The Fallen Goddess: Book One

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Chapter 6

Chapter the Sixth

I bleed.

The thought was incoherent, but helped him keep a tenuous grasp to sanity. If you could call this sane; he was not sure. Parts of him that were broken had been healed and broken once more. Blood was everywhere, pooled and thickened into a sticky and gelatinous mess.

For the first time, they left the lights on after they had left. That terrorized him more than anything else. At first he had been overjoyed – it was something different from the previous days and weeks. Maybe something was going to happen. Maybe something was going to change. Maybe he could expect something other than the relentless pain and questioning that he had experienced every day since the pain began.

But maybe not.

He had fixated on the unnatural, Elder-magic light for hours now. There was no glow bulb or other source that the light emanated from; the light just existed and continued to exist. There were no shadows in the room, or at least none that he could see. Light was coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once. As usual, it made him itch. Not itch, exactly, but it disturbed his skin, like there was a beetle crawling over him and he could not shake it off, no matter how much he twitched. The longer the light burned, the worse the feeling became. He had considered that this was perhaps another tactic to break him, but had discarded that notion some time back; the itch was not great enough to do anything other than inconvenience him, and he was sure that his captors had the ability to do much worse to him if they wanted to. Such a subtle display of the rage than what they usually visited upon him was uncharacteristic.

He thought that he might be awake, but was not sure. It was becoming harder and harder to tell what was a dream and what was real. Waking moments were episodes of agony, either under the knife or recovering from their attentions. His sleep was the sleep of the damned; snatched in fragments, drenched in terror, and ending in a miasma of uncertainty and fear. Others could breathe a sigh of relief when waking from a nightmare that it was merely the construction of a distressed mind; his nightmares paled in comparison to what his waking world was. His terror did not flee when he woke; it flourished.

The last session had been extreme, even by Traë standards. Elder magic had been used again; this time, they filled his guts with water until he felt like he would burst. Then came the knife, opening him up and watching fluid flow like a torrent from his body. Zayne could not imagine that a human body could experience such pain and still live. The fact that his heart still beat suggested a flaw in the design of the human body. At some point, the body had to realize that the mind could take no more. Alas, respite did not supersede the need to live, the need to be. He had nearly died a number of times that day, he was sure. Perhaps it had been Elder magic that had sustained him; he had felt it knitting various organs back together during the session with his tormentors. The Traë were nothing if not fastidious. Why wait for a bone to heal or a wound to close? All it took was an incantation of Elder Magic and bones would fuse and flesh would seal and they could begin anew.

Some time ago, after the Traë had left – he could not be sure when – he had discovered that the bonds that held him to his bed were loose. Loose enough for him to slip is broken ankles and wrists from, with some effort. At first he thought that his slow breakage of his wrists that he had engineered for the past few weeks was finally successful, but under this new Elder Magic wrought light he saw that this was not the case. It was clear that the bolts that held the manacles in place had been loosened. If he turned his head and strained towards his wrist, he could see the gleaming tell-tale marks of where metal had once rubbed against metal in order to loosen his bods. His ankles felt similarly slack; although he could not wiggle them loose the way he could his wrists, he was sure that if he was able to get his wrists loose, he would likewise be able to free his ankles.

Was someone trying to help him escape?

The thought was tantalizing, so much so that he considered that it might be the artifice of a mind broken by misery and torture. But the silvery scratches on the manacles that held him gave proof to what he feared to be a lie. Someone had loosened these cuffs. To what end, Zayne could not be sure.

He had obsessed over who it could be, and why it had been done. Maybe one of the mages from the Council of Nine? No, impossible. They had no idea that he had disobeyed them and made his way West. And even if they did, not a one of them, even linked together, could reach across the sea to free him. He was alone. But that did not bother him so much. He was used to being alone. He had been alone for most of his life, and did not regret the decisions that made him who he was.

Arriving in this place had hinged on an article of faith: the message in the vase. The words of Misrah echoed in his mind. Lost lore from generations and wars past. The thought was exhilarating. So much had been lost in the Thousand Years War, and the Age of Decline that had followed it. In the intervening centuries, history faded in the minds and hearts of men, and what was carved in bedrock faded under wind and rain. Memories weathered as stone did under the elements, until one was as unrecognizable as the other. In time, all that remained was a whisper of what once was: hints and echoes of great kingdoms and feats of bravery and magics unknown.

And then there was the Fallen Goddess that Misrah had mentioned. She was not part of the pantheon of Younger Gods that mages gave homage to; that was certain. A’ag, Younger God of Fire, was the one Zayne was most closely aligned with, but he also had a kinship to Tara, Younger Goddess of Earth, given that it was his second affinity. Fortunately, the Younger Gods were not too specific in their demands from the mages who used their essences to wield Sihr. They had no demands other than a promise of fealty, memorialized almost unconsciously in each pooling of Sihr that an Aeyn committed to. When Zayne first started his training, it had felt odd as he gathered his will and asked the A’ag for His gift of Fire. Your every act of magic is also an act of worship, he was told. Younger mages were always required to commit to mental exercises that calmed the blood and soothed the soul before using Sihr; ask with passion and you could be given more than you could manage, which was never a good thing. Zayne was never witness to a fatality during training, but many in his class graduated with small defects resulting from bad’h; fingernails turned to dust, water-warts under the skin, and in one unfortunate case, excess abdominal gas. You never knew what form bad’h would take, but it was never pretty. And it was always permanent.

Ararat, the senior Fire Aeyn in the Circle of Nine, had given him advice when he first came into the Council of Nine know what it is you seek. It made no sense to Zayne. He thought that Ararat was inclined to mysticism for reasons other than self-reflection. Why seek what you already know? And how to already know what you seek? Makes no sense, he had thought sourly at the time.

Know what it is you seek.

The Circle had been aware of the Traë. They knew that the Traë were more than the stories that mothers told wayward children to frighten them into good behavior. They knew that the stories of fairytales and children’s books were more than the fictions they were made out to be. They had known, and they had known for some time. A long time.

“They are not what you think them to be,” Ararat told him, his voice trembling with age. Zayne had seen him pool Sihr only for the most mundane of acts; lighting a fire, illuminating a room, moving some piece of furniture out of the way. It was hard to imagine that this frail, wizened old man who was more wrinkles than skin was feared as one of the most powerful Fire Aeyn to have ever lived. “Hmmm. What is it that I always tell you?”

“Know what it is you seek.” Words he repeated often enough to the mage. For the thousandth time, he wondered what happened to the previous Ninth of the Nine. Perhaps he had run away in disgust.

“Yes, and do you ever listen? Bah, how your mother ever tolerated you I will never know. A willful and obstinate child you are. You know the words but do not understand them.”

