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art by Liz Clarke

The White Raven's Feather

David D. Levine is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories. He has won the Hugo Award, Endeavour Award, and James White Award and has been nominated or shortlisted for the Nebula, John W. Campbell, and many others. His stories can be found in all the major markets, including Asimov's, Analog, F&SF, and Realms of Fantasy, as well as anthologies including four Year's Best volumes. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife Kate Yule, where they produce the fanzine Bento. Their website can be found at bentopress.com.

Ibude's door slammed open, waking him from exhausted sleep into chill and darkness. Silhouetted in the flickering light from the hall was the hulking form of one of his guards. "Wizard!" he growled. "Warhaft Kraig demands your presence. Immediately!"
"I obey," Ibude replied. It was the first phrase in the Karshan language he had learned to utter. Quickly Ibude slipped from his bed and dressed himself in the rough woolen robe and fur overcloak his captors had given him. They themselves seemed to thrive on the cold.
The guard watched impassively as he dressed. Once Ibude would have protested this intrusion, or at least tried to shield his warm brown skin from the cold blue-eyed gaze of his captor. But three years of captivity had inured him to the absence of privacy.
"Bring your little dolls, your bones and rattles," the guard said. "Whatever you require to work your magic."
Ibude ignored the Karshan's sneer at the effigies of his ancestors. Shivering in his heavy fur boots, he bowed before his little altar and begged his ancestors' forgiveness for the sudden disruption before gathering up the few items upon it: the crude clay figurines, the skull of a horned puff adder, a tattered red parrot feather. The poorest servant back in Ubini would be ashamed of such a paltry altar, but if approached with the proper reverence it was just as effective as the Great King's altar with its trappings of polished brass and fine ivory. Even a simple stick, painted white and thrust into a mound of earth, could serve as an altar.
Ibude placed the altar items into the satchel that held his other ritual materials. "I am ready." Without a word the guard set off down the hall, where seal-oil lamps guttered in niches hacked from the stone-hard ice, staining the air with fish-stink smoke. Ibude scrambled to keep up. "Why am I summoned in the middle of the night?"
"War," the guard said without turning back. "The Svaargelders are massing on our borders."
Ibude stopped dead at the news.
War. Invasion. Destruction. Again.
Three years ago Ibude's life had been torn in half by war. He remembered the flames, the screams and clash of swords, the taste of smoke and grit... but worst of all, he remembered how he'd argued with his beloved Ejira. "This is no time for niceties!" she'd shouted, the beads in her hair rattling with the fierceness of her words.
"What you propose is worse than defeat!" he'd replied, and smacked the knife from her hand. Startled, she'd relaxed her grip on the black cockerel she held, which fled squawking from the room. "You would dishonor our ancestors!"
"For the sake of our children!"
Before he could reply, the barbarians had burst into the room, taking them both hostage. They'd never had a chance to reconcile.
Karsh and Svaargelt had been allies then, united by hatred of their neighbor to the north--Ibude's homeland, the warm and golden land of Ubini. But even then the Karshan Warhaft Kraig and the Svaargelder General Njarsten had distrusted each other. They'd divided Ubini's magical artifacts and practitioners between themselves with meticulous care, each unwilling to cede any potential advantage to his rival-ally.
This meant that Ubini's greatest team of research wizards must be split right down the middle. The random spin of a bronze dagger had sent Ibude to Stugar, the Karshan capital city, and Ejira--mother of his children, originator of some of their most important ideas, possessor of the darkest, smoothest skin and deepest brown eyes in the whole city... Ejira was sent to Svaargelt, slung across the back of a sweating reindeer like some plundered carpet. Ibude had screamed and fought so hard to follow her that they'd had to chain him up.
For two weeks he sat in his chains, refusing to speak, eat, or drink. Then Warhaft Kraig had come to him and told him he'd struck a deal with his Svaargelder counterpart: if Ibude died in custody, or was killed resisting orders or attempting escape, Ejira would be killed as well. "We must retain parity with our allies," Kraig had said, and though the sweating Ubini translator had delivered the statement in diplomatic language, the grin on Kraig's half-ruined face had been even uglier than his usual scowl.
From that moment Ibude had ceased to resist.
