absence. Of course he had not. No one had seen him, and his armor lay untouched.
I saw no way out. I grabbed the armor and donned it as quickly as my hands would move, fastening the buckles and strings as best I could. I placed the great helmet on my head, lowering the visor. As far as the crowd knew, / was Lord Rothchild, and I would have to do my best to live up to his legend.
I called a stable hand to help me, and with much assistance was able to mount the lord's white steed. I hastened through the gates and into the arena before my good sense could stop me. Riding into the light from the darkened stables, I was momentarily blinded, but I could hear the crowd erupt in a roar of admiration. For a moment, I basked in the glory and love of the townsfolk.
When my vision returned I beheld Sir Udo, waiting in the center of the arena. He was built like a war engine, solid as an obelisk. His armor was bright red with black trim, and it dazzled the eyes. Lights danced around him like shooting stars. Whether it was a trick of the light, my tired eyes, or magic I did not know.
He sat astride a coal-black horse. The stout beast's ebony hooves pawed at the dirt, and it impatiently dipped its head. The creature seemed barely able to restrain itself, so anxious it was for the crash of steel and the smell of dust and blood.
A stable hand passed me the banner of Kjeldor, and hefting it up, I rode around the arena three times, as was the custom. Ladies threw flowers onto the field, and children waved. I waved back, concentrating on not falling off the horse. I could not see very well, since the helmet did not fit properly and had become twisted a little to the left. Only one eye was lined up with the view slit.
The crowd's adoration was enjoyable, but the deception unnerved me, and I was anxious to be done with it. I guided the horse to the far end of a long, wooden fence and turned to face my opponent.
Sir Udo waited with a cool reserve, confident in his ability. I swallowed hard and dug my heels hard into my mount. In a flash I was off, the king's mighty steed rippling beneath me, gathering speed as it galloped toward the knight. My balance was precarious, having been jarred by the horse's quick start, and I held on with both hands, my lance tucked limply under my arm. The distance closed in a hurry, in fact far faster than I'd anticipated, and I wasn't able to lift my weapon very far before Udo's furious lance struck me square in the chest. The world receded as I flew back like a puppet on a string.
Everything seemed to suddenly get very quiet except for the screaming pain in my chest. I would have screamed, too, except I couldn't breathe. It was as though a wooly mammoth were standing on my lungs while a fire burned inside. When breath at last came, I was only able to pant in quick, shallow gulps. Each introduced me to a new world of pain.
I looked around to see knights and squires rushing to my aid. Gathering my wits, I staggered to my feet and waved them-off, lest they remove my helmet and reveal my deception to all assembled there. I wobbled toward the edge of the arena, desperately trying to look unwounded. I think some of the knights helped me along as Devareaux came forth to meet me, flanked by the royal guard. He dismissed the knights who'd been helping me, and I lost my tenuous grip on consciousness.
Angels swam in the aether, singing the most beautiful melodies I'd ever heard. Millions of blue and green bubbles, glowing with an inner light, washed across my body like fireflies in a sea of liquid diamond. The angels' songs faded slowly, and a dull, thumping pain ushered me back to consciousness.
I awoke under the ministrations of Ariel, the royal herbalist. A woman in her early thirties, she had dark, flowing hair and kind eyes. She wore a loose white blouse, and a featureless coin dangled from a gold chain around her neck. I stared at the coin and realized my eyes were still too blurred to discern any detail. A steady buzzing hummed in my ears.
Ariel noticed I was awake. "How do you feel?" she asked.
"I don't know. I do seem to be in one piece."
"So what happened to you?" she asked, as she applied a magic elixir to my wound.
"Um… a hunting accident," I replied, still too groggy to make up a decent lie.
She smiled. "A hunting accident?"
"I was, uh, kicked by a horse."
She continued to smile. "Have you heard about the terrible blow Lord Rothchild sustained while jousting?"
"Indeed," I said. "How does he fare?"
"He'll be fine," she laughed.
Bit by bit, Ariel reconstructed me. As she wove spells and mixed potions, we talked. She told me the people of Jornstad were disappointed at Lord Rothchild's loss to Sir Udo but were already making up excuses for their champion's defeat. Sir Udo was more popular than ever, and citizens were crying for a rematch. I didn't want to think about it.
I got two lessons in white magic that day. Lord Rothchild's armor, it turned out, was enchanted with powerful magic. If the armor had been weaker I'd probably have been killed by the lance, although my broken rib might argue the point.
I also had a firsthand experience with miraculous healing magic. Ariel's unguents and potions had me patched up, and with only a day of rest I was ready to get back to work. Ariel said she could work wonders on wounds far more serious than mine.
Still I realized that the power to heal, impressive as it was, did not keep Kjeldor's enemies at bay. Powerful protection was not the reason for our nation's greatness. There must be more, I thought.
Ariel advised bed rest for the remainder of the day, but since I really wasn't tired, I sat in bed reading adventure stories.
Not long after, Lord Rothchild stopped by to check on me. I wanted to scream, "Where were you?" But, of course, one does not speak that way to a king, so we both avoided speaking about the obvious.
"You are an astute young man, Finroy," he said with an air of discomfort. He was more subdued than I'd ever seen him, and there was a serious look in his eye.
"I'd be proud to have you as my regal overseer. You have shown your true mettle and performed your duties admirably. Congratulations."
"Thank you, sire," I croaked.
"Well, the healer told me you'll be making a full recovery," he said, changing the topic quickly. "I'm glad to hear it."
We made light conversation for some minutes, and then Lord Rothchild wished me well and excused himself.
Come evening another visitor appeared. Devareaux, whose only interest in me up to this point had been to issue dire threats, almost seemed to show actual concern for my well-being.
"Your service to the king is rightly appreciated," he said. "You are a true patriot and an upstanding citizen of the nation of Kjeldor."
Even when granting compliments, the duke had a foreboding manner. If I'd heard only his tone, and not his words, I might have feared for my life, yet his actions were friendly enough.
He presented me with a box of wafers, which were wet with some kind of paste. They were, he explained, a remedy his mother used to give him when he was hurt. The thought of Duke Devareaux having a mother was enough to make me smile.
I sampled one, and it was the most wretched, putrid concoction I'd ever tasted. Despite an almost overwhelming urge to spit out the pasty wafers, I choked them down, one by one. This was the first genuine kindness I'd been shown by this man, and I certainly wasn't going to insult him or his mother. I wondered why folk remedies were always so unpleasant.
We talked, and his candor was unusual. He told me that Lord Rothchild's father had died in a sporting accident when Lord Rothchild was only six. His mother was taken the following year by consumption. The young Lord Rothchild had grown up without any guidance, the adults in his life catering to every whim of the little prince.
The lord had developed a pattern of irresponsible behavior that could have been his undoing. His saving graces were twofold: He knew how to surround himself with very capable advisors and assistants, and he had a charming personality and a gift for leadership.
Devareaux offered some very useful advice as well. He told me the places to look for Lord Rothchild at different times of the day if he wasn't where he was supposed to be. They were, of course, by no means certain, but hopefully they would be a template I could use to avoid future tests of my jousting skills.
Finally, he turned to go. When he reached the door he said one last thing. "You're an ambitious young lad. You could do well for yourself in this court. "
After my brief period of recuperation, I once again resumed my duties. My hands were full with Lord Rothchild's social and diplomatic calendars, and in addition, he was scheduled to speak to the people in a fortnight.
When the time came, I attended the event, which was rife with ceremony. He stood up to speak from his balcony, looking every bit like a man in his element. His voice boomed across the crowd, and it swayed like a cobra to his seductive thrall.
"The might of Kjeldor shall echo in Balduvian halls. It shall blow across the frozen forests of Fyndhorn like a blizzard. It shall lurk in the darkness, wrapping itself around the throat of the cowardly Lim-Dul. The foes of Kjeldor will scatter like chaff on the wind before our invincible armies.
"In a symbolic gesture of Kjeldor's greatness, on the morrow I shall venture alone into the heart of the forest to slay the vile scaled wurm Rhindle. Its head will grace the town square for all to see, an icon of Kjeldoran pride."
The throng went wild.
"Is there no limit to his greatness?" they murmured. "Kjeldor is truly the mightiest nation Terisiare has ever seen."
After the speech, my apprehension grew. So far, Lord Rothchild didn't seem to have a very good track record of correspondence between word and deed-and I was the one who had to live up to his promises.
My spirits were somewhat assuaged when I accompanied him to practice his fighting skills later in the day.
"How will you kill the creature, Your Majesty?" I asked as we rode to the training grounds.
"Through cunning and guile," he answered. "It will take a minimum of well-placed blows to fell the beast."
Perhaps you can pacify him with cackleberry gin, I wanted to say.
"You worry too much, Finroy. I think it's because you don't drink enough. Or perhaps I should send a girl to your quarters to ease your mind."
"I was only trying to be practical, Sire."
After securing our horses, we assembled on the grounds with some of the finest warriors in the land. Each demonstrated his or her technique to Lord Rothchild while I held the weapons.
The first lesson was in swordsmanship. Straw targets were placed at intervals around the course, and Lord Rothchild was required to demonstrate the abilities he'd learned on each one. He stepped like a dancer across the practice field and with a graceful pirouette plunged the sword into the straw effigies. His maneuvers were bold reinterpretations that bore little resemblance to the originals. Although he rarely missed the stationary targets, I wasn't sure how this would help him kill the creature. I was confident only that Lord Rothchild could expertly slay straw mannequins.
The next phase of his training was archery. The archery master suggested felling the beast with a poison arrow. Lord Rothchild seemed to like the idea but was unable to master the intricacies of archery. Arrows flew hither and thither, but none found their mark. One came dangerously close to hitting the master, and Lord Rothchild called a hasty end to the lesson.
I spent the rest of the day watching him wrestle with pikes and halberds, axes and slings. In the end I'm not sure that any real progress was made, but Lord Rothchild seemed very proud of himself, so of course we all congratulated him.
"I shall cleave the beast's skull with one blow from this mighty axe!" shouted Lord Rothchild, as he raised the weapon above his head and wohbled, slightly off balance.
"Oh, woe to the foes of Kjeldor," I responded nervously.
We packed our belongings into the saddlebags and left the training field. Lord Rothchild told me he was eager to square off against the creature and asked me to bring a bottle of wine and meet him the next morning by the fountain in Rothchild Park. My appetite was gone, and I got no sleep that night.
When morning came, I dressed smartly and headed to the park to see Lord Rothchild off on the glorious hunt. I stopped to buy the wine from Jorgensen, the stuttering priest, and was well on my way by the time the sun had risen. I arrived a half hour early and waited impatiently.
I could not help but think of the glory this deed would bring to Kjeldor and how the Balduvians would tremble when they heard. Then again, there was an outcome I hadn't considered. Lord Rothchild might be eaten by the scaled wurm, and the Balduvians might descend on the weakened kingdom, reducing all of Kjeldor to a smoking ruin. I tried not to dwell on that possibility.
The sun crept higher and higher into the sky, and still Lord Rothchild did not appear. I thought he probably wanted to be off and had taken an early start. I wanted to be sure, though, so after two hours I headed back to the palace to find him.
Wandering the palace grounds, I asked those I met if they'd seen Lord Rothchild. The gardener hadn't seen him. Neither had the maid. I could hear Lady Rothchild conducting her own search for him in a shrill voice.
I searched the archery range, the kitchen, the sitting room, and even the brothel, all to no avail. I made a quick check of the stables to see if Lord Rothchild had taken his horse. I opened the door and stepped inside, where I was greeted with a most disturbing sight.
Blood rushed to my head, and my knees weakened. The only thing I could hear was my heartbeat-loud in my ears. My worst fears were confirmed: Lord Rothchild lay on the floor, snoring loudly, empty bottles strewn about him. There were pieces of straw in his ruffled hair, his shoes were missing, and his pants were on backward. The place reeked of alcohol, and I started to feel light-headed.
I realized that if Rhindle's head failed to appear in the town square by the next morning, Devareaux might put my head on display instead.
Without thinking I ran to the armory, where Lord Rothchild's sword and armor sat sparkling in the dim torchlight. I snatched the sword and bolted outside, my senses blind to the world as I made my way through the narrow streets toward Fyndhorn Forest.
I plunged into the forest, recklessly zigzagging through the trees. The sky was overcast, and the green needles of the conifers and the deep brown leaves of the deciduous trees glowed in muted light. On any other day it would have been a beautiful sight, but today my world was dark, and the only sounds were the leaves crunching under my feet and the pounding of blood in my temples.
For hours I roamed the woods, alternately running and walking. I was prepared to throw myself at the beast, if only it would show itself.
After a while, I stopped to assess my situation. Alternate plans leaped into my head. I would kill the wurm and sever its head. I'd sneak back after dark and smuggle the head into town while everyone was asleep.
I was not trained as a warrior; my one chance was to catch Rhindle sleeping. First I had to locate its lair. Something as big as a scaled wurm would have a hard time finding a place to hide.
But I soon discovered Fyndhorn Forest was a big place.
I searched for places I thought the creature might hide. It would have to be a big pile of leaves or a cave. I came upon no caves. There were dead trees and rocks, but no scaled wurms lurked behind them. I walked around in a daze, fueled only by hope. Hope for what, I wasn't sure. Did I really want to find this creature?
Reality began to overtake me. I could not find the creature, much less slay it. My vision blurred, and hot tears streamed down my face. Frustrated, I dropped the sword and collapsed amongst the leaves. The cold numbed my hands, but I didn't care anymore. I wished the icy chill would overcome me and rid me of my troubles. I lay there not moving, as the wind whipped about me. I wondered how I had managed to get myself into such a hopeless situation. I bemoaned my fate, cursing the gods and my foolishness.
I don't know how long I lay among the leaves, but it soon became apparent to me that the cold was not going to kill me, and I was going to have to face my plight. I arose and picked up the sword, barely able to hold it in my frozen fingers.
Dark shadows had begun to engulf the forest, and a light snow started to fall. Strange sounds echoed about me, like a call to dinner for all the creatures of the woods. I realized that I too had a ferocious hunger-I had not eaten since the previous day.
Without light my chances of killing Rhindle were nil, and my chances of getting killed were almost certain. I hurried back in the direction of town.
I'd never been this deep in the woods before. The cold air stung my lungs, and my chest ached where the lance of Sir Udo had injured me. The trees seemed to take on leathery skin and reach out to touch me. Every mound of moss began to look like the scaled wurm.
Everything started to look the same in the fading light, and an endless parade of trees streamed by me. I maintained my focus and continued toward home.
I made it back relatively quickly. To be accurate, I tore up the miles like a wild buffalo. Soon I could feel the warm embrace of Jornstad and see the dwellings in the distance.
As I reached the edge of town and walked past some of the outlying homes, I hung my head. My body was weak, and my joints ached. I was disgraced and beaten. I'd failed Lord Rothchild and perhaps set the stage for the downfall of Kjeldor.
A great crashing noise from behind jarred me from my thoughts. I heard a terrible splintering and ripping of wood and foliage. It was as though a hundred bolts of lightning had struck the same spot in the same instant.
I spun around to see a medium-sized tree reduced to kindling. Above the debris towered the wicked Rhindle, even more impressive in reality than he had been in all my nightmares. His head was sleek and dragonlike, and his blue scales glistened in the gently falling snow. The massive creature's eyes were pinpoints of fiery orange and spoke volumes about his ferocity. He looked me right in the eye.
The hunter had become the hunted. I dropped the sword and took an instinctive step backward. The beast opened his huge jaws and let loose a roar that shook the firmament. His tail whipped toward me, advancing like a snake tearing through the underbrush and so enormous that it took two full seconds to reach the spot where I stood.
It struck my leg, shattering my right thigh and lifting me off my feet in a short and painful flight. My fall was broken by a dense thicket. Thorns tore at my skin as I hurriedly tried to crawl to safety.
Turning toward the village, I beheld a welcome sight. Alerted by the noise, townsfolk were pouring into the streets, rushing to my aid. Some had swords and bows, but most bore the tools of their trade or whatever else they could turn into a weapon. There were barbers armed with razors, carpenters with shovels, and hunters with harpoons. Some men had picks and shovels, women brought rakes and torches, and all advanced with a fearless determination.
I turned back to regard the beast. I'd put some distance between us, and the creature hadn't moved from the spot where it struck me. It didn't need to. Its long neck extended. The huge jaws descended, and I could feel the creature's hot breath.
One of the townsfolk hurled a short length of firewood at Rhindle, striking it on the nose. The beast instantly closed its mouth and recoiled with a look of incredulity. The log could not possibly have done any damage to such a massive creature, but the beast was stunned that tiny prey such as this would dare to fight back.
Taking advantage of the creature's hesitation, the villagers surrounded the wurm. With each passing moment more people rushed to the scene to help. Town guardsmen fired arrows into the wurm's thick hide. One woman tried to throw salt into its eyes. Children threw stones from a distance.
The creature was confused. Like a spider being swarmed by a thousand ants, there was nothing it could do. It advanced a few yards in one direction, stopped and changed course. The villagers fought more bravely than any well-trained army-they fought like a people defending their home.
The wurm thrashed about, spending more time defending itself than it did advancing on the town. The makeshift battalion continued its frenzied assault until the wurm finally gave up. The creature turned and tore off into the woods, knocking down trees and turning over large rocks in its path.
The brave citizens looked at one another in quiet disbelief. None would have dared believe they could defeat a creature so dangerous. Yet by standing together they'd accomplished what none could do individually.
Some were overcome by relief and awe. Others moved quickly to tend to the injured, who-along with myself-were taken to the healer. Miraculously, no one was killed.
That night a celebration began that lasted five days. Wine flowed freely, and songs were sung to the glory of Kjeldor. Poets composed epic poems commemorating the event. Artisans carved statues and painted life sized frescoes.
The people of Jornstad marveled at the wisdom of Lord Rothchild, who, through confrontation with the wurm, had taught them how to trust in themselves. He was hailed as the hero of the day.
Green is the balance between extremes. Those who favor green are solid people with easy manners. They aren't impulsive, as are those who favor red, or withdrawn like those who favor blue. Those associated with green are socially well-adjusted and organic. They are conventional, yet constantly on the go, and have a taste for the good things in life. Green has, on occasion, been associated with jealousy or inexperience, but those who have a broader understanding know that green is natural, fresh, wise, and comforting, and those characterized by it show a sensitivity to social customs and etiquette. Green provides abundance and resources. It is passive and combative at the same time, and calls to those who want to be grounded in their natural surroundings.
Paul B. Thompson
Steel rang on steel in the crisp twilight. After a brief struggle, two men flew apart, one making futile slashes at the other. The desperate man was soaked to the skin with sweat. A long, shallow cut, more painful than dangerous, crossed his chest from left shoulder to right ribcage. Blood stained his homespun shirt.
His opponent was unharmed. Elegantly dressed and with not a hair out of place, young Joren stood out of reach, casually resting his blade on his shoulder.
"Had enough, Edgur?" he asked.
The wounded man pressed a hand to his bleeding chest. The sight of his own blood inflamed his anger past the point of sanity. With a howl of rage, Edgur charged Joren, sword outthrust. Joren turned aside on one heel, sending his foe plunging headlong into the tall grass outside the clearing. Edgur stumbled, losing his sword when the tip dug into the earth and tore from his grasp. He outran his own feet and fell facedown in the weeds.
No one laughed. Edgur's seconds hurried to their friend's side. Joren's cronies brought him a cup of wine.
"Are you satisfied?" Joren called out as Edgur was hoisted to his feet.
The latter's response was to begin searching the high grass for his lost sword. When his friends stood idly by watching him, Edgur snarled, "Don't just stand there- help me find it!"
His guild friend Artulle folded his arms and said, "No, Edgur. You've had enough. There's no point in going on."
"I'll decide when I've had enough!"
"He's right, you know." Joren tossed his slim rapier to his manservant. "There's no reason to fight on."
"I am the injured party!"
Joren strode over and seized Edgur by his bloody shirt-front. "And I'm the better man," he said coldly. "I should think that would be painfully obvious by now, even to a blockhead like you. Stay away from me Edgur, and stay away from Riliana. If you don't, next time you won't just need a new shirt-you'll need a shroud!"
Joren, his friends, and his servants returned to their waiting carriages. As they whirled away amid the crack of whips and rumble of hooves, Edgur slowly sank to his knees. Defeated. Disgraced. His life was over.
Artulle and Meckie waited for him join them. The hired wagon was costing them a half-korl an hour, money they couldn't spare.
At last Meckie said, "We're leaving, Edgur. Are you coming?"
Slumped on his knees in the grass, Edgur said nothing. Meckie frowned and started to admonish his friend, but Artulle took him by the arm and steered him to the waiting wagon.
"Let him be," Artulle said. "He can walk back to town. Argivia isn't far."
The hired draymaster snapped his reins, and the wagon lurched away. Edgur slid sideways off his haunches and wept bitter tears, not only for losing the duel so ignominiously but for losing Riliana, the love of his life.
The last red rays of the sun died a silent death behind the western hills. A light breeze kicked up, scattering the pale clouds and revealing the night's first wash of stars.
Sword thrust through his belt (he'd lost the scabbard somewhere in the meadow where the duel was fought), Edgur trudged dolefully along the dusty road to Argivia. He had no idea how long he'd lingered alone in the field, weeping quietly over the injustices of his life. At length he mastered his melancholia and found his lost sword. He'd paid good money to Embric the ironmonger for the sword, and he wasn't about to leave it behind.
It was a windy night, and the grass on either side of the road sighed continuously as the wind moved through it. There was no light except the stars, but the sandy road was white enough for him to follow easily. Edgur's sweaty clothes soon chilled him, so he slung on his journeyman's jacket and stuffed his hands in his pockets. The cut on his chest stung like a shirtful of bees.
Ahead the road forked, one lane curving off to the right, which was south, another lane curving to the left through a copse of trees, to the east. Edgur slowed. Which way would take him back to Argivia? He didn't remember passing a fork like this on his way out, but then he was preoccupied on the outbound journey with visions of his hated rival impaled on his blade.
He paused at the junction and tried to figure out which way led back to town. Edgur was born in Epityr and had come to Argivia as a lad to apprentice to the Guild of Coppersmiths. His family had long ago been among the first citizens of Epityr, before Urza and Mishra fought the ruinous Brothers' War. In the upheaval that followed the catastrophic conflict, Edgur's ancestors found themselves reduced to trade. Coppersmithing was Edgur's chance to better himself. Now twenty, he was a third-degree journeyman, but he seldom traveled much outside the city and never at night. He stood staring at the fork, chilled by the night wind. His chest ached. Which way?
The south road wound around a low hill. By starlight he couldn't tell if horses or carriages had come this way recently-the sand was too soft, and any tracks made by Joren's or Artulle's conveyances would have been quickly obscured by the wind. The eastern track was marked by a row of trees on either side of the road. It was plain the trees had been planted by human hands as a windbreak, so he decided the left-hand path must be the road to Argivia. Hitching up his belt, which was sagging under the weight of the sword, Edgur started down the eastern track.
A distant dog howled. He turned back to look over the starlit fields and saw nothing but the vague shadows of clouds passing over the waving grassland. Once under the trees, the night closed in around him. Stars and breeze alike were blocked out by the closely growing cedars. He heard a flap of wings overhead and ducked. There were creatures of the night abroad in the country, creatures unfriendly to lonely travelers. Edgur drew his sword and quickened his step.
Without the wind to mask it, he detected all sorts of rustlings and stirrings in the brush on either side of the road. Edgur skirted first one side, then the other, determined not to let anything spring on him from the shadows. At one point he thought he spotted a pair of glowing green eyes in the ferns and thrust at them with his weapon. A bird flew up, shocking him. It flew away, screeching. Edgur muttered a curse and hurried on.
He was tired. The sword was heavy, his wound throbbed, and he hadn't eaten since noon. His mind went back to the elaborate repast Joren's servants had brought to the duel and spread out on fancy woolen carpets. Joren had offered him cold fowl and white wine then. Edgur haughtily refused his rival's hospitality. Now he'd give his left hand for a bit of roast chicken.
Wait-were those footfalls behind him? Edgur whirled, sword ready. He couldn't see beyond ten paces, but there was nothing to see. Backtracking a bit, he found large, five-toed footprints in the dirt. They were like cat tracks, only much larger and more robust than any cat print he'd ever seen. He knelt beside the tracks and found he couldn't cover the strange prints with his spread hand.
The night was very quiet. Too quiet, in fact-all the crickets had ceased singing, and the stray rustlings in the underbrush were still. Edgur stood up and ran. He didn't know what he was running from, but he was certain he didn't want to find out.
After his initial burst of fear-induced speed, running degenerated into a painful chore. Puffing with fatigue, Edgur slowed, then stopped. It was still eerily calm around him. Facing behind him, he waited and watched, straining every sense to discover who or what was trailing him.
There was a rapid shuffle of feet, followed by a crash off to his right. Edgur had had enough. He shoved his sword in his belt and broke into a hard jog away from his unseen stalker. He hadn't gone fifty paces before he saw a glimmer off the road among the trees. A light! Light meant people.
He made for the north side of the road, expecting to have to cut his way through brambles and brush. To his surprise, Edgur found a neat hole in the hedgerow and evidence of a well-worn footpath, leading directly toward the dim, yellow light. With frequent glances over his shoulder, Edgur made for the small glinting beacon. From its soft color he took it to be an oil lamp. It didn't waver like a flame but gave off a steady amber glow that flickered only because Edgur was darting among tree trunks and hedges.
The narrow path took him straight to a clearing about twenty-five paces wide. Offset from the center of the clearing was a patriarch among oaks, easily twice the size of any other tree in the area. Stout limbs branched off the trunk at low levels. Perched on one limb was a child of undetermined sex, perhaps twelve years old. A lamp rested on the ground below the child's dangling feet.
This was so unexpected a scene Edgur stopped dead in his tracks. The child sat with his (her?) back against the mighty trunk, eyes closed and hands folded. Edgur slowly approached, the unseen menace behind him forgotten. Twelve steps away he stopped again, this time because the child suddenly opened his eyes. Edgur decided he was male.
"Who are you?" demanded the boy.
"A traveler. I've lost my way," Edgur replied.
"You carry a sword."
"For my own protection."
"You were running. I heard you."
Edgur mopped his brow with a handkerchief. "Something was after me. I never saw it, but I found its tracks." He stuffed the kerchief back in his pocket. "What's a sprig like you doing out on his own in the middle of the night?"
"I live nearby." With a single swing of his hands, the boy leaped down from the limb, landing lightly in front of Edgur. He was just five feet tall, slender-almost gaunt-and had vivid green eyes and pale hair. He was dressed in a faded gray shift that came down to his knees. The old garment was threadbare and had been mended many times.
"My name's Dare."
"Edgur." He offered his hand, but the boy stared at it as if he'd never seen the gesture before. "Where's your home, Dare?"
"Over there," the boy said with a vague wave of his hand. "I go where I want and do as I please. I spend a lot of time at this tree."
"Don't your parents mind?"
A throaty snarl interrupted their conversation. Edgur fumbled for his sword, while Dare scampered up the oak tree with the agility of a squirrel.
"You know what's out there?" asked Edgur, putting his back against the tree.
"Panther warrior," said the boy. "He's been after me for a long time."
Edgur started to sweat. "Panther warrior? Aren't they just legends?"
"They're real. I hope there's not a whole pride of them."
Edgur swallowed hard and gripped his sword with both hands. He'd been outfought already today by Joren, and he felt none too confident of his ability to hold off one of the fearsome panther warriors, a twilight race of panther men who haunted the forests of Terisiare.
He said, "I wish I had more light!"
"Take up the lamp if you want," returned Dare.
Keeping his eyes on the darkness, Edgur squatted and felt about until his fingers closed around a smooth, warm rod about as thick as his thumb. It was stuck in the moss at the foot of the tree. He plucked it out easily and brought it up to eye level. Only then did he see it clearly. The lamp was shaped like a snake, about ten inches long and rigid as an axe handle. It emitted a warm, yellow light.
Edgur let out a yell and dropped the glowing reptile. The same time it hit the ground a dark shape moved across the periphery of his vision. Blindly, he lashed out at the moving form and felt the sword tip dig into something yielding. He recovered, and a gut-wrenching snarl, very close, drove him to strike out again.
This time Edgur's blade met real resistance. He leaned against the hilt, and the sword ripped into whatever it was. Something whispered past his face, followed by a spreading sensation of heat. Suddenly there was a crack, and his sword came loose. Edgur found himself tumbling in the dirt. Terrified, he struggled to his feet. The ironmonger's second-best sword had snapped off half its length.
Fingers tapped lightly on his shoulder. Edgur spun around, broken blade out. Dare caught the iron stump in his small, pale hand. In his other hand he held the strange snakelamp.
"Be at ease, Master Edgur. The panther man has fled. "
Breathing hard, Edgur lowered the ruined weapon. "I never even saw him, " he gasped.
"He saw you, all right. " Dare rubbed a finger across Edgur's cheek. He had three parallel scratches on his face, all bleeding. The boy showed him the blood.
Edgur sat down heavily. "It's not been a good day. "
"You saved us both, " Dare said brightly. "I'm happy about that. Aren't you?"
"I'm cut all over, I'm lost, and the love of my life has been taken from me, " Edgur replied.
"I can help you."
Edgur dropped the broken sword and sighed. "I'd appreciate directions back to Argivia."
Dare held the snakelamp close to his chest. "I can do more than that. With my art I can heal your wounds and repair your fortunes."
Edgur raised his head. "You're a sorcerer?"
The boy spread his arms wide. "I am the guardian of this place. The mana of living things flows through me, and for your service to me, I will repay you."
He pointed the glowing snake at Edgur. It seemed to grow brighter as it neared the older man's face. Dare's strange revelations frightened him, but he was too weary to run. Inches from his face, the snake's eyes suddenly snapped open. They were as green as emeralds. Edgur flinched away, but the snake lengthened in Dare's hand until the reptile's head lightly touched his slashed cheek. A flash of heat passed through Edgur. His head reeled, but when he recovered he found his cheek completely healed.
Edgur slipped a hand inside his torn shirt and found his chest wound was gone. There was still dry blood on his shirt, but no scab or wound remained. His chest was as unmarked as it had been when he left Argivia at noon.
He fell to his knees. "I thank you, great one!"
Dare smiled and bade him stand. Edgur got to his feet. Around the clearing the bushes and trees were filled with pairs of glowing eyes, all looking at Dare. Edgur shuddered with the realization he was in the presence of a nature spirit, a tree nymph perhaps, despite his external appearance as a human boy. The eyes, hundreds of pairs, watched in total silence.
"I–I'll be going now," Edgur murmured.
"I've not finished," Dare said. "You had two other requests. I intend to honor them."
He held up a hand, and there was a flutter from the line of trees. An enormous snowy owl settled on the boy's wrist like a tame peregrine. "This is Phreus, one of my sentinels. He will guide you within sight of Argivia, though he may not enter its environs himself."
The owl regarded Edgur with vast black eyes. Edgur blinked; Phreus blinked. Startled, Edgur repeated the motion, and the owl imitated him perfectly.
"Don't mind him, he's feeling playful. Lastly, you've lost your love, I think you said?"
"Uh, yes," said Edgur.
"Who is she?"
"Her name is Riliana." He broke the owl's spellbinding gaze as he formed the image of Riliana's face in his mind. "She's the eldest daughter of my master, Perrick the Coppersmith."
"Does her father approve of you?"
Edgur's face fell. "No. He favors Joren, scion of the house of Homdallson, senior master of the Bookbinders Guild."
"A wealthy and powerful family?"
"Yes, damn them. Joren has every advantage that I lack-a full purse, powerful alliances, manners, education, looks… but I know Riliana loves me and would choose me if Joren were not in the way!"
Dare thrust the rigid snakelamp tail first in the ground and sprang easily to the low limb of the oak tree. The owl flapped silently to a nearby branch and resumed staring at Edgur. The older man followed Dare to the base of the tree, his hands working as he spoke.
"I challenged Joren to a duel," he said, voice rising. "We met in a meadow not far from here an hour before sundown. Wouldn't you know he's had fencing lessons- fencing lessons, while I've spent every waking hour of the past six years learning my trade!"
"Your problem is a simple one," said Dare, drawing his bare knees up to his chin. "You wish to best Joren, do you not?"
The words came out too easily: "I want to kill him!"
Dare's green eyes fixed him with an unerring gaze. "Killing is easy. What takes care is the afterward."
"What do you mean?"
"There are any number of ways to kill your rival. The trick is not to get caught or to be blamed for the deed. Your fair lady cannot wed a man who has a date with the hangman, can she?"
"True… but you have powerful magic, great one. There must be a way!"
Dare's eyes glittered coldly. "Are you sure of this?"
He wasn't, but he thought this might be his best and only chance. "I am," Edgur declared.
"An assassin might do the job." The boy twined his fingers together behind his head. "Humans are unreliable, though. When caught, they tend to talk too much."
"An animal, then? Perhaps a venomous serpent?"
Dare sighed. "Vipers are too random, I fear. They tend to bite whomever they feel like and often just decide on their own not to bite the one man you want them to."
"Even worse. They've no brains at all."
Edgur felt his exultation fading. Even killing Joren was proving too hard for him.
"There is a way-a good way-to remove your rival," Dare said quietly. "It has the benefit of being 'hands-on,' so to speak, and also will shield you from any blame whatsoever."
"What is it?"
"I can provide you with a charm that will allow you to take on the aspects of any animal you choose-a wolf, a panther, a giant constrictor. In that form you will be able to find your enemy and extinguish him."
Edgur pondered the idea with growing excitement. "Yes, that would work! None of Joren's fancy moves or money can save him from a wolf! Riliana will be heartbroken by her suitor's death-"
"And all the more susceptible to the comfort of another," Dare finished for him.
"I'll do it!"
Dare leaned forward, grinning. Edgur was disturbed to see the boy's teeth were shockingly long and pointed.
"What will it be?" he said. "A wolf?"
Edgur averted his eyes from the boy's feral visage. "Uh, no. There aren't many wolves in these parts." He remembered a story he heard in the guildhall kitchen about a bear ravaging local herds of cattle. "I think… a bear. A grizzly bear."
"Excellent choice! There's no fiercer fighter in all the forest." Dare pressed his fingertips together, arching his fingers to create a tent with his hands. A greenish spark appeared between his palms, a spark that rapidly grew larger until it assumed the shape of a convex disk. Dare's youthful brow knotted, and the muscles of his thin arms tightened as he concentrated. The disk became a solid amulet two inches wide, and when Dare ceased his silent conjuration, it fell to the moss at Edgur's feet. He picked it up. It was an emerald of fantastic size and beauty.
"You hold in your hands living mana of the forest made solid. " Dare said. "Half its power will be expended when you use it to transform into a bear. The other half will be needed to make a man of you again. " Dare thrust a finger at Edgur. "Do not lose the amulet! Without it you cannot change into a bear or change back once assuming ursine form. Do you understand?"
"Yes, great one. As a bear, will I have human knowledge and thoughts?"
"Yes, but you may not always act on what you think. A bear is not a man. Remember that. "
Edgur carefully placed the amulet in his coat pocket. When he looked up again, Dare was gone. The bright snake began to lose its glow, and the night rapidly encroached on the clearing once more. A thousand eyes encircled Edgur, but this time he wasn't afraid.
"Thank you, great one!" he shouted. "I'll never forget this!"
The great white owl rose from the oak tree and flapped away, his soft wings inaudible against the rising background of crickets, peeping frogs, and whippoorwills. Phreus circled until Edgur thrust his broken sword in his belt and hurried after the patient bird. The owl's snowy plumage was easy to see even in pitch darkness.
When he was gone, a panther warrior slowly approached the oak tree. His shoulder was bloody, and the end of a crude iron rapier protruded from the wound. The panther crept to the tree and prostrated himself among the gnarled roots.
"Master, I am here," said the panther raggedly. "Did I do well?"
Dare's voice filtered through the sighing oak leaves. "You did well, Aga. You drove the human straight to me and played the stalking panther to perfection."
"You're most gracious, master."
"Pull out the broken blade, Aga, and I will heal you."
Paws were useless for the task, so the panther had to use his teeth. His wound burned fiercely, and he closed his jaw delicately on the ten-inch blade. With a single sideways wrench of his head, the panther warrior drew out the broken blade. His caterwaul carried far in the darkness, raising the hair on Edgur's neck as he hurried home.
Phreus left Edgur at the gates of Argivia. The young man was so excited by his night's adventure he couldn't sleep. He spent the time till dawn writing a passionate love letter to Riliana, predating it a day hence. By then Joren would be dead and Riliana his.
He knew his enemy's habits. Joren divided his evening hours among three taverns: Penkin's, the Acorn amp; Hammer, and the Midus Well. Joren and his cronies would be at Penkin's come sundown. Edgur managed to put in a full day's work at the coppersmithy, brushing off his colleagues' questions about the duel. All was well, he told Meckie and Artulle; the duel was over, and so was his love for Riliana.
He stayed late at the workshop, ostensibly to repair a double boiler sent over from Tanton's distillery. When the shop was dark and empty, he got out the emerald amulet and placed it on his worktable. Even by lamplight the gem was dazzling. Though the surface was smooth, the amulet was faceted internally like a star, each line cleaving from the center to the outside edge. The color was deep and dark, with gold highlights fracturing off the inner facets.
Edgur donned his good jacket and placed the amulet in the inside pocket. He slipped his letter to Riliana under a pile of guild correspondence going out in the morning. The city watch announced the hour. It was time to go.
Penkin's was at the bottom of a steep hill near the harbor. Argivia's harbor had steep, bowl-shaped sides. All the warehouses and businesses catering to the sea trade were sited down in the bowl, while the landlubber residents inhabited the high ground above the harbor. Penkin's was a typical waterfront dive, a gaming house as well as a tavern, much frequented by sea captains and foreign traders. Edgur trod down the steep cobblestone lane, the shore breeze blowing in his face as he went.
He thought about the first time he met Riliana, at the guildhall of the coppersmiths during the Feast of Fruits. He'd not wanted to go, but Meckie, Artulle, and the other journeymen chided and teased him for two weeks until he sullenly decided to attend. Normally he didn't like formal events. Graybeard guildmasters made windy speeches while he suffered in the stiff, uncomfortable guild uniforms. Edgur forgot all that when he beheld Riliana.
Her hair was black as onyx, and her enormous dark eyes spoke of wit, kindness, and passion. He was smitten, and he followed her around the hall like a marionette. She was good-natured about it and even consented to dance with him. Their one slow caper was the most wonderful six minutes of his life. The idyll ended when Joren showed up. Riliana introduced the big sap as her fiance. Joren monopolized Riliana for the rest of that night.
But Edgur didn't give up just because she was engaged. He contrived ways to return to his master's house and steal brief moments with her.
"What will you do if my father catches you loitering here?" Riliana once asked him.
"I'll tell him I love his daughter," Edgur replied simply.
She smiled. "Shouldn't you tell her first?"
Edgur ran straight into the broad back of a sailor idling at the red brick quayside. Muttering apologies, the youth got his bearings and realized he'd walked ten yards past Penkin's tavern. He quickly doubled back. It was still early, and the house was not yet full. Edgur skirted the patrons at the bar and took a dark booth in the corner, facing out so he could see whoever came in. Though he preferred Penregon beer, Argivia was a wine town, so Edgur nursed a flagon of muddy Korlisian burgundy and waited for his rival to appear.
He was in the dregs when Joren and four cronies entered, laughing and calling loudly for dice. The young blades cut a swath through the other gamblers clustered around the dice and card tables. Edgur watched Joren bet and lose more money in a single pass of the dice than he earned in a year.
Wastrel. Spendthrift. And he had the nerve to lay claim to Riliana's hand!
