Chapter 1: The Upheaval
Chapter 2: Naming Day
Chapter 3: Grandmother’s Story
Chapter 4: Elusive Reality
Chapter 5: The Red Night
Chapter 6: The Wyrd Sisters
Chapter 7: The Descent
Chapter 8: The First Shell
Chapter 9: The Osdillion
Chapter 10: The Darkness Breathes
Chapter 11: The Origin of Darkness
Chapter 12: The Footsteps of Javel
Chapter 13: The Darkness Burns
Chapter 14: The Unwaxen Moon
Chapter 15: The Fire of Life
Chapter 16: The Abyss
About the Author
THE LAST MAN (BOOK 1)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, businesses, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is entirely coincidental.
THE LAST MAN (BOOK 1)
Copyright © 2016 Tobias Wade
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Edited by Brenda Pierson and Matt Larkin
Cover by Juhi Larkin
Published by Incandescent Phoenix Books
[_Two faces peer into the looking glass, _]
Each gazing to the center.
‘Who is on the other side?’ both ask.
[_That depends on which will enter. _]
[_I am immovable. I am the single point of space that defies the dance of time. I am the solid form cast by the shadow of humanity. When I tell you that I am still, the world no longer turns. _]
-Javel of Omar, the First Man
“Do you believe in monsters?” Tom asked. “Like the ones from Grandmother’s stories?”
“I believe you’re a monster,” Farris replied. “Don’t think I didn’t see you threatening the goats with your wooden sword earlier.”
Farris regarded her younger brother smugly from where they sat weeding the earthy potato patch. He really did look like a monster now. He was kneeling in the dirt, but had somehow managed to cover his entire face and body with the pebbled brown soil, leaving only his pale blue eyes peeking through. That’s what thirteen-year-old boys did, Farris supposed. It was strange to think of him as a teenager now. He had always seemed so much younger by the way he played: all life and laughter and thoughtless swinging movements.
“Am not a monster!” Tom replied, baring his sharp little teeth, “and I wasn’t threatening anything. I was protecting them!”
“Protecting them from what?” Farris laughed, causing her short locks of tangled blonde hair to tumble into her face. Scowling, she tried to brush them back behind her ears. Wait, hands are too dirty—she stopped her filthy fingers just in time. “There’s nothing dangerous in the Painted Valley. Unless you’re afraid of the chalk carvings!”
Farris gestured at the endless pictures scattered amongst the hills around the valley. Some of them were scribbled onto rocks in faded white lines, visible through the sparse trees of the Morash woods that struggled amidst the rocks. Others were carved straight into the hills that stretched hundreds of feet across. The largest was that of a giant serpent that nearly coiled around the entire valley.
“I was protecting them from the monsters, of course!” Tom declared. “Don’t you ever listen? Grandmother said they live underground, right below our feet.”
“Of course I was listening,” Farris said. “Some thoughts are much older than the thinker, some stories are much older than the teller, and some of the paintings on the hills are older than the hills themselves.” Farris mimicked Grandmother’s cackling voice as she recited the verse the old woman used to begin each of her stories.
“Then you know they’re real!”
Farris shrugged, sending little waves rippling down the light green sundress she wore. She would always listen to Grandmother’s stories, but that didn’t mean she believed in them. How much truth could there be in flowers the size of a house, or a city inside a bottle, or the old magic of naming the world? They were all just stories. No one really knew where the carvings came from, so people simply made up the history any way they pleased.
“It’s not like there’s anything else to do in this boring town,” Farris replied. “I can walk from one end to the other in five minutes and not find anything fun to do.”
“You’re only bored because you’re a chicken. I wanted to climb up to Giant’s Ridge and find the head of the chalk serpent,” Tom said.
“I’m not a chicken; I just didn’t want to. Besides, Mother said it was dangerous up there.”
“Well, you seem to have fun with Sasha, whatever you do with him.” Tom stuck out his tongue.
“Chores. All I do with him is chores,” Farris said, knowing Tom was too clever to believe it. “He helps Dad with the animals, and I help his dad when he needs something for the clockwork shop.”
Farris really had to do something about her hair. She reflexively reached for it again with her dirty hands, but caught herself in time. The next attempt involved rubbing her head against a shoulder to clear her vision instead. Minor visibility was restored for a moment before the mess flopped back into her face. She blew at it half-heartedly.
“I doubt that. You never do chores,” Tom said, casting resentful glances at her as she paused to fix her hair. “Every time we have a job to do, I end up doing most of it. You just sit around and complain.”
“Yeah? Well, you’re just rolling around in the dirt now. You’re supposed to be pulling things up from the ground, not planting yourself into it.”
“Well, you should keep your hair down—you look better when I can’t see your face!” Tom shot back. “Anyway, it keeps the sun off and you’re getting burnt. Your skin is as wrinkly as a leather tunic!”
“No it isn’t, you ass. No one gets wrinkles at sixteen.”
“You’re starting to look like Grandmother already!” Tom giggled. “Better hide from the sun or Sasha will see you and run away.”
“If you’re going to be like that then maybe I will go hide. Then you’ll have to do all the weeding yourself.” Farris stood from where she had knelt beside the pale, leafy potato-tops that huddled shyly in the garden. All that work for these chewy, starchy lumps. What a waste of her talent.
“Wait! Not fair! Get back here,” Tom protested with wide, panicked eyes.
“Oh no, you were right the first time. This is too much work for a fragile and delicate creature like me. Better leave this to the big strong men.” Farris smirked.
“I guess that rules me out too then,” Tom huffed. “I don’t count as a man until after my coming of age ceremony tonight! You had better help me or I’ll tell Grandmother.”
“Then say that the sun gives me a rosy and charming complexion. In those words,” Farris demanded, crossing her arms over her chest and pouting like a potato. He’ll be nicer when he realizes how much he needs me! She grinned in anticipation of his apology.
“The sun gives you a rosy and charming complexion. In those words,” a deeper voice uttered obligingly from the side.
The grin vanished. Farris jumped into the air and spun to see Sasha watching her from outside the garden. She was sure her complexion really did match the description now, although that hadn’t come from the sun. Sasha was three years older than Farris, a fact she was keenly aware of, and he watched her now with eyes that smiled more than his mouth. His lean body rested against the fence in a way that hinted at unused strength.
“How long have you been there?” she demanded. Maybe Sasha would think she was red from anger instead, although even that was mostly directed at herself for not noticing him sooner.
“Long enough to say I wouldn’t run even if you did end up looking like leather someday. I just finished helping your dad shear the sheep, but the horses could still use some exercise. Care to join me for a ride?”
Farris took a quick breath to compose herself. Sasha was making an excuse to spend time with her? It was usually the other way around. She opened her mouth to reply, but before she could speak Tom’s voice interrupted in a blank and metallic tone.
“I’m sorry, Farris has mentally vacated. While she would love to spend time with you—more than she would ever tell you—she still has work to do here. She requests that you come back later, and anticipates fawning over you and melting when you speak at a later date.”
“You don’t get to speak for me!” Farris blurted out. Where had all of her carefully constructed poise gone? She spared a quick glance at Sasha. His face was blank. Infuriatingly blank. Her glower returned to skewer her brother.
“Yes I do, and I will until there is nothing in this garden besides you and me and the potatoes,” Tom said stubbornly.
Sasha chuckled. “Tonight then? Come by the workshop after dinner. I’ve been helping my dad build this amazing grandfather clock I want to show you.”
“Deal. Be there,” Farris replied, a bit too quickly.
Sasha was still standing at the fence. Was she supposed to say anything else? Better not risk it. Farris did her best to smile sweetly and not let her face show any of the murderous intent she held for her brother. Sasha hesitated for a moment longer, and then chuckling again he turned to lope off in his distinct gait that seemed to indicate he had not yet realized quite how tall he had grown.
Farris found her eyes following him as he placed one hand on the fence beside the dirt road and swung both of his legs through the air to land in a cloud of dust on the other side. Sasha looked back over his shoulder and cocked his head as though amused she was still watching. Farris was suddenly aware of how interesting the potato leaves were. Did they always contain several shades of green? By the time she glanced up again, Sasha was gone.
Tom broke into a guffawing laughter. Just don’t look at him, she told herself. The laughter only got louder. She glanced up to see her brother rolling in the powdered earth with exaggerated motions of uncontrollable mirth.
“Oh shut it,” Farris grumbled, kneeling back into the soil. Had her knees been this dirty the entire time? Sasha probably wouldn’t have noticed something like that. Or maybe he did, and he was just too polite to say anything. Farris hated that politeness. How was she supposed to know what he was thinking when he always said the right thing?
“You can’t visit him tonight though!” Tom halted his fake laughter abruptly. “You promised to be at my ceremony!”
“Coming of age isn’t a big deal. Don’t you remember mine? It was just you, me, our parents, and Grandmother. We had some soup and Grandmother said some cryptic nonsense. It was nothing special.”
“Well, mine is going to be a big deal! She said there would be a surprise for me!”
Farris rolled her eyes. “I’ll stay for the story, then I’ll go. Hurry up, I want to have a chance to wash first.”
The work was tedious but easy, and Farris suffered from little besides boredom as the afternoon dragged on. Tom kept the quiet away with silly words and thoughts, or when Farris wouldn’t respond, he would break into one of the many songs Grandmother had taught them over the years. Farris grimaced in mock disgust as Tom sang, but his voice was clear and pure and the old songs were beautiful in their warbled melodies.
Grandmother had often spoken of the power of words and names, although the songs meant nothing to Farris besides providing a pleasant distraction. Grandmother had always been insistent they both learn the words by heart, and she knew the song Tom was singing now. Her own voice had never sounded right to her though , so she merely hummed along as he went.
[_I was away, or so I thought, _]
[_When I looked at the skies. _]
[_The stars were strange, far out of range. _]
[_The lands were fair, so I did stare. _]
[_For where I was, I now forgot, _]
[_but I could not disguise: _]
[_My wonder at my whimsy, _]
[_My whimsy at my wandering. _]
[_My wandering way of thinking, _]
[_In pondering I am linking, _]
[_All the things around me, _]
[_To all that’s left at home. _]
[_I think that I must be away, _]
[_For on strange wings I’ve flown. _]
[_I was away, or so I thought, _]
[_When I looked all around. _]
Bole and bough had speech allowed,
[_Beast and call had me enthralled. _]
[_Each and every one had sought, _]
[_And I am what they found. _]
[_My silent way of wishing, _]
By wishing I was showed.
My show is but a wonder.
The road I’m on a blunder.
All the things around me,
Echo all that’s left at home.
[_I think that I must be away, _]
[_For I must love to roam. _]
I was away or so I thought,
When I slept in my bed.
The blankets burned but I discerned,
[_The dream I dreamt in head unkempt, _]
[_That if on journey pillow brought, _]
[_Where would my mind be led? _]
[_To ways of endless winding, _]
[_Winding to the sea. _]
[_To see a city in a glass, _]
And ask a question to be asked,
[_And feed a thought with thought at last, _]
[_ I drifted off to sleep._]
Farris and Tom emerged from the field several hours later, exhausted but victorious. The sun had wandered deep into the purple sky, which in turn had grown thick with clouds as the day diminished. The autumn wind had picked up its pace: a relief at first to cool Farris’s brow, although it bit with a sharp intention as the sun continued its westering march. Everything was quiet, and peaceful, and still.
They were only a few dozen paces from home when the world began to stir. Farris felt the ground give a mighty sigh under her feet as though it had just recognized the weight of its burden after all these years. The sigh grew into a sonorous groan. Where was it coming from? Why did it feel as though the whole earth was moaning in pain?
“Do you hear that?” Farris froze. She strained her ears, attempting to pinpoint a direction. The sound seemed to be coming from everywhere at once.
“Monsters!” Tom yelped, his little body visibly stiffening.
“Shh! There it is again!” Farris bent her ear to the ground and pressed it against a large flat stone. She felt the stone trembling against her skin like a frightened animal. This moan was louder, and it was growing more intense by the moment. Farris felt the vibrations in her bones more than she heard it with her ears. The earth around her was shaking now. Little rocks began to bounce and roll on their own accord.
“Look at the hills!” Tom gasped, gesturing wildly in the distance.
Farris lifted her face from the ground and stared. The craggy hills that circled the valley and their village were buckling as a great wave of stony soil writhed to life. The chalk carving of the giant serpent reared, its coils thrashing and squirming as the earth below it churned. The trees of the Morash Woods snapped like toothpicks or were cleanly uprooted as the wave of earth rolled toward the village. Soil and rock, bush and tree, all were swept up into the mounting avalanche as easily as a broom collects dust.
That can’t be real, can it? It was nonsense to think the world was really falling apart before her eyes.
The ground was shaking severely now, and it roared as a herald of devastation before the wave had even reached the village. Buildings were thrown back and forth carelessly. Tiles were flayed from rooftops and sprayed into the air. Wooden fences were torn from the earth and sent sprawling across the fields.
This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening. Farris made a desperate lunge toward the house—so close and familiar yet so alien as it swayed in the tortured landscape. If she could just get inside everything would be—
Before Farris had taken a second step, the foundation of the house fractured in a deafening crash. The wooden building slouched forlornly to the side as it balanced on the edge of complete collapse. Farris felt herself scream, but the mad bleating of animals around them drowned out her voice. There must be something she could do! Farris watched in helpless desperation as sheep leapt over one another in a futile attempt to escape the omnipresent danger.
Tom ran past Farris as she froze. He was heading toward the crumbling house. Farris grabbed him by the hand and strained to drag him back. Tom’s feet braced against her, but somehow he kept getting closer to the house. [Why wouldn’t he stop? _]But Tom had stopped. It was the sand around him that ran, and the house that rolled toward them. They were the only two things in the world that _had stopped moving.
“Mom! Dad!” Tom yelled in the direction of the house.
“Don’t!” Farris had to overpower her brother and physically drag him away from the building. “It’s going to collapse. Come on, this way!”
If they could get to the middle of the fields, then at least there wouldn’t be anything to fall on them. Tom was yelling something, but the only message that could be heard was coming from the earth itself, and that was a message of war. The land ripped itself into pieces before her very eyes. The ground churned and great boulders bounded through the air as lightly as leaves in the autumn wind. Dirt and sand boiled around their legs and swirled in the air to dance like a haunting spirit.
Farris dragged Tom toward the fields. He fought her for a moment. That was alright; Farris knew she was stronger than him. It was when he went limp with resignation that she began to lose heart.
They only barely made it to the middle of a large cornfield before the avalanche reached the village. The wall of dirt soared dozens of feet above their heads like a snake preparing to strike. There was nowhere to run anymore. Farris sank to her knees, Tom’s hand clutched in her own.
“Skavash! Child of the Earth—stop this!” Farris heard herself cry out, surprised by her own words. How would a character from Grandmother’s stories help them? Somehow it seemed easier to believe in gods with every foot of ground the avalanche claimed.
“Sumpta! Child of the Sun!” Tom yelled from beside her.
There was nothing to lose, so why not hope? Maybe the tumbling mountainside would lose its momentum. Maybe it would break around the first houses. Maybe her parents had gotten out of the house in time. Every passing second was a blow against faith. Tom slumped to his knees beside her. Farris couldn’t believe it hurt more to watch him lose hope than when she lost her own.
“Neera of the Pit!” Farris shouted again stubbornly.
The wave was at least twenty feet high by the time it reached the first houses of the village. It showed no signs of slowing down. Farris grabbed hold of her brother and pressed him tightly to her chest. She could feel his wet face crushed against her neck. His body was shaking in a way that was unrelated to the trembling earth.
Ten seconds, she guessed. [_Ten seconds before it reaches us. _]She closed her eyes and began to count. By the time she reached five, she felt herself crying as well.
Someone was shouting something, barely heard above the angry earth. ‘Rudbark’ something? What was a Rudbark?
At seven seconds, Farris decided to stand beside her kneeling brother so she could at least cover him with her body.
At ten seconds, she was ready to die. And more than anything, she was ready to live.
[_Nothing exists before it is Named. I thought I knew what fire was, but I had not seen the flame nor felt its warmth until I spoke its true name. Thus did I think I knew myself, not knowing I did not exist until I was given a name. _]
-Javel of Omar, the First Man
Twelve seconds came and went. Farris couldn’t feel the ground shaking any more. Fifteen seconds. She could hear shouts and wailing from all corners of the village. Seventeen seconds. Had they survived?
Farris opened her eyes and began to laugh. Tom was still sobbing, but she grabbed his wrists and forced his hands away from his face. The avalanche had parted cleanly before the first houses. Mounds of broken rock, dirt, and uprooted trees were piled a dozen feet high all around the perimeter of the village. The avalanche was frozen in the height of its power as though it had slammed into an invisible and impenetrable wall. A cat sat upon the roof of the furthest house, meowing furiously at the piled earth. Everyone was safe.
“What just happened?” Tom asked as soon as his panting lungs would allow. His shaking had mostly subsided, but his movements were still jerky and short.
“Maybe your monsters are on our side,” Farris said through hysterical giggles. It didn’t matter if they were real or not now, or whether Sumpta himself had come down from the sun and stomped the earth flat. They were alive, and that was enough.
“Farris. Tom. Here now,” cut the crisp words of an old woman.
Grandmother Roschette appeared, leaning heavily upon her short black cane which gripped the ground with little bronze claws. She wore a grey scarf, nearly transparent from years of continuous use, and a long black robe. She was walking toward Farris and Tom now, moving slowly but persistently as though neither thin air nor thick stone would hasten or slow her in the least.
“Grandmother! You’re all right! Where are Mom and Dad?” Farris shouted, her heart surging in disbelief. Her chest felt tight, unable to expel air as she struggled to keep her mind from putting her fear into words.
“I will always be all right, but more things have begun to move than the earth,” Grandmother Roschette replied curtly. “Quickly now, we must prepare. Leslie and Morris are fine. Your parents got out of the house before it was damaged.”
Farris finally allowed air to escape her bursting lungs. It was strange worrying about her parents—that was like wondering whether the sun would come up again tomorrow. Some things were meant to endure so naturally that the awareness of their mortality forever changed them. How could she even look at her parents without forever seeing what might have been?
Grandmother Roschette gave Farris a quick smile as though seeing into her thoughts, the shape of her mouth apologizing for the brisk tone it had just used. Her eyes shone brightly as she approached, each glimmer hinting at ages of memory and untold secrets.
“What was that though?” Tom asked. “I felt like I was balancing on a wild horse with every step I took!”
Grandmother Roschette shrugged, although her beady eyes twinkled. “In my experience, things just happen for no reason sometimes. If you live to be as old as me, you’ll find everything just happens sooner or later. Come along now, it’s getting dark.”
“Was this one of those times without a reason?” Farris asked. She never trusted her Grandmother when she was smiling.
“No. This earthquake happened for a very good reason. The most important reason there is! But I won’t spoil the ending to this story before it has even begun.”
“What stopped it then?” Farris cut in. Did Grandmother really know, or was she just making up another story? How could she be so calm after that? Farris’s heart was still racing.
“When we speak to the earth, it will not reply, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t listening,” Grandmother Roschette replied. “When a friend asks it for a favor, it will obey. More on that in time. Come on already, we must prepare.”
“Where are we going? What are we preparing for?” Tom asked.
“It’s your naming day! We need to celebrate,” Grandmother Roschette replied, ruffling the top of Tom’s sandy blond head.
“Why do you call it my naming day?” Tom asked. “Everyone else calls the thirteenth birthday my coming of age day.”
“You haven’t got a proper name before you name yourself, because no one will ever know you as you do. Tonight you will give yourself a name—a secret name, mind you—that only you may know yourself by,” Grandmother Roschette replied.
“Why can’t I tell anyone the name?” Tom asked.
“To name something is to have mastery over it. As a man you must have mastery over yourself, and let no other claim the same.”
“Are you two really talking about that now?” Farris asked, her brow furrowing in confusion. “You’re going to pretend like we weren’t almost buried alive?” She could feel her relief giving way to frustration. Grandmother knew something, she had to. Grandmother always knew everything. Why wasn’t she telling?
Grandmother Roschette gave Farris a short, critical look. “Today was nothing I haven’t been expecting for a very long time. You will understand more after tonight’s story.”
“If I give myself a name, I’ll have mastery over myself,” Tom interrupted, speaking slowly. “So what if someone named the earth? Is that what made the avalanche stop? I heard a strange word—Rudbark, I think—echoing across the stones right before it stopped. Is Rudbark the secret name of the earth?”
Grandmother smiled mysteriously and gave him a wink. “Run along now. You’ll both need to catch the animals that have gotten out. I’ll meet you back at the house when you’re done.”
“Rudbark!” Tom shouted victoriously, pointing at the soil below him. “Move for me, Rudbark!”
Farris felt a brief moment of exhilaration as she scrutinized the earth. If something miraculous happened that would mean—but no. Not even the slightest pebble stirred. [_How childish! _]Farris scolded herself, ashamed for expecting something magical to spring up. Of course the earth wasn’t going to move just because someone knew its name. But wasn’t the chance of defying common sense what made it so exciting in the first place?
Grandmother Roschette chuckled. “Even if that were its true name, to wield the old magic you must understand the word and the subject to the very intricacies of its nature. The elements of its composition must be unwoven and knitted together into a tapestry of thought. To speak the proper name of a stone with all the understanding of earth might take years of study. If someone were to have stopped that avalanche for us, then they must have been much wiser than you, little one.”
“Was it you?” Tom squeaked, looking up at Roschette with a wide, trusting gaze. Farris rolled her eyes. Tom would have believed it was midnight while staring directly into the sun, if only Grandmother had said it was so. “You must be the wisest person in the whole world!”
“I’m too wise to have stopped it!” Grandmother Roschette glared down at him, although the smiling corners of her mouth betrayed her intent. “If it was up to me, I would have let the earth roll in and bury everyone who wasn’t doing their work. The animals now, children. Save your questions, or I’ll be the one who is buried before we sit down to eat.”
Grandmother stamped her cane into the ground and hobbled stiffly away, leaving Farris and Tom to stare at one another in the waning daylight. Farris could almost see the clockwork whir of her brother’s thoughts clicking behind his eyes. Magic didn’t die as easily for someone his age.
“Fly, Rudbark!” Tom said again, grabbing a handful of soil and flinging it at Farris.
“You’re such an idiot,” Farris replied, leaping to avoid the falling earth. “None of that is real.”
“Then what stopped the avalanche, huh?”
But Farris wasn’t listening anymore. Her feet were already tracing the familiar path that led to the animal pens. What did stop the earthquake? Maybe Grandmother didn’t know at all. Maybe she was as scared as the rest of them, and only put on a brave face for their sake. Or has she been telling her own stories for so many years that she’d started to believe them herself? Either way, there must be some clue after they finished their work. Farris had never wanted to skip through her chores more than this moment. Except perhaps for the times Sasha was waiting for her to finish …
Was he all right, though? The avalanche hadn’t reached the village, but the buildings had been moving so violently … Farris quickened her pace, turning away from the stable and animal pens. Sasha’s house was only a short way down the road. Her brother wouldn’t even notice she was gone. The village was small enough that everyone was close with one another, but Sasha was more than that.
When Sasha was around it felt as though some part of her woke up that she hadn’t even recognized as herself. If Farris looked into a mirror, she would see her own face, as well as that spark which made her know it wasn’t just any image looking back—it was her own. It was as though she saw that same spark of familiarity when she looked at Sasha. Trying to explain that to her brother or her family was absurd, but if anything were to have happened to him …
[_Knock. Knock. Knock. _]Farris tapped a practiced rhythm on a well-acquainted door. Sasha’s house looked almost completely untouched. If he was inside, then he couldn’t have been hurt. There was no answer.
“Farris! Where are you?” Tom called from down the street.
The next few moments lingered in agonizing uncertainty. Which would be more difficult, waiting longer to see Sasha, or letting Tom taunt her again for not wanting to? Her fingers pressed against the rough grain of the closed wooden door.
“Farris! I’m going to go check on the sheep. You get the goats.”
Shame won this time. Farris glanced back to make sure Tom hadn’t spotted where she’d gone and snuck back toward her family farm. The stable hadn’t been broken, and their two horses hadn’t gotten out. The hen house was a bit crooked, a fact the hens seemed extremely resentful of, but no real harm was done there either. The only ones to have escaped were the sheep and the goats, but they hadn’t made it far with the giant wall of earth that now surrounded the village on three sides.
Farris found her favorite goat, a particularly fluffy she-goat named Bumble, and knelt beside her. The animal bleated fearfully and nuzzled her hand in affection. The wind was probing deeper now, cutting sharply through the thin dress Farris wore. Poor thing, out here on a blustery evening like this after being scared half to death. Farris locked up the other goats, but led the appreciative Bumble back home with her instead.
The house didn’t look as bad as she thought it would. The right side of the stone foundation had crumbled and the building was leaning piteously, but it still appeared to be intact. It was the same house it had always been, but everything looked so foreign now. Several of the trees had toppled over, and others were leaning so far their red and orange boughs scraped the ground. What would Farris have done if the house was gone? Or if she had opened the door and found nothing but dead air thick with stirred dust and silence?
Her whole world was here. Every morning her father, Morris, fed the animals and they would dance around him like he was their savior. Farris would wake to banging pots in the kitchen, or the roosters summoning the sun with their song. Tom would be in bed on the other side of the loft, feet hanging off the side, head buried somewhere under his pillow. Every morning the same thing. How could her entire life be so fragile that one day could steal everything? How could she have ever thought her life was boring?
Farris led Bumble to the wooden door that led into the kitchen. Brief laughter greeted her like the happy reunion of two pieces of sandpaper, and Farris knew Grandmother must already be inside.
“Some thoughts are much older than the thinker, some stories much older than the teller—”
“You’d better not be starting without me!” Farris yelled, brushing aside the hanging beads that separated the kitchen from the living room where her family was already gathered.
“Oh, thank goodness you’re all right!” Her mother Leslie leapt up from the sofa and gave Farris a hug. Her floral apron was smeared with dirt and grime, but Farris didn’t flinch away like she usually did. “You were all I could think about when the ground started to shake!”
“Farris is a smart girl, she knows how to look after herself,” her father said from his armchair. Even his thick beard couldn’t disguise how relieved he looked to see her in one piece.
“Are you two okay?” Farris asked, scanning the room. There was a pile of broken plates and knick-knacks swept into one corner. The shelves against the far wall were empty of their books, which were scattered across the floor. One of the end tables beside the sofa was in splinters. A cold and blackened hearth lay in the corner, and a young Yonda sapling with white bark grew out of its ashes. Everything seemed as close to normal as she dared hope.
There was a deliciously aromatic concoction of hearty lamb and vegetable stew sitting on the table in front of the sofa. The room was small and cluttered, and looked rather comical as it was slightly tilted now. Is this all that would remain of when the world threatened to dissolve? Would everything be back to normal now?
“We’re perfectly fine,” her mother said, hugging Farris again. “We didn’t know what was going on, but Roschette told us to get out of the house before I even felt a tremor. Don’t mind the mess tonight. I want us all to sit and celebrate Tom’s big day. I can always clean up later.”
“Now that you’ve all convinced yourselves you’re still alive, where were we with that story?” Grandmother asked impatiently.
“Not yet!” Farris cried. “I’ll go wash up and be right back. No one is starting without me!”
Farris dampened a cloth and did her best to remove the worst of the dirt from her face and hands in the small washroom she shared with her brother. She wouldn’t want to be seen in public like this, but it was an efficient job considering the time she was devoting to it. What kind of story could Grandmother possibly tell after today? Farris tried to listen to make sure she wasn’t starting again without her, but the whistling wind outside jumbled all conversation from downstairs.
Likely Grandmother would make up some excuse about how the Gods had set a curse on the ground so it bowed every thousand years to pay them homage. Or perhaps a star had collided with the earth, carrying the flame of the light beyond. Farris knew she wouldn’t believe any of it, but it was hard to think of something less absurd that made sense either. Only one way to find out.
Moments later, Farris came bounding back down the grumbling stairs. Grandmother was sitting in her rocking chair, wrapped in her worn woolen blanket. There was an emerald green serpent embroidered on the blanket, looking as though it were constricting her with its coils. Farris snatched her bowl of stew and settled onto the cold hearth beside her brother.
“She’s here! Tell us about the earthquake now, Grandmother,” Tom said.
“Farris, did you have to bring that mangy creature inside again?” Father glared at Bumble, who had been left forgotten in the kitchen and had now wandered out to join them.
“Don’t worry, Dad. She brought the goat in, not the mangy creature. Sasha isn’t coming over tonight.” Tom winked.
Father snorted and opened his mouth, but a cold look from Mother prompted him to turn his next few words into a cough.
“He’s not mangy either! Sasha isn’t nearly this fuzzy,” Farris replied, ruffling her fingers under Bumble’s uplifted chin. [_Just ignore him. _]It would only be worse if her family could see the wave of embarrassment that swept over her whenever Sasha was discussed.
“I guess you’d know. You’ve explored every inch of him, right?” Tom stuck out his tongue.
“Don’t be gross,” Farris sniffed. The thought was harder to dispel than the comment.
“I like Bumble better,” Tom declared. He tried to push Farris out of the way to make room for the goat. Farris pushed back. Bumble didn’t take sides.
Grandmother Roschette gave a small cough and the room fell still at once. Even Bumble bowed her head apologetically, giving the cocoon of blankets her full attention.
“… and some paintings on the hills are older than the hills themselves,” Grandmother Roschette said, as though there had been no interruption. “I know all of the stories carved into the hills, and have lived through many more that were not. But more than that, I know how to look for truth at the heart of tales. I have looked into the belly of fire, and watched smoke write its secret script upon the sky. I have looked deep into dark places where there is no light but shining eyes, and no sound but that of your own heart and the beating heart of the earth. All my years I have been waiting for the time to tell this story, and now at last it is right.”
What we cease to remember ceases to exist, but what ceases to exist can live on in our memory. I stop to look back at my years and I see the birth of all stars and the first breath of life, and I know that all time exists in me.
[_-Javel of Omar, the First Man _]
“We are not alone in this world,” Grandmother Roschette said, her words hanging in the air. “There were once seven peoples who lived on the surface world. It takes tragedy to move the heart of a single man, but a great cataclysm to move the heart of a kingdom. That is what came over the world at the end of the last age.”
Grandmother paused, and as if on cue, the cool air lashed at the closed shutters around them, rattling them restlessly. The wind outside whistled and moaned in the sudden silence: an alien hymn across the patchy dunes and plank walls of the farmhouse. Mother lit a few candles on the mantelpiece, and a few more burned on the table to shed a soft warm light over the family.
Farris’s gaze was locked on Grandmother’s face. The lines were deeper than Farris remembered. The eyes looked older. It seemed as though there was a heavy burden weighing upon the old woman, but as she spoke a new vitality animated her. Somehow it felt as though part of Grandmother was in the story she was telling tonight.
“What sound did the monsters make?” Tom asked. His voice was soft, and his eyes darted to the rattling shutters.
“Don’t call them monsters,” Grandmother replied. “They were people, and each made the speech of people, the same as you and I.”
“I bet they sounded like ORROOSHHH!” Farris said, imitating the moaning wind outside. “I bet they’re just outside the door right now, trying to get in from the cold night.” Tom’s eyes widened a little further in alarm. Farris did her best to suppress a grin.
“They did not! That’s just the wind!” Tom shot back, his voice cracking slightly.
“ORROOSHHH! Let us in!” Farris taunted.
“Grandmother!” Tom pleaded.
But Grandmother, lost in thought, did not respond. She rocked back and forth in her chair, continuing the rhythm of her words though she no longer spoke. The candlelight splashed red across the room, blanketing them in flickering shadows. The wind outside began to die down, but Farris echoed its moans again anyway.
“ORROOSHHH! We’re going to eat you!” Farris almost felt bad about it when she thought about how terrified Tom had looked during the earthquake. Served him right though, considering the way he made fun of her in front of Sasha today.
“Grandma, tell her to stop! Tell her the monsters are all gone,” Tom wailed.
“Gone? Oh yes, they’re all gone.” Grandmother Roschette blinked and shook her head as she returned to their reality. “Although perhaps not as far away as you’d think. Once upon a time mankind ruled the most powerful of the seven kingdoms from the city of Omar. We lived in a crystal castle with twisting spires of light that pierced the clouds. There were great walls of translucent stone like frozen air which supported higher structures of marble, making the palaces appear to fly. More valuable than any treasure in Omar was the emperor himself, however: the man named Javel of Omar.”
Tom made a squeak of excitement, but Farris hushed him at once. They had both heard stories of Javel the man-God before.
Roschette smiled, evidently relishing their full attention. “If you listened during some of my other stories, you might recognize the name Javel. He was the first man to achieve a state of perfect enlightenment, and the act of his own Naming allowed him to transcend into the heavens and leave the earthly world behind. So powerful were the energies released in that moment that the sky above where Javel stood was shattered, while the ground below was gouged by an infinite abyss. While Javel was praised for his greatness, you mustn’t forget his pursuit of perfection led him to abandon his people in a profoundly selfish act.
“After he vanished, it wasn’t long before the six other kingdoms each made claim over the empty throne. So too they sought the Brass Orb, a relic of Javel’s office which he held during the moment of his transcendence. For proof of the Orb’s power, one must look no further than to three sisters who grasped for it the moment he vanished.
“The first sister who touched it had many doors open inside of her, and revealed to her were secrets lit by tomorrow’s sun. The second sister found sight into all the world, and could hear quiet whisperings a thousand miles away. The third and youngest sister knew all that had happened, and no mystery of the past was veiled to her. The orb burned each of them in turn, and when it could not be held was thrown into the mirrored lake of the Osdillion.
