Chapter the Fourth
“Nine hells it is cold,” he heard. Nine hells, his mind echoed. It is cold. Was it cold? He had no idea.
“How could this have happened to me?” the voice continued. It was a soft voice; a woman’s voice, but somehow fuller, deeper. Introspective. “I am eternal. I am forever. I am from the beginning and will last until the end. I am worshiped; I am hated. I am loved, and I am feared. What cause is there to test me? There is none. Who can claim that right? None, lest that one would feel my wrath. I would give it freely. Although I have not. Not for some time. It is a bitter thing to taste. Give me a cold glass of wine instead. Red, of course. Lest you would feel my wrath.”
The voice was unhinged, although not panic stricken. Despite how quickly it was said, Zaman could make it out clearly. The voice was the dulcet speech of a woman given to talking to herself as though no one else was listening. An insane woman; talking to yourself out loud was never a good sign. Particularly when there were other people in the room. Oddly enough, the constant flow of words helped him slide out of sleep as he would a bed, trying not to wake a sleeping lover. It was a slow, careful, and measured approach to lucidity. The black haze of insentience receded and was replaced with cold, pain, and memories of terror. It augmented like the gradual boil on a kettle of water; slow to start, but ever increasing.
Zaman’s first sensation was cold. She was right, he thought hazily. His fingers were cold. He curled them, and felt the damp iciness of snow against his hand. His palms were numb and the tips of his fingers tingled feebly as he tried to move them. As he slowly extended control throughout his body, he found other patches of wet coldness as well; his lips and one cheek was completely numb; he was lying on the ground. His clothes were damp; a good sign, suggesting he had not been unconscious for so long that his body had cooled dangerously. He could not feel his toes or even his feet; below his ankles he might as well have had hooves, for all the sensation there was.
“It has been many moons since I last visited. Ten thousand and ten thousand more turnings of this world. All that was has never been; this place has changed. For the better and for the worse. I can hear a rock cry out my name a thousand leagues away; it weeps in joy at my return. I can feel its love like a small beacon of fire in a dark and cold void. I love you, stone! Do you hear my words? Do you feel my love?”
With some effort he opened his eyes. White snow greeted him. Cold white snow, very close to his eyes. Zaman’s first effort at pushing himself up off the snow failed. Weakness poisoned his limbs. He had no strength to move; muscles he did not know he had across his body throbbed in agony. Instantly, a driving headache assailed him, nearly blinding him. Zaman tried to moan, but his voice was weak and hollow. She did not hear him. Nine hells, he could barely hear himself.
“Is it morning? I know not. If I wish it to be so, so shall it be. Certainly it is not the cold heart of night. Although it is cold.” The nonstop stream of words was beginning to grate on his nerves. “Come to me and give me succor, sun. Give me your heart. I would eat it to warm these cold bones.”
Zaman opened his mouth and took in a mouthful of snow. He chewed slowly, trying to accelerate the melting process, but it was painfully slow and his mouth was nearly numb from cold besides. I’m colder than I realize, he thought to himself, slightly worried. The moisture calmed a dry and scratchy throat, much to his relief. He took in another mouthful, heedless of the pebbles and dirt that went into his mouth.
Muscles protesting, he rolled himself over and found himself looking at a white ceiling. No, not exactly a ceiling; he was in a cave. A cave of snow. The ceiling was low and crooked; although he could probably crouch inside the cave, he could see it narrow at one end and collapse into the floor. Bright sunlight poured in from the other side; thankfully, the wind did not, although he could hear it howling outside. This had to be the North. What in the nine hells had happened?
Jaul. Tabi. That Gods-cursed Aeyn who tried to kill me! Memories came flooding back, waves of fear and pain and confusion. The last he could recall, Jaul and Tabi had pulled their swords, and the Aeyn had assaulted him with Sihr. That damn Aeyn had assaulted his mind with Sihr. Zaman would have thought such a thing impossible. Well, not impossible; those rat bastards could do nearly anything. But he had heard that attacks on the mind required Pathos, and few Aeyn had the stones to mess with an element that had no balance. Else you would have Aeyn cloaked in illusion all the time, Zaman was sure. Why not kill a merchant and take his face and voice? Or a king, for that matter. Using Pathos for that sort of thing could lead to badh’ and the badh’ for that sort of thing was madness, pure and simple.
“Aaagh! Who are you?” Zaman heard the tone of her voice change and knew the question was directed at him.
“Fear not, lady,” he said. Or croaked, rather. His voice was raspy and encumbered with exhaustion. His words were unintelligible, he was certain. He tried to clear his throat. “I plot no harm to you.”
