An exceptionally frigid winter was at last drawing to a close. The low, dense cloud cover that had spread itself like a bird of prey over virtually all of Kundala's northern continent was being slowly rent by the sun, in which had begun to burn of late the glowing ember of spring. The basaara, the ceaseless north wind that had its origins in the lethal permafrost of the Unknown Territories beyond the Djenn Marre mountain range, had raged for a full six weeks, disgorging a suffocating stratum of snow on the bustling towns, the barren fields, the forested hillsides, and ceaseless strip mines, inconveniencing Kundalan and V'ornn alike. Though the technically superior V'ornn had occupied the planet for over a century, they had never adjusted to snow and ice from which, like seas and deserts, they could derive no profit. But of late the wind had shifted, meandering indolently from the southwest, bringing with it the sharp tang of the Illuminated Sea along with tantalizing hints of the southern continent's tropical climes.
The lower-lying areas were already shrugging off winter's punishing grip, the snow grudgingly receding like an aging glacier, but here, high in the rugged massif of the Djenn Marre, it was still as thick as ever it had been in midwinter.
The windowless chamber in which Riane stood was not large, but its ceiling, invisible in its extreme height, lay shrouded in the shadowed cavern, bearded with stalactites like upended candles, their wax cold, calcified with rheumy age. Amber light poured from reed torches bound in copper wire, and the polar stink of minerals seeping made the room reek like the hold of a ship. A mirror, tall as it was narrow, beveled like cut gemstone, gilt-framed, here and there cloudy as the sky, hung from a bare black bolt driven into naked limestone. Riane moved until her reflection appeared like a wraith from predawn mist. She stared at herself, wondering.
She was known to her friends and compatriots as the Dar Sala-at, the fabled savior, destined to lead the Kundalan uprising against theiralien V'ornn oppressors. Her image--an oval face framed by long blond hair braided in the mistefan, the Druuge symbol of battle, startling blue eyes, a strong nose pierced with a gold stud, and a wide, generous mouth--looked back at her. Even three months ago she had felt a stranger. But lately she was coming to realize that the male V'ornn persona of Annon Ashera and the female Kundalan known as Riane had in many ways fused, becoming a single entity, capable of drawing on both Annon's V'ornnish knowledge and Riane's formidable physical prowess and limited memories. The result was becoming each day more comfortable for both of them. Now, most of the time, they thought as one.
Riane shifted the two leather-bound books, gold-stamped, thick, ancient, precious beyond imagining. Utmost Source and The Book of Recantation, the two most sacred texts of the Great Goddess Miina, rescued by her, their right and true keeper, from oblivion, as it had been written in prophecy. "I am ready," she said to Giyan.
The tall Kundalan--sorceress, priestess, seer--came and stood at her side, nodded and gripped her hand. She had a face to make the heart melt, powerful and lovely, thick copper-colored hair cascading past her shoulders, and large whistleflower-blue eyes.
From a small distance, Thigpen's whiskers twitched in her copper, black-and-white-furred muzzle. Though they were not far from her home--the home of all Rappa--a gigantic cavern deep within the bowels of the Djenn Marre, Thigpen had never been in this chamber before, never even knew of its existence. But the Ramahan did. Typical.
"I like this not, little dumpling," Thigpen said anxiously. "We Rappa have a healthy fear of mirrors. Their sorcerous power is legendary."
"Yes," Giyan responded, not unkindly. "Mariners fear whirlpools, Rappa fear mirrors."
Thigpen shuddered. "Shall I tell you tales of Rappa sucked into the Other Side by ensorceled mirrors?"
"No need," Giyan said. "There is nothing here to fear."
Still, the Rappa backed away on her six furry legs, wickedly curved nails skittering on rock. Her whiskers twitched ferociously.
"I don't understand," Riane said. "What is the Other Side? Not, surely, Otherwhere?"
"Oh, no," Thigpen called. "The Other Side is a squirming pit, a shallow grave, nasty, nasty."
