A Note from Nessa'fur:
Why hello, my pretties. Surprised to hear from me? I bet you had completely forgotten about this little fic, about Ana and Will and Darius and Illieno and everyone else. I bet you thought I'd given up on ever finishing the Goddess-forsaken Epilogue and had just decided to leave it at that-with a scene of laughter and love and hope well deserved.
It's ok-I'm not mad. I'd forgotten too.
I've made you wait almost five years for this (nearly) novella-length Epilogue, and now I'm going to ask you to wait a little longer to dive back in to the story. But this day has been a long time coming, and-if you don't mind-I'd like to say a few words to mark the occasion.
After all, this will be the last chance I'll get to leave you hanging in suspense.
If you've gotten this far, then you know that dreams are an important motif in this story. What you don't know (but can probably guess) is that dreams have always played an important role in my story as well. Though I am not a superstitious person by nature, my rational side has never quite been able to convince the rest of me that dreams have no meaning beyond that of a coincidence of unconscious filtering. I have simply had too many encounters with the strange prophecy of dreams to discount their power and purpose.
About two weeks ago, George started haunting my dreams.
That first night was the most memorable, though I've since caught the roguish God lurking at the edges of other dreamscapes. That particular dream started out as a perfectly ordinary adult anxiety dream (you know, the ones you get at the end of the month when all the bills come due and you can't help but worry you've missed one, even though that's why there are such lovely things as automatic bill pay). I was washing the dishes, as I so often do in both the mundane world in and my dreams, and every time I finished one stack another had spawned until my counters were over-flowing with more dirty glasses than could ever conceivably fit into my limited cupboard space. I heard someone clear their throat pointedly behind me, but when I turned with sudsy hands to look, the man standing there with the crooked grin plastered across his face was not the one I had expected.
Not my SO, but a God.
"It's time," George said, as I dripped soapy water all over my kitchen floor. "You're ready. Finish it now."
My life, like yours, had long moved on since the last time I'd walked in Ana's world. I was no longer the same girl who sat in a battered old red velvet chair and wrote furiously into the night, eschewing the opportunity to go out and party in favor of wrestling with words and whimsy. That girl could never have imagined I would end up as I have-I've changed so much in the intervening years that its hard to believe that she and I even belong in the same storyline, much less as the same character.
I don't write anymore. Not like this, anyway. It was one of those things that fell to the wayside when I got to the other side of growing up and realized I had things I wanted more than to be a published author. But please don't pity me-I am satisfied with the choices and sacrifices I have made. Yes, I do often miss writing, but I like myself now-I love my life, and I am excited to continue down the path I have chosen, the path that chose me, much to my everlasting chagrin.
So, suffice it to say I really wasn't expecting to get caught up in this tale again.
After that first dream, I went back and re-read my story here on fanfiction. I hope you won't think me too vain when I admit that I laughed a lot and I cried a lot. And when I got to the final chapter, I finally knew what happened next-what happened after What Happened After. I struggled in vain for months to write the Goddess-forsaken epilogue after I posted that final interlude, but now it was just there, waiting for me. And, after I managed to locate my master copy of Violet Fire (that was two computers ago-thank the Gods I always pull the hard-drive) and dove back in, I quickly realized why I hadn't been able to see where the Epilogue was taking me.
George had been right-I was ready now. The early twenty-something with too much eye-liner who dreamed and pined over boys (and-full disclosure-girls) in the red velvet chair could never have written the Goddess-forsaken Epilogue, just as the wide-eyed eleven-year-old with the perpetually scabby knees could not have written a believable romance in her time. This story has been fifteen years in the making. It has grown up with me, and perhaps one of the most wonderful things about re-reading it now was seeing how I had grown through the lens of the tale. And, just like in my own life, there are things I would have done differently had I known where it all was leading, but-just like in my own life-I am satisfied with how things have turned out. I will be going back to make some minor editorial and proofing fixes that I caught in the re-read, but beyond that I will not be doing any major re-writes. A few people have requested a copy of the manuscript over the years-I would be more than happy to provide one, so feel free to message me and I'll send you a pdf. Please remember that Tortall and all of its affiliates are the intellectual property of the great and wonderful Tamora Pierce. Ana, Will, Illieno, Darius, and all OCs are-as far as I am concerned-open-source. So, for those who have asked-feel free to fanart or fic my fic. I would be truly honored.
One last thing I thought I'd mention, before I sign off for the last time.
Remember that mystery boy from my author's notes? The one who I was angsting over whilst writing the Battle with Scanra? Funny thing happened just over three years back-he called me, completely out of the blue. At the time I was dating someone else, living in a different part of the state entirely when he finally rang my number again. He sounded nervous as hell, so I took pity on him and decided not to hang up like he totally deserved after leaving me high and dry for two years.
He begged me just to listen, to hear him out before judging him as a total creeper-and then he told me a story. A story that started with a dream. In his dream, he was walking around a big house in the country, looking out through the tall windows at the white rail fence surrounding the pastures of a farm he didn't recognize. He could hear someone laughing outside, just around the corner, so he ran out the porch door. Outside, a big red pole barn kept watch over a small heard of brown and white cattle, and he turned back to the house to see it was made from dusty red brick with white trim. He walked through the big yard toward a small fenced in-garden, and that's when he saw me-standing in the dirt and laughing.
He woke up and looked at the girl laying next to him, and knew that she was the wrong girl. He told me that he hadn't even noticed how happy he'd been in the dream until he woke up and realized how miserable he was awake. He broke things off with his girlfriend that same morning, and set off on a week-long quest to track down my number.
And after all that, he said: I know it sounds crazy, but after that dream I felt like I just had find you again. Because I always regretted how I left things with you, and I was wondering-do you want to have coffee some time?
I had to say no, of course. My partner at the time wouldn't have been too happy about me going out for a caffeinated beverage with an old flame. But as the days turned to weeks I couldn't get the dream that he had related to me out of my head. I kept remembering his description of realizing how unhappy he was in his previous relationship, and comparing it to the way I felt-shackled by someone whose love I simply couldn't return.
He texted me the day after I changed my relationship status on Facebook, catching me in the midst of pouring over all of my old photos to see if there was some online evidence that might have fed into the dream farm he had described to me. That weekend-three years and a month ago today-I went down to see him for the first time. I refrained from mentioning my childhood home-I already knew it had never been discussed in our previous fling, and I needed to know if there really was something to this blast from my past before I got too giddy to make a sound judgement.
The first time I brought him up to my parent's place, we listened to Frank Sinatra and looked away from each other as our hands lay next to each other on the center armrest, our skin touching lightly with every bump in the road. By the time we pulled into the long driveway that led to my childhood home, we were holding hands, though I can never remember just which of us it was that made the first move.
I will never, never forget the look on his face when he pulled past the treeline and he saw my parents farm spread out before him: the red pole-barn, white rail fences, the cows, the gardens, and the big old house with red brick and white trim.
I told you I believed in the power of dreams: the proof is sitting next to me right now, as it happens.
So, as I finally do the unthinkable and mark this story down as complete, I wanted to wish you all a very fond farewell. I cannot thank you enough for all the words of encouragement and camaraderie over the years-I honestly do not think I would have become the person I am today if you hadn't been there to buoy my spirit when I was struggling to find my path, both on paper and off. I hope that you will find-as I have-that some good things are worth waiting for.
All my love,
The Goddess-forsaken Epilogue
It was not the victory she had hoped for.
There was no wind here, no breeze to whisper across her cheek and lift away the tears that she could no longer cry. The air had died when the land had died—in one violent, searing blast—so there was nothing to stir the dust and ashes that had once been a green and fertile earth, plush with the bounty of an eternity of summers. There was nothing to stir the ashes, nothing except for her.
She looked up into a sky black and blue and sickly yellow, a sky the color of a bruise. A sky which roiled in its own agony, writhing like the final contortions of a murder victim as the poison finally seeps into the heart and stills the valiant rhythm of its own demise.
She had known it might happen this way.
The wind whipped across her face, shrieking its displeasure as it hurled the dust and ashes into the upper atmosphere. It was caustic, the dust. It crept into your every pore, every crevice, sucking away the life, the energy, the hope…until you lay down and became dust yourself, blowing—endlessly blowing on the wind.
Nothing would grow here anymore. How could it? The topsoil had long since blown away, ripped from the face of the earth by the sheer force of the air, the violence of the gusts slicing, severing, bit by bit, grain by grain, that which had once given life to this forsaken place.
At night, heat lightning ripped across the sky in searing, crackling lines that spelled out doom to the mortals watching from below. Mortals who looked to the sky and prayed for rain, prayed for salvation, prayed for the dustbowl and the depression and the God-damn wind to die.
They did not pray to her, but she heard the prayers even if their God did not. It was her curse, her punishment to hear those desperate prayers and to know that she could not save them.
He had warned her it might come to this.
Mud and blood, sweat and tears. The moans of the dying filled the spaces between the crack and thunder of artillery, the rain washing the mud from their faces as blood trickled along the trenches. The shells of living men crept through twisted alleys of death, the sweat of the doomed stinging their eyes as they clutch their weapons close, clinging to the instruments of their own destruction as lovers embrace an object of desire. Some clustered in small groups and looked away from each other's tear stained cheeks, while others huddled in solitude as the ground trembled with the impact of bombs falling in the distance, the ringing in their ears unable to drown the muted cries for water, for mother, for the final release.
She had known it was a trap.
But she had gone anyway.
There was no color beyond the chain-link limits of the cages, the world reduced to faded browns and streaky grays, the people reduced to wraiths, their flesh tinted toneless by grime, their eyes huge in haggard monochrome faces. Children with vacant expressions and swollen bellies drift along like ghosts at a parent's side as the men with crisp uniforms and shiny buttons herd them into a dark place. Mothers press the faces of sons and daughters into the worn folds of their wasted bodies, closing their own eyes as the door closes and their world is painted black.
Because it was what she did, what she had always done.
She could not have done anything else.
So much blood. So much terror and violence. So much hatred and anger. So much horror, flashing in vivid technicolor bursts, blasting in stereo surround sound, flickering across the faces of the viewers, half-listening as a plastic personality narrates their nightmares with flawless articulation. They stare at the screen and let their reality become fantasy, their truth, fiction.
No, it was not the victory she had hoped for.
But perhaps there was still hope.
The waters, once crystal clear, now choked with ooze and bile.
There had always been Life. There had always been Death.
This was neither.
She knelt in the place where it had begun, where it had ended, and wondered where it had gone wrong. She could no longer feel guilt or regret—those had been left behind long ago. But she remembered. She remembered remorse. She remembered shame. She would not allow herself to forget.
She knelt in the green, green grass, letting the sweet breeze caress her face as the Imp died in front of her. She did not have to remember the weight of responsibility for it pulled her down now, her knees sinking deep into the plush turf as his gurgling laughter washed over her. It was her mantle, her choice. That laughter was the yoke around her neck, the gleeful knowledge behind it the harness which bound her.
She had been strong, more than strong. She had been an invincible goddess.
It had not been enough.
She had come too late.
Chaos had come.
Chaos would spread, was already spreading.
It would not be enough to contain it here, in this once-sacred place.
She had made her choice, her sacrifice, and it had tied her to this place, to this land, this realm.
She had won the battle, but lost the war.
The Imp's last laugh died away into silence as she knelt in the grass that was already fading from green to brown, unable to tear her gaze from the scene of her greatest failure. She looked into darkness, into the heart of Chaos. She, who had never Seen but what he chose to show her.
She Saw now.
Saw the blood, the hate, the horror.
She saw Chaos seeping into the all the worlds she could not help but love, twisting the peoples she could not help but would forever be beholden to.
The Imp had outmaneuvered her at the last, knowing full well that she would walk the path he laid out for her.
"You may kill me," the Imp giggled, his handsome mask burning away to reveal the horror of his true face, "but you shall never defeat me…"
She knelt in the place where she had fallen, unable to look away from the sight of the Imp's body nestled between the roots of the Great Tree, his foul blood staining the sacred ground of the First Creation, leeching into the waters which flowed from the genesis of all things, all worlds, all life…but her eyes saw into the darkness, into the universe which had been unwittingly born from her pride and his malice.
"…my task is already complete…"
She knelt there as the poison oozed outward and the grass gradually blackened and crumbled into ash. She knelt there until time ceased and eternity ended, and even when the hands gripped her shoulders and pulled her back into the present she knew that—somewhere in this place of memory without time—she would always be kneeling here, facing the fate of the fate-less.
"Alanna," he called her, as his hands tightened on her shoulders.
That was what they called her, what she had called herself once upon a time.
"Come away," he said. "Come away before you too are tainted." He did not say, I warned you not to come. There was no judgment in his voice, no condemnation but concern.
It was that which finally compelled her to her feet: that he could still love her, despite it all.
She stood, but could not bring herself to turn, to look into the hazel eyes of he who was her all and everything. But because he was George he did not need to see her face to know the thoughts behind her eyes.
"The damage was already done," he murmured, "He had already penetrated too deeply before we knew of his coming here." His arm curled about her waist as he moved to stand beside her, "You have done what could be done, now you must come away."
"No," she said, "it must be contained."
She felt, rather than saw, the mulish look he threw at her. "It is too great a task for us alone," he said, "we must seek reinforcements."
"No," she repeated, "it must be done now."
And she took a step forward, and another and another, until she stood once more before the Imp with the oddly warm waters of the spring swirling around her ankles.
"The Imp should not have been able to enter here," she said, with an expressionless look that hinted of murderous intent. "He had help."
"Yes," he said simply, from his place on the shore.
She turned to look at him, already knowing it was a mistake, already knowing he would know her intent. But she needed the sight of his face, needed that source of untainted beauty as guide and anchor, needed to look at him just in case it was for the last time.
"No!" George cried, his eyes wide and wild as he reached for her.
But he could not stop her.
She reached deep inside of herself, deep and deeper still.
She knelt in the place where it had begun, where it had ended, and wondered where it had gone wrong.
The hilt of the broken sword fell from bloodless fingers as a torrent of tears coursed down her cheek. She had not known she could cry, in this form, in this place, but cry she did as her strength fled with the last of her power and her body collapsed onto the cursed earth.
She had expected to be destroyed, destroyed for even thinking to attempt what she had just done. She had not known that it could be done, until it already had.