“The three, hereafter known as the Wyrd Sisters, used their awakened powers to counsel the six remaining kings and queens to pursue peace. The war would not be stopped, however, and the house of Omar was scattered and broken between their armies. The kingdoms fought for a year until the once mighty peoples began to starve as their cities crumbled by siege. They fought ten years until no one could foresee an ending that did not bring about the death of them all. They fought for twenty years until each tranquil forest was felled to fuel the fires of war, each proud mountain was gutted for its deadly metal, and each field was salted and fallow with the blood of the fallen.”
Mother gave a small gasp of horror, and all eyes fell upon her where she sat beside Father on the sofa. “Are you sure you want to be telling the children a story like this?” she asked. “It seems awfully dark.”
“My dear, the world is awfully dark, and it will get much darker still before the end. But girls will grow into ladies, and boys will become men, and it is better they know of dark things while they are still just words than be surprised by dark deeds in life.”
Farris tapped her fingers on the side of her face. What could all of this have to do with the earthquake? Maybe Grandmother was trying to distract them from the fact that she didn’t know.
“So it was that the griever is swifter to take advice than the wrathful,” Grandmother Roschette continued. “As the kings were bled dry from war, they sought the Wyrd Sisters to end it for them. The three sisters realized that as long as the Brass Orb and unclaimed treasures of Omar were seen as obtainable, there could be no peace. They proposed a solution that would make it impossible for any kingdom to claim the wealth as their own, and thus end the war for good. Desperate for a way to end the conflict and yet too stubborn to let another claim victory, each king and queen of the six kingdoms agreed.
“The Wyrd Sisters spoke of the Sky Beast, a serpent that dwelled beyond the stars. Fell and terrible it was, and unapproachable wherever it dwelt. With the help of the kings, the sisters offered to bring the serpent into the world through the crack in the heavens Javel left from his transcendence. The beast would guard the Orb and treasures between the kingdoms and enforce a lasting peace.
“Each king and queen agreed, and they gathered to assist in the summoning. As the serpent would be used to protect the six remaining nations, some power from each of the royalty was required to seal the spell. The three sisters brought the royal assembly to the mouth of sky where the light beyond bled through, and it washed over them and gave them strength to work their magic. The light beyond the sky is the light of life, and once tasted, each of the rulers was blessed with long life and power.
“The words of the spell were spoken, and in the sky a wide hole was riven around the crack. Nidhoggdrasil the Sky Serpent entered the world, and indeed the moon can still be seen today as the hole left in the heavens from his entrance, opening and closing with the months as the snapping mouth of the beast. The great Wyrm had been summoned correctly, but something had gone terribly wrong during the ritual.
“The Lady Rishta, Queen of the Dresdoni Kingdom, had let her greed poison the ceremony. She convinced some of the other kings to conserve their strength during the ritual, telling them they might find advantage when all others were weakened from pouring their power into the summoning. Meanwhile, she exerted more than her share of strength into the spell in the hopes of putting the beast fully under her control when it arrived.
“The balance of the ritual destroyed, Nidhoggdrasil broke free from its command and bellowed wrath at the impudence of its would-be captors. The thrashing of its steel coils shattered the land around us, and it is these impacts that carved the Painted Valley we now live in. The three sisters chanted each word of power they learned from the Orb, but there could be no victory over the might of the beast now freed.
“Nidhoggdrasil hissed and swayed its head above the royalty, preparing to devour the lot of them whole. And perhaps that is just what they deserved! But the thousands of lost souls in the war had already proven that one’s destiny is not always deserved, and fate found it amusing to spare the rulers that day.
“There was one man present: Lolaran Malhalion. He was the bastard son of the man-god Javel, and had surrendered his ranks to the Brass City of the Paral-Zakdul to keep his people safe. He was now the personal guard of their lord, and he showed his worth that day when he challenged the beast to battle while the kings and queens hid their faces in its shadow.
“Though an unmatched warrior, an impossible feat now lay before him. The fight turned sour quickly, and moving with desperation, Lolaran dove into the mirrored lake to avoid a fatal blow from the beast. There was no escape from the fury of the serpent, and the force of its smashing coils was enough to empty the lake in a spray of frenzied mist. At the bottom of the muddy lakebed Lolaran found the Brass Orb, still sparkling after twenty years of undisturbed rest.
“Lolaran avoided the devastating blows that rained around him and claimed the Orb lying there: a last prayer for a hopeless man. The Orb was still warm after all these years, and some energies remained trapped within its metal. You can imagine him now: standing with broken shield and shattered sword, drenched in frothing waters and his own seeping wounds, alone but for the beast rearing like a mountain in the sky above.
“Lolaran brandished the Brass Orb before the serpent and caught its attention just before the beast struck. The prize held some strange fascination for Nidhoggdrasil, and Lolaran was able to distract the monster and lure it away from the cowering royalty. Lolaran had fought alone, but he was not abandoned by the Wyrd Sisters in his plight. The Third, youngest of the sisters and seer of the past, counseled him to use the Orb to learn secret names of power and defeat the serpent. The Second, seeing the present, told him to hurl the Orb into the crack in the earth that opened beneath Javel’s awakening. The First, with eyes toward tomorrow’s sky, bid the man go with the Orb into the crack to ensure that the beast followed.
“Lolaran, that unflinching soul, chose the third path, and went fearlessly into the dark earth while ever taunting the serpent to follow. Nidhoggdrasil did so, delving into the abyss just as it had torn through the scar in the sky. The entire city of Omar and all its treasures tumbled into that pit, so great did it open in the wake of the thrashing serpent.
“The Wyrd Sisters followed the battling pair deep into the world, and in some hidden cavern at the center of the earth, the crack finally reached its end by the roots of the Yonda Sahra tree—the great tree whose tendrils stretch across the whole world.”
“Is that the same as our Yonda tree?” Farris asked, pointing to the white sapling growing in their fireplace. Of course there couldn’t really be a tree that spread across the whole world, but it was a nice idea to think part of the story grew right here in their living room.
Roschette nodded. “We plant a Yonda sapling in the spring when we no longer need the warmth of fire. The tree will grow through the summer, and on the eve of winter we burn it as the first fire of the year. The great Yonda Sahra is where our tradition was born from. It is honored for giving us life with its death, but that is another story. As I was saying—”
“It’s getting cold now, though!” Tom piped up. “Can we light it tonight?”
Farris expected Roschette to scowl at another interruption. She tried to kick her brother to keep him quiet, but couldn’t reach from where she was lying with her head against the content flank of Bumble. Grandmother merely gave Tom a soft and tender look, almost mournful in its sincerity.
“No, little one. The Yonda tree will burn in two weeks.” Grandmother’s eyes bore into Farris and Tom with unsettling intensity before she forced a smile and continued her tale.
“As I was saying, Lolaran had lured the serpent Nidhoggdrasil into a cave at the base of Yonda Sahra’s root. The man bid the Wyrd Sisters seal the cave shut, trapping him with the beast in eternal battle, so long as the rest of the world was left in peace.
“The first sister looked into the future to honor his fate, and saw in it a prophecy to set into the stone and strengthen it against the terrible might within. The sisters bound the cavern shut with the roots of the Yonda Sahra, and then imprisoned the two of them there—trapped amidst the fallen wealth of the house Omar. The doors of the living tomb closed around rage and turmoil, and the world above was still.
“The three sisters rose back to the surface world, and as they passed they discovered many fertile lands which had been opened beneath the ground by the abyss. When the sisters reached daylight again, they almost did not recognize the land they were born in. Years of conflict were burned upon the sky and into the barren earth. The ground was shattered by the smashing blows of Nidhoggdrasil, and the people of the seven Kingdoms were scattered and lost.
“There was no future for the people here. The sisters led each of the kingdoms down into the earth to settle new lands revealed by the serpent. Each kingdom would be separated from one another by a layer of earth so they might finally live in peace. When the sisters sought to bring mankind below, however, the broken race of the house Omar stood on the brink of the pit and turned away in terror. The dark held a fear for man that could not be overcome, and despite the best counsel of the sisters, no man dared the shadowed stair into the earth.
“The Wyrd Sisters, for all their wisdom, were born of man and had sympathies for their own kind. They helped the land to heal and hid the abyss from sight so the darkness would not frighten our sleep. Though hidden, this story should not be forgotten, and at the sisters’ insistence, the wide chalk paintings of the valley were carved into the hills and stones, telling the very story I told you tonight. It is good to remember that it is our folly that has broken the land, and our fear that has kept us here. Suffering is so often the price of cowardice.
“At last the story comes full circle as the hungry serpent bites its own tail. All this time, Nidhoggdrasil and Lolaran have fought their battle at the heart of the world. The earthquake we felt today was the climax I have been waiting for. Such was the ferocity of their final battle that it has shaken the entire world, and for one of them, victory has been obtained.”
Grandmother took a long breath and peered through the shutters into the dark night. “I imagine the moon, that scar showing a sliver of the great light beyond, has already well passed its zenith tonight. I would like to wish Tom a happy naming day, and I hope you have enjoyed this proper coming of age story.”
Silence at last. Farris looked to her brother’s face—so trusting and believing. He looked as though a magnificent discovery had just been made. Farris rolled her eyes. So much for getting a real answer to the earthquake. The story had taken longer than she’d expected. Sasha would have probably given up waiting for her and gone to sleep by now …
“How is this a coming of age story?” Tom asked, frowning.
“And why didn’t you tell all of this to me when I came of age?” Farris added. How could she not humor the old woman? Grandmother looked so swept away by her own words she seemed about to fly out of her seat in exhilaration.
Grandmother Roschette answered by tearing the blanket away from her throat. She clutched at her neck, withdrawing a dull metal chain that had lain hidden for who knows how long by the thick robes she always wore. Attached to the bottom of the chain was a large, rough, metal key that dangled unceremoniously.
“This is for you,” Grandmother said simply, stringing the key around Tom’s neck.
The boy hesitated before grasping it in his fist. His eyes sparkled with youthful wonder at a new prize, but his face looked heavy and solemn. This wasn’t just a story to him. Grandmother looked frail and deflated now, all of her energy spent in the telling.
“The prophecy seen by the first Wyrd Sister, whose power has kept Nidhoggdrasil sealed for all of these years, comes to fruition tonight. I have preserved it as such:
“[_All that begins in sound must end in silence, _]
[_as all born of life must die. _]
[_All that I am is given to violence, _]
[_of tomorrow’s eternal night. _]
[_If I will be fighting a thousand years, _]
[_in a thousand desperate fights, _]
[_then the heir will come and all my fears _]
[_will be left there out of sight. _]
[_Two faces peer into the looking glass, _]
[_each gazing to the center. _]
[_‘Who is on the other side?’ both ask, _]
[_that depends on which will enter. _]
[_Here comes Malhalion’s line, _]
[_bearing this scrap and key. _]
[_In the darkness will they find _]
what’s left of me to free.”
“The legacy of our house continues tonight,” Grandmother added to her own enigmatic words. “I have held this key for an age, and at last the earth has stilled and told me I may bestow it to you, the rightful bearer. Though you heed the name of your father, you are an heir to the first owner. I give it to you now, Tom Malhalion, blood of the hero Lolaran Malhalion, who has saved us all from the reign of the beast.”
“That’s not fair!” Farris interrupted. Even if it was just a family heirloom, having her baby brother chosen over her was completely unacceptable. “I’m older and I came of age years ago. Why are you giving it to him?”
“Do not argue,” Grandmother replied with a tone that could have cut stone. “It was not to be given until the earth had shaken, and now that it has happened on Tom’s naming day, it is clear it was meant for him. Besides, the heir of the house has always been the male child, and this was even more true in the olden days when the prophecy was inscribed.”
“What am I supposed to do with it?” Tom asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Grandmother replied. “You are to travel to the center of the world and open the cave. Lolaran has won his final battle, and it is time for him to come home.”
[_When I was young I believed in things that were not real, but they were real to me. The more I learned about the world, the less I believed, and the smaller the world became. This world has grown too small, so it is time to believe again. _]
-Javel of Omar, the First Man
“Our ancestor jumped into a hole and trapped himself with a serpent? I’m sorry we’ve come from such fools,” Farris said. They would have had to be fools if they left the key to Tom … of all the silly, irresponsible children in the world, he had to be the worst choice.
“No!” Grandmother Roschette stood straight up, ripping her blanket from her knees and flinging it to the floor. She stood glaring down at Farris, who still sat on the cold hearth. Grandmother held out a finger like a lance. Her old hand did not shake.
“Lolaran was braver than any man to walk this world,” Grandmother barked. “He was the only noble man in a race of fools. You should be proud of your heritage. Would you rather have him cower like the rest of us? There would not even be a ‘rest of us’ without his sacrifice. Would you have him scratch a life in the dirt of this broken world instead? Be proud, for you too are of that blood, and it is that which gives us the courage to follow our dream into the dark.”
Farris winced at the words, her eyes darting to her parents for support. Mother was half-standing as though she would come to Farris’s defense, while father’s face was grave and thoughtful.
“Thank you,” Tom said softly, clasping the key so tightly his knuckles turned white. “I am proud of him, and when I find him, I hope to be as brave.”
“I think what Roschette is trying to say,” Mother interjected, “is that one of the Malhalion’s line will someday journey down into the earth. It doesn’t have to be you, and it certainly doesn’t have to be now.”
“I know what I’m trying to say because I said it plain,” Grandmother Roschette snapped. “Lolaran has made an unimaginable sacrifice for us. Letting him rot down there is poor gratitude indeed.”
Mother flinched at the tone, but rose fully to her feet. “Tom is barely even thirteen years old! If you expect me to allow my little boy to jump down a hole in the ground then—”
“It’s not your place to allow anything,” Roschette replied. “Tom is a man now, by all rites and customs. He has the wisdom from my stories, and the heart from my songs. He is ready to do what he was born for.”
Grandmother was standing too now, and neither was budging an inch. Tom looked very small and lost where he sat between them. He drew his knees to his chest, pressing the key between his hands. His wide eyes darted from Mother to Grandmother. At least Mother is being sensible, Farris thought. She’ll convince everyone to stop playing along with this charade. Maybe no one will end up keeping the key—Farris would be okay with that.
“Morris, help me out here!” Mother waved her hands in the air without turning away from Grandmother.
Father’s eyes were closed. He looked asleep where he lay slouched against a cushion, except for the way his brow was furrowed.
“Before anyone goes anywhere,” Father said, opening his eyes at last, “maybe we should think about what else could have caused the earthquake.”
Thank you! Both of her parents had some sense after all. Grandmother Roschette gave Father a deathly glare, and he hurried the pace of his speech to explain.
“It’s not that I don’t believe the old stories—you know I do, Roschette—but it’s been hundreds of years since the days of the seven kingdoms. Even if Lolaran had vanquished the serpent, he would have still died from old age a long time ago.”
“There, you see?” Mother said, crossing her arms. “Even if he did exist, there isn’t anyone waiting for Tom anymore.”
“He had the Brass Orb,” Roschette said stubbornly. “The Orb contained power left by the transcended Emperor Javel. That would have been sufficient to grant him long life.”
Mother threw her hands up in the air again.
“All right,” Morris said thoughtfully. “Well, the prophecy also doesn’t tell us which combatant emerged victorious. For all we know, the final battle has finished and Nidhoggdrasil has eaten Lolaran and now waits for someone to let him out of his cage.”
“Of course Lolaran will have won!” Tom said. “I believe in him, don’t you?”
“Belief is good for the heart,” Father said, “but not for playing dice. Is there any way for us to find out for certain who won, Roschette?”
Grandmother sat back down heavily. “You’re not supposed to know exactly what prophecies mean,” she grumbled. “It doesn’t matter who won. Fate doesn’t let you choose, it chooses for you whether you like it or not.”
“Why are we even discussing this?” Farris asked in frustration. It all sounded like a giant joke, but every minute everyone wasn’t laughing made Farris flush brighter. “This is all ridiculous. There is no serpent, and there aren’t any monsters, and any key given to a little boy to keep can’t be worth much of anything in the first place.”
“And you wonder why you weren’t given the key—you closed-minded girl,” Grandmother huffed. “How can you claim to be as brave as Tom when you won’t even admit the terror exists? Fate chooses its champion, and you have never stepped up to its challenge.”
“But we can’t leave Lolaran sealed there!” Tom said. “Imagine what it must be like for him. First his kingdom was destroyed, then he fought in a war, then he was trapped with a monster for hundreds of years. We can’t just leave him alone in the darkness now.”
“What are a few more years to an immortal man?” Mother replied, her voice compassionate. “To be a martyr is to accept such a fate. Whenever he is set free, he will forgive us.”
“There might be a way to find out for certain …” Roschette mused. “The first sister was able to set the prophecy because she could see into the future. If I could find the second sister, then she will know all things as they are.”
Farris didn’t want to listen anymore. She walked straight between Grandmother and Mother, who were arguing again. Farris climbed the wooden staircase up to the loft and flung herself down onto the bed, face in the pillow. The quiet grew heavier, and Farris couldn’t bear not knowing what was being said. She crept back to the top of the stairs and strained to catch a word from below.
Grandmother was talking to Tom about his naming now. She asked him to meditate on who he was at his core and give himself a name that fit what he saw. Grandmother told him that once he knew his true name he must think of himself by that and never tell another living soul what it was.
When Farris turned thirteen, Roschette had told her to do the same. She hadn’t understood the request, or the reason, so she named herself the first word to come into her head—Paffadilly. It seemed like such a cheerful name, so light and full of life. When she was feeling sad or upset she would call herself that, and somehow it made her feel as though all of her troubles belonged to someone else. She wondered what her brother had named himself, although of course she was not allowed to know.
Farris had mentioned the name Paffadilly to Sasha once, not thinking anything of it, although now that she was reminded of how sacredly Grandmother treated the ceremony she wished she had said nothing. Sasha had laughed and said it fit her perfectly. Maybe he had forgotten all about it by now. Farris couldn’t wait to tell him about this latest story and see what he thought. He was sure to agree with her—Sasha wasn’t as gullible as her little brother.
After a few minutes Farris flung herself back in her bed. The silence was unbearable. She brought her face up from the pillow to yell downstairs: “I’m not a Malhalion! And neither is my brother!”
She didn’t want to be the descendant of a bigot who thought only boys would be strong enough to have the key. That was it, wasn’t it? She came of age first, but apparently the ground didn’t shake until her brother did. No one had even asked her if she would go. She tried to convince herself that it didn’t matter because it was all just a story in the first place, but it was hard not to feel passed over when the rest of the family treated it so seriously.
Farris heard Tom climbing the wooden staircase, one moaning step at a time. His tread was slow and heavy. She pretended to be asleep so she wouldn’t have to talk to him.
“Good night,” Tom said quietly. She didn’t respond. The only sound came from his soft breathing nearby and the wind outside.
ORROOSHHH rang the hollow sound. She saw her brother’s silhouette shudder in the moonlight and she grinned.
“ORROOSHHH,” she muttered softly as she drifted off to sleep.
Over the next two weeks, Grandmother Roschette disappeared every day in search of the second Wyrd Sister. She would fill a satchel full of bread and cheese, strap a water skin to her belt, and aimlessly hobble around the broken foothills of the Painted Valley. It would have been funny if Farris didn’t feel so bad for the old woman. The terrain was so shattered by the earthquake that Grandmother never made it very far. By nightfall she would have barely made a few miles in any direction before she was forced to return, sullen and sore.
Farris hadn’t seen Sasha since the earthquake. She went to his workshop the first morning afterwards to see how he fared, but the door was locked. Farris didn’t even know the door had a lock. Whenever she visited before, day or night, it had been open and welcoming. Sasha’s father Nagir would be sitting at his workbench or poring over his notebooks filled with calculations. Nagir’s eyes would smile over his big black beard and he would grow excited at a chance to show off another one of his contraptions.
The door had been locked every day since the earthquake as well, but by chance she spotted Sasha now. She was just returning home with water from the town well when the last rays of warm afternoon light glanced off his form. Sasha was clambering over one of the earthen walls that now loomed over the village. Farris called after him, but he vanished over the top without a glance in her direction. She stormed up to the earthen wall and kicked it in frustration. There was so much to tell him! Maybe he would know how to talk some sense into Grandmother. Maybe he could help her feel better about her little brother suddenly becoming the center of everything while she wasn’t even involved. Maybe he could help her feel less alone, because everyone seemed to be drifting apart.
Grandmother and Mother weren’t talking to each other. Farris assumed they must have been fighting about whether Tom should stay or go. Father avoided both of them because he didn’t want to be forced to pick a side. And Tom had started lording it over her that he was the rightful heir to the prophecy but—not to worry! She could still be his servant. Farris kicked the earthen wall again. She needed Sasha, and admitting that even to herself only made her angrier.
She set down the pail of water and dug her fingers into the soft earth. The slope wasn’t too steep, and she was able to crawl all the way to the top on her hands and knees. Would she be this filthy every time Sasha saw her? She could catch up with him and make it back before anyone even noticed she was—
“Farris! Farris!” a hoarse yell rang out.
“I’m just helping a friend with—” Farris began her excuse as she turned toward the voice coming echoing from the foothills. Tom was running toward her from about a hundred yards away. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and he was stumbling, tripping, and sprinting again only to stagger and catch his breath.
“What are you doing up there?” Farris asked. She caught a glimpse of Sasha as he vanished within the forest of tall stones that stretched jagged to the sky. The white chalk carvings ran in every direction out here, some making complex designs that might be writing in an unfamiliar language, while others formed fractured pictures and drawings. The chalk called unbidden thoughts of Grandmother’s stories to Farris’ mind, and she pushed them away with a forceful effort.
“Farris! Farris!” Tom lurched to a halt, bending over and panting for breath with his hands on his knees. How long had he been running?
“What’s wrong? Did something scare you up there?” Farris called. She was about to make fun of him again for not really being a man, but stopped when she saw him stifling back sobs. In the space between breaths Farris pushed aside her bitterness and flew over the earthen barrier. In a moment she knelt beside him, holding him and easing him to the ground.
“Did you get hurt? What were you doing up there? It’s okay now.” Her words spilled out in a noisy rush of warmth. Her little brother’s fingers dug into the skin on her arms as he clung to her. He looked so small and helpless, Farris thought. How could she resent him for anything?
“Exploring!” Tom gasped between mouthfuls of air. “Looking for—serpent’s head up at Giant’s Ridge. It must be—Nidhoggdrasil—Grandmother’s story. If I were the Wyrd Sisters, I’d live there! Grandma could never climb up—I did it for her.”
“Whatever picture scared you—”
“It wasn’t a picture,” Tom said. He pushed Farris back to arm’s length and looked at her for a long while. “There was a monster up there,” he said, without a hint of teasing.
Farris laughed, and seeing her brother’s face contort in anger she laughed even harder. “You had me worried, ass.”
“There was! It was making that sound just like you said the monsters made! It looked right at me and went ORROOSHHH. You heard it too, right? You know what I’m talking about.”
Tom looked at her, his huge blue eyes quivering fresh with tears, and Farris couldn’t bring herself to contradict him.
“Then you were very brave to go up there alone,” she said, and hugged him. “Just stay out of the hills and I won’t let anything hurt you.”
Tom nodded meekly, wiping his face with dirty hands.
“Do you feel safe now?” Farris asked. Now that she’d seen he was all right, she began to calculate how long she should wait before teasing him about this.
“Yeah, for now,” Tom managed, but he trembled and coughed. “But I’m not safe.”
“What do you mean?”
“It saw me, Farris. It looked right at me, and it got excited—at least I think it did. It was hard to tell what it was feeling, because its face was smooth and bright like brass. But it looked like a thing that had found what it was looking for. Then it spoke to me, and that voice! It was like ice and death, and for a moment I forgot it was day at all because how could something so cold sound in the day? It asked me my name, but I didn’t answer. Then it asked what I wore around my neck, and I refused it again. It stretched out its hands toward me, and it almost got me. It had these talons on its fingers, as long as the day and as black as night, and I think it would have cut me to slivers if I hadn’t made a dash for it.”
“You’re just imagining it,” Farris said, her voice ringing hollow in her ears.
“Am I imagining this?” he asked, turning his back toward Farris. Four brilliant red lines were cleanly cut into his flesh, spanning half the length of his back. Farris swallowed hard.
[_I thought nothing of my kingdom until it was taken from me, nor of my father until I witnessed his last procession wreathed in the blanket of death. Now I scorn humanity, and wonder if that too will glow once it has been left behind. _]
[_-Javel of Omar, The First Man _]
“You’re lying,” Farris said harshly. It was enough that everyone was fighting over the old story, but this was going too far. “You know Mother warned you about climbing up to Giant’s Ridge, and you made up another monster because you can’t stand her being right.”
“I am not!” He pushed Farris away and stood, his blue eyes hardening into a glare that a boy his age should never know. “You’re the one who can’t stand not being right. You never believed, and even when there’s proof you’re too stubborn to admit it.”
“You call getting scratched proof? You probably slipped and cut yourself on a bush!” Farris shouted.
“What about the key? And the earthquake? You can’t pretend that didn’t happen.”
“It’s a rusty piece of metal from a senile old woman! And any explanation for the earthquake is better than some dead legend shaking the world from a thousand miles away!”
Tom looked like he couldn’t decide whether to shout, or hit her, or just lie down and cry. His face was red and puffy and his eyes sparkled. Farris was tempted to back down just to make him feel better, but that would only encourage him to lie more in the future. She had to stay strong for this charade to stop. Tom stayed silent. Farris cast another quick glance in the direction Sasha had gone. How far ahead was he by now? The daylight was already fading fast.
“Well?” Farris added. “Are you going to admit you were lying and tell me what really happened?”
“I’m not asking you to believe in monsters,” Tom said quietly, his eyes fixed on Farris. “I’m asking you to believe in me. It’s hunting me, Farris. Please don’t let it find me.”
“I can’t be babysitting you all the time. I need to go help a friend with something. If you want to be a man, it’s time you started acting like one. Men aren’t afraid of monsters.”
“Is it Sasha again?” Tom’s eyes narrowed. “If he’s more important to you than I—”
“There are no such thing as monsters!” Farris snapped, her voice sharper than she intended. “And this has nothing to do with Sasha! You need to realize you’re not some lord who can force people to do whatever you want just because Grandma gave you her key. You’re old enough to face your fears and stop bothering me with them. Just grow up already.”
Farris couldn’t stand to look into those blue eyes any longer. She turned around and crossed her arms over her chest. She heard her brother quietly shuffling, then felt the warm presence of his hand hovering an inch away from her back as he reached out. Farris closed her eyes and waited. She couldn’t even give him the impression she cared or he’d have already won. Tom’s hand withdrew without touching her, and she heard his shuffling again as he clambered over the earthen wall.
[_I can’t let him leave like this. _]So why was it so hard to turn around? All she had to do was speak a single word—any word. She didn’t even have to tell him he was right, as long as she told him she cared. But maybe this is what he needed to finally stop fixating on this nonsense tearing their family apart. Maybe she shouldn’t care what he believed in, if believing it kept her little brother from growing up. By the time she allowed herself to look, he was gone. She turned to face the hills beyond the village.
How far must Sasha have gone without her already? If she went after Tom, she’d never be able to find Sasha. The fall sun had spent its strength quickly and was dwindling behind the horizon now. The air was cool and smelt of wood-fires and evening meals. She strained her eyes against the fading light to peer around the clustered rocks where Sasha had disappeared. She could just make out the silhouette of a man standing behind one of them.
Was that Sasha watching her? Was he that tall? Were his arms that long? What if her brother really had found something up there? The figure stood motionless, and Farris hated how much she needed it to wave at her and step into the light. No matter how sure she was, it was easier to scoff at monsters from the comfort of home. Even tranquil nights can give life to the darkest parts of the mind, and this night felt troubled already. The silhouette raised a hand ensnared by shadows—or were those claws hanging from the end of its fingers?
“Farisky? Is that you?” Sasha’s voice called. Farris suddenly realized how tense her body was as she breathed a long sigh of relief. Father had called her Farisky sometimes when she was younger, as a combination of ‘Farris’ and ‘Frisky’. Once he had used it in Sasha’s presence, and Sasha had laughed and called her that himself. From that moment it had become irrevocably his, and by an unspoken law he alone had called her that afterwards.
“Where have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” Farris called back. Should she have admitted that? Too late.
“I’m up here. You don’t have to come,” Sasha called. Farris shook her head, glancing away from the figure she had been staring at. Sasha was sitting on a different rock further up the hill. Her vision darted back to the silhouette, but the shadows had engulfed it and there was no one to be seen. She rubbed her eyes. A trick of the dying light. There was nothing to be afraid of, especially with Sasha right there …
Farris jogged up the hill, making a small detour to avoid going too close to where she imagined the silhouette. Part of her mind laughed at her for doing so, but that side of herself had never been kind to her anyway.
Sasha looked older than the last time she had seen him. His face was dark with short stubble. His jaw was clenched and tight. His eyes were level and hard.
“What are you doing here?” Farris asked, folding her skirt around her knees to sit beside him. “Everyone else is busy getting ready for winter.”
“Not everyone,” Sasha said.
“Well not you, obviously. But Dad has been asking why you haven’t stopped by, and Nagir is getting too old to work the fields without your help. Where has he been?”
Sasha nodded his head solemnly to his right. Farris tore her eyes away from Sasha’s face and leaned past him to see what he gestured at. The ground looked freshly stirred and flattened, and there was a small tower of smooth stones carefully constructed in the center. Farris didn’t want to keep staring, but she suddenly couldn’t look at Sasha either. Her hands felt huge and stiff and useless as she fidgeted with her skirt. Her mind refused to help her think of something to help.
“Your dad?” she asked at last. “How?”
“During the earthquake,” Sasha said softly. “He was gathering wood in the Morash Woods when the avalanche came through. He was buried pretty deep. By the time I reached him there wasn’t anything I could do.” Sasha lifted hands covered with dirt and bloody cuts that had long since dried.
Farris opened and closed her mouth a few times, but nothing came out. An incredible wave of guilt washed over her. Her squabbles with her brother and Grandmother’s story seemed like the least important things in the world now. She couldn’t imagine what she would do if she lost someone in her own family, and Nagir was all Sasha had.
There wasn’t anything she could say, so Farris wrapped her arms around Sasha’s neck and hugged him tight. He seemed surprised and stiffened up, but relaxed after a moment and held her loosely back.
“I’m sorry I ran away without telling you,” Sasha said softly. “I just can’t spend time in that house anymore. And I couldn’t tell anyone—that would just make it real. As long as I was alone up here, there was a voice inside of me that said I could go back home and he would still be there waiting for me.”
“You don’t have to explain,” Farris said, reluctantly letting go as he drew away. “I wouldn’t expect you to be thinking of me when your father …”
“I was thinking about you though,” he interrupted, fishing around in his discarded rucksack. “I know my dad thought of you like a daughter, and you’re like family to me too. I even made something for you. I had to keep my hands busy to stop my head.”
Like family to him? Farris couldn’t figure out whether that was good or bad right now. The fact he was thinking about her at all was enough.
Sasha withdrew his cupped hands from the bag and held them in front of Farris. Opening his fingers slowly, Sasha revealed a small wooden flower strung with a piece of cord through its stem. Each petal was made from a different type of wood, interlocking into a many-hued and magnificent flower bud. It was smooth and polished, and there was a shine on the wood that made it gleam dully in the soft light.
“I’ve never seen you wear anything of the sort,” he said. “I don’t know whether that’s because you don’t care for decorations, or you just don’t have any, but I’d like you to have this.”
Something was dancing inside of Farris. “I suppose it’s just that no one has ever given me something to wear before.”
“After my dad—well, I’m glad I still have his contraptions. Even now that he’s at peace, I know they can move because of his hands and his mind. I can’t help but believe part of his spirit is still guiding them. I thought I’d make you one too, just in case you ever found yourself alone.”
“It’s beautiful! I’ve never seen anyone build something that looks so alive.”
[Is that all you can say? _]She wanted to tell him that she would kiss it every night before she slept[. _]She would be beautiful because she wore it, even though she didn’t think she was before. She would never take it off or let anyone else touch it for the rest of her life. Wouldn’t he love to hear that?
“I think it’s very nice,” Farris added.
[_Close enough. _]If Sasha could see in her eyes the same thing that she could see in his, then he would know what she meant.
“There’s something else,” Sasha said, the ghost of a smile creeping over his cracked lips which barely seemed to remember the motion.
Sasha grasped the stem of the flower with his thumb and index finger, then with his other hand turned the base where the cord ran through. The petals spread, and Farris saw subtle gears hidden in the depths of the flower that turned as it blossomed. The different colored petals switched places with one another as they moved in a hypnotic dance of glinting light and clicking wood. A louder snap rang, and Sasha turned it back the other way to reverse the motion until the original shape was restored.
Farris laughed, delighted. “That’s marvelous! You did all that by yourself? You’re just as good as your father is—I mean was, I—” [_Just stop talking! _]
Farris was grateful he ignored her rambling. Sasha undid the small piece of wood that served as a clasp on the cord and strung it around her neck. She tried not to think about her grandmother putting the key around Tom’s neck, although the image forced itself into her mind. There was a long quiet while he secured it around her, and he let his hand linger on her neck longer than was strictly necessary for the task. She caught his eye as he moved back, and he grinned.
“It’s getting late,” Farris whispered. “You’re not going to stay here all night, are you?”
Sasha shrugged. “I’m not ready to be in that house, but I’m tired of hiding here. Seeing you again reminds me of how much is still waiting for me. Two weeks has been long enough.”
