The Shape of Fire

Episode 1.

By Helen Fayle

1.

Tongues of flickering fire: red, yellow, orange, burning blue-white at the core. They appeared out of nowhere, arriving somewhere, accompanied by a sound like a soft whisper carried on the wind. They formed a circle, rushing outwards from the centre, and shot towards the sky as if they would try to touch the sun burning high above. Then they sank to the ground, pulled downwards abruptly by an unseen hand, and vanished. Across the ground where the flames had passed, no carbon scorched the dark, dry earth.

But in what should have been the heart of the inferno, a tall, slim man with dark auburn hair looked around at his surroundings, shrugged a tan leather coat into place across narrow shoulders, and smiled.

'Home, sweet home,' he murmered (to himself, for there was no-one else to hear, save for a small verrin, which stared at him with enormous eyes from its perch on a nearby branch, and scuttled back to its hole in the trunk of the tree.)

The man turned until he faced the mountains. He could, he thought, have arrived at his destination directly, but something about the invitation still worried him. So now he was faced with a decision: to walk the last few miles, and arrive discreetly - or to take the more ostentatious course, and remind someone of exactly what he was truly dealing with.

Not much of a decision, really. Between one heartbeat (if he had one) and the next, the man was gone, and great red/gold wings beat once, as muscular, iridescent scaled legs thrust into the ground, sending the massive form skyward. The dragon circled once, before heading towards the mountain that dominated the range.

Some time later, the little verrin timidly descended to sniff the ground where the strange not-man thing had stood. But all that remained were a set of massive, parallel gouges in the ground, and a whiff of sulphur in the air.

2.

'Fire rent the air, searing their lungs with heat. The knights backed away, trembling at the sight that met their eyes. The dragon lowered its mighty head until its eyes - huge, multi-faceted orbs, gazed at each in turn. "You dare to challenge me?" it rumbled…'

'Did they look it in the eyes? Because I heard you should never look a dragon in the eyes!' The little boy bounced excitedly. 'Did they, Taliesin?'

'Shut up, silly, I want to hear the rest of the story!' Branwen punched her brother on the arm, then squealed and ran to hide behind Taliesin's stool when Diarmuid pulled her braid.

The bard, a young-seeming man with long red hair curling down below his shoulders, light green eyes and a neatly trimmed goatee beard, smiled gently at his little audience, and with a hand on each child, drew them back into place in front of him. Chastened, even though he'd not had to say a word, they sat back down at his feet, although not without a surreptitious tongue stuck out (Branwen) or sly nose-wrinkle (Diarmuid).

'Don't you want to hear the rest?' Tal asked, when they were settled again.

'They might, but it will have to wait.' Elphin's deep voice rumbled behind his bard.

'Papa!' both children threw themselves at the large fair haired man who'd entered the room. Elphin, Ard Rí of Gwynedd and the 13 worlds, knelt down to let his children climb onto his lap, then picked them both up.

'Bed, for both of you,' he said with mock severity. He placed them gently on the ground, and smiled indulgently as their nurse took charge of them, ushering them out of the room. Only then did he turn his attention to his bard. Taliesin acknowledged him with a slight bow of his head.

'High King.' The two men regarded each other for a long moment, without a word.

'Vivienne tells me you still plan to make this trip,' Elphin said at last. 'Why?'

Tal shrugged, and reached for the lap harp that rarely left his side. 'It's as good a place as any to start.' Deft, long fingered hands played across the strings, picking out an old, delicate melody.

'Tal - I need you, here. There's so much to be done - '

'You have other advisors, El. That's what being High King brings you. You can carry this conference without me. Trust me, my friend, I would not go were it otherwise.'

Elphin grimaced. 'Is that your considered opinion as my bard?' he asked sourly. Taliesin brushed an errant lock of red hair back from his eyes, and placed Leannan carefully on the floor between his feet.

'In a sense, yes. But I have to do this, El, you know that.'

The High King of Gwynedd took a seat in the chair opposite Taliesin, and sat back, fingers steepled in front of his face. 'You're afraid of what you may find, my friend, so why do this? Why put yourself - and Vivienne - through this. What does it matter who you may or may not have been once upon a time? Vivienne doesn't -'

'Vivienne's memories are her own - not borrowed, not copied. She is who and what she always was. I - I'm something else. I don't even know how much I can trust what I think I know, or what I saw.'

'Vat-born,' Elphin stated bluntly. Taliesin didn't flinch.

'In a manner of speaking.' His green eyes, when they met Elphin's blue gaze, were troubled. 'Nothing's clear cut.' A hand reached down to rest on the top curve of the harp, born from a bough of the World Tree, and bought, Elphin remembered how dearly, almost at the cost of Tal's life.

A price paid not only for the harp, already a legend on Gwynedd along with her owner, but for knowledge: the knowledge which had made Taliesin a bard - and had shown him a glimpse of a past/future which he still refused to discuss, even with Vivienne.

Had it really been ten years ago?

'The Calaitin are linked in so many of the stories to Delbâeth. Find them, I find him. He's the one link I've been able to find to Breceliande, in any of the tales.'