"Think of a pinhole in our Realm," Giyan said in a far calmer voice. "Necromancers--when they once walked Kundala--would use theirfoul sorcery to shove those who displeased them through the mirror, through the pinhole, into the null-space that exists between Realms."
"No one ever returns from the Other Side," the Rappa said.
"Is this true?" Riane asked.
Giyan shrugged. "I have heard of none."
"That is because there are none!" Thigpen howled, causing Giyan to turn to her with a finger across her lips. "You may leave, if you wish, dear Thigpen. No one is holding you here."
"No one is holding any of us to life," the Rappa said shortly. "That does not mean we all won't be swept aside by Anamordor, the End of All Things."
"Anamordor is a Dragon's tale," Giyan said.
"It is not inevitable?"
Giyan smiled. "None of us may use that word, dear Thigpen. What is inevitable and what is not is for the Great Goddess Miina to determine."
Thigpen grumped and fussed with her fur, as if she had suddenly discovered a colony of nits.
Giyan smiled and turned back to Riane. "All right, then. Let us begin."
Solemnly, she held the sacred texts, back straight, eyes shining while Riane intoned the Venca spell. Then Riane saw her reflection in the mirror come toward her, and it seemed now to have all the appearance of a shell, a carapace much like the Gyrgon wore to hide themselves. Annon, too, was hiding inside Riane's body. Only Giyan knew the secret, and she would never tell another soul.
Riane raised her hands, pressed them against the mirror, into it. She felt a coolness, as if she had dipped her hands in a lake.
"All is in readiness," she said.
Giyan placed the heavy texts on her arms.
"Are you sure this is the wisest place to store them?" Thigpen piped up.
"It is by far the safest place," Giyan said. "There are at present too many enemies who would stop at nothing to destroy these texts." She was, of course, speaking of the sauromicians.
"And if by chance the banestones should--"
"That is enough!"
It was not wise to anger Giyan, but the Rappa were an obstinate species, as it was often enough said, none more so than Thigpen. Once she got going, she was difficult to derail.
"She does not know about the banestones, does she?"
"Why would she need to?" Giyan snapped. "The banestones are ancient history, lost for eons."
"Ever since the fall of Za Hara-at, yes. But the banestones can penetrate the Other Side. I have heard that this is where they derive their enormous power."
"Why are you talking about me as if I am not here?" Riane addressing them both at once.
Giyan sighed. "I apologize. But you have more than enough on your plate without concerning yourself with banestones. There are all manner of ancient artifacts I could make you aware of, but what would be the point?"
"Forewarned is forearmed," the Rappa said portentously.
"It is true that the banestones use another kind of energy, one that even Ramahan have failed to understand. They are very dangerous, should not be touched, for to do so connects you to them, alters you subtly on the atomic level."
"Strange things happen when you acquire a banestone," Thigpen could not help adding. "Not what you wish for, and with the banestone--believe me--you wish for plenty. Because they were originally mined, dug out of the bowels of Kundala, by the daemons. Nine banestones, they found, and nine are needed, linked, to unleash all their power."
"Are you satisfied now?" Giyan asked her.
Thigpen sat up on her four hind legs, her forepaws crossed in stubborn anger. "Satisfied? No, it would take a great deal to satisfy me, or any Rappa," she said somewhat sullenly.
"You forgot to mention that the banestones were used in the foundations of the nine major temples at Za Hara-at. They were its power."
Riane looked from one to the other. "Can we get on with it now?" Her voice clipped with impatience. "There is much to be done." And that, for the moment at least, seemed to settle the matter.
"Pay attention." Giyan spoke softly but sternly. "We do not want any mishaps now, else the sacred texts will be lost in null-space, drifting like a ship with a broken rudder, impossible to track or retrieve."
Riane focused all her attention.
"Concentrate on the reflections only," Giyan told her, not for the first time. "They will show you the exact spot in null-space where the books will be stored."
Riane moved in a continuous motion until her arms vanished up to her shoulders. Then she backed away slowly and smoothly until thetips of her fingers reappeared. The books, however, were gone, with another Venca spell, safe in their repository in the place Thigpen called the Other Side.
