“This doesn’t have to be awkward, you know,” Ara murmured.
The warmage’s only reply was a deep harrumph. He tugged his tunic over his head and looked around for his sword-belt. He normally folded his attire before retiring, but had somehow forgotten to do so the previous night. There were garments scattered everywhere. It didn’t help that his judgement was clouded; the room was full of Amorda’s perfume, and he thought he might have detected some alchemical component that magnified her natural scent to the point that it was difficult to think of anyone else.
Thanos was beginning to wonder whether he ought to leave off being annoyed with Breygon, and start pitying him. He wasn’t the only one in the party who had a dragon by the tail.
“On the chair,” the elf-woman said helpfully.
Thanos glanced around, spotted the belt, and began searching for his boots and stockings. They were scattered to the four corners of the chamber, but at least they were visible.
Ara watched him bustle busily around the boudoir, a peculiar look in her emerald eyes. “Are you in a hurry?”
“You heard Tua,” he grunted. “Svardargenta’s here, and he wants to talk to us. I’ve been dying to speak with him for months. There’s no time to waste.” He tugged his right boot on, wiggled his toes, and looked for his sword. As an afterthought, he threw the woman a narrow glance. “He’ll probably want to speak with you, too. You might want to get dressed.”
Ara didn’t move. She sat up on the sofa, covering herself demurely with the blanket they had borrowed. “Last night was most enjoyable,” she murmured. “You are a skilled lover.”
The warmage’s lip twitched involuntarily. “Practice,” he replied with a grudging smile. "You're not so bad yourself.” He found his sword, and slid the scabbard into the hangers.
“Thank you,” she replied with a nod. She glanced down at her flawless form with a snort of what he could only interpret as amusement. “It was a novel experience. I never imagined that my first mating would be in this shape.”
Thanos froze. “ ‘First mating’?” he asked, stunned. “Do you mean that you never…that this was the first time you…”
“Engaged in the coniuncto? Yes,” Ara nodded. “Among we kultaii, mating of any kind is most uncommon before full maturity is reached.” She frowned, looking thoughtful. “That might be one reason why the hopea spend so much time in your company. The act itself is pleasurable, and your kind seem to join at an earlier age, and with significantly greater frequently, than mine do.”
Thanos held up his hands. “Just…let’s take a pace back, shall we?” he insisted, swallowing heavily. “Are you saying that I was your…um…first?”
“Not just first…you know, Kindred, but first…anything?”
“Yes.” She cocked her head. “This appears to bother you.”
“Well, I wish you’d told me last night!” he replied stiffly.
“Why? Would you have made a greater effort?” she asked reasonably.
Thanos goggled at her for a long moment. Then, realizing how undignified he looked with one boot on, one boot off, and his mouth hanging open, he bent to his task, struggling to simultaneously cram his heel into place and organize his thoughts. “Did our experiment…did you at least obtain the result you sought?” he asked in desperation.
“I believe so,” she nodded. “I think I now have a better understanding of the attraction that the hopea feel towards your kind.” Suddenly, she dimpled. “Although the validity of experimental results, as I am certain you are aware, lies in their repeatability." When Thanos said nothing, she sighed and went on, "Moreover, as a kulta, I am perhaps not aware of any special compatibility that may exist between the silvers and the Kindred. The hopea are made differently from us, and as such could experience such liaisons in a different way.”
“That’s a tough circle to square,” Thanos frowned. He sat down in the chair and put his hands on his knees, where they would at least be safe. “Seems to me that the only way to eliminate that uncertainty would be to revisit the experiment from a silver’s perspective, and consider our little…er, tryst…as the control.
“Of course,” he went on clinically, “to manage that, you’d have to be able to execute the true shape-change, and actually become a silver, in order to ensure your data were trustworthy.”
“I lack that degree of skill,” the elf-woman shrugged. She dimpled again. “Perhaps we could repeat the trial once I am able to cast that spell.”
“And when will that be?” Thanos asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“In the normal course of growth? I should be able to access that degree of arcane power in another four centuries or so.”
