Into the Mystic


Without preliminary or gradation, yet without starting, Caerthemon Farmer, Sorcerer in three Colors of magic, woke from his dreaming. He opened his eyes, against none of the usual resistance of the early morning, and stared up at the even white expanse of the ceiling, from which the early morning light was reflected to brighten the whole room.

Above the head of his bed was a window, and he had, as was his wont, not drawn the curtain. The narrow stretch of sky that he could see from where he lay was unblemished blue, perceptibly darker than it would become towards noon. Sunlight glinted, and flared into rainbows from the scratches and smudges on the pane.

The warmth of the bed was seductive, a lure to further sleep, tropic hot, and dry, but though on any other morning he would have yielded, this morning he neither felt inclined to sleep again, nor even able to. Even had he been still drowsy, he might yet have roused himself, for this was a morning that was too good to waste, a once in a lifetime gift.

He pulled back the bed-clothes, and sat up feeling as he did, that a thin film of sweat broke out all over his body after even that slight exertion. He was warm, warmer than he had realized, and despite the early hour, the night's chill had turned to noon-tide heat.

A bowl of water stood on the dressing table, where he had placed it the night before. It was tepid, but it cleaned him for a while, before becoming as cloying as the sweat. The effort of trying to dry himself on the cloth laid out undid anything that the wash had achieved. Angered by a thing so trivial, he flung the cloth across the room, and stood, gazing at where it lay for a few moments, before the siren lure of the day calmed his troubled mind.

He sat on a stool, and poured himself a glass of water from a pitcher of pale blue porcelain, draining it swiftly, spilling streams from each corner of his mouth that ran down his chin and chest. He wiped away those irritations, and took a second draught. Both failed to alleviate his thirst, leaving its sticky taste in his mouth. The cool liquid sat badly on his stomach, disturbing his appetite, but not so much as to destroy it.

There were clothes lying on he table, but he ignored them and rummaged through his meagre wardrobe for something light of weight, more suited to this sudden change in the previously rainy spring weather. A wry smile came to his lips while he made the search, reflecting that being born to a peasant family, he retained the stamp of his birthing. Not for him the gaudy silks of the court fops — a cotton shirt and a pair of riding breeches of heavy tent-cloth served the same purpose, and more economically.

The breakfast he chose, of coarse bread, and cheese, and a little sausage, washed down with dry, rough white wine showed his diet to be as little affected as his dress. This morning the roughness of the wine was indeed an advantage, scouring his palate clean from the night, as a more civilized vintage would not.

He kept the meal brief, a few mouthfuls only, to appease his belly, intent as he was to get out and stroll through the still quiet city, before the growing heat and the bustle of people destroyed its charm. He pulled on boots of supple brown leather, without tooling or embellishment, and by the feel of them soon to need repair or replacement. There was nothing else that he need do in preparation, save that he retrieved from his discarded clothes his key, and the brooch of his rank, which he pinned over his heart. As a last whimsy, he pushed a small box of candied fruits into a pocket, jangling the coins already there, before leaving.

The apartment he left was in the oldest part of the college, predating the advent of the Colors, his key a slim bar of golden metal that gave access that could only with difficulty be forced by violence. Austere the rooms might be, these rooms out of antiquity were still in better repair than many newer buildings, the only care given to them being an occasional repainting. Even the original glazing survived, clear and unbreakable, unlike the fragile, frothy modern work.

At the bottom of the stairs — though one day the dumbwaiter system that still remained connecting the floors might be repaired, stairs yet remained the only way down — there was a small hall. Two portraits were hung on its walls, in drab colours, and Caerthemon gave no heed to these dignitaries of the past, and passed straight through, and out into the cloistered walk. Once there had been doors to shelter the way from the weather, but now none halted him, and he passed over the uninterrupted flagstones. To his right the wall, still in shadow, was dank, and drew the warmth into itself, and there was little enough to be had from the crisp breeze blowing through the columns from the grassy court. There, where the shadows lay, dew was dark on the grass — but any earlier in the year and those dark blades would have been candied with frost.

Not a sound was to be heard, save that of his own making, his breathing, his heartbeat, his gentle footsteps on the worn stone, and no motion save the almost imperceptible waving of the trees beyond the far wall of the court, where the two great halls, with their buttresses of buff sandstone, failed to complete the circle, of which his tower formed a cornerstone.

If it were ever to be at his ordering, he would make this tranquil morning ever available, a perfect retreat from the trivial annoyances of his life. For all that he was lucky, he was not satisfied with his world.

Without his talent, he would have been condemned to the drudgery of peasant life until his dotage. With it, he had been freed from his village and by process of a decade's gruelling training, elevated to the level where he might competently wield the powers of one Color, and then had been retained, as of sufficient aptitude, for training in a second. Then he had had no option but to seek the patronage of some lord, and play the messenger in their games of intrigue.

That task had humiliated him often, enough to drive him back into training. Two years after his application, he had had to wait, until an untimely death freed a position for him. He had studied in a third Color, purple, though his aptitude was low even compared with other three-Color sorcerers, but he had managed the course, enjoying it as much for its sanctuary as for its intellectual content. And at the winter solstice, he had graduated, one of five that year, and now turned to gaining the title of Master Sorcerer in his first Color for all that his present power would admit him to temporal power.

Yet even that would quickly pall. Far better to have been a cadet son of a citylord, privileged but without the burdens of office, a dilettante with a private income; that would be the true freedom, from need and from compulsion.

He scarcely noticed that he had reached the end of the cloister, and was passing through an archway to another empty court, this one cobbled over and in its far side was the gate. The stones underfoot, the size of a child's fist, and set with gaps between their rounded surfaces of an inch or more, and that on a basically uneven surface, left his feet to roll and slide into the gaps, at awkward angles, but his stride was sure. He had walked this court every day for years, and now it did not intrude into his self-absorption.

Far more interesting, Caerthemon found the analysis of why he preferred this time of day, this peace. Mainly, he decided, it was because it was the only peace he knew, a peace born of loneliness. Loneliness: the only thin he felt with any repeatability and he knew the gamut of aspects in which it could present itself. For his peace of mind, it was most often an aid to precision, a blank canvas upon which he could impress his own personality, but there were other times…

There was a small portrait on one shelf in his room, and it faced to the wall. He could not throw it away, and yet to look at it would only bring anguish. It had belonged to a man he had not known, yet whose death had saved Caerthemon's own life, a portrait of the girl he had died to save. She was beautiful and despised him, and yet Caerthemon found himself unable to tear himself away from her spell. Even to think about the representation of her was to awake his unrequited, hopeless infatuation, and scourge his heart.

At times like that, he wished to cry, or at least scream, yet he had too much rein upon himself to be able to. He needed companionship, yet knew not how to find it.

Even as an infant, he had been uncaring of the games of his peers, and had more often to be found wandering the Color-edge around the settlement, or at the knee of the village teacher. That had taken him on training of his talent, and the study had always been a perfect excuse for avoiding the social company of his fellow scholars. Always too many had been too shallow to interest him. It was only now that he realized how much they had learned about living that he, for all his book-learning, had not, and could never hope to catch up.

He saw them now, the lads who had played at ball while he looked contemptuously on, from where he sat in the shade of a tree, reading, the youths who had caroused evenings while he had talked natural philosophy with his tutor. They were well liked, had their lady-loves, knew comradeship, and love, and to his part, Caerthemon could only count his scholastic achievements. Those people he knew he termed colleague or acquaintance far more often than be termed them friend, and of those latter, he could only say that he was the periphery of their social worlds, an accepted intruder for as long as he remained inconspicuous. And as for love … he could only imagine it, picturing it as a dark and burning communion of the spirit, sweet anguish hinted at only in dreams. He dared not seek it in life, and excused himself by believing that he would fail, should ever he try, against the competition for the few women that might be a match for him, and knew that part of his fear was lest the reality be less than the dream, and thus rob him of his sole hope.

No one was at the gate to open it, asleep at this early hour as it was assumed all others would be, and Caerthemon had to open the small wicket in the great oaken doors and step out on to the path to the street. High walls surrounded him on either side, and there were flagstones underfoot, their centres worn in step-sided patches from years of wear. Some street refuse drifted in on the breeze, and lay there, its stench growing in his nostrils. He hoped that his boots remained watertight, for when he should step out into the mud of the streets.

Gingerly taken, his first step out into the street sank his foot ankle-deep into mire not yet freshened by another day's ration of nightsoil that would in time be jettisoned from the windows high overlooking the street. He hastened his pace to be clear of the city before the first of its citizens awoke.

That was part of the poverty of the town that disgusted him and repelled him, and made him thankful that he lived in the college of Color, where he might partake of a life built around elevated thought, and living conditions from out of the golden days of the past. As for the people of the town, his mood varied between pity and a hopeless, stillborn desire to uplift them, and cold decision that the only road to improvement lay in erasure by fire and thence to rebuild under greatly improved designs.

In life he went to neither extreme, acknowledging his inability and unwilling to mix with the common herd even though he came of their stock. He shuddered as if he had touched something unclean.

The street he followed was narrow and grossly overhung by the upper stories of the houses. Washing hung across the slight gap under the eaves, blemishing what little sky was not obscured. Pigeons also nested in these eaves, spattering all with their droppings.

And on the ground the chickens pecked at the garbage in the smaller alleyways, scratching out enough to benefit their owners by a few eggs, and the occasional whole bird. Everywhere drawn curtains frilled or plain, colourful or drab or even rude shutters, that covered the windows, showed the town to be still abed. Dogs howled melancholy from some of these shaded interiors, warning of his passage. The only members of this street-life who remained silent at his passing were the alleycats who rarely bothered even to cast a scornful glance at him too busy with their own pursuits to care while he stayed at a distance.

Steps underfoot told how close he was to his goal, as he descended the narrow way from the central hill to the outer quarters. Soon he would be at the city walls, and then beyond their confines to walk in the gardens.

The market square lay near the route he took, but he avoided it, for there would already be stall-holders laying out their wares, and however much he might crave companionship, he had not lost his critical faculties. The company of common-folk he reckoned worse than loneliness, for they were worlds away from him in thought and spirit.. He turned his path away from the place, and strode down a narrow lane, broken by a stairway, and out into a little cobbled square. In its centre was a fountain, its bowl caked by verdigris. No water splashed there. In the far right corner, and oak grew, spreading its branches wide over the alehouse beside it that took its name.

