21 April 2012

Elvehelm: Novaposticum VI - A Handful of Dust

(Author's note - if some of the lines in this piece sound a little familiar, it's because I wrote it in part as a bit of a game for the players, with points awarded for anyone who detected well-known quotes from movies or literature.  There are a couple dozen hidden herein.  See how many you can find!)


            Thanos stumped down the companionway, his boots thundering on the narrow stair-treads.  The stench of bilge-water, rats and mouldy cheese rose up to meet him, and he gagged slightly.  Apart from their utility in moving men and material from one place to another, he had never been an admirer of ships.  They reminded him too much of ancient tombs; the lower one descended, the damper they got, and the worse they smelled.

            This one was even more grotesquely feculent than the usual run of holds.  Had he come across it in other circumstances it might have stumped him, but this morning, the source of the stench was blindingly obvious.  After all, he had been surrounded by it for the past several hours.

            It was blood.  Not normal blood; not even normal dragon’s blood.  The thick, choking stench came from the pestilent, red-black ichor that had only just finished flowing from their fallen enemy’s severed neck-veins.  The smell was all around him, here below decks; the ship’s orlop was at the rear of the vessel, beneath the cargo hold, which was itself beneath the shattered stern, and the horrid fluid, in addition to spilling into the harbour, had seeped down through the cracked planks and into the bilge.  It was, he decided, simply awful – a foul, otherworldly stench. No normal creature of flesh and blood ought to smell that bad.

            At least, he thought, the smell should fade in time; the ship’s planks were sprung, and he could see water seeping in through the dislodged oakum and caulking.  Just looking at the damage made his flesh crawl.  It gave him an awful, claustrophobic feeling; made him want to flee.  He knew that it was an irrational sentiment; he had been in far graver danger only a few hours before, and for all he knew, that danger had not gone away.  One of the fiends, after all, had escaped; and it knew, now, where the ship was, and what the party looked like.  He had never wished more for the ability to block transleaping, and wondered whether Xeros had learned that special skill yet.

            The commander in him made Thanos grind his teeth.  They were violating one of the first principles of responding to an ambush.  They had to break contact.  When the enemy knew where you were, the most important thing was not to be there any longer than was absolutely necessary.  And yet here we sit, he growled to himself, fat and complacent, like idiots, waiting for the next strike.

            Well, there was no helping it.  They could not simply leap out, for Astrapratum or for anywhere else.  The attack, the damage, and the dead had to be explained, or questions would dog their steps the length and breadth of the realm.  Kaltas had lent them his good name, and they could not afford to sully it.  Nor was their party complete; Amorda was still ashore, trying to find a priest to raise her hand-maiden.  The princess, too, after prolonged discussion with the town guard, had gone to visit the local authorities – Lady Danoria Arets, a descendent of the Duodeci who lived in Arx Ilius, the baronial manor on the north side of the harbour – in hopes of smoothing the whole incident over and avoiding a prolonged inquiry.

            More practically, they had to recover their kit.  It was still buried beneath tonnes of crushed planking, and still more tonnes of dead, oozing dragon.  Neither problem could be addressed until Fall had beached and balanced the ship. 

            Surprisingly, Karrick had supplied the answer to one of the many questions about what to do next.  No one had any idea how to move a carcass weighing more than a cavalry squadron’s worth of horses. 

            They’d been discussing the conundrum on deck over a sketchy breakfast of stale water and biscuit.  Nobody had complained about the weevils this time; after all, they’d seen worse in the past few hours.  When the subject of the dragon’s corpse had been raised and the assembled company had come up dry, Karrick had raised his head, and mumbled two words: “Sheer hulk.”

            Fall’s piggy eyes had widened, and Thanos had grinned.  A sheer hulk was a ship or barge specially fitted with enormous, cantilevered masts – the sheers – that were designed to facilitate withdrawing the stumps of broken masts, and replacing them. 

            The warcaster had turned to the Harbour Master, an elderly, dignified elf who had come aboard by shore boat to help Fall select a suitable beaching site.  “Is there one in port?”

            The Master, whose name was Bassilio, had nodded at once.  “Two, actually – a smaller one for the sloops and what-not, and a big one on a barge.  We use it for the wingships, and for the Ekhani dromonds when they require our aid.”

            “Would it handle the weight?” Thanos had asked eagerly.

            “Ought to,” the elf had replied, scratching his chin.  “Mainmast on one of your big warships is a yard thick and a hundred feet long.  Run ‘bout fifteen ton, dry.  More than that if they’re still green.”  He’d nodded at the carcass.  “Yonder beast can’t weigh much more’n that.”

            Thanos had smiled inwardly at the man’s accent; he seemed to be subconsciously imitating the sailor’s patois.  He’d thought he could see a hint of stubble, and wondered whether there might not be a human somewhere in the fellow’s background.  Even if true, it would have been impolitic to raise the issue. 

            Instead, he’d said, “How soon can you have the barge alongside?”

            “Couple of hours,” Bassilio had shrugged.  “Who’s paying?”

            That had made Thanos sigh.  “How much?”

            “Two hundred a day,” the elf had replied.

            Thanos had blinked in astonishment.  “I could engage a cavalry company for that!”

            “Go ahead,” Bassilio had shrugged.  “You might be able to drag that big lizard away, if you can find enough horses.”

            The warcaster had rolled his eyes.  “All right.  Do it.”

            “Done,” Bassilio had replied.  “Where do you want me to put the carcass?”

            Thanos thought about the state of his purse, and winced.  “What do you suggest?”

            “I presume you’re going to be peeling the thing.  Don’t want to do that ashore, let me tell you; her Ladyship’ll be all over you with fines.  I’d use another barge.  That way the guts’ll go into the water.”  The elf had glanced at the carcass, considering.  “Small one ought to do.”

            The warcaster had felt his fists clenching.  “And how much for that?”

            “Got an old one for sale.  Don’t need to be seaworthy, after all.  I’ll give it to you for an even thousand.”

            “A thousand?” Thanos had shouted.  “I want to rent the thing, not buy it!”

            “Really?” Bassilio had smirked.  “Can’t you smell that?  You think anyone’s going to want to have to clean up any ship after you’ve butchered that thing on it?”

            By the time the negotiations were done, Thanos’ temper had reached a low boil, and his purse was considerably lighter.  Nearly empty, in fact.  We’d better find our kit under there, he’d mused grumpily.  Or we’ll be begging our bread in Astrapratum, and that’s a fact.

            At the bottom of the companionway steps, he paused.  The orlop, amongst other things, served as the ship’s strongroom, and its door was sturdy and reinforced with straps of iron covered with thick, tarry paint.  The key, he noticed, was in the lock.  He was about to turn it, but hesitated before doing so.  Instead, feeling a little self-conscious, he rapped his knuckles against the wood.

            There was a long pause.  At last, somewhat muffled, a voice drifted through the oaken panels: “Jailors seldom knock.”

            “You’re not a prisoner,” Thanos called.  “May I enter? I wish to speak with you.”

            “Why not?”

            Hoping he wasn’t making a liar out of himself, the warcaster turned the key.  It was as he had left it hours before; unlocked.  Relieved, he removed the key, tucked it into his pouch, and opened the door.

            Lööspelian was sitting precisely as they had left her some hours earlier, perched cross-legged atop the chest that had mysteriously appeared in the ‘tween-decks hold – the iron-bound one despatched by their shadowy and alarming ally, the proto-lich Qaramyn.  Although she could not have been comfortable, she did not appear to have moved in the intervening period.

            Where else could she go, though? the warcaster reasoned.  The orlop was low; Thanos had to stoop to enter it, and the fiend-woman was nearly a hand-span taller than he was.  She could not stand in here; even seated, her tousled mane nearly brushed the beams overhead.  Nor could she very well abandon her seat for the comfort of the floor; the deck was awash in several inches of water, with leakage from the bilge, the filth of the harbour, and the dragon’s infernal bile further clouding the effluent.