At first he'd tried to only appear to cooperate. But Kraig was too clever to be easily fooled; he demanded verifiable progress, on pain of death. And after the first year, Ibude found that concentrating on his research was the only thing that took his mind away from the cold and privation of the small ice-carved cave to which he had been exiled. The work was, in its way, a form of escape... and it reminded him of his dear Ejira.
The guard hurried Ibude from the ice cave to Kraig's headquarters, a two-story, peeled-log structure in the center of the city. Karshan soldiers drilled in the ice-choked streets, guttural chants accompanying each practice thrust of pike and sword. Everywhere whetstones shrieked, filling the air with the smell of metal and oil.
Inside the building, Kraig hulked over a map in the council chamber, surrounded by advisers and lieutenants. The Warhaft's face reminded Ibude of the ice-crusted rocky crags that surrounded this place: hairless, white and hard as a glacier, and scarred as though one cheek and eye had slumped away in a landslide. "Wizard," he rumbled when he saw Ibude. "Tell these men what you have been doing with my money for the last three years."
A dozen pairs of hard blue eyes converged on Ibude; he felt as though he were skewered on two dozen icicles. He swallowed. "Most worthy Warhaft," he said, "I have been researching nakowa-gbalu." Despite the chill of the room, sweat ran down his sides beneath his cloak. "It is a specific way of focusing the mind in worship, which my wife and I originated not long before the fall of Ubini."
"And what does it do?"
"If it works, it will create a force that presses outward. Like a wall of wind around a city, even a whole country."
"How close are you to delivering me this weapon?"
Ibude had never promised a weapon. Even if it could be made to work, nakowa-gbalu was an essentially defensive principle. "My researches make good progress. I feel that the ancestors are warming to my new formulation."
"The ancestors are warming?" Kraig sneered. "The accursed Njarsten has five legions massed on my borders. What can your precious ancestors do against them?"
"Do not mock the ancestors."
Kraig covered the distance between himself and Ibude in two long strides that made the wooden floor shudder. He was a full head taller. "If your ancestors are so by-Gods powerful," he roared, "why can't you smite the Svaargelders this minute?"
Ibude held up his hands. "Magic isn't metalwork, Warhaft! It takes time to develop the correct mental formulations. Even a small error in mental attitude can offend the ancestors, or attract evil forces from the invisible world."
Kraig closed his one good eye, clenched his hand into a trembling fist. "How. Long. Will. It. Take?"
"I... I don't know, Warhaft. Perhaps another year."
"You've already had three years!"
"If the process were more rapid, we would have defeated you three years ago." But even as he said it, Ibude realized he had crossed a line. The Warhaft's ice-white visage twisted with rage and he grabbed the front of Ibude's robe.
"Is there anything you can do for me?" Kraig shook Ibude until his brains rattled. "Or are you completely useless?"
If Ibude didn't give Kraig something he might die right here and now. Three years of research had not achieved the results he was sure nakowa-gbalu could deliver, but he had discovered other, smaller effects along the way... "I can show you exactly where the Svaargelders are and what they are doing."
Kraig's hands tightened on Ibude's robe and his one eye glared like sun on a frozen lake. "Do it. Right here, right now. Show me why I should not regret buying you costly materials for the last three years." Then, with one last hard twist at the fabric of Ibude's collar, he pushed him away.
Ibude staggered upright. "I obey, Warhaft." He had no choice.
He began by mixing a potion: powdered eye of fish-eagle for clear sight, flakes of puff-adder scale for quick action, burnt vulture feather for wisdom. Even after many years of magical practice it was still hard to choke the vile stuff down. Then he set up his paltry little altar on a log from the firepit.
He ran the parrot feather between his fingers before setting it down. Kraig had offered Ibude his pick of the magnificent magical artifacts looted from the Ubini treasury, but Ibude had declined them all, not wanting to give Kraig's possession of them any legitimacy whatsoever. Tattered and faded though the feather was, it still reminded him of the raucous bird that had perched on his father's shoulder in life.
Ibude bowed before the altar. Honored father, he prayed, I require your assistance.
