When Daerus stepped through the Time Window into his own drawing room once more, Zhedthik and Risha did not appear to have moved since he left. Phoebus‘ promise that the Phoenix would return him to “the instant“ in which he had left appeared to have been a faithful one. Risha appeared unsurprised, as she always did, but Zhedthik looked as bemused as might be expected of one who had gone from a world of war and death and other such mundane matters to one filled with wonders.
Of everything he could have said upon his return, Daerus first spoke that which mattered most. “Kera lives,“ he said, emotion making his voice rough.
Zhedthik tilted his head to one side and Daerus realized that the Throk had no idea what he had said. It is Kera. She lives! he said silently.
She is … she is the Companion, he said, his words slowing as he began to piece together what he had been told.
And? Zhedthik prompted, adding perceptively, There is something more, yes?
She is my mate, Daerus supplied. He began to pace. I thought she had perished in the late Gaerud …
Daerus paused in his pacing to gaze at Zhedthik, considering. Then he shrugged; possibly explaining things to Zhedthik would calm him. He felt he had need of mastering the soaring joy in his heart, for he still had a puzzle to solve and he needed to think. The Phoenix is One who lives many lives and dies many deaths, he began. He is One who is human but who holds the spirit of Time and Order in His body, and His task is to keep this world from sinking into chaos. Your Master is the god of Chaos, Zhedthik, but we humans could not live for very long in the sort of tumult beloved of Septha.
He is your Master, too, Daerus, Zhedthik rebuked him gently.
Daerus did not respond to that; he did not think it necessary to admit in that moment that he still had not decided whether he would accept Septha as Master. Instead, he continued. When the Phoenix dies His final death, we enter an Interval … the Time of the Endless Sun is what you call it.
That is the time when Lord Septha is free to come into this world to do battle with the Phoenix for the right to abide here. We call that battle the Gaerud.
Zhedthik thought about that for a moment. This Kera of yours … why would she perish in this battle between Gods?
Because they choose instruments, both of them. Kera was an instrument of Septha during the recent Gaerud, as was I. When the Phoenix triumphed and banished Lord Septha to the House of Chaos, he said that Septha was to take with Him those who had served Him. I thought He would take me but He did not. Daerus stopped, remembering again.
Finally, Zhedthik said, He took Kera?
Daerus nodded and then began to pace again. He took Kera. I thought she was lost to me forever but now I am told that I must fetch her and bring her back from the House of Chaos.
Then why are you here, Daerus? Zhedthik admonished him. She is your mate. You must go. Now.
Indeed, good Zhedthik, I would already be on my way but for my own confusion. I do not know how I am to get to the House of Chaos from here. I do not even know where it is.
It is everywhere, Daerus, Zhedthik said quietly, his eyes suddenly very wise.
Everywhere? Daerus repeated in astonishment, staring at him.
Is not chaos everywhere? That is why this world needs a guardian of order, is that not so? Without your Phoenix, this whole world would sink into as much chaos as we Throk live with every day. Zhedthik sounded amused as he added, We would have conquered you of the south long ago if that had come to be.
Before Daerus could ponder his words, Risha suddenly entered the conversation. “In truth, my Lord, you were not an instrument of our Master during the late Gaerud,“ she told him. “You were asked to choose and you chose the Phoenix. That is why the Lady Kera abides in the House of Chaos now but you do not. You are the instrument of no God or of all Gods. Even now another battle looms and, when it dawns, you must once again choose your Master.“
Daerus frowned over that. He had been spared because he had been permitted to choose and Kera had not?
“It is your task, Lord Daerus,“ Lady Risha said simply, answering his unspoken question.
“My task, eh?“ Daerus said, recalling what the Phoenix had told him of his role in the Gaerud. As he remembered more of that conversation, he added, “And that brings us back to Kera, does it not? For I am reliably informed that I will not be able to complete my task until I have returned her from the House of Chaos.“
Lady Risha gave a solemn nod.
