Thunder rumbled.

Grindkhuk heard it, felt it through the dirt floor of the wood and thatch hut, and he grunted sourly.  A storm was surely brewing, and the old battle wound that still pained him in damp weather was equally sure to give him an uncomfortable night.  Or rather, a more uncomfortable night than was already promised by the chore that sat before him.

“Bring him,” he told the warriors before him.

Grindkhuk was the High Chief of all the Szidjik Clans of the Throk and his evening was to end with a discipline.  It was a very serious matter, as only very serious matters were brought to him.  The clan knew not to pester him with trivial matters — insubordination to a Leader, spats between warriors, failing to share when women were captured, that sort of thing.  Grindkhuk had no patience to deal with such, and had been known to pull the fingers from those of his clan who were slow to learn this.

They had learned, and quickly.  Now, after enjoying his position as High Chief for only six turns of the seasons, the Clan treated him with great respect.  And they only bothered him when they had to.

But this … and what was he going to do? Grindkhuk wondered irritably.  This was not just another erring warrior.  This was Zhedthik.  A warrior he had known since they were both cubs and tussled together in the tree tops before they were old enough to take up arms in the ancient Throk art of spilling blood.  It did not matter whose blood.  The Throk existed to conquer and kill.

Zhedthik was good at it.  How many battles had they fought together, side by side, their own blood singing as they spilt that of those others of the south?  How often had they joined in the beating of the women of their kin, and later grappled with the she who best shed her blood?  Grindkhuk had a thousand memories of the good times he had shared with Zhedthik, and they all seemed to parade before his eyes in this interval before he would have to pass judgement on one of their best warriors, who was one of his oldest friends.

The trouble had started during the Time of the Endless Suns, of course.  There were many tales that the Old Ones spoke to the cubs of the Time of the Endless Suns and the kind of trouble those times caused.  The worst thing about them, by what the Old Ones said, was that they somehow made the Throk forget what they were made for.  It had seemed impossible to him when he had listened to the stories as a cub himself, but they said that the Time of the Endless Suns often made the Throk begin to talk of leaving off warring and letting those others of the south abide in peace!

It was unthinkable, of course. What were the Throk to do if they could not kill?  It was the ancient way.  It was what they had always done.  There was nothing else.

Grindkhuk knew this.  So did Zhedthik.  The tales had seemed so outlandish that for most of his life, Grindkhuk had not believed them.  Until this last Time of the Endless Sun began.

Grindkhuk had been High Chief for only four seasons when it struck.  At the beginning, the Throk had been delighted.  Never mind the tales, they found that their southern neighbors were completely disoriented and, after generations of trying to get a foothold across the Big Water in their lands, it began to seem as if they might succeed.

That had not lasted, of course.  Grindkhuk often seethed with frustration when he thought of them, for they would not be conquered, but he had to admit they were a worthy foe.  All the High Chiefs knew that the Throk leader who finally figured out how to take them would be raised to a seat of almost god-like honor among them.  All the High Chiefs lusted after that honor.

It had been his idea to take advantage of this time of confusion to move their forces to the west and into the lands of the southerners through the high lands.  The high lands were peopled by a different group of others, and they were sure to be weaklings.  Their lands were run by women, if that could be believed!  It would be like moving into the lands they wanted through undefended country.  The worse they would have to suffer would be the climbing, and that would be as nothing.

Of course, they could not have known of the magicks which those weaklings commanded.  And, as the Throk began to fight their way through an impossible battle against evil things that grew up from the ground to ensnare their feet and grip their weapons even as they tried to swing them, Zhedthik began to change.

At first, Grindkhuk only thought that his old friend was losing heart.  The Time of the Endless Sun tested the endurance of the sturdiest warrior among them, and Grindkhuk was not prepared to think any less of Zhedthik when he began to pull back on the field or when his sword arm lost some of its speed. But when the talk started, he knew that the tales of the Old Ones had been true.

Once more, the thunder rumbled.  Grindkhuk waited.

