Riane and Giyan were alone in the Library of the Abbey of Warm Current. It was midnight. A cold wind sighed through thorned sysal trees, and rhythmic pulses rippled through the dense bedrock beneath the abbey, where the power bourns wove themselves like strands of the Great Goddess Miina’s ruddy hair.
The Library, columned, marble-clad, lay dreaming like a castle keep in the fastness of the fortresslike complex. The Ramahan abbey had been abandoned for many years before Riane and her friends—the Kundalan sorceress Giyan, the V’ornn Rhynnnon Rekkk Hacilar, the Kundalan Resistance leader Eleana, the Rappa named Thigpen—had made it their sanctuary some weeks before. Khagggun packs roamed the countryside searching for them. Once, they had swept through the abbey, and it was only Giyan’s sorcery that had saved them. She had roused them from sleep and, gathering up all evidence of their stay, they had fled into the nearby forest, there to wait in stony silence for the enemy to depart.
The abbey itself, sacked decades before by the V’ornn invaders, was half-burned and crumbling when they had first come upon it. Gimnopedes nested in untidy eaves. Spiders turned shadowy corners into delicately veined cities. A beautiful sysal tree had, for decades, grown up through thick plaza paving to split the lintel of the east-facing temple. The hoary knuckles of its basal roots displaced the artful pattern of the stone, an ironic comment on how life reclaims the void and transforms it. The Library, alone, remained intact, having been protected by a powerful spell that Giyan had counteracted in order to gain entry.
Riane looked at Giyan, tall, slim, beautiful, golden, radiant, save for the blackened crusts of the sorcerous chrysalides that covered her hands and forearms. Even now, she could scarcely believe that they had been reunited. Giyan’s presence gave her a sense of profound dislocation. She was not simply Riane, a sixteen-year-old orphaned Kundalan girl who could not remember her parents or where she came from. She was also the V’ornn Annon Ashera, eldest son of Eleusis Ashera, Eleusis had been regent of Kundala until a ruthless coup by his archenemy, Prime Factor Wennn Stogggul, and the head of Eleusis’ own elite bodyguard, Kinnnus Morcha.
Riane’s searching gaze caught Giyan’s whistleflower-blue eyes. “Every time you look at me I see surprise on your face.”
Giyan’s heart ached, for she heard the sentiment behind the formal words, the fragile sentence Riane could not bear to speak: Do you still love me? “It is a marvelous moment, to be here with you, alone, in private. To be able to call you Teyjattt.” Teyj were the beautiful multicolored four-winged birds the Gyrgon—the V’ornn technomage caste—bred and took with them wherever they went.
“Little Teyj. You loved calling me that when Annon was a child.”
A sudden fear, a stab in Giyan’s heart. “And Annon did not?”
A moment’s pause. “Annon did not, I think, appreciate your love. He did not know what to do with it.”
“It is odd the way you phrase it.”
“I am no longer Annon.” Riane spread her hands. “Annon is dead. All Kundala knows it.”
“And we? What do we know?”
Riane looked up at the magnificent dome of the Library, encrusted with a mosaic of Kundala and the sinuous star constellations surrounding it. Composed of millions of tiny colored glass tiles, fitted cunningly together as only the Kundalan artisans could, the dome produced an ethereal glow like a perpetual sunrise or sunset. Beneath this sheltering sky she felt safe from both Annon’s enemies and those of the Dar Sala-at. For Annon was not simply the heir to the Ashera Consortium. He and the former Riane together—this unique fused entity— were the Dar Sala-at, the chosen one of Miina, prophesied to find The Pearl, the most powerful, mysterious, and ancient artifact of Kundala, to lead the Kundalan out of their one-hundred-and-one-year enslavement to the technologically superior V’ornn.
“Here, alone, together,” she said at length, “we can share a dead past. Like ghosts conjuring the root stew of life.”
“Stirring the cauldron.”
“Yes.” Riane smiled a painful smile. “Making something special of it.”
She saw movement out of the corner of her eye. The vigilant figure of Rekkk Hacilar passed before the high, leaded window to the east. His long, tapering, hairless skull was cloaked in a battle helm fashioned, it was said, from the skull of a fallen Krael, and he held his shock-sword at the ready. His purple armor glittered darkly. Once a Khagggun—the V’ornn military caste—he had declared himself Rhynnnon, turning his back on his caste, turning his efforts to a greater cause. In this case, he had dedicated himself to the service of the now dead Gyrgon, Nith Sahor. Because Nith Sahor wanted the Dar Sala-at found and kept safe, Rekkk had sworn himself to protect Riane. Now he was also Giyan’s lover.
