“This is impossible!” Amorda exclaimed.
Joraz had commandeered the crew’s bunkroom and had pushed the grease-stained and knife-scarred trestle table to one side to give them more room. Lööspelian was the centre of attention, seated on a three-legged stool in the centre of the compartment.
She had asked her rescuers to call her ‘Loo’, although thus far none of them had been able to do so. The moniker seemed inappropriately humble for so ancient, statuesque and solemn a being.
Amorda seemed determined to play the ladies’ maid. The false noblewoman and sometime spy, brushes in hand and a handful of hair-pins protruding from between her lips, stood behind their guest, looking baffled. Although her subject was sitting down, their eyes were at the same level.
“What is the difficulty?” Lööspelian asked, glancing over her shoulder.
“Your wings!” the elf-woman exclaimed. “I can’t...they’re too big!” She was trying to drape a sheet taken from one of the cleaner of the sailors’ bunks over the fallen archon’s shoulders, but Lööspelian’s vast expanse of auburn plumage kept intruding. Amorda illustrated her point by grasping one of the protruding joints. “Your wing-elbows keep sticking up!”
The former fiend looked puzzled. “These are my elbows,” she said, pointing to the joint in her right arm. Shaking her right wing, she said, “That is the alula.”
“I don’t need an anatomy lesson,” Amorda snapped. “I just need you to move it!”
Joraz leaned forward. “Is there a problem?” he asked mildly.
Amorda heaved an enormous sigh. “No. It’s just that…Reticia was better at this.” She reached out and gave Lööspelian’s hair a flick. “A lot better, actually.”
Rubbing her eyes tiredly, she put a hand on her subject’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
The former fiend nodded. “You miss your friend. It is only natural.” Her eyes took on an peculiarly unfocussed look for a moment. Then she tilted her head back and rolled her shoulders oddly.
Her wings tightened, twisted...and disappeared.
Both Amorda and Joraz were stunned into speechlessness.
Lööspelian glanced from the monk to the noblewoman. “That is better, yes?”
Joraz blinked first. “Er…yes. Yes, it is! Much better.”
When Amorda continued to stare blankly, he nudged her with an elbow. The elf-woman jumped slightly. “Yes! Much better!”
Lööspelian nodded. “Good.” She turned her back to the pair and settled herself comfortably onto the stool.
Amorda, draping the sheet over her subject’s shoulders, shot a wide-eyed glance at the monk. Joraz simply shrugged.
As the elf-woman began plying brush and comb, Joraz took a seat on one of the bunks. “Do you mind if I ask how you did that?”
The former fiend’s eyebrows rose. “Do you mean, how did I conceal my wings?”
“Dibba banda karana,” she replied. “It means – ”
“- to ‘pack away’,” Joraz translated. “Really?” Leaning to one side, he glanced at her shoulders, concealed beneath the bedsheet. “Where are they now, then?”
“Within me,” Lööspelian replied. Then she frowned. “No, that is not correct. They are not inside…not inside of my body. They are within…bhávana ka sára. That is – ”
“ ‘Essence of spirit’,” Joraz said.
Lööspelian’s eyes widened. “Your knowledge of our…of my former tongue…it is most proficient. Your are familiar with the celestial realms?”
The monk laughed. “Not in the least!” He tapped a fingertip against his temple. “I feel language. Thoughts are the lifecurrent of the Universe. Everything that lives, no matter what its fundamental nature, feeds the current, and in turn feeds upon it. The flux and flow of that current touches everything and everyone. And understanding...comprehension...they flow with it.
“I simply…” he shook his head, struggling to find an explanation that would make sense. “I don’t know. I dip my toes in the flow, and understand. That might be the best way to put it.”
Lööspelian looked interested. “It is similar to the thought-speech to which I was once privy, then?”
Joraz scratched his head, considering. “I’m not sure,” he said at last. “I don’t hear thoughts in my head; not as such. They have to be spoken aloud. And I have to speak aloud, too, to make myself understood. I simply think what I wish to say, and the lifecurrent translates it. I could talk to a tree if I had to.” He snorted. “In fact, I have.”
The former fiend’s eyes narrowed. She smiled uncertainly. “That is most extraordinary.”
“Not as extraordinary as where your wings went,” Joraz said blandly. “Can all...er...folks like yourself do that? Angels, fiends and the like?”
“No,” the auburn-haired beauty replied, looking distressed. “It is not something which…” her voice trailed off suddenly.
“And I was never an angel,” she said emphatically. “I was an archon. A creature of order and the light. The angels...are otherwise. Beings of pure goodness. Different. They are power incarnate.” She seemed suddenly wistful.
“I’m sorry,” the monk apologized, instantly on his guard. He was never certain what topics to mention and which ones to avoid. Being six thousand years old, he reflected, certainly resulted in the accumulation of a great deal of emotional baggage.
To his relief, Lööspelian shook her head firmly. “It is nothing,” she said. “It is just that there are very few true angels left. They were the bravest of us, and the most faithful to the Powers of Light. They stood in the forefront of battle, always demanding the foremost place. Most of them fell in the War.” She gestured vaguely at the deck beams overhead. “Their spirits light the sky.”
There was nothing Joraz could say to that. After a long pause, he prompted, “You were telling us how you hid your wings.”
Lööspelian nodded distractedly, as if his words had called her back from a great distance. “The karana is a skill shared by nearly all of the winged servants of the Light,” she explained. “The Holy Mother accorded it to them during the Age of Making, to enable them to move more easily among her children.”
“But how did you receive it? The Children were not created until after you had Fallen,” Joraz said, confused. “Or did I misunderstand your tale?”
The former fiend shook her head. “You did not. But the gift came to me nonetheless.” Her face was haunted by memory. “It was a moment of great hope for me when I discovered that I, though befouled and Fallen, nonetheless was still vouchsafed to partake of the Holy Mother’s grace in this wise. That I was still a part...I thought that it might mean that…that there was still some link between my essence, and the Light.”
