She felt the fear even before the black towers of Arisbat appeared on the horizon. But abruptly, where the golden plain folded under azure mountains in the distance, she spotted the spires of greenish stone. Seeing the source of her fear made everything worse, as she had known even as a child hiding beneath the blankets from the monsters in her room’s shadows. Semira felt like that child again. She would have hidden in the thick plains grass if Aniver hadn’t been there.
He brushed sweat-damp black curls from his forehead, revealing the round Wizard’s Mark, pink against pale skin. The sweat was probably from the day’s walk, she imagined, rather than any unease.
“The spell was worth it, then,” he said. “If I hadn’t checked our direction we’d have gone much farther north. Missed the aura entirely.”
To fuel the guiding spell he had sacrificed the day they crossed the Larnoss river, when the supply pack had slipped from his shoulders and both of them dove down to get it, dunking each other. After floundering towards shore, they’d laughed their remaining breath away. Now he’d cut the experience from his soul, and Semira didn’t remind him of it.
Aniver glanced at her sidelong. “I’m sorry.”
“For whatever it was I gave up this time. Sorry I can’t be more specific about it, either. I could try....”
He could try to remember. The memory was still there but drained of all significance—whatever it had meant to him was cut away, gone to produce his magic. “That’s wizardry,” Semira said. “I’m not angry. We’ve found Arisbat, haven’t we?”
“That we have.” His full lips pressed in a thin line, but he led the way down into the shadows of the mountains, to the open mouth of the gates.
If the fear was affecting him, Semira saw no sign of it. Perhaps he was working a spell that prevented it from touching him—at a cost she didn’t want to ask after.
Every edifice in Arisbat was built like a fortress: tall and thick-walled, all of black stone, with cramped, narrow doorways and small windows. As he and Semira came to the gates, Aniver studied the figures that had gathered there waiting for them.
Not warriors: narrow, tall people with dark hair and gray skin, dwarfed by the city they called home and bent as if the weight of the shadows was too much for them. Or perhaps it was the fear. Aniver’s legs were weak from it, so that he moved as if walking through syrup. Irritating. Fear was a reaction to danger, and danger could be confronted, dealt with. But there was no confronting this.
“You’re welcome to Arisbat.” The speaker, a young man around Aniver’s age, smiled widely. “For as long as you care to stay.”
Aniver smiled back, and wondered if his expression looked false. Perhaps the Arisbati wouldn’t know a true smile, anyway. “Not long—of course. But we’d like to see your library.”
“That tends to be the case with our visitors. It’s why Ceri and Balkum are here. They’re senior custodians. I’m Raelf. Just a friendly face.” He seemed friendly enough, though not cheerful, and every word he said seemed to cut.
“Ceri. Balkum.” Aniver bowed to them, displaying old manners. Semira offered a naval salute.
“Now I am a little curious.” Raelf crossed his arms, still smiling. “What brings a brown Timrun girl with sailor’s calluses and a wizard....” His dark green eyes went to the glint of gold and spelled crystal between the buttons of Aniver’s jacket, and the tone of a question vanished from his voice. “...a wizard from Nurathaipolis-that-was, here to Arisbat?”
“Exactly.” Aniver pulled the hourglass, with its sand falling eternally in a single direction, from where it rested over his heart. “You recognize this? Then you’ve seen others—”
“A survivor passes through every now and then. Some have stories to add to our collection. Others wish to study.”
“Yes.” Aniver set the hourglass back. “Semira is a friend.” She was flushing beneath her dark skin—Aniver had learned to look for it—having taken Raelf’s sardonic tone to heart. But when Aniver said her name she looked to him, some of the shadows fading from her eyes. “She’s helped me on the journey from Timru... and beyond.”
“We met on the Glass-Clear Sea,” Semira said, and nods of recognition came from the people who lived their days in the shadow of all terrible things.
Raelf stood aside to let them through the gates. “It’s only fair to warn you,” he said. “The other Nurathaipoleans... some just looked for an explanation. But even in our records, there’s no story of another city slipping away through Time. And nobody’s yet found a way to bring it back.”
“We found a hint from the ghosts of the Glass-Clear Sea. Someone we must speak to. A very particular lady.” Aniver turned to Ceri and Balkum. “Can you show us any volumes dealing with Kahzakutri, or the Kingdom of the Dead?”
It was ill-omened to speak the Queen’s name, according to the lore of half a hundred nations, but the librarians of Arisbat didn’t even blink.
