Magician’s End (Excerpt)

Check out Magician’s End, the finale book in Raymond E. Feist’s Chaoswar Saga, out tomorrow from Harper Voyager:

An uneasy quiet has settled upon Midkemia in the wake of a surprise invasion. But the land is far from peaceful. Leaderless, the Kingdom is on the brink of anarchy and civil war, unless Hal conDoin, Duke of Crydee, and his brothers can rally their allies to crown a new king. They must move quickly, for war has left the land vulnerable to an agency of horrific destruction not of this world. No one is safe, not even the Star Elves whose city deep in the Grey Tower Mountains has come under attack by an ancient darkness that seeks to extinguish every living thing in Midkemia.

Yet the bravery of determined warriors—brothers in blood and arms—is not enough to ensure the Kingdom’s preservation without the magic of the Master Sorcerer Pug. A powerful spell has trapped him, his son Magnus, and two unlikely allies in an unfamiliar realm, and they must find their separate ways home—a journey of memory and discovery that will illuminate the truth of the destiny that awaits them. But to save Midkemia—and everything he has fought for and all he cherishes—Pug will have to pay the ultimate price.

 

1

SHATTERED

 

Chaos erupted.

A light so brilliant it was painful bathed Pug as he instinctively threw all his magic into the protective shell Magnus had erected around them just a moment before. Only Magnus’s anticipation of the trap had prevented them all from being instantly vaporized. Energy so intense it could hardly be comprehended now destroyed everything at hand, reducing even the most iron-hard granite to its fundamental particles, dispersing them into the fiery vortex forming around them.

The light pierced Pug’s tightly shut eyelids, rendering his vision an angry red-orange, with afterimages of green-blue. His instinct was to shield his face, but he knew the gesture would be useless. He willed himself to keep his hands moving in the pattern necessary to support Magnus’s efforts. Only magic protected them from conditions no mortal could withstand for even the barest tick of time. The very stuff of the universe was being distorted on all sides.

They were in what appeared to be the heart of a sun. In his studies, Pug knew this to be the fifth state of matter, beyond earth, air, water, and fire, called different names by various magicians: among them, flux, plasma, and excited fire. Energy so powerful that it tore the very essentials of all matter down to their very atoms and recombined them, repeating the process until at some point the plasma fell below a threshold of destruction and creation and was able finally to cease its fury.

Years of perfecting his art had gifted him with myriad skills, some talents deployed reflexively without conscious effort. The magic tools he used to assess and evaluate were overloaded with sensations he had never experienced in his very long lifetime. Obviously, whoever had constructed this trap had hoped it would be beyond his ability to withstand. He suspected it was the work of several artisans of magic.

In his mind, Pug heard Miranda asking, Is everyone safe?

Nakor’s voice spoke aloud. “There’s air. We can talk. Magnus, Pug, don’t look. It will blind you. Miranda, we can look.”

“Describe what you see,” Magnus said to the two demons in human form.

Miranda said, “It’s an inferno hotter than anything witnessed in the demon realm. It has destroyed a hundred feet of rock and soil below us and we are afloat in a bubble of energy. Farther out from where we stand, it’s turning sand to glass. A wall of superheated air is expanding outward at incredible speed, and whatever it touches is incinerated in moments. As far as my eye can discern, all is flame, smoke, and ash.”

Less than a minute before, the four of them had been examining a matrix of magic, which was obviously a lock, but had turned out to be a trap.

Ancient beings of energy, the Sven-ga’ri, had been protected in a quiet glade atop a massive building built by a peaceful tribe of the Pantathians, a race of serpent men created by the ancient Dragon Lord, Alma-Lodaka. Unlike their more violent brethren, these beings had been gentle, scholarly, and very much like humans.

Now that peaceful race had been obliterated. It didn’t matter to Pug that they had been created by the mad vanity of a long-dead Dragon Lord as pets and servants: they had evolved into something much finer and he knew he would mourn their loss.

“It’s fading,” said Nakor. “Don’t look.”