“But…?” the monk asked.
“But, I was mistaken,” Lööspelian replied sadly. “In my case, the gift was accidental. A…a vestige, I suppose. Of my former status.”
“Did the others gain it as well?” Joraz asked, curious.
The winged woman frowned. “What others?”
“The other ones like you. The Fallen ones.”
Lööspelian stared at him for a long moment. At last she said, “There are no others like me.”
Now it was the monk’s turn to stare. “Wait a moment,” he said, sounding as if someone were choking him. “Are you saying that, despite all the countless eons that have passed since the minions of the Powers were formed, you – you alone – are the only one ever to have fallen from grace?”
“The only one by choice,” Lööspelian replied evenly. “That is my special curse.
“Others have Fallen, to be sure,” she sighed, “by way of treason or treachery. Or, like…like Cielagan…”
She took a deep breath before continuing. “Through deception. But I have never met another who Fell as I did. Who was cast out for wilful disobedience. For thrice defying my divine mistress’s lawful command.”
“But there could be others,” Joraz pressed her.
“Of a surety,” Lööspelian shrugged. “The whole of Anuru is vast, the heavens vaster still. The depths of the Abyss are unmeasured. And the Universe is boundless. I am not omniscient; that glory and damnation is reserved for the Dark Queen, and only within the boundaries of the Dome. Certes, there might be others who Fell as I did.
“But,” she added emphatically, “I think that I would know.”
“Fair enough,” Joraz said, nodding. This didn’t sound like a topic that it would be safe to pursue.
There was a long moment of silence punctuated only by periodic tilts of Lööspelian’s head as Amorda yanked the brush through her auburn tresses.
At last Joraz, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, said, “So…about your wings…”
“My former brothers and sisters are capable of performing the karana,” the one-time fiend replied distantly. “As I can. And so too can many of Bardan’s slaves.” In answer to Joraz’s wide-eyed unspoken query, she added, “He copied the Holy Mother’s notion almost as soon as she conferred it upon us. The Dark Ender is not a maker; he can only mock. He gave the trick to certain of his servants who tend to move in mortal form, to corrupt the foolish, and tempt them into damnation. The vesáya dánavaya, for example.” She looked ill. “I have seen some of them manage it.”
Joraz coloured slightly. “ ‘Whore-demons’?”
“The elves call them manescortari,” she replied. He eyes narrowed. “She who seduced Cielagan wearing my sister’s form was one such.”
“Ah. ‘Succubi’,” Joraz nodded. “Of course.”
Teeth clenched, the former fiend nodded. “Succubi. Just so. And others, too, who in order to perform their ill deeds must assume a pleasing shape.”
She shrugged. “I should not condemn my betrayer, for I betrayed many as well. You should know that there is no sin that I have not committed, in my time among your kind.”
They lapsed into a less uncomfortable silence for a moment. During the pause in their conversation, Amorda suddenly stepped back, shouted something inexpressibly foul, and hurled the hairbrush against a bulkhead.
“What is it?” Joraz cried, leaping to his feet.
“It’s her gods-damned hair!” the elf-woman screamed. “It won’t stay where I put it!”
Lööspelian, who had been sitting carefully still, turned slightly to glance at her extemporized hair-dresser. “What are you attempting to achieve?” the one-time fiend asked.
Amorda’s eyes widened. Reaching up, she grasped a handful of her subject’s auburn locks. “I’m trying to use this,” she snapped, giving the fistful of strands a brief tug, “to cover these!” She released Lööspelian’s hair and flicked one of the fiend-woman’s thumb-sized horns with a fingernail. The needle-pointed spike rang like a tiny bell.
“Ah!” Lööspelian nodded. Facing forward again, she closed her eyes, settled herself, and focussed her concentration. A moment later, her hair began to writhe. Twisting in and around, the individual strands rose, wove through each other, and knotted themselves together, binding into a higher and higher pile mounded oddly (but attractively) above the fiend-woman’s brow.
Lööspelian turned back to glance at Amorda. “Does that suffice?”
“Why didn’t you tell me you could do that?” the elf-woman shrieked.
“I did not know what you wished to accomplish,” Lööspelian shrugged.
“And anyway,” Amorda went on, neither lowering her voice nor taking any notice of what her subject had said, “I thought you’d lost your supernatural powers? That you had been cast out, and broken?!”
“The Fall did not break my body,” Lööspelian replied reasonably. “It merely altered it. I have always been able to change my appearance somewhat.”
“But you can make your hair move!” the elf-woman yelled. “And without spells! How is that possible?”
“It is not hair,” the former fiend replied. She raised her hands and ran them through the thick, bushy locks. “Not such as yours. Or at least, it was not.”
Joraz frowned. “It certainly looks like –”
“We were not made with what you call mortal bodies,” Lööspelian cut him off. “Our forms were never things of meat and bone. These…shells, let us call them…were always a natural excrudescence of the substance of the Universe. A sheathe formed to contain and give structure to the essence of spirit within.
“Remember, friend Amorda,” the towering creature smiled, “I was not born, as you were. I was made. The Minions of the Light – and those of the Darkness, too – were formed out of the stuff of Evertime. Created as we are, to be perfect and unquestioning, indomitable and unchangeable and immortal. And, of course, servants. Mighty servants, to be sure; but servants nonetheless.
“Were this not so,” she said, wrinkling her nose, “were we creatures of flesh, our bodies would not function at all.”
“Why not?” Joraz asked, intrigued.
“Well,” Lööspelian – Loo, he reminded himself – laughed, “consider our wings. Mine are perhaps a hundred times the size of the wings of a sparrow. Yet I weigh ten thousand times what a sparrow weighs.”
Joraz frowned. “I think I see your point.”
“Moreover,” the former fiend went on, “there is the matter of musculature.”