The warmage burst out laughing. “Outstanding!” he sputtered. “I’ll make sure to put it in my will that my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson has to hold himself ready to mate with you.”
She looked surprised. “You would do that for me?”
“Ah.” Ara looked vastly disappointed. “Then I am afraid the experiment is a failure. I enjoyed gathering data with you, sir; but without a control as a point of reference, it is valueless.”
“Hardly that!” The warmage said as gallantly as he could, under the circumstances. Standing, he bowed. “My lady, I take my leave of you, and I thank you for your favour. May Vara keep you, and see you fare well.” He turned to go.
The elf-woman raised a hand. “Wait!”
Thanos halted. “Yes?” he sighed.
“I propose an alternative!” she said excitedly. “Your access to the flux is already far superior to my own – that much I can feel in my bones!”
“I suppose it is,” the warmage allowed. “So?”
“So, instead of me executing the true change, you could do it!”
Thanos frowned. “That spell is not within my repertoire.”
“But you could arrange to obtain it, no? Perhaps from a mage at the College? And then, cast it? Couldn’t you?” she pressed.
He scratched an ear, thinking. “I suppose I could,” he said at last. “But to what end?”
“Well,” she said reasonably, “then, instead of me taking a kindred shape, you could become a dragon, and we could try the experiment again.”
Thanos blinked. “Well,” he said hesitantly, “I guess we could give it a try…no, wait.” He shook his head emphatically. “Wouldn’t work. I keep forgetting that in your natural form, you’re really male.”
“I see no difficulty with that,” Ara replied, looking puzzled. “Through magic, you could simply assume the form of a female dragon, and we could –”
The door slammed, cutting her off. Beyond it, she could hear the warcaster's boots thundering down the hall. ra stared at the dark, carved wood of the portal, perplexed beyond words. Finally, she shook her head, slid from the sofa to the floor, and began looking for her clothes.
“Honestly!” she muttered to herself. “I simply cannot understand what the silvers see in these people!”
Svardargenta's Tale: The Mountains of Miros, Dracosedes, ten months ago
The soft, diffuse noon-day light bleeding through the heavy clouds glinted sharply off silver wings as the great dragon spiralled out of the sky. A whirl of snowflakes followed him down, twisted by the vortex of his passage into a narrow, helical cyclone. When he struck the ground, a tremor blasted snowdrifts into the air, and the wind wailing off the Evermount whipped the cascade of flakes into a sudden blizzard of white.
The dragon shook his wings vigorously, dislodging shards of ice that had built up over the long flight from Silverstair, then tucked them away into neat folds across his broad back. He looked around. Rainbow sparkles reflected by the deeply-burnished, almost metallic sheen of his cranial plates played over the snow, giving him an almost comical aspect, in stark contrast to the grimly majestic attitude suggested by the thick, beardlike hornules projecting from his lower jaw. His eyes, carefully searching the snow, were an odd, milky white – at least until, with a pronounced click, he slid the nictitating membranes back, revealing whirling quicksilver orbs. The glimmering spheres saw everything and revealed nothing.
Well, he amended mentally, they see everything except what I’m looking for. “Hiding,” the enormous beast rumbled to himself. Shaking his head in mild annoyance, he muttered, “Todenperäinen Näkeminen.” The silvery orbs gleamed suddenly…and a vast, square-topped mountain of ice swam into view, revealed all at once by the power of his incantation.
“But not hiding too hard,” he murmured contentedly. That was fortunate. The Oracle was known to be grimly fanatical about her privacy. Had she taken serious steps to remain unseen, even his potent magic might not have sufficed to penetrate her theurgy.
Focusing his concentration inward, the dragon stepped carefully forward, flowing sinuously and without hesitation into the shape of a man. Ekhani, by all outward appearances, if conspicuously ill-attired for the weather. As was his wont, his adopted shape sported heavy, battle-scarred plate armour and a long woollen cloak, grey and trimmed in white fox-fur. A robust walking stick of gnarled, knotty oak appeared in his hand. He would need it, he thought, if only for footing and balance.
