It was late in the evening on the 11th day of Wintersdyb, and Karrick was practicing his knife-throwing when Valaista returned from the College. He’d been at it for some hours. One of the long, exquisitely-polished oak tables that decorated the Ambassador’s library had been badly damaged by whomever (or whatever, he reminded himself) had attacked the Embassy. Karrick had propped the thing up against a bookshelf and was amusing himself trying to spell his name in knife-holes on its lacquered surface. He’d managed “K-A-R” before running out of horizontal space, and was just beginning on the second “R” a little further down when the dragon-girl thundered in.
Her cheeks were flushed with the cold that had reasserted itself over the course of the day. Snow had blown in from the north, and flakes of it were caught in her white-blonde hair. She looked a little like a fairy princess, if fairy princesses wore chainmail and carried swords.
To Karrick’s surprise, she had someone in tow. Although the figure following her was hooded and cloaked, Karrick spotted it instantly for an elf; the newcomer was a good head shorter than both the girl and himself, and correspondingly more lightly built. He couldn’t see any weapons – or at least, not any obvious ones – and as he already had a dagger in his right hand and two more, held carefully by their points, in his left, he didn’t feel especially worried.
“Karrick,” Valaista began, “this is…”
“Moment,” he interrupted. With a quick motion of his wrist, he buried one knife in the table; then, with an underhanded flick, sent the other pair of blades after it. Both thudded into the wood a hand-span a part, a foot or so below the first.
“Well done,” Valaista said approvingly.
“It’s all in the reflexes,” the warrior shrugged. “Who’s this?”
The newcomer brushed back its hood. It was indeed, as he had surmised, another elf, and not surprisingly, a son of the Third House, marked by the customary emerald eyes and midnight hair. To Karrick’s surprise, however, this elf’s mane, rather than being long and straight or arranged in some sort of elaborate coiffure, had been cut short, protruding no more than a finger’s width from his scalp.
The elf bowed. “Ka-Mai, of House Domodekia.”
Karrick bowed back, trying to mimic his visitor’s graceful posture, and failing miserably. It was small consolation that Valaista didn’t do any better. “Welcome to the embassy of the Empire,” he replied.
“Or what’s left of it, anyway,” he added morosely. At least the bodies of the two thieves were gone; Valaista had brought a labourer by with a hand-cart at first light that morning and, after a more detailed search of their persons, the fellow had trucked them away to wherever the elves took unwanted corpses. Karrick had tipped the workman generously. He had a strong stomach, but he had been getting tired of the smell.
“I thank you,” the elf replied gravely. “May I express my regret, on behalf of my mistress, for the wrong you have suffered? We place a high premium on treating our guests well. And especially our allies.”
“Are you from the palace, then?” Karrick asked, surprised.
“No, no!” the elf averred, holding out his hands in a gesture of mock horror. “Perish the thought! No, I serve the Magistatrix Zola Nephys at the College. She asked me to answer your request for assistance.”
“She’s the head of the conjuration department,” Valaista interjected helpfully. “I got her name from the scribes at the information counter.”
Karrick nodded. “And she agreed to help us out?”
“No, she wasn’t there,” the girl admitted. “But Ka-Mai, here, was. The Master told me to find a conjurer, make a bargain, and bring him here. Ka-Mai is the most senior conjurer in residence right now.”
The elf cocked his head. “I am Magistatrix Zola’s deputy,” he said. “She is travelling.”
Karrick nodded. “It’s damned kind of you to come.”
The elf grinned. “Kindness has nothing to do with it, my dear fellow. Even were I disinclined to accede to the young lady’s request, Kalestayne himself has commanded the Magisters to give you whatever aid we can. The Master Magister’s good will is coin in this city.
“And besides,” he added with a roguish grin before the warrior could speak, “your apprentice is so pretty that I would happily burn my own house down for her, if she were but to flutter her eyelashes in my direction.”
Karrick felt a momentary flash of irritation. It vanished, though, when Valaista’s response to the fellow’s absurd flattery proved to be nothing more than a frown of puzzlement.
Suddenly, though, her face cleared, as if she had remembered something. Looking the elf in the eyes, she said clearly, “Curator ab tuas conloquor.”
To Karrick’s astonishment, the wizard froze. After a pause, he blinked, and said, “You told me that you had a poor command of our language, my dear!”
“I’ve picked up a few useful phrases, here and there,” she shrugged.
“Ah. And is this, then, your guardian?” Ka-Mai asked, nodding at Karrick, who had no idea what was going on.
“No,” Valaista replied with the sweetest of smiles. “My guardian is Chiliarch Thanos Mastigo, a warmage of the Imperial Army.”
Ka-Mai said nothing for a long moment. At last, he cleared his throat and turned back to Karrick. “To the business at hand, sir?”
“Surely,” the warrior nodded. “Did she tell you about our problem?”
“A vault door, gone mysteriously missing,” the elf replied, shooting a nervous glance back at the girl. “Broken doors I can understand, but missing ones? A little unusual.”
“Stick around. Things tend to get a little unusual around us,” Karrick muttered. “Can you fix it? Temporarily, at least?”
“That depends,” Ka-Mai replied, lapsing into sudden seriousness. “How often do you need to gain access to it?”
“Dunno,” Karrick shrugged. “Couple o’times a day, I suppose.”
“And will you replace the door at some point?”
“That’s the plan.”
The elf scratched his chin. “Well,” he said at last, “I have a temporary solution for you, I suppose. Where is this vault, then?”
By way of response, Karrick pushed aside the table he had been using as a knife target. It fell to the floor with a thunderous clatter. He slid back the book-case that he had shoved in front of the vacant door-way, and bowed.
The elf’s eyes widened. “Well,” he said nonchalantly, crossing his arms and grinning drolly at his host. “There’s your problem!”
“And you’ve got a fix, do you?” the warrior chuckled.
Ka-Mai threw Karrick and Valaista a conspiratorial wink. “There’s a magical solution to every dilemma,” he grinned. Facing the gap where the vault door had once been, he raised his hands and whispered “Luoda seinä kivestä!”
Karrick couldn’t feel the strands of the flux bunch and gather, but Valaista could. It felt as though ants were crawling all over her body. And she knew, too, what his words had meant.
When the elf released the concentrated might, she started a little; it felt as though she were falling backward. In fact, her sense of motion was illusory; it was the gap that was getting smaller.
The stone all around the empty portal began to flow and merge. Grey rock oozed from the floor, the walls, the stone ceiling overhead, flowing like syrup under the wizard’s hands, sliding and slipping together.
Humming lightly to himself, Ka-Mai waved and swirled his hands like a free-style painter, working and smoothing the flowstone until it joined in the centre of the gap, closing over the hole just before his face.
His brow furrowed for a moment, and he said, “Laajentuneessa!” Valaista shuddered as another burst of arcane power echoed through the room.
Finally, the wizard lowered his hands and stepped back. The stone where the door had once stood was smooth and featureless. To Karrick’s astonishment, it was all but indistinguishable from the rock around it. It even had grout lines worked into it, mimicking the carefully cut stone of the embassy’s foundation walls.
“I doubled it, for good measure. It’s about a foot thick,” Ka-Mai grunted. “Ought to keep out anybody who doesn’t bring a Mattock of the Titans, a bulette, or…” he grinned broadly “an impatient Ekhani warcaster.”
Karrick shot an amused glance at the girl. “Been telling tales out of school, have we?”
The elf stepped back from the wall, put his hands on his hips, and regarded his handiwork with a satisfied nod. “What do you think?”
“Very nice,” Karrick said dubiously. “But…er…it’s a lot more wall-ish than door-ish, if you know what I mean. Sort of makes it less useful as a vault, no.?”