“Aeyn Ararat, what you know I have studied as well. We the both of us know what are the Traë from the lore we have studied. How is it that you are right and I am wrong?” Zayne dodged a feeble attempt to cuff him on the back of the head. “Maybe they are not the monsters you think them to be. Maybe their culture is something we do not understand. Maybe their rituals mean something other than what we take them to be. Maybe the centuries and millennia have cooled their hot blood. How can you know without exchanging words with them? Imagine the lore they must have -.”

“Fool boy! Always with the lore that is a constant hunger in your belly. And why do you persist in thinking this world exists in rights and wrongs?”

Zayne’s blood rose but he kept himself in check. The old man had taught him much, despite being an intemperate old buzzard. Especially when it came to patience. No use in getting angry at a man was five times his age. And who looked like he was ten. “And what is wrong with the pursuit of knowledge? Is that not why we are together in the Circle? To pursue knowledge?”

The old man’s face softened a bit. “Zayne, my boy, you must understand something. The pursuit of knowledge is never independent of everything around it. There are consequences to everything. You are young, and I know it is hard to swallow such words when your hair is not gray and women are still a distraction. But you must know what it is you seek, lest that what is sought seeks to destroy you.” He sighed, and reached out for Zayne, pulling him closer. Zayne took a breath and could smell the creams and poultices that Ararat used to ease the pain in his joints. He also smelled the slightly burned aroma that began to follow around Fire Aeyn after decades of wielding Fire. “You are a good boy, even if you are a total fool. Knowledge is dangerous. The magic of the Traë is Elder Magic. It is raw. Volatile. Unbalanced. It eats at the mage that wields it, and ultimately consumes him. The end of the path for Elder Magic is not death. There is no final embrace of the Keeper. It is Fitna.” He stroked Zayne’s hair as he spoke, a curious and fatherly kindness Zayne had never experienced before. “We have no proof against the predations of Elder Magic. It will overwhelm us. And what you think to be a caress,“ Ararat’s fingers tightened painfully in Zayne’s hair, eliciting a cry of protest, “can just as easily be designed to cut.”

His erstwhile foe Sarah was even less forgiving. “You waste too much time mooning over what might be instead of what is,” she told him as he complained to her and a few other friends over a bottle of wine. They were in the kitchens of the castle that the Circle inhabited, buried deep in the forests of the South. Any further south and one would come across a range of mountains too high and fierce to be crossed. “You’ve barely mastered shielding your weaves. You are the strongest of us all, and yet any one of us could tie you up in knots on a whim.” She exaggerated; he had spent interminable hours in the last year ensuring that his loss to her would not be repeated. He had tested her mettle more than once in the intervening months, and although she still bested him two out of three times, the distance between their abilities continued to shrink. “I heard that even Dresdre nearly killed you.” Dresdre was Fifth of the Nine, the junior Earth Aeyn of the group.

“What!” Zayne nearly coughed up the mulled wine he was drinking. Dresdre was an Aeyn only by the furthest stretch of the imagination, but strength in Sihr did not always count for much in the Circle. It was true that the majority of the Circle were mages of some strength, but in Dresdre’s case it was his intellectual ability and his hunger for knowledge. He was like a sponge that absorbed everything that he heard or read or experienced. Aeyn Khareeji, the Fourth of Nine and the senior Earth mage on the Circle, had reputedly picked him some twenty years ago after the boy was able to identify a soil specimen found on the bottom of a shoe that was from a thousand leagues away. Dresdre had never visited the site, but was able to identify it based upon his knowledge of soils and inferences based upon the person the shoe belonged to. Although Dresdre would have a difficult time setting something on fire, he could explain the interrelationship between the flows required in painstaking detail.

“I don’t see why you are so surprised,” the slightly pudgy mage complained at Zayne’s reaction to Sarah’s commentary. He took down his spectacles and cleaned them absently with his shirt, a sure sign he was getting excited about a topic. “It could happen. In any case, Aeyn Ararat is correct. The corpus of knowledge we have assembled in the last few hundred years, since we first learned of the Traë, can only be described as dire.” He sipped at his wine delicately. “They are the children of Khatam, the Elder God. His is not a domain of mercy, Zayne. It is blood and sacrifice.”

“So their magic is brutal,” Zayne responded. “You would color an entire race with that one brush.”

“It’s not just brutal. They do not ask permission to use magic; they trade for it, and the currency is pieces of their soul. That’s evil.”

“Just a word,” Zayne muttered. “It means nothing.”

“Perhaps,” the bespeckled mage responded. “And perhaps not. Even without their worship of Khatam, they are a dangerous and capricious race. Did you read that book I gave you? In the Shadow of Elder Gods? Nine Hells, Zayne! Do you even remember how to read? So many of the fables and myths we have grown up with stem from their historics. There are whispers that they bred the Jaidu from both men and beast, bound together with Elder Magic. I have heard it that they seek dominion over all in the name of Khatam, and that they hold a special hatred for the Younger Gods, whom they would see subdued.”

“Yes, yes,” Zayne interjected. “I’m sure they are as terrible as the monsters that hide in the closet. Your stories make me wonder if the Traë have similar beliefs about humans.” He dropped his voice and gave it a gravelly aspect, trying to imitate what he thought a monster might sound like. “Beware the humans, baby Traë,” he intoned. “They are commanded to drink only the blood of virgins and eat their own dead!”

“Quiet, you ass,” Sarah said sternly. “Dresdre has forgotten more in his last forty years than you have learned in your first twenty.” She finished her glass and reached for the bottle. “What kind of wine is that? I had no idea that horse piss could go bad. Aymon is planning something, I think.” Aymon was the Second of Nine, and the senior mage of Air at the Circle and Sarah’s mentor. “He is testier than usual in these last few months. I never see him without a scowl anymore. And lately he has been taken by Subah on moonlit strolls that take half the night to complete. Unless he has taken a fancy to her in these last few months, something odd seems afoot.”

All three of the chuckled at the thought. Aymon, more than any of them, was merciless in his pursuit of knowledge. The idea that a woman could distract him from his relentless goal to understand everything there was to know about Air was unthinkable. Even Subah, the tall, svelte senior mage of Water, could not possibly compete with his passion for his element. Tall and handsome, he was likely as not to turn a woman’s gaze, but his interests were more academic than of the flesh. At least, that is how it seemed. “And where is Nisoor tonight?” Zayne asked with an evil grin.

“Where he always is,” Sarah responded with a laugh. “In her chambers, suffering her every whim!” Nisoor’s unfortunate love interest was a constant source of amusement for all of them. Subah, with full knowledge of his interest, abused his favor with abandon. Nisoor was often found pressing her clothes and running odds and ends for her.

“You tease him too much,” Dresdre admonished the two of them. “He is lovelorn.”

“He is a pup,” Sarah declared. “Act a man and perhaps she would not treat him the way that she does. It is nothing short of pathetic.”

