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Alaimone

Chapter One: Alaimone

Chapter Two: Knife, Paper, Stone
Chapter Three: Ilaryon
Chapter Four: The Lady and the Storm
Chapter Five: What Came Next, or, The Master of Order
Chapter Six: Preparation
Chapter Seven: The Legacy of the Light
Chapter Eight: Conversations
Chapter Nine: In Which the Goddess Speaks to Dutia and Tells Her the Plan
Chapter Ten: The Battle

Chapter One
Alaimone

        The sun went down over the city. Buildings turned orange in its light, and the trees were lit gold by its last rays. Dutia Perit walked alone through the city park, admiring the old trees that towered above her. The path was lined with cobblestones, and the crowds of the evening had begun to disperse. She was going home from a party of her own, a party she had attended as a representative of her parents, who were visiting the Western state on business and had decided to stay over on holiday for the month. I wish I was in the Western state too, Dutia thought. If I were there, it would be warm and sunny still, with the smell of the ocean in the air rather than the Center state's constant rain that came down from the mountains.
        Clouds filled the sky, gray and foreboding, outlined in neon light on the horizon. Drops of rain began to fall, and the crowds disappeared faster. People gathered under small wooden shelters, and the electric lamps- newly installed earlier in the year- lit up one by one as the rain grew heavier. Dutia hurried through the streets, pulling her thin wool overcoat tight over the intricate dye work on her dress, and at the same time tried to open the small umbrella she carried. She'd let Stenio Kurest goad her into staying after the rain; it was a far longer walk to her house than to his from the hall where the party had been held. If the dress got wet, her parents would be furious. It had cost a small fortune, and more, it had been her present at her coming-of-age party. She was now old enough to be a proper lady of the House, and she must conduct herself as such.
        The umbrella came open abruptly, at the same time her foot encountered a small crack in the pavement. Dutia was able to avoid falling backward- by falling forward. She clutched her overcoat around the dress with the hand that held the umbrella- what a fool I must look, she thought- and put the other hand down in front of herself. The ground was hard. She pushed herself back onto her feet, casting a furtive glance to make sure nobody had seen.
        Fortunately, the crowds had all gone. The wind picked up, whistling through the trees eerily. Dutia looked back behind herself. On one of the park benches, wood and wrought iron, sat a girl, alone. Rain fell onto her uncaringly. Her face was in shadow, surrounded by the halo of the street lamp's light. Dutia stared for a minute, unable to help herself, then brushed herself off and walked up to the girl, the dress completely forgotten.
        She appeared to be a few years younger than Dutia. Her hair was a dusty violet, short-cropped in the front and on the sides with the back long and tied back. The violet was not unusual. Many young women dyed their hair; Dutia's own long hair was a shade of pale blue to contrast her dress' indigo. The girl's skin was brownish, tanned, but not from a worker's long hours in the sun, Dutia realized, frowning. It appeared to be naturally that way. The girl looked up at her, squinting at the light. Rain ran down her face like tears. One of her hands clutched something dangling from a chain around her neck.
        "Are you lost?" Dutia asked, feeling it her duty to help those lesser off as her parents had always taught her. The girl did not reply. "Would you like to come home with me?" she tried again. "My house is warm, and you can stay there, since my parents are out it's only me and the servants at home. It's ever so lonely. We can find your family in the morning and let them know that you are all right." The girl's expression remained neutral, questioning. "Are you waiting for someone?" Dutia asked her, finally. The girl shook her head "no". "Do you have somewhere to go, then?" Dutia asked. Again, the girl shook her head.
        "Please, come with me, then," Dutia said, laying her hand on the girl's arm. Her skin was cold, as if she had been out in the night for a long time. "How long have you been out here? We must get you inside and warm, it's not good for a girl of your age to be out in a night like this. What is your name? My name is Dutia, of the house Perit."
        "Mei," the girl replied, rising to stand next to Dutia. Dutia managed to get the umbrella back open and raised it over the both of them.
        "Mei," she repeated. "Let us go, then, my house is just a short walk this way. We're second off the Promenade," she declared proudly. Mei, seeming unimpressed, did not reply, and Dutia's spirits fell slightly. Still, she carried on, walking slightly faster. It was not proper for a lady to be out at night unescorted. She stole a glance at Mei while they walked. Around her neck, attached to a fine chain, was a small ball of glass. Dutia thought that she could see colors in it, like the marbles she had played with as a child.
        "What a beautiful necklace," Dutia said. "Where did you get it?"
        Mei's face flushed, her tanned skin turning even darker. She clutched the glass pendant in her hand again, and turned away from Dutia. "It was my mother's," she said.
        "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to... Let's hurry along, now, it's just up the street here." They paused at the corner where Park Street and the Promenade intersected. Traffic was sparse. A few for-hire carriages waiting by the curbsides for riders; a few more of these were out on the street, along with the garishly decorated private carriages of the nobles whose gold-leafed trim glittered in the lamplight. Dutia and Mei crossed the street without incident. Dutia was careful to keep the umbrella over the younger girl, despite the fact that both of their clothes had become thoroughly soaked.
        The Promenade was a street of wealthy merchants' mansions. The houses featured exquisitely carved stone details: family emblems, crests and seals, and decorative braiding and edging. Far, far above the street level gargoyles with twisted features were dark against the fast-moving rain clouds.
        Dutia stopped in front of the second house. "This is it," she said. They ascended the stairs up to the door, which was made of a heavy, dark wood. A rose was carved into it, surrounded by a ring of stars. Dutia rapped the door knocker, a heavy metal ring held in the mouth of a lion, twice and waited. "Someone will let us in shortly," she told Mei. "We have only to wait a few minutes, and then we'll be warm and dry. This rain is good for the gardens, though," she said, gesturing to the rosebushes that lined the front of the manor.
        The violet-haired girl nodded, looking out over the lawn, and muttered something that may have been complimentary. Her hand still firmly grasped the necklace. Dutia frowned again, and shifted in place, causing a shower of rain from the umbrella. They stood in silence for another moment, then Dutia used the door knocker again. This time, there was a response. Almost immediately the door opened inwards, revealing an antechamber and a glimpse of a lushly carpeted interior down the hall.
        A man stood at the edge of the door. He was middle-aged and neatly groomed, and dressed in an indigo vest over a loose white shirt that was neatly tucked into his simply cut trousers. "Young mistress?" he asked, hesitating over the soaked pair. "Who is this? Never mind, come in the both of you." He moved out of the way, allowing them into the house. Various artifacts from foreign lands were hung up on the walls; colorful arrangements of fresh flowers decorated the vases on the table that held the guest book on the wall opposite the coat-rack. At the back of the room, a large banner hung from the bottom of a balcony: the rose emblem that had been carved into the door was in the center of the ivory field, dyed a bright crimson. The border was a stripe of blue, dark indigo that was also the color of the seven stars that surrounded the rose.
        "Thank you, Gavin," Dutia replied. "Come on, Mei," she said, ushering the younger girl into the house ahead of her. Rainwater dripped onto the exquisite tiles. Dutia watched as Gavin did his best to hide his disapproval as he took her overcoat and hung it on a peg. She collapsed the umbrella and handed it to him as well. He took it, obviously wanting an explanation but too impeccably trained to demand one until the niceties had been handled. After he finished adjusting the coats on the rack, he turned back to the two girls.
        "Gavin, this is Mei," Dutia said. "She is a traveler from a faraway land, come to stay in our fair city for a time. I've extended an offer of hospitality in the House to her as I felt was my duty as a Lady of the House."
        "Charmed, gentle lady," Gavin said, offering one of his grand formal bows to Mei. She blushed slightly and returned with a stiff bow of her own. Dutia laughed, causing Mei's face to flush deeper.
        "No, no," she said. "In our country, ladies must curtsy." She demonstrated with as much grace as she could muster in the rain-heavy dress, splashing droplets of water on top of the already slippery tile. It was then that Gavin noticed her dress.
        "Lady Dutia!" he said. "What has happened to your dress? Your mother will be furious! That dress was hand-made in the Western states, and it will nigh on be irreplaceable..."
        "I'm sorry, Gavin," Dutia said. Mei stood by mutely. "The party ended late, and I ended up getting caught in the rain. Then I met Mei here, and... Things just sort of happened," she finished up lamely.
        "I see," Gavin said. "Well, there is naught to be done about it now. I will have Dannah look at it later tonight. Perhaps we can get it all well and mended before your parents return at the end of the month. Go and change, now, let Saria have this and take it down to Dannah. I will have the chef prepare a meal for you and the gentle lady. Does the gentle lady have any preferences?" Gavin asked. Mei shook her head 'no'. "Very well, then," he continued. "I will go and see to that promptly."
        "Thank you, Gavin. You are a life-saver."
        "Thank you, lady," Gavin said. Dutia smiled; she could see that he was pleased in spite of his stiff manners. Gavin bowed again to each of them, then left, walking down the hall to go about his tasks. Dutia turned to Mei.
        "Well, I guess that leaves you with me, then," Dutia said. Mei nodded solemnly. "Let us head up to my room and see if we can't find some clothes to fit you. I think that I still have some of my old dresses about somewhere. My maid Saria will be better able to fit you than I, though. Come, now, it's just up these stairs. We had better remove our shoes first, though, or Gavin will have a fit." Once that was done, Dutia went to the closet and retrieved suitable pairs of house slippers for both of them.
        "These are far more comfortable shoes than the others, are they not?" Dutia asked. Mei nodded as she exchanged her shoes- worn things that seemed made out of a soft leather with beaded decoration- for a pair of the plush house slippers made of fine cloth with rough leather for the bottoms. "Your shoes looked very travel-worn," Dutia commented as they made their way up the indigo-carpeted stairs. "Is your family a trader house?" Mei did not reply, so Dutia stopped in mid-step and turned to her. "You are not from the caravans that go north, then? I know a few caravaniers that my father has trade with. I had thought that maybe... Never mind," she said, and continued up the stairs. Mei struggled to keep up. "They are a garish people, all in bright clothes of all colors and always, always talking. I had a friend in the caravans when I was a child, and she would bring the most marvelous gifts from far away lands, the desert and the western islands... Ah, but we have arrived."
        Dutia knocked twice softly on the door, which as all of the others was engraved with the rose ringed by stars. Mei ran her fingers over the carving, tracing the outline of the rose.
        "This is the crest of our house, the house Perit," Dutia explained. "My great-grandfather oversaw the Emperor Adoran's personal gardens. When he retired, the Emperor rewarded him with a minor title and offered him a land-holding out in the Eastern state, but instead he took a license to do business here in the capital city. My father and grandfather have built our house up into the second most prominent mercantile house in the whole Central state." Mei nodded. Dutia was beginning to feel cross that the girl did not offer proper respect to her family, being as she was an outsider dependant on Perit charity, but then reminded herself that Mei was indeed an outsider and she had a duty to present the best of her house and country. Perhaps I can even negotiate a contract with her family, Dutia thought to herself. Just like Mother did in the Western islands to get the spice contracts with the Rivosa nari Rangis.
        There was no reply from inside, so Dutia let herself in. I wonder where Saria is, she thought. She should be in here now; Dannah has probably trapped her into some menial task like washing the laundry again.
        "It doesn't look like Saria's in right now," she said aloud. "Would you like to pull the cord to summon her?" Dutia gestured to a braid of rope with a large tassel on the end. It hung from the ceiling near to the door. "When you pull this, a bell will ring downstairs. Each bedroom has a different bell with a different sound, it's really a clever system. We received them as a gift from trading partners in the Western islands. There will be a rope just like this in whichever room Gavin decides to put you in." Mei shook her head no once again. Dutia shrugged and pulled the cord herself.
        "Mistress?" came a quiet voice from the direction of the door. Dutia turned and saw her maid, Saria, standing in the doorway.
        "Yes, come in, Saria," Dutia said. "That was very fast of you, I only just now pulled the bell-cord."
        "Oh, no, mistress," Saria said, "It was Gavin who told me to come here. I was preparing baths for yourself and the young lady."
        "Very good, Saria. A hot bath sounds wonderful." The maid bowed deeply.
        "Thank you, mistress. Your bath is ready in the great bath."
        "Thank you, Saria. If you would be so kind as to show Mei here the way to her bath room...? Please see about finding one of my old dresses to fit her, too, her clothes are soaked. Did Gavin tell you anything about dinner?"
        "Gavin said that the food will be ready in about an hour, mistress. I have left an hour-long sand-timer running in the room with the great bath so that you will be able to tell the time until it is ready," the maid replied.
        "Thank you. I will leave this dress in the antechamber of the great bath sitting on the chair next to the fireplace. After you have showed Mei to her bath, please do take it down to Dannah and see if she thinks it can be cleaned and repaired before my parents return."
        "Yes, mistress." Satisfied, Dutia made a small bow to Mei and smiled at Saria before leaving to head towards the bath room. The corridor's plaster walls were decorated with tapestries, most of which bore the Perit family crest. In an older House, they would have displayed illustrious ancestors from ages past, but as it stood all of the images were roses. Ivory and indigo were the colors of the house. As a daughter of the House, Dutia wore the second color, indigo, as did her mother. However, indigo dye was very rare, and thus the cost of the dress she wore was immense. I do hope that Dannah can fix it, she thought to herself as she entered the room of the great bath.
        The tub itself was huge and made of copper. The inside shone, but the outside had begun to acquire a dull brown-green patina. The tub was filled almost three-quarters of the way to the top with hot water. Mixed in with the water were flower petals from various plants in the garden; a bowl of more fresh and dried petals lay on a shelf next to the tub. Dutia inhaled the flower-scent deeply- it was exactly the blend of scents she preferred, she realized, as she breathed out. House Perit does truly have the best staff that anything can buy, money or loyalty, she thought.
        Dutia halted in the antechamber and removed her house-slippers, placing them under the padded chair. Then she tried to reach around to her back to untie the lacing of the dress, but found that she could not reach it. Drat, she thought, and Saria is occupied with Mei at the moment. Well, I shall just have to wait here, then, it would not do to interrupt them. Still, I will ring the bell, just in case. She walked over to the tub, fought her way through the thick privacy curtains, and pulled the thick bell-rope that lay just outside of the tub. There was an answering gong from down below, and almost immediately there was a creak from behind her, the creak of the door opening. Dutia jumped and spun to face the intruder, discovering instead her maid Saria.
        "Saria! Why, I just called you again," she said, laughing self-consciously. "I do believe you have some form of precognition." The brown-haired maid smiled, blushing slightly, and Dutia found her false laugh turning real. "Will you help me to get this dress off, Saria?"
        "Yes, mistress," the woman responded, maneuvering herself behind Dutia to undo the laces. Soon the heavy, waterlogged garment was off and Dutia was left with only her silk under-dress and her under-garments under that. She bid Saria to go and take the dress to Dannah, then settled down into the bath when the maid had gone.
        In the hot water and perfume, the sand in the hour-timer on the shelf seemed to go twice as fast as it should have. She relaxed and let the worries of the day melt away: Stenio Kurest, the ruined dress, and even the strange foreign girl Mei, though the last was closest to her thoughts. Soon the sand ran out, and Dutia forced herself out of the water, dried herself with a lush towel, and got into the change of clothes that Saria had brought up. The ivory-colored dress with the blue flowers was plainer than her other one, but significantly more comfortable as well. It was one of her favorite dresses, and she was truly content at that moment, she realized as she slipped into her house slippers.
        Humming a song that she'd heard earlier in the night at the party, she made her way down to the banquet room. I hope that Saria will bring Mei down, she thought. I'd hate for her to get lost in the house somewhere. She heard a loud gong from downstairs; dinner was ready, then. That was good: she was hungry. She had eaten little at the party, candies and appetizers with delicately flavored drinks, and she was eager to eat some real, filling food. As she entered the banquet room, the smell of the meal from the kitchen wafted into her nostrils: freshly baked bread, a fragrant vegetable soup, and the spicy smell of a pasta dish.
        The large, formal table was empty, but the smaller table in the informal dining room was set with dishes of fine ivory and blue porcelain. Mei was already seated behind the table in one of the high-backed wooden chairs. Her hair shone violet like an amethyst, neatly groomed and free of the dirt of the road, and her exotic skin had also been scrubbed to beauty. She wore a plain dress with shades of ivory and brown that Dutia did not recall having seen before. Perhaps it was one of Saria's dresses, she thought, they are about the same size after all. Still, she looks very nice, and the dress sets off her necklace well. Her face is so delicate, I am sure she is a noble from some foreign country.
        Various servants moved around the room without a sound, cleaning, dusting, and tending the fireplace, or carrying trays, napkins, plates, and silverware. Dutia seated herself at the head of the small rectangular table; Mei sat at the foot and there were two seats each on the long sides of the table. It was a quiet room with lots of lighting; a small chandelier hung from the ceiling and there were candles in the table. A tall ivory-and-blue taper was lit and burning in the center of the table, surrounded by roses and other fresh flowers from the garden. Outside the rain still poured, Dutia saw out the great windows that lined the room. The room was in the front of the house, and she saw that Promenade Street was empty of all but the street lamps. What an awful night to be out, she thought. I'm glad to be inside here, where it's cozy and warm and there's a good staff, good food, and interesting company.
        "So, Mei, was your bath pleasant?" Dutia asked. At the other end of the table, the girl nodded. It was as emphatic as she had ever seen the girl, Dutia realized, smiling. "I am glad," she said aloud. "The food will be just as good; in fact, it is likely to be better. That dress flatters you, by the way. So, please do tell me about your home. What is it like?"
        "My home is a place very far from here," the girl said. Her voice was quiet, deep, and a bit rough, with an accent that Dutia could not place as being from anywhere she knew of. A new market, she thought, a new people, this could be first contact with them! But then how does she know our language?
        "You speak very well," Dutia said. "Do you know many languages?" Perhaps the accent is from somewhere among the Western islands, or south, even, on the great continent. That is far from here.
        "No," Mei replied, sounding puzzled. "I speak only this one. Are there many languages used here in this place?"
        "Yes, many," Dutia said, surprised. "Almost every country has its own language, and the far states of the Empire speak so differently from us that it is hard to understand them. Then there is the coarse language used by those of the lower classes, all of those except for our staff, of course. They are very cultured and halfway to nobility themselves. If you were not raised in the Empire here, where were you raised to speak our language so well? I was not aware that any country other than our own used the language of the Empire as their only language."
        "I was born and raised in Alaimone," the girl replied. A waiter came from the kitchen with a tray of drinks, the first course. Red and blue berries floated in a thick, fizzy drink that smelled of fruit and cream.
        Dutia thanked the waiter, then, replied to Mei: "Alaimone...? I have never heard of such a place. Is it a city somewhere or a country?"
        "It is the name of both my city and my country," Mei said distractedly. She picked up a delicate spoon with a long handle and stirred up the drink. A bit sloshed over the rim of the glass; she scooped it up with the spoon and put it into her mouth as Dutia watched. "This is good," she said. Dutia then picked up her own spoon and gently stirred the fizzy drink. I should have eaten first, she remembered, according to the rules of etiquette... However, Mei did not seem to notice, and Mother and Father are gone, but I must remember for our next meal. She took a bite; it was indeed good, with subtle flavoring.
        "Is Alaimone to the west, one of the islands?" Dutia asked, curious about this mysterious land. She had often studied her father's maps, and had never seen such a place. Perhaps it is a colony of the Empire, she thought. I have heard tell that the military is scouting out foreign soil for new resources; perhaps this is the truth of it. There were yet many islands down south in the Emperor's Sea and out in the archipelago known as the Western islands that she did not know, though; most likely it was one of those.
        "I do not know if it is an island," Mei said. "I have been to the sea only a few times, when I was a child." She toyed with her drink, sloshing the berries around in the dregs of the liquid in the near-empty glass.
        "Have you lived here for most of your life then?" Dutia asked. The girl had said that she had nowhere to go. Suddenly, a terrible thought occurred to Dutia. "You're not a..." She trailed off, furtively glancing around the room to make sure that it was empty of servants. This would not make good gossip. The room was clear, so she leaned forward over the table, whispering. "You're not a runaway, are you?" Mei's eyes widened, and she shook her head. Again her hand reached up to clasp the necklace. Aha, that is a nervous habit, Dutia thought. I have discovered it, then, her secret. But what am I to do? If it becomes known among the houses that I, Dutia of the House Perit, have sheltered a runaway from the islands... it would be a disaster!
        At that moment, trays from the kitchen bearing dense, crusty bread arrived, and the meal began. It was largely quiet, as Dutia pondered with dread the implications of her rash actions with Mei. The girl was also quiet, and beyond the standard pleasantries and comments on the meal, no other conversation was exchanged. By the end of the meal, Dutia was already considering ways to politely get rid of Mei, or at the very least to make her part of the permanent staff. She is neat and clean, and she speaks well and seems to pay attention to detail, Dutia thought. However, I still know nothing of who she is or where she is from. Alaimone, she says, but I do not know where that is. For all I know, she could be putting me on with this whole thing. She could even be a street urchin!
        Dutia realized that she was staring and averted her eyes, back to the dregs of the main course of the meal in her bowl, a hearty vegetable soup. No, the girl's face was far too noble for that. Perhaps she was illegitimate, then, the daughter of a noble and a caravanier. Such things were not unheard of, but neither were they common. Still, in most of those cases, if the girl was from the noble family the child would become staff, and if the girl was from the caravanier's family, they would take the child in. Perhaps she was staff and not treated well by the nobles, so then she ran away? Dutia thought. That could explain her temperament, and appearance, but not her accent or her odd clothing. Maybe she ran away from the traders to her staff father, then escaped from there? Yes, that would explain things. Many of the other families are not kind to their staffs. It would be a good thing to take her in, then, perhaps as a personal assistant like Saria so that Saria could have some rest once in a while. I suppose I can be rather demanding sometimes. Yes, I will speak with her in my rooms after dinner.
        The dessert course was served, a delicate and airy chocolate cake with slightly bittersweet icing. It was quickly eaten, and Mei seemed uncertain as to what to do. The final course, an array of rainbow colored sparkling juices in various glasses, was placed on the table in front of them. They were accompanied by two smaller glasses, one for each of the diners.
        "Allow me to pour the drinks," Dutia said. Mei nodded and handed forth her glass. "Mei, I would like to speak with you in my room after dinner, if you would." She poured the drinks- a mixture of the red juice and the orange- into the small glass and pushed it towards Mei. A serving girl standing by picked it up and carried it the rest of the way, and Mei nodded again, whether in response to Dutia's request or as an acknowledgement of the serving girl, Dutia couldn't tell. She mixed herself a drink, and an eternity seemed to go by between the offer and the reality of the end of dinner. The table was cleared, there was much praise to the chefs and kitchen staff, and finally Dutia found herself leading Mei back up the blue-carpeted stairs to her private room. Dutia pushed open the door;  Saria was in the corner of the room, starting a fire in the fireplace. The two women watched her, and Dutia smiled at Saria when she left. The maid returned the smile, and it was a good deal warmer in the room than it had been in the informal dining room that caught the drafts of wind from the great formal banquet hall.
        "Come, sit with me on the bed," Dutia said. "It's far more comfortable than the lounge or the sofa." Mei hesitated, then followed Dutia and sat next to her on the feather-filled mattress. It was soft and lush, and both of them sank in slightly. This surprised Mei, who tried to stand up again only to find herself unable to. Dutia laid a hand on her shoulder, and the younger girl smiled awkwardly. Outside, through the large window in the room, Dutia could see that it seemed the rain had slowed a great deal. The window showed the park behind Promenade street that ran between it and the first street off the park, Market street. Many houses had entrances on both streets, with the entrance to the private House on Promenade and a public storefront on Market. The Perit House was no exception, but instead of a storefront, it featured clerical offices and the wholesale operations for buyers and traders that visited the city.
        Two great trees grew in front of the Market side of the house, their branches stretching out close to the building on the upper level. Dutia had often watched the servant children climb up into those trees as a child, playing in them until Gavin, who had been a much younger man then, chased them out of the limbs. A few times, he had even ascended the tree himself. She had often wished that she could join them instead of watching from the window, pulling stitches out of the needlepoint she had gotten wrong again. Now I am older and I do not give in to such fantasies, she thought. Now I am a more practical young woman, a lady of the house, she told herself, and almost believed it.
        She brought her mind back to the present, and noticed that Mei had followed her gaze out the window. Her eyes were focused on something that Dutia could not see, and her hand again was clutched around the crystal necklace, so tight that her knuckles were turning white.
        "Mei?" Dutia asked, alarmed. She looked back outside the window. Was that a shadow, moving among the branches? The area was dimly lit, by the street lamps down at sidewalk level on Market Street, but she would swear by the Rose that there was a human figure outside. Dutia ran over and yanked on the bell cord as hard as she could, multiple times. There was a huge, ringing din that even she could hear through the thick floors; the figure in the branches disappeared. In minutes there came a knock at the door. Dutia opened it to find Gavin standing there, out of breath.
        "Young mistress, what is wrong?" he asked, panting.
        "There was someone in the branches outside, Gavin. I believe that he was watching us through the window." Dutia pointed, then called Mei over. "Mei, you saw the man outside in the tree, didn't you?"
        "Yes," Mei said. "Yes, he was sitting in the tree and watching us for some time, then he ran away." Gavin frowned. Mei did not meet either Gavin's or Dutia's gazes, instead casting her gaze downward, at or into the crystal necklace that she still clutched with one hand. What is that necklace? Dutia wondered. I think that it is more than just an heirloom, with the way she seems to look at it. Perhaps it is magical, and she is watching the man outside right now. I will talk with Gavin later about this.
        "I will send some of the staff out to look around," Gavin said, pushing back those who had gathered around the door in response to the din. Dutia nodded, relieved, but there was no response from Mei, who continued to stare at her crystal pendant as if mesmerized. She seems very calm, Dutia thought. Perhaps she knows something about this. Perhaps this is all a setup... Before she could frame a question, there came a great crash from the next room, the private study of Dutia's mother. Gavin was the first to respond, pushing through the crowd of staff in the hall, and Mei was the second, rushing out of the room like a bolt of lightning, bunching the fabric of her dress up in the hand that wasn't clutching crystal so that it would not impede her. Dutia hurried after them, going as fast as propriety would allow her to in the long ivory dress, and ordered all of the staff away on penalty of losing their positions. They parted around her, and she arrived down the corridor to find Gavin unlocking the door clumsily. He got the lock open, and pulled back his hands, yanking the key out of the lock. In that instant, Mei shoved past him and into the room. I knew it, Dutia thought, that traitor!
        Forgetting propriety, she ran awkwardly, nearly tripping herself as she rushed past a shocked Gavin, who still holding the key and grasping the edge of the thick door with one hand. His other hand was to his chest, but Dutia did not stop to see if he was okay; the room broken into contained the trade records, her mother's personal library , and the safe where the family valuables were kept behind a hidden panel of the bookshelf.
        Inside the room, Mei confronted a young man dressed in black with bright, fiery red hair. He stood at the edge of the room in the middle of a shower of broken glass.; there was a gaping hole in the window to match. The shards of glass were scattered over both the dark wood floor and the plush, rectangular rug that covered most of the floor. Dutia stayed back, wary, but the two just stared at each other. What is going on here? Dutia wondered. She stole a glance back at the doorway and saw that Gavin was recovered and standing straight; next to him stood Saria, armed with a fireplace poker, presumably from Dutia's room. Dutia turned back to the scene at hand; still the two were frozen, gazes locked like iron.
        Mei moved sharply, wrenching the necklace from around her neck and holding it up in the air, above her head and slightly pointed towards the red-haired young man. He backed away, back towards the jagged-edged hole in the window, looking for an escape. The rain had resumed, Dutia saw, and a strong wind howled through the branches of the trees. In the distance, beyond the buildings on the other side of the street, there was lightning. Mei's lips were moving now, almost imperceptibly, as if she was chanting something. Dutia could not hold herself back any longer. She strode forward with as much authority and confidence as she could dredge up from fear and uncertainty.
        "By the Master of Order, what is going on here?" she asked in her best command-voice, a pale imitation of her mother's, but it seemed to do the job, for both Mei and the man froze in place, looking at her. She could feel the eyes of Gavin and Saria on her as well. Mei paused for a second in mid-chant, her mouth hanging open as if she would say something, but then she resumed, louder now and almost a shout. She moved towards the red-haired man, absentmindedly waving Dutia away. There seemed to be a shimmer in the air suddenly, like the air over boiling water where everything seemed to bend wrong and in strange ways. Dutia found herself walking towards Mei. She stopped and considered, then increased her pace. She had to stop this.
        The chanting reached a crescendo; Mei was standing only a few hands-lengths away from the red-haired man, who looked very much like a small child at that moment, scrambling backwards in an attempt to get away and finding himself caught against a bookshelf, one that lined the whole wall. Mei's crystal was shining as bright as a beacon light. It's just like the great one that sits atop the lighthouse in the southern capital's harbor, Dutia thought, fascinated and frozen as the world became stranger. There was a sort of golden aura all around Mei now. An Enzela! Dutia thought. She is one of the Master's bringers of light! Dutia ran forward towards the lighted figure. Mei turned to her, and there was a look of intense and sudden fear in her eyes, strong enough to force Dutia to stop where she stood. She glanced at the red-haired man, whose eyes were wide and panicked as he tried to reach behind himself to get a book off of the shelf. Dutia started to yell at him that her mother's books were very valuable, but was cut off by a loud thud, the sound of pottery shattering, and a sudden stop in the chanting.
        She looked back, as if in slow motion, and saw a fine vase in pieces on the floor next to Mei. It had been a wedding gift from one of Father's trading partners, Dutia thought numbly. Her gaze moved, pulled as if it were not under her control, but by some marionetteer. She saw Mei reach up to her head where the vase had hit her, face frozen in shock as she collapsed, letting out a low, wailing sound. As the golden nimbus faded, she was silhouetted by a sudden, improbable flash of light. Lightning? Dutia wondered. No, I've never seen lightning like that, not that bright. Then the unseen power directed her gaze back to the other side of the room. She saw Gavin in the doorway, his arm still hanging in mid-air after the throw. He yelled something at her; she thought it was "Young mistress!" but she couldn't be sure because his voice had seemed to slow down somehow, the pitch going deeper.
        There was a sudden noise, an echoing thud. Finding herself in control again, Dutia jerked around to see Mei's pendant, fallen from her hand, laying on the hardwood floor. Instantly, her gaze flicked to the red-haired man. Their gazes locked, and both of them dived for the crystal, ignoring the broken glass that still lined the floor. Dutia felt several pieces of it cut her legs, bare under the dress. Gavin's distorted voice yelled again; this time Dutia thought it was her name. She ignored him.
        The light from the false lightning had grown, and she seemed to be inside of it now as she reached the crystal. The world of her mother's study seemed distant, seen through this hazy white light where only she, the red-haired man, and the unconscious form of Mei were in focus. Her fingers grasped the chain of the necklace, and she pulled, but the red-haired man had hold of the pendant, which seemed to be the source of the light somehow. He jerked it away, and the chain broke in Dutia's hand. He sat up, looking into the pendant which seemed to Dutia as bright as the sun and as hard to look at, and seemed to see something in its depths that shocked him. He dropped it, and soon Dutia could see as well.
        A forest of gray trees, evergreens laden with needles, was coming out of the crystal. At the same time, it began to surround them; Dutia, still flat on her stomach, thought she could make out the outlines of the trees in the white mists around them. Somewhere a woman screamed- Saria? Dutia wondered- and a man shouted- Was it Gavin?- and there were various other voices, if they were the staff or not Dutia did not know.
        The forest became more and more real in front of her, and the shadows of the trees became darker. It's like the children who fell into the storybook, Dutia thought, that story that I used to have told over and over again. I loved that story... The world came from inside the crystal ball, which seemed to be growing, its glass walls stretching madly outward like a soap bubble that inflated itself. The trees came more and more out of the mist, becoming reality from vague shadows, and the wall of the bubble passed through Dutia. It was a barrier of liquid as thin as the wall of the soap bubble or the border between air and water in her bath, not the hard glass she'd been expecting at all. It felt like a cold shower of rain, a sheet of water, but she was still dry afterwards.
        After the barrier passed, in the new world, everything was quiet. Odd noises, the cries of foreign animals she supposed, became more apparent. She looked around in awe, dragging herself to her feet and forgetting all about the other two, the red-haired man and Mei. It was cool, and what was left of the white haze had resolved itself into a thin mist that floated and wound itself through the branches of the trees, drifting lazily and dampening sound.
        "Where is this place?" a voice asked, rough and deep with the coarse accent of the streets. Dutia winced, and looked to find the red-haired man looking at her. They stood in a clearing of medium size, empty of everything but mist and ringed by a dense wall of trees. She brushed the dirt from the ground- which was mostly bare earth, with sparse patches of grass and gnarled tree roots- off of her dress and turned to face him.
        "I think," she said, steadying her voice and wiping her hands on the dress, "I think its name is Alaimone."