The elf rolled his eyes. “I meant the artistry,” he sighed. “Look! Chisel marks! And I even aged the stone, so it looks like the surrounding material!”
Uncertain what to say, Karrick applauded slowly. Valaista joined in.
Ka-Mai shook his head sadly. “You people need to learn to take the time to appreciate the little things in life.”
“The artistry’s fine,” Karrick reassured the mage. “Let me put it another way. We’re out here, and everything we need –” he pointed at the blank, featureless wall “- is in there.”
The elf shot a pitying glance at Valaista. “We’re among barbarians,” he said tragically. “Honestly, my dear, I don’t know what you see in him!”
“He kills things that annoy me,” the dragon-girl said without expression.
The elf blinked. “Ah. Well, yes, I can see how that might come in handy.”
"Yes, it does." Valaista pointed at the door. “Now what? With the vault, I mean?”
Ka-Mai regarded her for a long moment. He seemed to be doing something with his eyebrows. When she neither smiled nor frowned, he sighed heavily. “That usually works with the ladies.” He turned back to Karrick. “Which of you will be using it the most?”
“Neither,” Karrick grunted, a little concerned that he hadn’t understood the byplay. “It’ll be Father Shields. At least, until he’s got Colonel Cornu warmed-up and vertical again.”
“Excellent. Where is he?”
Karrick frowned. “Who? Shields? He’s busy right now.” The priest, he knew, was praying. Having endured two failed Raisings in the past two days, he was taking no chances with his preparations for the morrow’s ceremony.
“If you want him to be able to get into the vault,” the elf said with exaggerated patience, “then I need him. Or at least, I need something of his.”
Valaista’s eyes lit up. “Just a minute!” She bolted from the office.
The elf watched her go, with obvious admiration. “Quite the feline temptress, your young lady,” he murmured when she was out of earshot.
Karrick laughed. “I’m not sure ‘feline’ is the word I’d use.”
“She’s obviously well-born,” Ka-Mai mused to himself, almost as if the warrior weren’t there, “but young. Too young?” He glanced up at Karrick. “Has she passed without the walls yet? Is she of age, I mean?”
“Dunno,” the warrior shrugged. “What’s ‘of age’ mean to you folk?”
“Six-score summers,” Ka-Mai replied.
Karrick snickered. “She’s got a year or two to go,” he dead-panned.
“Shame,” the wizard lamented. “I like the feisty ones. I’ll bet her bark is worse than her bite, though, eh?”
The warrior’s struggles to contain his laughter turned his face red.
Even the oblivious wizard noticed that. “What?” he asked.
The warrior patted the elf on the shoulder. “You wizzies like experimenting, right?” he snorted, grinning broadly. “Why not ask her to bite you, and find out?”
Before Ka-Mai could reply, Valaista trotted back into the library. In one hand she was carrying Father Shields’ heavy spiked mace. “This is his,” she said. “Will it do?”
Ka-Mai beckoned impatiently to her. With one hand, she tossed the weapon to him lightly. When he caught it, its weight nearly knocked him off his feet. Karrick had to put out a hand to steady the little man.
Wincing, the wizard tucked the mace under one arm and massaged his wrist with his free hand. “Strong, too,” he muttered to himself.
“You have no idea,” Karrick replied. He dropped an elaborate wink at Valaista. The girl grinned, showing her teeth.
“Pity you couldn’t’ve found something lighter,” the mage grunted. Holding the mace in both hands, he turned to face the blank stone wall. Glancing over his shoulder at Karrick, he said, “And this Shields fellow; his full name is…?”
“Father Armand Shields, Priest of Vorwenna,” Karrick replied, wondering what the little wizard was up to.
Ka-Mai nodded. He appeared to settle himself, muttering something under his breath for a heart-beat or two. Then he raised his voice, and cried “Luoda varjo oven käytön Armand Shields, Isä!”
Karrick neither saw nor heard any effect. Not so Valaista; the sudden release of magical energy staggered her, and she stumbled against the warrior, who caught her instinctively and held her upright.
He glanced over at her, concerned. “You okay?”
The dragon-girl swallowed heavily and nodded. “Äidin kuori!” the girl swore. “That was…gods above and below!” she finished weakly.
“Powerful?” he asked sotto voce.
“As powerful as the Master, or nearly,” she whispered.
“You don’t get blown over when the Boss cuts loose with the flashy stuff,” Karrick frowned, still feeling a little worried about the girl’s reaction. “What gives?”
“I’m used to him, now.” She shook her head to clear it. “This is a different type of magic, I guess,” she shrugged.
“What’d he do?”
“I made a door,” Ka-Mai announced. He had shifted the mace to one hand and was running the other over the newly-created stone.
“I don’t see any door,” Karrick replied, as he knew he was expected to do.
“And you won’t,” the wizard laughed. “But it’s there. Give it a try.”
One eyebrow cocked sceptically, Karrick put his hand on the stone and pushed. Nothing. “You keyed it to Shields,” he said. “Right?”
The elf looked surprised. “Yes, that is right. Your Father Shields is the only one who will be able to pass through.”
“Does he have to be holding the mace when he uses it?”
Ka-Mai shook his head. “I just used this to build the imprint of his essence into the spell.” With both hands he passed the weapon back to Valaista. She gave it a quick spin between her fingers before depositing it on the sofa.
“But,” the wizard added, eyeing her speculatively, “he can make only eight transits – that is, four entries, and four exits – before I must renew the spell. And if he takes anyone with him, that counts as an additional transit. So it is possible to become trapped inside. Ensure he knows this, please.”
“I’ll pass the message on,” Karrick replied. “What about you?”
The wizard’s eyebrows went up. “Me?”
“Can’t you use the portal, too?”
Ka-Mai grinned. “You know your magic, young man!”
“I’ve spent a lot of time ‘round wizzies,” Karrick replied. “Answer the question.”
“The answer is ‘yes’,” the elf nodded. “But I promise not to rob you blind. On one condition.”
“And that is?”
He nodded his head towards Valaista. “You give my name to her guardian, and tell him that I would like to speak with him.”
Karrick shrugged. “Sure. No problem.”
“Excellent. Then, I shall be off.” He bowed deeply to Valaista. “Anon, my lady.” Then he raised one hand. “Fare–”
“Whoa, whoa!” Karrick cried. “Wait! What do I…I mean, what does the Ambassador owe you?”
“No charge,” the elf replied. “I’m going back right now to report that I did precisely what the Master Magister asked us all to do. As I said, doing Kalestayne’s bidding has its rewards.
“And besides,” he added with an impish grin, “I like having the Empire in my debt. That might come in handy when I speak with your master.”
Karrick frowned at that. “You got somebody you need invaded?”
“One never knows, does one?” the elf replied gaily. “Farewell! Hypätä tai–” With a pop, the wizard disappeared, his words cut off in mid-phrase.
Karrick glanced at Valaista. “What was all that about? The 'speaking to your guardian' cac?”
“Bertanya taught me that phrase,” she replied with a frown. “In Eldisle. It’s supposed to discourage would-be suitors.”
“He didn’t seem discouraged,” Karrick rumbled.
“I just don’t understand elves,” the dragon-girl said helplessly.
“Girlie, you said it.” He made a fist, cracking his knuckles ominously. “I can always try some traditional discouragement, if necessary.”
“We’ll see,” she replied.
Together, they turned to stare at the blank stone wall where the vault door once had been. “Pretty impressive,” the warrior said after a moment.
“Yes,” Valaista agreed. “If it works.”
“I know what you mean,” the warrior nodded. “I’m partial to bronze, steel and keys myself.”
