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The Brink of the Abyss



by Chris L'Etoile

For Mystere: Never accede to moral terrorism.

"We must all hang together, or we shall surely hang separately."
- Benjamin Franklin


The brilliant rose of twilight was settling in the western sky. Serried rolls of clouds smoldered and caught fire in the waning light. Whirling flocks, over the black mass that marked the crowns of Tiofor's trees, sent up an ocean swell of warbling that could be heard for leagues.

I watched the sun disinterestedly, poking at the cold earth with a stick. It was not so different from a sunset back home. Perhaps the light never caught quite the same deep ember hue as Ispar's sun did at these times. Or perhaps it did. It was becoming hard to remember the old sun, the once familiar stars, the bone-colored moon that threw ghostly light across the blue mountainsides on the nights Grennea and I would steal away to kiss and clumsily clutch at each other.

I whipped the stick toward the cauldron of the west and grunted to my feet.

By the fire, Celdiseth was, as usual, sipping tea. He appeared mesmerized by the movements of the steam tendrils rising from his soup, watching them twist themselves into lazy corkscrews before disappearing. Near him, Jarilyn lay curled into a ball under my mother's blanket, her pale hair flowing across the grass like a river of diamond fire.

It had been two days since we discovered her. She had not spoken much -- just watched us with huge pale eyes, followed where we led, and walked stooped over, as if carrying a great boulder. I lay down on my own blankets, facing her, watching the twitching behind her closed eyes, and tried not to think of moonlight on the mountains.

"We'll be leaving soon," Celdiseth spoke into the rising tides of cricket song. "Kei went to the river, to fill our skins."

"We're walking?" I said, aghast. "Tonight? I thought you said moving at night--"

"Is dangerous. Yes, it is."

"Then. . .?"

"I didn't say we were walking. But to answer your question, the Shadows are on the move tonight. It would be no safer staying than moving. And we'll be needed."

"How do you know?"

Celdiseth tapped his forehead. "I've been consulting with Nuhmudira. The Arcanum has scouts in the A'mun, patrolling through lifestone and portal ties. The Spires are moving."

"The Spires are always moving." I pulled the blanket over my head.

He curtly yanked it back down, starting little snaps of electricity through my hair.

"True. But not faster than a man can run." His eyes impaled me with the fact.

My head jerked up. The idea of something that large moving that quickly. . . But still, I yawned. "They've been poking along for months, Master. Why should anything happen now, of all times?"

He looked wry. "Because we are used to their presence, if for no other reason. Who am I to divine the thoughts of creatures that walked this world before even Har-- before the oldest mage I know was born?"

I lay back, lethargic and annoyed.

"Master?" I said.

"What?"

"Where," I said slowly, "are the stars?"

He leapt to his feet, tea instantly knocked aside. Although there were vague brown clouds drifting patchily above us, no silver specks pierced the black. "The moons should have risen by now," Celdiseth muttered to himself.

I rolled to my feet, looking east. No -- the bloated orbs weren't there. "Are you certain?" I asked.

"Quite."

Kei came up beside us, occasional sloshings of water in the skins betraying her movement. "You see?" she said. "Have you seen the falling stars, too?" Celdiseth glanced at her sharply. She placed the skins on the ground, looked up, and said, "There!"

We looked up again. A radiant purple streak, spitting fire, moved northwards.

"I was once shown an ancient Empyrean prophecy," Celdiseth said. "Fanzen San of Hebian-to pieced it together from scraps. He considered it his greatest achievement. The people who wrote it were almost prehistoric. Practically all we know of them comes second-hand, from the records of the Dericost Kingdom. Their priestesses were gifted at speaking auguries." I looked at Celdiseth wonderingly. He seldom went on at any length about this world's history.

"The prophecy said, `As our Isle of Woe was lost to darkness, so shall be the whole world and beyond, should the stars fall and the sun go out.'" He paused, as no fewer than three meteors, violet and rose, trailed sparks across the sky. "I was sure it was just a metaphor."

We packed up camp. The sky brightened slightly, gnawed by sourceless churning fires. "Wake Jarilyn," Kei told me offhandedly, as she doused the fire with one of the skins.

