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The Last Dark

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The Last Dark

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Author: Stephen R. Donaldson
Publisher: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2013
Series: The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Book 4
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Dark Fantasy
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Compelled step by step to actions whose consequences they could neither see nor prevent, Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery have fought for what they love in the magical reality known only as "the Land." Now they face their final crisis. Reunited after their separate struggles, they discover in each other their true power--and yet they cannot imagine how to stop the Worm of the World's End from unmaking Time. Nevertheless they must resist the ruin of all things, giving their last strength in the service of the world's continuance.



Betimes Some Wonder

Linden Avery's fate may indeed have been written in water. It was certainly writ in tears. They blurred everything; redefined the foundations of her life.

Standing in Muirwin Delenoth, resting place of abhorrence, with Jeremiah clasped in her arms, she felt emotions as extreme as the dismay which had followed Thomas Covenant's resurrection and the rousing of the Worm of the World's End; as paralyzing and uncontainable as the knowledge that she had doomed all of her loves. But there, in Andelain, the scale of her distress had seemed too great to be called despair. Here, in the company of bones and old death, her glad shock at Jeremiah's restoration was too great and complex to be joy.

Stave of the Haruchai stood waiting with his arms folded, impassive as a man who had done nothing, and had never lost a son. Three Ranyhyn waited near him, watching Linden and Jeremiah with glory in their eyes. In the distant west, the sun drifted down shrouded in the hues of ash and dust, casting shadows like innominate auguries from the stone blades and plates which rimmed the hollow. Heaved aside by the deflagration of Jeremiah's construct, the skeletons of quellvisks sprawled against the far slope of Muirwin Delenoth as if they sought to disavow their role in his redemption--or as if they had drawn back in reverence.

Such things were the whole world, and the whole world waited. But Linden took no notice. She was unaware that she had dropped her Staff, or that Covenant's ring still hung on its chain around her neck, holding in its small circle the forged fate of all things. She regarded only Jeremiah, felt only him; knew only that he responded to her embrace. A miracle so vast--

I did it, Mom. For the first time in his life, he had spoken to her. I made a door for my mind, and it opened.

Joy was too small a word for her emotions. Happiness and gratitude and relief and even astonishment were trivial by comparison. A staggering confluence of valor and trust had restored her son. At that moment, she believed that if the Worm came for her now, or She Who Must Not Be Named, or even Lord Foul the Despiser, her only regret would be that she did not get to know who her son had become during his absence.

Somehow he had weathered his excruciating dissociation. In graves he had endured what the Despiser and Roger Covenant and the croyel had done to him.

She was murmuring his name without realizing it, trying to absorb the knowledge of him; trying to imprint his hug and his tangible legacy of Earthpower and his unmistakable awareness onto every neuron of her being. He was her adopted son. Physically she had known every inch of him for most of his life. But she had never met the underlying him until this moment: until he had arisen from his absence and looked at her and spoken.

The way in which she repeated his name was weeping; but that, too, she did not realize. She was no more aware of her tears than she was of Stave and the Ranyhyn and passing time and the ancient ruin of bones. Holding Jeremiah in her arms--and being held by him--was enough.

She had no better name for what she felt than exaltation.

Yet the exaltation was Jeremiah's, not hers. He had become transcendent, numinous: an icon of transfiguration. He seemed to glow with warmth and health in her arms as if he had become the Staff of Law: not her Staff, runed and ebony, transformed to blackness by her sins and failures, but rather the Staff of Law as it should have been, pure and beneficent, the Staff that Berek Halfhand had first created to serve the beauty of the Land.

The gift that Anele had given Jeremiah elevated him in ways that Linden could not define. He had not simply become responsive and aware. He appeared to dismiss the past ten years of his life as if they had no power over him.

Such things could not be dismissed.

"Chosen," Stave said as if he sought to call her back from an abyss. "Linden Avery." An uncharacteristic timbre of pleading or regret ached in his voice. "Will you not harken to me?"

She was not ready to hear him. She did not want to step back from Jeremiah. He vindicated everything that she had done and endured in his name. If she withdrew from exaltation, she would be forced to think--

And every thought led to fear and contradiction; to dilemmas for which she was unprepared. No one could endure what her son had suffered without emotional damage; without scars and scarification. Yet she could not discern damage. In her embrace, he felt more than physically well. He seemed entirely whole, mentally and spiritually intact.