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Chapter Two
Knife, Paper, Stone

        "Alaimone?" the red-haired man asked, his gaze wondering around the misty trees. "What by chaos kind of a name is that? A mere children's story..." This last comment was not directed at anything in particular, and was half-muttered, but it had still reached Dutia's ears. She stared at him, gaping. It was true, then, those in the streets did swear by chaos! "What are you staring at, lady? Am I turning into a Demnoso over here?"
        "You might as well be by the language you use, sir!" she replied. "Swearing by the power of evil! I have never heard anything so blasphemous, not even from a non-believer in the islands. To take chaos as your lord, by the Master of Order..."
        "Look, I don't know what you're going on about, lady. Just tell me what you know about this place, since sorceress here is stone cold at the moment, no great thanks to your man."
        "Not know what I am... You! Why should I tell you anything, when you broke into my house? I thought you were after the crystal anyways. You are the one that should be informing me." Dutia stood with her hands on her hips, feeling ridiculous. Well, there are no dinner parties in this place, I would expect, she thought to herself, so I should be fine on that front. Now I have to focus on getting myself out of this place; the House is probably in an uproar, and here I am stuck with this... this street-bred blasphemer!
        "Crystal? By chaos, I wasn't after the crystal, I was after your business records. I got hired to break in earlier by a man named Dalin, cash up front. He a friend of yours?" Dutia frowned, considering. Dalin, Dalin, Dalin, she thought to herself, it sounds familiar... Her mind returned to the party earlier; she'd been trying to eavesdrop on Pagos Kurest, who had been talking to a few shady-looking men. What was it he'd said? She couldn't remember. The first man's name had been something like Ian Mornow, a minor noble from the house Mornow that ranked sixth or seventh back from Perit, but she was sure that the second man's name had been Dalin.
        "Kurest," she said. The name itself was almost a curse to her. The Third Family of the city was always looking for an advantage over the House of Perit. "This Dalin, was he a dark man about a head taller than me, beard, broad shoulders, dark clothing?"
        "That's the one. I was supposed to finish the job before sunset but I didn't see an in.  I figured I'd wait around until about sunset, then the darkness-taken rain showed up. Put me wet half to chaos. Don't rightly know why I'm telling you all this, but in the end I got in and look what it got me: no cash, no books, no employer, and a bad reputation. So what's your sad story?"
        "Will you please stop swearing?" Dutia said. Before the man could argue, she continued, "I found this girl, Mei, out in the rain, and as I am the mistress of the House and she appeared lost, I offered her aid and shelter for the night." The man snorted.
        "Out of the goodness of yer heart, I'm sure," he said. "No thought to yer trading contracts or anything like that, no, not a thought. Ye'll be offering me a place in your high rooms next, I expect?" Dutia flushed, her face turning red. Well, it wasn't until later, she thought, it wasn't my first impression! She started to say this, then realized that the action would bring her down to the man's level.
        "I spoke with her over dinner, when she told me that she was from a place called 'Alaimone'. I had never heard of such a place," another derisive snort, "as I said, I had never heard of such a place, so I asked her to tell me more about it. All of the more information I received was that it was the name of both a country and a city. That and the fact that they speak Empiric, too, for some reason. Mei claimed that she didn't know any other languages..."
        "That sure as darkness is black wasn't Empiric she was speaking back in that room! I think that she's the Demnosa here, not I." He gestured to Mei, who was still lying unconscious.
        "Will you cease with the foul language!" Dutia shouted, fists clenched at her sides.
        "Maybe instead of that, you ought to be worrying about our Demnosa here. If she's dead, we may as well be in the realm of chaos for all chance we have of leaving this place." Dutia walked over to the crumpled figure of the girl. Mei lay still as she had fallen in the study. A large, ugly bruise was beginning to form on the left side of her forehead. She was breathing slowly. Dutia put a hand over Mei's heart; it was indeed still beating properly.
        "She will be fine," Dutia said. " Though I do not know how long it will be until she wakes up. We should look for food, water, and shelter. I know how to make a fire with sticks, if you will be kind enough to break off a few branches of one of these trees here. What is your name, by the way? We have not been properly introduced. I am Dutia, only daughter of the House of Perit."
        "Kai," the man replied. "You can call me Kai." Dutia nodded.
        "Our meeting has been foreordained," she said.
        "What? What do you mean by that?"
        "You would not understand. I did not mean anything by it, it is just a saying among we that follow the teachings of Order," Dutia said.
        "Why waste it on me, then?" Kai asked.
        "It is not wasted on anyone," Dutia replied. "Order is the fundamental process that keeps our world working, and the Master of Order is He Who Brought Forth Order, the One who watches over everything and keeps it as it should be. To act against the Order is to bring chaos into the world, and evil things with it."
        "Yeah, Order's just great when you're at the top of it! Order is wonderful when you're living in a big plush merchant house and not down and out in the gutter! Order is just fine then, isn't it? You gotta feel it to be it, lady, and don't let anyone tell you differently." Kai turned and walked toward the edge of the clearing. "Start digging a pit for the fire," he said without turning around, "and I'll get you some darkness-taken firewood." Uncertain how to reply, Dutia stood there awkwardly, watching him approach the tree. Then she noticed something odd: there were no sticks lying about on the ground, indeed outside the clearing the forest floor seemed to be veiled completely in thick fog. Moreover, it was dark, even between the mid-sections of the trees. At their tops, she could see the lead gray sky behind the points of the trees, churning and boiling, with a lighter, bright circle that might have been the sun. The space inside the clearing seemed unreasonably bright compared with what lay outside its boundaries. How odd, she thought. All of the trees are almost the same height... Something's not right here.
        "Kai!" Dutia called out.  He ignored her and kept walking, scouting out the best branches for the fire.  "Green wood won't burn," Dutia yelled. He still stubbornly ignored her, choosing a solid-looking branch with a thick coat of needles. He reached up to break it off, and as he touched it, it turned to dust. The whole tree collapsed on itself into dust, or something that appeared dust. Kai shouted and jumped back. Dutia watched from the middle of the clearing by Mei as the "dust," seemingly miniscule particles of light, soundlessly faded into nonexistence. Kai looked at the empty space, then again at his hand.
        "What by the darkness was that?" he asked her, looking at the empty space then back at his hand, at Dutia and Mei then back to the empty space.
        "I'm... not sure," Dutia said. The new path that had been created was lit the same as the clearing, but there seemed to be the familiar foggy darkness among the trees on either side of the path. "Look at the bottoms of the trees, though. It's all fog. Why doesn't that fog stretch into the clearing at all? It seems to be confined to the dark areas." She walked up to another of the gray trees along the rim of the clearing and touched it. Nothing happened.
        "Now you try," she said, gesturing at the tree. "Maybe it happens with all of them. Maybe we can find a way out of here!" Kai's face acquired a determined look. He stepped up to the tree and laid a hand on it, grasping one of the branches. This time the change was different. Instead of breaking apart, the tree seemed to acquire more substance. Gradually it acquired color; the gray bark became a rich brown like the earth and the charcoal-colored needles became a rich green. They smelled fragrant now, too, a wintry smell that Dutia had only experienced once before with a gift of pine needles from the mountains.
        "Beautiful," she said. "Look, the fog around the trunk is gone as well. This seems to be something that works only for you, however. Try more of them, how about the one next to this one?" In a short period of time, they had brightened the remaining trees around the border of the clearing. No more disappeared, but the opening still remained, inviting and foreboding at the same time.
        "What now?" Kai asked. "We ought to wait for her to wake up before we go any farther."
        "Yes, but if we press on we might find something that we can use to help her. I'm not in such good shape either, I've got cuts all over my legs. Perhaps when Gavin threw the vase that knocked her out, he interfered with  our transportation  to this world. The city of Alaimone may be nearby," Dutia reasoned.
        "Yes, and it may be halfway across the world. Nothing's for sure in this place. Trees light up, trees break into dust: the rules here are way off."
        "You may be right, but it's the only choice we have," Dutia said. "If we are here, I believe that we were meant to be here. The road has been offered to us, and it is our choice to take it or not. I believe that we should take it."
        "Your Master of Order may have precious little influence here," Kai said. "We've got to be practical about this. We have no way of knowing whether we should go down the road or not. Not until the girl wakes up, anyways."
        "She is injured. She may not wake up for a long time. If the city is nearby, we would be fools not to take her, or worse for leaving her here. We have to get her help. No matter what, she must be our first priority, with survival. We have no food, no water, nothing. We don't even have shelter or food. The green wood that we have here won't burn, it has too much sap in it."
        "Too much sap? That's ridiculous. Of course, there's no saying that it wouldn't just burst into a cloud of sparks again. We don't know anything about this place and we don't know anything about medicine if one of us gets hurt or sick. You can live a few days without water, though. We should be fine for a few days. If she doesn't wake up in a few days, well, then chaos will take us at that point because she's likely to be dead or a vegetable."
        "I still say we should go out. The path seems ridiculously clear, there should be no way for us to get lost here. We can take her with us. We can even leave her here. Perhaps only one of us should go out, and one of us should stay here with Mei."
        "No," Kai said. "That's a stupid plan. I'm the only one that can affect the trees, so I'd have to be the one to go out. If something happened to me, you two would be stuck in this room unable to get anywhere, until she woke up at least. If we go out, we go out all together. If we leave her here alone and something unfriendly comes by, she's dead and we're in trouble. I'll tell you what's what. I'll play you at knife, paper, stone for whether we go or not. If you win we'll go, if I win we'll stay."
        "Knife, paper, stone? What is that?" Dutia asked.
        "You've never played knife, paper, stone?" Kai asked. Dutia shook her head. "How does your family make decisions without knife, paper, stone?" he asked. "Here, let's sit down, I'll show you how to play." The two sat on the ground a short distance from Mei, who was still unconscious. "First you make your right hand into a fist," he said, holding up one hand clenched into a fist, "and you leave your left hand flat open." Dutia mimicked Kai's movements, and he nodded approvingly. "Very good. Now, you take your right hand and strike your left hand three times, like this," he demonstrated the action, "one, two, three." Again, Dutia repeated the actions. "So you do this, one, two, three, then you make a sign with your hand."
        "A sign?" Dutia asked. "What sort of sign?"
        "Knife, paper, or stone," he replied. "The knife cuts paper, the paper smothers the stone, and the stone breaks the knife. The stone is simplest, it's just a clenched fist, and the paper is simple too, it's your hand just flat open, with the fingers together, like your left hand is right now. The knife is the tough one," he said. "You take the stone, the clenched fist, and put out your first two fingers like the paper, together. That's the knife." He watched as Dutia imitated each of the signs in turn. "Now, to play the game, you start by pounding your left hand one, two, three, then you make a sign," he put his fingers in the position for the knife, "and we see who wins. Ready to try?"
        "The knife cuts the paper, the paper smothers the stone, and the stone breaks the knife," Dutia said. "I think I understand."
        "Good, let's try it, then," Kai replied. "Ready?" He held his hands in the ready position, right hand hovering over the left. Dutia nodded and copied his position. "We'll go slow this time. One, two, three, sign, okay?"
        "Right."
        "Okay. Knife, paper, stone," he said, then revealed the knife. Dutia had chosen paper, and he mimicked cutting the paper with a knife. "See, I won this time."
        "That was just practice," Dutia said. "That was not to decide whether or not we are leaving this clearing, it was only practice."
        "You play like a master already," Kai said dryly. "Okay, now, best of three to see if we stay or go." The first round was a tie, stone and stone. Dutia won the second round, knife against paper, but Kai took the third, stone against knife. "Ha," he said, "This is to decide it, now. This is it. Ready?"
        "Ready," Dutia said. "Knife, paper, stone," she said, then revealed the paper. Kai's hand was a clenched fist, the stone. "Ha!" Dutia said. "Paper smothers stone. It's decided, then, we are going."
        "I think you cheated," Kai said, laughing.
        "What? You accuse me of cheating?" Dutia replied, offended.
        "No, no, no," Kai said, smiling. "It's just a formality. The loser always accuses the winner of cheating, it's a tradition." He laughed again at the puzzled look on Dutia's face. "It's like your foreordained meeting talk earlier, it doesn't really mean anything."
        "Okay," Dutia said. "Good. Well, so we must get moving then, before dark."
        "The sun still seems to be in the same place it was," Kai said. "It still seems pretty high up. There's no telling how far away the horizon is, though, or even which direction we're facing at the moment."
        "Right," Dutia said. "So how are we going to move Mei?"
        "There is no need," said a quiet voice behind them. Both turned and saw Mei struggling to her feet. "I am capable of moving myself."
        "Mei!" Dutia said, rushing to her side and helping her stand, wincing at the pain in her legs with every step. "What is going on? Where is this place, Mei?"
        "This is my home," the girl replied, looking up at Dutia, then over to Kai. "This is Aliamone, what is left of it."
        "Then there is no city," Kai said. "There is no city of Aliamone?"
        "No, there is a city. It is far from here, I think, but there is a chance that it is close by today. 'Place' works differently here," she said, looking down again as if to study the ground and find some meaning in it.
        "I do not understand," Dutia said. "Please, explain from the beginning."
        "In the beginning, the world was created in darkness," Mei said. Dutia looked vaguely shocked, and Kai laughed.
        "That's a good one," he said. "I didn't expect you to have a sense of humor. Get to the facts, though, if what you say about this place is true I want to get to the city as soon as we can, all right?"
        "Darkness?" Dutia asked, talking over him. "What about darkness? The world was created by the Master of Order, in the beginning of all things. He created the world in light, in the garden of light, according to the ancient texts." Mei looked confused, as if she was unsure which reply to address. Both of the others watched her expectantly, waiting for her to begin.
        "This is the true beginning," Mei said finally, "of all that is, and of the things that are facing us today and right here, this labyrinth of illusion. It may be different than the stories you are familiar with, and it may be true only for this place, but here in this place, the world was created in darkness, by the force known as Chaos. Chaos created all things in the universe, and all things in the universe were contained in darkness, and all things in the universe were one and the same. The last thing that was made by Chaos was different from all of the others, and it knew itself and would not be contained in darkness. This thing was light." She paused, clearing her throat, and it seemed that all of the illusory forest leaned in to listen, the world itself poised on the telling of her tale. The silence persisted as Mei considered something, a bemused expression on her face.
        "Well?" Kai asked. "Go on, what happened after that?" Mei nodded, swallowing.
        "The light was created to be an end, the last thing in the universe and its perfection, for it is the thing of greatest beauty in the universe. However, something else happened. The light turned against Chaos and began to eliminate the darkness, breaking the bonds that held the world together. Before the light, all things were one and the same, Chaos, constantly being created and destroyed, constantly changing and being changed. The light began to give things identity. The light gave difference, and the light named each thing in the universe and separated it from each other thing. These actions of the light created a new force in the universe, Order, that which prevents the actions of Chaos by preventing change. Order and Chaos are constantly at war with each other, even today, and that is what causes the world to be as it is. The Order gives the world form and structure, and the Chaos gives the world growth and change. Light and darkness try to overtake each other every day, in the day and night; the darkness tries to take everything into itself again, to make it all one again, and the dawn comes again to separate things from each other. Chaos against order, light against darkness; change against stability, variety against unity, and everything was as it should be, until just recently."
        "What happened?" Kai asked. "Something to do with this place?" He gestured to the illusory forest around them. Dutia followed the gesture, looking around as if seeing the place for the first time, then looked back at Mei, who was looking at Kai, nodding.
        "Yes," she said. "The darkness has somehow gained an ally, or otherwise an agent or increase in its power, and the whole balance has been thrown off.  Even the force of Chaos has been perverted. The night comes less
often now, but for longer, and the whole of the world is destroyed and remade between sunset and sunrise, a miniature creation daily. We are unsure if there is a natural cause for this, some flaw in the light, and this is the true end of the world, or if there is a sentient force that seeks to use these forces for their own end. Many among us believe that there is indeed someone or something behind this place, for its structure and regularity of creation. Strange creatures walk in the forest. Every time it is a gray forest of some sort, of trees like these you see around us today," she gestured to the evergreens, "or twisted, spiny things like are found in the desert, or great trees burdened with crowns of leaves. Many times it has been fields of flowers, tall giant ones with large heads that have not bloomed yet, or statues of stone and metal. All are made of the same gray stuff, the same things as the trees, and they are always in a labyrinth-like setting, with winding passages that lead to large rooms. This has been going on for many, many years, now, many generations. The green trees in this place gladden me, for they are not something that has been seen in many years."
        "You have not?" Dutia asked, eyeing Kai suspiciously. He looked self-conscious, trying to act natural or nonchalant. "How do you know that there are passages beyond the clearings, then?"
        "When I was a child, there was a woman, a heroine of the light," Mei said. "She possessed the power to open the ways between the rooms. One day, she left on her own, to seek out the end of the maze. All of us wished her well, and luck, but she never returned. Days went by, and many changes took place. One morning we all awoke to find a strange  necklace, the crystal pendant I wore. There was a letter there, as well, also from the heroine."
        "Well, what did it say?" Kai asked. "Go on, don't stop now and leave us hanging."
        "It spoke of the crystal and how to use it, the ritual chant that accompanied it, and other things that she had discovered."
        "So you went through the  necklace?" Dutia guessed. "You went through and ended up in our world." Mei's eyes widened. She nodded.
        "Yes," she said. "How did you know?"
        "I guessed," Dutia said, "Based on the things that you had told me during dinner and otherwise, from your story now and from what Kai and I have discovered on our own. But how? Why? What does the crystal have to do with anything?"
        "It is the link between worlds," Mei said. "The  crystal lets me see into this world when I am in yours, wherever I want to look. I do not know how the location in your own world was determined, I arrived in the place where you found me. But now I have lost the crystal, for the letter said that one must be holding it to possess it between worlds, and I fear we may never get you back to your homeland."
        "Don't worry," Kai said. "There's got to be a way."
        "You are an optimist," Dutia said. "I would not have expected it of you."
        "You've got to be when you're a thief," he replied. "If you don't, you end up dead, and that's exactly where I don't want to be right now. We've made it this far, now we can make it out. Let's find this person running the show and give as good as we've gotten, all right?"
        "It is not that simple," Mei said. "The letter said-"
        "Do you still have the letter?" Dutia asked.
        "Yes," Mei said. "I keep it with me at all times. I put it-" She reached down, as if to reach into a pocket, and was shocked to discover that there was nothing there. "Oh, no," she said. "It must have been in my other clothing..." A look of horror crossed her face.
        "Don't worry," Kai said again. "We'll just start walking the maze. I can put down any trees for us, turn them to dust or what not, so we should be fine. I have a feeling that our mystery person awaits us at the center of the maze."
        "You are probably right," Dutia said. "We had better get started now if we are to make it before things change. Mei, how long would you say we have until the next night? Is that sun rising or setting?"
        "Rising, I think," the girl replied. "I have no idea how long it will be until nightfall. Things have changed since I was here last, so either night is coming faster or there is some form of time difference between our two worlds and time moves slower in the outside world than it does here."
        "That is good," Dutia said. "I need to return before my parents do in the real world, or there will be an uproar. I would hate to be responsible for any of my staff losing their positions, especially Gavin and Saria." Kai snorted. "What?" Dutia asked, turning to face him. "I have loyalty to them as well as they do to me, you know. I like them. They are my friends."
        "A slave is never a friend to a master," he replied, "only a slave, like a pet is only a pet."
        "Let us put that aside for now," Mei said, breaking in. "We have to get moving, and soon. Strange creatures appear the closer it gets too dark. Thankfully, the illusion sees fit to provide close and instruments with which to defend ourselves. That is another piece of evidence stating that there is a master behind this game, a large one, in fact. Still, we had better get moving. The daylight grows shorter as we stand here." Dutia and Kai looked at each other and nodded solemnly.
        "Right," Dutia said. "Kai, if you would go ahead and open up the path?"
        "Sure thing," he said, walking up to the opening between the two rows of trees. He touched the two to each side of the opening; both turned green and fragrant. He then turned to the one directly in front of the path, the obstacle, and laid a hand on it. It crumbled into dust. He looked back to Dutia and Mei for approval.
        "Yes, that is it!" Mei said. "That is it exactly. You too must be a hero of the light." Kai nodded smugly.
        Progress through the forest was not swift, however. The trio soon encountered a fork in the path, straight or left; the tree to the right proved to be green and live.
        "What shall we do now?" Dutia asked. "Straight or left?"
        "You know the answer to that question," Kai said. "Knife, paper, stone, of course, best of three. I'm for going left, and you're for going ahead this time."
        "Right," Dutia said, putting her hands in the correct positions, trying out each one in turn.
        "Knife, paper, stone?" Mei asked, curious.
        "A way to make a hard decision quickly," Kai replied to her, then turned to Dutia. "Knife, paper, stone," he said, choosing stone. Dutia chose paper. The next match also went her way, knife against paper.
        "That settles it, then," Kai said with a sigh. "The cheater has won. We shall go straight." He gestured to the path ahead, lifting an arm dramatically to lay it on the tree, which turned to light-dust, leaving an empty space. He then lifted the arm again, pointing forward to the unseen horizon. "Onward!"
        There came a noise from the other path, as if something was crashing through the underbrush. However, there was no underbrush, Dutia noticed. She leaned against one of the trees- it was as hard as stone, a petrified wood to her.
        "What is that?" Dutia asked.
        "I don't know," Kai said, "but I'm sure glad we're going the other way."       
        "Wait!" Mei said.
        "You know, I had a feeling she was going to say that," Kai said, leaning in close to Dutia, who smiled nervously. To Mei, he said, "No, I don't think we should wait. I have a feeling that it's not friendly, and I don't want to be here when it arrives."
        "Too late," Dutia said grimly. Stone-trees fell behind the perimeter that surrounded them, crashing loudly to the ground. "I think it's here."

