Excerpt for The Dark Gate (Godsfade #3) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Dark Gate

Terracom Books/February 2017

Second Edition

Published by Terracom Books

A Division of Terracom Media

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are imaginary.

Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, events or locations is entirely coincidental.

No portion of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any means without written permission from the publisher.

All rights reserved

Copyright ©2017 by W. M. Driscoll

ISBN-10: 1-370-70258-2

ISBN-13: 978-1-370-70258-9

Cover & Book art: Tara Upchurch

Map art: Robert Altbauer

mediaterracom@gmail.com

for boo, rik and sweet pea

Table of Contents

Preface (& map)

Chapter One – Chena

Chapter Two – Twilight World

Chapter Three – The Apolonian Way

Chapter Four – Rock Warren

Chapter Five – Casualties

Chapter Six – The Storm

Chapter Seven – Nenaliina

Chapter Eight – Taarwa Tlatloni

Chapter Nine – Lady of the Seven Towers

Chapter Ten – A Trap Closes

Chapter Eleven – Flight over the forest

Chapter Twelve – Oren’s Mound

Chapter Thirteen – Heida Eidourion!

Chapter Fourteen – The Dark Gate

Chapter Fifteen – Nesira

Chapter Sixteen – The Conclave of the Maguus

Chapter Seventeen – In the Bonewight’s Lair

Chapter Eighteen – Sanctuary of the Gods of Festival

Aeons and their Houses

Glossary

(a – g)

(h – p)

(q – z)

PREFACE (& map)

PREFACE

(excerpt from, “A Brief History of Amoria,” by Tome of Aino)

In the year of the Return, 2449, the Terranite Purges began. In Eranos, the ruling body that would come to be known as the Last Council effectively dissolved itself selecting Avaruus of House Nihil, Loraan Protector. As his first act, the new Protector appointed a War Council with one stated goal, to root out Terranite Heretics, those who chaffed at Aeon rule, and their collaborators within the Aeon ranks.

In Juaan, the sixth month of that year, a handful of Aeons on Terra who had fallen afoul of the new Council and its leader fled to the port city of Lee along the Wood Coast of the Èrin Forest, there to seek passage to the outer provinces. These were led by the Leiscene Makiria of House Amoroso, the Leiscene Gaelin of House Mundin and the Loraan Fakiré of House Bonum. Joining them was an unlikely band of rebels led by the Loraan Volar, known as the Dancer, bringing with him a group of surviving Terran children from the war-ravaged forest town of Aino.

When a battle ensued, the rebel Aeons and their heretic allies surprised and defeated the Council forces burning the city to the ground, then fled, disappearing into the forest.

On the seventh of Jinai, 2449 A.R., the War Council met for the first time in Eranos, the Aeon seat of power, there to fashion a response to the rebel threat.

Book Three

The Dark Gate

CHAPTER ONE

CHENA

She was the moodiest Draug I had ever met, when we were young Blade Candidates, painfully thin yet pretty, odd, withdrawn. I was attracted to her, not in the least because she showed me things in myself, like a mirror. She helped me see who I was; and as we grew into Warriors, then Wards, and finally Aeons, we became inseparable, along with her sister Torinja, until the dark time of the Mindreaver Rebellion thrust us on different sides of that conflict and we were estranged . . .”

~recollections of Sa Chena, the Leiscene Makiria

“There is nothing in the Archives about such a creature,” said the old gray miter, poring over some disheveled papers on the table. “There is an obscure reference here to Morai or Mallorai in one of the partially extant texts. The rough translation from the Ulma is worker.”

As he spoke in his rheumy voice, Chena glanced absently around the anteroom marking its clean emerald lines and soaring arches, her eyes finally lighting back again on her High Miter’s craggy face.

“Let me see if I can find it,” he was muttering.

Old Selmin’s skin was creased and sagging, his once clear brown eyes, a cloudy white. As he shuffled the papers, light from the window cast a green shadow across his face giving it the look of a death mask.

It was vrain light, Chena knew, that cast such shadows. As it was never fully dark in Eranos (with the great gas giant Brahm dominating the nocta sky overhead, sucking up the volcanic gases outside of the Complex like some celestial whelp flopping on its mother’s teat) everyone had learned to judge the time of verra by the different blendings of light. From the green shadows on the old man’s face, Chena could tell that Brahm was setting. It was nearly dawn.

“Here,” he said, picking out a single sheet and laying it in front of her.

She glanced at it.

“Should I continue, Leiscene?” the old man asked her.

“Yes, Miter.” Chena nodded.

“There are differing legends that come down through the oral traditions, all in some dispute, that before the first Aeons agreed to come to Io, the Ulmarians had constructed servants for themselves to tend to their needs and to see to the building and maintenance of their great Complex here. The neomorphs are pointed to as living evidence of this.”

As Chena listened to him valiantly attempt to square the circular contradictions of Aeon lore, she remembered the verra she had raised Selmin to head her hierophant. He was old then. He had been her miter now for nearly four hundred annums, seeing her through many dangerous and difficult times, and he was always old. Unlike High Miters in the other Houses, Selmin preferred to have his bodies aged before transferring into them. He claimed it cleared the thinking not to have the distractions of youth. She assumed he meant sex. He was overdue for a new one, but with the unexpected closure of the Crystal Temple, such transfers had been suspended for all non-Aeons. Her High Miter might well die before it was reopened. She thought she should feel something about that.

“These passages hint at the fact that the Ulmarians may well have created a race of super workers to serve them and maintain their compounds,” he went on, “only to find that these workers grew and learned in ways they had not anticipated, to make them seem not objects to own but separate living beings. Many such stories were passed from one generation to the next among the early Aeons, embellished beyond recognition by the time they were written down. Many end with the Ulmarians seeding these beings on distant worlds to live out their long lives, leaving the need for your ancient predecessors to come here and take their places.”

“And you think that this creature is one of these Morai?” she asked.

“I don’t know, Leiscene,” the miter told her. “The Conclave has concluded these stories to be apocryphal. They have dismissed them, along with so many others, as myth.”

