The King of Nowhere
Doe was humming to herself, a habit that she had tried to learn to avoid, as she wound the woolen hairs into the mass of the grubby string.
The late afternoon was starting to slowly colour the mountains with shadow, though the sun was far from reddening the sky. The air was moist and a bit cold, mirroring the wet earth that was being uncovered from its cloak of white. Rivulets of water ran here and there, randomly spurred down by the unpredictable topography of the valley, and ended up in pools of brown water or, more likely, as a trampled mush of mud patterned with hard four-toed foot-prints.
There was a single hair for each snow-fawn in the flock, a small enough number not to give the string any more girth than it had before she unwound it. The last hair in place, she tied a small metallic weight to one end, and showed it to the herder.
"Doesn't look like much, does it?" she asked.
The herder didn't bite. "Does it go back into the bell?"
"That's the whole point," Doe said, "the clapper goes into the bell, and the bell goes with you."
Words to deeds, she took the clapperless bell and, through some arcane means, the herder supposed, knot the clapper within its confined interior. She handed it to the herder, who took it carefully, as if it might bite.
"Now put it on your staff," she said, and the herder followed.
Doe waited. The herder looked lost.
"And now, ring it," she offered patiently.
"Oh... Oh, yes!" the herder realised, and hit the ground with the staff's end.
It rang a trill, not quite as deep or full as the sound of a true cast bell, or the thin and weak sound of a tin-bell, but something in between.
The mass of gray and brown and golden fleece that surrounded them stirred. The herder shook in panic, as if he had never seen snow-fawns move around before, and the flock slowly coalesced around him in an unconsciously moving spiral pattern. The snow-fawns themselves concerned with the hay and the little grass there was available. The bell shook and rang in a self-feeding pattern, as its effect became more and more clear to the hapless herder in his shaking state.
Doe had moved away from the flock, and was sitting on a rock nearby. Let me describe her.
She wore her neck-length hair free. For those unfamiliar with the customs of the peninsular clans of the southeast, an explanation: this is a sign of power. The hair of more mundane people — men, women and children alike — were either covered in cloth or braided in some way.
Its colour was something that could be described as brown in one light, and red in another. When Doe had been a child, the clan had come together to determine whether she was a witch or not. But because there hadn't been one in the family for a long while, it boiled down to a row over what colour her hair really was. In the end, the result was determined by a vote, which, in turn, was split even between the voting parties, and the final result had to be determined by lot. It was generally agreed that her eyes were the proper green colour for a witch.
When she was later introduced to her new potential Master, the clan was berated for such foolery. They were really lucky she really was someone who could be anointed to the mysteries of the otherworlds, or there would have been trouble.
The traditional colour of the Sealer is white, with black trimmings and high-lights. She wore open robes, and a short elbow-length cape around her, in the aforementioned colours, patterned with black bracken and spiral forms. On her belt were two daggers — of different kinds — a small key-ring with an assortment of keys, exotic and strange, and by her side she had a bag.
Observant readers, note (everyone else, ignore this paragraph): though the circumstances of spring were at their wettest and muddiest, her clothing was spared from dirt, and even her boots were devoid of spots. This is a common show-off trick amongst all Sealers, which most other people of the Secret Arts resent them for.
"Chin up, remember, never show a sign of weakness," she said, mock-seriously, "or they will hunt you down." The herder chuckled nervously. That was a joke, right?
"So, all I have to do is ring the bell, and the flock... Comes to me? All of them?"
"It's something like that," she said, and her voice took a lecturing turn. "The purpose of the string is not to actually collect stray fawns, or even gather them closer, but to act as a hypophorical extension of the collective's sum-rim itself, and keep the boundary between the flock and the outside... world... well-defined..." She stopped as the herder's eyes glazed over and smile stiffened. "It keeps the flock together as one. No strays will ever leave it as long as the spell is intact." The herder relaxed and started to nod sagely.
"You said your spell would also keep them from harm," he ventured.
"It will. A slight effect of the whole boundary-reinforcement done here is that these fawns will be less affected by weather, temperature, predators and diseases that come from outside the flock. Anything and everything, in fact."
The herder was laughing now, the excited sound of a child who had been given a new toy. He rang the bell again.
"This is great magic, Sealer!" he told Doe. "I can feel it... It's like they are in the foreground of a play, and everything else is just the scenery."
Doe nodded, and said: "This spell will hold as long as there is a flock. When a new foal is brought to the world or when an old ewe leaves it, the flock will change, and the spell will change with it. You'll not need to change the spell, or buy a new one, except if the string is broken."
She continued: "And now, the matter of payment."
* * *
Somewhere else, a giant blue and white crescent dominated the heavens. The eternal night-sky devoured its light while the steady and clear stars burned their slow path onto an unseeing retina. There was not much to do but sleep and dream, and in those dreams to speak and hope.
The stone beneath was warming in the light of the passing day-month. The red of the rock beneath was cut at the black horizon. The dreams were elusive.
There was nothing that there hadn't been before, and most of it was waiting.
The dreamer was tired of waiting.
It had been tired for a very, very long time.
* * *
"I already hate you," she told the snow-fawn on the other side of the leash.
The herder had tried to convince her that it was the best he could muster, which was lost on Doe. She didn't want his best. She wanted his second-best.
"Your kind never give me anything but trouble," she muttered. The snow-fawn ignored her comment graciously.
It was the custom of herders all over the continent to have something they called the Sacrifice. It was a member of the flock that lived and ate and so forth just like any ordinary animal. The only difference was, that the Sacrifice was the best of the lot: the strongest, the meatiest, the most beautiful, the best milker, the most wooly one, and that they were usually marked in some otherworldly way.
The snow-fawn Doe was leading had blue eyes.
The Sacrifice was not, as might be thought from its name, actually killed as an offer to the gods. Herders were more pragmatic than that. A god who keeps a protection racket going on was just a bully, but a god who expected something in return of something, well, that's obviously just common sense.
In the end, this meant that the Sacrifice represents a random clump in the soup of religion, a parcel left standing around with a big sign reading: If You Take One, Please Leave Something In The Tin. This was usually realised as the Sacrifice dying, falling ill by itself, disappearing or something else mysterious happening to it. The herders supposed it was a price for averting some disaster, and picked out a new Chosen One.
A small tangential result of this arrangement was that of course the good priest who so nicely blessed the flock or the traveling charm-merchant who promised to rid them of the horse-pox would get the Sacrifice as payment. As far as herders concerned, the keepers of the secret arts were just a kind of underling god.
"I shall call you 'Dinner'," Doe said to the snow-fawn. "I will have you know that it is a name with a history and pedigree, and I expect you to live up to it."
* * *
There was one village in Pepper Vale. It had no name except for Village-in-the-Valley, which the locals pointedly would translate into whatever language they were speaking at the moment. Doe felt it rather strange that the village hadn't pearled itself a name of anything, for it was a very old village indeed. If people had lived in the vale itself for ages and ages, then the village itself had existed at least for one and a half ages, if not even two ages. She wasn't really sure, but somewhere along those lines.
The valley was a slightly sloping one, with its upper mouth lying between the low summit between Pepper Peak and some other, less significant mountain whose name Doe couldn't recall at the moment. Village-in-the-Valley lied quite near to the upper mouth, where the relatively low slope of the vale gave way to a higher one.
All over the vale, the slopes themselves were covered in firs and pines, and the bottom was strewn with the omnipresent rocks and boulders on top of the clear herding-lands and the ever-changing waterways that were created by the aggregation of a thousand small becks. Winter had cocooned the waters yet again, and the new spring was making them molt into intricate and unpredictable patterns.
To the trained eye, the valley was strewn with signs of historical age. From the path she was walking upwards with the snow-fawn in town, Doe had already spotted several tell-tale signs of ancient constructions and the bones of civilisation, hewn from black rock so unlike the natural grey of the mountains. The pips of age that littered the earth culminated at its acme, the great ruins of the Obsidian that overlooked the upper mouth from the summit between the peaks above.
At the University, classes in antiquaristics were required for students in the Faculty of Dark Arts, for reasons Doe had never really quite grasped. In an emergency, she could fake expertise in the area for some while, and she could reliably tell the age of anything less than a thousand years old, plus minus a couple of centuries. The ruins and the strewn boulders of black were older than that, which didn't really matter because she already knew how old they were.
She stopped by the path-side, stood before a small shrine and prayed for a few seconds. It was another relic of the ancients who had lived in the valley over one and a half thousand years ago, though its facade was so worn that she couldn't tell what it might have been originally. But like an abandoned nest, the alcove of stone had once been invaded by some sheep avatara or fertility god, who had then succumbed to the Good Lords of the East. The world of comparative theology was cruel.
Her prayer was a cursory and unfelt. The Good Lords of the East had never been very big back home, even though their seven statues had stood at the walls of the clan-hall. Even as a child she had preferred the less civilised gods that haunted the woods and the hills, and whom she occasionally worshipped to the chagrin of her parents.
The Good Lords were in comparison too agreeable. They were just people you prayed to because you couldn't bother with anything more lively. With the forest-gods, she had been able to have a good blazing row over some point of theology with the other kids, convert them, and then orchestrate a raid to the hen-house for a blood-sacrifice on the Old Boulder in the forest, which was how it should be with religion.
It hadn't helped that when she went to Coroban to study at the Small University, she had learned that they had really existed once. She'd read things they had written. What kind of god wrote things down? Any proper god would not be able to hold a pen because their hands would be hooves or bird feet or something!
Doe had only two soft spots in the sorry pantheon. The first was the Merciful Lady Balei, who had been the Sealer of the lot, and the eighth one.
At the reminiscence, she noticed something strange about the statues in the alcove. There were eight of them.
She smiled at the daring. Some rebellious little worshiper had defiled the seven statues of the Good Lords with an extra one, a crude man roughly carved out of a piece of rock. It had to represent the Lord of Treason.
She drew a rim around the statue hidden behind the others with her finger in the dust, and then continued her way. After a while, the figurine could be nowhere seen.
* * *
"Good day to you, Mistress Doe," True the Carpenter tipped his hat. "Our Restful sends his regards and says that the fingers you put back on are feeling mighty great."
"Tell him not to use them for two weeks after the seal falls off," Doe told him, "and let Mrs. Rosmarine see it as soon as it does. If he does something to screw it up, they'll fall off again, and you won't get your wheelbarrow back either, mainly because I already ate it."
"Right you are, Mistress Doe, I'll keep an eye on him." They parted ways.
For the past two months, when she had not been doing her measurements at the ruins, Doe had performed many small rites, spells, enchantments and sealings in the village.
Just like any other working thaumate, Doe tried to ply her trade wherever she could, a cause helped by the fact that the Villagers were, all in all, a very open-minded bunch when it came to magic. She thought it was probably because during the summer so many of people of the secret arts visited, and the mental image of the mage in the heads of the villagers had turned rather more amicable than that of most other people. And because the villagers were a pleasant bunch, and didn't mind if you did something extraordinarily strange every now and then, the visitors also learned to like the villagers in turn. It was a propitious circle. There was even an inn and stables, well-known in magical circles as Inn-in-the-Village-in-the-Valley, and it was where Doe was headed.
As a consequence of the many thaumates, mages, witches, wizards and sorcerers who came through, most of the Villagers who had talent in the arts were discovered, and they went out into the world to learn them; what went around, came back again, and many of the villagers had a magicians somewhere in their family-tree.
When she had studied at the Small University, the local market had been saturated with magic. The only niches she had been able to exploit were selling high-quality infecundity charms to the girls and boys in the curtain district and the old protective VD-charm for the women in the rougher parts of the city. In Village-in-the-Valley people didn't even know what vagina dentata meant, but during the spring, there was a seller's market anyhow, for anything magic related. Only later during the high summer would there be an influx of rivals for Doe's services. She liked her current monopoly; it gave her something to do between her research without having to run around ragged trying to find customers.
She noticed that the main-street running through the village was more muddy than earlier that day, marked with wagon-wheel patterns and horse-shoe prints, and so she wasn't particularly surprised to find the small caravan sitting at the inn-yard.
It was rather haphazard caravan, she thought. The mismatched wagons — hay-wagons and larger wagons and all sorts of wagons — were covered with tarps, and led by a bizarre house-wagon.
The caravan workers — or that was what she supposed they were — were a miscellaneous lot, as if someone had gone to the streets of the city and picked out random men by throwing stones into a mob. Most of them were milling around one of the wagons, where someone had rolled out a barrel of wine.
Doe's eyes returned to the strange house-wagon. It had a steep, four-sloped roof with an ornate ridge and eaves. Its walls were dark wood, carved with pretty, round plant-patterns, and it was rather big. By the side, there was a strange construction hanging under the window, which Doe realised was a foldable merchant's stall and an awning. The whole thing was a shop, storage and home.
She shook her head in bewilderment.
"What's a caravan doing in the village?" she whispered to the snow-fawn. "This place is on the road to nowhere!"
But nevermind that for now, she shrugged to herself. Her business was at the inn's stable, and so she continued her way there, though she couldn't but give the caravan a few last puzzled stares.
* * *
Doe petted the wisox on its hairy muzzle.
It was a small wisox, gray in colour. Several of its long fur-strands had been braided into random shapes (Doe had felt a bit bored), but she was already combing them away.
It was an Akamakian, a southern race of the riding wisox that is well-suited for cold and snowy travel. The Akamakian is marked most clearly by its thick gray or white fur, and the lack of the distinct twisting spiral pattern on the snail-shell horns that most other wisoxes have.
"I trust you are well, Eye-of-the-Storm," Doe muttered to it, as she stroked its fur. She had owned the wisox only since the beginning of the winter, and felt that they needed to be better acquaintanced, but for the last two months it had been cooped up in the stables.
She put her hand to its forehead, and took a slow breath. Doe did what she did, and felt Eye-of-the-Storm.
She knew the skin, the greatest barrier of the mammal body, and knew it was unbroken. She knew blood-vessels, felt how they were open and clear. She knew all the rims that defined the body before her, though less clearly than the skin and the arteries. They all seemed well, and she took her hand away.
It had become her habit to delve animals like this ever since a riding-hart she had used once died fifty miles from nowhere, and she had discovered, too late, that it had had a heart attack because of some masking-drugs the horse-dealer had given it. She knew it wasn't necessary to do the ritual every time... But it had been a very cold winter that year. The horse-dealer survived to regret it all.
"As paranoid as ever," Fala the stable master said. "Eye is just as well as she was in the morning, you know well that!"
The stable master of Village-in-the-Valley was not just the person who kept after the animals that were kept at the Inn. She was also the whole valley's veterinary, animal expert, and arbitrator when live-stock was involved. Fala was the type of old woman who, if she survived to fifty years of age, would continue marching on at the same, iron rhythm until she hit hundred.
She had been a friend of Doe's Master, and was part of an army of aunts that had been conscripted for Doe during her apprentice-ship. Fala was the type who taught you the tricks the others turned a blind eye to.
"Hello, Fala," Doe said. "It's just that I fear it'll forget me, again."
"Ah, didn't anyone tell you?" Fala mocked surprise. "The wisox is a remarkable creature. Miraculously, it will never remember anything it has once forgotten. I am afraid it will never recognise you ever again."
"I actually had a little business here," Doe lifted her hand with the leash. The snow-fawn stepped forward. Fala looked at Dinner, and said: "It's spring, so it's at its thinnest, there's no meat on those bones. But...", she crouched down to check, and arched her eye-brows, "it has lambed already. It'll give you milk, and easier than a goat."
"I was thinking of keeping it here with Eye anyhow, while I'm at the site," Doe suggested.
"You might as well take it with you. Snow-fawns don't fear the cold, and they're made for the mountains, and you won't need to carry up feed for it like you would with Eye-of-the-Storm. You keep yourself up there for long times, a little fresh milk will do you good. Besides, we're going to be plenty full soon, with those horses."
Doe grimaced. "I guess I shall do that."
Fala grinned: "And you can't sell it either, because it's the Sacrifice. No one would buy it..."
"It's not just the herders, it's this whole accursed barter economy!" Doe started to rant, "If there was more money around these parts, I wouldn't have to know so damn much about handling miscellaneous ungulates!"
"Last summer alone I had to try to get rid of four goats, one sheep, two three-toed falsedeer, one red-eyed Botton cow and a dwarf rhinoceros. They are driving me insane." She sighed.
"I was hoping the herder would have had something else, but no. He seemed so damned shocked when I tried to imply that I might not want the Sacrifice. A poseur, I declare! I am sure I could smell some copper on him. It has a very distinctive odor because it is not native to these lands."
This was an old exchange, that Doe had only partly inherited from her Master.
"How are the flocks back home?" Fala asked.
"You know you can't call them flocks," Doe said. One way to get rid of the damned beasts was to just leave them at the peninsula, to be taken care of by the clan. It had been Fala's suggestion. "The goats bully the sheep who bully the damn rhinoceros, and the long-neck (I still haven't figured out where that one came from, a bizarre creature) bullies everyone. Whichever of my little brothers — or I guess it would be time for my poor nephews — who is guarding them and isn't yet traumatised by the experience is probably learning to hate hooved creatures just as much as I do. I dread returning home. Each time I imagine all those eyes, yellow and brown and their ever-varying pupils looking at me when I get there, it chills my spine something horrible."
"One day you will wake in the middle of the night, to the sound of those trip-trip-trapping feet in the darkness..."
"Augh, stop that! I am sure I am cursed," shuddered Doe, "cursed by some godling of hoofed creatures to forever walk the earths alone, but for my constant companions, the kin of the goat..."
Fala laughed. "Come, let's get something to drink for tonight. We haven't had one in a long time."
"Let's," Doe nodded, and followed the old woman to the Inn.
* * *
They fell through the landscape of the visions, like snowflakes. The dreamer could feel them soak his skin, and chill him, and warm him.
One of them was familiar. It was the goat girl. Oh what goat related antics will you get to today, goat girl? Will you perhaps send your left flank to surround the enemy's archers and then, I tell a lie, that isn't the goat girl. The goat girl was, yes leading some sort of goat creature.
Then the goat girl disappeared, with her goat creature, and the dreamer dreamt of someone else.
"Speaking of things that look cursed... What is with that caravan? I've not seen such a motley crowd since I last saw the Red Traveling Show."
They were sitting at a window-table, sipping their drinks and waxing old stories. Doe had a cup of the Inn's sweet wine, which she happened to like.
She had gestured towards a table at which sat a group of the caravaners, who were having meals of something else than their own provisions.
"They drove into the village while you were bothering the herders on the other side of the valley," Fala replied. "Seems they are some sort of expeditionary enterprise."
"Expeditionary enterprise?" That would explain why they didn't seem well-funded or actually competent at caravanery. Better send your second-best to do the legwork, then if it's safe use your Sunday caravans. "To where, though? Pardon my saying so, but Village-in-the-Valley doesn't lead anywhere you'd want to get, except out of here."
"There's the old road that leads over Pepper Peak, they say."
Doe's face scrunched up in an incredulous expression.
"They said it would make a shortcut to southern Marag," Fala continued, "but you've studied the old road, haven't you?"
"Yes, I have," replied the Sealer. It was in her magic, after all. "It goes right by the old cave and through the ruins of the Obsidian", Fala made a sign warding against evil, "and, as a Sealer, I have to tell you that the old road is impassable for any wagon. You might think the path is useable beyond the ruins, like it is here, but it's not. They can't get through."
"You are so sure?"
"Fala, I am a Sealer. I don't feel it just in my bones; my nails, hair, elbows and two thirds of my toes have something to say about that path. It isn't so much blocked as completely gone in a few place where it has merged with the undergrowth and the occasional forest it has gobbled up on the way. There is no way to get through beyond the ruins, and onto the other side."
She thought for a while, and then smiled greedily. "Except maybe by magic... And I might be able to find them the right mage for the job..."
"Ah," said Fala, "but will they have enough goats?"
Doe tried to rap Fala on the forehead, which was deftly evaded. She rose from the table, and walked to the other side of the room, where a man was sitting alone, drinking a small beer and tallying something down into a notebook.
"Greetings," Doe said to him. "Are you the leader of this caravan?"
The man put down his pencil (Did Doe spot the new charcoal model from Braca? Maybe he had some to sell.) and introduced himself as the leader.
"The Heavens have seen it fit that I be called Feng the Merchant," he spoke Trade with a western accent. He was obviously from beyond the mountains, but he wore the clothes — and the patterns of silver and gold chain in the fabric — of a Corobine merchant.
Doe introduced herself ("Of course, I recognise a Sealer's robe."), and inquired whether it was true that the caravan was on its way over Pepper Peak.
"Ah, you have heard of our reason for being here," Feng said, and rubbed his eyes.
"I see you have already learned of the troubles you will face on the way."
The merchant seemed only slightly worried. "Troubles?"
"The Old Road is completely impassable. You would need an army of shovelers and foresters to cut down everything on the way from the low summit to Marag."
The merchant licked his lips nervously, and thought about it for a moment. He started to make a reply, when he saw something that lifted his eyes.
"I hope you will forgive me, oh Sealer, for my rudeness when I, in my layman's persona, cannot but tell you that we have no need for your services at this very moment, for," he gestured to the doorway of the Inn, "we already have someone to take care of it."
Feng beckoned the man who had just entered the Inn to get closer. "Yanda, please come here."
Yanda was about middle-aged, long, and thin. His face reminded Doe of people she had seen survive the wasting plague on the coast, as if something had been eating him from the inside. But when she saw his eyes, she corrected herself: burning him from the inside.
He wore red, highlighted with golds and yellows, and he had no eyebrows or hair on his head. Doe could already tell what he was; she could feel it radiating from him, so much like the nucleus of the magic he controlled.
The irises of his eyes were smouldering like ashes. And not in a literary sense — in a literal sense. The circumferences of his pupils were glowing with uneven yellow and red, and it seemed as if his eyes were going to catch flame any second...
"Yanda, at your service," he bowed slightly over his arm, and his voice crackled. "I follow the Living Flame."
"I am Doe," she bowed. Suddenly she felt uncomfortably warm in her winter robes. She hadn't seen a case of focal deanthropofication this bad in a long time. "I follow the Opened Door."
"I was just telling Mistress Doe here," Feng told to the fire-mage, "how we, so unfortunately, cannot afford to hire two thaumates at the same time to clear the Old Road over the peaks into Marag from the undergrowth."
Yanda looked confused for a moment, but then realised what was being talked about, "Oh yes, that, yes, I am well-versed in the contained burning of plant-matter, and able to open the Old Road for the caravan by myself."
"So you see, oh Sealer," Feng pleaded apologetically, "I am held liable to the sponsors of our trip, and, though if it were wholly up to me, I am so forced to refuse your most gracious offer, and defer to Master Yanda instead.""Ah, I understand," said Doe . "Well, if you come to any obstacle that seems insurmountable, or you need anything else a Sealer can offer, you can find me camping at the old cave that lies near the old road near the Obsidian."
Both men seemed surprised at this.
"You are not, ah, passing through?" Feng asked.
"Oh no," said Doe, "I am doing some research in the Obsidian. It's not uncommon. In fact, it is so common that the local economy is centered around people poking around the ruins! No one's here yet, though, because winter's just ended."
A look passed between the two men.
Yanda asked: "Are you perhaps studying the Great Seal?"
1: It was at this moment that she decided to seek out some, any goat-faced god that she could really give her mind to, but that is a story for later.
* * *
When Thorn entered the Inn, he was pleasantly surprised to see Doe there. She was sitting at a table with two men — from the caravan? — speaking to them agitatedly, her hands flying all over the place as she punctuated her speech with gestures.
The stable master caught his eye, and beckoned him to sit down with her.
"Good day, Closer-of-the-Eyes," she told him.
"Good day, aunt Fala," he sat down.
"Can I get some wine, please?" he said towards the kitchen, and a member of the maid brigade nodded.
"So, how are things on Grave Hill nowadays?" Fala asked him.
"Same as it was last week, aunt Fala," Thorn replied. "Muddy and wet at this time of year. Thank you," he received the cup.
Thorn was the Closer-of-the-Eyes of the village, or what Doe thought of as simply a necromancer. His medium-blond hair and easy tan wasn't exactly what you expected from a necromancer, but it was exactly what the Closer-of-the-Eyes was supposed to look like.
It is said that there are three colours a necromancer — or the local equivalent — could wear without feeling completely silly; red, white and black. The Closers wore black, though Thorn had added some cheery little details to his own vestments: a rather cheery shoulder-cape brooch of a grinning skull, and an absolutely hilarious pendant that spelled out a pun in ancient Khuruzean runes.
He took a sip. "I see there's a caravan outside."
"You've always been an observant boy," Fala grinned.
He took a deeper sip and looked at the other table.
"Doe is talking with the leader of the caravan," Fala said.
"— some went up my nose," Thorn had coughed at the wrong time. Fala grinned at her nephew.
"Ah, look, she's ending her speech," she pointed out to him.
Doe stood up from the table. The two men she left behind had on their faces a dazed look that Thorn recognised was common among people who had the opportunity to a lecture from Doe. He wondered smiling what the topic had been this time.
He blinked. "My god, look at that man," he said absent-mindedly.
"The skinny one?" Fala asked. "What about him?"
"That's the worst case of focal deanthropofication I've ever seen," he shuddered. "Let's not talk about it, it's not proper."
His aunt looked like she wanted to ask, but was interrupted.
"They already had someone," Doe said to Fala, walking to their table. "Evening, Closer Thorn," she said to Thorn.
"Hello, Sealer Doe," Thorn stammered out, and gave a private glare to his aunt, who was now grinning like a cat who had found the magic cauldron that made cream. "How is your research going?"
"Well, thank you. I've figured out what the power-core is, and I have a small hypothesis on what the actual purifying mechanism might be, but, at the moment I'm mostly hunting down clues from the historical records and remains. Let the past do my work for me," she said.
"Historical records?" asked Master Thorn. "Have you carted up a small library up to the cave?" he smiled.
"I mostly mean the stuff the original caster left behind," she replied, "which makes things hard, because we do not know who they were. But you can tell things from the way they've done the spell, like with the leylines."
"I did hear you were running around the forest near the village yesterday," Thorn said.
"One of my investigations, which is not going well at all," she frowned, "I couldn't find the last elakhisk. The bloody things are enormous, so why can't I find them? I'm thinking of asking your aunt," she nodded to her, "to borrow one of her boys. If I know kids, then they should know all the secret places on the woods around here. I know I would."
Master Thorn looked thoughtful.
"Well, isn't this a good opportunity to visit the Shrine?" he said, "You should know we have quite extensive historical records."
Doe's head snapped to look at him. "Really? What kind?"
"Death records," Thorn said, "some of them stretching back a thousand years. Of course, not the originals, but copies, and copies of copies, made of the originals onto scrolls and kept at the Shrine, protected by a few seals and so forth. The originals, if they still exist, are probably rotting at the Bibliotheca, four hundred miles from here."
Doe stared at the necromancer. A small smile was being uncovered on her lips. "Of course, why didn't I realise that? The books of Death..."
"Some of the ancient Closers could be rather obsessive," he offered nervously under that stare.
Doe grasped his hands and looked him in the eye, making him blush.
"You. Must. Show. Them. To. Me." she intoned, willing her gaze to burrow those words into the back of his skull.
"Oh, oh, yes, yes!" Thorn stammered out in panic, "I will show them to you."
Doe smiled radiantly, and straightened herself.
"Brilliant!" she chirped, "so what say you, tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow's fine!" he said "nothing scheduled tomorrow or anything."
"Then it's settled," Doe smiled. She looked outside. "Well, I must be going now! Bye, Master Thorn and Master Fala," she bounced off to the stables.
"Bye," said the necromancer, left in her wake like a derelict at sea that had encountered the Doe Armada.
"You charmer you," Fala winked at him.
"Aunty," Thorn looked mortified.
* * *
Still feeling excited, Doe came to one of the small workshops in the village, a house with an open roof canopy on its side, her last way-point for the day. The numerous broken pieces of earthenware littering the ground, the kiln at the back, the flywheel lying unused on the floor, and the numerous pots lining the walls clued her in; it must be the pottery.
"Mistress Doe!" the potter, called Clay, greeted her with open arms ("Potter Clay," she replied). "Let me show you the newest batch," he continued excitedly. "Boys, fetch Mistress Doe's stoneware!"
The potter's two apprentices came out carrying a wide plank, on which were about half a dozen of small ceramic bottles. Each one could easily fit on a hand-palm, and was glazed into a soft milky colour.
"Ooooh, they are so tiny," Doe cooed over them, "may I?" she looked at the potter, who nodded.
She took one of the tiny bottles in her hand with a whoop, and holding it up in the air, looked at it with an appraising eye. And then she closed them, and let her other sense guide her. She felt the bottle.
She felt its rim, the glazing and the fired clay together, and the opening that was tapered out of the main body. She could feel its strength, the hard stoneware that was formed out of the earth, and the faint shadows of its siblings, formed out of the same clump on the same potter's-wheel. The hands of the potter had left a trail of humanity in it, a strong rim, stronger still by the advice and small spells she had sold him, and stronger by its purpose.
