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The Last Man BOOK 2

*THE LAST MAN *

BOOK 2

TOBIAS WADE

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.

The Last Man Book 2

Copyright © 2016 Tobias Wade

All rights reserved, including the right to

reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any

form.

Edited by Matt Larkin and Brenda J. Pierson

Graphic Design by Juhi Larkin

Incandescent Phoenix Books

incandescentphoenix.com

ISBN-13: 978-1535029957

3

_1 _

_If fear can pass, let it pass. _

_And grow into a fire. _

_2 _

_If pleasure tempts, it is a mask, _

[_A demon’s claw for hire. _]

_3 _

_If illusion hides how time flies _

[_Then don’t pretend it’s real _]

_4 _

_If love and loss are but lies _

_Their wounds will someday heal. _

_5 _

_If truth is a golden sword _

_It will break when tested _

_6 _

_If identity is but a mirror _

_It cannot yet be bested _

_7 _

_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 _

_ _

5

[*CHAPTER 1: THE FALL *]

_One may learn more about themselves in a moment of _

_chaos than a lifetime of perfect order. If we do not chance the _

[_fall, then how will we ever discover our wings? _]

-Nidhoggdrasil, the world serpent

reen light pulsed from the darkness. First a

Gsp ark, growing by measure of living flame that

fed upon itself. It doubled in size, and then doubled

again, twisting into a tendril of vibrant green malice

that tore through the abyss as silent lightning. A

scream echoed like thunder, and the world slipped

away.

“Pull harder!” Farris shouted, her thin white arms

trembling as they strained against the unrelenting

ropes of the veering ship. The lightning had

devastated the only sail which kept them aloft.

“We can’t stay up!” Sasha shouted back over the

storm of rushing wind.

“Someone get a light. We have to land, now!”

Riften ordered.

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THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

“Bahhh!” bleated Bumble with authority, doing

her best to help despite the severe handicap of being a

goat. Vindenri, the airship given to Farris and her

companions to sail down the abyss, plummeted

through the infinite darkness of the pit. Their lanterns

were extinguished from the speed of their fall, and the

only sense which allowed Farris to discern direction

was the clutching, burning panic in her stomach that

crawled its way up her throat. A splintering smash

shook Farris to her bones. The Vindenri bounced off

an unseen wall, tilting back again to scrape along the

ragged stones.

[_Stay calm. Don’t panic. Don’t throw up. _] Her words

echoed dully in her mind. Farris summoned the

resolve within her, closed her eyes, and willed the

secret Name of light to awaken.

“I Name thee…” Farris was engulfed with soft

white light, although it would be no use to her

companions as she had entered the Essence World

alone. Her body still fell through the darkness, but her

mind had stepped outside space and time as she

invoked the magic of Naming. She would bring the

light back to them, they would steer to safety, and

everyone would be all right.

Her Guide was here somewhere, she knew. The

ancient soul locked at the center of the earth, either

the beast Nidhoggdrasil or Lolaran the man who

slayed it, had helped her unlock her understanding of

the secret Names. She couldn’t hide here though; her

friends needed her, and the longer she stayed in the

Essence World, the harder it would be to return.

Besides, her Guide had tried to trap her here before,

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TOBIAS WADE

and she wanted as little to do with the scheming

creature as possible.

“My champion returns to me,” purred the

sonorous voice without sound.

Farris ignored it, already willing herself to return.

She just had to concentrate on her emotional

attachments to her friends, and the perfect tranquility

of this place would release her back to the chaos of

uncertainty that was mortal life.

“Are you so swift to leave Heaven? Don’t tell me

you’re angry I tested you. That is how you grow,

Farris, and I will need you to grow if you are to

survive your journey.”

“This is no Heaven, and I’m traveling to save my

brother, not you,” Farris returned, immediately

scolding herself for even replying. She shouldn’t get

involved. She can’t look for any excuses to stay in the

Essence World.

“You’re right of course, this isn’t Heaven,” the

Guide replied amicably.

Farris concentrated on the return. She thought of

Sasha’s handsome face and strong arms. He had given

everything to chase after her without hesitation. The

moment they’d shared under the falling light of the

Unwaxen Moon … he would never be a stranger to

her again.

“There is no pleasure here, only an escape from

pain. Do you want to know where the real Heaven

lies?” _Ignore him. _ Think about Riften, she told herself.

He was a prince of the Paral-Zakdul, and he betrayed

his king and people just so he could help her rescue

her brother. He almost died trying to fight off the

Paral-Zakdul hunters for her. She had to return …

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THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

“You should show more respect.” The Guide’s

voice became colder. “You will find Heaven in the

second shell, and you must be prepared for the

danger.”

We’re heading toward Heaven now? Her curiosity

overwhelmed her caution for the moment. “What’s

dangerous about Heaven?”

“Let me tell you a secret,” her Guide replied with

satisfaction. “Heaven is much more difficult to escape

than Hell, for in Hell you will still be armed with the

desire to escape. Heaven robs you even of that.”

[_If he’s just going to speak in more cryptic nonsense, then _]

_there is no point in listening. _ Farris turned her mind to her

brother, barely thirteen before he was named heir of

an ancient prophecy to open the tomb at the center of

the world. She hated herself for not believing any of it

until he had already been kidnapped. She had to find

him and make things right …

“All desires are granted in Heaven. Do not forget

that your wish to find your brother is simply another

desire. If you do not enter the second shell, you will

never find Tom again.”

Farris was back in the darkness. Her stomach

clutched in a knot of pain and fear. Bile rose in her

throat. Sasha was screaming something—Riften was

swearing.

“Elestar Porsai.” Farris called upon the secret

name of light. Soft white luminescence enveloped the

falling ship, revealing the twisting pit covered with

jagged stones and the terrible descent below. A

thousand tiny red crystals along the sides of the abyss

caught the light and reflected it like a blanket of

leering eyes.

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TOBIAS WADE

“About time,” Sasha said. “We’ve hit the wall

twice while you were daydreaming. The Vindenri is

falling apart.”

The three of them pulled on the ropes attached

to the tattered sail and managed to navigate the vessel

into the center of the abyss. At least they were safe

from the clawing stones out here. The wind still tore

through the hole in the sail in a rushing torrent

however, and they continued to fall at a sickening

rate. “What happened?” Farris asked.

“Something shot at us from one of the ledges,”

Riften replied, remarkably at ease considering their

free-fall. “Maybe a friend was just trying to give us a

boost.”

“What shot us? I saw a flash of green lightning,

but nothing else,” Sasha said, his fingers white from

their desperate grip on one of the ropes.

“It doesn’t matter, we have to land before the

rest of the sail tears loose,” Riften said. He leaned

casually, his eyes lit with an exhilaration more evident

than any fear. Farris would never understand how the

Paral-Zakdul’s alien mind worked. He never took his

life very seriously.

“We’re going too fast,” Farris yelled over the

wind. “Even if we find a shelf of rock we’ll be

smashed to bits if we hit it.”

The ship shook violently. The rope Farris clung

to fell slack around her. She stared at the thing in her

hand with wide, disbelieving eyes. The white light

enveloping her illuminated the limp rope, broken

roughly at one end. The sail had snapped clean off,

and there was nothing to impede their hurtling free-

fall.

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THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

“Steer toward the western wall,” Riften

commanded in a tone accustomed to being obeyed.

“With what?” Sasha yelled, throwing his useless

bit of cord to the ground.

“Lean on the western edge! There will be a safe

place to land.”

“How are we supposed to know where west is?”

Farris fought the urge to scream. Her stomach was so

tight she thought she would faint. The dark walls of

the abyss streamed past her in a torrent of glinting red

crystals, which blurred together into a dull, malevolent

hue. Perhaps she should go back to the Essence

World and ask her Guide …

“That way, where the crystals are clustered!”

Riften was already pushing on the side while he

pointed. “They require moisture to grow, which

collects in hollow plains and tunnels. There will be an

opening for us.”

Sasha and Farris ran to the western edge and

heaved with all their might. The Vindenri tilted

suddenly, threatening to capsize and hurl its

passengers into the open air. Farris strayed back from

the edge, but Riften continued pressing his weight and

the vessel swerved through the air in the proper

direction.

“What is going on out there?” a sleepy voice

called from Bumble. Gloria, the magical fish Bumble

ate in the first shell, must have finally woken up

“Nice of you to join us. Just in time. Dying with

company is so much more fun,” Riften replied

cheerfully.

The ship continued to veer, and the glowing

crystals were getting close enough to illuminate the

full expanse of razor-sharp rocks and piercing

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TOBIAS WADE

stalagmites that stretched their stony grasp in their

direction.

“We can’t get any closer or we’ll hit the wall!”

Farris shouted.

“Wall?” Gloria snapped to alertness. “How long

have we been falling? Where are you trying to land?”

“Look for the webs!” Riften demanded.

“Webs?” Farris asked, mystified. Riften had

traveled this land before on his ascent to the surface

and she trusted him, but her faith was fleeing with

every passing second. The wall loomed closer and it

was impossible not to imagine the grizzly stones

ripping through the planks of their vessel and piercing

their flesh. She had to trust him though. Even he

couldn’t act so casually if he didn’t know something.

There! Something silver sparkled in the distance

below them. There was hope.

“You can’t land!” Gloria shrieked desperately.

“Not here. Not in the second shell.”

“There’s no other choice,” Riften said. “There

aren’t any other safe places.”

“The Dresdoni Kingdom isn’t safe! Oh no, oh

no—oh no,” Gloria wailed.

As they fell, it became apparent the silver light

shone from a series of large silken strands that

glistened like morning dew on a spider’s web. They

were strung densely on this side of the abyss, clinging

between stalagmites and spurs of rock.

“Is that what we’re aiming for?” Sasha asked,

looking at Riften. Sasha then glanced toward Bumble,

hesitating from pushing against the railing.

“Absolutely not. No one leaves the second shell

of the world,” Gloria said resolutely.

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THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

“I have better things to do with my life than

waste it on the prattling of a frightened fish,” Riften

said. He heaved against the side of the ship, but

without Sasha’s strength the vessel barely budged

toward the web.

“Let Farris decide,” Sasha said. “She sees things

the rest of us cannot.”

“We must find another place to land,” Gloria

pleaded. “If you value your journey, you can’t idle

away your time here.”

“We might have already fallen past your

brother,” Riften said. “If you value him, we’ll stop

before we’re a world away.”

Farris nodded at Riften’s words. Nothing else

mattered. If landing here meant finding her brother

sooner, then no danger could possibly dissuade her.

Besides, her Guide had called it Heaven; how bad

could it be?

“We’re going to land here,” Farris said. “I value

your opinion, Gloria, but I know the path I must

take.”

Sasha looked into her eyes for a long moment

before nodding. He shifted his weight against the side

of the Vindenri and they maneuvered toward the webs.

They adjusted their descent, speeding toward a very

large web strung between three mighty columns of

stone. Gloria was gloomily silent during the rest of the

fall.

The web was even larger than it appeared from a

distance. The silken strands spread several hundred

yards in each direction, and even with their limited

steering it was an easy target to hit. The Vindenri

landed in the center of it, prompting a bone-shaking

shudder as they slammed downward.

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TOBIAS WADE

The web bent so far—would they burst straight

through? Farris gripped the edge of the vessel with

fingers as tight as a vice. She didn’t know anything

about this place. Why did Sasha put so much faith in

her? Was it a delusion based on his own muddled

feelings, or was she really uncovering some hidden

wisdom about the world as she learned to Name it?

The web whined as it bore the impact. The ship’s

timbers groaned from the strain. Farris’s stomach did

another flip as their acceleration suddenly reversed,

sending them flying back upward. The elastic web

recoiled to its original position, holding firm to the

boat with implacable attachment. They oscillated back

and forth in increasingly smaller increments, until

finally the Vindenri came to rest on the tremulous

stands.

“Now you’ve done it,” Gloria mumbled. “Now

we’re stuck here.”

“I’m sorry to have disturbed your nap,” Riften

shot back. “You’re free to leave whenever you want.”

“I believe in this cause,” Gloria huffed. “What

about you, Paral? What’s your ulterior motive?”

“Staying alive isn’t an ulterior motive. It should

always come first.”

“Is that why you betrayed your king? To save

your own skin?” Gloria asked.

Farris turned away from the arguing pair.

Tensions were high, understandably so. She just

hoped she made the right call. They had traveled so

quickly that they must be very close to Tom now.

Then again, if they did somehow become trapped

here, then she might be powerless to find him even if

he passed directly by.

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THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

Farris looked out across the web. The crystals

were much thicker here, although they reflected her

light poorly and she could only see only a small

fraction of the expanse of surrounding web. Sasha

moved to stand beside her, his arm brushing hers. His

warmth brought Farris more comfort then she cared

to admit, and she leaned against him gratefully.

“Don’t worry,” Sasha said. “We’re going to find

Tom. If nothing else, we’ve gained a lot of distance in

the fall and should have caught up with the hunters.”

“I don’t suppose the ship will do us any good

again,” Farris said. “We’ll have to go on by foot now.”

Sasha threw a limp end of rope over the side of

the vessel. He let it dangle onto the web, then pulled

it back. The web clung to the rope briefly before

relinquishing it with a twang.

“It doesn’t seem that sticky,” Sasha said. “And

the strands are so thick and close we shouldn’t have

any trouble walking across them. We can make it to

that ledge by the far wall, and that will bring us

around to meet with the spiral stairway your brother

will have taken.”

“We might have already passed the hunters in

our fall,” Riften said. He ambled in his long-legged

gait to join them, bending his lithe frame to lean

awkwardly on the railing. “Did anyone see a light on

the stair as we fell?”

“Only the green lightning,” Sasha said, shaking

his head.

“We were falling so fast, we could have easily

missed them,” Farris added.

“This is what I feared when we failed to catch

them at the opening of the abyss,” Riften sighed.

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TOBIAS WADE

“Now we don’t know whether to go onward after

them, or camp here and wait once more.”

“We’re at the second shell of the world now,”

Sasha said. “Is this land populated as well? Perhaps

someone will have spotted them.”

“No!” Gloria protested. It was difficult to take

her seriously now, as Bumble the goat was nearly

dancing for joy at their safe stop. “We can’t go into

this world. You have to trust me.”

“When you have a better idea, you let me

know,” Riften replied. “Let’s move to the stone shelf

by the stair for now. I feel too exposed being on this

web.”

Sasha nodded and slung a pack of provisions

over his shoulder while Riften relit a lantern. Farris

allowed her own light to fade, not wanting to draw

more attention to them than was necessary. She didn’t

dread entering the Essence World as much as she

once did, and felt confident in her ability to invoke

the power and return without too much delay. Even

sporadic summonings were draining on her though,

and she knew she would diminish her strength quickly

if she relied upon them too heavily. She had no body

when she was in the Essence world, and so the return

always made her extremely conscious of the weariness

of her body and the difficulty of each forced breath.

She took a deep breath now, waiting for the numb

tingling of her body to fade.

Sasha meanwhile vaulted over the side of the

railing to land on the web below. Riften stretched a

long arm to pass the lantern down to him, but Sasha

had already taken several steps onto the web beyond.

His mouth was open in wonder as though something

magical was revealed to him.

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THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

“Take the light with you!” Riften called. “If you

fall to your death, at least we can see you wave on the

way down.” His face was drawn and anxious despite

his cheerful tone, and Farris wondered whether he

knew more about this place than he was admitting.

“The web is perfectly safe,” Sasha said. “Better

than safe, it feels amazing!” Sasha took the lantern

from Riften and prodded the darkness with its warm

red flare. “It’s so light and springy, I feel like I’m

walking on air.”

Sasha bent down to run his fingers across the

web, and he sighed with pleasure at the touch.

“Don’t go too far,” Farris said. It was hard to

look at Sasha, striding so confidently across the web,

and feel anything but hopeful. Perhaps they had

found a safe place to rest after all.

Sasha knelt on the web, spreading his hands

further across the silk. “It’s so soft too, get down

here. It feels almost like liquid the way it washes over

my skin.”

“If pleasure tempts, it is a mask, a demon’s claw

for hire,” Gloria murmured the verse from Riften’s

song. “You are not safe here, do not lie to

yourselves.”

Farris ran her fingers through Bumble’s fur,

gripping it for support. She trusted Gloria, and she

wished she hadn’t been forced to land here. Farris

didn’t know why the decision had to fall on her, and

she didn’t like having to feel responsible for the safety

of her friends. It was one thing to be willing to go

through dangers for her brother, but it was quite

another to force her friends to do the same.

Sasha set his lantern down beside him and

continued to run his hands over the silk, kneeling

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TOBIAS WADE

deeper until he lay completely outstretched on the

vibrating web. He rocked gently from side to side,

letting the strands caress his body.

“Join me, Riften,” Sasha said, rolling freely. “I’ll

bet it will help with the wound on your head.”

Riften lifted a second pack of supplies and sprang

nimbly onto the web. He looked confused at first, but

he soon broke into a wide grin. “I wish we had

stopped here on my ascent, although I don’t suppose

I would have even felt the webs through those beastly

Byzantian plates. I could have just laid here and

avoided the whole sordid business.”

Riften stretched out and lay beside Sasha now,

touching his head against one of the strands.

Bumble hopped about on the deck of Vindenri.

The goat looked as though she wanted to follow

them, but Gloria seemed to be holding her back.

Gloria wouldn’t be so cautious without reason. Still,

there was no point in hiding forever, and Farris

couldn’t imagine anything more terrifying than what

she’d already passed in the first shell. She clambered

over the railing and dropped onto the web a little way

behind Sasha.

“What are you two doing?” Farris asked,

although she could already feel the gentle pull of the

silk soften against her weight. The web vibrated with

delicious pulses that sent cascades of comfort through

Farris’s body, easing away all of the ache and tension

of their journey. “Oh, it’s wonderful!”

Farris giggled as she watched the indecisive goat,

all her worries washed away by the ebb and flow of

the vibrations. What once looked like mindful caution

now seemed silly and cowardly. Did Bumble really

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THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

understand Gloria? Living together, they must have

formed a very close bond.

“Don’t you see what you’re doing?” Gloria

called. “If you keep rolling around like that you’ll

wrap yourselves up, and then you’ll never get out.”

“It’s so comfortable,” Sasha said. “We’ve traveled

a long way, and we’ve gained so much distance from

that fall we deserve a rest. We can just sleep here for a

little while.”

“You can sleep aboard the ship, or the stone

shelf,” Gloria said sternly.

“Just because you’re an old hag who’s forgotten

what pleasure is doesn’t mean you should ruin our

good time,” Riften said.

“What is pleasurable has nothing to do with what

is good,” Gloria said. “Living creatures are designed

to pursue pleasure, and they will look for every excuse

to justify their behavior as rational. First the mind

might tell you to go slowly so as to be careful, all the

while prolonging your time on the web. Then perhaps

it will tell you to stop and look around, and give you

excuses to tarry that still benefit the original quest.

The justifications will say it’s no detraction from your

goal if you rest, and you even convince yourselves you

only do so to be stronger later on. Finally you will

forget your quest altogether, and remember nothing

but the pleasure of those silken strands. If you cannot

break away in this moment, then you may never

escape.”

Gloria wasn’t wrong. The seductive strands were

already tangling around Sasha’s and Riften’s limbs.

Farris caught herself bending toward the welcoming

bed without even realizing she was doing so. She

forced herself upright, pulling away from its soft

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TOBIAS WADE

touch. Her friends trusted her to lead them, and she

couldn’t do that by blindly following their example.

Her own Guide had warned her about this place. She

had the responsibility to be more mindful.

“Gloria is right,” Farris said. “Let’s set up camp

on the stone shelf. We can always return here after

we’ve rescued our supplies from the ship and secured

our position.”

“Not you too, Farris,” Sasha said, easing farther

into his nest. “If you assume everything we encounter

in the world is out to get you then you’re going to be

a nervous wreck long before you find your brother.”

“There are so few opportunities to enjoy

ourselves,” Riften chimed in. “The webs aren’t

dangerous, just relax.”

“It seems to me,” Gloria said slowly, “that

perhaps the webs are indeed safe.”

Farris felt immediate reassurance. She allowed

herself to sink towards the webs again. Just for a little

while … her muscles were being massaged in the

most delightful way …

“But,” Gloria added, “where there are very large

webs, I would not be surprised to find very large

spiders as well.”

As if in answer, a high-pitched screech pierced

the silent darkness. Farris pulled away from the web

once more, but her muscles were so relaxed they

barely registered her command. Sasha and Riften

struggled where they lay, but neither could rise to

their feet.

“Just a few more moments,” Sasha replied, his

voice drowsy. The screech came again, and this time it

sounded closer.

20

CHAPTER 2: THE WEB

_If a man wishes to be strong he will work, understanding _

_that his weariness will fade. If a man wishes to be wise he will _

_study, knowing his clouded mind will clear. So why does the _

[_man seeking happiness refuse to plant his garden with suffering? _]

[_How can he not see the harvest he will reap? _]

Nidhoggdrasil, the world serpent

[_ove. Move. Move. Move! _] Farris scolded her body

_M _ for lingering on the suddenly treacherous web.

The sound of scuttling feet sucking and pulling

against the web reached her from just beyond the

edge of lantern light.

“Cut your way out,” Farris shouted. “Quickly.”

“Are you crazy?” Riften asked, his voice an

amiable droll without hint of alarm. “If we cut the

strands we’ll fall straight down the abyss. Just give us

a moment.”

“You don’t have a moment, something is out

there!” Farris cried.

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TOBIAS WADE

“So what? You’re assuming everything is

dangerous again,” Sasha said. “Just let it come.”

What was going on? Why were they so

complacent? Farris swore to herself, straining against

the compulsion of the web. Her feet were finally

obeying her, separating from the web without any hint

of being trapped. Couldn’t the others pull themselves

free as well?

“Get back to the ship,” Gloria ordered.

“They can’t, they must be stuck,” Farris said.

“I’ve gotten free so I’ll try to help them.”

“If you can get free, so can they,” Gloria said.

“Then why aren’t they?” Farris asked in

exasperation. Farris strode across the web toward

Sasha. She was unhindered by the pulses, although

she could not deny the warm comfort they brought.

Riften and Sasha had been there longer though. Was

something else holding them down?

“You are free now because you believe the web is

a trap. As long as they do not view it as such, they will

not try to escape.”

“Sasha!” Farris reached him and shook his arm.

He pulled away from her, nestling farther into the

web. “Get up right now.”

“Just a few more minutes,” Sasha mumbled.

Another screech sounded from the darkness.

Farris picked up the discarded lantern and waved it in

that direction. She thought she caught a glimpse of

several long, black, hairy legs skittering farther into

the shadows.

“The only way to lead one from pleasure is by

resisting it yourself,” Gloria said. “They are in their

own worlds now, and will not know any other exist

until you show them. They do not know their own

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THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

weakness until they have seen your strength. Leave

the webs, Farris, and let them lie in their shame.”

Farris picked up the lantern and began walking

toward the stone shelf with resolution. The webs

redoubled their effort to hold her. The spongy step of

each footfall resonated a sublime peace up her legs

and throughout her entire body. The trembling pulses

penetrated deep inside her, and though she did her

best to tell herself the sensation was invasive and

unpleasant, she found herself slowing with every step

just to feel it for a moment longer. It was the most

deliciously intoxicating experience she had ever

encountered, and a voice within her urged her to just

brush the web one last time with her fingers before

she left. After all, her mind reasoned, she had to show

her friends she could feel it fully and still move away

if she was to lead by example.

“Do not pause, do not hesitate!” Gloria’s voice

called from the ship. Bumble peered over the railing

at Farris. “The most difficult temptations to resist are

those you see no harm in.”

“Haven’t you made fools of yourselves enough?

Get up and follow me,” Farris said. Let them feel

ashamed of themselves. She just hoped they couldn’t

tell how badly she wanted to stay on the web as well.

Riften made a pleasurable moan and Farris drew back

in disgust. She scanned the edge of darkness around

her firelight again. She was hesitating, she knew she

was, but surely she had to keep an eye out for the

spider …

Bumble leapt from the vessel to land on the web

as well. A look of confused rapture crossed her face,

but the goat seemed unsettled all the same.

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TOBIAS WADE

“I’m here with you,” Gloria said. “Just keep

moving.”

Farris steeled herself, and after a terrible

breathless moment when she neither stood still nor

moved, she broke free and took another step. She was

walking now, pushing the orb of her lantern light

farther along the web. Farris only had to take a few

more steps before her light fell upon a grizzly sight: a

graveyard of bones and chitinous plates littered the

web, as well as the strange half-decomposed forms of

giant spiders with shriveled and withered bodies. She

was standing in the middle of a massacre by time.

“Sasha! Riften!” Farris called. “Look at the

victims of the web.” The dread in her voice lent her

power, and she finally captured their attention.

Sasha lifted his head a little from his webbed

cocoon and stared at the corpses. There was a clear

struggle behind his eyes, and he kicked Riften who

raised his head as well.

“Stand up!” Farris demanded, “or I promise I wil

leave you both here until you rot like the rest of

them.”

“I was only taking a moment, no harm done.”

Sasha was on his feet, shaking the webs and their

mind-numbing embrace from him. “You’re not going

anywhere without me, Farisky.”

Riften tried to lay his head back again, but Sasha

grabbed him roughly by the shoulders and hauled him

to his feet as well. The sight of the bodies had given

them just enough shock to break free, but Sasha was

already looking at his feet again. His legs buckled

toward the web. Farris walked back toward them and,

handing the lantern to Riften, she grabbed each by the

hand and began sprinting through the webs. Her

24

THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

friends pulled back at first, but she gave them a

deathly glare that even the soothing silk could not

erase, and they meekly followed her through.

The farther they went, the thicker the bodies

were strewn. It wasn’t long before they had to

physically push the long broken spider legs away or

roll aside the emaciated corpses blocking their path.

Bumble bounded swiftly behind them, coaxed onward

by Gloria’s soft voice. Farris didn’t dare let go of their

hands lest they find an excuse to tarry again, and with

Riften holding the lantern, the distasteful job of

pushing aside corpses was given to Sasha.

They were almost at the stone ledge now. Sasha

prodded a small husk of a spider away with his foot,

but jumped as it stirred. It gave a little screech, the

same sound that had haunted them from the

darkness, and scuttled a little distance away. The

spider quickly collapsed upon the web again, seeming

exhausted from its effort.

“It’s alive,” Farris gasped.

“Barely,” Sasha agreed.

The companions drew a pace back and stared at

the small hairy creature warily. It wasn’t the

threatening kind of spider Farris sometimes found

menacing the closets at home. It looked for all the

world like a stuffed animal parody of a spider: too-

short legs and too-fluffy tufts of hair decorated its

thick little body, and its face was smooth with only a

single pair of disturbingly human eyes.

“Now I’ve caught you,” it squeaked meekly in a

high-pitched voice. It was clearly attempting to sound

threatening, although it was impossible not to

associate the sound with a self-conscious mouse.

“You’re in my world now, within the timeless abyss.”

25

TOBIAS WADE

“You’re not scaring anybody,” Farris responded.

“Who are you?”

“Not even a little? Hold on a moment.” The

spider lowered its voice half an octave and spoke

again. “You are in the presence of Skavash, Lord of

the Eternal Void.”

“Stop that,” Sasha interrupted. “You’re not lord

of anything, are you? You’re caught in your own

web.”

“Caught in my own— how dare you,” Skavash

squeaked, its voice returning to a higher pitch. “I am

the herald of destruction, the shadow of the abyss,

the—”

“We don’t believe it,” Farris cut in, smiling.

“You’re too cute to be a Lord of the Eternal Void.”

“How do you know? Have you ever seen one?”

sniffed the spider. “I’ll have you know the

resemblance is uncanny.”

“I know the name Skavash,” Riften mused, “but

it belongs to the beast of the Southron Abyss, and he

has never come this far surface-ward.”

“Well, my mother had high hopes for me, but I

suppose you can call me Skavy if you prefer.

Everyone else does,” Skavy said, shuffling its long legs

in embarrassment.

“Would you like some help, Mister Skavy?” Sasha

asked, reaching his free hand down to untangle the

piteous creature from its web.

“No help,” Skavy whined, leaning away from the

hand. “I’m all settled in, and it feels so pleasant here.

I’m never going to leave.”

“Look at all the bodies around you!” Farris cried.

“Don’t you suppose they settled in just as you are?”

26

THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

“I won’t stay as long as them. In fact I’m only

resting a moment,” Skavy replied. “I can leave

whenever I like.”

“I’m sure they all thought the same thing,” Gloria

said, “but this moment is all there is. If you can’t get

up now, then you can’t ever get up, because it will feel

just as good a year from now. Help him, Sasha.”

Sasha obliged, lifting the creature cleanly out of its

nest of webbing.

Skavy flailed his little legs in the air, fluffy and

stumpy as they were, and cried out in its spidery

tongue. Farris could not understand the words, but

they certainly bore the unmistakable tone of swearing.

If Farris hadn’t come along, then the poor creature

would have doubtlessly joined the countless dead

here. This at least gave her more resolve about her

decision to land.

What possible purpose could these webs serve

though? There couldn’t be that many things to catch

falling down the abyss, and if the spiders trapped

themselves in them they seemed to do more harm

than good. What would her brother Tom do if he was

caught? Probably stay put until he died—he was

stubborn enough. How long would it be until she saw

him again? She clenched her jaw, willing herself to

focus on the task at hand. Until they got out of this

web, everything else was just a potentially dangerous

distraction.

“How long have you really been here?” Sasha

asked Skavy, ruffling its fur affectionately.

“About ten changing of the palace guard, I

suppose,” Skavy replied, melting a little under the

petting. The spider seemed to remember his fearsome

self however, and pulled away to bare his tiny fangs.

27

TOBIAS WADE

Sasha picked him up anyway to hold him at arm’s

length, and the troop pulled away from the vibrating

silk for a final time before clambering onto the stone

shelf.

“How long is that?” Sasha asked.

“Three sleeps? How do you tell time where

you’re from?” Skavy asked.

“You’ve been here three days?” Farris asked in

alarm. “Your family must be worried to death about

you.” “Skavash doesn’t have to obey his family,” Skavy

grumbled.

“Then he will obey me,” Farris said sternly. “We

are sending you home right away, and you will

apologize for going out alone.”

“Don’t tell my mother I was on the web?” Skavy

pled, his human eyes damp with tears.

“As long as you promise never to walk on these

wretched webs again,” Farris said.

Sasha sat Skavy down on the stone. The delicious

vibrations faded from Farris’s limbs quickly, and a

weariness twice as profound as she’d felt before

enveloped her. Bumble sniffed Skavy inquisitively,

and Farris smiled to think what Bumble must think of

all this. It must be quite over her head, but her loyalty

always overwhelmed any sense of fear or doubt.

Riften lingered on the web for a final moment, and he

almost stooped to brush it with his fingers again when

Sasha grabbed him by the collar of his tunic and

pulled him onto the rock.

“You can’t really intend to babysit this creature,”

Riften said. “We’ve freed it already; its fate is in its

own hands now.”

28

THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

“You know full well if we leave him he will get

right back on that nasty web and rot there,” Farris

said, standing in front of Skavy. It would be like

leaving a puppy alone in the woods, albeit an eight-

legged, monstrous puppy.

“We can’t get distracted,” Sasha agreed. “If we

hadn’t been helping the Darkness when Tom passed

by the first time—”

“If we didn’t help the Darkness it never would

have let us reach the abyss in the first place,” Farris

said. “And what do you propose we do? We don’t

even know if we’ve passed Tom in the descent. If we

wait, he could be getting farther away with every

passing moment, and if we press on we could descend

through the whole world in front of him. We need

help.”

Sasha nodded slowly, but Farris felt like there

was something he wasn’t saying. She made sense,

didn’t she? It wasn’t just an excuse; she wanted to find

Tom more than anyone. It didn’t matter that he was

named heir of the prophecy and she was forgotten. It

didn’t matter how hard it would be to admit to him

she had been wrong about everything, and how it was

her fault he had been taken without a proper fight. It

didn’t even matter that her Guide had told her to stop

here. But what if she did find him, and he wanted to

keep going to fulfill the prophecy? What if he didn’t

want her to come, what if he could never forgive her?

Farris shook these awful thoughts from her head. She

did want to find him, and he did want to be found. She

wasn’t wasting time.

“My mother would know! She knows

everything,” Skavy piped up.

29

TOBIAS WADE

“All mothers do, until you’re old enough to know

better,” Riften said.

“I know the Lady would help.”

“You call your mother the Lady?” Farris asked.

“Everyone calls her the Lady,” Skavy replied.

“She watches the stair into her domain; she watches

most everything. She will be able to tell you where

they are.”

Farris nodded, casting a glance at Bumble who

had apparently accepted that Skavy wasn’t a threat to

their safety or her role as the group pet. Gloria was

very quiet inside. What would she think about moving

deeper into the second shell? But her companions had

trusted Farris to lead, and she needed to show she was

more confident than she felt. She nodded again, more

assertively, and smiled away the gnawing fear.

“Then we will go to the Lady for help,” Farris

said.

At Skavy’s instruction, the group moved along a

nearly invisible path cut into the wall face. This

staggered sharply downward following the curvature

of the abyss, and although the footing was hazardous,

it quickly opened up into a second ledge that lay

below the webs. This revealed a tunnel winding into

the new world. A soft green light, not unlike that seen

the moment before the Vindenri began to plummet,

shone through the mouth of the tunnel.

“Open ye gates of heaven,” Gloria murmured.

“To the world of flesh and sin.”

30

[*CHAPTER 3: HEAVEN’S *]

*GATE *

_I touch the world, and feel that it is real. I see the world, _

and smell the world, and hear the world, and [_taste the world; I _]

_tell myself it is real. Now I put my mind to thought, and feel no _

_sense but my own mind, _ [_and for the first time I am unsure. I _]

_trust the uncertainty of my mind over the certainty of my body, _

and [_am confident in my own unknowing. _]

-Javel of Omar, the First Man

  • *

iften’s body was tense. The green light seemed

R welcome in the dismal darkness, but the memory

of their fall was etched too freshly in his memory to

discount the danger. They hesitated outside of the

tunnel entrance. Was the thing that shot them down

in that tunnel? If it could burn through their sail at

such huge range, what would happen if it launched at

their faces?

Riften watched Sasha and Farris press their

bodies to the stone wall, exchanging glances. They’d

been doing that more often since they returned from

the Unwaxen Moon together. Riften had rather

31

TOBIAS WADE

enjoyed Farris dismissing Sasha at the beginning—if

they were all strangers, then he wouldn’t seem so

mysterious. How quickly man looks to his own for

comfort, even if his brother is a stranger to his own

soul. If they learned to rely on each other too much,

then their fondness could well complicate his work.

_Here goes nothing, _ Riften thought. _Time to take charge. _

Riften moved past the lip of the tunnel entrance,

striding confidently forward into the green light. A

smile broke his thin lips, genuine this time, not the

giant façade he perpetually wore for show. The light

was only a multitude of softly luminescent

mushrooms that lined the walls and ceilings.

“Come on then, you silly humans,” Riften called

back. “Don’t let your fear of pleasure spoil its taste.”

Skavy came into view next, then Farris and Sasha

rounded the corner with Bumble at their heels.

Riften’s eyes lingered on Bumble, looking for any hint

of communication from her mysterious passenger.

Gloria was another wild card in his game. How much

did she really know about the world outside her

secluded pond? Another puzzle for another time.

Riften turned back down the passage, scouting ahead

for the party.

The tunnel was clearly manufactured with its

perfectly circular shape and spiral grooves that ran

from floor to ceiling. These grooves served as a

resting place for the evenly separated and well-

cultivated glowing mushrooms. It was so artificially

circular, in fact, that Sasha and Farris had to walk in

single file behind Riften to avoid treading on the walls

that sloped sharply upward.

Skavy was already lagging behind. He staggered,

his eight legs scrambling to keep himself upright. He

32

THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

must have been weakened from his long stay upon

the web. Riften allowed himself a grim smile: the Lady

was even worse to her children than his own father

was to him. Sasha picked Skavy up and carried him

once more. They walked no more than half a mile

when Skavy demanded to be put back down. The

passageway ahead bent out of view. Riften’s long

hand flexed a practiced flick that could transport his

dagger into his hand and continued his march. _Show no _

_hesitation, show no weakness, _ as his master at the

university would say. [_If you are afraid, your enemy won’t be. _]

Around the turn a large circular door of steel

filled the entirety of the passage so perfectly that not

even the green light could sneak around the edges.

Two massive spiders stood in front of it, standing

almost as tall as Riften himself. They had the same

smooth skin and human eyes of Skavy, but their

bodies were long and muscular, sprouting crooked

dangly legs lined with razor hairs. Their black

carapaces were sleek and polished, reflecting the green

light in such a way as to bathe themselves in its aura.

They held no weapons, although their bodies seemed

sufficient substitutes. All they carried were long silken

bundles wrapped around their necks.

“Welcome to Heaven’s Gate!” called the first

spider cheerfully.

“Why are they welcome?” asked the second with

suspicion.

Riften’s fingers twitched in anticipation. The

carapace looked as though it locked their orientation

in a single direction, and the armor seemed weakest

around the neck to allow it to pivot. They would be

slow to maneuver. Their tactics would likely revolve

around getting their victim beneath them to bring all

33

TOBIAS WADE

eight legs and their jaws into placement. Considering

how they stood, Riften could predict their

movements, tracing their fighting style in his mind.

He rested his weight on the balls of his feet, ready to

dance death around them at a moment’s notice.

“Well, are we welcome or not?” Farris demanded

from behind. “We’ve had a rough enough trip already,

so if you don’t want to roll out the red carpet then at

least step aside. I am in no mood to be judged by an

overgrown insect.”

Riften smiled to himself. Without turning he

could hear the shuffle of fabric that indicated Farris

crossing her arms in front of her chest.

“Is your queen always like this?” Skavy asked

Sasha.

“Our queen … has her moments,” Sasha replied.

“Skavy? Is that you?” the first spider asked. Skavy

was dangling playfully from a wall now, scurrying

amongst the mushrooms. Riften knew he wasn’t

faking his weariness earlier, so perhaps he too had

been taught not to show weakness.

“What are you doing, little one?” the second

guard asked. “Come here at once.”

“You can’t order me around!”

“Have you been out on the web again?” the first

guard asked sternly. Skavy looked abashed, his little

head falling. “You know it is unsafe. The Lady will

hear of this.”

“It’s only unsafe because I prowl it!” Skavy

squeaked ferociously.

“Of course, little one,” the second guard cooed.

“You are a true terror. I’m sure the Lady will be

pleased to see her hatchling safe, thank you travelers.”

34

THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

Skavy reluctantly dropped away from the wall

and trod over to the guards, his head hanging low in

much the same way as a guilty puppy.

“Of course you are welcome, small wanderers,”

the second guard added amiably. Their voices spoke

so smoothly, one following the next, that they almost

seemed like a single mind split between two bodies.

Was that a measure of their discipline, or were there

unseen strings attached? Riften did not allow himself

to relax yet.

“Is that all you have to say to him?” Farris asked.

“He could have died out there! There were bodies all

over the web. He’s been gone three days, hasn’t

anyone even looked for him?”

“What are days?” the first guard asked. “Don’t be

silly, he could have returned home whenever he

wished.”

“But they don’t return, do they? They sit out

there until they starve to death,” Farris protested.

“What a wonderful way to go,” the second guard

replied dreamily. “Come along then, in you go.”

The second guard turned and lifted two of its

crooked legs to manipulate a hidden panel beside the

door, prompting it to slide into the ceiling with a

metallic scrape.

“Um, question,” Sasha asked. “Is the Lady a

spider as well? I mean, you’re all spiders here?”

“Spider? What a funny word. We are the

Dresdoni, servants of the Lady. If you don’t know

that, then you are a long way from home indeed.”

“What, like the Dresdoni Desert?” Sasha asked.

“I can’t say I’ve ever heard of anything like you out

there.”

35

TOBIAS WADE

“The desert has not seen us for a very long while.

You are surface dwellers then? Most peculiar indeed.

I’m sure the Lady will want to hear all about it.”

The first Dresdoni guard pivoted sharply and

marched through the open door at a rapid trot. The

tunnel beyond continued just as it had before the

door. Riften moved through with the others behind,

his eyes tracing the movements of the creatures. _Never _

let your guard down, his master had told him. _There is no _

_blade sharper than misplaced trust. _ The Dresdoni seemed

friendly enough, but there was something dismissive

about the way they handled the dangers of the web.

_Think twice about trusting your life to those who do not value _

their own. Could Riften have escaped the web without

Farris? His jaw tightened at the thought. Of course he

thought so, but so did all who fell victim to its

seduction.