All things considered, he would have preferred to retain his true form; the Mountains of Miros were not a hostile place (at least, not by the standards to which a lifetime of hardship, danger and battle had accustomed him), but they were a wild and untamed environment, and his natural shape was better suited to discouraging hungry predators. And four massive, clawed feet were infinitely superior to two thin-soled boots on the craggy ice of the mountainside.
But he had little choice. The Oracle had not designed her glacial refuge with dragons in mind. He had many powers at his disposal, but none of them would enable him to fit through a man-sized doorway without first becoming man-sized.
A few moments later he stood in the shelter of the enormous, cave-like entrance. Close-up, the ice fortress was immense, easily as large as his own lofty keep in Cloudspire, back in the mortal realm of Anuru. It was oddly beautiful, too; the outline recalled human structures, and featured soaring towers, graceful minarets and even glinting, blue-white battlements. But it was all illusory; the Oracle’s home was a part of the glacier upon which it stood, a protruberance of the aquaplane of Vandilori into the celestial aether of Dracosedes; a world-within-a-world that had been hollowed out for use by Tushára Devárshi and her servants. Mortal comforts and conceits could be of little interest to one of her nature and might.
But it was impressive nonetheless. And she could not have chosen a better location; on a rare, clear day, he would have been able to see the windswept
soaring behind the
parapets of ice. peak
Shaking the snow from his cloak, he strode into the soaring expanse of the entryway, walking with caution, as he always did after taking human form. The floor was glistening blue ice, slick to the touch, flowing smoothly and seamlessly into the walls, which merged in turn with the lofty ceiling far overhead. “Should’ve brought some crampons,” he muttered, taking care to plant the iron ferule of his walking stick firmly before every step. Like all of his kin, he was strong, as strong as stone roots of the mountains – but none too nimble. He had no desire to suffer an ignominious fall before his mission was accomplished.
Only a short way inside the ice castle, the level of illumination dropped off considerably to a diffuse, muted indigo. His eyes were accustomed to it, of course (he would have been able to see even if it were completely dark, or for that matter, even if he had been blindfolded), but it lent an eerie, otherworldly aspect to the Oracle’s lair. He wondered whether it was deliberate, intended to overawe supplicants, or whether it was merely a natural artefact of using ice as a construction material. Probably an unintended consequence, he decided. The Oracle wasn’t mortal, after all, or even a denizen of one of the outer planes; she likely wasn’t overly concerned with the artistic impression her dwelling left on those who sought her advice.
And if her intent was to overawe visitors, the fortress itself would certainly accomplish that, without any additional embellishments.
Tchaixi. A deep, brittle voice reverberated through the blue shadows of the corridor.
As would these fellows, he mused, continuing along his previous line of thought. He stopped walking.
With a rumbling crackle, three immense, roughly man-shaped figures detached themselves from the inner wall of the passage. Shards of shattered ice tinkled to the floor. Each was at least four times his own height, and looked to be sculpted entirely from blue glass. Glowing, runic inscriptions, in no language or alphabet that he knew, swirled and cavorted across their bodies, which appeared to be translucent. Glancing up, he saw that the ceiling of the massive entry hall towered over their ‘heads’. I could’ve fit through here, he grumped.
The three colossal figures stomped slowly towards him, their steps crunching deep into the icy floor, and stopped a few arms’-lengths away. He had to crane his neck to see them.
He sighed. Probably the Oracle’s native tongue, he thought. He considered bending the flux to enable him to understand the creature’s speech, then remembered that the spell required that he touch the being whose speech he wished to comprehend. Probably not a good idea, he thought. “Käsittää Kaikenlainen Kielita,” he muttered instead, feeling a slight warming sensation tickle the back of his neck. It was a more complicated working, but he had the power to spare.
I’ve really got to make that one permanent, one of these days, he thought absently.
“Please repeat your question,” he said clearly, looking up at the towering ice-figures clustered around him. He heard thick, liquid syllables tumble from his tongue: Quyaruq uqaqtuq apiqsruunlgit.
Suxiqivich? the monstrous creature repeated. What he heard was, What is your business here?
“I seek an audience with the Oracle of Evermount,” he replied, half-shouting. His own voice sounded high and sprightly compared to that of the gigantic ice-things.