"May I?" she asked Clay again without opening her eyes. A faint yes, excited and anticipating.
She held the tiny bottle tighter in her hand, and let her hunger free. She felt the rim, and how her hunger surrounded it, entering through the eye, how its barbs penetrated the barriers of glaze and clay, how the tendrils of her magic infiltrated its skin — and how they finally crushed it, and devoured the pieces that so had defined it.
The bottle in her hand turned into mere dust in the shape of something that had once been, and slowly crumbled in her shaking hands and scattered onto the ground.
"Marvelous," she said. "I feel like I could capture the sky."
"Excellent," the potter twittered, "then I can assume this has been a success?"
"Very much so, good potter," she said, "you have an excellent grasp of the soul of pottery. I will take them all," she lifted her hand with the leash of the goat.
"No need for payment, good Sealer," Mister Clay said, "you have been enough help for us with your magic in the past. These are on the house. Boys, get a carrying basket for Mistress Doe."
"Thank you for your generosity," she bowed.
"But I must say," the potter said, "that I never realised this about Sealers. For twenty years I've seen your kind come up and down the street, and most have never even looked at my wares, except old Iron Eyes, of course."
"Master had discerning eyes," Doe said. "Your pottery has a thing that many other potters lack. Most Sealers who go through here don't have the time to stop for long times, and to notice something here, you need to have good eyes," she pointed at hers, "or you'll have to take a very close look. Master always said that she'd have a talk with you someday..."
"Ah," the potter looked a bit sad. "But I never saw her devouring any of my pots, though."
"No, she just used them like ordinary pots... Or for some spells, which, by the way," she pointed at the clay bottles, "these will be excellent for. But she was strong enough to not need to augment her strength like this."
The potter looked at the bottles. "I will have to make a new sign," he said, "it'll read 'Delicious Glazed Stoneware Bottles, for the Discerning Sealer! Fresh Fired from the Kiln this Morning! Best Prices in the Whole Valley! Ask about our Tea Sets!'" Doe laughed.
"We don't often let in outsiders to our little secrets," she said, and winked, "but this is Village-in-the-Valley. I don't think many will mind, and there are some potters out there who are almost Sealers themselves, in the big cities, who do much the same thing."
The boys came back, carrying a small basket with a leather-strap for carrying.
"Put them carefully in the straw," Clay absent-mindedly said to the boys, who carried expressions that told Doe that they had heard those same words hundreds of times before.
Thoughtfully, Doe took one of the bottles that still laid on the bench, and inspected it, like she had done to the first one. Suddenly, her interest was piqued, and she looked at one of the apprentice boys who was slowly and carefully packing the bottles into the basket. She walked to him, and said, "Stand up, boy."
She put her hand on the boy's head, who looked confused. The potter looked on with sudden and hungry interest, as Doe felt the boy.
She let her hand drop, and the boy returned hesitantly to the packing, taking the bottle from her proffered hand.
"Well?" the potter asked.
"It's very faint," she said, "very faint. He'll never be a full thaumate."
The potter looked a bit disappointed.
"But he will become a very good potter, I am thinking." Clay cheered at the news. "Very good indeed."
The basket was filled with the milky bottles, so Doe took it over her shoulder.
"Time for me to go," she said, "so thank you for the bottles. They will come in good use."
"Please, do come again," the potter bowed, "we will always have a special piece ready for you."
Doe continued her way up the street, and heard the potter behind her.
"Come, boys, we're going to do more of those bottles! I can smell the money already!" he laughed.
* * *
It was calm, and cold, and the twilight shadows of red and orange were slowly receding before the ever-deepening blue of the night-sky above her.
She noticed that all the moons were full in the sky, and wondered if there would be a confluence. Was it a good or a bad sign?
The cave she had camped in for the past two months was lit by the red glow of the embers in the fire-pot. It was extraordinarily intense for something that had been left to smolder for a whole day, and when Doe threw some dry wood on it, the sticks failed to catch on fire, no matter how close they touched the intense ashes.
This was because the flame would be released to relight the fire only when she allowed it, which she did with a tap of an arm's-length stick on the embers to avoid singeing her fingers. The fire she had sealed within the embers opened like a budding flower, and soon the cave was being rewarmed again.
At the Small University she had learned about the physical nature of fire and flame: hot and glowing gases that were released from a burning mass and the ashes absorbed stuff from the air and the heat was just the vibration of the smallest indivisible entities that matter consisted of and... For a while, fire and heat had not been Something.
It had taken her two months to recover before she could seal flame again, a type of occurrence that had plagued her at the University all too often. Every so often she learned a new fact, or found a new truth about the world, and suddenly the semantic framework of her powers were shaken.
In time she would get it all back (all the while feeling like she was betraying some sort of Bigger Truth of Nature), the flame that was Flame, the heat that was Heat, not just processes. One of the lectors had called it "caloric thinking", a term Flagrators like Yanda used. She still felt that it was much easier in the countryside, where no one was trying to make you learn new things about how the world actually worked, except maybe if they thought you might be interested in the finer points of the practical anatomy of the domesticated cow.
The ultimate expression of that desire for mental comfort was the cave she sat in.
It was a cozy place, that cave, cozied up by generations of occasional people like her, huddling there from the winds and the rains, and sometimes the Sun. Hundreds of years of habitation were marred on the walls, like grooves in the face of a world-worn man. The place even smelled human, though it was tinged at the moment by the mellow odour of the snow-fawn.
The entrance was scarred by inscriptions of warding, one style of magic upon another, cut deep enough for the stone to have started to crumble and litter the doorway with bits and pieces of the imbued rock. The locals would now and then come there to collect them, and use them as amulets and focuses of protection. Someone had once hammered a stock of wood up in the ceiling a way from the entrance, from which hung a thick door-curtain. It was covered in stitches of symbols, marks, signatures and general quilted graffiti. Doe had marked it more than once.
For years now, ever since she had camped there for the first time one warm Harvest Month with her master, Doe had wanted to spend a long, long time at the shelter, to smooth away the broken stone, and write down a strong circle of warding with all her might, one that would hold for a thousand years at least. As had probably every other Sealer who had been there before her. But for the moment she had been too busy with her research, and the entrance would have to wait.
When she had returned from the village earlier, the first thing she had noticed that she had forgotten to seal the cave against the cold. The warmth that had accumulated in there, previously contained by her spells, had been wiped away by the bitter dying curses of the winter season. The glow of the cooking fire had seeped deeper into the walls, to be hidden from her tired bones.
As a Sealer, Doe did not know many ways to make things warmer or colder through magic. The best she could do in this situation was insulation against one or the other, but dividing a block of ice in twain was not going to make one half warmer. She suspected that there were ways for her to speed up the process of the cave warming up, but she had no idea where to start: and when stumped by the lack of imagination, the semantic scope of her magic could not expand, and her efforts would have been fruitless.
So she made mush instead.
* * *
Is it the Great Seal? Yanda the Burner had asked.
You know of it! Doe had replied.
The men had gotten strange looks on their faces, Doe remembered, as she'd rambled on about the Great Seal and her research into it, but that just happened to people for some reason. She wiggled the spoon in her mouth as she thought about her self-appointed mission, and what it entailed. Sometimes she wondered if it was just the Sealer in her.
She remembered the first time her master had taken her to witness the Seal. It had looked horrifying. It had looked enticing. It had looked like something she wanted to possess more than any other thing in the world.
It was insidious, the Great Seal. It wriggled into your mind and made you want to unravel it, puzzle it open, and reveal all of its secrets. Doe didn't believe it was the Great Seal doing it, though. It was the Sealers who did it to themselves. The world was filled, no, the world was made out of the very things that defined the powers of a Sealer, yet they were weak in front of the things that they should not open; Great Seals of varying shapes and sizes, doors that led to the dark places, and paths that lead to the end of the world...
The Great Seal of the Obsidian. It was not a famous seal. There were no legends, only accounts in dusty biographies and chronologies. There were no stories, except the obvious nonsense the villagers sometimes made up about the Obsidian itself. There was no explanation.
Doe knew some things, and she had uncovered a few other small facts with her own research, which had made for a few good papers. The Seal was ancient, around a thousand years old. It had been built within the already crumbled ruins of the Obsidian, which itself had fallen 1344 years in the past.
"The age itself can be determined by a very neat little trick," she explained to Dinner, "but we already knew how old it was from the historical record. The last mention of the ruins that did not have the Great Seal was done before the Broken Wars, and the first was done ten years later, well into the rule of the Lords."
Dinner chewed on her cud. Doe's eyes had returned to that far-away land, the halls of the Small University, and the mush was half-forgotten.
"The Obsidian, as you know, was a fortress built during the Haida era on top of a stable thaumatic eruption. The place is bursting with mojo. The hotspot was used for a few centuries, until it ended up in the hands of the dread Sincere Empire. During the upheaval that toppled the Emperor, the Obsidian was destroyed, and the hotspot ran out... No one's sure."
Dinner felt that she had to contribute somehow. She bleated.
"I have my own theory, though, that the hotspot never actually dried up, but was diverted... But diversions aside, the Great Seal appeared sometime between 334 Haida and 7 Eastern era. It is a knot-type Great Seal, or maybe a root-type is a better description... Anyhow, what makes this one rather interesting is that it is a regenerative type. It's amazing it hasn't been destroyed yet!"
Dinner gave Doe a sceptical look.
"We know that regenerative spells are prone to their own destruction through the cumulative effect of small imperfections in their cycle of rebirth. A small error in a spell that would mean nothing in a continuous enchantment will prove fatal in a regenerative spell, sooner or later, as its effect and corruption starts to spread through the fabric of the incantations each time the spell remakes itself. Finally, it will eat itself out from the inside, and the hollow shell will snap, destroying the spell. It is a testament to the original caster that the Obsidian Seal has not broken yet."
Doe paused for a moment, and then continue with a dramatically low voice.
"Or maybe they knew something we don't."
* * *
For centuries, the sciences of magic had taken very many but very small steps forward. The base had been made by the Lords in their time, with their scholarship into their own magic, though of course they hadn't done modern thaumatology yet. Scholars had given in to more curious scholars and those curious scholars had given their place to even curiouser scholars, who ended up being called savants and used most of their time to drink wine, mope about, and have screeching rows with their fellow peers. A glorious new era of research had begun!
It was pretty slow going.
Not that it wasn't unimaginably better than the instinctive mumbo jumbo of the past, of course.
In fact, it's magnificent what we can do today that wasn't possible just two centuries ago!
And though this standing on top of the shoulder of dwarfs was all well and comfortable and not dizzying at all, what we really could do with is a giant.
So most of the time, mages, wizards, witches and magicians were looking for A Theory.
Doe thought she had found hers.
* * *
"If the longevity of the Obsidian Seal is not due to the original skills of the caster and the perfection of the enchantment core, then we must suspect that there is some sort of process going on that is preventing the seal from succumbing to decay," Doe explained her theory.
"Regenerative theory is trendy nowadays, but master was familiar with it, and I know stuff about cyclical creation and adaptation decay that the fellows at the Department of Organic Thaumatology can only dream about. Their problem is that instead of trying to figure out the practical implications of their theories, they instead succumb to mathematics and statistical theory. They also ignore history at their own peril! For of course, though science is much more advanced today than it was in the past, the multitude of mages that have inhabited this Earth have not been constrained by what we know in the present, or what has ever been known. Is it not so that many, if not most, of the discoveries that progress thaumatology today is due to the study of magical idiosyncrasy? We study the personal magic of individuals to determine greater truths about the world, and only rarely does our sciences give us an innovation that is not already present in the environment, either contemporarily or historically."
Dinner voiced a weak counterpoint, but Doe drove on, ignoring her captive audience.
"My approach to the study of the problem of regenerative corruption has been historical. Do we have any examples of any regenerative enchantment that has resisted incarnation decay? And can we find any kind of method to this longevity that is applicable to regenerative spells in general?"
Doe paused. Somewhere along the line she had slipped into her grant application speech, almost word-for-word. She hadn't got it (may the Department of Organic Thaumatology have its facilities be over-run by beeroach chimeras), but that didn't matter: there was A Theory at stake! And damn their eyes if they thought she would give up on finding one of the Maraka's stones of general enchantment theory.
"They dared to deny me my grant! Well, we'll see. I will show them!" She bit down on her spoonful of cold stew.
Dinner bleated in sympathy .
Doe's path had ended at the Obsidian, which had surprised her at some level. It was like finding the gilded lotus in one's own garden pond. But the fact remained that amongst the legion of Great Seals littering the continent, preventing the escape of various evils and monstrosities, the seal at the Obsidian was the oldest that was also regenerative — and by far. The second-oldest regenerative Seal, which was protecting the city of TorŽ from a plague of locusts, was only two centuries old and already at the verge of collapse, and the historical record uncovered at least a dozen that had made it past three hundred years, but never older.
But the Obsidian Seal, though obscure, had not weakened over the thousand years of its existence to such a degree as could be expected. It was a miracle someone hadn't noticed it before Doe. Sometimes she kept herself waking by thinking about why this was so — maybe someone had figured it out ages ago, and it had turned out that the longevity was just a fluke, and that there was no regenerative purifier?
But there was no sign of prior research in the regenerative properties of the Great Seal of the Obsidian ruins. She had made sure of it. There had to be none. And if Doe was the first to discover a new principle, a new method, a new (pause) Theory, then...
Then the world would be her oyster; and there would damn well be a slice of lemon, too.
2: Even the world of snow-fawns had its share of stone-headed and unimaginative reactionaries, though of course the topic was more often about the oft-debated issue on the hypothetical causal relationship between rain and the growth rate of stones. Dinner was partial on the radical theory of stones-grow-because-of-physical-stimulation, which always gave a good excuse to play The Ground Is Lava when boredom set in.
They sat at a low table, cushions and all, drinking tea, talking and having fun. Doe couldn't remember what particular things they were talking about. Master had just made a witty quip that had left the Good Lord and Good Lady in stitches. Doe laughed too.
It was quite good tea, she liked it.
"Do you like it?" Master asked, her grey eyes.
"Yes, I like it very much," she answered.
"It is ambrosia from the land of the dead," the Good Lady said grimly. Then she laughed.
"We get so tired of it sometimes," the Good Lord said.
"Speak for yourself," Master said, and took a gulp.
"You are not anchored, like us," the Good Lord said. "I envy you."
"We'll see," she winked, "I'm thinking of keeping my friend company."
Doe remembered the gold eyes.
"Dear, dear," the Good Lady patted the table, "my dear little disciple-of-disciple-of-disciple to the so-and-so generation. Dear, dear."
"You need to learns some self-discipline, young lady!" the Good Lord said. One of the Seven. Was he the leader? Doe couldn't tell.
There was an empty cushion.
"Ah, my friend, my friend," the Good Lady said. Master drank the ambrosia and laughed. You're afraid! she said to the Good Lord, who said I am not! and she said I can smell it in your breath.
"Gods, why must dreams be so vague?" Doe thought they said Master said the Good Lord said the Good Lady said the cushion didn't say.
The Lady punched the Lord in his face and Master punched him too and someone hit him with the cushion, which Doe noticed was herself.
"Young lady!" he said, I have a chore for you.
Don't listen to him, the Lady said. He's just an old curmudgeon.
Looks like you're an adult now, said Master.
I was about your age when I got my first big one.
The cave was in shadow in the morning. Dinner was bleating to get milked.
She ignored the damn dream. They were never useful.
* * *
The smell of wood-fire filled the air. The day was already past the mountains, and the sun hid the glare of the fires, but it was clear that the caravan was making slow progress towards the summit of the road and the Obsidian.
Doe watched them from above. The cave gave a good view of the carts and the smoke rising from the path that the flame-wielder was presumably clearing from the dead bushes and grasses of the winter. When the vale had still been in shadow, Doe had watched the dancing, brief flickers of fire follow, with pure white flames, the path of the Old Road. Presumably the Burner was enjoying himself.
She had enjoyed Dinner's milk that morning, but on one level it depressed her to notice how deft she had become milking anything with udders. She had long ago learned a Sealer trick to keeping the damn things in place, by locking the joints. "Sealing" something like that was at the limit of her semantic scope, but magic didn't have to make sense afterwards. The toughest part was forgetting those moments when you realised that it shouldn't have actually worked at all.
Doe tied a ribbon around Dinner's neck , sealed the cave from danger, cold and all the other little annoying things that a traveler had to contest with, like bears or giant face-eating lizard bat chimeras, and set off towards the black mass of stone littering the side of the mountain.
3: A magic ribbon, what did you expect?
* * *
There was a small tent-camp in progress in what had once been the courtyard of the castle. A small group of the miscellaneous men in the caravan were raising canvas and digging firepits and the other pits, under the watchful eye of Feng the merchant.
No wagons were in sight, yet. The men must have carried the tents by the winding path, instead of the new, scorched way being made. They had even bought wine casks, now with black stripes on their sides from being rolled uphill.
Feng noticed Doe, and, waving his men off to do whatever they did, approached her.
"Greetings, Sealer", he bowed, "a fortuitous meeting in this place of decay."
Doe noticed how his boots were covered in black soot, and the numerous markings on his clothes.
"Feng the Merchant," she bowed back to him, "I take it that I might be well-advised to avoid the ashes on the Old Road?"
"Indeed," he said, "that way will be sooty for a long time into the future. Our clothes," he gestured, "are all turning pitch-black, and our horses can no more be called gray."
"I am here to do some measurements on the Seal," Doe said, "as is my custom in the morning. Do you care to join me in the Great Hall?"
Feng looked behind him at the building hulking in the background.
"It would be my pleasure."
The black stone was rough. Once it had been covered with layers of other materials, like chalk and wood, but over time those trappings had rotten away, and uncovered the hardness beneath. But even though the place was, indubitably, in ruins, there were many signs of occasional occupation. Fire-pits and rubbish, tent-poles and broken jars and pots. In the high summer, the place was positively teeming with people, gathered from all around.
This was because the Obsidian was a great place for doing magic. It had been a hotspot of power once, but now it was mellow. The black stone was resistant, the ruins were isolated, and a dozen other reasons could be given, but mainly it had just become tradition. Masters and apprentices touring the land would get up the winding path from Village-in-the-Valley, and train in this place. Sealers, in particular, liked it, and so there were often small chimera around.
The Great Hall, or what had once been the Great Hall of the castle, lay open to the sky. Or rather more accurately said, there was no roof. The stones that had thinly shielded the ground here had broken to the onslaught of flora, and trees that grew through the long-gone floor provided shade in the high summer — but it was still spring, and only some of them were budding yet.
In the middle of the Hall was... A knot. Or roots. It floated in the air, round in shape, while uneven and forking strings of power surrounded something. It glowed with a halo that stayed in its background no matter where you looked at it, had a sharp, metallic smell and was about the size of a head. Near it, someone had raised a small open tent.
"I was wondering earlier, this is the Great Seal?" asked Feng.
"This is it," replied Doe, "the Great Seal of the Obsidian. A thousand years old, set here in the time of the Lords of the East, within the great ruins left by a careless empire. And my way deeper into the secrets of magic." She smiled.
Besides the knot stood a tripod that had been covered with a larger frame and cloth, and from which hung a pendulum. It was swinging, and drawing figures into some white sand below on top of a piece of cloth.
Doe went inside the tent, came out with a small notebook of figures, and started to scribble into it.
"You leave your tent unguarded from the weather?" Feng asked.
"I am a Sealer, and this is a Sealer's tent," she explained.
"How long has that been swinging?" he changed subject, pointing at the pendulum.
"Hm?" Doe said absent-mindedly, "oh, ever since I put it there. Two months."
Feng looked at the patterns in the sand. They looked like a flower. Mostly like an insane rose pattern, but a flower nonetheless.
"What in the blazes... Epicycles and... It changes trajectories... What does it mean?" he pleaded Doe.
"I have no idea," her eyes glittered, "isn't it fascinating?"
"Then why are you doing these measurements?" Feng asked.
"I expect we'll find out some day," she said, "and I also expect that these results will be very interesting then. I was asked to do them for a friend, who is collecting this sort of data."
"There are more of these?" Feng increduoused.
Doe looked puzzled. "Yes, of course. I mean, if we don't do it, who will?"
Feng shook his head.
"For example," Doe didn't notice, "do you see how the lines, independently of the pattern they are making, are shrinking and then expanding in turns?" she turned to her notes, and looked over them, muttering a bit. "They have a period of... a day, plus two and a half hours."
"But what does it mean?" Feng pleaded again.
"I do not know," Doe smiled. "A day and two and a half hours. What does it mean, indeed? It just gets smaller for thirteen and a quarter hours, then it gets slowly bigger, and during those minutes it is in its apex, or conversely at its low-point, it suddenly makes a really sharp increase — see these big circles here, an inch outside of the rest of the spiral, or these smaller circles inside? — and that it happens at a different time of day for nine days, when it has completed its cycle and is back in synchronisation with its earlier phases again. Now, the patterns themselves are just as fascinating, if you look at these loops here, and compare then with these, let me show you my drawings of them..." She was interrupted by Feng.
"My apologies, but I have to go and bother my subordinates," he said, bowed and returned to the camp, leaving Doe to do her measurements.
She shrugged, and continued. The last Feng saw of her, she was listening to the Seal, and writing down what she heard.
* * *
Those who saw a Closer-of-the-Eyes shrine for the first time were usually surprised. Where were the engravings of skulls and skeletons, the black marble and ominously dripping candles? Where was the chanting and the magical circles drawn in blood?
It didn't mean they weren't there, it was just that they were all hidden behind all the flowers. The Shrines were veritable gardens, small cornucopias — unnaturally so. The greenery should not have been so verdant, the flowers shouldn't have even been budding at this time of year, but it seemed that Thorn had made some extra effort, and the whole place was over-grown with awakening plants.
Doe hadn't been surprised by the Shrine the first time she saw it. Back home, the story went, the tears of the Crying Men were used to water their gardens instead of crying for the dead. It didn't really work out from a practical point of view, but she liked the story anyhow.
She walked past the trees that grew over Grave Hill, on the slabs of stone that served as the root-resilient steps leading up to the Shrine. Each tree was a grave, she knew, of those who had died in Village-in-the-Valley. When a tree died or fell, well, that was it, and a new spot was opened for a new occupant, until their tree, too, succumbed. They were beautiful.
She had been excited the day before, when she had learned of the records. But the heat had abated with the evening, and doubts had set in before she slept. It was improbable that there would be anything of use — and what use would there be, if there was any?
But she liked the Shrine enough to visit it even without an excuse. And she hadn't done so this time, not since the old Closer-of-the-Eyes had died, and left a crying and sniveling apprentice behind.
She stepped over the last step, and into the courtyard garden. The buildings of the shrine, made out of beautifully carved stone, lined the three sides of the courtyard.
Doe saw Master Thorn surreptitiously trying to hide behind some tall bushes and comb his hair into place. She smiled. She'd rather liked him since meeting him as the last Closer's apprentice when she'd visited the Obsidian with her master the first time. He meant well, and reminded her of her little brothers.
Thorn finally came to the conclusion that it was good enough, straightened, and appeared himself from behind the bush to greet Doe.
"Welcome to the Shrine, oh Sealer," he bowed.
"I enter in friendship, Closer-of-the-Eyes," she repaid in kind.
Years ago, this ceremony had been between their masters. The two had been friends. Both had been old and graying women who had terrified their colleagues with their powers of personality. Not many who met them ever forgot.
"It has been four years since the death of your master," she said.
"Yes," replied Thorn, "so it has been."
He paused. "And three since the death of Master AÔa," he said.
"Yes," said Doe, "yes it's been."
They stood in silence for a moment.
"I would like to visit her grave-tree," Doe said.
* * *
Doe's master had been called Iron Eyes, but her real name was AÔa: 'smile' in a northern tongue. It was said that she had once sealed the whole of Coroban for a day, and that no one had gone in, or gotten out. Doe did not know if it was true, but it sounded like something her master would have done.
Thorn's master was named Iris, because her eyes had been coloured gold. She had been the most gentle person Doe had ever met. It was said she was able to conjure the spirit of the dead to do her bidding, which, knowing her, Doe thought, had probably been weeding the gardens or hoeing the fields outside Grave Hill.
When they met at the Shrine, they would always sit around through the night, drink, smoke and talk. It was listening to these talks that Doe had learned about the gray areas between necromancy and sealing. She couldn't get sleep at night for a week.
Iris' grave was a young oak. There were certain perks to having connections to the Shrine. No ordinary tree would have done for her, even though she probably would have protested if she had been alive. The Villagers had really loved her.
Doe touched the bark of the tree. It was still thin enough that she thought she might be able to clasp her hands around it, but it had grown splendidly — and with some outside help, Doe thought — and in the future it would dominate the glade with its presence. It was customary to use young trees from outside the vale, and not grow them from saplings. Some of the elders of the Village started on theirs early, to keep up with the cypresses.
She felt the bark, the rim - and then another, and another, and another, one after the other, as was the way with trees. More than any other plant, Sealers revered trees because of the growth of the years that created a new layer of skin every year. Because trees were wholly natural things, without a human touch in their souls, using them was tricky. But if you were skilled enough, good enough a Sealer, you could use them for almost anything...
She found it in the center, which wasn't far for a tree this young. It was like a small seed itself, waiting to escape the narrow confines of the young oak, and spread into the air through its leaves...
Doe found herself humming it, and stopped. It wouldn't do to let it escape, she smiled to herself. Master had left it in there, before the burial, a small song that she'd played on her deep twin-flute. It would grow with the tree, and someday, the tree would sing...
"Someday they will tell legends," she said to Thorn.
"And in them, this tree will be a hundred feet tall and give the gift of prophecy within the acorns it carries," he replied, "and Master will become a little god who sits on the crown and paints the moons black."
"Did you ever find out how old she was?"
"She would have been a hundred and ten come this summer."
Doe nodded. That sounded about right.
"I actually caught some people making small statues of her," Thorn said, "and hiding them in small make-shift shrines near the crossroads."
"What? Really?" Doe was boggled.
Then she started laughing. Ah, if they only knew what they were doing.
Thorn looked annoyed.
"It's easy for you to laugh!" he said, "you're not the one who will have to deal with her if she is pulled back. You never knew how cranky she could be if she was woken up too early. Stop laughing, damn you!"
But she couldn't, and the exasperated Thorn started to climb back the path to the shrine. She followed, laughing all the way.
* * *
Thorn led the gasping Doe towards one of the wings lining the gardens. Just as he had said, she could feel seals on it, but only of a nature that kept away decay. They were old seals, but obviously ones that had been repaired and renewed every now and then with care, and much like the ones she had felt at the libraries of the Small University.
When Doe had finally gotten her breath back, Thorn sighed and turned to her.
"I still think it's no laughing matter. If they succeed in returning her ego into this world, I will get my hide tanned. But still, we did not come here to talk about religion," he gestured towards the doors, and opened them with a flourish, "but of more serious matters."
Doe entered the room before her, and let her sight adjust to the darkness. And then she gaped in bewilderment.
"I keep my collection here, under the seals. It makes me feel better," Thorn said.
The walls were lined with vitrines and shelves populated with bones and skeletons of various animals. There were even some exoskeletons. Each and every one was labeled with a small card that identified the species and place of the support structure in the animal. There were cabinets with wide and thin drawers that Doe supposed housed smaller bones.
"It's a bit morbid, isn't it?" she said.
"Oh yes," replied Thorn with relish, "but I am what you persistently call a necromancer. People expect some morbidity in the Closer-of-the-Eyes."
"I didn't know you were so ready to fulfil their expectations," Doe said.
"Well, Master Iris used to have a thing for grave-digging," he said. "She said it did wonders to her shoveling technique in the garden. Besides, if you're a necromancer, you need an... Outlet for all the morbid. Otherwise you start to reanimate skulls just for the chatter and eat your meat raw."
"An outlet... But bones?"
"Bones are fascinating, Doe," Thorn did cartwheels in his head when she didn't flinch at this familiarity, "they are like a mirror into the mind of the Creator. It's very obsessive-compulsive."
"In sigillatric anatomy," Doe said absent-mindedly as she looked at the pieces one at a time, "there are a few prominent semantically stable organs and parts of anatomy. The skin is the first rim. The eyes, mouth, ears, and so forth are its, well, eyes. Inside the body there's more rims and eyes, and paths that are both and neither, so a bit more tricky there. The bones that are strong rims are the rib-cage, the spine, and," she picked one up, "the skull."
It looked like a tiny, slightly elongated human skull with a prominent forward jaw attached with string, and very long canines. It fit snugly in her palm.
"It's the skull of a domesticated monkey, from the north," Thorn said, "you can have it if you like."
"Really?" Doe said, "But it'll ruin your collection!"
"Not to worry, I have several in store." He grimaced comically at her expression. "Let's say that it was a windfall opportunity. Long story."
