“Are there those without the circle, you of the Mothers, who ﬁnd fault whatsoever?”
—And this time, there was a much longer pause. Away off, seemingly in some other universe but probably merely at the other extreme end of the cave, if we were still in the cave, a tiny pebble fell and rolled; it chimed against the rock, the brittle, clear sound coming to us with uncanny precision in the utterly still air.
Finally, after what seemed like eternities, Sesounis said, “Then it is well.”
There came a sound like distant wind through a forest. Mingled with the sound, and seeming to come from vast distances, I heard the words: “It is well.”
Sesounis dismissed the guardians. I could feel the impalpable presence surrounding the circle withdrawing. There was a sense of winding down, of decompression. Mara exhaled with gusto and stretched. Li left the circle, returned with a bowl of fruit. We each took one, and I thought that I had never seen anything so luscious. But one bite and my stomach sent a message up: Slowly, slowly. And I began to be aware that the last few minutes had taken a heavy physical toll. I was exhausted, and embarrassed for my naivete: if I'd thought ahead, chances were I'd have known that I'd be exhausted.
Mara came over and offered me a bite of something that resembled an orange, except that the skin was thin and edible. “You did just ﬁne,” she said, before I could ask her. “You’ll probably be awfully tired tonight, though.”
“I’d never have guessed.”
“Yeah, well, I slept for a day and a half after mine, so don’t worry about it.”
She spread her robe and sat down on it. Sesounis, who was walking over with my robe just as the thought of it entered my mind, said “Don’t worry, I’ll see that she gets some sleep.”
Our eyes met. “Not too much, though,” she said, hiding a grin with the best poker face I’ve ever seen.
“I was afraid of that. The warrior must in all things be a creature of maximum stamina.”
“I’m tired just thinking about it.”
“We could celebrate, though,” Khaper said, walking over and sitting down.
“What sort of celebration did you have in mind?”
“Well,” she said, looking thoughtful, “we could take you on a tour of exotic vacation spots.”
“Are you serious? What vacation spots?”
Li said, “She means alter metrics, I think.”
Mara nodded. “That’s what they did for me. It was a great party. We just ﬂipped through a dozen or so v-e-r-y interesting places.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m used to transitions...how much difference is there between those and alter travel, anyway?”
Sesounis chuckled. “No common spacetime frame, zero expectations about environment… otherwise, it’s a piece of cake.”
“And we do this for fun?”
“Don’t scare her,” Li said. “Any more than necessary, anyway.” Then, to me, “It’s okay. Kinda like a roller coaster ride. Although you can ﬁnd literally anything, the coordinates always stay put. Like a road map. If we start out for a particular alter context, we’re sure to get to that one.”
“Exotic shores! Exotic natives!” Mara said, spreading her arms.
I considered for a few seconds. “Okay, sounds great. When do we start?”
Li stood up. “How about now? We could give you a quick look at one or two, then we can plan a longer jaunt and stay awhile. Independent time frames—no time need pass here.”
Sesounis said, “Why don’t you two do that, and I’ll come for the longer jaunt? I want to check some last-minute stuff upstairs ﬁrst.”
Khaper nodded. “I need to do that, too.”
“Well, then, why doesn’t Li show me around and then we’ll pick everybody else up later?”
“Better to have three to stabilize the forces,” Li said. “Mara, how about you?”
“I left something undone, too.”
“I’ll go.” It was Tanis, approaching from the staircase. “I need to log some more alter time, and I’m caught up on my back work.”
“Great,” Li said. “Who’s got the schelva?”
Sesounis tossed her one of the waxy red balls. After a few seconds of fumbling, Khaper handed me another one. We began to rub the stuff over our bodies. I’m always fascinated with the way the bright red swaths that the schelva leaves fade within a few seconds, but leave you tingling all over.
“Be sure to cover every square millimeter,” Li said, “inside the ears, between the toes, back into the hairline.”
"You don't usually remind me. This must be going to be one hell of a vacation."
She grinned. "Just being careful."
A few minutes later the three of us glowed with the bright schelva blush, and the gingery taste was strong in my mouth. Once again I felt the wild exhilaration that marked the onset of the schelva state.
Tanis looked around at us. “Ready?”
Li began the chant, and we took it up. It was a great chant, full of sharp ringing syllables that reverberated in the rock room, and big, round vowel sounds that made my head vibrate. I leaned back, holding onto their hands, and really let myself go into the glory of the music of it, rising and falling with the motion; softer, until I could hear our feet scrape on the rock, then louder, until my ears rang with the clangor.
Abruptly, a sense of dropping straight down, gone almost before I could recognize it. Cold, hard vacuum snatched at my body, my lungs. A brief ﬂash of intense, blue-white actinic light that beat at me from all sides at once. Then gone, like the snap of a shutter.
We were still in a cave, but it was open on one side to a night sky. There were no less than four moons visible through the opening, each with high albedo; the scene below was almost as bright as day. Below, incidentally, looked to be several thousand feet down a cliff face which was somewhat more than vertical. I try hard not to be an acrophobe, but this stomach-lurching view still made me stagger back and clutch for the rock ﬂoor.
“Look there,” Li said, pointing.
Diagonally across from us, and at about our level, was another rock face, in which I could see holes that were probably cave mouths like ours. In the air, about a thousand meters out from the face and closing fast (although in the unfamiliar scale of things my distance estimates could be way off), was a humanoid creature with great, translucent wings. They looked more suited to gliding than to true ﬂight, and included a membrane between arms and legs. It was carrying something long, like a thick rod or spear made of several lengths of material lashed together. If my estimate of distance was at all accurate, it was going like a bat out of hell.
It glided at full speed straight into one of the caves. Instantly the cave mouth was illuminated from inside by a ﬂash of orange light, and several dozen tiny ﬁgures spewed out. They didn’t seem able to either ﬂy or glide, because they fell straight down the rock face, losing themselves in the enormous distance to the ground. A billow of oily smoke emerged from the cave mouth.
Now that my eyes were becoming more accustomed to the light and scale, I could make out several more of the gliding creatures peeling off at higher altitude and heading for other caves at terriﬁc speed. While we watched, two more roared straight into caves, with the same consequences as the ﬁrst one. Then we were rocked by a concussion. I staggered, but kept my footing. After a few seconds I realized that it was the shock wave from the ﬁrst ﬂyer’s impact with its cave. If that was the case, I realized, then either the transmission rate for sound here was vastly different, or the scale of things was much more enormous than I’d thought.
“What’s happening?” I asked, dumfounded.
“Oh-oh,” Tanis said, pointing.
Straight out from our cave, there was the tiny silhouette of one of the ﬂying things, and even with my limited experience I could tell that we were seeing it straight on. It didn’t move; it just got bigger, fast.
“Hold on!“ Li shouted, grabbing for our hands. I was so shocked by what was happening that I fumbled for a few seconds before getting a good grip. Tanis let out a wordless shout of fear.
Li tightened down hard on my hand, while the thing in the air grew with shocking speed until it nearly ﬁlled the opening. Then there was the falling sensation, vacuum snatching at my body, the acid ﬂash of actinic light. My stomach ﬂipped over.
We were atop a ﬂat rock under a brilliant, grey-green sky. The illumination was sourceless; I saw no sun, nor shadows. I looked down, and found the pattern incised into the rock at our feet.
“A target to aim at,” Li said, a little breathlessly, catching my glance.
“Whew,” Tanis said.
I looked around. There was nothing to be seen close by but grey desert, and more of the ﬂat-topped rocks. Off in the distance I could make out what must have been the grandmother of all mountains. It was on the horizon, and towered far above my line of sight, eventually losing itself in the greyness. It must have been hundreds of kilometers high. There were no birds, no animals in sight; the air was completely still.
Li sat slowly down on the rock. So did Tanis, and, after a few seconds, so did I. Li, I noticed, looked a little drawn.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
Li grinned sheepishly. “A little accident, you might say. I’d intended for us to stop at one or two of what you might call tourist spots. But I seem to have missed a coordinate.”
“Pilot error,” Tanis said. She seemed to be shaky. Maybe, I reﬂected, that meant that I ought to be, too.
“Well, what happens now?”
Li said, “I need a minute to sort out where we are.”
“You mean we’re lost?”
She screwed her mouth into a moue of indecision. “Not exactly. But I did have to get us out of there fast, and I took the ﬁrst path that ran through my head. There’s a temporal synchrony. Some of these routes are only linked to known paths at particular times. They have useful time windows that open and close. So although we came here in one transition, it might take us quite a few to get back.”
“Jeez, the express only comes through once in a while, eh?”
“Do you happen to have your timetable with you?”
Tanis said, “It’s not quite that serious. But it could be time consuming.”
“How time consuming?”
“No more than a decade, let’s say. Earth time.”
“Are you really telling me that we are going to spend ten years on a ﬂat rock with each other?”
She grinned, for which I could have punched her. “Not really. There are ways of making sure of where we are. Probably we’re looking at a day or two, maybe three at the max.”
“That’s better. Do you know yet that I tease easily?”
“Don’t abuse it.”
Li said, “You two sit close, in case I need to move us fast again.” Then she closed her eyes and began breathing slowly and deeply.
Tanis and I looked at each other. Then at the scenery, which offered little relief. After a few minutes Li stirred and opened her eyes.
“ Not bad,” she said. “Not as bad as I thought. Maybe three transitions. One of them may be dangerous, but I think that the risk will be worth the saving in time. I don’t want you out here trying to alter travel once the schelva wears off.”
“Sounds like six of one and half a dozen of the other to me.”
“You’ll have to trust me.”
“That’s what I did, and look where we are. Vacation paradise.”
“Well, that’s true...”
“It’s okay,” I said, “I’m kidding. Accidents happen. Consider the Titanic...”
She cocked her head. “It’s time. Let’s go.”
We joined hands and began the chant. It was harder, under the circumstances, for me to lose myself in it, but after a minute or two the rhythms were so wonderfully compelling that I did.
There was the same falling sensation, the acid tug of vacuum, the too-brilliant ﬂash of etching light. Then we were drenched with cold water. I looked up at a dead black sky, which was abruptly split by an enormous, seething bolt of purple lightning.
“Oh, shit,” Tanis shouted, over a bone-shaking clap of thunder.
“How did I know we’d come out in a rainstorm?” Li shouted back.
“Well, get us out of here!”
“I can’t! We have to wait a few minutes for the next window to open.”
I said, “This being an alternate metric, be glad it’s not raining acid.”
“True enough. A deﬁnite blessing.” Another enormous bolt of lightning crashed overhead. I ducked involuntarily.
“By the way, what would have happened if there had been an earthquake, say, or a subsidence, and we came out under water?”
“How fast can you swim to the surface?”
“Thanks a lot.”
“We’d do our best to transit somewhere else immediately,” Tanis said, with the firmness of a first-grade teacher.
“Say, that’s how we got into this in the ﬁrst place, isn’t it?”
“Will you two shut up a minute?” Li said, over the thunder. “I’m trying to feel out the next transition.”
“And for the sake of the Mother, don’t let go of each others’ hands! We’ll never ﬁnd each other again in this storm.”
A minute or so passed, during which I tried unsuccessfully to convince myself that the rain was really warmer than it felt, and failing that, that in fact it was letting up just a bit. Then Li said, “Okay, tighten up.”
We did. Li made no effort to lead a chant. I couldn’t see or hear what she was doing. But after a few seconds, her hand tightened down on mine. There was that complex of sensations again—falling, vacuum, bright light—but this time it was mixed in with an impossibly loud blast of thunder and a sensation like a terriﬁc electric shock.
Silence clapped down like a lid.
A light sprang into being ahead of us: a dim, ﬂickering orange glow. After a few seconds to adjust to things, I could see that it was a torch. The rain had stopped; it was dead still, and after a few seconds while the ringing in my ears subsided, I could hear the distant, reverberating sound of water dripping in some cavernous space. The ﬂame of the torch twisted slowly, lazily, emitting a thick trail of black smoke.
“Uh-oh,” Li whispered.
“What happened?” I whispered back. “Where are we?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea.”
We shut up and listened for a full minute, which seemed endless in the dark and quiet. Nothing, except the distant dripping.
“Was it that lightning bolt?” Tanis whispered.
“I think so. It must have been. It felt as though we had the extreme bad fortune to be struck by lightning at the very instant of transition.”
“What would that have done?” I said.
“Well, it didn’t hurt us, thank the Mother—I don’t know much about physical phenomena circa the transition instant itself, but I suspect that we were already partly not there—but that much energy could easily have distorted the ﬁeld.”
“So we could be anywhere.”
“Say, this is a lovely little jaunt we’re on. A wonderful lesson in alter transition. Do you think we’ll make it home in time to die?”
They ignored that. Tanis said, “Can you get a ﬁx on where we are?”
“I’m trying,” Li said. As my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I could make her out, eyes closed, breathing deeply.
Presently she opened her eyes, looking puzzled.
“Well?” I said.
She gave me a blank look. “Nothing.”
“I’m not getting anything at all. I haven’t any idea where we are.”
Tanis said, “That’s never happened before. Has it?”
“What does it mean?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea.” She chewed her lip. “It feels as though we were under some kind of energy blanket, something that soaks up transition power.”
I said, “Can we transit somewhere else within this metric? Maybe we’re in a dead spot, or something.”
“Mmm, not a good idea if I’m completely blank. We don’t know anything about this metric, and presumably we’re at an active locus now. I’d hate to lose it.”
I looked down, and realized what she meant: in the near-dark there was no pattern visible in the floor beneath us. My mind was beginning to dither, so to distract myself I walked carefully to the torch, which was socketed in a black metal sconce. I pulled it out, and walked back to Li and Tanis. Holding it high, I examined the ﬂoor. No circle; no marks of any kind. The ﬂoor was ﬂagstone, mortared at the joints, and smooth.
“If this is a locus, it’s the ﬁrst unmarked one I’ve seen,” I said. “Further, whoever put this torch here will probably come back soon to replace it. Are they going to be friendly?”
At that moment, there was a distant rumbling, followed by a screech of metal and the unmistakable noise of a heavy wooden door slamming shut. The sound of it slowly died away in the reverberating darkness. Many footsteps clomped and schluffed in the distance, getting closer. The ground seemed to vibrate with their force.
“Are we going to ﬁnd out?”
“You bet we are.”
“Do we want to?”