Riften wished he had more information about

what lay beyond, but even the University Fantasia

contained nothing pertinent. The webs were apparent

enough from their location in the abyss, but he knew

of no stories told from those who had visited the

second shell and returned. Whether that was simply a

matter of the great distance between here and his

home in the fifth shell, or spoke of some unknown

danger, it was impossible to tell. _Trust no one in this _

_place, not even yourself, _ Riften thought, and he followed

the Dresdoni guard with caution. _ _

“What is your name, Dresdoni?” Farris asked.

The creature did not pay her any attention. Farris

quickened her pace to catch up with the spider and

continued.

36

THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

“My name is Farris, and this is Sasha and Riften.

Oh, and that’s Bumble the goat, with Gloria inside

her.”

The Dresdoni continued to march swiftly, not

turning its head or acknowledging her in the slightest.

“Excuse me? Hello?” Farris prompted, reaching

out to touch the creature’s long leg between its razor

hairs. The Dresdoni recoiled as though struck and

staggered to catch itself.

“Farris, be careful!” Sasha pulled Farris away

from the creature. It slowly regained its footing and

turned its entire body to face Farris. Farris stubbornly

took another step toward the creature.

“If we’re going to travel with you, then you can

at least tell us how far we have to go,” Farris said.

“We are in a hurry, so if the Lady is a long way from

here perhaps someone else can help.”

The Dresdoni stared at her for a long while until

it was apparently satisfied that it would not be left

alone without an answer. “I am not of the Lady, so I

was not honored with my own name. Perhaps our

time together will be more pleasant if I play for you

instead.”

The spider lifted its front two legs and bent them

with great delicacy to draw the silken bundle from

around its neck. A silver flute lay underneath, much

too small and dainty for such a monstrous thing to

use. Riften marveled at how dexterous the legs were

as the creature lifted the flute to its mouth. There

were more joints than he was expecting. If it came to

a fight, he would need to be careful not to move

within their arc. Small hairs bent as subtly as reeds in

the wind, and a song began to play that warped reality

around its notes. The Guard continued to walk while

37

TOBIAS WADE

he played, and Riften fell into a locked step behind it

as his attention was diverted by the song.

He had to stay focused. Was this another snare

upon their senses? The notes rose and fell as lightly as

a bird across snow, and Riften felt his bones resonate

in harmony with the bones of the earth. Riften turned

to Farris who walked as though through a dream:

wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Riften’s own mouth

was open, but words would not form in his mind.

Only a murmuring echo of the melody that engulfed

them escaped his lips. The music of the flute was so

pure it was impossible to maintain any evil thoughts

against it, and Riften contented himself to listen.

The flute played a single melody, but its peculiar

haunting echo gave voice to a thousand harmonics

intertwining with intricate grace. There was a whisper

behind the strongest note and a shout beneath the

softest, singing of far-off places in long forgotten

times. The notes were not accompanied by words, but

images of ancient pride, noble heritage, and castles

rearing up from the sand formed in Riften’s mind. He

watched the pictures play, only vaguely able to

wonder whether the music created these images or it

was his mind responding to it.

This was the song that would be played at the

birth of a nation, full of hope and promise for better

days ahead. This was the song of the end of days

when all love and longing was lost beyond recall or

desire. Riften could imagine this song being played as

he was crowned, or at his own funeral, a herald of

both joy and sorrow. He heard himself laugh and felt

tears well in his eyes. [_What is happening? Am I in danger? _]

How could a mind capable of perceiving this infinite

beauty sully itself with such a vulgar thought? The

38

THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

sound was euphoria, and Riften shivered with

pleasure.

Farris and Sasha’s eyes sparkled with silent

jubilation. Skavy had stopped crawling along the walls

and fell into a steady step beside them, each

movement in perfect beat with the rhythm of the

music. Only Bumble seemed unaffected by the

melody, and she continued trotting to and fro

restlessly as she sniffed the mushrooms within her

reach. Riften didn’t know how far they traveled like

this, each step unique in time and yet inseparable

from the innumerable before.

At last the Dresdoni lowered his flute, although

the evanescent notes still hung in the air for a long

while afterwards. Each of the companions stood in

stunned silence as they readjusted to an unfiltered

reality. The fog in Riften’s mind slowly began to lift,

and he became aware they must have traveled many

miles, cutting deeply into the second shell of the

world. They had exited the tunnels some time ago,

standing now in a truly cavernous room so massive

no walls or ceiling was visible in the shadowed vaults

of distance. Under their feet glowed a fluorescent

cobbled road paved entirely with the heads of

luminescent mushrooms, giving the entire thing an

appearance of a neon green ribbon that wandered off

into the darkness.

The vibrant green light made the land look

surreal, and the sudden silence after the song was

brooding. A forest of mushrooms as tall as trees lined

either side of the road, or at least Riften named them

so because he could find no better word for them.

The plants had a powerful trunk and an arching

dome, but they were so knotted with growths and

39

TOBIAS WADE

gutted by disease their bulks were warped and twisted

into piteous tangles. A powerful odor of must and

decay permeated the air, wafting in great clouds of

golden-brown spores from the forest. Riften gagged

from the smell, and Farris hacked and coughed as the

odor overpowered the last of her trance. Sasha

seemed peculiarly unaffected however, though even

Skavy and the Dresdoni guard seemed to wilt from

the noxious presence.

“What is that terrible smell?” Farris asked. “Is

something wrong with the forest?”

“Nothing is wrong!” the Dresdoni shouted with

an almost desperate emphasis. “That is, nothing is

ever wrong in the Lady’s land, for all is exactly as she

intends it to be. The Nimbledo trees have been

cultivated to grow as such so that the smell of the

Lady’s garden appears all the sweeter. Hurry along

now, little ones. You don’t want to be here longer

than you must.”

“But where is here?” Sasha asked. “How far have

you taken us?”

“The road to the Lady is not measured in

distance,” the Dresdoni said. “The space is that

between Heaven and Earth, infinite and inseparable.”

“Yes, but how long have we been walking?”

Farris seemed alarmed, perhaps also becoming

cognizant of the journey’s duration. “We can’t be

wasting so much time. My brother will certainly have

passed us by now.”

“The only thing as great as the abyss is the

wisdom of the Lady. You will not find him without

her help. Come, follow me.”

The Dresdoni bent its long legs and began a

rapid trot down the green ribbon road. Farris nodded

40

THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

slowly as though trying to reassure herself. She looked

at Sasha, then at Riften. How much could that girl

really see? Riften met her gaze, smiling broadly. _She _

_will see nothing but reassurance from me, _ Riften thought. _ I _

[_won’t give her any reason to add doubt to her already cloudy _]

_mind. _

“I will follow you anywhere,” Riften said to

Farris, bowing low to the ground. “The question is:

do we waste time now so as to avoid wasting more

time later?”

“Ever since Tom slipped below the first shell we

knew our chase would be long,” Farris said. “We had

best prepare ourselves as much as we can while we

have the chance. Let us go to the Lady.”

Did she truly believe that, or was she making

excuses? It almost seemed to Riften that she wanted

to extend the journey. Perhaps things were more

complicated between Tom and her than she gave

credit to. Riften studied her as she straightened her

back, lifted her head, and tossed her tangled yellow

hair behind her. She had assumed the position of

leadership without complaint, but such moves seemed

a show of confidence that betrayed doubt within her

mind. She wanted the freedom of leadership without

its responsibility. When it was Riften’s time to lead,

she would be happy to follow him so long as he made

it appear as though it were her decision to do so.

Sasha glanced at Riften, his brow furrowed. Had

Riften hesitated too long? He grinned and threw an

arm around Sasha’s shoulders as they followed Farris

and the Dresdoni.

“Don’t look so glum, Sasha,” Riften said. “Can’t

you be more confident like your girlfriend?”

41

TOBIAS WADE

Sasha tensed beneath Riften’s arm. Fascinating

creature, afraid of his pleasure even more than his

fear. Riften laughed.

“I don’t know whether your stupidity is

intentional or just an act,” Sasha grumbled. “But

there’s definitely something wrong with this place.”

“Of course there is,” Riften replied. “But if it

was our job to save every land we wander through

then we should be getting paid. We just need to get

our information and get out as quickly as possible.”

Riften let go of Sasha and strode ahead, keeping

pace with Farris.

“But what if we can’t get out?” Sasha called in a

loud whisper from behind.

Riften threw his arms wide and his head back as

though welcoming a downpour of rain. “Then let us

at least die happy.”

Sasha laughed, and Riften’s face tightened in

pain. If only his mission was complete and he could

die here. Perhaps then he truly could find peace. _ _

42

[*CHAPTER 4: GARDEN OF *]

*EUPHORIA *

[_Beware the closed fist; the broken body has no strength to _]

[_dance. Beware the open hand; the complacent spirit has no need _]

_to dance. _

[_And finally beware the dancer; for the awakened need no _]

_company. _

Javel of Omar, the First Man _ _

he green ribbon road grew wider and branched

Tou t to spread crooked through the tangled

Nimbledo trees. Other Dresdoni began to appear,

staggering beneath massive sacks made from coarse

cloth which looked nothing like the delicate silk

bundle their guard carried. Some of the creatures

regarded the company with curiosity, but Riften

noticed that a single glance from the guard

accompanying them would prompt the other

Dresdoni to slump toward the ground and scurry

about their work.

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TOBIAS WADE

Soon the road had grown into a massive river of

light, straightening its ambling route to strike boldly

off into the darkness. The light was so strong here

that the wafting spores of the Nimbledo trees became

visible as streaks of golden dust swirling through the

air. Huddled houses could be seen now, carved

directly into the trunks of the twisted trees. The

dwellings were ramshackle and small even by Paral-

Zakdul standards, and Riften’s kind were much

thinner than the unwieldly spiders. The inhabitants

looked reserved and weak, and the powerful odor

gave the town an oppressive atmosphere where

sounds were muffled and eyes were inexorably drawn

downward.

The guard led them through the houses without

distraction. If any Dresdoni happened to block the

companions’ way upon the road, their guard would

put his silver flute to his mouth and blow a short,

ferocious string of evanescent notes. Without fail, the

offender would stiffen as though electrocuted before

falling prostrate to the ground, staying down until the

companions had passed. _Do not feel for them, _ Riften told

himself. _The Lady may oppress her people, but any who bow _

_before such a tyrant deserve their fate. _

Between the houses a network of spider-silk

joined each dwelling by a single glimmering thread

which united with clusters of other strands all running

in the same direction. These pulsed with regular

vibrations that ran along the length. Riften reached

out to one that hung near the road, catching himself

just in time. Was he that weak in the face of

temptation? His fingers trembled, and he cast a glance

at the others to see if they’d noticed. Sasha was

walking protectively behind Farris, while she marveled

44

THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

at the scene around her with a look of tortured

sympathy. What was the harm if he felt the vibrations

one more time? He wouldn’t let it slow their journey,

and even a short respite would …

Riften’s fist closed around the web. It

immediately began to hum, vibrating so swiftly in his

hand that it grew warm. Just enough to take away the

weariness from the journey … but this didn’t feel the

same as the other web. The hum grew louder, and the

strand moved faster, and it became so hot he was

forced to let go before it burned him. Riften could see

a pattern of vibrating pulses shoot off along the

network. This web wasn’t here for the people’s

pleasure. It was spying on them, communicating

everything it touched to some secret lair. _Do not trust _

_anything. Do not trust yourself. _ Riften nursed his hand and

hurried to catch up with his companions.

Beyond the village, a massive black wall loomed

like solidified darkness. Jet-black slabs of marble fit

cleanly together, held firm by a mortar that must have

been made by the luminescent mushrooms as green

veins twisted through the stone in a dizzying pattern

of soft light. Where the road ran through the wall

there was a massive portcullis of black iron that was

currently open, and a bustling crowd of Dresdoni

scurried in and out without respite. Invariably the

ones entering the palace would be laden with goods

and bundles and baskets, while the ones exiting were

bare. Two more Dresdoni guards stood vigilant on

either side of the gate, identified by their silver pipes,

fuller abdomens, and straighter shoulders that rose

well above the bent workers.

Riften’s eyes danced a practiced pattern of

locating possible escape routes, vulnerabilities, and

45

TOBIAS WADE

tools for a hundred possible scenarios. There was no

gate but the one, however, and the black marble was

too smooth to climb. He caught a glimpse of the

shiny black carapace of guards who marched thickly

within the walls, and with each of them carrying an

enchanting flute, Riften did not like their chances of

escape. Once they entered this place, there would be

no returning without the Lady’s permission.

The guard accompanying them led the party up

to the gate and saluted the other guards rigidly.

“Guests for the Lady,” he said.

One of the gate guards bent low over Farris, who

stood unflinchingly before it. Even she couldn’t

remain unmoved when it began to sniff her though.

She took a step backwards and put her hands on her

hips. “Is that how you treat your guests?” Farris asked.

“Send them to the feasting hall,” the gate guard

replied dismissively. He produced an iron badge and

offered it to them.

“That sounds more like it!” Riften smiled,

although there was something foreboding in the

guard’s tone that belied the innocent words.

“[_Special _] guests,” their guide emphasized, pushing

aside the iron badge. “They have brought Skavash

back from the abyss and the Lady will want to thank

them in person.”

“Give them a tour of the gardens while I bring

word to the Lady.” The gate guard nodded. He

pushed the iron badge back onto their guard. “You

may exchange this at the next checkpoint.”

Their guard turned and marched into the recesses

of the castle, beckoning the guests to follow.

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THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

“But I don’t want to go to the gardens,” Skavy

said, poking his head around Sasha’s leg where he was

cowering. Was he trembling? Perhaps it was Riften’s

imagination. He shouldn’t read so much into

everything, and besides, Skavy was weak from being

on the web for so long. Still, Riften couldn’t shake the

feeling that Skavy was putting on a defiant demeanor

in the face of some secret dread in store for him.

Don’t all children fear disappointing their parents

though? Riften allowed himself a grim smirk.

“Gardens and a feasting hall? I think we’ve made

the right stop,” Riften said, forcing his smile to widen

into a beaming grin.

“The Lady treats her subjects lavishly,” their

guard said. “You will be well taken care of here.”

“Some more lavishly than others it seems,” Farris

prompted, glancing back at the hunched workers

hurrying about their tasks. “The other Dresdoni look

so small and thin compared to the guards.”

“They keep themselves by their choice,” the

guard replied smoothly. “For their health.”

“Well I think my health would be better served at

the feasting hall,” Riften said.

“Just don’t forget why you’re here,” Farris

reminded him. “We can’t stay long— only until we

discover information about Tom’s path.”

“You can’t be worried all the time,” Sasha said.

“Being anxious won’t let us find him any quicker. It

sounds like we’re going to be heroes for saving Skavy,

so we might as well enjoy ourselves.”

“I think we’ve enjoyed ourselves on the web too

much already,” Farris said warily. She ruffled

Bumble’s head, although Gloria remained silent.

47

TOBIAS WADE

“I just mean it’s nice traveling with you like this,”

Sasha said to Farris. “If the situation was different,

this could have been a wonderful vacation together.”

He reached out and squeezed her hand, and she

smiled at him, but her mind was obviously elsewhere.

Sasha quickly retreated, evidently conscious of how

his words might seem. “But until Tom is safe, nothing

else matters.”

Riften chuckled. How transparent humans were.

They hide their emotions in plain sight upon their

faces and think themselves hidden by a thin layer of

words. Every reminder of Tom would make Farris

drop everything at once though, so it was easy to

manipulate her thoughts. This would undoubtedly

prove useful in the journey ahead.

The companions followed their Dresdoni guard

deeper into the walled complex. They approached a

central tower of pure glassy emerald. It was lit red by

rows of real flame lanterns, the only Riften had seen

here so far, which reflected inside the stone to give

the appearance of blood coursing beneath transparent

skin. Carved into the flesh of the building were a

myriad of ornamental sculptures with depictions of

ancient battles and carnage. The most striking image

was the emerald statue of a massive serpent which

wrapped around the building seven times before

entering at the base. The serpent’s head exited from

the top of the tower, whereupon the statue separated

completely from the building to rise above it with

open jaws as though prepared to swallow the tower

whole. A second wall of the same black marble with

green veins surrounded the tower, and they

approached a silvered-steel gate leading onward.

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THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

Riften couldn’t help but be reminded of the

serpent Nidhoggdrasil. Were they worshipers here?

Or did they merely respect his power? Either way, it

seemed important for them to not learn the truth

about Farris and Tom and their place within the

prophecy. The last thing Riften needed was another

mad tyrant attempting to use the unsealing for their

own personal gain.

Outside of the inner walls a multitude of

complex buildings were constructed from light marble

flecked with jade. Each had small towers that were

obvious imitations of the main building, although they

lacked the same quality and craftsmanship. Their

entrances were ostentatiously lined with decorative

columns and figurines depicting all manner of

creatures locked in a variety of mock-activities, many

of whom were depraved far beyond the standards of

the Paral-Zakdul.

“Are those statues—” Sasha gasped.

“It’s disgusting. Don’t stare.” Farris pulled Sasha

along.

At the silvered gate another set of Dresdoni

waited. Their guard spoke with them, and exchanged

their iron badge for one of pure glassy emerald before

passing through.

“Here lies the garden of the Lady,” the Dresdoni

said to them, entering first. Farris followed directly

behind him, stopping dead with a look of rapturous

wonder upon her face.

Rows of Nimbledo trees lined the green ribbon

path, but they were hardly recognizable from their

tortured brethren beyond the walls. These were clean

and polished, and their trunks were straight and

whole. Small delicate trees lined them on either side,

49

TOBIAS WADE

with larger ones beyond that and so on, cultivated in

such a way that their heights were staggered into

perfectly level tiers as they approached the tower—a

living staircase. The wide dome of each Nimbledo cap

was dedicated to a unique and vibrant garden, bearing

many strange flowers of every size, shape, and color.

The ribbon of light that served as their path climbed

the trunk of the first trees before shattering into a

thousand walkways throughout the garden like light

fractured from a prism.

“The smell!” Farris breathed in deeply. “It’s

nothing like the trees outside.”

As they walked up the first steps an almost sickly-

sweet scent pervaded the air. Riften gulped down

several gasps as he purged the stinking odors from his

lungs. The air was so heavy from the flowers it felt

almost tangible as they walked, each breath nourishing

like food even though Riften had to keep gasping to

extract enough oxygen from the thick atmosphere.

“The Lady has exquisite taste,” their guard said.

“The Lady is still preparing your welcome, so please

take your time.”

The guard led them up through the layered

gardens, and it wasn’t until they climbed each set of

living stairs that Riften was able to fully appreciate the

splendor. Nothing like this grew in the fifth shell

where Riften had come from, and he could tell by

Sasha and Farris’s face that they had never seen

anything like it either. There were flowers the size of a

man and the color of the setting sun. There were great

bell-shaped petals that could be rung to produce real

music, and the sound was as sweet as the smell. Tiny

sprinkles of white blossoms shone like diamonds, and

others were translucent and so light they floated

50

THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

unsupported in the open air. There were blossoms of

gold that made the metal look dull and lifeless, and

those of blue that could not be rivaled by the richest

depth of any sea.

Many of the plants glowed like the mushrooms,

and the lights wove together into delicate tapestries of

breathing worlds. The same silken webs were spun

across the gardens as well, networked together with a

long bundle of strands stretching up the flank of the

tower. These webs were hung with flowering vines,

and as the silk was too thin to see from a distance, it

appeared as though the entire garden had thrown its

tendrils into the air in a perpetual celebration of its

own glory. All the while they climbed, the air growing

thicker and each breath becoming more labored,

although Riften was so enamored by the spectacle

that he pressed his body onward in eager anticipation

for each new treasure. [_This is how a queen should live! _] No

gold or metalcraft his people could have wrought

could possibly rival these royal jewels.

Riften, in his eager bounding, reached the top

layer before any of his companions. The emerald

tower lay directly before them, and there were no

guards or excessive decorations such as might be

found blazoned through the rest of the palace. An

ordered row of torches surrounded the base, and a

simple golden outline of a double door was only

barely visible in the otherwise unmarred wall. The

pure green emerald reflected the movement of the

flickering flames this close, and the blood seemed to

flow within the stone as the light danced.

“The entire garden was built in dedication to a

single flower,” the Dresdoni guide said, reaching the

top layer. With a wave of his leg he drew Riften’s

51

TOBIAS WADE

attention to a small room mounted on a pedestal of

simple white marble like a shrine. The marble was cut

so thin that it was almost completely invisible except

for a white hue left hanging in the air. A web of metal

tubing connected this room with an adjacent room of

similarly transparent material. In the second room, a

small marble pedestal stood with a red velvet cloth

which supported a lotus flower with petals of perfect

blackness, so dark they weren’t even there. Its center

was the color of fire with oranges and reds and

yellows that flickered between each other as real flame

does.

“If you will all follow me, it would be my

privilege to show you the star of our kingdom.”

Riften noticed Sasha gripping his neck where his

own flower hung. Its simple beauty remained stark in

the face of the opulence of the Lady’s power. Curious

that it remained living after the fire of life had been

extinguished. There must still be a spark burning

somewhere deep within it.

“I don’t want to sniff the smelly flower,” Skavy

whined.

“That is very well,” the Dresdoni guard said with

a haughty drawl, “as its privilege is reserved for those

who have earned it. You may go onto the Lady and

recount your expeditions to her.”

“I don’t want to do that either!” Skavy grumbled,

turning his back on them. Riften paid close attention

to his movements, looking for a sign of what lay

before them. Was it the terror of oppressive authority

or simply the shame of a spoiled child? Would the

Lady scold him, or was her temperament inclined

towards more creative torment? Skavy made no

attempt to escape, although that didn’t prove whether

52

THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

he was afraid of his fate or he viewed it as an

inevitable conclusion.

The guard shook his head and knocked three

times upon the golden outline of the tower door. It

slid upward at once and a Dresdoni guard exited.

“Take Skavash to see the Lady,” their guard said.

“And ensure he is truthful in his tale. He has spent

the last three sleeps upon the webbed abyss.”

The guard nodded curtly and Skavy allowed

himself to be led inside.

“Be safe!” Farris called after Skavy.

As the emerald door slid back into place, Skavy

peeked below it one last time.

“Don’t give her what she wants,” Skavy

squeaked. The emerald door slammed back to the

ground. A loud squeal echoed from behind the door,

and then the muffled, haunting notes of a silver flute

began to play from the other side.

“Silly little one,” their guard said. “Do not worry

on his account. The Lady is kind to all of us. Now if

you please, direct your attention to the flower inside

the viewing chamber.”

Riften’s heart was pounding. That wasn’t the

disobedience of a wayward child. Skavy’s words held a

terror too great for one of his age. They were selfless

words of warning. They were words of one who is

already damned and only wishes to spare others the

same fate. What could the Lady want from them?

They were already in the throes of her power, and

there was only one way to find out.

Sasha and Farris had already followed the

Dresdoni into the first transparent room. Bumble

hesitated outside, looking back at Riften.

“You feel it too,” Riften whispered.

53

TOBIAS WADE

“I have felt it since before the first strand of

web,” Gloria replied softly. “The Lady is not to be

trusted.”

“Who in this great world is?” Riften asked back, a

wry smile playing upon his lips. Riften held onto

Bumble’s fur as they entered the chamber together.

The Dresdoni guard was already speaking.

“We stand in the presence of Elestarphagia, the

fire eater. Star of the heavens, jewel of the gardens,

this treasure is blessed by the essence of our Lady. Its

exquisite beauty has been immortalized by centuries

of longing hearts and exalting quills.”

“Why are there two rooms?” Sasha asked. It had

become quite cramped after Riften and Bumble

entered, the space evidently designed for one or two

Dresdoni at the most.

“So as to better appreciate the sublime aroma of

the Elestarphagia, you must first erase all the worldly

traces from your body.” The Dresdoni manipulated

another panel similar to that which opened the

Heaven’s Gate and a mesh of tubes above wriggled to

life. Cold clean air sprayed from open ends to wash

over the companions. Riften found himself gasping

greedily at the air, unaware how starved for it he was

after the heavy atmosphere in the garden. Bumble

leaped into the air to snap at the gusts of wind,

although the tubes soon hissed to a close. Nothing

could be smelled anymore, not the garden, nor their

travel-wearied bodies, or even their own breath. The

second marble door slid up from the ground, and the

Dresdoni ushered them inside.

“Inhale her tender breath; the hymn of the

flower,” the Dresdoni chanted in a sing-song voice

that rose and fell like a religious sermon. He had

54

THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

entered the chamber himself, so it must be safe.

Riften allowed himself to breathe deeply as he

approached the flower, although he couldn’t detect

the faintest smell. The Dresdoni’s rhyme was the only

thing to reach his senses, so Riften contented himself

to listen.

_There was a light, beyond the light, _

_A wind beyond the wall. _

_There was a sight, a terrible sight, _

_That before it we did crawl. _

_Rishta, oh goddess, on emerald throne, _

[_How we’ve suffered, let it be known! _]

Farris, obviously unable to smell it as well,

stooped directly over the flower to inhale. She rose

with a sigh of ecstasy, and Sasha quickly joined her

with similar results. Farris turned to Riften and

smiled, nodding her head encouragingly. Riften

looked between the Dresdoni and the flower. What

queen would lay a trap inside her own garden? Unable

to resist any longer, he bent to bury his face in the

magnificent blossom.

_Save us from light, lead us to mirth, _

[_Lady of Veils, webs you’ve spun. _]

_Pluck the darkness from the earth, _

_And throw it across the sun. _

_Rishta, oh goddess, on emerald throne, _

[_Send the raven on dark wings flown! _]

The odor was so subtle that it barely tickled his

nose, but in the absence of all other smells Riften was

able to feel it clearly. It burned softly and tingled in

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TOBIAS WADE

his nostrils, and he felt suddenly thrilled and

energized. He could only compare the sensation to

eating very spicy food which cleared his head when he

hadn’t even realized he had been congested before. It

was intoxicating in a way, and yet he had never

thought more clearly.

Riften took another deep breath, and his mind

was crystal. In that moment he understood his

differences with his father and his brother. The

teachings of his master became so intuitive that he

knew he could instruct the entire University Fantasia.

He forgave those whom he hated, seeing their minds

as clearly as his own, and forgave himself for his own

failings as part of a path to a larger image of his

completed self.

_Bless the cool, the still, the quiet, _

_Bless the darkened sky. _

_Bless the word, the deed done by it, _

_Bless your answers to our cry. _

_Rishta, oh goddess, on emerald throne, _

[_In greatness and kindness you are shown! _]

The scent did not fade, as odors normally do

when grown accustomed to, but instead grew stronger

as Riften continued to breathe. The itching burn that

had entered his nose spread through his entire body.

His ears now popped as well, and he could hear more

clearly than before. The air before them sharpened

into focus as though he had put on a new pair of

spectacles. The black lines of the world grew bolder,

while the red flames of the flower grew brighter and

swirled as though reveling in their own splendor.

56

THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

_Curse the stars, holes in your veil, _

_Curse the tattered moon. _

_Curse the prayer, the verse, our jail, _

_Curse the weaver at her loom. _

_Rishta, oh goddess, on emerald throne, _

[_Take us away, under rock and stone! _]

The burning continued to intensify. Farris

shouted and pulled away from the flower. The sound

hung in the air as though frozen before shattering into

a multitude of broken echoes. Riften tried to

straighten his back, but his entire body was so

sensitive that the smallest movement felt like his

joints were tearing apart. Even his clothes felt like

steel mesh that dragged across his skin with the

slightest adjustment. Riften wanted to shout a

warning, but the feeling of air entering his lungs

intensified into a buffeting wind and it was impossible

to make a sound while swallowing such a hurricane.

He managed to turn his head to look at the Dresdoni,

but even this small gesture made his eyes feel as

though they were about to burst. The Dresdoni was

watching them, a silken mask covering his face.

[_He isn’t breathing it. _] But the thought made no

sense inside Riften’s addled skull. His mind had

become so clear, so distant from himself, that he

could no longer see any importance in saving himself.

His flesh was an insignificant smear in the universe,

and his death would do nothing to interrupt the

eternal harmony of existence. [_Is it over? _]

Bumble danced frantically outside the chamber as

she watched helplessly. Sasha dropped to his knees,

clutching at his throat. Farris fell onto her face.

Riften’s heart accelerated. Why did her pain hurt him

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TOBIAS WADE

more than his own? _Do I really care for her, or is that just a _

[_trick of a dying mind? _] The beating of his heart and the

pounding of blood as it poured through his veins was

so powerful he couldn’t tell whether it was inside him

or not. The floor was getting closer. Was he falling?

He felt so heavy, would he break when he hit?

The words of the final verse rose in pitch and

volume, or so it seemed to his overwhelmed senses,

and the last words penetrated through Riften in

resounding blasts.

_Petal from the web, fabric of night, _

_Plant it where we go. _

[_Fire from the sun, our body’s sight, _]

_To remind us of our woe. _

_Rishta, oh goddess, on emerald throne, _

_Elestarphagia, the flame, the sins atoned. _

The rhyme faded and the world was on fire. As

consciousness fled Riften’s screaming mind, he was

assaulted by speech like hammer-falls upon his ear

drums.

“It seems our honored guests will require rest

now. Let me take you to your chambers.”

Riften was flat against the floor. His vision swam

red, and in a burning gasp the light grew so intensely

bright that it turned once more to darkness. All the

clarity of his mind focused on a single point. _Death wil _

_wait until I am ready. _

58

[*CHAPTER 5: PAFADILLY *]

_There are those who view perfection as the end of a road, _

_and yet they find the farther they go the farther they are from _

_their ideal. To be perfect is to be at peace, to be at peace is to _

_find balance. Go both ways along the Way, and I shall meet _

_you in the middle. _

-Lolaran Malhalion, the Last Man

asha woke. He lay for a moment with closed eyes,

S basking in the blissful comfort of a brain which

still clung to sleep. His hands stretched luxuriously

across his wide bed.

“I had the strangest dream,” he murmured.

Sasha’s fingers groped the empty air. His eyes

flew open. The garden. The flower. The burning

pain—where was Farris? Where was he? Sasha lay on

a bed of fine-spun silken sheets, and they had lost

none of their soothing virtue. The chamber had

emerald walls—obviously inside the tower

somewhere. The place was so overladen with marble

carvings and golden tassels it looked like the designer

didn’t care what was in the room, just so long as it

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TOBIAS WADE

cost a lot. A large fireplace stacked with Nimbledo

logs filled the corner of the room. If he was a

prisoner, then it certainly didn’t feel like it.

Sasha sat up in bed, feeling his head clear quickly

as a pleasant scent tickled his nose. He looked down

and saw his living-wooden Pafadilly flower strung

about his neck. Its smell had also banished much of

the Nimbledo rot earlier. The spark from the

Unwaxen moon must have enchanted it with some

sort of cleansing scent. Would Farris awaken all right

without it? There was no reason to think she wasn’t

being treated to the same luxury in her own room,

although he hadn’t let reason dictate his actions ever

since he had met her. He had to find her to make

sure. Sasha pulled away from the vibrating silk and let

his bare feet slip to the cold black marble floor. He

stared at his naked legs in disbelief. Why was he

naked? Was Farris also … naked? If the Pafadilly

flower woke him early, then he could find her while

she was … He took a deep breath, immensely glad no

one was around to see his flushed face.

Sasha quickly dressed himself in fine silken

garments laid on a stool beside the door. As he was

dressing himself he heard Dresdoni voices from the

other side.

“How long do we have to stand here?” asked the

first voice.

“Another two hours at least. The Elestarphagia

brings great peace.”

Sasha pressed his ear to the door, listening

intently. He still didn’t know whether to trust these

creatures, and he wasn’t about to let them know he

was awake. Being enchanted and drugged seemed

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almost like a cultural difference than a purposeful

attack by how nonchalantly the Dresdoni handled it,

and they had treated the companions very well. Still, it

was hard to side with creatures who took their own

personal freedoms so lightly.

“I wish I’d have a turn with the flower,” the first

voice muttered. “Two dirty foreigners allowed in, and

her own guard never even invited? That sound fair to

you?”

“Don’t question the will of the Lady,” growled

the second voice.

“All I’m saying is I could use a rest too. I already

took my shift, and here is another thrown on top just

because of the intruders. By all rights I should be at

the feasting hall right now.”

“We have our orders, don’t complain,” the

second voice said in a clipped tone, although it

sounded weary as well.

Feasting hall? Sasha’s stomach grumbled. And

the Elestarphagia sounded like a gift if the guard

wanted it. He never would have been so wary of those

treating him so kindly back home, but the terror of

their journey jaded him towards believing anything.

Besides, what did Skavy say when he left? Don’t give

her what she wants? What did the Lady even want,

and why shouldn’t they give it to her if she was so

welcoming to them?

“What’s she going to do with them anyway?” the

first voice asked. Sasha tensed in anticipation.

“Feed them if they’re hungry.”

Sasha smiled. He’d been overthinking everything.

The soft vibrations from his silken clothes made it

difficult to analyze the situation further, but he wasn’t

about to walk around the palace naked. There was

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only one way to find out more for sure. His hand

strayed toward the door handle.

“And if they’re not?”

“Then the Lady is always hungry.”

Sasha froze, his hand on the door. He silently

pulled it away. That couldn’t be right. This was far too

much trouble to go through just to eat them. No one

gives their dinner a tour of the gardens. It might have

been a bad joke, but his sense of urgency in finding

Farris doubled. There was no way out of the room

but this door. What was he going to do? Sasha

pressed his ear against the door again, listening for

clues.

“Seems silly, doesn’t it? Guarding a man who

won’t even be awake for hours and hours. Why, we

could get down for a bite and be back long before he

wakes.”

“Two hours isn’t so long,” the second said.

“Well, what if it’s more? Look how frail those

little humans were. The fire could be burning in them

for many shifts to come, and we’d have to stand here

without a break the whole time. Then if we stayed too

long, we might fall asleep by the time he actually did

wake up.”

“I suppose it would be more responsible to rest

while there is no chance of him waking, so we might

be more vigilant when he does awaken,” conceded the

second.

“Exactly!” the first cried. “That’s all I’m saying.

Resting now while he’s asleep is the best thing we can

do for our post, and the best we can do by our Lady.

Come along now, we’ll be back before you know it.”

“Very well, I will just check on him one more

time.”

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There was a shuffling outside the door. [_They’re _]

_coming in. _ Sasha flew across the room and dove into

the bed once more. He flung the silk covers over

himself up to the neck and clenched his eyes shut. He

heard the Dresdoni enter the room, and felt the air

stir as it loomed over his face to breathe hot upon his

neck. If he just held perfectly still …

But the clothes. He was concealed by the silk

sheets, but what if they noticed they weren’t on the

stool any longer? They’d know he was faking. They

wouldn’t leave their post. He’d never get the chance

to find Farris. Sasha took slow, even breaths while his

mind raced.

“He’s asleep, sure as sure. Hurry on now, we’ll be

right back.”

The presence lingered over Sasha. Then it was

gone. More shuffling, and then the sound of the door

closing. He counted ten more seconds before finally

opening his eyes. They were gone.

Sasha crept back to the door and heard the

voices fade in the distance. He opened the door as

quietly as he could, swinging smoothly without

resistance. They must have been so confident in the

Elestarphagia they didn’t need to lock their rooms.

Then again, he still wasn’t sure whether or not he was

a prisoner. They did treat their Lady with an almost

religious reverence that reminded Sasha of the sects

of Sumpta at home. It was one thing to pray to the

sun, but treating a living creature that way seemed

ridiculous.

Beyond his door stretched a long hallway made

from the same dark emerald with black marble floors.

More tapestries and figurines lined the walls depicting

the most depraved sexual acts Sasha could imagine

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between all manner of creatures. A number of doors

identical to the one he exited also lined the hall, and

Sasha checked them one by one only to find equally

lavish but empty bedrooms. If guards were posted

next to his, then it was likely the others would be

guarded as well. Seeing no guards here made it seem

unlikely Farris shared the floor.

Sasha followed the corridor until he reached a

sitting room placed at an intersection. There was a

large overstuffed couch, a cold fireplace, and no hint

at which direction to go. He didn’t have time to think,

however, for voices were already approaching from

around a corner on the left side. He couldn’t go

back—he’d be trapped. There wasn’t space in the

alcoves, or under the couch. The voices were getting

closer. What would they do if he was caught? He

didn’t want to find out. He pushed aside the grate in

the fireplace and slid into the chimney. He dropped

out of sight just as the voices became clear overhead.

“What is being served tonight?”

“I don’t remember. Just as long as I can get three

or four courses in before the guests awake.”

“By Rishta, only three or four? I’m sure I can eat

a half-dozen before she is through with them.”

The voices faded down the hallway. Sasha had

slid down the shaft almost ten feet to land in a

perfectly square iron passage. It was dark and sooty,

but there was green light glowing from where the iron

plates were cemented together. He might as well

travel along here. There were fireplaces in each of the

rooms, so he might be able to access the others

without exposing himself in the hallways.

Sasha made his way along the horizontal passage,

stooped double to fit beneath the low ceiling. He

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coughed, hacking out the thick black soot which

rained from above. Was there smoke coming down

the hallway? If the fires were lit, this path wouldn’t do

any good. He began to turn around, but the iron felt

warm beneath his feet. Someone must have just lit a

fire behind him. He redoubled his staggering pace, but

the way he had come had already become scalding.

The skin of his bare feet sizzled and it was all he

could do not to cry out. He couldn’t go back that way.

There was only one way on, and he had to hope there

wasn’t a fire there too.

Sasha moved as quickly as he could through the

iron passage. A fresh wave of burning ash drifted

toward him, siphoned off by various upward shafts he

intersected along the way. The floor here was getting

warm too, but he spotted a point of natural light in

the near distance which must be an exit. He rolled the

ends of his silk pants over his feet to offer at least

token protection, and scurried toward it as quickly as

he could. The air swam with heat, and he could barely

see through the waves of smoke rolling toward him.

Where did the light go? The iron was too hot to stop,

and he forced himself to plow through the oppressive

soot. There! A descending shaft opened to a cold

fireplace, and he wasted no time in diving away from

the searing metal. A rush of cool air washed over him

where he sat on the floor, but he didn’t have time to

enjoy it because he was already on his feet, alert for

danger. As the smoke cleared from his eyes and lungs

he discovered an empty room made entirely of glass

besides for the fireplace and the iron shaft above it.

Empty! Sasha didn’t know how he would have

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TOBIAS WADE

explained himself if he had landed in the middle of

the Dresdoni or worse, in front of the Lady herself.

The room was a pentagon shape, and through

the glass floors Sasha could see five broad rooms

divided into triangular shapes. At the center of the

pentagon was a crooked emerald column covered

with scales which rose from the floor to the ceiling,

positioned so each of the five rooms had a facet of it

in their corner. That must be where the serpent statue

rose inside the tower, which means he must be at the

very center now. Five crossbeams joined at the center

of the glass room where the five rooms below

intersected, and he positioned himself above one of

these so he could not be seen. Sasha laid flat on his

stomach to observe the teeming crowds of Dresdoni

below him, attending giant feasting tables.

In the first room, each who entered displayed an

iron badge to the guards who were positioned there.

They were admitted one by one, whereupon they were

directed to sit at one of three long tables that lined the

triangular room. A bonfire flared in the center of each

triangle, and an iron shaft positioned above allowed

the smoke into the passage Sasha had climbed

through. Torrents of smoke billowed from each fire

now; if he had stayed any longer he would have

suffocated for sure. He hoped he was doing the right

thing by sneaking out. For the first time he wondered

if his disappearance would make the Dresdoni think

Farris was a spy too. Would they punish her when

they found he had escaped? All the more reason to

find out the truth of this place as quickly as possible.

Once the guests had finished eating, they would

either leave or reveal a silver, gold, or emerald badge

and go into the second. There were three more tables

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THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

here, and the feasting would begin again at once.

Again the guests divided afterwards, some exiting

while others showed either a gold or emerald badge

and entered the third room. Although there were

fewer Dresdoni in each progressing room, the amount

of food on the tables only became more abundant

and extravagant. Mountains of spiced meats, wheels

of cheese, chains of smoked sausage that wrapped

around the entire room, puddings and gelatins and

cakes and things Sasha would never have recognized

as food if they weren’t being shoveled into the

corpulent bodies of the third’s patrons. The Dresdoni

here looked sickly in their excess, sweating profusely

and heaving to breathe as they crammed more food

into their swollen faces.

