Here Itanu encounters Maorth, and has a life-changing experience, to put it simply. This story makes references to this story, this one, and this one. Reading these is not a pre-requisite, but it helps.
Itanu’s quarry left Myre westward across the Port Diales Causeway. There, the fellow turned north, following the Ujor Road alongside the broad, sluggish Ursith River. He was easy to track, as he made little effort to conceal himself. However, he knew Itanu was behind him, as he frequently cast glances over his shoulder.
Maddeningly for Itanu, whenever she broke out into a run, her quarry would also, and she could not gain on him, as the fellow was surprisingly fleet of foot. She wondered how much stamina he had, and what his staying power was like.
Itanu didn’t know the fellow’s name. She hadn’t been told. Her mistress didn’t deem it necessary with such details, as Gladei Merene expected Itanu to be her typical efficient and ruthless self. Apprehend him, and let the jungle claim his body.
But so far, Itanu’s efficiency and patience were being taxed by this tenacious individual. While desperation in the face of certain death was indeed a potent motivator, she hadn’t expected this. By the time the sun had set, she had passed the outlying village of Amurl, and was into lands Myre enforced no claim over.
How far north was this man going? The city-state of Ujor was another hundred or so miles away, through jungle and savanna, and this was a realm frequented by brigands and other unworthy types. There was little else between save a few ramshackle ports on the Ursith that served riverine traffic.
At dusk, the fellow left the main road, and took a path previously unknown to Itanu. Here, she had to be mindful, as the path was narrow, and jungle thick. There were many places her quarry could ambush her. A smack over the head with a branch, and nobody would ever be the wiser as to the fate of Itanu of Myre.
A few miles in and Itanu lost all sense of her quarry. The moon’s light did not penetrate the canopy to the forest floor, and she resorted to her highly-developed senses to guide her feet. But even those failed to determine where her prey had gotten to. Frustrated, she sat in the middle of the path, eyes staring out at the abject blackness, listening to the nocturnal sounds of the jungle.
She was, to her estimation, twenty miles from Myre’s northern marge. A few hours journey at a steady jog, but returning to Myre would be admitting defeat, and the proud mesmerist did not accept defeat.
It wasn’t just her quarry she had to be concerned with. Other things than he dwelt in the leafy expanses of the Arimaul jungles; things that had a ready advantage over one human. Natsaws, kerrips, feral bunes and worse all made their homes here. Even undead, the relics of civilisations buried, crawled and crept the byways of the jungle at night. Against these, Itanu had no defence. To the unprepared, a touch from the undead was a grisly death. Itanu was armed only with her sabre, and had no herbs or other articles to ward off such enemies. Sorcery was notoriously unreliable as a weapon against the dead who walked.
Sighing in suppressed rage, she was set to retreat back to the Ujor Road when her keen eyes saw a faint light through the trees. It was an unwavering, steady glow, not made by any torch or lantern. Wary of the wiles of a few predators, she hunkered down on the path and attempted to make out what it was.
When it didn’t become clearer to her, she hazarded getting closer, creeping through the ferns and leaf letter, cognisant of the fact that going off the path would mean difficulties in finding it again later. That caused her to hesitate, and she vacillated over whether to continue. But all indecision vanished when she saw what was making the light.
It came from a globe perched atop a high iron pillar. This stood before a huge and ornate gate, with massive stone walls leading away into the night. Fascinated, Itanu came nearer, to stop at the eaves of the jungle, her senses feeling for anything untoward or menacing.
The jungle had been cleared for about ten yards away from the walls, and the ground was bare earth and rock, as if the land had been excoriated and blasted to keep the wild at bay. But Itanu only noticed these features desultorily. Her attention was wholly on the light. It was a brilliant white, with a hint of green to it, and what caused it to glow was beyond Itanu’s reckoning, though she suspected magic. It was like the essence of a hundred fireflies distilled and placed within glass.
It was also very much out of place in the jungle. Itanu’s eyes roved over the gate and wall, wondering who could’ve built such a thing. She knew of Attuned Wind structures such as the Warrens, the Clathe of the Hielachs, the Trowheald Monument and so on, but this was nothing like any of them. The gates were made of some superbly-wrought black metal, cold to the touch, and as hard as any steel. The bars were gracefully curved, well fitted and proof against any human slipping in between them. Itanu saw no lock or bars or anything to secure them.