“We have been given a unique gift, haven’t we?” Giyan said. “A second chance.”
Rekkk, in the ruins of the courtyard outside, began a ritualistic set of thrusts and parries with Eleana. She was the same age as Riane. Her V’ornn shock-sword looked massive in her delicate white hands, hut she swung the twin blades deftly through the night air. Under Rekkk’s tutelage she was quickly becoming an expert in its use. They practiced endlessly. He said it took his mind off his wounds, physical and emotional.
Riane watched her for a moment, her heart in her throat. Annon and Eleana had fallen in love. Now, like everyone else, Eleana believed Annon was dead. As for Riane—this new Riane—she loved Eleana still, and did not know what to make of this love or what to do with it.
Giyan, attendant to Riane’s gaze, said, “You long to tell her, I know.”
“I love her so. I will always love her.”
“And your love makes you want to confess everything.” Riane’s silence was as good as an answer. “But you cannot. If you tell her who you really are, you put her life—and yours—in grave jeopardy.”
“She is Resistance. She is used to secrets.”
“Not this kind. It will be too much. Like a mountain on her shoulders.”
“Perhaps you underestimate her.”
They all heard the sound at once and froze. Their eyes rose skyward as the drone of the Khagggun hoverpods, bristling with ion cannons, flattened the soughing of the wind, silenced the twitter of night birds. There ensued a period of heart-pounding terror, as if the breathable elements were being sucked from the atmosphere. They could see the pale ion trails, ephemeral as smoke, lighted by moonslight, making baleful runes beneath the tremulous clouds. Tense moments later, the drone drifted away, fading from an echo into a stillness that made their ears ache.
Riane and Giyan exchanged a look of relief, and Riane returned her gaze to Eleana, her eyes filled with the girl’s lithe movements. Dark lashes. Moonslight on her cheekbones. Soft swell of her belly. “Or is it something else? You do not trust her.”
“It isn’t simply a matter of trust,” Giyan said carefully.
“Isn’t it?” Riane said this rather more sharply than she had intended.
“I have told you. It is written in Prophesy that of the Dar Sala-at’s allies one will love her, one will betray her, one will try to destroy her.”
“It could not mean Eleana. Not her.”
“No.” Giyan’s voice was soft, gentling. “You would not think so, I know.”
“She is carrying Kurgan’s child.” Kurgan was Wennn Stogggul’s eldest son; he had once been Annon’s best friend. “She will need our help and support in the days ahead.”
“You are the Dar Sala-at. You have larger issues to contend with.”
“She is still haunted by her rape at Kurgan’s hands. What is larger than an individual’s anguish?”
“The destiny of our people.”
“The destiny of our people is built on anguish. You of all Kundalan would be the first to acknowledge that.”
Giyan gazed in astonishment at Riane, golden-haired, sun-bronzed, firm-muscled from her beloved mountain climbing, and thought that this strong, beautiful girl might easily have sprung from her loins had she taken a Kundalan between her thighs. “You must forgive me, Teyjattt,” she said. “I have lived my entire life with secrets. First, keeping hidden my Gift for Osoru sorcery, which has been daemonized by the Ramahan. Then, concealing my status as Lady from the V’ornn, who would have killed me had they known. Finally, keeping your true identity a secret, which, had it become known, would have gotten you killed. These have been the boundaries of my life.”
Through the five arched windows set into the Library’s thick walls, light from two of Kundala’s five moons fired the glass tiles, lending them the depth of three dimensions. Giyan, caught in the moonsglow, seemed to throb with sorcerous energy. Her white robes were pale as the snow cloaking the jagged crests of the massive Djenn Marre mountain chain to the north. Her hands and forearms, dead black from the chrysalides covering them, were the only parts of her that did not shine like beacons. The chrysalides had formed after she had violated the sacred circle of the Nanthera, in a futile attempt to keep Annon alive. Well she might have, since he was her son. She had borne the son of the regent, Eleusis Ashera. This was a potentially dangerous fact she had told no one, not Rekkk, not Annon himself. From the beginning, Eleusis had impressed upon her the need for absolute secrecy. Periodically, the Gyrgon sent Khagggun packs to round up the children born to Kundalan females as a result of V’ornn rapes. These half-breeds, though outwardly looking like any other V’ornn, were taken by V’ornn Genomatekks to Receiving Spirit, the vast medical facility in Axis Tyr that had once been a Kundalan hospice. What experiments were perpetrated upon them there even Eleusis had not been able to discover.