Elphin sighed heavily. 'But Tal - a dragon?'

The bard smiled, but humourlessly this time. 'Don't you realise yet what they really are?' he asked. Elphin shook his head.

Taliesin told him.

3.

'I am come, as you requested, old friend.' Delbâeth had allowed his outward seeming to shift back into the human form before entering the caves, and now stood before the one who had summoned him here. There was perhaps room to use a more intimidating shell, but he felt he'd made the point clear. But that did not mean that he had to be completely bound by form.

Minor adjustments were easy to make. Delbâeth modified the external sensory organs of the human shape he wore, extending the depth of his perceptions.

He sensed nothing, and that in itself rang warning bells.

Danger. But of what nature? And to whom?

Faceted eyes stared at the figure that strode across the uneven surface of the cavern. Calaitin. He greeted the man who limped towards him. The druid extended a hand, and Delbâeth clasped it, careful not to use too much strength.

'Delbâeth, it has been a long time.' The voice came from the side, and Delbâeth's senses registered another unit of the Calaitin approaching. Extended senses sought out and located yet another three within the confines of the cavern. Only five? Where were the others?

Why do you use auditory communication, old friend?

The eldest of the Calaitin shrugged. Three of the duplicates closed in on him.

'It suits us, in here. Is that a problem?' All four spoke in an eerie harmony with each other, and the effect, multiplied by the echo within the cavern, produced a peculiar resonance.

'Not particularly.' Delbâeth replied smoothly. 'Your message failed to detail exactly what you wanted, Calaitin.' He addressed the eldest by default, even knowing that any unit would have sufficed for communication.

'So it did.' The Calaitin began to spread out, until the five units were standing in a regular arrangement around the human-form that Delbâeth had chosen to wear. 'Not so much an oversight –' said the eldest.

'More of a trap.' This voice came from an opening above the level of the floor, that looked down from the wall of the cavern. Delbâeth only then realised the nature of the figure formed by the Calaitin. Lines of force formed between the five surrounding him, arrayed in a regular pentacle.

'You think to contain me by means of such magicks?' The dragon allowed the outer shell to blur and reform, stretching the inner mass into a new configuration, in preparation for a change to a new form, whilst addressing the new arrival – a new Calaitin, scarcely adult, he judged. New born.

'No,' the Calaitin replied. He stepped aside to reveal the dark shape that his body had hidden, and the dragon was suddenly gripped by a powerful mind. The shapechange abandoned, he tried to escape, seeking the vortex instead. Unearthly flame formed around the shell, this time flickering over the assembled Calaitin, causing the nearest to scream in pain as the fire touched him.

The alien mind tightened its grip, and the flame guttered and died.

I think not, the mental voice said coldly. I have need of you.

The dark shape descended to the floor of the cavern, and approached the dragon, trapped in human form and unable to move. Like a knife the creature's mind had slid between the interstices between self and form. Delbâeth was unable to move, or control the outer form. The higher functions were shut away, only the basic equations left operating to maintain the presence it had in this intersection of time and space.

Too easy, it said coldly. Bring it.

The Calaitin scurryed to obey the dark voice. Delbâeth, trapped within his own form, could only scream silently.

4.

The Crystal Mountains, it had to be said, thought Vivienne, were exactly that. A massive outcropping of quartz rearing up out of the plains, separating the lowlands of Rheged from the highland forests of Celidon to the east. The mountains formed a barrier of sheer, glittering majesty. But the multifaceted peaks had a deadly reputation: the fractured faces of the mountains were virtually unclimable, and even the passes that did exist were treacherous in the extreme: crystal shards and sharp-edged sand littered the ground for miles around, making the footing incredibly dangerous. And in the sunlight, the crystal caught the light and reflected it back in a thousand thousand directions, blinding the unwary traveller or pilot who dared to look directly at the range.

The ornithopter was flying on sensors, Vivienne having activated the glare screen on the cockpit. Eschewing the ease of the autopilot, she flew the tubby little dragon-fly shaped 'thopter on manual, enjoying the demands of the flight. Taliesin was sitting behind her, poring over a fragile codex, swearing occasionally as he found yet another section removed over the centuries-long interregnum of Morgaine the Deathless.

'We're almost there,' she told him. There was a non-committal grunt in answer. 'Suit yourself.' She applied herself to bringing the 'thopter down carefully at the foot of the mountains, near to where legend said the caves of Delbâeth were situated.

Assuming of course the legends spoke truthfully. But then, this was the Thirteen Worlds. Legend, myth, story and history had a habit of merging here, in ways you could never anticipate…

Vivienne pushed away from the control panel as the 'thopter landed. The body of the cybrid settled on the ground lightly, and the ever-present pulsing of the augmented muscle that powered the four beating wings ceased with a soft sigh as it lowered them to the floor, the tips of the delicate-looking membranes brushing the earth on either side of its body.

'Tal?' she tapped him on the shoulder, but didn't wait for him to follow her out of the little two-man flyer.