Joraz glanced at Amorda; the elf-woman, her mouth still full of pins, shrugged. “Yes?” he asked politely.
“A bird’s musculature,” the fallen archon continued inexorably, “achieves power of flight by anchoring flesh and bone in advantageous configuration.” She touched her wing, then her collar-bone, shoulder and breast. “A bird’s wing anchors humerus to coracoid, furcula and the keel, or breast-bone. In order to support flight, the musculature of the breast must be dense, large, and very well-developed.”
Joraz blinked. He had no knowledge of anatomy beyond that necessary to know where best to hit someone. “And...?”
Lööspelian indicated her bosom. “Does my breast look sufficiently large and well-developed to you?” she asked as if speaking to an idiot school-child.
Amorda tried to stifle a snigger and failed miserably. Hair-pins and spittle sprayed across the deck.
Joraz dug his fingernails into his palms and bit his tongue. Somehow he kept a straight face.
“My point,” the fallen archon went on solemnly, “is that our bodies and our abilities are sustained by divine power. Our strength comes not from the breath of air, the taste of water, or the sustenance of food, but from that which we serve. Our forms are an expression not of biological necessity, but of divine will.”
“Uhh...back to your hair,” Joraz said, shifting his eyes northwards to safer territory, and desperately trying to change the subject. “Or...’not-hair’, as the case may be. Can you...can you change its colour, too?”
“No,” Lööspelian replied, glancing at him oddly. “Not without magic. Colour, length, texture – these qualities are Unchanging for us. Motion, position and shape, though, are transitory. I can beat my wings –”she shrugged, and Amorda, afraid that she was about to uncase her enormous pinions, grasped her by the shoulders “- but I cannot alter a feather of them.”
“But you can hide them,” Amorda said.
“Yes,” the fallen archon nodded. “And that terrifies me.”
“Because the karana is an ability that derives from bhávana ka sára, the spiritual essence of my kind,” she explained. “Your spirits could not accomplish such a thing. Could they?”
“No,” Amorda laughed.
“Unfortunately, no,” Joraz said simultaneously.
Lööspelian smiled wanly. “So you see my fear,” she murmured. “I fear that I may have traded my powers and my immortal shell for all of your weaknesses, but have not gained the one thing that would have made the exchange worthwhile. A mortal’s mutable, unpredictable soul. The thing that allows your kind to do that which I have not done since the world was made. Change.”
“But you do change, now. You’re hungry,” Joraz mused. “And thirsty, too.”
“So,” he reasoned, “you will need to eat and drink, like us.”
“Yes,” the former fiend nodded. She smiled wanly. “And soon, preferably.”
“And,” the monk went on darkly, “you bleed. So perhaps…forgive me, but it must be said. Perhaps you can die like us, too.”
“Perhaps,” Lööspelian nodded. “One day I shall die, and find out.”
“That experiment can wait, though,” Joraz smiled.
“Indeed. At least until after we eat again,” the former fiend said wistfully.
“But what –” Joraz began. He stopped himself abruptly.
Both Amorda and Lööspelian turned to look at him. “Yes?” the latter asked.
“Nothing,” the monk replied, flushing a little.
The elf-woman saw him redden, and grinned. “Oh, this,” she laughed, “this has got to be good!”
Lööspelian blinked, confused by the monk’s sudden reticence. “If there is an answer I can give,” she said carefully, “then I will give it. You have but to ask.”
“And if you don’t,” Amorda giggled, “I will!”
“Enough,” Joraz growled. “All right, here it is. It is said that there are children in Anuru, who are born of...of the union of mortals. And your kind. Both your former kind, and fiends.”
“It is true,” Lööspelian admitted gravely.
“Well, then,” the monk continued, trying not to stammer, “how, if your bodies are so unlike our own, then how...how can they...”
“How can immortal and mortal mate, as the dragons, the beasts and the kindred do, and give birth to living offspring?” the fallen archon asked, smiling slightly.
“Not to put too fine a point on it,” Joraz replied, “but yes. How is that possible?”
Lööspelian pursed her lips. “While I have never born a child,” she mused, “or sired one when disguised as a male, I have much experience in this.
“There are several ways. The most obvious, of course, is the change of form. Many of us have this power. I had it, once.
“When we use it,” she shrugged, “the change is complete. Total. If I were to take the shape of a boar, or a tree, or a human, I would be that thing, down to the last conceivable iota of being. Mating in such borrowed forms is no different from mating between true members of earthly races.
“Some hints of the origin of the otherworldly parent may remain, of course,” she added nonchalantly, “but for all intents and purposes, a human born of a human and an archon shaped to resemble a human...the child of such a union would be created as a human.” She waggled one hand. “More or less. Some hints of divine origin generally seep through.”
Amorda raised her hand. Lööspelian regarded her blankly.
“She wants to ask a question,” Joraz explained.
“Ah,” the fallen archon nodded. “I did not understand the gesture. Ask.”
“So where...” Amorda paused, rephrasing her initial query. “I mean, there are also those, or so ‘tis said, who bear...well, wings. And tails. And horns, and such-like. Where do they come from, if the birthing is true to type?”
Lööspelian looked embarrassed. “Such half-children are the result of nizhreyása. ‘Most excellent conception’, in your tongue. A mating in which the otherworldly partner couples with the earthly mate while still in the true form. Children of such unions generally bear the physical marks of both parents, earthly and divine.” She shuddered. “Or profane.”
“But then,” Joraz interjected, baffled, “there would be the incompatibility of bodies, no?”
The former fiend nodded. “Yes, but it is of no moment. In such couplings, conception is not a physical fact. It is an act of will by the otherworldly partner.”
Both Joraz and Amorda blinked. “What?” the elf-woman said at last.
“An act of will,” Lööspelian repeated. “A deliberate and conscious joining of spiritual essences. Physical...ah, contact, such as your kind normally enjoys ...it is not actually required. Although it is usually indulged in, as it is so...pleasurable.”