“Two weeks! I just remembered,” Farris said, her face brightening. “Grandmother said our Yonda will burn tonight. We always have a party to celebrate the holiday. Come back and spend it with us. You can even stay the night at our house if you don’t want to be alone.
“I’d like that,” Sasha smiled.
They slid down from the rock and moved back toward the village with its warm lights and rich smoky air. Farris climbed the earthen mound around the village first and felt Sasha’s strong hands on her back pushing her over the barricade. She hadn’t mentioned her problems to Sasha, but just having him around was enough to rob their power over her. Besides, her family had the decency not to fight in front of guests. They could finally have a proper celebration where everyone was on the same side. When she reached the top of the mound, she turned around to offer Sasha a hand.
Neither his eyes nor his hand met hers. Sasha’s body was suddenly tense, his muscles bunching like a predatory animal. In a moment he sped past Farris to slide down the slope. He landed on the ground and began to sprint for the village before Farris could even decide whether to be offended. She slid after him and raced to catch up. Sasha was moving toward the strong red light glowing from the direction of Farris’s house.
“They must be lighting the Yonda already! You don’t have to rush, it’ll last all night!” Even as she spoke, Farris knew something was wrong.
The fire was too strong to be the burning Yonda, and even in the night she could see thick clouds of smoke blackening the sky. Their house burned, and a scream shattered the darkness that sounded like her mother. Farris couldn’t match Sasha’s pace, but she was at a full run too.
The flickering firelight reflected off rippling brass flesh at the edge of Farris’s vision, and long talons scraped the sky with their deadly points. A tall silhouette with long arms was outlined in the darkness. ORROOSHHH came a savage rush of steam that trickled from a vent at the back of the creatures’ head. Its dark talons slashed the air in front of them in warning.
Sasha checked his run just in time to duck to the side. The creature’s claws narrowly missed him as they scythed through the air. It recoiled and bunched, fluid as a cat, before bending in preparation for another spring.
“A monster,” Farris murmured. Her body was frozen in shock. She couldn’t believe it.
It turned toward her now. Its faceless head was smooth as water but for a chaotic flicker and distortion that flowed beneath the surface. It couldn’t have been more than a foot or two taller than Sasha, but its terrible, emaciated thinness made it appear to tower above him.
Sasha moved to leap past the creature with a furious yell and a wild wave of his fists. The thing sprang to the side so swiftly Farris could barely follow it with her eyes. It flanked Sasha and raked its claws across his shoulder. Sasha cried out and clutched his arm, stumbling a few steps backwards. They faced each other once more, and the creature bent its knees to spring again.
“Stay away from the burning house,” The voice was a cold metallic hiss that echoed from its featureless face. It turned Farris’s veins to ice, sapping all heat and light from the raging fire beyond. She felt herself begin to tremble. Monster.
“Just run past!” Sasha shouted at Farris without taking his eyes off the creature. “Make sure everyone gets out of the house!”
“I am not alone, boy, and you will be slain without a second thought,” the brass creature said.
Farris thought she could see small gears turning at the base of its neck, then a spring catch and release as it pivoted its head between the two of them: a clockwork nightmare that moved too smoothly for any human contraption.
“Refrain from interfering, and we will soon be gone,” it added with another burst of steam.
“What are you? What are you doing here?” Farris asked. Her mind was racing in search of an explanation: nothing but the word ‘monster’ made sense in her head.
“We seek a small key, nothing more,” the creature replied.
“Tom,” Farris whispered, and then yelled the name aloud as she peered through smoke and flame for sign of her brother. She didn’t see anything stir around the house.
“Find your family!” Sasha shouted again. “You won’t be followed—not while I’m here.”
Farris was running again before she had time to think. She hopped the low wooden fence that ran along the dirt road and dashed through the scraggy grass. There was another steaming hiss and a roar from Sasha, but she couldn’t look away from the sight ahead. The farmhouse blazed in an inferno spouting great gouts of flame through the windows. Thick black smoke billowed upwards to devour the stars above. A thin plume of white smoke rose through the center of the black cloud, cutting like a ray of light through the dark. The Yonda tree will burn tonight, Grandmother had said.
Other shouts rose around the village, but the cries from the house drew Farris’s attention. Her parents flung buckets of water onto the inferno, creating a chain with other villagers that stretched to the well in the town center. The flames were so intense they licked the water up as though nourished by it, spitting out bursts of boiling steam as they did. Her breath came sharply now, both from her sudden sprint and the thick clouds of smoke, and she staggered in a fit of coughing.
Tom. Where is Tom? Farris couldn’t think straight. It should have been her. She should have been given the key, and the monsters should have come after her. Maybe she should have listened more closely, or believed more truly, or been stronger to deserve it somehow. She didn’t know why, but somehow this was all her fault.
“What is this madness?” a second cold voice shouted. An even taller beast of shining brass strode through the scene with an imperious strut. Farris crouched down and caught her breath while she listened. “I never ordered this raid! No one was supposed to be harmed!”
“It’s not our fault, dear brother,” hissed another cool voice behind Farris. She spun and saw a third creature striding from the shadows. “We were simply going to snatch the key and run, but the Third has interfered.”
“It’s your own fault for failing to grab the boy when he was on his own, Pistal,” snarled the taller figure. “Pull the hunters back!”
“It was that cursed star in the sky! I’d like to see you do better, Riften. It doesn’t matter though. Our mission is more important than your concerns,” hissed the smaller creature called Pistal. “The lord permitted us to use force if we found the Three, and you do not have the authority to rescind that. Spread the fire, shatter the sword, break the back and find the boy!” A hollow echo filled with cruelty and malice rang out as the creature threw its head back and laughed.
The taller creature, the one they’d called Riften, sprinted toward the burning house and vanished into the thickening smoke. Farris made a hesitant step to follow it, but froze again when she caught sight of Grandmother Roschette. The old woman was returning from her daily search along the dirt road, only it wasn’t the same Grandmother Farris had grown up beside. This woman bore the body of Grandmother, but she stood tall with her small black cane tossed aside. Her bent back was held straight, and her eyes reflected the inferno raging about the house.
“How dare the Paral-Zakdul slither up from their depths?” Grandmother Roschette asked. She had always been a stern woman, but Farris had never heard her use a tone like this. There was such surety and power in her words that it seemed as though the sun would apologize for setting had she reprimanded it. “Name yourself, and your business, and know that your kind are not permitted to walk the surface world.”
“Hello, old woman,” the shorter creature bowed smartly. “My name is Pistal, honor guard of the Brass City. I am here to escort the key of Fantasia into the earth, where it will be put to better use than it is here.”
“Grandmother! What in the world is going on?” Farris spoke at last. She rose from where she had knelt, and though her breathing had steadied, her voice still shook. The monster was less than a dozen feet away. There was no more hiding, no more evading, no more disbelieving. The least she could do was stand.
“Silence, child!” Pistal shouted.
“Farris, go help your parents with the fire. I shall settle matters here,” Roschette said, not even glancing in Farris’s direction. Grandmother’s eyes were locked on the brass creature with such intensity it was a wonder the brass plates didn’t melt from shame.
“If you think you’re protecting her, then you do so poorly,” Pistal jeered at Grandmother. “More of my hunters are already in the house, and they will find the key.”
“They will not be returning home with you,” Grandmother Roschette replied evenly.
Farris glanced at the burning house, but she needed answers. She couldn’t deny what was happening in front of her eyes, but she could still keep her family from being involved in this ordeal.
“Just take the key and be gone!” Farris shouted. “Tom will give it to you, if it means no one will be hurt.”
“What a good girl she is,” cooed Pistal, now taking an interest in her. The gears clicked in his neck as it pivoted ninety degrees to inspect her, puffing out a trickle of steam as it did. “Where is the key, child?”
“Farris, go!” Grandmother Roschette cried. “You do not understand these matters. Neither my life nor the key will be given, but I would sooner lose the first than the second.”
“I do too understand!” Farris replied, her words growing steadier. “They’re up here burning and tearing the place apart looking for that stupid key, so I say we give it to them! We’ve lived all our lives without needing it, and we don’t want it now! We can’t put our pride over our family.”
“She speaks fairly,” Pistal purred. “You wouldn’t want anyone to be hurt now, would you Third? You have been babysitting these animals for so long, you must care for them.”
“I stay with them because I am one of them,” Roschette growled. “And Farris—you’ve proven nothing except that you understand nothing. Tom is the key, and it is he they are here to take.”
A cacophony of distress bludgeoned Farris from all sides, and suddenly she felt very small. The air was split by the shouting of men and the fearful bleating of animals, and many of the livestock had already broken free to run across the land in mad panic. The fire rose into the sky like a demon stretching for the heavens, ravenous and uncaring.
When Farris was young, she used to be afraid of the things in Grandmother’s stories. As she grew, she learned that when her mind was at its darkest, all she had to do was stop believing. The decision to not believe gave her power over all the beasts and monsters the deepest night could conjure. She had never felt so helpless as this moment, when disbelieving in demons didn’t stop them from being real.
Another creature of rippling brass emerged from the burning house now, and though fire danced across its skin it seemed unharmed. Tom was clutched in its talons, dangling limply in its grasp. Three more creatures emerged beside it. Were their talons stained with blood? Farris strained her eyes, but fresh clouds of smoke from the house obscured them from sight.
“You will leave now.” Grandmother Roschette’s voice was tense but soft, and though barely above a whisper it was clearly heard by all. “The Brass City is meddling with forces beyond their control. Do not cross the line from which there is no return. You will set the boy down, and you will return to your lord. You will tell him you have encountered a foe beyond you, and you will pray forgiveness from him. Do this, or I fear you will not return at all.”
A snarl issued from Pistal that raised the hairs on the back of Farris’s neck. He began to lunge toward Grandmother, but a set of talons clamped onto his shoulder and held him still. The taller figure called Riften had reemerged from the smoke and was holding Pistal back. Pistal shook the talon off him, but stepped aside to allow Riften to stand in front of Grandmother. Riften loomed above the old woman and blocked her from approaching Tom, who was now struggling weakly against his captors behind.
Grandmother stooped to pick up her black walking stick once more. The crook in her back had never been more evident than it was now. She barely rose to the creature’s waist, and was so bent she could not even look into its blank brass face. It killed Farris to imagine what would happen next, but if Grandmother was brave enough to face those talons, then she would be as well.
“I presume I have the pleasure of addressing the Third,” Riften said, his cold voice melodic and rolling. “I was told the Third would be the shortest of them. Your advice is sound and your tone is reasonable, so I do really wish I was in a position to listen. This whole business is nasty and sordid and not at all to my liking.” There was a genuine touch of sadness in its echoing words before it grew harsh again. “Take solace in the knowledge that I do indeed know what I stand against, and I am prepared.”
As it spoke, at least a dozen of the creatures had appeared from the darkness to stand motionless around them. Riften sprang into action, spinning on the spot. Talons raked backward in a wide arc aimed to take Tom’s head cleanly from his neck. Tom closed his eyes and screamed, and Farris heard her own voice mingle with his. Just before the blow struck, Sasha launched himself out of nowhere to slam into the creature from the side. He crashed into it with a booming thud that sounded as though he had run straight into a wall, and the two of them toppled to the ground.
Grandmother Roschette moved at the same time, raising both of her hands to greet a howling wind, saluting as herald to the storm. The air pulsed and lashed across the field, its gusts mounting as Grandmother stirred the air with her fingers. She was chanting now in a shaking voice that rang lower than the valley and more ancient than the mountains.
“I name thee ghost of God, and first of men, last to have forsaken him,” came Grandmother’s somber chant.
Riften grappled with Sasha on the ground, flailing with deadly sharp claws that cut into him in many places. The first cut stole Sasha’s strength and sent him sprawling to the ground. Sasha rose to meet the second, and he took it without falling again. A wild yell, and the dark talons danced in his blood. As they pierced his skin again and again, a savage power seemed to flood through Sasha and with a furious defiance he flung himself against the beast, toppling it backwards.
Farris made a half-step toward Sasha, and then another stumble toward Tom. Every movement seemed futile in the face of those dark blades and impenetrable brass shells that moved unharmed through the raging inferno. There were too many people that needed her, and there was nothing she could do.
“Once remembered, twice forgotten, power of the orb begotten,” Grandmother Roschette’s chant rang on, building in volume with each line.
Riften threw Sasha off like a rag-doll. Sasha tumbled through the air to crash into the burning flank of the house. Farris screamed and ran toward him, but more of the creatures were moving in from the edge of the firelight and she was cut off. She turned back to her brother once more and dashed in that direction. He must be just on the other side of that smoke …
There was a glimmer in the darkness as the red light burned through it. Was that the key around Tom’s neck? No, it was the brass plates of another creature. Farris checked her run just in time as its talons ripped the air before her face. She fell to the ground, but before she could stand an implacable force slammed into the side of her head. The world spun, and she tasted blood and dirt as she was sent sprawling.
“Thrice arisen, and four times fell, the spirit buys and the soul he sells,” Grandmother recited.
Farris pulled herself up to her feet. Her fists were raised in front of her in a vain gesture, but her attacker had already lost interest. Farris grabbed a handful of dry earth and leapt onto its back. She wrapped her arms around its neck and shoved the soil into the cogs around the base of its head. A burst of heated steam poured around her fingers, burning them and turning the dirt to mud. An angry rattle clicked inside the creature and it slowed to a stop. [_Got one! _]
“Should I kill it, Pistal?” the cold voice reverberated through Farris’s body as she clung to it.
“Ignore her. Stop the Third’s spell!” Pistal hissed.
The creature stretched around its back to throw her off, but it couldn’t reach her. Another burst of steam blinded Farris. She clung on for as long as she could, but the metal heated beneath her fingers until with a cry she dropped to the ground. Her blistered hands drank in the cool night air, and she felt tears sting where they cut lines into her scalded face.
The creature left her in the dirt and lunged toward Roschette with a screeching whistle of steam. Pistal fled through the wall of smoke in front of the house, disappearing in the direction Farris had last seen Tom.
Farris watched helplessly as her target wrapped its arms around Grandmother in a macabre embrace of piercing talons, but it could not bow the small woman though it pulled on her with strength that would have brought a horse to its knees.
Farris pulled herself up from the ground and dashed through the smoke after Pistal and her brother once more. The air stung her eyes and burned her lungs. The side of her face throbbed. It should hurt. [_I deserve it for not believing him. _]
“Five times trusted, six times betrayed; time suspends, and silence pervades,” Roschette’s voice was loud and strong. It rang out across the whole valley and bounced from the grim stones.
Farris could still hear it though she was swiftly leaving the scene behind. The light was fading behind her, and all the pain and commotion combined into one long blast of noise. She could make out Sasha’s roar again, filled with shame and anger at his own weakness.
“Seven times sealed, to never be free, by iron and root of Yonda Sahra’s tree. I name thee Elestar Seera, the tongue of flame. Swallow the night. Burn all that seek to capture the key of Fantasia! Elestar no helia, san savanya de Neera’s porticus; and the opening of the fourth gate of hell.”
Behind Farris the world swam in a fire that no longer burned. All of the flame that blazed from the fields and buildings of the village rose silently into the sky, raging in midair though there was no fuel left for them to consume. They gathered themselves into a great ball of blue-hot fire, and it frothed and sparked on all sides to light the valley as a midnight sun. Once every flame and cinder from the ground had risen to join the blaze in the sky, it hurtled downward once more to engulf the arena of conflict.
Silence resided in those flames and washed over the village, and the sudden quiet was so loud Farris’s eardrums felt as though they might rupture from the sound of her own frantic heartbeat. The air smelled of pressure and heat, and the whole heavens shone blue as though it were midday. As the fire spent itself upon the ground, the rush of shouts, screams, and the panicked bleating of animals returned in a deafening crash.
Farris couldn’t slow down to stare. She could still see a glint of red firelight reflecting off brass skin ahead. Then she heard a high, clear cry from her little brother piercing the wall of screams and shouts: a hopeful soprano rising from a mournful song. Farris spotted Tom slung over one of the creature’s shoulders with two more in close pursuit.
The outlines of their long black talons were scraping the ground behind them as they bounded over the stony soil. Farris was running as hard as she could, but the distance between them wouldn’t close. The battle at her village was swiftly falling out of sight, and now that the blue fire died, she could see nothing but the winding dirt road that led into the dark hills. Why hadn’t she believed her brother? Why wasn’t she there when he needed her? Why hadn’t she been the one they took? Farris vowed that if she ever got her brother back, she would never tease him about believing in monsters again.
If you would ask it of me, I would give you my kingdom freely. It is my love of the stars that has made them jewels, and my footprints that have turned every grain of sand to pearls. What I value cannot be traded, nor would you know to want it if it could.
-Javel of Omar, the First Man
Farris moved with the impetus of desperation pushing her faster and farther than she had ever gone in her life. The fire behind had spent its wrath and slept extinguished now, and although she was relieved the battle was over, she could no longer see the glinting light reflected from rippling brass. She called after her brother again and again, but the sound of her voice seemed insignificant in the face of the towering hills ahead. There was the rock she had met Sasha at today, safe and familiar, and soon left far behind.
There was no light to guide Farris but the slivered moon and scattered stars masked behind a smoky veil. Farris found herself beside strange shadows and the distorted shapes of twisted rocks. The ground began to slope steeply upward. A wide swath of rocks was carved with the chalk body of the serpent, which held the dim light with baleful malevolence. Her brother must have gone this way just a few hours before. She had seen the cuts on his back—why wasn’t that enough for her?
You just can’t stand to see Tom be right. You allowed this to happen. He begged you to protect him, and you laughed at him. Farris tried to push the guilty thought from her head and focus on the steep path and her heavy breathing instead. Every gasp of air was a knife in her side.
Pushing further up the hills, Farris passed through trees that bristled around her on all sides. The stoic march of the Morash woods engulfed her, although many of the trees were splintered into jagged forms by the passing avalanche. The wind made creatures of the leaves, and her guilt turned the branches into accusing fingers that pointed and jeered at her. The strangled call of a bird made her jump, and then silence fell heavy once more. A cold sweat formed on her brow as she looked frantically for any sign of her brother. She called out again, her voice shallow. Did she even want them to hear her? What could she do against monsters like that?
With no other path to follow, Farris labored up the steep slopes along the coils of the chalk serpent. She struggled for a long way, measuring the journey by the beating of her heart and the number of times she stumbled upon the dark path. Chill winds burnt where they caressed her scalded skin, and frustration filled her with nervous energy that would not be exhausted. There was no sign of them amid the gray and ghostly landscapes of shining chalk and stern trees. Her brother’s clear voice sounded only in her memory.
In the distance Farris heard the bleating of a goat and took a few hesitant steps toward it. The sound grew closer as she pushed through the stretch of woods, knocking aside low hanging branches to reveal a clearing. She must have made it all the way to the Giant’s Ridge, for here was the head of the chalk serpent carved into the ground. There were two large black rocks for eyes, and its great maw was opened slightly to let a forked tongue branch out across the ground. Bumble, that leader of animals, sat timidly in the center of the clearing.
“Hey there, Bumble,” Farris called out softly, approaching to rub her head. She seemed quite happy to see Farris and sat up at once. “Did the fire scare you? You were right to get out of there.”
Bumble was eating a leaf and did her best to look contemplative as she chewed it slowly.
“Did you see where they went? Would you tell me if you did?” A pause. “The stories were true, I suppose. I never imagined any of the creatures being so cold and lifeless though. Do you think they were clockwork all the way through? And seeing Grandmother like that! She looked like a living story herself, standing up to them and shouting those strange words. She must have known who they were, but how could that be? Oh, why didn’t I listen to him, Bumble? Why didn’t I stay with Tom?”
“I don’t think you could have done anything but get yourself hurt anyway, so don’t go hurting yourself over it now,” answered an old and understanding voice. Farris whipped her head about to stare at Bumble, who blinked slowly in reply.
“Excuse me?” Farris asked.
“You acted freely, doing what you thought right at the time. No more can ever be asked of anyone. You can’t put a price on freedom, you know. Well—actually you can, but it’s more expensive than people realize.”
“Bumble?” Farris asked, dumbfounded.
“Silly girl, up here!” came the voice.
Farris craned her neck to look into the black boughs at the edge of the clearing, but she couldn’t make out the source.
“Who’s there? If you’re beast or stranger then you have no business here. I shall drive you away!” Farris shouted up nervously.
“We are the Wyrd Sisters. The world is our land and we have business everywhere. The question is, what are you doing here? It was never supposed to be you, so get you home and stop chasing shadows.”
The leaves rustled from a shifting weight upon the branches before the voice continued, though it spoke softer now as though addressing someone else.
“What does she look like? Is she a pretty little thing?” The branches trembled, and then: “No, she isn’t saying anything. Here, let me closer. Ow, ow, you’re stepping on me!”
The branches shook violently and two hooded shapes dropped to the ground, one after the other. One was half-again Farris’s height, and while not very thin, a transparency showed about her edges that allowed a clear view of the woods behind. The second figure had the small lumpy shape of her Grandmother when she was all wrapped up in her blanket, although she stood straighter and a little taller than Roschette.
Each wore the same long black robe with a cowl pulled low to completely conceal their faces. An emerald serpent was embroidered across their folds just as Grandmother’s blanket was. The serpent seemed to be constricting them, pulling the robe tight against the night air. Only their wrinkled and bony hands protruding from the flowing sleeves revealed there were indeed people hidden somewhere in that cloth.
“Well, is she a pretty thing or isn’t she?” asked the smaller figure. “I want a turn to see!” The tall one rapped a complex rhythm on a tree trunk. “Well don’t just tell me. Show me! Show me!”
Farris stared in disbelief as the tall figure reached under her hood and pulled an eyeball from the folds. It looked around wildly while it lay in her hand. Meanwhile the small figure removed a pair of wrinkled, old, puckered lips. The two exchanged body parts, each cloaked figure sticking the newly acquired organ into their respective hoods. The short figure in possession of the eye now made a few rapid taps. The other nodded.
All right. [_More monsters. _]Farris took a cautious step away from the strange figures. They seemed harmless enough, but they couldn’t have been human if they just swapped body parts like that.
Farris gripped Bumble’s fur to steady herself and forced the next words out of her mouth. “Um, excuse me, but what just happened?”
“If something is worth having, then it’s worth paying a price for it,” croaked the tall figure, now in possession of the mouth. She spoke with a voice that was old and flat as though she were speaking through a cloud of dust. “We paid our price a very long time ago. The Second loves the chaos of a dancing star, for she is only at peace with meddling. Now I do not see, and instead speak for the Three.”
“Do you mean to say you only have one eye and one mouth between the two of you? What could possibly be worth that price?”
“To speak the words of power is to transcend into the higher realms. The more words of mastery you learn, the less of you will remain bound to this earth. One eye to watch the world, one mouth to guide it. They serve the Three as we serve the world for thee.”
“Where—ah—where is the third one of you then?” Farris asked.
“She never heard much in silence, nor was content to see things in the dark. She does not dwell here with us.”
“I see,” Farris managed after a pause, although she didn’t really see at all.
The two figures proceeded to tap on the trees and exchange body parts again. The Second now spoke.
“Don’t mind her. She has a flair for the dramatic and hasn’t quite gotten the hang of speech. We have so few people to chat with up here, it’s easy to get out of practice. We both have ears though. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have an ear! That’s what life is all about, you know—counting yourself lucky for what you have and not damning what you don’t. The forest makes such charming sounds at night, but there were foul sounds too: a crying child, stamping feet, and voices of death. And now we hear the conversation you and your friend were having, and we just had to find out what was going on.”
“My friend?” Farris looked back at Bumble. The goat was trying to discover whether bark was edible, with mixed results. “But you heard the creatures taking Tom!” Farris pressed. “The crying child, that is. That must have been him. Where did they go?”
“Oh, I am sorry, dear. They’ve quite gone.”
“Gone? There is no ‘gone,’ there is always a ‘gone somewhere!’” Farris cried. These two were as infuriatingly mysterious as Grandmother.
“Well, gone down if you must know, but it’s all the same to you because it’s not somewhere you can follow.”
“I can and I will! That is, if you could show me the way.” Her voice faltered. Down must mean the abyss, and the monsters, and the serpent at its heart. Was all of that true then? Did one impossible thing make the rest of them probable?
“The abyss has been sealed, child, just as they asked us to do all those years ago,” the Second said, replying to Farris’ thoughts as clearly as if she had spoken aloud. “They must have taken your brother down by the desert way, but you would not survive that path. I am so sorry, little dear, but he is simply gone. You should be content in knowing he follows his destiny, and that it is time for you to go home.”
“There’s no going home without him!” Farris shouted. “There is no home without him! I’ll walk forever if I have to!”
“Big words! Oh my, yes.” The Second’s voice changed now, all of its bubbling warmth gone as a harsh edge grinded into it. “But they are words only. There is a gap between the thought and the deed, and that space is called humanity. You speak of walking forever when you have only taken a stroll through clean mountain air, well fed and rested with the sting on your head already fading. There is no strength in such a claim. Tell me again that you will walk forever when each gasp is pain to your body and your legs are not your own. Tell me you still wish to find him when he no longer wishes to be found, and you cannot remember the last time you have slept lest the terrors in the night devour you. Tell me you are strong after you’ve sucked moisture out of mud and thought it a blessing. There is no bravery spoken from ignorance, nor will in an untested heart. You think yourself noble in wanting to help him, but you are not. Turn back now, for the path beyond is for the heir of Malhalion, and it is not your battle that lies ahead.”
“I don’t care about destiny or prophecies. I don’t care if he is the true heir and I’m just his foolish sister. If he has to go to the center of the earth, then I’ll help him get there, and when it’s time for him to come home, I’ll carry him back if I have to. What is the desert way they have gone?”
“To ride the great sand-fall of the Dresdoni Desert, down into a whirlpool that would bury you up and smother you out. Not safe for little children, not safe for man and his kind.”
The First began tapping rapidly again.
“What, her?” the Second replied. “But she has nothing to do with it.”
“Nothing to do with what?” Farris asked.
Tap tap tapping.
“Ah yes, that is true. [_Two faces peer into the looking glass, each gazing to the center.” _]The Second shuffled a little closer to Farris, bending her back to leer closely. “Perhaps you do belong in this tale. We cannot refuse to plant the seed because it is ugly and then cry there are no flowers. The First says we could open the seal again—just for a little while—if you really must go. The First sees something in you, although I can’t imagine what. Nothing personal, dear, I’d just rather you stayed who you are, where you are. You cannot change one without the other, after all.”
“Then why did you waste so much time?” Farris asked. “They must be far ahead already, please hurry!”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. They didn’t take this path because they couldn’t afford the price we charge, and the Dresdoni Desert is several days march even for legs as swift as theirs. You’ll catch up to them right enough, although what you’ll do after that is a mystery to us both, and let me tell you there are very few things of that nature! But are you sure in your choice? It is a black land beneath the earth—a road made darker by more terrors than the missing sun.”
“I’ve never been sure of anything until now. I’m going after him.” Farris liked the sound of her own words, although aloud they rung with less resolve than they did in her mind. “But you’ve been below the earth already? Do you know where they’re heading?”
Her claim of walking forever was already beginning to sound like empty words. She would do it, though, she knew in her heart, if only her body would allow it. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to make matters right with her brother again. If only she had felt the same way before he was taken …
“Look at us! We’ve been everywhere and most every when by now. We might not look like travelers, but we saw the world when we were girls. The world is a lovely place to look at, nicer than it is to live in sometimes.”
The First tapped again and prompted the Second to add: “We may not look it, but we were also once girls.” The Second cackled loudly. Farris grimaced and tried to force a laugh of her own.
“Ah yes, but where they are going? To the Brass City of the fifth shell they go, that’s where the Paral-Zakdul live. You’d best catch them in the first shell however, or your hunt will be long and perilous indeed.”
“The stories really were true then?” Farris replied in wonder. “And the seven kingdoms, and the serpent, and the Yonda Sahra. And you—you’re really the Wyrd Sisters who touched the Orb? They all really existed?”
“Do not say we ‘existed’ as though we are a thing of the past! Even those who have come and gone are still real so long as they touch this moment. There is no was, nor will be, my dear. There is only this moment and our choices therein. If the past or the future affects your choices now, then it is just as real as anything that might influence you in the present. I daresay you’ll figure that out for yourself before the end. The past doesn’t forget, though it is oft forgotten, and neither does the Third. That one really has been filling your head with tales if you’ve already heard all of this.”
“When you say the ‘Third’, do you mean Grandmother?” Farris asked. The creatures had called her the Third as well. How could she be that immortal and powerful being of legend? Then again, how could these cackling lumpy shapes in front of her be the same? It all seemed impossible, but the word impossible was beginning to lose meaning.
“Yes of course, but she is young and silly and bothers man with words they do not mind,” the Second responded.
“That’s nonsense though! She’s just Grandmother!” Farris declared.
“She is that too,” the Second answered. “She will continue to be Grandmother to you and your people no matter what else she is beside. I think you will find most grandmothers have been many more people throughout their long lives than just grandmothers, although what else they were doesn’t take away from what they are now. I don’t think man would have survived nearly this long on the broken surface without her beside you.”
“The chanting and the fire from the farm, then! Was that the power of Naming?” Farris asked.
“Did she really? Showing off again, no doubt. No sense of humility, that one. You didn’t see me throwing around fancy verses or seeking praise when I calmed the earth and stopped the avalanche!”
“That was you! You called to ‘Rudbark’!” Farris clapped her hands. “You saved the entire village!”
“Any fool can save a village,” the Second huffed, wringing her bony hands behind her back and swaying like an embarrassed little girl. “What are truly praiseworthy are those who can save themselves. Perhaps it really is your turn to become a story. You will be in for quite the adventure, my dear, if you step below the surface of the world.”
“I’ve never had an adventure.” Farris smiled meekly. She had to try to stay cheerful, even in the face of all the worry and fear that clouded her mind. Isn’t that the advice she would have given her brother? “I’ve never even stepped beyond the borders of the Painted Valley. Even the hills were too high before tonight! But I’ve always wanted to know what lay beyond, now more than ever after learning the stories are all true.”
“Haven’t you been listening at all? It doesn’t matter if something exists for it to be true, just as the past does not exist. Adventures are good for people anyhow. Most of them don’t know it beforehand, and almost none think it during, but afterward—yes, they know it then. Afterward they are still alive and for the first time in their life that means something. An adventure is just what you need! Oh, I do love beginnings—all potential and no messy realization of it. I’ve made up my mind. Shall we send her straight away?”
The Second turned toward the silent First. The First reached out a long bony finger, and this time a slivered shaft of the moon snuck through the tangled branches overhead to light it. Farris cringed to see that there was no skin on the hand at all: nothing but bleached white bones ran into the shadowed sleeve. It tapped a slow sequence on the trunk of a tree before withdrawing into the cloak.
Whatever they said, Farris couldn’t imagine power being worth the price these women seemed to have paid. “What did she say?” Farris cried.
The Second paused before replying: “Well, you can go, but there is still the matter of our payment for opening the seal.”
“Anything! My horse, maybe? His name is Jasper. He’s a rich chestnut color and is swift like the wind. I don’t suppose I’ll get to ride him down below the earth.”
“No, my pet. We don’t have any use for horses. We have nowhere to go. Thank you for the offer though, I know you are rather fond of him and it is really the fondness for the payment we value above the payment itself.”
“How about money? Or some of the fresh harvest? We don’t have much to spare, but anything I have is yours to take.”
“What would we buy? And we don’t have much of an appetite.”
The First tapped again before the Second continued.
“What a few old ladies really love is to sit by the fire while the winter blows cold outside, laying our memories beside us as a tapestry for warmth.”
“What can I offer you if you want for nothing then?” Farris asked.
“It’s been so long since we were girls we’ve forgotten some of the joys it held. Would you give us some of your fresh memories?”
“From this boring old life? You can take whatever you like! By the sound of the stories I imagine I’ll be making new ones wherever I go.”
“Then it’s decided! Give us some of the joys of youth—give us the love that you have felt. Then you will be off to a wonderful place, to find your brother and, perhaps, to find others you do not yet know you seek. Just the good memories mind you, you can keep all of this dreadful business of late filled with flame and uncertainty and loss. Give us summer days, and fleeting smiles, and warm beating hearts. Give us hands brushed together, and loving embraces, and whispered secrets in the dead of night. Your memories of Sasha, my dear, are the only payment we will require.”
Farris could feel her heart tighten. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” How did they even know? What was there to know? Sasha and she weren’t even like that. Something more could have happened with time, but they didn’t act like lovers. They were two halves of the same person, and she couldn’t give that away, could she?
“I do have a way of knowing things, my dear. What you’ve shared with him will be plenty enough to keep us company through the winter.”
Tom’s words echoed through Farris’s mind. If he’s more important to you than me … but how could she choose between them? Hadn’t this whole mess begun when she chose Sasha over Tom once? She had to get her brother back, and if she was going to leave her home behind, she might as well forget Sasha too. It would be easier for her to travel without having to think of him, without the guilt of leaving, or the regret of going alone. Without having to miss him, because she knew that would kill her. She took a deep breath.
“I’ll do it,” Farris said. “Let me down into the earth.”
“That’s right, child,” the Second said kindly. “Where you go you must leave everything but your bones behind.”
The First nodded slowly and reached out to tap the wood. The eye and the mouth were exchanged once again. The First now croaked out words as pale as ash and as old as time. She stretched her fleshless finger down the length of her body until it touched the chalk serpent carved into the ground.
“I Name thee—bones of the earth, sign of Nidhoggdrasil—open your way into the dark. I Name thee Rudbark the stone. Open your heart unto me.”
