The Lovers’ Lamps, Chuadan and Lodan, were setting over the homelands range, steering their nightly course towards Norkhan, and the Elf-realm beyond that, and the marble of Mirabilis, and the lands of Zare, and the Eastrisles too – and beyond them, the uncharted expanse of the Sunset Sea. They men, hidden beneath cloak and bough, waited in silence. They had chosen this moment for their reconnaissance; the eastering moons bathed the western edge of the valley in gold and silver faerie light, illuminating the stark stone of the mountain-wall of the ancient and terrible
with a bright, purifying
The looming cliffs of basalt groaned like old blood over the lush and fertile bottom-land of Niriam Vale. They seemed to shrink in the moons-light. That was expected. The Shadow King, the last to dwell in majesty beyond those stark walls, had waxed in might until even the noontime glare of Bræadan cast only shades upon his hateful realm. But he had never learned to challenge or pervert the gentler gleam of the Lamps. Sceptics contended that this was because Bræa was a fallen goddess, who had turned her hand against her children, and had given up her power, and was no more, and so the light of the Lantern was more easily corrupted. The faithful, though, whispered that the Shadow King had been able to block out Bræadan’s light because he, a mortal with wisdom and suzerainty in his fist, was proof even against the rage of the gods; but he was powerless against the Lamps because, just as his might flowed from the mortal wellspring of his knowledge and his rage, the light that lit the night was born out of mortal love, an efflux of the eternal bond between the two lifemates of the ancient world - the human warlord Chuadwaith, and the immortal Nîamlo, daughter of elvii, and of lineage divine.
The hidden men did not know who was right – the sceptics, or the faithful. But they knew that while the vast power and tearing, biting pain of the mountains waxed in the darkest night, and was only a little diminished in brightest day, their grim threat receded before the light of the twinned moons. There was no need to argue faith when fact would serve.
It was time. The auspices were not good; they were never good, beneath the ill-luck of Ensher’s cliffs. But they would never get better than now. At a whispered command, the soldiers moved out.
They flitted like shadows, slipping from tree to tree with nary a sound. Dark cloaks and hoods concealed clothing and faces; hands were gloved, and soft boots made no sound on the dead, rain-dampened leaves that carpeted the earth underfoot. Swords and poniards remained sheathed, and though the archers bore their bows in their hands, and their bows were strung and ready, each had woven a scrap of cloth through the shafts of his arrows to keep them from clacking and clattering as they ran. Shields and helms had been left behind; and the men, professionals all, wore blackened mail with black twine woven through the links to still their tell-tale tinkling.
There were no words; no shouted orders, no idle commentary, no profane expostulations when an incautious step led to a stubbed toe, or a moment’s inattention to the whickering slash of a branch across eye or cheek. The wind made more noise than they; the wind, and the distant whisper of falling water as the late evening’s rain trickled, gathered, ran and finally thundered off the mountainside.
They smelled their destination before they saw it; an unmistakeable stench, a rank, putrid odour that struck like a fist in the throat. Men muffled their gasps and curses, but none were surprised. They had been told what to expect. Indeed, their commander – a wily man with nearly a century of arms under his sword-belt – had planned their approach from down-wind specifically to ensure that they would not be taken unawares by the dreadful foetor of the place they sought.
Moments later the point-men, who were the quietest and canniest of them all, reached the first stones of the slide. That too had been expected. One ran back to report the discovery, while the others picked their way carefully through the vast, slippery expanse of scree, balancing carefully on each boulder to ensure it would not roll, and avoiding piles of small, coarse rubble that might collapse without warning, or conceal an unseen pit or void. The stench was growing, too; burning the nostrils, filling the lungs with the savour of the forge, the sting of sour wine, the taste of ash.
The Lamps were lowering over the peaks of the eastward mountains – over the city of Chant, over the great fortress of the Tamal Krak, and over the high passes that led to Veldt and to Palatine and to Norkhan itself, far beyond – when the troop reached the top of the slide and saw what lay before them. Something – a great trembling of the earth, a falling mountain, a stone or a bolt of fire from the sky – had sheared away the cliffside. It was beautiful, in a cold and terrible way; tiny crystals of quartz glittered in the fresh-cracked basalt face, making the whole of the mountainside look like diamonds stitched onto an endless fall of black satin, the richest gown imaginable decking the flowing contours of the most beautiful woman the world made had ever known.
But none of the silent stalkers had eyes for beauty; none had tongues suited to poetry. They were hard men, scarred men, men whose hands were more accustomed to blood than to paint or the pen. One of their number – old and weathered, with white hair above a brown face, lined and pitted like ancient beams of oak; the others called him ‘Sir’ – looked down into the fall with eyes so blue as to be almost white. Half a hundred other eyes watched him for some sign; and when it came – a simple nod – they moved, flitting like ghosts over the crumbled stone, angling towards the deep overhang beneath the lowering remains of the cliff.
They made for the source of the horrid stench that burnt their eyes and fouled their lungs. Carried by low, grey-black vapours that hugged the earth, the vile-smelling smoke seemed to emanate from a cave-mouth far back beneath the dim overhang of sundered rock. An enormous cave; a vast and imposing cavern, in fact, that dwarfed even the colossal towers of the Steenborg itself. The air glowed with an eldritch blood-red luminescence like a dawn seen through rubies, and shimmered with the hot, scintillating earthlight of flowing stone.
As the men moved closer, silent in their fearful resolve against the muted groanings of the bones of the earth, they caught a better glimpse of their destination: a vast, shimmering sea of molten rock, boiling and lurching and spattering like a cauldron of living fire, breathing slow, shuddering breaths like some primordial being, and belching into the air the choking exhalations brewed in the darkest entrails of the world. They paused there, wondering how to pass such a terrible obstacle. Moments later, though, the advanced scouts returned, and reported that they had found a ledge – narrow, broken and seething with the heat of the place, but there. The men moved on.
Closer to their objective, the fire and stench of the flowstone was overpowering. But the discomfort that the men felt was overwhelmed by the awesome grandeur of what they saw. Beyond the broken stone of the great wall, within a cavern broad enough and high enough to contain not only the vast fortress of the Steenborg but also most of its immediate neighbourhood, they saw statues – statues of such unthinkable majesty that most of the men immediately went down on one knee, casting their eyes to the earth in instinctive homage.
There were seven of them; seven great monoliths, each taller than the highest tower in Norkhan, broad and immense, all carved of the primordial basalt of the cavern…but carved in such detail that they seemed alive. Six stood along the walls of the cave, knee-deep in the roiling magma, glowing red-hot from the waist down, but still intact and unmarked even by the fiery flows all around them. Along the left wall stood three women, and along the right, three men. None of those who saw them, who stood beneath their august majesty, could possibly have mistaken their identities.