They pushed him into the room in chains, and Zhedthik did not even fight against the hands that dealt with him so roughly.  It was as if all the spirit had somehow been stolen from him by the relentless beating of the sun.  Once inside, the accused stood alone and shamed in the center of the room, hanging his head.  Womanish and all as he knew it to be, something deep inside the High Chief wept.

But he made his face fall into the sternest lines he could muster.  “What have you to say, Zhedthik?” he asked the accused harshly.

“What would you have me say?” Zhedthik asked wearily.  “I have harmed no warrior of the Clan, nor left our wounded behind alive, nor betrayed any on the field.  I have done nothing but dare to think, and to speak my thoughts.  I have spoken them to you.  We both know this.”

“You have nothing to say, no explanation to defend yourself?” Grindkhuk persisted.  Come, fool, he was thinking, you know what will happen if you say nothing at all.  Do not make me do this!

Zhedthik raised his eyes suddenly from the ground to stare at his High Chief, a bemused look in his eyes that faded into something almost like amusement before it faded still further.  Grindkhuk knew, thought he understood that look.  It must be humiliation.

“I will not beg, Grindkhuk,” the disgraced warrior then said quietly.  “I cannot unsay what I have said.  I cannot unthink what I have thought.  If it is evil to ask if we Throk must forever be as we are, then so be it.  Do what you will.”  He paused and lowered his head, adding, “Do what you must.”

As High Chief, Grindkhuk had a few options to choose from in doling out the sentence Zhedthik seemed to be asking for.  He chose the lesser punishment, unable to bring himself to order his former friend dismembered.

“You have been a skilled and able Throk warrior for many seasons and have spilled much blood, Zhedthik. Of respect for those times past, I will spare your life,” the High Chief said quietly, with something almost like regret.

Then, pulling himself to his full height and stature as another peal of thunder rattled the walls around him, he continued in harsher accents. “Since it is his wish to be weak and womanish, let him be taken apart and made a woman.  And let him remain apart from warriors who are true to the ancient way of the Throk.  On pain of death, Zhedthik, you are banished and exiled.”

And with that, the High Chief turned his back on the criminal, formally ending the meeting.

With equal formality, all the Lesser Chiefs and the Leaders left him, dragging the banished warrior with them to enjoy the spectacle of his punishment.  Once he was alone, Grindkhuk doused all the fires in the hut and stilled himself to listen.  He knew that the warriors who performed this castration would take their time, relishing the pain they caused and the blood they spilt.  It was the Throk way.

But, as much as he despised himself for it, Grindkhuk could not join in their glee.  Not this time.  Unseen by all, under the protective cover of the darkness, he let the tears slowly dribble down his face as he listened.

Surrounded by the night as he was, he could not have missed seeing the brilliant flashes of lightning that lit around him even as he heard the first of the screams.  And then suddenly, there were more screams from many voices.  The thunder and lightning continued, striking again and again until the night seemed as bright as noon.  The screaming continued as well, as if the entire Clan were suffering some terrible agony.  What could be happening out there?

Grindkhuk became filled with a terrible, terrifying dread.  What had he done?  He began to shake his head in an unconscious gesture of denial.  He had done nothing wrong. He had done only what he had been forced to do by the Law of the Clans.  It had been his duty as High Chief.  No! He had done nothing wrong!

As had been ordained, Zhedthik did not return.  None of the others returned, either, and Grindkhuk would always remember those screams.  Hidden in the deepest, secret trembling of his heart, they would forever haunt him as he wondered what had become of the proud Clan he once led.

*      *      *

Brandis stared out the window, meditatively stroking his short greying beard as he pondered the challenge that had just been laid before them.

There was really not much to see, except a few fluffy white clouds gamboling through the brilliant blue summer sky, for the Brethren of Luegtha dwelt apart from the other men of Luegoria, in the presence of their God.

Who could sometimes be a real stinker, was the impious thought Brandis harbored at that moment.  And never more so than when He decided that His brotherhood was getting soft … or simply did not have enough to do.

