Tel’al stopped, puzzled. She was a tall, gangly, somewhat awkward, middle-aged woman. Above all else, she didn’t like surprises. Calm and predictable was the way she liked it. Yet here the day had barely started and already it was clear her day wasn’t going to go that way.
She approached the sand dune cautiously. She could see that there was something on the side of it, something that didn’t look quite right. This place, the site of the Banishment, always made her feel uneasy. It was on this spot where the cursed city of Durag’otal had stood, on this spot where Xochitl and the rest of the Eight had waged war on Melekath. When she came here, it always seemed like she could feel Melekath’s presence, just a little bit. Several times she’d thought she heard voices in the wind here, calling to her.
But nothing ever happened. The place was as quiet as a grave. Just one solitary sand dune to mark the spot of the most important event in the history of the human race.
She squinted. It looked like there was a big blob of amber on the side of the dune, but it was too cloudy for amber, and far more than could ever come out of one tree. Not that there were any trees nearby anyway. All the trees in the area had died during the siege of Durag’otal and they’d never grown back. The only things that grew in the area were a few scraggly weeds, and those didn’t look too healthy.
Unlike the local plant life, the sand dune was visibly growing. When she’d first started coming out here two years ago it was hardly more than chest high and about two dozen spans long. Now it was twice the height of a man and a stone’s throw long. Which was why she was out here. The Tenders wanted to know what was happening here. They had to know. Was Melekath weakening the prison? Was his poison leaking out into the world? Would this dune just keeping growing until it covered everything?
What made the Tenders especially nervous was they could no longer ask the Mother for guidance. Xochitl had disappeared more than twenty years ago, just walked out of the city of Qarath and never came back. For a while they’d been able to hear Her voice in the mists of beyond, but then even that faded away.
The Tenders, the Chosen of Xochitl, were alone. That the followers of several of the false gods had also lost their deities was little consolation. Their god was gone and She did not answer their cries.
So the Tenders waited. They argued amongst themselves. They began to splinter. Some, like Tel’al, traveled to the young city of Kaetria when word arrived that a sand dune was forming over the site of the Banishment. Some began collecting the stories and knowledge of Xochitl into a single book that would be called The Lay of Xochitl. Others tended to the people, or the animals, or the plants. But all of them waited for Her to return.
The “amber” looked like it had spilled out of the side of the dune, down near the bottom. It was a lumpy, misshapen mass three or four spans high and wide enough that Tel’al could have stretched her arms across it, but only with difficulty. She stopped a short ways from it and slipped into the heightened senses of beyond. From that nether region the amber appeared to have a faint, purplish hue. And there seemed to be something moving within its depths.
When she leaned closer she could see something inside with her normal vision as well. Nothing specific, more like shadows sliding across her vision than anything. Carefully, she raised her hand and directed a tiny flow of Song at the stuff, hoping to reach within it and learn more.
The flow sliced off cleanly. Sharply. It stung.
Tel’al stepped back, her eyes widening. What in the world could do that? Nothing that she had ever encountered or heard of could slice through a flow of Song. Flows were not physical things that could be cut. They were energy. They passed through everything untouched, leaving some behind to power life.
She turned and hurried away. It was time to talk to the others.
╬ ╬ ╬
Grissam took a deep breath and approached the amber, while Tel’al and the other three Tenders in attendance watched anxiously. In the ten days since Tel’al first found the stuff it had changed a great deal. It had spread out across the face of the dune, still amorphous, but roughly circular. Raised ribs crossed its smooth surface, some radiating outwards from the center, while others formed concentric circles around the center. To Tel’al it looked disturbingly like a giant spider web, but she kept this observation to herself. Grissam was a thin, intense woman, with a fine, pointed nose and a sharp chin. She was not the sort to entertain unasked-for comments, and she outranked Tel’al. She outranked all the Tenders in Kaetria. Berndin had suggested they send word to Qarath and wait to see what the FirstMother said about this new discovery before doing anything, and her ears were probably still ringing from the scolding Grissam had given her. Tel’al didn’t want to suffer the same fate. So she kept quiet.
All four Tenders watched as Grissam reached out and touched the amber –
And immediately fell over in a boneless heap.