I knelt beside the sleeping woman and said, "Jari?" She did not waken, but flinched from the noise and pulled the blanket tighter. I touched her shoulder to shake her from the embrace of the Mothers. "Jari, we're mov--"

At my touch, her eyes burst open. She rolled and scrambled backwards across the dirt, her mouth wide with horror, like a fish gasping in the dry desert above its mirror pool. She did not scream. If not for her ragged breathing, I would not have heard her. The perfect silence of her terror stung my eyes.

"Jarilyn. . ." I trembled, my hands tangled in each other, backed against the wall of my own chest. "We're. . . leaving. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to. . ." She swallowed and blinked at me, then glanced around the clearing. After a moment, she arose, the rumpled folds of her peasant dress falling straight around her.

"We're no longer alone," Kei said. I looked up to see her regarding three dark humanoid shapes standing silently at the edge of the clearing. Celdiseth snatched his staff up from the wet ash heap that had been our fire. Kei held her torch aloft. It snapped at the intruders like a fierce watchdog, but did little to illuminate them.

"Master Celdiseth?" the lead figure called out. Her voice was a dusky contralto. It had a musical Gharu'ndim accent, but was oddly muffled.

"Aye. You've found me." He gripped the staff tighter.

The three stepped out from under the eaves of the trees and into our torchlight. They were Gharu'n after all, dressed in dun-colored Dho vests and robes, with singular head wraps that hid their features. Celdiseth looked surprised, and bowed deeply. "Forgive my suspicion. I did not expect Nuhmudira would send Zharalim."

"We were in the area on other business," the woman said coolly. "Mistress Nuhmudira requested we meet you. I am tied to Cragstone. Her people have sighted two additional Spires moving to join the one that came out of the ground there. She humbly requests you aid in the defense."

"We shall do what we can."

"Of course, Master. So shall we all. A moment." The assassin produced an orb from some hidden fold of her robe. It was about the size of a fist. I had never seen a mana-bearing stone of so small a size before. "Roiga Thiloi," she said, and the air split apart. Violet light spilled from the crack for a moment before a white whirlpool bellowed outwards. The assassin sketched a curt bow, slipping the tiny orb back to wherever it had come from. "May your mission be successful, Master of the Arm."

"Yours as well, Vengeance of the Malika." They bowed to each other, and the three figures melted back into the shadows.

"What do you suppose their other business was?" I asked, my voice hushed, peering around at the indistinct foliage. We hadn't even heard them coming.

Kei looked thoughtful. "I have heard that they seek the assassin Oswald. There is rumor that the Zharalim seek to end the misery of ibn Rafik. Yet, from what I have read, to kill one of their own would violate their code. Perhaps--"

"Perhaps it's best not to ask," Celdiseth said flatly. "Be grateful we have them, and leave their business their own. Yet. . ." His eyes, likes chips of ice, narrowed thoughtfully. "It would seem Nuhmudira has her fingers in more pies than I thought. Evaen, help Jarilyn." He stepped into the light without checking to see if we were coming.

Kei made a disapproving face over her shoulder at me. "I am certain that putting one's hands in pies cannot be healthy for whoever eats them."

"Uh. . . It's just an old Aluvian. . ."

But she was gone.

Jarilyn stood at my shoulder, watching me with dull eyes. My mother's blanket was draped over her shoulders, wrapped around her thin and wretched body. Small white hands at her breast clutched it closed around her. A fine, corn silk wisp of hair fluttered across her cheek in the night winds. Her scrutiny deflected my own, and I suddenly found the grasses by my feet very interesting. "Would you. . . uh. . . like to go first?" I asked the ground. Slowly, she reached for my hand, wrapping her fingers around my cold palm. I resisted the urge to twine our fingers.

"Together," she whispered. "They take you if you're alone."

Like a ghost, she drifted into the portal. Her hand turned to a soft breath on my palm, and was gone.

I followed.

I heard shouting a half-breath before my feet touched ground again.

"Advocates, ta me! C'mere, curse yeh! There's work ta be doon."

The silver tunnel stretched and fell away. I stumbled away from the swarm of portal energy bubbles into a milling crowd. It seemed most of Cragstone was here, blinking sleep from their eyes and looking around in fearful uncertainty. The windows of the Hilmads' house blazed with light, loosing flickering yellow phantoms to dance along the slope of the hill. I could see one of the sisters -- Avalenne, I thought -- standing on the pointed eaves of the roof. She was waving a torch above her head and shouting, pointing in our direction. The wind blew her words west, beyond my hearing.

