A grotesque black shape rose in the center of the crystal room. The manlike silhouette shifted and churned like an angry storm cloud, an oily, nebulous vapor of tendrils and eddies condensing into an animate being. Its groans were baroque and macabre. The sounds piped and moaned from hollows that mocked a living throat and lungs. The air around it swirled with a clot of stenches, of sickhouses and stale carrion; the brisk, peppery tang of death. It was an indistinct abomination, seeping into the crystalline gloom.
Surrounding it was a ring of sorcerers of the highest order. Five in all were present, each possessing a seat on the celebrated Lore Council of Anjur. They held aloft staves of the purest emerald, in which subtle lights glimmered and winked. Their diaphanous robes wafted in the fetid breeze. Their faces were chiseled with grave expressions.
At a nod the sorcerers wakened suns in their staves. Beams of raw color flashed from emerald facets. Rainbow streaks of light punctured the vaporous body of the black apparition, and its groans pinched into shrieks, like the sound of diamond shredding glass. The sorcerers chanted rolling incantations. The radiating spectra shifted and surged with the spell's bass crescendos.
In a moment of hard silence, the chant ended. The apparition ceased its wailing, then lost its shape and disgorged a tumbling wave of smoke. The clinging fumes scuttled outward in a circle, a slippery black sheet unfurling across the floor. The ring of sorcerers widened a bit and resumed their chant with new urgency. Streaks and streams of light carved through the foul, bubbling vapor; but tendrils slithered forth and reached for the five old wizards. Four of them pulled back in time, sweeping their emerald staves in the path of the smoke.
One sorcerer reacted too slowly. A tentacle of smoke coiled around his leg. His chant leapt into a howl of pain.
Instantly the foul vapor rushed off the floor and engulfed the robed Meer. His crystal staff clicked and cracked and burst into a shower of sharp-edged gems. The others lurched forward and cried out a disjointed clamor of magic spells. The room erupted into a hurricane of brilliant flashes; but the overwhelmed sorcerer collapsed to the floor. His withering shape began to crawl away, swathed in a roiling shroud, and even when pocked flesh shrank away from bone his skeletal arms reached out from the thick smoke, his clawed fingers raked across the crystal floor, his ruined, tongueless mouth gaped and gurgled unrecognizable pleas.
While the others continued their onslaught of sorcery against the formless, hungry abomination, one sorcerer drew back into a corner. Catching his breath, he traced a knot of symbols in the air. "Adranath!" he shouted into the shimmering disk that crystallized before him. "Come to the watch post, quickly!"
Within the disk, the silver-furred Lore Master shot him an irritated glare. "Handle it," he commanded. "I can't be interrupted."
"Adranath, it's Hathniel! He's being killed!"
"Handle it!" repeated the head of the Lore Council. His gaze turned stony. "This is more important."
The breathless sorcerer bellowed a volley of curses; but the shimmering disk had vanished. He turned back to the conflict. Hathniel, the doomed sorcerer, now stood on rotted legs, rags of flesh sagged over bones like the tattered sails of a ghost ship. And still he groaned from a dark, lipless mouth, though his cries were nothing but oily, vomited smoke.
The remaining sorcerers regarded the sight for a moment, with various displays of horror. Then their attacks resumed, noticeably increased in vigor.
Alone in his chambers, Lore Master Adranath watched the ether. His eyes were a sparkle of red and white. When he spotted what he was searching for, he closed his eyes for a clearer look.
A tiny figure tumbled through otherworldly winds. Adranath smiled when he made out her face.
The sensation was sublime and overwhelming -- a deep sense of absolute liberation -- and it was over in an instant. Kaji stumbled out of a shimmering gate onto her knees in an unfamiliar room, dappled with shadows. The gate vanished with a musical hum. She stood and brushed down the wayward folds of her gown. When she looked up, the tip of a crystal sword was pointed at her face. She flinched and caught her breath.
A voice muttered, "Kaji?" At the other end of the sword stood Teyloth, wearing a nightshirt and tousled fur. He looked confused.