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Chapter Three
Ilaryon

         Dutia, Kai, and Mei backed away from the source of the noise, standing close to the middle of the clearing. Dust was starting to rise from the area, which was to the left of the exit to the maze on the perimeter of the clearing.
        "Do you think we can escape if we run now?" Dutia asked, shooting a glance towards the exit.
        "No," Kai responded, taking a brief glance himself. "Not from something that big, that can move that quickly. Remember how long it takes for the trees to fall apart for us, almost half of a minute at least."
        "Well, what if we can get behind it then, and take the path it has cleared for us?" she asked, looking at Mei, whose eyes were still fixated on the source of the action.
        "That's an idea," Kai said. "However, there might be more of them where this one came from." He squinted. "I think I can see an outline of something. It looks like a giant gargoyle, like the ones on top of the buildings in the city, you know?" Mei didn't respond. Dutia squinted in turn and looked more carefully at the darkness outside the perimeter.
        "I cannot see a thing," she said, "but the noise seems to be slowing down a little bit, so it must be close."
        "Right," Kai said. "Too bad there are no stones or rocks around, perhaps we could throw them and hit it." He scanned the ground and found it empty, merely covered with pale green grass. "Nothing," he said, half to himself.
        A large cloud of black smoke or dust rose out of the forest, billowing high over the trees. Dutia shielded her eyes, and the other two followed suit. Mei crouched down low, looking ready to move quickly. At least one of us is prepared, Dutia thought. Still, there's no way we'll be able to run in these dresses...
        The smoke started to clear, becoming more translucent. A large, vaguely human figure stood in the center of it. Suddenly, the smoke whipped around wildly like a whirlwind and disappeared. The figure was revealed to be a gargoyle-like stone man, intricately carved out of granite and threatening. On the sides of its head were great curved horns like a ram's, and below those were ugly gray ears that stuck out almost comically and came to a point at the top. It had ruby-like red eyes that shone with an angry internal fire. It stood almost as high as the treetops, and there was a trail of broken tree trunks behind it. Then it spoke, and its voice was gravelly, like rough stone on stone.
        "My master wishes to speak with you," it says. "Kindly follow me and I will take you to him." It turned around, heading back through its own trail of destruction.
        "Well, what if we don't want to see him?" Kai asked.
        The gargoyle turned back around, and glared at him, its stony mouth set into a grim line. Amazing flexibility for hard stone, thought Dutia. I wonder if it is made out of the same stuff as the trees around here? Perhaps its master is indeed the master of this place. If so, what choice do we have but to follow? We seem to be at its mercy, there is no way we could take it in a physical test of strength; our only practical escape is the path behind it, and that is where it directs us even now.
        "I care not whether you want to follow me or not," it said, giving them a golem-like shrug. "I am quite content to leave you wandering the labyrinth without food or water. My master has reasons of his own for calling you, I merely come bearing his message."
        "Why should we trust you?" Kai asked.
        "In all honesty, you should not trust me," the gargoyle replied, "but I don't see that you have much choice when you are strangers in a strange land." Dutia opened her mouth to say that Mei wasn't a stranger here, but thought better of it. Better that this one doesn't know in case the master is our enemy, she thought. Kai shot her a warning glance; evidently his thoughts were the same. She shrugged helplessly, and Mei continued to watch without a sound.
        "What is your name?" Kai asked, after a moment of silence.
        "My name is Ilaryon," the gargoyle replied. "Do not think that it grants you any power over me," it said when Kai suddenly looked smug. "This is no children's tale, and I do not have a soul, therefore that name refers to nothing here in reality that you could use, even should you possess the necessary power."
        "Friend Ilaryon, you are quite the philosopher," Kai said. "Still, the name tells me more about you than you would know. Perhaps I will have some hold over you after all."
        "You are bluffing," Ilaryon replied. "Besides, I possess something that will be a far stronger hold on you than anything else." The gargoyle pressed its hands together and closed its eyes. Dutia watched curiously, waiting and wondering if Kai really was bluffing. Who is he, anyways? she wondered. He seems far too well spoken for a mere burglar.
        Ilaryon opened its eyes, shouted, and clapped its hands once. Dutia flinched, unable to help herself. A small cloud of smoke appeared, veiling its hands, then cleared. Dangling from one of its claw-like stone fingers was Mei's crystal pendant on its silver chain. Dutia glanced at the girl, whose mouth was hanging open. Mei shut it, and a determined expression appeared on her face. Ilaryon watched her.
        "I see," it said. "My point stands made. Follow or not, as you will." It clapped again, and the necklace disappeared in another cloud of smoke. Then Ilaryon turned and walked back into the forest, retracing its path of destruction. Dutia and Mei walked over to Kai.
        "Was it all bluff?" Dutia asked in a hushed voice. Kai looked at her, suddenly looking very tired.
        "It was the best I could do," he said, looking at her. "I'm sorry." Dutia was confused, both at his serious tone and his words.
        "Why would we blame you?" Dutia asked. She looked back at Ilaryon's trail. The gargoyle was walking at a steady pace, nonchalantly, paying no attention to the three travelers. "I think it was playing us for a fool," Dutia said to no one in particular. "It knew very well who we were and where we hail from. All of us, since it had the crystal." She spread her hands in a gesture of helplessness.
        "We must follow," Mei said grimly. The steely expression was still on her face. "I need that crystal, we all need it."
        "Why are you so concerned with getting the crystal back?" Kai asked. "You have us here, right? I thought that was what you wanted."
        "I-" Mei looked away. "The crystal belonged to my mother, Iluei, the heroine of the light. She raised me after my father..." The girl trailed off, tears welling up in her eyes. Dutia crouched down next to her and reached out a hand to reassure her, ignoring Kai's stern glance. "Iluei had a son," Mei said quietly. "I never knew him, she told me that he was lost long before I was born but I never knew how. The letter said that she had gone to look for him in the other world, because she believed that he was there." She looked back up to the others for approval, or perhaps something else. Dutia couldn't tell, but she tried to smile reassuringly. The action strained her face.
        "This does not matter now," Dutia said. "We can talk later. Right now we have to follow the path we are lead on."
        "Another empty saying," Kai said. "Skip it. I want to know." He turned back to Mei. "Why are we here? Why did you bring us here?"
        "I had a feeling..." the girl said, trailing off.
        "A feeling? That's it? You had a feeling, so you decided to trap us all in this alternate reality, second world, whatever the hell this place is?" He gestured around wildly, indicating the forest, the path he had tried to start, and Ilaryon's trail of destruction and decimated trees, glancing at her like knives. "You decided to trap us all in this maze with you? You should listen to your head over your heart from now on, although it looks to me like you haven't even got a brain in that head to think for you."
        With that, Kai stalked off to follow Ilaryon and Mei began crying, sobbing furiously. Dutia wasn't sure if they were tears of sadness or frustration or grief or anger, perhaps something more than all of it, she thought. Perhaps it's the same way I am feeling now, like we are trapped in a small, lightless room breathing up all of the air and there is no way out of it, no doorway or window to show us that there is something else out there. Where did that come from? she wondered. It was on the edge of her mind... Ah, there it was.
        "Mei," she said quietly, touching the girl on the shoulder. The girl turned away, hiding her face and her tears. "Mei," she said again, more insistently. "I want to talk to you."
        "What is it?" the girl asked finally, wiping her eyes with the torn sleeve of the ivory dress she still wore and looking up into the blue-haired woman's face. Dutia winced at the condition of the dress, almost without thinking about it. There are more pressing issues, she reminded herself, clearing her throat.
        "On my world, in the city I hail from, there is a Parable of Order that we are taught as children in religious school. The story goes that long ago in the early days of the world, the Master of Order's favored son and the keeper of trust in His Empire, Elharan, was overcome by followers of Chaos. He awoke found himself in a completely dark room. He knew that he had not much time to live, for there was a limited amount of air in the room." She paused here, for her voice had grown rough and her lips were becoming chapped.
        "What happened then?" Mei asked, stealing a glance over towards the road of destruction and Kai who walked along it behind Ilaryon before refocusing her attention on Dutia's face. Dutia followed her glance. The two on the road were walking slowly, but still I had best tell the tale quickly, she thought.
        "He felt all around the room, on all of the walls and on the floor, and found nothing but smooth walls. He then became desperate and tapped the walls and the floors to found a hollow spot, but there was none and all of his knocking resounded only as dull thuds. Nothing lay beyond the walls. Elharan began to despair of ever leaving the place, but he laid himself down on the floor and prayed to the Master of Order for Guidance."
        "But how did they put him in the room if there was no door?" Mei asked.
        "Well, this is how it happened. Elharan became very still, alone in the darkness, and then he felt a presence in the room with him. He heard a voice respond to his prayers. The voice said 'Listen,' and that was all, then he was alone once more. Dutifully, Elharan sat and stilled his thoughts and his movements, and turned all of his attention to listening. He realized that he could hear footsteps, coming from above him."
        "So he was underground?" Mei said. Dutia nodded.
        "Yes," she replied. "The air in the room was running low. Heartened, Elharan shouted with all of his energy, though he feared to do so for using up the air in the room, which was running low and beginning to make him feel light headed. Just when he thought his life-light was beginning to fade, the trap door opened, revealing a beautiful woman with clear, pale skin and very dark eyes. Her name was Theor, and she had been enslaved by the followers of Chaos, but she had heard a voice telling her to look below, and so she had cleared the pots of the store-room and found the trap door in the floor. She remained faithfully by his side, and together they overthrew the evil usurper to Elaharan's throne. She became his Empress and all was well."
        "Hm," said Mei.
        "The point of the story is that there is always hope and a way out, if you trust in the order of things. The right things are happening right now, and they happen for a reason. If Elharan had not been captured and imprisoned, he would not have met Theor, and thus would have been unable to overcome the usurper. We must believe in fate and trust to the Master's hand as He watches over us."
        "Is that so," Mei said distractedly. "The daylight is fading. Soon it will become night. We had best follow the others." Dutia smiled.
        "Well, let us go then, and take the path that is ahead of us." Dutia pulled herself to her feet, wincing at the dull ache in her legs, then helped Mei up. Together they walked, following Kai and Ilaryon but staying a good distance behind them both. Dutia allowed Mei to decide the difference, feeling rather averse to encountering Kai herself.
        Dutia looked around at the path as they walked. The trees that had been in the way seemed to be in ruins, splintered stone laying across the path, rather than fallen trunks and branches as she would have guessed. Perhaps they truly are made of stone, she thought. Though I am not sure what that means for the ones that Kai touched, they appeared alive in every way. Still, all of the trees look a good deal alike, more than they ought to if this place was natural. The ones that had not been knocked down appeared untouched by the damage, and they lay still in the dark foggy haze that had marked the perimeter of the forest clearing where they had arrived. The path they walked was lit, though, by the pale light of the shining circle behind the clouds in the sky. It might have been a sun or a moon, Dutia could not tell, but Mei had said that the daylight was ending so Dutia assumed that it was the sun.
        After many hours of walking, they came to a second clearing, this one with more grass than dirt. Ilaryon stopped then, and turned to face the travelers. Dutia's feet ached, her legs burning like fire even though the path had been relatively flat and monotonous with no inclines or stumbling points. She breathed heavily too, and felt like she was about to collapse. I am like Elharan in the dark room, she thought to herself, laughing silently. I lack for air, though there are no walls around me. She wavered on her feet, gravity threatening on either side to take her down as if ropes were tied and small elves pulled a tug of war against each other. I have become delirious, she thought, for I can almost see them now. Somehow it seemed much easier to walk when we were walking...
        A voice said something to her, Ilaryon, she guessed, for it was deep and inhuman. She felt a hand- soft and human, but small and delicate, probably Mei- steady her and support her on her feet. The world slowly came back. There was a clap like thunder, as if lightning had struck the field in the middle of the clearing, then she smelled a bit of brimstone and ashes. Someone pushed a flask into her hand. Her vision still tunneling, the world narrow and dark outside of a small circle. It's like a crystal ball of its own, Dutia thought. She looked up to see the face of Ilaryon, broad-nosed with flat nostrils and a protruding jaw with sharp-looking stone fangs, like a nightmarish hybrid of a man and a dog.
        "Drink," said Ilaryon, and Dutia obeyed, raising the flask to her lips despite a shout of protest from Kai. The liquid was cool and smooth, thicker than water, with a slight bitter herbal aftertaste. It went down easily, like quicksilver, and Dutia drank the whole flask in three swallows. A strange feeling swept through her body, halfway between the feeling she got from drinking wine and some kind of holy light. She closed her eyes to stop the dizziness. The feeling was strange, in a sense very unpleasant, yet also somewhat familiar. The pain in her legs receded, and distantly she heard the tinkling sound of glass on stone, an echo of the great shattering noise in the study earlier.
        "What have you done to her?" Kai shouted. Dutia covered her ears, screwing her eyes tighter shut. Their noise seemed so loud. Here it was quiet, in the island of this feeling that had overtaken her. My body is healing itself, she thought. It was a healing potion. She tried to form the words and speak them, but even to her they sounded like a distant mumbling. Why doesn't Ilaryon tell them? she wondered. A mist seemed to surround her. In the center, there was a woman that seemed to have hair at once of the very blackest black and white as fair as flax or moonlight. Her skin was also strange, pale and yellowish, but black as night, but her eyes were the strangest of all, for they seemed to be black as night and pale as a cloudy autumn sky, with the blue of the clear sky, the green of the ocean, and the reddish brown of plowed earth. She started to speak, but evidently thought better of it, closing her mouth and thinning her lips into a mysterious smile. We will meet again, Dutia thought, and wondered because it seemed that the thought had come into her mind from the woman and not from her own self.
        Abruptly, the mist and fogginess faded and the world snapped back into being. Dutia looked around, wondering where she was and what was happening, and realized that she had merely opened her eyes. Everything seemed like it had a hard edge on it, and it was hard to look at, very bright even though it seemed to be early evening from the colors about that played off the trees and sky. She closed her eyes again to escape the sights. There were voices as well, arguing loudly, and they hurt to listen to but Dutia forced herself to listen. It may be important, she told herself. In fact, it most assuredly is, she thought as someone mentioned her name.
        "-only a healing draught!" Ilaryon was yelling. Its awful gravelly voice was even worse when he was distressed, and it was giving Dutia a headache.
        "If it was a healing draught, then what has it done to her? Medicine meant for someone like you won't work on us!" Kai shouted back at Ilaryon. Dutia struggled to her feet, finding renewed strength in her bones. Mei, who had been dozing next to her, started, jumping up. The two arguing turned to look at her.
        "I am well," she said. Even my voice sounds different, she thought. "Let us continue, before the light is gone."
        "No," Ilaryon said, looking self-satisfied, indeed almost smug for a golem. Kai in turn appeared sullen. "We will camp here tonight to ride out the darkness," Ilaryon continued. "I will go no farther today, for the darkness will come on swiftly tonight and it is long until the next clear area. There is a small pool in the center of the clearing. The water is fresh, so drink your fill." He looked pointedly at Kai as he said this last bit. However, Kai ignored him and walked over to Dutia.
        "Are you all right?" he asked.
        "Yes," she said. "I am fine." Her voice sounded strangely distant, and there was still a funny shine on the world. She shook herself, and she was not sure that Kai believed her.
        "Come here," Ilaryon said, "I want to talk to you." Both Kai and Dutia turned, but Ilaryon's gaze was on Mei, who watched him back with an even gaze. She nodded to him, then turned back to the others briefly, and the two walked over to the edge of the glade. Mei sat down, cross-legged, then Ilaryon followed suit, blocking their view of the young girl. Kai frowned, sighed, and turned back to Dutia.
        "Shall we sit as well?" Kai asked, a lopsided grin on his face. Dutia smiled at him. He was really rather handsome, in a roguish sort of way.
        "Why, of course," she replied, fanning her dress out, taking two corners in her hand and bringing them together to bunch them up again, and sitting down gracefully on the hard earth. Kai smiled and sat down before her, across from her on the ground, in the same cross-legged fashion as Mei.
        "Yes," he said.
        "Did you worry about me, earlier?" Dutia said. The words flew from her mouth before she could stop herself, and she felt her face flushing red as Ilaryon's eyes. She could see the gargoyle smiling at her even so, she was sure that Ilaryon would find it hilarious. Human discomfort, not for creatures without souls to bear witness to or care about. Was there a touch of sadness in its voice in the vision?
        "Yes," he said, still smiling.
        "Who are you?" she asked. "Who are you really? You are much too well-spoken to be a mere burglar."
        "You flatter me," he said, turning away.
        "Kai?" she asked. She followed his gaze to Ilaryon's stony back, and beyond it to Mei. "I wonder what they are speaking about," she said.
        "You and I both," Kai replied, still looking at them. Ilaryon laughed, a great exertion that shook its large frame.
        "To be soulless, never your own master," Dutia murmured, shaking her head.
        "It would be easy, wouldn't it," Kai mused.
        "Huh?" Dutia asked. She hadn't realized she'd spoken aloud.
        "Always doing only what you are told, not having to think for yourself or take responsibility..." Kai gave Dutia a sidelong glance. "Rather like destiny, isn't it, in the end? We're all soulless in the hands of fate."
        "That's not true," Dutia said. "We make our own choices, and the roads lead where they will, but we still choose which ones to walk."
        "We take the roads given to us, isn't that what you said earlier?" Kai asked.
        "Yes," Dutia said. "I have faith that the Master of Order will show me the right paths to take in my life."
        "Are there any wrong paths, then?" Kai asked. "If whichever one you take is the right one, doesn't that mean that there can't be any wrong ones?"
        "Oh, there are," Dutia said, "There are always wrong paths. Those that lead to disorder or chaos, that lead to pain and upheaval, those are the wrong paths."
        "But what about change, isn't that necessary?"
        "It is not, because the correct way of living was set down in the Record of Order at the beginning of time, and recorded by scribes at the beginning of the empire by the Command of Elharan."
        "You believe that," Kai said. "I don't."
        "Whether you believe it or not does not change the truth of the matter," Dutia said. "The truth is eternal, and it will not change for any mortal."
        "Perhaps I am an immortal," Kai said. "What then?"
        "Hmph," Dutia replied. "I doubt that an immortal would be living on the streets, taking money from nobles to burgle houses."
        "True," Kai said, still smiling. "Maybe immortals get bored too, though. Maybe being a thief is a good change of pace from being an eternal messenger of light and goodness. I wouldn't want to be spreading the word all the time, let me tell you, it sounds very dull to me."
        "You are a heretic," Dutia said. She found that she was smiling, and did not know why. Perhaps he has laid a charm upon me, she thought, or perhaps it is merely still Ilaryon's potion working on me. On impulse, she looked up at Kai. "Do you know a woman with..." She frowned, trying to think of a good description of the woman in her vision, and realized that she was unable to.
        "A woman with...?" Kai asked.
        "Never mind," Dutia said. "It's not important." Yet she still felt that the woman was important, in fact that she was very important and would be a key player in events still to come. What is this? Dutia thought. Was the potion some kind of drug?
        "You seem more laid back now than you were earlier," Kai observed, leaning back to rest himself on his hands. Across the clearing, Ilaryon laughed loudly again. "I wonder what they're talking about. I'd give anything to know."
        "You are a burglar, are you not?" Dutia said. "Go and see, get close and listen in. If you are a good burglar, they will even never know that you were there at all."
        "Heh," Kai replied. He made no move towards the others on the edge of the clearing. "If they want to keep secrets, let them keep secrets. It doesn't matter to me."
        "That does not sound like you," Dutia said. "I thought you were the cautious one among us. Perhaps you fear that you would be caught?"
        "Look, if you want it done, go and do it yourself."
        "Fine, then," Dutia said. "I will." She stood up and looked around, surveying the area. There was a shallow, silvery pool of water close to where Ilaryon and Mei sat. I will feign that I am going there, she decided, and walked over to the pool as evenly as she could, keeping her head up and he shoulders straight. She ignored Kai's hissed warning from behind her, and did not even turn to give him her notice. Something caught her dress, and she turned around to find Kai clutching it and crawling along the ground behind her on his hands and knees. She slapped his hand away.
        "What are you doing?" she hissed.
        "Stopping you from doing something stupid! Get back over here now, if that monster catches us there's no telling what it will do to us." Dutia sighed in exasperation and crouched down to talk to him on what appeared to be his own level.
        "It obviously wants me alive and well, since it healed me," she said. "I don't think it would do more than laugh at us, honestly. You are the one that wanted to know what they were saying, anyways, so why reprimand me for carrying out the action?"
        "Because you are carrying out the action!" he replied. "I was just speculating, and here you go, walking over in to the jaws of death, and..." Dutia sighed, and pulled herself up into a standing position. "Dutia?" Kai asked. She started walking towards the pool once again. "Dutia, where are you going? Dutia!" She continued to ignore him, making steady progress. "Fine, then, get yourself hurt and killed! See if I care!"
        Dutia approached the pool. Its liquid was indeed silver, and not transparent, and she wondered what manner of substance it was. The surface reflected her face, the constant ring of trees, the sky with its setting circle-light, as well as what seemed to be a hazy shadow behind her. She frowned, and turned to look; there was nothing behind her to be casting such a shadow. Kai's face appeared reflected on the water next to her, and only the fact that she could hear his breathing convinced her that he was really there.
        "What is it?" Kai asked. "Is something wrong?"
        "No, I..." Dutia said, looking hesitantly over her shoulder at Mei and Ilaryon, who were either too distant from the pool for them to hear or had begun talking in quieter voices now that Kai and Dutia were closer. She looked back into the pool. The strange shadow remained. What is this? she wondered. "Do you see that shadow behind me, in the water?" she asked Kai.
        "Shadow?" Kai asked. He squinted and leaned forward over the water. "I don't see anything in the water other than dirt and grime. It sure won't be fit for drinking."
        "What?" Dutia asked, puzzled. The water's surface was still as silvery and reflective as quicksilver to her eyes. "You see no reflection at all?"
        "Nope, nothing," Kai said. "Here, let me try it from where you're sitting... Maybe it's a trick of the light." He moved to her position, and Dutia moved out of the way. Kai peered into the water again. "Still nothing," he said. "Are you sure that you aren't just seeing things? Perhaps that potion's had more of an effect on your brain than your body."
        "Perhaps..." Dutia said, still watching her reflection closely. The shadow moved, and she gasped. It began to transform itself, expanding and reshaping, gaining form and detail... A hand grasped her shoulder, trying to pull her away. She resisted, watching the pool as the shadow became the face of the woman from her vision, shifting and mysterious as it had been before. Those multicolored eyes locked with Dutia, and the dark lips spoke one word. Then Dutia found herself falling backwards onto the cold, hard ground, staring up into the face of Kai. She blinked, and the echo of the word that had been spoken reached her: "Tonight."
        Far, far above, the clouds churned like a nightmare, swirling out of control as if stirred up by a maniacal chef of disaster.

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Chapter Four
The Lady and the Storm

        "What, by the darkness...?" Kai asked, looking at Dutia, then up at the clouds. He pointed upwards, then asked, "Did you do that?" Dutia stared at him blankly, still half lost in dream. Heavy footsteps made her look up; Ilaryon and Mei stood over her as well.
        "What is going on here?" Ilaryon asked. "Is there a problem?"
        "No," Dutia said, as Kai opened his mouth to speak. "No, there is no problem."
        "See to it that it remains that way," Ilaryon said.
        "The night is falling quickly," Mei said. "We had best make a shelter to ride out the storm." She cast a glance upwards at the clouds. "It looks like it will not be an easy night to get through this time. There will be much change in the morning when we awaken."
        "What's going on?" Kai asked, looking around at the faces of the other three. "What do you all know that I don't? I feel like I'm being left on the outside of something here. I feel like I've been cut out of the circle."
        "There is no circle," Ilaryon said. "Not yet, anyways. Let us go and make a circle, shall we? I will create a shelter for us."
        "Right," Mei said. Ilaryon and Mei walked over to the other side of the field. Mei squatted down over the ground. Ilaryon clapped and brought forth a metal rod, sharpened to a point at one end, and handed it to her. She hefted it in her hands and nodded, then put the point in the earth and began to trudge slowly around in a great circle as Ilaryon looked on, standing back to make sure it was straight. Ilaryon corrected her, then frowned, lay a hand on her shoulder, and spoke. She nodded, and he clapped again, revealing a second metal post with a long string attached to one end. He hammered the first rod into the ground and tied the second rod to it. Mei took it and began tracing the circle again, much quicker this time since she did not have to worry about getting it straight.
        Dutia looked at Kai. "What do you think that they are going to do with the circle?" she asked.
        "I'm not sure," he replied, also watching the two across the field, "but I think that the girl has switched sides. Perhaps she has sold us out. I wouldn't put it beyond her to do some such."
        "You are paranoid," Dutia said. "If you were going up against something with the power to create one of those creatures, you would try to be friendly as much as possible just the same. Besides, you have not given her reason to trust you, as openly distrustful as you have been to her. That one has taken her into its confidence, while you have stood aloof."
        "You blame me for this?" Kai asked incredulously. "You are the one that drinks strange potions and chases shadows in water, I don't rightly have anywhere to turn with those two teaming up and you letting off on your own like you are. I've just gone on down the only open line I have seen."
        "It is not like I asked for this," Dutia said. "The potion just kind of happened because of my injuries, and as for the shadow... Well, as for the shadow, I do not know. I fear that it is a strange power that I know not of."
        "You'll have to tell me more about it later," Kai said. His face looked grim and very serious. "Well, we should go and try to help them. The sky is looking worse and worse, and I swear that it is growing darker."
        "Yes, we should," Dutia said, giving him a sidelong glance. She then looked across the field once more. "I wonder how we can be of assistance... Do you think it odd that the gargoyle needs a shelter to survive the storm of remaking?"
        "Hmm, now that you mention it, that is rather strange. Perhaps it's because we could never hope to survive it on our own and it has orders to bring us in or to be destroyed."
        "That would make sense, only..."
        "Only?" Kai asked.
        "Only I can't see that one worrying much about destruction or death. It seems not to care for much, not except Mei in any case."
        "I still wonder what she has to do with this," Kai said as they began walking over. "I understand that her adoptive mother was the heroine of the light, but... I wonder what happened to her father."
        "He was killed by the chaos, I would expect," Dutia said.
        "The chaos?" Kai asked.
        "Weren't you listening?" Dutia asked him in turn, looking at him as they walked along. "The chaos is the root of the whole thing, that keeps making the world over again. Someone has become possessed by the darkness and chaos and driven to madness."
        "The way I understood it, someone was controlling these things," Kai said. "I think that you have it backwards."
        "No, I don't think so," Dutia said. "Chaos and darkness are the greatest evil, therefore I do not think that it is possible to control them."
        "Hmm," Kai said, and with that they had arrived at the edge of Mei's circle. "What can we do to help you ?" Kai asked the girl.
        "Loosen the earth around the circle so I can form it into a shelter," Ilaryon responded. "I will provide you with the tools." The golem turned its back to Dutia and Kai, clapped twice, and turned around, now holding two shovels in its hands. He handed one to each of them. They were sturdy implements, with thick wooden handles and heads of black forged iron.
        "Thank you," Dutia said as she took her shovel. She weighed it in her hands and found it to be surprisingly light, then planted the end in the ground and tried to shove the dirt up. She found resistance in the sparse grass, with deep roots in the ground. Mei worked in the center of the circle, drawing an intricate pattern in the ground with one of the metal styluses that appeared to be symmetric around the metal stake in the center of the circle. Ilaryon stood to the side outside of the circle, watching her progress and occasionally nodding.
        Kai met a similar resistance with the grass roots, but made quick progress. Dutia watched him work: he planted the shovel in the dirt as an angle, planted his foot on it to drive it deep, and then turned the dirt out sideways, making a deep furrow. She turned her back to him and tried to do the same thing. After a few tries, she got the hang of it, and once she had a rhythm going the work went quickly and she soon met Kai on the perimeter of the circle.
        "Fancy meeting you here," he said with the same lopsided grin on his face as earlier. He laid his shovel down on the ground. Dutia returned the smile, wiping sweat off of her brow. She closed the circle, making the two furrows one, and then set her own shovel down next to Kai's. Her arms ached from the hard labor, and so did the leg she had used to push the shovel down. It appeared that she had done only a third of the circle while Kai had done the other two thirds. Still, even he was breathing heavily so she did not feel too bad about her own fatigue.
        "Good start," Ilaryon said. "Go around it twice more, and we'll see how much earth that gives us." Dutia and Kai stared at the gargoyle in disbelief. "We want this to be a sturdy shelter, but this ground is very poor and thin so we will need a lot of it." Kai sighed and picked up his shovel again. Dutia grimaced and stretched her arms, trying to remove the tension. She would have sworn to Order that Ilaryon was laughing at her behind those ruby eyes, so she picked up the shovel with renewed vigor just to prove the soulless gargoyle wrong. I do not see why we have to do this, if that one is made of stone, soulless, and practically impossible to tire, Dutia thought. Perhaps it is just lazy.
        Mei's design in the ground had become increasingly complex. It is like one of the contemplation diagrams in the old temples of Order, Dutia thought, only the lines in this are curved and flowing instead of all straight. It seems almost to change as you look at it, like a flower opening its petals. Kai grunted, and Dutia noticed that he was already hard at work. She pulled her attention from the flower design and returned to the mindless furrow digging.
        Soon she and Kai met again and crossed paths. Dutia was breathing heavily and beginning to get dizzy again; her arms seemed like water. She was going to collapse any time now, she was sure, but she forced herself to keep working, even though she needed to stop every few steps. Still, eventually the rhythm caught her again and she met up with Kai a third time. The furrows were now wider than her own shoulders, and full of mounds of deep brown dirt. If this does not make us a shelter, I do not know what will, she thought, for this seems to be enough dirt for a whole mountain. She said so aloud, and Kai laughed.
        "It is surely so," he said. "It is surely so."
        "I feel like a caravanier's daughter," she said, laughing. "I will soon have arms as thick and strong as one. It is said that a caravanier can lift a horse, and now I believe that is true."
        "Perhaps," Kai said, still smiling at her. "However, your skin is far too fair for a caravanier. I think that you would turn bright red under the sun instead of a pleasant tan!"
        "You are probably right," Dutia replied. "I am far too soft for such a life on the road all of the time, the true business of trade. I am a merchant, not a trader, through and through." She found herself slightly bitter at this, and was not sure why. Haven't I always wanted to be a merchant and been glad of my place? she thought. I wonder what has changed now... It is not as if I will not travel far and often, and see many sights and have many stories to tell my children, the same as my parents tell me today. But still, if there were something more... I must not think these things, she thought, I was born into a House of Merchants for a reason and a purpose, and I must live with it and seek my purpose until the end of all days.
        "Is it done?" Ilaryon called from across the field, where it appeared to have been watching the sky closely. Mei sat beside it on the ground; she had finished her flower-design sometime in the second go-round of Dutia and Kai's plowing.
        "It is done," Kai called back. Ilaryon nodded, and came to inspect the mounds of dirt. It picked up some of the soil and sifted it through clawed, stony fingers, letting it fall back onto the pile. "This will do," it said. "Go and stand with the girl, now, it is time for me to do my part. You may find it entertaining."
        Ilaryon stood in front of the ring of earth, then walked around its perimeter, murmuring to itself or perhaps chanting. Kai and Dutia went to stand next to Mei. Ilaryon knelt and put its hands into the earth, pushed down, and grunted. It then stood up and moved slightly farther around the circle and repeated the process. Dutia looked on in fascination as Ilaryon carried on through the whole perimeter.
        "What is it doing?" Dutia asked, not speaking to anyone in particular.
        "He is creating the foundation for the shelter," Mei replied.
        "He?" Kai asked.
        "Yes," Mei said. "That is how he refers to himself, as a male."
        "Hmm," Dutia said. "So what kind of shelter is it... er, is he making for us?"
        "A shelter of earth," Mei replied. "He is an elemental, so he has power over the earth and will be able to hold it together during the storm tonight." The winds had begun to pick up, whistling through the stone trees but moving no branches. Waves rolled through some of the longer patches of grass, and the fog in the clearing had all but disappeared, though the mist outside it seemed to have grown more intense.
        Ilaryon finished going around the perimeter of the circle and stepped into the center. He walked over into the center of the circle and laid a hand on the metal stake that was still driven into the center, considered it, and pulled it out, throwing it aside out of the circle. Then he squatted down over the circle and examined the hole where it had been, grimaced, and replaced the stake. He surveyed Mei's work with the stylus inside the circle, traced over a few of the lines with one talon, and then stood once again.
        He placed one hand on the top of the stake, palm down, and then wrapped the other in a fist around it and bowed his head. There came a rumbling noise in the earth below their feet, and around the perimeter of the circle a short wall rose up, about the height of Dutia's knees. It was slightly curved. Ilaryon opened his eyes, let go of the metal rod, and walked around the perimeter, checking his work all around the circle. When he was finished, he beckoned to the three humans.
        "Come in and I will finish it," he said. His voice was strangely quiet over the eerie wind, which had picked up in speed and strength as he worked. Dutia's hair whipped around behind her. I must tie it back when I can, she thought. That, or cut it.
        The three walked, Dutia and Kai behind Mei, over to the circle, stepping carefully over the low wall. Dutia bent to examine it. It was as hard and smooth as the marble of the various statues that were found in her home, sculpted busts or images of ancestors, artists, and famous historical and legendary figures. Ilaryon cleared his throat, and she straightened, blushing.
        "You will need to stay inside the circle while I raise the wall," he said. "We will not be able to leave the shelter until I take it down, and I will not take it down until the morning." Mei nodded. Dutia hesitated and nodded her agreement as well, and even the standoffish Kai grudgingly agreed as the wind lifted one of Ilaryon's shovels and carried it over the stone trees.
        "Things might look quite different in the morning," Mei said. "There is no telling how long the night will last."
        "Wait," Kai said. "What will we do for food and water? And... uh, personal needs?"
        "If you need to relieve yourself, I suggest you do so now," Ilaryon said. "As for food, I will provide it."
        "You will provide it?" Kai asked, a dubious look on his face. "After what happened to Dutia earlier-"
        "I think I must go and come back," Dutia said. "Please excuse me."
        "Now you've done it, boy," Ilaryon said, snickering. There was a protest from Kai. Dutia ignored them all and walked over to the pool. She had only wanted to get away from the others; she had no real need to relieve herself. She sat down by the water's edge and sighed. She looked over her shoulder, and made sure that none of the others were watching her. Their eyes were indeed averted as they argued among themselves. She gazed into the pool once again; its surface was mercurious, rippling subtly from the strong winds.
        "Who are you, lady?" Dutia wondered aloud. There was no shadow in the pool behind her now. "What do you want with me, anyways? I do not even know why I am here. I am only a merchant's daughter, not the daughter of a heroine like Mei or a toughened street-walker like Kai. Did you bring me here?"
        She heard footsteps behind her and quieted her voice. It is likely Kai, she thought to herself. I do not want to talk to him, but I am sure he will try to make conversation. I always feel like he is trying to get information out of me or pass something over on me... I don't even know what I feel about him. He is handsome and strong, but I do not think that I love him... He flatters me, but I have had many suitors before. Still, he seemed to be worried for me, and none of those many feathered suitors has had that claim to their illustrious names.
        The footsteps stopped, and Dutia felt eyes heavy upon her, a gaze considering her at length. The feeling made her uncomfortable, but she did not indulge her curiosity by turning around. If I ignore him, he will go away by himself and let me be, but if I give him attention then such will reflect upon me tenfold and I will never be rid of him if I should want to be at a later time.
        "Dutia of the Erisan Merchant House of Perit, in the central state of the Orderly Empire of the Taosan," said a woman's voice behind her, deep and liltingly musical. Dutia turned abruptly, and found the lady from her dream-visions standing behind her. Dutia's mouth fell open and refused to close. The wind whipped through the woman's hair, which was a mix of strands of darkest black and palest blonde. Her skin was an alien color, a warm brownish gray, and her eyes were golden, copper, and silver with hints of the sky blue, sea green, and earth brown that Dutia had seen them earlier.
        Without knowing it, Dutia found herself down on one knee before this strange power. She is like no one I have ever seen before, Dutia thought, beautiful and strange, exotic, dangerous, and over all other things powerful.
        "Stand," said the woman. "We are equals." Equals? Dutia wondered. How could I ever be the equal of someone like this? Still, Dutia did as she was told, but kept her head down and her eyes averted. "Do you know who I am?" the woman asked. Dutia shook her head no. "It is probably better that way," the woman mused, "but I have not the time to play subtle games today and dance around the truth. Look at me, would you?" Dutia raised her eyes; the woman's face was dark in silhouette against the brightening mad sky, yet her eyes were lit from within with their own pale light.
        "My lady," Dutia said, in protest. The woman laughed.
        "Your lady, am I?" she wondered aloud. "I wonder if you will feel the same in another minute. I have been called Ktai by the clans of the lowland, Vis in the Emperor's coldhearted city, and Aleiath by the wanderers in the desert sands. In short, I am she who rules Chaos, and it is I who have brought you here." Dutia's face had turned whiter and paler with every name, until the final identification when she felt about to faint.
        "I-" she said, then stopped, unable to speak. "Why me, lady?"
        "Someone is trying to control me here, and I do not like it, therefore I bid you stop it." Dutia's mouth was still hanging open. "Why you? Because you are of the blood, and I can call upon you thus for it." Dutia shook her head as if to clear her thoughts.
        "I am of the blood?" Dutia asked numbly. The blood of Chaos? Surely not, but how, then, and what could the stranger mean by this? Was this another trick or lie? This whole place seemed to be full of illusions and half truths, from the trees themselves...
        "Yes," the woman said. "Your mother's mother was a daughter of the sands, captured across the border by soldiers of your country. She was enslaved by a nobleman, and her daughter, your grandmother, was wedded by a son of the family. Though you have been raised in exile, in the country of my enemy, you are still one of mine. The Other has a limited hold on you. I will give you a gift, now, so that you may help me."
        "But, I-"
        "The darkness has used us, both myself and the Other, to create a being to destroy the light so that the darkness can take over again. However, the being, whose name is Hwedeon, disliked being a tool. Hwedeon has dominion over both myself and the Other; it, for the being is neither male nor female, though the human form it assumes is usually male. Hwedeon is playing with us, abusing its power and ours to play with this world and many others."
        "I would have thought that you would relish the disorder," Dutia said bitterly. The woman laughed, surprising her, then laughed more at Dutia's reaction.
        "It is like a delicate game, like playing your game of chess," the woman said. "Everything is in balance, move by move, and Hwedeon is the child that thinks it is fun to knock the pieces off of the table and move them in illegal patterns. For a time, it is amusing, but it will eventually become tiresome. And, as I said, I will not tolerate being the play piece of anyone, much less a child."
        "No doubt you wonder what is in it for you," the woman continued. "Wealth and power, success in business and trade, for you and your family and those others that you love on down through the generations. Truth, love, travel and adventure, whatever is your fancy shall be yours." Dutia was quiet, considering the offer. Everything I have wanted, and not just for myself, but for all of my family and my friends as well.
        "I cannot," she said finally. "Yet I cannot say no as well, for my family and friends, but it would occupy my whole and mortal mind if I took the offer for myself."
        "Integrity," said the woman. "Yes, that is why I chose you. You have integrity and are determined to do things the hard way. Any way it is, I have decided. I have three gifts to give you, and we must move quickly, for the darkness comes and when it falls even I will be powerless."
        "Yes," Dutia said. Gifts? she wondered. What gifts do I accept from her? Well, my soul will be damned already, and this is a foreign land anyways. Here, even, there are perhaps no heavens or hells for those who are ruled by chaos and order.
        "The first is a companion," the lady said. She let out a high-pitched whistle that was on the edge of Dutia's hearing, barely above the wind. "Here, let me see your hand," the lady shouted as the gusts grew more fierce. Dutia extended her left arm, covering her face against debris and whirlwind full of grass and stone tree fragments as best she could with her right hand. The lady of chaos took Dutia's hand in her own, whistling shrilly again, and dug a razor-sharp fingernail into the center of her palm. Dutia cried out in pain, and the lady whistled thrice, wrenching Dutia's hand up towards the sky, her own alien-brown-skinned one next to it, fist clenched and arm extended straight. Like a meteor from the sky came a bird, a hunting falcon like in the portraits of old human nobility in the illuminations and tapestries. It landed on the chaos-lady's uplifted arm. The woman grimaced, pulling Dutia's hand close; she stuck her finger in the blood flowing freely and daubed it on the falcon's forehead. The bird's eyes met Dutia's, and seemed to look deeply into her soul somehow, in the way that such fierce animals have a way of seeing that mere humans do not possess.
        "Name him," the lady of chaos hissed. Dutia was deaf to her, entranced with the bird's golden, fierce eyes. She thought that she could see herself in the back of those eyes, in their bottomless depths, like a kind of living mirror. The wind whipped the woman's black and white hair around wildly, and she cried out again, "Name him or he shall die!"
        "Lucva," Dutia said. "I shall name him Lucva, for that is his name as I see it in his eyes." She felt a sense of approval from somewhere, be it herself or the world itself, the bird or the chaos-ruler.
        "Speak it a third time to seal it," the lady said quietly. The winds had suddenly stopped, and the effect was disconcerting as her frenetic halo of hair settled down again about her shoulders.
        "Lucva," Dutia said again. The lady smiled, bitterly it seemed to Dutia, but she was pleased as well. Dutia ignored her, eyes only on the falcon, who was hers as she was his. She raised her arm, and the bird flew to her, landing on her outstretched arm. His talons dug into her skin through the fabric of her dress, drawing blood. Dutia winced and gritted her teeth, stroking his soft feathers with her other hand and smoothing them back.
       
