"I did not use my power till the last of my soldiers had fallen, and the accursed woman, my sister, at the head of her rebels was halfway up those great stairs that lead up from the city to the terrace. Then I waited till we were so close that we could see one another’s faces. She flashed her horrible, wicked eyes upon me and said ‘Victory.’ ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘Victory, but not yours.’ Then I spoke the Deplorable Word. A moment later I was the only living thing beneath the sun."
– C.S. Lewis, The Magician's Nephew
It was not true that the most powerful magicians on Charn were sorceresses, but so many people believed it that it must be so.
Nethyr, only son of the sorceress Crix and brother to apprentice sorceresses Kasia, Senfur and Julyn, was acutely aware of the irony.
It was said that, in ancient times, magic was the sole province of royalty. Nowadays Charn teemed with magic, as though it leaked from the ever-reddening sun and soaked into the hot, dry ground. It was true, though, that the Royal House kept the most powerful spells for itself. The most potent Words of Power had not been heard outside the palace walls for centuries. If anyone had heard them, of course, she or he would have been killed instantly. Or married off to a lesser lord or lady, if the unfortunate person had found favor with one of the Queens.
There had been Kings, once. No one tried to deny that; it was proclaimed in the very stories of how the Princesses Jadis and Cennis had jointly murdered their father and king. It had been the last trace of cooperation between the sisters. The world had simmered ever since, with lesser houses and magicians and even commoners flocking to align themselves with one Queen or another.
Nethyr, only son of the sorceress Crix and brother to three power-hungry apprentices, had no allegiance of his own. It had been decided for him, for Crix was devoted to Queen Cennis, the younger sister and arguably the more bloodthirsty of the two. Where Jadis was pale and coldly cruel, Cennis resembled more the blood-red sun: golden-skinned, fiery-haired, and quick to flare up at the slightest provocation.
Nethyr, only son and only brother and only a moderately successful magician, was happy to merit little attention from his mother and her (and therefore also his) Queen.
If only he could be so lucky with regard to his sisters.
"Give me your Word," demanded Kasia, her haughty features bronze-powdered to better resemble her Queen.
She was not asking for his promise, of course, but rather for his latest discovery. It was Nethyr's greatest (some would say only) talent: finding Words.
"Mendalarum ixit spenussi," intoned Nethyr. He kept his hands still, his body rigid, his mind deliberately blank.
Kasia's eyes narrowed. "That is not the whole spell," she accused. "What is the rest? What are the motions? And what does it do?"
Trust Kasia to value how over what. "Minor details," replied Nethyr, his voice laced with sarcasm. Kasia did not respond; subtleties like that were either lost on her or she did not care to notice. "It is–"
"Not another fire spell," she said. "How many ways do we need to set things on fire?"
"– not a fire spell," continued Nethyr obediently. "It is a scrying spell."
Kasia's face lit up with the intensity of her sudden greed. "Show me," she demanded. Nethyr already knew what she wanted to see; Kasia's beau was a handsome man with a roving eye, and she was always suspicious when he was not with her.
From the way their youngest sister Julyn looked at the brawny young man, Nethyr thought Kasia would be better served deploying her suspicion closer to home.
"Spread your fingers like this. No, straighten the knuckles as far as you can, so they almost bend backwards. Not everybody can do that, you know." A grim smile appeared on Kasia's face. She would break her own fingers to do this spell, now – just to be one of the few who could.
"Good," said Nethyr approvingly. "Now wave your palm in a slow circle, parallel to the floor, as if you're washing a plate."
She gave him a blank look. They had servants for that.
"As if you're currying your horse," Nethyr amended. Kasia's horse was a high-bred, high-strung creature, and Kasia would allow no one else to touch him. "Yes, just like that. Now picture the scene in your mind's eye. Go ahead and close your eyes if it helps. Picture what you want to see."
"Telmut," she murmured, naming her beau.
"Past, present or future?"
Kasia opened her eyes in shock. "It can do that?"
"That and more, if your magic is strong enough."
