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.”