“Then I had best puzzle this out without loss of time,“ he said aloud and silently, including them both. “I would not want this new battle to arrive only to find that I am not ready because of my missing Companion. That would never do.“
* * *
They had watched for what seemed like days … or perhaps it was merely hours. Throughout it all, Kera kept hoping that wiser heads might prevail to keep them from rushing to their doom but it seemed there were no wiser heads among the Throk. All the clans had marched south, including women and even some juveniles. The only ones the clans had left behind were those who were too old to hold a club and the females who were still suckling young. That gave Kera some hope for it meant that, even if every Throk who took to the battle field were to die, there would still be some few left. Lord Septha would be spared.
And so, they simply watched. The clans marched until they were spotted by scouts from Aerandos. By the time they reached the land that separated the Empire from the lands of the Throk, a giant army marching under the flags of all five of the Grand Duchies of Imperial Tamaeranda awaited them. Outnumbered at least ten to one by Kera‘s rough estimate, they did not hesitate. The battle lasted for days and she had never even imagined such a bloodbath in her worst nightmares. Finally sickened by the endless slaughter, she moved away from Septha‘s side, unable to watch any longer.
Instead, she stepped over to her seat, which was now a divan that would have been quite comfortable had it not been made of hardwood. Sighing in resignation, she sat. No doubt Lord Septha would continue to watch until this game was played out in full, for He seemed to positively delight in pondering matters that distressed him! She felt sure that if there was nothing to alarm or upset Him in His usual circumstances, He would make a point of recalling some insult from the last Age with which to torment Himself. Briefly, she wondered what He would be like if he were simply, momentarily content.
As she sat there, a peculiar thought occurred to her. What she had just seen among the Throk had seemed as if it must be the work of some months or, at the least, a few weeks. Yet, it seemed to her that only perhaps a few hours had passed. She frowned. How long had she been in this place? For she realized all at once that she could not recall having slept at all since she had been here. She had not even felt sleepy. Surely, if she still lived, she should at least grow tired as time passed. If the events of a few months could seem to her as if they were taking place in just a few hours, did that mean that the endless hours she had spent in company with her Host had encompassed decades? Could it be that, while she had sat here dreaming of Daerus, he had grown old and died already?
“Savages!“ an outraged roar suddenly burst from Septha.
Startled, Kera wrenched her mind away from her musings. “What has passed, my Lord?“ she asked Him in some alarm.
“Not content with his victory on the field of battle, Aerandos has pushed into the lands of the Throk to slaughter the few who are left!“ He told her angrily.
Kera looked at the ornate mirror into which the metal sheet had shifted. “You have watched him do this?“ she asked, confused.
“And they are all dead?“ she probed further.
“My children have all been murdered by those savage … “
Kera took a deep breath and ruthlessly interrupted Him. “If they have all perished, my Lord, why do You still live?“
Septha, with drawn breath and open mouth ready to continue his diatribe, paused. He seemed a bit thrown off His stride and, regarding her with considerable annoyance, He said, “What?“
“You said that You would be no more if all Your Children died. But they have all died. You have just watched them all die. But You have taken no harm that I can see.“ Boldly, she made a suggestion that she knew would be unwelcome. “Is it possible that You were mistaken?“
“How calmly and brazenly you speak of such horror!“ He replied mockingly. “And you can know nothing about it, woman. Of course my children are not dead yet. That is why I have taken no harm!“
“Then … ,“ and Kera scowled in concentration, “then what we saw is not what is happening now?“
“No,“ He answered her much more directly than was His usual habit and in a tone of voice that implied that she was quite stupid.
Kera chose to ignore the insult. “Lord Septha, how long have I been in this place?“
He shrugged. “That question has no meaning, Kera of Ormaer.“
“It may not mean anything to you, my Lord, but … ,“ she began impetuously.