Chena put her two charcoal black hands together in front of her mouth then folded her fingers thoughtfully.

“If these stories are true, why would the Ulmarians keep this one creature behind when the others were freed?”

The old miter looked at her patiently, waiting. He was giving her the chance to answer her own question. Ever the teacher, Selmin.

“Of course.” She nodded. “The Ulmarians loved the things they created with their hands so much they set up the Great Archives to display them. They would have been loath to part with all traces of something they had made.” Her miter smiled a satisfied smile. “Then why have we not heard of this creature before?” Chena asked him.

“Perhaps it was hidden by the old Council. Perhaps it is some new discovery,” the old man answered. “It is common knowledge that the Librarians are close to opening the fourth level of the Archives. Still, it is only a rumor. The Archivists guard their secrets, like misers, their coin.”

“So the Ulma kept this creature to look at and to study,” she concluded.

“Most likely it would have had to agree to stay, if these stories are to be believed.” He coughed a phlegmy cough then cleared his throat. “In either case, Leiscene, Avaruus’ use of this creature with its collar here in Eranos is a clear show of power and a means of control. As impossible as it seems, he does appear able to communicate with it through the black ring he wears on his finger.”

Chena glanced down at her spirit robes. They were sheer and sable, the naked curves of her charcoal body visible beneath. The small multi-colored threads woven into them were alive and dancing with light.

As a young Aeon, arrogant in her newfound powers, she had attempted to bring a sash back from the Twilight World, but had only succeeded in returning with a handful of small threads. The attempt had nearly killed her. These threads woven into her robes had been the only artifact Aeons had ever found to function in the dampening fields of Eranos, until the appearance of this flesh creature with its black collar and ring.

“There have been three attempts on Avaruus’ life since he assumed the Protectorship,” Miter Selmin continued. “Two of them were foiled before the fact. One was carried to fruition by Konig, the Aeon of the Barren Sea Kings, and Grom the Aeon of the Uddar Barbarians, both Blacks, and both among the first to pledge loyalty to Avaruus and the new Council.

“They set up a diversionary attack outside the Councilor’s Compound, drew off Avaruus’ elite guards, then with five of their Wards cut their way through to Avaruus’ side. The creature was with him. It killed all seven attackers. It’s said that Grom cut it many times on the head and neck with his blade without leaving a mark, before it dealt with him.”

“I see.”

“Whether they were disgruntled with the imbalance of the new Council, the sparsity of Blacks on it,” Selmin concluded, “angry at promises not kept, or they had pledged their loyalty falsely planning all along to try to assassinate Avaruus is unclear. Their compounds are locked down and we can’t get in touch with any of our people there. One thing is clear. As long as Avaruus stays in Eranos and is protected by this creature, he will be nearly impossible to eliminate. By normal means at least,” he added, looking at her from under his bushy eyebrows.

When she didn’t say anything, he went on.

“There are more troubling reports from Terra, Leiscene. Would you care to hear them now?”

“The short version, Miter.”

“Of course.” Selmin picked up a new set of papers from the table. “It has been confirmed that Avaruus has allowed Zemorusag to arm his Warriors with forbidden weapons in defiance of our most ancient law. Coeus is producing them in one of his temples in the Ice River Highlands. Also, it is reported that a certain number of warships in Whitebridge have been outfitted with carronade for use in the Ellith, also in violation of our laws.”

“To what purpose have these exemptions been granted?”

“It is said that they were granted to facilitate the Purges and account for the rabble, Terranite Heretics and traitors, but it is overkill for such a purpose.”

“Avaruus fears that Aeons will band together against him,” Chena said, catching his drift. “He is preparing for rebellion.”

The old miter didn’t answer her, shuffling his papers with trembling hands. He didn’t need to.

Selmin’s mind was as keen as ever; his network of spies and informants were spider-webbed through every House, even to the Council itself, but he was growing physically weaker with each passing verra. Even so, this old Terran had forgotten more about the inner workings of the Houses and the politics of Eranos than Chena would ever know.

“Is there any word from Nenaliina or the peninsula?”

“None, Leiscene. Nenaliina and Mount Nesira are still besieged. Océanus has encircled the big island, and Naarika and Coeus have cut off the approaches to the Conclave. As of yet, neither Hecate nor the maguus have agreed to recognize Avaruus and the new Council.”

“I see.”

Chena took it in as always, his reports and speculations, in the cold detached way that was her nature, recalculating plans, altering assumptions, weighing possibilities in her head with each new bit of information.

“What have you found out about the Council meeting later toverra?” she asked him.

“All of the Houses are making inquiries.” He looked her directly in the eye. “As of now, there is no reliable information. Some say that it will be a formal declaration of war, against whom, no one knows. Others, that Avaruus will levy new taxes and call for more Warriors and support troops to fight the heretics. This seems unlikely as he has half the army at it now. Still others say that more traitors will be named and purged. No one is sure.”

“What are your sources saying?”

“One of my contacts in the Archives has heard it whispered that there may have been a defeat on Terra, perhaps even the death of an Aeon loyal to the Council. If so, it will be announced then.”

“And that is your guess?” Chena asked him.

“I do not make guesses,” Selmin answered her.

“What else is Avaruus planning?”

“That is unclear. There are only six Council members in residence. Of the seven Whites, Coeus, Ran, Aithra and yourself. Océanus, who was given Lendo’s seat, and Zemorusag are on Terra leading the counter-insurgency and Bethad is in his Hell Worlds. Of the three Blacks, Naarika is on the peninsula. He is clearly Avaruus’ creature now. The Leiscene Opel is the Loraan Protector’s guest here in Eranos.” Chena smiled at the euphemism. “And young Alise, from the Leiscene Makiria’s old House, is also here under Avaruus’ power. None of the absent Aeon’s compounds show any sign of preparing for their return, and it is unlikely that Bethad will attend. There is no reason to believe he will break his centos long precedent, so his seat remains open.”

“Does that not strike you as odd?” she asked. “That it remains open?”