The streets were empty, and though evening was passing on not a single window in the square buildings of black stone glowed with light. Semira couldn’t imagine how people lived in them. Perhaps they felt more sheltered inside those hidden rooms than out in the broad streets. She felt exposed here.
At the end of the street she saw a different tower, far taller, made of the same black stone but carved more fluidly. It was organic compared to the geometric, fortresslike structures of the rest of Arisbat, yet suggestive of an alien sort of organism—she thought of needles, or needlelike flowers. Her stomach churned, and she wasn’t sure if it was the omnipresent fear or the eerie sight before her eyes. Aniver had stopped with their guides at the doors of what must be the library. None of them looked towards the tower.
Inside, it was cramped and dim, low-ceiling chambers walled with rough shelves. On some the books were crushed against each other. On others they sat in neat rows like soldiers, as if they had never been touched.
Ceri gave Semira a lantern and left her and Aniver to browse, vanishing with Balkum either into the depths of the library or leaving entirely. Aniver and Semira found the reading room high in the tower. In height, the library exceeded most of the buildings in Arisbat. Only one was taller—and Semira found herself searching for curtains on the window facing it, as if to block the sight of something unsavory watching her. Or to keep herself from watching it.
“The fear,” Aniver said, watching her where she stood, rigid. She wasn’t sure if it was a question.
“I’ll be all right,” she told him.
“Of course you will.” He pushed a leather-wrapped volume across the table. “Here, read up on someone’s, somewhere else’s fears instead.”
“That’s all that’s in here?” She gestured around them. “A library of nothing but frightful things?”
Aniver turned a page absently. “I’ve heard they’re trying to identify it.”
She didn’t have to ask what. “Without much luck, then?”
“Apparently not. Over sixteen thousand writings on dread, danger, tragedy, the uncanny—death and curses and the loss of love and everything—but the fear of Arisbat is still a mystery. No less pervasive for that.” He exhaled sharply as if irritated by his own reaction to it. “At least collecting books is a distraction.”
And reading them was, too, to some extent.
Semira read. The first book was by Kalkushis the Patient. He wrote it after speaking with the Grace of Mercy who roamed the world saving accursed persons, unlucky travelers, wizards caught by the recoil of their spells—all those beyond the help of anyone else. Semira paged through, looking for mention of Kahzakutri or Her kingdom. But.... “Nothing.”
“Try this one.” Aniver handed her another without looking up from his own.
She read about the Horror named Tjeriskalda, who flew on wings sewn from the flayed skins of doves, and about the time the Oondragu curse settled on a demon of the Jeweled Lakes, and the fate of anyone who walked the High North Road unprepared. The darkness grew thicker, except for the island of light cast by her lantern. At the window, light was still visible through the thin curtains—and a line cut across it, the tower. Each breath quivered in her chest as if it wanted to escape. She told herself it was only because of what she was reading.
“Here,” Aniver said. “‘On the far border of Death’s Kingdom flows the River of Unmaking. A black spray blows from it, carried over the lands of the living, and mixes with the mist from the Rivers of Growth and Alteration to form Time.‘”
“Unmaking—that’s the decay that Time brings?” She pushed her book aside. “That would make sense. When Nurathaipolis aged ten centuries in the course of one night, could it have been struck by too many unmixed drops of Unmaking?”
He sat back, wrapping the hourglass’s golden chain around a pale, slender finger. “That might be the cause. But how do we turn it back?”
“Would Kahzakutri tell us?” The name slipped out, and hearing it from her own lips made her stomach coil queasily, but the fear didn’t worsen. “The ghosts pointed you to Her—not to the Library of Arisbat.”
“I’m not one to take directions literally,” Aniver said, half-smiling. “Not without understanding where they’re pointing me. And even I don’t want to stroll into Queen Death’s kingdom. Before I inevitably must, of course.”
“What if you have to go to Her?”
“At least I’ll go prepared.” He looked up from the page, fixing her with a shape gaze. “You needn’t come, Semira.”
She turned back to the book before her. She heard a soft sound from across the table, like dry leaves rustling in a cold wind.
Semira searched for any mention of the Queen of the Dead, Her dread Name or many epithets. She didn’t show Aniver anything she wasn’t certain of—which was little enough.
“Everything I’ve read agrees on one thing: they all claim Kahz—She was the first person to ever die.”