Joraz’s eyebrows shot skywards. “For your kind, too?”
“Er....yes,” the former fiend admitted. She reddened – purpled, actually – a little. She made a peculiar gesture of aversion with one hand. “But such joinings are of course forbidden.”
“Why?” Amorda pressed, enormously interested.
“Because we...I mean, both my former kind, and the fiends...the sense of the self that we bear is far, far stronger than your own. Mortals find it overwhelming. It clouds their minds,” the fallen archon said, obviously uncomfortable, “and renders us...irresistable. In our true shapes, we dazzle, or we terrify.”
Joraz shot a sidelong glance at the elf-woman. “I don’t know about you,” he said carefully, “but I feel neither dazzled nor terrified at the moment.”
Amorda simply shrugged. “She’s beautiful,” the elf-woman agreed, her ear-tips turning pink, “but I’ve never been...er...drawn in that particular direction.”
Lööspelian looked amused. “Obviously, one of the many things that I have lost is my former allure.”
“You underestimate yourself,” the monk said in a feeble attempt at gallantry. “So...what does that have to do with nizhreyása, as you called it, being a thing forbidden?”
“The power to beguile that I once possessed...it cannot be denied,” the fallen archon said stiffly. “Not by your kind. Not very often, anyway. It is supremely difficult for mortals to resist it. In my former life – both of them, in fact – had I turned it against you, you would have been unable to deny me anything.”
Joraz raised an eyebrow. “Anything?” he drawled.
“Anything,” Lööspelian nodded emphatically. “At least, in most cases, the call of a heart so endowed cannot be refused by mortal flesh. It was for this reason that the Holy Mother prohibited such liaisons. Because the Kindred partner in such a liaison would have essentially no choice in the matter.”
Joraz raised an eyebrow. “I thought that the Powers and their servants were indifferent to mortal choice.”
“All are indifferent, save only for Bræa,” the fallen archon corrected him. “And her word governs – or governed – all. It was she who forbade nizhreyása, among the Anari at least,” Lööspelian confessed.
“When the Kindred were first created, many of my former brethren saw them as simply another animal – a walking, talking beast. A creature fit only to serve the Servants, as it were. Before long, the Servants both of light and of dark began to prey upon your kind, taking them most often as slaves, but often enough, too, as playthings.” She grimaced. “Although that is perhaps too kind a word.
“I watched this happen many times, from my Fallen estate,” she went on, looking supremely ill-at-ease. “I think my expulsion from paradise, and the reason for it, gave me perspective, for I often wondered whether the way the otherworldly powers treated the mortals was a consequence of spite, contempt, fear...or whether it was envy. The slaves of Bardan simply hated you as scions of the Light. But I believe that many of my former brethren among the Anari were jealous of the benison that the Holy Mother had granted to you, but denied to us. By taking away your power of choice, by beguiling you and sullying your freedom as they sullied your flesh, the minions - both of Light, and of Dark – could perhaps convince themselves, for a little while at least, that the thing that Bræa had granted to you and no others – the freedom to choose your path – was, after all, of little worth.”
She fell silent, staring at her hands.
“And so Bræa forbade nizhreyása,” Joraz prompted.
“She did,” Lööspelian nodded. “Although she has not always been obeyed – especially by the Eladrin, the Anari closest to the chaos, who although they serve the Light, acknowledge no laws.”
She flushed again. “I cannot say that the Kindred have suffered terribly for their disobedience, though. The minions of the Court of Stars – those who cling to Hara’s side in fair Fulgoris, or who walk the Glorious Wild of Alfheim with Larranel, or flit among the snowy peaks of Albéorg with Karg, Lady of Bears – ” she blushed purple suddenly “- or...or who frequent Miyaga’s den of delights, among the scented mysteries of Viridarium...they are the nearest thing to free spirits that live among the heavens. You may believe me when I tell you that the Eladrin...they are the most wondrous of...er...companions.”
Amorda’s eyebrows shot up. She threw a glance at Joraz, and grinned.
The monk remained stoic. “But still,” he mused, “they are prohibited from approaching mortals in their natural shapes. At least in theory.”
“Prohibited by Bræa, yes,” the fallen archon specified. “Bardan, though,” she ground her teeth, “actually encourages it.”
The monk’s eyebrows rose. “If that’s true,” he asked, puzzled, “then why aren’t there many more fiend-born Kindred in the world?”
The fallen archon winced, drawing a hiss of air between her teeth. “Nizhreyása is not a simple thing,” she explained. “Because the forms are dissimilar, the moment of conception occurs not as a sharing of...of physical essences, but of spiritual essences, as I said. Sprits must come together, willingly, as one. For your kind, it is the undying part; the thing the dragons call sielu. ‘Soul’. For us, it is the bhávana ka sára. The ‘essence of spirit’, that I spoke of before.
“The joining of essences,” Lööspelian sighed, “is a difficult and complex thing. It cannot be rushed. It cannot be forced. It can only occur if both partners are eager participants, or at least believe themselves to be. Forging such a bond with one of your kind is...is extraordinarily challenging.”
“I can just imagine,” Joraz agreed, completely perplexed. “It must be a shattering experience for a mortal soul to experience that kind of contact, whether profane or divine.”
Lööspelian frowned. “You misunderstand. In such matings, it is your sieli that are the problem.”
There was another long pause. Then Joraz and Amorda said “What?” again.
The fallen archon looked from one to the other. “Clearly neither of you has ever experienced this,” she said.
“Not I,” the monk averred, holding up his hands. He glanced at Amorda. “You?”
“Had I ever tumbled an angel,” the elf-woman said, struggling to keep a straight face, “or for that matter, a fiend, I think I would remember.”