Kaji felt a smile rampage onto her face. Teyloth had always been most handsome when he was least kempt. "Aren't you going to congratulate me, Tey? That was my first attempt at teleportation."
The warrior flung his sword to the ground. Kaji squealed as he hoisted her into his powerful arms and spun her, the layers of her sorcerer's gown spiraling like a whirlpool around the rejoined lovers.
Teyloth's family possessed more wealth than Kaji had expected. His suite in their greathouse was impressive, with its lavish furniture and crystal decor. Yet she saw no more of the house than that, as Teyloth wasted no time in locking the doors and shushing her. They could not afford the scandal of being discovered. Their conversation unfolded in subdued tones.
"I don't understand," frowned the warrior. He sat in a low-backed chair and watched Kaji pace the floor. "What does it mean for the Lore Council to ... what is it, control creation?"
"Creation means ultimate power. They call that power the 'Primogenitor.' If Adranath's spell works, everything can change. The Lore Council can reshape the world however they want. Imagine it! They can erase all hardship. There'll be no need for farming, or hunting, or any work at all if that's what they decide."
"But, isn't that good?"
"I don't know." She cupped her hands over her shoulders. "Three months ago I'd have said no, it's a terrible thing. They have no right to change the natural order. But now I'm not so certain. Master Adranath seems very wise. Maybe they can do it. Maybe they should."
"But why now? And why is it a secret?"
"I don't know. Maybe the stars are aligned correctly. You probably know more about the politics of secrecy than me."
Teyloth leaned forward. "You have to tell the Matriarch. That must be why you're here, to find this out. The Matriarch will know what to do."
"But that's betraying the Lore Council. I'd be driven out of the city. Tey, I don't want to lose the chance to be part of Anjur!"
"If you don't tell the Matriarch, then you're betraying her." He reached out and caught her hand. "Kaji, don't turn your back on yourself. Your real life is in the provinces. That's the only way you and I can be together."
Kaji cradled his hand in her palms. "Come with me, then. I have to go home to tell Sayaru. There's no way I can teleport that far."
"I can't go with you." He looked away. "I have obligations here in the city. My family is making some political ... arrangements."
The apprentice grumbled and waved a hand in the air. "You warriors and your political schemes! You can worry about all that later. There's always going to be some treaty or alliance or political marriage for you... to..." She paused, glanced around the room. Her eyes squinted. "Tey, did this room used to belong to a lady?"
She moved to a small washbasin. Beside it was a collection of brushes and oils for fur care. Kaji selected a tiny bottle and opened it, sniffing the contents. "This is a woman's oil," she said, "for a woman's hair."
Teyloth fell still.
The mage replaced the bottle and looked at him over her shoulder. "What kind of arrangement is your family making?"
The warrior stood and walked toward her. "There's nothing to these things, Kaji. They introduce us to each other, we go to a few dinners and balls together, and that's it. It's just political. They're not like real engagements."
She gritted her teeth. "You're getting engaged?"
"Kaji, please! Yes, they want me to marry into the local ruling family. But you're my life, not some lord's meek little daughter." He reached for her, but she shrank away. "Besides, it's not even certain. It's just a trial --"
"No more," she growled. "I don't want to hear any more." With a sharp motion she pushed him away and moved to the center of the room. "You can have your life in the province, Teyloth. Or you can stay in Anjur and 'enjoy every last drop.' It doesn't matter." Her gaze was icy. "I have a new life now."
She thought he might have called her name again, but in that moment the spell overtook her with a fresh, penetrating sense of liberation. She stepped into the halo of light that materialized before her. Back in Mithrazel's library she picked up the amber heartstone, frowned, and flipped it away into the shadows.
After Kaji rushed out of the library, another shape emerged from the darkness. Mithrazel peered at the door through which his apprentice had exited. Mumbling to himself, he tapped two bony fingers together. From the shadows the heartstone leapt into his hand. He held it against the glow of Kaji's abandoned luminant beads and scrutinized its smooth imperfections.
"Precocious indeed," he murmured.