            He paused in the doorway, looking her over carefully.  It was his first opportunity to do so at leisure and at close range.  She was, he decided, a study in contrasts; as tall as any human woman he had ever seen, well-proportioned and muscular, but with the slender strength that he had come to associate with the First House – the Wandering Elves, so rare, and so fair as to make their Third House cousins look like lumpen clods by comparison.  Moreover, she had all of the unconscious grace that Valaista, in her elven form, lacked.  Thanos had seen this one fight, had witnessed her grapple with a fiend from the pit that was twice her height, and at least five times her weight.  Whatever else she might be, he thought, remember that she’s an accomplished and dangerous warrior.

            Moreover, he decided, she was beautiful; it was a dark and sinister beauty, to be sure, but it was beauty nonetheless.  Her hair was the same deep auburn as her wings, and her eyes – though chillingly blood-red – were as clear and bright as those of any elf.  Her lips, though set narrowly at present, were full and inviting; and her skin – here he tried desperately to maintain his composure, given the fiend-woman’s state of undress – was utterly pristine, flawless save for near-invisible lines criss-crossing her flesh like old scars, and for the still-oozing wounds that encircled her throat and her wrists.

            There was something else, too.  He knew what she was; but also, thanks to Qaramyn, he knew what she had once been, even if her transformation had occurred so long ago that the interminable march of years had no real meaning.  Before the world was formed, before the Lantern first rose and time itself had been given any meaning, she had been a servant of the Light, formed by Bræa’s own hand from the elemental stuff of the Universe.  Some vestiges of that old life still shone through – in her gaze, her posture, her sense of purpose.  Her very bearing telegraphed her divine origins, warring with the physical form that encased her spirit.  Her face, her body, were an open invitation, and made his heart race and his knees shake; but the light behind her eyes, both the white and the black, rendered her untouchable, a thing magnificent and rare, beyond mere mortal desire.  He felt an irrational need to fall to his knees and worship her, and fought it down only with difficulty.

            It helped, he realized, to remember what she was now, or at least what she had been; and to recall, too, that she had submitted to them, begging their forbearance, and asking them to help her find her path.  And that, after all, was why he had come.

            Her voice startled him out of his reverie.  “I can no longer touch the atmanabhidhaanah,” she said, “if that is what you are trying to do.” 

            Her voice was as rich and reverberant as he remembered it, a thrilling contralto that rocked him to his core.  He had to shake his head to keep from being ensorcelled by it.  “My apologies, divine one,” he said carefully.  “But I do not speak that tongue.”

            To his immense relief, she smiled.  Her teeth, he noted, were very white and very even; and they were not, as he had feared, pointed.  “Your pardon,” she replied.  “Those are the words of the Anari.  They mean ‘speech of the mind’.  I once was able to converse with others of my kind, and with mortals too, without using the spoken word.  I could even do so as a servant of the dark.”  She shrugged.  “But no longer.”

            “At least you’re also no longer in hell,” Thanos ventured lightly.

            She smiled bleakly.  “Thinkest thou, mortal, that I, who saw the faces of the Powers, and tasted the eternal joys of heaven, am not tormented with ten thousand hells in being deprived of everlasting bliss?”

            The warcaster froze, dismayed at the terrible sorrow behind her words.

            “This is hell,” she whispered.  “Nor am I out of it.”

            There was no possible response to that.

            The fallen angel shrugged as if the loss of her power and her eternal damnation were of no moment.  “As for the celestial speech...human, I have been repeating its words over and over for the past hours.  That is a greater glory than any I have been vouchsafed in thousands upon thousands of years.  I have not been able to utter it without knives and fire tearing at my tongue since my Fall.  Not since before your race even was formed.”

            “I would say ‘I understand’,” Thanos chuckled, “but that would be nonsense.  I cannot possibly imagine what you have endured.  None of us could.  Nor can I imagine what you must be feeling, now that you are free.  It is about these things that I wish to speak.”

            “To better decide what to do with me?” she asked.

            “To better decide how to aid you,” he replied.  Glancing around the tiny chamber, he espied what looked like a small anker floating in the bilge water.  He upended it and perched himself on the head of the cask.

            “I am grateful for my life, and for my freedom,” the woman said, looking puzzled.  “But why should you wish to aid me?”

            “Because our fates are intertwined,” the warcaster replied.  “I will explain in a moment.  But first...”  He stood again, and bowed in the High Elven style, like a courtier.  “Greet the new day, lady.  I am Thanos Mastigo, a warcaster, Prochiliarch and Chiliarch-Elect of the Army of Imperial Ekhan.”  Whatever dignity he might have achieved through his grace, it was lost when he straightened up and cracked his skull against the deck-beams overhead.

            Smiling, Lööspelian shot a cautious glance at the age-darkened timbers.  Instead of standing, she nodded.  “Lööspelian...” she paused, looking suddenly flabbergasted.  “I have no other name now.”

            Thanos raised an eyebrow.  “What were you called before?”

            She shuddered a little.  “In the Dark Queen’s service, I was Lööspelian Gjätehark.”  When he shook he his head, she added, “That means ‘the archer of shadows’, in the tongue of fiends.”

            “Ah,” the warcaster nodded.  “And...before that?”

            She sighed.  “Before my Fall, I bore the same name as my sisters, the Archons of the Horn.  I was Lööspelian Arkandas.  ‘Cry of battle’.” 

            She smiled limply.  “Neither of those suits me any longer, I fear.”

            Thanos shrugged.  “So you’ll have to choose a new name.  That’s only one of many choices before you.”

            “So I understand,” the woman replied.  She fell silent again.

            The warcaster was perplexed.  There were no chinks in her armour; he needed some sort of lever, some tool to pry her open; but he couldn’t think of a single one.  He had no experience dealing with her kind – older even than the oldest of the dragons, a creature made to be what she was, designed and structured by the Powers themselves to be a tool of perfect obedience.

            And she’s not even one of those anymore, he reminded himself.  She’s...something else.  Something new.  “How are your wounds?” he asked, trying a different tack.

            Automatically, she touched the seeping gouges around her throat.  The blood was still fresh, running down her torso like tears.  “They hurt,” she said distantly.

            “Amorda’s trying to find someone to heal you,” he promised.

            Lööspelian shrugged.  “It is of no moment.”  She fell silent again.

            Out of sheer desperation, he asked, “Are you thirsty?  Or hungry?”

            That seemed to get her attention.  “Yes, both...but also...neither.”  She blinked suddenly.  “Is that...normal?  For one of your kind?”

            “For one of my kind, just about anything is normal,” Thanos replied carefully, glad to have finally elicited a response other than complete apathy.  “The question, though, is whether it is normal for one of your kind.”

            “What is ‘my kind’?” the woman asked.  She was staring at the bulkhead now; or through it, possibly.  Her eyes seemed unfocussed.

            “Let’s leave that for some other time,” Thanos urged.  “What can you tell me of your ordeal?”

            She actually smiled at that.  “How much longer do you expect to live, mortal?”

            “Not that long, the way things have been going lately,” the warcaster replied with an easy grin.  “I know of your Fall, or at least what the tales tell, from the...the...” he struggled to recall the passages he had read in the Book of Tales.  “From the Charitrani Sarvaloka.”

            Lööspelian looked impressed; evidently his pronunciation was not too far off.  “Then you know of Cielagan, and his duel with Achamkris, the first among Bardan’s servants, and the lord of the dragons of darkness?”

            “Yes,” Thanos replied.

            “And of Cielagan’s sin, and our defeat?  And his capture?  How Bardan tore the heart from his breast, and made of it a stone?  And how Cielagan bought his life back from the Ender, by accepting a fiend’s heart in place of his own?”