A rolling laugh suddenly filled the room, seeming to come from the very walls of the Great Tower.  Really, Brandis, said a voice that matched the laugh, that is hardly a respectful way to think of Me.

All six of them grinned.  They were all agreed that the best thing about serving Luegtha was that He was a God with a sense of humor.

“That’s all very well and good, Divine One,” replied Brandis in his forthright way, still staring out the window, “but this task You have laid on us will be no easy matter.  I mean, You cannot even seem to tell us who these people are.  How do you expect us to find them?”

“Truly,” agreed Loasden in his rich bass voice.  “We don’t even know which direction to take when we leave here.”

“Or how we are to recognize them when we encounter them,” chimed in Tomasidin.  “They aren’t helpfully marked in some way?  A distinctive birthmark on the forehead, perhaps?  Or a particular way of winking at one when they speak?  What are we to look for?”

Perhaps you are all getting soft, the Divine voice said thoughtfully. It is not like you lot to do so much complaining.

Brandis swung away from the window to resume his seat beside his twin brother, Brasdin, who welcomed him with a smile and a wink.  “As to that,” said Brasdin, “It is not like You to send us haring off on a quest with no better information than: Go find some people. You’ll know them when you see them.”

Yes, but you see, you will know them when you see them, good Brasdin, said Luegtha reproachfully. I wonder how many centuries this pathetic bunch is going to serve Me before they come to trust Me? He added rhetorically, for it was plain that the entire group was feeling skeptical.

“Never mind them, Divine One,” said silent Lueg, their leader.  That was not his birth name; none knew that.  Rather, it was the name they were to call him, the name Luegtha had given him when he had been chosen as leader some four Ages ago.  “They are only complaining because this quest of Yours will keep them away from the boar hunting season.”

I know I can always rely on you, Lueg.

That provoked another universal grin.  “Very well, Lueg the Faithful,” said Brandis with a sad want of respect for his elder.  “When are we to set out and which way shall we go?”

Lueg bent a stern glance upon the sorcerer-warriors around the table.  “You know, I can’t believe you sorry fellows will not figure this out for yourselves,” he told them sardonically.  “How many centuries have we studied here in more than just the warrior arts?  When we set out, we will cast forth our senses and follow them.  Since there is more than one person that we’re looking for, our feelings will no doubt lead us off in different directions.”

“Yes, that’s a plan,” said Tomasidin.  “Now, perhaps, you’ll tell us how we are to recognize them?”

Lueg sighed, a sigh that was echoed by their Divine companion.  “You are the chosen of Luegtha. When you find them, you’ll know,” he answered with finality.

And that silenced them.  At least for a moment.

The discussion had started when, after their usual substantial firstmeal, the warriors were lounging around the table waiting for Luegtha to put in an appearance.  He always came to them in the mornings after firstmeal, and always with some task for them to perform.  Sometimes, it involved some terrible injustice that was being imposed on the People of Luegoria by its ruling family.  At other times, it involved the further study of some form of the elemental magicks which they commanded.  And then, often, they just talked, and Luegtha — clever dog that He was! — subtly instructed them in the ways of the hearts and minds of men.

Today, He had done none of those things.  Instead, He had told them that there were some folks out there who needed to be found.  The Brethren were to find them.  And that had been that.

“At the risk of being a thorough spoil-sport, may I ask why we are being charged with this task?” asked Brandis mildly.  “Are these special people to become members of the Brethren?”


“Then we are not to bring them back to the Tower when we find them?” pressed Brasdin.

Ah … no.

“Our Lord is a font of information, isn’t he?” asked Loasdin ironically.  “Very well then, we will follow our senses as we leave the Tower, and we will encounter the one we are supposed to encounter, because each of us has a Destiny to be involved here in … whatever this urgent matter is that we are getting involved in, yes?”

Very good, Loasdin.

“And we will not be bumping into each other on the road, because Fate has assigned each of us to each of them, right?” Loasdin continued, encouraged.

