Silence spilled through the vast halls and long corridors of the home of the Lord of the Dead. Outside, in the pomegranate orchards, the crickets stilled their singing and the leaves ceased to whisper in the wind. The great iron and bone clock, whose movement counted months, not seconds, hung suspended at the midpoint of its swing. For a moment, everything and everyone was perfectly still. Nancy, standing as still as she was, felt like a pebble next to a mountain, and was cowed. The very beating of her heart seemed like an inexcusable motion.
Then a loud noise ripped through the air, a shuddering snap as something broke the sound barrier. It was followed by the immense clamour of every bell on Death’s clock ringing simultaneously, in a discordant jangle that set Nancy’s teeth on edge. A light flickered at the edge of her vision, at first no brighter than a candle flame, but growing larger and stronger until within moments it was a ball of blue-white lightning, and Nancy had to turn her head away and hide her eyes. Still the light grew brighter, and she saw red through her lids. When it faded, her vision was full of bright spots.
“Here?” a far too familiar voice said. “This is not where I was expecting to arrive.”
Nancy looked up, blinking back tears. A tall figure stood silhouetted against the fading light. She could see now that the light was not a sphere but a circle, and inside it was a landscape more alien than even Earth. Yet she knew she’d seen it before, and so she spoke without thinking.
“Jack? What are you doing here?”
Jack stepped forward, moving out of the way of the light and beckoning the figure behind to follow her. Nancy realised, with a horrible lurch in her stomach, that the second person was Jill. She did not look as she once had. Nancy’s eyes flickered back to Jack, who grinned a little unpleasantly at her.
“Hey. Want to save the worlds?”
The Lord of Death inclined his head. He was no skeletal Grim Reaper of legend, but his thin figure and bloodless skin certainly suggested a cadaver.
How did the Indolmeere come by this information? he said, and his eyes were fixed on Jack. Not, Nancy thought, in disbelief, for that was below him, but in simple curiosity.
“Since my sister returned from death,” Jack said, “she has changed. At first, we thought she was simply speaking nonsense, and that my actions had been too slow and too late to restore proper brain function. It was only later that we realised there was a predictive element to what she was saying. That was when we began looking into the matter, and discovered the vanished worlds.”
I am surprised your Doctor was prompted to action. There have always been apocalypses, ever since the worlds began diverging. No single world is robust enough to endure eternity.
“These aren’t just apocalypses in the normal sense,” Jack said. “Normally, when a world dies, there are… remnants. A charred desert. Artifacts brought to other worlds. A history kept in a vast and unknowable library. But these worlds are gone. And not just gone, they never existed at all. Adarasta is one of them. That’s how we figured this out.” Jack shuddered faintly. “Dr. Bleak can remember having gone there, but not what it was like. And he knows he brought something back, but now the artifact is missing, and Dr. Bleak can’t remember what it used to be.”
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre.” Jill’s voice was low and cold and raspy, so unlike her living voice that only Nancy’s years of stillness prevented the shudder that wanted to crawl up her back. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Out flew the web and floated wide; the mirror crack'd from side to side.”
The Lord of Death leaned forward and looked into Jill’s eyes.
Ah, a true oracle. That does change things. He gestured to Nancy, and though she did not move, she shifted her attention, to let him know that she awaited his command. Go with this child of the moors, he said. Do what must be done.
Nancy bowed, and tried to conceal the terror in her heart. She had left once before, and it took her so long to get back. What if she didn’t make it back again?
As though he knew her thoughts, the Lord of Death reached down and touched the centre of her forehead.
Move as the deep Earth moves, he said. Invisibly, but with great force. Be the earthquake. And come back to us. My mark will grant you some protection.
He turned and walked away without another word, leaving them alone among the living statues.
“How have you been?”
Nancy and Jack were sitting together under the soft velvet sky, drinking pomegranate juice. Jack was picking at a plate of meat and cheese, though the rich smoked haunch and the soft creamy Camembert did not seem to be to her taste. Jill was standing a little way off,up into the swaying branches of a pomegranate tree. Her focus was entire and complete, and she did not once glance at Jack or Nancy.
“Can’t complain. I got what I wanted.” She looked sideways and Nancy, and smiled that long thin smile. “It was a little surprising, to see you and realise how much I’d been missing you, though.”
Nancy couldn’t help but blush, but she nodded.
“Me too.” Then she frowned. “Wait. Why did you come here, if you didn’t know I was here?”
Jack sighed, and reached back to tap the large contraption strapped to her back.
“After we realised what was happening with Jill, Dr. Bleak and went to the Alchemist, and he made this for us. Jill is the only person who actually knows what’s happening, but she can’t really communicate it. So we made a device to enable her to do something. It’ll take me wherever Jill thinks I need to go. But I don’t know where I’m going to end up.”
“So she thinks you need me?”
“Looks like it.”
Jill moved suddenly, turning to look at Nancy and Jack.
“Whatever lets the pomegranate flower blush like a human face, that is being said to me now.”
“As you say, dear sister.” It sounded flippant, which made Nancy suspect that she was deeply upset.
“Jack, do you know what has happened to her?”
“I’m working on it,” Jack said, biting her lip in obvious irritation. “I’ve studied her brain scans, looked at everything I can, but I don’t understand why she’s like this. I won’t give up, though. I’ll keep working until I make her perfect.”
No, Nancy wanted to say, she’s already perfect. But she didn’t. There was no knowing how Jack would take it if she interfered.
Jill said nothing, but leaned forward and rested one cold, pale hand on Jack’s shoulder. Her mouth and eyes were still, betraying no expression. Jack looked up at her for a long moment, then looked away.
“What’s our next move?”
“The device has recharged, and it’s blinking blue, so I think that means we’re off to the next stop on our whirlwind mystery tour.”
Jack stood up, brisk and efficient again, and held out a hand to Nancy.
“As I’ll ever be.”
Still holding Nancy’s bare hand in her gloved one, Jack reached behind her shoulder with her other hand and flipped a switch. Then she grabbed Jill’s wrist, and the three of them stood together in a storm of light and noise.
The girl crouched in the shadows, her hand pressed over her mouth to prevent anyone from hearing the slight gasps of her breathing. She was pressed tight into the space behind a large, square mirror. The wooden back was buckled in the centre, leaving just enough space for her thin body.
Her eyes were fixed on the gap between the mirror and the floor, where she could see the boots of the Glass Guards. Their gleaming silver shoes rang out on the polished floor as they marched up and down, looking for her.
The girl closed her eyes, praying to every god she didn’t believe in that they would leave, that they wouldn’t find her. But it was many hours after they left that she finally felt capable of unclenching her hand and looking at the fragment of glass in her hand. Though the back was silvered, it reflected not the girl’s face but a blanket of stars. As she watched, however, the stars dwindled and a face appeared. It might have been mistaken for her reflection, but it moved when she did not, smiling and laughing at something she couldn’t see. The girl leaned back and closed her eyes, fighting the urge to cry. It still hadn’t worked. Why hadn’t it worked?
When the light and thunder faded, Jack, Nancy and Jill were standing on the lawn of Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. It was late afternoon, and the sun and shadows cast striped bars of gold and black across the ground.
Nancy grimaced. This school was the only place on Earth that had made her even marginally happy, after she had been shut out of the Halls of the Dead, and she had left her only real human friends here, but that didn’t make it any less terrifying to be back on Earth at all. What if I never get back? What if something happens and I’m stuck here again? She shuddered at the thought, and unconsciously reached up to touch the mark the Lord of the Dead had left on her forehead.
“It’s awful, right?” Jack said, looking at her with understanding. “I don’t like this any more than you do. But I can already guess what we need here, and it’s coming across the lawn as we speak.”
She pointed with one long arm and finger, and Nancy followed her gaze to see Kade running towards them.
He was taller than he had been when Nancy had left him, so some time must have passed, but she wasn’t sure how quantify the comparative time. It had been years for her, more than a decade, and yet it was a decade of drinking pomegranate wine and eating golden apples, which prolong life. Maybe it had been a year for Kade, maybe less, but in that time he had grown and changed in ways she had not.
Now he was striding towards them, and the lines of his face were sharp and taut with anger.
“What the hell are you two doing here?” he snapped, glowering darkly at both of them. “You weren’t supposed to come back.”
Jack glared back at him.
“What on earth are you talking about? You don’t even know why we’re here.”
“I don’t care. You were supposed to go and be happy! You both went off to your own worlds and left me here, but at least I thought you would be happy. I could at least imagine that someone had got what they wanted. Why the hell would you ever return?”
The words poured out of him like a torrent, but his eyes dropped to the ground, and Nancy thought he looked like he was about to cry.
“It’s not permanent,” she said. “We’re just paying a visit.”
His eyes flicked up to her, glaring again.
“What, treating me like your poor relation? Poor old Kade, he can’t ever go back to Prism, better come and tell him how great things are for us, back home where we belong.”
Jack rolled her eyes.
“Kade, you’re not just being petty, you’re being illogical. Do you think I spent the time it took to research and build a machine that uses ambient energy to jump me at random between worlds because I wanted to come and rub my good fortune in your face? What a waste of resources that would be. No, I came because we need your help. You and Christopher, probably.”
“What could you possibly need my help for?”
“The worlds are ending. Every world, everywhere. All vanishing. Flickering out one by one. And according to Jill, we’re the only ones who can stop it from happening.”
Kade’s mouth was hanging open, but he closed it by force of will.
“Well then,” he said. “We’d better talk.”
They filled him and Christopher in on the details over tea. As they talked, Kade’s eyes glazed over, and by the end there was an intense frown of concentration on his face.
“What Jill keeps saying,” he said at last. “It seems important. Do you have any idea what it means?”
“The part she repeats most often is W.B. Yeats,” Jack said, sighing. “But beyond that, I have no idea.”
“It’s all poetry,” Nancy put in. “The second part of the prophecy is from Tennyson, Jack.”
“Jill was a fan of poetry as a kid,” she said. “She got all nerdy about it. But I don’t know if she knew all the poems she quotes now. Or why that’s what she does.”
“The mirror part reminds me of something,” Kade said. “I wish I could remember what it was. Something I heard a few months ago. Or read, maybe?” He shook his head in frustration. “I can almost see the shape of it. But it just won’t come back to me.”
Jill had been sitting calmly on the bench beside Jack, and if she had been listening, no flicker of her eyes or twitch of her mouth showed it. Then suddenly, as Kade was frowning and tapping his chin, she looked up and spoke in that seared, rasping voice.
“Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit.”
Kade smiled, a little wryly.
“Point taken, Jill. If it’s going to come back to me, it will.” He stood up and looked down at Jack. “I’m going to go pack a bag. When do you think your device will be ready?”
Jack looked over her shoulder.
“No flashing light yet. Another couple of hours, maybe.”
“Nancy, want to come with?”
Nancy smiled, and followed after him.
They walked up the winding stairs until they arrived at Kade’s special hideaway. It was as book-filled and chaotic as Nancy remembered, novels and anthologies and histories and biographies jostling for space, spilling out of the bookshelves and across the wooden floor. On top of those were piles of fabric and clothes in every possible colour, fabric and style. The bed, which was tucked away in one corner under a skylight, could hardly be seen among all the chaos.
Kade grabbed a worn canvas rucksack from under a chair and opened it up, then began to fill it with various objects, including a sharp-bladed pocket-knife and a large ball of twine.
“I admit, I’ve spent so much time thinking about what would be the best things to bring on an adventure, if I ever got the chance to pack for one. I hope I’ve thought of everything.”
He looked at her, and smiled, a real, true smile.
“Missed you. I forgotten just how still your stillness is.”
“I do try,” Nancy said, and then laughed, because rare sounds were a treasure to be given to precious friends. Kade grinned at her.
“Are you happy? You have more colour in your clothes than you used to.”