“We do not want to.”
“I have a bad feeling about this.”
"Know that thou art not alone in that feeling."
I ran back to the sconce and stuck the torch into it. By this time we could see fairly well by its light. We were in some sort of long, low-ceilinged cavern, about ten meters wide and longer than the torch’s throw in both directions. There were pillars made of dressed stone blocks set about ten meters apart holding up the arched ceiling. In places it looked natural, in others it was clearly made of mortared blocks. We ran, as quietly as we could, to the nearest stone pillar, and crouched behind it.
“Should we try to move down the tunnel ahead of them?” I whispered.
“Pitch dark,” Li whispered back. “Too dangerous. No way to know what’s down there.”
“And if we took the torch, we’d be sitting ducks. Yeah. Okay, we wait, and see.”
We waited behind the pillar, while the heavy tread grew louder. Soon we could see more light ﬂickering on the ﬂoor. The light grew brighter, the marching feet grew closer; then into view came two rows of large, dirty, heavily muscled men dressed in leather and mail. They were carrying torches and escorting, or rather half-leading, half-dragging, three people, obviously prisoners. We couldn’t see much of the prisoners through the rows of men.
The soldiers carrying the torches stuck them into sconces mounted on the pillars. We shrank back as one of them stuck a torch into the sconce on our pillar; then we peered out again. I counted around twenty, all huge bruisers, but, judging from their movements and dexterity, all apparently just a bit clumsy. Three of them dragged a large, heavy wooden apparatus from somewhere and set it into sockets in the ﬂoor. It was midway between two of the pillars, with its ﬂat side facing the long way in the tunnel. We were somewhat behind it, they were in front of it, so there were no soldiers close to us. A fortunate thing, I reﬂected, while we checked this out.
We looked at each other, then back to the room. Six of the soldiers were holding the prisoners up, two on each side. I tried to maneuver around, so as to be able to see who or what they were. Something was beginning to nibble at the back of my mind, a sensation to which I’d learned to pay attention, but I didn’t yet know what this one meant.
Li and Tanis exchanged glances. “You, or me?” Li whispered.
Tanis shrugged. “I’ll do it.” She crept, very stealthily and keeping to the shadows, from our pillar down to the next one, from which the large wooden apparatus wouldn’t block her view of the prisoners.
In the meantime, other soldiers were dragging heavy wooden boxes into the space from somewhere outside the torches’ throw. Several marched back the way they’d come, and disappeared down the tunnel. There was a general milling around, and I could hear something else heavy being maneuvered down the corridor.
Tanis came back. Even in the vagrant torchlight, I could see that her face had become drawn and haggard. She wore an expression of deep confusion, mixed with fear. “I don’t understand this,” she whispered. “I don’t understand this at all.”
Li crouched beside her. “What’s up?”
“All three prisoners are women. Two of them look more or less like warriors, in fact like ’Sta, although they could be anybody. The third one...” She choked, paused, started over. “The third one...”
I crouched beside them, trying to read Tanis’ face. The nibbling in my mind was growing more pronounced. “What is it?” I whispered. “What did you see?” The sound of something heavy being dragged across the ﬂagstones grew steadily louder.
She tried again. “The third one...I’m sorry, Khashti, this is so strange...”
Li took her by the shoulders. “What is it? What did you see?”
She looked helplessly at me. Behind her, the sound of something heavy being dragged reached a climax, and stopped. There was a shufﬂing of feet, then silence. Then we could hear two pairs of feet approaching, walking slowly.
“Khashti, the third one...looks a lot like you.”
For me, everything stopped. A great silence came down around us. I knew with absolute certainty where we were and what was happening and what was about to happen. I didn’t even have to creep up and peer around the wooden apparatus to see what had just been dragged into the room.
I knew it was a throne.
And I knew who was at this moment walking slowly down the corridor, his shoulder brushing that of his guide soldier.
Without any volition on my part, my mind began to gibber, to run in circles like a rat in a cage. I swayed and reached out a hand to steady myself against the pillar. I knew now what was at the other end of the tunnel from the end through which the soldiers came. It was a blank wall, dank and wet, with a row of hooked stones like a grinning mouth...
“Oh, Great Mother, no,” someone breathed. I couldn’t tell which one of us it was.
“Khashti...” Li said, grabbing me by the shoulders. “Let’s try it in the dark, let’s try the tunnel...”
I shook my head, waved my hand in a negative gesture. “Useless. There’s no way out down that tunnel. No way out. It dead ends...” my legs were trembling and I began to sink to my knees on the ﬂagstones.
“We can’t stay here and watch this, anything else...”
Tanis whispered, “I think I understand. Not just an optional metric, an optional temporal frame...”
“Yes,” Li said. “Somehow we’ve come out in a prior context. Perhaps the worst of all prior contexts. And we’ve got to get out!”
Tanis went on, still on her mental track, “It’s Masorlin keeping us from the alter level. He has this whole place shielded.”
Li bit her lip. “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean that he knows we’re here. It’s probably something that he keeps in force anyway.”
I was shaking, unable to restrain myself. I was doing calming exercises as fast as I could, but they weren’t doing anything. I felt myself slowly going numb with absolute, sphincter-loosening terror. Not of the person who would in a moment mount the throne, but of what I knew was about to happen.
On the other side of the wooden apparatus, where the throne was set up, Masorlin, the Autarch, took his seat.
He placed one elbow on the arm of his throne, and rested his chin in his cupped hand.
“Begin,” he said.
In my mind, the dream surged forward: the dream that always ended before I could bring myself to watch the true end; the dream that was real. And there, in Masorlin’s torture chamber, as they were preparing to do the thing itself, I, Maramma Khashti, Guardian of the Gate, Member of the Five, Mother to the Khashti’Sta and Greatmother to the K’a-Lira, completed my Remembering.
I Remembered the ﬁnal thing. The last remaining piece of the puzzle. I Remembered the end of my prior context.
And why Masorlin hated me then, and hates me now.
Of course. It was so simple. So obvious.
I had blinded him in that context, too.
But his constructs had captured me afterwards. Captured me along with two of the K’a-Lira, two of the best. And he had made me pay for what I had done to him. While the two others watched, he had made me pay well, and fully.
In the dream, the two soldiers on either side of me, holding instruments of some kind, instruments that I couldn’t quite see out of the corner of my eye, and moving toward me...
They had tortured her/me, this Khashti of the prior context. Not in the way that Masorlin was accustomed to torturing his prisoners, in a brutal and clumsy way usually ending in quick death. Masorlin had brought in a very special person for the task.
Cherna had been her name. Masorlin had formally introduced us. An old woman, or so I thought at ﬁrst, delicate, almost shy. At a gesture from Masorlin, she had let her robe slip from her, so that Khashti/I could see that she was not old at all. She was quite young.
She softly stroked Khashti’s/my cheek. She looked at Khashti/me, and smiled. A tender, loving smile. Khashti/I looked into her eyes, and began to scream.
She had a stunningly simple appliance: a thin needle, about ten centimeters long, set into a wooden handle. The handle was bound in leather, to afford a good grip. The needle wasn’t clean. It was stained several shades of brown.
Cherna had dedicated her life to memorizing the precise location of every single nerve in the human body. And with the delicate point of her needle, and with inﬁnite care and patience, she could reach every single one of them.
She always stopped just, oh-so-very-close, to the point at which Khashti might lose consciousness, but never too far, never far enough to let her escape into the dark. And then, when Cherna paused, she would look closely into Khashti’s face and smile, a slow smile of endless love, of endless horror.
It had taken ten days. Ten days of her continual, gentle care, her delicately probing needle. Occasionally Masorlin would call a halt so that they could wash and feed Khashti, until Khashti reached the state where it was pointless, where there was no strength to eat and nothing left to vomit. They continued to bring food and drink for Cherna.
After a while they proceeded silently. Khashti had lost her voice altogether, screamed her vocal cords into useless leather, and now she could do nothing but stretch her jaws and hiss her raw breath.
It wasn’t possible to determine when her mind ﬁnally broke. But there came a time when Masorlin ordered Cherna away. She gently caressed Khashti’s/my face one last lingering time and left slowly, reluctantly, pouting. He sat for several more hours, listening to Khashti, his egg-blind eyes staring through her.
The rest I remember with that peculiar ﬂy-on-the-wall viewpoint associated with near death experiences. I don’t think that it is really me doing this part of the Remembering.
Masorlin had Khashti cleaned up, dressed, and taken to the Throne Room. There, he caused an iron ring to be set into the ﬂoor next to his throne, to which a chain was afﬁxed. He caused an iron collar to be placed around her neck, and attached to the chain.
Then he kept her there, squatting on the ground next to his throne, where he could hear her babble and play with her chain.
He kept her there, mindless, for the remainder of her attenuated natural life span. It took nearly fourteen years for her to die.
And even that was not sufﬁcient for him. For at the moment of her death, he placed a geas upon her, a spell so heavy that she would never be able to escape it. A spell that she might never, in any future context, be able to remember who she was; that she might never, in any future context, be able to come again into her power.
And it had worked. The spell had held.
Until two women found her. And became three, and then four. And then five.
And made it possible for her to complete her Remembering.
I came back slowly to the cave and the Now, huddling in the dark with Li and Tanis. I was shaking, drenched and dripping with sweat. Li was holding me by the shoulders, peering anxiously into my face.
I couldn't control my voice. “Oh, Mother, oh Blue Mother, we’ve got to get out of here. This is horrible, I can’t take this, we’ve got to get out, got to get out of here!”
She squeezed my arm, very hard, feeling for the tender spot and sending a white-hot lance of pain to my shoulder. I clamped my jaws together. “Straighten up,” she hissed. “What happened? What’s happened to you?”
I told her.
Her face became unreadable. I thought Tanis was going to vomit. Li stood still for a very long time.
Finally Tanis whispered, “What are the chances of this being the true precursor context?”
Li said “We can’t take the chance that it is. We don’t dare tamper with anything here. Great Hecate, We don’t dare stop what is going to happen!”
“Suppose we managed to kill Masorlin now, here?”
“I’m no expert on alternate probability sheaves. The fact is that we didn’t. I don’t want any long philosophical I’m-my-own-Grandma arguments. For the sake of the Mother, let’s just get out of here! This place is corrupted, it’s ﬁlthy, it’s poison!” She turned back to me, grabbed my shoulders again. “Khashti! Maramma, my love! Can you keep it together to walk?”
“Of course,” I said, shakily. “I’m over the shock now. It’s still pretty hard, though.”
“No doubt! Okay, then, you know these tunnels. You were here before. Can you get us out?”
“I...I think so. The only way out, though, is the way everybody else came in.”
“So be it, then. Let’s go!”
I snapped back, as best I could, and looked around. The torchlight mostly illuminated the center area, between the pillars. The torches were all on the inside faces of the pillars, so that the area beyond them was in darkness. Bad planning on their part, very good for us. I took my boots off, hesitated, and tied them by their laces to my belt; Tanis and Li did pretty much the same. I led us back to the wall, and, keeping to the wall as much as possible, moved silently toward the entrance to the passageway.
“Do you think that Masorlin can sense us?”
“Probably not, unless he knew to look in the ﬁrst place. Or, most likely, unless we’re calling power.”
“Don’t call power.”
We made it that far with no trouble. Nobody was paying any attention to anything outside the center of the room. I craned my neck to see down the corridor. It appeared to be unguarded, but there were two soldiers standing near the entrance, with only about two meters between them and the wall behind them. Those two meters, though, were inky dark. There was a chance, I thought, that we might be able to slip along the wall and make it past them, if their attention were sufﬁciently ﬁxed on something else.
I also knew that, any minute now, there would be something else for them to ﬁx their attention on. But I also knew that I couldn’t possibly bear to wait for that event to take place. I might go crazy waiting. Try to think of it as a movie, I told myself. Or a play. It’s old context; it’s in the past, it’s buried. This is a rerun.
That might actually have worked, if I hadn’t just rediscovered the event. But it was much too close to me now, much too loaded with sphincter-loosening terror, for any such deception. In the dank chill I was pouring sweat, my mind screaming, trying to close out the sounds of preparation coming from behind us. I bent down in the darkness, ran my palm over the ﬂoor, looking for a rock, a piece of rubble, anything. The ﬂoor was smooth and clean. I moved to one side, pushing past Tanis, and ﬁnally closed my hand on an egg-sized rock.
“When I throw this, be ready to run,” I whispered to Li and Tanis. Li gave me a mirthless grin and the thumbs-up sign; in her ﬁst I could see the glint of her athame.
I raised the rock, to throw it back down the tunnel the way we had come, and in that instant could not resist the Lot’s-wife syndrome. I paused, trembling with anticipation and fear, and dared to look toward the torture rack.
There she was.
Man, if anyone deserved to turn into a pillar of salt, it was me.
We were now behind Masorlin’s throne, and I could see nothing of him. But she was there, all right, looking proud and haughty through the bruises and the torn clothing, as they strapped her to the torture frame. At her waist were the tattered remains of an athame belt and empty sheath. She stared straight ahead, mouth set.
There was no further question. It was me, all right. Maramma Khashti, pre-Diane Rogers.
You damn fool, I caught myself thinking at the woman strapped to the frame. If you really understood what was about to happen, would you still be proud, would you still be haughty?
—Yes, I realized. The answer was yes. She really was the consummate damn fool. And she would pay for it. But then, she would have paid anyway. She can’t help being who she is, can’t escape the future that she created. Any more than she in the Now can escape the future that she recreated.
In front of us, from the entrance to the passage, a woman in a dark cloak, appearing old but actually quite young, emerged and started down the rows of soldiers.
I raised my arm again, wound up, feeling the heft of the rock in my palm and the strain in my arm and shoulder muscles, and threw the rock as far as I could. It seemed to take forever to land; but considering the height of the ceiling, it couldn’t have been more than half a second. It struck with a satisfying, resonant clunking, and the eyes of the soldiers in front of us turned to follow it. They took a step toward the sound, reaching for their weapons.
I lunged forward, followed closely by Tanis and Li, and then we were in the corridor, running silently on bare feet. I could see the door at the other end, open, unguarded. We ran closer, and closer. The door grew larger in front of us.
And then, from behind us, we heard the ﬁrst scream of agony and terror.
Ten days...ten days...
I couldn’t stop myself. The act forced itself into my throat like a great black bubble, and I screamed back, screamed with all the revulsion and horror and hatred of countless horrible years.
