Experience New York Times bestselling author Richard A. Knaak’s classic Dragonrealm series in this exciting omnibus—three unforgettable tales, plus an original bonus novella in print for the first time ever!
Betrothed to the disfigured King Melicard of Talak, Princess Erini begins to fear her burgeoning magical powers. She soon discovers that an obsessive vendetta has led the king to cast a sinister spell that conjures the shadow creature Darkhorse . . . and worse, the mad sorcerer Shade.
THE SHROUDED REALM
Long before the Dragonrealm, a race of master wizards ruled Nimth with little regard for the laws of nature. Forced into desperate escape to a mysterious world, the Vraad soon discover their new home is unyielding. Only Dru Zeree, with the aid of the shadowy creature who will become Darkhorse, may be able to save them.
CHILDREN OF THE DRAKE
Bitterness between factions is tarnishing the Vraad’s new home. As Lord Barakas attempts to rule all, the wizard Dru Zeree’s daughter discovers their adopted world has another plan. Worse, her only hope is himself transforming into the enigma that will someday call itself Shade.
Morgis, son of the Blue Dragon and comrade-in-arms to the legendary Gryphon, has lingered in the land of the Wolf Raiders to help fight the remnants of the dark empire. However, with the Aramites’ fall from power, he is about to discover that other ancient, dread forces have risen again.
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.90(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Legends of the Dragonrealm, Vol. II INTRODUCTION
WHEN SIMON & Schuster published the first three novels of the Dragonrealm series as the trade omnibus Legends of the Dragonrealm, I naturally hoped there would be enough interest from the readers for a second volume. Little could I imagine how much interest! The first volume quickly went into a second, third, then fourth printing. People began contacting me on my website looking for information on the stories that followed and asking if they would be included in another collection.
I’m happy the wait was not a long one. It’s been a tremendous pleasure to return to these stories and visit again with some of my favorite creations: Cabe Bedlam, the heir to a legacy of magic with both its bright and dark sides; Gwen, the Lady of the Amber and Cabe’s wife; Gryphon, part man, part avian, part leonine; and the unique figures of Darkhorse and Shade.
It’s Darkhorse and Shade who truly bind the stories in this omnibus together. Not only because they are present throughout but because of what we learn about two of the most powerful—not to mention nigh immortal—beings in all the Dragonrealm.
Those awaiting their return after their abrupt departure in Firedrake should enjoy their equally abrupt return in Shadow Steed. However, this is no happy homecoming. Not only does the shadowy stallion become embroiled in the machinations of a bitter king but he must also deal with Shade, whose personality has become more erratic than ever. Add to this the plotting of a Dragon King and the inner struggle of a princess who may be Darkhorse’s only hope and we have quite a story, indeed.
The next two tales take a very different turn from those presented before. In the world’s distant past—and, in fact, beginning beyond that world in The Shrouded Realm, we meet the progenitors of the humans living in the Dragonrealm, the powerful Vraad. However, the Vraad suffer a great hubris that is about to meet with a new reality. Their legacy will touch the future of the Dragonrealm in more ways than one, especially the choices of Dru Zeree and the unfortunate Gerrod Tezerenee.
And then there’s what Dru discovers in the empty realm beyond his world and the Dragonrealm…
And in Children of the Drake, we discover the ultimate truth behind the rise of the Dragon Kings and how the world of the Dragonrealm has, in many ways, come full circle.
Also included in this volume is the novella Skins, previously available only as an eBook. Fans of Wolfhelm will recognize its protagonist, Morgis, son of the Blue Dragon. I had always wanted to return to this character and give some hint of what happened after the novel, and now I’m very happy to share it with readers as a bonus tale!
Lest the reader think these stories merely background, be assured that what happens affects this world long, long after in Cabe’s time. I hope to return again to write about those stories.…
Welcome back to the Dragonrealm!
Richard A. Knaak
Legends of the Dragonrealm, Vol. II
YOU WILL RAISE me a demon.
The words were seared into Drayfitt’s mind. The chilling visage of his monarch haunted him still. There had never been any doubt that the king had been serious. He was a humorless, bitter man who had, over the last nine years since his horrible disfigurement, become everything that he had at one time despised. The palace reflected that change; where once it had been a bright, proud structure, it was now a dark, seemingly unoccupied shell.
Yet, this was Drayfitt’s ruler, the man who represented what he had sworn his loyalty to more than a century before. Thus, the gaunt, elderly man had simply bowed and said, “Yes, King Melicard.”
Ahh, Ishmir, Ishmir, he brooded. Why could you not have waited until my training was complete before you flew off to die with the other Dragon Masters? Better yet, why did you have to train me at all?
The chamber he occupied was one of the deepest beneath the palace and the only one suited to the task at hand. The seal on the door had been that of Rennek II, Melicard’s great-great-grandfather and a man known for dark tastes. The chamber had been cleaned so that Drayfitt could make his marks, etch the lines of the barrier into the floor. The cage, a thing of enchantment, not iron, filled much of the room. He was uncertain as to what dimensions a demon might possess, and much of what he did was guesswork, even with the aid of the book Quorin had located for the king. Still, Drayfitt had not outlived most of his contemporaries by leaping blindly into things.