They hurried forward. Sliane was the first to reach Grissam, but she hesitated, afraid to touch her. With a disgusted noise Valerin pushed her aside and knelt beside Grissam. Her gaze unfocused and she laid her hands gently on Grissam’s chest.
“She’s not dead,” she announced, although all of them could see that. Song still glowed within Grissam’s akirma. But it was very faint and her akirma looked wrong. It looked…cloudy. Again Tel’al thought of a spider web, of a cocoon woven around Grissam’s still form. But of course she said nothing. She followed. She did not lead.
“Her Selfsong is gone,” Valerin said, looking puzzled.
“Gone?” Sliane echoed. “How could it be gone? She is still alive.” Selfsong was Song that gathered within a person’s akirma at birth, and then dissipated at death. It was continually replenished by LifeSong, yet retained a pattern that was unique to each individual.
“I don’t know how,” Valerin said. “I just know that it is. Touch her if you don’t believe me.”
Sliane shook her head and drew back slightly. Beside her Yurim looked pale.
“It’s gone into the amber,” Tel’al said, surprising herself.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Sliane said, but Valerin put up a hand to stop her.
“What makes you say that?” she asked Tel’al.
“I don’t know. It’s just a feeling.”
The four women all peered into the shining mass, as if they would see Grissam herself in there. It was certainly a possibility. Tenders had an ability to step out of their bodies and travel on the winds that blew steadily beyond. They called it spirit walking. It was one of the many gifts of the Mother. While in that form they could travel long distances quickly and pass through solid objects.
They saw nothing.
“What do we do?” Yurim asked.
Valerin and Sliane exchanged looks. “For now we just wait,” Valerin said. “Maybe she will return on her own. She seems stable enough. I for one don’t want to try to venture in there after her.” Tel’al had wanted to speak up when Grissam made her decision to touch the amber mass, tell her she had a bad feeling about it and thought they should be patient and learn more about it before doing anything, but Grissam wasn’t a woman who liked patience any better than she liked subordinates who questioned her and so Tel’al had kept her mouth shut.
The Tenders waited. An hour later Grissam surprised them all by suddenly sitting up and looking around, as if emerging from a deep sleep.
“You’re all right,” Sliane said.
“What happened?” Valerin asked.
Grissam turned to look at the mass on the dune. “I think I went in there.”
“It’s a…it’s like a shadow world. It’s kind of like our world, but different. Like someone made a copy, but then twisted it somehow.”
“There’s a world in there?” Valerin breathed.
Grissam shook her head. “I don’t think it’s in there. Not really. I think…” She frowned, thinking. “I think this is just an entryway. What I saw is too big to be held in there.” She rubbed her temples as if her head hurt. “And it’s growing.”
╬ ╬ ╬
Tel’al sat by Grissam’s motionless form. Grissam was in the shadow world. It was her third time. She had gone in there every day since the first time. Over Grissam’s objections word had been sent to the FirstMother and she suspected Grissam wanted to learn as much as she could before the FirstMother intervened. The other Tenders in Kaetria no longer came with Grissam when she went to the shadow world. Somehow that job had fallen to Tel’al.
Tel’al stretched and yawned. She didn’t mind. She, Yurim and Sliane were working on putting together the Book of Xochitl, compiling the stories and early writings of the old Tenders, and truth be told it was dull work. It was a relief to get outside and the spring weather was pleasant. Sitting here, waiting for Grissam to return, gave her plenty of time to think about what this shadow world was and where it came from. The other Tenders had argued about it for a while, then come to the conclusion that this shadow world was somehow caused by Melekath, perhaps as a physical manifestation of his malice. Tel’al didn’t think she agreed with them. She had a feeling that Melekath wasn’t behind this. But she didn’t have any proof, nothing to go on besides a feeling, so she kept her mouth shut and nodded along with the rest of them.
Grissam stirred and sat up a moment later, rubbing her eyes. “How long was I gone?” she asked.
Tel’al looked at the sky. “Two hours?”
“Time is not the same in there. It felt like a great deal longer.” She stood up and that’s when Tel’al saw it. Grissam was wearing a flowing, sleeveless dress that left her shoulders bare and there on her right shoulder was a mark, like a scratch, only purplish.
