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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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."
"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
"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,
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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.
"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
"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
"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
"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?"
"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," 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
"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
"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
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
"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
"Too late," Dutia said
grimly. Stone-trees fell behind the perimeter that surrounded them,
crashing loudly to the ground. "I think it's here."
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"-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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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.
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"You will provide it?" Kai
asked, a dubious look on his face. "After what happened to Dutia
"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
"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
"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
"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."
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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.
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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...
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,
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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 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
"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.
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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,
"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.
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"Thank you," replied Dutia,
blushing slightly. "The council of war is in the common building,
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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,"
"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
"Stay with him, Dutia," the
Heroine of the Light said. "When he awakens, send him out to help us in
"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
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
"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."
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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.