The air in the library prickled. Loose parchments stirred as the room tensed with ambient energy, like the pregnant calm before a storm. A voice resonated from every corner: "Mithrazel, you're a menace to me!"
The middle-aged sorcerer swallowed. "Honorable Master? I don't understand."
"The girl," said Adranath. The Lore Master's voice sounded no less ominous as he materialized in a whorl of color. Tall and broad-chested, he loomed over the shorter Meer. His expression was fierce. "Don't you know what she's done?"
"She visited her lover, of the Warrior caste." Mithrazel wrinkled his brow, constricting his mask of gray fur. "But we've known of that relationship for weeks. How does --?"
"You told her about the Parting of the Veils. Now she's told the warrior. How long until the Matriarchs find out?"
Mithrazel clenched his fists and growled. "Dash it all! Does that girl have no wit to call her own? By my bones, it's past time I demonstrated the consequences of her recklessness!"
Lore Master Adranath glowered into the sorcerer's face. "She has more wit than you, it seems. You mimic my lessons, but you still haven't learned them yourself. Discipline? Responsibility? You've got neither, Mithrazel! Kaji has goaded you out of every secret you know. She's cracked you open like a shellfish."
The middle-aged wizard tucked his ears in submission, though his eyes smoldered. "I'll deal with her presently, Honorable Master."
"No. I'll handle her now." He crossed his arms. His robes made a whispering sound. "You decide how to still the warrior's tongue. We can't let the Matriarchs interfere with the Parting."
"I'll see to it, Honorable Master."
The silver-furred Adranath raised a finger. "Act quietly. We can't afford a conflict with the Warrior caste. Leave no proof of our involvement."
"I understand the delicacy of the matter, Honorable Master." His face was furrowed by a heavy grimace. "I make mistakes, but I'm not a fool."
"Show me," said Adranath to his former apprentice. With a deft hand he described a complex pattern in the air, then vanished in a cascade of light.
For a long while, in the dark of his library, Mithrazel squeezed the heartstone in a tight, trembling fist and did not speak a word.
Kaji slammed open the door to her spartan bedchamber. Her bared teeth gnashed at the tears streaming down her cheeks. With a violent yank she pulled the sorcerer's robe down from her shoulders. The gauzy fabric ripped from the neckline to the waist. She glanced at the sleek fur of her chest, then clenched her fists. She shrugged the torn robe on again.
A quick gesture caused a wicker chest to flip open. Inside was the scuffed leather of her old mage's travel wear, and the multicolored folds of her mystic's mantle. She jerked the clothes out of the chest. In this place of diaphanous colors and opaque crystal walls, the simple smells and tones and textures flooded her senses with memories of home, of the untamed, fern-lush provinces. A lifetime stormed out of the past, a rain shower of conjured moments of joy, and ecstasy, and tenderness.
Kaji lashed back tears and snarled a spell.
The tiny room blinked with a powerful light. A bitter scent pinched her nostrils. Kaji shook her head to regain her bearings. Through puddles of afterimage she saw wisps of hot smoke where her mage's clothes had been.
Her head swam. Though she had heard tales, Kaji had never seen magic destroy a random object that way. More startling was how effortless it had been. She had read the spell weeks earlier, in the course of her studies, but it did not occur to her that she could employ it without practice, in a simple fit of anger. She knew it could only be possible through the Lore Council's matrix of sorcery.
Though she did not realize it, her tears stopped flowing. In her torn robe she sat on the lip of the humble bed, silently reviewing the details of the spell. During the months past she had learned about the power of Anjur. Tonight she had actually tasted it. She now understood how it could change everything.
She decided to master it all. Anjur was her destiny. Nothing else in the world mattered.
The light of twin moons leered through the translucent crystal of the Anjuric tower. In this outer chamber at the tower's peak, Mithrazel sat on a low platform and smoked from a tall, ornate hookah pipe. After sucking a lungful of spicy smoke, he exhaled a sparkling plume. The cloud hovered before him. He gazed into it.
"Name your price," he murmured. "And I need not emphasize the importance of discretion."