Lööspelian cocked an eyebrow, baffled by the unspoken interplay between the two mortals. “Do not be so certain,” she warned. “My kind...my former kind, I mean...have many means of clouding the mind. And the flux can be bent to deny mortal memories. Or even to alter or expunge them.”
Amorda’s eyes widened as the implications of the former fiend’s words sunk in.
“In any event,” the former fiend went on, “the greatest difficulty in achieving nizhreyása lies in attempting to join such dissimilar things as mortal and immortal essences. Ours are simple enough, for they are wrought of the stuff of Evertime, forged before the Making by the hands of the Holy Mother and the Dark Ender themselves. They are a...a known quantity. They are like us: eternal, uncomplicated, unchanging and predictable. For, like us, they are made to be what they are.
“Even the flighty Eladrin, and the blood-thirsty, ravening demons,” she sighed, “were made, by express design, to be flighty and ravening. So it is for all of us, every one... bhávana ka sára. A simple spirit, created to be precisely what it is.
“It is not so with you,” Lööspelian continued, perplexed. “When Bræa made your sieli, she incorporated, in a moment of inspiration or of madness, the tiniest of shards of the Unmaking. Of the Void beyond the Walls of Evertime. Your spirits are truly unfettered, unbound by any divine order. Freedom is the very essence of what you are.
“When we serve,” she went on, “we serve by design; when you serve, you serve by choice. Were I, in my former guise, to fall in battle defending my Mistress against the onrushing hordes of darkness, I would earn no praise. For there is no glory in simply doing what one was made to do.”
“Really?” Joraz asked, surprised. “No praise at all?”
“Do you praise a chair when it holds up the backside of the one who sits upon it?” the former fiend asked reasonably. “And if it should break, does the fault lie with the chair? Or with he who made it?”
Joraz scratched his cheek, his thoughts racing. She had a point. What she was telling him accorded with all that he had previously learned about the nature, and inherent power, of mortal existence.
Amorda, however, had a confused look on her face, as if she were wondering what the Void – and chairs – had to do with the birthing of half-immortal children.
“How could such dissimilar beings as mortals and immortals ever love, then?” the monk asked, perplexed.
“What has love got to do with it?” the fallen archon asked, surprised. “Having watched such things for eons now, it is my belief that nizhreyása has little if anything to do with love. Infatuation, perhaps; yearning, certainly. My kind are, after all –” she smiled, glancing down at her flawless body “- desirable, by your standards at least. But for our part, the yearning is not physical, but spiritual.
“We seek out nizhreyása,” she sighed, “not because we desire your bodies, but to touch that mystical spark within you. That gift that Bræa gave to you, and that can never be ours. To feel, if only for an instant, what unfettered freedom feels like.
“And the fiends feel the same way?” Joraz asked, skeptical.
“Yes,” Lööspelian replied firmly. “That I can tell you from first-hand experience. But the manifestation of a fiend’s desire may, as you can imagine, produce different outcomes, most of them unpleasant for the mortal partner. For one thing, such encounters are far less likely to result in offspring.
“The joining of essences - bhávana ka sára to sieulu – is, as I said, most difficult, because yours are so unpredictable. Wild, untethered – eternally changing! Forging a successful bond takes time and patience and...and finesse. Fiends possess few of these qualities.” She winced. “The devils are the most proficient at it, for they have more patience than any other fiend; but even in cases of devil-mortal pairings, things often go awry. Ill-done, nizhreyása can drive the mortal participant to madness. Or death.”
“That’s dreadful,” Amorda murmured. Her previous interest appeared to have faded in light of this new information.
“It is preferable,” Lööspelian said grimly, “to what happens when a mortal mother kindles after such a union. Fiends care little for the well-being of their parents. The birth of a true-born fiend is often fatal for the child, but it almost always slays the mother. Less so, of course, if the mother is the otherworldly partner – but in those cases, it is the child itself that is, more often than not, insufficiently robust to survive its birth.
“In brief,” she concluded, “the prevalence of heavens-born and hells-spawned children is roughly equivalent because, while there are many more couplings between mortals and fiends, many fewer fiend-born children survive their birth.”
“You speak as though you’ve seen such things happen,” Joraz murmured.
Lööspelian turned her burning eyes on him. “I have lived since before there were stars in the skies,” she replied sternly. “There is nothing that I have not seen.”
Oddly, Joraz felt no fear at the force of her gaze – only a terrible sadness, and a deep, almost bottomless sense of longing and regret.
“I’m curious,” Joraz said suddenly. “You’ve spoken of angels, the beings of pure Light; and you’ve mentioned devils, those who serve Darkness. You’ve mentioned Eladrins above, and demons below, both of which celebrate and exemplify chaos.”
The fallen archon nodded.
“You yourself were once an Archon of the Horn, a servant of the Law and the Light. Are there no beings beyond the Dome,” the monk asked, “whose purpose is to serve only the Law?”
Lööspelian’s face fell. She swallowed visibly. “There are the Dhármasampadár,” she whispered. “Or more properly, I should say...’there were’.”
Joraz nodded. Turning to Amorda, he whispered, “It means ‘law-bringers’.” To Lööspelian, he said, “What were they?”
“They were the guardians of pure order,” the former fiend murmured. Her eyes were distant. She appeared to have forgotten their dingy surroundings; her gaze was focussed on a memory so brilliant as to be blinding. “Creatures of wonder, forged of Light and Darkness in perfect balance. They were...” she sighed audibly. “They were not of our kind.”
“Not...what?” Joraz asked, confused. “Do you mean, they weren’t otherworldly creatures?”
“No, they were that. I meant, they were neither Anari, nor Uruqua,” the fallen archon replied.
Joraz’s eyebrows shot towards his hairline. “How is that possible? Were they Powers, too?”
Lööspelian shrugged. “I do not know. I know only that they were not made by Bræa and Bardan. They came before us. When my brothers and sisters and I were made, they were already there. They came after the Powers, of course...but before us.” She looked uncertain. “No one knows their true origin.