The room was dark, save for a single torch and two dim candles, the latter necessary for reading the pages of the tome. The flickering torch raised demons of its own, dancing shadows that celebrated the coming spell with gleeful movements. Drayfitt would have preferred the place brilliantly lit, if only for his own nerves, but Melicard had decided to watch, and darkness preceded and followed the king wherever he stalked. Shifting, the ancient sorcerer could feel the strength of Melicard’s presence behind him. His lord and master was obsessed—obsessed with the destruction of the Dragon Kings and their ilk.
“How much longer?” Melicard’s voice throbbed with anticipation, like a child about to receive a favorite candy.
Drayfitt glanced up. He did not turn to his ruler, but rather studied the design in the floor. “I am ready to begin, your majesty.”
The voice of Quorin, the king’s counselor, abruptly cut through the sorcerer’s thoughts like a well-honed knife. Mal Quorin was the closest thing Talak had to a prime minister since the demise of old Hazar Aran, the last man to hold the position, two years ago. The king had never replaced him, though Quorin did nearly everything the prime minister was supposed to do. Drayfitt hated the counselor; it was the short, catlike man who had first reported to Melicard that there was a spellcaster in the city—and one sworn to the king. If there was any justice, any demon he succeeded in summoning up would demand the counselor as a sacrifice—if a demon could stomach such a foul morsel.
“One was beginning to wonder, Drayfitt, if your heart was in this. Your loyalty has been… cool.”
“If you would like to take my place, Counselor Quorin, I will be happy to let you. I certainly would not want to stand in the way of someone obviously more well-versed in sorcery than myself.”
Quorin would have replied, always seeking the last word, but Melicard cut him off. “Leave Drayfitt to his task. Successful results are all that matter.”
The king supported Drayfitt—for now. The old man wondered how long that support would last if he failed to produce the creature his liege desired. He would be lucky to keep his head much less his quiet, simple position as Master of Appointments. Now, the latter was probably lost to Drayfitt, success or not; why waste a man of his power on a minor political post even if it was all Drayfitt had ever wanted?
Enough dreaming of things lost! he reprimanded himself. The time had come to summon the demon, if only to tweak the well-groomed mustache of Quorin.
Neither the king nor his counselor understood how simple the summoning itself actually was. There had been times when he had been tempted to tell them, to see the disbelief on their faces, but his brother had at least taught him that the secrets of sorcery were the most precious things a mage owned. To maintain his position and to counterbalance those like Quorin, Drayfitt had to build himself up as much as possible. It would have been laughable if it had not been so tragic. There was a chance that success might get them all killed. The barrier might not hold whatever it was, if anything, he summoned.
Raising one hand in a theatrical manner he had practiced long and hard to perfect, Drayfitt touched the fields of power with his mind’s eye.
The summoning was simplicity itself; surviving the encounter with whatever happened to be snared was another matter.
“Drazeree’s ghost!” Quorin blurted in growing fear.
Drayfitt would have smiled, had he heard the outburst, but his mind was on the link he had created. There was only the link—no chamber, no king, not even his own body. He was invisible—no—formless. It was an experience that he had never before achieved and the wonder of it almost proved fatal, for in maintaining his link with the spell, he nearly broke the one binding him to his mortal form. When the sorcerer realized his error, he immediately corrected it. A lesson learned, Drayfitt realized… almost too late.
Before him, the stream of light that was the mental representation of his bond disappeared into a gleaming tear in reality. He knew that the tear was visible to the king and Counselor Quorin, a sign of success for them to mull over while he moved up. If failure greeted him at any point onward, he hoped that Melicard would realize that he had tried his best, that he had proved his loyalty.
A cold presence with a feel of great age grazed the outer boundaries of his seeking mind. Ancient was not a satisfactory description for such a creature. A desire to abandon the summoning washed over Drayfitt, but he fought it, understanding that it was a ploy by the creature he had snared. The analogy of a fisherman who has caught the grandfather of all sea monsters did not escape him. What he had snared was powerful—and very reluctant to the notion of being forcibly brought to Drayfitt’s world. It was ready to fight him with all weapons available to it.
Some would have fought the demon here, in this place with no name, but Drayfitt knew that he could only bind his catch if he battled it from the physical as well as the spiritual planes. The earth, whose existence was interwoven with both the fields of power and his own life, was his anchor.
As he retreated toward his body, the sorcerer was amazed at the ease with which he drew the demon after him. The struggle was far less than he expected, almost as if the demon had some strong bond of its own with his world, a bond it could not deny. That a thing spawned out there could have any tie with the mortal plane disturbed him. The thought of a trap occurred to him, but it was a brief notion. Such a trap was too daring; the closer they moved back to Drayfitt’s domain, the more difficult it would be for the demon to free itself.
The sorcerer felt the creature’s growing frustration. It was fighting him—constantly—but like someone forced to do battle on a number of fronts. Had they met on equal terms, both with their respective abilities intact, the elderly sorcerer knew that he would have been no more than a breath to his adversary. Here, the battle was in Drayfitt’s favor.
The return seemed endless, far longer than when he had departed his body. As he finally neared his goal, he was struck by a great wave of panic emanating from the demon. The link stretched as he had not known it could and, for a moment, it felt as if part of the demon had broken away.
Nonetheless, his prey was with him. Body and mind began to meld. Other things—sounds, pressures, odors—demanded a measure of his attention.
“He’s stirring again!”
“You see, Quorin? I told you he had not failed. Drayfitt is loyal to me.”
“Forgive me, my liege. Three hours we’ve stood here, waiting. You said he’d dare not die and, as usual, you were correct.”