Along the path opposite Caerthemon could now see one of the watchtowers by the gate. His path joined a larger one that at one end led to the market, and to the gates at the other, and in wait for the streams of commerce, the way was lined with saloons and stables, and, ever hopeful , a small chapel.

Here the street was straight, and he could see the gates, flung wide at the dawning, and ready for the day's business. Horses snorted and whinnied in their impatience to be fed in the stables. Caerthemon chewed on slice of candied fruit, faintly amused.

All about him was yet still, the watchtowers looming above him silent and chill fingers of stone. There were only the horses of the guards tethered at their feet, placidly chewing in their nosebags. He was not even challenged as he passed through the arch, looking up to see the thickness of the wall, an arms-length or more, never yet tried in siege, for all the times the city's overlordship had been challenged in war.

No, for all their frequency these cities knew nothing of the wars that so often raged about them. It was left to the likes of Caerthemon to duel for money against a colleague who had been bought by the opposing cities, and for the winner then to march in a band of occupation troops, until the next time. To his intense relief, none of the intrigues of power had blown up into a war large enough to engulf someone as unimportant as he, yet the threat was always there, that he might be called to fight and that would leave him two choices — fight, or flight, and neither would lead to a particularly pleasant future.

Off the high-way, dirt-track that it was, he walked on grass, and the dew washed the filth from his boots, and sprayed them with a film of wetness to calf height. He followed by, but not on, a path worn by the passage of feet, that nearly paralleled the city walls, but eventually moved away from them, into a large ornamental garden, in whose quiet paths Caerthemon wished to walk.

As path and wall slowly diverged, he could see the edge of the shadow of the city approaching, a hand's-width of blur between the grey of skulking night, and the scintillating brightness of the sunlight. He waited for his shadow to rise clear of the city, preparing himself for the sudden torrent of light that would fall from right rear three-quarters, and glare in the edge of his vision — and yet, that shock did not come, for all that he saw his shadow head and shoulders clear. Surprised, he turned around, to try and find out why.

“No!” He spoke the word aloud, firmly and without shouting. He had found the reason why, and for the sake of what sanity he possessed, he wished he had not. There, where all the circumstantial evidence demanded that the sun be, the sky, though becoming paler, remained blank, blue, and without trace of blemish. He ran the last few yards until he stood free of the city's shadow, and still no sun rose above that craggy skyline. It had to be true — yet what explanation could there be?. He knew all that was known about natural philosophy, for all that was worth, but all he knew would suggest such a thing could not happen. He had to find someone who could help him, someone to try and explain away the mystery. Surely it could not be insanity that prevented his eyes from being burned by the rays of the sun, for when he turned, there was no seared afterimage, and all he saw was in its usual detail.

He turned back to the city, running for the gate, grateful when the mass of the walls hid that impossibly blank sky, cursing every second he took to cover the distance. He was not particularly fit, and even the three hundred yard dash left him gasping as he arrived at the gatehouse to demand a horse.

At the gate he slowed, awkwardly to a waking pace, though his legs still demanded to run, and so he moved at a compromise pace even as he pushed open the gatehouse door and stepped inside. The watch room was empty.

“Guards!” he called. There came no answer.

“Anyone?” he was not particular about who answered.

Still silence. He ran up the spiral stairs to the guards' bunk room. The beds were unmade, with the sheets still bearing the imprint of sleepers, and there were clothes by each. Caerthemon put his hand into the first bed, and found it still faintly warm, as if recently deserted. He called again, and a third time his cry went unanswered. Something was terribly wrong, so much that he dared not think what might be happening, hastily suppressing the thought that the Last Trump had sounded and that he had slept through it.

He commandeered one of the horses tethered at the rail, and galloped directly back to the college, seeking someone capable enough to do something. On the main street, no one stirred, neither to church or tavern, and even the market square was deserted. It was becoming apparent that along with the sun, the entire rest of the population of Aden's Keep were gone

Every yard he covered failed to produce counter evidence. Beside him, all that moved were the animals that also made the town their home, and the line of washing, flapping in the light breeze. He wasted no breath on shouts, calling for someone to show themselves for he was convinced that no one would. So sure of that that he ignored every rule of the road in his desperate haste.

He abandoned the horse outside the college gates where the wicket was still ajar as he had left it, and yet it was after seven o'clock by the great clock above the gates, and at that hour should have been opened wide. Caerthemon pushed the door open, and stepped through into the empty court. A feeling as of stage-fright took him as he walked reluctantly towards the rooms his tutor occupied. Though only of two Colors, Master Hara was amongst the most powerful practitioner of Green and Purple, and in all ways Caerthemon's superior.

The rooms he kept were in a more recent part of the college, where the floors of wooden planks creaked underfoot, announcing Caerthemon's presence with every hesitant step. He climbed the narrow stairs to the uppermost floor, and along the corridor to the door he sought, and hammered loudly on its oaken panels. He waited a count of twenty, and hammered again and again.

Surely no one could sleep through that, or fail to protest at the discourteous way he announced his impatient presence. He waited there a long while, not knowing what he should do. His shyness, verging on fear, prevented him from, similarly trying to rouse the other Master Sorcerers, and his certainty that they too would not be there confirmed his reluctance.

Alone. Alone. The word screamed in his mind, driving him to panic, and only his conceit for his rationality held him back at its very edge. Dazed, he made his mechanical return to the outside and stood by the doorway, uncertain of what he would do next. There was too much evidence to suggest that he did not dream, for details were all to exact, and he perceived the world by more than sight and sound, and, most certain of all, he could not exert any control over his surroundings; even the simplest of things, such as levitating himself, were beyond him.

His world had deflated around him, what purpose and what promise it held, were gone, and yet the animal inside him screamed “Survive!”. Why, now that all of the good things were gone? Never to hear a voice from a human voice, never again a friend, no hope of love. For the first time in years he wept, forcing the process. He sobbed often and loudly, but few were the tears he shed, and eventually he decided that it was not worth the effort. He breathed deeply to quiet himself, and wiped his eyes.

That just about exhausted all the ideas he had about what he could do. Long-term things, like setting up a farm to feed himself could wait a little while, for once he began to tedious task of: keeping himself alive there would be no time when he would be free, and the round would go on until old age or disease caught up with him. As well go out into Color, and blow his head off.

Yet there was no reason for such pessimism yet. If he remained, there was a possibility that a few others might also survive. Now was the time to settle down to the problem of organizing the survivors and band them together. First thing to do, would be to make his survival known — painting his name on the city gates being a good a way as any other, together with a time a few days hence, when he would be there to meet anyone coming from another city.

Now he bad given himself a purpose, however short-lived it might turn out to be, he knew what his first priority would be, to equip himself for the days ahead. That would mean actually having to break into shops for the materials he would need, a thought that left him vaguely uncomfortable, for all that the illegality would, seem to be merely technical, he decided what he would do, leaving all the gross acts of burglary until the very last.

He walked across the cobbled first court, and through the shady cloisters, pretending to himself that he was returning to his room to prepare for the tasks ahead, to pack the essentials of his craft, and a few clothes for the journey, but all the while knowing that it was merely to delay the moment of truth when he would have to set aside all his ingrained respect for the law in the name of survival, in a test of the courage of his convictions, and yet, they were tasks he would have eventually to do, so now was as good a time as any to do them.

His return to his room was brief. In the normal course of events, he used it only to sleep, eat or work in, and it held no other attraction for him. He had a small kitbag that carried the minimum of essentials which he had used during his years as a freelance; it held a change of clothes, a book of lore, and a spare all-purpose wand that by rights he should have re-enchanted long since. He looked around the room for anything else, a cup a knife, and finally, reluctantly, the portrait from his shelf, burying it deeply, safely, amongst his clothes. Never once did he turn it over so that he saw its face; he knew the portrait too well to need that stimulus to memory, its presence would be all that he would require to torment him once again.

He buckled the case savagely as if that would restrain that line of thought, and collected the rest of the things he would take with him, his wand, his cloak, his sword — though he used the latter more often as a focus for magics than as a weapon — as a swordsman he was indifferent, too slow and without the power to rely on native talent, and, caring little for physical exertion Caerthemon had trained enough only to give a semblance of skill. The blade was burnished bright, without notch or scar of use, and gave, mirror-like, a view into a faintly distorted looking-glass world. He let the steel slip into its scabbard, and buckled it about his waist.

As he left the college, only his change in attire persuaded him that he had not been caught in some loop in time, damned to live out the same futile play for all time, and to reinforce that, he knew that now he possessed information and purpose he had not when last he passed that way.

His horse, untethered, had wandered in the minutes it had been left abandoned, but it was only a few yards strayed, and came to his coaxing. He rubbed the long face comfortingly, and the horse looked sadly at him with deep brown eyes. How long would he last before he began to talk unselfconsciously to the beast? Angrily he climbed into the saddle, and at a walk, set off. He did not look back, to try and capture last memories of a chapter in his life now so abruptly curtailed. He had his pride, and would face this challenge, or go under, heedless of what had passed.. Later, when these new circumstances of life had stabilized then he might find time for sentimental reminiscence, but at this time of crisis, he had given way to cold, insanely logical panic. Survival, and the achievement of some rudimentary form of civilization would be paramount for months now, or even years, be it as tyrant lord or peasant field worker.

Hie would be glad, he decided, when at last he had left this too quiet city that had not even the grace to reek with the butcher's-shop odour of the dead. As soon as his task was done, he would flee the oppressive, empty streets, and ride the clean unfettered countryside. He would ….

“Kay!” a voice calling his name, a voice he recognized and that he had thought stilled forever. He wheeled his mount around and saw the speaker.

He remained silent for what seemed an awkwardly long time, just absorbing this new shock. As a matter of course he would have hesitated, shaken, at that call — but in the context, where he would have welcomed almost any companion, to find among all the others that one had been fated to persist… It was noon light in a world that had been grasped in midnight.

“Hell and damnation!” It would have to suffice; there had been no appropriate or even dramatic inspiration waiting close enough to snare in the short time he could politely delay reply. There had been no way in real life that he could find an appropriate greeting, so how more so now.

