Authors: Raymond E Feist
RAYMOND E. FEIST
This one’s for John and Tammy
HE SKIES SHRIEKED
Overhead, a storm of black energies shot out tendrils that reached forth and attached themselves to the first structure they encountered. The sound generated was almost as terrifying as the sight of everything they touched collapsing into rubble.
The inhabitants of the city fled in abject terror, ignoring the plight of others, even family or close friends. Above the onrushing tide of darkness loomed a figure, a thing of such massive size and monstrosity that it lay beyond comprehension.
The remaining King’s Guardians did what they could to oppose the Darkness: but there was little they could achieve against such madness. A female fled through the streets amidst the trampling throng. Fearful of what she might see, she chanced a quick glance behind her and clutched her child to her chest.
Other city residents huddled in doorways, given over to despair, waiting the inevitability of their own destruction, clinging weeping to one another, or staring towards the Centre, whence the Darkness was coming.
From the Time Before Time legends about the Final End had persisted, but these stories were seen as nothing more than metaphors, cautionary tales with which the Elders might teach children so they could contribute usefully to the People during this particular Endurance.
It was said that some Elders had repeated the Endurance so many times that they remembered bits and pieces of previous incarnations and had begun to piece together the plan of everything in the world. It was even whispered that some had ventured into the realms of madness – known as the ‘Other Places’ or ‘the Outside’ – or even to the edge of the Void, and returned, but few credited such reports as anything other than tall tales.
The People rejoiced in their Existence and their Endurance, and when their personal end came they knew it was no more than an interruption of the Eternal Journey.
But what they faced now was the Final End, the termination of the Eternal Journey, and no words existed to express the terror and anguish that assailed them.
The female pushed through a knot of the People clustered at an intersection in the centre of the city’s Eastern Canton. Some had come to seek the Sunrise Gate but having come here did not seem to know what to do next.
Nothing in the history of the People had prepared them for the Darkness.
The mother looked down at her child, who clutched her robe with delicate claws, her black eyes enormous in the still-tiny face. ‘My child,’ she whispered, and although the screams and cries from those surrounding them drowned out the sound, the child saw her mother’s lips move and understood. She smiled at her mother, showing rapidly growing fangs. Her baby skin had already sloughed off and her first set of scales were visible. If she could feed her, her mother thought, she would grow quickly and would be better able to flee.
‘But flee where?’
Out of the gate to the Quartz Mountains and through the Valley of Flame, then on to the Kingdom’s boundary. It was rumoured that others had found safety in the Kingdom of Ma’har, to the south, where age-old enmities had been put aside in the face of the common terror.
The mother elbowed her way through the press, sensing more than seeing that a fight had erupted to the north. Ancient per ceptions, buried under civilized training, rose to the surface to aid her and the child. Along with them rose ancient hungers, appetites for the flesh of something more substantial than the lesser animals the King had decreed would form their sustenance. Soon the People would become like the Mad Ones, struggling for survival by devouring one another. She sensed that several threats were converging, threats that would soon turn into feeding frenzies, and she knew that to be caught up in one of those would be her doom or the child’s, or both.
She chanced a brief look back and as she had suspected, claws were being wielded and fangs were dripping blood. A feeding frenzy would soon sweep through this area of the city and even with her child’s life in the balance, she could easily be caught up in it. Neither of them had fed in a very long time.
A few Guardians not detailed to delay the onslaught were quickly intervening, their flaming swords rising and falling, dispatching not only those involved in the nascent frenzy but also those unfortunate enough to be slow in departing.
She turned and fled.
Once, like so many who lived in the city, she had marvelled at the splendour of the King and his Guardians. They were magnificent in their armour, their terrible beauty a source of fear and breeding lust. It was forbidden for a Guardian to breed, but that didn’t still a young female’s desire when they flew by, their massive red wings unfurled, eyes blazing as they sought out any source of discord which might break the King’s peace.