The voices echoed from a vast distance, as if the spellcaster were hearing them through a long, hollow tube… yet, both men surely stood nearby. Drayfitt allowed his senses time to recover and then, still facing the magical cage he had created, opened his eyes.
At first glance he was disappointed. The rip in the middle of empty space still remained and nothing stood within the confines of the barrier. Around him, the shadows still danced merrily, among them the two distended forms of his companions. The shadows of the king and the counselor loomed over his head while his own seemed to crawl across the floor and up a good piece of the far wall. Most of the pattern that he had drawn on the floor was smothered in darkness as well.
“Well?” Quorin asked testily.
The link still remained, but it no longer extended beyond the tear, instead twisting uselessly back into the shadowy regions within the boundaries of the magical cage. The rip was already closing. Drayfitt, confused, stared at the empty scene for several seconds. He had succeeded—at least all indications pointed to that. Why, then, did he have nothing to show for his efforts?
It was then he noticed the difference between the flickering dancers on the walls and the stillness of the inky darkness within the barrier. The shadows did not move when they should and even appeared to have depth. Drayfitt had the unnerving sensation that to stare too long was to fall into those shadows—and never stop falling.
“Drayfitt?” The king’s confidence was turning to uncertainty tinged with burgeoning anger. He had not yet noticed the difference in the shadows.
The gaunt sorcerer slowly rose, a wave of his hand indicating that silence was needed. With one negligible thought, he broke the link. If he was mistaken and there was no demon, Melicard would soon have his hide.
Stepping nearer—though not so near that he was in danger of accidently crossing the barrier—Drayfitt examined the magical cage with a thoroughness that left the king and counselor fidgeting. When Drayfitt saw the shadows twist away, he knew he had succeeded.
There was something in his trap.
“Do not try to play me for a fool,” he whispered defiantly. “I know you are there. Show yourself—but beware of trying any tricks! This cage has surprises designed just for your kind, demon!”
“What’s that you’re doing?” Quorin demanded, starting to step forward. It was clear he still assumed that Drayfitt had failed and that the sorcerer was now stalling in the hopes of saving his neck.
“Stay where you are!” Drayfitt commanded without looking.
The counselor froze, stunned by the sheer intensity of the spellcaster’s tone.
Turning his attention back to the barrier, the elderly man repeated his earlier command, this time for the other two to hear. “I said show yourself! You will obey!”
He waved a hand in the air, using it to guide the lines of power to the results he wanted. He was not disappointed.
It howled! The noise was so horrifying that Drayfitt’s concentration all but broke. Behind him, Quorin swore and stumbled back. Whether Melicard was also shaken, the sorcerer could not say. Even the king had his limits. As the ringing in his ears died down, Drayfitt wondered if everyone in the palace—everyone in Talak—had heard the demon’s howl of pain. He almost regretted what he had done… but he had to show the creature who was master. So it had always been written.
At first, he did not notice the darkness draw inward, thicken even, if such a thing was possible. Only when the first limbs became recognizable—and then the fact that there were four of them, all legs—did he fully appreciate his success. The demon had finally, completely, bowed to his will.
The three men stood mesmerized by the transformation occurring before them. Forgetting their uncertainty, the king and counselor joined Drayfitt near the outer edge of the barrier and watched as a trunk joined the legs, and a long, thick neck stretched forth from one end, while a sleek, black tail sprouted from the other.
A steed! Some sort of ghostly steed! The head coalesced into a distinct shape, and Drayfitt amended his opinion. It was more like the shadow of some great horse. The body and limbs were distended, changing as the demon moved, and the torso… The spellcaster again had the uneasy feeling that if he stared too long he would fall into the demon and keep falling forever and ever. Anxious to rid himself of the idea, he turned his head, only to find the face of the king.
Unaware of the sorcerer’s nervous gaze, the disfigured king giggled at the sight of his new prize. “You have done me a wondrous service, Drayfitt! This is all I asked for and more! I have my demon!”
With a smooth, swift motion, the huge head of the dark steed turned to face the trio. For the first time, the ice-blue eyes became noticeable. Drayfitt returned his gaze to his prisoner. He shivered, but not nearly so much as he did when the demon arrogantly shouted, “You mortal fools! You children! How dare you pull me back into this world! Don’t you realize the havoc you’ve brought forth?”
Drayfitt heard a sharp intake of breath from beside him and knew immediately that Melicard was mere moments from one of his fits of rage. Not wanting the king to do something foolish—something that might release the demon in the process—the spellcaster shouted back, “Silence, monster! You have no rights here! By the spells I have performed, you are my servant and will do my bidding!”
The black horse roared with mocking laughter. “I am not quite the demon you originally sought, little mortal! I am more and I am less! You caught me because my link to this world is stronger than that of any creature of the Void!” The steed’s head pressed against the unseen walls of his cage, eyes seeking to burn through Drayfitt’s own. “I am the one called Darkhorse, mage! Think hard, for it is a name you surely must know!”
“What is he talking about?” Quorin dared to mutter. He had one hand pressed against his chest, as if his heart were seeking escape.
In the dim torchlight, neither of his companions could see Drayfitt’s face grow ash white. He knew of Darkhorse and suspected the king did as well. There were legends, some only a decade old, about the demon steed, a creature whose former companions included the warlock Cabe Bedlam, the legendary Gryphon, and, most frightening of all, the enigmatic, cursed immortal who called himself Shade.