He strode over to his table-target and retrieved his knives. “So, the boss is still face-down in the parchment, is he?”
“Still,” the girl nodded. She looked a little exasperated. “He dined at the Lady’s house, and then went straight back to the College, with me in tow.”
The warrior cocked an eyebrow. “So that’s why you were late! What’d he want?”
Valaista dropped heavily down onto the sofa. “Translation. There’s a section of books he’s interested in, but it’s mostly in Draconic, and he didn’t recognize some of the runes. He was having a hard time going through the catalogue.”
Karrick frowned. “I thought the boss could speak and read your tongue.”
“He can. Just not Harkittu.”
The warrior looked puzzled. “Doesn’t that mean ‘planning’?”
“No, that’s ‘harkitta’,” the girl replied. “More or less. Harkittu means ‘deliberate’. You know, like harkittusti means ‘deliberately’?”
“If you say so,” the man shrugged. “So he doesn’t know ‘deliberate’? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Valaista chuckled to herself. “I’m beginning to see why you drive the poor man mad,” she said, smiling to take the sting out of her words. “ ‘Harkittu’ is a dialect, Karrick. But a written one, not a spoken one. Very, very few non-dragons know it.”
“It’s another script, you mean?”
He rolled his eyes. “Why have two different languages? Written ones, anyway?”
“Because our tongue is so complicated,” she said. “The version we speak, and even the one that we write, is a…a…” She closed her eyes and thought hard for a long moment. “A patois. A doggerel, almost. It is for ease of communication, nothing more. It is swift, and it is simple. But it is so very limited.”
“Doesn’t sound easy to me,” he grumped. “I’m still trying to pronounce that word the boss was screaming back in Novy-potsticker. What was it again? Peräsuolikanssakäy–”
“Stop, stop!” Valaista cried, flushing until her cheeks matched the blood-red hangings along the walls. “For the love of Holy Miros, sir, I beg you – don’t ever speak that word! Not where any dragon can hear!”
“Tell me what it means,” Karrick winked solemnly, “and you’ll never hear it from my lips again. That’s a promise!”
The girl crossed her arms and glared daggers at him, her jaw clenched firmly shut.
“Suit yourself,” the warrior sighed. “So…what’s with this harkatitty, then?”
“Harkittu,” Valaista growled, “is what we use when we wish to express our thoughts not swiftly, but beautifully, and in fullness. When we are writing not merely for the day’s demands, but for the ages.”
That certainly sounds like a dragon thing, he thought to himself. “And it’s hard to use?”
“Harder than you could imagine,” she sniffed. “The symbology alone takes years to learn, and decades to master. One must study with a lore-giver to attain even the tenth part of the tongue. And it is said that no dragon, save perhaps Oroprimus himself, knows every one of the thousand, thousand symbols. Only the ancient bard and loremaster Ryskankanakis even came close.”
Karrick blinked. “When you left home, you were, what, a month old? How do you know all this?”
“We are hatched with m-”
“ ‘With much knowledge’,” he finished, interrupting her. “Yeah, I remember. Go on.”
Valaista regarded him narrowly. “Are you certain you want to hear the rest? Would it perhaps not be more enjoyable to insult my people and my birth?”
“Ease off, girlie,” Karrick sighed. “I apologize. Now, come on! What’s so tough about this script of yours?”
Valaista stared at him stonily. “Do you know where our common script comes from?”
The girl stood and walked over to the table he had been using as a target. With her right index finger, she traced a trio of straight, intersecting lines, like an off-centre, elongated triangle. To Karrick’s surprise, her fingernail cut through the heavy lacquer and into the wood like a chisel.
“This,” she said, tapping the board for emphasis, “is the character for ‘dragon’. I have written it in the vernacular script, which we call ‘Hätäinen’.”
“ ‘Hasty’,” he translated. “Right?”
“Just so. It is meant to indicate a dragon’s head, looking to the right. See here, the snout, and at the left side, the elongated upper stroke, indicating the horns?”
“I suppose,” Karrick shrugged again.
“All right. This…” she scratched another pair of lines to the left of the first figure “…means ‘iron dragon’.”
She held up a finger. “Not quite.” She scratched another trio of lines to the right of the dragon symbol, then another pair to the right of that, then four more in a rough trapezoid, then five in what looked like a crooked star. Tapping her finger on each of the symbols in turn, she said, “Iron – dragon – hatchling – shining – spike. That’s me. Notice anything about the characters?”
She looked at him expectantly. He looked back, baffled.
Valaista sighed. “They’re all made up of straight lines, Karrick.” She held up her index finger, flicking a few chips of lacquer from the nail. “When Bardan stole Speech from the Kindred and gave it to us, he forgot to steal the thing that made your kind such prolific writers.”
He spread his hands. “And that was…?”
“Thumbs,” she laughed. “Our tongues are capable of wondrous subtlety, but our written language is the language of the claw, scored into stone. It’s swift, and it’s serviceable, but it’s hardly elegant.”
“So you invented harka…harkonnen…”
“Harkittu. Yes. Although no one wyrm ‘invented it’; it simply…grew.” She turned back to the table. Biting her tongue in concentration, she stabbed her fingernail into the wood and drew it in a broad curve. To this she added hooked strokes, a sweeping oval, and a spray of intersecting wavy lines. Then she dug her nail here and there to make small dotted circles, and finished the whole with a magnificent, curving ornament that reminded Karrick of clouds.
She stepped back. “There!” she said happily. Beads of sweat were actually standing out on her forehead. “That’s me, too!”
Karrick shook his head in wonder. “That took you ten times as long, and you’re dripping like you just ran a foot-race.”
“It’s hard,” she snorted. “You really have to concentrate to do it right!” She crossed her arms again. “And it’s still messy. I rushed. What do you think?”
“It’s…well, it looks like artwork, not language,” he said hesitantly. Actually, it looked like an unintelligible scrawl.
“It’s more impressive in stone,” she said, wounded.
“I’ll bet,” he muttered. “Why on earth would you use it?”
“Because it’s beautiful,” she said sullenly. “And difficult. And because it conveys so much more than Hätäinen possibly can.
“Look here!” she cried, tapping one part of the symbol. “That’s ‘Valaistanaulata, wyrm of iron’.”
She tapped another part. “ ‘Child of Anachromin and Gloriana Ferrous’.” Another tap. ‘Hatched in Jule, near Elder Delvin, in the Year of the Shell 8891’.” Another tap. “‘Apprenticed to Thanos, Son of Esu, a soldier-mage of Empire’.”
“What part says ‘pain in Karrick’s ass’?” the warrior deadpanned.
Valaista looked outraged for a moment before she realized that he was joking. “That’s the only symbol-set I know how to write,” she chuckled. “As with Hätäinen, we’re born with the ability to puzzle out Harkittu. But we have to learn how to write it. And to learn, we have to study with a loremaster. One who has spent centuries mastering the symbols.”
The warrior nodded. “And that’s why the boss wanted you at the College. To puzzle out some Harkittu symbols.”
“Yes,” Valaista replied. She returned to the couch and resumed her seat.
She laughed. “Mostly dragon poetry, actually. And song.”
Thanos’s eyes widened. “You sing?”
“In our true forms, we sing,” she confirmed. “We sing magnificently.”
“You’ll have to show me some time,” he said, interested. He’d never heard of a singing dragon.
He glanced over at the solid stone wall that had replaced the empty door-hole. “If, that is, we ever get this door fixed so I can get out of here.”
“That’s my next task,” the girl replied. She sounded pensive. “The Master told me to wait until the wizard Ka-Mai had blocked the entrance. Now you can go back to the House and get some rest. I need to go find the Artisans’ Guild, so we can call on them first thing in the morning.”