This time, it was His turn to interrupt her. “You mistake my meaning,“ He said. “There is no time in the House of Chaos. We, you and I, exist here in an endless now that is nowhere and everywhere in time. We simply are.“ After a brief pause, he continued in painfully condescending accents. “I do not expect you to comprehend such a concept, although it seems quite simple to Me.“
“In fact,“ she replied instantly in such a sweetly reasonable voice that she might just as well have drawn a sword, “it seems quite simple to me as well, my Lord.“
Dread Septha, Lord of the House of Chaos, responded with something that sounded suspiciously like a huffily delivered, “Hmmph!“
“If the Throk have not yet suffered this fate, or if we may intercede in some other part of this endless now to stop them before they do, do You not see that neither they nor You must needs be doomed?“ she said urgently, wishing He would stop being so silly.
Her suggestion so inflamed him that a bolt of lightning exploded above them, accompanied with a rumble of thunder that rattled everything around her. “And how, idiot mortal, am I to do that? Can you not comprehend that I am banished? I cannot intercede and I have none to do so for me! I will … I will … ,“ and He stopped there, took a deep, shuddering breath and said miserably and in a shockingly small voice, “I will die.“
Kera could vividly feel His fear. She would have liked to offer some plan of action that could comfort Him but no such ideas befriended her in that moment and, she suspected, He would reject any comfort she offered. Again, she sighed.
“Ah … that is not quite true, My Brother,“ said a voice that Kera recognized and she spun around where she stood. Out of the darkness, a Being emerged. He was tall and well-formed, and a profound intelligence radiated from His startlingly blue eyes. “Thou art banished but there are still those of this world who serve Thee,“ He said.
“Thou liest!“ Septha accused in a voice that was both startled and angry. “Once I had thought Thee closer to Me than any other, Luegtha, but now that I am lessened must Thou do naught but mock Me?“ And His voice grew tearful.
“I have told Thee before that I do not mock Thee, Septha. It saddens Me that I am not welcome here for I miss Thee, My Brother, and it is for that reason that I come here. No more than Thou do I wish for Thee, or indeed, for any of Us, to perish,“ Luegtha said gently. “Come, My Brother, this need not be.“
A vast silence greeted that remark.
Finally, Luegtha sighed. “Thou were not always so very stubborn. Very well, then, I will offer Thee news instead. There are indeed some in the world from which Thou art banished who were born to serve Thee. No doubt Thou wilt meet them soon enough. It is as Thy Wise Companion hath suggested to Thee: if Thy servants can stand between Thy children and their doom, then Thou needst not perish. If there is aught I can do to aid thee in this, I will, for I cannot sit idle while this doom visits Thee.“
Kera heard Lord Septha gasp at those words. “And why dost Thou concern Thyself with such as I? I am unworthy. Father has decided.“
“In fact, it is not Father but Thou who hast decided that Thou art unworthy. But that is of no consequence. I concern Myself with Thee because I love Thee, lessened and all as Thou hast chosen to be,“ Luegtha said gently.
Touched, Kera‘s eyes filled with tears.
“Even now do My children abide with Thine in preparation for battle,“ Lord Luegtha continued. “Once their interference‘ begins, I believe what Thou wouldst see in Thine excellent glass will be altered. Perhaps, when that happens, Thou wilt finally be brought to believe that Thou — even Thou — can be loved.“
And, with that, He was gone.
* * *
Daerus sought his bed that night with much to consider. They had talked until quite late and he knew that he should be tired but, even though his body was ready for rest, his mind skittered this way and that, unable to settle on anything but unable to release him into sleep. He sensed that there was a great deal that he would need to understand, and quite soon. Even though he was unsure of when and where and how he would be required to perform his destined task, he felt certain that time was running out for him. Daerus would have given a great deal for a prophesy that was as straightforward as it was accurate. Smiling to himself, he briefly considered his sister‘s role in the late Gaerud and felt a surge of strong sympathy for her.