“Darkhorse!” the sorcerer finally succeeded in uttering, as a whisper.
Darkhorse reared high, seemingly ready to burst through the ceiling. In a mixture of regret and anger, the demon steed retorted, “Aye! Darkhorse! Exiled by choice to the Void in the hopes of saving this mortal plane from the horror of a friend who is also my worst enemy! This world’s worst nightmare!”
“Silence him, Drayfitt! I want no more of this babbling!” Melicard’s voice had a dangerous edge to it that the spellcaster had come to recognize. He feared it almost as much as he feared what now struggled within the barrier.
“Babbling? If only it were so!” Darkhorse shifted so that it was now the king who faced his inhuman glare. “Don’t you listen? Can’t you understand? In summoning me back, you’ve pulled him along, for I was his prison! Now he roams free to do whatever ill he so desires!”
“Who?” Drayfitt dared to ask, despite the growing rage of his liege at the lack of obedience. “Who is it that I have accidently released?” It was the thing he had feared all during the preparations, that he would accidently loose some demon on the Dragonrealm.
Darkhorse turned his massive head back to the sorcerer and, oddly, there was a sadness inherent in both the chilling eyes and the unholy stentorian voice. “The most tragic being I have ever known! A friend who would give his life and a friend who would take yours without a second’s care! A demon and a hero, yet both are the same man!” The spectral horse hesitated and quietly concluded, “The warlock Shade!”
SO DIFFERENT FROM Gordag-Ai. So big!
Erini Suun-Ai peered through the curtain of her coach window, ignoring the worried looks of her two ladies-in-waiting. A light wind sent her long, blond tresses fluttering. The breeze was pleasantly cool against her pale, soft skin and she leaned into it, directing the delicate, perfect features of her oval face so that the wind stroked every inch. Her dress, wide, colorful, and flowing, made it impossible to sit directly next to the window, and Erini would have preferred to take it off, hating it the way it ballooned her slim figure.
Her ladies-in-waiting whispered to one another, making disparaging remarks. They did not care to see their new home, the huge, overwhelming city-state of Talak. Only duty to their mistress made them come. A princess, especially one destined to be a queen, did not travel alone. The driver and the cavalry unit escorting her did not count; they were men. A woman of substance travelled with companions or, at the very least, servants. Such was the way of things in Gordag-Ai, in the lands once ruled by the Bronze Dragon.
Erini’s mind was unconcerned with things of her former homeland. Talak, with its massive ziggurats and countless proud banners flying in the wind, was her new home, her kingdom. Here, after a suitable courtship, she would marry King Melicard I and assume her duties as wife and co-monarch. The future held infinite possibilities and Erini wondered which ones awaited her. Not all of them would be pleasant.
The coach hit a bump, sending the princess back against her seat, her companions squealing with ladylike distaste at the rough road. Erini grimaced at their actions. They represented her father, who had made the marriage pact with the late, unfortunate King Rennek IV almost eighteen years ago. Melicard had been a young boy just growing into manhood and she a newborn babe. Erini had met Melicard only once, when she had been perhaps five, so she doubted his impression of her had been very favorable.
What made all three of them nervous were the rumors that floated about the Dragonrealm as to the nature of Melicard. There were those who called him a fanatical tyrant, though none of his own people ever talked that way. There were rumors that he trafficked with necromancers, and that he was a cold, lifeless master. Most widespread of all were the horrible tales of his appearance.
“He has only one true arm,” Galea, the stouter of the two companions, had whispered at one point. “They say that he cut it off himself, so as to wear that elfwood one he now sports.”
“He has a lust for the worst aspects of sorcery,” Magda, plain but domineering, uttered sagely at another time. “A demon it was that is said to have stolen his face so that the king must always hide in shadow!”
After such horrible statements as these, the two ladies would eye one another with their perfectly matching Poor Princess Erini! expressions. At times, they somehow succeeded in looking like twins.
The princess did not know how to take the rumors. She knew it was true that Melicard sported an arm carved of rare elfwood, a magical wood, but not why. Erini also knew that Melicard had suffered some catastrophe almost a decade before that had left him bereft of that original arm and disfigured as well. Even magical healing had its limits at times, and something involved with the incident made it impossible to repair the damage to any great extent. Erini knew she was marrying a crippled and possibly horrifying man, but her brief memories of gazing up fondly at the tall, handsome boy had combined with her sense of duty to her parents to form a determination matched by few.
That did not mean she did not wonder—and worry.
Returning her gaze to the spectacle outside, she studied the great walls. They were gigantic, though the arrogant ziggurats within thrust higher. Against any normal invader, these walls would be unbreachable. Talak, however, had always been in the shadow of the Tyber Mountains, lair of the true master of the city, the late and unlamented Gold Dragon, Emperor of the Dragon Kings. Drakes had little problem with walls, whether in their birthforms or the humanoid ones they wore more often.
Things have altered so much. She had, as a child, understood that, as queen, she would rule beside Melicard but that, at any time, the Gold Dragon might come and make demands of the city. Now, the Dragon Kings were in a disarray; with no heir to take the place of the Dragon Emperor—though there were rumors about something in the Dagora Forest far to the south—Talak was, for the first time, independent.