She needed goggles, she thought, pulling hers out of her flightsuit and putting them on, letting them adjust to filter out the dazzling glare from the mountains. The day was cloudless and bright, and the mountains didn't just sparkle, they blinded - sunlight was reflected off every surface, making the mountains a shining beacon, and even in daylight hours it was visible from the inner system. But there was one dark blemish on the crystal walls ahead of them. Vivienne brought her ocular to her eyes, adjusting the range finder and the filters: there, at the foot of the cleavage plain of the nearest outcrop - a dark shadow.

The Crystal Caves. She handed the viewer to Taliesin, who'd reached her side.

'Well that much was true, at least,' he said quietly. 'We'll go in at nightfall.'

'Why wait?' Then she remembered - the mountains didn't just intensify the light from the sun. 'Oh.' In the daylight, for humans, the heat would be intolerable. Even from here she could just feel it, and if she looked closely, she could see the heat shimmer between them and the mountains, distorting the shape of the land.

Well, they could wait. After all, there was no guarantee they'd even find the druid at home…

5.

The Calaitin had taken one of the larger chambers in the caves for their own. Twenty-seven of them waited here: the twenty-eighth lay in the single vat that occupied the centre of the cavern, the umbilicals trailing over its membranous sides quivering as the form inside moved, impatient to be born.

An example had been made by the Dark Ones. He who had been Second now stood as First. But that was their nature after all. It had just happened a little sooner than expected.

'I have to question the wisdom of this strategy,' Third said quietly to First. He limped over to the vat, and placed a hand on the membrane, quieting their brother within. 'This alliance has already cost us one of our number.'

'No alliance would have cost all of our lives,' Second replied, leaving the arrayed clone-brothers. 'The matter is now closed. The bargain was simple. Our lives for the capture of The Shape of Fire. And provision of access to our clone-banks to recoup our numbers once the dragon was in their - power.'

You do well to remember the cost of dissent.

The voice had a disturbing undertone, a sub-harmonic "buzz". As one, the druids turned to face the speaker, and bowed in unison.

'Great One.' The First said. The creature entered the chamber fully, but kept to the shadows cast by the flickering torches that ringed the vat.

We wish to examine the Shape of Fire, before we begin. I shall need five of your number, Calaitin.

First bowed low. 'As you command, Great One.' He followed the creature from the cavern, four of the brethren joining him. Behind careful, stealthiy constructed wards, the First Joined with those not present.

Prepare the chamber as we discussed. But carefully. The Great One must not suspect.

There was a single unspoken affirmation from his brothers, tinged with caution. Along the link they shared, beyond the mental control or range of the creatures they currently served, he sent back his reassurance: Hold. We are One. We have kept faith with our vow, and the design will soon be served.

6.

Delbâeth waited patiently in the pit into which he had been cast. The steep sides of his prison were impossible for his human shape to climb, being formed from a deep fissure in the crystal. The cleavage had been clean: the pit formed in the heart of the mountain had sides as smooth as glass, and what hand-holds there were, in places where the stone had broken away, were knife-edged.

And this form, that had once been more than a mere seeming, still had some vulnerabilities: part of the price one paid for the freedom of the worlds.

Wards glowed in a multitudinous spectrum around the dragon; spells bound into the very fabric of the rock, at a molecular level. Delbâeth could sense the comforting presence of the void between, but could not touch it – no tendril of self could escape the real prison that surrounded him, to force an exit from this place. Nor would the wards allow him to change into a shape better suited to escape in this space-time interface.

The Enemy knew his kind too well, and had created their trap accordingly. So far, he had yet to find a flaw.

'Escape is impossible, old friend.'

Delbâeth looked up to see five of the Calaitin poised at the lip of the pit, once again arrayed in the basic pattern of binding in this world – the five pointed star. To his senses, the energistic flow between the parts of the Calaitin was a vibrant, dynamic ebb and flow, synergistic, self-renewing, focussed. Tendrils of energy snaked their way down the sides of the pit, following the fracture lines left by the ancient event that had sheared the rock. They sought out the dragon, and surrounded him; probing, testing, easing their way into the very fabric of his being. Then they were drawn away, back to the source, and projected to the Other that stood behind the traitor. Delbâeth made his form stand upright, and faced the Enemy, and cast a challenge along the mental channel it used.

Silence. The creature simply scuttled away, as if satisfied with whatever the traitor had given it.

Only one, so far, but there would be others, he knew. They were solitary by nature, were the Enemy, but for whatever they had planned for him, there would be more. One alone, even with the help of the Calaitin, could not possibly hope to hold him forever.

The lines of power between the Calaitin shimmered and withdrew, and the five turned to leave.

'Wait!' Delbâeth called out. The eldest turned back, and looked down on him. 'Why?' Delbâeth asked.

The Calaitin smiled. 'Power,' he said simply. He and his brethren turned from the pit, to reveal the shadows that stood beside them, crouched with their customary predatory calm, glittering eye-clusters staring at their prey.

The Ancient Enemy.

7.

'It's deserted, Vivienne said, looking around the interior of the cavern. 'Absolutely deserted!' Her voice echoed loudly, and Tal shushed her.

'Not so loud, you never know what's lurking in the shadows.' She pulled a face behind his back, but lowered her voice to reply.

'Well I can't see anything.'