It was true. In addition to the pomegranate ribbon in her hair, Nancy now wore an azure sash around her waist, and there was plum embroidery on the hems of her trousers.
“I’ve been working with the Lady of Shadows, learning how to distinguish and care for the dead. It’s very interesting work.”
“I’m glad.” He put his hand on hers, just for a moment. It wasn’t flirting, just a gentle tenderness. It felt almost cruel, how happy it made her. She had chosen to leave, chosen it twice already and would choose it again every time, but it didn’t stop her wanting this, too. She had never had friends who had understood her, really understood her, before she came to the school, and she had simply assumed it was something she couldn’t have. Now she did, and she couldn’t stop wanting it.
“I think I know what happened to Jill,” she said, turning her thoughts away from that tangle. “But I don’t know if I should tell Jack.”
Kade stared at her.
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“Because if I’m right, then it can’t be fixed.” That wasn’t precisely what she meant, but she couldn’t figure out how to say what she really wanted to. “It shouldn’t be fixed. And I think Jack really wants to fix her. I don’t know if I should take away her hope.”
She looked at Kade, and he looked steadily back at her, not judging, just understanding.
“It’s up to you,” he said. “But I think Jack would prefer to know the truth.”
They finished packing and came back downstairs, where Christopher and Jack were already waiting for them. Jill did not seem to be waiting. She was holding a leaf in her hands, looking at it intently.
“Ready?” Jack said, and Kade gave her a thumbs up. They stood in a little cluster, almost touching, and Jack reached behind her to flip the switch.
The girl looked left and right, making sure she was alone. It was night, and the hallway was long and empty, mirrors on both sides endlessly reflecting each other. The hallway they made between them was even longer than the real one, a series of square corridors that stretched into infinity, sealed behind glass.
The girl stared into the mirror-world. Once, the Glimmergazer had had to teach her how to see beyond her own reflection, to let her self go and embrace the void within. Now she had no reflection, just as she had no name.
There was little time to think on what she had given up. The girl set one hand against her waist, where the mirror fragment she kept with her lay bundled in layers of cloth, hidden inside her clothes. Then she leaned forward, and breathed upon the surface of the glass in front of her. As her breath cleared, the mirror’s surface darkened, the tunnel fading away to be replaced with a blanket of stars. The stars began to spin, slowly at first, then faster and faster and faster, and when there was nothing but a blinding blur, that too faded away to show a group of five figures, standing together in a land of sweets and sugar.
“Oh Jesus fuck,” Jack said, throwing a hand up over her eyes. Nancy was crouched on the ground, doing the same. Kade and Christopher were more relaxed, though neither of them seemed exactly happy with the situation.
“Where are we?” Christopher said. “This definitely isn’t my world.”
“Or mine,” Kade said, bending down to pluck a blade of grass. He licked it, and shuddered.
“Dude, what are you doing?”
“It’s sweet,” Kade said, and then his eyes widened. Nancy looked up at him, and each saw their own expression mirrored on the other’s face.
“We’re in Confection, aren’t we?” Nancy said, feeling more than a little sick.
“What on earth are we doing here?” Jack shot a glower at Jill, whose eyes lifted up to look at all of them.
“Whatever we lose,” Jill said, with something almost like emotion in her voice, “it’s always ourselves we find. In the deserts of the heart, let the healing fountain start.”
Jack closed her eyes, looking exhausted.
“What does that mean?” she said. “There’s nothing to find here! Did you forget that you were the one who killed her?”
Nancy felt herself flinch, internally, and fumbled for the right words to say. She never managed to get them out.
“Wellity wollity wallity, what have we here? What fine folks have come tearing through the firmament to visit us here in Confection? Are you Sugar Stars, come to grant the Queen of Cakes an audience? Or are you Wind Whippers, on your way to honour Princess Plum?”
A young man was addressing them, his tanned brown face peering out from under a brilliant red flatcap. On his back was a large woven basket full of candycorn. He looked about five years older than Nancy.
“Are you Crystalanthemums, bearing gifts for the Duke of Cinnamon? Or Sun Raiders, carrying a declaration of war for the Prince of the Western Creams?”
“No, we’re here to visit you,” Kade said, snapping with irritation.
“Me?” The young man removed his flatcap, scratched his straw-coloured hair briefly, then put the cap back on. “But I’m just an humble farmer, minding my own business.”
“No,” Christopher said, looking intently at the young man. “You were the true love of our friend.”
The man looked suddenly stricken.
“Ah,” he said, all levity gone. “You must be here about Mizu.”
He led them over the sweetgrass hill, down past a river of salted caramel that they crossed by way of fudge stepping stones. It reminded Nancy of stories she’d read as a child, and the more she walked, the more she could see how this place had made Sumi. It was as wild and chaotic as her, as irreverent and impulsive.
“What’s your name?” Jack said, her long steps easily keeping pace with the farmer.
“Tantillon Tootsie,” he said. “Sumi always called me Tanty.”
Nancy’s heart felt cold and dead in her chest. Was there anything worse than seeing the world where someone should have lived, and knowing that they could never, never come back to it? What would happen to the Halls of the Dead, if she didn’t go back? Would they feel the empty hollow space where she was supposed to be?
The farmer lived in a dell at the bottom of the valley, his little chocolate-log cabin surrounded by tall peppermint pines. Sitting outside his house was a young woman. She had long, black hair that fell down her back in a shining wave. Her eyes were on her hands, which were busy separating skittles from their peapods. At the sight of her Nancy’s heart dropped into her stomach, and she felt tears well up in her eyes.
“Sumi,” she said, “is it you?”
The girl looked at her and rolled her eyes.
“What does it look like?” she said. “I have hands, don’t I? I’m not Sumi, she’s dead and gone, left me all behind. I’m Mizu.”
Kade’s hand closed on Nancy’s arm, tight enough to hurt. He looked sick. Christopher had gone near white, and Jack was tense and hunched. Only Jill seemed unaffected, looking at Mizu with something like curiosity.
“I met a lady in the meads, full beautiful -- a faery’s child.”
“How do you know about that? And when did you learn to talk so strange? Have you finally become fun, Jill, instead of just the dull kind of weird?”
“A connotation of infinity sharpens the temporal splendor.”
“Oh that was what did it, the blue infinities beyond death? I have a kind of a half memory of them, shattered and incomplete.” Mizu looked at Jack with an unpleasant smile. “You ought to be more careful, you know. You made such a dreadful monster.”
“She’s not a monster,” Nancy snapped, no longer able to contain herself. “She’s different now, that’s all.”
Everyone was looking at her, and she fought the urge to let herself slide into stillness until she disappeared. Instead, she turned to Christopher.
“Didn’t you have them too? The Lady of Shadows taught me to call them mystics, and she venerated them for what they saw in death.”
“Wait,” Christopher said, “you think she’s an oráculo?”
His eyes flicked back to Jill, watching her contemplatively.
“What are you two talking about?” Jack said. “Whatever went wrong with my sister, I can fix it.”
“But that’s the whole point,” Nancy said. “Nothing went wrong. She saw eternity.”
“The Skeleton Girl said that oráculos were people who saw all of time and space laid out before them,” Christopher put in. “They’re people shown a glimpse of the truth of reality. But they can’t communicate it properly.”
“That’s why she speaks in poetry. They all do. It’s the only language they can find to communicate in.”
“Remember,” Jill said, “how our poetry depends on distance, aspect: gravity will bend starlight.” She looked at Jack sadly. “I must be lying low in a room there, a strange child with a taste for verse.”
“Only in metaphor the truth,” Mizu said, “and only in the truth a good lie. And now that you’re all sufficiently distracted and have forgotten to ask who I really am, shall we be off?”
Of course, as Jack said to Nancy later, sitting under the sweet-scented peppermint pines, it wasn’t that they didn’t know there was something up with Mizu. That was obvious. She was identical to Sumi in looks, and even her name was like an echo.
“If we were being sensible, we wouldn’t take her with us. Sumi is dead. Whatever this thing is, and believe me, part of me is itching to dissect it and find out, it’s not our deceased friend.”
“So,” Nancy said, “either it’s a trap or coincidence.”
“But,” Jack said, “it doesn’t even matter. Even if Jill didn’t want us to take her, even if we knew for sure that she was evil, could you leave her behind?”
And of course, Nancy could not. She would have left her with Tanty, if he’d wanted it, but he only sighed and shook his head sadly.
“I always thought some sweet angel must have sent her, for she wandered out of the deep maple syrup forests. But she’s not my Sumi. She’s nothing like Sumi was, and though I can’t turn her away, it breaks my heart again every time I see her.”
They had found Mizu.
The girl knew she should have been terrified. She had never intended for this to happen. Mizu had been an idle thought of hers, something she had realised she could do with the powers granted to her. Perhaps she had been trying to be kind.
The girl was aware that something was wrong. Her emotions felt less and less present. She knew that she was being hunted, that her life was at risk if the Mirror Guard found her, but the panic and fear were somewhere far away, as if walled behind glass.
She was in a small room now, filled with mirrors of different shapes and sizes. The girl chose a make-up mirror, which would have reflected her face perfectly if her reflection had been present. Slowly, carefully, she rubbed her hands together until they were warm. When she felt the temperature was right, she reached forward and dipped them into the mirror. The silvery surface gave way like water, and the girl collected it on her fingertips, then painted her face with the liquid, so that she wore a gleaming silver mask.
It was another bright world, though not as lurid and vivid as Confection. Nancy shuddered and endured, rubbing her forehead to remind herself of Death’s promise and touch. She would get through this, and she would go home.
She looked up at the others, and was startled to see that Kade was crying. Her heart sank, and she knew at once where they must be. A further look around confirmed it. They were standing in a meadow, about halfway up a mountain that looked positively alpine. Around them were other snow-capped peaks. The air was clean and fresh, and the meadow was full of brilliant flowers like jewels: pink and blue and purple and red and yellow, all nodding their heads against the green-yellow grass. Below them, the meadows stretched down into a valley filled with thick woods and the gleaming slick of a river. Above them, half set into the mountain itself, was a great walled city. Its architecture was more Ottoman than European, which surprised Nancy, but otherwise it was fairytale perfect. The walls were built of glossy black stone, and the spiralling roofs and minarets were tiled in a deep lapis blue. A road of more black stone led up to the great front gates, which glowed white against the black walls. Most telling of all, though, was the sky. There must have been waterfalls in the mountains, for there was a faint haze, and the air was luminous with rainbows, their colours splintering and shivering and overlapping.
“Well, well, we’re in Prism,” Christopher said. “Isn’t it twee?”
Kade glared at him, but Nancy thought that was probably the right thing to have done. Anger would help Kade more than grief.
“Home is so sad,” Jill said, looking intently at Kade. “It stays as it was left, shaped to the comfort of the last to go as if to win them back.”
Kade shuddered, but he nodded and wiped his eyes.
“I don’t know why we’re here,” he said, “but I guess there’s only one way to find out.”
“Oh there’s far more than one way,” Mizu said. “I count at least ten and I’m not even using my toes. But no doubt you’ll choose the most tedious and boring of them all.”
They took Mizu at her word, and set off towards the city gates.
“What are the gates made of?” Nancy asked Kade as they climbed.
“Dragon’s teeth,” Kade said. “This is my first time seeing them. I was never here on my last trip.” He laughed bitterly. “This is the goblin capital, black-walled Lyrien.”
They reached the gates, such an obviously rag-tag group of adventurers that Nancy could not blame the armoured guards at the gate for eyeing them up suspiciously. But when they saw Kade their manner changed. The four soldiers bowed as one.
“Oh prince,” the sergeant said. “Your return has been long awaited.”