"And the sea comes, comes and goes, rocking like a cradle. The sea is leagues wide and fathoms deep, rocking like a cradle. The sea is a stern mistress and a gentle lover, rocking like a cradle. Into the deep we consign the mortal remains of our beloved captain: Courion, first son of Coirn, of the House of Oronel--"
The sonorous voice broke off and Kelyx, ship's surgeon of the Omaline, looked at Kurgan Stogggul, whose face glimmered like a newly honed hatchet, beautiful and deadly, eyes like obsidian cabochons, blood in them; and if he was any judge of V'ornn, no remorse in them, none at all. Kelyx said, "You see what we mean? How can we give Courion a proper burial--how can we pay him the respect we all feel for him when we do not even know where his mortal remains are?"
The Omaline, Courion's sleek Sarakkon vessel, lay at its slip at Harborside. The high prow, carved into a figure either fantastical or grotesque depending on your esthetics, arched elegantly into the night sky. Its beaten-bronze running lamps were lit. Its full complement of crew stood at attention in a shallow semicircle. Kurgan knew them all by sight. Some, like Kelyx, Chron, the first mate, Kobon, the quartermaster, he knew through his friendship with Courion. This friendship--hard-won and prickly at the best of times--meant everything, for Kurgan was quite certain that he was the first V'ornn to be invited to attend a Sarakkon funeral service.
Kurgan had fought Chron in the Kalllistotos, had played warrnixx with Kobon. With Kelyx, he had surprisingly debated the pros and cons of religion versus a state of godlessness. It was the Sarakkon's contention that a belief in a supreme being of whatever nature provided a needed sense of hope. It was Kurgan's contention that science--or technomagic, as the Gyrgon preferred to call it--provided a needed sense of order. It seemed to astonish both of them that they agreed on the essential chaos of the Cosmos.
"I am sorry," Kurgan said. "I promised to find Courion, but his body has vanished." This was not true, and Kurgan knew it very well, for he had seen Courion dead, knew how he had died, knew where even now he lay.
"No blame accrues to you." Chron in his gruff manner.
"We owe you a debt for trying," Kelyx said, he of the delicate face and watchful eyes and quick smile.
This was typical Sarakkon thinking. They valued the attempt--and therefore the intent--more than the outcome.
"It was my duty to try," Kurgan said. "It was the least I could do."
"Still, it is passing strange, Captain disappearing like that," Chron said darkly. He was overmuscled, with glowering eyes and a hatchet jaw overrun with a wicked slash of waxed mustache, a triangular black beard from which were strung lacquered sharks' teeth and mica cubes.
"Captain had dealings with the Gyrgon," Kobon said, even more ominously. Big, though not overly tall, he, like all Sarakkon, was covered in tattoos, over skull, shoulders, arms, tattoos that told a story if one knew how to interpret them. "He was warned not to trust them."
"He dealt only with Nith Batoxxx," Kurgan said, "who now, too, is dead. Of the Gyrgon's death the Comradeship refuses to speak."
Kelyx shifted his feet. "And of Captain's?" His reddish curling beard was shot through with turquoise cubes and tigershell spheres. The tattoos across his shaved skull and glistening shoulders were tiny and intricate curls like the crooked fingers of babies.
"They profess to know nothing," Kurgan said.
Chron grunted. "Even though you are regent, you kowtow to Gyrgon."
Kurgan knew he meant no offense. In fact, it was a simple statement of truth. And yet, Kurgan found himself offended, as if he had been belittled in the crew's eyes.
"This is our caste system, the way it has always been," he said. "Your council, the Orieniad, do they not also sometimes give you orders which you are bound to follow?"
"Enough," the first mate said, stepping forward. "We are here to perform the Last Honors for our captain and our friend." He held out his hand. "The winding-shell."
Kelyx shook his head. "We believe Captain would want Kurgan Stogggul to have that responsibility."
A leaden silence reigned aboard the Omaline. Water slapped against the curved hull, sluiced through its scuppers. The onshore wind rocked the ship. Grey clouds studded the noonday sky like alloy bolts. The crew shuffled while Chron's face went pale. His fists clenched and unclenched.