“You didn’t have that earlier,” Tel’al said, pointing.
Grissam craned her neck to look at it and frowned. “No. I didn’t.”
“Where did it come from? Did you get it in there?”
“There was…” Grissam broke off, holding back whatever she’d been about to say. “I remember now. I scratched myself this morning at the temple. That’s where I got it.”
Tel’al said nothing. It didn’t look like an ordinary scratch, but why would Grissam lie to her?
Grissam started to walk away and stumbled. “Do you feel okay?” Tel’al asked, catching her arm.
“I’m fine,” Grissam said, perhaps a little harshly, pulling her arm away. “You don’t have to baby me.”
“You look pale.”
“I said I’m fine. Let’s go.”
Tel’al followed her to the waiting horses, not liking the feeling of foreboding that had settled in her gut.
╬ ╬ ╬
“Are you sure you want to go back in there today?” Tel’al asked Grissam the next morning. “Maybe you should take a day off.”
“The FirstMother will be here tomorrow,” Grissam replied, hurrying toward the dune. The strange amber mass had not gotten any bigger, but it seemed thicker, more substantial. Tel’al imagined it as a malignant creature poised to leap on them both. “Once she gets here she’ll take over and I won’t have another chance. She’s never liked me. She’ll want all the recognition for the discovery for herself.”
Tel’al wondered what recognition Grissam was talking about, but decided not to ask.
Grissam stopped and turned on her. “I guess there’s no reason not to tell you. It’s too late for you to tell anyone.”
“Tell me what?” Tel’al replied dubiously.
Grissam leaned close. “I think I found her.”
“Her? You mean Xochitl?” Grissam’s eyes were very bright but her face was very pale. There were dark circles around her eyes and her hair was unkempt, which would not have been unusual for Yurim, but was alarming for Grissam. She was normally very fussy about her appearance.
“Yes, I mean Xochitl,” Grissam replied, almost whispering. She looked around as if fearing she would be overheard, though of course there was no one for miles around. Who would come clear out here to stare at a pile of sand? Most of the Kaetrians were completely unaware of its presence. “I think she went into the shadow world. I’m going to be the one who finds her. That’s why I have to go back before the FirstMother gets here.”
Tel’al nodded. Not because she agreed – the idea that Xochitl was in there seemed crazy to her – but because she didn’t know what else to do. Grissam hurried on. When she reached the amber mass she stood before it with her eyes closed, her hands held up, palms outward, as if savoring the warmth off a fire. Tel’al waited, shifting from one foot to the other uncomfortably.
Without opening her eyes, Grissam lay down on the sandy ground. Tel’al dutifully sat down beside her. Grissam reached out and touched the mass and then she was gone.
As the hours went by Tel’al became more and more alarmed. Grissam had never been in the shadow world for so long before. In the early afternoon, while she was sitting there, staring off into the distance, from the corner of her eye it looked like Grissam just flickered out. For the briefest moment she seemed to disappear. But when she turned her head, Grissam looked normal. Her heart started to beat faster and she reached over to touch the thin Tender on the shoulder, wanting to reassure herself that Grissam was still there.
She felt the fabric of Grissam’s robe under her fingertips, and under that the flesh and bone of her body, but something was missing. She couldn’t have said what it was exactly, but something was definitely missing.
It was late in the afternoon when Grissam finally returned. Her eyes opened and she moaned softly. Tel’al helped her to sit up. Her head wobbled and she did not answer when Tel’al spoke to her, though she did peer at her strangely as if she had never seen her before. Tel’al had to help her to her feet and then practically carry her to her horse. But it was when Tel’al was helping Grissam onto her horse that she got the biggest shock.
There was something running from Grissam’s shoulder to the amber mass on the dune. Like a thread, but purple and very faint.
Tel’al blinked and it was gone. What was that thing?
“I couldn’t find her,” Grissam moaned, slumping forward in the saddle. “I looked and looked.”
“It’s okay,” Tel’al said, not sure what else to say. “You’ll find her next time.” She touched Grissam’s hand again, reassuring herself that the other Tender was still there. She looked pale and there was a translucent quality to her. What was happening to her?