"I'm sure I can find some use for a monkey's skull," Doe grinned, and slipped it into her bag.
"But now", she continued, "where are the records?"
"This way," Thorn said, and turned left to a hallway that led towards the direction of the back of the shrine.
The first thing Doe noticed was the lack of dust.
"Yes, cleaning up here is one of those apprentice-type duties you get hammered into your spine," Thorn said.
It was surprisingly sunny. There were windows on the three sides that opened to the outside, set with glazed bars, and the light illuminated the shelves lining the walls. Hundreds of scrolls, protected in leather cases and stacked on top of each other within square cells, filled the room.
"I spent some time yesterday searching for the records for the relevant era," Thorn said, "they're on the table."
On the table at the centre of the room was stacked a dozen scrolls, all of them recent copies.
"These were recopied twenty years ago by some travelling scribes," Thorn said, "so do not worry about damaging them. We still have the elder copies left, which were made two hundred years ago."
Doe took one of the scrolls into her hand, and read the tag hanging from the center handle. "Records of Life from 310 to 340, Haida era," she translated the classical tongue. "Exactly spot on. Thank you, Thorn."
"You are welcome," he said, pleased. "I am not very good at Classical Trade, so I'm afraid I can't help you with much of this. It would be truly slow going."
Doe put the scroll into the scroll-reader on the table, and sat down in front of it.
"At least this should be easier than cramming Featherfall's On the Art of Forest Keeping," she said, and started to read the vertical columns.
"I will make some tea," Thorn left.
* * *
The room was lit by an oil-lamp hanging above Doe's head, and the outside was in the shadow of a clouded sky.
Doe rubbed her eyes tiredly. The reading was giving her a headache, and the characters were becoming blurred.
She had gone through these past hours on tea and some cakes Thorn had brought her. She had read four of the scrolls already, most of them overlapping a bit in the same era. It had turned out that each Closer-of-the-Eyes kept their own record — and that in the ancient past, the shrine had held more than one at a time.
Reading scrolls was laborious. She had joked with Thorn that maybe he should convert the system into a more modern codicial type. He could just fold the existing scrolls into plated scrolls; furthermore, he could also use the blank side of the scrolls to write some indexes, which were in definite short supply.
Doe had never realised how many people had actually lived in the valley a thousand years in the past. The place had teemed with humans. The Obsidian had fallen only three hundred years earlier, so they must have been the remnants of people who had inhabited the castle and maybe a town below. It annoyed her that they should have been so inconsiderate towards her.
The Closer-of-the-Eyes she was reading at the moment was one of the more interesting ones, because he wrote down some tidbits and information other than Name, Occupation, Age and Time of Death. She was scouring through the ten-year period where the historical records had indicated the Seal had been created.
Twenty-four Days after First Day: Skreacher the Potter fell off a ladder when checking for winter-damage. He was born in 283 and was 56 years old. I knew he wanted a beech as a tree. He was a widower and had three sons etc.
There hadn't been many mentions of outsiders, or mages. It seemed the the vale had insularised after the fall of the Sincere Empire, and that the mage tradition had not begun yet.
Doe read on, persevered, and was rewarded after turning the handles once more. She read.
Thirtieth day after First Day: An anonymous death, pseydonymised Aeon, dead in mysterious circumstances, no body, no grave, no age known, one mourner. There was a group of outsiders, incognito high-ups, who appeared one day and started lording about, followed by a few retainers. They have since disappeared, but one of them came to me in secret and, heart-broken, asked me to perform the rites for one of their comrades who had been killed. She wouldn't give me a name, but I did it anyhow. Death is generous.
This was it. Doe could feel it in her bones. She had known that the Sealer had to be a woman, from the echoes of her spell in the ekhalisk. The mourner had to be the Sealer: the event had taken place during the ten-year period she had been investigating, and the group of lords sounded like some group of proto-thaumates of the time.
And there wasn't any more. This was it. A nameless death a thousand years in the past, mourned by none but one. Doe felt like screaming.
She sighed instead, and copied it down into one of her notebooks. The pen was running out of ink, she noticed, and the felt-tip seemed to be slightly dry. It would need to be refilled. She rolled up the scroll, put it and the others into their leather-cases, and left them arranged on the table for Thorn to reorganise.
She went out into the cold and damp air — there had been a brief shower — stretched, and rubbed her eyes. Her breath was visible.
"Finished with your reading?" Thorn appeared and asked.
"As finished as I'll ever be," she replied. "I found something, but it turned out to be useless. An anonymous death."
He continued: "Would you care for some late-evening stew?"
* * *
It had been good stew. Doe and Thorn were sitting in what Doe thought of as the Receiving Room, where their masters had so often talked the night away.
"But even only using the term 'necromancy'," Thorn was saying, "is enough to make people suspicious. It is an academic term, meant for people who hide themselves into ebony towers of death and raise armies of ghouls, completely unlike the below-the-earth attitude of most actual practitioners. People look at me and they don't think 'necromancer': if someone said to them that I was, in fact, a necromancer, they would laugh and say 'He's just our Thorn, the Closer'. It feels uncomfortable."
"I see your point," replied Doe, "but think of it as a kind of repurposing. In many places, most, even, the term 'necromancer' has lost most of its edge, and..." Thorn raised his hand, and looked through the wall.
"Someone is coming."
Doe looked at him. "What a handy skill."
Thorn grinned: "It only works at the shrine."
But when they went out, they heard the sound of hooves, and one of Fala's boys rode up the steps into the shrine with another horse in tow.
"By the love of... What is he doing?" Thorn asked, but stopped when he saw the boy's face.
"What's the matter boy?" he asked.
"Mrs. Rosmarine says you have to come, Master Thorn! There's someone wounded at the Inn, and she don't know what do."
"It must be something outside of healing," he said to Doe, "you don't call a Closer just anywhere." He took the free horse. "I will have to go now, but it was nice seeing you again," he said, and rode down to towards the village.
The boy made to follow him, but Doe stopped him.
"I can probably help," she said, and took the horse from him, and rode after Thorn.
It didn't take long to ride to the Inn. Doe noticed a mass of riding-harts standing around unorganised, as if they'd only just arrived. Then she saw one of the travelers.
"A Sister of the Thanate?" she said to herself.
They wore red habits, and carried the sacred implements of their trade: diverse weapons. Many people believed they only used hammers, but this was a misunderstanding based on the wide-spread legend of the Saint Tuff, who had had a bit of an armor problem.
Doe followed Thorn into the in, where one of the maids pointed immediately towards one of the rooms at the back. She stomped inside and was presented with the view of five angry women surrounding one of their kind on a bed, slowly dying of a cut wound. Mrs. Rosmarine was there, talking to Master Thorn, and when Doe entered, she turned to her also.
"My healing doesn't work on her. These girls say that she was hit by a strange weapon. I reckon it's a spell to prevent healing, that... or she has lost her soul!" she finished dramatically.
"That is highly unlikely, Mrs. Rosmarine," Doe said, "a mere weapon can't do that."
She looked at the victim. "But I can seal the wound at least." She stepped towards the bed, and was faced by the suspicious glares of the nuns.
"Lay off, Sisters!" came a bellow from behind her, "She is obviously a Sealer!"
In strode another nun, clad in a slightly different, and more ornate, vestments. She wore an eye-patch on her wrinkled face and her hair in a tight bun, and she wielded, yes, a hammer on her belt. Now that she was near one, Doe could hear the clinking of mail in her footsteps.
"What are you staring at, girl?" she said to Doe, "Get on with it!"
Doe turned to the wounded girl on the bed, and rolled up her sleeves. She felt the bared skin around the wound, and did what she did.
She felt the girl's skin, and then the wound. It extended deep into her side, and had done some nasty things. But all the wounds were cuts, eyes, and so within her domain.
She closed each eye, one at a time, mending each rim. The blood that had been spilled inside her returned to where it had come from, and the organs closed themselves, as if they had been healed. Finally, she closed the great rim of the skin.
There was a small welt, where the cut had been. Everyone was looking at it.
"Here," said one of the Sisters, "but the Healer said it couldn't be healed!"
"It is not, and I say this again, it is not healed," Doe said. "It is only... Connected. It is like it is healed, but it'll actually have to heal by itself, but the sealing will help with that."
Mrs. Rosmarine nodded. "Shall I go get the paint and brush again?"
"That would be good," Doe said. "Leaving a tangible sign will help to keep the seal."
Mrs. Rosmarine left, and Thorn stepped forward.
"You better take a look at her," Doe said, "she's wiggling her toes in the River."
Thorn nodded, and put his hand on the wounded girl's forehead. Then he started to hum. Doe smiled.
It wasn't any mystical hum, or song, or incantation, but something Master Iris had sung when she was doing... Well, anything. Of course, for all Doe knew, none of the villagers knew it was nonsense. She expected that Closers far into the future would be singing that tune, or otherwise face the wrath of a populace that knew what was proper Closering.
Thorn opened his eyes, and said: "She'll live."
A sigh escaped the red robes in the room.
"Thank you very much," said one of the Sisters to Doe. "Blessings on you," said another.
"Come on, Sisters," said the old nun, "let's leave Sister Bloodcurdler to recuperate, and take some rest," she herded the others out of the room.
When they had left, she turned to Doe and Thorn.
"Thank you for saving one of my girls," she said, and bowed.
"Each of us does what little we can," Doe said, "and if you wish to recompense me, I will accept anything but goats," she grinned.
The old nun smiled. "I am the Abessa Redhorn, a mother of the order of the Thanate."
Doe and Thorn introduced themselves.
"What happened to her?" asked Doe.
"Brigands," answered the Abessa, and was interrupted by a worried head sticking into the room.
"Is she going to be alright?" it asked, and stepped into the door frame.
The man was obviously a scholar. Doe would have recognised it anywhere. No one believed her, but she knew there was a certain kind of tang to men who kept themselves cloistered up with paper and parchment all day long. It was kind of dusty.
The man noticed Doe and Thorn, and bowed.
"Doctor Armar, at your service."
Doe and Thorn introduced themselves again.
"But good thing that Sister Bloodcurdler is well," he said, "when those men from the..."
"No use worrying anymore, Doctor Armar," the Abessa interrupted him sternly, "we are doing what we must."
"Ah, ah yes," the Doctor said.
At this moment, Sister Bloodcurdler let out a strangled cry, and everyone turned to her. Mrs. Rosmarine took that moment to return, with a small jar and brush in hand.
Thorn put his hand on the forehead again.
"She is near death, so it is no wonder that she should see some strange things..."
Sister Bloodcurdler started to mumble, and, her eyes still closed, started to speak in a dreamy voice.
"She's speaking in tongues!" Mrs. Rosmarine pointed out to the Doctor, the Abessa, the Magister and the necromancer.
"Glossolalia at the verge of death?" said the Doctor, "How peculiar."
"Ah, it's not speaking in tongues," said Doe, "she's just speaking in Classical Trade... Which seems to have stopped for now."
The wounded Sister had switched to speaking in modern languages.
"But Sister Bloodcurdler doesn't speak the classical languages," Abessa Redhorn said.
Everyone turned to Thorn.
"It is probably just echoes from the afterlife, haha," he said. "Nothing to worry about." A sweat-drop trickled down his neck.
"And can you do something about it?" Doe asked, "You're the necromancer here." She rummaged her bag for the monkey skull, "Here, try this."
Thorn pushed the skull back. "Sometimes the person is just so near to death," he said, "that they become a pathway for messages sent from beyond the veil. Master wrote them down very carefully, I remember once. Does anyone have any pen and paper?"
Doe handed over some of hers.
"Great," said Thorn, and continued: "And now, does anyone here know Classical Trade?"
Doe took the writing implements back, and started to write down the feverish mumblings.
The others lined out from the room in vague disquiet, and a soft patter of rain started to hit the glass windows.
* * *
Most of it was nonsense. Messages to people who lived half a continent away, or a hundred years too late, orders by dead generals to retreat before some long-gone foe and whispers of assassinations that would only come to pass because of the self-fulfilling power of its prophecy (this one Doe and Thorn decided to keep under wraps, but that never works out and is the subject of a later story). Many of them were local, and these Thorn would use later for whatever use they were.
"She will soon be completely back in the land of the living," Thorn said, yet again touching her forehead. "This, or the next one will be the last."
The wounded Sister mumbled something about the prices of tea fluctuating soon because of a bad crop, and then she settled down, and seemed as if she fell into a deep untroubled sleep.
"Well, it seems like —," Doe started to say, but was interrupted by Thorn, who was staring at Sister Bloodcurdler.
"Don't swallow before it drops," he said. "Nine times out of ten, something dramatic will happen here."
They waited. Nothing happened, and Sister Bloodcurdler slept on.
Thorn gestured negatively.
They continued watching the sick-bed.
"Are you sure —," Doe was interrupted by his look.
Nothing continued happening for a while. Finally, Thorn sighed.
"I guess it was nothi—," he started.
Suddenly, Sister Bloodcurdler's eyes opened wide, and glowed with moderately eerie light.
("Ha!" Thorn whispered.)
Her mouth opened, and — very mysteriously — sound came out, again in the Classical Trade it had all started in. And listening to it, both could only stare.
"To you who has my secrets sought, and tangled hair inside my roots, to you I will reward my words, and you will Duty owe to me; protect the one we so betrayed, protect the one I couldn't save, so please forgive my weak—,"
The voice suddenly became strangled, and the Sister's muscles strained. It stopped, and changed.
"The Seal must hold, the roots be kept," a deeper voice, "or dread disaster follows breach. The Duty is: protect the Seal; no more or less from Sealer Doe—"
Doe had reached over, and closed the eyes.
Thorn looked at Doe's expression, and said nothing.
After a moment, her arms moved on the notebook.
"De... mo... nic... po...sse..ssion," she wrote down carefully, "probably some sort of fiend."
"Look, I don't think ignoring this is very wise," Thorn said. "Could be important."
"Never trust anything that speaks in iambs," she replied, "and most of it was nonsense anyhow, as usual."
Thorn hesitated, and Doe jumped in, "Now let's get out of here before we disturb the good Sister too much," she stood up. He followed.
They were stopped by Mrs. Rosmarine waiting outside the door, wringing her hands.
"Is... Is it over?" she asked nervously.
"Oh, yes, it's over," Thorn said, "you can go right in."
Mrs. Rosmarine brightened at this, and went inside, followed by a small army of maids carrying linens, medicine, more paint  and other sick-room related things.
Doe led them outside the door, to weather the rain under the lintel canopy. She rummaged through her bag, muttering.
"Where's the damn thing when I need it..." She was left holding the monkey skull.
"Do you think," she said to Thorn, "that if I cut the top off and inserted hidden hinges that I could fit pipe-leaves in here?"
Thorn said nothing.
"Look, Duty," she said, and rubbed her eyes. "What're you going to do?"
"What? Don't try to dodge it so obviously!" Thorn said.
"Fine, I'll do the Duty! But if, and only if, it becomes pertinent. Bloody hell. I know why they tried to Duty me," she said.
"Why?" Thorn asked.
"Because I'm the only Sealer in the area who has a finger in the jam-jar! Gods dammit."
"Your research," Thorn realised.
"Yes, my research. If the Seal is broken, then the purifier will be lost." She sighed. "I will keep an eye on it. Like I would have, even if I hadn't been stuffed up the arse with an unnecessary burden," she screamed into the rain. "It gets on my nerves, Duties," she said. "Bloody high and mighty bastards."
There was a moment of silence.
"What do you think'll happen?" Thorn asked.
"Seven Iron Hells, could be anything. It could be a natural disaster, a magical disaster, a human disaster, or, the worst case scenario, the purifier being broken and the Seal crumbling down on its own accord. And it sounds the most likely too. Dammit."
She looked at the sky.
"The fawn needs milking," she said. "I think it's time for me to go. Tomorrow I'll continue with my research. Don't mention the Duty to anyone else." She strode out from under the canopy.
"What about the rain?" Thorn asked.
Doe raised her cupped arms outward.
"Sealers don't get wet."
4: There had been a communications break somewhere along the line.
The morning fog twisted its roots around the sparse trees that shielded the clearing, and the white sky hid the Sun. Doe crashed her way over the sticks and vines of the undergrowth, accompanied by one of Fala's boys, and paused to observe the opening on the forested slopes beneath Pepper Peak.
There was a large black stone pillar at the centre. Doe eyeballed it with malice. For something so suspiciously huge, it had been too damn difficult to find. She'd given up a few days earlier.
"Here it is, Miss Doe," said the stable-boy.
"Thank you, lad, you've been a real help," Doe fished her pockets, and flipped a shiny damascened coin to the boy.
The boy caught the bronze-and-brass striped Corobine penny. "Thanks, Miss Doe!"
"And don't call me Miss, I didn't study so I'd be Missed all the time. Now bugger off while I do some magicking."
He bounded off towards the village, laughing.
It was a four-sided monolith that tapered until it was suddenly capped by a rounded point. It was twice her own height, and she couldn't reach her arms around it. These monstrosities were called elakhisks .
Ancient ones, Doe felt, smelled much more suspicious than new ones. They lay on the landscape like evil paperweights, plotting away for the day they would usurp humanity's place and enslave the world to do eternal anti-lichen duty.
She took out a roll of hard paper, and opened it for what seemed the hundred and fifty second time that week. It was a rather standard map of the area, overlaid with very faint lines of triangles. She sat down on one of the pillar-stumps that formed a circle, defining the ancient pavilion that had housed the monolith, and started to read.
The nodes represented places of power, or artificial focus stones like the black monolith. The lines were leylines that transferred power between them. Because these paths could so easily be used for triangulation, the network of leylines that criss-crossed over the face of the world was probably the best documented cartographic feature ever.
The node before which Doe now stood had belonged to the old network that had connected the Obsidian with the Empire, and the rest of the world before that. It throbbed with power. But it wasn't on the map, which wasn't actually surprising. Different maps were drawn based on different triangulation combinations.
Doe jotted down the approximate location of the clearing, and connected it with two other dots she had already scribbled nearby. She was not surprised to note that the centre of the ensuing triangle was occupied by the Obsidian ruins.
Doe moved besides the elakhisk, and touched it with her hand. It was cold, as she had expected. She could sense the power flowing into the pillar, deep from the earth where it was buried. The ten-foot stone before her was only the tip. The pillar descended deep into the ground, rough stone replacing polished as it touched the roots of the earth.
There were three flows leaving it beneath the ground. Most artificial nodes like it, could only support three connections at a time, and they tended to connect to the closest nodes at hand. As she had drawn on the map, two of them flew in the direction of the two other monoliths. If the node had been normal, the last connection would have been to the outside world. Instead, it sat smack-dab in the middle, aiming right at the centre of the triangle — just like the two other nodes had done. The lines formed a closed system, with the Ruins at its focus.
Doe felt a strange little tingling feeling of satisfaction. It was not uncommon for such a knot to form, but she felt that there was something significant to it. At the very least, the three lines connected to the Great Seal (or whatever they were connected to), supplied strength to Seal. Not at all surprising, for the Obsidian Seal was strong. If the connections were severed, the Great Seal would weaken, and probably fail.
Someone had arranged these three stones to concentrate the magic on the Great Seal, and that Someone must have been the one who created the Seal. If the Seal would have survived without the strength of the lines, then the rearrangement was unnecessary, and Someone would not have done something so difficult and exhausting.
Someone would have left some signs of themselves. Someone had stamped their mark on the stones. Someone was almost in Doe's grasp; she could feel it. And Someone was going to confess all of their secrets to her.
5: 'Very small thing'.
* * *
An ordinary garden-variety stone is an object with an incomplete rim. It has an outside, and an inside, but the division-line is only a shift from outside to not-outside. Doe had once or twice handled some igneous rock with cavities in it, and it had felt completely different from a simple piece of solid granite.
The monolith did not feel that way at all. There was a perfect rim, which meant that it had been created by sentient hands that had known the importance of difference. It felt like a statue, or, even better, like a box, or a cup, or a room. Instead of just being, the elakhisk contained. What it mostly contained was magic.
Doe touched the rim, and opened it to herself. She delved into the stone, letting herself slip beneath the surface and breach the rim of the stone as only a Sealer could. She did what she did, and sensed the monolith around her.
It was deafening, like a cathedral built around a waterfall, she thought. And when she thought that, the image came to life around her: the black walls rose up into darkness, studded with candles (or stars?), and the waterfall sprayed her with drizzle soft as dust.
The mechanisms behind the leyline connections were simple. Doe wouldn't have called them mechanisms at all. They were as much mechanism as a boulder rolled into a stream was (and lo, the boulders were falling down the waterfall). But there were traces of other things. Doe thought of them as... Writing on the walls.
First, there were the oldest writings, hidden beneath layers and layers of other scribbles, white chalk on black stone. Doe couldn't understand them, but they sounded like the slow rhythm of mallets and chisels. Then there were other writings, moving from one incomprehensibility to another in slow, small steps. Those gave way to more familiar things that had familiar sounds and familiar feelings, but she still couldn't understand them — and finally, the last layer of writing, drawn on the walls by a soft hand and soft voice, the youngest of all the writings at only a thousand years of age. There was no actual language here, but Doe still recognised the old classical languages (a polyglot ghost, she thought).
The other monoliths had been the same. This was who had created the Seal.
And, damn it all, she was still weeping.
* * *
"Stop blubbering for a while and surrender your secrets to me, you silly milksop!" Doe tried to gently cajole the echo.
For some reason it didn't work, and the echo of a ghost kept on crying.
It had been like this at the first stone. It had been worse at the second. Doe supposed that she could figure out the chronological order of the modification of the monoliths based on the strength of the crying, but she had no idea what damn use it would be.
She had fled the other two stones in disgust, but this one seemed a bit more coherent that the others, so she continued trying.
"If you do not divulge the method you used to create the Great Seal right now, I will fill up this monolith with the eternally repeating echo of the chorus from Hornpipe's lament," she threatened.
The weeping didn't stop. Doe sagged: the greatest weapon in her formidable arsenal had failed. Who knew incorporeal voices of long-dead mages were immune to the bits that wiggled into your ear and cored itself in your brain like a particularly musical leech? Inconceivable strength of will.
Doe sighed. She had hoped for some progress by interrogating the genius mage who had created the long-lived regenerative spell in the ruins, but the whole thing started to look like just another set-back. What was the use with imprinting thoughts into magical systems if they weren't of any use was what she wanted to know. Usually you'd leave something that was supposed to be helpful for the following generations, and botch it by making the comment something like "twoggle the blue one, it's not right 'cept on both-way Tuesdays", or leave your mark with a simple boast like "this stone was hexed by Lord Dusk" in eye-watering colours and ten-foot high letters, not cry your eyes out into the listening-horn.
"Here, maybe you'd like a prime and ripe monkey skull?" she tried.
The monkey skull was turning out to be less useful than she'd expected.
Doe could tell that she was going at it the wrong way; mainly because she was failing all the time. She thought about it. How do you talk to an echo? You didn't, because it just replied with what you'd shouted at it.
She discarded the image of the writing on the walls. It wasn't conductive to communication. Instead, she imagined... A girl. Probably not very old, maybe younger than herself, dressed in a ceremonial mage's robes... Yes, and with a crying face.
The end-result was more like a life-size doll hidden within ornate white vestments and wearing a white theater mask, and the shiny black eyes streamed down the cheeks like black lacquer, but it had to do. Let it cry tears instead of wailing.
The trick with any spell, Doe said to herself, was to convince yourself that it would work. That's where the meaning of things came in, the metaphysics and semantics. And the things before her was only an echo — so let it act like one.
"I am the mage who cast the spell that made the Great Seal," she said, in a oratory voice.
"I am the Seal-Maker who grew the Gate Roots," it echoed, in the voice of the weeper.
Doe felt excited. Finally, finally. She would know.
"I diverted the elakhisks to strengthen the Seal," she continued.
"I shifted the alignment of the stones to nourish the Roots."
"I made the Seal long-lived."
"I made the Roots perfect"
"I made the Seal long-lived."
"Not a single aspect out of line, not a single thing weak."
"I made the Seal long-lived!"
"It was the most perfect thing I've ever done. It was the thing I regret the most."
Doe felt frustrated. Where was the regeneration?
"The Seal is regenerative."
"The Roots grow and die."
"The Seal will never be broken."
"The Roots are as good as my hands would allow them."
"The Seal will never be broken."
"They are a perfect. They are my perfect."
She tried another way.
"The mechanism behind the regeneration protects it from corruption."
Answer: "The growth-and-death lies in perfect soil."
"What in the blazes does that mean?"
"What do you want from me?"
Doe took a step back. This wasn't going anywhere.
"This is my secret," she said, and paused.
Answer: "This is my secret... I am the Seal-Maker who has the touch of a god. Whatever I make is beyond the level of lesser makers. The Roots I grow will keep the world for centuries. And one day they will die and wither."
"That doesn't answer anything!" Doe shouted back in frustration.
"We left him there!" the echo shouted back.
"Left who?" Doe asked.
"Who didn't we leave?"
The black lacquer dripped from the mask and stained the robes. Doe took a deep breath, and asked the mannequin before her:
"The secret behind the longevity of the Great Seal is something."
The mannequin of the girl raised its black-stained sleeves before her.
"They are my tears."
* * *
Doe sat on one of the pillars in the clearing and took big gulps of breath. The morning sun had dispelled most of the clouds and the fog, and Doe felt quite warm.
It had suddenly taken a turn to the really damn creepy. She should leave speaking to the dead to necromancers and librarians, she thought to herself.
"Well, that was a waste of time," she breathed roughly.
"I am sorry to hear that," came the voice from behind her.
Doe whirled around in fright and, her heart hammering the beat of horror, saw the fatless figure of Yanda the Burner.
"Aah!" she screamed. "Oh, it's you!" she stammered out the obvious. "I see you're here," she continued.
The caravan had finally reached the summit, and the shortest part of the Old Road had been cleared the day before.
"I couldn't but overhear that you were studying an elakhisk in the woods, and had to have a look myself... The rain yesterday left me feeling a bit weak, and Master Feng decided that we'd have a short pause before continuing. This must relate somehow to your research on the Great Seal, yes?" He stepped closer to the monolith with a thoughtful look.
"Yes, but a lot of good that's done to me," Doe answered. "The delphic words of a blubbering girl and nothing much else."
"Blubbering girl?" Yanda looked genuinely puzzled, but after a moment his expression took a look of "oh but of course".
"The soot-marks the original caster must have left," he said.
"Ah, apologies," Yanda said, "it's the... Condition speaking." His gesture encompassed himself.
It must be like the biggest fever in the history of fevers, Doe thought to herself. Deanthropofication wasn't exactly a disease, but it certainly tasted like one. All mages had it to some degree, but Doe could swear she heard the fire-mage's bones burning.
"I call them echoes," she said instead, "but this time it backfired quite splendidly. I couldn't get it to answer me straight."
"Echo is a good word for it," he said, "the deteriorated voice of things shouted into the darkness..."
"The problem is," she thought, "that she went through some sort of trauma related to the Seal. She kept on crying about leaving someone behind. Probably someone who got caught in the sealing." She shuddered. "I hope I will never learn what horrible thing they had to seal so hurriedly."
Yanda the Burner smiled and nodded his head. "It must have been something very bad."
"Oh well," Doe took a deep breath. She looked at Yanda thoughtfully. "The other two pavilions were mostly clear of vegetation and you could see the stone floor, but here the forest has crept in," she said. "Could you help me burn it away so that I can create a barrier and seal the monolith within the circle? I don't want any village kids accidentally breaking the power flow by following my example or anything."
"Anything, Sealer," Yanda bowed, "for is it not our duty to keep the world safe?" he smiled, while the fire awakened in his eyes.
* * *
It was still the same day, though the night above was getting deeper. The crescent was thinning, and soon it would be new. The dreamer could feel the millions of dreams that inhabited that darkness. Though it was much prettier when it was full, he preferred the night. It made him feel less alone.
He dreamed yet again of the goat girl. She was becoming quite the regular. It didn't happen too often. She felt like someone the dreamer had known a long time before. It was nice.
The dreamer hoped the following dreams would be as nice as the dreams about the goat girl.
* * *
Doe had bid the fire-mage farewell, and had taken a nearby path that led to the old winding path and the cave. In the ancient past, the old road really had been an Old Road, built up by ancient kings and emperors to collect the world into their palms. But now the old stones had gone, and all that was left was the winding path that only by chance intersected with History, and the scorch marks left by the new road. The lower slopes were littered with boulders, small and gigantic, and the path snaked through them in wild patterns.
Doe could hardly feel any rim on it. It had become less human over the ages, and more just a part of the landscape. Slowly, the purpose instilled to it by humanity was being drained away, and the most of it left was defined by mindless nature.
Of course as long as human feet traversed it, it would be kept alive to her senses, and probably even after that. Metaphysics was a habit hard to give up, even for scenery. And of course the most important part was herself. The day she couldn't pick up any stick or stone from nature and use it, you could probably just dump her in a pit somewhere and get it over with.
