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The Lord of the Nexus bent down and, once again, laid his hand on Haplo’s heart. He could have killed him then. He could have broken the sigil, destroyed it past any hope of repair. Haplo felt the lord’s touch, cool on his blazing skin. He shivered, choked back a moan, and lay rigid, perfectly still.

“Execute me! I betrayed you! I don’t deserve ... to live!”

“My son,” whispered the Lord of the Nexus in pitying tones. A tear dropped on Haplo’s breast. “My poor son.”

The teardrop closed and sealed the rune.

Haplo sighed, rolled over, began to weep. Xar gathered the young man close, cradled the bleeding head in his arms, rocked him, soothed him, and worked the magic until all Haplo’s runes had been rejoined, the circle of his being reestablished.

Haplo slept, a healing sleep.

The Lord of the Nexus took off his own cape, a cloak of fine, white linen, and drew it over Haplo. The lord paused a moment to look at the young man. The remnants of the agony were fading, leaving Haplo’s face strong and grim, calm and resolute—a sword whose metal has been strengthened by being passed through the fire, a granite wall whose cracks have been filled with molten steel. Xar laid his hands upon the ship’s steering stone and, speaking the runes, started it upon its journey through Death’s Gate. He was preparing to leave when a thought struck him. He made a quick tour of the vessel, keen eyes peering into every shadow.

The dog was gone.


The Lord of the Nexus left, well satisfied.


Somewhere, Beyond Death’s Gate

Alfred awoke, a frightful yell ringing in his ears. He lay perfectly still, terrified, listening with fast-beating heart and sweaty palms and squinched-shut eyelids for the yell to be repeated. After long moments of profound silence, Alfred came at last to the rather confused confusion that the yell must have been his own.

“Death’s Gate. I fell through Death’s Gate! Or rather,” he amended, shivering at the thought, “I was pushed through Death’s Gate.” If I were you, I wouldn’t be around when I woke up, Haplo had warned him , . .

. . . Haplo had fallen asleep, fallen into one of the healing sleeps vitally necessary to those of his race. Alfred sat in the lurching ship, alone except for the dog, who lay protectively near its master. Alfred, looking around, realized how alone he was. He was terrified, and he tried to combat his fear by creeping nearer Haplo, seeking company, even if it was unconscious. Alfred settled himself beside Haplo, occupied himself by studying the Patryn’s stern face. He noticed that it did not relax in repose, but retained its grim, forbidding expression, as though nothing, not sleep, perhaps not even death, could bring perfect peace to the man.

Moved by compassion, by pity, Alfred stretched out a hand to smooth back a lock of hair that fell forward over the implacable face.

The dog raised its head, growled menacingly.

Alfred snatched his hand back. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” The dog, knowing Alfred, appeared to accept this as a plausible excuse. It settled back down.

Alfred heaved a tremendous sigh, glanced nervously around the lurching ship. He caught a glimpse through the window of the fiery world of Abarrach falling away from them in a confused swirl of smoke and flame. Ahead, he saw the rapidly approaching black hole that was Death’s Gate.

“Oh, dear,” Alfred murmured, shrinking. If he was going to leave, he had better get going.

The dog had the same idea. It leapt to its feet, started to bark urgently.

“I know. It’s time,” Alfred said. “You gave me my life, Haplo. And it’s not that I’m ungrateful. But ... I’m too frightened. I don’t think I have the courage.”

Do you have the courage to stay? the dog seemed to ask in exasperation. Do you have the courage to face the Lord of the Nexus?

Haplo’s lord—a powerful Patryn wizard. No fainting spell would save Alfred from this terrible man. The lord would prod and probe and drag forth every secret the Sartan had in his being. Torture, torment, lasting for as long as the Sartan remained alive . . . and the lord was certain to ensure his prey lived a long, long time.

The threat must have been sufficient to drive Alfred to action. At least that’s what he supposed. He remembered finding himself standing on the upper deck, without the slightest notion how he had come to be there. The winds of magic and time whistled around him, grabbed disrespectfully at the wisps of hair on his balding head, set his coattails to flapping. Alfred gripped the rail with both hands and stared out, horribly fascinated, into Death’s Gate.

And he knew, then, that he could no more hurl himself bodily into that abyss than he could consciously end his own miserable and lonely existence.

“I’m a coward,” he said to the dog. Bored, it had followed him up on deck. Alfred smiled wanly, looked down at his hands, clinging to the rail with a white-knuckled grip. “I don’t think I could pry myself loose. I—” The dog suddenly went mad, or so it seemed. Snarling, teeth slashing, it leapt straight at him. Alfred wrenched his hands from the rail, flung them up in front of his face, an instinctive, involuntary act of protection. The dog struck him hard on the chest, knocked him over the side. . . . What had happened after that? Alfred couldn’t remember, except that it was all very confused and all extremely horrible. He had a vivid impression of falling ... of falling through a hole that seemed far too small for a gnat to enter and yet was large enough to swallow the winged dragonship whole. He remembered falling into brightly lit darkness, of being deafened by a roaring silence, of tumbling head over heels while not moving.

And then, reaching the top, he’d hit bottom.

And that’s where he was now, or so he supposed.

He considered opening his eyes, decided against it. He had absolutely no desire to see his surroundings. Wherever he was, it was bound to be awful. He rather hoped that he would lose himself in sleep, and if he was lucky, he wouldn’t find himself again.

Unfortunately, as is generally the case, the more he tried to go back to sleep, the wider awake he woke. Bright light shone through his closed eyelids. He became aware of a hard, flat, cool surface beneath him; of various aches and pains in his body that indicated he’d been lying here for some time; of being cold and thirsty and hungry.

No telling where he’d landed. Death’s Gate led to each of the four worlds created magically by the Sartan following the Sundering. It led also to the Nexus, the beautiful twilight land meant to hold the “rehabilitated” Patryns after their release from the Labyrinth. Perhaps he was there. Perhaps he was back on Arianus. Perhaps he hadn’t really gone anywhere! Perhaps he’d open his eyes and find the dog, grinning at him.

Alfred clamped his eyes tightly shut; his facial muscles ached from the strain. But either curiosity or the stabbing pain shooting through his lower back got the better of him. Groaning, he opened his eyes, sat up, and looked nervously around.

He could have wept for relief.

He was in a large room, circular, lit by lovely, soft white light that emanated from the marble walls. The floor beneath him was marble, inlaid with runes—sigla he knew and recognized. The ceiling arched comfortingly overhead, a dome supported by delicate columns. Embedded in the walls of the room were row after row of crystal chambers, chambers meant to hold people in stasis, chambers that had, tragically, become coffins.

Alfred knew where he was—the mausoleum on Arianus. He was home. And, he decided at once, he would never leave. He would stay in this underground world forever. Here he was safe. No one knew about this place, except for one mensch, a dwarf named Jarre, and she had no means of finding her way back. No one could ever find it now, protected as it was by powerful Sartan magic. The war between the elves and dwarves and humans could rage on Arianus and he would not be part of it. Iridal could search for her changeling son and he would not help. The dead could walk on Abarrach and he would turn his back on all except the familiar, the silent blessed dead that were his companions once more.