To the left, a woman as graceful as the sea; another as stern as steel; and a third as fair and as bright as the lantern, with two speckled hounds standing vigilant at her feet. To the right, a slender fellow, with a trickster’s face; a hulking warrior, bearded and bearing a mighty hammer; and a tall and noble man with the long, flowing locks and pointed ears of his children.
At the far end of the cave, behind a white dais stepped like a ziggurat, stood the seventh figure: shorter than the others, and broader, yet with a presence unlike any the men had ever experienced: armoured in plates of iron, and bearing in his fists a double-bitted axe, he was hooded, with the hood cast over his face, so that only his beard and the tip of a prominent nose protruded. All who saw his figure knew instantly who he was.
But only one among those who stood in silent awe knew what these mighty figures portended. That one stared not at the statues, not at their grave and graven faces, but rather at the dais of white marble and the thing that stood atop it: a small figure, graceful and gorgeous, of a winged woman crouching on hands and knees. Like her guardians, she was wrought of stone; but unlike theirs, her stone was white, pure and gleaming; flawless, like a pearl fallen from the stars.
That one man, out of the dozens who stood mesmerized, began to tremble. He was no coward; he had seen his share of terrors, and had even been struck unto death by one of them, a monstrous abomination of gelid ice in a land far and far away. He had returned from the Long Halls a changed and chastened man, but not fearful one.
But this…this was no abomination. It was not a thing of ice, but of fire. Nor was it, like the foe that had slain him, a newcomer to the world made; on the contrary, it had been here among the Kindred for a long, long time.
The young man was a scholar; a student of history, and a sage. He had read the ancient lore, the tales from the Book of the Powers, the olden histories of the Age of Wisdom that spoke of the crouching woman’s black-skinned lifemate, and her fiend-born daughter, and her dark and terrible master…and the gift that he had given her.
In the ordered halls of his mind, and in the deepest pit of his soul, he knew who the pearl-white, crouching woman was. He knew that this was no statue, no mere memorial.
And he was afraid.
Somewhere west of the Cliffside cavern, beyond the Vale and the mountains, somewhere amid the sickly swamps and spoiled pools that dotted the Plains of Ash; deep beneath the cracked and ruined foundations where the great tower had fallen – abandoned by its indomitable master, struck down in his absence by the vengeance of the elf-wizards and their allies – a dim and insubstantial shadow clambered among the rocks.
Her travails had long since torn away the tattered, stained remnants of the clothing her friends had given her, and she had not deigned to replace it. Even had the thought occurred to her, in this dreadful, long-abandoned place, there was nothing to with which she might have concealed her nakedness. She negotiated the ruins of the Shadow King’s fallen realm bared in spirit as in flesh, the former rife with doubt and laid bare to the dusty malevolence of the place, the latter, normally azure and perfect, marked with cuts and bruises, and streaked with blood both new and old.
She had flown here from the elf-realm; flown high and long and hard, the auburn feathers of her wings snapping against the prevailing winds, driving her onwards into the storms that chilled her to the bone and tore tears from the corners of her eyes. By the time she reached the mountains bordering Ensher she was chilled to the bone, and her magnificent scarlet mane no longer trailed her; clotted with ice, it hung, heavy and frigid, about her shoulders.
The mountains had been harsh. They were high, their peaks sharp and pitiless; and, as the men of Ekhan and the elves united under King Allarýchian’s banner had discovered nearly eleven centuries earlier, there were no easy passes. Even an age after his ending, the Shadow King’s realm remained proof against intruders. Terrible things lurked in those mountaintops; things like birds, but not birds; things with leathery wings, and sharp talons, and fanged maws; and deep, rheumy yellow eyes that saw better in the dark even than she. They had chased her, cut at her, torn her skin and, moaning like no bird she had ever heard, licked eagerly at the blood that ran from her wounds.
They were stronger than she was, and faster, too; and as she entered the shadowed realm, more and more of them rose up from the grim cliffs and razor-edged peaks to join the hunt and the feast. With the new power that was in her she denied them, bleeding light from her wounds instead of blood, and calling down the stars of the sky to blind and baffle them. She escaped, but only barely, fleeing the mountains with the last of her failing strength, crashing unceremoniously to earth, screaming at the bolts of pain that smashed into her as she flailed to an inglorious halt amid the forests of dead, twisted trees and the squalid fens that lay at the feet of the towering cliffs.
Safe from aerial threats among the dry branches and rotting undergrowth, she rested and tried to heal herself. But the healing came slow in that accursèd place; the mortal wine that now flowed in her veins, displacing the thick, fiendish ichor that had been her heart’s-blood for so long, fared poorly in the stench and putrescence of the Ensheri highlands. Even the stars that had gleamed so crisp and clear above the mountaintops were veiled now. Far away, in the centre of that grim place, the darkest of the bogs bled a foul and stinking miasma into the air, and it arose like a mist of poison and disease, filling all the land with its infected venom. She could feel it stinging, burning in the wounds that the talon-birds had cut into her; could almost taste its corrupted, eldritch power gnawing away at her, body and soul.
She could not stay long. She needed neither food nor drink, nor even rest anymore; and she was, in the normal course of things, protected from toxins by the burning glory of the power of her vows. But the airs of Ensher held more than mere mortal poisons; they were lethal to the spirit, to that immortal part that shone all the more brightly, now, within her. She could feel the evil of the place working its way into her, pressing, slipping and insinuating itself into every tiny crack and cleft of her being; stinging her nostrils and eyes, and gnawing at the oozing gashes and scrapes that adamantly refused to heal. She had to move; had to press on, and swiftly too.
But she could not fly. When she tried, she gasped in pain. Her right aillelle was broken, either by a parting blow from the talon-birds, or as a result of her indelicate plunge into the sharp stones and shivered tree-limbs of the dead forest. The wing drooped, and ached abominably; and she knew that it would not heal so long as she remained there. So she bound it to her body with a length of slender, slimy vine, and began walking.
She walked, and walked, and walked. It had taken her nearly three days to make the flight from the elf-realm to her unceremonious landing; it was twice that from the dead forests to the Plains. Despite her enormous strength, despite her indomitable will, and despite all of the secrets and tricks she had learned in six thousand years of sneaking, skulking and infiltrating, it took her the better part of a week to move a mere fifty leagues. Part of it was the terrain; below the heights where the last of the trees had long ago died, the land became a sickly, stinking morass of swamps and fens, where oily open water vied with patches of rotting vegetation and expanses of foetid, clinging muck. A dozen times on the first day alone she had to backtrack, retracing her steps to avoid impassable places, struggling with exhaustion and pain until she had learned the trick of spotting hard spots and predicting ways around them.