Now, she wondered how anyone could gaze back at the all-consuming Darkness and imagine any part of the realm enjoying the King’s peace.
She hurried on to join a press of frightened citizens making their way through the Sunrise Gate, the eastern entrance to the King’s city. The jostling and bumping threatened to turn into fights, and fights would turn into frenzies. She felt her fear and rage rising. Glancing down at the child she found its eyes studying her face. It seemed to see more, know more, than a baby should.
The streets running eastward were becoming ever more crowded as others sought to put as much distance between themselves and the coming Final End. She turned down a back alley, running past two males who appeared to be on the verge of conflict, the energy generated by one’s mounting rage acting like a beacon to others nearby. Within minutes another melee would erupt, drawing the attention of the Guardians; and then yet more lives would be lost.
Part of her wondered, as she ducked around a corner, if there was any point in trying to maintain order in the face of the Final End anyway, especially now that the King was gone. Those Guardians left behind were attempting to keep the peace, but to what end?
Everyone lived and died by the King’s edict: his word was law, which was how it was and always had been.
Thus had the Kingdom of Dahun flourished through many Endurances, and Existence was as it should be. The People thrived, at peace with the other kingdoms, safe from the pre dations of the Savage Ones and the Mad Ones beyond.
But now he was gone.
She found herself assailed by a rising hopelessness, an alien emotion for which she had no name. Suddenly she wondered why she should go on, whether there was anything to gain by it. And then her child stirred against her, and she knew the answer.
The child was hungry. And so was she.
She spoke her own name, ‘Lair’ss,’ as if she wished her child to remember it.
So much left undone
, she thought as she hurried on.
With the King gone no one could say what would become of the People now that the Final End was approaching, but she was determined to see her child to safety or die trying.
When she reached the wall, she saw the stairs to the ramparts were empty, so she climbed to get a better view of the gate. As she had feared, riots were underway everywhere as terrified people tried to leave, but the remaining Guardians at the gate held them back. No one could leave the city without the King’s writ; and the King was gone. She paused, fearful and undecided.
She turned and looked down on the city of her birth: Das’taas. It had been a place of terrifying majesty, and although it was never truly at rest, it had gradually achieved a state of equipoise, a state almost approaching tranquillity. While the People would never be without their impulses towards bloody violence and destruction, the King and his Guardians had managed to keep it to a minimum, even though there were many with ancient memories which stretched back to the Time Before Time, when the People had lived like the Savages and the Mad Ones; when every individual had been spawned in the birth pits, creatures of frantic need and limited power. Strength had been earned and the price had been bloody. Child had eaten child and the victor had emerged stronger, smarter and more cunning. The subsequent battles were never-ending.
Then Dahun had arisen, as had Maarg, Simote and others, each carving out their empires. Of all these rulers, Dahun had moved farthest from the madness and savagery that marked the People. But his most bitter enemy, Maarg, had been more like the Mad Ones during his rule. Dahun had instituted laws and created the Guardians and the majesty of the People had reached its highest expression, seeking to evolve them in a way unknown before. In the end, Maarg had created a realm in which the chaos of the Mad Ones had been contained, channelled, and used to build a meritocracy, in which merit was defined by strength, cunning, and the ability to recruit allies, vassals, and protectors.
All this Lair’ss knew: her memories, and those of others, flowed through her as she looked at the city, trying to decide what she should do. She crouched to prevent her child and herself from being seen against the sky by those below. Where were the flyers? she wondered.
The child stirred, hunger making her fractious. Lair’ss slapped her lightly, just enough to communicate danger but not hard enough to hurt and the child fell quiet instantly, understanding the warning.