“And?” Aniver asked.
“That’s not true—can it be? It’s not as if we could pinpoint the first person at the point where they evolved from primates in trees.” She sighed. “This is why I hate sorting through all this myth. Nothing’s ever so clear-cut.”
“Not if we concentrate purely on what makes a person.” Aniver smiled faintly. “Perhaps the word we should look at is die.”
“Well, creatures have been dying for far longer than human beings have existed.”
“Not really.” He half-rose from his seat, one hand shaping gestures that clearly meant something to him but were all arcane to Semira. “The Queen of Death isn’t Lady of some biological process or its cessation. Death is something more, at least to humans—a fear, a loss, a dark journey. Perhaps Kahzakutri was the first being ever to understand that. To realize that when She died She would be gone, that She did exist and might cease to exist, that there was a future beyond each moment and that one day, She would no longer be able to see it....”
“So the Queen of the Dead is the first person ever to be frightened out of Her wits at the prospect of death?”
“Or frightened into them,” Aniver said. His colorless eyes stared at something in the space between them, something Semira couldn’t see. “Strong emotion shapes the soul, and the soul creates spells. That sort of fear, properly harnessed, could make a woman a goddess. Perhaps even better, from Her perspective, such a transformation would consume the fear. Problem solved—for Her, at least. The rest of us must muddle on.”
“Cheerful,” Semira said. “Except—I almost think it would be. If I could fear something normal like death here. Instead... it feels as if there’s something worse.... If that’s possible?”
“It’s just Arisbat.” Aniver folded his arms. “The dread you’re feeling doesn’t have a source. You’re not afraid of anything, or for any reason. Don’t let it get to you.”
“It has a source,” Semira said.
He looked over her shoulder, out the window. “Oh, that.”
“What’s in the tower?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Quite possibly nothing. It’s only a strange building—there are many such in the world—and what you’re feeling is just the curse of Arisbat. ”
“It’s more than that.” She pressed her damp palms to the tabletop, feeling splinters cut into them, grateful for the grounding discomfort. “If you feel even half of what I do, you know it’s like there’s something waiting... watching us....”
“Yes, it is unpleasant, isn’t it?” He met her eyes. “I do feel it, Semira. And I hate it.”
She smiled weakly. “Same here.”
“We’ve faced so much. The fall of Nurathaipolis, the taste of the Glass-Clear sea and the voices of its dead... the Queen of Yesterday, and two months running from that pack of Hounds. All of that—it was terrible at its very presence. But at least it was present.” He shook his head. “Sometimes you can be so afraid of something that you don’t dare admit or acknowledge it. But here there’s nothing to acknowledge, to confront. Only fear.”
“A real problem, for heroes like us,” Semira said.
He laughed, but nodded.
“What about the tower, though? What if something’s there, and we’re just refusing to admit it?”
“What might be in there?” Aniver leaned towards her across the table, hands rigid on its surface, betraying his struggle to keep his tone light. “What could you imagine would be in there?”
“I don’t know.... I can’t think of anything that might sit away in a tower, and still cause all this terror.”
“And nobody else in Arisbat has ever been able to.” He bent back over the books. Across the table, Semira did the same.
She felt drowsy halfway through the Book of Questions, and lay her head down when she’d read the last line of Chapter Four—Can God create monsters even He is afraid of? She might have slept, uneasily, but she didn’t reach the state of unconsciousness that would have been welcome.
Even in dreams, she was frightened.
She woke with a scream in her throat, but swallowed it before it became more than a whimper. Her heart pounded hard enough that she felt its echo against the back of her chair. Her throat was so dry she struggled to speak, and through the panic spinning in her head she had a hard time finding words.
“What’s happening?” she said.
Aniver wasn’t sitting where she had last seen him, and she didn’t want to look for him—she didn’t want to know what she might find in the room’s shadows. But she heard his voice from her left, very quiet but firm.
“This happens sometimes. The fear comes stronger, for moments or hours. In Arisbat they call it a Storm.”
She turned to see him crouched at the foot of a bookshelf. One hand rested on his throat, as if he were making a physical effort to keep his voice steady.
Aniver met her eyes and nodded, perhaps in an attempt at reassuring her, then rested his head heavily against the shelf. “I was reaching for Dimrah’s Lament when I just... couldn’t do it. I wasn’t strong enough, brave enough... not brave enough to take a book from the shelf.” He closed his eyes. “I thought, It’s coming. But what? That was a quarter-hour ago, nothing’s come, but I still....”