Very good, Loasdin.

“Very well then,” he said again.  “Once we have found them, what are we to do with them if we are not to bring them here?”

You are to escort them to Imperial Tamaeranda, where they are to receive the hospitality of Lord Daerus of the Grand Duchy of Shae.

“Indeed?” Pandfer said thoughtfully.  “If these people are to travel to Imperial Tamaeranda, why aren’t the TimeKeepers charged with this chore?  Why must we become involved?”

It is needful, Pandfer, Luegtha replied. The ones you seek out are the instruments of Destiny, even as are you. And it is a more proper task for the Brethren of Luegtha than for the TimeKeepers because the people you seek are in danger. A part of your task in conveying them to Shae will be to see that no harm comes to them.

There was another moment of silence as the group digested these meager details.  “Well then,” said Brandis with false brightness, “I guess the only remaining question is when do we leave?”

A chorus of sour grunts was the only reply he received.

*          *          *

“Looks to me as iffn I’m gonna haf’ ta move on purty soon,” she said, staring out the window at the storm-lashed, rocky coast.

Her companion, a dark grey tabby cat, said nothing.  He merely looked toward her attentively, as he always did at the sound of her tired, rasping voice.  It made him the perfect traveling partner — and it seemed as if she had been traveling for the last twenty years.

Her name was Rischa, although there were very few people in the whole world who knew that.  As far as they were concerned, she was just “that old woman” or, after she had been around them for awhile, “that old witch” was a common title they bestowed upon her.

Once — it seemed like a lifetime ago — she had been wed to a fine, strapping sailor and had given birth to a fine, strapping boy.  Back then, it had looked to her that her life was turning out to be everything she had expected, and everything she had hoped for.  She had loved her husband and son passionately, and had been determined to make a home for them both — as well as any other sons and daughters that Istha might bless them with — that would make them the envy of the whole fishing fleet.

She hadn’t thought that she had asked for so very much from her life, after all.

But then one night, she had had a dream, a nightmare.  She had always told herself that she could not remember it, but that wasn’t exactly true.  She had never let herself remember it.  She did not want to remember it.  All she remembered, all she needed to remember, was that she had awakened from it sobbing with fright and feeling cold to the marrow of her bones.

She was quite certain that she never wanted to remember that dream.

But, she realized many years later, that was when everything that seemed to be making her life into the vision she had always wanted it to be started coming unraveled.

Hardar had stopped coming to her in bed.  That was what she had noticed first.  And then she realized that he was avoiding her every chance he got.  He didn’t turn mean or anything like that, and she even felt that he still loved her.  He just wouldn’t come anywhere near her.

She made a plan to get a reason for that out of him, but fate robbed her of the chance.  It had been their fifth handfast day, and Rischa had laid her plans well in advance.  Little Harisch had been sent off to her sister for the night, to give them time alone.  She’d made a wonderful dinner for them, and fixed herself real nice.  They’d eat, and then they’d talk.  After that, she hoped they’d love.  It had been so long.  So, she sat down to wait for Hardar to come home with the fishing fleet.

But Hardar had never come back.

The other men said that it was the strangest thing any of them had ever seen in all their combined years at sea.  At one moment, the waters had been as calm as a pond and, at the next, huge waves had seemed to come from nowhere to lash at the small fishing craft.  One of them swept good Hardar off the deck and, in spite of being a very strong swimmer, he hadn’t been seen since.  And, just as sudden as the sea had sprung up, it settled down … almost as if the sea goddess Nephtha had decided to have Hardar for lunch and then, appetite satisfied, She had returned to Her uneasy sleep.

After that, she began to notice other things.  Like she began to notice how her little Harisch seemed to have turned into his pa overnight.  Right at first, when they had sang Hardar the funeral song to send him to rest, the little fellow had clung to his dam, barely understanding what was happening.  But, within weeks, he too was avoiding her.

For that matter, so was everybody else.  For twenty years now, not one single person she knew or met would touch her.  If it weren’t for the cat, she would have forgotten what it was like.