Before her tear stained eyes, the landscape extended unbroken onto an endless horizon. The Great Tree, the Spring of Creation, was gone forever, cast into the void which lay beyond all of existence. With it, too, had gone the curse of Chaos, the taint wiped clean from the Divine Realms.
There had always been Life. There had always been Death. There had always been Chaos, and the dream-land called the Between. There had always been Gods to maintain the balance.
But now everything had now changed.
The son of Chaos crept first out of the nothingness, extending his arms of dark energy to mold and shape the fetal universe as he saw fit.
There had never been such a world.
Light burst from a single point, giving direction to once directionless emptiness, exploding outward in a tremendous wave of energy and newly-born matter that carried in their chemical hearts the seeds of Creation.
A world without Gods.
She did not remember the return journey, though she remembered him carrying her, his arms cradling her wretched form as he murmured meaningless comforts and fed her dwindling light with his own. She knew that what she had done could never be undone, and she mourned for all of the worlds that would never be born due to her folly, even as she rejoiced at the freedom gifted to that infant universe—the freedom of growth without interference or direction.
She hoped that the repercussions would not be too severe. She had not the strength to fight again so soon, and George did not have the necessary power to protect them.
Then again, perhaps they had already lived the repercussions. Perhaps it explained the way the others treated them, had always treated them, would always treat them. Perhaps she was wrong and even now the council was convening. Perhaps Father and Mother were already on their way to punish their naughty child. Perhaps she had already borne their punishment, and was only now remembering the cause.
Time is meaningless in the Realms of the Gods. All things that have been or will be are always happening, always happened, always about to happen. Only individuals can know a sequential experience; the Realm itself exists independent of time's relentless march, a spatial place-holder with truly limitless possibility. It is, quite literally, the stuff of dreams, continually made and unmade by countless numbers of conscious beings throughout the known worlds. In her current condition, she imagined that she could see those transformations happening all around her, feel the pulsing energy of the infinite souls who fed life into the landscape, hear the thrum of sentience that surrounded her.
She remembered herself again in the place they called their own, a small island of simple comforts suspended in a sea of ever changing abstraction. They had come upon the place early in their explorations of this new existence while seeking a site at which they could rest and reconcile themselves to their new state. Perhaps, in this Realm of endless possibility, it had created itself just for them. Perhaps it had always been here, waiting from the dawn of eternity for two weary travelers to wander upon it and call it home.
She rose from the ledge where George had placed her, sounding out the limits of herself. Gods do not tire, but they can come to the end of their strength, and she had been at the end of hers. She felt tenuous, off-balance despite the solid foundation of the cavern's stone floor.
A part of her was missing. It had gone into that new plane, and could never be recovered.
The price has been paid, she thought, the sacrifice made—I will adapt to this new shape of being, as I have done before.
Slowly, she made her way through the stone halls of their home-place, threading her way deeper and deeper into the darkness-that-was-not-dark, until she came to the very heart of the cave system.
Light bloomed in the final cavern, a single shaft of brilliance pouring from some distant crack or hole in the ceiling, its rays never wavering or dimming as they illuminated the chamber before her.
It was not a large cavern, as caverns go—she could walk the circumference in less than fifty paces—yet it exuded an aura of infinite vastness, seeming to extend its volume beyond the confines of the stone walls into limitless space. The crossing always seemed to last an eternity, each step a miniscule progression across an unfathomable distance. Yet those who dared to walk that endless path would eventually come to a small pool, fed by a slow trickle of crystalline liquid that seeped from pores of stone until it collected into a basin worn in the floor of the cavern, its surface illuminated by that singular shaft of light.
The pool was the reason they had chosen to remain, to settle and cease their wanderings. Perhaps it had not been them who had chosen, but rather been chosen. Others came, occasionally, to consult the waters, but with great reluctance and only in direst need—for sometimes those who entered the final chamber of the cave system did not emerge again. Sometimes those who looked into the water were not the same after having looked.
She did not know why it had chosen them as its keepers, nor why it seemed to serve a different function for every being who gazed upon its surface. She was content not to know—the mystery would reveal itself or not in due course.
The chamber was empty now, much to her chagrin. She had expected him to be there, as he so often was, kneeling before the basin as he peered into those fathomless depths.
She meant to turn then, to return to the outer caverns and seek him out, but instead she strode further into the cavern, her feet propelled forward and forward again, each step seeming to take her no further, no closer, nowhere into nothing. And then she was kneeling at the foot of the basin, her breath rippling across the waters' surface, exactly as she had done countless times before.
She knew it was a futile exercise. The last fragile threads that connected this Realm to the world of her birth had finally been severed; the pool could show nothing of that place now.
The ripples of her breath pulsed and ebbed across the pool, then slowly subsided until the waters shone clear and undisturbed once again.
She cried out then, a wild trill of sound that was at once mournful and triumphant, terrible and beautiful, jubilant and tragic, her voice reverberating and multiplying across the cavern walls until it seemed a chorus of voices, a great choir exalting in the bittersweet victory that had been won.
"It is finished," she whispered, and the echoes murmured, done, done, done.
Yet as she moved to leave, to start again on that endless journey back across the cavern floor, she saw something out of the corner of her eye that made her pause.
Slowly, she turned back to the pool.
Color bloomed in the depths of the water, swirling and spreading like ink across a painted page.
"No!" she gasped, falling to her knees as the colors spiraled and pulsed, merging and flickering into almost recognizable shapes and forms before finally resolving into an all-too-familiar landscape.
"It cannot be," she murmured in disbelief, but then she was falling, falling into the scene before her eyes, swallowed by the vision of another place the pool had granted her.
The sun hung low over the sky of Corus, its banners waving merrily in the gentle breeze as the glorious summer day began to fade to sultry evening. The city of stone exuded a lively atmosphere, the streets pulsing with an excited hum of anticipation that seemed to permeate the very air. Festive ribbons and banners hung from every door, window, and lamppost, while gangs of young girls and boys bedecked with wildflowers roamed the streets, adding colorful paper lanterns and streamers to any unadorned surfaces. In the fading light, servants and shopkeepers hurried to sweep and tidy for the coming holiday, while customers rushed to and fro with their last-minute purchases.
A small band of riders crested the final hill before the city. They paused at the ridge as the late afternoon sunlight painted the walls of Corus in golden light, the weariness in their travel-stained faces instantly erased by the vision that greeted them. Then one of their number let out a joyous laugh, her brilliant hair streaming out behind her as she spurred her roan mare into a brisk cantor. The other riders shouted as they prodded their tired mounts into a reluctant pursuit, one of them fumbling with the ties of a banner that finally unfurled to reveal a golden lioness rampart rearing before three red towers.
From the front gates of the city a sentry famous for his keen vision cried out as he spotted the lead rider approaching the city gates, and within seconds his cry was taken up by soldiers and citizenry alike, "The Queen has returned!" Trumpeters scrambled for their instruments and as the riders reached the final stretch before the city they were greeted by a great fanfare. Soon the bell ringers in their tower took up the call and people poured into the streets to cheer the homecoming of their Queen.
Ana laughed and waved as she led her small troupe through the city gates, and though the shadows beneath her eyes and the bedraggled state of her companions hinted at a long and arduous journey, she did not rush through the streets toward the palace and the promise of rest and recovery. Instead, she halted Firedance just beyond the gates, signaling to her companions that she would walk the final leg of the expedition. Instantly, Darius had dismounted and was at her side.
"Are you sure, Ana?" Darius asked, his face tight with concern. "It has already been quite the journey, and it's an hour's walk up hill from here to the palace. In your condition…"
"Oh, shut up and help me dismount," Ana interrupted with a good-natured grin. She handed Firedance's reigns off to one of the Guardsmen hovering nearby, and held out her arms expectantly towards her brother.
Darius sighed. "Will won't like this one bit," he warned her. He turned toward the Queensguard holding Firedance. "With you as my witness, I'm officially declaring my disapproval for this venture."
"I'm pregnant, not mortally wounded," Ana laughed, patting the sizable swell of her belly. "It's been nearly four months—I think my people deserve the chance to greet their Queen properly."
"Fine," Darius said, "but if you so much as yawn I'm putting you right back on that horse."
"Fair enough," Ana laughed again, too happy at finally being home to argue. She put her hands on Darius's shoulders as he gently lifted her down from the saddle. Once she was firmly on the ground, Darius signaled that the other riders could go on ahead, but the Guardsmen and women who had accompanied them shook their heads.
"If it's all the same to you, Majesty, Commander," spoke a sandy-haired man outfitted in the trappings of an officer, "We'd rather escort you ourselves."
"Of course, Tiriam," Ana said. "Give Lyla my apologies for your tardiness when you get home."
Tiriam laughed. "Lyla is far more likely to forgive me a short delay than for shirking my duty," he said, as he gestured for his fellow Queensguard to fall into formation behind his Queen. Ana was already moving toward the waiting crowds, an anxious Darius hanging off her arm as she smiled and waved at the citizens of Corus cheering their Queen and Champion.
They only made it a third of the way to the palace before Will rode out to meet them, a carriage following closely in his wake. The King of Tortall took one look at his wife struggling valiantly to hide her weariness and do her duty to the people who had turned out to greet her, then he simply swept her off her feet, ignoring her feeble protests as he carried her to the waiting carriage.
"Our people will love you no less, dearest, for waiting a day to greet them," Will admonished her gently as he set Ana back on her feet before the carriage doors. Ana opened her mouth, but before she could mount any further protests Will cut her off with a swift kiss. "Welcome home," Will said, smiling into Ana's blushing face as the crowd roared in agreement and approval. He turned to wave at the gathered people, then handed his bemused but unprotesting wife into the carriage.
"Nicely done," Darius said, grinning as he handed Will the reigns of his stallion.
Will returned the grin as he gripped his brother-in-law's arm in greeting. "I had an inkling that some decisive action might be necessary," he said. "I remember her last pregnancy all too vividly."
Darius chuckled as they both mounted their steeds and turned to follow the carriage as it made its way toward the palace. "I thought she might have learned a bit from the last time around, but I think she's getting even more stubborn—if that is even humanly possible." As if to confirm his statement, Ana leaned out the open window of the carriage and continued to wave merrily as the horses picked their careful way through the crowded streets.
The noise of the surrounding crowd was suddenly muted. Darius started, his hand automatically reaching for his sword.
"Sorry," Will apologized, chagrined at Darius's quick reflexes. "I should have warned you I was putting up a sound ward."
"Ah," said Darius, relaxing. "I suppose I should have expected it."
"I've been wearing the carpet thin for the past week," Will said, his voice strained with worry, even as he continued to smile and wave at the crowd. "We got your message about the sandstorm, but then it was like you disappeared. Illieno has every agent in the eastern provinces on high alert searching for signs of you."
Darius continued to smile at the eerily quiet crowd, playing his part in the charade as he answered. "The storm hit us a day's ride past the Tirragen Oasis. We were holed up for a couple days waiting for the storm to pass." Darius hesitated, glancing over at Will's face before he continued. "The stormwings must have detected us during the storm, because they were waiting for us as soon as we dug out."
Will looked sharply over at his brother-in-law. "Stormwings? In that part of the desert?"
Darius made a casual gesture, drawing Will's attention back to the people that still surrounded them. "There is much to tell," he said, "but this isn't the proper place for a full report. Out of an excess of caution, I decided it was best for us to be as inconspicuous as possible for the rest of our journey. Rest assured, we took no harm that a good night's sleep won't cure."
Will nodded, unconsciously running his hand through his hair in a characteristic gesture. "Thank you for bringing her home safe," he said, the relief clear in his voice. "There should be a hot bath waiting for you in your rooms. I've already ordered a private dinner sent to the Lesser Library. We can debrief there once you've had a chance to wash off some of the stains of travel."
The crowds of people ebbed as the procession approached the palace proper, allowing them to travel more swiftly through the streets. In only a few minutes they were through the palace gates and into the relative quiet of the main courtyard. Now that they were away from the eyes of the public Will allowed himself to relax his carefree mask. He was out of the saddle and at the door to the carriage before the poised footmen had a chance to react.
Darius took his time handing over his own mount, tactfully allowing Ana and Will a few moments of privacy. He relayed the order to go home and rest to the travel-weary Queensguard, then turned to rejoin Ana and Will where they stood in the shadow of the main entryway, their heads close together as they conversed.
"…know why you are being so ridiculous!" Ana was saying, "I rode Firedance right up until the week before Terrance was born. I'm only five months along, there is no reason I shouldn't continue to travel this time around."
"No reason?" asked Darius as he joined them, "Then I take it you haven't told him."
"Told me what?" Will demanded, alarm flashing across his face.
Ana threw a resentful look at her brother, but it was marred by the smile that kept tugging at her mouth. "We are having twins," she said, "Tohmas confirmed it just before we left Ithsma."
"Twins?" Will gasped. He grinned, draping a protective arm around his wife's waist. "Well that settles it," he announced. "You're not leaving the palace until the babes are born."
"Humph!" Ana snorted, "You're worse than Darius! Put a baby in my belly and everyone thinks I'm suddenly incapable of doing anything. You should change my title from Champion Queen of the Realm to Incompetent Queen of Bedrest."
"No one in their right mind could ever think you incompetent, my love," Will laughed as he led her through the portal and into the entry hall.
"Don't mind her, Will," Darius chimed in. "She's been impossible for the past month. She can't mount Firedance without assistance, but still refuses to acknowledge that this pregnancy might be different than the last one."
Ana's retort was cut short by a commotion at the top of the staircase. "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" cried a small boy, his black curls bouncing wildly as he raced down the stairs to throw his arms around Ana's legs.
"Terrance," Ana breathed, reaching down to stroke her son's soft curls. Happy tears sprang to her eyes as the boy looked up at her and grinned. "Daddy was real worried you would miss my party," he said, with the frank sincerity of toddler-hood. "But I knew you would make it in time!"
Ana gently disentangled her son from around her legs, then knelt down and squeezed him in a tight hug. "Of course I'd be here," she said, tears cutting tracks down her face as held him close.
A harried-looking teenager stumbled breathless to the bottom of the stairs, her expression poised between horror and embarrassment. "I'm so sorry, Uncle Will," she apologized, dropping a hasty curtsy. "I told him he needed to stay in the nursery, but he was just so excited when he heard the bells ringing. I swear I only turned my back for one second and he was gone."
"Don't fret, Laney," Will said, raising his gaze from the happy sight of his family's reunion to give his niece a reassuring smile. "There's no harm done."