        "The second gift is a gift of information. The storms change the worlds to Hwedeon 's will, but they are still the same places. Hwedeon cannot truly create or destroy, he has not that control. He can make minions, however, creating bodies from the three basic elements of earth, wood, and metal and can give them simple intelligence, and he has the power to control the three natural forces of fire, wind, and water. He can create more complex intelligence as well, as you see in your stone friend over there, so beware."
        "Hwedeon created Ilaryon?" Dutia asked, alarmed. What did this mean, then? Were they being led into a trap?
        "Yes, but that one does not serve Hwedeon any more. It serves the Other, my eternal opponent, and is bound in service to that power. The red-haired boy is the son of the woman known as the heroine of light, and the violet-haired girl is Hwedeon 's daughter."
        "Why do you lay this burden on me, lady, the burden of this knowledge?" The lady did not reply, continuing to speak as if Dutia had remained silent.
        "Hwedeon is trying to bring all worlds together under his control," she said. "At the beginning of time, the Other sundered the worlds from each other, isolating them all. The weak ties between the worlds are those I have made, such as the crystal that transported you from your world to this one. Hwedeon exiles those that oppose him to other worlds; this was the fate of the heroine of the light.  Some worlds are farther from Hwedeon 's locus of control than others; yours for example was very far away. However, that woman was able to leave the crystal so that her adopted daughter could follow her, and  so it happened that you came here. There seems to be a time differential between this place and the other, at any rate she had a son in the other world, and this is the red-haired man you now travel with. The Other holds this very crystal now, but I can make a doorway between worlds if and only if the Other's power is weakened, that is, if Hwedeon is successful in his attack on the light. Hwedeon is trying to force me to bring the worlds together, so I would rather not use that power now, therefore on the case of getting home you are on your own or at the Other's mercy. I do not think he will have much pity for you now that you have taken my gifts, not that that one was ever blessed with a degree of mercy at all. " The chaos-lady grimaced, then looked Dutia in the eyes. "I give you the burden of this knowledge because you are not only strong enough to bear it, but you can act on it as well."
        "I will do my best," Dutia said. The chaos-ruler responded with a nod of approval.
        "Still, as I sometimes lean on my champions just as I lean on you now, I can only do the same in return. The third gift is this," she held out a ring to Dutia on a fine chain of copper. The ring itself was also copper, a wide band of metal that was bright and shining, and on it was embossed a black dragon that was made of glittering black opal that contained within it all of the colors of the rainbow, pearlescent and fiery. The eye of the dragon was gold. "This is a token of my favor," the lady said. "Use it if you need call on me, and show it when you feel there is need. It may help you, or not, I do not know. The time is late, I must go, for Hwedeon 's shadow is upon us even now. Hasten to shelter."
        "Yes," Dutia said, even as the woman faded away into smoke like an apparition, a mere image, blown apart by the wind. She ran back to the shelter, holding her hands above her head to protect herself from the winds. Lucva launched off of her shoulder, falling back into the air. The walls were higher now, and she had to jump to get inside them. Lucva dived, falling like a meteor and braking just above her. She rolled inside, landing on the dirt, then laid flat and covered her head with her hands. With a mighty yell Ilaryon brought up the walls to make a dome above them, showering dirt and earth on those inside.

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Chapter Five
What Came Next, or, The Master of Order

        Dutia breathed heavily, pulling herself up. It had grown quieter, now, with the wall of earth dividing the travelers from the storm. Outside she could hear strange, beastlike screams, and the roar of wind through the trees as Hwedeon 's storm tore the world apart. She breathed heavily, leaning back on the wall of the shelter; Lucva had regained his place on her shoulder, digging in new holes with his sharp talons. He preened himself as Dutia wiped sweat off of her forehead; the shelter was close, stuffy, dark, and hot; Ilaryon had left only a small hole at the apex of the dome for light and air to come through. Dark clouds moved above it, and occasionally fire and lightning chased each other across the sky. There was a constant, loud rumble of noise behind everything; whether it was thunder or the earth itself Dutia could not say.
        In the center of the pit, a fire burned slowly; it released weak smoke up and through the opening. She realized that the others were staring at her and shifted uncomfortably, taking a quick survey of their expressions across the flames. The uneven lights dancing across their faces made what she found even worse, gruesome and monstrous. Ilaryon's was of open disgust; Mei's of fascination and wonder; and Kai's was the worst, an open streetwise disbelief as if he could not believe he'd been bitten again. He spoke first.
        "Who was that?" he asked. Dutia did not answer, biting her lip and casting her gaze down at the ashes. She clutched the chaos-ruler's ring tight in one fist; she could feel the finely carved opal dragon making an impression in her skin. What have I done? she wondered. I have taken gifts from Chaos, that is what I have done. I have betrayed myself and my immortal soul, and I have disgraced my family. How could I let her trick me so? Was I under a glamour of some kind or am I merely that weak to temptation, to power?
        "Who was that, Dutia?" Kai asked again. Dutia heard him only dimly, and thus did not respond. She knew that Lucva was watching the red-haired man now, watching him with falcon eyes that could pierce through the truth of anything. What, then, would Lucva make of me? she wondered. I wish I knew that, at least, what he thought of me. Perhaps he too will think I am a traitor, with these treacherous thoughts, and report back to his lady. Still, what can I do? I have made a pact with evil, and put myself into its debt. I can not fulfill the contract and let her be destroyed... No, it is light that Hwedeon is after, and light is the foundation of Order, not Chaos. Chaos would be just fine, in fact she would be more powerful. I wonder, then, why she wants me to stop Hwedeon ? It can't be mere fair play, the motives of Chaos run too deep and treacherous for that, too subtle, ready to work on the unwilling mind left unguarded. Such am I, she thought, or I was. Now I have a debt to her for these gifts, our contract...
        "Dutia?" Kai asked, a third time. She looked up at him. Mei was staring at the fire, and Ilaryon was staring into nothing in particular, perhaps the walls of the shelter he had constructed or through the hole to the storm. It was now very dark out, Dutia saw, looking up, and avoiding Kai's question. Ilaryon snorted, shifting his position so his great clawed hands rested on his knees. In the half-light, he seemed to fade into the earthen walls; perhaps he really does, Dutia thought, he is an elemental after all, created of and from earth. Created by Hwedeon, at that. So what does that mean for anything? If Ilaryon serves Order now, what does it mean that he escorts us to his master? Oh, light, I have to face the Master of Order now I have betrayed Him. Perhaps I can hide my sin, or perhaps I should just try to make up for my transgressions, repent and ask for forgiveness, penance, anything...
        "It was the goddess of Chaos," Ilaryon said. His gravelly voice set the fact into stone as sure as the earth the shelter was built out of. He did not say any more, and there was silence again. Silence, except for the storm outside. Eerie cries were taken by the wind and twisted; great crashes marked the rending and falling of the stone trees, and there were many small, dull sounds as projectiles smashed into the walls of the earthen dome. Dutia looked down at the token of favor the goddess had given her, the ring. It still hung from its fine copper chain; fire glinted off of the orange-red metal, reddening it even further. There was no seam between the copper and the opal, she saw, running her finger over the intricate carving. She slipped it on her finger, wondering if it had special properties of its own; after it was on she felt no different, so she shrugged and took it off of her finger and instead slipped the chain around her neck, tucking the ring itself under the collar of her dress. I cannot deny the truth of what I have done any longer, Dutia thought to herself, now I wear her token of favor as sure as a knight going to war wears his lady's.
        "Yes," she said unevenly, her voice cracking awkwardly. Perhaps I cannot say it at all, she thought, seeing the three pairs of eyes upon her, reflected fire burning in them. Is it a mere reflection or a premonition of what will soon be there? she wondered. "Yes, I spoke with the ruler of Chaos and accepted gifts from her." Ilaryon shook his head, staring down at the ashes of wood around the fire. Kai merely looked shocked, and Dutia could not blame him; she still felt that way herself inside, but she felt obligated to put on a calm face outside. The first skill of a noble, Dutia thought: lying to yourself so you can lie to your people; the same thing is the fundamental skill of a merchant, lying to yourself so you can convince others to lie to themselves and so buy your product.
        "Why?" Mei asked, her voice pure and clean. Dutia cringed; she had been expecting no less, but she did not have an answer. Do I admit weakness now or bluff strength? she wondered. Instead, Kai spoke.
        "She is just another hypocritical upper-class woman," he said. "She is a loyal and polite follower of Order, until it suits her purposes to be otherwise. The tide turns like a wheel here; she will go back to Order when it suits her." Dutia fought an impulse to jump up and attack him, forcing herself against the wall. Its rough texture, the looser part that had been put up in Ilaryon's last push of power to build it, scraped against her back, digging in and leaving more marks. She looked away, and wondered if his accusations were true. He is right, she thought to herself, I am a hypocrite and an opportunist, jumping ship at the first sign of danger, and I will have a long way to swim back to shore. However, if I drown myself in self-pity first, I will never see land again.
        "She gave me some information," Dutia said. "I would talk to you and explain what she told me of the situation if you would listen."
        "Weren't you the one urging us against the lies of Chaos earlier?" Kai said with a sneer. "I don't have to listen to anything you say, for how do I know you won't take it back again later when you turn in on upon yourself again? The snake that eats its own tail dies." I must put it behind me, Dutia thought, they are just words. She gazed askance at Mei; Ilaryon's silence was loud enough to speak for itself. Mei nodded, and looked back at her, appraising her again.
        "I will speak with you," the violet-haired girl said. She made her way across the shelter's grounds, picking a careful path through the debris. With the only light being the fire, the highlights and shadows on everything inside seemed brighter and deeper, still constantly shifting against one another, overlapping, merging, and forming deeper pools of each other. Mei sat down next to Dutia, her child's face looking up at Dutia's own face. Dutia was sure that every line of the chaos-ruler's burden showed clearly on her face, like the burden of years would in natural time. Lucva shifted on her shoulder, and Dutia absentmindedly stroked and smoothed his feathers. I do not know why she bid you be with me, Dutia thought, but I will do my best to take care of you.
        In response, she felt satisfaction, a small ripple of pure emotion. She would have been surprised if it had not felt so natural; considering this she thought that she must have the blood of desert wanderers in her after all. My greatmother, she thought, my greatmother was a woman of Chaos, and so am I now. She blinked, and looked down to find Mei still looking expectantly up at her. Another small emotion-wave touched the shores of her mind, this time laughter, as if Lucva chuckled at her. We cannot have this, now, she thought back at the bird, then forced her mind to human things.
        "Mei," she said. "You do not shun me like the others?" Dutia raised her voice deliberately so that Kai and Ilaryon could hear. Ilaryon snorted, and Kai merely ignored her.
        "I wish to hear what you have to say," the girl responded guardedly, settling into a cross-legged position. She is a diplomat already, Dutia thought, and at such a young age.
        "She told me many things," Dutia said in a quieter voice. If the others did not wish to hear, she would let them remain ignorant. "I am not sure what all to believe, myself, but I will tell them to you as she told them to me. The reason she came to me, and the reason I am here, is because an ancestor of mine was one of her people. In our world, her people wander the desert, tied to no home, worshipping her and reveling in their freedom, as she would have it. I was always taught that they were lawless and immoral demons, lacking the structure and discipline of the worship of Order." She licked her lips, which were now decidedly chapped, and continued.
        "The Lady told me that Hwedeon 's objective is to merge all of the worlds into one, which will be under her control. The worlds are arrayed in a random location, in a dimension like a higher version of space; Order controls their separation, but Chaos controls their proximity to each other and can sometimes break through Order's walls between them. She created the crystal that allowed your mother and you to pass through to the world where Kai and I come from. I'm not sure why your mother had the crystal or where she got it from, or even how she left it to you, or how she could if she went through it herself. However, she must have gone through it at some point, and it's possible that she had the crystal before Hwedeon exiled her."
        "What evidence do you have of this?" Mei asked. She brushed back wisps of her feathery purple hair that crossed her eyes, tucking the strands of hair back behind her ears and idly toying with the cloth that she'd used to tie her hair back into a ponytail.
        "Kai," Dutia said. She glanced over at the red-haired man, who had leaned forward at the mention of his name. Even Ilaryon's interest seemed piqued, though he was doing his best to appear nonchalant. Dutia looked Mei straight in the eyes, trying to block the others out of vision, out of mind before she spoke. "He is your mother's son," she whispered. Mei gasped, her mouth hanging open; her gaze darted to Kai and back to Dutia several times. Lucva was amused again, his predatory laugh echoing through Dutia's mind even clearer now. Perhaps I will be able to speak with you someday, she thought at him, and was answered by an emotion that could only be a feeling of potential and hope. It gladdened her heart.
        "What?" Kai asked sharply, moving in on the two women. "What is it? What are you saying about me?"
        "Mere tales told by Chaos," Dutia said haughtily, turning her nose up at him and relishing in it far too much, she thought to herself. Well, I am already a sinner, so why not get pleasure out of it. "You would not believe them anyways." Kai's responding glance was ice-cold, his fists clenched in his lap. He dropped his head and mumbled something. "What was that?" Dutia asked.
        "I said I was sorry," Kai said. "Tell me."
        "What do you think it is?" Dutia asked, curious to what had prompted his change in behavior. He turned away from them, looking in Ilaryon's direction. The stone-man shrugged, closing heavy lids over his ruby eyes and letting out a deep breath.
        "I have had dreams," he said, "or memories, I am not sure which, of when I was very young ever since I have come to this place. I think I have been here before, though I know I have not. I think I have heard stories of this place, and perhaps I have formed my own images of it in my past."
        "Who are you really?" Dutia asked. "You are not a burglar, and I would bet that you do not even live in the streets as you would so pretend." He grinned wryly, wringing his hands together; a nobleman's habit in idleness, Dutia thought. He looks vaguely familiar, actually.
        "Kael shai Kurest," Kai said. Shai? Dutia wondered. Then, that means... "Yes," Kai said, confirming her suspicions. "I am illegitimate, therefore more of the streets than you seem to think. I am Stenio's younger brother, in fact. My mother, as I have been told far too often, was a woman that claimed to be a powerful noble in a foreign land named Alaimone. She disappeared when I was very young, but she told me many stories of this place when she was still around."
        "She was the Heroine of the Light," Dutia said. Kai nodded, looking down at his hands. Dutia saw in her mind his touch crumbling the trees earlier.
        "Yes," he said. "Yes, that makes sense. It is true, regardless and independent of anything and everything else you were told."
        "The son of Pagos Kurest and a heroine of the light," Dutia said. "I do not even want to know how that happened. Still, it means that you two are siblings." Kai and Mei looked at each other as if it was the first time they had met. Perhaps it is, she thought.
        "So where did the bird come from?" Kai asked. "Did the goddess...?" He made vague motions in the air with his hands. Dutia raised an eyebrow. "Did she give it to you?" he asked, finally.
        "She introduced us, yes," Dutia said. "If anything, she gave me to him, however, not the other way around. His name is-" She broke off abruptly, feeling a sharp spike of warning from Lucva. Kai and Mei looked at her questioningly. "He does not want me to tell you his name," Dutia said, smiling. "She also gave me this as a token of her favor." Dutia slipped the ring on its chain out from under her dress and took it off of her neck, carefully slipping it over her head to hold it in her hand and display it before the others. They displayed the proper amount of interest and admiration, leaning in to look at the carving on the dragon and its gold-glint of an eye.
        "Charms and trinkets," said a booming voice from above them. Dutia pulled the necklace back to herself, clutching it tightly. She looked up to see Ilaryon towering above her, seeming taller and more menacing than ever before. "You abandoned your whole faith in Order for this? This is pitiful, a farce, and you have condemned yourself for all eternity for this. Is it worth it? You had best give it up now before it is too late."
        "It is already too late," Dutia said. "I have already talked to her, and that alone has damned me, hearing what she would say to me instead of just turning away when I found out her identity. I continued to talk to her after I knew that, and now it is too late for me. There are some transgressions that are only one way, Ilaryon, and I have known this long in my life. If Order is triumphant in the final battle, I am doomed."
        "The final battle?" Ilaryon asked. "What nonsense do you speak of? There is only one battle, now and for ever. Time is Order trying to control Chaos, the battle itself is time. All things in the sequence of events are of the battle, every movement of every speck of dust is Order against Chaos."
        "What of Hwedeon, then?" Dutia asked, standing now. She slipped the chaos-ruler's ring back over her head and pulled her hair over the chain, then tucked the ring itself into the collar of her dress once again. "Is Hwedeon from Order or Chaos? Either way, what does that make you?"
        "Hwedeon is from Chaos, of course," Ilaryon said. "He is an experiment that got out of hand, a failed attempt to create a being that could control the forces of Order and drive them to destruction."
        "Hwedeon can control both Order and Chaos. He is a manipulator, indeed, the manipulator. Hwedeon is on neither the side of Chaos nor Order, he is on the side of Hwedeon and Hwedeon only," Mei said. "This I know all too well. My father was a servant of Hwedeon."  Kai looked plainly shocked, Ilaryon appeared noncommittal as usual, and Dutia was confused. Mei herself looked grim and serious, her mouth set in a thin line and fists clenched so tightly that her knuckles were pale.
        "What happened to him?" Kai asked.
        "I don't know," Mei said, tears welling up in her eyes. "My adoptive mother took me away from him. He kidnapped me and took me to Hwedeon 's lair, and she rescued me. I do not remember anything, I was a very small child at that time." Dutia hesitated, wondering if she should tell Mei what the chaos-ruler had told her earlier, that Mei was Hwedeon 's son. Who is lying to whom? she wondered. Was the lady of chaos misinformed somehow, or did Mei's mother lie to her? The truth will be revealed in time, I suppose, she thought. I had best hold my tongue for now.
        As Dutia considered her actions and whether or not to speak, a strange phenomenon happened behind Ilaryon. A shower of golden light came from above, through the hole at the zenith of the earthen dome-shelter. Particle by particle, all glittering with a cold, bright light, a figure began to form. Dutia was awe-struck; her eyes widened. The others turned to look. Kai leapt up, assuming what Dutia guessed was a ready position in some kind of fighting art; probably the enlightened path of the "street brawl," she guessed. She stood herself, warily, half-way leaning against the wall. If this is one of Hwedeon 's tricks, we have no escape, she thought. We are closed in here, isolated, and the storm itself is outside...
        Mei remained sitting, cross-legged, wiping away tears on the sleeve of her dirtied and torn ivory dress. Dirt smeared across her face, a deep earth brown scar, and was streaked with tears. Ilaryon prostrated himself on the ground, deeply bowing and touching his fore-head to the earth.
        The light formed itself into a coherent, serpentine shape, coiled up and hanging still in the air. The form acquired claws and a head; light turned into shining ivory scales from tail to head, scales that were nearly painful to look at but gradually dimmed to a vaguely luminescent mother-of-pearl-like texture. The dragon's head was last to form; it had a snout like a lizard, nostrils flaring, large curling golden horns like a ram's, and a black mane that seemed drawn from the sooty smoke of the fire below. The mane's long, fine hairs began in the forehead, in a widow's peak that started between its shining pewter eyes, carried around its head like a lion's mane, then thinned out and ran down its spine like a horse's mane runs down its neck. The mane ended in a tuft of fur at the tail; similar tufts were also present at the joints of its four legs.
        Mei hesitantly mimicked Ilaryon's position, though her long gawky limbs, still in the ruined dress, bent out at odd angles and spoiled the effect. Her hair had become unbound, the tie worn through, and it spilled over her shoulders, a curtain of dusty violet. Even Kai got down to one knee. The presence in the room was unmistakable, thick and heavy with power. Dutia stayed back against the wall. Lucva shifted on her shoulder, and she absentmindedly reached a hand up to brush down his ruffled feathers. The pinpricks of pain caused by his talons were a welcome distraction from the enormity of the matter that they stood in audience with the Master of Order Himself. The dragon spoke.
        "Rise," it said, its voice deep and booming, but more cultured and fine, more noble than Ilaryon's rough, gravelly one. It flowed like water, and so did the dragon's coils, shifting in the air above the dying fire. Ilaryon lifted himself up slightly, as in a push-up, bowed his head to the earth again briefly, then stood. Mei merely struggled to her feet, keeping her eyes respectfully averted. Dutia could see the sweat dripping down from her brow, and bet that it was not wholly from the heat of the fire.
        Kai stood straight, his eyes never leaving the form of the dragon. There was a shimmer in the air around its form, like the air over a fire. Dutia wondered why she did not  feel any strong emotion. One would think that upon meeting one's god that one would feel something, at least, she thought. I should at least feel guilt about what I have done, should I not? However, standing here with Lucva, it seems that I still think I am innocent, either that or I have accepted my sin already.
        "Ilaryon," the dragon said, its voice both hard and kind at the same time. Firm, perhaps, the word is, Dutia mused. "These are the travelers?"
        "Yes, my lord," Ilaryon said. He said nothing else and stood still as a knife driven into the earth, offering no summary of events or excuse for Dutia's actions. Well as it should be, Dutia thought, well as it should be. This is my burden to bear. Still, I ought to owe Ilaryon something, if not his master, for easing my pain earlier with his potion.
        "So," the dragon said. "I see before me the son and daughter of Light. Well met, travelers. The storm will soon be over, and Order will be restored to the world as well as is within my power. Even now, the treacherous Hwedeon restrains me, interfering with my actions. Hwedeon must be stopped, for the good of all of the worlds." Why has he come here, anyways? Dutia wondered. He seems to ignore me, though he must know I am here. Surely a deity would not be so petty as to come here just to shun me? I am not that important...
        "Why are you here?" Kai asked. Well, that was blunt, Dutia thought. Still, what can one expect from an illegitimate son; Pagos would hardly train him like a noble, I suppose, but even still he should have a better idea of how to speak to authority figures. Then, however, look at me. Who am I to talk at this moment?
        "I come bearing news," the dragon said. "The woman known as the Heroine of Light, that is, the woman that both of you know as 'mother,' is alive. She is being held captive in Hwedeon 's stronghold.  I bring with me the instruments you will need to rescue her ."
        "Where is the stronghold?" Kai asked.
        "The storm rages outside," Mei said at the same time. "We cannot go anywhere right now. Unless you bring another way?" The dragon turned to Mei, its solid silvery eyes reflecting her. I am glad that He is not looking at me, Dutia thought. Not yet, anyways.
        "I do," said the dragon. "Ilaryon, the crystal, if you would." Ilaryon nodded, then clapped his hands together as he had done before. Again, there was a cloud of dark smoke. In the small space of the shelter, it served to blind everyone momentarily. Dutia coughed, covering her eyes and waving it away from herself and Lucva until it dissipated. Still, it gradually cleared, and when it did, Ilaryon held Mei's crystal, the crystal that had brought them to this world, in his hands once more, necklace-string wound about his stone claws.
        "This can be used to transfer you there," the dragon said. "I believe that the young daughter of Light is familiar with the location of Hwedeon 's stronghold. Is this correct?"
        "I was very young," Mei said, "but yes, I think I remember... It is vague, though, I do not know if it is correct or not."
        "I will guide you, then," the dragon replied. "You must make haste, it is best if you are not seen or heard and it is best if she is out of Hwedeon 's hands. She holds the key to the power of the Light, and she is the only full-blooded child of the Light left. The only other mortal that still carries the blood of light in his veins is the son of Light, Kael shai Kurest." The dragon paused, and its scaled brows drew closer together, narrowing its slanted silvery eyes. "That name does not suit you. I dub thee Kael Flamehair, and bestow upon you the gift of controlling fire to help you in the quest. Come here, Flamehair," the dragon said.
        Kai walked forward, appearing to be in shock or in a daze, which way it was Dutia could not tell. The dragon touched one of its claws to Kai's forehead. Kai closed his eyes and clenched his jaw, and the dragon drew upon his brow a symbol that blazed with light. Kai screamed, an awful sound that forced Dutia to cover her ears with her hands. She watched in fascination as pale, ethereal flames covered his body, seeming to consume him somehow as the symbol the dragon had drawn blazed even more brightly. Mei's face contorted in horror; she covered her gasping mouth with one hand as Kai fell to the ground, then she dropped to be by his side. Dutia's gaze darted to Ilaryon, but the gargoyle stood motionless, his face grim. I will not let this stand, she thought. He is in pain, and this must stop.
        "Stop it! Lucva!" she yelled. The dragon's head snapped up, a sudden movement that rippled throughout his snakelike body. The falcon launched itself from Dutia's shoulder, rose quickly, then braked in mid air, fanning its wings out, and dived straight for the dragon's face. Go for the eyes, she thought, it is your only chance against him. She felt a brief acknowledgement from the falcon, and that was all. It was cut short as the dragon raised a claw, then jerked it aside. Lucva fell like a stone, hitting the ground with a sickening thud. Dutia paused just long enough to see Kai gasping for breath as she ran to the place that Lucva had fallen.
        The falcon's breathing was shallow, and Dutia could feel his pain in her mind, a dull, ghostly ache like those that were said to accompany limbs lost to injury. She could feel the dragon's eyes upon her, as if they were the liquid metal they appeared to be forged into knives. She picked up Lucva carefully and cradled him in her arms, all the while ignoring that gaze that likely meant her own destruction.
        "Look at me, girl," the dragon said. Dutia ignored him, trying to feel what bones Lucva had broken, if any. I know nothing of injuries in birds! she thought. I know little enough of injuries in humans, certainly not enough to fix something like this... If it is an injury in the wings, perhaps I can splint it. "Look at me," the dragon said. She continued to ignore him. If you would torture and kill my friends you are no lord for me, now or ever, she thought at him, willing him to hear her though she dare not say the words aloud. "Thrice I command you, look at me." Dutia found her head moving without her own will, dragged as if by marionette strings, and she was powerless to resist. If the dragon's deep eyes had held any emotion, she would have thought him angry, but instead they remained coolly neutral, calm as the surface of a lake on a windless day that shows nothing of what currents lie beneath the surface.
        "It is a strange mark that my opponent has picked up in you," he said. "Loyal fiercely to small interests yet casually switching sides in the big issues. Still, the she-wolf may yet bite the hand that feeds her and turn sides once more," the dragon said, trailing off into a silent, contemplative gaze. "All gifts have a price," he said finally, "most so the ones that appear to be freely given, and especially those from powers above you. Whatever empty words of 'equality' or 'freedom' are said, they hold no truth. There are certain rules that must be followed, and chief among those is the notion that all things have their price. I gave Kael Flamehair the gift of power over fire, and he accepted, therefore necessitating the price paid in pain. It was merely temporary, but because of your intervention, he will have to suffer later on. You have only brought harm to yourself from this. It is regrettable, but so must it be."
        "You gave him a gift and he appeared to be in serious pain from it," Dutia said. "What else was I to do? Now Lucva is..." She looked down at the falcon in her arms, who was breathing weakly. "I was trying to save him, is that wrong?"
        "You doubted me," the dragon said simply, "and you have paid for it."
        "It is not fair," Dutia said.
        "You talk of fair, who abandon faith over mere trinkets?"
        "Lucva is not a trinket!" Dutia shouted. "He is a living being!" Mei, apparently deciding that Kai was all right as he lay on the ground sleeping, made her way over to Dutia, past a watching Ilaryon to Dutia. She knelt down beside the blue-haired woman and gently laid a hand on the falcon. "What are you doing?" Dutia asked.
        "He will be all right," Mei said. She turned to the dragon, who still floated imperiously above the fire. "If you give me a gift, let it be of healing," she said. Her voice held a quiet authority that reminded Dutia of her own mother, even though the girl was years younger than her.
        "Is that your wish?" the dragon asked.
        "Yes," replied Mei.
        "The price will be steep," he warned.
        "Yes," Mei said again. "I will take it, whatever the price."
        "Very well," the dragon said. "Come here and stand before me." Mei complied, and Dutia saw that she was shaking as the dragon lifted his claw and touched it to her head. I should tell her not to do it, Dutia thought. I should tell her not to do it for me, but if I do, then Lucva...
        "I will take it," Dutia said, surprising herself. "I will take on the pain for her. It is not right that she should bear this."
        "No," said the dragon. "She has chosen this of her own free will. It was the gift that I would have offered her anyways, so if your mistress sought to play you off me she has lost."
        "No," Dutia said. "It was not her, it was me. It was my decision and my action, and mine alone."
        "You sound like Hwedeon, Falconheart," the dragon said. Before Dutia could speak, he touched a claw to Mei's forehead and drew another shining sign. It shimmered brightly, and Mei was surrounded by a pale aura, then both faded, leaving her as she had been before.
        "There was no pain," the girl said in wonder, looking at the dragon, who seemed to be smiling, the ends of his fierce, many-toothed mouth curving upwards.
        "No, there is not. Not now, but there will be later," he said sadly. "With this gift, I also bestow upon you the name of Meis Healer. Ilaryon!" he said then, turning to the gargoyle, who bowed deeply.
        "My liege," Ilaryon said.
        "Take care of these children and see that they reach Hwedeon." Ilaryon bowed again, murmuring assent. "Fare thee well," the dragon said, and began to dissolve back into a shower of light. "We will meet again." Then he was gone, a thousand thousand particles of light scattered to the winds. Time seemed to stand still for a moment.
        Mei returned to Dutia's side and again laid her hand on Lucva. The faint, transient aura that had surrounded her before returned, and flowed down to surround Lucva as well. The falcon's breathing grew more regular, and Dutia could feel his presence on the edge of her mind once again, now without the pain that had accompanied it before.
        "Thank you, Mei," she said quietly. "I am in your debt." The girl smiled dreamily, then fell backwards in a faint. "Mei?" Dutia asked, alarmed. "Mei?" She reached forward to the girl; Lucva jumped out of her lap and regained his place on Dutia's shoulder. Dutia grimaced and thought that she ought to have Mei look at it later as she leaned forward to the girl, whose breathing had slowed dramatically. It was regular though, and she was only sleeping. Dutia breathed a sigh of relief.
        "That is well," a voice said. Dutia looked up and found Ilaryon watching her. "It is up to us to take care of them then. The storm is over; I will raze the shelter and we can look at the new world. Perhaps there will be more wood; the fire's gone out." Dutia nodded wearily. So many things have happened so fast, she thought. I wonder if they will ever slow down. I wonder if I will ever get back home...