There was no time for wild-eyed glances or furtive whispers, no time for any of them to question their assumptions. Brassy trumpets rang out and gongs were beaten, and a platoon of soldiers led them up through the winding cobbled streets of Lyrien. It was a beautiful city by any standard, full of narrow old buildings, some bare stone, some plastered and painted in bright colours. Most had beautiful ornate shutters, carved with floral and animal motifs. Every few streets the road would open out into a little square, where cafes spilled out around the fountains and men and women sat together drinking coffee from tiny gold-rimmed glasses. There was a strong smell of tobacco in the air, which Nancy couldn’t place until she thought to look through the open windows of a cafe, and saw that the interior was full of pillowed berths where goblins reclined and smoked shisha.
It was certainly more to Nancy’s taste than Confection had been, but it was nothing like the Halls of the Dead. The air here might be pleasantly cold, but the rainbow-hazy sky was far too bright a blue, and the people too loud and lively. This would never be for her. Even as she knew that, she also knew that it was Kade’s home, inside and out. His eyes were wide as saucers, and there were unshed tears on his lashes. When they passed through the booksellers district, Nancy and Jack had to seize his arms and forcibly drag him onward.
The soldiers led them up to the highest point of the city, where all the streets converged on a grand square. Across the tiled expanse was a carved rock-face, reminding Nancy of pictures she had seen of Petra, though unlike the old stone ruins on Earth, this was clearly very lived in. Bolts of brilliant blue cloth hung from the windows, and inside great crystal chandeliers could be seen hanging from the ceilings, lit even in the brilliant light of noon.
“This is the Parliament,” the sergeant told Kade, “and also the great library of Lyrien. We will announce you to the Prime Minister, who will undoubtedly be eager to talk to you.”
By this time news of Kade’s arrival must have spread, for the square was rapidly filling up with goblin-folk eager to get a good look at their prince. Nancy stayed as still as possible and watched, and saw to her great amusement a group of girls clearly giggling and swooning together about how handsome Kade was.
The Prime Minister’s arrival felt very official - trumpets blared, drums rang out, row after row of soldiers flanked him as he walked - but the Prime Minister himself was not at all grand. He was a middle-aged goblin, dark-skinned and bright eyed, balding on top and with a pair of neat, gold-rimmed spectacles perched on his long nose. He took careful stock of their group, from still Nancy to dreamy Jill to strange Mizu, before turning to Kade and offering him a hearty handshake.
“Dear Prince,” he said. “You and your companions are most welcome here. We have been waiting for you to return for the last fifty years.”
“So long,” Kade said, closing his eyes. “I am sorry. Has it been hard?”
“Without a mortal child here to act as our arbiter,” the Prime Minister said, “we have not been able to end the war, but apart from that, the goblin lands have been as well and happy as can be expected. The Aerenthez mountains are an excellent natural defense, and if we have not won then at least we have not lost, as has been the case for so long now. But come, this is conversation to be had with coffee. Will you join me in my study?”
He led them all into the Parliament, up a broad flight of marble stairs, and through so many carpeted hallways that Nancy quite lost track. Eventually they arrived at a heavy pine door, which the Prime Minister pushed back to reveal a wide room, with a desk and table set near the window, walls lined with bookshelves, and a set of worn, well-used leather chairs and couches arranged around a small pot-bellied stove. The stove was lit, and an iron kettle sat on the top. Two women were sitting in the chairs nearest the fire. One was reading, the other making a pot of coffee. The Prime Minister introduced them as Asha Teneris, a famous historian, and Della Claris, the Minister of War.
“And I,” he added, pulling off his spectacles and rubbing them with the hem of his coat, “am Din Meyre. It really is a pleasure to meet you, Prince Katie.”
“Ah,” Kade said, grimacing. “I go by Kade these days.”
The Prime Minister bowed to him.
“Of course. We will make sure the evening newspaper gets that right. It will save some time and bother if they announce it generally.”
Kade sat down on a two-seater sofa, and Nancy sat next to him in case he wanted encouragement. Jack and Jill sat on the other two-seater, and Din, Christopher and Mizu took the remaining chairs.
“I’m curious,” Christopher said, “if Kade is the prince, does that make him the head of the government?”
“Oh no,” Din said amiably, waving his hand. “Goblin King is not a political position. That would be quite undemocratic. The King is our Champion. He and his companions overcome the four great tests and pick the Emissary.”
“What is the Emissary?” Nancy asked, already feeling out of her depth.
It was Asha who answered, setting her book down and smoothing out her breeches as she spoke.
“Long ago, at the beginning of history, there was an eternal war between goblins and elves. Neither side would surrender, for their ideals were too fierce, and neither side could win, for they were too evenly matched. Each faction was guided by an Emissary: for the elves, the great black Roc, and for the goblins, the white Dragon. They were as equally matched as the armies, and so peace seemed a distant dream. Then the human came. They were young, and bold, and they gathered people from both sides who sought peace. They quested long and hard, and eventually they came to Iperion, the mountain at the centre of the world, where the Deep One dwelled. The human and the Deep One made a pact and found a way to end the war. The Roc and the Dragon would die together. Their rebirth would be delayed until a human child returned and nominated one of them to lead the world for a period. When that ended, the Emissaries would die and be born again as eggs, to wait until another human came, to wake one or the other.”
“The human choice is crucial,” Della put in, as she began passing out glasses of coffee. “The Emissary’s life is bound to the human’s, and the human’s personality has an influence on the Emissary’s.”
“What’s the difference between them?” Kade said. He looked nervous and excited all at the same time, his eyes wide and his cheeks flushed.
“The Roc is a creature of order,” Asha said. “When it rules traditions are preserved and periods of stability are the norm. The Dragon is chaos. Under its rule the world undergoes rapid change. New ideas flourish and old orders are overturned.”
The coffee was sweet and fruity, and mixed with heavy clotted cream that gave it a richness almost too much for Nancy. Jack tried a little and then set it down as politely as she could, but Kade and Christopher were both drinking it gladly. Mizu poured hers down in one gulp and stood up, walking away to look around the room. Jill held her glass in her hands, staring at it as though she couldn’t remember what to with it, until Jack noticed and gestured for her to drink it.
“Both Emissaries can be beneficent or dangerous,” Din said, thoughtfully. “The Dragon’s last great reign ended very badly. The world fragmented into small, self-interested kingdoms, many ruled by tyrants.”
“It’s certainly true,” said Della, “that too long a reign by either one of the Emissaries is bad. But what’s happening now is worse. When the last reign of the Dragon ended, the elves swore that they would never let it happen again. When the next human entered, and was found by the goblins, the elves attacked and killed him. The human after that was a girl, and the elves indoctrinated her very thoroughly, convincing her to choose the Roc. And since her death, they have either killed or sent home any human who will not explicitly serve them.”
Every pair of eyes fixed on Kade.
“Was that why I was sent back? I was so sure it was because I was trans, but--”
“It was that, but maybe not in the way you mean,” Din said. He looked at Kade sadly. “It’s true that the elves have become rather bound by order. They do not welcome those who do not fit certain rigid and arbitrary patterns. But there was more to it than that, for we had long guessed that our saviour would be ilteth, like Asha and so many others. Like you.”
Kade looked to Asha, and she smiled brilliantly at him.
“I always had a great interest in your history, Prince Kade, for you were something of a role model to me, growing up.”
“Why did you think the saviour had to be trans, though?”
“Part of the initial agreement was that the elves would chaperone female mortals, while we chaperoned males. A lazy agreement, many have argued, but one that fit the elves' notions of structure,” Della said, shrugging.
“Given that the elves had such a successful record of killing or returning mortals to Earth, we guessed that the only way a hero would ever come to us was if they were perceived by the elves to be what they were not. When we heard tales of your battle with the Goblin King, we dared for the first time to hope that this bitter war might have an end.”
“We are so grateful that you have come back,” Din said, “for without an Emissary things will never get better. We do not demand that you choose the Dragon, only that you choose.”
“I’ll do my best to help,” Kade said, his voice clear and steady. “If only you will tell me what I have to do.”
“That’s easy,” Della said. “You must take three companions and climb Iperion. There are four challenges to be faced and overcome, and each of you must undertake one. The Challenge of the Body, the Mind, the Spirit and the Soul. Kade, you must pass the challenge of the Soul, for that directly grants you the ability to choose the next Emissary.”
“Normally,” Asha said, “the companions are friends the Champion has made in Prism, as it was for the first human. But given the nature of your arrival, it seems only fitting that some of your companions should be the ones who go with you.”
“Jack should be the one who does the Mind Challenge,” Christopher said. “That’s obvious. And I think Nancy should take the Challenge of the Spirit. Which leaves me with the Challenge of the Body.”
“I was thinking more or less the same.”
“It rather depends whether the body mentioned is mine or someone else’s,” Jack said, grinning wolfishly. “But I’m sure I can pass any mental challenge thrown at me.”
“I don’t see why I’m Spirit,” Nancy said. “What does that have to do with me?”
“The Challenge of the Spirit is a challenge of endurance,” Din said. “It is no simple thing.”
“But it does suit my skills.” Nancy shrugged slightly. “Good guess, Christopher.”
“Something is near,” Jill said. “Something is about to happen; something more than Spring and less than history.”
There was a crackling silence when she finished, which was pretty typical after Jill spoke, but Nancy noticed how all of the goblins froze, looking wide-eyed at Jill as though she were rarer than a unicorn. Which, of course, she probably was.
“That girl is an oracle?” Din said, rubbing his temple with thumb and fingertip.
“Truly this is an age of portents,” Della said dryly, though she looked just as astonished.
“It is a very promising omen,” Asha said to Kade. “It is said that the first hero was accompanied by an oracle also. Much will be made of this by historians.”
Jill took no notice of her acclaimed status. She was looking away towards the window, through which the blue roofs of Lyrien glittered like sapphires.
The next week was spent in preparations. Christopher practised swimming, climbing, running, and other physical activities. Jack was taught to play the game Tsarpeth, which seemed to be a vastly more complex version of chess. Nancy was brought into a small dark room and made to sit as the chamber was heated and cooled, so that sometimes she wanted to shiver and sometimes the sweat rolled down her body until she had to fight herself not to wipe it away. That was easy enough, but then they gave her the kitten.
“It’s not enough for you to endure alone,” Asha said. “You must protect your companion, too.”
That was harder. On her own, Nancy could simply become stone and let herself dissolve, but the kitten panicked if she did that for too long. She had to learn how to give movement to her hands alone, so that her thumbs could make small circles on the kitten’s head and back, to reassure it.
At the end of the week they were outfitted in travelling gear made for them by the weavers of Lyrien. It was designed to imitate as closely as possible the clothing each of them already wore, but the materials were stronger and more durable, and there were extra layers to keep them warm in the high peaks of the world’s backbone, the mountain chain that stretched from Lyrien to Iperion.
Mizu and Jill came with them, of course, though they would not be undertaking trials as the others were.
“Only those in their first life can participate,” Din said, his eyes resting on Mizu. “But they can certainly travel with you to the waystation at the beginning of the trials, and wait there for your return.”
There was another crowd waiting to see them off, waving blue banners and cheering loudly for Kade. Nancy was delighted for him, but it was almost painful to see him so happy, knowing that the Kade she had become friends with back on Earth had by contrast been so sad.
They set off upwards, into the mountains. It was a long day of hard walking, under a bright sun that made Nancy want to crawl into the deepest possible shadow. As glad as she was that Kade had found a way to return to Prism, and as important as she knew their journey was, she was exhausted and longing for home. Her dreams were full of cool, glimmering twilight, and the still sweet sounds of the orchards, and she woke up from them melancholy and homesick.
Her yearning was not helped by the worries slowly piling up around her. Jack kept a brave face on, but Nancy was watching her closely, and could see how troubled she was. Jack watched Jill incessantly, fretting over her in a way she never had when they were alive. Mizu wasn’t making things any better, either. She acted like Sumi when spoken to, but she rarely said anything without prompting, and when she did, she sounded flat and tinny, like an echo of a recording.
