Our return to the surface was miserable in a way. I had become accustomed again to the warmth and physical comfort of the town, so to be lifted out again into the cold was a terrible thing. Thereus’s leg obviously pained him still, but he walked on, with the aid of his staff, at a pace that put me to shame.
And yet we were free: free from Fomar’s whims and the Tall Ones’ insanity and the suspicious eyes of everyone around us. It was almost enough to make me forget the cold, or the fact that we were marching towards the Lords of Night themselves, to confront them for reasons I barely understood. I intended, for my own part, to make my complaint against them and accuse them of having built these towns that were our prisons. Then I was ready to die, though a part of me was convinced that with Thereus at my side, I would survive somehow.
As for Thereus, he seemed bowed down by an unseen burden, and although I did ask him about it, he evaded the question.
I see I’ve neglected to explain how we knew our path to Buxan. It was Fomar who provided us with a rough map of the region between Xamhor and Buxan, including rivers and waystations. A remarkable thing to give us, I thought, but he explained that it would be a shame for us to lose our way and die somewhere in the middle of the wilderness. “The Lords of Night are expecting you,” he told us. “I don’t want to disappoint them.” It was still difficult for us to keep our direction, but knowing where the waystations were kept us from wandering too far from the proper path.
Thereus did answer me at length on one occasion, but his words seemed confused and little to the point. “I am afraid. I remember things, little things, from years before I was born. The Latiorn lived here before we lived here, but they lived in little groups and they walked from place to place and grew no piti. When we came to the islands, we grew things like piti and lived in big towns. They saw us growing and spreading across the land, and they must have been afraid too. They were able to do nothing. They had less men and no governors and no soaliv.
“I am afraid that we will be the Latiorn and you will be the people who do soaliv. We can fight and fight and shout and shout and do clever things we want, but we cannot stop you. In the end we will all live in towns under the dirt. We will be you or we will be dead.”
I had nothing to say to this at the time. I have thought about it since then, and although circumstances proved him wrong about Nemhir, I share his worries about what is to come. Perhaps the Lords of Night and the Magistrates before them were only the shadows of something worse that has yet to fall upon the islands. But I have often been called gloomy in these mad days since Nemhir has been set free.
Once or twice when he stumbled, the crystal he wore around his neck stabbed me painfully, and he apologized when I cried out. “But it is a good thing to me. I found it with a dead man, one of my fathers’ fathers, who fought the Lords of Night before. I’ve been told, though I don’t know if I should believe, that it will protect me if they try,” and he waved his hand while he thought of the right word, “try to hurt my head.”
“But your ancestor died?”
“It protects my head, not the rest. I am ready.” So we began to walk again.
We traveled for several days, away from the mountains in the east. Once we had to cross a river, which sent us some distance out of our way to find a place where it was easy to climb down and up the slope. But in the end we saw a thick forest ahead of us, and Thereus pointed to it, leaning heavily on his staff, his arm trembling. “Buxan,” he said. “The Lords of Night. I’m afraid, Karidha. I don’t want to go there, but I will. No other way. I remember little things, many little things. This is not the first time. The seeds always grow again, and I am tired and afraid.”
He stood without moving for a long time, but eventually I said to him, “I am getting cold.”
“The world is getting cold,” he said, and continued on. After a short while he turned back to me and smiled. His beard had grown thicker, but he was once again the handsome young stranger I had met in Thejur, not the cryptic haunted wanderer he had become these past days, since the incident in the cave. “This may be the death of you and of me,” he said, still smiling. “I’m sorry I pulled you with me.”
“You pulled me nowhere.”
“I’m happy to hear that.”
Yet as we approached the forest, Thereus seemed to grow more and more tired, until he had to lean on my arm to walk. I asked him if we should stop and rest, but he refused.
“I am not tired,” he said. “I don’t need sleep. The thing I carry inside myself grows in this place and steals my breath. But I will walk.”
Around the fringes of the forest were evenly spaced huts, similar in shape and size to the way stations. But unlike the way stations, these huts were occupied, so that as we came close to one, its door opened and a man with a short spear in his hand emerged. “Who are you?” he demanded of us. “Why have you come here?”
“I have come to talk with the Lords of Night,” said Thereus.
“Do you not have the blue fire in your town? Do you not have the effigy in the crown of the tree?”
