Their journey consumed what seemed, as best as Dia could tell, to be two months and they were, without question, the two longest, most uncomfortable months she could remember. She spent most of her waking hours in the saddle and their pace was a sedate walk, which conserved the stamina of her mount but also slowed their pace to what seemed a crawl. When she was not riding, she found herself sitting or attempting to sleep on the stony ground and Dia was certain that her unfortunate body memorized each rock, pebble and clump of dirt on which it rested. It seemed she was always tired now and wanted nothing more than to stop, find a pillowed surface and sleep for about a year.
She could not know if it was due to the peculiar time in which they traveled, but her pregnancy seemed to be speeding along much more rapidly than normal. Within a few days, her belly began to swell, and it continued to grow so quickly that, for a few days, Dia grew almost afraid of it all — and, particularly, of her baby. Phoebus had to speak with her sternly about that.
She grew ungainly and awkward and, as she did, her temper grew more and more uncertain. At one moment, she was filled with tender joy at the thought of the child she and Caelon had created and which now rested under her heart. The next moment, she was frightened of the awesome responsibility of mothering a child without his father’s support. She felt she was somehow being used by the faceless, heartless, unseen thing called “destiny,” and was filled with an impotent rage at the injustice of her lack of viable options. And, of course, her grief at Caelon’s death was too new and raw to have run its course; she sometimes sat her mount and quietly cried her sorrow for that loss.
Phoebus accepted her rapid changes of mood as calmly as he accepted everything else, simply making sure she ate well and rested often. Dia complained about that, too; they would never reach their destination if he insisted on coddling her in this absurd manner. His reply was invariably the same, that they had as much time as they needed and speed was far less important than her well-being. His serenely meticulous care should have been a comfort, but Dia found it another source of irritation.
The notion of bearing a child seemed so unreal to Dia that she was startled when the baby began to move. Tentatively, she placed a shy hand on her belly; the baby promptly kicked her palm. It suddenly occurred to her that there was a living creature inside her body, and that she was really going to have to go through with this. Her lack of experience filled her with sudden alarm. She had no young matrons among her acquaintance, had never even attended a birthing, and so had no idea of what to expect. Knowing that Phoebus would have little comfort to offer, she brooded about that privately, wishing with all her heart that someone else could have been chosen for whatever further tasks awaited her.
“When we have arrived,” Phoebus suddenly told her, “I shall place you in the care of the priestess Phoenedra. She will attend you during the birth of the child.”
“And what does a priestess of the Phoenix know of childbirth?” Dia asked.
“She has studied midwifery, my lady. She, too, has been carefully prepared for what the New Age requires of her.”
“How very interesting,” Dia replied ironically. “I know nothing of the requirements of the new age; indeed, I do not even know what this child has to do with the New Age. It seems that everyone involved in this particular event has been carefully prepared, except the mother-to-be.”
“Really, my lady, what further preparation do you require?” the priest asked reasonably. “Were you wed and expecting your first child, you would have no more schooling than you have had already. You have nothing more to do than what will come to you naturally.”
“Were I wed and expecting my first child, no doubt my mother would have had much in the way of advice, and the benefit of her own experience, to offer,” Dia retorted. “And I should not have had to spend the whole of my pregnancy in this curst saddle!”
Phoebus chuckled. “Patience, my lady. We should arrive at the Temple tomorrow. Perhaps it is unduly sanguine of me, but I fancy your confinement should begin shortly after that.”
That prediction effectively silenced her. Tomorrow? Suddenly, her saddle began to look much more attractive as she contemplated what lay ahead. Dia fervently hoped that this Phoenedra knew what she was about.
They were well up into the mountains of southeast Ormaeranda now, in the Grand Duchy of Tamaer, and the steep trail made the going slow indeed. Were it not for the dreadful concerns weighing upon her, Dia might have enjoyed this leg of the journey, for they rode along a path that traced the meandering of a dried out stream bed through a pleasant forest of pine. As it was, when she was not involved in any of her other emotional upheavals, she spent much of the time before their arrival at the Temple speculating on what had happened to her since she had arrived at the Emperor’s palace and what any of it might have to do with the emergence of a new Phoenix.
Casting her mind back over her studies, she realized that the past would be of no use to her in predicting the nature of the battle in the imminent Gaerud. Indeed, she could not even say for certain who the instruments of the conflict would be. Would she be one of them? Would her child? Was that why Phoebus was taking such good care of her, so that she could raise the child who would be the champion of the New Age? Phoebus had certainly ensured that she and her brother were well-taught in the nature of the Phoenix and his TimeKeepers. Dia thought that she would be very well suited to such a task.