That Linden could not believe. She knew better.

"Mom." Like hers, Jeremiah's voice wept gladly. "Mom, stop crying. You're getting me all wet."

For his sake, she tried.

Long ago under Melenkurion Skyweir, she had forgotten the sensations of being a healer. Although she had cared for her companions in various ways, she had responded to their injuries as if her own actions were those of a stranger. But she had not forgotten what she had learned during her years in Berenford Memorial, tending the wounded souls of the abused and broken.

Training and experience had taught her that an escape from unreactive passivity was a vital step, crucial to everything that it enabled--but it was only the first step. When a crippled spirit found the courage to emerge from its defenses, it then had to face the horrors which had originally driven it into hiding. Otherwise deeper forms of healing could not occur.

She realized now that she was expecting a rush of agony from Jeremiah: the remembered anguish of every cruelty which the Despiser and Roger and the croyel had inflicted. That prospect appalled her.

But when she considered her son clinically, she recognized that the outbreak which she dreaded was unlikely. Immediate firestorms of memory were rare. More commonly, a new form of dissociation intervened to protect the harmed mind while its new awareness was still fragile. Full recall came later--if it came at all. Jeremiah felt whole to her because his worst recollections had not arisen from their graves.

For all she knew, they might remain buried indefinitely.

Why, then, was she afraid? Why did she contemplate anything except her son's restoration? Why could she not be content with miracles, as any other mother might have been?

She could not because Lord Foul's prophecies might still prove true, if the Despiser contrived to recapture Jeremiah--

--or if events triggered more memories than he could withstand.

She had failed to resurrect Covenant without his leprosy. Other restorations might go awry. With or without Lord Foul's connivance, predatory pain lurked inside Jeremiah: she could not believe otherwise. Suffering as calamitous as his possession by the croyel might overtake him without presage.

For that reason, she needed to remain alert in spite of her gladness. But she did not know where to begin trying to identify the truths buried beneath her son's presence.

"Chosen," Stave repeated more sharply. "Linden Avery. I comprehend the force of your son's awakening, and of your reunion with him. Who will do so, if I do not? I, who have lost a son, and may only yearn bootlessly for his return to life? Nevertheless we cannot remain here.

"It appears that the Falls have ceased. Yet should the Unbeliever fail in his quest, they will surely return. And the wider perils of the world will not await the culmination of your release from sorrow. The last crisis of the Earth gathers against us. Also the Ranyhyn are restive. I deem that they are eager to rejoin our companions, and that they discern a need for haste."

Long before Linden was ready to release him, Jeremiah withdrew. For a moment, he gazed at her with gleaming in his eyes like the stars on the foreheads of the Ranyhyn. Then he turned toward Stave.

Linden was too full of other emotions to be surprised when Jeremiah reached out and hugged the Haruchai.

Although Stave did not respond, he suffered the boy's clasp until Jeremiah let him go. But when Jeremiah stepped back, the former Master lifted his eyebrow as if he were mildly perplexed.

"You are much altered," he remarked. "Is your condition such that you are able to remember Galt, who kept the fangs of the croyel from your neck?"

Jeremiah nodded. "I remember. He's your son. He let himself be killed so Anele could get that monster off my back. So Anele could give me all this power."

--the hope of the Land.

Linden watched the boy with a kind of awe. Some part of him must have remained conscious throughout the long years of his dissociation. Other aspects must have been evoked or informed by the croyel's use of him. Otherwise he would not have been able to emerge so swiftly--or to know so much.

"Then," Stave said flatly, "I am content that you are indeed restored."

As if in confirmation, the Ranyhyn tossed their heads, and Hynyn trumpeted an imperious acknowledgment. From among them, Khelen came forward and nudged Jeremiah, apparently urging the boy to mount.

Jeremiah, Linden tried to say; but she had no voice. She did not know where to begin. Too many aspects of her relationship with her son had taken on new meanings.

Briefly the boy stroked the young stallion's muzzle: a small gesture of affection. Then he turned back to his mother.

"Mom." There were tears in his voice again, if not in his eyes. His grin fell away. With his halfhand, he pointed at the bullet hole over her heart. "I'm sorry. I never wanted you to get shot. But I'm glad, too. I needed you so bad--" For a moment, the color of his gaze darkened, hinting at black depths of pain. "I needed you to come after me. I was worse than dead."

