She was burning
Burning behind walls of ice
Grey was on her lips, on her bare throat, on her exposed arms. Her eyes were glassy, the pupils fallen as if grown weary of staring straight ahead, and had, as the centuries passed, slid imperceptibly downward.
Her hands rested in her lap, grey with grey nails. Nothing set her apart from the hundreds on hundreds of other figures sitting in that crowded room, grey and still, clad in clothes deteriorated to hints of ancient splendor – in all that room only the gold shone unmuted beneath a fine breading of dust. They sat, row upon row, rank succeeding rank, gazing into the dark recession of the vast unlit room before them, empty eyes reflecting an empty future. Chairs devoid of occupants stretched on into the shadows ahead of her, testament to an aborted legacy.
Nothing set her apart, save that she was foremost in the room, most forward-facing in a long hall peopled with forward-facing figures, entombed in silence. No-one would come to sit beside her.
But she was not as they, the others she had succeeded, for she was, far within herself in the darkest crack of her innermost being, Awake.
Horribly, inescapably, awake.
Burning behind walls of ice. Trapped in an unmoved, unmoving ark that festered on the still mummifying waters of the Deplorable Word, in which all her world was wrapped, awake amidst a frozen agony so thorough that even the agents of decay had not survived it. Drinker of the draught of living death.
Lilith had foreseen this fate for her descendants, foreseen the slow inevitable implosion of an empire ruled by demonspawn and built by willing slaves seduced away from the daughters of Eve. Lilith had recorded her secret despair during her last days, admitting in the final throes of self-torture the truth of her essential being, and that of her children. And that was how she, She Who Waited, had understood how to defeat her sister’s armies, how to rise above the despair of Lilith and so, perhaps, to escape.
Having done all, she was waiting. Nothing else was left to her.
A stirring, a mere glimmer in the antechamber, announced the visitor’s arrival. She had minutes, perhaps.
Her heart beat, one cant, an event she normally reserved to mark the melding of one century into another. It flushed the grey first from her lips, then from her hands. She drew breath, one shallow intake, and her bosom swelled with stale air. There was pallor and color now in her cheeks, snow-white and rose-red, beauty to snare a traveler from beyond the stars.
Then the bell sounded, swelling louder and louder in defiance and desecration of the holy stillness, and now she could move. Yet she did not. Her gaze was now directly ahead, in her eyes a betraying hint of life. Behind her, the seated images of her many ancestors did not murmur, or glance, or rustle in answer to the footstep that sounded on the carpeted aisle. It belonged, she felt instinctively, to a man. Her heart beat a second time.
“Arise,” intoned the deep masculine voice, its tone accustomed to rulership. He had halted some few paces behind her chair. The sound of his voice brightened her dim and forgotten appetite, ever so slightly, and yet its note of command rankled her more powerfully.
“Come where I can see you,” she answered; only her jaw moved.
He stepped into view, boots, riding breeches, dark crimson shirt, long elegant navy coat sweeping from broad shoulders. Fit, aged past prime, short silver hair. Not quite… human. Still out of reach.
Nevertheless, she knew his name; names had always come easily to her. “There is no welcome for you here, James Oberon le Fay, Fifth of that name, Oberon the Dispossessed. There is no welcome in all this world to anyone, unless he prove worthy of my embrace.” She shifted position in the chair, knowing her form and figure to be exquisitely alluring under the cobwebs of her gown. Her lips, now purpled and turgid with desire, scarcely moved when she spoke. “For what have you come? Have you descried my beauty from afar in some magic mirror or divining pool?”
“Indeed I have,” Oberon replied, that deep voice thrilling her spine. “I have come seeking your counsel.”
“And what,” she returned, brazenly looking him in the eye and willing him to step nearer, “do you offer me in return for my counsel?”
“Can that not be discussed when the manner of my need is known?”
Oh, but he was beautifully maddening! “It can,” she answered. “Then come, Oberon, kneel and kiss my hand, tell me of your errand and receive my blessing.” She lifted a limp, elegant hand towards him, displaying the slender muscle of her bare arm, the smooth skin, the fine-boned wrist.
He frowned, slightly; his dark brow compressed imperfectly. “It is not fitting, Lady, that one king should kneel to another. Also, this room with its host of still figures disquiets me. May we not rather walk in the streets above?”
“There is nothing here worth seeing,” except me, she said, dully.
“It is my earnest wish, I must insist.”
She regarded him with a single eyebrow arched high, in a query implying deserved contempt. But she had to go with him, she knew she had to; what other choice had she?
And so, one image of Jadis, last empress of Charn, rose from its chair in the Hall of Graven Images. And one image of Jadis remained seated in that chair, for she would never be able to truly leave – self-bound and self-preserved until the end of Time, the end of all worlds.
“After you, milady,” James Oberon murmured, maintaining a polite distance. Her dress swirled about her ankles as she walked the aisle out of the dark.
Above, through the dead open air that seemed to hang like tatters of cobweb ribbons from the sky, air that almost had weight of its own, the huge red sun, forever partway down the horizon, gave the impression of an everlasting autumn. The effect was not dispelled by the brown leaves drooping from ragged trees all along the avenue, clinging to their wooden skeletons in the absence of wind or microbe to wear away the stem’s fibers.