"I can't believe how much you've grown!" Ana exclaimed, her hands cupped around her son's face. "I missed you so much!"
Just then Terrance spied Darius standing beside his father. "Uncle Darius!" He yelled enthusiastically. "You came home for my party too!"
Darius laughed as he swept the giggling toddler away from his sister and slung the boy playfully over his shoulder. "Wouldn't miss the party for the world," he said, "But," he pretended to look around in confusion, "where did the birthday boy go?"
Terrance shrieked with laughter, slapping his uncle's back with his small hands as he hung upside down. "I'm right here, Uncle!"
"Where?" said Darius, spinning in a circle as the adults laughed helplessly at his antics.
"Here!" giggled Terrance, "Right here!"
"Where?" Darius repeated, casually transferring his nephew to his other arm. He looked down at the boy slung against his hip in surprise. "Why there he is!"
"You're so silly, Uncle Darius," Terrance announced. "I was here the whole time!"
"Uncle Darius is pretty silly," Ana agreed, her eyes twinkling as she retrieved her son from her brother's clutches.
"Daddy," Terrance asked suddenly, his violet eyes going wide as he looked up at his father. "Is Mommy and Uncle Darius in trouble?"
Will blinked, sharing a confused glace with Ana and Darius. "No, Terrance," Will assured him. "Why would you think that?"
"They got their clothes all dirty," Terrance solemnly observed. "Laney gets mad at me when I get my clothes all dirty and makes me take a bath—even if I already had one!"
A chorus of chuckles greeted that pronouncement; even the furiously blushing Laney couldn't help but grin at the toddler's logic.
"You're right, Terrance," Ana said, once her giggles had died down. "Darius and I got our clothes all dirty, and now we both have to go take baths."
"It is a just punishment," Darius added, winking at Laney, "but it is one we will have to endure for the crime we committed."
"I think it is about time for the little prince to start getting ready for bed, anyway," Will said, while Laney nodded behind him. Terrance immediately buried his face into his mother's shoulder, then turned to peer at his father with wide, pleading eyes. Will just laughed and shook his head. He reached over and gently lifted his son from Ana's arms. "I promise you and Mommy will have plenty of time to play in the morning."
Terrance sighed dramatically, but he seemed to know that further protest was futile.
"I'll see you again soon, dearest," Ana said, leaning over to kiss her son's soft cheek.
"Sleep tight, my favorite nephew," Darius added, ruffling the boy's hair fondly. "You've got a big day tomorrow!"
"I'll have dinner sent to the Lesser Library in an hour," Will said, then he turned to follow Laney up the stairs and toward the nursery.
The palace nursery took up an entire wing of the second floor which had been specially renovated to suit the needs of the ever-expanding royal family. A dozen private bedrooms all opened off the large, central chamber where mountains of toys and play-things were scattered amongst piles of colorful cushions and soft blankets. Tall windows marched along the eastern wall, each with its own little alcove that overlooked a toy-strewn balcony set over the castle gardens. The far wall held a large set of wooden doors which opened into a smaller, but still massive room that served the children as a study area and lesson space.
Laney and Will's entrance was hailed by a chorus of good-natured jeers from the younger children, while their elder siblings and the adult governesses greeted the return of the escaped prince more sedately. Will brushed aside the quiet apologies of his nieces and nephews as well as the more profuse apologies from the rather frantic governesses, reminding them that his son was a famous for being a wily escape artist.
"Does he still try to climb out of his crib at night?" Will asked, as he stepped carefully around a precariously stacked pile of wooden blocks. Lorna, Laney's sister and twin sighed somewhat exasperatedly. "Unfortunately, yes," she replied. "I've found him curled up on the cushions out here more mornings than I'd like to admit. But at least he can't make it out onto any of the balconies anymore—not since you had those new locks installed."
"And he hasn't figured out how to get out of his new pajamas as of yet," Laney added. "Putting the buttons on the back where he can't reach them was pure genius."
"Though now he has started hiding his pajamas before bed-time," one of the governesses piped in. "You'd think that after the twelve previous we'd be prepared for anything, but your son is always coming up with new ways to confound us."
Will couldn't help but smile fondly down at his son, who looked back at him with wide, innocent eyes. "I think that's putting it rather lightly," he laughed. "He's an outright terror!"
Terrance squirmed in his grip, twisting to watch as two of his cousins started a rowdy game of keep-away from their youngest sister. The governess made an exasperated noise and moved to intervene, even as the little girl burst into tears as she tried unsuccessfully to snatch her doll back from her brothers.
"We've all had our moments," said Laney wryly, with one eye on her quarreling siblings, "Terrance may be a terror, but at least he's a sweet-tempered little terror."
Will chuckled. "I still remember the spectacular tantrums you two would throw. I never imagined such a tiny set of lungs could produce such a blood-curdling scream until you two came along."
The twins exchanged a bashful glance, but they were saved from having to make a response when Terrance let out a quiet but unmistakable yawn.
"That's my signal," Will said, waving goodnight to the girls as he stepped into his son's bedroom. One of the other nursemaids was already there before him, laying out his son's pajamas as well as a fresh set of diapers.
"I can take him, Majesty," the woman said, holding out her arms, but Will shook his head as Terrance suddenly threw his arms around Will's neck and started to cry pathetically into his shoulder.
"Will you give us a few minutes, Sara?" Will asked.
"Of course, Majesty," Sara murmured, bobbing a quick curtsy. She closed the door behind her, leaving the King alone with his son.
Will sat down on the battered wooden rocking chair that had once graced his own nursery room. Gently, he un-pried Terrance's arms from his neck and sat the boy up on his lap, just as his own father had done many times in the very same chair. "Do you remember what day it is tomorrow?" Will asked, wiping away the huge crocodile tears that continued to roll down his son's face.
Terrance sniffled, his voice still quavering from tears as he quietly replied, "My birthday."
"You've been looking forward to your birthday for a long time, haven't you?"
"Yes," Terrance admitted.
"What have you been looking forward to?"
Terrance hiccupped in sudden excitement, "I'm going to be free and there is going to be a big party and there is going to be lots of people and there is going be lots of yummy food and lots of music and lots of playing and lots of presents for all the people."
Will grinned at that description; he couldn't help it. "How long have you been waiting for your birthday to come?"
Terrance's brow crinkled as he thought about it. "Forever and ever," he finally pronounced.
Will glanced around the room, like he was checking to make sure no one was listening. Then he leaned in and whispered, "Can I tell you a secret?"
Terrance's amethyst eyes were wide as he nodded gravely.
"If you go to sleep now," Will said, conspiratorially, "then you won't have to wait any more for your birthday—it will be here when you wake up in the morning. But if you don't go to sleep, then you'll have to keep waiting and waiting and waiting and your birthday just won't come."
Terrance peered up into his father's face while he contemplated this revelation. "Do I have to sleep in my bed?" he finally asked, with a hopeful look.
"I'm afraid so, my son," Will told him. "And you have to stay in your bed the whole night, too."
"But what if I can't fall asleep?" Terrance asked, worried. "Will my birthday stay away?"
Will nodded gravely. "As long as you're awake, your birthday can't come. It can only come once you fall asleep."
Terrance looked up with a serious expression. "Then I need to go to sleep," he announced.
Will smiled as he pulled his son in for a quick hug. "Should I let Sara in now to get you ready for bed?"
"Yes," Terrance said, clambering down from his father's lap. "I'm ready."
Will rose to open the door for the waiting Sara. She bobbed another quick curtsy and then froze in surprise as Terrance marched up to her and waved his pajamas at her knees. "I have to go to sleep now," Terrance told her solemnly, "otherwise my birthday won't come."
Sara laughed lightly, looking over at Will in wonder. He winked at her, then nodded seriously for Terrance's benefit. "Is that so?" she asked, taking the pajamas from her young prince as she entered the room. "Then I guess we better get you ready!"
Will pulled the door shut gently behind him as he left, then wished a goodnight to his nieces and nephews as he made his way across the cluttered nursery floor.
It was a short walk from the nursery wing to the Lesser Library, a short walk made shorter by Will's impatient pace. He entered the room, surprised to find the servants already laying out the meal under the gentle direction of his sister while Lucas, Darius, and Illieno chatted quietly by the fireplace.
Lara looked up as he crossed the room, "Oh good," she said briskly, "I was just about to send someone to fetch you."
"I must have been longer in the nursery than I realized," Will said, joining the three by the fireplace as they waited for the servants to finish setting out their supper.
"Brave man!" Lucas declared, clapping Will on the back. "Twelve children and I've managed to hardly ever cross the threshold to that crazy menagerie. I find it's a place best avoided."
"Hard as it is to admit," said Illieno, "I'm going to have to agree with the Big Man on this one. Everything in that nursery is sticky."
"It's not so bad," Darius protested. "You just need to avoid touching any surfaces."
"Or children," added Lucas, winking at Will.
"Especially children," Illieno agreed.
Darius chuckled quietly as Will just shook his head in bemusement.
Then their quiet moment of comradery was broken by Lara's wordless cry of greeting.
"Sorry, I'm late," Ana grinned from the doorway. "I finally just had to give up and accept that I will never get all the sand washed out of my hair."
"Oh darling!" gushed Lara, rushing over to embrace her sister-in-law. "Will and I were at our wits end with worry, I'm so glad to see you home safe."
"I'm glad to be home safe," Ana said, her eyes twinkling with joy. "It was quite the eventful trip."
"You never make any other kind," Lucas observed wryly as he kissed her cheek in greeting. "It's good to have you back."
"By all the Gods in the sky, Ana," Illieno broke in unceremoniously, his face split in an impish grin.
He reached out to squeeze Ana in a one-armed hug, then stepped back and gave her an appraising look. "Darius wasn't joking when he said you were already the size of a pack-horse!"
"I never!" Darius sputtered, as the group broke out into chuckles.
"How many kids did you cram into her?" Illieno asked Will jokingly, "She looks to be carrying a round dozen."
"Close," said Will, grinning unabashedly, "you're only off by ten."
This pronouncement was greeted with a chorus of exclamations and congratulations which probably would have continued longer if Ana hadn't shortly interjected with a reminder that she was currently hungry enough for three and could they please eat?
They settled down for an informal supper among close friends and comrades, their conversation light and mostly involving the ever amusing antics of a certain crown prince as well as a fair amount of recent gossip and mundane drama that Ana and Darius had missed out on. But as the servants cleared away their final course, Will nodded to Lara, who promptly pushed back her chair and followed the final maid out into the servants' corridor. She returned several moments later, an unopened bottle of wine in one hand and a set of keys in the other. Lara handed Illieno the bottle of wine (which he swiftly opened using the corkscrew he pulled from a concealed pocket) and turned back to the servants corridor, pulling closed the small wooden door from its hidden pocket in the wall. She inserted one of her many keys into the keyhole, and as the tumblers fell into place the doorway began to glow faintly blue. Illieno began refilling their wineglasses as Lara made her way across the room and repeated her procedure with the main entrance.
There was a moment of silence as each of them sipped or stared at their wine, then Will cleared his throat.
"I hate to ruin this lovely evening with serious talk," he began with a wry smile, "but I think I can safely speak for all of us when I say we have been waiting all week to hear about your journey."
Ana and Darius exchanged a significant glance, one look that somehow managed to seem like an entire conversation between the siblings.
"Most of it you already know," Darius began slowly, "but I guess it bears repeating. The conflict on the southern continent continues to push more and more refugees north. We thought that we had a good handle on the situation last fall, but the spring brought a new batch of Warlords and a renewed intensity to the fighting over territory in the south. Governor Brooks is doing his best to relocate the refugees to the new villages we've established as quickly as possible, but despite his best efforts there are simply too many people and not enough places to send them."
"Ithsma is being overrun," Ana cut in bluntly. "The refugee camp surrounds the city for a mile on all sides, and there are still caravans of new refugees arriving almost every day. The Ithsman garrison simply can't build new villages quickly enough to keep up with the demand, and the troops we have stationed there don't have enough guides and interpreters to properly train each group of refugees. Most of the arrivals these days are from the heart of the former Empire, and they have absolutely no idea how to cope with living in the north. The new refugees don't have any of the skills we need—there are hardly any carpenters, smiths, farmers or woodsmen in the lot, so we have to teach them everything. And to top it off, most of them still don't believe in the Gift, despite all our efforts to convince them otherwise!"
Ana let out a frustrated sigh, and Darius quickly picked up the narration. "Our troops are having a difficult time keeping the refugees out of Tortall, despite the fact that people keep getting killed trying to cross the desert. Even Governor Brooks is starting to resent the fact that we still won't allow any settlement in Tortallan lands."
"A policy that won't be changing any time soon," Will said. "We've already tried that experiment and it failed tragically. Until we can be certain that these refugees can survive here I refuse to let them come into Tortall just to be killed in one way or another."
"Has Tohmas made any progress on pin-pointing the source of the incompatibility between the Gift and Thaylian technology?" Lucas asked.
"Ah," Darius said, his voice suddenly infused with excitement. "That is probably the best bit of news we have! Tohmas is convinced he is close to a break-through and I agree completely. He has been able to successfully channel the Gift through several different kinds of equipment and devices of Thaylian design without destroying them or having them corrode and decay. We've known for some time that the artificial energy generated by Thaylian power stations interacts with the Gift to create a null field, but we couldn't understand why the Gift also interferes with mechanical devices—like pistols and matchlocks, for example. Guns don't require any electricity to function, so it didn't seem logical that those kinds of devices would also fail in the presence of magic, but what Tohmas discovered is that the interference is due to the manufacturing process rather than the engineering! As it happens, the fabrication process results in the materials absorbing a trace of artificial energy which distorts the properties of their inherent electro-magnetic field and leaves them susceptible to magical interference."
Ana laughed as she looked over at Lucas's blank face. "In short, Lucas, we still don't know why magic and electricity interfere with each other, but we have figured out how to make guns that work with the Gift."
"I'm not sure how I feel about that," said Lara, a troubled look on her face. "From what you've told me of guns they have always sounded like terribly destructive weapons. I've always been glad that I need never fear one being used in my home or country."
Ana leaned across the table and took Lara's hand. "Darius and I grew up in a land where guns are as common as swords are here," she said. "I do not doubt that part of the reason the wars continue to rage so violently these many years after the fall of the Empire is due to the pervasiveness of firearms in the region. But in the end a gun is just a tool for killing, just as a sword or arrow is. It is not the tool that holds the potential for destruction, but rather the hand that wields it."