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Chapter Six
Preparation

        The shelter gradually sunk back into the earth. When the roof got low enough, Ilaryon hammered it with his stony fists, breaking pieces of the dome outwards like the shell of an egg. Cracks spread through the pieces that remained like spider webs, breaking the walls neatly enough that even Dutia could help to tear them down. Lucva was circling high above in the sky, watching everything.
        Outside the walls, things had changed. The sky was a vibrant light blue, and the sun blazed large and white. There were no clouds in sight. The ground inside the circle lay bare and black against the pale grass that now surrounded it. Most of the trees were gone, replaced by  seemingly endless fields of flowers in all directions . The flowers were short, red and white in the clearing, which was now ringed by giant flower bushes instead of the trees, though the flower bushes were made of a pale blue stone instead of organic material. The path that Ilaryon had cleared was gone without a trace, and so were all of the fragments of the trees he had smashed and the shovels that they had dug out the shelter's earth with.  A breeze blew, and the temperatures were cool as in early spring. The flowers in the clearing were subtly fragrant.
        "What are we to do now?" Dutia asked. "There seems to be no wood here, so we cannot make a fire. This grass is all green, despite its weak appearance, so it will not work either. We may be able to get some branches of the trees, or we could if they were not made of stone at the moment. I suppose we will have to wait until Kai wakes up..."
        "There is no need," Ilaryon said. "I can get wood for us, it would merely be easier to find some. I am an earth elemental, so I can make anything I wish out of stone, metal, or wood at any time from my own substance. In any given sample of soil, you will find many traces of minerals, loose earth, and plant remains, so I am made of the materials. It does take a lot out of me, but I can replenish myself later on from the materials of the shelter."
        "I see," Dutia said. "You know, I am beginning to feel rather left out without magical powers of my own. Kai can evidently control fire, you can control all materials of the earth, and Mei can heal..." Lucva dropped from the sky, landing on her shoulder. "Well, I do have Lucva," Dutia said to the bird. "I suppose that is better than anything."
        "Perhaps," Ilaryon said. "It is good to have a companion. Later on I will make us all new clothing and armor to wear when we reach Hwedeon 's fortress. I will make you a grip for the shoulder and a gauntlet for your arm, if you would like."
        "Yes, that would be excellent," Dutia said. "You do not happen to have another of your healing draughts, do you? My shoulder is-" She stopped in mid-sentence and looked at him. "How come you did not offer your healing draught for Lucva earlier?" she asked.
        "The Master was present, and I thought it best to leave things to Him," Ilaryon replied. "Things have worked out well enough, have they not?"
        "Did He order you to heal me earlier?" Dutia asked.
        "No," Ilaryon said. "That was using my own judgment. Still, it is disrespectful to use one's own judgment in His presence."
        "I see," Dutia said. She longed to ask Ilaryon why he had not moved to aid Kai earlier, but knew already what his answer would be. "You are being rather cordial towards one your Master spares no love for," she said instead.
        "Again, while He is not present I use my own judgment. Besides, the way to persuade someone for any length of time is always courtesy and kindness, not anger and intimidation."
        "I see," Dutia said, even though she was rather unsure whether she did see or not. "Well, I would rather be on no side at all at this time," she said, both to Ilaryon and to the open air.
        "Is that why you did not call Her using that charm She gave you?" Ilaryon asked. He gestured with one hand around his neck to indicate her necklace. Instinctively, Dutia pulled the ring out and looked at it again, running her finger over the dragon.
        "I did not know I could call her," she said, but immediately knew it to be a lie. She told me that I could use it to call her, but how? Lucva might know. Lucva, are you there? she asked tentatively. She felt a feeling of acknowledgement, and continued. Do you know how I use this? she asked. Lucva returned an image of hunting, of absolute focus and concentration on one thing to the exclusion of everything else, then a picture of the chaos-ruler in her form as a black dragon like the one on the ring. He showed her the picture on the ring slowly becoming real, expanding and acquiring depth. Dutia nodded, then blinked. Ilaryon was looking at her strangely.
        "It does not matter now in any case," he said. "You did not call her. Perhaps you are not so attached to her as you would think. It is not too late to come back to Order, the Master will offer you forgiveness if you truly want it."
        "Perhaps someday," Dutia said. "Not now, now I just want to live for a while and focus on getting home. If there is some sort of a time differential between this world and my own world, there is no telling how much time has passed there. My parents will be in a panic. I do not wish to cause them unnecessary distress."
        "That is well," Ilaryon said. "Respect of your elders is one of the tenets of Order, so you have not strayed too far yet." This was said jokingly, and Dutia found herself smiling.
        "Now you are mocking me," she said. "I did not know you had a sense of humor, Ilaryon."
        "Perhaps it is left over from my creation," he replied, a smile of his own on his face. "The same could be said for my tendency to heal pretty young girls." Dutia blushed in spite of herself.
        "Hwedeon created you, did he not?" Dutia asked.
        "Yes," Ilaryon said, a shadow passing across his stony features. "Did She tell you that?" There was no question as to who he meant.
        "Yes, the lady of Chaos told me so," said Dutia. "She also told me of Kai's identity as the son of Light and Mei's identity."
        "Is that so," Ilaryon said. Abruptly, Dutia wondered if Ilaryon knew Mei's true identity as Hwedeon 's daughter. If he served Hwedeon once, even if it was long ago, it is possible, she thought. Still, what does that mean for us? Will he try to... use his own judgment in this matter too?
        "We need food and water as well," Dutia said. "I have eaten nothing since I have been here, and I am famished. I cannot speak for the others, but I would guess that they feel the same. Is there any source of food around here?"
        "Yes," Ilaryon said. "I shall produce some. Let us wait until later, though, when the others have awakened. It is best to let them sleep."
        "Yes," Dutia said. They talked idly for a while, about nothing in particular, both of them each carefully avoiding the other in words as they sat in the ruins of the shelter. Lucva came down from the sky and rested on Dutia's shoulder. He and Ilaryon watched each other intently, conversation paused for a moment, then it resumed and Ilaryon carried on as if nothing had happened. Well, what did happen? Dutia asked herself.
        Eventually Kai woke up, groaning and stretching. He rubbed his forehead idly as he pulled himself up into a sitting position, then took his hand away and looked at it. There was no mark on his forehead, it had been a temporary construct the same as Mei's had been.
        "Are you all right?" Dutia asked. He turned to look at her, and she gasped. There was fire in the depths of his eyes, like a reflection only it seemed to come from within; it must have, she thought, since there was no fire around for them to reflect.
        "What's wrong?" he asked, blushing. "Do I have something on my face?" He reached out a hand out to her in a placating gesture, and then cringed. In an instant, the aura of ethereal flames that had been present earlier returned, brighter than it had been. His eyes widened, and he looked down at himself in wonder. He closed his eyes, clenched his fists, and exhaled. The flames went out. Dutia continued staring.
        "How did you do that?" she asked.
        "It feels like it's inside me, just under the surface," Kai said, rubbing his hands together. "It's like it's in my veins, the fire, like a mania or a fever... I can't explain it," he said. "It's different, it's all different now. I wish you could..."
        He held up a hand, and dancing flames appeared over it. He gazed at the small fire intently, appearing to Dutia to look through it somehow or watch it in a dimension she could not understand. Its core turned from yellow to red to blue to white. He held it out to Dutia, and she reached out to it. It was hot- she pulled her hand back abruptly and Kai laughed joyously. I have never seen him happy before, Dutia thought. It very nearly scares me. Lucva chuckled in her mind. Well, how would you like the fire, bird? she thought at him; he did not reply, sending emotion that he felt it beneath his dignity. Dutia smiled.
        "Where's Mei?" Kai asked.
        "She yet sleeps," said Ilaryon. Dutia and Kai turned to look at him; he had been standing quietly and watching Kai's display of power. "She may sleep for a while yet, or she may waken soon, I cannot say for sure how it will be," Ilaryon continued, "but I believe that we must let her sleep until she wakes on her own. It is the price of her gift."
        "What is the price of your gift?" Dutia asked him. "You can make items from the earth itself, even complex things like food or shovels, you can control the earth and raise shelters, you are nearly invulnerable and you do not tire or need sleep... What is your price, then?"
        "I have no soul," Ilaryon replied. "I exist only now, on this plane, and when I die, I will be gone forever. If I survive to the triumph of Order, I will be destroyed with this planet as is the order of things, and I will not reborn in the New Kingdom. I am not invulnerable, no, though it is true that it takes much to hurt me since I draw sustenance from the earth itself. Still, my eyes are of ruby, so were they lost or removed I would be blind. I am vulnerable to water and heavy wind, for if I am blown apart and cannot reform that is the same as death, that is, nonexistence. I do not have a centralized 'brain', so to speak, as do you humans, therefore to lose an arm or leg is to lose part of my memory and function. To create an item, I draw the earth through me, using my body as a focus or filter, so that side effect is not present then."
        "I see," Dutia said, nodding thoughtfully. What would it be like not to have a brain in one place? she wondered. Would I know or recognize the difference at all? Still, I hope I have no occasion to discover the sensation, to be honest.
        "What's going on?" said a voice from behind the three standing and talking. They turned to look; Mei yawned, stretched, and sat up.
        "Are you all right?" Dutia asked.
        "Yes, I am fine, now," she said. "I don't know what happened, I just felt so tired after I..." She looked down at her hands, then at Lucva, who was currently perched on Dutia's shoulder, then sprang to her feet and walked over to Dutia. "Did I...? I mean, is he all right?"
        "He is well," Dutia said, smiling at the girl. "Thank you. We are in your debt." The girl blushed, her brown skin flushing darker.
        "That's all right," she said.
        "The rest is your price for using your power," Ilaryon said. The others turned to look at him. "I would expect, that is. 'To every thing there is a cost,' yes? We had best not come to depend on it too closely."
        "That would be well," Dutia agreed. "Still, we have a mission to complete now, have we not?"
        "Right," Kai said. "Let's get going on that. We've got to get moving, before Hwedeon has a chance to do anything irreversible. Do we know where she is exactly or where we can find her, at least? That, or how long she's been there or where she was before that?" He looked expectantly at Ilaryon.
        "No," Ilaryon replied. "No on all accounts, I am afraid. We do not even know if Hwedeon captured her or if she, Order prevent it, if she went of her own free will. She could not be a prisoner or slave at all, we must remember that. How long has it been since you last saw her?"
        "Many months," Mei said. "She often left on long trips, but always she took the crystal and kept it near her. She showed me how to use the crystal in case she were ever lost, and when we found it with her letter I was afraid that something terrible had happened, that she was dead." Ilaryon looked grim.
        "Because she yet lives does not rule out the possibility that something terrible has happened," he said to the girl. "We must make haste to Hwedeon 's lair. I am given to understand that you have been there previously?"
        "It was long ago," she replied. "I do not remember it, except that my moth- that is, the Heroine of the Light rescued me from that place."
        "I wonder why they kidnapped you," Dutia said.
        "I am not altogether sure," Mei replied, looking at her. "My father was a follower of Hwedeon, and I know little about my birth mother. Her name was Eisa, that is about the extent of my knowledge. We must get moving. I am sure that Hwedeon will be busy after the night, but he will not be distracted for long. I will do my best to transport us there."
        "I will assist you," Ilaryon said. "Let us gather where the shelter was, it is as good of place as any."
        "Wait," Kai said. "What about the food? You said that we could eat when Mei got up. We can't raid a demigod's lair on empty stomachs."
        "Kai!" Mei said. "This is your mother we are talking about!"
        "Precisely," he snapped. "I don't want to fail in rescuing her for some stupid reason like hunger!" Dutia watched in fascination.
        "Enough," Ilaryon said. "Time passes. We will eat later, after our rescue has succeeded. For now, we must move." His face grew tight, then he clapped; the cloud of smoke cleared quickly, revealing the crystal. "Here," he said, tossing it to Mei. "Let us all move into the shelter, then we will go. Mei, I will describe the lair as you effect the transport to make our chance of success greater."
        "Yes," the girl replied, nodding. "That would be good. I am not sure how accurate my memory is. Given the time, I believe it has faded, but I will do my best."
        "Very well," Ilaryon said. "There is one thing we must do, before we go. Hwedeon will surely have traps and alarms set for foreign entry into his lair, and one of these he will use is through the earth. When I walk, or when all of us walk, bits of the soil stick to the soles of our feet or of our shoes. These bits of soil have the memory of a foreign place, so to speak, so it is likely that he will have golems similar to myself lurking in the earth to monitor for such things. We will wrap our feet in paper so we can walk without fear."
        "Paper?" Dutia asked. "Why paper?"
        "Paper is dead," Ilaryon said. "It is made from wood, which is also dead and has no memory as such. The dirt itself, loose soil or sand and silt or ore, will hold memory, but dead wood and refined metal will not. I do not have enough metal to make us metal plates, but even if I did it would be unwise, for such things would leave heavy prints in the ground. Paper it shall be, and it will be rough, but still have less grip on the ground than would the leather we wear now. Come now, and I will bind us."
        "Where will you get the wood to pulp into paper, though?" Dutia asked. "There are no real trees around, not in all of these flowers, and there were not in the stone forest either; the trees were all stone."
        "Once, long ago, there were trees," replied Ilaryon. "The earth remembers through the night and Hwedeon 's re-making of the world."
        Ilaryon led them to the circle, then beckoned for them to sit. He conjured long strips of rough, pulpy paper with thunderclaps, and wrapped their shoes in the stuff, then his own stony feet. The strips dried thin and brittle, like a paper mache.
        "Now, real clothing," he said. "My master has charged me with the task of outfitting you properly and instructed me as to the proper size and fit of your clothing. I will spread paper across the earth here now, so that the earth does not come into contact with our new shoes." He did so, creating a great, flat sheet of paper in a roll and spreading it across the ground inside the boundary of what had been the earthen dome-shelter. "Come forth, one at a time. I will receive Dutia Falconheart first." Falconheart? Dutia wondered. Yes, the Master of Order, he did call me so, right before he left. She stepped forward. Ilaryon scrutinized her, squinting so that his ruby eyes became narrow slits.
        "Be still," he warned, then abruptly clapped, mere finger-widths from Dutia's face. Lucva launched himself off of her shoulder, springing high into the sky, and the woman closed her eyes and put her hands over her ears as a great amount of dust and smoke rose up around her. She felt rough touches all over her body as if she rolled on the earth, yet she knew she still stood. Her clothing became heavier and the fit changed, then the sensation stopped. Dutia opened her eyes slightly and found that she was still in the midst of a black cloud of smoke. A stony hand appeared in front of her face, waving the smoke out of her eyes, and the rest of it dissipated.
        Dutia looked down at herself. She wore an indigo blue tunic under a sleeveless suit of mail made of a gleaming pewter-colored metal that reached down to almost the middle of her thighs, and over that was a cuirass of hardened brown leather with a matching pad on her left fore-arm. A leather shoulder-pad on her left shoulder and an ornate leather gauntlet on her right arm provided perches for Lucva, and a wide leather belt at her waist held several hooks and empty pouches for personal items. She also wore breeches of a thick material with a texture similar to wool that were a medium honey-brown in color, and over those were more pads of leather at her knees and on her shins, with a new pair of ankle-high leather boots under the covering of paper. It was all very light for what she wore, and she knew not what magic made it so, but was still very glad of it. Ilaryon looked at her, waiting for approval.
        "It is perfect," she said. "You have truly outdone yourself, Ilaryon Earthmaster." His eyes widened, and she realized that she had bestowed upon him a title, something reserved only for the Master of Order himself to do. Resolutely, she pressed her lips into a thin line and widened the expression into a grin. "You deserve it," she said to him, stepping aside and farther back in the circle before he could reply.
        Kai and Mei stood back as well, admiring her new attire, and she nodded to them as well, smiling, then held up her newly gauntleted arm for Lucva. He came down from the sky and landed on it, and, much to Dutia's satisfaction, did not cause any more painful pricks with his talons.
        "Kael Flamehair," Ilaryon said. Kai bowed his head and stepped up, consumed in a cloud of smoke like Dutia assumed she had been. It lingered for a long minute, hanging in the air unnaturally over him, then gradually cleared as Ilaryon gestured it away. His new outfit mirrored Dutia's, with a suit of mail of a brighter silvery metal and a tunic of deep crimson instead of her pewter and indigo. He made thanks, then moved out of the way to stand next to Dutia, examining his new garb.
        "Very nice," Dutia said to him. "It suits you." He nodded distractedly, not blushing as she had expected him to, and she wondered what else had changed about him that was not visible to the naked eye. As she watched, the flames rose again over him, reflecting on his bright, shining mail, and fell back to nothingness; his hands were still bare and ungloved, unlike Dutia's hands, which were now covered with gloves of a soft brown leather.
        "Meis Healer," Ilaryon said, and the final human member of their group stepped forward to be enveloped in smoke. Again it lingered and was waved away, and again Ilaryon waved it away. The soiled ivory dress from Dutia's home so long ago was gone, and Mei was now clothed in a vest made of the same material as Dutia and Kai's breeches that appeared to have a thick leather lining to deflect blows or piercing attacks. It was in a lighter color, a pale brown, and under it was a dark green tunic with long sleeves. The color set off her brownish skin nicely. Her pants were made of a rough dark brown material that looked thin and loose; below her elbows and knees, her arms and legs were wrapped with a torn white cloth and protected by leather plates that were held on by belts that fastened on the inside of her arms and legs. She wore gloves and a belt like Dutia's, only hers had more pouches. Probably for medical herbs, Dutia reasoned, or something like that. Her vest also had many pockets on the inside and out.
        "Now, we are prepared, so let us go," Ilaryon said.
        "Gather near, everyone," said Mei. They complied. Ilaryon stood next to her, leaning down so his head was next to her shoulder. She held up the crystal and began chanting again, the same low chant that she had said way back in Dutia's mother's study. The sound and the deja vu caused the hair on the back of Dutia's neck to stand up, and the fields of flowers seemed to become ghostly pale, as if an eerie green light shone upon them, though the sky was as clear and blue as it had been, and the sun still as bright. Dutia had the feeling that everything was coming to a head, a climax, and that wherever they went, things would change and start moving faster, accumulating mad speed in a downhill rush like a pebble-sized snowball that magnifies its size tenfold as it rolls down the side of the mountain in the avalanche. Something was going to happen. Whether the rumor of old blood in her line was true or she was fooling herself, she did not know, but she felt sure that she was right in her predictions. Hwedeon, she thought, we are coming to meet you, at the command of both Chaos and Order. This could happen no other way.
        She smoothed Lucva's feathers nervously, feeling the sense of being closed in that had accompanied the earlier transport. Sounds she had not even noticed faded away beneath the chanting of Mei and Ilaryon's constant commentary on the scenery of Hwedeon 's lair: dank cave walls and bare earthen floors, bars of iron and a throne of gold and silver under a high ceiling lit by ghostly fire, where Hwedeon ruled like an old king of the underworld. She could see him, almost see his face, pale with dark hair...
        Out of the corner of her eye, Dutia could see the wall of the crystal closing in, defying the laws of space to surround their area, more like a guide or a shadow than an actual physical thing; shadows and light became different, diffused somehow, and the crystal shone bright in Mei's hand. Its light ballooned outwards as she reached a crescendo in her chanting, and the barrier of its glass blew past Dutia's face, again a cold rain without the wetness. Lucva screeched, and Dutia did her best to send thoughts of comfort his way. She did not feel comfortable herself.