“It does. Avaruus has filled Lendo’s seat, which had also been kept open out of deference to the Ancient. At first glance, one might think that he fears to antagonize Bethad and your sister. But by elevating you to the new Council and holding you here with the other Council members . . .”

“For my protection,” she interrupted him.

“Just so. He checks any opposition they, or you, might be tempted to create. You are a hostage to their good behavior.”

Chena mindlessly tugged on a strand of her long silver hair, then stopped herself. It was a bad habit she had had since childhood.

“I see. You think Avaruus keeps Bethad’s seat open for another reason.”

“Yes, Leiscene.”

“What?”

“Impossible to say. I will work my sources. In any case, there are not enough Council members to form a quorum.”

“Then nothing can be accomplished and this is a waste of time.”

“Not necessarily,” the old miter said frowning. “The Loraan Protector’s office has put out informal statements that Avaruus holds the proxy votes of the three Councilors on Terra, and that he intends to exercise them.”

“Can he do that?”

“It stretches precedent for proxy votes to be cast in this manner. It has rarely been done, and never to form a quorum. Can he do it? Without objection from any Council Member, he will do it, which is much the same thing.”

“I see.”

Chena found herself playing with her hair again and folded her hands in her lap.

“What about the Crystal Temple?”

The old miter referred to his papers once more. “There is little news, Leiscene. Naarika’s city guards control the grounds but they have not entered the temple itself. Such a blatant move to defy the sanctuary would alienate too many Aeons. The official line is that Terranite traitors were using it as a hiding place from which to launch attacks in the city.”

“But you don’t believe that,” she remarked.

“There have been attacks in the Temple Sesqua against property and innocent pilgrims, very brutal attacks. But on back channels, I have it on good authority that any heretics that may have been in the Temple have already fled.”

Chena looked again at her old counselor, at his paper-thin spotted skin, the short-cropped gray hair, the long black and gray miter’s robes that seemed to hang loosely on his frail frame.

“The status of the moratorium on new bodies?” she asked.

Miter Selmin looked up with his rheumy eyes. “All transfers are suspended until further notice,” he told her, simply, “unless by direct order of the Loraan Protector. That is all we have on it.” Seeing her gaze, he smiled a tired smile. “Have no concern for me, Leiscene. I am well enough for now. Should a vacancy arise in my position, Korun is more than prepared to take my place. He could have been a High Miter in any number of other hierophants, but he chooses to stay and serve you instead.”

“And may you both continue to do so for long annums, my friend.” Chena smiled back coolly.

So Avaruus was flexing his muscles, reminding every Aeon that whoever controls the Crystal Temple, controls life itself. Perhaps he even plans to winnow out a few well-chosen enemies or their high servants. We shall see.

Selmin gathered his papers together. “One last thing, Leiscene,” he said. “Coeus’ people were late to make inquiries about the Council meeting toverra and when they came, they were numerous and frantic in tone.”

“Trouble in the little cabal already?” she asked.

“Perhaps.”

“That could be useful.”

“If there is nothing else?” The old miter rose unsteadily from his overlarge chair picking up his papers; he bowed and shuffled towards the great emerald doorway.

“Send Eiree in,” Chena told him.

“Leiscene,” he replied.

Selmin shuffled out, and a few minas later Eiree appeared at the entrance to the anteroom, a broad smile on her moon-shaped face.

Eiree was a young Baraban islander Chena had taken as a hand servant. She was brown-skinned and plump, with five white dots inkarted in a crescent shape under each eye, marking her Kanu, the fiercest of the island’s tribes.

“Brush my hair,” Chena ordered her.

“Yes, Huitutu,” the girl answered, picking up a large bone comb.

She was dressed in a colorful wrap that hung to the knee, all oranges and yellows with bare shoulders, making her look like a plump piece of fruit.

“I told you to wear servants garb when we were in residence.”

Her smile grew bigger. “Yes, Huitutu.”

The majority of Chena’s worshipers, and they were worshipers not followers, lived in the eastern islands from the Ellith to the Clear Sea. There, they still practiced the blood rituals of their ancestors. They called her Huitutu, the Mother of Spirits and worshipped her together with her sister Torinja, whom they called Malilani, the Queen of the Dead. Unlike the other Aeons, Chena didn’t require thousands of followers to feed her aura, or armies of bureaucrats and Warriors to handle them. Nor did she need the energies of an ecostat as the Nature Aeons did. She was Allodium, unchained, drawing her power directly from the Twilight World. It was the fear of that power, even in Eranos, that safeguarded her person, and gave her her room to maneuver.

Eiree ran the comb through her silver hair as Chena observed her in the great round plastisteel mirror on her dressing table; it was leaning against the bare green wall. For an Ulmarian, it would have been little more than a hand mirror but she could see her entire upper body in it, from the tip of her head to where she sat in the overlarge emerald seat. It gave Chena some small comfort that the Ulmarians, despite all their knowledge and wisdom, were still vain enough to have used mirrors.

Gazing into it, she looked closely at her own face, at the charcoal-black skin and light green eyes, and long straight silver hair. She had tried fair bodies before but like most Draug, after a few annums, her skin would darken and the charcoal color would return. The Maguus called it residual body image and there were many theories about its persistence. Still, it seemed to plague most Aeons in one small way or another.

When she looked up again, Chena saw Eiree staring at her over her right shoulder.

“What?” she asked, annoyed.

“Let us leave this place, Huitutu. There is no joy here. Your brow is furrowed. You have not smiled since we came. On Kanula,” the Kanu’s name for Baraban, “the Li flowers are blooming in the sun and soon it will be the time for the young women to put them in their hair and dance naked for the men. If they see one they like, they will try to kill him; many will succeed. It will be joyous! Let us go, Huitutu. The evil ones will not bother you there.”

“I don’t think the guards at the compound gates will allow us to, Eiree.”

“Then I will kill them with my raikka,” the plump woman snarled fiercely. “I will gut them like hoartusks.”

Chena smiled. The girl stopped speaking when she saw it, and smiled as well. The idea of her plump handmaid killing Void Warriors with a leaf shaped tribal knife was amusing enough, but she couldn’t allow it. Eiree was one of the few servants that wasn’t terrified of her. She was a quick learner, and loyal. Besides, good handmaids were hard to find.