Zayne could only agree. “Nevertheless, something is afoot. Ararat has managed to drag himself from his bed at night on occasion as well to walk in the gardens.” It was unusual for Ararat to do so, given his age and weakness of limb. “I do not see what these midnight trysts accomplish. It is just as easy to meet in the day as it is the night. Why the nocturnal inclinations?”

“Wakt,” Dresdre said.

Zayne and Sarah looked at him. “What was that?” Zayne asked.

Dresdre fidgeted, looking defensive. “I’m not saying that’s what it is,” raising his hands as if to ward off their objections. “I’m just saying that it could be a possibility.”

“What could be a possibility?” Zayne asked again. “What is waqt? What in nine hells are you talking about?”

“Waqt,” he repeated slowly, almost as if lecturing them. “It’s a use of Sihr that is temporally dependent,” Dresdre replied. Two blank faces compelled him to elaborate. “A waqt weave. There are certain spells, certain advanced uses of Sihr, that require night. Or sunlight, for that matter. Or even the moment before the sun rises. A successful weave is dependent upon temporal specificity. Otherwise the weave collapses. Perhaps they are working with a waqt weave.”

The three were silent, considering. “What kind of weaves are time specific?” Zayne asked.

“Not many,” Dresdre responded carefully. Clearly they were treading dangerous ground, and Zayne found himself interested. “Very few, in fact, and every one I have ever studied has been exceedingly dangerous. One was an object transmission spell. Or at least that is what it purports to be.” Both Zayne and Sarah grimaced. Transmission spells were one of the ultimate conquests of Sihr practitioners. Every mage dreamed of finding a reliable way of moving objects from one place to another instantly. Intact, in any case. The attempts that had been made usually resulted in changes to the object that could only be construed as unfortunate. “The other one was a daemon summoning.”

The three looked at each other for a moment. “Nine hells!” Zayne finally scoffed. “We can’t seriously think that the senior mages of the Circle of Nine are considering summoning a creation of Fitnah that has not been seen on this side of the world in the last thousand years!” he said. “We have lost our collective minds. Someone pour me another drink.”

***---***

Zayne shook his head, trying to clear the fog of memory. He had been dreaming. No, not dreaming; remembering. Zayne pulled at his chains again, hearing the clinking of the metal as he strained weakly against the bonds. He could slip free, only if he dared. If his dread of now were not greater than his fear of tomorrow.

For the first time in recent memory, he was not thirsty. Some madman had poured water into his mouth before leaving the room, and he had lapped it up greedily. His stomach had cramped and twisted in agony as the water ran through his dry and shrunken body. He had vomited twice, painfully, but he thought he had managed to keep at least half of it down. He had wallowed in the indulgent satisfaction of a quenched thirst for moments without end, before he realized that the end of thirst was only the herald to what would become thirst once again. A slow, agonizing descent into thirst. His wet, moist lips would dry and crack and split. His tongue would swell and thicken, losing sensation and motility. His throat would dry and each hot breath he took would become agony. He would cry but there would not be any tears, only the rheumy, sticky tack of discharge from eyes where tears once flowed. He had tried praying but it seemed that prayers were not answered on this side of the Aryth Sea. Not from his gods, in any case. Perhaps he should pray to Khatam, he thought bitterly. Or even the Fallen Goddess. He had spent enough time trying to find out who she was. Certainly she could repay the favor with the gift of freedom.

Zayne came across the name of the Fallen Goddess in one book and three scrolls in the thousands that he had read and reviewed in the intervening years between finding the vase and his arrival in the West. The book dismissed the Fallen Goddess as a myth concocted by a race of shapeshifters called the Inush’raa. Her ascension in the realm of Elder Gods heralded their salvation. Well, so much the worse for them; from what he understood, that race had died away some few thousand years ago at the hands of both human and Traë. The Inush’raa had been known as deceitful friends and cunning enemies; their reputed ability to assume the manner of any beast made their talents at surveillance and espionage unparalleled.

One of the scrolls that Zayne came across referred to her has the disgraced consort of the Keeper of Souls, spurned when he learned of her hunger for Fitna, the magic of Chaos that the Keeper was privy to. He banished the goddess from his side, but she would have her revenge; she took from the Keeper his right eye as she left. Another scroll made her out to be a goylem constructed by the two other Elder Gods, Khatam and the Dead God, created to satisfy their baser needs. When they tired of her, they cast her aside. But using her the way that they did imparted into her some of their essence, making her divine and giving her the ability to choose her own destiny.

The third scroll came from the personal library of Aeyn Khareeji, the irascible senior Earth mage that was as unpredictable as he was irritable. Although well into his eighth decade, Khareeji looked much younger. Gossip among the junior members of the Circle proposed a weave of Earth and Spirit, enhanced by elemental Earth magic that only a mage of his caliber and learning was privy to. Although Aymon was widely regarded as the most powerful mage on the council, Zayne privately thought that Khareeji was by far more learned. Khareeji’s thirst for information exceeded his talent with Earth and his abilities as a mage; he wanted to know everything.

“What is your weapon of choice?” he had asked Zayne on the day he had handed him the scroll.

“Fire,” Zayne had answered promptly. “For my skill with it, of course.” He ignited the air around his hand for a moment, causing a flare. The older mage chuckled at his showmanship.

“Such facility has not been seen on the Circle in generations,” Khareeji agreed. “Such skill is uncommon. You will certainly be a fearsome Fire wielder as you mature into your skill.”

There was silence for a moment, and Zayne spoke up. “Aeyn Khareeji, I feel as though there is something that I have missed in my answer to you.”

“And what would that be?”

“I’m not sure,” he admitted.

“Then why do you think that you missed something?” he grumped.

“Alas, Aeyn Khareeji, ever is it thus with you. It is rare that the first answer ever satisfies.”

“There is no call to complain when you speak without thinking,” he replied sourly. “Have you ever heard Dresdre answer without thinking? No. Because he is not the fool that you are.”

Which is why he never leaves the library, Zayne thought, but kept that to himself. “Some would see such shameless self promotion as decisiveness, Aeyn Khareeji,” he replied smoothly, certain that his confidence would serve only to annoy the old mage. “But we all have our flaws.”

His rejoinder earned him a cuff to the back of the head. “Your mouth moves without consulting your brain,” Khareeji told him. “A failing in one of the mages of the Circle of Nine.” He coughed a deep, resonant cough that belied his age. “But no matter. You are a fool, but a young fool. Age will temper your conceit. In the meanwhile, there is always me.” He hacked again, this time coughing up phlegm. He turned his head and spat to one side, much to Zayne’s disgust. “Your countenance is even more free than your tongue,” he commented, even as Zayne quickly blanked his face. “A lesser man might be offended, but I am beyond such things. Even so….” The mage smacked Zayne on the back of the head again. “Learn to control your expressions. You are an open book.”