She saw no life; or at least nothing that she would have called life. The trees were dead, grim grey spindles poking broken, pointed branch-ends at the sky. The low bushes, strewn with spider-webs and festooned with dagger-like thorns, were stiff, tough and almost impassable; but they too were dead. The lichens and mosses that decked the few solid patches of ground like scabs over ill-healed wounds…dead. Even the fungi that grew on the sides of fallen logs, or that sprouted in clusters, sickly white like the bloated hands of drowned men and stinking of rot and corruption – when she touched them they crumbled into dust, or burst like infected boils, covering her hands with oozing, stinking slime. All dead.
But the death that she saw did not mean that there was no life. She heard things; heard them far off and away in the sky, like the deadly cries of the talon-birds; or closer, deeper in the swamps – harsh, atonal croakings and guttural grunts. She had no idea, and did not wish to learn any more. Once, when she was wading through a pool of brackish, putrid water, something – something enormous, slick and loathsome – slid between her thighs, touching her ever so briefly, cold and clammy and viscid and silent, like the loving caress of a corpse. It was gone before she could scream, and did her no harm; but after that, she avoided any water that looked to be more than ankle deep.
The days passed. She could not see the Lantern, for its light did not penetrate the eternal cover of cloud that loomed above that haunted land; and even if it could have done, it would not have served to light the cloaking miasma of putrid fog that hugged the earth. She counted the passing days by the dimming and brightening of the airs. She did not pause for rest; she could not, for there was nowhere solid, nothing upon which to sit for more than a few moments. Even when she piled dead branches on a hummock and lay uncomfortably atop them, they sank slowly into the impermanent clay, until the water lapped at her skin again, stinging in her gashes and abrasions like the acid against which she was supposedly proof.
So instead of resting, she walked on, growing ever more exhausted, ever more delirious with fatigue and fear and the pain of her wounds. The air burned her throat, and she developed a persistent, hacking cough; but she pressed on. Her wounds became inflamed, glowing an angry red, and began leaking hot, white pus; but she pressed on. And once, emerging from an hour-long trudge through a waist-deep bog, she shuddered to find dozens of fat, slippery leeches the size of potatoes clinging to her legs, buttocks and thighs. She had felt nothing; something in their saliva had numbed her skin to their bite. The pain came only when she grasped them in her fists and tore them away, gasping at the knifing agony, and ripping out coin-sized rings of flesh that bled freely for hours, until she felt faint and spots flickered before her eyes. She walked more slowly after that, and refused to put her feet anywhere she couldn’t see.
At last, the fens and swamps ended. Her relief endured only until the bleak misery of the next stage of her journey made itself felt. The swamps gave way to rising lands; slime-slicked stone shingle that turned to black, broken rock, sharp and painful to her bare feet. After a few more hours’ travel, this had become cracked and shattered clods of scorched hardpan; and hours after that, she entered a vast, undulating expanse of dust and ash, a pitted desert pock-marked by craters, pits and played-out mines. She had come to Kőrifsa Sivitag – the Plains of Ash, the expanse of blasted, tormented land that surrounded the sanctum of the Shadow King. She could see, now, the end of her journey; the low mountain of smouldering stone upon which stood the broken foundations of the tower that had been built upon the suffering and bloodshed of untold millions of slaves – the monstrous, brooding fastness that the Shadow King had called Vás Valóság, but which the rest of the world had, for long centuries of darkness, deprivation, and costly war, known only as Iron Truth.
She hoped that she would be able to navigate its ruins; for when the Shadow King, in his final extremity, had unleashed his full, terrible might, tearing open the firmament of the earth, drowning the ancient city of Yl, and perishing in the embrace of his own apocalypse, the foundations of the tower had crumbled, and the vast and terrible edifice had crashed to the earth. The screaming of the stone and the thunder of the fall of Vás Valóság had been felt throughout Erutrei; there was no way of knowing whether the path she sought still existed.
She prayed then; hugging her broken wing, stumbling and staggering on feet lacerated by cold, dusty stone, leaving a trail of bloody footprints that led from the edges of the swamp and into the choking expanse of the ashen waste, she prayed.
She prayed that the route to the Well was still open. She prayed that she could reach it before she succumbed to the deathly, draining horror of the shadowed lands.
She prayed to no one in particular – but in the deepest, most distant recesses of her new beating, thundering, fearful mortal’s heart, she whispered the names of her two imprisoned and long-suffering loves: her one-time mistress, pinioned to a distant mountain top; and the fiend-heart general, locked and chained in durance old, hidden somewhere dark and secret, a slave of the Ender’s black hand. For the first time in half a million dawns, she spoke her Mistress’ name...and was not struck down.
The memory of their faces – faces that she had last seen thrice times a thousand years before elves and men, halflings and dwarves, had first opened their blinking eyes to the light – sustained her. The unholy land drank the life from her veins, the dry earth sucking eagerly at the blood that seeped from her many wounds. But her will, bolstered by her courage, her faith, and her memories, held her up. Lost in the misty haze of memory, she staggered on.
A long day of suffering passed for her, and another…and then she was there. The cracked hard-pan, dust and ash rose and became shards of black rock; stone shattered in the long-ago rising of the Tower. She could see its base, now. The Shadow King had chosen a hill, just a small hill, in the centre of that dead and barren plain, and had made of it a mountain, squeezing and crushing the earth in the fist of his magic until, like ichor from a boil, the tortured stone had yielded, thrusting upwards and creating a vast heap of crushed stone where before there had been only black water and slime. There had been nothing to distinguish that part of the wretched landscape from any other; or at least, nothing visible to mortal eyes. But the Shadow King had known what had lain buried at that precise spot, deep beneath the earth. His choice was no accident.
Upon that heap of tormented stone, a dozen generations of the Shadow King’s slaves – goblins and orcs from the plains of Khorlno to the south; Uruks and ogres from the mountains; giants and trolls from the deep, shadowed valleys; and darker, more repulsive creatures that crawled from places mercifully long forgotten – had laboured to build Vás Valóság. They worked swiftly and well, for if they did not, their bodies fed their comrades, and their blood, their dark master’s dark magic. In only a little more than a century, the Tower had risen above the Plains of Ash – a place of fear and terror, of darkness and despite, and of terrible, world-altering magic.
And then, she thought, wincing at the sting of a new flavour on the dusty air – old, rusted iron – and then it had all ended, in the blink of an eye. The Shadow King built his armies and, when he was ready, launched his war, sweeping out of Ensher like a blood-dimmed tide. Khorlno was already his, its brutish inhabitants worshipping him like a god come to earth; and Lonakhin, to the west, was a cowed and fearful ally. The men of Ekhan had fallen back to their own mountains, ceding the Vale; and so the dark hordes had swept up that vale and into Gasparr, pouring across its verdant fields like a spilled draught, crushing and killing, slaying and burning; sacking the cities not for spoils or wealth, but for the flesh of their inhabitants. The strong were sent back to the Plains of Ash to toil under the Tower’s watchful eye, releasing the stronger slaves for war; and the weak fed the grinding maws of the Shadow King’s fell soldiers.