Old Selmin shuffled into the room again through the towering doorway and bowed.

“Your pardon, Leiscene.”

“What is it Miter?”

“They have finished with the prisoner.”

“Very well.” Chena sighed. “Bring him to the audience hall. I’ll see him before I leave for Council.”

“As you command.” The old miter bowed again.

As Eiree laced up her tall black bova skin boots, Chena placed the adamantine circlet on her head with its bright green firegem coming to rest in the center of her brow, setting off her eyes. She refused to put on the argent and blue councilor cloak she had been given. Instead she would wear her sheer spirit robes, as was her wont in Eranos, that left little of her silhouette to the imagination.

Let them leer, she mused, at what they will never have.

“Prepare my meditation chamber for when I return,” she instructed her handmaid as she walked out of the anteroom.

“All shall be as you say,” answered Eiree with a bow.

Chena walked briskly down the wide, arching corridor. It was the beginning of a long verra and already she felt tired. The Aeon took little comfort in the Ulmarian art that hung along the emerald walls there, mostly patterns, shapes and odd characters with the occasional dash of ingrain color. She had had Selmin use the records in the great Library to restore her compound to what would have been a typical Ulmarian dwelling. She even went so far as to sleep in an overlarge bed of that strange pliable metal that they used for furniture, plastisteel, the maguus called it for lack of a better word, moldable yet unbreakable. Normally, Chena took strength from the hugeness and the otherworldly simplicity of the Ulmarian style but on this vrain, it made her feel small and insignificant.

As she entered the central hall, she paused a moment before her favorite painting, a large circular work that hung prominently on the curving emerald wall above the main door. It was a slash of dark lines and chaotic forms with deeply imbedded colors that played with the eye, almost as if the ancient Ulmarian artist who had painted it had sought to abstract an image of the Twilight World into his work. Chena could often see things when she looked at it, visions of the future that crystallized in her thoughts, images of possibilities she might encounter. Toverra, the only thing she saw was a deep gray cloud.

She turned away unsatisfied and headed down another corridor. There was one room in her sprawling compound that was decorated to scale and in the Aeon fashion and that was the room she was making for, the audience hall, where she sat at times to face the outside world.

“Leiscene.” Two burly house servants, both men, bowed as she approached the doorway to the chamber. They pulled on the black iron handles and the large stonetree doors swung soundlessly outward.

They were Selmin’s people. He had them planted all through the household staff disguised as servants in a vain effort to protect her. What her High Miter failed to realize was that when the spirits wished her to come to them, no force in the Worlds would be able to stop it. In fact, she would welcome it.

Until then, she was indestructible.

The audience hall was a long room with two sets of ornate black laystone pillars running the length of the chamber to a bone-white dais. These were inlaid with silver adamantine script, quotes from passages of her most powerful artifact, the Gray Book, which held within it the secret knowledge she had brought back from beyond the white-barrier, from the Twilight World.

Above a shiny black floor, sheer black banners hung high overhead, the symbol of her House. Beyond the pillars on either side of the room, a collection of painted skulls and grave images adorned the walls along with grotesque sculptures and misshapen white laystone friezes, ghasts and ghouls mostly, childish representations of the wonders and horrors that lay beyond the veil.

In the center of the bone dais, at the far end of the hall, rested a tall silvertine chair with the images of tortured souls carved on it, mouths open in screams of pain. Two silver skulls with red firegem eyes adorned the end of each arm. It was an uncomfortable thing to sit on, but it made the proper impression on those who were brought before her, which was its function.

“Leiscene.”

In front of the dais stood Selmin leaning on his short wooden stick. Beside him was a tall muscular ebon, half-naked with shining brown skin and dark piercing eyes. Kicree, the Warden of her jails. They bowed as she approached.

“Bow to the Leiscene Chena, kana!” the tall ebon bellowed.

Shackled between them on his knees was a thin creature with gray unkempt hair, a large hooked nose and small furtive black eyes that darted towards her, then away, then back again, then away, until Kicree’s large hand struck him on the side of the head. The rags that clung to the wretched creature were that of a serving man from her dining staff. He smelled of sweat, fear and his own filth.

At Kicree’s command, the man’s head and shoulders slumped over in the mockery of a bow. Chena could sense that his eyes were still darting back and forth along the floor before him.

“Miter. Warden,” Chena addressed them, taking her seat upon the dais.

“Leiscene,” old Selmin took a step forward. “The spy has confessed to his crimes. He has told us the information he passed on and who his contacts are in Avaruus’ hierophant.”

“Has he told you of others in the household staff?” she asked.

“A mere handful.” Selmin sounded disappointed. “I fear that there are more.”

“Bring him to me.”

Kicree reached down and yanked the man up by his chains, then dragged him forward.

The prisoner’s two furtive black eyes looked up at her, then down, up at her, then down.

“Do you know who I am?” Chena asked him softly. The man stared at her blankly as if confused by the question.

“Answer!” Kicree made a show to strike him.

“Y . . . y . . . es . . . ,” the prisoner stuttered.

Chena feared the man might soil himself again.

“Have you told us everything you know?” The man nodded, then looked up at Kicree to see if that was a sufficient response. She had seen enough.

“Take him back to his cell.”

“Leiscene.” The tall jailer bowed.

Kicree grabbed the prisoner and led him from the hall. The spy glanced over his shoulder at her for a split seca, then at Miter Selmin before disappearing through the wooden doors.

Her High Miter stood patiently waiting, watching her, stone-faced.

“He seemed genuinely afraid,” she told him.

“You are a fearful presence, Leiscene,” Selmin agreed.

“Kill him.”

The old miter smiled.

“You’re not going to question me on this?”

“No, Leiscene.”

Selmin had seen it too. Avaruus’ agents were too well trained in deception and how to act during interrogation. This one had been quite good, but those two final glances had broken the spell. He would be of no real use to them.

“Make it appear as though he was killed resisting arrest before he could be interrogated, then put some of your people to watch the others he named. Kicree was thorough?”

