Chapter 12

Zhedthik moved silently through the massive hut of his host, Daerus of Shae. There were many things he did not understand about these others of the south, not least of which was why any one of them should need such a huge place to live. Throk families were not large — safer that way — but the largest of them lived in just one room in the center of a clan settlement. The way these others lived made no sense to him.

Although he supposed he should not complain. Zhedthik was very much aware that he was safe here, utterly and completely safe for the first time in his life. It had taken as much time as his journey to this place and the time he had spent here so far to accustom himself to it but, he recently realized, he had begun to relax. He had gone from a world of endless war and senseless, unpredictable violence to a peaceful place where none seemed to want to harm him. Relaxation, he had discovered, could even been pleasant. His sleep was deeper and more restful. He was aware of a feeling of closeness to his companions that was quite different from the warrior brotherhood of the Throk. As he had explored the dimensions of Chaos and come to understand them, he was also discovering the distinct and unique joy of learning. This time was like no other with which he had any experience.

Zhedthik did not like it. He felt he was getting soft.

He focused his thoughts, concentrating on blanking out his presence so that none could sense his approach. It was a technique he had learned in preparation for battle, although few of the soldiers of Aerandos would have credited the Throk with such a subtle technique. At the same time, he could feel the cubs not far away. He looked around for a defensible spot from which to stage an ambush. If any of his clan had been there, he would have been deeply ashamed to admit to what he was doing. However, he knew that he would not spend the rest of his days in this haven of warmth and peace. He would encounter others who lived beyond the sway of Daerus of Shae and would not be so tolerant of him. He would, if Rischa were to be believed, some day return to the Throk to assume place among them as High Priest but he would have to live long enough to assert his status. And so he did the only thing it seemed to him that he could do to prepare himself.

He played with the cubs.

Zhedthik had not yet pinpointed their location when he felt the mind of Sholeck at work. Sholeck wielded energies of Chaos, while Sheloch was the force that contained it. Zhedthik could never feel Sheloch when he brought his power to bear but he always felt Sholeck. Throkish instincts took over as Zhedthik dipped low to the ground and rolled, coming back to his feet almost silently. Sure enough, he sensed a swirling mass of contained Chaos were he had just been standing. The cubs were constantly trying to overpower him, he could not say why. Perhaps it was because he was so large compared to them that they were compelled to somehow reduce him to what they considered a manageable size. Zhedthik could not see what difference it would make. He could still out-muscle the pair of them combined and, if they gave him too much trouble, simply dangle them by their ankles until he had reason to believe they would behave. He wondered if they had any idea how like Throk cubs they were.

Frustrated with the failure of their plan, the cubs suddenly erupted from behind the cloth hanging around the windows and ran at him. He rose to his feet then and let them have their way with him. They pummeled him with considerable spirit and a great deal of shouting. Zhedthik let them. He could barely feel it but he thought it might make them feel better. From his throat issued the rumbling earthquake sound that passed for laughter among the Throk. He experienced an instant of regret that he had been so busy being a Throk warrior that he had never before enjoyed the cubs of his clan as he did these cubs of … his new clan?

He froze for a moment in something very like shock, Sholeck tossed over a shoulder and Sheloch under an arm. Could he think of these others as clan mates? It seemed a peculiar idea for those he had spent his entire adult life scheming to conquer but, then, everything about his present circumstances was peculiar. When he had left his homeland, he had thought that perhaps he did not need a clan, that he could live whole and alone. He shook his head at those remembered plans, a deep ache coming over him. Perhaps he had believed that because he had not really felt at home in his clan since the beginning of the Time of the Endless Sun, since the Ideas had begun to befriend him. His former clan had not liked Ideas. Here, among these others, they were welcome … although Ideas were not welcome among all these others, he realized, recalling the Old Ones who had tried to bar their way when first he had arrived.

Deep in thought, Zhedthiks blank stare was fixed upon the door when it suddenly opened to admit his host and his one-time traveling companion, Daerus and Lueg. Of course they were talking together in the language of these others but, also of course, Zhedthik understood nothing of what the two were saying to each other. He had made no attempt to learn their language because it seemed to him that he was able to perceive everything he needed to know without it. He had long since made the decision to trust Daerus not to put him in danger, so that it did not trouble him that he could not understand what they said. Perhaps the point did not require any thought on his part. Zhedthik trusted them enough that it only made sense to think of them as his new clan. It was as simple as that.

