Tear-blinded, Emperor Kaerkas stumbled from the dais to the center of the floor and fell to his knees beside the still body of his son. No one spoke; there was nothing to say.
It was during that silence that Caelon felt the first touch upon his mind. He thought at first that it was Dia and his instinctive reaction was to respond to it, to rise from where he dwelt in that core of himself to meet it, but Phoeday retained his mental grip and would not let him go.
You cannot do what you need to do until you have prepared yourself, my lord, Phoeday instructed him with unusual gravity. Seek the weapons you will need inside yourself.
Caelon might have been tempted to argue with Phoeday about such interference, but he had felt the beginnings of a touch he knew. The languid, cloying, sickening blackness was descending into his mind and, as instructed, he retreated father into his essence.
That was where he found a seed of glowing light that he had not noticed before, beckoning to him with its promise of warmth and safety. He responded to its silent invitation, diving into it, bathing his mind in it, clothing himself in it. It both surrounded him and penetrated him. It throbbed in rhythm with his heart beat. He breathed it into the depths of his lungs.
By the time that cold blackness found him, he was ready.
This need not be, Caelon of Aerandos, a voice said to him. Will you die with your father here and now?
Caelon recognized the touch of Daerus of Shae. Am I in danger of dying just at this present? he asked, injecting a note of tolerant amusement into his “voice”.
You know that once Kaerkas recovers his composure, you will all stand accused of treason in the death of his son, Daerus told him.
Well, and even if that is so, why do you concern yourself with my fate? he asked, venturing into the sticky darkness, slowly, slowly, piercing the enveloping blackness ever so gently in search of the imprisoned mind buried in the mire.
Daerus of Shae did not seem to notice. Do you care nothing at all for my sister, sir? he asked. She will not stand against you.
And what do you imagine I can do appease the Emperor and, I must suppose, make up to him for the loss of his son? Even as they carried on this conversation, Caelon felt the enervating darkness settling over his body and only the fiercest concentration kept it from creeping into his mind.
The mental voice of Daerus suddenly increased in depth and volume, and the pressure against his mind abruptly grew so heavy that Caelon felt a little dizzy. All that is needed is for you to renounce your father and swear your loyalty to the Emperor, Daerus told him. I am very sure that, in that event, both you and Dia will be spared.
While my father, meanwhile, goes to the headsman’s block, Caelon said ironically. He became simultaneously aware of a spurt of anger at such a suggestion and of the sudden surge of triumph in the mind touching his. That was when he fully understood Phoeday’s repeated assertions that he must maintain his calm. He took a deep breath and, with quiet stealth, continued his exhausting journey.
Moving like a very old man, the Emperor slowly rose to his feet. He looked wildly at House Aerandos and Dia of Shae as they stood before him. “Traitors! Traitors!” he shrieked at them. “Dare to raise steel against the heir to the throne? Think you that the Great Houses are entitled to such perfidy as their birthright? Then it is time for the Great Houses to be no more!”
Carefully, wondering if he could accomplish so delicate a maneuver, Caelon left that anger in his outer mind and burrowed further still into the tranquility of his inner soul. Tell me, does my loyalty to Kaerkas include loyalty to the God he has chosen?
Of course, Daerus said with calculated indifference.
Really, Caelon complained, feigning considerable annoyance, you must think me the most complete clot! Should I make such a pledge, it will not save Dia’s life, for no power in this world will make her stand with me if I choose to stand with Septha.
And still he plunged down and down through the muddy darkness of Daerus’ mind. This stodge seemed to go on forever and he was getting so tired, so very tired …
“Gather the men,” the Emperor was ordering his generals, who stood among the crowd of courtiers. “Take them out the west gate and fall upon Aerandos stealthily. Give them no hint of your approach and see you kill them all, to the last man! I want no prisoners.”