He vaulted from his saddle, barely retaining, his footing on the slippery street, and hurried over, hoping that the pain in his ankle would go away — his sense of the appropriate demanded that he did not tarry, whatever the excuse. And all the while, the Lady Sorceress Saralinda Farmer waited, and watched amusedly.

They had met, through the coincidence of their family names, but a few weeks before, when she, and a few hangers-on had appeared out of the blue at his door, intrigued to find out who this stranger was who bore her name. But that had been the only such visit, for she was courting another, and he was too shy to make a return visit. The thought of her tormented him — she was far closer, far more real, then any portrait — for there had been times when, casually meeting they had spoken together, trivia, anecdotes — and in Caerthemon's case, mostly third-handed and re-attributed, for his life had not been prone to suitably amusing episodes but for all that, conversation.

He had become infatuated, that much he admitted to himself, but not, he hoped, too deeply to make him act the fool in her eyes. Grey eyes, laughing, pensive, penetrating. She was, he guessed, by absolute standards, plain; but by whatever measure he used for beauty, she was beautiful. She was short, and slight of build, her hair long and her face unadorned. Not for her the perfumes and paints of ladies of elegance, who succeeded, in Caerthemon's eyes, in making slight attractiveness into whorish parody — and by rejecting that image totally, and not trying to force herself into any mould, Saralinda had captivated her co-survivor.

In a strange, perverted way, Caerthemon thought, the disaster, whatever its nature, had turned out more as a stroke of luck. There were worse alternatives that could have been — of all the choices of another survivor, that one could have been male, or a common female, or even one of the voluptuous so-called beauties of court whose supposed charms more nauseated Caerthemon than attracted him — even with free choice, he would not have been so presumptive to have chosen her. Nor of the sixty five qualified Sorceresses, of the five actually in the city she was the only one with whom he had had any contact, the only potential partner he could name.

“Fancy meeting you here,” she spoke, smiling, while he yet approached her.

“I'm sorry,” Was this all he could say? The situation had drama enough — the last man on earth finds the last woman, and she one from his dreams. Surely that should charm his tongue, beyond weak self-effacing drollery.

“What have you found out?” he asked the central question, without waiting for the feinting to be ever, freeing himself of the necessity to to participate by the expedient of surrender.

“Everyone has vanished, the Sun isn't there, but acts as if it was there. Is there any more?”

“Not to my knowledge. So you've seen no one else. I was going to paint a message on the city gates, and then ride out to find if any others have survived — if there are two of us in one city, then there must surely be others.”

“I've seen no one — that was the first that I noticed, when I woke — when my maid didn't come to wake me. I suppose it was the sun that you noticed first.”

Whether or not that remark had intended to make comment on his solitary nature, it still stung him inside, but he showed no sign of it, only replied “Yes — So what do we do now?”

“We follow your lead — I can't think of any better plan.”

“Very well, my lady. You shall ride, and I shall walk until we find another.”

She accepted his offer, smiling up at him with a smile he could not interpret, declining his help in mounting. Her independence here, as in the rest of her life, attracted Caerthemon to her, and at the same time set her distant. She was no social climber who would fall at the chance of marriage to one potentially powerful — especially to one who disavowed such a goal. As simple an indicator as any was her garb, differing little from Caerthemon's and only by being more elegant; and certainly not the flowing skirts and expensive embroidery that one of Saralinda's personal wealth might be expected to affect.

And she sat arrogantly astride the horse's back, not side-saddle, another facet of her assertion of herself as her own woman. As far as he could judge, to her, sorcery was just a means to that end, and, had she not been Talented, she would have been a sell-sword, fighting for any city that would meet her price.

She urged the horse into gentle motion, and Caerthemon followed.

Deep in one of the dingier quarters of town, there was a small craftsman's shop, his wares, wooden carvings, all brightly coloured, and a sure source of something bright to mark the city gates. Caerthemon came again to the little shop that he had seen many times before as he walked through the streets, to find it shuttered heavily against the night.

He put his shoulder to the wood, rattling the panels, but not budging them. His second attempt tore a couple of the slats from their fixing, and then it was no effort at all. With his sword, he cleared away the glass remaining in the windows, and he could safely reach in and remove the locking bar.

He climbed in through the window, onto a table where samples of the craftsman's wares lay among the fallen glass, kicking both indiscriminately onto the floor, and they crunched underfoot. He felt a pain inside at the destruction of such fragile beauty, but did not stop to look down, as he walked past more rows of carvings to the workshop. Here the shuttered windows let threads of light onto the work table, where another time they would have been open wide to all the light of the sun, to clarify the details of the new work.

He ignored the half-finished sculptures, of dogs, children, farm animals, and the fine steel tools, seeking only for the pots of bright paint, which he found, stacked in one corner, behind a half-painted effigy of winged woman, carved to life-size, with gilded wings. He picked up the first two pots, one a bright green that slopped like a thin mud, the other a tarry red, and a large brush, and left all else untouched, and returned to the valkyrie he served.

She acknowledged his gifts, holding them while he led the horse slowly through the narrow streets, detouring often to avoid stairways. The hooves clapped slowly, like a funeral drum, off the cobbled sections of the streets, but did not damage the unnatural silence. Even the wildlands were not as quiet as this city deserted, its silence a heaviness on the ears of those still left to hear, and stilling whatever conversation they might have had leaving Caerthemon to amuse himself by stealing glances at his lady, treasuring each fleeting image of her face in repose.

He wondered what she might be thinking, what matters there might be to hold her thoughts — and what strange perspective she would put upon the issues at hand, in that strange way women seemed to have. How much would she expect him to work for her in the times to come, and how much would she do — while he had assumed a submissive role, he was too lazy to play the part of manservant to her for very long. He worried at the stubble on his chin, and tried not to think too hard or long on what the future might hold for him.

The sounds of horses ahead of them brought him back to the here and now, and he lifted his gaze from where it had fallen to the muddy street below, to see the gatehouse near. Silently he held out his hand to Saralinda, and she passed him the paints.

The dry old wood drank in the pigment greedily, smudging what was written, though it remained legible, a bald statement of their names, and Colors, and the hour at which they would be on hand to receive guests, in colours bright enough to be seen at distance, and left the paints, and pen, paper and ink in the guardhouse, so that any who cared might leave a message.

“So where do we ride?” Saralinda asked him, as he unhitched one of the guards' horses, and mounted it.

“Marera.” The nearest city, fifteen miles hence, and all the while over Greylands, along the path of an ancient highway that, to that day, still ran in elevated sections, here and there, broken and isolated though they might be. In the fields about, as the land gently rolled towards a small line of hills about half of the distance to Marera, crops by far predominated over herding, for the land was safe and permanent. Wheat stood tall and green, and potatoes were yet but small bushes, later crops showing only as a faint sprinkling of green. Only the fallow pastures looked truly rural, for the earliness of the month left the land bare of promise of harvest and plenty.

Three miles out, where the fields gave way to pastures, for here the greyland narrowed to a neck of variable thickness, they caught their first glimpses of the sickness upon the Land, in sporadic patches of Color, some the size of a thumbnail, others a fathom across, scattered like mould on the ground, or clinging to trees and hedges, outriders of a borderline hidden only by one or two ridge crests. Caerthemon felt those clots of brightness in his skull, as his sorcerous talent reached out across the blighted greyland to touch them, and it depressed him, more even than usual, and yet he said nothing of this to Saralinda who still rode at his right hand.

He did give voice to his feelings eventually, for when they topped the next rise, they could see, hanging before them and blocking off the isthmus of Greyland, the lands of magic advanced miles upon the lands of men. It hung before them like a fog, almost opaque, in shimmering white — not the normally invisible wall that only Talent could discern from the Greylands side, and without distinctive Color.

“I have my doubts about going in there,” he said, drawing at his horse's reins. The animal did not complain, in fact seemed glad to be kept away from it, and Saralinda made it three.

“So what do we do now?” she asked.

“Your guess, my Lady, will be as good as mine. But please bear in mind that I am no hero. I'd want half the Master Sorcerer in the College at my back before going in there — I've never seen it so thick!”

“Nor I. Until that clears up, I think we ought to use our discretion, and try somewhere else — surely they can't all be like this.”

Ten miles they rode around that oasis of Greyland, all except to the south and east by the river called. Shammarra's Tears, and all were walled in by the same heavy fog of whiteness that screamed its magic in their minds. Only the river held it at bay, and even there, tendrils drifted mistlike across its waters, which normally held the other realms at bay. No break, no variegation showed in its solid wall, for all their searching.

If their first sight of the grossly changed texture of magic had caused unease, then to complete the circuit and find no place better awoke animal fears, fears of the trap and snare. It seemed some animation had come over the world. Caerthemon reviewed his earlier, almost light-hearted conjecture that he had missed the Judgement Day that he denied, and wondered whether the advance propaganda had made a wrong forecast of the winner, and then tried to scrub the idea from his mind. It retreated a little, from his active thoughts, and hid in the shadows of his mind, a lurking shadow of darker substance.

“I'm scared,” and the dryness of his throat as he made the confession bore witness to that, “scared so I want to curl up and go to sleep, and wake up to find this is all a bad dream.”

That was only the surface of it. He was caught as if between hammer and anvil, between the new threat closing in and his ever present fear of death, and feared that he might escape to madness rather than succeed in resolving the dilemma.

“I'm not exactly enthusiastic about the situation, Kay, but…”

However Saralinda felt about the situation, she obviously realized that there was little that could cheer her companion, and Caerthemon was glad of that. Cheap pep-talk could only arouse his ire, and he could not bear the thought of raising his hand against Saralinda. He waited a long time, his fears robbing him of his volition. He knew in his bowels that there was nothing he could do that would help the situation, so the logical conclusion was to do nothing, and in not acting, even panic failed him. Coldly as he analyzed his paralysis of will, he realized that now futility had ended everything for him, even, without any regret, his unrequited infatuations — or rather his regret was merely mechanical, a formalized acknowledgment of the passing of all hope.

Dull eyed, he looked at his companion in distress.

“Do something, anything,” he pleaded.

“Let's go back to town,” she said, after a long pause of deliberation, and twitched the reins of her horse. Lethargically Caerthemon urged his own to follow that lead, away from the sight of magic gone mad.