            Thanos nodded.

            Lööspelian dropped her head.  “And what of my part in that great tragedy?” she whispered.  “Does your tale tell how I revealed to Bardan’s spy the one weakness in our commander’s blemishless armour – his passion for my sister Eliastralee?”

            “It’s all there,” the warcaster said gently.  “As is your dispute with your divine mistress, Tîan – your refusal to accept her judgement against Cielagan, and your oath to find and redeem him, despite her holy word.”

            “Then you know everything that you need to know, mortal,” the fallen angel grimaced.  “I may have ‘scaped my damnèd fiend’s life; but I still wear a fiend’s form.  Proof, as if any more were needed, that I am still stained with my sin.  Doubly damned; first, by my original treason, and latterly, by my long service to the dark.”

            Her wings drooped, and she put her face in her hands.  “If you would condescend to slay me now, I would count it a mercy.”

            Thanos crossed his arms.  “In a few minutes, I’m going to explain how wrong you are.  But first, instead of killing you, I’d like ask you some questions.”

            Without looking up, the fallen angel shrugged.  “I am your prisoner.  Ask, and I will answer.”

            Sancte mater!” the warcaster swore, lapsing involuntarily into the elven tongue.  He tore his sword from its scabbard and threw the blade onto a pile of water-dampened matting.  Then he splashed over to the door, wrenched it open, and bowed deeply.  “Madam,” he snapped, “it was a pleasure to have made your acquaintance.  You are free to stay or go, as you prefer, and may merciful Vara guide your steps.”

            Lööspelian, her eyes wide, stared at Thanos.  Her eyes slipped to the door...then back to him.  “What is this?” she asked, puzzled.

            “It’s a door,” he snapped.  “Use it if you want to.  Or don’t.  The choice is yours.

            “But whatever you decide,” he continued heatedly, before she could speak, “you are not my prisoner, nor anyone else’s!  Those days are done.  Although...” he paused deliberately.

            “Although what?”

            “You might consider becoming my ally.”

            At last, her lips twitched into a ghost of a smile.  “Ask your questions, Thanos Mastigo.”

            Finally!  “Would you rather move our discussions somewhere more comfortable?” he asked.

            That actually made her laugh.  “Mortal,” she said with a grin, “for the past several months I have been in the dungeons of Negrenoctis.  Compared to that grim place, this –” she waved at the bulkheads, her improvised seat, and the foul muck swirling around their feet “- this is a palace.”

            “Still,” he said, “if you would prefer –”.

            She shook her head.  “Let us remain concealed, for the nonce.  Ask your questions.”

            “Very well,” Thanos acquiesced.  “You said you served the Lady Deathscorch.  And before her, you served the Dark Queen.”

            The woman nodded.

            “How did that come about?”

            Lööspelian blinked.  “After I Fell,” she said hesitantly, “I walked in darkness for a very long time.  How long, I do not know.  Before I emerged again, the War was over.  Well,” she amended, “not ‘over’; not as such.  It will never be over.  But it had moved onto a new battlefield – this physical place, Anuru – and it was being fought not by my former brothers and sisters, or their dark cousins, but rather by the mortal creations of the Holy Mother, and those of the Dark Ender.  My kind – the celestials, the fiends – they were no longer the direct disputants.  Instead, they empowered and exhorted mortals to fight the endless war on their behalf.”

            “Which side did you join?” Thanos asked.

            “Neither,” the woman admitted.  “I had no more stomach for war.  Instead, I wandered the new-forged earth, seeking for peace – the peace of the spirit – in the high places and the low.  But I never found it.

            “When Bræa made your kind,” she went on, her eyes fixed on some distant point in time and space, “I rejoiced; for surely here was the means of my salvation.  I took Kindred forms, one after another, walking among men and elves, and even among the dwarves and the halflings, looking for the answers that I sought.  I had a hundred lifemates, and bore a hundred children.  I was a princess and a beggar, a dame and a whore, a noble warrior and a lowly urchin, an artist and an assassin.  I was a commoner, and I was a king.

            “None of it served,” she sighed.  Her wings rustled despondently, jarring Thanos with a reminder of what she had once been, and what she now was.  “Eventually, in the depths of my depravity, I found – or was found by – the Dark Ender.  I entered his service on my own initiative,” she said.  “Or at least, I thought I did.  Perhaps I was hoping to sneak through his nets of deceit, and find Cielagan in whatever dark place Bardan had concealed him.

            “In my innocence,” she shrugged, “I thought to deceive the Ender.  Before long, I found that my service, far from being feigned, was pure.  I think it amused him, frankly – to have a former champion of the Host as one of his lackeys.”  She looked haunted.  “It went on like that, for a long, long time.”

            “How long?” Thanos asked.

            “Until he and the Holy Mother closed the Dome,” Lööspelian sighed.  “That severed the Powers from Anuru.  All except two – my one-time mistress, who was pinioned to the Asurashikara with her own sword, Vasatri; and the Dark Queen, Ekhalra, exiled beneath the Dome by fiat of Bræa and Bardan, as a divine counterbalance to imprisoned Tîan.” 

            She fell silent, and remained so for a long moment.

            “And so, Bardan having departed in obedience to the Vow of Evertime, you entered Ekhalra’s service,” Thanos prompted.

            “Not at first,” Lööspelian disagreed.  “For many hundreds of years, I simply wandered, The long absence of the Powers – the expanse of time that your folk call the ‘Eon of Darkness’ – was peaceful.  Restful.  No wars; little strife.  Much suffering, of course; but mortals always suffer.  The Powers were gone from Anuru, Tîan could act only through proxies, and Ekhalra was busy trying to expand her control over the world, and figuring out some means of thwarting her siblings’ designs.”

            “Eh?” Thanos asked.  “ ‘Thwart their designs’? What do you mean by that?”

            “Ekhalra means to break the Dome,” the woman said simply.  “That has been her whole purpose, since the Lantern first rose on her imprisonment here.  She seeks some means – any means, any at all – of sundering the chains wrought by Bræa and Bardan, and regaining her freedom.”

            Thanos felt a chill ripple of terror wash over him.  “Is that even possible?” he whispered.  “Could she do it?”

            “Not of her own accord, nor with the power that lies within her,” Lööspelian replied.  “Bræa and Bardan specifically crafted the Dome to deny the Powers, their siblings, the ability to traverse or alter it.”  She smiled sadly.  “But of course, there is a loophole.”

            “And that is...?”

            “The Holy Mother’s great gamble,” the woman sighed.  “You.  The Kindred.  All things in the Universe are subject to the order built into the Law of Evertime – the structure brought into being at the beginning of all things, by Anā and Ūru.  There can be nothing that comes of such a creation that does not serve either the Light or the Dark.  In order to grant your kind free will, therefore, Bræa had to craft your spirits with an element from a place beyond creation.”

            “I think I’ve heard some of this before,” Thanos muttered, sounding alarmed. 

            “She chose the elemental chaos of the Void,” Lööspelian  said simply.  “A tiny kernel of the Unmaking is part of your being.  A thing unimaginably small, infinitesimal really – but it gives you the freedom to go beyond the strictures of the Universe.  To surpass even the dictums of Anā and Ūru themselves. 

            “Bræa and Bardan built the Dome, and they wove it into the fabric of the Law of Evertime, which is all that sustains the Walls of the Universe against the overwhelming and all-encompassing power of the Void.  But Bræa,” she sighed, “in her wisdom, or madness, or both, gave you the potential to defeat even her designs.  To learn how to Unmake the Making.”

            “What you’re saying,” Thanos said, appalled, “is that someday, one of us might discover how to do something even the gods themselves could not do.”  He had an inkling where this was going.  It sounded as if the former angel were about to confirm everything they had come to suspect about the nature of their quest.  “You are saying that...that one of us could learn how to destroy the Universe.”