Again Thereus said, “I have come to talk with the Lords of Night.”
The sentry’s suspicious eyes turned to me, and he said, “Explain yourself, since he cannot.”
“We have come to talk with the Lords of Night,” I told him.
He moved his hand to throw his spear into Thereus’s shoulder. Thereus cried out and fell, even as I stood frozen by shock. As the sentry passed me, tramping through the snow, on his way to Thereus, I tried to strike him, but he he knocked me to the ground with a casual twist of his arm. I pulled myself up onto my elbows just in time to see the sentry ripping his spear from Thereus’s flesh, spilling blood onto the white snow.
Although he was obviously in agony, Thereus was able to strike an awkward blow against the sentry with his branch. The sentry cried out and staggered away from Thereus, dropping his spear. “Who are you?” he asked, leaning against his hut and holding his side where the branch had touched him. “Who sent you?”
“I am from the southern islands,” Thereus said, and somehow he rose to his feet, though his shoulder was covered in blood and must have hurt him terribly. “I have come to meet the Lords of Night because of the things they did to my home.”
The sentry gave him a look of pure hatred, as I had seen often enough in Thejur from inferiors forced to give way to their superiors. But he stood aside and said in a strained voice, “Go on then, and I hope the Lords of Night burn you to ashes. Your bedmate will die before you reach Buxan, I can tell you that.”
I helped Thereus walk on, under the shadow of the trees. There were strange noises around us, but we were both too tired and too pained to worry about them. Thereus said things under his breath that I could not hear. “We should stop and see to your shoulder,” I told him in as firm a voice as I could muster.
“No,” he said. “We should put an end to all this. Now.”
At some point it became impossible to ignore the noises that were coming from the darkness behind the trees. I remember them very well, but find it difficult to describe them in words for one and the same reason. They were uncanny, like nothing I had heard before or would ever hear again. Since Nemhir was opened to the other islands, I have encountered dogs, and their cries remind me somewhat of the sounds we heard in the forest around Buxan, but weaker and less piercing. I was frightened, but was too occupied helping Thereus to let it show.
He stumbled and fell, but still refused to rest and insisted that I help him up. “We’re nearly there,” he said, breathing heavily. I knew that the map Fomar had given us marked nothing within this forest, and I wonder how he knew. But he was right.
We came to a clearing that held a single thick tree, the snow hanging on its branches. It was not tall, but there was something about its presence that overshadowed everything around it. Thereus stood still, looking ahead at it, until I thought we would be buried in the snow that was beginning to fall around us. Then he gestured for us to walk on.
But as I drew closer to the tree, I began to feel a burning sensation in my hands and feet that quickly spread through the rest of my body, seizing my chest until I was unable to breathe. I let go of Thereus’s arm and fell backwards, but remained on my feet and was able to back away from the tree until I could breathe again. Thereus stood leaning on his branch, looking at me with an expression that I could not interpret.
“What’s the matter, Karidha?” he asked.
I clenched my fists against my legs to keep from breaking into tears. It seemed immensely unjust that I should come this far and yet be banned from my goal. I have no doubt now that the Lords of Night intended to keep their slaves away from their stronghold, while permitting the boldest and strongest of the southerners to come forward and be tested for their worthiness to join the Crafters’ council, but at the time I couldn’t help but take it as a personal affront, one last cruelty of the Lords of Night. “Go and do what you came here to do. I will wait for you.”
“This is not a place to be alone, I think.”
“It isn’t a place to be in pairs, either. I can’t go any further, Thereus!” I made another effort to walk forward, but the same burning gripped me again.
“But what will you do?”
“I’ll wait for you to come back,” I said, though I think both of us knew what I meant by this. He would not come back, and I would wait until the snow and the cold took me. I know now that my words had a different meaning.
Thereus nodded. “I won’t be long,” he told me, and I wonder if he thought he was telling the truth. He left me, leaning on his branch, making his slow way to the central tree, where he found something like a door and entered, though all this was too far away for me to see the details. And I was left alone.
The sounds grew louder, as if whatever creature made them was drawing closer to me. I turned to look around me in every direction, but I saw nothing except the trees and the snow falling to pile on the ground.