That was not enough to let them forget, for as the sky remained cloudless, they could still see the paler patch of sky where the sun ought shine, and for all the warmth of the non-sun, the air was little warmer than it had been by morning. There was enough wrongness in the world yet, to keep Caerthemon in despair.

He had been blind not to see it from the very first, but now he was sure that he had been introduced into the world simply to be tormented, and finally slumped down in defeat. Perhaps this was, had been, his own hell, his private place of punishment for something done in another existence. No — that made him too special, as if he were worth anyone's time or trouble, no, he would have to face the truth squarely, that he had been caught up in the blind and inviolable workings of an uncaring Nature, and should he be crushed within its cogs, his passing would go unremarked.

It was all sick, one big, sick joke, the sicker yet for its very pointlessness, but it would not coerce him into foolishness. He hoped that he could show a similar indifference, and wait uncaring for the resolution, standing on his honour, however tarnished or lacking, and feared that those were empty words, that he would meet his end, screaming and raving. He did not have any way of knowing whether logic or insanity would rise triumphant from the wreck of his mind in the final minutes, now surely at hand.

The sight, at a distance, of the city of Aden's Keep, jolted him from his downward slide — it seemed so serene, down there, as if the city slept on, despite the light. Yet how could it have been different? Had it been fired, then it would have changed, but it had not — and still, the absence of population seemed to have wrought, a change in the city's, distant aspect. Was it, perhaps the sounds of life, on the fringes of hearing, now absent, that he noticed? There should have been a change, to tell of the ghastly events now upon them, large, ugly.

Caerthemon rose in frustrated anger, the red fires of rage giving some light to his soul, a reason to look out on the world, with head held arrogantly high.

“Change, damn you!” he yelled, and dug his heels into the horses flanks, riding it hard down the slope. The flying hooves pounded like a muted drum, cutting the turf as he took the direct line to the gate, exhilarating in speed.

He ceased his flight at the gate, and waited beneath the arch for Saralinda to catch up.

“What the Hell's come over you?” she asked, snapping her words, as she came close, he could see the strain in her face, and grinned an idiot grin at her.

“The world's gone mad — why shouldn't I? Waa-haaaay!”

He screamed the last at the top of his voice, threw his head back and screamed again. He drew a great breath for another war-cry, but never managed to utter it. Pain exploded on his right cheek burning, slowly subsiding to a tingling, where Saralinda had laid the mark of her hand. Faintly he could taste his own blood.

“Listen to me.”

Caerthemon listened, aware of how close he trod to the edge of lunacy. He nodded in indication.

“We'll go to the college, and I'll get us some lunch, and then we can try and think of something else like sensible adults. Is that all right?”

“Yes. I think I'll be all right for a while now. Thanks.”

He wondered how to keep his mind clear of his problems, and glanced furtively at Saralinda. Amorous fantasy? His acceptance of futility had taken all his enjoyment, for all they offered, even if realized, were only temporary, and death was forever. No! he thought in a scream, No! the downward whirlpool beckoned seductively as every path of thought brought him past it. Yet, perhaps he could divert his mind with thoughts of Saralinda. It would be no harm to try ….

He thought he heard a noise, that neither their own presence nor wind nor wildlife had caused, and like a hunted animal, became instantly attentive, looking for its source. He waited, holding his breath.

There was a rush of noise, and from side streets a horde of demon creatures poured, the scrapings of the lands of Color. This was a threat he could understand, and immediate enough to excite his interest. He drew his sword, the bright steel blade awaiting its slaking — hopefully still to show the same virtue as always, now that the fiends could come unaided from their own unrealities.

“Fight!” he called, when the near-human figures began to close on them without greeting or formality. They were slender beastfaced creatures, and they bore a bewildering variety of weapons, forged from the strange metals that did not carry the bane of iron against their kind

The leader came up to Caerthemon's horse, and tried to take the reins. Dust, he fell, as the steel struck, cleaving the flesh as if it were wax. He leapt down from his mount, and backed towards a wall, where at least his back would be secure, and Saralinda was with him. They did not have to wait long for the rush.

Silently, slowly, the pale ranks closed upon them, falling like wheat, crumbling like the long dead. This was fighting more to Caerthemon's like than any other: it required little skill of his, beyond that he hit his opponent before they hit him. Yet, although the demons stayed hit, there were more to take the places of the fallen, and he weakened. He did not bother to guess how long it was he fought, until his sword was knocked from his hand by a pole of faerie metal, and he stood defenseless before them. Three rushed at him, grabbing him from the protection of Saralinda's blade, and clubbed him expertly into unconsciousness.

He woke thirsty, his head aching, on what felt like a bed, and he was not alone there — someone lay against his back. But how? He remembered, or so he believed, all that had happened, and no explanation of nightmare would satisfy him. He edged gently away from his companion, and sat up, looked around. His bedmate beside him turned out to be Saralinda, breathing slowly in sleep. Her left eye was blacked, and her lips were puffy. Caerthemon inspected himself for damage, and found he had only suffered a blow on the back of his head, spared the rest by not struggling after capture. He smiled a little.

The room was old, but postdated the Colors, and the furnishings showed their age. Only the bed linen, the bright red oversheet were new. Before him was a door, oaken and ironbound; behind, to left and right, windows. To the left there was blank wall, but to the right, at the same distance was an archway, curtained off.

He swung from the bed, his landing muffled by a heavy sheepskin rug, and walked quietly to the door, finding it barred from the outside. The windows were little more help, the wall below each shear, and free of ivy or other obliging growth, for all the fifty feet to the ground. He recognized the place now, from the view he had of the city : the room was an apartment in the CityLord's palace.

It seemed to make no sense that they should be brought to such a place, yet what was wrong with that? Sense, by rights, was the last thing he should expect in the new order of things. Hysteria beckoned again, butt he fought it — he had a task, to search the room, for anything that might bear on the problem.

There was a chest of drawers by the bed, but that was empty, and beyond the curtain, there was a wardrobe, empty save for a small brooch, which he pocketed. There was no food, nor anything to drink. So, assuming they had not been brought to these luxurious quarters to die slowly of hunger and thirst, they would be visited at some time. So, with all the time in the world, he would wait for that time. He slumped in an armchair, and let his eyes close, hoping that he would sleep.

He woke with a start, realizing that he had slept, without knowing, it was darker now, as evening drew on. Saralinda sat on the bed, watching him.

“At last,” she said, “it's been getting a little boring watching you sleep it off.”

Caerthemon struggled to keep his eyes open, and wished he could raise enough spittle to actually spit, to clear his mouth. So clogged it felt, that it seemed that it affected his voice as he spoke.

“I know, that's, why I went to sleep again, myself.”

“Touché. Did you see anyone while you were awake.”

“Not a one. I can't even fathom why we were brought here of all places. There must be someone human directing them, else they wouldn't have brought us here. That they didn't kill us outright means, I hope, that they're going to keep us alive, and maybe we'll get to see the guy in charge. Alternatively the demons have us shut up here for revenge now the whole place has gone wild. Either way, I can't see much future in escape.”

“You mean you're going to sit there?”

“No — I'll try to get out, just for something to do.”

“I tell you, Kay, I'd have just left you otherwise. For someone supposed to be my superior, you do the strangest things.”

“Sorcery, My Lady, has little to do with the matter. I don't know what to do, so I just have to hope it will all vanish like a bad dream, or at least shape itself into something I can deal with.”

“Grow up, Kay. Life is life — it's not just ordered for your benefit — and it doesn't go away when you close your eyes.”

“I know that's why I've stuck with sorcery — it gives me some sort of control, except now…It's like having a hand cut off Without it, I'm nobody, nobody at all.

“Saralinda — what keeps you playing at sorcery?”

“Fun, I guess. What else would I do?”

“I've never really told anyone why I stay a Sorcerer, but today I feel I have to — like a final confession. I do it because I'm scared, if didn't have the Talent, then I'd be milking cows on a farm in Sorrows Beachamp, and tending crops, and working all the hours of daylight in the general company of simpletons, for all the rest of my life until I became one of them. Can you understand what that means to me — and if not that, anything else would be as menial, as soul-destroying.

“I don't have your wealth to free me, and I don't want to assume the burdens of power temporal to get me rich — so that's why I'm still studying when I could be out carving a corner for myself. I was born out of time — I should have lived in the Golden age just before the Colors.”

“Poor Kay.”

Sarcasm or sympathy? He could not tell from the tone of voice — hoped the one, expected the other, but neither could alter the facts — that he was afraid of life and afraid of death and could alter neither. It would have been better never to have been.

He would have liked to have screamed out his frustrations, but all his habitual reserve choked off his protest, and left it festering inside him. He looked Saralinda straight the face. Her eyes met his, and he looked away, ashamed, though of what he could not say.

Beyond their common name, they had little else in common, no mutual interest for conversation, so as Caerthemon finished his outburst, and Saralinda had replied, there was silence for a long time, and there was no peace in that silence

Caerthemon had been hesitating on the edge of saying something — he knew not what — for a long time, when there came a scratching at the door, as its barring was removed. The handle rattled, and the door swung open, letting yellow lantern-light fall into the room. An old man in white entered, his hair also white, yet still bushy, and his face gave the impression of vitality. His eyes — there as something about them that was disturbing enough, even half seen in the uncertain light, to make Caerthemon shrink back in his chair.

“Good evening, Lady, Sir. I am your host here, and I apologize for my fearful lack of hospitality, but I hope you will appreciate that I have been very busy during the day, and that I have, in the last few years, forgotten many of the social graces.

“So I have. I suppose we ought, in best form, be introduced before we go any further. I am Aden Six-Color, and you are …?”

“Caerthemon Farmer, yellow, green and purple.”

“Saralinda Farmer, blue and red.”

“Man and wife?”

“No — you — but Aden Six-Color died half a century ago.”

“No, I did not, but when Istaya Blackmantle rode into my citadel, I was forced to abandon it, my work incomplete, and it has taken me this long to complete it, to bring the message to the world.”

“You're too late, by twelve hours or so. Everyone is gone, the world is ending.”

“I know — I did that, Caerthemon. All the others heard, and only you two, in all the earth, seem not to have, and you here where once I worked.

“But that is of no consequence. Come sir, I shall explain it all to you and your charming sister while we dine.”