“Although,” she shuddered suddenly, “I have heard a...a sage speculate.”
Joraz didn’t miss her obvious revulsion. “What sage?” he asked gently.
Lööspelian quivered again. “The revenant. Ergon of Boorn.”
The monk rolled his eyes. Of course. “And where did he think the Dhármasampadár came from?”
“From the very origin of the Universe itself,” the former fiend replied. “From the original agreement of Anā and Ūru to create the Universe. He believes that they were a...an inevitable consequence of the creation of Order out of the elemental chaos of the Void. He believes that this is the only thing that could explain how they could have emerged in perfect balance between Light and Dark.”
The monk was astonished. “He explained that to you?”
“Not to me,” the fallen archon snorted. “To Karventää. I was merely standing attendance upon her when he discoursed on the subject.”
Joraz gritted his teeth. “What did Karventää have to say about that?”
“She did not appear to understand.”
“Did you understand it? Do you think he’s right?”
Lööspelian looked baffled. “How am I to judge? I am far older than he, but not nearly as learned. He is a terrifying being, and darkly evil, but I would not presume to challenge his knowledge.” She cocked her head. “If nothing else, it would certainly explain why the Dhármasampadár served only the Law, and strove always to maintain a flawless balance between the Powers.”
“You keep using the past tense,” Joraz said, intensely interested. “What happened to them?”
Lööspelian’s face darkened noticeably. “They were the first of the immortals to fall. When the War of the Powers began – the inevitable War, the foreseeable outgrowth of the creation of a universal order, and its sundering into Light and Dark – they tried to stop it. On the first battlefield, they stood between the irresistible force of the Uruqua, and the immovable object of the Anari. They stood between hammer and anvil...and were destroyed.”
“All of them?” Joraz gaped.
“All but one,” the former fiend sighed. “Just before that first battle, one of their number had been elected by his brothers and sisters to stand apart from the fray, and serve a lesser duty. He alone survived, while all others of his kind perished.”
“What ‘lesser duty’ was that?”
“He was chosen to serve as the guardian of my Holy Mistress,” she said sadly. “Tîan Bandhadeva. The Imprisoned Goddess. Even his name was chosen for him: he was called Dhármaceta.” She coloured slightly. “Although...in time, after endless eons at her side, Tîan changed his name to Dhármacetaka.”
Joraz rolled his eyes. Amorda poked him in the ribs. “What’s the difference?” she whispered.
“ ‘Dhárma’ means ‘justice’,” the monk replied sardonically, “and ‘ceta’ means ‘slave’. ‘Cetaka’, however,” he went on, scowling, “means ‘paramour’.”
“Oh,” Amorda nodded. Her eyes widened suddenly. “Oh!”
Lööspelian frowned. “Your implication is unworthy,” she snapped. “His service is perfection itself. Their union has always been spiritual, not physical.”
“Yes, I don’t imagine they could get up to much in the way of shenanigans,” Joraz deadpanned. “Not with that sword jammed through your mistress’s holy sternum.”
“Dhármacetaka is my Holy Mistress’s protector,” the fallen archon said emphatically. “While the rest of us roamed the world, and fought the battles against the Dark, or...or as in my case, succumbed to it...he has remained at her side, defending her. Defending our helpless mistress! Destroying any who would threaten to harm her. His is unblemished, devoted, timeless service to the universal order.
“Service,” she cried, “of a purity that has not existed since that first battle at the very dawn of existence! Service such as will never be seen again!”
The monk glanced at Amorda. “I almost wish I hadn’t asked.”
“You sought truth. Truth is often unpleasant,” Lööspelian said firmly, “but it is always preferable to falsehood. Always.”
She turned her gaze on Amorda, who was fiddling with a selection of cosmetics. “For example,” she said dispassionately, “it is truth that I am accustomed to arranging my own clothing and appearance. I wore your shape, friend Amorda, and countless other Kindred shapes, for a score of centuries. This is not my first exposure to makeup and hair brushes.”
The elf-woman stopped short, looking terribly offended. “Well, excuse me!” she huffed. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“Because,” the fallen archon replied simply, “you seemed to be enjoying yourself.”
Joraz gritted his teeth to smother a snicker as Amorda went white with fury, turned, and stormed away.
Lööspelian watched her go, surprised. But even she seemed to understand that her explanations had upset her new comrades, and looked a little uncomfortable.
She turned to Joraz. “This is another perplexing facet of your kind,” she said, rolling her eyes. “The notion that truth can somehow offend.” She frowned suddenly. “Although in retrospect, truth got me in no end of trouble while I was in Karventää’s employ. Perhaps I should make a greater effort to understand and employ falsehood. You seem to prefer it.”
“Mortals are like that,” Joraz laughed. “Get used to it.”
“I have been trying to ‘get used to it’, as you put it,” the fallen archon said grimly, “since your kind were first made.” She waved in the direction of Amorda’s angry departure. “You may judge how rapidly I learn by your comrade’s reaction.”
“She’ll get over it,” the monk chuckled. “In the meantime, do you have any more truth for me?”
“I am very hungry,” Lööspelian said wistfully. “That is truth. Does it qualify?”
Joraz laughed again and nodded. “We’ll get you covered up, and find something edible in town. The food aboard this ship is abominable.”
“Dragon blood is not a suitable sauce,” the fallen archon nodded.
The monk shuddered. “If anything, that would have improved it.”
When Lööspelian stepped from behind the bedsheet that Amorda had tacked to the overhead beams, Thanos winced. He threw Joraz a disbelieving glance. “That’s the best you could do?”
“Master Tyrellus,” the monk replied calmly, “should perhaps have spent more time teaching us to select dress styles and match colours, and less showing us the proper two-fingered technique for tearing the spines out of our enemies.”
The warcaster rolled his eyes.