Pug kept his eyes closed, focusing on his son’s protective shell. “You anticipated—”

Magnus finished his sentence for him: “—the trap. It was just one of those moments, Father. The hair on my neck and arms started to tingle, and before I knew it, the protective spell was cast. I had created a word trigger, a power word. I just had no idea the trap would be so massive. Without your help and Moth—Miranda’s . . .” He let the thought go unfinished.

Pug and Miranda both chose to ignore his slip. She wasn’t his mother. She was a demon named Child who was in possession of all his mother’s memories, but Child seemed completely contained within Miranda. It was easy to forget she wasn’t Miranda; the experience was unnerving for all of them.

Only Belog the demon, now to outward appearances Nakor, seemed untroubled by his situation, and that was wholly in keeping with who Nakor had been in life: a man of unlimited curiosity and a delight in all mysteries. His voice held a note of awe. “This was an unspeakably brilliant trap, Pug.”

Keeping his eyes tightly shut, Pug said, “I tend to agree. What’s your thinking?”

“Whoever fashioned this understood it could be investigated only by a very limited number of people,” said Nakor. “First they would have to get past the Pantathians, either by winning their confidence or by brute force. If they reached the matrix, few magic-using demons or lesser magicians, or even very well-schooled priests, could have begun to understand the complexities of this lock, or trap, or however you think of it.”

Miranda said, “Only Pug.”

Pug was silent for a moment, then said, “No. It was Magnus. I sensed the lock, but only assumed there was a trap involved. By the time I returned from the Academy, he had already easily won past barriers that would have proved a challenge to me.”

Magnus began, “I’m not certain—”

Miranda cut him off. “That was no hollow praise. I have all your mother’s memories and skills, Magnus, but you . . . you are the best of both of us, I mean both your mother and father.”

Nakor chuckled. “You’ve long denied it, boy, but in the end, you are beyond us. All you need is a little more experience and age.”

“I find it incongruous to be laughing in the midst of all this chaos,” said Magnus.

Suddenly there was an explosion of sound, as if they were being slammed by a hurricane of wind.

“Don’t look,” reminded Nakor.

“What was that?” asked Pug.

“I think that was air returning.” After a moment Nakor added, “The explosion . . . I don’t know if I can describe what I’m seeing, Pug. Miranda?”

After a pause she said, “It was more than just light and heat. I felt . . . shifts, changes . . . displacement. I’ve never encountered its like. I’m not certain if it’s even what we would call magic.”

Nakor said, “It’s not a trick, or at least not one I can imagine. Everything changed.”

“How?” Pug asked

“You can open your eyes now, but slowly.”

Pug did so, and at first his eyes watered and everything was blurred. A strange vibration, high-pitched and fast, almost a buzzing, could be felt through the soles of his sandals. He blinked away tears and found himself semicrouched within the energy bubble his son had erected an instant before the explosion.

Beyond the shell, everything was white to the point of there being no horizon, no sky above or ground below, no sea beyond a shore. As his eyes adapted to the brilliance he could see faint hints of variation, and after another moment faint shifts in the whiteness, as if colors were present beyond the boundary of the bubble.

They floated above the bottom of a crater thirty or forty feet below them. The only remnants of earth and rock were beneath their feet, encased in Magnus’s sphere.

“Are you holding us up, son?”

“The spell is, and we’d better be ready for a rude landing when it releases. I can’t keep this sphere intact and move it.”

“Maybe I can help,” said Miranda. She closed her eyes and the sphere slowly settled to the bottom of the crater.

Everything was still confounding to the senses as energies continued to cascade around them, every visible spectrum shifting madly outside the bubble. Pug pushed Magnus’s protective sphere gently and it expanded enough that they could all stand easily. After a few more minutes passed, details in the crater wall became recognizable. Slowly, the blinding light faded and varying hues of ivory, palest gold, a hint of blue emerged. At last the brilliance disappeared.

They blinked as their eyes adjusted to natural daylight, which was dark in comparison to what they just endured.

Pug looked around. They were perhaps fifty feet below the surface, surrounded by what appeared to be glass.

“What happened?” asked Miranda.

“Someone tried to kill us,” answered Nakor, without his usually cheerful tone. “We need to get out of this hole and look around.”