Giving up on sleep for the moment, Daerus rose from his bed and went to the window to gaze out on the darkened landscape. There was only a sliver of a moon in the clear sky and it did not shed much light but his gaze was turned inward and the moonlight could not have helped him.
How many times had he stood at this window of an evening and thought he felt the caress of Kera‘s hand on his cheek. Chaos is everywhere, eh? he thought, wondering if that had really been her he‘d felt. To own the truth, he silently admitted, he was a little overwhelmed by the amount of information he‘d received this night but at the same time it was difficult for him to think of anything but Kera. Everything pointed to her. Kera was the Companion that Lady Risha had spoken of when the Voice of Prophesy had come over her. She was the last of those he would need to have by his side in order to complete his task. She was the link between him and his other master — Lord Septha. First and foremost, however, she was his Kera, his lady. And not only had he been given the gift of knowing she still lived, he had been most strictly enjoined to fetch her back to this world.
But first, of course, he had to find his way.
That was the cause of his restlessness. He needed to find his way to the House of Chaos that was, according to Zhedthik, nowhere and everywhere all at once. On an impulse, he closed his eyes and stilled his thoughts. Could he hear her? Could he sense her? If the House of Chaos was all around him, was it possible that he could simply reach out a hand and pull her back into the here and now? He took a slow, deep, calming breath and waited.
It seemed to take a very long time but he gradually became aware of an overpowering sense of presence, of more than one presence. He seemed to be hearing voices, as well, and he strained to decipher their words.
“ … offer Thee news instead. There are indeed some in the world from which Thou art banished who were born to serve Thee. No doubt Thou wilt meet them soon enough. It is as Thy Wise Companion hath suggested to Thee: if Thy servants can stand between Thy children and their doom, then Thou needst not perish. If there is aught I can do to aid thee in this, I will, for I cannot sit idle while this doom visits Thee.“
Daerus found his attention riveted when he heard that voice refer to a Wise Companion. He listened even harder.
A second voice replied, “”And why dost Thou concern Thyself with such as I? I am unworthy. Father has decided.“
A strong sense of kinship arose in Daerus at these words, and the pain with which they were uttered, momentarily distracting him. I am unworthy. How many times had he felt that to be so of himself as well, as he was forced to bid farewell to everyone in his life that he had loved. Even in the midst of this new brotherhood of Chaos, even in the wake of his absolution during that conversation with the Phoenix, even in the face of his own impiously questioning thoughts, Daerus still could not simply dispense with the moral training of most of his life.
But, before he could begin to dwell on those uncomfortable and sorrowful thoughts, that first voice spoke again.
“In fact, it is not Father but Thou who hast decided that Thou art unworthy. But that is of no consequence,“ it said gently. “I concern Myself with Thee because I love Thee, lessened and all as Thou hast chosen to be. Even now do My children abide with Thine in preparation for battle. Once their interference‘ begins, I believe what Thou wouldst see in Thine excellent glass will be altered. Perhaps, when that happens, Thou wilt finally be brought to believe that Thou — even Thou — can be loved.“
Daerus was frowning fiercely by now. The second voice he thought he recognized, for he had spent quite some time listening to it during the late Interval. But of what were they speaking? Septha‘s children, he knew, referred to himself and the others he was hosting at Shae … except for the Brethren of Lueg. Of course! Luegtha must have been the owner of the first voice! But … in preparation for battle? What battle? With whom? When? Were they to interfere in this battle, then? And what was this doom of which Lord Luegtha spoke?
“Be tranquil, my son,“ the voice of Luegtha suddenly said to him from nowhere and everywhere at once. “T‘would be a mighty poor prophesy that could not come to pass without our supervision. You and your companions will be just where you are needed when you are needed there, rest assured.“
Daerus smiled ruefully. “I am touched by your faith in me, Lord Luegtha.“
“Now you are beginning to sound like those sorry fellows who serve Me,“ his unseen guest said. “It would distress me to think that they proved to be an unwholesome influence upon you.“
Daerus laughed aloud at that. “No, really, my Lord! It is no such thing! I am perfectly sure that if you were to ask the archpriest of the purple who once served Shae, he would tell you that I have always been distressingly irreverent. It would be unjust to blame the Brethren for that,“ he said with a mischievous grin.