She smiled at him, and for a moment it was as if they were children again, guardians of a secret known only to them, co-conspirators against the grander world.
Then her smile faded, and the illusion broke. "What do you want this time?" she asked, her voice haughty. "Coin, a book, a girl...?"
"I want you to do the spell for me."
Her eyebrows arched. "You cannot do it yourself?"
"I cannot see as far as I'd like," Nethyr admitted, his cheeks burning. "You are more powerful. See for me – just once – one thing that I ask."
Julyn would have made him beg, probably on his knees. And Senfur... he shuddered. Nethyr would not have asked her for a bucket of water if the whole world were on fire.
Kasia tilted her head, considering. "A fair bargain," she conceded. "Teach me, and I will See what you wish to know."
Nethyr's smile was genuine. Let her see that his gratitude was real. It would do him no harm. "Mendalarum ixit spenussi," he repeated in a solemn voice. "Wave your hand, repeat it thrice, and picture what you want to see."
"No blood?" Kasia asked in a distracted voice.
"Not this time."
Nethyr took a deep breath. "You must be open to seeing things as they are, not as you want to see them. Be dispassionate."
"A disinterested observer?"
Burning skies, she was quick. "Precisely. Now, tell me what you want to see."
"I want to see Telmut as he is in this moment, wherever that may be."
"And with whomever he may be?" Nethyr guessed.
Kasia tensed and then inclined her head. "With whomever," she said evenly. "It makes no difference to me."
Nethyr grinned appreciatively. Neither of his other sisters would ever be able to set aside their own feelings enough to use the spell properly. Not like Kasia.
"Close your eyes," he whispered. He sprinkled crushed lavender over her hand. "Tell me what you See."
"I see Telmut." Her voice was distant yet confident. Classic Kasia. "He is in a closed room. There are cushions, and drinks, and much smoke. There are other men. No women."
"It does not matter who he is with," said Nethyr sternly. "What else do you see?"
"Telmut and another man are wrestling. They are laughing. They are drunk. They are– oh my." Her eyes flew open and a blush suffused her cheeks. The spell broken, she whirled on Nethyr. "Did you know? About Telmut?" she demanded.
"I suspected," Nethyr answered honestly. It was always better to tell the truth about one matter when attempting to hide another. "It was the way he, ah, spoke to me sometimes."
Kasia's brow furrowed in distress. "He is deceitful," she said, and then her face cleared. "Let Julyn have him."
"I will arrange it so she does not suspect it was you," Nethyr offered.
"And in return?"
"Do not tell anyone else about the spell."
"Agreed." A rueful smile tugged at Kasia's lips. "I did not See what I wanted. Or what I expected. The words you spoke are true Words. I will fulfill our bargain."
"Not now," said Nethyr hurriedly. "Mother will be home soon."
For a moment, Kasia looked almost worried. "You do not wish her to know either? No, of course not. It will be our secret, then."
Nethyr thought better of spitting into his hand and holding it out for her to shake, like when they were young – but only just. A wry gleam in Kasia's eyes told him that, for all their efforts to the contrary, they still thought alike.
It was said that was the way with twins.
"Find me a Word of unspeakable power," said the pale, frigid Queen. Her voice was implacable, her eyes terrible. "Teach me the Deplorable Word."
Nethyr awoke shivering.
He always did after such dreams. His magic was not strong – Kasia had the lion's share – but he felt the knife-pricks of Foreboding.
He had to know what the dreams meant. But he could not risk anyone, even Kasia, learning about the Other Queen's appearance in his dreams or the name of the thing he sought.
The Deplorable Word.
Nethyr shivered again. Whatever it was, he feared his twin sister might just speak it in order to find out. First how, then what. No one on Charn ever asked why.
No one, it seemed, except Nethyr.
When the city-state of Charn first eclipsed the world, under King Charil the Vise, the bloodier-than-usual conflict decimated the magic-wielding population. It splintered again, as anyone could have predicted, up until the reign of King Emberil the Warhammer. As the stories went, he flattened the little warlords that had plagued the world and flew his banner in every former city-state, and thus Charn eclipsed the world for a second, more permanent time. The death rates were of course atrocious, and much knowledge had burned in the fires of war.