An army of majestic trumpets sounded, giving Erini a start. The coach made no move to slow, which meant the gates had been opened and they would proceed straight through. The sides of the road began to fill with the locals, the farmers and villagers, some clad in their holiday best, others looking as if they had just come from the fields. They were cheering, but she expected that. Melicard’s advisors would have arranged such a showing. Yet, Erini was somewhat skilled at reading faces and emotions, and in the dirty, worn features of the people cheering her she did see honest hope, honest acceptance. They wanted a queen, welcomed the change.
The rumors about Melicard whispered mockingly in the back of her mind. She forced herself to ignore them and waved to the people.
At that moment, the coach passed through the gates of Talak and the rumors were once again buried as Erini devoured the wonders of the inner city with her eyes.
This was the market district. Bright, clashing tents and wagons competed with decorated buildings, many of them tiny, multileveled ziggurats, exact copies of the titans looming over all else. The more permanent structures appeared to be inns and taverns, a cunning move to snare the unwary traveler who might, merely because it was so convenient, end up buying a few extra things from the bazaar. Even more banners flew within the walls, most bearing the patriotic symbol of Talak these past nine years: a sword crossing a stylized drake head. Melicard’s warning to the remaining drake clans, including the Silver Dragon’s, to whose domain the city was now geographically annexed.
Galea and Madga were oohing and aahing over everything, having finally given in to growing curiosity and forgetting that they did not want to be here. Erini smiled slightly at that and returned her attention to her new kingdom.
Clothing styles differed little here, she noted abstractly, though they tended to be even brighter, yet more comfortable in appearance than the bedsheet she was wearing. There was also a propensity toward military uniforms, a confirmation of one rumor that Melicard was still expanding his army. A troop of footsoldiers saluted smartly as she passed, as alike as a row of eggs—with shells of iron. The precision pleased her, though she hoped that there would be no need for all this training. The best armies are those that never have to fight, her father had once said.
The coach continued on its way through the city. The market district gave way to more stately structures, obviously the homes of an upper class, either merchants or low-level functionaries. There was a market here as well, but this district was subdued in comparison to that of the more common folk. Erini found this section pleasant to view, but rather lacking in true life. Here, the shadowy masks of politics were first worn. She knew that from this point on reality would be slightly askew. Without hardly being aware of it, her posture stiffened and her smile grew empty. It was time to play the part she had been trained for, even though she had not yet met her betrothed. For the lowest courtiers on up, the princess had to wear a mask of strength. Their loyalty to her depended on their belief in her power.
Power. Her fingers twitched, but she forced them still. In the excitement and then the uneasiness of finally arriving in Talak, she had almost dropped her guard. Erini glanced at her ladies. Magda and Galea were staring at the palace, awed by what was the greatest edifice in the city, and had not noticed the involuntary movements. The princess took a deep breath and tried to steady herself. She dared not trust them with her problem.
What would she do about Melicard, though?
By the time the coach reached the outskirts of the royal palace, she felt she was ready. The turbulence of her tired mind had been forced down again. Now, her only concern was making the proper impression when Melicard came to meet her at the bottom of the palace steps, as was custom.
“Don’t these people know anything about protocol?” Magda sniffed imperiously. “The royal steps are all but bare of the members of the court. The entire aristocracy should be here to meet their new queen.”
Erini, who had been straightening her clothing out of nervousness, looked up. Pulling aside the curtain of her window, the princess saw what, in her anxiety, she had not noticed before. It was true; there were no more than a handful of people awaiting her arrival and even at a distance the princess could see that none of them matched Melicard’s description in the slightest.
The coachman reined the horses to a halt, and one of Erini’s footmen jumped down and opened the door for her. As the princess descended, she caught sight of a short, graceful man with odd eyes and stylish mustache who reminded her of nothing less than a pet panther her mother had once bought from a merchant of Zuu. Erini felt an almost instant dislike for the newcomer despite the toothy smile he gave her. This could only be Melicard’s counselor, Mal Quorin, a man obviously ambitious. What was he doing here instead of Melicard?
“Your majesty.” Quorin took the tiny hand that the princess forced herself to thrust out and kissed it in a manner that suggested he was tasting her as a predator might taste its prey before devouring it.
She gave him her most courteous smile and withdrew her hand as soon as he released it. You will not make a puppet out of me, grimalkin. His nostrils flared momentarily, but he remained outwardly pleasant.
“Is my Melicard ill? I had hoped he would be here to greet me.” She fought hard to keep emotion of any sort out of her words.
Quorin straightened his jacket. His pompous, gray military outfit made him look like a parody of some great general and Erini hoped he was not actually commander of the king’s armies. “His majesty begs your forgiveness, princess, and asks that you indulge him in this. I trust you were informed as to his appearance.”
“Surely my betrothed would not hide from me?”
The counselor gave her the ghost of a smile. “Until word arrived that you had reached the age of consent set down by your father, Melicard had completely forgotten about the pact. Please don’t take it as any offense, lady, but you will find he is still trying to cope with it. His physical… detriments… only add to the difficulty. He tries to see as few people as possible, you understand.”
“I understand far better than you think, counselor. You will take me to King Melicard now. I will not shun him because of his past misfortune. We have been paired almost since my birth; his life, his existence, is my tantamount concern.”
Quorin bowed. “Then, if you will follow me, I will escort you to him. The two of you will have a private audience… fitting, I should think, for the beginning of your courtship.”
Erini noted the hint of sarcasm but said nothing. Mal Quorin summoned an aide who was to assist the princess’s people with settling down. Her ladies-in-waiting prepared to follow her but she ordered them to go with the others.