Jarilyn looked around at the clamor and chaos with wide eyes, backing slowly toward the edge of the crowd. I caught her eye, then her hand, and led her out of the muddle. Celdiseth was consulting with a scarred, hoary warrior with the luminous shield of Strathelar's Order of Advocates strapped to his forearm. Kei stood by silently, her hands clasped in a contemplative manner.

". . . the portal to the Spire's head is down by th' water," the warrior grated. "We're about ready ta send a party through." His eyes were bloodshot, and I could smell soured stout on his breath. I wrinkled my nose. I would have bet pyreal that he'd been awakened in a puddle of his own vomit. Old highland warriors are all alike. . .

"My apprentices and I will go before you," Celdiseth replied. "There will be something unpleasant at the other end."

"Aye," the warrior said uncertainly. "Are yeh certain, though, Master? It's our task ta defend the towns."

"As it is mine. I didn't spend my life mastering magic to sit in my house and light the fireplace from across the room."

The Advocate laughed. "As yeh say then." He glanced from Kei to me, and nodded solemnly. "May the Mothers walk beside yeh."

"Sir?" I said, gently pulling Jari forward. "Would you keep her safe?"

"A'course, lad," he said cheerfully. "Lady?" He put his hand out to her with a smile. She stared at it.

"I couldn't keep my baby safe," she told him.

"Er," the warrior said, scratching his beard awkwardly.

"The Mothers will never walk beside me again." A saltwater drop spilled down her cheek.

I wanted to sing to her, to rock her gently to sleep.

"Her name is Jarilyn," I said, untangling my hand from hers. I placed her hand, thin and white, into his. "She was attacked by Shadows."

She looked over her shoulder at me with mute, tragic eyes.

"I'll be back," I told her.

"Come on, Evaen," Kei said. She was winding her long sable hair into a compact mass, running it through with small sticks of polished obsidian. Master Celdiseth was already stomping down the hill toward the fiery portal that floated over the riverbank, casting ripples across the water.

* * *

The smell of rotting meat was the first thing to notice. The second thing was the swooping howl, loud enough to split my head in twain. The third was the damp, oppressive heat, bringing sweat to skin that only half-existed in the world. Last, only after all the other senses had spoken, did the tunnel rip away from my eyes, leaving me trotting to an uncertain halt in the middle of red-lit horror.

"Spirits defend us," Kei breathed.

The walls were bone, mostly. Across and through them, purple veins thudded and squirmed. As I watched, one of the veins distorted, a bloody eye blinking open on its side to look at us. The eye was quickly reabsorbed, and the vein tunneled under the protection of the bone. The floor was soft and wet, giving way under our boots, covered with a thin film of slime. It was like walking on a tongue.

And it was hot. So terribly hot. Like the mouth of a great monster.

In the center of the chamber, broad ebony shoulders squared themselves. A pitch head turned. I noted glittering red eyes. A hiss of eager laughter. The thing held the shape of a man, from the waist up at least. It looked like it had been extruded from the flesh of the floor. I could see its skeleton through the discolored, translucent skin. Behind the prison bars of its ribcage, a grossly distended heart beat, connected to its other organs by fine tendrils of. . . something.

A Shadow Cyst. From the attacks by the Generals six months previous, I knew such to be the Spire's control center. It spread its arms wide, as if to give us a welcoming embrace.

"Kei!" Celdiseth bellowed. "Recite the Four Cardinal Paths!"

Now? I thought, grunting as I ducked under the Cyst's opening volley of lightning.

"There are four energies that raw mana may be converted to." Kei spoke Celdiseth's teaching in heavily accented Aluvian, the words falling from her mouth in awkward jumbles. She had not much practice with our tongue. "Flame is the force that consumes. When mana is channeled into this role, it devours the form of our opponent." Celdiseth loosed a weak frost bolt at the Cyst, which brought a welcome drought of cool air past my face.

"Acid is the force of decay. With it, we reduce the form of the opponent to the clay and water from which he was birthed." Unable to cast while reciting, she kicked at the base of the Cyst. Her foot connected with a thick wet smack. Her lips curled back, and she did not move to attack it again. I cast a second-circle Whirling Blade, which sliced off its arm. The Cyst hissed again, showing me white teeth. Its flesh rippled. The arm reformed before my startled eyes. Then it sent a ball of fire squarely into my stomach, burning through my robe and fusing the fabric with my own skin.