Semira made her way to him, unsteady as if on a rocking deck. He took her outstretched hand and the point of contact became an anchor, and axis; something steady to work around. The fear didn’t abate, but its quality changed: from dread to dizzy panic to the icy clutch of despair. Semira thought of rushing winds, coming and abating, and of sudden downpours of rain. Of storms.
“Well,” Aniver said. He stood now, still grasping her hand, and the corners of his lips were drawn in fine lines. “There’s no way we can continue through this.”
“It’ll pass, won’t it?”
“Of course. But not for hours. And I wanted to find what we needed in time to leave Arisbat by tomorrow morning.” He shook his head. “There’s no way we could study or even rest amid this.”
A strange light seemed to seep past the drawn curtains. Semira tried not to look at it, but she saw its greenish white gleam everywhere—slick on waxed wood shelves and tables, sinking into leather-bound books and soft paper without really illuminating. It made everything look alive and sick. “What other choice do we have?”
The glow danced at the rim of Aniver’s wizard’s sign, making him twice marked: a circle of darkness containing a circle of pale flesh. “Perhaps there’s a way to stop it.”
“To end the fear of Arisbat?”
His smile quivered. “Even I’m not that ambitious. Stopping the Storm would be enough.”
“Because that’s any easier.”
He turned to her. “This is our one chance to learn what we need to know. When we leave Arisbat, do you think we’ll ever return? Not likely.” He went to the curtains, but didn’t draw them back, just stared as if his gaze could pierce the cloth as the light did. “I’m not going to waste my time cowering here.”
“You’re too scared to pick up a book,” Semira said. “I’m sorry, Aniver, but how can you possibly face... whatever it is?”
“Some of the books here,” he said, “are quite frightening.” Which wasn’t really an answer, but it was all he gave her before he strode out the doors and down the staircase. And though the thought of following him through the streets of Arisbat made Semira feel faint, she did it anyway.
Despite the glow piercing through the windows at its top, the base of the tower itself was in shadow. Semira felt like they were approaching a monster that was by some miracle overlooking them. The bricks of the street around the tower were cracked and neglected—hardly surprising. She still had to bite down a yelp each time one shifted beneath her feet.
“Semira,” Aniver said faintly. She turned and caught him as he stumbled and fell against her like a sack of meal.
“I just tried... attacking the tower directly,” he said in her ear. “...It didn’t work.”
“I’m not surprised,” she hissed back. “What did you fuel the attack with?”
She drew back to see his face—pale, but otherwise composed. “You loved that game.”
“I loved playing it with you.”
He sighed. “Right. I’m sorry.”
She wondered if he’d have thought to apologize if the spell had worked. If she’d have wanted an apology then.
“Well, we might as well go on.”
“You can let go of me now. I’m fine.”
They found a door at the base of the tower, seemingly made of the same smooth, dark stone as the rest of the walls. At her touch, it swung open lightly as a flake of balsa wood. The room beyond was a strange, many-sided shape, so dark it seemed to drink in the flare of the magelight that appeared in Aniver’s hand.
He met her eyes. “Nothing you’d remember.”
The bit of his soul he’d used was either old, then, or of minor importance. Just significant enough that its sacrifice fueled the spell. Semira nodded, swallowing, and together they stepped inside.
It would kill her, she realized then with cold, knife-sharp clarity. Whatever was in the tower would utterly unmake her; she was going to die and there was no power that could save her—
Aniver’s hand grasped hers with bruising force.
“We should have expected that,” he said, almost steadily.
His free hand still cupped the magelight. He raised it and she could see the staircase, narrow and unfinished-looking, vanishing into the darkness above them.
“It’s up there,” Aniver said. And so they went up.
After an uncertain time the staircase landed ended at the groaning floor of another room. Despite the noise, Semira didn’t feel the flex of old boards beneath her feet. She looked down and saw they stood on flagstones. Flagstones that moaned at the touch of their feet.
That wasn’t what scared her. She wished it had been; that would have made things much simpler. But the fear wouldn’t admit such a simple origin; it kept telling her there was worse, much worse, waiting for her above.
Aniver was studying one of the walls, where the dark stone was covered with an even darker pattern; a vast, complex arabesque with coils shimmering in an iridescence independent of the magelight. One corner of his mouth pulled in a partly restrained frown.