At that moment, his wandering thoughts suddenly riveted upon his host and his abstraction left him. As he watched closely, he could see that Daerus was struggling to keep his mind on his talk with Lueg. But no, Zhudthik thought, that is not right. Daerus should not be trying this hard to do something as unimportant as talk. There was a thing that needed to happen, right here in this time and place, something important.

Stop fighting with it, Daerus, he said on an impulse.

A startled look came into Daerus’ eyes and he suddenly seemed to become alert as he shot a glance at Zhedthik. Then he ambled over to the door while Lueg continued to speak.

Daerus said something more to Lueg and then opened the drawing room door once again. He bowed as Lueg moved across the threshold and then slowly closed the door — almost. As Zhedthik watched, aware that something momentous was happening, Daerus slowly pulled the door once more and then once more he closed it. And then pulled it open again. And once again, he closed it. The expression on Daerus’ face was a strange combination of curiously thoughtful and blank as he slowly repeated the motion of opening and closing the door again and again.

As Zhedthik continued to look on, bemused, Daerus suddenly gasped. Zhedthik!

Yes, Daerus? Zhedthik answered immediately.

Daerus wrenched open the door. Bring the cubs and come with me, he commanded with an unmistakable note of elation in his mental tone.

Zhedthik responded to that command without a moment’s thought. You have found the door you sought? he guessed, although it was not really a guess.

Daerus threw a smile over his shoulder that rivaled the light of the sun.

He led the way out to the clearing before the hut where Daerus stored the beasts these Others sometimes used to carry them. Rischa was there waiting for them, which did not surprise Zhedthik at all. Even the cubs had stopped squirming as if they, too, had sensed that something was about to happen that would make all the difference in the world.

Rischa stepped forward to greet Daerus with a nod when he approached her, unsurprised as she always was. They spoke quietly together for a few moments, with Daerus still speaking in that jubilant tone.

She nodded again, her eyes still on Daerus when she spoke to him. It is time.

I know, Zhedthik replied.

Daerus looked around at them all, said a few final words and then turned his back to them. Zhedthik once more clearly felt that power within him responding to the movement of a similar power within Daerus, felt that special kinship once more, as Daerus stared purposefully at the emptiness before him. From inside the beast hut came a frantic call that was cut off as suddenly as it began. After a moment, Zhedthik began to experience the peculiar and exquisite joy that always came to him when someone nearby summoned the Power of Chaos. His sense of that power began to grow and expand, slowly at first and then in a rush, overcoming him almost as if he mated with one of the shes of the Throk once again. He became aware that tears streaked his skin beneath the fur of his face. He hoped none of them could see.

Daerus reached out a hand, palm up, and slowly closed it into a fist. Dimly at first, a swirling darkness enclosed that fist and quickly became an impenetrable, concentrated blackness. The power Zhethik now sensed was almost enough to bring him to his knees. Here, then, was a true Master of Chaos, just as Rischa had said, he thought. If he were to take his place as High Priest of Chaos, as she also had said, he needed to be able to pull this power from inside himself as Daerus did. He had once doubted that he could but what Daerus was doing now seemed to be calling forth a matching power from within his own body. I can master this, Zhedthik thought for the first time. I can.

Rischa smiled.

Suddenly, Daerus opened his fingers and released the swirling, dancing blackness into the air before him and there, just as Zhedthik remembered, was what Daerus had called a Chaotic Maelstrom. Standing before it, Daerus seemed to have grown to fifty feet tall, great with the power of Chaos and an indefinable excitement that Zhedthik suspected had little to do with his command of this swirling darkness. Slowly, he turned around to face them.

Well? Daerus silently said to him as he spoke to the others in their own tongue. Shall we go? He swept them all with his glance, with an eagerness to get underway that reminded Zhedthik of young Throk warriors awaiting the signal to charge into their very first battle.

