website design software

Story 1

Dana Beehr

Chaladon, the last of the Deep Dancers, on a quest in a long-dead empire to destroy the Everstone at the center of the wold, encounters the most challenging dance of her life, battling the treachery of her own mind and the high sorcery of the Dark Veil.

Dana Beehr weaves a compelling tale tale of magic and conquest in a fantasy of uncompromising grittiness.

Dana Beehr has a couple of degrees in anthropology and currently works in real estate.  She lives in the Midwest with her husband, one dog, and two cats.  Hobbies include reading, crafting, and looking for a portal to "Narnia under her stairs."



By Dana Beehr


Chaladon had been following the sluggish, brown river for the past few days when she came upon the small outpost tucked into its bend: a clutch of drab buildings that seemed a part of the rugged, gray-green hills.  She saw a stable suitable for a dozen horses, a one-room office building, a bunkhouse where a weary traveler could get a meal and a bed.  A courier station for messengers of the long-dead Empire.

But of course, out here the Empire still stands.  The men and women in travel-stained clothes, the horses tied to the hitching rail outside the office, the odors of dung, smoke and scorched metal, the distant clang from the blacksmith’s forge, attested to that truth. She stood for a moment, watching the bustle, drinking in the sights and sounds of ordinary life. 

It’s been too long.

The sun had sunk below the glaring wound of the Rift in the sky, which had been there for most of her life; Chaladon was tired, hungry, and ready to stop for the night.  She went to the small pump by the office building and let her pack and dance sword slide from her back.  She filled her waterskin, then put her head under the cool water.  When she straightened, dripping, she blinked the water out of her eyes to see an older man with dark hair and moustache in a care-worn face leaning against the wall, eyes on the road.  He tipped his hat and nodded to her.

“Greetings, Deep Dancer. Not too often we get one of your kind around here.”

“And never will again, most like.  I’m the last of them.”

“A shame,” he said.  “Be you from the Empress?”

“The Empress is dead; the Empire of the Center fell centuries ago.”

Again, the man shrugged.  “As may be.  Out here it stands yet.”

“What is the name of your Empress?” she asked, curious.

“Empress Zhalia, long may she reign.”  Chaladon nodded; that was two empresses before her time.  “Take it you’re not on Imperial business then,” he continued. 

“In a way.”  Chaladon was not in a mood to give him more, and after a moment, he went back to scanning the road.  As if waiting for someone.

“Well, it’s an honor to have you, Deep Dancer,” he said.  “Be you staying long?”

“Just passing through.  Who’s in charge here?”

“Myself, Lady -- what’d you say your name was again?”

“Chaladon the Ninth.”  She resettled the weight of her pack on her shoulders, sliding her sword into place underneath the looped strands of her dance veil. 

“Lady Chaladon, then,” he said.  “I’m the marshal around these parts.  Name’s Oghain.”  His eyes were kind and friendly, his face open.  The openness smoothed out places in her that had been rough for a while, and Chaladon found herself smiling back.

“I’m hoping to claim Imperial rights -- food and board and perhaps to draw some coin against the treasury, since the Empire stands yet where we are.”

Oghain nodded. “I’ve always felt for you from the Center.  It must be strange, feeling your Empire roll up behind you as you travel.  Like running on a bridge collapsing beneath you.”

“Yes...” She was struck by his words.  Yes, it was exactly like that.

“Well, we can see you get what you asked for.  Anything else?”

“Whatever you can tell me about the way ahead,” Chaladon said.  “I’m headed Outward; hoping to follow the river--what is it called?”

“The Ssha, Lady Chaladon,” Oghain said. 

“My quest is to seek the Edge of the World.”

Oghain raised one brow.  “Well.  We’ve had others come through here seeking the Edge, though none returned.  They each had a story; what’s yours?”

“A commission,” Chaladon said.  “Given to me back in the days...”

She broke off because she did not know what to say.  Not back in the days when the Empire of the Center still stood; she had been born too late for that.  Back in the days when she, Chaläestra, and Chalira, dance-sisters three, had been raised to maturity, the last Deep Dancers in the last creche of the last line of their order; a commission given them by their Dancemistress Chalise, who had raised them for that purpose, had sent them out into the world... as if she sensed we would never return.

And now there was only herself.

“A commission laid upon me by my Dancemistress, in the name of the Empress of the Center.  To destroy the Everstorm at the center of the world.” 

Oghain nodded, taking her words in stride.  Yet he never stopped watching the road.

