In which Kai reaches the end of his tether
When Kai recovered from the kick in the face, Vash'târik had disappeared from sight. He was alone, falling endlessly, lost forever in the fires of the Abyss. His flesh blistered and burned continually, skin hanging off in shreds, ever regenerating so there was no end to the searing pain, and his throat was too parched to cry out.
The words echoed round and round inside his head.
Quietly, his inner voice chipped its way through the pain.
"Of course there's no escape if you give up so easily..."
A fresh wave of pain washed over him and cut off the voice, but having broken through once, it was not going to be kept at bay forever.
"O.K., things have never been ... this bad before ... but feeling sorry for yourself ... doesn't help ..."
"You've escaped the inescapable before."
"The end of hope..."
"Remember the flies..."
"The end of hope at the end of hope at the end of hope at the end of... Hope at the end of hope! The Goddess."
"How could you forget Her?" the voice asked archly.
Kai fumbled with mutilated hands for the amulet. The cord burned away and the adamantine gem went spinning from his grasp. Frantically, he scrabbled after it as they tumbled together in a macabre dance. Time and again, his pain-numbed fingers failed to make proper contact and, tantalizingly, it escaped.
"Arien Seren!" his heart cried as he made a final desperate lunge.
This time, it stuck to his hand like a magnet. Abruptly, the wild tumbling descent stopped as the amulet came to a halt. He found himself dangling, much as he had found Kieran. A cool refreshing breeze blew over him, taking away the pain and leaving behind a peaceful sense of serenity. A new voice spoke in his mind.
"I have looked into your heart and found it pure. Rise, Edric of Malleckay. Your place is not here."
Hesitantly, he looked up and saw a shining thread, gossamer thin, stretching upwards from the gem. Far above, roiling red clouds parted with sullen anger. In the space so reluctantly cleared, there shimmered the vast, caring, unbearably beautiful face of Arien Seren.
"Yes, little one, all my jewels are joined to me. The threads are usually invisible, yet they are always there."
Slowly, hanging from the amulet, Kai ascended from the depths. As he rose, another figure plummeted past him. For an instant he saw the ghastly face which had an expression of ultimate horror fixed upon it. It was a face which was vaguely familiar but he could not put a name to it.
Eventually, the bristling rim was in sight. The Goddess's face gradually faded but the lustrous thread remained, stretching upwards into the seething darkness beyond the range of human vision.
Higher he rose until he could see Kieran sitting on the edge, staring disconsolately across the Abyss. Clearly he had not moved since he had first climbed out and had assumed the aspect of a sentinel, determined to wait until the end of time if need be, in case his brother should come back.
Kai's return in advance of this event took him entirely by surprise. He leapt to his feet, disbelief and joy fighting for supremacy across his face. The ascent continued until he was looking up at Kai.
"No! I cannot leave him here - not after all we've been through," Kai thought. "Please, Dear Lady, let me guide him home."
The amulet shuddered to a halt and swung away from the pit until he was directly above Kieran yet just out of reach. Kai released his grip on the stone, but he did not drop. The amulet was not going to let him go just yet. He looked down at Kieran and their eyes met.
"Jump," he cried, his voice drowned by the deafening roar of the Abyss.
If joy had won the first battle, disbelief won the second.
"Jump!" Kai cried again urgently, emphasizing the movements of his mouth.
Kieran might not as yet have acquired any faith in the benevolent powers, but he was beginning to develop a belief in his brother's courage and judgement. He sprang upwards as amulet began to rise again.
Clinging on to Kai's foot, he too was lifted clear. The speed of the ascent increased at a dizzying rate while the fires below dwindled into an angrily glowing pinpoint and disappeared into the blackness that surrounded them.
Suddenly Kai found himself alone again, drifting as he had once drifted long aeons ago - drifting and dreaming in the nothingness of limbo. Had it really happened - or was it just a dream? Wishful thinking that he had rescued Kieran and it was all still to be done?
Ahh there had been pain. That had not been his imagination. Yet it seemed now that even that was just a dim and distant memory. Now ... he felt nothing. Only the aura of divine peace remained - or was that part of the dream too? He would have to think about that. For the present - when was that? - he would sleep.
Gyldenburg was seeing the beginning of a period of readjustment. There was much work ahead to dismantle the network of evil that had held city and state in a steadily tightening stranglehold for so many years. At the moment, all was sweetness and light as news of the oft-longed-for freedom spread like a bush-fire across the land, generously and haphazardly interwoven with rumour and speculation.