From Gasparr, his force swept into Sheshinpans, and the great western desert did not stay him; for his troops, born into the burning wastes of the southlands, knew about deserts. The scattered herdsmen of those lands, never numerous, were chased and harried from oasis to oasis and from grove to grove, becoming in time a fearful and hunted folk. Further north, the steppes of Shom-Ikhana gave the Shadow King pause; for though the horse-clans had never been numerous, they were fearsome warriors. He had little cavalry of his own, and so the war he waged against them was one of terror – of magic, and surprise attacks, of blood shed in the night. The horsemen of Shom-Ikhana were never beaten; but neither did they hold. They cut at the flanks of the mighty, dark army, and were gone into the night.
Further north lay only the high plateaus of Peshka, and the mountain peaks of Kelva. The Shadow King stayed out of those lands, for they held nothing of interest to him; no cities, no vast throngs of potential slaves, no places of burgeoning arcane power. And, too, they were home to the barbarous folk, the ancient descendents of the Sons of Esu, those who had never accepted the stone houses and soft breads of civilization. In their own way, though of human stock, the men of the hills and the mountains were as wild and terrible as any of his own slaves from similar lands far to the south. And so he eschewed Peshka and Kelva…and turned his face to the east: to the lands of men, the empire of the Yonarri, and Yl of the Towers, the greatest city in all the wide world.
The endless, rolling grasslands of the north, the farms and forests, the cities and the towns…these were no match for the blood-fed horde that descended upon them. Yonarra had been mighty, once; when Motaccho, the first king, had forged the disparate tribes that had survived the Eon of Darkness into a single nation based on the only city of Men that had survived that long, cold epoch, the men of Yonarra had been the power in the north. But that power was a thousand years gone. They had spent their early energies in colonization and conquest, and their later years in dissolution, sloth and splendour. They had forgotten the hammergod, the general, the despoiler of virgins, the Allfather in whose name the great city had been built; and they had forgotten the ancient mother that had made them, whose golden temple had once graced the highest promontory in all the city, but that, since their new bargain, had been a place of blood and darkness.
They had given their allegiance to a new Mistress; She of the Empty Eyes, She of the Keepers and the Lictors, She who granted wealth and glory and power, asking in return only blood; only a little, now and again. They had accepted her, and they worshipped her. And, too, they worshipped the stone that lay in the pit, glowing with unimaginable might, and throbbing eagerly whenever another willing supplicant knelt at the obsidian blade, offering up their prayers and their praise and their life to the Queen of the World.
Their new mistress gave them pleasure, and power, and plenty; and so instead of skill and courage, they prided themselves on show. Their armies were things of beauty, decked out in scarlet and in gilt, dull spears polished to a gleaming sheen, tattered mailshirts hidden by costly, embroidered surcoats, decrepit war machines encrusted with thick layers of concealing paint. But the strength had gone out of them. And when the Shadow King’s slavering host swept through their lands, burning and ravaging and feasting upon all who lay in their path, the men of Yonarra found that all of their wealth was but a façade, and that they were powerless.
In their last extremity they turned to their Queen, and begged her to save them; but she laughed at them, and told them that their weakness, their failures, their cowardice and their impending doom were not of her doing. In exchange for their worship, their dearest blood, she had given them all that they had asked for; but they had asked her only for trivial things. And so as her people died on the walls, she remained in the Stonehall, feeding her brother’s ancient work with the blood of her worshippers, watching it with discerning eyes, striving – as she had striven for a score of centuries and more – to determine how to turn its power to her needs: to breach the imprisoning Dome, and escape her exile, and exact the most exquisite portion of vengeance from those who had condemned her to live among the crawling, mortal motes that fed her might.
Her strength, though inwardly focussed, had yet been sufficient to deny the Shadow King her last bastion, the great city; and yet he persisted in his campaign, for while Yl of the Towers yet stood, his victory over all the world would not be complete. While he spent his energies in the destruction of Yonarra and in his seven-year siege of their capital, the elves, the men of Ekhan, and all the other good folk of Erutrei banded together; and when they were ready, they fell upon the Shadow King’s fractious and fragmented host, to end him; and, if they could, to cast down the dark and dissolute Queen as well. With hands made heavy by rage wielding blades honed by loss, the allies cut through the dark horde like a shaft of daylight penetrating a long-sealed crypt. The wedge of their war-might clove a path to the very heart of the Shadow King’s power; and far away, in the clouded lands of Ensher, at the centre of the Plains of Ash, the iron foundations of Vás Valóság trembled.
Knowing that his victory teetered now upon the very brink of ruin, the Shadow King offered a truce to his one-time adversary, the Queen of the World; and in his desperation, he proposed to espouse her, that her power might be joined with his own, that they might together rule all of Anuru as mates. She spat the mortal’s effrontery into his face, and told him that she would liefer mate the swine and kine of the fields than spread for one of the upstart children of her hated sister; and so saying, she left him without her gates, to face the rage and vengeance of all those whom he had wronged.
And so, caught between the swords of men, the arrows of elves, the axes and hammers of dwarves, and the adamant gates of the city of Yl, the Shadow King, bayed, bereft of his armies, and broken, raised up his hand and spoke a word; and with that word, he invoked the mightiest of Tîor’s ancient magics, a spell so terrible that even the elf-king had used it only once. And around and about that word, the Shadow King wove all of his knowledge of death, destruction, and despair; and to feed and augment the magic, he sundered the regalia of his dread throne: the diadem and the rod, the jewel and the key. All broke in his hands and vanished before him, caught up and consumed in the whirlwind of might that he had bent to his will.
Lastly, to seal his curse for all time, he gave up his life. And as his spirit fled and his body sank to the blood-soaked earth, the very roots of Erutrei screamed, and the backbone of world broke asunder. Right at the Shadow King’s lifeless body the body of the world shattered, shrieking and clamouring in agony, as birds fell from the skies, and bolts of skyfire thundered to the ground. The host of the kindred fled, but only one in two won through to safety; for as the earth broke and the ancient city fell into the chasm, the seas, boiling in fury, rushed in, drowning all before them, sweeping the sands from mountain to mountain, washing the ancient lands of the Yonarri in salt fury, and sinking them to the bottom of the pit.
Thus was the long allegiance of the men of Yonarra to the Dark Queen of the World repaid.
The fallen tower beckoned. The path, she discovered, was easier than she had feared. Her new eyes, though dimmed by exhaustion and loss of blood and the fell airs of the place, guided her through the maze of bent iron and shattered stone. Down she descended, and down, ever down, her flesh torn by flakes of rock, her breath coming in gasps as she squeezed between tight stones, the hair on her neck rising in terror as she froze, holding perfectly still, waiting for some dreadful, scaled horror to pass her by in the darkness, praying that it could not smell her fear, or the blood that oozed from her wounds.