'That's because you're not looking properly.' Taliesin dropped to his knees and began dusting his hand over the sandy floor. He pulled back his hand abruptly, and sucked a finger. 'Ow. Whatever you do, be careful, this is powdered quartz, and it's sharp.' He pointed to the cavern floor. 'Tracks, human ones, and they lead down there.' His hand indicated a dark, narrow opening in the far wall. 'Shall we?'

'How,' Vivienne asked, as she followed him into the darkness, only a hand-globe to light their way, 'do you know that those are recent – or that you'll find anything here?' There was no reply, but even in the half-light, she could see the sudden tension in his shoulders. 'Tal?'

'I dreamt it, a long time ago,' he said quietly. 'Besides, can't you feel it?'

'All I feel right now,' she said, a little testily, 'is that I remember I'm not overly fond of pot-holing. You could put it right up there with crawling through ventilator shafts.' She shivered, and drew her cloak more closely around her, not even her flightsuit able to keep out the chill that had nothing to do with the temperature. His dreams had a nasty habit of coming true.

'Something doesn't want us here, I can feel it.' His voice sounded troubled. Vivienne tapped him on the shoulder.

'So why don't we just do the sensible thing and call for back-up? Just this once?' She hadn't wanted it to come out sounding quite so plaintive.

'And break the habit of a lifetime?' he asked.

'Oh, fine,' she grumped, 'throw my own words back at me why don-' she stopped in mid-sentence as he raised his hand. 'What?' She peered around him and gulped. 'Oh boy…'

In front of his feet, the passageway came to an abrupt end, plunging straight down in a vertical drop that had 'terminal velocity' written all over it.

8.

Something comes…

Seek.

Destroy.

Watch.

Destroy.

It has reached the crevasse in the outer caves. Action?

Wait.

Destroy.

Destroy.

Destroy.

Bring it.

<multiplicity> We Obey.

The Great Design must not be delayed.

9.

'Careful – it narrows again here.' Tal held a hand out to Vivienne, helping her around another outcrop that jutted out onto the ledge that limmed the crevasse.

'You don't say,' Vivienne said dryly.

'There's a gap just ahead – watch yourself.' Taliesin said, ignoring her remark. He leapt lightly across the divide, 'Come on.' He held out his hand.

Vivienne, about to move, made the mistake of looking down and froze. She forced herself back against the rock. 'I can't.'

Tal's voice was soft, encouraging. 'Yes you can. It's three feet at most. You can do it.'

She steeled herself for the jump and leapt, misjudged her strength and overshot, knocking Taliesin flying. They landed on the edge of the precipice, Taliesin half-over the edge, holding tightly onto Vivienne. For a long time, neither of them moved. Once breathing and pounding hearts were under some control again, Tal very carefully inched them back to safety.

'Couldn't you wait?' he quipped, eventually. Vivienne thumped him. 'Ow!' The glow-globe had fallen onto the path, and in the light she saw his indignant glare. She kissed him lightly, and pushed herself upright.

'I can do without frights like that.' She helped him up, and brushed off his shirt – no longer as white as it had been.

'A closer call than I'd like, it is true.' He picked up the light. 'I think we're almost there. There's an opening up ahead.'

They picked their way carefully along the ledge.

10.

In the pit, Delbâeth stirred. Someone was coming. He could feel the minds, drawing closer.

One felt human, but with a tell-tale signature that spoke of interference from one of his kind. The other…

Delbâeth raised his head, testing the limits of the bonds on his senses. The other mind had a mental signature he'd thought impossible to find. One of a race long vanished from the Universe, vanished and gone as if they had never existed.

The wards held firm: he could make no contact with the mind he sensed. Equations recalculated, approximating what in a human would have been irritation. Or maybe anger.

The stir of emotion triggered an idea. Delbâeth reached out again, searching the mind he'd touched, and found a possible pathway to communicate.

It was an ancient trick, from the days when his kind had truly understood what they were, before the enslavement, before the wars, before the freedom of the spheres became theirs. A trick Mother had once taught them.

Once, long ago, the mathematics that been used to define them and confined them had had another form: a form Delbâeth sensed within the mind of the one who approached.

Throwing his head back, Delbâeth began to sing.

11.

'Did you hear that?' Tal stopped dead in the middle of the passageway, his head cocked on one side. Vivienne strained to listen.

'Hear what?'

'A voice…' As it had a habit of doing when he concentrated, one hand bunched into a fist in his long hair. 'Singing…' AS if in answer to that unheard music, he sang back, a pure, wordless note, modulating in accordance with a theme that only he could hear. And the mountain rang with the song.

Abruptly cut off, between one note and the next.

Vivienne dropped to her knees as a mind slid into hers, a cold, alien touch, that demanded total obedience, taking over all motor control. Trapped in her mind, she could only watch as Taliesin fell to the floor in front of her, writhing as he tried to fight off the assault.

So familiar, the mind in hers. Where? When?

The Enemy. They are the death of my race…

Another mind, touching hers, on the edges of perception. Not talking to her, she realised. Talking to Taliesin. A sing-song lilt to the tone, deep and resonant. This had to be the singer he'd said he'd heard.