Nancy let it gnaw at her until she and Jack were walking together the next day, carried ahead of the others by Jack’s long legs and Nancy’s tireless pace.
“I think,” she said, “that I have understood something about Mizu.”
“Oh?” Jack said.
“She doesn’t have a back.”
Jack raised an eyebrow.
“I’ve seen her from behind, Nancy.”
“Yes, but that’s not what I mean.” Nancy pressed a finger unconsciously against her forehead as she thought. “She’s all surface. I feel like I only ever see her from one perspective.”
“There may be something to that,” Jack allowed. “I’ll study her more closely later.”
“I hate it,” Nancy said, the words wriggling out from under her tongue. “I hate her. She feels like half of Sumi, if even that. And when she’s here I miss Sumi so much more, because I can almost remember what being around her really felt like.”
There was a long, long silence. Then, quiet and bitter, Jack said, “How the hell do you think I feel about Jill?”
She wouldn’t look at Nancy. She sped up her steps, walking a few feet ahead, and half panting, spoke without looking back over her shoulder.
“I never doubted what I was doing, not once. That was the joy of my science. It was always good. It was always right. Even failure was treasured. But Jill… At first I thought I’d made a mistake, and brought her back wrong. And that hurt like hell. But if you’re right about her, and there’s no way to fix her, then that’s even worse. How do I know if that was what she wanted? What if she’s unhappy? And worst of all is that it’s not even only about her wellbeing. I’m unhappy because it might mean I’m less talented than I thought.”
There was nothing Nancy could say to that, and when Jack sped up again, those long, determined legs eating up the ground in front of them, Nancy did not try to keep up.
Instead, she thought back to her lessons with the Lady of Shadows. There were three of the Mystic Dead in the Halls, though one was very old and had not spoken in nearly twenty years. They were strange, and venerated, their loops of thought near impossible to untangle. The Lady of Shadows had explained that part of the problem was that there wasn’t just one past and one future, but many, spread out like constellations through time. For mystics, the challenge was to remember which past you had, which present you were in, and which future you wanted. And on top of all that to remember that everyone else could only know the present, and must have the world explained to them by way of metaphor.
They camped that night in the pass between two of the peaks. It was summer here, and the snow had retreated several hundred feet above them, but Nancy still caught that distinctive white metal smell. It was cold, too, and Kade lit a fire among the boulders for them to huddle around. The camp was silent. Nobody seemed to want to talk. Even Mizu was silent, leaning back against a boulder and making cat’s cradles. Jack was off to one side, looking out into the darkness. She hadn’t been unfriendly to Nancy, but she very clearly didn’t want to continue their conversation. Jill was sitting close by the fire, staring at a flower. It was a small, yellow bloom, something like an evening primrose. Jill turned it slowly in her hands, over and over.
Nancy scooted up next to her.
“Why are you looking at that?”
“What we see is never what we touch. What we take turns out to be something else.”
Jill said nothing further. But it was an answer, of a sort. Or at least suggested that Jill was looking for something, even if it wasn’t clear to Nancy what that something was.
“Jill,” she said, determined to try again, “do you remember me?”
Jill looked away from the flower, towards Nancy. Her eyes had always been blue, but that blue had become more stark and luminous against the cold pallor of her skin. There were the scars, of course, thin but livid red, striped across her face and neck and arms. More disturbing, though, was her hair, which had been cut so short that she looked almost bald in places. Jill had had splendid hair, long and glossy and carefully maintained. Without it, she was a different person.
“An exiled child,” Jill said at last, after a long pause, “in the crackling dusk of the underworld.”
It was, Nancy had to admit, not a bad description of herself, though it felt very impersonal. And it didn’t make it any clearer whether or not any of Jill’s old thoughts or feelings still lingered. She was floundering for another question when Mizu looked over at them, her face unpleasant.
“Do you remember Sumi?” she said, her tone bitter. “You killed her and cut off her hands.” And she held up her own hands and waved them at Jill.
Jill looked at Mizu, but said nothing. The silence stretched on and on and on, everyone holding their breaths, waiting to see if Jill would answer. A glimmer of light caught Nancy’s eye, and she realised Jill was crying. Big fat tears were rolling silently down her cheeks and falling unheeded onto her shirt. When at last she spoke, her raspy voice was even more guttural than usual.
“I drown again with all those dim lost faces I never understood, my poor soul screams out in the starlight, heart breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.” She drew a shuddering breath and continued, in a tone so full of pleading that it made Nancy’s throat and chest burn, “Include me in your lamentations.”
Kade was crying too now, and Christopher as well. Jack was white-faced and tense. Only Mizu and Nancy remained dry-eyed. Nancy, because she tried never to let her body move without explicit permission, and Mizu because she seemed unable. Her expression had not changed, and her eyes were nothing more than curious. But at last she nodded, and looked back down at her hands.
Jack was trembling, her fists so taut at the knuckles that Nancy knew her short nails must be digging into her palms.
“Did I do the wrong thing?” she said, asking at last the question that had been burning on her tongue for two months. “Should I not have brought you back?”
“If losing me is the worst thing to happen,” Jill said, very gently, “your life is still a good life.”
Jack glared at her.
“That’s not what I asked. I want to know how you feel.”
This silence was the longest of all. It stretched out and out, up to the dazzling stars of Prism and deep into the bones of the mountains. They sat in it, hardly daring to breathe. Just for a moment, Nancy saw a flicker of something pass across Jill’s face, though she couldn’t have said whether it was regret or amusement or love.
“Uncertainly,” Jill said, speaking slowly enough that it sounded as though she were fumbling for each word in turn, “surrounded by impenetrable gloom, among familiar things grown strange to me making my way, I pause, and feel, and hark, till I become accustomed to the dark.”
She reached out her arm, and took Jack’s hand, and pressed it to her forehead, and Nancy turned her head away, unwilling to intrude any further. She looked up into the brilliant night sky, which was just close enough to the sweet stars of the Halls of the Dead to make her mouth bitter with longing, and stared until she fell asleep.
By common unspoken agreement, no one discussed the events of the night before, though it did not escape Nancy that Jack was a good deal happier and more relaxed. They moved onwards, and at about two o’clock, came to the way station that marked the beginning of the Trials.
Jill and Mizu said goodbye, and they set off up the slope, which was rugged and lined with boulders. There were guards here, wearing plain grey uniforms, standing across the narrow path. They set their hands on the hilts of their swords as Kade approached, but they did not draw.
“Who comes? State your name and purpose.”
“I am Kade,” Kade said, his voice ringing out loud and clear. “Goblin prince and Champion. I have come to pass the trials and awaken the Emissary.”
“Who comes with you?” the leader of the guards called.
“My faithful companions, who are prepared to aid me in my task.”
There was some more of this, as Kade was asked various questions, but the guards could find no fault with him, and at last their hands fell from their sword hilts, and they stepped back from the path.
“Go then,” the leader said, “and may the Deep One look kindly on your efforts.”
They followed the path up the hill, to where the mouth of a cave gaped. Some expert stonemason in ages past had carved it to look like the mouth of a whale, though the passing years had blurred the carving to a shadow of what it once was.
They entered together, not quite huddling. Inside, the chamber was vast and bright, shafts of light falling through holes in the ceiling. It was full of stalactites and stalagmites, their pale, bone-coloured surfaces slick with the water that ran down their sides and into the great pool at the centre of the chamber.
“Remember the Lord of the Rings,” Kade said darkly. “I don’t think that pool is empty.”
Christopher squared his shoulders and gave them what was clearly meant to be a dazzling smile.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Whatever comes, I can handle it.”
Nancy knew it for a lie, but under no circumstances would she have dreamed of contradicting him.
They eased their way towards the door on the far side, hoping beyond hope that they were wrong about the trial, that they had mis-guessed Christopher’s role. But of course they had not.
Kade was balancing on a large boulder when the creature erupted out of the lake, spraying them with fat drops of the foul-smelling, stagnant water. Kade slipped backwards and thumped into Nancy, who kept them both upright by force of will. The creature, most like a sea serpent from an ancient map, reared above them. Its scales were a sick-looking pink with patches of dirty white, the colour of something that had not seen sunlight for a very long time. Its eyes were tiny and pure black, and Nancy thought it was probably blind. She could feel the shudder locked in her bones, but she didn’t let it out.
Christopher was already lunging towards the monster. He had a long knife strapped to his left hip, and his bone flute in a pouch on his right, but neither was out. Instead, he was picking up rocks and hurling them into the water. Some hit the monster’s side, but that wasn’t his aim. Rather, the splashes and their echoes seemed to be confusing the monster, disorienting it while Christopher scrambled away from the rest of the group.
It almost worked, but in his hurry, Christopher stumbled over a rock, and fell with a thump to the ground. Instantly, the serpent lunged towards him, and only a quick roll saved Christopher from the huge jaws and their long, needle-like teeth. His roll carried him away, but he had rolled down the slope rather than up, and his momentum carried him a little too far. He hit the water with a loud thunk, and disappeared below the surface. Kade’s breath hitched in his throat, and his arm clenched on Nancy’s shoulder. She had no time to spare for him, though. Her eyes were locked on the water, every nerve in her body hoping for the moment when she would see the surface break and Christopher would rise up out of it.
The serpent reared back, it’s blind head turning from side to side as it hunted for them. Nancy began to regret not running. Then, at long last, the waters broke, and Christopher was there again, his blade in his hand. The monster swung back towards him and struck again. Christopher parried, but his knife glanced off the serpent’s scales and the shock caused him to drop it. It fell into the depths of the lake, and Christopher was unarmed.
He didn’t lose heart, though, and plunged his arm into the murky water even as the monster reared back yet again. When its teeth snapped at him, he drew his arm up out of the water, holding a stick in his hand, and blocked the fearsome head yet again.
Nancy frowned at the stick in his hand. There was something strange about it, but she couldn’t put her finger on what. She realised at the same moment he did, and his laugh matched her silent smile. It was not a stick at all, but a bone.
Christopher stepped backwards, and drew the flute from its pouch. Setting it to his lips, he began to play, and though Nancy could not hear the noise, the effect was immediate. All over the pond, the water began to churn and bubble, as one by one other brave knights who had laid their lives down for the quest began to rise up, swords clenched in their bony fingers. They hurled themselves against the serpent, eager to be revenged on it, and for every blow that glanced off its oily scales, there was one that struck true. Within minutes, the monster was bleeding and shuddering, until at last it retreated, driven down into the deep mire of the pond to nurse its wounds.
They ran to Christopher and embraced him, wrapping themselves into a ball. Even Jack, who was not fond of human contact at the best of times, dained to set a hand on his shoulder and smile fondly at him. Christopher was breathing heavily, and his clothes reeked of the vile pond-water, but he was grinning from ear to ear.
Then he tried to move, and found he couldn’t. Rising up from the shore, a glittering wave of crystal was rapidly consuming his body.
“Kade,” he said, the panic in his voice painfully audible, “what happening?”
He never got a chance to say more. The crystal closed over his face, and he was lost, a strange half-hewn statue in the twilight of the cave. At that moment, a bell began to ring, and the doors at the far end of the cavern swung open, revealing a flight of stairs that climbed upwards.
Kade was pale and furious, but Jack stopped him with a look.
“This must be part of the trial,” she said. “I’m sure that Din and the others would have warned us if death were inevitable. I think this is just a way to prevent anyone from undertaking more than one task. A very fascinating way, I might add, though sadly I don’t think I have time to study it at present.”
Kade relaxed a little, and nodded.
“No time to lose, then,” he said. “The sooner we get out of here, the faster Christopher will be out of that prison.”