“Is it safe by now?” asked Magnus.

“Be ready to protect yourself and we’ll find out,” said Nakor. “I think it’s going to be very hot for you two.”

Magnus studied the little man for a moment, nodded once, and glanced at his father. Pug tilted his head slightly, indicating that he understood the warning, and both men encased themselves in protective spells without a word exchanged.

Magnus closed his eyes for a brief moment and the sphere around them vanished. Pug knelt and touched the glass beneath his feet. “Odd . . .”

“What?” asked Miranda.

“The energy . . . I expected it to be more . . . I’m not sure.” He looked from his son to Miranda. “Both of you are more adept at sensing the nature of a given spell. Does this feel like just an explosion to you?”

Miranda knelt next to Pug. “Feel like an explosion? We lived through it; it was massive and loud.” She touched the glass beneath them. “Oh, yes, I see what you mean.”

Magnus did likewise. “This . . . the explosion was the by-product.”

Nakor looked at the three kneeling magicians and said, “Please?”

“The energy released was the result of a spell that wasn’t just some spell of massive destruction,” said Magnus, standing. “We need to go.”

Pug waved his hands without comment. All four rose upward and floated toward the edge of the crater.

Magnus said to Nakor, “As best I can tell, that spell did two things. Besides obliterating everything within a fairly large radius, it also moved us to . . . I’m not sure where we are, but it’s not where we were when the spell was triggered.”

They reached the lip of the crater and Pug said, “You are right, Magnus. We are not where we were minutes ago.”

“Where’s the sea?” asked Miranda.

They looked to the south, and where waves had lapped the shore just minutes before, only a long, sloping plain remained. To their rear there was a rising bluff and hills beyond that roughly resembled what they would have seen on the Isle of the Snake Men, but these hills were denuded of any plant life—no trees, no brush, not even a blade of grass could be seen.

The devastation was complete: nothing moved save by force of the wind. There was sand everywhere: years past this land had turned to desert. They were at the edge of a vast, deep crater, and like the crater, the land around had been fused by the blast, its surface nothing but glass of coruscating colors, as smoke, ash, and dust swirled upward, admitting narrow shafts of sunlight. The wind was blowing the smoke northward, clearing it away quickly. On this world nothing burned, for there was nothing to burn, and the rocks and sand that had been turned molten were rapidly cooling.

“I think we’re still in the same place,” said Nakor. “I mean, an analogous place, as when we traveled to Kosidri.” Pug, Magnus, and Nakor had discovered that on the other planes of reality the worlds were identical, or at least as much as the variant conditions of that reality permitted. So wherever they were was a world similar in geography to Midkemia. “But I think the energy state here is going to prove troublesome soon.”

Pug nodded.

Miranda said, “I feel a little odd.”

Magnus said, “I remember how we adapted when we traveled to the Dasati realm, Father.”

“But this time it feels . . . different, obverse?” said Pug.

“A higher state than either the demon realm or Midkemia,” agreed Miranda. “As if there’s too much air?”

Nakor grimaced. “We could be overwhelmed by it if we do not tread cautiously.”

Each fashioned a protective spell that returned a tiny bubble of protective energy around themselves, reducing the more intense energies in this world to a level their own bodies could accommodate.

“If it’s a higher energy state,” said Magnus, “we did not go into a lower realm, but a higher one. Which means—”

“We’re in the first realm of heaven?” suggested Miranda.

Contemplating the desolate landscape, Nakor quipped, “It’s obviously overrated. There’s more to offer in the demon realm.”

They were silent for a moment as they contemplated the barren world around them.

Pug looked at his son and said quietly, “I neglected to say thank you. Had you not returned . . .”

Magnus embraced him. “You’re my father. No matter how much I may disagree with . . . what we talked about . . . I will never leave you when you need me.”

Father and son held each other for a moment, then separated, returning their attention to the present. Glancing at Miranda, they saw she had tears on her cheeks. She reached up and wiped them away and, in an angry tone they both knew well, said, “Damn these memories. I know they are not mine! I know it!” She crossed her arms over her chest. A bitter chuckle was followed by her observing, “Part of me remembers a time I’d have happily torn your heads from your shoulders and devoured your still-beating hearts.” Then she glanced up and in softer tones said, “And part of me feels that I’ve never loved anyone more than I’ve loved you two. Only Caleb was your equal.” This last came out a hoarse whisper.

