She saw the avatria collapsing over her. She wondered in that moment if perhaps it were best for the entire structure to fall upon her, crushing her into oblivion and ending her pain.
It was just as these thoughts were coming together in her that Drakis had appeared before her.
“Come with me . . . I'll take you somewhere safe.”
She had recoiled from his touch . . . longed for his touch. He was leaving the House. He was taking her with him.
she had said and had begun to laugh hysterically.
Laugh because it was so terribly funny! Here he was, the great hero of House Timuran and the man that she loved dragging her to safety as though she were some distressed elven princess and she knewâ
âthat she would betray him to his captors. Who wouldn't laugh, she thought, that the one person in the entire household who was willingâno, not just willing but compelledâto rob him of the very memories and life he had just won was the same woman that he loved and was trying to free. She'd been trained since she was fourteen years of age to do anything and everything that would ensure his captureâand for him to lose those same memories and that same life he had just won. Take everything from him he ever wanted in his lifeâincluding her.
Wasn't that funny, she thought, shaking in the corner as the dim pulse of distant lightning flickered into the room.
The journey to peace and a purpose,
Is never trodden alone
When the heavens wake
And your body breaks . . .
She blinked in the darkness, uncertain she had heard her name.
came the urgent whisper in her ear.
She jumped at the sound, the closeness of the breathed whisper shifting the hairs at the back of her neck. She flinched, turning at once.
The Lyric grinned back at her, her gaunt face filled with contrast from the cold light of the lightning outside.
“Come on!” The Lyric grinned. “She's waiting.”
“Who?” Mala whispered.
The Lyric was already moving to the back of the shop, picking her way carefully among their sleeping companions.
“Hurry!” she whispered.
Mala stood carefully in the uncertain flashes coming through the doorway. She could see the Lyric standing against the back wall of the shop, her hands set against the stone. The darkness engulfed them for a moment, robbing her of her sight until the next flash.
There was a doorway in the wall where before there had been none.
And the Lyric was stepping through the opening.
“No!” Mala said, restraining her voice, fearful of waking the others. “Come back!”
But the Lyric only grinned back at her and beckoned her on as she stepped through the portal, whispering as she left.
“Come with me,” she said so quietly that Mala was not sure of the words beneath the rolling thunder. “I'll take you somewhere safe.”
In the next flash of light, the Lyric was gone.
Mala stepped quickly between the sleeping bodies, desperate not to disturb them. She made her way to the doorway that had appeared in the previously solid wall at the back of the shop and stuck her head through the opening.
Circular plates in the ceiling of a long hall glowed dimly overhead, pulsing slightly with each flash of lightning outside. They did not fade so quickly nor was their light so suddenly bright, as though they held the light for a time in their grasp before releasing it. They lit the way down its length, plunging directly back into the mountain. Arched portals lined the hall, ink black and forbidding. Yet the Lyric skipped past them, her strange giggle echoing back down the hall.
Come past the dead in the dying light . . .
Come to the bliss of the night.
Mala took a tentative step into the hall.
Face now the truth
And the death of your youth . . .
Mala rushed down the hallway, the pulsing glow from the distant lightning lighting her way.
“Stop, Lyric!” she called out, but her voice was swallowed up in the continuous crash of thunder outside.
She rushed after the other woman, desperate to catch her and bring her back to the safety of their group. In front of her, the Lyric laughed at the game, and kept ahead of her with frustrating ease. Quite suddenly, Mala realized that the woman had led her into a complex warren of subterranean roomsâsome lit by the same ceiling panel arrangement as those she had just passedâand that the Lyric was taking her deeper into the ruins beneath the mountain. The hall turned, opening into a room where one wall had completely fallen, a raging stream of water rushing out from behind it and coursing down across the dim mosaic that covered the floor. The Lyric was still ahead of her, running now, splashing the water up behind her. Mala quickened her own pace, following the madwoman through a succession of several rooms. Brilliant light suddenly surrounded her, followed in an instant by an explosion of sound. Mala screamed, cowering by instinct from the overwhelming noise and glancing upward in fear. The fading light showed a circular shaft that ran up through the mountain, vines reaching down toward her from the opening several hundred feet overhead. The walls were lined with stone balconies and black doorways, each looking down on her. Rain fell straight down the shaft, soaking her hair and clothing before she recovered and rushed into the opposite opening where the sound of the Lyric's laughter echoed its taunt in her direction. The water in this room pooled above her ankles as she ran toward the arched hall on the other side. No lights penetrated this darkness, but the laughter led her on, Mala's fingers running against the smooth mosaic tiles of the curving hall. She stumbled on something that clattered at her feet but kept on, believing that the voice of the Lyric was closer now. She could see something now as she continued: the end to the curving tunnel and a grateful return to the light.
She stepped into a great circular plaza. A curving staircase descended from an upper level. This plaza, too, was open to the sky above where the great overhead dome had cracked and part of it had fallen, its stones having crashed into and ruined the finish of the polished stones that formed the floor. This open fissure extended across the ceiling of the plaza where one wall had collapsed into the courtyard, revealing an enormous room more than thirty feet wide and a hundred feet deep. Its arched ceiling rose up nearly a hundred feet to where it was split by the end of the overhead fissure to one side, cascading water down one wall and illuminating a gigantic statue at the far end. Water also tumbled down the staircase and flowed across the floor, washing away the dust and revealing the ancient shine under the pulsing flashes penetrating from overhead.
The Lyric stood before the statue, gazing up at it as she swayed back and forth.
Soaked to the skin, Mala carefully climbed over the rubble of the fallen wall and entered the enormous arched hall. There were stone benches set in rows here, all facing the statue which lay in shadow at the curved back of the room. The lightning had subsided for the moment and Mala found it difficult to see.