“Yes, my liege,” ashen-faced General Kraetus said mechanically, “but … ”
“Make no excuses to me, sir!” Kaerkas stalked back to his throne. “When you have exterminated that force, prepare the men to march north to Aerandos. Kill every living thing you find within its borders! I will wade to the hips in the blood of Aerandos before I will feel I have been avenged for the death of my heir!”
Leave Dia to me, Daerus was saying urgently, watching carefully as Caelon began to sway slightly. The darkness had by this time so enveloped him that Caelon could no longer see the throne room around him. Inky coldness surrounded him, exhaustion threatened him, and felt his will to resist insidiously crumbling. I can persuade her and all the more easily if you will only choose your Emperor and the might of great Septha over the sickly boy-god Phoenix.
And that may have been the last, fatal mistake which the Princess Kera — for Caelon was certain she was the force behind this effort at temptation — would make. He might have been persuaded to turn his back on his father in order to save Dia — although, even now, he could not be quite sure of that. However that may have been, nothing would have persuaded him to hand his soul over to dark Septha, thereby condemning his young son to annihilation. With a final, heaving surge, he pushed through the heavily encrusted blackness into the inner mind wherein Dia’s twin remained trapped. Daerus, he called urgently.
“And why should Aerandos pay for the death of Maermat?” Dia was demanding, moving toward the throne with such a combination of menace and pride that she could only have been said to swagger. “They had no hand in it. I am yet a daughter of Shae.” Then her lips curved into an uncharacteristic sneer as she added, “For that matter, none from Aerandos thought to try to compel me into a marriage with the crown prince — either by imperial order or by conspiring to ravage me into it. Let Ormaer bear its share of the blame for the death of one of its own!”
“You would have consented fast enough if not for Caelon of Aerandos,” the Emperor asserted, scowling at her.
“I would not,” she returned, her voice flatly contradictory, “even if I had never heard of Caelon of Aerandos.”
Come, Daerus, Caelon said to the mind he had found huddled miserably in the ever-shrinking center of its being, where the darkness could not encroach.
Caelon? said a hopeful, hopeless voice. Caelon of Aerandos?
None other, Caelon said lightly. We must hurry for the time is nearly upon us. Unnoticed by himself, Caelon had sunk weakly to his knees. Lady Tamia rushed to him in some alarm, taking his arm and speaking to him words he could not hear.
“Perhaps, my liege, if you feel a need to place blame,” Dia was saying with quiet force, “then blame your New God for the death of your son. In the end, it was He would have me wed to Maermat, being too arrogant to accept that there are some things that cannot be forced. The Destroyer is aptly named.”
“How dare you!” the Emperor said in a voice that shook with passion. “If indeed it was Great Septha that desired such a union, then you were doubly at fault for refusing the choice of your God.”
“Septha is not my God,” she told him without hesitation, “and never will be. My heart belongs to the Phoenix.”
Emperor Kaerkas loosed a bellow of pure fury. “How dare you!” he said again, screaming this time. “There is no Phoenix! The Phoenix abandoned us, we were forsaken and godless until Mighty Septha found merit in us! The Phoenix is no more!”
“Not so, Sire,” Dia replied, still in that flatly emphatic tone of voice. “The Phoenix has risen.”
A collective gasp rattled around the throne room and a few of the more brave courtiers got to their feet. The more timid exchanged tentative glances and a great deal of rustling of silks and satins was heard. The Emperor shrieked a denial of that news that was remarkable for the desperation laced into his threatening manner. “How dare you bring these lies before our God!” he screamed.
“I was there, your Majesty,” she maintained. “I saw it with my own eyes. The Phoenix lives and Shae lives with Him.”
Come, Daerus, Caelon was saying, only vaguely aware of what was going forward around him, join with me.
No! a woman’s voice intruded upon them suddenly. No, my beloved, do not. It is a trick, they will destroy you.
Kera! he said despairingly, trying to push Caelon away.
Daerus, who do you think is the author of the predicament in which you find yourself? Caelon said impatiently.
But I love her! the boy cried.