Rischa continued to stare out the window, uttering a bitter laugh.  “It’s been storming for a week,” she mentioned to her unnamed cat.  “Bet they figure out a way to blame that on me, too.”

And that had been going on for a long time, as well.  She had been on the move for close to twenty years, driven from village to village all across Illdia, the second largest of the Islands of Akkam.  At first, she had been bewildered and hurt.  Why must the villagers chase her away?  She had done nothing to them.

She would move into an empty cottage, where she would keep a small kitchen garden and, when she could, a few chickens to supply her needs.  She had tried being neighborly, but when she saw how her presence made people uncomfortable, she began to stay away from them altogether.  But it didn’t seem to matter what she did or how she treated people.  After awhile, they didn’t want her around.

And they blamed her for the silliest things.  In one village, the son of one of the village elders decided that he did not want to take command of the local fishing fleet like his sire and all his grandsires before him.  Instead, the boy had declared, he wanted to be a woodcarver.  Since there was little wood left on the island, he wanted to go to the mainland to live.

The villagers had been shocked.  Rischa had been secretly amused, although she had been careful to hide that from everyone.  So the boy wanted to live on the mainland, so what?  His father had another seven sons left, he could easily bequeath the fleet to one of them.  Still, even though she had never, in her whole time in that village, spoken two words to the boy, they somehow managed to blame his defection on her.

Rischa began to move around her little cottage, gathering her things.  Experience had taught her that the day the village decided to run her off had a certain feel to it.  And as she got older, experience also taught her that it was usually better to be gone before they arrived.  Twenty years ago, they would blame her for things like a lad who didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps.  Today, it was deaths, pestilence, fires, floods, and storms that they blamed on her.  “Yes,” she said as she moved, “it’s time I was gone.”

It didn’t take her long.  As she closed her cottage door behind her, she thought of that young man again and wondered what it was like on the mainland.  Life in the fishing villages was what she had known all her life, but hers had become a vagabond’s life.  She would soon run out of fishing villages to settle in.  At least, on the mainland, it would be harder to run out of places to go.

The thought made her utter that bitter laugh once more.  Looking down at the cat, she wondered aloud whether she wasn’t too old to be embarking on an adventure.

She wasn’t really old, of course.  She knew that.

She felt old.

Several hours later, when her torch-bearing neighbors descended upon the little hut on the edge of the village, they were relieved, ashamed, or alarmed to find it already empty.

*          *          *

“… are still quite concerned about the behavior of the Throk, for they have been unusually quiet,” Phoeday was saying, in much more sedate accents than his usual cheerfully pungent style.  “It may be that His Imperial Majesty will soon take it into his head to mount a further expedition in the north.”

The Phoenix nodded as if this were not news to Him.  But then, it seemed that very little surprised the Ancient One — who, in this case, was not so very ancient.  The New Age was only just begun and none of the archpriests was yet quite comfortable with this new Phoenix.  He seemed so much more human than had his predecessor.

Of course, that may have been a result of his parentage.  Caelon of Aerandos had been an unbeliever when he had sired this Phoenix and, as the recently crowned Imperial Prince of Tamaeranda, he was still distressingly irreverent.  Dia of Shae, on the other hand, had been bred to her role as Muphoen — birth-mother of the Phoenix — but beneath her exquisite sense of the appropriate lay a deep core of mischief.  The two had not been able to spend much time in the family that was supposed to have sustained the Phoenix in his deadly Gaerud against Septha, but they were together long enough to forge a strong bond.  Phoebus, who served the Grand Duchy of Shae and had trained both the Shae twins in the Secrets of the TimeKeepers, thought he frequently saw the resemblance this Phoenix bore to both sire and dam.

“Yes, and that puts me in mind of another thing I wanted to say to you all,” the Phoenix said, nodding to Phoebus.  The archpriest realized, from the twinkle in the Master’s eye, that his thoughts had betrayed him.  “I must say that I was sadly disappointed in your failure to appreciate the import of the words of the First Prophesy as they concerned the late Gaerud.”