There was a momentary startled silence followed by a merry, rolling laugh. “That may well be, young man,“ Luegtha replied, “but I can surely perceive that you would feel very much at home with them.“
“I thank you for thinking so, my Lord,“ Daerus said with a deep bow.
“Yes, well, never mind that. I merely came here to assure you that you will find the answers to all your questions in a timely fashion, so that you need not fret that the universe will come to an end if you have not figured it all out by next firstmeal,“ Luegtha told him.
Daerus grinned again.
Then, with that surprising note of gentleness in His voice, Lueg added, “Rest, Lord Daerus. You will find that tomorrow will be another busy day.“
Daerus thought briefly that Lord Luegtha was having a very busy night. In any event, no sooner had Luegtha put the idea into his head than Daerus became conscious of his deep weariness. He also realized that his restlessness had inexplicably left him and he thought that perhaps he would now be able to sleep. Smiling faintly at the thought of being put to bed like a halfling — and by a God, no less! — Daerus turned back to his bed.
* * *
Vaerdeen sat his horse and hunched into his bearskin cloak against the biting northern wind. Curse his luck. They had drawn lots to decide who would assume scouting detail each month and he had naturally ended up spending his month in this no-mans-land between Aerandos and Throk territory in the far north during the tag end of the cold season. Further south, verdant, sun-warmed fields perfumed the spring sunshine. Here, the snows would still threaten for another few weeks.
Scouting duty had been dull but that was a good thing. The Throk had made a determined effort to break through Aerandos‘ defenses early in the Interval but their forces had held. In desperation or deep cunning — none of them had been able to decide which — they had turned west and attacked Lemantia. Vaerdeen did not hold with the doings he had heard of in that peculiar kingdom, but he had to admit that the witches who ran the place had speedily routed the Throk with their magic. Never mind how they had done it, Vaerdeen told himself. It was results that mattered.
There had been nothing heard from the Throk since then, not even when the Phoenix had risen and day followed night like it should. Lord Saeros Aerandos was now Emperor and well settled in the newly christened capital city of Tamaerand, and the new Grand Duke was a cousin and former colonel named Braeden. It came as no surprise to anyone that the men were having to grow used to the change of command even as the new Grand Duke was having to grow used to his new role. He seemed to Vaerdeen to be a bit stiff but there was little doubt that he would loosen up as he and they grew accustomed to each other.
Suddenly, a movement far back in the trees caught his eye and he straightened in his saddle, squinting against the brilliant sunshine. “Raed!“ he called quietly but urgently. “Come and take a look at this!“
Raed was his partner on this watch. A big burly fellow from the southeastern reaches of Aerandos near the border with Gedbaen, Raed gave Vaerdeen a strong feeling of security — although he would never have admitted it. Raed talked relatively little but he could be surprisingly good company in a tavern and he was definitely a good man to have on your side in a fight.
Raed responded to his call immediately, riding over to his side of this hilltop. From this vantage point, one could see easily for at least fifteen leagues in any direction, in spite of the thick forest around them. “Have you spotted something, then?“ Raed asked in his slow drawl as he cast his gaze north.
Vaerdeen did not reply and a taut silence stretched between them.
“Great Phoenix!“ whispered Raed finally.
“They go on for miles,“ Vaerdeen said, awed.
“That must be all of them,“ Raed agreed.
“All of them?“
“All of the clans, I mean. Looks like it, eh?“ And with that, Raed turned his horse. “We had best get the relay started. This might be more than Aerandos can handle alone, so the Empire had best be ready for them when they get there.“
Not even pausing to strike their camp, the two soldiers galloped down the hill to spread the word that the Throk were finally on the move.