            Lööspelian burst out in a sudden gale of hilarity.  At least, Thanos thought that she was laughing; to his ears, she sounded a little hysterical.  His fears were confirmed when he saw hot tears spilling from her eyes.  “No!” she cried.  “And yes.  Yes.

            “I am saying, mortal,” she laughed sadly, “that one of you already has.”

            “You refer to the Sorcerer-King, Bîardath,” Thanos said.  “Do you not?”

            “I do not,” Lööspelian replied emphatically.  “I meant his grandsire Tîor, the grandson of Bræa Lightbringer, the Holy Mother herself come to earth.  And in fact, the knowledge predated even him.”

            Thanos frowned.  That was not something he had ever heard.  “I thought that Tîor Magnus was the progenitor of all elven mastery of the Art Magic,” he exclaimed.  “He forged the Alurenqua, and penned the Miruklær, and opened the Well of Stars.  I had thought that this...this forbidden wisdom, was his as well!”

            “It was,” the fallen angel acknowledged.  “He made it his own.  But whence it came...

            “Tell me, mortal,” she said, taking a different tack.  “What do you know of Tîor’s lifemate?”

            Thanos blinked.  That was an aspect of the ancient lore that he had never studied.  “I know that she was Hîarsk,” he said tentatively.  “The daughter of a human mated to a high elf, indeed one of the highest; her mother was the youngest daughter of the Lightbringer and her king-mate.  But I cannot recall her name.”

            “I recall it,” Lööspelian said with a crooked smile.  “None alive today recall it better.  For I was present at her birth, in elven guise; Bardan’s agent among his sister’s divine offspring.  She who lifemated Tîor Magnus was called Hîarhala; her elder brothers were Cîardak and Cîarndim.  They were the first children of Hîarsk, the divine Half-Elven, ever to see the light of the Lantern; the progenitors of the Fifth House of Harad.”

            Thanos nodded eagerly.  This was ancient lore, and entirely new to him.  He motioned for her to continue.

            “It is of the parents of Hîarhala that I speak,” Lööspelian went on.  “They were the Lightbringer’s daughter, Nîamlo; and Chuadwaith, a mighty warrior of men.”

            “Those names I know!” Thanos cried.  “They gave their names to the moons above!”

            “Chuadan and Lodan,” Lööspelian said, nodding.  “Forever together, forever apart.  It was through Chuadwaith that the Third House was destined to surpass all others in fame and power.  For Chuadwaith was no mere son of Esu; his mother’s name has been lost to time, but not her kind.  She was a daughter in lineage direct from the union of Miros and Scîarratekkan.”

            The warcaster’s eyebrows shot skywards.  Kaunovalta?  That’s news to me.  I’ve never heard that before.”

            “It was once widely known,” the fallen angel sighed.  “Indeed, it was famed, for it is the only time in all the long history of the daughters of Miros that the blood of the draconigenae was passed through a male.  But wisdom, like all other things in Anuru, withers with time.

            “In any case,” she went on, “Chuadwaith inherited his mother’s power, and passed it on in turn to his daughter Hîarhala, who in time espoused Tîor.  And when he sought power in his own right, as High King of the Elves and chiefest among their wizards, she lent him her strength, and the knowledge that had come down to her from her ancient grandsire, the red wyrm Scîarratekkan.

            “The combined potency of her inherited power and his own,” she concluded, “elevated him to heights of magical might never achieved before or since.  Tîor did many great things, yes.  But he learned how to do many more in his time.  Some he never essayed for fear of the outcome.  He eschewed, for example, the fell magicks that his apprentice Niktanos mastered, which gave birth to the terrible legacy of Boorn.”

            “I know of that,” Thanos muttered.

            “And,” she went on, her eyes lost in the mists of time, “rather than wield the words that would give him power over the flow of time itself, he locked that deadly knowledge away in the Miruklær, concealing it from all the world.

            “He did the same with the magic that granted access to the Void,” she shrugged.  “Although it seems he did not conceal it well enough.  For it was that magic that his own son, Xîardath the Usurper, used to exile Tîor beyond the walls, casting his father into the Void, there to languish in unspeakable, unending agony for all eternity.  And it was that selfsame magic that Bîardath, with the aid that Bardan granted him through his minion, Bîardath’s fiend-mate Shannyra, bent into the Wand that he had forged out of black sorcery, bone and blood.”

            “We saw that power, or a part of it,” Thanos mused.  “In the Deeprealm, Falkenhayne had used only a single Shard of the Wand – the Shaft – to open a rift to the Void, summoning an ancient abomination into the world.  That thing thereafter took control over both the Shard and its wielder, and used its own terrible power to widen the breach.  It was trying to bring the Walls of Evertime down, and subsume all of Anuru in the ancient chaos from which it had come.”

            “Were the Wand to be made whole,” Lööspelian grated, “that power would lie within the grasp of whomsoever held it.  Indeed, nothing would be beyond its wielder’s might; to call the voidstuff into the World Made, to ravage and destroy; to shape it, into any thing or being that thought can imagine – ”

            “Or,” Thanos grated, “to bring down the Walls themselves, and put an end to everything that is or has ever been.”

            “Just so,” the fallen angel nodded.  “You see, now, the full scope of the horror we face.  You know, now, why I despair.”

            I’ll deal with that in a moment, Thanos mused silently.  Aloud, he said, “So your former mistresses are seeking the Wand.  Is that why they want it?  To wreck the Universe?”

            “Not entirely,” Lööspelian replied, looking pensive.  “Karventää, the ancient wyrm, desires it because she wishes to extend her life.  The wyrms are long-lived, but I have seen generations of her kind come and go.  She might have sought immortality through exaltation and ascendancy, as he who is known as Oroprimus did; but achieving that goal took him four ages of the world, and Karventää does not have that much time left to her.  The Twilight looms, and she must find the Shards of the Wand, assemble them, and make use of its limitless might, or else perish.  This is why she seeks it – and why she seeks ever to conceal her knowledge and her quest from the Dark Queen.”

            Now we come to it, Thanos thought.  He leaned forward eagerly.  “And why does Ekhalra seek the Wand?”

            “Silence!” the fallen angel snapped.  “The Dark Queen may have turned inward, and grown forgetful; but among the many powers vouchsafed her by Bræa and Bardan as a condition of her imprisonment is omniscience of person.  If her name is spoken, anywhere in Anuru, she hears!”

            That rocked Thanos back on his heels.  “I didn’t know that!” he said, stunned.

            “I am not surprised that this has been forgotten.  It is long since the Keepers walked abroad,” Lööspelian said, shaking her head, “with the Lictors and the Framantāres in their wake, enforcing obedience to the Dark Queen’s will through torture and terror.  For a score of centuries, during the Darkness, men feared to utter that name; and for the score that have since passed, it has remained a word of malediction.  But the Keepers and the Lictors are not gone, Thanos Mastigo.  They merely lie in wait.”

            “For what?” he asked, suddenly alarmed.

            “For the Dark Queen’s power, and their deadly order, to rise once more.”  A bleak look fell over the fallen angel’s face.  “I fear that she knows, mortal.  Karventää is clever, and a mighty dissembler – but the Dark Queen is one of the Uruqua, a Power nearly as old as the Universe itself.  She can deceive herself; but we, who are but insects by comparison...we cannot hope to deceive her.  I fear that she knows what it is that Karventää seeks, and desires it for herself.  Indeed, she has desired it, sought it even, ever since Bræa and Bardan imposed upon her this earthly exile, and sealed the Dome above, to prevent her escape.”

            Thanos leaned back on his makeshift seat, puzzled.  “Then why did she destroy it?”