"Who knows of this development?" Will asked quietly.
"Besides the people sitting around this table?" Darius responded, "Only Tohmas, Laurel, and Lukai know that it is even theoretically possible—and only Tohmas and I know the secret to actually making such a gun."
Illieno suddenly straightened in his chair and spoke up for the first time, "You made prototypes?"
Darius instantly understood the meaning behind Illieno's question. "Only one, which I brought back with me. It's currently locked up in one of your pick-proof boxes in our rooms."
"Schematics?" Illieno asked, one eyebrow quirked in question.
"Destroyed before I left, along with the failed prototypes and the tools and materials I used to craft them. And even if one of our enemies managed to obtain a working prototype, I doubt very much that they could reverse-engineer the final product without knowing the exact procedure we used."
Illieno let out a long sigh and leaned back in his chair. He threw a meaningful look at Will, who gave a slight nod.
"I ask because we are not the only nation endeavoring to integrate Thaylian technology with the Gift," Illieno started, "I recently learned that the Cartharki conglomerate has also been conducting experiments similar to our own. As you know, when the Empire collapsed, the Thaylian-backed regime lost the reins of power to a syndicate of native-born Cartharkis, many of whom had retained the Gift despite centuries of interbreeding between the populations. My informants tell me that they've been working on this in secret for at least a decade, and have long known that not all magic interferes with Thaylian machinery—apparently Stormwing magic is completely unaffected by the proximity of Thaylian technology."
Darius sucked in a quick breath. "That is news indeed," he said gravely, exchanging another one of those significant looks with Ana.
"Tohmas must be informed," Ana said, staring wide-eyed at her brother. "Immediately!"
Darius stood, but Will caught his eye and shook his head.
"The message can hold for an hour or two," the King said, "First, tell us about the Stormwings you encountered."
Darius sank slowly back into his chair, but it was Ana who finally spoke. "They were scouts," she said. "They found us during the sandstorm, and they were waiting to ambush us as soon as we dropped our shields. But we weren't the easy prey they had anticipated, and it wasn't long before they called a truce. Their leader worked very hard to convince us that they had followed the trail of the refugees north to our lands, looking for a place to establish a new Stormwing nation. They claimed to want only a place of their own to feed and breed, and called on us to make an alliance with them."
Ana paused, glancing over at her brother once more.
Lucas leaned forward, "Sounds like standard Stormwing behavior to me," he said. "I don't see the problem, beyond the general nuisance of having a Stormwing nation as a new neighbor."
Darius sighed heavily. "They recognized us," he said quietly. "They knew who we really were—they called Ana the Little Empress and me General No-Army. It was very disconcerting. We've worked so hard to conceal our true connection to the Thaylian Empire, lest we become either target or rallying point…and somehow they just knew."
"Stormwing magic," said Will. "It's part of their power to see people's secrets and fears."
"The Stormwings were clearly heading toward the refugee camps at Ithsma," said Darius. "I assumed at the time that they would stay away from the city itself, on the Tortallan side of the river where there is no Thaylian tech to interfere with their magic…"
He trailed off.
"But if the Stormwings are immune to the effects of Thaylian technology," Illieno filled in, "then there is a far greater likelihood that someone in Ithsma will learn of your true background from them."
"Surely the risk is not that great?" asked Lara, tentatively. "Governor Brooks already knows of your heritage—after all, it was he who suggested we quell the rumors that we were harboring you two by using decoys to throw off the trail of any pursuers."
Ana was shaking her head, her face twisted in angry grief. "That plan ended up getting two of our finest mages murdered in their sleep," she reminded them grimly. "Gregory and Rysha were killed under Governor Brooks' protection, and we were never able to track down their murderers."
Will reached over and took his wife's hand, "They knew the risks they took, my love," he said quietly.
"And the ruse worked," Illieno added. "For years now we've have everyone but a select few convinced the last remaining children of the Empress died in that Goddess-forsaken inn in Berat."
"It's been over five years since the fall of the Empire," Lucas put in, "the situation is vastly different now than it was when you first came to us, Darius. I agree with my wife—I think that even if word does happen to get out, the Warlords that have risen to power in the south are too occupied with fighting each other to bother coming after you."
It was Darius's turn to shake his head. "It's not the Warlords I'm chiefly worried about, though I know of at least three who would very likely set aside their differences long enough to eliminate the last heirs to the Thaylian throne if the opportunity arose. No…" he paused before continuing, "There is a new cult that has sprung up among some of the refugees," he said. "The cult of the Fallen Empress. They worship Marghi as a saint and martyr, and preach that they are the Chosen People, destined to wander until they discover the Promised Land where they will rebuild the Empire in all its holy glory."
"I've heard of them," said Illieno, "They are the quacks who believe that Ana was saved by a bunch of angel-types who spirited her away in a golden coffin to some remote mountain top where she's waiting for them to find her so she can snap her fingers and give them back all the riches they lost in the civil wars."
Darius nodded. "One of their high priests has taken up residency in Ithsma. He was the head of a minor noble family back in the Empire, but he was there the day Ana killed Marcus and his rhetoric has amassed quite the following. And he is not the only former Thaylian noble who has fled north. There are many who would recognize either Ana or myself if we did not disguise our true names and features."
"The refugees in Ithsma are lost, broken by the traumas they've seen and experienced," Ana said, sadly, "so many of them have given up hope—they cling desperately to their pasts, and are easily swayed into following those who can offer any hope for their futures."
Will sighed, placing his palms flat against the hard surface of the table. "You've certainly given us much to ponder this evening," he said. "Your encounter with the Stormwings in the desert was an unfortunate turn of events; I had not foreseen the hazard that those Immortals might pose to our interests, but now that we know the potential threat we can react accordingly. The greatest danger lies in the discovery of your identities—the situation in Ithsma and abroad is still too tenuous for us to ignore even the smallest chance that word will get out of your survival. I refuse to allow the peace that our people have fought so hard to win to be broken, whether it be by zealot Priest or ambitious Warlord.
"I will send word to Tohmas that he is to meet with the Stormwings as soon as possible," Will continued, "to lay the foundation for a treaty between our peoples. Perhaps if we move quickly, we might yet maneuver these events to fall in our favor."
Around the table, heads nodded as the friends and allies expressed their silent agreement with their King's plan. "The Stormwings have the potential to be good allies," Illieno noted, "if we can convince them to keep the secret of Ana and Darius's past, they could be invaluable in helping gather intelligence. Their ability to See people's fears and secrets would be a great asset for us in the future."
"And Tohmas will no doubt be excited to work with them on his little project," Lucas added. "We might want to refrain from telling him about the Stormwing's immunity to Thaylian technology, else he might jeopardize our treaty with his eagerness to start experimenting on them."
Quiet laugher broke out at Lucas's teasing words, an instant balm to the tense atmosphere that had hung over the companions.
As one, they all relaxed, their confidence in their ability to manage the affairs of their country suddenly restored.
"There is not much we can do about the other issues we face at the moment," Will said. "We will continue to monitor the situations in Ithsma and Carthak as closely as possible, but there is little to be done but see how events unfold."
Illieno nodded his agreement. "I will lean a little harder on my contacts in Carthak," he said, "see if they can't ferret out more about the progress of their experiments with technology and the Gift."
"It would also be good if you could plant someone in the ranks of the cult of the Fallen Empress," Darius added. "That group is fanatical enough to start causing us problems even if they don't discover their savior has been hanging out just across the river from their encampment."
Illieno grinned cheekily, "What kind of Spymaster do you think I am?" he asked, throwing Darius a devilish wink. "Consider it done. I've already got the pieces in place—it will be the work of a moment to set the machinery into motion."
"Shall I send word to Laurel and Lukai to expect your arrival?" Lara asked Will pointedly.
Will laughed, "You read my mind, dear sister. Tohmas can make the initial overtures with the Stormwings, but I'll need to treat with them myself to secure a lasting pact with them. Their race is too proud to proceed in any other fashion."
Ana sighed. "I suppose there's no chance you'll let me come with you?"
"Not a glimmer," Will replied gently, his hand creeping across the table to squeeze his wife's. "Until we know how the chips will fall, I want you and Darius to stay well away from Ithsma." He turned to his sister then, but she spoke before he had the chance.
"No, no," she said, anticipating his offer. "Yes, I'd love the chance to see Laurel and Lukai, but we both know it's best if I stay here. Lucas can take my love to them, and I can make sure Darius and Illieno don't tease Ana into an early labor."
"Speaking of Laurel and Lukai," Ana said suddenly, grabbing and rummaging through the small satchel that hung from her chair. "I completely forgot—I have letters for you." She pulled a small packet of letters from the bag, handing them over to Lara who gave her a grateful smile.
"I'd rather you have brought them home with you," Lara said, her voice full of a mother's wistfulness.
"I'm sorry, Lara," said Darius. "But you know that Tohmas can't spare Laurel, and Lukai is the best translator we have. He is the only person left in our camp who speaks Thaylian with any level of fluency."
"I know, Darius," Lara said, a small smile gracing her face as she fingered her children's letters. "I'm proud of what they are doing for Tortall, but that doesn't stop me from wishing for their return." Then she laughed softly, nodding at her husband. "Lucas hasn't had a good night's sleep since they left—he spends half the night tossing and turning in restless worry."
Lucas grunted indignantly, the blood rising in his face as his friends chuckled at his expense. "Intolerable minx!" he grumbled, feigning anger. "Giving away a man's secrets like that—"
"Oh come now, Lucas," Ana giggled, "It's no secret that you're as soft as a feather pillow when it comes to your children."
"Speaking of children," Lara put in, "did Tohmas give you any more details about the two you are expecting?"
Ana smiled as her hand dropped unconsciously to her rounded belly. "He says they are as healthy as could be. One each—a boy and a girl," she gushed in ecstatic joy, "and warriors both from the way they kick!"
"Have you given any thought to the naming of them?" Lucas asked.
Ana shared a long look with Will, the love glowing in their gaze seeming to cast a visible ray of light between them.
"Alanna, obviously," Will said, moving to kneel beside his wife and run his fingers lightly across the gentle swell of her abdomen. "Alanna and Thom."
A slow smile spread across Ana's face, happy tears welling in her violet eyes as she reached over to cup her husband's cheek. "Alanna Karma," she whispered, "and Thom George."
Something strange was happening to her eyes. Her vision blurred, and when she touched her face her fingers came away wet. She had almost forgotten what it was to cry, to weep in the face of a great emotion. Gods had no need of tears, but she was suddenly glad for the tears she shed—it brought her a little closer to what she had once been. It was too easy to forget in this form, too easy to lose perspective and let the allure of Godhood overshadow the value of mortal life.
But she did not need her eyes to see that she was no longer alone in the cavern.
"Did you know?" She whispered, rising to face him where he lurked in the shadows behind her.
George inhaled sharply, his fingers trembling slightly as he reached up to touch the tears scattered across her cheeks. He looked at her in silent wonder, a thousand questions that she could not answer flickering in the depths of his hazel eyes.
"I came as soon as I felt you wake," he said, and she had to look away from the relief in his face, a relief that was stained by the memory of terrible grief. He wrapped his arms around her, and she felt the water spilling down her face once more as she returned the embrace. "I had almost given up hope that you would," he breathed, his large hand making tangles of her fiery hair as he leaned down and kissed her with all the fierceness of joy.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, not meeting his gaze. "It had to be done."
George lifted her chin, forcing her to look up at him. "Do you even realize what you've done?" he asked, "Do you even know how you did it?"
She shook her head slowly. "No," she confessed. "I didn't think…I didn't have time to think." She peered up at him, dread creeping onto her face as she continued. "I didn't have time to think what the repercussions might be…Has the fallout been terrible?"
George blew out his cheeks. "That's just it," he said, "as far as we can tell, there hasn't been any fallout. The Spring of Creation is gone, but we have all just continued on as we were before. Everyone is frantically scrambling to understand what you've done and what it might mean, but the Realms endure."
"And the mortal worlds?" she asked, bracing herself for the answer.
"Unchanged as well," he assured her. "If I hadn't been so worried that I'd lost you forever, I would have been impressed at all the harmless chaos you single-handedly concocted."
She shuttered at the word chaos, the memory of that great evil still raw in her consciousness.
She knelt in the place where it had begun, where it had ended, and wondered where it had gone wrong.
"Something must have changed," she murmured. "I am changed. I cannot believe there will be no further consequences."
She knelt until time ceased and eternity ended. And, she knew that—somewhere in this place of memory without time—she would always be kneeling here, facing the fate of the fate-less.
"We will deal with any repercussions as they come, if they come."
"If…" she repeated. "Then your Sight is still being blocked?"
"Yes," George growled, frustration flashing in his eyes. "You were right; it was not the Imp clouding my visions. Someone else has been working against us as well."
"I don't understand why," Alanna sighed, "we have always worked to benefit the worlds under our care—who would want to hinder us?"
"It is rather endearing how naïve you still are at times, despite all these centuries of experience." He grinned, teeth flashing in a feral smile. "Our mission from the first has always been to either eliminate or frustrate the games the others play with the lives of mortals," he reminded her. "With such an aim, is it any wonder that we have made enemies here in the Realms? Indeed, I think it miraculous that we have managed to retain what few allies we have."
Alanna frowned, glancing back at the pool.
"I fear we may have been even less successful in our venture than we had thought," she said. "Did you know?"
George blinked, uncomprehending. "Did I know what?"
"That the connection to Tortall remains unbroken," she said, gesturing at the pool.
"No," he breathed, the shock in his voice obvious. "It cannot be…Ana made her choice—the doors have been closed. Even hindered as I have been, I would know if the ways to that world were accessible."
Alanna shook her head. "At least one way remains open," she told him. "Though I do not know how it is possible, there is connection enough to observe, if not enough to make the crossing."
"What is to be done?"
A thoughtful look crept across Alanna's face. "Something I've been putting off for far too long," she said.
George refused to be left behind.
He tried unsuccessfully to convince her to delay the journey, his worry about her open and obvious in his words and manner as he urged to her wait until she understood more completely the changes which had occurred in her being. But when he saw that that her stubbornness remained unaltered by the trial she had borne, he quickly changed tact, and simply insisted on accompanying her.
The journey was not a short one, even by the standards of the Realms. There were no shortcuts along the road they walked—not even for Gods. Here was one place where the rules remained the same for Mortal and Immortal alike.
