"Pity the heart that dies for love. Paradise holds no glory for half a soul."
The very old Meer shook her veiled head and held the hand of a dying man.
"He is gone, Venerable Mother?"
"No, young woman. But the passing hours weigh heavy upon him. He will die honored."
"What of Kaji?"
"I am unable to dream to her. The sorcerers put walls between us. I pray our ancestors guide her home in time."
"Perhaps they are wiser not to. Kaji and this warrior are forbidden to join."
"Hearts are jungle creatures. Fencing them is a fool's ambition. And I have been a fool. Now find us some water. See, he calls her name again.
"Rest, young buck. Your journey is over. Pray that Kaji set out to follow you when you left, for if not, I fear you have seen her the last time with these mortal eyes."
A week earlier Kaji began to study under Lore Master Adranath. She recognized the face of destiny when he taught her to carve words into eternity.
Chiseled on the high sapphire walls of the sorcerer's spell chamber were patterns of simple glyphs. The tall, gossamer-robed Adranath was explaining how the symbols would transform the world. They walked the room's circumference at a deliberate pace. "Each one represents a distilled truth, an essential facet of fundamental sorcery. This one is Passion. The next is Progress, then Tranquility and Wisdom."
"The Outer Circle of Elements," nodded Kaji, "just like Dame Sayaru teaches."
"The Matriarchs speak of four elements, with four combinations in the Inner Circle and a smattering of others." Adranath smirked, then spread out his hands. "Kaji, we've identified seven hundred total glyphs. Mithrazel has taught you some already. By week's end you'll know them all."
She scanned the high crystal walls. Symbols dotted the surface like spots on the young Meer's fur. "Honorable Master, what do they mean to the Parting of the Veils?"
"We call these glyphs the Troth of Anjur -- our ultimate bond with the universe. During the spell we'll inscribe them into the ether. It's the completion of the Great Matrix. The Troth means our power will be as eternal as the ether itself. When it's done, simply speaking the names of the glyphs shall suffice to conjure a spell." He swept a glance over her small form, draped in a translucent gown. "Kaji, you're the nexus. You will inscribe them yourself."
"Me?" She almost staggered as she stared up at the endless, swirling inscriptions. At her best pace she could never memorize so many symbols in a week's time, much less master them. Yet Adranath's words spun like a top through her mind. He was asking her to write upon the parchment of the ether -- something the Matriarchs never imagined and the Lore Council never dared. If the Parting of the Veils succeeded, her legacy would surpass all worldly glory. Her name would be immortal.
She locked eyes with the Lore Master. "Teach me."
Adranath darkened his gaze. "To teach you I must control you. Submit yourself to me. There can be no room for error."
"The morning grows old, Master."
The silver-furred sorcerer nurtured a sharp-edged grin. Without warning he flung his muscular arms in the air and bellowed a stream of quick chants. Dozens of symbols ignited on the walls. The air sputtered and swirled and something massive lunged between them. Kaji bit down a squeal as she dropped back against the wall. The colors of her robe wafted brightly against the rich blue crystal.
A black mass hung in the air before Lore Master Adranath. Kaji could see that it had form, yet her eyes could not fasten a shape to it. It was crystalline and impossibly dark, like blackrock, though natural blackrock did not seem so alive. Or not alive -- animated.
Kaji identified the blackness but could not speak its name.
Adranath plucked the words from her tongue. "Ether. The spring of existence."
She tried to swallow a lump in her throat. "That's a gate?"
"It's an ovule. A fragment of pure ether. One of my greatest achievements as a sorcerer." He held out his hand. "It's time to begin."
Kaji cried out as a torrent of mana poured inside her. Her flesh erupted into relentless sensations, tingling, twisting, sparking while sorcerous energy probed through her, pushing out into her arms and legs, rushing up her spine. She writhed without control, struggling for composure as the spell overtook her slender body. She bit her lip and looked up into Adranath's face.
"Magnificent," smiled the tall sorcerer. His brow tightened with concentration. "You're more pliant than I expected." He held up his fingers and traced a pattern in the air. Kaji felt her own hand mimic the action. "How do you feel?"
"Eager to begin, Honorable Master."
"Excellent. We'll start by inscribing a single glyph into the ovule. Mind what your body does and we might just finish training in time."
She opened her mouth to speak. A flutter raced down her torso at the smallest resistance to the sorcerer's control. "Master, I've picked out my first glyph."
His ears raised. "Have you now?"
"That one." She pointed to a symbol on the wall. "Passion."
Adranath chuckled. "You were born with that one on your lips, weren't you?" From several feet away he lifted her hand and began to describe the glyph in the air. The ovule of ether shivered waves of black upon black. Then an amber glow flickered within.