Doe spoke the Words of the Inviolate just before the ambushers rose into sight from behind the boulders lining a particularly tricky stretch of the path. She cursed grumbling to herself. What was it now?
It hadn't been what she'd expected. She was surprised to see that these weren't the usual sort of brigand that would try to waylay a lonely traveler in the wilderness. For one, they weren't scruffy enough. Secondly, they were wearing big and black robes, with hard, black head-masks to match. Even their daggers were uniform: slightly ornate but with a lightly scuffed and used look that didn't make Doe at all comfortable. They smelled vaguely of magic. Brigands, eh, Abessa? Thank you very much for the heads up, she thought to herself.
She pulled herself deeper into the shell of the Words of the Inviolate, and felt the world outside her body distance itself ever so slightly. There were three men in front of her, but they were slowly scrambling over the rocks towards her. It would take them a while. She turned to look behind her. Two others were already on the path.
It was time to seize something. Go for the throat, she thought to herself.
She launched herself towards the two downhill, and was rewarded by the surprised grunt of one of the masked figure as she caught him under his chin. The Inviolacy came really handy in circumstances like these. It made her apart from the world, and a hard target for, well, anything.
She only stroked the man's throat with her fingers softly, but he let out a gurgling sound. The wind-pipe was one of the Great Pathways of the human body — of course Doe knew how to open and close it at will. This time only slightly, though.
Leaving the first ambusher clutching his throat, she turned towards the second, who was already bearing down on her with his dagger. He slashed, and met nothing, just as he did the next time, and the one after that. Doe stretched her hand, and touched his mask on the forehead, ever so slightly, and Closed his eyes.
The man dropped his dagger and staggered backwards carefully, crouching and feeling his eyes with his hands. His breathing was getting laborious, and a whine of fear entered it. Her first victim was trashing on the ground, and she knew he would soon be unconscious.
Doe turned around, letting her white-and-black elbow-cape billow dramatically for the effect. The three scramblers were now scrambling much less enthusiastically than before, and when they got on the path above her, she spoke to them.
"Did you want something from me?"
One of the men, presumably the leader, made a sign with his hand. There was a whine traveling through the air, coming from somewhere to Doe's left in the deeper part of the trees. She felt the threat to her rim, and moved backwards to dodge the arrow by an inch — and then felt to her horror how another embedded itself somewhere in her side with a fleshy thud. She felt dizzy for a moment with aloof fear, and then she looked at the leader. She smiled.
"A gift," she said, and, to the rising horror of the men before her, pulled the arrow out with a single stroke. It was unbloodied, and she threw it away.
She stepped forward.
"Anyone else who wishes to give me something?" she asked.
She let the Inviolacy that protected her take a more visible form. To the men that looked at her, it seemed as if she became more distant, yet she stayed in the same place. The dust on the ground around her feet started to circle her, as if moved by an invisible wind turning around her, and her voice echoed from some distant place they couldn't fathom.
The men she had incapacitated remained behind her, framing her in the background like a depiction of the Cruel God, one of them unconsciously sprawling on the ground, and the other keening and crying with tears running from his blinded eyes.
Doe stepped forward, and picked up one of the daggers.
"I am a Sealer," she said. "I am one of those who stands at the border of things. I know the ways to open and to close, to seal and unseal. I know the importance of the difference between things; the barrier of identity that everything has."
"I know," she continued, and stepped forward again, "the magics for making chimeras. I know the powers needed to capture a man's soul. I know how to blind you, choke you, make you deaf, make you weak, how to stop your blood from flowing and how to skin you and turn your substance into living dust."
"And I know," she drew the dagger over her palm, all the while smiling, "the roads to the afterlife."
A drop of blood fell onto the ground.
Later, the men would swear that they saw this: behind Doe, there was a black door, as high as ten men. She took from her key ring a key (how she took it off they couldn't tell), and they saw that it was the key to the Door: black and cruel. She held the long key in her bloody grasp, not by the flat bow, but by the blade, and the door opened behind her a quarter of an inch.
What they had seen through the crack they never spoke of. They did not look back.
* * *
When the black-robes had disappeared out of sight, Doe let herself go, and clutched her throbbing side.
Damn, this is going to hurt for a long time, she thought.
A Sealer's body was her fortress, and the skin was one of the greater rims. Repairing cuts and reattaching unattached things was one of the few healing skills Sealer's had.
At least the good old Things Man Was Not Meant To Know trick had worked. It worked wonders on one's bowel movements to get a glimpse beyond the Door. Doe returned the key to her side.
She walked over to her two victims. The blinded black-robe was still crying and wailing to himself, so she pulled the unconscious one up, and locked up his joints so that he served as a temporary chair. She sat down, and spoke to the blinded man.
"If you tell me what's going on, I will return your sight," she said. The man suddenly stopped, and turned his face towards her voice. "If you don't, I will assuredly cause you to wish that the guy who convinced you into this had never been born."
"How... How do I know you're not lying?" he asked.
Doe had pulled out her long and thin kesher-pipe. It was reserved for medicinal purposes only, which usually meant when she really needed a quick smoke. She stuffed it with some of her medical herbs, and took out an iron jar, which she opened, shook out a glowing ember onto her wounded hand, broke a bit of into the pipe, unsealed the ember and lit the mass.
Doe let the man wait as she breathed in the fumes, and puffed it out.
"Because I am an honest person who would never lie to you," she said, "and because your friends just gave me a rather nasty wound in my side, and because I will assuredly cut off your balls with your fancy membership dagger if you do not give me what I want." She waved the dagger in question in the air lazily.
The blinded man hesitated.
The arrow struck the man-bench she was been sitting on. She fell down behind it, and swore as another struck the left side again.
"I forgot the bloody archers! Those sneaky bastards!" she shook her fist. "Stop shooting at me or I'll have you'll guts for garters!"
She turned to the blinded man. "Seems like your friends... Damn it all."
Her prisoner lied dead on the ground.
"Why can't anything go right today?" she muttered to herself as she started to run downhill towards the village, dodging the arrows.
* * *
As Doe ran down the path towards the village, the boulders and bare ground of the slopes above gave way to one of the small forests that dotted the whole vale, and she started to feel safer surrounded by the shadows of the trees. She stopped to catch her breath — the arrows had stopped some whiles before — and leaned against one.
She was still clutching her pipe, and took a puff. Her side throbbed, her lungs were bursting, the smell of smoke was giving her a headache, and someone had just tried to kill her good Lords, what was going on here people. It made her really irritated to be scared witless like that.
Smell of smoke? She sniffed the air, and felt a bitter tang in it. Something was burning, but where?
She sat down against the tree, and rummaged through her bag. She took out the monkey skull, and looked at it.
"Maybe if I combine it with something..."
A moment, and a sigh. She put the skull back in, and replaced it with a horn.
It was a small bull's horn, with a mouthpiece and bands around it. She put it to her lips, and blew.
The sound that left that horn could only be called bovine. It echoed through the vale, disturbing the birds around Doe to flight. It seemed as if the rain clouds had come again to her: the skies darkened, and the beating of the wings merged into a indistinct broar, like the pattering of rain onto the leaves.
It was answered by the roar of a wisox. It was nearby.
Must be the Inn is on fire, she thought, if they threw the animals out of the stable.
Doe sat waiting, and after some time, she heard the rapid hooves of Eye-of-the-Storm running towards her. She stood up to meet it.
"Hello, Eye-of-the-Storm. Are you burned?" she felt the wisox, but couldn't sense anything.
"Great," she said. "Now, let's get down there and have some damn answers."
* * *
Half the Inn was deep inside a wall of white flame. The stables were open, and a crowd, the guests included, was looking on at the blaze.
Doe rode close, and stopped the wisox with her voice.
"Any casualties?" she asked one of the maids.
"Oh no, Miss Doe!" she replied, "everyone's out nice and healthy."
Doe looked at the Thanatians, and the wounded Sister lying down on the ground. They seemed singed, but all right. Thorn was going about the crowd, checking on everyone with Mrs. Rosmarine, and spared Doe a quick nod.
A bucket chain was being shouted at by the Inn-keeper, but the white flames seemed resistant to mere mortal water. Doe had seen flames like that before, not too long ago. She cursed.
"Right," Doe said, and dropped down from her mount.
She strode towards the burning Inn, and felt it. The fire was the same kind of pure white flame she had seen the past two days: the fire of Yanda the Burner. It was going to be tricky.
"What are you, mad?" shouted Thorn at her from a comfortable distance that only made him feel like his eyebrows were melting. "Get out of there!"
"Sealers don't get burned easily," she shouted back at him, and, strengthening the barrier on her skin, continued onwards.
She walked to one of the corners that was burning and, ignoring the shouts of the onlookers, put her hands on the hot wood. She felt its rim, and did what she had become quite used to during all the years she had camped outside. She Sealed the fire within.
The wooden stock beneath her fingers seemed to turn into a smouldering piece of shining ember as the flames withdrew into it, pulled in from the air around it. Leaving the standing giant ember, Doe continued onto another burning piece of stock, closer to the entrance, and did the same thing, and then again, until she entered through the flame-covered entrance — and slowly quelled the fires burning inside.
"Don't you worry, son," said an old crone in the crowd to Thorn, "I remember, it was fifty years ago, when old Iron Eyes hesself did the very same trick."
"What?" asked the confused and worried Thorn.
"Y'see, old True's barn, he's dead now for thirty years, blessissoul, was on fire, we didn't know what caused it, but on fire it was and old Iron Eyes was there, and one o' the kids was inside, it was a terrible fright I don't mind telling you, anyhow, one o' old True's kids, young True's father, he's dead now for fifteen years, you knew him when you was younger, he used to sit on the bench with the other ole farts and gabble, that bench is gone now for ten years, what a shame, anyhow, ole True's kid, young True's late dad, he was in the barn and Iron Eyes was having none of it, so she went inside and put all the fire into an old kettle, just like that."
"Kettle?" Thorn hadn't been following.
"Yars, a kettle it was. The young miss has still a long way before she can put an flaming inn into a kettle, that's for sure."
"We used that kettle to pour out fire for a year," she continued, "then it ran out. It was good fire, not this flashy white stuff you get nowadays."
It was powerful work, and exhausting. Doe could feel her powers wane with every seal-ember she made, and so let her greed release itself. She felt around her, in the abandoned Inn, and felt... Rims.
Any mage has a sense that tells them about the locus of their power around them. Thorn could feel dead things and death things. He could tell what was poisoned, what was meant to kill, like weapons, where the bodies lied... Yanda could probably tell where there was fire — and some other things as well, if he was clever enough.
She sensed rims within the Inn. And she pulled.
The strength that defined those rims, what they were, what they contained; the difference between outside and inside, the difference between this and that, those and these, me and you, all that, she breathed in. Under the sound of the roaring flames she heard the tinkling of glass, the clirr of porcelain and the soft sound of sands as bottles and pots were destroyed, the essence of their rims fleeing them into her open-mouthed heart. She could feel herself getting stronger. And she continued with her salvage.
The crowd stared as she worked, slowly but surely sealing the flames of the fire into the wood. From the outside, of course, they could only see the subsidence of the fire, as if a giant had breathed them in and swallowed them. The fire seemed to have stopped spreading when she started, and when she finished, over half of the Inn and the stables were still left, and the other half was a pile of super-heated ash.
Doe exited the Inn, exhausted and dirty, and was met by the Inn-keeper.
"Is it saved?" he asked.
"As saved as I could," she answered. "The flames are still there... But within the pillars of ember. You have to cut them away, fast, before my grip weakens enough, and they explode into a gigantic flame. Now."
She left Inn-keeper to shout at people to bring axes, and sat herself down at the base of a tree, where she was offered tea by one of the inn-maids.
"Thank you, dear," Doe said, and sank down against the bark, closing her eyes with the tea in her hands.
This was becoming a hell of a day. Maybe two hells.
"You are insane, you know that?" Thorn had sneaked up on her. She kept her eyes closed, and enjoyed her tea.
She heard a clink drawing near her, the sound of mail beneath a red habit.
"Just a moment ago, I was accosted by brigands," she said, without opening her eyes. Her voice was a bit hoarse. "I wonder what they might have wanted with me."
"It might be best if we talked," said Armar the Scholar besides the Abessa.
* * *
"Now put the rocks on top," Doe said, sagging.
The flat stones splashed down into the hole, and disappeared under the muddy water. The glow of the embers below disappeared under the rain of hard earth.
"Good, now put in the sand, and stomp on it for good measure," she said, turned away, and walked to Thorn, the Abessa, and the Doctor.
"That is soon done with," she told them, "but let's get a bit farther away." She turned towards the men working on the sand: "When you're ready, start running away as fast as you can!"
She led the two away behind one of the larger boulders lining the barren mountain-side. Her side throbbed under the newly-made bandages, and she could feel Mrs. Rosmarine's ointments tingle her flesh. It itched like hell.
"You had a story to tell me?" she said to Armar.
"Yes, and I think you best hear it," he replied.
Doe had taken out her pipe again. She hadn't got use of it earlier. She dropped a small seal-ember into it, and leaned against the boulder behind her.
"Wasn't that the bit you took from the large embers earlier?" asked the Abessa.
"Yup," Doe answered, and sucked in.
There was an explosion. And with explosion is meant a great big light, followed by a great big soft sound, further followed by a great big heat wave and a small roasted goose that had taken the wrong time to fly over.
Doe sighed in bliss, her shoulders straightened, and as she shook herself the black flecks of soot that had marred her since the Inn fell away like dead leaves.
"Still smell though..." she muttered.
"My gods," said Abessa Redhorn.
"The whole hillside is just one big crater!" said Thorn, looking from behind the stone.
"I think you can blame the potency of that damn firemage's flames," Doe said, feeling much better after releasing the seal. "It was him, yes?"
The Abessa looked at her. "Yes. He tried to shut us inside and burn us alive, but, obviously, his plan failed. He seemed... Distressed and ill."
"And might he be related, somehow, to the black-clad nutters I encountered on the path earlier?"
"Black-clad nutters?" said Thorn.
"Yes," said the Abessa, "but maybe the story is best heard from the ass's mouth," she pointed at the Scholar.
Armar looked sheepish. "Wasn't my fault they're all crazy people," he finally mumbled.
"Hrm," hrmed the Abessa.
[The cover of Armar & Qelbo (to be published)]
A Summary of the Upcoming Publication
The Secret Voyage of the Good Lords in 339 Haida era>
Armar of BerŽ
Qelbo of BerŽ
[Jacket flap: Doctor Armar of BerŽ is a Docent of the University of BerŽ, and Lector of History at the Institute of the Bibliotheca. Doctor Qelbo of BerŽ is a Lector of the New Library of the Bibliotheca. Together, they have written numerous popular history codices.]
* * *
1. Preface & Acknowledgements
As a Lecturer of History at the Institute of the Bibliotheca, it is not uncommon for me to receive the benefits of the constant journey of discovery that is taking place at that hallowed place. Because of the sheer magnitude of the whole Bibliotheca institution, with its numerous libraries and its less numerous scholarly institutes, including my own, scarcely have the Librarians, that valiant breed of men amongst us, mapped their way to the "End of the World" (which is more properly called the Astronomers' Reading Room) before they discover that they have forgotten what the start of their journey was like — or rather, what the start of their ancestors' journeys were like. A determined man, armed with nothing but a safety-lamp, a step-ladder and provisions that last for a week can safely be sure that he will discover some new gem in the dark bowels of the ancient Recently Returned-Shelves. One of my students, in a misguided attempt to reach the legendary Round Table Room, was lost for two weeks, and in the ensuing rescue mission, I, and my colleague, Qelbo of BerŽ, a fellow Lector, took part. Though we were unable to locate the unfortunate student, we had the good fortune of temporarily misplacing ourselves around the badlands that border the shelves for 1122.8 Arctic Explorations, 1122.9 Corobine Erotic Literature & Poetry and 1122.10 Cryology, for, whilst fleeing the greatly agitated and violent lizard-bat chimeras, we took shelter in a heretofore forgotten alcove. As we barricaded ourselves in by lifting up the remnants of an Early Eastern table with false-stone insets and carvings in the Neoremortantic style, we noticed that the first set of curved bookshelves that stood in the semi-circular alcove were hiding, not just the outer curved bookshelves as we expected, but also a door. My reader, you must understand, and forgive, my excitement when I recount to you that this door was marked with the Seal of the Great Curator, Our Good Lady Balei herself! As is common procedure in the Bibliotheca, we rushed from our discovery to the Large Service Desk — which only took us three days, though we had misplaced ourselves into the nearby Fifth Archive: Accountancy & Bookkeeping in our excitement, and almost perished from thirst — where we registered our discovery to stave off the "claim-jumpers" that would have certainly come "out of the woodwork" for a site with a historical importance of this magnitude. Within the week, after retracing our dusty trail through the Fifth Archive, and, after tragically losing two of our expedition there to exposure, we were able to build our last base-camp in 1134.11 Domestication of Fish & Hydroculture that lay closest to the refound site on the good side of the badlands. In preparation to the expedition, we had acquired permission by the Library Council to borrow the Great Key, and to use it to open the door. Understandably enough our first attempt failed due to our human negligence, as we had neglected to note that the door did not have, in fact, any kind of key-holes at all, and that the door had obviously been sealed by some cunning, ingenious and invisible secret method. We returned to civilisation through the safer paths we had mapped out through the 1XX-shelves, and set ourselves to study all possible methods that could have been used to lock the seal-door. Here we would like to thank the 1st Librarian Corps who valiantly flushed out the wild Bookwyrms that had laid their nest in the wing that contained most of the Bibliothecariatric tomes and the Metabibliotheca, from where we were able to procure Longtooth's The Compleat Guide to the Traps and Locks of the Bibliotheca (919) and Questioner's Letalic Architecture, Volume 12, Secret Locks & Doors (876). Thus armed, we returned to the Sealed Alcove, where we discovered that the door lacked a lock because it was, in fact, never meant to be locked, and had been open all the time. After "prying" ourselves from "each other's throats", we commenced to research the room. You shall understand our joy when I tell you that what we discovered was a treasure trove related to the Great Curator, for the room had been her personal office when the Bibliotheca was only being built. Though the room contained many tomes that are well known to us, some of them were before-unseen, and we located a single copy of the On the Art of Confectionaries by the great Tertius, which had been thought lost at the time. But what truly lit our interest were the numerous personal notes, diaries and unpublished articles of the Great Curator that had never before us seen the light of day, amongst them a description, written in secret by Lady Balei, of the last journey of the Good Lords of the East in the year 339 Haida, the third year of the Eastern Era of their rule, the topic of this work.
Here, at the end, we would like to acknowledge the great help we have received from Warbler Nicosian, the student whose disappearance in the library sparked our discovery, and whose remains were found and interred recently, the tremendous fortitude of the 1st Librarian Corps, the Doctors Pears and Rainer, and to the Hreca chapter of the Thanatian Order and Abessa Redhorn, without whom I would surely have perished.
This volume is dedicated to the dear memory of one of its cowriters, Qelbo of BerŽ, who had no such luck.
* * *
2. Data & Sources
It is well known that one of the great mysteries surrounding the Good Lords of the East is their last journey after their ascension to rulership of the East, made in the year 339 of Haida, three years into their rule. They returned after six months in places unknown, and the last of the companions, today known as the Lord Traitor, but then called by his true name, the Lord Faran of the East, had died on their way after being exposed as a betrayer, and, as a result, his Tower was abandoned, and his followers were disbanded and assimilated into the seven other ideological populations that were created at the start of the Rule. What is not known where they traveled, why they did so, what they did when they arrived, what Lord Faran's betrayal was, how Lord Faran died, and what was accomplished by their journey, but with the primary sources left to us by the Good Lady Balei, we have been able to uncover some of the facts related to the incident.
From her personal writings, it is clear that the Good Lady Balei felt horrendous grief and regret over the death of Lord Faran, who had been her closest friend in the Octet, and much of what she writes about the circumstances of his betrayal and death can be seen as revisioned by her emotions of distress, as an attempt to rectify her own presumed betrayal of him. Vexingly and unfortunately, none of the notes left by her in the incomplete work-in-progress collection of her office in the Sealed Alcove, included any further details on the last part of their journey that had taken them to the ruins of the Obsidian that overlook Pepper Vale in the northwest highlands, but only descriptions of their way there. Fortunately, much of that still contains much information on many of the other mysteries that have plagued us, if not the particulars of the Lord Faran incident. Three years after the consolidation of their Rule, and the division of the old kingdoms into the eight provinces (further reading can be found in Trot's The Years of Silent Conquest (778)), the Good Lords had taken part in several quests that were aimed at quelling the last powers of the enemy that had so vexed the world only years before, before the Broken Wars and the Holy Battle by the Good Lords, some of which were the simple eradication of magics and magical sources left by the Forgotten Enemy. In 338 HE, the Good Lords learned of a new enclave of evil that had been used by the Forgotten Enemy, which lied in the ruins of the Obsidian, the ancient fortress that had fallen three hundred years before their time in the upheaval of the short-lived Sincere Empire. The eight of them, followed by their most trusted retainers, traveled to the insularised Pepper Vale, overlooked by the Pepper Peak which housed the Obsidian on its slopes. There, the Good Lady Balei sealed the focus of power that laid there, and Lord Faran perished. Our readers may well have noted the usage of the words in the last sentence that points to the fact that the focus of power in the Obsidian was never eradicated, in actuality, but only sealed by our Great Curator — a point which brought much discomfort to the de facto leader of the Octet, Lord Menta, and the other Good Lords, who swore each other, and their retinue, into complete secrecy in fear of the focus of power being discovered by hostile forces, and then being used to rain destruction on the lowlands. With great difficulty, we were able to learn that there exists a Great Seal within the ruins of the Obsidian at the mouth of Pepper Vale, and we have no doubts that this Great Seal is what houses the focus of power that the Good Lords sealed a thousand years in the past.
* * *
3. Results & Discussion
It is customary at the Bibliotheca that senior scholars who have registered their discoveries may work on their sources in privacy, until a certain amount of time has passed or they have published their work based on their research, an option which we chose for ourselves in the writing of our book (to be published), though due to the very nature of its topic, we debated whether we should use discretion and leave the work unpublished for the world outside of the Bibliotheca. Regardless of whether to publish or not, we felt it our duty to present some sort of work on the Sealed Room sources to the rest of our colleagues at the Bibliotheca, who can be trusted not to misuse such information even if they ever do venture out of the hallowed halls we inhabit, and thus we relocated most of the papers into our public working facilities in the civilised parts of the mountain. You will understand my surprise when one late evening, as I returned to our working offices, I was presented by the alarming sight of my cowriter, Doctor Qelbo of BerŽ, lying dead upon the manuscripts, with a dagger in his back, an ornate late fifth century Anterubine style ceremonial weapon of a kind that were often enchanted to prevent healing of the intended victims, though I am sure unnecessary in the case of poor Qelbo, who had obviously died immediately as the blade has pierced his heart. I immediately alerted the proctors, who thus alerted began an investigation into the murder of my partner, during which I was interrogated, suspected and finally cleared of suspicion by a set of happenings that involved a very clever Proctor Investigator, but the circumstances of which I am not going to recount here for reasons of space (to be published as The Ceremonial Blade written by Yours Truly, published by Dread Pence publishing, Coroban). It was determined that the murder had been performed by an outside force that had infiltrated the Bibliotheca, and with which Doctor Qelbo had had dealings with regarding the information we had uncovered. After the investigation had researched my part in the incident, the Proctors presented me to the Abessa Redhorn of the Hreca chapter of the Thanatian Order.
I was further interrogated by the Abessa about the information, and in particular about the focus of power that had been sealed, and after I had spent myself explaining everything I knew, I was presented with an ultimatum; either I should leave the Bibliotheca with the Abessa and a bodyguard of Sisters of Thanate, or stay in the Bibliotheca and surely be murdered by the same group that had killed Doctor Qelbo. Naturally, I had only one answer, but when I gave it to the good Abessa, I can only say that I was completely ignored, and thus kidnapped! With the betrayal of the Proctors, who refused to help me to "shake off" the tenacious nuns that so plagued me, I was removed from the Bibliotheca, the home of my heart and the greatest library on this Earth that has ever stood, and taken down the mountain, surrounded by a retinue of red-robed and fully armed Thanatians. I was taken to their safe-house in Hreca that lied three hundred miles north-west from the Bibliotheca, where I was held for a while before I was told by the Abessa of further progress in the investigation that was taking place, also with the help of the Thanatian order.
* * *
It is well known to anyone from evidence that there have existed several Duty-bound groups that have been formed, several by the Good Lords themselves, over history, to protect and keep those great secrets, such as the enclaves of power left in the wake of the Broken Wars, that would endanger the world we inhabit, from the hands of wrong-doers and those who would abuse them. For the Great Seal of the Obsidian, no such things were created, and the guardianship of it has thus been mostly rather "organic" in nature, as over time there have been several Guardians to the seal at the same time. In modern times, there exist three separate guardianships of the Great Seal, mostly undertaken by persons as a side-Duty. They take turns. As I was told by the Abessa, one of the guardianships belongs to the Abessa of Hreca (presumably any Abessa of Hreca will do — I have discovered that the last Guardian Abessa was, in fact, a member of the Order of the Peaceful Garden), and that she was the current Guardian, and thus bound to keep the Great Seal safe, at least until the following year, when it would be the turn of the insane Emerite of Farvale, who currently lives in a cave in the middle of the city and often walks around without any clothing. Thus, when the Proctor Investigator had discovered the secrets we had found in the Good Lady's papers, the Thanatians were alerted to this, and subsequently invited to conduct their own investigation and keep me safe from the unknown murderer at large. Not before long, they discovered that the murder of Doctor Qelbo had been planned and enacted by members of a secret society calling themselves the Children of the Martyrs, who seemed to be descended from rogue Faranite groups that had sprung up in the wake of the dissolution of the Faran factions. It is not a long stretch of thought which leads us to conclude that Doctor Qelbo had sold the information to this most interested party — which had probably hidden under a cloak of mecenate anonymity — and had then been murdered in order to silence him, and his research. The Society itself was most probably aiming for the breaking of the Great Seal, and the misuse of the focus of power that it protected from the outside world, which meant that drastic action was required to prevent them from doing so.
I and the Thanatians traveled the last hundred miles from Hreca to the northwest, and thus recently entered Pepper Vale, where we were ambushed by a group of the cultists, killing two of them, but having good Sister Bloodcurdler wounded. We rushed to the village, and the Inn to recuperate, and thus met with Magister Doe and Master Thorn of Village-in-the-Valley. As we planned for what to do next, the following day we were ambushed by a firemage (who was then unknown to us, but was later identified as Yanda the Flagrator), and almost trapped in the burning Inn, after which we decided to confide in Magister Doe and Master Thorn for assistance in this matter.
The dreamer felt a stirring, a wind on the windless plain, one that he had felt a hundred times before.
A fire was burning somewhere, melting away a link of chain.
He could feel it, that sweet odour of waking.
The sun was high in the dark sky — soon it would be midday.
The dreamer stretched his heart, and prepared to rise.
* * *
They were sitting down on the cushions of the Receiving Room of the Shrine. Doctor Armar had been left to busy himself happy in the archives ("Ah, but it seems I have forgotten where exactly the original passage is..." she had said), and Doe, the Abessa and Thorn were sipping sweet wine as the sun was touching the top of the mountains.
"The cultists will most likely strike tonight," the Abessa said.
"To get it over with as soon as possible, before reinforcements arrive?" Thorn mused.
"Not only that," she replied, "but because tonight is the full moon of Drop-of-Wine."
"The small red moon?" Doe asked. "What has it to do with anything?"
"When Drop-of-Wine is highest in the sky above the Seal, for about half an hour it... Does something significant, we do not know what. Probably the focus of power is itself strengthened somehow."
Doe almost dropped her pipe. "Oh, damn, of course!" she said, "that's what it was!"
"You know something interesting, Mistress Doe?" the Abessa asked.
"I have been doing measurements and so forth on the Seal itself, and have discovered many interesting patterns," Doe explained, "and one of them is a regular oscillation of the strength of the Seal. Very small, almost imperceptible, but it was visible on the pendulum... It results in different patterns, the weaker phases result in slightly smaller ones."
"And these oscillation periods coincide with the Red Month?" Thorn asked, "That is about nine days."
"No, they coincide with the zenith and nadir of Drop-of-Wine, I now realise," she replied, "but it changed by about two and a half hours every day, and there was a greater period of about nine days. When the strong phase was around midnight, Drop-of-Wine was new, and when around midday, it must have been full. But there were so many interesting things, I just didn't think about it too much at the time."
"But why wait for the full moon, if it just needs to be in zenith?" Thorn asked. "You'd just need to figure out what time of the day it falls on."
"They probably do not know better," Doe said "and it's just simpler to check where the damn thing is if you can see it well, I guess."