╬ ╬ ╬
Tel’al was awake early the next morning, sitting on the balcony off her room drinking a cup of tea, when FirstMother Koreen’s carriage arrived, a team of six massive horses harnessed to it. Though they had no doubt traveled nonstop from Qarath, the horses did not appear tired. They didn’t appear to feel much of anything at all. Koreen was FirstMother for a reason. No Tender had greater control of the flows of Song than she did. She could keep that team of horses going until they quite literally fell apart if she chose. The carriage had no driver. There was no need. The horses were under Koreen’s complete control.
When Tel’al saw the carriage she set her cup of tea down so fast it spilled. She hurried through her room and into the hall, grabbing the first servant she saw and sending her running for Valerin. By the time she got down to the entry hall, the FirstMother and the four Tenders accompanying her had already entered.
The FirstMother was a tall, powerfully built woman with graying hair and stern lines drawn into her face. She wore a crimson robe and a white sash, as befitted her status. Her hair was cut very short and her eyes were penetrating. To Tel’al the four Tenders with her looked like bodyguards, each dressed in an identical yellow robe with red sashes around their waists. All of them had their hair pulled back in severe buns and their grim faces showed no expression.
“Where is she? I want to talk to her,” Koreen demanded.
“She’s still in her room. We didn’t expect you so early, FirstMother,” Valerin replied, just then entering, with the servant trailing her and trying to look as small as possible. Valerin was clutching her thin sleeping robe to her with hands that shook just slightly and she avoided meeting Koreen’s eyes. She had come so quickly her feet were still bare. Keeping the FirstMother waiting was far worse than cold feet.
“Bring her. Make it quick.”
Valerin turned to Tel’al, but Tel’al was already on her way. She wanted only to get away from Koreen before that frightening woman noticed her; suddenly the boredom of digging through endless dusty scrolls didn’t seem all that bad.
But Grissam’s room was empty. It didn’t look like her bed had even been slept in. Tel’al fairly ran back to the others.
“She’s gone?” Koreen demanded, intuiting what had happened from the look on Tel’al’s face. “Come with me,” she said to Valerin, already striding for the door, the four Tenders she’d brought with her following her. “You can tell me everything you’ve learned so far on the way out there.”
“FirstMother, if I might,” Valerin ventured. “Tel’al is the one who found it. She has been out there every day with Grissam.”
Koreen didn’t slow or look back. “Both of you, then. And hurry.”
Tel’al hesitated, looking at Valerin. Why had Valerin dragged her into this? Valerin was looking down at her bare feet. Valerin turned as if she would go to her room – grab what she was missing – but abruptly gave it up as a bad idea. Moments later she and Tel’al were hurrying after the FirstMother, Valerin wearing the servant’s sandals.
The seven Tenders arrived at the dune and found Grissam lying sprawled on the ground a dozen paces from it. She was lying face down, one hand flung out toward the dune. A look beyond showed Tel’al that she had not imagined the thin purple line she had seen yesterday. But today there were more. Hundreds, thousands of them spewed out from the amber mass on the face of the dune and wrapped around Grissam, cocooning her so that her akirma was barely visible. Tel’al was suddenly very glad the FirstMother was with them. Whatever was happening here was far beyond Tel’al. Without realizing it, she moved a half step closer to the FirstMother.
“It is as the Mother warned,” the FirstMother said, looking from Grissam to the amber mass. Her face had gone slightly pale. The four Tender bodyguards spread out in an arc facing the mass, two on each side of Koreen. “This whole area stinks of chaos power.”
“What is it, FirstMother?” Valerin asked. “What are all those purple lines?”
“I don’t know,” the FirstMother admitted. “I only know that they are draining Grissam. It won’t be long before she’ll be gone.”
Valerin gasped softly and laid a hand on Tel’al’s arm. The four Tender bodyguards showed no emotion. Tel’al had stolen peeks at them from beyond on the way out here. Their akirmas glowed nearly as brightly as Koreen’s. LifeSong swirled around them. They were powerful women: the FirstMother had come expecting trouble.