"Its name is Flam. Even the Matriarchs handle it with caution."
"We don't have time for caution." She practiced the gesture a few times, then turned hungry eyes on the sorcerer. "Give me more."
"Dame Sayaru, the mages are tired. They beg for rest."
"I taught them wards against fatigue! It's time they prove that their studies were sincere."
"But they've been working for sixteen hours --"
"We must be tireless now, young woman. All things depend on it. Every Matriarch is taking the same course as I."
"Forgive me, Venerable Mother. I'm also to tell you that the warrior asks for the heartstone."
"Take it to him. I am finished with it. Kaji has tangled the enchantments and I cannot abide the stink of sorcery any longer."
"He will be grateful."
"He should not be. Doesn't he know? It is the very dagger that has killed him."
"Now, Kaji! Force your power into the ovule!"
At her master's command Kaji opened herself like a floodgate, channeling a torrent of pure mana into the shard of ether. Her body sang in the thrilling flow of magic. Concentrating, she outlined a glyph with her hands and her mind. The ovule pulsed a deep jasper red.
The inscription complete, she let go of her focus and stumbled. Strong hands steadied her. Panting, she nodded to the Lore Master.
"You're conducting mana brilliantly," murmured Adranath, frowning, "but the glyph-form is not good enough. Again."
"It's too complex, Master. Let's move on and come back to this one later."
"You have to master Irem. If anything goes wrong, it can save our lives."
"Its meaning is Stasis. Time ceases at its utterance. With it, if need be, we can survive beyond a failure of the Parting and make another attempt."
"And if Irem fails?"
"The Lore Council will no longer exist. And you, my apprentice, will leave nothing but bones behind."
"I take your point." She regained her breath, then cast her eyes over the chiseled sapphire wall. Her lips pursed. "And that glyph, Honorable Master. Why do you always steer me away from it?"
Adranath flattened his ears. "You'll learn it in time. After you've mastered the others."
"I am the nexus," said Kaji in a low voice. "I want to know what it means."
The Lore Master glared at her. "You are the stylus. I am the scribe. Keep your place, apprentice, and I'll keep mine."
Kaji mimed a snarl, then closed her eyes. "I want to know what's happening with my demands, then."
"Mithrazel will see to them. I've given you my word they'll be met when the ritual is finished. We haven't a moment to waste, Kaji. We part the Veils of Creation in three days."
She stared at him under heavy lids. "On the fourth day, I want payment."
"On the fourth day," smiled the sorcerer, "you'll be a goddess."
Like a sleeping animal the library nestled into a pillow of soft twilight darkness. In one corner glowed a gentle lamp flame. A middle-aged wizard hunched over a pile of scrolls inside the feathery globe of light.
Mithrazel stiffened when a shadow took shape and came at him.
"Kaji!" he barked. "You surprised me."
"I'm sorry. I have to know something."
He furled his scrolls with a quick cantrip. "And your master knows you're here?"
"He was called away to the watch post. Do you know about my arrangements with the Council?"
"Of course I do. I am charged with fulfilling them." His mouth formed around a bitter-tasting word, but he swallowed it and said no more.
The sorceress pressed her palms together and leaned in close. "It's possible, then? It can be done?"
"I cannot change the laws of the Meer, girl! But yes, the Lore Council can sanction alliances between Warrior families." He glanced away, with an expression somewhere between disgust and remorse. "Your lover will not have to marry to join the houses."
Despite herself, Kaji indulged an excited burst of energy. Her arms tossed around Mithrazel's neck and she kissed him on the cheek. The wizard snorted and squirmed out of her grasp. Kaji giggled.
"One more question."
Mithrazel rubbed his gray-framed eyes. "And what is that?"
"Tell me the meaning of this glyph." With graceful strokes she gestured a symbol in the air.
The wizard's eyes bulged. He darted out a hand to stop her. "Adranath taught you that?"
"No. I figured it out from the carvings in his spell chamber."
"Leave it be, girl! It is not for you to toy with."
She stepped back and lifted her chin. "Then I'll find out right now."
"Stop!" Mithrazel leapt from his chair and grabbed her hands roughly. At her grimace he released them. His face twisted in distaste. "Very well. Its name is Than. It is Undeath. It is Master Adranath's most recent contribution to the Troth of Anjur."
"Undeath?" The apprentice's gut wrung as, involuntarily, memories sprang up of Lore Master Hathniel and the grotesque maelstrom he had become. A spike of bile rose in her throat. She grit her teeth.
Mithrazel continued, "He distilled it after studying the foulness that threatens us. He hoped to understand its black power and so subdue it. The work was futile." The wizard stared at the desktop with a knitted brow. "Nor did he ever inform me how close we are to that confrontation."