How long she climbed down, down through the darkness and the broken rock, she could not say, for her mind was no longer trustworthy. Glints of coloured light danced before her eyes, and the divine strength of her holy mistress, which had seemed so potent and so indomitable before, now was weak and distant, and hard to reach. But at least the chill was gone, replaced by warmth. She could feel it on her face, her flesh. It was not a warmth of the body, for her fingers, festooned with cuts and scrapes, still cramped with the cold, and when she stopped for rest, she shook and shook until the trembling forced her to her feet again. It was, she decided, a different kind of warmth. And at long last, she discovered what it was.
A final grunt; a final, desperate heave, and she was there. Crawling between two fallen stones, she entered a cavern, vast and soaring, that lay below the foundations of the Shadow King’s tower, far and far beneath the earth. It was lit, but not by light; the illumination came from the thing that stood at the cavern’s centre. At first, she could not descry its shape, for it seemed to both exist, and not exist; and she could not discern where it ended, or where it began. But when she closed her eyes against its flashing glare, she found that she could see the thing perfectly; and its form and function were at last revealed to her: a whirling, twisting skein of power, larger than dragons, taller than palaces; a vast, howling chiaroscuro of arcane might, twisting and twining in the air before her, as black as midnight, and flashing with a thousand, thousand colours. There was no light in the cavern, for the thing consumed all light, all power; indeed, she could feel it draining the life from her even as she stood staring, mesmerized and enraptured by its fiery glory. The sparkling lights she saw were the last, dying glints of the power that it consumed and, in the consuming, destroyed.
It was the thing that she had sought; the font of all the might and magic of he who had built the tower that had once stood above. Kút az Árnyék – the Well of Shadows. The Weird, the dichotomy, the dialectic of its twin, the Well of Stars, that lay at the heart of the elf-realm, beneath the foundations of the highest of the Towers of the College of Stars. The night to its day; the death to its life; the ending, to its beginning. Here, as there, all was possible, all was known; and acolytes of the art magic came to grow, in knowledge and in might. Or so they once had done; for she could tell from the pallor and dust of the place that no child of Bræa had set foot within the Chamber of the Well since the fall of the Tower an age ago.
She walked toward the thing, hesitating,, instinctively holding her hands before her face to shield herself from its ravening glare, even though she knew that her frail flesh was no match for its arcane might should it choose to strike at her. But it would not. The Well was power, power heaped and piled upon power, but it was not a being. It had no volition. It was knowledge – an endless font of knowledge, ancient and fathomless, but it was not itself wise. Its gifts, she knew from long study, were granted to any who asked, and who had the wit and wisdom to understand the answer. And who were willing to pay the price of their questions.
When she could bear the burning, whipping scourge of arcane energy no more, she halted. She knew that the Well would grant three answers, and three only, without being fed blood and life and power. Choosing her queries carefully, she raised her voice and spoke; but her words were lost in the screaming blast of the shining skein.
So instead, she mouthed her questions within her mind, crying the words into the clamour of her thoughts, hurling them before her, into the maelstrom of power.
“I seek knowledge!”
The word buffeted her like a sudden gust within a greater storm. Such power lay behind the single syllable that, had it been directed against her, it would have turned her instantly to ash. She took a deep, shuddering breath, and spoke again within her mind. “I wish to know where Cielagan, General of the Sarvaloka, is imprisoned!”
Cielagan is no more, came the answer, thundering out of the skein and echoing through the hollow halls of her spirit.
She gasped; and tears that she had not shed for her own wounds and suffering burst from her eyes. “He is…he is dead?”
He is changed, the skein intoned. Cielagan, once an archon of the throne, is now a minion of the Ender. He is called by his new master Zemërdreq, and Svarúpa Sevaka.
‘Fiendheart’, she thought dully, even as her heart leapt when she understood that he was not dead. And…and ‘true servant.’
No. No! “Then show me where the one called Zemërdreq, true servant of Bardan the Ender, is imprisoned!” she cried.
The skein crackled and bent. An arc of power snapped out from its side, spun into a noose, and went entirely black. An instant later the blackness faded, and she saw him. It was only for an instant; but she saw him. He was seated upon a throne of rough-hewn stone, his broad, muscular shoulders slumped, his mighty wings limp, and his chin upon his chest. He was clad only in a tattered rag knotted ‘round his hips; and she trembled to see the ill-healed wound in his breast, the angry, inflamed scar only half-closed around the corrupted heart of the fiend that had ruined him, and that he had, in his rage, murdered. From that festering wound, hot blood – the fiend’s black ichor mixed with silver specks of his own, uncorrupted life – ran slowly, puddling on the seat of the throne before dripping from the stone to the dais upon which the fallen angel sat.
In the raw rock of the cavern floor, immediately before the throne, there was a broad depression; and in that depression the fallen angel’s corrupted blood gathered and pooled. Still and silent, the black and silver fluids mixed and mingled; and upon their surface, images appeared, flowing and flashing, shifting and changing…showing the wretched prisoner all of the spite and evil that happened upon the earth. Every act of cruelty; every unjust blow; every instant of deceit, despair or debauchery; every betrayal, great or small or petty…they all, in time, appeared before his eyes, as they had done for untold eons. And when she looked closer, she saw that his eyelids had been torn away, and that he could look nowhere else but at the blood-pool, and all the ill in the world.
All this she saw in the skein; and within her, her mortal heart broke. She tried to reach out to the brooding fiend-angel with her hand, but it passed ineffectually through the image; she tried to speak to him in her mind, and touched nothing. Gasping against the ravages of the powers swirling before her, she stepped back and spoke again in the recesses of her mind. “Where is he imprisoned?”
In the seat of Bardan’s might, the skein replied. But one of many who lie in the pits that surround the Whirl of the End, in the very heart of Noctis.
She shivered at that; for though she had travelled the length and breadth of the multiverse, she had never once set foot in that darkest of all dark places, the realm at the headwaters of the Sangevale, the Blood-River; the lands of cold and dust and pain, where lay the Rive of the Dead, and the Walls of Ice, and the venomed hall of the Eater of the Slain; the bastion of absolute evil, where Bardan the Ender, Lord of Shadows, ruled supreme.
One question left. “How can I free him?”
Zemërdreq is the Ender’s prized possession, the skein intoned, and his prison is sealed by threefold magics. Bardan himself cannot enter it without the key, which he broke when he condemned the fallen one to his doom.
To free him, the skein went on in its cold, emotionless and overwhelming tone, you must rejoin the three fragments of Gombot Elűz, the Key of Exile; and take it to the place where the Fallen One is hidden; and he will be released.
“These fragments,” she hissed, grinding her teeth. “Where are they?”
The howling vortex of power seemed to take on a savage, joyful tone. Make sacrifice to me.
