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TORMENTS OF THE TRAITOR/THE FATE OF THE FALLEN

Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2006.

Chapter 1

Torments of the Traitor

After checking that the loop-listener out in the corridor was facing the other way, Nish gouged another line into the damp wall of his cell. ‘Three thousand, nine hundred and fifty-nine days.’ Tomorrow would make it ten years, and his sentence in Santhenar’s grimmest dungeon would be over. Tomorrow meant the beginning of a worse nightmare.

Ten years in prison leaves scars on the toughest of men, but Mazurhize wasn’t just any prison. It had been designed to break the most treacherous and irredeemable criminals of all: those who dared to oppose the Almighty, the Most Exalted One, the God-Emperor himself – Jal-Nish Hlar.

Nor was Nish just any prisoner, for Jal-Nish, his father, had sentenced Nish to Mazurhize as the first act of his vicious and tyrannical reign. Nish’s only way out, once his time was up, was to swear absolute obedience – to become his father’s lieutenant and enforce his every cruel whim on a world exhausted from a hundred and fifty years of war then shattered, at the moment of an unexpected victory, by the loss of the Secret Art.

With callused fingers Nish crushed out his glowing rushlight before the snoop-sniffer down the corridor detected it, and lay back on the reeking straw to run through his feeble plan again. The mould got up his nose but he suppressed a sneeze. Down here, sudden noises provoked violent retaliation.

Tomorrow was his doomsday and he wasn’t sure he would pass the test. Be strong, Nish told himself. Father will taunt and belittle you, as he’s done all your life. You’ve got to stand up to him.

If only it were that easy. During the war Nish had overcome terrors few people had ever faced. He’d been a leader of men in several hopeless struggles, yet through sheer determination had triumphed. He’d stood up to the most powerful people in the land, for what he believed in. But those successes were long ago and the loss of everything he’d fought for, and everyone he’d cared about, had brought him low.

The stifling tedium and mindless brutality of prison had completed his fall and, though Nish had spent years strengthening his will and building up his courage for tomorrow, he feared it wouldn’t be enough. He’d also need all the luck in the world, though luck had been running against him for a long time now.

His plan was simple. If he could keep his cool under the most extreme provocation, he might get a chance to snatch the two sorcerous quicksilver tears which were the mainstay of Jal-Nish’s power. But he’d have to remain focussed. Jal-Nish had never been a great mancer, but with the power of the tears he didn’t need to be, while Nish had only the smallest talent for the Secret Art.

And what he did possess – a certainly clarity of sight, an ability to see through surface deceptions to what lay at the heart – had slowly developed from the alchymical compulsion his father had cast on him when he’d thrust his son’s hands into the tears long ago, in a previous attempt to bend Nish to his will.

Nish had spent years honing his tiny gift, using everything he’d picked up about the Art from the great mancers he’d known, and he thought he’d found a way to use the tears against his father. Evil men never believed themselves to be evil; they invariably thought that they were doing the world a service. If Nish could forge his clearsight into a weapon and reflect it into Jal-Nish’s innermost soul, surely even he must see what a monster he’d become. There had to be some good left in his father, surely.

If it worked, the realisation might paralyse Jal-Nish long enough for Nish to snatch the tears, if he had the strength. Starvation, beatings and solitary confinement had left him a shadow of the man he’d once been. And though his rage burned as strong as ever, Nish was terrified that he’d break, as he’d broken in the past.

The self-doubt was crippling, the consequences of his probable failure unbearable. Jal-Nish would send him back to this stinking cell for another decade and Nish didn’t think his sanity could survive it. His iron-hard determination began to waver. Nothing could change the past, so why not agree to his father’s demands? Why not become his lieutenant and eventual heir to all Jal-Nish had created? Nish ached for what his father had offered, yet he couldn’t bear the thought of giving in to the monster, of becoming like Jal-Nish in any way.

His eyes adjusted to the dark. His cell was a cube four paces by four and four high, the walls solid granite blocks, the roof a single slab of slate with water seeping from dozens of brown-stained cracks. Without thinking, he positioned himself to avoid the drips, for this was the lowest level in an inverted pyramid of dungeons and the seepage was stained by piss and blood from the cells above.

An emaciated rat warily poked its head up at the other end of his straw. Normally Nish would have slain it with a lump of rock and eaten it raw to keep the hunger pangs at bay for another day, but hunger would help strengthen his nerve for the morrow. Besides, he felt a kinship with the rat, which was as skinny as he was. It would find nothing to eat in Mazurhize unless it got to a dead prisoner before the guards discovered him.