Magnus understood his father well enough to know Pug was fighting an impulse to reach out and embrace the form of his former wife, to comfort a person who wasn’t really there. Softly he said, “I can’t call you Mother.” He looked her in the eye. “But I never understood until now just how difficult this must be for you.” In what was an impulsive act for the usually stoic magician, he took a step, slipped his arms around the demon in human form, and held her closely for a brief moment.

When he stepped away he saw more tears streaming down the face of the first person in life he had beheld. Powerful emotions tore through him, and he fought back the urge to say more. No matter how much he wished his mother back, alive and before him, it was nothing compared to what his father must feel. He put his hand on Pug’s shoulder and said, “We must make the best of a terribly confusing and awkward situation, and if we focus on what is before us, perhaps what is behind us will distance itself enough that we may develop new ways of seeing each other.”

Nakor grinned. “That’s very nice, but have you noticed someone is coming toward us?”

All looked in the direction Nakor indicated and saw the landscape was starting to resolve itself.

Approaching them was a familiar figure clad in a black robe, wearing sandals bound upon his legs with whipcord and using a staff as a walking stick. His hair was black, his posture youthful, and his stride vigorous, as he had been in his prime.

All four were momentarily stunned and finally Pug put voice to their incredulity. “Macros!”

The figure held up his hand. “No, though I resemble him, no doubt.”

Miranda and Nakor exchanged glances and the short gambler asked, “You have Macros’s memories?”

“No,” said the figure.

“Who are you?” asked Magnus.

“I have no name. You may think of me as a guide.”

“Why do you look like my father?” asked Miranda.

The guide shrugged slightly, in a perfect mimicry of Macros. “That is a mystery, for I am by nature formless in the mortal realm. I can only speculate, but my conclusion is that I appear to be who you expected me to be. I am sent by One whose Will is Action, but I needed to be in a form with which you could converse.”

The four exchanged quick glances, then Nakor laughed. “It is true that for most of the last hundred or more years I’ve expected to see that rascal’s hand behind every turn and twist of our existence.”

The others nodded slowly. Pug said, “Well, then, Guide. What should we call you?”

“Guide serves well enough,” he answered.

“Where exactly are we?” asked Magnus.

“The world of Kolgen.” Guide pointed to the south. “Once a majestic ocean lapped these shores, now there is only blight and desolation.”

“I don’t understand,” said Pug.

“Walk, for we have a long journey if you are ever to return home,” said the likeness of Macros.

“Before we begin,” said Miranda, “can you explain how you resemble my father down to the tiniest detail?”

Guide paused, and smiled exactly as the now-dead Black Sorcerer had in life. “Certainly,” he said with another pause, again exactly as Macros would have. “We exist in a realm of energy, we who serve the One. We are forever in the Bliss, part of the One until we are needed, and we are then given form and substance, given an identity commensurate with our purpose; to ensure efficiency, all memories of previous service in that role are returned. So, currently, I think of myself as ‘I,’ a single entity, but that will dissipate when I rejoin the One in the Bliss.

“I am only an abstraction of energy, a being of light and heat, if you will, a thing of mind alone. Hence the One gives me the ability to . . . suggest to your mortal minds any shape and quality suitable to sustain communications.”

“But we are not mortal,” said Nakor, indicating Miranda and himself.

“You are more mortal than you might guess,” returned Guide, “for it is of the mind I speak, and while your fundamental being is demonic, your minds are human, more so each day. Moreover, your demonic bodies are things of flux energy, imperfect imitations of beings of the higher plane.

“And you are becoming that which you appear to me to be, with limits, of course. You would never mate with humans and produce offspring, nor would you be subject to their illnesses and injuries, and those who battle demon kind can still destroy you, returning your essence to the Fifth Circle.” He lowered his voice and seemed to be attempting kindness. “Nor do you have a mortal soul. Those beings whose memories you possess have traveled on to the place where they have been judged and are now on their path to the next state of existence, or returned to the Wheel of Life for another turn.

