Hidden by the faery cloak, Aidan fled along the shore of the inlet and up into the hills. The darkest portion of the night had passed, and faint stars winked in the sky—adding a scant glimmer to the blue gleam of the vast, towering bridge.
Aidan crossed the black-paved square at the base of the sacred mountain and slipped past the faceless sentries at the gateway. She ran up the steep path like one who flees in a nightmare. Her one thought was to reach the well and place the green-black stone within—to put an end at last to the nightmare, though she could not foresee what the end would be. Nearing the portal, she had to force herself to walk slowly, so she could catch her breath and move with stealth past the guards.
Hood pulled well over her face, Aidan stole into the cavern. In the wavering light of flaming cressets, Balorian soldiers guarded the bottom of the stairway. To avoid them, Aidan crept along the gallery and down the narrow stairs at the side.
In the dimness of the cave she could just make out Farrel, standing among the numerous rigid columns. His head drooped as if in sleep. The lower half of his body was enclosed in stone.
Aidan did not approach him. Instead, she hurried along the wall toward the rear of the cavern. There a single lamp glowed in a niche, illuminating the narrow, triangular cleft that led to the well.
In a few moments, she reached the cleft, grateful no guards were posted here. So narrow was the entrance that Aidan had to hunch her shoulders and slip in sideways.
She moved through a dark, cramped passage. The way curled and twisted before opening onto a circular chamber awash with silvery light. The light sparkled on the walls and ceiling as if reflecting off a pool of water. But no pool was visible in the chamber, only a round hole in the center of the floor.
A cowled figure sat on a stool beside the well, a faceless Balorian, motionless as if in trance. By her size and her gray and white robe, Aidan knew her for the priestess who had presided over the ritual murders that day.
Aidan had paused on the edge of the chamber. Now, as she took a step forward, the priestess raised her head. Two eyes like moonstones glimmered in the shadow of her face.
Aidan felt the eyes seeing her, felt the priestess probing her thoughts. Instinctively, she drew her silver dagger.
The priestess stood slowly. Her voice was a dry rustling. “Little sister, I see that you bring my death.”
Aidan forced herself to walk forward. “You will not be harmed if you do not interfere.”
But the priestess sidled in front of her, blocking her path to the well. “Fool! It is my duty to protect the well with my life. But I am old and feeble, and the guards are far away. I cannot prevent what you will do. But I can curse you for it, by making you see your future. One does not change the balance of worlds with impunity. This is the price you must pay.”
The priestess raised an oval mirror in front of her face. Irresistibly, Aidan's gaze was drawn into the mirror. A series of images faded one into another, portraying events of her life to come. Aidan stared with mounting dismay, eyes growing larger, mouth falling open.
Suddenly, what she saw turned the dismay to blind, maddening horror.
“No,” she groaned, her reason slipping from her. “No more!”
Frantic, she raised her knife and stabbed at the mirror. The image burst apart like a bubble, but there was no smashing sound, no shards of broken glass.
With a whimper of pain, the priestess slumped to the floor, the bloody knife protruding from the shadow that was her face.
There had never been a mirror.
Covering her mouth with her hands, Aidan watched in shock as the dying woman twitched and finally lay still. For several moments more Aidan stood, wild-eyed, her body racked by voiceless sobbing.
But at last her wits collected themselves, and she recalled why she had come to this place. Reaching into her inner pocket she brought out the magic stone.
Black-green and smooth, the stone seemed to sparkle in the weird light that hovered in the chamber. Aidan held it in her palm, and felt a mild tingling against her skin. For a moment, she wondered what manner of thing she was about to release—and if what the priestess had shown her might be averted if she did not release it.
But she shook herself to banish such thoughts and closed her fist firmly on the stone. Trembling, she stepped over the body of the priestess, to the edge of the well.
“What I do is done for the Earth,” she whispered. “May the Goddess take pity on me in whatever is to come.”
Aidan opened her hand over the emptiness and let the stone fall.
She never heard it splash or strike bottom. After a few moments, a rumbling growled deep in the mountain, and the chamber started to shake.
Even as the booming of the quake roused him from a dreary half-sleep, Farrel felt life returning to his legs.
All about him, the cavern convulsed and roared. Across the chamber, the sentries scrambled in panic up the stairs, which swayed violently beneath them.
Gripped by a mixture of fright and hope, Farrel watched the stone that encased his lower body split and break apart. His legs reappeared, then his bare feet.