Back in the cavern, there were hoarse shouts, the clang of armor. Then heavy, running feet. Li and Tanis sped up, and nearly passed me, as we ﬂung ourselves through the door and slammed it shut. They fumbled with the heavy wooden bar, and I turned to meet the guard whom I knew would be arriving in a second, my teeth bared, my body shaking with adrenalin, athame ready. He arrived, about seven feet and three hundred pounds of him, and he didn’t stand a chance. I leaped for him, still screaming, kicked his clumsy weapons to one side and disemboweled him with one single furious stroke. Even after I knew that he was dead, I kept stabbing and slashing, crisscrossing his great obscene belly, cutting it to bloody ribbons, until Tanis grabbed me by both shoulders and pulled me off. We fell backwards onto the stone floor in a kicking, thrashing, bloody tangle.
“What are you doing!” she screamed at me in her turn. “Let’s get out of here!”
I looked down at my hands and arms, red to the armpits, and rose to my feet, mouth open and gasping for air. I looked at Li and Tanis, nodded, lurched into motion, and ran ahead of them to where the corridor met a larger one; turned right, and pounded down that one, Li and Tanis behind me.
The corridor curved slowly to the left, and in about ﬁfty meters we came to another cross corridor and two more guards. I still had plenty of breath to scream, but I bit it off; I knew that right down the branching corridor was an entire garrison. Instead, as we raced into view of the guards, I threw myself straight at the ﬁrst one’s throat. I slashed at it, with the full swing and extension of my arm, while I was still in the air, and tore his throat from ear to ear. I think that if I had missed with the athame, I would have ripped his throat out with my teeth.
We went down in a tumbled confusion of armor, weapons, and spraying blood. I was still clutching his hair with my left hand, slashing at his throat with my right. My athame was razor sharp, and as Li grabbed my arm I was dimly aware that I had nearly decapitated him.
Behind me, Tanis shouted, “Li, look out!” There was a loud crunch.
I sprang upright, kicking away from the corpse with both feet, and pivoted on the blood-wet floor toward the other guard, arms ready. I needn’t have bothered. Li had kicked him in his great nose with a death blow, martial arts-style, and he was in the process of sinking to the ground while she recovered, still on her feet. Tanis was covering for both of us, athame up and threatening.
“Pretty good,” she panted.
“Was it excitement you wanted?”
Down the corridor, in the direction of the garrison, I heard stirring, loud shouts, the clang of armor.
“Let’s go!” I sprinted away down the curved corridor, Li and Tanis close behind. I was sobbing for breath by now, running on weird reserve energy, but still full of that livid, furious killing frenzy. We made the last turn, pounded down to the last cross corridor before the entrance to the barbican. And unexpectedly came up against six huge lunkers in full armor.
“I could have been wrong,” Tanis said, between gasps.
“About wanting excitement.”
None of the soldiers we'd fought had been constructs. We were on Masorlin’s home turf, and as it was turning out, he kept the best for himself; these six were no exception. In addition, we were beginning to tire -- the battle exercises we practiced all the time didn't push us to this extreme, and we were suffering for it. But we each dug for more reserves of strength, and, with what I hoped were terrifying shrieks, we launched ourselves at them.
I hit the nearest one while I was still airborne, catching him in the face with my athame, stabbing and slashing as he fell back. I realized that I hadn’t gotten in a mortal blow, but had certainly hurt him. Li and Tanis had each hurled themselves at a soldier with the same fury, and were pursuing the advantage of shock. I stuck the athame in its sheath, kicked the downed guy's sword out of reach, and, while his cohorts stumbled over his thrashing body, frantically scooped it up, swung it over my shoulder with both hands, and let loose a tremendous roundhouse.
I connected with someone else’s sword with a deafening clang. The shock was terrific and numbed my ﬁngers, but not enough to make me drop the sword. The soldier opposite me was encumbered by having to step around his buddy on the ﬂoor, and I pursued the advantage. The swords were too heavy for thrust and parry, anyway; they were meant to be swung, and that was my mood. So I did, connecting again and forcing him back.
He looked at my face, and fell off his guard, whereupon I chopped at the hilt with a full swing from overhead, and connected. His sword ﬂew clanging down the corridor.
I didn’t pause; I dropped my sword, drew the athame, and leaped at his throat, shrieking with hatred and revulsion. He had never seen anything like it, and his reactions were sluggish with shock. I plunged my athame up to the hilt in his gross, ugly throat and slashed back and forth, worrying his head like an angry dog.
Li was on me again. “That’s enough. Blue Mother, Khashti, that’s enough!”
She pulled me, panting and gasping, off his body. I think I was completely lost in the moment, so filled with loathing and hatred and raw terror that whatever in hell I was doing was being dictated entirely by some ancient corner of my lizard brain. She seemed to understand that, and hauled off and backhanded me across the face. It felt like a bomb going off, and it knocked me out of berserker mode. I would have reeled back, but she had me by the arm. “Okay, okay,” I said between huge breaths. “What now?”
I looked around. Four were down, either dead or useless. Two were just disappearing around the bend, ﬂeeing the apparition of the bloody Gorgons. And we were oh, so bloody. Although I was probably the bloodiest, we were all soaked, dripping with gore. I wondered how much of it was ours. I was far too gone down the kill road to feel a wound, even if I had any.
We turned to look up the corridor to where the barbican was. Behind us, and down both branches of the side corridor, we could hear pounding feet, hoarse shouts. We jumped over the bodies in front of us, those thrashing and those not, and pounded on toward the barbican.
There it was! Our strength was waning fast, the last few minutes had taken their share of what was left. There were two guards, two only, and even in our exhausted state we pulled it together one more time, and simply swamped them. Tanis took the one on the right of the portcullis, I threw myself at the one in the center, Li moved in behind each of us.
I didn’t injure mine, but kicked at his chest and unbalanced him. Before either he or I could recover, Li raced behind him, ﬂung herself on his back, grabbed a handful of hair, and slashed his throat. She bounced to her feet as he fell, kicked the thrashing corpse aside, reached for the wheel, and began to raise the portcullis.
The entranceway ﬁlled with soldiers, all fresh, all eager. I turned to Tanis; she reached down, and threw me the dead one’s sword. It arced through the air, ﬂashing and glittering in the torchlight as it turned, and smacked into my palm. I reached down, and got the sword from the one Li had just killed.
Then I turned to face the doorway, drenched in blood, dripping from my hair and elbows, lips drawn back from teeth in a snarl of hate, a sword in each hand.
Tanis looked at Li; Li threw her athame, Tanis snatched it out of the air, and took her own in her other hand. She turned to face the doorway, moving up even with me, half-crouched.
None of the soldiers moved forward. As Li pulled at the spokes of the great wheel, the portcullis creaked slowly open.
We remained frozen that way for a long time: Tanis and I crouched, death and hatred looking out of our eyes; the soldiers paralyzed, immobile; and the portcullis slowly raising.
Then the air around the portcullis wavered, became insubstantial. Dark, dank mist billowed through the barbican. The portcullis began to fade. Instantly we knew what was happening. Down in the torture room, Masorlin was listening, was moving to cut us off. The hair rose to full attention on my neck and arms. I realized he didn't want us. He wanted me. He could see me.
We all felt it in the same moment. My knees began to shake, to give way. I couldn't control it. I was totally consumed with fear, with disgust and loathing for the thing in the chamber -- and for myself, for not having the simple guts to fight back. All thinking stopped; my mind ran in circles and gibbered. “No!” Li shouted. “Not this time!” Her words sank echoless into the gathering mist.
Tanis, behind me, slammed her hands onto my shoulders and dragged me backward toward her. The shock broke me out of my funk; I flashed a grateful look over my shoulder at her. We began to back toward the barbican. For each step we retreated, the clot of soldiers in the entranceway swayed forward one step.
The billowing black clouds increased; the barbican had almost disappeared. A dull brick-red glow appeared inside the clouds. It was the most fascinating light I'd ever seen, the most lovely thing in the world, in the universe. More than anything in the world I wanted to be inside the light, to have it wrapped around me, to be one with it, to let go, to dissolve in it. I felt Tanis's hands fall away. Distantly I heard her shout, but her words were muffled by distance, hushed into inaudibility.
I think I moved forward. I couldn't feel my legs moving, but I could feel the corridor receding, and the glow came closer. I was filled with...well, with sensation. I think it was equal parts desire and horror. They seemed to cancel each other, leaving me quivering, my thoughts so chaotic and incoherent that I couldn't make sense of anything. The glow grew brighter.
Suddenly it was dark.
I must have been walking forward with my eyes closed, because I opened them now, just as Li collided with me -- she'd flung herself between me and the glow, and what I'd thought was darkness was because her body was in the way. In the same instant the glow flared up, brightening. Li, still between me and the light, raised her hands over her head, every muscle taut. She began to shake. “Not this time, you son of a bitch!” she shouted.
The light flared, searingly bright, turning the rock-lined corridor into a high-contrast actinic etching. All I could see of it, though, was around the edge of Li's silhouette. I realized I'd been paralyzed with fear or with something else, and I tried to shake it off and paw her out of the way, but I couldn't make my arms work. Pressed against me, taking the full blast of the light, she was vibrating like a bell. Tanis screamed. Over the heads of the soldiers, the masonry began to crumble. First small pieces and dust, then bigger chunks rained down. Li let out a sound -- I don't know how to describe it -- a roar, a shout, a long inchoate scream. Simultaneously the light went out and the horrible presence of Masorlin suddenly disappeared. I felt stunned by the instantaneous change from hypnotic oppression to wild freedom. My muscles slackened and once again my immediate reaction was to fall to my knees, but dammit, I simply refused to let that happen. But before I could process any of it, there was a groan and rumble that shook the ground, and the entire roof in front of us collapsed and fell in. The sound was deafening. Soldiers shouted and stumbled in opaque, billowing clouds of rock dust.
“What the hell just happened?” I shouted over the thunder of falling masonry.
“Not a clue!” Tanis yelled. She crouched, shielding herself from ﬂying rocks.
"Li, you did something. Masorlin tried to drag me back somehow, and you got in the way."
Mara said, "Was that accidental?"
"I don't think so." We exchanged a look. "He's gone. Off the airwaves. I know he's still down there, but he can't reach us with his mind. He hit Li instead of me. She caught the blast -- whatever the hell it was -- and in the process she did something to him. Li, you just pulled off some heavy shit."
Thick grey dust billowed from the entranceway, obscuring it. The dust became tinged with ﬂickers of orange, growing brighter. The wood interior of the castle was burning.
Black smoke rolled toward us. Behind us, the air around the barbican steadied; the dark clouds lifted slightly, and we could see the drawbridge, half down. We broke and ran for it. Then, as we reached it, I turned, realizing that Li wasn’t with us -- that behind the opaque clouds of rock dust she hadn't answered anything I'd said to her. I turned and ran back, coughing and groping through the choking dust.
She was still where she'd stood in front of me, but collapsed to the ground. There were still yelling and crashing sounds from where the roof had fallen in. I crouched down and wrestled her up and across my shoulders. I didn’t even take the time to see if she was alive: I just wanted to get the hell out of there. I stood up as best I could and staggered back toward the drawbridge, eyes smarting and tearing, strangling on the smoke. Tanis was waiting at the foot of the drawbridge.
“We’re going to have to go up this hand over hand,” she shouted, over the growing roar of the ﬂames.
I looked up. The surface of the bridge was pocked with cracks and holes. It was climbable, though perhaps not with Li’s dead weight on my back.
“Okay, go ahead,” I shouted to Tanis.
She swarmed up, one athame in her belt, one in her teeth, using both hands and feet, ass in the air in the correct climbing posture even in this extreme. Behind us came the growing roar of the ﬂames, the crashing of heavy timbers. The smoke thickened, and I began to cough and choke again, but it was smoke from the ﬁre, not from Masorlin’s power. I didn’t know what had happened to that, and I didn’t intend to be there long enough to ﬁnd out, if I could survive the smoke.
Tanis reached the upper lip of the drawbridge and looked down at me, nodding.
“Looks good from here,” she shouted. “Come on up.”
I reached for the ﬁrst hold, set my foot in a crack and started up, Li a dead weight across my shoulders. It was agonizing. I was exhausted, wrung out, with no reserves left for this. Behind me, the roar of the ﬂames grew steadily louder, mixed with shouts and screams. I could feel the heat of the ﬂames beginning to toast my back. The stinking smoke was strangling, nauseating, and the bridge shuddered and swayed with every crashing timber.
I took a breath and shouted up at Tanis. “Can you throw down something I can hold onto?”
“Nothing up here. Wait a minute.”
She unbelted her athame, straightened the cords, and lowered them down toward me. I stretched up, nearly losing my hold, but couldn’t reach it.
“Get a little higher.”
I reached for the next hold, pulled myself painfully up, realizing that a fall now might injure me but could kill Li. My muscles were beginning to shake with that overtired, overstressed sewing machine motion.
There was a thunderous crash, and an enormous fountain of sparks billowed skyward. The bridge swayed like a drunken sailor. I had to stop and hang on until it slowed down. Then back to climbing, hand over agonizing hand. I was gasping for breath, my chest on ﬁre, my ﬁngers and toes raw from the holds and the unaccustomed weight. I thought that I’d never make the top.
“You’re there now,” Tanis shouted down.
I glanced around. There was the end of the cord, easily within reach. I grabbed for it, but with Li’s weight I couldn’t hold onto it and keep my grip in the shallow holes. I shifted her around, slowly and painfully, and got a good hold on the cord.
“Can you pull?” I shouted.
“I think so.”
“Okay, then, let’s go!”
I thought she was going to pull my arm out of its socket. Astonishing pain flared in my shoulder. “Agh! Wait, wait until I climb! Then pull up!”
“I forgot how heavy Li is.”
That worked, for a few more holds. Then I slipped back, and Tanis yelled, “The cord’s breaking!”
“Shit!” I scrabbled for two handholds on the bridge, pain flaring in both my arms, my feet flailing; then I shifted my weight, and made it, gasping at the smoky air.
Tanis pulled the cord up, examined it. “No way; it’s shot. I wouldn’t trust it.”
“Okay," I gritted, I’ll climb.”