“In short, you will never truly be Miranda and Nakor. But you’re as close as any being will ever get.”

Turning, he began to walk away. “Please, we must travel far, and while time here is not measured as it is in the mortal realm, it is still passing, and the longer you are away from Midkemia, the more the One’s Adversary stands to gain.”

Pug and the others fell in next to Guide and Pug said, “Then I believe you had best tell us in your own fashion what it is we need to know, but could you begin with why we are here.”

“That’s the simple part,” said Guide. “You fell into a trap. The Adversary has been waiting a very long time to rid Midkemia of the four of you. To do it in one moment, that approaches genius.”

“This Adversary you speak of,” said Nakor. “Who or what is it?”

The guide paused. “It will be easier if we wait on questions until I finish explaining to you what has befallen you. You are vital to what transpires, but still just a tiny part of the whole. To leap to attempting the larger picture might confuse.

“You are stranded in a reality that is not your own, and have no easy means of returning. You are, not to put too fine a point on it, marooned here.”

He kept walking, and as the four companions glanced at one another, they hurried to keep up with his brisk pace. Pug overtook him in three strides and said, “If we are marooned, where are we going?”

“To find one who may facilitate your release from this place.”

“But I thought you said this world was naught but blight and desolation?”

In a perfect duplication of Macros’s smile, Guide said, “This is true, but that doesn’t mean it’s unoccupied.”

Pug considered that for a moment, but decided that among the thousands of questions demanding answers, the meaning of that riddle was one he could wait for.

 

They forged across the bed of a long-absent sea. As they trudged across the rough channels and gullies, Miranda asked, “Why are we walking?”

Guide said, “You have a better alternative?”

With an all-too-familiar smug smile, she glanced at Pug then vanished.

A hundred yards ahead they heard her scream.

Scrambling as best they could across the broken, sunbaked sands of the dry sea bottom, they reached her quickly, finding her sitting up, a look of confusion on her face as she held her hands to her temples.

“That which you call magic,” said Guide, “does not respond here as it would in your own world.”

“But what of the protective spells we employed?” asked Magnus.

“Did it not occur to you that it was surprisingly easy to create those protections against this world’s energy states?”

Magnus nodded. “Now that you mention it, it was easy.”

Nakor chuckled as he and Pug helped Miranda to her feet. “Different energy states, my friends,” said the bandy-legged little man. “If you light a small pot of oil, you get a flame to read by. If you refine and distill that same oil and light it, you get a really big hot flame.”

“In time you should be able to learn to temper your arts to transport yourself from place to place,” said Guide. “But we do not have the time for you to learn. Rather, you do not have that time. So, we walk.” With that, he began walking again.

Pug asked Miranda, “Are you all right?”

“Besides feeling supremely foolish, yes.” She glanced up and saw the concern in his eyes. “Sorry.”

Pug felt conflicting urges to say different things at once, paused, then nodded.

 

Time passed and they forged on. Guide provided illumination as they traversed the broken seabed. He created bridges as they crossed massive trenches in the former ocean’s floor, and seemingly kept them alive by some magic that rid them of need for food or water.

But they did need to rest, even if only for short periods, while they regained strength rapidly in this high-energy-state universe.

During one such rest, Pug asked, “Are we to know why you’re here?”

Guide answered, “I am here as willed by One.”

Pug couldn’t help but laugh. “When I was a Tsurani Great One on Kelewan, my every command was answered by ‘Your Will, Great One,’ ah . . . for some reason this strikes me as humorous.”

A great wave of sadness swept over Pug as he remembered Kelewan. Since his actions had destroyed that world and countless lives on it, he had effectively walled off the profoundly deep sorrow and guilt associated with that terrible decision. Yet from time to time, usually when he was alone, it would return to haunt him.

“How are you able to keep hunger and thirst at bay for us?” asked Nakor. “It’s a very good trick.”