Kaji's stomach lurched. Abruptly she wanted to talk about anything else. "Show me what you're studying!" She snatched up one of the scrolls before the wizard could react, and unrolled it. "Ahh! A Treatise On Provincial Charms. Why Master, you think the Provinces are charming! I never imagined."
"Leave me to my work!" growled Mithrazel, though he did not move. His posture seemed uneasy.
She smirked. "You're reading about heartstones? Why? Are you planning to spy on the Matriarchs?"
"They can be put to such uses, naturally."
"Where will you get one? Steal it from a little girl?" Then her mouth gaped open. "You found mine, didn't you! Where is it?"
Mithrazel flinched. "Yours? I didn't know you had one."
"Never mind. I know how to get it now." Her arms slithered through the gestures of a spell. Her fist bloomed with rays of color. When she opened it, the heartstone rested on her palm.
In an instant her body fell cold. Her eyes glazed with dread. "Teyloth! Something's horribly wrong!" She leveled an intense gaze at Mithrazel, though it projected only concern. "What's wrong with him? What happened?"
The wizard stammered a knot of sounds, but they formed no real words.
"He's dying!" she shrieked, squeezing her fist tight. Then she battled back the panic swirling in her head. Only one action presented itself. Chants and glyphs solidified in her mind. She shut her eyes, took a deep breath and summoned a familiar arrangement of sorcery. A musical hum lilted around her. Bright light shone through her eyelids. She stepped forward and was carried away.
Mithrazel watched as the mystical gate faded from sight. Then he backed away with a look of alarm, as if the air might snap open again and bite him.
Kaji forced mana into the spell of teleportation. She had no idea the distance she was trying to cross, only that Teyloth was at the other end. The tumbling sensation of freedom sucked at her concentration; but nearly a week of Adranath's instruction allowed her to channel as much energy as she needed to satisfy the enchantment's thirst.
She had almost stopped marveling at the unlimited power she controlled.
She stepped out of the gate into a twilight symphony of green. A hazy rain shower drooped over the giant trees of an old forest. Cold droplets thumped on a million leafy drums.
Before her was a cluster of houses, tucked like children in the arms of an enormous white cypress. The trunk of the tree was surrounded by a simple wooden fence, in which many ponderous, domesticated durka waited out the downpour with reptilian patience. Ostards huddled against the damp, dusky chill.
More than anything the wet smells of the place enveloped Kaji like a cloak. This was Dame Sayaru's villa. Teyloth was somewhere inside, shielded from her teleportation by the Matriarch's magic wards.
She had come home. The shock of it caused her to neglect her mage's reflexes. Instead of sheltering herself with a cantrip, she let the rain stream over her body in cool, silvery curls.
An older mage escorted her through the woven-thatch halls of the Matriarch's home. The woman wore a short leather tunic and a soft, floral-colored mantle. Kaji recognized that she was staring at the mage's traveling clothes with longing, though her thoughts did not stray from Teyloth.
"He is dying," said the mage in a subdued voice.
"That's ridiculous! Why doesn't somebody heal him?"
"We've tried. Not even the Venerable Mother could help him. They say the assassins used sorcerous poisons, immune to our resistance. Even resurrection won't work."
Kaji scowled and picked up her pace. "Sorcery doesn't frighten me anymore."
At his bedside Kaji collapsed to her knees. Teyloth was a pale apparition among sheets of rich color. His fur was matted and coarse, his breath hot and tremulous, his eyes swollen shut. His Living Whip was a thousand-legged coil by his head. Kaji had never seen it dormant in quite that way.
She clutched Teyloth's hand to her cheek and wept.
"Tears of joy, I hope," said a voice that was barely a tremble of breath.
Kaji laughed and sobbed and pressed her face against his broad chest. His ribs stood out clear and hard. "Tey, please, tell me about our future together!"
"I fight for you, Kaji. That's why I'm here."
"You did right, you stupid oaf. I was wrong. I should have come myself. I was angry and I was an idiot, but I've arranged everything now. You don't have to get married, Tey! I've worked it out with the Lore Council. I fixed it."
"Can't fix me," he rasped. "The Matriarch --"
"Forget her! I can heal you. I know how."
Weakly, wearily, the warrior's head shook side to side. "No. It's over. I don't mind. True glory means dying for your passions." He swallowed, dryly. "Don't cry. I'm an arrow you fired on the day we met. I hope ... I hit my mark."
"Shut up, Tey! Stay with me. I need you now."
His cracked lips worked into a smile. Something twinkled in the swollen folds of his eyelids. "I adore you, Kaji Sayarukan."
Her name trickled from his lips like smoke from a snuffed candle.
