Author’s Note: Driving home from work today, I had what is quite possibly the most brilliant idea ever for a story. Then, of course, some dickhead cut me off and I got so caught up in flipping him off that I promptly forgot what it was. So you’ll have to settle for this. Heh.
Without, Part 19
Corinne groaned. She was lying in an untidy heap, her shoulder twisted painfully under her, face pressed to the ground. “Ow.” She pushed up to a sitting position, then wished she hadn’t as pain flared inside her skull. “Ow,” she repeated, lifting a hand to cup her head, hoping it would make the ache go away. It didn’t.
Blinking, she looked around. From the way her voice had echoed, she was somewhere big… and dark. Very, very dark. She shivered and rubbed her arms. Cold, too. She ran her fingertips over the floor. It was smooth and cool; some sort of stone. Her mind raced as she tried desperately to remember what had happened. The last she remembered was falling asleep in that light-cocoon thingy Radagast had created…
“Buffy?” she called softly. “Dawn? Boromir? Legolas?” There was no answer from any of them, and after her voice finished echoing, silence reigned once more. “Haldir?” she ventured in a whisper, fighting to keep from crying when she reached out with her mind and, for the first time in a month, found only herself.
Pure terror flooded her being at the sensation of utter solitude and aloneness, threatening to overwhelm her, and she very nearly caved in to the impulse to curl back up on the floor and sob. No, she thought fiercely, no more crying, dammit. Standing, she began to take baby-steps forward, hands before her to keep from bumping into anything.
She was just beginning to think she was in some sort of empty cavern when, to her great surprise, her left hand encountered something soft and round. Giving it an experimental squeeze, she gasped in shock and leapt back about ten feet when a husky chuckle sounded in the darkness, making the thing in her hand vibrate slightly.
“Shall we not introduce ourselves first?” asked a warm alto voice, and a flame flickered to life in front of Corinne, illuminating a woman standing calmly before her. Her body, tall and slender, was displayed rather than covered in a sarong of supple white fabric, and a leopard skin draped over her shoulder to fasten, paw in mouth, at her hip. Skin the colour of honey was revealed in slim arms and long calves, and hair like jet fell in a glossy sheet to her waist. Chunky golden jewellery adorned every limb and wound sinuously around her throat, clinking richly with each movement.
One hand was held out before her, and in it a tongue of flame danced an inch above her palm. Her forehead seemed to be sparkling somehow, and Corinne squinted in the dim light, gasping when she realized that there were, imbedded in the centre of the woman’s brow, was a seven-petalled lotus that appeared to be made of some glittering stone.
“You are Corinne,” the woman said, smiling. “I am Seshat.“
“Goddess of learning, of writing and reading and…” Corinne muttered to herself, her words trailed off as her knees wobbled and she sat down, hard, on the ground. “Holy crap.”
“In my library, there is none,” Seshat replied, eyes twinkling like obsidian. “Not holy, nor profane.” She closed her fist over the flame but instead of the space around them darkening further, light flooded the space and Corinne was blinking in the suddenly-bright chamber, breath wooshing out in a rush to see that they were surrounded by row after row after row of bookshelves, at least twenty feet tall and extending as far as the eye could see in every direction from the central point at which she and the goddess stood, like spokes of a wheel.
The bookcases did not, however, only contain books. There were the standard codices, of course, but also baskets brimming with scrolls of both papyrus and vellum vying for place with various instruments like sextants and compasses and globes and models of the solar system and…
Seshat’s enchanting laughter rang out again and drew Corinne’s attention from where she’d been gazing avidly around her. Blushing faintly, she turned to attend the goddess. Seshat glided over to a tall loutrophoros that held a fat bouquet of date fronds, and plucked one from the bunch. “You are welcome here,” she said, her voice resonating like a musical note, and Corinne found herself accepting the branch with reverence.
“Thank you,” she managed, staring down at it. It symbolized, in hieroglyphics, the concept of years, the passage of a great amount of time. What in the hell is that supposed to mean? she wondered, looking back up at Seshat.
“If you wish to know something, you have only to ask. I will either tell you, or not, but you gain nothing with your silence,” Seshat admonished gently. “It is not the way of a scholar to bite her tongue.”
“What happened?“ Corinne blurted. “Where are the others? Is Haldir alright? Did the cartouche break? Is our bond severed now? Why am I here?”
“One question at a time, if you please,” Seshat laughed, and extended a hand in greeting. Her grip was surprisingly strong, and her skin was warm and soft. Which reminded her…
“Sorry about groping you before,” Corinne said, abashed gaze turned downward.
“I did not mind,” Seshat replied lightly. “It has been many a long year since I have been touched by a mortal being.”
Well, that was slightly weird. Corinne decided to ignore it and focus on the questions she needed answered. “Did the cartouche break?”
“Yes.” Seshat’s dark eyes were calm and, looking into them, Corinne could see great peace and clarity.
“Does that mean we’re no longer bonded?”
“The cartouche is broken,” Seshat repeated with great serenity
Apparently, there was a limit to the information the goddess was willing to part with. Corinne sighed, and tried another tack. “Is Haldir safe?”
