Authors: Clayton Emery
Frowning again, the mage knelt stiffly and ran his fingers over the soil. Still warm. Then he flinched as something black fluttered near his face. But it was only the raven, which said nothing.
Greenwillow did, though. “You’re a friend to the raven, too?”
“Eh?” Candlemas craned to see her face. “Oh, ah … What do you know of the bird?”
“That it talks. I followed Sunbright a few times, just to” Now she hesitated, even blushed. “Just to watch him. He didn’t see me, but I saw him converse with the raven. Did you send it?”
Candlemas nodded absently. Lifting his hand palm up, he felt for the exact spot where the portal had been. Waving his hand slowly, he traced the outline: the rift in the fabric of reality. “Good, good. Or very bad. For me anyway.”
Rising, extending his hands with fingers spread, he keened again, a long, loud wail.
The portal winked into being. Nothing showed inside it, just a view of the stone wall.
With a cry, Greenwillow jumped up, slapped her sword home, and started to push past Candlemas. But the mage swept her back with a thick arm. “Stand back, young woman. There’s nothing you can do.”
Sighing, he hiked his skirts and stepped through the portal. The golden shimmer tingled around his legs, then his body, as if he crept into lightning-charged water.
The mage paid no notice to Greenwillow. For too long had Candlemas been steward of a castle, where his orders were obeyed immediately without question.
Greenwillow didn’t question him either. She just shadowed the bulky man, hovering inches behind him, and held her breath.
Seconds later, the portal winked out, and the road to Tinnainen stood empty.
Candlemas stepped onto a platform of black glass. Not much wider than a public fountain, it curved up all around, so he slid toward its center. The mage didn’t recognize the conveyance, but it resembled the bottom of a palantir, as if he stood inside. Perhaps he did.
Around the platform was nothingness, a blank limbo like fog. Candlemas didn’t dare touch it.
Sprawled like a rag doll on the glass platform lay Sunbright, his sword under him. The barbarian was dirty and scraped up, but alive and breathing. For now.
A cry sounded. With mild annoyance, the mage found the half-elf Greenwillow had followed despite his orders. She stooped to gather Sunbright in her arms, smothering his face with fervent kisses. That brought the barbarian around better than a bucket of water.
His first words were accusatory, aimed at the mage. “Chandler! What are you doing here?”
Single-minded, barbarians were, Candlemas thought. If humans were dumb brutes, as Sysquemalyn argued, the tundra people were no smarter than their reindeer. This young hide-wearer leaped to battle instead of waging love on the elven beauty. The mage sighed, “I’m not a simple steward. I’m more than that.”
Clutching his throbbing head, Sunbright clambered up from Greenwillow’s embrace. To her questions, he rasped, “That yellow fiend that grabbed Ruellana. It saw me following somehow, and crushed me with a hand like a hayrick. I don’t know where it went from there.”
Still groggy, he slid a pace on the glass platform and almost pitched over the sideif there was a side. No noise or feel or smell came from the foggy limbo. They might have been bugs in a bottle, Candlemas thought, and perhaps were.
Sunbright leveled a scarred arm and calloused finger at the older man. “You’re a filthy mage, aren’t you?”
A tiny shrug. “A mage. My name isn’t Chandler, by the way. It’s Candlemas. A chandler makes candles, see?” His rueful smile was not returned.
“So everything you told me was a lie?”
“Not everything.” Candlemas scanned their surroundings, which were the blankest he’d ever seen. How could he entice the barbarian to penetrate the not-fog? “About half, well, much of what I said was true.”
“You used me!” A finger stabbed downward. “Even that damned raven is yours, isn’t it?”
Candlemas blinked at the platform and saw the raven. Funny, he hadn’t seen it enter the portal.
The raven cocked its head as if also confused as to how it had gotten there. It croaked, “Sorry. That’s how the egg breaks.”
“The raven is an avatar,” Candlemas explained. “A shade of mine sent to watch over you. Like a homunculus, only more reliable.”
Sunbright rubbed his throbbing temples. He snarled, “I don’t want any more of your damned magic near me! Wait, you sent Ruellana, too, didn’t you?”