Quite unconsciously he found himself stalking toward Homdallson's heir, flagon hanging at his side, dribbling drops of blood-red wine on the holystoned floor. One of Joren's pals spotted Edgur and dug a warning elbow in his friend's ribs.
Joren straightened, dice poised in his hand. "What are you trying to do, jinx me?" he said. Conversation died when the rest of the gamblers spied Edgur. His grim countenance was plain evidence he'd not come to join the game.
"You?" Joren said breezily. "What do you want?"
"I want you to renounce Riliana."
Joren frowned. "Are you mad? Is that your problem?" To his friends he said, "Here, I beat the poor fool in a pitiful duel that would do shame to a street fair, and he has the gall to accost me in public and demand I give up my fiancee. Now, I ask you, is this man mad or what?"
"He looks distracted," said one of Joren's cronies, "or drunk."
"Give her up, you worthless filth, or the gods themselves will take vengeance on you!" Edgur cried.
"Five korls to anyone who removes this annoyance from my presence," Joren said, bored. A dozen sailors and stevedores rose from their benches, eager to comply.
One of Joren's friends, a dark-skinned Jamuraan, slapped another fellow on the arm and said, "Let's you and me do it, Varno. We'll save Joren five korls. "
Varno, a rugged-looking fellow who wore the emblem of the stonecutter's guild, stood up and replied, "Oh, no. If I do Joren's dirty work, I want the money!"
They advanced on Edgur, who swung his pottery flagon at the Jamuraan. He wore a gold-chased headband, and the cup shattered against it. Before Edgur could put up his hands to fight, Varno knocked him to the floor. There among the boots and slippers of the dice table patrons, he was kicked and hammered by Joren's friends. The beating abruptly ended when Penkin's bar-keep and some of the burly hired help intervened.
"Who started it?" snapped the barkeep, tapping a well-worn oak cudgel against the palm of his hand.
"He did, " said Joren, tossing the man a coin and pointing to Edgur. The coppersmith was curled up in a ball on the floor.
"Right!" With a nod, the barkeep signaled his boys to remove the offender. They grabbed Edgur by his heels and dragged him out the door behind the bar to the profane cheers of the customers.
In the alley out back, the Penkin bouncers beat Edgur with staves, even though he did not fight back or speak out. The barkeep finally ordered them to stop, saying, "Nobody makes trouble in my place. You come here again, you're a dead man. "
The back door slammed shut. Dazed, bleeding from a gash over his right eye, Edgur blazed with inner fury. He propped himself up against the rear wall of the alley and fumbled in his coat with aching fingers for the emerald. Before, he just wanted Joren out of the way. Now he was going to exact a less discriminating revenge.
He found the heavy stone and clasped it to his chest. He wasn't sure exactly how it worked, and he assumed when the time came the transformation would be automatic. For a long time nothing seemed to happen. Edgur clutched the stone so tightly the sharp edges cut into his fingers. One thought raced through his mind: Change. Change. Change!
Raucous laughter filtered through the dark brick walls. The beating and ejection of one poor journeyman didn't disturb Penkin's patrons. Edgur blinked through swollen eyelids at the rear door, four planks strapped with black iron. He struggled to his feet. The emerald slipped from his grip and fell to the dirty cobbles.
His anger still burned deep inside, but outwardly he felt strangely muffled and disconnected. Edgur raised a hand to pound on the rear door of the tavern. He would make them fight him fairly this time… but it wasn't a human hand that swam before his fevered eyes. It was the broad, hairy paw of a huge bear.
Edgur froze. Was this some kind of trick? He had seen no flash of light, felt no surge of power when he willed himself to change. People always said those sorts of things happened when magic occurred, but he had experienced none of it. Holding up his other hand, he found it was a paw as well, tipped with five razor-sharp claws. His heart beat faster. It was true! Praise Dare and his green magic!
Instead of knocking on the door, he demolished it with two blows. His new body was almost too bulky to fit through the doorway, but he wormed inside just in time to confront one of Penkin's servants, arms laden with a washtub full of dirty flagons. The man gazed in horror at the grizzly bear, standing on its hind legs, its head scraping against the dark-beamed ceiling. He was one of the ones who'd beaten and dragged Edgur from the dice table, so the grizzly smacked him on the side of the head with one broad sweep of its paw. The man somersaulted sideways, losing the tub and crashing against the wall. His head was twisted at an odd angle, and his empty eyes stared sightlessly.
The commotion brought more apron-clad servants through the swinging doors. When they saw Edgur, their eyes widened in shock and they scrambled back through the door to the barroom. Edgur dropped to all fours and charged, bursting through the flimsy wooden partition in time to toss two men onto the bar with a shake of his enormous head. The tavern erupted in screams as the brown bear tore in. There was a mad rush to escape, and several of the drunker patrons were trampled by the rest in their haste to depart. Edgur rose up on his hind legs again and waded through the crowd, swatting men like horseflies. One man cowered by the overturned dice table. Edgur batted the furniture aside and picked the screeching fellow up by his shirt. Only then did he realize he'd cornered a woman, a prostitute by the look of her. He had no quarrel with her and set her gently on her feet.
She stopped screaming and stared at the terrifying bear. For a few seconds there was a calm center to the vortex of chaos in Penkin's. Then a fiery pain shot through Edgur's rear haunch. With a roar, he spun and found Joren and his Jamuraan friend backed against the wall with short swords in their hands. Since Penkin's didn't allow sidearms they must have smuggled them in.
There was blood on Joren's blade. He'd stabbed Edgur, running his eighteen-inch blade into the bear's leg. Edgur felt the pain, but it troubled him no more than a pinprick.
Joren paled when he saw the grizzly turn on him. The beast roared, baring yellow fangs three inches long. Shaking its head from side to side, the bear lumbered forward.
"What's a monster like this doing in Argivia?" gasped the Jamuraan, readying his slight blade.
"You're asking me?" Joren replied. He lunged, jabbing his point at the bear's eyes. Edgur swatted the sword tip away.
"Did you see? He set that whore back on her feet and didn't harm her," the Jamuraan said. "Maybe it's a tame bear?"
Edgur flung a broken tabletop at Joren and his friend. Joren lost his sword when it became imbedded in the table.
"He disarmed me!" cried the astonished young man. "Adal, give me your sword!"
"What? What will I fight with?"
"Never mind that-give me your sword, Adal!"
The Jamuraan reluctantly handed his weapon to Joren. Edgur advanced. Joren lunged, hoping to drive his short blade through the bear's heart. Edgur twisted away from the sword tip and brought his powerful paw down on Joren's sword arm. Joren screamed as the bone audibly snapped.
Adal swung a chair leg at the bear. Edgur brushed this feeble attack aside and thrust his claws at the Jamuraan. With a simple scooping motion, he eviscerated Adal. Only Joren was left.
The richest young man in Argivia crawled on his knees with one hand toward the door, cradling his shattered arm close to his chest. Edgur stood over him, blowing hot breath down Joren's back. Joren collapsed, rolling on his back.
Edgur stood astride him and roared, "Now you die, worthless parasite! I, Edgur, will kill you!" No one understood him, for he could only make the inarticulate sounds of a bear.
He grasped Joren in both paws and hoisted him into the air. Joren fainted with terror and the pain of his broken arm, so Edgur shook him awake.
Eye to eye with a ferocious, implacable grizzly, Joren shrieked, "Let me go! Let me go, I'm too rich to die!"
Edgur did let him go-he dropped him, and before Joren hit the floor he thrust his claws under his rival's chin. With a shocking rip, he tore Joren's head from his shoulders. The lifeless body fell to the floor, and Joren's head, no longer handsome, landed on the bar and rolled to a stop among the overturned cups.
Penkin's was empty. Exultant with his terrible deeds, Edgur had only to revert back to human form in some quiet, out of sight place, and his revenge would be complete. Dropping to all fours, he waddled back through the kitchen and into the alley. All he had to do was use the emerald again.
But where was it? As a bear, he had no pockets, no place to keep the vital gem. He pawed through his clothing now lying torn apart in the gutter. No emerald! Frantically Edgur searched the alley from side to side. His bear eyes were not very strong, but his nose was keen, and he soon found the lost gem in the shadows by the tavern's slop buckets.
Bells clanged in the street beyond, and he heard shouting and the clamor of armed men. Survivors from the tavern had summoned the town watch! Edgur frittered away precious seconds trying to take the emerald in his paws, but they were too clumsy to pick up and hold the gem. The shouting was getting louder. As a last resort, Edgur lapped up the jewel with his tongue. It was hard and sharp in his mouth.
Lamplight flooded the alley. "There it is!" a voice shouted. Bowstrings hummed, and a volley of arrows flickered down the alley. One struck Edgur in the left shoulder. He groaned, careful to keep his mouth closed. With a sudden burst of speed he tore through the band of watchmen into the side street. There were at least a hundred people gathered there with torches and makeshift weapons. At the sight of an eight-hundred-pound grizzly, bleeding from wounds on its left leg and shoulder, the mob yelled and hurled brickbats, bottles, and stones. Edgur turned away and galloped up the hill. Fortunately the mob impeded the city watch and their bowmen.
He tore past the closely packed houses, startling the life out of an old gentleman in a white nightcap who opened his door to empty his chamber pot in the gutter. A blood-soaked grizzly whizzed past, and the old man stumbled backward, dropping the jar on his own doorstep.
Edgur's leg and shoulder ached. The mob was hard on his heels. Where was an alley he could duck into? He needed a few minutes' respite to change back into a man. The emerald, slick and hot in his mouth, rattled against his teeth as he ran. He was terrified it would shatter if he was to stumble.
He topped the hill, forty yards ahead of his pursuers. The harbor lay spread out below, gleaming with a thousand lamps and lanterns. Major thoroughfares in Argivia ran parallel to the shoreline, but the intersecting road he'd reached was no help. To the left was the street of the leather vendors, to the right, the forges and furnaces of Ironmonger Lane. Edgur ran straight across. This was Lanyard Street, where the ropemakers had their shops. If he kept going in this direction, he'd eventually reach the city gate.
Arrows beat on the pavement at his heels, spurring him onward. To his increasing fear, he saw masses of torches flanking him on other streets. The mob was trying to cut him off. He paused to look back and saw the ranks of the city watch had swelled to more than fifty. Even as he looked on they lofted arrows at him.
An awful noise rose from the adjoining streets. Householders were turning out, banging their pots and pans and shouting. Edgur turned away from the side street when he saw it was full of housewives armed with carving knives and ropemakers wielding hatchets. He galloped a few yards into the next street, but his left leg failed, and he tumbled to the pavement. Before he could get up, a gang of yelling boys threw a heavy net over him. Men on horses had hooks and ropes attached to the net, and they pulled it tight, so he couldn't move.
The street filled with torch-bearing Argivians, quiet now that their quarry was caught. The city watch pushed through the crowd and surrounded the bear, pikes leveled and bows drawn.
Edgur could not change back now. If he suddenly resumed human shape, the people would slay him where he lay, city watch or no watch. No, he had to be patient. Perhaps if he acted passively they would cage him up, and once alone, he could return to his natural form.
The captain of the watch was haranguing the crowd. Whose bear was this? Where did it come from? No one knew.
"It must have come from somewhere! Bears don't just roam the streets of Argivia!" shouted the irate captain.
A middle-aged man in long robes appeared. He had the pale skin and soft hands of a man who read books all day, and Edgur saw him approach carefully. The captain and the robed man exchanged whispers. Edgar grew cold with fear. If this man was a wizard, his plot would be unmasked for sure.
— something unnatural about this beast," the pale man muttered.
"What are you saying?" asked the captain.
"I'm saying this animal could be bewitched. It should be killed without delay."
Edgur began to struggle. He rolled over on his back with such force he toppled one of the horses keeping the net lines taut. A flurry of arrows punched into his hairy hide. Edgur bawled with the pain, and Dare's jewel slipped from his mouth.
"Hold!" shouted the captain as the gem clinked on the cobblestones. Gingerly he leaned in to retrieve the amulet.
Edgur watched helplessly as the key to his metamorphosis was taken away.
"What do you make of this?"
The pale man examined the stone. "It's a diamond," he said. "Of the first water. The clearest specimen I've ever seen."
Diamond? Clear? What had happened to the green magic?
"The animal had it in its mouth," said the captain.
"There's your proof," said the apparent sorcerer. "Gems are often used in enchantment spells."
As Edgur's life ebbed, he tried to summon the image of his lost Riliana in his mind. She did not remain long. The last thing he saw, before the pikemen finished him off, was the face of the trickster Dare, laughing. Somewhere he was enjoying his jest.
Riliana, veiled in black, departed the funeral of her late fiance Joren in an open coach. It was a fine day despite the grim business of the morning, and she relished the sunshine as an antidote to her sadness. A small wicker tray was laden with letters addressed to her, no doubt condolences from her friends and relations.
"Lady," said the coachman, "I hope you don't think it forward of me, but we'll be passing near Bowline Square."
"The monster bear that slew Master Joren is on display there," he replied. "The city watch gave the carcass to the Ropemakers Guild in recognition of their catching the beast."
"Why should I want to see it?"
He tugged his forelock respectfully. "I thought it might do you good to see the culprit's fate, lady."
Riliana knew her coachman was curious to see the enormous bear everyone in Argivia was talking about. It brought no pleasure to her heart to think the carcass of the poor mad beast was on display, but the coachman would be more careful and appreciative if she indulged him, so she allowed him to detour to Bowline Square.
With an elegant ivory letter opener, Riliana broke seal after seal on the letters in the tray. Each was full of the usual platitudes and the empty rhetoric of regret. After three in a row that essentially said the same thing, she set the rest aside unopened. One letter remained.
"My dearest love," it began. Who wrote this? She turned the page over and saw Edgur's copper-engraved signet. A flush came to her face. "This will be a difficult day for you-"
"Whoa," called the coachman, drawing hard on the reins. The carriage stopped. The crowd was very large and surprisingly orderly. They couldn't drive any closer than the edge of the square. The coachman stood on his seat, trying to see the infamous man-killing bear.
"I see something hanging from the gibbet," he said, shading his eyes, "but it doesn't look like a bear. "
"It's not a bear, " said an old woman at the edge of the crowd. "Haven't you heard? When the sun came up this morning, the watch found a dead man hanging in place of the bear. He has all the wounds the bear had, they say. "
"A man?" Riliana said. She stepped down from the coach. Overnight she had accepted the verdict that her fiance had been slain by a wild animal. There was talk the bear had come ashore from the harbor, searching for fish. Grizzlies were powerful swimmers. Now they were telling her a man killed Joren?
"Let her through!" said the coachman as Riliana walked forward like a somnambulist. "Her husband-to-be was killed last night by the bear!"
Murmuring, the crowd slowly parted for the mourning girl. She was aware of a blur of faces beyond her veil, of softly expressed condolences and bluntly curious stares. Riliana walked on, indifferent to the closely packed people around her.
The timber frame erected to display the dead bear was a good seven feet tall. Stout ropes were looped over the top timber, and the grizzly had been hoisted up to a standing position by ropes tied under its front legs. Riliana drew off her heavy veil. The old lady was correct- the bear was gone. In its place was the naked corpse of a man, a man she knew well: Edgur the coppersmith.
Loren L. Coleman
Already muted by cloud cover, little direct light penetrated the bayou's thick canopy. It fell in thin, lackluster beams that threw shadows and gleamed dully off black and brackish waters. Tendrils of land reached into the darkness, thin bridges that connected small hillocks and some larger spans of wet ground. The mournful cry of a marsh ibis caught in a caster's web rolled through the bayou.
Temken paused, feeling eyes upon him, and rested his leather satchel on the marshy ground next to his feet. His sharp eyes penetrated the bayou's gloom, nostrils tested the cool, dank air, searching. No movement, but for a chill draft stirring among the tall grasses and the gray moss that cascaded from overhead limbs into stagnant pools of water. No tree shapings or signs of organized care for the land. No scent of cookfires or the flower-scented paths commonly marked out by warriors and scouts.
No sign of other elves.
Still, the land called to him. Beneath its own pain and suffering it whispered a promise that he walked the right path. Here, close by, he would find others-Survivors- those he had come to gather. The corrupt pallor draping this land cloaked them from view. Temken reached out as the dreams had instructed, feeling for the power inherent in the lands, and seized that which nurtured life, drawing it, channeling it, to reveal what the darkness hid from his normal senses. Though not the uplifting experience of nature's pure strength, the bayou provided enough mana for his purposes.
Temken was surprised by how close she sat, resting against the wide bole of the very cypress that stretched its limbs over him. The shadows retreated, leeched away by his summoning of the bayou's limited life-force, just enough to reveal her outline. For a brief moment he imagined a darker shadow hovering behind her, the sinister essence of darkness itself trying to summon the strength to oppose him. Then it too was lost, fled back into the bayou. The other elf shifted only slightly in the realization that her cover had been stripped. She moved, not to flee or to embrace her clanfolk, but with the simple resignation of a minor concern.
"Yes, I am here," she said, voice weary, slurring the usual melodic speech of the elves. "What words do you have for me?"
A touch of despair over the cold greeting trailed through Temken's heart, but he quickly banished it because of the importance of his quest. He stepped forward, deeper into the tree's embrace, and knelt into the marshy soil in front of her, ignoring the clammy wetness that soaked at his knee. Shocked by what he saw, he fought to keep concern from ruling his face or voice. He knew her vaguely. That was to say that he remembered her from Before-he a juvenile, scout apprentice, and she barely an adult but already a sentry. A century had brought them both into the long twilight of middle age enjoyed by most elven races, but while Temken had finally found a purpose in the After, bringing together the Survivors, it was clear that she had allowed a sense of despair to invade even her personal life. No need for magic; it was written in her appearance. Fatigue etched hollows beneath her opaline eyes and the sunken cheeks of malnourishment left her with a haunted expression. Her dark hair was wild and tangled with bits of moss and mud-the detritus of bayou living. The ceremonious words with which he had opened scores of previous reunions fled him. She obviously saw no cause for celebration in his arrival, and so Temken opted for a simple offering of warmth and hope until his mission could be explained better.
"I've come to bring you home, Gwenna."
Her gaze burned into Temken, eyes reflecting the pain still wrapped up in her memories.
"Argoth is destroyed," she said, immediately putting into so few words what most Survivors could not stand to even think. "We have no home."
Skirting the edge of the wetter portion of the bayou, Gwenna led Temken from the sentry post where she had awaited his coming to the village she and the others had settled. The shadow flitted at the edges of her vision and consciousness, always a presence lurking in the darker recesses of her mind. Gwenna chose paths most times at random, rarely by memory. Trails could change with the latest rainfall, wiped away or made treacherous to the point of mortal danger, and the ever-changing territories of the local predators always made it prudent to vary one's attendance to the trails. At one point the pair found their way blocked by a large web, easily twice the height of the elves. The remains of a few unfortunate creatures were spun into preserving wraps for later feeding. A spicy scent, lure for the less intelligent creatures, rose in the air about them.
"We've lost two young ones to the webs over the years, " she said in a monotone as they backed away from the site. "Be careful. Those strands are hard to cut, even with the sharpest blade. "
Temken was visibly startled. "That's the circle of life, " he said. "Still, I grieve for our loss. "
Our loss. Gwenna did not miss the way Temken automatically included himself. She remembered the courtesies and social law of Argoth-what affects one affects all. But instead of feeling appreciative for his consideration, she knew pain for the memory.
"We are no longer protected, " she said quietly. Stronger, she added, "We never really were. "
Certainly they had thought so. That was the lie to it all-the great lie that Gwenna had seen exposed in so short a span of years that she still reeled from the shock of its memory. Argoth, island paradise tended by the elves and ruled by Titania, avatar of Gaea. The law governed them, and Titania protected them. So thoroughly had Gwenna believed in that protection that she helped a human, cast down with his flying machine onto Argoth's beach, certain that even if he could escape the storms, Argoth would remain secure.
Her mercy cost the Argothians everything.
The human returned, bringing others with their saws and picks and shovels, their smelters and forges. Their war. Their incredibly vicious war, as two powerful brothers fought for dominance, in the process ruining that which the victor would have taken possession of anyhow. The island's precious resources were ripped from Gaea's womb as the air turned foul with smoke. The inhabitants of Argoth were caught between two mighty armies, one of which they might have held back, but not both. Gwenna remembered Titania herself weakening, dying. Then the flame-haired woman offered them the chance to strike back where the army of Urza was vulnerable. The target was the virtually unprotected mainland.
Gwenna still wasn't sure how many warrior enclaves finally accepted the offer-dozens, certainly. Her own band had been in the process of attacking an inland city when the southeast horizon suddenly glowed with an unnatural sunset. The Argothian elves heard Titania's final scream, Gaea's own cry, as their homeland was shattered by whatever final cataclysm the Brothers' War had released. The earthquakes and tidal waves, and the dark years which followed, were pitiful epilogues to that one terrible moment.
Guessing her thoughts, Temken placed a hand upon her arm and gently squeezed.
"We can never have what was Before," he offered, "but we can build again. The Survivors are building again."
The warmth of his hand, even through her damp tunic, allowed Gwenna to feel Temken's belief, if but for a second. In that moment she wanted to believe him, to believe in him. Then the shadow loomed at the side of the path, chilling her. What could Temken offer that Titania had been unable to give? Nothing. More false promises, that was all he brought.
"Titania is dead," she said, feeling the void inside and wanting to-needing to-share it. She swallowed against a coppery taste, her throat raw and constricted. "Gaea has abandoned us."
"But she hasn't," Temken insisted. Taking Gwenna by the elbow, he pulled her to a halt there on the path. "Wounded these many decades, she has still found a way to speak to us. She brought us the gift of knowledge by which we have found ways to find each other and to protect ourselves in the After."
He stepped off the trail into a patch of sparse, wet grass that bordered a small puddle of muddy, insect-choked water. Laying a hand on the ground, right where a beam of gray light had worked its way past the dense growth above, he half closed his eyes in concentration.
A sense of foreboding washed over Gwenna, warning her. The bayou dimmed, drawing out the darker shadows and teasing them into a shroud that discolored the land. Her head swam, and something deep within her mind spoke of danger.
"Don't," she said, reaching out to shake Temken by the shoulder.
Gwenna's warning went no further. Beyond her fingers, she suddenly saw a green glow radiating from within Temken, bleeding down his arm into the ruined land. In the recesses of her mind-which usually held the sin of her mercy on Argoth and the consequences it reaped- she instead saw visions of dense forests and snowy taiga. Temken raised his hand, and beneath it a new shoot of vibrant green had broken earth. It grew, blossomed, and flowered in mere seconds; an orchid with petals of jade and lavender pistils.
Already, though, the dark force that had been stalking them since Temken entered the shadows rallied to the challenge. The darkness danced at the edge of Gwenna's vision, and she saw the flower begin to whither and die, as Titania had done. Gwenna felt the elven mage tense beneath her touch, bending in closer to the stricken flower. He now appeared to share some kind of special relationship with his creation, drawing from it to strengthen his own aura, which flowed back into the jade orchid and resurrected it.
Gwenna's mind clouded. She felt the need to destroy this thing of beauty-this threat to the shadow-that marred the bayou's perfection. She caught herself in mid-reach. Only her physical contact with Temken, and therefore an association with the magic he commanded, intervened and left her hanging in the balance. She knew that to resist was futile and would mean punishment. One did not defy the shadow, especially her. But Gwenna was also a child of Gaea, and to intentionally mar such beauty as the orchid was not easily accomplished. She pulled back, daring to believe Temken for even the briefest moment.
The punishment came swiftly.
Darkness broke over and around them both in a wash of despair. Gwenna fell away to the muddy trail, physically sick. She watched as Temken glanced up in confusion, his concentration obviously broken, tears rolling down his cheeks as the orchid first lost its coloring then rotted on its stem. He tried to speak, but no words issued from his mouth. Gwenna shook her head.
"No building again," she said, voice laden with the tears her eyes no longer cried. "We can none of us leave. It will never let us." Then the shadow passed again.
Temken's eyes rolled back, and he pitched forward, collapsing into the muck.
Calling the collection of ramshackle huts and utility buildings a village was optimistic to Temken's way of thinking. The clearing looked up to a gray, moisture-laden sky, but the poorly thatched roofs could not possibly keep out anything stronger than a morning dew. Walls were full of holes. No one thought of or bothered to make a mud and straw mortar to fill the irregularities between branches. Certainly mud would not be hard to come by here. Doors were commonly a piece of hide stretched over a light frame and leaned into place over one of the larger openings. The huts sketched out a crude circle, which might have been considered a rough tribute to nature's cycle except for the large opening that framed a path leading deeper into the bayou. At least the ground here appeared drier, though Temken wondered if that might simply be relative to his own muddied and sodden state.
It was not quite the way he had intended to make his entrance, he and Gwenna leaning against each other for mutual support as they hobbled into the encampment. His head throbbed, and he could only imagine his appearance-disheveled and feeling the worse for whatever had come over him. Even so, he had expected something more than the indifferent looks the other elves gave him.
No words of welcome, no questions after kinfolk who might have been part of Temken's enclave. He read their harsh lifestyle in the gaunt and drawn faces as much as in the poverty of their living. Resignation and defeat shadowed their features, even the young ones who were obviously born in the After. Not for the first time since entering this forsaken land, he wondered why they remained here. The plains to the north were dying as the climate turned worse every year, but certainly there were more hospitable stretches of forestland nearby or the coastal regions to the nearby south. If the ocean reminded them too much of what they had lost, at least it would provide nourishment until a suitable refuge could be located. Why did they stay here? Another question answered him, swimming up from the depths of his mind, teased up by the shadow dancing at the edge of his consciousness. Why not? That was not an answer, though. He refused to accept it, and the shadow retreated.
What had happened to him back along the trail?
Gwenna slowed to a halt, tested her own balance, and then stepped away from Temken to let him stand on his own.
"This is Temken," Gwenna introduced him for the benefit of those who did not remember him as a youth. "He will be staying."
There were nods all around.
"Only as long as necessary," he amended Gwenna's remark.
More nods, though to Temken they still seemed to be agreeing with Gwenna. A day, maybe two. Just to rest, he told himself, though earlier he had not planned on remaining one night in the bayou.
"There are other Survivors. They are heading west- to warmer forests, we hope. But we'll be together," he finished weakly.
"We're already together," Gwenna said, though she did not sound certain of herself. Quick nods bolstered her confidence.
She stepped over to a large pot simmering over an open fire, a community cooking area, the charred ground showing the remnants of other fires. Someone handed her an implement, and she dipped out a ladle of broth, shocking Temken by not offering it to him first as a guest. Instead she drank deeply. He covered his surprise by wiping mud from the long braids hanging before his left ear, then tucked them back over his shoulder. Gwenna drank again, then handed Temken the ladle. As their hands touched she blinked in sudden confusion, as if suddenly at odds with her own violation of custom, but she shrugged it off.
Temken reminded himself of how long these Survivors had been cut off from others, of the conditions under which they currently lived. He nodded thanks to Gwenna, to the person tending the fire, and then pulled a deep ladle from the pot. He noticed the grisly meat swimming in the brown broth and decided that if he questioned its source he might not get a comforting answer. He slopped a bit over the ladle's rim, splashing it to the ground in an offering to Gaea, and sipped the rest cautiously. Over the ladle's rim he saw reactions to his libation-the briefest touch of surprise and even anger for his waste of good broth. To a forest people, he thought his ritual offering to the nature goddess should still be known if not commonplace.
"He'll need a home," the fire tender said, glancing about the village. "There might be room to squeeze him in over there." He nodded toward two huts with just enough spacing, away from the opening toward the bayou's heart.
Temken lowered the ladle from his lips. "I won't need a home," he said, confused.
He sipped again at the weak, fatty broth. Darkness wrapped about the area, but Gaea's song, dim but recognizable, pierced the gloom and brought back to mind memories of cleaner lands: the whisper of a breeze among willows, the creak of tree limbs rubbing over a clear, gurgling brook. Handing back the ladle to the tender, Temken glanced at Gwenna and drew in a steadying breath of the dank air.
"I'll be looking for more Survivors soon, on my way westward. I hope you'll come with me."
They met his invitation with frightened looks of concern and sidelong glances.
What had happened to him, back along the trail? It seemed an important question. Unfortunately, Temken had no good answer. Marsh gas, or simple fatigue? He remembered feeling ill. He remembered the shadow collapsing after the failure of his spell. He'd lain in the foul-smelling muck, looking to Gwenna. Her words, soft and despairing… We can none of us leave. Hadn't there been something more? He couldn't recall.
Gwenna remained rooted to her spot near the fire, watching Temken with a mixture of sorrow and despondency. She nodded to him as he looked her way, as if confirming his thoughts. Gaea's calls had led Temken to her specifically, not the village. She was the key, but how to turn it? The two stared at one another, the first searching, and the other becoming more pale and insipid. Rather than infect her with a yearning to quit the bayou, to return with him and bring her enclave, even now Temken could feel the pull to remain. They had no home, not really. Gwenna was correct about that. But did it have to be that way? Everything had its place in nature, hadn't it? He remembered the death of his spell, the orchid, and the sorrow it brought him.
We can none of us leave.
Why not? What was he missing?
Gwenna felt Temken press up to her, standing behind and reaching around to grasp her wrists in order to better control their movement. Eyes closed, she tried to follow his whispered directions, forgetting or placing aside all sensations but her reach for the land's mana. Forgoing sensation was not the difficulty, not for her- bayou living had made such a task easy. Only the warmth of his touch against her bare wrists offered any amount of distraction. But she couldn't visualize the bayou's life-giving side when her memories of the dank and dismal place fought against it. Even now its rotten scent clung to them, reminding Gwenna of the cold place of shadow where they had-chosen? — to live after Argoth's destruction.
Temken stretched her right hand forward. "There, " he said, voice soft but intense, "the living force of the bayou. Growing trees, plants, animals; the never-ending cycle of life. It's Gaea's song, as you heard it, before. "
She didn't hear it. And, if she understood his explanation, she couldn't remember ever hearing it, which could be a problem. Also she did not favor keeping her eyes closed, shutting off her best warning of the danger that the bayou could visit on them at any time. In her mind's eye, the darkness encroached upon them, drawing tighter every time they tried to call upon the magic of the land.
"I can't touch it, " she said, resigned. Deeper within her mind, she also knew that she didn't want to touch it and shouldn't be trying. She wouldn't have been, except for the reserve of energy that Temken seemed able to tap into for them both. "It's not there. "
"It is, " he insisted. "You've seen it once already. "
"It's not there for me, " she said, squirming within his embrace. Still, the memory of the orchid almost made her believe until the shadow's touch fell over her and dimmed the memory again.
Temken's grip tightened on her wrists. "It has to be, " he said. Then quieter, he observed to himself, "There must be a reason I was led to you first. "
From Gwenna's point of view, it was she who had come to meet Temken.
"I was sent, " she began slowly, then grew confused as if a dark shroud had suddenly been pulled across her mind. She saw no use in arguing the point. Frustrated and tired, she saw little use in continuing the exercise. "Let it go, Temken. Magic is just one more false promise. "
"Have you forgotten Titania? The Citanul druids?" He spun her around. "Magic is a part of our lives, just as it was then. "
Opening her eyes, Gwenna caught the expression of concern that had taken control of Temken's face. His eyes pleaded with her to believe-to try. Her gaze twitched away involuntarily, searching the darkness beyond the isolated clearing and finding the bayou's shadow looming over all the elves had built, dampening their lives.
"It didn't help any of us, " she said listlessly.
Eyes narrowing, the elf mage glanced back over his shoulder, following Gwenna's own gaze into the darkness.
"Let it go," she whispered again, tired and imploring.
"No." He didn't sound as certain of himself as before. His hazel eyes blinked their doubts. Then his voice grew stronger. "The potential exists within you and has to be the seed of your release. Try again." He guided her back around, keeping hold of her right hand, and moved up beside her, stretching his own right hand out ahead of them both. He glanced to her face and frowned. "You have to trust me, Gwenna."
Trust did not come easily in the bayou, but Temken's touch wore away at the despondency that blanketed their lives. The darkness rallied, forcing itself in on her, but a temporary breeze through the overhead canopy rustled leaves and branches and brought to her the faint touch of nature's song. Gwenna seized upon it and nodded to Temken, uncertain and apprehensive, then closed her eyes again, reaching out. This time she felt a familiar pull, as before when Temken reached into the bayou to bring forth the orchid. He was channeling the land's mana and allowing her to feel it course through him.
"Accept it," he whispered. "Allow Gaea's power to work through you toward the beauty of life's never ending cycle. Find in your memories the strength you remember from other lands you've passed through- other lands that touched you and you touched in return. This place has similarities to those if you look."
Gwenna tried, and as the darkness began to glow a subtle green she fought for any memories that might banish the pervasiveness of the decaying bayou-that might banish the shadow.
But it was not so easily dismissed.
Despair roiled up under the surface of Temken's promise, challenging the place he had won inside Gwenna's mind. Dark energy touched her, washed over her in a stronger wave than Temken's meager offering. The shadow moved through her, never long enough to make itself completely known, but a presence nonetheless filled with raw power. Gwenna felt the clammy touch of death against her left hand, in her heart and mind, coursing through her veins, threatening to burst if she did not find some way to release it. She struggled against it, despising its basic nature but unable to throw it off. She did not want it. She had never truly wanted it, and she would do anything now to be rid of it.
The power surged against the life-force running through Temken, overwhelming and consuming them both. It bound the two of them together, draining away strength. Gwenna opened her eyes and stared into the face of Temken as he paled and gasped for a sudden lack of breath. The elven mage jerked away, breaking his bond to Gwenna in an effort to stave off the pain invading his own body. The dark rush of power faded. The two staggered to their knees.
"It hates," she said weakly, the vestigial memories of this attack and others remaining with her. "It needs. It will never let us go."
Then the veil fell back into place, churning her thoughts to mask its own intrusion and leaving in place the well of sorrow and loss that Gwenna had carried with her since Argoth's ruin. Suddenly at a loss for words for what had just happened, she watched as Temken struggled to his feet. He looked at her strangely, a mixture of pity and dawning horror.
"I know it now," he said, voice cracked and weak. Without further word or expression, he turned and walked from her, into the dark embrace of the bayou.
Clinging muck squelched with Temken's every step in protest of his passage until the peninsula of marshy ground ended abruptly, plunging into the black and fetid waters of the bayou. A light, patchy mist roiled the surface, chill and clammy as ghostly tendrils worked their way through the seams in his trousers. Lonely cries sounded to his right, then left as a pair of mist lynxes challenged each other. A black-feathered marsh ibis glided by, then soared upward in an attempt to penetrate the thick canopy.
Temken settled back on his haunches, shaking off the draining effect that had channeled through Gwenna. He still felt its dark touch trailing icy claws along the base of his spine, clutching at his heart, clouding his mind. It hates, she had said. It needs. A malevolent intelligence was working through her. It was keeping her-keeping them all, he was sure-imprisoned within the bayou. Something slithered up from the waters, crossing the muddy ground behind him, and paused with its sense of his body heat. Temken whispered to it a piece of Gaea's song, urging the viper along its way. Never once did he need to turn and look at it, so attuned to nature's forces around him. In this same manner the elf mage knew his adversary was not of nature and so was not truly alive. A blind spot in the preternatural sight gifted him with the wielding of the land's magic. As a worker of the forest's mana, Temken had recognized in the bayou its sources of nature's magic. He had ignored its darker aspects, a mistake that had proven near fatal today.
He glanced over his shoulder and found the lights of the village cookfires, a distant and dim glow between trees and brush. Far enough, he decided, wanting no distractions. Temken swallowed against the taste of mildewed plantlife, now acutely aware of the aura of death that held the bayou in its grip, and prepared his casting. A cascade of stringy, bilious green moss blocked most of his view to the right. The living waterfall turned black and was decaying where it met the water's scummed surface. He focused on it, drawing mana from first the bayou's living side and then from his memory of Kroog's struggling young forests and the frozen taiga north of Argive. He took it into him, feeling the suffusing glow of life and turned his focus on the hanging moss.
It responded immediately. New color brightened central fronds and then spread outward and down. Rotted stringers reformed, growing thicker with new life until the entire cascade of vegetation was once more vibrant with Gaea's energy. Against that backdrop of nature, within the twisting strings of moss, Temken looked for Gaea to tell him the name of his adversary. The first stage to understanding a battle, was to name your opponent.
Shadow. Simply shadow.
Temken frowned, having expected more. Nothing could pass through the world without Gaea's knowledge, without leaving behind some kind of imprint-even a noncorporeal force. Unless Gaea, too, suffered a blinding to things not of nature. The thought unsettled Temken who believed Gaea's power absolute. Magic was derived from the living lands of the world. What was Gaea if not the essence of all things living? Bleak despair swam in his thoughts, and Gwenna's words whispered up from the depths of his mind. False promises. Lies.
But not Gaea's lies, the shadow's!
Its intrusive presence could be felt, almost measured in the amount of misery welling within him. Shifting his focus, Temken drew upon the mana already at his disposal to enshroud and protect him. A sublime warmth flooded his veins, giving strength and clarity of thought, driving out the despair and sorrow that for a moment had intruded. Temken cast nature's energy outward, scattering it over the landscape. In his preternatural vision, he saw pieces of the magic attach themselves to that which was living-nurturing and strengthening. The magic also attacked that which opposed it: the disease and decay inherent in the dark side of the bayou, in the plague-ridden insects and swamp rats, and in the life-draining miasma. The shadow.
It hovered there, not ten arms' lengths off his left shoulder. The frosty mist curled up to cloak what would have been the feet and legs on a normal creature. Upward from there ran the blackness. It was not a true shadow, not the absence of direct light. Instead it was evil-foulness and corruption somehow made incarnate here in the bayou. It turned and twisted, as if swatting out the magic attacking it like an insect. It folded in upon itself, at times almost corporeal, at other moments merely an indiscernible piece of night broken off from the rest.
Then it was gone.
His senses charged, Temken caught the wave of surprise and loathing that rolled off the shadow before it flitted away faster than his mortal eyes-elven or not- could follow. But there was more: alarm, the hint of fear at being discovered. How many years had it been since anyone had looked upon it? How many lives had been consumed by this thing of evil? Now it stood exposed, and if it was afraid, then it could be defeated. Temken took heart from its panicked flight.
His courage was ripped from him by the soul-rending scream that shook the bayou.
This time it did not take the shadow's influence to cast a pallor over the elven mage. He had acted too soon, he realized. Weak from the last attack, his defenses only half-ready, he had challenged the shadow and set it loose upon the village of Survivors. It hated, and it was afraid. In nature, no beast was so terrible as when it was cornered.
Another scream came, a solitary call of pain and anguish. Temken heard no answering challenge from the elves, no wails of sorrow or anger. There was merely a despondent silence, interrupted only by the cries of the victims. The elf rose, his jaw clenched and muscles tight. He spat against the foulness of the bayou's corruption.
This was no way to live, domesticated prey to some unnatural force. One way or another, he would find a way to set these Survivors free to rejoin the cycle of life.
Gwenna stood between huts in the open space that fronted the bayou's heart, rooted to the spot in a mixture of fear and black desolation. Sweat beaded on her forehead, and a caustic taste of bile burned at the back of her throat. The muted gray light filtering down through breaks in the overhead canopy dimmed as if from an early sunset. Cook fires burned low and went out, as if doused, when the shadow swept nearer. People, her people, lay in the muck or sprawled, their breath shallow and eyes vacant, as if staring into a void. They screamed only as the chill finally took them. Otherwise they bore their suffering in silence, trying not to draw attention to themselves. The elves retreated deeper within themselves in an effort to escape.
Except for Gwenna. Untouched, she tried to make sense of the situation, but the confusion within her mind argued against any fair effort to understand.
