The End Times have arrived. For over a decade, the sorceress Phaedra has had a single, vital task: to keep the world of the elves separated from humanity’s. But when her world experiences its first skyquake, it’s clear that something is very wrong. Has all Phaedra’s work been for nothing? She’ll need a new plan – and her friends’ help – to keep the worlds from smashing into each other and shredding all of creation.
Unfortunately, not everyone likes the new plan. To the God of the Underworld, destroying creation doesn’t seem like such a bad idea…
File Under: Fantasy [ Fresh Start | The Band’s Back | Merging Worlds | All Good Things ]
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Psander hated feeling nervous. She’d hated it ever since she was a girl, trying to work up the courage to ask her wealthy uncle to take her on as his apprentice. He’d been a master glass-blower in one of the coastal towns between Parakas and Atuna; his work had graced the halls of nobles. Psander could still remember the heat of his workshop and the smell of melting sand. How wonder-struck she’d been, that a thing as plain and gritty as sand could be transformed into such incredible beauty. She had longed to wield her uncle’s power and learn his art, to turn the stuff of the ocean floor into a glowing orb so hot and dangerous that children were forbidden from even being near it. The final product had never interested her as much as that orb, that moment of perilous transformation. She had longed for her uncle’s skills with such passion that she had been afraid to ask him, afraid that he might reject her and equally afraid that he might not. She had actually been sick over it.
And after all that, he had turned her down. A girl her size couldn’t even hold the rod properly, let alone use it. He had made her feel like such a fool, not only for her desires but for that accursed nervousness that had made her voice shake when she asked him to teach her.
She was too ambitious, he had said. Why yearn for a man’s job when a woman’s work was equally valuable?
Because she had wanted it, that was why. Psander had always been a stubborn one, and a contrarian too. When her uncle told her that she was too ambitious, she had taken it to mean that she had not been ambitious enough. If he wouldn’t teach her his art, she would find an even better art and learn it from a more worthwhile teacher – and she would never again let her desires make her weak and nervous. From that moment on, Psander vowed that she would walk through the world as if all of it was hers to manipulate, hers to heat and melt and transform as she pleased.
And until now, she had stuck to that plan. When a messenger had come to her uncle from the wizard Pelamon, asking him to produce a hand-sized decorative dragon, Psander had abandoned her parents without a second thought and tracked the messenger back to the outskirts of Parakas. There she had pounded on the wizard’s door until he opened it, and demanded that he teach her magic. Pelamon had been about her uncle’s age, and she had expected him to show similar resistance to the idea of teaching a girl. She had prepared herself to stand at his door for hours after he first turned her down, slamming her fists into it until they were raw and bloody and he had to let her in just to stop the noise. But the wizard hadn’t been reluctant to teach her at all. He had only looked her over in an appraising sort of way and told her that she would have to prove her aptitude.
So she had. When the wizard gave her a task, she performed it. When he gave her a scroll without explaining what it was for, she studied it until she could recite it back to him word for word. When he sent her to assist the mages at Gateway for a time, she did so without question. She assaulted each task as if it were the last, smallest obstacle between her and glorious victory, and she didn’t stop after Pelamon officially accepted her as his student. Why should she? She had no interest in being some competent practitioner, for her uncle was much more than that in his own field, and she meant to surpass him. She meant to be a master.
Of course, even a master wizard had much to fear. Unlike her mentor, who had made dragons the focus of his studies, Psander had gravitated toward the study of the Gods. She had primarily been interested in the way They marked Their domains and Their territories in the human world, but it did not take long for her to realize the danger They posed to the entire academic community. A riot here, an unexplained smiting there… the details varied with time and place, but the pattern was clear: the Gods had decided that academic wizardry must end.
But she had braved even that revelation without feeling nervous. Fearful, yes. Angry, yes. How dare the Gods try to take this beautiful thing from humanity? What had she or her colleagues done to deserve Their persecution? It was frightening, and it was infuriating, but she had survived it. She had protected what knowledge she could and brought it with her to this place that the Gods had long ago forsaken, this place where They would not follow. And she had done it all without ever succumbing to that weakness and insecurity, that dreadful anticipation.
But now Psander was nervous. The queen of the Goodweather elves and the prince of the Illweathers would be arriving within the hour. And it was necessary, of course it was, but she still almost regretted inviting them.
A wave of heat rose through her chest, growing into that familiar, intolerable flame. She was sweating now, naturally. Just when she needed her poise the most, Psander’s body seemed bent on sabotaging her efforts.
