Rediscover this realm of brilliant cruel beauty and seductive immortal ruins, of savage war and grand conquest, of falling stars and silver gods.
This 40th anniversary edition of legendary fantastist Tanith Lee's debut novel includes its original introduction by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
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To wake, and not to know where, or who you are, not even to know what you are—whether a thing with legs and arms, or a beast, or a brain in the hull of a great fish—that is a strange awakening. But after a while, uncurling in the darkness, I began to discover myself, and I was a woman.
All around was blackness and no-sound. With my hands I felt old crusts of rock. There was an ancient bitter smell without a name pressing into my nostrils. I crawled out of the recess I had been lying in, and found a sort of passage where I could stand upright. Oddly, I did not wonder if I was blind. It was cold and airless as I felt a way along the passage. My foot struck hard on an obstruction. I kneeled and felt it carefully. A step, followed by other steps, hewn out roughly from the inner rock, and not much trodden. I could remember abruptly other staircases, made of smooth veined white stuff, slippery almost as glass, deeply indented at their center from countless feet passing up and down.
I went cautiously up the steps, feeling always with my hands. I did not think to count them, but there were many, at least a hundred. And then a flat space without steps. Foolishly I had quickened my pace, thankful to be on level ground, but I was punished. Suddenly there was no more stone in front, only an unsensable void. I swayed like a dancer on the brink of the invisible drop, then flung backward and saved myself. A skitter of stones fell down into the blackness. I heard them falling for a long time, bouncing often against the walls.
I was terrified now. How could I go on without seeing? The next mistake might be fatal, and already, without even knowing who I was, I knew my life was important to me. I sensed, too, something fighting against me in the dark, a malignant, one-sided battle, and I feared it and was angry.
On hands and knees I went forward very slowly, away to the left of the drop. After a moment, my outstretched hand clawed at emptiness. I turned back, going to the right. A few seconds, and the third corner of the abyss was sucking at my grasp.
I was filled with fury. I screamed out a curse in the dark, and the sound echoed and echoed until I thought the rock would split in pieces.
Where now? Perhaps there was nowhere. I lay on the ledge and wept, and then curled again, like an animal or a fetus, and slept. That was the end of my first awakening.
* * *
The second time was better. The original sleep had been no normal sleeping; this was, and I woke with a different awareness of things.
I reasoned in the dark that if the staircase ended in nothing, then I would have to go back down the stairs to the passage, and retrace my steps until I found some other way. It occurred to me then, for the first time, that I was seeking the surface, with an instinctive knowledge of being underground.
Crawling back across the platform to the stairs, my hands and then my knees encountered a square dip in the rock. I searched it and discovered a seam. This must be a door. Even while I was trying to find some way to open it, it slipped suddenly inward. I found myself, still in absolute blackness, hanging over another unguessable void, my scrabbling fingertips clutching at one smooth edge of the door. There was no hope. My fingers lost their grip and I fell. I thought that was the end of it, but the drop was not very far. I hit the stone floor, and rolled, loose-limbed enough that I did myself no harm.
I turned around slowly, and now, unmistakably, there was the merest glimmer of light, far off, at the end of what seemed another long passageway. Drawn by that light, I set off quickly, almost running.
Now I could see the dim outline of the rock sides, and the little veins of glitter in them. The passage wound and wound, and the glow deepened and bloodied. Then abruptly I had turned a corner and threw up my hands to shield my eyes.
The light was as blinding as the darkness, but soon I could rub away the tears and look around me.
I was in a vast cavern, lit only at its center where a great, rough-hewn bowl, at least six feet in diameter, poured out a ceaseless storm of red and golden flame. Beyond the fire a flight of steps ran up to a narrow door high in the wall. Otherwise the cavern seemed featureless and empty.
Somehow the narrow door was important to me, and I knew I must reach it.
I started out across the floor, suddenly aware of how the cavern, stretching up endlessly into darkness, dwarfed me like an ant. I passed the flame-bowl, had my foot on the first stair. There was a groaning thunder behind me. I swung around and looked in astonishment. Countless little fires had cracked open the cavern floor, and were blazing there. At the next step, fresh flames burst through. Not stopping to see any more, I ran to the top of the stairs, as if speed could outwit the mechanism below. With my hand on the narrow door, I glanced back. The floor where I had walked was now a sea of savage gold, and the scarlet smoke clouded up and turned to purple in the high roof. I pushed the door and ran through when it opened, thrusting it shut behind me.