“You ask, m’ leiscene?” Selmin feigned injury.

“Of course. See that they are fed misinformation, something that can be checked. I doubt it will bear fruit. Now, if there’s nothing else, I have a Council meeting to go to.”

“Korun has seen to your preparations personally,” her miter told her.

“Very good. Meet me in the Council Chamber at the appointed har.”

“Leiscene.” The old man bowed.

Chena strode deliberately down the cobblestone path past moss-covered benches and lines of olm and flame trees. In front of her, like a colossus, rose the Councilor Compound with its curving emerald dome and three jagged spires.

Two Void Warriors, both men, followed closely behind her, watching her every move. They weren’t as nervous as the last pair; she suspected they were elite Warriors dressed in simple black and white body armor. Perhaps, unlike the others, they would be clever enough to survive the verra.

We shall see.

In the courtyard, before the towering doors, the Aeon passed the central fountain. The statue of Lendo rising from the sea, sculpted by Ashka himself, had been removed leaving only an empty pedestal amidst the dancing water; as no pumps would run in Eranos, Necos the Builder had designed an ingeniously hidden set of pulleys and levers that could be worked by one or two acolytes ‘round the clock, keeping the water jets spraying.

Up the stairs, through the open double doors, she saw that more Aeon banners had been taken down from the high vaulted ceiling. Avaruus’ single-minded obsession to destroy his enemies showed him for the dullard that he was. Demodrach had been subtler. That’s why he had ruled so long.

“Don’t fall behind,” she said, turning her head towards her protectors.

The great entry was nearly empty. Where normally it would have been teeming with supplicants and petitioners, with bureaucrats and Terran dignitaries all seeking some boon, favor or relief of grievance, now there was but a few scattered groups huddled together like shorn shearlings. The Loraan Protector’s office was handling all inquiries for the time being, but with the constant search for heretics and traitors, and the subsequent trials and executions, there were few bold enough to make any.

Miter Korun stood across the width of the hall watching her approach. He was holding the same petitions in his hands that he had brought with him every vrain since martial law had been declared. The first, that Chena be allowed passage to Terra to await the summons of the Council, and the second, that her High Miter Selmin be granted a dispensation to receive a new body due to extreme old age. Neither one had been accepted.

“M’ leiscene.” Korun bowed as she approached, a sly smirk on his round island face, his dark brown head hairless and shiny. He was from Baraban, though not a Kanu, as Eiree was quick to point out.

We would roast this hoartusk on a spit and eat his flesh before he would wear the moon dots, she had once said. To which Korun had replied, And find me as indigestible as any other intelligent thing you’ve tried. Eiree’s eyes had narrowed. She wasn’t quite sure if she had been insulted. Chena was.

As Chena stopped in front of him, Korun met her glance with a penetrating eye, a keen eye that took in everything with an even sharper intellect behind it.

“There are supplicants that wish to speak to you, Leiscene,” he told her. “Shall I send them away?”

“I will attend them as I walk,” Chena replied. “Let them approach.”

“As you command.”

As Chena started off suddenly down the long hallway, her protectors were caught flatfooted.

Korun clapped his hands; from out of a side door poured a river of petitioners calling out and jostling for the Aeon’s attention. Chena smiled at the Void Warrior’s curses, as the press of supplicants pushed them further away from her.

As she approached a dim side passage, four particularly tall petitioners, Selmin’s people again, took up positions between her and Avaruus’ Warriors, shielding her from their view. Her spirit robes lit with color as she slipped the cowl over her head and ducked into the side corridor, passing her exact double coming out dressed in sheer black robes with a touch of tint, and black bova skin boots.

Then, she waited. She refused to suffer the indignity of hurrying away. Either they would fall for her deception, or they would not.

Avaruus’ Warriors began to brute their way through the supplicants, striking some and throwing many aside, as she had hoped they would. Most of the petitioners were bureaucrats and simple workers from suspect or fallen houses with pledges of loyalty or petitions for redress. Word would quickly spread among the congress of their treatment here.

The Void Warriors bullied their way through the four tall supplicants, Selmin’s wall, just as they came to the side corridor where Chena stood in the shadows, shoving them aside roughly and passing by her unawares.

They’ve dug their graves, Chena mused. She would never see the two again, she knew. Avaruus had little patience for failure.

Making her way silently through the lowest levels of the Council Compound, a series of corridors used mainly by bureaucrats coming and going from Council offices, Chena walked into a cluster of shiny green-plastisteel halls, unused and spotless.

She could hear the skittering of the neomorphs in the corridors nearby, the large insect-like creatures that had the run of the Complex. Chena had only caught brief glimpses of them in all her annums in Eranos; it was said that the neomorphs varied in size from the palm of your hand to that of a large kana. They maintained everything in the compounds, cleaning, repairing, even gardening, tending to the countless arbors and orchards, sowing the seeds, reaping the harvests, producing the food. Cleverly concealed lifts and panels in the walls and grounds gave them free reign. Rarely, if ever, were they observed as they speedily tended to their tasks away from the eyes of Eranos’ inhabitants.

Turning down a long dimly lit corridor, Chena made her way to a series of steep ramps with green glowrails and headed up them.

At the top of the last ramp, the plastisteel walls gave way to tapestried hallways with polished wood panels; she passed a black wrought iron door on her left that opened out onto the gardens, then a set of thick crown tree doors, stolid sentinels with brass plaques announcing the titles of their users: Ambassador to Belas, Trade Guild Commissioner, Subjunct to the Holy See.

She had entered the hierophants’ wing of the Council Compound. It was here in these halls that the miters bickered and schemed, committees mulled over last cento’s disappointments, this annum’s challenges, next decca’s hopes. In the cramped offices wars would be averted, barbarians hordes subdued, unruly rulers pacified.

“Leiscene!” a young refect jumped up from the shadows as she approached the great baranz doors of the Council Chamber. He looked at Chena quizzically, then back up the hallway for her escort.