He tried to banish the self-doubt. Be strong. Stay focussed and keep to the plan. You’ll only get one chance. Don’t waste it. You’re his son and that counts for something, even with Father. The future of Santhenar depends on you.

But his own frailties undermined him every time.

*

‘Judgement day,’ wheezed the asthmatic guard, turning a huge brass key in the lock. ‘Get up!’

Nish, startled awake, rolled over in the damp straw and swore under his breath. He’d planned to rise early to prepare himself but the scarlet-clad Imperial Guard were already standing in two rows of three outside his door.

He stood up, too suddenly, for his head spun and he had to bend over, pretending to brush straw off his rags, until it steadied. Nish cursed his frail flesh. Today he must put on the act of his life. Jal-Nish despised weakness in any form, but most especially in his youngest son.

At the door Nish looked left towards the base of the stairs where the prison’s most effective sentry stood, a master wisp-watcher. From its broad stone bowl, threads and tendrils wisped up to form the iris of a rotating, all-seeing eye that never slept, never blinked, could see even in this dim light, and reported all it surveyed to the tears. As Nish passed beneath its lifeless gaze, feeling like a man with a target painted on his back, he heard a faint, eerie buzz. It was sending, telling the tears that he was on his way.

He shivered as the snoop-sniffer drifted above him, along the ceiling, trailing its glistening brown sensing cords like a decaying jellyfish. It had been created specifically for the ninth and lowest level of Mazurhize, and its movements were constrained so it could never leave it.

Only this snoop-sniffer, inured by constant exposure to the unbearably putrescent reek, could pick out other faint aromas that might be evidence of treachery. And Jal-Nish, despite holding all the power in the world, was always on the lookout for treachery. It was the thing he feared most, apart from public ridicule. And death.

The snoop-sniffer’s cords boiled out towards Nish, recognised the smell of the Imperial Guard, then plopped down again. Nish looked right towards his father’s other sleepless spy. Dangling from the dripping ceiling, an ethereal bile-green cord ended in a noose-like loop the diameter of a human neck, twisting back and forth in the draught like a corpse dangling from a gibbet – a loop-listener. Within the loop, light reflected off thousands of drifting black specks which danced to the faintest sound, as sensitive as the ears of a bat.

They climbed stair after stair and tramped corridor after corridor until his knees were wobbling. There was no need for it – Jal-Nish could have fetched Nish to his palace through the sheer power of his Art, but that would be too easy and wouldn’t give the right impression. It wouldn’t display Nish to the staring world. Nor would it prove Jal-Nish’s power and majesty, and he never missed an opportunity for that.

Finally they reached the surface, emerging from a stone stair onto a vast and featureless expanse of paving with gigantic, tower-mounted wisp-watchers at its four corners. Mazurhize Prison lay entirely underground, to heighten the contrast with Jal-Nish’s Palace of Morrelune, half a league away across the paved plain and framed by the rearing mountains immediately behind it.

Morrelune had the form of a pyramid, though an airy, delicate one. Nish had never known his father to display good taste or an appreciation of beauty, but Morrelune was stunningly beautiful. It too consisted of nine levels, tapering upwards. Each had the form of an open temple supported on many columns arranged in interlinked circles. There were no walls in Morrelune, not even in the topmost level, roofed over with a spire that pierced the heavens, where Jal-Nish held court. The God-Emperor, at the height of his power, kept even the weather at bay there.

The bright sunlight made Nish’s eyes water and, as they tramped across the warm paving stones, he began to feel faint. It was a mild day in late autumn but there had been no seasons in his cell at the nadir of Mazurhize, just an eternal dank and foetid chill, and the sun felt as if it were frying his brains. His knee trembled but Nish willed it to hold out, for there was still a long way to go. Ten years you’ve prepared for this day. Keep to the plan! Endure!

The stairs of Morrelune proved a greater challenge, for they were not just steep, but the risers were twice the height of normal steps and even his tall guards strained to climb them. For Nish, a small man, every step proved a mini-battle against his father. Surely the design was deliberate; Jal-Nish didn’t need to use the stairs.