Now, the two rival Queens seemed like to plunge the whole world into a third darkness. It was no wonder that Nethyr had ill dreams.
"Wake up, slug." Julyn's cheerfully spiteful voice called through the door. "Mother wants a Word."
Of course she did. It was the principle reason Crix continued to suffer his presence under her roof.
"What kind?" he called back, but no answer was forthcoming. Julyn loved starting trouble like a fire and stepping back to watch it burn.
"Skies," Nethyr muttered.
An ill Foreboding and a summons from Crix. He couldn't imagine a worse way to start the day.
He was wrong.
"Who wants to see me?" Nethyr asked, his voice cracking like it hadn't for years.
"The Queen," his mother repeated impatiently. There was no question about which Queen; Crix's loyalty to Cennis was absolute.
"Why?" Senfur's resentful question preempted Nethyr's own. His middle and cruelest sister was his mother's darling, and was bitterly jealous of her attention.
"She wants a Word, of course." Kasia's careless answer, on the heels of his dream, made Nethyr flinch.
Julyn, who had been watching his face carefully, smiled like a prowl-cat that caught a cliff-flyer. "You had better have a good one," she purred. Her golden curls bounced as she laughed. "Can you imagine teaching the Queen another fire-starting spell? She'd have your head!"
Nethyr scowled. He had long since outgrown his penchant for fire spells, which had merely been the product of too many hours studying the flaming red sky and too little imagination.
"Enough," snapped Crix, and even Senfur subsided. "The Queen will tell you Herself what she requires."
Nethyr focused in his plate, but he had lost all appetite.
Kasia cast him a curious look but said nothing.
"Our audience is at noon," said Crix, calmly using a slice of bread to sop up the leftover blood from her meat. "Wear your finest coat. Do not be late."
Kasia found Nethyr in his room, scowling at his rich brown velvet coat with bronze buttons. Brown hair, brown eyes, brown coat… he had always hated that color.
"Here," she said, pinning something on his lapel. "You need something bright." It was a brilliant orange sun that caught the light in flashes of gold. "It may make Her look on you with favor."
Nethyr shot her a grateful look. "Come with me?" he pled impulsively.
Kasia shook her head. "One does not visit the Queen uninvited." She sounded almost... sorry?
"What can I do, Kasia?" he whispered. "She may want something terrible. I cannot placate her with a firestarting spell."
She smiled briefly. "I would not advise it, no. You will think of something. You always do."
He nearly told her right then, but Crix sent a sparking spell to hurry him along. Nethyr jumped, rubbed his bottom and swore.
Kasia gripped his hand tightly. "Keep your wits about you" she told him, her always-even voice trembling slightly. "Keep your head. And above all, keep your temper – even if she loses hers."
Her parting words were touching, but hardly reassuring.
The Blazing Palace was the crowning glory of Charn. Gold-burnished gates, terracotta walkways glazed with pyrite flakes, and column after column of fluted redstone holding up a gilded ceiling. Nethyr tried not to stare openmouthed like a country seedkin, but the mirrored hallways reflected his expression of stupefaction back at him tenfold.
His mother's lips tightened, and Nethyr hastened to keep pace, half a step behind her as was proper.
Queen Cennis herself received him from the Sun Throne. Rubies glinted in her hair. Her eyes were made of something colder, thought Nethyr. Queen Cennis was objectively a beautiful woman, but hate for her sister – and, by extension, for half the world – twisted her features into a mockery of the benevolent statues that adored the niches along the raised walkway to the dais.
"Nethyr, Son of Crix, fortunate favorite of the Queen," intoned the herald.
Or else, not so fortunate, thought Nethyr to himself, and then abruptly repented of the thought when the Queen smiled. Could she read his mind? Surely not, he decided, or he would be dead already. He made no casting gestures, muttered no incantation, but he bolstered his belief in the idea – no, the knowledge – that his mind was his own.