“My apologies, Aeyn Khareeji,” he said formally, stung.

“No matter. So your weapon of choice is Fire, eh? Unsurprising, although I am disappointed. Your weapon will work nine times out of ten for you. With your skill, maybe ninety nine times out of a hundred. And yet it is that one time out of a hundred that you must consider. The first ninety nine may not kill you, but that one out of a hundred might. And who knows when that one may come? Think again, young fool, and tell me what your weapon of choice will be.” The old mage waited expectantly.

The silence stretched, and stretched some more. Zayne knew better than to guess; better to stay silent than to be known for a fool.

“What more do you know of the Fallen Goddess?” the older mage asked suddenly.

Zayne was surprised at the change of topic, but Aeyn Khareeji never did anything without a reason. Everyone in the Circle knew what he studied; once a month they would all meet formally and discuss their findings in a roundtable exercise. All were expected to participate and ask questions, if for no other reason other than to accentuate what was learned in the minds of others. In the last three roundtables Zayne had discussed the plausibility of what he had learned about the Fallen Goddess. They had debated the merits of the references he had found without any real conclusion; Zayne had failed to find any definitive or corroborated information about the Fallen Goddess. His findings were anemic and lacking substance.

“Not much more than I have already told you,” he replied cautiously. When speaking to anyone in the Circle, caution needed to be in abundant supply. Anything you said would be subject to queries and analysis. Precision was exceedingly important. “One theory suggests that she is the disgraced consort of the Keeper of Souls, banished for her hunger for Fitna, and the other makes her out to be a discarded goylem for the depravations of Khatam and the Dead God. And then there is the supposed prophecy of this dead race, the Inush’raa, that claims she will be their salvation.”

“Bah. This is merely conjecture,” Khareeji remarked. “Prophecy is no more than the useless ramblings of a madman. You’re better off making up your own prophecies than listening to someone else’s. That way, at least you get to decide what happens. What have you done in the intervening months since last you spoke of this?”

“I have visited the libraries of the House of Agner in the city of Liddard,” he replied. “There I found a copy of The Elder Pantheon, but it was merely a replica of our own copy. I travelled north to the Frozen Palace of the Graywolf clan to speak to their Keeper of the Word and was cast out when I refused to let them divide my tongue with their knives. I haunted the ports and harbors of the Keinstaägen and Jhag Rivers, collecting stories from widows and village elders.”

“Ha. Sounds like you spent most of your time whoring and drinking. Did you spend any time in the University Archives?”

Zayne shook his head. “I do not have any affiliation with any of the Towers,” he reminded the mage. “They would not allow me to enter any of the restricted areas of the Great Library. Perhaps you could enable such access?’ Zayne trailed off, looking at Khareeji hopefully.

“Fool, we are the premiere society of knowledge and Sihr in the world,” the mage told him testily. “We have had relationships with the University Towers for the last ten centuries, if not more. I would hazard that there are some of us that know more of the Archives than many of the mages in those towers. No one will bar you once you identify yourself.” The older mage rolled his eyes in mock disgust. “Well, never mind that now. You are headed in the right direction, even if your path is circuitous. Going to the Graywolf clan was a good idea, although I could have told you that they would not talk to you, had you bothered to ask. Their lore is as old as the hills in which they live, and if a clan in the North were to know of the Fallen Goddess, it would be theirs.”

Zayne grinned. What Khareeji would call a good idea, others would regard as a stroke of genius. Tonight he would have bragging rights with Sarah and Dresdre and Nisoor. High praise indeed!

“Nevertheless,” he continued, “Your answer begs the question: why do you seek what you seek? Do you know?”

“For knowledge,” Zayne responded promptly.

“For the sake of knowledge alone?” the older mage inquired. “Only that? You have to pretenses of greater strength, of visiting the West, of the joys of exploration of discovery?”

“Well, perhaps,” Zayne admitted. “But I see nothing wrong in that. Anyways, who is to say that there has to be only one answer to the why of it? There are many.”

“Who said anything about right or wrong? Play not the imbecile with me, Zayne. I am not asking you to find the why of it. I am telling you to understand the consequences of the why. Therein lays the true test of scholarship – a focus on your goal. Tying together what you learn in order to understand what it is you seek.”

“What?”

“It is not the Fallen Goddess you seek. Your fascination revolves around the words of poor Misrah, felled by his own hunger to know for the sake of knowing, or so he thought. I asked him the very questions I ask you now. To what end?”

Zayne was quiet for a moment, considering. He was unsurprised that Khareeji had spoken to Misrah; a mage with Misrah’s reputation and renown would be known to the Circle of Nine, but it was still an effort not to bombard the mage before him with questions. “I hunger for their lore, Aeyn Khareeji. It is a poison that eats at me like nothing else ever has. The Fallen Goddess is a part of that puzzle; I know not where she fits, but I want to understand that I may understand the Traë.” He swallowed, aware that this honesty was something he himself had failed to address. “I need to understand why the Traë seek the Fallen Goddess, that I may better understand who they are and the magic that they wield.”

“Heh. You have patience as well as foresight,” Khareeji said with a smile that looked unnatural on his severe face. “Perhaps you are not the imbecile that I took you for.” The old mage sniffed. “But your passion will be your undoing, child. You must temper desire with reason. What you want to know is less than what you need to know. Do you understand what I mean?” He looked at Zayne pointedly.

“Alas.”

“The Fallen Goddess is of interest to you, is she not?” he asked

“Of course,” Zayne replied. “I have said as much.”

“Then consider how your interest in her would change if you knew that there were those that sought to summon her here.”

Zayne’s eyebrows rose, although his heart skipped a beat at Khareeji’s words. Such a thought was unthinkable. Summon an Elder Goddess? Such thoughts were not mentioned casually, particularly when spoken by the elder mage of Earth in the Circle of Nine. In that case, such words were portentous. “Well,” Zayne finally responded, not sure what else to say. “I would be… astonished,” he said slowly, feeling the fool, “that a mage would have the audacity to think that such an act could be accomplished, much less result in anything other than total chaos. My interest in her is more academic than anything else.”

“You would be astonished no less so than I,” the mage before him replied dryly. “Nevertheless, there are those that would consider it. This is where you fail, Zayne. You do not understand that knowledge, not Fire or some other element or deterrent, is the weapon of choice. That knowledge, that knowing, is more valuable than the Fire you think will be your salvation.”

“But to what end?” Zayne asked apprehensively.

The older mage smiled. “Indeed,” he drawled. “To what end.”

***----***

He had slipped one of his wrists loose, and the pain was indescribable. He had made the mistake of trying to draw his arm to his chest, and the white shock of pain that had erupted from his shoulder caused him to faint. He woke up some time later with his arm at his side, throbbing is unrelenting agony. The bones that the Traë had healed and broken and healed again felt brittle and old; they had mended unevenly, and small pains jolted him as he tried to move about.