“The Loraan Protector has prepared rooms for your convenience until the Council begins,” the Void Refect said nervously, speaking too fast. “There is an adjoining area for you to mingle with other Council Members, if you wish. Our cooks have prepared the finest dishes and there is ambrosia for your pleasure. There are also scribes present to help you with any last mina work you might wish to do before the Congress.”

Scribes? Chena scoffed to herself. Spies are more like it.

“Let me escort you there,” the young officer reached out to take her arm.

Chena stiffened. “You know me?” she said softly, her voice dancing on the edge of a threat. The refect froze. “To touch me would be a grave mistake.”

“M’ leiscene,” he stammered. “I meant no offense.”

“I will await the others in the Council Chamber . . .”

“But it is the Loraan Protector’s wish . . .”

“As is my right, Refect.” She paused to let his situation sink in. “I will be glad to explain to your master that you tried to obey his orders, but I wouldn’t let you.”

Desperation gave way to despair in the young man’s eyes. His head bowed as if his neck had lost its strength. “No, Leiscene,” he whispered.

“Very good.”

Chena turned and faced the ancient baranz doors, ruddy and polished; they were hung on adamantine pins in between two sapphire and the silver tapestries rising on each side thirty-five metras in height, eight metras in width. Upon these were sewn two great trees, one black, one white, joined together at the top branches beneath an intertwining white sun and black moon.

The doors themselves were monsters, three metras thick, each with half a relief sculpted on them. It was a mythic scene of the Return, Lendo standing with the Ancients around him, the sea rising at his back. It was a wonder Avaruus hadn’t gotten around to taking these down as well.

Chena looked wistfully at the shadowy image of Demodrach upon the left hand door. It had been worn with age and smoothed by the press of numberless polishing clothes. She felt like reaching out to touch it, but didn’t. It was Demodrach who had elevated her to Chosen, and had led the Whites for as long as anyone could remember back when Chena was a young Aeon. She had been his lover and companion for a brief time. If only he were here now. He would put an end to all this foolishness.

As she stood there patiently waiting, the refect signaled with his hand and two door wardens stepped out from the shadows and opened the massive doors for her, pulling back on their large baranz handles.

Chena entered the white laystone Council Chamber and looked about her.

The decor of the vast chamber was as cold and brilliant as she remembered it. Silvertine and golden gild dripped from glowglobe sconces and trimmed the tops of white serpentine pillars. Above it all, a cavernous dome overarched like the sky, a girdle of void and stars with rays of sun shining out from an ocular center upon romanticized scenes from Aeon history: the Return, the Surrender of the Elohime, the Sacking of Nogrôsh Kome, the Seating of the Long Council.

Chena heard voices echoing from the far end of the hall.

“. . . they are still there, by last reports,” a man was saying. “We’re moving quickly to retake the city. My father wishes to leave the blockade and hunt down the rebels himself.”

“No!” a basso voice replied, a voice Chena knew all too well: Avaruus. “Tell him when the time is right, he will have his revenge. Your brother, the Intrigant, was a fool. He had the rebels in his hand and let them slip away. See that you fare better.”

Walking across the hall, Chena approached the elevated crescent-shaped dais made of black shining laystone. On it was placed a small white seat with ten silvertine chairs curving on either side of it. Behind each, hung a banner from the ceiling with the symbol of the Council Aeon who would be seated there.

On the far left hung the two hands holding a red heart of Makiria’s old house where the traitor Alise would sit, next came Chena’s sheer black unadorned banner, Opel’s temple pyramid and dove, Naarika’s sun on a golden field and Océanus’ pink corab-shell on a green field. To the right of the white chair hung the multicolored ribbons of Ran’s banner, followed by Coeus’ clenched fist and upside down black heart, the crying mask of Zemorusag and, opposite Chena’s own seat, Aithra’s gray, red-tipped horns on a black field.

Above the remaining seat, one that had remained empty since the verras of the Long Council hung the black crown over a red chasm, Bethad’s banner.

When he had left Eranos after discovering his Hell Worlds, Chena’s sister Torinja had followed him to become his consort. That was many centos ago now. Out of fear and respect, his seat had remained open ever since.

Behind the small-unadorned white chair in the center, hung the Council banner, a semi-circle of eleven silver stars on an azure-blue field. Whoever was elevated to that seat became Speaker, giving up their house emblem for as long as they held office and adopting the Council pennon. In theory, the Speaker spoke for all, Black, White and non-aligned alike.

In front of a white gold wall beside the dais, Chena spied two plain gray chairs. One was reserved for the Head Archivist representing the Society of Librarians and the Archivist Court. It was empty. The other was for the Director of the Conclave of the Maguus. In that chair sat Avaruus, dressed in the purple and silver that had come to represent his office.

Their Loraan Protector was neither tall nor short; rolls of fat ribald freely at his midriff and under his chins. Known as the Aeon of the Void among the Terrans, he had the charcoal-black skin and silver hair of the Draugalarin, but his eyes, which should have been green, blue or gray, were completely white and without color. They were lifeless eyes.

Behind his right shoulder hulked the Morai, that flesh-creature of his, with no expression on its elongated face; it was naked and sexless, little more than a giant humanoid with a sloping forehead and no mouth.

Before him stood two neiwards in dress armor, one with the gold sun cloak of Naarika’s Victory Warriors, the other in the gray and red of Zemorusag’s Weepers.

Between these two, stood a third figure, a thin Aeon in a tight green suit with a pink and green cloak, a breathing tube hanging loosely at his neck. It was one of Océanus’ seven sons, all Aeons. Chena couldn’t recall which one.

A small table had been placed to the left of the Loraan Protector upon which sat a golden platter of dainties and nibbles and a tall-jeweled goblet of ambrosia. As the others stood stiffly, warily eying the hulking flesh-creature behind his chair, Avaruus sat picking at the food on the table.

Chena climbed the steps of the dais and approached her seat; Océanus son was speaking.

“We shall be ready when you give the order, Loraan. The adjudicators . . . .”

He stopped talking, as Avaruus looked over and saw Chena.

“Leiscene,” Avaruus addressed her with a hint of irritation. “I have prepared rooms for the Councilors to await the procession.”