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Chapter Seven
The Legacy of the Light

        They arrived in a dark cave, lit only by a ring of fist-sized orange jewels set in the walls. The jewels seemed lit by an inner light, like torches caught in amber. Ilaryon opened his eyes and the effect was the same. Lucva made a hissing sound, and Dutia noticed that Mei's crystal was glowing faintly in the darkness.
        "Where are we?" Dutia whispered. "Is this the right place?"
        "Yes," Ilaryon said, his voice a low bass rumble. "These are Hwedeon 's dungeons. Watch out; each jewel in the wall is an eoch's eye."
        "Eoch?" Kai asked. "What's that?"
        "We are about to find out, I fear," replied Dutia, as the lights inside the orange gems quickened and flared up. Kai responded by lighting his own fire, becoming a burning man and casting light on all in the small, circular chamber. There was an entrance to a hallway to Dutia's left; she considered making a break for it, then the eoch came. One by one, their golem-like figures carved themselves out of the slimy stone walls of the cave. Dirt fell away and the figures stepped out, each one humanoid with an orange jewel set in the middle of its head. The eoch surrounded them; there were at least six or seven that Dutia could count, and they were unarmed. Unarmed except for Lucva, who would be little use against the stone men, and Kai, whose fire would also be small use. There was Ilaryon, however- who knew what he held in reserve? Dutia edged toward Ilaryon, and found Mei doing the same. Kai intensified his flame, and the eochs' attention seemed focused on him.
        "They respond to light," Kai said, not turning around. "Go down the corridor, all of you, and I will follow. Ilaryon, they can't track us through the ground while we have the paper shoes on, right?"
        "They can feel the pressure," Ilaryon replied. "We cannot escape this one. We must fight."
        "Wait," Mei said. "We can incapacitate them somehow. I do not think that we can win a fight, but if we can trick them into something..."
        "What do you suggest?" Kai asked, dodging the blunt hand of one of the eoch. "You can't argue with stone men. They don't have ears, for one thing."
        "We can hear the vibrations quite well, thank you," Ilaryon said, his mouth pressed into a thin line. "Still, the others are right. We cannot fight, because they can replenish themselves from the earth, though they will lose some of their life and intelligence each time we score a major blow. If we can blind them, we may stand a chance."
        "Sand?" Dutia asked. "We can cover their eyes, right?"
        "Good idea, but no," Ilaryon replied. The four of them had formed a circle, back to back, concentric to the outer ring of eoch. "They can manipulate the earth, remember. They would merely absorb it, and it would be an annoyance, but nothing more. Not even time to escape."
        Kai raised his hands and pushed fire at the stone men. Their "faces" were burned black around the stones, but they still circled menacingly, occasionally daring to try and strike the travelers with clumsy, easily dodged blows that were becoming more and more accurate as the eoch formed. They can't be held off with fire, Dutia thought, or earth, and there is no wind in the stagnant caves to erode them away. Do you think that you could grasp their eyes with your talons? Dutia asked Lucva.
        In response, the falcon leapt off of her shoulder. He clawed at the eye of one of the eoch with his talons, but couldn't pry it loose. Lucva shrieked his frustration, flaring out his wings, then returned to Dutia's shoulder, angry at his failure. Dutia tried to send comforting thoughts as she considered the problem.
        One of the orange gem-lights went out abruptly. The golem struggled, and Dutia saw that it had been caught across the eye with a cloth blindfold. She turned half around and discovered that none of her own party was in that direction, then cried out. The figure that had blindfolded the eoch cut it in half, a sword of shining metal appearing through its torso, and the stone man fell to the ground, writhing and revealing a woman. Her skin was a rich, deep brown,  and the color almost blended in with the  walls of the hallway behind her, and her clothes were also brown and plain, worn  almost threadbare. She wiped the blade on her pants- loose, plain brown cloth, Dutia noted- and Dutia saw that it was a long knife, not a sword at all. The woman's  hair was the color of red wine, as dark as her skin, and cut short; it was patchy, irregular, and close to her scalp, with several empty spaces as if from burns or other torture. Is this the Heroine of the Light? Dutia wondered. She cried out, and the others turned to face her, then noticed the stranger in their midst.
        The woman ignored them and continued to dispatch the eoch around them, which fell and tried to rise again. Parts that fell formed themselves into crude shapes, and those without the orange eyes guided their attacks to the feel of pressure on the ground. Still, when the eoch were too broken to form into shapes, the woman collected the jewels and wiped them off with her torn shirt, removing as much of the enchanted dirt as she could. She then stored them in a satchel hanging from a belt.
        "Are you friend or foe?" she asked, eyeing the group of travelers warily. Her accent was lilting, like Mei's voice. Her gaze lingered on Ilaryon, Dutia noted. That was no great surprise to her; an eoch that turned on its own kind was suspicious enough, not to mention the travelers that accompanied it.
        "Friend," Mei said, stepping forward and appraising the stranger, "or at least common foe to the stone-men." The woman's bare arms were bruised and beaten; her knuckles stood out white as she clenched the sword. "You are injured," Mei continued, "Let me--"
        "No," Ilaryon said. "We cannot risk that in this place, not until we find the one we are looking for." Mei bowed her head and retreated to stand behind Kai, who was glaring at the stranger. Pale flames danced around his hands.
        "And who would that be?" said a new voice, also female, but deeper. The group looked up to find a woman standing in the doorway behind the stranger. Her skin was pale, and her hair was a light brown, also shorn short, but more neatly and deliberately than the first woman's was. She wore a bladed weapon too, but it was sheathed, though her hand rested on its hilt. Dutia was positive she could have it drawn and ready at an instant's notice; her posture held the casual readiness that she had seen at fencing matches in her home. "Eisa, who are these people?"
        Eisa? Dutia wondered. Her thoughts were distracted as Mei shoved past her. As Dutia had predicted, the second woman's steel was drawn in an instant; it was a longer blade than the first woman's, and slightly wider. A full sword, then, Dutia thought as the woman drew it up into a guard position. With the corner of her eye, she saw Kai's flames flare up, lighting the small room more brightly. Mei stood in front of her, blocking her view of the two women.
        "Mother!" Mei said. "It is you! We had come to rescue you, but it seems you have rescued yourself. Allow me to heal your wounds." She held up the crystal as if to prove her identity, then lowered it and looked carefully at the darker-skinned woman. "Who is this?" she asked.
        "Meiguro," said the Heroine of the Light, smiling weakly. Dutia wondered if her paleness was due to some injury or sickness. Someone who has been a prisoner of Hwedeon will likely not have been treated well, she reasoned. "You have grown," the woman said. "When did you learn how to heal?" Mei was staring at the Eisa. Dutia considered the girl and the stranger; there was a likeness between them. Kai stepped forward, holding one of his hands high like a torch.
        "That doesn't matter, mother," Mei said. "Who is this woman?"
        "Eisa," said the Heroine of the Light, turning to the dark-skinned woman, "Eisa, this is your daughter." Eisa's eyes widened, and her grip on the sword tightened, making her knuckles stand out even more.
        "My mother?" Mei asked, considering the woman. "But I thought you were..."
        "We have found our quarry," Ilaryon said, his voice deep and rumbling in what Dutia assumed passed for a whisper among his kind. Ones who could talk seemed rare. "Let us go somewhere safer than the lair of the enemy to debate and catch up on events." He walked around the perimeter of the group and scratched out a rough circle in the dirt, seeming immune to Eisa's constant suspicious stares.
        "Agreed," said the Heroine of the Light. Mei nodded, holding up the crystal, then hesitated and handed it to the pale woman. Swords were sheathed, and Kai extinguished his flame. Lucva quailed in the sudden darkness and Dutia tried to comfort him. The Heroine of the Light accepted the crystal from Mei and raised it over the group, chanting the foreign, harshly metered lines with a rhythmic intensity that Mei's voice did not possess. Dutia closed her eyes and prepared herself; the wash of non-water came over her again, and then the air was warmer and drier than it had been in the caves. She opened her eyes.
        It was bright, and the world seemed awash in a pale straw color, on dying grass and the thatched roofs of the rude huts that surrounded them. They seemed to have arrived in some kind of a village, if it could be called like that; it was more like a spontaneous gathering of huts, Dutia reflected, yet there was a well in the center of finely crafted stone, with a carved wooden pail sitting by its side.
        People came out of the houses, a few at a time, heavily armored with their weapons drawn. Their armor was made of carved wood, plated or inlaid with the same bright silvery metal of their blades. More faces looked out from the windows; a father and his children, an old woman, a small boy with a wooden sword. Dutia looked around; poised on several of the roofs were archers nocking arrows and holding them at the ready. She raised her hands carefully into the air, hoping that the gesture was the same for surrender in this place as in the books she had read at her home. She turned and saw Kai do the same. Mei looked around at the people of the village, and Dutia saw that some of them recognized her. There were many glances at Ilaryon, Kai, and Dutia, however, and many wondering stares at the Heroine of the Light.
        Eisa moved forward and sheathed her sword with a flourish. The village visually relaxed, and weapons were put away or lowered. The Heroine of the Light moved forward as well. She was slightly shorter than many others in the village and dressed only in cloth, not armor, but she still carried a presence about her that was hard to ignore. Authority, Dutia thought, that is it, authority. The Heroine of the Light opened her mouth and spoke in a clear voice, not overly loud, but she was heard above the murmur of some of the villagers.
        "I have returned," she said. "I am accompanied by my bond-daughter Mei and her traveling companions, and by Eisa an Pathem."
        "Eisa an Amrel!" shouted someone. The Heroine of Light's eyes narrowed. Her hand reached down to her sword-hilt, and several of the villagers backed away as she slowly pulled it out.
        "An Amrel," she said quietly. "What have times come to that we accuse our own of being followers of Amrel?" A man came forward; his armor clinked together as he walked to meet the Heroine of the Light.
        "Please, excuse them,  Telityoti," said the man. "They do not know what they say. They had best not know what they say," he said, shooting a piercing glance back at the direction that the comment had come from. "Amrel the Darkness is not loved in this village. Still, whence has come Eisa? We thought she was lost to Hwedeon many years ago, when Ekiarit betrayed us." Dutia saw Mei wince. Her father? Dutia wondered. It must be, or someone like him, perhaps...
        "Ekiarit? Is that what you call him now?" Eisa asked. The man and the Heroine of the Light turned to look at her. "It fits him." She spat on the ground. "Ekiarit am Amrel, yes, that is a fitting name for my dead husband." Dutia herself winced at this comment. That confirms that suspicion, she thought to herself.
        "Village-Ruler Harad am Lopid," the Heroine of the Light said. "I formally request shelter for myself and my companions." She looked to Dutia, Kai, Mei, and Ilaryon, her gaze lingering there before moving back to Eisa. "In return, we offer additional protection for the village, and what information we may share regarding our travels." Harad nodded.
        "It shall be done as requested, Telityoti. My wife Yiaslai will guide you to our home for the time being." Yiaslai, a young woman with a pleasant expression on her face, came forth and bowed her head to the Heroine of the Light. "Go with the light," Harad said.
        "The light be with you as well," the Heroine of the Light responded. Yiaslai started walking, and the Heroine of the Light beckoned for the travelers to follow. Dutia did, taking the lead, and soon Kai walked at her side, matching her pace but not looking at her or saying anything. The others trailed somewhat behind; Eisa stayed distant from them, and Ilaryon walked with Mei, who was looking at Eisa every time Dutia turned around to see her.
        Yiaslai led them to a large, vaguely circular hut. Inside, there was a large clear space, as there had been in the earthen shelter, a fire-pit in the center, and a hole in the center of the straw roof for smoke to escape. Various chairs were scattered around the room.
        "Please forgive us, Telityoti," Yiaslai said. "The last Night has changed our houses into these crude huts, and we are stuck with them until the next changing darkness. We dare not waste the time rebuilding; when we do it seems the Nights come faster. Hwedeon toys with us."
        "Yes," said the Heroine of the Light.
        "Be glad that is all he has done to you," said Eisa in a pained voice. "I am glad to see that you are well, Yiaslai." The village-ruler's wife appeared to be trying to ignore Eisa. She wrung her hands together constantly, looking around at the shelves and cabinets on the wall and rearranging things as if she was looking for something.
        "Yiaslai," said the Heroine of the Light gently. The woman turned to look at her, panic in her eyes as if she expected the Heroine to order her to respond to Eisa. "Please fetch us some water from the well for drinking and some to wash the dust of the long road and battles off of ourselves."
        "Yes," the woman replied, looking around, grabbing a clay pot, and darting out the door before the Heroine of the Light could change her mind. The Heroine sighed, looking out the door after her, and Eisa snorted.
        "It is no more than I expected," Eisa said.
        "It is less than you deserve," the Heroine of the Light countered.
        "How so? I did not oppose my husband when he began to idolize Hwedeon as the bringer of some 'perfect balance' to all of the worlds. I did not stop him when he went to Hwedeon, and I was taken to Hwedeon myself as a form of tribute, and I..." she trailed off, cleared her throat, and began again. "I deserve nothing, I am the lowest of the low, and I know this. You would have done better to leave me in his dungeons. He would not have bothered me more, for I served his purpose, and I will live with it. I will not die until I see Hwedeon dead and fallen for all he has done to us. Look how he makes our people live now, see what they are reduced to; proud and bluffing to strangers, while inside their homes there is nothing, not even in the highest home of the village." Ilaryon cleared his throat, and all turned to look at him.
        "Let me clear matters up for myself," he said, holding up a hand to silence protests. "You, Eisa, are the mother by blood of Mei here, and you, Telityoti, the Heroine of the Light, are her mother by bonds of obligation, yes?" The women nodded. "Then, Telityoti is the mother by blood of Kael Flamehair, who is the son of Pagos Kurest, one of the merchant families of the world from which Dutia Falconheart originates?"
        "That is correct, as far as I know," said the Heroine of the Light. She stepped forward in front of Kai, and made him look up at her, grasping his chin with her hand. "Kael," she said. "I am sorry that things did not work out better. I am sorry I was forced to leave you with Pagos, all alone in that house."
        "Why did you?" he asked her.
        "Hwedeon," she replied, casting her gaze away from him and out into the distance, through the open door. "Hwedeon pulled me away. He kidnapped me, and I have been here ever since."
        "Who are you, really?" Dutia asked. "You have the appearance of someone from the Empire, yet you live here and are familiar with these people, and also the crystal and Hwedeon. They call you the 'Heroine of the Light'. What does that mean? Please excuse my forwardness, but with all due respect, I would like some answers to what we are doing in this place."
        "You are correct when you say that I walk two worlds," the Heroine of the Light replied. "My name in the other world is Muria, daughter of House Halia. Here in this world I am known as Iluei. Our line has protected the crystal for many generations. I found out about it myself when I was only a child, younger than Mei is now, and I drew myself into this world, Alaimone, without even the sacred chant to guide me. Please, seat yourselves, and I will explain all that I can. It will be good to tell the tale to someone who understands." The travelers scrambled to seat themselves, and Eisa also found a seat. Dutia sat next to Kai, whose jaw was clenched stone-tight. House Halia, she thought to herself in wonder, the reclusive branch of the First House that was rumored to be only legend. Ilaryon remained standing, back against the wall. Lucva shifted on Dutia's shoulder.
        "My grandmother died giving birth to my mother," the Heroine of the Light continued, "and so she had no chance to pass on the secrets of the crystal. My mother looked once into its depths and saw this place, and it scared her so much that she hid the crystal away, fearing to destroy it, but knowing that she could not give it away either. I found it, looked into it, and went searching for answers. I found them in my greatmother's papers, vague records of another land called Alaimone." She cleared her throat, then continued speaking.
        "When I was very young, my greatmother told me stories of this land. I had no idea that they were more than stories, more than the ramblings of an ancient woman. My greatmother scared me, like age does any small child, so I did not spend as much time with her as I should have. When she passed away, she left her papers to me, including several about Alaimone and the crystal written when she was younger.  We acquired the crystal from a traveler that came to our world from Alaimone many years ago. We gave him shelter, and he fell in love with a daughter of the House and married into the line. Their son was my greatmother's grandfather, and the line of Halia has been protecting the crystal ever since."
        "So you have been keeping this a secret for that long," Dutia said. "How have you managed? Something like that would be hard to hide."
        " The crystal was not used, except for the necessary training of the line in how to use it and regular visits to maintain our ties and status in the world, naturally," the Heroine of the Light replied. "It was thought best to leave it alone and not to exploit it for trade or make its secret public. It was our escape route should something happen, and nothing more. Then the line was broken, and my mother discovered its secret on her own and would not go. My greatmother, that is, my mother's grandmother, tried to instruct her in its use, but my mother refused. My greatmother thus left the crystal and instructions on its use to me. I traveled on my own to Alaimone and assumed the role of Telityoti, the Heroine of the Light."
        "Then Hwedeon came," Eisa said grimly.
        "Yes," the Heroine of the Light continued, "then Hwedeon came. He came to me one night and told me who he was and what he was. He asked me to rule by his side, and he asked me for my help in bringing this world under his control peacefully. I refused." She cast her glance down to the ground.
        "So what did Hwedeon do?" Kai asked. "If you were a daughter of the Halia branch of the First House, how did you end up bearing a son of Pagos Kurest? Even more, why did they not make it public? Why didn't the house of Halia take me in?"
        "Hwedeon," the Heroine of the Light said, trailing off as if she was unsure what to say next.
        "Hwedeon took her memories," Eisa supplied. "He sent her back to her own world, which he did not yet have designs on, so that he could conquer this one. The man, Kurest, found her and gave her shelter. He took advantage of her, thinking she was a lower class woman, while the gods themselves searched for her. Meanwhile, in her absence, Hwedeon came to us directly. Most of us refused his offers of wealth, fame, and power in return for service, but some did not. My husband did not."
        "It is as Eisa says," the Heroine of the Light said. "In my absence, many in the village defected to Hwedeon. Hwedeon began to exercise his power here, warping the landscape in the night, and the settlements gathered together. Many pledged service to him and were taken away, I know not of their fates. This was how I found my land when the goddess of Light found me and healed me. Hwedeon had been foolish and left me with the crystal, so I was able to return. I stormed his lair, rescuing as many of my people as I was able to, and took them back to the House Kurest with me.
        "Pagos was outraged," she said. "He was terrified, and condemned me for it. I had revealed my identity to him before I left, thinking he loved me, but he had merely been using me for pleasure. I found him married upon my return, and my son Kael, yes, that is you, who had been too young to accompany me on the journey, treated like a common bastard in the house. I was outraged."
        "Why didn't you do something?" Kai shouted, leaping to his feet. "Do you know what they did to me? You could have taken me away from him! You could have taken me back here and saved me from all of that! Why didn't you do something, mother?"
        "Pagos Kurest threatened to reveal my secret if I took you back," the Heroine of the Light said wearily. She looked up at Kai, looking all too human to Dutia's eyes. "What could I do, Kael? The fate of my House, the fate of all of Alaimone... I could do nothing, and I was weak. My entire family would have been put out on the street or executed for keeping this secret from the Empire for a secret that they did not even know about. The line would be disgraced to its seed with this action, and the people of the Empire would say that all of our fortunes came from this other world. More importantly, more important than all of that, what life would I be able to give you if I took you and fled to Alaimone? You would live in constant fear of Hwedeon while I was away fighting and in constant danger when you were with me. The villagers would be given the option of producing you or being killed, and what kind of life would that be? At least with Pagos, you would have a roof over your head and constant food and water. At least with Pagos, you would have a chance, even if he brought you up to hate and despise me and tried to twist you to his own ends. I could have lived with that, yet I find you here despite everything."
        "I do not understand," Dutia said, rising to her feet as well in an attempt to relieve some of the tension between mother and son. "Why did Pagos Kurest want Kai? Why did he not want you to take him, thus eliminating the possible scandal of an illegitimate child and the source of his fears of the unknown at once?"
        "I can answer that," Kai said. Dutia turned to him. "He thought I had some kind of special power, magic, something like that. I never understood until now, but he used to beat me because I showed nothing. He hurt me in every way he could think of, trying to push me to some sort of limit to 'release my power,' as he called it. I bought into it. I saw it as some sort of a trial, and for a long time I believed that there was some sort of mystical power awaiting me if I pushed myself hard enough. I thought I was special, that I was different from the others somehow. I was better than them, even if they treated me like dirt, because while they were noble, I was going to have magic. Still, no end of tutors and priests could produce any power out of me, and Pagos began to grow angry. He beat me more often, and finally gave up on me, until he realized he could use me. That night we came here, he gave me the assignment of stealing from you, and he said if I succeeded, I would have a career and a future with him after all. If I failed, I would be killed."
        "Oh, Kai," Dutia said, horrified. "I never knew..."
        "You weren't supposed to," he said. A light halo of flame now surrounded him. "When I return, when I find Pagos Kurest... Now I do have magic. I do have a special power, and when I get back I will display it for him. At my pleasure, not at his." Dutia looked at the Heroine of the Light, whose face was grim.
        "Perhaps you are more his son than you are mine," the Heroine said. "Pagos Kurest is a weak, petty man who uses every shred of power he gets to hold himself over others and make himself feel more powerful. I had thought that my son would be better than that, and would use power in service, as it is meant to be used."
        "I had expected more of my mother than to be abandoned because she feared her line would be disgraced," Kai retorted. "I am not your son any more than I am the son of Pagos Kurest. I am my own person, and I will do as I please. I hope I'm not like you. I would never abandon my child for fear of reputation!"
        "Take that back!" Mei cried. "Don't you talk about my mother like that! My mother is a valiant warrior, and she is fighting for the fate of the entire world of Alaimone!"
        "Alaimone is not my world!" Kai said. "Why should I care what happens to it? I was not born here, I was not raised here. I was dragged here against my will, and I want to go home."
        "Where is your home?" the Heroine of the Light said. "If this is not your home, and being with me is not your home, then where do you intend to go? Will you return to Pagos Kurest and live with him? Will you go back and use your newfound power to kill him? Then where will you be, Kael? Fight by my side and save Alaimone. We will live here, and return to the House of Halia. Fight with me and you will live as a son of the First House."
        "They will allow a bastard in the hallowed halls of the First House?" Kai said. "Somehow I doubt that." Still, his voice is weakening, Dutia thought to herself. Perhaps I can help.
        "Kai," she said. Kai turned to look at her. "I do not know you well, but I know that you are a good person. You are no son of Pagos Kurest in manner, despite what blood may say. I do not know the Heroine of the Light, nor do I know her cause, but I ask you to stay with me and fight by my side."
        "Fight against what?" Kai asked.
        "Against Hwedeon," said Ilaryon. Everyone turned to look at him. "Hwedeon, who is the reason that your mother could not raise you properly. Hwedeon, who will take over your world as soon as he has conquered this one. Hwedeon means to rule all worlds. He sets himself as a god, greater than Chaos and Order, ruler of Light and Darkness as he sees fit. He must not be allowed to rule everything. He is capricious and cruel."
        "I accepted gifts from the Lady of Chaos to fight Hwedeon," Dutia said. "I am bound and sworn to fulfill my promise or die in the act of trying. I would like it if you would do me the honor of fighting by my side, though I cannot promise you anything other than companionship." Kai hesitated, then looked at his mother and at Mei, at Eisa and Ilaryon, then back at Dutia.
        "I accept," he said.
        "I have returned with the water," said a voice from by the door. The group inside the house turned to see Yiaslai, lady of the village, standing in the door with a large clay pot brimming with water. She was smiling, and Dutia wondered how long she had been there. She's probably heard everything, Dutia thought. She smiled back at the woman.
        "Thank you," Dutia said. "Our thirst is great at the moment." The tension that had filled the room broke at last, and everyone's posture visibly relaxed. Yiaslai sat the pot of water in the center of the room and handed out smaller clay cups full of the fresh well water. The travelers sat back in their chairs and drank. Eisa, Mei, and the Heroine of the Light excused themselves to another room, and the others drank deeply and talked of lighter issues with Yiaslai until they grew tired.