“Well, then so be it,” he said.  “But I must tell you, Lady Chaladon, the way you’re plannin’ to go -- through the Valley of the Ssha -- best you find another route.  You see, it’s -- “

He stopped.  His gaze sharpened into alertness. Chaladon turned to look.

A woman was heading along the road toward them, on foot.  Even at this distance Chaladon could tell something was wrong: she swayed and lurched like a drunkard. 

Sunstroke?  As the woman came closer, Chaladon saw that her eyes were wide and glittering, her teeth set in a rictus grin.  This is no illness.  A chill passed down Chaladon’s spine.

The color drained from Oghain’s face.  “Three Ladies, it’s Tamaya!”

His shout ripped the air, bringing all the people in the street to a halt.  Hands went to weapons.  Tamaya ignored everything, staggering toward a youngish man with soft, brown curls and an open, innocent face, who stared at her as if he could not look away.

“Tamaya -- “ the man whispered.

“Jasin, be careful,” Oghain warned. “That’s not your Tamaya anymore -- “

Jasin seemed not to hear.  He took a step...another one...

She shrieked horribly and lunged, a wicked-looking knife flashing in one hand.  In a blink she had buried her blade in his chest.

“Tamaya -- !” Jasin staggered backward and collapsed.  Tamaya yanked out the knife, and blood spurted, painting her face demon-red.  She went for him again, but a big man with the air of a soldier grabbed her arm and yanked it behind her.  The bone snapped audibly, but Tamaya, screeching and thrashing, seemed not to notice.  In another instant, a thin-faced woman carrying a shovel stepped up and hit Tamaya sharply on the back of the head.  She slumped like a rag doll. It had all happened so quickly, Chaladon had not had time to free her dance sword or the Fire Veil she carried.

As the crowd closed up around the prone forms, murmuring, Chaladon looked over at Oghain.  “What was that?”

The lines in Oghain’s face deepened.  “Been three or four days since she disappeared. People said she’d gone to the Valley of the Ssha -- looking for a rare plant to cure her little daughter.  They try to beat it every now and then; believe it can’t happen to them.”

What can’t happen?”

Oghain was silent for a long moment. “Round here we call it the Madness. Nobody goes into the Madness, not if they can help it; and them as does -- “ He broke off, his eyes haunted.

“Tell me,” Chaladon said.

“Most don’t come back.  Them as are lucky.  We reckon they’re lying somewhere dead in the cleft.  And for those who live -- “ He indicated the knot of townsfolk gathered around the fallen forms of Tamaya and Jasin.  “Well, you just saw it there, my Lady.  Anyone walks out of the Madness brings a raging hatred, a thirst to kill -- this be the cruelest of all -- those they loved.”

“Those they loved?” Chaladon looked at him closely. 

He gave a grim nod.  “Parents, children, husbands, wives --  It’s as if every scrap of love they’ve ever felt has turned to hatred.  Nothing will stop them.  Men and women have traveled for miles and years, to do their last loved ones to death.”  He looked at her as if to see if she heard him.

Chaladon regarded him evenly.  “Have no fear.  For there is no one left in the world that I love.” 

Oghain’s face grew even heavier.  “Then that’s a terrible thing of itself, my lady.  Listen.  I can’t stop you from goin’ —- not a Deep Dancer, you understand -- but ‘twere best to turn back.”

She shook her head.  “I can’t.  Not after coming so far.” Without another word she turned away, starting up the steps into the bunkhouse.

As she crossed the veranda, a figure lurking in the shadows detached itself from a roof post.  “Please, Lady Deep Dancer -- “

Chaladon saw a scrawny, stained, young woman with stringy hair and deep shadows under her eyes. “Yes?”

“If’n you’re heading into the Madness, could you be keeping an eye out for my brother Yeman?  He went in a while ago on a dare and never came back.  I can’t bear to think of -- if we have to -- “  She wiped at her eyes with the back of one thin hand.  “If you can find him --  Well, we hear tales of you Deep Dancers even out here.  If there’s any way to cure him, I know you can.” 

The simple trust in her face touched Chaladon’s heart, much to her surprise.  She had thought nothing could, after all this time.

“What’s your name, girl?”


“I’ll see what I can do,” she said.  Yelena’s wasted face lit as if she had just been promised the three moons.

“Oh, thank you, my lady.  Thank you so much. I’ll tell my ma and pa.  It’ll do them so much good to hear that you’ll help.”

She bobbed a quick curtsey and scurried off down the central street. Chaladon watched her go.  At least, she thought, I can make someone happy.