Phoebus smiled slightly.  There were times when it seemed that this Phoenix simply liked to tease them.  Phoebus and Phoeday, who had now spent some time in company with their Imperial Highness, Caelon and Dia, seemed better able to appreciate such whimsy.  Phoenedra, however, seemed almost stricken, while Phoetar looked quite shocked.

“Master?” Phoenedra asked in bewilderment.

“You will recall, I am sure, the passage which refers specifically to the Shae twins,” He began. Receiving decided nods from them all, He continued, quoting, “And if the one does drown in darkness, shall this world perish and be no more.  But, if the other does surrender to the light, then shall the fullness of Time be returned to its own and so shall the New Age be born.”

“Yes, of course we remember, Master,” Phoetar said with grave gentleness.  “But how did we err?”

The Master smiled mischievously.  “Why, all of you believed that the first part of that passage referred to Daerus of Shae, and the last referred to his sister Dia.”

Phoebus, suddenly realizing the mistake they had all made, exchanged a rueful glance with Phoeday.  They both began to chuckle.

“Yes, my children … it was, in truth, the other way around,” the Phoenix told them, grinning sympathetically at their mirth.

“But … “

“You surely do not … “

It was really unkind of them, Phoebus thought tolerantly.  Phoebus and Phoeday had been archpriests for a very long time now — several hundred years or so — while both Phoetar and Phoenedra were relatively new-come to their dignities, having only been received into the purple in the last fifty years.  They ought not to laugh so at what might be deemed by the young as a grievous misstep.  Phoebus did strive to contain his mirth but the impish gleam in the Master’s eye was not helping.

Composing himself, the Phoenix went on to say, “Now, the reference to the one drowning in darkness was obviously a reference to Lady Dia.  It could not have meant Lord Daerus; recall that he did, in fact, drown in darkness for awhile.  Yet the world continued on and was not consumed by swirling chaos or any such thing. No, it was Lord Daerus who had to surrender to the light … as, in the end, he did.”  He smiled quite gently at them all, adding, “We have much cause to be grateful to Her Imperial Highness but it was Lord Daerus who truly gave us our victory.”

Phoeday, who had appeared to be in dire straights during much of this lecture, wheezed, “How very shocking that we should all have made such an error, Master!”

“Indeed,” The Phoenix agreed, still smiling.

“One wonders why you bring the matter to our attention now, since the Gaerud is done and none of us is like to see another in our lifetimes?” ventured Phoebus.

“Well it is certainly not because I wish to extract any sort of a penance from any of you, so you can stop looking so stricken, you two,” He said to Phoenedra and Phoetar.  “We still have work to do, you know.  I expect it is very nice for you all to have a Phoenix again, but that does not mean that we can now sit back and allow the Age to proceed while we take our leisure.  I merely wished to caution you all,” and here, He looked sternly at the still-afflicted Phoeday, “to take more care in your efforts to unravel the final few passages of the First Prophesy.”

That mildly delivered hint reduced them all to a momentary silence.  And the Master, looking around at them all with a satisfied smile, rose to dismiss them, leaving the small chamber in which they held these meetings too quickly for any of them to gather themselves to question Him.

“I suppose it is time for me to go back to my study of that First Prophesy,” said Phoetar mournfully.  “I had thought I could put it aside for a few decades now that the Phoenix has risen.”

“No rest for the weary, good Phoetar,” Phoenedra addressed him in her rich contralto, her tone a curious mixture of depression and good cheer.  “I am only sorry that we proved to be unequal to our first test.”

“Nonsense,” Phoeday told her gruffly.  “Child, how long must you endure these fits and starts before you grow used to the fact that our Phoenix likes to tease?”

“That is easy for you to say, Phoeday,” she countered with spirit.  “Our Phoenix, as you style Him, is not so long risen that I have had much chance to observe either His fits or His starts.  Perhaps I am over-sensitive to His teasing but I feel I have cause.  You have been archpriest long enough to feel secure in your position.  ‘Tis not so with me, so new risen to the purple and a woman besides.”