Though his muscles were screaming, Nish did his best to maintain a confident, careless air until the final flight, but halfway up it his legs gave out and he collapsed, gasping. The guards sneered, then hastily checked over their shoulders. Nish was the son of the God-Emperor, after all.

Fight on! Damn them one and all. He scrambled up the final steps on hands and knees, all dignity lost. The guards thrust him forwards and turned back smartly. His father must intend this to be a private confrontation.

The topmost level was entirely open, its golden stone glowing like sun-warmed honey, though parts were concealed by the intersecting circles of columns. The polished floor shone, the columns were waxy smooth, and there were one or two rugs on the floor, but little furniture and no artworks save for a single plain tapestry suspended from the ceiling. Jal-Nish did not require ostentation in his personal quarters. There were no wisp-watchers here either. This close to the tears, none were needed.

Two-thirds of the way across, at a circular table carved from green stone, sat his father. Nish caught his breath. Jal-Nish was writing and did not look up. Nish hesitated, his throat dry, then forced himself to go on.

Jal-Nish had once been a stocky, almost plump man, bursting with life and vigour and a charm Nish had envied, but all that had been sacrificed to a seething bitterness at his mutilation, a burning thirst for vengeance and a ruthless determination to prove himself by clawing his way to the top, no matter what it took.

Nish often asked himself how his father’s corruption had come about. How had the troubled child, then the stern and unyielding father, become the irredeemable monster that Jal-Nish now was? What had been the fateful choice from which there had been no going back? How and why had Jal-Nish crossed that gulf? And how close was he, Nish, to the same abyss?

Jal-Nish looked up. His figure was now hard and spare. His curly hair was as thick as it had ever been, though the rich brown had faded to a peppery grey. He still wore the platinum mask he’d made long ago to cover the ruin a lyrinx’s claws had made of half his face, but he had two arms now. The amputated right arm had been replaced – flesh-formed with the power of the tears, Nish assumed.

That bitter day on the ice plateau was burned into his memory. Jal-Nish had begged to be allowed to die but Nish could not bear to lose him. He’d pleaded with Irisis to do whatever was necessary to save his father. She’d cut off his arm at the shoulder and sewed his face back together, and from that moment Jal-Nish had been determined to destroy her.

If he could replace an arm, why hadn’t he been able to repair his face? Nish stopped a few spans away from the table and attempted a tentative probe with his feeble clearsight, but discovered nothing.

His father laid down his pen, raised his new right hand, a trifle mechanically and, to Nish’s left, the air formed a curving mirror a couple of spans high and wide. ‘Look at yourself, my son.’

Nish resisted as long as he could, but he hadn’t seen his own reflection in ten years, so he looked. He was filthy, for there was no water for washing in Mazurhize. The caked grime could have been scraped off him with a knife, while his matted hair hung down past his backside. There were streaks of grey in it, but even worse, it appeared to be thinning at the front, though he wasn’t yet thirty-three. He was as thin as string, his back was bent and there was a defeated look in his brown eyes. The mirror also showed a miasma surrounding him like a foetid cloud, his reek made visible.

He looked away, overwhelmed. Jal-Nish didn’t have to say anything. How could such a shambling wreck as he think to defy the God-Emperor?

‘Ten years you’ve served,’ said his father, ‘and it has gained you nothing. You know I’ll never bend, Cryl-Nish, so what say you now? Will you stand at my right hand and help me rule unruly Santhenar, or do you still defy me?’

Every day of his imprisonment Nish had imagined this moment and tried to prepare himself for it, but now realised he could never be ready. A thousand times he’d weighed up his three choices: to defy his father, go back to Mazurhize and eventually die there in squalid futility; to swear fealty and serve him, surely to become as degraded and brutal as Jal-Nish. Or to follow the flimsy plan and try to seize the tears for himself, though that hope was fading rapidly. Even if he did gain them, the tears would probably withhold their Arts from him. There had been plenty of time for Jal-Nish to bind them to him alone.

There was a fourth alternative: to swear fealty, but break his oath and work in secret to bring his father down, though how could he hope to deceive the master of deceit himself? And if Nish used his father’s methods against him, could he claim to be any better?

He didn’t want to think about the final option – to take the coward’s way out and end it all. After Jal-Nish had executed beautiful Irisis, the love of Nish’s life, he’d sworn a binding oath and he couldn’t go back on it.

There has to be a purpose behind her sacrifice, he had raged to the shocked crowd in the town square, and I will make it my own. I will survive whatever this monster does to me. I will endure, and you must endure with me, for the coming years are going to be the cruellest in all memory.