Giyan shook her head. “Still, I will not tell you what to do. This must be your decision.”
“Whatever decision I make,” Riane said, “I promise you that it will not be a rash one.”
“I cannot ask for more, Dar Sala-at.”
She returned her attention to the book Giyan had given her to study. Giyan, like her twin, was a Ramahan priestess. But, unlike Bartta who had practiced Kyofu, the Black Dreaming sorcery, before her death in a sorcerous conflagration, she was a practitioner of Osoru, Five Moon sorcery. Riane, too, had the Gift; Giyan had passed it on to Annon. She was just beginning her Osoru studies, but she was impatient to become a sorceress-adept like Giyan. Though Stogggul and Morcha were dead, though she had defeated the powerful Kyofu sorceress Malistra, the Dar Sala-at’s enemies were legion. And far more powerful than Malistra. They had worked their dark schemes and plots through her; when she had died, Riane was certain, they had moved on, enlisting others to battle for them. But there was another matter, more immediate, that needed explaining.
She set down the book full of complex Old Tongue runes, and approached Giyan. Dust motes hung suspended in the air, flaring as they hit the lamplight. One full moon, the palest green of new grass, hung suspended in a pane of glass, an insect caught in a spider’s web.
“Have you so quickly finished your lesson, Teyjattt?” Thick hair of spun copper cascaded around Giyan’s long neck, settled on her square shoulders like liquid light.
“In truth, my mind is too filled with questions to absorb anymore.” Riane put her hands on the long ammonwood refectory table that ran the length of the Library. “You must tell me if you know why I wasn’t able to open the Storehouse Door.”
For the longest time Giyan said nothing. Doubtless she was thinking, as Riane was, of the Storehouse Door set eons ago by Miina into the caverns beneath Middle Palace.
The Storehouse was where Miina had secreted The Pearl for the time when Prophesy said it would be needed. Kundalan lore held that it could only be re-opened by the Dar Sala-at, using the Ring of Five Dragons. But the Door could only be opened by the Dar Sala-at. Defeating the Dark sorceress Malistra, Riane had tried to open the Door with the Ring, but it had stayed firmly shut. Why?
Giyan was about to speak when sudden pain clouded her features. She gasped, grabbed at the chrysalid on her right forearm.
“It is all right,” she whispered. “Already the pain is passing.” Beads of perspiration hung in her hairline.
“I want to help.”
“Alas, wanting will not make it so.” Tears trembled in the comers of her eyes. She was white-faced, and took a moment to compose herself before she went on. “There is only one reason the Ring of Five Dragons would not open the Door for you. Miina put one last safeguard in place when She built the Storehouse. Impossible as it sounds, the Portal between this realm and the Abyss has somehow been breached. There are daemons here where they have been banished for eons. As long as they are in this realm, the Door cannot be opened even by you.”
Riane felt her heart turn over painfully in her chest. “The Tzelos—”
“Yes. You have seen the Tzelos twice, once as part of a spell cast on you, once as a sorcerous Avatar of Kyofu. But I must conclude that the Tzelos has manifested itself here. It is a daemon from the Abyss. It has crossed over into our world.”
Giyan’s eyes grew dark. “I fear it is my doing.”
“Yours? I do not understand:”
“Conjuring the Nanthera posed grave risks,” Giyan said. “Not the least of which was opening the Portal to the Abyss.” In a last-ditch effort to save Annon from his enemies, Giyan and Bartta had conjured the Nanthera, temporarily opening a forbidden Portal to the Abyss. Thus, Annon’s essence, all that made him unique, had been transmigrated into the body of Riane, a Kundalan girl dying of duur fever. He was saved while his V’ornn body was delivered up to his enemies. Thus had he joined with Riane to become the Dar Sala-at, the chosen of Miina. Upon this new Riane rested the future of Kundala.
“But you told me that the Nanthera does so under a number of careful and powerful safeguards.”
“True. But I violated one of them. I reached back through the sorcerous circle to try to get you. I couldn’t help myself. I…” She put a hand to her head.
Riane encircled her with her arm. “Even if you are right, even if that is what has happened, what’s done is done. It doesn’t matter how the Portal seal was violated. What matters is sealing it again.”
Giyan shook her head. “It is more complicated than that, Dar Sala-at. When Miina created the Abyss to imprison the daemons and archdaemons, She seeded it with seven Portals, each of which She provided with a different sorcerous lock. This was a safeguard. Even if an archdaemon—Pyphoros or one of his three offspring—somehow managed to slip through one Portal, the other locks should protect us. For only when all seven Portals are opened simultaneously can all the daemons escape into our realm.” Giyan walked back and forth in a tight anxious orbit. “The real problem is not the Tzelos but the archdaemon who brought it through.”