A half-formed shape spoke from the cloud. "You need to tell me nothing, except the man's name." The voice paused, followed by the sound of a heavy breath. The figure in the sparkling smoke grew more distinct. "We'll discuss payment afterwards."
Mithrazel nodded and spoke a name. The voice in the smoke repeated it. The sorcerer grunted assent. "Contact me the instant it's done." Then he set aside the pipe's mouthpiece and blew a breath of plain air. The hookah smoke dissipated, and Mithrazel was alone.
He frowned heavily. To himself he sighed, "And this is unfortunate," then hung his head in silence.
In her apprentice's chamber, Kaji sat on the bed and rasped the choppy syllables of a spell. A pebble-sized chunk of crystal wall burst into twinkling dust. She repeated the incantation. Another hole popped in the wall.
Each time she cast the spell her body tingled with excitement. Provincial magecraft never dreamt of such stark, pure mana, unadulterated by natural chaos and needless Matriarchal traditions. To Kaji, the feeling of freedom was cathartic and glorious.
She concentrated very hard on the details of the spell, and nothing else.
Another pebble-sized hole burst into the wall. Then another. And another.
Kaji almost choked when someone rapped on her door. She brushed away the dust and debris with frantic motions and straightened her disheveled clothes. With quick fingers she attempted to hide the tear in her gown among the folds of diaphanous cloth. Consciously she pried the grim expression from her face, relaxing it to something more cordial.
Her breath lodged in her throat when she discovered Lore Master Adranath on the other side of the door.
"Excuse me for intruding so late," said the tall sorcerer, "but I have something to say to you." He glanced at her robes. An eyebrow lifted when he spotted the tear, but immediately he looked into her face. "I didn't wake you. Excellent."
Kaji went cold. She held her gown closed with both hands. Her heart felt like it would pound out of her chest. She bowed her head. "I am humbled, Honorable Master. Um ... shall we go somewhere...?"
"Your bedchamber is fine." Adranath squeezed into the cramped room and sat heavily on the bed. He smiled at her, his eyes lit like candles. "Kaji Sayarukan, I know why you've come to Anjur."
"You... do?" Her ears were mashed flat against her skull. She hoped she was not quivering, but she could not tell. "Please, Honorable Master, can you explain it to me, then? Until tonight, I've wondered myself what I'm doing here."
"I summoned you," said Adranath.
She drew back a few inches. "Summoned me? But --"
"I know, you believe your Matriarch sent you. But it was I who made her do so."
If anyone else had been sitting before her, Kaji would have laughed at the notion of compelling Dame Sayaru to act against her own judgment. But this was the leader of the Lore Council. He was nearly radiant with aged presence, even while he retained the health and vigor of a man Kaji's age.
She had difficulty guessing his thoughts. She prayed he would not call her a spy. "You made the Venerable Mother send me here? How?"
Adranath smiled again. "It wasn't a conscious decision. I didn't know about you specifically, but I was sure that someone like you existed. So I drew up an enchantment to bring you to me. Your Matriarch was simply a step along your path."
Kaji twitched her tall ears. The rest of her body seemed frozen in place. "What do you mean, 'someone like me?'"
"That's the crux, of course." He laid a hand on her knee. She flinched, then trembled a smile. "Come to my tower in the morning. I'll show you what I'm talking about."
"It has to do with what happened in the Wilds of Dashan, doesn't it?"
Adranath stood. Kaji's small bed rocked under his shifting weight. "Come tomorrow and see."
"How long shall I tell Master Mithrazel I'll be gone?"
"No need to tell him anything. As of dawnbell tomorrow, you'll be my apprentice." He reached out a long finger. She gulped when he touched her bare stomach, just where her gown was torn; and as he traced his fingertip up her torso the rip in the fabric healed itself. His eyes flickered like candles. "Make sure you're presentable by then, Kaji?"
When the Lore Master closed the door, Kaji collapsed back onto her bed. She exhaled knots of tension. Her arms spread out wide.
If Adranath's enchantment had forced Sayaru to send her here, then Kaji had not really betrayed the Matriarch. That eased a vague ache in her gut. And now Kaji was going to learn sorcery from the greatest practitioner the Meer had ever known.