Let the name Irisis become a rallying cry for the resistance. Let the resistance grow until not even the tears can stand against it. And on that day we will tear down this evil tyrant –

‘There is no resistance,’ said Jal-Nish as if he’d read Nish’s mind. And for all Nish knew, perhaps with the power of the tears he could read minds. ‘I control the known world. My wisp-watchers stand in every village marketplace, my loop-listeners on every street corner, and my snoop-sniffers creep into the darkest corners of the underworld. I have secret watchers too, and they speak to the tears daily. Nothing escapes me, Cryl-Nish.’

Nish knew that much already. His guards often boasted of the grip their dread master held on the world, though they looked over their shoulders when they said it.

‘You’re all alone, Cryl-Nish.’ Jal-Nish smiled behind the mask – Nish could tell from the way the muscles moved in his father’s exposed cheek – before he went on, brutally, ‘Every one of your old allies is dead.’

Nish reeled. His one sustaining hope was the belief that some of his friends still worked in secret to bring Jal-Nish down. But if they were gone –

‘Moreover, there’s not a trace of the Secret Art left on Santhenar, apart from my own. I’ve sought out all the old Arts, incorporated the best of them into the tears and destroyed the rest.’ Jal-Nish smiled thinly, then added, ‘And I’ve made sure no one can use them but me.’

Nish tried to conceal his growing panic. It was hopeless. He was defeated before he began, so what was the point of trying? Indeed, what was the point of anything?

Jal-Nish glanced to his left, towards a pedestal rough-sawn from black meteoritic iron. Above, it, floating in the air like melon-sized balls of swirling, shimmering quicksilver, and emitting a low, humming sound, were the tears that had been formed by the explosion of the node of power at Snizort twelve years ago. They were darker, more swirling, complex and ominous now, and Nish felt his gut tighten at the sight of them.

The humming rose slightly in pitch. ‘The Profane Tears. I call the left-hand tear Gatherer,’ Jal-Nish went on, ‘for it’s set to gather every detail that my watchers, listeners and sniffers uncover; both the public ones and those that are hidden, secret, invisible. The right-hand tear is Reaper, which enforces my will in all things. Gatherer and Reaper are the perfect servants: ever watchful, utterly trustworthy, and they ask nothing of me. Can you hear the song of the tears, Cryl-Nish? One day Gatherer and Reaper could be calling to you.’

Nish shivered. The teardrop-shaped globes were made of nihilium, the purest substance in the world, and one that held the print of the Art more tightly than any other. The Profane Tears had brought only ruin since the army-annihilating moment of their formation. Just days afterwards Jal-Nish had stolen them, slain everyone who knew of their existence and, at the end of the war, when every node on Santhenar had been destroyed, all the Secret Art became his. With the tears he held absolute power, and if no one else could use them he could never be beaten.

‘They’ve changed,’ said Nish, unable to tear his eyes away.

‘As I absorb the old Arts into the tears, they grow. And I’m close to achieving my ultimate goals, Cryl-Nish. So very close.’

‘What goals?’ Nish croaked.

Jal-Nish just smiled. He could be lying, though his words had the ring of truth, and black, uncontrollable despair washed over Nish. He was all alone and there was no way out.

Jal-Nish’s one-eyed gaze softened then, an odd thing in itself, he said gently, ‘My son, my only son, you’re all I have left. Why have you forsaken me?’

Nish stared at him. His sister, who was two years older, had died in childbirth many years ago, but as far as he knew his brothers were still alive. ‘What’s happened to my brothers?’

His father’s jaw knotted. ‘Dar-Nish died of the flesh-wasting disease in the last days of the lyrinx war. Mun-Mun was slain by rebels seven years ago, and Vigg-Nish had an apoplexy last summer and never recovered. None of them gave me grandchildren, and I can no longer father children.’ Jal-Nish stared blankly at him, and Nish was astonished to see a tear in his eye, though it was swiftly drawn back in. ‘I have only you now.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ Nish said dully. He hadn’t been close to his brothers, who took after their father in all important ways, but nonetheless he felt the wrench, the emptiness.

‘I couldn’t bear to speak of it.’

‘And Mother?’ She had repudiated Jal-Nish after his maiming but Nish had always hoped she’d go back.