But even as he turned back to the Maelstrom, Zhedthik saw Sholeck step back. Sheloch had been wearing a broad grin but, when he felt his brother step away from his side, he turned an inquiring face to him. Sholeck’s eyes never left the portal and there was a terrible fear in their expression. He said nothing but shook his head slightly. Sheloch did not speak, either, but his gaze did not waver from his brother’s face. Sholeck shook his head again, seeming even more agitated, and Sheloch took a step toward him.

Zhedthik turned his head from them to stare thoughtfully into the swirling black maw. The cubs should not make this journey, he thought at Daerus. They are not both of Chaos.

No? Daerus challenged him.

Think, Daerus, he said. Think of how they do things. One of them is of Chaos and one of them is of this Order you have spoken of so often. They cannot both go and we cannot separate them. They should stay here.

Daerus stared at him thoughtfully for a moment and Zhedthik thought he would challenge that observation. But instead, he slowly nodded, turned his head, and spoke to the cubs, his voice gentle and reassuring. Sheloch still wore the carefully blank expression he always assumed when Daerus said anything to him. But when silence had fallen once again, the boy nodded sharply and, taking Sholeck by the hand, led him back toward the hut. The three adults watched them go.

Daerus was still looking after the boys when he said silently, Anything else?

Daerus, Zhedthik returned reproachfully.

In reply, Daerus turned back to the swirling blackness, took a deep breath and stepped inside. Rischa looked to him next, a faint smile on her face as she jerked her head toward the portal to indicate that he should precede her. But Zhedthik had other ideas. He reached out and gently took her tiny hand, so that they strode into the darkness together.

He could not have said what he expected when he stepped through that portal but he certainly had not expected to be confronted with a war axe hurtling out of the dark nothingness, arching toward his chest. Immediately, the gentleness left his eyes. Suddenly, he stopped thinking and came truly alert for the first time since he had left the lands of the Throk. Instinctively, he turned his shoulder into the blade’s path, shielding his companion while also opting for the less serious injury. At the same time, he felt again that dark might emerging from his own body and surrounding him with its strength. He barely had an instant to brace himself for the blow.

Except that the blow, when it came, was hardly noticable. Zhedthik, confused, looked over his shoulder and saw nothing except a large black feather settling at his feet. He blinked at it for a moment. Had he done that?

Daerus was well ahead of him now, his eagerness transparent in every step he took. Zhedthik decided that Daerus had not had to contend with flying weapons descending upon him and wondered if perhaps his Master was displeased with him.

Rischa suddenly chuckled in his mind. The Master is not displeased with you, Zhedthik, she told him.

No? Is it his way to throw war axes at his guests?

Lord Septha does not have a ‘way,’ Zhedthik. This is the House of Chaos and He is its Master, she said with some finality.

And can you say why Daerus is not under attack? Zhedthik wanted to know, staring at the javelin flying toward his head until it turned into one of the vines he remembered having seen during his journey south. Something in him eased. He liked the alert feeling that had returned to him in this place, and this wielding of chaos was … well, it was sort of … fun. It was leagues better than playing with the cubs. It was even better than charging into battle.

Rischa was smiling broadly. It is because you are Throk, Zhedthik, she answered him.

Zhedthik took her hand once again and resumed a cautious walk, his eyes everywhere as he considered her words. If any of his new companions had been watching him, they might have thought that he was extraordinarily tense but, in fact, he was more comfortable than he had been since he had come south. As much as he had pleaded with his clansmen to consider another way of being, he began to recognize now how difficult it would be for them, how uncomfortable peace would be for the Throk. Indeed, it is as uncomfortable for us as battle is uncomfortable for these ones of the south. Little wonder then that it should be impossible for both to coexist.

The thought saddened him. In the weeks that he had dwelt with these others, banished and all as he was from his home and his clan and everything that had been dear and familiar to him, he had come to hold his fellow children of Chaos in considerable affection even as he acknowledged that he did not understand them. Perhaps it was not intended that he should understand them. Their incomprehensible ways and the unintelligible gibberish with which they spoke to each other contributed to as much chaos as existed in his life now. Perhaps he should be grateful that these others still made no sense to him. It made this place called Shae seem like a place he could call home.