The role of parent was not natural to the People. Yet for generations Dahun had demanded pairs meet, mate, and then rear children. The days of crawling out of the birth pits were behind them and each parent was required to teach a child as well as provide for it. Letting the child die or giving in to rage and killing it brought harsh punishment. Like all of her clan and class, Lair’ss did not fully understand all she had been taught. She had spent most of her youth dreaming of murder and male mates until she had been paired with Dagri. Then she had learned a skill, becoming a mender of garments, working long hours in a room with other females.
Each night she would return to her mate, but he had perished opposing the Final End that was now upon them. Now, she felt an unfamiliar pang at the thought of him; she hadn’t particularly liked Dagri when Dahun’s Masjester had paired them. Still, he had become familiar and the child seemed to find him agreeable. He had been a vassal of a rising servant of the King, and had gained rank and some prestige. He was young and powerful, and the matings had been fun and always rewarding. She had even felt some delight when giving him the news that she would bear a child, which had been an unexpectedly pleasant experience. She was not sure why, but she had found joy in knowing he wanted that child. Now she felt an emptiness inside her when she thought of Dagri. He had left with the King’s army to fight against Maarg, and neither the King nor Dagri had returned. She had often wondered what had happened. Had he died in battle surrounded by comrades and enemies? The image that came to her brought her both sadness and pride. Or was he lost in some distant land, with no way of returning? That image made her grieve.
Yet despite everything coming to ruin around her, she still felt it was her duty to Dagri to care for his child. She glanced down at it now, large enough that its weight was a burden on her arm, and saw those dark eyes regarding her again. What was it thinking? Did it think?
She shook her head, knowing the answer. Of course it thought. She had killed for it and seen it eat, making it stronger and smarter. Even now the child responded to her quiet words or touch, as Lair’ss wished. If anything, the child was cunning enough that if she could feed it one or two more times, it would become more of an ally in this flight and less of a hindrance.
Lair’ss knew it was time. With everything falling apart, the stricture against preying on others of the People would no longer be obeyed. She was certain others had already taken to the old ways and as a result potential enemies, those who would devour her and the child, were growing more powerful and arising at every hand.
She peered in all directions until she saw a furtive figure hiding in the shadows below. A small being, it trembled at being discovered.
In a swift series of moves, Lair’ss put down the child, giving it a warning poke to keep it quiet, leapt from the rampart to the stairs halfway down, and was upon the hiding figure before it knew it. After delivering a quick stunning blow, she carried the limp being up to her child.
No sooner had the unconscious figure been laid on the stones than the child threw herself with astonishing energy upon it. The shock of the attack roused the tiny creature, but Lair’ss was ready for it. A long talon slashed its throat.
Fighting back her own hunger, the mother watched her daughter feed. She could swear she saw the child grow before her eyes. The need to push the child aside and feed upon the creature herself was almost overwhelming, but her mind was still relatively free of animal rage and she knew it was crucial that the child grow quickly. She would be too large to carry now, but after this feast, she should grow large enough that she should be able to keep pace with her mother.
Ignoring her own hunger pangs, Lair’ss watched as the corpse was consumed – bone, sinew, hair, and skin – until nothing was left but the simple robe and sandals it wore. Lair’ss’s brow furrowed. In her haste she had not noticed the design of the robes. The dead creature was an Archivist, a keeper of knowledge.
Now her daughter looked at her, her gaze narrowing for an instant. Then she spoke her first words. ‘Thank you, Mother. That was . . . enlightening.’
‘You can talk . . .?’ said Lair’ss, stating the obvious. ‘This one . . . lacked strength or magic . . . but he had knowledge.’ The child spoke each word carefully, as if trying them out and judging them before uttering a syllable. Then she rose up on slightly unsteady feet; the growth she had gained from her feasting had changed her balance and she needed a few minutes to adjust. Then she looked at her mother and added, ‘A great deal of knowledge.’
Lair’ss knew fear then. Before her eyes, in a matter of minutes, her daughter had ceased being a mewling infant and was now a young adult, one with memories and knowledge belonging to the most guarded caste of the King’s courts, the Archivists.