After all, one man, alone, what can I do? he asked himself wistfully. Nothing.
What can I be expected to do?
Who could possibly expect me to do it?
Alfred repeated that to himself. “No one.” He recalled the wonderful, awful experience on Abarrach when he had seemed to know with certainty that some sort of higher power for good was present in the universe, to know that he wasn’t alone, as he had supposed all these years.
But the knowledge, his certainty, had faded, died with young Jonathan, who had been destroyed by the dead and the lazar of Abarrach.
“I must have imagined it,” said Alfred sadly. “Or perhaps Haplo was right. Perhaps I created that vision we all experienced and didn’t know I created it. Like my fainting, or like casting that spell that took the magical life from the dead. And, if that’s true, then what Haplo said was true as well. I led poor Jonathan to his death. Deceived by false visions, false promises, he sacrificed himself for nothing.”
Alfred bowed his head into his trembling hands, his thin shoulders slumped.
“Everywhere I go, disaster follows. And therefore, I won’t go anywhere. I won’t do anything. I’ll stay here. Safe, protected, surrounded by those I once loved.”
He couldn’t, however, spend the remainder of his life on the floor. There were other rooms, other places to go. The Sartan had once lived down here. Shaking, stiff, and sore, he endeavored to stand up. His feet and legs appeared to have other ideas, resented being forced back to work. They crumbled beneath him. He fell, persisted in trying to stand, and, after a moment, managed to do so. Once he was finally upright, his feet seemed inclined to wander off one way when he actually had it in mind to go the opposite.
Finally, all his body parts more or less in agreement as to the general direction he was headed, Alfred propelled himself toward the crystal coffins, to bid fond greeting to those he had left far too long. The bodies in the coffins would never return his greeting, never speak words of welcome to him. Their eyes would never open to gaze at him with friendly pleasure. But he was comforted by their presence, by their peace.
Comforted and envious.
Necromancy. The thought flitted across his mind, skittering like a bat. You could bring them back to life.
But the dread shadow lay over him only momentarily. He wasn’t tempted. He had seen the dire consequences of necromancy on Abarrach. And he had the terrible feeling that these friends of his had died because of the necromancy, their life-force stolen from them, given to those who, he now suspected, didn’t want it.
Alfred went straight to one coffin, one he knew well. In it lay the woman he loved. He needed, after the horrible sights of the restless dead on Abarrach, to see her calm and peaceful sleep. He placed his hands on the outside of the crystal window behind which she lay and, fondly, tears in his eyes, pressed his forehead against the glass.
Something was wrong.
Admittedly, his vision was blurred by his tears. He couldn’t see well. Hastily, Alfred blinked, rubbed his hands over his eyes. He stared, fell back, startled, shocked.
No, it couldn’t be. He was overwrought, he’d made a mistake. Slowly he crept back, peered inside the coffin.
Inside was the body of a Sartan female, but it wasn’t Lya!
Alfred shivered from head to toe.
“Calm down!” he counseled. “You’re standing in the wrong place. You’ve gotten turned around by that terrible trip through Death’s Gate. You’ve made a mistake. You’ve looked into the wrong crystal chamber. Go back and start over.”
He turned around and tottered once more to the center of the room, barely able to stand, his knees as weak as wet flax. From this distance, he carefully counted the rows of crystal chambers, counted them up, then counted them across. Telling himself that he’d been a row too far over, he crept back, ignoring the voice that was telling him he’d been in exactly the right place all along.
He kept his gaze averted, refusing to look until he was near, in case his eyes might play another trick on him. Once arrived, he shut his eyes and then opened them swiftly, as if hoping to catch something in the act. The strange woman was still there.
Alfred gasped, shuddered, leaned heavily against the crystal chamber. What was happening? Was he going insane?
“It’s quite likely,” he said. “After all I’ve been through. Perhaps Lya was never there at all. Perhaps I only willed her to be there and now, after all this time away, I can’t call her to mind.”
He looked again, but if his mind was truly behaving irrationally, it was doing it in a most rational manner. The woman was older than Lya, close to Alfred’s age, he guessed. Her hair was completely white; her face—a handsome face, he thought, gazing at it in sorrowful confusion—had lost the elasticity and smooth beauty of youth. But she had gained, in exchange, the becoming gravity and purpose of middle age.
Her expression was solemn and grave, yet softened by lines around that mouth that seemed to indicate a warm and generous smile had graced her lips. A line down the center of her forehead, barely visible beneath the soft folds of her hair, indicated that her life had not been easy, that she had pondered much, thought long and hard about many things. And there was a sadness about her. The smile that touched the lips had not touched them often. Alfred felt a deep hunger and an aching unhappiness. Here was someone he could have talked to, someone who would have understood.
But . . . what was she doing here?
“Lie down. I must lie down.”
Blindly, his vision clouded by his confused thoughts, Alfred stumbled and groped his way along the wall that held many crystal chambers until he came to his own. He would return to it, lie down, sleep ... or maybe wake up. He might be dreaming. He—
“Blessed Sartan!” Alfred fell back with a hoarse cry. Someone was in it! His chamber! A man of early middle years, with a strong, cold, handsome face; strong hands stretched out at his side.
“I am mad!” Alfred clutched at his head. “This . . . this is impossible.” He stumbled back to stare at the woman who was not Lya. “I’ll shut my eyes and when I open them, all will be well again.”
But he didn’t shut his eyes. Not trusting himself to believe what he thought he’d seen, he looked fixedly at the woman. Her hands were folded across her breast—
The hands. The hands moved! They rose . . . fell! She had drawn a breath. He watched closely for long moments; the magical stasis in which they lay slowed breathing. The hands rose and fell again. And now that Alfred was over his initial shock, he could see the faint flush of blood in the woman’s cheeks, a flush that he would never see in Lya’s.
“This woman’s . . . alive!” Alfred whispered.
He staggered across to the crystal chamber that had been his own, but was now another’s, and stared inside it. The man’s clothing—a plain, simple, white robe—stirred. Eyeballs beneath closed lids moved; a finger twitched. Feverishly, his mind overwhelmed, his heart almost bursting with joy, Alfred ran from one crystal chamber to another, staring inside each. There could be no doubt. Every one of these Sartan was alive!
Exhausted, his mind reeling, Alfred returned to the center of the mausoleum and tried to unravel the tangled skein of his thoughts. It was impossible. He couldn’t find the end of the thread, couldn’t find the beginning. His friends in the mausoleum had been dead for many, many years. Time and again he’d left them, time and again he’d returned, and nothing had ever changed. When he’d first realized that he and he alone, out of all the Sartan on Arianus, had survived, he’d refused to believe it. He’d played a game with himself, told himself that this time, when he came back, he’d find them alive. But he never had, and soon the game became so exceedingly painful that he’d quit playing it.