A young man climbs the hill under the bright sky. He is Valaeron, mariner and heir to the Sayr family that rules beside the sons of Dosuth. The spirited wind follows him, the grasses bending and swaying around his feet. Beneath the eaves of the ancient Hall of the First Hearth he steps, noting the voices that murmur darkly within but not stopping. He continues until the great branches of Vasae'ah's tree spread above him. At last he comes to the still pool among the roots. There Saemurah sits waiting, watching the depths of the pool.
"You called me here, my lady?" he says.
She looks up at him, and a shadow crosses his heart to see her eyes so troubled. "I did, son of Sayr. Dark days are coming, and you have a great role to play."
He frowns. "But my lady, our dark days ended with the power of the Betrayer. The years are bright, the summers long. What have we to fear?"
She returns her shadowy eyes to the pool's depths. "Sorrow approaches us. The Betrayer works his evil still though his war is ended. I know what I have seen."
Valaeron questions no further. "What must I do my lady?" he asks. "Go down to the harbor" she says. "Gather your fast ships. Ready them to sail. If the darkness I have foreseen falls, you must lead our people to the sea. You must convince as many people as possible to follow you. Our people must go to the sea." He nods. "I understand my lady."
He walks back the way he came with long strides. Now his spirit is troubled and his heart heavy. Down to the bright harbors he goes, and readies his sail-winged ships for voyage as Saemurah bid him, stocking them well with water and grain, wondering what trials might come.
The Lady Saemurah, for her part, leaves the spreading shade of Vasae'ah's tree. She steps softly to the door of the Hall of the First Hearth and enters.
Within stand all the families of the Second Children-for Yadeyu, the vanquisher of Donshinu, called a great gathering, and all came, not knowing the darkness in his heart. Now it is too late, for it has reached into all of their hearts as well. Yadeyu speaks, and Saemurah hears as she watches not the voice of her beloved son, but the voice of Esaemad the Accursed ringing from his mouth. She knows with sorrow that her son is gone, consumed by the last spell-woven words of the Betrayer, the words that twisted his grief at Enad's death and his anger against those that turned on him in battle into evil fury.
He speaks like one in a fever. "We, the Second Children of Vasae'ah, must take our rightful place. We deserve to stand in the Shadow Lands at the place of honor beside Lord Etaem himself. We fought a war for the world itself, stood against Donshinu the Betrayer. We shed our blood. So I say we must journey into the Shadow Lands now. Why wait for the long slow decline of age? Let us leave the traitorous Third Children here, for they have betrayed us so many times. They do not deserve a place beside our honored dead. Let them keep this wretched world. But we cannot abandon our Mother Goddess here with traitors. Her heart still beats in the tree that stands above this very hall. In our exodus, let us tear it from its knotty prison. Let us free our mother, and together take our rightful place beside the First Children who have gone before us. Are you with me?"
As one all of the Second Children raise their voices in assent, thundering to the high rafters. The sorcery of the Betrayer rings in Yadeyu's words, and they are enraptured. All except the lady Umae, the brave Alvad who stands beside her, and their son and daughter.
Umae now steps forward and speaks against her brother. "If you sunder Vasae'ah's heart from the tree, its tie to this world, the land will drown in darkness and be no more. The Third Children will be snuffed out, body and soul. You cannot pursue this evil."
He only sneers at her. "Pay no heed to this winter witch. She served the Betrayer, and she serves him still. She is trying to steer us from our path and keep from us our rightful place in the Shadow Lands. Will we listen?"
The crowd hisses. Saemurah looks around at them, sorrow twisting in her. Their souls have vanished. They are hollow shapes of men and women, feral and bound with dark sorcery. Yadeyu speaks for the last time. "Three days from now we will work our final magic and go into the Shadow Lands."
The Second Children leave the hall, Umae last of all, her eyes sad and afraid, her hands clutching her children close. Only Saemurah remains. She watches the bright hearth-flames dance. "Is the doom of our world?" she whispers. "Must all be swallowed in darkness?" she steps to the head of the hearth, her spirit dark. There she sits as Lord Etaem did at the beginning of the world. She speaks, her voice echoing into the void. "Lord Etaem, bringer of the first fire, hear me. The world stands at the edge of destruction. I seek your counsel."
An answer whispers back. For a moment she thinks the shape of Lord Etaem stands within the leaping flames of the hearth. "In three days, when all is lost, I will come. A test will face you, your daughter, her warrior, and her children. Find your strength and prepare, daughter of Vasae'ah. Do not despair."
Silence fills the hall. Saemurah sits like an image of stone before the fire. There she remains, her sorrow as deep as the sea.
A cold wind stirs in the grey dawn. On the height of the hill Yadeyu stands. His eyes are darker than the fading night, his face twisted. He laughs in the ashen light. The Second Children stand about him like hollow shadows.
He draws the Sword of Etaem and throws the blade to the ground, saying, "I cast away the sword with which I protected my people. I was a fool. We are all the dead. I know not why the worms do not eat our flesh."
Umae stands beside him, tears glittering on her face in the last starlight.
"Weep, witch," he hisses to her. "Weep, for we are nothing. We stand in our graves before we lie in them and think ourselves alive. So weep in despair!"
She speaks with breaking voice. "I weep for you, brother. I weep for the darkness that has consumed you."
But he turns away from her, to the thronging Second Children, as the light grows in the east. "Friends!" he shouts, "Today we take our rightful place beside the Lords of the First Children. Today the sun will not rise! Death!" he cries, "I will lead your spirits to the Shadow Lands! Death!"
And they cry with him "Death!" Each holds a blade, and they fall on each other in a mad frenzy. Blood gushes and they fall until all lie dead. And Yadeyu lifts a great ax, sharp as sorrow, and strikes at the tree-once, twice, thrice. The bark splits, and the riven wood yawns. The sky darkens and a moan rises from the earth.