She took a drag of her pipe.
"The way I see it," she said, "they came with that caravan for a reason. No doubt some of them are just supplies and food, but you don't just go and break a Great Seal just like that," she snapped her fingers, "you need something... Big and bulky."
She smiled at the others.
"Which means they probably cannot break ordinary seals either... Like, say ones that I have put around the three elakhisks."
Thorn looked at her. "Brilliant," he laughed.
"They would have needed to divert the power-source of the Great Seal before they could even start to destroy it?" the Abessa asked.
"Something very much like that. In fact, I may have caught Yanda at the nearest elakhisk snooping around, when I was investigating today..." her face paled.
"What is it?" Thorn asked.
"Gods below, seven iron hells!" Doe swore ("Language," said the Abessa).
"I let the bastard help me clear the undergrowth. I let him have a chance to insert his power inside the barrier before I even created it... Stupid, stupid!"
* * *
The elakhisk was engulfed in flame, and flickered like a torch in the shadows of the evening mountains.
"What is happening to it?" the Abessa asked.
"The power is being diverted into the fire!" Doe shouted from nearer the monolith, over the soft roaring before her. "I can't get any closer!"
She gave up, and returned back, her clothes steaming with vapor.
"If I hadn't gotten that thrice-bedamned pyromaniac to sterilise the ground, the whole mountain-side would be in merry flame right now. Thorn, you have to get the villagers to clear this whole area of trees."
"It will burn for a while," Thorn offered. The flames danced in his staring eyes.
"May his piss burn like a thousand suns," Doe swore at Yanda.
"Seems like the only thing we have left," the Abessa said, "is to just rush them and kill them where they stand." She looked thoughtful. "I can live with that."
"There's about two dozen of them," Doe said, "and only six or seven of you."
"I've had worse chances. Besides, they're not even warriors, just fanatics with ancient butter-knives."
Thorn smiled. "I do not believe that you will need to go alone," he said.
"How so?" the Abessa asked.
"Because, y'see, this isn't the first time Village-in-the-Valley has had problems with cultists."
Doe groaned. "Are you serious?"
* * *
It couldn't be called a mob, Doe thought to herself. A mob was more organised.
"Why is that man holding small pots on a bandolier?" the Abessa asked.
"That's the potter and his oil pots, amazing things," Thorn said, "but I'll have a word to him about the firemage..."
The group gathered in the yard of the burned Inn was mostly comprised of men in the village who knew something about handling sharp tools and implements. Scythes, knives and a lone, confused sword had been tied up at the tops of poles, in the traditional peasant's militia fashion, under which the men mingled in excitement. Mrs. Rosmarine was fussing about, armed herself only with the contents of her mysterious bag, and the Maid Brigade (most of whom actually were holding some sort of weapons — Doe noticed that one had a saber scabbarded to her side) were mingling about. Fala was preparing the riding harts of the Sisters, Eye-of-the-Storm and some horses.
"Aren't you scared?" asked Doe from one of the men.
"Of cultists?" he said. "Nah. We've always got 'em in the end. They tends to be pretty soft when things come to ahead and someone chops their head off." He whistled to one of the men behind him. "Hey, Cork, give Miss Doe a showing."
"All right," the man, holding two small axes, nodded. He held one of them in a throwing position, and neatly clove in twain one of the butts the hunters had been using for target practice. He was about fifty yards away.
"Good man," the Abessa said. "I don't see any problem here."
"I think it might be better if I do something small anyhow," Doe said, and stepped forward before the crowd.
"Listen up," she said, "I am going to cast an enchantment upon you, a Sealer's protection. Mister Clay," she said to the potter, "could I have one small pot or amphora for everyone each here, please?"
"Whatever you say, Mistress Doe," Clay sent some of the young boys that were watching the men after them. It didn't take long until a wheelbarrow of the Potter's tiny clay bottles arrived.
"Oh, you've made quite a lot of them," Doe remarked.
"Some of these are old rejects that we've been making for a while now," the potter said, "the rest are new, but they're pretty good even if I say so myself," he beamed.
"Thank you, then," Doe said, "now! Line up, everyone, after taking one of the pots, choose whichever takes your fancy."
As the men started to form a rough queue, Doe started at one end.
"What's the pot for, Miss Doe?" the first man asked.
"Glad you asked," she said, "I am just going to extend the rim of the pot to encompass your own, and to act as a substitute when confronted with primitive rim manipulation..." She paused.
"I'm going to put you in the bottle," she finally said. "The bottle will take the harm that you get, for you, until it is broken," she was now shouting so that everyone could hear. "If your bottle cracks, you know it won't be useful anymore, so you'll have to scarper."
"And stop that man from putting moonshine into his — don't think I can't see you, because I can —" she continued, "or he'll drown in it."
Thorn looked on her working in silence.
"I think I'm going to leech some of the death from all the weapons here," he finally said.
"What?" asked Doe, turning to him in bewilderment, "what for?"
"To lessen the chances of casualties," he said. "If I take away some of the death, it doesn't mean they suddenly become useless, y'know. It's just that people will be less likely to die from getting hit by them. Death will become a wounding that will put them out of the way until the fight is over."
"You're horribly soft for a necromancer, y'know that?"
"No I'm not!" he protested, "that's the kind of stereotyping I've been telling you comes with the," he looked at the villagers in the crowd, and whispered, "N-word. Just because we Closers can kill a man with a single touch doesn't mean we have to like it. You know that."
Doe looked at him. "They'll still be coming at us with their enchanted butter knives."
"That's true..." he said. He thought about it for a moment. "I can probably lessen the potency of their weapons, too," he said. "Yees... I think we're close enough to the Shrine for my powers to work that way. I think I might need your help, though, with that," he said to Doe. "Do you think you could make these weapons into... Containers?"
"There are spells to make things contain other things, usually incorporeal entities, yes..."
"Could you make these weapons to be containers for death?"
"From your point of view," she said, "aren't they that already?"
"Yes, but I am not a Sealer," he replied, "if a Sealer does the reification of the metaphor, then it becomes more useful... Say, as a container that can receive..."
Doe thought about it for a moment, and her eyes brightened. "You can't do that yourself!" she realised, "but if I do it, I can make it a container that acts as a sort of attractor."
"So when I drain the weapons of their death —" Thorn said.
"— they will act on the enemy's weapons to drain them out of their lethality!" Doe pronounced in victory.
The Abessa looked at them in horror, and clutched her hammer.
"Not my Skullcracker," she pronounced, "I wouldn't be able to sleep at night!"
The Sisters murmured their agreement.
"Not the weapons of the Sisters, then," Thorn said, "but you have to promise me not to kill anyone too much, clear?"
"We solemnly swear," the Abessa said.
"I will come too!" a shout came, and Doe and the others turned to watch Sister Bloodcurdler come towards them, with a feverish look in her eye, wielding a light-glaive, and clad in nothing but a sheet of bedding. "I c'n fight."
Mrs. Rosmarine ran towards her in shock, "Get back to bed, you! You're in no condition." She tugged at her to return to one of the buildings near the Inn that had been converted for medical use. Two of the Sisters went to help her.
Sister Bloodcurdler looked crestfallen. "Summon, summon take Swift," she waved the light-glaive. "Take Swift..."
Doe walked up to her, and took the polearm from her.
"Th'nks..." the Sister looked relieved as she was dragged back to bed.
"I didn't know you knew how to use a weapon," Thorn said.
"It was compulsory at the Small University. I got second place once." She swung the glaive and took a ready stance, holding the pole in her two hands to her side, knees bent and the blade low before her.
"Nice," he eyes glittered.
Thorn rolled his eyes. "I am surrounded by crazy people."
"Yes," the Abessa grinned, "isn't it great?"
* * *
They rode slowly up the old road. The ashes, though dampened and sludged with rain, stained their boots and hooves, and the evening-shadows of the mountains chilled them, but the red of the dying sun still swept the peaks above.
Doe saw the path leading to the old cave, and suddenly remembered.
"I need to milk the damn fawn," she muttered to herself.
"Excuse me?" Abessa Redhorn asked.
"Oh, nothing, nothing." She thought for a moment. "We should make our headquarters at the old cave," she said.
"Does it lead somewhere we can use for an ambush in the ruins?" Thorn hopefullied.
"Of course not," she replied, "there's just... Stoo."
"Sounds good to me," the Abessa said. "Lead on, Sealer."
The turned from the sooty road, and led the following mob towards the old camp-site. Someone had brought wine enough to share, and the noises coming from behind them had set the Abessa to berate them several times.
The six unwounded Sisters rode on their harts, and Thorn, though offered Sister Bloodcurdler's, had declined the offer and taken one of Fala's horses instead. Fala herself rode with the Sisters, handling the riding hart, a difficult and blood-thirsty beast, like she had been born to it.
Everyone had one of Doe's enchanted pots on their person, either hanging from a belt, or a necklace, or in a bag. She could feel each one of them, a heavy burden upon her strength, and remembered the bottles that she had left at the cave. The potter had offered her some of the left-over pots, but they hadn't been enough.
Bloody duty, she muttered to herself again. Sod it, for the moment.
After a few moments, the cave came to sight, and the snow-fawn with it. Doe dropped off Eye-of-the-Storm, and led everyone to camp down.
"Are you going to use your riding harts for battle?" she asked the Abessa.
"Oh yes," she answered, smiling beatifically.
"Please stop that," Doe shuddered, "it makes me feel horrified."
She looked at the motley group of villagers.
"Anyone here who is proud of their stealth?"
A few stood forward.
"We're hunters," one of them said. "I'm Patient, the best."
"Good, good. You'll be the leader then," Doe scanned the rest of the men, and stepped forward. The crowd opened to her, and she confronted one of the men.
"You have a very interesting bottle there, Mr...?" she said to the panicked man.
"That's Twig," Thorn said behind her, "who is called 'the Brewer'," he grinned.
"And he has a bottle of the strongest and most potent moonshine this side of the Plains, I reckon," she pronounced, to Twig's confusion and surprise.
"Ho-how did you know?" he asked.
"I am a Sealer, Twig the Brewer," she replied, "I can tell. Now hand it over, it's going to be used for something rather... Interesting."
Twig gave her the bottle, reverently.
"Are.. Are you going to do magic to it?" he whispered.
"No," was the answer, "I'm just going to give this to the hunters," she did so, turning to talk to Patient, "and tell you to find the wine-cask they're using today to drink. They're bound to be ritualising tonight, and that makes a man thirsty. Besides, they won't want to be sober. Dark occult rituals are always better when you're a bit tipsy. You never know what's going to pop out."
The Abessa looked at the people around her.
"Maybe we should send more than one bottle, then."
* * *
"Dinner?" Thorn asked.
"Yes," Doe said, "Dinner."
"And you accuse me of being morbid."
The sun had fallen long before, and the night sky was visible above.
She blew out a stream of pipe-smoke. "Look, I've had it up here with goats and goat-type creatures. I started naming them like this ages ago. In fact, this isn't just Dinner... This is Dinner IV, from a long line of proud Dinners. They are the blood-enemies of the wily Lunches, who are up to Lunch V. He was a sort of antelope with screw-spiral horns, which made an excellent set of instruments that I sold for quite a lot of money."
"My gods..." Thorn said, and went silent for a moment. He decided to change subject, and sipped the white broth once again. "The milk isn't bad, though. This is good. I need to get around to magic myself a Sacrifice someday, if they're all like this one."
Dinner looked on patiently.
"How much would you pay for this one?"
"You know you can't sell a Sacrifice, Doe."
"Oh, look, the hunters are back."
Patient was talking to the Abessa, and turned to Doe when she came.
"It all went very well," he reported. "They have some sort of large stone, with chains hanging from it, up on a cart in the Great Hall."
She took a drag of her pipe. "That's the unsealer focus. Might even be one of the Twenty-seven Stones of the Glorious Bondbreaker. I know the current owner's been itching to get rid of the damn things, I'll have a word with him after this, after I skin him. Did the chains have anything on the ends? A sword? Spear? Saw, giant lock-pick?"
"I thought I saw a big key," one of the hunters said.
"What? Those idiots," she said, "they have the completely wrong stone for this kind of unsealing! If I had any time, I'd hide them for their stupidity. But never matter, as long as they try hard enough... Yeah, even the key-stone should do the trick. It makes you despair, though, doesn't it?"
"Did you see the firemage around?" the Abessa asked. "It should have been easy to spot him, what with him still going around with his red clothes on."
"No, not a sign."
"He's not in black?" Doe asked. "I wonder why."
"Probably just a hireling, a johnny-come-lately," the Abessa said, "who came with because the cult needed some magical muscle. He was in red, I remember, during the attack and when he burned the Inn down."
Doe looked up at the sky, and the little red moon rising towards the summit of its path.
"Let's give them a while to get a bit more drunk," Doe said, "and then crush them."
"Mistress Doe," said the Abessa, "have I ever told you how I like your plans?"
* * *
The guard was looking outwards over the valley, into the night. The moons in the sky were rising one after another, Drop-of-Wine among them. It was a confluence. He wondered if there would be a Great Tide back home.
He looked furtively around, and moved behind a boulder, a shield towards the camp-site behind. A small, stubby pipe was procured from somewhere in the damned black, itchy robe, a friend in a time of need. It was during times like these tense moments before the ritual that you started to think about individuality, herd mentality, peer pressure and whether you should have lost yourself into the crowd when you were still leaving the city.
Now where were those damn fire-sticks...
"Here," a quiet voice besides him offered a small piece of ember.
"... — Thanks," he said, and put it in the pipe.
He turned to look. It was... Difficult for some reason, but she was there. Quite pretty, he thought. Nice pipe.
He took a drag of his.
"There is no use to torture me," he said. "I will tell you everything you want to know. Please."
"Do not worry," she whispered, "I could do a monologue on how torture is ethically and pragmatically wrong, useless due to the fact that it does not elicit truth rather than the pained hallucinations of grovelling pleading, and kinda icky, but," she took a drag, "I'm a bit busy right now."
"Very admirable," he said.
A knock on the head.
"May I ask?" Thorn said.
"I hope you didn't kill him, he was nice," Doe said.
"You can never know with blunt force trauma to the head, but he's still breathing. The spell seems to work."
She rummaged through the guard's robes, pulled out a bag and took a sniff.
"Hohoo, finest Labradgean pipe-leaf. This stuff doesn't grow on trees, y'know."
"Let's just get going, shall we?"
Doe strode forth boldly. She suddenly wavered in Thorn's eyes, and became more distant. A variant of the Words of the Inviolate, she had told him. Sometimes he really envied Sealers. They always seemed to get the medium or well-made deal, while nec— Closers usually couldn't even get the waiter's eye.
No use crying over spilt sacrificial blood. You just got a new cow and started again.
Suddenly, Doe had stopped. The ground around her swirled, and the light bended around her chaotically.
"Those bastards," she said. "They've already started."
Thorn looked at Drop-of-Wine. "But it's not even near the zenith!"
Doe stared at the sky. "It's the confluence! They must have some sort of way to tell when the seal is weak enough... My tools!" she looked at Thorn, "They're using my tools! And my notes! My notes are still there!"
Thorn could only stare at her.
"That's... Ridiculous," he offered, weakly.
Doe cursed, and started to run forward. She had already taken out the horn, and put it on her lips. She let her coughing, smoky breath blow a note through the hushed dark, and then heard the answering call.
They were screeching and shouting, and making noises that no mortal should have had in their lungs. The cloven hooves of the giant deer-kin clacked on the hard ground like a hundred jaws, and their red robes streaming, their weapons brandished, their faces set into expressions of horrifying joy and lust, the Sisters of the Holy Thanate rode forward to claim their due blood.
Around the Obsidian came groups of the village men, silently walking forwards to surround the ruined castle. Their faces were grim, unlike what she had seen before in the bravado they had put on, except for the maid brigade who were listening to the wailing of the Red Sisters with interest.
And in the middle, standing twenty and some, were the black-cloaked city-men, soft or criminal, who had come to a vale populated by superstitious rubes to quickly open a doorway to ultimate power, armed only with their antique daggers and protected only by their coarse, itchy robes.
Some ran, and fell, and stumbled due to what would be known later known in local legend as Twenty Black Robes proof. Some stood their ground. And some ran inside the Great Hall, and attempted to barricade the doorway.
It would have been slaughter, but for a solemn oath and an enchantment. The Sister ran down those who opposed them, leaving them bleeding and unconscious (and in one case, feeling very smart and unwounded) on the ground, and the groups of villagers, now running towards the center, gathered up the rest.
Doe cut one down with Swift, wounding his across the ribcage, and poked the shin of another.
"Has anyone seen the firemage?" She shouted.
No one had.
"At least he won't bother us for now..."
As the tragicomic violence unfolded on the summit of the Old Road, she ran towards the Great Hall, and the barricade of a wagon. She took out one of the potter's bottles from the basket she had been carrying with her, and stood before the doorway that led to the Great Seal.
A green, soft glow was covering the walls, and seeping through all the cracks it could find, the tell-tale sign of the key-stone being used. Some unnecessary chanting was rising up into the air, softly, as the cultists were trying to appease the dumb rock to do their bidding, the ignorant fools. She could feel, though, the roots of the Great Seal convulse and pulse and writhe, as someone was tearing them apart with the key attached to the stone. It echoed in her teeth, and made her jaw vibrate with uncomfortable voices.
The stoneware bottle in her hand crumbled, and she took another out. She rested the light-glaive on her shoulder, looked at the bottom of the barricade-wagon that had been turned to its side like a pitiful and unlikely tortoise, and knocked.
There was a boom. Do not let me understate that, though. It was a very loud and definite boom. A boom you definitely would open your door to, or face the consequences.
The door didn't open. Doe sighed. It never cost to try, though.
She put her hand-palm on the wood, and opened.
The wagon was pushed slowly inwards, as she rested her palm softly on it. She took a step forward, and... Gently... pushed it backwards. The figures of straining black-robes were revealed as the barricade it retreated.
She felt another twang, and another broken piece of the string that surrounded the focus of power. No time, she thought, ah, damn the consequences. She devoured the other bottle, and let her strength unseal.
The wood under her hand turned white, which spread outwards from the centre, followed by ashes, or dust, that turned the matter into small white, floating particles. They softly exploded outwards, within a second, leaving only a floating cloud of what once was a barricade.
The Sisters, now down on their feet, flooded the opening, and crushed the opposition that had so desperately held it.
Doe walked purposefully towards the Great Seal, and took in what she saw.
The Stone was there, glowing that ghastly green, as was the one who wielded it. Feng the Merchant was holding a giant key in his hands, and turning it within the convulsing roots of the Great Seal.
"I've had enough of you!" Doe shouted, and he turned, startled, towards her.
"You try to ambush me, shoot me with arrows," she hit aside one of the black-robes trying to run her down with the light-glaive, using it as a conduit to lock his joints like a sacrificial lamb, "burn down the only place in a hundred miles that serves the sweet wine I like!" Another black-robe attempted at her, and found himself wrapped tightly within his robes, unable to move. "You cause me to get a Duty — a Duty! — while I am doing research. You mess up my schedule and destroy my protective circles..." Feng was looking at the figure closing in on him, the inviolacy distorting the air around her like a halo, and making the dust flee before her feet, "you try to take this power to yourself, and likely want to destroy the world or something equally banal as that," she stood before Feng, "and you dare!" she shouted now, and took the captivated Feng by his throat, "to mess with my Theory!" She paralysed him. His hands clamped around the key, and she cursed, cranked his stiff fingers from the key, and levered him aside, leaving him to rock on the ground like an unsettled boulder.
She turned to the Seal, and pulled the key out violently. The stone ceased its glowing, and it seemed as if the roots had calmed down. Slowly, they started to knit back together, and Doe sighed in relief.
Thorn came to her, holding a wounded arm tenderly. "Is it going to be ok?"
"I think so," she said. "The roots will grow back in time..."
Her face brightened suddenly, and she turned to Thorn.
"This wasn't such a bad deal after all."
"This will be a very helpful experiment for me, to determine what the purifier in the—"
She was interrupted by the foom of a great flame. Right behind her, she felt the heat of fire, and saw her shadow stretch away into the Great Hall now coloured in red and orange. She turned to see the Great Seal's root's burning.
He's channeling fire through the leyline that connects the burning elakhisk, was her thought, before she turned away and started to shout everyone to safety.
The flame suddenly died, with a sudden silence as surprising as its birth, and with nothing to feed it anymore, Doe could feel a cold void behind her where warmth and life had only been a moment before. As she struggled to run away, the world seemed to stop, and all that she could do was slowly witness the horrified expression of Thorn and the Sisters, and feel gentle hands stretch out from behind her and pull her backwards into darkness.
Suddenly, she saw the Red Moon.
She felt like she was flying. That the world was stretching beneath her and sky was shrinking before her, that the stars were welcoming her into their embrace. If she had been able to see, she would have said it was beautiful - if she could have heard, she would have wept with joy.
This is what it must feel like when, Doe thought to herself. I must tell everyone when I get back home what it feels to.
The star was red. And it was there, before her, coming closer. She could feel no warmth from it, but no coldness either, for it undulated some other feeling she was not sure she was familiar with at all. Slightly alien, yet.
There was someone there with her, she had known. Someone flying beside her, around her, through her. She felt sad when she couldn't see it. She wanted to see it. She wanted to be frightened out of her mind, she wanted to fall back to Earth in utter horror, and plunge into the very core of its being. She wanted to feel broken, like a mirror, and reflect the world through a million pieces. And she couldn't, because she couldn't see the other one flying. Was it whispering?
And there it was, the star, the red moon.
* * *
The dreamer walked towards the place of waking. The fire. What had the fire done? It wondered. It hadn't felt anything like this before.
The world thrummed. A star fell from the Earth above.
* * *
Doe woke, or came to, or just stopped not living. She felt cold, and her skin felt like a painless burning, itchy. She spoke the Words of the Inviolate, and felt the alienness lessen.
She opened her eyes, and saw the blue giant moon.
It was a thin, thin crescent, of blue and white. And that was the last she saw, before the Sun burned her eyes, and she turned away.
She opened her lungs to scream, and was almost smothered. It felt like there was no air, but she coughed still, and the reflexes of her breathing took control and made her suck in the nonair.
"Seven Iron Hells," she croaked, and opened her eyes again.
The sky was dark and studded with stars, the Blue Moon and the Sun preeminent among them. The horizon was the only part that was not clear, but a very deep blue colour that disappeared above her. She turned to watch around her.
She was sitting down in a circle of red, dusty rock. The reflected light of the Sun burned her eyes. And around her, looking down from a height, were statues of the Seven Good Lords of the East.
They were perfect replicas of the likenesses she had seen, equal or better to original statues that had been created in their life-time, only... younger, very much younger. Looking at them, she could feel their material age, she felt small, she felt a horrible longing that was mirrored on their faces. They looked down at what she realised was the other end of the void, of the portal.
It was black, and much larger. She put her hand in it - it made her fingers feel like they'd fallen asleep. It didn't seem like what had happened on the other side was going to happen again. She tried the monkey skull, just in case. It didn't work.
She tried to feel the gate, and was almost swallowed by it. She pulled her senses away from it, and only looked at its rim. She could feel the faint, weak vibrations of the roots on the other side, trying to grow, but she believed that they weren't going to mend themselves any time soon.
Suddenly, she felt something within it, something large under the black, indistinct surface (she found no other word for it). She pulled her senses away, and backed from it.
The void undulated, and she saw an indistinct shape form somewhere in it. It was white, but she couldn't, or even wanted to, see clearer. She felt its enormous size, something that swam in the depth of the dark paths she had just traveled, a beast of the starry ocean. She could feel it swim just out of her sight, only occasional glimpses of death-white something. Once it swam close enough to break the surface of the portal — what came through was a mass of slithering human arms, white and soft. There were no splashes, just the dead rippling of the void.
Doe was repulsed and not a little frightened by the creature. She was not going to try that way any time soon again — and neither did the creature want to let her. She had been trapped into some dead otherworld by a monster of the dead aether. What a wonderful end to a fun day.
But what in the blazes is this place?
She looked up into the strange sky again.
Gods, no, couldn't be.
She stood up, suddenly feeling light-headed, and rimdusted her clothes immaculate again.
There was a throbbing. A pulse, like a giant leystone. She couldn't pinpoint where it was, and let herself just feel around her. And then she realised what it was.
The whole... World around her was a giant container of strength. It was like standing at all the leylines of the world at the same time, straddling a bonfire.
This must have been what primordial Earth was like, before the advent of life. Pure power.
She let herself drink of it, a bit, and felt strong again.
Gods, a focus of power indeed. No wonder they sealed it.
She took a step-forward, and felt unnaturally light.
"Let's see if there's anything here," she said to herself.
She let herself feel around her. She felt some natural cavities and boundaries, but nothing like back home in nature, which was filled with the purpose of life, and the rims it built. The only thing was a faint echo in... that... direction, of which she couldn't tell whether it was a large cave or a building left by the same people as the statues of the Good Lords.
She walked down the steps that circled the hill on which the circle stood, and went.
* * *
The circle was situated in a badland, with high-walled cliffs of red stone alternating with plains. She walked a short distance towards the highest peak she could see.
There was no life at all. The thin air was as dead as the waterless soil, and there was not a sign of plant-life of any kind. The stone around had been eroded by the weak winds of the atmosphere, and even the sand was listless. It just lied there, oppressed by the gravity.
She looked up again. It felt like she was at the bottom of a well.
"Now, Doe of Cordwish, how will you get back home?"
She looked behind her, at the circle of statues. Her footsteps left a weak trail. Her throat was dry as the damn air, and she remembered a trick Master had sometimes done, but which she had never had the strength to do. But in this place...
She took one of the potter's flasks, and lifted it up in the air. She sought out the direction of the faint wind, and turned its mouth towards it — and then she did what she did.
The wind, though it did not strengthen, blew a note on the flask that grew stronger with every moment. The bottle's rim was... Complicated, enlarged, cold and entrapping. She imagined it was like a giant cave at the bottom of a desert, slowly but surely chipping away at the wind, capturing each mote of moisture as it traveled through a sky abandoned by rain.
After a long while, she dropped her tired arm, and heard the sloshing of the bottle. She took a swig. It was cold, and slightly sweet — the water of another world.
She laughed, looked up at the Earth again, for that was what the moon was, and cursed the white burning Sun that was almost directly behind it. There was no denying it, she walked upon Drop-of-Wine, the red moon.
The oscillation of the strength of the portal made sense now. When the moon was in zenith, or over the meridian at least, it had been closest, and when it was in its nadir, it was one Earth diameter further away. The damn confluence that now presumably hid the other moons on the dark side of the Red Moon had given the cultists a larger window this time, though. She wondered how that worked out.
She noticed something about the ground. Though there were no footsteps at all, there were very faint dragged lines, as if someone had pulled a very fine sheet of cloth behind them. When she had found the first, the second was easier — and the third, and the fourth. The whole ground was criss-crossed with broad patterns, but most of them lead to the direction of the gate.
She strengthened her Inviolacy, and felt slightly betrayed. A monster couldn't live here — there wasn't anything to live on!
She continued her way, and came to the high hill she had seen. She scaled it with ease — it really was lighter to move — and stood on the summit.
Before her stretched a flat, featureless, red, plain. The faint traces travelled over it to what she presumed was the east, based on the rotation of the Earth above — or should she think of it as the west? If the planet rotated that way, then wouldn't the opposite side of the planet — the side equivalent to the face-side of the moon at the moment — be rotating in the opposite direction?
Doe changed her mind, and decided to go west instead, and she continued following the faint lines over the plain. What else was there to do?
* * *
The dreamer was shocked. What had that been? Something falling down from Home?
He felt the first stirrings of hope in a long, long, time.
A smile crept onto his face.
He stood, and waited.
* * *
She followed the path of the majority of the trails. Most traveled straight over the plain, but many, many didn't. The ground had formed a road where they'd joined.
The crescent Earth was thinning by the moment. A halo surrounded it, the residue of its blue skies. She tried to calculate in her mind. It took nine hours to travel a distance of one hour of sky on Earth... Depending on the size differences between the Earth crescent before, and now, she had been down on the red moon for, she gave up. A few hours.
She really wished the cultists had tried to to do the ritual during the new moon, for a change. In four days, or even two, or one, she could have gotten a glimpse of something every little cartographer, geographer, navigator, artist, nutter, or really, every anyone back up on Earth would have wanted a glimpse of.
"Stupid new Earth," she barked. "Not bloody fair."
She was not going to hang around for four and a half days just to get a glimpse of the most perfect map of the world possible.
She hadn't noticed in her earth-gazing the strange rock that was standing on the plain. She looked at it, and felt it, and started running towards it.
It was a man.
He was tall, and had a handsome face, in a classical mold. His features were like those of ancient Easterners, the straight, regal nose and high face with the tell-tale golden eyes, or at least that is what Doe saw beneath the short, red-dusted beard. When she mentally shaved him, he seemed much younger. His skin was tanned to a dark brown, highlighted with cakes of red dust, and a smile was fixed in a far-away expression, as he stared at the black sky in the east, where Doe had come from.