I find it difficult not only to describe but to remember clearly what happened next. It has something of the distant texture of a dream, and for all I know it was a dream. But it seemed to me that the sounds were practically in my ear, so that a blind fear came over me and I ran, ending up back in the shadow of the forest. I realized then that not all the shadows around me were cast by the trees. Some seemed to be moving of their own accord, creeping across the snow towards me. I backed against the trunk of the nearest tree to try and avoid the moving shadows, but they were faster than I and wrapped themselves around my feet. Something seemed to open up behind me, the bark and wood of the tree giving way so that I was enveloped by a cold darkness.
I am not sure what exactly it was that I experienced there on the threshold of Buxan. It was the heart of the magic of the Lords of Night, and as a portion of their magic was within me as their slave, perhaps I experienced a kind of echo from their stronghold, magnified by its nearness. Perhaps it had something to do with the magic Thereus carried within himself as the Dhini. I am frustrated to admit it, but I do not know, and I see no way of learning the truth. The magic of the Lords of Night has passed away from the islands, the last relic of the ancient magicians, of which all that remains are fragments hidden in caves or mountains where no one will ever find them.
I know I was not the only one to see a vision of this sort. That boy’s account of Thereus’s encounter with the Lords of Night agrees with mine to a surprising extent, so whoever he asked must have seen something similar, even if he failed to understand its meaning.
But it seemed to me that I was in a tall round room with narrow windows showing a bleak landscape outside, like the hills of Nemhir but made up of barren rocks without any covering of snow. In the middle of the room was a table with a pool of water in its center. Seated around the table were eleven cloaked figures that I immediately knew to be the Lords of Night. There was a twelfth, empty, seat, and behind it stood Thereus.
“Welcome, Thereus Videalthesus,” one of the Lords of Night said as it drew back its hood. It had a beautiful face and voice, but both were strangely lacking in characterizing features. I was even unable to tell if it was a man or a woman. It wore a crown shaped at the brow in the figure of a creature I could not recognize, but would now call a bird by its feathers, even if it resembled no bird I have seen since.
I am not sure if it was speaking in Esu or the Nemhir language, but I was able to understand both it and Thereus. “That is not my name,” Thereus told it.
“No, you are the son of Eapora, but he was the son of another man, and he of another, until you reach Dealthesus, and he was a hero who wielded great magic. We may even be relatives, you and I. There were two sisters once, heiresses to the magicians of old. One sister chose to pursue her craft in Saina, whence your ancestors come.”
“I have traveled here to ask you, on behalf of all the people of the southern islands, why you stir up disorder and plot our overthrow.”
“As for the second sister, she chose to save the islands and their people from the fate that awaited them. All the islands will someday perish, drowning beneath the waves, as did Sotlaci and the many realms lost in ancient days before it. It is a destiny written upon the foundations of the islands, on the pillars of the sea. For many lifetimes we have considered the matter, and behold, we have used our magic to save Nemhir, interrupting its destiny. We will rescue the others also.”
“By sending your agents to murder and start wars? I don’t care for your methods.”
“For many lifetimes we have considered the matter. Those who fight against us unwittingly fight against themselves and the islands. We do only what we must.”
“I don’t care for your results, either. I’ve seen Nemhir, and it is a terrible place: you’ve made the land cold and barren and you’ve made the people into slaves.”
“Nemhir was only an experiment, our initial foray into preservation. We’ve learned much since then, and we know better what is necessary and what superfluous. You will be able to help us keep what is good in the southern islands. You have that right. Your ancestor Dealthesus overthrew one of us before he perished, and you have come through many dangers to stand before us. Where we have gone wrong, correct us. You will have an eternity to care for the good of the islands. If you wish, you may even have Branwei to keep you company during your first lifetime.”
“You honor Dealthesus with your words, but why was he fighting you?”
“A mistake on our part. We found and were tempted by an old magic that should have been left buried. Dealthesus showed us our error.”
“And how many mistakes have you made while caring for the good of the islands? Have you ever asked anyone what they wanted, besides those few of us who made it here? You claim to preserve the islands, but I think what you mean is to make them your own, to control them so that neither sea nor king nor Heaven can do anything to them outside your will. It isn’t worth an eternity.”
“The empty seat is yours, Thereus, and you will take it one way or another.” One by one they stretched their long elegant hands towards Thereus. “And you will be ours.”