The next morning found her on the road out of town. She’d left before the sun was all the way up over the Edge of the World, as the Moons sank past the glaring, lurid Rift in the sky.

The road, a flat, gray ribbon of dust, followed the curve of the Ssha around a high ridge.  The land was covered with stunted bushes and tall grass, lying open and sleepy under the bright morning sunlight. Chaladon saw nothing so far to drive one mad. Unless from sheer boredom. 

On the other side of the orange-colored ridge, road and river entered a narrow pass.  Bluffs rose against the sky, leading into a broad canyon. The canyon floor was covered with the same drab, gray-green scrub grass as the plains beyond.  Here and there stood gnarled trees with twisted trunks, bearing strange, fleshy fruits like fungal growth.

The brown, muddy Ssha flowed on steadily, filling the air with the sound and scent of running water.  The ground was marshy, a fetid mud that squelched and clung to Chaladon’s boots.  Insects landed, biting, until she cast a simple ward to keep them off; even then the whine of the mosquitoes and hum of the ugly, bristling, black flies filled her ears.

Eventually the valley widened out, and Chaladon found herself pushing through tall grass and small, hidden cactuses.  She stepped on one and felt a sharp pain in her foot; with a muttered curse, she looked down to see an inch-long spine stabbing through her leather boot.  When she yanked the thorn out, the tip was stained with blood. A warm rivulet was flowing down the side of her foot.

She sat down on a boulder, or tried to; it was hard to keep her balance, and she had to brace one foot while propping the other up on her thigh.  Misshapen little lizards with grotesquely large heads scurried over the warm rock.  They hissed at her, and a few took tiny nips at her ankle; Chaladon kicked them away and pulled off her boot.

Blood was trickling down her instep; already the puncture wound looked inflamed. A gesture of healing magic stopped the bleeding; then, Chaladon reached into her pack for a vial of healing salve -- given to her a long time ago, when she had visited the Rivers of Light -- and dabbed some onto her foot, spreading soothing relief.

But what about the boot?  A glance, and she grimaced in dismay.  It was still wearable, but she would have to get it repaired the next chance she got. 

She could do nothing but continue.  Chaladon slid off the rock and began forging ahead once more.  The ground was muddy where it wasn’t stony, and tangled with brush.  The strange, ugly little lizards continued to hiss and nip at her feet.  The stunted trees crowded the edges of the road more thickly. Birds called from the trees’ branches: a harsh, grating cawwww.  They were vile-looking, with tattered plumage, naked heads and gleaming, beady eyes, hunching on tree branches like evil spirits.  When she ventured too close to a misshapen nest, one of them dove at her, screeching, and pecked at her head until she retreated.

What a rotten, foul place this is.  She picked her way around some bushes squatting like big toads, glowering with lopsided flowers for eyes. The scorching sun had risen past the rift that flared like an inflamed wound -- a wound of nothingness, a gaping maw.  That Rift had not always been there; no; Chaladon had seen it made. 

Had known the one that made it.  Chaläestra.

The mirror crack’d from side to side, she mused.  It was a line she had heard once.  Years -- or perhaps centuries -- after she, Chalira, and Chaläestra had visited the Tower of Shalott, sung by those who had not even been born when the three of them made their visit.

No.  What’s done is done. She shook her head and pressed on.

The heat of the sun baked down.  Sweat trickled down her face and dripped into her eyes, stinging.  The air was oppressive and still; it felt like trying to breathe through a warm, wet towel.  Chaladon gritted her teeth.  Just keep walking, she told herself, just keep walking....

She started when a fox dashed, growling, from a crevice, and latched its teeth into her boot. It hung on doggedly even when she tried to kick it away.  She was lucky -- it bit into her toe where the leather was thickest, so could not reach the skin -- but she was forced to draw her belt knife and stab it behind the head to kill it.  Even then, its teeth remained clamped on her boot until she pried it off with her dagger.

She studied the tiny carcass.  The fox’s green eyes were glazing in death; its tiny, needle-sharp teeth broken and stained.  It was bony with patchy fur.  Gashes dripping pus marred its sides. In disgust, she kicked it away.  What kind of place is this where even the animals run mad?

She wondered suddenly what her dance-sisters, Chalira and Chaläestra, would have made of this place.  Chaläestra would think it all a grand game.  It was strange: Chaladon would have thought, with the passage of miles and years, that it would have been harder to recall her dance-sisters, but somehow they seemed to be standing at her shoulder.  Yes, Chaläestra would have found this place amusing, just as she found everything.  When they had first set out, Chaläestra’s levity had seemed a blessing. Chaladon had believed her dance-sister’s joy would carry them through every trial.