This process would be repeated one last time

where an emerald badge, like what was given to Sasha

and his companions, was displayed. Sasha almost

vomited at the sight. The fourth room was a

slaughterhouse. All who entered were seized and slain

by a swarm of small Dresdoni who could be no more

than children. They quickly and efficiently prepared

the bodies and shipped them on to the fifth room,

which was a kitchen. The bodies were then cooked

and sent out to the other rooms in turn. The

Dresdoni really did intend to eat them. But why were

they being treated like kings? And how could these

monsters eat their own? Did they not know about

their macabre fate, or were they so disconnected from

their own lives that they viewed this as the natural

order of things? Sasha’s eyes lingered on the grisly

scene for a long moment before horror overcame him

and forced his gaze away. His eyes lifted to see five

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Dresdoni in brightly colored silken garments standing

above him.

“It seems,” said one of the creatures, “our guest

is so eager to attend the feast he could not wait his

turn.”

Sasha was surrounded. He tried to leap to his

feet, but he didn’t make it past his knees before

several powerful forelimbs clamped onto his

shoulders and forced him down. The razor hairs tore

through his delicate silk garments and pierced his

skin. [_Don’t scream. Don’t give them the satisfaction. Don’t _]

_lose focus. _

“Where is Farris? What have you done with her?”

Sasha asked through gritted teeth.

“Nothing yet,” the Dresdoni replied. “But she

will join you after the Lady has had her fun.” The

Dresdoni turned to its companions, bobbing its head

aggressively. “Give him the full menu.”

The four other creatures stepped forward in turn,

pinning four badges of iron, silver, gold, and emerald

onto Sasha’s shirt. He struggled to his feet again, but

every movement only made the razor hairs dig deeper

into his skin.

“I acted alone,” Sasha yelled. “This isn’t Farris’s

fault. Let her go.”

“Make sure he is washed before he completes the

circuit,” the Dresdoni continued dispassionately.

“That soot is most distasteful.”

“Let me talk to the Lady. Let me see my friends.

I’m not your enemy,” Sasha blurted. He had to buy

time. Maybe when his friends woke up …

“If you eat quickly,” the Dresdoni said, “you

might be able to greet your friends by the time they sit

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down to eat. What greater honor could you do them

than nourish their bodies with your life?”

Sasha lurched away. He made it to his feet this

time. One step, two, three toward the shaft. If he

could make it inside they would never be able to fit

after him—

A heavy blow glanced off the side of Sasha’s

head. The world spun. Four steps. Five. A thousand

little spines dragged down his leg, spinning him to the

floor. He could almost touch the iron fireplace … but

what felt like a hundred spindly legs were engulfing

him now. A thin layer of unyielding silk netted his

body in an instant. He had never felt a more revolting

pleasure than the soothing vibrations that ensnared

him as he was lifted and carried away to the chambers

below.

69

[*CHAPTER 6: THE HALL OF *]

*THE BEAST *

_Thought is the vehicle for change, and change is necessary _

_to achieve happiness. Once happiness has been achieved, there is _

_no more reason for change. Once happiness has been achieved, _

_there is no more reason to think. Give me a mind of steel and _

_daggers, I shall not drink bliss from your cup. _

Lolaran Malhalion, the Last Man

arris was dreaming. She knew it because she had a

F vague awareness of lying on silken sheets which

clung damply to her body. Did she have a fever?

Where was she? Where were her parents? It was

impossible to form a thought or dream without fire

eroding it from every side. If she thought of herself,

she was disoriented with the fire of Elestarphagia. Her

home was engulfed in flames. Her brother was being

dragged into Neera’s hell across burning coals. The

center of the Earth where her Guide waited was a sea

of magma running like a river. The fire would

consume each dream until a new image formed, only

to burn once more with the toxic scent of the lotus

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flower. The fire was spreading more quickly now. The

instant a new image formed it would be engulfed in

fresh flame. Finally the fire outpaced her thought and

nothing existed but the eternal burning of

omnipresent fire.

Farris woke with a gasp. Every inch of her skin

felt tender and raw, but also fresh and new as though

she had just stepped from a boiling hot spring. She

pulled back the silken sheets of her bed, the vibrating

embrace unpleasant against her sensitive skin.

“Honored guest.”

Farris jolted. A Dresdoni was waiting in the

room, watching her. “Please adorn yourself in the

fresh garments we have provided and follow me. The

Lady is ready to receive you now.”

Farris looked down at her clean, naked body,

then back at the Dresdoni. She supposed she should

feel self-conscious, but the creature was so alien to

her she barely minded. All she could think was these

were the same two legs that chased Bumble through

the fields not so long ago. A little thinner now, more

muscular from the long walks and whiter from being

hidden from the sun. But these were the same hands

that collected eggs, and picked apples, and held her

family. How could the world have changed so swiftly

around her while she remained the same at its center?

“The fire…” Farris murmured. Had she been

tricked? Had she given in or failed at something? She

was here to see the Lady, and that was what lay ahead.

The road was never sure, but as long as she knew

where she was heading, nothing else mattered.

“The Elestarphagia has purged your sins, my little

dear,” the Dresdoni cooed. “You are a fresh soul

ready to enter the inner sanctum of Heaven.”

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“And my friends?” Farris asked. She stood, her

bare feet welcoming the cool marble. She began to

dress.

“Already awake and getting ready. If you will

follow me, we shall meet them in her presence, and

then go together to the feast.”

“Thank you,” Farris replied. “I feel like

everything I’ve ever eaten has burned away from me.”

“We don’t know what humans prefer to eat, but

there are many delicacies to choose from and we are

sure you will find something familiar upon the table,”

the Dresdoni said, putting a peculiar emphasis on the

word ‘familiar’.

The silken touch of her clothes purred against

Farris, but she was able to endure it. If she had the

strength to tear herself from the web, and walk

through fire, surely a silken robe wasn’t going to slow

her down. The clothes fit loosely and were so light

she had to keep checking to make sure they hadn’t

fallen off without her notice. The silk was bright red

with golden trim along the pant legs and cuffs, and

she felt truly royal wearing them. Farris allowed

herself to be led from the room by the Dresdoni and

down the winding emerald halls.

“How did you have clothes to fit me?” Farris

asked. A sudden alarm gripped her. “You didn’t make

them while I was asleep, did you? How long have I

been here?”

“Not long, my dear,” the Dresdoni said. “The

Lady has been expecting you for some time.”

Farris wanted to ask more, but the creature was

quick and it was all she could do to force her tender

body to keep pace. Hadn’t Skavy mentioned

something about the Lady watching everything? Farris

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felt she should be afraid of such a claim, but the hope

at gathering information about her brother

outweighed that for now. She followed the Dresdoni

which led her expertly through the hallways and

intersections until they reached a great spiral stair of

white marble that soared several flights upward. There

were windows of the same nearly transparent marble

that had encased the Elestarphagia, and Farris could

see the whole pyramidal gardens stretching below her

as they climbed. The sight from above was even more

breathtaking: each miniature garden on each

Nimbledo tree was woven together with the others in

an exquisite symphony of color and light.

The spiral stair terminated before two large black

marble doors at the very top of the tower. Bumble

and Riften were already waiting there. Riften sat

cross-legged on the ground, at ease in his silks, and

Farris laughed to see Bumble wrapped in her own red

silken robe perfectly fitted to her shape. There was

even a little indenture at the chest where her goatly

beard was able to hang freely. The animal jumped

with excitement to see her, strutting back and forth

proudly to show off its new look.

“Oh good!” Riften beamed. “I was afraid I’d

have to entertain the Lady myself.”

“Hello, Riften. Where’s Sasha?” Farris asked.

“Sasha woke earlier and has already gone to the

feast,” the Dresdoni said. “Do not worry, the Lady

does not have any questions for him. She is waiting

for you, Farris Darkspeaker.”

“How does she know about that?” Farris asked.

The Dresdoni only smiled with its too-human

eyes and opened the marble doors a sliver before

bowing and standing back.

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“Then you’ll find me at the feast as well,” Riften

stood up.

“Enter, Riften Ranagan of the Brass City,” the

Dresdoni replied smoothly. “The Lady is waiting.”

Riften shuddered slightly, nodding. Farris moved

to open the doors the rest of the way.

“Farris, are you all right?” Gloria whispered

urgently from Bumble. “Careful now, don’t let them

know I’m here.” Farris paused, pretending to study

the workmanship of the door.

“Of course I am,” Farris whispered out of the

side of her mouth. “The flower was a shock, but I feel

better for it now.”

“No, Farris,” Gloria replied. “This place is more

evil than I could have imagined. You must not speak

with the Lady. Find Sasha and get out of here

quickly!”

“What are you talking about? They’ve been

perfectly courteous to me,” Farris said.

“Is there a problem?” the Dresdoni asked. “You

may enter now.”

“I did not recognize the flower from in here until

it was too late to warn you,” Gloria said. “Those

petals are made from the sky above the world, and the

Lady is none other than Rishta the goddess herself.

She is a betrayer and a scoundrel!”

“My, what beautiful craftsmanship,” Riften spoke

loudly, catching onto Farris’s delay. “My people are

workers of metal, but we have much to learn from

you about the molding of stone.”

“I’m sure the Lady would love to hear about such

an exchange of ideas,” the Dresdoni replied

impatiently.

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“How do you know her?” Farris asked. Her mind

raced. Rishta sounded familiar. Wasn’t she mentioned

in Grandmother’s story?

“Never mind how,” Gloria snapped. “She is the

same witch from the last age who corrupted the

summoning of Nidhoggdrasil. Her insatiable love of

power brought the world to ruin when it should have

stood tall. You must not let her speak or you will

already be in her snares!”

“Have my guests arrived? I am not accustomed

to being kept waiting,” a soft voice called through the

crack in the doorway.

“I can’t turn back now,” Farris whispered

quickly. “Without her help we’ll never find Tom.”

There was a little sigh like indigestion from

within Bumble before Gloria spoke on more evenly.

“You have walked the icy river and looked left and

right. The wise man will think on which way to go,

while the common man will choose at random. If you

go on, you’ll be jumping right in the middle and

hoping for the best, which is no solution at all. Her

words are poison!”

“You’re underestimating me,” Farris said. “If I

could pass through fear then I shouldn’t think passing

by pleasure is any trouble at all.”

Farris opened the door fully and walked through,

although her attention was on the goat now. Bumble

bounded to stay close by her side. Riften walked in

slowly, looking prepared to jump at the slightest

movement. His eyes darted all about him restlessly.

“My guests, at last. Please, do come in,” purred

the Lady from the far end of the hall.

It was very hard not to notice her the instant the

marble doors were opened. In fact, it was difficult to

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notice anything besides her as she filled the entire

floor of the tower by herself. Her expansive body was

bloated far out of proportion to her spindly legs. A

tiny portion of her bulk was grotesquely stuffed into a

small golden throne while the rest of her spilled out

over her raised marble dais and onto the floor. Her

seven legs spread out to touch every wall of the room,

and she must have been there a long while as there

was no possible way she could fit through the marble

doors. A conspicuous empty socket gaped from

where her eighth leg should be, and oozing green pus

dribbled from it onto the marble below. Her face was

smooth like the others, and her eyes were huge pools

of dark light that glinted when she spoke.

Farris was stunned. What could she possibly say

to that immense beast? At last common courtesy

prevailed.

“It is an honor, my Lady. Are you feeling well?

Your leg, I mean—are you hurt?”

Riften jabbed her with his bony elbow, which

was at the level of her shoulder. “Mind your tongue

before the Lady! Don’t ask such things.”

The Lady chuckled, the motion causing ripples

through her entire form. She waved one of her long

legs dismissively.

“You are a foreigner here and may be excused of

your ignorance. I do love my subjects, but at times I

grow weary of worship. It is so nice to have a casual

little chat such as this. Eight legs are necessary to rule

the seven worlds below the earth and the surface

above, but I have long since forsaken the topmost

star. When I led my people underground I renounced

my claim on the Heavens and the eighth leg was

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THE LAST MAN BOOK 2

forfeit. Power, as I’m sure you know, will always have

its price.”

Was she referring to the magic of Naming? How

much did Rishta know about her? Farris remembered

calling to Elestar while the Vindenri fell. The Wyrd

Sisters and her Guide had alluded to the price of

power, although she hadn’t noticed anything besides

the difficulty in leaving the Essence World and the

weariness she felt upon her return. It was clear that

the Lady knew much, however, and Farris had to be

wary.

“Allow me to thank you,” Rishta continued to

drawl, “for bringing my child back to me. Little

Skavash has grand designs and the intolerable desire

to act upon them.”

“Our pleasure,” Riften said. “I hope he wasn’t

punished too severely.”

“Do not worry, Skavash receives no more than

he deserves,” Rishta said, a hint of bridled anger in

her words which melted back into their soft flow. “He

simply has to work in the kitchens to pay his debt, but

I’m sure that’s not the only reason you’re here.”

“Your servant called me Darkspeaker,” Farris

said, “although I’ve not mentioned my time in the

first shell. You must already know why I’m here.”

“I like you, girl.” Rishta’s black eyes gleamed.

“You do not hide behind your words. Your brother is

well. You were right to seek my help, as he and his

captors have turned away from the spiral stair.”

“How do you know so much?” Riften asked.

“Where is he?” Farris blurted. Her eagerness

must have seemed like weakness in the face of poised

royalty, but she didn’t care. There was no point in

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playing games. It didn’t matter what Rishta wanted, so

long as Farris found Tom again.

“My webs span the world, little travelers.

Nothing is unseen by me. But you have traveled so far

already,” Rishta said, trailing her long forelimbs in the

air in slow sinuous patterns. “Why don’t you rest in

my care and let me fetch him for you?”

“Could you really?” Farris’s head raced. Rishta

was powerful. She had a whole kingdom. It would be

no trouble for her to bring Tom back, and she was

already indebted to them for saving Skavy. Even

better, they could rest in this incredible palace instead

of tracking through the endless dark. This was all

happening so perfectly, it was no wonder this place

was called Heaven. Riften beside her looked

concerned though. Farris smiled at him for

encouragement, but his brow only furrowed deeper.

“Your Skavash was on the webs when we found

him,” Riften said, his diplomatic voice hardening into

an accusation, “so you must have known where he

was. You left him there on purpose.”

The Lady’s waving legs dropped to the floor one

by one like slowly strumming fingers. She dragged her

bulk a little closer to them, her eyes piercing like black

stars. “How I conduct my house is of no concern to

you, Ranagan. I do not need to remind you at the

disorder in your own. My business is with Farris.”

“What did I tell you?” Gloria whispered. “Rishta

is pure evil. She must have stranded her own son out

there to lure us in.”

“What is our business?” Farris asked, measuring

her words. “If you brought Tom to me, what would

you wish in return?” Whatever her friends said, she

still had to hear the Lady out. Farris would never

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forgive herself if she came this close to finding her

brother and didn’t do all she could.

Riften wrapped an arm around Farris’s shoulder

and bent down to her ear. “I’m not supposed to be

the reasonable one. Being reasonable is no fun! You

can’t be considering this. What about the green light?

What if she shot us down in the first place?”

He was right, of course. The Lady was a tyrant to

her people. She manipulated Farris into coming here.

They should never make a deal with such a monster.

And yet, wasn’t it because Farris got involved with the

turmoil between the Gracken and the Darkness that

she lost her brother the first time? It wasn’t her job to

save the world. She just had to get her brother and get

out, and the whole vile nest of these creatures could

stew and brood in their cave for the rest of time.

Farris stepped closer to the Lady, letting Riften’s arm

slide from her shoulders.

“First I would have you tell me of my old

friend,” Rishta said. “How has the Darkness above

treated you? He would be a valued ally if he awoke

within these halls.”

The Lady’s eyes continued to smile, and Farris

had the unnerving sensation that the Lady was reading

a script and knew exactly what Farris would think and

say next.

“It is at peace. The light of life no longer burns,”

Farris said. Maybe Rishta didn’t know everything. So

why did she feel like the spider was playing with its

food?

“Such a pity,” Rishta sighed. “There is no power

in peace. And tell me of the Wyrd Sisters; are they still

the dithering old preachers I knew? They must have

shared many secrets with you.”

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Riften was pacing in agitation, but stopped as

Rishta said these words. He lifted his head to stare at

the looming creature. “So that is your game,” he said

aloud. “You want to learn the magic of Naming.”

“I’ll confess it is an art that has always escaped

me,” Rishta purred. Her legs struggled to drag her

across the immense hall. “And I don’t mind admitting

that very little eludes me for long, little ones.”

“What could you possibly need more power

for?” Farris asked. “You’re already worshiped like a

goddess.”

“The great do not become so by chance,” Rishta

said. “I have a thriving little kingdom, but I can only

rise so far with slavish devotion alone. I have studied

those who have felt the world move to their whim:

Javel of Omar, the First Man. Yonda Sahra, the Witch

in the Trees. Queen Velume, Queen of the Dead.

Even the Wyrd Sisters, although they never fully

explored the limits of their strength. All those whom I

admire have Named the world to serve them. How

fortunate am I to have the next prophet of the Way at

my doorstep seeking shelter?”

The lady gave a short, cold laugh. Farris felt

damp clamminess on her skin. Riften gazed at her

with beseeching eyes. Her heart throbbed, knowing

the choice she must make. To side with Rishta would

be to unleash a terrible power upon the world, and yet

to turn away might mean losing her brother. She

closed her eyes and swallowed hard.

“I’m sorry,” Farris said. “I do not have the skill

to teach you of the Way, and even if I had, I would

tell you nothing. In my short time here I can already

see your people suffering, and I fear the pain greater

power might bring.”

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“You are mistaken,” Rishta’s voice was deadly

calm. “There is no greater happiness than within the

gates of Heaven. I give the lowest of my servants

pleasures kings dare not dream of. Their worship is

proof of their love.”

“I have seen it as well,” Riften said. “Pleasure and

happiness are not the same. You cannot say the

starving creatures stranded upon your webs are happy,

nor those who serve you blindly under the

enchantment of your music.”

“Insolent brats,” the Lady said low. “Do not

think you are greater than me because of your words.

I have learned to bend the senses to my will in more

ways than one, and there is more power at sleep

within the Earth than the Naming of a dead tongue.”

“I’m sorry we are not able to be more help to

each other,” Farris bowed. “I do not expect you to

retrieve Tom for me, but if you could just tell us—”

“What of you then, Ranagan?” Rishta

interrupted. She pivoted sharply, all of her legs

slamming into the ground before Riften’s feet. “If you

wish to lecture me, why don’t you tell me what has

gotten into your father’s head? Is he looking for the

Brass Orb once more? Great wonders could be done

with that, if there were a great doer behind it. If he

only seeks wealth, then he has but to name his price.”

“The tomb shall not be opened, and the Orb

shall not be removed,” Riften said calmly, stepping

back from the Lady. “It seems we have nothing more

to discuss.”

“What a waste, what a pity,” Rishta rolled back

onto her considerable backside, stirring the air

thoughtfully with her legs. “I see why Rastar is so

ashamed of his sons, betraying him as you have.”

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“I think we’ve heard enough,” Farris said. She

glanced at the black marble door, still open behind

her. There hadn’t been any open threats, but walking

out of here uncontested seemed unlikely. Why had

Sasha gone onto the feast alone? It will be difficult

trying to find him now, especially if the Lady turned

hostile. Farris had to try to be more diplomatic.

“Having Skavy safe again is reward enough for our

efforts. You have been a very hospitable host, but if

you are not willing to help us find Tom, then it is time

we departed.”

“Nonsense, you must not be so rude.” Rishta

scuttled forward with seemingly impossible speed,

resting directly before Farris once more. “Don’t

confuse a business negotiation for any ill feelings. Stay

for a meal at least, you cannot find my company so

displeasing as that.”

Farris wanted nothing more than to tell Rishta

she was the most disgusting, vile creature she had ever

laid eyes on, and it was no easy feat to continue the

flattery. “I wish that I could,” Farris said, bowing to

hide her clenched teeth. “Your silk is surely a

comfort, and your songs are the most beautiful I have

heard. Your palace is a gem, and your gardens are

intoxicating, but all the wonders in the world cannot

replace my brother. I hope you understand.”

Rishta purred happily, evidently fawning over the

compliments. Farris bowed one last time for good

measure and turned for the door. Of course it

probably wasn’t good manners to leave a queen

before being dismissed, but she had to get out before

it was too late. Bumble was at her side, and Riften at

her heels.

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“Quick quick quick,” Riften murmured. “Sorry

for speaking out, I know I only made it worse.”

“If you hadn’t I would have,” Farris said.

“But there is one more wonder left to try,” the

Lady insisted. “Do not leave yet.”

Either by some unseen servant or a spell, the

black marble doors slammed shut. Farris slowly

turned, half expecting a host of guards to already be

bearing down upon them. Instead she saw two

previously hidden doors on either side of the Lady

had opened to emit a single Dresdoni servant from

each. One was clad all in white, and in his grasp were

the companions’ old clothing and traveling gear they

had arrived with. The other servant was clad all in red,

and he bore a silver platter filled with all manner of

small pastries and appetizers which sizzled

appealingly.

“If you wish to leave,” Rishta continued, “after

trying all I have to offer, then I wish you the best. I

shall even tell you where to find your brother and give

you fresh supplies for the journey.”

“What do you have to gain?” Farris asked. This

had to be another trap, but didn’t she have to explore

every option that brought her closer to Tom?

“No more business. I simply cannot stand you

honorable travelers thinking so unfavorably of me. I

seek one last chance to prove that I only use my

power to create things of beauty and virtue, that is

all.” Farris and Riften exchanged glances. Riften

nodded.

“What if it’s poison?” Farris whispered.

The two servants approached. “Do not be

afraid.” The Lady’s voice was soft. Farris tensed. Had

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she been able to hear them whispering the whole

time? “If I wish you killed, that would be well within

my power without trickery. It is my honest desire for

you to think well of me, so that perhaps you may

someday change your mind. If you taste my food but

refuse to even attend the banquet, I will accept your

decision without question.”

“I accept your hospitality,” Farris said, reaching

out her hands to the servant in red, “and hope you

wish me a speedy journey.” And truly the food did

smell delicious. She had been starving ever since she

woke up. Farris just had to trust herself. She’d been

able to pull away from the silk, hadn’t she? Just as

there was nothing she was afraid to approach, there

should be nothing she couldn’t walk away from. She

was special, after all. Her path was true. Whatever

enchantment was laid upon that food, she could beat

it and walk away.

Both Farris and Riften were given a small puff

pastry each. One bite, one chew, one swallow; it was

swiftly disposed of, but the flavor did not fade.

Farris’s mind blossomed with energy, and she was

elevated to a new plane of sensation. The food from

the Lady was not only tasted, but experienced in every

facet of her being as warmth and serenity stole over

her. Every good memory from Farris’s life was

instantly brought to mind, and even the possibility of

unhappiness seemed ludicrous. It was bewildering,

but as hard as she tried, it was impossible to

remember any suffering in her entire life.

Farris tried to think of forcing through the thick

snow in the coldest winters of her youth, but a blazing

sun that couldn’t have existed pushed through her

thoughts and devoured the storm. She remembered

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when she had dug up her mother’s flower bed, but

instead of being scolded she now remembered only

praise and love as her mother sat down beside her and

tore up the rest of the flowers. Farris’s knew this

wasn’t what really happened, but she couldn’t recall

the truth as every shame and hurt she ever endured

rewrote itself into a perfect scenario. She knew in this

moment with the pastry in her mouth that she had

done no wrong and received nothing but adoration

her entire life. All of this passed in the span of a

second, and then the taste was completely gone from

her being.

The pain rushed back all at once. How freezing

she had been during that winter storm. How her

mother had cried at her ruined garden and hurled

clods of dirt at Farris. How her brother was being

dragged through hell because she’d been too selfish to

believe him. Even the good memories became tainted.

Was her family really mourning, or were they glad to

be rid of her and finally have the peace and quiet they

always demanded? Did she ever play a game with her

brother that wasn’t laced with the bitter tension of

sibling rivalry and jealous hatred?

Farris looked down at her fingers. They were

shaking. Riften was already reaching for a second

pastry. Farris’s own hand shot out to stop him, but

she watched with surprise as she seized another one

as well. And why shouldn’t she? Gloria had said the

Lady could offer only pleasure, not happiness, but she

was wrong. Farris had never experienced a joy more

pure or bliss more rewarding than the taste of the

Lady’s food. When she ate she was emotionally

happy, feeling loved and adored, as well as spiritually

happy as the world fell away into perfect harmony.

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She was physically happy from the indulgence of

pleasure, and no boundary existed between this

moment of ecstasy and the most prized memories of

her life. Why should she bother struggling for security

when every happiness that could ever exist played out

in that moment of euphoria? Why bother chasing

dreams when every dream came true the moment she

took a bite?

Farris shoveled another one into her mouth, and

the feeling enveloped her just as sweetly as before.

The Lady smiled broadly, her rows of needle-like

teeth contorting. With a tap of a long forelimb, the

Lady prompted the servants to dump the enchanted

food onto the ground, crushing it beneath their feet.

Farris didn’t hesitate. She was on her knees, reaching

for the mashed and broken pieces. It didn’t matter.

They would still taste the same. They would still make

her feel …

The Lady laughed. “There is no need for that,”

she said. “The door is open to you, Farris

Darkspeaker and Riften Ranagan. I will not stop you

from leaving. Follow the servant dressed in white, and

he will lead you to freedom.”

Farris knew at some level that if she could only

form the thought to walk through that door, she

could do it. The thought was gone as soon as it had

formed however. There was nothing for her outside

that was not magnified a hundred times here.

Everything she had ever wanted was in that moment

of bliss. Farris tried to scrape the crumbs off the floor

into her hand but they kept falling through her

fingers. This was pathetic. As soon as she got one

more taste she would leave. Farris bent down and

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licked the greasy floor. There it was—her mind

exploded again. At last, she was free.

“Or,” the Lady drawled, “if you prefer, you may

follow my servant dressed in red to the feasting hall

where your every desire shall be sated. You will spend

the rest of your life here, my child, walking my

gardens and listening to my songs while you feast

upon the happiness only I can give. I cannot force

you to teach me of the Names, but I hope as the years

of your life are spent within my halls you will learn to

worship me for the gift I have bestowed. I have

waited a thousand years to learn how to Name the

world, what is one more life of man?”

Farris said nothing. There was a voice shouting

its warning somewhere deep within her, but it was so

faint, like an echo in a deeply buried cave. The servant

dressed in white turned and slowly walked from the

room. She watched it go with relief. Two options was

overwhelming. All that mattered was the red servant

and where he would lead her.

“You have to deny it, Farris!” Gloria shouted,

revealing herself at last from within Bumble. “You

can walk away right now. Just walk away.”

“The goat can speak?” The first show of surprise

flitted across the Lady’s face. “How rude of me for

not offering you one as well. I have already disposed

of my supply here, but you will follow the others to

the banquet hall and eat your fill.”

The servant in red paced slowly from the room.

Farris was sure Gloria was shouting something, but

the words were lost. Farris was concentrating so hard

on trying to remember that heavenly taste that all else

faded into the background. Farris’s vision blurred, and

she wiped her eyes. Why was she crying? Riften wiped

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his eyes as well, falling into an automatic step beside

her, a stupid empty grin spread wide over his face.

“I am so pleased,” the servant in red said, “you

have decided to join us in Heaven.”

88

[*CHAPTER 7: THE FEAST *]

[_Freedom is not the absence of control; freedom is being the _]

_one in control. Those who are slaves to their every temptation _

_have no mastery of their fate. Discipline does not restrict _

_freedom, it embraces it. _

-Nidhoggdrasil, the World Serpent _ _

_ _

top eating!” Sasha screamed. “You’re eating

“S each other, and you’ll be next!”

A few glassy eyes wrenched away from their

grizzly banquet. Sasha struggled where he was bound

in the spider silk, its haunting allure a mockery of his

panic. The Dresdoni guards carrying him through the

banquet hall sneered in response, but made no

attempt to cover his mouth. Didn’t they care he was

trying to warn the other patrons? Surely after they saw

how he was being treated they would …

_Guzzle. Smack. Belch. _ Sasha stared with disbelief.

They continued eating, not giving their food a second

glance. Not one of them seemed repulsed in the least.

They must have heard him. How could he make them

believe what he had seen? Sasha squirmed, earning

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himself a rough smack from one of the guards, its

razor hairs cutting a ragged swathe down Sasha’s

cheek. The guards dragged him relentlessly through

the room.

“There’s a slaughterhouse behind this door!”

Sasha insisted loudly. “They’re going to kill and eat

every one of you.”

They did understand him, didn’t they? However

absurd it may sound, if someone had run into Sasha’s

house screaming warnings about the food he would at

least pause. Why weren’t they … but the impossible

realization began to dawn on Sasha. However strongly

they disbelieved it, his performance should warrant

some reaction. There was only one possible

explanation for their complacency.

“They know,” one of the guards spoke Sasha’s

fear aloud. “They knew the moment they sat down to

eat.”

Sasha stopped struggling. Blind, hopeless terror

drained the blood from his skin. They were demons,

all of them. Of course they looked like monsters from

the start, but Sasha had kept telling himself that as

long as they were able to converse intelligently they

must possess some internal reason and common

ground. There was nothing human about these things.

No empathy, no self-preservation, no desire for

freedom. There was no way out.

“You’ll understand when you try the food,” the

second guard added wistfully. “And when your

friends sit down beside your body, you’ll know the

pleasure you have brought them and your soul will

glow with pride.”

Sasha heard a door swing open, but he was

unable to turn in the silk bindings to see what was

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inside. He didn’t need to though. He’d looked into

that sea of blood and scattered carcasses. He pictured

the meat hooks that would pierce his spine at any

moment, where he would hang until his shriveled

body was ready to be cooked. Would there be any

redemption if Farris were the one to eat him? Sasha

almost vomited at the thought. The door closed

behind him, and the oppressive stench of death

encompassed him.

“Fresh meat here,” the first guard called. “This

one might be a squirmer, so get him bled right away.”

“Leave him there, I’ll handle him.”

Sasha was dropped roughly onto the sticky stone

floor. He closed his eyes, not wanting to see what

happened next. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

They were going to find Tom, and Farris would be so

thankful for everything Sasha had done she would

never let him go. Sasha could picture catching Farris’s

eye twenty years from now and seeing her smile,

sharing the secret acknowledgement of their quest

together. There wouldn’t have to be words. There

would never be any doubt about his devotion to her.

And her breath could come fast again like it used to,

and he would know she felt the same way. If she

made it out of here, would she still remember him like

that? But if she was forced to eat him, how could she

ever think of him again without revulsion?

Sasha couldn’t let his memory be robbed from

her, not again. He could accept death, but he wouldn’t

go that way. He heard a hundred little footsteps

scuttling toward him. The Dresdoni children would

swarm him soon, flinging him upon the iron hook.

Sasha tensed his muscles. As long as he was bound

like this he would never get away. He had to wait until

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the hook was almost piercing his flesh, then twist

away and use the hook to cut through the silk. And

then what? He was still surrounded. He was still going

to die. Maybe he could at least hurl himself into the

furnaces and spare Farris from finding him on the

table.

A dozen little hands grabbed Sasha. One last

chance. Wait for it …

“I’ll get this one ready,” a high voice said. “You

lot start washing the floor.”

That one sounded familiar, but Sasha couldn’t

allow himself to look. He had to pretend to have

given up and take them by surprise.

“No way you’re lifting that one by yourself,”

chirped a second voice.

“Insults!” squealed the high voice. “Do you want

me to tell the Lady what you said?”

“But the guard said—”

“And now you refuse to call me by my title? How

dare you!”

Sasha grinned. There was only one Dresdoni he’d

met who could be so sanctimonious.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Lord Skavash. You’re right,

you can handle him yourself.” A scuffle of feet, and

then a single thin arm rested on Sasha’s shoulder.

“Skavy,” Sasha whispered. “What are you doing

here?”

“I volunteered to work here as punishment for

misbehaving.” Skavy scuttled around Sasha, making

swift cuts with his razor hairs. The pressure of Sasha’s

bonds relaxed as the strands were expertly unwoven.

“Then you knew we would be sent here.” Sasha

scowled. “Why didn’t you warn us?”

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“One does not speak out against the Lady here,”

Skavy whispered.

“But you’re a lord.”

“Lady doesn’t care. Lady has lot of lords. Careful

now, if they notice what I’m doing we’ll both be

fried.” The last of the silk bonds fell away and Sasha

began to stretch. “Lie still, silly! Play dead. I’ll handle

things from here.”

“Thank you,” Sasha said, lying still upon the

ground. He flinched when cold wet blood began to

dribble down his neck, but forced himself to endure

it. Skavy was dressing him up to appear dead, and he

wouldn’t let a little discomfort jeopardize his one

hope now.

“No. Thank you, surface dwellers,” Skavy replied.

“The Lady’s word has always been the only word. The

pleasure she offered was the only joy. Seeing you all

fighting so hard for something you weren’t ordered to

do is a blessing. When I grow up, I will be my own

master too.”

Sasha was soon drenched in cold blood. He

allowed his body to go limp, and felt himself be

dragged from the room. A door opened, and the air

became much warmer. He must be in the cooking

room now.

“Get me close to a furnace,” Sasha whispered.

“I’m not going to let myself be eaten.”

“No orders,” Skavy snapped. “I am not doing so

much just to see you be cooked anyway. Keep

fighting, Sasha. Don’t stop till you’re dead.”

Sasha wanted to question him, but a large bag of

flour was dumped onto his face. He was moved again

and lain onto something cold and hard.

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“Back of the line, this one’s still raw,” a harsh,

deep voice said.

“Course it is, this is how humans are served. It’s

a delicacy.”

“Ah, delicious.” The deep voice softened. “Looks

tender. All right, ship it out. Let’s keep it moving here.

We’ve got three more on the way.”

Three more? Farris, Riften, and Bumble? Sasha

wanted to leap up right there and go back for them. If

he revealed himself now, though, little Skavy would

be caught and punished. He had to wait a little longer

until he could locate them. Sasha felt himself being

carried for a ways, and then another door opened. A

roar of chewing, guzzling, and smacking washed over

him from all sides. He must be in the feasting hall

now. If they had meant for Farris to eat him, then this

is where she must be.

Sasha allowed his eyes to open a sliver and

furtively scan the room. He was being carried by a

fully grown Dresdoni. A massive bonfire flared in the

center of the room, and gluttonous guests crowded

the benches. Sasha was set down upon one of the

three long tables. His disguise was working flawlessly;

no one suspected he was alive. Then his heart really

did stop for a second. Farris was sitting directly beside

him. Her pale face was drawn, and her sharp eyes

were dull and glassy. He was too late. She’d already

eaten, but as long as she was there, Sasha would find a

way out. He couldn’t blow his cover yet, not until he

had a plan.

Farris sat between two bloated Dresdoni with

Riften nearby. Great steaming piles were drowned in

sauces of every possible color. Huge loaves of porous

bread crawled with maggots and worms. Meats sat in

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vats of melted grease and fat which had congealed

into solid blocks. Sasha watched with horror as Farris

grabbed an indiscriminate handful of food and stuffed

it into her mouth. Her eyes flashed dully, and she

trembled with ecstasy as a sloppy grin contorted her

beautiful mouth.

Sasha couldn’t watch. He glanced upward at the

glass room he had snuck into before. The Dresdoni in

brightly colored silks were performing on an

arrangement of flutes and complex harps with their

eight legs. So that’s what the room had been for! The

sound wafted through clearly, but it was not the sweet

pure music the guard has played before. A tumultuous

cascade of frenzied notes beat upon his eardrums,

setting pace for the guests who gorged themselves to

its rhythm. Whatever couldn’t be choked down was

thrown into the central bonfire which billowed with

greasy black smoke. The whole room stank as badly

as the slaughterhouse.

Sasha looked back to Farris. He flinched every

time she grasped another handful of bone and fat and

gagged it down. Some of the food was arranged

beautifully, while others still twitched in the last

throes of life. She didn’t seem to have the slightest

preference for one over the other. Riften was moving

more slowly, although his hands still traced an

uninterrupted loop between the plates and his mouth.

His eyes looked different than Farris’s though:

somehow his same old cunning spark endured the

enchantment of this place. If Sasha was going to find

a way out, he needed help.

“Riften,” Sasha whispered, his voice swallowed

by the wave of sound. Riften nodded subtly without

making eye contact. He understood. Farris reached

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obliviously past Sasha, grabbing a fistful of chips

beside his face. Her fingers brushed his skin and

froze. She must be aware too! Her fingers trembled

slightly, touching his skin again. Her glassy eyes

closed.

“I’m all right,” Sasha mouthed, barely audible.

“We have to get out of here though. Once the guests

leave the feast, they’re brought to the kitchens and

cooked.”

“Farris won’t be able to,” Riften replied from the

side of his mouth without turning his head. “The

food is enchanted. She won’t be able to stop eating.”

“How did you break free?” Sasha asked. As he

watched, Riften palmed a small tart and mimed eating

before slipping the untasted morsel under the table.

“My strength lies in knowing which battles I

cannot win.”

Farris pulled her fingers away from Sasha. She

clutched at the plate of pastries, crushing several of

them between her fingers so thick gravy ran over her

hands. She pressed the entire cluster into her face and

sighed with content.

“Farris!” Sasha spoke as loudly as he dared. It

didn’t matter though. Everyone was much too

absorbed in their own meals to pay him any attention.

There were still guards standing around the entrance

though. If they saw Sasha was alive he would either be

sent back to the slaughterhouse or forced to eat the

food himself. What was the point in saving himself if

he couldn’t reach Farris? He had to try harder.

“Wake up, Farris.” It was as though he were a

stranger speaking a foreign language. She didn’t even

glance at him. What was going on in her mind? How

could she forget everything with one bite? Then again,

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how could she have forgotten everything about him

already? Sasha would never have imagined the mind

to be so fragile before he began this journey, but in

the face of such powerful spells and enchantments,

what was he supposed to do?

“You’ll have to do better than that,” Riften said.

“I can’t. The guards will catch us.”

“Let me worry about the guards,” Riften said.

“She’s closer to you than she is to me. If you can’t

give her a reason to live, no one can.”

“But I don’t know what to do,” Sasha said. If he

couldn’t reach her, was that proof of how little she

cared about him? If he really meant so much, why

wouldn’t she listen?

There was no time for doubt. Riften had already

thrown off his guise of enchantment and leapt upon

his chair. His considerable height rose almost to the

ceiling of the high-vaulted chamber, and all eyes

glanced in his direction. Riften picked up a great

platter of diced vegetables and began pelting them

across the room in all directions. It was disgusting to

see the food hit some of the guests square in the face,

only to see them stoop and slurp it from the ground.

The guards were after Riften now, but the Paral-

Zakdul nimbly rolled between a sea of grasping limbs

and leapt straight onto the banquet table.

“Dance, dance, dance.” Farris giggled. Did she

think this was all a game? Sasha thought he could

glimpse the struggle behind her eyes, but perhaps it

was just his hope that blinded him. No, the real Farris

had to be in there somewhere. Sasha just had to

connect with her again. But how could he make her

remember who she was when she seemed so alien to

him now? She was reaching toward the food again,

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her laughter replaced by stern concentration. It

seemed as though the enchantment of the food was

strongest right after she had eaten, so first Sasha had

to prevent her from getting more.

Farris’s hand grasped at the pastries, but Sasha

intercepted it and held it fast. His fingers clasped

around hers, and he felt her cold hand tremble with

the effort of pushing past him. Her glassy eyes traced

up in his arm to land on his face, staring at him

perplexed.

“I’m here, Farris.” Sasha fumbled for words. Her

eyes held no recognition or warmth. He was just an

obstacle to her. Maybe he had no right to interfere at

all. Hadn’t she made her own choice to eat the food?

Wasn’t she happy while she was eating it? Even if

Sasha could force her kicking and screaming from the

table, what dark road or nameless terror waited for

them ahead? If she could just be happy here, maybe

he could be happy too. As long as they were together

… Farris pulled her hand free. She turned away

from him and knelt on the floor, scraping up the

spilled food there. Sasha looked helplessly to Riften.

How much time did he have?

Riften was running down the length of the long

table, kicking wildly as he went to send as much food

flying as possible. The enchanted diners mindlessly

followed their meal, tipping over the benches and

crawling upon the floor. The guards were in hot

pursuit of Riften, but they struggled to get through

the teeming bodies fighting for spilled scraps. A large

bowl of mysterious meat rolled into the bonfire,

followed by a terrible scream as several of the

Dresdoni crawled straight into the flames to retrieve

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it. Even as they were being cooked alive, other guests

wasted no time reaching into the fire after them to

feast upon their still-living comrades.