‘Never mention her name!’ Jal-Nish hissed. ‘She’s dead to us. She doesn’t exist!’

‘Dead?’ said Nish. ‘You haven’t …?’ The thought was so awful that he couldn’t follow it through.

‘She lives,’ grated his father. ‘She doesn’t deserve to, after the callous way she abandoned me when I needed her most, but I’ll allow no one to raise a finger against her.’ With an irritable gesture, he dismissed the topic.

‘What is your choice, Cryl-Nish? Will you bow before me, be my first lieutenant and do my will in all things, without question?’ His eye grew liquid with yearning. He’d treated his sons harshly but family was the one thing he’d cared about, and now only Nish remained. ‘Do so and I will give you wealth undreamed of, the most beautiful women in the world, and power second only to my own. Everything you wish for can be yours, and all you need do is say one word.’ Jal-Nish swallowed, then said softly, ‘I need you, Son. I’m so alone and I can’t fight on by myself forever.’

The pleading tone, and the admission of weakness, shocked Nish. ‘What do you mean, “fight on”?’ he said sceptically.

‘Don’t judge me. You have no idea of the vicious creatures that lurk in the eternal void between the worlds, desperate to get out, but I do. I’ve seen them with the tears, and every one of them hungers for the prize: the jewel of worlds that is Santhenar. They can only be kept at bay by a strong leader with the whole world united behind him. The least hint of rebellion and they’ll swarm over us.’

Nish did know of those perils, better than most, and it gave him pause. Santhenar had been troubled by the void before. Several of the mighty Charon had come here in ancient times, and Santhenar had been invaded some two hundred and twenty years ago, when the Way between the Worlds had been opened. Thranx and lorrsk had briefly terrorised the world before being exterminated, but the huge winged lyrinx had thrived in remote corners of the globe and, once their numbers had increased, begun the war for Santhenar which had lasted for a hundred and fifty years.

They were gone now, to bring order to the beautiful world of Tallallame, and Nish found it hard to believe that Santhenar was again under threat. It wasn’t easy to escape the void, and his father’s claim had the ring of self-justification. The assertion was easily made and impossible to disprove. Yet Nish clung to the hope that he’d been right and his father wasn’t irredeemable. That there might still be some good left in him, and that he, Nish, could save his father from himself.

‘How do you know, Father?’ Jal-Nish was happy for the world to see him as a black-hearted monster, but he needed his one surviving son to know that he’d acted in a noble cause.

‘I’m not mad or deluded, whatever you think. The tears told me.’

‘Told you?’

‘Gatherer can see far beyond the boundaries of the world; and out in the void a terrible threat is growing.’

Nish’s scepticism must have shown on his face, for Jal-Nish’s eye grew hard. ‘If I must fight alone, I will. Deny me and you’ll rot in your stinking cell for another ten wasted years, but nothing will change. No one else can use the tears – save you, Cryl-Nish, if you prove yourself. With their power I don’t weaken and I’ll never grow old.’ Nish saw a faint hesitation there, a shadow in his father’s eye, as if the inevitable decline into old age bothered him. ‘Rather, my wits and strength increase every day – unlike yours.’

Nish took another sideways glance in the mirror and involuntarily clenched his fists. He couldn’t endure ten more years of such degradation, but he was coming to think that his plan had been self-delusion. His father was a monster who could not be shaken by the darkness in his soul, for he knew it already. That left Nish with only one alternative.

Yet how could he betray all he held dear by swearing to his father? He felt that temptation more strongly now than ever. Nish had always been ambitious; as a young man he’d dreamed about making something of himself, having the world look up to him, and pleasing his demanding father too. And even now, after all Jal-Nish had done to him, Nish still felt that urge. He didn’t think he would ever be free of it. As Jal-Nish’s lieutenant he’d have power, wealth and, most of all, respect. He’d been respected after his heroic deeds at the end of the lyrinx wars, but no one could see him as he was now and feel anything but contempt. He was the lowest of the low, and Nish so desperately wanted to rise again.

But at what price? There was always a price, with his father. What cruelty, what evil, what brutalities would he require Nish to carry out to prove his loyalty, or just for Jal-Nish’s own amusement?

‘You haven’t had a decent meal, a flask of wine, or a woman in ten years,’ said Jal-Nish softly. ‘You always were a man of strong appetites, Cryl-Nish. I know how much your lusts mean to you, for I was like that too, before the tears burned all that out of me. Just say the word, my son.’