“Bah, as though you would tell me if you did,” she said as he turned to look at her. His heart nearly stopped. She was beautiful. No, not beautiful. She could inspire madness with those eyes; pools of liquid twilight, dark and unforgiving and eternal. Lips that were in a perpetual pout, crafted to tease and inflame the heart. Soft cheeks, smooth and clear and the color of honeyed wine. Her hair was a cascade of sun-kissed wheat on a hot midsummer’s day. She sat just steps away from him upon a wet and dirty shawl, legs crossed demurely beneath her. Perfect, flawless legs, he amended in his head. Everything about her was faultless. She was the most perfect woman he had ever seen, or thought about, or dreamed of. He looked at her, speechless, aware of only her and how filthy he must look at the moment.
“I…I…” he stammered.
“Spare me. Nothing you could say to me would not be something some fool has not said before. Better not to say it lest you become the fool. Or not.”
“What is this place? Who are you and why are you here?” Her voice, although imperious, was difficult to concentrate on. Or perhaps too easy to think upon; a few words and he was lost in the soothing tones. He hoped it was the headache and the near death experience rather than her voice. There is no fool greater than a man next to a pretty girl. Except when there are two. His da never told him whether the “two” referred to two men or two pretty girls, but he was sure it really didn’t make a difference.
“I, uh, am Zaman. Captain Zaman. I’m in the Army.” He felt like a fourteen year old boy with fuzz on his chin, trying to impress his older sister’s beautiful friend. Gods, I am a fool for a pretty face.
“It’s good to know that your uniform, filthy and ragged though it may be, is in fact something other than the prevailing fashion for men in this world. I despair to think what I would have had to wear to complement your attire.” She laughed, and it was so sweet it nearly broke his heart. Was there anything about her that did not inspire desire? Her look was one supremely pleased with her own wit. Definitely unhinged. “But this is all irrelevant. What are your nefarious plans, captain of the army? What is your will? Why have you summoned me here, and what do you plan to do?”
Zaman was confused. Unsurprising, given the circumstances, he thought. “My will? My plan? My lady, I assure you I do not pretend to know what is going on or what you are doing here. In fact, I am less than sure how I arrived here myself.” He pushed himself to a sitting position arduously, his numb fingers slipping on the ice beneath him. Everything hurt.
“This man is clearly insane. How do you arrive without knowing how you arrived? I must tread carefully with this one, if only for his sake.” She looked up at Zaman, a smile plastered upon her lips. It still looked good, contrived or not. “Zaman, my dear captain, I was merely enjoying the view when you appeared from nowhere. In one moment, I was cursing the mages that brought me to this cold and heartless world, and in the next I was forced to consider what a half-dead soldier lying face down in the snow might suggest. Not much, admittedly. But there is a philosophical perspective that one such as I am given to, and I had thought that - .”
“My lady, I beg you to leave off. Your words confound me, and I already have a headache.”
She scowled, and he cursed himself for a fool. “Indeed,” she replied haughtily, and was silent.
Zaman looked at her more closely, albeit from the corner of his eye as he pretended to get his bearings. His body hurt and his brain was not fully functional; her presence only further addled his wits. Absently, he rubbed his hands together, trying to warm them. It was so hard to think with her in his presence. What is a spell, some casting of Sihr that was damaging his ability to think? He had never felt this uncomfortable or unsure in the presence of a woman before. Her slightest displeasure sent waves of despair roiling through him. No, this could not be natural. He had to hold on to that idea. This had to be some sort of magery that he was not familiar with. “Nevertheless, we must determine where we are and what we are doing. I have given you my name. Could I ask you for yours?”
“My name?” she asked, nonplussed, her forehead wrinkling at his words.
A smile played at his lips. “Indeed,” he replied.
He was the recipient of another scowl, but this one was less annoyed. He could see amusement in her eyes, and his traitorous heart leapt in joy. “You are droll, sirrah, but I am not amused. I have met the stumps of trees that offered me more homage than you do. I have visited ruin upon lovers for less!”
Stumps? Homage? What was she talking about? “Come again, my lady?”
She frowned, the mercurial mood of a woman was raised by more than a few degrees. “I think that my own name is of much less consequence than your sudden and inexplicable appearance. You cannot just pop into existence and throw your bleeding and beaten self upon my floor and expect me to bow and scrape to your every whim and need.” She looked away, her golden tresses falling in such a way to hide her face. “Black vapors cloud my vision. It is this coldness that ails me so. I cannot feel what I feel. I cannot feel my toes. But who pays attention to toes? When was the last time I noted how my toes felt? Why should I care, now that they are unfeeling? I don’t care. We should start a fire. My fingers are cold as well. To hells with my toes.”
Zaman could not follow her words. They were fragmented, like a stream of consciousness caught upon the wind. “What can you tell me, then?”
“What it is you wish to know? It is cold. Ice makes you wet. Fitnah stems from -.”