The walls were strange too. Smooth dressed black stone, almost like obsidian, but something far harder, like the finest polished basalt. It was slippery to the touch, and Itanu knew it’d be proof against any kind of scaling. There were no holds, juts or crannies to gain purchase for a climb. The top of the wall, at least twenty feet above her, was surmounted by a fine row of bladed poles.
In the dark, the wall appeared to go on forever in either direction. Nothing grew on or against it, not even a vagrant weed or a skerrick of lichen. Even the rampant noises of the jungle were silent. Nothing moved, and nothing lived.
A sliver of fear pierced Itanu’s mind, and she retreated to the verge of the jungle, wanting to get out of the exposure of the light. But curiosity was a cogent thing, and she knelt by a large buttressed tree, chewing on a cuticle.
What was this place?
She tried to contact Gladei, but found she could not access the scytae. Magic would not work for her. Panicked, she closed her eyes and willed forth the flow of odylicism, but there was nothing. Her skills were for nothing.
With that, her nerve broke, and she rose to flee.
It was a simple command, of unknown provenance, but it rooted Itanu to the ground.
Come to the gate. Come within. I await you.
It was a feminine voice, cold, clear, and redolent of might and fear. It was the sound of dread.
Itanu clamped down on her emotions and walked slowly to the massive gates, which swung open silently at her approach. Beyond was an inky darkness, but a faintly luminous paved path led straight ahead. With no other option, she crossed the threshold of the gates, which closed behind her as noiselessly as they had opened.
With that, Itanu felt she had crossed into another world. ‘Who are you?’
In time. Follow the path.
‘Are you a wizard?’
The voice gave the impression it was amused. I am no such thing.
Despite the compulsion, Itanu stopped, staring at the darkness in fright. Her legs ached to move forward, and she was nauseated from commingled pain and fright. ‘If you’re going to kill me, do it cleanly in the open air where I can breathe my last.’
Death is not for you yet.
Itanu wanted to swoon, or collapse and fall into an oblivious sleep. What kind of devilry had ensnared her this night? What was this voice of frozen terror in her head?
Neither swoon nor sleep came her way. Fitfully, she began to walk again, her eyes downcast, focussed on the pavement before her. But her inquisitive nature was still there. She paused and studied her environs, trying to see through the blackness to what lie beyond.
Do not wander off the path. Do so and you will be forever lost. There is but one way to me.
‘May I ask what this place is called?’
The Estate of Kamonva.
‘I haven’t heard of that. I thought I knew all the places around Myre.’
The Estate is where I will it to be.
‘So I’ve gone inside the Argence to Exa somewhere?’
No. You are in your world still. The voice paused, and Itanu swore she heard a low chuckle. But you are also in mine.
‘What do you want with me?’
I want nothing with you, child of Etesi. It is what you want.
‘Really? I want to turn around and go home.’
Would your lust for knowledge be sated if you did?
‘Well, I’d come back better prepared. I have nothing but my sword. No food or drink.’ She yawned. ‘And I’m tired.’
Sleep then. Sustenance awaits with your waking.
Without preamble, Itanu laid herself down on the hard stones of the path, and was asleep in an instant.
Her dreams were unpleasant ones. She was running through an endless corridor, lined with doors that would not open. There were sounds too; the voices of the lost beseeching someone to bring them into the light. Wild animals and monsters growled and roared, scratching at doors that would not yield, pining for prey that was forever out of reach. Desperation and anger were omnipresent, as was the threat of eternal unfulfilled desires, of business left unfinished. This was a realm of regrets, the consequences of taking the wrong path in life’s journey. Losing where one should have won.
Itanu kept running, for that is all she could do here. Stopping would be bootless. Onward she went, down the eternity of the corridor toward an unreachable end.
But an end of a kind came. The corridor altered indescribably into a dark pool of an oily, rippling fluid, under a smoky, brown sky. In this, Itanu flailed and struggled to keep her head above the slowly sloshing liquid. Things tugged at her legs; soft, repulsive beings that entwined themselves around her torso.
She screamed then, but her voice was swallowed by the dead air, and the creepers kept at their inevitable climb to her head. Her arms were pinned to her side, and she could scream no longer as her mouth was filled by bitter vileness.