Koreen looked at the two women, measuring them. Her next words were stern. “What I am about to tell you is a secret known only to a handful. You are never to speak of it to anyone. Am I clear?” Both women nodded. “To create a prison that would hold Melekath, Xochitl was forced to open the abyss, which is sealed away at the heart of the world. From the abyss she took chaos power, which she used to imprison Melekath.”
“The prison is made of chaos power?” Valerin said weakly.
“And some of it is leaking through into our world from the abyss. Xochitl feared that this might happen someday so she left a warning, to be passed down from one FirstMother to the next.”
“What’s it doing to Grissam?”
“It’s using her to siphon off LifeSong from our world.”
“To breach the barrier between our worlds,” Koreen said grimly.
Tel’al’s mouth suddenly was very dry. This was so much worse than she’d feared.
“Can you save Grissam?” Valerin asked.
Koreen shrugged. “I don’t know. I hope so. But that is not what is important here. What’s important is that the creatures which live in the abyss are not able to use her to get into our world.”
Koreen drew something from a pocket on her robe. It was a knife, but it was clearly not made of metal. It was yellowed, and looked to be made of old bone.
“What’s that?” Tel’al asked, suddenly afraid that the FirstMother meant to stab Grissam with it.
“A weapon Xochitl left with us for this purpose. No more questions.” Koreen looked to the Tenders flanking her. “Are you ready?” As one they nodded. To Valerin and Tel’al she said, “You should back up.” The two women hastily complied, though Tel’al didn’t move back as far as Valerin did. For some reason she had to see what happened. She had to know.
Koreen held out the bone knife and let it go. It hovered there in the air before her, held aloft by a flow of Song. Channeling more Song into it, Koreen set the knife to spinning, faster and faster until it was a circular blur in the morning air. Tel’al felt the hair on the backs of her arms stand up as the four Tender bodyguards began to channel flows as well. The air around all five of them glowed with power. Sand swirled around their ankles.
Koreen gestured and the knife moved until it hovered over the seething mass of purple lines. To Tel’al it seemed that the mass of lines was aware of the coming attack, that its motion became more frenzied, more chaotic. Another gesture from Koreen and the knife shot down, biting into the mass of tangled lines.
There was a series of small, fierce concussions. From beyond Tel’al could see that it was working. The bone knife was cutting through the lines. The severed lines whipped around in the air frantically, aimlessly, like snakes cut in half.
Koreen brought both hands together and the knife bit deeper. A strange cry, felt rather than heard, rose up.
Suddenly, Grissam’s eyes opened and she sat up, her head turning side to side. Tel’al started forward, reaching out to help, when something she saw made her hesitate.
Grissam’s eyes fixed on Koreen, then blazed a feral yellow. With an eerie grace she came to her feet and charged at Koreen with a soundless snarl.
Tel’al cried out a warning. Koreen half-turned just as Grissam slammed into her. She staggered sideways. The knife stopped spinning and fell to the ground.
The four Tender bodyguards turned toward Koreen, uncertainty on their faces. The Song they held at the ready crackled in the air around them.
At that moment, a hole opened in the amber mass, right where the lines emerged, and something began to emerge, pulling itself out of the hole using the lines. It was hunched and misshapen, a grim parody of a person, as if someone had made a statue out of wax and left it in the sun to melt. It balanced there, clinging to the mass of lines with one gnarled hand, blinking in the light. From its back a rubbery appendage sprouted. The appendage swiveled toward one of the Tenders on Koreen’s right.
An opening appeared in the end of the appendage and a purple line shot out, piercing the Tender through the chest. The line burst out of her back and then wrapped around her torso several times. The woman shrieked, her head snapping back, a bloody froth spraying out of her open mouth. Her face darkened and she began to shrink, as if the air was leaking from her. The line glowed brighter, so bright that it hurt the eyes, as the Song stolen from the Tender rushed down it and into the misshapen creature.
The creature swelled and grew larger. Another rubbery appendage sprouted from between its shoulders and another line shot from it, striking the other Tender on the right.
All this happened in mere seconds, while Koreen struggled with Grissam and the other two Tenders froze in indecision.
With a blaze of power, Koreen threw Grissam off, the burst strong enough that Grissam’s hair was mostly singed away as she was thrown backward. “Hold her!” Koreen yelled to Tel’al and Valerin and turned back to face the thing on the dune. Song built around her in a sparking cloud.