The Oracle does not welcome unsought visitors, it rumbled.
“I am neither unsought nor unexpected,” he called. “I seek repayment of a debt owed my father.”
There was a long pause. He would not have been surprised to see the three creatures glance at each other; but they stood immobile, and he knew that they were seeking instructions elsewhere.
One minute. Two minutes. Standing inactive in the frigid corridor, he began to miss his true shape. His kind retained their invulnerability to cold even when wearing a Kindred body, but human clothing always seemed thin and insubstantial, especially in the eternal snows of the Mountains of the Mistress. He wasn’t cold, but he felt cold.
“Idiocy,” he muttered to himself, stamping his feet impatiently. He considered igniting his staff, but decided against it. The Oracle probably wouldn’t take kindly to anyone bringing arcane fire into her demesne.
At length, one of the ice-creatures leaned towards him. Its body crackled, and tiny shards of ice rattled down. What is your name?
“I am Svardargenta of Cloudspire,” he replied, shivering unconsciously, “the only living son of Venastargenta, Lord of Silverstair. It is to him that the debt is owed.”
Then it is he that must come to seek repayment, the creature replied. Svarda noticed a subtle transformation in the tone and rhythm of its speech, and realized that a different consciousness was now addressing him. He guessed immediately who it was.
“My father’s time is at an end,” he replied, hugging his cloak around his shoulders. “The Twilight has come, and he is preparing to Depart. The debts and the tributes owed him cannot follow him into the world beyond the world, and thus they fall to me.” He cocked his head slightly and decided to play his hand a little more aggressively. “I have urgent need of your aid, mistress. In return, I would release you from your debt to my family.”
The palace corridors were silent for a moment. Then, the three ice-creatures seemed to nod slightly. Each backed away from Svarda carefully, their steps grinding harshly on the floor; and, moving slowly, merged into the ice walls of the cavern. Despite himself, he grinned, impressed at the power and control exhibited.
A patch of the icy floor immediately before him shimmered suddenly, then melted into an undulating pool of liquid water. A viscid, fluctuating column sprang up from it, like a gelid waterspout, undulating and splashing slowly in the frigid air. With incredible grace, it poured itself into a shape roughly approximating his own – except that, where he had legs, it looked like a constantly flowing torso perched atop a pillar of water.
A new voice – lower, more fluid and sibilant than those of the ice guardians – echoed through the castle’s corridors. Follow me.
The ambulatory water-pillar flowed towards one of the cavern walls. The wall melted away, revealing a high, narrow tunnel through the ice. Svarda nodded, content that his choice of shape had been justified. He wouldn’t have fit through there in his true form.
Clutching his cloak tightly around his shoulders, he followed.
The Fortress of the Oracle was far larger and more extensive than it appeared from outside. The interior plan, Svarda quickly realized, was something of a spiral, twisting in upon itself, and leading the visitor ever upwards, higher and higher through the massive corpus of the glacier. He understood intuitively that this was intended to evoke the endless maelstroms of the Oracle’s native plane, and he approved, even as he found it somewhat disorienting.
The undulating water-being he followed led him through vast chambers carved out of the ice – not by tools, but rather by some mysterious process that left the floor, ceiling and walls lustrous and shimmering, with a mirror-like finish that amplified many-fold the small amounts of sunlight that managed to creep through the translucent material. Ripples and runnels in the ice reminded him of tunnels carved through glaciers by fast-flowing mountain rivers, except that there was no running water here; only the heavy silence of the mountains. Unlike the light, the whistling wind did not penetrate here; even when he passed a series of what were obviously guest chambers, he could see that the wide ‘windows’ were covered by thick panes of translucent ice.
There was no sense of plan or structure to the Oracle’s lair; chambers were small and large, multifaceted or smooth-flowing; tunnels were high and narrow or low and broad, forcing him to stoop here, or ease himself sideways there. The route was confusing, too; it was easy to imagine becoming lost among the myriad chambers and passageways. He though again of his own citadel at Cloudspire, and wondered whether these peculiarities were defensive in nature; but then he dismissed the thought. How many beings, other than the Powers themselves, had the might to challenge the Oracle? And even if someone did decide to assault her fortress, who would dare to do so in Dracosedes, under the very eye of Miros herself?