The sickness, the madness, the chill, the shadow; how many times had it swept their small, dying community? It came whenever someone brought forth the idea of moving on, of leaving. It brought madness among them, infecting others, until the bayou claimed its terrible price in a night of terror. Her stomach churned. So many lives, so many of Gaea's children, wasted away to nothing over the decades. How many times? Dozens, certainly, but Gwenna could only remember the first night when she had decided that the bayou's embrace must be endured. Hadn't they learned already? The law was set, and to challenge it brought only misfortune. One did not question the law or take action against it. What was the point? Better to succumb, better that you lived in ignorance. So she had led her enclave.
Another scream tore through her mind, the shriek tapering off to a whimper. No, there was no magic. No song or savior. There was only a hand on her arm.
"Where is it?" he asked, voice frantic and insistent.
The shadow's shroud blanketed her mind, distorting the words to barely recognizable sounds. Gwenna felt silent tears slide down her cheeks. "Gone," she answered. "All gone. Destroyed."
His bright, hazel eyes searched the gloom. "I know it's here." His grip on her arm grew tighter and more painful. "I can't hold it in place, can't beat it, without you. Gwenna, where's the Shadow?"
It was there at the edge of her vision, teasing her with a shape she could never quite define. It reeked of the bayou, its stagnant waters and diseased animals, and decay. She shook her head and swallowed. Her throat was raw and tasted of blood. To name it invited punishment. Better to stay quiet and hope the chill would pass her by.
"Well, I know one way of getting its attention." Temken bent forward, splaying his hands out and driving fingers down into the moist earth. Immediately an aura of deep green wrapped itself about his body.
Gwenna remembered he had done this before, when he raised the orchid of jade and lavender from the cursed land. Now he seemed stronger, steeped in the power. This time the aura flared at once and dove down into the earth to raise the orchid instantly. In a blink it grew and flowered. Its petals swayed softly in tune to Gaea's song.
Savior, song… and magic.
Gwenna felt the hold over her slip a fraction as the darkness drew back to build strength and rally. The sweet perfume of the orchid drowned out the bayou's corrupt stench. Its color tinted the land around her-the wonderful green of a bright sun diffused by heavy forest leaves. She tried to flinch away. Better to live in ignorance…
No, the song whispered; better to live.
She turned, reaching out to Temken in support. She froze as the shadow once again revealed to her the darkest of her memories: the loss of Argoth-trees burned, the land razed, her people dying. But she did not see it with the detachment that time offers against all wounds. She remembered it as if it were happening now. She saw it, feeling the guilt of her decisions, her actions, which had cost the Argothians everything they held dear. The guilt locked up every joint in her body. Anguish froze her muscles, and despair blanketed her thoughts. The orchid began to wilt, its beauty fading once again. She didn't want this. She would do anything to be rid of it.
This time, Temken stood ready. He reached out, slowly, the tip of his finger touching hers in the simplest of gestures. Warmth flooded her, the magic coursing through her with energy. It was enough to break the hold once again, to give her the choice of action or withdrawal, courage or despair. She looked to the wilting orchid. Its fading sight reminded her too much of the broken promises of before and almost pulled her down with it as the darkness swept in closer to claim her. She fought against it. She did not want this.
She would do anything she could to kill the shadow.
In the snatch of song that haunted her, echoing within her mind from long ago, Gwenna responded to the reminder that a wilting flower was as much a cause for joy as for sadness. The cycle of life controlled everything in nature's world. Everything born of the earth returned to the earth eventually, and from death always came new life. Gwenna reached out, as Temken had tried to teach her, accepting the orchid's death as the turn of nature's wheel. From it something else could grow, and she drew upon it for herself, soaking it in as the ground drinks fresh rainwater. She allowed it to strengthen her, to give her the resolve to meet the shadow's corrupt embrace as it moved through her and was caught.
Whispering Gaea's song, Gwenna drew the shadow into her snare. It struggled, railing at her with the cold touch of death. Gwenna felt its pains and fears. Just as despair had so many times worked to sap her will and her strength, so now the fear of the shadow worked against it, making it vulnerable. The song in her mind and in her heart grew stronger until it wrapped about them both. It lured the shadow deeper into Gaea's embrace, where it screamed inside Gwenna's mind.
Temken brought his fingers from the earth. The heavy residue had stained them black. Not the foul black of the bayou, this time it was the rich, loamy color of fertile farmland. That, too, would fade as his magic lost its hold and the orchid died, but it was enough for now to remind him of the cycle and the cost that life sometimes demanded. He stared at his hands, at the slowly fading orchid, at anything but the figure standing just over his shoulder.
He rose and turned in one fluid motion, meeting Gwenna's tortured gaze. Her eyes stared ahead, unblinking. A single tear of bright red blood welled at the corner of her eye and then trailed down her cheek. The gaunt-ness of her face had faded, drawn inward with the shadow's poison, leaving her with a touch of her youth in these final hours-perhaps her final moments.
"You should hurry," she said, the words softly slipping between lips that barely moved. "I can hold it only so long."
The mage frowned, biting his lower lip as he considered. "We could try to kill it," he offered, sensing even as he put the idea into words that it would not work.
Gwenna blinked away a ripple of pain, her opaline eyes falling on Temken. "It is already dead," she said.
The magic still wrapped about him, Temken felt Gwenna's life-force draining away as she used it to hold the Shadow imprisoned. Piece by piece she sold herself to counter its attempts to escape. Temken felt the struggle raging, just as he had originally sensed her final decision to lure the shadow to her and hold it fast. He had thought to try such a tactic himself, binding both his own life-force and the primal essence of the shadow to the orchid's power, but now he doubted that he would have been able to succeed. Temken had not lived for decades here in the bayou, adapting to the darker side. He had never come to terms with the shadow, the way he somehow knew that Gwenna had. To hold it within himself would almost certainly have killed him.
He still wondered at the shadow's origins and what exactly governed its existence now, but those were questions to which he doubted he would ever have answers. Whatever the shadow had been or was, Gwenna had known it long enough to identify its basic nature. It hated, yes. But it also needed. It needed the elves in the bayou to feed off of, to survive. But even if it existed outside Gaea's embrace, the shadow could still be made to obey her laws when it intruded upon nature's world. But the price… Temken bowed to Gwenna's resolve and silently thanked her for the sacrifice she made.
As if awakening from a long nightmare, elves stumbled from their huts or rose from their lethargic positions. Some did not rise and never would again. They were part of Gaea's price, exacted so that others might live and bring life into the world again. Most were crying, the pain on their faces was the first real sign of animation Temken had seen.
"Assemble quickly," he said, voice thick with emotion. "We must leave the bayou."
A few thought to move toward Gwenna, hands reaching out in sympathy, but Temken stepped in front of them.
"Go," he commanded. "Gaea will watch over her." They grabbed what few traveling articles they could find in moments.
Temken turned back and saw that Gwenna was nearly lost to him. Her green eyes dimmed, as she turned her energies to the inward battle.
"This day," he said softly, willing her to hear, "you have absolved yourself of any blame an elf might still have held for you, Gwenna. There is no greater gift than life."
He gently took her by the shoulders and eased her to the ground near his orchid. Her face and the flower both recovered a spot of color before they began to fade again, this time more slowly.
"Let the orchid sustain you for as long as possible, and Gaea will bring you to her before it can hurt you again," Temken said. Before he could think the better of it, he spoke the name he had denied his lips for too long. "Argoth will rise again," he promised Gwenna. "We will rebuild."
In a gray-lit clearing, completing a rough circle of dark and abandoned huts, Gwenna sat upon water-laden ground with her back to the heart of the bayou. An icy rain began to sprinkle down, spattering against pools of water and slowly churning the ground. The orchid's lavender pistils dripped water into the flower's cup, and petals sagged with the extra weight. The irregular rhythm of its wash played accompaniment to the gusting wind that rubbed branches together and sawed at the long grasses. The rain carried with it the hint of brine, borne in from the not-too-distant ocean. It was a clean scent.
Gwenna continued to hum Gaea's song. In her mind, the shadow grew stronger as it warred with nature's memory-her memory of Argoth. The elves had left. Animals died. Forests were stripped away, the land itself sunk from sight, rolled over by oil-slicked water. The air grew cold and tasted stale. But even as the shadow finally slipped away, exuding rage in its newfound strength and ready to feed upon her remaining life, the land rose once more within her mind. Plant and animal and elf returned as the memory flourished. Argoth rose. With the last of her strength Gwenna allowed herself to slip away into the memory, carried on Gaea's song and her promise- that life would always follow.
Red is the color of release, the hue of outward expression and excitement. It is hard to be indifferent about red. It may be loved or feared, but it is seldom disregarded. It is characterized as aggressive, vigorous, and given to impulse and mood. Those associated with red are sometimes accused of lacking patience or possessing a quick temper, but red also embodies a fervent passion and feeling for fellow beings. Red is signified by fire, blood, lava, and emotion. It manifests itself as bursts of outward expression and outspoken tirades. Red characterizes those who know what needs to be done and aren't afraid to do it, for those who want results and action instead of deliberation and debate, for those who like the cathartic pleasures of flame.
Introductory note by Armand Ar-basinno, instructor of popular culture and goblinology at the Argivian University and author of Studies in Goblin Culture; The Goblin Ruins at The Flarg: Their History and Exploration; and Squee: A Study in Popular Mythology.
[Note in margin: Squee, Squee, Squee! According to Ar-basinno every goblin is named Squee! L. B.]
It is my privilege to present to the public a very remarkable document, recently discovered in the ruins of The Flarg and edited and annotated by myself, with some minor assistance by Latavino Bar-bassanti, who, unfortunately, departed from the university before the project could be completed. I may add that I regard this task as the crowning achievement of my extensive work on the history and development of goblin culture, and that the document confirms the conclusions to which I, in the face of opposition from so many of my colleagues, had already come.
[Note in margin: A silly, self-satisfied conclusion by an overblown windbag! L.B.]
It has, of course, been my contention for a number of years that the goblins of The Flarg were polytheists, worshiping a variety of gods to whom they made regular sacrifices. Prior to the discovery at The Flarg of the document below, however, little specific information was available concerning goblin religious rituals. Thanks to my work on this document, combined with the extensive body of writing I have bequeathed to the learned community as my legacy, future historians and goblinologists will have little trouble in filling in the gaps along the trail I have already blazed.
In point of fact, I had already developed the theory of goblin religion in my well-known and, if I may say so, remarkable book The Apostles of Squee: Deconstructing Goblin Religious Discourse and Perception in the Age of the Great Cold (Argivian University Press).
[Note in margin: Well known, indeed! The book was remaindered within thirty days, and housewives all over Terisiare used it as a doorstop. The only thing remarkable about the book was the fact that Ar-basinno managed to spread his lunatic "theory" over two thousand pages. In fact, Ar-basinno was almost fired from his position when, while presenting a copy to the chancellor, he dropped it and broke the poor man's ankle. The chancellor spent two weeks in bed, and Ar-bassino made the rounds of faculty parties in Argive, explaining that the university official had been struck by the weight of his arguments. L.B.]
It is not out of place here to briefly summarize this theory:
[Note in margin: The gods preserve us! L.B.]
In ancient times, during the Age of the Great Dark and Cold that followed hard upon the disastrous era of the Brothers' War, goblins at The Flarg formed a vast and powerful community. It is clear from the extensive ruins at The Flarg that they were a politically influential race, deep in learning, strong in arms, universally respected throughout much of Dominaria. Great goblin fleets ploughed the seas, and goblin ornithopters swept through the clouds, driving the enemies of the goblin empire before them.
[Note in margin: Here we go again! Ar-basinno used to propagate this story in the pubs around the university, usually late in the evening when he'd had eight or nine glasses of Korlisian wine. For this reason, he was known throughout the university as "old goblin head." L.B.]
In this age, a cult grew up among the goblins centered on the worship of a deity known as "Squee." This fact accounts for the extensive use of this as a name among the goblins of The Flarg (and indeed in the goblin communities through the rest of Dominaria). The cult of Squee was celebrated in various rituals, which were clearly extremely sacred to the goblins, though they are, perhaps, beyond our understanding today.
Now, in the following document, I have the clues that allow me, drawing on a store of knowledge accumulated over a lifetime of study of goblin culture, to unravel the mystery of goblin Squee-based rituals. The document is evidently in the form of a letter, written by one high priest of Squee to another and communicates the essence of the ritual, while leaving some parts of it as mysterious as before. Nonetheless, I have every confidence my persistence and scholarly ability will allow me to unravel this tangle as well and lay it before my public.
[Note in margin: In other words, there's no reasonable chance of getting him to shut up in the near future. L. B.]
I will indicate briefly the circumstances attendant upon the discovery of this historic find.
While excavating the ruins of the goblin settlement at The Flarg, I came across a wide, flat area.
[Note in the margin: Actually the area was first uncovered by myself and Sarapinna Machieve, a graduate student whom. Ar-basinno had talked into working with him for the summer. Until the dig at The Flarg, she spent most of her time trying to make sense of his incoherent notes and ramblings while evading his crude attempts to get her into bed with him. At the time we uncovered the site, Ar-basinno was sound asleep in his tent. L.B.]
At either end of this area, it was clear that in the distant past pestholes had been inserted. I concluded that such an area, accommodating a large population, could only have been used for religious ceremonies of considerable significance. With this in mind, I looked for evidence to confirm this theory. It was not slow in coming.
To one side of the field I found several objects, roughly spheroid, approximately a foot long, and slightly pointed at both ends. These had been placed in a box, indicating they must have been very precious to the goblins and thus objects of religious veneration. Also within the box was a crude wooden whistle, several skins used to hold water or-in light of the obviously religious character of the site-sacred wine, and several garments, which, though worn through use and the ages, were recognizable as holy vestments employed only during the most sacred rituals. They bore large numbers on the back and were emblazoned with names, which I translated after considerable difficulty, the meaning of which will become clear through perusing the document below.
In further examination of the field I discovered more evidence of ritual behavior: parts were churned up by the feet of many worshiping goblins, and along the sides were evidences of many spectators. In one place near the edge of the field was a heap of bottles that had at one time probably contained sacred drinks consumed during the ceremonies that were enacted upon the field.
[Note in margin: You'!! notice all the talk about drink. One of Ar-basinno's earliest "research projects" during his tenure at the Argivian University was an attempt in his laboratory to discover the exact composition of the sacred wine of the goblins. To this end he made a number of experiments, most of which ended in him drinking the results. One such experiment, involving too high a proportion of a particularly wlatik alcoholic derivative, resulted in the destruction of a substantial section of the Hall of Akhemical Research and permanently removed Ar-basinno's eyebrows. L.B.]
The document reproduced below was found in the remains of one of the dwellings near the field and was probably composed by a high priest. It takes the form of a letter to a fellow religious figure and explains the development of a significant ceremony in the Cult of Squee, whose existence I have established.
One final note is in order. Writing among the goblins seems to have employed spelling and grammatical conventions largely unknown to us, though clearly allowing them a high measure of precise communication. Indeed the goblin language, when properly rendered in speech, is one of unparalleled beauty and grace, which I have been accustomed to speak to my students.
[Note in margin: Yes, and the spectacle is enough to attract students carrying rotten fruit and vegetables from all over town. Word goes out that "looney Armand's at it again," and you can see the crowds coming for miles. L.B.]
If confusion should arise, the reader is advised to consult my well-known Dictionary of Goblinese, compiled by Armand Ar-basinno (I6 volumes).
Hope dis lettr find you good. I iss fine too. Wether here good. Sum rain but sunny afferwards, bring out da bugs.
[Ar-basinno's note: The name "Krank" is probably a formal title. The discussion of weather in The Flarg is clearly preparatory to a more extensive discussion of the Squee-based ritual, which required a certain amount of alternating rain and sun. The word here given as "bugs" I have decided to translate as "followers" or "disciples. " Evidently the writer of the letter is anticipating a large gathering for the ritual, anticipated by his remarks on the weather.]
We made up noo game odder day, me an Fizzer. Member how we uze goblin bombs ta keep off bad men. Well we had a lotta em in big pile outside, an Druze tol me an Fizzer ta take em off ware dey couldn't hurt nobody outsida da houses.
[Ar-basinno's note: The phrase "goblin bombs" is particularly significant here. There can be no precise translation of this, but I think it is best understood as a type of votive object, one carried, as we shall see later, during religious ceremonies. Druze is clearly the title for the high priest, giving instructions to the Fizzers, that is, to his acolytes.]
Any way we took da bombs to dat big flat place outsid Squees house
[Ar-basinno's note: His temple.] an we waz havin fun trowin bombs ta each odder, tryin ta catch em when Squee came outta his house an yell at us dat we makin too much noise an he cant sleep.
[Ar-basinno's note: A tremendously significant passage. The Squee emerges from his temple, making himself manifest to his priests. This is clearly a most holy moment, indicated by the elevated language of the passage. Thus we see the priests, the Fizzers, manipulating the sacred objects, the "bombs" and calling forth the Squee, who responds to them with a ritual chant of some sort.]
[Note in margin: Where does he get these ideas? L. B.]
So me an Fizzer thro one a da bombs to him, an he catched it. We started ta run away an den we fell off a da side ware da mowtin is an start dis big rock slide so Squee couldnt catch us. We wuz laffin.
[Ar-basinno's note: The passage makes clear that the site of the temple of Squee was near the area I already uncovered at the ruins of The Flarg, the large, flat field.
Further indication that it was the site of a religious ritual is plain from the fact that various measurements-ten yards, twenty yards, thirty, and so on-are marked along one side of it in ancient goblinese, indicating, clearly, the path along which religious processions proceeded.]
Squee get so mad, he kick da bomb, an Fizzer cawt it before it bloo up an ran back up to da field. Squee run after him and try ta grab him, but I push him down an den we run off. Squee chase affer us, tryin ta grab da bomb, but we kep tossin it ta each odder.
[Ar-basinno's note: The Squee and the Fizzers engage in a ceremonial dialogue, each clearly responding with predetermined questions and answers, manipulating the sacred objects while passing along the holy road. We can be confident that the whole ceremony was witnessed by awe-struck devotees, who probably consumed the sacred drinks, as well as ritual-based food, during the event.]
[Note in margin: Well, when it comes to consuming sacred drink, whether of his own making or drawn from a tap, Ar-basinno's on familiar ground. I've seen him go through four bottles of wine during an evening's carousing. L. B.]
Fizzers sister an modder wuz watchin us an dey started yellin an laffin an cheerin.
[Ar-basinno's note: "Sister" and "Mother" here are obviously metaphorical. These are references to the high priestesses of Squee, who now join in the ceremony.]
Den dey wuz throwin grass clumps at us an dey started wavin roun big clumps a grass an jumpin up an down. We wuz laffin reely hard.
[Ar-basinno's note: Very important. As the procession of "bugs" led by the Fizzers moves toward the Squee manifestation, it is joined by the high priestesses, who wave plant fronds, thus signaling the coming of the new year through the benevolent agency of the Squee. Thus we find confirmation that the Squee cult was a fertility religion. I have discussed this subject extensively in my well-known and highly respected work The Regenderization and Dis-sexification of Goblinesque Interaction in the Period of Antiquity.]
[Note in margin: Oh, please! Ar-basinno has an amazing talent for overlooking the obvious. His interest in "fertility cults" was probably fueled by the fact that his wife left him- understandable, since he used to start every morning by reading sections of Regenderization to her over the breakfast dishes. When she left the house for the last time, she also left him with a black eye, which he explained to his colleagues at the university as the result of walking into a lamppost. Most of his acquaintances assumed from the shape of the bruise that his wife had heaved the "well-known and highly respected" work at him. L. B.]
So any ways, everbudy in da town come runnin and wuz watchin us throw da bomb aroun whan Fizzer drops it an it blows up. We found part of Fizzer on top a me roof later.
[Ar-basinno's note: Clearly the culmination of the ceremony is the ritual sacrifice of the high priest, or Fizzer, while those around him chant praises to the Great Squee. One can imagine the scene clearly: the pure white robes of the acolytes, the rich golden trappings of the high priests, studded with gems that gleam in the sunlight. The air is filled with the sound of songs bringing praise to Squee, asking the gods to bless the coming harvest with their beneficence. The archpriestess (referred to in the document as the "mother") stands astride the Fizzer, a jeweled dagger in her hand. It glitters against the blue sky as she slowly raises it. The chanting rises in volume, and then she slashes it down in a mighty stroke. Blood sprays upward, splashing her robes with the water of life, and the crowd gives a mighty shriek of delight and religious ecstasy.]
[Note in margin: Pure romance! Ar-basinno should have written stories for a living. L. B.]
Da game wuz fun an so we do it again. Dis time we had too teems an dey wore diffrnt shirts. We thrued da bomb to Quilk an he run wit it to try to get to da odder end of da field til da odder teem catch him an beat him wit clubs an stuff an he wuz down. Den we do it agin til da odder teeam (we called dem da Raiders cuz dey raided us an tried ta steal our bomb) got da bomb and den dey run wit it.
[Ar-basinno's note: From this fairly confused passage, we can infer that the ritual slaying of the Fizzer was followed by an orgy, involving all the participants in the ceremony.]
[Note in margin: Of course. All of Ar-basinno's theories involve orgies sooner or later. L. B.]
We had ta name our teem an we coodnt think a somtin til somebody, I tink it wuz Fizzers cozin Farf who wuz throwin da bomb most, sed we should pack beatle bugs fer lunch nex time cuz he wuz hungry.
[Ar-basinno's note: Again the reference to increasing the number of "bugs, " i. e., followers necessary for the ceremony.]
So we callin ourselfs da Packers.
[Ar-basinno's note: It seems clear that this religious cult split into several competing factions, which evidently led to religious wars. This probably explains why this cult was eventually wiped out and has left only faint traces in goblin culture today. From the extent of the destruction in the cult, we are safe in inferring a series of increasingly severe religious wars and crusades carried out by the "Raiders" and "Packers" upon one another, resulting in their mutual extinction. I propose to deal much more extensively with this issue in my forthcoming book, The Shattered World: An Investigation of the Goblin Religious Wars and the Collapse of the Cult of Squee.]
[Note in margin: The gods preserve us, he proposes to write another sleep-producer. L. B.]
Anyway da game is fun an now we play it all da time cept peeple don lik getting hit wit clubs, so we had ta tell everybody no more of dat, jus grab da guy wit dat bomb an push him down. Also wes runnin out of goblin bombs an people don like throwin dem so much cuz if dey drop em dey get blooed up. So maybe well uze somfin else. Like a ball. We wuz tryin ta cide what ta call da game. Somebody sed we should call it Ball kickin wit Feet, but we all laffed. Den I sed we should call it affer food, cuz it makes us feel like eatin after. So we dacided ta call it Cricket.
So concludes this remarkable document, the most detailed and persuasive evidence for my theory of the cult of Squee yet adduced. The author of the document even gives a name to this important cult: Cricket. I take considerable pride in presenting this evidence to refute the ignorant attempts by certain of my colleagues at the Argivian University to dismiss my research and request that the regents of the university take it into consideration when discussing my application for future resources to continue to investigate the exciting and intriguing pathways opened up by this find.
Note appended to the above:
To the Regents and Masters of the Argivian University, from Lavino Bar-bassanti, late of the university.
As you can plainly deduce from the above document, old Ar-basinno has gone completely around the bend. His "theory" of a goblin religious cult of Squee, which he began developing twenty years ago, has been preying on his brain, and now he's taken it to new heights of lunacy.
As I mentioned above in a marginal note, I was with Ar-basinno when he investigated the ruins at The Flarg. Since he was drunk most of the time, there was little he saw and less he remembered. He's right about the field, though: Sarapinna and I found it more or less the way he describes. It was striking only in that whereas the rest of the settlement had fallen into ruins after the human raids that laid waste to the area, the broad field was actually well-preserved. I don't deny that it was a place of importance to the goblins, but Ar-basinno's idea of religious rituals has no evidence for it at all.
I told him as much at the time, but he wasn't inclined to listen, and I felt it was best to keep quiet and hope the whole thing would blow over. We found the spheroid objects, wineskins, and whistle exactly as he says. The garments were in pretty bad shape, but I could make out the word "Raiders" on one and "Packers" on the other. On each side of the field were places where there had been some sort of arrangement of benches. Ar-basinno is right in saying that whatever was going on there was seen by a gathering of goblins.
At one end of the field was a large rock, on which, at some time in the past, someone had chisled some numbers and words. It was hard to make everything out, but there was something about "downs. " However, we were unable to decipher the word's direct translational meaning.
Personally, I believed the whole discovery was far less significant than Ar-basinno wanted to make out. Back in our tent, he kept babbling on about the "most significant archaeological find of the century" and the "physical foundation of the science of goblinology" until I had to hit him over the head with a flagon of wine to shut him up. The next morning when he came to, the idea of a religious cult was firmly ensconced in his mind, and nothing I said could dislodge it.
We argued about it almost the entire way back to Argivia, and shortly after, as many of you are aware, I departed from the university rather than suffer through further association with him.
I strongly urge you to ignore this whole affair and offer Ar-basinno the prospect of a quiet retirement to some obscure location within the university. Whatever went on at The Flarg on that field, I doubt it had any lasting significance for goblin culture. At best it was some sort of ritual-certainly not religious-that was brief and probably didn't involve any great numbers. It seems clear to me from the document that "Cricket" was a game, and who can imagine any society spending a great deal of time and resources on a mere game?
The mage Elkan stood beside his field commander, General Groth Jonar in the small sitting room off the library. His red robes flowed around him in garish expanse. He was a young man with a shock of blond hair and his cowl hung back on his red robes.
It had been a hundred years since the ice had receded from the lands of Dominaria, and for thousands of years before that, ice had ruled. The Kjeldorans had been formed from survivors of the advancing glacier wall, but they had fled to the east to find a better homeland-one that would last until the world could find warmth again.
Those first Kjeldorans had settled in a land previously claimed by the Balduvians. For nearly four centuries now, the Kjeldorans and the Balduvians had been at war. The Balduvians had faired worse than the well-organized, well-trained armies of Kjeldor, but Elkan was going to change all of that.
Elkan had ambition. He had always sensed that the age-old problem with Balduvian strategy was that no general could risk an army, since a force was far too important to their survival. An army that does not take risks is an army that always loses. True, the Balduvians won many battles, but they never won a campaign. That was why its people were living high in the mountains instead of on the fertile plains now claimed by Kjeldor.
Turning the failing axiom on its head, Elkan came up with the perfect solution. An army of expendable troops could win and keep winning, but at a terrible cost. He needed troops he could throw away and yet have more, and more after that. The orcs, he found, were his willing pawns, delivered by their most famous general, Jonar.
General Jonar was a tall orc warrior. He always wore his armor, his baton always by his side. The story of his rise to clans master and general of the orc armies was a long one, and he told it at every battle victory feast. He had a reputation for victory, although that had failed him in his last attempt. He had been disgraced by his defeat at the battle of Balesh Pass, his orcs running before the might of massed piked infantry. Jonar needed another victory to regain his standing within Balduvia and within the clans of the orcs. It was the only reason he listened to the young mage.
Elkan maintained a small suite of rooms in the secondary keep of the Balduvian stronghold. He was a junior mage and young even for that. Most mages did not qualify for such a position or such rooms until at least mid-life. He had gained advancement quickly.
Balduvia was under attack by General Varchild and the Kjeldoran Knights. Varchild was a new general who was gaining a reputation that was great for the Kjeldorans but was sapping the morale of the Balduvians. It was a time of severe strife for Balduvia, but it was a clear opportunity for an ambitious young wizard.
The mage and the general looked over the map for the battle that Elkan had planned. Jonar leaned forward and traced an area far south of the Balduvian stronghold near the approaches to Kjeldoran lands. The area circled in red was to be the most likely place to stop the army as it crossed from the plains and foothills below to the high ground of the mountain passes beyond.
"They will attack us here. I have no doubt. They must press the pass before we have forces available to stop them, " Jonar said, stabbing a finger at the map.
Elkan snorted arrogantly at the remark. "Why would they attack us here? Kjeldor does not have stupid generals, and I hear this Varchild is smarter than most. Why attack us while we still have complete access to the powers of the mountains? They will lure us first into the plains and use their knights to fight us. "
The point was a valid one and had been proven in several battles before. Both Kjeldoran and Balduvian mages had shown that they could draw mana from foothills, but the closer a Balduvian mage came to the plains, the more danger he was in.
"You do not understand, " the general retorted. "If we know that they will attempt to lure us, then we will not bite at the lure. Instead, we will feast later on the entrails of their mounts."
"You see my point precisely," Elkan replied, undeterred. "If we stay in the mountain passes, they will know where we are. They will devise ways to kill us. General Varchild is no idiot. We must take the fight to the enemy on her ground. She won't be ready for us, and we'll have the advantage."
"You cannot walk onto flat ground and pretend to have an advantage," Jonar barked. "You have not seen the White Knights and their thundering charges. They are a terrible sight to behold."
Elkan raised an eyebrow. "A little timid are we? I see that Balesh Pass is getting to you. Let me worry about the strategic, General. You worry about the tactical. After all, it is the strategic that cost you your position with the Balduvian Guard. I think the gold I am paying you should easily compensate you for your risk."
Jonar nearly ended it right there. It would have been simple to draw his dirk and slam it into the mage's chest. The blood would have matched the color of the robes so well, he thought to himself.
After several moments of silent struggle he was able to regain control over his emotions and let his reason carry the day. He still needed all the things that the mage promised. He could not go on without a victory, and no one else could provide the funding or the support necessary to provide for an army.
He shook his head, clearing it. "Very well. Show me your plan again."
It was easily the worst plan he'd seen in several years, but it had a glimmer of hope. He thought back to the Battle of Balesh Pass. That too had been a good plan, but it had failed utterly while worse plans had succeeded.
"If we can surprise them here on the approach to Mount Delapre," he said, "we can fight and retreat into the mountain passes above. They won't be able to chase us. You will have stronger magic in the higher ground. You should wait for us here-" he pointed to the mountain pass-"and prepare some surprises for those who chase us."
The mage nodded in thoughtful agreement.
"I see your thinking, General. Very well. Now, who do you have at your disposal?"
The general hesitated. His position within the orc hierarchy had been weakened. "I can only count on two clans."
The mage shook his head. "I am not surprised, General. In fact, I have foreseen this and have arranged for you to augment your force with the goblins of the Flarg mountains."
Jonar stood aghast. "Goblins? Goblins? I will not work with goblins. It is out of the question."
Elkan shook his head. "Get used to the idea, General. You will meet your new allies at Balesh Pass in two weeks. They will ensure that I have my victory."
Soon after his meeting with Elkan, Jonar found himself at the head of a large column of soldiers. They had collected at Lake Balduvia before beginning the march. Two regiments of orcs followed the general.
After two days' march through the passes leading south, they came to a large glade on the opposite side of Mount Kireshal from Balesh Pass. Jonar ordered camp set, though it was only mid-afternoon.
"We camp here. I want Clan Leaders Lavash and Jel to meet me here as soon as they can."
Ten minutes later, the two clan chiefs stood before him.
"Get your climbing gear. We're going to Balesh Pass."
The two chieftains looked at each other. Both shrugged, turned, and were back in another ten minutes, ready to go. Neither dared ask why they were going. It was too delicate a topic to breach with the general, who had been defeated only months ago just a few miles away.
Through the rest of the afternoon the three climbed Mount Kireshal, keeping to the south side for more sunlight. They wound along the upper trail leading down to Balesh Pass just as darkness fell. Throughout the long climb, not a word had been spoken.
Jonar stopped just as the sun dipped behind the mountain range. The party had come to a small crater dug into the side of the rock face. Pieces of metal and debris scattered the area, but they were ancient. The head of a venerable clockwork avian was slumped beside the path. The charring on its skull-now almost completely corroded-had been replaced by a strange stonelike substance. Almost three thousand years after the Brothers' War, Dominaria still suffered the effects of that conflict.
The shattered ancient mechanical bird was a silent reminder of that war.
Darkness fell rapidly in the mountains. The three set up their small tent and built a cooking fire on the rocky slope. There were no trees for cover from the wind, so they built a small wall out of rocks that they piled up to the windward side. It kept the fire from going out and stopped the wind from gusting too strongly through the tent.
It had been pleasant climbing weather while the sun was up, but now, in the darkness, the temperature began to plummet.
Jonar pulled three dead chickens from his pack, and he handed one to each of the clan chiefs.
"Where did you get these?" Jel asked, awestruck.
Lavash held his with a reverence usually reserved for holy artifacts. Chickens were rarely if ever seen in the mountainous regions of Balduvia. The air was too thin for them to thrive. Kjeldor had no shortage of chickens, and before the hostilities there had been a brisk trade for the tasty birds. After the war broke out, chickens were valued as precious commodities. For some in Balduvia, the lack of chickens was not terribly dire. To the orcs, it was the loss of their most revered food.
Jonar smiled and leaned back against a rock. "I have spies where no one would think to look. It is not easy, but I can get a few of these from time to time. Privilege of rank and all that."
The air temperature dropped. As they cooked the birds over their fire, Jonar leaned forward, as if to tell them a secret.
"In the valley below, we will find the key to our victory. Tomorrow, we meet our allies, the Flarg goblins. They have sent-
Lavash nearly dropped his chicken into the fire, he was so startled.
"Goblins?" he barked out. "What the hell are we going to do with them? We orcs have been much maligned in the past, but that's nothing compared to the goblins!"
Jonar held up a hand, silencing the chieftain.
"Balesh Pass holds many horrors for me, as you well know. I would not brave the elements, the mountain, and the sights I must bear tomorrow were I not absolutely convinced of this fact-we need the goblins. Without them we will be ridden down and slaughtered by the knights from the plains. "
The other two stared at him with disbelief, their prejudices showing on their faces.
"We won't fight with goblins, " Jel said flatly. Lavash nodded solemnly beside him.
Jonar sat silently for a few moments without movement. Finally, he leaned forward toward his two chieftains. He spoke in a calm, even tone that frightened the two orcs far more than any yelling ever could.
"You will fight with the goblins. Not only that, you will convince your warriors that the goblins are our salvation. Do I make myself clear?" Jonar did not mention that it was the mage who insisted that the Flarg goblins were to be their allies.
It was Jel and Lavash's turn to sit in silence for a few moments. Finally, Jel looked over at Lavash. Their general was clearly not in the mood for discussion.
"As always, we will do as you command," Lavash said, looking down.
"That is not good enough," Jonar returned, his eyes gleaming with the passion of his words. "You must believe it. Trust me-with the help of these goblins I will deliver a victory that we could not achieve otherwise."
The fabulous chicken feast finished silently. Each orc reflected on the others' words. Finally, they retreated to the tent to await the morning.
A mild snow fell in the early hours before sunrise, but it only covered the tent with a light dusting. It took mere minutes to pack up and begin the descent into Balesh Pass.
Two hours later, the three orcs came to the site of the battle. Even after three months the area looked haunted and forsaken. Broken spears stuck out of the fresh snow at odd angles. Boulders were scarred by blasts from the magic unleashed at the battle.
Jonar walked along a low ridge that had served as his last stand as his routed forces had rushed past him, out over the pass and back to Balduvia. His thoughts turned back to the battle, and for a moment his eyes were there, watching.
He could see the long lines of orcs, standing in ranks six deep, swords, spears, and shields ready for the oncoming Kjeldoran infantry. On the enemy came. The Kjeldoran regiment closed to within a hundred yards, and then suddenly it changed formation. From the rear, pikes were brought forward, and the line shifted from a square with the flat facing the orcs to a diamond with the point threatening them. The point advanced.
Jonar did not know what to do. He knew the pointed formation had a far greater reach with pikes, and that it would split his line in two like a knife through butter. He watched in horror as his prediction came true. Jonar tried to plug the line with his own bodyguard of fifty warriors, but they could not hold long. Their fight gave the rest of the line enough time to retreat, however.
Over and over he replayed the moment in his mind. Should he have pulled back? Should he have enveloped? He ran the battle through his mind.
Without warning, an animal-skin-covered green goblin rose from the snow not ten yards in front of Jonar. His reverie ended in a flash. Without thinking, he drew his sword, an instinctive reaction from too many years in the martial profession.
The goblin eyed him warily. "You big general boss man?"
Jonar calmed himself and re-sheathed his weapon. He turned and the other two orcs did the same.
"You speak Orcish very well for a goblin. I am General Jonar. Who are you?"
"Me Tramas, Clan Champion for goblins of the Flarg mountains. Your mage promise us much to fight with you. We much need this victory, but we much need payment as promised." The goblin's eyes shrank to slits. "You bring?"
Jonar reached inside his jerkin and brought forth a small leather pouch. He tossed it to the goblin. It hit the ground and sank slightly in the snow. Tramas picked up the pouch, dusted it off, and looked inside. His eyes went wide. He pulled a diamond the size of his little fist from the pouch.
With a practiced eye, he turned it over and over, inspecting every facet. Finally, he put the diamond back in the pouch and dropped it in his own pocket.
Jonar took a step forward.
"Let me introduce my field commanders. This is Lavash and Jel, my brave and faithful associates."
The two stepped forward, bowed slightly. Jonar was impressed with the level of respect they showed.
Tramas nodded in acknowledgement and motioned with his right arm. Around the orcs, hundreds of goblins rose from the snow where before there had been none. The three orcs stood in awe. None had seen any hint of an entire unit of goblins, let alone right at their feet.
"I am impressed, Tramas," Jonar said. "Very impressed. I have never seen goblins that could… well, er, you see… I hope I'm not rude in saying…"
Tramas lifted his hand to stop the general. "You never seen goblins looked like they could fight. Me right, General?"
Again, Jonar was impressed. "Right," he answered.
"Goblin King know this. Goblins sent to fight so far just buy time. Many other goblins, many train for war. We now ready for war. What you think? Goblins only play Cricket?"
"No, no," Jonar backpedaled. "I think you'll do just fine." He swallowed his pride. "You will meet us at Mount Delapre four days hence. Will you be there?" Jonar's eyes bore into the goblin champion.
The goblin returned a bow just as the orcs had done. "We be there. You remember rest of payment," he said.
Jonar nodded, turned and walked back the way he had come. Jel and Lavash followed.
The march to Mount Delapre took another two days after Jonar and the two chieftains returned to camp. The orcs moved slowly through the freshly fallen snow in the high pass, pulling their carts full of provisions along after them. The line stretched out for nearly a mile as the four thousand orc warriors and attendant families trodded on.
Jonar went to each of the clans to tour the troops, show them that their leader was ready to fight. He found soldiers tired from the march but otherwise in good spirits. They needed to win, to show that they were not disgraced as they had been at Balesh Pass. They needed to prove themselves. Jonar could understand their feelings.
The disfavor shown to orcs in Balduvia had been a great blow to orc forces everywhere. The clans had fallen in stature and were falling on hard times as the war went on. They could use a victory.
Jonar was surprised to hear the soldiers talk of the goblins. A few hardened veterans sneered at the thought of fighting with the diminutive grunts, but many had heard the story that their clan chieftains had brought back. Clearly several were in awe at the way the goblins could sneak up on an army and ambush it. A few even boasted that they had seen the goblin king at the battle of Narmund Forest and that he was a sight to behold.
Still, the veterans sneered until they saw their general. Jonar made a point of telling all who would listen that the goblins were the key to victory. Several of the veterans argued-a bad sign indeed-but all had come around after seeing the general's eyes. Each veteran smiled, as if a great secret had just been shared with them. Their general had a plan, and that was good enough for them. Once the veterans agreed, the younger orcs all jumped on the cause with great fervor, to prove that they were just as tough.
The next day Jonar rose early. He couldn't sleep; he could never sleep when a battle was coming. The night before, a messenger had brought news that the Kjeldoran force was only fifteen miles away, camped for the night. Through the night, the Flarg goblins were to have harassed the knights, ensuring that they were not well rested for the battle.
Almost as if by magic, two goblins rounded a tent and came toward Jonar. He started but composed himself quickly.
"I am truly impressed with your stealth, " the general greeted them.