Beware.

The voice was cut off as abruptly as Taliesin's voice had been. Vivienne looked on helplessly as several figures detached themselves from the shadows, advancing on them. Human. Three men, identical even down to a limp. But this was not where the force that held her and Tal captive originated. That was the horror that walked behind them.

Five black shapes, blacker than any shadow or pit of hell. They walked towards them with a deliberate, delicate menace, as if they had all the time in the world. Waist-high to a man, they stood, slick chitinous hides bristling with fine hairs, eye-clusters fixed with a cold, implacable menace upon their prey, before as one, the spiders turned and sprayed them, cocooning the helpless pair in a choking cloud of sticky silk.

 

 

The Shape of Fire

Episode 2.

By Helen Fayle

1.

Another mind, touching hers, on the edges of perception. Not talking to her, she realised. Talking to Taliesin. A sing-song lilt to the tone, deep and resonant. This had to be the singer he'd said he'd heard.

Beware.

The voice was cut off as abruptly as Taliesin's voice had been. Vivienne looked on helplessly as several figures detached themselves from the shadows, advancing on them. Human. Three men, identical even down to a limp. But this was not where the force that held her and Tal captive originated. That was the horror that walked behind them.

Five black shapes, blacker than any shadow or pit of hell. They walked towards them with a deliberate, delicate menace, as if they had all the time in the world. Waist-high to a man, they stood, slick chitinous hides bristling with fine hairs, eye-clusters fixed with a cold, implacable menace upon their prey, before as one, the spiders turned and sprayed them, cocooning the helpless pair in a choking cloud of sticky silk.

 

2.

Taliesin awakened to see an unfamiliar face leaning over him. Human. Or nearly so. Except for the eyes, he thought, staring at the faceted orbs that looked at him from that otherwise normal face. A man of middle years, dark red hair falling down to his waist, and dressed in what looked to be tan coloured leather. He was rubbing the last vestiges of some stick, white stands from his hands - the same stuff Tal found his clothes and hair stick stuck with.

'Has anyone ever told you that you are an impossibility?' the man asked. Taliesin struggled to his feet. The stranger didn't try to help. Or look as if he was even remotely interested in doing so. He just stared at him with those peculiar eyes, and waited, as if he had all the time in the world.

'Vivienne, frequently,' Taliesin said eventually. 'Who are you?' He tugged some more of the spider silk from his beard.

Fire. Flames surrounding, penetrating, encompassing. The fire within the void, burning without heat… Flame extended from void to reality, and taking form…

The images faded, and Tal winced. He held a hand to his head. 'Delbâeth, the Shape of Fire, I presume?'

You are correct. The dragon regarded him quizzically. What is one of your kind doing here? I thought your race long - Taliesin didn't recognise the term used. Deleted? Removed? He shook his head to clear it and wished he hadn't. The intensity of the dragon's mental communication had given him a headache of planetary proportions.

'I'm sort of a relic, I suppose. Or a revenant. It really depends on your point of view.'

This worries you.

Tal rubbed his temple. 'Please – verbally?'

'As you wish.' Delbâeth cocked his head on one side. 'You have concerns about your nature. I read that much in your mind.'

'Right now I'm more concerned about Vivienne. Did they bring a woman in with me? About so high, dark haired, tendency to let the whole world know if she's in a bad mood?' He looked around, taking more notice of his surroundings. 'Just where is here anyway?' His hands wandered over the sharp-edged, smooth sided walls of his prison.

'A holding pit,' Delbâeth explained. 'They plan a ritual, to take place after nightfall, I believe.'

'What manner of ritual?'

'The death of Delbâeth, of course.'

The crystal wall had opened, and one of the Calaitin now stood silhouetted in the opening.

3.

Vivienne awoke lying on her side on a cold stone floor. Strands of spider-silk still clung to her her and clothing, and she grimaced. Horrible, horrible stuff. She struggled to her feet, and tried to brush it off. She failed miserably - the stuff stuck to everything, and unlike the strands spun by spiders of a more conventional size, this stuff didn't give as easily. She wiped her hands down her flightsuit, which only made matters worse.

She was in a small chamber, hollowed out of the crystal not by water or the movement of the earth, but by hand. Unless hexagonal caves formed naturally…

There was only one exit, a dark archway, no door or tell-tale shimmer of a ward. She made her way towards it, a little unsteadily, and nursing a killer headache.

Halt

The "voice" held a command she had no choice but to obey, despite trying to force her body to resist. The creature that had commanded her approached, letting her see it clearly, free of the concealing shadows. Deep inside, a memory stirred.

The spider stood in front of her, having materialised out of the shadows. The quivering sac of its abdomen was held above the ground, its legs crouched as if to pounce upon her. The cluster of eyes fixed on her with such an intense scrutiny, she shivered. Cold… that gaze. Merciless. Pitiless.

Why did it seem so familiar?

'This one is of no consequence,' one of the identical humans was saying, entering the room to stand behind the spider. Vivienne tried to turn her attention to the speaker, but found her gaze would not move from that of the black spider that crouched in front of her still, waiting.