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Chapter Eight
Conversations

        The sun still hung high and east into the sky. The night was not yet falling, though its ghost seemed to walk the village. It was still light when Dutia woke up. She was on an improvised bed in the house of Yiaslai and Harad, and there was a fine smell. She was hungry, she realized, and pulled herself to her feet. She wore a simple, loose shirt and pants; her armor lay neatly next to the bed, laid flat where it could be and piled as well as she could manage where it could not.
        She reached out mentally for Lucva. He returned morning greetings and his location circling far above the village, and she thanked him. They had been in the village for almost a week now, resting from their journey and preparing for the next. The villagers were good people, mostly polite to the travelers, though there were some that simply ignored them. Dutia had gotten used to it.
        I wonder what is happening at home, she thought. I have been gone for at least a week and a half, now, I am sure, if time works the same way here as it does there. I wonder if they are still searching for me or if they have given me up for lost... I wonder what has happened to Gavin. I wish that the Heroine of the Light would allow me to return, just to make sure everything is all right, just for a day, but she fears too much that Hwedeon would track our movements and cut me off from them.
        I do not think I will do much good against Hwedeon, she thought. I do not know anything about fighting or combat, and I do not think I could use a sword well to save my life. Perhaps I could use one then, but certainly not well, and not well enough to beat Hwedeon. If only the Master of Order had given me a magical power when he gave Kai and Mei their gifts...
        Kai and Mei had been training with their powers all week, and Dutia had felt very left out of everything. Eisa and Ilaryon had been in consultation with the Heroine of the Light on battle plans to attack Hwedeon 's stronghold. Dutia had been left to help Yiaslai tend to the house and support the travelers, when she was not answering the village children's questions about the world she came from. Many of them had been young when the Heroine of the Light had disappeared again. Dutia had finally heard the rest of the Heroine's story two days before.
        "After I left Pagos and Kai alone," she continued, "I returned here to Alaimone. I raised Mei as my daughter, teaching her everything she would need to continue the legacy of Halia. I felt that it was better to leave the crystal on this side of the divide of worlds after Pagos' actions, and as I was unsure that I would ever return there, I wanted to make sure that my succession was ensured. Life went on well for many years, and Mei grew into a beautiful and resourceful young woman." Mei blushed, and the Heroine of the Light continued, smiling.
        "I was happy, and it had seemed that Hwedeon 's attacks were receding. Then he attacked the village." Her expression turned grim. "We were unprepared. I had been foolish, and I had slackened in my training and establishment of defense. It looked like we would be destroyed, then Hwedeon offered up an ultimatum: if I surrendered myself, the attacks on the village would stop."
        "Did you?" Dutia had asked.
        "Of course not," said the Heroine of the Light. "If I had, the attacks would have continued and my people would have been completely defenseless, even more so than they had been. However, fate frowned upon me that day, and I was captured by Hwedeon 's eoch after they wounded me. I faltered, and they came upon me from the ground. It was the first time we had seen them, and at that point I was sure that we were all dead and the village would be razed, but Hwedeon was true to his word. He took me, and the attack stopped.
        "He brought me to his stronghold," the Heroine continued, "and took the crystal from me. Then he did something that put me into a deep sleep. I do not know how long it lasted, but Eisa awakened me. Hwedeon had killed her husband many years before, but kept Eisa alive as a concubine." Mei's eyes had widened, and Dutia's hard had sunk. So it is true, she had thought to herself. Eisa herself had turned away in the half light from the fire inside Harad and Yiaslai's house.
        "Eisa came to me many times and told me much of Hwedeon. There was one thing above all that chilled me. Hwedeon had a daughter, and Eisa had borne that daughter." The Heroine had looked at Mei briefly, then gazed slowly and deliberately at each of the travelers in turn, a pained expression on her face. "Yes, that daughter was Mei. I am not sure what that means in the grand scheme of everything, but I am sure that it is significant and no accident." Mei looked as if she had been struck by lightning. So Mei is the daughter of a madman trying to set himself up as the god of gods and Kai is the son of the Heroine of the Light, Dutia had thought to herself, where is my secret parentage?
        "I am sorry for not telling you before, Mei, if you would like to talk about it I am here," the Heroine of the Light had said. Mei had shaken her head, then excused herself from the dinner. Soon they had all drifted away and gone to sleep, except for Dutia, who had helped Yiaslai clean up the remnants of the gathering. Dutia had discovered that simple, repetitive tasks like chores were perfect for keeping her mind off of worries, and Yiaslai had been only too grateful for the offer of help.
        Dutia wandered into the kitchen of the house, which she had decided was more like a cabin than a hut, since it had a separate kitchen, common area, and two other rooms, one for sleeping and one for storage. The objects it was storing were in fact travelers, however, at this point.
        The Heroine of the Light was sitting at the kitchen table, talking to Yiaslai, who was fixing breakfast, cooking something fragrant in a pan low over an open flame. Dutia entered the room cautiously, trying to avoid notice, but as always Yiaslai turned and looked at her, smiling.
        "Good morning," the woman said cheerfully, flipping the batter in the pan completely over with a flip of her wrist. Dutia's eyes widened. She had seen Gavin do the same thing many times at her own home, and the sight still amazed her. Her heart tightened as she thought of Gavin, Maria, and her parents at home, who had likely given her up for dead by now. She sighed heavily as she sat down at the table, sliding into the chair like a snake.
        "What's wrong, Dutia?" the Heroine of the Light asked. Dutia looked up to see a concerned expression on the woman's face and realized that she older than Dutia had first thought, maybe ten or fifteen years older than Dutia's own twenty-one years.
        "I miss my home," Dutia said. "I miss my family, and they probably think that I am dead and never coming home. At this point, I am not sure if I ever will get home. I feel so useless in the fight against Hwedeon..."
        "The fight has not even yet begun," the Heroine pointed out. "Things will happen as they will when the time comes, and you may find yourself possessed of a strength that you do not know you have now."
        "Perhaps," Dutia said, unable to keep the doubt out of her voice. Yiaslai set the pan-cake on a wooden plate in front of her, then served one to the Heroine of the Light as well.
        "Eat now, and relieve your troubles with food for a while," Yiaslai said, smiling. The Heroine of the Light laughed.
        "Won't you eat with us, Yiaslai?" the Heroine asked, gesturing to an empty seat at the table.
        "No, no," the woman said. "I am meeting some friends out of the house today for my breakfast, I just wanted to make sure that you, my guests, were fed properly before I left. I will be gone today, so you will be on your own as far as lunch, though you are welcome to whatever we have here. I will be back in time for dinner."
        "We will see you then," said the Heroine of Light. "Go with the light."
        "And you," replied Yiaslai, slinging a satchel over her shoulder and heading out the kitchen door to the common room.
        "Thank you for the food," Dutia called between mouthfuls of pan-cake.
        "You are welcome," Yiaslai shouted back, then the door slammed closed and Dutia found herself alone at the breakfast table with the Heroine of the Light. She managed to focus on her pan-cake for a while, and it was delicious, but too soon it was all gone. She drank deeply of the cup of juice Yiaslai had left to accompany the meal, then set the cup back down and found the Heroine of the Light watching her curiously.
        "Are you ready to talk?" the woman asked.
        "Talk?" Dutia repeated stupidly.
        "Yes, talk," the Heroine repeated. "You were the only one among us that was not surprised when I revealed that Mei was the daughter of Hwedeon, and I was wondering how you came to know such a thing."
        "It is a long story," said Dutia, feeling suddenly edgy. Well, I wanted the attention, she thought to herself, and now that I have it I cannot un-want it, so I had best deal with it. The Heroine of the Light waited for her to continue, and she sighed. "I assume Kai told you about... No, I had best start at the beginning of all things. I was returning to my house, walking through the City Park in the other world, when I came upon Mei in the rain..."
        "Yes, she told me how you offered her food and shelter, then how Kael came into your house through the window," the Heroine of the Light said.
        "Right," Dutia replied, trying to think back to what had happened. It seemed so very long ago now, before everything had changed, before Lucva and the goddess of Chaos, before Ilaryon even. "Well, when Kai entered the house through the window, Mei transported us here with the crystal. I am not sure why," she said, frowning. "Did Mei tell you why she brought us here in the first place? I have never gotten a chance to ask her, in all of this time."
        "She was trying to escape on her own," the Heroine of the Light responded, "only she had no proscribed circle, and the transfer was partially disrupted, so as untrained as she was, she lost control and ended up bringing all three of you over instead of only herself. She had never used the crystal for transfer before, only for scrying, and I must say she did fairly well, considering all three of you arrived safely."
        "Yes," Dutia said. "We were lucky, although I am not sure how much of a factor luck played in such things. What did Kai tell you about the Lady of Chaos and her gifts to me?" The Heroine of the Light frowned.
        "He mentioned that She had spoken to you and gifted you with the falcon, but that was all. Wait, no, he mentioned that there was a ring as well that she had given you, correct?" Dutia nodded and brought the chain with the ring on it out from where she had it tucked under her dress. She pulled the chain over her head and held it out for the Heroine of the Light to examine.
        "She gave me this, in fact it was Her third gift. The first gift was the companionship of Lucva, the falcon, which I still do not quite understand. He and I are bonded in some fundamental way, that is all I know, and I think he may be part me, part Her, and part himself. He is mostly himself, of course, but She created him and I named him. Her second gift was of information. She told me that Kai was your son, that Mei was Hwedeon 's daughter, that Ilaryon was created by Hwedeon but now serves the Master of Order, that She controls the gateways between worlds, and basic information about Hwedeon 's powers. Her third gift was this ring, her favor, which I am to use to summon her if it is necessary. It is my contract with her."
        "Tell me," the Heroine of the Light said, "when did the High families of the Empire start to worship Chaos? I had thought that the Church of Order held them all firmly in check." Dutia flushed.
        "They do not worship Chaos," she said. "It is only I who have made this contract, and my family and friends are free of it."
        "'They'? When did you begin to be outside the circle of the High families? Are you not a daughter of a House?" Dutia stopped and considered the question. When had she stopped considering herself one of them? When she made the contract with the Lady of Chaos, or had it been before that?
        "I do not know," Dutia said. "I do not worship Chaos. I have made a contract with Her, and I follow Her out of my own free will, not because of some threat of what will happen if I do not. She offered me these things and I took them. It is all contained in that act, right there, I am her champion and she is my lady."
        "I see," said the Heroine of the Light. A bemused expression was on her face. She picked up her cup of juice and took a long drink, peering at Dutia over the rim of the cup. "So what is this about you being useless, then?"
        "I fail to see the connection," Dutia said, "but I am indeed useless when it comes to the battle against Hwedeon, so I do not know why my lady chose me of all of the people she could have chosen to be her champion. I know nothing of Hwedeon 's fortress like Eisa or Ilaryon, and I was not gifted with any special power by the Lord of Order like Kai's flame or Mei's gift of healing."
        "You have the power to call upon a goddess," the Heroine of the Light replied, "with that ring. I do not think that will be useless in the fight to come, Dutia, not with Hwedeon on the other side."
        "You do not understand," Dutia said. "My lady depends upon me to protect Her and to remove Hwedeon 's influence over Her power. She cannot defeat Hwedeon herself, or She would have done so. He uses Her, manipulating Her powers against her will. It is I who protect Her, and so I must not rely on Her strength, but on my own power, and that alone."
        "I see," the Heroine of the Light said. "I do not see what routes are open to you, then, I am afraid. Did She tell you anything more about your role in the things to come or about why she chose you?"
        "No," Dutia said, shaking her head. "I have no idea, honestly. I do not have any special powers or knowledge, nor do I know anything about warfare or magic. I am the daughter of a merchant house, and that is all and enough for me, or it had been until now."
        "What do you mean, 'it had been until now'?" the Heroine of the Light asked. Dutia looked at her and sighed, then took another sip of juice.
        "Do you know how some things, like certain types of fabric, will stretch to a certain point?" Dutia asked. The Heroine of the Light nodded, visibly uncertain where Dutia was going with the analogy. "If you stretch them past that point, they will never return to their original size. That is how I feel. My life has been changed, and it will not change back, no matter how I want it to I know that there is more to life than trade contracts and numbers now. I have walked through a forest of stone with a golem, met and spoken with a god and a goddess, pledged my support against a man that is trying to control both of them, and met a legendary heroine while fighting stone men, all of this after I traveled to another world. I certainly cannot forget all of this, and I am afraid that when I go back nothing will be the same again. I think about my family and friends constantly while I am here, and I fear that I may never see them again, but if it means losing Kai and Mei, even Ilaryon... I do not know what to do," Dutia finished, spreading her hands wide over the table. She looked up at the Heroine of the Light. "I wish that I could live in two worlds, like you do, but I do not possess a magical crystal that will transport me between them."
        "Believe me," said the Heroine of the Light, "sometimes I wish exactly the opposite. Life in one world should be enough for anyone. Still, after all I have done and seen and all of the people I have met here, I am like you: I could not be happy only in the other world. When I first came here, I felt much like you do now. I had received no training, and I did not know anything or anyone other than what I had learned from my greatmother's papers, which was precious little and like all papers only marginally applicable to reality. I was able to meet a few people who had known my grandmother, however, when she had come here before, and the Goddess of Light helped me to come to understand myself and my powers."
        "What are your powers?" Dutia asked. She realized how rude she had been and put a hand to her mouth. "I am sorry. I have become impatient, it seems. If it is not rude of me to ask, however, what exactly is it that makes you the Heroine of the Light? I know that you can transfer yourself between worlds and that you are trained in the fighting arts, but is that all? It is a lot even if it is, but still..." The Heroine of the Light smiled.
        "Yes, I can transfer myself between worlds and I am trained in the fighting arts, but I am also the champion of the Goddess of Light, much as you are the champion of Chaos. My goddess speaks to me and I to her about matters of the village and life, as such I am the link between the people and the goddess. She gives me the power to dispel the illusions of the darkness, both physically like in the stone forest and metaphorically in the case of lies and half-truths."
        "Why does she not speak with the people of the village directly?" Dutia asked. "Would that not be better?"
        "It is easier for her this way, I suppose," the Heroine of the Light replied. "I had not considered it before, but I suppose that it is easier if I condense the information into a report. She is not omniscient, after all, merely wise and powerful. Such is the case with all of the gods."
        "I see," said Dutia. "She guides you in your actions, then?" The Heroine of the Light nodded. "Perhaps I should consult my lady, then, and she would tell me what to do."
        "Yes, perhaps," said the Heroine of the Light. "I have a request to make of you as well."
        "Of course," said Dutia. "What is it?""
        "Please talk to my son. I am glad that you have convinced him to fight against Hwedeon with us, but I fear that he will not listen to me at all about why it is important. He is hating himself right now as much as me, I would think. Please try to convince him to come and talk to me."
        "I will try," Dutia said, "though I cannot promise anything. I do not know him as well as I would like to, and you have spent much more time with him than I have, since you were with him for so long when he was a small child, right?"
        "No," the Heroine of the Light said. "He was a different person then, a different person completely. So was I, for that matter. We are strangers now."
        "I am sorry to hear that," Dutia replied. The Heroine of the Light nodded, and they finished their breakfast and parted ways, the Heroine of the Light set on another Council of War with Ilaryon, Eisa, and Mei, and Dutia to find Kai. She smiled at the Heroine of the Light as she left Harad and Yiaslai's house and walked out of the village. The terrain was normal here, and there was a small stream on the outskirts where the villagers did laundry and washing. Kai was usually there in the afternoons when she visited with Yiaslai to get water to boil for drinking, and she bet he would be there in the morning as well, since he had been avoiding all of them lately. She was not disappointed.
        Kai sat under a large, leafy tree. His face was patchy with the shadow and light of the sun shining through the leaves, and his expression was worn and sullen. He sat on the grass with his knees bent in front of him, leaning back on the tree's thick trunk. He was chewing on something, probably gum, Dutia guessed; the villagers made it by refining the sap of the local trees. Harad liked to chew it in the evening as he read or worked on paperwork from his job as mayor. Alaimone spoke the same language as the Empire, but the letters they used to write were different, so Dutia was unable to read any of the books and papers lying around Harad and Yiaslai's house. She had made Yiaslai and the Heroine of the Light promise to teach her to read, but so far they had been too busy.
        "Hello," Dutia said tentatively. Kai looked up to her, glaring. Dutia felt guilty for avoiding him since they had come to the village, but after his first outburst she had been unsure of how to act around him and had not sought him out when they were not gathered together with the other travelers. He spent most of his time honing his control over his fire powers; she had seen him sometimes back among the trees outside the village, on the far side of the stream.
        "Hello, yourself," he said. "Have you come to preach to me about the goodness of Light as well? Mei has already tried, as have my mother and Eisa, and even Ilaryon has come to tell me that he will train me in the ways of Order to increase my mental control. I've turned them all down, if you were curious."
        "No," Dutia lied, "nothing like that." She took a deep breath. "I have come to see you for myself, honestly. I know you have been keeping away from the rest of us, and I would like to know why. I miss your company. As the only other person of our little group that does not already know everything about Alaimone I end up asking too many questions and everyone gets annoyed, though they are polite and will not say it outright."
        "So you came to see me," he finished. He was not looking at her anymore, but at his hands. Tiny, barely visible flames danced over them, barely a heat shimmer above his skin. Dutia waited, unsure what to say, then finally sat down on the ground in front of him. She played with a strand of grass; it seemed much the same as the grass in the other world.
        "Yes," Dutia replied, "I came to see you. I do not have anything else to do. I am hopeless on the war councils, and I know nothing of weapons or magic."
        "Where is your bird?" Kai asked. Dutia glanced up to the skies, which were empty. She closed her eyes and sought outward with her mind until she found Lucva, who returned a questioning feeling, then an image of the forest and the impression of a chase.
        "Hunting in the forest," she said without opening her eyes. She felt Kai's glance on her, and reluctantly broke the contact. The feeling of flight slipped away. More and more in her dreams lately, she had dreamt of flying alongside Lucva, first in her own body, then in the body of a falcon just like him. He had shown her things, taught her how to fly and hunt, and in the morning she had been sad when the dreams were over and she was earthbound once more. She opened her eyes.
        "Lucky," Kai said.
        "How so?" Dutia asked, confused.
        "You should see your face when you think about him. It's such a deep, peaceful feeling. I wish I could be that calm, but all I feel is anger these days. I'm angry with Hwedeon, but I don't know him. Really, what do we know about Hwedeon ? 'He's evil,' that's it. If he is so powerful, powerful enough to control the powers of the gods, then how by darkness are we supposed to defeat him?" He held up one of his hands and let the flames grow brighter, covering it as he watched. "Even what little powers we have come from the gods."
        "That is true, that he can control the gods, but he cannot control humans with these powers. That is why the gods give us these gifts, that we may do what they cannot." She sighed. "I wish that I had power like yours, that I might fight Hwedeon myself... I do not spurn the gift of Lucva and the ring, not by any means, but..." She pulled the chain with the ring on it off again and looked at the carved black dragon.
        "What do you mean?" Kai asked. "My fire is useless against the stone men, the eoch. Here, let me show you where I have been training across the river." River? Dutia wondered. Well, if he likes to think of it that way...
        Kai leapt to his feet, glancing mischievously at Dutia, and broke off in a run, leaping over the stream and landing on his feet on the other side. Dutia followed him, laughing, and slipped the goddess' ring on her finger, winding the chain around her palm so that she would not drop it. Her landing was a bit less solid, and she nearly fell over sideways, but Kai helped her to her feet, smiling. She smiled back at him, and he led her to a slight clearing in the forest. Many trees had targets carved in them, in circles or Xs, and scorch marks close to the targets. Some of the black scorches were not so close to center, Dutia noted, and were in fact on the grass or notable in burnt tree-branch ends. She looked skeptically at Kai.
        "You don't have to look at me like that," he said. "I'm getting better, you know. I've practiced every day since we've been here. You should practice with your bird, too, so we're ready for the big fight." Dutia looked up and saw a familiar bird-shape circling above the trees. She held up an arm, wishing she had worn her gauntlet, and Lucva came down and landed on her outstretched forearm. She winced, and small trails of blood flowed down her arm where his talons pricked her.
        "He is not 'my bird,'" Dutia said, smoothing the feathers on Lucva's head. "His name is Lucva." She looked back at Kai. "What do you mean by training, anyways? His talons will not do much good against an eoch."
        "Just in general," Kai said. "You know, have him fly up above the trees, then you make a map on paper or in the dirt, see." He picked up a stick and scratched a few rough lines in a scorched patch of dirt. "Do that or have him fetch things for you, like sticks or stones, if he can, things like that. Maybe both would be good."
        "Hmm," Dutia said. "I suppose that would be useful, yes. Perhaps I could teach him how to carry messages, as well."
        "Yes, that's it!" Kai said. "See, you don't need to actually fight. Luke here could actually be the most useful of us all."
        "Lucva," Dutia corrected. The falcon leapt up onto her shoulder, and she winced again, trying to hide her reaction to the pain from Kai. "Yes, I see what you mean. I do not know why I did not think of these things earlier. I guess I was too busy feeling sorry for myself..."
        "You were too busy sulking about not having a flashy power, that's why!" Kai responded, laughing. He held up both hands, and long flames shot out of them, rising high into the air.
        "Sulking!" Dutia responded. "You are one to talk about sulking!" She laughed, and Kai laughed as well, letting the flames die back down. "You know, your mother did send me to talk to you today," she said, sobering and not entirely sure why she felt the need to tell Kai that.
        "I had guessed," Kai said. A pained expression crossed his face. "I don't know what to do, Dutia. All my life Pagos Kurest painted her as a sort of monster, a witch with magical powers. Half of me feared her and half of me hated her. Sometimes, though, I hoped she would come back to me, give me the powers I worked so hard for, and take me away somewhere, to the other world from which she had come. Now she is here, and I find out she isn't a witch or a good person, she is just human..."
        "Yes," Dutia said. "She is a good human, though, I have no doubt of that. She did what she thought she had to, is that not all any of us can do? She had an obligation to all of these people here, and to the Goddess of Light."
        "Yes," Kai said bitterly, "but didn't she have an obligation to me as well? She left me with Pagos for all that time, and where was her Goddess of Light for me? Why didn't the Goddess save me, then, if I was this so-called 'Heir to Light'? Why didn't she appear to me and show me things, or tell me the secrets about anything, or give me any kind of powers, at least tell me the truth about who my mother was and why she left me there alone?"
        "I do not know the answers to these questions," Dutia said. "Perhaps the Goddess of the Light cannot manifest herself in the other world. I am sorry, but I think that these are things you must talk to your mother about." Kai bit his lip and nodded, eyes cast downward and away from Dutia.
        "I suppose you are right about that," he said. "I have no more excuses, and we are well stuck here until we defeat Hwedeon. But not today, I am not ready today. Maybe I can speak with her tomorrow, or..."
        "Kai," Dutia said. He turned to look at her, and she met his gaze. "Do it today. You will feel better afterwards, I am sure, one way or the other. She is your mother, you know."
        "Yes, she is," Kai said, sighing. "Mei is her successor, though, not me. That much is obvious, because Mei knows how to use the crystal and all of that."
        "Do not turn this into being Mei's fault now," Dutia said sternly. "Your mother chose to train Mei so that the line would not be broken and someone would be able to take care of her people if something were to happen to her. Mei is at fault for none of this. Have a little pity on her, she just found out that she is Hwedeon 's daughter. You may be the son of a heroine you've never really met and a man who is basest scum, but she is the daughter of Hwedeon himself." She clenched her fist, and the dragon-carving on the goddess' ring pressed into her palm.
        "Why don't you go and try to talk to her, then? Leave me alone now."
        "Kai," Dutia began.
        "Just go. I need to train some more," he said, standing up and facing his back towards her. An aura of medium-orange flames surrounded him, burning brightly and growing more intense as she watched.
        "Do not shut me out like this, Kai," she pleaded. In answer, he held up one palm towards a nearby tree, one with a wide X carved into its trunk. A long, bright lance of flame shot out of his hand, touching a point on the top-right arm of the mark before it receded back in to Kai's palm.
        "Go," he said coldly. Dutia hesitated, shook her head, then left. She carefully crossed the stream, picking her way across the stones and ignoring the few villagers doing laundry and washing. She did not look back, even when she heard the scorching sound of flames hitting their targets, and soon she had made her way back through the village. Lucva jumped off of her shoulder and launched himself into the sky as she ran to Harad and Yiaslai's house, where she threw herself upon the make-shift bed of blankets laid upon the floor that served as her sleeping area and cried.

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Chapter Nine
In Which the Goddess Speaks to Dutia and Tells Her the Plan

        "What is wrong now? Why are you crying?" said a voice behind Dutia. She whirled around, wiping her eyes and nose on her arm in an attempt to recover her composure, and came face to face with the goddess of Chaos. Her eyes widened and she cried out, looking down at the ring and back up at the goddess, who smiled. Hastily Dutia pulled herself up to her knees and made as well of a bow as she could manage. She could feel her face flushed red.
        "My-- my lady," she stammered, looking slightly up at the goddess' face but not meeting her eyes. "I am so sorry that you should see me like this, I... I am sorry." Flustered, she bowed down again.
        "You called me here," the goddess said, "with the ring." She held up her hand, palm pointed away from Dutia, and wiggled her fingers. Dutia looked down at her own hand. The ring was still around the middle finger of her left hand and the chain was still wrapped around her palm, pale red imprints left in her skin in the shape of the chain and carved dragon. It was faintly warm against her skin.
        "I see," Dutia said. "Well, I am sorry, there was nothing I needed, I did not mean to summon you. There is really nothing..." She sniffed again, still trying to get over her tears of moments ago.
        "Wait," the goddess said. "There is something. The ring will only work if you have some need. You summoned me, and I have come. Now why were you crying?"
        "Kai scorned me," said Dutia. "I feel left out of the councils of war because my knowledge of war and magic is lacking, as well as my knowledge of Hwedeon and Alaimone, so I feel alienated from Mei, Ilaryon, Eisa, and the Heroine of the-- and Iluei. Kai was the only one I could go to, since we were in the same situation as far as this, but he has shut me out..."
        "Yes," said the goddess. "I will allow you to be my messenger, then, if you desire a greater role. I will tell you how we are to defeat Hwedeon. I have stood in council with the Other and with my daughter the Light. We have finally composed a solution to this problem and to any future uprisings from the darkness."
        "What is it?" Dutia asked.
        The goddess clasped her hands together, much like Ilaryon, but gently, slightly cupped outward. White mist curled from between them, then she opened her hands and revealed a shining orb of light. The light faded into a pink pearlescence and condensed into a gently glowing pearl.
        "This," said the goddess. She looked up at Dutia with her unnerving multi-colored eyes, and Dutia gasped slightly and involuntarily. "This is the soul of Alaimone itself. We will bind Hwedeon to this. His wellness will be the wellness of the world and its people, and as such he will learn to take care of himself or be destroyed. As a precaution and consequence, there will also be a permanent separation between the planes of your world, the plane of Hwedeon, and the plane of us gods, to prevent Hwedeon affecting more than his given share of the mortal world."
        "I see," said Dutia. "Then I would not see you again?"
        "No, it does not mean that," the goddess said. "The ways between the worlds, the separate parts of the mortal plane, will be closed. This is the compromise I have had to make. The crystal will be dead, and the only way to travel between the worlds will be through the seas of stars on the mortal plane, a feat not easily accomplished. Well, not the only way. There will be soldiers to guard Hwedeon and any others like him that the Darkness dares create, soldiers who can travel between the mortal worlds through his plane. The sundering will create echoes throughout all life as well, and there will be those that have knowledge of the other planes, even of our highest plane, as sure as they know themselves and their own plane. They will likely not be able to affect these other planes, as we will no longer be able to affect the lives of mortals."
        "What will happen to us, then?" Dutia asked. "What if Kai and I are not among those able to travel between worlds? Who decides that if you cannot change us?"
        "Hwedeon will decide," said the goddess, "who to admit and permit in his own plane. He will believe that those who he allows serve him when in fact they are guards, who can remove his power at any time."
        "That is an awful temptation," Dutia said. "Those who took power in that way would surely be worse than Hwedeon himself."
        "Yes," replied the goddess, "and that is why they will not know unless we decide to tell them, unless it is necessary. In any case, the matter at hand is the completion of this plan."
        "Right," Dutia said. Her tears were entirely forgotten. "What role does this pearl play in matters?"
        "It is everything. Hwedeon must consume it and take it into himself for the change to begin."
        "He must consume it and take it into himself?" Dutia repeated. "What do you mean by that?"
        "Since he is at present in a human form, the easiest way would be for him to swallow it," the goddess said. She mimicked eating, holding the pearl barely above her lips. "There are other ways, since he is more like us than like you mortals. Mere contact with the skin would do it, if he was willing, but I doubt he would be. As it is, it is you and your party's job to convince him to accept it. Use whatever means you believe to be necessary."
        "I see," said Dutia. "I had best report this to the council of war, if there is not anything else?"
        "No," said the goddess, "there is nothing more. I entrust the pearl to you as you see fit." She smiled again, lifted a hand, then stepped backwards and vanished, leaving a shocked Dutia alone. A small cloth pouch on a string lay on the ground. Dutia picked it up and peered into it, gently pushing it open with her finger. The pearl glowed faintly inside. She shook herself and forced herself up, steeling herself against the last remnants of her tears as she slipped the string with the pouch on it around her neck. She had a job to do. She changed into her armor as well as she could, slipping on the blue shirt and the chain-mail shirt over it and exchanging her thin pants for the heavier breeches. She was in the process of fastening the hard leather greaves when Yiaslai walked in.
        "Are you leaving?" Yiaslai asked.
        "No," Dutia said, "I am going to talk to the war council, and I thought I had better look the part when I walked in or else they would laugh me out of it."
        "I see," Yiaslai said. "Here, let me help you fasten that." Yiaslai helped her to fasten the leather cuirass as she slipped on the belt, the gauntlet, and the fore-arm pad for her right hand. "Very nice," Yiaslai said once they were finished. "You look very much like a young warrior about to go off to battle."
        "Thank you," replied Dutia, blushing slightly. "The council of war is in the common building, right?"
        "Yes, I just saw them go back in there after lunch," Yiaslai said. "They should still be there for a long while yet."
        "Thank you," Dutia said. Yiaslai made appropriate "no-problem" gestures, and Dutia walked out of the house. Once she was out, Lucva came down and landed on her shoulder, and she walked slowly and deliberately through the streets to the common house at the center of the village, a large hut with only one room. She walked in. The Heroine of the Light, Eisa, Harad, and Mei sat at a large, round wooden table; Ilaryon stood against one of the building's walls, leaning slightly over. On the table were a variety of papers and maps in front of each person at the table.
        Dutia took a deep breath, and Lucva settled on her shoulder, preening himself. The council turned to look at her. She adjusted the goddess' ring, which was still upon her finger, and slipped the chain over her wrist, winding it once around so it would not fall off. She felt unreasonably exposed before the council of war, despite the fact that she knew all of them fairly well, excepting Harad, who stayed out late nights and came home to the house usually after Dutia was asleep, and Eisa, Mei's mother, who she had rarely seen except when all of the travelers met together.
        "Dutia," the Heroine of the Light said, breaking the uncomfortable silence. Dutia swallowed, then nodded. Her heart raced as she tried to recall the details of the goddess' plan. "Do you have a reason for coming before us?"
        "I do," Dutia said. Her voice was stronger and steadier than she had expected, and she found that she was angry at the question. She clenched her fist, feeling the dragon carving with her palm, then loosened it, clearing her throat. "I have spoken with the Ruler of Chaos, and She has told me how we are to dispense with Hwedeon as was decided in council with the Rulers of Order and Light."
        "Oh?" Harad said. Dutia held up her hand, displaying the ring prominently, and let the chain fall down to emphasize her point.
        "I am Her champion," Dutia explained. Harad and Eisa looked at each other, and Mei whispered something to the Heroine of the Light. Ilaryon cleared his throat, and all turned to look at him as he spoke.
        "Let her speak," Ilaryon said. "This whole week we have come up with folly after folly. A plan offered by the gods must not be overlooked. The longer we stall, the more time Hwedeon has to plan his next move. He will be weak after the Night, but not foolish, and even now I do not doubt he plans his next move and creates more eoch."
        "Yes," said the Heroine of Light. "Come, sit with us, and tell us your message, Dutia." She indicated the several empty chairs at the table, inviting Dutia to choose her own seat. Dutia nodded. Faced with a choice between sitting next to Harad and sitting next to Eisa, she chose Eisa. The woman had been noncommittal towards her, but that was better than Harad's almost-hostility of moments earlier.
        Carefully and painstakingly, she recounted her earlier meeting with the goddess, leaving out only the first part about her tears. Those who sat on the war council were skeptical, and Harad was the first to object.
        "How are we supposed to do this?" he asked. "Where is this pearl, anyways, and how are we supposed to get Hwedeon to eat it? This is preposterous."
        "I have the pearl right here," Dutia said, holding up the cloth pouch. "It is in here, and I am leaving it in here as it was entrusted to me until we have cause and it is time to use it. Artifacts such as this must be treated carefully and with respect."