Beyond and behind the visible, physical world lay an invisible world, where people lived before they were born and returned after they died. The invisible world was also home to the gods and many other spirits, and like the visible world it contained both good and evil. The two worlds affected each other in many ways: sometimes subtle, sometimes profound, and often difficult to understand. But the spirits of departed ancestors could sometimes be persuaded to exert their influence in the invisible world on behalf of their living relatives.
As he prayed to his father and his grandfathers and all the fathers before them, Ibude bent his mind in the patterns of nakowa-gbalu. The magic he was trying to work was much simpler than the full nakowa-gbalu, but it was a novel formulation and there was a good chance the Svaargelders' captured Ubini battle mages had not set up wards against it.
Anyone could pray, and if they were worthy and pure of heart the ancestors might fulfill their wishes, but a true wizard could focus his spirit, attune his essence to the flows and currents of the invisible world, and achieve otherwise impossible results. It took years of practice, and the more Ibude learned the more he realized he did not know. But sometimes, if the climate in the invisible world was right and the ancestors were in a receptive mood...
Someone screamed. Ibude's eyes snapped open, but it took a moment to focus.
An enormous fire had broken out in the middle of the Karshans' map, sparks spitting, flames leaping man-high, smoke spreading across the ceiling beams. Kraig and his lieutenants ran around, shouting and slapping at the fire with their fur cloaks. "Wait!" Ibude cried. "This is from the ancestors!"
And, indeed, a moment later the fire extinguished itself, flames furling up and vanishing into space, smoke dissipating like a flock of frightened birds.
A moment after that, Kraig smacked Ibude to the floor with one enormous hand and drew the dagger from its sheath at his hip. "This is how you repay me?" he yelled. "By destroying my map?" He yanked Ibude to his knees and raised the dagger for a killing blow.
"Hold, Warhaft!" shouted one of Kraig's lieutenants.
"What?" Kraig paused, but did not release Ibude's neck.
"Look! The map!"
Kraig looked. Then he dropped Ibude like a discarded rag and ran to the map table. He and his men gathered around, pointing and muttering in wonder.
Rubbing his sore neck, Ibude stood and approached the map.
Burned into the map's surface were crisp, precise lines and symbols--dots and arcs and tiny squares. "Amazing," said one of the lieutenants. "You can see every single soldier."
"Impressive," Kraig agreed. But as he continued to examine the map, his expression passed from satisfaction to puzzlement to annoyance. "These formations make no sense," he said. "The passes to Karsh are here, and here, but the troops are lined up over here." He turned and scowled at Ibude. "Your magic is worthless. It tells me the Svaargelders are about to march into a cliff of solid rock."
Ibude inspected the map and cast his mind back to the vision he had been granted during his communion with the invisible world. "I saw the soldiers lined up as you see them here, as clear as though I stood on the peak above them. I swear by all my ancestors that this is true."
The Warhaft's teeth ground together, and he raised his fist... but then, with a visible effort, relaxed it finger by finger. "Pah!" he said, and brushed Ibude away with a wave of his hand. "Get out of my sight, wizard. I have a defense to plan."
Some time later, Ibude sat on a rough wooden bench in Kraig's mess hall, trying to choke down a mug of the sour barley brew that was the finest drink the city of Stugar had to offer.
Kraig was right. The enemy formations made no sense. But he'd seen them, as good as with his own eyes, and the ancestors had burned them into the map--they must be accurate. Why would the Svaargelders not be lined up at the passes?
Something in his vision nagged at him... a snatch of memory, or perhaps a whisper from the invisible world. He felt that he'd missed something. What could it be?
From his satchel he took powdered oryx horn, for memory, mixed it with the last of his fish-eagle eye, and swallowed it with a gulp of the sour Karshan beer. He bowed his head and prayed to his father for a second glimpse of the Svaargelder forces.
Again he saw in his mind's eye the barbarian soldiers, lined up in the snowy passes under the watchful eyes of their leaders. And at the head of the long row of troops... a pair of elephant tusks, curving columns of ivory taller than a man, wrapped in bands of brass etched with potent magical symbols.
Throughout the Ijju Empire, brass and ivory could be worked only by the artisans of the Great King. Ivory combined the strength of the elephant with the color white, cool and pure and sacred to the ancestors. Brass, too, was a powerful union: fiery copper and white zinc, the great heat required to fuse them symbolizing the fierce power of the gods. Objects combining the two materials were among the most potent of magical artifacts.