I didn’t see her as she really was. Not light-hearted and free; rather, capricious and cruel.  Even now, Chaladon would have gladly denied it, but she knew it was true. She had always been that way.

She cracked the sky at Shalott.  For a jest.  After that, it had been clear Chaläestra was a danger, to them and the world. Why didn’t we see sooner? Why didn’t Chalise see? She was our Linemistress, she was supposed to be looking out for us....

Chaladon slogged onward through heat and dust, her resentment growing.  Yes, Chaläestra never did care for us, did she -- or for the quest.  Only for whatever she wanted. She glanced up at the Rift, burning across the sky, widening day by day.  We should have dealt with her much sooner, Chalira and I....

Chalira: the level-headed one, whom she counted on -- had always counted on--to balance Chaläestra.  Chalira, the responsible one --  

Or was she?

In the end, Chalira didn’t care about the quest either, did she? She left me. Turned aside -- for what?  A man? Home? A family?  Chaladon remembered the Garden of Forking Paths, the things Chalira had said....

“You never truly cared about the quest! All that mattered to you was that Chaläestra and I followed your lead.”  Even now, a surge of anger flared.  How could she possibly believe that?  I did everything I could to keep the quest going!  The fate of the world was on our shoulders -- and now, the burden is mine alone.  I thought Chalira knew, that she’d follow me to the End of the World, but she failed me.  She and Chaläestra both.

Failed?  Or betrayed?

Chaladon turned her ankle on a rock, but she hardly felt it.  Her thoughts ran on and on, growing steadily darker, a ceaseless skein twisting through her mind. Chaläestra, Chalira -- they betrayed me.  And Chalise -- she sent us out there knowing we wouldn’t come back.  She sent us out there to die.  In that moment, it suddenly made sense; she saw Chalise’s actions clearly for the first time. She hoped to get us killed, by sending us on this pointless errand.  To find a solution to the Everstorm?  As if that were even possible.  No, she wanted us all to die....

Us all?  Or just me?

Chaladon froze, struck motionless by the thought.  Of course. That explains everything.   Links in a chain of evidence locked into place with a deafening click.  The realization took her breath away. It was always a plot to kill me.  That’s why they left --   Maybe that was even why Chaläestra cracked the sky.  So that I’d challenge her and she could strike me down --  And the argument with Chalira...  She meant for me to fight her.  When I wouldn’t, she left.  So that I would die out here, alone --

It all made so much sense. I can’t believe I didn’t see it before --  Her mind reeled at the enormity of the revelation.  Those faithless traitors -- all those years, feigning friendship to my face, while plotting behind my back --  

Were they plotting still?

Of course.  If they had hoped to destroy her, why leave it undone?  It was so obvious. They were still working against her, all three: Chaläestra, Chalira, Chalise.  Frightened and enraged, she wondered if every obstacle she’d ever encountered had been their doing.

They might even be watching her now, preparing an ambush -- The image of the three of them together filled her with fury beyond reason.  She could feel them out there -- preparing to strike her down. Her skin prickled with danger.

A slow, red mist filled her brain.  They’re lying in wait for me.  Maybe -- Maybe I need to lie in wait for them.  My old “friends.”  Her hands gripped her veil. 

Find them and kill them.  Find them and kill them. Chaläestra. Chalira. Chalise.

Somehow she had unwound her veil, readying it for attack. She was already turning, almost without volition; she seemed to be watching herself from a distance, through a haze of fury.  She had actually taken a step back when a thought struck her.

“Wait.”  She said it aloud.   “Chaläestra, Chalira, Chalise — they’re all long dead.”

No, that skein of underthoughts insisted.  No, they can’t be --

“They are.  She spoke aloud, lending weight to the words.  “How could they possibly be plotting against me when they’re already dead?”

The shock cut through the fog like a slap in the face. They’re dead. They’ve been dead for years.  I know that.  Where would I get the idea that they’re working against me?

She could still feel the anger, a pounding tide that beat against her temples, but now she grasped its true nature: alien, not truly a part of her but coming from outside somewhere.  And underneath, like a thread running through all her thoughts, ran an insistent yammering:

No, no, they’ve betrayed you, kill them all, you must kill them all, they don’t deserve to live....

With an effort, she pushed the thoughts from her mind.  Shaken, she struggled to steady herself.