Almost. For here, in this strange place that presented him with such continual, random, senseless attacks that he could almost have felt that he had returned to his birthplace, Zhedthik mercilessly confronted the precarious position he occupied. He understood that he was a servant of Septha and it was not in his nature to question this. But, though they served the same Master, Zhedthik was not one of them. Alone of the Chosen of Septha, he was Throk. He could no longer deny this or pretend that it did not matter or that he had forgot. Outcast and banished as he was, Zhedthik was Throk and he knew that it did matter, even if he could not in that instant have said why.

They continued in Daerus’ wake toward a seemingly dim light ahead. The hurtling weapons continued to fly toward Zhedthik and Rischa, but he found it easier and easier to turn the weapons into harmless objects that stopped hurtling and simply fell to the ground as often as not. As he grew used to wielding this strange power, he became calmer and more confident about coming to this place. How much did his growing ease have to do with his growing sense, as he approached a dimly lit space that he recognized as the center of the chaos, of his identity as Throk? Zhedthik did not know what, beyond the retrieval of Daerus’ mate, they were to do while they remained in this place. He only knew that there would be more.

With that, Zhedthik could be content. He knew that he was ready.

* * *

Kera watched Luegtha disappear into the darkness that surrounded Lord Septha and herself, tears still standing in her eyes. There were some from her world who were born to serve Septha? Some who were not of the Throk? She was certain that she had never met any such servants of Septha in the palace of Kaerkas and she wondered briefly who they could be.

Of course, it did not matter. None of them would be her Daerus. He belonged to the Phoenix, and so he had chosen when his mind and will had truly been his own to command once more. The flicker of hope born of Luegtha’s words died. The tears in Kera’s eyes spilled slowly down her cheeks and her head drooped in defeat.

“What ails thee, woman?” Lord Septha asked in a voice that quivered with incipient tears. “Thou dost not face the prospect of thy death, so thou can have no cause for weeping. Recall that once I am no more, thou wilt be free.”

She was not required to answer that because her divine Host once more began to sob, quietly this time, and she had not enough spirit in that moment to exert herself to be heard. “If Lord Luegtha is to be believed,” she said quietly around the lump in her throat, “You do not face that prospect either. And You know why I weep.”

“Daerus of Shae is not worthy of thy tears, woman,” Septha said in precisely the same thickened tone of voice. “Thou art of the Chosen of Septha. When he rejected Me, he rejected Thee.”

“Indeed he did not!” Kera leapt to her feet, unable to keep her seat when Lord Septha so unfeelingly spoke words that echoed her own fears and lacerated her wounded heart.

“No? Have it as thou wilt, woman,” He said, “but thou canst not deny that he did not desire thee enough to choose Me, did he?”

“That was not the choice he was asked to make!” Kera said hotly. “He did not choose to have me or not to have me. When he made his choice, he could not have known that he would lose me! He chose between Order and Chaos, between You and the Phoenix! Surely You know this! Why must You seek to hurt me so?” By the time she had finished this speech, there was no way she could have concealed her tears. That angered her for she had promised herself that she would never let him see just how much her imprisonment continually wounded her, and she fought for control.

Her impassioned question silenced Him for a moment. “Dost thou find Me to be such a cruel Master, then?” He asked her.

She refused to answer right away, determined to master her emotion and summon all the imperial poise that she could. When she had composed herself, she paused yet again to carefully consider her answer. “No, my Lord,” she said at last. “I do not find You to be so very cruel.”

He uttered what sounded like a relieved sigh but Kera gave no indication that she heard.

“I do find You to be quite selfish,” she continued, “and childish…”

“Childish?”

“… and frequently very silly.”

“Silly??? Wouldst thou speak so of a God?” He roared at her.

But His roars had long since lost the power to intimidate her. You did ask my opinion, my Lord,” she reminded Him primly.

“Indeed I did but I did not … thou needst not … that is to say… ”

“If You did not wish to know what I think, my Lord, then You should not have asked,” she interrupted Him, every inch the imperial princess.

Really, Kera, you have not changed by so much as a hair’s breath!