But no, she realized, that could not be it. The passage from the First Prophesies was very clear about one thing; she and her brother would herald in the New Age through the choices they would make. He had chosen the darkness, as was foretold. Had she surrendered to the light? She had thought, as she lay in Caelon’s arms, that that was precisely what she had done. And yet, that tender interlude had resulted in nothing except his murder and her pregnancy. There must be more, even if she could not fathom what it might be just then; she had a very strong feeling that her task would not end with the birth of Caelon’s son.
Now, how do I know that this child is male? she thought, a bit surprised at the strength of her certainty. Since the child would never know his father, she rather hoped that she was wrong even as that deep inner core of her being with which she had recently become so well acquainted assured her that she was not. The boy would need a father. Dia sighed.
She had not wanted to think about Caelon just then but, as soon as his name entered her thoughts, she was suddenly seized by a curious compulsion to return to the scene of his murder. Oh, she told herself, that is quite insane! And yet, with every second that passed, her conviction grew. “Phoebus,” she said tentatively.
“Yes, my lady?”
“I have just had the most curious notion … ”
Dia hesitated. He will think I have quite lost my mind, and I will no doubt agree completely. Finally, in a rush, she said, “I want to go back.”
As usual, Phoebus received this proposal calmly. He came back to stand at her knee, gazing up at her inquiringly. “Go back? To where would you return, my lady?” he asked. In fact, Dia noted with some curiosity, he did not even seem particularly surprised.
“To the Emperor’s palace,” she said slowly, “at the moment of Caelon’s death.”
“May I ask why?”
“We have to bring him with us,” she said with finality, hoping he would ask her no more questions, for she would not have answers.
“I see,” said the priest. He stared at Coer’s hocks for a few moments, deep in thought. Then he raised speculative eyes to meet her gaze. “That will require a time window, my lady,” he told her.
Dia frowned. Yes, of course Phoebus was quite right. It would require a time window, and the TimeKeepers lost their ability to control their time windows during the Interval, making them dangerous and unreliable. “Do you think you will be able to open a time window when Ageless Phoenix still has not returned?” she asked doubtfully.
“I do not think I would be able to do so,” he said slowly.
She nodded. “No, of course not,” she sighed. “We shall have to leave him then.” She would not confide in the archpriest just how much the notion disturbed her.
“No, my lady,” Phoebus disagreed.
“I have often reminded you to trust your instincts, Lady Dia,” he reminded her gently. “You are quite right, we will need to return for Lord Caelon and without delay.”
“But how … ?”
“I suspect that, while I cannot open a time window, it is very likely that you can,” was his surprising answer.
“Do you make the attempt, my lady, and we will see what transpires,” Phoebus counseled her. “If it is meant for you to do this, then I think you will find yourself able to accomplish it without assistance.”
She looked down at her gravid belly. “I may have some trouble dragging a corpse through a time window, good Phoebus.”
He nodded. “Never fear, my lady, I shall accompany you.”
Phoebus helped her down from the saddle and tied the reins to a low-hanging branch. “Do you remember your lessons, Lady Dia?” he asked her.
She did, and with a clarity that should have surprised her but somehow did not. Vividly, she recalled even that she had not believed Phoebus when, as a child of some twelve summers, he had informed her that she was possessed of the Talent that could reach into time, across space. She had listened to his patient instruction even as she had been privately convinced that she could do no such thing.
Now, still doubtful, she focused her thoughts on the moment to which she would return. That part of the process was not at all difficult for her, for she remembered vividly that awful emptiness when she had felt Caelon die. “Very well,” she told her mentor, “I have the moment firmly in mind.”
“Splendid. Now that you have the time, you must find the place,” he instructed.
Dia nodded. Diving further into her perception of that moment was sheer torture, like walking into fire, but she searched her sense of his death and constructed a picture of his bloody body sprawled on the floor in one of the corridors of Kaerkas’ palace. She had no notion of which corridor it might be, but that did not matter. The bond she had formed with him would serve her well; she would open the time window to take her to his body, wherever it might be.
“Now, my lady, find the emptiness between where you stand now and the time and place you wish to travel to, and expand that emptiness until you can step through it.” Phoebus’ voice sounded curiously distant, so intent was she on the picture she had constructed in her mind.
Find the emptiness? That, too, should be a simple matter. The emptiness she felt between the time Caelon’s touch had lived in her mind and the time it had died was gigantic, and the time window she managed to open was large enough to have accommodated her stallion — with her on his back. She opened her eyes and stared at the yawning blackness before her with something like awe.
“I did it,” she breathed.
“Indeed,” Phoebus agreed, “very well done, my lady.”
The sense of danger swept back to her through the open time window like a warm, humid wind, and Dia responded to it once more. She entered the time window with Phoebus at her heels, stepping back into moving time and finding, when she emerged in the Emperor’s palace, that the child she carried was once more a tiny seed, deep in her body. Well, that is certainly much more comfortable, she thought absently.