Kurgan knew he must quickly break the impasse. "Courion has bade me help say good-bye, Kelyx, from across the Great Sea of Death. I am honored to comply."
There was a palpable sigh from the assembly as Kurgan responded the way a Sarakkon would. No one would oppose him now or eventhink ill of him, even Chron, whose face had returned to its normal rich pomegranate color.
Kelyx nodded. "Spoken well and true, as is a friend's duty." He opened his hand to reveal a heavily banded sienna-and-cream-colored shell, long and spiraled. The whorl inside a delicate pink. "Hold out your hand."
Kurgan did as he was asked. From inside the winding-shell emerged a pink tongue. But when touched it felt cool and smooth and hard, just as a shell would.
"The winding-shell is used to shroud the body before it is consigned to the deep," Kelyx explained for Kurgan's benefit. "In the absence of Captain's body, we will use this." He produced a beautifully made dirk with a curved forged blade and a handle of pebbled shagreen. A cabochon star sapphire capped the butt end. "Captain's favorite sea dirk."
He placed the weapon on the band of pink shell, and it immediately turned sienna and cream. In an instant, it began to spiral around the dirk, winding it in its peculiar shroud.
"From the sea we came, from the sea we return," Kelyx intoned. "In the bosom of the ocean, where all life begins, there is no ending, there is no regret, there are only new beginnings."
He nodded to Kurgan, who threw the shrouded dirk into the waves. It sank out of sight without even the vestige of a splash, vanishing as its master had vanished, without a trace.
Kurgan, watching the rolling sea, tried to think of Courion, as he had done for the entire time he was on the ship, but his thoughts were tangled up in the lies he was bound to tell the Sarakkon. If he had known himself better, he would have understood that he was caught up in the lies he had been telling himself ever since he returned from Za Hara-at. But he was a Stogggul; he could not know himself better. And so, instead of thinking about Za Hara-at and what had transpired there, instead of thinking of her, he had come down to Harborside, to Courion's funeral, to get away from feelings that were, in the end, impossible to deny. That did not stop him from trying. But, of course, even among the Sarakkon, he could not elude them. They darted, silver and gold, like fish beneath the waves, and made it difficult for him to feel anything for the Sarakkon captain he had called friend.
"It is over," Kelyx said. "Now our captain is part of history."
The crew dispersed, taking up, in twos and threes, their appointed chores.
"We sail within the half hour," Chron said.
Kurgan nodded. "I understand." And turned toward the gangplank.
"You are welcome to sail with us, Kurgan Stogggul," Kelyx said.
Kurgan paused. "My regrets, Ship's Surgeon." He gave a fastidious smile. "Another time it will be my pleasure." There was nothing he wanted less.
"What are they doing in there?" Eleana stalking back and forth in the enormous cavern that led to Rappa territory. They looked out on semidarkness, overflowing with the murmurous conversations of the Rappa, so curious about everything, not the least of which this gathering of folk of neither their kind nor kin.
The Nawatir, thick blond hair and close-cropped beard, high cheekbones and wide mouth set in a globular Kundalan skull, glanced at her. "We will find out soon enough."
Her grey-green eyes clouded over. "If they tell us anything."
"Did you have such impatience when you were in the Resistance?"
"In truth, it is the Resistance I cannot get out of my mind," she said simply. "Each day that goes by the Khagggun kill more of them. What are we doing here?"
"I do not know."
"Neither do I, and that is my point." A swirl of luxuriant nut-brown hair, this is what defined her, and a full, generous mouth, leading to a face, overall, of defiance, of crafty stratagems, of moving forward in the advent of adversity. It was so bold you could not help but ask yourself what lay beneath. "Doesn't it ever concern you that the two of them--Riane and Giyan--keep so many secrets?"
"Yes. When it comes to Giyan it bothers me deeply." He was clad in dark red crosshatched tunic and trousers of a supple and lustrous fabric unknown on Kundala. From a thick belt hung two swords, their scabbards incised with Miina's runes. The long, gleaming blades, etched down their lengths, thrummed like beaten bass drums when he drew them.