She wiped her reddening face and checked her wards again. Would they function sufficiently? They’d better. The elves had an incredible mastery of their world – the very air obeyed their commands – so she had consecrated her fortress to the absent Gods, reminding the stone walls and everything within them that they were not of this world at all, and need not respond as such. It was undeniably ridiculous that she should have spent half a lifetime warding the Gods away only to turn around and claim Their ownership now, but Psander wasn’t bothered by such ironies. She was bothered by the possibility that it might not work.
The brutal truth was that there was likely no ward that could put Psander on an equal footing with those she had invited. Their magic wasn’t like hers, based on endless reflections and refractions of others’ power. It was innate and pure. Academic magic was endlessly clever, but in any direct confrontation, purer forms were bound to prevail.
It would be no better should this meeting come to combat. She had chosen Hunter and his best pupil Tritika to guard the door of the meeting chamber opposite the elves’ trusted captains, but Hunter had warned her not to rely on them as a safeguard. Though he and Tritika had defeated other elves in the past, the raider captains were extraordinary in their martial skill.
“I’ve watched them fight each other,” he had said. “Even two against one, we couldn’t take either one of them.”
Psander had assured him that his role and Tritika’s would be ceremonial. At least she hoped it would.
The Illweather prince arrived first, wearing a flowing green robe that glowed with a silver sheen. His captain was a severe-looking elfwoman who held her sickle in one hand with casual ease. Hunter shuddered at the sight of her – there was a history there. Perhaps Psander would learn it from him later, but for now she sent him downstairs to greet her guests. She needed someone level-headed for that task, and Tritika was still too young to be trusted.
She turned back to the window. It was broad daylight, so in the contrary way of their kind, both elves’ skin had turned black as night. Over the years, Psander had had the chance to inspect a captured elf or two, but she had yet to discover the mechanism or, for that matter, the purpose behind these complexion changes. Whatever the reason, it was unsettling. In the dark, elves shone like the moon; in the light, they were so dark that they seemed to suck all the brightness out of the air and swallow it completely. Elves in daylight were not black like islanders – they were black like death.
The prince and his bodyguard swept toward the gate of Silent Hall, where Hunter met them with a bow and led them into the fortress and out of sight. Psander had set aside an antechamber where they could wait until the Goodweather queen arrived – she had no intention of meeting with them separately. The elves’ wariness and mistrust of each other might well be the best safeguard she had against their turning violent.
Psander didn’t have to wait long for the queen of the Goodweather elves to arrive. She and her captain came riding on a pair of soulless elvish horses, trotting to the gate as if on a casual jaunt through the woods. The queen wore a magnificent saffron-yellow dress that set off her daylight coloration gloriously; her raider captain wore a brown so drab it might have been burlap. They slid off their horses without bothering to tie them to anything – elvish horses never wandered, after all – and were met at the gate by Tritika. After that, Psander left the window for the chamber where she intended to meet her guests.
She had elected to use her laboratory, a room with significance because it had once held a captured elf, and she still remembered his pain. She had cleared most of the books and implements but left the saw with which she had eventually opened the elf’s skull. Its presence was not an attempt at intimidation, for she did not believe that the elven rulers would know or care about the saw’s significance. It was, rather, a focal point for the room’s wards, a reminder to the fortress that within its walls Psander was the only master. She hoped those wards would hold.
There were not many chairs in Psander’s fortress, so she had had to bring three in from her library. She chose the largest of these and sat down to wait. At least the heat beneath her skin had now abated, so she had the chance to compose herself. Soon the queen and prince would join her, and then would come the hard part: asking for their help.
One thing at a time. Were the wards set? Of course they were. Was she prepared to rebuff attempts at mind-reading? Always. Why did she have to feel so nervous again, after all this time? How she hated it.
At long last, the door opened. The two elves entered and unpleasant pleasantries were exchanged. At this proximity, the elves’ power was palpable. Psander could feel her wards straining to contain it, to keep the stone and air and flesh within her walls from obeying these creatures’ whims. Her mental wards too, forced to resist not one but two elven monarchs, felt as if they might crumble before too long. The wizard smiled through her introductions anyway – since the wards were holding for now, the elves could not feel her struggle. If she kept the strain out of her demeanor, they would not know how taxing this was for her.
The queen of Castle Goodweather held out her hand, fingers down as if waiting to be kissed. In the dimmer light of Psander’s candles, her skin had turned that eerie white again, but her fingernails were black. They were long and pointed and very delicately filed – unless they somehow grew that way naturally? Psander had never cared enough about her appearance to do any more than cut her own nails and hurriedly file the jagged edges – for her colleagues, beauty had been a distraction; for the lay public, she had favored illusion.
The queen’s gesture demanded some response, and as Psander had no intention of kissing her hand she took advantage of her own mild curiosity instead. She gently lifted the queen’s fingers with her palm as if admiring its beauty and said, “Your nails are magnificent.”