Destiny, she recognized, was moving at a gallop. Her growing smile was sharpened by the fierce glint in her eye.
The midnight breeze was humid as it nudged through the flag-sized leaves of the tree. Teyloth knelt on a thin, sturdy limb. His chitin armor nearly glowed in the spattered moonlight, and so he pressed into the densest shadows of the enormous tree trunk. At his side perched a cloth bag, draped over the limb. One of the warrior's hands rested on the pommel of his crystal sword; the other held the tail of his Living Whip. The long arthropod coiled unmoving around his arm.
Teyloth had removed his helmet. His ears perked up high. He studied the noises of the darkness, sorting out the wind from sounds that were not the wind.
Something stirred behind him. Without hesitation he leapt from the tree limb and grabbed a nearby one. His legs swirled upwards. He scrambled onto the higher branch, then moved along a slithering path to the shelter of a clump of leaves. Peering down at the spot he had vacated, he saw moonbeams spiking through cross-shaped holes in the leaves, where arrows had punctured the tree's canopy.
Cross-shaped, he thought to himself. A Sirocco assassin, probably in the tree with me. But who hired him?
The Living Whip hissed, its pincers fanning out wide. The warrior tensed, straining his ears.
Two shapes flashed out of the gloom. Teyloth dodged by inches a knife stroke across his exposed throat. He flipped backwards into the air, snapping the whip at one of his attackers. The assassin ducked out of the creature's reach. The warrior's feet thumped onto a lower, smaller branch, and by the time he regained his balance he had drawn his crystal sword. Above, one of the two attackers jumped at him. The assassin somersaulted in the air and jabbed a lightning kick at Teyloth's chest. The warrior twisted to avoid the blow, then slashed a glittering, moonlit arc through the air.
He missed his target. The man fell past him and grabbed the branch on which Teyloth was standing. The warrior kept his balance while the assassin swung in a wide circle under the branch, the momentum of the fall twirling him quickly behind Teyloth. The warrior leapt straight up. He jabbed down with his sword. He heard a bark of pain as the blade vanished between the man's ribs.
Teyloth landed in a crouch beside the dying assassin and immediately looked up at the second attacker. He could only flinch as multiple small missiles streaked through the air and cracked into the armor of his abdomen. Fiery pain lanced throughout his body. Teyloth ground his teeth and snarled.
The assassin used a stinger, a living dart thrower. The beetle-like creature clung to the forearm and flung needle-thin missiles with its segmented tail. Teyloth knew the venom of a single volley was not enough to kill him, but the sensation was excruciating. Battling the pain, the warrior dodged to safety behind the trunk of the huge tree. He held his breath as he cracked his whip upwards. The creature clung to the bark of the tree and crawled higher, brushing through the giant leaves as it moved. An instant later the assassin reappeared. His stinger unloaded a rapid barrage of darts into the rustling foliage, while Teyloth climbed unnoticed through the shadows and into arm's reach of the black-garbed man. He growled a guttural curse. The assassin whirled to face him, but Teyloth's sword struck quicker. A crack trembled the air when the crystal blade split the stinger in half and severed the assassin's forearm.
With a snap kick Teyloth pushed the stunned man from his perch. The assassin howled as he smashed through the heavy leaves, then impacted far below.
There's at least one more, realized the warrior. The archer. Quickly he summoned his whip from the darkness. The arthropod looked uninjured. Teyloth dashed for his bag, still resting on another branch. When he snatched it and slung the strap over his shoulder, the tree abruptly animated with a dozen, clipped sounds -- cross-bladed arrows perforating the foliage as they lanced in his direction. Teyloth jumped down. His back seared with pain in several places. He clambered from branch to branch in a spiral as he descended the trunk, using the tree as cover. Another missile impaled his hip, reeling him with the sudden impact. Still he pressed his retreat. He had no choice. Turning to face the unseen archer would be suicide.