“I sense a ‘but’ coming up…” Corinne prompted, and the goddess smiled.
“He is safe,” she said again.
“Where am I?” One more she couldn’t resist looking around, admiring the carved limestone pillars, the inlaid marble floor, and the massive amount of knowledge available for the taking… dragging her attention from its siren-call, she forced herself to listen to Seshat’s response.
“You are in my library, on Iw-n-sisi,” the goddess explained, bouncing a little on the balls of her feet and making Corinne notice her sandals. They had lotuses on the strap and reminded her strongly of Buffy and her stupid daisy-shoes, and she was surprised at how much she missed the other woman in that moment.
Then she realized what Seshat had just told her. “Iw-n-sisi?” she demanded, incredulous. “I’m on the Isle of Fire?” The Isle of Fire was the place that ancient Egyptians believed their souls explored and endured en route to being reborn. “But… but…that’s impossible.”
“Many things are so,” Seshat agreed. “And yet, you are here.” She gave an elegant shrug of narrow sienna shoulders, looking supremely unconcerned with such matters of reality and logic. “Have you forgotten the nature of Aker so quickly?”
“Bender of Reality,” Corinne muttered, and Seshat nodded.
Corinne, still on the floor, leaned back on stiff arms and crossed her ankles casually, belying her great distress. “So, why am I here? I’m guessing this isn’t just a meet-and-greet you happen to give all the history geeks like me.”
“As one who studies, who reveres books and learning, you are one of my own,” Seshat said slowly. “I am given the opportunity to offer you a choice.”
“A choice,” Corinne repeated flatly. “Between which rock and which hard place?”
The goddess smiled brightly. “Clever,” she commented. “You are clever, and would be a fine addition to my court. Will you join me?”
“What does it mean if I do?” Corinne wanted to know, trying desperately to play it cool while her insides writhed in anxiety and excitement. “What would that make me?”
“One of my priestesses, and your success would be without measure.”
“What does that mean? Exactly?”
“It means,” Seshat explained, “that you will return to your world as if you never heard of the Weshem-ib. Your life will progress normally, and you will experience unlimited joy and progress.”
Corinne’s heart leapt to her throat at the idea of having everything back to normal, and then some, before her New York-tuned twin senses of suspicion and skepticism kicked in. “And is this in exchange for my soul, or something?”
Seshat threw back her head, making her hair cascade past her hips, and laughed. “Indeed not,” she replied. “What use would I have for a soulless being? No, it simply means that after your death, you return to me here, in my library, and spend eternity as my servant.”
“Servant?” Corinne imitated Haldir in quirking a brow. “I don’t do windows.”
The goddess sobered at that. “Have you not noticed, child? There are no windows here.” She gestured around them; the aisles and aisles of books seemed to go on in a world-without-end-amen kind of way that made Corinne suddenly nervous.
“Ah,” she managed to say. “What would that mean for the people of Arda?”
Seshat’s sloe eyes blinked at her, lashes like dark fans fluttering. “Life would progress for them as if they had no knowledge of the cartouche or its origins..”
“Aker would proceed with his plans, and no one on Arda would be the wiser,” Corinne filled in, and Seshat nodded. “So what you’re telling me,” she continued, give the palm frond an airy wave for emphasis, “is if I take you up on this offer that fulfills my every dream, I’m basically screwing all of Middle-Earth without the benefit of an adequate lubricant?”
Seshat’s lovely mouth quirked in amusement. “Yes.”
Corinne sighed. “And if I decline?”
“If you decline, I must evict you from this place to make your way on Iw-n-sisi, alone. You may try to find Ta-tenen,” she tilted her head to the side, her gaze kind, “but I fear you would not last long, child. The road is long and inhospitable, fraught with dangers the likes of which you have never experienced nor surmounted.”
Corinne considered it a long moment, then stood and absently brushed off her backside. “I’m kind of getting used to danger-fraught roads,” she said thoughtfully, meeting Seshat’s eyes. “And, dangerous and inhospitable? Babe, I’m from New York. Dangerous and inhospitable is all in a day’s work for me. I’m gonna have to give it a pass. But thanks for thinking of me.”
She tried to hand the palm frond back to Seshat, but the goddess stepped back. “If I cannot have you for servant and companion, please accept that as my gift to you.”
Corinne wasn’t sure what she’d meant by that, but nodded in gratitude and folded it the best she could before stuffing it in the back pocket of her jeans. “Is this where you toss me out on my rear, then?”
Seshat’s smile was sad. “Yes.”
And then there was deep, velvety darkness once again, and Corinne knew no more.
It was a grim-faced bunch who met a mere hour after Corinne’s disappearance, on the spot where they’d seen her breathe her last as the blood covered her head. Haldir’s mood could best be described as ‘savage’; his reply to Radagast’s inquiry of whether the bond was still active only marginally more brutal than when he saw Dawn stuffing a few of Corinne’s notebooks and pens into her pack.
“She’ll want to write everything down when we find her,” Dawn explained tearfully, backing up in shock at the furious countenance of one very brassed-off elf.