            Lööspelian blinked.  “Destroy it?  What are you talking about?”

            The warcaster spread his hands, confused beyond measure.  “Ekhal...the Dark Queen and her array met Mærglyn, Mother of the Shadelven, on the western borders of the Dwarfrealm.  It was the end of the Age of Wisdom, just after the Dome had been sealed, and the Darkness of the Queen was descending.  The two armies clashed on the slopes of the GaldrabjergaWitch Mountain – and the Drow were defeated, and all but destroyed.  At the end, Mærglyn stood alone, facing the Dark Queen, sustained against the might of one of the Powers only by the magic of her sire’s terrible weapon.  The Dark Queen overcame her, and slew her, and sundered the Wand, scattering its fragments to the distant corners of the world.”

            The fallen angel looked amused.  “Where did you hear that?” she asked, the corners of her lips twitching slightly.

            Thanos was outraged.  “It’s in all the chronicles!”

            “Is it?”

            “The wyrms tell the same tale!” he shouted.

            “Do they?” she asked softly.  “Do they indeed?  Take my hand, mortal.”

Thanos frowned.  “Why?”

She shrugged eloquently.  “To see whether I possess any of my former skill.”

            She held out a shapely, azure-skinned hand.  Thanos regarded her long, needle-pointed, blood-red talons with concern for a moment, then shrugged assent.  He took her hand in his own, wincing slightly, and only relaxing when he discovered that her flesh was not, as he had expected, blazingly hot.  To his relief, her hand felt like his own, if somewhat less calloused.

            She pulled him forward a little and held his palm against her temple.  “Close your eyes,” she commanded.

            He did so...and was immediately surrounded by utter blackness, and the stench of fire, and burnt flesh, and poisoned, black blood:

As Maerglyn knelt, bereft and gasping on the bloodstained, power-scorched ground, Ekhalra raised the Wand.  Hot tendrils of corrupt, ravening energy, ebon and violent, seeped from the red-flecked alabaster stone that stood at the juncture of the two blades...

Brandishing forth the Wand – which had grown to match her full, awesome height – Ekhalra shouted another foul phrase, and Maerglyn was jerked aloft.  The black skein of Unbinding enveloped her, shredding away her raiment and scourging her flesh.  As Ekhalra, exulting, hissed and chanted, Maerglyn screamed; and with each scream torn from her body, more of her essence was razored away by the power of the Wand.  Blood splattered and fell like rain, smoking upon the ground.  Ekhalra wrenched the writhing body apart, reforming it whole again with each new phrase, tormenting the Queen of the Drow with agonies unimaginable.  Pustules appeared, grew and exploded on her dusky flesh; bones shattered and took shape anew; her eyes burned with black flame, and smoking acid took her tongue; and viscera, torn from her belly, writhed like so many serpents, sprouting fangs, turning on her, tearing chunks and gobbets of flesh from her writhing form, and consuming them...

Dost yield now, proud mortal? sneered the Queen.  Maerglyn nothing replied; only screamed and screamed with the agony of her torture. 

Ekhalra, receiving no answer, laughed again.  And then, turning her face to the darkness of the skies, she roared, her a voice like a rage of thunder: WARE, BETRAYERS OF ANA AND URU!  WARE THOU ALSO, MY TRAITOROUS KIN!  NO MORE WILL I LIE IMPRISONED IN THIS PIT OF WITHERING AND DECAY!

Black storms of power gathered around the raving goddess in a cyclone of profane glory, mounting towards apocalypse.



Suddenly, all was still.

No sound; no rush of wind, no moaning of the wounded; no creaking of tree limb or even a hint of a cricket’s song...

The Dread Queen stood still and fast; her wild gesticulations had halted, and she seemed struck into a statue.  Maerglyn’s tortured form had likewise stopped in mid-gyration; flayed meat gaped bare and motionless, and even the drops of blood wrenched from her quivering flesh hung motionless in the air.  Likewise the wounded, the trees, even the carrion birds wheeling high above; all moved not, nor spoke, nor sighed, nor even took breath.

Against this stillness, an old man appeared: bent, grey-bearded and grey-cloaked, hobbling slowly with the aid of a stick, he seemed to come from over a hill, or under it.  He was followed by two white hounds with grey-flecked muzzles; fey creatures like unto wolves, who stepped daintily among the fallen, avoiding the wrack and gore of war.

The old man stopped before the frozen horror of the battle and regarded it silently.  Shaking his head in sorrow, he raised a withered hand and beckoned gently.  The dread Wand drifted out of the Queen’s adamant fist, floated silently through the air, and settled into his waiting grasp. 

He looked the thing up and down, head bowed, and muttered something softly.  Though he spoke too quietly to be heard, yet still his words echoed in the night:

Oh, son of my sons...what stark evil hast thou wrought?

So saying, he raised his other hand, and with a gesture, wove a sphere of silvery light around himself.  Even his heeling hounds backed away from that web of argent power.  None could have heard what he said, if indeed he said anything; for the sphere was like a wall of light, transparent as crystal, maybe, but impenetrable as adamant.  He raised the Wand; and after that, there came a blinding whiteness, like a brief glimpse into the heart of the Lantern...

            “Gaaah!” Thanos gasped.  He jerked his hand back, wrenching it out of Lööspelian’s grasp.

            He had seen...seen it all.  He had heard the tale before, of course; indeed, he recalled reading it somewhere.  It sounded so familiar.  But this time, he had seen it.  The horror of that ancient battlefield was etched forever, now, upon his soul; a vision of death and devastation a hundred times worse than anything he had ever witnessed in life.

            But that was not what had so jolted him.  There was a hole in his heart; a great void, bottomless and unfillable, that radiated grief and loss like the heat from a conflagration.  Tears burst from his eyes, and he lapsed into uncontrollable sobs, gasping for breath like a landed fish.  As the fallen angel watched without expression, he wrapped his arms around his chest and rocked back and forth on his makeshift chair, breath rasping in and out, wailing like a bereaved infant, and struggling to regain his equanimity.

            After a few moments, he had mastered himself again.  Throughout his ordeal, Lööspelian hadn’t moved; nor had she taken her eyes off him.

            When he could speak again, he whispered, “What was that?”

            She shrugged.  “I showed you the tale of the breaking of the Wand,” she replied.  “Not as it is told, but as I remember it.  For I was there, mortal – a scout and messenger in the Dark Queen’s horde.  I saw it all.”

            “No,” he gasped.  “No.  I meant...that pain.  What...what was it?”  Though fading, now, it still reverberated within him.  “What is it?”

            She cocked her head, as if surprised that he did not understand.  “That is the lot of the Outcast, Thanos Mastigo.  For a brief moment, you felt that which I feel.  The pain that is my constant companion, and that I have felt within my breast, every instant of every day, ever since I Fell from Tîan’s grace.”

            Thanos tried to imagine surviving that horrible agony for as long as a minute, and could not.  Much less cold he imagine enduring it for countless eons.  “I’m sorry,” he said inadequately, all but choking on the words.

            Lööspelian shrugged.  “It was not your doing.  And when pain is one’s constant companion, one learns to endure.  Especially,” she added with a resigned shrug, “when the only alternative is oblivion.

            “Beyond my pain, did you grasp the meaning of that which I showed you?”

            Thanos nodded.  “Yes, I think so.  Ek...the Dark Queen didn’t destroy the Wand.  Someone else did.  The old man with the white dogs.”


            “I’ve heard that tale before, too,” he mused.  “I read it...somewhere...”  He shook his head.  It would come to him in time.  “But who was it?  The old man, I mean?”

            Lööspelian’s eyebrows rose.  “You do not know?  I took you for a scholar, mortal!”

            “I think you have a few years of study on me,” Thanos said drily.  “Why not enlighten me?”