“Ah, no.” The chunky mage cast about again, then settled creaking onto his hams, which slipped down the glass toward the middle where Sunbright stood. He had to drag his hands to stop his slide. “Ruellana is an avatarno, a personaof another mage named Sysquemalyn. She’s chamberlain while I’m steward of, uh, a castle. She got us into this current pickle. And I’d have to say that, while I’ve used you somewhatbut kept you from harm repeatedlyshe’s used you worse and meant you harm. Of course, you probably don’t believe anything I say. I understand. But the latest round involved sending you after that book, and she arranged it! No doubt she whispered in the One King’s ear that he needed the book, so he dispatched the next able warrior who strode into his court to fetch it before”
The mage stopped himself, but Sunbright caught the implication. The barbarian’s eyes were as hard and cold as glacial ice. “Before you could send me, correct?”
Candlemas shrugged. He hoped the young man wouldn’t attack him here. Magic shields would be dicey in a spot like this. They might do anything from protect Candlemas to crush him like a cockroach.
But Sunbright’s native curiosity overcame his thirst for vengeancefor the moment. “So Ruellana is a lousy mage too. I should have suspected all along. I was too blind to see. But what was that thing that grabbed her, and where have they gone?”
Candlemas bit his lip as he thought of the manner in which Sysquemalyn had left his workshop. “Good questions.”
Sliding Harvester home in its scabbard, Sunbright suddenly whirled on Greenwillow. “And you? What are you, really? And who’s your master? And what do you get out of… attending me?”
Shocked, the half-elf’s conflicting emotions warred on her expressive face. Combining sorrow and rage, she flared, “I’m not anything but what I appear to be! I’ve been your comrade and friend and… that’s all. I don’t want anything from you. you chose to accompany me to Tinnainen, remember?”
“I know only that I’ve been used, prodded, steered, and cheated by everyone I’ve met since leaving the tundra!” roared Sunbright. “But no more! I’m stuffed to the eyes with lying lowlanders, and I’m going home as soon as I can. I’ll take my chances at being killed by friends and relatives over skulking, lying fiends the day long.”
Greenwillow shrilled once, “Nooooo!”
But Sunbright had hunched at the edge of the platform, stuck his head into the limbo-fog, then planted his hands on the surface and vaulted into the void. There was nothing left to indicate he’d ever stood on the black glass bowl.
Greenwillow blazed hatred at the mage. “This is all your fault! Your backstabbing, traitorous, lying, sneaking, thieving magic ways! I hope you rot in the deepest pit of the Nine Hells until the sun falls from the sky!”
So saying, she leaned over the platform, sprang outward, and was gone.
“That’s the problem,” Candlemas sighed to the raven. “We just might.”
The raven pecked at the black glass, hopped up and down, and clacked its beak at its master. “That’s the way the egg breaks.”
It squawked as Candlemas booted it off the platform.
Sighing, skidding to his feet, Candlemas leaned gingerly into the fog, then rolled over the edge as if tumbling from a boat.
Greenwillow ghosted through fog that was not solid under her feet, but neither did she plummet. If anything, she swam through the air in slow motion, but that didn’t describe it either. She tried to steer for the route Sunbright had taken, but had no real sense of direction.
After a few secondsor hoursher feet plunked on stone. Two steps broke her free of the fog, which clung in shreds that she brushed off like spiderwebs.
Immediately, she called, “Sunbright?” There was no answer, and without thinking she drew her slim, elegant sword.
She’d landed on flagstones the color of pale moss. Before her was a half-wall of the same material. Behind her was a taller, similar wall. Arching overhead, a bowshot high, was a distant ceiling of green flagstones as wide as rooftops. There were more low walls and tall ones, all marching into the distance. Even the light seemed green, though she couldn’t find a source.
There was nothing else in sight,
She’d expected her voice to echo in this cavern, but it seemed to travel a distance and then stop. Hesitant, she laid her hand on the low wall. The stones were as smooth as river rocks and were warm like the back of a lizard lying in the sun. The floor was also warm, despite the shadows.
Movement behind her made her whirl, sword leveled.
But what she saw was herself, reflected in stone.
Wonderingly, she advanced. Her image crept toward her. It was fragmented by cracks and wavy from imperfections in the stone. And hardly natural. She could tell it was magic, for the stones couldn’t reflect like mirrors.
And her face was ugly.
Her brows were straight across, almost a bar, not arched like an elf’s. Her nose was wide, with flaring nostrils, and stippled with blemishes. Her mouth was fat-lipped and pendulous, her hair thatchy and uneven above rounded ears. Even her slim elven figure had coarsened to thick hips and fleshy arms and huge feet.