Riane stared at her. “An archdaemon in this realm?”
“The consequences will be catastrophic,” Giyan said. “Unless we can find the archdaemon and somehow neutralize him, the damage he can do is incalculable.”
“But surely if he is here someone would have seen this … archdaemon by now.”
“On the contrary. Archdaemons cannot appear for long in their own form until all the seven Portals are open. They must take hosts—possess them, work through them. Their infiltration is more difficult to detect and therefore more insidious. Legend tells us that their control of their hosts is imprecise. The hosts’ actions may, from time to time, appear out of character because the archdaemon does not have immediate access to all their knowledge. However, that can change over time.”
“We must either destroy them both or return them to the Abyss,” Riane said. “Otherwise, I will never be able to open the Storehouse Door. I will never find The Pearl.”
Giyan, flexing her ringers inside their eerie shells, smiled grimly. “We must speed up your sorcerous training. Thigpen and I can only do so much. Miina’s Sacred Texts, Utmost Source and The Book of Recantation, both of which you have read, require interpretation so that you may understand the inner workings of language as science, science as sorcery. The interpretations require the precise mixtures, constructs of phrases, incantations, theories, ideas, whispers, shadows, and light. Once you have absorbed these lessons, you must practice those interpretations over and over until they are ingrained in you, until they become part of you.”
A shadow passed across Riane’s face. “Mother could have taught me,” she whispered. “But Mother is dead.” She was wearing turquoise silk robes made from Mother’s garments after a terrible Kyofu spell had caused Riane mistakenly to kill her. The murder had been foretold in Prophesy, but that did not make it any easier to live with.
Giyan stirred. When she gazed at her child, transformed, she saw great promise, but never without the pain of regret. Regret that she could never tell Annon that he was her son, regret that she had been forced to hide him inside Riane, to leave Riane with Bartta, who had abused Riane terribly. Claws in the lining of her stomach.
“Mother would have been the first to tell you that no one teacher will suffice,” She vibrated with her child’s sorrow, wished she could take it all upon herself, “Your journey is long, Dar Sala-at, arduous and complex. There is someone who I must get you to as quickly as possible. She will commence your studies. Her name is Jonnqa. She is an imari at Nimbus, a kashiggen in the Northern Quarter of Axis Tyr.”
“What could a mistress of pleasure at a salamuuun palace have to teach me?”
A small smile played across Giyan’s lips. “Again you sound like a V’ornn. I know you are impatient, Teyjattt, but you must get it through your head that you have much to learn. There are no shortcuts, sorcerous or otherwise. As I said, the Dar Sala-at’s path is a most difficult one. Up to now your life has been as a male V’ornn of high privilege or as a Ramahan cloistered in the Abbey of Floating White. In both instances you were protected from the everyday world. Both these lives are now at an end.”
“I do not understand.”
Giyan turned around the book she had been reading so Riane could see the Old Tongue text. “You see here, in the days before the V’ornn, when lightning played across the sky, when all of Miina’s magical beasts—the Rappa, the narbuck, the perwillon, even the Ja-Gaar and the Five Sacred Dragons—roamed the land and the skies, all Kundalan were in harmony.” She turned the page. “Females and males alike shared everything, including power. The Ramahan, too, included priests and priestesses.”
“But then a cabal of male Ramahan wrested control from Mother,” Riane said. “They held her captive for more than a century.”
“Until you found her and freed her.” Giyan, sensing Riane’s disquiet, continued. “But here is the important thing. Nowadays, male Kundalan treat our females as inferiors, just as the male V’ornn do their own females. This is what you will be up against when you venture out into the world.” She closed the book with a snap. “It makes my blood run cold. It is a manifestation of the worst thing the V’ornn have done to us. Do you know what that is, Riane?”
“That they have taken away our freedom.”
“That is evil, but it is not the worst.”
“That they have killed and tortured tens of thousands of us.”
“Terrible, yes.” She shook her head. “But the worst is being done now, systematically. The V’ornn use time, ideas, the masses against us. Why do you think the youngest Kundalan males treat their female counterparts with contempt? Because it is all they know. Each day brings new converts to the new Goddessless religion of Kara. Where did Kara begin, do you think? With the V’ornn, of course.”
Riane was startled. “Are you certain? Annon did not know this.”