If I hadn’t remembered that Chaläestra, Chalira, Chalise -- that they were all gone -- 

“Some kind of spell.”  Saying the words aloud helped -- carving the truth into the air, bringing it out where she could hear and see it.  It’s the only explanation.  It must lie over this whole valley.  But who did it, and why?

She wrapped her Fire Veil around herself again and studied her surroundings.  The valley stretched around her: the fetid river, the reeking mud squishing around her feet, the spiny cactuses, the loathsome little lizards.  She closed her eyes, emptying her mind, seeing what remained. 

It felt as if she were standing in front of a wall of black thunderheads; a chill, horrible pressure weighed on her. 

Something up there hates.  A corrosive hate, as filled with poison as a rotted wound.  Chaladon could feel it oozing out and tainting everything around her. It was that hatred that seeped into my mind -- that wanted me to kill those I loved. 

Chaladon opened her eyes.  That wall of hatred seemed a solid thing, dark and ominous and impassable.  It would be safer, wiser — easier — to turn around.  Backtrack her steps, try to find another route avoiding that monstrous evil.

But she couldn’t.  Whatever was waiting up there was vile, and extremely dangerous.  She’d seen a trace of the suffering it caused in the town the day before; if left unchecked, it would only cause more harm.

Was it not the duty of Deep Dancers everywhere to deal with threats like this?

I can’t just leave it. 

She reached into her belt pouch for her zils and slid them onto her fingers, then drew out a bronze medallion with a single yellow stone and fastened it around her neck.  Touching it, she saw what she suspected: The whole valley glowed with a subtle magic aura.  And the strongest source of the aura still lay before her.

She remembered Yelena’s brother Yeman. Could he be waiting for me?  She had seen no sign of him.  Still, he might be lurking somewhere, ready to strike.

Her senses on edge, she proceeded.

The terrain grew worse.  Insect clouds thickened, bouncing off her ward, their whine drilling into her ears. Mud rose to her ankles.  The Rift overhead glared down at her like a suppurating wound.  She gritted her teeth and pressed on.  The sense of malignity grew with every step, until....


A round hill perhaps twice her height, nestled in the crook of a rise.  It was tufted over with grass and white and yellow flowers.  A gnarled tree clung to the crest like an evil hobgoblin. Slabs of stone formed a dark opening.

The sense of malice was strongest there.  She touched her magic-detecting necklace. The mound shone like a beacon fire.

This is the source.

A strange hush hung over the place.  Chaladon’s feet crunched over gravel as she approached.  The chill air from the black doorway reeked like fetid air from a tomb.  Brushing past her face, it felt alive, even gleeful.  “Come in and try me,” it seemed to say.  “If you dare.”

Stepping across the threshold felt like slipping into an icy bath.  She pressed against one wall, letting her eyes adjust. 

She stood in a round room with walls of cut stone blocks.  Thick dust coated the floor.  The chamber held close within it a sense of great antiquity, as if it had been made before the ancestors of any human living -- perhaps even before the Empire of the Center.

In the far wall where the mound joined living rock, Chaladon saw a vertical crack.  A cave.

The dark, rotted skein of hatred running through her thoughts leapt up again, throbbing like an infected wound.  No, no, no, go kill them, kill them all —

Someone or something did not want her to go farther. 

Chaladon took her Fire Veil in her hands, and stepped through the crevice. On the other side was a short, natural tunnel.  Enough light filtered in to turn pitch darkness into a murky gloom.

The tunnel was filled with the hatred she had felt before, almost choked with it, like a viscous substance filling the air. Pushing against it was like wading through quicksand.  Her nerves hung on a hair thread as she pressed through, till she reached an arched doorway.  She stopped there and strained her eyes; in the room beyond, she could make out a stone dais against the far wall.  She edged closer, trying to see --  

The woman on the dais was long dead.  She had dried rather than rotted: her skin a shiny, cracked leather, stretched too taut over the bones of her arms, her legs, her rib cage.  A cloud of brittle black hair drifted around her head, framing her desiccated features.  She lay on her back, her legs stretched out, her arms folded on her chest. 

She wore the regalia of a Deep Dancer.  Chaladon could not mistake the fringed top, cut to leave the arms bare and expose the belly, the flowing trousers, the shiny coin belt.

And gathered in her arms, clasped protectively to her chest, was a bundle of darkness: a black so black that it took Chaladon a moment to understand what she was seeing.  A veil.

What is it?  Her eyes struggled to make sense of it.  Something tugged at her mind; she had heard tales of a Dark Veil, another of the twenty-seven Great Veils -- just as her Fire Veil was. Is that what this is?  And who is this woman holding it?