“I should not give that a thought, my dear,” Phoebus intervened.  “I have served the Phoenix for four hundred years, and have never yet heard of a TimeKeeper being demoted.”

That brought a smile to her face. “Must you return right away?” she asked the two of them.  “Perhaps you can share our midmeal and tell us more of how it goes at Tamaerand at this season.”

“There is not much more to tell than what we were able to report to the Master,” Phoebus told her placidly.  “But I expect that Phoeday will be glad to bear you company.”

“Indeed,” Phoetar murmured, “if he Times it with some precision, he will arrive back at the palace just in time to enjoy a second midmeal.”

Phoenedra laughed while Phoeday, who was used to a certain amount of ribbing about his girth, uttered a mock growl about disrespect for one’s elders.  Still wearing his faint smile, Phoebus bid his peers farewell and opened a time window to take him back to the Imperial palace.  He wondered as he did so if any of the others had thought to ponder the significance of the final few passages of the First Prophesy.

As far as Phoebus knew there was only one prophesy, so that he had sometimes wondered during his novitiate why it was called so.  After a time, he had come to believe that if there was a First Prophesy, it must be that there would at some time be a Second Prophesy.  He had even wondered, as he had steadily risen in rank in the Temple of the Fires, which of his brothers would be visited by the Vision that would inspire them to speak the Word.  Now, it seemed that they were coming to the end of the First Prophesy with no Second Prophesy to guide their steps once these tasks had been completed.  He wondered what would become of them then.

Still, it was not in Phoebus’ nature to fret or repine.  Instead, he turned his thought to his present tasks.  He was anxious to return to the palace and compose himself.  On the morrow, he was to set forth with Lord Daerus to begin their return journey to the Grand Duchy of Shae.  He would need to eat well and get as much rest as possible this night.  It would be a long walk.

*          *          *

Lady Kera of Ormaer, former Imperial Princess of Ormaeranda, stared pensively at nothing as she had been for what seemed at once like an instant and forever.  For company, she had had little but the heart-rending wails of Septha the Destroyer, who had occupied His throne in the House of Chaos since He had been banished there once more by the newly risen Phoenix.

The House of Chaos was a peculiar place, Kera found.  Everything there was in continual motion, always shifting, always changing.  There was very little light, but she had grown used to the gloom.  What she could not accustom herself to was the way even the seat upon which she rested was forever changing.  At one moment, it might be a comfortable divan and the next, it would mysteriously transform itself into a hard stone bench.  A succulent piece of fruit might change, between one bite and the next, into a leg of roast fowl or even, as she had once discovered, a raw egg.

It came as something of a shock to her to discover that she still sometimes grew hungry, because she had assumed that her current predicament had come about because she had died.  In fact, she had been somewhat surprised not to have found her brother, Maermat, sharing her prison.  At the least, she might have found some amusement in trading quips with him.  As it was, she had no one to talk to but this sobbing God and he seemed disinclined toward conversation.

Kera felt sorry for him, even though his never-ending moans and wails were irritating.  She had not enjoyed the experience of acting as his instrument in the late Gaerud, for Septha would not put his faith in his minions but insisted on taking control of them, body and soul.  The result was that she found herself doing and saying things she would otherwise not have done or said.

And yet, because she had shared the consciousness of the banished deity, she understood as perhaps very few humans did just how naked and bereft He always felt.

She even shared those feelings now.  Once she had discovered that she still lived, and that she would live forever in this bizarre and gloomy place, she felt even more keenly the loss of the love that had become central to her being — before Septha.  And, as much as she felt sorry for Him, she had not yet learned to forgive him for taking that away from her.

Kera of Ormaer slowly shook her head from side to side.  “It was not wise of You, my Lord,” she said under her breath.