They walked together down the gray path as they had before, their hands clasped in companionable comfort as they followed the circuitous route through the featureless landscape of the Between. Others could occasionally be glimpsed on the road before and behind them, tired Mortals stumbling blindly towards their fate or furious Immortal folk propelled forward despite their desperate attempts to turn and flee the final destiny which had so long eluded them.
When the road finally fell away beneath their feet they stopped for a moment at the edge of the cliff, pausing to gaze out over the black sea. The waters glinted in the grey light, an endless expanse of ink and shadow that seemed to extend far beyond the expected line of the horizon—darkness flowing into darkness, confusing to the eye and mind as it spread before them.
They turned then, turned away from the path along the cliffs that would bring them back to the Divine Realms and the places they knew and frequented. Instead, they made their way in the opposite direction, until they came to the place where steep steps had been cut into the cliffs.
The steps were crafted for the stride of giants, but neither Alanna nor George hesitated or stumbled as they strode down the treacherous way towards the small beach which lay at the bottom.
They stood on the black sands, their fingers woven into a single fist as they listened to the muted lap of the dark water against the shore. They did not speak as they waited, both of them straining to hear the tell-tale noise which would signal the beginning of a dangerous voyage from which they might very well not return—it was the risk they took in coming here, the gamble necessary to obtain the audience which they sought.
A quiet sound intruded on their grim reveries, the gentle repetitions growing gradually louder and louder as something approached the place where they waited.
It was the sound of oars, a slow beat of splashes steadily stirring the black waters.
A small vessel resolved itself before their expectant eyes, its weathered boards just large enough for the pair of passengers waiting on the shore. The hooded pilot docked the oars with practiced ease as the boat slid silently onto the black beach, the sands seeming to part beneath the barnacle-encrusted bow until it came to rest only a step away from where they stood, hand-in-hand.
The pilot rose from his perch in the aft, throwing back his hood to reveal a face of indeterminably antique provenance. He leaned heavily on a tall staff, the layered lines on his face inscrutable as he stared at them with eyes clouded with ancient cataracts.
A single coin flashed and glittered as George flicked it at the ferryman. The old man plucked the spinning coin from the air with uncanny grace, turning it in his gnarled fingers briefly before bringing it up to his mouth and biting it with expert efficiency.
"The smile of your first-born," the ferryman grated, his voice as pitted and wizened as the head which dipped in a short nod. "It is payment enough for the crossing," he continued, and the coin disappeared into the depths of his robes.
Alanna held up another coin. "The scent of my mother's love," she said. "For the return."
The old man looked at her for a long moment, his face unreadable. Then slowly, he shook his head.
"Only for that one," he said, raising a crooked finger to point at George. "You are no longer as you were," he told Alanna, "That which once allowed for your return by this path has left your being—I can only carry you now as I would any other."
George made an angry noise in his throat. "Enough," he growled, an unspoken threat glinting in his eyes. "Tell us your price for bringing her back, ferryman."
Colorless eyes turned to stare into furious hazel ones. "I cannot be bribed," the boat-man intoned, his face and tone utterly devoid of emotion. "Nor can I be harmed by the violence you threaten, young Godling. No payment can replace that which has passed beyond this plane."
Alanna took a step forward. "There must be a way," she insisted, "There must be some way for me to return from the Realms beyond."
"If you are to return," the ferryman said, "it will not be by this path. It is beyond my power to return you to these shores as you are now."
"Then it is possible," she pressed, "The means does exist?"
The old man considered. "Perhaps," he said finally.
"Alanna," George burst out, "Cease this folly! It is not worth the risk…" he trailed off, his face brimming with anguish as he seized her suddenly in a frantic embrace. "I cannot bear it!" he cried, clutching her closely. "I cannot lose you, not now…not after…" He drew in a ragged breath. "Please," he whispered, "don't do this—not again…"
She was crying once more, helplessly sobbing into George's chest despite herself. Even overcome as she was by her conflicting emotions, she still had detachment enough to recognize that her tears were a symptom of her new state—no true God had so little control over their bodily reactions. The ferryman was right; she had given more of herself to that other plane than she'd initially understood. She was not as she had been before: she had been broken and remade, the pieces of herself twisted and warped in the process.
She looked up at him, suddenly terrified at the thought of what she had become—of what it might mean, for herself, for him, for their existence from this moment forward.
"What have I done?" she choked, "What am I now? What have I become?"
"You're Alanna," George told her, the tenderness in his words nearly palpable. "My Alanna. Stubborn, wonderful, brave, beautiful Alanna," he said. "Love of my life eternal, Lioness of my heart and spirit, Goddess of my every existence."
"George," she whispered, horrified at the idea which had finally taken root in her consciousness, an inkling which had been gradually growing in her awareness ever since she had first woken to find herself an altered being. "The price I paid—the sacrifice…what I lost…" She gulped, swallowing the sob which threatened to rise in her throat. "Am I mortal now?"
She did not really expect an answer to her question, so she was surprised and gratified when she was granted one—and from a most unlikely party.
"No," said the ferryman, and for the first time some emotion could be discerned in his aged voice. "No," he repeated and she thought she recognized pity underscoring that single syllable—though, when he continued, she wondered if she'd been mistaken. "Not mortal," he said, "but not Goddess either. You are neither now, yet immortal you remain."
"My powers?" she asked, already knowing what the answer must be.
"Gone," he told her, "If not already, then soon."
Alanna's eyes were locked on the ferryman's, and for an instant she saw something written in the lines of his decrepit face that sparked in her breast a tiny flame of hope for her future. In that moment, she thought she glimpsed a knowing sympathy flickering in the depths of his rheumy gaze, a compassion of complete understanding that hinted at truths learned from painful personal experience.
She saw something else as well, something hidden in the ferryman's gaze that she could never be certain of, but which nevertheless served to harden her determination in the face of her daunting task.
I will adapt to this new shape of being, she thought, as I have done before.
It would be difficult, she knew, terribly difficult—but she would adapt. She had no choice but to adapt.
And perhaps, she thought, studying the ferryman's enigmatic features, perhaps there are new powers waiting to be discovered—powers known only to those who were once Gods.
"I will return your fee," the ferryman said, producing the coin in which they'd stored the memory of a long-dead child's grin.
"No," said Alanna, and in her voice was all the strength and certainty of a warrior, a Champion—a Goddess of the Realms. "We shall make the crossing."
George was frowning, but he must have seen something in his lover's face that stayed the arguments and pleas which rose in his throat like acrid bile. He stroked her cheek with a hand scarred with an eternity of experience, and though his jaw clenched in unhappy apprehension, he voiced no objection to her resolution, nor moved to intercede as she stepped forward and climbed into the waiting vessel. He followed her mutely, but as he took his place on the bench beside her, he could not help but wrap his arm around her slim form, his trembling fingers lodging their anxious protests against the skin of her hip.
The crossing lasted a lifetime, or perhaps it only seemed so to one of them, impatient to arrive and finally seek out the answers to questions long pondered—to prove that there had been and would continue to be a purpose to their enduring existence. For the other, the voyage seemed to last only seconds, precious moments of safety and certainty slipping away like sand grains through a broken hour glass, as a dreaded destiny loomed closer with every rise and fall of the oars.
Neither spoke, nor tried to speak. They each knew what the other would say to any statement they might make; words were unnecessary—they communicated everything they needed to express through touch and taste, finger and face. She apologized for her stubborn pride in the twist of her lips and the tilt of her chin; he forgave her with the shrug of his shoulders and the shine in his eyes. And when the boat slipped silently into its mooring, there was no more tension lying between them.
United again in thought and purpose, they alighted onto a long dock which disappeared into a wall of white fog. As one, they turned to the ferryman, who regarded them with hooded eyes. "I will return as she returns," George said simply, and the old man bowed his head in acknowledgement, his oars already lifting to begin the journey back across the dark sea.
They watched until the boat was obscured by shadow, then turned toward the waiting wall of fog.
A figure slowly emerged from the mist, the light from a solitary lantern illuminating tendrils of vapor which swirled and parted to reveal a familiar face.
"Welcome," cackled the Graveyard Hag, "to the Peaceful Realms."
The lantern bobbed on its pole, its glow barely penetrating the thick fog which enveloped them on all sides. The dim light was insufficient to banish the shadows and mist that swirled around their feet, and Alanna and George took turns stumbling as they did their best to keep up with the diminutive Goddess who scurried across the rocky ground without any appearance of difficulty.
Then, without any trace or warning, they broke free of the fog, staggering for several steps before their feet caught up with their eyes.
A city loomed before them, a city rumored to exist in the lore and legends of every known world. A city seen only by the dead and known only to the living through the anguished cries of dying men. The City of Souls, its buildings and towers built from basalt and obsidian and its streets paved with skulls.
"You are not the guide I was expecting," George said, his conversational tone belied by the worry that danced in his eyes and the frown that pulled at his lips as he stared at cityscape sprawling before them.
The Graveyard Hag snickered, her eyes nearly disappearing into her wrinkles as she laughed. "The Seer is surprised," she noted slyly, "Got something in your eye, do you?" She winked at George. "Or perhaps I should say, someone."
"What do you know of it?" Alanna demanded.
The Hag turned to look at her appraisingly, then she patted Alanna's arm with every appearance of affection. "The Lioness still has her teeth, I see," she said lightly, but her eyes were full of knowing pity. "I don't need the Sight to see what you've lost, poor dear. But your handsome friend is another matter entirely—too many potential culprits to know from which quarter he's getting interfered with from one moment to the next. Telling though that you're still stymied here on these shores," she added, a canny glint in her eye. "There's not many whose influence can penetrate this far into the Black God's Realm—you've made a mighty enemy, my chickens."
Alanna and George shared a long look. They'd had their suspicions, but the Hag's insight confirmed what they'd worried was true.
Mighty indeed, Alanna thought, despairing. From the gloomy cast to his eyes, George was entertaining a similar thought.
There were only nine Gods with such power—and one of them was the Black God himself. If He had cast his lot against them, then their fate was already sealed. They would never leave these shores, doomed to forever wander among the dead.
The others were harder to contemplate, if easier to comprehend. Father Universe and Mother Flame could be discarded as suspects: they seldom intervened in the lives of their lesser brethren, but when they did, they always made their movements openly—a reprimand or punishment could not be effective if its reasons were not known to the parties involved. So too, could they discount the Smith's God. His temper was famed throughout the Divine Realms; if you were the object of a grudge then you knew it. The Dream King could be eliminated as well. Gainel had, from the first, been one of their strongest and most steadfast allies. Kyprioth was similar in that regard, though the Trickster was known to be a volatile friend, and if you inadvertently offended him there was no telling how far he'd go to exact revenge. But Alanna highly doubted that Kyprioth was behind George's blocked Sight—George was basically Kyprioth's prodigy. Between the Greater God and the Lesser were too many centuries of friendship for a betrayal of such magnitude to go unremarked.
That left three Gods—the three who Ana had already feared might well be behind George's newly developed handicap. Indeed, all three of them had ample reason to be upset at the two of them. They had only very recently spoiled the long-running plans of Mithros and the Great Mother with their maneuvering to close the way between the Realms and the Tortallan Universe once more. It would be understandable, if not desirable, that one of the two Great Ones had decided to hold the turn of events against them.
But the Goddess Alanna suspected—and feared—the most, was Uusoae, ruler of the Chaos Realms.
Alanna had a good reason to fear Uusoae, perhaps now more than ever.
She had, after all, just murdered one of Her children.
Not to mention the one she'd killed directly before her ascension to Godhood, nor the one her heir had offed down in Tortall not all that long ago.
Yes, Uusoae definitely had reason enough to wish them ill.
Maybe it was better to hope that the Black God had gotten down off his high horse and decided to tangle with the peasants for once. At least if they were stuck in the Peaceful Realms for the rest of eternity they'd have lots of time to catch up with all of their descendants.
The Graveyard Hag was cackling again, clearly tickled to have delivered such grim tidings to the unlucky couple.
Alanna crossed her arms, her eyes narrowing as she watched the Hag chuckle.
"You never answered George's question," she prompted.
The Hag just grinned. "He never asked a question," she retorted.
George sighed. "Technically true," he admitted. "But the sentiment was there. Why did you come to guide us? Why wasn't it the one we called? And why in the name of all that is good and mighty," he blurted angrily, "have you brought us here?"
"Ah," the Graveyard Hag said, her eyes twinkling with secrets. "It galls you to have to ask, doesn't it? You hate not already knowing. Oh—sheath your claws, she-cat!" she said, pointing a clawed finger at Alanna's open mouth, "Your mate can take the teasing. And yes, I sent away the one you'd called to meet you, but don't fear, you'll see him soon enough.
"There's someone wants to speak with you first," the Hag informed them, glowing with gleeful mischief. "He's waiting for us up in the City."
Alanna and George exchanged another extended look.
They'd expected it, of course. There was only one God in all the Realms who could order the Graveyard Hag to do anything with a reasonable amount of certainty that she would actually follow through and not deliberately distort or ignore her instructions—and He just happened to be the ruler of the Peaceful Realms.
"Well," said George, doing his best to sound cheerful, "It's probably best not to keep the Black God waiting."
The Graveyard Hag left them in the castle courtyard.
"Good luck, my chickens," she clucked in farewell. "I've always had a soft spot in my withered heart for you two lovers," she admitted, patting their hands with what could be mistaken for fondness. "Try not to stir things up too much; folks might start to expect things of you."
A moment later she was gone, leaving behind only the fading echo of her snickering laughter.
Alanna let out a lengthy sigh. "That old Hag drives me nuts," she muttered. "It's always cryptic statement this, cackle-cackle that with her."
George smiled as he lifted his shoulders in a gentle shrug. "I don't know," he said pensively, "I've always been kind of fond of her. It's hard not to find her endearing."
"I know," complained Alanna, a small smile hovering about her lips, "that's what makes her so annoying."
The smile lasted the entire way across the courtyard, but it faded as they made their way up the tall staircase that led to the colossal castle which dominated the City of Souls. The castle was built on a scale much vaster than that of ordinary humanity and it seemed to Alanna that the stairs seemed to stretch up until they should have merged with the sky—if there had been a sky in this place, which there did not seem to be. The light was the constant dimness of dusk newly fallen, never changing or wavering in the slightest. She squinted into the hazy light, trying to distinguish where down became up and land transmuted to sky. By the time they reached the top of the stairs and faced the massive doors that led to the inner halls, Alanna was panting a little at the exertion but she still could not find the line of the horizon. There simply was no discernible difference between what lay below and what lay above.