His first look at his body after months of incarceration would have reduced him to tears, had he any tears left to weep. His body was a broken thing, black and mottled with contusions and bruises. Scabs and welts crisscrossed his body everywhere he looked; his skin was a series of scars held together by pieces of flesh. Knots of broken skin puckered in places where bone had broken through, carelessly and unevenly healed by Elder Magic. His limbs were no longer straight; they were slightly twisted and skewed from the constant breaking and reforming of bones underneath. A quick run of his tongue across his teeth assured him that his mouth was as wrecked as his body; he could feel the broken, ragged edges of teeth that had been snapped and shattered by his tormentors.

Ayn Subah had warned him. Well, they all had, but Subah had most strident in her denouncement of the Traë. Her dark, sensual eyes had flashed at him when he had asked her about the Elder God Khatam.

“Hate comes in many textures, Zayne, but know this: they are all cut from the same cloth, and that cloth is from the robe that Khatam wears. His is a dominion of misery and dismay, and his children the Traë are willing worshippers of the anguish he calls his love.” Dark, luxurious hair swept across the soft curves of her face as she turned from her books and looked up at him. “No good can come of a people whose breath whispers his name as a benediction.”

“Broad strokes from a small brush, Ayn Subah,” he replied pointedly. “Your own God of Water, Zais, is known to thirst for the blood of sailors. Does that mean you serve evil?”

“You simplify a complex subject,” she responded. “There is more to it than that.”

“As do you,” he retorted.

She ducked her head, acknowledging the point. “Nevertheless.”

Zayne began to pace the room. “How is it reasonable or logical or even fair to ascribe an entire race of beings such labels based upon their faith? Your words echo those of the Dying Army during the Heresies Era, only that you deprecate the Traë rather than mages. Would it be well to slaughter their children as ours were in that black, broken age?”

“You continue to live in the world of principles, even when reality bites you in the neck and drinks deep,” she snapped at him, clearly annoyed. “Do not conflate the subject with the depredations of the Dying Army from some millennia past. Tell me this, Zayne: what does it say that the cost of their magic is parcels of their soul? Mages of Elder Magic must comport themselves in a manner consistent with these values. Each expression of magic robs them of their essential humanity, forgive the expression. At the end, there is no final embrace of the Keeper, however frightening that may seem to us. Their fate is to be subsumed into the murky ether of Fitna.” She pursed her lips, and her eyes looked into his, flinty in their regard. “There is no continuity, there is no next. There is only the here and the now, and that is how they live their lives. Concern stems not for the means, but always of the ends.”

“We cannot expect our own culturally specific set of values to be universal,” he replied slowly, thinking about her words. “Surely you realize that values are as fungible as the societies that create them.”

“Yes, but how those values affect us is what has me worried,” she replied dryly. “I have no interest in proselyting to a people that neither need nor want my words. But the Traë approach our shores once again, Zayne. You can see this as well as I can. As we the all of us can. After seventy generations, we hear the stirrings of discontent from the Elder Gods at the status quo, even as the Younger Gods clamor for more power. Old knowledge returns to us, as you yourself have found. When the Traë arrive, it will not be with garlands of flowers and missives of peace. They will war with us, although I know you do not believe this. They will war with us because it is in their nature to war. Reason is ever subsumed to the trappings of avarice among men, and the Traë will suffer from the same misfortune. Instead of avarice, their calling will be the sword. And they are formidable, even as you have seen. Built twice the height of a man, with better strength, balance, and sight. War with them will not be easy. But of greatest concern is that we know not how to defend against Elder magic. We know not what it can do. What we do know suggests to us that the Khatam has made savages of his worshippers, and that blood, not coin, is their currency of choice. Their magic is without balance, subject to the whim and caprice of Khatam.”

Zayne stopped pacing and looked at her, shaking his head. “We are not all victims of the god we worship or the blood of our fathers,” he disagreed. “If we were, then what would be the point of anything? Creation would be an exercise in futility, designed only to sate the arrogance of gods. But even if it were as you say, then what can we do as humans? How can we resist an army of Traë when we are no more than marionettes? Better to kneel now than suffer the injustices of defeat foreordained by the Elder Gods!”

“We are nothing if not stubborn,” Subah replied with a smile. “And even without, we are not a race to embrace our destines with a smile and a ‘by your leave.’ We struggle, and we ever hope against hope. But do not worry yourself overmuch. We still have a few aces to pull from the deck. There is still the matter of the Fallen Goddess.”

Zayne felt his ears perk up. “How so?” he asked. This was an interesting twist. The Fallen Goddess? How did she play a role in this?

He felt the mage’s eye bore into him. He could see her thinking behind those dark eyes, considering the words she would use and the knowledge she would impart. “Well,” she said finally. “There is something I have to share with you.” She walked gracefully out of the room, speaking to him as she made her way deeper into her apartments. “I have had this scroll for a number of years. I found it in the papers of a tinker that had a penchant for collecting old books and papers even as he mended pots and fixed broken utensils. The older the better, or so he thought. His collection was astonishing. An entire wagon full of books and papers. Haphazard, all of it. The fool man could not even read. His wife had despaired of ever reclaiming the wagon from him. Until they met me, of course.” He heard the noises of books being moved, and a heavy thump. “Damn! Where is that scroll?” he heard her mutter, clearly annoyed. “Most of it was inconsequential; diaries of young girls, bills of lading, storybooks and the like,” she continued, her voice distant as she called out from the adjoining room. “But buried in that mess were a few nuggets of gold; books of historics, tens of thousands of years old, preserved with mundane alchemy as well as Sihr. Scrolls of magery. He even had a few books scribed in a language unknown to me. Ararat has been working on translating some of those. You should ask him about them. He’s had them for years.” More noises of what he assumed were books being moved and papers being shuffled. “Aha! Found it.” More shuffling, and finally he heard footsteps headed in his direction. “The wife made me buy all of it, the whole wagonload. But it was worth it.” She walked back in, the black, the flowing robes she wore rustling around her ankles. “Take a look at this,” she announced. “Prophecy.”

Prophecy? He looked down at the scroll she handed him, unrolling it carefully against the flat surface of a table between them. The paper tingled in his hands, giving him the sensation of lips nibbling at his fingertips. He found it curiously arousing. “I thought prophecy was a sham?”

“Perhaps ‘prophecy’ is too strong a word,” she replied. “We have yet to find any sort of words of predestination that actually auger events. Most prophets and soothsayers are charlatans, it is true. But there are ways to understand the… intent of gods. We can decipher what they plan, and in doing so, predict events here on the mortal plane.”