As the days passed and the history of their enslavement was unravelled, it would be especially necessary to prevent the wholesale settling of scores that would lead to anarchy. Like the sting that retains its potency after the wasp is slain, Omanisa mused as he sat sentinel by Kieran's bed three days later.
The one thing most certain to unite the people and maintain order was a coronation, but for that, you needed a king, and there was no telling if or when Belsaria's heir would return. As the watcher pondered the imponderable, Kieran sighed, and stirred in his sleep.
Omanisa was on his feet in an instant to check his patient. Was it possible? His sleep seemed more normal than his earlier deeply comatose state and his vital signs were certainly much stronger. Did this mean that Kai also had returned? Omanisa tugged the bell-pull and sent the answering servant to summon Valarien.
As he awaited the wizard's arrival, Kieran's eyes flickered open. He looked blankly at the shaman for several seconds causing the latter to wonder for an awful moment if he had misread the signs, then
"Where am I?" Kieran murmured drowsily. "Safe, your Highness," Omanisa replied gravely, wondering in what mental state he would find the quondam king. "Safe in Castle Malleckay."
At the mention of the name, a look of fear and recognition leapt into Kieran's eyes and he recoiled from the outlandishly dressed speaker. Omanisa, reading the reaction aright, sought to reassure his charge.
"The daemons are all gone, Prince, and the castle has been cleansed of the taint of evil."
Kieran relaxed and laid back in relief but not for long. Another memory surfaced.
"Where's Edric?" he demanded, sitting bolt upright, a look of supplication in his eyes.
"I do not know, but maybe he is close at hand. Ah, here is Valarien, your brother's friend. Ewan and Leon, too. I think you remember Stoddard?"
"No... yes. You serve my father, do you not? Father...!" Kieran looked suddenly appalled. "What have I done?" he gasped as the full awfulness of the past hit him like a charging bull. The colour fled from his face and he passed out.
"That was a hell of an awakening," Ewan remarked wryly.
"And an indication, if it were needed, that - um - whatever he did, he was not the master of his actions," Valarien said with a minatory look at Stoddard who was still scowling at Kieran. "It is amazing how quickly people forget... I think we had better return to the - um - catacombs. The King may have need us. I'm afraid, Stoddard, I must ask you to remain with the - um - Prince. See to it that he is well cared for as befits his rank. And make sure he comes to no harm."
Kai knew not how long he slumbered. Wakefulness returned with the sense that something was required of him. He was not sure what. Something to do with a castle.
And a kingdom.
They were waiting for him. He ought to go back. How?
He thought hard. He had left his body somewhere and he needed it to get back. Where was it? How did he leave it?
He closed his eyes and tried to remember. Panic hovered hopefully on the brink of his consciousness. His hand found the amulet and he felt calm again. Oh yes, it was actuated by his will - wasn't it?
He closed his eyes and concentrated. A faint shiver ran through him. Was that it? Had he done it? How could you tell? Try it out...
Cautiously, he opened his eyes again. Was it his imagination, or did his eyelids feel heavier? He looked around. Yes. There it was - a small golden dot, a welcoming gleam of light in the distance Home.
But could he return? He reached out to it and saw it growing bigger. He must be moving nearer. The dot resolved itself into a rectangle, steadily increasing in size. Soon he would know. Body and soul? Or just a rootless phantom?
He had taken several steps before he registered the solid substance beneath his feet. He choked back a sob and put out a hand. His fingers touched - caressed - the coarse granite walls - felt the grooves left by the picks.
It was real. He was real!
He tried a whoop of triumph. It came out as a hoarse squeak. With it came the realization that his mouth was parched and his stomach empty. Triumph would have to wait!
That part of the catacombs which housed the largest sarcophagus was brilliantly lit. The door in the tomb itself stood open and Valarien, attired again in his wizardly blue robes, had set at the entrance a shining sphere of golden light to act as a beacon should it be necessary. Then they waited, together with a number of servants who were to bear the king up to his palace in state.
How different from their last visit to this place. The dungeons they had passed on their way down were mostly empty now. Some held new inmates - such of Kieran's human ministers that Stoddard had identified as instrumental in the subjection of the realm by the Daemon Lords. When Kai had returned and things were more settled, they would have their say, but for now, and for their own safety, they were held in close confinement.
Still the little group waited.
To pass the time as much as anything, Leon sent up for something to eat. What came down was something akin to a banquet. Little tables were set out and spread with fine linen. Upon them were placed such succulent viands and exquisite sweetmeats as must tempt the most jaded palate, the most delicate appetite. Only Leon did them justice however. The rest only picked at the offerings in a half-hearted manner.