            “Because it behooves the wise to find their own answers,” the fallen angel replied, a little tartly.  “Think on it, son of Esu.  Whom do you know of, that bestrides the earth with such might in her grasp?  That has the power not only to challenge the Dark Queen’s suzerainty, but to stop the very Lantern in its course, and suspend the march of time itself?  Who is it that, according to your legends, is accompanied at all times by two beasts, white with dappled spots?”

            Thanos blinked.  “You’re joking!”

            “Who is it,” the fallen angel continued remorselessly, “who, in all the vasty Universe, could hold in her hand the Wand of Bîardath...and bemoan the evil wrought by the ‘son of my sons’?”

            The warcaster’s jaw dropped.

            “Now, we come to it at last,” Lööspelian whispered, nodding contentedly.   Now, you understand.”

            “So she destroyed the Wand!” the warcaster said, stunned.

            “No!” the fallen angel snapped, holding up a hand.  “She merely sundered it.  She could not destroy it; none of the Powers could.  The great deeds, and the great evils, that the Kindred do on earth, only they can undo.  That is Bræa’s gift to your kind, and her curse.

            “The Shards are still intact.  They could be reassembled, and the Wand remade,” she went on intently, “if only the means of doing so could be found.  This is the only scrap of knowledge that still eludes Karventää.  She has descried where all of the pieces lie, but Bîardath’s ancient lore still eludes her.  She will not move to secure the Shards until she has first obtained the final piece – the bloody stone that lies within the Dark Queen’s fastness.

“Therein lies your hope, mortal.  If you find the lost lore of the Sorcerer-King before other seekers do so, and before the great wyrm has managed to purloin the Barkasteen from its resting place, then perhaps you can find within Bîardath’s accumulated knowledge some means of undoing his terrible work.”

            “We’d still need the Shards,” Thanos mused, his heart leaping with joy.  They were on the right track!  After so many setbacks, so many seemingly unnecessary diversions, they had found the right path after all.  It was a miracle. 

            And more than a miracle.  They were actually ahead of Karventää and her Dark Queen.  Ekhalra might not know where Bîardath’s lore lies, he thought savagely, but we do!  We do!

            Lööspelian frowned.  “Apart from the Bloodstone, I do not –”

            Thanos cut her off with a wave.  “That’s the only one that really troubles me.  We know where all the other Shards are concealed.  But how are we to wrest the Barkasteen from the Dark Queen?  We don’t even know where her earthly lair is to be found!”

            “I do,” Lööspelian replied.

            Thanos blinked.  The fallen angel had served Ekhalra for millennia.  Of course she... “Where is it?” he asked, trembling with eagerness.

            “You already know where it is,” Lööspelian smiled.  “Shall I tell you the tale?”

            “Yes, I implore you!”

            “During the Eon of Darkness, the Dark Queen consolidated her hold on Anuru,” the fallen angel began.  “The elves had been all but destroyed in the Gloaming, and their shadowed cousins had been decimated by the Dark Queen’s own hand, and opposed her rule, cleaving ever to their own goddess, Vilyacarkin.  The dwarves were hiding in their mountain fastness, which protected them, but also neutralized them.  The halflings were of no concern.  And so the Queen focussed her blandishments and her terrors on men.

            “By dint of promises and threats, tortures and treasures, she won them over.  The Keepers and the Lictors, and the whips and brands of the Framantāres, broke the sons of Esu to her worship.  The great empire of Esud withstood her enticements the longest; but in time, even it too fell under her sway.

            “All of the great shrines and temples to the Queen of the World,” she said, shaking her head in wonder, “date from this era – the time that the elves call ‘the Eon of Darkness’.  The blood-pits came later, after the Dark Queen’s rule was absolute.  For men, it was a dark time indeed; but it was bright also, bright with power and promise and perverted order.  The mighty cities of men all rose in this time, and the mightiest of these was –”

            “Yl,” Thanos breathed.  “You’re talking about Yl, the City of Towers.  ‘Yl of a Thousand Wonders’, it was called, and ‘Yl of Eternal Day’.”

            “Just so,” Lööspelian nodded.  “Yl, the greatest of all the ancient realms, and the capital of the Empire of Esud.” 

She shook her head in dismay.  “Men forgot even the origins of the very name of their realm, how it had come from the name of their ancient father, Esu the General.  They fell to their knees before the Dark Queen, shrieking their praises to her terrible beauty and her matchless might.  At the centre of their greatest city they built a colossal temple to her eternal glory, with towers that scratched the skies; and in reply to their entreaties, she came to live among them, blessing them with the wonder and terror of her presence.”

            Her eyes took on a haunted, bleak look.  “A chair of bone and iron was made for her.  She took up her seat at the heart of the temple, before a pit wrought of flawless marble.  At the edge of the pit stood a black stone, edged like a knife, where mortals to be sacrificed were made to kneel, spilling out their lives to the glory of the Queen of the World.  In the bottom of that pit she placed her brother’s gift: the Heartstone of Cielagan, that it might be washed daily in the blood of the children of the Lightbringer, the Dark Queen’s tormentor, and her eternal foe.”

            Despite himself, despite his familiarity with the scene that she described, Thanos felt a chill worm its way down his spine.  He wanted to call a halt, but he dared not; this was too important.  How often did one get the chance to question a witness to events so ancient that they had taken place before time itself had any meaning? 

Desperately, he focussed all of his wit on his companion.  “Where is she now?  The Dark Queen?”

            “She is still there,” Lööspelian replied.  “Upon her throne, before the Pit of the Stone, in her temple, in Ancient Yl.”

            “That’s not possible,” the warcaster said flatly.  “Yl is no more.  It was destroyed.”

            “Was it?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.  “Listen a little longer, mortal.  My tale is nearly done.

            “The end of her reign of terror began,” she went without waiting for his assent, “with the arrival of the Argent Three, the ancient silver wyrms led by Olowartan – the brother of Jawartan, who had fought beneath Yarchian the Renewer at the gloaming, nearly two thousand years before – and their gift of the Tarinas Valtakirjas, the Book of the Powers.  Men had been corrupted by the Dark Queen, and the dwarves refused to open the gates of Underdarrow to any but their own kind; and the halflings were, as ever, scattered and leaderless.  So Olowartan brought the Book to Starmeadow.  To the elves.  He gave it to the King, who was then of House Æyllian – an act of honour that elevated that hitherto minor family above all others, and that has kept them on the throne for more than a score of centuries.

            “The elves parted the book’s covers, and they read from its pages; and by doing so, they completed the designs of the Powers, and opened a divine passageway to the world beyond: the mortal end of the River of Stars, the path that joins Anuru to the Outer Planes, evading the strictures of the Dome.  With that gateway opened, the Servants of the Powers – though not the Powers themselves – were able to step through, and in mortal manu, walk the soil of the world again.  With them, the Servants brought the love that the Anari bore for mortals, and their wisdom, and their power. 

“Faith was born again, and the terror and lordship of the Witherer withered as a result.  The Dark Queen’s servants hesitated in the face of the Light that was borne by the new priests of the Anari; the Keepers and the Lictors faltered, and the Queen’s rule failed.  Her servants fled to the last fastness they knew: the city of Yl, once the centre of the world, but now a dark and brooding place ruled by blood and terror, and blanketed by the smothering, overwhelming presence of the Dark Queen.  No longer the capital of the realms of men, but a black and cancerous wound in the heart of the mortal world.  Instead of thronging to its wonders, men – all Kindred – circled wide ‘round it, avoiding its manifest horrors.