Kera gasped and spun around, looking about wildly for the source of that well-loved, teasing voice. “Daerus?” she whispered through the fingers she had unconsciously lifted to her lips. How could this possibly be? Was she dreaming? Imagining? Surely Lord Septha could not be so cruel…

And suddenly, there he was, strolling out of the shadows that surrounded the House of Chaos with all the confidence and unconscious grace that she remembered from the very first time she saw him. She had watched him enter the imperial throne room as if he owned it and had wondered, as he made his bow to her father, why Maermat seemed to lack that sort of well-bred ease of manner.

Now, it seemed to her that he had not changed either, for he strode to the foot of Lord Septha’s chair and bowed, as full of assurance as if he had not chosen against Him at their last encounter. Kera’s heart started to pound.

“My Lord,” Daerus said in greeting.

“Thou darest show thy face here in the House of Chaos, Daerus of Shae?” asked Lord Septha ominously.

“Yes, whyever not?” Daerus replied cheerfully.

“Why? Why???” Lord Septha repeated incredulously, His voice gaining in volume and indignation at the same time. “Thou choseth the Phoenix! Thou hadst the temerity to reject Me even after I had chosen thee! Thou canst have no business here, mortal.”

“Ah, but you see, I do have business here, My Lord,” Daerus said, unpurturbed. “And really, you know, I could not have chosen You in the late Gaerud, as You would Yourself perceive if You would but think on the matter for an instant.”

“And here is another to mock Me then?” Lord Septha began, scowling at the young man.

“Oh, please, my Lord, do not!” Kera said, suddenly and impetuously entering the conversation. “Contrary to what You would believe, there are none in all the world who seek to mock You! Can you not simply listen for once without laboring so to find insult in everything that is said to You?”

The Dark God did not speak but merely turned His smouldering eyes from Daerus to her. She sensed, however, that his patience was wearing thin and she spoke quickly.

“It is as I told You before, my Lord. We would not be able to live for very long in the grip of Chaos. Humans simply cannot survive in such a way. You must surely know that many, many of us died during the Interval for just that reason. We are not meant to live in such chaos and that is why …” Kera hesitated, aware that she did not wish to wound this patehtic deity further.

“Well? Say what you will, woman,” Lord Septha urged impatiently.

She took a breath and continued as gently as she could. “That is why You cannot be our God, Lord Septha. If Your Father had given us to You as You wished, we would all be dead by now … and You would be no more.”

Septha gasped. “How can you so easily speak such horror?”

Will you not see, my Lord? You were given the Throk because Your Father did not wish You to be lessened. He believed You should have children of Your own but they must needs be children that would suit the Master of Chaos,” she told Him. “I do not see that there was ever any insult there, my Lord. It seems to me that He did as much as any loving father could do.”

Dread Septha the Destroyer, Master of Chaos, drew breath as if to speak and she waited for His diatribe. Silence reigned for a moment until finally He turned His face away from her – but not before she had seen the sheen of tears return to His eyes. Kera sighed. Still, He did not speak and Daerus stepped in to fill the breach.

“I could not choose You in the late Gaerud, Lord Septha, but still You are my Master,” he said, speaking as gently as had Kera. “It is in service to You that I have come here and brought these of my companions – Your servants – to make Your acquaintance.”

That seemed to capture Lord Septha’s attention and helped him to retain His composure. Slowly, He turned his head to face them once more. “My servants?” He asked with narrowed eyes.

“Why, yes, my Lord,” Daerus said smoothly. He turned away and Kera noticed for the first time the two who had accompanied him. “This is Lady Rischa. She is the Seer, my Lord,” he went on, drawing forth a woman of some forty years whose unremarkable features were saved from plainness by the most beautiful eyes Kera had ever seen.

The woman called Rischa stepped forward and stood before the Throne of Chaos, head held high and eyes curiously blank. “Be not disquiet, God of Chaos, for the doom that Thou didst foresee befall Thy children the Throk shall be spared them,” she said in a strangely choral, echoing voice. “All unwilling shall they receive instruction of Thy Priest, that they may learn to live with the blessings of Chaos instead of dying of them. Nay, my Lord, this is not the Fate that awaits Thee.”