Farris shivered as a cold winter wind blew from inside her body outward. The chalk serpent on the ground began to stir, slithering along its two-dimensional plane. The coils wrapped together tighter and tighter, drawing in link upon link. The incredible length bunched together until all that was left was a large white circle on the ground and two black eyes watching her.
The First sister gestured for Farris to stand between the eyes, and Farris did so with Bumble still by her side. The First lifted her hands again, reaching impossibly high and stretching impossibly thin, and it seemed to Farris that she began to pluck the very stars from the sky as though she were picking cherries. Farris watched in a trance as the First moved faster and faster until she had gathered every bead of shining light and the entire heavens were grasped in her hand. The sky was left dark, and her bony hand shone with a pale white radiance.
“May you look into the blackest night and not lose sight. May you find those you seek, and may you seek yourself among them,” said the First.
“What’s happening?” Farris asked, open-mouthed.
The First released the stars from her hand, letting the light spill across the white circle. They floated down gently, and upon touching the ground they soaked into the soil to pass their luminescence into the chalk. When every bead of the stars had been absorbed, the circle of light dropped away into the earth. The rock and soil seemed to dissipate as it pushed farther and farther downward. Farris found herself standing before an endless chasm that cut deeply into the world
“Will I have a light?” Farris asked, glancing downward. It was so dark below she could only see a few feet into the earth before the rocks dissolved into perfect blackness. There was no sign of a stairway, or a ladder, or any other means by which to even begin descending into those depths.
“My child, you are the light,” the First replied. “Go now and seek the abyss and passage to the lower places. You will find the Paral hunters and your brother there, seeking their own way down.”
Farris knelt on her hands and knees to peer into the pit. There must be something she missed, right? They surely didn’t expect her to simply leap—
Gentle but insistent hands grabbed her by the shoulders. Farris tried to stand but the loose soil was sliding beneath her. She screamed as the hands on her shoulders forced her forward. The dirt rolled in a cascade and she tumbled through the air to plummet into the yawning void.
[_I went to sleep one night to dream myself as an animal, and slept as an animal to dream myself a man. Now I have woken from both and wish for the comfort of sleep to come a third time. I pray that this sleep is not disturbed by dreams. _]
[_-Javel of Omar, the First Man _]
Farris was floating gently as a leaf on the wind, but it took several seconds for her brain to convince herself to stop screaming. Her stomach was clenched into a tight knot that paralyzed her body in utter terror. Why wasn’t she falling? The overwhelming instinct to panic finally began to subside. She was able to stretch out a hand and brush the rocky soil around her. It slid softly away from her fingers as she drifted downward, tumbling past her to fall at a normal rate. There was a fearful bleating somewhere above her, and she smiled to know that Bumble had followed her and was falling as gently as she was.
Farris fell for some time through the pitch-blackness encompassing her. Now that the initial momentum of her journey had passed, she realized how foolish she was by leaving in such a rush. She had no food with her, nor water or warm clothing for this land without a sun. She didn’t know how long she would fall, or how she would know when she arrived. Would she keep falling straight to the center of the world without even seeing her brother? And even if she did find him, how were they supposed to climb back up?
Her thoughts were interrupted by a warm light emanating from somewhere overhead. After her time in the darkness it flared so brightly she had to shield her eyes to look in its direction. As it drifted closer she saw that the terrible brightness came from a single suspended candle. The Wyrd Sisters had told her she was the light, but they hadn’t mentioned anything else being here. Farris squinted against the light and spotted the outlines of two figures drifting alongside it. Tension seized her body as they approached her, but she let it all out in a surprised gasp when she recognized who they were.
“Where are we going?” her mother asked nonchalantly.
“We’re going upward,” her father said while sipping at a cup of tea. “I can tell by the way the wind is blowing.”
“Mother? Father?” Farris asked. Her parents looked so calm it was as though they were sitting at the kitchen table discussing the weather. What happened at the village after she left? Had they followed her? Neither of them appeared to notice Farris as they sailed closer. Farris’s eyes adjusted to the light, and she could clearly see the walls of the chasm straight through her parents’ bodies, which wavered like a transparent mist.
“But our kind doesn’t have any business here,” her mother said. “We had better get back before we fall too far to ever return.”
Mother and Father had almost drawn level with Farris before they slowed their descent. Farris continued onward, leaving them behind. She called out to them, but neither looked in her direction. This must have been some kind of dream, although Farris felt as awake and alert as she had ever been. She pinched her arm and grimaced against the sting. Soon her parents and their candle vanished far above without any indication as to why they’d been here.
Before Farris could even wonder what this strange encounter could mean, she became aware of another figure falling alongside her. Grandmother Roschette was tumbling end over end and frantically patting her thick woolen garments down against the protesting wind. The serpent embroidered upon her robes glowed bright green and illuminated the old woman. She too had a transparency about her that marked her as an illusion. Grandmother didn’t appear to notice Farris either, although she fell only an arm’s length away.
“Grandmother? What are you doing here?” Farris asked. Even if it was a dream, she should at least notice her …
Grandmother Roschette looked at Farris at last, and her thin-wrinkled eyes stretched wide in shock. “I should be the one asking you. It wasn’t supposed to be you. It was never supposed to be you. Get you home, girl, and stop chasing shadows.”
Grandmother’s robes lost their battle against the wind and billowed outwards, sending her sailing off like a kite to vanish far above.
There was another presence out there in the dark. Her brother Tom was falling right beside her. He bore no means of illumination, but a soft light glowed from him as though a flame burned beneath his skin. Farris gingerly reached a hand toward him. He looked so young and innocent, but there was something about the way he fell with such perfect tranquility that made Farris wonder if it was her brother at all. He stood straight and proud, his hands folded demurely in front of him. His skin was as white as porcelain, his eyes were closed, and he breathed so softly he barely seemed alive at all.
“What are you doing here?” Tom asked without opening his eyes. The corner of his cold, white mouth bent into a sneer.
“I’m your sister! I’ve come to get you!”
“Will you take me home?” his sneer vanished, and his eyes opened wide and pleading.
“Yes, Tom. We’re going home.”
“Promise me that we are,” he begged. He seemed to notice he was falling for the first time and his composure shattered. He flailed his arms wildly and tore at his face with his hands, screaming at some unseen agony. Farris tried to grab hold of his hand, but she slipped straight through his insubstantial form. She couldn’t bear to see him endure such pain, even if it wasn’t real, so she hid her face in her hands. Her real brother must be suffering right now while she fell helplessly through the dark. She forced her hands away from her face and willed herself to stare at his image.
“I promise,” she whispered. “We’re going home.”
The light inside him gradually dimmed until only his eyes still shone, and then they too were gone. Screaming, she pounded her fists into the chasm wall.
“I promise!” Farris called out to the darkness. There was no light anymore, but somehow she still felt that she was being watched. “Mom? Dad? What’s going on? Is anybody here?”
“When the last lights dim and all have abandoned you, I will remain,” a quiet murmur reverberated in her mind.
“Who are you?” Farris strained her eyes against the darkness, but there wasn’t any light to accompany this voice. The tone was smooth and calming, and she felt it wash over her skin almost as powerfully as she’d heard it. The voice had a texture that blanketed and comforted her. She wanted to resist it and be on guard, but it pulled and penetrated her muscles and relaxed her mind. Her family had seemed like a dream, so there was no reason to think this was any different. Farris allowed herself to be washed by the calm voice and accepted its touch.
“I’ve been alone for so long I’ve quite forgotten who I am. Who are you?”
“I’m Farris,” she said. A passing thought scolded her for telling her name so freely to a stranger, but she couldn’t imagine the harm in it. No one outside her village even knew who Farris was. Conscious of how unimpressive it sounded she added: “Farris Malhalion,” and grinned at the sound of her loftier title.
“I knew a Malhalion once,” the voice purred, its voice trailing off in nostalgia. “Or perhaps I was one. There are no names in the heart of darkness by the root of the Yonda Sahra.”
“Could you be Lolaran?” Farris asked. The thought of it filled her with excitement. “Only, you shouldn’t exist at all. Even if the stories were true, you should have died ages ago.”
“Isn’t it just as likely that I am the beast?” it said, and its voice took on a hissing, serpentine quality.
“I don’t care how long you’ve been alone, you have to at least know whether you’re a man or a serpent.” This presence didn’t feel the same as when the dreams of her family talked to her. Her family had barely noticed her at all, but to this entity she felt as though its attention were focused on her so strongly she became its entire world. The wonder and undivided focus this voice had for her were alluring, and she hung on its every word.
“As long as the door is shut, I don’t see why it even matters. Isn’t it enough that I am inside, and that I am alone? Would you shun me if I was the snake?”
“No, that would be cruel,” Farris said slowly. “What should I call you then?” What was the harm? Anything trapped alone for an eternity must be deserving of some sympathy.
“You are so kind,” it hissed in its half-serpentine voice. “I am your guide, so please think of me as such. Did you know I’ve been looking for you?”
“For me? But how would you know I existed at all?” Farris asked. The part of her that urged caution slowly lowered its defense. She had never felt so protected in her entire life. The fire, the monsters, the desperate chase—none of it seemed to be any concern at all. It was as though it had simply been a game, and all her worry and fret had only been because she had taken it too seriously. Now the voice had woken her up. Farris had won, and she was special, and none of the hardships were real at all.
“Only my body is shackled. My mind wanders, just as it is doing now. Your fate is linked with my own, little Malhalion. My cave has grown too small, but I can see eternity through your eyes.”
“I don’t think I’m the person you’re looking for,” Farris said. It was one thing for the legends to really exist, but another entirely for them to be interested in her. Was this how Tom felt when Grandmother gave him the key? The feeling of being recognized as more than she was intoxicated her. What would her brother say to see her now, speaking directly with this ancient god?
“We shall see,” the voice replied. “The time will come when you recite the Names of mastery, and should reality bend to your will, I will have my answer. Would you like me to teach you how to Name the world for yourself?”
“Of course!” Her mind raced. If she could name fire like her grandmother it would be a simple matter to save her brother. All she would have to do was find him and burn the monsters to ash. She imagined herself wearing the black robes of the Wyrd Sisters as she hurled fire through the sky. But what about the sisters’ mouth and eyes? And all of the flesh that was stripped from the First? “Would I have to pay a price to learn?” she added.
“Do you understand fire?” the voice asked, ignoring her question.
“I don’t know, what is there to understand? It’s hot and it burns. I know what it can do, and what shouldn’t be done with it,” Farris replied, puzzled.
“I shall watch you. When the time has come, you will know. The Third has prepared you well with the songs she taught you, but she lacked the foresight to arm you with the power behind them. You are great, Farris of Malhalion; you are like me. The great are always alone, raised by their own pedestal until they have left all they once knew behind. Solitude can be fearful, but so long as you can still sing in the dark you will find me. You will find me, and you will find the way, for the two are one and the same.”
The presence began to lift from her mind and the voice withdrew its touch from her skin. It felt as though she had been submerged in warm water and had now stepped out into the cold. Farris was immediately aware of how alone she was, and all of the worry and doubt of her journey rushed back to her at once. The cryptic tale, the fire, the monsters—all of it was so far beyond her understanding that she almost broke into tears.
Another light began to shine from far below her, and she did her best to hold her composure lest something else out there was watching her. This light was pale and dreary. The chasm around her became visible once more, except the walls were made of wood and not dirt and stone as she’d expected. They weren’t dull planks or beams either, but the living wood of an enormous hollow tree. The walls were wet with sap and seemed to breathe in and out with their own rhythm.
It didn’t take long before Farris landed gently upon a floor made from matted roots. Bumble the goat landed shortly after her and wasted no time in bounding through an opening at the base of the hollow tree. Farris followed her, and looking behind she saw a massive albeit ordinary tree that ended in quite ordinary branches overhead. The tree stretched its large almond-shaped leaves of gold into the still air, where they waved hauntingly in the half-light.
Farris found herself standing at the edge of a wide forest that had grown so dense that walking between the trees would be impossible. Beside the forest were long ordered rows of plowed soil that looked as though they were once fields, but had long since been left fallow to be overgrown with low thorny bushes. The air was moist and warm and smelt richly of earth and living things, and Farris knew at once she had entered a brand new world.
The pale grey light she had spotted in her descent shone from a porous moon suspended above a high rocky tower. The mighty mountain below was covered in bony spurs and spikes that protruded from the length of the pinnacle. The spikes cast doleful shadows upon the ground where the light shone, making the side of the mountain look as though it were covered with dark claws. Two other mountains stood beside the central one, and on their flanks could be seen the winking orange lights of thousands of fires spaced evenly apart.
[_At least there are people here, _]she told herself. Were they another race of monsters, or did they have a culture of their own? Farris wished she had paid closer attention to Grandmother’s stories now, and wracked her mind for any clues as to what lay ahead. She had been told of many of the other kingdoms, but it was impossible to know which one dwelled here without getting closer.
Farris took another timid step away from the tree she had somehow descended through. How was she supposed to get back? She couldn’t fly as she had fallen, and even if she could, her tree didn’t stretch anywhere near the surface anymore. This didn’t bother Farris as much as it should. If she could only find her brother, then somehow everything was going to be all right.
The sky above was a deep purple and black color. It was impossible to call it a ceiling because there were no visible walls, and the massive expanse stretched on unending as though she had landed on an alien world. At first it seemed similar to night at home, but it was shaped all wrong. The whole sky looked lower than it ought to, and it was nearer in some areas than others as weighty stalactites distorted the smooth dome above.
Directly before Farris lay a large mirrored lake. Bumble decided to take charge by wandering through the overgrown bushes toward its shore. Not having any clearer destination in sight, Farris followed the goat. Bushes trembled in the dead air as they passed, and several groped their thorny branches toward her. Farris jumped back and peered more closely at the foreign plants.
The bushes rustled on their own, and Farris thought she could make out thick leathery wings folded somewhere in the depths of the thorns. She kept her distance from the bushes as much as possible, although sometimes they were so closely packed she was forced to sprint past them and dodge the spiny jabs. One or two reached out for Bumble as well, but the goat snapped bitterly at the branches and they drew back from her cautiously.
With every new sight in this strange land Farris felt more lost and alone. Anything at all could happen to her, and she didn’t have the faintest idea how to prepare for such inevitable surprises.
The foul bushes fell back as Farris approached the lake and the ground became sandy and pebbled. The stones here were as animate as the bushes, and they seemed to roll treacherously beneath Farris when she stepped on them. She thought she was imagining it until a group of large rocks overtly piled themselves into high pillars which gesticulated threateningly at her. Bumble bleated at the rising stones as they walked, but the stones did not impede them from reaching the lake. Farris’s bare legs were cut and bruised in several places, unprotected by the thin dress she wore.
Farris looked into the waters beyond, thinking to bathe her legs where the bushes had snagged her, when she saw a shadow dash across the surface. She couldn’t tell whether it was cast from a creature flying past the subterranean moon, or something else deep within the lake. She took a few nervous paces back from the water and sat upon a stone, which jumped beneath her and prompted her to squeal. Farris took a deep breath to calm herself and sat upon a space of blank sand with her knees clutched to her chest.
Finding her brother had seemed a simple task in the company of the lively sisters, but every step now seemed daunting and futile in the dim light. She hadn’t the first idea where to even find the abyss, having expected something of that size to be blatantly in view. The half-light of greys and shades of black masked the whole land, and even if it were quite close she might not see it. Every shadowed shape seemed to be part of the darkness itself rather than a distinct object of its own.
If by some chance she did find the abyss, and by better luck still she happened to find her brother, then what could she possibly do? She was helpless against the creatures on the surface when surrounded by friends and family and familiar lands. How much more useless would she be alone in this alien world?
Farris shook her head and tried to clear her thoughts, although they wandered sluggishly through her mind. She remembered the terrible earthquake, and Grandmother’s story, and the events of that day. She remembered the creatures, and the fire with black plumes of smoke, and the thin wisp of white smoke from the Yonda within. Why hadn’t she believed her brother? Why had she even gone up the mountain that day to see him? There wasn’t any reason to leave the village. Why hadn’t she stayed with him, and protected him when he came back? Fog passed over her mind, and none of it seemed quite real.
It must be getting close to morning above. Farris wished only that some sign of light—real, pure sunlight, not this façade of moonshine—would find its way through a hole in the ground and greet her. She dipped her hands into the lake to drink and gazed into the glassy waters, captivated by an unlikely glow that began to shimmer from within.
The first steps of my journey were the most difficult for me. I was confused, and I was alone. I hurt, and I hungered. I survived not because I grew strong enough to avoid suffering, but because I grew wise enough to accept it.
-Javel of Omar, the First Man
Ghosts passed beneath the surface of the lake and shone in place of Farris’s reflection. There was her farm! And all of the animals with the Painted Valley looming to fill the entire lake beyond. Farris laughed with delight as the images swirled and formed with surreal grace only to shatter and reform into another picture. Father and Mother were there: their eyes anxious and their hands wrought. Grandmother Roschette was sitting next to them and comforting them. Tom appeared as well, his bright blue eyes moist but held firm. Then he was gone, replaced by new and fantastic landscapes and sprawling cities made of shining gold Farris had never seen before.
Bumble bleated in confusion, but Farris couldn’t tear her eyes from the images that formed in the reflection. Farris stirred the water with her hand, eagerly anticipating the next vision. Great stone doors appeared, deeply engraved with runes Farris could not decipher. The doors were bound tightly by roots. Next formed arching spires of impossible architecture and enchanted valleys where pure light stretched up from the earth in place of grass. Shining treasures passed through the water one by one, and Farris marveled at the beauty. If all of this really existed out there, then perhaps this adventure wouldn’t be all pain and suffering.
“Intruder-steps! The invaders have come. Arms, arms!” a rasping voice squeaked beside Farris. She leapt into the air and spun to see a large round stone bouncing around her like a fat, blind frog.
“Stop that!” Farris cried. She didn’t know who might be listening, but anything that thought she was an intruder had to be up to no good.
“Alarm! Danger!” rasped the stone. A host of small pebbles lying on the stony lakeshore took up the cry, and before Farris could react the whole end of the beach was chirping and booming warnings in all manner of strange, gravelly voices.
“Come on, Bumble! Let’s get out of here,” Farris said. Her aching legs protested as she staggered back up the sloping shore toward the trees she had come from.
Too late—a large and gruesome face revealed itself from behind a large boulder Farris was sure had stood there a moment before. It was painted bright red and frozen in a many-toothed jeer. Several more faces appeared, and it took a moment before Farris realized she was looking at intricate masks. Small leather-clad feet poked from beneath the masks, and short arms reached around to brandish long shafted spears in her direction.
“We have her! The intruder is here!” the first of the faces cried in a surprisingly high-pitched squeal.
Farris spun around. Perhaps she could make it into the water and swim to safety. Stones from the beach continued to roll together, however, and the sand writhed with life as it sent crawling appendages to snare her ankles. There was nowhere to run. Farris threw her hands into the air and did her best to look nonthreatening, although she was at least a foot taller than even the largest mask.
“I’m not an intruder! Don’t hurt me!” She eyed the spears nervously as they made little practice jabs in her direction. Within moments the large red faces had completely surrounded her.
“You have no place in this land,” the sneering mask said as it thrust its spear dangerously close to Farris’s face. She tried to take a step back only to feel another point pressing between her shoulder blades. “The strong live here while the weak are eroded away. Storms are brewing that will bring the terror of darkness upon you. There is nothing for you here, tender skin. When you cease to be, some more deserving thing will live. My name is Nier Vamo, watcher of the waters of Osdillion. You tread upon sacred land, and you are not welcome.”
“How should I know it was sacred?” Farris replied. She gingerly pushed the spear in front of her to the side with a finger. What a waste it would be to die here when she had barely begun. They could have killed her in a moment and no one would have ever known. Her father and mother would be waiting forever, and her brother would go on never knowing how hard she had tried to find him. Her anger at the thought overpowered her fear and she spoke hotly. “I won’t be staying if it offends you that much. I’m only passing through on my way to find my brother.”
“Strange,” mumbled Nier, hopping from one foot to the other. “If you wanted to stay I would throw you out, but if you want to leave then I am not sure what is to be done with you. You’re not welcome, no, not welcome at all. What should be done with intruders?”
Nier turned to and fro as he faced his comrades, and Farris couldn’t help but giggle to see the tiny body hidden behind the fearsome mask. While the mask stood nearly five feet tall, the creature rose only a little more than three. Nier spun back to face her in obvious embarrassment, pounding his spear against the ground.
“We throw her into the pit!” chimed one of them.
“Drown her in the lake!” called a second.
“Feed her to the Vaziers!” from a third.
The burst of Farris’s indignation had faded, and she was beginning to feel truly frightened at the host of armed creatures around her. One word and she would be dead. It would be so easy for one of those points to slide between her ribs …
“You’ll let her go!” came a deeper voice. The creatures jumped in nearly perfect unison, clambering and squeaking and pounding the butts of their spears into the sandy bank in alarm. “Farris, are you all right?”
A young man with a hard mouth but kind eyes stood on the higher ground overlooking the lake. A man! A real human! Farris felt instant relief to see some familiarity in this strange land, but how did he know her name? Farris had never seen him before, but somehow there was an aspect of familiarity about him that extended beyond their species. Farris felt as though she had dreamt of him, or did he resemble an imaginary friend she had forgotten long ago? Not knowing who he was felt like forgetting the words to her favorite song—so intimate it was embarrassing and infuriating, yet simply beyond her reach. She couldn’t linger on the puzzling sensation, however, as another figure on top of the ledge was speaking now.
“Scurry on now, little Gracken,” the other figure said. “The storm is brewing faster than you think, and you are a long way from your hovels.”
This figure looked almost human himself, only he was terribly tall and thin. He reminded Farris of the clockwork abominations that had stolen her brother, only he was made of flesh and blood and his voice didn’t freeze her veins like those monsters did. He had long, straight black hair and dark eyes set in a gaunt face, and his wide toothy smile stretched almost all the way up to his proud cheekbones. His thin hands rested on a sack he carried.
“It’s a trick! More invaders, they try to trick us!” squeaked one of the little creatures, which the stranger had called Gracken.
“We have come from the surface where the rain is already beginning to fall,” the tall figure said. “Drip, drip, drip goes the water. I can almost smell the poison waking up in those drops. The Vaziers will smell it too, don’t you think? They will be taking flight soon, and you will be caught in their frenzy.”
Farris noticed the Gracken were becoming visibly agitated as the stranger spoke. They shifted their weight from one side to the other, or bent low in huddled conversation with one another.
Nier pounded his spear again, and several of the Gracken turned away from Farris to lower their spears at the new arrivals.
“He lies,” Nier said, although his voice trembled with uncertainty. “We will see the rain when it comes. Intruders and liars, we won’t stand for it. Take them all prisoner! King Barrister the Eternal shall decide what is to be done!”
The young human on the ledge drew a knife from his boot and crouched as though he were about to launch himself amidst the sea of spears. The tall figure simply crossed his arms over his chest, his devilish grin stretching even wider.
“Drip, drip, drip. Can you hear them call?” he said softly. “Their roots are nourished by more than the poison water. Vaziers need fresh blood to grow.”
“Don’t listen to him!” Nier cried in a voice an octave higher than his normal speech. “You will all walk with us to the king, or be skewered where you stand! Or worse, you’ll all be blinded! Life in eternal darkness, yes!”
The whole company of masks wailed at the thought, covering their ears with their hands and chanting prayers amongst themselves.
“How is that worse than being skewered?” Farris asked. The masked guards seemed less threatening by the second, so she spared another glance at the young man on the ledge. He was dressed in simple, loose-fitting leathers, but they looked like the type of style Nicolai the tanner made down the street. Yes! She could even make out his stamp on the left breast. Was it possible this man came from the Painted Valley as well? She knew everyone who lived there, there was no way she wouldn’t have noticed him. Farris furrowed her brow, but she couldn’t imagine where she might have seen him before.
“Drip, drip, drip,” the tall figure repeated. “It’s time to run, Gracken.”
“You’ll be the ones who are torn apart then!” Nier shouted. “The Vaziers will chase you into darkness.” Nier flashed a hand signal in the air and as one the Gracken huddled together, their spears pointing outward. Nier then gave a shout, and they scurried off in the direction of the lights on the mountain flank.
“Thank you!” Farris called to the figures on the ledge. “I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t scared them off with that story about the Vaziers—whatever those are. That was just a story, I hope.”
“Farris!” the human called in relief. He sheathed his knife in his boot and vaulted down the rocky slope toward her. The tall figure strode close behind. Farris raised her hands in front of her when the young man showed no signs of slowing his approach. Was he planning on running straight through her? “I’m glad you’ve found Bumble,” the man added. “I was afraid you were completely alone.”
“Wait—slow down!” Farris sprang backward to avoid the young man’s wide arms as he attempted to sweep her off her feet. “I don’t know how they do things where you’re from, but I don’t hug strangers even if they did just save me! How do you know my name?”
The man stopped dead in his tracks, a look of bewilderment upon his face. Had she said something wrong? She couldn’t help but feel guilty at his pained expression, but she felt entitled to an answer.
The tall figure caught up to place a hand upon the young man’s shoulder. “Didn’t I tell you?” he said. “I didn’t see your image once in the lake.”
The man pulled free of his grasp and took another step toward Farris.
“It’s me, silly—Sasha. I followed you from the clearing with the circle of chalk. I’ve come to make sure you find your way home again.”
Bumble bumped her head into Sasha’s waist and looked back toward Farris. It was odd for Bumble to be so comfortable with a stranger. She struggled to think of anyone in the village she might not have noticed, but she was certain everyone was accounted for.
“It’s not polite to follow a girl without her knowing, and I have no intention of going home,” Farris said.
“This is no time to be playing games,” Sasha said. “You know me! We were close! I thought we were—” He swallowed hard.
“We can’t have been that close if I don’t even know who you are.” Farris shrugged, letting her eyes wander back to the lake. “My brother is still out there, and there is no turning back without him. And besides, even if he were safely in my arms I don’t think I would turn around so soon. There are worlds upon worlds out there, and if half of what I see in this lake is real then I would very much like to see them.”
“This isn’t real. Nothing in this damned world is real,” Sasha said. “This is all a bad dream I’m going to wake up from.” He turned to look into the lake himself. Suddenly all the mysterious treasures and landscapes vanished into the swirling water, and the image of Farris reflected back to dominate the entire lake.
“Hey, look!” Farris said. “Now I finally see my own reflection, but what an odd picture of me. I don’t see any of the cuts and scratches from those nasty bushes. And what a beautiful gown! I’ve never seen such a dress in my life.”
The reflection of Farris wore a sparkling white gown like all the snows of the mountain frozen into a cascading avalanche, shining with the morning sun trapped within their crystals. The dress fit her perfectly, and somehow looked as close and comforting as wool upon a sheep.
Sasha spent a long moment staring at the reflection. His fists tightened, and Farris was afraid he was about to lash out and hit her, or perhaps hurl himself into the lake. Instead, he slowly turned his head away from the water and the image of Farris faded, her eyes smiling in a sweet goodbye.
“The waters of the Osdillion are considered sacred here,” the tall figure said softly, gesturing at the water while averting his own eyes from them. “The lake was filled by ancient waters an age ago, when a mirrored lake on the surface trickled through stones shattered by battle. In its waters the Brass Orb, a relic of my people, lay sleeping for many years. In that time a virtue was bestowed upon the water, and now all who look into its depths will see their desires reflected back.”
“That’s wonderful!” Farris said. “Our lakes at home only reflect whoever is looking into them. I never would have guessed how wild the world beyond our valley was. Who are you and your people though? I’ve never seen one like you before.”
While Farris spoke, her eyes darted to look at the turned back of Sasha. Why had he seen her in a lake that reflects desires? She wasn’t sure whether to feel flattered or afraid, and the fact he appeared to know her only made it more confusing. Did she have a secret admirer she knew nothing about? She suppressed a grin.
“How full of yourselves you must be, to only see your reflection in your desires!” the tall figure replied. “But just between the two of us, I often see myself in this lake as well,” he added in a half-whisper, giving Farris a shameless wink. “My name is Riften Ranagan, a Paral-Zakdul of the Brass City.”
“Riften? A Paral-Zakdul!” Farris raised her fists before her eyes. The same as the creatures who attacked the village! Even the hair on Bumble’s back stood on end. “Your people are the ones who have my brother!”
“Riften is one of the same monsters,” Sasha spat, turning around to face Farris again.
“Wait, I can explain—” Riften began. Farris slapped him hard across the face. Riften staggered backwards and fell to his knees, dropping his sack. Farris made a dive to grab the knife from its resting place in Sasha’s boot. Her heart was racing. One of them was here. He was on the ground. She could kill him right now and there would be one less—
“Hold on!” Sasha wrapped his arms around Farris and pinned her against his chest. His muscles were as taut as knotted rope. She couldn’t break free.
“Let me go!” she screamed, her heart pounding as she saw her chance slip away. “Where is he? Where is my brother?”
“I deserved that,” Riften sighed. “I would be furious if I were you, too. Why, the fact you’re not killing me right now is just proof you’re a better person than anyone I know. I’ve always said not killing someone is the first step to becoming their friend.”
“Who said I wasn’t going to kill you?” Farris lunged for him again, but Sasha held her firm.
“I’m here to help though.” Riften smiled. “Truly. Tell her, Sasha.”
“I think he might be telling the truth,” Sasha growled, loosening his grip around Farris. She broke free and stood sullenly to the side. She should have known he was one of them at once, she scolded herself. She knew he looked similar.
“I reacted the same way at first,” Sasha continued. “When Roschette called upon the fire, she enchanted it to burn everyone whose heart was bent towards capturing Tom. All of the other Paral-Zakdul were incinerated, but this one was barely singed.”
“Thank you for that begrudging vote of confidence.” Riften’s smile widened. “The armor plates you saw our hunters armed with are fashioned from Byzantian Brass. Once the protection has been donned, it is impossible to disobey the imperative set upon them. I was a slave to that machine until the fire destroyed it and allowed me to escape.”
“Roschette believed him,” Sasha said. “I’m not so quick to forgive. He’s led me this far though. He brought me to the Wyrd Sisters by Giant’s Ridge, and they let us into the earth to follow you.”
“Did they ask payment for their services?” Riften asked, his grin stretching wide again. “The Second wanted some, but the First told me we would suffer enough without it; I for the path I must follow, and he for being in love with a beautiful girl. I hope they are less accurate in my prediction than Sasha’s.”
“They must not have asked anything of me either,” Farris replied, “or at least nothing comes to mind.” Her imagination lingered on the comment about the beautiful girl.
Bumble approached Riften to cautiously sniff him, but skittered backwards so clumsily it looked as though she had four peg legs. Bumble retreated behind Farris, giving Riften a suspicious glare.
“You had no business telling her—” Sasha began.
“You—Paral-Zakdul,” Farris interrupted. “If you want me to believe you meant my brother no harm, then tell me why your people captured him.” A part of her felt as though she betrayed her brother by even listening to this monster speak, but she couldn’t hope to find him without help. The creature had a charming presence anyway, she had to admit, and he certainly didn’t seem like the brass monsters from before.
“My lord felt the shaking earth two weeks ago and interpreted the sign to mean the prophecy has come,” Riften replied. His words flowed so smoothly Farris wondered if they had been practiced. “He sent a band of soldiers, myself included, to capture the key so he might open the tomb and plunder the wealth of Omar.”
“Why were you forced to obey?” Farris asked. She realized her breath was coming in shallow gasps. The thought finally sank in—she had been ready to kill Riften without hesitation. She’d never even harmed an animal in her life. Would she really have done it if she had gotten the chance?
“Bad luck, I suppose. I had already visited Neera’s Hell so many times it had started to bore me, so I suppose fate was looking for a new way to torment me. Though the earth has stopped its trembling and the battle at its heart has stilled, I know an evil may still sleep there. My friend and teacher at the University Fantasia, who is wise beyond words and years, has counseled me in this matter. He believes the beast has won the final battle and now waits for its unsealing to cover the world in a wave of destruction that has been unseen for hundreds of years.”
“Then why would your lord wish to open it?” Farris pressed. She watched Riften’s face for any signs of deceit, but that unnaturally wide smile continued to flash unwaveringly.
“Greed makes even jagged stones appear as a bridge. My lord believes the shaking earth signals there are no living things left within the heart of darkness. He sent me against my will on this task, so now I will do my part to aid you in finding your brother. When he has been brought back to the surface, the tomb will remain sealed, thus do I work to guarantee the safety of my people as well.” Riften flourished his words with an excessive bow that brought his forehead to scrape the sand.
“And you—how are you involved in this?” Farris turned to Sasha.
Sasha gritted his teeth and reached a hand toward Farris. She flinched but didn’t pull away as he grasped the wooden flower and its cord resting gracefully against her collarbone. She hadn’t even noticed the flower before this moment—where had it come from? Farris met Sasha’s gaze, and it hurt to see how much uncomprehending pain looked back at her. His eyes were so familiar, she knew she must have seen them before. No—they only looked that way because they were so like her own.
“Can you tell me where you got this necklace?” Sasha asked.
Farris leaned away from him, pulling the flower from his fingers as she did. She frowned as she fought for the memory, but nothing came to her. Perhaps there was a flash of thought, like a spark floating up and away from a smoldering fire, but it was extinguished as soon as it was examined. She shook her head.
“I must have picked it up somewhere without thinking. Why do you ask? Does it belong to you?”
“No,” Sasha answered wearily. “It belongs to you, but let me see it for a moment and I will show you something.”
Farris cupped the flower defensively with her hands. “Now that you mention it, I would rather hold onto it. I’m rather fond of it. It’s beautiful, and sad too, although I can’t say why.”