“I daresay most V’ornn do not. It is a device of Gyrgon origin. And yet it continues to win converts. With every generation the great Kundalan narrative that Miina labored so hard and long to teach Her children is being eaten away by V’ornn acid. You saw as much when you were at the Abbey of Floating White. Osoru is no longer taught, Sacred Scripture has been distorted beyond recognition. And the worst part is that those distortions are being accepted by the acolytes. They cannot see the truth because the morality inside the abbey has been murdered, and without morality truth has no dominion.”
Tears stood in the corners of Giyan’s eyes. Riane felt her pain as if it were her own. The V’ornn-ness inside her recoiled at the words, at the emotions, at the implication of what the V’ornn had perpetrated. This disconnect made her feel weak and dizzy, so that she was obliged to grab the table edge lest she pitch over onto the gleaming floor.
“Understand this, Riane,” Giyan whispered. “Time is the great ally of the liar because when lies are repeated long enough, the truth fades and is forgotten. Then the lies become the truth. History is remade, and all is lost.”
Riane thought of how Bartta, who had run the abbey, had murdered her friend Asta and pretended it was an accident-She recalled how Bartta had tortured her and almost killed her. Bartta was wicked, but Bartta had come to believe the distortions and lies she herself had made up. She was perpetrator and victim rolled into one.
Giyan’s whistleflower-blue eyes regarded her levelly, and a kind of current passed between them, a language of their own design begun with Annon’s first memory. What a powerful thing such a language can be, for it flows in the blood, informs the bone with unshakable knowledge.
“And yet, what mystery beats within the V’ornn heart,” Giyan whispered. “There was Eleusis, brave, compassionate Eleusis; there is Rekkk, brave, compassionate Rekkk. And most mysterious of all, perhaps, there was the Gyrgon Nith Sahor, who gave his life for us.”
“And yet, what mystery beats within the Kundalan heart,” Riane answered her, “for you to raise Annon and not hate him as a mortal enemy, for you to love him as if he were your own flesh and blood, for you to save him from the enemies of the Ashera at risk to your own life.”
“The enemies of the Ashera are my enemies,” Giyan said simply.
When she spoke thus her power was undeniable, defeating even that last bastion of V’omn maleness that still beat within Riane’s soul.
“I love you, Giyan,” Riane said. “I find it miraculous that you of all Kundalan are the Lady destined to guide the Dar Sala-at.”
“I love you more than life itself, Teyjattt.” A tear slid down Giyan’s cheeks. She reached out for her child, but could feel nothing through the inconstant electrical jolts delivered by the chrysalides.
“Together we will labor to bring back Miina’s sacred narrative in all its glory,” Riane said with a resolved heart.
“I fear we will labor greatly.”
Riane felt something inside her quail. She knew from experience that there was something oracular about Giyan. Then Annon’s V’ornn-ness took over, and she said: “If this is our destiny, then so be it.”
Giyan smiled through her tears. “When you speak thus I am reminded of Nith Sahor. I miss him. His death was a terrible loss to our cause.”
“I only met the Gyrgon once.” Riane said. “But without his help I would not have reached the Storehouse Door in time to stop the Tymnos device from destroying Kundala.”
“You would have appreciated his wisdom, might very well have come to like him. It is a great pity he was an anomaly among Gyrgon.”
For the first time, Riane saw the title of the book Giyan had been reading: Darkness and Its Constituents. She gestured with a sun-bronzed hand. “Is the Tzelos described in there?”
Giyan smiled grimly and reopened the book. Riane saw a line drawing, filling up an entire page, precise as an architectural blueprint, of the horrific beast she had seen in Otherwhere. The drawing was fascinating and repellent at the same time.
“A profane experiment of Pyphoros’ gone terribly wrong,” Giyan said. “Like all his experiments.”
“What was he trying to do?”
“Create life, something only the Maker can do.”
“The Great Goddess Miina?”
“Can give life, so it is written. But that is not the same. Even Miina is not the Maker. She cannot create a new life out of the elemental components of the Cosmos.”
“But She created Kundala.”
“Ah, no. She bade the Sacred Dragons to create Kundala, and they did so with the help of The Pearl. They caused matter to cleave to matter. They brought fire and air, water and earth. Metal from dark distant stars. When Kundala was born, in the Time before the Imagining, the hand of the Maker moved and the Kundalan appeared.”