Her eyes narrowed; but she needed the answer, and knew not where else she might find it. She thought long and hard; she knew what the thing demanded, how much of her it would take. But she must have its wisdom.
In the end, she could have made no other choice. She dropped to her knees before the skein, feeling the cold stones of the cavern floor dig into her flesh, and bent her head. “Take them.”
Like a razor of thought, an arm of the skein flickered out, seizing and binding her, wrapping itself around her body more swiftly than any serpent, crushing the breath from her lungs, immobilizing her. When she could move no more, nor hardly even breathe, another blade of force lashed out, wove itself into and around the feathers and roots of her wings, tightened, flexed…
…and tore them from her body.
The pain was unbelievable; unbearable, shattering. She must have lost consciousness, for when she could see again, the skeins of power had released her, and she was lying on the chill floor of the cavern, quivering with exhaustion and cold and the shrieking agony in her shoulders. Climbing to her knees, she retched; she had been lying in a pool of her own blood – red, mortal blood – and her breasts, belly and loins were slicked and tacky with it. She tasted blood, too, and put a hand to her face, and found that her cheek was painted, and her long hair soaked and clotted.
She had no time. Her strength was failing. She had to get out of this place; her wounds would never heal here. And while she did not fear death, if she died, her quest would go unfulfilled, and her love would be forever trapped beneath the Ender’s hand.
The pain in her shoulders was worse than any of the many tortures she had suffered at the hands of her former mistress’ fell servants; but despite the tearing agony, she managed to struggle to her feet. The moment she did so, swaying uneasily, the skein spoke again.
Your sacrifice is accepted, it said coldly…but behind the dispassionate chill, could she hear delight?
Speak your question.
“Where…” she swayed and nearly fell, but seized hold of her will and forced herself to remain upright. “Where are…the fragments of…the Key?”
Bardan gave them to his minions, the skein replied. Three servants, so divided by suspicion and hatred that no collusion or pact might tempt them to cooperate, to rejoin the fragments, to remake the Key, and to release the Fallen One without his permission. The fragments were given to Riyadal, the princess of fear and flame, and the mistress of Morga the Destroyer, who bides in the burning waste of Helbrandr; to Szælyinella, the queen of the pleasure-fiends and the avatar of lust, the mistress of poison and delight, and first of the demons of Kejvagy, the Pits of Flesh, in the darkest, wind-swept depths of the Abyss; and to the enemy of the Fallen One, he who defeated him: Achamkriss, lord of the dragons of darkness, first among the Servants of Bardan, who is master of Ablagor, the Slaughterplain, the uppermost of the Nine Hells.
Thus are you answered, the skein concluded in its emotionless monotone. If you would know more, you must sacrifice again. And again, the note of chill delight.
For the first time in that dark and ancient place, she smiled. Despite the weakness in her bones and the shattering agony screaming at her from her wounded shoulders; despite the loss of blood, of time, of her wings…she smiled. For she had seen all of those places, and knew all of those deadly lords. As Lady Deathscorch’s herald and messenger, she had brought missives and tribute to Riyadal; as a warrior of darkness, she had flown into battle alongside Achamkriss, sheltering from the bolts and arrows of the enemy beneath his mighty wings; and once, as a mere traveler, a seeker after pleasure, she had tasted the obscene delights of Kejvagy – even receiving the sweet and tantalizing malison of its dark mistress’ kiss.
She knew them all, knew their fastnesses and their hides and their subtle delights and their secret ways. And they knew her.
In the magic-swept darkness beneath the roots of the Shadow King’s ancient tower, Lööspelian smiled.
Now…where to begin?
In his dream, he walked the sheltered ways of the woodlands.
The light that penetrated the forest canopy was of a thousand shifting emerald hues. There was no Lantern, no sun in the sky; in the endless time before the Holy Mother’s fall, all the world lay in darkness, and the only light came from the stars in the sky. They were nearer then, and brighter, those stars; the immortal sielii of the Sarvaloka, the divine host, those who had fallen in battle with the hordes of the Uruqua. Shining with all of their passion for justice and good and order and the Light, they brought with them the Holy Mother’s love; and all who lived beneath their beneficent gaze felt their warmth.
Verdant and alive, the flickering, shifting starlight made play upon the intertwined limbs of the lovers below. A grassy knoll, a hillock at the centre of the forest, was all the couch they had, or desired. No discomfort made its presence known; their only sense was delight, their only savour the pleasure of scent and taste and touch, and the presence of the other, for whom all the world, all of existence, was the only justification necessary.
The season of the long sleep was done and gone. The snows had receded, and the ice upon the lakes had vanished into warm, heady breezes and delicious rain. The King of Winter, captor and tormentor, had been bested in fair trial, and had retreated to his mountains, there to nurse his rage in impotent gales and squalls; until, in the natural course of time, as autumn waned, he should once again come forth in anger and in might.
That was still a long way off, though; and the lovers gave no thought to it. Their only thoughts were for each other.
Above them, the broad branches of the oaks, their leaves full-grown, their limbs heavy with the expectant fruit of acorns, of life, gave to the lovers their shelter and their strength. It was there that her powers were at their height; there, at the place blessed by the union of the Warden and the Wood-Maid, the heart of the ancient forest, that would be known forevermore as Tengah’alam, the Center of the World. A place blessed since ancient days by the footfalls of gods, and by the worship and revelry both of the children of the Holy Mother, and of the daughters of wood and wold. There, in that holy place, she was ripe and heavy with purpose; there her heart beat with the currents of kesatuan, that bore unto her spirit unknowing knowledge and unconscious consciousness; the unity of the green that had sprung into being when the first child of Bræa had touched the first tree, and that had only grown and strengthened since. It had been weak, once; weak and fragile. But now it was strong, like a rushing river, like the confluence of oceans – storming, raging, teeming with power and life.
She could feel it. It was kesatuan that had called to her; called, and promised her fulfillment, and glory, and the apotheosis of her being, if only she would come, and bring her lifemate with her. None of her kind could resist such a call; even had she wanted to demur, she was First among her sisters, and for the First, the call of kesatuan was not a whim but a duty. A joyous one, to be sure; but a duty nonetheless. And so she had come, leading by the hand her new lifemate – the Wanderer, the Stone-Bearer, the Sea-Son, him who had bested the King of Winter, bearding the ancient monster in his own lair. He had shown her no resistance; he was yet besotted with her, and would have followed her into a dragon’s gullet had she bade him so. And truth be told, he did not care where she led him, so long as he could remain by her side; for he was the tallest and the swiftest of Bræa’s sons, a man, one who had been crafted from fire, mercurial and changing. To such a one, one place was much the same as any other.