“Just give it to me, Farisky,” Sasha snapped.
“How dare you call me that?” Farris replied, stepping farther away from him. “Only my father calls me that. Was he the one who sent you? If he did, then you can march straight back and tell him I’m not going home before I find Tom and he had better not try to stop me. As for the necklace—you said it was mine, so I won’t give it to you. If you try to take it by force, I’ll push you into the lake!”
Sasha scowled, but Riften laughed. “All spitfire she is. At least she remembers herself!” Riften offered his hand to Farris, stretching down that immense length of his thin body. “It seems both of us are here to protect you and help you find your brother. If we are all to be traveling together, let us at least get along!”
“Says the fox acting a shepherd,” grumbled Sasha.
Farris ignored Sasha and shook Riften’s hand. Sasha fumed and turned away.
A distant rumble passed through the world, and Riften shot a nervous glance toward the sky. “It’s time for us to move now. I wasn’t making up stories about the Vaziers. The thorn bushes here will take flight when it rains, and after they drink from it they will be inoculated by a hellish frenzy.”
As if in response to his words, a trickle of water dribbled onto Farris’s head. More unnerving was the whispered voice that echoed Riften’s earlier words.
“Drip, drip, drip[,” _]said the voice[. “]They are coming[.”_]
A distant scream answered the call.
[_To torture a man is evil, to kill him is not. To die is to remember no more, and there is no evil in what is forgotten. When none still remember what I have done, then a God shall rise where the Devil once lay. _]
-Nidhoggdrasil, the World Serpent
A strange laughter encompassed them, and the stones around Farris trembled at its presence. Even the bushes near the water strained at their roots to move away while the water churned into waves that rippled from the sound. Bumble gave a whimpering moan and huddled beside Farris, who turned in search of the whisper’s source.
“Drip, drip, drip,” mocked the voice.
It sounded as though it were coming from all around them with one speech. The words rang with a taunting whistle. Farris had never felt more alone than in this moment, even with her new companions by her side.
“What devil is this?” Sasha asked, his voice tense.
“Now what do we have here?” asked the voice, rolling slowly as though it knew the weight of its own words. “Heir of the ghost of a god? That is charming, simply charming. We have been waiting for you, my pet, for a very long while.”
“What do you mean, ‘ghost of a god’?” Farris asked. The feeling of isolation continued to grow in her chest. She looked at Sasha and Riften, but somehow they no longer registered to her as people. There were simply shadows standing beside her, and they brought her as much security and company as the rocks or the lake. Her fingers tightened around Bumble’s fur, but even the goat’s body felt stiff and foreign.
“First came Javel, the man-God,” the voice said in a singsong tone. “Then came Lolaran, his ghost. Down the vine of time his blood deludes, and here you are, little one. Welcome to my world.”
“You must be mistaken,” Riften cut in. “She wasn’t named the heir. She doesn’t bear the key of Fantasia.” Farris could feel Riften’s eyes scrutinizing her. She met the gaze coolly and did not turn away. Why wasn’t she unnerved by those intense black eyes? They didn’t feel like living eyes—they were just a statue. While the mysterious voice was speaking, Riften wasn’t a person at all.
“My puppets, you cannot hide your strings from me,” the voice replied. “You are not given the blood of a god. You take it.” The last words reverberated from every direction at once in a maddening chorus of clashing whispers. “Take it—take the blood—take it. Do you know who pulls your strings now, little puppets?”
Wild laughter came again from every direction. Each word made the world seem darker and pushed Farris’s companions further away. Her stomach clenched, and it was all she could do to avoid being sick.
“What is this thing?” Farris whispered aloud, speaking to herself as it seemed no one was there to answer. Farris wrapped her arms around Bumble for reassurance and felt the creature trembling—her fur cold and damp.
“Name yourself,” Riften called out, “so we might better play along with your game.”
“Our game? Oh, how wonderful, yes. Maybe it is a game. Haven’t you thought it odd how so much of this world wears life? Like ill-fitted stolen clothing they wear it, and they look the fools. We are something you think you know, for we are all about you. We do not speak in your land, but you speak to us when you lack courage. You do not fear us as you should, for you only fear what we hide. Go ahead and name us, Malhalion. Name us and play our game.”
“Are you the moon?” Farris asked, looking to the pale orb perched atop its spire in the distance. She didn’t want to engage it at all, but at least by answering she could fight that terrible isolation. Outside of herself, the voice was all there was.
“Silly girl, foolish girl, weak girl,” it laughed. “Where is this power of Naming that your god wielded? Your ancestor would be ashamed.”
“There’s nothing to be gained from staying here,” Sasha said. “Let’s ignore it and get away before the Vaziers wake up.”
“Oh, don’t ruin our fun!” the encompassing whisper said. “Let me give you a hint. I have kept the ghost of your god company for a long while.”
“Are you the stones?” Farris was aware of Sasha’s warning, but the words felt so distant that they barely made sense. She was beginning to feel a desperate compulsion to find the answer. It was as though the voice were her only friend left in the world, and if she couldn’t figure out who it was then even this would be gone.
“Didn’t you see them cower when I sang? Come on child, again!”
“Stop talking to it,” Riften agreed quietly. “It does not sound favorable.” He grabbed Farris’s arm to lead her onward, but she stubbornly pulled free. Farris turned away from the other two and looked out into the blank land.
“But there’s nothing there!” Farris said. “Perhaps you’re the land itself?”
“You were right, then you were wrong,” the voice laughed on.
“What do you mean?” Farris asked, growing frustrated. “Are you the land or are you not?”
“You were right to call me nothing.”
Riften’s face paled. He took Sasha and Farris firmly by the arms to steer them farther down the bank. The voice followed them and spoke as they walked.
“Don’t you think it funny how the branches swayed without wind? Isn’t it amusing how the stones rose up around you? Tell me, little ones, is it so strange that the Darkness too would have a voice?”
A pit was growing in Farris’s stomach. She looked around frantically in hope of catching sight of some living thing. Were the shadows behind each stone too large for the angle of the light? Yes, and they were definitely swaying while the stones stood still. All the years of her parents reassuring her not to be afraid of the dark were gone in an instant. Something innate twisted inside of Farris: a primordial nightmare every child faces, one that age and reason could never vanquish. The fear of unknown fears; the terror of the dark. The companions quickened their pace, but they did not reply again. Bumble dashed ahead of them all, bouncing back and forth in agitation as she looked about.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the voice growled in a hot whisper that felt as though it were blown onto the back of Farris’s neck. “What is the point of a game if you will not play along? When you join me again, I hope you will be more cooperative.”
The presence was lifted and Farris felt immediate relief. Sasha and Riften were suddenly allies once more. It was strange for them to become people after they had seemed mere objects a moment ago. It was as though for a moment she had forgotten they could even think or act at all, and felt that all the responsibility in the world fell on her shoulders alone. She shuddered as the memory of that terrible loneliness fled.
“Is it gone?” Farris asked.
The sky shook as though a giant had stomped upon it, the sound booming across the land.
“What could it be this time?” Sasha asked, his mouth tightening into a bloodless line. “What kind of terrible place have you led us to, Farris?”
“That’s thunder above us,” Riften said. “Don’t you love it when death knocks before entering? It’s raining on the surface now, and the Vaziers will wake soon. The Darkness must be waiting for us to seek shelter in some dim cave where it will be at its strongest. There’s no other choice, though. We can’t be caught in the open when the Vaziers take flight. I know of some caves not far from here. Come along.”
Riften began a quick trot down the sandy shore, but his gait was carefree and cheerful. Was he lying about the danger, or did it simply not bother him? His surety gave Farris hope, and she knew no other path but to follow.
“I’m so tired,” Farris said, shuffling her feet through the sand. “I wouldn’t even mind the Darkness if there was somewhere to lie down. I wonder if it’s already tomorrow, though I don’t suppose we’ll see any sign of the sun down here.” Despite the danger, she found her eyelids drooping shut. Her legs ached and the wound on her head still stung. It was a constant battle just to remain standing.
“Don’t worry, we’ll rest once we’ve reached the caves,” Riften said. “Not before though. Life is too wonderful for me to waste on meeting the Vaziers twice.”
Riften was leading them along the shore in a path circumventing the lake. The wet sand sucked meekly at their feet, and little hands would sometimes latch on and slow them down. The progress was slow, and every step was exhausting.
“Do we even have time to spare?” Farris asked. “The hunters had to go farther than us to descend, but I don’t know how far it was to the great Sand-Fall.” Maybe their shortcut would give them a chance to rest. If she could just lie down … no! Farris dug her fingernails into her palm and willed herself to stay awake. She said she would walk forever, didn’t she? The Wyrd Sisters were wrong. That resolve was more than simple words. She couldn’t stop yet.
“Ten leagues from your village, a distance they could cross in a day on their own; longer with the boy,” Riften replied. “From there it’s another five or more leagues to the abyss where we are to meet them. We have half that span to cross, although much of that will be the steep mountain slope. The Wyrd Sisters have saved us a long walk.”
“Ten or more leagues from our village,” Sasha stressed. “You have to remember we’re both from the same town.”
Farris didn’t have the energy to refute him.
“Let us not waste any time regardless,” Riften said. “If we don’t free him before the descent, our challenge will be great.”
Farris shuddered at the thought of following Tom down the abyss.
“You never did like heights.” Sasha smiled grimly. “You wouldn’t even climb into the hills with me.”
“Stop it!” Farris shot back. “Stop acting as though you know me. I don’t care what you think you know, I hate having a stranger act as intimately as you do.” Farris knew her weariness made her tone sharper, but at this point she didn’t care. If she didn’t lie down soon she was afraid she would burst into tears. Whatever she was enduring, her brother must be suffering ten times as much. The thought only made her angrier at her own guilt and weakness.
Quiet fell between them for the moment, and they all watched Bumble prance through the shallow water with innocent bliss. She dipped her fuzzy head into it and shook her mangy hair in a flurry of glistening droplets. Farris broke the silence with a half-hearted giggle.
“You know, I used to envy Bumble sometimes,” Farris said. “She was always so content when life was dull. Now I envy her because she’s so content despite the danger! I wish I could be like that. I suppose I did always want an adventure though, and there’s no use regretting something I once wanted.”
“I don’t know what you had in mind for an adventure, but surviving is as adventurous as I care to be,” Riften replied. “I just hope the soil above holds the water until we find the caves.”
“Perhaps we’ll be able to rest long enough for Farris to recover her senses,” Sasha grumbled.
“My senses are perfectly intact, thank you very much,” Farris replied. “Will you tell me why you’re really here yet? I know it’s not for me.”
Sasha sighed in exasperation and turned away. “Tom was a friend of mine, and I want to see him home. That’s all.”
“You’re a lot older than him,” Farris said, glaring at Sasha. She knew he was still hiding something, but her mind was so weary she would have to accept it for now. He was helping her, and that would have to be enough. “Do you know me, or not? What am I to believe?”
“I thought I did,” Sasha replied. “Now I think I was mistaken. The girl I knew was kind and sweet, and would look at me more softly. I’ll still journey with you, if you’ll have me, but it seems I’m only here for your brother.”
“I don’t know what you’re implying,” Farris said, “but if I’m bitter, it’s only because you’re telling lies and making assumptions about me when you have no right to. And besides,” here she forced her voice to sound gentler, “this isn’t an easy time for me. I’ve left my home, and everyone I knew, and I don’t truly know where I am or where I’m going or what I’m going to do when I get there. Worst of all, every moment I’ll be worried sick about what they could be doing to Tom. I’m sorry if I’ve been harsh, and you’re still welcome to come for Tom’s sake. Just don’t mention anything more about who you think you know.”
Sasha nodded in silence and fell a few steps behind. Riften skipped ahead of them, bounding between rocks as though he gained energy with every crazed leap. The Paral-Zakdul would pause from time to time and wait for Farris and Sasha to catch up with him. While he waited, his eyes would always follow Farris as though she were a puzzle he was trying to solve. [_Perhaps Sasha isn’t the only one hiding something, _]Farris thought.
In time the four of them—Farris considered Bumble as much a companion as any—made their way around the Osdillion. Much to Farris’s relief, the rain only seeped through the cavern roof in small trickles, and Riften seemed confident it was insufficient for the Vaziers to take flight. Farris kept herself awake through much of the walk by gazing into the reflections within the lake. She had to force herself to turn away at last, for too often the sad face of Tom would appear in the waters.
Farris noticed both Sasha and Riften purposefully avoided gazing into the lake, but she said nothing. If she was going to demand her own privacy, then it would be wrong to pry into theirs. At one point when they stopped for a break, Bumble took to gazing into the water herself. The entire surface reflected a vision of a soft, sunny valley. When the image of a large and powerful buck began strutting forward Farris decided it was time to move on, much to Bumble’s disappointment.
The way was dim in the half-light of the moon, and the shadows were long and unchanging beneath its still form. The sand and stones stirred with life, but they only wandered aimlessly without malicious intent. There was no further sign of the Gracken, but a continual rumbling in the sky kept everyone on edge. Riften talked often but said little, and he spoke lightly now while Farris listened.
“Cheer up you two, it’s a beautiful night! We’re finally getting away from that great expanse of nothingness always looming over your heads up there. And those stars! Terrible little beads of light like eyes always watching you. I’m not one for complaining myself, and I wouldn’t say a word if that was all there was. But then the time turns round and out comes your baleful fire in the sky, and I’m left wondering if you haven’t done something outrageous to anger your gods. The first time I saw it, I sat there hoping it wouldn’t be too late to send them a prayer, or a sacrifice, or a gift basket; whatever your gods are into, don’t mean to offend.”
“If the surface was so distasteful to you,” Sasha replied, “you should have just stayed home and not bothered us to begin with.”
“Ah, if only I could,” Riften said. “The Brass City is the wonder of the world and I long to be home. Five shells deep we are, and civilized unlike these savage parts. You will see, if you ever have the fortune to make it so far down. We’re the best metalworkers you will find, and have tamed earth and fire and bent it to make many beautiful things and places of high culture. You may not know of us or thank us for what we do, but without our work the whole world would crumble under its own weight. We maintain the columns of the Simmarian, those majestic towers of the purest Byzantian Brass that stretch from floor to sky and hold up the whole earth above. A thankless task, but one we still do with pride.”
“I would be cautious to praise any metalworkers who build armor to make slaves of their own people,” Farris said, although in truth the city did sound like an amazing sight. Perhaps it was the city of gold she saw in the lake?
“The misuse of power is the unavoidable consequence of its existence, but that does not make it evil,” Riften said, his black eyes shining as he stared at Farris yet again. Farris thought back to the words of power her dream had urged her toward. Her grandmother used them to stop the hunters, and the second Wyrd Sister saved them from the avalanche. Could they be used for evil as well, or were those wise enough to understand them also wise enough to use them properly? Perhaps the evil lay in the price paid for their use.
“Home is a long way away though,” Riften sighed melodramatically, “so we will have to be content with these caves for now. We have arrived.”
True to his word, Riften pointed to the shelter ahead, although they weren’t like any caves Farris had ever seen before. Instead of being shorn out of rock they were indents in the water of the lake itself. All along this bank of the Osdillion were hollow, dry places, some forming small dips and others wide caverns and long tunnels that wound deep into the glassy waters. There was nothing holding the water back; it simply did not flow into these openings.
The rays of the dim moon lanced into the network of liquid caves and tunnels, reflected on all sides by the surrounding water. Rainbows composed of many shades of grey and white hung disembodied in the mouths of some openings. They defied the traditional arch, opting instead to bend themselves into more grim and varied shapes than the imagination could supply. Like haunting ghosts they hung in the air—barriers of light to pass in order to walk into the black waters.
“Inside, everyone!” Riften prompted. “We don’t have long before the demon birds have nursed their poison. We’ll sort out our plan once we’ve had some sleep and the growling sky has stopped interrupting us.”
Riften picked a large water-cave seemingly at random and led them through the ghosts of reflected light. Farris hesitated, reaching out to touch one as she passed through it. To her horror, the light reached back and touched her face with a long tendril of light like a moonbeam.
“Does this surprise you?” it said in a wispy voice. “Everything here lives, why should that be different for the light of the Unwaxen Moon?”
The creature of light withdrew its insubstantial touch from Farris, which left no sensation besides a warming of her skin. The creature retreated into the darkness of the caves, beckoning them to follow. Farris stepped after it, but only a few paces in the specter vanished, having left the arch of water where the reflected light of the Unwaxen Moon was spun.
“Well come on, farther in,” giggled the voice again, echoing around them in a dry rasp. “You’re going to get wet if you don’t get in the lake!”
The dull rumbling grew outside: a crash from some distant thunderbolt striking the roof of the world. Riften was a few steps ahead of Farris, his tread wary.
“What lies inside the caves?” Farris asked. The creature of light didn’t seem nearly as foreboding as the Darkness, and Farris wasn’t going to let anything stop her from resting now.
“I can’t imagine,” Riften replied, craning his long neck to peer into the darkness before them.
Riften pulled a lantern from his cloth sack and pushed the light forward. The flames flared up to reveal the dark tunnel winding deep into the lake. He shrugged and straightened to his full height, which the cave entrance only barely permitted, and strode onward.
“It could be dangerous!” Farris called after him.
“It probably is,” Riften called back. “But given the choice between two dangers, I always choose the one I haven’t tried before. Come along!”
Bumble took a few steps forward, but her thirst must have overpowered her before her weariness could as she stopped to lick one of the walls. She lapped water directly from the lake, proving that no barrier lay between the water and them. A glittering golden fish swam up to inspect Bumble before passing on without interest. Farris took a step back towards the entrance. What if it just poured through?
“We should wait here,” Sasha said, eyeing Bumble. “We’re far enough in to be out of the rain, and not so far as to be out of the light. I think we’ve had quite enough unknown dangers for one night.”
They crouched at the cave mouth uncomfortably, unable to lean their backs against the walls without falling through with a splash. Farris tried to find support in Bumble as she sometimes had before, but the goat was too skittish from the rumbling sky and this uncertain world to lie still. Weariness was overpowering her at last, and even when a second ghost of reflected moonlight streamed past into the dark she was not disturbed. Farris and Sasha soon found themselves lying side by side with their feet toward the entrance of the cave, as it was not wide enough to lie down otherwise.
Just on the brink of sleep Farris felt a familiar warmth. She jolted awake to realize her head had been resting against Sasha’s shoulder. He didn’t seem to notice though, and it felt so comfortable and natural she settled back against him. At least she wasn’t alone. Where was Tom sleeping tonight?
To stare into the void for an hour is to think yourself blind. To stare into it for a year is to think the world blind. Now a hundred years have passed and I know I am that void. I wonder if the nothingness dreams too, and if it dreams of me.
[_-Nidhoggdrasil, the World Serpent _]
Farris woke first, conscious of rain drizzling on the water above them. The sound was relaxing, and she lay there for several minutes in secure silence. Sasha had rolled away, and though she couldn’t feel his touch she still sensed his warm presence beside her. The sand had indented around her body, cradling her in a perfect mold. If she closed her eyes tightly enough, she could almost pretend she had just woken from a nap on a shady hillside and none of this had ever happened …
“It’s time to go deeper into the water,” Riften spoke.
Farris startled to see the thin creature looming over her. Riften was crouched on his haunches, his black eyes sunken behind his sharp cheekbones. He didn’t look as though he’d slept at all. Farris’s jolt woke Sasha, who rose and stretched in the narrow space.
“How long have we been asleep?” Farris asked. “I feel even heavier than before.”
“No more than an hour. I would wish a longer respite for your sake, but it’s no longer safe here. The Vaziers suckled the stalactites like demons on the tit, and now they are dropping to earth with a foul mixture brewing in their bellies.”
“We should continue on anyway, if we can,” Farris said. “You said your people move swiftly, and we must reach the abyss first. We can rest there.” How was Tom traveling? Farris wondered if he was being carried the whole way. Perhaps they had tied a rope around his neck and were dragging him … her fists clenched in determination.
“No!” Riften said sternly. “I offered to guide you and I am, but I will not go beyond the mouth of this cave until it’s as dry above the water as it is below.”
“We should listen to him,” Sasha said after a pause. “I don’t know whether we should trust him, but he will keep us safe while protecting himself.”
“But the Paral-Zakdul won’t be resting. They’ll be traveling with Tom swiftly over the surface, and the rain won’t hinder them. Every hour brings them closer to the abyss and losing Tom forever!”
As if to settle the argument, a bone-chilling shriek heavy with pain and hunger filled the air. A clamorous flutter of wings sounded outside, and a rending splash as something grazed the surface of the water above. At once the water became filled with the thrashing madness of unseen fish.
One of the fish—a flat thing with silver scales and a squashed face—fell straight through the ceiling of the tunnel and began flopping desperately on the ground before them. Bumble sprang several feet into the air and bleated in mad terror; the rest of the companions were on their feet and fully awake at once. A shadow passed over the mouth of the cave, and another shriek sounded as it sped away in a twisted bundle of spastic wings and fury.
“Move! We’ve been spotted. To the depths of the cave!” Riften cried, spreading his long arms to usher them forward.
Bumble ran at the lead, speeding into the dark tunnel. Riften turned to seize his lantern resting near the mouth of the cave, but one of the Vaziers had already found its way into the opening and trapped itself there. Farris had never seen as grotesque a creature in her life—half thorny plant and half feral animal. It looked much like an overly large vulture with a long twisted spine, curved thorns covering its body, and a bald leering head that frothed wildly. Its rough barky exterior was ruptured in many places as leaves, thorns, and feathers tore through the skin in sticky wounds amidst its claws.
The Vazier was whirling and spinning and walloping about as it sought to get away from the flames of Riften’s lantern and dive at them all at once. In its grizzly dance of wild thorns and hideous shrieks it managed to knock the lantern over and the light was extinguished with a sickening sizzle in the wet sand. Farris found herself stumbling into the dark, the tumultuous chaos growing ever louder at her heels. Her mind was blank in wild panic. She had to get away. It didn’t matter where. She couldn’t let it near her. She could picture those flailing thorns puncturing her skin so clearly she could almost feel it.
They were only a few dozen steps in when the tunnel took a sharp turn to the right, and past this corner they entered a world of perfect blackness. Farris thought she’d known what darkness meant before this moment, but she was wrong. Even in the blackest night there had always been the glint of a far-off reflection, or a dark shape moving across a darker background at the corner of her eye. Now she struggled blindly through a blackness so complete it erased the very memory of light. Not even the palest moonbeam pierced the waters above, and her vision was no different with her eyes shut than when they were open.
Farris shut her eyes as she moved, simply to feel she had some control over the situation. Where was she supposed to be running? Where was the Vazier? Its screams echoed through the caves and she couldn’t discern where it was coming from. She made a wild leap in the direction of her best guess and felt the freezing water of the lake pour over her body.
Farris pulled away from the water. A hand grabbed her—she couldn’t tell whose—and dragged her forward. Another scream resounded and the hand fell away. Farris forced the panic down in her chest and continued onward, running her hands along the wet walls of the lake. She couldn’t stop. Sometimes she would stumble to be soaked up to the elbow, or falling the other way, her fingers groping the open air in wild desperation.
The one sense that continued to reach her—and this she wished had not—was her hearing in the form of the dull screams resounding through the water. Whether the Vaziers had found some hapless prey or were tearing at each other was unclear, but the tortuous sounds were only muffled enough to give them a haunting quality as they passed through the water. Fresh screams echoed from the trapped Vazier. It was getting closer. The water churned around her where unknown creatures were engulfed by the frenzy, and the walls thrashed with blood and fear.
There was nothing to stop any form of lake monster bursting through the walls to flail around them, and twice more fish fell onto the path. What if they weren’t fish at all? It was so dark, there could be all manner of horrible toothed eels and suckered tentacles reaching at her from all sides. They were in the center of a maelstrom of nothingness, and each fresh scream had them shouting in turn to discover if one of their own had fallen. There was no turning back into that turmoil, and terror fed her lurching stagger as she pressed ever deeper into that dark night.
The torment was unending, but at last Farris felt a barrier of water before her. She groped her way around it and continued stumbling to the right. She soon found herself at the back of a cave, but was so filled with mind-numbing fear she could not stop herself from racing round and round the circular end, tripping and falling against the watery walls again and again until she fell into the sucking sand.
In the deepest pit of the throes of her fear, all sound abruptly ceased from the turbulent waters. The air was filled with dark intentions and malice like brooding thoughts. The loneliness she had felt before descended upon her, and without even the shadowed forms of her comrades beside her, Farris was utterly alone. She was suspended for a moment in absolute silence before the Darkness spoke to her once more.
“So nice of you to join me again, I’ve been waiting,” the Darkness said with the same sardonic tone it used before.
This time the Dark was in its own element, and it was sonorous and deep as it laughed. Farris tried to speak, but the oppressive Darkness devoured her words as soon as she had formed them in her mouth, choking her and forcing her to remain silent. She wept where she lay in the sand, even the will to escape robbed from her. Farris wished only for it all to end.
“Why does the little thing grow quiet?” cackled the Darkness. “Surely she doesn’t think she’s hiding.”
“I am not hiding!” Farris yelled, the heat of her anger giving her the strength to defiantly stand, although it was impossible to face the voice that enveloped her.
“Why does the little thing grow fearful?” it hissed from right beside her.
Farris startled and jumped, turning only to fall against a wall of water and jump back the other way. Her dress was soaked in the freezing cold and it weighed her body down. Even if the water was an inch from her face she wouldn’t have seen it, and every possible direction held an unpredictable foe.
“Why does she go into the lake, if she doesn’t want to meet me here? Why was she so rude before, when I only wanted to play?” it called, slightly farther back.
“We were just looking for shelter,” Farris sobbed. “We’re lost, but will leave as soon as the storm is over—if we can find our way.”
“Who is this we?” the Darkness asked innocently. “I don’t see anyone else but you, little girl, and I don’t even see you!” it laughed wildly all around.
“Sasha!” she cried out. The silence was unbearable. “Riften! Bumble?” No answer came. Hadn’t the others turned right around the barrier too? How long had she been alone?
“What should we do with her? Lost she is, she says. Sneaking she is, we think. When Javel looked into the face of fear he smiled. Why aren’t you smiling, child?”
“I am not Javel! I’m not a god or a savior or anyone. I’m not even supposed to be here,” Farris said, choking back tears.
“Clearly,” the Darkness said, clicking with undisguised disdain and disappointment.
“But I’m here anyway!” Farris went on. “I wasn’t forced away from home like my brother. I wasn’t part of the prophecy, and it wasn’t my destiny to come. I chose this path. I’m going to find him, and I’m going to bring him home, and there’s nothing you or anyone else can tell me that will change my mind.”
Farris felt something touch her cheek, and she stiffened, but it was only a trickle of water that had escaped from above.
“Javel created his own way as well,” mused the Darkness. “He didn’t choose the path he went, but he chose the manner he walked it. Show me how you walk, child. You are here to dance for me, are you not? You sought the lake yourself. She likes the cool waters, the silent tomb, yes. I know what to do with her.”
The Darkness spoke fluidly and swiftly now, although the origin of each word seemed to be constantly changing. One word was spoken far off and echoed, and the next spat from right beside her ear, and Farris found herself constantly turning uselessly to face the latest source. She took a few steps forward to feel a wall of water with her flailing hands. Another trickle of water fell along her arm.
“What are you going to do with me?” she asked, trying to sound brave.
“Drown her,” said the voice from a dozen places at once, and the cackling was rough and hoarse like a breaking wave. “Little child of man, your people were right to fear the dark. They were right to fear me!”
Farris could feel more water beginning to dribble around her. At the same time, the wet sand began sucking at her feet and dragging her downward. She was able to pull her legs free before they were trapped, but the sand began sucking at her again the moment she set her foot down. She was dashing around madly now, filled with a desperate panic. She had entered this cave somehow. There had to be a way out.
“Drown her, drown her!” the Darkness cried. Farris flung herself in a new direction. Her fingers ran up against another wall of water.
“Why does the little thing grow quiet?”
Farris desperately pulled her feet from the sucking sand, only to sink even deeper into it. Water gushed from above faster now, and she was forced to wade through it with each lunging step.
“Why does the little thing grow fearful?” it asked, the grating voice echoing all around her and penetrating deep inside her mind. “It’s only the tide coming in, my little one. It’s only one life winking out.”
The sand and water were past her knees now. Farris flung herself in a third direction. Her fingers sank into a third wall of the watery chamber. One more chance.
“Why does the little thing go into the dark?”
Farris was shaking from head to foot, and her fingers were convulsing so badly they splashed water from the wall all over herself. She pushed onward, almost swimming now, to struggle blindly in the fourth direction. Her breath came in gasps. Water was falling in torrents around her, forcing her into fits of coughing and gagging when it entered her nose and mouth.
Her fingers sank into a fourth wall of water. There was no escape. She was sealed here, alone and forgotten. What if her brother, in the company of his captors, passed by this very lake without ever knowing she was drowned beneath it? What if Riften and Sasha and poor Bumble were in another chamber and shared a similar fate? Her heart skipped and faltered.
“Elestar, fire!” Farris cried in desperation. That was the word she heard her grandmother use to Name fire, and if it would come to her now she might be saved.
Not even a spark lit the scene.
“What does the foolish girl say?” the Darkness roared in outrage. “You are heir to nothing, you are daughter of the dead. Do not insult the old Names when you have none of your own!”
“I have a name of my own, and it is Paffadilly! Elestar, light the dark!” she shouted again, anger flooding through the fear inside her.
Again the Darkness laughed. “Sink her, drown her, bury her,” the voice rang cold.
The water was past her waist now, and she could barely move her legs for the sand that clung about them. She yelled for all she was worth, her voice striking into the dark to be torn apart by the maniacal laughter on all sides. Her heart clutched with each drop of water that fell about her, and her mind was both racing with frantic thoughts and empty with numbness all at once. Every inch of her body felt the growing pressure of those icy black waters that poured in to submerge her.
“Why does the little thing grow quiet?” the cackling voice began again.
Farris stopped struggling. She waited for the pocket of air to be completely filled. There was no movement that would not be futile, no cry that would be heard. It was over, and a calm of acceptance passed over her like a pure breath of air. She could not even swim now. The wet sand rose up to her thighs and held her too tightly. Past the point of all hope, past all anger and fear, Farris resigned herself to death.
I will never die. When death has come, I have already gone. Why should I fear that which I will never experience? It is the world of the living that gives me pause.
-Javel of Omar, the First Man
All hope gone, Farris lifted her head high, letting the water roll over her, and did something she did not understand. She began to sing one of the old songs her grandmother had taught her a lifetime ago by the warm fire.
We are sailing, on wind-tossed sea,
With mast of gold, and clouds ivory.
We are sailing, to tortured shore,
On waters black, with broken oar.
I am washed, as I am clean,
Under sound, and wave I sleep.
I will not wonder, nor will I mind,
That you look on, from shore behind.
You will not wait, should not care,
It matters not, if memory fair.
I am washed, as I am pure,
And resting now, I want no more.
A curious thing happened:the Darkness stopped the pouring waters to listen. Encouraged by this, each word came louder and clearer than the one before, until it seemed to her that there was nothing in the world but her words and the listening Darkness.
Raise clear sky, and morning new,
In looking back, I’ve forgotten you.
Raise my ship, and send it home,
And bless each wave, each cresting foam.
Bear witness to, the tempest sailed,
And though I am gone, my fear has failed.
A ray of light seemed to shine through her mind as she sang, and a place deep inside her opened. It was as though all she knew of fear was inscribed upon one side of a coin and she had flipped it over to see another world on the other edge she never knew existed. The veil of fear around her heart, invisible and infinitely thin, was pierced and destroyed as she sang. It was a point beyond terror, beyond despair of death, and even beyond her own body; she knew in her calm that nothing in this world could bow her.
“Sing for me.”
Farris thought at first it was the Darkness speaking, but this voice was coming from within. It was the guide she dreamt of as she descended. She suddenly couldn’t feel the cold water against her skin any longer. There was only a gentle warmth, as though the sun caressed her. Farris opened her eyes, expecting to see nothing but the same blackness she saw with her eyes shut, but a soft white light shone from every direction.
“So here is the one I have been looking for,” the voice within her said, its words trailing off in a half-serpentine hiss.
“Guide? What are you doing here? Where am I?” Farris asked. She tried to move her head, but nothing changed. Was she dead? Or paralyzed? She wasn’t aware of her body at all. Nothing existed except the soft white light and the voice within.
“You have used your first word of power,” the voice replied. “You knew the sound of it before, but it meant nothing without the understanding you have discovered. The ancient scripts of your song helped calm your mind, and in your calm you have created something beautiful. I was right to call you from my own darkness. You shall be my champion, Farris Malhalion, and I shall be your way.”
“But where have you taken me?” Farris realized she wasn’t speaking at all. There wasn’t a mouth to move. She simply pushed the thought to the front of her brain, and the voice replied. Shouldn’t she be unnerved by this sudden transformation? She felt nothing but perfect tranquility. She supposed her heart couldn’t race without a body, but how could she even think for that matter?
“You have brought yourself here,” the Guide replied. “The mortal world contains only a pale reflection of a phenomenon’s concept. To use the words of power is to bring their true essence into the mortal world, and for the balance to be maintained, you must send yourself into the essence world to fill the void. You have called upon the essence of fire, and you have sent yourself here to allow it to be summoned. When you return, your fire will be waiting for you.”
“I don’t understand,” Farris thought. “What is an essence?”
“The mortal world contains many objects that are square. The essence of being square is a concept to describe mortal phenomenon, but it cannot exist in your world by itself. In the same regard, what you think of as fire is only the description you have given what you see. The true essence of fire is named Elestar, and the true essence of its light is called Porsai. When you were tested by fear, you found understanding in the light which banished it.”