It knows of us… we would know more of it…

That cold, alien mind invaded her own again, and Vivienne screamed.

Flicker… A dark cellar, filled with the sound of men chanting…

Flicker… A blue crystal, oblong in shape…

Flicker… A cavern, filled with the sibilant whispers of creatures like the one in front of her now; spiders of a size never seen on Earth.

Flicker… A man staggering at her side, while she tried to hold him up, to get him to safety.

There are disparate memories. I sense interference.

Deeper. We must see.

The nexus point is… here…

Flicker… Waiting in a small dark room with a tall man in some kind of uniform… 'It's been two weeks…'

Flicker… Her hands covered with his blood, as red as her own, when she touched his shirt, which was sodden with it. White hair, a lined face…

Flicker… 'Where there's life…' he collapsed at their feet.

Flicker, Flicker… 'Not like this…'

Flicker, Flicker, Flicker… 'A tear, Sarah-Jane?'…

Vivienne collapsed onto the sandy floor of the cavern, weeping. 'Taliesin…' Her hands were cut and bleeding from the sand, grasped with futile desperation in clenched fists.

The mental assault ceased abruptly. She raised her head to stare at the spider. Its pedipalps fluttered as if it were agitated. Another, equally as large, joined it from the shadows. She looked to the men standing around her, wondering if help would be forthcoming from that quarter, but they simply regarded with cold, disinterested eyes. She was on her own.

A little shakily, she got to her feet. The memories triggered by the spider's reaming of her mind whirled chaotically, refusing to sort themselves into any kind of order. I've never seen these things before. He regenerated on Dust…

Standing in the lab at HQ, waiting, praying for him to return safely from Metebelis 3…

Which was truth? Which false? She clearly remembered him being shot, on Dust, helping him back into the TARDIS…

Both are true. The spider "said". A paradox, and a deep one.

'I don't see,' Vivienne said eventually, 'What this has to do with you, and your friends here.'

You intruded where you had no business, and we sensed a threat to our design. Now we sense that you have perceived our destruction, in your past. A destruction we know has never taken place, on a world we left long ago, in the Deep Time

Vivienne bit her bottom lip thoughtfully. 'That's news to me. But we didn't know you were here, we have no -'

Irrelevant. You are here, and both you and the other are a threat. Your mind tells us that this other is somehow a part of one you remember harming us.

'What do you plan to do with us?' she asked.

It was one of the men who answered. 'Kill you. Eventually.' He turned to one of his companions. 'Bring the Shape of Fire, and the Bard.'

5.

Taliesin circled the man warily. 'Calaitin, I presume, or one of them?'

'There is only one, although we are many.' The Calaitin bowed. 'We have heard of you, Bard. The Usurper's Harper.' The last sentence was said with a sneer, but beneath the disdain, Taliesin thought he detected an intense hatred. Of Elphin…?

'I serve the King,' he said, evenly.

'You serve a petty pretender to the High Tagel, harper. Nothing more.

Taliesin leaned back against the wall, and folded his arms. To his left, Delbâeth stood, watching the procedings. 'The line of the Pendragons is long dead, Calaitin. Dead, or imprisoned in a realm far removed form this.' He shook his head sadly. On the collar of the druid's long robe, a small red rose was embroidered, a black hydra entwined around the stem. 'Your mistress will not be returning.'

'The rose may wither,' the Calaitin said cryptically, 'but the thorn may still survive to prick the unwary.' He approached Taliesin, careful to stay out of reach, the bard noted, although the powerful wards in the pit prevented either himself or Delbâeth from acting. 'A pity I will not be able to release you to send that message to your master.'

Tired of threats, Taliesin changed the subject: 'Where's Vivienne?'

'Your lover? The spiders have her.' He shrugged. 'They wish to examine both of you, after we have finished with the dragon.'

'What do you want with Delbâeth?' Tal asked. The druid ignored him, and walked back to the opening, stepping outside. Taliesin could see others approaching in the dim light.

It was the dragon who answered. 'these creatures - spiders - have been at war with our kind for millennia.They learned long ago - or deep in the future, as you would reckon it - how to walk through the void as we do. Their mental powers are great - far beyond out own in that regard, for we need no help to navigate the void. We are a part of it, connected to all points that were, are or will ever be.'

'The Universe made manifest,' Taliesin murmered. The memory was bittersweet… the touch of Yggdrasil, the Heart of the World… the tree that binds…past, present and future becoming irrelevant, as the pain of its touch stripped away every connection to the world. There was only the cold, impersonal touch of Absolute Time…

'I see you understand, Singer,' the Dragon said softly. 'You have touched a part of the Song.'

'Not nearly enough,' Tal muttered. He paced up and down the length of their prison, hands clasped behind his back. 'I saw…' Many things, hanging on the World Tree, images of a past that was not his own, mingled with a future that terrified him. Or was it the other way around…?

Delbâeth's hand touched his, and he stopped in his tracks. The dragon's skin was cool to the touch, cooler even than his own. 'You sought yourself, not me, in your quest,' he said quietly. 'Your search should be within, not without, Singer.' Through the touch of Delbâeth's skin on his, Taliesin felt an echo of the same Song that had touched his soul whilst he hung upon Yggdrasil, although this time the melody was softer, slower, more stately in nature.