But what Doe noticed was the the length of his hair.
His hair was lagging on the ground behind him, a twenty-foot serpent that had been knotted together at the end. It was dragging soft tracks into the sand — this was the monster. His clothes were spun of a coarse fabric of black wool, in the vague shape of a robe. His finger-nails were chipped, and long, varying in their length where they had broken.
She approached him slowly, and gauged his unchanging expression. Finally, she stood before him.
"Hello," she said, in Trade.
Nothing happened for a while, and Doe was already reaching towards what had to be a life-like statue. The eyes in the unmoving face suddenly turned to her and startled her.
Slowly, the body started to move again. The thing began to breathe, and it turned its smiling face towards her, staring hungrily. Then it opened its mouth, screaming something hoarse something unintelligible, and jumped towards her.
Doe fell on her back, and, her heart beating in panic, dragged herself backwards from the figure that was then on its knees before her. It turned towards her, and she realised it was laughing maniacally, it's voice scratchy and broken. It scrambled to her, on her, and touched her face gently.
It croaked something in a language that Doe decided sounded vaguely like the Eastern languages, and continued laughing still. Then it started to weep in joy, and mutter in that vaguely familiar tongue.
Doe stared at it, still lying down and raising herself with her elbows, as it continued to touch her face and hair in wondrous disbelief.
It bent down into itself, cried and laughed for ten, twenty minutes, and stayed in place after she pulled herself away, and began circling it, and staring.
Its hair was long. Very long.
She was behind it when it suddenly stopped its convulsions. It looked around itself in panic, and naked, naive, completely and utterly uncovered relief flooded his expression as it saw her, still there. He stood up, dusted his hair-cloth fabric robes nervously, patted his hair, gathered it into his arms so that he could turn towards her, and approached Doe with an air of forgotten civilisation.
He bowed to her.
"Greetings, lady," he intoned Classic Trade in a deep, dry and hoarse voice, "to what may I owe this honour of your visit?"
Doe was shocked. His intonation of Classical Trade was strange to her ears — as if he had learned it only through books, and not at all through speaking with other people — and his manners were courtly and extremely, carefully polite.
"Uh," she uhhed in the same Classical Trade, bowing, "greetings, good sir. My visit here is but a fortuitous encounter, for my presence on this moon is an accident."
"I am sure it is," he said, "I do not think anyone would come here on purpose!" he laughed, a bit too loud, she felt. "Will you join me for refreshments? I have the only water on this world!"
Doe accepted, and joined him as he turned to walk towards the west.
* * *
"And that is Stubbed Toe," he said to Doe, pointing at another piece of plain, no different from the rest, "named after an incident where one of my friends, back Home," she heard yet again the deep longing that was in that word, "stubbed his toe. It was very amusing!"
They had been talking. Or rather, the man had been talking. He talked about the weather (there was none!), the food (only some water!), the stars (they were pretty much the same year in year out!), the soil (it was red!), the Sun (it was too bright!) and he talked about Home (no exclamation mark). All in very general and polite terms, devised to be very careful and unthreatening. Sometimes he paused mid-sentence to stare at her. Sometimes he just started laughing. His voice got better with everything he said.
Sometimes he would turn to her and ask in a fearful voice "May I touch you?" and when she said yes, he would quickly put his hand on her shoulder, and then pull it back, reassured. This repeated itself a several times, lessening as they walked further..
The plains were coming to an end, and they were now coming to another stretch of becliffed badlands. The trails of hair congregated here, and had burrowed deep into the ground. He let it hang loose again, and it covered his footprints.
"Ah, here we are!" he said, and turned towards a small opening in the cliffs, a gorge. It led to an open place, surrounded by steep cliff walls, and a cavernous building.
Doe stared. It had been hacked into the cliff-side — how deep, she couldn't tell — and was decorated with figures and images of Earth that continued into the stone walls and surrounded the whole place. Several of the images depicted the Seven Good Lords... No, the Eight Lords of the East, she noted. Each little engraving and image was perfect and beautiful, and... Slightly wrong. Many of them were wrong in the small things, as if they had been done by someone who had been shown a picture for a short while, and then had to draw a picture based on imperfect memory.
The man led her through the engraved doorway, and into the cavern that had been dug inside. There were carvings here too, and statues, and stone furniture. One pillar was filled with regular scratches, and the ceiling had several holes that let in the light.
"I am sorry to say," the man said, "that though I am in the possession of certainly the only — and the best! — water on this world, there is, in fact, nothing else to offer," he stretched out a stone bowl reverently, with muddy water in it that had come from a stone urn in the shade.
She took the water, and looked at it. "You cannot live on water alone," she said, and looked at the man. "How have you survived?"
He stared at her. "This world keeps me... not dead... I have gone long whiles without drinking water!" he grinned.
She took a sip, and grimaced at the brackish and bitter taste. The man offered her a seat on one of the stone stump chairs that surrounded a stone table, and took the place opposite to it when she acquiesced.
"The world has a will?" she asked.
"No, I do not think it has," he replied, "it is only that the naked power — you must feel it yourself — here channels itself through the only life-form on it, which is me."
"It is living through you?"
"And now you," he said.
Doe shuddered, and immediately felt her rim — and indeed, it had happened very slowly and imperceptibly. Small tendrils had gathered around her, and tried to burrow in. But she was a Sealer. She was Inviolate.
"No, I think I can keep myself," she said.
The man looked at her in astonishment. "You are a Seal Maker!"
"Then you must have... Opened the seal..." he licked his lips.
Doe's eyes squinted.
"Not I. Damned fire-wielder..." she muttered.
"No, I did not open the seal. I got caught in something..."
"But you have an inkling how to get out, yes?"
"Nevermind the buts, buts are, in my experience, unnecessary things!"
"I guess you would not have a stone harpoon here?"
He looked puzzled. "No, I am afraid there is no use for those kinds of things here. I could make you one, if it is needed!"
"Make one? You must be skilled in stonework."
"See for yourself!" he pointed around the cavern with his hand.
Doe paused. A distinct feeling of unease was coming over her.
"You carved and dug all this out, without tools of any kind, except rocks?"
"It wasn't easy!" he grinned, "just the digging took me decades! I wore out a lot of hard rocks in those days."
"Decades? You do not look older than twenty and five!"
"Do I? I fear I've forgotten," he said. He looked at the scratched pillar, and counted for a while. "I think I may be one about one thousand and forty years old this coming year."
Doe dropped the stone bowl, to the man's horror, and grasped his sleeve over the table. "Who are you?" she asked.
The man stared at the spilled water, as though he hadn't heard her.
Faced with his shock, she took out the sloshing bottle and the now-empty bowl, and emptied the little clear water that there was into it. The man stared hungrily at the pure water. He took it when she offered it, and brought it to his lips carefully. He cried tears.
She asked again: "Who are you?"
He thought for a moment, and then realised.
"Ah! I am terribly sorry," he said, tears still running from his face, and his voice shook with emotion. "I have not introduced myself!" He stood and bowed again. "I think I was called... Aeon of the Singing Trees. I was once a ruler."
Doe was in disbelief. "You are the one mentioned in the death records."
"You have heard of me?" he brightened.
The realisation built up. "And that means you're Lord Faran, the Traitor of the Lords of the East!"
She stood crouching from her chair, to escape, and made a superstitious warding sign from her child-hood — and noticed herself doing that. She stopped, straightened herself, and coughed.
"But Traitor?" he asked, his eyes a far-away look. "Do they really call me that? And Lords of the East? Do you mean us eight?"
"Back up on Earth," she said, catching her breath, "Lord Faran is a name no one speaks. You are a taboo, an evil from a thousand years in the past, who betrayed the Good Lords in some unknown way, and died."
Aeon looked sad. "I guess so... But what about my friends? What happened to them?"
"The Seven Good Lords are probably godlings by now," she said. "They are revered, religiously, by the modern peoples."
"Oh, my, they wouldn't have liked that at all," he said, and smiled.
"As are you, by less unsavoury people," she continued. "Most are just rebellious, but I've had some experience very recently of a group of cultists who were doing some rather nasty things!"
"By the Gods," he shook his head.
He took another sip — his enjoyment in the pure water was obvious — and took a deep breath. He suddenly cried and laughed a sharp, quick burst, and then breathed for a while, as if he was composing himself for danger.
"I was... Am a mage myself," he said. "But not a Seal Maker, a daitros... I was a moirate, who is powerless over seals and openings. When I was captured here, I could never get out. But you, you are a Seal Maker."
Aeon turned his eyes towards Doe, and pleaded.
"Please take me away from here. Please take me Home."
Doe's answer was immediate. "You are the Traitor. I do not know you. You may have lived here alone for a thousand years — but what was your crime? What is your story? I cannot trust you before I know."
Aeon thought for a while.
He lifted his stone bowl.
"Can I have some more water, Seal Maker?"
* * *
The Seal Maker had told him to bring a water urn up on the cliff. The steps that led above the cavern took them on the roof, and she put it against the wind.
She reminded him of Deile. Ah, Seal Makers. Always trying clever new things.
They sat on the benches he had made — was it six hundred years ago — for stargazing, waiting for the urn to be whistled full of pure water. It was heavenly, a small piece of paradise in hell. He drank his full of the sweet water, and then some more.
He remembered something.
"Ah, yes, I may have introduced myself — but may I know your name, Seal Maker?"
She looked hesitant, and finally gave her name. Doe. The dreamer thought. Doe, Doe... Why did it feel so familiar.
"Ah, the goat girl," he said aloud.
Doe was startled. The dreamer remembered now — back Home, he hadn't been the dreamer he was here — it was bad, or strange, scary. He hurried to tell her, not to frighten her and drive here away, nothing but that, please.
"Dreams", he said. "If you sleep here, you will dream of the Earth above, and what happens there. Of course," a laugh, sound natural, do not drive her away, "I can hardly bring to mind anything randomly... I need to be reminded of what I remember."
"Can you remember a vision from five hundred years ago?"
He tried. "Yes, I remember... If I think of the year then, I remember people mentioning the year, or reading the year, or writing it down... And I can wiggle into those, and go further. But I do not have them in my mind all the time."
She was wrinkling her forehead, and he knew she felt something. Being this isolated in a world with only two people must have made her hypersensitive to him, a point of light in the darkness. He wondered if something happened with his lamine.
"Let me feel your rim," she said. The way she used those ordinary words to mean specific terminology reminded him of Deile again.
She touched his head, and he felt a nostalgic tickle. How many times had he been healed of a cut wound by his beloved friend? He didn't remember.
"Please, try to recall a dream memory," she said, and he did.
Dreams about... Say, hammers. He'd wished he'd had one so many times. Rocks didn't cut it.
Forges and building sites and some battles ran through his mind, indistinct and blurry, like all dreams. He remembered their meanings, usually, but couldn't describe them as a vision.
"That is enough, thank you."
For a while, he remembered names and places and incidents and languages — and then they were gone, irrelevant.
"What did you feel?" he asked, and Doe looked uncomprehending.
"I do not understand your language," she said.
"How peculiar," he said, and felt something slip away.
"Now you are speaking Classical Trade again."
"Apologies. I said: 'what did you feel?'".
"Something quite interesting. It seems you do not, in fact, remember your 'dreams' at all. Instead, they have been reified and just... Float around you."
"Of course," it dawned to him, "you must have felt it when they violated my lamine..."
"This is a truly strange, strange world," she mused, and looked at the deep blue horizon.
She took a bowl and drank water with it.
"Now, your story, Lord Faran."
He wondered where to begin. It was hard to remember... He could remember his friends, his loves, family, some of his servants and retainers, but the world outside them were... Imperfect.
"Yes," she said, "your carvings are... A bit strange in places..."
Those carvings were done within two hundred years of coming here.
"... You didn't want to forget."
I didn't want to forget.
* * *
We were a bit tired, I suppose. The cities were building themselves, thousands of little things that had to be done had suddenly disappeared with the time, and we had finally learned to delegate. The horrors of the Broken Wars were long over. Our predecessors were all gone, and only we were left, eight young students who had decided to do a simple thing, and take over the world for the greater good.
I suppose you know, if it has become so historical with time, how we ended up there at the top, so I won't go too deep into that. Suffice to say we did it, in the end, and I did my part.
But there were still things that we did not let anyone else do. There must have been hundreds of young, adventurous young thaumates like us, who would have gladly gone to the end of the world to destroy whatever pitiful demon or crazed lord of the past era lurked there. But it was the only time we felt like we used to. No more politics, no more power-struggles, no more herding and leading and no more disappointments. It was just us, against whatever the old bitch Fate decided to throw at us.
We had decided — well, I say 'we', but I had my selfish misgivings — that I would restrict the use of my magic when we became rulers. After all, controlling people's chances and chreon is not... Right. And they were right, I see that now. You must not control people like that. It does not lead to any good, in the end. They must have been right, otherwise these thousand years could not have been my rightful due — right? Right? Right.
I was anxious to use it, though. Being a moirate can be a heady feeling. It is like being an ideologue, and seeing people, and seeing their problems — and deciding you have the exact right tool for that. Except for moirates, it is a hundred times worse, because we know.
I was strong then. Each of us was. After all, it was the power that we absorbed that allowed us to rise so high, so fast, that, and a small, well-placed chreon from me.
Oh, you didn't know?
I am saddened, a bit. So it seems it never became an art, like the rest...? It is difficult to believe that you would know so much about magic, so much more than we did... Seems that of the moirates, only fortune-tellers and prophets remain, just as they have remained for thousands of years... Well, I was one of the few moirates at all, just as my friends were the few who were true scholars, and not just traditionalists who lived their magic from generation to generation... But why would they suppress that? Or I guess it wasn't suppression. I wasn't there, to support it. I had no disciples, not yet, I was not able to spread my knowledge, and take part in this new wave of progress of yours.
And even if they tried to destroy my work, and dissolve my rule, I guess they were right.
So moirateia never grew. No wonder you didn't know about it, daitros. It is the magic to control... Fate. I will not go deeper here, but I will tell you something. Each one of us, each thing, everything, can be thought of as a receptible, in which there are... Fishes swimming around. And those fishes are chreons. They are fates. Some of the fishes are big, and some are small. And sometimes, a new fish jumps into the jar, or an old one jumps out of it. They are not really "fate"; they are not predetermined. It has more to do with... Possibility, and probability. When you are about to die, you may feel the gates of Death. But that is only in preparation. Death is like walking over a network of a thousand bridges, suspended over nothingness. Some of the bridges are broad and safe, and some of them bridges are needle-thin... And when you walk a safe bridge, you can still slip, and fall down. No one can predict death, least of all death itself, after all.
Chreons are a lot like that. You might have lots of contradictory chreons swimming around in your jar, fighting for dominance. One chreon might be that you are bound to be king — and another is that you will die on the head-block. Fortune-tellers and prophets and all sorts of sooth-sayers, they can see or feel at least some of the chreon swimming about the world (even the world has it's fishes, and they tend to be big ones, but of course, there tend to be a lot of them, too, so you never know), and they probably influence them too. A fortune-teller probably won't tell you any bad fortunes, because most people are decent inside, and they feed, if only a little, the nice tiny fishes.
Well, the fish analogy comes from my master, but he talked about being fishermen at the River Destiny, and trying to catch the fishes in the river, and it all depends on where you stand and what tools you have and what kind of person you are, and where the fishes are and what type of fish... And there are a thousand different rivers, etc. etc. But I never felt that it gave you a correct picture about the reification of the chreon themselves — they are not free particles that can be shared, they are particular to one person, and they can be identical to each other, sure but.
I see your point, but still, I think the jar metaphor works better.
But confections do not jump out of the basket by themselves. It would need to be some sort of (at the very least) semi-autonomous agent.
Well, but doing that, and introducing the environment of possibility into it as the selective agent makes it a bit more difficult to imagine — I can think of it as a kind of... I do not know, maybe some kind of bush which catches into your clothes and rips off... Burrs and adds new ones. Burrs. I haven't thought of burrs in years. Oh yeah, where was I. A kind of bush through which you walk, and where you are infected and unfected of different kind of burrs — representing chreons — as you walk through it, and the environment is represented by your location in the bush and other things... Yes, it kind of works. But I like the fish-jar better.
A moirate is a fish-farmer. We do not just feed the fish — we breed them and nourish them and name them and control them. I controlled fate, Doe the Daitros. And the damned things led to my downfall.
As I said, my chreon led us to rulership. It was a large thing, and took a lot of strength, but we were, like I noted, very strong. And the larger the fate, the more improbable it is, the stronger you have to feed it and control it. There are prerequisites — and we had them.
I do not know how many people have the things needed to be able to ascend to such power. Maybe all do. But we had it, and we used it, and the chreon helped us.
We went around, after its fulfilment, basically just picking fights with the world. And the last time I went, was to travel to Pepper Vale — they still call it that? — and the village in the valley there. No, I do not know its name.
Anyhow, the eight of us, and some valets and so forth, we had learned that one of the focuses of power that had been used by the Sincere Empire was still active at the Black Teeth.
The "Obsidian"? The rock there isn't even glass, it's just black. Before it crumbled, the place was white, I understand, yes the chalk. You know of its history then, probably more than I — it was not one of my interests. Warna was the historian amongst us, the gods know why.
Anyhow, there we were. A focus of power was simple. There weren't any crazed priests or cultists (Yes, we had them even in our days, concealing robes and everything. It is a universal tendency of the minds of men, I was once told by Rerem, he was an empath, well, you knew that, of course.), just get in there, let Deile Seal it quick-like, check around if we can cement it down so it'll keep for a couple of centuries, and then get the hell out of there and find ourself an inn somewhere, for the celebration.
Deile is Balei. We two had nick-names for each other.
I'll... I'll have a sip of water, please.
Gods below, this is good water.
Anyhow, the eight of us. We were me, Deile — Balei —, Rerem, Warna, Lofeng, Peina, Sowa and Menta. Mages of different stripes, but of course Deile and I were the strongest. The others were too specific... Well, some of them, like Sowa and Peina had very broad domains. But still, I would dare to say we two were the strongest. Even Manta was just a lektÍs. Communicator. Warna was just our nekreus, though a strong one for that kind. They get around, don't they? And the others.
Well, yes, it's a fascinating question. I guess seal-making has changed from my times — it must have. What has changed it?
Interesting theories. They sound plausible... Small changes over time, incorporated into a tradition that grows in strength over time, something like that? And each mage gives her contribution to it, expanding the "semantic domain", do I use that term correctly? Good. I can see that.
Of course, in my time, we hardly had traditions. No one talked to each other... A few generations before us, they'd just as likely have tried to claw each other's eyes out. Our masters changed it, but they couldn't be encompassed by that change. I guess we were a first generation of... Something. You call it science. I am not so sure you can speak of it that way.
Anyhow, where were I. We came to Pepper Vale. Etcetera, etcetera. Focus of power. Ah, yes.
Doe, let me say to you: I loved each of my friends like myself. More than myself. And I loved the world — or thought I did, I guess. Maybe I am just speaking out of nostalgia... Absence makes the heart yearn. I yearn, daitros. I yearn.
But they sometimes made me so infuriated. I thought they couldn't see... The necessity, the truth of a way. Deile sometimes agreed with me, sometimes not. She was very tender-hearted. Sometimes she disagreed because she thought it was too hard, or dark, or evil, as did the others.
I wanted to use the Focus of Power.
It was strong. You can feel it around you as we speak. The strength of the Red Moon. It is incredible, a virgin world of raw magic and strength, unsullied by life and sentience, in our grasps. Though of course we didn't know the source then. But it wasn't evil by itself. They saw that, they admitted that. They feared it still. We could have used it for the greater good, just as we had used all the others. But they were tired, as were I. No more. Let history roll by itself.
So we went to bed that night. And I arose, to do a spell.
I had worked on it for... Years. It was meant to be the perfect chreon. To create a world of utter happiness. It was a heaven, just as we had dreamed to make. A heaven is not a place, we said. A heaven is a time... Heaven is what you make out of Hell.
Of course then it all went wrong.
I have to blame myself. It keeps me sane.
I hadn't bothered to protect my insane little scheme with a chreon of its own. Standard procedure, start small and grow upwards. But I didn't, mainly because I was confident and because there was no real danger.
Ah, I will forever remember his face when he came and demanded to know what in hell I were doing. Manta, my dear friend. He was cocky, sometimes arrogant, overbearing and many other small things. I loved him dearly.
I told him simply. I told him what I was doing. At the time it felt quite wrong of him to be incensed so, and right to be angered back.
We fought there, at the focus point. My chreon was almost ready, I could smell the fruits of paradise. But we fought, and something went pling.
I struck first. I remember clearly. I weren't sane, I know, I was so frustrated. I wanted to pat him away, and I struck him. I was foiled by my own chreons, of course, that protected him, just as much as we were protected by Deile's seals and barriers, and Peina's amulets and all the little things we had made for each other. Those chreons I had made for us were... "Never lose a fight", "stay alive", "never be wounded", "defeat your opponent", and so forth.
I was mad, and shouted at him. But you should not let your feelings get over yourself when doing such delicate magics as I was attempting that night, when I was creating a mother of all chreons.
It became tainted from my emotions, the turbulent madness I was in. The anger, the frustration, the slow desperation of never seeing our heaven, but maybe creating a hell instead. Those, and more were absorded by the spell. It became a monster.
They could see it. It had grown so large and strong that my friends, my dearest friends, who had come to witness our row in the night, could see the chreon grow larger with hate and evil. It must have seemed like... Hell. I had shown them chreons before. It is not hard to do. We had all played around with each other's magics, so we knew them well. They could see it.
I didn't notice, until late. And before that, I struck Menta — Menta, who of all of us was the least strong in battle, with only his lekteia, speech and communication, to help him. I almost killed him with my curse, a chreon I had learned to make in all our journeys and battles together, a deadly thing. He didn't die, it wasn't even close. But it was enough.
The others tried to stop me, right then and there. They had fear and horror in their eyes. I must have seemed to have gone mad... Well, no "seemed" there, I guess. I was mad, and they could see the chreon monster.
I noticed it then. It felt like... There are words to describe it. But I am not as well versed in this Trade as I am in my mother tongues. I cannot say the right words. It felt like someone had cut my ribs open and hit the flesh beneath with broken glass. Something like that. It was a horrible feeling.
That chreon would have made this world a Hell, Doe the Daitros. Instead of the paradise I had imagined, it would have become a twisted, imperfect thing. I could not let it happen.
I tried to destroy it. No luck, I think you can imagine. It had grown too strong with the focus. I tried to get closer to its core, to divert it away from the Earth. And then someone struck me with a spell. Probably Deile — sweet Deile — who tried to Seal me. It made me panic. I didn't want... For something to happen. And suddenly, the chreon was mine. It had become part of my fate. There was nothing else to do, but to accept it.
So I took it, and absorbed it. I do not know what it must have looked like. Probably something ominous. Maybe it looked to them like a fate meant for a demon ruler of the world — maybe I wanted to become a king of everything?
They tried to stop me from doing whatever they thought I was going to do. Destroy the world? That, too, sounds likely. I was pushed against the focus of power, and tried to use it. But the connections I had made, the lines and string of power I had built, the mesh between the chreon I had taken into myself and the focus of power I had used, they were too strong, and so I was pulled in.
It hurt like hell. I must have writhed and screamed, but I don't remember. And then I must have been taken in through the portal (For that's what it is, isn't it? I do not believe that it was meant to be a focus. Or maybe it was.) which must have been a suitably grisly sight. I was dead to them, mad and hateful and spiteful in their memories, gone beyond sanity into evil.
I do not know what happened there, after my death.
There was... Darkness, and stars, and a red moon.
* * *
"I floated in the void for twenty years, or so. I do not remember much, because... You went through it. It is not a place for thought or understanding."
Doe nodded. "It was overwhelming... No self."
"There was something I remember... Now I realise it was the Seal. My dear little Deile's seal. Roots and strings and knots. There was something else there, but I can't recall what. Not important."
"And then you were here," she said.
"Yes," he replied, "this world with an eternal night-sky and black horizon, red dust and an ever-present Earth above."
They looked at it. The crescent she had first seen had disappeared, and now the opposite side was starting to be illuminated by the halo of the atmosphere.
"I spend most of my time asleep and dreaming," he said, "laying out on the plains, waiting for the dreams of Earth."
"No way out, stuck at the bottom of the universe, staring upwards, forever." She muttered. "Why can't you just use your magic to create a favourable fate for yourself here? To change destiny so that you may leave?"
"I tried," he said, "and failed. Let me show you." He stood up. "Please, examine my lamine," he said.
She stoop up, as well, and put her hand to his shoulder. Aeon started muttering to himself — incantations? whatever suited him, she guessed — and she felt something stir.
He had been right. It did feel like fish. Many fishes, under the surface.
"Here, here it comes," he whispered.
It was a giant. A horrifying giant that swam up from the depths of the oceans, guided by nothing by the darkness itself. It was a devourer of things, a monster.
Doe took her hand off.
"The Chreon of Hell," she whispered, her brows furrowed.
Aeon grinned maniacally. "A beauty, isn't it?"
"Can't you get rid of it?" she asked.
"It is not easy," he said. "The connections of power to this place... Never broke. It is chained here. And I with it — I cannot put it anywhere else. There is no one else here."
Doe realised what he was saying, and backed from him.
"I will not put it on you," he said, "please." He pleaded. The loneliness in his voice was heart-breaking.
She decided then to help the helpless man before her. Damn it all, she thought.
"Can I help you?"
The reaction she had been expected was not forthcoming. Aeon looked at her for a moment, and then began crying and sobbing and laughing at the same time. Hiccups shook his body, as he lowered himself to kneel besides one of the stone benches, and he coughed out.
Then he laughed some more. Tears of mirth and joy smeared his face again. He had cried so much the past hours Doe had known him that the red dust that had gathered in the crevices of his skin were soon gone.
It stopped after a while. Then he started crying.
Doe had never been good at comforting. But she tried.
They went back inside, and took the water with them. Aeon showed Doe deeper into the cavern home. It continued deep, and became more chaotic as they went. Stalagmite and stalactice statues (if you could call them stalagmites and stalactites, that is, for they had been just carved out of the cavern rock itself) of Aeon's Friends popped into sight from behind randomly placed pillars, and snaking corridors. There was still light from holes in the ceiling, but they were getting higher.
"You are a Sealer," Aeon spoke. "You are heaven-sent to me. A Sealer is exactly what I need."
"I hear that a lot."
"I need you to seal the chreon."
"I thought you might," she said. "I would not want to bring that thing back with me on Earth at any cost." She took out the monkey skull. "What about this?"
Aeon looked at it. "No. Too weak, even though something from a living thing... And it's a skull, yes, I could see it working. But it is too weak. It would crumble in mere centuries."
He continued: "I tried, in the beginning, to transfer the chreon to something else, anything else, on this wretched moon," Aeon spoke, quietly, "and failed a thousand times. I am not a Daitros. So I had an idea."
They came to a great room inside the bed-rock, dug out over a hundred years, Doe surmised.
"Or rather, maybe an insane obsession. It is hard to tell."
Doe stared. In the middle of the room of stood a life-size statue of Aeon himself. It was kneeling on the ground, defeated, resting its hands on the ground. A long beam of light cast its face in shadow.
"In the statue," they both said.
"But I wasn't a Sealer," he said, "and gave up. But I still dug the damn thing, and I made it. And this is its prison. This will be its prison!" He cackled, and started coughing, and looked at Doe.
"Please," he said.
Doe went to the statue, and felt its rim. It was... strong. Very strong. Lord Faran... Aeon was no Sealer, but his hands were able to create a rim, just as any sentient being could. And this rim was created with a purpose, and a steady want.
The statue was even hollow. How in the hells had he accomplished that? Well, nevermind. It helped.
"I can do it," she said. "Come here," she commanded.
He leapt forth and stood by her. She put her hand to his head, pushed him down to kneel, and did the same to the statue. She felt their rims.
"Show me the Chreon of Hell," she said, and he did.
She felt it swim under his rim, or maybe around it — it was hard to tell with such unrehearsed reifications. She had his cooperation, so no creation of eyes was needed... Where would she take it out?
"Open your eyes," she said to him," and do not close them."
He opened his eyes, wide, and held them. She delved deeper into the reification, the illusion, the image of his rim. It was a pool.
It was black, surrounded by a plain of white sand. Ripples ran over it, white semi-circles of light where the waves reflected the sky.
Even though it was black, she could sense the Chreon. It was large. She went to the pool of black, pulled back the sleeve of her robe, and put her hand in the water.
She had learned a trick from an uncle of hers about catching fish with your bare hands. It was called "tickling". You let your hand rest there, crooked and unmoving, and when the fish swam over it, softly, softly YOU CATCH IT.