I screamed.

The smell got worse. I felt scorched flakes of skin crack and peel as I breathed. I staggered away, hunched half over, and struggled to find the focus for a healing spell.

"Frost is the force of stasis. When we call upon it, our foe's will is made to fight against his own stilled form. Lightning," she concluded, "is the force of stimulation. When our mana is channeled into this path, the form of the enemy is excited beyond his control, and damages itself."

"Good," Celdiseth said proudly. He then muttered briefly, a boiling ball of light spinning up between his fingers. An ethereal blade of mana coalesced and flashed out, cleaving the abomination at what would have been its waist. Black fluid sprayed the entire compartment, staining our robes. The Cyst's top half slid off and hit the floor with a wet splat, its final breath hissing from between rage-clenched teeth. Its body quickly melted into thick gray jelly, reduced to a nearly imperceptible lump on the floor.

I blinked. It wasn't often our master made such a display of raw power. He usually left Kei and me to fight and learn, only healing and protecting us when necessary. "Sorry," he said, hurrying to one of the Spire's eye sockets. "I don't think we have time to train after all." I went to his shoulder and looked out.

The other two Spires had arrived. Their red beams of light raked Cragstone's buildings like the claws of a hungry ursuin. The howling of our own Spire had grown markedly louder, as its heart nearly broiled with angry orange light.

"Ah!" A burning pain lanced through my hand. I saw a drop of the Cyst's tarry blood clinging to me, and a wisp of smoke hissing from my skin. I shook it off. The area of my hand, however, remained gray and numb. I poked at it gingerly, feeling my lips pull themselves back from my teeth.

"I think," Celdiseth said slowly, "we should cause as much damage here as we can. Quickly."

"Can Mistress Nuhmudira send more help?" Kei asked.

"She has her own problems. Tufa is gone."

"Gone?" I couldn't wrap my thoughts around it.

"Destroyed by three Spires after she starting sending her people east."

"So this was a diversion," Kei said, uncharacteristic bitterness poisoning her smooth voice.

Celdiseth shook his head. "We know Bael'Zharon's human thralls told his generals that they wanted Cragstone destroyed. It's at least an act of hatred. The Advocates were established in Cragstone. It's the capital of our land, and Queen Elysa's home. Brigands would see its destruction as a blow to the rule of law." Celdiseth gripped his staff with both hands and turned back to the interior of the skull. "Let's discuss it later. Time is precious."

I'm not sure of everything that happened in the next few minutes. We attacked the interior of the skull with all our energies, using all the paths. We slashed and bludgeoned, froze and burned. The interior of the skull shrieked at our attentions, its flesh rippling as it healed charred and lacerated sections. But it kept regenerating as fast as we could hurt it. We may as well have been flogging the sea, as the Roulean general Xeronius did when storms destroyed his fleet at anchor.

A voice blasted through the confusion of my thoughts. Get out of the Thorn! Now!

Celdiseth cocked his head in puzzlement, obviously having heard it too. Kei, in the middle of a casting, blinked and lost track of the pattern. With a watery hiccup, the energy swirling around her wand dispersed in impotent sparks. After a second of indecision, Celdiseth grabbed her by the arm and hurled her bodily into the portal.

"Evaen!" he bellowed across the chamber. "We're leaving!"

"But. . ." The center of the organic floor stretched skyward, blue-black veins exploding like a bramble-bush, ropes of musculature flowing into new shapes as I watched. Miniature bud-limbs puckered its sides. The top swelled and folded gently over, acquiring milky gray spots where eyes should be. A spidery lump of tissue swam up through its connection with the floor, hundreds of long, whip-like appendages flailing, following the gelatinous spine. It attached itself to the throbbing heart growing in the left chest, and the whip-legs exploded, wrapping themselves around gummy little bones, pushing themselves against the interior of the skin.

I could only stare at it, stumbling backwards, struck numb.

Its flesh blackened, and a little mouth split open, tarry blood spattering the veined floor. It was absorbed as quickly as it fell. "Aue werre," the Cyst moaned deliriously, like a child in the grip of nightmare. My forehead throbbed, and a tiny voice whispered in my ear, "We hurt." The veined membranes covering its eyes split, and the blood-red eyes pinned me to the wall with a look of anguish. The voice, tugging at the corners of my mind, implored, "Kill us. . . Kill us. . . It is eating us again. . ."