Then her eyes fell on Caelon’s body, taking in the deep wound in his chest that had spilled out his life, and she drew a deep, shuddering breath. Phoebus stepped out from behind her and stooped to grasp his shoulders. We must hurry, my lady, he urged her.
Dia hardly heard him. Again, she felt that searing pain, made all the more terrible by this confrontation with the sight of the crumpled, bloody body that had, in life, roused her to that unforgettable height of passion. Her eyes and throat burned anew with grief and anger.
She raised her eyes then, and found herself face-to-face with her twin. Hatred flared in her heart, and that must have shown on her face, because he winced away from her briefly. “Do not look at me so contemptuously, Dia,” he said raggedly. “Had you but cooperated, this need not have come to pass.”
Dia sucked in a burning breath. “You would have some difficulty convincing me that this needed to come to pass in any event,” she told him. Then she saw his hand tighten on the sword he held, which was still dripping Caelon’s blood to the stone floor. “Do not,” she added in a deadly and peculiarly augmented voice.
He seeks to delay you, my lady, Phoebus told her silently.
He awaits the arrival of his cohorts.
That is unclear. They will either strike you down or prevent us from removing Lord Caelon’s body from this place.
No, they will not!
The rapid mental exchange did not appear to impinge upon Daerus’ awareness, she saw as she continued to stare at him. Then, to his palpable dismay, she bent to Caelon’s body. “Convey my apologies to your friends, Daerus,” she said sardonically over her shoulder. “I fear I will be unable to remain here to greet them.”
Although she did not bother to keep an eye on him, she felt him beginning to move. Before she could decide how to react, before she had even glanced back up at him, there was a flash of that mysterious, brilliant light. The small sword fell from her brother’s hand as, with a hoarse cry, he stumbled back several steps.
“I do not fear your darkness, Daerus,” she said, briefly lifting her eyes to meet his startled glare.
With Phoebus, she dragged the still-warm corpse back through the time window. Once she was back in her own, timeless present, she was once more heavy with child. The energy of her anger lent her strength, but the task of moving Caelon’s body rapidly winded her. “Stay a moment, good Phoebus,” she panted.
“You must close it, my lady,” he said after a quick glance to assure himself that the corpse was clear of the time window, “else we will soon be followed.”
She nodded, still gasping for breath. Then she concentrated and the gaping portal began to shrink rapidly. As it was closing, she heard running feet and her brother’s voice saying, “It’s still open … .”
“Excellent,” another voice that sounded to her like Prince Maermat replied. “It cannot be completed without Aerandos, even if she has managed … wait! Wha–”
And then, the voices and the window were gone. “It seems we were just in time, my old friend,” Dia said thoughtfully.
“Indeed,” Phoebus agreed. “Now, how shall we carry him?”
They wrapped Caelon’s body in a blanket and, after a great deal of pushing, pulling and heaving, managed to hoist it up into her saddle. Phoebus would not let her help him much, admonishing her to have a thought for her child. Dia, who was quickly exhausted, tended to agree and, since she had tacitly elected to walk for the remainder of this trip, decided to conserve her strength.
Once they had rested briefly, they resumed their journey and Dia, who had been pondering that strange fragment of conversation she had overheard, said, “It seems that, even in death, Caelon’s task is not yet done.”
Phoebus did not reply.
“Is it possible that those bitter words of mine were, in fact, truth? Is Caelon to be the new Phoenix?” she asked.
Phoebus remained silent.
“Phoebus,” Dia said, resisting the impulse to grit her teeth, “do you not know or do you refuse to reply?”
“Can you give me a reason why you need these questions answered now?” Phoebus asked her, his manner faintly apologetic. “I am constrained by my vows to tell you nothing other than what you need to know to perform your tasks, you know.”
“I have my answer, I suppose. You would not refuse to tell me if it were not so.” Dia grinned and then sighed dramatically. “This New Age is asking much of us, old friend.”
“I know, my dear Lady Dia,” Phoebus said with a gentle smile, “and it demands more of you than of any other.”
“I hope all this will be worth it,” she murmured.
“I expect it will be,” was the bland reply.
They stopped to rest in a small, rocky canyon that had been cut through the mountains by one of the many streams that fed into the Tamaer River back on the plains they had left behind. Dia felt particularly exhausted and wondered if she would ever be hale again. She deliberately avoided looking toward her horse and its grisly burden as she waddled over to one of the steep rock walls nearby and sank to the ground with a weary sigh. Phoebus busied himself with the fire and his cookpot and Dia, too tired for coherent thought, simply stared at the bend in the streambed that hid the rest of the canyon from her sight. Her companion prepared their meal and Dia simply sat and stared, wholly without consciousness, at a slowly gathering darkness that reminded her of the thunderstorms that had sometimes boiled across the Shae estate from the Sea of Akkam before the end of the Time. The darkness grew gradually, slowly clouding her sight until she could not see what she was looking at. Still, she said nothing in her trance-like fatigue. Vaguely, she noticed that she was getting chilly.