Riften ended his dance with a wild leap to the

next table and repeated the process. All the while he

sang any word that came into his head at the top of

his lungs. The room had erupted into chaos. Screams

of pain and anger, as well as commands from the

bellowing guards accompanied his song. The frenzied

music above only grew louder to compete with the

racket, and the fire leapt high as though dancing in

tune with each new offering of food and flesh.

Riften was much too quick to be caught. Sasha

turned back to Farris, kneeling beside her on the

floor. She sucked on her fingers, covered in grease

and filth, glaring at him suspiciously as he

approached. This wasn’t Farris anymore. This was a

frightened animal backed into a corner. Sasha opened

his mouth, closing it helplessly without saying

anything. She turned away from him, rummaging

along the floor for more discarded food.

Sasha grabbed her, wrapping his arms around her

waist. At least this way he didn’t have to look at her

wild face. She was limp in his arms, the entire length

of her body pressed against his. She wasn’t fighting!

She must feel something—some comfort, some

familiarity, some security. Sasha’s heart was beating so

fast, she must at least feel that. Sasha slowly turned

her around to face him, desperate to see her yet afraid

of how she would see him. There were tears in her

shrouded dark eyes. Her lips were pressed firmly

together, quivering slightly. Her cheeks were hollow

and dead. It wasn’t her hope that made her stop

resisting. She had given up.

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“I’m sorry,” Farris murmured. It was barely

audible amidst the uproar, but Sasha could hear

nothing else. “I thought I was better than this, but

I’ve seen who I really am here. Tell Tom I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Sasha said,

holding her tight. “We’re not leaving without you.”

“You’re not real, Sasha.” She tried to pull away

from him, but he held firm. “The food is everything I

need. I feel every happy moment I’ve ever felt or ever

could feel, and the moment I stop it’s gone. I’m not

real without it, Sasha, nothing is.”

“You can beat this,” Sasha insisted. “I’ve seen

what you can do. Nothing can stop you.”

“If nothing can stop me, then why are you trying?

The stronger my will, the more impossible it is to

overturn once it has chosen to disobey me. This is

what I have chosen, Sasha. Please leave me.”

She was struggling harder now. Sasha could feel

her skin become damp where she was pressed against

him. Her limbs were beginning to convulse. There

was too much Sasha didn’t know—he was always so

lost. What if he was killing her by forcing her away?

He couldn’t trust anything. Her body spasmed against

him. The only thing he knew for sure was how he felt

about her. As long as he held her, somehow

everything would be all right. Sasha held her as tightly

as he could, feeling each spasm through her body as

though it was in his own.

“You don’t need it,” Sasha said, doubting his

own words even as he said them. “You can be happy

without it. You were happy with me once, I know it.”

“You know I wouldn’t remember, even without

the food,” Farris said. “There isn’t anything outside

this room except when I’m eating.”

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“You need to hold onto a real memory here. You

have to find a way to be happy in this moment

without the food. You have to know it’s possible,”

Sasha begged. “Look at Riften. He’s singing and

dancing on the tables. Can’t you at least smile at

that?”

“How can I be happy?” Farris asked, her words

interspaced by heaving sobs. “Not in this monstrous

hell. I’ve become one of them, Sasha. I’ll never see my

brother again; I’ll never see my family. I’ll never see

the sky again, but I see it while I’m eating. I’ll never

feel the breeze, or the rain against my skin, or know

whether it’s night or day or spring or fall. One more

bite, and all the glory of life will exist at once and I’ll

never forget again. I don’t care if it’s real, I have to

hold onto something.”

“But I’m real,” Sasha said quietly. “Can’t you

hold onto me?”

She stopped shaking for a moment. Sasha lifted

her from the floor and placed her on top of the table.

All that storm of flame and noise raged around them,

and in the still heart of turmoil Sasha kissed her hard

upon the mouth. He didn’t know whether he was

trying to give her hope or saying goodbye, but even if

she couldn’t feel anything, he had to try. Her eyes

opened wide with surprise. Something stumbled and

faltered within Sasha, and he hoped against hope that

she could feel it too. If she could just find one

glimmer of happiness in this churning world, one

fleeting moment to hold onto.

Farris laughed, throwing her arms around Sasha

in return. The sound was pure and clean. She was

here. Please let her be here with him.

“Don’t let go,” Farris begged.

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“Never.”

  • * *

Farris willed the sliver of broken time to endure,

but she could feel the pull of the enchantment on her

once more. While they danced through the maelstrom

of senses, Farris seized control of her own will and

yelled with all her might.

“I Name thee…!” Her mind was gone. Her body

was gone. The room was gone. The noise was gone.

Nothing but soft white light and the rolling laughter

of her Guide existed now.

“Stop laughing!” Farris was furious. She had

never maintained such anger in the Essence World.

She held onto it as though sheltering a precious flame,

afraid to lose any part of herself anymore. “You have

no idea how close I was to not coming back!”

“Of course I do,” the Guide said. “You wouldn’t

have learned anything if it had been easy.”

“The only thing you ever teach me is not to trust

you,” Farris said. “Every time I listen to you I end up

almost dead. I never should have come here.”

“Everything worth learning is taught on the brink

of death,” the Guide said. “You learned that the

bravest man might succumb to pleasure, for he

embraces life as it is; while the most cowardly might

pass it by, as he knows how to turn away. You learned

that pleasure is illusory and shallow, and that it is up

to your conscious will to decide what is real and what

is not.”

Farris was quiet, hating the Guide for speaking

her inner thoughts so plainly. “I don’t need your

lecture. I’m going back to put an end to this.”

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“With what weapon?” the Guide asked. “You

cannot wield the same flame that banished life from

the surface.”

“Not the same,” Farris said. She was aware that

she was being led to the answer like a school child,

but she needed to speak her thoughts aloud to

organize them all the same. “I can’t deny the senses

brought me pleasure any more than I could name the

light as merely a negation of the darkness. Fear and

pleasure aren’t opposites at all: they’re the same. Just

as attraction and repulsion are the same force applied

in different directions, fear and pleasure are the same

force. If I had to control the fire of life to dispel fear,

I must now move the other way to dispel pleasure.”

Farris didn’t want to stay any longer than she had

to. Her thoughts returned to her friends, and Sasha

especially. Nothing would ever be able to replace the

moment they shared in the midst of that wild battle.

“You aren’t going to leave me yet,” the Guide

said, the authority of its presence dominating the

insubstantial space.

“I have everything I need to break free,” Farris

said. “Surely my savior isn’t as short-sighted as that,”

the Guide said. “Do you plan to use your new power

to torture the Lady into submission?”

“I don’t care about the Lady,” Farris said,

confused. Her mind raced in the clarity of thought

that the Essence World facilitated. “You mean she

hasn’t told me about Tom.”

“Nor will she in the pride of her defeat,” the

Guide purred. “Such a shame that your expedition

was a waste.”

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“You knew!” Farris declared, her mind hot with

accusation. “You knew she wouldn’t tell me anything.

You knew where Tom was the whole time. You only

sent me here as some sort of perverted test.”

“That is no way to speak to your master,” the

Guide growled, “especially if you come seeking

answers.”

“What do you expect?” Farris asked. “For me to

thank you for tricking me?”

“A little gratitude would have been nice,

considering how much effort I am expending into

leading you along the Way. How are you supposed to

wield the strength to open my tomb if you lack the

discipline of study on the journey?”

Farris fumed. She felt the infinite expanse of the

Essence World pressing upon her, willing away all

substance and emotion, but she flared against it with

devastating fury.

“I am not here for you. You are not my master.

You are not my friend. As I see it, I’m the only thing

between you and a mindless eternity of solitude.

When I leave this place, I’m never coming back, and

I’m never speaking to you again.”

Sasha. Riften. Home. Farris focused her wild

thoughts into the return.

“Wait!” Her Guide’s voice broke with

desperation. “Tom is in the third shell. That’s why

you didn’t pass him on the stair in your descent.”

Farris hesitated. “Why should I trust you now?”

“Pistal, leader of the Paral-Zakdul hunters, is

afraid of his elder brother Riften. Pistal has diverted

his course to lose you. Touch the Yonda-Sahra tree in

the third shell and you shall find them there,

replenishing their supplies with its fruit.”

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“It’s another trick. You want to test me in

another shell.”

“No more games,” the Guide said. “You will be

tested wherever you go, but I will prepare you with all

the strength I have to give.”

“This doesn’t mean that I will help you,” Farris

said. “This isn’t enough to earn your freedom after

how you’ve treated me.”

“You are my freedom, Farris,” the Guide

whispered. “As long as you are here with me, I won’t

be alone.”

“But you are alone,” Farris said. She reveled in

the shifting of power in their relationship. She could

feel the Guide’s mind somewhere in this empty

expanse pressing upon her, but it did so as a

frightened animal huddling for warmth, not as an

oppressing force. Maybe she would be kinder to it if it

really had changed, but after everything she had been

through she didn’t care anymore. She only cared

about her friends, and how much they had endured to

accompany her. She wanted to be back. She wanted to

hold Sasha again, and tell him how much he meant to

her. She wanted to find the path to her brother.

Sound crashed into her from all sides. She was

sitting on the table again. Sasha was holding her, his

face buried in her neck. Riften danced through a sea

of waving limbs and splashing fire. The last of his

taunting words rang clearly, and she smiled to know

that her mind was her own again and nothing could

harm her any longer.

_ Sniff, smack, bones go crack, _

_Dining on such dainties. _

_ _

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_Jump, walk, no time to talk, _

_Eat until the pain cedes. _

[_Hope you don’t, find it rude, _]

[_That I’m dancing on the tables. _]

_Lighten up, you bunch of prudes, _

_And listen to this fable. _

_ The fat old Lady wanted more, _

_But found she was unable. _

_She cannot fit, through the door, _

[_So we’ll have to use a cable. _]

_The cable breaks, and down she fal s, _

_To crush the little towney. _

_I hope that all these great high walls, _

[_Can contain her fat old crowney! _]

As the last words of Riften’s song died, Farris

stood upon the table. Sasha looked up at her with

rapturous wonder. He wasn’t the only one. Farris

knew what a spectacle she must appear, breaking the

enchantment before the hopeless and the damned.

She spoke resolutely, and before her presence the

whole room fell still to listen. “I Name thee, Sagari

the ocean. Awaken us and tear down this hall of the

beast!”

Farris had the oddest sensation that she was back

in the Essence World for a moment. There were

other words besides her own that shouted in unison

within her mind. It felt as though she had risen from

a dream only to hear the last words of the dream still

sound in the waking world. The bonfire in the center

of the room roared to the ceiling, and all near it fell

back in terror. The flames burned so hot they turned

white, then intensified into sapphire blue. The greasy

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black smoke was dispelled into the vents with a final

burst like a dying gasp.

Radiant blue sparks sprayed across the room and

the patrons screamed as they were doused in their

brilliance. Shouts of disbelief followed as they

discovered they were not burned, for all that fell

about them were soft droplets of water. Before their

eyes the blue flame turned into a rushing wave that

poured into the statue-column of the emerald serpent

in the corner of the room. No one moved. All eyes

were on Farris, waiting for what, they did not know.

Then the shouting returned all at once. The emerald

coils of the statue began to writhe over one another.

The spell of the enchanted food was suspended by

the show of her brilliant defiance, and the glassy eyes

of the assembly sparked with renewed spirit. Farris

had breathed life into the tower as she Named the

waters of life.

The emerald serpent’s muscles tightened around

the tower before breaking free in an explosive burst.

Millions of tiny emerald shards lanced through the air,

winking in the light like a blizzard of green eyes. The

guests screamed and fled from the hall, leaving their

food behind. Farris grabbed hold of Sasha’s hand and

leapt for the door. The glass room above them

shattered, but Sasha held her close and shielded her

from the raining blades. Riften swept Bumble up

from the floor where she was threatened to be

trampled, and together they leapt from table to table

in the mad escape. The displacement of the serpent

had stirred the other bonfires to rage through the

tower. Marble cracked and split, rich tapestries were

woven with flame, and the entire palace imploded

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inward as the inhabitants sprinted through the

crumbling tower.

Shoved, pushed, and trampled, the mass of

guests poured out of the dying building and into the

garden. Riften vanished somewhere into the crowd,

continuing to run wildly even after they had escaped

the structure. Farris turned to see the entire serpent

sculpture rear above the tower. A deafening hiss

issued from its belly that reverberated like light within

a crystal prism, and the serpent lunged. One massive

bite and the entire top floor of the tower was

devoured. A loud scream split the noise, and as one

the Dresdoni shuddered at the sound.

The Lady’s bloated body was revealed for a

moment amidst the ruined floor. Seven legs tore at

the sky in an anguished prayer. The serpent struck

again. Half of the queen remained, tumbling lifelessly

to impact in a gruesome explosion amidst her

precious garden. The serpent’s coils constricted

relentlessly around the palace, which shattered around

her body like so much glass. The massive serpent

swam gracefully through the air, suspended by its own

unliving muscles as it lowered its gargantuan body to

encircle the survivors in a ten foot wall of emerald.

The guests continued to clamor over one another in a

desperate bid to escape, although there was no way

around the statue’s coils.

Farris didn’t run. She faced the head of the beast,

waiting for it to lower to her level. Sasha shouted

something beside her, but upon seeing her calm he

quieted as well. Riften was soon standing beside them,

and one by one the assembly noticed the circle of

confidence and allowed themselves to be drawn into

it like moths to a flame. By the time the serpent’s

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head rested on the ground before Farris, the whole

crowd was silently watching her. Anticipation like

lightning swept through them. Farris couldn’t look

away from her own creation. The eyes of the emerald

serpent were deeply set rubies which flashed with life.

She stared into them, and with a tread slowed from

wonder rather than fear, Farris approached the living

beast.

109

[*CHAPTER 8: THE EMERALD *]

*SERPENT *

_Life begets thought, such is the will of the Universe. My _

_thought begets life, such is my will. It is only our lack of _

_understanding the natural laws which forces us to obey them. To _

[_see the truth is to not understand it; it is to create it. _]

-Javel of Omar, the First Man

ll attention was on Farris and the emerald

s

A e rpent, staring into each other’s eyes. _Now is my _

_chance, _ Riften thought. He crept backward until his

back was pressed against the wall of the serpent’s

coils. No one was watching him. Riften spun and

grabbed onto the jutting scales of the creature and, as

lightly as an acrobat, he sprang up the creature’s side.

Leaping from scale to scale, he soon clambered all the

way up the emerald wall. He pressed himself flat so as

not to be seen, and looked back at the scene below.

Farris and the serpent seemed to be sharing some

understanding without words. Farris turned away

from the creature and now addressed the assembly.

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“The Lady is dead,” Farris shouted in a clear,

authoritative voice. A murmur raced across the crowd

like a thousand falling leaves. “Her tyranny is over.”

Just as Riften thought. Some dull speech about

how life would be better now and the wealth would

be shared evenly throughout the land. Riften moved

to slide down the other side of the coiled serpent. He

had something more important in mind. It seemed

ludicrous that they could all allow their attention to be

captured so easily. How could the true treasure of the

Dresdoni already be forgotten?

“There will never again be a fear so terrible or a

pleasure so great as to rule your own lives,” Farris’s

voice drifted from behind. “You will each be masters

of your own way, neither taking from others what is

not yours, nor giving to others what they do not

deserve. You will find harmony within yourself and

your neighbors to rebuild your kingdom.”

Riften dashed across the garden. _Such a fragile _

[_prize, please don’t let it be ruined by this horrible mess. _] His

eyes traced the garden, trying to compare his memory

with the crushed and burned vegetation around him.

They should have entered the tower just over there,

so the treasure must be … Riften’s heart sank. The

translucent housing of the fire eater lotus had

shattered from the explosion. The little shrine was

devastated. Of all the destruction, it was the greatest

shame that such a sublime power should be wasted.

But wait, what was that?

A flicker of red graced the darkness before him.

Riften approached reverently to see the Elestarphagia

flower hovering in the air, suspended by waves of

heat and smoke that billowed up from the ground. Its

black petals melded perfectly with the darkness, and it

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would have been completely invisible had its red heart

not bled light. Riften could still feel the burning

presence pause his heart, and it felt as though time

had stopped to take a breath of its fragrance before

allowing his blood to flow once more. The red velvet

which had concealed its scent lay discarded on the

ground below. This would no doubt be an invaluable

tool in the days ahead. When the time came for Riften

to do what he feared, this flower would save him

from that awful burden. His deft hands folded the red

velvet around the blossom to suppress its scent,

cupping it more carefully than any mother has held

her child. He tucked the flower within an empty

flagon he had stolen from the banquet, using the

velvet to seal the opening and stifle the magical odor.

By the time Riften had climbed back over the

emerald wall and slipped back within the crowd,

Farris had turned away from the people and faced the

serpent once more. Skavy stood beside her, his pose

triumphant as he rallied the Dresdoni around him.

The serpent lay motionless, its head on the ground

like an obedient dog. Riften quietly rejoined the

companions, making no mention of his return as

though he had been there all the while. Farris had

been busy admiring her creation and the people she

had addressed. Sasha was holding their old traveling

sacks and supplies, evidently returned by one of the

Dresdoni. His eyes were only for Farris anyway. No

one would have noticed what he was doing.

“I name thee, Sagari the Ocean,” Farris said to

the serpent, “to be my vessel onward.”

The ruby eyes flashed. Was it angry at her

impudence? Grateful for her gift? Did the primitive

creature even possess living thought or was it a

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mindless golem? It was impossible to read the

emerald beast. The monstrous sculpture began to

rumble. Its jaws opened wide. Riften’s eyes mapped

all possible escapes. There was no tension in the rest

of the creature’s body however, so it did not appear

prepared to spring. Riften still might have been

tempted to cower before so immense an adversary if

it weren’t for the perfect confidence Farris carried.

She lived so brilliantly in her nerves in this moment it

was impossible not to borrow some of her power.

Her face was open and playful as though she had just

figured out how to work a marvelous toy.

Farris walked calmly inside the jaws of the

serpent. She passed through a row of softly glowing

ruby fangs that hung like stalactites and entered the

pure emerald corridor of the creature’s body. Sasha

glanced at Riften, his brow furrowed.

“Do you think it’s safe?” he asked.

“Not in the least. I think it’s possessed by an

overwhelming power that it does not itself

understand,” Riften said. “It’s irrational, and

pigheaded, and the very idea of disappointing her

makes my knees shake.”

“I’m not talking about Farris, you idiot.” Sasha’s

face creased with the hint of a smile.

“Oh,” Riften grinned. “Well, besides her,

anything else can’t intimidate me in the least.”

Riften entered the emerald serpent, Sasha and

Bumble beside him. Gloria had been silent for a long

while. Was she simply sulking that no one listened to

her about entering the second shell, or was there

something else diverting her attention? Riften was

sure by now that she must have some way of sensing

the outside world.

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Inside the serpent was an empty corridor that

curved as the body of the beast. The walls and ceiling

writhed and breathed as a living creature, although

they were still built from the purest green emerald

with bright veins shining throughout. Curved pillars

that resembled ribs marched into the darkness. The

fire from the devastated palace outside could be seen

as a dull red reflection within, making it look as

though blood ran beneath the skin. Farris was

standing inside, looking around her with awe.

“Don’t go any farther in,” Sasha warned.

“Remember this place was still built by the Lady. We

don’t know what kind of vile trap she may have

hidden within.”

“I know what I’m doing,” Farris said.

Riften watched Sasha stop a few feet away from

Farris. His hand was outstretched as though to hold

her back, but his feet were rooted in place. Riften had

only been joking, but there really was a certain fear

Sasha held for Farris. It was more than the self-

conscious doubt that pervaded every romantic ideal;

he was genuinely afraid of what she was becoming.

Riften had taken for granted that he could always

influence Farris’s behavior with the correct use of her

brother as motivation, but after witnessing the terrible

destruction her creation had caused, it was hard not to

have his own doubts. There was no denying her

power aided in his own journey, but if she were to

become a liability …

“There is no stopping her,” Gloria said softly.

Riften jumped in surprise.

“Why would I want to stop her?” Riften asked.

Was Gloria speaking to her own fears, or had she

guessed his?

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“This journey isn’t about her brother anymore,”

Gloria said. “It’s not about you, or Sasha, or anyone

but her. The second she stepped into this shell of the

world she turned from everything but Javel’s Way.”

“Farris doesn’t care about overcoming the test of

each kingdom,” Riften said. “She’ll skip straight to the

end if it means finding her brother sooner.”

“That’s what Javel thought too, at first. But even

when he was given chances to turn back, he

continued his Way. Farris won’t be descending down

the abyss, you’ll see. She’ll head straight for the third

shell.”

“You speak too little for one who knows so

much,” Riften said.

“I can say quite the opposite of you,” Gloria

replied. Riften laughed.

“Farris,” Riften called. “Can you command this

emerald golem?”

“I think so,” Farris said. “But I don’t feel the

same torrent of energy as during its summoning.”

Bumble nuzzled Farris, trying to get her

attention. “There was another voice besides yours.

Was someone else aiding the spell?” Gloria asked.

Riften hadn’t heard anything else, although he

had been quite distracted at the time with his own

song. Farris had a far-off dreamy look as though she

were trying to remember something that may not

have even happened at all. At last she shook her head.

“I was the one to Name the waters of life. I can’t

take all the credit though,” she said. “I know I

couldn’t have done it alone, not without the three of

you. I was a fool for thinking I was stronger than the

witch’s magic. Gloria, you gave me guidance, and

Riften bought me time. Sasha …” Her eyes darted to

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him and then looked away quickly. “Thank you for

that,” she added, smiling sheepishly.

Sasha looked as though he wanted to say

something, but he only nodded sharply and looked

away. Farris quickly found a new fascination in the

emerald walls.

“What sort of voice did you hear?” Riften asked

Gloria.

“I have begun to suspect that Farris has not been

following the Way of Javel alone,” Gloria said.

“Although she has never admitted anything to me.”

Farris looked around as though lost in thought.

She began to slowly stride down the emerald corridor.

Riften hadn’t understood how she could learn the

secret Names just by traveling the lands when he

himself, with years of study at the University Fantasia,

had never discovered a single word. The Wyrd Sisters

may have some link with her. They were powerful

followers of the Way, and the Third obviously had

invested an interest in the girl. Was it simply a matter

of pride that stopped her from admitting that, or was

there something more sinister about the nature of her

teacher?

“Where are you going?” Sasha asked Farris. “We

can’t reach your brother by walking now. You have to

command the serpent to return to the abyss.”

“Why do you think he’s there?” Farris asked.

“He must be,” Sasha said. “Whether or not we

passed him in the descent, he’s surely ahead of us by

now.”

“Sasha is right,” Gloria said. “The Paral-Zakdul

wouldn’t have had any reason to go into the second

shell. They would have simply continued, like I said

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we should have done from the beginning. If only

anyone had listened to me.”

Farris nodded. “All right then, I’ll try to

command the golem. I Name thee …”

As she always did when she was working her

magic, her words trailed off as she reached for the

word of power. Her eyes closed, and her face became

peaceful as though in repose. It must be some form

of meditation, although it absorbed her attention so

completely she lost all awareness of her body. Riften

remembered being shocked to watch the fire burn her

skin without her even noticing in the first shell.

The University Fantasia had speculated on the

existence of an Essence World, a state of perfect

peace where the enlightened mind may travel to

harness power. If she did communicate with a secret

teacher, then that was where it must hide. What

Riften wouldn’t give for a glimpse of that world … he

sighed and turned away, sitting on the floor to wait

for her contemplation to finish.

Would he have chosen a different path if his own

mentor had accompanied him? In all things Riften

did, he asked himself what his teacher Kanal Fantinel

would have done. Most often the answer would be:

hide your true self, observe your target, and learn their

ways. Riften must remain vigilant and not allow

himself to become jealous of Farris’s power. Even

without being able to understand the secret Names,

he still had much to learn.

“…Sagari the Ocean, waters of life. Take us to

the root of Yonda Sahra’s tree,” Farris completed.

She wasn’t working alone! The softest hiss

accompanied her words, although perhaps that could

have been an echo from their peculiar room.

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“What did I tell you?” Gloria asked Riften. “She

is following the Way, not her brother.”

There was no time to argue. As soon as Farris

finished her command, the corridor lurched as the

serpent raised its head.

“Find something to hold onto!” Farris shouted.

The hallway reached a sharp diagonal and was tilting

farther with each passing second. The ribbed columns

seemed like the only option, and Riften latched onto

one at once. Sasha managed to grab hold of Bumble

with one arm while holding on himself, and Farris

pressed herself against the wall.

“What did you tell it?” Sasha demanded. “Why

aren’t we going to the abyss?”

The corridor twisted back and forth as the

serpent sped away. It was impossible to tell how fast

they were traveling, but it felt much swifter than

walking. They slowly began to level out, and Riften

allowed himself to loosen his grip.

“My brother isn’t at the abyss,” Farris said. “I just

know it.”

The room halted for a gut-wrenching second.

Then the angle of the floor reversed and everyone

was flung along the floor. A booming crash sounded

outside and a spray of gravel shot through the

serpent’s closed teeth. They were burrowing into the

ground. Riften had to press himself against the floor

to keep from sliding down the length of the serpent,

but he managed to grab hold of his column once

more. At last the room settled into a comfortable

downward slope and everyone was able to collect

themselves.

“You just know? What are you talking about?”

Sasha asked, bruised and bitter. “We’re already far

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behind because of how much time we wasted in the

second shell.”

“Yes, I just know,” Farris said hotly. “I

understand things. That’s what I do. If I didn’t, I

never would have been able to animate the serpent.

That was me, only me, and I choose where it goes!

You have to trust me.”

“Why are you angry? We’re only trying to

understand,” Sasha said, taking a step back. There it

was again, Riften noted. He was afraid of her.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” Farris said. “You’re always

trying to understand, but you never do. You all just

follow me around and let me suffer through each trial

until I find a way through. Well, you can keep

following if you like, because I know where we’re

going. We will reach the Yonda Sahra tree in a few

hours.”

Farris flung herself into a corner between a

ribbed column and the wall. Sasha looked at Riften

with helpless confusion. Riften shrugged, but he

thought he was beginning to make sense of it. This

supported his theory about Farris’s teacher in the

Essence World. In the time she’d been contemplating,

she had changed the direction of their course and

become angry. She must have been arguing with her

teacher. Would she have fought with the Wyrd Sisters,

or was this an indication that it was someone else?

Not enough information yet.

Sasha sat on the opposite end of the hallway and

crossed his arms, brooding. As cryptic as Farris was

being, it was true that she saw things Riften did not.

He contented himself to sit and wait. They had

already slept long from the purging Elestarphagia,

however, and Riften was unable to find sleep. None

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of them had dared to take the Lady’s enchanted food

with them, so with any luck the journey wouldn’t take

too long. Riften’s hand strayed to the lotus flower he

had hidden beneath his silks. The time would come

when sleep was sweeter than death, and he would be

ready.

In time Farris rose and returned to them,

apologizing for her outburst. She did not explain

further, and they did not press her. Gloria helped pass

the time with the story of the Yonda Sahra they now

approached.

“Yonda Sahra was the first tree in all the world. It

was nurtured by the child of the sun Sumpta, and it

grew mighty in girth and so tremendous in height that

it scraped the sky. It was worshipped and praised as

the greatest living thing in all the world. They said it

held up the very heavens, and that without it those

heavens would come crashing down on their heads.

“Sumpta was not content even with such praise,

however, and he fed it until its branches were so wide

and so tall that they consumed the length and breadth

of the sky. Barely any light filtered through after that,

but it kept growing until it pressed right against the

ceiling of the world, tearing a thousand holes in the

fabric of the sky with its many pointed branches. The

world grew dark and chill, and the land descended

into an eternal winter. No blade could touch the tree,

and no soul could climb it.

“The people begged Sumpta to tear down his

creation, but his love for the tree surpassed even his

love for his people. It was not until a sorceress

overcame him in battle that the tree was able to be

burned to let the sun return. The ashes rained from

the inferno for a week straight, falling so thickly as to

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create the vast Dresdoni Desert. A thousand holes

remained ripped in the sky from its probing branches,

and those on the surface can still see the light beyond

leaking through as a blanket of stars.”

“I never knew why we burned the Yonda tree at

home every winter,” Farris said wistfully. “I wonder if

I’ll even be home again by next year to see it done.”

“How are we going to the tree now if it was

already burned down?” Sasha asked.

“The trunk and boughs were burned, but the

living roots that run through all the world still

remain,” Gloria replied. “The third shell in particular

is dominated by the roots which form a mighty

nexus.”

The companions lapsed into silent anticipation

until at last the hallway became completely level and

the serpent shuddered and stilled.

“Have we arrived?” Sasha asked. He glanced at

Farris. She was calm now and smiled encouragingly at

him. As if in answer, the glowing ruby fangs of the

serpent parted. Proper light, rosy red like a dying

ember, pushed through the crack. It washed over the

teeth and brought out the richness of their inner

color. The mouth continued to open, and Riften

could tell the serpent was resting lengthwise on a sea

of thickly matted roots. About a hundred yards

beyond the mouth of the serpent rose a forest wall

built from many hundreds of massive, white-barked

trees. “We must have lost time by our detour on the

second shell,” Gloria said, “but we may have regained

it by the serpent. That was a very swift descent if we

are indeed in the third shell already.”

“It doesn’t matter either way,” Farris replied.

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“What do you mean?” Sasha asked. “If we don’t

know then we’ll come across the same problem as

before, unsure whether to continue or wait for them.”

“No,” Farris insisted, stepping into the jaws of

the serpent. “There is infinite distance in a step here,

and an infinite duration in each moment. Whether

they have arrived first or after means nothing; they

will be here now.”

Sasha and Riften exchanged perplexed glances. If

she was going to be so cryptic, then Riften couldn’t

see any point in trying to get more out of her. Sasha

must have decided the same as he simply turned to

follow her.

“Do you know what she’s talking about?” Riften

asked Gloria.

“Legend has it that time does not exist before the

Yonda Sahra,” Gloria said. “That is why it was so

difficult to cut down. Do you see it now?”

“I can’t make it out from the rest of the forest

yet,” Sasha said.

“That is no forest,” Gloria replied. “You are

looking at the roots of Yonda Sahra, mightiest living

thing in all the world. Each trunk is but a tendril of

the world tree, and however massive it may appear,

you are only seeing the small fraction that fills the

third shell. The roots run from the surface to the very

heart of the planet where it draws life.”

Farris had stepped into the serpent’s mouth to

marvel at the view. When Riften joined her, he was

able to see the true enormity for what it was. Each

colossal trunk, fifty or more feet across, was woven

together to meet ground and sky. They all joined into

one truly gigantic stem near the roof of this world,

whereupon they continued upward into unseen shells

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above. The great trunks diverged near the ground and

spread out until the whole horizon was nothing but a

solid forest. Between the roots a soft blue light could

be seen sneaking through. Great tendrils of wood

took the place of root-hairs, and beams as wide as any

tree rained in front of the white-barked pillars to sink

into the rich dark soil. The roots were alive with

pulsing activity, swimming through the ground like so

many snakes. A multitude of plump red fruits the size

of Riften’s head glowed with the red light they had

seen earlier, making the entire skyline look as though

it burned. .

“It goes on forever,” Sasha marveled. “How are

we going to find your brother?”

“I can hear him,” Farris said as though in a

trance. “He’s calling for me.”

123

[*CHAPTER 9: THE YONDA *]

*SAHRA *

_Life is both the perceiver and the creator of time. _

_Something as weak as an insect may live in the sliver of a _

_second, while a man may comprehend the complexities of years. _

_Eternity is wrapped around the Yonda Sahra, and my journey _

_through it has made it my own. _

Javel of Omar, the First Man

f the Paral-Zakdul did stop here,” Gloria said,

“I “it would be to gather the fruit, as we should do

as well. The hunters didn’t have a chance to stop at

the lake in the first shell, nor venture into the second

for provisions. Their supplies must be running short.”

Gloria was still talking, but Farris wasn’t really

listening. She hadn’t wanted to rely on her Guide after

he had tricked her into entering the second shell, but

she couldn’t see any other option. The abyss was too

vast to wander aimlessly, and her Guide really had

helped her by lending some of his power during the

animation of the serpent. He told her that his

influence would continue to increase as she drew

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closer to him. If he really was her ally, then he could

be a great help as she continued to descend.

Farris watched the thick roots squirm across the

ground beyond the mouth of the emerald serpent. If

only his advice wasn’t always so cryptic. An infinite

distance in each step? How was that supposed to help

her? Farris idly kicked at one of the ruby fangs of the

serpent, watching its red hue wash over her delicate

silk leggings. The vibrations imbued within the clothes

faded after the Lady’s death, but they had lost none of

their wondrous smoothness and brought some small

comfort to this alien land. One step at a time. First

she had to figure out how to safely cross the ground.

The roots swam through the earth and wrestled

around each other ceaselessly. The entire stretch of

horizon was engaged in silent turmoil. The thick

wooden columns fought to strangle or uproot one

another as they pushed their way before the soft blue

light that shone beyond the forest of knotted wood.

“How can this be a single living being if it is at

war with itself?” Farris asked.

“All life is at war against itself,” Gloria replied.

“The Yonda Sahra is simply honest about its

demons.”

“I don’t have any demons,” Farris said. She knew

Gloria hadn’t intended an insult, but it was impossible

not to think of her Guide’s voice which haunted her.

Farris had been tempted a dozen times to simply tell

her companions about the voice, but she was afraid

they would stop trusting her if they knew the real

source of her direction. Besides, her Guide played

with her so cruelly she was beginning to suspect it

really was the evil serpent Nidhoggdrasil. What would

her friends think of her if they knew she was learning

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from that devil? She couldn’t stop now though. She

needed its power to find her brother, so she would

continue to listen.

“The Yonda’s demon,” Gloria continued, “is the

Orosh Sea, which you can spot through the wall.”

“You said it drank from the heart of the world,”

Farris said with a hint of accusation. Gloria had never

led her wrong, but she was just another mysterious

voice. Perhaps it was the guilt of her secret, but Farris

found herself growing tense with frustration every

time the fish lectured her. None of them had any idea

how much more Farris knew than the rest of them.

Her Guide was right in that regard: she was different,

she was special. If the price of her power was solitude,

then she would suffer it and a hundred times worse to

find her brother again.

“All trees, even the World Tree, need both water

and light to live,” Riften cut in. “The Yonda draws

water from the Eternal Pools at the heart of the

world, but the Orosh Sea is an ocean of light. Legend

has it that once the World Tree was burned from the

surface, its tendrils swam through the underground

and trapped the Orosh Sea behind its roots to feed

upon. The light resists its imprisonment, however,

and its endless attempts to escape drive the great tree

mad. That is why the Yonda Sahra is at war with

itself.”

Riften folded his hands behind his back as he

recited the next words, assuming the stance of a

school boy giving his lesson:

_Bole and bough were burned away, and the sunny day now _

_wins. _

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_Deep and down the roots will stay, to keep the ocean _

_penned. _

_If you should see, down in the deep, that pale blue lighted _

_glen, _

_Then touch it not, unless you sought, to let the madness in. _

_ _

“The Paral hunters need to touch it in order to

harvest the fruit though,” Farris said. She had to find

an excuse to get close to the main trunks. When she

summoned the waters of life her Guide had told her

she would find her brother only by touching the white

bark. That’s where the blue light shone strongest, but

Farris couldn’t let herself be deterred.

“The tendrils where the fruits grow are far

enough from the Orosh Sea,” Riften said, “but

touching the main trunks is forbidden.”

Farris’s mind traced the Guide’s words endlessly.

She caught herself murmuring to herself and looked

around quickly. Sasha and Riften were always

watching her; Riften inscrutable, Sasha fearfully. She

never had any privacy. Sasha hadn’t said a word about

what happened in the feasting hall, and she wasn’t

going to be the first. Ever since then he’d kept his

distance from her. He would even step away if she

drew close. Fine, he could be that way, she didn’t care.

Farris had more important things to worry about than

the way he thought about her. Or the way his mouth

had felt against hers. Or how he smiled when she

looked at him, or … Farris took a deep breath and

looked back to the sea of roots.

While they had spoken, Bumble had stepped

from the mouth of the serpent and had begun to sniff

along the rich soil for something to eat. No living

thing could be seen besides the Yonda, not a blade of

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grass or the smallest of crawling insects. Riften and

Sasha stepped onto the soil to collect some of the

fruit that dangled from nearby roots.

“You will not touch the white bark,” Gloria

echoed Riften’s warning. “Those who first came to

this land did so, and they were driven to madness by

the trapped waters. The people of the Lathering

descended here once, led by King Mater. They built a

prosperous town, but the king could not be at peace

until he understood the mystery of the blue light. He

managed to get close, but unwittingly unleashed it to

haunt his people. They were driven mad by voices and

bowed beneath unseen weights until one by one they

threw themselves into the abyss. The Yonda Sahra has

since recaptured its light, but I pity any who curse

themselves with such idle curiosity again.”

“Javel touched the white bark though, didn’t he?”

Farris asked. “It seems right that it be part of my

journey as well.” Could that be the only reason her

Guide had lured her here? What if her brother wasn’t

here at all, and she was being tricked again to follow

the Way of Javel? There was nothing more frustrating

than having to trust a liar.

“You are not arrogant enough to compare

yourself to the First Man, are you?” Gloria’s voice was

harsh. “And you cannot say that even he was

unharmed, as he ended himself soon after.”

“He didn’t end himself,” Farris argued. “He

transcended.”

“It’s the same thing to everyone he left behind,”

Gloria snapped.

A pitiful bleating broke the conversation. Bumble

had been nibbling on one of the roots, and it had

responded by pulling itself straight from the ground

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and seizing the surprised goat. The root secured itself

around her midsection and constricted relentlessly.

Bumble’s eyes bulged as she fought against the

incredible force the root seemed to exude.

“She’s not a root! Let go of her!” Sasha ran to the

goat and pounded his fists uselessly against the

wooden loop.

Farris made a step towards Bumble but stopped.

Riften leapt past her to join Sasha in the struggle. It

hurt to watch Bumble in pain, but her friends would

get her out. This was her one chance while they were

distracted. They would never let her go to the white

bark, but she knew what she must do.

Sasha and Riften both had their backs turned. A

multitude of roots swam along the ground in the

direction of the conflict, leaving a bare space of soil

that led directly to the white-barked trunks. [_No! This is _]

[_wrong! _] Bumble was suffering, but she had to trust her

friends. She had to trust herself. Her brother was

here, and she alone had the power to end this whole

awful journey right now.

“Stop it, you’re hurting her!” Gloria cried to the

uncaring tree.

Farris walked quickly. A few of the roots trailed

after her, but she leapt past them without hesitation.

Now she was running. Farris brushed aside the low-

hanging fruit. The ground was bare now, although

there was still another fifty or so yards before the first

trunks. She took another step forward, and all sound

behind her suddenly ceased. What happened? Was

Bumble all right?

Farris turned to see the root still gripping

Bumble, although the goat had stopped struggling.

Sasha was heaving upon the loop, contorted and static

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in an unbalanced struggle. Riften was leading a second

root to intercept the first, but he had stopped with his

leg outstretched toward it. They were all as still as

rocks and as quiet as death, as though time had

completely halted. _There would be an infinite duration in _

_each moment, _ her Guide had said.

Farris walked past the last of the hanging fruits,

although the white-barked trunks didn’t appear to

grow any closer. She looked behind her again and saw

the hanging fruit dangling just behind her head. Either

she hadn’t seen these ones, or somehow she hadn’t

moved forward at all. She furrowed her brow and

took a step backward while facing the fruit. The

distance between her and the fruit increased as it

should. She walked several steps backward now,

seeming to grow farther and farther away from them.

Satisfied with her progress, she turned to look back at

the white Yonda Sahra trunks only to see them exactly

as far away as before. Farris spun around again, only

to brush against the hanging fruit directly behind her

head.

Sasha and Riften were still frozen in exactly the

same place. She could go back for them, but if she

couldn’t figure out how to move forward then there

was no way her friends could manage. After all, she

alone understood the Names and heard the voice of

her Guide. She considered asking his advice, but that

seemed like a failure already. What had he told her?

Time did not exist before the Yonda Sahra. But what

did that mean?

Farris faced the Yonda Sahra again, looking at

the ground that she could not cross. Perhaps if she

thought in terms of distance instead of time. She

measured the way in her mind, and envisioned every

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footfall bringing her closer. She counted the steps it

should take: a hundred at least. Then she closed her

eyes and walked one hundred steps forward, counting

them off in her mind. She reached out her hand,

hoping to feel the rough bark under her fingers. Her

hands groped empty air. Okay, the estimate could

have been off. She counted another twenty forward

before finally opening one eye to peek out. Farris

stood exactly the same distance away with the fruit

hanging directly behind her head.