The room was full of light, though it seemed to have no source. In front of me was a long hanging curtain, and when I pulled it aside, a stone altar and another stone bowl, where something stirred and brooded at my presence. I could not see this thing, only sense it, and when it spoke, I did not hear the words except with the ears inside my head.
“And so you could not sleep forever. I knew that you must wake one day, for all the sleep I gave you. Wake, and come to me. Even the abyss could not take you, as I hoped. Well, then. I will tell you things. I am Karrakaz, the Soulless One, who sprang from the evil of your race, a world of years before your birth, and finally destroyed that race, and everyone of it, except yourself. And you escaped destruction because you were a little child, and had not yet properly learned the ways of evil. But now you have grown to womanhood in your sleep, and you will learn. Evil will come and you will welcome it. Remember, wherever you go, I will be near you. There is no escape from Karrakaz now. Look.”
On the altar something flickered and glittered and took on substance. A knife, with a sharp bright blade.
“See how easy it would be to be rid of me. Pick up the knife. You have only to tell it where to strike, and it will obey you. Then you can sleep forever, without fear.”
But I stood quite still and did not take it. A million pictures and memories were blazing through my mind, and my hands were icy with terror.
“You wish to go out, then? Easy. There is the way. The steps beyond the altar lead upward and out into the world. But if you go, you are cursed, and carry a curse with you; there will be no happiness. The civilization which bred you is dead uncountable years. Your palaces are in ruins. The lizards sun themselves in the dried-up fountains and the fallen courts. And you—I will show you to yourself. Recollect, you should have been powerful, a magician who ruled the elements, the stars, the seas, the deep fires of the earth. All things might have done your bidding. The power of flight was yours, the chameleon art, the art of invisibility—and beauty. Let me show you what you are.”
The new thing in the air shone coldly clear, and in it I saw my reflection begin to form. A woman-shape, slender, small; long hair, very pale, and then the face—the hands of the reflection covered its face, and kept a little of its hideousness from me. But only a little. I knew. The face of a devil, a monster, a mindless thing, unbearable to look on.
I was crouching low against the floor, one arm over my head, my chin pressed down against my breasts, and, in the other hand, the knife from Karrakaz’ altar.
But before I could speak the death words to the blade, a soft lamp filled my brain, cool and green, and very old.
“Yes,” said the no-voice in my skull, “there is always that. If you can find it. Your soul-kin of green jade.”
I jumped up and flung the knife through the image of the mirror so that it shattered. Beyond the door a massive explosion rocked the cavern, and the floor juddered under my feet. I started for the steps.
“Wait,” it said, the he-she thing without a soul. “Remember you are cursed, and carry a curse with you. You have been asleep in the depths of a dead volcano. Leave it, and it will wake as you have woken. The red-hot lava will pour out through every passage and pursue you down the mountain. It will cover villages and towns, ruin crops, and burn to death everything living in its path.”
But I scarcely heard. My instinct for freedom was too strong, too terrible. I rushed up the steps, up and up, away from the glowing room and the possession there, into cold darkness that soon lightened. As I paused a moment to rest, leaning against the mountain’s gut, I looked up and saw stars and moonlight pouring in my eyes. Behind me the dark was reddening, and rocked with endless paroxysms of anger or pain. The stench of sulfur filled my belly and head and lungs and made me sick, but I toiled on, my hands like limpets on the stone. At last a ledge, and beyond the ledge the outer slopes of the volcano, running downward into dark valleys. Above, wide now from horizon to horizon, the brilliant sky.
I jumped from the ledge, and, as my feet touched soil, a demon belled in the earth. Sky and earth came toppling together and turned scarlet, and I fell, and continued to fall, down into the night.
I fell faster than I could have run, too stunned to be frightened yet. Then I was in a pit, and was stopped like a heart in death. I crawled out, gazed back. The clouds above the grumbling mountain were russet, and the first bright snakes of lava were sliding forth after me. A shower of boiling coals exploded outward, and fell all around me. Black-ash rain filled my eyes and mouth. I wrapped a corner of the dirty garment I wore over my mouth and nose, and fled again.