She had thought that He would be too involved in His weeping to have heard her, but she was wrong.  “What cause hast thou to reproach Me?” He asked brokenly.  “I wagered all, as I always do, and I have lost all, as I always do.”

She gazed at Him, wondering whether she dared to tell him her thoughts.  After all, what more can he do to me? she thought ruefully.  “Do you not think, my Lord, that perhaps you should change your tactics if they fail you every Age?” she asked. “T’would be a very foolish man who tried time and again to swim an impassible river just because he is too stubborn to seek the bridge a mile down the road.”

“I would not be in this miserable pass hadst thou not failed Me!” He roared at her.  “Couldst thou but have kept the young Shae ensnared as he was when first I summoned thee to serve Me, the victory would have been Mine!”

“I did not ensnare anyone!” she shouted back at Him, flicked on the raw, as she leapt to her feet.  “Daerus loved me!  If You had not meddled, he would love me still!  Do not blame me for that blunder!”

She stood before Him, face flushed and breast heaving, demonstrating before her Companion the fire and spirit that had once cast their spell over Daerus of Shae.  His reaction to her passion was, not surprisingly, quite a bit different.

“Hast thou the temerity to dispute with Me?” He asked her in an awful voice.  “Have a care, Kera of Ormaer.  Thou may yet join thy lost brother in the House of the Dead.”

Kera, once she had lost her temper, often cast discretion to the wind.  “How do You think that could possibly matter to me, my Lord?” she told him bitterly.  “What hope of happiness do I have now?  By all means, strike me down if it please You!”

She tensed herself, wishing with all her heart that He would do precisely that.  She had no wish to spend all eternity in this madhouse with a weeping, bad-tempered God who could not seem to learn from His mistakes.  But she realized that the moment had passed when, into the silence that followed her challenge, she could hear Him quietly weeping once more.

He really does not understand, she thought sadly.  How could He expect Daerus of Shae to feel anything but revulsion for the creature Septha had turned her into?  Why could He not have seen that Daerus was enamored of her and would not feel the same way of a woman who looked like her but had the mind and heart of the Dark God?

For that matter, why did Septha have to try to force anyone to take a place at His side?  Was it not possible that He could inspire love in enough of the people to earn the respect of the other Gods, and thus regain his place in the world?  She thought perhaps He wept simply because He was lonely and unloved.

We all need to be loved, her sorrowful thoughts continued.  Even Gods, I suppose.

Once more lost in thought, Kera sank back to her seat — which had transmuted into a large pile of fluffy pillows — and lifted her eyes to stare at nothing.

She thought about Daerus.  She did that often.

Sometimes, she remembered those lovely months at her father’s palace when they had shared so many magic moments as they gradually came to care for each other.  At other times, she imagined what her life might be even at that moment, had she not been called upon to serve the Destroyer.  As often as not, she simply conjured a vision of his dear face to hover before her eyes, tantalizing and torturing her.

She seemed to see him now, staring at her through an open window in the stone wall of a place she did not know.  The sun shone in the window to kiss his dark hair with brightness and Kera, who had been imprisoned in the darkness for so long, yearned toward him and the light with every fiber of her being.  She reached out a hand to caress his face as she had so many times in the past … he seemed so close …

“Tell Me, Mistress Kera,” her Host spoke, and the vision was gone.  “Do men know aught of how I came to be cast out of their world?”

“It seems there are none to tell that tale now, my Lord,” she replied.  “Most fancy that we have always had the Phoenix, and that You come from some other, unknown land to usurp His place among us.”

“And thou?” He pressed.  “Dost thou know this tale?”

Mutely, Kera shook her head.

“It seems I have been remiss,” He said in a more thoughtful tone than Kera had yet heard from Him.  “Come,” and one of the shapeless lumps near Him reformed itself  into another seat, “thou shalt know this history.  Even if none other knows it, justice requires that I speak of it to thee.”

Wonderingly, Kera sat beside Him and made herself as comfortable as she could.  After a few moments during which He seemed to be gathering His thoughts, Septha began to speak.

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