Leaving his guests to follow as they may, the aged sorcerer turned, and was gone.

They dined at the great table in the palace hall, grouped about one end, Aden at the head, Caerthemon to his right, and opposite him, Saralinda. The food was served by demon creatures, but it was true food, and satisfied their hunger, and the wine and water slaked their thirst. Only after these problems had been resolved, did Caerthemon turn to the subject raised by their host.

“What, my Lord, is your object in all this chaos you claim to have caused?”

“To destroy the Grey world, and reveal to its people the glory of the Cosmic Aesthetic. Two failures only in all the millions who awoke this morning to the light. You intrigue me, you pair, how you have remained in this obsolete world. You have each advanced along the path of the Aesthetic, unlike the untalented — you know what sorcery is, and yet you deny the path. Lady — why do you not heed the call?”

“What call? You're mad, old man, like they said you were. Even if you did all this.” she swept her arm to encompass the ruin of the world.

“Mad? You misunderstand me — what I offer is a different outlook on reality, one which shows the underlying harmony of the six planes. To me, your outlook seems that of a madwoman. You prefer this ugly Grey plane — that is madness.”

“Aden, neither I nor the lady heard your spurious call, so what do you propose to do with us?”

“Nothing. I shall continue as I have planned, and at midnight tonight, the Grey plane of Earth shall be no more. You may come with me, or you may stay to watch and take part in the end of this world. I have no reason to impede you, except to protect myself and the conjuration, for if you did, what would happen thereafter would be beyond reworking by you, or even I. That is not a threat, it is a fact — I have no need to threaten, for I can destroy you without a thought.”

“Madness is too good for you. You are a monster, whatever your guise of flesh, and the sooner you are returned to the hell that spawned you…”

“Young man. I do not threaten, nor do I heed threats, I only promise. I think we should close this conversation. If you decide to come with me then be at the great library well before midnight Otherwise I shall bid you adieu, bon apetit, for I have certain preparations to attend to.”

He pushed back his chair, and rose uncertainly to his feet. He bowed to Caerthemon, and kissed Saralinda's hand, and without a further word, departed the hall.

Both sorcerer and sorceress watched his departure with a morbid fascination, staring a long while at the door by which he had quit the room, before daring to speak of what they had been told.

“Do you believe him?” Caerthemon asked.

“I think so — and you?”

“Yes. I move we be early to the library.”

“Agreed — I see no point in perishing without a cause, and no reason to doubt his word about this ceremony.”

“Aye. More wine, My Lady?”

“Yes, thank you, Kay.”

It was half past eight, and outside the palace, the evening dark was being relieved by moonlight, shining, as had the sunlight from no discernible source in the grey washed sky. The light showed clearly a boiling wall of white that was not fog, now little distant from the city wall. Like fire, small patches of Color caught along the walls giving off a fitful glow. The air held the tension that comes before a storm. Only the animals now moved in the empty streets, for even the demons had withdrawn into the palace, or returned to their own worlds. It was cold, very cold, with an arctic wind blowing into the city from that wall of fog.

Tatters of that wind moved through the palace, stirring the candle flames, running its touch of winter about the two diners, until Caerthemon regretted how lightly, he had clothed himself, shivering at its touch.

Nine o'clock. Dinner was over, and Caerthemon stood by one of the windows, and his breath fogged the already misty glass into opacity. He opened it wide, and looked out on the looming mass of white, cold grey in the moonlight, with its outriding fires of Color now well within the city walls. There were no stars in that part of the sky that was still open, only the clouds, thin and wispy, like the fast tattering streamers of his breath.

Footsteps behind him sounded Saralinda's approach as she came to stand beside him, and look out on the last of the world they knew. Even as she watched, the Color advanced, its outriders striking polychrome fire ahead of the white wall. Green light flared momentarily from a church steeple less than a hundred yards distant. It died almost at once, but was replaced by an enveloping golden aura in the instant of its dying. Behind it, the glacier-like wall of white advanced, arching over the enclave of grey, closing off the sky. Moonless light alone remained to show that another universe existed.

“Do you suppose there are any other Greylands left now?”

“No, ”Caerthemon replied, “and before this one is gone, I suggest we be in the library.”

“Cautious, aren't you?”

“Cowardly, rather — but you do not disagree with my idea?”

“I agree. Shall we go?”

Caerthemon nodded, and they turned their backs on the window, still flung wide at the end of the world . They were silent, as they made the short journey, Caerthemon possessed by a sense of anticipation, as if he were about to embark on some great voyage of discovery, and looking regretfully about, to say farewell to a home he would not see again, and Saralinda — her thoughts were her own, and he could not read them in her face.

They walked swiftly, also, aware that the whiteness chased almost at their heels, aware that time was against them, and aware that safety was only possible through this one route.

The library doors were flung wide, and its contents had been pushed roughly out into the corridors. Smoke wafted from the dimly lit interior. The ceremony was soon to begin.

Black as night, the polished marble of the floor was now bare, save for the equipment for the conjuration; several braziers on tall stands that gave off the pungent smoke, and candle holders, with candles of tawny-golden wax in them. And under the bare rafters, where carved cherubs played, Aden was completing a circle in silver sand, within the heart of a greater design. He looked up at the newcomers.

“Mind the pattern, won't you? There are some chairs around out there. Make yourselves comfortable, while I finish setting up. I'll show you where to put them. By the way — how close is the white?”

“A furlong, no more, maybe less.”

“Excellent, excellent. Just as I expected. It should hold roughly at the palace walls now, until I'm ready for it.”

They found and brought chairs, and placed them within the center of the design, in a sand circle some ten feet wide, where Caerthemon and Saralinda sat, and watched, and waited, trying, on Caerthemon's part at least, to fathom the details of the preparation, and thus to understand the nature of the spell to be wrought. There were some similarities in the design to that of a summoning circle to bring and bind demons to service, but those were more in the nature of the mechanism, rather than in the ends to which they would be bent — as a stretched string could provide music or launch an arrow, so were the elements of a patterning without purpose. Only he who crafted them could provide that.

In the center with them, Aden had set a table, bearing both wand and sword, and two candles of deepest azure, while about them the braziers were being set in precise positions, and fanned into weak flame, about the periphery. Deeper in, Aden set the golden candles, and lit them to blood red flame that reflected from the new wafts of smoke, turning the blue into brown, or grey where it swirled aimlessly amidst the rafters.

Then, gathering a few final items into the ring — a clod of earth, a bowl of water, wood and wool, he stood back to admire his work.

“It is ready now,” he called out,“ now beware, for it is begun. You understand the courtesies involved.” he smiled, a sweet mad smile.

“We do. Have done with it, old man.”

“That, I fear, lies hours from now, but we must start. Be still now, and watch.”

He took up his place before the table, and in taking that place, a change seemed to come over him. No longer was he an old man, overcome by his years, and a strange madness, an eccentric grandfather, with a wild hobby. The commanding personality that had shown briefly at the dinner table now shone forth strongly, making him taller, sloughing the burden of years, and leaving only the wisdom of their passing — and madness, if there were a madness in him, then truly it were a divine madness, consuming him like a flame. Fire soared from his garments of white, in an aura a hand's-breadth deep.

In that fire, Caerthemon saw something that until he had seen it with his own eyes, that he would have sworn impossible for indeed the fire was purest white, yet it was in some wise defiled, so that he shuddered and tried to avert his eyes, but to no avail, for in that unholy flame there burned a power to hold the eye against the will.

From the table before him, Aden took the wand, and when he held it, that too took up the fires. Like a brush he wielded it, as he spoke words that were sounds to unlock a patterning already established. From the sounds and the brush strokes, he crafted a symbol in all the Hues of magic. Lacy, intricate, without substance, it hung in the air, a bindspell to hold off the Color, only of such a power that Caerthemon had never seen — and in Caerthemon's recognition, he anticipated Aden's discarding of the wand in favour of the sword.

The blade rejected the unwholesome flame, and glinted bright in the bloody candle-light, and the sorcerer's own light, as he spoke a few more words, and then set the blade to cleave the web of his own weaving. The steel sliced through the strands, and they withered to naught, their spell released. By the senses that made him a sorcerer, Caerthemon felt the arrival of the closing Color before he saw it, seeping mistlike through the walls. It even passed the boundaries of the circle, though in not so gross and visible a form. The absorption of the last Greyland was like a thunderclap, a blow to his head. Saralinda, beside him, also tensed under the hammer blow, but under the disciplines of magic, remained silent, lest she disturb the sound patternings of the master sorcerer.

Caerthemon, silent also, watched the flame brighten about their host as he absorbed the full potency of the whiteness into himself. Then, addressing himself once more to the table, Aden drew a box of ebony and a bowl of bright copper from his robes. The latter he sat carefully between the candles, and drawing the lid from the box, poured out what at first seemed to be a quantity of white jade, bearing only the faintest trace of green, but as it was exposed to the air, it caught aflame, of like colour, and rimmed in bright green. Lying in the copper bowl, the lumps looked like white hot coals, yet bearing the same generic taint as the fire of their kindler.

With a taper, Aden transferred this fire to the candles, and the flame they bore was like unto silver and mother-of-pearl, and did not consume them. The fell flames grew, tall and slender as flames ought, and yet where a normal flame trailed up into smoke, these burned bright threads of silver, inches high.

Aden threw the taper down, crushed it underfoot, and raising his head, as if to the moon, began to sing. This was a song without words, like the vox angelica of some great organ, played in a tune to uplift the spirit, a song of great triumph. Yet to Caerthemon, it seemed that a flaw lay in the heart of the melody, defying the location of reason, yet repelling his desires. It was as if the triumph offered was too great, required too little effort of him, that he felt compelled to reject its siren offer. The path it showed was not for him to tread, for by temperament the road he trod was grey, neutral in all struggles.

He caught at a phrase of the song that reminded him of a tune he loved well, and clung to it, letting it free him from the conjuration, permitting him to stand aloof. Thus freed, he dared a sideways lance at Saralinda, and saw her sitting intrigued, yet not entrapped, as if the song merely awoke her curiosity, and that she could turn from it should anything else prove of more interest. He tapped her lightly on the shoulder.