Nish squeezed his eyes shut, for they were burning and his mouth had flooded with saliva. He was overcome by the mere thought of good food. He ached, he burned for it, but he fought down the urge as he’d done so often.

He would not, could not become a disciple of his father, which left only one choice, to attack, even though there could be only one outcome – utter ruin. The temptation eased and Nish tried to form a new plan. Could he lie convincingly to Jal-Nish, the world’s greatest liar, then get close enough to snatch the tears and cut his father off from their power? He didn’t have much hope for this plan either, for he wasn’t sure he could use the tears if he got them, but he had to try.

‘Father,’ Nish said, and the words were so bitter in his mouth that it took every ounce of control to say them without vomiting in self-disgust, ‘I will bow before you and do your bidding in all things, without question.’

Again Jal-Nish’s cheek twitched, but before Nish could move, his father held up his right hand. ‘Forgive me, beloved son, but you’ll understand that I must test your word. I trust you, of course, yet faithless men with black hearts have sworn to me before.’

‘Test me?’ said Nish. A chill spread through him. His father knew everything; he couldn’t possibly deceive him.

‘It’s the smallest trifle,’ said Jal-Nish. ‘Just look upon this image as you swear to serve me.’

He reached out towards the right-hand tear, whereupon Reaper pulsed and swelled until a filament streamed out of it, to hang in the air before Nish. It slowly formed into one of his starvation-induced hallucinations, only far more real. This one showed his beautiful Irisis on her knees, gazing lovingly up at him, but before he could look away the executioner’s blade flashed down, ending her life and his dreams. He saw the horror of it, over and over and over, and though he fought harder to contain himself than he’d ever fought before, to ignore the provocation, Nish snapped.

‘I’ll never bow to you!’ he screamed, propelling himself forwards so violently that he took Jal-Nish by surprise. Leaping onto the table, he hurled himself at his father. ‘I curse you and all you stand for, and I’m going to tear your evil world down.’

He got so very close. He had his hands around Jal-Nish’s throat, below the platinum mask, before Jal-Nish could move. But as Nish’s hands closed on something hot and inflamed, his clearsight saw right though the mask to the horror that lay beneath and which, for all his father’s power, he hadn’t been able to repair. As Nish’s fingers tightened, Jal-Nish shrieked. Involuntarily, Nish’s grip relaxed and the instant it did, he was lost. It wasn’t in him to harm his father and Jal-Nish now knew it.

He tore free, knocked Nish onto the table and stood over him, breathing heavily, the mask askew. But again Jal-Nish hesitated. He must care!

‘You little fool! I did everything for you.’

‘You had me whipped!’ Nish choked. ‘You killed Irisis. You sent me to the most degraded prison in the world –’

‘You were weak; a prisoner of your feelings for others.’ Jal-Nish spat the word at him. ‘What I’ve put you through has made you strong, as all I’ve suffered has made me what I am. I’ve given you the strength to become the man you’ve always wanted to be – a leader like me.’

‘I despise everything you stand for. I’ll never –’

Jal-Nish didn’t hesitate now. He thrust one finger towards Reaper, which brightened and grew. As the song of the tears rose to a shrill wail, pain such as Nish had never felt sheared through his skull. It was an agony so complete that he couldn’t think, couldn’t act, couldn’t even stand up. He rolled off the table onto the floor, curled up into a tight, shuddering ball.

Dimly, Nish saw his father wipe his throat fastidiously with a silk cloth and adjust the mask. ‘Traitorous son! Once more you betray me, as your mother did, and everyone I’ve ever trusted, and most of all, her.’

He stabbed his forefinger towards a hanging curtain, which slid out of the way. A crystalline coffin stood behind it, its walls and lid as clear as if they were made from frozen tears. The coffin drifted towards them, stopped an arm’s length away and stood on end.

Nish looked through the lid and screamed. Inside lay the perfectly preserved body of his beautiful Irisis, unchanged from when he’d last seen her alive. Unmarred save for the thread-like red seam where her severed head had been cunningly rejoined to her body. Her eyes were looking right at him and he imagined that her pupils dilated, though that wasn’t possible. She had gone where no living man could follow.

‘I was wrong about you, Son. You still don’t have the strength to take what you’ve always wanted. Before you can be reforged, you must go back to the furnace. Ten more years,’ said Jal-Nish, and walked away without a backwards glance.

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