Authors: James A. West
Tags: #Epic Fantasy Adventure
“Who?” Leitos asked, mistrustful.
Leitos still didn’t move. This shade before him spoke with Zera’s voice, had her eyes and shape, but he could not afford to drop his guard.
“You’ve changed,” she said softly. “You were more trusting when we first met.”
“I was a child then, a born slave.” Leitos remembered that night. He had been a captive of Sandros, a changeling Hunter. Zera drugged Sandros and her companion Pathil, then took Leitos away. As it turned out, she had been working with the two Hunters, and was in truth their leader. Trust, as he recalled, had nothing to do with his choice of going with Zera. Rather, it had been his immediate infatuation with her, the first woman he had ever seen. Her mere presence had captivated his mind and heart.
Zera stepped closer. “It’s more than that. A
has come into you, a shadow cloaking your former innocence. It suits you.”
“This is a world made for darkness,” Leitos said, voice tight. “And if there is a shadow within me, its maker is the Faceless One—
—who casts darkness over all Creation.”
Where Leitos had wandered aimlessly through the tower, Zera seemed to know its secrets as if raised within its walls. More than once she took a path he was certain he had walked earlier, only to find a set of stairs leading down. Always down.
Each new level looked much the same as the former, with a great central hall and scores of vaulted passageways branching off from it. The lower they went, the brighter the azure light grew, until the pitted black walls took on the the appearance of cool sapphire.
“What is the afterlife like?” Leitos asked, as they moved along. “Does Peropis really eat the sins of humankind? And what of Paradise?”
Zera’s step faltered the tiniest margin as she rounded a corner, then she was moving on, her stride brisk. “Those are secrets kept by the dead.”
That was not enough for Leitos. “Can you tell me nothing?”
Zera whirled. “What good does it do you to know?”
“Perhaps none,” Leitos said, expressionless. He wanted to know because he had killed her, and needed to assure himself that her spirit existed in peace, rather than in torment.
eat the sins of humankind,” she said slowly, setting out again. “Such is the meat and wine she gluts upon, never to be satiated.”
“So ... death is torture?”
“For humankind there is pain, but it is brief, like the lancing of a corrupted wound. The following relief is so great as to obscure the previous agony. Suffering is reserved for ...
“Who?” Leitos asked, uneasy.
Zera did not answer for a time. When she did, her voice was bitter. “The Fallen and their heirs suffer Peropis’s insatiable hunger for all eternity in the Thousand Hells. Such is the reason that some few of my kindred hold great reverence for one human alone—Varis Kilvar, he who shattered the Well of Creation and freed them, and so provided the chance for rebellion.”
Understanding filled Leitos like poison. In killing Zera, he had condemned her. “Why do any of your kindred side with her? Why not band together and fight?”
“Most know that prevailing against the first child of the Three is a futile ambition. At best, such struggle gives them some small purpose beyond suffering.”
“Yet they still despise humankind?”
“Of course, and most even more than they hate Peropis.”
After a time, he said, “My father told me about the Black Keep of Fortress El’hadar. He said that it has stood at the edge of the Qaharadin Marshes since the forming of the world. And when the Fauthians of Yato brought us to Armala, he named it a city of ‘Black Keeps.’”
“Your father is right,” Zera answered. “Only a few places exist like this tower, the black Keep, and Armala. They were built during the short time that Mahk’lar walked the world. That was an age long before men were given life.”
“What purpose do these places serve?”
“In the beginning, they might have been monuments. Now Peropis uses them as bridges between this world and the Thousand Hells.”
Leitos frowned. “Why would she need bridges?”
“Of all the Mahk’lar, Peropis alone cannot escape the Thousand Hells, at least not fully. But using the Powers of Creation she already posses in places like this tower, her presence in the living world is stronger.”
“Can I use the tower to return Yato?” Leitos asked.