On the other hand, he mused, only one of the Powers of Darkness themselves would be mighty enough to invade Dracosedes and disdain Miros. And such a one would be sufficiently powerful to crush the Oracle and her fortress like an anthill. These could not be defences; they had to be affectations.
He smiled to himself. He was unused to travelling the Outer Planes. Everything was so different here. No wonder Father was odd to talk to, betimes; he had been here, lost to the mortal world, the ancient Master of Silverstair, for more than two thousand years.
As he wandered the hallways and caverns of the Oracle’s domain, Svarda lost count of time. He was surprised when, at last, the water-sprite guiding him suddenly dissolved, melting away into a puddle that froze almost instantly, becoming a part of the floor. “Thank you,” he murmured awkwardly.
He looked around. He was standing in a non-descript chamber, no different from any of the others he had seen, perhaps twenty paces across, with a domed ceiling half as high.
Then he gasped. Opposite the passage by which he had entered, the wall melted away, revealing an enormous cavern, easily a hundred times as large as the one in which he stood. The floor dropped away into a pit at least fifty paces deep, and the ceiling, most of which was lost in the subtle azure half-light of the interior, was at least twice as high. A persistent, grinding roar filled the air.
He walked carefully to the edge of the chamber, where the floor dropped away and the walls opened into the vast emptiness before him, and looked down. Far below, at the bottom of the pit lay a churning mass of water: a vast, inky-blue maelstrom that whirled about and about, scouring the walls. Enormous chunks of ice, like small bergs, rotated around the centre of the gigantic whirlpool, clashing and grinding together, crumbling into razor shards, and refreezing almost instantly. Nothing that fell into such a vortex could long survive.
He took a long, careful look around the vast cavern. Even the walls seemed fluid and unfixed; here the ice melted, running away towards the churning fury below; there, it reformed, recreating anew the structure of the Oracle’s citadel. This was the center of it all; the focus of all her power, and her link to her home in distant Vandilori, the domain of the water beings, sailing the eternal Aether. And locked forever beneath the Dome.
He put his hands to his lips, forming a trumpet. “Hello?” he called. For a moment, he thought that his voice might echo across the enormous space; but his words were lost in the cacophony of icy splintering.
But the Oracle’s voice overwhelmed it easily. Welcome, Svardargenta. Only son of Venastargenta. Master of Cloudspire. The words came from all around him, and the ice walls of the cavern trembled.
As he watched, mesmerized, an enormous waterspout, like the one that had generated his guide (only larger; infinitely larger) burst out of the centre of the gelid maelstrom. It climbed higher and higher, mounting towards the distant ceiling of the cavern; and as it rose, the oceans of water cascading away from its centre froze into thick pillars of bluish-white ice, hardening instantly in the very act of tumbling back towards the water far below. The fierce fury of the maelstrom tore the frigid pillar to fragments as it circled and howled, but the ice reformed as fast as it could be destroyed.
In the space of three breaths, the pillar, like a colossal stalagmite, had reached the level of the ledge upon which he stood. From its peak, knifelike shards of ice grew, rose up, and twisted themselves into the shape of a glistening throne. Razor-like blades of ice sprouted from its back, twisting and twining in all directions, like earthly ivy. The arms of the throne bulged, and each grew into a dragon’s snarling visage. He smiled.
A sudden grinding at his feet caused him to glance down. A tongue of ice was growing from the ledge before him, stretching towards the pillar at the centre of the maelstrom. He looked up, and saw a similar tongue growing from the pillar. A moment later, they had met and merged, forming a slender span that arced across the vast, deadly pool.
Obviously, he was intended to cross. The bridge was, at best, two feet wide. He took a deep breath, glanced down at the whirling vortex of icy death grinding a hundred paces below, and put his foot on the icy span. It was rougher than it looked, and he crossed slowly and gingerly, taking his time, all the while repeating the word, “kynäleta… kynäleta… kynäleta…” over and over under his breath.