Ibude knew this pair of tusks. They had been brought across the Great Southern Ocean from the imperial capital of Ife-Ijju seven generations ago, part of the treasury of artifacts that formed the magical and spiritual foundation of the new colony of Ubini. But the brass bindings and the symbols etched upon them were new.
Ibude knew the symbols too. They were notations of nakowa-gbalu.
And only one other person on earth knew those notations. The person with whom Ibude had invented them.
Ibude's joy was so great it broke his concentration, the vision vanishing like a dream. Ejira was alive!
What was more, she must be right there--in the Svaargelder camp at the Karshan border--at this very moment. The great banded tusks themselves, powerful though they might be, were useless without a magical practitioner to awaken that power. And no one but Ejira could perform the magic associated with those symbols. Nakowa-gbalu was too complicated, too unlike anything that had come before, for any other practitioner to have mastered in only three years.
Ibude had to go to the border, and quickly, before Ejira's captors could move her elsewhere. He would go to Warhaft Kraig and demand to be sent to the front. He'd come up with some kind of story to justify it.
The bitter brew sloshed across the table as Ibude bolted for Kraig's quarters.
"Warhaft, you must listen to me!" Ibude shouted through Kraig's closed door, struggling in the arms of the two soldiers who were trying to haul him away. One placed a hand across his mouth and he bit it, tasting metal and leather and vile filth. "Please!"
But the door remained resolutely shut... until a sweating, panting messenger, a skinny long-legged boy with long hair the color of flax, came barreling down the hallway, caroming off of Ibude and the two soldiers and sending all three sprawling. "Warhaft!" the boy shouted as he pounded on the door. "We are invaded!"
Instantly the door slammed open, revealing far more of the Warhaft's pale, scarred, and hairy flesh than Ibude had ever wanted to see. "What?" he roared.
"Svaargelder troops are inside the city wall! Platoons and platoons of them! And more every moment!"
Kraig pulled on a pair of tough boiled-leather pants. "Tell Commander Hargel to take five platoons of troops and two of engineers and seal the breach immediately."
"There is no breach!" the messenger panted. "The enemy is... sir, they're coming out of nowhere!"
Ibude squirmed out from under one of his soldiers. "I know what is happening!" he shouted.
At that Kraig stopped in the act of donning his heavy fur cape. "What is it, wizard?"
The two soldiers still held him, though they had stopped trying to drag him down the hall. "It's my wife!" The most convincing lies were always grown from a kernel of truth.
Kraig just looked at him.
"She's using nakowa-gbalu to transport the soldiers directly into the city. There's no one else in the world who could do such a thing."
"Stop her, then!" Kraig bellowed. "Stop her at once!"
"I can't do it from here. I have to go where she is. Have some soldiers take me as far as the border, and then..."
The look of disgusted disparagement in Kraig's water-blue eye stopped Ibude cold. "You must think me a fool."
Ibude had no reply. He was certain the Warhaft was about to take up his sword and strike his head from his shoulders right then and there.
But all he did was spit at Ibude's feet. "Get out of my sight, you worthless charlatan." Turning from Ibude, Kraig addressed the messenger boy. "New orders. Tell Hargel to take seven platoons of troops and fan out across the city. Find where the enemy is appearing and engage them as close to that point as possible. Go!"
"I obey, Warhaft." The boy took off at a run. Kraig headed for the council chamber without even a glance at Ibude.
The two guards looked at each other. Then they dropped Ibude like a sack of rubbish and followed their Warhaft.
Ibude lay on the chill slate floor, littered with rushes and tracked-in reindeer droppings, and wept. After so many years, to know that Ejira was only a few leagues away--but still as unreachable as the sun--caused a pain greater than he'd believed his battered heart capable of feeling.
But even the worst storm must come to an end, and eventually Ibude wiped his eyes and pulled himself to his feet. Through the log walls of the building came the clatters and screams of men in battle, not too close but coming closer.
There was no way in the world he could cross the war-torn leagues between himself and Ejira without a military escort.
No way in this world.