“Stop!” he exclaimed, irritated. “That is enough, my lady. I have no time to joust with you with words and ideas. I must understand what is going on here. Why we are here.” His voice, weak with exhaustion and consternation, began to rise. “What do you have to do with Rahimeyyen and the destruction of the Ratters District? Why am I here? Why are you here with me? I have to find out how the nine hells we arrived in this gods-forsaken ice hole and how to get back to my men!” The last words came out as a shout. Zaman found himself breathing heavily and sweating despite the cold. Perspiration beaded his forehead, and he could feel it chilling his skin. Zaman was finally beginning to understood the ramifications of their situation; how confused and absurd this dilemma actually was, how little sense it made, and how he had no idea how or why he had become mixed up in all of this. He was rattled. Looking at her, however, quenched his self-righteous anger. I have every right. Every right to demand this. The thought felt hollow.
She looked at him sadly. “Find it out,” she replied quietly. “Find it out and let me know how and when I can go home. I already tire of your cold and uncaring world. And your poor manners. I know nothing of what you speak. I was summoned. Summoned, you understand? I had no choice. I was taken from my home. This is my real body, not a casting or some projection. They were fools to do so. Why in the heart of a city? I am kissed by Fitna. Once the Traë had my scent, they came. And all four of those fools found their fate in the arms of the Keeper.” She smiled at him, sorrow transforming a thing of beauty into an object of exquisite and humbling splendor. “The Traë serve a cruel master. He has made them into something less than what they could have been, I think. When they must do something, it is done irrespective of the cost. They wanted to slaughter those that brought me here, and they did. Anything else that was in the way was no more than an unfortunate victim of necessity.”
He gaped at her, astonished. “The Traë?” he asked incredulously. “Are you mad, or do you take me for a boy at his mother’s skirts? I don’t have time for this -.”
“Then make the time,” she interrupted coldly. “I have spoken to you once about your poor manners. What do you want of me if not the truth? I have told you what I know. Call me a liar again and you will rue it. There was a time I would taste blood on a whim. It is not a sweet as wine, but makes me as drunk.”
Zaman doubted it. Many words could be used to describe her, but bloodthirsty did not make the cut. This was going nowhere. “What do you mean you were summoned?”
“What do you mean? I was summoned. What else would you know?”
“Well, what does it mean to be summoned, for one. And who were these Aeyn that summoned you? Why you were summoned?”
She wrinkled her nose at the questions. “I was brought here in the flesh; that is what it means to be summoned. And as for who summoned me: they were old men. Foolish old men, without lovers to guide them. Or wives to beat them for their folly. They paid for their madness in blood and death. Their own, and that of those around them.”
She really was partial to blood. “And what interest had they in you?” he probed, pressing her.
“What interest does any man have in me?” she asked philosophically. “I think it matters not if you are young or old, foolish or witted. Is there any man or woman that does not try to lay claim upon me? I doubt it.”
Nine hells, she was arrogant. Alas, but rightfully so. “I see your point, my lady. Your beauty is unparalleled. Nevertheless -.”
“My beauty? What do you mean? Never you mind. I am tired of this constant talking. My snow cave was a much more pleasant place without all of your silly chatter. Certainly it was quieter. No more talking. Do something now. Make my heart swoon at your quick wit and cunning.”
“I fear you misjudge me, my lady. I am but a solider. My cunning does not extend beyond the reach of my sword.” He sighed. “Whoever you are, it matters not in this moment. We cannot stay here. If the cold does not kill us, deprivation will.” Already he felt hungry. It was a distant thing; after all, he was a soldier. But they would need to eat. “We must move, if the weather permits.” He looked out at the entrance to the snow cave. It was barely big enough for a man to wiggle through. Sunlight streamed in, suggesting a clear day. However, the howling wind worried him. Inside this cave, they were protected. It was cold, but he did not feel heat vacating his body. Outside would be a different story.
She reached out her hand and her fingers brushed his cheek. The moment he understood her intent he tried to pull away, to no avail. Soft, strong fingers stroked his cheek, traversing the dirty skin and stubble and flecks of filth and blood and the detritus that was a soldier’s every day’s remorse. Self-loathing welled up deep from within; he did not want this touch. He did not want this mercy, this act of benevolence. He was a soldier. Her kindness, her singular act of compassion, could destroy him.
“You fear too much, my love,” he heard her say as he turned his face from her. “Have faith in yourself. Submit to the vagaries of circumstance.”
“I will submit to death, and nothing less,” he said roughly, his fingers unconsciously tightening into a fist. “I am a soldier, and that is the extent of it.” He struggled to his feet, slipping against the slick and wet ice that was beneath him. Zaman did not care; he needed to leave the cave. He needed to step away from this woman and get back to the world of death and pain and military strategy. Things that made sense. He scrabbled against the wet floor of the cave and made his way to the entrance. Or exit, in his case. He wanted to escape.
Stepping outside was a relief. Escape, he thought. He took a deep breath of the sharp, clear, cold air and felt it permeate his chest even as it burned his nose and throat. He knew that in a few hours that sharp and cold air would be a torment, but for now it helped clear his mind.