So it was back to hand over hand, hold by hold, tortuously, slowly, up the face of the bridge. Once again it seemed to go on forever, while the bridge jerked and swayed and every muscle I was conscious of fairly screamed with agony and exhaustion.
Then I glanced up, and there was Tanis’ hand, reaching down for me. I looked up again, into her face, and she tried for a smile, but didn’t make it. “Grab hold of Li, if you can,” I panted. “Pull her up.”
Almost immediately, the weight on my shoulders lessened. I hung there, sobbing with relief, staring at the rough splintered surface of the bridge inches from my face, then reached up the last length and hooked my hand over the top. I hung there for what seemed hours, just gasping and breathing. The air was noticeably clearer, with a fresh breeze blowing from outside. Then I boosted up another meter, hooked my arm and then my leg over the top, and swung up. I wanted to lie there and rest, even for a minute, but we had no time.
We looked down twenty meters into the moat. I was still gasping for air. Between breaths, I choked out, “How deep do you think it is?”
“Probably no more than three or four meters. Okay if we hit fairly ﬂat, I think.” There was another crash behind us, and the bridge swayed again. I was struck with a bad case of vertigo, my stomach roiled and churned, then things steadied down.
“I don’t know what’s living in there, either.”
“Yeah. But there’s no place to go but down.”
“Okay, you jump ﬁrst, I’ll jump with Li. You grab for her as soon as we hit the water.” I looked up at the moon; it was fairly bright, and I could see the surface of the water clearly.
Tanis didn't hesitate. She jumped instantly, without a sound, falling feet ﬁrst. But she turned in the air so that her entrance was skew, hitting with a huge splash and a wide fan of white foam. It probably hurt a lot. I looked down, anxious, praying that she hadn’t knocked herself out.
For numberless heart-stopping seconds, I saw nothing. Then her head popped above the surface, and she shook her hair back from her eyes. She looked up at me and waved.
I stood up, slowly and shakily, on the edge of the bridge, Li still over my shoulders. I knew that there were better positions, so I crouched, and wrestled her inert body until it was parallel with mine, her feet downward. Her head lolled to one side. I was bursting with questions -- what in hell had happened back there? -- but I had no way to get answers. I paused a moment to peel her eyelid back, but it was doubly futile; it was too dark to see anything, and I very nearly lost hold of her in the process. I lunged to get a better grip on her, then spent an interminable number of heart-freezing seconds teetering on the edge of falling back into the barbican.
Finally I got my balance back, and looked again down into the moat. Tanis was waiting, but from my height I could see the wakes of things converging on her. “Great Mother, protect us now,” I breathed. I crouched, bent my knees, took a good grip on Li, and pushed out as hard as I possibly could.
The wind whistled past for a moment, and there was a tremendous shock. I was under the water, totally disoriented, and it was too dark to follow the bubbles to the surface. I had to make a judgment call, and I’d forgotten to take a full breath. Frantic, I looked around, thought I could make out a glimmer of the moon, and swam toward that.
My lungs were retching for air, and I was getting ready to breathe anything, even water, about to ﬂip over into that deadly panic that precedes drowning, when my head broke water. For an instant I couldn’t believe I’d surfaced. Then I was breathing in huge, shuddering gulps of air that felt ﬁery hot as they ﬁlled my lungs.
As soon as I could breathe, I looked frantically around for Tanis. She was about ten meters away, thrashing for Li. I started out toward her, using a clumsy crawl and gasping for breath, until we met in the middle and held Li between us. I held her head clear of the water, and saw, with a burst of relief, bubbles forming around her nose. “She’s breathing!” I choked out, between gulps of air.
Something hit my legs, brushed past. An instant later, it grabbed ﬁrm hold. I had time to shout “Look out!” and take one good gulp of air, before it pulled me under.
I didn’t try to struggle free; instead I drew my athame, doubled up to get in close, and stabbed and slashed at the thing. It responded by clamping down tighter. I kept stabbing, more and more deeply, fighting my own panic; I slid in as closely as I could get, felt along the thing for a vital spot, found something that could have been a head, and attacked that.
The thing let me go, and I popped to the surface like a cork. Tanis was stabbing down into the water with one of the soldier’s swords, holding Li with one hand.
“Take that, you bastard,” she hissed between her teeth.
I could feel other things brushing past my legs; then something sank its teeth into my right leg, and I was under the surface in a swirl of foam, doubling up again and trying for a vulnerable spot on a creature that I couldn’t see.
I was afraid that this time I wouldn’t be able to do it. I was near exhaustion, I couldn’t hold my breath, and the thing was dodging my attempts to close with it, while keeping a painful grip on my leg.
I was seeing bright white ﬂashes and getting ready to breathe water again when the thing unaccountably let go. I barely made it to the surface, gasping and choking, realizing that the next one that took me down would wind up eating me.
I looked around for Tanis, but didn’t see her. I panicked, began to cast around for her, when she surfaced about ﬁve meters away, blowing and spitting.
“Got the bastard, didn’t I,” she gasped, struggling for breath.
She tried to ﬂourish the sword, but couldn’t even get it clear of the surface. She still had Li’s head, but hadn’t noticed that it was under water. I decided she was more stunned than she'd looked.
“Hold her head up!” I shouted, my voice cracking with hysteria and fatigue.
Something else brushed my leg, brushed again. I gave myself up; I was beyond struggling. Then the huge flaming posts that held the drawbridge gave way and the whole thing leaned ponderously forward and crashed into the water. Gouts of steam and flame exploded upwards, and within a second the wave of water it produced slapped our heads and nearly drowned us. I gasped and sputtered, spitting foul moat water. But whatever had been brushing against me didn’t return.
I looked around. Tanis seemed to be okay too. “What’s happening?” I said, trying to ﬂoat so that I could breathe without having to move.
“I think the fire scared them away.”
“Or the noise. Or maybe we’ve damaged enough of them that they’re feeding on each other.”
“Whatever it is, let’s get out of this sludge.” The ﬂames from the castle were leaping higher, and huge, blazing embers were starting to fall into the moat, hissing and crackling as they extinguished themselves in the water.
We slowly paddled toward shore, exhausted, pushing Li along between us. Every few strokes we'd stop to breathe and tread water. I was still apprehensive about the moat dwellers, but they seemed to be busy elsewhere, because nothing else bothered us.
The edge of the moat was steep, but there were handholds. Masorlin must have depended on the things in the water for security against people trying to swim across, but he hadn't anticipated fire and collapse and general destruction. Plus whatever in hell Li had done by putting herself between me and him. Yeah, all that stuff might seriously slow him down. But I realized we were going to be pretty slow ourselves.
Painfully, gradually, we pulled ourselves out, then both of us hauled Li out. She was such an astonishingly dead weight that for a moment I thought we wouldn’t be able to haul her clear at all.
Finally we sprawled on the bank, soaked, bleeding, exhausted, gasping. Every part of me hurt all the way down to my bones. Some spots hurt way, way more. When I moved in certain ways, the pain was nearly blinding. I didn't want to think about that right now: all I had time for was simply to try not to move in those ways. Too much to do.
I clenched my teeth. “We’ve got to get up and get moving."
“I can’t,” Tanis said, between deep, shuddering breaths. “I just can’t.”
“You have to. If we don’t, Masorlin will simply ﬁnd us here in the morning, or whenever he gets his own crisis management shit together. We’re not away yet. We’ve got to put enough distance between here and us that we have a chance to make another transition.”
“I hear that,” she said, struggling to her feet. Her whole body was shaking.
I got to my feet, weak and unsteady, and each of us took one of Li’s arms. Slowly, painfully, we staggered into the undergrowth and then into the shelter of the trees.
“His own crisis,” Tanis panted.
“Masorlin’s own crisis. That’s what you said. And it’s true.”
“What do you mean?”
“Somehow, Li created a problem so great that he became completely occupied with solving it. That’s the only reason we were able to get away.”
“If we are away. But yes, you’re right. She did.”
“What did she do? How did she do it?”
“I wish I knew.”
“So do I. But whatever it is, when she wakes up, if she doesn't spill it I'm gonna kill her! It’s the most important thing that’s happened in Ktahmet.”
“That’s not all. Once we do ﬁnd out, we’ve got to get that information back to the ’Sta, back to our own context.”
She stopped, looked around, closed her eyes. “Yes. But the shield, or whatever it is, is still up.”
“Still up? You're sure? You mean we can’t transit?”
She shook her head, more as if to clear it than as a denying gesture. “That’s right. I'm sure of it. Can’t transit, can’t alter travel. As long as we can’t feel ahead to the destination, any transition is suicide, plain and simple.” She swayed, caught herself.
“Then let’s keep moving.”
We shouldered Li, and started through the jungle.
It was purest agony. One foot forward, pull the other one up to it, push one foot forward again. Branches grabbed at us, tore our already thoroughly lacerated skin. Li was unbearable dead weight. But I still didn’t even dare to stop long enough to examine her.
We pushed on. One foot forward, pull the other one up to it. The trees closed in and the moon disappeared, and we were walking in near darkness, feeling our way with each step.
Tanis was racked by a spasm of coughing. “I’m not going to make this.”
“Yes, you are. We don’t have to move fast. We just have to keep moving. As long as we keep moving, we have a chance.”
She sank to the ground, sobbing for breath. Then she was seized by another paroxysm of coughing. When it passed, she said, “Let’s rest for a minute, and then go on.”
I reached down with one hand, supporting Li with the other, and felt her forehead. She was burning with fever. I put my finger on the pulse in her neck, and it was way too fast and, I thought, thready, too.
I said softly, “You aren’t going to be able to get up, once you stop. You’ve got to keep going now. It’s our only chance.”
She sat, staring off into nothing. Then she struggled weakly to get to her feet. I reached down and tried to help, and nearly fell on top of her.
Eventually we both made it to a standing position, shared the dead weight of Li, and slogged on.
It went on, and on. Stumbling from step to step, many times nearly falling, or collapsing. Endless hours later, I looked up to see wan streaks of false dawn. Off to our right was a dense grove of short, stunted trees.
“Let’s stop and take a break here,” I said.
“I’m worried that if we break, we’ll sleep. And that’ll be the end.” She coughed violently, caught her breath.
“We’re going to have to sleep sooner or later.” And you’re sicker than you think, I thought, but didn’t say it aloud.
We stumbled into the grove, and let Li slip to the ground. I collected leaves and branches, and made a soft place for her. Together, Tanis and I laid her on it; then I collected enough for beds for Tanis and me. We fell on them, and in seconds we were asleep.
I woke blearily, peered around. The sun was high in the sky. I was surprised that I hadn’t slept longer. I wondered if something had awakened me, and froze, looking slowly in all directions. But I didn’t hear anything, didn’t see anything.
I arose slowly, stiff and aching in every conceivable location. I took a few minutes to check myself over for damage. It’s amazing, I thought, how the berserker attitude seems to protect you from injury. And in the old cowboy movies, running straight at the guns was the sure way to escape being wounded. How else could you get through all of that with only the scratches that you have?
The worst thing seemed to be a sword cut about two decimeters long on my forearm. It throbbed badly and was oozing a little, but nothing major seemed to be damaged. Everything else was minor cuts, bruises, and contusions. But everything else covered most of the available territory.
I crept quietly to Tanis, and checked her over as best as I could without disturbing her. She seemed to have escaped with as little damage as I did, but she was still running a high fever. It would probably catch up with her today.
Then I checked Li, being somewhat less than delicate and hoping that the stimulus would arouse her. But she didn’t stir. I found nothing obviously wrong. I checked her reﬂexes, peeled her eyelids; she was alive, but appeared to be in a deep coma. I checked her head very carefully, and there were no bruises, no marks of any kind, except for a small purple egg where I think she hit when she fell. At any rate, it wasn’t at all bad enough for concussion. So I still didn’t know why she was out.
As softly as I could, I left the grove, being careful not to get out of earshot, and scouted for water. I didn’t ﬁnd any open water, and there weren’t any obvious signs of water that might be just under the surface of the ground.
That was bad. We were going to need water, and soon. We all needed to wash our wounds. And with a fever that high, Tanis was going to dehydrate if she didn't drink a lot of water.
I tiptoed back to the grove, carefully avoiding as many brittle sticks and dry leaves as I could, and lay down, my mind working, trying to formulate a plan. While I was doing that, Tanis stirred, opened her eyes and sat up.
“We’re still safe,” she said, her speech slurred.
She licked her cracked lips. “You don’t have any water, do you?”
“I’ve been scouting for water. I haven’t found any yet.”
“That’s okay.” She lay back down. “Time to move on yet?”
I glanced at the sky. “Well, this canopy is dense enough that we can walk in the daytime without losing much more moisture than we’d lose by walking at night.”
“Then we might as well push on.” She sat up again, swayed, and steadied herself with a hand on the ground.
I moved over closer to her. “Look, you aren’t going to be able to get far. Let’s take it very slowly today, and accept the loss in travel time.”
“Hey, we’re all going to need water soon, and there’s none here, right? Then we haven’t any choice. We might as well go on as far as we can, before it gets worse.”
“That’s sensible, too.”
We made it to our feet again, struggled with Li, got her settled between us, and got moving.
It was the same, hour after hour. One foot in front of the other. Try not to fall, not to think about falling, because falling meant lying down and you might not be able to get up again.
The sun dropped down lower, and lower. Long russet banners slowly swept the sky, and the shadows reached up to drink us. There was still no water.
I began to search around with my eyes, looking for a place to camp. Tanis had begun muttering to herself, gradually getting lost in the labyrinth of her fever. But she staggered gamely ahead, Li’s arm wrapped around her neck.
I spotted a likely place up ahead. We were emerging from the deep forest into some kind of highland. Ahead loomed a dark range of mountains, their tops bright white. To our left was a clearing. I steered us toward it, sat us all down beneath a tree.
“What time is dinner?” Tanis mumbled. “We’ve got to meet Khaper for practice.”
She coughed, a liquid, rattling cough. Startled, I leaned her forward and put my ear to her back. She didn’t resist. What I heard scared me shitless. She was full of râles -- rattling, bubbling sounds that meant her lungs were shutting down.
Soon, I realized, we would be ﬁnished running. For quite some time, at any rate. Whether Tanis’ fever continued to rise or not, shortly she wouldn’t be able to walk. We had to ﬁnd a source of water soon, and tuck in beside it, or we were ﬁnished.