The crystal that Thereus wore around his neck shone with a brilliant emerald light. I could not see clearly what happened after that, but when the light faded, Thereus was standing on the edge of the table, raising the branch up with what seemed to be all his strength. Blood poured from his shoulder and dripped into the water below, where it billowed into clouds.
“You will be ours or you will be nothing. Our fire will consume you.”
Sparks, then blue flames appeared at the end of the Lords of Night’s fingers, then roared forward to envelop Thereus entirely. He fell back into the water, but it did nothing to quench the fire. I cried out and ran towards him, but the room was very far away, at the end of a hallway that stretched on and on.
“No,” Thereus said to me. “This is how it must be.”
“They’re killing you!” I protested.
“I am the Dhini,” he said. “I am the seed from which the forest of night grows. They want to kill me, but they’ll destroy themselves and all their works if they do. I am the price that must be paid to ensnare them. I am not the first, and this is how it must be, but I have made my choice. Karidha, my friend. I will do what I can to protect you, but you must run!”
Then I was aware that I was lying in the snow, nestled between two of the roots that came out at the base of a tree. If I had been asleep or unconscious, I was not tired in the least. Thereus’s last words to me had been driven into my mind like the laws of Thejur, and after looking around to orient myself with respect to the Lords of Night’s clearing, I ran from it. Even as I did I was weeping for Thereus, finding myself stirred by feelings I had never had before, or at least had never allowed myself before.
I heard the change before I felt it, but have no words to describe the sounds I heard. What I felt was an immense heat, as if I had been plunged into the center of a fire. I did not turn back to look, but ran until the heat diminished, by which time I had reached the edge of the forest and collapsed in exhaustion not far from one of the sentries’ huts.
I turned at last and saw what I had been running from. Only the outermost trees still remained of the forest. Beyond them, the forest was gone and with it much of the snow and earth beneath, leaving a broad and shallow valley. I approached the edge and looked down and across, but there was no sign of Thereus or anything or anyone else except raw earth. Somehow I had expected to see him alive and walking towards me. I still expect it, I think.
But I never saw Thereus again.
The sentry we had seen earlier tried to kill me, justly blaming me for what had happened, but his companions stopped him. What good, after all, would it do the Lords of Night now if they killed me? Instead we set out, I, the sentries, and their bedmates, for the nearest town. We found as we traveled that it was getting warmer, warm enough that we were no longer in danger from the cold. But it became difficult to travel due to the melting of the snow. The ground became mud that caught our feet.
And what had become of the towns? The spell of the Lords of Night had been broken, the blue flame had been extinguished, and the people were free, at least in theory. But they were accustomed to their bondage, and most of the governors were unwilling to give up power easily. In the town we first arrived at, we found a situation where a weak governor was having difficulties keeping the town from falling into an orgy of blood and despair at the loss of the Mhir. The sentries pushed the governor aside, killed the Tall One who had been stirring up the people, and set themselves up as a ruling council.
The Nemhir that my readers know began to take shape then. The building of structures above the ground, the meetings between the councils and governors of neighboring towns, the contact with people from the southern islands. I saw it all from Thatar’s tower.
Thatar was one of those sentries with whom I traveled. He reminded me of Thereus in some ways, in his confidence and his physical appearance, but something (I do not know what) was missing. I became his bedmate, with all the privilege attendant on his status. He had a tower built for us on the surface, and though I imagine it was nothing compared to the towers of the southern islands, in those young days it seemed like it reached to Heaven.
I lived there and became nothing. Many of us reacted the same way to the fall of the Lords of Night. The old rules were gone, and what was there to replace them? Thatar’s will was strong, and it became mine. I loved him after a fashion, I advised him on what might be best for the town, and I bore his children. When he died, I came down from the tower, entrusted those of my children who were not yet grown to the care of the council, and began to travel the island, searching for news of Thereus.
All I found were the rumors: rumors that he was dead, that he had been taken up to Heaven, that he would return someday to bring us into a new age. Many false stories circulated concerning who Thereus was and what he had done, so I returned to my home and set myself to writing this account, which at last reaches its end.
A moment ago I seemed to hear a familiar voice in my ear, see a familiar form at my side. He told me that I had done well, that my words would be remembered. I close my book, trusting that he will prove right.