About him was a stretch of white. Snow and ice, as far as he could see. There was nothing to break the monotony of the white plain before him; no dead trees, no hills, no frozen carcasses of animals dead of the predations of cold or hunger. The only movement on that expanse was the racing of snow and ice across the field as it was whipped up by the wind. Every few minutes a loosely bundled cluster of snow racing across the empty ground would suddenly slow and curl up like the tail of a snow wolf and then fall away into the nothingness of the white beneath it. It was as though the wind had tired of this sport and let the snow fall away like a discarded toy, forgotten the moment it left a thoughtless child’s hand. But other than the driving snow that raced along the ground, this world was a uniform blanket of snow that hid the bloodstained rapacity of nature when unobserved. Zaman could only imagine the secrets the ice hid underneath that blanket of white. Victims of ice, victims of the Keeper’s touch, from yesterday and yesteryear. He was determined that his body did not sanctify the flawless expanse of whiteness before him. And if it did, it would precede that of his companion. But ever was it thus, and ever would it be; that was the creed of the warrior.
The sun was high in the eastern sky, but had not yet crested. The wind was strong. In moments, the wetness of his shirt and across the seat of his pants had crystallized into ice. He tried to brush the thin, frozen sheets off of himself with mixed success. The wind was a whip, tearing at his clothes, biting exposed flesh with an icy lash. His eyes began to water and the feeling that had just started to return to his fingers fled with the wind that took it. He could feel the hard bite of the wind leeching the warmth from his skin. Nothing this life gives me is ever easy, he thought sourly. Why couldn’t I have worn my dress blues today? Traversing this frozen hellscape would be a faster death than losing one’s mind to the rantings of that woman, he supposed. He had heard that freezing to death was not a terrible way to die. The cold stops touching you, and you merely fall asleep and never wake. Certainly better than a sword through the gut. There were worse ways to die. He had seen a few of them. He had caused a few of them as well. His hand strayed to the cold but comforting hilt of the sword that hung at his side. Even the leather that wrapped it seemed stiff and frozen. There were not so many things in this world so fierce that could not be dealt with a bottle of wine or the thrust of a sword, it occurred to him. Too bad the cold was one of them.
Well, there was no help for it. They would have to cross this frozen desert. He climbed back into the cave, ready to break the bad news to the girl and ready to argue his case. Women never listened to good advice, even if that advice was decades in the making. It wouldn’t matter if he was a soothsayer or an Aeyn or even a scholar of weather; a woman did what she wanted to do. And her man usually did as well, even if he did not know it.
“My lady, I have looked briefly at the outside. Although the weather is fair, I feel that it will be a hard few days for us. The wind is strong, and the cold is pitiless. I will do my utmost to protect you from the elements, but the best we can hope for is to be attacked by some beast, that I might slay it and take for you its skin.”
“Well, we certainly can’t stay here,” she agreed. “There’s a whole world out there to explore. I’ve seen about as much of this senseless cave as I care to see. Have you informed your men of our impending arrival, then? Does your beautiful wife know that I come? Let us hope she is not the jealous type. I will gift your daughters will grace and manners; that should take the edge off her rage once she finds that you have forsaken her body if only to look at mine.”
“I jest, Zaman. I do not expect you to forsake her body.”
This was not working out the way he had expected. “Yes, well, of greater concern to me than a wife that does not exist and daughters that I hope to never have is our current predicament. We must leave this place. Do you carry anything upon you that might help us?
“I have this raiment that I wear. It is quite warm, I assure you. You will have no cause to complain about me. We must be on our way without delay.”
“I would fear for you, my lady. I think perhaps you misjudge the cold. Have you ever tasted the wind of the North? It is a fearsome thing.”
She stood up, and it was all Zaman could do not to stare. He had thought her beautiful. She was not. She was the first sigh of summer felt upon a cheek on a cool spring evening. She was compelling. It was a struggle not to look at her. His eyes were drawn of their own accord to those soft curves, those long legs, those -. For the love of the Dead God, he thought desperately. What manner of magic is this that would make me mad with desire? Involuntarily, he ran a hand trough unkempt hair and stood straighter, annoyed as he realized what he was doing. “You will freeze to death in short order, my lady. I curse this misfortune that I have nothing to give you to keep you warm.”
“All you must do is take me to the Tower of Mithran’Sul. Take me there, and all will be well. From there, I will be able to return to my home. Do not worry about these other trivial matters.”
“TheTower of Muthran’Sul.” She ran fingers through her golden tresses, straightening hair that could not be imperfect even if unkempt. “Surely you have heard of it? The story of the Ayn Isengara and her two loves, Danyal and her city of Mithran’dzur?”
“Alas, I cannot say that I have.”