            “The waning of the Queen’s long reign,” Lööspelian shrugged, “made her mad.  I watched it happen.  She became mercurial, likely to bless and slay in the same breath.  It was then that I fled her presence, taking service with one of her rising vassals: Karventää.  The cunning of the great dragon helped the Queen’s lackeys weather the rise of the new powers in the world, staving off ultimate defeat, at least for a time; but Karventää also served her own purposes.  After a thousand years, she had grown in strength and influence, while the Dark Queen’s reach had withered further, until even the last vestiges of her rule over men had been sundered, and there were none left beneath her fist but the terrible creatures of darkness that crouched in the misty alleyways of the once-great city of Yl.

            “To safeguard that last redoubt, she shrouded the city in eternal shadow.  None could find the place by design, and those who did so by chance rarely returned.  Thus did the legend of the Lost City of Yl begin. 

“It became lost in sooth when the Shadow King, in his last extremity, sought to win her to his cause.”

            Thanos blinked.  He had never heard of such a thing.  “What?” he asked in strangled tones.

            She smiled at his surprise.  “It was a thousand years ago, Thanos Mastigo, that your own folk, the men of Ekhan, buttressed by the legions of the elves, defeated the Shadow King’s armies, and drove him into the depths of his last stronghold among the shadowed mountains of Ensher.  He was without hope, and his power was failing.  In desperation, he turned to the only force beneath the Dome strong enough to enable him to endure: the Dark Queen herself.”

            “He tried to…to enlist her?  Really?  What happened?” Thanos whispered.

            “She rejected him,” the fallen angel replied smugly.  “She derided him as a mere mortal, unworthy of her attention or aid.  But she underestimated how far his power had grown, or how terribly her own had shrunk.  For she had been turned inwards upon herself for a thousand years, while he was a prodigy; the world had not seen so mighty a mortal mage since Tîor’s day.  In his fury at her blunt dismissal, he gathered every shred of his might, and cracked the world.  And, Thanos Mastigo, he did so upon her very threshold.  At the gates of Yl itself.”

            “So the city was destroyed!” Thanos breathed.

            Lööspelian shook her head.  “No.  The Dark Queen’s power did not suffice to ward the world from the Shadow King’s wrath; or perhaps she did not even care to try.  But she had strength enough to save her city.  The earth opened beneath Yl, and swallowed it; but the ancient towers endured, protected by the might of the Dark Queen.”  She shook her head sorrowfully.  “The rest of the world was not so lucky.”

            Thanos nodded.  “ ‘The mountains shivered, and the earth broke beneath our feet’,” quoth he.  “ ‘Towers crumbled and fell, forests burned, and the living were cast down into death from the frozen wastes to the Sunlit Sea.  One in three perished on that day, as all the Lands of Men were riven in twain, and the seas rushed in, drowning the great cities; and a great cry of lamentation arose o’er all the world. 

His eyes took on a distant, bleak aspect.  “ ‘Far called, our armies melt away; the fire sinks upon the dune; ‘lo, all our might of yesterday is fallen into wrack and ruin’.”

            The fallen angel sat silent and unmoving.  After a long pause, she continued.  “The wounded earth closed over Yl, and the seas rose to salve the wound; but the ancient city endured.  It is still there, beneath the stone of earth’s heart, beneath the waves, beneath the very lands where once it stood.  And she is there too – the Dark Queen.  Still brooding over her brother’s gift, still working her machinations…and still gazing up at the Dome, and plotting her escape.”

            She fell silent at last.  Thanos, blinking, put his hands to his temples, struggling to absorb everything she had told him.  “So that’s it,” he breathed.  “Her lair is here, within Anuru!  In the ruins of Yl itself.  That’s where the Barkasteen is to be found!”

            Lööspelian nodded.  “In the ruins of Yl, buried beneath the bones of the world; balanced on the very precipice of oblivion.  Protected from its final doom only by the fading might of the Queen of the World, it stands eternally a hair’s-breadth from utter ruin. 

“The servants of the Light call it Nityah Paakashka: the City on the Edge of Forever.”

            “And Ekhalra is there,” the warcaster said.

            “It is her place,” Lööspelian replied, wincing at his indiscretion.  “The only place, now, within this fading world, that can sustain the weight of her fell spirit.  It is as if she has always been there, and always will.  She will be there until the end.”

            She looked down at her hands.  “That end will not be long in coming, now.”

            Thanos started.  “What do you mean?  We can still win!  If we can uncover Bîardath’s lost lore, and figure out how to destroy the Shards of the wand, then we can -”

            “What?” the fallen angel interrupted.  “What can you do, mortal?  Do you not know why the Universe is in peril?”

            The warcaster frowned.  “Because the Walls of Evertime are failing,” he replied, cocking an eyebrow, “and because the forces of evil are struggling to find means of breaching th –”

            “No!” she cried.  “No, and no again!  Thanos Mastigo, have you heard nothing that I have said?”

            She leaned forward, agitated.  “If a sword of straw pierces a breastplate of iron, is the sword to blame?  Would you ask how such a sword could be made so strong?  Or would you look to the breastplate, to see what had made it so frail that it could be pierced by a sword made only of straw?”

            “You’re saying...that we should not be looking to the Wand...but to the Walls themselves?” Thanos asked, puzzled.

            “Yes!” Lööspelian shouted.  “The Walls, mortal!  Why have they grown so weak?”

            “Because...” he was stammering now, uncertain, trying to remember everything that they had seen.  “Because the Shards of the Wand have awoken...and because mortal magicks, especially conjuration, have...have...”

            “You are confusing cause and consequence!” the fallen angel barked.  “The Walls were wrought by Anā and Ūru themselves!  They are not merely a part of the Universe; they are the Universe.” 

Unconsciously, her fingers bunched into fists.  “Why, then, are they failing?”

            “Do you know?” Thanos snapped, nettled.

            “Of course I know!  I have seen it happening, Thanos Mastigo.  I have watched it – watched the long, slow decay of the world.  And of everything – and everyone – that lies within in it.”  She put her face in her hands. 

            The warcaster was stunned.  She was actually weeping.  “I’m sorry,” he said as gently as he could, “but I don’t understand.  You’ll have to explain.”

            Lööspelian raised her face, scrubbing at her eyes with the back of her hand.  “The Universe is eternal, unchanging,” she sighed.  “Anā and Ūru made it so.  But their design was undone by the work of their offspring, Bræa and Bardan.  They formed Anuru to be a battleground, seeking a place where the Light and the Dark might contest for mastery.  But contests demand change.  If there is only unchanging eternity, there can be no victory, and no defeat.  So Anuru was made not to remain eternal, but to change.”

            “So?” Thanos asked, puzzled.  “What difference does that make?”

            “Anuru is the one flaw in all the unbroken perfection of eternity,” she replied simply.  “It is the knell of doom to the designs of Anā and Ūru.  The making of the mortal realm sundered the plans of the Makers.  They created the Universe to be a place of unchanging evertime, supported by the might of the Forces themselves.  When Bræa and Bardan combined their power to create Anuru, they had to break that mold.  Together they tore down the pillars of evertime, and reforged them to be sustained not by Anā and Ūru, but by the Powers themselves. 

“Each of the Anari and each of the Uruqua became one of the Pillars of the Universe.  It was thought that this would not matter; for the Powers are eternal, and so the Pillars would stand forever, endure as long as the Powers themselves did.  Thus would the remade Universe endure as well.

            “This design was well-intentioned,” the fallen angel shrugged, “save that Bræa and Bardan forgot one thing.  In Anuru, where the rule is not constancy but change, nothing can be eternal.”

            Thanos started.  “Ekhalra,” he breathed.  Then he grimaced.  Using the Dark Queen’s name was going to be a difficult habit to break.

            “No.  Her imprisonment was of no terrible consequence,” Lööspelian snorted, too distracted to take him to task for uttering the forbidden moniker.  “Not in the grand scheme of things.  For she, the Witherer, was made the Pillar of Decay, and it is the nature of Anuru, and all things within it, to decay in time.  There was no more appropriate place for her.  This is in fact the true reason why she, out of all the Uruqua, was chosen for exile here.