“Have I conquered fear then?” Farris thought. “Will I never be afraid again?”
“You will be afraid. Fear comes from the body, and you are still human. You will find the strength to conquer it though, for you have already proven you are capable. Do not call upon the words of power on a whim. If you pull an essence into the world too often, you will find it more difficult for you to return.”
“Like the Wyrd Sisters!” Farris thought. “Is that how they lost body parts? And the First was so transparent.”
“They only barely made it back, and even then they left a part of themselves behind,” the Guide replied.
“But how do I get back at all?” Farris asked. A flicker of doubt crossed her mind. Could she be trapped here too? The perfect serenity of this place made it seem like an inconsequential worry. Perhaps she could exist forever like this: comfortable and safe and at peace.
“It is your understanding of essence which has brought you here, but your love of life which will bring you to return. Go now, Farris. Focus on that life. There is still much to do in the mortal world.”
This place was so soft and welcoming. Everything was perfect here. All thoughts were pure and strong. There was no body to feel weakness or pain. There was no fear or doubt or sorrow to pull at her heart. Why return at all? But her brother was out there. She bent all of her mind towards him. It would be selfish to hide here. And her parents! They would be worried to death while they were missing. And Sasha and Riften and Bumble, who were trapped beneath the dark water. Even the Darkness seemed sad and alone. She would return. She would save them all.
Farris was back in the throes of darkness. The sudden jolt sent her mind reeling. Her body ached from the numbing cold. The water had stopped about the level of her chest and sand still clamped around her feet. Her heart raced with fear and doubt. It was as though she had never left. Had she even left? Was the essence world real at all, or was it the last spasm of a dying mind?
“Why does she stop singing?” the Darkness asked her, and its voice was genuine and curious without hint of laughter or hiss of mockery.
Farris ignored the Darkness. She spoke slowly and solemnly, holding onto the memory of that serenity with everything she had. “I Name thee Elestar Porsai, fire of light, to break the darkness and guide me out.”
She didn’t know what words she was speaking until the very moment she said them, but in Naming them she could feel they were irrevocably right and proper.
A pure breath of air left her lungs, and with it a dancing white light radiated around her. It burned like a small sun upon the water, but no heat or burns washed over her skin. Farris had never seen any light so bright or beautiful as this spark that touched the depth of darkness where she was sealed. The Darkness shied away, and Farris returned to life.
“How is it the Darkness speaks here?” Farris asked. Her thoughts were coming clearly now. The panic had all but subsided, leaving only curiosity behind. “How is everything alive in this world?”
“We thought she would drown, heir of the ghost of god. We thought she would quench,” the Dark hissed, its voice weak in the face of her brilliant light. “And here you are asking for a story?”
“Stories are all I know,” Farris said, the beginnings of a plan forming in her mind. “If you want me to be properly frightened of you, and it seems you do, then you will tell me what you really are. If you do not, then I will assume it is because what you are is not frightening at all, so I will not be bothered.”
“We are the Darkness!” It bellowed so loudly she felt the sound as a physical force from every direction at once. The Darkness pressed upon the white flames and they shrank, but they would not be extinguished. Soon the Darkness was forced to draw back again, and the flames remained strong upon the water. Farris was staggered by the force, but the clinging sand and water around her stopped her from falling.
“Darkness isn’t anything. It’s the absence of something. Why should I be afraid of that?” she asked, and was pleased to find that her voice no longer shook.
“Do you fear drowning?” the Darkness asked bitterly. “That is only the absence of air. Do you fear death? It is only the absence of life. It is the negation of what you love that you must fear. She loves the light, she does, and so she fears the Darkness, she must. So she fears me!” It was shrieking again, although there was a hint of strain in it that made Farris smile.
“But you’re speaking, and you’re alive, after your own fashion. You cannot be a negation at all! You must be a something. I simply refuse to be afraid unless I know what you really are.”
The Darkness hissed again, more like a long sigh this time, before it spoke.
“The Gracken were afraid of me. They were afraid of most everything, but more than anything they were afraid of me. I lay at peace below the world, silent and asleep, and still they feared me. They were so afraid they stood on the brink of the abyss with man, and they shrank away. No, perhaps they were even more afraid. They were not only afraid of the dark, but also too afraid to stay on the surface beside man. They huddled by the brink of the abyss and they suffered, and they starved, and they were few in number when one at last sought relief.
“Barrister, king of the cowards—foolish, weak, pitiful!—climbed up to the sky on a ladder made from his own dead. He reached through a star—one of the holes where the light beyond shines through. He sought to steal a handful of the light and take it down to his people below. A voice called to him from beyond the sky. [_We hate that light! It cursed us! _]The voice forbade him his act, but the foolish coward did not listen.”
Farris remembered Grandmother speaking of the light beyond. Was it the same as the essence world she had visited? Was the voice the same as her Guide? Her Guide was communicating through the essence world somehow, although perhaps any who knew the words of power could do that.
“Barrister asked what the light was, and the voice told him the light beyond was life. Barrister said he wanted to take it, and the voice refused him again. The voice told him life was sometimes more terrible than death, but he could not believe it. Barrister stole the light and climbed down his ladder once more, and with that secret flame the Gracken were brave enough to go into the abyss.
“They mounted the flame inside the Unwaxen Moon and hung it above their lands to give them light. There was life in that light, and all it touched breathed and moved. Living poison stirred in the water, and the Vaziers were born from branch and thorn. Stones shook and fire danced, and I was woken from my eons of slumber. I hated them for it, and they were right to fear my hatred. I am the living Dark, and you will fear me as well!”
Farris laughed, and the Darkness was taken aback. “Why does it laugh?” it asked curiously.
“It’s a bit ironic, don’t you think?” Farris asked. “The Gracken brought the light of life down because they were afraid, but it was their own light that gave birth to what they feared. You don’t really exist at all, do you? You’re just the fear that fear gave birth to.”
“We didn’t ask to be born!” the Darkness shouted. “We didn’t ask to be feared. But we were, and we are, and so we shall remain. Their King Barrister hid the Gracken away in the mountains near the light—hid them from us. He keeps his people locked tight, and scares them as he is scared. They fear him as he is fearful.”
“What if someone were to quench the fire in the Unwaxen Moon?” Farris asked. “What would happen to you then?”
“I would sleep,” it said, “but the Gracken would never allow it. They are so afraid of me they keep me alive.” At this it laughed, but it seemed sad instead of cruel.
“Then let me propose to you a deal,” Farris said. “If you let me and my companions out and help us reach the abyss, I will put out the fire in the Unwaxen Moon and let you sleep. You have seen me Name fire—you know I will have power over it.”
“You would kill the light to save the darkness?” it asked in surprise.
Was she getting in over her head? Farris hesitated. She was only beginning to learn her own strength. Could she do what she promised? And would the Gracken even be happy in a land filled with natural darkness? As much as she hated the Darkness for its cruelty, she still pitied the being who didn’t belong. Farris ran her hands over the white fire that burned atop the water and watched it flare with her will. There could still be light. Her Elestar Porsai burned brightly without the curse of life. She could leave that inside the moon after the other fire had gone.
“You have my word as—”As what? As a girl? As a stranger?
“What good is your word?” the Darkness asked. It sounded hopeful to Farris. It wanted to believe her, she just had to give it a reason to.
“You have my word as a follower of the Way,” Farris said. That’s what her Guide had said she was. It sounded impressive to her anyway.
“Just as Javel was,” the Darkness purred. “It is not my place to hold you from that path. Go child, but do not forget me.”
The water parted about Farris and the presence of the Darkness lifted from her mind. By the light of the Unwaxen Moon she was able to see an opening stretching clear back to shore. With a thought she let her own fire die, marveling at how it obeyed her as willingly as her own body. The rain had ceased during their time in the darkness, and the screeching Vaziers had dispersed. The air was warm and thoughts of the deathly chill born of those clammy waters soon vanished. The wet sand relaxed from around her and feet and sparkled like diamonds. Farris had never felt so refreshed as she stepped from her dark tomb and back onto the sandy beach.
“Farris!” Sasha called to her from his own watery chamber. It too had opened to reveal him looking wretched and half-drowned. Poor Bumble stood beside him as the water drained away. She had been completely submerged and was shaking herself and coughing piteously. Riften was ashen and somber in his own chamber not far from the others. Farris grinned to see them again. Should she tell them she was the one to save them? She couldn’t wait to see the looks on their faces.
“I suppose I’m alive, although I will need some time to make sure,” Riften managed weakly.
“There were voices.” Sasha’s coughed and his voice faltered. Riften nodded slowly, his eyes darting about restlessly. “And there was a song,” Sasha added. “It was beautiful and there was light in it. I thought it sounded like Farris, although I have never heard her sing before.”
“Come on!” Farris called to them from the shore. “I’m all right, just follow the path and you’ll get back to shore. The sky has cleared. It’s safe now.”
“Be careful!” Sasha shouted back. “The path might be leading us into another trap.”
“Not this time,” Farris said. “The Darkness is nothing to be feared anymore.”
Sasha seemed reassured by her confidence and began striding through the sand. Riften was less sure, and he stepped on the path gingerly with many a sideward glance. Farris waited for them on the tranquil shore, her grin fixed.
Sasha ran as he approached Farris, but stopped a few steps short this time. He seemed so distraught at not being able to go to her Farris decided to make the final few steps herself, throwing her arms around him in a hug. They had just beaten death, why not? Sasha felt stiff and cold, although that could have been from the freezing water, and only loosely held her back before stepping away.
“I’m sorry you had to endure that alone,” Sasha said. “You must have been terrified.”
“I was,” Farris replied, “more than I’ve ever been. I’ve been afraid ever since I began this quest, but I’m not any longer.” No, now that she thought of it, Farris realized she had been living with fear her entire life. She was scared of what people thought of her, and scared of traveling, and scared of spending her whole life caged at home, and a thousand other things that stopped her from being happy. She smiled to know that was in the past.
“I was so terrified, Sasha,” Farris continued. “Then in the dark it all came to its height and every sound and haunting shadow of thought had me shaking to pieces. When we crossed through the water and there was no light or sound but the thrashing of creatures around us, I was terrified beyond imagining. Then the Darkness sought me and I reached the very edge of fear. And that was it. I reached the edge, and I kept going. I’ve made it through to the other side. I’m not afraid anymore; for the first time in my life I’m not afraid.”
Sasha looked at her in wonder. Riften finally navigated the rest of the sandy path and came up to join them. His hard black eyes were regarding her curiously.
Riften murmured something to himself, and Farris barely made out the words: “She has begun the way.”
The adrenaline was fading from Farris now and she could go no farther without more rest. The others seemed to feel the same. Unwilling to try their luck with another cave, the travelers settled onto bare stretches of the sandy bank. Bumble’s wet fur had caused her to shrink, resembling a very skinny and humiliated nightstand, but each was otherwise unharmed.
Farris was utterly exhausted and fell asleep nearly the instant she lay down in the sand. She slept dreamlessly, but woke when a flickering light passed over her. She sat up and stretched. Was it morning already? No, of course not. There was no such thing down here. All of the tumultuous events of the previous day sped through her mind and she rubbed her eyes to make sure this dark land wasn’t still a dream.
She looked at Sasha lying a little way down the shore. He was still peaceful in slumber. What would she have thought of him if they had met under different circumstances? He was more handsome than any of the village boys. That didn’t mean much here, so far from everything. He was so stubborn and sullen, Farris was sure she wouldn’t have paid much attention to him even in her boring town.
Farris then looked towards where Riften had lain. The sand was disturbed, but he was gone. It took her a moment to realize the light that had woken her was coming from the lake. Riften was staring into it with his feet in the water, his long arms bent behind to hold him upright.
The still water reflected a Paral-Zakdul woman, although she was terribly thin even for one of their kind. She looked deathly sick, barely more than a skeleton, with long, greasy black hair that fell in tangled clumps about her. She was chained to a massive golden pillar, and she looked back at Riften with dead, hollow eyes. Only the endless strumming of her fingers upon the chain showed there was any life trapped within that corpse.
Farris barely noticed herself standing as she walked closer to the lake. The image was heartbreaking, but she was inexorably drawn to it. It was nauseating to see a living creature pushed so far past its breaking point, but turning away seemed disrespectful of her suffering.
“Who is she?” Farris asked softly.
Riften jerked in surprise. His limbs bent in practiced motions as he spun to face her, the movements so smooth it looked as though he were dancing. A dagger appeared from nowhere, and in a flash of pale light Riften was holding it against Farris’s neck. The image upon the lake vanished, and Riften stared at her intently. The spark of recognition softened Riften’s face. Then the expression hardened, and the dagger pressed forward the tiniest increment.
“What are you doing?” Farris whispered, her skin brushing against the edge of the blade as she spoke.
Riften gave a deep breath, and then reluctantly pulled the dagger away to slide it deftly back into his boot. He turned from Farris and sat back in the sand, his eyes carefully diverted from the water. Farris clutched her hands around her throat, feeling the sting of where the metal grazed her.
“Don’t sneak up on a hunter,” Riften mumbled.
Was that only instinct? He had begun to push the dagger in even after the surprise was gone. She drew her hands away from her neck and saw a thin red line traced upon her finger. Her hands were shaking. She was afraid to even look at him, but she forced herself to gaze at his turned back.
“Why are you helping me?” Farris asked softly. “Who was that woman?”
“I’m helping you because there is enough evil in this world even without the beast.” Riften turned around and grabbed Farris’s hand. She hesitated, but his lithe arms pulled her to her feet with an undeniable force. “Go and rest, daughter of man. You must prepare yourself for the journey to come. There are many things in this world for you to fear more than me.”
Farris lay down once more, although it took her a long while to drift back to sleep. The flickering light from the lake returned, but she didn’t disturb Riften again.
To seek fame is to find solitude, for only your face will be loved.
To seek wealth is to find solitude, for only your treasure will be loved.
[_To seek grace is to find solitude, for I alone have walked that path. _]
-Javel of Omar, the First Man
“I’m far too sensitive a soul to have so many senses threaten me at once,” Riften declared cheerfully. “You have no idea how pleased I am to have not woken up dead, though I’m not far from it. I haven’t had a thing to eat since the surface, and all my supplies have been burnt and drowned in turn. I wonder if there is anything to eat here that won’t try to eat me back. You seem better prepared though,” he added, eyeing Bumble.
“I’d sooner eat you than her, brute,” Farris huffed from where she lay on the sand. She rubbed her eyes and studied Riften, but he looked like a completely different person than when she had woken last. He was lying near the water, his long arms flopping melodramatically in a comical display of self-pity. Was this a mask he wore for her benefit, or was the stern creature last night the act? It seemed so outlandish for this wide smile to hide anything, perhaps she had just imagined the intensity of their last meeting.
“Point taken!” Riften sat up, waving his hands about to block imaginary blows.
Would he talk about what she saw if she asked? Perhaps if she took a less direct route. “Do you ever have dreams?” Farris asked.
“Everyone does, I suppose, but dreams are only stories told by a liar. I can never remember mine anyway,” Riften said, nodding sagely.
“I had an odd one about you sitting by the lake,” Farris said. Maybe that would be direct enough for him.
“It’s the things I can’t remember that bother me the most,” Riften said, ignoring her. “I wonder if I’ll be remembered in the end. Fondly, I should think, by the people who don’t know me well.”
He wasn’t going to talk. Farris shrugged. “You’re right though, I feel like I haven’t eaten for days.” She looked to Sasha for ideas, but he remained fast asleep.
“It’s amazing that a world where everything is alive should have so little food,” Riften whined. He collapsed back into the sand and began making the impression of a droopy angel by moving his arms and legs back and forth.
“It seems to me,” Farris mused, “if the caves in the water suddenly close up like they did on us, then they might open just as suddenly when they reform.”
“Drinking the lake does not a meal make.”
“No, listen. If the water suddenly disappears and leaves dry spots, then there might be some fish or something caught by the sudden land just as we were caught by the sudden water. We just have to scoop them up.”
The plan was put into action and many strange fish were indeed found twitching in the newly reformed caves. By the time Sasha awoke there was already a fire crackling merrily and a few fish crisping above it. They were all fairly sure goats didn’t eat fish, but that didn’t stop Bumble from staring at them with a maniacal insistence while they ate. It would take more than that to put the starved travelers off their appetite however, and the foreign fish proved a tender and delicious meal. Sasha got up and approached the fire, apologizing for not being the one to provide food.
“It isn’t your job to take care of me. I can do that perfectly fine on my own,” Farris replied.
“Right, of course. I must have promised to do that for someone else,” Sasha said tensely.
“Noble feelings aside, if you really want to take care of her then we should make our way to the pit,” Riften supplied. “The old abyss, before it was covered up in your world, would have been at the lowest point in the valley. That is where the hammer of the beast fell the hardest. That means we only have to look for where the sky hangs lowest now. I remember when we climbed out of it we found ourselves quite near the Unwaxen Moon, so it must be that hanging point just beside it; do you see? The sky almost touches the central mountain with the missing tip, so that is where we must go.”
“No wonder the Gracken hung the light of life there,” Farris said between mouthfuls of flaky fish. “They feared the abyss more than anything, so of course they would hang the moon over it.”
“The light of life?” Sasha asked. “Where did you hear about that?”
“The Darkness told me,” she said. “It’s the light they brought with them that has brought everything to life.” The fish burned her mouth, but she was starving and continued to shovel it in with her fingers.
“You shouldn’t listen to anything the Darkness said.” Sasha looked aghast. “It was mad and evil, and would have trapped us there until we drowned if the water hadn’t parted. I hope the moon shines all the way down the abyss and keeps the Darkness from speaking there. I don’t think I could bear another encounter with that cold laughter.”
“But the path did open, and it did let us out,” Farris said. “It isn’t evil, it’s just angry. And it isn’t mad, it’s just alone. I made a deal with it, to let us out on the condition I help it. The Darkness has followed through on its part of the bargain, and I’ll do what I can for it and everyone here. I just have to put out the fire in the moon.” Farris smiled brightly. This is where they will thank me!
“What?” Sasha cried. “The Darkness must have tricked you. That moon is the only small blessing in a cursed land. If it were gone, then the Darkness would be everywhere and everything.”
“It would, but it would just be an ordinary darkness, and that’s all right,” Farris said, a bit perturbed that he wasn’t impressed. “The natural dark wouldn’t suffer or be angry, and it wouldn’t be terrifying anymore. It would only be at peace.”
“The Gracken wouldn’t allow it, even if it were for their own good,” Riften said.
They didn’t know she planned to summon Elestar Porsai to replace the light of life. Should she tell them? And if they didn’t believe her, could she show them the fire she could conjure? The Guide had warned her not to use the words of power too often, but she had only just begun to learn. Last time she had returned from the essence world so easily, there surely wasn’t any harm. And besides, she had to practice, didn’t she?
“It won’t be all darkness anyway, because I can light my own fire,” Farris said. “It will only provide light, and it will burn to sustain life and not create it. The Gracken will be able to walk freely in their own land once more.”
“Why would you even want to help the Gracken?” Sasha asked. “They’ve done nothing but threaten you.”
“They’re frightened, not frightening,” Farris said. “The Darkness is scared too, although only of its own existence. I think only things that are afraid try to frighten others, because they alone understand how miserable fear can be.”
“What kind of flame could you light that could shine like the moon?” Riften asked suspiciously.
“I have named it Elestar Porsai,” Farris said, extending her hands before her with the palms facing up. She closed her eyes and recalled that feeling of peace. When she opened her eyes again, there was nothing but the soft white light of the essence world. She was ready for it and immediately pushed her mind back toward Tom and her family. She felt her eyes opening a second time and reality was restored at once. A flickering white fire danced in her pale hands that breathed smokeless and burned nothing.
Riften furrowed his brow. Sasha seemed bewildered. Farris grinned.
“In my desperation I tried to call for it many times in the dark, but it wasn’t until I cleared my mind and stopped my fear that I was able to really understand it.”
“There are very few masters even in our University who have made it this far along the way,” Riften said slowly. “Did the Third instruct you on the art?”
Sasha looked at his own hands and said the word ‘Elestar’, but no change came over them. He looked back at Farris with confusion and amazement.
“Grandmother taught me the songs that helped clear my mind, but I never received instructions,” Farris said. “Even if I had, I wouldn’t have understood them then. It wasn’t until I passed through the Darkness that the fire obeyed me. When I first called for light, I thought of it as something to chase away the Darkness. That didn’t work, because thinking of something as just a negation of another isn’t really knowing it at all. I had to think of the heat in a sense separate from the cold, and the light as a thing not connected with the dark. I wanted to be brave, so I first had to understand it was not the negation of fear but its presence that made bravery possible. When I understood I called again, and the fire came to me. I don’t know how to put it into words, but perhaps you have to practice.”
“I don’t think any amount of practice will be sufficient,” Riften said. “Some will study their entire lives without drawing closer to it, while others are gifted. Perhaps the blood of Javel has not been diluted from all these years. Whatever the case, it will be a welcome tool in our dull days ahead.”
They savored the rest of their meal in peace. The ghosts of light spun and twisted peacefully in their caves, and the lake was serene. There was no sign of another storm, although they were difficult to foresee before thunderbolts began stomping the ground above. Their lantern was lost and broken beneath the waves, but Riften was quick to joke about Farris being the replacement.
Bumble used their distraction to scarf down one of the remaining uncooked fish—a shimmering golden one that tossed meekly upon the sand. It was even more swiftly discovered that goats do not, in fact, enjoy the taste of fish. Bumble gagged it down without so much as biting the slippery scales.
“I was already having just an awful day, can you imagine this is helping?”
It was equally apparent that fish do not enjoy being eaten, and this one remarked upon the fact morosely from inside Bumble’s stomach. Everyone turned to look at the animal quizzically, and Bumble raised a skeptical eyebrow too.
“The first time I thought Bumble was talking I felt rather silly, so who’s saying that?” Farris asked.
“That would be silly! A talking goat, can you imagine? My name is Gloria, and I’m the fish she ate, not that anyone cares.”
“That’s much more normal,” Farris agreed wryly. “How are you in there?”
“Just wonderful,” Gloria said, rather dryly for a fish. “Although being eaten is really not as bad as I expected. It’s warm in here, and very peaceful. And it’s not like I have to worry about bigger fish anymore.”
“Am I the only one who finds this strange?” asked Sasha. “This can’t actually be happening, right? Even if the fish could speak by some trick of the madness this world is, it should still be digested.”
“If something is happening, then that’s your best indication it is possible,” Riften said. “I’ve actually heard tales of magical fish before. They’re supposed to grant wishes if they’re caught!”
“I will do no such thing,” Gloria replied. “Being eaten isn’t really the same as being caught anyway. If anyone caught me, then it was this hairy monster.”
“We could still catch you! Which end would you like to exit the goat from?” asked Riften.
“I’m quite sure that is the most unappealing thing I have ever imagined,” said the fish. “I’ve already been caught by something else, no wishes for you! Now please let me stay in here. I’m rather enjoying the ride.”
“Well, I don’t know what other options we have,” Farris said.
Bumble didn’t seem the least bothered by the situation.
“This has not been a good day for me, not at all. I’ve already fallen out of the water once when those nasty animals came and shook me to fright. Then when I finally made it back into the water—which was pure excruciation on that horrid sharp sand—off the waves go to leave me high and dry again. And then this brute comes along, all snuffling and licking things it has no right to. Just leave me be, will you? Besides, you’d better hurry if you want to make it to the abyss before the rain comes again.”
“You’ve been listening to us this whole time? Why didn’t you speak up?” Farris asked. She was beginning to feel guilty about the fish she had already eaten, but surely they were normal fish. Her stomach rumbled, unconvinced.
“Speaking fish tend to draw unwanted attention. Now that I think about it, regular fish seem to draw plenty of unwanted attention too. You can be sure I would have spoken loud and clear if you thought to put me above that fire though! It’s really a tragic life, being a fish, but I don’t expect you to understand.”
“As long as Bumble doesn’t mind, then I don’t see the harm,” Farris said. “I don’t know how long we’ve been resting here, but I fear the creatures we pursue did not take such luxury. We’ve already lost so much time by hiding here.”
How much time did Tom have, though? Perhaps she could help the Darkness afterward, although the thought of that unseen nightmare feeling cheated was terrifying enough. But if her brother slipped away and she knew it was her own fear that had stopped her… Farris dug her short nails into the palm of her hand.
“We had better get moving,” Farris added.
Their peculiar arrangement was soon settled, and they began their march. Riften raised an arm in the fashion of a cavalry charge, displaying more enthusiasm than is ever appreciated shortly after waking. The foothills of the craggy slopes ambled up to the base of the great topless mountain. The spire of the Unwaxen Moon was mounted on the flank of its slopes, its bulbous head shining directly over the indent.
They picked their way through increasingly treacherous rocks as the gentle rise gave way to narrow ledges and sharp drops. It was as if the mountain was conspiring against them at points, and several times Farris was sure she saw convenient handholds or stepping stones scurry just out of reach. Bumble alone seemed comfortable in the terrain, and she leapt from precipice to pinnacle in joyous bounding, undisturbed by the new company inside her. Riften was almost as agile as the goat, and he kept pace with her to speak with Gloria. Most of their conversation wandered amicably amongst topics of likely death, discussing the various monsters that had tried to eat them throughout their lives.
This normally would have been interesting to Farris, had her attention not been diverted towards Sasha. It was clear by now he knew her, or at least thought he did. Could some spell or toxin have robbed her memories? There was something intimate about the way he looked at her which made her uneasy, but there was also some habit about the way she caught herself watching his long loping strides. She tried to talk to him more than once along the rocky slopes, but each time he would speak little and fall farther behind. He repeated that he was mistaken in saying they were close, and that he was only here to save Tom from his fate. Farris did not feel it was the truth, but could not contradict it.
As for Riften, how could he remain so cheerful when his mind harbored dark thoughts like those Farris had seen on the lake? Did the woman in chains have anything to do with his mission? How much faith could she really put in these two strangers? They were risking their lives to be with her, so that must be proof enough. Perhaps the new member of their group would be more open. Farris called to Bumble, who quickly fell back to trot at her side.
“Excuse me, Gloria, how are you doing in there?” Farris asked the fish.
“Quite comfortable. I’ve made myself at home, thank you for asking.”
Farris giggled at the thought of the fish setting up an armchair and making a fire within Bumble’s stomach. “I was wondering how you can know anything about the abyss if you’re a fish?”
“What does being a fish have to do with it? We’re not ignorant,” Gloria grumbled. “Humans have named the sky and the clouds and the stars in heaven, but they are as separated from them as I am.”
“But we see those, at least! How could you have ever seen the abyss?” Farris asked.
“I have been alive for a very long time,” Gloria replied. “I know a good deal more about the world than you ever will.”
“I never claimed to know much,” Farris said. “I’m learning though. You must have heard me Name the fire.”
“How the world has changed, for any random girl to stumble across the words of power,” Gloria grumbled. “In my day, only the champions of our kind knew the secrets.”
“I’m not just any random girl!” Farris said, her tone sharp with indignation. “I’m the heir of the ghost of a god! Or so I’ve been told.”
“Heir of Lolaran, son of Javel?” Gloria almost shrieked. “You? Of all the people to fall into my lake. It’s been a long time since I’ve crossed one of that line …” Her voice trailed off in sad nostalgia. “I knew Javel of Omar better than any living soul. You would do better to show respect if you would presume to walk in his footsteps.”
Farris stopped short. Bumble trotted on obliviously. Gloria couldn’t have actually known him, could she? There were so many legends about Javel that Farris never really considered whether or not he was real. Even when other parts of the story were proven true, the aspects about Javel always sounded like a fairy tale to her. She hurried to catch up to the goat.
“How could you have known Javel? I would very much like to know more about him,” Farris asked, careful to sound more polite.
“Do you really not know?” Gloria asked in surprise. “Has man stopped praising him as they once did?”
“I know he was some enlightened being who vanished and left the world in an awful mess,” Farris said, recalling the words from Grandmother’s story. “Grandmother said he was selfish for leaving us the way he did.”
“Awful mess?” Gloria’s voice squeaked. “The world has always been an awful mess! It wasn’t his responsibility to fix it! How dare you say it like it was his fault!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way!” Farris said. “It’s just when he abandoned his throne the kingdoms started fighting over it, right?”
“Javel never abandoned anything! He never even sat upon the throne,” Gloria said. “As you seem so ignorant, I shall tell you of his sacred life. First you must understand it was his father Jorvan who was the emperor, but the kingdoms were at war long before even he rose to power.
“Jorvan united the kingdoms after igniting a conflict between the house of Billyvone of the Moross people and Lord Ranagan of the Paral-Zakdul. They were his two greatest rivals for power, and their strength threatened his ambitions. He succeeded at last when he stole the Brass Orb from Lord Ranagan, an object said to be created by Sumpta of the sun, and framed the house of Billyvone for the deed.”
Farris remembered Riften mentioning the Brass Orb was a relic of his people. Perhaps the fish really did know what she was talking about. But Riften’s name was Ranagan as well! She glanced at him, but he had leapt on ahead and couldn’t hear them now. Riften did hold himself in a stately way, and the movement of his long limbs was poised and elegant. He seemed proud, and mysterious, and there was no reason to think he couldn’t be a lord. But why would a prince be enslaved by a machine and sent to the surface? Farris had to save the puzzle for later, because Gloria was continuing her tale.
“When Jorvan became emperor, he had a son named Javel, and the child was raised as a god in those decadent palaces. He must have felt like it too, living in such splendor and receiving the homage of powerful kings from across the world. Alas that he grew spoiled and insolent from his status. The boy terrorized the palace, and wouldn’t even obey his own mother! It reached the point when in his youth he desired the general’s young wife to bed with him, stubbornly refusing to accept any other woman. The general himself arranged it, such was the power and fear the young Prince held. Can you imagine? The general sent his own wife to the prince, and then put a knife into his heart for the shame of it.”
“The enlightened being did that?” Farris didn’t feel so bad about her own shortcomings, if the god Javel began as humbly as that.
“Unfortunately. The general’s wife became pregnant. The bastard son Lolaran was nicknamed ghost because the poor boy was never accepted on account of his humiliating heritage.”
“Lolaran Malhalion?” Farris exclaimed. “The Ghost of God!”
“Jorvan discovered the truth of the situation and became outraged. As punishment, Jorvan banished Javel until he’d walked each of the seven kingdoms and reached the Yonda Sahra, the Great Tree, at the other side of the world.
“Although his mother begged Jorvan to reconsider, Javel was flung from the palace by force,” Gloria’s voice cracked as she spoke. “His mother followed him to keep him safe, disguised as a peasant woman. The boy was given no choice but to live as a commoner throughout his journey, surviving by his own sweat and toil until the road had ended. In this way, the emperor hoped to give his son a love for all kingdoms and their peoples who he would one day rule.
“Javel met with something or someone in each kingdom that opened his eyes a little wider. He met with trials—terrible trials—and danger that would test him within an inch of his life. Against all odds, this petty boy was not found wanting. As Javel traveled, something changed within him. He grew wise in the cities and strong in the wilds, and the old magic of the world awoke in his heart to free his mind and body from the limitations of man.”
“Is that why I’ve heard the old magic called following the way?” Farris asked. “People follow the way of Javel in hopes of learning the secrets he found?”
“Yes, although none before or since achieved mastery as Javel did. He learned to name the whole world as he traveled it, and it was a fearsome power to have. The boy’s mother saw his growth and begged the emperor to end his banishment. Jorvan agreed, and thinking the boy had learned his lesson, he tempted the boy to return by offering him marriage to one of three sisters, said to be the most beautiful women in the kingdom.
“The temptation did not work however, and Javel sent message back that he had set out to walk the seven kingdoms and would do so now regardless of whether or not it was obligated. Jorvan was not used to being refused anything—in fact, it had not happened once in his long years upon the throne. The emperor was furious at the news and sent another message, one that reached Javel as he traversed the fourth kingdom. This demanded Javel return, stating all the land would turn hostile against the upstart prince should he refuse the order.
“Javel declined again, walking the roads openly without sign of fear. He was not bothered by the people, for he walked with a surety and grace that could not be disturbed. To look upon him was to know bliss, and those who would challenge him had only to look into his eyes to know the path he walked was virtuous and true.
The emperor was stubborn and refused to send another message, even when Jorvan grew sick and began to die. Javel’s mother couldn’t take it any longer and threw off her disguise after all these years to beg her son’s return. Although the boy learned many secrets of the world, he was as stubborn as his father. He continued walking his course until at last he reached the Yonda Sahra tree. Javel then approached the tree and stayed for a long while with a girl who was its keeper. She told him what the tree was, and in exchange he told her of the world. When his contemplation of the World Tree was finally complete, he reached out and touched the smooth white bark. Smiling, he finally accepted his mother’s hand and began home.
“Though it took him many years to cross the seven kingdoms by foot, it took only days for him to return, for he had tamed the very winds to his purpose. He was still too late however, and was greeted by a mournful procession carrying the body of his father down from his crystal palace. Wreathed by the sun was the last march of the emperor, shining with brilliant color that reflected from the prism tower. Never was a man dressed more stately, nor more honored, than this peaceful king clad in light.
“Although Javel’s mother had hated Jorvan for banishing her son, she was overwhelmed by grief at returning to his death. She begged Javel to use his power to name life and death itself to bring her husband back from that unseen shore. Javel meditated by his father’s body for a long while, brooding upon the silence of death, before he answered with this riddle: ‘It is possible to cross back from death, but impossible for it to ever occur. Had I the power to call him, I would lack the desire, and had I the desire, I would not have the power.’