Reluctantly, I cut the rest short, urged Tanis to her feet. She struggled up, swayed and straightened, with her eyes still half-closed. “I’m coming. Tell Sesounis to wait,” she said, then opened her eyes. “Oh. Sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry. We’ve got to go on. Down there, in the foothills of the mountains, there's bound to be water.”
She peered ahead. “Yes, I see. Of course. Get Khaper, and we’ll start out.”
“Tanis,” I said softly.
“Help me with Li, if you can? Tha-a-at’s right. Good.”
We stumbled on. It was a little easier with a goal in sight, but the foothills must have been twenty klicks away. Going downhill helped some, though. Finally it was too dark to go on, and we made camp, such as it was, again.
The following day we made it. We topped a small rise, swaying with Li between us, and there, no more than a kilometer below us, was a tiny mountain lake. I almost let out a whoop of joy, then remembered that we were still on the run, and shut up.
“Tanis,” I said, “Look ahead.”
“Look, look! Water! We’ve made it to water!”
“Uh-huh.” She managed a weak smile.
It seemed to take us most of the day to cover that remaining klick. But by midafternoon we had reached the shore. We eased Li down, and Tanis collapsed immediately, limp as a ragdoll, not even bothering to drink.
“No, no,” I said, grabbing her arm and dragging her to the edge of the lake. “We’ve made it this far; now you are damn well going to drink, and get better in the bargain.”
She opened her eyes. “Oh, yes. I forgot. We have made it to water, haven’t we? Has Khaper drunk yet?”
The water looked clear and sparkling, which, of course, doesn’t mean anything. But we had no way to test it, and at any rate, no strength at all to go on. So I figured we might as well drink, and take the consequences. I scooped some up in my palm, and held it up to Tanis's mouth. She sucked it greedily. I scooped some up for myself; it was cold and sweet and unspeakably delicious.
In a few minutes, that small sip seemed to revive Tanis a bit. She looked around, crawled happily into the lake, and plunged her face into it. After a minute, I grabbed her by the hair and pulled her face out.
“Not too much at ﬁrst, okay?”
She started, and her eyes seemed to focus. “Yes, you’re right. I’m sorry.”
I helped her back to where Li was lying, and made them as comfortable as I could. Tanis fell instantly into something more of a stupor than a sleep. I carried a palmful of water to Li, then remembered not to give an unconscious person anything to drink. I sat and pondered that. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d drunk anything; it must have been days ago. Somehow, she had to take in some water soon.
I pried her jaws open with my ﬁnger, wet it with the water in my palm, and rubbed it around the inside of her mouth. Then, at a loss for anything else to do, I moved over to check Tanis. While I was doing that, I thought I heard Li say something behind me.
I turned, and her mouth was working, very slightly. Startled, I jumped back to her side and bent down. She was trying to say something. I put my ear to her lips.
“Maman, “ she whispered. “Maman, j’ai soif. “
I scrambled back to the lake, got a palmful of water, lost most of it on the way, and let what was left trickle into the corner of her mouth. She licked at it, wet her lips. “J’ai soif,“ she whispered again.
I brought several more palmsful of water. She seemed to be swallowing. “Li?” I said softly, hopefully.
But she didn’t answer. After a few more palmsful, she stopped responding and fell back into coma.
I made up sleeping mats out of downed branches. I also inspected the lake shore for game sign, and found none. It seemed okay, therefore, to camp close to the water. As soon as I was sure that Li and Tanis were comfortable, I fell onto my mat, and was instantly asleep.
The sun woke me. I jerked my head up, which hurt my eyeballs a lot, and looked around. Everything was just as I’d left it. Tanis was asleep on her mat, breathing stertorously; Li was in the same position in which I’d placed her. It was fairly late morning, but I was feeling wonderfully rested.
Without waking, Tanis began coughing, deep, wet coughs. They grew in violence until she sat upright, shaking with the force of them. When the spasm subsided, she sobbed for breath for a minute. Then she steadied down, and looked at me.
“Where are we?”
“At a place where we can rest, and get water.”
“Oh.” She looked slowly around, saw the lake. “What will we do now?” She sounded like a small child.
I arose, and kneeled by her, watching the pulse in her throat. If anything, the fever was higher than before.
“Nothing, for now,” I said. “Just rest. We’ll decide on the next move when you’re well.”
“Okay,” she said weakly, lying back down.
Distantly, I heard crashing sounds. I looked up, scanning a full circle for the source. And my heart sank.
Coming over the ridge we’d recently topped, less than a kilometer away, was a patrol of soldiers. They spotted us as I spotted them. They let out a roar, and started running down the slope toward us. I realized that our escape had been illusion; that they had merely been following us at their own pace, knowing that we had nowhere to go.
Frantically, I looked around. There was nothing, not even a large rock to throw, and I had two noncombatants on my hands.
Masorlin’s soldiers didn’t know what a noncombatant was. They’d slaughter Li and Tanis where they lay, or drag them back—which would be much, much worse.
This was it, I realized. We’d exhausted all of our resources, all of our time. Beyond this, there was only horror.
The terrible thought crossed my mind that I should kill Li and Tanis immediately, with my own hands, rather than have them fall to Masorlin. I unsheathed my athame, looked at the blade glittering in the sun, looked at Li, at Tanis. My throat choked up. “Alana, Ktahmet, moy senyo, “ I whispered; “My caring to thee, beloved sister...”
Tanis opened her eyes, raised her head. “What’s happening?”
“Masorlin’s troops. We’re under attack. Can you hold a knife?”
She shook her head.
I knelt beside her. “Tanis,” I said, formally, “’n’sennara melasti’d’amesu’i kruteno d’stetas?’ Do you want me to kill you, rather than let you be taken?”
She looked at me blankly. “No, that’s not what I meant.”
“What’s not what you meant?”
“What’s happening. Not out there. In here.”
I think it was the fever talking. It made no sense. Then the ﬁrst of Masorlin’s troops burst out of the woods, whooping. I could feel the ground shake as they came on.
“ Tanis, ’ktah’i’sta nui merras, hgytah nui s’leria...’ I, thy sister, have loved and honored thee,” I said, racing against time, trying to do the only thing I could think of that was still left to do.
“It’s gone,” she said, shaking her head.
“Together we have —- what’s gone?”
“The thing. The thing over us,” she said, struggling against exhaustion and fever to make herself intelligible. “It’s gone. I can see.”
It made no sense, and there was no time. I stood up. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Li stirring. The ﬁrst of the soldiers came on, meters away, raising his sword over his head. Behind him, a dozen more ran out of the woods.
I grappled with my own pain and weakness and exhaustion and helplessness, and threw them aside as best I could. Even so, I could barely stand, could barely keep my balance. Raising my athame, I drew my lips back from my teeth in a furious grin. No time for the rites, no time to put either Li or Tanis at peace. No time for anything at all. There was only one thing left that I could still do. Even if it was hopeless, even if it only prolonged their lives for a few moments, I’d die ﬁghting to keep Masorlin’s’s constructs from those I loved!
“I can see,” Tanis said again. “Khaper, my love, I can see!”
The ﬁrst soldier brought his sword down in a bright, glittering arc. I met it with the blade of my athame. There was a deafening clang, a terriﬁc shock to my arm, an explosion of sparks, and I fell to my knees. My athame ﬂew spinning into the air, glittering like a strobe, then lazily turning, over my head and behind me, to land bouncing at the feet of the old woman with the sword.
Old woman with the sword?
I wrenched the upper part of my body around without moving my feet, stunned and unbelieving, mouth agape. The soldier charged on past me.
Khaper raised her sword, a grim smile on her face, the brilliant sun striking her from behind and haloing her grey hair. For an instant, her sword cast a blinding reﬂection. Then it became a glittering arc in the air. She barely moved her body, just enough to sidestep, and the soldier plowed on past, stumbling and falling on his face in the lake amid a shower of foam and bright water. A red stain spread outward in the water from where he fell.
I looked again, shaking my head, trying to toss the fatigue aside. Sesounis stood to Khaper’s right and slightly back, sword up and ready. Mara emerged from behind Khaper and moved to her left.
I stood there, looking at them, and, without thinking, began to stagger toward where my athame had come to rest in the wet sand.
“Get behind me,” Khaper said to me.
I turned to her. “I’ve got to ﬁght,” I said, dizzy with exhaustion. Tanis’ eyes were shining. She attempted to rise, but couldn't make it and fell back.
“Don’t be stupid. Get behind me,” Khaper said again.
I stood, swaying on my feet, my fuses too blown to move. So Khaper, Mara and Sesounis took several swift steps forward, until they were between Tanis, Li and me and the oncoming troops.
As it turned out, there were twelve of Masorlin’s troops, and three of us capable of ﬁghting. But the three were the Unholy Three.
It didn’t take long.
I just watched, helpless and exhausted, teeth clenched in anxiety, while they hacked and slashed and stabbed. It was disgusting and beautiful. Eventually, when the last of the soldiers lay sprawled in the dirt, Khaper came slowly to us and knelt by Tanis, eyes deep and caring.
“Khaper,” Tanis said. “Khaper...”
“ Yes, little one. ’Sei m’nara nui janusso.’ I have returned to thee in love and power.”
Sesounis came over to me, Mara right behind. I was still standing, a useless activity since I couldn’t do anything else, but the stupid idea that I was still doing something worthwhile wouldn’t let me lie down.
“Sorry to take so long,” Sesounis said. “We were waiting, hoping for a break in Masorlin’s shield. And you found the only break there is. Over open water. He can’t shield over open water.”
“Of course,” I said, “I’d forgotten. That’s what Tanis meant when she said it was gone. She was talking about the shield.”
“Only you, you lunk,” Mara said, breathing hard. “Only you could start out for a tourist picnic and end up so totally mired in shit.”
“Blame the transportation company.”
“Don’t worry, she’ll get hers. But she also got you out of here.”
“Huh? How’s that?”
“Hang on.” They turned and knelt by Li. Khaper was already there, cradling Li’s head in her arms, examining her face. She looked up as I approached.
“I think it’s all right,” Khaper said.
Mara peered closely at Li’s face. “Should we do it here?”
“We could, but I think we'll have better chance of success if we do it in her own metric.”
Sesounis looked sharply at Khaper. “Can she ﬁnd her way?”
“Oh, yes. Well, almost certainly. And, if not, we can always go out and look for her.”
Mara looked as if she had bitten into a lemon. “Sure. That’s all we need.”
“Still, I think it would be best to leave as quickly as possible. Our friends here have created more than enough trouble. We should seal this metric as fast as we can, before he understands what has occurred. And what he has given up.”
Sesounis stood up swiftly. “I agree. Let’s get moving.” She helped Tanis to her feet. Khaper and I lifted Li’s inert form.
“No, no, dammit,” Sesounis said, tossing me a shiny red ball. “You don’t have to run the show. Let go of her. Rub yourself with this.”
I caught the schelva sheepishly, and rubbed it between my palms to warm it. Mara was already rubbing Tanis; Khaper and Sesounis were taking turns with Li, one holding her up, the other stroking, leaving behind the great red swaths on her skin that faded to a blush after a few seconds.
“Be gentle with her,” I said. “She’s sick.”
Khaper glanced at me. “She isn’t sick. She’s absent.”
She said, somewhat shortly, “Be patient.”
In a few minutes we were ready, my body tingling, the taste of ginger on my tongue. We joined hands, Mara and Khaper supporting Li, Tanis bleary-eyed and swaying but defiantly upright.
“We are going to have to take a roundabout route,” Khaper said, “but at this moment it’s the only way.”
We nodded. “I don’t care if it’s by way of hell,” I said, “let’s go home.”
We began the chant.
There was the familiar sense of falling, the grab of vacuum, the ﬂash of light. We were atop a ﬂat, crystalline surface beneath a violet sky. Around us, immense multifaceted crystals rose thousands of meters into the air. I could see things moving on their surfaces, but they were much too far away for me to make out what they were. The others were still chanting, and I remembered to join in.
There was a ﬂickering sensation, and we were on a ﬂat space on the side of an immense cliff. Bright, hard stars shouted down at us from a jet black sky. I looked down on a vast expanse of grey, featureless desert, pocked here and there with impact craters. Vacuum tugged at my ears, and I could no longer hear the chant.
The ﬂickering again, and it was pitchy dark. I could hear surf pounding, but couldn't see anything. I tightened my grip, afraid of losing the others.
We were in blazing sunlight, in the middle of a square of buildings. Birds ﬂew up in clouds from the tiled street. Around us, bipedal beings with loose clothing walked rapidly, going about some business or other. A few heads turned to regard us; they were humanoid, but completely covered with fur, and had huge multifaceted eyes. The chant went on.
We were in a small cave, maybe the same cave that Li had taken us to. Through the entrance, I could see the vertical cliffs rearing up, and a few brilliant moons. I didn’t see anything in the air.
Then we were in a room with glowing amber walls and a green circle set into the ﬂoor. Outside the circle, six of the K’a-Lira stood waiting.
“Beloved Mother,” Tanis breathed, “We’re home!”
We released hands, with a great sigh all around. Mara immediately strode out of the room. Sesounis and Khaper quickly picked Li up, aided by two of the K’a-Lira, and carried her out. “Sick bay,” Sesounis called over her shoulder. “Don’t take too long.” Several of the K’a-Lira helped Tanis limp slowly out of the room, following Khaper and Sesounis. Two more offered to help me, but I waved them away.
“You need medical care, too,” one of them said to me.
“I know that, but I’d rather walk myself. Besides, there's other stuff that needs attention before I lie down.” Whereupon I swayed and nearly fell. Truth was, I could barely hold it together to stand up at all. I was weary beyond telling, beyond anything I’d ever felt in my life. They took my arms, gently, and I decided to go along and be graceful about it.
We made good time through the corridors, but I saw why they felt I needed an escort. The tunnels were thronged with warriors, moving quickly and with intense purpose. I’d never seen it so crowded, so busy.
“What’s going on? What’s happened?” I asked, as we pushed through the crowd.
“Time is ending,” one said.
I remembered back to one of the very ﬁrst days, when Mara had said, “When the battle is joined, and Time ends.” A chill breeze from some distant icy peak rufﬂed up my spine.
We made it to sick bay, walked quickly through the anterooms and into the inner corridor. I was beginning to get some energy back and started peering into rooms at random, looking for Li, until I bumped into a medic, who gave me one quick look and said, “Down there, on your right.”