"Damn it, boy!" Celdiseth ducked around the bud, clamped a steely hand around my arm, and dragged me to the portal. I felt a ripple in the flesh beneath my feet, and a new current began to flow through the humid air of the skull.

"We have to. . ." I gulped queasily, and began to feel the pounding in my forehead that presaged one of the Spires' mana-shredding pulses.

"We're flies stinging a mare. Go through the damned portal." So saying, he shoved me from behind, and I toppled into the light. The luminous tunnel whirled open before me, and I slid through unimaginable space.

Something slammed me from behind, and I heard an alien shriek. The walls of the tunnel rippled and dimmed. Pain shuddered through me. I wondered that it should, as I was bodiless and falling. . .

Limbs burning. Acidic fire crawling up arms and legs. Shriek -- wipe the burning away. Slides around fingers, dives beneath skin. The burning laughs. Razors march up along rubbery bones. Fingers dissolve into spray. Arms black water, dripping away to join the sea. Vision trembles. Black slides across vision. Blink -- lids burn away. Must watch. The mind afire. The black sea lunges up. No!

Darkness. Screaming. Sliding down through warm weightless mud. Can't breathe! A million voices. Sliding across each other, falling apart, recombining. Marching, fighting. We fell at Cragstone. (Where is Cragstone?) We fell in the woods. (We have never seen these woods.) We are a liar! (No, we are!) We saw the watch fires go out, and heard the army shriek around us. (We have never been soldiers.) We were trying to find my sister. We heard her crying in the night. The moons went out. (We have no sister.) We were six. (We were twenty-two, forty-seven, four hundred sixty). We stood before the Great Old Ones in the mire. (Before the what?) We were taken to the moldering depths of the old Academy. The green light burned our eyes.

We have no eyes!

We thrash. No. No arms. No legs. What struggles? Only essence, stripped of ego. Who are we? We are. . .

Coming apart.

We do. We are nothing. There is only all. We are the Hand. We grow.

A great weight drags us down, compacting us. We become. We bend. There is a hole. It eats light. We grovel before It. It takes us. We are strong. It makes us strong. We are part of It. Thin, monotonous piping. It is all. They take It away, piece by piece. Cruelly, with fire. Burning away the beauty. It squeals and recoils, lashing at them. They imprison It in small patterns. It is not theirs. It precedes them. The great crime. We take It back. It becomes again.

All one.

We are.

Forever.

. . . Light. . .

I toppled out of the portal and into frigid waters of the Prosper, falling to my knees and gasping. Celdiseth splashed behind me, his breathing ragged.

"Evaen?" His hand found my shoulder. His fingers were ice-cold and trembling. "Son, are you all right?"

I vomited into the muddy water.

A woman's voice called above the howling of the Spires. It was deep, husky, and strong. "Celdiseth, get them as far from it as you can!" I wanted to look up, to see who owned this marvelous voice, but I could only retch pathetically into the cloudy water, bile flowing from my nose and eyes.

"Come on, son. It may pass in a minute. Kei, help me. Gently."

Arms looped under my shoulders. "What happened to him?"

"The Spire pulses have. . . ah, amplified effects in portalspace."

"Revolting," I mumbled, drooling numbly on my destroyed robe. "It was--" But another fit of nausea folded me in half at the thought. They lifted and carried me, stumbling, up the hill to where the windmill creaked defiantly before the oncoming Spires.

"Advocates!" the woman's voice called. "Volley fire on my mark! Use frog crotch arrows if you have them, and aim for the heart!" I looked up to see a tall, proud woman silhouetted by torchlight. Her hair was long, unbound, the color of dry wheat at harvest time. It fell in thick, unkempt waves to the small of her back, a few errant corkscrew strands framing her face. She wore simple studded leather armor, the knees and elbows plated with what appeared to be purple Olthoi chitin. She wielded a magnificent longbow, whose wood glowed faintly green.

On either side of her, yet a step behind, stood a line of archers and mages. She looked around, checking their readiness. Most had a line of arrows stuck in the earth before them. As her eyes slid over them, I caught her glance for a bare moment. Her mouth was set in a grim, stolid line. Her eyes, crinkled with crow's feet, were ice blue, as if they cupped a heavy draught from the River of Sorrow.