Riane stood for a time absorbing her words. The weight of history lay upon the shelves ringing the Library, voices of Kundalan ancestors disturbed from their long slumber by the discussion of Creation. The faintest stirring seemed to play against her cheek, a liquification of the light reflected off the mosaic sky, the exhalations of generations past. Hopes, fears, dreams alive here in the twinkling mosaic stars, the burnished continents, the rakkis-dark seas. She felt all over again her deep and abiding love for this woman who had raised Annon, who had saved him from certain death, who had been willing to sacrifice everything, including her life, to save the V’ornn child she had raised. Part of her would never understand that miracle; another part felt only gratitude.
Typical. The V’ornn searched for answers to everything—this is, doubtless, what led the species to continue its long lonely quest through the Cosmos. This is doubtless what drove the Gyrgon to continue their mysterious experiments. Looking for the answers: who are we, where did we come from, where are we going. It was said that the Gyrgon lusted after immortality, that they wished for nothing less grand than to be like the god, Enlil, they had rejected. Was it the truth? No one knew. The Gyrgon were masters of secrecy, subterfuge, misdirection. They were already demigods in their way, powerful, manipulative, remote. Except for Nith Sahor.
“And where was Miina?” Riane asked with a teenager’s directness. “Did She see the Maker?”
“She slept,” Giyan said with the simple power of faith. “And when She woke, we were here, Her name already on our lips.”
She would have continued. Her mouth was partly open, the next words about to be released, when she felt a dreadful hammerblow of pain. With a moan, she slid to her knees, hugging her arms close to her slender waist. Riane knelt beside her, held her as tenderly as once Giyan had held Annon when his young body had trembled with ague.
At that moment, a shadow fell between them, and they looked out the window to see a crowned owl crossing before the full moon on huge silent brindled wings. An omen, Giyan thought, her heart constricting. Miina has sent us a sign.
And then it seemed as if the crowned owl had crashed through the window, or perhaps it was the moonslight itself that had been transmogrified to a solid column of energy. The books flew off the table, their pages ruffling like the feathers of angry birds. Others exploded off the shelves, great ranks rising in unison in response to the disturbance. Riane herself was flung backward, skidding across the floor, trying to right herself, being shoved sideways by the unknown force. She fetched up against a heavy ammonwood chair, which had crashed over onto its side. A leg struck her rib cage painfully.
She saw Giyan, her back arched, her arms stretched upward, pulled as if by invisible cords. Drafts of air, cold as death, circled the Library, howling, so that when Riane tried to call out to Giyan her voice was swept away. Riane’s heart turned over. As she watched with mounting horror, Giyan rose into the air.
An eerie glow was emanating from the chrysalides that covered Giyan’s hands and forearms. They were black no longer, but had begun to turn an ash grey. As their color lightened, thin layers peeled off and, like plates of armor, whirled around and around in the vortex. Upon reaching the periphery, they were hurled like ice-white missiles, slicing through books, furniture. They lodged in the fluted columns, in the carved lintels above the doors, in the walls themselves. Riane ducked as one passed centimeters from her head. It made a sinister whistling sound as it spun away like the beveled blades of a fan.
She tried to stand and fell back in a heap. All the heat was being sucked out of the Library. A chill entered her bones, sheathing them in pearly frost, making of their marrow a dry white ash. Breath caught in her lungs, painful as a sandstorm, as if the air itself were being torn asunder, remade into something dark, dense with menace, wicked as sin.
At last, the chrysalides had let go of Giyan, the sheaths had come off, and her hands and forearms stood revealed, thick with sinuous red veins and ropey yellow arteries, standing out in convolute profusion.
Her eyes were wide and staring, their blue turned an eerie opalescent white, and in their center pinprick black pupils. Her mouth was drawn back in the rictus normally associated with death. Through her long, thickly flowing hair was now wound shards of a dark metallic substance that at once cradled the back of her head, curling up into corkscrewed points, a kind of thorned crown, living things that shifted and shimmered in the lamplight, glimmered and glistened as they wove themselves into a pattern of hideous design.
The moonlight, flooding through the rent window, was pale, insubstantial. The dust motes held in its columns shivered. Riane felt herself caught as if in a deep dream, her limbs felt like deadweights, her thoughts slow as frozen sap. As in a nightmare, she felt both terrified and helpless. She had the presence of mind to understand that her very helplessness compounded the terror, and yet that knowledge was of little use to her. Her mind was filled with an awful martial drumbeat that foretold her losing Giyan once again. She did not think that she could bear it.
But now there was no more time for thought. Giyan fixed her with her bizarre and frightening white eyes and her left arm came down, describing a shallow arc mat brought her hand to point directly at Riane. Riane could see in the center of each palm a corkscrewed spike similar to the elements of the thorned crown piercing her flesh right through, though there was no blood or even any semblance of a wound. Rather, the spike seemed part of her, as, indeed, the crown seemed to have grown from the bones of her skull.