“It’s a Banishing,” he said. “Clearly they don’t want wizards here.”
“But you are here.”
“Only as long as I don’t try anything.” He reached out as if to touch the markings, then drew back. “The moment I begin a spell, I’ll be sent away—far away from here.” He closed his eyes and sighed, not a defeated sound but a tired one. And that was still distressing, because Aniver never let anyone see when he was tired.
Semira tried to think of a comforting response when the Storm buffeted her again, fear washing over her like thick, cold liquid, and she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, and she was going to break into a thousand pieces under the force of it.
Aniver turned his face to the wall.
He had not planned to die in some absurdly cursed tower during what amounted to an over-embellished library visit. But all his senses reported that this was exactly what would happen. Then again, he’d never planned to die at all—few people healthy in body or mind did. And Aniver certainly didn’t plan to before restoring Nurathaipolis. At least he could win that, after everything—
I’m not going to die here. It just feels that way. It’s just that fear this strong can only be imagined in the face of something so dangerous, so terrible, so inevitable....
Kahzakutri had faced this terror and found power in it, power enough to become Queen of the Dead.
And he planned to come before Her, demanding that She set the Time-Lost Cities right like a neighbor who had let dandelion seeds blow over from an ill-kept garden?
I can do it. I only need to know how to ask, what exactly is needed, the right things to say. I can save Nurathaipolis. I have to.
The fear laughed at him.
“Aniver...?” Semira’s voice was faint, frightened. He should help her, his friend, but he didn’t know how.
The mockery continued, his skin prickling at the cold breath of unheard laughter. It knew why he had come here; why he’d pushed himself to confront a Storm. He’d known there would be fear, but fear could be power to his kind.
But this terror wasn’t power, wasn’t something he could master.
He tried to draw back from the panic, putting emotion and sensation at a distance, examining things rationally. But the very atmosphere of Arisbat was panic, and now it danced with a Storm. There was no way to escape it, but he had to, had to get away....
The Banishing on the wall swam before him, waving like seaweed in the Storm’s currents.
He had to get somewhere he could think.
Aniver murmured words to that effect, and the Marks on the wall and on his flesh blazed with answering light. He fell away through the sickening glow.
Aniver was—gone. Semira stared at the place he had been, blinking. Expecting him to be returned at any moment, for this example of Arisbat’s continuing games to run its course. He couldn’t have gone.
This was his mission; he wouldn’t let anything take him from it.
She waited for what seemed like an age, each breath cold and harsh in her mouth. His absence stretched out—ten heartbeats, twenty, fifty, one hundred. Her heart was speeding up, ready to burst.
Semira closed her eyes and took a single deep breath. Her head cleared. Fear still pounded at every membrane of her body like a drum, but her self had taken a step back from it, could observe things almost impartially.
She would open her eyes, and if Aniver was still gone, she would accept it.
She had crewed her uncle’s ship during storms. She had trimmed rigging, climbing high above the rocking desk, lashed with hard, chilling rain. She hadn’t liked it, hadn’t wanted to, had at times been almost paralyzed with dread at the thought—but it needed doing, so she had done it.
Semira opened her eyes.
Aniver had never been Banished before. It was a peculiar feeling, like plummeting a long distance without losing one’s wits or one’s stomach. Not unpleasant.
He hadn’t actually gone very far; the spell set him down on a hill only half a mile from Arisbat. Not quite beyond the influence of the fear—or of the tower, which was perhaps the same thing. That made sense. The tower had limits to its powers. But it also had the fear—and so long as he could still feel it, the tower didn’t need to send him farther away.
He could do that on his own.
The grasslands around him whispered in the night breeze. He wanted to follow the wind, to run from Arisbat. Never mind that he would have to face Kahzakutri ignorant and alone. She was only Queen of the Dead, and the horror that Arisbat’s fear suggested was far, far worse.
Aniver had seen the dead before, had stood surrounded by them, plucked at by insubstantial fingers as they danced to the Fiddler’s song when she summoned them with music that drew blood from her fingers, red beads sliding over the instrument’s strings. The inhuman dead of the Glass-Clear Sea, still hurting and angry after the water had washed over their cities a thousand years ago. The loss that would never die.
If he failed, if Kahzakutri wouldn’t grant his request, the city would lie buried in rot and dust forever. All its history and wisdom and art forgotten; just another blighted spot on the curse-strewn world.