Frustration was tainted with fear. What if it was

the same in trying to leave? What if time really was so

broken here that she couldn’t ever get out? Being

proud wasn’t going to solve anything. If she was

going to save her brother she couldn’t be afraid to ask

someone who understood her problem. Besides, she

couldn’t let her friends know how lost she was or they

would never trust her to lead again. Closing her eyes

once more, Farris began to Name her fire to bring her

mind to the Essence World.

“I Name thee …” Farris saw soft white light. If

anywhere was safe to leave her body unattended, it

would be here where time did not exist.

“I’ve been expecting you.” Her Guide’s voice

encompassed her.

“Of course you have,” Farris said, unable to keep

the bitterness from her thoughts. “You lured me into

the second shell, you helped me bring the serpent

golem to life, and you’ve all but forced me here. What

is going on?”

“Nothing at all,” her Guide said.

“Do you mean to say ‘nothing at all’, as in

everything is frozen, or does ‘nothing at all’ mean

everything is normal?”

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“Why should it be one or the other?” Her Guide

laughed. “Your friends are moving and fighting, and

they are standing still. If you wish to see your brother,

you must see reality for what it is and pass through

every illusion. Time is the greatest illusion this world

plays upon us, and here beside the Yonda Sahra that

mask is broken. If you can break time and not be

broken in turn, then you will pierce the bark and find

Tom.”

“How am I to fix time and move forward?”

“As long as you ask such a question, you will

never reach the tree,” her Guide said. “It is not a

matter of fixing time, but accepting your conception

of it as being broken. As long as you continue to

think in terms of time, you will never reach the tree.”

“I’ve already tried thinking of it as distance

instead,” Farris said. “What other way is there to look

at it?”

“Distance is a function of size; size is a function

of perspective; perspective is a function of the

perceiver, and the perceiver is a function of time. You

may live in spite of these illusions elsewhere, but not

by Yonda Sahra’s tree. It is more ancient than time,

and larger than the world it sits within.”

“You’re no help at all,” Farris replied. Whether

or not time existed here, it was impossible to ignore

the feeling that it was being wasted. Farris still didn’t

trust her Guide, and there was no way of knowing

whether this was another trap. What if the Yonda

Sahra was another trick to keep her with him forever?

“This is what drove the people of the Lathering

mad,” her Guide said. “Although King Mater’s body

was pulled from the Yonda Sahra swiftly, his mind

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had already torn itself apart through an eternity of

waiting.”

“Stop pressuring me,” Farris said. “I will make it

through.”

“Even if you were to fail, you will never suffer as

King Mater did. Even an eternity passes more swiftly

with company, and you will always have me.”

It was a thought Farris couldn’t bear to endure.

She was already thinking her way back. Poor Bumble

in the root, and Riften and Sasha …

The white-barked wall of the Yonda Sahra filled

her vision once more. For the first time when

returning from the Essence World, however, the

words of Naming died on her lips. She wasn’t any

closer to understanding the meaning. She did have

time, if nothing else, and with considerable difficulty

she forced herself to clear her mind and sit lotus-style

upon the ground.

A second and forever passed, and Farris still sat.

The air did not stir, and the only sound she heard was

that of her own slow breathing. She simply could not

wrap her mind around the concept. How could

anything be outside of time? There must be some

trick of movement or thought that would close the

distance. She tried imagining herself flying there, she

did cartwheels, spun in circles, and a thousand other

futile efforts, but the distance between her and the

Yonda Sahra never shortened. From behind, the

forms of Farris’s companions stood in perpetual

battle with the root. A constant reminder of her

failing.

How long had she been trying? Of course the

question was meaningless. The light never changed,

and she did not grow hungry or weary. Farris tried

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counting breaths in her head to calm herself, but by

the time she got to three hundred she was fuming. As

much as she hated herself for it, there was nothing

she could do but travel to the Essence World once

more.

“I Name thee …”

Blackness. Where was her guide? It was more

than blackness. Farris felt a void so empty of

everything that every inch of her soul was being

pulled into it. Her mind screamed, and each thought

shattered into a thousand meaningless fragments to

be devoured by the dark.

“I am the power you seek.” The voice did not

come from her Guide. It sounded as cold as starlight

with the absence of all sound. It reminded Farris how

she could cut designs in paper and see shapes from

where the paper was not, except this design was in the

absence of reality.

[_The light. Where was the light? _] There was a spark

somewhere, so far removed from her it was like

grasping at a star. It smoldered and burned, eating the

emptiness like a hungry flame.

Suddenly the soft white light of the Essence

World was everywhere and everything. It was as

though she had never left. Her span in the broken

time before the tree was so disorienting it felt as

though Farris had spent her entire life here already.

The terrible void was like a nightmare that began to

fade so quickly Farris couldn’t be sure it had

happened at all.

“I’m back,” Farris said. She had the unnerving

feeling she had just forgotten something. She was by

the tree, and then she began to work the Naming

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magic … and now she was here. What else could

there have been?

“You never left,” her Guide purred.

“Yes I did,” Farris insisted. “I was gone for …

well, I tried again and I couldn’t get closer. I need

your help.”

“Calling the Names twice with no span of time

between them?” For the first time she could

remember, her Guide seemed genuinely surprised.

“You are a reckless girl.”

“Reckless? How?”

“I warned you not to call upon your Names so

often!” Her Guide roared, the weight of his anger

dimming the light. “You have abused your power!”

“Nothing happened,” Farris said. “I won’t do it

again, all right? What are you afraid of?”

“Your fame is already growing in the world

around you. Each drop of power you summon creates

a ripple in the ocean. If you use too much power, or

too often, the ripple will be seen. He will find you,

Farris, and not even I can save you then.”

“But no one found me,” Farris said. She had

come straight here, hadn’t she? The fading memory

of the terrible blackness lingered in the back of her

mind but that had to have been a dream. “Who is out

there?”

“All power has its price,” her Guide replied. “Do

not spend longer here than you must. Find your

answer and return to the Yonda Sahra. It is no longer

safe here.”

His voice sounded urgent. Her Guide had always

tried to get her to stay longer before. He had even

tried to trap her here forever. Farris could tell by now

when he was unwilling to answer a question, and

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there was no point wasting time trying. She had to

focus on the Yonda Sahra and let this blackness be a

puzzle for another time.

“Javel touched the tree first, didn’t he?” Farris

asked. “How did he manage it?”

“He touched it first, which is to say that no one

before him had touched it. Asking how someone did

it before you is already taking a different path than

he,” the voice replied.

“Who was Yonda Sahra then? I sometimes hear

the tree called that, and sometimes I hear it called

Yonda Sahra’s tree.”

“Will knowing help you reach the tree?” the

Guide asked. “You are thinking too slowly, girl.”

“I don’t know, but not knowing has not helped

me at all.”

“Yonda Sahra was the woman who burned down

the portion of it above the world,” her Guide

explained.

“How did Yonda Sahra approach the tree to burn

it?” “She walked through broken time, as Javel did

before her, and as you must do now.”

“Why haven’t I ever heard of Yonda Sahra

before?” Farris asked. “Javel changed the world with

his power, and if Yonda Sahra walked the same Way

then she must have been just as strong.”

“She was as wise, but not as strong. She had the

wits to see the truth of the world, but not the will to

accept it. Her mind was torn, and her form was lost.”

“What about me?” Farris asked. “Am I strong

enough to walk this path to its completion?”

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“You are as strong, but not as wise,” her Guide

said. “How lost you would be without me, my child.

Hurry now.”

There it was. Farris felt like grinning, although of

course her body hadn’t followed her into the Essence

World. “Thank you. I really do believe you are trying

to help me this time, although you never do answer

things directly.”

“Have you discovered how to approach the

tree?”

“Yes, I think, and if I am right then you must call

me wise as well. I have been trying to figure out Javel,

and Yonda Sahra managed it, but there is too much

that I don’t know about them. I cannot possibly know

what was going on in their heads when they passed

through time, and I don’t even know if they broke the

illusion the same way! But I do understand something

else that has touched the tree, and I can do it the same

way that it did,” Farris said.

“No one besides those two has ever touched the

tree,” the Guide said in confusion.

“Of course it did, you said so yourself. The tree

burned, and so fire must have touched it. I may not

understand the path the others took, but I do

understand fire.”

She didn’t need another word. Before her Guide

could speak, she was already back at the tree. The

nagging feeling that she was forgetting something

completely vanished from her mind.

“I Name thee Elestar Pon Sinn, fire of my mind.

At the first thought her mind was wreathed in

flames, and as she said the words she became that fire.

She stepped outside of time, as fire cannot perceive its

passing. She stepped through the distance as lightly as

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light shines through air, and she stepped through

space as heat spreads through a surface without

motion. Now she clearly saw both ends of time and

the eternal moment between. It was not a matter of

crossing the distance or the time. It was her fate to

touch the tree, and in accepting that she would touch

it she knew she already had.

When the flames cleared Farris’s vision, she

stood directly in front of the Yonda Sahra with her

hand upon its trunk. The white bark peeled back from

her skin as though scorched. Suddenly noise returned

to the world, and she heard the fearful bleating of a

goat behind her. She turned to see her companions

still struggling against the roots, moving and pulling

and fighting. Time flowed once more.

Farris heard Sasha call her name, realizing at last

where she had gone. They couldn’t stop her now.

Farris had already turned back to the blue light. With

her hand upon the white trunk, she peered through

the crack between two mighty columns and saw the

swirling sea of blue mist that was trapped behind the

Yonda Sahra. Staring back at her from the mist was

the frightened face of her brother Tom.

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[*CHAPTER 10: THE *]

*MADDING MIST *

_It is a small scratch when you accuse others of what you _

hate about them, but a vicious cut that accuses [_others of what _]

_they hate about themselves. If you wish to praise or humble _

someone, then see them [_through their own eyes. _]

-Nidhoggdrasil, the World Serpent

asha had to stop her. He had to bring her back.

S Why wasn’t she listening? Why did she never

listen?

Sasha had let go of the roots which moved

indomitably against his efforts. Bumble was suffering,

and it was her fault for running off. The second root

which Riften had lured into the arena had successfully

snagged the first and was crushing the life from its

brethren. Sasha hadn’t noticed when Farris first

slipped away, but it couldn’t have been more than a

minute ago. He saw her now, staring between two

white trunks into the blue mist. A minute was more

than enough to find danger here.

“Farris! You can’t touch the—” Sasha began.

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“Tom!” Farris shouted. A pale hand as

insubstantial as mist reached through the cracks in the

trunk. Sasha choked on his words. Was it possible?

Had they really found him? Was this nightmare over

at last?

Sasha ran toward her. The Paral-Zakdul hunters

weren’t here. There was madness hidden behind the

Yonda Sahra. Something wasn’t right.

Riften grabbed hold of Sasha’s arm, spinning him

with such force that Sasha tumbled to the ground.

The roots immediately began to converge on him.

“Don’t you dare move,” Riften’s voice was steel,

a world apart from his usual bubbling mirth. The

Paral-Zakdul loomed over Sasha, his fingers flexing

against the handle of a knife that hadn’t been there a

moment before. What was going on? Didn’t Riften

want Tom to be saved? Riften had been the only one

to see Tom when he passed through the first shell.

Had something along the journey changed his mind,

or had he never intended to save Tom from the start?

Riften’s long arm reached down toward Sasha,

who tensed and pushed himself away. The hand

grabbed Sasha by the forearm and pulled him to his

feet, just before a rush of roots fell upon the ground

where Sasha had lain. Bumble was bounding freely

from root to root now, having escaped the deadly grip

which had left a rather unfortunate indent in her fluff.

“Only Farris could have approached the Yonda

Sahra,” Riften continued. “We don’t stand a chance.”

Sasha couldn’t be imagining the threat of

betrayal, not entirely. Riften’s eyes were so cold and

dark, as though he alone saw the end to their journey.

He’d hesitated when he reached to help Sasha up,

almost as though he couldn’t decide whether to offer

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the open hand or the knife. Sasha prayed that it was

only the dangers of the journey that made him so

suspicious of his friends. He couldn’t watch Riften all

the time, and right now it was Farris who needed him.

Sasha turned back to Farris, who was staring into

her brother’s eyes. This was Tom, half visible through

the sealed trunks. Even from here Sasha could see his

bright eyes filled with tortured hope looking back at

Farris. Tom wore the same clothes Sasha had seen

him last in: coarse brown linen pants tied with a bow

string and a sky-blue shirt open around the throat,

revealing the dull metal key which dangled there.

“Come back, Farris!” Gloria shouted. “I don’t

know what you think you see, but that isn’t your

brother.”

“I knew you’d find me,” Tom said, his voice clear

and happy. His hand stretched farther until it was only

inches from Farris’s face. She wasn’t more than a

hundred feet away from Sasha. He could reach her.

He could hold her and keep her safe … but he

couldn’t even do that when she was right next to him.

Everything below the earth was so far beyond Sasha’s

understanding, it was impossible to act without being

filled with doubt. He had no right to interfere in what

could be Farris’s only chance to save her brother.

Sasha took a step back towards the emerald

serpent. Whatever Farris decided, it was her choice to

make.

She didn’t even hesitate. Her fingers were already

twining around the outstretched hand of her brother.

Tom flashed a bittersweet smile.

“Don’t ever stop looking for me,” he said. Farris

lurched backwards. Tom was gone—dissolved into a

gentle blue mist the moment she touched him. The

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trunks of the Yonda Sahra groaned so low that Sasha

felt the sound before he heard it. The two columns

Farris stood before leaned apart, and from the crack a

torrent of blue mist billowed into the open air.

“Run, Farris!” Gloria cried. “Don’t trust the

voices in the mist.”

Farris stood in dumb confusion as the mist

poured around her. Sasha was running again, leaping

over roots, dodging their thrusting grasp. Farris had

her chance. Now it was his turn, and nothing real or

otherwise was going to keep him away from her.

Farris turned and ran toward Sasha. Her eyes

were huge and wild, darting everywhere in desperation

before landing on his face. She looked as though she

were about to cry. The mist was swiftly encompassing

her. She started to open her mouth, but paused. Sasha

stopped too. Tom, clear and corporeal as Sasha’s own

hand, sprinted through the mist.

“They’re here, Farris. Run!” Tom yelled.

Three Paral-Zakdul, fully clad in Byzantian Brass,

churned through the ground after Tom. Their

armored legs smashed straight through the twisted

roots with a mechanical whine. Farris was already in

hot pursuit, her path taking her straight past Sasha.

What was she thinking? Was this even real? There was

only one thing Sasha was sure of: Farris was in

danger, and there was no time to lose.

The moment Farris passed the line of hanging

fruits, Sasha seized her and held firm. She beat him

with her fists and stomped on his foot, but he

wouldn’t let go.

“It’s Tom! They have Tom,” Farris wailed.

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“You’ll only get yourself killed,” Sasha said. “Get

back to the emerald serpent. We can’t defeat them by

ourselves.”

“Stop this, both of you,” Gloria said. “This is a

trick of the mist you set free. What were you thinking,

you silly girl?”

“He’s my brother,” Farris screamed, struggling

against Sasha. “You don’t see anything, you stupid

fish. I touched his hand. He needs me.”

Sasha’s hand was locked against his forearm in

front of Farris’s stomach. He couldn’t drag her, not

with the constant threat of roots snagging her legs.

Sasha put one hand beneath Farris’s legs and heaved

her into the air. _Safety first, then we can make a plan. And _

[_if she never forgives me for losing this chance? It’s not as bad as _]

_never forgiving myself for losing her. _ Farris kicked and

screamed in the air, but Sasha was resolute. He carried

her swiftly back toward the emerald serpent.

“Enough!” Farris yelled. “I Name thee Sagari the

Ocean. Follow them. Follow my brother!”

There was almost no delay between when Farris

began the Naming and completed it, as there usually

was. Her body went limp, but only for the briefest

flash. Whatever spirit world she went to must have

had no power compared to her brother’s cry. The

ponderous emerald statue turned its head and began

to swim through the sea of roots, slicing through

them cleanly to forge a wide switchback path. Sasha

set her down, and she roughly pulled away from him.

“Don’t be angry …” Sasha stopped. She wasn’t

angry. Something was wrong. Her eyes looked

hollower than a moment before, as though she had

seen her own death. Her body trembled. “What was

it? What happened?”

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“The blackness saw me,” Farris said, her voice

cracking. “I saw … I heard … someone will betray

me.” She shook her head rapidly and clenched her

trembling fist. “I can’t use the power right now. It

doesn’t matter. We have to find Tom.”

“There’s nothing to find,” Gloria insisted.

“You’re only hearing the voices of the madding mists.

Do not listen if they speak. Do not follow their call.

And whatever happens, whatever you see, do not

touch them.”

“Farris already touched Tom’s hand,” Sasha said.

“What will happen?”

“You will become a voice in the mist,” Riften

said, appearing suddenly from a cloud. “I saw them

too. Pistal is with them. Keep pace with the serpent.”

Sasha, Farris, and Riften all ran. There was no

time to figure out what had scared Farris, although

Sasha guessed it was probably an aftereffect of

touching the mist. They couldn’t match the serpent’s

speed, but there was always another link in the endless

coils to follow.

“Can’t we get inside?” Sasha asked. “Tell it to

stop.”

“The mist has already flooded in through the

open mouth,” Riften said. “If it’s as dangerous as the

legends say, we need to keep away from it.”

The pale blue mist was thick behind them as it

continued to billow from between the trunks. The

clouds rolled in thick waves like liquid, without wind

to diffuse them. The rosy red light from the fruits was

completely smothered now, and the only illumination

shone from the ghostly blue shadows that pursued

them. As long as they were running they could stay

ahead of the clouds, but they couldn’t run forever.

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“I see them ahead,” Farris shouted from the lead.

“They’ve caught Tom. One of them is carrying him.”

Sasha’s breath came sharp, and his legs burned.

How was she so fast? Riften was far ahead now too,

although his people were always swift. They had both

slept the entire duration of the purifying Elestarphagia

while Sasha had roused early. That must have given

them some strength he had been deprived of. It was

no excuse though. Even Bumble was beginning to

race far ahead. Sasha couldn’t let Farris out of his

sight. His side split as though subject to a knife. He

could feel his heart pounding so fast it seemed to skip

beats. Just when Sasha thought he couldn’t take

another step without falling, Riften glanced back and

noticed him.

“You have to wait, Farris,” Riften called. Sasha

took a huge breath and struggled to keep his legs

underneath him. He couldn’t be the one to hold her

back anymore, but there was nothing he could do to

outrun the clouds. The blue mist swirled around him

and penetrated his gasping lungs with their cold, wet

touch.

Farris slowed and turned. Her blue eyes shone

even brighter in her flushed face. They condemned

Sasha with their scrutiny. Riften collapsed to the

ground in an exaggerated motion, flailing his long

limbs in the air like an upturned turtle. There was no

escaping it anymore.

“I can’t,” Riften wheezed. Farris looked at him,

then nodded reluctantly. Sasha allowed his knees to

give way and he fell to the ground. Riften threw Sasha

a wink. Smug bastard. At least Farris didn’t think it

was Sasha holding them back.

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“Life of my ocean, wait for us,” Farris

commanded in a weak voice. The statue shuddered

and slowed, but did not stop. “I said stop!”

The statue did not obey. The thick blue clouds

were fully upon them now. The Yonda Sahra was

completely obscured. The mist was everywhere and

everything, and even the massive serpent only a short

distance away dissolved into a silhouette.

“Why isn’t it listening?” Riften asked. “If it

turned around we might as well ride in it now. We’re

stuck in the mist no matter what we do.”

The flush left Farris’s face, replaced by an ashen

pale. She slowly sat on the ground and drew her knees

to her chest.

“Are you all right? What’s going on?” Sasha

forced himself upright and moved toward her. Farris

gave him another wild look and pushed herself farther

away. She looked like a feral creature: unpredictable

and dangerous.

“I already used the Names too often to approach

the Yonda Sahra,” Farris said in a low voice. She

would not look at any of them. Bumble nuzzled her,

and Sasha could see Farris tense against even this

simple gesture.

“Are they losing power? Do you need time to

rest?” Riften asked.

Farris shook her head and trembled. “I’ve been

speaking them too often,” she repeated. “I’m making

ripples.”

“What is? What did you find?” Gloria pressed,

but Farris would only shake her head.

“The serpent isn’t moving fast now,” Sasha said.

“We can take a short rest and there will still be plenty

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of its length to follow. If Tom is really out there,

we’re going to find him.”

Farris finally looked at Sasha and gave him a

shallow smile. The stitch in his side was beginning to

fade, but seeing Farris so defeated hurt Sasha far

worse. As infuriating as her growing arrogance had

been, at least this power beyond his understanding

was working for them. Now it seemed like she was as

lost as him and there was nothing to rely on.

“Well, look on the bright side,” Riften said. “At

least the mist is glowing, so we won’t be running in

the dark.”

A smooth voice echoed in reply, and Sasha knew

at once it couldn’t have come from anything but the

madding mist itself.

“Always the cheerful one, my Riften. Always

smiling.”

“I do try,” Riften replied amiably, his face

beaming in an unrelenting grin. “But if you know my

name then you have me at a disadvantage.”

“You do, you try so very hard,” spoke the ghost

of a voice. “Was it for your mother? Poor Samasa. It

must have been so difficult to live a life of metal and

chain. Was she the one you tried to stay cheerful for?

I can sympathize, of course, being trapped behind

that horrible tree for so long.”

Riften’s smile tensed. His eyes narrowed. The

smile faded slowly, and Riften opened his mouth.

Sasha elbowed him hard in the ribs. Riften winced

and closed his mouth again.

“Don’t talk back to the voices,” Sasha said.

“Everyone up. We have to keep moving.”

Sasha helped Riften to his feet, and Farris rose

with a hand upon Bumble. The goat was shaking

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badly in the warm air. The mist was cool and

refreshing after their long run. Only fear could make

the animal shake like that.

“Your father Rastar is not so kind, is he?” the

voice continued. “Keeping her all alone like that, poor

thing. You must have heard her crying.”

“Shut up,” Riften quietly replied. “You know

nothing about her.”

They walked in the direction of the serpent, but

there was no end to the blue-tinted mist. There was

no escape from the taunting voice.

“Oh but we do, we do, the poor bird. At least she

had you, little Riften. Even when your brother refused

her, she still had you. She would tell you such stories,

wouldn’t she? Oh, but you never listened. You ran

away every chance you got, burying yourself in that

university of yours to escape her lamentations. Do

you even care how much it hurt her every time you

left?”

The voice came from everywhere and nowhere.

Brief flickers of faces would emerge from the mist

like a face struggling to breathe through heavy cloth.

They looked so substantial they might become real if

they could only press themselves through, but

inevitably they dissolved back into the mist before

they could do so.

Riften gritted his teeth, his jaw clenched tight.

Sasha marveled to see him restrain himself in the face

of such poignant words. The mist had to know about

him, but how? Did the voices know as much about

the rest of them? If all that about Riften’s mother was

true, then at least that would explain why he hated h is

father so much. Riften had always been true to his

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word and helped them even while carrying that secret

pain. Sasha felt guilty for ever doubting him.

“I’m sorry,” Farris murmured, eyes downcast. “I

didn’t mean to let this happen. Please don’t talk back

to them.” Their silence did nothing to dissuade the

voices. One of the faces maintained stability longer

than the others and continued speaking.

“Yes, Riften, just ignore us. You’re very good at

ignoring things too, aren’t you? Your father must hate

you even more than your mother for how you’ve

ignored his orders. Oh, how your friends would hate

you too, if they only knew the real you. Never trust

the smiling monster. Should I tell them how you—”

“You know nothing about me,” Riften snapped.

He sprang forward to strike at the face that spoke. It

broke into a hundred smaller faces, all burbling with

quiet laughter before they dissipated back into the

clouds.

“Riften, stop!” Farris protested.

“Tell me then, if I know so little,” spoke a new

face in the mist. “Has she killed herself yet? Did you

even try to stop her, or were your nights awake spent

wishing she wouldn’t wait so long? No doubt you told

yourself it was for her own good, but you cannot hide

how relieved you were when you no longer had to

visit her house of chain.”

Sasha had never seen Riften like this. His jaw was

clenched so tightly that veins in his forehead etched

themselves against his pale skin. Eyes like black fire

sparked a hatred so palpable Sasha could almost feel

the heat. Riften lunged forward to throw himself at

every silhouette and shadow that leered from the mist.

Farris sprang forward to stop him, but she could not

keep pace with his furious rampage. Sasha walked

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briskly, allowing himself a chance to catch his breath.

Some fury could not be contained.

Riften leapt to and fro with wild swings that

swept each laughing face clear. The form he struck

would vanish at once and reform elsewhere, no visible

damage dealt. The only victim of his assault appeared

to be Riften himself, who staggered after each attack

as though the blow was struck against his own body.

“Tell me,” cackled the mist, “why didn’t your

father just kill you too? Or is that why he sent you

here in the first place? Why not lie down and rest,

Crown Prince? No torches are lit in the windows, no

sleep lost in worry. Your people will care nothing if

you do not return, and even less if you do.”

By the time Farris and Sasha caught up with

Riften he had already struck his way through a dozen

of the ghostly shapes. He had fallen to one knee,

heaving for breath, looking as though he bore the

weight of the world upon his shoulders.

“You have to stop,” Farris begged, wrapping her

arms around Riften’s neck. Why did she have to do

that? Of course Riften was a friend, of course they

needed to help him. It shouldn’t hurt to see Farris

comforting him. She would comfort Sasha too, if only

he let his pain show like a wild animal. Sasha turned

away, gazing into the mist.

“Go on, strike us again,” the mist laughed. “For a

boy so young, you carry so many enemies on your

shoulders. You feel it, don’t you? The weight of your

hatred. Strike us again, and add to the burden you

bear.”

In grim defiance Riften struck his fist through the

face that jeered these last words: an elderly visage with

cold dead eyes. The face shattered into a small rain of

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blue water. The weight of this blow fell upon Riften at

once, forcing him to pitch forward onto his face.

“What were you thinking?” Farris asked,

desperately rolling him over to check for wounds.

“Gloria said not to touch them! Now look what

you’ve done.”

“She also said not to touch the Yonda Sahra,”

Riften spoke through a mirthless grin. “We are but

vessels for the storm inside of us, and sometimes we

all must break.”

“Oh Farris,” cooed an old woman in the mist.

“Always more worried about others than yourself. It

is so sweet to see such naïve innocence.”

“Why are you doing this?” Farris asked the open

air. “Don’t you dare look down on me,” the mist

said. “The Yonda Sahra has drained me for countless

years. Don’t I too deserve a chance to feed?”

“You feed by torturing us?” Farris asked, her face

flushed red. “You deserve to be locked up.”

“I deserve freedom,” the mist said. “And I shall

take it from you.”

“Not you too,” Sasha said to Farris. “Not a word.

Help me get Riften out of here. You take the right

arm, I’ll get the left.”

Sasha knelt beside Farris and helped drag Riften

to his feet. It was difficult to balance him along with

the sacks, but at least the large Yonda fruit were light.

The Paral’s eyes were closed and his breath came

shallow. If the mist was switching targets to Farris

then there was no time for delay. As much as Sasha

trusted Farris’s strength, her flaring temper could

easily goad her into the same mistake Riften made.

Besides, there was something terribly wrong about

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hearing her most private thoughts voiced aloud. _Where _

[_was Gloria? Shouldn’t she be lecturing us on how to escape? _]

Sasha looked quickly around him. He hadn’t

noticed Bumble falling behind during the wild run,

but she was nowhere to be seen now. How long had

she been missing? Sasha noticed Farris watching him

search and met her eyes. She realized it too.

“We can’t go back, not yet,” Farris whispered,

her words catching in her throat. “Bumble can take

care of herself, but we’re running out of time to find

Tom.”

“You always were so good of taking care of

others.” A disembodied face like Farris’s mother,

Leslie, appeared. She smiled comfortingly, her eyes

filled with compassion. “Well, not all of us, not your

brother. Didn’t he warn you about the monsters? Had

your trusting little brother ever lied to you before? But

no, you’d rather send him through hell than face your

own demons.”

“That wasn’t her fault!” Sasha answered for her.

Farris gave him a grateful look mixed with annoyance.

It didn’t matter. Sasha wouldn’t give in. As long as he

could protect Farris from speaking, nothing else

mattered.

“And leaving me, your dear sweet mother.”

Leslie’s face ignored Sasha and continued to address

Farris. “Didn’t you hear me screaming when you left

me in that burning house? You could have saved me

too, if you weren’t so obsessed with your own

mistake.”

“It’s lying,” Sasha said quickly, seeing Farris’s

shock and anger. “I spoke to your mother before we

left. She was perfectly fine. Just keep moving, the mist

can’t stretch forever.”

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“You ungrateful child!” the mist howled.

“Answer your mother when I’m speaking to you.”

Farris wrapped her fingers around Sasha’s hand.

All the cold mists in the world couldn’t compare to

the warmth of that small gesture. Sasha felt strength

pour into his blood and, hoisting the full weight of

Riften’s body upon his shoulders, he began a

quickened trot.

The taunts continued for some time, but the

group held strong and refused to answer it any more.

At last the faces dissolved with a sigh to leave the

blank blue clouds devoid of life. The serpent moved

slowly as though its energy were beginning to fade,

although the static length of its body would still

provide a clear path to follow. The air had been still

for many minutes before a pure voice penetrated the

mists, unlike the cold echoed words that had haunted

them before.

“Farris!” it shouted. “Farris, where are you?”

Sasha looked at the others and saw Riften rouse

slightly from his overbearing stupor. This voice rang

truer and reverberated less than those from the mist.

Tom had to be close now. The quiet resolve on

Farris’s face broke.

“We’re here, Tom! We’re coming!” She wouldn’t

wait. Before Sasha could stop her, Farris sprinted

directly into the thick cloud of mist.

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[*CHAPTER 11: THE VOICES *]

[_There are two halves to reality: that which is there, and _]

_that which we wish was there. We must accept the first to create _

_the second. _

Lolaran of Omar, the Last Man

asha’s heart was pounding. He couldn’t find Tom

S in the great empty clouds. He couldn’t carry the

weight of Riften and keep up with Farris, who was

even now fading into the mist. He couldn’t leave

Riften behind to be consumed by his hatred and the

taunting voices. He couldn’t help anyone.

“Don’t move away from the statue!” Sasha yelled

after Farris.

“Stay with Riften,” she ordered. Almost

everything she said to Sasha was an order now. He

hated that he couldn’t do anything but obey.

“You’ll never find your way back,” Sasha called.

“I am the Way back,” Farris replied testily. “As

long as you stay put and I don’t go beyond earshot I

won’t lose you.”

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[_But what about me losing you? _] Her silhouette

vanished into the mist. Sasha let Riften slump to the

ground and sat with his back against the emerald

serpent. Riften was slipping in and out of

consciousness and mumbled nonsensically beside

him. Sasha was alone. Why hadn’t the mists called to

him? Did they think he was strong enough to resist?

Was his past any less difficult to face?

If Farris completed her journey, she would return

to a happy family. If Riften led his people to victory

over the tyranny of his father, he would become the

next king. If Sasha made it back alive … he didn’t

need the mist to remind him of his fate. Sasha had

thought Farris would remember him as they

continued on their journey, but the farther they went

the less he understood her. How could she, who was

unlocking the secrets of the world, ever respect

someone like him, who could only follow blindly?

The grave of his father, that was the only company

Sasha had waiting for him.

Sasha caught another glimpse of Farris’s

silhouette. At least she was staying close. The mist

seemed to be getting thicker though. Would it ever

disperse, or would it only grow thicker as it poured

from the trunks? It wasn’t natural how it moved

through the air either. The clouds seemed to be

massing with malicious intent.

“Do you see anything?” Sasha called.

The silhouette grew clearer. She couldn’t be more

than a dozen feet away, she had to have heard him.

“We need to stay near the serpent,” Sasha

reminded her. “It won’t do any good to find the

Paral-Zakdul without the golem fighting for us.”

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“Is fighting all you do?” Farris asked in a clear

voice. “Just take a rest and let me handle this.”

The silhouette grew bolder. That solid voice had

to be from Farris. Sasha stood again, his body tense.

Why did it feel as though something wasn’t right?

“What are you doing out there?”

The silhouette grew fainter again. “I don’t need

you, Sasha,” Farris said. “Stop bothering me.”

Farris wouldn’t say that. Not the girl he knew.

No matter how much she had changed, she wouldn’t

have said that. If it was the mist talking then it must

have been replying to his secret thoughts. The voices

were still here, and they were getting stronger. Sasha

hoisted Riften, who seemed fast asleep, onto his

shoulders. That meant Tom’s clear voice might have

been a trap too

“Farris!” Sasha bellowed as powerfully as he

could. “You can’t trust any voices, no matter how real

they sound. Come back to the serpent!”

There was no reply. If he left the path he would

be lost for sure, but there was no choice in the matter.

Sasha plunged into the mist in the direction Farris

went. She wasn’t just being arrogant. Farris really was

the Way. The path to her was the only one Sasha

could ever take. The only thing she didn’t realize was

that had nothing to do with her blossoming power.

Sasha spotted two more silhouettes in the mist,

which became more corporal as he pressed on. Farris

knelt beside her brother. Tom panted on the ground,

a great bloody slash across his chest like the talons of

the Byzantian Brass armor. It looked so real that

Sasha could see the glistening drops of blood that

pooled on the dry earth. It wasn’t real, it couldn’t be

real. If this were real then they would already be too

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late, so there was no choice but to act under the

assumption it was a trap.

“Farris, don’t—” Too late. Farris rested her hand

on her brother’s forehead and the perfect image

shattered into mist. This couldn’t have been the first

time Farris had touched it either. Her already sunken

shoulders gave out and she collapsed on the ground

where Tom had lain a moment before. Sasha set

Riften down and stooped beside her. It didn’t matter

what she said.

“Sorry for running off,” Farris said. “I did see

Tom though. The real one. He’s close.”

“If he is out there somewhere, ’we’ll never find

him if we keep falling for these traps,” Sasha said.

“Come back to the path before we get turned

around.”

“I saw him,” Farris said stubbornly. “I told him

I’d bring him home. I made a promise …”

“And we will, of course we will.”

“And you’ll take me home too,” Farris

whispered. “You don’t know how much you mean to

…” Her voice trailed off as she slipped into

unconsciousness.

This was the Farris Sasha knew. The one who

saw what Sasha was worth when he couldn’t see it

himself. He couldn’t let himself get distracted by all

the lies and doubt below the earth. If he really cared

for her, he had to trust her.

The whispering voices were quiet now, and there

were no shapes beside her. The mist was even

beginning to lift. Sasha could see all the way back to

the serpent. They would be safe, and everything

would be all right.

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Sasha gingerly slid his fingers underneath Farris’s

shoulders to lift her upright. There was no warm

reassurance of skin against his. The moment he

touched her, she sat bolt-upright and grinned

unnaturally at him.

“Fooled you,” Farris said in a dull, cold voice.

She vanished into the mist, and Sasha felt a blow

upon his back like a hammer-fall. He’d found his

resolve too late. He never should have let her go. She

was gone, and he was alone. Those sweet words of

reassurance were nothing but a lie. At once all the

voices from the mist descended upon him. A dozen

faces formed and grinned and laughed from all sides.

“Oh, take us home too, won’t you take us?” one

called in a husky voice.

“You wouldn’t leave me, would you my sweet?”

came another voice from the misty face of Farris. It

twisted in a laugh that could never have escaped her

delicate mouth. “Not like I left you anyway. And why

wouldn’t I leave? I don’t even know who you are! Go

home, strange man. Don’t bother me anymore.”

Sasha stood, beads of perspiration mingling with

the mist on his brow. He shouted into the fog and

took several hesitant steps in many different

directions. There was nothing but blank rolling earth

beneath him and the thick banks of blue-tinged mist

which pressed into him.

“There you are,” snapped a voice from behind.

Sasha jumped and spun on the spot, his fists raised

uselessly. Bumble sat beside Riften’s recumbent form.

“Pull yourself together and be still,” Gloria continued.

“There is no demon in that fog that did not first exist

in you. As long as you do not fall for any more of its

tricks, you will make it through.”

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“If I avoid them, then how can I find Farris?”

Sasha asked, barely checking himself from launching a

fist into a face which breathed cold mist down his

neck. “The images look and sound so real I couldn’t

find Farris even if she were calling me.”

“I said calm,” Gloria commanded, her words

carrying a regal bite that gave Sasha pause. “Haven’t

you noticed how calm I am?”

“Of course you are,” Sasha growled. “You can’t

see them, and they aren’t calling for you. How can

you expect me to be calm when I hear Farris crying

for help from all directions? I never should have let

her stray from the path.”

“When will you learn? It is not yours to ‘let’ her

do anything. But if you still had your wits you might

see some worth in your words. The mist does not call

for me because I cannot see them. The Orosh Sea is a

body of light, so it seems to me that they can only

find you through your open eye.”

“Close my eyes? Here?”

Every fiber in Sasha’s body screamed for him to

stay wary. What if Bumble was another trap? What if

this was false advice meant to lure him into fresh

danger? Riften stirred weakly on the ground, not yet

awake and unable to give any input. It was true that

the mist had ignored him since his collapse.

“You must look for me,” Farris’s voice called

through the mist. “You’ll never find me with your

eyes shut. That’s the coward’s way out, trying to save

yourself while leaving me lost forever.”

In the world Sasha understood, built of sense and

reason, a voice might issue from a figure. But now

shapes were springing from voices in a maddening

reversal. Farris issued forth from her own calling to

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stand right beside Sasha. She wasn’t dressed in her

Dresdoni silks any longer. Her clear skin and supple

curves were only barely concealed by a line of thin

white lace which traced her body in haphazard lines.

“I’m so afraid, Sasha,” she said. “Won’t you stay

with me and keep me safe? Don’t you want to be near

me?” The figure stepped so close to Sasha he felt

warm breath upon his face. She looked up at him with

her round blue eyes and they pierced him so

thoroughly he could not turn away. Her hand almost

stretched out to him, grazing the air an inch before his

chest, before drawing back coyly to play with her

bottom lip. She leaned a little closer, and her body

seemed so slight and soft that if he only leaned

forward an inch he could feel …

Sasha’s hands clenched at his side. His jaw

tightened. He closed his eyes.

Farris screamed. It was so terrible and true he

had to throw his hands over his face to keep his eyes

closed. Then there was silence. The air lost its tension

and the mist blew cool and refreshing across his

heated face.

“You broke the contact,” Gloria said. “Now put

your hand on Bumble’s fur. She will lead you back to

the serpent.”

“She said she was afraid,” Sasha said with a grin.

“Farris wouldn’t be afraid of anything.”

The stark silence after the scream allowed a

previously muffled sound to be heard. Sasha allowed

Bumble to lead him to Riften, where he managed to

haul his companion upon his weary shoulders once

more. The goat then led Sasha back to the emerald

serpent, goaded onward by Gloria’s quiet whisperings

of encouragement. The two creatures seemed to have

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formed an incredible bond, to the extent that they

almost seemed a single entity.

When Sasha’s hand finally touched the emerald

scales again he gave a deep sigh of relief. Lost,

blinded, burdened, and alone; he wasn’t going to give

up now.

The serpent had completely stopped, dead stone

once more. As Sasha followed it, the ground sloped

downward and the earth gave way to what felt like a

pebbled road beneath his feet. The air grew warmer

and drier. This must be the end of the mist, he thought for

the hundredth time, although he still didn’t dare open

his eyes again. Even when he stumbled and fell, Sasha

refused to open them in case he saw Farris again: that

which he most wanted and most feared to see.

After walking for many minutes, Sasha did hear

Farris’s voice. His heart froze. His eyes were closed

though. The mist was gone. This had to be her!

“Farris!” Sasha yelled. There was no reply. He

crept closer in the direction of the sound, keeping his

eyes shut so tightly he saw colors. There was her voice

again. She seemed to be talking to herself. “She is

speaking with something, but I don’t hear any voices

from the fog,” Sasha added to Gloria.

“Be careful. Don’t get too close. Let us listen and

see.” Sasha couldn’t wait any longer though. He threw

Riften to the ground alongside his sacks of fruit. He

let go of Bumble’s fur. Farris was out there. He only

needed her voice to guide him onward.