She saw the vein-wrapped forefinger unfurl, the black nail, long and gleaming, extending from it. Riane felt displaced, separated from the world around her. Her Third Eye opened in response to the horror and saw blood all around her, buckets of blood, cauldronsful, a veritable ocean of blood, life draining away down an ancient stone drain clogged with eons of blackened moss and decay, the slimy debris of time. Here was a moment she would remember all her life, a moment that would haunt her waking hours and stalk her dreams, Giyan is dead, long live…What? What foul beast had the Lady become?
As best she could, she cast about for a counterspell to the sorcerous transformation the chrysalides had worked on Giyan, but she knew so few spells, and none of them seemed right. You are untrained. Even with a power as great as yours you are at a grave disadvantage against your enemies without the knowledge of the ancients, Mother had told her. This is why you must exercise extreme caution. This is why you must keep your identity hidden as much as you can until your schooling in the sorcerous arts is complete.
Oh, yes, Mother was right. And so was Giyan. Her enemies had wasted no time in mounting another attack. In desperation, she spoke the words of the Old Tongue, conjuring Earth Granary, the most potent of Osoru healing spells.
At almost the same instant, she heard the quick sizzle, as of frying flesh. It made her skin crawl, her heart beat fast. And then all the breath was knocked out of her as the sorcerous spell hit her dead on. It was well that she had cast Earth Granary, for it afforded her a measure of protection, the difference between life and death.
She flickered between consciousness and unconsciousness as she crawled painfully across the Library floor, and she set all her reserves of energy into redoubling the spell, holding it close around her, so that it would not fly apart in a thousands shreds, exposing her entirely to the ferocious attack.
And, then, there it was, leaking from the suppurating ends of Giyan’s fingertips: the Tzelos, writhing in its noncorporeal state as the thing that had been Giyan gave birth to the daemon from the Abyss.
The rotting cor-meat stink of the Tzelos assaulted her. It was black as steaming pitch, its twelve-legged body segmented like an insect’s, its bloated thorax protected by a hard carapace. Its long flat ugly head, brown-black, shiny as obsidian, was guarded by monstrous serrated mandibles. Twelve faceted eyes, burning like garnets, fixed on her.
Riane struggled to rise as the spell dissipated, drew her dagger, preparing to defend herself. Giyan was moving, but Riane’s attention was wholly taken up with the advancing Tzelos. And then she saw something out of the corner of her eye, a furry, six-limbed creature with triangular ears, a long, striped, puffy tail, and dark, intelligent eyes. Thigpen was Rappa.
“Thigpen, get back!” Riane cried.
The creature ignored her. Shaking off her dizziness, she grabbed an upended lamp, hurled it in a sidearm motion. It struck the Tzelos and passed right through it. An illusion, just like the one that had appeared when she had mistakenly killed Mother. The Tzelos rushed at her, and she instinctively steeled herself.
“Ignore it,” Thigpen said. “Use your Third Eye to distinguish what is real and what is not.”
Riane felt a brief chill, like ice sliding down the back of her neck. Giyan began to rise off the ground. Her arms were spread wide, her head thrust slightly back, her jaw clenched and set. Employing the sorcerous sight from her Third Eye, Riane detected another presence inside Giyan. It coiled inside her like a gigantic serpent, spiraling up her spine. With a sickening shock, Riane realized that it had entered her brain. The presence was levitating her.
Riane watched, stunned, as Giyan, her long hair writhing like a nest of bloodworms, flew toward the broken window and passed through it.
“We must not allow her to escape,” Thigpen cried.
“Something has taken possession of her! I can feel it!” Riane said. “What is happening?”
“It is Malasocca,” Thigpen whispered. “It means ‘dark Night of the Soul.’ I do not know the way of it; I’m not sure anyone alive does. But I understand this much: piece by piece, her spirit is being replaced by that of a daemon. If we cannot stop her, if she heeds the call, if she vanishes, she will be lost to us, Riane. Lost for all time.” Thigpen was scampering across the floor, ignoring the shards of glass that stuck to the pads of her slender handlike paws. “Worse, she will be replaced by our most implacable enemy.”
“How do we stop that from happening?”
“If the host body is destroyed, the daemon is returned to the Abyss,” Thigpen said.
“I will not kill her.”
“It is the way of the Malasocca,” Thigpen replied.
“There must be another way.”
“I do not know of any. The daemon is still vulnerable now, but not for much longer.”
“Still. I will not harm her.”