When he landed on the ground, he saw in the moonlight the one-armed corpse of the fallen assassin. Already several thorn-toothed scavenger vines were nibbling at the body. Teyloth paused for a quick glimpse. The man wore clothes painted to resemble the dappled shadows of the nighttime forest. His fur was dyed black, with stripes of bright red paint on the neck and limbs. Sirocco, nodded the warrior as he dashed away.
For almost a minute, arrows from the canopy of the giant tree harried him. Three struck him but only one pierced his armor, atop his left shoulder. Teyloth ignored the pain that raked him with every step. If he reached the shelter of the jungle, he knew he could lose any remaining assassins.
Teyloth penetrated the tree line and nestled into the safety under a knot of giant roots. He winced at his injuries -- five barbs lodged in his belly and five arrows stuck in his flesh. Slowly, grinding his teeth, he began to work the missiles loose.
Just a few miles away, in the direction from which he came, ten thousand lights of Anjur twinkled against the velvet darkness. In the city were healers who could treat his wounds in short order; but the idea of returning never entered Teyloth's thoughts.
Time was not his ally. The provinces were more than a week distant, even on the merchant roads. He expected that the Matriarch Sayaru would tend to his health once he arrived there. Until then he had a single priority: Keep moving towards home, to tell the Matriarch what Kaji had learned.
His departure would throw his family's schemes into chaos. And now it seemed that someone was determined he would not complete the journey. But the warrior's resolve was fixed. His honor would not allow hesitation.
He had a debt to pay, to himself. His mistake would not go unatoned.
For a moment he caught his breath. A thought occurred to him -- Maybe this is why we're supposed to keep to our caste. The Mystics drive you to lunacy. He dared to utter a single chuckle, and fingered the heartstone on a cord around his neck. Then he pulled out a crystal knife and returned to the chore at hand.
"Kaji, you're what we call a nexus." Adranath, dressed in a high-collared gown, escorted the young Meer down a peak-arched hallway. Kaji wore her gauzy robe, though she had discarded a layer or two that were too damaged to repair. "A nexus," the Lore Master continued, "is someone who, by the whim of fate, is able to channel mana without limits. It's extremely rare. You're very lucky."
The apprentice tipped up her ears. "Without limits? I don't understand, master. I've always had the same limits as any other mage."
"Only because you're still young. You've not yet been... awakened." He grinned at her. "But modesty doesn't become you. You've always had a talent for mana, correct? In the Wilds of Dashan you felt the first petals of your true power begin to unfold."
"That was horrible," she muttered. Some nights she still woke to the sound of insects.
"Of course it was. Because you're untrained. You can only tap your ability through extreme emotions. It took something as terrible as a hungry madrogai to bring your talent to the surface." They approached a pair of carved amethyst doors. Their perfect facets glistened in the ambient light that followed the pair. "And you did it again last night, didn't you, Kaji?"
She felt her hackles raise and tried to conceal it. "How's that, Honorable Master?"
"When you vaporized your mage's clothes." He hardened his gaze. "Don't imagine that you can hide it from me. I'm a little more observant than Mithrazel."
She swallowed and faced the doors. "And you're going to... awaken me, master?"
His smiled, though his expression did not soften at all. "Indeed I am, Kaji." He pushed open the door.
The room beyond was a madman's nightmare. The air was a cyclone of smoke and crystal shards and tatters of toppling debris. The thundering sound almost pushed Kaji off her feet. She squinted against the harsh winds, and when a rancid tang invaded her nose she realized what she was seeing: It was a whirlwind of black smoke and ragged bits of flesh, the strewn, rotting remains of a Meer, swirling around a skeletal corpse that stood in the center of the maelstrom. The thing's flayed, tissueless legs could not possibly hold it upright. Its hollow, seeping eye sockets could not possibly see at all; yet it turned to gaze at her while its gray-toothed maw retched a column of black smoke that boiled up visibly from its rib cage. The smoke billowed at her face, propelling strips of black skin like floating ashes. Kaji screamed and threw up her arms, hurling herself backwards.
The nightmare was gone. She lay on her back in the hallway. The amethyst doors had slammed shut. They were at least fifty feet away now.