Around them, as they paced the cobblestones, lay or sat or slumped the dead. Soldiers had died in the middle of a charge, falling onto their weapons face-first into the dust. Civilians had died while taking shelter behind doors and bits of rubble, collapsed in heaps of limbs. Errand-runners had died, messages undelivered in hand, fallen into the gutters. Horses knelt before halted chariots, their drivers sprawled against the sides of the cars. Here and there birds had died, falling from the sky or from trees to impact on the ground in pitiful little puddles of feathers. A cat had died spread-eagled on a walltop. No note of decay, no movement of rain or wind had been introduced into the endless symphony of unmitigated death.
Her rule of Charn had been, and was, gorgeously absolute.
Except, now, for him.
Oberon paced beside her, surveying that grand silent city without comment, without reaction. His gaze was one of appraisal, that of a man bred to be accustomed to the splendor of imperial cities and palatial monuments, and to the glories of war. He would not ask what had happened.
“My errand, Lady, concerns my need for a skilled medium. There is a question I must ask of a woman who died in my – in the world in which I presently live, fifteen years ago.”
She crooked an eyebrow at him. “That is a small matter. The dead of all worlds share the same waiting place, and may be called back to any. Are there no mediums in your world?”
Oberon shook his head. “None that have the skill. The woman I seek is not fully human, but part fay.”
Jadis nodded. “This I can do for you. What can you do for me?”
Oberon turned to her fiercely, his brown eyes shot with intensity. “Do it, and name your price. I, and my sons, and the sons of my sons, shall be bound to it for a hundred generations – if it is within our power.”
She led him to the top of a divining tower, its flat cylindrical chamber open to the sky above and to the eight directions, set about kindling blue fire beneath the stone pool of brackish water that dominated the center of the tower. In the old days, before the Deplorable Word, a thunderhead would have gathered around the tower; now there was nothing to disturb.
Thrusting her left arm up to the elbow into the pool, she began to stir up the cloudy waters, slowly. Faces, the eyes wide and unseeing, coagulated and dispersed. “Whom do I seek?” Jadis asked, her voice cracking in the blue heat.
“Christina Godfellow,” Oberon answered, shielding his face from the scorching heat. “Ask her if she had any children, or siblings, and what their names are.”
Jadis murmured into the pool, and the faces darted, one this way, one that, like frightened fish, unwelcome as unnamed.
Hours passed. Oberon slumped against the wall of the tower, faint with dehydration. He drank, sparingly, from a canteen slung beneath his coat. And she stared into the pool, unblinking, calling, calling, always calling. The faces appeared and fled.
“Surely it has been more than a day,” Oberon said, breaking the silence, “yet the sun does not move.”
Jadis did not look up. “This planet is dead, and no longer turns. Sleep, Oberon.”
For a hundred days he slept, and all that time she called, and fed the blue fire, but no face appeared to which the name he had named belonged. At last the pool went dark.
“Wake up, Oberon,” she commanded curtly. “Christina Godfellow yet lives.”
He started up, and seized her hand. “What? You lie! You are sure?”
Jadis shook him off. “She lives, and the waters of death cannot descry her. Where she is now, I cannot say.”
“This news is beyond my hope,” Oberon answered, swaying against the arch of the tower with his fist clenched to his brow. “What price do you ask?”
She smiled, coquettish, showing her teeth, reaching for his hand. “Stay with me, liege-lord; I desire that you desire me, forever and always.”
“Nay Lady, that is not within my power to grant; for I am a king, and my son is not old enough to rule in my stead.”
“Then,” she said, taking half a step closer, the sweetness of her breath in his nostrils and the passion of her gaze in his eyes, “take me with you. Make me your Queen.”
He wavered, troubled, uncertain, half within her power, desperate to surrender. Softly he said, “Lady, I have seen what you did to your world. How could I bring you to mine?” She flushed, dark with anger, and her spell faltered. His expression hinted at pity.
“Then kill me!” She clutched at him now, pressing his fingers between her palms, scarcely knowing who she was or what she did, her voice ragged and terrible and catching in her throat. “Kill me! Draw sword and cut me down, then go to my figure in the Hall of Images and strike the head from its shoulders! Let the trickle of my ashen blood defile that wretched hall.” She was on her knees now, gasping, but she had sold her tears long ago. Only one other time had she been awakened by the bell, in eleven thousand years of waiting. Of burning.
“Lady,” said Oberon, raising her to her feet, “by what power can your life be ended?”
Wordless, she shook her head. “To discover it, and use it, shall be your price, James Oberon. You, or your sons, or the sons of your sons, unto a hundred generations.”
Oberon bowed. “Let it be so.”
And she lunged for him, like a viper, teeth bared, hands seeking his throat – but he was gone, a shimmer in the eternal afternoon, gone across the eons, gone behind the stars. Jadis stood alone atop the divining tower above the dead streets of Charn, and sat alone in the Hall of Images, beneath the dead streets of Charn. Awake, waiting.
Get the whole story here (excerpt from Her Unwelcome Inheritance)