The stairs led them upwards, but also deeper into the mountain. Luminous crystals gave off a glow that lit their steps, and Nancy would have found the dim light beautiful under any other circumstances. As it was, she was happy when the tunnel opened out into the next room.
It was smaller than the first cavern, but the roof was high. There was a bench carved into one wall, and a rough hewn table with two chair in the middle of the room. The table was carved as a Tsarpeth board, all lines and hatchings. Jack had tried to explain Tsarpeth to Nancy, and Kade had added what he knew, but Nancy had never enjoyed board games, and she was left with a very unsatisfactory impression of the rules. It was something like a vastly more complicated game of chess, but whereas in chess everything was military focused, and the only way to win was by taking pieces, Tsarpeth had other ways of controlling the board. Influence was key, and zones of influence were the primary measure of victory, but it was such a vague concept, relying not just on the military power of units but also on the placing of different stones that represented knowledge or culture or religion. To play Tsarpeth was to try and enact an ideology on the board, and just thinking about it made Nancy’s head spin.
Jack clearly loved it, though. She hunched herself over the board, staring at it intently, and when a shadowy figure wove itself out of the air and offered her the traditional salute, she didn’t even blink. She just pushed her glasses up her nose and frowned at the pieces in front of her. Kade and Nancy sat down on the bench, and Kade offered a running commentary to Nancy through the match, giving her an impression of what was happening on the board, though he admitted a lot of it was as much beyond him as it was for her.
Jack lost the first game, and sat up with a long sigh, rolling her shoulders back and kneading her neck.
“I’m playing myself,” she said dryly. “I probably should have guessed they’d pull that trick.”
“Did it throw you off your game?” Kade said, sounding faintly worried.
“A little. But I know what to expect now.”
She performed the salute, and the second game began.
This time Nancy was able to follow the strategies a little better, and she could see what Jack meant. The figure’s tactics were exactly what Jack liked to use, relying heavily on the zoning of territory and the placing of key stones. It was a remorseless tactic that pushed the opponent into corners, turning their offensive moves against them, full of hidden traps. Jack had to fight for every element of the board, and her eventual win was by the skin of her teeth.
“It learns,” she said to them during the break. “It learns as fast as I do.”
There was not a trace of fear in her voice or expression. She looked exhilarated.
The last game was by far the longest. It took hours of torturous movement, waves that crept back and forth across the board, but at last Jack set down a jade triangle and leaned back in her chair. The shadowy figure bowed to her, and vanished.
“That was worth it,” she said cheerfully. “Even if your trials don’t succeed. Good luck, though.”
She winked at them, and looked on with interest as the crystal crawled up her body and over her hands. When it had covered her completely the bell rang again and the doors beyond them opened, into a darkness as complete and total as the darkness before the birth of the stars.
“This is it,” Nancy said, and she took Kade’s hand to lead him onwards into the void.
The Trial of the Spirit escaped language. From the moment the doors closed behind them, Nancy was aware of the darkness as a living thing. It flooded her eyes and ears and lungs, breathing with her and through her. For a moment, she panicked. This stillness was like the feeling that had washed over her in the moments before Jack's arrival, and it was just as intimidating now as it had been then. But as Nancy forced herself to be calm, she realised that this stillness was not a challenge, but an embrace. She became part of it as a drop of rain becomes part of the ocean, and as she relaxed into the rhythm of trickling water and chill air she became aware of the mountain around her, its slow granite heart beating on a scale of centuries.
If she had been on her own, she would simply have dissolved into elemental grandeur. It was tempting to do just that, to let herself become one with darkness and water and stone, never abandoning her own body and self, but fashioning them into a mirror of this beautiful underground realm. She could feel the soft growth of the stone around her, could hear the invisible glitter of precious gems that had never seen light. But when she reached out for the mountain, she felt Kade begin to panic beside her.
He was clutching her arm, shivering, and Nancy thought he might have been crying.
“Don’t leave me,” he was saying. “Please, please don’t leave me here alone.”
Slowly, struggling with the immense effort it took, Nancy let go of her connection to the earth, and returned to being just a girl, a girl who had to breathe and eat and blink and cough and sneeze.
“It’s all right,” she said to Kade. “I’m here.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But I know which way to go, now.”
He nodded, a rough acceptance of her apology, and let her lead him.
She could still feel a half connection with the veins of stone and metal that had been so willing to embrace her. She had no need of her eyes - her very breath drew her on. The hard part was not the journey, it was remembering to continue to be a person as she moved through those water-carved channels. She had trained to be a statue, and the marble in her mind found a connection here that she longed to explore. But Kade needed her, and needed her not just to be there, but to be responsive. Nancy came to understand that her trial was not about enduring the darkness, or the silence, or the immense weight of the mountain, but about resisting their lure.
Nancy could not say how long her trial lasted, though she knew it must have been longer than Jack or Christopher’s had been. By the time they reached the passage where the darkness began to fade, and turn from void to a dark grey twilight that brightened inch by inch as they neared the exit, she was exhausted. She had reached the end of reserves she had once thought nearly endless. Kade looked similarly drained, and she could only smile at him.
But as she felt the strange touch of the crystal, something occurred to her.
“Kade,” she said, “don’t forget about the colour of the gates.”
She had no strength for more. The crystal surged across her body, and she let her eyes close.
For a minute there was darkness, and then a vision appeared before her eyes, though Nancy was sure they were still closed. She seemed to be standing behind Kade’s shoulder, at a perspective that was slightly higher than her natural eye level. He was climbing up a long flight of stairs, and Nancy could not yet see the top.
“I thought you did rather well.”
Nancy tried to turn her head, but her perspective was fixed. And in any case, the voice did not really seem to have a direction, though she knew it well.
“We were all very good,” said Jack, just as disembodied. “The rest is up to Kade.”
“I do want to know what you meant about the gates, though,” Christopher said.
“Ah.” Nancy shrugged. “It might not be important. And I don’t want to jinx it if it is.”
Christopher grumbled, but Nancy was not to be budged.
Kade was still climbing. This set of stairs must lead all the way to the peak, Nancy realised. The height of Iperion, where the Deep One dwelled.
Nancy was mulling over her Trial. She felt that she had learned something deep and profound about herself, but she was not sure that she could say what it was.
“What did you think of your trials?” she said at last.
“Interesting,” Jack said immediately. “Tsarpeth is supposed to be a kind of personality metric, if I understood my lessons correctly, but I didn’t realise how true that was until I played against myself. I could see so many of my flaws in that board.”
“Your flaws?” Nancy said. “It wasn’t like that for me. I felt so connected. I’d always thought of my stillness as something that set me apart. Like it was a retreat into myself. But when I was in the darkness, I realised that I’m always part of something. Marble is still marble, and it remembers the mountain it came from.” She sighed in irritation. “I can’t get it to come out right.”
“No, I think I follow,” Jack said. “Because the thing about seeing my flaws laid out in front of me was that I realised how insignificant they were. I’m not perfect, but I don’t have to be. Life doesn’t require that of me. It was a remarkable insight.”
“I wish you could have heard the song I played to wake the old warriors,” Christopher said, a little wistfully. “I didn’t know I had it in me to make such beautiful music. If I hadn’t fought the eel thing myself I would never have been able to do it. I had to understand what it must have felt like for them.”
Nancy could feel something building. She was close now, close to understanding something truly essential, though she didn’t yet know what it was.
“Christopher,” she said, “why did your world kick you out?”
There was silence, broken only by the soft thud of each footstep as Kade climbed higher and higher.
“The thing is,” he said at last, “that what I thought they meant when I left and what they actually meant might be very different things. I was in such shock, at the time. And then I went to the school and met everyone else, and it just sort of stayed fixed in my mind that I was gone for good. But now I’m not sure if that was right.”
“You didn’t answer the question,” Jack pointed out, and Nancy her her sardonic expression in her voice.
“What they told me,” Christopher said, “was that they had taken me too early. They were very apologetic about it. They said they had seen my great talent, and assumed I was ready, but they had realised I didn’t have enough life experience yet to be the kind of musician they wanted. They said that art requires experience. They told me to see the world, to travel, to fall in love and break my heart and have adventures, and that when I was ready they would come back for me.”
“So they did imply that there is a way back,” Nancy said.
“I had sort of decided that this was a task that was going to take the rest of my life,” Christopher said. “Like, I wouldn’t be going back to them until I was dead myself. But now I’m not so sure.”
“You were given a way back, too, Jack,” Nancy said. “So was I, though I didn’t really understand that at the time. Even Kade came back, though his route was much more roundabout.”
“What’s your point?” Jack said sharply.
“I think we got this all wrong,” she said. “I think we’ve been misunderstanding something big, in a way that’s hurt a lot of people.”
She didn’t get to say more, because as she finished her sentence Kade finally stepped through the doors, out onto the peak of Iperion. It was high above the clouds, a narrow ledge of snow-glazed ground. The wind should have been ferocious, but instead everything was still and quiet. Kade walked forward, his breath catching in his throat as he realised he could see the whole of Prism spread out before him. Then he turned around, and saw the Deep One.
The Deep One was a whale, and an ocean, and a galaxy. It was vast beyond reasoning, and one eye, which was both tiny in comparison to its body and yet still large enough to reflect Kade as no more than an ant, turned to look at him. Its voice, when it spoke, was a great and terrible music. If Nancy had been more than a spirit she would have fallen to her knees.
“So, mortal child, you have come to wake an Emissary.”
“Yes,” Kade said, his hands clenched tightly into fists.
“Then you must pass the Trial of the Soul.” The Deep One flicked one of its fins, in whose length Nancy saw star clusters light years across. “Tell me, you who have come this far: why should you be the one to choose? What gives you the right?”
Kade hesitated, biting his lip. Then he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. Nancy waited to hear his answer with curiosity, but no fear. He was in the world that suited him best, in the role that suited him best, and he was the correct choice. She didn’t think he could fail if he tried. She loved him for that, though it wasn’t the hot flaring kind of love that romances talked about, just the deep steady thrum of a lifelong friendship.
“I grew up here,” Kade began, consciously relaxing his hands. “I learned who I was in Prism. Even when I was exiled from this world, I never stopped longing for it. And after I left, when I came back to Earth and realised I had to grow up all over again, it was the little things that stayed with me. Sure I remembered the battles, and the great marches and the ceremonies, but quiet nights spent learning to play the pipes stayed with me longer. I couldn’t tell you what Lord Ashanar said at the Centenary of the battle of Houndsfoot, but I remember the colour of the tea that Jaken made at our campfires, and how he used the little hourglass with the blue sand to get the timing exactly right.”
Kade took a deep, shuddering breath, the kind you make when tears are bubbling up and you have to keep them down.
“The truth is, I hate Prism. I still fucking hate it. It eats at me like a poison, all the resentment I have. It lingers in my bones. Why should I save Prism? This world doesn’t deserve it.” He stopped again, and briefly pressed a hand against his eyes. His voice had risen almost to a shout. When he spoke again, it was very quiet. “The real truth is, as much as I hate Prism, I love it too. And as angry as I am, I know that the people here don’t deserve that anger. Most of them are good, ordinary people just trying to live peaceful lives. They need an end to the war, and I can give it to them. My feelings are my own, and I’ll deal with them.”
There was more silence. The Deep One’s eye closed and opened again, in a blink that seemed to last centuries.
“It is acceptable,” it said at last. “You may make the choice.”
It hummed, a sound so deep and profound that Nancy felt rather than heard it. On the small stone slab in front of Kade, there appeared two eggs, one black and one white.
“Choose,” the Deep One said.
Kade looked at the eggs, and bit his lip.
“Which one is which?” Christopher asked.
“That’s the question,” Jack said dryly. “The final test. The logical answer would be to go by the cities. White for the Roc, black for the Dragon.”
“That’s what you meant, Nancy!” Christopher said, and Nancy huffed in affirmation.