Just as he stepped free, the ground heaved beneath him. Farrel tottered and almost fell, but a strong hand grasped his arm. He whirled and looked into Valin’s face.
The druid grinned, exulting in the thundering chaos around them. “Aidan has done it!”
With a dazed smile, Farrel looked toward the rear of the cavern. The smile dissolved as he scanned what remained of the standing stones—a field littered with corpses in various conditions of decay. Most of them were old, little left but crumbling bones in tarnished armor. But the two nearest to Farrel were freshly killed. Lecan and Garan lay twisted on the floor, blood running from their bellies, expressions of anguished horror frozen on their faces.
Farrel's dark thoughts were interrupted by a renewed rumbling in the ground. He looked up and saw Aidan staggering toward him across the field of corpses.
“Aidan, hurry!” Valin shouted.
She looked up, seemed to recognize them, and quickened her pace. Then the ground split in front of her and she fell into the crevice.
Farrel and Valin ran toward her, clambering over the quaking ground. They reached the edge of the fissure just as Aidan pulled herself out. Below her, the shallow rift was filled by a huge sliding thing that resembled a root.
“Well done, Aidan!” Valin cried. “Now there's no time to waste. We must be out of here.”
But Farrel gripped his arm. “Can we escape? Return to our world?”
“We can try!”
Farrel stared back across the cavern, littled with the dead. “My clansmen. We must take their bodies too.”
Valin shook his head. “No time, Farrel.”
“It is my duty. At least—”
Farrel tore himself free and ran staggering back the way they had come. The chamber shook all around him. Just as he reached Lecan and Garan boulder fell from the ceiling and crashed nearby.
Farrel knelt beside his fallen comrades. He placed a hand on each of their shoulders and removed the bronze broaches that fastened their capes.
“Forgive me, my friends. Should I return to our world, these tokens must serve for your funeral rites. And I promise your family will be cared for.”
“Farrel, we must go!” Valin had reached him and clamped a hand on his shoulder.
The violence of the quake increased as the three friends rushed across the cavern floor. They had to leap another fissure that split the stone underfoot. More boulders were crashing down from the roof as they scrambled up the broken stairs. The whole chamber seemed ready to collapse as they emerged from the portal.
But even outside they were in no wise safe. The ground continued to shudder, and it seemed that at any moment the path beneath them would slide away. Valin led them in a headlong dash down the mountain. The smooth slopes burst open as they ran, with more of the giant roots pushing out. Enormous branches, green with leaf, reached down from the sky. The air resounded with massive tearing sounds, as if the land itself were giving birth.
In the black square at the foot of the mountain, they paused to catch their breath. Behind them, the quaking had subsided, but not stopped.
“We are safe here, for the moment,” Valin panted.
“What is happening?” Farrel asked, gazing at the uncanny foliage that hung trunkless from the sky.
“It is Neeth-Mirall, the Tree of Beginnings,” Valin answered reverently. “That was no stone Aidan planted, but a seed. Soon Neeth-Mirall will fill this whole realm, as it did long ago, before the Balorians came and stole the land.”
“We are trapped,” Aidan announced in a dull voice.
Farrel and Valin followed her glance to the far edge of the square. A host of Balorian soldiers, intermixed with a lesser number of trolls, stood in a ragged line and watched the transformation of the sacred mountain.
“Yes,” Valin muttered, “and it won't be long till they get up their nerve enough to come and seize us. I wonder that Porteas hasn't led them here already.”
“Porteas is dead,” Aidan answered.
Farrel and Valin looked down at her, and for a moment Farrel felt the grief and agony in her heart.
Behind them, the rumbling of the mountain grew louder.
“You have my wand, Farrel?” Valin said.
“Yes.” Farrel reached into his jerkin.
“Good.” The druid showed obvious pleasure in holding the wand once more. “I suggest we forget about crossing the plains and instead open a gateway here, where we stand.”
“Can you do that?” Farrel asked.
“With the world-shaping power of Neeth-Mirall to draw upon?—I hope so.”
The ground shuddered. The tearing sound returned, mixed with the tumbling crash of a rockslide from the far slopes of the mountain. Quickly, Valin traced a circle around their feet on the cracked pavement. He pointed the wand at the mountain and shouted an invocation of power. Farrel heard him call the name of Neeth-Mirall, but the rest of his words were lost amid the growing roar of the quake.
Suddenly the ground beneath them vanished.
For one moment, they were falling.
The next, they stood in the misty brightness of the place between worlds.