“If I see him in the Long Halls,” Joraz went on, “I’ll tell him that I’ve decided to alter the curriculum to include courses in ladies’ couture.”
“Are you developing a sense of humour?” Thanos snapped waspishly.
The monk eyes widened. “What in the world are you talking about?” he asked, all innocence.
Rubbing his brow wearily – he had been awake for two days now, and was wearing down – the warcaster turned back to their guest. Amorda had sorted through the pile of clothing that Joraz had purchased in the town market. About half of the articles had immediately been discarded as fit only for the paper-maker’s rag-bin, and another third had met with shocked horror and muttered comments about “jongleurs, street-walkers and circus clowns.” The remainder had disappeared behind the makeshift curtain with the lady and the fallen archon.
Lööspelian had emerged wearing what Amorda had grimly pronounced to be the best of a bad lot. It was a peasant gown of sorts, a sack-like thing of olive linen with a narrow waist and a snug bodice, paired with well-worn soft shoes and a long, hooded cape that, despite its obvious age, was in surprisingly good condition. All of the colours were drab; Amorda had decided that these would help to minimize the fallen archon’s otherworldly skin tone.
Joraz immediately saw what Thanos was on about. The gown might have reached the ground, had it been worn by the elf-woman for whom it had originally been made. On the statuesque fiend, however, it barely came below her knees. An alarming expanse of blue-green calf showed between hem and shoes.
Amorda saw where his eyes had alighted. She emitted a snort. “I have plenty of spare stockings. We’ll garter them above her knees. They’ll do for now.”
“I can hardly breathe,” Lööspelian complained. She put a hand to her bosom. Joraz could only agree; the gown’s original owner had been much slighter, and the material was straining to the breaking point.
“Corset’s too tight,” Thanos remarked. He was looking at the same problem area and struggling not to grin. If it did nothing else, the dress emphasized the fallen archon’s physical assets.
“She’s not wearing a corset,” Amorda said crossly. “I didn’t want to spend an hour lacing her into one just to see the thing to blow apart like a First-day firework the first time she opens her wings. That’s her normal shape.” She sounded almost envious.
“Ahh-ahhh-hmm,” was Joraz’s only comment.
“It’s still too tight,” Thanos groused. “I don’t want her passing out on us.”
“I’ve got the lacings opened up as far as possible,” the elf-woman snapped. “Let them out any further and there’ll be nothing holding the damned thing up!”
Thanos rubbed his chin, wondering what to do next. This did not seem to be a situation that could be resolved even through the most judicious application of evocation magic.
Lööspelian raised a hand in query, as she had seen Amorda do. “What is ‘passing out’?” she asked, panting a little.
Thanos blinked. “You’ve never fainted before?”
Joraz burst out laughing. “She’s never breathed before!” Thanos shot the monk an incredulous glance, then snickered himself.
Amorda wasn’t laughing. She was staring at the gown front, tapping a fingernail against her teeth. Reaching a decision, she squatted and sorted through the pile of discarded garments. She selected what looked like a light jacket of a dark, forest green. Standing again, she turned to Joraz. “Knife,” she commanded.
“I don’t carry one,” the monk replied, spreading his hands.
Her eyes widened. “How do you eat?”
“With aplomb,” the monk replied, all seriousness. “And salt.”
Amorda rolled her eyes, turned to Thanos, and snapped her fingers. Without a word, the warcaster obediently slid his dagger from its sheathe, bowed, and presented it to her across his forearm, hilt first.
Nodding her thanks, the elf-woman turned back to her subject, grasped the upper edge of Lööspelian’s bodice, and set the point of the knife against the cloth. Then, realizing that her colleagues were still watching appreciatively, she snapped, “Gentlemen will please avert their eyes!”
Thanos and Joraz pivoted obediently on their heels. There was a loud ripping sound as Amorda commenced her surgery.
“Going to tell Karrick about this later on?” Joraz murmured softly.
“Oh, yes,” the warcaster replied, grinning nastily. “Suitably embellished, of course.”
“Of course.” Joraz smiled. “Remind me to fill you in – she told Amorda and me a great many things a little while back. I’ll repeat everything I can remember, and you can think on it. Some of it sounded familiar.”
There was a muted murmur behind them. Thanos felt the tell-tale tingle of the flux being worked. It didn’t feel familiar. He wondered idly what the elf-woman was doing. “About the nature of Evertime and the order of the Universe?” he asked.
“Actually, about immortal-mortal couplings,” the monk replied.
“Hmph. Karrick’ll want to hear that part, too,” the warcaster muttered.
“No doubt. Mostly, though,” he said seriously, “it was her explanation of the reason that outsiders seek out mortals as mates, and the differences between mortal and immortal spirits, or ‘essences’ as she called them, that I found interesting.”
“I can’t wait to hear it,” Thanos murmured.
“Done!” Amorda announced. “You can turn around now.”
They obeyed. Both men looked the fallen archon up and down, and together applauded. Amorda had cut a narrow wedge, from bodice to waist, out of the front of Lööspelian’s gown, and replaced it with a broader triangle of material that she had hacked out of the forest-green tunic. The garment looked as though it had just come from the tailor’s shop.
Thanos stepped closer, inspecting the seams. Joraz joined him. The work was straight, even and flawless. “You didn’t use a needle and thread for that!” the warcaster exclaimed.
Amorda waggled her fingers in the air and winked. “Mending spell!”
“It looks well?” Lööspelian asked, glancing down.
Both men suddenly realized that they were staring intently at their guest’s bodice from a distance of a few inches. They straightened and stepped back simultaneously, Joraz with an assumed air of unconcern, Thanos with a red face and a loud “Harrumph.”
The warcaster turned to Amorda. “Nicely done,” he said, hiding his embarrassment behind a growled snort.
The elf-woman smiled at his obvious discomfiture. “It’s nothing,” she said. “Reticia...she would’ve done better.” Her face fell a little.