“I can’t be sure,” she said. “I haven’t seen Pavenna. And I don’t know if you could make gates from a Roc’s bones or something like that.”
She equivocated, scared of the responsibility her words had given her, but inside, she was sure. The image of the yinyang symbol had stayed firmly in her head from the moment she had seen the gates, white at the heart of black, the seed of order at the heart of chaos.
Her heart in her throat, Nancy watched Kade’s hand stretch forward, flinch back, and stretch forward again, to settle on the white egg.
“It is done,” the Deep One said, and then it was gone, or it had never really been there at all, like a dream that becomes a fragment of memory on waking.
Kade was holding the egg in his hands, but as his thumbs smoothed over the surface, cracks began to weave their way across the surface, a blinding light spilling out from the inside of the egg. It grew brighter, and then Nancy found herself back in her own body, the crystal melting away from her skin. The dragon was in front of her, looking at her with diamond eyes in a pearl white body that shimmered every colour of the rainbow when it moved. It was more like a Chinese dragon than a European dragon, long and serpentine with whiskers and a beard, like the cross between a wizard and an eel. Kade was perched on its back, grinning.
“Nancy,” he said, “meet George.”
“Nice to meet you,” George said, and Nancy responded in kind, deciding that it was wiser not to comment on the fact that Kade had presumably chosen to call his dragon George. She climbed up onto its back behind Kade, and they set off through the tunnels, George swimming through the air of the tunnels as if it were water.
They freed Jack and Christopher, the dragon breathing softly on each of them to wake them from their crystal prisons.
“What would have happened if Kade had failed?” Jack said to George.
“Oh, the Deep One would have freed you. Though Kade’s life would have been forfeit.”
Nancy let herself shudder at that, because some things really did deserve a bodily response.
“Don’t worry, though! Kade did splendidly. So now I can put everything to rights.”
“How does that work, exactly?” Christopher said. “Do you become the king?”
“Oh no. Everyone still gets to have their own governments and everything. It would be silly otherwise.”
“Then what exactly do you do?”
“I’m more of an Aslan figure really,” George said amiably, heading down the mountain to the way station where they had left Jill and Mizu. “I just sort of travel around and give advice, use my magic to make things better, battle monsters and evildoers. General guidance of the world.”
“Excuse me,” Jack said, “but how exactly do you know what Aslan is?”
“Part of me comes from Kade, you know,” George said, as though this should have been perfectly obvious. “I know lots of things that he knows.”
Nancy wished she could see Kade’s expression, but from the set of his shoulders, she thought he was trying not to laugh.
Jill and Mizu were waiting outside for them, with some of the goblins and elves from the way station. Everyone was extremely excited to meet George, and he had to talk to all of the Prismites individually.
“Your eyes shine,” Jill said, after some minutes of thought, “oh, dragon of the frogs, with a human radiance.” Then she turned to Kade and inclined her head. “Our great redemption from above did bring.”
Jack ruffled her hair a little.
“Don’t tease Kade, Jill,” she said. “He did good.”
“Was it denial?” Jill said, and though her voice was as flat as ever, there seemed the shadow of a smile on her lips.
“That sidequest took faaaar too long,” Mizu said. “Can we please get back to saving the world?”
Nancy couldn’t repress a shudder. She’d forgotten how horrible Mizu could be. What she said seemed like something Sumi would have said, but flat and shallow, as though it were all only words with no real meaning.
“Loathe as I am to agree with Mizu,” Jack said, “we should return to Lyrien. We still don’t know much about what’s going on, or why we were even brought here.” She shrugged at Kade. “It’s not that I regret doing this. You needed it, and that’s a good enough reason. But I don’t understand how it connects to the end of the world.”
It was a good question, and Nancy felt that prickle again. She was absolutely sure, now, that their journey to Prism had been essential, though she still didn’t know exactly why. It was all connected. She just needed to look at it from the right angle.
“Wait,” Jill said, with infinite patience. “Don’t go too early. You’re tired. But everyone’s tired. But no one is tired enough. Only wait a little and listen.”
As always, with Jill, it was inscrutable and inarguably good advice.
There were great celebrations to be had on their return to Lyrien, long feasts and dances that lasted many days. Nancy participated as much as she felt able for, but she also let herself dissolve back into stone, becoming part of the breathing earth and watching the world through still eyes. As her body turned to living marble, she felt a presence wash over her, as though the Lord of the Dead were standing next to her. She was not lost, or lonely, or far from home. Home was with her, in her very bones.
She was watching a group of girls dancing a traditional Lyrien circle dance when Jack found her, and touched her gently on the arm to raise her from her tranquil dreams.
“What’s going on?” Nancy said, granting herself the pleasure of a stretch and a yawn. “Are we leaving?”
“Soon enough,” Jack said. “But actually, Din asked to see us. He said he and Asha have something to talk to us about.”
They climbed back up through the city and into the room where they had had their first conversation with Din. It was late, and the fire and the candlelight cast strange shadows across the people’s faces. Kade tilted his head back and smiled at her. Christopher waved a hand lazily. George, on the balcony, lifted his head and whuffed his misty breath at her.
“So,” Kade said, when Nancy and Jack were settled, “what have you found out?”
“Not as much as we would like.” She looked around, saw that almost every face was blank, and added, “Kade asked us to look into the end of the worlds while you were travelling. We’ve done what we can, but it’s not much.”
Din grunted his agreement.
“It’s impossible to tell if the worlds have ever gone through anything like this before. The records are too vague, and in any case what Jack described to us might not be possible to record. So all we have is guesswork.”
“That said,” Asha said, leafing through a sheaf of papers, “we might be able to help you with some context. Because of the nature of the humans who come to visit us, we have extensive records on the different worlds, in addition to our own legends and histories.”
“Previous heroes have left us with detailed records of their lives,” Din said, “though admittedly not all of them are what one would call exciting. But they do mention meeting voyagers to other worlds, and give some descriptions as to what those worlds were like.”
“Is there anything useful there?” Christopher asked.
“Enough to clarify something we already knew,” Asha said. “One of the oldest stories in all of Prism comes from the time of the first hero, who made a compact not with either of the Emissaries, but with the Deep One.”
She fumbled for a piece of paper, then cleared her throat and began to read.
“Upon speaking to the Deep One, they made clear to me that the Earth and the Dreamworlds are like a coin, two sides pressed together, of the same material and essence but separate, never meeting directly. Only when mortals pass from one to the other do the two realms even become aware of each other’s existence. And the Deep One emphasised that this is as it should be, for in the main part the influence of the Dreamworlds upon Earth should always be subtle and indirect.
“When I questioned them further, and at a later date, the Deep One added that the Dreamworlds were not always so fragmented as they are now. Once they were one world, like a mirror of the Earth that showed not the face but the soul. Then, as humans began to pass into the Dreamworld, they carved out patterns, deeper and deeper, until from these patterns came worlds, unique and yet connected. The Deep One said then that there was one world, Ununum, which sits at the centre and has not yet changed.”
Kade was sitting up, his hair standing up in spikes where his fingers had been running through it.
“What Jill said!” He looked wildly from Nancy to Jack to Christopher. “I knew it sounded familiar.”
“Out flew the web and floated wide; the mirror crack'd from side to side,” Jill said, leaning forward, her eyes intense.
“I couldn’t figure it out, until I heard the name Ununum.” He turned to look at Christopher. “Do you remember Annika?”
“Vaguely,” Christopher said. “She wasn’t exactly the talkative type. And she was only there for a week or so before she went off to Eastbridge.”
“Who is Annika,” Jack said, at exactly the same moment that Nancy said, “What is Eastbridge?”
“Annika was a student we had about three months ago,” Kade said. “She was only with us for about ten days. Then we sent her to Eastbridge, the school for people who don’t want to remember or return to the worlds they visited.”
“Annika was weird,” Christopher said, “even by our standards.”
“She certainly wasn’t talkative,” Kade said, “but I’m certain she mentioned Ununum. I did her orientation.”
“What does that have to do with mirrors?”
“That’s just it,” Kade said. “She said the world she had been to was a world of mirrors.”
Nancy felt a shiver run down her spine. She was beginning to see the strands of the pattern.
“You said that the Deep One talked about the worlds coming from stories. Can you explain more about that?” she said, looking at Asha.
Asha frowned, turning over a piece of paper in her hand.
“There’s not much else here. But I thought it was common knowledge? You are shaped by us and we are shaped by you. Everything here is influenced by stories. And the stories that you make of us can go on to shape great events on Earth.”
Nancy’s mouth was dry with tension.
“So the stories we tell ourselves, they’re important?”
“You’re being stupid.” Mizu shifted, glaring at Nancy in a way that was achingly familiar and yet wholly unnatural. “You were all so stupid, all the time. And Sumi was the stupidest of all. She believed the stories that other people told her!”
“Don’t speak about Sumi like that,” Kade snapped.
“No,” Mizu said, in a voice that was more than half a shout. “I will. I have to. Because she let them tell her it was exile, and she thought it was true. She made herself into such a sad, tragic heroine, a Napoleon in her Elba, and it never even occurred to her to think what nonsense it was to follow a rule set out by a nonsense world. If only she’d seen it then she would have built a door with her own hands and she’d still be alive and happy. And then I would never have been made and I wouldn’t have to know what it feels like to sit here with all of you, hating me and fearing me and wishing I wasn’t here!” She was fully shouting now, and her face twisted as though she were trying to cry. But she didn’t, or couldn’t, and so she turned and stormed out of the room.
Silence, thick as treacle and painful with grief, washed around them in her wake. Nancy said nothing. She was still grappling with a sense of a vast perspective becoming visible, as though she stood again on the peak of Iperion, and was watching the wind blow away the clouds to reveal the whole of the world.
“I think it’s time for us to move on,” Jack said at last. “Annika seems like our best lead at the moment, and if Ununum is the world at the centre of all worlds, then there’s a good chance they know what’s happening.”
“I agree,” Kade said. He looked at George, his face sad and serious. “I have to go. I’ve got to see this all the way through. And then I have to go back to Eleanor. The school needs me. I’m sorry. I’ll try to come back someday, if I can, but I don’t know when or where that will be.”
George laughed, and shook his whiskers back and forth.
“Don’t you see? As long as we’re bound together, and that’s for always, I can be a gate for you. You’ll be able to return whenever you want.”
Kade stared at him, mouth open.
“Think of it as a reward. You can spend as much time here as you want. Or as little.”
“It’s not a flawless system,” Din put in. “Time here flows differently than it does on Earth. You may return a year from now, or a hundred years. It all depends. We may be long dead by the time you next come here.”
“Of course,” he said. “That makes sense. But still. It’s so much more than I ever thought I’d get.”
Once, there had been a girl. Once she had had a name. Now there was only a mirror-woman, made by the Glitterweaver to serve in the courts of Ununum. The mirror-woman’s job was to dust the halls of the palace, and keep the mirrors there clean and glossy. She did her job well. Sometimes, though, when she bent over, a strange jabbing feeling would bite her in the stomach, and she would feel things no mirror-woman had ever been made to feel. Sadness and confusion and grief and fear would swirl around her, until she wanted to tear the skin from her face. But then when she straightened up it was always gone. The mirror-woman did not know what to do with feelings that were anything other than normal, so she ignored these and hoped they would go away.
They left Prism from Din’s study, but their arrival brought them to a room so similar to his office that for a moment Nancy thought the device hadn’t worked. Then, as she looked around, the differences began to make themselves clear. The sleek computer on the desk, the electric lights inset into the ceiling, and the double-glazing in the windows all informed her that this was Earth.
“We’re in the headmistress’s study at Eastbridge,” Kade said. “I was here six months ago, when I visited with Eleanor.”
“So we are looking for that old student of yours,” Jack said. “I suppose asking the headmistress will be the most efficient way to find her.”