Down into the bromine-brown liquid she was drawn, way down into an abyssal depth, lifeless and lightless. Her mind no longer registered fear, so benumbed she was. The eye of her dreams simply took in what she saw, stripped of emotion and desire. Perhaps her humanity was being rent apart. Was this the conclusion of all of her life’s efforts?
Itanu awoke then. She blinked away the fugue and got to her feet. There was an ebony table before her laden with a repast fit for a satrap. Roasted meats, platters of seasoned vegetables and stewed fruits. And wine. Wine! A beverage rare in the hot climes of Myre. Itanu momentarily forget the ordeal of her dreams and greedily consumed nonpareil dishes, and sipped at the heady wine.
Her fears were sluiced away, and she sighed happily as her belly responded to being filled. The wine reached her head, and a new-found bravado came over her.
‘I’m ready for whatever you throw at me next.’
Then follow the path.
‘Why did you call me a child of Etesi?’
You belong to her.
‘I serve her, this is true. Belong to her? I hadn’t thought of it like that. I’ve been her faithful servant since I was a girl, since Mistress Gladei saw my talent and brought me into Umberlust’s fold.’ Itanu paused as a startling thought came to her. ‘Are you her?’
‘No. I guess not.’ Itanu sniffed the air. ‘There’s no love here, no matter what form it takes. There’s something here, but nothing I am familiar with. We’re misunderstood, you know? The Hielachs and their Militia hunt us down. Folk everywhere fear Umberlust. We slaughter men in the dark, they say. We seduce the hapless, render them impotent and then drink their blood.’ She paused again and studied the gloom before her. ‘Drink blood? A normal man or woman cannot drink blood. It makes one retch. It is not their blood that my mistress wants, but their love. In the end, they give Etesi their love wholly and without question.’
‘Yes,’ Itanu agreed. ‘They do. It is the ultimate expression of their love for my lady Etesi.’
I sense doubt.
You doubt that you serve Etesi in the manner that properly befits her.
‘I am my mistress’s left hand,’ Itanu said. ‘I destroy those who she names an adversary. It is why I am here in this trackless jungle. I was hunting one such adversary.’
Do you love this man you were pursuing?
‘Hardly. I don’t even know his name. All I know is that he crossed Mistress Gladei in some fashion and that he needed to die.’
But his death would not be the sacrifice that Etesi seeks.
‘I don’t know my lady’s mind. I do as I am commanded.’
Indeed. A most reliable servant.
‘Are you mocking me? I am a mesmerist. My gaze can fix a man to the spot, and turn him vegetal. With a word, he would throw himself into an inferno if I willed it. I faithfully serve my mistress and my lady. There is nothing you can mock me with.’
You are denied the need to love a man and bring him before Etesi.
‘Yes,’ Itanu conceded. ‘That is the perquisite of Mistress Gladei.’
So replete with unrequited desires, child of Etesi.
Itanu forwent a rebuke or retort. This cold, adamantine voice had it right. For years, Itanu had served Gladei Merene, watching her mistress lull the callow minds of men, and then bring them to their fane where they joyously allowed their lives to be shed in the name of Umberlust.
All Itanu did was kill in Etesi’s name. An assassin, and as this voice had implied, this aspect rankled with Itanu, plaguing her with doubts that she was even worthy to serve the lady of Umberlust.
But doubts were put aside when the path led her out of the murk and onto the portico of some vast edifice. Tall columns of the same rock as the walls held up a massive roof. Large stoae led away to Itanu’s left or right, the floor tiled with an intricate pattern of twisted knots and complex geometric forms.
The doors that led within were equally grand. They stood a good thirty feet in height, plainly adorned save for a carved face of a smiling young girl set in the midst. Itanu wondered what variety of giant these doors could accommodate. More likely, she thought, it was to demonstrate how insignificant someone like herself was. Dwarfed by might.
The face intrigued Itanu. It was carved from the same stone, but was burnished in a lighter sheen, highlighting the cheeks and lips, an effect that made it cherubic. Curly hair hung over the forehead, with one lock folding down to the bridge of the nose.
This face was incongruous among the solemn grimness, Itanu mused. Why would such a child be represented like this? But something tugged at the back of her mind. At some time, she had seen similar somewhere. The details of it all escaped her.
The doors began to swing inward, startling Itanu. Her hand dropped to her sabre hilt automatically, but when only cold air emerged, she relaxed. Inside, a broad tiled floor led onward into the unknown.