Then he smiled; after all, if he fell, he could transform back into his true shape in the blink of an eye. What kind of dragon, he wondered wryly, has a fear of heights?
When he reached the icy pillar he sighed deeply, and looked around. The frozen platform on which he stood felt odd; the continual formation and destruction of the pillar by the freezing waterspout beneath him gave it an oddly impermanent feel, lending a subtle quivering to the structure that his strained senses could easily detect. It was unnerving.
He took a few more steps, until he stood before the empty throne of ice. Raising his voice to ensure he could be heard over the roar of grinding ice, he called out: “I am here.”
The ice of the throne rippled and flowed; and in less than a heartbeat, a figure emerged from the deep, crystalline blue. It was a woman; by all accounts, a human, but of immense stature, easily ten or more feet tall, with flesh of azure, like the ice from which she had sprung. She was clad (rather scantily, Svarda noticed) only in scraps and flows of bluish ice, and bore upon her head a towering crown formed of razor-edged shards of the same rigid azure substance.
Welcome, Svardargenta, the voice repeated – now a loud, thundering rumble, echoing against the background of grinding ice like a horn in the mountains. Svarda watched closely, but the ice-woman’s lips did not move, and he suspected that he heard her voice only in his own mind.
“I thank you,” he shouted. And then he blinked; by the time the short sentence was finished, the clangour of whirling, grinding ice had ceased, and the vast cavern was as silent as a tomb.
Is this silence preferable? the ice-woman inquired.
Infinitely,” he replied with a bow. “Again, I thank you.” Thinking rapidly, he added, “May I inquire…?”
“This is not your true form.” It was not a question.
It is not, the voice replied. I have assumed this manu for your benefit.
Within the waters of my homeland of Vandilori, she said, as it is called by outsiders – I am formless and free; one with my kindred, mingled and indistinct. Beings of solid, differentiated flesh do not comprehend this manner of existence, and so I mimic them, to set them at ease.
“You are courteous,” he said, smiling.
I am practical, she replied, mimicking his expression. Svarda found her smile artificial and eerily unnerving. Those who seek me out are looking for answers, not more questions.
“I have questions,” he replied, changing the subject.
“Do you know what they are?” he asked, only a little surprised.
He nodded. “Well, then,” he said, gratified. “Do you know the answers?”
Not until you ask them, the Oracle replied evenly. But even then, dragon, take care how you ask. For there are some things that I am not given to know. I fear that I am fated to be denied the wisdom you seek.
Svarda stood still and silent, slightly dumbfounded. “But…but you are the Oracle,” he said at last, stunned. “It is said that you are eternal and omniscient; that you know all that is, and can answer any question about anything within the Universe.”
The icy figure perched atop the throne tilted its head towards him, and its eyes took on a silvery sheen. Yes, it replied. All of the knowledge, lost and found, past and present and future, that has ever been, or will ever be known, within the walls of Evertime; all of it is mine to know. Only when asked; and only once. That is my blessing, and my curse.
But the answers that you seek, the voice continued with calm implacableness, lie outside of my wisdom. I am a creation of the Powers, dragon, and my scope is the World Made. Your questions pertain to what lies beyond it.
“But…but…” He stopped and took a deep breath. “Mistress, the fate of many is at stake. The fate of all, perhaps. I must have answers! What am I to do?”
Ask different questions.
Svarda blinked several times in rapid succession. Then he took a deep breath, and made a conscious effort to still the hammering of his heart.
But ask carefully, the voice continued. The ice-woman leaned forward and fixed him with her unblinking stare. My debt to your father is ancient and indisputable, and I will honour it. But repayment extends only to three questions, and three answers. No more.
“Very well,” he replied. He thought carefully, and then said, “My first question, then, is this: what is the cause of the aberrant incursions taking place upon Anuru?”
The Law of Evertime is failing, the Oracle replied instantly. Those who crafted it were once omnipotent and all-knowing; but no more. They have become distant, unknowing, forgetful. In the absence of the makers, those who were formed to maintain the walls of the Universe, the dark and the light, have failed in their task. They have fallen into bitter squabbling, their noble task – the Balance – forgotten in petty squabbles for transitory advantage. And so the ancient consensus is breaking. Cracks are forming in the Walls. The World Unmade, shut out for so long, is making inroads, and threatens to reclaim for the Void all that was hived off and stolen from it so long ago. By Anā and Ūru.