Zayne looked at the scroll before him. The ink on it was dark red, untarnished by the passage of time. Randomly, he picked a spot and began to read. I held his hand and felt his love even as he betrayed me. I was a fool, but what woman is not when enchanted by the soft words and hungry lips of a man? Though he was not a man; he was a god. But his hunger was like the hunger of the billions of souls he had gathered over the centuries and ages that ached for life. When I looked at him, I could only recall the endless nights we spent together. His need for me, even though he did not speak of it as such. A millennia, for time immemorial, he did not know the bliss of companionship. Each of his peers vied for supremacy, in that plane composed solely as the demesnes of the Elder Gods, and as well our own. Ever was it thus. Even in the beginning, as Fitna cleaved the worlds from the heavens and the gods came forth and existence coalesced into these worlds, their eyes sought out each other that they would know what to beware. Only in my embrace, when he was spent, did he speak his mind, his thoughts. Thus his betrayal was a torrent of pain that ruined my heart.

Eternity is much longer than it sounds to be. How long does it take to tire of a body like mine, crafted by my maker to fulfill his every whim? When is it that the wit he granted me transforms itself into badgering? I know now that it is not measured in millennia or even centuries; even as I searched desperately for a manner to preserve his yearning for me, I felt him slipping away like sand from a child’s fingers. I wept; I railed; I begged, but I could not hold him to me. He spent more and more time with the chaos of Fitna and less with me. The never-ending struggle between him and his brothers was stronger than the bonds that held us together. What remains for a god beyond power? All else is ephemeral, the dream of a dream within a dream, though I was to know this not until my own ascension. But the Keeper knew, and his lust for power was greater than his lust for me.

Zayne looked up from the scroll. “Don’t tell me that these are the words of the Fallen Goodess. If so, I am sorely disappointed.” Although, in truth, he was intrigued. Could these really be her words? It seemed that they could be. But the story – it was as banal as every ballad of lovelorn grief ever sung. “Heartbreak?” he asked contemptuously, an eyebrow raised. “Seems sort of prosaic.”

“Keep reading,” she suggested.

He unfurled the scroll some more, skipping over various lamentations of the author. It was Khatam that broke us. He is called an Elder God, but I disagree; he is a dark god, a hateful god. A god of avarice and anguish. It was his will, his need for blood and worship that caused me to be cast aside. He had a plan for a new weapon to use in the eternal battle of the Elder Gods against each other, but he needed the Keeper’s help to craft it. It would be a weapon of inimical power, forged by the hands of gods and imbued with the essence of Fitna. But Fitna was capricious; ask it to create life or even destroy a world and perhaps it would, depending on how hard you asked. Demand its subservience and you might be blessed with no more than a rash that would not fade. Khatam, alas, had failed to persuade Fitna to help him, and was forced to turn to the Keeper.

The Keeper was finally seduced by the promises of Fitna and Khatam’s vow to shape it into a tool for ascendancy, across worlds and across planes. Khatam promised the Keeper his worshippers for his aid. The souls of the Traë would be resigned to the darkness of the weapon that Khatam crafted, imbuing it with the raw Fitna of creation; all the Keeper had to do was provide the bridge from death to the weapon.

I had felt and tasted Fitna. It did not come to me, but I had reveled in its wake with the Keeper. I knew it well, that pool of chaos from which all else sprang. Ever had it been of the Keeper, and he used it to manage the souls of the dead. In this weapon, the hellscape of ruin he would visit upon the Traë was beyond imagining. I could not allow him to do this to the Traë or any other being. I could not allow him to do this to himself. I took the dark blade they had forged and fled.

Zayne looked up again. “This is the Fallen Goddess that narrates?” he asked, although he already suspected the answer. Once again he wondered if the Fallen Goddess was the fantastical construction of a society that sought a feminine divine. It seemed too much of a contrivance to be real. He was sure there was a storybook ending coming up; it would be either acquiescence of heartbreak or redemption of a tortured soul. He sighed to himself.

“So it seems,” Subah replied. “It is another narrative of what may or may not be.” She shook her head. “It is so hard to tell what is true and what is not. Whose hand wrote this? When was it written and how long after the fact? And we must not forget that this is only one perspective.”

“Still,” Zayne responded, “taken with what else we have come across, perhaps it gives us a better picture of what was. And what will be.” He shrugged and looked down at the scroll again.

I could not allow it. I took from them the weapon they had crafted and fled, knowing that my time with these gods had ended. My heart ached for what I had done. Khatam was enraged, and implored the Keeper to end my shallow existence. I wondered how it would end; would they hunt me down and torture me for the weapon, or would they fear that I would use it against them and leave me be? I did not think the Keeper would slay me, but not for any affection that he held. Were I to die, the whereabouts of the weapon would die with me, and that was a risk I was sure they would not want to take.

I took one other item as I left. I pressed my thumb against the Keeper’s eye as he slept, and as it slipped from its socket I put it in my mouth and swallowed it whole. He was enraged, the Keeper, that I had done this to him, and as I fled he lashed out with Fitna as only he could. It enveloped me and rent from me my skin and snapped my bones and teased my lips with kisses.

Those next dark days were an eternity of pain and suffering. My body was destroyed; a broken and torn husk, devoid of skin, covered in blood. My existence was a nightmare of pain and madness. I could not think; I could not see; I could not move. Prostrate upon the earth where I had once stood, I begged the Keeper to take my soul, but to no avail. What had once been love had morphed into indifference, and my act of desperation had turned that indifference to hate.

Broken and defeated, I lay upon the earth unmoving. Day turned to night and day again, but I did not stir. I could not stir; the pain was too great. Weeks passed, and the earth slowly covered me and grasses took root in my hair. Time slipped away as I retreated into my hurt, praying for relief, praying for oblivion.

Years trapped in a broken body, knowing only pain. Zayne could not imagine what sort of madness that would result in. He winced. “What is the weapon?” he asked of Subah. “Do you know what it was supposed to do?” No doubt this was just another part of the fairy tale, but Zayne was intrigued nevertheless. It was a compelling tale.

“I have pored through texts both ancient and new,” the Ayn replied, “to no avail. There is no mention of a weapon so calamitous that even the gods would fear it. This author assiduously neglects to mention what it is or what it does or where she supposedly hid it.” She frowned, the lines creasing an otherwise flawless face. “It’s hard to tell if this is a convenient failing designed to protect the mystery of the story or if it is all true and the author does not want anyone to know anything of this alleged weapon.” Her lips pursed in frustration.

“Perhaps it is just as well,” he murmured as he continued to read. “Who would you trust with a tool that could bring down a god? There is no one. Such power is not meant for this world. Or the next, for that matter. I cannot imagine the Keeper of Souls would be fool enough to allow it.”

“Yes, but it speaks to us of Khatam,” she pointed out. “We begin to understand what kind of god he is.”