He met the Queen's gaze squarely.
When she spoke, it was in honeyed tones that did nothing to soften the hard lines of her mouth. "Crix tells me you are a Finder of Words."
"Yes, Your Imperial Majesty," Nethyr replied. Now, more than ever, Nethyr's talent could give him power beyond his sisters' wildest dreams.
It could also get him killed.
Nethyr did not have a secret book of knowledge or convenient visions revealing the spells of the ancients to his eyes. It was all a lie: Nethyr did not find, unearth or rediscover anything. He made it all up. Every new spell, every gesture and every Word of Power -- they were all his own inventions. And every time someone used his Words, his own power increased just a little. That was the power of belief: if someone truly trusted in the power of Nethyr's Words, then they would work.
It was his greatest secret.
If uncovered, it would surely lead to his summary execution. Even worse, if it was discovered that anyone could make a spell work – any spell – by simply believing in it, well... There was a reason why dreams of the Deplorable Word haunted him so.
With enough belief, even irrational belief, either Queen could turn the world to dust by simply uttering the first word that came to mind. Any word at all. Their strength of belief and magical power would do the rest. Charn was steeped in the magic of a dying sun, brimming over with untapped magic that was just waiting to do someone's bidding.
Nethyr was careful, oh so careful, with what he used, never channeling more that he could reasonably conjure on his own.
He'd wager that neither Queen had his restraint.
Queen Cennis smiled down at him benevolently. With his mother at his back, Nethyr felt like rat cornered by two prowl-cats. "Nethyr, son of Crix," said the Queen, "you will find me a Word."
Nethyr bowed, waiting for her to elaborate. He tried to keep his face impassive, like Kasia's, but inside he was trembling. His dream had been about the Other Queen. Surely Cennis would not ask him… this could not be the same as his dream. It couldn't.
"I want a Word to ensure victory, at any cost."
Nethyr held his breath.
"You will bring me the Deplorable Word." Queen Cennis's decree rang in the throne room like bells, and in Nethyr's mind like a death knell.
Helpless, he found himself uttering, "Yes, Your Majesty."
There was only one person in the world he could trust now. Was it really trust, Nethyr wondered, if he had no other choice?
"I cannot give her what she wants," Nethyr told his sister. "I will not."
"Are you mad?" Kasia's voice was light, even conversational, but the skin around her eyes tightened. "That is treason, brother."
"I'm not mad. But she is. I'll wager they both are."
Kasia hissed a spell through clenched teeth; it was one of Nethyr's earliest, a privacy spell he had developed in natural response to being the only son in a family of sorceresses. He had taught it to Kasia when they were still young enough to be close, and it gave him an odd feeling of warmth to see her using it now.
"Of course they are," she declared once she'd finished. "They all are."
Nethyr gaped at her, and Kasia responded with a tight-lipped smile.
"Did you think me as vain and arrogant as the rest of them?" she asked, her mouth twisting wryly. "Don't answer that. It's like living in a pack of rabid prowl-cats, isn't it?"
Nethyr shook his head slowly. "I don't understand."
Kasia lounged on his bed. "Haven't you ever wondered why they don't approve of you, even as they use you?"
He tried to shrug carelessly, as if why had never mattered to him. "Because I'm male, I suppose."
Kasia scoffed. "Hardly. It's because you hold yourself apart, as if you're above it all. You're not one of them, and they distrust you because of it. You're the rockwolf in the prowl-cat pride. They will never trust you now, no matter how useful you are to them."
"To you, you mean," said Nethyr bitterly.
"I? I play the game, Nethyr. It never even occurred to you to try, did it? You are a fool." But her tone was soft, pitying. "And now they have you in their net. What did she want? A Word of Power, I assume."
"The Word. The Word of victory, the Word to defeat all other Words. The Deplorable Word."
Kasia's face paled beneath her bronze powder.
"You know of it?" he asked.