Ibude made his way to the building's second story, a quiet chill space for the storage of grains and furs. There he set up his altar, swallowed a potion of tortoise shell for strength and nettle for tenacity, and bowed to the crude little figurines. Honored father, he prayed, help and guide me now as you did when I was a boy. Help me to reach my beloved Ejira, the mother of your grandchildren.
A harsh cry and a flutter of wings drew Ibude's attention. Perched on a beam high above his head was a bird--a raven, but unlike any raven Ibude had ever seen before. Its feathers were purest white, with not a trace or streak of black anywhere. White, the color sacred to the ancestors.
Thank you, father.
Again the bird cawed, cocking its head to examine Ibude, its eyes like glittering garnets. Then it spread its wings and flew out through the smoke hole.
Quickly gathering his altar items, Ibude crammed his hat down low on his head, hoping to hide his dark face in the shadows of its brim, and headed for the door.
The street outside was a panicked hell of people--soldiers striding determinedly toward the sound of battle, screaming civilians running in the opposite direction. The sun had already set, but the glow of many fires reflected off the buildings and even the clouds above. The air stank of smoke, the filthy smoke of burning houses. Ibude scanned the sky and soon saw the raven, the white of its wings turned to copper by the flickering firelight.
The bird wheeled once and then headed off in the same direction as the soldiers--toward the battle. Keeping close to the walls, Ibude followed. He kept his arm across his face, to shut out the choking smoke as well as to hide his appearance.
He rounded a corner and nearly ran into a shouting mass of men, a melee of Karshans and Svaargelders hacking at each other with swords. He quickly ducked down a side street to avoid them. Another group of soldiers charged past, heading toward that battle, and he pressed himself into a doorway out of their sight. The white raven circled above for a time, then sailed off again. Ibude poked his head out. The way was clear.
Following the raven, alternately running and hiding, Ibude eventually found himself in a small plaza. A grain warehouse at one side of the plaza was burning, but at the moment there was no sign of fighting.
The raven wheeled above the plaza once, twice, three times, then settled and folded its wings on the peak of the warehouse, ignoring the flames that licked up to the sky behind it.
A moment later the plaza filled with a mass of flame as the burning warehouse collapsed into the street. From the flaming rubble stumbled a small, slight figure.
Even silhouetted against the flames and clad in bulky furs, he recognized instantly the shape and gait of the body that had haunted his dreams every night for the last three years.
"Ejira!" he shouted, running toward her and waving his arms.
They ran together into a furious embrace, a deep passionate kiss. The flavor of her mouth was a sweet familiar balm. But the city burned around them and he cut it off after little more than a taste. "How?" he said. "How did you come here?"
"It was the Lizard," she said. That was their nickname for one of the mental formulations of nakowa-gbalu. "We were wrong to think that you must guard yourself there. If you open your heart there, all else falls into place."
"Of course!" He thought a moment, the implications of the change cascading through his mind. Opening the heart would create, not the outward force they'd originally sought, but a pull... a force that could draw a person right out of the visible world. "But how do you return to the visible world in the new location?"
She turned her eyes away from him. "My guards will be here soon. We were separated by the fire."
He stood, waiting for an answer.
But Ejira only reached out her hands to him. "Come with me, my precious. General Njarsten has such amazing plans."
On her wrists, he realized, rattled brass bracelets strung with beads of costly red coral, and her head was crowned with a tall, curving hat of the type reserved for the Queen Mother. Her cape was zebra skin, imported from the imperial capital across the Great Southern Ocean. The tight luxuriant curls of her hair glistened with roasted palm-nut oil and her face was plump and sleek. But the eyes in that face....
It was as though the ice of these southern climes had penetrated all the way to the core of her soul.
"How do you return?"
"I'll tell you later, precious." But her hand moved, very slightly, toward her satchel--fine beadwork, heavy with red coral. The motion was nearly invisible in the flickering firelight, and only one who had spent most of a lifetime with her would ever have noticed it.
With one swift motion Ibude snatched the satchel from her hip. Ejira shrieked and tried to grab it back, but not quickly enough.
In the satchel he found a hand. A human hand.
The grisly thing was dried, hard and light, with a brass cap fixed over the severed wrist. But unlike other such specimens he'd seen, this one was very pale--paler even than the pale people of this ice-rimed land--with a strange translucence to its skin.