Guide shrugged. “The universe is aware, on many levels. My perceptions and knowledge are vastly different from your own. What I need to know, I know. What I do not know, I do not know. You are mortals, and in need of food and water, so I provide such . . .” He waved his hand as if the concept was alien to him and difficult to explain. “I just make it so; you are fed; you have drunk . . . what is needed.” Then he opened his eyes slightly and said, “Ah, curiosity!”

“You have none?” asked Magnus.

“I am created for a purpose,” said Guide.

Nakor laughed. “We all are.”

“But my purpose is unique and short-lived. Once I start you on your way home, I will have completed my task and cease to exist in this form,” said Guide. “I will return to the One and rejoin the Bliss.”

“Who sent you to find us?” asked Magnus.

“The One,” said Guide with a tone that suggested it was obvious.

“Why here?” asked Nakor, fixing Guide with a narrow gaze. “Why not on Midkemia before we destroyed an entire city and the best part of a race?”

Guide cocked his head for a second as if considering. “I do not know.” He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and said, “Rider.”

“What rider?” asked Miranda.

“Rider. She was sent by the One to warn you.” He pointed at Pug. “But she was . . . prevented.” His face became a mask of confusion. He stood up. “Come. We must hurry. Time grows short.”

“How much farther?” asked Magnus.

“Why the sudden hurry?” asked Miranda.

“I can only know what I am to know.” Guide now looked completely confused. “Your questions will . . . be answered as it is . . . as the One . . .” Frustration overcame him and he almost shouted, “I do not know why these things are so! I am only a means of . . .” He continued in an almost alien voice. “I am only a means of expression, an interpreter, if you will, of a higher mind which must carefully choose how to touch you without harm. Your lack of belief in the form your minds chose . . . it is wearing on me. Come, I will take you to someone who may be better able to answer these and other questions.”

They trudged along and Pug said, “When we pulled Macros back from his attempted ascension into godhood, I remember him describing his experience as seeing all of vast creation through the knothole of a fence, and as we pulled him back his perspective shifted and he saw less and less.”

“Yes?” asked Miranda.

“He later explained that the other aspect of the experience is, the closer he got to that fence the less of his ‘self’ remained; as he ascended to godhood, identity faded as consciousness expanded.”

Guide said, “Yes. The One could simply impart knowledge, but it would overwhelm you. For you to know, but to be squatting on the side of a hill unable to move because your mind was damaged, that would serve no one.”

“That’s hard to deny!” said Nakor.

They moved as best they could over the broken terrain and at times found themselves facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles, for they were moving down a miles-long slope that wended its way through once-undersea mountains. Yet Guide always seemed to find a way, even if it was treacherous.

Finally they crested a rise and he pointed. “There!”

In the distance they could see a vast table of land, surrounded by deep trenches. Pug said, “Those crevasses are vast. Can you fashion us a bridge that far?”

Before Guide could answer, Magnus said, “I think I can get us there.”

Miranda looked at him. “Are you certain? I found the short excursion I attempted very painful.”

“I’ve been attuning myself as best I’m able to the energy states here . . .” Magnus paused and they both knew he had almost called her Mother, and a smile was exchanged. “I doubt it will be pain-free, but I think I can manage this one attempt without incapacitating myself. As I can see our destination, much of the risk is abated.”

Pug and Miranda glanced at each other, then at Nakor, who nodded. “It’s been a long time since I tried to forbid you a risk,” said Pug. He took Magnus’s hand as Miranda and Nakor joined hands, and Nakor grabbed Magnus’s arm. Pug gripped Guide’s arm with his free hand and found it unexpectedly cold.

Suddenly they were standing on a plateau miles from where they had been a moment before. Pug looked at his son and saw Magnus’s expression was pained, and perspiration was beading on his forehead. His pale complexion was drained of what little color he normally possessed. He shook his head slightly and said, “I’ll be fine in a moment. If we have to do it again, I can adjust. This is not the easiest adjustment I’ve made, but it’s not the most difficult either.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” said Nakor, then he pointed past Guide. “Who’s that?”

Guide didn’t look, but said, “That is Pepan the Thricecursed.” Then he vanished without a word.