"I have heard rumors," she whispered. "Only those of most noble blood are supposed to know its name. But there are always rumors." Her voice trembled. "Surely she cannot expect you to find it?"
Nethyr swallowed. "Finding it is not exactly the problem."
"Tell me." The tone of command had always come easy to Kasia, and Nethyr yielded to her partly out of habit, but also with relief.
It had been a long time since he could share his secrets.
First, though, he layered his own privacy spells on top of his twin's. No one could break through their combined magic without alerting them. He was certain of it, which made it true. Then Nethyr took a deep breath. "I don't find Words," he said. "I create them." He despaired at his tone of pride. Hadn't he learned yet where his ambition would lead?
Kasia took no notice of either his tone or his subsequent flinch. She was focused on only one thing. "How?"
It had been Kasia's first word, he remembered (Nethyr's had been "sun"; everyone else had heard as "son" and dismissed it as a sign of egocentrism, which would be only natural for any offspring of Crix).
"How can you simply invent a Word of Power?" Kasia demanded. Nethyr supposed it was better than calling him a liar.
"I picture what I want to happen, and I believe I can make it happen."
Kasia waited in mounting disbelief for him to finish. "That's all?" she finally blurted. "But the spell ingredients, the gestures, the burning Words...!"
Nethyr shrugged. "As best as I can tell, it's all decoration or distraction."
Kasia's mouth worked soundlessly.
"Except the words," added Nethyr. "They're more like mnemonic devices."
"You're enjoying this," she accused.
Nethyr almost smiled. "A little," he admitted.
"A memory aid? Mendalarum ixit spenussi?"
He flushed. "I get bored," he said defensively.
Kasia shook her head slowly. "No, brother. There is more. Tell me."
The test of trust hung between them like a pendulum, and Nethyr did not know which way the weight might swing. Would Kasia once more become the confidant he had thought lost? Would she betray him to the others, or steal the power he'd won for herself?
Would she become another all-consuming queen?
"My belief in the spell makes others believe," Nethyr whispered. "Their belief in the power of the words – just meaningless words – makes them Words of Power. And every time one of my Words is spoken..."
"Your power grows," finished Kasia. The awe in her voice was disconcerting. "They would kill you for this knowledge," she breathed. "They would kill us all."
"They might yet," said Nethyr. And he told her of his dream, and the Other Queen, pale and terrible as the light before the dawn. "It was a Foreboding, but I cannot see any farther."
Kasia looked at him oddly. "For such a bright boy, you always were dense."
Nethyr scowled. "I don't suppose you have any flaming ideas–"
"I do," she retorted, cutting him off. "Mendalarum ixit spenussi," she recited, smiling triumphantly as Nethyr's jaw dropped.
He'd always hated it when she got to the answer first.
They waited to perform the spell until sunset, the magical hour when the last vermillion rays stretched into the room like a tether to the sun. They spoke the words in unison, and the vision stretched itself around them.
Dust. Cracked, dry earth. Crumbled archways. Empty streets. No noise, no movement, no breath.
A dead world.
A green-and-blue mottled, marbled world, torn apart from the crust to the mantle and the planet's glowing heart.
A red world, so much like Charn but so very young – dust.
A giant planet, a ringed planet, and on and on went the procession. A hundred, a thousand other worlds – obliterated.
A world so young the bright green grass hurt his eyes – withering, shriveling, falling to dust even as the stars themselves seemed to cry out with pain…
When Nethyr came back to himself, he was weeping. Kasia clung to him, muffling her sobs on his shoulder.
"So many worlds," Nethyr said helplessly. "The skies are so empty. How were we to know? So many worlds... all gone..."
Kasia pulled away. Tears still streamed down her face but her eyes were blazing. "We must stop them," she said fiercely.
"Which one?" Nethyr felt a hysterical laugh bubbling up in his throat.
"Both of them! All of them! The Deplorable Word must never leave Charn."
The terrible words fell between them, imbued with their own power.
Nethyr knew better, of course. Words only had what Power was given to them. Still, he shuddered. What fate had they set in motion?