“Don’t!” Tel’al yelled – while fighting with Grissam, Koreen hadn’t seen what happened, how the thing drank in Song and grew stronger – but Koreen either didn’t hear her or ignored her because the Song around the FirstMother continued to build and then she howled as she released it.
“Help me!” Valerin yelled. One of the bands of Song that she had wrapped around Grissam had already snapped and the others would not hold for long. “I can’t hold her!”
Tel’al hesitated. The wave of Song released by Koreen had knocked the creature back, but instantly it recovered and was now clinging to the Song, using it to become stronger. Koreen’s eyes bulged as she fought futilely to shut down the Song.
Another rubbery appendage sprouted from the creature’s back and turned toward another Tender bodyguard.
Tel’al’s eyes fell on the bone knife, lying forgotten on the ground.
She ran forward, snatched it up, and threw herself at the remaining lines leading from the amber mass to Grissam.
When the knife made contact with the first line a shock went through Tel’al, knocking her back a step.
Grissam howled and redoubled her efforts. Another of the slim flows holding her snapped. There was only one left. Valerin’s face was white with the strain.
The creature that had crawled out of the mass was huge now, twice the size of a man. It pulled itself the rest of the way from the hole, its eyes now fixed on Tel’al. The rubbery appendage turned toward her.
Tel’al threw herself back on the lines and began sawing furiously at them. This time when she made contact she had an image form in her mind, a massive, horned creature sitting on top of what looked like a volcano, in the midst of a smoking, primordial world. Its heavy gaze fell on her and her heart went cold.
She cut through several lines. There was only one left.
The thing on the volcano reached out and Tel’al felt hot fingers close around her heart. Her vision began to go black. Her fingers went numb and the knife began to slip from her grasp. Gritting her teeth, she clamped her free hand on the handle of the knife, steadying her grip.
The last line parted.
There was an earsplitting crack and the amber mass split in half.
With a hoarse cry, the misshapen creature lost its footing and toppled backward. It flung out both arms, trying to get a hold on the amber pieces, but they crumbled under its touch.
With a last, furious roar it fell into the hole and disappeared from sight.
Tel’al dropped the knife and straightened. Grissam lay nearby, unmoving. Tel’al felt the hole where her Selfsong had been and knew she was dead. Valerin was on her knees, sobbing. Two of the Tender bodyguards were lying dead, their bodies blackened as if they’d been through a fire. The other two were helping Koreen to her feet. Her hair had turned gray and her face was lined with new wrinkles.
“I can stand on my own,” Koreen told the women and they let go. She tottered over to Tel’al, then bent and picked up the bone knife, slipping it back into her robe. For a moment she stared into Tel’al’s eyes. “Thank you,” she said softly.
Turning back to the other Tenders she said, “Bury it. Bury it deep.” While they complied, using Song to carve out a deep shaft near the shattered pieces of the amber mass and then pushing them into the shaft, Koreen spoke to Tel’al and Valerin.
“What you saw here today did not happen. You will never tell a soul of this. Do you understand me?” Both women nodded. “We nearly lost here today. That thing was only the beginning. If it had defeated us…” she glanced at Tel’al “…if you hadn’t acted as you did, it would have been free in our world and others of its kind would have followed. A doorway to the abyss would have been opened and its denizens would have overrun our world. This knowledge is too dangerous. None can ever know of it, until we can figure a way to seal it away forever.”
╬ ╬ ╬
Two days later, mostly recovered from the ordeal, Tel’al sat in her room with a stack of parchments on the table before her. The FirstMother had left the day before and life at the temple had returned to a semblance of normality. But she knew it would never truly be normal again.
Before Koreen left, she had repeated her orders to Tel’al and Valerin: they were never to tell anyone what had happened out in the desert. They were to take that information to their graves, or they would be driven from the order. Both women had dutifully agreed.
But now Tel’al dipped her quill into ink and pressed the tip to the first sheet of parchment. What she was doing was foolish and dangerous. She knew that. Yet the historian in her nature would not let what had happened just die. What she had experienced might help some future Tender. She began to write.
There is another world, dwelling beneath our own…