Chaladon stepped closer, straining to make out every detail.  The corpse’s garments were a rich wine color fringed with gold; Chaladon’s own colors were blue and silver.  She searched her memory, trying to match those colors with any legendary dancer she had ever heard of....

The woman’s eyes opened and she sat up.

Chaladon’s heart leapt with shock.  She jerked back.  Her Fire Veil almost fell from her hands, and her entire body flashed first cold then hot.

The woman’s eyes moved, alive and hellishly bright in that desiccated, peeling face; they shone a brilliant, inhuman gold, so steeped in hatred that their very glance burned.  Her withered features writhed: leathery, cracked lips drawing back against the bones of her skull to reveal yellowing teeth.  Her jaw opened, her throat worked, but only a hiss emerged. 

The dead dancer swung her legs over the edge of the bier and rose to her feet.

Chaladon retreated a step. The venom rolling off the woman was almost unbearable.  That thing -- that woman who could have been Chaladon’s sister -- hissed at her again, and moved her hands apart.  Her veil, black as if torn from the night, whirled up and around, raising a dark cloud, edged with the soft, soughing whispers of a fetid wind. 

The cloud flowed toward Chaladon with the stench of decaying roses.  Hot fire in her blood, she leapt aside, and the faintest edge of that darkness brushed her -- but where it did, a sickening hatred raced through her veins, and her skin seemed to curdle.

Any stronger and that hatred might have poisoned her; as it was, it served only to fire her spirit. With a wrench, Chaladon’s mind grabbed hold of that anger, that hatred, and forced it to serve her. My enemy!

She yanked the Fire Veil free, and it became a roaring sheet of flame.  It crackled, alive and hungry, its power flowing through her, until she felt as if she could do anything.  Fire blazed in the air, turning the cavern into day, each pebble casting its own shadow.  Droplets of moisture on the walls hissed into steam, and lichen began to smolder.  At the heart of the fire, Chaladon felt none of it.

The desiccated dancer whirled her veil into a fountain of blackness.  Chaladon replied with fire, driving the shadows back. The two of them opposed each other, veil to veil, the Fire Veil blazing in Chaladon’s hands. A lance of night struck out, a twining whip trying to encircle her; Chaladon flared her own veil and shattered it into a thousand particles of darkness. Black fell to the ground, as greasy as oil, oozing toward her.  She swept her veil in a great arc, and the fire burned the droplets off. 

Whoever this woman was, she was excellent.  For an instant Chaladon wondered what an observer would have made of their duel; in a strange, twisted way it was like dancing with a partner again, for the first time in a long time -- and yet it was not. She was exerting herself, not with but against the other dancer, striving to disrupt and overpower her.  All her instincts to join, match, echo were against her.  Yet it was exhilarating; she balanced on the knife edge of life and death, forced to exert her skill to the utmost to win another step, another spin, another breath.  Fire and shadow strove against each other, twining together light and darkness --

And Chaladon realized she could not win.

She was living and mortal, where her opponent was dried flesh and leathery skin and naked bone.  The other dancer did not tire, did not need food or drink or rest.  Indeed, as they fought in whirling motion, the undead dancer seemed to be gaining strength, as if she fed on Chaladon’s opposition.  Her darkness beat wildly at Chaladon’s wall of flame, surging with ever greater virulence, and Chaladon could feel herself faltering.

I can’t keep this up, she thought.  She can fight forever --

Do something.  Now. Before it’s too late.

As the strange dancer hurled shadow at her, Chaladon flung her veil to meet it.  The Fire Veil slid under the darkness, lifted it, and tossed it back.  Chaladon lashed out, wrapping her veil around the desiccated dancer’s leg, and pulled.

Flames raced up that withered limb.  The undead woman hissed a scream of anger and her Dark Veil fell from her grasp. Screeching, she grasped the Fire Veil with her bare hands, and rent it in two.

Fire raged up.  She lit, and became a torch.  Chaladon fell backwards, sprawling on the floor as the undead dancer burned. The torn, fluttering pieces of the Fire Veil twined like serpents around her, as flames claimed her long-dead flesh, crackling in her hair and racing along her shrunken, dry limbs. She burned like kindling, as bright and hot, and even as the inferno consumed her, Chaladon saw those gleaming, golden eyes, blazing with hatred, through the fire. Until they too were gone.

