Niethi was finally free on the evening of the fifteenth day, and when the lagoon was clear of people and equipment the Great Powers carried the Crystal away – whether to its original home or another suitable world Bru wasn’t sure. But when everyone had been Turned to the Halls of Healing in the capital, the cavern, no longer supported by the living Crystal, fell in on itself, and over the following months the stream found a new bed down into the lake.
Niethi survived the Turn, and to all intents and purposes he was well, better indeed than the Weronti because he’d been in the lagoon a much shorter time. However, he was slow to pick up in the next two days, and Thera wasn’t entirely happy with him. He slept a lot, and seemed lost and distracted when he was awake.
The rest of the helpers were Turned back to Myldora, and for a week Bru, Poeli, Ielen and Thera remained waiting for Niethi to be well enough to Turn home. By the week’s end he was up on his feet, eating more, and insisting he was fit to travel, so Thera agreed, the arrangements were made, and their farewells said to Galbon and the healers, the king and his councillors.
‘We shall praise and honour the Powers,’ the king promised, ‘and not forget your courage and determination to help us.’
They went out to the king’s park and Bru made ready to Turn them home. But just as they were about to clasp hands, a man came hurrying out of the gates and called for them to wait. It was the first of the rescued men who wanted to thank them all personally. One by one he reverenced them, lifting their hands to his forehead. Coming to Niethi he bowed saying, ‘Companion in suffering, may you be blessed in your freedom,’ then he took Niethi’s hands in his and lifted them to his brow, before laying a hand on his heart. A second later, to everyone’s astonishment, he stepped away from him, terror written plain across his face.
‘He’s not free!’ he yelled, ‘He’s not clean! Don’t take him to your world, kill him here and now!’ and before anyone could move he’d pulled out his knife, spun Niethi round by one arm and cut his throat.
The Guards from the gatehouse who’d been watching, came running, and in a minute he was bound and being led away, while the Myldorans knelt around their friend, distraught and grief stricken. However when Bru would have pulled Niethi into his arms, Ielen stopped him.
‘Wait, Bru. I know what you want to do, but we must be careful.’
The healers and their servants appeared with a stretcher, and with the utmost care Niethi’s body was placed on it and taken to the rooms of the dead, where the king arrived, appalled at what had occurred, and promising the assailant would be executed.
‘Not yet, sire,’ said Thera. ‘Allow me to check his claim first, if I may.’
‘What claim? What do you mean? He killed your friend!’
‘No, if he’s right, he killed the Crystal. And if you’ll let me I shall prove it.’
Silence filled the room as one by one each person there realised what Thera meant. With obvious reluctance the king agreed that the claim must be checked. ‘Do you need help?’ he asked.
‘Not help, but I need witnesses. Let those who are most closely involved, if they can, stay and witness to the truth or falsehood of your man’s claim.’
They all stayed, and watched in horrified fascination as Thera carefully followed the track of each incision in Niethi’s chest until, inserted into the muscle at the back of the heart, he found a sliver of the Crystal. He picked it out with his instrument, and held it up for them to see. Then he dropped it into a dish where it lay a deadly but dead, dull grey.
‘It’s as dead as my friend is. But you must release his killer, for he’s saved Myldora from an unimaginable evil.’
The king gave the order, and the man was let go and even thanked for what he’d done, but it was the necessity of that final act, not the twelve years of being held by the Crystal which broke him, and for the rest of his life, week by week he was found kneeling in prayer by the memorial the king had erected to the men of Myldora who’d removed their country’s fear.
While Niethi’s body was made fit and fair to see, and, placed in the finest coffin the city could provide, Bru and Ielen Turned to Myldora to prepare their friends, and when he was re-Turned the Constellation and all his friends and family mourned him, the Elders honoured him, and his name was added to the list of the Most Honoured Grand Masters.
‘We couldn’t have known,’ Poeli said. ‘There was no way to tell.’
‘No there wasn’t,’ Ielen agreed, ‘but I’m not sure I’ll ever convince myself of that. Something will go on insisting I should have Heard the Crystal in him. Just as you’ll go on wondering whether, if you’d moved faster you could have prevented his death; and Thera’ll wonder if he could have found that sliver without killing him. But we must let those questions rest in the Grace, and I pray the Powers have removed the Crystal to a place where it can do no further harm.’
‘They have, Ielen,’ Bru said. ‘They’ve assured me of that. And that Niethi’s in their care; so although I’ll spend the rest of my life regretting that I let him go with us, and although we will all grieve for our loss, we can also give thanks for the life of Niethimo Ystureon, whose spirit is now singing the Endless Song in the Light of the Great Powers.’