“She is dead,” Haldir hissed, eyes blazing with anger and pain. “Dead, and therefore not likely to be writing anything, ever again.” He sounded suspiciously close to sobbing, and clamped his mouth shut until his lips were only a thin, harsh line.
“Settle down, Hal,” Buffy admonished, pushing him back with a hand to the sternum. “We don’t know if she’s dead. And don’t be mean to my sister. Try to remember that it’s Aker who’s the bad guy, ok?”
Haldir flung one last glare her way and stomped off to seethe in the corner beside Orophin, whose expression seemed to have settled permanently into ‘bewildered apprehension’. Elessar and Boromir were murmuring in low whispers as they sharpened their swords, Arwen and Radagast had their heads together in a way that was somewhat worrying to Buffy’s way of thinking, and Gimli and Thranduil were glaring at each other from across the clearing as Legolas studiously ignored them both, busying himself with checking the state of his arrows.
“It is time,” the wizard announced, and stepped to the center of the mosaic. “Dawn, if you please?”
She sighed. “Where’s the knife?”
“Knife?” Radagast frowned in confusion. “Why do we need a knife?” He held up a long, sharp pin and gestured for her to come to him.
“Gandalf needed, like, a cup or so of Eau de Dawn,” Buffy explained, watching closely as Radagast took Dawn’s hand and quickly gave her thumb a light jab. A single bead of blood welled up and he grinned crookedly at them.
“Gandalf has always been less than delicate in his spellwork,” Radagast said. “He might require a cupful; I need but a drop.” And he turned her hand so the blood spilled into the air; a pinpoint of green light appeared and, with an almost casual wave of his hand over it, began to expand.
“You are sure this is the door to Aker’s realm?” Elessar queried, mistrust clear in his voice as the green light flattened into a shimmering disk that slowly grew to the size of a Man.
“Certainly,” Radagast replied. “And even if it is not, we shall have a grand adventure, shall we not?” He grasped his pack by the trailing end of the rope binding it. “After you, your majesty.”
Elessar narrowed his eyes, trying to discern whether the Istari was mocking him, but shouldered his own pack and stepped through, followed by Boromir and Arwen and Dawn. Raised voices alerted Buffy to the fact that Haldir and Thranduil were having an argument.
“I will not allow my son to visit an alternate dimension without being there to protect him,” Thranduil was saying, his volume never rising but his level of menace ratcheting upward alarmingly.
“You son is more than adequate to the task of keeping himself alive without your esteemed presence,” Haldir gritted back, taking a step closer to the king of Mirkwood.
“Just as he was adequate to the task of finding himself an appropriate spouse?” came the silken answer. At this insult to his friend, Haldir’s eyes widened and his hand actually went to the hilt of his long knife, but Legolas stepped up to them.
“Enough posturing,” he said tautly. “When this is done, I will sit back with a cup of wine and sip with joy as you beat each other bloody, but for now, we have a foe to locate and defeat.” He turned to his father. “Come, if you will, but do not raise the anger of we who are your journey-mates, else you find yourself abandoned along the way.”
“Aye,” Gimli affirmed. “We do not suffer nuisances, and ye be the king of such, my fine lord.”
Thranduil opened his mouth, no doubt to say something horrifically rude about Glóin or some other relative of Gimli’s, but Buffy clapped one hand over his mouth, grabbed the back of his leggings with the other, and tossed him unceremoniously through the portal. His pack followed a moment later, tossed with great enthusiasm and rather more force than strictly necessary by the dwarf.
“I take no responsibility for killing him if he doesn’t shape up, honey,” she told Legolas warningly, and stepped into the swirling green mists. He passed his hand over his eyes in the universal gesture of “I’m getting a migraine” and shook his head before disappearing into the portal.
That left only Gimli, Radagast, and Haldir. Gimli heaved a gusty sigh, inexplicably pinched his nose shut, and dove in head-first, beard waving in the breeze, and Haldir shot the wizard one last glower before following the dwarf, albeit at a vastly more dignified pace and manner.
Radagast smirked at Orophin, who would stay behind deal with anyone who might wonder where two kings, two princes, a queen, a princess, the Slayer, the Guardian, a dwarf, and a demigod had managed to vanish to. Then he thrust his hand into the centre of the portal, waved his staff, and in a flash of emerald light both wizard and portal disappeared.
Orophin stared a long moment at where it had been a moment before, then turned back to the house. “How I long for a nice, simple war,” he muttered with nostalgia. “Some orcs, some Uruks, perhaps a Haradhrim or two just to keep things interesting. Straight-forward, uncomplicated.” He entered the house and strode to the dining room, where sat the archers and soldiers left behind. “I expect you lot will be wanting some dinner, won’t you?”
The elves nodded; the Men replied noisily in the affirmative. Orophin sighed. “Then I suggest you go out and kill something. One of you had better know how to cook, else we shall sup on raw venison this evening.” He settled into one of the chairs vacated when they began to file from the room, feeling distinctly grumpy and wishing Rúmil would return soon, so he would have someone to complain to.
loutrophoros = tall elegant vase
Iw-n-sisi = Isle of Fire
Ta-tenen = Island from the Dawn of Time