"There must be a way," said Kasia.
Nethyr looked at his sister in disbelief. "To what, save the world? Now who's mad?"
Kasia rounded on him with a flash of her old malice. "This is all your fault, charbrain. I'd think you would be grateful for my help." Her face crumpled. "That's not true. I don't know why I… Nethyr, brother. It isn't your fault."
"Then whose is it?" he asked quietly, not expecting an answer.
"Cennis," she answered promptly. "And Jadis. And their father before them, and back through the ages… have you ever seen the Hall of Images? In the Blazing Palace?"
"We didn't exactly stop for the tour."
Kasia gave him a severe look. "All our monarchs down through history are represented there," she said, her voice turning pensive. "I wonder if you could see where it all went wrong?"
"It hardly matters now," said Nethyr impatiently. "How do we keep the current ones from destroying the world? And… everything?"
"We trick them into destroying each other," said Kasia. " You have the Queen's ear now. Invent an alternative to the Deplorable Word, one that will destroy only her worst enemy. All you have to do is make Cennis believe you."
"And what about Jadis?"
Kasia swallowed. "I will go to her, and offer my services as a traitor."
The subsequent argument took the better part of the night. Kasia wore him down with her unique combination of logic and ruthlessness. When the new day dawned, Nethyr put himself to work looking busy, mysterious and vaguely panicked – just as anyone would be if asked to procure an impossible spell lost to the march of time.
It was not at all hard to pretend.
They fell into a wearying routine, Neythr absorbed in his fake research and false reports for Queen Cennis, and Kasia stretching herself thin between duties for Crix and her conspiracy with Jadis. Nethyr never asked her about the Other Queen. He felt himself a coward, merely playing a role while his sister risked discovery and her very life every day.
Moments of privacy were few and far between, although Kasia's schedule became slightly less manic when Telmut abandoned her in favor of golden-haired Julyn. "Good riddance," muttered Kasia.
Nethyr marveled at the change in her. Or maybe it was simply the change in his own perception, which troubled him. If he could be that wrong about his own twin, what other assumptions hadn't he challenged?
What had he failed to take into account?
When he asked Kasia, she scoffed at him. "We have enough problems as it is," she said severely. "Don't go inventing more. If you must have something to worry about, brother, worry about what will happen should we fail."
"It's only the end of the world," he tried to joke, but the words stuck in his throat like ash. Did she really believe he hadn't thought about it? If Nethyr's false Words failed to pacify Cennis… if Jadis believed she'd discovered the Deplorable Word on her own… if they could not convince their respective Queens that victory could be had without annihilating the world, then all was lost.
"Maybe that's not such a bad thing," murmured Kasia.
Her eyes were dark and troubled. "What kind of a world is this, brother? Even if we stop them, what is to stop the next monarch from setting Charn ablaze – or worse? All those other worlds… they would be safer if ours did not exist."
"Are you suggesting we do nothing?" Nethyr's mouth was dry. His heart hammered in his chest.
"No. But… if we cannot save Charn, maybe we can ensure that only Charn is destroyed."
Nethyr stared at his sister. Had he ever truly known her at all? "We'd be as good as murderers," he said thickly.
Kasia closed her eyes. "And if we do nothing, we are even worse."
After that conversation, Nethyr's dreams changed. Jadis was no longer the monster he feared most.
In the end, the decision was taken from their hands. Kasia flew through the door, her face almost as pale as Jadis herself. "Have you not heard?" she gasped. "Cennis is marching on the Marble Vale. What Word have you given her, brother?"
Nethyr gaped at her. "None. She has rejected all I've offered thus far. A spell to strike down an opponent's forces on the march, a spell to make the ground open and swallow one's enemy – none of them were Deplorable enough," he babbled. "I've put her off as long as I can–"
"It's too late," Kasia cut him off. "The last battle has begun."