The veiled bedchamber exploded with light. Kaji rode a swell of pain and unleashed a flood of mana into a healing enchantment. As she had with Lore Master Hathniel she gave herself over to the brutal flow of power, lashing every scrap of it into the spell. Yet Teyloth remained motionless, his scraggled fur flaking away from skin that grew unnaturally dark.
"Kaji, stop!" The voice thundered in her head. She felt arms of magic energy enfolding her, gently coaxing her back from the deathbed. When she resisted, the arms grew forceful. She found herself yanked into the hallway.
"That doesn't help him!" shouted Dame Sayaru, interposing herself between Kaji and the door. The young Meer had never seen such a fierce glare in the Matriarch's eyes.
Nor was she daunted by it. "Stand back, Mother."
"I shall not! You're not helping him, Kaji! The poison in his body turns healing magic against him."
"No!" Kaji lunged at the door and was caught in the ancient Meer's arms. "I can undo the poison!"
"It's too late. Kaji, listen to me!" Sayaru captured the sorceress's gaze, in a single instant that recalled a childhood spent idolizing the Matriarch. Kaji faltered. "He's gone, my child. His spirit has passed and cannot return. Do not defile him with pointless enchantments."
Kaji's soul toppled away from her. In its place remained a void no mana could fill. Her body trembled, weakened, then moved with some distant energy that tore her from the Matriarch's arms. Kaji rushed through the door and fell at Teyloth's side. Her arms wrapped around him but nothing was there. His body remained, his flesh still warm, but nothing was there.
The Living Whip uncurled itself and crawled off the bed, moving as if in a stupor.
Kaji screamed again. Once more she gave herself over to a savage flow, this time of unremarkable, ceaseless tears.
In the corridor beyond the death chamber a waifish Mystic wiped tears from her face. Dame Sayaru stroked the girl's back. "A warrior is a tragedy," murmured the old woman, "a moth that seeks only for a flame to consume it."
"No more proverbs, Mother." The door opened slowly. Kaji was a disheveled mess, eyes bloody, hair tangled, Anjuric robes still soaked and clinging. Her voice was wet with tears. "Tell me who did this."
The Matriarch squinted. "What have you done in there, young woman? I smell sorcery."
"It's called Irem Grav. Don't disturb him." She tugged her fingers through recalcitrant hair. "Who were the assassins, Mother?"
"They came from Anjur. Of that there is no doubt. They wanted to keep him from delivering news of the Parting of the Veils."
Kaji's expression was sour. "That's obvious. I need more."
"They tracked him using this." She held up an amber heartstone. "Whoever possesses its counterpart held the assassins' reins."
The sorceress bared her teeth. "I knew it."
"Kaji," said the Matriarch, lifting a finger, "my child, I weep for your loss. But this is a fragile time. Consider your actions. Do not allow passion to rule you."
She tried to choke it down, but the mirthless laugh sprang unbidden from Kaji's mouth.
Mithrazel's flailing body smashed against the tapestried wall of his bedchamber. When he slumped to the ground his limbs glowed in several places, as the wizard desperately healed his injuries. Part of a wall hanging, woven with luminescent patterns, sagged atop him.
"Why?" bellowed Kaji, floating in a halo of swirling light. "Why kill him? What did it gain you?"
Mithrazel flung aside the tapestry and snarled, "I am a sorcerer of Anjur! You'll not --"
"Shut up!" She carved another whirlwind from the ether and engulfed her former master in its violence. Mana streamed from her in unbound quantities. The wizard smacked against the opposite wall, then rolled sideways along its hard crystalline surface. Mithrazel shrieked in pain. Cracking sounds punctuated his outbursts. When he landed again, his body was twisted into a grotesque shape.
"Kaji!" howled the sorcerer. The radiance of his healing spells was noticeably weaker. "Mercy! Let me speak! I walked the boy's thoughts. He would never have been persuaded to stop. He believed it was his duty to you. His devotion was insurmountable, given the limits on our time!"
"Liar! You were mad at me and you wanted revenge!" She swept him from the floor and hurled him through a pair of clear-paned doors. With a glassy crash he toppled onto the balcony beyond. Stars strew across the sky above him; the endless lights of Anjur glimmered a thousand feet below. Kaji was close behind, tears of rage staining her face. "Yes, I used you, and you can't stand that! Well, if you want me, I'm in your old chambers in Adranath's tower. Send your assassins after me. Not him. By the spheres, Mithrazel, not him!"
The wizard's splintered bones did not allow him to stand. On the crystal floor of the balcony he spat blood and groaned. "No! Please, in the name of our ancestors! I meant only to keep the Matriarchs from interfering. The Council commanded it!"
"The Council!" She hovered above him, brighter than all the stars. "Who? Adranath?"