The being left before them was as alien a creature as any of them had met, and in demonic form Nakor and Miranda had met many. He, if gender could be determined, was as miserable-looking a creature as any of them had seen. His head was three times the size of a normal man’s, but the body was slender and seemed barely able to hold it up. A bulbous stomach protruded so far that only the lower portions of spindly legs where it sat could be seen, and the arms were almost withered.

His face was long, from an almost hairless pate to a broad jaw, and a nose covered in pustules and scabs was at its center. Rheumy eyes of pale blue surrounded by jaundiced yellow shed a constant stream of tears, and heavy lips generated a constant flow of froth and bubbles.

Miranda said softly, “I’ve seen worse.”

Nakor said, “I’m older than you. No, you haven’t.”

The creature seemed unaware of them until Pug ventured closer. “You are Pepan?”

“That’s what Guide said,” snapped the creature angrily. “Do you see anyone else here?”

Nakor pressed forward, his insatiable curiosity pushing aside other considerations. “Tell us why you are called the Thrice-cursed.”

“Listen and be wiser for it, mortal!” shouted the creature. “In this world, once was I a man among men, a king among kings, a being of power and wealth, wisdom and beauty. Did I sit upon thrones and did subjects tremble at my beauty? Yes! Did I possess all that any man might desire? Yes!”

Pug saw Miranda about to interrupt and slightly shook his head to indicate he wanted to hear this tale: perhaps there was knowledge to be gained here.

“In my arrogance I did conspire to elevate myself beyond the wealth and power I had, to rise to the heavens and seek a place among the gods.”

Nakor grinned and nodded. “Go on.”

“In my vanity, did I create engines of destruction unmatched in the history of my people. Nations I conquered to gather mighty armies around me: those who were vanquished served or died.

“Then, in the tenth age of my reign, I came here to the Tent of Heaven, and led my hordes up the Path of the Gods, to the top of the tallest mountain on this world!”

Nakor glanced around, for they were on what had once been an undersea plateau. “I see no mountain, Pepan.”

“Washed away by the ocean, for no sooner had I approached the Gates of Heaven to demand my due as the newest of the gods, they picked up the entire mountain and thousands of my soldiers fell screaming to their deaths. Then, for my vanity, the gods cursed me by washing away all knowledge of me, sweeping my people into the sea with me, while I was chained to that very mountain. I listened to their screams of terror and pleas for mercy, until there was only silence.

“Then I knew the price of vanity, perhaps the worst of all sins, for alone I waited, aeons passing as the waters wore away the very rocks to which I was chained. The sea became my home and I abided.

“Above, time passed; I had but scant knowledge of it, only suggestions carried to me on fickle tides. A strange scrap of fabric, unlike any I had beheld, drifted close, and I seized it. I wondered who had woven it and what manner of creature now walked in the world above me. I treasured that fabric until the salt of the water had faded it and the very fabric wore away.

“Once a ship passed directly above, blocking out the faint light of the sun as it passed. I wondered who voyaged upon it, whence they came, and where they were bound.

“As the mountain wore away, sections sheared off and I was carried deeper into the depths, until no light reached me from above.”

Miranda said, “That is far more than three curses; that’s damnation without ending.”

“But there you are wrong, mortal!” shouted Pepan. “For after a time, I found peace, an acceptance of my lot. I was content to let my mind go void, to simply be, in harmony with the rhythms of the idea.

“Angry gods at last took note of my peace, and chose then to inflict the second of my curses. A day, a month, mere moments, I do not know how long passed, for time had become meaningless to one dwelling blind in the depths of the sea, but suddenly the waters receded and I was again in the light and air! Fire rained down from above, and majestic clouds of flame and ash tore across the heavens as war on a scale unimagined by mortals raged across the land. Engines of destruction vast beyond my imagining, making my proud fleet seem like mere toys, cruised the skies, delivering obliteration to all below.

“Mortals in armor unlike any seen before hurried across broken lands with lances of red light and fire-belching engines on treads, destroying all before them.

“Then hordes of demons appeared, sweeping mortals away as a scythe shears grain, and answering them was a host of angels, swords aflame, horns sounding notes so pure that I was reduced to weeping at the first note.