“There is a path back to Yato, and it will remain passable for a short time. If we don’t hurry, you will be trapped here with Peropis’s faithful.”
Zera brought them to a stairwell leading steeply down. From far away, Leitos heard a moaning sigh.
As they started their descent, Leitos sensed their time together growing shorter, and sought to keep Zera talking. “Why does Peropis hate mankind so much?”
“Pa’amadin chose to bless humans over the first children of the Three. She cannot attack him openly, but she can destroy those he favors.”
“And he would let her?”
“He’s not called the Silent God of All for nothing.”
The deeper they went, the warmer the air became. The brightness never increased, never lessened, but moving through it was like sinking into a blue fog. They came to a landing, and beyond this waited another passageway.
“Are you ready?” Zera asked.
Zera moved off at a fast clip. The floor underfoot was smooth stone. Soon the way became so bright that Leitos had to squint to keep from being blinded. The odor of scorched rock filled his nostrils. He had smelled the same inside the Throat of Balaam, as it fell to ruin.
Zera halted abruptly. “We’re here.”
Leitos’s eyes widened, and he found himself standing inside an area where the sapphire radiance was seemingly held back by three wrought iron stands. Clutched in settings atop each stand glowed three stones—topaz, amber, and ruby—and none larger than the egg of a hen. A crackling rip hung in the air between the stands, like a flaming eye turned on edge. It was also the source of the moaning he had been hearing. Dark shades of every color pulsed and burned along the opening, and as those strange flames slowly spiraled inward, they darkened to a rippling black.
“Is this the way back to Yato?”
“It is,” Zera said. “These stones are the keys needed to make such a journey. They are made from the souls of Hiphkos, Memokk, and Attandaeus, which Peropis ensnared the moment they gave up their powers. Remove any of the keys, and the portal is rendered unusable. Of course, that is only part of it, for someone must be able to use the keys to open the passage. As far as I know, only Peropis has such power.”
Hearing a soft groan, Leitos turned and saw a man sitting on a wooden stool, his head hanging. Leitos was sure it was Kian—the real one, his grandfather. He was also sure that the man was not entirely whole. He looked otherworldly, a vision of a dream. His skin was gray, nearly transparent. His hair dangled in limp strands that were as white as the stubble on his jaw. What strength might have once filled his limbs had long since fled. Seeing him this way, the man Adham had often named the King of the North, staggered Leitos. Besides Ba’Sel, Kian was the last living man to have been present when Varis Kilvar destroyed the Well of Creation. He was also the first man to have ever stood against the goddess Peropis. It seemed that for all he had done and sacrificed, his legacy was now to rot away.
Zera edged closer to Leitos. “What you see is the essence of Kian’s soul, trapped here by Peropis. Somehow, he still resists her.”
“How can he?” Leitos asked.
“Kian Valara was always a cunning fellow.” Zera spoke as if she had known him from his birth. “Before Peropis captured him, Kian had reasoned out what she has been after since the moment she was imprisoned in the Thousand Hells. After he was captured, he abandoned his body and made a stronghold of his soul. Peropis is still searching for a way to breach those walls. In time, have no doubt, she will possess his essence, much as she has already done with the Three.”
“Separate his soul from his body,” Leitos said in wonder. “
how Peropis was able to wear his flesh and rename herself the Faceless One.” He moved closer to Kian, wanting to reach out to his grandfather, but not daring. He feared the slightest touch would crumble him to dust.
“What did Kian learn Peropis was after?”
Zera hesitated. “Time is short, and my answers are few. Go to him.”
“Tell me,” Leitos demanded.
“Every moment you waste is a moment Peropis creeps closer. She cannot escape the Thousand Hells for long, but she
escape—here, especially—and it would take only a short time for her to take what she wants from you.”
Zera fixed him with a irritated stare. “Very well. It has to do with the stones of protection.”
“Anyone or anything that is not washed in the Powers of Creation can use the stones to keep from being possessed by Mahk’lar. Peropis created the stones to keep her loyal Alon’mahk’lar safe.”