They bowed slightly. The one on the right stepped forward. "The knights are coming this way, " he said. "They know you here. They ready for battle. Tramas says tell you we destroyed several supply wagons. Kill many in last night raid. Much death. Still, they ride. Will come here mid-day. "
Jonar nodded, more to himself than to the goblins, as he thought through his preparations.
"Good. You tell Tramas to be here, with your clan, ready to fight, as we agreed. Tell Tramas there is a bonus for good fighting, too. "
The forward goblin smiled a big toothy grin. "Me get food before go back?"
Jonar smiled and waved him on. "Yes, but hurry."
The two trotted away, much more interested in food than their message. Still, Jonar thought, the message would get through. Tramas seemed to have his troops whipped into shape.
At an hour before mid-day, Jonar summoned an all-officers conference at his tent. The officers from both orc clans, chieftains, sub-chieftains, battle standard bearers, and family champions all stood in a loose semi-circle around the general.
"Today we fight the dreaded White Knights of Kjeldor. The last time we battled them, we did not fare well. We had the advantage in terrain then, so they couldn't mount, and they still came on. All of us bear the shame of that battle with us-I more than anyone."
Jonar paused to let his words sink in. A murmur went through the assembled officers.
"Today, however, will be different. Today, we fight to regain our honor and glory, and today we take the spoils of war from the damned knights!"
Jonar manipulated the mood of the gathering like a master. He could see the orcs' eyes go from flat gray to sparkling blue. He could smell their hunger for victory.
He reined them in. "We will gain no victory from brash actions, nor from foolish bravado. We will not win by rushing into waves of charging knights.
"I have a plan for this battle, and you must trust me, your general."
Heads nodded. They remembered the ill-fated battle and how it had gone.
"When I give an order today, you must follow it. Cut down any orc who disobeys. My orders must be carried out exactly and precisely. Any failure will mean our failure. Do as I order, and victory will be ours."
A loud cheer went up from the assembled officers, the two chieftains leading their orcs.
"Cheers for General Jonar!" one yelled.
Jonar cut him off.
"Not yet, my brethren. We have won nothing yet. Obey my orders, and fight like warriors. We will win this day!"
Another general cheer went up.
After the clans had eaten a light meal, they formed battle lines. Each clan stretched for a thousand yards, four ranks deep. The losses from Balesh Pass had cut the clans' numbers severely. The breeze rose from the lower ground ahead of them. Fur cloaks and tassels fluttered off every warrior's armor.
Each warrior bore his own personal weapon. All, however, carried spears and a shield, bearing the emblems of clans. The sun was bright in the clear blue sky, but there was little heat.
Between the two clan regiments stood Jonar. He had a small bodyguard of twenty orcs, the largest orcs in any clan. One carried the battle standard of Balduvia. It was a tattered old flag, and officially they were no longer allowed to carry it, but no one would stop them this day.
The orcs in charge of the baggage train packed up all that they could, prepared to move at a moment's notice. They were ready to run in case the enemy began to win the fight. If their army won, however, they would provide all the services necessary to an army-food, medical attention, ale-and lots of it. They trod a fine line. Too cautious and it would look as if they lacked confidence in their own army. Too cavalier and the enemy could ride them down in a minor breakthrough. The carts weighed in excess of two tons each and could only move at a slow walk, especially up a snowy mountain pass. The furs covering the stores looked inviting and warm, but they offered no shelter if the enemy broke through.
Jonar waited for the white horde to come over the low rise to their front and begin their descent into battle.
"No surprises, not today," he whispered to himself.
Nonetheless the arrival of Elkan startled him. The mage rode from the rear, down the mountain approach and through the lines of the baggage train. He dismounted and strode up to Jonar's command.
"What are you doing here? You are supposed to be ready to aid us up in the mountain pass some ten miles from here." Jonar's face flushed with anger.
"I am your commander, and you will address me with the respect I am due," Elkan stated with a haughty air. "I am here because this is my army and my battle. I do not think you understand the whole reason for this excursion."
The mage continued, "I have prepared some very unpleasant surprises for anyone who breaks through to the pass, whether Kjeldoran knight or running orc. I felt I would be of better use here."
Jonar, disgusted, turned back to watch for the enemy to the front.
The Kjeldoran knights came over the low ridge and trotted to a halt. Jonar felt a sinking feeling in his gut. Two regiments of heavily armored soldiers stretched across the horizon. Each mount wore the livery of its knight, each knight bore the mark of Kjeldor on his shield, and from each lance a small banner or favor fluttered in the wind.
The blue-and-white checkerboard pattern on the shields and banners was striking in the midday sun. Plate armor shone with an unearthly glow as the sunlight glinted off every facet.
Jonar looked nervously across his line, far shorter than the cavalry line, but much more densely packed. His soldiers stood four deep, while the cavalry were one or two rows deep. The numbers looked roughly equivalent which still gave the knights a huge advantage.
A faint whisper grew among the ranks of the orcs as they absorbed the sight before them. Soldiers readjusted equipment out of nervousness. Eyes shifted around, looking for support in their fear.
The knights waited until their command group joined the two regiments. The commander, a mage in white robes, sat next to an armored officer who was mounted on a fantastic black charger. The giant standard of Kjeldor fluttered in the wind from the standard bearer directly to the officer's rear. The command group trotted out ahead of the knights, turned, and the mage addressed the white army.
Elkan snickered beside Jonar and began to cast a spell. A second later, lightning flew from his fingers and arced across the field to the enemy command group. Two of the bodyguard knights were thrown from their mounts, and two more were shaken, but the standard fluttered high and the rest were untouched.
The white robed mage turned. He faced his enemy across the field. His hands flew up into the air just as his words broke into a shout. Energy shot between his hands, and electrical tendrils shot out at the snow around him.
Jonar looked over at Elkan. A look of stunned horror was on the wizard's face. He shuddered, then uncontrollably convulsed. Suddenly, the shaking stopped, and a look of triumph spread across the mage's face. Elkan threw off the magical attack. He rose to his full height and launched a bolt of fire that arced unerringly across the field toward the other mage. An explosion of fire engulfed the spellcaster, who crumpled in the flames as his mount screamed and bolted from the field.
The orc command staff and bodyguard had all backed away from the mage. They were trained soldiers, but they did not understand, nor would they interfere, in the ways of mighty wizards. Their problems were their own.
Jonar had stepped back too, impressed.
Jel trotted up to Jonar.
"What is it? What has happened?" He sounded panicked. Evidently he had seen the magical exchange between the mages, but did not know the outcome.
Jonar kicked at the snow. "Our mage is better than I had envisioned. It may be…"
"Damn!" Jonar heard from behind him. Elkan looked down at his shaking hands.
"What? What is it?" Jonar asked, noting the fear in the mage's voice.
Elkan shook his head bitterly. "I may have destroyed that damned mage, but he drained the very mana from beneath me. I won't be able to cast another spell for at least an hour. In that time…"
Jel looked frightened. Jonar lifted his hand. "We had not expected you at all at this battle, mage-" he began, but Elkan cut him off.
"Just do your duty, and die like a good orc!" he raged. "Win me this battle! Hold them off for an hour. They will be spent, and I will rain death down upon them!"
Jonar stared at him contemptuously. So the orcs were to be sacrificed for the mage's greater glory. He turned back to the chieftain. "Get back to your clan, and don't do a damned thing until I say…"
At that moment, the murmuring in the ranks rose to a cacophony. Both orc officers turned to see what had happened.
Across the field, attention centered on the enemy command group. The Flarg goblins, nearly forgotten by everyone, had mysteriously risen from the snow around the enemy group. They had pulled down the standard and hauled the bodyguards from their mounts, but the enemy commander fought valiantly, trying to break free.
Just as suddenly as they had appeared, the goblins broke from the fight and ran. They ran straight for the orc lines.
The distance between the opposing forces was nearly a mile. Jonar saw his chance. With his loudest drill voice, he gave the order.
The ten assembled drummers behind him relayed the order in a flourish of pounding drum notes, then settled into a deep cadence, slow but threatening.
The orcs around him lurched forward. They had not expected the order to advance, but they quickly recovered, and the ranks straightened.
Across the field, the knights had rallied once the goblins broke off. The knight commander bellowed an order, and trumpets carried the notes across the field. They too began to advance.
Jonar shouted orders to both left and right to straighten the line, to tighten up. Both Jel and Lavash were yelling too, maintaining the cohesion of their ranks. It was a practiced maneuver, but not all the orcs remembered what to do. The sound of steel clinking over stretched leather and the sound of four thousand pairs of boots clumping into fresh snow brought back memories for Jonar-of Balesh Pass.
The Flarg goblins sprinted across the field slightly faster than their pursuers. The two lines had closed to half a mile, and the goblins were only five hundred yards out.
When the goblins had closed to one hundred yards, Jonar ordered a halt. The soldiers brought their shields up and straightened their lines as best they could, trying to catch their breath. They closed together and locked shields.
When the first goblins were twenty yards from the orc line, Jonar yelled, "Spears!"
Nearly in unison, the entire line thrust spears forward and planted them in the snow against their back foot. The goblins saw only spears and shields.
The goblins slowed, then stopped, unsure of what to do. They faced a half-mile-long porcupine. Spear points protruded at all angles, making it impossible to retreat through the lines.
Jonar grasped the moment.
"Cheer for the goblins!"
A hearty cheer ripped from the orcs right across the line. It started slowly but built in intensity. No orc had ever seen goblins who could fight like these Flargs had. The cheer was genuine, but the orcs weren't about to let the goblins off the hook.
Elkan appeared from the rear.
"What is it? What are you doing?" he gasped, out of breath from the run.
Jonar smiled as the roar continued from his lines.
"Goblins, or most of them, don't speak orc!" he said with a broad smile.
Elkan didn't seem to understand.
The knights, seeing the goblins bottled by their own allies, broke into a charge. Horns rang out perfect notes, announcing the charge.
Snow flew up over the charging riders, kicked up by the thundering mounts.
The goblins panicked. They turned, saw the cavalry, turned again, saw the spears, and turned once more. Their only hope lay through the cavalry-or so they thought.
The goblins ran forward toward the cavalry in small groups, keeping as low as they could. The knights' charge hit the forward edge of the goblins and tore them apart. The goblins tried to fight, but they were too short to effectively engage the knights without the element of surprise. Many turned to run back to the orcs once more but were skewered in the back as they tried to run.
Elkan began to yell. "What have you done?" he screamed. "Why have you sacrificed them? You heartless bastard…"
"It was you who were going to sacrifice us, wasn't it, mage?" the general yelled back at Elkan. Jonar shoved him off to the side. The general ran out in front of his line. In his best parade voice, he yelled. "Are we going to take this slaughter? Are we going to allow this to go unanswered?"
The hearty yell was nearly drowned out by the fighting not a hundred yards to their front.
The drummers had been waiting for the command. In unison, they began to beat the quick staccato of the attack order. The orc line leaped forward.
The cavalry had broken down into small fighting groups, each chasing goblins in one direction or another. Their commander yelled to them to pull together but he could not be heard. A handful of knights readied themselves to receive the orcs.
Two thousand orcs came on.
They had to cover only a hundred yards to close with their enemy. The knights who had not rallied were caught off-guard. Orcs sprang on their backs, pulling them from their mounts. They speared others, both beast and rider falling in unison in death.
The battle flowed around the two hundred remaining knights in the center. They formed a tight circle, lances pointing out, defensively, just as the orcs had done previously. Their commander, now holding the Kjeldoran standard, stood in the middle.
Jonar waited. The battle lasted only a few minutes. A hundred knights fell. No more than twenty orcs met the same fate.
The remaining knights broke off contact with the orcs and retreated five hundred yards before they turned and faced their enemy. The blue-and-white checkerboard livery was spattered with blood and grime. Even the army standard was ripped in two. The survivors, numbering fewer than one hundred, formed a battle line again.
Jonar and his standard bearer walked across the intervening five hundred yards, right up to the lance point of the first knight, and stopped. The knight had murder in his eyes, but discipline kept him in check. The commander rode forward.
"I am Sir Michand, knight commander of the Orders of the Griffin and Phoenix. " He saluted solemnly.
Jonar removed his battle helmet and bowed low. "I am Jonar, general of Balduvia and commander of the Orc Clans. I am willing to offer terms of surrender. "
Elkan was only a step behind. "What? You can't be serious? I am in command here! I…"
The mage never finished his sentence. Jonar turned and slammed his sword into the mage's gut, thrusting upward. The blood did not show on the mage's ruby robes as he fell forward.
Jonar pulled the weapon free. He wiped his weapon in the snow, then on the mage's robes, before returning it to the scabbard.
"Why?" Elkan gasped.
Jonar shook his head in disgust. "You were going to sacrifice us to win this battle. Instead we sacrificed the goblins to save ourselves. Now I am sacrificing you to this knight as a gesture, and as a warning. No one sacrifices the pride of the orcs-not at Balesh Pass and certainly not here."
The light that flickered in the mage's eyes went out. He slumped over, face first into the snow.
Jonar turned back to the astonished knights. "As I was saying, I am ready to offer terms."
The knight commander was visibly shaken. "I will not surrender my command to be slaughtered by you brutes. We would rather die with honor."
The knights immediately around their commander tightened their grips on shields, weapons and reins. Their mounts shifted under them.
Jonar nodded thoughtfully. "Fair enough. I then offer you this-you may take your command, or what is left of it, and return home. All I ask is that you surrender your battle standard."
Sir Michand sat with his mouth slightly open in surprise. He quickly caught himself and straightened his posture.
"Very well, General. You have beaten us in fair combat. My honor demands that I do no less. I accept your terms."
Black, the symbol of death and despair, can be characterized as morbid, impatient, incorporeal, and stagnant. It is the color of pollution and pestilent, festering swamps. Those who show fondness for this color are not the type to show off. They will impress those worthy of their time by their real substance and weight. Black leans on the side of mystery and darkness but can be mighty and dignified. Black is a stark color, the beacon of nothingness, but those who favor this color abhor inevitability. They would hold to the present forever if they could and they will probably try. Black is for those who hide their darker sides behind an air of sophistication, for those who lurk in alleyways and dark corners, and for those willing to pay the price of greatness.
Tayva walked from the stone hut, the morning crisp and cool with a light dusting of dew. She stretched her back and heard the creak of aging bones and poor bedding. She called over her shoulder in a raspy voice that had begun to shrill with age. "Loria, I'm going to check the birds. "
Usually Tayva checked the pigeons later in the morning, but some of the caged birds had looked unwell the day before. She coughed in the cool air as she tried to clear the dust and smoke of the night's fire from her throat. Nerving herself to face the day, and unwrapping the greasy shawl from her shoulders, Tayva threw it into the dark doorway behind her. She just missed tangling the feet of her cousin.
Loria exited and tilted her face to the sun burning through the morning haze. Her features were finer and more delicate than those of Tayva. She wore dull rags, but they hung neatly, and while patches and crude stitching formed most of the smock, there were no actual holes. She held a wooden comb in her left hand and rubbed her eyes. Turning back to the hut, she picked up a crude bucket with her free hand.
The hut the two women exited was small and poorly thatched. The walls were of irregular rocks and turf the pair had cut years before, while the smoke from the stoked fire oozed through the roof. The dry weather had allowed repairs to the roof and walls to be delayed, and it appeared more ruin than residence. The hovel lay on the shore of a new lake, the water clear and cold in the morning light. The doorway looked out at bare and eroded hills in the distance rather than the water close at hand. The cousins cared little for what they saw.
Tayva walked to the back of the hut, as Loria continued to the lake edge and filled the bucket with water. She began wetting and combing her hair to look her best for the coming day. Tayva sighed as she considered how pathetic Loria's morning routine appeared, the careful and complete beauty preparations of their youth reduced to a soapless wash in cold water.
Tayva moved to the dovecot set behind the hut. The building was backed with carefully cut and fitted stone, and the roof and three of the walls were a woven lattice of wicker and pieces of wood. The wood was in the form of barrel staves, bought at great cost for two poverty-stricken women. The cot, though weathered and aged, was far better than the near ruin the women inhabited.
Tayva swept the ground with her eyes as she stood by the cot. As carefully maintained and constructed as the building was, she still feared it would be raided, but as usual, there were no tracks other than her own. She opened the door and quickly stepped through to prevent any birds from exiting.
The pigeons nested in open racks and wicker cages. The birds were quiet. She could hear only soft cooing and the occasional movement. Usually, when she renewed the feed dispenser, a swirl of birds would envelop her, but now she radiated stillness. The birds looked at her without expectation. Tayva peered through the dappled light and saw that one of the pigeons had died in the night. She immediately took the small cage from its mounting and carried it to the entrance of the cot. There, by the door, stood a small barrel of feed and behind it a pottery vessel of herbal oil. A large crock of the oil rested behind the back wall of the dovecot, but she kept a smaller vessel inside for quick use. Gathering up the bottle and two basketlike cages, she returned to where the dead bird lay.
Tayva poured the herbal oil over the straw and hay on the floor of the cot and doused the hook from which the cage had hung. The oil was to control and cloak whatever disease might have killed the bird. Then with tender hands she gathered immediate members of its brood and gently transferred the torpid birds to the traveling cages. She could identify the family relationship among the birds with the same surety that, in decades past, she would have known the names and particulars of her own social circle. She passed the baskets and the dead bird out of the cot and took them behind the stone backing of the building. Kneeling by the large crock, she removed the cap and brought out the dead pigeon-a male in the prime of life when it died-and immersed it in the oil. She began to croon strange off-key melodies. Her care in rubbing the oil into all the feathers of the bird, and her odd reverence, would not have been out of place in the internment of a king.
After its oil bath, Tayva carried the avian corpse and the baskets of pigeons to the slough only a hundred feet away. An offshoot of the lake, the slough was an aberration in the surrounding country. A pustulant green in the surrounding pastels, it drew and fascinated the eye. Nothing disturbed its surface, and no insects flew over its stagnant waters. She arranged the cages around a patch of packed earth and placed the live birds near the water. The dead bird she lifted from the cage and carefully positioned it to form the tip of a triangle in relation to the live birds, the point facing away from the water. Tayva stooped and cupped a handful of water from the slough, then straightened with difficulty and poured it over the still bird. The water left a coating of decay on her hand, and only with conscious effort did she refrain from wiping it clean. Drawing a single deep breath, she knelt at the edge of the water with eyes closed. Her tension and breath eased out of her in a sustained exhalation until she slumped forward, totally empty. Suddenly Tayva's head snapped back and tremors rippled along her body. A grimace swept her visage, emotions unknown and incomprehensible trying to express themselves. Her hands jerked and pawed at her sides. The birds called in fear and tried to flee. When Tayva's hands finally grasped the baskets the birds attacked her fingers. Any pain she might have felt was swept away by something else as she lifted the birds over the still water and then plunged them through the surface. The cages submerged only halfway, slowed by strange wiry plants hidden in the water. A blast of stench came from the disturbed water that blinded Tayva and tears poured from her eyes. The birds beat the water with their wings and pecked at Tayva, the wickerwork, each other, and even the water. But their movements grew more feeble by the second, and Tayva kept pushing the baskets down. The pigeons were laboring and dying, pulled down one by one, as if some small animal was inside the basket with them. Tayva forced one cage beneath the surface completely and had to use both hands to push the other down. Only one bird was left. It attacked her fingers as she forced her hands below the roiled surface. She nearly fell in as more tremors shook her and then sat back on her heels hard. She shuddered and shook her head as though dislodging flies. Tayva heard the rustle of damp feathers behind her. The dead bird preened itself and looked at the small of her back with one dull eye. A great slow smile spread over her face, and she clasped her bleeding, scarred hands together and groaned with pleasure and remembrance of better days.
Tayva and Loria reclined on cushions piled along the walls. Though the room was in a basement, it had been carefully decorated to suggest freedom. The walls and ceilings were covered in swathes of cloth that gave the room the appearance of a great tent. A thick layer of sand covered what should have been a muddy floor, and good drainage kept it dry. Vents from a holocaust drove a continuous stream of hot air over everything. Despite the warmth, braziers sat in every corner burning great blocks of incense, throwing streamers of smoke through the air. Loria and Tayva took no notice of their surroundings. Their eyes were steady on the woman in the center of the room.
She was old and worn, her dress that of a household servant. Her eyes were wide and staring into oblivion. She stood upright, but her head moved in an irregular circle as she swayed.
"Come in, Uncle Brucius," Loria called. Tayva and Loria both wore flowing clothes that matched the cushions on which they reclined. The man pushing through the hanging cloth missed them initially because they blended so well with their habitat. He rubbed his arms vigorously when inside, as though scraping away webbing.
"This is ridiculous. Why have I been kept waiting? You should have greeted me the moment I arrived." His upper body was covered by goose bumps, and he masked his disquiet with offended dignity. "And why are we meeting down here? You should receive your guests properly." He turned to look for a seat, but no chairs were set for him, and he found the notion of reclining on the floor like his nieces distasteful. He elected to stand over them.
"May we ask why you are here today, Uncle?" Loria questioned, tilting her head only enough to keep him in the corner of her eye.
"You know very well why. I've come to talk some sense into you. I can't imagine why no one else in the family hasn't done so!" Brucius's arms waved and punched to lend emphasis to his diatribe. "Have this woman dismiss herself immediately!"
"You have always lacked imagination, Uncle," Loria, replied. "Surely you recognize old Tomaya. She has been a nurse to two generations of our family. She's practically family herself." Through all this Tomaya swayed and stared at nothing.
Brucius was livid that his orders should be refused and that he was considered related to a servant. He roughly grasped the old woman's shoulder and hurled her to the side. She fell like a tree and made no attempt to catch herself.
"I have helped keep this family great when other families and nations have fallen to advancing glaciers. You are an investment in the future, Loria, and I won't have you destroying your value in the company of this spinster! You will leave this house." He turned to Tayva. This girl was dark and cold in a land where those qualities were abundant, and she had enjoyed few suitors. "You will turn control of this house to me!" he began to storm, but the words crashed against something in his throat.
Tayva was a placid pool except for one hand that trembled with tension. Brucius felt that tension on his throat and was frozen. He could not even struggle to continue. Tayva held him with something much stronger than just her hand. He stared out of a body that was completely severed from him. He could hear Loria rising behind him, and she whispered in his ear.
"You seem, very quiet, Uncle. Did you run out of orders to give?" Loria dragged one fingertip down his neck, and it burned. But even a whimper was beyond him. "You cannot command us. No one can command us. We are greater than you. We are greater than anyone!"
Loria moved into the corner of his vision, and her face shook with intensity. "Show him, Tayva, why no one gives us orders."
Tayva raised both hands. Brucius turned a half step and saw old Tomaya standing up, still looking at nothing, with a knife in her hands. His throat was not blocked anymore, and he cried out.
"Stop! Don't hurt me! I'll do anything!" He was gasping for breath, and he tried to run without result.
Tomaya raised the knife and stepped within a single pace of him. Her eyes finally seemed to focus, and she looked into his. Tomaya spoke, but her voice was young. Brucius recognized it as Tayva's.
"Loria was right. You have no imagination at all." Tomaya raised the knife to her own wrinkled neck and cut a wide, red smile. Brucius screamed anew as Tomaya stood, looking in his eyes, blood pouring down her body.
Suddenly Brucius felt relief as Tayva's grip on him loosened and he was given back control of his frame. Tomaya collapsed, and he ran from the room. The crash of furniture overturned by his flight faded only when he reached the outside door.
Both cousins had fallen at the same time as the corpse of Tomaya. Loria was the first to stand, despite the pain that knotted her muscles.
"By the gods, why did you do that, Tayva?" she demanded as she reached desperately for wine to dull her pain. "We weren't nearly done with Uncle. And why did you let Tomaya expire so soon?"
"I didn't allow anything to happen!" Tayva exclaimed as she too rose and reached for wine. She was even more unsteady than her cousin, and she cursed the decision that left this room without any chairs. "I don't know what happened!"
More screams sounded throughout the house. Tayva reached down to Tomaya's cooling body and wrenched the knife from her dead hand. Loria squared her shoulders and gestured to the open door.
"We need to find out what is happening. Ebnezzer should still be in the west wing." The pair climbed a wooden stairway up into the rest of the house.
Ebnezzer had appeared as a refugee from some mysterious struggle in the south. He had been destitute and in dire need of a patron. Tayva had been delighted to provide him with the use of her own home. He became her tutor in the arts of sacrifice and control. Within a year the bored elite of the city had congealed around Tayva and Ebnezzer. Things were done in the night that soon had the city whispering, rites that turned most away except for a core of true devotees.
Tayva had inducted Loria into this dark world. The cousins gained power that freed them from any need to conform or obey the rules of society or their families.
Soon they dominated the group, and most of their compatriots in darkness had been sacrificed to feed their hunger for power. Loria ignored her branch of the family and moved in with her older cousin.
If a servant vanished, well, times were hard and uncertain. Surely things whispered in terror of night could not happen when considered in daylight. Tayva and Loria reveled in their abilities. Now they wanted answers about what curbed their power.
It was madness they saw as they moved to the west wing. Bodies of servants, formerly under control, sprawled over the floors, some in repose of death while others writhed in mindless agony. A young maid, a recent victim grasped within the past month, ran in circles in the center of the sitting room. At the sight of the cousins her orbit contracted, and she moved to the back of the room as if driven by the wind. Her impact with a cabinet smashed wood, and she fell, a broken bag of bones.
Loria was attacked by a page as they traversed the main hall. The young boy had run at her with his arms flapping, an ungainly bird returning to the falconer. His hands were boneless flippers swatting at Loria while she covered her face with her arms. The boy whistled with relief as Tayva plunged her knife several times into his side.
Ebnezzer was mumbling and rocking when they forced his inner sanctum. Books and apparatus were piled high on tables throughout the room, and a dissecting tray held a large rat still leaking blood. Ebnezzer had obviously been interrupted in the practice of his craft. The aura of darkness and energy that had pervaded this room was replaced by the sour stench of suffering and death. Both cousins felt disgust that one whose power had so impressed them should be brought so low.
"What happened, Ebnezzer?" Loria demanded as she grasped the head of the kneeling man. Her hands felt a spark of something, and she shook him harder. "Why did we lose power? Why are the servants free!"
"Don't know, don't know. Felt some great power, swept me away. Swept it all away!" Ebnezzer tore his head free and began to sob and wail.
Tayva circled the room, examining what her mentor had brought into the house. Anything that was valuable and easy to sell she fingered with a speculative air. "Ask him if the power will return," she urged her cousin. "Ask him what he can do."
Loria stooped beside him and spoke with more urgency as she realized that her victims were free and that Uncle Brucius had escaped with his mind nearly intact.
"Do you have anything left? Any spirit to call on? Will our powers ever reappear?" Each question caused Ebnezzer to shiver, and Loria felt hope slide away.
"What I knew is gone. I don't know when or if anything will return. I tasted a spirit before it was torn away. I've got it in my mouth, and it sings to me. It's singing now," he muttered and stared blankly at the floor.
Tayva looked to Loria, crouching with her hands on a madman, and clapped softly to gain her attention.
"What now?" Tayva asked.
Loria took only seconds to decide.
"We can't stay in the city. The family will have to give us up after what Uncle saw. I don't know if we'll ever get back what we lost. Ebnezzer is useless. Something is in him, but we might never extract it." Loria gestured to the contents of the room. "Find whatever is of value. Pack it up quickly. We must be on the road within the hour. I'll return to our rooms and get our valuables and some traveling clothes." Loria rose to her feet and trotted to their quarters.
Tayva was alone with the madman. She already knew what she would take, but she walked slowly over to the oblivious sorcerer and laid her hand as if in benediction on the brow of her former mentor.
The cousins fled the city into a sudden thaw. The roads were mud, and their spirits fell even as a few of their victims recovered and roused the city behind them. Tayva and Loria fled north with the head of Ebnezzer rotting in a leather bag at the bottom of their luggage.
Loria cursed quietly and continually as she knelt in the mire of the lake edge looking for tubers. The lake was clear and sandy bottomed for most of its bank, but into one pocket at the edge glacial action had pushed topsoil. Similar pockets of dirt were deposited all over the country, but most were barren and gullied by spring rains. Plants had grown in this hollow during the late summer and fall. Changed by events that shook the world twenty years before, it had adapted to the inundation of spring. The dense roots and tubers were hard as seasoned wood, and when water came, they protected themselves from rot with the excretion of slime and a network of thin frothy rootlets.
Standing barelegged in the cold water, Loria was digging tubers that felt like stones and smelled like wet manure.
Tayva was visible in the distance as Loria stood erect to throw the roots up on the shore. The older woman was returning with the basket she had hauled to the coal pit. The walk was over broken gullies, but it had the advantage of warming limbs that would be numb with cold from standing in the water. Loria was cold and miserable and hated Tayva with the feeble ferocity that the miserable have. Tayva stumbled and dragged the basket through the dirt, caking the filthy cane-work with more gobs of crumbly mud.
"Keep it out of the dirt, Tayva." Loria still had the energy to carp at her cousin. "I'm not going to help or wait for you if you muck that up."
Tayva's response was an obscene gesture that did more to show her lack of energy than her irritation with her cousin.
Loria stooped down and tried her best to wash her hands and legs clean. At best, she would get most of the muck off, but would soon replace it with dust from the path to the brewing site.
Tayva arrived and began filling the basket with the nodules. "I'm getting tired of doing this," she remarked and then hurled one root as hard as she could into the basket. The only result was a dull thud. Tayva knotted her fists and then opened them in exaggerated relaxation.
"We were both meant for better things, but what power we have is here," Loria responded. She kicked the basket in resignation and sighed as it flopped over into the wet soil. She bent over and swore again as her back protested. Tayva tried to rest by levering her arms against her legs, but found no comfort. She watched her cousin pawing at the ground like a tired, ineffectual animal.
Loria stood up and saw Tayva's look of faint disgust. She also noticed a figure coming along the lakeside trail.
The cousins straightened and tried to assume a veneer of amity. It was a poor showing, but the quality of their approaching audience alleviated the need for a fine performance.
Winton was his name. He was hunter of waterfowl, who tramped though the network of lakes and streams that crisscrossed the raw landscape. He had an eager expression on his coarse, full features as he recognized the cousins. Tayva was older, grayer, and filthy in her dress of poorly cured hide. Loria was the better-looking of the pair and well groomed for someone working in the water and the mud. Winton knew them only as the authors of a brew made from the stinking nodules they were gathering, a brew known for its savage potency and almost lethal hangovers. His eagerness faded as he hit the fetid air from the raw roots.
"Quite a smell, neighbor," he called. "Hard to imagine you make your ambrosia from that refuse." Winton kept his distance but tried to be as friendly as possible. He shifted on his feet, and the two small bolas strung through his belt clacked against each other.
The man hunted waterfowl for money. He was a dab hand with a sling, but his bolas were surer weapons in uncertain light. He cast them as the birds startled and then sold the ones he caught on the road the next day. The sling and stones at the back of his belt he used against rabbits and targets in trees. He was an old and eager customer for the cousins' brew.
"I wouldn't mind trading for a pot of comfort, " he said, clasping a hand to the brightly dyed bolas, the stones red, blue, and green. "Three birds or five rabbits, delivered to your door. "
Tayva drew a breath to bargain, but Loria preempted her. "I hope that you will accept a pot as a gift," she drawled and reached toward Winton with open hands. She tried to sound seductive, but her breathless delivery to one she considered a clod sounded silly to her cousin's ears. "Bring a brace of whatever you have to our hut tonight, and we'll celebrate together. "
Winton looked puzzled. "What holiday is this?" he asked. Living alone he often lost track of time.
"We are celebrating being alive," Loria replied. She tried for a sultry air but achieved only petulance. Tayva coughed to cover a mean-spirited sneer.
But Winton saw everything through a veil of loneliness, and any indication of interest was enough to set the hook.
"I will return tonight, my dear, " he said, as he turned and dramatically bounded a few steps before settling into his characteristic slouch. Loria motioned for silence until he was out of hearing. Tayva complied and then policed the area, gathering their rude tools.
"Cousin, you had better practice deception more often. You were painfully insincere," Tayva chided. She hoisted the basket and motioned with her chin that Loria was to set it on her back.
"He's coming, isn't he? He'll be panting when he shows up, too." Loria settled the straps to minimize the chance of blisters or welts.
"So what are we going to do with him?" asked Tayva.
"Aren't you feeling tired? We're going to kill him, of course." And with that, Loria started out to the hills with her cousin matter-of-factly falling in behind her.
"Kill him. Yes. But where and how to use the death?" Tayva inquired, but she stumbled and caught her balance with difficulty, then continued, "Destroy his mind and use him up here? Corrupt his spirit and send him out for revenge?"
The path was broader now and showed hard work on the part of someone. Rock steps had been built on a few of the steeper parts of the trail with bushes planted strategically to cover the improvements. The path dropped through a cut to screen walkers from observation.
The cousins arrived at the brewing pits, depressions backed to a hillside. Surrounded by brush, the place was distant from their hut but close to a seam of dirty brown coal that broke to the surface like a great whale. Tayva levered chunks and slabs into a basket. Then, with Loria at the other side, she walked it to the fire where rocks heaped in the coals served as heating stones.
Loria gestured around the site as Tayva threw more coal onto the fire. "That tinker from the road, we got three weeks of labor out of him."
The improvements on the path, the deeper pits that held the brewing equipment, had all been done by a traveler the pair had caught on the main road.
"We could use Winton to expand here. Maybe he could drive the well deeper. We had to bury the tinker too soon to do a decent job."
Tayva was now moving more rocks into the pit to heat. The tinker's corpse lay buried under the fire pit and was baked by the flames above. Tayva used a great pair of tongs to lift rocks already heated into one of a trio of dug-out logs hauled a long distance from their felling place. The heat was boiling the collected roots to remove the watertight covering of slime. That covering, besides being unpalatable, was poisonous and would kill the customers too fast if allowed to remain. Loria went to the shallow well and drew a bucket of water. She dumped it into the log and watched the run-off of poison flow down a sandy ditch the tinker had dug.
Tayva had finished transferring the heated stones and stood leaning on the tongs. "It would be nice to have someone else to do the scut work up here. Our energy is low, and there are my flocks of birds to sustain. Each bird I make takes more power, and the rush is less. We feed the water, or we'll have trouble."
When they had arrived years before, Ebnezzer's head had gone into the water behind the hut. Rotting away, the head had released the spirit that gave them a taste of true power and glory again. But the harder they worked the spirit, the more it demanded. Settling waterfowl were sucked beneath the waters, even though the cousins did nothing. Better prey was required on occasion.
"We need a death, but how to kill him?" Tayva asked as she went to the second dug-out log. It was empty, a basket of roots beside it. The roots had been steeped and heated so long they were comparatively soft. A tall, hollow stump wrapped in wire served the companions as a mortar as they ground the root to pulp.
"Knifing him is too messy," Loria stated as she motioned Tayva to help her lift a metal-tipped section of log. The dead tinker had molded the metal to the wood. The metal had come from one of the killing machines of Mishra, and Loria found it ironic that such a piece of dark history should continue to be used in the creation of death and deception. The log was their pestle, and both gripped the handle pegs in unison, lofting it and letting its weight and narrow point crush the roots inside the hollow stump.
"Beating him to death is too much like work," Tayva voiced in time to their work.
"We could smother him when he's drunk," Loria replied as she bent to remove pulp and add more roots. The toxic brew not only made murder easier, but its trade brought needed money as well as the joy of knowing that people were dying from its cumulatively lethal effects.
"Tedious waiting for him to pass out. Besides, we need him in the water," Tayva said. "I'm not going to carry him." She threw dead flowers into the second log; their decay and seeds would start the brewing process and add a narcotic kick.
"It is accidental drowning while drunk then." Loria crossed to the third log and examined the mixture. It was nearing completion. Just one more step before straining and bottling. "It's ready for the special spice."
Tayva chuckled in amusement as she walked to the sealed pot she had brought from home. Opening it, she looked down at a rotted bird. Its eyes were fallen in, and its feathers and flesh were tattered shreds. The bottom of the pot was swimming in preserving oil, but the blast of odor was a wet slap in the face, even in the already choked and polluted air. The bird twisted and tried to stand but could not on its broken legs; it was one of Tayva's spies who had decayed too much to be of any use. Tayva took the body in her hands and shuffled back to the third log. She knelt in the mud, squelching in the foul overflow from the brewing process. Her hands slowly juggled the pigeon as its liquefying flesh threatened to come apart in her hand. She cleared her mind and focused on the dank water behind their hut. She could feel its uncertain currents and taste it in her mind. The real world faded into her vision as her hands contracted into fists with a wet pop. She breathed foulness and dreamed.
When she came to herself, Loria was straining the now loathsome contents of the third log into a series of cheap pots. Tayva's arms were black with gore to the elbows, and she was lying in mud and toxic runoff. The roots, in their various stages of brewing, smelled like a rendering plant, and a haze of choking smoke from the burning coal settled over everything. It was beautiful.
Winton whistled as he picked his way to the cousins' house. He had slept through the late afternoon, as was his habit, and hunted birds in the early evening since the birds settled and were easier targets in early morning and at twilight. He had caught two waterfowl in quick succession. His casts had startled the birds in shallow water, and he had wrapped up a pair of birds in the small bolas. The third bird was a large crane of some sort. That one had almost flown away with his bola before Winton crashed through the reeds and wrung its neck. It was large and beautiful, and Winton believed he was carrying good luck to Tayva and Loria's hut.
The only sour note of the day had been his last cast. He had missed the bird completely and heard a loud crack immediately thereafter. He had searched through the water for the bright color of the bolas. One weight had broken on a lake rock and was throwing the balance of the weapon off.
That stroke of bad luck was lost in the canvas of fantasy he painted in his mind: the mighty hunter returning to his adoring women, the meat he had brought down buying their adulation and respect. It was such a pretty picture that he imagined Loria's poor acting as merely barely suppressed passion.
"Yes, " he said aloud to the world. "That one is yours for the taking. Just a dash of charm and then Tayva will love you as well. " He distracted himself with romantic delusions as he tramped through the twilight and saw the full moon rising over the horizon.
He could see the hut and the flickering light of a candle through the open door, a good trade candle instead of firelight or homemade fat lamps. He felt himself a noble guest at the sight of this extravagance.
He announced his arrival with a shout and strode to the door. "Here I am, ladies. With this feast and my company, we'll have fine dining." He stood proud in his stained and odorous clothes. His legs from the knees down were spattered with mud, and his shirt was wet with sweat and water from the birds he had killed. He hauled his catch over his shoulder and handed it to Tayva, looking past her to find Loria.
Loria was dressed in her best. Her clothes were patched with cloth of nearly the same color as the original fabric. Loria had groomed carefully. Her hair was the cleanest thing in the room.
"Thank you for your contribution, sir. Come have a cup, and tell us the news," Loria replied grandly.
Meanwhile Tayva was examining Winton's prize crane. She saw a bird with mud in its feathers and malformed legs.
She plucked it and sectioned it, placing gobs of meat on a skewer over the fire. Her dress, irregularly patched but well-fitting, was dyed carefully and was of one color. Unfortunately, that color was a muddy gray-green that vanished into the background. Each time she returned to the conversation, she noticed Winton was more puffed up and boastful than before.
Winton was perched on a stool and hunched over the table. The poor state of the furniture gave his self-important dialog a nervous edge as he tried surreptitiously to keep weight off the stool. When his elbows left the table in an extravagant gesture he hurriedly put them back down.
"The mayor of Cade himself asked me for news of the road. Wanted to know if I'd heard anything about the unrest down south. I get all the news on the road," Winton said as he picked at the gob of meat Tayva had placed before him. Cade was the smallest settlement Tayva knew of that actually had a name. Only one ignorant of the world found it of any note.