“This world was torn asunder and oceans vanished as energies hotter than a star burned across the lands. And yet I abided.”

He fell silent for a moment, and to the four travelers it was unclear if he was merely organizing his thoughts or experiencing some emotion at the memory of this unbelievable narrative.

“So, in sum, my second curse was to watch any shred of a thing I might have loved destroyed in the war between gods and men.” His voice softened. “A war I began.

“Ages passed and my third curse was made apparent.”

“What is that?” asked Nakor.

“Upon this world remain scattered remnants of nations, which I gathered.” He pointed to the assembled bits and scraps he had cobbled together to make a shelter. A bit of something served as a chair, an ancient-looking table. Shreds of fabric had been woven together into a quilt. Pepan himself wore a simple breechclout that was revealed when he finally stood up.

“For uncounted days I wandered, gathering what I could find, always to return here.”

“Why here?” asked Magnus. “There must be more hospitable places on this world.”

“Not really,” answered Pepan. “And this is where the gods left me. This is where I am to abide. I no longer rebel but I do question.” Raising his eyes to the sky, he shouted, “I was a sinner, All Father! I admit my transgressions, All Mother! I sinned most of my days!” His voice broke. “But not every day. I lived but a few score years, yet I have paid for my sins for an eternity.” With a sob, he whispered, “Enough, please.”

Just as Pug and the others were verging on sympathy for the abject creature, Pepan erupted in a howl of rage. “And my third curse, most hateful of all, making me the gatekeeper!”

“Gatekeeper?” asked Nakor.

“See you then, mortal, that the ultimate jest piled upon me by the gods is that when those who wander this destroyed world, or who fall here from some other realm, when at last they find their way here, I am obliged to help them on their way. I cannot even out of lonely spite keep them here to mitigate my endless sorrow through pleasant discourse, nor may I exchange tales of lives spent in other realms, but rather I must endure solitude.

“For upon your arrival, I began to feel pain, and with each passing minute the pain increases. It will not cease until I send you on your way, returning to my isolation. I may not end the suffering by my own hand or the hand of another,” he sobbed. “Alone on this world, I am immortal and indestructible.”

“Why endure the pain?” asked Magnus. “Why tell us your tale? Why not just hurry us along!”

“The pain is a price worth paying to interrupt my loneliness,” Pepan said, weeping openly. “Now it must end.”

He waved his hands in precise pattern and a vortex appeared in the air. It was obviously an opening of some sort, but as they readied themselves to leap through it, Pepan held up a hand. “Wait!”

“What?” asked Pug.

Pepan closed his eyes, tears now streaming down his cheeks. “Each of you must follow a different path.”

“We must split up?” asked Miranda, obviously not happy with the idea.

“Apparently,” said Pug. “If someone laid a trap for the four of us, then it’s literally set for the four of us.”

“It waits for all of us,” said Nakor. “Yes!” His expression turned gleeful. “You do not spring a trap on soldiers when only the scout is there: you wait for all of them to gather.”

Pepan’s expression now contorted into one of abject pain. He waved a hand and the size and color of the vortex changed, growing smaller and tinged with orange energy. “You!” he said, pointing at Nakor.

Without a word, Nakor leaped into the vortex.

Again Pepan waved his hand and the color of the vortex changed to a faint, shimmering blue. “You,” he said, pointing at Miranda.

She glanced at Pug and Magnus, hesitating for a brief moment, then with a quick nod she leaped into the swirling air and vanished.

Again the color changed, this time to a brilliant white, and Pepan pointed at Magnus. Without hesitation, Pug’s son jumped into the magic portal.

One more wave and Pepan said, “I am to tell you one thing, Magician.”

“What?” asked Pug. He watched the vortex turn dark until it became a black maw.

“This is the beginning of the end. You will meet your companions again, but only at the most dire moment, when you must all be ready to sacrifice everything to save everything.”

“I’m not sure—”

“Go!” commanded the wretched creature, and Pug obeyed.

He ran and jumped, crouching as he entered a cone of darkness.

 

Magician’s End © Raymond E. Feist 2013

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