“I’ll do that,” Karrick commanded. “I’ve dealt with gnomes before. And I’ll do it now. If I know the little buggers, they’ll still be up, building stuff.”
She shook her head. “The Master ordered me to –”
“I’m changing his orders,” Karrick said firmly. “Go back to the House and get some sleep. I need some exercise. I’ll go find the guild tonight, and hit it at first light in the morning. You glue yourself to the Lady. See her back here, to the chapel, and make certain that she and Reticia make it back to the House.” He frowned. “And bring some healing potions. This thing you told me, about the rings…”
The dragon-girl’s eyes widened. “I would like to see the raising!” she exclaimed happily.
“I figured,” the warrior snorted. “It’s something else, let me tell you. So that’s how we’ll do it.”
“It’s not what the Master ordered,” she warned.
“If he’s busy trying to puzzle out dragon poetry,” Karrick replied, shaking his head in wonder, “then he’s got bigger problems than worrying about what we’re up to.”
“I was wondering when you’d finally find your way in here.”
Thanos’s head jerked up. He had been poring over a heavy volume of impenetrably eloquent verse in the obscure (but, he was learning, remarkably expressive) Draconic dialect that Valaista had called Harkittu. Evidently it had been so expressive that he had fallen asleep.
He blinked, trying to clear the fogginess from his eyes, and distant memories of arcane theory lectures from his brain. A girl swam into view. She was standing on the opposite side of the table at which he was reading. Green eyes, delicately pointed ears, fair features, a tumbled mass of golden hair bundled atop her head in a tight coiffure held in place by a jewelled coronet…
…and a high-collared, long white gown.
He recognized that, at least. “You’re one of the Ancillulae,” he said drunkenly.
“Yes,” the girl nodded. She waited politely, hands folded demurely into her sleeves.
Thanos, realizing what a lout he must seem, climbed unsteadily to his feet, struggling to banish sleep and gather his wits. Every year, it got harder to wake up swiftly. When he could manage to get to sleep at all.
As his senses cleared, he realized that he recognized her. “You’re Ara,” he said. “Ara Latentra. The Queen’s…er…” What was it called again? “The Prima.”
“Yes,” the girl nodded again. There was a tiny smile on her lips.
“And you’re a gold dragon,” Thanos sighed, feeling like an idiot as the memory of their interview in the Queen’s private lounge returned with a skull-shaking thud.
“There it is!” the girl said happily. She dropped an elegant curtsey. “Mahanirion Manastalorian, at your service.”
Thanos bowed automatically. “Thanos Mastigo, Chiliarch and Warmage of the Imperial Army, at yours.” Striding around the table, he pulled out one of the straight, high-backed chairs.
“I thank you.” The girl gathered her skirts beneath her and sat.
The warcaster resumed his own seat. “To what do I owe the pleasure, madam?” he said politely.
The girl rolled her eyes. “This is going to be a problem, isn’t it? Damn this shape!”
Thanos blinked. “Excuse me? What’s wrong with your shape?”
“I’m male, remember?”
The warcaster snorted a laugh. The funny thing was, he did remember Breygon telling them that. After the fact, of course; Thanos wasn’t sure he could tell a male gold dragon from a female one. “Not from where I’m sitting!” he said as gallantly as the circumstances allowed.
“I mean, in my natural form,” the girl huffed. “Kindred! You probably can’t smell the difference, can you?”
He took a cautious sniff. All he could smell was soap, a hint of spicy perfume, and girl. Definitely girl.
Ara waited. “Well?” she said at last.
Thanos spread his hands helplessly. “Sorry. You smell wonderful. That’s it.”
“Your comrade spotted me right from the off, you know,” she said frostily. “The half-elf, I mean.”
“Yes. Well,” Thanos sighed, “Breygon has a problem with dragons.”
“Does he?” the girl said, cocking a shapely eyebrow. “It’s just as well she asked me to speak to you, then.”
That jerked him upright in his seat. “The Queen? What does she want with me?”
“With you, nothing yet, at least as far as I know. But for you…” Ara shook her head. “She knows what you are, bellerus. That’s what the Third House calls your kind, you know – ‘Lords of War’.
“They hold you in awe,” the girl went on. “The elves bring magic to battle, true, and they do so well enough – but when they do fight with magic, their magi fight alone, however they see fit. They organize poorly. Dragons see it. We know good tactics. It is only your kind, only the Sons of Esu, and the sons of the Imperium in particular, who bring discipline to the magic of battle. To the elves, war is song and sculpture, tragedy in art. To your kind, though, it is reason, logic and design. Planning. Engineering. Science.
“The elves see how you fight; they respect it. But they don’t understand it. Most of them would ignore you; most of the rest would want to study you. The Queen…she sees more than they see. She wants to help you.”
Thanos frowned. He knew how the elves fought; their wars were the subject of interminable study at the
. While the fair folk often fared only middling
well in the open field, they were peerless commandos, and terrifying in rough
country or at night. College of Steel
And their magi were justly feared. But he had to admit that the girl (boy, he reminded himself, boy!) had a point. The elves, more often than not, used their magi like mobile strong points. A single powerful wizard surrounded by elite troops would move rapidly and majestically across the battlefield, engaging and destroying single targets. Priests, more often than not, remained in the rear, at established hospitals, and the wounded were brought to them.
Ekhani battle tactics were different. In the Imperium, it was the soldiers who did the fighting. Magi were support. The junior lads, the light troops – skirmishers, javelin infantry, hussars – they found the enemy and fixed him in place. Hopefully, they could do so long enough for the archers to be brought up to whittle the formations down, before the veterans – the spearmen, the huscarls, the dragoons and the knights – could be flung in to do the hard work of killing. Healers accompanied the troops, riding or marching with them, fighting alongside them when they had to, but always on hand to tend to the wounded. And the magi – even the most powerful ones – were right alongside the men, protected by only their scutator and maybe a handful of personal troops, ready to lend their fire in support of the immediate objective. And closer to the front, too, so as to be able to concentrate their power should an overwhelming enemy appear to threaten the men, or a transitory, valuable target of opportunity open up.
Our way works better, he thought to himself. For us, anyway. It wasn’t racial pride; it was cold, hard reasoning based on a lifetime of experience coupled with all-too-intimate memories of the men he’d lost and the horrors he’d seen. But it’s only better because of how we fight. It wouldn’t work for the elves. They fought too fluidly, moved too fast. They swept in and swept out, slashing at the flanks of a superior force, picking an enemy off here, and another there; never committing to an assault, not until the foe had already been carved down to the bone, and fleeing, or about to. No great charges, no sundered spears, no clash of shields on shields. No final, desperate assaults. The elves hated blood; they hailed victory when the foe had been knocked back a step. The men of the Empire were not content until the last head had rolled, the pyres were alight, and the enemy’s lord had been sent back to Norkhan, either festooned with chains, or packed in sawdust.
Thanos had studied war, with a focus and ferocity no elf could ever know. He knew the secret of Duncala; but it was a secret that he would take to his grave before trying to explain it to any of the fair folk. He knew why the Third House had suffered so terribly against the Hand Knights, why it had taken so awfully long for the elite forces of the High Guard to defeat a small, starved and demoralized band of human fanatics. And he knew why it had taken the arrival of the Vendicar, riding under the banner of the Western divisions, hastily gathered from Veldt and Chant and the Tamal Krak, to finally put an end to the interminable battle, and to the terrible menace of the Hand.