Almost as quickly as they had caught, the flames died. Chaladon’s eyes struggled to adjust to the darkness.  The heat that filled the cavern was gone, and she shivered in the sudden chill.  Of her adversary, only a pile of ashes remained. 

Chaladon huddled on the floor for a time, trying to catch her breath.  As her strength seeped back, her eyes turned toward the remains of her adversary.

Who was she?  Where did she come from?  

The woman’s jewelry: bangles, rings, necklace, lay amid the ashes, bright and untouched by the flame; but they meant nothing to her. 

No way of knowing--not now.

She turned her attention instead to the two strips of the Fire Veil.  They lay limp and colorless, the power they had held gone.  When Chaladon reached to touch one, it crumbled to dust. 

Just as with the rest of my life.

Her legs buckled, and she collapsed gracelessly to the rough cave floor, struck by the loss of her veil, as if by a terrible physical blow.  It seemed in that moment worse than any other of her myriad losses. The veil was not just a source of power, but part of her order’s history, a priceless artifact entrusted to her--a precious link to the creche of her childhood. And now it was gone. The sadness pressed on her like a titanic weight.  Chaladon could do nothing but bend over those ashy remnants, immobilized by grief.

Something else I have destroyed. 

After what seemed forever, the terrible grief receded.  As she got to her feet, something caught her eye. A shadow in the deeper shadow by the barrow wall; a color of black so dark that she could barely discern it. The Dark Veil.

Chaladon wanted nothing more than to turn and walk away.  It’s not my veil, it’s not my responsibility, she thought, recognizing the selfish, childish impulse along with her bone-deep weariness.  Yet she knew she could not.  The same thing that had forced her to come this far impelled her now. 

I can’t leave it like that.  If someone should find it...

It would destroy them, she knew.  And that, only if they knew nothing about it. If it were someone with a darkness in her heart to match the veil...

Yet that was not the whole reason.  For a powerful curiosity filled her also.  Who made this veil?  Who was she that carried it?

Cautiously, she approached the Dark Veil.  It lay like a folded, inert shadow on the ground.  This close, a sense of malignancy radiated off it like heat, corrosive as acid.  Chaladon wanted nothing more than to back away.

Instead, she reached out and brushed the veil with her fingertips.

It was like falling down an endless hole, being swept along a rushing river, plunging over the edge of a waterfall; it was like that first, terrifying step onto the Winged Winds.  It took everything she had not to lose herself in the tide.  A solid wall of rage slammed into her, so powerful it could scarcely be endured. Kill them, kill them all, they deserve it, kill them, all of them, kill them, kill them I tell you --

Images of violence snatched up her mind, spun it, tossed it.  Her entire past came crashing down on her:  the places and people she had known, changed in terrifying ways: her line-sisters sprawled in pools of blood; the man she had loved once for so brief a time, his corpse hanging lifeless; her Linemistress Chalise, head shattered like an egg -- See, this is what they deserve, this is what they shall have -- you must kill them, destroy them, slaughter them --

To fight that tide of violence would have meant annihilation.  Instead, Chaladon sought to let the images simply wash over her, observing as they passed. As she steadied herself, she sensed something else: a texture older and darker and much more somber. She picked up the thread of this new emotion, and the name she found for it was...


An ancient, decayed grief, so achingly painful that to brush it almost meant death. They were bound together, that deep, unspeakable pain and the fire of rage.

The revelation set her back on her heels.  Grief... but for what?

Chaladon concentrated, ignoring the anger.  That dark shadow unfolded, and Chaladon realized she was touching, somehow, the mind of the person on the other side of the veil -- the woman who had woven it so long ago.

She lost someone. The image of the decayed dancer she had fought seemed to flow backward in time, into a woman with long, dark hair and wide, brilliant eyes, sparkling with life and joy.  How many years ago had it been?  Hundreds, maybe thousands.  The memory had the feeling of great age. 

A name drifted to her: Stharana.  A dancer of the line of Sthatha.   And she had...

A husband.  Husband and children. A tall man with a riot of brown curls, dark eyes with a roguish twinkle; a young girl with her father’s eyes and a boy with his mother’s.  The images were partial, fleeting -- decayed almost past recall. What happened to them?

Once, perhaps, the veil had held the memory; now, there was nothing.  All that was left was that loss, as raw and sharp as a shriek. 

Another image: Stharana sitting at a loom, surrounded by darkness, ceaselessly weaving.  She had turned to weaving to allay the grief, yet all she could weave was anger. It poured into her craft, twisting and folding back onto itself, into a hatred as strong and vicious as poison, a hatred of anyone who still had loved ones: a desire that they would suffer, just as she had. 