The people who walk the streets in the early hours, tending the ships in the harbor, or hanging clothes to dry in the morning air, look up towards the hill. Dread clouds their hearts, unexplained, and they murmur together, dismayed.
And Yadeyu reaches into the gaping tree. A glowing spark of light, brighter than any star, shines in his hand as he withdraws it. His eyes are full of hunger, and he screams aloud in triumph.
A vast darkness rushes up against the sky. Second night falls on the hilltop, and the people in the city below cry in terror. Valaeron looks upward at the shadow that now races out in every direction, and hears again the words of the lady Saemurah: If the darkness I have foreseen falls, you must lead our people to the sea.
So his valiant sailors he calls together, saying, "Go to every house. Gather the people and bring them to the ships. We must set sail. Leave one ship waiting for me to come. Go quickly." So they run through the streets of the city, from house to house, spreading the word. But as for Valaeron himself, he quickly climbs the hill to search for the Lady Saemurah, and the Lady Umae and her children.
At the top of the hill Umae speaks once again, calling to her brother in one last desperate plea. "Remain, brother, I beg you. Put back our Mother's heart, and remain with me." But he shakes his head. He turns away from her, the light cradled in his hands. The darkness rushing into the world from the Void gathers around him, and he is lost to sight.
A great groan rises up from beneath the ground like a thousand voices. The earth shakes to its foundation. The winds howl suddenly from every direction, clouds gathering, and the sea rises in sudden fury.
Umae leaves the side of the withering tree, the sword of Etaem in her hand, and enters the Hall of the First Hearth. Her mother sits there at the head of the hearth, which burns low and dim. Alvad, her love, sits there as well, and her son and daughter sit beside him, eyes dark with fear.
And after her through the door Valaeron enters. "What has happened? Why does this shadow blacken the sky?"
"The world will fade," Umae says. "My brother has gone into the void with the heart of our mother."
But suddenly the hearth blazes. A voice resounds from within the dancing flames. "Do not fear, child of Vasae'ah. The world will not fade into the darkness." Etaem the clear-sighted, greatest of the First Children, steps from the embers.
Saemurah rises, her eyes shining. "You have answered my call, Lord Etaem. I thank you."
Umae falls to her knees, and Alvad bows down as well, and Valaeron beside him. "My Lord Etaem," Umae whispers.
An insubstantial hand gently takes hers, and pulls her to her feet again. She looks into his kind sightless eyes. "Do not bow to me, lady. You have served Vasae'ah as well as I ever did, all of you here in this hall. But now I must ask you to serve Vasae'ah one more time."
Saemurah steps forward. "What must we do, Lord Etaem?"
"A hole has been left," Etaem says. "The heart of our Mother gave life to this world-her four faces, the seasons of the year, kept this world alive in their renewing cycle and held back the darkness of the Void. Without her heart there is no spring, no summer, no autumn, no winter. The years will not turn. A new heart must be given. Four souls must choose to bind themselves to the world, becoming the seasons and everything they embody." Alvad speaks. "Umae, I, our children-we are four. We are willing to give ourselves to this world."
Etaem nods. "This is your sacrifice to make. Should you choose to make it, the world will be saved. Yet it is not enough. Another soul must give itself to the Mother Goddess-become the avatar of her power and will in this world, connecting the heart to her."
Saemurah speaks. "I will do this, Lord Etaem. Perhaps finally I may atone for your blinding so many dim years ago."
Etaem inclines his head. "Finally someone must lead the souls of the dead into the Shadow Lands."
"Thus we have come," a voice says from the shadows. Yadashi, the teller of tales, steps into the firelight, followed by Alsson son of Taelon, brother of mighty Nevron. "We know the paths between worlds. We will lead the dead to their rest."
"So it shall be," Etaem says.
Now Valaeron speaks. "May I be of service, Lord Etaem?"
Etaem steps to him, taking the sword he forged in ages past from Umae's hand. "Take my blade. You must lead your people across the seas. Now more than ever it is vital that the Vasae'ans keep the rituals-for while this sacrifice will again give life to the world, the seasons will not turn without the Vasae'ans.
"The world will never be the same after this day. This darkness will divide the lands and your people with them. Keep to the waters, for they will take you through the darkness from land to separated land. And never forget Umae and Alvad and their children, and Saemurah and Yadashi and Alsson, for today they sacrifice dearly for your people. Now go, take to the sea. This place will soon fade almost completely into the void. Lead your people." So Valaeron bows his head, takes the shining sword, and leaves the hall, descending from the high hill. Out from the wide harbor he departs in his fast-flying ship, sailing far to the west.
Umae and Alvad embrace each other and their children one last time. Then Etaem touches them, speaking words of power. Each falls into a dreamless sleep, only to wake as a primal spirit during their own season of the year. Yadashi and Alsson sit beside the hearth, side by side, waiting on their duties. But Etaem and Saemurah face each other once more, as they did in days past. Saemurah lifts her hand, and caresses Etaem's ghostly cheek. "I hated you for so long," she says softly, "but now I know what pain you bear, and the terrible duty. I hope you may forgive me for my anger and hatred against you.'
"I had forgiven you at the very beginning of the universe," he murmurs.
She smiles sadly. "Will we meet again, my lord?"
He smiles as well. "Maybe someday yet." A hand he places gently on her forehead, and she feels the power and consciousness of the Mother Goddess flow into her being. She sits at the head of the hearth, her eyes bright with eternity. Lord Etaem turns and steps from the hall and off into the darkness of the void.
Shadow falls completely over the city beside the sea. A soft wind, a wind of the void, blows over the night-shrouded hill.