Thigpen’s whiskers were twitching, a sure sign of her acute distress. “I love Giyan as much as you do, Dar Sala-at, but terrible forces have been unleashed. Before this is over, you may very well wish you had killed her while you had the chance.”
Riane, gaining the windowsill, balanced precariously for a moment, gathering equilibrium and momentum before launching herself upward with outstretched arms, grabbing Giyan around the ankles. Thigpen, just behind her, shrieked a warning as she leapt to the ground.
Giyan glared down, her unholy eyes alight, and cold fire sprang from her fingertips. Riane cried out and released her grip, falling two meters into the sere grass just outside the shattered window. Above, the pale fire traveled across her back until it reached the image of the Tzelos. There, it seemed to be sucked up into the daemon’s outline, filling it out, causing it to pulse and glow. A nasty rustling arose, as of an army of insects ominously on the march.
The Tzelos swiveled its flat triangular head. A kind of crusty substance bubbled out of a series of palpitating apertures behind its faceted eyes. Its wicked-looking mandibles clicked together. Riane could see Rekkk and Eleana, weapons raised, approaching the daemon. But surely it was the sight of Giyan so hideously transformed that caused the look of consternation on their faces.
“Lady—” Eleana began before she choked on her words.
“Giyan, what the N’Luuura has befallen you?” Rekkk’s face was white and strained.
“The chrysalides have broken open,” Riane said.
“We must help her.” Thigpen regarded them each in turn with her dark intelligent eyes. “Mercy, yes, we must help her now or all is lost.”
Rekkk leapt over the wreckage of the broken window. Fearless, Eleana was just behind him. The Tzelos reared up on three sets of hind legs. Its upper appendages lashed out, trailing glistening cilia behind them. A wedge of mouth opened just as Rekkk swung his shock-sword and the Tzelos vomited up a gout of a yellow sticky substance that clung to the blades. The pitch of their vibration altered, causing a blowback pulse that sent a wave of agonizing pain up Rekkk’s arm.
Eleana was following in his wake, her shock-sword drawn back. Riane could see the tension in her arm, saw her concentrated completely on the daemon, saw what she failed to see, Giyan’s right arm sweeping downward and, with it, a shower of crystalline sparks. A terrified gimnopede, frightened out of its nest, launched upward. Caught in the spiral band of the sparks, it turned black and rigid, plummeting like a rock to the ground.
The spirals were almost at Eleana’s height when Riane threw herself forward. Eleana skittered, her booted foot slipping, and, as she toppled over, the scythes of crystalline sparks passed centimeters above her. Riane caught her, cradled her, aware in one all-encompassing instant that Eleana’s heat and warmth, her scent, wound around her, binding her.
Just above where they lay, the air was sizzling, momentarily drained of heat. Then Eleana, the entire world, dropped away down a well. Riane felt the dislocation that came when she shed her corporeal body, crossed over into Ayame, the deep trance-state of Osoru.
In Otherwhere, she confronted a horrible sight: the great bird Ras Shamra, Giyan’s sorcerous Avatar, was caged, its powerful wings pinioned at its side. The image of the real Giyan was imprisoned by some unknown wicked force. Ras Shamra saw her, uttered a soul-shattering cry that shook the very foundations of the sorcerous realm. When Riane tried to approach the cage, Ras Shamra became frantic, shrieking over and over, throwing its body against the bars until it bled in many places.
“Stop! Stop!” Riane cried. “I only want to help you!”
But Ras Shamra would not stop. If anything, as Riane approached, the Avatar become even more frantic.
Riane began the ritual for the Star of Evermore, the spell she had used to free Mother, to try to break the bars of the sorcerous cage. But as she did so, a shadow fell over Otherwhere. She looked up, the incantation frozen in her throat. A great Eye was opening, the Eye of Ajbal, and now she knew why Ras Shamra was shrieking. It was trying to warn her. She knew she was no match for this powerful spell. Indeed, it had once almost undone Giyan herself.
“Don’t give up,” she said to the image of Giyan. “I will come back for you, no matter how long it takes.”
Giving Ras Shamra one last look of longing, she abandoned Otherwhere, only to hear Thigpen’s sorrowful cry:
Eleana and Rekkk turned at the hollow sound emanating from deep inside Thigpen.
The Rappa was weeping, crystalline tears rolling freely down her furred cheeks, dripping off her muzzle. “She’s gone.”
And they saw she was right. The daemon Tzelos had vanished into the night sky and, with her, their beloved Giyan.
Copyright ©2002 by Eric Van Lustbader