“This is not proper,” Magda intoned. “One of us should be with you.”
“I think I will be safe in the palace of my husband-to-be, Magda.” Erini gave the counselor a pointed glance. “Especially with Counselor Quorin as company.”
“Your parents ordered—”
“Their authority ended when we entered Talak. Captain!” The cavalry officer rode up to her and saluted. She could not recall his name, but knew he was inherently obedient to her from past experience. “Please help escort my companions to our rooms. I will also want to see you before you return to Gordag-Ai.”
The captain, a thin, middle-aged man with narrow eyes and a hungry look, cleared his throat. “Yes… your highness.”
Erini pondered briefly his hesitation but knew now was not the time to ask about it. She turned back to Quorin, who was waiting with slight impatience. “Lead on.”
Offering his hand, the counselor led her up the long set of steps into the towering palace. As they walked, Quorin pointed out this object and that, relating their histories like a hired tour guide to Erini, who pretended to listen for the sake of appearance. Several aides and minor functionaries fell in behind them, as did a silent honor guard. All very out of place, but the princess had been warned that things had taken a strange turn in the years of Melicard’s rule. So far, only Mal Quorin and the king’s absence disturbed her.
The palace was spacious to say the least, but much of it had an unused look, as if only a few people actually lived or worked within its walls. It was true that Melicard was the last of his line now, but most rulers still surrounded themselves with a gaggle of fawning courtiers and endless numbers of servants. Melicard, it seemed, maintained only what was necessary.
Has he secluded himself that much? the princess worried. His state of mind concerned her far more than whatever scars he bore physically. On that rested the fate of his kingdom.
Counselor Quorin was studying her curiously and Erini realized they had finally come to a stop at a massive set of doors. Two fearsome guards, hooded, kept a grim watch, armed with axes that stood taller than she did. Erini wondered if they were human.
“I shall be leaving you alone now, Princess Erini. I’m certain you and the king will want your privacy.”
She almost wanted him to stay. Now that the princess stood within mere seconds of meeting her betrothed, the potential ramifications of her reaction to Melicard’s features struck her dumb. Would hate or pity be the only bond tying the two of them together? She prayed it would not be, yet…
Quorin snapped his fingers. The two gargantuan sentinels stepped aside and the massive doors slowly swung inward. Within the chamber was only darkness. Not even a single candle glimmered in invitation.
The counselor turned back to her and his catlike face wore a matching feline smile. “He awaits within, your majesty. You have only to enter.”
Those words, coming from him, strengthened Erini as nothing else could have. With a regal nod of her head to Counselor Quorin and the two guards, she walked calmly into the pitch-black room.
Her eyes sought vainly to compensate for the utter lack of light, as the doors slowly closed behind her. Erini fought hard not to turn back to the comfort of the light. She was a princess of Gordag-Ai and soon would be queen of Talak. It would be a disgrace to her ancestors and her future subjects if she showed her growing fear.
Not until the doors had closed completely did she hear the breathing of another within the chamber. Heavy footsteps echoed as somebody slowly walked toward her. Erini’s heart pounded and her breathing quickened. She heard the other fiddle with something and then a single match burst into brilliant life, blinding her briefly.
“Forgive me,” a deep, smooth voice whispered. “I sometimes grow so accustomed to the shadows that I forget how lost others can be. I shall light us some candles.”
Erini’s eyes adjusted as the burning match lit a candle sitting on a hitherto unseen table. The match died before she could study the hand that held it, but the one that reached for the candlestick, the left hand, gave her a start. It was silver and moved like the hand of a puppet. Neither it nor the arm it was attached to was made of flesh, but rather some other, stiffer substance that played at life.
Elfwood. The tale was true!
Then, the hand was forgotten as the candle was lifted into the air and Princess Erini caught her first glimpse of the man she was to marry.
The gasp that escaped her echoed harshly in the dark chamber.
THE INNKEEPER OF the Huntsman Tavern was a bear of a man named Cyrus who had once had the misfortune of owning a similar establishment called the Wyvern’s Head some years ago. The hordes of the drake Lord Toma had ravaged it with the rest of the countryside, concentrating especially on the grand city of Mito Pica, where the powerful warlock Cabe Bedlam had been brought up in secret. Toma had not expected to find Bedlam there and was making the region an example to any who would dare protect, even unknowingly, a potential enemy of the Dragon Kings. Cyrus, along with many other survivors, had taken what he could salvage and made his way to Talak. The people of Mito Pica were welcome in Talak, for Melicard shared their hatred for the drakes. For a brief time, Cyrus had even been one of the raiders the king had supplied in secret, raiders who harassed and killed drakes with the help of old magic. The innkeeper found that he missed his former calling. A good thing, too. It was the raid on the home of Bedlam and his bride that had led to the king’s maiming. The objects of the raid, the late Dragon Emperor’s hatchlings, had completely escaped Melicard’s grasp.
In all that time and the time that passed after, Cyrus had never told a soul that the warlock Bedlam had once been a serving man in his inn. The beginning of the end of his first inn was etched in his mind. It had started with a vague image. The image of a cloaked and hooded man sitting in the shadows, waiting silently for service…
Like the man who sat in the corner booth now.
Had his hair not gone gray long ago; Cyrus felt it would have done so now. He looked around quickly, but no one seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary and there was not a blessed soul to wait on the mysterious personage.