“Lyric?” she called. “Come back with me. It isn't safe here.”
The figure standing before the statue lifted up her arms slowly but did not turn around.
“Please, Lyric . . . or whoever you are,” Mala called, her voice quivering and uncertain. She remembered that who the Lyric thought she was could change at any moment and without notice. If she was to respond at all, Mala remembered, it was occasionally prudent to ask the strange woman who she was and then hope to navigate the conversation based on whatever story she was reenacting that day. Mala decided on a different approach. “I mean . . . excuse me, can you help me?”
The Lyric turned, barely discernible in the darkness. “Yes, Mala,” she said in a deep, warm voice. “I can help you.”
Lightning flared above the fissure.
The statue towered over them, brilliant in the flash. It was a woman carved from marble, but her face was staring directly at Mala. It was a face more beautiful than she had ever seen, the form of her body so exquisitely perfect that it filled Mala with wonder just to look upon it. Her arms were outstretched toward Mala. There was pleading in her eyes.
The vision faded with the light.
Mala had to remind herself to breathe again. She had to force herself to look away from where the statue stood and back toward the Lyric. “I want . . . excuse me, but if you want to help me, you need to come with me back . . .”
The Lyric was silhouetted against the dim flashes of distant lightning. She shook her head and spoke, though, through some trick of the hall, Mala thought, the voice seemed to be coming from everywhere at once.
“No, Mala, there is no going back.”
“But they are waiting for us,” Mala insisted, reaching out for the Lyric. “It isn't safe here. Those creaturesâthe huntersâfrom the forest could be anywhere in these . . .”
“The drakonet will not bother us here,” the voice replied. It seemed to be coming from the Lyric, but Mala could not be certain. The Lyric was moving her lips yet the sound seemed to come from everywhere at once. “They know that this place is mine and that I do not approve of them wandering my halls.”
“As you say,” Mala responded carefully. She was uncertain of her own sanity and quite certain that the Lyric had none. “Then we should get back to the others. They will be looking for us . . .”
The lightning flashed again.
The statue struck Mala as appearing differently than she had first supposed. The face of the beautiful woman now seemed stern and resolute, looking not at Mala as she had first supposed but into the distance. Her hands were still outstretched but now appeared not to be inviting but defiant and expectant of a struggle.
The flash faded and the statue fell into night's shadow once more.
“Yes,” came the deep and sad reply, “They are gathering and they look for your return. Warriors and hunters rise up against them. The might of many against the will of the few, and who shall save them? In whom will they trust when trust is forgotten and betrayal at hand?”
Mala took a step back from the Lyric and stumbled, nearly falling over a stone bench. The Lyric stepped toward her, grasping her by the shoulders.
“You think you are lost,” the deep voice echoed through the hall. All Mala could see was the silhouette of the Lyric against the dim pulsing illumination of the great statue beyond her. “You think that everyone hates you because you hate yourself more than any of them. Who will love you when you are so undeserving of love? Who will gather you home, Mala Timuran? When the truth is known and the fallen citadels rise again . . . who will bring you home?
The Lyric gripped Mala's shoulders with incredible strength. “I know your heart, Mala Timuran. You are lost and do not know your own way.”
Mala shivered. “I just want to go home.”
“Home? What do you know of home?” the voice gently mocked her. “Home to you is a forgetful nothing, a blind eye and a deaf ear. Home is a dream from which you never awaken while sleeping in a bed of devouring roaches. You know nothing of home.”
A quick flash illuminated disdain on the statue's face.
“But there is a place within you that remembers what home truly is,” the low voice echoed through the hall. “Find yourself . . . and I will bring you hope. Find that memory . . . I will bring you home.”
Mala shook uncontrollably. “By the gods!” she stammered.
The lightning flashed again near the top of the mesa high above them, the crack of thunder following almost at once. The brilliant light bathed the statue once more.
The carved face smiled back at Mala with a horrifying grin. The face was now deformed, with an elongated snout and sharp teeth. Rusting iron bands had been bound across the statue's chest, fixing torn, leathery wings to its back.
In the sudden darkness that followed, all Mala heard was the voice surrounding her.
“Yes . . . by the gods . . .”
RAKIS PEERED DOWN the dark curving hall, griping his sword nervously in his right hand. The splash of his footsteps echoed loudly around him no matter how carefully he stepped. He heard rather than saw Urulani behind him, her footfalls overlapping his.
Drakis called out in a hoarse whisper as loud as he dared. “Mala!”
“We should be going back, Drakis,” Urulani said quietly.
“You said she came this way!” Drakis snarled back at the warrior woman behind him.
“There were marks leading into this hall and they must have been in a hurry, judging by the scrapes,” she replied. “The Lyric's tracks are more pronouncedâalmost as though she wanted to be foundâbut the rain and the water have washed much of their passage away.”
“But you can still track them,” Drakis urged. “What is the problem?”
“We are getting deep in the mountain,” Urulani said, an unusual nervous edge in her voice. Were her teeth chattering? Drakis wondered. “Whatever was tracking us in the jungle may have come in here as well. We should get the others if we are going to go farther in.”
“How long?” Drakis said, stopping in the dark, curving hallway but reluctant to go back.
“How long until what?” Urulani asked.
“How long since they came this way?” Drakis' voice echoed hollowly in front of him. The water around his boots was settling into an undulating sheen from the scant light coming from one of the oddly glowing panels in the ceiling behind him. Ethis had noted earlier that the panels dimmed and flickered occasionally as though they were set in the shadow of trees blown by the wind or clouds passing between them and the sun in a clear sky. That they were originally intended to bring light to the depths of the ancient human ruins seemed a reasonable conclusion, but how such a mechanism could survive down the centuries to continue its work was a mystery to them all.