The ground fell steeply away, and Sasha’s feet

began to slide beneath him. Sasha tried to grip the

moving earth with his fingers, but the gravel gave way

and pitched him forward once more. In a panic he

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opened his eyes, just in time to see a sturdy red rock

jutting up beside him. He flung his hands around it

and his descent slowed. The earth that had swept him

away tumbled into darkness and a greater darkness

beyond that. Looking down, the mighty abyss yawned

beneath him once more. He had nearly walked

straight into it! Sasha squirmed to pull himself back

onto stable ground with his hold on the …

The ruby fang. Sasha was holding onto the

bottom fang of the emerald serpent, which had

stopped directly before the abyss. With a mighty

heave Sasha pulled himself into the safety of the

serpent’s mouth and pressed himself flat and panting

to the floor.

Only a half-dozen feet away, Farris hung from

the opposite fang of the lower jaw. One of her hands

was flying loose while the other clamped white-

knuckled in a desperate, slipping grip.

“Sasha, help! I can’t hold on,”

He was by her side in a second. Somewhere

within him a voice screamed its warning, but he could

not hear it over his own rushing blood. He extended

his hand and clasped Farris around the wrist. A

wicked grin flashed across her face. Another trick! She

let go and toppled slowly into the abyss, fading into a

gentle blue cloud. The weight of his mistake struck

him at once, and Sasha cursed his own stupidity.

“Please pull me up.” Her cry came again from a

little further down the abyss. Sasha fell to his knees.

The weight was already unbearable. Let the voices

stop! He clenched his eyes shut so tightly they burned.

“I can’t hold on …”

His eyes were shut. Farris, the real Farris! Sasha

opened his eyes once more and leapt from the mouth

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of the cave. There she was, clinging onto a powerful

stalactite at the edge of the abyss a few dozen feet

from the spiral stairway. Farris’s feet scrambled

desperately in the open air.

“I’m here, dear sister. Just give me your hand.

We’re both safe now.”

Tom stood directly above Farris. He looked just

as he had in the dozens of illusions, but also the same

as the thousands of times Sasha had seen him on the

surface world. But something was different,

something subtle. Was there a sneer in his eyes? A

cockiness in his stance? No, he looked exactly like he

should. Only that wasn’t Tom. There was no mist

here, but the image of Farris had persisted beyond the

clouds. There was no way to know, but Sasha felt in

his gut that the creature standing above the real Farris

was a final illusion.

For that was the real Farris too, although Sasha

couldn’t tell how he knew that either. She looked just

as she always did, without lace or pearls or any

obvious lie. None of them looked quite how she did

now: her hair was greased and wild, her face smudged

and dark, and her royal silks were already spoiled and

ripped in many places. There were bags of weariness

below her eyes, and dirt beneath her nails as she

scrambled on the edge. More than any illusion, she

was the most beautiful thing Sasha had ever seen. And

the moment she touched her brother, the blow would

surely knock her directly into the abyss to be lost

forever.

“Just a little farther, that’s it,” Tom coaxed,

stretching out his hand to her. “You’ve done so much

for me, now it’s my turn to save you.”

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The blind hope must have flown from Farris

from the blows she had already received. Her open

hand hesitated, although the farther she slid the more

she would be ready to believe. Sasha was running

now, all of his own weight forgotten. He sped right

along the lip of the abyss. One false step and he

would be gone. Broken rocks and gravel slid around

his feet, but he didn’t dare slow for a second.

“Don’t touch it,” Sasha cried desperately. “He

isn’t real!”

“Quick!’ the figure of Tom demanded. “The mist

is coming, don’t look at it. That isn’t Sasha. Don’t let

him touch you or you’ll be gone.”

Farris looked back and forth between Tom and

Sasha. He could see the struggle in her eyes. _Of course, _

[_how can she even know I’m real? _] There was no gesture so

unique or word so sweet that the mist hadn’t already

plundered from their minds. Blind trust, what an

awful thing to rely upon.

“Or you are both illusions,” Farris said, swinging

her open hand onto the stalactite to prolong her

perch.

“Or we are both real,” Tom said earnestly, “and

we’re losing you for nothing. All of this began

because you couldn’t trust me, don’t make the same

mistake twice. This is your chance to make everything

right again. All is forgiven, if you’ll just take my

hand!”

“No!” Sasha cried, but Farris was giving in. She

threw her hand out to Tom. Sasha was only yards

away now, and he could see the evil grin spreading on

Tom’s face. They were inches from touching. There

was no more time to waste. Sasha lunged, ramming

headlong into Tom. With a roar Sasha hurled the

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figure into the abyss. The light flickered in Tom’s eyes

and he tumbled into the infinite void.

Sasha didn’t give Farris time to doubt anymore.

He grabbed her by both hands and pulled her up

beside him. Her body was shaking and her grip was

weak, and she did nothing to resist him. Once on

solid ground, they collapsed side by side onto the

rough stones.

“That’s the last of them,” Sasha gasped. He

turned on his side to look at Farris. Why was she still

shaking? Was she crying? Had he done something

wrong?

Farris sat upright and turned away from him. He

reached out to grab her arm, reassuring her that he

was real. She was gripping something in one of her

hands. Why wouldn’t she look at him?

“You monster,” she whispered, staring down at

her hand.

“What is that?” Sasha asked. He spotted a dull

metal chain hanging from the corner of her closed

fist. That couldn’t be … Farris opened her hand

slowly, as though the minor movement brought her

agonizing pain. A simple metal key rested in her hand,

the same that Tom had worn around his neck ever

since Grandmother Roschette entrusted it to him.

Sasha had never been more afraid of anything than

looking Farris in the face in that moment. He

continued to stare at the key, not daring to lift his

head. Sasha’s mouth was dry. His hands were numb.

There was a scuffle behind them, and Farris turned.

Riften dragged himself to join them. He must have

woken during the shouting.

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“If Tom’s key is here, then…” Sasha couldn’t

finish the thought. After all this journey, Sasha had

thrown Farris’s brother into the abyss. There was no

surviving that fall. They had failed, and it was all his

fault.

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[*CHAPTER 12: HOPE LOST *]

[_Hope is a candle in the night; illuminating yourself more _]

_than your foe. Who do you fear, the adversary who carries a _

[_light, or the one who has learned to fight in the darkness? _]

Nidhoggdrasil, the World Serpent

iften’s mind was still shrouded in fog. He’d felt

R each blow when he struck the mist, but he didn’t

care. He hadn’t made a mistake. It was better to bear

the suffering than allow the mists to reveal all of his

secrets. He should have stopped before falling

unconscious, but everything still worked out for the

best. Riften had woken in time to see Sasha,

maddened by the mist no doubt, commit the horrible

deed. Tom was dead, and the prophecy would never

be realized.

Farris stared into the heart of the abyss. Sasha’s

eyes were downcast. Bumble was nowhere to be seen,

doubtless lost in the mist. The humans would go

home now that they’d failed. It was time for Riften to

return to his people and face the wrath of his father.

The tyrant had been thwarted for now, but the real

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battle for sovereignty had yet to begin. Riften checked

his backpack: the fruits of the Yonda Sahra would last

several days. If he climbed down from the third shell,

it should be enough to reach the checkpoint at—

“I’m going on,” Farris said to the abyss.

Riften dropped his sack. She couldn’t mean …

“I’m going to finish what he started,” Farris said.

“I have the key, I’m an heir to Malhalion, and I

understand the Way; there’s nothing to stop me from

going to the tomb.”

“Then I’m coming with you,” Sasha said, finally

looking up at Farris. She ignored him as though he

hadn’t spoken at all.

“Will you go with me, Riften? Your home still

lies below, and I do not wish to travel alone.”

“You won’t be alone,” Sasha said. “I said I’m

coming with you.”

Farris turned on him suddenly. With a savage

growl she slapped him hard across the face. Sasha

staggered farther than the weight of the blow would

suggest, likely more injured by the intention than the

pain.

“Not after what you’ve done,” Farris croaked,

her voice strained to the point of tears. “I will never

trust you again for as long as I live. I thought I was

beginning to know you at last, but I was wrong.

You’re just an empty-headed madman who can’t

control himself. He’s dead because of you, and there’s

nothing you can ever do to change that.”

“That wasn’t Tom!” Sasha insisted. “It was the

mist, another trap. You know me, Farris. You know I

would never hurt—”

“I never knew you, Sasha, and now I’m glad I

never will. Let’s go, Riften.”

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“But what about Bumble?” Riften asked. “And

Gloria, she wouldn’t want—”

“No!” Farris cried with a crazed, desperate

energy. “No more voices. No more lectures. No more

advice. I know what I’m doing. I’m going and that’s

the end of it.”

Riften bowed low. Did she even remember that

Bumble was lost? Whether it was the mists or the pain

at losing her brother, Farris had become unstable. If

he tried to convince her to take a different path, she

would likely become hostile towards him, which

would make subduing her difficult. It was also

impossible to let her continue alone, as that would

increase the danger of the tomb still being opened. He

had no other choice.

“I have sworn my loyalty and my life to you,”

Riften said, rising from his bow. “I blame myself for

what has happened to your brother, and I will not let

his sacrifice be in vain.”

“What would you have me do then?” Sasha

asked, his voice cracking with emotion. “I’m not

going home without you.”

“Don’t you get it?” Farris snapped. “I’m not

going home. Not with you, not ever. There is no

home without Tom. Go back, go home, go anywhere;

you won’t see me again.”

Farris stomped to the mouth of the emerald

serpent. She grabbed hold of one of the ruby fangs

which glowed with its own light, wrenching it free

from the socket with an irresistibly stubborn strength.

She pointed the light around her in the darkness until

the red glow fell upon the circular stair that spiraled

the length of the abyss.

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Sasha fell to his knees. He looked at Riften with a

face broken by hopeless misery. Riften held his face

perfectly calm. Do not comfort him. Any mercy towards

Sasha could be seen as a betrayal toward Farris now,

which would compromise his mission. Still, it was

impossible to deny his pity toward this brave man

who gave everything only to be cast aside.

“Please,” Sasha begged, tears in his eyes. “Talk to

her. Don’t let her leave me here.”

“Of all the bodies that must lie in my wake, I

never intended you to be one of them,” Riften said

quietly, averting his eyes. “Do yourself a favor and

learn to forget as she has.”

Farris had already reached the stair. She looked

back, her face glowing by the red glow of the ruby

fang.

“Well?” she shouted. “Are you coming or not,

Riften?”

Riften hurried to catch up with Farris, leaving

Sasha where he knelt in the dirt. Her steps were quick

and filled with determination. Just as with her brother,

there was only one way to ensure the prophecy was

never fulfilled. He had to be wary, not understanding

the full extent of her awakening power, but the task

should be easy enough. What he felt didn’t matter.

Personal emotions should never interfere with the

mission, that’s what his master always used to say.

Wait until Farris fell asleep, then a sharp knife across

her throat; the tomb would remain sealed forever.

Sasha roared wordlessly as though his soul were

escaping his body. Riften didn’t look back.

When they had descended a half-turn down the

abyss, Farris glanced over her shoulder. She stared for

a long while at the place she had left Sasha, now

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obscured by darkness. Her bright blue eyes redefined

the dignity of suffering. Riften thought he could make

out a small shadow still kneeling where Sasha had

once been. He hadn’t followed after all, although how

could you blame him when he was weighed down

with such guilt?

“Do you really think Sasha did it on purpose?”

Riften asked.

She fixed her eyes on him. “It doesn’t matter. I

will only surround myself with people I can trust.”

“And you trust me?” Riften asked, careful to

keep his tone dispassionate.

Farris considered for a moment, then shook her

head. “No, but I need you, and you need me.”

“You’re right, of course,” Riften said as they

continued walking, “but I’m curious why you think I

need you.”

“Because you’re afraid,” Farris said without

turning again. “You’re afraid that nothing you do will

matter. If what the mist said was true, then your

mother won’t come back. Your father probably won’t

pay for his sins. Nothing you did will have helped

anyone at all, but you know I can be that change.”

She knew her own worth. That was a dangerous

attribute. She had shown him kindness, it was true.

She had given him a glimpse of a noble spirit tainted

by the evils of the world. Riften really would miss her

when she was gone, but she was wrong. Riften didn’t

need her. He didn’t need anyone.

“You certainly have changed from the girl I met

not too long ago,” Riften said. “Is there anyone you

do trust? The voice, perhaps?”

Farris stopped and regarded him critically. “You

know about my Guide, don’t you?”

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“I know of no students who learn so swiftly

without a master,” Riften shrugged. “Did your voice

say anything about me?”

“He told me I would face one betrayal in my

journey,” Farris said, as though to herself. “Honestly I

imagined it from you before Sasha’s deed. At least I

can put my trust in you now.”

Riften had never suspected her doubt. It stung,

and he fell quiet. She was smarter than he gave her

credit for. She might not be taken unaware at all.

Even if he could surprise her in sleep, would he be

able to live with himself? Such strength and resolve,

he could have followed her even if she were unrelated

to the prophecy. If she received proper instruction

from the University Fantasia there was no knowing

how far her power might bloom. She could even be

their secret weapon in the revolution, overthrowing

his father at last. But she was also becoming jaded and

warped. Dare he risk putting even more power into

her unstable hands?

The winding stair circled round and round the

abyss everlasting. In the quiet of the dark, with no

light besides the glowing ruby, time began to lose its

meaning once more. It was interesting that she went

out of her way to bring the ruby rather than rely upon

her own Elestar for light. Something was going wrong

with the Naming. Was she using it too often? Riften

tried to remember his teachings at the university. All

power has its price. Maybe the time was approaching

where she would be forced to pay hers.

Riften counted the descent by the number of

circuits around the abyss, although after he reached

seventeen he lost count. Peering into the darkness

below there were no more signs of life than in the

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endless wound torn in the earth above. When they

grew tired they rested and ate from the large fruits

plucked from the Yonda Sahra. The fruit was crushed

and bruised from the bag, but the thick nectar was

deliciously sweet and cooled his dusty throat. Farris

did not rest often though, forcing Riften to be the one

to signal their break. When they did rest she seemed

agitated and impatient. She would wring her hands

endlessly around the metal key which she now wore

around her neck, until her fingers became calloused

and raw.

Sleep was difficult upon the stair, but

occasionally they crossed a wider ledge like they did

now, which at least allowed them to lie down. Farris

had tossed and turned for a long while, her hands

wrapped tightly around the key. If Farris was to be

allowed to live, there must be some way to deter her

from her path.

  • * *

While Farris had walked along the stair, she could

distract her thoughts from grief. The fury could not

be denied, however, pounding in with each footfall

and rattling the inside of her skull. She embraced it,

letting herself hate Sasha for his clumsy stupidity. At

least while she was hating him she didn’t have to think

about her brother, or her parents, or her grandmother

whom she would never see again. She couldn’t move

forever though. Now that she lay down in the quiet

and the dark, there was nothing to distract her from

the ravages of her mind.

_Tom is alive somehow, _ she told herself for the

thousandth time. Sasha had been right, and it really

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was only an illusion that shattered. Her fingers

gripped more tightly around the key, whose cold

metal bit into her hand with uncompromising proof.

She knew in a place deeper than her conscious mind

that all her hopes betrayed her. The key must have

brought Tom some small comfort throughout his

ordeal. He must have gripped it just as she was doing

now, trying to find some meaning or purpose to the

senseless pain.

For the first time Farris could remember she

began to cry. The first sob was so alien to her that it

startled her, and she laughed at herself. What would

Tom have thought if he could see her now? Would he

taunt her and call her childish, as she had done to

him? He would have teased her in the comfort of

home, a freshly cooked meal warming her stomach

and thick blankets piled around, but not here in the

darkness. He would have held her and told her that

everything was all right. He would tell her to be strong

without calling her weak in those calm, measured

words she had failed to find when he needed her.

The tears were running freely now. She didn’t

even care what Riften thought. She opened her hand

and stared at the key. Her tears blurred the ancient

lettering, but she wiped her eyes to read it again.

_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. _

“What does it mean?” Riften asked. Farris

jumped, not realizing how close he was. She wiped

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her eyes with the back of a dirty hand and tucked the

key back under her shirt.

“It’s about the prophecy,” Farris said. “I don’t

know what it means.”

“Why two faces?” Riften asked. “Wasn’t there

only supposed to be one heir to the prophecy?”

“Well, I’m the one carrying it now,” Farris

shrugged. “I am still from the line of Malhalion, after

all.” “Who is on the other side,” Riften mused, “is

different depending on who opens the tomb. That’s

impossible, isn’t it? The final battle between

Nidhoggdrasil and Lolaran should have been decided

long ago.”

“It’s pointless speculation. This was Tom’s quest,

and now it’s mine. I won’t let his death be in vain.”

“His quest?” Riften asked, his perpetual smile

shifting into a sneer. “This was never his quest. He

was a scared boy stolen from his mother in the night.

This was my father’s quest alone from the beginning.”

“What else would you have me do?” Farris asked,

not backing down an inch. “Walk back up to the sun,

look my parents in the eye, and tell them I let him

fall? Tell my grandmother I wasn’t brave enough to

go where he was headed? Tom might not have chosen

how his journey began, but he accepted his fate. I

won’t do any less now.”

Riften was tense, but he nodded and bowed

before Farris. “I offered you my service, my dear,

when the way seemed clear. It would be base of me to

withdraw it now that the road grows long. I will escort

you into my home in the fifth shell at least. Beyond

that I do not know where my path will take me.”

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“Thank you,” Farris said. “I don’t think I ever

would have made it this far alone.”

The two of them lay down once more upon the

rock shelf. When weariness finally overpowered the

torrent of thought, Farris was able to find sleep.

Several times she woke to see Riften sitting upright

with his back to the rock wall, watching her. He really

was always there to keep her safe. If only Sasha had

remained as true … was she wrong to discard him so

quickly? No, he was the one to leave; the moment he

did the unthinkable he was gone. But her poor goat

Bumble, and Gloria with her sage advice. Why had

they left her? Why did everyone have to leave? But

her Guide was right. She had been alone from the

moment she had entered the Essence World without

her friends. The sooner she accepted that, the better

off she would be.

When they began again the mood was somewhat

lighter. Riften seemed to have found resolve in his

decision to accompany her, and he spoke more often

as they descended.

“Although the Stair of Eternity spans the whole

length of the abyss,” Riften said, “we can’t follow it

past the fourth shell. My people have set up

numerous guard platforms that we will never be

permitted to pass. You are the only human child so

deep, so it will not be difficult for them to connect

you with the heir of the prophecy.”

“Yes, that is fair,” Farris said. “Although the

tomb must be opened, I will not have the same Paral -

Zakdul who stole my brother plunder it for

themselves. It’s better for them to think the heir has

been lost. What other options do we have?”

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“We must enter the fourth world,” Riften said. “I

know of a secret passage there that will descend

directly into the fifth shell and bypass the guards.”

The path persisted for many turns of the abyss.

They were given strength by the fruit of the Yonda,

although surviving on it alone did not so much give

them life as delay death. The walking was endless, and

weariness came again and again. Their travel was

fragmented by fitful sleep, and Farris was filled with

dreams of those left behind and horrible awakenings

which promised a darkness still to come.

Although she hadn’t dared to enter the Essence

World again after the unknown blackness had spotted

her, the voice of her Guide began to enter her dreams

as she descended deeper into the earth. She couldn’t

tell whether this was a creation of her own

imagination, or proof of her Guide’s growing power

as she approached it. She dreamt of Tom falling again

and again, played out in a thousand ways in which she

tried to save him. A thousand hands slipping through

her fingers, each sending him spinning off into the

darkness. Her Guide consoled her after each, and she

found her only comfort in his words. The Guide gave

meaning to Tom’s death, and in her dreams it told her

that it was now her place to give meaning to his life.

When Farris woke, she looked into the perfect

blackness not knowing whether she had slept for

minutes, or hours, or days at a stretch. All she knew

was it was never enough, her every muscle ached, and

the purpose burning inside her made resting again

impossible. She stood now after such a sleep to shake

off the numbing weariness of her limbs. Riften slept

little and was already standing, waiting for her.

“How long have we rested?” Farris asked.

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“Longer than your body needed, but too short

for your spirit,” Riften replied tersely. He pulled the

tattered silks of the Dresdoni tighter about him,

although they sagged and drooped around his thin

frame again when he let go. Riften handed Farris

another of the Yonda fruits.

“We should have enough to last. Look below,

we’ve already reached my people’s watch by the cliff

of Fandir. There will be many crevices that lead into

the fourth shell nearby.”

Farris nodded in silence, biting into the fruit. It

had begun to grow mushy in the bag, but the juice

was refreshing and coated the inside of her throat

with a sticky warmth that did marvels against the dry

air of the pit. She had already noticed the sparks

burning in the distance below them. They appeared to

glow brighter while she ate.

“They’re moving,” Farris said.

“It must be a patrol,” Riften replied. “Cover your

light and move slowly along the wall.”

Farris put the glowing ruby beneath her shirt and

they continued their descent. Not long had passed

before the cliff face grew uneven with jutting rocks

and deep cubbies. Some of these spurs nearly blocked

the entire stairway, and the two travelers had to

carefully clamber over them to continue. The cracks

in the wall grew broader until they were large enough

for a person to walk comfortably through.

Farris pressed her glowing ruby into one of the

cracks. The light cut sharply inside, prompting her to

jump back in surprise. Her ruby fumbled against a

rock, and she dropped it. There had been a large

green eye, much too large to be human, blinking at

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her sluggishly. By the time she lifted her ruby again,

the eye was gone.

“What lives in there?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Riften replied, raising his eyebrows

curiously. “They’re old trade routes the Moross built,

but they have been deserted for years.”

“Something is in there,” Farris said, trying hard

to keep the trepidation from her voice. Leaders can’t

be afraid, she scolded herself. What was left to fear,

after everything they’d already passed?

“The Moross never come this far towards the

stair. It is patrolled too regularly by my people, and we

do not receive each other warmly.”

The green eye opened again further inside, and

they held Farris’s gaze this time. She couldn’t see the

body in the shadows, but the eyes were immense and

passionate. They were the kind of eyes you would

expect to see in someone who has watched a loved

one die in their arms. Farris wondered if her own eyes

held that expression by now. Riften was beside her

now, peering into the dim crevice.

“Most peculiar,” he added. “The Moross are a

long-suffering people who have the power to build

great cities of life, but the wisdom only to dwell on

death. They have fought my people viciously for

many years, throwing their lives away with abandon at

the slightest provocation. My father has long since

driven them back from these tunnels and deep into

their own land; the Byzantian mail of his soldiers is

unbreachable by the uncivilized creatures.”

“How could you attack them?” Farris asked,

filled with compassion. “Their eyes look so sad and

harmless.”

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“Do not accuse me of the deeds of my kind,”

Riften snarled. “I have done no evil by them, nor

would my people, save for on the orders of the king.

They have rich lands which he envies, and honor their

dead with great treasures. In ages past we built tunnels

underneath their cities, breaking into the tombs and

stealing what was buried there. Those are the tunnels

we will use to descend into my home in the fifth shell.

Let us move on, though. We should find an

unoccupied tunnel.”

The light below them on the stair was moving

more swiftly upward now. Had their ruby light been

spotted? The companions approached the next crack

in the cliff face. Farris waved her light and was met by

more blinking pairs of those giant sad eyes. Again

they descended farther, but each tunnel they passed

seemed to be filled with Moross. The patrol of Paral-

Zakdul was getting closer; Farris could make out two

of the tall, thin beings armed with halberds, lanterns

dangling from the end. The light spun across

the polished metal of the blades and their shining

brass armor. Farris and Riften were running out of

time to get off the stairway.

“We’re going to have to move into one of these

caves,” Farris said.

“That’s impossible,” Riften declared. “The

Moross will attack me on sight. We must return later

and search for an empty tunnel when the patrol has

gone. Move back up the stair now, get away from

their lanterns.”

“I will not!” Farris declared. “They’ve already

spotted us anyway, and this road is too long to be

taking steps backwards. If the Moross really are

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enemies of the Paral-Zakdul, then maybe they will

help protect us.”

Whatever Riften said, it was impossible to believe

something with such deep intelligent eyes could be

dangerous. Besides, if Farris was honest with herself,

she had something to prove. If she couldn’t rely too

heavily upon her Names, she had to learn how to

navigate the lands on her wits alone. It was thrilling to

have the crowd of Dresdoni gathering to hear her

speak. If she could carry herself with the same dignity

and confidence now as when she wielded her power,

then she couldn’t imagine any creature not being

moved by her words.

Before Riften could stop her, Farris darted inside

the largest crack within reach. She heard a cry from

the guards outside. They must have noticed her light

disappear. She had to keep moving.

“Foolish girl!” Riften snapped, ducking in behind

her. “They can figure out which tunnel we entered by

where the light went out. We must at least discard the

ruby and choose a different one.”

Farris heard him, but she could not turn away

from the strange sight inside the cave. Once within

the crack, her ruby light fell upon the great faces of

the Moross. Below their large eyes, long thin noses

drooped the length of their faces. The mouth was

wide and gaping: a toothless thing with a giant lolling

tongue which moved randomly as though it did not

know it was connected to a creature. Their faces were

on the back of large shells, and the creatures

themselves resembled turtles who walked on their

hind legs. They waddled about backwards, swaying

heavily from side to side as their stubby legs propelled

them away from her inquisitive light.

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Two dozen eyes glinted from a dozen faces.

Farris was overwhelmed by pity for the creatures,

although she couldn’t tell exactly why. Leaving them

now would be like leaving a group of lost children out

in the woods.

Get out of here.” Riften pulled on Farris’s arm.

“The Paral-Zakdul will find us.”

Farris wrenched away from Riften and took a

step towards the huddled group of Moross.

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[*CHAPTER 13: THE MOROSS *]

[_Pity is a self-contradicting term. The weak do not deserve _]

_pity, for it is their own failure which has caused their condition. _

_The great do not deserve pity, for their quality leaves nothing to _

_look down upon. _

Nidhoggdrasil, the World Serpent

  • *

aral-Zakdul!” the Moross in front murmured.

“PTh eir voice was pitted with melancholy and

fear. The sight of their ancient enemy made the dozen

creatures huddle together even more tightly, climbing

over one another in directionless confusion.

“Paral-Zakdul!” echoed farther into the cave.

“We aren’t going to hurt anyone!” Farris insisted,

holding up both hands in a gesture of peace. The ruby

she clung to washed over them and they flinched at

the light. _Poor frightened creatures. They must have been _

_hiding here for a long time. _ Their shells seemed filthy and

smudged, and their cracked leather skin hung in loose

folds around their bones. Of course she couldn’t tell

what a healthy Moross was supposed to look like, but

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they seemed to her as though they must have been

starving in the dark for a long while.

“Oh, the end,” said the first Moross. “That’s it,

that’s done. It’s over. We’re all dead now.”

“Dead now, dead now,” echoed back. “It had to

come, we do not mind. It is time to be dead now.”

Farris lowered her ruby to the floor. She had to

appear as non-threatening as possible. If they were

going to shelter her from the Paral-Zakdul patrol, she

would need to move fast. After seeing how timid they

were, however, she was beginning to regret her plan.

Was it too late to go back out onto the stairway? She

turned to see the glow of firelight. The Paral-Zakdul

were close.

“She speaks the truth!” Riften said, hurrying to

join her. The Moross only cowered further at his

voice. “There are Paral chasing us. They are our

enemies too.”

“If they fear you as much as this,” Farris said to

Riften, “then you must have treated them even more

poorly than you hinted at.”

“Again, you confuse me with my people. Their

crimes are not my own,” Riften growled softly back.

Farris knew it was unfair of her even as she said it, but

her sympathy towards the creatures was turning into

hot anger. Maybe they shouldn’t run at all. Maybe

they should fight off the Paral-Zakdul patrol and

protect the Moross.

The huddled creatures seemed hesitant to address

the outsiders directly, and continued waddling

backwards as fast as their stubby legs could go. This

shuffle seemed natural to them although Farris didn’t

understand how they could see where they were going

with their large eyes fixed upon her and Riften.

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As the Moross moved deeper into the tunnel, the

path expanded into a wide cave. The ground was

smooth and polished, and though the walls and roof

seemed natural, there were cuttings in the rock and

along the ceiling in some places that showed where

the way was mined.

Farris took a few steps after them. She stopped,

hearing footfalls at the mouth of the tunnel. The

patrol was here.

“Get rid of the light!” Riften ordered.

Farris pushed the ruby fang into a pile of rocks

and masked its glow with a pile of soft soil. The two

were engulfed in blackness for a moment, but then

light flared up again with the red-orange fire of

lanterns. The Paral-Zakdul were inside the cave. Farris

pressed herself to a wall and held her breath. Maybe

the Paral-Zakdul lost track of exactly where they had

entered. If they weren’t spotted, they might continue

their search in the nearby tunnels and pass them by.

The two Paral-Zakdul stood in the cave entrance,

illuminated by their lanterns. Their brass plates

covered their chest and shoulders, unlike the

Byzantian mail which had completely encompassed

the hunters who stole Tom. The blades of their

halberds were attached to sturdy wooden staves which

pounded upon the ground, making no attempt to hide

their presence. The light reflected upon the large eyes

of the Moross who did nothing to hide themselves.

What were the idiots thinking? Why didn’t they keep

moving back? Farris swore under her breath.

“So it was you scum again?” spat one of the

Paral-Zakdul. He unhooked his lantern from his

weapon and set it upon the floor, brandishing the

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halberd with both hands. “Where’d you get the light,

huh? Get in line then, let’s have done with it.”

The Moross lowered their eyes and obediently

formed a line in front of the two guards. Farris and

Riften remained perfectly still, watching. If the

Moross were cooperating so readily, then perhaps the

Paral-Zakdul didn’t have any violent intentions in

mind. Maybe the patrols were only there to keep track

of the Moross? It’s not like these pitiful creatures had

anything to steal. Farris glanced at Riften, looking for

some indication as to what would come. Riften’s skin

was pale and tight. His eyes were narrowed, focusing

their hatred on the Paral-Zakdul guards. Farris

couldn’t tell whether it was a sign of some evil to

come or simply Riften’s feud with his father, but a

fury that deep couldn’t possibly be contained for long.

There was going to be blood.

One of the Moross, the creature who had first

croaked about its dismal demise, waddled directly in

front of the Paral-Zakdul with the halberd.

“Yes, yes. That’s why we’re here. Let’s get this

over with,” the Moross said. It turned around so its

shell was facing the back of the cave, leaving its

exposed leathery body open to the guard.

“It’s hard to imagine anything more pathetic,”

the Paral said, probing the Moross with its weapon.

The creature winced but did not move. Farris could

see its fearful watering eyes pointed back in her

direction. They fixed on her for a moment before

they closed in agonizing anticipation. They couldn’t

just be waiting to die, could they? There had to be

something else going on here. It made no sense to

sacrifice themselves like that. Farris held herself in

check, watching with morbid fascination.

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“Yes, pathetic indeed, yes we are,” echoed back

amongst the others in line. One by one they turned

around to show their leathery bellies to the Paral-

Zakdul.

The guard brought his halberd back in a vicious

arc. He was really going to execute the creatures, just

like that! Farris shouted an involuntary warning. She

couldn’t get there in time. She never should have

waited. The situation was simply so unbelievable—it

hadn’t occurred to her they would actually …

The guard looked at her mid-swing. She leapt

away from the wall to try to catch the shaft of the

deadly polearm before it landed. Too late. The metal

met with a dull thud as it penetrated the face of the

Moross. With a long sigh of contentment and release,

the sad figure slumped to the ground and was still. It

was dead. He’d killed it. They must have known what

would happen; what were the Moross thinking?

The next Moross in line was already stepping

forward to take the creature’s place. Its eyes were

downcast and its feet shuffled as though obeying an

inconvenient chore. The Paral-Zakdul ignored it.

Their eyes were fixed on Farris now.

“A h-human child …?”

“Could that be you, Lord Riften?” asked the

guard. Riften had pushed himself away from the wall

to stand beside her. The patrol looked clearly shaken

as their eyes darted around the room. They looked

like uneasy school children who had just been tested

with a problem they had never covered in class.

The two guards pounded the butts of their

halberds into the ground in synchronized movement

and raised their free hand to the air in a surprised

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salute. Riften was gliding towards them now, treading

slowly like a cat stalking its prey.

“I will be handling things from here,” Riften said

in a measured and imperious voice. “Continue your

patrol.”

The two guards held their salute but said nothing.

They glanced at one another, an unspoken question

on their faces.

Riften stepped closer. The rigidity of the guard’s

posture became so severe they were practically

bending backwards to keep their distance with Riften.

“Have I been gone so long that you have

forgotten how to obey your prince?” Riften asked.

“That was an order, soldiers.”

The guards looked terrified, but still said nothing.

One nodded subtly. Riften took another step closer.

The guard with the bloody halberd lowered his

saluting hand to grip his weapon. He slashed the

blade towards Riften in a vicious chop. Riften leapt

back gracefully, but the second guard was already

advancing toward him with his blade leveled.

“How dare you,” Riften snarled. “My father

will—”

“Your father will reward us for your death,” the

second guard interrupted. “The words of your

treachery have moved faster than you. Now that you

have joined forces with the low creatures of this

world, it is only fitting that you should die as one of

them.”

Before the guard could raise the halberd again,

Riften was flying back towards them. His bone-

handled knife flicked into his hand and sped in a

flashing arc. The clumsy halberd of the first guard was

batted aside. He took a few stumbling steps to regain

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his distance from the prince, but Riften closed the gap

with predatory grace. Before the halberd could be

brought back into a defensive position, Riften had

already slit the throat of the guard and leapt over him

towards the second. This halberd dove towards

Riften’s torso, but he checked his charge mid-step.

Using his left heel as an axis, Riften spun a complete

circle around the thrusting blade and planted his right

foot square into the guard’s kneecap. There was a

sickening crunch and he fell.

“Stop it!” Farris screamed. “You don’t need to

kill them.” She had never seen Riften act so ruthlessly.

She could tell by the way he had looked at them there

would be violence; she should have intervened

sooner.

“It is too late for you!” the remaining guard said,

his hands raised in front of his face in a futile defense.

“Pistal has told us everything. Our king has ordered

you killed on sight if you ever try to return home.”

Our king? He is neither king nor father to me,”

Riften said, stepping back from the fallen figure. “It is

you who will be crawling back to him, begging

forgiveness. Tell him the reckoning has come.”

The Paral guard turned on the ground with an

animal snarl, fitting the state he had been reduced to,

and pulled himself out of the tunnel on all fours.

What would Farris have done if Riften had decided to

execute him too? Was it even her place to get

involved? Riften had supported her through war. Did

that make it her obligation to join him in the violence?

As appalled as she was by watching the Paral killed in

front of her, she couldn’t deny a certain grim

satisfaction in seeing the smug killer held accountable.

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If she met with the same hunters who had taken Tom

from her, would she act with any more mercy?

The Moross stayed in the line they had formed,

staring with dumb wonder at Riften. They had

remained silent and motionless during the battle, not

making the least attempt to escape.

“It is my turn now,” the next Moross in line said.

“Your turn for what?” Riften asked, cleaning off

his dagger on the fallen guard.

“I’m the next to die. I have been waiting. “

“Don’t worry, you’re safe now,” Farris said. “I

am sorry for how the Paral-Zakdul have treated you,

but the one beside me is not like the others. He has

helped me on my journey, and if we are good to you,

then perhaps you would be able to help us as well. We

are trying to find our way to your homes on the

fourth shell.”

“Fourth shell, fourth shell,” echoed the voices

around her as the Moross looked at one another.

“That is not our home anymore. We live out here in

the thick rock, thick rock. No place for us left in the

shell, no place.”

Their voices chirped all about like birds, and they

often repeated fragments of sentences that other

Moross had begun. Once the echo was taken up by

one, it would run up and down the line as all repeated

it before the original speaker would continue.

“What has driven you here?” Riften asked. “As I

remember it, the fourth shell had fertile lands and rich

metals. In my land there are legends of your people’s

wealth and prosperity. We’ve heard your dead have

bigger houses than our living.”

“Riches, yes riches,” they said. “But those are not

meant for us. To our fathers we give what is ours, as

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one day we too will be rewarded. All hail Ni Sansa, to

the land of our fathers he goes!” shouted the speaker.

“All hail, all hail!” echoed back and forth across

the line. Several of them stooped now to touch the

fallen Moross, touching him in reverence and lifting

him carefully upon their shoulders.

“My name is Meer Kato,” said the Moross they

were addressing. “And yes, we have come from the

fourth shell, that has been our home, the fourth shell.

But there are many of us and our fathers live on in

great tracts of land. Some of us must go, until it is our

time to rule. I have not eaten in four revolutions of

the world. My time will come soon too, and I will

earn my place on the throne.”

“Then you must be a prince, Meer Kato, if you

take the throne soon. But how can a prince have been

banished and starving?” Farris asked.

“We are all princes,” Meer Kato replied, and this

was echoed by ‘All princes,’ and ‘All to be kings’.

“What a strange government,” Riften marveled,

“where each has their own throne.”

“Will you let us accompany you back to the land

of your fathers?” Farris asked.

“To our fathers, yes, our fathers. It has been a

hungry watch while waiting here. We must bring Ni

Sansa to his throne, so you may come with us.

Perhaps it is not yet time for me to rule, me to rule.”

The Moross clustered around the body of Ni

Sansa, and they reached out their stubby arms to

touch him as he was passed between them. When all

had touched the corpse as though it were a holy relic,

they packed closely together to allow as many to carry

him as possible. Without further explanation, they

began to walk deeper into the cave. The way was split

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into a myriad of side passages and Farris and Riften

had to stay close to the procession to avoid getting

lost in the maze.

The walls became steadily smoother and more

carefully maintained as they went, and the bedrock

gradually grew into an artificial tunnel. Farris could

see many stalactites hanging from the ceiling, and

these glowed with a soft white radiance that lit the

way. As they went, Meer Kato spoke with them in his

echoed mumblings.

“We didn’t always sit in the tunnels,” Meer Kato

said. “All of us once lived in a village called Perpasai.

Then came awful battles with the Paral-Zakdul, and

more fathers had taken their thrones.”

That must mean many of them died, Farris

thought. Their worship of the dead seemed peculiar

to say the least, but perhaps it was respectful to revere

the ancestors so much. In her village, the dead would

be honored for their deeds in life, but she supposed

the Moross were doing the same thing in their own

way.

“The village had to be removed to make a place

for our fathers’ palaces. I voted for the removal of the

village myself, so as to better honor our fathers. Some

Moross who were displaced joined to fight the war,

and others simply moved to the outer tunnels to wait

their turn to sit upon the throne.”

“That’s terrible,” Farris said, all respect for their

reverence gone in an instant. “I can’t imagine your

fathers would want you to throw your lives away for

them.”

“It is all right, all right,” Meer Kato reassured her.

“We too will become fathers when our time has

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come. We look forward to the day when we receive

such respect ourselves, respect ourselves. When we

are fathers we will rule in wealth and happiness for a

thousand years until the ending of the world, when

the serpent rises from the ground and consumes us

all. Do not pity us for our suffering in this life, but

rather envy us for our eternal bliss ahead.”

“How do you know what is waiting for you after

death?” Riften asked.

“Queen Velume has shown us the truth,” Meer

Kato replied. “She is the bridge between worlds.”

“Where have I heard that name before?” Farris

whispered to Riften. He looked disconcerted, his lips

pressed into a thin, bloodless line.

“Rishta spoke of her,” Riften replied. “The witch

named her as one of this world’s masters of the Way.

It is the first I have heard of her though. I’ve never

heard her name mentioned at my University Fantasia,

and I know of no stories of her power.”

“You will meet her,” Meer Kato said. “She

welcomes all who come to rule. And if you are very

lucky, perhaps she will even see you to your own

throne, your own throne.”

Farris swallowed hard. The Moross seemed kind,

but if they were so misguided that death was mistaken

for a blessing, they could be heading into grave

danger.

“We shall be there soon,” Meer Kato said.

“Open your eyes and hail our fathers. The way that

we walk is dull, but the ending is beautiful to behold.”

“To the ending we go, we go,” echoed the other

Moross. What other choice did they have? Farris and

Riften could never navigate these twisting passages

alone. Riften rested his hand upon Farris’s shoulder

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for reassurance, and they followed the Moross into

the fourth shell of the world.

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[*CHAPTER 14: CITY OF THE *]

*DEAD *

[_‘Do you believe the afterlife will be better?’ asks the _]

_student. _

[_‘I believe I can make this life better,’ replies the teacher. _]

[_‘But don’t you wish to be reborn?’ _]

[_‘Yes, and this is how it is done.’ _]

-Javel of Omar, the First Man

ail!” a voice at the front of the line rang out.

“H“H ail the victorious dead! They march to war

in iron.”

“And they return in gold,” shouted Meer and the

procession of Moross. Riften was much taller than the

creatures, but the line was rounding a turn in the

tunnel and he could not see what was going on. It

sounded like they had encountered more of the

creatures. Would their fear of him be advantageous or

not? Best to let the others go first.