His pajamas remained torn and stained. The horses ramping across the tops were almost indecipherable. And Liand's blood still soiled the tattered bottoms, in spite of Linden's efforts to wash them. She could barely remember that the fabric had once been sky-blue. It would never come clean.

But before she could reply, Jeremiah shook his head hard; blinked until his expression cleared. Gesturing around him, he snorted, "Quellvisks. They were good for something after all."

Something which Lord Foul had not foreseen. In a sense, the boy had reincarnated himself from the old bones of monsters.

Oh, my son. Linden needed to stop weeping. Really, she could not go on like this. When Stave said her name again, his tone had become more peremptory. And he was right. They could not linger here without food or water or their companions. The wonder of her son's emergence from his portal was a small detail compared to the threat of the Worm. The world's end would not pause for any instance of mere human exaltation and relief.

"Say something, Mom," Jeremiah prodded. His tone suggested a teenager's impatience. "Say anything. Tell me you heard Stave. He's right, we need to go." His next thought made him grin again. "And I want to see the Giants' faces when they see me. They are not going to believe it."

Linden tried to refuse. She wanted nothing except to concentrate on her son. Her thirst for the sound of his voice was acute. There was so much that she yearned to know about him. About what he had endured--and how he had endured it. It did not matter where she began, as long as she could search for the truth.

I never wanted you to get shot.

But there was something else--Something in Stave's tone nagged at the edges of her health-sense.

She absolutely had to stop crying.

When she rubbed at her eyes, the emptiness of her hands reminded her that she no longer held the Staff of Law.

She felt strangely reluctant to retrieve it. It represented responsibilities which were too great for her. Nevertheless she was capable now of many things that would have surpassed her less than an hour ago. She was still the same Linden Avery who had raged and failed and despaired; yet somehow she had also been made new. And watching over Jeremiah was a task to which she could commit herself without hesitation.

To meet that challenge, she might well need every conceivable resource.

Unsteadily she stooped to reclaim her Staff.

As her fingers closed on the engraved blackness of the wood, another faint pang touched her nerves: an evanescent breath of approaching wrongness. Frowning, she raised her head to scent the air, extend her health-sense.

The atmosphere had a brittle taste, as if it were compounded of a substance that might shatter. She knew that the season was spring; but that fact seemed to have no meaning on the Lower Land. Hideous theurgies and slaughter had made a wasteland of the entire region. Muirwin Delenoth was as desiccated as its bones: it had been shaped by death.

"Mom?" Jeremiah asked; but still she did not speak.

Drawing warmth and sensitivity from her Staff, Linden considered the slopes of the hollow, the ragged plates around the rim. Then she lifted her attention to the declining sun and the tainted hue of the sky. The pall of ash and dust overhead was wrong in its own fashion: it was unnatural, imposed by some force beyond the reach of her senses. But it was not malice; not evil or deliberate. The almost imperceptible frisson of wrongness rose from some other source.

"Stave--?" She had to swallow hard to clear her throat. "Do you feel it?"

The former Master's silence was answer enough.

Slowly she turned in a circle, pushing her percipience to its limits. She expected the disturbance to come from the vicinity of Foul's Creche; from Covenant's search for Joan. But she felt nothing there. When she faced northwest, however, she found what she sought.

It was faint, almost too subtle to be discerned. Yet it was thin with distance, not weakness. The fact that she could detect it at all across so many leagues bespoke tremendous power. As soon as she tuned her nerves to the pitch of this specific malevolence--and to the direction from which it spread--she knew what it was.

It was Kevin's Dirt, and it came from Mount Thunder.

For the first time, Kastenessen was extending his bale over the Lower Land.

Repeatedly he had tried to prevent Jeremiah's rescue from the croyel. Now he was sending the fug of Kevin's Dirt to hamper Linden and the Staff of Law. When it spread far enough, his theurgy would numb her senses, and Mahrtiir's, and perhaps Jeremiah's. And it would aggravate Covenant's leprosy. If Joan did not kill him first. With forces drawn from She Who Must Not Be Named, the mad Elohim strove to ensure that Linden and her companions would not survive.

A shudder like a chill ran through her. Her fingers clenched the Staff until her knuckles ached. Reflexively she confirmed that she still had Covenant's ring. An old comfort, it had steadied her for years, until he had refused her.

--the last crisis of the Earth.

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen R. Donaldson


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