There, beneath the verdant light of stars, beneath the limbs of the oak trees, upon the grass of the knoll at the centre of the world, they joined. The sky witnessed their sacrament, and the earth blessed it; and the spirit of fire within him was quenched by the rain that fell upon them. She clung to him, and blessed him, and he her. The rustle of the wind in the oak-leaves whispered his name, and with it, a new one – Lewat, the Warden, the guardian of the green, and the mate of Csæleyan, First and fairest of the Wood-Maidens. And the winds spoke her name, too; and to her name was added, as title unto a queen, the words Subur Keindahan Karunia, which meant the Gift of Fertile Beauty. And when the wind whispered its last words, and the rain ceased, and the rustling of the leaves fell silent, and all their passion was spent, the new lifemates laughed together; for they knew that they, at the very heart of the green, by the grace of the Forest Gods and blessed by the embrace of the unity, had made new life.
Thousands upon thousands of years passed. The Children rebelled, and the Mother denied them, and raised up her hand against them, and was struck down. The Lantern rose, and with it rose the great empires of elves and of men. The children of Esu learned war, and those of Hara learned magic, and each taught their wisdom to the other; and many things were made, and many more lost. In the heart of the elven realms, son turned against father, and the dark powers rose briefly triumphant. Power was ladled upon power, and evil reigned, and was cast down again by the Holy Mother in her wrath. A short time passed, and the darkness fell once more; and this time it triumphed long. Mighty towers crumbled, and the land bled, and all passed into shadow. But the green endured.
It endured. Strengthened and buttressed by the unity, the green filled the void left by the Kindred empires, growing into empty spaces, prying apart the stones, tearing down the walls, reclaiming what had been taken years or centuries or eons ago. It was strong, strong, still, as when the world was young; but its enemies were strong, too. And so, as had happened once before, the call of kesatuan was heard; and the servants of the green answered.
A new warrior came forth, all willingly and all unknowingly, to the ring of ancient weather-worn oaks; to the grassy knoll at the heart of the world. He was a child of Esu and of Hara, and there upon the sward he found his reward awaiting him, clad only in rainbow and raindrop and starlight; the First among the daughters of the first Warden, Elducaris the Sea-Son, and his lifemate Csæleyan, the Queen of the Wood-Maids. The green offered, and the offer was accepted; and from the union on the knoll a new runner of kesatuan was forged, with roots planted deep in the nurturing earth, and branches reaching for the stars. And from that joining and those deep-planted roots a new Warden arose, wise in the ways of the woodlands, swift as the sparrow, and as terrible as the fall of skyfire in summer. And with him rose the daughter of Csæleyan, the gift of the green that he had taken for his mate. Whatever her name had once been, she answered to it no more; and forever afterwards, she was called by the name of Karunia – Lewat’s gift of fertile beauty.
The dream strengthened now; in his mind’s eye he saw the years roll forward, ever forward, swifter and swifter. The Lantern rose and set, and rose and set again; the snows came and went; the forest grew and receded; and kesatuan waxed and waned, waned and waxed, in accordance with the extent and glory of the woodlands, and all who dwelt therein. He saw the mountains crack and crumble when the Shadow King split the world; but the ancient crown of oaks upon the hilltop at the centre of the world merely shivered, swaying gently in acknowledgement of the far-off tragedy. For the trees were as old as the mountains; but they were wiser, wiser by far than mere stones. The trees knew when to stand firm, yes; but they knew storms as well as soft rain and sunlight, and so they knew also when to bend.
The years ran on and on. Towers rose in the cities, ships plied the seas, great tides of soldiers marched and fought, died and triumphed. Priests wielded the might of the Powers, and magi bent the heavens and the earth into shapes that pleased them. The Kindred multiplied, and multiplied again, until they had spread all over the earth. And still the green endured.
He blinked; in his mind’s eye, he blinked. There was a green haze, a warm mist, over all that he could see. Some power had intruded itself between his vision and his sight; a cloud, descending from heaven to touch the earth. In his dream, he strode into the mist and, finding that it smelled sweet, like new leaves and the fresh fall of acorns, breathed deep of it. He closed his eyes and took it in; and it filled him, seeping into every corner and crevice of his being, bringing with it the truth, the enlightenment, of the green.
He began to see hints of something within the mist – something enormous. A mighty tree, the mightiest of oaks, striding through the haze toward him, rife with promise and power and the life of the green. Its footsteps shook the earth beneath his feet, and its gaze – a deep, green-yellow gaze – was on him, full of terrible purpose.
At the touch of gentle fingers upon his cheek, he opened his eyes again, and found that he was standing on a green hillock, in a ring of ancient oaks, his face dappled and warmed by the sunlight that slipped between the broad leaves of the canopy far above him. The power of the place, ancient and indomitable, giving and demanding, washed over him, nearly sweeping him out of himself; blowing the dead leaves and grasses from his soul, and replacing them with new growth, new life, that roared and burnt and pounded within him.
And he was not alone. The vision of the ancient, mighty tree, the forest walker of his dream, was gone. From the emerald mist stepped a woman, a maiden of such surpassing loveliness that the mortal heart within his breast came nigh uno bursting. Only the comforting grip of kesatuan enabled him to withstand the merest savour of her presence. She was no mortal dame; for though she walked on two legs even as he did, and was as shapely as the new buds of springtime and as beautiful as the dawn, no hint of the heritage of Kindred touched her. In a glance, he knew her; she was another like unto the mates accorded his predecessors by the bounty of the green – a daughter of Karunia, Csæleyan, Queen of the Wood-Maids, the prisoner of the King of Winter, won from his icy clutches by clever Eldu; conceived here, upon the good green earth, in this very spot, at the centre of the world.
As verdant in glory as her ancient mother, as green with life as the canopy far above or the grasses below, clad only in ivy and mist, she held out her hand to him, and she smiled; and at that smile, the heart within him shattered anew. “You are come to Tengah’alam in springtime,” quoth she, her voice lilting, delicate, like the gentle rain upon the lily. “This is the center of the world, the source and strength of the green. This is the beating heart of the unity of life.”
He wanted to ask how he had come to such a place, but he already knew that he had journeyed there through the realm of dreams. And so instead he said, “Why have I come?”
That earned him a smile like no smile he had ever beheld. “You are come, Lewat, because here is the wellspring of life. You are warden of the woodlands, and this is the font of your power. As it is of mine.”
“Is that why you are come?” he asked, curious. “Is it power that you seek?”
“No,” she replied, still smiling her dazzling smile. “I am here for your sake, Lewat. I am come to this place – here, now, in the fecund and fertile spring – because, in the soaring arch of your authority, I am the keystone.”
He did not understand what she meant. “Who are you?” he asked, dazed and disbelieving, though in his heart of hearts he feared that he already the answer. For he had seen something behind her eyes, something fey and wonderful, that he had seen before. He had felt its kiss, long ago, in a far away land.
She moved closer to him, swaying like a willow in the wind. “I have had many names in my long life,” she replied. “But only one name matters to me now.”