“You’ll see her again soon enough,” Thanos said sympathetically.
“I certainly hope so.” Making a visible effort to overcome her melancholy, Amorda bustled back to her subject’s side.
“So,” she went on. “Hair – or whatever it is – like this, and hood, and cloak suitably arranged...”
She stepped back. Thanos nodded his approval. Lööspelian now looked like an average – albeit rather tall – human woman. The cloak was even long enough to conceal her blue-green calves. In fact, it brushed the deck.
That made him frown. He turned to Joraz. “How in the name of all the gods did you find such a big cloak in an elf-town?”
The monk raised an eyebrow. “I just went through the market, looking for anything that might be unobtrusive, and big enough to fit me. The choice was not wide, as I’m sure you can imagine. I had to take whatever I could find.” He nodded at the former fiend. “That was a lucky catch. Even luckier that it was still in good shape.”
Thanos stepped to the fallen archon’s side, took a section of the heavy garment in his hand, and rubbed the cloth between his fingers. Though faded and greyish in colour, the material was soft and tough. The lower hem was dark, marked by long travel with stains that no laundering could ever obliterate.
He turned his gaze to the hood. He could feel Lööspelian’s eyes on him, watching him curiously, and resolutely ignored her incarnadine gaze. The hood of the cloak, he could see, was edged in some sort of patterned cloth, squares of white stained grey interspersed with squares of black faded to grey, looking for all the world like the crenelations of a battlement.
The warcaster’s eyes widened. “Uh oh . Turn around.” When Lööspelian hesitated, he seized her by the shoulders and spun her in place. She didn’t resist.
Thanos sighed. “We need to find her a new cloak,” he said. “And we need to burn this one.”
“What?” Amorda said, annoyed. “It’s perfect!”
“Is it?” the warcaster asked. “Look at that.” He brushed out the folds of the back of the cloak, careful to avoid any contact that might be misinterpreted. “Can’t you see it?”
“See what?” the elf-woman asked, squinting.
Joraz ground his teeth. “Oh, dear. I wish I’d noticed that.”
“Noticed what?!” Amorda exclaimed.
With a finger, Thanos traced out a shape on the back of the cloak. Age and wear had rendered it almost invisible, but once he had pointed it out, it became clear: a hand upraised, its fingers slightly curled and pointing towards what appeared to be a star.
“That’s the White Hand,” Thanos grated. He glanced at Joraz. “No wonder it fits her! This is a Hand Knight’s greatcloak!”
Amorda recoiled in revulsion. “Sanguinus Hara! How did it end up here?”
The warcaster shrugged. “Any number of reasons, I suppose,” he replied. “It might’ve been part of an estate sale, or pawned by a knight on the run. Or booty...from Duncala, or a hundred other such battles.” He pointed at the crenelated pattern around the hood. “And unless I’ve forgotten my history – and I haven’t –” he added without a hint of irony “– that’s the rank insignia of a Lord Cavalier.”
The monk, the elf-woman and the fallen archon stared at him.
“A general. The commander of a mounted division,” the warcaster sighed, rolling his eyes. “Tenscore lances, all of them knights. A terrible force.” He fingered the cloak again, almost unconsciously. “No line of infantry on earth could stand against their charge.”
He pondered the garment, and the history that it represented, for a long moment. At last he shook his head. “It’s got to go. There are tens of thousands of veterans of Duncala in the elf-realm, and thousands more survivors of other battles and Hand atrocities. If we came across even one of them, you’d have three feet of steel through your breastbone before you could say ‘good-day’.”
“I am not such easy prey,” Lööspelian said calmly.
“I never thought you were,” Thanos said patiently. “But we already have enough to worry about, what with Br...with Beck among us,” he reminded them. “Our goal is not to win fights, but to avoid them.”
He grimaced. “The only thing that could possibly be more difficult than trying to smuggle an obvious fiend through the elf-realm would be dressing her up in the cast-off robes of the order of madmen who spent two centuries flogging, flaying and immolating every elf they could get their hands on.”
“I see your point,” Amorda muttered. “I lost friends to the Hand. As did everyone I know.” She stared at the garment with undisguised loathing.
“I’ve no doubt,” the warcaster replied. He turned back to Lööspelian. “Lose the cloak. We’ll make do with something else. Maybe a...a blanket, or something...”
Amorda held up a hand. “Just a moment.” Spinning her subject to face away from her, she murmured “Pyyhkiä!” and ran her index finger down the back of the garment.
The offending sigil faded away. An instant later, it was entirely gone.
Joraz shot a glance at Thanos, eyebrows raised.
The warcaster smiled. “An erasure transmutation,” he said, nodding. “It wouldn’t work on embroidery, but on an inked symbol...” He bowed. “Good thinking, milady.”
“I can’t do anything about the pattern ‘round the hood,” Amorda admitted. “But I don’t think it’s all that noticeable.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Thanos said firmly. “Without the symbol of the Order, it’s unimportant. And most folks, even veterans, wouldn’t recognize what it means anyway.
Joraz applauded lightly. “Will the symbol come back?”
“No,” Thanos and Amorda said simultaneously.
The warcaster nodded again to the elf-woman. “You’re a useful traveling companion,” he said with a slight bow.
Amorda’s eyebrows drew together. “That’s the approbation I’ve always aspired to,” she said, her tone dangerously even. “ ‘Useful’.”
Thanos winced. He shot a glance at Joraz. “As wizards go, I miss Xeros,” he murmured.
“This wizard’s a little less powerful, but she’s a lot prettier,” the monk reminded him.
The elf-woman blushed slightly, busying herself with finishing touches on the fallen archon’s disguise.
“No doubt about it,” Thanos agreed. “But Xeros didn’t talk back.”
“Especially once you got him killed,” the monk said without expression.
The elf-woman gaped. “He got better,” Joraz said quickly.