Chena sat on her silver chair, sweeping her spirit robes about her knees. It was even more uncomfortable than that monstrosity of a seat in her audience hall.

“I prefer to wait here,” she answered him.

“And your escort?”

Chena didn’t answer.

“I see.”

“As a member of the Council I have the right to sit in on any deliberations in this chamber, my Loraan. Is that not the law?”

Avaruus paused a moment, then smiled an unpleasant smile. “Do as you will.” He dismissed her presence with a wave of his hand. “You usually do.” His control was better than she’d anticipated.

The group lowered their voices to where Chena couldn’t hear their words clearly, but no matter. She had done enough spirit walking on Terra over the annums to have developed her lip reading skills to an art form; even though Avaruus’ head was partially turned away from her, she still caught most of his orders: military deployments, arrest warrants, towns to be razed, but most interestingly the fragment, “. . . they’re not to be harmed or impeded. The traitor will handle it. Do you understand?”

“M’ loraan,” the three of them said in unison.

When he had finished with his instructions, the trio bowed, turned and headed for the doors, their boots slapping on the floor and echoing through the chamber.

Avaruus sat back in his chair at ease, sipping from his cup and nibbling dainties from the table; he was petulantly ignoring Chena’s presence as he wiped his fat tuberous fingers on a velumen napkin.

This was their Loraan Protector! Spirits!

The scene went on for a good ten minas, Chena sitting there watching him eating from his tray, he content to be watched, before Avaruus signaled with a raised hand and the glowglobes brightened, flaming the laystone and gold gild in the hall to a painful sparkle.

Council Door Wardens in their red and gold long coats appeared, opened the baranz doors wide and the citizens of Eranos began to file in.

They came in tight knit groups at first, Aeons and their Wards. Chena saw Ludi and Tej among them. Ancient Abba was there with a Void Warrior by his side; Chena had thought him on Terra with Étiola. Tauth was near him, the only terror he was causing that verra, his poor choice of suits.

Lurking near the back, she spied Xanthos’ pet assassins, the Gemini, Smoke and Shade; to their left aloof as always, and given a wide berth, stood the beautiful winnowy Talshia, Adjudicar Xanthos’ consort; the constant and powerful insanity that played in her eyes as arresting, as it was repellent.

Bureaucrats followed the Aeons in with priests and miters from the hierophants filing in front by the red verlure ropes. Most of these had worried looks on their faces. Many had glanced at Avaruus furtively as they had entered, then at Chena sitting in her seat. Her presence there in the chamber with him would start tongues wagging in the Houses; she smiled.

When the room was filled and all assembled, a center aisle was cleared running from the great doors to the dais steps; the Door Wardens banged their tall white and silver rods on the laystone floor calling for silence, and the procession of the Councilors began.

“The Leiscene Makiria of House Amoroso,” a broad Council Warden with the waltooth mustache and booming voice bellowed. “Patron of Belas, Chiron of Crissa and Libera, the Wind of the Crystal Hills, Matron of Talmar . . . .”

As he proclaimed the many honorifics that didn’t belong to her, Alise walked in, in the body of an eleven-annum-old girl-child. Her resemblance to a young Makiria was striking, much too close not to have been intentional, with her white-gold hair, the blue-green eyes, the skin tones, the cheekbones, all identical. It was known that Avaruus was trying to pass her off to the Terrans as Makiria reborn in an attempt to subvert what remained of House Amoroso.

The child looked neither left nor right as she walked towards the dais but kept her gaze on the floor in front of her. She was wearing a white and coral-red gown tight on her undeveloped body to the thighs, then flowing out in rivulets of pleated searcloth. Over it was draped the azure blue and silver cloak of a Councilor, overlarge on her small frame, the hem trailing beneath her heels.

As she took her seat, Alise’s eyes rose to meet Chena’s briefly, then looked down again. She was wearing thick makeup to cover a deep bruise on the side of her jaw; still, Chena felt no pity for the girl as she glanced sidelong at Avaruus then back at the traitor Ward. She had only begun to pay the price for her new position.

On her tiny left wrist, Chena could see the fresh pyramid scar from the Omicron, the ancient Ulmarian learning device, newly burnt on her arm. Chena’s own scar was no more than an outline now of gray discolored flesh. A constant reminder of what it had taken her to ascend to Aeon.

Chena had been the first of her group–herself, Makiria and Torinja–to be elevated to Chosen, and had eagerly sat on the downward slanting triangular seat before the raised imprint of an Ulmarian hand. The slab, the Aeons called it as a reminder of all those who had died there. She was to be elevated to Mischmar’s old House, whom the Terrans had called the Aeon of Lightning. It was a small House, but powerful, its Aeon receiving aura from both nature and followers.

Her sister Torinja had been with her that verra as Chena had placed her left hand in the Omicron’s giant handprint, not even taking up the space of the palm. A maguus stood by also, along with the Warden of the Archives who had patiently explained to her that one out of every four Chosen died in the attempt. For a second go, it was one in two. By the third, more than three out of four failed and died.

As she had placed her hand onto the imprint, the Warden positioning it at the bottom of the palm, Chena had been unafraid. The last thing she remembered was a small flick of pain at her wrist, then darkness.

When she had awakened sometime later, there was a white sheet covering her face. As she sat up confused, she heard a cry. The sheet was ripped off, and she was suddenly in her sister’s arms.

Torinja was crying at her shoulder. The maguus pronounced you dead twenty minas ago, she said, grabbing Chena’s head in her hands. We were taking you for burial transport.

It was then that Chena had remembered the vivid visions she had had of a bright white-barrier that had come across her consciousness as she sat the Omicron, both beckoning and repelling her; and beyond it, the vast shifting place of swirling chaos, now forming images, now dissolving them, the wonders, the horrors she had seen there. The Twilight World, she had called it, for lack of a better name, the place that would change her forever.

Later on Terra, when it had become obvious that her new aura was neither dependant on nature nor worshipers, but on the power of that hidden place, Chena knew that she would never be an Aeon of Lightning. To the disapproval of her sister and friends, she resigned from House Lucific and became one of the Allodium, the unchained. Those who walk the path alone.