"And what did you tell him?" Loria asked as she gave him another full glass of brew and a wink. She was stoking him as she would stoke the dinner fire, slowly feeding it until it was just right. Winton took a large gulp of brew. It was rough as a cob and strong as a winter storm, but the best that he had ever tasted.
"I told him of troubles all through the south. All you hear are tales of marching and treasure."
Loria listened with some interest. Even a blind guide will sometimes find the trail, she thought.
"You hear so many things, but I am hungry. How about some more meat?" Winton was feeling lightheaded. Maybe a fuller stomach would anchor him.
Tayva had been basting and seasoning meat from Winton's crane. Finally the meat was cooked to her satisfaction.
Winton ate everything set before him. The skewers of crane meat went to his plate alone, and he never thought to share. Loria pressed him with strong drink, but in truth, she was hard put to keep his cup full. Tayva watched and said nothing.
"I heard that the ice fields are still retreating to the north. We live in a better world every day!" Winton proclaimed. The cousins thought of the luxury and power that they had enjoyed years before and were silent.
The women ate from one of the waterfowl and only moistened their lips as Winton downed great draughts of liquor. He was a bore and a glutton, but no expression of displeasure ever crossed their faces. The birdcatcher was finally in such a state that Loria decided it was time.
Winton cleared the table of its food and sat blearily looking at the cousins. "What now?" he asked and let go a great belch.
"Why, let's go fishing," Loria said brightly and winked at the drunken man.
"Why, what a marvelous idea!" Winton exclaimed and rose to his feet. He thrust himself up, using his hands against the table. The cups and clay plates slid to the floor, but he was too drunk to notice.
"Take my hand, Winton," Loria simpered, and he reached for it as she retreated through the door. Tayva had to hold his shoulder to steer him from the hut.
Winton stumbled as he was led out into the night. The moon was bright, but the landscape lacked detail to catch the eye. The dovecot was a den of darkness, and the slough was a meadow in the background.
"Come, Winton. Night fishing is fun. We've caught many in the night," Loria claimed coquettishly. She was ghostly in the moonlight, drawing him after her with her voice. Tayva was holding his right arm, keeping him oriented toward Loria. Tayva's feet instinctively drifted to the center of the narrow path, and Winton began to trip and lurch as he was forced to the side.
Winton's mind was cloudy, and he wondered if this was still a romantic game being played by the cousins. The dovecot was a mass of darkness, and Winton shook his head in its dark shadow.
"And how do you catch them?" he joked. "With clever lines?" Winton was breathing deeply and leaned on the woven lattice of wood and wicker. It groaned loudly, and the pigeons called briefly at the noise. Tayva dragged him on by his right arm.
"With this. We spear them." Tayva brandished a large skewer with a great barbed point with her free arm. Winton thought it a hilarious prop, for it was too short to be an effective spear. He giggled and stumbled even more. Loria drifted closer as Winton laughed and lurched against Tayva.
"I'll fish out the lake!" he boasted and listed so heavily that Loria had to slip under his left arm to keep him walking.
The cousins pushed from either side to quicken the pace. They were almost to the water of the slough, and both were running out of patience. Winton tried to grab the barb from Tayva.
"Give it to me, and I'll show you how to use it."
"You'll get it," Tayva stated and slipped beneath his arm and behind him. To Winton's sight she had disappeared, and he began to grope Loria in the belief that they were alone.
They stepped into the water, and its chill and sudden foul odor shocked him. The bottom mud and weeds clung to him even as Loria led him deeper into the water with great splashes. His head began to clear as the stench crowded out the drunkenness.
"Far enough, " Loria said in a cold voice, and she ducked out of his arms. The ripples from his clumsiness stopped, and still water converged on him. Tayva kicked behind Winton's knees, and he fell face first into the water.
Winton tried to break his fall but hit the water with a loud slap. His lungs emptied from the force of his fall, and he panicked as his hands were caught in the treacherous mud. The water was relatively shallow, but Winton couldn't free himself. By arching his back he could keep his head above the water. He began rocking violently from side to side. Each motion enveloped him in even more foulness, and he was nearly blind in the polluted air. Loria was kneeling in the water to his side. Her hands held flat to the surface of the slough, and water roiled beneath them. Winton's struggle irritated her. She looked on the gasping hunter with disgust.
"Tayva, " Loria commanded, and Winton felt a great weight between his shoulders. Each time his head broke water, Tayva forced it back down beneath the surface. Now Winton could not lift his head at all. His struggles peaked, and then he moved no more. Liquid forced itself into his mouth, nose, and down into his lungs. Everything in his body-energy, will, courage-everything but awareness, drained into the water. It crushed him, and when nothing more could be squeezed out, he floated to the top.
"Tayva, finish him up and put him in a deep spot. " Loria sounded tired but replete, as if a fine dessert had been devoured. She stood and teetered as drunkenly as Winton had minutes before, then retreated to the hut.
Winton felt pressure and tearing as Tayva forced him to deeper water. She ran the skewer through his chest and abdomen.
Loria returned from the house, still weaving from the aftermath of what they had done. She carried Winton's bolas wrapped over one arm and a stack of dirty crockery.
"We need to erase any sign that he was here tonight. Scrub these clean after we finish up here," Loria directed as she set the dishes down on the ground.
Tayva only grunted and pierced the hunter through one final time. They wrapped the bolas over his wrists and then turned him face up. Water and scum oozed down his countenance, and one last bit of air burbled out his lips. The cousins were waist-deep in the water, and the slough was growing icy cold.
Tayva's teeth were chattering, and she muttered peevishly, "Why did you get the best part?"
Loria laughed. "You can still get the last taste. I received enough for now."
They both trailed their hands down his legs to his feet and began the last ritual.
"Hold him," they chanted and forced his legs to the bottom. The dead limbs caught, and the mud began to pull him down.
"Devour him," Tayva crooned as only Winton's head showed above the surface. "Obliterate him!" she finished and felt a rush of warmth course through her. Whatever remained of Winton vanished beneath the water.
The next day the cousins rested. They were sated with power and dreams, gravid with desires and dark hungers. They accomplished nothing till late evening when Loria broke the contented silence that surrounded them.
"Do you think there is more unrest in the south than usual? It has been so long since we really paid much attention. Maybe that fool hunter said something sensible before he died." Loria stretched out her legs, reveling in the suppleness that Winton's death had girted her.
"I could call in the flocks," Tayva replied, "but we would need them all to get a clear picture."
The dead pigeons that she sent out into the world were excellent spies and recorders of events, but they did not return unless called. The act of hearing their reports destroyed every trace of power left in their corpses, and Tayva then had to create more spies from her limited stock of birds. Each spy cost the sacrifice of several pigeons, so Tayva rarely called in her creatures. Often, little more than tattered skeletons answered her call.
"Why we should listen to the words of an idiot escapes me." Tayva was too content to contemplate action.
"Because I feel ambitious. Disaster and fighting breed opportunity," Loria replied. She was restless and nearly danced with suppressed energy. "Call in everything. Something wonderful is happening! I know it!"
Tayva reluctantly acquiesced and walked to the dovecot. Loria's enthusiasm did not fire her, but there might be profit in a new course of action. Calling in her birds was easy enough and no great sacrifice.
Tayva entered the cot and looked over her flock. She knew exactly which bird to use. The pigeon was the one most closely related to all she had sent out, and blood calls to blood. She saw it in a corner cage and softly grasped it in her hands. At first unsettled, the bird soon calmed and began to coo. Tayva carefully exited the cot and turned to the slough. The bird was completely lulled when she approached the dank water. A knife she brought from the house darted to the bird, and its blood covered her hand. She dropped the knife in the dust and squeezed all she could from the small body. She flung one cupped palm to the sky and shrieked as a bird. The blood from her hand arced high and fell as uneven rain over the foul water. The surface frothed and then settled with the red droplets vanishing into the depths.
Though the imperative went out that instant, the birds would not wing home until night. Carrion birds knew they were dead, and flights of crows would fall upon the rotten flesh if the spies flew by day.
Tayva returned and sat at their small table. "They are coming, but I don't know how we'll replace them all."
Loria finished the last of the meat from their murderous feast the night before. "Set nets and lime and use flocks of wild birds. Our power can stretch farther now. It is time to forego the ties of blood and relation." She nibbled at the greasy meat delicately, her daintiness out of place in the polluted and narrow hut. "It's time for bigger and bolder actions. We're moldering away in this sty." She kicked spitefully at the crude furniture.
"Remember our former house? Queens of creation we were. And the freedom! Servants to dispose of the mess and find new subjects. Only the best and richest victims to share. Those were grand times. We've grown too small to remember them." Loria looked into the more prosperous past and ached with longing.
The two cousins wove nightmares of the past and future and delighted in their darkness.
"Well, what do you hear?" Loria asked as she rubbed her hands to hide her excitement.
Tayva worked behind the stone wall of the dovecot and tilted her head into a gust of clean air. The shade of the cot and the proximity to the water should have made her comfortable, but her work prevented much relief. The birds had returned during the night, and Tayva had been taking their reports most of the day. The heat and proximity of so many animated rotting bodies created a cloud of stench that nearly drove her to distraction. Loria had walked on the lakeshore, wrapped in dreams of good fortune while Tayva completed the filthy work. She was also tired from having to soothe the living birds. The dead pigeons had settled in baskets and crates set around the dovecot, the focus of their former lives. The return of their dead relatives brought the living birds no joy. The pigeons had finally settled in exhaustion, and Tayva knew stress would kill several more before the end of the day.
"Interesting news," Tayva finally replied to Loria's query. "Winton was right. The south is wracked by plague that is spreading like wildfire! The druids can't touch it, and the leaders are desperate." Tayva called another pigeon and watched it fly from the group concealed in an overturned basket. She had separated the arrivals into several groups and was processing them.
The pigeon had no eyes, but it still regarded Tayva and Loria intently, shifting its stance as its focus changed from one to the other. Tayva riveted its attention as she set her shoulders and raised her arms. One hand pointed at the bird, and the other reached for the slough. The pigeon's flesh corrupted and liquefied in an instant, and all it had known since its rebirth slammed into Tayva's mind.
Loria ignored her cousin. The morning had gone, and she had seen the ceremony too many times. She poured the last of the herbal oil over the dissolving bones, throwing handfuls of gray ash over it. The resulting cloud covered the whole back of the cot and a large circle of ground. Loria choked until it cleared, but Tayva sat and digested what she had learned in perfect stillness.
"It's a treasure hunt, " she said abruptly. "There are rumors of secreted power. The birds saw armies marching in search of it, and this one even saw a map purporting to give its location. Power is just sitting there while collections of timid fools wait for orders. This is something we could grasp for ourselves!" Tayva spoke with rising excitement, and her gestures became broader. The prospect of power washed the surrounding filth from her mind.
Loria listened. "We'll beat them to it. True power. No more birds or simpering plots. To be done with isolation at last!" She was exultant, but her near shout of joy tweaked her bones with pain, and she thought of what travel would mean. She rose and walked to the hut.
"No security. No sacrifices for power. Nothing I can't carry with me," Loria muttered and looked around. The hut was rude, and all the decent things had disappeared long ago. There was a small amount of coin-carefully gathered from successful victims-but little else of value. Loria went to the side of the doorjamb and dug their cash from the hiding place, a pot sealed in the rammed earth floor. The bag was distressingly light. She watched her cousin checking the pigeons and saw an old woman who would lend little to the journey and split resources. So many had died at her hands. The choice wasn't hard.
"Tayva, kill the best birds and bring them for pies," she shouted. "We're leaving tomorrow, and we'll have the best before we go." She turned to begin making crusts and plans for the dinner-and for tomorrow's lonely journey.
The meal that night was a success. The cousins took the last of the good wine from its hiding place and served in freshly washed cups. Loria had carefully "seasoned" the food and maintained a separation between what she and Tayva ate. Loria was the perfect hostess, fetching each course and topping each cup.
"I wonder how warm it is in the south. It's been so long since we left I can hardly remember how it was. Not that my memories will be of any use after twenty years of retreating ice," she said as she gave the last of the wine to Tayva and nudged the servings of food closer to her cousin.
Loria had never poisoned someone familiar with toxins and felt some trepidation. Each course, each utensil that Tayva used was lightly poisoned. If she grew suspicious and switched food or silverware with Loria, the plan would still go forward. Tayva's ingestion of many small doses of poison would have a fatal effect. The poison was distilled from the cousins' brew and was without taste. Eventually Tayva would fall under its influence and die.
Tayva grew steadily more passive, her mind wandering.
Loria decided to accelerate the process. "Have some brew, dear cousin, " she coaxed and poured the vintage that Winton had enjoyed into a brace of cups. "It's not good, but it is all we have for now. " She watched Tayva take the cup and drink deeply. Tayva motioned for more, but her eyes were dull in the evening light and her movements muted.
"Plenty more for us both, " Loria said expansively and filled Tayva's cup to the brim while ignoring her own. Tayva again drank deeply, and all signs of her intelligence faded away. Loria found the situation delicious.
"So sad that I-we are leaving tomorrow, " she said maliciously. "There were good times here. " She considered the squalor around her. "Well, not too good. " She reached to fill Tayva's cup, but she was thwarted by her cousin's uncoordinated attempt to pass it to her. It fell to the floor and broke. Tayva looked at the shards of pottery with an expression of deep grief.
Loria felt a thrill and flushed with wicked pleasure. It was time for the kill. She needed her cousin at the slough for maximum effect, and walking her there would be impossible if she ate or drank anything more. Tayva looked unfit to sit up, much less walk to her doom.
"Let's look on the water one last time," Loria cajoled. "Tomorrow we'll be gone and never see it again. We should say good-bye, after all."
Tayva nodded in blurry agreement and rose unsteadily. Loria rose and tottered to the door with feigned drunkenness. She had never acted so well.
The two women weaved and bumped down the path to the slough. Loria felt her gorge rise as they passed the dovecot and the stench of the decomposing pigeons. Tayva actually leaned against the stone wall and breathed deeply. Loria feared that her cousin might stop there, but Tayva collected herself and continued to the dark water.
The darkness of the night gathered in the foul water, and Loria worried that Tayva would become suspicious. The pair were moving slower and slower, and Tayva looked more focused and intent by the minute. Loria stopped to concentrate on the upcoming sacrifice, to commune with the spirit in the water but felt lightheaded and feverish with impatience. She could feel the stench streaming off the slough. The spirit was ready for the sacrifice. This was the moment of decision.
Loria lurched forward to push her cousin into the evil morass. She wailed in rage as she lost her footing and tumbled to the ground instead.
"This is no time for mistakes! Kill her!" she muttered angrily to herself.
Loria tried to push herself upright, but her arms wouldn't hold her, and she smacked into the ground. Her cry of anger turned to a ghastly moan as she spewed blood over the muddy bank of the slough.
Tayva straightened, and her eyes flashed in the dimming light. She stood over Loria, smiling, watching her companion cough up her life.
"Do you feel ill, Cousin?" she asked snidely. "I thought I ate all the poison." She laughed hard.
Loria spasmed as if punched.
"Do you think me as stupid as our victims? I knew you would try to kill me." Tayva chuckled and kicked her cousin in the side.
Loria convulsed briefly, and a fresh gout of blood trickled toward the water.
"The pigeons brought back more than news. They brought plague! One of them rolled in a corpse and brought it back. Contaminating the food was simple, a little dollop of power, and some of the live birds were infected. I nearly laughed when you were so careful to keep your food separate from mine." Tayva turned to the slough and breathed the fetid air deeply in preparation for her dark communion. She couldn't resist one more taunt.
"How did I avoid the poison? I swallowed it all. I just took care to swallow the last of the oil from the dovecot. It coated my stomach and intestines. Everything I ate is neutralized or will just pass through." Tayva looked at the water and saw the blood vanish below the surface. She could feel dark waves of evil flowing up the stream of blood to her cousin's body. Loria writhed weakly and died.
"Time to finish the sacrifice," Tayva gloated and stepped into the water.
"Yes, " whispered the spirit, and the surface broke in front of her.
It was Winton, and the water had not been kind. Withered eyes looked to her and flesh peeled off in great strips as he moved toward her. Tayva shrieked and turned to run. The water and mud gripped her legs, and her progress slowed as she moved to the shore, but she still had the strength and speed to outrun a dead man.
Tayva raced past her dead cousin, but Winton cast his bolas as he had a thousand times in life, and she fell hard. The bolas wrapped her legs, and she dragged herself forward with her hands, tearing them on the stony ground. She couldn't catch her breath and curled up in pain. She glanced back and saw Winton bending over Loria, his rotting hands tangled in Loria's blue dress as he dragged her into the shallows.
Even as she caught her breath she still crawled, moving toward the hut for a knife to free herself. By the time she reached the dovecot her legs were burning with such pain that she could only thrust her body into the dark interior in a futile attempt to hide.
She lay alone with the plague-ridden bodies of birds. She had killed everything in the ceremony to corrupt the pigeons she fed to Loria. Tayva touched her legs and cried out as she felt the barbs and jagged edges on the bolas that tied her limbs. She could smell her legs putrefying as poison and disease from the slough devoured her. She would never escape now.
Tayva wept. All the cousins had done and said was heard by something else. Their plans to leave were understood by what had escaped Ebnezzer's skull. The spirit of the water decided two sacrifices would serve it better.
Tayva clasped her hands to her head and tried to shut out reality. But even through her moans of pain she could hear unsteady footsteps. Winton's possessed and rotting body wove up the path. She tried to remember the prayers against the dead, but prayers were lost to her. She cursed the spirit, Loria, and herself as the door creaked open. Tayva remembered all the pigeons she had drowned over the years and shuddered as Winton began to drag her to the slough.
Blue, sometimes called the color of distinction, is characterized by calm hands and a reflective mind. A natural sedative, blue is the color of deliberation and introspection, conservatism and acceptance. Blue has almost universal appeal and is considered to be the most aesthetically appealing color. Blue is the color of respect and wisdom. But, those who lean toward blue sometimes use reason for selfish and self-justified purposes. It is the color of control and passive aggression as well as the color of the sea and the sky. Blue is for those contemplative people who exercise caution in words and actions and for those who always weigh the options.
J. Robert King
Red-faced and burly, Captain Crucias mingled among his noble passengers. Though he wore his best jacket-a black waistcoat with gold buttons and red Jamuraan appointments-he felt clumsy and common among these folk.
They sat like porcelain dolls all around him, poised on the iron settees he had bolted to the ship's deck. Most were enduring the week-long sea journey with Argivian aplomb-which meant complaints about cabin size, food quality, chantey lyrics, salt spray, fish smells, strong winds, daytime glare, nighttime murk, and full-time nausea. On this particular voyage, the high priestess of dissatisfaction was Madame Gheiri, more implacable and discontent than the sea itself. She took up a whole settee, around her arrayed the accoutrements of her discomfort-book, bumbershoot, shawl, crackers, and tepid tea. Her white silk camise and gray cashmere gown were complemented by a pudgy face in light green.
Crucias approached. "Are you feeling better today, my dear?"
"Must the ship bounce and sway so much?" she asked testily, her eyes like twin red daggers in the morning sun.
Crucias gave an apologetic smile and gestured expansively to the bright ocean all around. "The sea has waves, Madame Gheiri… "
"I'm not talking about the sea, " she gasped, clutching an ill-used handkerchief to her lips before drawing the strength to continue. "I'm talking about the ship. Can't you control your own ship? You have all these ropes and sails and anchors and things. Surely you could use them to smooth the ride. "
"We'll be reaching Argoth this afternoon, Madame. Then we'll anchor for the show, and your stomach will have a chance to settle, " Crucias said soothingly.
"My niece Elgia is so ill, she couldn't get up from her bunk this morning. She was hoping to meet a husband on this-this displeasure excursion!" she snapped. "But no young men… seven days of monotony… seven nights of seasickness! I tell you, there had better be some impressive explosions and definite signs of death and mayhem on the island, or I'll make my own cataclysmic battle right here!"
Crucias managed a rueful smile. "I assure you, Madame, when Mishra and Urza battle, there is plenty of death and mayhem for all." He took the better part of valor and moved on.
Yes, they would reach Argoth soon, and would anchor opposite the plains where the two brothers fought- where the whole world fought. There, Crucias and his roster of rich, arrogant nobles would drink wine and eat steaks and watch young men and women die. "Expeditions to the End of the World," he had dubbed them. It was Crucias's fourth such journey, and he hated them- war profiteering at its worst. He made a living exploiting human bloodlust and misery.
"Blast," Crucias muttered beneath his breath as he dutifully polished a dull patch of brass railing. "Privateering was better."
He lamented most of all the abuse of his beautiful ship. For twelve restless months after his daughter's death, Crucias had designed the corsair. He had sketched her out all day long and in his sleep. For the next ten years, he and his crew had built her by hand. It was a kind of practical mourning, an apology in wood and pitch for the life he had been unable to give his daughter. He personally had carved the figurehead into her likeness, had even granted the ship her name-Nunieve-and had sailed her into the wide ocean. She proceeded him always, a sweet child gazing bravely over the dark billows to bright and unimagined shores. Nunieve was a dream made real, designed to discover new lands for Kroog.
And then Kroog ceased to exist. Mishra's army swallowed it like a hunk of hardtack. No longer were there government commissions. No longer were there joint-stock companies. The winds of finance and politics died.
Dead calm. Captain Crucias and his newly built Nunieve were adrift.
He eventually took on Argivian cargoes, but Nunieve's hold was not designed to hold vast stores. She had been built for speed. The cargoes reached their ports, but Crucias lost coin with every crate unloaded, a monetary shipwreck. Desperate, he'd hired a crew of harpooners and laid in a store of hooks, lines, nets, and carving tools, hoping to pay for it all with spermaceti. They'd tracked and slain one whale, but the mess of dead meat hanging to port, the constant cloud of seagulls and sharks, the horrid inert bulk of something that had once moved with terrific and majestic grace through the water… Crucias would have sooner harpooned himself than another whale.
But Argivian nobles? Indolent, wealthy, bloodthirsty nobles? He had no qualms about harpooning them. As repellent as they were, they paid well, and they stood in long lines for the chance to see the world-ending conflict of Argoth. Another trip, and Crucias's debts would be paid off. Two or three more, and he and Nunieve could sail away to distant shores, never again to see Terisiare. Until then, he only hoped the war lasted.
"Let's pray there is enough mayhem and death for everybody."
On the night he'd first seen Nunieve, there had been mayhem aplenty.
Drunk, with blood on his knuckles and in his teeth,
Captain Crucias staggered back through the cobbled streets of Sumifa. He made his way down dark canyons of shops and houses, their shutters bleeding golden illumination into the night. The light painted him tigerlike. He liked the connotation. Gold and blood and man-eating cats: it summed up his life.
He'd wanted things to be different, had hoped to distinguish himself aboard a Yotian war galley, but a liaison with an admiral's daughter in this very city had ended any hopes of that. He still saw the girl every year or so, but for five years he hadn't seen the inside of any ship but a rover or a brigantine. In that time, he had risen to his own captaincy-as a privateer. Knuckles and teeth had won him his ship, Backstab, and persistent work with the cutlass had won him a small fortune in gold. Tonight's fight had been another battle in defense of that fortune. The thief who thought he ought to have some of Crucias's gold now lay bloodied and bruised in a tavern alley.
Mayhem had not been the life he'd planned, but it was the one given to him, and it suited him well enough. At the very least, he would not get bored. He'd be fighting and drinking and wenching until the day one of his vices killed him. The life of a privateer was blessedly short.
Captain Crucias neared Backstab, dark in its moorings. His head reeled from drink and fisticuffs, and from- "What is that hellish noise?" It was a high keen, like the wail of a cat being crushed in a vise. Crucias shook his head, wondering what poor sod was getting it from what other poor sod. He plodded up Backstab's, gangplank, and the sound grew only louder.
Crucias stepped onto the deck, gritty and in need of holystoning. Several figures slouched in rope coils or on folded sails along the dark rail, most of them drunk and sleeping. One was awake.
"Oye, Biggs. What's that ruckus?" Crucias growled.
The man shrugged. "Woman came by. Said she had something to give you. I let her in your cabin. She left. Half an hour later, there's this bellowing."
Crucias reflexively raised hands to shield his ears. "How long has this been going on?"
"Hour, maybe. Hard to say. No moon tonight."
"Worthless-" Crucias hissed at Biggs.
Clenching his bloody fists, Crucias stomped unsteadily toward his cabin. He flung back the door. The wails paused for only a moment and then continued with renewed vigor. He had known it would be a baby, known even who the mother must have been, but to enter his inner sanctum and find it violated by an-an invader! The child's screams raked across his drink-jangled nerves.
"Blast it, child! Hush!"
Grabbing a jackstraw, Crucias lit a hand lantern and stalked into the room. He cringed under the auditory assault and crouched as he walked, as though expecting attack. This was supposed to be his private cabin-heavy furnishings, padlocked trunks, blunderbusses, cutlasses, rum casks, cigars-a man-place. But all of its grim grandeur was despoiled by that delicately woven basket and its pink bundle of blankets and the tiny hands waving like tender anemones in the air.
Crucias stalked to the basket, lifted the glaring lantern, and stared down at that shrieking face. He had expected to despise the child-a thing wet at both ends and smelling of sour milk-and to be sure, she was not a beauty in her screaming fury. But there was such loneliness and fear in her cry. Alone in this strange place, her screams unheeded for hours, her mother gone, and only growling, glaring seamen all about… Crucias saw something of himself in her, not just in the form of eyes and lips that were undoubtedly his, but also in the desperate anger of a creature forsaken.
The child's spastic kicking dislodged a slip of paper folded beside her swaddled leg. Crucias gently lifted the note and unfolded it. The handwriting was that of the admiral's daughter who had cost him his sea career. He read:
"She is yours. I cannot raise her. "
Crucias's brow furrowed. "And I can? An outlaw? A privateer?" He scratched his head. "I'd have to start all over. I'd have to settle down. I'd have to stop fighting for nothing and start fighting for everything. "
The baby let out a wail so forlorn that Crucias instinctively set down the lantern and note and gently raised her in his arms. His hands left trails of blood across the pink blankets. She clutched at his cloak, wet with sweat and spilled ale, and quieted.
"There, there, Darling. There, there. "
The baby tugged on his buttons, struggling to claw closer.
Half the crew abandoned him that very hour-those sober enough to heed the yammering. A quarter more deserted in the deep of morning.
A female on a ship was bad luck. A female baby on a ship was preposterous.
Crucias agreed. It had seemed reasonable enough that first moment, as the poor, lost creature quieted to his touch. It seemed much less reasonable when she awakened, hungry and implacable, an hour later. She couldn't make headway on crackers or jerked beef, and ale was out of the question. She needed milk. She needed a mother. So, still bloodied and half-drunk, Crucias marched her back up the streets he had descended, in search of the admiral's daughter.
A bloody privateer lugging a shrieking infant through downtown streets at three in the morning was not the sort of spectacle Sumifa allowed.
Crucias was jumped by a patrol of armsmen. Half a dozen fists ended his objections. He and the baby were hauled to the constabulary. The soldiers charged him with kidnapping and threw him in a cage with a couple of drunks. One of them turned out to be the man Crucias had beaten bloody earlier that night. There was no repeat of the fight, though. The fellow saw him and pretended to be more drunk and beat up than he was. Crucias was glad-the armsmen had been none too gentle in bringing him in. They'd treated the child little better, letting her kick and scream in her basket in the corner while they went about their business. He shouted to them to find her some milk, to see if she had dirtied herself, to fetch the creature's mother, to do something to stop that blasted howling!
Eventually, the constables did fetch the admiral's daughter. She entered, still young and defiant in her blue Jamuraan dressing gown, a cloak over her shoulders and an outraged father over the coat. The night Crucias had first met this woman, her skin seemed white as ivory. Tonight it seemed like a shade of ice.
She took one look at Crucias, spat on the floor, and said, "The girl is not mine. She is not anyone's. I doubt this man is a kidnapper. I doubt he is anything at all."
Crucias flung his hands out of the bars, imploring. "How can you say that? Can't you hear her crying?"
White-mustached and red-faced, the admiral pulled his daughter back. "My daughter would not truck with cutthroats-"
"She trucked me three times that night," Crucias interrupted.
"— and I resent the implications that dragged us from our beds-
"Come now, Admiral. You must have known of the pregnancy. How can you care so much for your daughter and so little for your daughter's daughter-?"
"Forgive us," one of the armsmen was saying as he ushered the two away from Crucias. "And you-shut up. See if you can't get this brat to shut up, too."
Crucias had never broken out of jail before. He'd been in dozens of them and had never reason to escape from any. But tonight, the child left him no choice. He couldn't bear her cries a moment longer. When the armsman returned to upbraid him, Crucias wrapped the man in a stranglehold, stole his keys, tried each until the lock opened, and departed.
He had never broken out of jail before. Even if he had, he would never have snatched a screaming baby en route. But, once again, the child left him no choice. She was as alone as he. She was as desperate and terrified as he. They were more than father and daughter. They were soul-twins.
Impossibly, stupidly, Crucias fled with her and the basket. He fled, armsmen hot on his tail, through the streets of Sumifa. At the wharf, he lost his pursuers long enough to wrangle one cow out of a herd on an adjacent ship. With curses and lashing fingers, he drove the noisome beast up the gangplank of Backstab.
It was tough sailing the brigantine out of dock. His crew was reduced to only five seamen, five drunken and utterly reluctant sailors.
After all, Backstab now hosted two females-a baby and a bovine.
"Blast," Crucias noted to himself as he milked the one to feed the other. This baby was going to change everything. If she was going to survive, if he was going to survive, she would change everything.
Soon, he found himself at sea with her-with her and a cow and no crew. In cowardly collusion, the five had taken one of Backstab's longboats and rowed back to Sumifa.
It was impossible for a single man to sail the brigantine. It was impossible for Crucias to man sails and rudder and pumps all at once. It was even more impossible that he should do it while caring for this child, and caring for the cow that fed her. They were all doomed to drift and die, he was sure.
And yet, somehow, looking at that beautiful, sad, abandoned face, he knew he would do it. He would do the impossible. He would stop fighting for nothing and start fighting for everything.
It was quite a scene. The battlefield stretched out in the near distance, and a group of sapphire skinned mer-folk had gathered for the afternoon's entertainment in a cluster off the port side. The nobles on the boat had gotten up from their settees to stand along the rail and watch in awe.
The island of Argoth was wide and gray in the afternoon light, reaching arms out to encompass the eastern horizon and threaten Nunieve. She lay in deep waters beyond the harbor where Mishra's war crafts crowded. Against the shoreline, their masts and spars formed a forbidding thicket. If man or machine had remained aboard any of those ships, Captain Crucias would have done well to prepare for a quick departure, but every ounce of muscle and mechanism was currently engaged inland.
In front of Crucias's pestering passengers lay the Argoth plains-what had been immemorial forest only a year ago. There the titanic armies of Mishra and Urza clashed. Atop shorn tree trunks and shredded vines, soldiers swarmed like insects. Yotian warriors gleamed in the sunlight amid Mishra's defenders in black-ant armor. Among them moved clay automatons, maggots tearing into whatever flesh presented itself. Men charged and fought and fell and died.
"They are really killing each other, aren't they?" enthused one codger between sips of red wine.
"Yes, " Captain Crucias answered flatly. "Six months ago, you would have seen them killing only forests. Now you get to see them killing each other. "
Madame Gheiri's face had flushed healthily once the anchor was down and the war was unfolding before them. "You say they fight at night, too? They will be fighting all through supper and on into the evening?"
Crucias' face was grim. "Anymore, yes. They'll fight certainly through supper, and probably until they can see only by the light of the bombs they drop on each other. "
"Splendid. " She was at last pleased with some aspect of the journey. "It will be glorious to watch the fires and flares under a starry sky. Perhaps my niece Elgia will at last feel well enough to come on deck. There must be plenty of eligible bachelors on that battlefield. "
The codger giggled in delight. "I can hardly imagine there will be any left after this evening's show. " He took another sip, and his lips were limned in red as he said, "I suppose if they run out of men, there'll just be more arriving on ships. "
"Look at that dragon engine, " Crucias said, wanting to divert his own attention from the massacre.
A massive mechanism waded into combat. Its steely tail scythed through charging lines of mortal flesh. Men counterattacked, spears jagging into the air. The artifact dragon spread wings of titanium mesh and drew them inward. Spears and men both tumbled in twin cyclones.
Ornithopters darted like dragonflies and dropped bombs among the toiling armies. Smoke and dust and body parts bounded up in violent clouds from the explosion. Moments later, the popping reports reached Nunieve. These blasts were dwarfed, though, by a huge explosion in the center of the battlefield.
"Ah, did you see that?" asked Crucias. "That pillar of black smoke rising now into the sky?" His speech was interrupted by a thunderous boom, the combined ignition of hundreds of bombs. The soundwave echoed out over the glassy sea and riffled the sails of Nunieve. "One of Mishra's titans has stumbled into a trap. I'm told that Urza's army digs gigantic pits, large enough to swallow a dragon engine whole, and then they line the bottom with bombs and cover it. When the time is right they lure a machine onto the spot. That must be what you just witnessed. It fell and ignited the bombs and-ah, see, there,… it's climbing out!"
Something emerged from the base of the rising smoke cloud. The gigantic mechanism did not so much climb as crawl. Misshapen and trembling, the titan clawed onto the blasted plain. Its legs were gone below the knees, and riven sinews of wire and plate dragged across the torn ground. It heaved itself along, above Mishra's shrieking, retreating forces. The sound of its shearing gears reached Nunieve. With a terrific groan, the titan collapsed atop its own mired men.
An excited cheer went up from the noble passengers, and more than a few raised appreciative wine glasses to toast the machine's demise. A ravening boom caught the cheer and swept it away amid dying screams.
"Well, Captain," said Madame Gheiri, "despite a week of tortures at sea-everything short of sea monsters and scurvy-you have certainly delivered the promised entertainment of this voyage."
"Enough mayhem for you?"
"Enough, for the moment. The clamor of it all has even elevated the bouquet of this rather vulgar wine you serve. Bathed in the glow of bombs and the sound of falling titans, the supper fare might even seem palatable!" She laughed lightly.
Another column of smoke had gone up since she began speaking, this one in the woods behind the battle lines. After rising through curtains of moss and continents of leaf, the soot was broadly spread. Wind drew ash and a putrid scent across the gunwale.
"They're burning the dead from yesterday's battle," Crucias noted.
"I do hope the wind shifts," said Madame Gheiri distastefully. "I'm getting bits of ash in my wine-"
She was looking down into her glass, picking at an offending particle, when the blast went off.
First came only a searing light, a bright yellow-white that split the center of the battlefield. It seemed to Crucias that the island actually jumped. The land looked unreal, only a vivid painting on canvas, and even now the canvas tore in half and admitted the blazing sunlight. That's what it seemed-that there was a second sun hidden behind the isle, a blue sun, and it was burning through the fabric of reality. A vast ring of dirt and bodies and machines leaped up around the blinding blaze. The blast carved a deep well in the center of the island, pulverized rock and man and machine-flinging them up in a brown bowl all around it. The next moment, the bowl doubled in size, then quadrupled. Forests that had withstood even the onslaught of Urza and Mishra stood no longer, laid down like blazing jackstraws. Mounds that had lain round and solemn against the bright sky disintegrated in the face of the swelling sphere of force.
'''Mayhem," Crucias gasped out.
The whole island disappeared. It was gone, down to a mile below the waterline. Titans, dragon engines, ornithopters, warriors-all gone. The ocean would have poured into the void except that even now, the advancing wall of the sphere pushed it back. The merfolk observers darted off trying to stay ahead of the crushing mass. Water piled into a great mountain that ringed the flash. Already, Nunieve's bow strained upward on the swell. The child-shaped figurehead stared into the bright flash of the end of the world.
"Weigh anchor!" Crucias shouted.
He took a step toward the capstan but got no farther.
The deck pitched-stealing his feet from under him. Nobles and crew tumbled amid bolted settees. Blood-red wine hung in weird arcs in the air as the ocean sucked its belly away beneath the passengers. Then they were rising. Wine spattered groaning planks. Nunieve crawled up the wave. Foaming water scraped the very clouds.
Roaring, Crucias clung to the leeward rail. Through black water, he glimpsed the ocean bed, horrifically close as the ship heeled away from the slope. He was sure Nunieve would capsize and kill them all, but the welling flood yanked the anchor chain tight and brought the hull upright again. With a visceral jolt, the anchor pulled free of the ocean bottom. Nunieve mounted up the wave. Nobles tumbled from the port side. Crucias could only watch, heart in throat. They would all be dead soon enough.
There was mayhem and death enough for everybody.
The ship bobbed corklike up the wave. Through the wall of water, the blast glared. It had grown only more intense. It gleamed brilliantly through half a mile of turgid brine. In moments, Nunieve reached the foamy peak, a region where wind and water and fire were mixed. Crucias couldn't tell up from down, light from dark.
They were over the crest, in winds that tore the masts down as they had the trees, in the bowl of the blast. Sea-water rushed to fill the crater where Argoth had been. Nunieve sailed pell-mell down the concave slope. It followed the bright interior of the new sun awakened on Dominaria.
That was the last any of them saw. The eyes of every person on deck burned from their skulls. Blindly, they clutched to the mad ship as it coursed down the wave, toward the roaring foundations of the world.
"Sit, Daddy. Aren't you thirsty?" Pretty and small at nine years old, Nunieve sat on the twilight verandah. A Jamuraan tea service rested on a platter before her. Steam rose brightly from the dark brew. "It's getting cold." Nunieve wore her best dress, what she called her tree dress because she got to wear it only when they were on shore, where the trees grew. At sea, she was garbed in a waistcoat and pantaloons, like any good captain's son.
The captain himself stood before her. No longer a privateer, Crucias had become a respected freighter captain. As fair, hard-working, and reliable as the sun itself, Crucias was among the richest sea captains on the continent, and he had only Nunieve to thank. Just now, Crucias did not heed his daughter, though. He looked past brickwork and riling grape vines, down to the sea, wide and black beneath the setting sun. Crucias blinked toward it, mesmerized. He had just come off of it and could hardly wait to get back. To him the sea was life, and the land was death-
"I can't wait forever, " Nunieve insisted.
Crucias smiled, shaking his head. "I'm sorry, Darling. I'm just distracted tonight. "
She poured tea into a cup for him, and then one for herself. "If you're worried about tomorrow, I'm not. You said the chirurgeon was the best on three continents. He'll know what to do. "
"Yes, Darling, " he agreed, kneeling and taking her hand. It was small and fragile in his palm, like the body of a sparrow. "Yes, he will know what is wrong. "
She nodded sagely, lifted a cup to her lips, and took one scalding sip. The porcelain swooped away, and a troubled tremor began in her chin. He thought he saw a tear form, but it never emerged, and she swallowed the tea. A look of relief crossed her face. She smiled. "It tastes delicious from these new cups. "
"You don't have to drink it yet if it is too hot, " Crucias said, taking his own experimental taste. He grimaced.
"Or if it is too bitter." He set the teacup down on the tray.
Nunieve still held hers in dainty fingers. "No. This is the first time I've had a tea set, and the first time we've been on shore in a year, and I want to enjoy it all." She took another sip.
"You're a good, brave girl, Nunieve," Crucias said. "A good, brave girl."
Crucias awoke to a sea storm. The deck rolled in long, deep swells. Shudders ran through the planks. With each sway of the ship, shattered masts scraped along the gunwales. Metal shrieked. Wood moaned. Severed lines lashed the deck. Rain battered the captain's back.
Whether it was day or dark, he could not have told. The flash that had destroyed Argoth had destroyed his eyes, as well. He didn't need eyes, though, to know that most of his passengers and crew were dead. The cupric smell of blood filled the air, and a septic scent told of spilled guts and corpses. Aside from his own groans, Crucias heard no other human sound.