The problem had been that the elves wouldn’t stand. It wasn’t how they fought. When the Knights charged, in their rusty, blood-stained armour, wielding bent and blunted swords atop their exhausted destriers, the elves fell back. They always fell back, into the trees and hills, ceding the plains to the men. The Knights hadn’t been able to pursue them, true; not without risking clouds of shafts from beneath the leafy green. But the elves’ tactics ceded the ground – and the towns, and their farms, and the river fords, and the castles – to the enemy. And control of those things was what mattered. The Knights couldn’t hope to face the elves on their home ground, but they hadn’t wanted the elves’ home ground. They wanted the fields and the cities. And when the elves tried to face the Knights there, they died.
Duncala had begun as a fluid action – a meeting engagement – but it had quickly disintegrated into a stalemate, with the elves hiding in the woods along the southern end of their line, and, most reluctantly, dug in around the Priory at the north end. That, Thanos knew, was where the bitterest fighting had occurred; where Kaltas and Sylloallen and Lallakentan and all the others had fought back to back. The Knights couldn’t dig them out; the elven archers were too deadly. But the elves couldn’t escape, because to do so, they would have had to charge the Knights, and defeat them shield to shield. And that they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do. It was a travesty. Landioryn’s force had outnumbered the Knights five to one, but could not defeat them, because even the worst fanatics of the Hand weren’t stupid enough to charge a line of longbowmen. Instead, they went in at night, heavily armed and heavily armoured, concentrating their blows at small sections of the elven lines, killing a few here, a few there, and fading back into the darkness. It was dangerous, to be sure – no human could see as far as an elf at night – but for every mage on Landioryn’s side, there had been three priests of the Hand supporting the humans, calling fire down from the sky and hungry shadows out of the earth whenever the battle went poorly.
In the end, it had taken the Vendicar’s arrival to save the elves. Eyelas Wartack – a one-armed, one-eyed veteran with eighty-nine summers beneath his beard – had shown Landioryn the answer. And the answer had been so terribly simple.
Wartack had marched the Western divisions into the field, north and slightly west of the Priory, straddling the Great Caravan Route, cutting the Knights off from their escape to their temporary base of operations in Bylkor and threatening their last open supply line. That had proven a strategic victory, placing the enemy in check. Equally important, though, was its tactical effect: it gave the Knights a line of spears and shields to aim at. It posed a challenge to their valour that they were accustomed to, and that they could not possibly refuse.
The Knights charged at dawn on the third day of the battle outside the Priory. Wartack had known that they would; he had been laying traps for the Hand since his youth in the mountains south and east of Chant, and to him they were as predictable as the tides. Eschewing normal doctrine, he had held his unseasoned troops, his slingers and skirmishers, in the rear, and had filled his front ranks with veterans, halving the length of his line in order to double its depth, and promising a sovereign to every man who came out with blood on his sword – and ten for every crested helm.
He had been in touch, too, with the elves’ leader, the Grand Duke Landioryn, and with General Nascio, commander of the High Guard. When the charge of the Hand Knights struck the Ekhani lines, they buckled; but thanks to the presence of so many hard-bitten, gold-hungry long-service troopers, they held. They held long enough for the elves to erupt from the woods, showering the enemy ranks with arrow-shafts; for the Ekhani skirmishers to swarm the valley and seal the Knights’ retreat; and for Wartack to send his own cavalry in from the Western hills, taking the Knights in the flank, and rolling up their line like an old rug.
It was over by noon. Wartack had ordered mercy, but after two hundred and fifty years of interregnum, terror, brandings, burnings and bloody-fisted persecution, very few of the men of Ekhan, and not a single one of the elves, had been of a mind to offer it. Even those Knights who fell wounded were denied the merciful coup of a dagger through their slits of their beavor; instead, bands of enraged soldiers wandered over the battlefield, the magi with spells upon their lips, the men with skins of oil and armloads of wood. Every armoured form had been burnt – and no one had been too concerned about making certain that the Knights were dead before the fires were lit.
The elves can tell themselves whatever tales of valour they need to in order to assuage their wounded pride, Thanos mused to himself. But in the end, it took real troops, with real discipline, to end the Hand.
Enough reverie. Ara was staring at him expectantly. “I know a little bit about bringing discipline to the art of war,” Thanos said carefully. “What exactly does her Majesty think I need?”
“Help. My help. To find what you’re looking for,” the girl – boy – replied.
“And that’s why you’re here?”
Ara nodded. “I’m…er…uniquely equipped, I guess is the way to put it. To help you unravel the mysteries you’re liable to get caught up in.”
“How so?” Thanos asked. “Are you also a mage?”
“Less than most of my kind,” the girl replied, waggling her hand diffidently. “I’m more of a sneak, really. I’m pretty good at ferreting things out. Secrets, and so forth. It’s why I was assigned to watch over the Queen.
“Well,” she amended immediately, before Thanos could speak, “it’s one of the reasons, anyway.”
“What are the others?” the warmage asked. “And who, precisely, ‘assigned’ you to keep an eye on Ælyndarka?”
The girl dimpled. “I’d thought you’d’ve figured that out by now. Venastargenta gave me this post. I moved in a few months ago, to replace his grand-daughter Cymballargenta, after she went missing.”
Thanos’s jaw dropped onto his chest. “Really?” he blurted.
Ara nodded. “He wanted me to find out what I could, but she didn’t leave a single clue; she just up and vanished. Svarda – that’s her father, Svardargenta of Cloudspire – he let it go for a little while. But after she hadn’t reported in for a couple of weeks, he got worried. About his daughter, of course, but about the Queen, too. There’s always a dragon guarding the Queen. For hundreds of years, now; ever since she married Duke Percorian. Svarda couldn’t leave the position vacant, but he didn’t have any other candidates. His second daughter, Nitoris – she’s busy somewhere to the east.”
“I’ve met her,” Thanos muttered, remembering dark eyes, black hair, and a snug-fitting dress of red velvet. And – he grinned – the way Xeros had reacted to her.
“And the youngest one, Anatora,” Ara went on, “she’s still too young. She’s with her grandfather in Silverstair, studying to become a priestess of Miros. That’s where I was, too, when Venasta ordered me to take up the post.”
“ ‘Silverstair’?” Thanos exclaimed. “You mean, in Dracosedes?”
The girl nodded. “Dracosedes, yes, but not Silverstair. I was in Brazenhault. Silverstair, though, is where Venasta is lord. Has been, for thousands of years. He’s like a mountain, or a forest. Eternal, unchanging.”
“I thought he was dying,” Thanos said bleakly.
The girl’s face went white. “Who told you that?” she whispered.
“Never mind,” the warcaster said bleakly. “It’s true, isn’t it?”
She nodded, aghast. “Yes, it’s true. But it’s supposed to be a secret! None other than his family have been told!”
“And his successor upon the Stone of Ages,” Thanos murmured. “The next most powerful dragon in the Universe. Yes?”
“That is the custom,” Ara nodded, astonished at the extent of his knowledge. “And so, he passed word to Jyrinaja Autuus, Thundering Glory, who –”
“Who could not be found,” Thanos interrupted. “And so, Karventää will sit astride the Stone on Bræa’s Dawn.”
“Yes,” Ara whispered. “Holy Mother! How do you know –”
“Except she won’t,” Thanos interrupted again. “Lady Deathscorch has ceded the Stone to the next in line after her, which could be either Azurbellakarian for the blues, or Lorrinkanastexan for the greens. And all the stars, it seems, are aligning behind Lorrin.”
The girl put her hands over her mouth.
Thanos smiled grimly. “Nothing to say?”
The girl’s eyes were wild. It was a long moment before she could speak again. “Holy Miros be praised!” she squeaked at last.
That made the warcaster sit up straight. “Excuse me?”
“Azurbel is mad,” the girl whispered. “Mad, and cruel beyond reckoning. If he held the Stone, the Council would certainly fail, and all the dragons would be at war before the next sunrise.