        "Yes, Dutia, that is right," the Heroine of the Light said. "But did the goddess give you any suggestion as to how we are to go about this?" Dutia shook her head.
        "She said that was up to us," Dutia said. Suddenly there were gasps all around the council. Dutia turned around sharply to see Kai standing in the doorway, silhouetted against the still-bright day outside. He was bruised and scraped and appeared to be barely standing. After a second's hesitation, Dutia ran to him.
        "Kai!" she cried. "What happened?" He smiled weakly and humorlessly. Ilaryon made his way to her side as the rest of the council gathered around him.
        "Eoch," he said. "They are surrounding the village. They came from over the river, and I tried to fight them, but my flames were no good. There are more, too, made of metal and powered by some kind of clockwork, and some made of wood... I dispatched the wooden ones, as many as I could get to before the metals got to me..." He coughed, and Ilaryon growled, a deep rumbling sound.
        "Wood-men, stone-men, and metal-men," the Heroine of the Light said grimly. "The Night was a mere diversion, he must have had this planned for some time now to have enough golems to surround the village. Ilaryon, is there any way to dispatch of them?" Mei pushed through the older members of the council to get to Kai, who was leaning on Dutia. She laid her hands on him.
        "Here, Kai, let me--"
        "Don't, Mei," the Heroine of the Light said. "We will need your power later after the battle when we have many injured. You slept for nearly a whole day after treating my and Eisa's wounds; I fear you will be in constant work after the battle." Mei looked away, biting her lip, and nodded, taking her hands off Kai.
        "Kai would be a great asset in the battle," Dutia argued. "His flame could do a lot against the remnants of the wood-men that he was not able to defeat yet."
        "Yes, but simple flame could do that much, torches, or swords to cut them down--" Harad began. Ilaryon cleared his throat loudly, and all turned to look at him. His ruby eyes glimmered, and the Heroine of the Light motioned for quiet.
        "There is no simple way to defeat the metal-men," Ilaryon said. "The wooden eoch are distractions, meant to overwhelm us with number. As has already been said, they can be defeated with fire, but the danger in this is what they might set on fire. If you notice, after the last Night, all of your buildings are made of wood. This is the purpose of the wooden eoch, to be set ablaze and to set other things ablaze. Flamehair's fire may be hot enough to incinerate them completely. Is that the case?"
        "Yes," Kai said, nodding.
        "I can make you an eoch healing draught, so Meis Healer will not have to use her powers. There is no worry in that regard. The next case is the stone eoch. I believe that Iluei Lightbringer and Eisa an Telityel have experience fighting them, correct?"
        "That is correct," the Heroine of the Light said. "Once the eyes are removed, they have no sight and are relatively easy to avoid and beat into nothing. The eyes can be dislodged with a sharp blade, and many of them are made of soft clay and soil, so they can be divided into pieces and made easier to deal with. The problem is the metals, I have never before encountered them." Eisa nodded, confirming this.
        "They have long been a project of Hwedeon 's," said Ilaryon. "They are powered by direct energy, like lightning or fire, that flows all the way through them. Because of this, it is dangerous to touch them directly or with metal. They use the energy to read similar currents in the earth and air to judge location, if the design remains the same as it had been. I had thought these still far, far off... I am afraid I do not know how they may be defeated."
        "Well, they are here now," said Eisa. "We must deal with them or get away."
        "You suggest we flee?" Harad asked incredulously. "After all we have been through for this land that has been with us for so long? Absolutely not, I will not go. Besides, they are surrounding the village, so where do you propose we flee to?"
        "Through the crystal," said Eisa. Harad gaped, unable to think of an answer to that, and both him and Eisa looked to the Heroine of the Light, who had a thoughtful expression on her face. She looked up once she realized that all eyes were upon her, except Kai's, who were half-closed in pain and focused on nothing, and Dutia's, who were on Kai.
        "No," said the Heroine of the Light. "I would not be able to take everyone, and I will not leave my people here while I take a chosen few to safety."
        "I can take them," said Mei.
        "No, your healing talents are needed here, will be needed here after the battle," the Heroine of the Light replied distractedly. "Kai, how far away were the eoch?"
        "They were far," he said. "I wandered away from the village after..." He looked sheepish as he continued, "after Dutia and I had an argument. I needed to clear my thoughts. They were far, and moving slowly. The metals cannot move very fast over land, but they can move fast to attack when they are in close quarters. I had a hard time dodging. The wood-men are probably close already, though, they were moving ahead of the others, in a sort of advance force."
        "Okay," said the Heroine of the Light. "Harad, you and Yiaslai gather everyone who can't fight together in the common house here. Mei, I'm going to have you stay here to explain and help people. We'll send the wounded here and try to set up a hospital. Ilaryon, what do you want to do? First, get on that healing draught for Kai. Can you make more than that?"
        "Maybe one or two, that is all I have within me at the moment. The ground in the village is poor in nutrients. That will also help to stave off the stone-men, though," Ilaryon said.
        "Good," said the Heroine of the Light. "Harad, move out." The man nodded, bowed slightly, and then left the building, going out into the village common area. The Heroine watched him go, nodded, and then turned to those that remained. "Eisa, I want you to be my second in command. If I fall, if we divide the force, or if I return here to transport the children and elderly to the other world, you are in command to do as you see fit. Go now and try to organize the people that Harad and Yiaslai are rounding up."
        "Understood," Eisa said. She also bowed slightly and left. The Heroine of the Light turned to Dutia and Kai and sighed.
        "You two, now, what can you do?" the Heroine asked. "My son will stay by me once he is healed, and you, Dutia... Can you summon your goddess to fight with us? We may need her help against the metal eoch."
        "I will try to contact her," Dutia said. She closed her eyes and tried to focus on the ring, hoping it would bring the goddess to her. She felt Lucva's mind stop her, gently, then harder as she tried more. He sent a negative emotion to her, and she questioned it, only to receive an image of the goddess bound in chains with the meaning that her powers were restricted. Biting her lip, she nodded.
        "Well?" the Heroine of the Light asked.
        "No," Dutia replied. "Hwedeon is binding her power." The Heroine of the Light cursed softly under her breath, a word Dutia had never heard; she assumed it was Alaimonian. The woman rubbed sweat off of her forehead, and the first villagers entered the shelter. The Heroine of the Light directed Mei to oversee them. In the meantime, Ilaryon clapped again and conjured an eoch healing draught, which Kai grudgingly swallowed. He closed his eyes, and moaned slowly as if he was in a fever. Ilaryon nodded, then led him away from Dutia to a softer seat in the building where he laid down.
        "Stay with him, Dutia," the Heroine of the Light said. "When he awakens, send him out to help us in the fight."
        "Wait," said Dutia. "Let me go with you. I can share Lucva's vision, and he can scout out where the eoch are." The Heroine of the Light looked at Dutia, considering, and Dutia wondered if she was considering the offer or Dutia herself. More people were pouring into the shelter around them, and it was getting noisy. The Heroine of the Light raised her voice slightly so she would be heard above the noise.
        "Send him out," she said. "See what you can and come report to me what you are able when you are done. I must get out there and help Eisa with the organization of our fighters, now, and I am not sure where I will be, but come find me. Bring Kai with you if he is awake and well." Dutia nodded, and the Heroine of the Light smiled at her, then she left. Dutia followed her outside. Lucva hopped from her shoulder to her gauntlet, which she held aloft, then he launched himself into the air.
        Dutia watched him go off into the distance, then walked up to Mei and asked for a seat; the girl motioned her to one of the chairs at the now-empty round table. She sat down in the plain wooden chair and closed her eyes, trying to empty her mind for an accurate image. Lucva obliged and gave her one.
        As seen from the sky, the village was situated in a large clearing, with few trees inside its borders, but there was forested land all around it. Lucva was flying low over the forest past the stream. The eoch were a shadow among shadows in the forest, some pale and gleaming, some dull and colors of the soil, and some that looked like walking stick-men, like crude wooden dolls brought to life with long, spindly arms and legs. Back with the eoch made of soil, Dutia thought there was one shape larger than the rest, a shape that looked almost like Ilaryon, with two horns on its head that stuck out straight instead of curling like the ram's-horns on Ilaryon's head. Then Lucva flew higher over the village, soaring more towards its center. Dutia saw the Heroine of the Light, Eisa, and many people from the village, including Harad and Yiaslai, bearing arms with grim expressions on their faces. Higher, she thought at Lucva, back to the stone-men, I need to see where they are around the village.
        Lucva showed her, and Kai had been right, they were surrounding the village. The ones at the shore of the stream were the nearest. How will they cross? she wondered. As if in answer, the eoch just walked on through undaunted. Dutia heard voices and reluctantly let the images slip away as she returned to herself.
        "She is still with us," said Kai. Dutia blinked and looked up at him.
        "You are better already?" Dutia asked.
        "Yes," Kai said. "Come on, now, we have to go. My mother is waiting for us."
        "Your... what happened? Did the drug affect your head that much?"
        "I'm sorry about earlier, but look, we don't have time for this now. We have to go and help the others now. Let's get moving." He stood back up from leaning over her and Dutia herself stood up as well, stretching to relieve the stiffness in her muscles from sitting in concentration.
        "Kai, I do not understand you at all. You seem a different person every time I speak with you. Are you on good terms with your mother now? You seem as excited as a young boy. What is wrong? People don't normally change this much, not this fast."
        "I saw her, Dutia," he said, leaning in close and whispering. His voice was full of awe and his eyes were wide, and Dutia wondered if it was a sign of madness.
        "Saw who?" she asked. "Your mother?"
        "No," Kai said. "The goddess of the Light, I saw her, in a vision from Ilaryon's potion. She was beautiful, Dutia, the most graceful woman I have ever laid eyes upon, and everything about her manner spoke of intense compassion, mercy, and a sort of iron-core of focus and strength of will beneath all of it. She was not some high house floozy with empty talk of fighting for the weak whose only solution is throwing money and forgetting about it when it suits her, she was a real warrior."
        There was a light in his eyes, and Dutia wondered for an instant how she would ever be able to compete with his perfect woman. Then she took a mental step back, aghast at her careless thought. Competing with an ideal woman? she thought to herself. When did I start wanting to be more than companions with him? When did I even start wanting that? My Lady, I need to think about this, but not now. Now I have to fight.
        "Yes," she said. "Let us go."

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Chapter Ten
The Battle

        Dutia and Kai found the battle already underway. The Heroine of the Light was fighting off several wooden eoch, which made up the majority of the force that had invaded the village. She still managed to shout out orders and direct others, and Dutia wondered how Kai would see her after his sudden revelation. I think that he has been unstable for a long time, now, she thought, maybe everything is too much for him.
        "Light!" he cried, shooting out lances of flame at the eoch attacking his mother. The Heroine of the Light stepped back, avoiding the fire. She shouted more at other fighting villagers, and Dutia went to her side and reported what she had seen through Lucva's eyes. Eisa was nowhere in sight. Kai used his flame on many more eoch, and Dutia took a crude long dagger offered by the Heroine of the Light and began fighting the wooden eoch. The stone-men were just beginning to come in to the village.
        Ilaryon cried out loudly, and a mild tremor went through the earth below their feet. Roughly half of the invading soil-based eoch collapsed; their eye-jewels were snatched up quickly by the villagers before they could re-form, and the remaining enchanted dirt was beaten down with shovels and other metal-worked tools. Dutia helped them while Kai took care of the remaining wood-men. Ilaryon repeated his tremor, and more of the stone-men disintegrated where they stood or walked.
        Then the metals came, great hulking things like walking suits of armor with arms that ended in hands with hooked metal claws or wide, sword-like blades that stood almost as high as the buildings of the village. They were slow to cover ground, but their attacks were fierce, and they seemed impervious to flame and tremor. Dutia began to despair when she saw Eisa charge one with a sword and leave a dent in the suit of armor that appeared to have no effect whatsoever on the monster itself.
        The metals advanced further in the village, destroying buildings and whatever else was in their reach. Dutia saw some of the villagers fall to their claws and blades, but paid no attention as she tried to gather the jewel eyes from the rest of the stone-men that had been brought down by Ilaryon's last tremor. Kai, whose flames had no effect on the stones and the metals, helped Mei to carry the injured back to the common house. Dutia saw Eisa turn to help them as the number of injured eclipsed the number of standing, from those who had kept fighting with minor wounds and whose strength had given out to those inflicted with horrible gashes from metal blade-arms.
        Dutia saw the Heroine of the Light, and cried out; the woman was caught in a pincer between two metals, apparently caught by one of them somehow. Eisa bashed one of them repeatedly in the head and torso to no effect but a slight slowing of movement. Dutia ran to the woman's side, and helped her beat off the attacks; the Heroine of the Light was unconscious. Mei appeared behind them, and Dutia cried out to her.
        "Take them back through the crystal," Dutia yelled. "Go, now!" Eisa gave her a look as piercing as a knife, and shouted out a different message.
        "Mei, you are Hwedeon 's daughter by blood!" Eisa yelled, her voice desperate. The girl froze, as did the remaining villagers still fighting who could afford to. They turned to look at the young girl. "If you have it within you, stop them! For the love of the light, stop them!"
        Mei nodded shakily, then knelt, trembling. She was mimicking a position Dutia had seen Ilaryon use earlier when he caused the tremors, squatting down and touching the ground with one hand. Her eyes closed, and a wave seemed to go through all of the metal-men. They stopped moving, frozen, then their individual parts fell down to the ground, lifeless. The villagers closed on the remaining stone eoch with a great roar, beating them into dust. Dutia raced to Mei's side.
        "I did it," the girl whispered. She looked down at her hands in disbelief.
        "Yes, you did," Dutia said. "Mei, you are a hero, you saved us all, if you had not been able to do that, then... What is wrong, Mei?" The girl was sobbing, now. Dutia embraced her. "What is wrong? You have done well." The girl sniffled, looking up at Dutia and trying to speak through tears. Dutia shot a glance over her shoulder and saw that Eisa was tending to the Heroine of the Light, who was now laid out flat on the ground.
        "It's true," Mei said. "I am Hwedeon 's daughter. I had tried to doubt it, to ignore it all along, but it's true..." She looked down at her hands again and sobbed.
        "Mei," Dutia said. "Mei. It does not matter whose blood you have in you, you are still the daughter of both Eisa and the Heroine of the Light as well. You have two mothers, very brave and valiant women, is that not worth more than a father you have never known?"
        "It doesn't matter," Mei said. "His blood is mine, and so is his power. You don't understand. The villagers will," she hiccupped, "they will throw me out. You saw how they 'welcomed' Eisa back into the village, Dutia, and she was only a prisoner of Hwedeon, kidnapped and taken against her will. I am his daughter! Oh, what will happen to me?"
        "If that does happen, you can come with me, then," Dutia said, "but I doubt that will be necessary. As I said, you have two mothers, and both of them care about you very much. So do Kai and I and Ilaryon as well, as much as he cares for anything, I suppose. You are still blessed by the Lady of the Light no matter what."
        "I don't--" Mei began, but Dutia cut her off.
        "You have a duty to your people now. You must go and heal them. Even if they say things, they do not mean them, and if they spit upon you, it diminishes only them, not you and yourself. You are a healer, and you can do no service to your people with your mind scattered like this. Save it until later. You need to focus right now on what is really important." The girl nodded, and allowed Dutia to lead her to the common house. Kai and Ilaryon were already there, Kai standing around and looking lost and tired and Ilaryon speaking with Harad and Yiaslai about something or other.
        Yiaslai looked up when the two women entered and took hold of Mei's arm, leading her to the patients. Dutia watched as Mei laid hands on a metal victim, summoning her healing power, then walked over to stand wordlessly next to Kai, who acknowledged her with a grim, tired smile. Hospitals always made her nervous, and this one was no exception. Dutia herself had minor cuts and bruises, but there was nothing immediately requiring attention. Eisa appeared in the doorway with a still-unconscious Heroine of the Light, who was immediately placed on a pile of blankets on the floor of the shelter. Kai went over to help Eisa lay her down and Dutia walked over as well, hoping to find something she could do to help.
        The Heroine of the Light was sleeping, quietly, and Dutia wondered if that was the 'price' of her power. It's just like Mei sleeping after a healing, she thought to herself. The next few hours went by in a rush, and Dutia found herself being shuffled out of the makeshift hospital and back to her bed in Harad and Yiaslai's house. She felt very cold; she had never seen a real battle before. Several of the injuries had been more severe than she had thought, and some of the villagers would not be able to pull through.  Riow am Non, a young man she had talked with when she fetched water for Yiaslai, was one of the ones grievously injured, and it made her feel cold inside, that such things could happen to an innocent person.
        Still, she knew she would sleep, as she was too tired and worn out to grieve any more. She thought of the goddess' plan as she removed her armor piece by piece, and wondered what would come of it, then touched minds with Lucva as she lay down. He was already sleeping, and she smiled for what seemed like the first time in ages as she pulled the blankets tighter around herself in the darkness created by the light-blocking shutters.
        She awoke less peacefully to Kai shaking her, one of his hands grasping her on a particularly nasty bruise. The shutters were open, and it was bright again, but gradually dimming as the Day wore on towards another Night.
        "What is it?" she asked.
        "They've taken Mei," Kai replied. Dutia sat straight up, throwing off both the blankets and the last remnants of sleep.
        "Who? The villagers?" she asked him, panicked. I cannot believe they would do such a thing, she thought, not after she saved them from the metal eoch, not after she spent so much time and energy healing them...
        "No," Kai said. "An eoch. One of the villagers saw an eoch like Ilaryon take her in the night. He claims he tried to follow them to gain information then they just disappeared in a cloud of smoke."
        "Who was it that saw the kidnapping?" Dutia asked.
        "Harad," Kai said grimly. "You saw how he treated Mei's mother. I bet he would not have lifted a finger to save Hwedeon 's flesh and blood daughter from being taken back to him. In fact, I am surprised he has not yet started rumors about how the entire attack was Mei's fault, or at the very least against Ilaryon. My mother commanded him to silence and ordered Eisa to watch over him until she decided what to do with him; she asked me to bring you so we can decide what to do now about Hwedeon 's plan."
        "Is your mother all right?" Dutia asked. She had vague memories of Eisa and the Heroine of the Light, late before she had gone to sleep.
        "Yes, she is fine, but she is in no condition to fight," Kai replied.
        "How will we get to Hwedeon 's lair, then? She was supposed to take us with the crystal, her or Mei, but now Mei's gone. Let me just get up and go with you; we can work out the details there," Dutia said, struggling to her feet. She winced; several of her injuries ached when she moved. I am not built to wield a sword, she thought, certainly not against stone men.
        "Let's go," Kai said. Dutia went with him outside. Lucva landed on her shoulder as soon as she was out, and with no comment, Kai led her to a small house that had apparently been commandeered by the Heroine of the Light.
        "Dutia," said the Heroine of the Light, sitting in a chair behind a wooden table similar to the one in the common house but on a lower scale. Dutia acknowledged her, exchanged pleasantries with the others, and sat down at the table next to Eisa.
        "What are we going to do?" said Dutia.
        's lair, though I will not be able to assist you in the fighting, and you will carry out the gods' plan. Eisa has agreed to be a decoy and play a defector back to Hwedeon 's side to get close to Mei. At the best Hwedeon will buy it and at the worst it will provide a distraction for you and my son to get close to him."
        "Okay," Dutia replied. "We must move quickly. There is no telling what Hwedeon wants with Mei, but I do not trust his purposes."
        "Right," agreed Kai.
        "Now?" asked the Heroine of the Light. "Would you not rather wait and get what healing draughts you can from Ilaryon? No, I see, that would take too long." She coughed violently, and Kai leaned forward to her.
        "Mei had the crystal," the Heroine of the Light said. "I entrusted her with it during the battle so that it would not fall into the hands of Hwedeon's eoch."
        "We cannot wait," Dutia said. "You should not attempt to take us unless we run out of other options. I will call on my lady and see if she will aid us." She concentrated on the ring once again, and reached out to Lucva. The falcon aided her, and in her mind appeared a picture of the Ruler of Chaos, unbound and looking well.
        "My goddess," Dutia said. "Hwedeon has kidnapped Mei,  who was in possession of the crystal. If you would, can you open a door for us to the inside of Hwedeon 's fortress?"
        "I will, but not where you stand and not now. Arm yourself and prepare now. I will open the portal when your company is assembled across the stream. Lucva will guide you to the place."
        "Thank you, my goddess," Dutia said, and let the contact dissolve. She opened her eyes. "My lady has agreed to take us across by opening a portal. She told us to arm and prepare then Lucva would guide us to the correct place."
        "That is well," said the Heroine of the Light. She coughed violently, then.
        "Mother, are you all right?" Kai asked, putting a hand on her back to steady her. Her eyes widened, and she looked up at him in amazement and happiness.
        "You called me mother," she said. "Oh, Kael, that makes me so glad..." She trailed off, then coughed again. "I do not think I am in any condition to fight with you, unfortunately. That last blow hit me hard and I will need time to recover."
        "Okay," said Dutia. "Who among us is going? Kai, me, Eisa... Will Ilaryon come with us? Kai, go and ask him." Kai nodded and went do so. Dutia turned back to the Heroine of the Light and clasped the woman's hand in her own. "We will get Mei back and defeat Hwedeon," she said. "I have no doubt of this. We will succeed. You should rest until we return." The woman nodded.
        "Light be with you," she said.
        "And with you," Dutia replied. "Please get well soon." The woman smiled, then Dutia went back to Harad and Yiaslai's cottage and donned her armor once more, grimacing at the stains, tears, and dirt that the tunic and breeches had acquired, then returned to the common hall, where Kai, Ilaryon, and Eisa were waiting.
        "Let's go," Kai said. Dutia nodded, and Lucva, who had been waiting on her shoulder, leapt off and into the sky. The company followed him across the stream to a place in the forest relatively free of trees. A tributary of the stream flowed through the clearing; its water was clear, pure, and fast-moving. A woman stood next to it, waiting. As they approached Dutia saw that her skin was dark like the people of the village, but her hair was brilliant white and shone like the sun on snow. Her eyes were dark, and she was smiling. She wore a shining suit of armor that seemed to contain within it different shifting colors below the surface of the grayish metal.
        A circle was traced in the ground, Dutia saw as they approached, and within it was an intricate pattern like the one Mei had traced long ago for Ilaryon's shelter. The woman stood outside its boundaries.
        "My lady," Kai said as they approached. He knelt down before her, and Eisa followed suit. Ilaryon stayed back, making no obeisance, and Dutia bowed deeply as she realized that this must be the Ruler of the Light.
        "Welcome, travelers," the Ruler of the Light said. Her voice was melodic and beautiful, and smooth, unlike her mother the Ruler of Chaos' deeper, rough voice. "I am here to guide you to the fortress of Hwedeon." Kai opened his mouth to speak, but the goddess did not give him the opportunity. "Step inside the circle and close your eyes." The group did so, and there was a vague sense of movement and a slight rush of wind, then silence.
        The air was thicker and moister, and Dutia opened her eyes and found herself in an underground cave-like area, much like the one the travelers had encountered the first time they had visited Hwedeon's fortress and encountered Eisa and the Heroine of the Light. Kai held up a flaming hand to light their way. This struck Dutia as ridiculous, but she said nothing, because there was no other source of light. He walked behind Ilaryon, who led them through seemingly endless corridors, progressively smoother and more civilized until there were even torches on the walls and they reached the end of the way, a set of smooth stone stairs inlaid with jewels.
        "Up here," Ilaryon said. "This is Hwedeon's throne room." The travelers went up the stairs and into Hwedeon's throne room, a great hall of stone and metal. He made a long speech about how he would become the one true god of gods, the master of balance in the world. Kai tried to attack him, but he failed, and Hwedeon laughed, then called for soldiers to imprison them all. Eisa asked after Mei, and he said she was sleeping. Hwedeon changed his mind and said that Eisa could stay, but eoch took the rest of them away. The eoch with the pronged horns that Harad had seen kidnapping Mei took Ilaryon for himself, then Kai and Dutia were thrown into a cell together. Dutia's sword was taken away, and when the stone-soldiers were checking them over for other valuables Dutia realized the pouch containing the pearl that the goddess had given her was missing.
        They wondered why Hwedeon let them stay together. Kai proposed that it was because they were no major threat to his power, and Dutia regretfully agreed, wondering what was going on in the village and if they would ever make it out alive. Time passed, and they were in jail, with an eoch guard slightly smarter and tougher than the average, a stone-man with metal plating. They were given standard food and water, they slept on the ground, and had to use the chamber pot. The times between meals and discussion were passed with games of knife, paper, stone.
        Suddenly there was an attack, and the guard dropped. Shining ruby eyes were revealed in the darkness, and it was Ilaryon, who had defeated his own guard, the pronged-horn two eye eoch, and had come to free them. He brought grim news, however, that Eisa seemed to have defected to Hwedeon's side and Mei was still sleeping, even though nearly a day had passed since her kidnapping.
        Dutia and Kai determined that they should go to find Mei first of all. They sneak through the corridors, encountering servants that are eoch, human, and of other unknown races from other worlds, and finally find Mei in a richly decorated chamber. She is still sleeping, but it is not natural, she is drugged. Ilaryon creates a healing draught that awakens her, and she accompanies them to another confrontation with Hwedeon, this time outside his fortress.
        Two dragons are fighting in the sky, the Masters of Order and Chaos. Hwedeon looks on and laughs, and Eisa is there. The travelers stand and watch, then make their move as Eisa offers him something. Kai accuses Eisa of betraying them, and Hwedeon laughs. Stone eoch appear, holding them all in place, except for Ilaryon, who seems frozen in his own right. Eisa laughs, and offers Hwedeon something. The travelers cannot see what it is. Hwedeon gloats and holds it up to show them: it is the pearl.
        Hwedeon makes a long speech about how faithful Eisa brought it to him, and how she told him it will give him absolute control over the world of Alaimone if only he will swallow it. He does, as everyone present looks on, then everything breaks loose. The two dragons stop fighting and close in on him, he acts as if he has been poisoned then disappears, but not before mortally wounding Eisa. The three run to her, the eoch except Ilaryon having fallen apart into dust, and Mei attempts to heal her, but finds her powers no longer work. Kai forgives her, and says he's sorry, and Mei breaks down.
        The Ruler of the Light appears to them, and tells Mei she must use the crystal now or be stuck on Hwedeon's world; there is nothing she can do to help Eisa. The Ruler of Chaos appears to lead Dutia and Kai home. The Master of Order is with them. He speaks to Ilaryon, and Ilaryon agrees to be the Deus of the world that had formerly been Hwedeon's. The three parties split: the wounded Eisa leaves with Mei and the Lady of Light, Ilaryon leaves with the Master of Order, and the Ruler of Chaos takes Dutia and Kai home to Dutia's manor.
        It is night time, but natural night, not Hwedeon's Night. Dutia knocks on the door and Gavin answers with Saria, welcoming her in gratefully, then her parents come. They returned early from her trip to find her missing; she has been gone nearly three weeks. She wonders how that could be, then figures that there is a time differential between the worlds and lets it go. She introduces Kai to them, shai Kurest and all, and tells them the incredible story of what happened. They do not believe her, but do note some resemblance between Kai and the young Pagos; they tell both of them to go and rest and tell them what truly happened in the morning. Saria escorts Dutia to a hot bath and to Dutia's familiar bedroom afterward, mentioning on the way that Dutia's dress was repaired without her parents finding out. Dutia cried and hugged her, then finally went to bed, feeling very alone. She finds that she is unable to sleep and goes to Kai's room to find he is having the same problem.
        "Kai," Dutia said from the doorway into the plush guest room. It was the same one that had been Mei's room when she visited. He turned to look at her from his post by the great window, like the one he had broken to enter the house uninvited so long ago. "You could not sleep either?" He shook his head, and motioned for her to sit with him on a couch in the room.
        "I can't," he said. "I keep wondering what happened to them after we left. I mean, I know everything worked out well enough. We won. We defeated Hwedeon. I just never got a chance to say goodbye to my mother or to really talk to Mei. I can't go home to Pagos' house, Dutia, I can't do it now." He held up a hand, then clenched the fist. "My flame is gone, now, too, I've lost even that."
        "I know," Dutia said. "Still, maybe it's not over. Maybe there is still time for us to go back, if only we can find a way." She looked down at her hand, and the copper ring on it. "I can't speak with my goddess any more, and Lucva... They took him from me, Kai, and put him with father's hunting birds. I do not know what to do, it feels like I have lost all of the world, even though this is the place I am supposed to belong."
        "I know how you feel," Kai said. "I finally had a place that I belonged, really belonged, and a real family on top of it. I had power, and a role, and now I feel like I have nothing again."
        A shining cone of light appeared in the center of the room, opaque but shimmering like a heat wave. Both Dutia and Kai stared at it, and it gradually cleared like mist, revealing a familiar golem-like figure: Ilaryon.
        Ilaryon offers them independence, and says that Mei and the Heroine of the Light have already accepted. They accept as well, and return to Alaimone to see that everything is well: the Heroine of the Light is healed, Mei is as well as she can be after what happened to Eisa, who died happily and forgiven by the people of the village; Hwedeon is safely sealed away as the Ruler of Chaos had promised, and the gods are indeed gone from the world, because the Ruler of the Light told the Heroine of the Light so. Harad is trusted again and has regained control of the village, and Yiaslai offers Dutia and Kai shelter whenever they visit. They return to the other world, and Dutia goes with Kai as he confronts Pagos Kurest. After that, Kai leaves to stay in Alaimone and study with his mother, the Heroine of the Light. Dutia visits them often, and she trains to be a merchant.
        Epilogue: they meet again and decide to travel, touring both Alaimone and the world of the Empire under the guise of merchants. They have two children, a son and a daughter, Ilaryon and Eisa, whose "aunt" is Mei and whose great-aunt is the Heroine of the Light and who live in both worlds, and they in general do very well for themselves and are very happy from then on.

THE END

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