“Nay?” Lord Septha repeated. “Tell Me then, Seeress, what is the Fate that awaits Me?”

There was a pause as the woman seemed to look inward, no doubt consulting her vision. Finally, she spoke. “That I cannot, God of Chaos, for that hath not been revealed to me. No man nor God knoweth what awaits Thee for Thy Fate lieth in the hands of the Chosen One,” Rischa intoned.

Kera watched Lord Septha absorb her words and saw His shoulders slowly droop as in defeat. “I see,” he said sadly before lifting His hand and saying, “My thanks, Seeress, and My blessing. I am pleased with thee.”

The woman called Rischa bowed her head and stepped back behind Daerus, who watched her retreat with a quizzical smile. Then he turned and drew forth another visitor to the House of Chaos. “And this,” he said, “is Zhedthik, the Priest.”

Zhedthik, Kera saw, was a Throk, a fact she assimilated without too much surprise. Of course, if Septha was god to the Throk, His high priest would have to be Throk as well. Kera admitted privately, however, that she would have given much to know how it had come about that Daerus had become acquainted with this Throk high priest. That was a tale she would have to wrest from him later.

The thought sobered her suddenly. Would there be a “later?” How long would Daerus be permitted to stay? Would they have a chance to spend time together or would he be forced to leave as soon as Lord Septha had finished his conversation with his high priest – in Throk, so that she had no notion of what they were saying to each other? Could she touch him? Would she have the opportunity to say good-bye to him, a small matter that had been denied her when she’d been whisked out of her father’s throne room and into this madhouse? Could she bid him farewell yet again without losing her precarious grip on sanity?

The questions chased themselves one after another through her mind and she lifted her eyes to his precious face to find his gaze fixed upon her. This was no time to be coy. Oh, my love, I have missed you so, she silently whispered the thought as her eyes devoured him.

His grey eyes softened suddenly. And I you, my darling, he tenderly replied.

Kera betrayed her surprise with a sharp intake of breath. They had become able to share their thoughts at the imperial court, when Septha had overtaken them both. She had not been able to do this with any other, not even her brother, and she had feared the ability lost to her once she became her own mistress again after the Gaerud. Daerus …, she made no attempt to hide the longing in her heart.

Hush, love, he chided her, nodding toward the tableau before Lord Septha’s throne. Be patient.

Lord Septha had left His seat to place a hand upon the Throk’s head. Zhedthik’s eyes widened and they seemed to wear an expression that combined amazement with fright. He moaned and swayed, and Kera could see that he had begun to pant and his muscles suddenly tensed.

And then it was over. Lord Septha stepped back to His throne and seated Himself, saying, “Speak, My priest.”

“Am I still Throk?” asked the priest in a dark, compelling voice. This time both Kera and Daerus gasped in surprise.

“Thou art still one of My children, Zhedthik, and thou wilt discover that thou canst still speak thy native tongue. I have given thee the language of those others of the south so that they will find it difficult to consider thee to be a beast still,” Lord Septha said.

For a moment, the God and the Throk stared at one another. Then the priest slowly dropped to one knee before his Master. Lord Septha nodded and said, “Thou art fit, My priest. Doubt thyself not for I am pleased with thee as well. My blessing upon thee, Zhedthik.”

“I will not fail You, Septha,” he said. “I will not fail Your children.”

Daerus smiled faintly.

“I thank thee,” Lord Septha said simply. Then, as Zhedthik backed away from the throne respectfully, Lord Septha shifted His eyes to glare broodingly at Daerus. “These then are all My servants left in your world?” He asked.

Daerus shook his head and said, “No, my Lord. There are others. These are most prominent and most worthy of honor. They are among the Chosen of Septha who will stand with me upon the field of battle to bar the way of the Children of Chaos.”

“And who are the Chosen of Septha of whom thou speakst?” Lord Septha asked.

The Priest Zhedthik stepped forward to reply. “They are the Seer and the Priest,” he said, indicating himself and Rischa, “and the Silent Ones and the Companion.”

Again, Lord Septha scowled. “The Companion, eh?”