“But even he,” she went on, her voice barely audible, “would be preferable to Karventää! She is a monster of terror and darkness, a trafficker with fiends, and a true acolyte of the Dark Queen! If she were to control the Council…”
“So I gather,” Thanos said drily. “So, you’re happy then? That it’s going to be Lorrin?”
“Of course not!” the girl snapped. “The dragons of darkness have never held the Stone! There’s no telling what sort of horror might lie in store! But at least Lorrinkanastexan…”
She paused, taking a deep, calming breath. “Lorrin, at least, can be reasoned with. She’s a mage, a brilliant one, and a deep thinker. She lays plots within plots, true, and schemes as elaborately as any of us…but she’s always been a creature of order. She has nothing to gain by allowing the Council to dissolve into anarchy and murder. We are fortunate in that, at least, if in no other wise.”
“If you say so,” Thanos shrugged. “What puzzles me, though, is why you didn’t know any of this. My colleagues and I – we’ve known for months. And we passed it all on to Svardargenta, through Cymballa and Nitoris.”
The girl shrugged. “In my position,” she said sternly, “I am sometimes compromised by the fact that Cloudspire does not always tell me everything!”
Thanos blew out his breath in an explosive chuckle. “Kept in the dark by your superiors!” he said with feeling. “How unusual.”
He leaned back in his chair. “So…where does that leave you and me?”
The girl did likewise. She still looked a little wild-eyed from his many revelations, but she forged on bravely. “It leaves me following Venasta’s orders, I guess. Which means that I have to follow the Queen’s orders. Which means that it leaves me helping you.” She chuckled wryly. “So…what do you really need help with?”
“Translation,” he replied immediately. “This Harkittu of yours is a nightmare. Can you read and write it?”
“Assuredly,” she nodded. “I learned the art from Venasta himself. He’s renowned throughout the outer realms as a master rhetorician and poet.”
“ ‘Rhetorician’?” Thanos repeated, incredulous. “Really?”
“Really,” the girl chuckled. “Don’t be so surprised. Priests often become excellent speakers, do they not?”
Thanos blinked. “Venastargenta is a priest?”
The girl laughed helplessly. “He is Grand Master of the Sacred Warders of Miros. You didn’t know that?”
“How could I?” the warmage asked crossly. “I’ve never met the man! Er, or the dragon, I suppose!”
“We’ll have to amend that,” Ara laughed. Her face fell suddenly, becoming more serious. “And soon. The Dawn fast approaches. As one of his apprentices, I intend to be at the Vale, to honour him when he cedes his life, and moves on to the glories of the world beyond the world.
“By the way,” she added softly, “you’re forbidden from mentioning Venasta’s Departure to anyone in the Elf-Realm. Absolutely forbidden!”
“Oh?” Thanos’s eyebrows shot up. “And why is that?”
“Because Venasta forbade it,” she said ominously. “That’s reason enough for me. Tell your colleagues, would you? This must be kept in the strictest confidence. No one can be allowed to know.”
Thanos nodded. It wasn’t the sort of information it seemed wise to spread around in any case.
“So,” Ara went on, glancing around at the piled books and the copious notes he had taken. “What exactly are you looking for, anyway?”
The warcaster sighed. “Information. On an obscure group of arcane sages. They’re somehow related to draconic magic, and yet they’re only mentioned in a few places. Literary references, mostly. Obscure paeans to their otherworldly sagacity…that sort of thing.”
He tapped a pile of heavily-bound volumes. “And so far, for my sins, I’ve only been able to find them in books written in that wretched Harkittu script.” He slapped one of the massive tomes in irritation. “I can’t even read the damned things! I’ve just managed to puzzle out the symbol for the sect, so I can pick it out of the text!”
“This sect…what are they called?” Ara asked, suddenly curious.
“Viisaus johtaja lohikäärmalta,” Thanos said, pronouncing the words carefully. “The ‘Dragonlore Masters’.”
To his astonishment, Ara burst out laughing.
“What?” he asked, perplexed.
The girl wiped her streaming eyes. “Well,” she said at last, once her tittering had died down, “at least now I understand why the Queen sent me to help you!”
Thanos leaned back in his chair. “You know of them?”
“I should say so!” the girl chuckled. “My father was one of them. And my mother still serves the Alku.”
“The who?” the warmage exclaimed. Thanos had never heard the term before. Alku, in the wyrm’s tongue, meant ‘origin’.
“The Alku,” the girl replied. “He is the Source. The grandest master of all draconic magic; the descendent, in wisdom if not in flesh, of Holy Miros. My mother is one of the twelve Sijainen – the Adjuncts, in your tongue. The wyrm-born masters of magic. Those who serve the Source.”
“He is to be found in Dracosedes, I presume?” Thanos asked, enthralled. “At the Supreme Sanctum?”
“No,” Ara said, shaking her head. “For all that it stands in Dragonhome – or rather, above and beyond it – the Supreme Sanctum is still a focus of Kindred magic. Alku, and the twelve Adjuncts, and the one hundred and four and forty Avustaja – they make their home upon the endless reaches of Vatnhugr, the heavenly flood that touches upon all of the noblest of the outermost planes. Its waters wash a thousand celestial shores – including Kohta Kohtauri, the
Meeting Place. The great, shining, wind-swept capital of
The warcaster blinked. “The Source – your ‘Alku’, and his adjuncts and assistants – they live at sea? Truly?”
“Both upon the sea, and within it,” she replied. Her eyes took on a dreamy cast. “Alku is a title. But he is neither brass nor bronze, nor red nor green nor white. He is a creature of the outer reaches, ancient and unfathomable. His true name – his ancient wyrm’s name – is Merimies Merillä Kohtalo. In the traveler’s speech, he is called ‘The Sailor on the Seas of Fate’. For so he has spent the thousands upon thousands of years of his wisdom.
“His keep, the seat of that wisdom,” she went on, mesmerized by some vision that Thanos couldn’t see “is Korallinna – the
the great house of magic set upon Vatnhugr’s
eternal flood. Those who seek the Sailor’s
wisdom must look for him there.” Castle of Coral
“And you’ve seen it?” the warmage asked.
The girl shook herself. “Once only. I visited my mother some years ago. Svarda brought me into his father Venasta’s service, and helped me to travel to Silverstair, to meet his revered sire. From Silverstair, I journeyed to Kohta Kohtauri, and thence to Brazenhault, the city of fire and life, which I thereafter took as my home.” She smiled happily. “It is a wondrous place, for creatures such as myself.”
“Dragons, you mean?”
“For all beings,” she corrected, “whose hearts beat with unquenchable flame. My mother met me there, and took me to the Korallinna. I saw her new home – the only home she has known ever since my father went to wind – and there I met the Sailor.”
“What was he like?” Thanos breathed.
She shook her head. “Wondrous. I would call him the apotheosis of dragonkind, were that title not reserved for Oroprimus. And…and of course, Vanhimalla. Nidhoggr, the…the eater of the slain.”
Thanos shuddered at that final, dread name. But her words jarred something in his memory. “A moment,” he said, holding up a hand, and struggling to figure out what had taken him by surprise.
Ara waited politely. When he nodded to himself, she said, “Yes?”
“Your father,” the warmage murmured. “You said he ‘went to wind’.”
“That’s a peculiar way to put it,” Thanos said bluntly. “It’s an elvish expression, is it not? I thought that dragons ‘departed’, or ‘sought the Vale of Skulls’, or ‘went to the side of Holy Miros’?”
“You are observant,” the girl sighed. “And you are correct. I did not misspeak. My father…he was an elf. A man of the Third House. A wizard.”