"Do you remember Mistress Désirée's cooking - in Harlonne?" Leon asked nostalgically.
"Could I ever forget?" croaked a voice behind that made him drop the chicken leg he was holding.
"Kai!" he exclaimed with his mouth full, and choked.
At once, the catacombs rang with happy voices, welcoming, congratulating, questioning. Kai, weary as well as hungry, merely shook his head and smiled. Explanations could wait.
Picking up a carafe, he poured himself a long cool drink, then helped himself to a large slice of pie and sat down. Looking up, he saw a circle of faces, all watching him like a freak at a circus.
"What?" he asked with a puzzled look.
It broke the spell. Suddenly everyone felt hungry and tucked into the feast with gusto. Afterwards, Kai was carried on a litter to the King's State Bedroom.
Word had gone before that the true king had returned, and his passage was marked with cheers and curious glances. He found the experience slightly unnerving. All his efforts had been focussed towards this moment. Now it was here, he wasn't really sure about it.
He'd never really given any thought to what actually being king entailed. Ensconced in his state rooms later with only his campaign companions for company, he relaxed at last. He could be himself again for a while.
"Has Kieran returned safely?" he asked first.
"He has returned, yes," Omanisa confirmed and went on to disclose the nature of his awakening.
Kai frowned. "He'll need careful treatment. It will take much time, I think, to recover from so long an association with evil. And I fear the people will be looking for some kind of scapegoat to vent their anger upon. I cannot allow that. I have lost too many members of my family and gone through too much in this affliction to part with what is left to me. Perhaps, when the truth is known, my people will understand - maybe even forgive, a little."
"I'm afraid you overestimate the mentality of the masses," Valarien said sadly. "That kind of comprehension and - um - nobility of spirit is a rare combination, especially when there is a large gathering."
"They will obey the edict of the king, of course," Omanisa stated, "but they may fear that one tyranny will be replaced by another."
"Well, that's the way it's going to be," the king declared with finality. "When they know that the Lady herself was involved in his rescue, surely they will accept it."
There were exclamations at the mention of the deity.
"That would make a difference," agreed the shaman. "It could work out very well in fact. If the king shows forgiveness for his brother, maybe it will make it easier for the people to forgive those among them who likewise committed grave deeds. Perhaps it will minimize the vengeance that will be extracted and so check the drift towards lawlessness."
The mention of the goddess reminded Kai of another of his obligations. With due solemnity and grateful thanks, he returned his Lady's amulet to Omanisa.
"Without it, dear friend, I would have been lost several times over."
At this point they became aware of the sounds from outside the castle. Surely the state had not slipped into anarchy already? Kai opened the door that led out on to the balcony and looked out.
Immediately, an almighty cheer arose from the great crowd that had gathered on the parade ground below. Many were waving Belsarian flags and some had made banners that read "Long Live King Edric V ". Kai was momentarily stunned.
"All this - for me?" he marvelled inwardly.
His friends had gathered behind him, giving him a gentle push out on to the balcony. The crowd went wild as he acknowledged their cheers. A long quarter hour passed before they would let him go, and the talk turned to the coronation.
It would take some time to arrange, as it would be necessary to invite his remaining relations and the monarchs of all the neighbouring states. It was essential to create alliances with them, and the days of celebration following the coronation should provide the right atmosphere in which to initiate negotiations. And of course, dearest Merle would come.
He would send out a messenger - no, a delegation - to Caralonia without delay. It would be so pleasant if she would come immediately and spend a little time in Gyldenburg, her own royal duties permitting.
The days passed in a whirl of activity. There was no rest for the new king and he was looking forward to the full weight of kingship with an increasing sense of disquiet. He had not been brought up to rule over a country, was unfamiliar with the circuitous and pettifogging procedures of civilian government. He was a man of action, direct action, and had little time for diplomatic niceties.
Ruefully, he began to appreciate why his father had found him so exasperating, and if it was his destiny to fill King Walden's shoes, well, he'd just have to buckle down and make the best of it.
At least he had acquired a number of reliable aides who had managed to survive the previous régime. They were keen to be involved in what they saw as the salvation of Belsaria from its current economic crisis. His friends, too, did what they could.
He wondered despondently how long the honeymoon period would last. How soon would co-operation give way to criticism? Kieran was another worry. He was becoming increasingly withdrawn, both physically and emotionally, and spent long hours in prayer in the newly refurbished chapel. It was wondered aloud, in castle and city alike, that he was still at liberty even though he restricted his own movements and wore the garb and aspect of a penitent. Something would have to be done.