“The Leiscene Opel of House Sanable,” the Door Warden called out. “Allodium. Keeper of the Lambeth ta Cuolo, the Crystal Temple, Fountain of the Ice River Vales, Protector of the Sacred Gift, Hygea of the Healers, Giver of Life, one of the eleven august Ancients of the Return . . . .”

Chena watched with interest as the willowy Ancient was led in on the arm of a plain serving girl, a chamber servant whose eyes were wide with fear. Behind them, two Void Warriors followed in dress uniforms, there to see to her safety, of course.

Every eye in the Council Chamber followed her, some with awe, some love, as she was led towards the dais.

Sa Opel was a thin woman with tawny skin, nut-colored hair, short and slicked back, this over two of the deepest blue eyes, a long but well proportioned face and an aquiline nose; she had been born blind and this trait followed her relentlessly from body to body. It was commonly believed that she had originally helped to create the body transfer process in order to find a cure for her own condition. If this was true, it hadn’t worked. Toverra, she was wearing a simple white pelisse over plain open-toed sandals, her councilor cloak thrown about her shoulders. Above it all, shimmering whiter than any laystone, was her lait-white mantle and the most powerful of her artifacts, Espial, partially covering her head like a hood.

On Terra, this mantel allowed Opel to see farther and deeper than anyone else, but here in the dampening fields of Eranos it was useless, leaving her completely blind.

As she was helped onto her silver chair by the serving girl, expressionless as a statue, there were audible murmurs from some of the younger members of the congress. Like the others of the Return, Opel had an enigmatic air about her, an aura one might say. Most of the Ancients were dead now or in the diaspora, self-imposed or otherwise; Opel was one of the few that the younger Aeons and their high servants had ever seen, as they went to the Crystal Temple for healing or new bodies.

“The Leiscene Ran of House Agacerie,” the Council Warden announced. “The First of Ilparin, Mia of Poudra, the Heat of Alcestis, Kaisra of Witaan . . .” Ran strode in through the great doors next, her straight blond hair parted in the middle and falling loosely over her shoulders, framing a full pouty mouth and two perfectly spaced hazel eyes that gazed out coolly from beneath artfully plucked eyebrows. She was wearing a sheer multicolored dress with strategic sea-pearls sewn into it. Large swaths of cloth were cut out bearing skin at the midriff and on one shoulder for effect. She walked towards the dais with a long practiced air of confidence, even smugness. “. . . and to the Northlin Kalin, the birth of fire.”

Ran looked down her nose at Alise, Chena then Opel before taking her silver seat with all the regal air of a queen settling on her throne. She had ascended to Aeon the same fornoct as Chena, a fact that had been overshadowed by Chena’s sudden and miraculous resurrection, and because of this, Ran had never cared for her much; then again, Ran had never really cared for anyone much, except Ran.

“The Leiscene Aithra. Allodium. Gaosma of the She-Durvals, the Shadow of Nogrôsh Kome, Tarowa of Aia . . . .”

Aithra swaggered in next wearing a set of crisscrossing black bova skin straps loosely connected over her bare chest and hips, and matching black boots, her councilor cloak thrown carelessly on her back. Her short dark hair was slick with gloss, and the ashen red-tipped horns that rose from her forehead polished to a gleam.

As she sat, Aithra looked over towards Ran. Chena thought she saw a flash of hesitation in her black eyes for just a seca, before throwing one leg carelessly over the arm of the chair and sitting back with a grin.

Interesting.

“The Loraan Coeus of House Malain. The Abomination of Arma, Scourge of Raurus, the Dudgeon of Talmar . . . .”

Here Chena sat up and watched closely as Coeus entered dressed in a black and blood red long suit with his councilor cloak falling pressed and spotless between his shoulder blades. The bodies he always chose made her smile, with their thick brow and spiky hair, like a cushion of small black pins, and white eyes with red irises. She supposed that these traits were meant to be intimidating, but to her, it only made him look like an albino quillapine. His brow was furrowed in anger and his mouth locked in a tight frown, as he joined them on the dais. Chena thought she saw a hint of worry on his flat face.

The Door Wardens banged their rods three times slowly on the laystone floor.

“Attend and be silent! Let all hear!”

Chena and the other Councilors rose.

“Those who have business before the Council of Eleven prepare! Leiscenes and loraans, people of Eranos and honored guests, his eminence Doh-Scaalus, peer of peers, the Sapphire Rod, High Librarian, Chief of the Archivist Court, Archivist Emeritus of the Society of Librarians, Speaker of the Council of Eleven!”

Despite his impressive honorifics, the stooped, pinched-faced Aeon that shuffled in last was far from an imposing figure. His cloak was ill fitting and off center. The remaining wisps of dirt brown hair he had left were combed over a spotted pate. His eyes were filled with childish excitement, the sapphire rod cradled in his right arm like a baby, his left one nervously twitching at this side.

Chena shook her head. When you approach the Council dais, Demodrach had once instructed her, act as if you’ve been there before.

Doh-Scaalus was considered by many a mediocre Chief Archivist, a diligent administrator, true, and a reasonable caretaker; and he might have been remembered that way but for the fact that he had shattered a diuturnities old proscription against the Society taking part in the politics of Io. Archivists were chosen by the Council to serve for life. Their job was to study Council policies and edicts, measuring these against the extant Ulmarian knowledge, the ancient writings and decisions of past Councils, then to send back or strike down any laws that ran contrary to them. The Council could if it wished, with a seven-tenths vote, overrule the Archivists; but in their long history, the court had rarely been overturned in this manner, giving the Society real power. By granting him the sapphire rod, Avaruus had purposely broken a balanced governing system that had ruled both Eranos and greater Amoria for nearly two thousand annums.

The door Wardens banged their rods a final time; the dull thudding echoed through the chamber; last of all, came the High Miters dressed in their best robes, each in turn standing before the speaker and asking permission to join their Aeon on the dais. Receiving it, they walked and stood behind their charges’ seat, and to the left, as was the custom.


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