Mithrazel mashed his eyelids shut.
Kaji growled. "Then I'm finished with you." A wind soared from the heavens and lifted the mangled sorcerer into the air.
"Mercy! Don't kill me! I told you I walked the warrior's thoughts! Spare me and I'll share them with you... perhaps it may answer questions which you could not ask him in life..."
The sorceress' face churned with rising horror. The expression changed quickly to animal fury. Mithrazel pitched high into the air above the city and then fell screeching, a streak of feeble light. Kaji burst into rampant sobs. She crumpled to the balcony floor amid smeared pools of her old master's blood.
A blinding flash sparkled around Mithrazel before he hit the ground. Kaji realized this only a moment before an identical flash swallowed her.
She was sprawled on the floor of a tall room fashioned from wine-colored crystal. Eleven sorcerers stood before her, each within a pillar of white light. The centermost of the Lore Council opened his hands to her.
"Kaji," said Adranath, "my apprentice, I grieve with you. I am at your service."
The girl formed her mouth into a word, though no sound emerged. "Murderer." The same whirlwind which had mutilated Mithrazel now leapt at the aged Lore Master. Kaji ground her teeth together as she saturated the wind with torrential streams of mana.
Master Adranath crossed his forearms, palms facing his chest. The cyclone curled away from him and disappeared among the lofty vaults of the chamber's ceiling. Not even his diaphanous robe fluttered. Kaji locked eyes with him and cast the spell again, this time focussing on the lessons he had taught her. A whirlwind of doubled strength launched headlong at the sorcerer. Again it recoiled from him and flew away.
"Please. Kaji." Adranath's luxuriant voice filled the distant corners of the room. "Let me help you."
She rose to her knees. After a controlled breath she murmured, "You have." Then she droned a mage's enchantment she had vowed would never shape her lips again.
A sharp, inhuman trilling arose. Its echoes fluttered and flapped around the vaulted ceiling. From every window and doorway and every slightest crack in the walls poured a tide of insects into the room. The swell of glittering, chitinous creatures flooded over the startled wizards, who brandished emerald staves in defense. Kaji lost sight of the Meer in the opaque hurricane of tiny surging bodies, a buzzing kaleidoscope of wings and legs and shells and jaws and stingers. This time, though, none dared alight on Kaji's fur. In the Wilds of Dashan she had cried as if in a nightmare. Tonight she indulged an ominous smile.
The air began to crack. Claps of sound and arcs of light dazzled the room. Kaji ducked behind her arms and yelped, while the summoned insects popped into tiny flames by dozens, then by thousands. When it seemed the heat and clamor would overwhelm her, the bizarre inferno ended.
The insects were gone. The room was veiled with white, bitter smoke. That too drifted away on a calm breeze that whirred from Adranath's hand.
"You're a nexus, my apprentice, but we are the Lore Council of Anjur. You can't hurt us. You don't want to hurt us."
"You're right. I can't hurt you while I'm sitting here." She climbed to her feet and stood with a proud arch in her back. "So I'll leave you. I pray for your success in the Parting of the Veils." On silk slippers she walked toward the door.
"You don't want this," called the Lore Master after her. "Your future is with us, Kaji. Only we offer the glory you deserve. You can't abandon your destiny."
She glanced at him over her shoulder. Her bloodshot eyes were as cold as jade. "Look again, Adranath."
The Council fell silent as she stepped out of the chamber, leaving nothing behind but ringing echoes.
The death chamber was a feast of textures animated by candlelight. The walls were crisscrossed sheaves of straw. The rafters were tangled cypress branches. The floor was a jumble of small rugs, intricate with woven designs. The low, wide bed was carved from a single log, alive with raised patterns that mimicked a briery thicket. The colorful bedsheets draped gently over an unseen body.
In the center of the room knelt Kaji. She wore a simple, undyed dress and no shoes. She held in her hand a scrap of paper. Written upon it was a single glyph.
Kaji made no sound as she contemplated Teyloth's corpse.
The Matriarch Sayaru appeared in the doorway, behind the young Meer. Crystals winked from a long gown, outlining the old woman in the shadows.
"You will not invoke that power under my roof," said the Matriarch's resonant voice.
Kaji glanced at the paper. "You know what Than is, Venerable Mother?"
"Of course I do. It is Adranath's venom. Destroy it."
"If you were in my place, you'd consider the same thing."
"I would not." The Matriarch was beside her without a stir of air. She whisked the paper from Kaji's fingers and incinerated it with a blossom of rainbow flames.
Kaji lowered her head. A tear wetted her nose.
Dame Sayaru laid a knobby hand on the girl's shoulder. "But then I have the advantage of knowledge that you do not possess. Come with me. Indulge an old Matriarch's need to tell a tale. See what we've been doing these two long days since your warrior arrived."