And strangely familiar.

'The Londonderry Air.' Tal said quietly. 'An old air, in Avallion…'

The dragon's gaze was troubled. 'All songs are a part of the Great Song, some more so than others. You sense this, but you have a long way to go, before you truly understand it.'

Taliesin was about to press further, when the Calaitin returned. Coercive bonds settled on the minds of dragon and bard, as the five moved towards them.

'It is time,' one of them said.

6.

The cavern in the heart of the Crystal Mountains was vast and ancient; formed not by the action of water, but by the shifting folds in the planet's skin, fracturing the rock along its natural plain, then twisting and distorting, leaving behind caves and passageways that had an angular, razor edged hardness to them, that no water-born system could ever have.

The floor had been worn smooth by the passage of time, and unlike the rest of the caves, was swept clear of the fine, sharp crystal sand. Instead, it bore a perfectly executed decoration: a Great Seal fully twenty-seven feet in diameter, situated in the exact centre of the mountain. The natural lines of power had been tamed over the years to subtend this construct at a tangent – indeed, the seal was only part of the configuration of the chamber: sigils and wards on the walls led the eye upwards, towards the roof of the cavern, unknowable from the ground. In fact, as Taliesin saw when the Calaitin holding him pushed him into the cave, the symbols formed a cone of power. Which meant that whatever the Enemy had in mind, it was directed outwards.

But what… and where…

…and why…

His captor shoved him in the small of the back, and he stumbled to a halt beside Vivienne, who gave him a brief smile or relief, her eyes asking if he'd thought of a way out.

His own answered no, and her face fell. Taliesin was about to open his mouth to ask about their captors, when the Enemy entered the cavern.

He counted twenty-seven of them, as they scuttled onto the floor or the cave: twenty six the size of a large dog - black shiny skin rippled as they moved, spiracles visibly opening and closing on the bloated sacs of their abdomen as they moved. Thirteen took up a station behind each of thirteen of the Calaitin, and leapt up onto their backs, clinging with their front legs to the shoulders of the druids. As one, those pairings moved to points on the Seal, each taking up station at one of the marked points. Another thirteen arrayed themselves around the outside of the circle.

The twenty-seventh heaved her vast bulk to the apex of the Seal, and squatted over the eight-pointed star at its tip: the size of a moor pony, she surveyed the scene in front of her with a satisfied air. Taliesin almost gagged as her gaze touched upon him briefly. Doubling over, he felt Vivienne's hand on his shoulder, and struggled to stay upright.

'Can you feel it?' he asked her.

'Some, I think. Not as much as you,' she whispered. The Calaitin closest to them lashed out with his mind and she cried out.

'Silence!' he snapped.

'So cold…' Taliesin whispered. 'So much hatred, and triumph…'

'I said silence!' the Calaitin struck Taliesin on the cheek. Taliesin rubbed reddened skin and glared at the druid as he walked away to join his brothers. His hand closed on Vivienne's, giving her fingers a light squeeze.

'I really don't like this people much,' he muttered, careful this time not to be overheard.

'What are they? Clones?'

'There are legends in the archives of Caer Gwydion about them, I think. An order of druids, all identical, and ritually maimed. I suppose they'd have to be vat-born. Other than that, I don't know much about them. Him. Whatever.'

The druids linked to the spiders began a low, sub-harmonic chant, and Taliesin winced. 'That's terribly off key…' He subsided as the remaining Calaitin brought in Delbâeth.

In human form, he walked between two of his captors, seemingly resigned to his fate. Or maybe, Taliesin thought, that was just the lack of body language. The druids escorted their charge to the centre of the seal, and bound him, prone, at its heart. Delbâeth lay unmoving, not even seeming to breathe.

'What are you planning to do?' Taliesin asked, his voice breaking through the chanting.

The noise ceased abruptly. Without moving, not even to look in his direction, the Great One turned her attention onto Taliesin. The weight of her mind – dark, ageless and terrifying, crashed down upon his own, and he sank to his knees, only dimly aware of Vivienne's attempt to support him.

But this was his battle, and his alone.

You dare to interrupt Our design?

'I would prevent you taking the course with every last breath in my body,' Taliesin said through gritted teeth. He fought through the barriers that had held his mind, and won a small measure of freedom. But not enough. 'What you are doing – what you are doing here is not how it is done. '

You know nothing of our plans, and you cannot stop us. You are one man. We are the Great One, and we are many.

'You plan to kill a dragon – a piece of the Universe made manifest – and you think it will pass unnoticed, unremarked? That the Universe will blink and miss it, and move on as if nothing had happened?' Taliesin stood, with Vivienne's help.

It would not be the first time.

He took a deep breath. 'I will make it the last, if you do this thing. One man I may be, but I do not stand alone.'

The dragon is bound, by our minds, and by the power of the Calaitin. He cannot help you.

One of the spiders scurried towards them, chittering. Vivienne, closest to it, ducked away, but too late. It jumped onto her, and she fell backwards, the spider on her stomach, a lethal sting poised to strike.