Her face grew unhappy, and Zaman damned his tutors for not doing a better job educating him. “I am wroth with you, Zaman. Attend my words. No, we can wait until this story is told. It will take but a moment or three.
“During the Age of Ruin, there was a city that stood as a bulwark against the hunger and famine and that had ravaged a once beautiful land. On the shore of this world, there stood a city that glittered like a ruby in a bowl of stone beads. Tens of thousands lived there and worked there and loved there. Even as the rest of the world agonized through the self-inflicted poison of the Dead God’s contamination, merchants from around the world came to trade their wares in Mithran’dzur’s streets. The ports bustled with traders from places lost to the affliction of jahaliya, the slow and toxic seepage of the Dead God’s blood into the world of men. Those goods were as wondrous as the races that brought them. Traë and Jaidu and Ak’rul were common; in those days, the Inush’raa were young and unchanged and had only begun to fear to walk among you. Wealth abounded, and although not every man went to sleep with coin in his pocket, no woman or child ever wanted of food. This would be astonishing in the best of circumstances; in the Age of Ruin, it was nothing short of miraculous.
“The king of the land made his home there, with his two wives and two children. His daughter came from his first wife, and his son from his second. And although their mothers did not care for each other, the two half siblings loved each other very much. The boy would grow up to be the warrior Danyal of the Tears, and was unmatched in bravery and in skill at arms. It was said that ten armed men could not overcome him, as long as he had his sister Isengara at his side and his sword Tranquility unsheathed.
“Isengara, his elder sister, would be the justice that his soft heart would deny. Danyal was always loath to kill, and even more so if not in the thick of battle. His heart was soft, and he was ever ready to speak before unsheathing his sword. He always looked to Isengara before unsheathing his sword, for once it was drawn, he would not stop until his enemies were no more. Not because of some terrible rage or a bloodlust that would take him; rather, he knew that if he stopped, his heart would break and he would not be able to continue. Thus it was Isengara’s will that drove his sword. Danyal was the sword, but she was the arm that wielded him. For her he would draw it, and for her he would not stop until he was dead or his opponents vanquished. Such was their love and trust for each other.
“But darkness ruled the lands beyond Mithran’dzur, and soon that darkness found a way into that fair city. Centuries ago, the scholars in Mithran’dzur had seen jahaliya slowly seep into the hearts and minds of men. At the first, people had found those isolated acts of madness and cruelty to be the ravenous hearts of evil men and women. When the Dead God’s blood started to flow from one world to the next, the madness that ensued was slow in the making. In those affected, patience was in short supply. Kindness gave way to irritation. A man was less likely to walk away than to draw a sword. It took time, measured in years and decades, to for jahaliya to turn into what we remember it to be today; men and women driven mad with rage and loathing for each other; not mad enough to kill each other on sight, but mad enough to kill when a back was turned. At least, that is how it was in the beginning.
“Had the poison simply consumed a man, the Age of Ruin would not have seen the devastation visited upon it that had happened. The infected were passable as men and women of their communities; if there was a change in temperament, what man or women did not have the right to be bitter at a cheating spouse or an ill child or even a bad day? Their actions were excused by those that would stay silent in the face of injustice. It did not take long for that injustice to turn from a cold word and a sullen heart into indifference to the plight of their fellow man. Husbands eschewed their wives for drink and dice. Laws were passed to enrich the wealthy and abuse the poor. Schools and hospitals passed into disrepair and disuse.
“As the blood of the Dead God filled those poor souls, their eyes turned black as midnight and their skin was ashen and dry and hot to the touch. Those that looked infected were reviled and cast out, although those poor fools were the ones that were nearest the Dead God; most of the infected walked the world in the dark streets of silent abandon, unknown to the world but themselves of the wretchedness that had crept into their hearts and now called in home.
“Aeyn and physickers were mad for want of a cause and a cure. Villages were depopulated by the infected. Hordes of black-eyes madmen armed roamed the countryside, fighting each other as much as those villages that they overran. Those that did not die by their hand were sometimes enslaved as amusement by their captors. The less than fortunate were saved as meat for the cookpot. However, once mages had found the source of the plague – the blood of the Dead God - they the lot of them knew that redemption would be wanting. What hope could a younger race have against the appetence of a God’s blood? Physickers traded their absinthe for nightshade and prayed to every god in the pantheon that some Aeyn would find a way to turn the tide of infection. To no avail.
“Danyal’s heart, however, was inviolate. For the infected he had tears, although he drew his sword when those plagued masses threw themselves against the walls of Mithran’dzur. He wept as his sword touched their desiccated flesh and flayed it, finding only dried blood and black bile within. Their disordered armies and haphazard tactics were no match for the relentless will of Mithran’dzur’s military force. They fell upon Mithran’dzur and sanctified it with their blood.