It was as well that this encounter was purely spiritual; if Daerus of Shae had spouted such sentimental twaddle during a similar physical encounter, Caelon would have been very sorely tempted to knock such nonsense out of him. You would have me believe that you are willing to sacrifice the world for that?
Yes! Daerus cried hysterically. I love her! I cannot bear to leave her behind!
Do you? Do you really love her?
How do you know?
That home question was greeted with complete, profound and stunned silence.
You have never seen her, Caelon told him, boring in inexorably, for you have spent this whole time with your mind obscured by this murky black slime. Before you declare yourself ready to throw the world away for her sake, you owe it to the rest of us to at least look upon her with an unobscured vision. If, when you have seen her as she really is, you find yourself still enamored of her, you will still have the option to choose allegiance with dread Septha.
Daerus, no! wailed the Princess. Do not leave me!
Come, Daerus, Caelon said again, not knowing how he knew what to say. Surrender to the light.
“It is not for you to say whether Shae stands with the Phoenix, girl,” the Emperor told her contemptuously. “In the absence of your father, that is for your brother to decide.” And, with that, Emperor Kaerkas turned to Lord Daerus. “Well, my lord?” he barked at him. “Does Shae stand with this new-risen, weakly Phoenix or do you accept glorious Septha as your God?”
Caelon felt Daerus touch him hesitantly, and he waited no longer. The moment of choice had arrived and Caelon would not risk Daerus having second thoughts about this. He poured himself and the light he carried into the mind of young Daerus of Shae and, as their contact strengthened and grew in power, the tiny seed of light grew more brilliant. Together, finding trust and affection in common purpose, they fed that light until they could contain it no longer.
It began suddenly to expand, roaring out of the inner reaches of Daerus’ mind, burning away the darkness in seconds, clearing the fog from both their minds and giving them back to themselves. Slowly, back in the throne room, Caelon rose to his feet. Up on the dais, Daerus look at him and their eyes met, both glowing with that holy fire.
The Princess Kera’s dismayed gasp was heard throughout the throne room, breaking the little tableau. Her father turned to her to say irritably, “What ails you, girl?”
She did not reply, staring instead at Daerus. Very well, then, Caelon said. Turn and look at her as she really is. Is this the face of your beloved?
“Choose!” the Emperor bellowed at Daerus.
That young gentleman ignored him, turning to look at the woman he had said, not so very long since, that he would wed. But when he beheld her, Daerus could not stop himself from jerking back with a violent start, staring at her in dismayed revulsion.
Caelon did not blame him, for the spirit of the Dark God possessed her utterly and, to those possessed of the special perceptions of the Talented, she appeared to wear the horned, scaled, fanged face of her Master. Daerus shook his head and, swallowing nausea, stepped away from her.
Come, Daerus, Caelon heard Princess Kera say insistently and cajolingly, the moment of choice has arrived.
Yes, Caelon agreed, it would not do to keep Septha waiting.
Daerus of Shae took a deep, shuddering breath and, for a moment, his eyes sought out those of his twin sister. It had not escaped Caelon’s notice that the younger man had avoided looking at her until now. Dia did not speak, but her lips twitched faintly and Caelon wondered what they had said to each other. She gave a slight nod and her brother smiled, a relieved, happy smile.
“Choose!” raged the Emperor once more.
“Very well, Sire,” said Daerus, squaring his shoulders and turning to face the Emperor, suddenly looking like the twin brother of Dia of Shae, proud master of himself once more. “I am sorry if you believe it to be disloyal or disrespectful, but I will stand with my sister and Shae will stand with the Phoenix.”
For a few more moments, no one either moved or spoke. Then, as the Emperor continued to stare at Daerus of Shae, the hideous spectacle standing behind the throne, which had been immobile until now, began a faint wailing that quickly grew almost unbearable in volume. It was a soulless wail of unmitigated fury, seeming to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. The Emperor began jump up and down, literally dancing in his fury, and to scream, “No! No! No!” He appeared, Caelon thought clinically, to have finally and completely lost his mind.
A time window opened just left of the throne.