A gong rang from around the bend. With military

precision, the Moross marching with them cried out

with one voice: “Hail! Hail the throne of the dead!”

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Farris and Riften reached the corner. Bright

orange light blazed to life before them, as bright as a

forge’s heart after their long span in the dark cave.

The route widened to reveal two great basins of fire

on either side of the path. A Moross guard in full iron

mail waited beside each of them. Their faces were

entirely covered but for their large eyes and a thick

shirt of steel rings covering the shell. Their stubby

arms were bent around long metal maces that looked

as though they would be as adept at smashing heads

as they were at ringing gongs. They sounded the note

again, and the ringing magnified to a thunderclap as it

resonated in the enclosed space.

“Hail! Hail the lost and saved,” the guards

shouted.

“Hail!” replied the procession as one. “Hail the

dead and gone.”

“Hail! Hail those who must wait no more.”

“Hail! Hail those who must wait on.”

The gong was rung again, and the body of Ni

Sansa was lifted high above the bearers’ heads as they

marched. The wound had bled dry during the trek,

and many of the bearers were covered in blood. The

body was beginning to stink as well, but the Moross

paid it no heed. The guards nodded to each as the

procession passed.

Riften couldn’t help but compare the scene to

when he had seen his own soldiers fall. The Paral-

Zakdul were honored in life, but they were swiftly

forgotten the moment they died. The bodies would be

thrown into incinerators which burned so intensely

everything but the metal they wore was disintegrated.

The molten liquid would be recast into new arms, and

all sign that a Paral once wielded them would vanish.

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_Those who served bravely should be remembered, _ Riften

thought. When he was king, he might borrow from

these customs.

When Farris and Riften began to approach, the

guards turned towards them with leveled maces. They

looked at them sternly, saying nothing. These

muscular creatures clad in iron seemed nothing like

the starving procession they had encountered in the

caves. These were the creatures Riften was more

familiar with: berserkers who would throw their lives

away, but only after causing reckless carnage in their

wild disregard for life. It was time for the greatest tact.

“We are here to pay respects to the dead,” Riften

said, sweeping his practiced bow so low his face

brushed the cave floor.

“A Paral-Zakdul? This is most irregular,” the

guard said, eyeing him suspiciously.

“I know you must think me evil—” Riften began.

“Evil? Of course not. We thank you, brother.”

To Riften’s amazement, the guards bowed low. “We

thank the slayer of our kin.”

“You misunderstand!” Farris said. “He has

never—”

“Hail!” shouted the first guard. Farris and Riften

jumped back in surprise.

“Hail the ship that sends our brothers home!”

cried the second.

The guards both stood straight once more and

turned away to watch the procession enter the shell.

Riften stood in abject confusion, and Farris had to

grab his arm to drag him onward. Past the bonfires

the tunnel opened into the fourth shell. Riften

watched the procession move down a much-trodden

dirt path with the body they carried, seemingly

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forgetting about Farris and Riften. The companions

followed tentatively, and as the guards made no move

to stop them, they exited the tunnel into the open

world.

Huge monuments of stone decorated the

landscape as far as Riften could see. There were

mausoleums built into great complexes, massive

statues of Moross in triumphant poses, and fields

upon fields of tombstones, and figurines, and shrines,

and temples of every size and shape and design

imaginable. Each of the temples and statues wore a

flaming crown of wood that smoldered without

smoke and lit the whole land in a red halo. The path

sloped downward before them, and from their

vantage at the cave mouth it seemed that the whole

world was on fire.

The procession of Moross was moving towards

the greatest monument of them all, which loomed

nearby. It rose as a giant tiered pyramid crafted from

gargantuan blocks of stone so massive that it must

have been carved directly out of a mountain. On its

tip stood a towering statue of a Moross figure, its face

split wide open and its hands lifted to the heavens in

open suffering. Around the mountainous base were

meager fields and ramshackle houses, utterly dwarfed

by the immensity of the structure.

“There must be a gigantic population living here

to build such cities,” Farris commented as they

followed the procession toward the pyramid.

“Any city would be great if its dead were counted

among the living,” Riften replied. “Our people know

of the great pyramids where they store the wealth of

their civilization in heaping piles around the dead. If

we can get inside, we will be able to find the tunnels

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leading down and bypass the Paral-Zakdul guard

posts.”

“It seems like such an awful waste to have the

dead be more comfortable than the living,” Farris

said. “What could they possibly do with all that

wealth? I suppose it isn’t any of our business what

they believe, though.”

“Exactly what my people thought,” Riften

grinned. “Might as well put the wealth to good use.”

“A good use? Such as building armies and

sending soldiers through the lands?”

“Well, put to _a _ use at least,” Riften said, forcing

his smile to remain. “Anyway, we have to figure out a

way inside. I can’t imagine they will let anyone walk

into their holy places and high thrones. It seems as

though people are waiting their entire lives, quite

literally, to be received there.”

“We shall have to see for ourselves then,” Farris

replied. The procession was approaching the massive

pyramid now, with Farris and Riften not far behind.

“I’ve never seen a group so eager to enter a

tomb,” Riften grumbled.

“Do you believe there really is something after

death?” Farris asked.

“Yes,” Riften replied. “Usually more death, at

least in war.”

“I’m being serious,” she said, turning her wide

blue eyes on him. Riften stopped for a moment to

return her gaze. Had her eyes been changing over the

course of their journey? They seemed flecked with

light, as though a microcosm of the universe was

hidden in the blue. He shook his head. Just his

imagination. He was giving this lucky girl too much

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credit. She might have seen some greater truth out

there by chance, but she was still only human after all.

“I hope not,” Riften said very seriously. “If there

is any justice is the universe, then there will be a time

to rest when all deeds are done.”

“But if there really is a paradise out there,

wouldn’t the course of the Moross make sense?

Maybe they know something we don’t.”

“If there is a paradise, they wouldn’t let me in,”

Riften grinned. Farris laughed and continued walking.

Riften held the grin until she looked away. If only she

knew how honest Riften was being in that moment.

[_No! _] Riften made a fist, digging his nails into his palm

as though to punish himself for the evil thought. _You _

must not give into self-pity, he told himself. This is the

decision he had chosen, and nothing could shake his

resolve.

The view ahead was nothing but fire and tombs.

The burning light of the crowns threw leering

shadows of the statues about them, and an ancient

musk of decomposing corpses added to the uneasy

feeling. When the procession of Moross began a low

chant of undecipherable words, it felt to Riften as

though haunting ghosts and evil spirits might be

expelled from every breath of air; every blinking eye

promised to reveal some strange horror. Farris’s pace

was steady, however, and Riften would permit no less

of himself. The shadow of the pyramid soon engulfed

them utterly. They had arrived.

The procession stopped directly before the

doorway into the structure, which was blocked with a

massive bronze statue of a blindfolded bull wearing a

burning crown. The metal flowed over itself in a

constant ripple, distorting and reforming as disturbed

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water. The color was wrong for bronze too. The light

from the flame seemed to absorb light rather than

reflecting it. Riften swallowed hard, sweat beading on

his forehead. He couldn’t let show how much his

carefully maintained poise was breaking.

That wasn’t bronze. He had never seen so much

Byzantian Brass in one place. But only the Paral-

Zakdul created Byzantian Brass, didn’t they? How

could the Moross have gotten their hands on so much

of it? And to waste it on a statue, no less. If they had

used the metal in that bull alone they could have

equipped half their army with impenetrable armor.

The statue’s legs were shackled to one another

with chains of thick silver steel. Riften watched

curiously as the dead body of Ni Sansa was lifted

under the bronze bull’s nose. Was this all simply

ritual, or were they really expecting the statue to bend

down and smell it? The body was then passed to the

Moross standing directly behind the bearers, and the

first few who were relieved of the burden entered the

pyramid. As this process continued, Farris and Riften

quietly stepped into line at the back and waited for

their turn to hold the body and enter. The body was

passed from one hand to the next, until the Moross

directly in front of Farris and Riften were bearing it

above their heads. Farris stretched her hands up in

anticipation to receive it next, but without even

glancing behind, the last Moross bore the body swiftly

into the tomb.

The two companions stood at a loss for a

moment. No time to waste. Riften hurriedly followed

the last of the procession. He stepped past the bull,

but instantly the looming statue came to life. It

pounded its powerful manacled hooves into the earth.

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Riften jumped backwards, barely avoiding being

trampled beneath the sudden ferocity. His dagger flew

into his hand out of reflex, but he quickly sheathed it

again. How futile it would be against such an

adversary! The statue turned its massive blindfolded

head towards the two companions. The liquid

muscles tensed as it reared into the air, stretching

nearly three times the height of Riften’s lengthy form.

The bull’s hide boiled and churned, and the faintest

flashes of faces appeared just below its skin.

“Peasants are not permitted into the palace.

Return to me when you have brought a king or a

queen in your company,” the metal bull said. Its voice

was death. The Byzantian armor the Paral-Zakdul

wore always filtered the voices of their wearer, but

Riften had never experienced something like this. It

was so cold it felt as though the marrow in his bones

turned to ice water. His extremities were numb and

limp. He glanced at Farris, crouched and huddled on

the ground, and he could tell she felt the same.

“I’ve heard that voice,” Farris said with a faraway

look. “In a dream, I think. Do I know you?”

“I know you, Farris Malhalion. Who in this wide

world does not know of the youngest prophet of the

Way?”

“I may not be a king or a queen, but I am a

prince in my land,” Riften said. “I would expect that

to afford me at least some right to—”

“And I know you, Riften Ranagan,” the statue

said. “Even your father, for the height of his throne

and the breadth of his hoard, would stand before me

as a commoner.”

“You don’t mean a king of this world at all, do

you?” Farris’s eyes widened. “You mean a king of the

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next. The Moross told us we all have a chance to rule

in the next world after we die.”

“How are we supposed to enter if we’re dead,

then?” Riften asked. _Lead her until she thinks she found the _

_answer herself. _ He would never make any progress by

forcing matters here. Nothing could make Farris do

something she didn’t want to, but so could nothing

stop Farris from doing something she thought she

did. “Just like the Moross did,” Farris replied. Riften

smiled. “We can’t enter unless we bear with us one

who is dead. Isn’t that right?”

“There must be at least one king or queen to

escort the living party through,” agreed the statue in

its voice of ice.

“We were with the Moross though!” Riften

argued, a mask of desperation on his face. “Why

didn’t you let us through with them?”

“The dead Ni Sansa was not a king or a queen to

you,” the statue replied. “He does not now rule for

you, and you do not now serve him on his throne.”

“Is there any other way to enter then?” Farris

asked. “I have a brother. He was dearer to me than

any friend, and though I did not see it while he lived, I

viewed him higher than any king. He is lost now, but

if you were to let us enter then we would do honor by

his memory.”

Riften hadn’t thought of that. He held his breath,

hoping the statue wouldn’t permit such a blatant

circumvention of the rules.

“There is a throne waiting for him, but it is not

one of mine,” the statue said.

“What throne belongs to him then?” Farris

asked, frowning.

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In lieu of words, the statue’s face broke into a

wide and eerily human smile. It held it there for a long

while before returning to its blank shape.

“He will have my allegiance before the end,” the

statue said without moving its mouth.

“What do you mean before the end?” Farris

snapped, her calm breaking at last. “He is already dead

and gone. That’s it. That’s the end. He doesn’t have

his throne yet. And even if he did, what good would

your allegiance do him if you won’t even honor it and

let us past?”

“If he doesn’t have his throne yet,” the statue

said slowly, “then you can be sure it is not the end.”

Farris opened her mouth to speak, but before she

could question further, a chill moan escaped from the

statue. It was so low Riften’s body vibrated before the

sound had even reached his ears. He gasped for

breath. His heart stopped. His head reeled and his

vision spun. When next he knew what was going on,

he found himself keeling before the statue. His

shaken heart sputtered back to life, stinging with

numbness as though it were frozen solid and

beginning to thaw. The low tone of the statue had

turned into a grim song.

_Small the man who seeks his wealth, _

_And small the iron throne. _

_How weak the fortitude, the health, _

_how weak the flesh and bone. _

_Everlasting are the dead and gone, _

_a perfect throne for kings. _

_No more the suffering, the wrong, _

_no more the puppets on their strings. _

_ _

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_I do not understand the living, _

_but the dead I keep until the end. _

_All of life is changing, giving, _

_illusions of free will and then, _

_They wake from their dreaming slumber, _

_in deathly throes their spirits free. _

_Let it end, so her screaming numbs her, _

_Find her freedom in death, in me. _

[_ Breathe out the air that’s tainted you, _]

_spit out the food that weighs you down. _

_Close your eyes, be acquainted to _

[_your glorious new body’s gown. _]

[_I offer you what you’ve sought in life, _]

[_and all those you’ve ever lost. _]

_What cannot be bought tips on a knife, _

[_one slip and you’ve paid the cost. _]

_ _

Whether it was the words themselves or the chill

calm in which they had been sung, Riften found

himself unable to rise from his knees. He felt as

fragile as ice, and there was pressure inside him as

though he wanted to cry, but dared not unless the

tears froze his eyes. He spared a glance toward Farris.

She was kneeling as well, her face still bearing that lost

faraway countenance as though she couldn’t quite

decide whether or not she was dreaming, or whether

she had dreamed all of this before. The confusion was

beginning to give way to quiet resolve. It was time to

act now.

“Your offer does not fall on deaf ears, and we

embrace its wisdom,” Riften said in a monotone,

raising his head to stare the statue in the face. “We

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will return to you shortly, and when we do, one of us

will be the dead vessel to carry the other onward.”

“Yes,” the bull replied, the slightest touch of

warmth in its voice at last, like the fleeting rays of sun

through the crystal air of winter. “You shall have your

peace then.”

Riften put his hands beneath Farris’s arms and

guided her to stand. She did not resist when he led

her a few paces back up the road and away from the

statue. They walked together in silence. Farris closed

her eyes and leaned on Riften as he led the way.

Perhaps she was imagining what death would be like.

After everything she had been through in this journey,

to sleep might not seem such an evil now. Or was that

simply Riften trying to alleviate his guilt for what must

come next?

“What a fool that statue is,” laughed Riften.

Lighten the mood. Turn away from the offer. Let her

find her way back herself.

The sound seemed to startle Farris. She opened

her eyes and leaned away from him. The entrance of

the tomb was a fair way behind them, and the statue

was long out of earshot.

“Then perhaps we are both fools,” Farris replied.

“You for suggesting one of us die, and I for

welcoming it.”

“I call the child a fool who plays his game poorly,

and then throws the pieces onto the floor to proclaim

himself the winner,” Riften said.

“Life is not a game,” Farris replied sternly.

“Life is the best game there is! All of your

intelligence and skill and hard work load every die that

is cast. And yes, sometimes you will do everything

right and make all the proper preparations, and

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chance will still rear its head and dash you to pieces.

But that doesn’t mean you lose the game. You can roll

as many times as you are strong enough to. In fact,

there is only one way to lose this game, and it is to

stop playing. Everything else is winning.”

“But we can’t just turn back.” Farris stamped her

foot. “Aren’t there any other ways inside?”

“Not without digging through an entire

mountainside of rock,” Riften said.

“Or overcoming the guardian?”

“Byzantian Brass is indestructible,” Riften

replied. She was almost there.

“Or sneaking past, even?” Farris asked.

Riften allowed his face to light up as though he

had made a sudden revelation. He grinned, and from

his sack he produced a flagon. He pulled the red

velvet from its opening and carefully withdrew a black

flower so dark it wasn’t even there.

“The Elestarphagia! Why would you take that

cursed thing with us?” Farris asked in horror,

covering her nose at once to prevent the tingling fire

from engulfing her.

“No object is evil save for the hand that wields

it,” Riften replied. “A sword that slays a good man

might just as easily be turned against the tyrant. This

is a powerful weapon, and I trust it in my hands more

than anyone else’s.”

“I’m surprised it hasn’t already burned us alive or

killed us in our sleep,” Farris said. Riften had known

she wouldn’t want to resort to it, but perhaps now she

would see it as her own idea.

“There is nothing to rival the deep sleep this

scent might cast over us. Death will look at the

enchanted and recognize its own.”

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“The statue will be fooled.” Her voice rose with

excitement.

“One will simply smell the flower and feign

death, while the other brings them into the tomb with

lamentation and show. Once inside we shall simply

wait to awaken naturally and take the tunnels into the

fifth shell.”

“I’ll do it. I’ll be the one to breathe it in,” Farris

stated.

“I would never ask that of you,” Riften replied

smoothly. “Let me take the enchantment.”

“Think about it,” Farris said. “You can carry me

much more easily than I can carry you. You’re also

more familiar with the area inside the pyramid and

can find the tunnels.”

Riften’s brow furrowed with the pretense of

concentration. “Not to mention that the statue has

likely had more experience with my people, who live

so close, than humans on the surface. It would be

more difficult for it to realize the disguise in you. But

no, I couldn’t bear to have you suffer through that

sleep again.”

“No more discussion, I’ve made up my mind,”

Farris said. “Give me the flower and let us begin.”

Riften pressed the flower to Farris’s face with

incredible alacrity. She instinctively moved backwards,

but nodded and smiled at Riften. Her eyes closed and

she inhaled. Riften covered his face with the red

velvet cloth, watching intently as her body stiffened

and her face became pale. There was no turning back

now. Why did it hurt so much to do the right thing?

Without quite knowing why, Riften leaned close to

Farris and kissed her softly upon the forehead. The

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small movement was magnified by her amplified

senses, and her eyes bulged with confusion.

“What was—” Farris mumbled, although her

distorted reality was already so overwhelmed she

couldn’t force the thought out.

“Goodbye, Farris,” Riften whispered, knowing

even a soft sound would encompass her utterly.

“Good—” Farris struggled to pull away,

furrowing her brow. Did she understand what was

going on? Her body began to tip towards the ground,

but Riften caught her to slow her descent.

“You will never awaken from this sleep,” Riften

said, his voice catching. What was wrong with him?

Why did his heart burn like this? He shouldn’t tell her

anything, but there was something inside of him that

begged for forgiveness he could never receive. He had

to tell her the truth. “I need you to know this is not a

betrayal. This is the greatest mercy I could spare upon

you,” Riften added.

Farris struggled to move her head away from the

flower, but Riften pressed it tightly against her nose

and mouth. Her body was beginning to convulse, and

he held her tightly to him. Each tremble of her body

sent a stab through Riften’s conscience.

“Were I stronger, or were I wiser, perhaps I

should have killed you the moment I recognized your

potential to be the next heir. I should have killed you

the moment you spoke the first words of power, but

it would have been a very dark journey without you

beside me. I told myself that if your brother were to

die then you would turn back, and that even if you

could you would never finish the quest which has

claimed his life. The tomb must remain shut, Farris,

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and I see in your indomitable will that you would have

walked to the very ends of the world.”

He couldn’t tell if she could still hear him. Her

head lolled back and her eyes closed. Her breathing

came so slowly Riften couldn’t feel her breath an inch

from her face. But her lips were moving. What was

she trying to say?

“I Name thee …” Farris mumbled.

Riften tensed. He couldn’t let her use her powers!

He pressed the flower tighter to her face, and her

words trailed off into a deep sigh. Her skin was

growing cold and damp. She must be unconscious

now. Riften pulled the flower away, but continued to

talk for his own sake.

“And yet even now I cannot bring myself to

harm you. If you do chance to wake a thousand years

from now, I hope you shall enter a world that

deserves you. For my part I promise I shall carry you

with me through all the journeys of my life. Know I

do not walk in triumph or glory, but it is to my own

funeral which I carry you. In this last march with me

you will be carried with more honor than I shall ever

find for myself. Goodnight, Heir of Malhalion.”

Cradling her gently, Riften walked back along

the path towards the statue guardian. Holding her to

him, he carried her with more genuine grief than any

of his masks could ever rival. There was none who

could look upon that scene and see anything but the

veil of death.

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[*CHAPTER 15: ETERNAL *]

*SLEEP *

_An hour is a state of measurement. An eternity is a state _

_of mind. When the sun has grown cold and the Earth is barren, _

_I shall still be one instant away from the divine. _

Nidhoggdrasil, the World Serpent

arris was engulfed in the darkness of the void.

F Her mind felt hollow and impotent. Was she

dreaming? Or had she managed to begin the Naming

and escape before her mind was overcome with

Elestarphagia’s spell? How could she tell? It didn’t

even matter. If Riften was to leave the flower on her

while she slept, the scent would continue and she

would remain asleep forever. If she encountered the

unknown voice in the Essence World, she might well

be trapped in its void. There was no escape for her.

“You have returned in homage to death.” There

was no mistaking the voice. It was the void, the

unknown passenger. The thing even her Guide could

not save her from. She really had used her powers too

recklessly. It had found her. “Wear your crown,

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wayward soul. You will be no stranger to these

hallowed halls.”

But wait, the crown? And the halls. The

realization finally dawned on Farris. The statue of the

bull was the same voice which had found her in

darkness in the Essence World. She’d forgotten how

cold the voice was, she’d forgotten almost everything

about it when she returned to reality. But what was

this creature that existed in both planes? What was it

that even her Guide feared?

“I have not been called by that name in a very

long while,” the voice continued.

It must not be talking to her at all. But who could

it be addressing? Riften. It had to be. He must be

carrying her body even now, trying to use her to enter

the tomb. Farris’s mind was hot with anger. Everyone

she trusted abandoned her. They served themselves

and that was all. No one was on her side.

“That is right, they once called me Mal, a Beast

of Byzantia.”

As long as it was speaking with Riften, she coul d

hear it. There must be some clue to escape. Farris

considered alerting the statue that she was still alive

and ruining Riften’s plan, but then it would be able to

find her. She had to keep still and play along.

“I do not serve the Moross,” the cold voice

chuckled. “Do you think gods serve their worshipers?

I am death, and they are my subjects. Even those on

their highest throne grovel at my feet.”

Farris waited, listening. She had no body to feel,

but the presence of this place felt as though she was

losing a part of herself. It was as though her

significance was shrinking in the face of an infinite

field. It was becoming difficult to even think of

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herself as an individual at all. She couldn’t wait

forever.

“What could be a grander kingdom than the

void? Nothing is all there was at the beginning, and

nothing is all that will remain after life has spun its

fragile course. There is nothing as powerful, nothing

as permanent, nothing as sure, as nothing itself.”

Death. Nothingness. The void. The God Mal.

Beast of Byzantia. Whatever this thing was, it could

still be tricked. If she could use her Naming from here

she might be able to enter the Essence World. From

there she could at least speak with her Guide and find

a plan.

“I am sure of that as well, little Ranagan,” the

statue replied. “Say hello to my brother for me in the

labyrinth, if that is the path you have chosen.”

Farris was nothing. She was a speck of dust

floating in the infinite cosmos. If she didn’t act now,

there would be no more chances. “I Name thee …”

Soft white light was everywhere. The void was

gone. The voice was gone. Farris was herself again.

Her body must still be trapped within the spell of the

flower, but at least her mind was free.

“Foolish girl,” snapped her Guide at once. “You

have been seen. You are not welcome here.”

“I trusted you!” Farris screamed in her mind. “I

trusted Sasha, and Gloria, and Riften, I trusted

everyone and they left me!”

“I never left you, my champion.” The Guide’s

voice calmed. “He doesn’t know, does he? He thinks

you’re dead.”

“Then prove your loyalty,” Farris said. “Get me

out of here. Wake me up. I’ve done everything you’ve

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told me to. If I’m to trust you, then it’s your turn to

serve me.”

“To put your trust in another is to admit a lack of

trust in yourself,” the Guide replied. “You have

offered Riften complete power over you, so do not be

surprised he has made use of it.”

“Is that it?” Farris screamed. “An ‘I told you so’?

You’ve been nothing but a nuisance on this journey.”

“A nuisance?” The Guide’s voice was taut as a

bowstring. “I am the Way. I am the journey.”

“Well, there isn’t any making it anymore, is

there?” Farris asked bitterly. “Riften will be inside the

tomb now. He’s going to leave that flower on me and

I’ll never wake up again. Congratulations, you got

your wish. I’m stuck here with you.”

“Do not say such cold words,” said the voice,

sounding genuinely hurt. “It isn’t my fault. Last we

spoke I warned you of the coming betrayal. Haven’t

you learned anything from my wisdom?”

“That I was a fool for trusting anyone,” Farris

sighed, but then stopped. “That your prophecy was

directed at Riften, and not Sasha at all. But he

betrayed me too, so you were wrong. There were two

betrayals when you saw one.”

“I am not wrong, although I do not choose to

gloat on that fact either. There was always one

betrayal.”

“But that can only mean … Sasha did not betray

me? Oh, Sasha, is he still out there? Has he turned

back? And my brother, is my brother still alive?”

Farris begged, unable to hide the desperation from

her thoughts.

“One of them lives, though the other will die,”

her Guide replied slowly.

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“When can you learn to speak directly?” Farris

sighed. “If Tom is alive, he could still be falling down

that eternal pit, with his fate only to die once he

reaches the bottom. Or if he is safe, then it could be

Sasha who is to fall. You’ve told me nothing.”

“If you knew too much about the future, I fear

you would fail to appreciate the significance of the

present,” the voice said. “And I do wish for you to

enjoy our time together, whether it be for a day or the

rest of time. Then again, an eternity may have already

passed. It is so hard to tell when one is asleep.”

“You’re wrong!” Farris insisted. “If I knew the

future for certain I could put my mind at ease. It is

the uncertainty of it which keeps me turning around.

If you really wish me to enjoy my time with you, you

will tell me the truth at once.”

“You are a stubborn child,” growled her Guide.

“And you are an egotistical jerk,” Farris replied.

“Very well, as the lady wishes. Sasha will come

and free you from your tomb. I will even speak to

him and ensure it. But do not think it is because I pity

you, or because you deserve to be rescued as a damsel

in distress. I seek only to hold you to your quest, and

bring you ever closer to me.”

“If Sasha will come and save me, then he must

still be safe. Does that mean my brother is still

falling?”

“You ask too many questions.” The Guide

seemed to be growing impatient. But there was still so

much she needed to know! What was the most

important to know?

“One more,” Farris begged. “And I promise I

will trust you again.”

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“You are hardly in the position to negotiate,” the

Guide said.

“What is the statue? The voice? What does it

want with me?”

“I fear my expertise only deals with what is,” her

Guide replied apprehensively. “All I know is the art of

Naming the world is separating that which exists from

that which does not. Once separated, both are given

power.”

“What does it want?” Farris asked.

“Let us hope we never find out,” her Guide

replied. “Come now, such thoughts are pointless. Let

us turn our mind to Sasha and test the limits that love

may endure.”

  • * * Sasha sat alone in the mouth of the serpent. The
    p.

mist had diffused and only pooled on the ground in

swirling eddies. The soft rosy light was visible once

more from the distant Yonda fruit, but it brought him

no comfort. Sasha was trapped in the pit of his own

mind.

How dare Farris leave him here after everything

he’d done for her? How dare he presume to know

what was real, throwing away her one chance at

happiness? He knew nothing about this world. He

never should have trusted himself. He couldn’t follow

her now, not after what he’d done. He couldn’t go

home, not without her. There was nothing left but to

sit and listen the madding mists until he became one

of them and found freedom from himself.

“Ghosts!” Sasha called into the edges of the pale

blue mist on the ground. The mist stirred at his voice.

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“Ghosts and demons!” he called again. “Why do you

hide from me now? You’ve already taken everything

from me. Why not come back and finish the job?”

“Oh, have you given up so soon?” spoke a small,

clear voice. The mist rose and contorted. Tom was

suddenly sitting cross-legged in front of Sasha. “You

must feel awful, but there’s no one to blame but

yourself.”

“Why him? Take another form!”

“If you like,” Tom said. The mist swirled and

Farris was now sitting beside him, her hair braided

neatly down her back and her old sundress casually

draping her thin body. “Why would you let me keep

descending? You’ve killed my brother. There is

nothing but death and darkness left for me.”

Sasha allowed a dry laugh. “Is that the best you

can do? I’ve saved her life and she can’t even look at

me. It’s time I let her go.”

“Better you throw yourself over the edge and be

done with it,” Farris replied. “Better you had not

come at all, you know you don’t belong here. You’ve

tried to keep a steady hand to show off, but you hide

nothing from me. I knew how afraid you were with

the Vaziers whirling around your head. You would

have sold your own soul to get away from it all. And

then when you saw how well the Dresdoni lived,

didn’t you wish you could stay there forever and let

Farris continue alone? Even here you were unable to

do any good, chasing ghosts while Farris suffered.

You’re a pitiful farm boy.”

Sasha could not argue. He lay down and put his

hands behind his head, breathing deeply. “Then this

really is what I deserve.”

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The soft face and large round eyes of Farris were

looming over him now. He looked up into the clear

blue. Her eyes were better than seeing the sky again.

“Yes,” Farris said sadly. “This is the end. But it is

some comfort, I hope, that you will spend it with

me.”

She reached her hand for him to take, and he did

so with only the slightest hesitation. Why not?

“Yes, it is some comfort,” Sasha said as Farris

drifted into mist. The weight of the touch pressed

heavily upon the length of his body. It didn’t even

hurt anymore. The weariness just brought him closer

to sleep.

The mist came together again and Farris was

bending over him once more. Sasha took her hand,

repeating this again and again until the weight upon

him was so great he could hardly breathe. When he

no longer had the strength to lift his hand, he closed

his eyes. The pain would stop. If he could just fall

asleep …

Sasha felt something warm and wet pressing

against his forehead. He tried to rise, but the pressure

from the mist was so intense he could barely open his

eyes. The shaggy head of Bumble looked down at him

in concern. She licked him again, straight across the

face. “What are you doing, sleeping like an oaf?”

Gloria demanded.

“Where have you been?” Sasha asked. Had he

been asleep? Did it matter?

“I’ve been lost for at least two days, and thank

you for looking,” snapped Gloria. “The moment you

let go of Bumble to run after Farris, this damned goat

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decided to go back to where the grass was thicker.

Where has Farris gone? Where is Riften?”

“Down,” Sasha croaked. His throat was dry and

parched. His stomach was a knot of pain. He’d slept

for two days? If only it had been longer.

“Down? Did they climb or did they fall?” Gloria

asked, her voice distraught.

“I didn’t let her fall,” Sasha managed. “Tom did

though. It was my fault …”

“There was no Tom, idiot,” Gloria said. “I

warned you about the mist playing tricks.”

“Farris found his key,” Sasha insisted. “It was

real, straight from his neck. There’s no trick about it.”

“You slow-witted fool!” Gloria shouted.

“Don’t you think I know it without you chiming

in?” Sasha moaned. He rubbed his eyes slowly, trying

to sit up. He could move, but it wasn’t easy. The

weight of the mist was beginning to slip from him.

“Not properly, or you wouldn’t still be sitting

here like a pile of broken plates. If you were Tom and

you knew your sister was chasing you, what would

you do?”

“Try to escape,” Sasha replied. His head was

clearing, but was still confused about what Gloria was

trying to say.

“And if you couldn’t?”

Sasha had to think for a moment. “Leave a trail

for her to find me.”

“So you found the key, the one sure symbol that

Tom had passed this point. That is not the same as

finding a body at all. Did you ever think he might

have thrown it there so Farris would know she was on

the right trail?”

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“But I felt something solid!” Sasha was on his

feet now. His mind scrambled. What did he

remember? How much of it was real? What could

Gloria possibly know about what happened when she

was lost in the mist herself? “Why do you even care

about Farris or her brother?”

Sasha couldn’t tell whether it was just his

imagination or the severe tone in which Gloria spoke,

but it seemed as though Bumble the goat gave Sasha a

very serious look in reply.

“They are the children of my children, along the

line of an age. It is not chance which led me to find

you by the shore, nor is it chance now which tells me

they both live. There is a bond holding me to them

still. You must trust me.”

“What are you talking about? You’re a fish!”

“The form matters very little when weighed

against the heart,” Gloria replied. “I stood on the

brink like you do now, only it was a thousand years

ago. My husband was dead, my son lost to me; do you

think I don’t understand? I stood on the ledge and I

chose to leap, just as you must have thought yourself.

I wanted to drown myself and feel nothing, because

even nothing would be a relief after all my pain. I

dove into the Osdillion when it was still on the

surface of the world, filled with the energies of the

sunken Brass Orb. By some unknown intention, I was

changed into a fish that day and my life was spared. It

is never too late to start again.”

“But the story said that his mother jumped into

… You cannot tell me, you cannot be—” Sasha’s

mouth hung wide in amazement. “Javel was your

son?”

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“And Lolaran Malhalion his, and all through the

line of men to Farris and Tom Malhalion now. I lost

my son once a thousand years ago, and I will not lose

him a second time. Now will you trust me when I tell

you I feel the life in them yet?”

Like a lifting veil, dark thoughts flew from

Sasha’s mind. If Tom was alive, she would forgive

him. If Farris was alone, she would need him. It

wasn’t too late. He couldn’t die here.

“I don’t know how fast I can move,” Sasha said,

shaking the numbness from his arms and legs. “I’m so

sorry, Gloria. I never should have given up.”

“Farris has a long head start on us, but not one

we cannot close. What a curse it is to be trapped in

this goat, surrounded by fools and clods. Do not

despair, Sasha. We will find her yet.”

Sasha reclaimed his sack filled with the fruit of

the Yonda tree, which he had discarded to carry

Riften through the mists. Finding new strength in its

nourishment, he banished the last of his demons and

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[*CHAPTER 16: LOVE’S *]

*BRIDGE *

_All men run from pain. All men hide from sorrow. All _

_men embrace their love. _

_But who among them can accept what is without fear, and _

[_accept what is not without want? _]

_Thus do I stand alone. _

Javel of Omar, the First Man

he soft white light of the Essence World was

Fa

T rris’s home. The cold voice of the void hadn’t

found her. Her guise of death must have thrown it off

her course. She was outside of space and time, and for

once in her journey there was no danger threatening

her. She could take her time and learn from her

Guide. Beyond her despair, she found confidence that

somehow she would find her way out and wake again.

“In order for Sasha to find you, to find us, I will

have to visit his mind and lead him. You have no

doubt felt my strength grow as you approached me,

but we were always linked by your destiny. To be

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freed from your mind so I may visit his, there must be

a very strong link between the two of you as well.”

“There is!” Farris said. A pang of guilt stung her

when she thought of everything she and Sasha had

been through together. Would he even want to save

her now? Could he ever forgive her for leaving him?

The things he has said to her, the moments they

shared, would that be enough to survive the way she

had treated him? “Of course there is a link. We have

traveled together all this time, and if you are right in

thinking he did not betray me, then I have done

something terrible to him. Can shame and guilt link as

strongly as admiration and friendship?”

“Yes, but you are still holding him away from

your mind,” her Guide said. “There is a barrier within

you which prevents you from understanding your true

history together. With your assistance, I may be able

to remove this barrier and allow the connection to

grow stronger still.”

“Anything I can do, I will. I am open to you,”

Farris said. “Do you mean he was telling the truth

when we first met? Did he really know me on the

surface? How were my memories lost?”

“The simple creature doesn’t know any better

than to tell the truth,” her Guide replied. “Memories

of him were the price you paid to the Wyrd Sisters for

their services. You will find those offering one hand

to help often take with the other.”

“The sisters!” Farris exclaimed. “I remember

them mentioning a price, but I couldn’t remember

what for the life of me. What kind of memories were

they?”

“Sasha was someone you loved, though it was

taken from you. If you are able to love him again, the

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thoughts you have will join with those lost and the

blocked memories will return. I need you to love

Sasha from the bottom of your dreaming heart.”

“What? That’s nonsense!” Farris replied, feeling

rather silly even talking about it. “You can’t just love

someone by willing it. I am thankful for what he has

done for me, and I feel bitter about how I treated

him. And there was the moment at the banquet where

he … no, there must have been many moments when

I have looked at him like that. But that’s all

understandable: a girl my age all alone with nothing

familiar to lean upon. I’m sure it wasn’t love.”

“To say you do not love him is to neither

understand him nor love,” the Guide replied. “Love is

not an attribute of the person. It is an attribute of

yourself. To love is to create a part of yourself which

is capable of the action. If you are able to master this

part of the Way, then you must know there is nothing

required to love except the lover. You can fall as

deeply in love with a person who does not exist as

you can with your closest friend. So when I ask you to

love him, it is not him but you who must be worthy.”

“I understand what you’re saying, but it is still

impossible,” Farris argued. “I cannot choose to love

him any more than I can choose to love dark places

or spiders. It is nothing against the spider or the dark

place, and I’m sure there are many who do love them,

but I am simply not one.”

“Then you still do not understand. Tell me, what

do you love?” the voice asked.

“I love my brother,” Farris said without

hesitation. “I’ve hated him a thousand times and for a

thousand reasons, but I would not be on this journey

at all if I did not love him. I love him until the ends of

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the earth, quite literally, and will do anything to bring

him back.”

“That’s good. You know you are capable of love.

Concentrate on that feeling. Concentrate on that link.

What did it feel like when you saw him taken? What

does it feel like when he annoys you? When you play

together? When you hold him close or see him falling

beyond your reach? What does it feel like to be that

close and lose him? Tell me, Farris, what is it like to

love?”

There was an honest curiosity in the voice, as

though it were asking for its own sake and not hers.

The way her Guide talked made Farris think how she

might speak about a far-off country which she had

studied in books, but never visited herself. It was as

though he were trying to live vicariously through her.

For the first time she felt profoundly sorry for the

mysterious creature locked alone in its tomb, as

familiar as her own mind yet as alien as the world’s

end. “I don’t know if I can describe it,” she replied. “I

understand the feeling, but there are no words to do it

justice.”

“If you cannot put it into words then you do not

understand. When you are able to put the abstraction

into concrete terms you are not only communicating

it to me, but unraveling the mystery for yourself.”

The silence of this place gave Farris no hints to

draw from. She steadied herself and turned her

thoughts inward as she gave words to a feeling she

barely allowed herself to even think before.

“I suppose it feels like he is a part of me,” Farris

said. “To love someone is to have an extension of

yourself. If he is hurt, then I feel pain. If he is happy,

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it brings me joy. When we are fighting, it feels as

though I am at war with myself, and when he pulls

away it feels as though I am not complete. To love is

to be part of someone else, and have part of

themselves be you.”

“That is very interesting,” the voice said

thoughtfully. “Perhaps I too have loved then, but that

is no matter. Now you must realize you are one with

everything that you love. Take that oneness you feel

for your brother, and visualize it as a red string which

connects the two of you. The same string exists

between you and everything, even if you cannot see it.

You are one with the stone around you, to Riften who

betrayed you, and to Sasha who still wishes to find

you if only he can find the way. The string already

exists, but I need you to find it.”

“That is not helping!” Farris said. Everything

with the Guide was cryptic riddles. “I can imagine the

string, but I don’t feel it. Maybe I am connected to all

the universe, but I don’t feel a thing. I can’t choose to

feel anything.”

“You know the feeling, and you know that the

connection exists. If you want to escape from here,

then you must expand your awareness of the

connections.”

“I can’t! It’s impossible to—” Farris began.

“Concentrate!”

“I can concentrate as much as I want, but I’ll still

never be able to force myself to—”

“I am showing you the Way, if you will just

listen,” her Guide snapped.

“You can’t show me how to do the impossible.”

“Insolent brat!” boomed the voice. “Worlds have

trembled at my words. Kings have bowed before me,

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and empires have crumbled. You dare to confront me

with such feeble objections? I am your everything

now. Obey me, or I will take your mind from you and

break free myself.”

Was that an idle threat or an actual possibility?

Farris was too angry to care.

“I don’t care who you are or who bowed, you

have never met someone like me,” Farris shot back.

“If you’re going to resort to threats because you don’t

know how to teach something, then I won’t even

bother listening.”

Farris wouldn’t back down. She knew her own

worth. She knew the power her voice had too, if not

in its volume, then in its surety and edge. She wasn’t

going to let anyone lecture her like that.

“I do not make threats,” the voice snarled, “I

make promises. Either do what I say, or the world wil

burn when I am free.”

This wasn’t doing any good. She was better than

this. She could keep her calm. Farris forced the next

words to come more evenly.

“If I am ‘destined’ to free you, then it is from my

own choice and not because of a compulsion. Now

you listen to me. For all the power struggles in this

world, there are many times more wonderful things

which you don’t understand. If in all your anger and

bitterness you bruise one blade of grass or knock one

butterfly from its flight, then I shall make sure of it

you never learn what freedom is. For all its pain, the

world is a beautiful place, and I will never work with

someone who talks that way.”