They walked down the warmly lit corridors of the villa. Before she realized it, Kaji had taken the ancient Meer's arm and was leaning one cheek against the marbled fur of her shoulder. It was a strange, natural act.
"Kaji, I know it isn't easy to be caught in the middle of this. We all despise this... situation. There was a time, you see, when the Lore Council and the Matriarchs did not cross paths. That was before Adranath joined them. These seventy-seven years since, we've grown to curse his name."
Kaji's ears perked. She lifted her head. "I didn't know that, Mother."
"We don't speak of it. Why show the world a rift within the caste? Yet now I wonder that we doomed ourselves through inaction."
They approached a bustle of Mystics, mostly weary-looking teenage girls in mage's leathers, carrying an unending chain of baskets that brimmed with herbs. The girls bowed their heads to the Matriarch as she passed. It was the least formal of all genuflections. By that alone Kaji knew the circumstances were dire. She was not comforted by the observation.
"Venerable Mother, what is Adranath's sin? Is it just that unendurable ego of his?"
"Far worse. Nature deserves her mysteries, young woman, but to him a mystery is an insult to be answered. He will not rest until he masters everything. You can't understand the damage he caused when he turned his hunger on the very ether itself."
Kaji nodded. "He scoops out pieces of it to use for practice! It's incredible."
"It's an abomination! You can't gouge out pieces of the ether without repercussions, any more than you can cut away the pulp of a tree and expect it to remain healthy. For fifteen years Adranath has wounded the ether. Now it's irreparably fractured. It shifts and shakes, Kaji, like unstable ground. And the Lore Masters wonder that awful things have begun to crawl out of it?"
Kaji felt her hands squeeze the old Meer's arm. Her stomach was knotting. "I -- faced it, Mother. The black power that you're talking about. It was terrifying. I thought…" She bit her lip and looked down. "I thought I had beaten it. But I couldn't have. I'm nothing next to the Council. Just a mage who doesn't know her place."
The Matriarch took Kaji in a strong embrace. "For that, my child, I am deeply sorry. Because I never told you your true place." A timeworn hand stroked the girl's long, pointed ear. "You see, the Ar'Kannor instructs us that a nexus such as you should never be allowed to study magic. The wisdom of the ancestors is obvious. You yourself have experienced the danger."
Kaji looked up into Sayaru's face. "That can't be true! I was meant to be a mage."
"Fate can be sharp as a knife, young woman. You were supposed to remain hidden, even after the death of your parents. But Adranath's greed is inescapable. The Matriarchs foresaw the danger. We predicted that this terrible... malevolence... would arise. We knew Adranath would be forced to seek the power of the Primogenitor, to repair the ether and overcome it."
Her eyes widened. "And you trained me because you knew he'd need a nexus?"
The Matriarch cupped the back of Kaji's neck with a tender grip. "We wanted one of our own present when the Veils parted. And despite what you may think, I am proud that it's you."
Neither a smile nor tears could contain the emotions that swelled inside the young girl. Instead she pressed herself into Sayaru's arms and held tightly to the ancient Meer. The silence between them spoke a lifetime of words.
They arrived at an exit leading to the villa's courtyard. In the crook of the gigantic tree was a crowded ring of mages. Scattered around them were bushels upon bushels of herbs, forming a dense garden of murmured colors. The women were burning handfuls of them. To the smoldering embers they sang gentle Mystic songs. The chants wafted the tinted smoke into long, undulating tendrils, which meandered to the center of the circle. There the threads wove together in delicate ways. A tapestry of ghostly beauty was already beginning to emerge, as much a pattern of scents as smoke.
Kaji covered her mouth in surprise. "I've never seen a Veil that big!"
"There has never been one as big."
"Oh, I see. You're recording our chants, in case the worst happens. But is it big enough to capture all of nature's laws? Are there songs enough to express them all?"
"Every Matriarch is constructing a piece of the whole. It may be a small gesture, but when the Lore Council strips nature of her clothing, we shall give her something to protect her dignity."
"Adranath will resist, Venerable Mother. He won't let us restore the old order again."
"You assume he will not perish in the act."
Kaji frowned. "He is prepared for that."
"Then you remain our one hope. The Parting of the Veils must succeed, to defeat the malevolence and restore the ether. Beyond that, my child, you must judge the wisest course. All I have left to give you is my last divination, which told me only this: 'Take the serpent's hand, for it is our haven.'"
The sorceress grimaced. "Serpents don't have hands, Mother. Please, this is no time for riddles."
Dame Sayaru sighed and stared out at the gently chanting mages. "May the ancestors watch over you, Kaji. I cannot do so any longer."