            “No, mortal,” the fallen angel sighed, “the real problem – and the doom of us all – was unintended.  It is the reason that the Dark Queen had to be exiled here in the first place.”

            Thanos blinked.  “You mean…Tîan?”

            “Tîan,” Lööspelian nodded.  “The guardian of law and justice.  At the making of Anuru, she was invested as the Pillar of Order.  Bræa and Bardan forgot that Order was the very heart of the Universe; the only thing separating the World Made from the unremitting chaos of the Void.  They unwittingly made her the sole bastion supporting the structure of the very Universe itself.  And then...she was betrayed by her sister Zaman, and pinioned forever to a stone in the mortal world.  And when the Dome was closed around her, locking her eternally into the realm of decline and decay along with her sister, the Witherer…she faltered.  And so she, and with her the law, and Order too, began their long, slow decline towards oblivion.

            “Tîan, like all the Powers, was formed in a place of unending, unaltered perfection.  She was not made to endure change.  Her being has been worn thin by time, Thanos Mastigo,” Lööspelian said softly.  Tears were standing out in her eyes.  “Her substance has been eaten away by the decay that consumes all things in Anuru, even the gods themselves, should they linger too long.  There is little left of her.  And when she perishes, Order itself perishes with her.  And when the Pillar of Order fails, the Walls of Evertime will fall...and this brief experiment called existence will end in the blink of an eye.”

            The warcaster sat back on his barrel, stunned beyond words.  “So you’re saying that...that even if we manage to destroy the Wand...the Walls might still fall?”

            “No, mortal,” Lööspelian sighed.  “There is no ‘might’ about it.  I am saying that the Walls will fall.  Tîan is the Pillar of Order of the Universe, and the world – your world – weakens her more every day.  She is approaching the limits of existence, and cannot endure.  She cannot escape from it; and her passing cannot be prevented.  It is too late, now.  The final end – Finis Inflammari, the Breaking of the World – is inevitable.”

            Thanos said nothing.  There was nothing he could think to say.

            She cocked her head at him, smiling sadly.  “You think you have known fear,” she whispered.  “I will show you fear, mortal.” 

Bending at the waist, she plunged her hand into the filthy water that swirled around their feet.  She felt around for a moment, then withdrew her hand and held it out to him.  In it, dripping and damp, lay a single pebble.  She scrubbed this with her fingers, drying it.

            “This stone,” she murmured, “is the very stuff of the Universe.  It is you and I, the sky and the stars, the waters of the world, and all things in it.  It is nothingness, held together only by Order.”  As he watched, she clenched her fist, grimacing with the effort.  When she opened her fingers again, the pebble was gone.  By the might of her hand alone, she had ground it into sand. 

            “When Tîan passes, and the Pillar fails, and the Walls fall,” she said gently, “the order will depart, gone as if it had never been.  All that is will crumble, as this stone crumbled.  Nothing will stand.  Nothing will be left, but dust.”

            She blew gently on her palm, and the sand blew away, dispersing into nothingness.  “That, mortal,” she sighed, “is fear.  True fear.”  Her eyes were bleak.  “A handful of dust.”

            Thanos was too shocked to speak.  He sat perched on his makeshift seat, and said nothing.

            The fallen angel smiled sadly at his obvious consternation.  “Do you understand now, mortal,” she said softly, “why it is that I despair?”

            Thanos sat unblinking, for a long moment.  At last, he whispered, “No.”

            Lööspelian blinked.  “No? Do you mean that, after all I have told you, you still don’t understand?”

            He shook his head.  “I understand,” Thanos said.  “Believe me, I understand.  But I meant ‘No, I will not give in to despair’.”

            The fallen angel shrugged.  “Whether you accept it or not, the end –”

            “You spoke of the Kindred,” he interrupted, pointing an accusing finger at her.  “Of our blessings, and our curses.  One of them is this: we don’t give up.”

            Lööspelian raised an eyebrow, taken aback by his sudden vehemence.

            “We don’t give up!” he raged.  “We do not go quietly into the night!  We do not give up without a fight!”

            “And whom exactly do you plan to fight, mortal?” she snapped.

            “Would you please stop calling me that?” Thanos shouted. 

Lunging to his feet, he grasped her by the shoulder, ran his fingers up her neck, beneath her jaw.  She was too shocked to resist.  When he withdrew his hand, it came away slicked with blood from her still-seeping wounds.  He held the stained digits up before her eyes.  “What are you?” he yelled.

            She shrank back from the gore dripping from his hand.  “I...I don’t know,” she stammered.

            “Are you angel?  Are you devil?”

            “No!” she cried, too surprised to pull back from his grasp.  “Neither!”

            “Then what are you?!”

            She said nothing.  She could only stare into his eyes, stricken by his sudden vehemence.

            Contemptuously, Thanos ran his fingers across her cheek, leaving a smear of gore across her azure skin.  You’re the one who doesn’t understand,” he grated.  “If you’re not one of them, then you’re one of us.  And we don’t give up.  We fight!”

“And fall!” she cried.

“Always,” he agreed.  “Even if we win, we perish, in time.  But when we fall, at least we fall facing the enemy!”

            “To what purpose?” she moaned.  “For the eternal reward of life beyond death?  Why?  When the Walls crumble, even that poor solace will be gone.  There will be no heaven, no hell.  All gone, human!  Gone, as though it had never been!”

            “What of it?” Thanos barked.  “Great deeds, once done, can never be undone.  Even if the Universe burns or drowns or perishes in endless night, at least we who stood fast will have the solace of having tried to do what is right!  That is all that matters! 

“Your blood,” he went on, grimly intent, “white or black or red, is not who you are.  The colour of your skin or the shape of your body is not who you are.  It is not the shapes we bear that give our lives meaning, but our deeds. 

“It’s not who we are underneath, Lööspelian,” he said, grasping her by the shoulders.  “It’s what we do that defines us.”

            Slowly, as if afraid of what she might find, Lööspelian put her fingers to her cheek.  She rubbed absently at the blood.  “What would you have me do, then?” she asked, overwhelmed.

            Thanos stepped back and crossed his arms, smiling grimly.  “Ride out with me.”

            “ ‘Ride out with you’?” she repeated, shocked.   “Why? To what end?”

“For your own pleasure,” he suggested.  “To sate your rage, if you like.  To do, rather than simply be.”

She smiled sadly.  “For death, and glory?”

            The warcaster held up his hand.  His palm was red with her blood.  “For yourself, Lööspelian Aparagíta.”

            Her eyes widened.

            Thanos plowed on.  “Yes, I know that name.  Qaramyn told us about how he met you in the dungeons of Negrenoctis.  That should be your new name: Lööspelian Unconquered.

            “Bear it when you ride with us.  And not just with us, but for us, too.  For all of us.  The Kindred, your new brothers and sisters.  For your fading mistress.  For the world.”

            Reaching out, he took her hand in his, turned it palm-up, and pried her fingers gently apart.  “You held this out to me,” he said softly, “and you showed me fear.  I do not see fear in this hand.”

            Lööspelian said nothing.  She was frozen into immobility by the force of his arguments.

            “Do you know what I see?” Thanos pressed.

            Stunned almost beyond words, the fallen angel surrendered.  She looked at her hand.  “What? What is it that you see?”

            Thanos smiled.  He pressed her fingers to his lips.  “I see hope,” he laughed.  He put his own bloodstained hand on her shoulder again.  “Too long you’ve wandered in winter, child of Bræa.  Too long you’ve lurked in the darkness.

“You can help us banish that darkness.  Perhaps for good.”

            The fallen angel stared up at him.  Tears stained her cheeks; but her eyes, blood-red and potent, were wide with wonder.


What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,                                 
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

- T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land