“They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,” Jill said, in her usual harsh croak.
“Bit of a brutal metaphor, there,” Christopher said, and Jill shrugged.
As they were speaking, the door opened, and a woman came in.
She was short, and plump, with long brown hair sensibly pinned at the nape of her neck. She wore a well-tailored business suit, neatly accessorised with blue heels and a blue necklace. She could not have been more different to Eleanor.
“Ms. Cartwright,” Kade said, stepping forward to shake her hand. “It’s good to see you again.”
Ms. Cartwright took his hand, but she was frowning as she looked at the group. Nancy realised how odd they must look to a person who was used to Earth: Nancy in her chiton; Jack in her suit and lab coat; Kade in the tunic and leggings he had been given on Prism; Christopher in a printed t-shirt and cargo shorts. Jill was even more disconcerting.
“Kade,” she said, in a voice that was low and husky and smooth as cream, “what are you doing here? How did you even get here? Who are the other students with you?”
“Oh, we’re not students,” Jack said, confident and relaxed as always. “We’re the ones who got away.”
Ms. Cartwright glared at Jack.
“That does not answer my question.”
“Ms. Cartwright, I can only apologise for the sudden nature of our arrival. We’re here on incredibly important business, but it will probably take some time to explain. Will you hear us out?”
Ms. Cartwright hesitated, then nodded. She brought them out of her office and into what was clearly a conference room. They sat down around the table, and Kade and Jack laid out their journey, with additional inputs from Christopher. Nancy remained silent, watching.
There was a long, long silence when they finished, so long that Kade added “Please, Ms. Cartwright, I know you didn’t love the world you visited, but that doesn’t mean they should die.”
Ms. Cartwright shook her head slowly.
“No,” she said, “the worlds must not be allowed to die, on that we are all agreed. As poorly as they have served some of my students, they are necessary. That is not what troubles me.” She leaned forward and frowned at them.
“Has it not occurred to you that some of your destinations, were, to put it mildly, unnecessary?” She pointed directly at Jill. “I don’t know exactly what you are, but as the instigator of all this, would you like to explain what’s going on?”
Jill lifted her head slightly, though her face remained icily expressionless.
“The man hath penance done, and penance more will do.”
Nancy flinched a little, and decided it was time to intervene.
“I’m still not sure of everything,” she said, “but I believe Jill did have a purpose in showing us everything we have seen so far.” She looked around at the others. She hadn’t wanted to say anything yet, without full confidence in her theory, but there was no helping it. “We were all told, after our first trip to the Dreamworlds, that we were unlikely to return. Lundy made that very clear to me. And yet of the five of us, four have returned, one way or another, and I think in time Christopher will too.” She glanced at him. “If you want to, of course.” He smiled at her.
Ms. Cartwright was not smiling. She was frowning sharply, and there was a sour expression on her face.
“What,” she said, “is your point?”
“Was it a deliberate lie?” Nancy said. “Or an unconscious one? Did you know that students really could go back?”
Ms. Cartwright sighed, and for a moment Nancy thought she saw beneath the veil of confidence and authority, to a woman who merely looked old and worn-out.
“It was mostly unconscious,” she said, “though I have for some time guessed that we were not being entirely accurate in our estimates of how many students might return. But then my students do not wish to return.” She leaned forward and pinned Nancy with a sharp look. “It is all very well for you, comfortable in your little world of the dead, to believe that the all roads lead to the right end, but I have students whose nights are full of horrors, who flinch at every shadow, who spend hours trying to reacquaint themselves with a normality they have nearly forgotten. I will not let you throw them under the bus for your own sense of happiness.”
Nancy did not look away. It would have been unjust. Ms. Cartwright was correct, at least in her own mind. And Nancy needed to acknowledge that.
“You’re both being stupid,” Mizu said, waking up like a jack-in-the-box, pulled out of the nearly inert state she tended to lapse into when she wasn’t being watched. “Black and white are only two of the colours, you know. You think the choice is everyone goes back or no-one goes back, but there’s a whole rainbow of choices you’re ignoring. It all depends on what story you tell.”
Jack laughed, sharp as a scalpel.
“I agree with the horrible abomination,” she said drily. “However, Ms. Cartwright, there won’t be a chance for any of us to change the narrative if the Dreamworlds stop existing. And to prevent that, we need Annika.”
Ms. Cartwright thought for a long moment, but at last she nodded.
“If you wait here,” she said, “I’ll bring her to you.”
She stood up and left, and Nancy followed her out of the door.
“What is it?”
“How did you know I went to the Halls of the Dead?” Nancy said.
Ms. Cartwright looked at her.
“Because I went there myself.” Her gaze dropped to the floor. “I will never be free of my dreams of it,” she said, her voice taut and husky. “They made a terrible mistake, when they brought me there.”
Then she walked away. Nancy watched her go, her mind full of a sudden, bitter understanding. Now she knew why the Lord of the Dead had sent her home, to make sure.
Ms. Cartwright came back with Annika about twenty minutes later. Annika was not quite what Nancy had been expecting, though she would have been hard-pressed to say what exactly that was. She was tall and broad, with huge hips and a hefty belly, and intense, authoritative grey eyes. And yet there was something strange about her. She wasn’t quite like Mizu, who sometimes seemed nothing more than skin stretched over a frame, but there was a similar quality. Her substance seemed thin, almost worn through in places.
None of that was specifically important right now, but nor did Nancy dismiss it. It would all add up eventually, another piece of a story that she was slowly beginning to see more clearly.
Kade introduced himself to Annika, who looked at him blankly.
“What do you want?” she said, her voice heavy and flat.
“We want you to come with us,” he said. “We need you to come to Ununum.”
“I’m not supposed to go there,” Annika said. “Not supposed to talk about it.”
“Please,” Kade started to say, but Nancy shook her head and stood up. She reached over and took Annika’s hand, not exerting pressure but simply allowing her body to become still in a way that made it impossible for Annika to move away. Annika looked down at her hand in mild confusion, but otherwise showed no reaction, and Nancy knew she had been right.
“I’m sorry about this,” she said, more or less honestly, “but what you want really doesn’t matter right now. We need you.”
“Time to go?”
“Yes,” Nancy said.
The mirror woman was cleaning in the Great Hall of the Glitterweaver when the great shaking and light appeared, and the strangers arrived. She looked at the odd group with a lurching fear she didn’t understand, then hurried away to find an Administrator to deal with them. Her heart was hammering oddly in her chest, and that was strange, because as far as she knew, she wasn’t supposed to even have a heart.
Ununum was splendid beyond even Nancy’s imaginings, though it glittered far too much for her. They arrived in a grand hall, tiled with gleaming black and white, its walls ornate with gold leaf, and hung with mirrors that reflected not the room, but a strange landscape filled with stars.
Annika looked troubled, but she made no attempt to move away from Nancy as the welcoming committee bustled towards them. It was a mix of men and women, more or less human in stature, but all wearing cloth masks decorated with a multitude of tiny mirrors.
“This is most unorthodox,” a particularly officious one said, leaning forward to look at them. “Who do you think you are, traversing the ways between worlds without so much as the Glitterweaver’s say-you-so?”
“We’re here on extremely important business,” Kade said, but the official waved him away. That supercilious gesture convinced Nancy it had to be a man.
“Pish posh. Urgency is no excuse for not filling out forms in triplicate, you know.” He continued to examine them disinterestedly, until he saw Annika. At once, his whole demeanour changed.
“Why Glitterweaver, you’re here!” His words sent the other mirror-people clamouring, and for several minutes nothing could be heard over their chiming din. When at last there was silence, Christopher coughed politely.
“Do you think,” he said, “that you could explain to us what a Glitterweaver is?”
The officious mirror-man ducked his head in an oddly bird-like way.
“Of course, of course,” he said. “The Glitterweaver is the head of the mirror-makers. It’s their task to control the connections between worlds. What you think of as the doors. Of course, they don’t personally make every single one - what a waste of resources that would be indeed! - but they provide guidance in a general way to the staff, and set out Ununum policy on travelling. We always choose a human for the position, naturally, since they’re best suited to understanding the needs of their own kind.”
“Do you mean to say,” Jack said, “that there’s someone who decides whether or not we get to travel, and when and where and how that happens?” She spoke with a sharp edge, and Nancy knew that she was completely furious, but the mirror-man did not seem to notice.
“Well, yes, of course,” he said. “Can’t have people running around opening doors willy-nilly. That machine of yours is illegal enough as it is. Just imagine what would happen if everybody had one! No, it all works much better if you have a story. And that’s what the Glitterweaver is for. Also why it has to be a human. None of us are much for the old imagination, don’t you know?”
Nancy’s eyes flickered to Annika, who still stood solidly beside her, unmoving. Of course, she thought, patterns stringing themselves together more and more rapidly.
“And Annika is the Glitterweaver?”
“Oh yes,” the mirror-man said. “The new one, leastways. She was training under our last Glitterweaver, you understand, but when he died, there was some, ah, commotion, and what with one thing and another we lost track of her. Been trying to find her ever since. We are much obliged to you for bringing her back.”
“Sorry,” Kade said, “but could you be more specific about what the commotion was?”
The mirror man managed to look uncomfortable in spite of his mask.
“Nasty business,” he said. “The big mirror, what you might call our pre-eminent mirror, officially the Infinity Mirror in which the true nature of all worlds is held and preserved, well it shattered.” He shrugged his shoulders. “No idea how it happened really, but that was when the Glitterweaver disappeared, and she’s the only one as can repair it. Well, she can once we find the last missing piece.”
“Is that why the worlds are disappearing?” Jack said, her anger forgotten in the surge of new information.
“Just so,” the mirror-man said. “Can’t hold the Dreamworlds together without an Infinity Mirror. Just not possible.” He nodded at Annika. “Should all be fine now that the Glitterweaver’s back, though. Once she’s inaugurated, she’ll know what to do about the Infinity Mirror.”
“I’m not supposed to be here,” Annika said, quietly. Nancy didn’t think anyone except her had heard it. She had released Annika’s hand as soon as they stepped through the portal, but Annika had kept hold of her, as if she found the contact comforting. Her palm was sweaty, and though there wasn’t much emotion in her voice, Nancy could see how upset she was.
“What does the inauguration involve?” Christopher asked.
“Oh, mmm, hmm, it’s a ceremony,” the mirror-man said. “Rather long-winded and tedious if you ask me. And everyone comes and swears fealty too. That’s important.”
Nancy’s ears perked up.
“I think,” she said, “we should have the ceremony as soon as possible.”
Of course, as soon as possible was still several hours of bustle and hubbub. Not having anything to do, Nancy and the others sat around in the Great Hall, watching as the hustle and bustle of the staff transformed it into a space of glittering, decorated festivity. Annika continued to refuse to leave Nancy’s side, even turning away the women who came to dress and make her up. Jack raised an eyebrow at this odd behaviour, but didn’t comment on it, and there was not the space or time for Nancy to get into a discussion of why she thought it was happening.
When the preparations were complete and the inhabitants of the palace, or office, or compound, or whatever this actually was began to file in, Nancy and Annika were whisked off to a small anteroom so that Annika could properly make her grand entrance. The mirror-man who had talked to them earlier explained that Annika would walk up the central aisle to the dias where she would be confirmed as the new Glitterweaver. Then the swearing of fealty would begin.
Nancy began to get nervous. This was very likely her only chance, and she still wasn’t sure exactly what she was looking for. She had a lot of guesses and not very much information, which was never a good starting point. Move invisibly, but with great force, she reminded herself. The trumpets blew a clashing, brassy note, followed by a series of loud trills, and Nancy and Annika walked back into the Great Hall.
The huge empty room had been completely filled with people, all of them wearing masks. Some, like the mirror-man, were mirrors stitched into fabric, while others seemed entirely made of glass. Nancy glanced to the left and right, looking for something that didn’t fit.