“The Choice has been made, Septha,” said a disembodied female voice, gentle and sensuous, that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere.
“No!” The terrible wailing broke off long enough to utter that fierce denial. “I do not yield! I will not yield!”
“Those were the terms of the agreement, Septha,” said another disembodied voice, this one male, stern, disciplined and powerful as the roiling waves of an angry sea. “The Choice is made, the contest is done. You must yield.”
From the time window stepped the youthful Phoenix.
“No!” roared enraged Septha. “I do not yield my place in this world to this half-human godling! It is not fitting that I should be displaced so.”
“You were displaced many Ages ago,” the female voice reminded the Dark God, “by just such a half-human godling. He is the keeper of time and of order, and he thus works his powers in furtherance of our goals. The contest is done, Septha, and you have not prevailed. Accept the choice with what grace you can muster.”
“I will not!” snapped Septha, who did not appear to be very popular with His peers. “Thus do I claim my rightful place among the Gods of this world!”
The boy-Phoenix of this age was struck in mid-step. Dark Septha, permitted uncontested sway in this world for two whole years, had grown great with power and that power seemed to swirl almost visibly around the Phoenix. He gasped and paled, wilting.
“I do not yield to this weakling!” gloated Septha gleefully.
“No!” cried Dia, running forward with terror in her eyes. The boy held up a restraining hand and she stopped, straining against his unspoken admonition and wringing her hands in agitation.
Caelon, his stomach quivering and his heart in his throat, looked around the room wildly in the same instant. “Help him!” he shouted at the unseen deities who seemed to have been observing the Gaerud all along.
“We cannot,” the unknown Goddess said regretfully. “We, too, are bound by rules during these encounters.”
“What odds does that make?” Caelon said furiously. “Septha breaks these rules at will, unopposed, and You stand by doing nothing?”
“There is much justice in his words,” the Goddess mused thoughtfully.
“Indeed,” agreed her companion God, “but how may We keep the universe from flying apart in the wake of our many contentions, if We decide that We all can break the rules whenever any one of Us does?”
“Sophistry!” snapped Caelon, never pausing in his fear for his son to consider his temerity in so addressing a God.
Caelon! Dia’s desperate voice came into his mind in the same moment. He knew what she wanted, and he joined his thought with hers without hesitation. Her thought was focused on Caerad, gallantly struggling to regain his feet but gasping with pain in the grip of whatever torment Septha visited upon him. While he had been fruitlessly arguing with Gods, she had been pouring her own energy into their son, trying to hold him up with the sheer strength of her own will. As she had grown tired, she had called to him for help.
Unconsciously, he stepped up behind her and laid a hand on her shoulder. Touching her had always seemed to help.
Septha gave a baffled growl of incredulous anger. “And still these puny humans do not submit to the might and insurmountable will of an omnipotent God?” he said. “Foolish ones! See how easily you are overcome!”
Joined together as they were, they both felt the power of the Dark God increase, pushing against them as they continued to pour all their hope and love into the heart of their son. Dia groaned as if she were trying to move a mountain and, as best he could unschooled, Caelon increased his support.
And then, he felt the touch of Daerus of Shae. And then, of Phoebus and of Phoeday. Giseth of the Chosen, apparently with the permission of her Goddess, added her strength to theirs. And, to his complete amazement, his mother, the Grand Duchess Tamia, joined her mind with theirs, all of them focusing their strength and will upon Dia, giving her unstintingly of all the power they could gather.
Dia’s concentration never faltered or wavered, and she continued to give to her son all that she had. So iron hard was the determination he read in her mind that she fully intended, Caelon realized, to give the boy the whole of her life force, if that was what he needed in his deadly struggle.
No! he thought, his own resolve matching Dia’s, I will not lose you both!