Master Adranath raised himself from the floor beside her. "By my ancestors," he murmured, blinking away his surprise. "You do have power! And it's easier to tap than I thought."
Kaji's body surged with heat. Her muscles tightened and she sprang at the Lore Master, jerking his face toward hers. "What is that?" she shouted, pointing down the hall. "You tell me what that is, master! I want an answer!"
"Kaji! Let me go!" Adranath pinched his brows and she stumbled away from him, shoved by an unseen force. "Mind yourself, apprentice."
"You mind yourself, master!" Somewhere deep inside she heard her own voice begging her to be calm, but Kaji rode the surge of fury. She stormed up to the Lore Master. "How can you show me something like that? Do you want to 'awaken' me? Well, how do you like me now?"
"Enough!" Adranath loomed over her, his powerful stature dwarfing her. Kaji did not budge. "You want to know what that is, Kaji? That's Master Hathniel, a member of the Lore Council! He's been consumed by a force that's going to unleash itself everywhere unless we can find a way to stop it."
She grimaced. "What force?"
"We don't know. It comes from... somewhere beyond. It's all we can do to contain it. I spent the entire morning setting up wards, just so it would be safe enough to show you."
"My benevolent master!" She sneered and turned away from him, but the sight of those purple doors raised bile in her throat. She mashed her fists tightly shut and forced herself to keep looking.
"Kaji, please settle down! I brought you here because you deserve to know what the stakes are. We can't beat back that kind of power. We've tried. You see the result. That's why we have to perform the Parting of the Veils very soon."
She looked back at him over her shoulder. Her voice twitched. "How soon? Master Mithrazel said within a year."
Adranath's face grew dark. "We can't hold on more than another week."
Kaji felt a chill through her body. "No! I thought we had to prepare, train for it --"
"There's no time for that." He hinted at a smile. "Mithrazel was right. You are a mage in your bones, aren't you? You think it's wrong to seek the power of the Primogenitor."
Kaji started to blurt a response, but she bit it back. Though her anger wanted to reject him, Adranath was right. Why should she resist the Parting of the Veils? What was she, a mage or a sorcerer?
She shifted her weight in that split-second of silence. The silky Anjuric robes caressed her body.
She mirrored her master's whispered smile.
"You need my power for the spell, don't you?"
Adranath blinked. "Yes, that's true. I do need you. You're the nexus."
"Then let's put my power to the test."
She whirled to face the amethyst doors, fifty feet away. Inhaling deeply, she started toward them.
"Kaji, don't! You're not ready yet!"
She continued walking.
"You can't face that alone! It's too dangerous!"
She closed her eyes long enough to recall a spell she had cast the night before. A wondrous tingle poured through her flesh. When she opened her eyes, she was standing a foot from the doors.
She reached out a hand to open them. As if she were detached from it, she noticed her hand was trembling.
"Kaji, not even Hathniel could --!"
The doors flew open. The rotting, fetid hurricane blared an unearthly roar. When she gazed on the undead thing in the center her gut wrenched, twisted, pounded like she had been punched. She doubled over and vomited, her body wracked by jolts of pain and nausea.
The winds sucked her inside the door on unsteady feet. A hailstorm of foul debris slapped against her, pummeled her, tore at her robes, clung to her face and her fur. Her every sense was violated. Like another wave of nausea she felt dire panic welling up inside her. She collapsed to the floor as her head seemed to swirl, lost in a giddy tempest of horror and memories, flashes of life and death, visions of Adranath, and Mithrazel, of oily smoke boiling over her, of Sayaru, and Teyloth, lost Teyloth, and how he once touched her like these fingers of putrid flesh now touched her all over...