The sapphire walls of the spell chamber drank a sudden splash of light. At a large marble podium, Adranath glanced up. "Ahh, Kaji! I wondered how long it would take. Welcome home."
The sorceress strode before him wearing a mage's leather tunic and a full, colorful Mystic's mantle. Her eyes narrowed. "Teach me."
"Of course. There's no time to waste. I'll prepare the chamber while you change into some proper clothes."
"Don't you dare taunt me, Adranath."
The sorcerer wrinkled the silver fur of his brow. "Mind your attitude, apprentice."
"Let's agree on this." She stepped behind the podium, almost close enough to touch him. "A scribe without a stylus is impotent. Don't bring it up again, Adranath, or we'll do nothing but argue. There's no time to waste."
The Lore Master worked a grin onto his face, though for the first time in Kaji's experience, he did not seem to enjoy it.
"Very well, Kaji Sayarukan. Where did we leave off?"
She shoved a finger at the glyph-inscribed wall. "Than. Show me how it works."
The edict was announced over the whole of Anjur: All activity would cease when the sun peaked at midday. All eyes would turn upward.
A hushed sound spread through the city when throngs of Meer pressed into the cobbled streets. A few heavy clouds tumbled across the deep sky. When one of them passed before the sun, a cascade of beams scattered over the onlookers. Each beam alit on the peak of a high crystal tower. For a moment it seemed as if a new sun was born atop each lofty spire; but when the glare diminished the people identified what was happening. Eleven towers split open at their apexes. In a fountain of color they folded out prism-shaped slivers like the petals of giant, heavenly flowers.
The crystal city dazzled with legendary brilliance, visible to the corners of the world.
Revealed within the blossoming towers were twelve tiny figures. Each Lore Master stood atop his spire with an emerald staff upraised. One by one they began to chant. As every new sorcerer joined the ritual the arcane words drummed louder and louder, until the incantations tumbled across the landscape as if roared by thunderclouds. The crowd shrank away from the painful din.
The twelfth figure was even smaller than the rest. Beside the flamboyantly gowned Lore Council she seemed almost naked, wearing just a short tunic, low boots and an ample scarf draped around her shoulders.
Kaji stood a few feet in front of Adranath on the tallest peak in the city. Only the Lore Master himself could have noticed how violently she trembled.
A sumptuous voice rolled through her mind. "Kaji, you may begin." She nodded, took a deep breath and concentrated on the Troth of Anjur.
At the gates of the city dozens of frightened citizens streamed into the surrounding fields. When a new radiance spiked shadows across the hillsides, they had little choice but to look back. The silhouette on the highest tower was hardly visible at all. Pure crystalline light heaved up from the sorceress and when it impacted the sky, the sound struck leaves from the trees and giant ferns. The light moved, slashing into the heavens a wound like living blackrock. The glyph formed high overhead. Its name spilled over the countryside in the voice of a sixteen-year-old goddess: FLAM. Inferno.
When the glyph was complete, the sun unraveled. Its fiery brilliance separated into giant bands that toppled down from the sky, while tinier flames took wing from the windows of buildings. They joined in a vast, swirling disk that revolved around the crystal spires. On the horizon faraway flames rose into the air and slowly orbited the city.
Kaji knew for certain she was locked in a dream, for she was a hollow tunnel through which oceans of mana thundered, and she witnessed sights that defied all sense. Now she began the second glyph, carving open the blue flesh of the sky. Its name boomed out from her lips - POR - Movement - and the miniature world below her shivered in a wave that rippled out to the jungles and beyond. One by one the landscape's components stopped moving, frozen in place. The shrieks of terror from the crowds grew shriller.
When she completed the third glyph - XEN - Creature - the shrieks fell silent. The citizens of Anjur themselves lifted into the air and disassembled. Without violence their flesh simply parted from muscle, blood from tissue, veins from bone; basic organic components disentangling as if no longer needed in combination. Animals followed the Meer - ostards, game insects, durka, jungle saurians - neatly unwoven and placed inside the rotating disk.
Kaji focused on the lessons she had drilled. With each completed glyph she dared think of nothing but the next. Her mind could not encompass the scene around her.
No more than thirty symbols were gouged into the ether before she realized that the black malevolence was upon them.
Its oily, vaporous substance erupted across the city and engulfed the parts which had not yet been unmade by the Parting of the Veils. Now it fingered its way up the crystal spires, infiltrating the high, graceful curves with acid corruption, pocking and cracking the surfaces and staining them vile colors. The sorcerers in turn sprayed it with multihued bolts of sorcerous energy. In many places the foul smoke retreated. In many more it advanced.