A hand touched her arm and the darkness, which had grown so slowly and imperceptibly that she was hardly aware of it, vanished. Dia blinked and turned startled eyes to Phoebus. He held a steaming cup. “Drink this, my lady,” he instructed.
She accepted the cup with a muttered word of thanks, saying nothing of the odd interlude. She felt strangely disoriented. It seemed as if she stood outside herself with nothing solid upon which to place her feet. The sensation was both calming and uncomfortable.
Once she had composed herself for sleep upon the pallet Phoebus constructed for her comfort, the dreams began. Dia seemed to see herself stretched upon an altar, covered with blood. A great, hideous beast stood over her, roaring and snarling as she labored to produce the child she carried. It had dry, scaly skin that was as black as coal and two long, curving fangs that dripped a venom which seared everything it touched. It had two massive, arched horns atop its head and, impaled upon one of these, was her old friend Phoebus. Dimly, she could see dead Caelon, his skeletal face a cruel caricature of the vitality he had had in life, feebly swinging a sword at the monster’s face in a weak effort to protect her.
With a sudden, negligent move, the beast struck Caelon’s pale shade away from it almost contemptuously. And then it spoke. “You cannot escape; you cannot resist the might of great Septha,” it rasped in the most horrid voice Dia had ever heard, a voice that filled her with cold fear. Then, it roared in the greatest rage: “No! The child dies.”
Dia struggled against the crushing weight that bore down upon her as Septha the Destroyer stalked her labors. She must protect her baby, she told herself frantically, but she could not save him if she could not even bear him. Cruel laughter punctuated her efforts and she whimpered her fear and helplessness. The weight was growing heavier and blackness was creeping across her face, drowning her …
And then she became aware of a gentle hand shaking her shoulder. She clawed her way out of sleep and opened her eyes to meet Phoebus’ concerned gaze. She stared at him blankly for a moment and then she began to cry.
The priest enfolded her in an embrace. “A nightmare, my lady?” he asked her gently.
She nodded, still weeping.
Phoebus said nothing more, merely holding her and stroking her hair soothingly. Yet, she felt his support and drew strength from it, to still the deep foreboding produced by the vivid nightmare. Finally, warmed by her old tutor’s comforting, she fell asleep once more.
There were no more nightmares. After a long and restful, dreamless sleep, Dia woke, ate and proclaimed herself ready to continue on their journey. They followed the canyon for perhaps another half mile to a steep rock path, walking at a sedate pace that Dia did not find too taxing for her unwieldy gait. At the top of the rise, the path continued atop the side of a deep ravine curving around the rock slope of a tall mountain. It continued to climb, but much more gently now, and Dia was hardly winded by the time they came upon a small thicket of pine saplings and scrubby thorn bushes. Perhaps, she thought hopefully, they would reach the Temple today.
She had become convinced that she had felt so compelled to return for Caelon’s body because he was destined to be reborn as the next Phoenix, and she was anxious to reach their destination. She had noticed that the corpse had not stiffened and grayed in death but remained as warm and flaccid as it had been in the instant to which she had returned to retrieve him. She took that to be a good sign, for some part of her heart could not accept the notion that he was lost to her forever. Certainly, as the Phoenix, he would no longer be available to her as either friend or lover, and she would miss that, but at least he would not be dead. In some measure, such a rebirth would assuage her guilt. She had not absolved herself of responsibility and Daerus’ words to that effect had flicked her on the raw. She would not have thrown in her lot with the servants of Septha in any event, but that did not alter the fact that Caelon would not now lie dead if she had not entangled him in her affairs. For Dia, this journey, with herself on foot and carrying his child, had become a pilgrimage of penance.
After they had rested and eaten — still in silence, for neither Dia nor Phoebus had said a single word since they had set out — they walked for another hour or so before they rounded a curve in the path and abruptly found themselves at the entrance of a rock bowl that had been scooped out of the side of the mountain, giving the natural construction the appearance of an amphitheater. Nestled in that amphitheater as if it sat in the lap of the mountain was a large, graceful building with soaring spires, much intricately carved decoration, and many colored windows. The two of them stood side by side for a few moments, simply staring.
Then Phoebus turned his head toward his companion. “Be welcome to the Temple of the Fires, my lady,” he said softly, his voice filled with all the joy of the weary traveler who finally comes home.