I pushed past several people in the doorway. Li was lying on the bed, with Khaper and Sesounis close by. “Okay, everybody, out,” Sesounis said.
The room cleared, except for the four of us. A moment later, Mara pushed in and perched on the back of a chair.
“Okay,” she said.
Khaper looked around. “We’re all here? Good. Come closer, please, and join hands.”
We did so, Mara and I looking puzzled at each other. I didn’t know what was happening.
Khaper looked around at each of us. “Li’s body is here,” she said, “but Li is not. Li herself is somewhere in the alter context. Her body is alive, but has no occupant. We four can guide her back to us, to this context, if we are very clear and very careful.”
She looked around at us again. “Listen closely. We are going to enter a different state, one in which we will be extremely vulnerable to...whatever other entities may be loose in the alter context. Once there, we are going to call to her, to attract her attention. If she can perceive us, she will come to us, and we can then guide her to our metric, to her body in this here/now.”
“What if she can’t perceive us?” I said.
“ Then it will be necessary for one or more of us to enter the alter context and search for her.”
“What do we do about being vulnerable?” Mara said.
“Our power travels with us, but not always in familiar form. We may need weapons which we do not have. In that case, we will have to invent, or improvise.”
“Any suggestions about how to improvise?”
I laughed, shakily. “Fair enough.”
“But we will be with each other. If we stay together, we should be able to remain strong.”
“Khashti,” Sesounis said, “You must do this too, but we all know you’re worn out. Don’t attempt anything foolish. The others will all be there, ready to assist anyone in difﬁculty.”
“I’ll try to remember. But you know me. Always ready for a little fun.” I swayed again, caught myself doing it and stood still and upright, just to show how much fun I was ready for.
“Any other questions?” Khaper said. “No? Good. Then let’s join hands.”
We did. Then Khaper glanced at the bed, and said, “Wait a minute, let’s put Li in the center of the circle.” So we moved the bed to the center of the room, and joined hands around it. It was a bit of a stretch for the four of us.
Khaper looked back and forth at each of us, then began a soft, crooning chant in some dialect that I didn’t think I’d heard before. On the bed, Li stirred brieﬂy, gave a long sigh, and relaxed again. I looked around, closed my eyes, and relaxed into the sound.
Immediately, I had the sensation that my eyelids were transparent. I could see the others standing, holding hands, their own eyes closed. The chant swelled, grew more liquid. They opened their eyes, and looked back at me. It was a bizarre sensation. I could feel my physical eyelids still closed, but here we were, looking at each other.
Behind us, in my vision, the room slowly faded to grey, then to no color at all. The four of us remained. I looked up; there was no illumination, yet their features were clearly visible. The chant went on.
I noticed that the Khaper in my vision wasn’t chanting. She was looking around at us. She caught my eye, and smiled faintly. Then there was a sensation like rising in an elevator. The background didn’t change, but I felt that we had moved, somehow, in some direction which I couldn’t perceive.
We ﬂoated there, still holding hands, still clearly visible to me. Then, slowly, a dim landscape took form around us. The chanting grew fainter, fading. I looked around.
Stretching away from us in all directions was a ﬂat, grey plain, broken here and there by brief hummocks and declivities. The sky was the same featureless grey, the illumination even and sourceless. We looked around, absorbing the scene, such as it was. Mara started to turn away from the group to see what was behind her, and Khaper said, “Don’t let go of anyone’s hands.” Mara paused, then completed her inspection by turning her head.
“Now it begins,” Khaper said. “Say her name.”
We did it together, in a single, focused syllable.
Khaper stood, eyes front, waiting.
“Again,” Khaper said. “Just the name.”
We did it again, more like a chant this time.
Again, we stood, waiting.
“Over and over,” Khaper said.
We made a chant of our own out of Li’s name, and it rose and fell and embroidered itself in and out of our awareness like a great tapestry of thought. We kept it up for some time.
Eventually we stopped. Khaper continued to stand quietly.
“She does not hear us,” she said.
Mara looked at her. “What now?”
“We search for her.” She turned to look directly at each of us. “We must now release our physical contact with each other. It is critical, vital to your very lives, that you not lose sight of each other, and that you neither eat nor drink anything that you may ﬁnd here. Remember.”
She slowly, reluctantly released hands. As she did so, there was a sharp tingle, like a shock, through my arms. I flapped my hands for a moment, shaking it off. She turned, and began to walk across the grey plain. We followed, keeping close.
After some time the ground became steeper, sloping downward. Eventually we were walking down a narrow canyon. The canyon continued to narrow, and the slope to increase, until we were standing in front of the entrance to a cave. There were two candles burning in niches on either side of the entrance, and above it was what looked like the skull of some kind of animal I didn’t recognize.
Khaper stopped, surveyed the entrance, then clapped her hands sharply three times. I could hear the echoes repeating within the cave for a long time.
We waited, while she stood there, impassive.
After a while there was the distant sound of scuttling within the entrance. It grew louder, and something became visible just inside. From what I could see of it in the shadows, it had huge goat hindquarters and the front end of a dog, and its shape seemed to be plastic, as though it were continually in slow change. Two horns grew from its head.
“Yes?” It hissed in a barely intelligible whisper, prolonging the last consonant.
Khaper said, “Tell thy Master that I would speak with Him.”
“And who art thou, to request audience with Him who rules here?”
“One who bears Him no malice.”
It laughed, a dry, crackling sound. “Indeed, none dare.”
“Wilt thou carry my message?”
“Thou hast nothing of interest to Him.”
“Know that if thou dost not, it shall go the harder for thee.”
It laughed its crackling laugh, and turned away as if to reenter the deeper tunnel. Khaper reached into a fold of her garment and produced an athame I’d never seen before. The blade glowed with a milky light as she held it out, and she gestured at the thing with it.
It screamed, a great, bubbling scream, and scrabbled frantically, as if trying to get away. “Stop! Stop!” it shrieked.
Khaper lowered the athame slightly. “Thou wilt carry my message?” she said softly.
“Yes! Yes, I will! Only stop, stop it! Release me!”
“Very well.” Khaper lowered the athame, which ceased glowing, and the thing scuttered away down the passage, small stones clattering from under its hooves.
“What was that?” Mara asked.
“A servant. Or perhaps the Czech ’robot’ is most apposite.”
“Of whom? Or of what?”
“You heard it. Of He who rules this place. Except its grammar is faulty.”
“Dare I ask just who that is?”
I looked from the cave to Khaper to Mara. “What do we do now?”
“We wait. The cave is deep, and it will have some convincing to do.”
So we waited. I looked off into the distance, examined the cave mouth, did sums in my head. After what seemed a fairly long time, we heard the scrabbling again. In a minute we could see the thing again, just inside the entranceway.
“Follow me,” It hissed.
Khaper motioned to us.
“Not the others. Only thyself.”
“I do not travel without them,” Khaper said.
“Then thou shalt not enter.”
Khaper raised the athame slightly.
“Wait, wait! Wait, and I shall treat for them as well.”
“I grow tired of waiting,” Khaper said. “I would speak with thy Master now. Thou shalt escort us to Him without further delay.”
The thing hissed something unintelligible, and turned away. Khaper motioned to us with her head, and we started down the tunnel.
It was long, and steep, and dank. Our footfalls echoed away below, reverberating and fading to a distant roar. Occasionally we passed a guttering candle in a niche in the wall, but it was never completely dark. The thing clattered on ahead of us, but sometimes we encountered other things, small scuttering creatures that we couldn’t clearly see. They jabbered and chittered, and occasionally ran between our legs, but other than that they seemed to be harmless. Once, though, Mara stepped on something that squelched and emitted a scream of pain. She shrank back, shivering with disgust.
The slope of the corridor ﬂattened out, and we walked on level ground for a while. The walls of the passage receded, the ceiling rose, and ahead we could see a dim ﬂickering. In a few minutes, the passage had opened out into a large cavern. The light ahead grew brighter.
Eventually we emerged into a spacious, well-lit room. In the center of the room, a long table was set with china and silver. The tablecloth was ﬁne embroidered lace, and overhead hung a large crystal chandelier, resplendent with hundreds of candles. At the far end of the room was a three-level dais, atop which stood a large, ornately carved throne.
We looked around, not sure what to make of any of it.
There was a ﬂourish of trumpets, and a dozen uniformed footmen entered through a draped archway. They lined up in rows on either side of the table, six to a side.
There was another, longer ﬂourish of trumpets, and four liveried servants took their places on the dais. There was a last, elaborate ﬂourish, and a rotund, jolly-looking fellow in a purple cape trimmed with ermine strode onto the dais and seated himself on the throne. One servant placed a gold-and-velvet crown on his head, while another handed him a silver sceptre. The trumpets stopped, their echoes rambling away to whispers in the vast cavern, and he and we regarded each other.
He had white hair that frizzed out from his head and pushed up on either side of the crown, and a jolly, ﬂorid complexion. He was clean shaven, and his cheeks looked as if he had just come in from the cold. He reached to a container on his left, took out what looked like a calabash, and snapped his ﬁngers. One of the servants handed him a set of pincers holding a glowing brand from the ﬁreplace, and he puffed the pipe alight, ﬁlling the air around his head with wreaths of smoke.
After a few pleasurable puffs, he took the pipe out of his mouth, and smiled a huge smile. The entire room seemed to brighten with it.
“Welcome!” he boomed, in a large, bass voice. “Welcome to our kingdom. Good health and long life to you, Khaper d’lirana’Sta, and to your friends!”
I looked over at Khaper, and was startled to see that she was wearing a plum-colored velvet ﬂoor-length dress, caught at the bodice with gold laces, and a thin gold tiara, from which a short lace veil covered the nape of her neck. She wore a large, transparent jewel on a thin gold chain.
That made me look around some more, to ﬁnd that Sesounis was dressed in a gorgeous, skin-tight, soft blue bodystocking. She had a grey chamois jerkin over it, fastened at the waist by a thick gold belt, and soft, dark grey buskins. Her hair was pulled back, and secured by a large, oval blue jasper clasp. Over her shoulder was a reversed lambskin sheath, from which protruded the jeweled pommel of a longsword.
I looked at Mara. The little killer was wearing a short burgundy dress over dark grey hose, and burgundy knee-high, ﬂat-soled leather boots. She wore two intricately worked leather belts, that crisscrossed each other. From one hung a jasper scabbard, in which I could see the hilt of her athame. From the other hung a leather scabbard containing a short sword. Its pommel glittered in the candlelight.
Well, I reﬂected, it’s time to look down.
I discovered that I was wearing a ﬁtted black jumpsuit. The neck was cut low, and I was wearing a large bloodstone on a silver chain. A wide silver belt cinched my waist, and a black thong supported my athame in a black leather scabbard. My red cord looped twice around my hips, the two ends falling on my left side. The jumpsuit ended in a pair of black chamois buskins. I couldn’t see what was keeping my hair back, but I tossed my head, and as nearly as I could tell, it was in some sort of ponytail.
“I thank Your Majesty for your most gracious welcome,” Khaper said, “and these my comrades as well.” She dropped a curtsy. I thought my eyes were going to drop out. “With your most gracious permission, may I introduce Mara n’Mellara’m’neris d’Sunn’a’Sta—-”
She nodded to Mara, who gaped unbelievingly at her; she nodded again, grim-lipped, and Mara, ﬁnally getting it, also dropped a curtsy, although I could see that if we ever got out of here it was going to cost Khaper a whale of a trouncing at practice.
Khaper nodded to Sesounis. Sesounis n’Merien m’neris d’Kerla’Sta—-” —Sesounis needed no prompting, and went gracefully to one knee, with a ﬂourish of her hand, and bowed her head.
“And Maramma Khashti n’Thilde m’neris d’Khashti’Sta.” Protocol, I could tell by now, was consonant with dress, so I also dropped to one knee, did the hand thing, and bowed my head. Inwardly I chuckled; when Khaper couldn’t ﬁgure out the formal lineage, she had no compunctions about fudging.
“Arise, arise, all,” he boomed, spreading his arms. “We don’t stand on formality here. Our heart is warmed by your visit. Therefore, kindly accept the hospitality of our house.” He clapped his hands, and a string quartet entered through the arras. The footmen provided them with Louis XV chairs and music stands, and they launched into a very passable performance of the ﬁrst Brandenburg concerto. The room began to ﬁll with people in elaborate formal dress. Servants in polychrome livery began ﬁlling a sideboard with hors d’ouvres and sweetmeats, and footmen circulated with silver trays of drinks in icy crystal goblets.
People seemed friendly enough. Several passed the time of day with me, and I even launched into a discussion of physics with one — at least, physics as I understood it from my non-Ktahmet’i perspective -- I discovered that I was hungry for the conversation. It was mostly classical, though; I wanted to make sure that we shared the same foundation before we got out there in left ﬁeld. Jeez, sometimes it was just so damned good to be a geek.
The rotund monarch remained seated on his throne, and a receiving line formed on his left. People ascended the dais, bowed, he nodded and smiled, and they exchanged some conversation. Then the next person stepped up, and so forth. Presently Khaper ascended the dais, curtsied, and was raised by the man himself. He clasped her affectionately on both arms, and they engaged in a rather long conversation, with much nodding on both sides. I couldn’t hear a word, of course, from where I was standing.
Then Khaper smiled one last time, did a quick curtsy, and stepped down. The monarch nodded after her, beaming.
The string quartet started in on the Tafelmusik . From time to time I checked on Mara and Sesounis. Sesounis was engaged in conversation with an elderly, silver-haired gentleman who kept nodding to emphasize points. From time to time, he sipped from his goblet, and pointed with an unlit cigar in his other hand. Sesounis was responding seriously, gesturing with her hands.
Mara was talking to a middle-aged woman in a white ball gown, who nodded pleasantly and occasionally emphasized something with a bright, merry laugh. A footman came by with a silver tray and paused. I could see Mara look at the tray, look again, and pick something up. She turned it in her hand, snifﬁng it.
I got a sudden chill. It was a chocolate trufﬂe.
I started toward her through the crowd, urgently trying to get her attention, but at the last second she shook herself and put it back on the tray, smiling at the footman, who bowed slightly and walked away.
“Whew,” I said to myself. Khaper came over.
“What do you make of this?” I murmured, although the noise level didn’t warrant low voices.