“And that is…”
“I am she who is called by the green, to stand at the side of the Warden. I am the benison he is owed as reward for his many travails. I am his comfort and his rest, and the font of life for those who will come after him. I am the Forest Mother’s gift to you, Breygon Half-Elven, her mighty champion.”
She caressed his cheek again, with fingers like unto his own in shape; but hers were unlined and gentle, having never known hilt or bow-string, and soft where his were rough and calloused. And they were green, as green as leaves, or as sunlight fallen upon emeralds. He felt a thrill at her touch; the roots of kesatuan that lay entwined within his sieulu sensed her purpose and her power, and trembled at her presence.
He ached, ached for her; desired her with an urgency so potent and overwhelming that it appalled and terrified. “I am already mated,” he said, his voice a harsh, ungentle croak. And he trembled a little as he said it, for it seemed to him as though the vast oaks above leaned over the glade, listening and judging.
The Wood-Maid smiled anew, and at that smile his knees unlocked. She flowed into his arms, nestling against him, and bore him up so that he could not fall. “The sundry liaisons of mortals are of no consequence,” she murmured, her verdant lips brushing against his own. “Thou’rt my Lewat; I am thy Karunia. I am the sea unto thy sky, the field unto thy root, the welcoming earth unto thy mighty seed. We stand without the mortal world, as far distant above it as the hawk above its groundling prey. Our joining will shake the earth to its very roots.
“You must not gainsay me,” she breathed. “All who live serve the green. The call of kestuan may not be denied.”
Against his breast, her touch burned like fire and delight, and the scent of her – rose and lilac, birch and sphagnum, the comfort of cedar and the soothing fecundity of new earth – washed over and through him like a benison, charging his spirit with possibility, and awakening him to her promise. It was true; the call could not be denied.
And yet, struggling against the urgent press of desire ever mounting within him, he gathered the disparate shreds of his purpose...and denied it. “Who are you?” he asked again.
“I have told you who I am,” she murmured. He felt her arms around him, her hands against his back, drawing him to her, binding him to her. “And you know, Lewat, who I was.”
With a supreme effort, he recalled his lifemate’s face – the ebon riot of her locks, the crooked, lilting laughter of her lips, the emerald glory of her gaze, the perfect blush of her cheeks – and he pushed the newcomer away. “Who were you?” he demanded. In breaking the moment, his voice sounded to his own ears as harsh as steel on stone.
She gazed solemnly up into his eyes, and the supremacy within her seized his spirit and all but bore him away again. “I was, for many turns of seasons,” she replied evenly, “a daughter of Csæleyan. And then, briefly, I was…something more.” She touched his hand. “You know who I was, Lewat,” she said again.
His throat tightened. “You are Kahunahele,” he said, his heart crashing in his breast. “The Queen of Summer.”
“I was,” she replied. “I was. But no longer. I have grown beyond that title, into something more.”
“How?” He heard something alarming, something feral, in her tone. “Why? What greater honour is there, than to be a Queen of life, wielding the blessing and the might of the Forest Mother?”
“What you call a Queen, Lewat, I called a slave,” she exclaimed. She did not release him; indeed, her grip tightened. And her eyes, which already glittered beyond the glory of any jewel in the Butterfly Crown, brightened further until they were like the light of the Lantern, hot and piercing. “But no more. No more! No longer do I merely serve the green!
“I have been freed, Lewat!” she cried, and in her voice he heard all the great cries of nature – the scream of eagles, the howl of wolves, the shriek of the wind, and the crashing fall of skyfire. “Freed by dint of will alone, and by mine own strength, and by great magic! I yet wield all of the power vouchsafed me by the Forest Mother, aye; but suffer none of her tiresome strictures. No more. I have a new patron now, and I am unbound!
“ No longer must I bend my knee to the whims and wishes of those who would harm the green,” she continued, her voice dropping to a serpent’s hiss. “I am free to serve the sanctity of the wood in my own way, according to mine own, best wisdom; to safeguard the glory of the green, and to build the might and majesty of kesatuan, and return them to their former wonder. I am free, now…free to restore to beauty and suzerainty and grandeur the green of long ago!”
“Restore?” he muttered, horrified by what he heard. “But you…you are…not ‘restoring’ anything! You are destroying! Cities. Buildings.” His head was swimming in the intoxication of her scent, bewildered by the terror and the compelling, consuming beauty of her passion. “Even people!”
“I am Rebirth,” the Summer-Queen sighed deeply, her eyes otherwhere; and with her sigh, a strong wind swept through Tengah’alam, shaking the hillock of the world-centre, and causing the earth to tremble to its very roots. “Ego sententia est. Saya tujuan hutan. I am the Weird, the Purpose, and the Volition of the green, Lewat. And I will not be denied.”
She spoke vastly now, and her words rang in his ears like thunder. “The great tide of Life is rising in the world once more,” she proclaimed, “and all who do not rise with it shall be overwhelmed, and swept away!”
He took a step back, regarding her in shocked horror. Smiling gently at his obvious consternation, she followed him, placing her hands, long-nailed and green, upon his breast. She raised her face to his, ancient and unlined and beautiful beyond compare; and despite the shrieking clamour that gnawed at his soul, he answered the call of kesatuan, and bent to her lips. The cool of the green was gone now, replaced by heat; and the new-come, throbbing heat of her pressed against him, warming him to her touch, and scorching him like an overfed fire.
“Together, Lewat,” she murmured, her breath honey upon his tongue, “together, we shall serve the glory of the green. Together, we shall sow the seeds of a new world, overcoming the decay of long and lonely ages, and bringing the woods to their ancient glory once more!
“Together,” she sighed, writhing against him, smiling as the last vestiges of his willpower crumbled, feeling his hands moving on her supple frame, his fingers sinking into the soft, leafy glory of her emerald tresses, “we shall kindle such new life as will make the forest sing ag –”
Pushed beyond any control, he stopped her words with his lips…and froze. For as he did so, as he tasted her purpose, he knew, knew at last, that she was not what she seemed to be; that though she retained the outward shape of the Queen of Summer, she was, in truth, empty. The might of the green, the glory of kesatuan, did not fill her; it did not even touch her. He felt her beauty beneath his hands; but to his senses, she was barren as the void. When he looked upon her with his new eyes, with Lewat’s eyes, it was as if there was...nothing there. Nothing at all.
As he tasted the dry, sterile husk of her lips and saw the dusty emptiness that lay behind the shimmering purpose in her eyes, a knife-stroke of killing agony and horror pierced his heart, scorching and freezing like a new-forged glede quenched in poisoned ice. He started up...
...started up bathed in sweat, trembling with fear and with desire denied, his eyes bulging in their sockets. And when his lifemate, roused by his sudden movement, laid a gentle hand upon his arm, he screamed.