“And yet,” the warcaster pressed, “you, yourself, are a full-blooded true dragon. Are you not?”
Thanos nodded. “And how in all the hells,” he asked intently, “did your parents manage that?”
Ara shrugged. “My parents were magi,” she replied. “And I was an…experiment.”
“Can you see it yet?”
The words were clear, and yet they had not been spoken aloud. She was not using words.
Without opening his eyes, Joraz glanced to the right. Lööspelian was still seated there, in the same place – the same posture, even – she had occupied for the past two days. There were subtle changes in her surroundings, to be sure. The snow that had been falling for the past day had made no impression on her. She seemed to be untouched by heat or cold, as if discomfort had no meaning for her. In a wide circle around her, for a distance of two paces, maybe, the snow was gone, and earth of the garden was dark and moist. Tiny shoots of green – the first of the spring flowers, crocuses maybe – were pushing through the soil like verdant lance-tips. And the massive morbannon tree that she had been staring at…the side that faced her was festooned with buds.
Breygon would be fascinated by this, the monk thought lazily. If he didn’t have so many other things on his mind.
The one-time fiend hadn’t so much as moved when Amorda’s servants had come out to offer her food and drink. When she hadn’t responded, they’d draped a blanket over her shoulders and retired, muttering, to the warmth of the House. Nor, later that night, had she so much as stirred a finger when the forest maidens – the sylphs and the dryad, the pixies and fairies and sprites, and even the nymph who had come to petition Lewat for the Benison – had gently removed the blanket and taken it away. They did not know what Lööspelian was doing; but they recognized exaltation, a bright and shining emanation of kesatuan, when they saw it. Somehow they knew that whatever she was trying to achieve, whatever pinnacle of consciousness she was struggling to attain, material goods – even so poor a comfort as a damp and scratchy woollen blanket – would only interfere with it.
Joraz was beginning to understand. He had come to a similar conclusion himself. The veil of mystery that had lain before him for months now, obscuring his path, cloaking the way ahead in impenetrable darkness, seemed to be thinning somewhat…wearing away, shredding into nothingness before the growing certainty of his new purpose.
But purpose alone wasn’t enough. Not yet. He knew that the fiend-woman was looking at something, something that only she, so far, could see. He couldn’t see it himself. But he could feel it. He knew it was there. It was just a matter of…of reaching…
His shoulders sagged. “No. I can’t see it. Not yet,” he answered, speaking aloud. He could hear her thoughts within his sieulu, his spirit; but he was not yet capable of responding in the same way.
A soft wave of comforting warmth emanated from her. It was not heat; not a physical manifestation of a change of temperature. It was reassurance, consolation; a caress, from her spirit to his. It was comradeship. He was grateful for it. The chill of the winter air still penetrated him, despite the depth of his concentration. He was astonished that Lööspelian had the strength not only to keep it at bay, but to spare power to ward him, too.
What marvellous fire must burn within her! he thought, wondering.
He knew better than to ask her for aid. Better than even he had realized, Tyrellus had prepared him to walk this road. The Master’s response to any plea for answers had always been the same: Knowledge could be gained from others; but understanding was a gift that came only from one’s-self. Enlightenment, the old man had taught them, could only come from within.
That, Joraz knew now, had always been the innermost secret of the threefold lore of his inscrutable master. He knew it now, knew it in his bones. Before, he had had to study the Books to gain their secrets; had had to pore over them, like a wizard over his scrolls and mysteries, reading and re-reading every word, absorbing every letter, even the tiniest marks of punctuation. But no more. Tyrellus’ secrets were a part of him now; the knowledge that the Books had held in trust had become one with his being, woven into his sieulu until the two, the Mastery and his spirit, were a single, inseparable whole. The Books meant nothing anymore; they were only ink and parchment. The wisdom he had sought was enshrined within.
He, Joraz, was the Master now. Not as Tyrellus had been; not of an order. Only of himself. Tyrellus had sought followers, students to teach, acolytes who would learn to carry on his Way. Joraz had gone far beyond that need. The Way, he understood at last, had been there before him, and it would still be there after he had passed to the Long Halls. The Way had always been there, whether anyone was following it or not. Joraz had found it, now; he needed followers, students, worshippers and slaves no more than he needed the Books themselves. Such things were the dross of a mortal existence. They – and the mortal existence that they sustained – no longer held any meaning for him.
He wouldn’t throw the Books away, of course; even if he no longer needed them, they still held sentimental meaning for him. And they were dangerous, too; there was always the chance that some unscrupulous fellow, some failed master, some rogue with a little learning and a surfeit of larceny or blood-lust in his soul, might stumble upon them, and recognize what they contained, and turn his old master’s teachings to evil, or use it to hasten the Unbinding. That would be a tragedy. No, he would find someone…some worthy child, perhaps, with small skill but great promise. He would find a worthy repository for the Books and the knowledge they contained. And if such a one also found the Way within himself…why, that was all to the good, was it not?
As his spirit made a final peace with that decision, forging a pact between the shadowy nothingness of existence and the bright and shining promise of the Way, a sudden light burst within him, blinding and unbearable. Colours exploded behind his eyes. Sound assaulted his ears; speech and birdsong, the rattle of wagon wheels, the clatter of hooves, voices and screams and shouts, the rushing of the waters of the Lymphus beyond the garden walls, the gentle scraping the cricket’s legs. The scents of the green exploded through him like bolts of skyfire, a cacophony of earth-grass-rose-pine-hazel-hickory-savoury…
He coughed, overwhelmed. Lööspelian felt it, too. Her eyes were still closed; but when she turned her face toward him, the light that shone from within her was like the Lantern’s beneficent glare. And more; a thousand times a thousand times greater than the light of the sun. And yet, basking in the glory of her gaze, he did not burn.
Joraz looked back at her, and understood. He closed his own eyes…and gasped in wonder at what he saw. He could still see; but not the world. That had grown dim and insubstantial, a grey, misty irrelevance washed out by the light of the wondrous being sitting at his side.
He looked up, down and around. Other lights there were, too; the birds in the sky, the worms struggling through the winter-hardened earth beneath him, even the bushes and the flowers all held their tiny spark. With no great surprise, he saw a warm, solid glow emanating from the heartwood of the mighty morbannon tree that stood next to the fiend-woman, and Joraz realized at last why she had been staring so intently at it for so many days. It had been her focus; she had seen its light, the spark of its sieulu, and, wondering at its source, had watched it until its secrets had been laid bare before her. She had found it at last.
She’s found her answer, he realized, turning his inner eye upon her at last. Her spark was the strongest of all; a great, shimmering light, a lamp-of-all-colours, glowing and leaping before him, like a starburst flammifer wind-whipped in ecstasy, motionless and yet dancing in joyous exaltation.
“Welcome,” she said wordlessly.
“You’re beautiful,” he replied in the same way, in a tone choked with wonder.
“As are you.”
He looked down at his own form, and gasped again; like her, the grey, insubstantial cloak of flesh that he wore had faded away before his othersight, merging with the nondescript clay of the world, overwhelmed by the shifting, multihued glory of his inner light.
“What is this?” he asked, mesmerized by the incomparable glory of this new vision.
“It is our Sielii,” she replied. “This is the inner light that you see. The light that all living beings share.” There was a whole world of joyful contentment in her voice.
“Yet some are dim, and some are bright,” he asked, puzzled. “I am but a living thing, as your tree is. Why do I outshine him?”
“You perceive the difference, my friend,” Lööspelian replied gently, “between the Sielii forged by the Holy Mother and the Dark Ender, for all things in the world – and the Sielii that she crafted for her Children, when the Brahiri, the Kindred, were first made. This light –” she indicated herself, and then him “- is what it looks like when the spark of the World Made is bound inextricably into the shard of the Void that she placed within all of you.”