If this is true,” he said deliberately, “and nothing suggests that it is.” He felt foolish for trying to defend a foreign god he had only heard of some few years ago, but he could not help himself. He was invested in anything that touched the Traë, even if it was a god that was alternately described as either callous or bloodthirsty. “No sense in jumping to conclusions,” he added.

Subah’s lips pursed again, but this time in amusement. “Yes, of course,” she said maddeningly, and Zayne scowled in embarrassment. He concentrated on the scroll again, his cheeks burning.

It was the eye I had swallowed saved me. It was the flesh of a god, and through it I held within me a part of the Keeper. I felt it in my belly, almost like a child. Mayhap I was the child, for it nourished my body with its essence. Slowly, painfully, it salved my ruined flesh. It mended my grotesquely broken limbs and restored the beating of my heart. It looked deep within my madness and found me and brought me back to the world of the lucid, the sane. Above all, it allowed me to taste Fitna. I tried during those dark days to hold it as the Keeper did and shape it to help me, but I could not. I cannot. But that taste led me to believe that Fitna, the capricious tool of the gods, understood why I had done what I did. And approved.

“She speaks of Fitna as though it is sentient rather than a fundamental force,” Zayne commented. “Odd.”

“Of all the different forms of magic, Fitna is the least understood,” Subah commented, her voice taking on the sanctimonious inflection it did during her clasess. “This is due in part to the fact that it is a raw, chaotic form of magic that has never been fully expressed in the hands of mortal races. Even in the divine pantheon, the only god that has privy to it is the Keeper, and few have had the chance to speak to him about what he does with it. We know that it is the essence of what animates our bodies; despite that we cannot use it, we the all of us carry it within.” She paused, considering his words for a moment. “Who is to say it is or is not sentient? There are scholars that think that the gods and all of creation sprang from Fitna. Maybe it does have the ability to choose a direction.”

“Maybe the gods are kind. Maybe love is a destination.”

“All I say is that these words should not be dismissed out of hand,” she snapped. “And spare me your wit, child.” She stressed the last word, aggravating him as she knew it probably would. She could not have been much older than him. “I summoned you here to learn, not to give me lessons in philosophy.”

Zayne shrugged and kept reading. Annoyed elder mages were anything but uncommon, and he refused to be baited. Am I a god? It is hundreds of centuries later, and I still walk this world. The earth held me in its embrace and fed me as I lay within her. Does this make me one of the immortals? I know not. Perchance it is that my maker refuses to slay me as he seeks knowledge that only I have. Or it could be that Fitna guards me against those that would threaten and abuse my person. I eschew the trapping of godhood; I refuse those that attempt to worship me. I turn a blind eye to prayers. I have no interest in power or justice or revenge. Those that seek my benediction find only emptiness; I do not have the magic that Khatam’s worshippers do. I do not care. My interest lies only in those that are fallen; those that love. And fail.

“Gloomy,” Zayne observed.

“I thought so too,” Subah said, even as she rubbed her eyes in exhaustion. “I do not know what to make of her, if there even is a ‘her.’ Plaything of the Keeper? Guardian of the weapon? Champion of the unloved? Survivor? Whore? Goylem?”

“Who is to say that she is all or none?” Zayne asked philosophically. “And ultimately, what does it matter? We have more pressing concerns than that of a heartbroken toy that once served the Keeper.”

“Don’t be a simpleton,” Subah reproved.

Zayne flushed again in anger and embarrassment. “What do you mean?” he asked stiffly.

Subah shook her head with what Zayne could only interpret as remorse. “For the last year, all you have done is pursue stories of the Traë, and for good reason. We know that after nearly a hundred years of a hundred years, they once again approach our shores here in the East. What do we know of them? Nothing, other than that their god may thirst for blood and that our overtures have resulted in the murder of our mages. All of our lore, all of our historics and knowledge points only in one direction: the Traë are violent. Violent in a manner that surpasses us. Sihr is no match for Elder magic; not appreciably so.”

“What does this have to do with the Fallen Goddess?” he asked.

“Only this: the peril that we face with these Traë is something we have not had to face since the Age of Ruin. They will destroy the West with the invective and efficacy of an infection run rampant. We will hold them at bay for some time, but our future is certain; they will invade, and our society, our world, and even the human race will be reduced to no more than servitude and rubble.” Her dark eyes nearly glowed with emotion, powerful and mesmerizing, and Zayne could see what turned Nisoor into the fool that he was. “We will fight, but our armies are small and our magics untested and insufficient against the promises that Khatam has made to his thralls.”

Zayne frowned. “You look for threats where none might exist,” he alleged. “Are you privy to some evidence that I am not? If so, procure it. If not, then I question how you arrive at this conclusion. And besides, what does any of this have to do with the Fallen Goddess?” Which is why you called me a simpleton, he thought unreasonably, but he could not help himself. Sometimes his ego was bigger than his brain.

Subah did not miss the dig. She sat down at the other side of the table, across from Zayne. She looked tired. Haggard. Zayne felt ashamed of himself for a moment, and then recalled that this was the woman that had bent the Obverse King to her will in the War of the Three Duchies. She might be tired, but her will was iron, and her spirit even harder. “I despair of you, Zayne,” she said regretfully. “Ararat is correct. You know not what you seek.” He flushed again, more embarrassment than anger. “Nevertheless, I will give you answer. Think what you will of the Traë and of Khatam; that is your concern, not mine. My interest is self-preservation, and the preservation of our civilization. You question my motives? You will find them rooted in my love for humanity, not my hatred for the Traë.

“Let us presume for a moment that I am correct and you are mistaken. I postulate that the Traë seek empire and that our blood is the bounty they seek to discharge the demands of their elder god. Where can we turn for succor? We know what the Younger Gods proffer; Sihr. That is why we pretend to worship them. They give us the bounty of their blood, but it may prove insufficient against Elder Magic.

“Our military might, or lack of it, is no more than an amusing anecdote to the Traë. The last major military campaign this continent faced was the War of the Three Duchies. Two armies took the field, both less than ten thousand men, and even then the armies only skirmished. Taken together, less than a thousand men died on both sides, and one of the three duchies surrendered to the Obverse King even without an arrow nocked. What hope do we have?

“Any hope for humanity against this tirade lies with the Fallen Goddess. Don’t look so surprised, Zayne. Do not shake your head so. Can you conceive of any option other than this weapon that has been hinted at? Well? I thought not. For just one moment, pretend that you are wrong and I am right with regards to the Traë. What are your thoughts then?”

“All that I have read and studied suggest to me that that the Traë are far beyond our military abilities,” Zayne admitted grudgingly. ”If that is the case – and that is an ‘if,’ please remember - then we rush headlong into calamity.” He paused, thinking for a moment. “Even were it to be true, we know nothing of the Fallen Goddess, much less this purported weapon that only she knows of. And bear in mind, your rationale does not ring true. You ask us to fear that which we do not know. You ask us to hate that which we do not understand. And I find that intolerable.” He looked at her purposely. “What are your thoughts then?” he asked.