…and when the panic burst free, Kaji shrieked and erupted with radiance like a sky full of stars. She opened her eyes and saw that she was upright, standing before the horror that had been a sorcerer; or not standing, but rather floating; while the corpse gaped with the perfect horrific mockery of amazement. The whirlwind of smoke and carrion still buffeted her but she did not fall. Instead warmth blossomed inside her. Kaji recognized the sunlight of the provinces. She opened her hands and the warmth flooded over dead Hathniel. Kaji summoned the healing forces of her magecraft and cascaded them into the maelstrom. The glare must have been blinding, though it was only a curiosity to her - she reveled in pure mana, rivers of it, gushing over the stumbling corpse; and she saw that its bones were now less blackened, its flesh now less tattered, its face reshaping itself into something alive.
Kaji did not relent. Strips of tissue flung out of the wind and adhered to Hathniel's body. When the seeping sockets of his skull waxed opaque, and the darks of his eyes reappeared, Kaji witnessed another kind of horror -- an intimate, insane, unenviable knowledge of darkness and evil and otherworldly death.
Hathniel shrieked with healthy, mortal lungs as the foul black smoke clambered and clawed against Kaji's power. Hathniel shrieked, and Kaji cried out a different spell.
The air split with a sudden, earth-rumbling crack. Kaji hurtled backwards on a wave of bright light and an explosion of smoke -- pale, hot, worldly smoke that stung her skin.
Something very hard whacked the back of her head. She clutched her face, fighting down an angry throbbing in her skull. When she pulled her hands away, she saw that the maelstrom was over. Once again she had thrown herself out of the room, into the long hallway.
Through the open amethyst doors, there was no trace left of Lore Master Hathniel.
"You killed him," said Adranath's voice. It sounded soft and distant in the aftermath.
Kaji struggled to sit up. Her delicate robes were destroyed, little more than ribbons remaining. Her body ached all over.
"He asked me to," she answered. Tears matted the fur of her cheeks. She wiped them brusquely, then began to sob.
"Adranath, that was reckless and dangerous!" The new voice startled Kaji. Through a teary haze she realized a group of elderly Meer were gathered beside Adranath. It was the first time she had ever seen the Lore Council, all eleven remaining masters, collected together.
One of the sorcerers scowled at Adranath. "What's the meaning of this? She could have been killed!"
The head of the council opened a wild grin. "Yes, but she wasn't. And see what she's done!"
The ornately dressed sorcerers visibly subdued their amazement. Kaji recaptured her breath. A lilt of excitement bolted through her. She wanted to smirk, thought better of it, then did so anyway.
"We told you months ago she was suitable to our needs. Are you convinced now?"
Adranath smiled down at Kaji, who was still sitting on the floor. "I am, without a doubt. Kaji, now you know what we're up against. Will you agree to be the nexus of the Parting of the Veils?" He extended his hand to her.
She took it. The young Meer teetered to her feet and hugged the ruins of her gown close to her spotted body. Her eyes were red and moist. She had begun to shiver. "Yes, master," she said, staring up to meet his gaze, "after we discuss what I get in return."
The faces of the Lore Council were severely disapproving. They were even more so when Adranath slapped his palm on the young girl's shoulder and let loose a stream of exuberant laughter.
Master Mithrazel sat before his elaborate hookah. He took a moment to prepare himself, then lit the herb-filled bowl with a pointed finger. Through a long, slithering tube he inhaled the subtly hued smoke. Then he exhaled it through his nose.
The plume sparkled. "Tell me," said the wizard, "what is the news?"
For a moment there was silence. The wizard refreshed the cloud of smoke. "We think he's dead," came the answer. "Your advice was good. We found him where you told us he'd be."
Mithrazel glanced at the amber heartstone, then frowned. "You think he's dead?"
"He was half gone when we caught up to him, after all the wounds he'd taken the past week. He took enough poison arrows to stop five men. But he made it to the Matriarch's doorstep before he collapsed, so we haven't verified that he's dead, for sure."
The gray-masked sorcerer closed his eyes.
"He killed six of us in nine days. We'll be happy to make sure he doesn't recover."
Mithrazel shook his head. "It's irrelevant now. One way or another, you're of no more use to me. Your expenses will be compensated. Good day."
He set down the mouthpiece of the hookah and plucked the heartstone from atop a low table. The smooth amber was warm to his touch. He frowned.
"And that is unfortunate," he sighed, shaking his head.