She did not hesitate as the doors swung silently open at their approach. She marched on with dogged determination, George keeping pace with effortless ease.
There was only a single room behind the gigantic doors, a single room with curving walls that extended in a vast circle. And, like all the walls in the City of Souls, they whispered. Muted voices muttered and burbled, the sound echoing and overlapping, amplified by the enormous chamber until it seemed they were surrounded by an invisible multitude.
It was almost enough to drive one mad, the way ear and mind caught only the tiniest fragments of conversations. A child's innocent laughter, falling away into a strangled cry, overwhelmed by sharp words in some unknown language, only to be replaced by more voices—voices strange and foreign, voices sad, voices angry, voices achingly familiar.
And then the voices stopped, and Alanna thought she really would go mad at the sudden silence.
A tall figure stood before them, face and feature obscured by hood and robe, but there was no mistaking the power of that presence, nor the slight chill which raised goose pimples across the skin of her arms.
The Black God spoke.
"Why have you entered my Realms, Imp-slayer? The children of Chaos cannot penetrate my halls; there is nothing for you here, no reason that I can see for you to have risked the crossing."
Alanna gasped at the sound of His voice, but it was a sound of surprise only. She felt no instinctive fear that must be suppressed, no need to recoil from Great God's voice, no need to shield herself with her own power, to fight back against the authority exuded in His every word.
The speech of the Great God held no power over her anymore.
George mistook her reaction, and though his fists were clenched with the tension of neutralizing the force of the Black God's voice without her power to aid him, he answered with humble courtesy.
"We came to consult with one of your denizens, Great One," he said. "There is information he holds which may be vital to our cause."
The Black God made no move, the shadows beneath his hood remaining impenetrable, but from the way George's fingers twitched slightly, Alanna knew He had turned his attention away from her.
"Why should I aid you, Scion of Kyprioth?" the God inquired, "Your cause has brought nothing but conflict to the Realms of the Gods. Why should I risk the peace of my Realms to assist you who have been little more than a nuisance to we who keep the balance?"
"We do not ask for your aid," Alanna replied, her voice quiet but firm. "Only for your forbearance in allowing us to meet with one of your people."
"You ask more than you know," the Black God returned, "In the very act of coming here, you involved me in your affairs—you entered my Realms knowing full well you are no longer as you once were. You have not the means to return without my assistance. Assistance which will be seen as partisan by those of my brethren who oppose you." He paused, allowing the impact of his words to sink in.
"I am not pleased," He finished, somewhat unnecessarily, and George flinched at the words.
Alanna heard the fierce displeasure in the Black God's voice, but his power to inflict his influence on her was gone—lost when she had sacrificed her Godhood to keep the Chaos Realms at bay.
And perhaps she had imagined it, but she thought she heard something of the ferryman in the Black God's cadence.
"We are here now," she said, shrugging with every appearance of indifference. "If you had truly desired to maintain your neutrality you would never have allowed us to step foot on your shores. Now that we are here, you risk generating enemies with any move you make to help or hinder us." She took a step forward, peering into the shadowed cowl of the God's hood, her eyes searching the darkness for any sign of face or feature. "You must have known that those who stand against us would see support no matter your decision—by refusing to help us leave, you will be seen as sheltering us, keeping us safe from their influence."
"And," George added, instantly catching on to Alanna's line of reasoning, "You will make at least two of your brothers very upset if you keep us captive, or turn us over to those who would cause us harm."
The unnatural silence of the chamber pressed in on them as the Black God considered the two meddlesome souls who stood before Him.
"I do not relish getting dragged into the petty politics of my squabbling brethren," He said finally. "Like you, I care only for protecting the souls of mortal life. I respect the noble nature of your intentions, even though I despise the position your actions have placed me in.
"I will grant your boon, if only to honor the sacrifice made to me by one of your blood. But let this be the last favor you ask of me; let the debt between us be repaid, and your shadows never again darken my doorstep."
Alanna exchanged a puzzled glance with George, her eyes wide with the same mystified confusion that lit his own.
"I do not understand," she said, "the sacrifice you speak of—it is not the one that I made to repel Chaos from the Realms?"
"Ah," said the Black God, and they were both surprised to identify amusement in his lofty tones. "Kyprioth was right, you former-mortals do like to exaggerate the importance of your actions." As astonishing as the Black God's amused tone was, His laughter was far more startling and unexpected. "I care naught about your recent accomplishments in that minor dispute with my anarchic sister. No, the sacrifice I speak of was made by a mortal lass gifted with your blessing. I thought you knew of our bargain—I assumed as much when you utilized the connection through the Well of Gainel's Grief."
"Ana," Alanna gasped, even as George choked, "Impossible! She made her choice—the ways were closed."
There was no mistaking the entertained air of the Black God's posture, despite the concealing robes which continued to mask any sign of overt expression. He was clearly enjoying their shocked reactions.
"Yes," The Black God acknowledged, "She chose to give herself to death, to me. And then she chose to accept my offer, to delay her entrance into the Peaceful Realms in exchange for the opportunity to walk again in the world of her birth."
"But…" Alanna stammered, "You don't make deals. You never make deals."
"One soul for the rest," George whispered, understanding blooming in his mind. "You sent her back, so the rest of them could continue to come to you."
The Black God inclined his hooded head. "Yes," He said simply, "You were quite thorough in your mission to eliminate Divine influence from that particular universe. She would have been the last from that world to enter here. I could not consign those countless souls to the oblivion of the void, so I sent her back, carrying the connection to my Realms in her blood."
Tears welled once more in Alanna's eyes. "I had not thought," she whispered, and for the first time she felt a small measure of regret for the infant universe she had borne, for the fate of those who would only ever have one life to live in that God-free plane of existence.
George's hand crept into her own, squeezing in silent comfort. "We will take greater care in the future," he said, turning to face the Black God once more.
The Great One was gone, disapparated without notice or fanfare to continue on with whatever it was He had been doing before their unwanted intrusion into His halls.
But as the whispers began to swell once more from the dark walls of the chamber, they heard a quiet cough behind them that signaled they were not, in fact, alone.
Alanna whirled, crying out wordlessly as she rushed to embrace the figure silhouetted in the open doorway.
"Been a while," Thom grinned at George over his sister's shoulder, "I'd long given up hope for a letter, much less a visit!"
"Why haven't you come sooner?" Thom asked his sister as the trio make their way down the steps of the Black God's castle and began to thread their way through the soft susurrus of the City of Souls. "Your last visit was so brief, and you spent most of it pumping me for information. You hardly told me anything of what's been happening in Tortall, just promised to return soon with news."
"I'm sorry, Thom," said Alanna, threading her arm through her brothers as they walked through the city streets without aim or purpose. "I'm sorry I couldn't come sooner…I just…there were—"
"Yes, yes," Thom broke in impatiently, "I know. You were busy being an all-important Goddess. I forgive you, of course."
"Oh, Thom," Alanna said, glancing back at where George followed behind them. "So much has happened. I hardly know where to start."
"Start with my daughter," Thom prompted eagerly, "Tell me of Ana—everything else can wait."
So she told him, doing her best to recall every last detail as she related what she knew of Ana's story. She picked up right where she had left off, filling him in on his daughter's role in the battle with Scanra and the defeat of the Imp who led them. Then she told him of Ana's return to the Thaylian Empire, trying to be gentle as she broke the news that the Empress had been murdered by the bastard son of Conte.
She thought she was prepared for Thom's reaction to that revelation, but he surprised her.
"She is dead!" he cried, but it was not grief but anger that flashed across his face. "You knew!" he accused her, "You knew she was here in the Peaceful Realms, yet you gave no thought to informing me! You couldn't stop being a perfect Goddess long enough to be a decent sister—how could you?"
George stepped between them, matching Thom's fury as he snapped at his wife's twin. "If you could stop being self-absorbed for a single breath," he growled, glaring at the red-headed man, "you might have noticed that your sister is not the same as when you last saw her. She has sacrificed more than you could ever know to clean up the mess you begat," he spat. "So give me none of your ungrateful attitude."
Thom blinked at the furious God, his own anger dwindling away behind the force of George's defensive vehemence.
"Stop it, George," Alanna said, suppressing the sobs which wanted to rise in her throat. "He is right to chide me," she continued, "I had been a Goddess for so long that I forgot how to be anything else. I'm sorry Thom, you're perfectly right—I knew well what Empress meant to you, I could easily have taken the time to tell you she had passed beyond the mortal plane, but I was too absorbed in my own affairs to give it any thought."
"Had been," Thom repeated, stepping back to look more fully at his sister. "You said you 'had been a Goddess'…"
"The last Imp is dead," George informed him, his voice still tinged with the dregs of anger. "Alanna slew him, finally ending the invasion of Chaos that you started. But she had to sacrifice her very self to accomplish it."
"I'm not a Goddess anymore," Alanna whispered. "I don't know what I am."
Thom was staring at his sister, staring at her as if he was only now seeing her for the first time.
"I think there are others like you here," he said slowly, thoughtfully. "Not Gods, but not Mortals either."
"The ferryman?" Alanna asked.
Thom nodded. "He is one," he confirmed. "The Gatewarden is another."
"Gatewarden?" George asked, curious.
"Oh, of course." Thom shook his head, "You would not know—he dwells in a place where you cannot tread."
"I see," said George, somewhat grumpily.
Alanna laughed quietly. "Oh George," she sighed, "Don't take all your frustration out on poor Thom. It's not his fault that he's barred from telling us of the inner expanses of the Peaceful Realms—we gave up the opportunity to learn of those places when we accepted Immortality."
George just rolled his eyes.
"As much as I'd like to think you came just because you missed me," Thom said, "I have a feeling there was something else you wanted to ask me."
Alanna sighed. "Yes," she said quietly. "I need you to tell me how you did it—how it was you broke through the Realms and traveled to Thaylia."
Thom's brow wrinkled in confusion. "You already know everything," he said, "I've told you all of it before."
"I know," said Alanna, her voice low. "I need you to tell me once more. I need to hear it again. Everything."
"But…" Thom stammered, "Why? You said yourself—the last Imp is dead."
"Because," Alanna said, and her voice broke. She inhaled a shaky breath. "Because with George's Sight blocked…I need to know that it really is finished. I need to know that we haven't overlooked anything." Anything else, she amended silently to herself.
Thom turned a questioning glance at George, who nodded, his face serious.
"It was in my third year," Thom began, his voice growing stronger and steadier as he settled into his narration. "The third year after I began my studies in the City of the Gods. I was years ahead of my classmates, better than some of the masters, bored out of my mind with the curriculum they gave us. The entertainment of pretending to be an imbecile had worn thin years before—I had nothing to keep me occupied except my studies of magic. I began experimenting the Gift, following the lead of a few lines hinted at in several of the dusty tomes I discovered in a forgotten corner of one of the City's libraries…"
"The books," Alanna interjected, "We know they were destroyed?"
"Yes, my love." George reassured her. "I removed them myself, in the first century after our rebirth."
"Were there any others?" She asked Thom, "Others rumored of or referenced in the books you found?"
Thom cocked his head. "There was a reference in one Carthaki volume that sited a few books housed in the Emperor's Library—but you said you had already located those."
George nodded, "Yes, they were discovered and destroyed during the Immortals War."
Alanna shook her head, her brow furrowed in worry. "I'm sorry, Thom," she said, "Please, continue."
"Alright," Thom said, "Where was I? Ah, yes…experimenting with the Gift. I became obsessed with the idea that it was possible for a mortal mage to open a portal between the mundane world and the Divine Realms. I thought it would be the ultimate test of power, to be able to walk in the Realms of the Gods while still living.
"I'd been working on the problem for months, hardly sleeping at all—certain I was close to a breakthrough. I was so tired, I almost didn't realize it when I finally found the spell that worked. I thought I was hallucinating at first, but when I tried again the next day I was transported. The spell was still unstable though—I could only get through for seconds at a time before I was pulled back. I worked for another month trying to extend the duration of the trips, until it finally dawned on me that I had to dispense with the safeguards I had set up, the safeguards which kept my consciousness tethered to my body. That night I tried again, and when I opened my eyes I was there—in the Realms of the Gods.
"At first, I truly believed that I'd traveled to the Divine Realms, but it wasn't long before I realized my mistake. The Chaos Realms, like the beings that dwell there, have only a superficial beauty. I don't know exactly how long I wandered before the demons discovered me. My Gift didn't work on them at all, so they captured me easily. They brought me to the Imps, who interrogated me until I revealed to them how I had entered their Realms. I thought I was dead then, but they needed me. They could not work the spell themselves—mine was a Divine Gift, theirs that of Chaos. Ours magics are incompatible. So they forced me to work the spell on their behalf.
"I knew I could not let them enter our world, so I deliberately misspoke the words. I thought I would destroy myself, but I was wrong. It felt like the ground beneath my feet ripped, like a fist punching through thin fabric. And then, I was falling.
"I didn't fall far, but I fell hard," Thom paused in his tale, a small smile flickering across his face. "And I landed right in the middle of the Imperial Gardens, where the newly widowed Empress was taking air with her young children. I popped into existence right before her eyes and proceeded to face-plant directly into a patch of freshly fertilized petunias."
"Wait," Alanna said, hoarsely, "Go back. What was it you just said—about fabric?"
"Aww," complained Thom. "I was just getting to the really good part."
"You mean the part where the Empress throws you in prison?" George muttered wryly.
"It was only a few weeks," Thom said defensively, "Just until they figured out we could communicate in Carthaki—though their dialect was quite mangled…"
"Thom!" Alanna interjected.
"Sorry," her brother muttered, clearly unapologetic. "What was it you asked?"
"You said something about fabric ripping," she reminded him.
"I was trying to explain how it felt when the spell went wrong," Thom said, "It was a strange sensation. The best analogy I can think of is that of ripping fabric with your fingers."
"Thin fabric," Alanna said, recalling the exact words he'd used.
"What are you thinking?" George asked, noting the troubled look on her face.
"The rip," she murmured, "The rift between Realms that Thom opened over Thaylia—we were never able to locate it."
"It must have closed behind me," Thom said, "Just like with my first attempts at entering the Realms—otherwise, the Imps would have been able to cross over as well."