The incursions of which you speak, the Oracle said with terrible calm, are only the first manifestation of eventual and inevitable collapse. This end has been long in coming, but it has come at last; and when it is here, all that is, and all that has ever been, will be undone in the Great Unmaking.
Svarda gaped, struggling to commit the ice-woman’s answer to memory. “I thank you,” he said weakly. “My second question: why is this happening now?”
The walls were already failing, the voice rumbled into the still silence of the cavern. But that failure has been hastened by mortal magic. The Powers do not have the might to overturn the labours of Anā and Ūru, because they are the offspring of the forces of Light and Dark, and so are bound by the limitations of the Powers, and thus of Anā and Ūru themselves. But mortals know no such limits. It is Kindred magic that threatens the Law, and with it, the walls. For in granting her children free will – by forming for them spirits forged in part of the unconstrained and unbiddable might of the void - the Lightbringer unwittingly freed them of the constraints that bind the Powers. The Kindred, and only the Kindred, among all the beings made since the birth of time itself, have the capacity to grow beyond the strictures of their makers. The Holy Mother hoped that they would grow beyond her limitations, and achieve the transcendence that the Powers could not. Perhaps she did not dream that, in doing so, they would achieve also the might to unmake all.
His mind whirling with the implications of this new information, Svarda put his hands to his head. The Kindred! Frailest, weakest, most pathetic of Bræa’s creatures, they were born, lived their lives, and died more rapidly than a botfly. Endlessly inventive, endlessly fascinating…They did this? How in all the wide world…!
He shook his head to clear it. “Third question, and last,” he said tersely. “You say that mortal magic has done this. Who is to blame?”
The good that mortals do dies with them, the Oracle intoned, but their evil deeds may oft outlast their deaths.
That the world is come to this pass is the work of the grandson of the Lightbringer, Tîor, called The Mighty; and his own grandson, Bîardath, the voice replied. But at the root, it is Tîor’s mastery of the Art Magic, yet to be equalled, that is to blame.
The Walls of Evertime were created to support the weight of the Universe; but Tîor crafted magic beyond that of which even the Powers are capable. He discovered how to breach the Walls. That magic has worn them down, leaving them weak and thin Worse, Bîardath, whom mortals name ‘Ill-Born’, in creating a tool capable of working the darkest and most potent of magicks, dealt the Law a mortal blow. That tool was broken in ages long past, and its shards have lain, quiescent and undisturbed, for many a year; but something has awoken it. Its power is growing, waxing in darkness.
Some, even among the Powers, may seek to possess it, hoping to tame that which they could not themselves create.
Twice have the Walls been breached by mortals wielding Tîor’s knowledge. A third such breach, and all shall fail and fall. But even if that third breach never comes, the Walls have been so weakened by the conjurer’s craft that they may in time crumble piecemeal. If the Walls fail, then all the Universe shall fall in fire and dust, consumed by primordial chaos; swallowed whole and obliterated by the Void that spawned it.
The voice took on a ringing solemnity. The Ending is upon us, Svardargenta of Cloudspire. That is your answer. The wheels of the finis inflammari have been set into motion, and they will turn, and turn, and turn again, until all is ground into dust. And in the end, not even dust will remain.
“You speak of Tîor and Bîardath,” Svarda said, confused. “But they are long dead. They went to wind eons ago.”
That is not a question, the voice said calmly. It is a statement, and it is in error. Neither the grandson of the Lightbringer nor his grandson has any material grave. None can say whether the Mighty or the Ill-Born are dead. I have no knowledge of their fate, for they were cast beyond the Wall of Evertime by their own kin, and neither spirit has ever found its way to the Long Halls, where Tvalt holds his court in shadow.