“But the blood of the Dead God was beyond the ken of mortal men, infected or otherwise. Traders from the sea were restricted to their vessels, and only the city’s longshoremen could unload their wares into the city. In mere months, trade was crippled. But merchants came, for some profit was better than no profit at all. Thousands of refugees came to their walls, and despite their tears and Danyal’s abject sorrow, Isengara would not be moved. The gates to the city remained closed, and soldiers were ordered to kill anyone who sought ingress. The bodies of the dead were dragged to the walls of the city; the macabre display was known as Isendara’s Shame. Every few weeks, burning pitch was poured over the walls to burn the bodies of the dead, and the black smoke and noxious fumes reminded the people of the city of their good luck that they were inside the walls rather than out there with the mad and the dead. And if those days came more often than not, so be it. Their children were safe; their homes did not burn.
“Isengara feared. She feared for her self, but more so for her city. Her people. The children that played in the streets, and the mothers that watched them. Her responsibility weighed upon her heavily. She could not fall ill to the plague, nor could she allow Danyal to do so. She forbade him from leaving the city, demanding that he lead from the walls, as befits a leader too valuable to lose. She started a citizen’s watch, to identify the infected before they poisoned those around them with their words and deeds. She purged the Royal Council of naysayers and pessimists that would thwart her plans for saving the city from the ravages of the Dead God. She loosed Sihr upon the streets to bind her people to their city, that they would know when one left, or if a man who claimed to be if Mithran’dzur spoke a lie.
“Closest of her new advisors was Faraa of the Nine Hearts, the last survivor of a group of mages that had sought to overcome the ravages of the plague. He was an Aeyn of unrivalled prowess. His control of Sihr was so great it is said that he could bend water and make solid iron flow. He begged Isengara to open the doors of Mithran’dzur, to no avail. He begged Isengara to release Danyal into the fields beyond Mithran’dzur to do battle against the infected, to no avail. He begged Isengara to allow sick women and children into Mithran’dzur, if even in a quarantined corner, that they could be studied and cured, to no avail.
“In council, Faraa quailed at each rebuff, but in his heart he rejoiced. Though he hid it well, Faraa was infected with the blood of the Dead God, and he was determined to see Mithran’dzur fall, and Isengara with it. He sought to bring the Dead God in the flesh to the lands of men, and in Mithran’dzur, he found the perfect place to build his portal. His words and advice were no more than a ruse to inflame to blood of the council and stiffen the resolve of Isengara. As she alienated more and more of her confidantes and advisors, his stature in her inner circle grew. Soon, he was the only one other than Danyal who would listen to her words without contempt.
“In short order, he told her that Mithran’dzur was doomed, and that the only hope the city and its citizens had was to flee the world of men. To that end, he suggested that a massive tower be built that encompassed the castle. It would span the heavens and dig deep into the earth. It would be tall enough to hold the city itself; it would start and end at the castle walls. All they had to do was dig. And build the walls.
“The remaining nobles on her council rebelled. Are we cowards and slavers, one asked, that we would turn our backs on this world and its people? Another demanded to know what price do you put on the lives of those that live on the outskirts of our walls? Would you take even hope from them, that they are left with naught but death and ashes and now this tower that you would have us all retreat to? Have you no shame? That man she had flogged before she drummed him out of the council. She would not be deterred. A tower they would have, and she and Danyal and all of her people would be safe evermore.
“In the next three years, the tower was built. Slowly, painfully, with the blood and sweat of those both inside and outside the city, it grew from the modest foundations of the walls beneath it. Imbued with fell Earth magic, it reached into the sky for thousands of feet, and as much so underneath the earth. Traders brought stone and mortar from the far ends of the earth to fill the need of Mithran’dzur’s Tower. In a year, the sun above could only be seen for the few moments that it passed directly overhead. In three years, everything beyond the walls was but a memory to Isengara, and the Tower was opened only once or twice a year to send emissaries to see the state of the kingdom. The dying world outside grew distant to Isengara, and the traders faded away and the ships no longer came into port. Madness and melancholy ravaged the world outside the walls.
“Mithran’dzur now lived in a world alone. Isengara’s council was no more; it was only her and Faraa. Danyal had retreated to his home outside the palace and spent his time at his school for arms. She had not seen her brother in a year, but her mind was only for the Tower that she built and the people that she would save. Faraa ran her kingdom, and his dark heart knew no mercy for those that threatened his power. His men, slowly and cunningly poisoned by their association with him, roamed the city streets, spreading chaos and pain and the Dead God’s deliverance to the citizens of Mithran’dzur. In those three short years, the entire city was infected with jahaliya.
“It was only in the final days that Faraa’s true duplicity was found out. From the beginning, he had been infusing the Tower with dark weavings of Earth and Spirit, tying the bricks together. However, those bricks were also touched by the power of an Elder God – the Dead God’s blood. It was a consecration unheard of on the mortal plane, and done by design thanks to the artifices of Faraa, the one that wished to bring the Dead God in the flesh to the mortal realm and feed from him on his elder magic, an act forbidden to the races of Man. But Faraa was mad with lust; for power, for magic, and for blood. Untold thousands died at his hands and the hands of his men, and their blood was the mortar that held the weaves of Pathos and Earth in place.