Alanna was shaking her head slowly. "What if that wasn't it at all? What there never was a rift? If the veil is naturally thin there, then your spell may have allowed you to slip through without breaking the bounds—like a single drop of water seeps through thin fabric."
"Your return," she said abruptly, "You said it was an accident?"
Thom blinked, then nodded. "Yes," he said quietly. "I had no intention of returning to Tortall. I honestly didn't think it was possible, but even if I had, I would never have left willingly." He paused, his ghostly eyes staring into the distance. "I'd never been happier in my life—I did love Camille, but it was Ana who was my true joy. If I'd have known…I would never have left her!"
George put a hand on the shorter man's shoulder. "We know, Thom," he said, with quiet sympathy, "She holds a special place in all of our hearts. We know you did not abandon her voluntarily."
"I wasn't trying to leave," Thom muttered, "I was just trying to figure out how to use my Gift freely. I spent almost five years in Thaylia, and for most of those years I barely had any use of my Gift. It took me almost a year before I was able to pin-point the source of the interference—namely, the presence or taint of artificial electricity—and then I started attempting to figure out ways to shield myself from its effects.
"It was a hot summer day," he continued, "and, as sometimes happens on such days, the electrical supply was unstable—surging and falling by turns. I took advantage of the dips and rises in the power to play with my Gift, trying to see how much magic I could channel at a given moment. I'd never been able to utilize the full extent of my Gift, but that day I finally felt like the mage I was. I remember the feeling of channeling my magic, even as I felt the pressure from an electrical surge rising…And then I was falling again, just as before. I knew immediately what had happened that time, knew that I was back in Chaos. So I ran, I ran and I yelled the spell which had brought me there originally.
"I woke up somewhere in Tortall, nowhere near the City of the Gods. But when I woke, Mithros was already there—waiting for me."
"Convenient," George muttered. "Too convenient, in my view."
"What I've never understood," Alanna said, "is why He took your memory of that period."
"I've had a lot of time to think about it," Thom said quietly. "I think He knew—or guessed, that I would have abandoned my experiments with the Gift if I had retained any memory of my trip through Chaos. Having experienced the horror of those Realms first hand, I would never have risked unleashing Chaos into our world—even if it meant I could return to Thaylia and the loved ones I'd lost. It was only pure chance that I did not rediscover the way from the notes I had already made on the subject."
"Though others did," George said grimly.
"Let me guess," Alanna said. "The day you returned—you were sitting in the Imperial Gardens? Near to where you'd originally come through?"
Thom nodded, "Yes," he said, "I was. You think that might be why I was suddenly pulled back? Something about that location which caused me to reenter the Chaos Realms, even without the trigger spell?"
"I think," Alanna began, hesitantly. "I think it is something that must be considered. Perhaps we have been giving Mithros too much credit for his role in your return."
She reached out to put a hand on her brother's shoulder, but her fingers passed through his form without stopping or hesitating.
"Ah," Thom said, holding up a hand which had suddenly become insubstantial. "Our time grows short," he said, "I must return."
"Can't you stay just a few minutes more?" Alanna pleaded. "I never got to finish telling you of Ana—you're a grandfather now."
Thom shook his head. "I cannot," he said, "I can already hear the call—I will be pulled back very soon whether I will it or not. But don't fret," he grinned at his sister, "You can tell me all about my grandchildren when you visit next. Just try not to stay away so long this time! I hate it when you leave me in suspense."
"Oh, Thom!" Alanna cried, tears springing to her eyes. "I can't—I cannot return. Not anymore, not as I am now."
She reached out to him again, but he was already fading, a phantom vanishing into the mist.
Her last glimpse of her brother was of the stricken look on his face, of his mouth opening to make some final farewell, but then he was gone, and she was alone with the knowledge that she would never see his face again.
George caught her as she collapsed, her soft sobs muted by the hard plane of his chest. He stroked her hair, once more murmuring meaningless comforts that he knew could never console the grief of such a parting.
"I'm sorry," she said, when the storm of tears had ebbed enough to allow her to speak once more. "I can't remember ever being so quick to cry—I don't think I've ever burst into tears as frequently as I have recently."
"I don't know," George said, grinning down at her crookedly, "I seem to remember that sobbing sessions were a regular occurrence during certain periods of your pregnancies." He squeezed her in tender sympathy, cradling her smaller form in his warm embrace. "But you need not apologize to me, my love," he added gently, "I cannot imagine what you are going through right now, but I can guess that it is not an easy transition. Do not be so quick to judge yourself—you will adjust to the changes in time."
"I feel like a puppet," Alanna admitted, abashed at her lack of self-restraint, "pulled in this direction or that by the strings of my emotions. I had forgotten how unruly they can be."
"I had not realized how dull my own experience had become until I first saw the tears shining on your face," George confessed with quiet candor. "The emotional lives of Gods are lackluster indeed in comparison; it is a great pity that we who hold such sway over the lives of mortals cannot feel as clearly and intensely as they do."
"Some things carry through," Alanna said, glad that there was some comfort she could give. "My love for you was never dimmed during the transformation—I know because it is as strong and steady now as it has ever been." She laughed quietly, "It just has more competition now for my immediate awareness."
George smiled as he squeezed her gently again, then they turned their attention to their surroundings once more.
They stood in the shadow of the city gates, their aimless wandering with Thom having taken them all the way back along the same route with which they had followed the Graveyard Hag.
No one was waiting for them when they stepped through the gates to the City of Souls, but as they approached the white sea of fog, a ghostly light flared before their eyes, illuminating a silvery path which wound away into the murky distance. The fog parted as they set their feet on the glittering road, the mist halting abruptly just beyond the path's edges, until it seemed as if they walked at the bottom of a great abyss, the white walls of fog extending upwards in an infinite line too vast to trace.
Neither could have said for how long they walked that spectral way before their eyes began to discern a gradually lessening of the surrounding miasma. It may have been mere moments or it may have been many millennia later when the last tendrils of vapor faded and they found themselves walking along the edge of a cliff that looked out over a boundless black sea.
They spoke little during the return journey, each preoccupied with their own private thoughts and worries. They had no need to consult about where they would go, for both knew well where it was they must travel now. And it was only when they had completed, once more, that final interminably infinite crossing that their hands ever ceased to touch for a single instant.
George stepped forward, his hand pulling free from Alanna's as he knelt before the small pool that lay at the heart of their home-place. She waited patiently as he gazed into the oracular waters, her hands unconsciously curling into fists as her thoughts cycled through the things they had learned on their excursion into the Peaceful Realms.
Something was bothering her—the niggling feeling of having overlooked some vital fact had only intensified since she had last stood in this cavern, an uneasiness which had only been compounded with every subsequent interlude after her awakening. But as she watched and waited for George to turn from the pool—or the Well of Gainel's Grief, as the Black God had named it—an image abruptly surfaced in her mind.
"…my task is already completed." The Imp laughed in her memory.
"My task," she murmured, her brow furrowed as she tried to consider the Imp's words in a new light.
"Tell me your thoughts," George said, rising to face her.
She looked up at him, blinking at the disruption of her musing. The thread of her thinking was lost, and she sighed in frustration.
"I just can't escape the feeling that we've missed something important—something that should be obvious, but…isn't." She shook her head, angry at feeling so helpless. "Did you have any luck with the Well?" she asked, hoping he could provide the clues they needed.
"Little enough," George said, sighing in turn. "Even with the assistance of the water, I can only catch glimpses—tiny fragments of this and that. A throne made from bones and teeth. A wailing Harpy. A circle of white stones. The clearest image was that of a desert, where the sands were washing over a convoy of horseless carriages—like the ones we saw in the streets of the Thaylian City."
"Something has always bothered me about the Thaylian technology," Alanna said. "The way that it interferes with the Gift and vice versa, it doesn't seem natural."
"But there is precedent," George said, "After all, Chaos magic and Divine magic cancel each other out in a similar fashion."
"Exactly," Alanna breathed, with sudden insight. "Exactly. I don't know why I've never made the connection before."
George frowned. "You think that the Chaos Realms had some hand in helping the Thaylians develop their technology?"
"No," she said, "Not directly or consciously. We would have known if that were the case. But if the veil is indeed thin between the Chaos Realms and the Thaylian Empire then who knows what may have seeped through the cracks over the millennia. If there is an element of Chaos at the core of Thaylian inventions it would explain the interference with the Gift perfectly." Her eyes widened as another thought occurred to her, "It might even explain how easily Ana was able to penetrate the barriers to channeling the Gift within the Thaylian City—if the taint of Chaos is also to be found in the people themselves, then she would carry it as well."
"Even so," George said, crossing his arms skeptically, "I don't think that explanation fully accounts for Thom's little escapade. I can comprehend the location variance between where Thom entered and left Chaos," he said. "I can even accept that the dissonant interaction between the Gift and Thaylian tech caused some sort of feedback which reactivated Thom's spell—but what I've never been able to understand is the time anomaly. Don't forget—we always assumed that he'd landed in another universe entirely; that the child he fathered was in a completely different world from the one we were born to. It wasn't until Marcus and Li Dubyn reopened the ways that we discovered that Ana did indeed live in that world."
"That's it," Alanna whispered, "That's what has been nagging me—that's what we missed."
George looked at her, his eyes communicating his question.
"How did he know?" Alanna continued. "How did he know how to reopen the ways to the Divine Realms? How did Marcus learn of it at all? We worked so hard to destroy all knowledge of the portals between the Realms…so where did he get his information?"
"You have a theory?" George asked.
She shook her head, but it signal of frustration rather than negation. "We destroyed all the books known to contain any reference to the ways in Tortall, and he could not have received any assistance from anyone in the Divine Realms at that time—even you were barred from entry into that world before Marcus broke through again. So his knowledge must have come from somewhere else."
"You think Marcus had contact with someone in the Chaos Realms before he let Li Dubyn through?"
Alanna nodded. "It's the only source that makes sense. And maybe it better explains why Li Dubyn left the Divine Realms and reentered that world."
"Of course," said George, the pieces falling into place in his mind. "He didn't go back for revenge. He went back to be the bridge! The Chaos Realms were severed from direct contact with the Divine Realms after that scheme Aly averted in the Copper Isles—"
"But," Alanna continued, her mind racing through the implications, "If a direct connection to Chaos could be made through one of the mortal worlds…"
"Then they could send through an army," George finished grimly. "They could invade the Divine Realms without triggering any of the safeguards."
They stared at each other, momentarily paralyzed by the magnitude of their revelation.
"We must alert the others," George said soberly, "If they have attempted it once, then they will no doubt do so again."
"What about Ana?" Alanna wondered, worried. "What about Tortall? The ways between the Divine Realms and their world were closed, but if their world was connected to Chaos as well, then that connection might very well still remain."
"We cannot interfere," George said, a solemn sadness lingering in his voice. "We gave up that power to prevent its misuse—they shall have to stand on their own. But," he added, "Perhaps the minions of Chaos will leave their world alone now that there is no chance they can break through into the Divine Realms from that plane."
"We can't fight with them," Alanna said, an idea dawning as she stared at the waters glinting in the little pool, "But perhaps we can warn them."
"Warn them?" George questioned, "How?"
"Gainel." Alanna answered, infusing the warmth of hope into each syllable of their ally's name. "I think it's time to let the Dream King do what he does best."
He woke abruptly in the wee hours of the morning, eyes snapping open with the instant alertness of adrenaline.
The dream was still vivid in his memory, the scenes he'd witnessed as crisp and vibrant as if he'd just lived them. His heart still raced, his blood pumping furiously in reaction to phantom threats, his muscles aching for action—for the release of movement, of purpose, of battle brought to bear against the menace lurking in the recesses of mind and memory.
It had been years since he'd last dreamed one of those dreams, but not so long that he did not recognize the signs.
Will glanced over at the way Ana's head was pillowed in the hollow between his shoulder and chest, wondering at how she could sleep through the thunderous racket his heart was currently making. His body was telling him to run, to fight, to scream, but he took his time extracting himself from his wife's arms, quietly and gently rearranging her until she was curled comfortably into the pillows and he was free to vacate the bed.
He paused for an extended moment to stretch, gradually working out the tension in his muscles as he took slow, deep breaths. He continued until the frantic beat of his heart had slowed to match the steady rhythm of his breathing, then he left the bedside and his sleeping wife, walking through his darkened rooms with the ease of familiar habit until he came to his study.
It took him several minutes to locate the battered journal which housed his most private of missives; he'd forgotten in which of his many hiding places he'd stashed the little book of dreams. Finally, he found it lurking behind the false wall of the mantle-piece, half-buried beneath a pile of poetry that should have been burned long before.
He flicked his fingers at the grate, taking the time to feed a few pages of the most offending verse to the fire that had sparked at his gesture. Then he replaced the false front of the mantle and turned to his desk, sending several more sparks of blue fire in the direction of the various lamps strewn about the room. He seated himself behind the desk, pressing his index finger into the runes scrawled on the front cover of the journal. They glowed for a moment, then the latch unsealed itself and the book fell open to the first blank page. Will grabbed a fresh quill, twirling it thoughtfully as he stared at the blank page for several seconds. Then he swiftly inked his pen and began to write.
Two storms collide over a ruined City—the broken windows of vacant skyscrapers reflect the lightning that streaks down to strike streets littered with the dead, the rotting corpses half buried in broken buildings and broken pavement. Gunshots echo in the boom of thunder, as hooded men emerge from shattered doorways to creep down the alleys toward the gates of a palace with walls running red with blood. They flinch as the thunderheads begin to wage war over their heads, sending down sharp spears of ice and jagged fire in turn. They cringe, but they continue to thread their way through the palace grounds, huddling into their robes as they step over the splintered husks of once-powerful machines. Before their cowering eyes, a lovely garden blooms in the midst of chaos and war, the lush greenery and colorful flowers stark against the ugliness of the forsaken City. The men shout as they stumble forward, fighting each other to be the first to step foot on the sweet green grass.
A great throne sits in the middle of the garden, a throne that shines brilliantly in the harsh light of the storms which clash directly overhead, swirling in a furious assault of elemental anger. The throne seems empty, when seen directly, but by looking away one sees at the corner of one's eyes a very different scene—a woman of great and terrible beauty laughing on a throne of bones and teeth, while the trembling men throw back their hoods to reveal faces burned and bloody, their sharp teeth glinting in the darkness between the feral flashes of lightning.