Just when I’ve set me roots down. Wringing his hands, the innkeeper made his way through the crowds and over to the dark table. He squinted, wondering why it was so dark even though there were candles nearby. It was as if the shadows had come with the stranger.
“What can I get ya?” Make it something quick and easy! he begged silently. Then leave, by Hirack, while I’ve still got a place!
The left hand, gloved, emerged from the enveloping cloak. A single coin clattered against the wooden table. “An ale. No food.”
“Right away!” Thanking Hirack, a minor god of merchants, Cyrus retrieved the coin and hustled back to the counter, where he swiftly overfilled a mug. He would give the warlock the ale, the fellow would drink it, and the innkeeper would bid him a fond farewell. In his haste, Cyrus bumped several customers and spilled ale on a few more, but he did not notice. Nothing mattered but to serve his unwanted guest and get as far away as possible.
“Here ya go!” He slammed the ale down right in front of the figure and made to leave, but the hand, with astonishing speed and bone-crushing strength, caught his own and trapped him there.
“Sit down a moment.” The slight amusement in the hooded one’s tone made Cyrus go pale. He sat down with a heavy thud. The warlock released his hand, almost as if daring the innkeeper to run away.
“What city is this?”
It was an odd question, seeing as how a spellcaster of all people should know such a simple thing. Despite that thought, however, Cyrus could not stop himself from responding immediately. “Talak.”
“Hmmm. I noticed a commotion earlier. What was the cause?”
Cyrus blinked in a mixture of fear and shock as his mouth formed the answers without his aid. “King Melicard’s betrothed, the Princess Erini of Gordag-Ai, arrived only today.”
For the first time, the figure in the dusky hood reacted. Cyrus was certain it was confusion despite being unable to make out the warlock’s features. He had been trying to see the man’s face for several seconds, but there was something wrong with his eyes, for the other’s visage never seemed in focus.
“‘King Melicard’? What’s happened to Rennek IV?”
“Rennek died some time back. He spent the last part of his life mad as a sprite.” Where had this man been that he didn’t know something common knowledge to everyone else?
“I’ve been far, much too far away, innkeeper.”
Cyrus shook as it hit him that he had not asked the question out loud.
The warlock reached over and touched Cyrus on the forehead with one gloved finger of his right hand. “There are people of importance that I would know more about. You know their names. Tell me and I will let you return to your business.”
It was impossible not to tell the hooded figure what he knew. The names that flashed through Cyrus’s unwilling mind frightened him, so powerful and deadly the bearer of each one was. His mouth babbled tale after tale about each, mostly from things he had heard from patrons, much of it forgotten until now.
Finally, it ended. Cyrus fearfully felt himself black out.
THE WARLOCK WATCHED with little interest as the innkeeper, his mind fogged, rose from the table and returned to his duties. The mortal would remember nothing. No one would recall that he had been here. He could even stay long enough to finish the ale, something he had not had in ten years. The long lapse made the drink even sweeter.
Ten years, Shade thought as he stared into his mug. Only ten years have passed. I would’ve thought it longer.
Memories of endless struggling in the nothingness that had been his prison, the prison that was a part of his enemy and his friend, flashed through his mind. He had thought he would never touch the earth again.
Ten years. He took another sip of ale and could not help but smile again at circumstances. A small price to pay, actually, for what I’ve gained. A very small price to pay.
Shade put a hand to his head as a sharp pain lanced through his mind. It was as short-lived as the others he had experienced since his return, and he ignored it once it had passed. The warlock took another sip. Nothing would mar his moment of triumph, especially an insignificant little pain.
THE SINGLE TORCH, left by the mortals, had long ago burned itself out, but Darkhorse had no need of such things, anyway. He did not even notice when the light sputtered and died, so deeply was his mind buried in a mire of concerns, fears, and angers—none of which he had come to terms with yet. What distressed him most was that Shade roamed the Dragonrealm untouched, free to spread his madness across an unsuspecting and, in some ways, uncaring land.
And here I lay, helpless as a newborn, trapped by a mortal fool who shouldn’t have the knowledge to do what he’s done! Darkhorse laughed low, a mocking laugh aimed at himself. How he continually underestimated human ingenuity—and stupidity.
His pleas of freedom fell on deaf ears and mad minds. Nothing mattered more to Melicard than his quest to rid the realms of the drake clans, whether those drakes were enemies or not. That Shade had the potential to bring the lands down upon them all—human, drake, elf, and the rest—meant nothing to the disfigured monarch.
“What threat is a warlock compared to the bloody fury of the Dragon Kings?” Melicard had asked.
“Have you forgotten Azran Bedlam so soon?” Darkhorse had bellowed. “With his unholy blade, the Nameless, he slew a legion of drakes, including the Red Dragon himself!”
The king had smiled coldly at that. “For that, he had my admiration and thanks.”
“They might’ve easily been humans, mortal! Azran was no less dangerous to his own kind!”
“The creature you call Shade has existed for as long as recorded memory, yet the world remains. If you wish, you may deal with him after you have served me. That seems fair.”
It was futile to try and explain that always there had been someone to keep Shade in check and that someone had more often than not been Darkhorse. Other spellcasters had fought and beaten the warlock, true, but always the shadow steed had been, at the very least, in the background. Now, he was helpless.