She turned, looked questioningly at him. He smiled timidly, and nodded at Aden, then shook his head. Comprehension lit her face, and she nodded in assent, and turned back to her study, for now the aged sorcerer took the wood, and wool from the table, and dropped them in the basin wherein he had kindled the green flame. Each offering burned, and their flames struggled to be wholesome, but were stifled instead by the jade fires, and their burning sent up an acrid reek into the room, filling the nostrils and not departing.

In the night beyond the circle, a desolate howling awoke, and screamed its venom forth, and died again. Life had departed the world at the bidding of the man who had been called Aden the Mad, and had been regarded as a buffoon, for all that he was a tyrant of a city that yet bore his name.

Caerthemon thought awhile on that, and wept unashamed at the callous unthought that had permitted it to come to pass.

Aden noted the sounds of his sobs, and, tying the strands of his patterning, looked sadly at him.

“Look not to what is past, my son. This is but half the final conjuration that I have accomplished, and before it is done, even the world beneath our feet shall be no more. It shall return even to the Chaos from which it arose, and it shall be good that we are rid of it.”

Caerthemon looked up at him, and he was afire with wrath at the senseless deaths that had been wrought. To quench so much life, so callously, in any cause, and yet to stand unmoved by it was beyond his conception. Not for the first time did he wish another's action had been stayed by apathy. Too many preached “do unto others” — not his own inverted version — “do not unto others for they may not accept your choice for them” — and lived by that.

An idea of poetic justice came to him, and he tried the other in his heart, and found him wanting even those tatters of humanity he valued, and with guilt established, Caerthemon passed sentence, that Aden should perish by the works of his own hand, whatever the cost.

“Yet now,” Aden continued, “I have another task of greater urgency. Before the final wreck of earth, I shall provide us with a gateway to the place that I established, where I laboured so many years, and where now the rest of mankind awaits us, in the contemplation of beauty soon to be perfected.”

The spellbinding he uttered was a simple one, familiar to the audience, though with assonances woven into it that increased its scope and power. His wand he took again, and described a circle in the air opposite the point where the table stood , and it was as if he took a knife to taut canvas, and cut through to what lay beneath, in a ring, edged with white smoke left by the passing of the wand. In this frame was revealed an expanse of mistiness, lit in a golden hue like the sunlight, which seemed to have no substance to it. A binding of endurance he placed on the gateway, and then he turned away from it to resume his major work. And though Caerthemon knew that a spell neglected was a spell as if broken, he was content to do nothing, for he did not care to awake the wrath and suspicion of he who had wrought the gate and the destruction. He contented himself, now that the details of Aden's plan were becoming explicit, to fill in the details of his own plan, of revenge, and it was a pastime that amused him. Yet he remained wary, and did not show his grim

Aden lifted his voice again in the mocking song of triumph, and this time it wove themes deeper and darker amidst its melodies, as seemed to the intuitions of those who watched, to be more fit to the greater task that was purposed for them. Longer also was the song that wove a web of wizardry tight about the world, as were the patterns Aden's fingers traced nimbly in the air, there to glow for a few instants.

The sight of them, for they were beyond his symbol lore, wrenched his mind, and as in his preoccupation he began to mimic them, the fires they bound surged hot within him. He hit his hands hard against the arms of his chair to break the fascination, and averted his eyes from those weavings.

A soft hiss announced the fall of water onto the pallid coals in their bowl, and though a pall of steam arose, they did not darken, even for an instant, as would a fire of coal or wood. Only the clod of earth remained now on the table, and by extension of what he had seen, Caerthemon knew the reason for it, and knew that the earth was now as dry as the dust, its waters drawn away.

The end was approaching, heralded by the completion patterns appearing in the symbol work, and by a long low rumble, at the very edges of hearing. Earth knew her time, and moaned at the verge of death.

Caerthemon too was intent upon that time, in which he would have to make his last and most desperate move on her behalf. It was all about to unfold, and the stage-fright played upon him. Over and again he rehearsed the actions that he would have to make. To his left sat Saralinda, and ahead of her, the smoke-wreathed portal to the golden void, ahead of himself, the table, and between gate and table, at the center of the design, Aden.

The earth groaned again, and louder, and Caerthemon could feel the once solid land shake under him. There came to his ears the sounds of the ruin of masonry, and the fall of slates from the roof above, but the sight was lost in mist. As far as he now could tell, the three of them were aboard a raft adrift on a mist cloaked lake, or fabled ocean.

And even that was frail shelter against the storm that now began to awake about them. Caerthemon looked up. Aden had taken the clod of soil in his hand, and raised it high. He screamed the completion of his sorcery, and crumbled what he held, letting the dust fall into the bowl, and be consumed in bright sparklings.

About the circle, final destruction awoke, in a featureless roar of noise that oppressed the ears, and even in the mist, the shapes could be perceived of the palace going down in ruin, and their own plunge. Yet in that instant, Caerthemon concerned himself not with the spectacle about him, and the assaults it made on him, and sprang at the figure in white, whose flame now seemed slightly diminished. He struck him as he bent to pick up the sword from where he had placed it, and, loose in his grasp, it flew from his hand and slid across the floor to the brink of oblivion.

So too did the two sorcerers, carried by the momentum of Caerthemon's leap. Of the two, Caerthemon, prepared, fared better, and retained his footing, but he had hoped to grasp the blade and use it. Instead he must grab for the first thing that came to hand, and it was one of the azure candles, still brightly lit.

He kicked at his opponent who now began to climb to his feet, and sent him sprawling, head and shoulders beyond the circle. He hesitated to strike thus again, lest he be caught and tripped. Wary, waiting for what move the other would make, Caerthemon reached out with his mind, taking the flame, and weaving it into the fabric of magic. Tall it was before, enriched by sorcerous means, and as he added to it, so it grew still further, and he flung a wash of the fire across Aden's body.

It halted against a shield hastily flung out, extending the function of the arm Aden threw across his face to protect himself, and though the attack did not actually harm him it kept him propped on one hand, unable to turn his concentration from his counterspell. So instead of rising, he attacked.

He also reached out into the fire, pushing the silvery mist away from himself and towards Caerthemon.

“Not a wise move, Sorcerer. I made that flame, transferred it from my sanctum to that candle, which also I made. That gives me caster's privilege.”

Caerthemon said nothing, relying on the old sorcerer's great expenditure of energy in the grand ceremony to have depleted his reserves to the point where he could outlast him in combat.

Holding the threat at bay, he spoke slowly, calmly, almost dreamily, and not to his opponent.

“Saralinda. Get out of here while I hold him.”

“I shall.”

He waited a while, as long as he thought would be needful for her to get clear, and began slowly to back towards the gate. He could feel the tensions behind him as plainly as he as if he could see the opening of the gate.

The drain was beginning to tell now on both duellists, as they poured their vital energies into the struggle faster than either could replenish their immediately usable reserves. There was no sign that could distinguish the one who would prevail; and that the contest could fall either way, Caerthemon knew.

Yet were he to dwell on that, it might disturb the balance against him, both distracting his mind, and readying him for defeat, and as in a game if elbow wrestling, to fall late would be inevitably to fail, however long that failing. It would not be he.

He gathered up an attack and drove it without warning at his opponent, taking a handful of the fire and casting it like a javelin. And Aden screamed, and his struggles failed.

Caerthemon quenched the spell, and in the clearing of the flame from between them, he saw the bright ceremonial blade sunk deep into Aden's chest, and driven to the heart. Blood ran red onto the scorched white cloth of his garb.

“Two on to one, Kay, is far more certain than a fair fight, and I didn't want him to win.”

“Thank you, my Lady.”

“Kay, would you cease to be such a gentleman? Now it seems we're going to be together for quite a while, I wish you'd call me Lindy, not ‘my Lady’. I can't get used to it from someone my senior — like you are.”

“As you wish, Lindy. I'm sorry — and thanks for disobeying: me.”

“Wouldn't you have done the same? Come on, this place seems like it won't have much of a future.”

Caerthemon hid his humiliation beneath a smile — he had been treating Saralinda as if she had been a china ornament, and she had rejected that, and in doing so had shown herself to be of great service to him.. She was hard to place — she deserved the extreme of courtesy that he, in his ignorance, had chosen to use, save where habit had left him to lapse into familiarity. Certainly he felt it right so to address her, more than it did to use the same words on the painted-faced dolls that bedecked the courts. He cursed himself for a stupid fool, and let the more wonted frown replace his smile, and the hollowness within him sucked in the annoyance he felt, and was not filled.

He cast a last look about him, at the circle of sand, broken where Aden had fallen, where now mist seeped in. Further afield, he could discern a few patches of light, and recognized them as boulders loose in the void. And there was Saralinda, and the gate yet open. He retrieved the sword, wiping it clean on Aden's robes, and rummaged through them but found nothing further for their aid. Then, together, the two sorcerers stepped through the gate.

There was footing of a kind on the far side, .though it felt frothy, like new-fallen snow underfoot. The gold was like the inside of fog at eventide, and the air was heavy. These were tolerable, but they were not all.

Within the shining emptiness about them was a feeling of presence, something dreadful, just beyond the range of sight, and at that distance were sounds. Like mutterings or groans they were, though whatever throats formed them were not now, if indeed they had ever been, human. This then was the place of beauty that Aden had. repaired to? It…

The sounds caught in his mind like an infectious melody, and in their random cacophony, it seemed that he could discern meaning, lulling, motherly in tone.

“Kay!” Saralinda's cry carried overtones of disgust. He looked around, then at himself, and saw what she had, that his body was fading, dissipating like smoke, flowing on the wind.

Fear arose screaming within him, and found its voice. It fed on the realization that those screams had within them the tones marking the gibbering in the mist. This was what Aden had purposed for humanity — an eternity of disembodied torment. What mind could have conceived there to have been beauty in this?

A killing rage filled him. If Aden were yet alive, he would not have served him with so quick a release. No, he would suffer all the torments he could devise, and he would not stint the flights of his ingenuity, he would…

The moaning had ceased. Caerthemon looked to himself, then at Saralinda. Both were unchanged to his perceptions.

“What was that, Kay?”

“A narrow escape. I just escaped going, literally, the way of all flesh. Aden's destiny for mankind, and a good imitation of Limbo it was too. What did it look like?”

“You just began to vanish away, but when you were almost gone, you burst into flame. I thought that was it, but when the flames died, there you were. Some of that flame is still there, but it's black now, not red.”