One more move, two-legs, and your mate dies. A pity, as We wish to examine you both more closely after we are done here.

Taliesin's eyes met Vivienne's: green to hazel. She nodded, once. Underneath the sac-like body of the spider, her hand clutched at air, as her lips mouthed the words to the spell she needed.. Taliesin forced his attention back to the Great Spider. The Calaitin, he noticed in passing, were standing so still, they might have been made of stone.

So too the prone figure of Delbâeth: the dragon was bound tightly by spell and the mental projection of the Great One.

Wasting no further time with speech, Taliesin Sang.

Minstrel, Storyteller, Historian, Advisor. All of this and more was a bard. But above all, and before anything, for the true Bard, there was the Song.

Long ago, Taliesin had won, at dear cost, a portion of the Song of Yggdrasil. Today, he had been gifted with another by Delbâeth. Now, he wove the melodies together, and added the threnody that was uniquely his own, weaving into it his attack, carefully cutting through the mental bonds that held him, and forcing the Great One to face him, mind to mind.

Alone, it would have killed him.

But his Song had other targets. Vivienne completed her spell, and the spider threatening her shrieked once, shrivelled and died, a blade of air driven deep into its belly.

And across the cavern, Delbâeth, the Shape of Fire, began to change.

7.

Forced to concentrate on the Bard, the Great One and her sisters failed to maintain their hold on the Calaitin. Shaking their heads as one, un-noticed by the protagonists, they moved in unison. Thirteen knives flashed in sharp precision, and thirteen of the spiders fell, green-black blood flowing from fatal wounds. One of their number took up the chant again.

The spiders, their minds linked to their leader, could not stop them.

Thirteen knives flashed again, and thirteen of the Brethren stepped back from the bodies of their brothers. Red mingled with black, pooling on the cavern floor. Arms raised, they chanted.

'…biomass to biomass. From beyond the void we call, Accept this, our sacrifice, grant us the gateway we seek.'

Tal staggered, as the Great One's assault on his mind intensified. Beside him, Vivienne stood guard, helpless to aid him in this battle, except by guarding his body.

In the centre of the Great Seal, Delbâeth let the human form flow and dissolve, taking the form instead of wildfire: burning orange, gold, red. Freed at last, his mind joined with Taliesin's, and for a brief moment, the Bard felt the touch of eternity – past, present and future not just one, but Absolute.

The Great One screamed. Only half of her remaining sisters still lived, the weakest having already succumbed to the Song. But the design… the design could still be saved. With one last effort, she focussed her will upon the dragon. Launching her vast bulk across the seal, her oily black mass met the living flame. She severed the tenuous link between Bard and dragon, then used the last of her strength to unravel Delbâeth's being… the complex iterations that defined the dragon.

Only as she felt the dragon cry out as it understood what she had done, did she feel the Other watching, and remember that she had overlooked something.

Betrayal! she shrieked. But there was no-one left who cared. She died with a Calaitin's athame in her thorax, and her blood ran, a steady flow of black, to mingle with her sisters'…

Caught in the backlash from the psychic flare that marked the deaths of both Delbâeth and the Great One, Taliesin tried to fight free. Dimly, he could feel Vivienne, could hear her call his name. Not enough, however, nowhere near enough. He was too deep, to entangled by the battle to sing himself home.

Except that as he struggled, trapped in the Enemy's last web, something cut him free. Falling, drawn back towards the physical world, he felt the dragon's mind brush his for the last time - wildfire, brightly burning.

They go to the Giant's Dance, Harper. Remember that. The Thorn must not return, the Web of Worlds must not fall into their hands. As Merlin sealed the worlds so long ago, so must you ensure the Ways stay closed. Remember, and Sing for me…

And as if snuffed out like a candle flame, Delbâeth was gone.

8.

Vivienne called his name again, her hands buried in the folds of his shirt, but he lay on the floor of the cavern, as still as death. The Calaitin had gone, ignoring her completely, now that their task was done. She laid her head against Taliesin's chest, listening for a heartbeat. Finding none, she couldn't hold back a sob, or the tears that fell, soaking into his shirt.

She pulled back with a scream when a hand tapped her on her shoulder. 'You bastard!' She thumped Tal on the arm as he sat up, wincing.

'You always worry too much, beloved.' He kissed her cheek, then allowed her to help him stand. 'They've left?'

She nodded. 'After you fell, and the dragon vanished, they- '

'They've gone to the Giant's Dance, or so Delbâeth told me.' Taliesin brushed his red hair out of his eyes. 'More legends, more riddles and yet more of Merlin's mess for me to clear up.'

She recognised his anger for the loss it covered. 'There was nothing we could do. Even if we'd known what we would face.'

'Maybe.' He didn't look or sound convinced, and she let the matter drop.

'What now?' she asked, sinking to the floor wearily. 'What happens now?'

He'd opened his mouth to speak as it happened: A clear note rang out, from nowhere and everywhere: it seemed to arise in her heart and yet flood into it from every direction, fill every sense. Taliesin heard it too, she saw, seeing him look around in wonder.

As the mountain rang with the purest threnody, for the space of one heartbeat, the Universe stood still.