All three of them nodded. Kera’s glance roved from one to another of the trio, sensing that something significant was happening.

“Must Thou have the Companion with thee?” was Lord Septha’s plaintive query.

“Your Seeress has assured me that we will fail without her,” Daerus answered.

Again, silence descended. Lord Septha stared at the floor, His shifting thoughts betrayed by the shifting furnishings of the House of Chaos, while the rest of the company awaited His pleasure.

“What then matters more, My convenience or My responsibilities?” He finally muttered. “I see. It is a test, as all things are tests.” Then He raised His head to fix a stern glance upon Daerus, “Thou choseth the Phoenix in the Gaerud, and yet now thou wouldst claim the God of Chaos as thy Master. Art thou then so very fickle? With this task, thou dost hold My very being in thy hand. Wilst I remain thy Master on the morrow?”

“I alone among the men of this world serve two Masters,” Daerus replied with quiet confidence. “You are one of those Masters, my Lord, as well you know.”

“That is not reassuring, Daerus of Shae. Wilt thou see Me perish?”

“I will not, my Lord.”

“So thou sayest but how may I know …”

Daerus interrupted his Master without compunction. “This is my task, my Lord. Much depends upon it. I will not fail so long as I have the Chosen of Septha at my side.”

Again, Lord Septha drew a deep breath and slowly sighed. “Very well, then.” And much to her surprise, He beckoned to Kera. She looked around at them all, startled. Daerus, smiling now, stepped aside and indicated with a flourish that she should take his place before the Throne of Chaos. She stared at him for a moment with her heart in her eyes before turning to bow her head before this God who was also her Master. “My Lord?”

“Thou too art among the Chosen of Septha, my Wise Companion,” Lord Septha said to her.

Kera raised her head to stare at Him in shock. Did He mean … Could He mean what she thought He meant?

“It is well,” He continued. “Thou knowest Me better perhaps than any mortal of your world hath ever known Me. Thus I charge thee with this task. Thou must teach them what thou hast learnt of Me, Kera of Ormaer. Tell them My story. Instruct them in the nature of their Master.”

And suddenly, Kera realized that He was saying good-bye to her. In an instant, she was visited by half a dozen emotions and knew not which she felt most. He was letting her go! He was letting her return to her world, to her love, and her heart sang in celebration of her newfound freedom. But she was leaving Him. Once again, He would be alone in this House of Chaos and her heart ached for the loneliness He tried to hide beneath His stubborn pride. Lord Septha’s image wavered before her as her eyes filled.

“I will, Master,” she said, wholly unable to keep her voice steady.

“I know it may not have seemed so to thee but I am pleased with thee as well, child,” He went on. “I shall miss thee.”

“I will still be with You, Master,” she replied, “for I shall carry You away from this place in my heart.”

“My blessing upon thee, Kera of Ormaer.”

“Thank You, Master. Fare well.”

In the next instant, she heard Daerus speak behind her and she whirled to face him. “Kera! Come!”

She took the hand he held out to her and allowed him to pull her to his side. Rischa and Zhethik joined him as well. “Thank You, Master,” Daerus said.

“Be still, Master,” Zhedthik added. “You will be with us.”

“You are always with us,” Rischa told Him.

Daerus was still holding her hand tightly. With his other hand, he reached out, fingers splayed, and a wild, living darkness seemed to swirl around her. She felt like she was spinning, whirling around as if she were being carried by a warm wind even though she knew she was not moving. Daerus bent a focused stare at his hand and the darkness whipping around her shrank into a concentrated storm of blackness around that hand. Finally, he closed his fist and captured the darkness. When he relaxed his fingers once more, the blackness was gone.

Kera looked around, blinking in the bright sunshine that she had never thought to see again. Before her was a handsome manor house that she had never seen before. She turned slowly, catching sight of a large new stable, of a well-groomed green lawn surrounded by stately shade trees, of a farmer at work in a distant field. Tears streamed down her face even as she began to laugh.

In the next instant, she had been swept into a fierce embrace. “Kera!” exulted Daerus. “My darling, my darling Kera, you have come back to me!” And he held her there, muttering endearments into her ear, as if he never intended to let her go.

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