History – if anyone would be around to tell it, thought Nethyr bleakly – would record the great battle as glorious, for Charn deeply valued such things. For Nethyr, who had been summoned along with all his sisters to stand at Crix's side, it was horrible. Miserably, he fed his sisters spells to cut down swaths of the opposing army. More than once, Crix criticized Kasia's aim as she failed to drop a boulder on an officer, or sent a fire raging through an empty building rather than destroy a field hospital.
After three days of battle, the army felled the last of Jadis' soldiers. Somewhere during the march to the Marble Vale, Kasia disappeared. Crix spared only a single comment to Nethyr. "You'll have to take her place, I suppose," she said coolly, and walked away.
Nethyr wanted to be furious with his sister for going to Jadis without consulting him first. Instead, all Nethyr felt was a growing emptiness in his chest at the thought that they might not see each other again before it was all over.
Before the end of the world.
"I am here, Your True Majesty." Kasia bowed low before Jadis, who stood tall and terrible, looking out over the city and the carnage.
The Queen's eyes flashed. "How fares my sister's army?" she asked in a deceptively mild voice.
"They approach," answered Kasia. "My Queen, there is something you must know. Cennis has been seeking something, and my brother–"
"Has not found the Deplorable Word," Jadis declared. "I have."
Kasia's blood ran cold in her veins. She was too late. Whatever Word Jadis had found, she already believed in its Power.
Nethyr, I'm sorry.
"Then you have the power to destroy all of Charn, My Queen. You will surely live to conquer other worlds in time."
Hunger sparked in Jadis' eyes. "Other worlds?"
"I have Seen it," said Kasia. It was the truth. "They will not be affected by your magic now, but will remain ripe for plucking at the time of your choosing."
"So they shall." Jadis strode away, and Kasia fell to her knees in the Queen's wake.
She had just condemned the world. And she didn't even know if she had managed to save anyone at all.
For the first time, Nethyr looked upon the Marble Vale. He wondered if Kasia was still inside. If she still lived. With the rest of the army, he watched Cennis in her golden armor as she marched up the stairs. Jadis stood motionless on the terrace, waiting.
Nethyr gradually became aware of a buzz, like the hum of magic but louder and more discordant. It was not coming from the palace, but from the people.
"What are they saying?" he found himself asking his mother.
Crix answered him without looking, her eyes fixed on the bright form of her Queen. "Baseless rumors," she said dismissively. "About the Deplorable Word which you failed to find."
Nethyr felt the buzzing in his bones. "They are afraid," he said to himself slowly. He knew it was important somehow, but the voices were growing louder and he couldn't think. He felt panic rising in his own throat. "It isn't real!" he shouted suddenly. "It doesn't exist! She doesn't have it!"
The crowd pressed around them. Crix cried out as she fell; Nethyr ignored her, struggling forward. He was screaming now. "It isn't real!"
It was too late. The terrified people already believed in the power of the Deplorable Word. Nothing he could say would stop it now. And Nethyr knew, better than anyone, the true Power of unreasoning, unconscious belief.
Distantly, he heard Cennis' triumphant voice over the din. "Victory!" she cried.
He could not hear Jadis' reply, but he felt the searing heat on his skin as the imbued magic of Charn flared in response to her Words – and to the almost tangible fear of the seething mass of people seeking futile escape from the spell.
Nethyr turned his eyes to the sun, hoping it would not go dark, that the magic would consume itself on Charn alone. In that last moment, the sun blinded him, and he had just enough time to feel the first stirrings of relief.
"Couldn't something have been done?" asked Polly in a small voice. "To save Charn?"
Aslan sighed, and a gentle breeze rolled across the still-greening fields of the new world of Narnia. "The people of Charn chose their own fate," he answered after a long moment. "But do not worry, Daughter of Eve, for there are many ways to be saved, because there are many things to be saved from."
"Do you suppose Jadis could do it again?" asked Digory. "Destroy a world, I mean."
"Aslan won't let her," retorted Polly with a toss of her hair, before the Lion could answer.
At the sound of her voice, sure and certain, a bit of dust fell from Polly's shoes, and the last magic of Charn died unnoticed – as if it had never been.