With a shock, she realized she looked not like an elf, but like a human.
Horror-stricken, Greenwillow ran her hands over her face, felt her nose and lips. But all were numb, and she couldn’t tell if the reflection were true or not.
What was this? she wanted to cry. Had some curse turned her human? Was this a hell for elves, to be degraded to an inferior race? She looked down at her legs and feet, but a mist in her eyesincipient human blindness?clouded her vision. Even her hand before her eyes was a blur. Yet the reflection stayed as sharp as before.
A trick, her mind replied calmly. A passing madness in this fragment of hell or whatever it was. Yet her eyes contradicted her thoughts, until she wanted to cry out and beat her brain into submission, or blind herself and spare the misery.
Turning away with a gasp, she banged into the low wall, which had somehow crept up on her right. She hadn’t shifted, she was positive: the wall had. But perhaps it sought to engulf her, like a trapdoor spider. Whirling, she jumped for the open space, stubbed her toes on a raised step that hadn’t been there just a moment ago.
More flickers to her left. The reflection now had gray hair. The face was wrinkled, the scrawny arm too weak to hold up the sword.
Age, she thought. Humans age too quickly and die, like dandelions living a single season. Was this happening to her? Desperately she ripped at her ponytail, dragged it before her, but the increasing self-blindness prevented her from seeing if her hair were black or gray.
Blindly, she groped along the wall, but the image followed. Between two high walls she saw twin reflections, like ghosts who sought to drive her mad. Her reflected back was now hunched, her legs trembling.
“Love of Mystryl,” she prayed, “if Sunbright saw me like this, he’d”
He’d what? Reject her? Never love her? He didn’t love her now, did he? Or she him?
Suddenly she didn’t know anything. Could she love a human? A sweaty, garlic-stinking, sour half-beast that would age almost overnight into a decrepit wreck? Was this her curse, to feel affection for a human and so to become one? Many of her fellows would say loving a human was like marrying an animal. Humans were no better than orcs, equally without worth or honor or use, a plague loosed on the earth by malicious gods to chastise the true folk, the elves.
“No!” she called aloud. Her reflection showed a caved-in mouth empty of teeth.
Then two reflections. No, herself and…
Sunbright, no longer human.
His bright blond topknot was normal, and his rugged, tanned, lean face. But his light eyebrows pulled upward at the ends to almost touch his scalp, and his eyes were slanted, his ears pointed. He looked lean as a whippet, with thin but powerful arms. His tapering torso showed no chest hair.
He was an elf!
How had this transformation occurred? And why now, when she’d been made human… or had she? Did the gods hate them so much that now Sunbright would be acceptable to her people as a lover and husband, yet she’d been reduced to the gutter-level of faded, hairy, grotesque humans? Could any gods be so cruel?
And how much of this was real? Was it her own guilt at loving a human that plagued her? Did she punish herself worst of all?
Something was happening in their reflections. The elf-made Sunbright caught the skinny, saggy arm of the hunched, aged, too-human Greenwillow. The ugly crone tried to turn away, to hide her face, but the elf-man saw her wrinkled, toothless mouth, warts, and chin hairs. Repulsed with horror, the elf-Sunbright staggered back and turned, crying, from the vision.
Shrieking, Greenwillow, too, dashed away from the horrid image. But a low wall rammed her knee and sent her tumbling. Her sword clattered to the green stones, and her clumsy hands seemed too crabbed and numb to grab it.
Below her, more images roiled in the stone. Fascinated, hypnotized like a bird by a snake, the elven-or-human woman watched.
Touching her from underneath, equally on all fours, was another Greenwillow, still human but younger and naked, with a swollen belly showing she carried a child. Her white skin was stretched as tight as a drumhead and enflamed with coarse blue veins, so she looked like a fat-uddered cow too long unmilked. Did she carry the elf-Sunbright’s child, a baby half-elf? Would her child be hated by both races? Would the child hate her for birthing it? Would the elven Sunbright desert her for becoming human? Would she die alone and unloved in some empty wasteland?
Crying openly, Greenwillow crawled to her feet. Before her loomed another wall with yet another reflection. A deadly pale, naked Greenwillow staggered as her belly was punched from within. Gory red goblinlike arms split her skin, ripped her open so blood ran in rivers. She was birthing a monster and dying in the process.