But he lived-if this could be called living. Blind, battered, sick aboard his own ship, Crucias lived. He could not man the pumps alone even if they remained intact, could not clear the deck, could not even see land or star to find safe harbor. Perhaps there was no land to see. Argoth was gone, its ravaged foundations somewhere in the sloshing depths below. The armies of Urza and Mishra were gone, too. Perhaps the blast had sunk Teresiare itself. Perhaps there was no safe harbor in the world anymore.
A wooden bucket bounded noisily across the deck toward Crucias. Blindly he lifted a hand over his head. He could only guess its course. There was a stunning sound, and the taste of blood, and he slumped again.
He had placed too much hope in the chirurgeon, the best on three continents. The man knew about the application of leeches, the uses of phrenology, the manipulation of pressure points on the foot and ear to relieve tensions in distal portions of the body, but the wasting illness that ravaged Nunieve was not localized anywhere, on ear or foot or body. It was the doom laid on beautiful things by whatever dark and jealous god equated mortality with misery. Her illness was not a thing of body but of soul, a curse laid on her because she would otherwise have been perfect.
The chirurgeon had had no answers for them beyond herbal balms and the insinuation of copper fibers under the skin. Crucias had followed his advice assiduously, and Nunieve had borne the painful brunt of these "treatments" with the same courage she had borne the scalding tea. She was a brave girl, not only by nature but by necessity. She saw acutely that her father needed her to be brave.
They lingered there, in that vine-strewn villa above the sea, so Nunieve could wear her tree dress and wander the bazaar. Her eyes gleamed with the bright flap of trader's tents, and her neck and fingers shimmered with the jewelry Crucias bought her. The money he spent was legitimate coin, and the adornments he bought reminded of the bounty of the sea-pearl and mother-of-pearl, nautilus shell and abalone, shark tooth and starfish. At first Nunieve gladly received these gifts and wore them everywhere. Slowly, though, she ceased to enjoy them. The shiny things only drew more notice to the taut lines of her throat and the thinness of her wrists.
One day, she refused his purchases. Instead, she turned about to find something of equal value in an adjacent stall-something for him. "Buy these, Daddy. You have been wanting a new set of knives for your carving projects," she said.
Shadowed by the slate roof of the smithy, Crucias smiled. "They are too expensive, Darling."
"No more expensive than the pearls you wanted to buy me," she replied. Nunieve laid hold of his hand and said gently. "You don't need to buy me all these things. I know that you love me."
"Good girl, Nunieve," he said through a choked throat. "Always know that I love you."
Crucias awakened, weeping into the teeth of the storm. The bucket lingered beside him and delivered a fresh blow with each roll of the ship. He flung it angrily away.
There never had been safe harbor for him, not when his daughter turned to a skeleton before him. Not when his nation ceased to exist. Not now. Had he been on land during that blast, he would surely have died, but this couldn't be called living.
The vessel heaved sluggishly beneath him as it lolled up one edge of a wave. Its bilge must have been filling. Between rain and sloshing waves, it could only be filling.
Then rain hardened into biting hail.
Growling, Crucias crawled across the battered planks. He groped for handholds. Ripped sailcloth… knotted lines… splintered spars… a cold, cold arm-
In the midst of pelting hail, he paused. His fingers held an arm in a sleeve of lace. He tried to speak but found his throat was fit only for screams and roars. Hoping against hope, he followed the lacy sleeve to a shoulder rill and past it to a collar. He pressed his fingers into the fallen woman's neck but felt only flesh as cold and still as meat in a cellar. There was no pulse.
The roaring hail grew voracious across his back.
He took a moment more to pass his hand over the woman's face. Madame Gheiri.
"Mayhem and death," he hissed. "Mayhem and death."
Miserable, Crucias crawled onward. Hail sliced into the back of his neck and the crown of his head. He clawed along the stumps of the shattered rail to 'midships and clambered over ironwork settees. There were three more bodies between him and the ruined hatch. He did not stop among them but only swung down into the hold, away from the lacerating skies.
Twilight had already surrendered to night before they returned from their last visit with the chirurgeon. Nunieve wanted more tea. Crucias was in a mood to refuse her nothing. Soon she sat in the same seat with the same Jamuraan tea set and the same tree dress as she had worn their first night on land. Once again Crucias stood, staring past grape vines and out to sea. Aside from the deep darkness nothing else had changed.
No, everything had changed.
"Daddy, don't be so sad," she said. "We'll be back at sea tomorrow."
"Yes, Darling," he said distantly. "We'll find another chirurgeon. A better one."
"We'll be back at sea tomorrow, so let's enjoy our tea tonight. This is my last night on land," she said gently, pouring herself some tea.
Crucias hurried to her. "Don't say that. We'll stay longer. We can stay here as long as you want."
"Oh, it's all right, Father." She was sipping the too-hot tea and struggling not to make a face. When she regained her composure she looked up at Crucias. "Don't be sad."
"But I am sad, Darling."
"Then don't be afraid."
"I am afraid. You are everything to me. My whole world."
"I'm not afraid, Daddy. Don't you be afraid."
He bent to embrace her. She melted into his arms and snuggled against his neck. There was a final, perfect moment as he held her. Then her last long breath left in a sweet susurration.
He breathed, too, a startled, trembling breath, as though he could draw her fleeing spirit into his body before it fled away forever.
Crucias stood. The Jamuraan tea set toppled and crashed to the ground.
She did not stir at the sound.
He lingered there, holding her, gazing out at the black, unseeable sea.
This ship had been his courage. He had not gone to sea again until he could take Nunieve with him. Now the ship was dead, and he nearly so. It was a ghost ship, ravaged first by economic necessities, then by jaded ill-use, and last of all by a blast that destroyed the very world. The same dark, inexplicable forces that had clawed from the blind earth to destroy his daughter had reached up from the black sea to destroy the ship that bore her name.
"I failed her twice," Crucias whispered bitterly to himself. "I lost her twice." He felt a stab of guilt for taking his daughter to sea, for turning her namesake into a barge for hauling human bloodlust and depravity. "I destroyed them both." There could be no more damning fate than that.
He was done. He had died in every way a man could die except in flesh. It could come in many ways now. Perhaps the ship would sink or capsize. Perhaps the storm would kill him with ice and tumbling debris and exposure. But all of those would only be doing the work Crucias should do himself.
"I destroyed her. I can destroy myself."
With a groan, he dragged himself up from the staved crate where he lay. He had no idea how long he had lingered there, lapsing into and out of consciousness. The ceaseless turmoil of wind and sea and the dizzy pitch and shudder of the ship had made sleep and dream indistinguishable. Trembling, he eased himself to the planks and crawled. A smashed barrel spilled pasty flour across the boards. A wet line snaked through the mess, and jags of shattered glass littered the floor. Uncaring, Crucias wormed his way toward the hold door. The staterooms and his own cabin lay beyond. There would be a very sharp knife in his desk drawer, one of the blades he had used to carve the figurehead. It would carve his neck shortly. But he did not think of that. He thought of her. In his mind's eye he could still see the lines of that sculpture, the face of his beloved child.
"She would not have wanted me to do this," he told himself as he reached the door out of the hold and hauled on the bar that held it closed. "She would not have wanted me to do any of this."
The bar was jammed solidly. Gritting his teeth, Crucias rose and kicked. The bar shifted upward. Another kick, and the thing had nearly cleared its bracket. "Nothing can be easy. Not even this." He kicked one last time.
A creaking groan began, and he shied back. Wood splintered. Something struck the door, and it split, spilling rubble out on him. A beam rammed Crucias's belly. A cargo hook struck his head. He would have spun away except for the debris that mired his legs. The landslide of wreckage continued over him, burying him to the waist. Crucias twisted, struggling to wrench himself free of the pile, but a jabbing pain began in his side.
The ache intensified, stretching out through his chest and into his neck.
"This is it, then," he thought bitterly and slumped down in the debris. "This is it."
"Sit down, Daddy. It's getting cold," Nunieve said the next morning. She was on the verandah overlooking the sea, red bricks and grape vines embracing her in the cool air of morning.
Crucias stood where always he did, though this time, he knew it was only a dream. "There was no next morning, Nunieve," he said sadly. "You died last night."
She shrugged, leaning over to pat a little metal seat beside her. "I just wanted to see if you would make it through."
"If I would make it through?"
"Yes, through the night," she said simply. Her smile would have seemed almost mischievous had she not been so sad. "Now, come and sit."
"Oh, darling, this is only a dream."
"Yes. In this dream, I always ask you to sit, but you never do," she replied scoldingly. "It's a dream, Daddy. You can do whatever you want. Come, sit with me."
"Yes," he said, releasing a grateful sigh. "Yes."
With elaborate decorum, she lifted the teapot and poured his cup to the brim. The brown liquid sent up a gentle fragrance. Her hands were small and tan above the white porcelain.
"I broke these cups last night, too."
"Yes," she said. The tea poured contentedly from the little pot. "But you made it through. I was afraid you wouldn't. I was afraid your life would end."
"It did, darling. It did," Crucias assured. This time the tea was not scalding or bitter. "You were my whole life and future. I tried to go on. I built a ship in your name, but she wasn't you. And I couldn't provide for her, either. She wasted away, just as you did." He shook his head and let out a rueful laugh. "When you died, darling, my world had come to an end. And when the ship I named after you died, the whole world came to an end in a great explosion that consumed everything. The ship was destroyed by the blast and the storms afterward. I was blinded and battered and buried in a pile of rubble."
She looked at him over her cup of tea. Her eyes seemed older, her expression grown-up despite her young face. "What did you do then?"
A look of perplexity crossed his face, and he lowered the teacup, only half emptied. "What did I do then?"
"Well, darling-" he laughed darkly, "-I died. That's what I did then."
Her look turned to one of consternation. "You died?"
He nodded. "I died."
"You were one of the last people left alive in hundreds of miles of ocean, and you didn't make it through?"
Crucias reached over to take her hand. "What reason did I have to live? If I had had a reason I could have done anything. I could have crawled out from under all this rubble. I could have braved the storms to clear the deck. I could have manned the pumps by myself and found some way to smell for land or listen for stars. If I had had you beside me, I would have had my whole world again, and I could have done anything."
"You have me." Her voice had changed, eager still but not young, the voice of a woman instead of a child. Her face was fading-her face and the verandah and the morning sea beyond. A pulpy darkness seeped through the fabric of dream, and only the woman's voice remained. "You do have me. I thought I was the only one left alive until you opened the hold door."
"Nunieve, you're only a dream," he said wearily, groping for her hands.
"I'm not a dream," she answered. She clutched his hands tightly. "And I am not Nunieve. My name is Elgia. I'm Lady Gheiri's niece."
"Elgia?" Crucias replied. Where am I? "I was dreaming," he said into the tangled darkness of the cyclone. "I thought you were my daughter."
"Call me what you will. I want you to get up. I want you to get this ship back under control. I want you to take me to land."
He shook his head and felt icy brine dripping onto his shoulders. "I can't. I'm done."
"What about all the things you just said? About pumping out the ship and clearing the decks and steering to land?"
"I don't have any fight left in me, my dear. I'm worn-out-battered, blind. There is nothing left to believe in-"
The answer was immediate: "Believe in me. I want to live. Isn't that enough? I want to live."
So like Nunieve. So strong and determined and brave.
"It wasn't enough for my daughter."
"It should have been," Elgia said, desperate. "It should have been enough."
So like Nunieve.
"Yes. It should have been. But out there is a monster, perhaps a god, that sees all the should-have-beens in human lives and makes them impossible. Call it what you will-fate or curse, hatred or caprice-but it remains, the implacable darkness."
"I can see, Captain. I was below decks when whatever happened happened. I can see, and I can lift and tie and pump and anything you need me to do. You just tell me what to look at, and I'll see for you. I want to live."
A new breath entered him. For the first time since his daughter had died, Captain Crucias really breathed. "I was Yotian, Elgia. My daughter was Yotian. There is an ancient Yotian belief that every person has many souls, that you can always be redeemed. At any moment, you can let go of the old souls that ruled you, let them fall into damnation and begin a new soul. That's what my daughter was to me. Whenever I was sure my life was over, she appeared and brought me back up into the light of heaven. That's what Nunieve was to me-my keeper of souls."
"Listen to me!" Elgia's voice was desperate. There was a loneliness and fear in her tone, the sound of utter abandonment. "I want to live! I want to live!"
Crucias smiled. He actually smiled. Blind and battered and trapped in the Sargasso of his old life-trading off a damned soul for a newborn one-Crucias smiled. "Then help me dig my way out of this mess, Elgia. I want to live, too."
Damon had managed to levitate a few inches above the rocky beach. Arms crossed over his chest and eyes closed in concentration, he hung in midair, bobbing slightly. Three fellow apprentices watched with mixed emotions. They were excited to see Damon demonstrating a new magical ability, one that they would all have themselves some day, but each was envious that someone else had succeeded at levitating first.
Damon, for his part, was using the sound of the surf as his mantra. The waves rolling in and out had ceased to be water hitting beach. For him, it was only an audible impression, the come and go of the fundamental forces of the world, the cosmos breathing. He was nowhere.
Then he remembered he had a forehead because it suddenly hurt. Something hard hit his feet and then his hip and arms. He had become unexpectedly intimate with the beach, and he opened his eyes to find himself lying on it. He felt a buzz of pain on his forehead.
"Do you understand?" someone said.
Damon looked up to where Sabra, Jervis, and Annarais sat watching him. Sabra had spoken.
The question "Do you understand?" was one that Master Wane put to them frequently-when he had just thwarted one of their fledgling attempts at magic. There were only two answers to the question: "No," which meant you were still an apprentice, and "Yes," which would mean you were now a wizard. None of them had ever correctly answered the question.
"Dammit," said Damon, standing up and brushing the grit off his leggings and elbows. "A rock? Did you throw something at me?" He looked accusingly at Sabra. She met his gaze, but her face was impossible to read.
"Well," she said innocently, "the first time you show that trick to Master Wane, he's going to smack you on the head with his staff to test your concentration. I was doing you a favor."
"Go to hell," muttered Damon. He put his hand on his forehead where the rock had hit him and then ran it back over his close-cropped head.
"All right, I will," said Sabra. "Maybe I can find hell over among those boulders." She jumped up and stalked off down the beach, gone in a moment among the big, black rocks behind them. Her footsteps were soon lost in the sound of the glacial runoff that tumbled over the cliff and cut through the rocks below on its way into the sound.
"Congratulations," said Annarais, raising two fists in a victory gesture. She was smiling with genuine approval.
"Yeah," added Jervis. "I bet you can't wait until Master Wane gets back so you can show him that stunt."
Damon looked away. Tears of frustration burned his eyes. He no longer heard the soothing surf. Instead he was back in the training room, in front of the mirror with Master Wane. As the mage closed the curtains over the mirror he said, "You will never become a wizard." Master Wane had leveled that judgment the day before he left, and Damon was grateful the other apprentices had not been there to hear it.
"Sabra always steals the show, doesn't she? Don't let her get to you."
Damon came back to the beach at the sound of Annarais's voice. "Yes," was all he could muster before the waves slipped from his ears once again.
He had tried, again and again, to prove he had what it took, that certainly he, of all the apprentices, would become a wizard. In that rare moment alone with his teacher, Damon had almost burst with pride when Master Wane had told him that he was ready for a special test. First the master shaved Damon's head. Then he led him to the draped mirror in the training room. The mage pulled the black curtain aside and revealed the glass.
"Whom do you see?" the teacher asked his student.
Damon blinked. Something was wrong, but he couldn't tell what. He looked in the mirror and saw himself. He. had long, brown hair, just as he always had, and that seemed right to him. "I see me," said Damon. "Us." He wondered what this test was all about.
"And what day is it today?"
"The fourth day of the month, the day of the full null moon."
"No," said Wane, running his hand over Damon's bare pate. "Today is the fifth. The null moon was full last night. And you have no hair left on your head. You are seeing yesterday."
"This mirror shows you as you were yesterday," said Master Wane. "The common mind believes the body's eyes. You become what you believe, and so you think it is still yesterday. The mind of the mage knows better than to believe what the body sees. The mirror does not sway it. I see this body of mine as it was yesterday, but I know myself to be what I am today."
Master Wane closed the curtain. "You will never become a wizard."
A moment later, Damon realized what day it was and touched his shaved scalp. In front of the mirror he had lost himself.
Damon, unconsciously running his hand over three weeks of growth on his head, remembered the present… and Jervis's words. "And it's not just some stunt, Jervis! You try it if you think it's a stunt."
Jervis didn't answer. He was looking out over the sound. Jervis was the least likely to become involved in petty competition, Damon thought. He opened his mouth to apologize for his sharp words, but Jervis spoke first.
"Master Wane has been gone a long time," Jervis said quietly, as if he didn't realize he was speaking aloud. "I don't like it."
This was the longest Master Wane had ever left them alone. He had been gone more than three weeks now and had neglected to tell them when he would return. His only words were of visiting his colleagues at the School of the Unseen, but they had all seen the carrier pigeons he occasionally sent flying from the top of the tower.
Sabra had told them the Kjeldorans used those pigeons. She had been picked up by Kjeldoran troops in the months following the flood that had washed her village into the sea. It was the Kjeldorans' alliances with Master Wane that had brought Sabra to the old mage's tower on the hill. The apprentices assumed the master had political business in Kjeldor, but three weeks was a long time to be away, even for politics.
Damon tossed a pebble at the surf. "Jervis, you know Master Wane doesn't want us talking about what he's doing or even knowing about it. His allegiances have nothing to do with us. If he didn't know what he was doing, he wouldn't have been around to take us in." Damon thought briefly of the first wizard who had found him, when he had just been orphaned. That wizard had preferred less tasteful magic and had eventually sold Damon to Master Wane. The memories made him shudder.
Annarais stood up and stretched. "He's probably going to look back in time and see that we were here on the beach when we were supposed to be studying."
Jervis pointed a thumb at Damon. "We are. studying. He's demonstrating a new trick for us. That's studying, isn't it, Damon?"
A voice boomed from down the beach, "It's bobble-dy-cock!"
The apprentices jumped in recognition of Master Wane's voice and his favorite term for tomfoolery. Damon looked past Annarais, who spun around. Moving swiftly toward them from among the tall, dark rocks was their master. He had always reminded Damon of a seagull, loud and a little dirty, with hair the color of ground-up oyster shells.
"Who is the wizard who makes the sky blue?" demanded Master Wane. He raised a gnarled staff to the sky and shook it. He'd put that question to them many times before, and they were to have solved it by the time he returned. "Damon?"
"Welcome back, Master Wane," Damon said lamely.
"To leave is to return. Who is it?" shouted the wizard, pointing his staff at the apprentice.
"I do not know, Master." Damon dropped his gaze and looked at the pebbles on the beach.
"I'm going to beat you ten times," said Master Wane, swinging his staff for emphasis. "Then maybe you'll know. Annarais! Who is the wizard who makes the sky blue?"
Annarais cleared her throat. "The sky is like a great mirror, and it reflects the blue of the ocean." She tilted her chin upward sharply as if confirming her theory.
"You," yelled Master Wane, "I shall beat twenty times. Jervis! Who is it?"
"The sky is not blue, Master," said Jervis in a voice that was almost firm.
"And this rock," replied the master, picking up a good-sized stone from near his foot, "is not hard!" He let it fly at Jervis, who dodged expertly. "Thirty times!"
"Now," continued Master Wane, looking around, "where is my most promising pupil, Sabra? She's as smart as she is beautiful, and that's saying a lot. I'm sure she knows the answer. What did the three of you do-drown her out of envy?"
Sabra? Master Wane had no favorites. Damon lifted his eyes from the sand to take a closer look at the wizard. Had Master Wane taken a bath while he was away? The sense that something was amiss grew into a certainty.
"Sabra!" accused Damon.
Master Wane turned, but it was Sabra standing there, not the master.
"Great heavens," said Jervis. "It's you, Sabra. That's amazing."
"Thank you, thank you," said Sabra, smiling and bowing to Jervis, Annarais, and Damon in turn.
Damon tried to picture what he had seen in his mind. He could remember seeing Sabra's smooth face, not Master Wane's wrinkled visage. He had seen Sabra's brown hair, her young woman's shape, and her apprentice's frock, yet he had recognized her as Master Wane. He was convinced she was Wane. "Sabra! Did you-? How did you do that?" he asked.
"There is seeing, and there is seeing," said Sabra, chuckling. "Annarais, I like your answer to Master Wane's question. I think I'll use it myself."
"You're welcome to it," said Annarais. "I'm sure it's wrong."
Sabra laughed, and the others joined in.
By afternoon the sun had climbed high enough in the blue sky to shine down over the cliff where Master Wane's tower stood. Its imposing presence had guarded the cliff for decades, maybe even longer. Leading up to it, along the sheer cliff wall, was a trail of switchbacks, and next to that was a chilly waterfall fed by thawing glaciers miles and miles inland.
On rare occasions while exploring the abandoned lands around the tower the apprentices had come across broken or burned items that looked as if they had once been of some use. As a game, they would try to fit names and functions to some of the more recognizable pieces. Sabra showed the first of these items to Master Wane, quizzing him about its origins. The squarish stone was warm, even when wet, and buzzed slightly. Wane snatched the blackened, worn blue object away from Sabra, threw it to the ground, and roared, "Remnants of a not-so-forgotten war. These things were made to destroy. No good can come from them, and your ignorance will kill us all!"
The three other youths slinked off, and Sabra was left trembling before Master Wane's wrath. But that seemed a lifetime ago. Now any object they found was secreted among the apprentices' things. They made a pact that the first to achieve a wizard's status would have his choice of the few artifacts.
Now that the sun warmed the beach, the apprentices stripped to their breech-clothes and swam in the chilly water. Master Wane had told them that magic is like the ocean. If you are patient and calm, it will hold you up and take you to fantastic places far away, but if you flail about and lose your concentration you'll go under. Even if you know how to stay afloat, there are dangers lurking under the surface.
From her perch on a slick, craggy rock protruding from the waves Sabra dove into the water and swam into the shallows where the other three were wading and joking.
"Someone's coming along the beach," she said, "someone driving a little wagon. He's just around that bend." She pointed her tanned arm, glistening with seawater, toward a dark cliff farther down the beach. "Let's have some fun."
The apprentices waded up the beach and began wiping themselves dry.
"I don't like this," said Jervis. "No one ever comes down this beach. The roads all washed out two years ago."
"He's probably coming to see Master Wane," said Sabra confidently. "And Master Wane is exactly who he's going to meet."
"Don't get us into trouble." Damon glared at Sabra, but the brown-haired girl only smiled.
"Follow my lead." Her voice was high with excitement. "Close your eyes." The others, now dried and dressed, complied.
In a moment they heard Master Wane's voice. "Open your eyes or you'll miss the demonstration." Sabra was gone, and the master was in her place. "We'll have a little sport," he said with uncharacteristic jocularity.
Out from behind the cliff came a lonely, little wagon pulled by two mules and driven by someone dressed in gowns of white. The apprentices sat on the sun-warmed rocks watching the wagon's slow approach, all except for Sabra, who stood in eager anticipation.
When the wagon was finally within calling distance the homely white-robed woman driving the mules called, "Hail and well met!"
Annarais opened her mouth to respond, but Sabra cut her off. "Approach!" she yelled in Master Wane's voice.
The wagon continued on its way until the driver called the mules to a halt and climbed down. She stopped, surveyed the little group, stepped forward, and addressed Master Wane.
"Hail and well met, my friend. Before you stands a humble healer, come from afar to find Master Wane, who has long been a friend to the Kjeldorans, seekers of peace and justice, and an enemy to the evil rulers of Stromgald. We have need of his expertise."
"But-" Jervis started to protest to Damon.
"Silence!" Master Wane snapped at the apprentice. He faced the woman. "I am Master Wane, you ugly wench."
The others were so shocked they couldn't think to laugh.
"How dare you stand before one such as I, a man of magic and power, when you are but a common wretch? Kneel, or you shall return to your convent in the form of a more useful creature."
Damon glanced at Annarais and Jervis, their faces frozen in disbelief. He didn't like where this was going, but Sabra's little prank had taken him by surprise as well. She was going too far.
The healer knelt and averted her eyes. "My fault, Master. I am but a novice." Her dark eyes flickered, and she brushed a lank strand of black hair from her eyes back into the untidy knot on her head. She reached into her loose robe and hesitated. "The Kjeldoran high priestess asks most respectfully for the benefit of your knowledge."
Damon cocked his head to one side in surprise. Why would the Kjeldorans send someone here, when the Master was there? Perhaps he had not traveled to Kjeldor after all. Maybe something had happened to him! Damon's attention was drawn to the novice's hand as it emerged from her stained robe. She cast her eyes down and revealed a strange, green glass sphere with a short, stoppered neck. With both gloved hands, she held it up in front of her, still not meeting Master Wane's gaze.
"Please, Master Wane, great and powerful one," said the healer, "as you know, there are many excavations across Terisiare where ancient wonders are being unearthed. We are fortunate enough to have found this magical bottle, and we seek to understand its use. Surely one with your insight and wisdom could help us."
Sabra cleared her throat and strode over to the kneeling healer. "I am an important man," she began, "and I have little time for such trivial matters. However, the Kjeldorans are worthy of my time-barely. I will take this artifact to the-to my tower and study it." She reached for the item with one hand. "Give it to me and be gone."
Just as Sabra's hand reached the sphere, the healer dropped it onto the rocks at her feet, and it shattered. Thick, white smoke plumed in the air. The tendrils of smoke touched Sabra and wrapped about her like ropes. The other apprentices saw Master Wane stiffen and fall. Sabra's body went into paroxysms, and blood gushed forth from her nose and ears, staining the rocks. The woman in white stood. Annarais rushed screaming and dropped to her knees beside Sabra, and Damon followed. Sabra was still, but even dead she appeared to be Master Wane.
The healer stripped off her soiled white gloves, revealing bony, greenish hands. She undid the clasp at her throat and shrugged off her dirty robes. Beneath, she wore a close-fitting black leather vest and breeches, crisscrossed with haphazard leather stitches-repairs to cuts the outfit had suffered from numerous combats. Set in the vest, over her left breast, was a black gemstone the size of a peach pit. The skin of her arms and shoulders was mottled and dotted with pox scars. A curved scabbard perched on her hip, the black pommel of a blade protruding. Her face, creased in a humorless smile, revealed thin scars snaking from either side of her mouth to her neck. To Damon she looked as if she had died many times over but had somehow managed to live through the experience.
"It's a trick," said Jervis, arms held tightly across his chest. "It's another of her tricks." Damon caught his eye and made a cutting motion with his hand to silence him.
"Oh, it's no trick, little fish," said the killer. "Your master is quite dead."
"She's dead," whimpered Annarais, stroking Sabra's hair, hair that looked gray. Damon glanced up at the killer to see if she'd noticed what Annarais had said.
Paying scant attention to the apprentices, the impostor gave a sharp whistle. "Little fish," she said, "it suits my lords' purposes that you know why I killed your master. The wizards of the School of the Unseen have been on good terms with my lords in Stromgald, but then this rogue-" she kicked Sabra's leg with a leather-shod toe "-took it upon himself to help the Kjeldorans. His imprudent choice of allies was his undoing. When his peers from the School of the Unseen come looking for their fellow, tell them he met the fate of a traitor, that an assassin from Stromgald defeated him. Such a fate awaits any of the rest of them who favor Kjeldor."
The assassin's wagon had begun to rock. The sound of metal straining against metal came from within. Then the door on the side swung open, and a metal man lurched into the sunlight. The wagon rose noticeably on its springs as the thing climbed out.
"My lords will be pleased," said the assassin. "If they had known that one little aeolipile was all it took to bring this mage down, they would never have supplied me with a golem, or with this." With her thumb she tapped the black gemstone set in her vest, directly over her heart.
The golem strode over to the assassin and stood next to her, head and shoulders taller than she. Made of ancient bronze, it had been scrubbed free of patina. The sun glanced off of its polished hide in speckles of broken color. Under different circumstances Damon might have found the hulking artifact beautiful.
"Pick up the dead man," the assassin ordered the golem.
The lumbering mass rotated its head so that it faced the ground. Its face swung back and forth as it scanned the earth, but it did not move.
"I don't believe it," said Jervis. His eyes hadn't left Sabra's lifeless body.
Damon put one hand on Annarais's shoulder and gave a quick jerk of his head back in the direction of the tower. He stood up, helped Annarais stand, and without a word they backed away.
"Pick up the corpse!" ordered the assassin. "Put it in the wagon."
Now the golem complied. It grabbed the body by the ankle and hoisted it into the air. Gears whirred as the golem turned to place the body in the wagon.
Damon and Annarais reached Jervis, arms still wrapped tightly around himself.
"It's no trick," hissed Damon. "Let's get out of here."
Jervis's eyes fell on the blood on Annarais's hands. "Angels of mercy," he swore, "it's true."
With the sounds of the metal man behind them, the three apprentices stumbled through the large, black rocks that bordered the beach, waded the frigid stream that fed into the sound, and came to the base of the cliff where a switchback trail began. Jervis glanced back nervously.
"How long will that spell last?" he asked.
"She's dead," panted Damon. "What happened? What was that thing? Who-"
"Jervis is right," said Annarais. "The assassin's bound to notice sooner or later."
"She's going to turn back and get us all," said Jervis. He leaped up onto a boulder and tried to spy over the other stones. "How long do you think Sabra's spell is going to last, now that she's-" Jervis stopped short. "What are we going to do?"
"Keep moving," said Damon. "We've got to get back to the tower. Come on."
Jervis stood still, his arms hanging limply at his sides.
"That's the first place she'll look. We've got to split up, hide, get away, maybe get a boat."
"The tower will be safer," said Annarais. "We can get our fighting staffs. She can't get in. We know our way around, and there's lots of places to hide."
Jervis looked past the trail. Below them was a steep, rocky slope that led to countless recesses, inlets, grottos, and tidal pools. "Go die in that damn tower," he said, "She'll get you, just like she got Sabra. I can make it on my own. I did it before. I'll do it again." Without looking back, he started picking his way recklessly down the jagged rocks of the slope.
"Jervis!" yelled Annarais. "We need to stick together!"
Eyes focused on his precarious path, he yelled, "Shut up. I've got to get to safety."
"Jervis!" Annarais repeated her plea, but Damon grabbed her arms from behind and compelled her on.
"He might be right. Let him go. Let him do what he thinks is right, but don't wait here. That assassin will come back when Sabra's spell wears off. Let's go."
Damon moved ahead and pulled Annarais behind him. The switchbacks seemed to go on forever, one after the other, until it was hard to say how long they'd been climbing, how many times they'd turned, and how far they had left to hike. The cliff they were climbing- which they had climbed hundreds of times-hung over a deep sound. It had once been a strip mine before the ice and the beginning of the thaw. The cliff itself was eroding with the thaw, and the tower was doomed to slide into the water with it. Master Wane was fond of saying, "It's a wise man who knows his house is built on sand."
When Damon and Annarais were halfway up the side of the cliff, they heard a scream, nearly inhuman in its urgency.
"Did you hear that?' asked Annarais.
"It sounded like Jervis," said Damon. "Don't stop." He shoved her forward. Annarais nodded, and they continued hiking, the silence broken only by ragged breathing and Annarais's curses.
They were both winded when they finally reached the top of the cliff, but they had renewed urgency since hearing Jervis's scream. They scurried to the great, mechanical door at the base of the tower, tripping over rocks and their own feet. The tower rose up more than fifty feet above them. It looked like an old-fashioned lighthouse. The underside of the balcony that surrounded the top floor extended out from the wall. From the ground up to that balcony the walls looked like blank stone, though the apprentices knew there were plenty of windows. Illusions hid them all.
Damon and Annarais were damp now from sweat and sticky from brine, their stringy hair sticking to their faces and shoulders, their clothes chafing their skin. They stood on the broad stone step at the top of the stairs that led to the door, leaning against the massive, latchless door, panting. The door had always seemed to Damon to be like a great, metal mouth. It was far older than the tower, something Master Wane has salvaged from ages past. The door was smooth, but the mechanisms that surrounded it were complex, with pistons, gears, and counterweights.
"What do-" Damon bent over, bracing his hands on his knees. "What do you think happened to Jervis?"
Annarais closed her eyes and leaned against the door. "I don't know, but let's talk about this inside."
"Neither life nor death," began Damon, reciting through his panting the litany that would open the door, "but existence." He paused to catch his breath. "Neither chaos… nor order… but existence." The litany defined how his master's style of magic differed from the other fundamental types of Dominarian magic. The litany was complete, but the door stood impassive.
Damon glanced at Annarais, trying to hide his desperation.
From over the cliff, they heard the rocks knocked loose, falling down the steep slope. It was the sound of pursuit.
"Oh, great heaven," whispered Damon, and he took Annarais's hand.
She stood upright, centered herself for a moment, and spoke the litany. It was as if the litany spoke itself, playing her lungs and mouth the way a musician plays a flute. "Neither life nor death, but existence. Neither chaos nor order, but existence."
With a great commotion of machinery, the iron doors swung up and apart. The two apprentices rushed inside, into the high-ceilinged atrium. The doors clanged shut behind them. Exhausted, they sank to the floor and leaned against the door.
"They won't be able to get in," said Annarais.
"But, we've got to prepare, just in case," replied Damon.
The two apprentices split up, trying to prepare for the arrival of the Stromgald assassin, although neither knew what it would take to stop her. Annarais took the far stairs two at a time. At the top, she raced along the curving walls, heading for the sparring room at the other end of the corridor. She flung the door open and grabbed two metal-shod fighting staffs from their wall bracket near the door.
Meanwhile, Damon looked around the atrium. He closed the wooden shutters on every window and dropped bars into the holds to secure them. Obscured by illusion or not, an open window was a way in. He ran up to the second floor, whose curving, shadowed hallway overlooked the atrium. Here was their kitchen as well as their personal cells, their study rooms, and the sparring room.
He found Annarais in Jervis's cell, standing there with the window unsecured, holding a large, round shell in both hands. The heavy shell had been one of Jervis's treasured finds.
Without looking up, Annarais said, "Master Wane says your life is like the nautilus's shell. It starts very small, and it gets bigger and bigger as you grow. But you know what he forgot? It ends." She put her finger into the empty opening where a living thing had once made its home. "All that's left is something for someone to find on the beach-a trinket."
A mighty boom reverberated through the atrium. Damon jumped, and Annarais's hand flew to her mouth. They hurried out into the hallway and looked one story down to the floor. Another boom sounded from the door into the tower.
"We can't fight her golem," said Annarais.
"We can hide," returned Damon. "Maybe we can get to the training room. Maybe we can even make it to the top, to Master Wane's chambers. He talks to other wizards far away. Maybe he has a magic glass, something we can use to call him. Maybe he can get here, or just get us out." Like closing the shutters, he suspected it was a futile effort at best.
"The training room," said Annarais. "I know the key."
She slipped back into Jervis's room and came out with the fighting staffs. She tossed one to Damon. The booming persisted. Damon followed Annarais to the end of the hall next to the sparring room's door. There stood a wooden door carved with sigils in a wavelike pattern. None of the apprentices had ever been up to the training floor without Master Wane, and he had always opened the latchless door himself. Annarais placed herself in front of it, biting her lip. With her two hands, she made a slow, unpracticed series of gestures and then looked at the door.
"I don't understand." She was becoming more frustrated every minute. "That's exactly what he does. Exactly! Why won't it open?" She repeated the gestures. The boom sounded again, this time accompanied by the sound of metal straining and giving way.
"What are you thinking?" asked Damon.
"I'm trying to get through the damn door," snapped Annarais, her voice strained.
"No," said Damon, putting a calming hand on her shoulder. "What are you thinking while you're doing it?"
"I'm thinking we're both going to die."
"Do the litany. Try it while thinking the door litany. 'Neither life nor death but-'
"I know the damn litany!" yelled Annarais.
Annarais shivered and began again. Her hands moved smoothly as she repeated the gestures. Below them, the double doors bent inward, and the heavy, bronze creature squeezed into the breach, widening it. The door before Annarais creaked open, and the two apprentices darted in. The door shut behind them.
They raced up a narrow flight of stairs which opened into the middle of a curved room lined with racks of scrolls. Near the other end was a row of writing stands where the apprentices practiced their letters and sigils.
Against the wall was a wide, low chest tucked under a window. To the right was the door to Master Wane's chambers. As the Master had made clear many times, only a wizard could open that door. Near was a black curtain, with the mirror behind it. Momentarily, Damon longed to gaze into that mirror and forget everything that had happened today.
"There's got to be something here that we can use," Damon cried, frantically searching the room.
"Maybe there's something in Master Wane's hardwood chest," replied Annarais.
As Damon approached the chest, a flicker caught his eye. Sitting on one of the writing stands was the flat, mirrored disk that Master Wane had used to create phantasms-horrible but insubstantial images of frightening creatures.
Damon remembered sitting with Sabra and Master Wane on the rocky beach, waves gently lapping in the background. The master had reached into his stained gray cloak and produced the disk, laying it gently on the pebbles before them. The disk reflected the sun and blue sky. "The blind see only the truth," he said.
Wane had tucked his age-spotted hands into his cloak and closed his eyes. Sabra reached out for the disk. She pulled it close to her face and peered into it. With a forefinger she pushed at a pimple on her chin. Suddenly her eyes widened, and she dropped the disk on the rocks. Damon looked up and saw behind Sabra a naked, hairless, humanlike form with long, clawed fingers and toes. Its wings made it seem bigger than it really was, but it was the claws, not its size, that looked deadly. It rested on the rocks behind Sabra, and, as she began scooting backward toward Master Wane, it followed her with short hops.
Learning to ignore these horrific visions had been an early lesson for each apprentice, a lesson in distinguishing that which the eye sees from that which the mind knows. "Our magic is the magic of the impossible," Master Wane would often say, "of the impossible made true."
Damon picked the disk up. "Maybe we can use this to distract the assassin," he muttered, and he tucked it into a wide pocket hidden in his shift beneath his frock.
Together, he and Annarais tugged at the chest's cover, but it was sealed tight. They heard crashing noises from downstairs. Damon swore and kicked the chest. Then, abruptly, he grabbed Annarais by the forearm.
"When have we ever seen Master Wane open anything with his hands?" He straightened up and took a deep breath. His eyes closed.
He opened them a moment later when Annarais whispered, "Done."
The chest was open, the cover gone. Probably never was one, Damon thought sourly. He glanced at Annarais. "Go see if you can open that door." She nodded.
Inside the chest was a jumble of items and scrolls. Some Damon recognized from training exercises, most he had never seen before. He pulled out a sextant covered with spikes. What could that be used for? He dropped it back in the chest. Spotting the hilt of a sheathed blade, he extracted it carefully and slipped it into his inside pocket. It clinked against the disk.
He was tossing scrolls and sheaves of paper from the chest, searching for more weapons, when he heard a pounding in the training room. His heart skipped a beat, and he looked up, but it was Annarais beating repeatedly on the door to Master Wane's personal quarters. Damon picked up his staff and hurried to her side.
"If we could get through-" she said, tears of frustration forming in her eyes. "I tried the litany. We'd be safe, but we're not safe, we're going to die. It won't open. Nothing will open. I can't do it."
Damon dropped his staff, grasped her shoulders, and pulled her back against his chest. She shook in his hands as she cried, then Annarais wiped her eyes with her wrist and sniffed loudly. Damon felt a tremendous sympathy well up inside him, an overpowering desire to protect Annarais.
He felt a sudden confidence, an assurance, an acceptance of his own learning. Without a word to Annarais, he stepped forward and placed his hand on the handle of Master Wane's door. He pulled, not with great force but with great confidence.
The door held. Damon's confidence crashed.