"What is it, then? Do they not trust us enough?"
The Nawatir, his tongue seized up, said nothing. But Eleana, who knew his silence for brooding, would not let him be, and at length he gave in, not because he was weak, but because he did not want to keep secret the thorn in his heart.
"Perhaps it is a matter of love. I love Giyan so, and she says she loves me." He started out slow and halting, feeling his way, and Eleana stepped closer to him, and his strange, semisentient cloak curled around her protectively. He had told her that it was like a companion or afamiliar. "But I ask myself how it can be so. I was a Khagggun Pack-Commander when she met me. I had pursued her charge, Annon Ashera, into these very hills, to her home at Stone Border. And when Annon died, she brought him out to me so that I would stop the killing of innocent Kundalan. I wonder now how I could have done those things. But having done them, I wonder how she could love me. Were our situation reversed--were I the Kundalan and she the V'ornn--I could not."
He stopped, a little dazed by how much he had revealed.
"And now you wonder whether her love for you is real?"
"How can it be?" he asked, anguished. "How can she forget who I was, what I did to her? No sooner had she delivered her dead charge to me than I took her as concubine. How she fought me. How she ... ."
But he could not go on. He turned away from Eleana, and she put her hand out to reassure him, but thought better of it, and dug a hole in the pocket of her jerkin instead.
Eleana sighed to herself and shook her head. It pained her to see her friend in such an agony of despair. She understood all too well his longings and desperate fears. In Za Hara-at, she had said to Riane, We must not be afraid to say what is in our hearts. When I see you I cannot cool my body down. I have never felt this way about anyone. For she had come to know with the ineluctable surety of those in love that her beloved Annon was still alive, that somehow, by whatever sorcery, he abided inside Riane.
"I wonder at what you say because of late the question of love has been much in my mind." She spoke softly to the Nawatir's broad back. "Love is an insolvable mystery, where it comes from, why it strikes us, how it grabs hold and never lets go. We will never understand its nature. And here is all that can be fathomed of it. It is love that transforms us, not V'ornn technomancy or Kundalan sorcery, because it does so completely from the heart. But I also know the longing that springs from wanting to go back to the way you once were. As much as I love being a member of the band of outsiders, that very name triggers desires in me, for I miss desperately my life in the Resistance, where every day I could see the difference I was making in the cause of Kundalan freedom against the V'ornn."
He said nothing, his back and shoulders a heavily defended wall.
"We never know what we will become, Rekkk. Look at you, born a V'ornn of Khagggun caste, trained from birth to be a warrior, to kill and maim, to do the bidding of the Gyrgon. And yet you stopped. Youquestioned everything. Your love for Giyan transformed you. From that moment on, you were in a sense no longer truly V'ornn. Why do you question the similar transformation in her?"
She knew the answer, of course. His guilt at what he had done plagued him. If she had learned anything during her time with the Resistance is was this: the spectre of the past made the present unendurable.
"It is true that I have been transformed again. When I look into a mirror I do not even recognize myself. I am the Nawatir, but I am only slowly beginning to explore the powers I have been given. This cloak is sorcerous, yet I do not yet know the extent of its magic." He shook his head in bewilderment. "It is all so new, all so mysterious, and I am not comfortable with secrets and mysteries." He was huge, and yet now he seemed to have been swallowed by his cloak. His face was a clenched fist, cheekbones like bared white knuckles, ready to put someone, anyone, on their back. "What if she doesn't love me, after all. What if she is just using me, if this is some sort of revenge she has schemed."
"Surely you cannot believe that."
"It is what, above all else, I fear."
He frightened her when he was like this. She worried he was digging a grave for himself but felt helpless, unable to grab the shovel from his grip.
She turned with relief at the sound of nails clacking on stone. Thigpen was trotting toward them across the cavern floor--Thigpen, made voluble by her own anger, her own sense of abiding injustice that ran through the entire species like a rip current. Thigpen, who started telling them about banestones and couldn't stop.