“Like a halo?” he asked, for he had noted a faint crown of flame about Saralinda's brow, and those tongues were grey.

“A crown, rather.”

“You have one also, but the colour: of it is grey.”

“But nothing happened to me.”

“I think that's why. I only gained my crown after nearly vanishing. If only I had noticed when yours appeared — it may be that the reasons for these crowns are the same as prevented us from being taken this morning, as they keep us intact here.”

“Care to explain their colours too?”

“No — I'm really trying to tie together as many unknowns as I can, given what evidence we have. Have you any better idea? Did you hear anything here?”


“Any time.”

“No — why?”

“I did, before the flare came, like the moans of the damned. The missing myriads perhaps. I think I was headed that way. Now, Lindy, what shall we do?”

“Aden said he worked here, so we should be able to find where that was. Have you mastered any locating patterns?”

“Not I. Those are too subtle for my Talent — physical magics I can help you with, not mental ones.”

“So be it.”

She sang her magic in an unblemished tone, weaving it with skill and dexterity far beyond any Caerthemon could match, and the elements of it were outside all but the tattered fringes of his memory, when in the first days of his training, his workings had not been specialized. Yet still he could recognize power, the strength of weaving, however alien the spell, and this frail seeming young woman poured much power into her creation.

In his mind's eye, he saw the webs that Saralinda had spun extending far out from their source, feeling as they reached out, and were gone.

“I have it,” she said, “but this place is different from the old world, the dynamics of it are ill fit to my hands. Come while I can still feel it clear.”

She walked away from him, to a point seeming no different from any other, and he waded after, the ground, such as it was, fading mistily into the air, cloying, as if to hold him beck. There was no joy in the walking, against the continual need to pull one foot after the other. Snow he had first likened it to, but quagmire it seemed now as he walked through it.

And all the while, the Lady Saralinda seemed able to walk unimpeded, skimming lightly through the murk, as if the gilt mist covered a paving of polished stone. As this world had at first rejected her, and tried to engulf him, it seemed again to do. He was weary of body now, despite his hours unconscious or asleep, the lateness of the hour sapped his strength. He felt light headed, and suddenly flushed hot, and the lids of his eyes were ever heavier.

Saralinda also, when she looked back to see him, showed the strain deep across her lovely face, her eyes seeming heavy-shadowed, but still alert. There was nothing spoken between them, though Caerthemon could see that the continual delay that he occasioned irritated her, even as it affected him.

How long, how far — if measure of time and distance were even valid in this netherworld — neither knew, but to the demands they could make of their bodies, there was a limit, and when they could no longer raise the will to propel their weary bodies, they halted, and set about that place such protections as they could together devise, and setting persistence upon them, lay down as best they could for sleep.

What had been soft to the point of fluidity was soft as down to Caerthemon's weary limbs, and despite a little initial manoeuvring for comfort, he was soon asleep, and beside him, the Lady Saralinda soon joined him.

As was his wont, Caerthemon dreamed, but that night, if such it could be named in this timelessness, they were dark and full of fear, and outside of the control he could oft-times wield. He woke many times when his dreamself faced extinction, only to yield again to the merciless grip of nightmare.

Alone, he always was, hounded by pursuit, mostly unseen as if he had been indeed confined to a personal hell. “As have we all!” a skeletal figure jeered at him in his imaginings to begin again the hunt.

Morning, as announced by Saralinda, who woke him gently from his slumber, came as a release from those torments, that yet cast a darkness over his thoughts. Rational now, he wondered how those damned souls about him must fare, if they must suffer such endlessly. He questioned Saralinda about her dreams.

“I don't usually dream,” she told him, “but I did last night, and rode through a land free of Color, and there were trees, and wheatfields, and the sun bright in a fine-weather sky, as vivid as if it were real. I wish, it were — this place is too drear for me. Ah…if there had never been any magic, how simple life would have been!”

She halted in he speech, and smiled a little.

“Though what I would have done to pass my days I do not know. But there's no use to that sort of thought. We must find Aden's sanctuary while still we may — no food, no drink, yet he lasted fifty years here.”

“You know our way?”

“I do.”

They made what preparations they could, and continued on their nebulous quest, their silence now encouraged by their thirst.

With mid-morning, or so Caerthemon judged, there came the first intimations of a change in the surrounding terrain, a thinning of the golden haze, a steepening and roughening of the way. With passing time, they broke free of the mist, onto silver-grey rock, rough with handholds, up which they could scrabble under a sky of absolute blackness. Neither of the two looked up at that void, which seemed intent on drawing them up into itself, but instead continued to hold their gaze on the climb, Saralinda in the lead, ever nimble. Caerthemon, sluggish, yet determined, bringing up the rear. He looked up at her, envying her pace, and wishing for the thirst that tormented him to be quenched.

“Here!” Saralinda was thirty feet ahead of him, half concealed by a fold in the rock, and had halted. Was this the place they sought? There was no sign of any hut, or shelter, or any flat place where she had halted, and no dark as might signify a cavemouth.

Only when he was almost level with her, did he see what Saralinda had seen, that there was indeed a cave, but not a dark one, for its depths burned with the same jade colour as had the coals that Aden had brought with him to his final conjuration.

“Through there,” he was greeted.

“How far?”

“That question doesn't seem to work here.”

“But are you certain?”

“I had enough time to learns Aden's pattern yesterday evening, and the impression is strong enough for him to have lived down there. Now you can live up to your boast that you can help us with physical magics. Aid us safe through that.”

He reached for the flame, pulling a globe of it out before him to inspect, before sending it arcing out over the golden sea of mist below, and exploding it in a polychrome display. He could handle it easily, for it seemed to already be saturated by the essence of whatever it was that was magic.

With great sweeps, he swung his arms wide about the pair of them, painting a fence of protection that he locked tightly.

“It is ready. Now stay close beside me, within the barriers, and all should be well.”

Side by side they entered the cavern, to be met by a wash of foul air, furnace hot, yet robbed of the worst of its sting by the spell. A warlock of fire and earth he was, but of air he had yet little mastery, and he could do little about the temperature of the air, save rob it of the direct heat of the flames in he region about them. The smokes, they would just have to endure.

Caerthemon took a last deep breath, and taking Saralinda by the arm, ran into the hellmouth before him. For a protection turned more against sorcerous lances of fire, or common brushfire, this passage was a test far above the usual, overloading it, but not yet driving it to failure — but it was indeed overloaded, and the strain of holding it intact amidst the flaming stones drained Caerthemon terribly.

The glare in his eyes from the total panorama of white heat robbed them of almost all their function, and the smokes caused enough tears to flow to make him effectively blind, almost before they had lost sight of the entrance. Head cast to the floor, at the puddle of darkness immediately beneath them, he cried to Saralinda “You know the way, guide us.”

And she took that initiative, tugging at his grasp, and weaving through all the twists in the passage. Caerthemon was content to follow, without seeking to mark their way, noticing only the gross details of their route, such as a particularly large cavern as they traversed it. Less than a minute, he judged had passed. If there were no end soon, then he doubted that they would ever be able to get out by the way they had come.

But end there came, before he could no longer hold up their defenses against a quick and agonising death, and they won out into the cold and dark. Caerthemon let lapse the spellwebs about them both, and merely enjoyed the cold of the air about, and tried to sweep the tears from his eyes.

Stars were the first things that he saw, but not of his imagining, nor even the pale things he had known before, but great floating disks, the size of the moon, and bluish white, but not quite as bright, and woven in webs of brightness. As clarity of sight returned, he saw that he stood on a wide platform of rock at the rase of a cliff that seemed to reach up forever, and which, fifty yards away, ended abruptly. Close by, to the right, a house, timbered and thatched, stood as the only feature larger than a stone upon the whole fringe of the platform, in both directions.

But the cottage was not what held his attention. There was a continuous noise here which drew him on, to a cleft in the otherwise level platform. A bridge was strung across it, just in sight beyond the cottage.

Water. He could imagine it, cold, cleansing upon his tongue and ran to assuage his thirst, the Lady Saralinda hard upon his heels.

Long and greedily they drank from the water that poured as a small stream from the rock, and down its narrow gully into the star filled abyss. They laughed with relief at their escape from the inferno, and let the chill waters play over their parched bodies until they shivered, cold to their bones.

“That was too near-run for my taste,” Caerthemon laughed, as he pulled himself from the splash pool.

“Me, too,” Saralinda agreed, “Hah, before we get chilled after that fire, let's break into the cottage and find what clothing he left behind.”

The cottage door stood already open, yet Saralinda maintained that there was no life within, nor any spells set ready to greet an intruder. So Aden must have been certain there would be none, which was a comfort of sorts at the present.

Their search was cursory only, their intent to get dry first, then to explore at their leisure, and they only bothered to remember the laboratory and kitchen on the ground floor, before taking the narrow stairs up into the study and thence the bedroom. A wardrobe there contained a variety of garments, and from these they gathered their choices.

For modesty, Caerthemon retreated into the study, to discard his own wet clothes, and then, having towelled himself dry with one set of robes, dressed himself in another, gaining some childish pleasure from dressing up so ornately, and wished for a mirror so that he could parade vainly before it, and was glad to find none, lest Saralinda see him thus.

“You can come in now,” she called at last, and he went in to see how she had been able to attire herself, and saw that she had dressed herself in one of Aden's long undertunics, which came down to her knees, over a shorter one reaching mid thigh, and the whole belted at the waist. He did not enquire as to further details of the outfit, but studied her bare tanned calves, and the shape of her breasts through the fabric.

“Very elegant, Lindy, it might even set a fashion.”

“Very droll. Shall we have a meal to celebrate?”

“Why not.”

There was enough for many days, a stockpile of sausages and cheeses, bread and dried meat, that suggested that Aden had intended to return to his base for an extended period, and while they agreed they would have to ration their food carefully, for this first meal they ate until they could eat no more, that amount reduced by the great quantities of water they had recently drunk.

The meal ended, they looked expectantly at each other. They had arrived here — now what was them next move?

“His notebooks,” Caerthemon said, “there are thousands of pages there to be read in his study — somewhere in there is the clue we seek. I know he had fifty pears in which to work, and we have about that many days, but I hope we can figure out what he was doing while we can. It's just a going to be long hard drudge.”