But, whether dead or no, that which they wrought in life lives after them. The folly of Bræa – I, who know all deeds and see their ends, have the right to name it that – the Lightbringer’s folly gave Tîor the freedom to transgress the laws of the Art Magic that were written when the Universe was made. And her folly gave Bîardath the freedom to rise to challenge the Powers themselves. That same folly protects their works, and the works of all of the Kindred, from interference by eternal hands. Not even the Powers themselves can destroy what Bîardath made; it could only be sundered, and its fragments scattered and concealed. Thus its power was banked, but not broken.
Those scattered fragments have now awoken, Svardargenta of Cloudspire. A scion of Bîardath has put his hand upon the Dragon Ring that once graced the Wizard-King’s ill-born finger; the ring that was reft from him by his treacherous daughter; and taken in turn by Ekhalra from Mærglyn’s shattered flesh. That touch woke the Heartstone that once lay at the centre of the Wand’s power; and the stone, in turn, has waked the other shards. Each of the shards exerts its own terrible might. One of them alone has the power to bend the flux further than it was meant to be bent; to reach beyond the walls, and bring through things that have no place in this world. Joined together, they have the power to grasp the tendrils that bind the universe together, and rewrite all that is to suit the pleasure of their bearer.
Or to tear them asunder, to the ruin of all.
Svarda stood unmoving, unspeaking, appalled by all that he had heard.
My debt to your father and your family is discharged, Svardargenta of Cloudspire, the Oracle added solemnly. The pillar shook slightly, and the grinding of the ice reasserted itself.
Svarda nodded. “May I ask a final question?” he shouted over the thunder.
I am not obliged to answer, the Oracle replied evenly.
“I understand,” he agreed. “I simply wanted to know…mistress, if the Walls fail, what will you do? Where will you go?”
The Oracle was silent for a moment. Then the great voice spoke again, and its calm, ethereal detachment was tainted by a hint of wonder and sadness. Where is there to go, dragon? If the Law of Evertime fails, all that is or ever was will be undone. The very essence of being will be unbound, to return to the vast, seething maw of the elemental chaos that has lain, churning, eternal, and hungry, beyond the Walls since the Universe was made.
I know not whether Anā and Ūru will survive the ending; they may, for they came out of the Void before all else, and forged the pocket of reality within which we, all of us, exist. But the Powers…they were formed within this reality. Even they, for all their might and glory, have no magic to preserve themselves against that final ending. If they did, I, too, would know of it.
They will be unmade when it is undone. And as I am but a minion of those self-same powers, I must share their fate.
“You offer answers, but no hope!” Svardargenta shouted over the grinding roar of the ice. “If the Powers themselves are helpless in the face of this peril, where then am I to turn, if I am to learn how to avert the end you have foretold?”
The great head, crowned with ice, tilted toward him, and the Oracle’s eyes took on a bright, azure sheen. Perhaps you should seek out the counsel of the Kindred, she mused. They may hold the key to this doom.
I tell you this now, dragon, to put you and all your line in my debt. In the eye of my curse, I see nine mortals, sons and daughters of Bræa, whose names stand before all others. They are the nine who hold the fate of all in their frail hands; the apotheosis of the Holy Mother’s great gamble, the culmination of long lines of descent, that bear within them the power of choice granted by the splinters of the Unmaking set within them by Bræa herself.
In the great whorl of knowing, they are called Vedon Yhdeksän – the Wager of Nine. They stand forth as three, three and three – three Servants of the Powers, three Masters of the Hand, and three Wielders of the Flux. Their names are the Servant of Skyfire, the Bearer of Fate, and the Warden of the Green; the Pillar, the Jester, and the Joyful Trickster; and lastly, the Mage of Light, the Mage of Darkness, and the Banisher of Shadows.
“Such obscure names will do little to aid me in the mortal realm,” Svarda observed wryly. “Can you not be more specific?”
I cannot, the Oracle replied. I speak with the voice of prophecy, recounting only the knowledge vouchsafed me by my curse. You must be content with what I am given to know.
“And you counsel me to seek them out,” Svarda mused aloud. “To try my questions and search for answers to the end of the world among the Kindred?”
I do, the Oracle confirmed.
After all, she added darkly, it was they who brought it about.