The door at the bottom of the stairs shattered. Damon turned and held his staff defensively in front of him. The polished, plodding golem reached the top of the stairs, and its head swiveled to consider the apprentices. Behind it the stairwell stretched like a long, narrow pit in the floor, and Damon could just barely see the assassin lurking there at the bottom of the stairs.
"Take another step and I'll disintegrate you both," said Annarais.
Damon peered at her in astonishment. She was holding a squarish blue stone in her hand. It glowed as if alive. The assassin murmured a word to the golem and ducked back into the stairwell.
Annarais raised the stone and pointed it at the machine. "Don't come any closer."
The golem's feet scraped over the stone floor as it turned toward Annarais and began to walk toward her.
Damon grasped Annarais's arm and raised it. "What is this thing? Can you really do that?"
Annarais answered breathlessly, "Remember, we found it on the beach just after Jervis came. Sabra was left holding it when Master Wane found out." She looked at the golem as it continued its march toward them. She said in a rush, "The master dropped it on the beach and walked away, but Sabra kept it. She learned how to make it work."
The golem was now managing a lurching jog, its arm raised for a blow. Annarais held out the device toward the creature and gave it a quick turn, as if it were a doorknob. A flash like lightning threw Annarais back against the wall, made Damon's hair rise, and enveloped the metal creature. The flash was gone. The golem was coming toward them as if nothing had happened.
Damon sidestepped the machine and ducked its swinging arm. He backpedaled toward the writing stands, and the golem followed. Damon raised his disk and gave it a mental command. Between him and the machine, something took shape. It was a hairless, humanlike creature with long claws, the image that had terrified Sabra. It flapped its wings and hissed as it hopped from foot to foot. The golem brought its spiked ball down through the illusion with a spin of its whole upper body, and then, with the sound of gears grinding, resumed its stance, ready to strike.
Untouched, the illusion continued to caper. The golem struck again, exactly as before. Exactly as before it resumed its ready position. Damon watched as it repeated its attack without variance three times. He remembered what Master Wane had said about machines that mimic life: they're still machines. Unconscious of its own actions, the golem responded as it had been built to respond. In the face of an unchanging foe, its response never changed. It was stuck.
Damon slowly crawled through the discarded scrolls behind a writing stand, trying not to attract the golem's attention. He looked for Annarais. Behind the golem, near the far wall, she was shaking sense back into her head. He waved and started to crawl toward her, still clutching his staff.
Suddenly the assassin vaulted out of the stairwell and crouched on the floor, blade in one hand. She saw Annarais near her then spotted Damon behind the writing stands.
"Very good," she said. Her laugh was surprisingly pleasant and reminiscent of chimes. "Very smart, little fish. I was sure that thing would finish off the two of you. The fact that you both are still alive raises my opinion of you. The first two were easy kills." She tilted her head back and raised her voice. "Wane! Traitor! I hope that somewhere, somehow, you're using your magic to see this. If I can't get you, I want you to see what happens to your precious students."
The assassin took her curved blade in both hands and walked purposefully toward Annarais, who was now holding her staff at the ready. Terrified, she had both her hands near one end, holding the other end out to try to keep danger at bay.
Willing his disk to work again, Damon rose and charged the assassin. Before him, another winged creature took form. The assassin shot Damon a sideways glance and moved in on Annarais faster than she could retreat. With a swift, curving motion, the woman ducked past the end of the staff, grabbed the weapon's center with one hand, and slipped the blade underneath, where it disappeared into Annarais's frock.
Annarais fell back against the wall, and the assassin pivoted to face Damon. Between them, the illusion of the imp blocked their view. Damon denied the imp, refused it a place in his mind. To him, it became a wispy outline through which he could see the assassin. He dropped the disk and charged, both hands on his staff. Damon saw the assassin weave to try to view past the illusion, but his aim was clear. Grunting, he leaped through the illusion, the metal-shod end of his staff bursting through the image and striking the assassin in the left eye. She rolled to the side as his momentum carried him past. The assassin held a hand over her wounded eye, but she swung her sword in such furious arcs that Damon had to pause. The illusion hounded the woman, but she ignored it.
Damon heard Annarais cry out. She had struggled along the wall, grasping her belly, until now she was in front of the mirror. She grabbed the curtain with her free hand and toppled, pulling the curtain down. Heedless of the mirror and of the assassin, Damon ran to her side. There was blood everywhere.
"Damon." It was Annarais's voice, but it didn't come from her. It was in his head. He looked up and saw her reflection in the mirror. There she stood, alive again, just as she had been yesterday. There was his reflection as well, clean and carefree.
"Do you understand?" said Annarais.
Damon did not need to say yes. He saw his yesterday self in the mirror. "You will never become a wizard," he thought to his reflection. "The apprentice does not become a wizard. He is replaced by one. I am not my past."
Movement caught his attention. He looked past his reflection. Stalking him was… a white-robed healer. Damon reached under his frock, unsheathed his knife, and held it pressed flat against his forearm where the assassin wouldn't see it. He turned as she approached.
Behind her, the first image of the imp continued to draw the repetitive attacks of the golem. The second image hopped and hissed, but the assassin was not distracted. Damon dismissed the second image with a thought. He looked at the assassin. He could see the wound he'd given her-a broken cheekbone. It hadn't shown in her reflection. The assassin sneered as she approached.
Damon knew that her mind would be unable to withstand the mirror's magic if she looked at her own reflection, but the assassin fixed her gaze on him. Slowly, deliberately, she stepped closer.
"You hurt me," she said. "So I'm not going to kill you as fast as I killed your friend. I'll make you squirm a little first. None of your little illusions are going to save you." She continued to fix her gaze on Damon and began swinging her sword before her.
"There's where you're wrong," cried Damon. "The phantasms that live in this mirror are real." With his free hand, he gestured over his shoulder at the mirror.
The assassin's gaze flicked to the mirror, to her own reflection-disguised as a healer. Her eyes lost their intensity, and she stood still. Damon saw the struggle raging behind her dark eyes, the intensity of her purpose against the magic of the mirror. Suddenly, she pulled her sword back over her shoulder to strike a blow, her training and determination just barely winning out over the mirror's magic.
"Welcome, healer," said Damon.
His words added to the power of the mirror's magic, and it overcame the assassin's resistance. What her eyes saw and her ears heard, her mind believed. She dropped her sword, and her arm fell to her side.
"Who are you?" asked Damon, almost tauntingly.
"I come from Kjeldor in search of the great Master Wane," said the assassin. She seemed a little confused. Her hands closed into fists and opened again nervously, as if the internal struggle continued, but she played her part.
"I am a former student of Master Wane," said Damon. "I welcome you to his home." He held out his arms to embrace her, and she returned the embrace in kind. "You are what you see," he said.
"But where is Master Wane?" persisted the impostor, uneasy in the embrace. "I have an ancient artifact which we Kjeldorans need his guidance on." She began to pull away.
"I am what I will," continued Damon. He plunged the knife into the small of her back. The woman started, then backed away in shock. She turned and collapsed, bleeding, the knife sticking from her back. Her eyes were wide with surprise. Damon stooped over her, yanked the knife free, and planted it in her throat. Her reflection remained in the mirror. Damon turned toward it, his back to the corpse.
"Begone," he said, and the reflection was gone.
Annarais's image remained. "Thank you, dear Annarais," he said, and he dismissed her reflection, as well.
In the mirror, he saw the golem, a creature with no mind, still locked in futile combat with the imp, a creature with no body. He was considering what to do with them when something grabbed his ankles and yanked him to the unforgiving floor.
It was the assassin. Blood no longer ran from the gash where Damon's knife stuck in her throat, and her dark eyes were now lit by some eerie force. The black gem in her vest glowed like a cold heart. Her hands, strong as vises, pulled Damon onto his back and under the weight of the living corpse. They clamped onto his neck. His face bulged and he couldn't breathe. He clawed at the assassin's face, but she seemed impervious to pain.
"Your little trick has killed me," said the assassin, in a hollow, ragged voice. The effort of speech made blood dribble past the knife in her neck. "But I am a devotee of the night. Death makes me stronger." She dropped her weight on Damon's belly, and the last of the air in his lungs squeezed out his throat. "You tricked my mind, but my mind has now been sacrificed to the night. You'll have no more luck with your trickery. That's all your kind of magic is-trickery."
Damon's frantic struggles were useless beneath the weight of the powerful, skilled, relentless assassin. He closed his eyes to gather what was left of his concentration. He remembered Master Wane saying, "The mind that is moved is not the true mind."
Damon opened his eyes and cast his gaze at the imp that held the golem in its endless cycle of attacks. He willed the imp to move toward him and the assassin.
Staring down into Damon's face, the assassin continued, "You wizards of the sea and sky think you understand magic, but your magic is soft and harmless, insubstantial as the images you create."
The golem followed the image of the imp, striking and striking with the massive, spike-covered ball at the end of its left arm. Now Damon willed the image to cover the assassin.
"When you are dead," said the assassin, "we shall make a zombie of you, so that you can serve in my lords-"
In a blur, the golem brought its mighty weapon and smashed the assassin's head to one side, cutting off her taunting speech. The impact knocked the corpse off Damon, and as he gasped for breath he willed the imp over the assassin again. The golem, finally striking flesh instead of phantom, smashed the flailing corpse beyond recognition. A blow shattered the black stone on the assassin's chest, and she stopped moving for good.
For a long while Damon rested on his hands and knees regaining his breath, trying to comprehend all that had happened to him. Finally he rose, strode across the training room, and opened the door to Master Wane's chamber, the door that only wizards could open. Behind it he found not stairs but an empty shaft. He levitated into Master Wane's chambers. There he found nothing but a round room, bare walls, bare floors, and five open doorways leading to the balcony that circled the top of the tower. He walked onto the balcony and looked out over the sound.
Damon saw the deep orange sky and the black clouds. At his will, the sky shifted from orange, through red, to purple, and then to blue with white clouds. He chose to see the sky as a nice, clear shade of blue.
There, on the balcony, he awaited his colleague's return.
Kevin T. Stein
The casino was loud, but clean. Lamps burned expensive oil in the open windows. I glanced over the top of low, double doors. The people inside wore bright clothes of silk and brocade, their hair braided and combed as they moved about with the same expression: vague enjoyment, phantom pleasure. They lost their money to Dumoss-Master Dumoss. They should count themselves lucky.
The sun labored to reach the city through thick clouds. The previous night's dustfall had left everything gray. Since the end of the great war, the Brothers' War, everyone who slept without shelter spent the day beating, brushing clothes to remove the dust. These poor walked past, cursing the brothers, cursing the war that changed everything, even their luck.
I was clean. Last night, I slept in my flat.
My side of the street was choked with shuffling people. Bent over, they didn't look to the casino or its patrons. They only looked at each other-general hatred and distrust inflamed by the great war. I knew they wanted to lash out at something, that they were chewing over their luck. Right now their luck was bad. But when it changed, they would be the ones wearing bright silks, they who braided their hair. They'd raise themselves up by stepping on the lives of those around them. Their anticipation, their lust tightened the air, mouths almost dripping like the muzzles of hungry dogs.
They were all wrong. If they wanted to leave the street, they shouldn't step on each other, but those at the casino. I had dedicated my life to this simple idea. I could have told them, but I chose to keep my own council. I didn't do charity work.
There were a thousand reasons I hated standing in that alley. It smelled old and musty and quickly covered me in a film of dust. I had watched the casino so many times from that alley I would have known if a stone were missing.
There were other things to hate. Annise's shift hadn't ended yet. She was still bringing drinks to well-dressed, wealthy patrons. I hated waiting for her, afraid she'd find someone at the casino and leave me. It was only a matter of time.
There was so much tension everywhere, in me. I needed a release, needed to be calm. I slowly closed my eyes and opened myself to the Flow to clean my spirit. I took a deep breath and the Flow filled me, pale and blue, water seen in the distance. I raised myself above my body, imagined flying like a bird to escape the street and dirt and hateful beggars. Hovering above the city, I could tell where the Flow was strongest this year, this month, could see where the wealth resided. The more luck, the more wealth. My spirit drifted.
The hate would not be dismissed. I opened my eyes to the casino. Nothing had changed, not even my mood. Men in rich, blue cloth moved through the casino crowd, the pit bosses. Frowning, I leaned against the alley wall with folded arms. Still tense, I maintained control.
In the window I saw a sudden flash of red hair, the color of the sun setting in the polluted, dusty sky. Annise. She turned, smiling down at someone. So beautiful. Caring for her, about her, was like a dare against fate, the ultimate gamble. No one had ever cared for someone as I cared for Annise. People were too afraid to give of themselves. I'd not yet told her what was in my heart. She'd never told me what I hoped was in hers.
Through the open window I saw her pause, listening, intent. She threw back her head and laughed. I could hear her above the crowd noise, standing in that wretched alley across the street. She gently caressed an upturned face. And still I maintained control.
Stepping into view was Dumoss. Master Dumoss of the casino was heavyset, had thinning black hair and wore red brocade chased with gold at the cuff and collar. Only the managers wore gold. A face built from high cheekbones gave him a youthful appearance, though he had not seen youth in scores of years. Around his neck he wore a pendant. Without effort I could see its place, its focus in the Flow. It had power.
Dumoss snaked an arm around Annise's waist, and she still smiled. He leaned over, whispered into her ear, handed her something. Pulling back with surprise, she inspected the pendant on its chain. She'd lost her smile. He'd made her an offer-I could imagine for what. Dumoss waited for an answer. Annise let the pendant drop, pushed at him, playful, laughing. He reached for her in vain when she moved away.
My control was broken. I dove into the Flow to fill myself and drown. The magic was thin and impure. I stepped from the alley, muscling through thick, dusty lines of poor people to the next gambling game. A vendor selling meat-stuffed bread stopped before me with a little smoking cart.
I gestured acceptance and played a gambler's game on him, a game endured by only the most brave, those with the greatest hunger. It was difficult to find the root of his spirit, the basin of his life's magic, but not impossible. There and then I stopped his heart.
His brown eyes went wide. I instantly let go, but felt no guilt. He would have done the same to me. The man fell over his cart, gasping with great pain. I pushed him aside, out of my way. Fists clenched in rage, I pressed on to where Dumoss pursued Annise.
From my left came the noises of horn and armor. Both sides of the street-rich and poor-scattered, pressing themselves against walls, entering doorways and alleys.
Soldiers rounded the corner and paraded up the street. They didn't look at me, at anyone. My gambler's magic would not harm them anyway. Their hearts could not be frozen. They were strong and protected, returning from the Brothers' War. I knew what they thought, had heard their dim views of this city and its people. The feeling was mutual. To us they were nothing more than unwanted lives, refuse with mouths.
The soldiers were a river I could not cross. Dust swirled in their wake, forcing me back, blocking even my view of the casino, which, strangely, tempered my anger. Annise would be home soon enough.
I left the street, its disparity and its river of men, thinking of her. How long would it be before she gave in to Dumoss? I pulled Flow through me, for calm, for power, trying to set my questions aside. The immediate answer was simple: if Annise came home wearing the pendant, I would know her betrayal, inevitable betrayal, would be complete.
I vowed right then to defeat Dumoss for her. A man could be down only so long before his luck changed.
We lived in the bones of a thing long dead. Our room was long and wide, a landing of exposed slats broken with age supporting four walls made from thin plaster by inexpert hands. Small rocks and dirt rained down irregularly from the ceiling, made worse by the cat upstairs, whose nocturnal pacing kept me awake at night. A few oil lamps burned yellow. The wall facing the street had a window without glass, broken out during riots and storms. When the luck flowed our way, a wind unsoured by the city blew straight in.
I sat on my cot, a flat field-cushion gambled from a soldier, and tried not to think of Annise's bed nearby. Instead, I focused on my precious five cages. How many more did Dumoss have? Five times five? Fifty? My hatred for him was a palpable thing, so that even my animals- salamander, poison toad, spider, rat, and my prize, my beautiful mantis, delicate and green-grew restless. Dumoss used a mantis, his favorite sport. He could fight in the aviaries, but birds were more flash than sport, no real money. They were too hard to use, too much effort.
I didn't always like to play. The best gamblers could feel their magic fade, could taste the bad luck. The smart ones knew when it was time to back away. Everyone backed away sometimes, except Dumoss. He never said no to a fight. That wasn't quite true. He never said no to a fight of his class.
The mantis turned toward me, waved its razored arms, pivoted its head. It knew it was my favorite. The others were in their cages like soldiers. Their spirits were simple and pure, easy to control. The best gamblers knew their animals were the means to greater wealth, a better life. The animal arenas saw the greatest flow of money. Games of Bloodletting, games of Freeze like I played on the street vendor, were simple, quick, but required real nerves. The money from them was thin compared to the arenas where the winners played.
I stretched my arm toward the mantis. Eyes half-closed I drew myself into the Flow and rose above the falling dirt and darkness. My spirit followed a sense of motion and was carried a great distance, almost forever. Time was lost. Slowly the stream stopped rushing straight away. It bent, first in a curve and then in a circle. I had it. I had control.
The ghost mantis stood in my open hand, spirit drawn from its mortality. I could see through it, a mirage, perfectly still. Its corporeal form was still rigid in its cage and would remain that way until dead or the spirit was returned. My connection to this ghost was achieved with careful skill and hours of training.
I focused my thoughts on the essence standing in my palm. It raised its two arms in praise. I focused again. It lowered them. I was in control.
This was the weapon I would use to defeat Dumoss: a mantis. The mantis arenas were the best favored in the city. The knowledge of my secret weapon felt like a hidden dagger, ready for a final, fatal blow. The Flow I had taken filled places in my thoughts like rainwater gathered in pools. Each pool wrought a feeling, a comfortable pressure. I released one of the pools.
Washed, the mantis-spirit glided away from my palm, up my arm, attacking the air in practice like a toy. I watched as its back legs dragged and its body slumped forward a fraction too far. My face felt weighted down with disappointment. I wriggled my fingers and its head jerked up, and the body turned to attack. I brooded over my control, fine for the salamander and toad, but not enough for this difficult creature.
The mantis approached my fingers with caution. Every animal's spirit had its own challenges to overcome.
But I didn't want to wait, didn't want to continue experiments that led to disappointment. More practice time meant Annise would have more opportunity to find another home. I needed to hurry.
The early days, when we first met, were sunken memories. The room had been ours for two years. We found each other in much the same way as everyone else: it was a matter of mutual need. We both needed our luck to change, and we both needed someone to share the cost of the room. I learned she had been beaten by a lover, a string of lovers-one of the reasons she didn't like to be touched. I decided she needed to be part of my life.
My eyes lost focus, and magic continued its spiral from my spirit to the mantis. The time of my vending in the streets was long over. Back then, I knew people. One of those people got Annise her job bringing drinks to tables at casinos. I was proud when she moved to better bars. I felt I had done something good, helped someone worth caring about. I gave up the streets to learn gambler's games, the only road to power in this city, the only road out of this city for someone like me.
Annise no longer needed my help. Remembering that tightened my hungry stomach. She no longer needed my help because she was making it on her own. She no longer needed me. I told myself I was happy for her.
The mantis bit my thumb, drawing blood. My control was solid, but I failed on the details. My thoughts were on Annise. Drawing breath, I released the spirit back to the Flow. It faded and was gone. In the cage, the mantis returned to life and tilted its head.
The wound stung where the spirit's teeth cut my flesh.
I didn't bind the gash, but instead held my hand up to slow the blood, letting some drip onto the floor. Living with my animals, caring for them, made me a good gambler. It made the animals trust, opened them to my control.
The lock, badly in need of oil, clicked under the slowly turning iron key. Carrying a basket, Annise forced the door open with a shoulder, cursing softly. She glared at the door and the lock, cursing everything. I could do nothing but wait for her to complete this ritual of anger. She'd been following the same pattern for several months, since Dumoss first approached her with the promise of that pendant, that magic, he wore.
She shouldered the door closed again and dropped the covered basket onto a table in the corner. Her foot caught the hem of her long, red skirt, and she nearly tripped. She didn't like to be helped. I continued to wait.
Dressed in the rich crimson of the casino, she finally looked at me, thumb bloody, sitting near my cages. She said nothing, remained motionless. Her magic was small, so she was forced to rely on her hands and her beauty.
"I'll make us something to eat," I said.
She nodded, frowning. Annise took from a pocket a spool of thread, needle, and gold lace. Her features were not delicate but filled with strength. She had long fingers and elegant hands.
I nodded toward the lace. "You've been bumped up?"
"Today. Raised my salary." She fell on her bed, slipped off her blouse, showing a colorless shirt underneath made of worn cotton.
I wanted to look at her. I loved to look at her. I hoped she was not angry with me for something. The food was simple, bread and old cheese and water. These fears about her were always more frequent, stronger, when she was near.
"I'm going out. There's a traveling game near the town hall."
She let out a breath. "Please stay with me tonight."
"Do you want to come? You can watch."
No answer. She never watched me game. I asked many times. She never liked to share her most personal effects, and by that token, never wished to share mine.
I said, "I need to work."
"I'm earning a little more money. Can't you give up tonight. Just tonight?"
I piled the food onto a plate and brought it to her, my smile pained. "You had a hard day?" I didn't mention that I watched from the alley.
She nodded. I wanted to put a hand on her shoulder, but she didn't like to be touched, particularly after work.
"I have to make this game. The money will buy back some of the things we lost."
Her eyes slowly swept the room. Once we had a chair, a real book too thick to finish in a year, and a mirror. That had been the last to go. Her eyes settled on the cages. Of course, these would never be sold. They were the means to my living.
Her eyes finally fixed on me, and she smiled, nodded understanding. "If I had your magic, I would have better luck. There'd be more money." She waved, despairing, absent. "More magic, more luck. More luck, more money."
I leaned forward to stroke her hair, but stopped myself. Instead I stood to get some water. She threaded the needle to sew the gold lace onto the cuffs of her red blouse, the symbol of rank at the casino. Water from the jug filled my cup. My thumb caught the rim of the jug's handle. It started bleeding again and dripped into the filled cup.
"Let me try the game on you," she said.
"That old gambler's game," she repeated with a coy smile. "Let me try it on you."
I turned to face her, smiling. "All right, try it."
Her magic was weak. Her hands fell into her lap, eyes slowly closed. Annise breathed deeply and evenly. I had the sensation of the Flow being drawn from me to her. Time passed as she concentrated on the game.
She lifted her arm with great deliberation, elegant hand palm up, open fingers spread as if they held a melon. She opened her eyes, concentrating her gaze on mine. No longer coy, she held an expression of honest enjoyment. She must have seen little joy in a day.
Her magic sought the root of mine, the source of my spirit. Her fingers slowly closed, and she laughed lightly. There was a vague feeling of constriction in my chest. The mysterious power making my heart pump was being influenced by her magic. The sensation was nothing more than a discomfort. From a more powerful practitioner, it could kill. Surviving was the other part of the game.
I clutched my chest and emitted a false groan. Her magic fell away as if dropped into a ravine. She sighed loudly, drew deep breaths.
"Excellent, very good."
"Thanks." Smiling at her own fatigue, she motioned for the water and managed to add, "Fun."
I stood over her, water in hand. I gave her the water. She drank it greedily.
Arenas were fixed or floating. Fixed arenas were housed within the casinos themselves and owned by Dumoss and others like him. Floating games were announced in secret, preventing "interference" by players with more magic, like pendants brimming with control, like Dumoss. These true gamblers ruined evenings without effort and drove arena bosses out of business. They smashed chances of lesser players without regret. Nobody ratted out a floating game to a professional. To do so and get caught meant death.
Town hall games were large, loud, and hidden in unused sewers and tunnels. The torch burning in the town hall's high tower announced the arena was still open; no torch, no game. Dustfall started early that night, before sunset. Jogging, I covered my head with a scrap of cloth to keep out the city. Still, my face felt dirty, and my nose itched from dust. Some people believed that the falling dust were the ashes of the dead, ashes from the war. I didn't worry about that much, since it meant time away from practice and training, time too precious to waste.
I entered the arena near a row of houses, all of brick, all better than mine, all kept empty by the floating arenas. There were many such blocks controlled by the bosses, because it prevented major players from learning in advance when and where a game would be played. Invitations came by word of mouth, came quickly to those living on the street, in cheap flats, or parks.
Two men stood in the shadows on either side of the door. I moved to the short line of gamblers shielding themselves from the dust. Testing the luck, I let my eyes drop half-closed: not weak, not strong. Perhaps a trick such as I had planned would win the night. When luck ran my way…
Luck made everything better. There was no other way to describe it. Your animal could do something surprising, your opponent could slip, could sneeze, could look away. Looking away was the worst, the most common mistake. It broke concentration and confused the animal. Good luck made all the difference.
A hand fell on my chest at the door, pushing me back a step. Another hand lifted the cloth from my head. Grunts sounded from the dark, and I was pulled into the darkness. The guards were different tonight, looking for professionals like Dumoss. I ignored them and stepped from the darkness, lamps and candles lighting the path to the arena.
The air was heavy with the scents of dust, dirt, and sweat. Noise from the arena built slowly. My heart beat harder. This kind of excitement was better than the Bloodletting game, better than the Freeze game I played with Annise. People watched the arena, acknowledging the victors. My feet carried me faster.
A game ended as I entered. The crowd jumped to its feet. I smiled and shouted along with everyone else. I'd seen nothing, but it didn't matter. The thrill of the arena moved me. Money was collected by arena guards and given to the victor, someone I didn't know. Faces were hidden by darkness, sometimes washed red by torches.
The arena guard lifted his arms to ask for the next challenger. I pushed through bodies like the arena was a crowded street-men in poor clothes, men in city work uniforms, men in rich blue with gold trim-so many I cannot remember them all. The bright light blinded me, sand shifted under my weight. The crowd was ready for more.
Two chairs sat facing each other in the sand of the arena. The other man-my height, average weight, straight dark hair going gray-was already seated. His magic was new to me but he had won, and that said he must have some skill. The unfocused magic in the crowd made it hard to tell without concentrating. I took the seat boldly but slowly, staring into his shadowed eyes.
This arena was for lizards and related creatures. From the tracks in the sand, someone had summoned the spirit of a snake, a salamander, maybe a chameleon. There were too many tracks. I couldn't tell who had won, but I would have bet on the snake.
Expressionless, the other man raised his hands above his head, palms toward me, elbows bent. I raised my arms, more slowly, menacing, turning my palms when my elbows were in line with my ears.
The guard stood in the middle of the arena, calling for bets. My eyes didn't break the gaze of my opponent, though I heard the shouts, laughs, and curses, and the clattering chips representing betting numbers. Everything was washed in the light of the brazier above. Betting went quickly, but the casinos took more time. Placing bets, collecting bets, everything took place at a rate the poor could not afford.
My thoughts drifted to Dumoss and Annise. My anger returned, but I managed to keep it down. The smell of bodies pressing against the arena finally overpowered the dust in my nose. The place reeked of excitement. My face remained blank; I showed no fear.
The shouts died out as the guard held up his hands, calling for final bets. There were none. He clapped once, twice, turned in place, and clapped again. The din of voices receded to a restless quiet. The weight of eyes and hopes were on us. I dared to think some had bet on me, the newcomer, the stranger, against the evening's current champion.
The guard cut the air between us with a hand and a sharp cry of "Fight!"
I brought my hands together with a clap, my arms outstretched. I reached into the Flow and rose above the noise and smells. The stream stopped rushing and bent toward me, into me.
I opened my palms. Sounds gushed from the crowd. Some had bet on me and were disappointed. My opponent held out a small snake, fast with great fangs. In my hand, spirit drawn forth, was my poisonous toad. To the audience, it looked like just a toad. My expression revealed nothing. The other gambler would not he so confident if he suspected the toad's venom could kill his snake in seconds.
I got lost in the joy of the arena, of gambling. Time was lost as I concentrated on the spirits of my animals, drawing from the Flow, filling the pools in my thoughts with power, then releasing them. I drew more magic, more luck. I felt at ease and fluid.
The ghosts of our animals slithered and hopped across the sand. They had no weight, but they still left tracks. The snake curled and raced to the edge of the arena. I let the toad turn to face the snake, let the Flow run slowly through me. Little sounds of anticipation seeped from the crowd hoping for action, for victory. My confidence was good. Nobody suspected my toad could easily kill with more than teeth.
The snake moved in closer and attempted to strike. I kept my hands on my knees, half watching the spirits, half losing myself in the magic, as did my opponent. Control was easy. I felt comfortably loose as I shifted against the toad's nature to leap and attack. It was a simple creature with a few limbs and a tongue. Poison secreted from its skin. Even its phantom could kill another phantom.
The snake lunged forward. The crowd yelled and laughed as the snake's fang caught against my toad's flesh, but it drew no blood. The snake kept its coils near the toad. I nudged, and the toad clumsily turned and moved an inch, fully brushing against the snake to release its poison.
The toad struggled, breaking my control. It leaped away as the snake bit into the ground. I blinked once. Magic went wild in me. The luck shifted. However, the snake was also lost, running on its own, snapping at the toad.
Suddenly the snake stopped, then coiled into a circle, and snapped at the air. The toad jumped at the snake and bit it hard in the middle, releasing more poison. The snake jerked with spasms that might have dislodged the toad, but the toad clung tight. I couldn't control it or get it away from the snake's fangs. With a final, coiled snap the snake died.
Outraged shouts and laughs burst from the crowd. This was not my usual arena. The toad was a one-time trick. Many animals were immune to its venom. Besides, the crowd would remember my face next time.
This time, however, I had won. There was no greater feeling. I collected my money from the guard and left the arena by pushing past the poor and the better dressed. A stranger slapped me on the back in congratulations. I loved it, loved winning. There was money in my purse, a good amount for the long shot. I'd buy back some of the things the flat was missing. I knew this would make Annise happy.
The luck stayed with me, and I kept winning. The smaller gambling houses took notice. Once I even received an invitation, but I was still allowed at the floating games. People remembered me, and I began to see regular faces, men in rich blue. Annise didn't watch any of the games.
A real candle, scented with lavender for Annise, burned in our old bottle, bathing the room in comfortable light. I bought it in a store that sold only candles in the better part of the city. A store that sold only one thing was beyond comprehension in our neighborhood. Candles were an unthinkable extravagance.
Covering most of the missing slats on the floor was a carpet, worn but not threadbare, woven in a complicated red, black, and white pattern. It, like the candle's light, was comfortable. The man who had sold me the rug assured me it would last a lifetime, said it had been owned by an old woman, recently dead. "Still a lifetime left in it," he'd said as he gave me a cheap piece of padding to put beneath it. His establishment was near the candle shop on the far side of the city, and I struggled the thing home with great difficulty, but I did it for Annise.
On top of the rug were a table and two matching wooden chairs, newer than the rug and in good condition. The chairs were almost a steal from one of the casinos and cost less than a good meal. The pit boss had been instructing his men to take them to market. One quick word from me, and they were mine. I was respected. The pit boss had wanted me to leave with a good feeling about his casino. My good feeling was from winning four nights in a row, nothing more. I took what I could get.
My phantom mantis stood at attention now on the tabletop that I had sanded as smooth as glass. It moved away from my hands, maneuvering. Someday I would face Dumoss in his casino, my mantis against his. My other animals were working well in the arenas, which meant more money. They were eating better, and their spirits were stronger. This was how real gamblers beat lesser opponents. Starvation for the man meant defeat for the animal.
Concentrating on the mantis while I did other things made my control better, made it more dangerous. That was what I wanted-to make the mantis a menace, an unstoppable threat. When the tabletop was smooth, so were the motions of the mantis.
The lock turned quietly, and the door opened before I noticed. There was plenty of oil for the hinges and gears now. Annise stepped in, packages in hand. She had more money, too, but not as much as me. Her hair shone, groomed with a brush I had bought new. We had soap and one towel between us, luxury items. Her expression was taut. Despite our increased fortunes, she still didn't like being touched after work.
Annise faced the table, breathing deeply. "What is that smell?"
The answer was pure joy for me. "A lavender candle."
Her mouth opened, then closed abruptly. Of all the women at the casino, she was the only one who did not steal from Dumoss. Maybe that was one reason he showed her such attention. She could have stolen many such candles. This one was special, bought with affection-earned.
With a flourish, I lifted a cloth covering a plate. Beneath was a grand meal: a fish nestled in sweet syrup, a loaf of warm bread, and fruits so fresh she could smell them across the room. The scent obviously reached her, and she breathed in deep again, closing her eyes briefly. I produced a bottle of wine. She was so beautiful and overwhelmed.
But there was something else behind her smile. She'd brought a surprise of her own, one she couldn't hide. There was a feeling, of power, of the Flow. I'd felt it before-from Master Dumoss and his pendant. My teeth clenched together again and again. She rummaged through her basket for something, avoiding my eyes. She knew I could feel the pendant in the room.
What to do, what to say? What did it mean? Had she given herself to him? Was this our last meal together? After I'd fought and struggled so hard.
I decided to be calm and found my control, deeper now with practice, with success. I could feel the pendant so strongly. If I wore it, the power for my animals would raise me up, higher even than my current status.
Annise stopped her nervous search and put a hand over her throat, where the gold lace was stitched, the promotion from Dumoss. "He gave it to me today."
"I can feel it."
She turned, still nervous. Because she was worried I knew of her betrayal? Because there was no betrayal and she was afraid I would be offended by her acceptance of a gift from another man? One thing was certain: Dumoss was wearing her down. She was weakening, slowly allowing his advances. I'd seen her in the casino from the alley. I knew how she flirted and toyed with him. I'd seen Dumoss slip his arm around her. She needed to be saved from her own weakness with my strength, my success. As long as I was winning, she would be mine. My animals ceased their restless moving.
"Can you feel it?"
Annise brushed some hair from her face and nodded quickly. "A little. My magic is so weak. But it feels-"
"Wonderful." My tone was laced with happiness. We were both gaining the wealth we always wanted.
Annise looked up at me from beneath the shadow covering her eyes and saw my open, genuine smile. She nodded quickly again. "It feels lucky. That's what I'm told will happen. I'll have more magic, so I'll have more luck."
That made me laugh. I didn't tell her magic needed to be exercised, used, and practiced before you can have luck. She thought in terms of superstition and legend. I stood and gestured to the opposite chair. She laughed shortly and put the basket on the floor. She slid past me, without touching. I pulled the chair out, pushed it under her, and set the platter before her dark eyes, glowing warm in the candlelight. I lifted another cloth to reveal newly polished knives and forks.
Annise didn't know what to do. She was open, honestly charming. She gave me little joys without knowing or understanding how much they meant. I would have told her of the pleasure I got if I thought she wouldn't draw away. Instead, I demonstrated the proper process. Following my lead, she picked up the knife and fork, cut a delicate piece of fish, sticky with a slice of orange, and brought it to her lips. Annise stopped, breathed in the scent, then tasted the fish, luxuriating in the flavor.
I poured the wine into matching glasses while Annise chewed slowly, her eyes closed. Smoke from the candle curled into wreathes around her hair and spiraled toward her throat. The pendant filled me with the same languor as her eating. I reached out to touch it. Her eyes were closed; she wouldn't know, if I was careful. My animals were no longer calm. They were moving back and forth, excited.
Annise breathed deeply. I jerked my hand back just before she opened her eyes. Smiling at me over the rim, she sipped her wine, oblivious. I filled her cup again before she could find words, then finally sat down. Annise motioned me to eat, but the power of the pendant drew away my appetite. I forced myself to swallow anyway.
Some words passed between us, but we were both in different places-elevated-she by the grandeur of my offerings, I by her joy of the moment. My thoughts slipped to the pendant. I couldn't help it. This was what real gamblers had, what kept them apart from the poor more than doors and walls and guards. Everything I'd tasted up until then was nothing but rainwater, impure- the shallows. I wanted more of this power, for it would give me victory over Dumoss and let me keep her.
"What?" she asked.
I was staring at my mantis. My mouth was dry. I'd been muttering. Something needed to be spoken, something deep in my thoughts, something true. It was a gamble to bring it out, but I'd been lucky these past weeks.
"I said… I appreciate you. Just appreciate you."
I knew no man had ever told her more than that he wanted her. I suspected she heard it often at the casino from pit bosses and gamblers. I could picture them, the same look in their eyes when they glanced from her to the arena, the arena to her. They wouldn't see any difference in the prizes.
She blinked into the candlelight, smoke bringing tears to her eyes. She wiped them away and laughed. "Eat," she said.
A single, clean river ran through the city before the soldiers and the Brothers' War. My time then had always been spent working. Pushing vending carts had often taken me to the riverside. There were opportunities to steal moments, wash my face, rinse my aching feet.
Sunlight would make the river silver, sometimes too bright to look at. Stars created a ribbon of sparkling jewels-like Annise-too precious to touch. In the city there were few fish, if any, and nobody tried to catch them except the boys. They threw them back to be caught again.
One day back then the horizon-the mountains- were hidden in a red haze, sunlight angry till it rose overhead, again turning yellow. Birds lifted and flew away. Small animals hid themselves. The boys still caught fish, at least the dead ones that floated on top. That night, the moon burned the same angry red, even overhead. The river was no longer the plane of silver, the band of jewels. It became blood, became a black gash through the city. That was when the first dust fell.
I remember when all the birds left, streets vacant of their calls and songs. Everyone felt the danger, even with weak magic-everyone in the city had some. The sun stayed red till it set. The sky had no stars. The dust fell more thickly.
The great wave of heat and wind from the mountains happened when I was out with a cart. The morning was warm, nobody was buying, staying indoors, protected, they thought. I had wanted to wash my face. The water from a public fountain had stopped, clogged with dust. There were dead animals, squirrels in trees, mice, young birds who hadn't the strength to fly or sing. My gaze went to the mountains, wind rustling my hair. I could feel a power drawing near, outside my body, inside the Flow. At the time I knew little about it. There may have been a scream.
Then I was knocked over by wind, heat, and dust. Clouds coughed up the flesh of mountains, ashes choked the sky. Roaring power shot through the city, scattering everything. This was the power, we learned, of the Brothers' War. This was the aftermath of destruction.
Days and days passed when the only sound was the howl of outrage, of wind and dust and rocks pelting buildings, devouring the essence of the city, drinking its life. What remained collapsed from its own weight. Buildings fell, some overnight, and nobody could walk the streets. I huddled beneath dusty stairs for three days without food or water, staring into thick, rushing air. Things crawled over me. I didn't move.
The city was wrecked. The storm, as if alive, moved to find fresh prey. Memories of the end are cloudy now, but this memory is clear. Something changed, tore away the mantle of my previous life. I was determined to live. I reached down and by a shear force of will I survived. At the end of those three days I had found power-new, confused power relegated by luck. Nothing after that was ever the same.
Before it could recover, the city was set upon by soldiers leaving the Brothers' War. They took everything of worth. Like the wind, the soldiers cut a line from the city's past to the city's bent future. It took a long time to rebuild from the initial plunder.
I noticed a change in myself, as well as the city and the people. The end of the Brothers' War started smaller wars all over the world-fortunate against unfortunate, rich against poor, those with magic against those without.
Crawling, I had returned to collect the remains of the cart. I still wanted to wash my face. Most of the animals were dead, more bodies in the streets. Reaching into the river, I felt new, ugly sensations of death, failure, and hatred. The river was gone. My hand was covered in riverbed muck, gray ooze-a cold, sucking, solid mass that slid down my fingers toward my arm as if it were hungry. I shivered then, though the air was uncomfortably warm. The mass fell away from my hand with a hard shake. It left behind not a smell but a strange memory of weakness, fear, and failure.
I buried my rat now in the river muck. I'd had it with me for five days. The riverbed was still moist, though nobody knew why. There was little rain. All these memories of the city returned with the failure of my magic, my control. I had matched the rat against another player's snake at one of the bigger houses. The snake was fast, but my control over the rat was faster. The duel went on for some time, and I never let up. Then, when the rat was finally ready to strike, I lost control, just for a moment. The Flow stopped, the luck changed. One moment was long enough for the snake to strike. I had lost for the first time in a long time.