There were over one hundred volumes in the journal, each irregularly bound from the notes of half a year's work, each with much of the painstaking detail recorded, a morass of facts and dead-ends, all totally unindexed. The only semblance of order was chronological, with the work of later volumes presumably proceeding from the discoveries made earlier.

Saralinda began with the first tome, while Caerthemon sought pen and paper to record the most important gleanings. He found them in the desk, where current notes lay piled atop a stack of the superb paper upon which they were written. The pen at first gave him qualms, for although it had a nib of bright copper, there was no slit and no reservoir for ink, and there was no ink to be found. He tried it halfheartedly, and indeed, as he vaguely had expected, it left a strong mark upon the paper. At last a truly practical application of magic, though at the hands of madman had it been wrought.

‘Relevant material from the Writings of Aden the Mad.’ he wrote in bold, flowery, yet irregular letters at the head of the first new sheet.

“Tell me when you find something interesting, or note it down here,” he advised Saralinda.

She looked up from the volume she had begun.

“Well, first of all, this predates Aden's abdication as Citylord — it starts off soon after he attained the degree of Master in the sixth of his Colors, all eager ravings about some Cosmic Aesthetic.”

“The same as he spoke of yesterday evening?”

“I imagine so. From the sound of matters, that must be the root of all his inspiration, if not the secret of his sorcery. I'll skim the details, just note the important stuff — I'll leave it to you to pick out the pieces we're interested in on a second pass through — you do have an aptitude for theory work that I lack.”

“True. So while I'm waiting, I'll go and see how our clothes are drying.”

“Good. These things are starting to itch.”

Caerthemon left his companion to her studies glad that he had been able to find an excuse that would hide his reluctance to work. The task ahead would be thankless, whatever might come of it. Aden surely had had a deeper purpose in mind than he had revealed, or been allowed to reveal, but what, maybe only a madman might be able to reconstruct. This prepared retreat, the stores, all argued the intent to return and, who knew, if a madman was required, then soon he might claim that appellation. He made light of his fears, knowing that the destruction of his comfortable security had driven him close to the edge of reason, and wary lest the texts might seduce him along the same path as Aden had trodden, to things worse than madness.

He left the house, passing by the cavern mouth where their clothes had been left to dry in the heat, and on past to sit by the edge of the abyss, his feet dangling over the edge, and to look at the stars around. The rock upon which he sat seemed neither hot nor cold to the touch, and it was smooth to the point of polishing. The air was still, not a breath blew, either from the cavern or from the abyss.

This place was indeed dead, the presence of life something exterior to it — but what was it? Somewhere buried in the records Aden had kept must be the answer to that, and all the other questions that tantalized him. Had there been no records;… Aden had required the inspiration of his insanity, and fifty years of work, and he and Saralinda had neither

Impatience had hold of him. He wished to get down to the inevitable work, yet did not wish to submit to its mental disciplines. However there seemed little else that could occupy him, let alone be turned to their profit. So work he would. Saralinda would by now surely have finished skimming the first volume, gaining the ideas of its structure. He returned with the heaps of new-dry clothes to face the task ahead

Within the first day, any hope of working consistently through the notes was gone. They each had headed their own way, along trails of cross-reference that marked topics that struck their interests. Always the trails branched, some of the references inevitably leading to the central core of the opus, the insistence on a philosophy of a Cosmic Aesthetic that guided the path of his main working.

Caerthemon ignored those references, save to check further leads offered in appendix, as if they held some spiritual threat to him, preferring instead the mathematical sections of the work, where the only text was either logical argument, or statement of result, or occasionally, the outline and result of an experiment.

Ten days work, and two rest days later, and they had completed the first study of the work. That there were vast areas left untouched, both would readily admit, but the structure of it was clear. Many times before Aden, there had come men claiming to be divine, but Aden was the first to derive the mechanisms to achieve that status. All the time, his purpose had been no less than the acquisition of godhead, by means ingenious as they were direct.

He had destroyed the Earth, and bereft of its form, the Color worlds would revert to their natural state of total Chaos, to be reworked by any who knew how. And from here, this dark retreat set in the Matrix that held the Seven planes, he would have done so, from where he had worked, beyond the confines of the globe.

With world-death achieved, his plan was to create a new Earth, to his own designs, which would rehouse the souls of the old, and over that creation he would reign as a god, his hands firm on the reins of existence.

This purpose had become clear early in the work, and each succeeding theorem, each next experiment, had been to that end, save where sidetracks had led rapidly to a powerful or beautiful, if irrelevant, result.

“I think,” Caerthemon decided, when he had studied the culminating theorem, and begun to tidy away his notes, “that we can still use this idea, and simply rebuild the Earth, only a little better than before.”

“If you can name what is better, and what is worse. Or instead we could each play god to a random half of humanity, taking our own paths, forging our own Paradises.”

“Or just set everything, back as it was.”

“Well, show me how.”

“I can't, not yet. He didn't set that out, so I'm going to have to build the spell from scratch. It's half mental, half physical, so I'll need your help.”

“Show me the reasoning, then.”

That was easier said than done, taking two days in just outlining the chain of reasoning that led up to the final result, and to give it context, filling in gaps in Saralinda's knowledge, so that she might hope to pattern the spell — and the explanation was the easier part of the work. To understand the result required only familiarity with the formalism, so that one might follow a path laid plainly out, but to actually construct the spell required an exercise of the Talent of binding, and creativity enough to gauge the correct procedure.

They experimented as they learned, and left mute testimony in the form of warped half-things, sprung from nothing at the bidding of will. Dreamthings they were, blurred, as if half remembered pictures had been made fact. Yet, on the one and twentieth day since their arrival in the in-between place, Saralinda and Caerthemon dined sumptuously on the fruits of their imaginings, and spoke of the morrow when they would attempt the great spells, add remake the world.

Caerthemon woke second of them that day, to find Saralinda breakfasted, setting out the materials they would need, causing them out of the air, on a floor that had indelibly been marked with the required patterns, similar, yet opposed, to those Aden had employed. He took his own food from the air, and joined her in the preparations for the return to normalcy.

In the smoke filled dusk of the conjuring hall, lit only by sultry brazier-glows, and the grass-green of candle flames, they stood, at the empty heart of the design, facing each other, hand in hand. Without spoken word, they began, their powers conjoined, weaving designs in song, or movement, or imagery of the mind, until they stood at a portal like the one that had brought them to this drear place, but opening now onto a starry sky, sprinkled with the fragments that remained from the world that once had been theirs.

The moment was now upon them, to replace that wreck with a construct of their own, Their chant and dance drew it out from their imagination, and slowly the gate misted over, as a great tautness grew in their minds, increasing, unbearable, a screaming sound in their imagination — and was gone.

The gate was clear now, showing another view. Under the bright sun, wide green lawns stretched out seemingly forever, across a landscape dominated by a stand of towers — a city, perhaps that soared high into the sky beyond sight. They glinted in the sun, and shimmered hotly. Through the contact, a gust of the air reached the watchers, and it burned in their nostrils and made their eyes to water.

“No!” Caerthemon spoke that denial, and broke the image. Mist replaced it, leaving an opaqueness that did not lift.

“What was it?” Saralinda asked him, but he did not know, beyond the fact that it had appeared at his own summons, and he suggested Saralinda lead a second attempt.

The misty circle shimmered as, roles reversed, the two sorcerers repeated their patterning on that chaos, and with its climax, the mists drew back again.

A castle now where at one parapet, a pale young women with nearly white hair looked sadly down at a departing column of troops. The land about was desolate and hilly, under heavy clouds. There was no hint of Color to be seen.

“Shall we use this one?,” Saralinda asked.

“No, it won't be our home — if that's our choice, then we should build deliberately.” But however high his sentiments sounded, he was still selfish. In a land without magic, there was nothing for him, save a life at the plough, which he had forever spurned. “Let's find out where our creations differ from our reality, and then we can try again.”

Slowly they discerned a pattern. that Caerthemon's patternings held always the fantastic, like great metal eggs soaring in flame to the sky, or crowds of creatures that were not human or demon, while Saralinda's were always reasonable scenes from their own world, save that the Colors were withdrawn, and eventually decided that their patternings had been imprecise, that there was too much of the master patterner's persona superimposed onto their patterns, that the spell could only yield up wish-worlds to those who tried it. And, last of all, Caerthemon determined the remedy. One person would have to sacrifice identity, memory, everything, in order to provide a proper nucleus for the rebuilding.

“I can't do it,” he explained, “Else I would have killed myself long ago — god knows, there have been times. Choose a wishworld instead.”

“I'll do it.”

“No, Lindy, don't. I…” But what could he say, without taking away the mask of coldness that he wore, and thus expose himself to her scorn. Yet equally he could not bear the thought of never seeing her, speaking with her again, with only the memory of these few weeks to console him for the days ahead. They had not become lovers, or even sweet-hearts during that time, yet what there had been would be enough, if it had been possible for there to be a resumption of their acquaintance in the remade world.

“Go on, quickly,” he said.

He did not join in the patterning, but watched from beyond it while Saralinda stepped through the circle of mist, and dissolved into an outline, through which his world could be seen. The outline grew, expanded beyond the confines of the way, sand the world was renewed, and already to be repopulated.

He stepped out into the Court of' trees, in the College of Color, and acknowledged a greeting from an acquaintance, and asked of him the date and time. The answer that he was given was that it was nigh eight o'clock on the morning that had seen the start of this episode.

Looking back, he saw the the gate was gone. He felt little regret at abandoning Aden's researches, as he remembered their central theme, and would be able to use it to buy himself further time of seclusion. Without the books there would be naught to say that it was not his own work.

Yet his heart was heavy at the loss of Saralinda. It was no satisfaction that be had resolved the existence of creator-deity, that he could affirm “Yes there is a goddess” for it was the mortal, the flesh and blood that he mourned, and the selflessness of her spirit that she had been able to give herself up for the world. He admired that sentient, and despised it for its betrayal of self. Fittingly, he who could do nothing about himself had failed to save the world, while ….

He never quite managed to push that thought from his mind.

© Steve Gilham 1976

Episode 1 — The Sorcerer and the Lady

Episode 3 — Child of the Sun