Chaladon sensed the woman’s horror when she saw what she had woven -- and her terrible choice.  Of course, she should destroy it, but how could she? That pain, that hatred, were a part of herself.  Destroying the veil that had been woven from them would be like ripping out a chunk of her heart -- and ending forever all that remained of her connection with her loved ones.

She kept it, Chaladon realized, not knowing what to do with it; and in time, the veil kept her.  It kept her still, holding traces of her mind, a faint impression trapped within warp and weft.  Chaladon felt her presence clinging to the veil still, watching. Waiting.

It would have been so easy to wipe that presence from existence.  But...

Chaladon too knew what it was like to to lose forever the ones you loved, and to hate the world because of it.  She knew pain as great as that of Sthanara; she, Chaladon, woman out of time. 

I understand.  I know what you feel, have felt....

From the depths of her heart, she excavated her own grief and loneliness.   I know your sorrow.  We are kindred spirits, you and I.... I grieve along with you....  And she wondered wistfully, How much must you have loved them, to feel this way?

The veil responded, an upswelling of emotion like water bubbling up out of sands, a love so powerful it almost brought Chaladon to her knees.  It was as if the consciousness in the veil had sought only a chance to bring it out.  And as that love came to the fore, so the hatred melted like frost in the sun. 

I understand, Chaladon told it, and the presence seemed to respond.  It was fading, as if the hatred had been all that held it to the world.  As if all it had wanted was to have someone see its pain.  Slowly, that other presence dimmed, until with a breath of thankfulness, the last of it lifted away.

Chaladon opened her eyes and looked down.  She was still holding the veil.  The deep shadow had drained from it; the fabric in her hands was a stainless, undyed white.  It lay in her hands, inert. She sensed a power there, but it was locked away, quiescent.

She wrapped the veil around herself, twining it over her shoulders as she had with the Fire Veil.  This would not be a replacement, but it would be something.  The Fire Veil, that remnant of power and her life before, was gone -- another piece of her past, gone forever.

Well, Chaladon thought, I’ve lost so much already. What is one more loss?

She made her way through the cave, the stone antechamber beyond, back into the daylight.  The sun was bright overhead; she squinted as she looked up at the sky.  The memory of Sthanara’s pain pulled against things inside her own heart, aches not healed -- that perhaps would never heal.  She clasped her hands in the new veil’s fabric, holding it as if it were all she had left in this world.

A shower of rocks caught her attention and she pivoted at once. But there was only a very confused young man, blinking in the light.

“What...what am I doing here?” he stammered.  “Who are you?”

“A friend.”  She relaxed her grip on the new veil.  It hung from her fingers, limp and lifeless.  “And you?”

“Yeman,” he said, shaking his head.  He looked as if he had awakened from a long sleep.  “I don’t know how I got here -- “

“What’s the last thing you remember?”

Yeman frowned.  “I was -- “  Then his face paled.  “It was a dare.”

“A dare?” 

“Yes.  Someone had dared me to go into the Valley of the Ssha.”  He looked stricken.  “I couldn’t think how to back out.  I just thought I’d go a little way in and say I had -- where am I?  I haven’t -- “ 

He paled still further and suddenly stared down at his hands as if terrified he would see blood on them.  Chaladon touched him on the shoulder.

“You are all right.  You never left the valley.  Those you love are still alive.  They’re still alive,” she repeated.

His entire body slumped in relief.  Tears glistened on his cheeks.  “Thank the Triune.”  His voice shook.  “I thought that -- but you, who did you say you were?”

“Chaladon,” she said.  “I am a Deep Dancer.”  And as his eyes widened in awe, she continued “This valley is cleansed, and so are you.  You are free to go.”

He drew a deep breath, like one reprieved from drowning. He seemed ten years younger: a bright smile dawned on his face.

“Deep Dancer, I don’t know how to thank you.  You must come back with me, so our town can celebrate your deeds -- “

“I can’t,” Chaladon said, pulling herself away.  “But you can.  Go home, Yeman. To those who love you.”

She sent him on his way with a gentle shove, and watched as he hurried off, till he was out of sight over the crest of the hill.  Then she settled her new veil again and turned resolutely about, starting in the opposite direction.  Forever outward.




[Index] [About Us] [Stories] [Story 1] [Story 2] [Story 3] [Story 4] [Guest Art] [Editors Write] [Archives] [Contact Us] [Links]

Copyright © 2022 by 4 Star Stories. All Rights Reserved.