‘Gods above, am I going to leave this place alive?’
That is your choice.
‘If I have a say in it, then I will walk out of here alive.’ Itanu took a few steps forward inside, and sighed despondently when the doors closed behind her. ‘I can get out, can’t I?’
That is your choice.
‘All right, where do I go in here?’
There is only one way you can go.
Itanu was about to set off when a figure appeared before her out of the darkness. It was tall and featureless, wrapped entirely in a cowled robe of a coarse black material. It put forward a gloved hand and beckoned Itanu to follow. Without waiting for Itanu’s response, it turned and returned whence it had come.
So Itanu followed in the being’s wake, wondering what was in store. The confidence the wine had engendered was gone.
That she was in a realm of evil was clear. Itanu had familiarity with evil and its tenets, being a student of a few of them. This place, this colossal structure, was a monument to an evil so primal and pure it sang to her, shone with a darkly red glow. Rather than fear it, Itanu drank it in, and savoured its brash, salty taste. As she walked behind her guide in the silent dark, she began to understand why she was there.
She was being offered a choice.
The details of that choice were unclear, but she took comfort knowing all would be laid bare to her, and very soon.
‘I’m beginning to. It’s no coincidence or random thing that brought me here, is it?’
‘The man I was chasing. Is he a servant of yours?’
He is not. I needed no agency to bring you here.
Onward they went, quietly along the black marbled floor. With each step she took, Itanu began to seethe with anticipation, and impatience threatened her at every heartbeat. Her life would change forever after the moment that awaited her, that she understood. Itanu of Myre, mesmerist and servitor of the lady Etesi was from another aeon.
So it seemed.
A wall emerged out of the gloom. The being stopped her with a wave of its hand. Itanu saw another door in front, as plain and as imposing as any she had seen. The being stepped aside and gestured for Itanu to continue.
The door opened before she reached it, and what lie beyond left her breathless. It was a garden, but like none seen anywhere under the skies of Fels. A dim coppery light illuminated a bizarre garden of trees and shrubs, all of a type unknown to Itanu’s experience. There were huge fronds, pendulous branches, feathery drapes of leaves. High above, the cold light came from a mosaic inlaid into the vast domed roof. That mosaic was of a dripping heart clutched in a skeletal hand. As Itanu gaped in awe, she became aware of a light rain upon her face. Absently, she wiped her brow, only to realise what she’d touched was blood.
But it was black, like pitch, and it smelled not of blood, but of raw power. Itanu gasped as some of it landed on her tongue, and her muscles tensed agonisingly, seizing her with violent cramps and convulsions. She fell to the hard floor where she writhed like a multitude of serpents. Pain shot through her, and she roared like a caged tigress. Her clothes split at the seams and fell away from her in tatters. Her sheathed sabre skittered along the ground.
Then the agony was done. Panting, she slumped on the floor, hugging herself, her thoughts racing with concepts heretofore unexplored and unknown.
The plants of the unearthly garden swayed to an unseen breeze, glinting like bronze statuary in the light. A susurrus murmured throughout the garden, and Itanu felt a new presence. The voice was not only in her mind, but close at hand. It was embracing her with unseen, gelid tendrils. Itanu shivered at the preternatural touch, but didn’t flinch from it. It was too beguiling.
Behold the Grove of Miosyne.
Itanu reached for her ruined clothes but desisted when she saw the state of them. ‘Was that a rite of passage?’
A test? Yes, it was.
‘The fact I’m still alive tells me I passed.’
You could never fail it.
Itanu rose on unsteady feet. The cold air of the garden caressed her bare skin. ‘What now? What do I do?’
Come before me. The way is open.
The odd being appeared at Itanu’s side, and again, signed for her to follow. Itanu knelt for her sabre, but an intuition advised her that she would not be needing it. Other weapons were about to be given to her, she was sure of that.
They went past flowers known to no earthly gardener, and trees that hung with fruits that had never graced a gourmand’s plate. Itanu took it all in eagerly, heartened by the Grove of Miosyne. She wanted to frolic like one lost among the branches and leaves, and desert her every care, her every responsibility and all she ever knew.
For she was reborn. That she was sure of.