“When Isengara finally understood what it was that Faraa wanted, she was ashamed. Faraa locked her in her rooms with his Sihr and forbade her from coming out. He planned to cast a spell of enormous strength to summon the Dead God in the flesh. Isengara, not knowing what to do and helpless before the Aeyn who had broken her rule, cried out for Danyal. She wept for him and begged him to come and set her free, before all was lost. She waited and waited, and when he did not come, she cast her own spell.
“But Danyal had heard her voice and had picked up his sword. A hundred of his young soldiers fell behind him. They left Danyal’s training grounds for the first time in years, and were shocked by what they say. The city lay in ruins. Throngs of infected with jahaliya ran in the streets, tearing and burning and desecrating anything they saw. Every few moments one of those throngs would rush Danyal and his band of brothers, and Danyal would lay waste to the murderers and rapists that had once been their families and friends. Danyal carved his way to the castle, his sword arm heavy and wet with the blood he spilled that day. Hour after hour he fought through the broken and bleeding streets to the castle of his youth.
“At the end, only ten of his men and Danyal made it to her rooms. They found her swinging from a rafter, murdered by her own hand. Danyal cut her down, her face black and swollen from strangulation and shame. She had not died well. The rope had cut deeply into her neck, and torn fingernails testified to the agony she suffered as she struggled to die.
“Faraa found them in the castle. When he saw Danyal he laughed and called him a coward. Danyal could have saved them all, had he gone to his sister and talked to her, for he was the only one that could have shown her the truth. How much blood did Danyal have on his hands?
“Danyal did not weep. His tears had been exhausted for the people of the city, whose deliberate accretion into the abyss of madness had been as slow as it had been implacable. All Danyal had left was his guilt and his sword, Tranquility. With the first he burned away all sense of purpose in his life. With the second, he took it in his hand and thrust it through the face of the wicked mage. Tranquility drove through the mage’s eye and through his head with the ease of a hot knife parting flesh, but to Danyal’s dismay, this did not end the foul mage. Faraa reached up and grasped the hilt of Tranquility even as it pieced his head and slowly pulled it out.
“The air around them thickened and hazed with power. Faraa was beyond the pretenses of men; Sihr and Pathos and Elder magic had warped him into something greater than man, and something less than man as well. Danyal felt an impending power advance into their city, into their castle, into their minds and bodies. It was great and terrible and powerful beyond belief, with only one thought in its mind; hunger. It hungered for the flesh of men; for their minds, for their fear, for their terror and their blood. Danyal knew that should this mad god find its way into this world, there would be no end to the devastation he would wreak. With a cry of fear, he threw himself at Faraa, and his men followed suit. But where a sword could not stop him, ten swords would do no more. The Dead God came. He came, and naught could stop him from coming. Mithran’dzur’s Tower began to rotate and spin, the tall walls uprooting themselves from the earth and blackening in the presence of the Dead God. The walls tightened and closed in on the castle.
“But Isengara’s final vengeance would have its due. Isengara was no mean Ayn, and the power she wrought was dreadful to behold, more so that she had taveez to counterbalance the elements she used. Isengara crafted a spell of enormous strength that was fueled with both fear for her people and her hate for herself. A white fog erupted in the streets, thick and pallid, and wound its way through the city streets. It was Isengara’s Curse come to life; any man or woman pure of heart could find its way through the fog without fear, but woe unto that man that thought of himself before others, or loved not, or cared more for his own wealth more than the wealth of his community. The survivors of Faraa’s predations, all jahaliya-touched, found their destinies in that white cloud; destinies of pain, of ice, of death.
“Within the castle, a different battle raged. The Dead God sought dominion, but without the blood he craved, he could not appear in the flesh. Isengara’s curse had murdered the city, but had saved the world; the Dead God needed blood to feed, and no blood remained in that city outside of that room. The Dead God was trapped between one world and the next. Danyal sent his men from that room to guard the city, that no man or woman would ever set foot inside and dare free the Dead God from the trap. Of those ten boys, not a one was touched by Isengara’s Curse; Danyal had trained them well in the ways of both war and in honor.
“The city outside was battered by Isengara’s vengeance, but what was meant to be destroyed was not. Her spell could not fell the Tower; there was too much mass within that tower to break, and within those walls there came an Elder God. Instead, the tower and the surrounding earth was seized by an enraged god and thrown west. Far to the west, deep into the Aryth Sea. There it was thrown, and there it landed and buried itself into the sea. But the tower was tall enough and strong enough that a thousand spans of tower still stood up above the water line, and the sliver of the city that held to it became an island.