But to gain the knowledge he needed to face Kahzakutri, he would have to return to Arisbat.
He shivered and the wind in the grass, blowing from the tower, seemed to whisper his name. The fear plucked at him like the dead once had.
He put the wind to his back and fled.
The magelight remained, even though Aniver had vanished to the Graces knew where. It rested in Semira’s fingers when she cupped a hand around it, and now at least her way up the black stair was illuminated. Not that there was anything to see. Just endless steps.
The lack of anything at all was starting to unnerve her.
The idea of nerves in Arisbat was laughable. She kept climbing. Perhaps she’d grow used to it—the stairs and the fear. Did the people who lived here, the Arisbati, ever grow used to it? She remembered the drawn faces that had welcomed her and Aniver, the vast library collected in an attempt to understand terror, and she grasped the steep steps before her in an effort to stay upright.
But then why did they live here? What kept them in this city?
Asking questions, playing at puzzles, helped distract her from the fear, enough to keep going. Blood pounded in her ears so loudly she couldn’t hear her own footsteps, though she couldn’t shake the impression of half-heard words drifting from just above or below her. But she was growing used to the uncanny now.
Without Aniver, there was little she could do against whatever was producing the fear. Semira knew that. She didn’t know what else to do. And so she kept going.
The grass began to murmur her name.
Just imagination, Aniver told himself. He had walked beyond the range of the fear some time ago, the fear that was beyond reason or source or hope of confrontation. Yet uneasiness lingered, and now he felt—or heard—the product of restless nerves. Nothing more. The wind in the grass was just a sound, and Semira was—
—in the town of Arisbat. In the Storm.
Where he had left her.
Where he had abandoned her. He’d given in. He’d given up.
But now there was no Storm, only the wind in the grass whose sharp edges lashed around him as Aniver turned, back to the blighted city in the shadow of the mountains, and started running. He ran back into the fear, which closed around him like water, suffocating and turbulent. He ran to the gates and they opened at his touch, forced in by a spell fueled with the strength of some event already fading from his memory, something about childhood and his father and the bright river that flowed through Nurathaipolis. He ran through the streets, towards the tower.
He almost ran right into Raelf.
The young man raised his eyebrows without the slightest twitch of his friendly smile. Aniver suspected no part of the expression was natural, but then, Raelf did seem inclined towards sarcasm. It would have been an irritating habit anywhere but under the shadow of Arisbat. Here it was disturbing.
There were men and women behind Raelf, a dark-clad line—some sort of uniform? Or perhaps Arisbat’s tailors were unimaginative—stretched across the street. Blocking his way.
Aniver made to step around them, but as he moved they shifted into a tighter formation.
“She’s in the tower,” he snapped. Thinking that would be enough to move them. They of all people knew what that tower was like, how dangerous it was. How the sheer force of the terror dwelling in it could twist people into things that they weren’t, that they shouldn’t be. They had to understand, to let him go to Semira before it touched her. Before she changed or broke or worse.
“Let me pass.”
“I’m afraid,” Raelf said, “that we must let your friend continue on alone.”
“Please,” Aniver said, the last thing he could do short of a spell.
Still smiling, Raelf shook his head. He did not stand aside.
Semira was no longer sure if the heartbeat she heard pounding was her own. It seemed too large for her frail body, too steady for her quivering nerves. It seemed to come from the rafters in shadow above her.
As if the fear itself had a heartbeat.
Was that possible?
Aniver’s magelight had begun to flicker, quick flashes of darkness hardly longer than blinking. But that meant the magic was failing, and soon she would be left without it.
Semira kept going.
Alone, as he had left her.
She crossed another landing, whose boards groaned beneath her feet as if in pain.
He’d abandoned her the way he sacrificed everything else in his life, just tools for his art or his quest to regain Nurathaipolis or, it seemed, saving his own skin. He’d run away like a coward without a glance back. But Aniver wasn’t a coward.
Well, maybe in Arisbat he’d become one.
She’d always known they’d part sooner or later. He hadn’t asked for her in the first place; had just accepted her company when she followed him from the dock in Timru. Because after the things she’d seen on the island in the Glass-Clear Sea, she couldn’t go back to being a sailor and leave him on his own.
Yes, Semira had always known she’d be lost one day. She’d just expected the circumstances to be more dire, the sacrifice more noble. Not a by-the-way abandonment by a fear-crazed coward.
She’d hoped to be one of the significant things he gave up.