“Word of Javel’s wisdom spread through the land, and his counselors begged him to take his turn upon the throne. He did not answer them, but he consented to appear at the crowning ceremony held on a hillock above a great mirrored lake. He stood on the ridge over the lake, stern of face and slow of tread. Beside him stood the three beautiful sisters who had tempted his return, as one would be chosen to become his queen.
“Javel was handed a crown, and he let it rest upon his head as though he did not notice its golden weight. Then he was presented with the Brass Orb, the tool of his father’s rise to power and the symbol of his office. This Javel took with interest, and looking deeply within it, he smiled at his own perfect reflection. He laughed, quiet at first, then like a wild thing who has left all humanity and sanity behind. The whole world took a sharp breath of anticipation and fear. Who was this strange man who emerged from his solitude? How would he rule the seven kingdoms?
“Javel took the Brass Orb, and raising it high above his head he said: ‘I am everything, but all that I am not I shall leave you within this metal’. He then spoke a word in the old tongue: rich and sonorant it rang, music to the world unlike anything ever heard before. It was the name for the universe and everything in it, and with the same word Javel named himself as well. To know the world is to know oneself, and Javel had done both in his travels.
“There was a deafening roar and a blinding flash, and all the land was frozen in glass for a second before it shattered. He had been offered a throne, but had taken a higher one of his own choosing, and with his transcendence he was no more. His poor mother, having lost a husband and son together, was brought to madness and threw herself to drown in the lake below. With that, the entire royal family was gone in one breath, and the most powerful kingdom was left without a crown.”
“And then the three sisters grabbed the orb and became the Wyrd Sisters!” Farris shouted. “But I don’t understand how you could know all this. Even Grandmother never told me this part of the tale.”
“The only stories that last forever are the ones you live through,” Gloria said. “If you follow the way, you will walk the seven kingdoms as Javel once did. It seems you have already begun, so let us see where it takes us. It has been too long since I have seen the world.”
[_I moved so the earth would be still, and when I lay still the earth trembled. If I had chosen to dance like fire, would the world have been my partner? If I chose to sing, would they have harmonized? _]
–Lolaran of Malhalion, the Ghost of God
The group was quiet when they at last approached the sky’s lowest point. As they drew near, the rocks around them became more active in their malicious intent. Secure stones would slip when grasped, and others would crumble under their feet or bounce around to bruise their legs and ankles. The thick grasses and underbrush blanketing the slopes twined around their legs and held on so stubbornly Sasha often had to brandish his carving knife before they would shrink back in surrender. Nothing would be safe in this land until Farris completed her work, and every passing step caused her to be more sure of her course.
Farris was aware time passed, but it seemed like one of the many comforts left behind at home. The light was unwavering, the sky unchanging, and the stillness oppressive. The passing hours were only measured by the growing ache in her limbs and the beading sweat upon her brow. However much time was left, it was running out.
They’d made some progress toward their goal on their last march circumventing the lake, and Riften figured their journey from the caves to the abyss would be no more than two leagues’ walk. A pleasant hike at home perhaps, strenuous enough to sweeten the reward of a picnic at the first shady trees of the Morash Woods. There the sun glowed bright and the flowers blanketed the soft fledgling hills. There was only ache and toil to anticipate here as they climbed beneath the menacing moon and the low-hanging sky. Strange noises of crying or laughing came from somewhere beyond the cloak of shadow, and angry rocks and slithering grasses promised no reward but an encounter with the monsters which had left a wake of ruin at home.
A growing doubt began to gnaw at Farris as they navigated the treacherous way into the foothills. What ambush could they lay for the creatures in Byzantian armor when they could do nothing against them on the surface? Was Riften truly to be trusted, or was he now leading them to where his comrades might attack? And what horror would be felt at the edge of the abyss and the infinite darkness within, when all of mankind turned away in dread? Farris glanced from Riften to Sasha. Pale skin, sunken eyes, tight jaws. They must have felt the same urgency as her, although they kept their private doubts to themselves.
These somber thoughts were cut short as one of the night sounds grew to stand out from the others.
“What is that moaning?” Farris asked. “It sounds like the wind, but the air is so still here. Is there some new monster waiting for us?”
“I don’t know, but I heard the same sound in my ascent,” Riften replied. “I’ll be thankful when we reach the abyss to descend.”
“Will you?” Farris asked, returning to her doubts. “You’ll be returning home to your father to report your charge has failed. If you’re helping me as you say, then you’ll return empty-handed with fewer soldiers than you began.”
“My father?” Riften bristled. “Who told you about that?”
“It’s true then! Your father is the lord of the Paral-Zakdul!” Farris said, unable to keep the accusation out of her voice.
Riften’s face screwed into anger Farris had never seen from him before. His wide grin twisted into a snarl, and his dark eyes flashed like smoldering coal. “My father is none of your business.”
“Won’t you be punished for failing?” Farris pressed.
The wide grin reappeared, though Riften’s eyes maintained their hardness. “Oh, don’t worry about me. I always manage. I’m still his son, after all, and he’ll remember what that means before the end.”
The moaning sound penetrated the air once more. Rocks on the narrow ledge vibrated in harmony with it while the dirt pulsed.
“It’s no creature,” came Gloria’s voice from within Bumble, “but the mountain itself that sighs. It can feel every step you make upon it. The peak which holds the Unwaxen Moon is called Triarch the Sanguine, oldest and greatest of the dancing peaks.”
“I don’t suppose I have to ask how they received such a name,” Farris said, staring ahead with awe.
The dark silhouettes of the rising mountains began to shift back and forth slowly. Each mountain moved asymmetrically, dancing to its own beat as it were, so the mountain flanks sometimes scraped close to one another—the source of the growing moan—or bent apart.
The travelers followed the path as it wound switchback through the lower hills and into the mountain crags where the sky hung low. The path delved deep into the mountain until sheer cliff faces rose on either side of them, allowing no other routes to be taken.
A barrier was laid across the road here: closely set bricks forming a sturdy wall at least ten feet high, embedded with rows of mounted torches. There was a small gate, no more than four feet tall, with a heavy iron-studded portcullis. It was closed tightly with a Gracken guard standing on either side. They wore the same bright red masks Farris had seen before, with great leering faces stretching nearly to their feet. Long spears with wicked barbs were grasped in their thick hands, and they turned at once to the approaching intruders.
“Voicesome and cracksound!” one guard cried out. “If you are something in the darkness, be named! If you are the Darkness, be cowed by the Unwaxen Moon and speak no more.”
“My name is Farris,” she called back, and each of the companions strode into the light of the torches before the gate. “I mean no trouble.”
“Farris, oh.” The guards conferred together. “We know of Farris—she was to be taken to the king! She refused our hospitality—unkindly, and escaped—unlawfully.”
“I did not escape!” Farris said. “Nier and his soldiers didn’t even capture me properly. They ran off as soon as the Darkness spoke.”
“Nier, oh.” The guards bowed their heads together once more. “He is a coward then. You stand before Nora and Pira, guardians of the southern gate into Triarch the Sanguine. We are not afraid like he was. You will wait until others have come to escort you on.”
The speaker, presumably Nora, strode forward as though to seize the comrades.
“Not afraid, are they?” rang a familiar, laughing voice from behind the companions. Nora stopped short. “So if I were to tell you to let them pass, then you would not mind me?”
The Darkness behind them felt heavier than it had a moment before, and the same presence Farris had sensed in the caves weighed upon her mind. Nora and Pira shook so terribly their wooden masks rattled against their skulls, but they stamped their pole-arms into the ground and unhooked their torches from the wall to brandish in front of them.
“It is here!” the guards cried. “Why would the Darkness make demands on behalf of these intruders? You have no business with them!”
“The girl walks with my legs, acts with my hands, and speaks with my tongue. She will pass if I say, and I say!” the Darkness responded. “She is here to quench the Unwaxen fire. Stand aside for the Darkspeaker!”
The shadows from their torches were flickering now, though the flame stayed still in the quiet air.
“We will not!” Nora said, although his legs betrayed him in a scurrying retreat until his back was pressed against the wall beside Pira once more. “You have no presence this close to the Moon. You don’t frighten us!”
“Of course I frighten you. I hear your screaming when you wake in the night and feel me next to you,” the Darkness replied smoothly. The flickering shadows condensed and the figure of a tall man was cast upon the grass. The two guards startled and waved their torches about frantically, but the shadow did not move in response.
“If you don’t open the door, how are you going to get away from me?” The Darkness stretched its long, shadowed legs to move along the ground and stride towards them. Farris felt a twinge of lonely panic, but it was exciting to watch so powerful an adversary join her side. She even caught herself enjoying the Gracken’s fear for a moment. Scolding herself, she stepped ahead of the others to speak.
“Don’t mind the Darkness! It won’t hurt anyone anymore. If you’ll let me past I can put an end to all of this.”
“Does the Darkness look tame to you?” Sasha growled, pushing between the figure and Farris. “That demon isn’t on anyone’s side but its own.”
Pira threw his torch directly into the shadow, splintering it upon the ground. The flames leapt wildly amid the tall, dry grass. The long stems tried to flee, pulling their roots from the soil to waddle and limp across the ground, swatting their leaves against burning heads. The fire spread as the grass moved, and though the torchlight banished the shadows for a moment they soon reformed a little distance back.
The shadow laughed as it condensed on the ground, taking the shape of a man once more. At first Farris thought the shadow was shrinking, for the height of it was diminishing as though the sun were reaching its apex. It was not shrinking however, but standing up, peeling itself away from the ground to rise on feet of perfect darkness. In moments the figure of a man stood upon the burning grass. It was pure black, looking as though a cookie-cutter had removed that portion of reality and forgotten to have filled it with anything.
It’s on our side, Farris reminded herself. Even after the trial she had passed, it was impossible to look upon that tear in reality without fear. She caught Sasha’s uneasy stare and smiled to reassure him. In the water she had seen the Darkness at the purest point of her clarity. She had felt its fear, and its sorrow, and its restless desire to sleep. She had promised to deliver that—she had no doubt it would fight for her now. At least, her reason had no doubt. Her heart was not so easily convinced.
The shadow laughed again, and a cold wind tore from the blackness to rip through the guards. Their masks were whisked clean off and sent tumbling through the air. Underneath those grimacing red faces were two very small, very frightened men with thin bellies and bare heads.
With a squeal Nora’s shaking hands flung his pole-arm aside and withdrew a large silver key from the folds of his tunic. It took him several attempts to fit it into an iron lock beside the portcullis. The Darkness waited patiently for them. As soon as the key was in place there came a clanking sound from some contraption within the gate. The iron barrier began to lift and both guards flung themselves to the ground to crawl under it on their stomachs, not waiting for the gate to fully open.
A long arm from the Darkness shot outward to stretch at least twenty feet through the growing flame and hold firmly onto the portcullis. The distended arm was so deformed that it made a mockery of the humanoid illusion the dark figure once had. The gate rattled and then stopped as the mechanism failed to overpower the dark hand. The guards strained to pull the gate back to the ground but could not budge the portal against the steady grip of shadow. The black figure began to advance directly through the fire, causing the little men to abandon their efforts and flee along the slopes with a wailing cry.
“Go now!” the Darkness said. Its arm penetrated straight through the fire like a black tunnel carved through the light, although the shadow was beginning to waver now. The ground before the companions was growing thick with flames and smoke as the panicked grasses continued scurrying about. Their little heads were ablaze as they shook and quivered and fanned their own demise. The sheer stone walls on either side prevented circumventing the fire. They were trapped in the burning pass.
“We can’t make it through!” Sasha called back.
“I cannot hold the door long. The fire will chase even my shadow from the crack.”
“We can’t stay here either,” Riften shouted over the mounting roar of the fire. “It’s spreading, and this whole pass will soon be a death trap. Back the way we came!”
The fire was growing, bursting upward in furious heat that seemed impossible from the mere grasses fueling it. Tongues of red flame took the shape of an arm or a ghastly face like the red masks for the briefest instant before they flickered away into ordinary fire.
“You can’t!” the Darkness cried. “You won’t have another chance to get through the gate. The guards will be back, and they will have wards and brands to keep me at bay. Farris, child, if you can’t put out this fire what hope do you have of quenching the fires of life? Call to it and name it.”
Farris hadn’t expected to be tested so suddenly. She had made the promise with the Darkness on a whim, flooded with the feeling of her own power. These were obviously not ordinary flames that flared with life. What if she wasn’t able to overcome them? Would the Darkness recognize her weakness and turn on them at once? Farris cast a nervous glance between her companions and the figure of Darkness. There was no time for doubt. She had to focus.
“I name you, Elestar!” Farris shouted. Her mind was already calming as she traced the familiar path toward the essence world.
The flame shrank from her voice but glowed brighter as it crouched, seeming to stay alive out of pure malice. The fire rose and twisted into the air, shaking violently to throw searing sparks in a wide arc around them. It gave off a low growl and lashed a tendril of flame that cracked above their heads like a whip. The heat was intense.
“How long will it take?” Riften asked. “We can’t stay here!”
“If we don’t leave soon, there won’t be a way out,” Sasha said. Sweat formed thickly about his brow as he backed against one of the sheer rock walls of the pass. The fire was spreading down the way they came with unnatural speed.
“Now break it!” the Darkness called, voice tense and strained.
Farris closed her eyes and at once the soft white light encompassed her. It was a relief to be away from the searing heat of the fire, and Farris allowed herself to bask in the comforting tranquility. She was about to concentrate on the path back when the voice of her Guide spoke to her.
“Welcome back,” it purred.
What was the harm in staying a little longer? She had stepped outside of time. It felt so good to be here, and as long as her body was in the essence world she would be safe. She could relax for a moment before returning to put out the fire.
“Are you always in this place?” Farris asked.
“Where else am I to go?” it asked innocently. “I do appreciate the company from time to time. My poor body is buried so deeply.”
“But you were able to reach me even before I visited this place,” Farris said. “How did you summon those dreams while I descended?”
“You were closer to the essence world than you think,” the Guide replied. “The Wyrd Sisters brought the essence of Rudbark the stone to carry you downward. While your mind stayed with you, your body was visiting me. I saw you like a candle in the night, and I found you. I am so glad you found me in return. You are my avatar, my champion, my savior. And I am your way—never forget. Without me you are lost.”
“Did you hear the Darkness talking about a voice in the light beyond?” Farris asked. “Was that you?” She wasn’t wasting time, she reassured herself. She wasn’t delaying. She could return whenever she wanted to. There was no reason not to find out as much as she could whenever she visited her Guide. He was her teacher, after all.
“The essence world exists across all space and time,” the Guide said. “It could have been a great thinker of ten thousand years ago, or even yourself after you fully awakened. If you listen, sometimes you can hear them all—thinking, and waiting, and laughing together.”
“I don’t hear anything,” Farris said, straining her attention. The Guide’s voice appeared directly in her mind. There wasn’t even sound here, as far as she could tell.
“Your mind is still young and fragile. It can barely contain its own thoughts. You will hear them in time—”
“Farris!” a real sound reverberated faintly.
“I heard something!” Farris exclaimed.
“—not all of them are wise, though, and even here, not all are happy.” The Guide continued as though Farris had said nothing.
“Farris—wake up!” the real sound said. It was a little louder this time.
“Who’s saying that?” Farris asked. It sounded urgent, but the part of her that should worry about that was left far behind.
“—Some of them are lost souls who have become trapped here. They visited too frequently, or came idly without the strength of will to return,” the Guide said.
“What’s going on?” Something wasn’t right. The Guide didn’t seem to hear her. The soft white light was everywhere and everything. How could anything be wrong in this place?
“Farris! We need you!” the real voice said. Was that Sasha? How could he have gotten here? She was supposed to be the special one! She had Javel’s blood, and the Guide had named her as his champion!
“—surely you would never let that happen,” the Guide continued. “You are strong, Farris. My champion, my breath. You can keep me company and never fear becoming trapped—”
“Why won’t she wake up?” Riften’s voice asked. “We never should have trusted her!”
“She’s going to stop the fire!” Sasha said. “She has to. Otherwise …”
“Hello?” Farris asked. “Sasha, Riften? Are you here?” Her words were only thoughts at the front of her mind, and they didn’t seem to hear her. She should really be getting back to them. The thought of throwing herself into that fire again was so distasteful, though. Maybe she could stay just a little longer …
“—then again, I might like having the company,” the Guide’s soft voice rolled on. “What if you weren’t great at all? What if you were weak and burned before you ever freed me from my cell? Then I would have lost you forever, and I would be all alone again. Perhaps you should stay with me here, Farris.”
And why not? She had to work so hard to be happy and safe out there. She was always hungry, always tired. If she went back her limbs would hurt from that awful climb. Her head would start to sting again. Her feet would bleed from where sharp rocks tore through her soft leather shoes. And the fire—she didn’t want to deal with that fire.
“That’s right. Just relax, and let the world slip away,” her Guide said.
Why work so hard to save Tom and be happy when she could be happy without trying right here?
Tom! Farris’s mind burned. How could she think of abandoning him? And her friends were calling to her. They were on the other side and they needed her. She had to return, had to put out the fire and save them. She focused her mind once more and opened her eyes.
The soft white light was everywhere and everything.
“—my avatar, my champion. Be with me here—”
Why hadn’t she returned? It didn’t even bother Farris as much as it should have. She should have felt panic. Was she trapped? Had she visited too frequently—stayed too long? She wanted to feel panic! She would take the fear, the doubt—any sign she was alive! Her brother! Her family! She opened her eyes once more.
“—I can teach you everything. You can become stronger than Javel, for even he never had a teacher as great as I. You can trap all of time in an hourglass and turn it back the other way—”
“Tom!” Farris screamed within her mind. Focus! Focus your thoughts. Think about her family left behind. Her brother waking up in the night crying—he had a nightmare, and she was there to comfort him. She was sick once as a child—she was coughing up blood and her mother knelt beside her bed all night. She would make it back for them.
None of that suffering exists in the essence world though. The soft light—no!
The look on Tom’s face when she did a handstand—she didn’t have to move the world to impress him. He was so proud of her, he told everyone in the town what she did. The taste of strawberry jam. Her father running on all fours to make her laugh. The autumn leaves. Her new friends who were in danger. She wouldn’t leave it. She wanted to be back. She’d do anything to live again.
Smoke filled her lungs, and the burning ash tasted delicious. Her whole body was red and scalded, but it was worth it just to have skin again. The fire completely surrounded her on all sides. Sasha was covering her with his body, shielding her from the flame that pressed them into the stone wall. He was coughing so badly he could barely stand.
“Elestar, you will shatter!” Farris shouted through her ragged throat.
The fire roared as though it were consuming a mighty forest. The noise reached its crescendo and faltered in a sighing gasp as the smoke turned to vapor. A path was gouged through the flames, and they were sundered as though a stream had cut through the inferno. The open ground was dry, but it steamed from where the fire touched it moments before. The air blistered with heat. Sasha collapsed onto the ground. Riften leapt a few steps ahead of her, his long spine arched as he hunched over in pain. Bumble rolled in the heat-blasted dirt, the final sparks in her fur dying.
Farris’s entire body burned. She held onto that pain, cherishing it for what it meant. She was alive. She had been so close to not making it back at all, and now that she was out of the essence world the full weight of that fear gripped her. She flung one of Sasha’s arms over her blistered shoulders and together they limped through the corridor of flame. On either side of her the faces in the fire nodded their respect to her, their lashing tongues bending gracefully over her head to form a corridor.
The Darkness was no more than a pale wisp of shadow now, but it still held the gate open for them. When they reached the portal the Darkness was shaking badly, and the impenetrable black figure was transparent and wavering. They dashed through the small opening and the dark figure vanished at once with a moan. The heavy metal slammed shut and sealed their only retreat.
My first courage overcame the fear of life sealed inside this tomb. My second courage overcame the fear of death were it all to end. My third courage is about me now, a love of life letting me endure although all hope of escape is lost. I am not afraid any more.
-Lolaran Malhalion, the Ghost of God
“What the hell was that?” Sasha demanded. He collapsed onto his back, sweating and gasping for air. “I thought you said you could control fire!”
Riften fell silently beside him, gingerly rubbing his long limbs.
“I did!” Farris snapped. Her dress was filled with smoldering holes and her skin felt like it was on fire, though the flames were safely contained on the other side of the wall.
“Really? Then why did I almost die trying to save you?” he asked.
[_Why was it so much harder that time? _]Perhaps it would keep getting worse every time she used it. Or was it just because her mind wasn’t as calm as when she entered the essence world before?
“It’s already becoming more difficult,” Farris admitted. “I don’t know if I should be using the words of power at all anymore.”
“It’s becoming more difficult?” Sasha asked sarcastically. “Well, I’m sorry if this is all difficult for you. I have no idea what that must be like.” He waved his arms, gesturing at the burns covering his body.
“No one asked you to be here! You’re the one who followed me. If you don’t like it you can just go home.” Farris stamped her foot.
“No one is going anywhere,” rasped a faint voice. Farris’s shadow stretched as though waking up and stepped away from her body. “Or have you forgotten our deal? You will use the words of power again, and you will free me.”
“Or what?” Sasha asked bitterly. “The lake drowned us and the fire burned us, but you haven’t done anything. You’re all bluster and words. Stay out of this.”
“Sasha, look out!” Farris cried.
Sasha’s shadow was moving on its own as well. It pulled away from the ground and stood behind him. Its fingers snaked their way up Sasha’s body and stretched for his neck.
“Stop it, Darkness!” Farris cried. “I won’t break our deal. I’m going to put out the light of life.”
“No more!” Sasha ranted. “If you want to help this demon, I’m not going to help you. I’m done fighting for a girl who doesn’t even know who I am. I’m going to the abyss to wait for Tom. You can do whatever you like.” He turned away and began marching up the slope of the Triarch Mountain, towards the indented sky and away from the Unwaxen Moon.
Farris watched Sasha go. Her own body was burning so badly she couldn’t blame him for being angry. It was her fault for being too weak to pull herself back from the essence world in time. Her friends had counted on her, and she’d let them down. It would be so easy to call after him and say how much she appreciated what he was doing for her. She could call him brave for following her, or selfless for going after Tom. Anything she said would be better than nothing. She opened her mouth.
But it was her fault he was here, and her weakness that let him get hurt. What right did she have to ask for more? Sasha didn’t look back at her. She closed her mouth again. She alone made the deal with the Darkness, and following through was no one’s responsibility but her own.
Farris turned away from Sasha and looked toward the Unwaxen Moon. It was very close now. The spire it sat upon was a twisted pinnacle of rock resembling a stalagmite, only it was massive and covered with spines and ridges of sharp stone. A stairway circled the spire; the climb looked hazardous with no railing to separate the open air from the narrow steps. It circled the tower many dozens of times before finally landing on a small open balcony that led into a crater in the pale moon. The moon was scarred and pitted in many places, and light shone from the openings as though they bled.
“I’m not going to break the deal,” Farris muttered again. “I’m going to climb it.”
“I hope you aren’t intending to go alone,” Riften said. “I’ll come along to protect you if you ask it.”
“Protect me?” Farris gave a bitter laugh. “Two will be no safer on the way than one. There’s nothing but to climb—I’ll be all right. You’d be better served going to the abyss with Sasha and watching for Tom. I’d hate to think he was pulled down into the pit just because we were all climbing here.”
Riften nodded slowly. Their shadows were normal again, though Farris felt as though the Darkness was watching them closely. She wearily put one foot in front of the other and waved Riften off. She didn’t need any of them for what she had to do.
“You’re doing the right thing,” Gloria said. “When the fire has been extinguished this land will be at peace for the first time since the Gracken first arrived all those years ago.”
At least Bumble and Gloria were still with her. Farris took a deep breath and winced. Her lungs felt stiff from the smoke and the pain of her burned skin and bloody feet made it torture to walk. She turned away from the steep incline leading to the abyss. The stone road she followed ambled to the left along the flank of the Triarch and toward the base of the spire. The road was paved with tight-fitting, cemented stones, and there were low walls flanking either side.
The ground grew rougher around the path and Farris heard stones animating beyond the low wall. Some were slamming themselves into the wall or piling atop one another to climb it and sit there. They had no eyes, but Farris had the unnerving feeling they were watching her.
She couldn’t waste any time worrying about Riften or Sasha. Climbing up to the moon would already be a detour from her brother. The Paral-Zakdul hunters had to walk much farther than they had, so there should still be time, but it was impossible to measure the passing hours. Farris could feel the Darkness watching her and she didn’t know what it was capable of. Even without the deal, how could she turn away knowing she could save the entire land?
That is, if she even could. Farris had been so sure of her power when it first began to bloom, but after her last experience in the essence world she had doubts. Why did her Guide tempt her into staying? Was it a test, or did he really not believe in her any longer? She had called to the fire more than was strictly necessary to show the others, but that couldn’t have been enough reason to lose faith in her.
There was nothing for it except to try. She would be more prepared for the struggle next time she visited the essence world and wouldn’t allow herself to rest there again. After she replaced the fire of life she wouldn’t use the words any more, if she could help it. The terrible burning of her skin was a constant reminder of the price of her power.
Farris made it all the way to the base of the spire before a large boulder rolled straight through the low wall and planted itself directly in front of her. Part of the rock broke off to reveal a hollow space filled with jagged blue crystals. This arranged itself into a mouth. Other small stones cracked and filled its eye sockets with rich purple gems. Two ponderous rocky slabs swung loudly into place to form its jutting brow, and it glared at her without a hint of welcome.
“Funny fragile meat creature,” it mumbled. “So hasty, so jumpy. Why do you hurry so?”
“I have to get through! Please don’t sit there,” Farris said. Any delay now would make missing her brother at the abyss all the more likely.
“The earth is never in a hurry. Neither are the mountains. As we are, so have we always been, and so we shall remain.”
“Well I’m not a mountain so let me through.” She looked to the low rock walls on either side of her. Maybe she could hop over and go around? But the banging and shuffling of a small avalanche whirled beyond the wall. It would be even more difficult to walk there. Piles of small rocks were rolling together. Some of them took the shape of faces, although they were deformed and fearsome, looking like a child had tried to build faces from his blocks but kept mixing up the pieces.
“Exactly!” the deep voice said. “You’re not a mountain, so you shouldn’t be here.”
This conversation was going nowhere fast. Farris strained to push her weary legs toward the orator, thinking to leap over the stone head. It anticipated her move and spat a shower of gravel like shrapnel into the ground, and Farris was forced to pull up short.
“Reckless, impatient, rude,” the creature rumbled. “My name is Olong Tang Sor, and I am a stone broken from, and the voice of, the venerable Triarch the Sanguine. Why are you walking upon my body?”
Should she tell the truth? Farris couldn’t think of any other excuse for being here. The Darkness was eager to be put to rest, so perhaps the mountain would feel the same. “I’m going to put out the fire of the Unwaxen Moon and put the land to sleep.”
“Oh, oh. Indeed,” rumbled Olong Tang Sor. “Then the mountain would lose its voice, and I would lose my form and thought and very being. This is a serious matter, so give me time to think.”
“And how long will that take?” Farris crossed her arms. If she called to Elestar again perhaps she could impress it with her power. No—not if she had to stop the fire of life. She didn’t dare risk getting trapped there any more than necessary. But what else could she do?
“It has taken ten thousand years for this mountain to be carved from the water that drips from above,” Olang Tang Sor said. “It has been hundreds of years since we have stirred. Why should it take less for the next transformation to occur?”
“But you can’t!” Farris was almost in tears. Her body hurt so badly and she was so tired. What could she do without her power? What was she compared to all of the terrible monsters and ancient beings in this world? But she only learned the name of fire a short while ago. She’d managed without it her whole life, so she couldn’t rely on it now. Breathing deeply, she tried to bring the same tranquility about her mind without using the word.
“Why not, little one?” the stone head asked.
It reminded Farris of when the Darkness began listening to her. It wanted an answer. Just because it’s old and big doesn’t mean it can’t be confused and lost. Farris just had to lead the way. What knowledge could she possibly have that this ancient being didn’t though? It had lived and existed for thousands of years … but what had it done in that time? Hadn’t she done so much more, and traveled farther, and felt more deeply than it ever would? Maybe she wasn’t as powerful as this eternal mountain, but she was more alive.
“Life doesn’t endure like that,” Farris said. “You’ve all been enchanted here so you move around and talk, but that isn’t the same thing as truly being alive. Life is beautiful because it is fleeting. This moment will be gone, and it will become part of who I am. I grow, I learn, I hurt, and I work so hard to keep others from hurting too. I only move because I have purpose, and I’m in a hurry because my actions matter. Why should you be alive? You don’t change, or love, or want. You don’t need to eat or sleep; you feel no pleasure or pain. I know how you must feel because I felt the same thing from the Darkness. You’re utterly lost, and as the hours stretch into forever that will never change. Living without a reason is worse than being dead. I can’t give you a reason, but I can give you rest, and all of that endless waiting will finally have ended.”
Olang Tang Sor shifted its gaze right and left to the host of smaller rocks listening. They were nodding with her words. The stone head turned back to Farris and grinned its crystalline smile.
“The stones of the world are not blind, nor silent, nor alone. The sand of the waters of the Osdillion saw you, and they spoke to the pebbled shore. The shore spoke to the bones of the earth that led into the foothills. Those hills spoke to the mountains, and those mountains spoke to me. The Darkspeaker and the Lightbringer has come, and we welcome the peace brought by her words. We are ashamed of this life forced upon us. Let us be rock and stone again, unflinching and unshaken. Go in peace, child of flesh. You have our blessing.”
With a great sigh the stones piled around the walls let themselves slide back to the earth. The massive head of Olang Tang Sor rolled to the side, and Farris and Bumble were allowed to pass.
“I was wrong to think you stumbled upon the words of power at random,” Gloria said. “You speak with wisdom beyond your years. Javel would be pleased to know one such as yourself has begun to follow his way.”
Farris allowed herself a smile, the praise not diminished in the least coming from a fish. There was nothing more to bar her way, and it was not long before Farris set her feet upon the first steps of the spire with Bumble trotting along behind her. The stairs were narrow, but if she was careful she should be safe. Farris began the climb with confidence, but she was no more than two stories into the air when she looked down and her head reeled. Dizziness, and nausea, and fear crept from her stomach into her entire body. She stood amidst the open air, and if one of the stairs was to crack or she misstepped half a pace, she would plummet. She pressed herself a little tighter to the wall and tried to steady herself.
“What are you waiting for?” Gloria asked.
“I didn’t think I would be afraid again,” Farris said, “not after my passage through the dark. I saw fear before me like a veil, and I passed through it to the other side. But now I’m looking at the height above me and the fall below, and I don’t know if I can make it. Why am I still afraid?”
She spoke the last words angrily, and clenched her fists at her sides. Farris had never liked heights and wouldn’t even climb into the hills when she could avoid it. She couldn’t still be that same scared girl she was before she left. So much had changed since then, it seemed ridiculous that this part of her stayed the same. She took another step upward and stopped once more as her eyes traced the ground below and her heart raced. How could she have the strength to return from the essence world, but couldn’t even stop her own mind from imagining what it would feel like to be thrown to the ground?
“Enlightenment is not a thought, it is a deed,” Gloria replied. “It is not done once, but repeated through every waking moment of your life.”
“Is that a proverb among fish?” Farris asked wryly.
“It is amongst this fish,” Gloria replied. “In your awakening you have identified the struggle of fear, but have not beaten it. Your progress simply means you know fear can be overcome, and that alone should be a comfort. Climb the stair, Farris. Fear can do no more harm than you let it.”
“That was only one test I had to pass before,” Farris replied. “And that took everything I had. There are a million steps to the top. I can’t go through that for each one!”
“But you can take one step,” Gloria said.
Farris nodded, and she took another step. This time she did not look down. Her feet shook the moment they left the stair and she felt lightheaded at once. She was forced to press herself against the spire once more.
“I’m just as nervous as I was before!”
“Exactly!” Gloria cried in triumph.
“Exactly what?” Why was she even listening to a fish?
“You made the step. As long as you can make one step, then you can make the journey no matter the distance or the obstacles. You will still be afraid, but you already made the step when you were afraid. In passing through fear you have learned it is possible to pass, and as long as each step is possible the journey is probable. Do it again now.”
Farris took another step, and she found herself no more courageous in this than the last. She took another after that, and kept her eyes on her feet, not letting either stray near the edge. One stair at a time. At first she thought it would be easier the farther she went, as she would grow accustomed to the fear. It did not, and her mind convinced her it would now become harder as she rose higher above the ground and the fall became more terrible. She did not notice either to be true as she fell into an endless rhythm of panic and relief as she raised her feet and set them down. She climbed this way for a long time, and all thoughts left her head but the mindless pace of one step at a time upon the stone.
The constant turn of the spiral stair and the rhythm in her head led her into a trance. A drop of water landed on her face, breaking the spell. She wiped it from her cheek and looked at it lying on the back of her hand. It sparkled brightly with the rays of the Unwaxen Moon shining directly overhead, and she thought she could see tiny dark shapes swimming through it. Several more drops fell around her. She stood still and looked up at the bulbous head of the moon.
The sky of the world was obscured by the globe, but there was a trickle of water lancing off the moon to fall directly about her, shimmering like diamonds as it plummeted. She laughed at its beauty and raised her hands to it. The laughter strangled in her throat as soon as it had formed.[_ It was raining again!_]
“What’s the matter?” Gloria asked. “Why have we stopped?”
“The rain has come again,” Farris said. “The Vaziers will be awake!”