She almost didn’t see it. In the sea of masks, it was easy to miss. But Nancy was good at looking from the corners of her eyes, and as her head turned she saw a movement that wasn’t movement. Unobtrusively, she let her eyes follow it, and realised that what was moving was the reflection on a particular mask. Images were flowing across it, out-of-focus but clearly representative of something. She turned her head a little more, and saw that the mask belonged to what looked, otherwise, like a completely unremarkable mirror-woman. Nancy kept an eye on her, and realised that she was leaning forward slightly, her arms wrapped around her abdomen and her hands clenched so that the knuckles were white.
Nancy took a careful breath, not certain that her actions to come were the right ones. But she had to try something. Carefully, unobtrusively, she twisted slightly, so that her foot caught Annika’s ankle, and sent her companion toppling down onto the polished marble floor.
“No!” A voice from the crowd rang out, which Nancy did not have to look at to identify.
It was too late, in any case. Annika was falling too fast, and though it seemed to Nancy that it happened in slow motion, it could really only have been a second. Annika fell forward, looking mildly surprised, and hit the tiles, and shattered.
The sound of her breaking was not a gentle tinkle of glass but a clamourous chime that rang throughout the hall. It was followed by a greater swell of noise, as people realised what had happened and began to panic.
One mirror-woman pushed her was through the crowd and knelt by the slivers of glass that remained on the floor, picking at them carefully, as though she could reconstruct Annika from them. Nancy watched her fumble, and wondered if she realised that her mirror-mask was dripping down her face, melting away to reveal Annika herself.
“Hello,” Nancy said. “I think you owe us all some explanations.”
Annika’s head jerked up. She stared at Nancy, and her eyes filled with tears.
“I never-” She gasped and stopped. “I never meant for all of this to happen.”
Nancy lifted her eyes for a moment, to survey the chaos of the hall, and thought back across the whole of her journey and what it had meant.
“No,” she said at last. “I expect not.”
The ceremony had to be postponed, of course, if only so that everyone could get their stories straight. Nancy brought Annika up to meet everyone, and the mirror-man who seemed to have been designated their liaison rushed up shortly afterward, demanding explanations.
“I think Annika can best provide those,” Nancy said, already exhausted from being the centre of attention.
“I don’t know where to begin,” Annika said miserably.
“Begin with me,” Mizu said. “You did make me, after all.”
Annika looked up at her, and sighed.
“So I did. Do you hate me for it?”
For the first time, Nancy thought she saw what might have been a real emotion on Mizu’s face, though it was too densely complicated for her to understand Mizu’s feelings.
“I think it was cruel and wrong of you to do so,” Mizu said cautiously. “It served your own feelings, but certainly not anyone else’s. That said, I don’t particularly wish to be unmade.”
Annika shook her head.
“I wouldn’t dream of it. But I think you should stay here with me.”
“Why did you make Mizu?” Jack asked. “And how?”
“The how is easier than the why,” Annika said heavily. “I am the heir of the Glitterweaver, and will be Glitterweaver in turn if they don’t execute me for what I’ve done.” She smiled wanly. “It was no difficult thing to take Sumi’s reflections and piece them together into a person. As for why, well I felt bad that she had died. It seemed so, I don’t know, unnecessary. So I thought I would give her a second chance.”
“But how did you even know she existed?” Kade said.
“I was watching you.” Annika said it simply. “The Glitterweaver showed me your school once, as part of a lesson on portal travelling. He meant it as an example, nothing more, but I became fascinated. When I had free time, I would watch you.” She sighed, then squared her shoulders and looked at them. “You were how I learned that someday I would be sent back to Earth, never to return, and that was why I did what I did.”
“Never to return?” the mirror-man said, all in a flutter. “What made you think that? True, there would have been a trial, but you were always to return! After all, you are the Glitterweaver.”
“It was, I think, an understandable mistake,” Christopher said slowly. “All of us were told that we had special destinies, but most of those never came to anything.” He put his hand gently on Annika’s, but she flushed and moved hers away. Nancy watched them drily. Another part of Christopher’s learning experiences, she thought.
“Being the Glitterweaver isn’t like becoming some simple prince or princess,” the mirror-man said, still visibly indignant. “Centre of the universe, more like. Must believe we choose each candidate most carefully.”
“It seems obvious to me now that I was overreacting. But when all I saw was people like me, shut out of their worlds, desperate to return, I feared that I would suffer the same fate. So when the time for my trial came-”
“Sorry,” Jack said, “but what exactly is the trial?”
“Every Glitterweaver has to pass a trial, to show their mastery of mirrors. We send them away, and they’ve got to get back by making a new gate. Very elegant solution.”
“When I realised what was happening,” Annika said, calling their attention back to her, “I panicked. I made a doll of mirror-glass and hair and needles, and gave it my name. It got sent back through the Infinity Mirror, not me. And then I smashed the Infinity Mirror.”
The mirror-man’s mouth was hanging open.
“You-! You… You? You broke the Infinity Mirror? But that’s the centre of everything.”
“I know.” She looked up at Nancy. “I didn’t think about what I was doing. The Infinity Mirror is like a fulcrum. Everything that happens is held within it. And when it’s gone, the worlds begin to fade away.”
“You’ll have to restore it,” the mirror-man said. “As soon as we find the missing piece.”
Annika looked more ashamed than ever. Then she lifted the hem of her shirt. Underneath, her torso was wrapped around with a long scarf. From its folds she drew a thin triangle of glass.
“I took it,” she said. “I wanted to keep an eye on things, and this seemed like a good strategy. Plus, I had a sort of an idea that if I kept it, I could turn up later with it and say I’d just found it, and then everything would be all right.”
“Why didn’t you?” Kade said.
“Because I was an idiot. I didn’t realise what giving my name away actually meant, especially when I’d given it away to a ravenous creature of glass. My creation wouldn’t return it to me. It kept trying to take more and more of my self. If Nancy hadn’t smashed it, it might have eaten me whole.”
Jack raised a thin eyebrow.
“I’m curious about that myself. Nancy, how exactly did you know what to do?”
“I saw a pattern,” she said. “I didn’t say anything, because I wasn’t sure I was right, but it seems I was.” They didn’t stop looking at her, so she added a little more. “I didn’t guess most of it until we met Annika herself, and then I sort of put it all together: the way she looked like Mizu; Mizu’s surface nature and how that related to mirrors; the fact that Jill had taken us to all these different places, which she wouldn’t have done if it wasn’t necessary. It just clicked.” Nancy addressed herself to Annika. “Did you see much of our journey?”
“Some of it,” Annika said. “But I wasn’t really myself.”
“We discovered a lot,” Nancy said, “about the Dreamworlds. But the part that I think is essential is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. It’s not: everyone stays, or everyone goes home forever. For those of us who need it, there can be a way back. It’s all down to the story we tell. The story you tell.”
“If my predecessor made a poor choice in the last candidate for Glitterweaver,” the mirror-man said, “it was that he chose someone who always wanted the chance to go home. The last Glitterweaver yearned for Earth, somewhere deep inside, and that affected how he thought about everything else.” He smiled at Annika. “We feel you’re a much better choice.”
“And yet you mustn’t go too far in the other direction,” Kade said. “Don’t forget Eastbridge. We need to work on telling a story that tries to give everyone a happy ending.”
“That sounds like the work of a lifetime.”
“In her web she still delights,” Jill said, “to weave the mirror’s magic sights.”
In metaphor, truth, Nancy thought, little shivers running down her spine.
It was not one ending, but many, running into each other, bleeding away a thousand goodbyes. They stayed in Ununum for the restoration of the Infinity Mirror, which was a truly splendid object. Nancy saw nothing in its dark and swirling depths but time, but Jill stayed contemplatively in front of it for many hours. Nancy asked her no questions, but when Jill at last turned away she looked to Nancy and said, husky and gentle,
“The understanding that pervades, the silence that is veiled.” Nancy was not sure if it was intended as a description of Jill, the mirror, Nancy herself, or all three, but she was content not to know.
Kade and Christopher were planning their return trip to the school when an emissary arrived for Christopher, his pale skull painted in bright colours.
“Oh most eminent musician,” he said, bowing, “we have heard such tales of your great deeds. It is past time for you to return to us?”
Nancy watched Christopher curiously. Before this journey had begun, he would have been ecstatic to have received such an invitation. But now, though he smiled, he was not exuberant.
“I haven’t yet refined my playing as much as I would like to,” he said. “Do you really think me ready?”
The emissary blinked.
“May I hear you play?”
And so Christopher played his silent flute, and the paint on the bony face changed, the colours sliding together and rearranging themselves, leaving the skeleton’s cheekbones dotted with a trail of painted tears.
“You truly are the most exquisite musician we have ever heard.”
“I have further to go,” he said. “I can see that now. But if you let me divide my time between my travels and the court, I’ll happily come with you.”
“I will open any door you like,” Annika said. “Only call my name and I’ll hear you. If you want to travel, you can.” She was blushing furiously, but Nancy couldn’t be sure that Christopher had noticed.
Christopher said his goodbyes fondly, assuring them all that he would come visiting soon, and then he left with the emissary.
Kade departed shortly afterwards.
“I have so much to think about,” he said. “I need to come up with a plan that lets me divide my time appropriately between Prism and Earth. But you are both welcome to come and see me, wherever I am, whenever you like.”
They hugged, briefly, and he too was gone.
“What do you want me to do with my device?” Jack said, looking at Annika.
“The old Glitterweaver was not in favour of travel between Dreamworlds,” Annika said, “but I see no reason to follow his lead. Keep it.” Then she smiled, and added, “on condition that you sometimes come and visit me! I know that I feel like I know you, but that was only an illusion. I would very much like to get to know you, for real this time.”
Nancy did not foresee this being a problem. Given all the trouble she had caused, Annika was a surprisingly restful person, and easy to be around.
Jack brought her back to the pomegranate orchard they had left from, under the cool twilight and the distant stars. Nancy drew in the air of her own world and loved it all the more for having left it. This would always be her home.
“I think Jill should come and stay with us sometimes,” she told Jack. “There are things she can learn here. If that suits you,” she added to Jill herself.
“I learned something, I am learning. I am untangling a rope.” Which seemed, at least, like a yes.
“It would be nice,” Jack said, “to come and see you sometimes.” And to Nancy’s complete surprise, she leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. It struck Nancy that their separate incompatibilities with romance, might, in fact, be very compatible.
But she would think on that later. There was only one ending left to see through.
Slowly, patiently, she wandered through the Halls of the Dead, moving without noise, in a cloak of stillness that made every step significant, so that she was never in disharmony with the human statues around her. Rather, her movement amplified their stillness.
At last, in the arboretum, among the cypress trees and poplars, she found the Lord of the Dead.
You have come back, he said gently.
“I always knew I would,” she told him.
What did you learn?
“So much,” Nancy said, suddenly overwhelmed. “I came to understand many things.”
Tell me, he said, what did you learn about stillness?
“I used to think stillness was the opposite of movement,” Nancy said, “but now I see it as the heart of movement. In stillness, one sees the beginnings of events, the flap of a butterfly’s wings that will make hurricanes across the ocean. Like being the fulcrum of a lever.”
Very good. He smiled at her, and touched her forehead where he had before. You have grown more beautiful in wisdom and strength.
Nancy bowed to conceal the tears in her eyes.
“I have much yet to learn.”
Always, The Lord of the Dead said. But someday you will know enough to be Mercuria, my most faithful servant.
Once, it would have seemed folly to suggest to Nancy that she could ever become any such thing. But now it felt right. Someday, she thought. She left her master, and found her way into the rose gardens. Slowly, deliberately, she let herself dissolve into stillness, the stars wheeling above her, and gladly she became a fulcrum of the universe.