“Danyal and Faraa stayed in that place, the highest room of the tower; one who sought to free the Dead God, and the other who sought to stop him. The Dead God holds them there still, or so it is said. But that path is there, from this world into the next. And there it is that I must travel. It is there that I will find my way home.” She looked up at him, her story complete.
He was quiet for a moment. Stories of Gods, of Elder Magic, of thousands of years passed. The woman could weave quite a tale. A thought occurred to him. “Why it is called Mithran’Sul? The name of the city was Mithran’dzur.”
“You do not speak the First Tongue? Regrettably, there is no scholarship in this world. Mithran’dzur means ‘City of Hope.’ Mithran’Sul is ‘City of Death.’ Or more exactly, ‘City Where Hope is Dead.’”
Of course. No surprise there. “So let us be clear. You wish for me to escort you through a hostile terrain west to the sea, where we are to presumably board a boat and go to a tower who no one has seen in some few thousand years. Once inside, we must make out way past the Dead God and to your house. Is this all?”
“Save for a few odds and ends, I think it sounds right. I must say, your ability to simplify a situation is remarkable.” She smiled, and Zaman could swear that the ice shone more brightly where the sun kissed it.
He stepped closer to her. “My lady, you are mad. No, not mad, for a madman would still seek that which is unattainable. There is at least a thing that cannot be attained. What you seek I cannot say. There are no words for it. Alas, you are insane. I hope you do not hold this opinion against me. I will still do my best to protect you.”
She smiled at him. “Help me up, Captain Zaman.” She stretched out her hand, and holding it gave him a momentary thrill. He pulled her up, resisting the urge to pull her towards him. “Thank you. You needn’t worry of my madness or sanity. All you must do is what I ask, and all will be well. Fail, and this world will find that there are worse things in this world than the Dead God.” She brushed snow from her dress. “Succeed, and you will finally loose that demon within you.”
“You may not be aware that the Dead God is a deity that is worshipped by more than a few persons in this land, my lady.”
“What!” She was shocked. “You jest!”
He sighed. An argument for another time, he decided. “We have spent enough time here, my lady. It is time to make our way to wherever it is we must go. Whether we go to Mithran’Sul or Mahir’Saratis does not matter much, as we must head south in either case. We are in the North; to our west is the sea, but there are no ports of note here. There are no cities that would give us succor. In fact, the villages and towns we will come across would sooner beat and rob us of the clothes on our backs than they would give us shelter and food. This is a wild land, my lady, and the blood of the people who live here is as hot as this land is cold. In the North, you must survive. The only fealty there is in the North is within a clan, so we needs must be careful. As it is still early in the day and the skies are clear, I think we must move now. It is cold and the wind is strong, but this as good as it can get here in the North.”
She looked at him, pursing her lips. “It is unfortunate that I am… constrained in the manner that I am. The flesh is a weak and piteous attire. But I am still immune to the trepidations of cold and hunger, at least. That is something. Although I wish it that I could safeguard you.” She squeezed his hand. “But I thank you for your words. You are a kind man. There is a goodness in you that you refuse to see, but I can.”
He pulled away from her more roughly than he intended. “Truly, you are a seer among seers,” he said caustically, but his voice quavered and his heart hammered in his chest. He was dismayed that she could read him so easily. “But let us leave my poor heart alone, and find our way out of this hole and into the world of men once again.”
She snorted. “And you think me mad. So be it.” She picked up her shawl and shook from it the ice and snow that had crusted around it. “Not much, but every little bit will help,” she said, and threw it around his shoulders.
“Are you mad?” Zaman took the shawl off and draped it on her shoulders. “I am trained to manage this cold and much more besides. You will need the shawl more than I will.”
“In a hundred thousand years, the folly of men has not changed.” He could hear the amusement in her voice.
“Nor will it, when it comes to a woman,” he replied dryly.
“All the more reason to take back this shawl.”
“Do you suggest that you are a man?” he asked incredulously. Even she could not be that mad.
“Of course not, you idiot. Do I look like a man?” She muttered something under her breath, but all Zaman caught was “fool man” a couple of times. She made her way to the exit and he followed after her to help her out. Quick as a cat, she clambered up the slight incline and made her way out of the hole. Grimacing, Zaman followed, slipping twice on the icy snow and scraping a hand. He scrambled out of cave on his hands and knees, only to find her smirking at him.
Scowling, he stood up and brushed his bleeding hand against his pants. The wind blew hard against them, wicking away their warmth as a towel might wick away sweat. “Let’s be off.” The cold would stop the bleeding soon enough.
She held his hand in her own, her soft, still-warm fingers nestling within his own. Oddly, he found that her touch eased the pain in his hand. The cold still bit him, but less intensely. Damn that woman and what she was doing to his head. “I follow your lead!” she told him with a smile that made him want to slap her. Or maybe kiss her. He wasn’t sure.