Farris looked all about her, hoping against reason there would be some shelter on the bare face of the spire. She had passed no alcoves, and there were still many steps above her. Her darting gaze then strayed downward. The incredible drop changed from a half-imagined abstraction to an inescapable reality. Any fall from here would be fatal. The light flooded around her to leave a shadow giant on the ground below.
She imagined herself falling, hitting every thorn and spike that covered the spire in her descent, and could not drive the thought from her mind. Every time she tried to refocus, the persistent terror flooded images of the sickening clutch of her stomach, the rushing wind, and the stone pummeling her skin and bones. She felt woozy and frail, and began to sway. She stumbled, flailing around her with madly groping hands to keep balance. Next she knew, she was sitting with her back pressed to the rough stone of the spire. She drew her knees to her chest in an effort to get as far away from the ledge as she possibly could. She couldn’t keep doing this. She couldn’t go any farther.
“You can’t stop!” Gloria said. “They’ll take some time to drink the water, so you’re not in danger yet. You have time to make it. How far to the top?”
Farris strained to stand, but her strength fled at once. She tried again, managing to rise into a kneel before a madding screech rent the air. She fell back against the wall, shaking her head. The Vaziers were already out there. She couldn’t turn back. She couldn’t go on. Even her word of power wouldn’t do anything here.
“I can’t, I can’t,” she mumbled.
“They’re screeching already?” Gloria asked. “Why do they move so quickly? The rain must have fallen for some time already, why didn’t you say anything?”
“I didn’t notice it until now! The moon kept the water off me, and I couldn’t look at the ground from up here! It’s too late now.”
“It is not too late, so long as you can take a step—”
“No more steps!” Farris shouted. “No more tests, no more monsters, no more talking Darkness! I don’t belong here, but I can’t go. Take me home, Gloria! If you can grant wishes, take me home!”
The rush of scything talons ripped the air and the tangled clash of wings grew louder by the second. Out of the frenzy and chaos a shriek emerged, and there was the scent of blood in the air.
“No!” cried a weak voice, barely above a whisper.
Farris looked about her. It sounded like the Darkness, but all shadows were banished by the radiant moon overhead. Then she looked down and saw her own shadow. It was still standing while she remained crouched against the wall.
“You want peace, and you want quiet,” spoke the shadow. “Don’t you think I wish the same? You are my peace, girl, you are my quiet. There has been enough of this madness of life, let it be done. Climb the stair, Farris, and end us all.”
“Help me then,” she replied. “If you want me to put out the fire you must help me. I can’t climb through a cloud of Vaziers.”
“Are you afraid now, when you weren’t even afraid of us? Don’t tell me a tower and a bird are worse than the Darkness. We shall be offended!” The Darkness laughed, although its attempt at arrogance only revealed weariness. “We cannot help you, Farris, not so close to the Unwaxen Moon. Though the fire gives us life, the light was brought to keep us at bay and this it still does. You have passed through worse things than this, Farris, and will endure worse still before you are home. You sang to keep us at bay, why not sing again? You called to your fire and you were safe, why do you not call again?”
“I can’t keep calling it,” Farris said. It was tempting, but she mustn’t give in. “I would be so happy to get away from here I wouldn’t ever come back.”
“Your voice did not shake like that before me,” the Darkness said. Its whisper was even quieter now. “Perhaps you should have been more afraid of me. Perhaps you should have died then and not given me this false hope.”
The Darkness couldn’t help her. Would her Guide? Or did it feel the same way—just waiting for her to die and prove it was right about her? That she couldn’t save it—couldn’t even save herself. Her grandmother was right, the Wyrd Sisters were right—the Dark and her Guide—none of them believed she could make it. Who was she to prove any of them wrong?
Her shadow stooped and huddled with its hands stretched outward, reflecting Farris’s own stance once more.
The Vaziers were gathering thickly around her tower now. One of them heard her shouts and it wheeled away from the rest of the flock. It spun in dizzying loops toward her with long spines bristling along the ridges of its wings. Razor talons slashed the air as though it were dragging itself closer. Farris watched it with dead eyes. Her back was pressed to the tower and she had nowhere to run.
Rubark Nesai, the heart of stone, was the first essence I named. I thought it was the nature of my earthen tomb that gave the word strength. Then I grew, and I thought it was my own nature giving it strength. Now I am grown, and know Rubark does not need me to be strong.
-Lolaran Malhalion, the Ghost of God
“I’m here, Farris! I’m coming!” Sasha shouted from below.
His voice gave Farris just enough strength to raise her arms and fend off the raking talons that dove at her. She felt one of them dig deep into her forearm, setting her burned skin on fire again. The twisted mass of leathery wings and spines threw itself back into the air and prepared to lunge at her once more.
“Why are you here?” Farris shouted, although she could not yet see him around the winding stair. He was supposed to be gone. He wasn’t supposed to be on this journey for her. Farris had never been so glad of a lie in her life.
“Why am I anywhere? I’m here for you, Farisky,” Sasha said. His voice was much closer now.
Before the bird could dive again, he was beside her. The Vazier sped in with a glint of pale light on its outstretched talons. Sasha pulled his carving knife from his boot and held it out with a locked arm.
The beast could not check its plummet in time, although perhaps it chose not to in its madness, and impaled itself so powerfully upon the knife that Sasha’s arm was buried in the creature up to his elbow. The Vazier writhed about, still striking weakly with its twitching spines even in death. Disgusted, Sasha put his boot against it and slid the creature from him. The Vazier toppled end over end from the side of the tower. Before it even hit the ground its fellows were already ravaging its corpse.
“I don’t understand. You were supposed to watch the abyss!” Farris said. “What about my brother?”
“Riften is staying to watch,” Sasha said. “And so what if Tom passes? I would sooner descend through all the shells of the world with you beside me than return home now without you. There’s no time. We have to reach the top before more Vaziers come!”
Sasha grabbed Farris’s hand, and in her shock she allowed herself to be brought to her feet and led up the stair. Though Sasha’s arm had penetrated deep into the creature, there was no blood on it; only sap and broken twigs clung to him. Before her wits were gathered they were already at a full run, and with her hand in his strong grip she could not slow her pace even if she wanted to. The two of them—with Bumble close behind—raced up the remainder of the tower. Twice more Vaziers swooped at them, and twice more Sasha brandished his knife and fended them off.
…[_ he won’t return home without me. _]It was odd to Farris that with all of this fear and danger, Sasha’s words and her hand within his were all she could register. It reminded Farris of her own words when she told the Wyrd sisters there would be no home without Tom. How could she still mean the world to this man, even after how coldly she brushed him away? How could she have forgotten someone so easily when now she couldn’t think of anything else?
The stairs relented one step, one leap, one panicked bound at a time. They cleared the final one and bolted across the stone platform at the very top of the tower. The stair continued on from there, but it left the tower and led directly into the Unwaxen Moon. Farris couldn’t tell what lay beyond; the light pouring from its entrance consumed her vision. No time to go cautiously now—the Vaziers were swooping again. Farris and Sasha barely slowed their pace as they sped straight into the moon.
All the screams and chaos outside were dampened as soon as they entered the moon. They slowed to a walk, gasping for air. Every breath Farris drew tingled inside her, sparkling pleasantly as she swallowed. Her ragged lungs drew the air in more easily with every breath. There was an immediate sense of safety and vitality here. Farris watched with delight as her burned skin healed before her eyes.
They both laughed aloud and couldn’t quite understand why, and in seeing each other laugh they laughed all the harder until the sparkling air filled and sated their entire bodies. All of their wounds closed, and Farris felt as rested as though she had just woken from a glorious nap.
The laughter faded into smiles and they looked around with open mouths. Farris’s eyes were beginning to adjust to the bright light. The entire moon was completely hollow, opening around them like a massive, perfectly spherical cavern. The walls were a natural porous rock that allowed the light to flow outward. Suspended above them was a ball of pale fire which burned the air and sent radiant sparks in all directions to shower gently and unheated about them like falling stars.
Farris spoke softly to break the silence. “What exactly did you mean when you said you were here for me?”
“I’m sorry,” Sasha said, bowing his head for a moment before looking up again. “If you really don’t know me, then I can’t hold that against you. It isn’t the strangest thing to happen in this new world, but it’s the hardest for me to believe. It doesn’t really matter who I was, who we were. I don’t know whether or not I know you, but I’m not going to let anything happen to you until I know you again.”
“What changed your mind?” Farris asked. She couldn’t tell whether it was the glowing light in here, but she couldn’t tear her eyes from his face.
“I made it all the way to the abyss before the rain started falling. I knew you were in danger, and you were all I could think about. I ran the whole way, hating myself for how I left. It won’t happen again, I promise. I’ll never leave you again.”
Before Farris could reply, Sasha drew the necklace from around her neck. Her protest died in her throat as she watched his deft movements. He turned the stem of the flower and before her eyes small gears whirred quietly to let the petals blossom and dance around one another as a magnificent blossom grew.
“I never knew it did that!” Farris said in wonder, tilting her head to peer at the tiny clockwork. “I’ve never seen something built look so alive!”
“You said the same thing the first time,” Sasha chuckled sadly. “This is what I wanted to show you before. I made this for you in another life. Seeing you in this new world—how strong you’ve been and how brave you are—you really are a new person. I realized if I want you to know me again then I shouldn’t be angry at you for what you’ve forgotten, or else all of me you’ll know is from my anger. I will stay with you, and protect you, because that’s the part of me I want you to know again.”
Her eyes darted from the flower to look at Sasha. She had never seen him like this—bathed in light and life. His eyes were bright and playful, his jaw hard and strong. There was such a simple confidence in the way he spoke. He really meant everything he said. She couldn’t stop smiling.
He handed the flower back to her. Farris took it and lifted it up to peer into the mechanism from underneath. One of the sparks from the fire of life alighted in the flower, and with a whirr the clockwork stopped. Farris cried in dismay. The flower was so much more precious to her now, she couldn’t have broken it already! She turned the stem the other way to wind it again, feeling it turn soft and subtle beneath her fingers. A wonderful aroma floated from the flower, and Farris almost dropped it. The petals bent gracefully, and they were silken under her touch. Though it still resembled the many shades of wood, she now held a living flower in her hands.
“It’s come to life!” she giggled. “What a strange flower though. What should it be named?”
“A Paffadilly, of course.” Sasha laughed. “I’ve always thought it sounded like a flower name.”
Farris’s face went red to hear her secret name spoken aloud. That was proof then. She’d never told that name to anyone—not even her father or her brother. Sasha really had known her once. A wave of incredible guilt and shame overcame her; guilt for how she had treated Sasha, shame for having forgotten him.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that,” Sasha said quickly. Silently she offered the flower back to him. She tried to imagine herself doing the same at home. Perhaps she already had a dozen times before. She studied his face, wondering whether it would seem as kind if it were helping her carry water. She might never know the person he used to be, but she would never forget the one he was now.
Sasha shook his head. “It was a gift, you must keep it.”
“You gave me a wooden flower, now I’m giving you a living one back as my gift to you. I’m sorry, Sasha. I don’t know how this could have happened. Of course I know who you are.”
“You remember me?” he cried, but she shook her head at once.
“I don’t remember you and I can’t say why that is. But I do know you now. I know you are the kind of person to risk his life to help me. I know you are brave, and strong, and gentle, and that is enough. I’m sorry for driving you away, but you saved my life in coming back. We’ll find Tom together, and the journey will be possible because you are with me. Take it now.”
Sasha took the flower, and as it was still strung on its length of chord, he placed it around his neck.
“Touching, touching,” purred a whisper, and both turned to see their shadows embrace and pull apart in a mockery of their owners. “But there is our matter to attend. The fire of life must be quenched.”
Farris nodded and looked into the frothing fire overhead. “Are you ready? You will be gone with the flame.”
“My dear,” the shadow said, sounding very old and tired, “we have been ready for all of our days. We aren’t meant to have a voice. We aren’t at peace with a voice. We’ve lasted all these years, and no good has come of us.”
“I think it’s noble, what you’re doing,” Sasha said to his shadow. “To disappear and take all the waking nightmares of this land with you. Thank you for all your help—once you saw what we were about, anyway. I’m sorry I didn’t trust you either. Do you have any last words to speak while you still can?”
“Nothing to speak, we have said too many words already.”
Farris slowly turned to face the fire above, but the shadow continued to speak nonetheless.
“There is no loneliness like nothingness. But Farris sang to us, and for the first time we can remember, the first time in our long and empty life, we found beauty. Let us sleep with our song, as you have woken us with your own.”
Farris stretched her hands out and looked into the sparkling flame above. She felt so much strength radiating from the fire and her mind was so calm she knew she could name the fire without becoming trapped. Besides, knowing Sasha was waiting for her made her want to come back as swiftly as possible. From behind the melancholy voice of the Darkness began to sing.
A whisper, just a whisper,
Somewhere in the space of time.
A rhyme, just a rhyme,
Somewhere in the back of my mind.
I find, if I just find,
Somewhere to go and to call mine.
I’m blind, because I’m blind,
I never knew the stars aligned.
A word, just a word,
So that all the world will hear me.
A cry, just a cry,
Of birds above the sea.
A shout, just a shout,
Before the sky has burned out.
A roar, let me roar,
Before they have to do without.
I am the whisper in the darkness,
Before the light has yet grown wise.
I show myself in starkness,
But I’m the one who dies.
I am the shouting of the masses,
When they do not wish to see.
I am roaring water kept in glasses,
That will not set me free.
So through the world past it,
And to the other side.
Through ashes you will cast it,
And death will be my pride.
You will go beneath the dark,
And in the dark you wait.
And with the singing of the lark,
The darkness takes its fate.
The final words died out, and nothing could be heard but the dull screeches outside and the soft flutter of showering sparks. Farris closed her eyes and opened them to find the soft white light everywhere.
“My champion is a fighter,” laughed the Guide’s voice.
Farris ignored it. She bent all her mind back towards Sasha now. The things he had said—the way he came after her. He must have been burned as badly as her, or worse if he had tried to protect her. He ran all that way through the rain and the Vaziers without hesitation to save her. He really did know her—he really did care for her—and had been traveling all this time with a broken heart while she turned him away. Swelled with emotion, her eyes opened again. She was back inside the Unwaxen Moon.
“I name thee, Elestar Varai, fire of life: quench your flames. I name thee, Elestar Porsai, fire of light: fill the Unwaxen Moon until the end of days.” She hadn’t known the word for the fire of life until she looked into it, but as soon as she spoke she knew it to be true. She had understood what it was to be alive, and what separated her from the animate objects. With her understanding came clarity, and through her clarity flowed power.
A whistling breath spread through all the land and like a closing eye the ball of fire above them winked out. A fierce gust of wind blew past and there was the smallest hint of the words ‘thank you’ being blown amongst them. The screeches outside ceased at once, and a perfect stillness and honest darkness descended upon the whole shell. Then the eye opened again with brilliant white fire like a new sun was born below the earth. Farris gave off a long sigh, and the world sighed again in unison. She was at peace, and so was the land.
[_I fell once from the sky, and a second time into the ground. Now I think it is my fate to fall. Is there anywhere left to go below the center of the earth? Perhaps my body has fallen as far as it can go, and it is time for my spirit to leap. _]
[_-Nidhoggdrasil, the World Serpent _]
A pleasant aroma lingered in the air around Farris and Sasha, wafting from the wooden Paffadilly flower bound around Sasha’s neck. Though the fire of life had been extinguished, the spark still smoldered where it settled within its blossom, and the flower remained a living thing that moved beneath his touch. Bearing this as their trophy, the two walked down the stair leading from the hollow moon onto the stone platform at the top of the spire. Bumble emerged behind them, her fur twice as thick and fluffy with the thanks of the energizing light.
The world was brighter now. The rays of the white fire Farris had conjured looked almost like sunlight as they spilled from the porous moon. They could clearly see the lands beyond: rich forests bearing their fruit without malice, verdant grasslands stretching around the still waters of the lake, and ancient fields exposed and fallow beneath the peaceful hills. The land stretched as far and wide as the world above the earth, and a myriad of new mountains and fields appeared that were once cloaked in darkness. Triarch the Sanguine and the dancing peaks lay still and swayed no more, and all across the flanks of the neighboring mountains torches could be seen winking out.
In the distance, Farris could see the Gracken spilling from their homes to look in awe at the sky. They were walking openly for the first time without fear. Rivers of them spilled towards the spire from all around. Farris knew they did not march as soldiers but as pilgrims, and she was unafraid.
Farris, Sasha, and Bumble descended the spiral stair. The air around them was empty and quiet. The spikes had withdrawn from the tower to leave it smooth and bare, and the screeching Vaziers were silenced. Piles of quite ordinary branches and brambles were scattered around the base of the tower where they’d fallen. Even the stairway held no fear for Farris anymore, although perhaps the sparkling energy that still radiated throughout her body aided in that.
It was still a long climb down, but the blessing of the fire of life had given them great vitality and kept them moving. Along the descent Farris saw a long trail of faint red footprints. They were too big to be her own—they must be Sasha’s. Sprinting on feet covered with cuts from the rocks must have opened fresh wounds, but he still did it to save her. She smiled and took his hand as they walked. By the time they reached the tower’s base the first Gracken were already beginning to arrive.
There was a band of twenty that arrived first. They were armed with the same pole-arms the other guards used and were garnished with the same frightening red masks. The one who led them had such massive mask it had to be supported by two others who flanked him, and it leered at them now with its giant tusks and savage glare.
“What has the Darkspeaker done?” asked the giant mask. “Where have the voices gone?”
“If I’m the Darkspeaker, then it is only because I speak instead of the Dark rather than for it,” Farris replied. “It won’t trouble you anymore. The lands below the moon are safe, and the forests and fields are yours to harvest.”
“Darkspeaker, Lightbringer!” the Gracken cried as one, and they flung their long spears before her with a clatter.
The giant mask spoke on. “I am Barrister the Eternal, and you are welcome here. We have never seen a light like this, nor looked into shadows without lighting torches. We have never been bold enough to walk beneath the open sky in rain, and it is beautiful to see. We thank you, and I apologize for any cruel words spoken by my people. You are worthy to walk my land, more so than any who have come before. Come with me to my court, and we shall feast in your honor!”
“I don’t wish for any celebration,” Farris said. The fire of life had given her so much strength she didn’t even feel hungry. “We’re only passing through the land, and I must be back to the abyss at once before my brother arrives. Thank you, but if you wish to honor me, then don’t try to delay us!”
Gloria whispered something from within Bumble, and Farris stooped low to hear.
“Do they still bear the masks of the fearful?”
Farris understood at once and stood. “I would also have you remove your masks. You have nothing to be frightened of anymore, and no one to frighten in return.”
There was some hesitation amongst the crowd, but the king pulled his mask off—with the assistance of his two helpers—and flung it to the ground on top of the spears. Without that toothsome visage he looked small and harmless, seeming an old man with his long white beard and golden crown resting atop his head. The king’s eyes were deeply sunken and his face was lined from countless years of worry and terror.
The Gracken behind laughed with good humor to look upon their fearsome leader as such. A cheer rose up, and each followed his example in throwing their own masks off. Their bodies were lean with large bulbous eyes that darted about them ceaselessly. Farris hoped they would grow fat and happy now. Knowing she allowed them to move into the fertile lands below filled her with pride. What good was following the way if she couldn’t use her power to help people? It was this pride—this love—this happiness which allowed her to come back from the essence world.
Farris could not stay to rejoice, however, and at her insistence they began their trek toward the abyss. The rocks did nothing to bar her way and the path was clear. Behind them more of the Gracken continued to arrive at the base of the spire all the time, and seeing the precedent of their king they too threw off their masks and put down their weapons.
The original group of twenty retrieved their weapons and accompanied Farris and Sasha as an honor guard. A host of armed soldiers would surely turn the battle to save Tom.
The procession marched on the clean-washed stones through the light drizzle of rain. Even the drops from above now shone pure and clear, the living fear turned poison in them banished as well. They crossed the incline Sasha and Riften had taken before. They must be close to the abyss now.
The final stair was crossed, and it was hard for Farris to be worried about anything in the company of such a joyous procession. They cheered and laughed and sang songs around her. Farris found herself humming a tune as well, but it was the farewell from the Darkness that stuck with her. How strange for a being to be aware enough to recognize its own evil, but not strong enough to change courses. Perhaps it is only the truly living who can choose their fates. She was never supposed to travel through the earth, but she had found a way.
The company mounted the final steps over the ridge of Triarch the Sanguine and now stood atop its mount. There was a wide stone pathway circling the missing mountaintop, and in the center lay the abyss. It must have been a half-mile across, and its opening was illuminated by the new light of the moon shining almost directly overhead.
The light was strong here, but even it faltered as it burned into the abyss. Before the void Farris’s new sun appeared no more than a dusky candle in the sky. The pale rays of light were splashed across the jagged rocks lining the abominable descent and soon were lost in the inky blackness that stretched far beyond light or understanding. A circular stairway gouged through the mountain until that too was lost somewhere in the penumbra of shadow.
The air felt cold and drew softly into it as though a distant whisper was calling Farris inward. At the same time, an innate abhorrence repelled her from drawing near. The abyss was death—not merely a fear of death, but a connection with it so palpable that the afterlife and all its infinite darkness lay stretched directly before her. Farris swallowed hard. She had to find her brother before he descended, or he would be gone forever.
Farris hoped she would never have to enter that pit. Even more than the essence world, it looked like a place where one would never escape. The Gracken silenced their cheers and whispered nervously to one another. The abyss must hold an old terror in their minds that would not be dispelled by the new sun. They would not abandon their savior, though, and continued to reluctantly march alongside Farris and Sasha.
Sasha gestured to a little stone guard house beside the pit where he had left Riften and dashed out into the rain. There was no sign of the Paral-Zakdul, and Farris alternated between relief and worry at this. As they approached Farris half expected to see Tom running out of the house to embrace her. The next moment she pictured his small lifeless body slipping into the dark and bouncing from one stone to the next. Farris made a high anxious noise and hurried her pace.
Outside the building were many piles of branches and brambles that had once been scything Vaziers. Several of them were broken and splintered, and around them the earth was stained darker than the rain-kissed ground. Farris hesitated. What could this mean? Were the hunters attacked? Had Tom already gone? Where was Riften? Sasha ran past her to enter the house, and Farris hurried to join him. Within they found Riften sound asleep with his back to the wall.
“To think I was worried about him!” Farris said, laughing with relief. “He must have been sleeping while the Vaziers tore each other apart outside.”
Farris cut herself off when she saw two more forms of broken branches within the room. They looked like skeletons, as twisted in death as they were in life. Sasha knelt beside Riften and shook him lightly, prompting the Paral-Zakdul to turn his head groggily and open one eye. The other side of his face was covered with blood, and there was a deep cut on his shoulder. A trio of evenly spaced gashes stretched all the way from his cheek down his neck and chest. Riften smiled grimly when he saw them.
“It’s bright outside,” Riften said. “I guess you’ve done your part. I’m sorry I can’t boast the same.”
“What happened?” Farris asked. Had he been wounded by the Vaziers or the hunters? Had she already lost Tom? Her hands wrung ’round each other in anxious anticipation. Bumble butted her head softly against Riften’s chest, whimpering meekly.
King Barrister arrived and was quick to order ointments and bandages from his supplies. One of the Gracken began treating Riften while they spoke.
“I weathered a storm, and it weathered me,” Riften replied. “I took shelter in here for as long as I could, and the Vaziers didn’t seem to know where I was. I heard them battling outside, and they were ravaging each other in a dreadful way.”
“Then how did you get hurt?” Sasha asked.
“It was no more than a half-hour after you left when I heard a change in their cries. I looked out and saw the shining Byzantian of my people. They moved swifter than I supposed, or perhaps we had slept longer. Yes—they had Tom with them, and he was all right,” Riften added to still Farris’s agitation. “The Vaziers swooped at them several times, but they could not pierce the Byzantian armor, and the hunters kept Tom safe. They were making directly for the stair in the abyss, and I couldn’t slow them from in here. I left the shelter and demanded they give me the boy. They refused.”
“Why didn’t you take them by surprise?” Sasha asked. “You couldn’t beat them alone, and of course they would refuse. The Byzantian armor holds them to their task, so they don’t have a choice.”
“The armor?” Riften looked confused for a moment, then his eyes opened wide. “Yes, of course, the imperative set upon the armor. They had already spotted me, and the chance for surprise was gone. I fought with them then, but they were three in armor and I was one bare. I received this slash to my shoulder and the Vaziers scented the blood and took notice of me. A swarm of them descended, and in that tangle of wings and spines I was forced back to the cover of my shelter where I slew them.
“I was pinned here for a long while, until just when I didn’t think I would ever make it out the awful things dropped into so much wood. By then the hunters were gone, and I didn’t have the strength to pursue. Tom has descended, and he is gone from you. I am sorry, but I have failed. Hollow words ring even duller after hollow deeds.”
Farris heard herself say she didn’t blame him, and that she was thankful he had tried against such odds. But it was Farris who felt hollow after the account, and though her heart had leapt at the news of her brother, she now sank to the ground beside Riften and buried her head in her hands. A wave of guilt came over her that she had tried to put from her mind before, and she knew she had failed to be there for her brother a second time.
[_It’s not the same as before! _]She wasn’t being selfish this time. She was trying to help the Darkness, and the Gracken, and the whole land. Wasn’t she? Had she delayed on purpose to take the easier route? Had she given into the Darkness instead of fighting through it? Going after her brother and leaving her friends to the Darkness—that would have been the selfish path. So why did it feel as though she hadn’t even tried?
Farris felt Sasha’s arm around her, but the pressure felt insubstantial—as though the body he held was not her own, and she drew away at once. She did not lift her face from her hands until she heard Sasha speak.
“King Barrister, you said your people would aid us if they could?” Sasha asked. “Then you must prepare supplies for us at once. We will need lanterns, and rope, and packs with food for as many days as we can carry. Tom has gone beyond our grasp, but not our reach.”
“You can’t mean to descend into the abyss!” The king protested, his sunken eyes bulging in distress. “No one has traveled below in many lives of the Gracken! There are things that crawl and slither and rend and tear, nasty things—brutal things! We are sorry for your loss, but to throw away your own lives for grief is a sorry payment. The abyss hides only death.”
“The abyss leads to my home,” Riften said, “so I will not have you say no good! It’s true our road becomes terrible, but it is still our road and our feet to follow it. Farris, I will go with you for as long as he remains in captivity.”
“As will I,” Sasha said, his lips pressing into a thin line. Then he looked to the king. “Now please prepare us if your word holds true!” King Barrister bent his small hairy head to the floor and dashed out at once.
“I suppose I’ll go too,” Gloria grumbled. “Not like I have a choice. Not like anyone asked if I would like to.”
Farris allowed a smile in spite of herself, and she nodded her head. She couldn’t find words to thank them. She knew, of course, she would follow Tom through any number of shadows and beasts and worlds that lay between them. But to hear them assert the same … Her anguish didn’t come from losing Tom, for she had not for a moment given him up; she had despaired at having lost her comrades who had already helped her so much. In knowing they would not abandon her, and that she would not abandon Tom, she had not lost anything yet.
The Gracken soldiers were already going through their gear to draw forth supplies for the journey, and the king had sent a runner back towards the cities in search of additional tools. Farris was eager to begin at once. She still felt strong from the fire of life, and from Riften’s accounting the Paral-Zakdul could not be much more than an hour ahead of them. The king assured her she must wait though.
Reports came in from more of the arriving Gracken that the Paral-Zakdul were spotted moving through the shell earlier at the western gate. They were moving at such a great pace they could not hope to be overtaken on foot. Sasha asked what options there were besides walking, but the king only smiled and said they needn’t wait long.
The bright light of the newly kindled moon hid nothing, and long before their gift arrived it was spotted meandering up the mountain paths. It was a wide flat boat—or so Farris supposed, as she had only heard of them in stories. It had a graceful curve at each of its four corners, which rose up into four evenly spaced figureheads of a rising serpent. Imposing wooden wheels clanked and clonked from a fair distance away, and the companions could see another large band of soldiers pulling it by long tendrils of rope.
The ship had a tall wooden mast in the center that was bare of sail, and the vessel filled the entire path. Whenever it reached a set of stairs it had to be set upon the backs of the Gracken who hoisted it to walk on.
“This is the Vindenri, the Windrider,” the king said to them. “It has long been in my possession, but none of our kind has had need or desire to travel the abyss in a very long time. It will sail you downward at a much greater pace than the winding stair, and you will catch up to those demons in no time. Laden inside are hearty provisions to last you several weeks, for the return journey may be long. There will be oil for burning lanterns, and rope, and sharp-edged weapons that may serve you well in the days to come. I have even ordered for freshly cut grass to be packed around the floor, both for comfort as well as food for your peculiar pet. You cannot imagine the service you have done for us, Darkspeaker, and I will not let it be said the generosity of a king is any less.”
“How can we possibly sail on air and shadow alone?” Farris asked. “We should plummet like a rock if we rolled over the edge!”
“Plummet like a feather! Like a feather,” insisted the old king, bowing low again. “There is a sail which will catch the air above you and cushion your journey. You must realize this is a great gift indeed, for once sailed the Vindenri will not return to us. The wind will catch you in your fall, but I’m afraid you must take the stair on your return. I wish it be known though,” and he addressed his own people as much as he did the travelers, “that I rule with an open hand as well as a closed fist.”
“We thank you graciously!” Farris bowed in return. “I promise we will stop and pay our respects properly on the return.”
“You may find allies along the way, but I would not readily trust any besides those you bring with you. Even them you should watch!”
At that the king eyed Riften for a moment. Riften winked at the king and blew him a kiss, to which the old man scowled and blushed.
By the time the Vindenri arrived, all the provisions had been prepared. The Gracken released the ropes they had pulled the craft by, using them to fasten a huge cloth to the mast. The ropes issued from the mouths of the wooden serpents carved into each corner of the craft, and together provided a massive parachute for the ship. It was wheeled to the very edge of the abyss before a small wooden door was opened in its side.
The Gracken proceeded to fill the vessel with piles of neatly wrapped paper bags as well as many canisters of sloshing liquid and labeled boxes. The companions thanked them a last time and allowed themselves to be ushered inside the vessel. King Barrister saluted, and the rows of Gracken behind him did likewise.
“The vessel may be steered by these four wheels, one on each side,” Barrister said. “If you turn one side, the sail above will crinkle and take less air, so it will dip and veer in that direction. You must always turn gently, and always be vigilant that you do not drift too near one side or the other. The abyss drops straight down at first, but there are times when it swerves from side to side as the serpent writhed, and you must turn with it. Go now, sail lightly, shine brightly. The dark is no danger to you now. We will celebrate your return, and three chairs will be left open at my table until you are there to fill them. Farewell!”
With that the king brought his saluting hand down with a chop, and the four waiting Gracken put their shoulders against the ship. It gave a groan as the wheels bounced over the uneven crags at the edge of the abyss, and with a whoosh they dropped away altogether. The sail billowed out above and caught the wind, and the rush of panic that came with the fall was short-lived. Sasha grabbed the wheel on the right hand side and turned it, prompting the vessel to drift lightly into the center of the pit. The Gracken gave a cheer and a roar above them, and then they were gone. The mighty abyss opened up on all sides and accepted them into its darkness.
“I’m coming,” Farris whispered as the ship drifted downward into the depths of the world.
“Fear has passed,” Riften said in a sing-song voice, settling with his back against a side of the ship.
“Are you going to start weaving magic too?” Farris asked.
“If only I could! Though I would use it to make feasts instead of fire. The University of my people teaches that the world has seven layers as each living thing does, and they are divided the same way. The shell of fear has passed.”
“What is still to come?” Sasha asked.
Riften closed his eyes and began to chant in a sing song voice.
[_If fear can pass, let it pass. _]
[_And grow into a fire. _]
If pleasure tempts, it is a mask,
A demon’s claw for hire.
If illusion hides how time flies
Then don’t pretend it’s real
If love and loss are but lies
[_Their wounds will someday heal. _]
If truth is a golden sword
It will break when tested
If identity is but a mirror
It cannot yet be bested
But if attachment has been broken
And all the world is left behind
Then you will have but one token
Eternal freedom in your mind
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As a child I constructed a spaceship capable of superluminal speeds powered by a fusion core reactor. The submission was denied by NASA on the grounds that it was made entirely of legos. In high school I was told that I could do anything I wanted in life, while only being taught everything that I didn’t want to be. I probably deserved the detentions I received. In college I completed two bachelors of science in psychology and physiology and worked as a researching neuroscientist.
During my psychological studies it struck me as odd that I could learn so much about why humans behave without really understanding the intricacies of human nature. It occurred to me that I had learned more about the depths of human experience from reading Dostoyevsky than I ever had from my text books, and I was inspired to write professionally.
In my stories, scripts, and books I create surreal worlds which utilize abstract scenarios to illustrate my values. I am drawn to themes of individuality, personal enlightenment, and the subjective quest of defining our purpose. I glorify man’s will to overcome all obstacles within himself and the ability to find beauty in tragedy.
The fantasy story of enlightenment follows Farris as she travels through seven surreal worlds representing: fear, pleasure, illusion, death, truth, identity, and attachments. She is pursuing her younger brother Tom who was captured by monsters in order to fufill an ancient prophecy, and she must battle against fantastical monsters and overcome a tear a hole in reality itself to save him. Unlikely companions join her, from her faithful goat Bumble to Gloria the magical fish, a seemingly trustworthy dweller of the Brass City, and Sasha … a man who knows far more about her than he should. THE LAST MAN is the first volume in a trilogy of young adult fantasy adventures sure to delight fans of C.S. Lewis and Phillip Pullman.