Now Arisbat had taken even that much of Aniver from her.
Semira kept going.
“You’d be surprised at what she may accomplish, your young sailor friend,” Raelf continued. “Very few people have ever reached so far. She is....” He squinted at the tower as if he could see through its walls. “So close.”
“Close to what?” Aniver asked.
Raelf shrugged. “She’ll soon find out.” He sidestepped into Aniver’s path as Aniver was about to dive past him. “We’ll have to ask you not to interfere with this. It may be our best chance.”
“Best chance for what?”
“To be free,” Raelf said simply, the artful expression melting from his face. “We want to be free of it so badly. But it’s always there, not just in the tower but in our minds. We could leave this city, run forever, and the fear would still be with us. Unless the source of the fear is confronted.” His gaze sharpened. “As I believe you planned to do earlier this evening.”
“But I couldn’t,” Aniver said. “It was too much for me. And Semira—”
“Is braver than you, it seems.” A sigh rose from the Arisbati behind Raelf, as if from yearning they hardly dared voice.
“So you want Semira to confront... whatever is causing the terror here?”
“Not alone. I was going to be the one to—”
“But you failed. Don’t be ashamed. Most people do.” Raelf shifted. “So it’s that much more important that nobody interferes when we find someone who is brave enough.”
“But what happens if she fails?” Aniver asked. “She can’t leave like I did—she isn’t a wizard, just an ordinary woman, hardly more than a girl. At the very least, she might go mad.”
“She probably has already,” Raelf said dryly.
There was a light on the next landing. At least, it seemed like a light.
She could see it against the blackness of the room, a green-white glow like they’d seen on the buildings around the tower, but compared to the magelight flickering in her hands it held no soft glow, provided no illumination. It seemed tiny yet large all at once, and rested in the center of the room, though it lay farther beyond her than should have been possible in the narrow confines of the chamber.
Studying it distracted her from the fear for a whole three seconds. It had gotten stronger at each landing, and now she could barely stand its presence. She had been crying on and off the past half-hour, but now her very lungs seemed chilled with terror, too stiff for sobbing. She was too afraid to think of running; she wanted to curl up in a warm, safe place and never move from it again. But there was no safe place.
She stepped carefully around the not-light, looking for the next flight of stairs, but found none. She could go down the way she came, but not farther up.
She had reached the top of the tower.
And this thing in the center—terror flowed off it in waves and ripples, like water from the source of a spring. This bone-colored fissure in the atmosphere of the room, the size of her palm, the size of the sun, was the reason for the Storms of Arisbat, for the blighted library, for her pounding heart, for the way Aniver had abandoned her.
She stepped closer to it and felt a thrill of horror, heady as if in the face of death. The entire world seemed made of fear; it was all that was left.
The magelight in her hands flickered out, proving that whatever the white thing was, it did not illuminate. Semira fell into darkness. It hardly made her more afraid.
“You don’t want to go after her anyway.” A member of the crowd spoke, a woman with streaks of gray in her hair despite the childish fullness of her face. “You ran, remember? It won’t be any easier the second time around.”
“You’re already so afraid.” Another voice, from another portion of the gathering, soft and somber.
“You’ve been afraid since the day Nurathaipolis died.”
“When you lost everything.”
“When you learned you could lose everything.”
Aniver closed his eyes, as if he could stop this by refusing to see it, like a child hiding from attacking shadows beneath his blankets. The words bit into him, worked their way beneath his flesh, crawling towards his heart like insects converging on a rotten apple.
“And you can’t bring it back.”
“Can’t save it.”
“You try and you try with this wild quest of yours, but it’s a distraction, a way to pretend you’re in control.”
“So much for that,” Raelf said, not bothering to hide the cutting edge in his voice now. “What next? You’ve even lost your companion, your servant and worshipper. Your days will be duller now. And a dull soul is a weak soul, for a wizard.”
“Yes,” Aniver murmured.
Still they spoke. “You’ve already given up so many precious bits of your life, and how many of those did you owe in the first place to that girl?”
“Without her,” one said, chuckling, “you’ll hardly have a soul left.”
At that, he opened his eyes. “She’s not gone yet. And my soul isn’t empty. Because of her, and partly thanks to you. It’s full of fear. I’m terrified for her. And I can use that.”
The pulse of the Storm shifted once more, rising up. It struck her like the salt-laden spray driven by an ocean wind.