Her eyes flashed again, and Zayne felt a stirring in his loins. She spoke again, looking directly at him, brooking no disagreement.

“Relief.”

***----***

Zayne had no idea how long he had been unconscious. Fantasy and memory and reality blended together, creating a wash of confusion and dismay in his mind. At any moment, someone could walk in and see him trying to free himself. He had to hurry if he was going to do this. Swallowing his fear of the pain he knew would come, he braced his wrist and pulled against the cuff that held him it in place. Blood served as a good lubricant, and with a few tugs, his hand was free. With excruciating slowness, Zayne brought his arm down, his joints and muscles screaming in protest as he did. He could not remember the last time his hands had touched his sides. He had been on the rack further back then his broken mind could remember. His arm shook with the effort, and Zayne felt the minimal control he had over his atrophied muscles sipping. He whimpered, knowing what was going to happen. His arm slipped and fell to his side, and a blinding flash of agony stole from him his thoughts.

His own whimper awoke him. As his eyes opened, he was unsurprised to find himself captive of the Traë. The first thousand times he had awoken it had been a shock, but now he was used to the tingle of fear that came to him every time he thought of his captors.

How much time had passed since last he had been conscious? He had no idea. In this place there was no concept of time. There was only pain and not-pain. Zayne looked around and could discern no shift in time and certainly not in place. The only real difference was that both arms were now loose and hung limply at his sides. An attempt to move them resulted in a state of semi-consciousness and agony, and Zayne resolved to leave his arms alone. It was enough that he had freed them; no need to push his body any more than he already had.

A few minutes of effort released his left leg. He could hear his hard, labored breathing resonating in the empty room; breathing that was full of fear, full of urgency. In a few deep breathes and even fewer moments, his other leg was free as well. Free! Free! Free! His mind screamed at him, echoing in his ears. There was no other thought in his head. Zayne gulped air, trying to calm himself. Caution, his mind gibbered almost incoherently. He had to be careful. Zayne grabbed his fear by the throat and choked it off as best he could. Exercise caution, and you may escape. One wrong move, and the vengeance they will offer upon your flesh will make you rue the day your mother gave your father that first kiss. But hurry.

Zayne rolled himself off the table and fell to the floor with a thud. Ouch, he thought to himself, but only with diffidence. There was no call to complain with such a small hurt, never mind that every part of his brutalized and disfigured body cried out in pain. This was nothing. It did not compare to what he had been through. The floor he lay upon had a musty smell to it; surprising, given the amount of blood he had watered it with. Fingers reached into the seams between tiles, and he tried to pull himself forward. His feet scrabbled against the stone floor, slickened by soft sand and dust, but to no avail; he only inched forward. In his mind’s eye, Zayne saw a Traë walk into the room to find him on the floor. They would cut off his hands and feet to make sure he would not be able to escape if they found him like this. With a whimper, he concentrated, trying to pool his Sihr.

A momentary blossom of power pervaded him. Even without casting, he could feel it invigorating him. Strength flowed into his arms and legs, and the pain he was feeling retreated into a distant throb. He tapped it down; Zayne had no idea if they could detect when Sihr was pooled, but he did not want to tempt fate any more than he already had. With just a trickle of Air and Earth, Zayne created a crutch of sorts. He pulled himself up as best he could, his muscles protesting with jolts of searing pain. Zayne paid it no mind; his only thoughts were for the door in front of him.

Slowly, step by step, Zayne made his way across the room. He had not walked in months, and the unfamiliarity of merely standing almost undid him. Dizzy and weak, he stumbled his way across the room, leaning on the invisible crutch of Sihr that was at his side. He thought momentarily that he should glance out of the door first to make sure that the area was clear, but the haze of pain and confusion in his mind was too great. Free, free, free was all he heard in his mind, and thinking was an exercise in uselessness. He fell heavily against the door and pressed down erratically at the latch, hoping that the door would open without too much effort. A stray thought occurred to him: how ironic would it be if his savior went through the effort of loosening his bolts but forgot to unlock the door? Fortunately, the door swung open easily and noiselessly, and Zayne escaped his room for the first time in months.

Free! Free! Free, his mind shrieked, deafening him. It had not been five minutes and he was already exhausted. He felt blackness creep around the edges of his vision and knew he flirted with unconsciousness. A surge of fear and adrenaline pulsed through Zayne, giving him strength. He turned to the right and stumbled forward down the empty hallway, no thought or plan given to the choice of direction. He had to move. A Traë could appear at any moment and lock him in that room again.

Zayne made it through two more doors and a number of corridors, stumbling his way through the halls as a madman might. His pace was slow, he knew, but nothing could be done for it. He was panting as though he had run a dozen leagues or more, and he was afraid his heart would give up on him. The exhaustion he felt, coupled with the terror of being found, sapped at his strength. He had fallen twice, bruising an already bruised hip and in one instance leaving him with tears he did not know he had to spill. It had been only minutes since he had fled his room, but time and distance felt dilated. The thanked whatever god haunted these parts that the halls were dim and free of Traë.

In what seemed to be no few moments, a large door banded with steel appeared before him. He fell against it heavily, as he had with other doors, but this time there was no give. His had reached for a latch and found nothing to gain purchase on. Confused, he looked down and noticed that there was no latch to depress. Zayne looked at the door stupidly, not sure what to do.

The low, guttural voices of Traë speaking in their own language threw him into a panic.

He pushed desperately against the door, his emaciated frame failing to find any give. Fear threatened to consume him. He could hear the clipped sound of the hard hooves that Zayne associated with the Traë sounding against the stone floor; there were at least two of them around one of the corners of the hall that intersected the one that he was in. He felt tears well once again in his eyes and cursed himself for his cowardice. Focus, he thought. Calm focus.

Zayne ran his fingers against the flat blankness of the door where he thought the latch should fit. Nothing. His hands strayed to the joint between the door and the frame, and once again he failed to find anything that might be a way to open the door. Zayne tried to pool enough Sihr to blow the door from its hinges, but in his panicked state of mind it was hopeless. Sihr escaped even as he sought to increase what he held. His fists knocked against the door in desperation. Thoughts of the chamber he had only just inhabited crossed his mind, and Zayne was determined to kill himself with badh’ before he allowed himself to be captured again. He concentrated, and felt Sihr pool within him again. Too much Water, and he would ignite. Hopefully.

Without warning, the door in front of him opened. Before him stood a human, dressed in a coarse brown cloth that reminded him of the burlap sacks of his youth that had held the rice his mother had made him carry from market to home. The man raised his arms and Zayne saw that his right thumb was missing.

“Gaaaah!” the man screamed at him. Zayne saw a hand curl into a fist and strike him on the temple, and then there was only blackness.

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