It was gigantic. She felt her power vane (and then return, as the World fed her) faster than ever before. The strain made her feel like someone was pressing her eyes out from the inside of her skull, and she quickly tried to ram the Chreon into the statue-receptible that she touched with her right hand.
It was over, and relief flooded over her. Her vision was black for a moment, and then it passed. She turned her eyes to the statue.
The red stone looked ill. Black spots, like the plague she had seen, were growing slowly on its skin. She felt it again. It held.
She turned to the left, and witnessed Aeon holding his eyes in pain.
"I am sorry!" she said "it was even larger than I'd thought."
"No, it is fine," he gasped, "what about the damn thing?"
"Safely sealed inside the statue."
"Is-is it?" he laughed, and smiled. He was silent for a moment, and Doe guessed that he was delving himself. "Oh thank the gods. Ouch!"
She kneeled beside him. "How much does it hurt?"
"A lot," he said, "but I would pay this pain a million fold," he grinned.
He stood up. "Now, let us go to the portal." He took a step, and stopped.
"Could you please lead the way?" he asked her. "I... I have trouble opening my eyes."
* * *
They were walking the paths of the hair monster towards the east — or was it west? Doe couldn't recall what she'd decided it was — at any rate, towards the circle of statues. Aeon was holding a large glass-stone knife. He'd told her that the sky-stone that had melted the rock had almost killed him. It had been the most excitement at the time in three hundred years, so he'd remembered.
"There are many things to be done — some have to do with your own escape from here. Tell me, what happened at the gate, in detail, please."
She told him about how she had come to the moon. The broken seal, and the hands behind her back. The star-road and unseen traveller, and the white, dead hands that guarded the portal.
"That is new to me," he said. "But it sounds... Familiar."
She took out her pipe, and put a sealed ember in it. It failed to catch light. She cursed.
"I think it's the air here," Aeon said. "Nothing burns."
"There's probably no white air here." Aeon looked at her in puzzlement. "Ah, you wouldn't know. It is a physical substance, a kind of air. We discovered them some five hundred years ago. There're even some magics with physical substances as their domain, not unlike ordinary elementalists."
Aeon looked at Earth. "I need to get back up there."
"It's great fun, I am assured," Doe tried to suck life into the pipe, and gave up. "I wonder how I'm able to damn well breathe."
"It's the world..." he said. "It's roots are probably entwined around my soul already."
Doe thought about it for a moment. "That could be a problem," she mused, "but we'll burn that bridge when we get there."
They walked on over the plain. Doe had long before lost her sense of time. She thought that Aeon probably could tell — the Earth above was a very accurate clock — but she didn't ask.
Sometime Aeon muttered his chreon incantations.
"They are chreons of protection and success," he said.
"So that we will get out of here?"
"Yes! And the irony is that I am using the power of this world to escape it..." he laughed.
"On Earth you will be weaker," she realised.
"Nevermind that, nevermind it to hell!" he shouted jubilantly out towards the desert. "What use is power anyhow? Damn all power! I just want back Home!"
"You need to learn so much... Including Modern Trade," she mused.
"But you speak Trade, don't you?" he was puzzled.
"That is because I am a scholar," she replied, "we had to learn many dead languages. I always thought only necromancers and historians had any use of it. You live and learn... And of course it is used between snobs who do not deign to speak contemporary Trade to each other."
He muttered to himself for a while, and had a faraway look in his eyes.
"Like this?" he said in halting Modern Trade.
Doe was surprised for only a moment.
"The dreams," she squinted. "Come here," she commanded.
She put her hand on his head and felt his rim. The dream of Modern Trade was bouncing around in there, she could feel now. And soon it would be gone.
She absentmindedly took out the monkey skull and then put it back, just as absentmindedly. She would have to seal the dream inside his head.
It was suddenly gone.
"Ah, it's gone," Aeon said in Classical Trade.
"I need to see them clearer," she said to herself. "Then I could catch them and maybe sell them..."
A thought struck her, and she took out the monkey skull again.
"Yes, much better than a bottle, for thoughts and dreams," she muttered, as Aeon looked on in bemusement.
"Put this on your head," she gave him the skull, which he obediently did. "Now, capture one of your dreams."
He did so, and Doe concentrated. If she concentrated enough, if she believed enough, if she made them her domain, she could see them. She stared at Aeon standing before her, with the monkey skull on top of his own, and resisted laughing. See... See...
There was a vague outline. She could see something, and if you give a mage one little finger, she will take your whole hand.
Suddenly, she could see them. They were everywhere.
"Ye gods," she covered her eyes from the sudden false brightness.
She looked again. The whole sky around her was full of... Lights. Round balls of light with comet tails flew here and there, and concentrated around Aeon.
"Can I stop now, Master Doe?" he asked, in Modern Trade.
"Hm, yes, yes," she said. A small light-ball was rising from him, and soon disappeared into the others.
"They're everywhere," she muttered, and looked upwards.
"You can see them?" Aeon asked in surprise.
Doe nodded affirmatively.
"But... How can you do that? Is it within your domain to see them?"
Doe looked at Aeon, and said: "I am just that good," and grinned. "But more seriously," she continued, "it is part of our... 'science'. We have learned the methods of scope of domain, and we can manipulate them to a very small extent... And I am a Sealer. We are very blessed in this way."
Aeon nodded. "Ha, 'bedamned Seal Makers and their fickle minds', my master used to say."
"And of course," she continued, "I am one of the very best. I may not be as strong as my master," she laughed, "but she was more rigid than I."
She went to Aeon, and took the monkey-skull into her hand. She raised it high above her, and willed it to be... A receptible.
The dreams that circled around Aeon suddenly started to swirl around her, too. At the centre, when they touched the monkey skull, they were absorbed, and disappeared within it. A swirl, a whirlpool, a maelstrom of lights flew dancing towards the bone in her hand, and she felt it gain phantom weight, as dreams started haunting it. She could swear she saw its eyes glow.
Then it was full, and she could make it absorb no more. The maelstrom ended, and she panted. The lights in the sky had not lessened one bit.
She took the monkey skull, and put it to her head, and felt its rim.
She immediately pulled it away again.
She had felt the dreams, dreamt them, known them. She had suddenly known a language she hadn't before, and recognised places where she hadn't been before.
She grinned. "Four crowns in rest, gentlemen," she said, "the lady wins the pot."
She took one of the dreams from the skull — it was something about Coroban — and put it in Aeon's head, and sealed it there.
He screamed in pain. "Bloody hell," she said.
"Are you all right?" she asked, after he stopped.
"Yes, yes I think so... I don't think the dreams work that way."
"Well, at least you are speaking Modern Trade now," she replied.
"I am? Oh, I am!"
"But I guess you can't just absorb the dreams just like that," she said.
"No, you can't," he panted.
"I'll have to get these to an empath, though," and put the monkey skull in her bag.
* * *
The circle of statues came in sight, and they accelerated their trudging walk. They walked up the steps, and came to the circle.
"Oh no," Aeon said, "oh gods, oh damn it all."
The Seal had regrown again. Doe had wondered if it was possible that the roots had straddled both sides of the portal, the star-path, but it seemed to be true. The roots surrounded the suppressed portal, which had shrunk again, though they were not near to completion.
"Magnificent," she said. "Lady Balei was a genius."
Aeon glared at her.
"But I am now here," she grinned, "in this place, where the powers flow freely."
She took one of her daggers. "For something so organic, this will do," she plunged it into the mass of glowing roots, and unsealed.
The world behind her pushed, and she felt its strength channel through her, as she let it through. She willed the Seal to unseal, and felt it strain, and break, or be cut.
Pieces of the "roots" fell down and disappeared, and the portal within buckled, and exploded into its full size.
Aeon almost started crying again, and stretched his hands towards it, and felt it.
"It tingles," he said in wonderment.
Doe shuddered when she thought of the white beast under the surface.
"There is nothing else here," she said anyhow. "Let's try this."
She put her hand inside the portal, and opened it, a small precaution. "Hold my hand," she stretched it out, and he took it. She stepped inside, and saw the stars again.
* * *
She pulled him into the void, and felt at the same time herself dissolve into vagueness. Not this time, she strengthened her rim, and divided herself from the nothingness around her.
He came, too, and she saw him become indistinct. She gathered him into the memory of a flask, sealed him safe within it, and put it in her pocket. He had floated in the void for decades; she couldn't let that happen to herself.
There was no white beast to be seen, for which Doe felt considerable relief. And she saw the tattered remains of the unsealed Great Seal from this side. She looked closer at them, for anything of use — her research, how long was it since she'd thought about it last? — but could not find anything. The remains were slowly fading away, though new tendrils could be seen.
I wish I had time, she thought, and turned away from the red star before her, and towards what she thought must be the other end of the portal.
She began floating upwards — or was it sinking? either way — through the star path. She noticed that they weren't fixed stars. They moved around freely, independently, and when one of them flew beside her, close. It was a small something-living, she felt. It had wings, and flew away from her. She continued floating forwards.
She realised the void was not. There was life in it. A swarm of something swam above her — white as the winged one had been. Sometimes she saw roots from the Great Seal, bridging the gap between here and there, and other things. The void was turning before her eyes into something more coherent, something like what she imagined the ocean was like. A bottomless sea, in which life dwelled in enormous silence.
She felt a tugging at her breast, and took out the memory of the flask she held Aeon in. It was shaking, and she could feel something pulling it. There was a... Connection there. Sinews or veins of something... That led towards the red star.
It was the World, trying to keep its prisoner. She opened the flask, and took him out.
Help me help help help me, he pleaded, the strings of soul tugging him back down.
She tried to feel his rim. It was indistinct in the void, but she felt the strings of web that had grown around him, fed him and kept him alive on that hostile star. She took the memory of a knife, and tried to cut them away, and with each tendril, she could feel his screams of pain, black blood in the void and his encouraging mumbling to continue, he was fine, help me.
He started incanting, creating a chreon as she cut and bled him.
Hold us keep us tie us together do not let me fall down there again do not let get to please I swear I will keep to you I swear I will do thy bidding whatever may come peril or woe or joy and adventure or death and pain I swear upon my soul to be faithful to thee so please protect me from that place please bring me home Doe of Cordwish the Sealer, Master—
She felt it overwhelm her, and him, and it entered her, she could feel. The strings were stronger, and pulled him, and she could not cut them enough — his incantation continued, as her grip on him became more strenuous, and the might of a star pushed her away — she held him, just, and cut and cut damn it all and.
Finally, she cut one tendril, and the rest were ripped away. Aeon screamed his agony, and was flung towards her, and she caught him. He sobbed into the void, pleading thank you, thank you, and she put him gently into safety again, and sealed the thousand tiny wounds that had been cut into his rim.
* * *
She swam upwards, slowly, so slowly. Damned ocean — why not a sky instead? Then she could fly.
It was still dark. There was no light above or below. The star path was endless, and studded with only those slowly moving stars.
She was tired. She had been tired for long now. The powerful feeling of vitality of the red star had been an illusion, and she could feel the weariness of a day or more spent in constant action start to rot her bones. She wished she'd see the damn portal... Where was it?
There was nothing. She felt weaker again. It would feel so good to just let go, and drop her barrier — but if she did that, she would become incoherent in the void, and float.
Maybe she could close her eyes for just a moment... A moment of rest. Just a little bit.
She caught herself. And then she felt the movement in the void behind her.
She turned, and saw the white beast. A sound of horror left her.
It was an unclear white blotch in the darkness behind her, but she could see it move slowly towards her. She turned upwards, and swam, fear filling her.
She knew it was closing in on her. The movement in the aether felt like streams in the water, as it slowly gained on her. She didn't dare to look back. Where was the damn portal?
And suddenly, she saw it — and almost screamed in despair.
The Earth portal was completely covered in the roots of the Great Seal. It was a giant maze, nothing like it had been on the other side. It was a gigantic mass, of which she couldn't even tell where the portal was. The outer layer of roots seemed dead, and didn't glow. Only the center was alive.
She swam towards it in desperation. Why was she so slow? She could feel false streams touch her, and resisted screaming — had it caught up to her?
Finally, she came to the roots, and hid inside them. She turned to watch behind her — and screamed, as she stared into the face of the beast.
It had stopped a short distance from the roots. It didn't fit in. Her heart beat in horror as she looked at it.
It was great, and white, a slithering giant. Dead-white human arms grew on it like like fur for a short length of its fat worm body.
Its face was a giant, dead mask of a human face, with black eyes and red irises that stared at her expressionlessly. The arms that ringed it, like a mane, wriggled and twitched and moved, but it stayed where it was. She turned away, and swam deeper into the roots from under that stare.
Her heart continued beating a long time after the beast was out of sight. The dead and dark roots gave way to living and glowing ones, and her surroundings became lighted. She suddenly remembered how tired she was. Well, she was now at the portal.
She followed the lights deeper into the maze of roots. They became more and more bright, until she couldn't even see anything. The light swallowed her, and she felt strange. The void around disappeared, and she felt like she was falling.
* * *
Colourless hills stretched out to the horizon before Doe. She was standing on one. The colour of the day is: white, she thought, and turned around.
There was a round table, with nine backless seats around it. On one of them sat an old lady, wearing white robes highlighted with black. She raised her hand and said: "Hello."
"Hello," Doe said hesitantly, and stepped closer.
"Would you like some tea? It's ambrosia."
"From the land of the Dead?" she asked, and sat down before the cup.
"The very same," the old woman said, and sipped hers. Doe followed her example.
They said nothing for a while, until the end of the cup.
"I want your secret," Doe said. "How did you keep that thing alive so long? How does it keep on going without corruption?"
Lady Balei laughed. "Don't ask question whose answers you know already," she said.
Doe grimaced. "So there's nothing there..."
"No," a sip again, "there isn't. My echo told you that. Hands of a god," she put her cup down on the table, and showed her hands.
"You were just that damn good," Doe said. She laughed. "Damn it all. Mind if I smoke?"
"Not at all," Lady Balei said, and took her own pipe out. It was the same kind as Doe's kesher-pipe, long and thin with a small metal chamber that was connected to a metal mouth-piece with a wooden stem in between.
"I have some Island Blend," Doe offered the pouch, "which they claim hasn't changed in over a thousand years."
Lady Balei's face brightened. "My god, that's about how long I've been without it," she took a pinch.
Doe looked at the pipes as she lit them ("Ember?", "Thank you, dear.").
"I was given this pipe by my master," she said, and took a drag. "Who said she had gotten it from her master. I had to replace the reed and recast the old barriers against decay on it, like she had done, and her master before her, based on an old spell that we couldn't replicate."
"Pretty good, eh?" the old lady raised her eyebrow.
"An authentic relic of the Good Lords would fetch a very pretty penny on the market," she said. "Possibly a stunning crown."
Lady Balei laughed.
"Too bad no one would believe me, though," Doe sighed. "Could you give me any good pointers on something else you may have left behind? A comb? Hair-pins? A pen would be very nice, very romantic. A method of creating a perfect barrier?"
"Nothing today, dear," she said, and took a drag. "This is really good pipe-leaf," she said.
"I'll remember that the next time I'm making an offering."
"Would you?" Lady Balei looked hopeful, "we only get fruits and maybe flowers now-and-then, and milk and mush."
"I approve, y'know," Lady Balei said. "It's been weighing me for so long..."
"I could see that. Weeping ghost-echoes and anonymous graves..."
"We got very afraid. Too afraid. And then we pushed him. Menta never forgave himself... And so we destroyed his work. You will understand our shock when we realised he was still alive out there somewhere... Of course, we were already dead by then, and unable to do anything about it. And the others were still afraid... Of revenge, of the possibility of evil."
"Was Lord Menta the voice from Death who gave me the duty?"
"Yes, that old curmudgeon," the Lady replied. "I was before that. Damn things are useless — did you notice how it turns into metre? Or did the message rhyme?"
"Iambic pentameter. Or tetrameter, I don't remember which."
"Bloody useless things. This is much better," she gestured around her.
Doe puffed out some smoke. "What is this place?"
"Inside the Great Seal. I made it, so I have some control over it, even in death. Especially considering my current condition as a god."
Doe grimaced. "What was that white beast?"
"It's perfectly harmless," the Lady said. "Just something that was hatched inside the Great Seal. Its guardian, I suppose... But of course, she listens to me."
"Ah," Doe said, "that is why it didn't let me leave before I had Lord Faran in tow." She took a drag. "So, what now?"
"Oh, you get to meet a few people, Aeon and everyone has a chat, and you get a small spiritual reward."
"What kind of reward?" Doe asked.
"Mostly you'll feel really good about what you've done," Lady Balei grinned.
Doe rolled her eyes dramatically and laughed.
"The flask, please," Lady Balei said. Doe handed over the Aeon-in-a-bottle.
Balei looked at it with an appraising eye. "Neatly done," she said.
She was suddenly younger about fifty years. "Let an old woman have her vanity," she winked, sounding a thousand years younger.
Doe felt them, and turned to look at the hills around. There were others coming, most of them wearing their formal robes. They were seven, and all were young but one; and that one she ran out to meet. And as the eight on the hill made their awkward and heartfelt greetings and apologies, the two Sealers talked the night away.
The portal was before her, roots and all.
Ah, she thought . So that was it, then.
She patted her breast, and felt the flask still there.
All right, all right, she thought, time to get out of this damn place.
The tangle of new-planted roots yielded softly before her hand, and she pushed it deeper, touching the finger-tingling white void within.
Or an approximation thereof; naturally, people do not usually think "ah". It is more of a "hrogworbl".
* * *
The sensation of suddenly contracting into a physical form after a time as a mass of indefineteness was vaguely familiar to Doe. Technically, she knew what was happening during the strengthening of the rim she went through. What it felt like, though, was like walking up the road, completely oblivious in sleepy thoughts, and suddenly seeing a boulder rolling down towards you.
She drew in a breath — ah, yes, Earth air — and opened her eyes. It was still night, and she saw the red moon in the sky, slightly gibbous.
"Ha!" she said, just to hear her own voice. After a while, she said it again, just to be sure.
She was sitting down on the floor in the Great Hall of the Obsidian — or whatever was left of it after the march of the tree roots that ran all over the place. No one was in sight, and she tried to move away, which was when she noticed that she had one hand still inside the black portal.
She pulled, and out came the hand of Aeon, followed soon by the whole man himself.
"Ha!" she said to him.
He didn't reply, and she noticed that his hair was cut, haphazardly and uneven. A pity, it would have fetched some money on the curiosity market.
Aeon lied down on the ground, panting and and staring at the sky. He seemed exhausted, which Doe felt she was allowed to fault him. Who had been doing most of the work these last hours? She wrenched her hand away from his grip, which fell on the floor limply, and tried to stand up, a task that was annoyingly difficult. Besides her she saw the light-glaive she had dropped when she had been pulled into the portal. She took it, and used it to right herself standing.
There was no one there. The hall was empty, and the only signs of the struggle before were black, wet patches of ground, and the chaos of footprints and skidding marks on the ground. There was a fire outside, she saw through the doorway, as she limped towards it, and quiet voices.
"Ha!" she called out, and the voices were silenced, followed by running footsteps and the welcome visage of Thorn the Closer, joyful, and the Abessa, happy, though incredulous.
"Doe!" Thorn exclaimed, and ran to embrace her. "I knew you wasn't dead! I told them!"
"Ha," she replied, and patted him weakly on the shoulder.
"Where were you?" the Abessa asked, as Thorn hiccuped, "We saw you getting pulled through the focus after the fire thing happened, and then nothing."
Doe pointed upwards, towards Drop-of-Wine: "Ha."
Abessa Redhorn shook her head and said: "Poor dear, you're still completely confused after what you've been through. Thorn, help her stand a bit better."
"Yes, Abessa," he took Swift from her, and put her arm over his shoulder.
Doe leaned against him in relief. But, what, they didn't believe her? She stabbed her finger at the red moon again: "Ha. Ha!"
"We better get you to the camp to rest," the Abessa said. Doe resisted, and now pointed back towards the portal. "Ha."
"There's someone there, on the ground!" Thorn said, and the Abessa ran to Aeon.
"He's alive," she said, and tried to lift him up. "But not kicking. Sisters May-God-Trample-the-Unbelievers and Mercy!" she shouted, "Attend!"
* * *
There was a warm fire and stew. Doe was led to the pit, and she sat on the edge, exhausted. Thank the gods, medical brandy! And then some not-so-medical brandy. Doe was feeling that she was turning normal again. The two Sisters dropped Aeon on the other side, on a pair of blankets, where he only stared around feverishly.
Only Thorn, the Abessa and three of the Sisters were there, but the caravan was still in place. After a few moments of insistent mumbling, she had given up on the Moon angle. Besides, Aeon was the Traitor. Better keep quiet.
She was so tired. But she had to make sure.
"Is everyone all right?" she interrupted her muddled explanations. "Did you get them?"
"Yes, the cultists are all locked up at the village right now, quite subdued," Thorn said.
"That is good. What happened after I disappeared?" she asked, and leaned a bit backwards.
"Lots of confusion," the Abessa said. "We tried to figure out how to get you out, but it didn't work out."
"So we decided to put a guard here," Thorn said, "and most left around sunrise."
"Sunrise?" Doe asked in alarm. "How long was I away?"
"A day," the Abessa answered. "Do not worry, it wasn't long."
Doe sighed in relief. Then she laughed. "That was silly of me. Even the wagons are still here."
"So, who is this?" the Abessa then asked, pointing behind her with a thumb at Aeon.
"Oh, just someone who has a lot to thank to Yanda," Doe said. "How well did that go, by the way? Subduing a fire-mage should be pretty tricky in the... Gods no."
Thorn's and the Abessa's faces had gotten a look of oh god how could we have forgotten THAT? on them, and they both stood up in alarm. Suddenly, Aeon pulled the Abessa's robes from behind so that she was dragged away from the pit in surprise.
"Get away from the fire!" he said, weakly but urgently, though Doe had already jumped up and tackled Thorn to the ground.
The fire in the centre of the pit exploded into a giant plume that would have scorched the company sitting there, and moonlit darkness descended upon them.
The Abessa had shielded Aeon, who had yet again fallen down to the ground in exhaustion, and the three Sisters had not been close to the fire.
"Nice job," Doe gave Thorn a thumbs up.
The Abessa rose, and shouted the three Sisters into order. "It's the fire-mage! He is nearby and eaves-dropping!"
A flame lit the night, and a flask of something burning fell down amongst them, bursting open and flicking burning oils all over the place, latching onto the robes of the Thanatians who had been standing nearby.
Doe could start to see again, after the shocking brightness of the fire. She saw Yanda running towards the Great Hall, and picked up Swift from the ground where it lay.
"The focus!" Thorn shouted.
Leaving the patting and rolling Sisters behind, Doe sprinted forward on her tired legs, and made for the portal.
There was a short scream inside, and Doe cleared the doorway to see Yanda the Burner sprawling in the dirt a few feet from the portal and the cut roots. He had tripped.
He stood up and scrambled towards the focus, panting. She could feel feel warmth wafting from him on the light night-wind.
"Bloody hell, you fool!" she shouted, "that is not going to help, and you know it!"
Yanda turned, startled, and stared at her.
He looked worse than she had remembered. The ashy eyes were now shining gold, and his face had sunk in on itself even further. He was sweating. Fire-mages never sweat.
"I... need it," he said, panting, and stepped backwards.
"That's just the sickness talking, Yanda," she replied, and stepped forward carefully. She lowered the tip of the light-glaive near the ground, and she heard the footsteps of the others behind her. "Come away from there, and I can help. I am a Sealer."
"No... I am beyond... Help," he replied. "I tried," he pleaded, looking at her, "but it makes me so thirsty."
She walked softly towards him, and spoke quietly. "You know that's a damn fool thing to say, Yanda. Now come with me, and we'll Seal it away."
Yanda licked his lips and looked at her, begging with his countenance.
Then he screamed, a hoarse and low moan. He clutched his throat, and coughed. From his mouth came spit, which sizzled when it hit the ground, and evaporated into vapors.
He turned to look at the focus, and the hunger in his eyes burned.
"No, damn you!" Doe screamed.
His outstretched arm dipped into the black void, and Doe could feel the surge of heat that escaped his body. The Red Moon rained its power unto the hapless fire-mage, and fed the fires in him. He screamed.
She could feel him drink of the Red World's power, and burn it away, but not on anything on the outside. The illness was gripping him. He was burning only himself.
Doe ran to the foolish mage, and pulled him away from the focus, and Closed the portal, feeding the roots with the Red Moons power. But when she turned to Yanda, she noticed it was all too late. She ran away from the heat that had become unbearable in the few short moments she had been close to him.
First were his clothes that exploded into flame, and were devoured in a second, leaving nothing but floating pieces of ash in the air. Second was his skin, which undulated with a low flame, blue and small like a wine fire. And third was his flesh, as he finally burst, and the white fire burning his body scorched away all material. It burned away his flesh, his organs — his lips, his tongue, his mouth, his uvula and vellum, the nasal cavities, the larynx and the vocal cords, his trachea, and his lungs, and his scream that disappeared into the roar of the fire.
Before them stood a pillar of flame, clothing what was left of the burning bones, shaped like a man, hunched down like an animal. It roared.
"What...?" the Abessa stared, besides Doe.
"My god," Thorn said, "the poor bastard."
"What is happening to him?" asked one of the now-robeless Sisters.
"This," Doe answered, "is what we in the business call 'a demon'."
What had only moments before been Yanda roared again. Its flames contracted and settled down, as if it was tensing itself.
"It's coming," Doe warned, and raised the light-glaive before her. The demon looked at them in its crazed birth-pains, and howled with the sound of crashing and burning timbers. It sprang towards them, and ran.
The Thanatians spread out to its sides to flank it, but the burning monster ignored them, and made for the two in the middle. It settled on Thorn, who stood there mouth agape, staring at it. It leapt, and made for him — and struck.
Thorn screamed in horror, and felt the horrible heat around him. Blisters formed all over his body, and he could smell his hairs burning, and the heat burned his throat in his illadviced noise-making.
But it did nothing further, and when the fires had passed over him, and the demon had run through him, he found himself intact.
Doe was holding on to his wrist: "Gods dammit, man, just move," she shouted in exasperation, and let him go. Thorn fell onto his knees.
She turned to the confused demon, which turned against her, and struck with its hands. The claws of white fire it had grown were met by a sweep of her glaive, and the flames that engulfed them both left her unscorched as they danced around her.
The demon tried to hit her a few times again, until it turned away and stood silently away from her. It stared.
"It is barely sentient!" she shouted to everyone in the ruined hall. "This is not one of those wily and experienced spirits that you hear of. It is barely conscious, a blank slate! It will act like an animal, but if we let it go, there will be lots of trouble in a couple of centuries!"
"What in the hells can we do?" Sister Mercy — Doe thought — shouted.
Doe was stumped for a moment, and then sighed. She chuckled.
"You," she readied the light-glaive, "can act as witness to something very few on this world have seen!" She started carefully moving towards the burning demon, digging through the bag at her side.
"Don't think we'll let you have all the fun!" the Abessa grinned, and hit her handpalm with her hammer for emphasis.
Doe found the flask, and brandished it in the air.
"Catch!" she shouted to Sister Mercy, who caught the sloshing bottle.
"Water?" she asked.
Doe stared at the demon, which was still staring back at her. "Do you know what water is?" she asked.
"What has that to do with anything?!" the Sister shouted in desperate confusion.
Thorn, who had stood up from his shock a while back, took the flask from the Sister. "Let me. Water is a kind of ash," he said. "It represents the death of fire, which is why flames abhor it."
"And that water is from another world." Doe licked her lips. "It has to count for something."
"Close its path through the door," she continued, quietly.
Thorn walked carefully to the door, and when he finally came to it, the demon tore its eyes from the slowly advancing Doe, and looked at him in alarm. It ran towards the opening, and Doe followed it, flanked by the Thanatians.
Thorn stood in the ruined door-way, and held the flask before him. The demon ran towards him, and he unstoppered it, and waved it before him so that droplets of the red moon's water flew through the air, and hit the ground before the advancing fire-demon.
It skid to a halt just before him, and howled.
Thorn laughed in nervous naked relief. "Oh thank the gods below and above..." he started to mutter random assorted prayers.
The trapped demon swiped its arms towards Sister Mercy, who had foolishly tried to get close to it, and who was spared from death only by a well aimed wave of the flask by Thorn, who had left the doorway.
"Anyone who isn't fire-proof," he shouted, "get out of here!" He followed his own advice.
The third of the Sisters started to protest, but the Abessa cut her short, mainly because the demon had turned towards them. As it started to gather speed, they were already outside.
"I'll leave it to you!" the Abessa shouted, with a look of disappointment on her face.
The demon dodged the blade of the light-glaive as it swept near the ground at its feet, and faced Doe again. They both tried to strike each other, failing and flailing as they did so.
"They should have sent an acrobat," the Abessa said.