The weight of its earlier words finally began to

sink in. Compared to her Guide, she really did feel

powerless here in the Essence World. What if he

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could take her mind from her? What if he used her

body to bring Sasha here and free himself? What if

she was really speaking to the serpent Nidhoggdrasil?

These wouldn’t be idle threats. From the stories, it

sounded as though the serpent really could bring the

world to ruin. Not just her brother, but everything she

had ever known and loved could be destroyed

because of her.

“What does it mean to love the whole world?”

asked the voice, now hushed to a whisper.

_That was it. _ That was the secret. In that moment

the wall inside Farris fell away. Her unwavering love

of life blossomed at the thought of defending it from

her Guide. She saw the red lines which connected her

to everything. In the insubstantial space of the

Essence World she truly felt a part of world, feeling

everything it did. The rivers were her blood, and the

tides pulsed with her heartbeat. The mountains were

her bones, and she could see through every star like a

shining eye. In the web of red lines that connected

everything to her, she saw Sasha’s life as clearly as he

did. All the memories of her time with Sasha began to

flood back to her now. Every moment of watching

him from her window, of the feeling when his hand

brushed hers, of the flower he had carved for her, of

their long talks with the grass below them and the

whole vault of stars overhead. Every moment was

revealed to her in understanding and love, and her

mind was wracked with guilt at the injustice she had

been too blind to see.

“I love him,” Farris managed in the silence of her

mind. “I love him, and that’s why I had to leave the

memory of him behind. I could not ask him to give

his own life for my journey, but he still gave it

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willingly. I could never have left behind a love, so I

chose to leave a stranger instead. I love him for what

he has given up to find me, and for continuing on

after I have destroyed his hope. I love him for how he

remembers when I have forgotten, and for loving me

back when he has no reason to. Do you see the red

string, Guide? Did you do this on purpose? There are

millions of them tying me to everything, but in this

moment there is none so bright as his.”

“And I love you, Farris,” her Guide laughed. “I

see him now. You will never disappoint me.”

Suddenly Farris was alone. Her Guide’s presence

lifted from the Essence World for the first time.

There was nothing but Farris, the soft white light, and

her memories of Sasha. _Find him, _ she prayed. _Bring him _

_back to me. _

  • * * Sasha carried one of the ruby-red fangs of the
    p.

emerald serpent in his hands. The flickering light sent

shadows dancing across the walls of the pit. They

looked like moving mouths and the laughing figures

of a thousand whispering demons. Once around the

pit he marched, and then twice, and on in never

changing scenes until he had lost count of everything

but his downward climb. His body was heavy but his

pace remained relentless. He slept little, unable to find

rest while Farris was lost. He ate while he moved,

although he granted the pleasure to himself sparingly

as he could not tell how far he must travel. He would

not have cared to stop at all if Bumble wasn’t beside

him, bleating pitifully for rest. Never again would he

leave one of his comrades behind.

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They had traveled through the other sections of

the abyss through alternate means, whether it be the

magic of the Wyrd Sisters, the sailing airship Vindenri,

or the emerald statue in the Lady’s court; this was his

first real taste at the true magnitude of the pit. Sasha

looked up and saw the abyss as a black tower with its

ceiling lost far above the feeble light of the ruby fang.

He flinched to imagine anything dropping from above

and plummeting through it like a meteor.

Gloria spoke seldom, and though Sasha was

curious about her secret identity, his thoughts were

too distracted to press her. The oppressive silence did

not enjoy being disturbed. On a few occasions, Sasha

saw eyes peering at him from the darkness, but they

were small and unthreatening and more curious about

the light than they were eager to show real intentions.

The fruit from the Yonda tree began to grow rotten

and bitter, although Bumble didn’t seem to mind, and

Sasha counted five of the meals before he became

violently ill from the running mush in his pack. He

discarded the rest over the ledge and plodded on

relentlessly. Nothing would make him turn around

now.

Was it his enduring hope for Farris that kept him

going? Or was there still some voice within him

looking forward to his end? When his foot slid on

loose soil, he would briefly fantasize about falling,

thinking this preferable to the ever lonesome dark.

Always his thoughts of Farris would keep him

moving, and it was not long into his hunger when he

saw lights shining through the darkness below.

Knowing his own light would be visible a long way

off, he removed his shirt and wrapped it tightly

around the fang. The light barely escaped it, and he

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was forced to crawl along the ground to see the

stairway beneath him.

Upon drawing closer to the other lights, Sasha

spotted two Paral-Zakdul sitting across from one

another on a large wooden platform which had been

constructed to block the stair and hang over the pit.

One of the guards was peering into the darkness, the

other flipping through a book that lay open before

him. Their garments were richly colored in reds and

blues, and they wore shining breastplates of brass

over their long torsos. At their sides there glittered the

cold light of fire on naked steel: long polearms leaned

against a small wooden building. Sasha whispered

what he saw, and upon Gloria’s urgent request, he

stowed his light completely in the folds of his pack.

Sasha crept on slowly now, moving by feel alone

as he approached the light. Could he charge onto the

platform by surprise? He might be able to steal one of

the polearms before they noticed him, although it

seemed a gamble against the two. He counted his own

strength as favorable against the thin creatures even in

his weakened state, although their long reach and

speed would prove more valuable than force on such

a precarious battleground overhanging the abyss.

Instead, he sat in a whispered conversation beyond

the edge of light, speaking his plan to Gloria.

“Don’t even think about it,” Gloria whispered.

“Do you even know how to use one of those

weapons? They are trained soldiers and will not be

surprised easily.”

“I don’t need to beat them,” Sasha replied softly.

“Look where they stand. I just have to grab the

weapon and push them from the platform.”

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“Or they could push you off just as easily. We

don’t even know Farris went through here,” Gloria

replied.

“She must have,” Sasha said. “It’s the only path I

saw, and Riften is one of their people. With him

beside her she could have been granted safe passage.

Or perhaps they seized her here and have taken her

into captivity.”

The guards abruptly stopped their conversation.

The one staring into the dark raised his hand. He was

looking in Sasha’s direction.

“Quiet. You hear something?” the Paral-Zakdul

called to his comrade.

“What kind of a something?” replied the other

guard.

“Hisses and whispers, I think. Just there, ‘bout a

quarter turn up the pit.”

“Scrapings and scuttling, more likely. Just the

mog-rats going about their ghastly lives. Or some of

the Moross leaping to their deaths again.”

“Don’t discount it so quickly. Just the other day

Marson and Vindel almost caught something on their

patrol,” replied the first guard. “Marson was sent off

to the hospital ward, and Vindel never came back at

all!” “Well, almost catching something is nothing to

brag about. What was it?”

“One of us, I heard, a Paral with a human girl.

Report said they scuttled off like mog-rats though.”

“What do you mean, scuttled off? There ain’t no

place to scuttle off to, not unless they went over the

edge,” the second guard said, flipping another page in

his book.

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“Sure there is, you idiot. Cracks all over the place

up there, some big enough to slip through.”

“The Moross live in those, so don’t go calling me

an idiot. I heard if you reach a hand in they’ll bite it

right off. There ain’t no way they hid in a crack.

Anyway, we’re still a mile above the mountain tops, so

if they did find a passage then they must be flying.”

“Dust-lickin’ numbskull,” spat the first guard.

“Morsan and Vindel were up higher than this if they

were on patrol. Some of those cracks go clear through

to the fourth shell. They must have run and hid there.

I bet the Paral was part of the damned university,

sneaking away from a patrol like that. Scum like them

are afraid of the king’s men.”

“Well, nothing will get past me, don’t you

worry,” the sitting guard replied, flipping another

page.

“Put that book away, you ninny, or a whole herd

of marmothills could charge by without you noticing.”

Sasha had already turned back. He’d heard

enough to guess where Farris had gone.

As his right foot moved around, it strayed over

the edge in the dark. A moment of panic shot through

his veins as he felt the abyss seduce his weary feet.

For a terrifying instant he found himself leaning

farther off the cliff, so eager was he to end his

journey. Sasha caught himself just in time, and jerking

his leg in hard he scrambled on hands and knees away

from the ledge. The sound of his fall was loud and

clear though, and the thud echoed up and down the

stairway. A shout rang out from the guards below,

and by the time Sasha had stood they were already on

their feet and brandishing polearms. The guards

swiftly buckled lanterns to the ends of the blades and,

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raising these beacons high above their heads, they

began to climb the steps toward where Sasha knelt.

Sasha staggered to his feet and leapt away, but he

could not move quickly by feel alone. The circle of

light was quickly closing on his heels. If he was

already spotted, he might as well use his ruby light

again. He drew it from his sack, its flickering red light

clearly illuminating the treacherous path and where he

stood.

“You there, halt!” came the cry, but Sasha was

moving upwards at a great pace with the aid of the

red light.

“They’ve spotted my light,” Sasha said. “I have to

retreat.”

“Put it out, fool,” Gloria cried from Bumble,

who had already bounded farther up the stair. There

was nothing on the land or under it that could move

swifter than a goat across uneven terrain, and she had

outpaced him easily when the chase began.

“Too late! We have to find the passages!” Sasha

called back.

“Stop and answer!” cried the guards.

Even with the light aiding Sasha’s haste, the

guards were still gaining on him. They were less than

an eighth of a turn of the spiral stair from him, and a

straight line of steps separated them. The Paral-

Zakdul had very long legs, and they were well-rested

and fed while Sasha was not. He could not outpace

them in a direct flight. He desperately began to pass

the red light over the cliff walls as he searched for the

cracks they had mentioned.

Sasha could hear the footsteps falling lightly, but

growing louder. Pit pat, patter stamp. The orange fire

blazed from their weapons. There had to be a passage

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somewhere! But perhaps he was in the wrong spot.

They would catch him soon. His attention was

diverted from the search by his wavering glance. His

eyes kept straying to check the progress of the

advancing duo. They were no more than a few

hundred yards away when a mysterious voice filled

Sasha’s mind.

235

[*CHAPTER 17: THE TOMB *]

*CITY *

_Lolaran Malhalion sacrificed himself so the world may _

_live in peace. If his life were of greater value than the peace, then _

_he would have robbed the world with his death. If his life were _

_equal, then nothing was gained. Only by his own life being _

_small would the world profit. Why praise this man who is either _

[_petty or a thief by the necessity of his deed? _][* *]

-Nidhoggdrasil, the world serpent[* *]

even steps to your right. Crouch down. There

“S is room for you,” the voice said.

Sasha was beginning to panic. He didn’t have

time to question where the voice was coming from.

He dove to the spot he was directed to. There was

indeed a large crack in the wall that Sasha could just

fit inside.

“Here!” Sasha called to Bumble, who was already

hopping down the steps toward him.

“Now throw your light farther up the stair, and

enter,” the voice ordered Sasha.

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Again Sasha did so without thinking. The guards

would have seen where the red light disappeared at

the location of the hole if he had entered with it, and

the Paral-Zakdul were easily thin enough to follow

him like a mongoose diving down a serpent’s burrow.

By the time the guards had reached the light he had

thrown however, he and Bumble would already be

safely concealed.

Sasha fell to his stomach and crawled through the

crack with Bumble close behind. They were in utter

darkness once more. He could hear the rushing feet

of the guards outside, only a half dozen paces away

from the hole. Now they passed, racing on after the

ruby fang. Sasha’s sprinting blood was just beginning

to slow when the voice spoke from within him once

more.

“It’s so nice to find an obedient disciple for a

change,” the voice said.

It felt more like his own thought than a sound.

Sasha strained his eyes in the darkness, barely drawing

breath as he listened. Bumble sat panting behind him,

oblivious to his new visitor. Should he speak to it? Or

think back at it? What was going on?

“I am sorry you have been left behind,” the voice

said, “but do not think fate has punished you without

reason. Yes, you were scorned for your highest

virtues: left behind for your courage and loyalty,

spurned for your love, discarded for your strength.

But so too were you held back by your deepest sins:

for pride and self-loathing have joined their chains

around your neck. You should never have let Farris

run so far ahead.”

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“What do you know about Farris? Is she all

right?” Sasha asked aloud, forgetting his own fear at

the first mention of her name.

“Quiet down!” Gloria said. “We will make sure

the girl is all right as soon as we’ve done the same for

ourselves.”

“Her body is safe and at peace,” the Guide said.

“As for her spirit, I cannot say, and her heart … well,

you would know better than I.”

“I don’t think there is anyone who knows her

heart less than I,” Sasha grunted. The flash of fire

appeared behind as the guards moved back down the

stair. Sasha felt his way deeper into the crack. “Who

are you though? Show yourself.”

“I am the part of Farris that has no limits,” the

Guide replied. “There is no need to show myself

when you have already done just that. Your voices

will have been heard by a shelled creature called the

Moross. They will be here presently. If you do as I

say, they will lead you directly to the girl.”

“What are you saying, Sasha?” Gloria asked

suspiciously, her voice ringing with a touch of the old

majesty she must have once been accustomed to.

“Answer me!”

“Say you are a dead man walking the path of the

living, searching for your home,” the Guide’s voice

instructed Sasha.

“What does that mean?” Sasha asked.

“They will understand you.” The Guide’s hiss

faded. “They are here already. Come, my boy, let

them take you home.”

True to its word, the voice was replaced by the

murmuring of Moross mere moments later. Great

luminescent eyes lit up the darkness, staring and

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blinking at one another sadly. Sasha pushed his way

onward until the crack opened enough for him to

stand. There was more light here, glowing from

stalactites that lined the cavern. A cluster of Moross

pressed themselves against the far wall, eyeing him

cautiously.

“What carries death, carries death?” they cooed.

“Who comes to save us?”

“If there are Moross here, we must be in the

fourth shell,” Gloria said. “That is good. They are a

kind people, as I recall. We should be safe here until

we can find our way onward.”

The voice said there was a crack and there was.

He told Sasha the creatures would help him, and

Gloria said they were good. Whatever strange magic

was now at play, it was the clearest path Sasha could

see. “I am a dead man walking the path of the living,

searching for my home,” Sasha said to the Moross.

The creatures crept away from the wall,

apparently gaining confidence from his words. Their

large eyes sparkled with relief, and several of them

nodded sagely.

“A just path,” one said.

“How fortunate for you,” others agreed.

“Fortunate for you.”

“How do you know it is time to go home?” asked

a third. “I have waited all my life, and though I’ve

always known I had to get there, I have never known

how or when.”

“Home to me is where Farris is,” Sasha replied.

“I don’t even know who I am without her. I suppose

when you are so lost that all roads seem dark save

one, then that one will lead you home.”

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“Perhaps I am not ready yet,” replied the creature

thoughtfully. “The path even to my home seems dark,

though I know the way beyond is bright. Come

though, let us celebrate your time.”

“Come though, come though,” echoed the

others. “Let us bring you home.”

“What is going on here? What am I missing?”

Gloria asked. “Haven’t you learned by now, Sasha?

Nothing is this easy.”

“But it should be,” the Guide’s voice laughed. “If

nothing else, love should be easy.”

“I hear a voice,” Sasha said. He didn’t know

anyone as wise as Gloria, he should tell her

everything. “Something told me where to find safety

and how to speak with the Moross.”

“I don’t like voices,” Gloria mumbled. “They’re

never just a ‘how do you do, have a nice day’. Don’t

let your guard down. Tell me everything it says, and

we will get through this together.”

Sasha nodded. He rested his hand on the goat,

and the pair allowed themselves to be led by the

procession of Moross. The mysterious voice remained

silent, and on their journey the creatures spoke so

cheerfully about crowning Sasha and bringing him

wealth that it was hard to feel apprehensive. They

traveled through a network of caves like this, and

Sasha was beginning at last to feel confident in his

course when they reached a final bend in the passage.

The glow of red fires shone from farther on, and

Sasha set himself on guard once more.

“Thank them for their worship,” the Guide’s

voice spoke once more. “Then bow before the

guards. When you hear the gong sound, stand tall and

shout: ‘hail the victorious dead’.”

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Sasha did as he was bidden, and as soon as he

saw the armored shells and the narrowed eyes staring

at him, he dropped into a low bow. The other Moross

continued walking on without him. One of the guards

raised the gong, and before even the Moross could

shout out their tribute, Sasha stood tall once more

and bellowed proudly.

“Hail the victorious dead!” Sasha said.

This seemed to put the guards’ suspicions at ease.

They gave him a smart salute and lowered their maces

before him.

“You respect our ways, traveler, and so you

respect us,” said the first guard.

“Where do you travel within our land?” asked the

second.

“Repeat what I had told you from the start,” the

Guide whispered.

“I’m a dead man walking the path of the living so

I might find my way home.”

“The home of all dead, both men and otherwise,

rests here,” the first guard said. “Go now with our

brothers who have brought you this far.”

The second guard shifted from one foot to the

other, seeming less sure than his comrade. “We honor

the path you have chosen,” he said, “but I have not

seen a living man so confident in his transcendence

before. Are you sure you are ready for death?”

“Death?” Sasha furrowed his brow. Were they

threatening him? Just a moment ago they had seemed

so welcoming. Sasha took a step back warily.

“Your death, your crown. Your glory, your rise,”

the guards echoed.

“His rise?” Gloria exclaimed. “I have seen

enough death in my time to know no rise will come of

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it. There is no rapture in the eyes of the fallen. Only

fear and sickness and remorse. If this is the game

you’re playing, then we want no part in it.”

“Fallen, little goat?” one of the guards asked,

showing no surprise at Gloria’s speech. “There is no

higher honor than to rest in that palace and be served

by all who have yet to come.”

“Tell them you accept the honor,” the Guide said

sternly. “There is no other way into this land where

Farris now waits for you. Do not worry, I am here to

keep you safe.”

“I accept the honor,” Sasha said automatically.

He didn’t know what was going on, but for now he

just had to keep getting closer to Farris. If he could

find her again, everything else would make sense. She

would be able to lead him, and he would never turn

away again.

The Moross who had led Sasha here were already

waiting along the path. They were vigorously nodding

their heads with enthusiasm and respect.

“There is no honor in being served at all,” Gloria

grumbled. “And even less when those served are

already dead.”

“What would you know of honor, you filthy

creature?” the second guard spat. “How else should

our ancestors be praised?”

“Only in memory,” Gloria said. “What became

of this place? How could you let King Nippol be

disgraced like this? I knew the sage well. He loved life

and would never glorify its ending like this.”

“All hail the victorious dead!” both guards

stamped to attention at the name of their fallen king.

“Hail Queen Velume, Queen of the dead.”

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“Does she still live, that old bag?” Gloria asked.

“If only she had gone and her husband lingered

instead, your people would not be forced to live for

death.”

Sasha put his hand on Bumble’s fur and pulled

her away from the guards. “Stop antagonizing them,”

he whispered. “It doesn’t matter what they believe, as

long as we are allowed through.”

Bumble pulled away from Sasha, sharing the

stubbornness of the old fish.

“You don’t understand,” Gloria said. “I was

there when the Moross were lovers of the light. I

heard the beautiful poetry they sung, and the dances

they would celebrate first spring with. I saw King

Nippol walk through the streets in parades of falling

flowers. Traveling through this land of death, it’s too

much. I can’t say nothing.”

The guards were scowling heavily. This wasn’t

going well. This wasn’t what the voice had told him to

do. Sasha bodily lifted Bumble and hurried along the

path after the procession, who had stopped to listen

to Gloria speak.

“Why do you speak of our gods as though you

know them, know them?” one of the traveling

Moross asked. “Surely this is blasphemy.”

“Don’t listen to her,” Sasha protested. “She just

talks, don’t mind it.”

“They were not gods until you made them

such,” Gloria replied stiffly. “Let me tell you about

the Moross I knew. King Nippol was revered and

praised when he was alive. His only tragedy was in

marrying the witch Velume who, though beautiful,

could skin an animal just by looking at it. One night

the king fell suddenly with a terrible illness. His wife

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Velume had disguised its symptoms for a long time to

preserve the power of the throne, but she had done

nothing to treat its cause. She hid his sickness so long

that by the time it was discovered, it had become too

late to cure. The poor king wasted away to

nothingness, and before he was even at peace, the

queen had stolen his power.

After that I did not meet her, but I have heard

rumors before all fell to the chaos of Nidhoggdrasil. It

was said she worked the Moross to death and praised

them only after they had given into it. In memory of

her husband, she built a massive burial house and

declared that he ruled from the grave in order to give

authority to her own commands. I have not heard

anything of your people since, but it seems the glory

of death has extended well past its shameful

beginnings. I see a thousand mausoleums which

would put the king’s own burial chamber to shame. I

see the huddled lands of the slaves the Moross people

have descended into. Do not speak to me of

blasphemy, for there are no gods to blaspheme here.

Only a good king who suffered from love and a

wicked woman who loved his power.”

The procession of Moross looked fearful. They

whispered to one another, their wide eyes darting

wildly around them.

“You can’t speak about her that way,” one of

them said.

“She will hear you, hear you,” said another.

“Let her hear!” Gloria protested. “I wouldn’t

mind speaking with the woman who has let this land

rot.”

“All hail the victorious dead!” one shouted, the

conviction in its voice cracking. “All hail, all hail!”

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“Are you happy now?” Sasha gripped his head

roughly between his hands, unable to contain his

frustration. “We need these people to find Farris and

you’re turning them against us.”

“On the contrary,” the Guide’s voice told Sasha.

“It is Queen Velume who will bring you to Farris.”

“You’re right,” Gloria sighed. “The clock cannot

be rewound. We must live for tomorrow. I’m sorry,

all of you. It wasn’t my place to bring any of that up.”

The Moross hung their heads in silent prayer.

The soft sound of stamping feet could be heard in the

sudden silence. The Moross jumped around, startled.

They began to wail and lament, praising the thrones

and crowns and everything that came to their minds.

Something was coming.

Sasha spotted a carriage being pulled by four

armored Moross approaching from one of the mighty

funeral pyres. The vehicle was drawn on wheels made

of Moross shells. The rest of the carriage was

constructed of bleached white bone with long flaps of

tanned leather hide over the door and windows.

Moross skulls gilded with gold lined the top, and the

stench of death grew stronger as it approached.

“A wicked woman indeed,” an amused voice

came from within the carriage.

“She comes, she comes,” wailed the Moross.

“Celebrate, for the queen has heard your summons.”

There was no point in resisting it, Sasha thought.

Once more he became aware how little he knew of

the place, and he began to feel small and helpless once

more. Who was he next to all these ancient lords and

powerful spells? Who was he to know who to fight

for, or against, or whether to fight at all? There was so

much he didn’t know he didn’t dare to act on his own

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anymore, in case somehow he unwittingly ruined

countless years of carefully laid plans. The voice in his

head was leading him, and it said the queen would

help him find Farris. That was all he could hold onto.

He closed his ears to the wailing Moross, and waited

patiently until the carriage of death pulled to a stop

before him.

Two of the guards accompanying the carriage

unfurled the hide doorway into a royal carpet. Rich

perfume wafted from the opening, completely

masking the deathly stench of the carriage. A very

thin, very tall Moross stepped lightly onto the carpet.

She was clad in tight leather and painted with gold leaf

and ornaments of small bones. The guards saluted in

unison.

“Glory to the Queen! Lord of the Dead,”

calledthe Moross.

She walked straight past them without any

indication of having heard them. While the other

Moross rose barely to Sasha’s chest, this one was at

least a head taller than him. She seemed as though she

were about to walk directly through him. Sasha took

several stumbling steps backward as she approached,

but she didn’t seem to notice. Her thin-lipped mouth

was pressed firm, and her huge eyes were narrowed to

slits, their focus unwavering from Bumble. The

Queen stopped before the goat, who was eyeing her

warily. Sasha couldn’t believe what happened next: the

lady of gilded gold and finery, the queen of her land

and goddess to her people, knelt before the goat and

pressed her face into the earth.

“Hail Gloria of Omar, empress of the seven

lands,” the Queen said. Her voice was soft and

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melodious, and so sincerely humble Sasha felt the

instinct to help her stand again.

The guards around their queen seemed uncertain,

but they too prostrated themselves before the goat.

Bumble looked considerably pleased by this, and

bleated upon the fact warmly. Gloria was silent

however, perhaps finally at a loss for words.

“Although I must admit your old carriage suited

you better,” Queen Velume added with gentle mirth.

“Queen Velume, a pleasure,” Gloria responded

curtly. “I see you have not aged, although I wish I

could say the same for your kingdom.”

“The same to your empire,” the Queen laughed

again, rising to stand tall above the goat. “But I’m glad

you still made it here. The Caged One has told me

you would come.”

“The Caged One?” Gloria asked. “Do you mean

he is in the tomb?”

“I was as surprised as anyone to hear from him,”

the Queen said. “Although I can’t say I was

disappointed. I confess that I have longed to hear

word from that dead giant for many years.”

“If he is speaking, then he is not dead,” Gloria

replied stiffly.

“You are speaking, but that does not guarantee

life,” the Queen said, leaving the thought to darken

the air for a moment before she laughed again with

good nature. “I do not know any living being with

such a power. The dead are far more capable than you

give them credit for.”

“And the living far less than you do,” Gloria

rebutted.

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“I know what the living are capable of as well,”

the Queen smiled, waving her hand behind her. “They

have built all the grandeur beyond you.”

“The tomb of a dead city, nothing more,” Gloria

shot back. “But what did you learn, Velume? You

must tell me. Who does the voice belong to?”

“Ah ah ah.” The Queen waggled her long finger

back and forth, as though scolding a naughty boy.

“You know it’s all the same to me. Once they’re dead,

they’re mine.” She spread her thin arms expansively,

the pale skin glowing from the thousand burning

crowns behind her.

“They aren’t all dead though!” Sasha insisted, his

frustration growing while the ladies prattled.

The Queen turned to Sasha, seeming to notice

him for the first time.

“Farris is still in there, and I intend to find her.

So unless you would be gracious enough to tell me

where she is hidden, I will be on my way so you two

can catch up on old times.”

“Oh yes, the girl,” Queen Velume mumbled.

“The Caged One did mention something about that. I

believe he even asked me to take you there. Very well,

into the carriage. We shall chat along the way.”

“This is more important.” Gloria’s voice was a

blade. “You can’t play with fate like that, Velume. If

you know something about the voice, you must tell

me.”

“Last I checked, the Empress of Omar does not

command anyone anymore,” Queen Velume said.

Turning, the Queen stepped gracefully back

inside the corpse carriage. Sasha approached it at

once, but up close the perfume failed to conceal the

stench of decay. He almost retched as he climbed

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inside, but he did his best to hold his composure. As

far as Sasha could tell, matters like who the voice

belonged to were in the realm of philosophy. It didn’t

have any practical implication to finding Farris.

“Come on then, Bumble, in you go,” Gloria

coaxed.

Sasha turned to see Bumble stubbornly rooted to

the ground. She sniffed the carriage again and took a

step backward, her eyes wide with terror.

“Inside, now!” Gloria demanded.

Bumble whimpered and lay upon the ground.

“It is good to see the extent of the empress’s

authority now,” Queen Velume laughed again. “Do

not worry, we don’t have far to go. Follow us if you

like, I will enjoy this chance to speak with a man who

still bears his own form.”

“Hold on, wait,” Gloria protested. “Velume, you

can’t act so callously. If you ever had any respect for

Omar I demand you—”

Queen Velume snapped her fingers. The guards

rolled the door back up, closing Sasha inside with the

Queen. Should he do something? Gloria only seemed

to be making trouble now, and the voice had said to

trust the Queen. If it really was only a short ride, there

couldn’t be any harm in it. He needed her help, so

now was not the time to show any disrespect. Sasha

forced a smile at the Queen, who blinked her large

alien eyes in reply. The carriage jolted to life, and he

heard the rattle of shells rolling along the road. Sasha

was suddenly very aware that he sat upon the dead

remains of her own people.

“What is your name, little man?” Queen Velume

asked in a singsong voice generally reserved for pets

or children.

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“Sasha,” he replied tersely, looking out the

window. They were heading towards a giant pyramid.

Was Farris inside? There was a moment of silence.

Sasha glanced back to the Queen. Her large eyes did

not move from his face. He shuddered. “Did you see

Farris when she entered your land?”

“No, but the Caged One told me of her passing.

She is dead now, Sasha, resting inside the grand

chamber of the tomb palace.”

“Dead?” Sasha shouted, losing his own heart for

a moment. The voice had said—but he had come

after her—this wasn’t happening. This wasn’t real.

This was another one of the thousand tricks this evil

world played, and he wasn’t going to believe it for a

minute. The stench around him seemed to grow more

oppressive, and he found himself gulping for air.

“You don’t mean dead,” Sasha spluttered. “You mean

she has a crown. That she’s in the palace. That she’s

being held with the highest honors. You can’t mean—

” “Dead,” replied the Queen. “Her heart doesn’t

beat. Her lungs draw no breath. Her mind holds no

thoughts. Dead. What were you expecting, little man?

She is in the tomb, after all. A place in the grand

chamber is a very high honor however, so you should

be pleased for her.”

“There must be a mistake,” Sasha said frantically.

“I spoke with the voice too. He said she was safe and

at peace—”

“She is safe and at peace. Nothing will hurt her

anymore, I promise,” the Queen replied sweetly. “But

how interesting that the Caged One called for you as

well. What else did he say?”

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“But you haven’t seen her so you don’t know!”

Sasha insisted. “She might have snuck into the tomb,

or broken in, or been let through by the guards.”

“That’s impossible,” the Queen dismissed.

“There is only one guard, and the beasts of Byzantia

can smell death.”

“But visitors must be allowed in!” Sasha begged.

[_You can’t believe her, _] he screamed at himself. _You _

[_promised you wouldn’t give up. You’re not giving up. _]

“Visitors do come, but only when they bring the

dead body with them. She had a companion, I was

told, a tall thin fellow. One of the Paral-Zakdul. He

carried her inside and left her within the tomb.”

“I do not have a body with me,” Sasha said in

frustration, “but you are bringing me to her.

Obviously the rule is not absolute.”

“Of course you don’t have a body with you,” the

Queen laughed. “You are the body being brought in,

silly man. Did you not enter my land by saying you

were dead returning home? You’re home now,

Sasha.”

Sasha’s skin was cold. Sweat beaded on his brow.

Tears welled in his eyes. His blood burned. Not now.

Not after everything. There’s another way. There’s

always another way.

“It’s true that I would die to see her again, but if

I’m dead how can that be?”

“Hush, little man,” the Queen said. “Do not

pretend to understand death. You have already died a

thousand times in your life without knowing it, and

you still see me, do you not? You still love the girl, I

presume?”

“What do you mean I have already died?” Sasha

asked. His heart skipped. [_You see? _] He told himself.

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This wasn’t real death. This was a spell, or a

metaphor, or a ritual. Something. Anything but losing

her. “Each of us is born with a hundred selves inside

of us, and all of them are sleeping,” the Queen said.

“As we grow older, they start to wake up. Only a few

in childhood, and they are still sleepy and groggy. As

we age, more of them will wake up, and the first ones

will grow older and die. By the time you have lived on

this earth for twenty years or so, as I would guess you

have, you have already seen dozens of your selves die.

Do you still love the sticks you turned to swords? Do

you remember the joy of each fresh snowfall on the

surface? You cannot tell me that the same boy with

wonder in his eyes is still alive today.”

Sasha nodded slowly. He had changed over time,

that was true. But wasn’t he still himself? Could dying

really be that simple, to have passed without him

noticing?

“If you do not realize it,” the Queen continued,

“then that simply shows you how innocent a thing

death is, and how much more there is yet to come.”

“But if my body were to die, then that would be

the end of my selves,” Sasha protested. Why was he

even arguing? He wanted to believe her words so

badly; they felt like some holy gospel showing him

hope.

“It would only be the end of those who are

awake now,” the Queen said. “The Caged One told

me another thing about Farris. He said she loves you

very much, and that she has remembered all of you

that she once forgot. The part of her which loved you

was sleeping while she was alive, but the moment she

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died it woke and lives again. Can you hear her calling

for you? Can you feel her love?”

Sasha closed his eyes. There was pressure

building behind them, and he no longer wished to see.

His breath refused to come evenly, but he forced it to

as well as he could. Could he feel her now? In this

moment, the enormity of what he felt for her could

not possibly stem from one heart alone. Some of it

must come from her as well.

Sasha opened his eyes slowly, finding them wet.

“Yes,” he said in a voice that was not his own. “I can

feel it from her.”

“Could she love you if all of her selves were

dead?” the Queen asked, her voice silk with sympathy.

“No,” Sasha said, his voice sounding hollow and

foreign in his own ears. His chest hurt so badly. He

felt the urge to dig his fingers into it and rip the skin.

He wanted to squeeze his own heart in his hand until

it stopped. He wanted it to be over.

“Would it be such a terrible thing to rest beside

her? To let all of this noise in your head sleep while

new parts of yourself woke? You could be with her

forever, if you wished. She would remember you as

you wanted, and you could see her as she always was.

Would you like to be with her, Sasha?”

“Yes,” Sasha said. And why not? If the Queen

was right, then he would find her again. If she was

wrong, then the pain would be over and he could

sleep. There were no other options.

Sasha could see the Queen reach a hand into the

folds of her leather and pull out a long straight knife.

She held it out, and Sasha was surprised to see his

own body reaching to take it. The metal was so cool

against his heated skin. The carriage was slowing

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down. He thought he could hear Gloria grumbling

about something outside. The sounds were muffled

though, and Sasha had never felt any sensation so real

as the chill of the knife.

There was only one other person he could trust.

One last chance.

“Caged One,” Sasha asked aloud. “If that is your

name, please do not forsake me. Tell me if Farris is

dead.”

“It is true. Farris is dead,” replied the voice

within him sadly. “And with her your part in this tale

has ended. It is time to go home.”

“Is it true?” Sasha asked again. “Did she

remember me after she died? Is there someone

waiting on the other side?”

“It is true,” the Guide replied, “but you will find

her again.”

The carriage doors opened, and Gloria waited

impatiently outside.

“Can you believe the disrespect I received out

here?” Gloria complained. “The guards laughed at me

for being inside a goat. When I was an empress, my

carriage was the size of a two story house being pulled

by elephants. Their own queen bowed to me, but they

are laughing at me.”

“But she loves me, and so that is all right,” Sasha

said to himself, stepping onto the skull stairs and the

grass below. He stood before the great tomb with the

towering statue of the bull above him.

“What are you talking about?” Gloria asked, her

voice flooded with concern. “What has the queen

been telling you in there?”

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“And I love her, and so it is all right,” Sasha said

to himself. Why was he crying? He was going to see

Farris again. There wasn’t any reason to cry.

“Velume, you witch, what have you done to

him?” Gloria shouted.

The queen stepped from the carriage beside

Sasha.

“You will take me to her?” Sasha said.

“Yes, and you shall be with her for all eternity on

the highest throne,” the queen replied.

Queen Velume’s fingers closed around Sasha’s

hand and tightened his grip on the knife.

“And I will be laid to rest beside her?”

“What evil is this? Sasha, listen to me! We can

still find Farris! It’s not too late—”

At a nod from the queen, one of the guards

seized Bumble and dragged her away. The goat

struggled to break free, kicking and biting uselessly

against the armored embrace.

Sasha turned to Gloria and Bumble, shaking his

head sadly.

“I’m sorry, Gloria. There isn’t any other way.”

The cool blade felt more alive than he did as he

gripped it in his fingers. Slowly Sasha walked towards

the giant statue that loomed before the doors. What

would Farris have done when she was here? How

would she have gone into the unknown? There was

only one answer of course. She would have had a

song on her lips, and she would have been brave.

Sasha opened his mouth, singing everything that came

to his mind.

_You remembered me in morning, _

[_before we’d even met. _]

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TOBIAS WADE

_First glance was forewarning, _

_To the last time our sun would set. _

[_ You’ve forgotten me in daylight, _]

_but never could I forget you. _

[_I told you I’d stay fighting, _]

[_in this quest I’d follow through. _]

_ _

[_Though I’ve failed you in the afternoon, _]

_and empty miles consumed me, _

[_You’ll still find us carved in runes, _]

_Our names at home in every tree. _

_ You walked alone in nightfal, _

_Without me by your side. _

_Veil of shadow, light the shawl, _

_Covers you when you have died. _

_ _

_But if you finally had the power, _

[_To break your memory’s spell, _]

_Then deep into this midnight hour, _

[_I’ll follow you to hell. _]

Gloria was released, but it was too late. The cool

dagger was refreshing as it pierced through Sasha’s

heart. His blood soaked his shirt and fell at the feet of

the massive statue.

“You see, Gloria,” Queen Velume said. “I always

get what I want. Now it is time for us to have our

little chat.”

256

*EPILOGUE *

arris woke from her heavy slumber. The burning

F fire of Elestarphagia was gone. There was a sweet

scent in her nostrils. Her right hand was being licked

by something warm and familiar. She lay atop a stone

slab, Bumble at her side. She reached down and

ruffled her head with affection, but there was a depth

in the goat’s eyes that she was not accustomed to. She

looked about her, and saw Sasha lying on her other

side. Farris quickly turned her eyes away from Sasha,

looking down at her hands.

“I suppose my Guide has told you everything,”

Farris said, looking away in embarrassment.

He did not reply.

“Well, it’s not like it means anything, I was just

trying to—”

He was silent.

“I’m sorry, all right? And thank you. But if you’re

gloating over there, you idiot—”

Silence.

“I only said that I loved—”

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TOBIAS WADE

Farris sat up and looked into his pale face. At his

thin tunic of spider silk stained deeply with blood. At

the Paffadilly flower lying gracefully curled, its sweet

scent concealing the first rot in his body. That’s what

had woken her up. He had died to bring her this

flower.

“I only said that I—” Farris whispered.

She kissed the petals of the flower, and then

kissed him, and kneeling over him, she wept.

“He never stopped loving you, Farris.” Gloria

said. “He betrayed me.”

“He didn’t! Your brother is still out there—”

“Not Sasha,” Farris snarled, cradling his head.

“Riften. My Guide. You. Sasha was the only one who

had been true, and I couldn’t see it.”

“I never—”

“You abandoned me,” Farris interrupted. “I

don’t need you. I don’t need anyone. If my brother is

still out there, then I’m going to find him alone.”

Farris gently rested Sasha back upon the stone

and stood, her back turned to Gloria. The Pafadilly

remained clutched to her chest.

“You’re talking nonsense. If Riften left you in

here then you need allies more than ever. He’ll be

returning to his people, and he’ll tell them everything

about you and your quest.”

“Riften left me for dead,” Farris replied. She

measured her steps carefully, approaching the open

stairway that the Paral-Zakdul must have taken

downward. Her blood was pounding so ferociously

she couldn’t think straight. She could barely walk. The

fire still burned inside her veins, but she knew that

wasn’t from the Elestarphagia. It wasn’t her fault

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Sasha died. It was her Guide. He would pay for his

lies. “Farris, I’m your friend,” Gloria begged. Farris

turned and looked at Bumble. The one familiar thing

left in this alien world. She was the one constant

companion who would never have ulterior motives,

or secrets. She doesn’t have the capacity for anything

but love. Isn’t that what Farris had aspired to? She

had just understood love for the first time in her life.

Why was hate all she could feel? Why did it feel so

good to have an outlet for her pain?

Sasha wouldn’t have wanted her to do this. He

wanted nothing but for her to live in peace with him

and be happy.

“I’m going with you, Farris,” Gloria continued,

her voice soothing. “This is my quest too, and I’m

going to see it through. Take time if you need it, but

all of this happened because you were unable to

control your anger.”

Farris took a deep breath. “I don’t need time,”

Farris said softly.

“You’ve just escaped the brink of death. You’ve

lost someone you’ve loved. You’re still human, Farris.

You can’t pretend these things don’t affect you.”

Farris moved slowly as though it was a dream.

She heard Gloria’s words, but they were nothing but a

spark compared to the inferno in her head.

“Come if you want then,” Farris said without

turning. “Just don’t tell me what to do. No one is

going to do that ever again.”

“You’re going to look for your brother again?”

Gloria’s voice filled with hope.

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TOBIAS WADE

“I’ve promised to bring Tom home. That’s what

I’m going to do,” Farris said, her voice flat and dead

in her ears.

“I knew you would be reasonable.” Gloria sighed

with relief. “I was afraid your Guide had poisoned

you against reason when you left, but you haven’t

forgotten yourself. Let your knowledge of the world

help you act upon your convictions, not change

them.”

“I’m going to bring Tom home,” Farris repeated.

“And burn every last one of them who gets in my

way.”

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[*DID YOU LIKE THIS? *]

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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 Last Man BOOK 2

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.

  • Author: Tobias Wade
  • Published: 2017-03-04 18:35:19
  • Words: 68684
The Last Man BOOK 2 The Last Man BOOK 2