He joined his mind more firmly with hers, holding her up, shouldering her burden as best he could. As a result, his contact with both his son and the Dark God increased. He saw, as Septha was required to bend more and more of His will to His fell purpose, that the Dark God was baffled by the difficulty He was having in dispatching the Phoenix, whom He held in utter contempt. Clearly, Septha had underestimated one of the most awesome, unwavering and inextinguishable forces in the whole of the universe: the love of a mother for her child.
This is not working, he heard Dia mutter to herself. I must … I must … oh, Gods!
Caerad! she cried suddenly, her heart weeping.
It is well, Mother, the boy replied, sounding strained and tired. I know, have always known, what it is that you must do.
A whimper greeted that statement and Caelon felt the wave of anguish that washed over her. I shall try not to hurt you, beloved, she told Him, her heart overflowing with love and her mind afire with pain.
The Phoenix did not reply. And then, something changed, some quality in the energy Dia was pouring out altered in a way that Caelon could not assess. And now, as the seven of them continued to pour their strength into Dia, and as Dia funneled it into the Phoenix, the boy began to glow.
Septha gave a howl of astonished fury, redoubling His efforts so that, as one, they reeled at the immensity of His will and at the task of doing battle with it.
And still the Phoenix glowed brighter and brighter. Dia was panting now, and Caelon himself was beginning to feel the first treacherous tendrils of exhaustion. With a shrill bellow of triumph, Septha, sensing their weariness, could be felt gathering His will for one final barrage that would, no doubt, dispatch them all. Caelon tensed himself, not knowing what to expect, except that it was likely to be quite final.
But before Septha could unleash whatever He had in mind for them all, the Phoenix flashed one brilliant, stunning flash, as bright as an exploding star. “No! NO!” roared Septha. “It cannot be!”
When the brightness faded, the robe of the Phoenix sat forlornly crumpled amidst a pile of ashes. Caelon gasped, slowly shaking his head in instinctive denial. Unconsciously, his grip on Dia’s shoulder tightened until she cried out in pain. He did not really see her. He did not feel the tears that streamed down his cheeks. He had eyes only for the remains of his son. His only thought was that he had failed and his son was dead.
Dimly, he realized that Dia was talking to him and he turned to look at her. “You killed him?” he asked, still in shock.
She was crying but her eyes glowed with happy triumph. “I had to,” she told him simply.
“You killed him?!” Caelon said again, suddenly grasping her shoulders so forcefully that she winced.
“Will you ever learn to trust, my lord?” she asked him tenderly. Then, laughing lightly, she said, “It’s alright, Caelon.”
How could she say that? He shook his head again, releasing her so abruptly that she almost fell, and managing only to stammer, “But … but … ”
“She is quite right, my lord.” Pale and shaking, Phoeday came to stand beside him, looking tired but no less exalted that her ladyship. “Please do not grieve so,” he added with that surprising gentleness, “for, truly, there is no need.”
“But, how … ?”
“Watch,” Phoebus said, exultant, pointing.
Following the direction of his hand, Caelon looked again at the ashes on the floor. Then he frowned, blinking the tears from his eyes so that he could see clearly. Surely, he had not … no, he had seen it! The ashes were moving, stirring faintly as if a gentle breeze had blown over them. As Caelon continued to stare incredulously, an impossible hope stirring in his heart, the agitation of the feather-like particles grew more violent. They seemed, he realized, to be gathering back together, rising within the robe, drifting first this way and then that, apparently looking for just the right way to adhere together.
Finally, they seemed to reach a certain point that was enough, and they came together in a rush, coalescing into the form of a man. Caelon saw that the young man looked to be about his own age and he sighed harshly in disappointment. But, a moment later, when the fellow turned to gaze at them, he still wore Dia’s impish smile. Dazed, Caelon stared. Yes, this was his son, he thought with a gasp. Older, certainly, but it was. It was! The father’s heart sang for the rebirth of his son.
And he was still the same Caerad. He looked at the two who had been most instrumental in helping to defeat dread Septha, not once but twice that day, with an indecipherable expression in his eyes. And then, incredibly, unbelievably, Ancient Phoenix — chosen partner and instrument of the Gods — winked at them.