“I am entirely magnificent,” the elf queen said. Then she laughed. “You godserfs are a shadow of us, wizard. Your masters were too afraid to make you more than that.”
Psander considered countering that shadows could grow larger than those who cast them, but battles of verbal wit had never been her strength, and she suspected that she would lose if she went down that path. So instead she said, “If I am somebody’s shadow, elf queen, I don’t believe I’m yours.”
The Illweather prince sneered. “We did not beg to come here, wizard, it was you who begged us. Say whatever you mean to say.”
“I advised you to come here,” Psander answered, “because I am no longer capable of acting on my own. My apprentice Phaedra has done all that she can in the other world, but without some further intervention both our worlds will soon end.”
The prince glowered. “Explain yourself.”
Psander wondered at his demand. Could it be that he didn’t know? Didn’t suspect what was happening? What did he think all those skyquakes meant?
“Perhaps,” she said, “I should begin with the mesh. I don’t know what you call it here, but mesh is the term academic wizards use for the barrier between the worlds. You might be aware that the mesh is double-sided – that is, that the layer holding us in this world corresponds to another layer on the opposite side. This is why every opening of a gate produces not one but two physical manifestations: your nets, and a mist.”
The Illweather prince looked scornful. “You godserfs are children. Your knowledge is simplistic.”
“Well,” Psander countered, matching the coldness in his voice, “if your kind wasn’t so bent on eating us, we might have had discussions such as these long ago. Then I would have a better understanding of what you do and don’t know, and I wouldn’t have to waste any time on simplistic explanations. As it is, you will forgive me while I establish where our common understanding does lie.”
“Continue with your point,” said the Goodweather queen, waving her on.
“My point is this: the two worlds may seem as if they abut each other, but on some esoteric level they do not. There is distance between them, metaphysically speaking, and each world has its own mesh. The gateways are places where the two sides do connect and where the mesh on both sides has been rubbed thin.”
“They were such places,” the queen said, “until you wicked children closed them. There were no raids last year, as I am sure you know.”
“I am not unaware,” Psander said with some satisfaction. “But surely you must realize why I had my apprentice seal them. Twelve years ago, when Castle Goodweather’s seed was introduced into my world and encouraged to grow there, it created a new gateway from my home here to the island of Tarphae on the other side. That new gateway bound our worlds closer together and ended the equilibrium that had existed for millenia. The skyquakes we have experienced are a result of the way your older, smaller world has been destabilized. Put bluntly, we are being drawn ever closer to the world I came from, and our eventual landing will be anything but soft. My best guess is that the meshes of our worlds will either compress upon themselves or overlap altogether – either way, the result is that all of reality in both worlds will be shredded. Phaedra’s purpose in sealing the gates was to cut a few tethers, to release some of the tension and restore equilibrium.”
The queen rapped those long nails of hers against the table. “But the skyquakes persist.”
“I’ve noticed that, yes.”
The prince was scornful. “You godserfs lack the strength to do anything meaningful.”
Psander almost rolled her eyes, but restrained herself. “My apprentice Phaedra has sealed your gates – is that not meaningful? Even from that alone, we have already gained much. When she began her work, the skyquakes were not only gaining in frequency and intensity but gaining in frequency and intensity faster than they are now. That is to say, the periods between the quakes may still be shortening, but they have been shortening a good deal slower than they were before.”
Illweather’s prince dismissed this point with a wave of his arm. “Meaningless. I hope for your sake that you have more to offer than this.”
“You hope for all our sakes,” Psander corrected him. “Don’t pretend that you will be exempt from the destruction.”
The queen clicked her nails against the table again. “Enough. We hope for our sakes that you’re less of a fool than you sound. So far, it seems to me that you have contributed nothing.”
“My dear queen,” Psander said, “if it seems that way to you, then you haven’t been listening. Sealing the gates has had a definite, calculable effect. By my estimate, if Phaedra hadn’t so diligently loosened those tethers, our worlds would have already collided. Three and a half years ago, to be precise.”
“But now all the gates are gone except for this one,” the prince said, “and this one cannot be sealed. Goodweather and its offspring are holding it open, thanks to you and your apprentice. If your latest efforts have only delayed our doom by a few years, do not expect the Illweather elves to be grateful for it.”
“I’m not asking you to be grateful,” Psander snapped. “I’m asking for your help. Phaedra’s efforts have bought us time, but I have found no permanent solution to our problem. I don’t expect to find one today, or possibly ever, but if a possibility does arise before it’s too late, the power of the elves may be required. My question to you is simple: can we make common cause in the interest of self-preservation, or must I split my efforts between saving our worlds from destruction and saving my people from myopic child-eaters?”
The Goodweather queen laughed at this for far too long. “Not to worry,” she said at last. “We will let you focus on one danger at a time.”