“We’ll ﬁnd out. In the meanwhile, the thing will unfold itself at its own pace. We are losing no time here.”
“I must say that I am enjoying the conversation, though.”
“Good. Have a good time. Just remember not to give anything away through speech, and neither eat nor drink of anything that may be offered you.”
“I am remembering. I’m a little worried about Mara, though.”
“She’ll be all right. There is a very long path between temptation and acceptance for Mara.”
“That may be, but it certainly makes me nervous.”
She nodded. “In the meanwhile, I am going to gather such information as I can. You would do well to do likewise.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
She walked away into the press. I turned, to ﬁnd my acquaintance with the background in particle physics waiting. The string quartet launched into the Emperor Waltz . “May I have the pleasure?” he asked, extending an arm.
I was ﬂattered—after all, it’s been years—and I carefully considered the thing for traps. Finally I decided that it was harmless to within probability one, and I really wanted to dance.
So we did. The ballroom had a magniﬁcent hardwood ﬂoor, which was properly laid over what must have been the best subﬂoor since Balanchine ordered the New York City Center redone. We whirled and spun, and as I leaned my head back ecstatically I remembered again why crystal chandeliers are the only thing to have over a dance ﬂoor. The music was glorious, intoxicating, and the other dancers exquisitely skilled. I’ve done a lot of dancing, and there is absolutely nothing in the world like a waltz. I could have gone on forever, lost in the sweeping glory of the movement.
Someone grabbed my arm, breaking the motion; it was Khaper. She smiled at my partner, leaned close, said in a low but pleasant voice: “Don’t get carried away too far.”
I gulped. “Sorry. I’ll be careful.”
“And thanks for the reminder.”
She walked away and disappeared in the crowd. I excused myself, he favored me with a magniﬁcent bow that made him look hinged at the waist, and I left the dance ﬂoor. Damn, I was thinking. Damn! And just when it was getting good.
I looked up Sesounis again, to make sure that she was okay. She was seated on an overstuffed divan, holding court with three men and two women, discussing pointillism. I shrugged, and walked away, looking for Mara.
At ﬁrst I didn’t see her, and immediately got worried. I made a quick circuit of the room, then the ballroom, trying hard not to notice the swirling couples. I still didn’t see her. I doubled back to the throne room, this time going carefully and thoroughly through all the corners, and almost immediately found her. She was perched on the edge of a table, surrounded by three eager and killingly handsome young men, discussing weaponry. Her eyes shone. It’s always been her favorite topic.
I ran into Khaper again. By this time I was comfortable enough with the situation to be ready to ask lots of questions, but she looked too abstracted. I decided to try a few anyway.
“Got a minute?”
“Certainly. There is more than enough time for everything here.”
“What are we waiting for?”
She looked around, then back to me. “Li did not come to our call. There are few instances in which she would not be able to fully respond to a summons given within the alter context itself. Therefore, there is good reason to believe that she is being restrained.”
“Restrained between metrics? Why?”
“I don’t fully understand. The Guardian’s domains are clear. But there are many things about how He thinks that are strange to me. Why He might wish to hold Li...I cannot tell. But if she is between metrics, He will know.”
“Why don’t we just ask him?”
“That is not His way.”
“And his way has to be our way?”
“Between the known contexts and known metrics, there are no others. We may, however, bend them slightly.
“But let me introduce you to the Guardian Himself. Then, perhaps, you will understand.”
She led me across the bustling, brightly lit room to the receiving line. We waited there, she with inﬁnite calm and I ﬁdgeting and peering around, while the line crept forward. Finally it was our turn. Khaper made another deep curtsy, and nodded to me; since I was wearing pants, I went to one knee instead.
The jolly king looked at us with a broad, kindly smile of welcome. “Ah, yes, your young friend. Oh, stand up, stand up. There, that’s better. We trust that you are enjoying our little gathering?”
“Most assuredly, Your Majesty.”
“Excellent. We admit that we are unfamiliar with the lineage by which you were introduced. Would you tell us more about it?”
“Certainly, Your Majesty. The Khashti’Sta are my peers in combat. It is an honorary association. My true lineage is from a demesne called New York.”
“New York. Yes. A place one must visit often, and speak of, lest it change beyond recognition. In order to conserve afﬁnity, one must continually reassert possession by naming, don’t you think?”
“Uh, yes. Particularly in New York, I suppose.”
“But these Khashti’Sta. How does that association function?”
I caught a warning glance from Khaper. I fumbled for a second, then said, “A simple sorority of combat, I’m afraid. There is not much which is noteworthy about it.”
“Well, then. Have you spent much time here in the altjeringa?“
“Oh, you mean the alter context? Not nearly so much as I would like, yet.”
“Alter, Altjeringa— hardly a difference.”
“My young companion’s abilities are still embryonic,” Khaper said, smiling at me, “but show great promise.”
He beamed at me. “Yes, yes, we can see that. We trust that as you gain more proﬁciency with your abilities, you will not consider yourself a stranger here in future, but be welcome on your own.” He nodded at Khaper. “After all, you come most highly recommended.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
He nodded pleasantly, glanced at the next person in line, turned back to us. “But we regret that affairs of state occasionally press upon us. Before we part, is there anything which you would wish to ask of us?”
Khaper looked at me, with no particular expression, and nodded. “Anything you like,” she said quietly.
I was stumped for a few seconds. Then, “Would Your Majesty mind taking a moment to explain how you came to your kingdom?”
He gave a great, booming laugh, then regarded me, eyes twinkling. “A question more suited to a long evening by the ﬁre, to be sure...and you may consider that to be an invitation which you may accept at your leisure. There is no brief way in which we could render that intelligible to you in words. However, if you wish, we will attempt another way.”
I glanced at Khaper. She gave a slight nod. “If Your Majesty pleases, I do so wish.”
“Very well.” He rested his hands in his lap, and caught my eyes.
We stood like that for a second. Then I was possessed of a single pulse of emotion, so poignant, so inﬁnitely sad, that I sobbed with it, one solitary sound before I could cut it off.
He nodded. “It is sufﬁcient, is it not, for now? We thought so. Then please enjoy the ball, and may the remainder of your stay be as pleasant. Khaper, my dear, it is always a pleasure.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
We did our separate respects, and stepped down. My head was swimming.
Khaper regarded me closely. “You are all right, aren’t you?”
“Of course. But, wow, that was intense.”
She nodded. “I thought it would be. I couldn’t predict precisely what he would do, but at any rate I would not have allowed you to be harmed. I felt that it could only be educational.”
I shook my head, to clear it. “Educational. Yes, that’s the word, all right. Khaper, just who is this guy?”
She glanced at the dais, grim-lipped. “Shortly, I believe, you will see. But even then, I am not at all sure that we will really know.”
“Well, for—-are you sure that this plan is going to help us get Li back?”
“I’m afraid that under the circumstances, there is no other.”
“Well, when do we start to do something?”
“Don’t worry. In a few minutes, or perhaps a few hours, something will be done, whether we do it or not.”
I shrugged, and walked away. Shortly I saw Mara again, in a very animated discussion with another group. They seemed a little too intense. I ﬁgured that it had to be about weaponry, but this time it was more of an argument, and it was heating up. Interested, I strolled across the ﬂoor toward them. Mara was talking very intently with someone, who was making a point by pounding his ﬁst into his palm. Several people standing around were talking to him over his shoulder, trying to calm him down.
One or two moved to Mara’s side, and exchanged a few words with her. This is looking interesting, I thought. Perhaps a barroom brawl in the making? The young man’s face was ﬂushed, whether with excitement or alcohol or anger I couldn’t yet tell. But he was certainly getting more excited. Then he began to cough. One of the people behind him handed him a glass of water, and he took a swallow; the coughing subsided. He handed the glass back, returned his attention to Mara, and said something with great emphasis. Whoever was behind him reﬁlled the glass and handed it to Mara; absently she put it to her lips, watching the fellow, and took a sip.
“Mara!“ I shouted, breaking into a run. “Don’t!“
There was a ﬂash of electric blue from the glass to her mouth, then back down her arm and across the air to the pitcher. Instantly the ﬂash leaped into the air to the crystal chandeliers, which exploded into violet ﬂame. There was a burst of brilliant light, a concussion, and total darkness. But, unfortunately, not silence. All around me, I could hear slithering, shrieking, gibbering. To my left, something laughed, a long, sobbing sound.
Then there was light. Khaper was holding the strange athame over her head, and the light came from its blade, which glowed blindingly white. In that illumination, I looked around.
The ballroom was gone. Everything, the people, the tables, the dais. We were in a huge, grey-walled cavern. The ﬂoor was thick with small, dog-sized, scuttering creatures, and it was they that made the sounds. They were vaguely sickening to look at, and I felt that it was more than unfamiliarity that made them that way.
I looked around for the other three. I immediately saw Sesounis, but didn’t see Mara. And then I saw that something remained from the ballroom. The throne was still there, although it now rested on the rock of the cavern ﬂoor.
There was something seated on it. I looked, and looked away, nauseated.
It said, in a dry, leathery voice that seemed to be partly inside my head, “It is a pity that we could not have enjoyed each other’s company longer.”
“Yes,” Khaper said. “But our time grows short. Thou knowest what we seek.”
“Indeed. And thy companions, as well.” It seemed to gloat.
“Khaper!” I shouted, my voice booming and rattling in the cavern. “Where’s Mara?”
Khaper glanced at me, helplessly.
“Thy friend belongs to me,” said the Thing. “As, now, do all of you. She has commingled her substance with Mine, and thus her essence, as well.”
“My friend came at my behest,” Khaper said, urgently. “I am solely responsible for her being.”
“Ahhh,” the Thing in the throne said. “But unfortunately not. Thy friend entered of her own volition, though, true, at thy urging. Her will was her own. For thee and thy remaining friends, thy essences need not be conserved. But for the foolish one, she shall remain as one of My creatures forever.”
It gestured at a small box on a table to its right. The box had air holes punched in it. As the thing ceased speaking, and the echoes of its words rolled away into the darkness, I could hear a tiny voice from inside the box, calling frantically, agonizingly.
“Khaper!” it said, in its tiny, tinny voice. “Help me!”
“Mara!” I shouted.
“Khashti! Where are you? Help me!”
I tried to run forward, couldn’t. I couldn’t stir, couldn’t move a muscle.
“Khaper! What’s going on?”
She looked at me helplessly. “I had no idea she could be deceived,” she said. “This was not my plan.”
“Ahhh,” the Thing said, “thy plan. Yes. The other one of whom thou spoke. Unfortunately, she is not subject to my context, wherever she may be. If, that is, her essence is still conserved. But for thee, before I drink thy lives, perhaps we may yet have a brief sport.”
The cave shuddered, wavered, changed. There was a ﬂickering, and bright light crashed down on us. We were standing on the sand ﬂoor of a great arena. High wooden walls encircled it. Outside the walls, tier upon tier of seats rose to meet a bright blue sky, and the tiers were full of people, shouting, yelling. Bright banners danced in the breeze, and the sun, directly overhead, beat down on us like a glowing copper shield.
Across from us, in the royal box, the King was back on his throne, waving and smiling. He signed for quiet, and instantly the breathless hush of thousands of indrawn breaths settled on the arena. Distantly I could hear the wind whistling in the top tiers, and the banners snapping and cracking.
He called down to us, “We thank you for being so kind as to give yourselves over to this.”
I looked at Khaper and Sesounis, then down at myself. We were naked, weaponless. I found, however, that I could move again. Sesounis ﬂexed her arms, rubbing her biceps. Khaper looked up at the royal box.
“We have known each other for a long time, O Guardian,” she said. “I do not think that the association can be terminated quite so abruptly.”
“True,” he said. “But then again, in all that time, neither you nor anyone of yours have ever allowed your essences to commingle with ours. We meet on different ground now.”
For an instant, his smile disappeared, and the entire scene wavered; for an instant, we were back in the cave, and the throne was occupied by the Thing. I tasted bile on the back of my tongue.
Then we were back in the bright arena. I ran to Khaper, embraced her. Her eyes were distant, sad. Sesounis ran over.
“What now?” Sesounis said.
Khaper gave us a helpless look. “We can try to ﬁght our way out, of course. But you can be sure that whatever He sends against us will be greater than our abilities to survive.”
“We’ll ﬁght, of course,” I said.
“Of course. But this time, I am afraid that our essences are forfeit, as he says. The Drinker of Life will be slaked at last, for a time.”
“And what about Ktahmet? Masorlin?”
She shrugged. “Without us, the ’Sta will have to do such as they can. A death in alter context is a real death. Except...” her face twisted.
“He does have the ability to preserve essences, even after one’s physical and personal deﬁnitions have been extinguished. But what He does with them is never pleasant. You would better wish for complete destruction.”
I thought of the Thing on the throne, and shuddered.
The King waved his hand. There was a ﬂourish of bright, spitty fanfare trumpets.
“You said we could invent. What about that?”
“Only valid if we have not entered into his context. Unfortunately, because of Mara’s indiscretion, we have done so.”
A bad time for blood sisterhood. The King signed to a footman, who held out a purple velvet cushion with something on it. The King picked it up, idly inspected it for a moment, then looked at us.
“Something to make your sport slightly more interesting,” he said, and tossed it toward our feet. It glinted in the air, and landed in a spurt of sand.
I walked to it, and picked it up. It was Khaper’s athame.
“Well,” I said, “at least we get to do something.” I walked over and handed it to Khaper. “It’s yours, so you get the privilege.”
She held out her hand, took the knife, a grim smile on her lips. “So this will not be entirely ignoble, eh? So be it.”
The King waved his hand again, and the fanfare trumpets let out a blast of bright sound. At the far end of the arena, a heavy wooden gate slid up. There was a long pause.
Then something huge squeezed through the opening, breaking off the doorposts with a thunderous cracking as it did so. It looked at us, and snarled.
It was a snologister.
Sesounis and I looked at each other, then at Khaper. “Great Blue Mother,” Khaper breathed.
Frantically, I looked around. There was nowhere to hide, nothing to climb. I glanced at Khaper’s athame, and laughed.
“That thing is useless against one of those,” I said.
Sesounis looked from the snologister to me. “This is hopeless. The best we can do is to distract it from each other, keep it confused, and hope that one of us comes up with something.”
“Have you come up with anything since we encountered the last one?”
“I didn’t think so.”