Albinos were specially favored by the ancestors. Their body parts, highly sought by evil wizards, were magic charms of unprecedented power--especially if removed while alive.
Ibude stood appalled, holding out the hand as an accusation.
"You were always too fastidious about the most powerful artifacts," Ejira said. "But Njarsten has given me free rein. You should see what I've accomplished with his support!"
With a crash and a clatter, another wall collapsed into the small courtyard. But no flame followed; instead, a crowd of Svaargelder soldiers tumbled into the street. Immediately they pointed at Ibude and Ejira, shouting with their strange elongated vowels, and charged toward them.
"Ejira, we must run!"
But though he pulled hard at her arm, she refused to budge. "Don't go back to that barbarian Kraig! Come with me to Njarsten... together, not even the oceans can stop us!"
Ibude's heart froze as though one of the icicles that hung from every roof in this sunless land had fallen and plunged straight through it.
The Svaargelders were now only a dozen paces away. Ibude grabbed Ejira around the waist and tried to put her over his shoulder. "Put me down!" she shrieked, kicking him and pounding him with her fists.
Ibude tried to run, but Ejira's wild thrashing unbalanced him and he fell heavily to one side, knocking the breath from his lungs and Ejira from his arms. The albino hand went flying, landing in a snowdrift. Ejira scrambled over the snowy cobbles toward the approaching soldiers, calling out to them in their own language.
"Ejira!" Ibude sobbed, but she did not turn back.
Some of the soldiers were bypassing Ejira and heading straight for him. He could see the puffs of snow raised by their pounding boots, the firelight glinting on their drawn swords.
He turned and fled. Heavy footfalls sounded behind him, just steps away.
He rounded a corner.
Two dozen Karshan soldiers milled in the street.
"Help!" he shouted in Karshan. "Svaargelder soldiers right behind me!" Then he threw himself to one side, rolling in the snow as the two groups clashed together.
He lay in a drift, panting and sobbing as the sounds of battle moved down the street, heading back the way he had come. "Ejira..."
The tears froze on his cheeks.
For an unknown time he wandered the streets, paying no attention to his surroundings and not really caring what might happen to him. But in the chaos of the Svaargelder invasion, one small dark wizard was easy to miss, and the fighting didn't touch him.
The changes that had come over Ejira in their three years apart were bad enough. Her easy acceptance of human sacrifice, her enthusiastic alliance with the Svaargelder general, the callous chill in her eyes. But the worst thing was her last remark: "not even the oceans can stop us."
For Ubini, the shining light of the southern continent, was only a colony of the Ijju Empire, beating heart of the world's civilization. Ubini had been established as a check on the southern hordes, but now that Ubini had fallen, only the broad Southern Ocean lay between the barbarians and the tempting riches of Ife-Ijju, the imperial capital. And Ejira's discovery meant that they could stride across that expanse of water like a man stepping over a gutter.
They might not prevail against the might of the Empire. But Ejira's magic allied with Njarsten's ambition and warcraft made a powerful force indeed. The ancestors alone knew how many lives, how much treasure, would be lost trying to repel it.
That force could be stopped here and now, if he acted quickly.
Magic depended on knowledge and attitudes in the practitioner's mind and soul, attributes not easily transmitted to another. No one but Ejira could use nakowa-gbalu as she had, even given the same magical artifacts.
Well, there was one other. Now that he knew about the Lizard.
He looked around and found that he was in a street of merchants' houses, their doors standing open, the inhabitants having fled in the face of the invasion. He entered the nearest one and knelt by the firepit, still warm though its fire had been extinguished.
He reached into his satchel... and found it empty. The contents must have fallen out, unnoticed, when he'd tumbled trying to carry Ejira. His powders and preparations, his altar items, the mementos of his ancestors... all gone.
No, wait... not quite all.
Snagged in the rough weave of the satchel's lining was one item. The ragged, faded feather of his father's parrot.
With his hands he took ash from the unknown merchant's fire pit and formed it into a little mound. Gently he teased the feather from the fabric, inserted it upright in the mound of ash, then bowed before it. Honored father, he prayed, once again I must humbly beseech your aid....