The monk frowned. “Your light,” he said slowly, “is as bright as mine!”
Lööspelian’s smile was like the dawn. “It is.”
Joraz laughed aloud. “And you were worried,” he thought, “that your many sacrifices had failed to win a you mortal soul!”
“I am somewhat relieved,” she replied with a smile. Then the smile vanished, and she nodded past him. “Have you felt it yet?”
“Felt what?” Joraz asked. But of course, as soon as he thought the words, he did feel it; a coldness, an emptiness at his back.
He turned slowly. Somehow he knew that the thing she spoke of would not be visible to his mortal eyes, and so he did not open them.
A few paces behind him, hovering perhaps a foot above one of the paths that meandered aimlessly through the flowerbeds, stood a blot of shadow. It looked at first like a cloud; a thin, wispy, insubstantial thing, little more than a roiling patch of fog. But it was more than that; he knew it, could feel it deep within his newly-awakened spirit. There was something there.
“What is it?” he asked, stunned into a mental whisper.
“It is Possibility,” Lööspelian replied. Her thought-speech was ghostly too, like a high, winter wind that passed overhead without rattling the shutters. “It is a nexus of destiny.
“I have watched these things appear and disappear, shrink and grow, brighten and darken. I have seen hundreds of them over the past two days. Our friend Breygon is surrounded by them; Thanos, too. These things swarm after them, flocking to their sielii like flies to fresh meat.”
“What do they…what do they do?”
“They demand,” she replied distantly. “They are a fork in the road of fate. The unenlightened cannot see them, but they can feel them. They can feel when a choice must be made…and when it is made, whether they enter the nexus or pass it by, many possibilities become only one, and the nexus collapses. And, often, a new one forms.” She nodded at the blot. “This one caught my attention. It appeared two days ago, just after I first became aware of them. When we were speaking.”
“And what choice does it pose to you?” he asked, curious and astonished at the same time.
“None,” she replied. “I think that this nexus is for you.”
That made him start. He stared at the blot for a long time, fascinated by its shifting hues, its languorous undulations. “What do I do?”
“Enter it,” she said blandly, “or pass it by. There is no other choice.”
“And what happens if I enter it?” he asked. There was no fear in him now, no worry; only curiosity. And reason.
And…he couldn’t deny it. Anticipation.
“I cannot know,” Lööspelian replied. “It is your fate that stands at a crossroads, not mine. One path leads through the shadow, to the destiny you cannot know until you have chosen to follow it. The other path leads past the shadow, to whatever lies beyond.”
Joraz looked past the shimmering, silent blot. The world beyond his sight was all one colour now, all grey; a formless, featureless, indistinct mass. The garden, the flowers and the trees, and the House itself…they had all vanished into the haze. All he could see were his own magnificent spark, and Lööspelian’s; and the few feeble, floating soul-fires of the bushes and the trees, like fading fireflies in the dawn. And the nexus. The shadow.
He tried to look beyond it…and a great, heavy sigh welled up in his soul. The path…the shadow…and naught but emptiness beyond it. He had seen this vision before; he knew it, as intimately as he knew his own hands. It was the vision of ending, of despair, that had tormented him for months now.
“This is Moktavayaa,” he whispered aloud, knowing that he was right.
Relief washed over him, through him, like a cleansing flood. He laughed aloud.
“The ‘slaughter-ground’?” the fiend-woman asked, alarmed.
“Perhaps,” Joraz replied, speaking the language of souls again, and smiling inanely as he did so. “But it is also more. Much more!”
The words of his vision came back to him. “It is the locked gate, and the open path,” he explained, feeling the heat of understanding writhe and build within him. “The closed mind, and the unfettered spirit. The barrier, and the wide road.”
“ ‘Moktavayaa’ means ‘the place of death’,” Lööspelian whispered.
“And the place of life beyond death,” Joraz nodded. “I understand at last. This is the duality. The nexus of destiny. There can be no gate without a path. No closed mind, without an unfettered spirit to be locked within it. No fence without a field.
“No death,” he exclaimed happily, “without life.”
He flowed smoothly to his feet, more as an act of will than one of muscle. “A division of fate becomes destiny. How?” he asked her. Before she could answer, he continued in a rush. “Duality becomes singularity. How? The gate is opened, the fence leapt, the mind freed…how?”
“How?” she asked, mesmerized by his sudden passion, the limitless joy of understanding.
He turned to face the shadow. “Choice.”
Lööspelian said nothing. But she looked at him quizzically.
“The path leads into darkness,” he explained. “Into the nexus. Unless I follow it – unless I choose, and collapse the duality into the singularity of whatever destiny awaits me – there is nothing else.”
“One path is not choice,” she said, frowning. “A fork between fate and oblivion is not a nexus.”
“It is for me,” he replied with a happy smile. “And even if it were not…it is one more path than I saw this morning.”
“I do not understand,” Lööspelian sighed.
Joraz took a deep breath. He didn’t have to; he suddenly realized that he hadn’t breathed in nearly half an hour. But he wanted to. He wanted to taste the world one last time, before stepping forward into the unknown. “For so long now,” he said, struggling to find the words to explain the glory, the incandescence, of his newfound comprehension, “I have been stayed. I have been at a…an impasse of the soul. I have seen no way beyond it.” He nodded at the blot. “This can only be the way out that I sought.”
“You do not know where following this path will take you,” she said. There was neither warning nor fear in her voice; simply curiosity. And concern, he realized; concern for his well-being. She had not entirely let go of the world, he knew; and he would not, either.
“It is a path,” he replied. “It will take me beyond Moktavayaa. That is all that I ask. To a man lost in the forest, Lööspelian, any path is better than none.”
“This path may lead you off a cliff,” she said worriedly.
Joraz smiled serenely. “Then I will fly.”
Spreading his arms wide, he opened his spirit to the Universe. Its limitless wonder washed into him, through him, filling him with exaltation and bearing him up. His feet left the rude earth, and as he became one with the wind the spark of his sieulu, Holy Bræa’s gift to all her children, exploded into a carillon of glory, gleaming like the fire of distant stars against the black silk of midnight.
“Will I see you again?” Lööspelian cried, watching his ascent with sudden alarm.
“There are always…possibilities,” the monk replied.
Knowledge comes from the world around us, he thought. But enlightenment – true understanding – can come only from within.
Tyrellus had given him the truth, and Lööspelian had shown him the way. Without their aid, he would have surely failed. He loved and blessed them for it. But in the end, only he could touch the nexus, and collapse the duality of possibility into the singularity of fate. In the end, the choice was his. Only his.
Destiny beckoned. Guided by the certain wisdom of his newfound othersight, he flew towards it, with an open spirit, and a glad heart.
“Good luck, brother,” the fiend-woman murmured, staring after him, looking up at the skyfire brightness of his spirit against the night sky. She was still seated amid the snow and trees, but her heart – her mortal, Kindred heart – flew with him. “May you find what you seek!”
“And you also, beloved sister,” Joraz cried, his voice silent, and yet ringing against the stillness of the night.
Floating like an autumn leaf on the wind, he raised a hand in farewell. Then he turned to the blot of shadow. It had followed him, as he knew it would; for it was his nexus, his choice, and none other’s.
He chose…and the shadow heard. It flowed swiftly toward him, bringing with it the nexus – the crossroads, the promise of possibility, and the path that he had struggled so hard and so long to find.
He took a final breath, tasting existence, perhaps for the last time; and, embracing the glory of all, he grasped his fate in his two fists, stepped within himself…
…and was gone.