Finally the being brought Itanu before an impressive door girt in bronze and silver. On it was the heart in bony hand symbol. In spite of the inchoate sense of rebirth, Itanu shivered slightly, and awaited what was to come next with no small measure of dread. The being rapped slightly on the door and it opened silently. Itanu stepped within.
The chamber beyond was circular, its ceiling hidden in the shadows. Cowled figures stood reverently around the edge of the room, but it was what inhabited the centre that drew Itanu’s eyes. A young girl, barely beyond a toddler’s age, played with wooden toys before an extraordinary firepit. She happily arranged her dolls, then moved them to new positions. In the firepit behind her raged a huge dark fire, its flames as ebon as the deepest night. It was a conflagration so darkly cold, it was said to rend flesh from bone if one thrust their hand within. The black flames danced and flickered, and rather than casting light, it sucked it from the air, indicative of the belief that even light was fated to die.
The child glanced up at the intrusion. Itanu put her age at two, maybe three years of age, but she was wise enough to know this was no ordinary bairn before her.
When the girl spoke, the speech was that of no child. No human could have uttered the voice that emerged from the child’s mouth. It was the unmistakeable voice of death. ‘Here you are, in the heart of my realm. I welcome you, Itanu of Myre.’
Itanu curtsied. ‘I am here.’
‘Do you know who I am at last?’
‘You are the goddess Maorth, She Who is the End.’
The child grinned genially, and clapped her small hands. Behind her, the dark flames danced in time with her movements. Maorth, the ancient goddess of death took many guises, but this was the one she most frequently bore. Maorth ran a tiny hand through her curly brown hair and giggled playfully, knocking all of her toys off their feet. She grabbed the hem of her plain black dress and spun a pirouette. Itanu felt a sharp but fleeting pain in her heart, and she winced as if stabbed.
‘You will serve me, Itanu. Etesi is your lady no longer. You are mine.’
Itanu curtsied again. ‘I thank you, lady.’
‘I said when you first entered my Estate that you were here because of what you want.’ The goddess smiled broadly, her baby teeth small and dainty. ‘Are you satisfied with this?’
‘It has been centuries since I have had a servant. Maybe you know of my last.’
Itanu thought, sifting through the new-found knowledge the blood of the Grove had imbued her with. ‘Sosophra Ikananyar.’
‘That is her. She held this world in thrall, and worked in my name admirably. It took that world, Itanu, to bring her to her knees. She was slain and interred in a place even we gods cannot reach.’ The cheer on Maorth’s face sobered, and Itanu flinched to see a dark ferocity in those childlike eyes. ‘But someone has dared to breach this sepulchre. Someone who claims to do deeds in my name.’ The voice turned strident, and Itanu recoiled even more. ‘You, my servant, will punish this blasphemy, and restore the husk of Sosophra to its rightful place. Her days in this world are over, and she may walk them no more, no matter what guise or animus she is possessed of. Come here, servant.’
Itanu did as she was bid. The goddess took one of her hands, and Itanu reeled as a mind limitless and powerful entered her consciousness. ‘I impart some of my might to you, Itanu, for the opponents you face are vested in the skills of sorcery, far exceeding the sly mesmerism of yourself.’
With that gentle touch of hands, Itanu understood. She knew what the Grove of Miosyne was, and what it represented. It was the garden of death, fed by the blood of the slain, nourished by the eternal and unending demise of all mortal humanity.
And she had tasted that blood. Only one before her had ever done this, and she now walked the face of Fels as the reanimated tool of an arrogant necromancer.
Necromancy! Itanu recalled her time with Dolvatam the grave-robber, he who had stolen Umberlust’s holy work from the island of Isura. ‘The book,’ she murmured. ‘The sacred work that rested on the breast of Mistress Gilotica. It is your work, lady.’
‘Yes,’ the goddess answered. ‘I alone hold the secret to death. Some of my wisdom was given to those of Etesi, but now is in the hands of one undeserved. Did not your previous mistress charge you with its recovery?’
‘She did, lady.’
‘Then I charge you likewise. The one who used it to bring back the husk of Rolinna the Consort has passed it on to an associate of his, someone no less lofty in their foolish ambitions. This one purportedly serves me, Itanu.’ The goddess’s voice grew harsh, and the chamber shook to her anger. ‘And has breached a place she was never meant to go, and now Sosophra walks the soil of Fels again. In the far north of the world lies my city of Quscec. Go there, servant, and right what errors you find.’