"Ready!" she hollered. Her hand dipped down to pluck one of the arrows from the ground before her. I started. As it cleared the earth, a ball of frigid, blue-white light ignited around the silver arrowhead. With the creak of an enormous rocking-chair, a dozen archers nocked arrows and drew back their bowstrings.

"Loose!"

Arrows flew. The woman's trailed a spectrum of light behind it. A half-breath later, Whirling Blades tumbled after the arrows. They sailed across the night sky and hit the heart of the Spire more or less as one. The rainbow arrow struck true and penetrated the flickering heart. After half a moment, a white explosion went off in the organ, and the Spire squealed. A small avalanche of fluid and viscera spilled from the rent the arrow had torn in its side. An uncertain cheer went up from the line. The angry red lights of the Spires continued to intensify.

"Ready! Loose!" Again, the arrows and mana blades reached out to nick the Spire. Again and again they fired, keeping a steady pace. Warriors, unable to combat the hovering enemy, planted fresh arrows in the ground before the archers, or carried reagents to mages who had run out. The air stank with the thunderstorm scent of burning mana.

"Our spells are weakening," Celdiseth called. "We're casting too much for the local field to sustain."

"I know," the archer yelled back. "Ready! Just a few moments. Loose!"

There was a hum, and faint violet lambency, rippling like moonlight off water, carved my wavering shadow across the ground before me. I turned. A new mage, dressed in a white robe with blue and violet trim, stepped out of portalspace.

"Hold your strings! Fall back north -- get behind the crest of the hill! No, leave the arrows. Go. Go!"

I stood up. He was over six feet tall, wraith-slender, and golden-eyed. His gaze locked on to the grotesque Spire, and he began, almost subliminally, to make arcane gestures with both hands. I watched him, puzzled. Where was his. . .?

"Zojak Quaau!" he cried suddenly, throwing his empty hands to the roiling heavens.

The passage of moments slowed.

They dripped by.

A glacier melting.

Drop.

By drop.

Clear water.

I saw everything.

White light, dazzling as the sun off Luparvium snow, flooded my view. Warmth coursed over me in torrents, raising all the hair on my arms and head. A star, a sphere of pure light, spun and flared between the white mage's fingertips. It launched itself from his outstretched hands, bowing his body with the strain of casting. Delicate coronal wisps trailed from it, like gauze or a spider's web, as it passed over our heads. Slowly, it seemed, it rolled up towards the Spire, leaving a subtle rainbow across the night air to mark its passage.

Although she was behind me, I could sense Kei as a radiant impression of curiosity and wonder, as a warmth upon my back. Celdiseth, at my side, was a dark, mighty knot of worry, fluttering like a proud old hawk with a broken wing. I could smell the small flowers crushed beneath my feet, and hear tiny insects frantically digging themselves deeper underground. I could see every leaf on every tree along the shore as they showed their pale undersides in the wind. I saw a miniscule hole in the bark of a sapling on the shore, and knew that it was the abode of a small worm, hibernating until it could be reborn as a tiny winged insect that would live but one day. I could have wept for its tragedy.

This is not our magic. Our magic doesn't do this. It was as if I'd spent my life half asleep, and had only now fully awoken.

The star reached up to disperse the darkness looming over Cragstone. It illuminated every fissure and patch of wetness on the Spire's rubbery hide. It brushed the roughly weathered knobs of bone; it filled the empty eye sockets with radiance. The thing's pulsing heart recoiled from its approach.

The light blistered the shore, turned water to cloud, and went out.

Waves of roaring lanced my ears, gathering in strength, each mightier than the last. In the depths of the noise, I heard for a moment a multitude of voices crying in release, and above them all a single ringing note, as from a bell of pure silver resounding endlessly. My hearing gave out before the noise did, and I was plunged into silence.

The earth leapt up beneath us. A massive weight knocked into my chest, ripping the breath from my throat and tumbling me like a scarecrow in the wind.

I raised my head from the dust and ash, blinked at the swarms of shapeless green blobs that wobbled across my vision. The head of the Spire was gone, its neck bleeding thick black liquid, its heart shriveled into a gray, papery bag.

It began to fall.

Slowly, then with gathering speed, the black dagger toppled back away from the town, trailing putrescent green flame. Seams banded its length. They widened into cracks, and then the Spire broke into pieces. I dizzily imagined it as sounding like a series of hideous wet cracks, like bones being snapped. The pieces separated, shouldering aside the gouts of mist that hovered over the boiling water. White plumes flew upwards in its wake, curling over at the tips to settle again.