As the sounds of battle raged outside, Ibude bent his mind to the complex formulations of nakowa-gbalu. When he came to the one called the Lizard, he opened his heart... and the invisible world in turn opened to him.
Ibude gasped. This must be how the gods and ancestors perceived the worlds--the visible and the invisible swirling together like oil and water, the currents of each influencing and being influenced by the currents of the other. He could see everything at once. Here Karshan and Svaargelder soldiers struggled, there the spirits of the newly dead stumbled in confusion, over there the Warhaft exhorted his men in a desperate last defense.
But, most importantly, there--less than half a league distant--sat Ejira, at the center of a web of forces that warped the flow of both worlds. And the spider in that web was the albino hand... a dark knot in the flow, around which fluttered evil spirits like a flock of filthy birds.
The disciplines of nakowa-gbalu could use that artifact's power to open a gate between the worlds and draw a person into it. But a second artifact, equally powerful, was needed to return the person to the visible world in another place. Ejira had used the Great Tusks to come to Stugar, but they were many leagues away, and Ibude had nothing so powerful of his own.
All he had was his feather, his humility, and his purity of heart.
Help me now, father, he prayed.
And then he felt something he'd never felt in all his years of magical practice.
It was as though his father were standing behind him, looking over his shoulder, as he'd done in life. And behind him stood his grandfathers, and their fathers behind them. Ibude had always known that they were there in the invisible world, but he'd never felt their presence so viscerally before. He felt their warmth, their breath, their love.
They had come to help, he knew. But there would be a cost.
I understand, my fathers.
Ibude returned to the visible world. Tears were running down his cheeks.
A harsh caw made him look up; the white raven sat at the edge of the merchant's smoke hole. Ibude nodded and rose, leaving the parrot feather behind.
The raven led him through the churned slush of the streets, past soldiers distracted by sudden fires or falling icicles. After half a league he came to a tavern where four Svaargelder soldiers stood guard, and paused in the shadows while the white raven flew away down the street. A moment later a pack of Karshans came charging down that same street, screaming and waving their swords, and the Svaargelders rushed to the defense. Ibude slipped through the chaos and into the tavern.
Ejira sat tailor-fashion before a large folding altar, all brass and carved ivory and red coral. At the center, where the idol of her father should have stood, lay the albino hand. Her eyes were closed, all her attention in the invisible world.
For just a moment Ibude looked on Ejira's face, remembering the woman he'd loved.
But that woman was no longer here. She was lost to him--had been lost to him for more years than three.
Ibude reached out and grasped the albino hand.
The thing seemed to squirm malevolently in his grip. With a burst of anger, he exerted the disciplines of nakowa-gbalu, forming his mind into the shapes he'd researched over the long years of captivity.
The gate opened.
Ejira shrieked as she was drawn into the invisible world. Ibude cried out as well, for the hand too was pulled through the gate, and though he tried to release it, it dragged him along.
In the invisible world, Ibude found himself and Ejira encircled by his ancestors, silently watching. The white raven was here too, perched on Ibude's father's shoulder. There was no sign of Ejira's ancestors.
Take us back, my precious! Ejira insisted. We still have work to do! Her fine clothing began to dissolve, like morning mist, and Ibude realized that nothing physical could long exist in this place.
I cannot, he replied. Not without a second artifact. Nor would I if I could.
Why? Ejira wept, and as she did he saw that her face was weeping away as well.
Ibude looked at his own hands; they too were dissipating like smoke. Do not cry, my beloved. He embraced his wife, their bodies fading and dissolving into each other. Our sons and daughters are better off in a world without us. Without nakowa-gbalu on either side, the barbarians will be defeated and peace will return.
After his body faded away completely, Ibude's spirit stood alone and wept. Then his father came and led him away. There was much work to be done.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 30th, 2012

Author Comments

This story is actually about Wernher Von Braun, the father of modern rocketry--a brilliant scientist to whom the conquest of space was even more important than considerations of morality and human decency--who after the war found himself in a strange part of a strange country, and eventually reached the Moon. To address the ambiguities of this complex man, I split him in half and turned him into a pair of wizards in a fantasy universe.

- David D. Levine
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