The battle between the demon and the Sealer went on, neither able to catch the other. The furiously churning flames flew through the air like ribbons, a round tongue here, where it followed a striking arm, and a straight one there, where it followed the strike of the fire-needle nails. The Seals around Doe parted that fire, and she was surrounded by a calm cold, safe from whatever came her way, up to a point. She struck, and it struck, for what seemed like forever, drawing patterns of gold into the night, and illuminating the black walls with their intensity.
The demon finally disengaged to run towards the focus, too fast for a human to match. It was becoming surer on its feet, and growing larger. The fledgling tadpole of a candle-flame was growing, fast, like fires do when they are finally released.
Doe followed it running, and smiled as it came to the focus.
The demon tried to burn the roots away, but the power of Drop-of-Wine now fed them instead of the pitiful streams of the leylines. They still grew as it burned them, and it couldn't get through to the portal. It howled, and turned to face Doe.
"Here, demon, demon, demon, demon, demon," Doe called it. "Come to Doe, I'll just hit you with this stick..."
The demon jumped, and swiped at her from above. She blocked the white-hot claws with the shaft of the light-glaive, and the demon dropped behind her. She turned, and struck its arm — it screamed in some kind of pain, and Doe smiled grimly. They fought.
"She had me worried there," the Abessa said, "but it seems it can be hurt with weapons."
"It's not complete yet," Aeon explained behind her, as Doe continued fighting with the demon.
The Abessa startled. "Please don't do that to an old woman!"
"Apologies," he said, and turned to Doe. "Please, could you seal him?!" he asked of her.
Doe looked at him, and then turned her eyes back to the demon to evade a strike.
She didn't answer, but only turned and ran towards the back of the hall, where the destruction wrought by the trees was the greatest. The demon ran behind her.
Doe and the demon fought — Doe protected by her Inviolacy, and the demon by its nature — neither gaining on the other. The light-glaive almost scored against the burning bones within the flesh of flame, and the white claws were diverted only just from a certain kill by the barriers set around her.
But she was weakening by the moment. She decided to take a risk.
She made to back away from the beast, but tripped, and fell down before an oak. The demon howled in victory, and shot forward — and Doe jumped too, straight towards the monster, past the claws that had only seconds before aimed at her, and through its burning torso, the incorporeal flames and the floating bones giving her way.
The demon faltered, and hit the tree. Doe turned immediately, and struck it, through the place where Yanda's heart had been, and pinned it against the bark that was slowly scorching.
The demon screeched in pain as its flames were sucked into the wooden shaft of the light-glaive that went through it, and was gathered within it like any other sealed flame in her embers. Slowly and surely it disappeared, leaving only the white-glowing seal-ember in Swift.
Doe held it for a few moments. Sweat fell from her face — not from the heat, from which she protected herself, but the exhaustion. The protections, the Inviolacy, the fight, everything was taking its toll on her tired body, and she almost dropped the spear.
But the seal-ember she was holding was the last she could do. And she knew she was too weak to hold it.
She felt around her — and realised it.
The oak she had hit the tip of light-glaive in had a breached rim. And it was close...
Doe opened the rim of the oak, and poured the flames inside, deep into the core of the three, a hundred years within.
The ember texture of the now-ashen spear spread into its bark, and its budding leaves turned into inert feathers of fire.
She closed the eye that she had struck, and knew the demon was contained in the living container.
She laughed, and collapsed where she stood.
Why is that bunny trying to eat my foot, Doe woke up into a groggy state of being in bed. She kept her eyes closed, and just let her senses do whatever senses did again. She felt drobbly.
The room was shaking, and it dipped downwards. There was no night-chill. The bed was wonderful. She could smell food. She was still so tired.
She mumbled something.
"Drive more carefully," a voice whispered — Thorn — "she's waking up."
"This is in no way a proper road," a female voice, Fala the stable-master, whispered back.
Doe listened to them. The bed felt so good.
She moved, and twinged. It hurt all over her body, and worst of all in the arrow-wound at her side. The sealing had weakened a bit. She strengthened it.
The gentle rocking of the wagon — she opened her eyes slightly, and the light of the day made her close one of them again — the house-wagon, and the warmth of the bed were conspiring—
* * *
"Sh, I think she's awake," someone said. Doe meant to reply, which came out as "Blagrab glubble bob."
She opened her eyes, and saw that she was still in the house-wagon.
It was surprisingly roomy. The bed she slept on was a small cot that hung from the wall, and there were small cabinets and drawers elsewhere. The roof had a net filled with baggage and merchandise, and all in all, it was very cozy.
There were others in the room. Thorn was there, sitting on a small stool, as was one of the Thanatians. There was another man in the room, but she didn't recognise him at first.
"Well, your beard was scrawny as all hell compared to your hair, so it might as well be gone," she said to Aeon. "Sorry about your hair."
He looked civilised. He was clean-shaven, someone had cut his hair properly, and he wore clothes instead of the coarse robe. He smiled.
Doe startled. "What was your robe made out of anyhow?" she asked.
Aeon laughed. "Hair."
She grimaced. "That is slightly disturbing."
She looked around herself. The Thanatian Sister excused herself, and went outside.
"How long was I out of it?"
"Two days," Thorn answered. "No wonder, after what you'd been through."
"No wonder it feels like my head is full of sawn-dust," she said. "I trust you have kept order well, and not let any sort of mishap of Destiny destroy Village-in-the-Valley, the plains below, or the world?"
"We had to fight a reborn Dark Emperor," he said, "and destroy five enchanted jewels by throwing them into the Sea of Death two thousand miles from here."
Doe nodded. "Good job." She laughed. "What happened after I started taking my nap?"
"You seemed to be ok, though just exhausted," Thorn said, "so we carried you into the nearest bunk we knew, this house-wagon."
"Safely sealed within the oak," Thorn said, "at least according to Master Aeon."
Aeon nodded. "I had a look with my magic. There will be no problem."
"Why did you shout to me to seal it?" Doe asked.
"I recognised the flame," he said, "that burned the chains."
"And this way, the demon is held, and Yanda's spirit can take over."
"What?!" Doe exclaimed.
"This surprises you?" he asked.
"I had no idea it was possible!"
Thorn, too said so.
"It was common knowledge in," Aeon started, but coughed, "that is, I thought it was common knowledge that a demon is not complete until after a while it has been born."
"We had no idea," Thorn said. "It is common to just kill them..."
"It has been forgotten," Doe said. "Coming across a demon who has just been born and being able to seal it is such an unlikely occurrence that it must not have been practical to expect that, and it was forgotten it was possible."
"Of course, we also used to just destroy the new-born fiend," Aeon continued. "The human spirit is trapped inside. It takes a long, long time to regain control... But of course, that is not really being alive anymore, so the mind is stronger and more restful."
"Then why did you wish me to seal Yanda?" Doe asked.
"Because you are a Sealer," he replied. "If it had been Master Thorn," he nodded to him, "who had fought it, or rather, if Master Thorn had been able to fight it, then it would be dead."
"That is true," she conceded. "Sealing was the only way I had."
"So what did you see with your magic?" Thorn asked. "We never got a straight answer out of you after that."
"A promising future," Aeon replied. "And I sensed Yanda's spirit within. I suspect you," he turned to Doe, "will be able to communicate with him."
"Later," she said. "I am still tired. Though what about the prisoners and the plot and the whatnots of whatnots."
"Those are mostly taken care of," Thorn said, grimly.
"You didn't kill them off, did you?" she asked in alarm.
"What, no!" he exclaimed.
Doe exhaled in relief. "They're just cultists. Most of them are probably silly middle-aged men who wanted to have some excitement in their lives."
"We gathered that," Thorn said. "People who got stuck doing something really stupid, and couldn't stop..."
"Which means they will be more than happy to pay a ransom."
"I don't think a flock of Sacrifices would be enough," Aeon said.
She looked at him sharply. "Who told you that?"
He tapped his head, but said "The stable-master."
Thorn was laughing. She chased them out with projectile bedding.
* * *
"Your accomplishes told me most already, but I wanted to hear it myself," she tapped the ashes out of her pipe on the leg of her chair.
Feng was sitting before her. He was unshaven, and ruffled, and had a black eye. They had told her it had taken him hours to stop rocking.
"I ain't saying nothing," he muttered surlily. There was no more sign of a foreign accent.
The room was dark, a storage-room where they could be private. There was a table in the middle, by which they sat, populated by a bowl of warm, broth. A single shaded lamp hanging from the ceiling cast a round shape around it.
She pushed it towards him.
He looked at it hungrily.
"No," he turned his head away with a snap.
"I heard you weren't the boss-man, just the leader of this expedition."
Feng licked his lips.
"That there really are sponsors, somewhere back in the city."
Feng looked nervous.
"Why do you look so nervous, Feng?" she asked.
He looked nervouser.
"These sponsors... They are big men," she surmised. "Big men... In the city."
She dropped a bag onto the table. It clinked.
"These are pretty heavy-duty things," she said. Feng was shaking. "A bunch of steel arrows, enchanted to penetrate certain barriers. Anonymous work, very nice, very nice."
Feng stared at them.
"You were supposed to dip them into the focus, as a test, and then use it for... A certain thing. Your sponsors are short-sighted. They had no idea what they had bought, did they? Enchanted arrows..."
She leaned forward, and whispered. "I can help you."
He sighed. "Just give me the damn spoon already."
* * *
"This is a textbook example of what we in the Order call a 'exertion of control over the general area of the testicles by the means of the potential use of wrenching force.'"
The Abessa was reading the confession of Feng. They could see the setting sun from the large window of the Shrine's reception room.
"How did you do it?" Thorn asked Doe, who smiled smugly.
"My devious feminine wiles," she replied. "Also, the spoon trick."
Aeon nodded sagely. "The spoon trick always works."
Doe looked at him. "You had the spoon trick?"
Aeon looked at her. "We invented the spoon trick."
"I accuse you of lying."
"By the Thanate's most reverend foreskin," the Abessa swore. "This is quite big." She grinned. "I know quite a lot of people who would be interested in knowing this."
"You can have it," Doe said. "Now, what to do about our prisoners?"
"We should probably just let the idiots go," the Abessa said.
"And let them back into the city, and into the waiting arms of the Sponsors?"
"They're just dupes anyhow," the Abessa said, "and getting them killed would only bring suspicion, even in Coroban, and we'll keep an eye on them. The only one who should feel worried is Feng."
"Well, he can flee somewhere," Doe said. "At least it's a chance. Where are the prisoners held anyhow?"
"We've had them hoeing the fields, and so forth," Thorn said. "Some of them seem to quite like it."
"Maybe you can keep a few as pets."
"But who of them killed the scholar?" he asked.
"Feng says it was people from the same level as him, subordinate to his sponsors."
"These people aren't really any good assassin material anyhow."
During the moment of silence, Aeon coughed.
"Um," he spoke, "excuse me, but could I be filled in?"
Doe looked at him, and turned into her lecturing mode.
"As you know, Aeon, these cultists came from the great city of Coroban, which lies some hundred miles from here southeast, founded in 334 as a city-state on the isles of Red Lake, which was known as the Iron Lake in antiquity." (Thorn looked at Aeon, and rolled his eyes slightly. There she goes again, that silly nut. Aeon nodded sagely).
Doe described the city in much detail, capping it with a description of the ever-changing political situation.
"It sounds vaguely like... I do not know what," Aeon said after she finished.
"The primordial sea of chaos?" Thorn volunteered. "A pit of despair, a great hive of criminals, the Seventh Iron Hell transplanted upon Earth?"
"No, though those fit," he said. "It reminds me of home."
"Would you like to visit there?" Doe asked.
"Could we?" his eyes brightened.
"Everyone ends up in Coroban sooner or later," she said. "Whether they wanted or not."
Aeon looked at her with imploring eyes. She turned to Thorn and Abessa Redhorn.
"He-hey, wait a minute," Thorn started, "you could stay here for a while," he was interrupted by a the Abessa's elbow. Doe sighed.
She patted Aeon on the head. "Fine, fine."
Aeon sighed in relief. "I wouldn't know. I wouldn't know what to do," he whispered. "You are the only one who knows."
Doe cursed Lady Balei.
* * *
"'Aeon'?" Doctor Armar said, in surprise. "What a curious coincidence indeed!"
He looked closer to the man in question, and intoned, "You have an unfortunate name, but I am sure you will be able to fight the bad luck of it," he nodded. "I have recently discovered that it was the pseudonym of the Dread Traitor Lord Faran! It will shake the roots of society to know that so many people given such an innocent name, namesakes to Lady Balei's nephew himself, would also share it with such a figure of infamy!"
The tables and chairs around the archive room were littered with scroll-cases and notes. The Doctor had found a slice of home away from home, and he wasn't in any hurry to give up on these easily accessible sources to the mystery of the Last Journey, no thank you. What about the originals? Good gods, Magister Doe, you have never visited the Bibliotheca before, have you?
When Doe and Aeon left the right wing of the temple housing the archives, she sighed in relief. "At least he won't be thinking you're Lord Faran."
"He will write a book," Aeon intoned, "or something similar, I feel... And then someone, far into the future, will find out the truth."
Doe gave him a questioning look. "Your magic?"
"Just a hunch, a pinch, a spoonful of chreon-reading," he shrugged his shoulders. "I am much, much weakened. And it feels so great," he laughed.
"Maybe that is for the best at the moment," she said, and they went on their way.
* * *
Feng was sitting in the saddle of a horse outside the inn.
"You're sure you're letting me go?" he asked for the fourteenth time.
"Yes, so just go!" Doe said to him and dismissed him with a wave.
"You're not going to ambush me and have my throat cut on the high-way?"
"For the last time, no!" Doe said. "See? There's the Thanatians now, and they're sitting down by the wall all peace and quiet-like."
The Abessa waved her hand to Doe.
Feng looked at them, and came to a decision. He bowed to Doe and the others.
"Thank you for this mercy," he said, tears dripping from his eyes, and spurred his mount towards the new ashen road that led half-way over the mountains, towards Marag.
"Good riddance," Thorn muttered under his breath.
Feng stopped, and turned to wave.
"Please take care of the house-wagon!" he shouted.
Doe nodded impatiently. "Yes, yes."
Feng continued his way, but turned once again.
"I really am quite sorry! I'm glad we didn't get anyone killed!"
"Yes!" Doe shouted. "So are we! Now get on with it!"
* * *
It was an island of stone, rising from a sea of molten rock that stretched out to the horizon and coloured the sky black.
"Cozy," Doe said to Yanda, who stood beside her.
"Beats turning into a demon," he muttered.
He was different. When the flesh had left him, only the spirit remained, clad in light flames that covered him like fine feathers.
"I really am quite sorry," she said, "but it wasn't my fault."
"I escaped the asylum," Yanda said, "as you have probably surmised. I was going to die there... It is a great mercy. But I am a flagrator. We are impulsive and greedy. I had no idea it could be Sealed."
"Neither did I. It was something I learned from Aeon."
"Who is that?"
Doe looked at him, and told him.
Yanda was silent for a while after she finished.
"Imagine if he truly had become an evil madness," he said. "We opened a pathway to damnation, and nothing but him came out..."
"I am, of course," Doe said, "telling you this in confidentiality."
"I do not think you have to worry about that," he replied. "I am not going anywhere."
She looked behind them, to the middle of the island.
"Do you think it'll ever settle down?" she asked.
Yanda, turned too.
The island was dominated by the sight of a great, ashen giant, chained down to the earth by the roots of a giant tree, a copy of the mother oak that contained it. The giant was was thrashing and howling, and the leaves of the oak shook with each movement with silver reflections, showing the outside world.
"I do not know," he said, "but I hope it will. See those roots? They are growing as we speak, and smothering the Other. It was completely wild for the first day we were here."
They were quiet for a moment.
"I have a gift of thanks to you," Yanda said.
"Why, thank you," she replied. "What is it?"
"A small trick."
In his hand he held an ordinary-looking acorn, and offered it to her. She looked at it quizzically.
"When I was still a man, I was envious of Sealers," he said, "as are most other thaumates."
Doe nodded with a wry smile.
"Your magics are versatile, and your domains are large. There is hardly anything that cannot be within it."
"You mean that we are cheaters," she laughed.
"I do not mean to offend," he grinned. "Anyhow, here is a small trick that I have been able to... Realise as a Sealer's trick in this state, to translate. It is rather liberating to exist only in spirit, though limiting in other ways, you understand. You are familiar with the physical origin of flame and fire, and other heat-related autocatalytic reactions?"
"Yes, please do not remind me."
"And then you of course have realised caloric thinking, and the Flame. A remarkable accomplishment for anyone but a flagrator."
"You make me blush."
"Anyhow, a further extension of caloric thinking is, of course, the fact that everything that can be burned contains within it a flame in potentia..."
He opened his hand-palm, and the acorn cracked. Doe could see the yellow light of flames within, and suddenly, it disappeared in a flash.
Doe pursed her lips.
"Fascinating," her eyes reflected the grinning flagrator's own.
* * *
Doe was kneeling down by the hot-glowing oak, holding with her hand the light-glaive Swift embedded to its side. Her other hand had been open beside her: an acorn had fallen onto it, which was a mystery because there weren't any acorns on any trees at that time of year yet.
"Well?" asked Thorn.
"Well, he's all right, about," she replied.
"That is good," said Aeon.
Doe pulled out Swift, and closed the eye of the oak once more.
The clearness of the day subdued the light of the burning oak, and it seemed as if it was only a very bright colour. The other trees in the Hall had started budding a bit stronger as it warmed them and painted them with light. The roots of the Great Seal had regrown around the portal, yet again, though they looked exhausted and without vitality. When you came in to the Great Hall, it had already become a small highlight against the background of the Flame Oak, 'overshadowed' (you must forgive me) by the light.
"I told him to keep an eye on things around here," she continued. "We'll need to get some spades and start digging." She stood up, and dusted her immaculate robes.
"Digging what?" Thorn asked, but she had already taken a quick whirl and kicked the oak.
Small, fiery pips suddenly materialised on its branches, like dew-drops collecting to drip, and fell down from the shaking branches onto the ground. She crouched, and started collecting the amber-coloured acorns into her robes.
"I'll get the spades," Aeon said, and went outside. Thorn crouched, and started collecting the acorns too.
After a while, Aeon returned, with two of the implements in question.
"Where did you find those?" Thorn asked.
"In the house-wagon," was the reply. "There's everything there."
Doe looked up. "I've decided. I will take the house-wagon."
"Wha-," Thorn looked at her.
"That is good, I was thinking the same thing, " Aeon said.
"It is a lovely little thing, and will fit perfectly," she nodded.
Thorn caught himself in the middle of a "Y-", and thought about it.
"Yes, it does make sense," he said to himself. "Now, what about these acorns?"
"Oh, we'll only need a small number for now," Doe said, and dumped the ones she had carried onto the tarp from the measurement pendulum besides the Great Seal.
"What's a good, solid mystical number for a burning tree?" she thought aloud.
They thought about it. "No idea," Aeon said.
"Well, when in doubt," she said, and picked up six. "Six plus one," she explained. The others nodded.
They dug six holes around the Great Seal in a circle, its radius the same as the distance between the Seal and the Flame Oak. The holes formed a heptagon.
"Wait, widdershins or deasil?" Thorn asked.
"Deasil, of course!" Doe said, "We're not trying to strangle it, it's a tree, so follow the Sun."
"Oh, of course."
"Shall we do it in one, two, or three?" Aeon asked.
This started a small debate over the different merits of the seeding order, which ended quickly when Aeon pointed out that a heptagram wasn't divisible by two or three, and it was decided to do a single arm.
Finally they decided to start the ritual.
"I would still feel a bit better if we had a blood-sacrifice," Thorn said, holding firewood in his arms.
"Look, we went through this," Doe said, "and we agreed, I recall, that we'll do this as an orthodox wood-burning variant. It's a burning oak."
Thorn started from the first hole to the left of the burning oak, dropping sticks into the holes they had dug. He muttered random funeral rites as he did so, and the wood dried even further, and became less before their eyes.
When he had finished, ending at the first hole sunwise from the burning oak, Doe took a stick from him. She held it before her, and its tip burst into flame.
"Where did you learn that?" Thorn asked in amazement.
"A small gift," Doe smiled.
"Sealers..." he shook his head, while Aeon laughed in the background.
She set fire to each pit at a time, dropping one acorn into the flames as she did so.
When she finished, the flames had died in the first pit already, and covered the glowing acorn with their ashes.
"How long does it take?" Aeon asked.
There was a crack, and they turned to the first sunwise hole. Something that looked like a thin flame was rising from it, filling the pit of ashes. It was a sprout, and it grew fast, followed quickly by its siblings, each one cracking in order, and rising from the ground.
In a few moments, they had grown taller than Doe, and slowly expanded in their place. Their roots were spreading on the ground, lighting it with muffled fire, congregating amongst each others and connecting to the mother oak.
"Let's get out of here for a while," Thorn wiped the sweat of warmth from his brows.
The fire-oaks grew for an hour before they slowed down to imperceptible change. The Great Seal was surrounded by seven oaks, connected and burning.
"That ought to do it," Doe said, as they looked at the result.
"Look at their sides," Aeon pointed out. "They're flat. They're widening, towards the others."
"They're trying to close the perimeter with their trunks," Thorn said. "In a year, they'll be all connected into a single gigantic oak!"
"Neat, isn't it?" Doe said.
"Gods, it'll keep the whole vale awake at nights," Thorn scratched his head. "You know, Doe," he said, "I do not think we will be able to keep this little thing under the wraps."
"Hm?" Doe was still staring in thought.
"I said, I don't think we can keep this a secret."
Doe froze. Her expression was slowly drained of all liveliness, which was replaced by a cold dread.
"What is the matter?" Aeon asked.
"If we don't get out of here soon, we will be in serious trouble," she said. "The summer meetings. This place will be swarming with thaumates, and they will be demanding some answers. Quick, get in the wagon!" She was in full panic. "Maybe we can still escape!"
"Calm down, no one is coming in ages!" Thorn tried to assure her, to no avail. Aeon was already helping her pack the wagon with her research instruments and the light-glaive.
* * *
The half-ruined inn was dressed in building materials and new wood. A number of the cultists, sweating under the strict eye of the inn-keeper, struggled with rebuilding what had been ashes.
The house-wagon, Eye-of-the-Storm harnessed to it, stood in the inn-yard, surrounded by a crowd of people.
"Are you sure you have to go?" Thorn asked from Doe, "It can't be that bad!"
"Oh, it is," she shuddered down by the wagon-side, "they will poke around and turn stones over and then they will asks questions, very pointedly. It will be horrible. I feel horribly, horribly guilty about leaving you here."
"That is ok," Thorn was in his thoughts. "Wait, what?"
Doe quickly changed the subject. "Is Sister Bloodcurdler well?" she asked the Abessa.
"She's going to recover," Abessa Redhorn started, "and she's in a foul mood."
"Damn right I'm in a foul mood!" came a screech. Sister Bloodcurdler had — yet again — escaped from her menders, and stood on the other side of the wagon. "I didn't get to do anything," she made a face.
"Well," Doe said to her, "I might have something that might interest you." She grinned, and was given a long object from the wagon by Aeon, who dropped down to stand beside her. She gave it to Sister Bloodcurdler, who stared at the light-glaive.
"What happened to it?"
"Oh, nothing much," Doe said. "It was only used to defeat a fiendish demon of flame, it had the same demon sealed within it, and then it was used to create a bridge between the demon and the humongous fiery oaks that now grow within the Great Hall."
The flames had changed, distempered, ruined, and finally remade the blade, creating strange oily patterns in the metal, and drying and hardening the wood of the pole into a black and light grain.
"And now hear me, Sister Bloodcurdler," Doe intoned, and everyone was all ears. This was interesting.
"I have heard much of your previous exploits amongst the Thanatians, and your deeds and misdeeds. You are one of the greatest of the Hracan congregation, a warrior of renown and skill, who was injured this time only by chance. You have a very good chance of becoming someone quite great within the Order." She took a breath.
Sister Bloodcurdler looked at Doe in utter confusion and rising dread.
"Thus, I honour-bind you to become the Guardian of this Glaive," Doe continued, "to keep it from those who would use it for evil — for heed, this light-glaive, which was known as Swift, has become the key — hey, someone, catch her!"
The Thanatians in the crowd sprung into action, and ran after the escaping Sister, who was still clutching her light-glaive like a relic. They hunted her down in her sick-room robes, and carried her back, cajoling and laughing as she rode on a throne on their shoulders.
Doe coughed, as the Abessa laughed uproariously holding onto the wagon so she wouldn't fall, and Thorn and Aeon tried to keep themselves in only titters.
"As I said," Doe intoned yet again to the unwilling Guardian of the Glaive, "it's your problem now. I was Duty-bound, failed, and thus I give you this Duty, to uphold peace and prevent disaster by keeping this light-glaive safe. Understand?"
Sister Bloodcurdler muttered. "I understand."
Her fellow Sisters threw her into the air, and bellowed their approval, and carried her away to the temporary Inn held in one of its storage rooms to carouse and celebrate.
"We will keep an eye on things here," the Abessa said to Doe, "and we'll probably build a small chapter here. You can rest assured I will run the new Guardian's arse ragged to make her an excellent Seal-Keeper."
"That is good news, that should placate the thaumates gathering here for the Summer."
"I will also let her in on our new friend's secret," she winked at Aeon, who looked alarmed.
Doe spoke: "What... Do you know?"
"Oh, nothing that I didn't put-two-and-two-together by myself, I assure you," the Abessa said. "I may not be as learned as the good Doctor, but I have really good taste-buds for... Stories."
She laughed, and walked away towards the Inn where her new Guardian had been manhandled to. Doe and Aeon gave each other a look. Aeon shrugged his shoulders. "Well, what can I do about it?"
The crowd of people farewelling them spat out a representative, an old lady Doe didn't know.
"But I knew old Iron Eyes well," she said, "and she'd be proud of you, my girl, that is true as the Sun in the sky. Of course, she'd done it faster, quicker and better than you, but then again, she had about a thousand and forty... No, I tell a lie, thousand and thirty-five years of experience on you, so nothing strange about that. Now, there is only one thing I want to ask you."
"What is it, good mother?"
"Can we use the tree-leaves as fire-starters? The kettle from the burning barn from your master's time came really in handy."
Doe thought about it for a moment. "Yes, you should be able to," she surmised.
"That is nice to hear," the old woman smiled.
"If you take acorns from the tree, and burrow them into the ground, then they will grow quite well and give you your leaves," she smiled, thinking. "You should be even able to sell them..." she finished with a knowing look in her eye.
The old woman answered that look. "I'll keep them in check," she said, "so don't worry about them going to waste." She gave her farewells, and retreated back into the crowd, where she gathered a group of people to discuss the matter of sudden economic interest.
"Why did you suggest that?" Aeon whispered to Doe.
"Because," she whispered back, "Yanda's Seal is connected to each acorn, and each sapling that grow out of them. He'll get to spread his wings a bit, the village will get rich from selling the acorns from the original tree, and doesn't the idea intrigue you? Besides, I promised to him to plant some acorns around. They're in that bag in the wagon."
The crowd started subsiding, disappearing towards the temporary Inn, and huddling together in money-related conspiracy, leaving the Potter and his boys to next approach Doe.
"Good Sealer, I am unhappy to see you go," Clay told her. "But, now that you must go, I would like to thank you for all you did by gifting you this," he gestured at a chest that clinked as the boys brought it closer.
"You shouldn't have," Doe smiled. She crouched down, and looked at it. "This is very nice work, this chest," she said.
"It belonged to my father, but I never used it for anything," he said. "He used to say he bought it used from a man who had bought it from a Sealer, so I thought it might have some magic in it."
Doe hmmed. "Yes, there's something. I'll investigate more when we're on the road. Now, what is inside?"
She opened the chest, and found it brimming full with the potter's small Sealer's bottles, several of them new models.
"So cute!" she squealed in delight, and held several of them up to the light, one after another. "And what are these, hm? I can sense something..."
"Those are by the boy," Clay said, "now, go on, greet the Sealer properly."
One of the apprentices bowed to her nervously. "I hope you like'm," he said.
"Yes, I think I will," she smiled. "These are very good bottles, young lad, and I see a very good fortune before you."
"Thank's m'm," he said shyly.
"I will treasure these," she said.
"Don't fear to advertise them," he replied, and they bid their farewells, too.
"Are you really, really going?" Thorn asked.
"Don't worry, Thorn," Doe said, "I'll come visit every now and then."
He sighed. "Oh well." He smiled. "Have a pleasant journey, wherever it may take you."
"Same to you," Doe smiled.
"Blessings upon you," Aeon said.
Doe signalled Eye-to-the-Storm, and the house-wagon lurched into movement, and soon it was moving down the road towards places Thorn didn't know.
A minute later, it was followed by a running Dinner, trailing a chewed-through leash behind her, bleating all the way indignantly her outraged snow-fawn scream.
Thorn shook his head, and followed everyone to the Inn.