The other player had figured me out, had figured out my magic. I had seen this man several times, watching me. He was dressed in rich blue, gold lace at the cuffs and collar, the color of a pit boss's clothes. Gold lace meant he was from the casino of Dumoss. If he had been sent against me, Dumoss was a greater enemy than I suspected.
The little cage and animal sank from sight. With it went a measure of my blood, my life. Annise was doing much better, luck from the pendant served her well- better than I feared. My failure was like the death of the city, the death of my hope, my life.
I spent five days alone brooding over the death of my rat. When she came home, I was already gone. When she could find me, I told her I had somewhere important to go. I could not meet her eyes. She knew about my loss because she could see a cage was missing. She said nothing, we never questioned one another. She did not want to be touched, I did not want to be questioned. I longed to touch her, the pendant. I was sure I could have won if it had been with me.
There was something in my magic, a weakness, something the player in blue found by watching. I sat at the edge of the dead river, staring at the mountains. What did he see? Dust fell on me at night. I ferreted into old buildings, avoided the gaze of the shuffling poor. They angered me, with their eyes filled with pity.
They would not pity me if I had control, if I had won. Control was everything. My control was imperfect, and the man in blue knew it. It didn't matter to him if the Flow changed. It only affected me. I couldn't find an answer to my question. How would I live without her if I couldn't win?
Days and nights passed. I ate nothing, only drank from the few working public fountains. Dust hung on me in layers, night after night after night. I stood in the alley, every stone where it should be, watching her through the window. She smiled and laughed, touched the shoulders of patrons and pit bosses. And Dumoss. She worked and laughed, pretending she was not thinking of me, of my losing. All around her were winners, real gamblers. Her attraction for them was obvious, her betrayal to me could not be far. I had to work faster, harder.
All week, I took the spirits of little creatures at random and tried my magic on them. Insects and small animals were returning from wherever they hid when the great storm came. If they didn't perform as I commanded, my precious mantis killed them. I grew weak but was too determined to give in to fatigue. I didn't recognize time, only light and darkness. Dawns and twilights were gone to me. There was rain, and dust, and darkness, and light.
At the end of the week, two creatures were left, a bee and a spider. The others died. I made the bee do tricks, the spider the same-different creatures, same control.
The bee's spirit waited patiently for my command. The spider moved about restlessly as I pondered. My clothes lost all color. I felt a sudden need to wash. The bee twitched in my hand.
Waiting on my upturned palm, the bee twitched again, and again at distant intervals. The magic felt weak but even, and a bit muddy. It had felt stronger the day before, and the bee had twitched then as well. Picking at the Flow did nothing to the bee. I waited for the twitch, then poked the bee with magic. Nothing. I crushed the spirit in my hand.
The next week I spent eliminating the part of my magic that made the bee twitch. The snake ate my rat when it hesitated, and I eliminated that, too. Pushed by desperation, I figured it out. Maybe I discovered luck. Maybe the pendant hanging from Annise's throat was the cause. I was going to win again. The mantis would be ready. I would fight only in the mantis arenas-new magic, new control. She would have to stay.
I was invited to the Sun casino because I had won for two weeks straight. I was a rising star again. My game was strong. My wealth grew with my new magic. I had experienced nothing like this before-on top and still rising. It would have been nice if Annise had come to watch. She never watched me play.
Nothing in the room changed. The lavender candle was still in the bottle, long burnt. Its scent lingered. When she returned from work, nothing was different- no questions. She looked at me just the same. I was happy everything was the same, afraid things might have changed in my absence. She might have thought more about leaving. Everything was going to be better-for her as well as me.
At night I would dream of the Flow, swim in it, drink of it from her bed near mine. The pendant lay across her throat, whispering of victory. I found what I needed to kill the praying mantis of Dumoss. The pendant could give me that power. That's what I wanted-to kill that praying mantis and claim my place in this city, above the poor, forever under foot when I walked past. I wanted Annise with me.
One night while she slept, I reached out to touch the pendant. She stirred. I almost touched her throat. I wondered where, how, she got that prize, that incredible prize. I wondered who she let touch that throat. Dumoss? The pit bosses? I saw them all through the window. She passed time with them, touched their shoulders, arms, maybe caressed a cheek, and always smiling. All with no regret-nothing. I pulled my hand back and clutched my fist to my chest. She would be with me. My new control could give me that.
Staring at the skeleton of the ceiling, I wondered whether Dumoss, sitting somewhere, had heard tales of how good I had become.
He had. Standing inside a casino, the player who killed my rat, a pit boss in blue with gold lace, said Dumoss wanted a challenge. Dumoss wanted to play me that night. My face was blank, a gambler's trick. In my mind I was calm. I was ready.
The pit boss stared at me. He said I could never win, no matter how good my magic. He called me king of the dirt. He said that my luck didn't make me a loser, but that being a loser made my luck.
I returned home to Annise waiting at the window. She stared, sipping from a cup of water and said, "I'm leaving."
The sensation in my chest was like the gambler's game, Freeze, someone constricting my heart. "What?"
"I'm leaving you," she said, hair burnished by fading sunlight. She put a hand on the pendant, ran her fingers along its edges. "I'm going to be off on my own."
"This is because of Dumoss, isn't it?" The constriction continued. I felt heat on my skin but cold inside. My animals thrashed against their cages, feeling my fury.
Annise shook her head slowly, not looking at me. "Dumoss has-"
I raged in place. "Liar! This is because of Dumoss!"
Clutching the pendant, she turned back to the window. I couldn't see her face. She was not wracked with sobs, as I wanted her to be, or torn with sorrow, as I deserved to see her. Slowly, she nodded her acknowledgment and confessed her lie.
"You are leaving because you think he offers you more!" My animals hissed, rattled, ran in circles. "I will give you the same."
"You can't." She had pity in her voice. "We have been together some time, and I can't give you what you want." Her free hand fell from the pendant to rest on her shoulder. "I can't give myself to you."
"And you can with Dumoss?"
"No, not with Dumoss."
I smashed my foot into the floor. A slat cracked beneath the carpet, the carpet I had bought for her. "If not with Dumoss, then with who?"
Annise shook her head again and shrugged. "I don't know. But I know I must leave here."
"You must leave here." I laughed, a short, acid laugh. Blood boiled in my animals. I turned toward them. The salamander hurled itself against the bars of its little cage and died. I flinched. Another piece of me was gone. More of my life was gone. Like Annise.
There was still a chance. If I defeated Dumoss, my mantis against his, she would stay. I knew it. I thought of all the dreams inspired by the pendant. Using it against Dumoss would show her his weakness, show her that he could never give her what I could. He was a real gambler, but his luck would change. It would change that night, and I would be the one to change it.
Annise stood, straightened her dress with the gold lace around the cuff and collar. She ran a hand through her hair. "I have no bags. I won't take anything with me."
"Give me the pendant."
She looked me in the eye and blinked slowly. "What?"
"The pendant." My hand reached out. "Give it to me."
Annise turned her shoulders defensively and raised her hand to cover the pendant. Her expression said she would not give it up. "It is my new luck. For the first time-
"Don't you dare say for the first time you are lucky!" I bellowed. "Your luck started when we met."
She tried to move past me, toward the door. Her eyes never left me. Her feet stepped silently on the carpet. She slipped from my sight, but I knew she needed me. I turned toward the mantis. Its black, hintless eyes watched me. It waited patiently in my control. An idea… was it possible? Could I do it? Could anyone?
I stretched my arm toward her. With half-closed eyes, I felt the sensation of motion. My spirit followed. Was it possible? As with other gambler's games, I sought her magic, the root, the source of her spirit. But she was surrounded by the power of the pendant, making the distance immense.
It was too much, the challenge too great. I struggled, buffeted by power, spirit to human spirit. Animals are simple. This was torture to my magic. Yet I could not surrender. She needed me, needed me! I could not lose her to another.
Annise stood enthralled. Concentrating made my nose bleed, my ears ring. I focused on her eyes. Her body was rigid, as when I first touched her, when we first met. My control spun and twisted, fighting for dominance. How much easier it would be if I had the pendant!
I pointed to her bed. She jerked, sobs breaking from her throat. She moved, lowered herself to her knees, then sat on her bed. Tears flowed from her eyes.
She would be happy under my control. Once the fight with Dumoss was finished, Annise would see that was true. I dropped to my knees in front of her and stroked her hair. Bending slowly, I place my hand on the pendant. She tried to scream. I took our first kiss. She bit me, drawing blood.
I whispered, "Everything I do, I do for you."
Dumoss stood on his side of the arena. The sand on the floor was smoothed for our contest. He was dressed in fine yellow silks adorned with rich brocade. The brazier above made him seem old. His face was set in stone, like mine. The pendant was hidden beneath my robes, but I had no doubt he could feel its power. I imagined he could feel his loss already. Around us stood the real gamblers, men and women who were lucky enough to be missed by the storm, men and women whose luck had not changed.
We sat on our short chairs and raised our hands above our heads, elbows bent. The pit bosses gathered the bets. The odds were not in my favor, but I didn't care. I could hear bets being placed on me, but I couldn't see faces because of the brazier's light. The betting was closed.
Then the pit bosses called out, "Fight!"
We both clapped our hands, summoning our beasts- praying mantises large as birds-near the center of the ring. I felt Dumoss's control prodding the limbs of his mantis toward mine. My new magic let nothing leak out. There was no way for him to read my moves.
The two translucent monsters clashed, locking their razor limbs across each other's heads. Magic struggled against magic for the strength to push the insects harder. However magic in the arena shifted, however we struggled with the changing forces, our fighters never released their grips. Our faces were set and solid.
The shouts of the players on the sidelines continued as the fight dragged on. Money had been bet on how long the fight would last. Money had been placed on whose face would show strain first.
The monsters remained locked. I couldn't find a chink in the magic to extract my mantis from his. He couldn't find it. I felt him struggling. Dumoss's magic was truly impressive. It didn't matter that I could feel his control. He could even use that against me, if I became distracted by trying to read his mox'es rather than concentrating on my own.
More money was placed, money for first limb, money for first move, money for anything. I grew more relaxed, more assured of victory for Annise. Everything was for her. Luck flowed to me to beat Dumoss. I knew it, I felt it. His mantis ripped a limb from mine, repositioned itself, and grabbed my monster's head from another angle. The shouts made my ears ring as if I'd been struck in the head. Our faces showed nothing. My mantis cracked a leg of his, and the magic shifted again, farther away.
Then the real fight began. The phantasms fought openly, ripping and tearing to the shouts of bettors on all sides. Our monsters were chipped through like walls of old stone. My control was better, my anger brighter, my magic stronger. I did not let up, I forced my mantis to attack.
Magic moved from the ring, and the other mantis seemed reenergized. It hacked another limb from mine, and I stared hard into the eyes of Dumoss, letting him know with a glance what would come next. I prepared to use the pendant.
But something in my blood stirred, drawn toward Dumoss… no, it was not toward Dumoss, but behind him. Someone stood in the shadow. Light from the flaring brazier glared in my eyes. I couldn't be stopped now, not when Annise would have everything she deserved, everything I could give her. My mantis bit into the neck of the other.
I fell to my knees, my hands shaking. The luck, on that I could depend. All this magic, all this luck would save me, prevent me from losing my concentration. I would have revenge on Dumoss for stealing Annise. I, alone, challenged fate, dared to care for another. The city killed and left the corpses on the dust-covered streets.
I forced my eyes to remain locked on Dumoss's. Clenched, my teeth ached. Blood boiled and pounded at my temples. My chest constricted.
Annise stood behind Dumoss. I couldn't see her face, but her hair glowed red in the firelight. I felt her control on me, strong, seeking the root of my magic, my spirit. She was choking my life, crushing me with a great weight.
She couldn't kill me here. There were protections against such things in an arena. My magic was stronger.
From the pendant I took the power, the pure magic. I rode the crest of her feeble strength back to her source, where her spirit waited. She ran from my attack, ran and didn't turn back. I reached for her, for the final response, stretching all my strength to finally strike her down.
Dumoss's creature snatched its claws forward. The head of my mantis fell to the floor. I forced magic into the spirit, but it was already gone. I knew the body at home was dead. Everything was gone. The pendant was empty. There was nothing left.
Weak and sweating, I couldn't stand. Dumoss was already gone-the spirit of his mantis returned. The arena cleared, bodies shuffling, shadows moving. Annise was the last of them to leave the building. I never saw her face, but I heard the sound of a door closing, leaving me inside, alone. Empty and alone. Everything I had done, I had done for her.
Loran died ten years after the devastation-after Urza and Mishra destroyed most of the world with their war, after the tumultuous explosion that eliminated Argoth and altered the rest of the world forever.
Loran died in part because of that devastation. She did not die in battle, for she was not a warrior. Nor did she die in a duel of magical forces, for though her lover Feldon had mastered the study of magic, she found she could not. She did not die of intrigue, or of passion, or of some fatal flaw.
She died in bed, weakened by wounds suffered over a decade previous-wounds inflicted by Ashnod the Uncaring, Mishra's assistant. She was weakened by the lengthening winters and the cold mountain air, weakened by her own great age, weakened, and eventually defeated, by the world that the brothers, Urza and Mishra, had created.
At first she just winded easily when in the garden or cooking, and Feldon would put aside his own work to help. Then she had trouble working in the garden at all, and Feldon did the best he could, under her direction, to substitute for her.
Later she could not work around the house, and Feldon brought in servants from the nearby town to aid. When she could not get out of bed, Feldon sat beside her and read to her, told her stories of his own youth and listened to hers. After a time he had to feed her as well.
At length she died in bed in her sleep, Feldon sitting beside her, asleep as well from his long guardianship. When he awoke her flesh was cold and pale, and the breath had long-since left her body.
He commanded the servants to dig a grave behind the house, among the now weed-choked garden that Loran had begun with Feldon's grudging, grumbling aid shortly after they first arrived. She had kept it going through several seasons by sheer force of will, but when she took ill that last, final time, she had to surrender the garden to the weeds and the cold rains.
It was raining when they laid her to rest, wrapped in her bed sheets and sealed within a coffin of thick oak planks. Feldon and the servants uttered a few prayers, then the old mage watched as the servants methodically piled the dirt atop the lid. Feldon's tears were lost in the rain.
For days afterward Feldon stayed by the fire, and the servants brought him his meals, much as they had brought Loran hers. Feldon's library and workshop stood empty for the nonce, the books closed, the forges cold, the various reagents and solutions settling quietly in their glass jars. He stared into the fire and sighed.
Feldon remembered: the touch of Loran's hand, the Argivian lilt to her voice, and her thick, dark hair. Most of all, he thought of the smile that she gave. It was a slightly sad, slightly knowing smile. It was a soft smile, and it wanned Feldon whenever he saw it.
Now, Feldon was a practitioner of the Third Path, the way that was neither Urza nor Mishra, charting a new course between the two warring brothers and their technological miracles. He could pull from his mind great magics, fueled by the memories of his mountain home, and work wonders with them. He could cause fire to appear or the land itself to shift or summon the strokes of a lightning storm and bend them to his will.
Yet he could not heal Loran's body or dying spirit. He could not keep the life within her. His magics had failed him and had failed his love.
The old man sighed and raised a hand toward the fire. He unlocked a part of his brain that held the memories of the mountains around them. He pulled the energies from those lands, as he learned to do in Terisia City with Drafna, Hurkyl, the archimandrite, and the other mages of the Ivory Towers. He concentrated, and the flames writhed as they rose from the logs, twisting upon themselves until they finally formed a soft smile.
Loran's smile. It was the most that he could do.
For five days and five nights Feldon sat by the fire, and for a brief time the servants wondered if they would soon have to tend the master as they had tended the mistress. Indeed, Feldon was never fully healthy himself, overweight and walking only with the aid of a silver cane he had rescued from the heart of a glacier. His dark beard was now streaked with silver, and the corners of his eyes drooped from grief and age. The servants wondered if he would ever rise from the fireside again.
On the sixth day Feldon retreated from the hearth to his workshop. Soon afterwards a short note appeared for the servants-a list of items that they were to procure as soon as possible. The list called for thin sheets of copper, iron rivets, cords made of various spun metals, brass gears if they could get them, steel otherwise, glass blown into a variety of shapes (with illustrations and dimensions). And there was a letter to be delivered to a place far to the south and west.
For the next two months the workshop clattered. Feldon brought the forge to life, and the small anvil rang with ear-splitting blows. Fire was within the domain of mountain magics, and Feldon was its master. He could cause it to heat a precise location with the exact amount of heat needed merely by ordering it to do so. Such was the nature of the old mage's magic.
The wire arrived, and the gears (iron, not brass), sheets of copper, and some of bronze. The glass was substandard, and Feldon had to resort to teaching himself how to blow it to form the shapes he needed. More wire arrived, this new amount spun with horsehair to form thick, long cords like braids of human hair.
At the end of two months Feldon looked at his work and shook his head. The joints were stiff, and the arms jutted in the wrong directions. The head was too large, and the hair looked like what it was: a collection of wire and horsehair. The eyes were little more than badly-crafted glass spheres. It was too tall at the shoulders and too large in the hips.
The creation looked nothing like Loran. Only around the mouth, where there was the ghost of a smile, came the hint of a memory.
Feldon shook his head, and thick tears gathered at the corners of his eyes. He took a sledge and knocked the automaton to pieces.
And he began again.
He pored over Loran's journals in the library. She had studied with Urza himself and knew something of artifice. He restrung the wires and ligatures through the arms and legs, building first miniature models, then full-fledged mock-ups before proceeding to the final version. He worked in animal bone and wood as well as metal and stone. His glasswork became better, so he could provide a glass eye for an old woman in the village that matched her good one. Slowly he built the automaton in the shape of Loran, sculpting her out of myriad materials.
After six months she was finished. The statue missed only the heart. Feldon waited patiently for that organ to appear. He spent his days in the workshop, polishing, testing, and rebuilding the automaton. When he first met Loran, she had use of both arms. Later she lost the use of one of them, crippled by Ashnod. He went back and forth, removing and replacing the arm. Finally he restored the statue to its complete state.
A month later a package arrived from a place far to the south and west, from a scholar whom Loran and Feldon had known when they were at Terisia City, at the Ivory Towers. The package contained a small chip of a crystal, glowing softly-a powerstone, the heart of artifice. There were fewer and fewer stones of this type in the years since the devastation, but this was one.
The package contained a note as well, signed by Drafna, master of the School of Lat-Nam. It said simply, "I understand."
Feldon held the powerstone and noticed that his fingers were trembling. Cradling the crystal in both hands, he went to the automaton, standing guard in the center of the workshop. He had placed the bracket for the crystal where the heart would be in a living woman. Feldon set the crystal within its framework, and closed the compartment door. He reached behind the automaton's left ear and touched a small switch.
The automaton jerked to life like a puppet whose strings had suddenly been pulled. Its head shook then cocked slightly to one side. One leg tensed, the other relaxed. One shoulder dipped slightly.
Feldon nodded and raised a hand, pointing to the far side of the room. The automaton in the shape of Loran walked gingerly, like a woman finding her land legs after a long sea voyage. By the time she had reached the end of the workshop she was walking normally. She reached the opposite side, turned, and walked back.
She smiled, hidden wires rippling the lips over ivory teeth. The smile was perfect.
Feldon smiled back, the first time he had truly smiled since Loran had left him.
Every day the automaton stood patiently in his workshop. He talked to it but had to point to command it. For the first month it was enough.
But it was silent, save for the high-pitched whirring of gears and wire spooling and unspooling. At first Feldon thought he could live with it, but after the first month it became an irritant. After the second it was insufferable. The silence, its metallic lips crafted into that perfect smile, was more than he could bear. It seemed to mock him, to taunt him.
He asked it questions, then reprimanded himself for he knew it could not answer. The Loran he had built was a creature of copper skin and geared muscles. It was not the woman he had loved.
At last he reached behind her ear and touched the small toggle, deactivating her. She stiffened as the power left her, though the smile remained on her lips. He removed the powerstone from her heart, set the stone on the shelf, and placed the inactive automaton in the garden standing guard over Loran's grave. Within a week the steel gears had rusted solid, locking it forever in its stance, its glass eyes seeing but not recording the world around it.
In the week that followed Feldon returned to the fireside, staring into the flickering flames as if they held some secret. At the end of the week, under a cold rain, he departed, leaving his servants to keep up the house in his absence. He left the town in a small wagon, heading eastwards into the lands most affected by the devastation of the Brothers' War.
As he traveled, he asked questions. Did anyone know of mages, of spellcasters, of individuals with wondrous power? Before the destruction of the Ivory Towers, there had been many who had explored the paths of magic, but they had been scattered when Terisia City had fallen. Surely some survived, somewhere.
He asked merchants and mendicants, farmers and priests. Some looked at him as if he were mad, and some were frightened, terrified that he was seeking to bring back the powers that created the devastation in the first place. But enough understood what he was looking for, and of those a few knew of this wise man or that shaman who walked the Third Path. In time he heard of the Hedge Wizard, and he turned his wagon to the east.
He found the Hedge Wizard near the wreckage that had been Sarinth, one of the great cities that had resisted Mishra and was destroyed for its sin. Most of the great forests of that land had been later lumbered and its mountains stripped to feed the war machines of the brothers' battles. Now it was a barren landscape, its soil runneled and ravined by eternal rain. What forests that survived were overrun by a tangle of briars and young trees.
In one of those briar-choked shambles Feldon found a hermit. The man had defended his patch of ground from Mishra's armies, and the strain had nearly broken both his mind and his spirit. He was a hunched figure, bent nearly double with age, with a drooling grin and a cackling laugh.
Feldon approached him with open hands, showing he was weaponless. The hermit had heard of the Council of Mages at Terisia City and had known of Feldon's name among them. He laughed and capered and allowed Feldon to come within his forest, to study the hermit's magics.
Feldon offered to teach the hermit his own spells in return, but the hunched madman would have nothing to do with the mountains or their power. Instead he taught Feldon of the woods, and they crossed and re-crossed his small domain, which he had so laboriously held against all invaders. Over the course of the next month Feldon felt he knew the land as well as the old hermit. They spoke of many things-of plants, of trees, and of the seasons. The hermit felt the world was getting colder beyond his borders, and Feldon agreed. It seemed to him that the glaciers of his home were swelling slightly with every passing year.
Finally, they spoke of magic. Feldon showed his power, summoning images from the flames of birds, mythical dragons, and, finally, a simple, knowing smile. When Feldon had finished, the hermit cackled and nodded.
The madman stood, arms folded in front of him. Feldon started to say something, but the hermit held up a hand to quiet him. For a moment there was silence in the forest.
Then there was a noise, or rather, a sensation, a rumble that pounded through the ground and into Feldon's bones. The ground quaked beneath his feet, and the campfire collapsed in on itself from the shuddering ground. Feldon cried out despite himself, but the hermit did not move.
Then the wurm appeared. It was a great, ancient creature, as large as one of Mishra's dragon engines of old. Its scales were golden and green, and it had baleful, red eyes that glimmered in the dark. It loomed above them for an instant, and was gone. A wall of scales surged past them-the wurm's elongated body hurtling before them. After a long time, the wurm's whiplike tail spun out, smashing the trees like a line pulled from a runaway wagon.
The ground stopped shaking. The old hermit turned and bowed deeply. Feldon returned the bow and understood how the ancient mage had kept this patch of forest for all these years.
Carefully, Feldon outlined his problem: He had lost someone dear to him, and his own magics lacked the power to restore her. Did the power of the hermit hold more?
The old hermit rocked back on his heels and grinned.
"Is this one who is dear still alive?" he asked.
Feldon shook his head, and the hermit's grin faded. He, too, shook his head.
"I can only summon the living-that is the power of the growing briar. But perhaps I can send you to someone who might have the power you seek."
Feldon left the hermit's forest the next morning, heading north.
Ronom Lake bordered the lands of Sarinth, and the lake had faired as badly as the land. Where once there were expanses of white beach now only leprous gray moss flourished, and the lake itself was little more than wide expanses of stagnant, oily water broken by pungent algae blooms in greasy shades of green and red. Feldon guided his small wagon along the perimeter of the lake. The hermit said he would recognize the signs when he reached the domain of the sorceress who ruled part of the shore.
Indeed he did. The gray moss began to fade and at last retreated fully, leaving only a cascade of white sand as pure as any Feldon had seen. It was broken at the shore by a thin line of rounded black stones, themselves smoothed by the rolling surf. Feldon took a deep breath and smelled the fresh spray, without a tinge of musty fog.
He found her at the foot of a crystalline waterfall, in a small pavilion that seemed to be spun from golden threads. She was taller than he, dressed in a shimmering robe that looked like a translucent rainbow. She granted him an audience as muscular servants brought a simple meal of cheese and dried apples. The provender seemed insufficient for such opulent surroundings, but Feldon said nothing and accepted the sorceress's hospitality.
She asked him his quest, and he told her: He sought to regain a love that had been lost. She nodded, and a tight smile appeared on her face.
"Such matters have a price," she said.
Feldon bowed his head and asked her to name the price.
"Stories," she said. "You must tell me the stories of Loran, so I may better grant your wish."
Slowly, Feldon began to tell the tale. He recounted what he knew of Loran from her own tales, and her journals-of her life in the far east, in the distant land of Argive, of her early life with the brothers, and how she eventually rejected their war to seek another path. He spoke of how she came to Terisia City and joined a band of scholars looking for that path-scholars that included Feldon.
He stumbled a few times, but the sorceress said nothing. He told of how the two met, how they studied together, and how they had fallen in love. He explained how they had separated when Mishra attacked their city and what had happened to Loran at Ashnod's hands. She seemed to heal slowly in their time together before spiraling downward into her eventual death.
As he spoke, he halted fewer times, and his mind was alive with her memory. He recalled her black hair, her lithe figure, her touch, and her smile-always that knowing smile.
He spoke of how she had died, and what he had done afterward. He recounted his construction of the automaton and his trip to the hermit and now his visit to her.
As he spoke, he forgot the sorceress was there. Loran was alive for him.
At last he came to the end of the tale and looked at the enchantress. Her face was impassive, but a single tear trickled down her cheek.
"I rule in the sea and sky," she said, "much as you rule in the mountains, and the hermit the growing vegetation. You have paid my price with a story. Now let me see what I can do."
She shut her eyes, and for a moment, it seemed that outside the golden pavilion the sun passed behind a cloud. Then it brightened again, and Loran stood before Feldon.
She was young again, and whole, her black hair shimmering like a dark waterfall. She smiled that knowing, secretive smile she always had for him. Feldon rose and reached out to embrace her.
His hands passed through her like smoke.
The relief in his heart was replaced with fire, and he turned toward the sorceress. She had risen from her divan now and held up her hands as if to ward off a blow.
"She isn't real," cried Feldon, spitting out the words.
"I rule in the blue," said the sorceress, "and blue is the stuff of air and water, of mind and imagination. I cannot bring back that which is gone, only create its image. If you want her truly back, you must seek another."
"Who is this other?" asked Feldon, and the sorceress hesitated.
Again, Feldon asked, "Who is this other?"
The sorceress looked at him with cold crystalline eyes.
"There is a swamp farther north. He who lives there rules in the black. He can bring back what you seek. But be warned"-and here her voice softened-"his price is higher than mine."
And another tear appeared on the sorceress's cheek.
Feldon bowed, and the enchantress offered him her hand, which the old man kissed. While the sorceress's flesh appeared young and supple, to Feldon's lips it felt leathery and ancient. He reboarded his wagon and continued.
A short distance beyond the golden pavilion, he dismounted on the pristine white beach and felt the ground. It looked like pure white sand but felt like rocks covered with gray moss.
Feldon gave an understanding grunt and set out for the swamp.
Here along the northern border of Ronom Lake there had been a village, but the land of the village had settled, or the lake had risen, so that it was nothing more than a collection of buildings rotting in a ruined swamp. Great dark birds hovered through the arch-rooted trees. No, Feldon corrected himself. Bats. They were bats, which no longer feared the light in this land of eternal gloom.
The village had a rough, rotting palisade, little more than a collection of sharpened logs driven into the muck. The guards at the gate were sallow, hollow-eyed men dressed in tattered armor. They threatened Feldon with capture, but he summoned fire in a great wall between him and them. After the guards stepped back from the flames, and after a quick consultation with each other, they chose to escort Feldon to their master.
Their master was an aged spider of a man who received his visitors on a throne carved from a gigantic skull. Feldon thought briefly of the great wurm that the green hermit had summoned, and wondered if the flesh-less skull before him was of the same type. The ruler of the swamp was short, pot-bellied, and bald, and slouched in a corner of the throne as Feldon explained his quest. He had lost someone dear, said Feldon, and was told that the master could find a way to return her.
The man gave a watery, choking laugh. "I am the master of black magics, redling," he said. "I know the powers of life and death. Are you willing to pay my price?"
"And your price is?" asked Feldon.
The master stroked his hairless chin. "I want your walking stick."
Feldon gripped his silver cane tightly. "I cannot part with it. I pulled it from a glacier many years ago. It is like a part of me."
"Ah," said the master, "and your love is such a pale, insubstantial thing that you cannot part with a hunk of metal for it."
Feldon looked at the twisted spider of a man, and then at his rune-carved cane. He held it out. "Your price is met."
"Excellent," hissed the master of the swamp, taking the cane. "Let us begin."
For three days and three nights Feldon studied at the feet of the master. He memorized the marshes around the village, and felt the thick, viscous pull of the land in his mind. It was very different than the cold, clear mountains that he normally used. It left him feeling soiled and unclean.
At the end of the third day the hollow-eyed guards escorted Feldon to a small, windowless hut at the edge of the village, just within the walls of the palisade. Here Feldon worked the spell that the master of the swamp gave him.
In the light of a single tallow candle, Feldon cleared his mind and meditated. Normally he would think of the mountains, but now he thought of the bogs around him. He felt their watery pull, sucking him down, embracing him with their power. He spoke the words of the spell and called forth Loran.
The candle flickered for a moment, scattering Feldon's shadow behind him on the wall. Far above him, the wind coursed through the mangrove branches and sounded as if the lake itself had built a great wave to swallow the village. Everything grew quiet.
There was the sound of footsteps outside.
They moved slowly and ploddingly, the thick mud pulling at heavy feet as the sound approached. It was the sound of a figure staggering and sloshing through the muck. For a moment Feldon's heart leaped. Had he succeeded?
Something heavy and wet thumped against the door, sounding like a bag of wet earth. Slowly Feldon pulled himself to his feet (he no longer had his cane) and shuffled to the door.
The door gave another sloshing thud and then another, as Feldon reached it and grasped the knob. The stench hit him. It was a moldering, heavy smell, of rotted flesh and damp earth. It was the smell of death.
Feldon's heart sank as he realized what he had done with the master of the swamp's spell.
There was another thump, and the door shifted, but Feldon was leaning against it now, seeking now to keep whatever was on the far side out. He did not want to see if the spell had succeeded. He did not want to know.
There was another thud and a gurgling cry that sounded like sloshing water. Feldon's heart shattered as he reached inside himself and willed the spell to end, to send whatever was beyond the door back where it had come from.
The smell of death was gone, and with it the sounds. Feldon stayed pressed against the door, holding it shut with all his might, until morning.
When morning came, he slowly opened the door. There were no footprints in the muck outside the door. Indeed, the entire village had been abandoned. There were no hollow-eyed guards, no master of the swamp.
Nothing called his name in a gurgling voice like sloshing water.
Feldon staggered to his wagon, pausing only to use a piece of black driftwood as a makeshift walking stick. He did not look back.
In time, as he traveled, the ground began to rise, and dry. He had circumnavigated the lake now, and all that was left was to return home.
He dreaded that, for fear of what he would find in the garden.
He was three days from his village when he heard of the scholar in a small town further west. Propelled in part by curiosity, in part by dread, Feldon turned his wagon westward. He found the scholar in the musty remains of a temple library. The building had been shattered long ago by an earthquake, and the snows and rains had rotted most of the books. Yet among the tattered remains of books and scrolls, the scholar hopped like a bird-shaped automaton. He was a spindly thing and regarded Feldon from behind thick lenses of crystal.
Feldon spoke of his tale-of his loss, of his resolve to regain what he had lost. He told of the hermit, the sorceress, and the master of the swamp. And when he finished his story, the scholar blinked at him behind heavy lenses.
"What do you want?" he said at last.
Feldon let out an exasperated sigh. "I want to have Loran back. If magic can do everything, why can it not do this?"
"Of course it can do this," said the scholar. "The question is-do you want it to?"
Now it was Feldon's turn to blink, and the scholar gave a thin, amused smile.
"Green calls to the living," he said. "Black calls to the dead. Blue creates the shadow of life. Red consumes, and that's very important as well, because you must often destroy before you can build. I study, and the magic I wield is White, which is the magic of comprehension and understanding."
"Can you bring her back to life?" asked Feldon, his voice catching. The memory of the swamp was still with him.
"No, I can't," said the scholar, and, despite himself, Feldon sighed in relief. "But I can help you to create an exact duplicated"
"I tried that with the automaton," said Feldon.
"I speak of a creation not of gears and wires but of magic," replied the scholar, "identical in every way."
"I don't understand," said Feldon.
"When you cast a spell using fire," explained the scholar, "I believe you do not create fire. Rather you take the magical energy and form it into the shape of fire, which then does your bidding. It is for all intents and purposes fire, but it is made of magic."
"But what about when I use fire," asked Feldon, "or when the hermit calls a great wurm?"
The scholar waved his hand, "Different uses for the same tools. Yes, in those cases it is a real fire and a real wurm, but the magic alters it. For the moment, assume that you can create something made of magical energy."
Feldon thought about it and nodded slowly.
"So if you study an object, you can create the object over time," said the scholar.
Again, Feldon nodded.
"If you study me," he said, "you would be studying that which makes me a scholar. Therefore you could call at a later time that part of me which is my scholarliness and rely on its advice."
Feldon shook his head. "I'm not sure I understand," he said.
"Study me for two weeks," said the scholar, "and then see if you understand. Don't talk to me. Just bring me my meals. Two weeks. That's my price. That, and later you'll have to let me and other scholars into your library. Is it a bargain?"
For the next two weeks Feldon brought the scholar his meals, in much the same way as he had brought Loran hers when she was bedridden. Feldon used his magic to keep a small flame going and to cook for the scholar as he pawed through the rotting texts and decaying scrolls of the ruined temple.
For the first two days the scholar seemed little more than an amusing bird, hopping from one location to another. But soon Feldon noticed there was method to the madness, that there was intent behind each of the scholar's movements. He began to see how the man thought and knew. Through it all the scholar ignored him, save at meal times.
At the end of the two weeks the little man turned to Feldon and said, "Summon me."
Feldon shook his head. "Pardon?" he asked.
"You have watched me for two weeks," said the scholar. "Now see if you can use your magics to bring me into being."
Feldon blinked. "But you're already here."
"So bring another me," said the scholar. "You've got the power. Use it."
Feldon took a deep breath and called upon the powers of the land. He thought of the nervous scholar in his thick spectacles, rummaging relentlessly through the decaying paper and rotting vellum. He tried to call a being that summed up the nature of the creature in one place.
There was a pause, and then an identical duplicate of the scholar appeared.
No, not identical. It was taller, and its flesh had a ruddier hue. But it was thin and nervous and had thick spectacles and a knowing manner.
The scholar (the real one), walked up to the created being and looked over his glasses at it. The duplicate did the same.
Feldon was amazed. "Is it real?" he choked out at last.
The scholar reached out and touched the quasiduplicate, and the duplicate touched back. "Feels like it," said the scholar. "A lot of the little details are wrong, but you aren't just summoning me. You're summoning the essence of my me-ness as a scholar. You can keep this me around by keeping that part of your mind aware of me, but it isn't. Me, that is."
Feldon worked his way around the scholar's thinking process. "But what can I do with this-you."
"What you would expect a scholar to do," returned the bespectacled man, "research, investigate, know certain things." In a slightly more excited voice he added, "but I wouldn't know anything about fighting or lands I had never visited or anything like that. It would be beyond my nature as a scholar."
"And I could do the same with… Loran?" asked Feldon.
Both scholars nodded. Feldon found the duplication unnerving and dismissed the part of the spell that held the magical scholar in place. He faded from view like snow in the rain.
"You can summon your lost love back," said the scholar, "if that's what you truly want."
Feldon thought about the scholar's words on the way back to his home, the wagon shuddering through the deep ruts in the road. It was raining again by the time he returned, and the servants had kindled a fire in the hearth. Before he entered the house, he checked Loran's grave, beneath the inert, rusting form of the automaton. The earth was undisturbed, and that made him feel slightly better.
He thanked the servants and retreated to his workshop. There, among the tables draped with cloth and the reagents settled into multicolored layers in their beakers, he allowed himself to remember.
He remembered Loran. Not just the feel of her touch or the way her hair moved like a dark waterfall. He remembered her: when she was happy, when she was angry, when she was gardening.
When she was dying.
Feldon thought of Loran and the life she spent with him, of the tales of her youth, of their work and lives together. The joy of life with her and the sadness of her departure felt like a great bubble rising within him. He fed his memories of the land into that bubble, memories of the mountains, the forests and shore, the swamps and the temple, and he filled it with power and life.
When Feldon opened his eyes, Loran was there. She was perfect and whole and as young as when he first met her at the gates of Terisia City.
She gave him a knowing smile and said, "Why am I here?"
"You died," said Feldon, his voice choking as he spoke.
She nodded and said, "I seem to remember that. Why am I here?"
"You're here because I missed you," said Feldon.
"I missed you as well," replied the spell-Loran, and she reached out to him.
Despite himself, Feldon shrank from her embrace. She paused, then asked, "What's wrong?"
"You're not her," he said at last.
"No, I am not," she said, her voice in the lilting Argivian accent he remembered. "We both know that, and you know that I could be nothing less than what you remember of her. You remember her as being honest and strong. I am the sum of her, taken through your feelings. I am what you remember."
"You are memories," sighed Feldon, "and though you are pleasant memories, I must leave you as memories. If you are here, you are no more than the automaton in the garden-unliving, an imitation of what was. I'm sorry. I went to so much trouble to bring you about, but I know that I cannot keep you."
"Then why am I here?" she said.
"You are here," said Feldon, taking a deep breath, "so that I can say good-bye."
The spell-Loran paused, then smiled slightly. "I understand," she said at last.
Feldon crossed to her and embraced her. She felt very much like Loran as he had known her. All that was Loran in his memories was encased in the spell-creature he had created.
When they parted, there were tears in both of their eyes.
"Good-bye," he said, his voice thick with emotion.
"Good-bye," she replied.
Feldon allowed the spell to elapse, and the form of Loran began to dissolve.
"I understand," he said to her vanishing form. "At last, I think I understand."
All that was left was a knowing, soft smile. Then that was gone as well.
Feldon returned to the work in his library and workshop, taking up small matters that had been abandoned ages ago. In a few weeks, the scholar appeared at Feldon's doorstep and was amused to see that save for the servants, Feldon was alone.
After a meal the birdlike scholar asked, "What became of your lost love?"
"She was lost," said Feldon with a deep sigh, "and it was beyond my power to bring her back. It was beyond my desire. But I had a chance to say good-bye."
"That is what you truly wanted?" asked the scholar.
"That is what I truly wanted," said Feldon.
The scholar spent three weeks in Feldon's library and then left, but he promised to send interested students to the grizzled man's home. Every so often some would-be scholar or mage would appear, and Feldon, remembering his promise, would let the wizard go through the library. Over dinner he would tell his own story of what he had learned about magic.
Sometimes the aspiring mage would listen politely, sometimes intently. Occasionally, after everyone had gone to bed, a mage would creep down and find Feldon sitting by the fire. The flames twisted into the form of a smile, a soft and knowing smile.
And Feldon, the ancient wizard, seemed to be content.