Then the sky opens up and the rain falls in sheets, in torrents, in gushing floodwaters which wash away the gore and the horror and the phantom figures surrounding the throne, until the City itself sinks into the bottomless sea.
I stand and watch as the waters close over the top of the tallest tower, and then I am walking the streets of Ithsma once more, watching a banana vendor hand a ripe fruit to a girl with red hair and laughing violet eyes. Ana turns to me, holding out the fruit, but as I take it—it transforms, and my fingers grasp the handle of a pistol, its barrel pointed at my wife's heart.
Will's pen stuttered to a halt, his fingers trembling too much for him to continue.
He set the quill down on his desk, running both hands through his hair as the last scene of his dream played out in his memory.
He threw the gun to the ground, stumbling back in horror. A line of fire opened up across his cheek as a bullet blazed past him, aimed at the place he'd been standing seconds earlier.
Smoke drifted from the barrel of the second pistol. He lifted his gaze to stare in disbelief at the woman who held the smoking gun, then Ana raised her arm and pulled the trigger once more.
He stared directly into her ruthless amethyst eyes as the bullet sailed between them and ripped across his other cheek as it streaked past him. He felt the blood weeping from his twin wounds as he turned slowly to look behind his back.
Two demons lay bleeding out into the dust, flies already starting to gather as Stormwings jeered at them from where they circled in the air above.
Will pushed his chair back, giving in to the restless need to pace as he pondered the possible meanings behind the dream. He circled around the room, then, with muffled cry of frustration at the suddenly stifling atmosphere of the small space, he strode to the glass doors of the balcony and threw them open.
The fresh air washed over him, cooling the hot flare of his anxious worry with the sweet smell of late summer. He felt the tension in his body beginning to relax once more as he stepped out into the pre-dawn stillness and looked out over the landscape that he loved with every fiber of his being.
He thought, then, that he recognized the two-fold warning that had been sent to him that night. The caution that had come to him identified at least separate two hazards that he could distinguish—one, which he could observe but not control, as he could not control the summer storms which rolled in from the Western Sea to rage across the coastal hills until their fury was spent. He could only hope that the forces that clashed in the Realms beyond his own would not let their conflict spill over into this world once more, and pray that their allies and friends might prevail in the struggle, so that the lingering taint could be washed clean from these lands.
The second hazard was harder to elucidate, but the warning was obvious.
I must not doubt, he thought, I must hold tightly to my trust in Ana, even if it means going against my own instincts. It may be that I am wounded in the process, but whatever comes we shall prevail.
The thought was oddly comforting.
And though the air was crisp with the promise of the autumn to come, Will sat outside on his balcony and watched the sunrise. He was wearing naught but his small-clothes, yet the cold morning did not seem to penetrate him as he smiled at the colors before his eyes. It was one of the most beautiful sunrises he had yet seen, the various yellows, oranges, reds, and pinks seemed to stretch across the sky and reach out to him.
The city below him seemed devoid of life; Corus was recovering from the celebration of the night before by sleeping in late. There would be little or no work done today, as most people were too exhausted to go about their daily routine.
But that was nothing unusual. The day after the birthday of the prince was always a slow one, in both the palace and the city.
"Daddy?" came a small voice from behind him. Will turned to see his three-year-old son standing in the doorway to the balcony.
"Terrance, what are you doing up this early?" Will asked, holding out his arms. The toddler ran into them and Will picked him up.
"I woke up and there was a dragon in my room!" said Terrance, his huge amethyst eyes as wide as they could go.
Will chuckled, his son was well known for the tales he spun. "A dragon you say? Did it try and eat you up?"
Terrance shook his head, his black curls bouncing. "It's a baby dragon."
"A baby dragon!" Will said, "I've never seen a baby dragon! Should I go see it?"
Terrance nodded, and stuck his thumb in his mouth.
"First I better get dressed, and then I should tell mommy where we are going. We wouldn't want her mad at us would we?"
Eyes wide, Terrance shook his head. "Don't want mommy mad," he said, around his thumb.
Will laughed. "You're a smart lad. Keep that in mind when you're dealing with your own future wife."
Carrying his son, he went inside and into his bedroom. "Why don't you wake up mommy," he whispered to Terrance, who nodded very seriously. "But do it real gently."
"Don't want mommy mad," the young prince said. Will grinned, setting his son down on the bed, then turned to his wardrobe. The boy crawled over to where his mother lay and very gently shook her. "Wake up mommy," he said, "there's a dragon in my room."
Ana sighed softly and turned over. "What nonsense story have you fed your father this time, Ter?" she asked, ruffling the boy's hair fondly.
"Apparently there's a dragon in his room," Will informed her. He pulled on a pair of breeches. "We are going to check it out."
"It's a baby dragon." Terrance said solemnly.
Ana grinned at her son, and ruffled his hair again. "A baby dragon, eh? Maybe I'll come and see it in a little while."
"Ter, why don't you wait outside," Will said, "I'll be there in a moment."
Terrance nodded happily and sprang off the bed and out the door.
"You don't really think there's a dragon in his room, do you?" Ana asked.
Will smiled, and brushed a fiery lock out of her eyes. "No, but you know he won't be satisfied unless I check it out. Rather stubborn about that."
Ana laughed softly. "He takes after his father," she said, grinning lazily up at him. Will smiled back, then leaned down and kissed her softly.
"We won't be long," he whispered against her lips.
"Hurry back," she said.
Will couldn't help it; he kissed her again, deeply, and when he finally lifted his head to look into her laughing violet eyes, he realized he no longer had any fear left for his future—only the fire of determination to seek the best fate possible for his family and his country.
"Daddy!" Terrance yelled in exasperation.
Ana grinned. "You better go before he breaks something," she said, only to be rewarded with the sound of several large, heavy objects hitting the ground in the next room.
"Too late," Will muttered, but he was grinning as he said it. He turned to the door to the library, where he found his son sitting casually in one of the large, squashy chairs situated throughout the room. The innocent cast to Terrance's features flatly denied any involvement with the overturned table of books beside the chair where he sat, but Will didn't have the heart to scold him at the moment anyway.
Will shook his head, scooping up his too-innocent son into his arms.
"Point the way to the dragon, Captain!" He cried, then set off in a staccato march in the direction his littlest General pointed.
Later, Will realized he should have known something odd was going on the instant he and Terrance entered the nursery.
It was too quiet. Even at such an early hour, there were usually at least a couple cousins already up and banging about the main play area, but the nursery was utterly quiet as Will and Terrance made their way across the floor cluttered with toys and abandoned games to the prince's private bedroom.
They found the four youngest Silverlee children inside, whispering furiously to each other as they stood with their ears pressed against the doors of Terrance's wardrobe.
"What'd you do with my dragon?" Terrance yelled in three-year-old indignation as he squirmed out of Will's grip and tumbled into the midst of his older cousins.
The door to the wardrobe rattled ominously at the sound of Terrance's cry, causing the Silverlee kids to jump in fright, even as they fended off the feeble attack of the distraught toddler.
Will was there instantly, plucking his son away from his shrieking cousins as he waded into the tangle.
"Quiet." He ordered, the simple authority in his voice brooking no opposition. "Terrance—be still," he said to his struggling son, who deflated immediately at the unusual severity in his father's tone.
"Lily," Will said, singling out the oldest of the assembled. "Tell me what is going on here."
Lily's light blue eyes widened as the wardrobe gave another furious rattle and a distinctly unhappy wail was heard to originate from inside of it.
"Lily," Will prompted, patiently.
"Sorry, Uncle," she whispered. "We found it flapping about in the nursery when we came out this morning. We tried to catch it, but it bit Lan and flew into Terrance's bedroom." The littlest boy held up a finger as evidence to the truth of this statement. "We were watching it fly around his room for a long time, but then it crawled into the wardrobe so we ran in and slammed the door shut. We were trying to decide what to do about it when you came in."
"Meanies!" Terrance yelled, and the wardrobe gave an answering cry. Terrance looked up at his father. "Won't you let the dragon out?" he pleaded, "I'm sure he didn't mean it—he was just scared."
"Don't do it, uncle!" Lan cried, "It's definitely not a dragon."
Will sighed as another pathetic whine came from the wardrobe.
"Stand back," he told everyone. The Silverlee children obeyed instantly, retreating to the safety of the doorway as their uncle turned the latch of the wardrobe.
The creature that tumbled out was indeed, definitely not a dragon.
It was a demon.
A baby demon.
Will recoiled, clutching Terrance to his chest as he stumbled backwards in shock. The tiny demon righted itself, panting in fear as it lifted and lowered leathery wings that were awkwardly large for its diminutive body. It cowered away from them, its face that of a small child, though no human child ever had such a face—blacker than midnight and covered with a short layer of downy fuzz. But even with such foreign features, there was no mistaking the pinched look of terror on that tiny face.
The littlest girl screamed, running out into the nursery even as several of the older children and adults came to investigate the commotion.
"Dragon!" Terrance yelled happily, finally managing to wriggle his way out of his father's arms. Will made a grab for his son, but the boy moved with surprising speed toward the baby demon, his arms outstretched. Before anyone could make a move to react, Terrance was next to the creature, petting its head as he burbled nonsense reassurances. The demon closed its eyes, and a small but unmistakable smile crept onto its face.
"See, Daddy?" Terrance said, turning to grin happily at his thunderstruck parent. "He's nice!"
Later, when the commotion had died down somewhat, Will found himself locked in the Lesser Library with his five closest advisors for the second time in three days.
They all disagreed about what to do with the baby demon. As far as they could tell, it was a toddler—though whether or not it was an orphan remained an open question. It could not speak to tell them where it had come from, but from its young age they had to assume it had not traveled very far. No one could guess how it had gotten into the nursery, nor indeed how they had failed to notice the continuing existence of demons in their country. Yet, despite its heritage, it was an obviously pathetic creature, unable to cause more harm than a slight bruise even when terrified and backed into a corner. And it seemed to have formed an attachment to Terrance that appeared genuinely affectionate in nature.
Lucas thought it best to dispatch the creature as soon as possible, wary that it might turn on the prince or, worse, its parents would come along to collect it. Illieno agreed that the beast needed to disposed of, but argued it would be better to wait until it recovered, then set it loose and follow it back to the nest where there undoubtedly others of its foul kind. Darius was torn, his military instincts of preemptive action warring with his scholar's desire to continue to observe the interaction of fledgling demon with new people. He had already learned that the demon seemed to prefer certain people—particularly Ana and himself more than any other adult and was eager to continue with other experiments, but also understood the danger that keeping such a creature in their midst might bring. Lara was similarly torn, but for slightly different reasons. She was afraid for the children's safety, but she could also see that once they got over their fear and disgust, her children were as utterly fascinated as Terrance. Indeed, she suspected that—the youngest three anyway—were well on their way already to forming a serious attachment to the beast. But it was Ana who surprised them the most, arguing passionately as she did that the demon should not be harmed in any way, but, indeed, should be cared for and raised as best as they were able. She did her best to convince them that no creature—not even a creature of Chaos—is inherently evil, and thus the baby demon should be given a chance to live, a chance to take a different path for itself and, perhaps, that of all demonkind.
They deliberated for hours, each vehemently disagreeing with the others as they made their points and counter-points. Will stayed quiet as he listened to the debate rage, keeping his thoughts to himself as he let the others weigh the pros and cons of this tactic or that. Secretly, he knew that if he had come upon the demon alone, he would have dispatched it promptly without a second thought. But the sight of the pathetic creature folding its wings around his son as they snuggled on the floor for a mid-morning nap had given him pause enough to reconsider his initial reaction.
And as he listened to his wife plead once more for the cause of mercy—his wife, who had more reason than any of them to fear and despise demonkind—he could not help but remember the dream, and the counsel it had contained. He remembered the hardened look in her eyes as she looked directly into his face and pulled the trigger of the pistol, remembered the despair that had flooded him as he stood frozen in the bullet's path, and the utter relief of joy as he turned to see the dead demons she had shot to save him.
Will stood then, interrupting the on-going argument. He stood knowing what his decision would be, knowing that it would be an unpopular move, and very possibly a dangerous one. But he had always trusted in his dreams—they had led him to Ana, to the salvation of his home and country, and to a greater happiness than he could ever have imagined.
He had never failed to follow the path of his dreams, and he would not start now.
Somewhere in the Realms of the Gods, the once-Goddess sighed. The movement of her breath sent a ripple through the air. It sailed down, down until it reached a dark ocean, whirling in the eddies of the updraft before being hurled away from the tall cliffs of the coast. Her breath flowed on past the barren outskirts of the Between, following the gray road until it faded into murky dreamscapes where sudden storms of nightmares were known to blow up unexpectedly. And still it continued on. Past the wild forests where newly born Immortals emerged fully-formed into being, into the desert of the Dragon Lands. It blew on and on until it reached a dried up oasis at the edge of all things. In another turn of eternity the small pool had been called the Spring of Creation, but that name had been forgotten when the sweet waters and the Great Tree had passed into another existence.
Standing at the top of a sand dune, just outside the forsaken oasis, a small black cat felt the cool sigh of the Goddess-that-was on his face. He tasted the air with his small pink tongue, his half-lidded eyes showing just the slightest hint of violet as he savored the flavor of the wind.
The cat leapt casually down from the dune, padding with silent feet to the place where the waters had once flowed. He stepped gingerly over the hilt of a broken sword, then bounded suddenly to the very edge of the void, taking a moment to sit down and lick a few invisible stray hairs back into place on his front paws.
There was no sound, but some special feline-sense alerted the black cat. He looked up abruptly, sniffing the air briefly, then stretched with luxurious grace—his tail whipping out past the end of everything occasionally as he threaded his way along the edge toward the source of the silent noise. He stopped at a place that looked exactly the same as any other, but he must have seen something worth watching for he crouched down and waited, his tail twitching back and forth as if with a mind of its own.
A few grains of sand twitched in front of the cat's nose and he pounced, digging into the sand with surprising dexterity. Then the black cat began to purr, as his paws uncovered first one green thread, then two, three, five. A weedy sapling poked tentatively from the shallow hole, a seemingly impossible sprouting in the hot dust of the desert and the looming proximity of the void. But as the black cat leaned forward to touch his wet nose to the spindly shoot, the sapling seemed to straighten, braving unfurling a new leaf in defiance of the hostile landscape.
The cat surveyed his handiwork for a satisfied moment, then he gave the sapling one final lick of encouragement and turned to follow the thread of spent breath back to its owner.
~: THE END :~