There must have been a tremendous noise when the pieces hit, but all I could hear after the blast was a thick hissing. The sound of their impacts came to me as if from a great distance. Fuliginous water sloshed into the walls of the great crater that ringed its death place. The inner rim was all roasted mud from the bottom of the river. I gaped at it, not comprehending. A moment before, the great arms of this crater simply had not been there.

Slowly, a tenuous golden mist rose from the chunks of the Spire. It gathered above the face of the frothing waters, into a great manta-winged shape unlike anything I had seen on this world or the last. A long, luminescent neck lifted to the sky.

Sisters! I am free! I come anon!

From the depths of the empty sky, a distant echo of joy lit upon the grass around us like spring dew. Tears stung my eyes.

The golden mist lost its luminosity, and was gently brushed away by the soft caress of the wind off the river. I thought I could catch the faintest scent of wild calanna blossoms, the sweet smell of home and hearth.

I fell to my knees, unashamedly letting the tears wash my cheeks. A causeless jubilation held my sides tight, so overwhelming I could scarcely breathe. "Sweet Mothers," I sobbed, but couldn't hear my own words after the holocaust of sound.

And then. . .

I was asleep again, the tears drying cool and sticky on my face. The smell of over-boiled fish spoiled the air.

I looked behind me to see Kei, kneeling in what looked like a prayerful pose. Celdiseth staggered to his feet, looked out at the crater, and rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. The white mage stumbled towards the river, boneless with fatigue. His face was as pale as his robe. The archer, absently sweeping a long, wheat-colored curl out of her eyes, set herself under his shoulder and helped him down the hill. ". . . Haven't been this drained since the Sundering," I heard him say as they approached. I stuck my finger in my ear. It felt as if I had a candle shoved into it, preventing me from hearing properly.

The two remaining Spires, shrieking with impotent rage, boiled away to the northeast. Soon they passed from our sight behind the hills and trees.

"Only one," the white mage groaned, sliding out of the archer's grasp to sit heavily on the charred earth. "Only one. . ."

She laid her hand upon his shoulder. "One more than there has been for two millennia."

"You," Celdiseth grunted. The mage looked up.

"Celdiseth," he said, politely. "I told you once that if the Hopeslayer was loosed, the consequences would be far more dire than you imagined." He paused, his golden eyes looking over our Master's bloodied, torn robe, the discolorations where the Shadow Cyst had spattered its ichor. "You understand now the enormity of what we face?"

"Yes," Celdiseth said. "Where the hell have you been?"

I sucked in a breath. Never one to mix words, our Master.

"We have been. . ." The mage hesitated, and glanced up at the archer. She shrugged, a gentle, almost imperceptible movement of one shoulder. "We have been grieving. For the lost. And then, we were planning. But when we heard the Enemy was moving on Cragstone. . ."

"What comedy!" The archmage of Cragstone leapt agilely down the ashen hillside bearing a torch, black eyes narrowed in spite. "After all this time, you only fell one? Two escaped! What kind of guardian do you pretend to be, oh mighty lord?" he sneered.

"And how many Spires have you defeated, Langarl?" the archer said coldly. "For that matter, where were you during the battle? I marked Master Celdiseth, his pupils, and the Advocates, but you were nowhere to be seen."

"I have never claimed to be a guardian," the white mage whispered to the ground. "I have only been called so." I doubt anyone besides the archer and I heard him.

Gondibyr Langarl's sloe-eyes tightened in rage, and he seemed to acquire more than his usual stature. I did not like the way the shadows fell upon his face in the guttering light of his firebrand. He opened his mouth to rebut, but Kei spoke quietly. "Sir?" She did not move or look up from her meditation. The white mage turned his tired eyes to her. "Tufa was also attacked, my lord," she said. "It was destroyed."

"I know," he said. His eyes floated down to the steaming wreckage that lay sprawled across Cragstone's new bay, the pale corpses of fish bobbing in the ash-blackened water. "We could only defend against one. I pray that we chose to make our stand at the right. . ." Then, he flinched, and went pale as frost. The archer looked up and away to the northeast, where a great light washed over the trees with violet-blue fire.

"Arwic," she whispered.

Black, triumphant laughter seemed to ride behind the noise of the wind.
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