“Yes,” Zera said, “but they are so much more than that. The stones themselves are actually pieces of the shattered Well of Creation. When Prince Varis Kilvar destroyed the Well, those fragments were scattered across the face of the world. And as cold air can become hoarfrost, those fragments became the ore that is mined for the making of stones of protection. But by themselves, those rocks are useless baubles.”
“She needs blood,” Leitos said slowly. “The living blood of those washed in the Powers of Creation.”
Zera gestured to Kian. “And the most potent blood of all comes from the Valara line, and anyone else who absorbed the Powers of Creation when they first sprang from the rupturing Well of Creation. As well, that potency flows into their children.”
“My grandfather and Ba’Sel ... me and my father.”
“For over two hundred years,” Zera went on, “Peropis has forced slaves to dig deep into the earth, searching for the solidified fragments of the Well of Creation, and in turn—”
“She fills them with the blood of those like me,” Leitos interrupted. “This is known.”
Zera lowered her voice. “Few understand that Peropis intends to use that gathered power to
the Well of Creation, and bend all its immense energies to her will. In harnessing those combined powers for her own use, she will become stronger than even her parents were. This time, the Well of Creation will not be a capstone used to imprison her kindred within the Thousand Hells, but instead humankind—the beloved of Pa’amadin. Peropis will also gain true freedom as a being of flesh and spirit. She will confine humankind, torture them relentlessly, and finally have her revenge against the Silent God and Creator of All.”
“How am I supposed to stop her?”
Zera jabbed a finger at Kian. “Go to him. If anyone can tell you what to do, it is him.”
Leitos favored his grandfather with a long look, and did as bidden.
When the ghostly figure of Kian made a low, pleading sound in his throat, Leitos knelt at his feet.
“We’ve never met,” he said. “Not truly. I am Leitos, son of your son, Adham.”
Kian blinked, and Leitos saw that the rich blue of his eyes had drained away, leaving them as gray as his flesh. His mouth worked silently, then he reached out. Leitos fought against flinching away, and let his grandfather drop a once powerful hand on his shoulder. A strange thrill tickled through him, and a strong voice filled his mind.
Oh, but we have met, you and I
, Kian said inside him.
You were but a babe then, squalling and spitting, and soiling yourself a dozen times a day. Despite all that, it was a joyous time. Come, I will show you.
Leitos tried to resist an odd pulling sensation, but it seemed as if he were unraveling, stretching out. He began to shudder uncontrollably, and everything before his eyes spun and lengthened—
All at once, he found himself drifting in a dark emptiness, and before him hovered an immense spindle of gold. Set toward one end of a long shaft was the whorl, its surface covered with flowing designs. That great disk seemed to turn slowly, but Leitos sensed that it was actually spinning rapidly. A chaos of vivid threads came together at a delicate hook on one end of the shaft. The spindle twisted those tangled threads into a cord, which then passed over the whorl, and wrapped around the longer end of the shaft to the very tip. From there, the cord stretched away into what Leitos could only name eternity.
He glanced back at the unwoven threads, which seemed to sprout from the darkness. Some grew longer and joined others in confused knots, while other threads abruptly lost their vibrancy and melted into the emptiness.
And then he was being pulled toward that welter of threads. The spindle and the darkness through which it turned vanished. All became a turbulent vortex of swirling hues, and he spun with them. Spinning. Spinning....
When his surroundings solidified, he found himself with Kian, who now looked as he had outside the tower. Tall, strong, dark of hair and blue of eye. Leitos also saw that he was no longer in the tower, nor was he in that other place with the great golden spindle. He stood beside Kian in a wide meadow laid out like a carpet over the floor of a broad valley. In the distance, an evergreen forest crawled up the flanks of snowcapped mountains. The sun shone clear and bright. He searched for Zera, but she was gone.