It sent Semira cowering in the dark. The fear waited, so close to her, close enough to reach out and touch. If it touched her she would die, she knew. Lungs freezing, heart bursting, mind slipping loose. Already she could feel herself going mad. Tears pricked the corners of her eyes, stung her face raw as they dripped to the floor with sounds thunderous in the silence.
One touch. One second’s contact with the source of this, of which all the horror must be only a shadow... and she knew she was drawing closer. The space in the room was diminishing, so that she might brush against death if she only stumbled in the wrong direction. Of course, she would also risk plummeting down the stairs, a fear so prosaic she hardly noticed it under the circumstances.
She tried to hold very still and quiet.
Aniver pulled the fear from his soul, and with it he shaped a bridge, slender and long and stronger than iron, leading right into the heart of the tower. Where the terror’s source lived. Where Semira was.
He stepped onto it and climbed, over the heads of Raelf and the Arisbati, out of their reach. It was the work of seconds to arrive in a room choked with darkness and horror, and then the bridge melted away behind him as his concentration finally snapped. No quick escape, then.
And suddenly the fear the spell had devoured came back, crashing over him.
“Semira?” he called, his voice very small.
A sigh, a half-shaped word, from the other side of the room. “Aniver?”
“Yes.” He coughed, clearing his throat, and repeated, “Yes. I’m here.”
A muffled sound came, and as he worked his way towards it, it grew louder, or at least more recognizable: soft laughter. “So am I, as it turns out,” she said.
“First,” Aniver remarked briskly, “we’d best have a light.”
A warm glow blossomed from the far side of the space, and there in its midst she saw Aniver. He didn’t meet her eyes. He was looking at something else—the not-light. What she had come to think of as the fear, certainly as its source. It was right beside her, hovering above her hand like a butterfly about to settle.
So small and delicate and so afraid.
One touch could kill. One touch.
It darted back, and without thinking Semira went after it.
And she knew, as she had always known beneath the terror choking her thoughts—it gave off storms of fear because it was afraid. She felt its terror, constant, beyond the reach of reason or courage. The idea consuming her was its idea.
One touch could kill. No wonder it was so afraid.
It was fighting for its life, after all.
As it damn well should.
“Semira,” Aniver whispered. His voice cut through the Storm, through the horror and the anger both boiling inside her. She looked up at him and smiled.
Then she lunged for the source of the fear and closed her hand around it.
A silent scream ended, a strange breeze sweeping through the streets, a well of horror gone dry, a whimper of relief as the world went strange.
A Storm blew over and away.
With the fear of Arisbat extinguished, the tower became much more bearable, but Aniver shaped another bridge to circumvent climbing down all those stairs. He fueled the spell with an overwhelming feeling of relief. A pleasant emotion, one he would rather have kept—but Semira didn’t look like she’d enjoy the climb, and her comfort seemed more important.
They landed before a gathering of Arisbati, those who had blocked the road with Raelf now joined by others who had come out of their homes, the way people did after a storm had passed. They looked among each other, dazed and a little uneasy with their newfound peace.
“Well,” Semira said, so faintly that Aniver had to lower his ear to her mouth, “I believe we just destroyed a centuries-old curse on an infamous city.”
“I’m afraid so,” Aniver said. “And unwritten a proverb in the process. ‘Constant as the fear of Arisbat’ seems a bit outdated now.”
“Along with ‘Quiet as the Glass-Clear Sea’.” Semira grinned. “What shall we do for an encore?”
“‘Lost as Nurathaipolis-that-was,’ I imagine,” Aniver said casually. “Shouldn’t be too hard for us. I think we left our things in the library.”
“You have studies to catch up on.”
“A few, yes.”
She looked at the streets around them, their dark stone lightening with a rose-gray sheen in the dawn. “I wonder what it was, and how it got there in the first place.”
“We’ll probably never know,” Aniver said. “But you did enough—you figured out how to stop it.”
“One touch could kill it.” She looked down at her hands, then folded them away in the pockets of her trousers. “The idea came to me the same as the fear. Its idea, its fear. It was so afraid....”
He smiled. “We may make a wizard of you yet.”
Semira winced. “No, thanks. Even if the gods would choose me at this late an age, I....”
He had slipped an arm around her shoulders, supporting her. Now her own arm went around him, pulling him close. Her fingers dug into him, hard enough to hurt.
He nodded, understanding, and didn’t let go of her for a long time.