“Here it comes!“
The snologister reared up and charged us. “Scatter!” I shouted, unnecessarily. We raced away from the center. The sand was packed, but we were barefoot; it wasn’t possible to get a good foothold for running. Sand grated underfoot, spurted up as we ran. The crowd roared.
The snologister decided to chase me ﬁrst. I have never run so purposefully in my life. I was gasping for air, and I could feel the ground shake as it came closer. Behind me, I could hear Sesounis scream at it, a wordless“Eeeeyahhh!”
For a heart-bursting moment, I thought that it was going to ignore her, and run me to ground. Then it sheared off, and thundered after her. I pulled up, and turned. Sesounis was racing away, sand spurting up around her legs, with the snologister ponderously gaining speed behind her and Khaper in hot pursuit
“Aaarrrgh!” Khaper shouted at it, but it didn’t slow down. Sesounis didn’t turn to look. Khaper screamed at it again, waving her arms, and it sheared off, sand billowing around it in great tan clouds, and started after her. It was my turn again, and I was still gasping.
I raced toward it at an oblique angle, yelling and waving. The hardest thing was the yelling while I was running, when all my lungs wanted to do was ﬁll and empty as quickly as they could. Khaper was amazingly quick, and she cut back and forth in front of it, counting on its ponderousness to gain her time. Then it noticed me, and turned in my direction, roaring with rage and frustration.
I took off at an angle, an idea forming in my head. I ran as fast as I could straight toward the wall below the royal box, trying to estimate from the noise and ground tremor how close the thing was. I slowed slightly to let it get closer, heard Sesounis shout with fear. I could smell its awful, rotten breath, hear it panting. The wall loomed up, higher and nearer, the bright royal banners waving and snapping, and I ran straight into it at full speed, jumped at it at the last possible instant with my feet, somersaulted off, and scuttled away along the wall.
The snologister slammed on the brakes, but it was far too huge, and had been too intent on me. It crashed into the wall at full speed.
The impact was thunderous. The ground heaved,and the timbers of the wall bulged outward, creaking and groaning, and burst open in a shower of splinters and dirt. The royal box slipped to one side, and one end dropped, throwing courtiers and footmen into the air. The crowd screamed, and people scrambled frantically to escape, climbing over each other in haste. The snologister, suddenly confronted with a seemingly inﬁnite food supply, let out an ear-torturing roar and attacked the ﬁrst rows, siezing people in its enormous jaws and throwing them, torn and bloody, into the air. Blood fountained and sprayed, glittering like millions of jewels in the brilliant sunlight.
“Let’s get out of here!” I shouted to Khaper. She stared, unbelieving, at the carnage. “Let’s go!” I repeated.
She walked, a bit unsteadily, toward the breached wall, then broke into a run, Sesounis behind her. We climbed over the wrecked timbers and dropped to the ground, close to where the snologister was savaging the screaming, struggling crowd. We stayed behind it, out of its sight, but most likely it was far too busy to have noticed us anyway. There was a walkway around the inside of the wall, and we pounded down it, searching for an aisle; found one, turned into it, and pushed our way through the shouting crowd. People were frantically trying for the exits, and we pushed right along with them, making sure that we didn't fall and be trampled.
The exit door loomed up, and we struggled through...then stopped.
There was nothing beyond the door but billowing grey clouds. The crowd of people disappeared soundlessly into it.
I turned to Khaper, who looked at me, eyes sad and compassionate. She shrugged helplessly.
“This is a very small locus,” she said. “I’m sorry, Khashti.”
Abruptly, it became dark and silent.
Slowly, light returned. We were back in the cave, and the Thing was back on its throne. Once again, I couldn’t move.
My heart sank to my shoes.
“That was most entertaining,” it said, in its slithery voice. “I thank thee for the pleasant diversion. Thou art indeed resourceful.”
“Thanks for the chance,” I said bitterly.
Khaper said, “No, Khashti. Don’t anger It. It will only go harder for you later. We’re ﬁnished.”
“Wise, indeed,” said the Thing. “And now, I tire of this. And I thirst for thy essence.”
“Wait,” Khaper said. “It is thou and I who possess the common history. Let these two go free; they are nothing to you.”
“No more of this,” it said, and beckoned.
I felt an irresistible psychic pull. In front of me, both Khaper and Sesounis swayed forward a step.
“Closer,” it hissed. “Come closer.”
We swayed helplessly forward again. The throne and the Thing in it grew larger.
“Still closer,” it said.
My body was helpless, locked to the will of the Thing, and I could feel my mind being inexorably drawn forward as well. A corner of it wondered if I would actually come to desire extinction as it arrived.
We were very close. Loathingly, sickeningly close.
The voice came from behind us, clear and powerful, echoing in the cavern. I was still paralyzed, couldn’t turn to see what was happening.
The Thing said, in its smooth, hissing voice, “Who dares?”
“Release them,” the voice said again.
“Ah, yes. Thou, too, welcome to my demesne. Hast thou come to watch their essences combine with mine, or to offer thine own as well?”
I felt the slightest lessening of my paralysis, and I struggled to turn my head around. I did.
Behind me, high up on a rock ledge, stood a familiar ﬁgure, holding a longbow at full draw upon the throne.
“ This is a true alter weapon,” Li said, “in case you mistake it. It can kill here truly, as well.”
“Li,” I said, like a holy name. It had worked, after all. She'd found us. Well, maybe it'd taken a little longer than we'd planned. Maybe too long...
The Thing laughed its dry, leathery laugh. “Thou darest much.”
“I know what I am doing.”
“Then thou knowest the futility of thy position. Pray, then, come down of thine own volition, lest I damage thee.”
“I haven’t time for this. Release them. Then perhaps we can talk.”
“Then thy folly shall swallow thee. Thine essence, too, is bright and clean. I would drink it, as well. Do, therefore, join us.” It gestured toward the rock.
Li swayed forward, her aim faltering. Then she tightened up, and loosed the arrow. It sang through the dark air. The creature beside the throne screamed, clutched at its body, and exploded in a burst of oily smoke.
The scream and the subsonic pulse of the explosion thundered away through the outermost reaches of the cave, and slowly died to nothing. There was silence.
“That was a demonstration,” Li said grimly, nocking and drawing down on the throne. “The next one is for you.”
There was a considerable pause. Creatures near the throne began to slowly slink away, choking and gobbling to each other.
The Thing said, “Dost thou think that the Guardian may be bested so easily? Who art thou, to do so?”
“Look upon me,” Li said through her teeth. “Look upon my essence.”
There was another pause, and then the Thing whimpered, softly, once. On the cave ﬂoor, creatures were moving back away from us, trying to be unobtrusive. I had time to think: when Masorlin sent that surge of energy at me in his castle alter context, Li had thrown herself in the way, had intercepted it -- and, somehow, it had changed her, and now some alter force I couldn’t begin to imagine was running through her like a current. That was how she’d brought down Masorlin’s castle. That was what the Guardian saw when he “looked upon her essence”.
I didn’t get the chance to wonder if it was permanent, or if I was even halfway correct. “Well,” the Thing said, “it has been a lovely afternoon, has it not? I have enjoyed thy company, and that of thy friends. Perhaps another time, we may essay the test.”
I felt the compulsion leave me, and I nearly fell to the ground with the release. Khaper and Sesounis swayed backwards, then recovered.
“Wait,” I said. “What about Mara?”
“Thy friend is no longer of thee. While I consent to thy freedom, her essence is forfeit to Me.”
“What’s this about Mara?” Li said.
“She allowed her essence to commingle with something here,” Khaper said.
“And therefore,” the Thing said, “she is no longer bound to thee. Go, the rest of thee, and forget her. Her essence is mine.”
Li glanced over at Khaper. Their eyes met, and then Li looked at the Thing again for a long time.
“Tell me, oh Guardian,” she said softly, “whether, at this time and place, you sincerely wish to try your strength with me?”
“Another time, perhaps,” the Thing hissed. “Take her as well.”
There was a ripple in the air, and Mara stood before us, blinking, swaying slightly. I ran forward and hugged her. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” she said, “just a little woozy. I’ve never been so scared in my life.”
“We’re not out of here yet.”
Li said, still at full draw, “All of you, climb up here with me.”
I have never skinnied up a rock so fast in my life, and I was behind Khaper. I had no idea that she could climb like that. In an amazingly short time, the four of us were on top with Li.
She released the draw, took the arrow's nock out of the string.
“Farewell, Guardian,” she said.
“Perhaps we shall meet again, under more pleasant circumstances,” the Thing said.
“I think perhaps we will.” She turned to us. “Join hands around me. I need to hold this locus stable while we exit.”
We did, and as soon as we had completed joining hands the cave rippled, ﬂowed, and faded out.
I shook my head. Instead of returning to the grey, featureless plain, we were back in Li’s room in sick bay, holding hands around her bed.
We all let loose a great whoosh of relief, and loosed hands. Then we gathered around the bed. Li was still in coma, eyes closed, cheeks sunken.
“Great Mother, that was stupid,” Mara said.
“Taking that drink of water.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Sesounis said, putting her arm around Mara’s shoulder. “It was a setup. They ﬁgured out who was best to involve in an emotional discussion, who was likely to make a perfectly natural slipup, and they stuck it to you. It was very carefully orchestrated.”
“No excuse,” Mara said, morosely.
“Sure it is,” I said.
Khaper went to her, placed her arms gently on Mara’s shoulders. “Young one, they spent a great deal of time working into your mind. The inﬂuences were extremely subtle. It was not simply a thoughtless moment. Virtually the same thing happened to Khashti, except that I saw it coming in time.”
“That’s right,” I said. “If Khaper hadn’t been standing there, I would’ve been the dead duck, not you.”
“’Dead duck’? Always another idiom to learn.”
Behind us, Li gave a great sigh. Khaper released Mara’s shoulders, turned quickly to the bed, and kneeled beside it. Li stirred again, and sighed. Then her eyes slowly opened. She looked around.
“Hi, folks,” she said weakly. “Are we having fun now? When's breakfast?”
We cheered. Sesounis and I high-fived, then hugged wildly. Khaper and Li embraced, crying. In a minute, Tanis stuck her head into the room, and cheered too. “I could hear you guys all the way down in my room,” she said. “You are noisy celebrators.” She walked to the bed, a little unsteadily, and embraced Li as well. “No, don’t kiss me,” she said, rubbing noses. “I might still be contagious.”
“Oh, stop worrying,” Li said. They smooched affectionately.
“Just what did you do back there?” Tanis said.
“Back where? With the Guardian?”
“No, back in Masorlin’s castle.”
Li’s eyes became distant, cryptic. “I don’t know how to explain it, even to talk about it.”
Khaper said, “Just say whatever comes into your mind, and let us sort it out.”
“Okay. Well. Something...happened to me, back there. When I tried to open the portcullis? Masorlin caught Khashti off guard, preoccupied, and he started to...well, to do what I think the Guardian called drinking her essence. I could feel him doing it to her. It was disgusting. I couldn't let it happen, so I grabbed her and did the only thing I could: I put myself between them, and he started to...drain me instead. But then something went wrong, and the flow went the other way.”
Khaper said, “The storm.”
“Yeah. The thing that happened that threw us into the torture chamber? Something to do with being hit by the lightning.”
Khaper nodded. “I’d been suspecting this.”
“It wasn’t lightning, exactly. Know how a leader stroke precedes the main stroke? Well, when I botched the transit, I think I created something like a leader. But not only for the lightning... for a different kind of alter force, too. Not electrical, though the lightning made it seem like that. Whatever it was, it’d already changed me a little. Maybe it would’ve worn off after a while on its own. But when Masorlin tapped into me, it screwed things up.”
Sesounis narrowed her eyes. “Screwed things up how?”
Li shrugged, looking totally confused. “Dunno. How do you describe this stuff?” She spread her arms, palms up. “The polarity was reversed, or something. I didn’t really have anything to do with starting it, but when I felt it happening I just grabbed on and did whatever I could to help it along.“
Mara grinned. “You sure did.“
“Yeah, and it worked, it...happened. Instead of draining my essence, or whatever you call it, some part of Masorlin got sucked out of him into me. It happened so fast that neither of us had time to stop.”
She looked up at us. “And I’ve become different. Part of me is still in alter context. And that part is—-is—-more powerful.”
Khaper said, “I think I understand. But we can discuss it later.”
Li looked into Khaper’s eyes, and something passed between them. “Yes,” she said.
I shook my head. “What was that scene all about? Why did he go through that charade of presenting himself as a king?”
“What king?” Mara said.
“What king?...I mean the throne, the crown, the outﬁt...”
She looked genuinely confused. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You don’t? —-what did you see in the cave, then?”
“I saw a throne, all right, but there was an old woman on it. She was wearing a black cloak and she had a long, wooden staff...”
Sesounis looked up from where she was kneeling next to Li. “What are you guys talking about? There was a throne, of sorts, but it was more like a leather chair, and there was a guy in a grey business suit in it...”
Khaper looked gently amused.
“The Guardian’s demesne is not a consensual locus,” she said.
We all looked at each other, speechless. “Well, for the love of—-” I ﬁnally got out.
Mereth burst in, in full battle gear. “Do you guys know what’s happening outside?”
“No,” Sesounis, Mara, Tanis and I said together.
“I think so,” Khaper said, rising, one hand still on Li’s shoulder.
“We’re under attack! It’s like nothing we’ve seen before. It’s not just another skirmish—Masorlin is throwing everything he’s got at us.”
Khaper nodded. “Yes.”
Sesounis snapped her head around to look at her. “How did you know that?”
“Masorlin’s awareness is in many ways deeper than ours. I’m sure he was aware, almost from the moment it happened, that Li had discovered something about him, a deep and fundamental vulnerability. Once he was sure of that, of course he would attack and try to destroy us immediately, before we can interpret and implement Li’s discovery.”
“ Well, what the hell is her discovery?”
Li looked helplessly at us. “I don’t know! I mean, I don’t know how to say it. I only know how to do it.”
“Can you do it now, in battle against him?”
She chewed her lip. “Probably not. It will take some time for me to ﬁgure this out, or to teach someone else.”
Sesounis looked around at us. “Then we’re going to have to go forward anyway. We’ve all trained. We’ve all established prior context. And now that Khashti’s back, we’ve all remembered.
"It's time for the ﬁnal discipline. It's time for the Opening of the Gate."
* * *