Down to the valleys. No longer dark. Lights were flying here and there and everywhere, and I could hear them screaming and shouting even over the noise the mountain made. There was no hope for them, for myself. Where would any of us hide from this burning demented hatred?
I was on a road, and scarcely noticed it. I bore away from the first village, ran across an orchard, where already the sparks of the volcano had started a fire. Vines were popping as they blazed. A flock of bleating, terrified sheep came plunging past and were gone.
I ran on. Where was my instinct taking me?
Something snapped with a clang; I stumbled and fell. A wicked little trap had bitten shut on the hem of my tunic, by some miracle missing my bare foot. I wrenched the tunic free, tearing it, and saw ahead the low glitter of water.
A palace pool, clotted with a cream of lilies and swans, dazzled behind my eyes, but the night was crimson now, and the mountain thundered. I got up and ran toward the water. The vines whipped around me. Through a gate, across a furrowed field, smoking in places. All the while, the coals burst over me. A million little blisters were forming on my body, but I scarcely noticed them. Suddenly through a thicket, against the ghastly sky, a long lake stretching wide, its glass changing to red, steaming where the hot things fell in it and went out.
Stumbling to the edge, I found several moored boats, little fishing canoes. Why hadn’t the fools in the villages run to these and saved themselves? I felt helpless anger at them, as I expertly pushed my boat out from the shore, using the long rough pole. I bore the guilt for every one of them to die. And here was the means for them to live, ignored. Damn them, then, let them perish.
Deep on the heart of the lake, I watched through the night, the imperceptible dawn, while the fury of the mountain expended itself. Around me the water heaved and bubbled, the air was black, hot, and stifled with falling ashes. The sounds were of a great beast vomiting. I thought of the stone Karrakaz had used as its altar, consumed with all the rest, but I knew that that thing at least had survived. It would be always with me, an emblem of the waiting evil in my soul, a reminder of my hideousness, the curse upon me, and the easiness of death.
At last, a sort of twilight, green and lavender, with one last pulsing cloud above the volcano. I strained the boat across the water to the farthest shore, but even there the land was cinder-fields. In places the ground had cracked open, erupting stones.
I would have kept away from the cots and huts, but it was so difficult to tell now. Everything was down, trees smoldering in the path. A dead child lay on its face; dead birds had fallen from the air. I began to weep, running frantically in all directions to escape this evidence, but always seeing it. Had my sin come already? Even in my unconquerable desire to be free, had I begun to unlock darkness?
And now I seemed to be moving down a narrow alleyway between the ruined walls of little houses.
A corner, swerving sharply, and now an open place. There were about fifty or sixty people huddled together here, their backs to me, ragged and grimy as I was. The sight shocked me. I stopped. A little hot wind hissed through my hair.
And then they began to turn, singly, in groups, sensing me as a wild animal senses danger or food. Their cold reddened eyes fixed on my body, halted, and turned from my face. I wanted to put up my hands to hide my face, but they were wooden and nailed against my sides. A child began to cry somewhere in the throng. Men shouted and women muttered. Their hands were moving as mine could not, in some ancient ritual; against evil, I thought. Suddenly a new voice rang out, clear, but with a little crack in it.
“The Goddess! The She-One from the Mountain!”
And all about me, as if at a signal, they were falling on their knees, entreating me for mercy, and pity, and succor, and all the things I could not give. Mixed in with their wailing was a cry about their sins, and the word Evess. It came to me abruptly that they were speaking in some language I had never heard, and yet I knew every syllable. Evess meant face, but not in the human sense. This was the face of holiness which to them could be both beautiful and ugly, equally terrible, and must never be looked on. Glancing behind them, I saw what they had been grouped around at the end of the open place: a rough-hewn stone, resembling a woman in a red robe with white clay hair. It held a mask against the Evess, which could not be seen, but the hair and stature of it were unmistakable. These people were big and large-boned, dark-skinned and black-haired. The image was not of them, but they and I knew it at once. It was myself.
So I stood facing myself across the humped hills of their bodies. I, who had brought the scarlet death of the mountain, worshiped in fear as the ancient goddess some legend had implanted in their minds.