Kaji gasped when she spotted at the edge of her vision one of the Lore Masters locked in coils of blackness. In her mind Adranath bellowed, "Quickly! Inscribe the next glyph! We need it to defend ourselves!"
She heard the roaring chant of the sorcerers as they strove to complete the final unmaking of the world: VAS KAL AN MANI IN CORP HUR ... Then she raked the next glyph into the ether: TYM.
Adranath's spell of annihilation growled to life. A wave of fiery oblivion swelled over the horizons. Kaji saw its ravenous void rushing nearer, closing in on the ruins of Anjur, unmaking the world in preparation for its rebirth. It frightened her less than the formless malevolence, but it would not be swift enough. The gurgling black smoke snatched another Lore Master screaming from his tower. Only eight remained.
Then time began to unravel. Kaji saw visions of the past reeling into the fiery disk like shards of a shattered crystal. She recognized the void that was the future, flooding towards the city. She glimpsed flashes of other times, impossible places, histories that never were.
"No!" howled Adranath, this time aloud behind her. "The Veils part but we're losing control! Stay within the ritual!" He was answered by cries of horror from other towers.
Kaji looked up into a crack in the sky. Among the tattered shreds of time a clear outline appeared. It was a man, or perhaps a giant, dressed in armor that was neither crystal nor chitin. His face was deformed, pinched and angular and almost furless. Yet his eyes had a desperate beauty. He seemed to be reaching out to her with frantic motions.
On his chest was a tabard, sewn with the emblem of a silver serpent.
"It's over!" yelled Adranath with a furious tone. "We've failed! It's gone out of my control!"
To the Lore Master's mind she called, "Can't we do anything to save the spell?"
"We can only save ourselves! Quickly, girl, before Creation remakes us! We need Irem!"
Kaji held her breath and reached out. Her small hand pressed into the palm of the deformed giant. He swiveled a gaze upon her that blazed nobility and deepest sorrow. So much like Teyloth, she realized, that she began to weep.
"Kaji, what have you done? What's happening?!"
The disk that was disassembled creation hove from its invisible axis and whorled around the crack in the sky. The giant let go of Kaji's hand and slashed out rapid gestures, as if invoking some unknowable form of magic. His actions appeared fruitless. The disk spiraled inward upon him like a gigantic whirlpool. Sucked along with it were the fringes of the black malevolence, which threw out gurgling tendrils at its newest victim.
Kaji unbound the mana which flowed through her and channeled it into the whirlpool. When it streamed over the frantic giant she shaped a single glyph around him - Irem.
A ruby glow enveloped the giant. The malevolence recoiled.
"Kaji! Damn you, it's killing us! Act now!"
The mage turned to face Adranath. Her eyes shimmered with tears. "You've destroyed everything! You and your greed for power!" She raised her hands. "True glory means dying for your passions. Take that with you, Adranath!"
In strokes longer than the sorcerer's height, Kaji inscribed upon the space around him the impossibly black shape of Than. The Lore Master flung open his mouth in rage and snarled the beginning of a counterattack; but the glyph overtook him. His rich silver coat tumbled away from withering skin. His bones jutted against desiccating flesh. As his eyes split and crumbled the malevolence swept him up in a putrid tentacle, and both vanished into the thundering vortex.
Annihilation overtook Anjur. Kaji witnessed the city eaten by oblivion. The vortex collapsed upon itself, swallowing into the belly of time parts of her world she could not fathom. Riding a current of mana she fled from the encroaching void; but the mana itself was being devoured. There was no hope. Her last breath was a squeal of animal terror.
Yet something else touched her before oblivion. It was the faerie kiss of a ghostly veil. She knew in that instant that rebirth would come. Not to her, but to the world. And in some way it would whisper the gentle songs of mages.
And so ended the first great race of Sosaria, with the smile of a proud, young girl.
Luxuriant green fields stampeded to the windy horizon. Cool air snapped with the fragrance of grass. The morning sky wielded lances of sunlight like an eager young warrior, vanquishing armies of clouds. Insect wings fluttered open like eyelids.
The beings had no form, only luminance. They lingered above a rock-dappled glen and wondered what force had brought them here. Their conclusion centered around a scattering of bones. These were the only evidence of sentient life, except for the echoes of a language that greeted them when they first arrived. They correctly deduced it had been a spell, one which must have eradicated an entire people.
The lost race had carved meaning into the formless ether. Their power had been limitless. Yet the bones of a single specimen were all that remained.
It was a delightful enigma. The Wisps thrived upon mysteries. Not in solving them, but in perpetuating them. Thus would an ancient race remain unsuspected for countless ages.
Not until other peoples had arisen from the virgin creation would their legend surface again. And only in strange, unforeseen, patchwork corners of time.