In pent-up anger, Darkhorse had reared and kicked at the unbreakable, invisible wall, screaming, “Madman! Can you not hear me? Does your mind refuse to understand reality? Your damnable little obsession will never be fulfilled, and while you muster your fanatics Shade will bring both drake and human down! I know this!”
At that point, King Melicard had turned to the sorcerer beside him and said, “Teach him.”
For his refusal to obey, Darkhorse had suffered. The old sorcerer Drayfitt had surprised him again, intertwining a number of painful subspells into the structure of the magical cage. The pain had not stopped until the jet-black stallion had been no more than a mass of shadow huddled on the floor. Finally, Melicard had simply turned and departed, pausing at the doorway only long enough to give some instructions to the spellcaster. With the king had gone the devious one, the mortal who was known as Counselor Quorin.
Alone with the elderly sorcerer, Darkhorse had pleaded his cause once more. Fruitlessly. Drayfitt was one of those men who embodied the worst and best trait of his race: blind loyalty.
And so here I remain, the spectral horse snorted in frustration. Here I remain.
“I once suffered a fate similar to the one facing you now,” a familiar voice mocked. “Trapped with seemingly no way out. I think you can imagine how I felt.”
Darkhorse rapidly drew himself together, all his power preparing for the worst.
The torch was suddenly ablaze again, but its flame was a deep red that bespoke of blood. Amidst the crimson shadows, a cloaked and hooded figure detached itself.
“Shade… or Madrac…” Darkhorse rumbled. “Come to mock only when you know for certain your hide is safe from harm.”
The warlock bowed like a minstrel after a successful command performance. “Call me Madrac, if you will—or any other name, for that matter. I don’t care. I’ve come to tell you something. I sat quietly drinking in a tavern, absorbing life itself for once. I remember, you see. I remember everything from every life. I recall the fatal day, the agony of being torn apart and restored to existence again and again and again! I recall more than I could ever recount to you!”
As long as he had known the human, Darkhorse had known a man condemned. Forever resurrected after each death, whether his body was whole or not, Shade was cursed to live lives alternately devoted to the dark and light sides of his nature. Each was only a shadow of the original spellcaster, however. Memories were so incomplete as to sometimes be nonexistent. Abilities altered. In desperation to be whole, each new personality even took on a secondary name of its own, such as Madrac, hoping that somehow he would be the final, immortal Shade. Now, after millennia, something had changed to make that possible. Understanding this, hope briefly spurred Darkhorse. “Then your curse is lifted; you can live in peace.”
Shade chuckled bitterly and stepped forward. Raising his hood, he let the shadow steed stare into his face, or rather, the blurry mask that passed for it. “Not yet, my dear friend, not yet, but—Madrac is fading and I cannot be certain what sort of persona will replace him. A different one from those past, that much is evident. I felt the need to speak to you, though, to tell you, but…”
“If you can free me, I will do what I can for you, Shade.”
“Free you? Don’t be absurd! I rather enjoy the irony of this!”
The tone of the warlock’s voice stirred the eternal’s misgivings far more than the actual words did. Has the curse given way to something darker, something much more sinister? Darkhorse wondered. Shade’s personality seemed to be swinging back and forth unpredictably. If the warlock had not been mad before, he soon would be under the pressure of this new torture.
Putting a hand to his forehead as if trying to relieve pain, Shade continued, “I also came to tell you this: I know where my mistake was made—where my spell went awry. I know why the ‘immortality’ I did receive turned out to be a never-ending agony. That can be rectified—this time.”
He took a step closer to the magical cage. “You—you can do nothing to deter me. Not while you are trapped here. The spellcaster responsible for your pleasant little domain has touched upon Vraad sorcery to create the cage. Do you know what that means?”
Darkhorse did not respond at first, stunned as he was by the warlock’s words, especially the last. “I know of Vraad sorcery. It no longer exists in this reality! The Vraad only live on in the seeds of their descendents; their magic has given way to the magic of this world!”
Shade inclined his head in a brief nod. “As you wish. Test the spell yourself—oh”—the spellcaster may have smiled; it was difficult for anyone other than him to know for certain—“that’s right. You can’t. You’re inside, of course, and the patterns are outside, surrounding the barrier.”
“Why did you come here, Shade? Merely to talk?”
“I came against my better judgment—but—I felt an overwhelming urge. Call it a whim.”
“Call it conscience.” Darkhorse retorted quietly.
“Conscience? I no longer have such a wasteful thing!” The hooded warlock stepped back, growing more indistinct with each step. There was always something not quite right, not quite normal, about Shade’s magic, but Darkhorse could not say what.
“Enjoy your vast domain while you can, friend. When you see me next, if you ever do, I will at last be master of my fate—and so much more.”
“Shade—” It was too late; the warlock dwindled away into nothing. The torch died the moment he was gone, plunging Darkhorse into the blackness again. It was the least of his concerns, though. The brief, puzzling visitation by him who was both enemy and friend interested him much, much more.
To say that Shade’s return to him was contradictory to what the spellcaster should have done was putting it so mildly that Darkhorse had to laugh. Shade did nothing without reason, even if Shade might not know the reason himself. To simply come to mock Darkhorse was not enough; it was not the warlock’s way in any of his countless lives, at least, the ones that the shadow steed knew about.
How old are you really? It was a question he had asked Shade time and again and it blossomed unbidden now, but there was no answer. The spellcaster could never recall. He only remembered a few vague things; that he, an ambitious sorcerer, had tried to gain mastery over powers that were, at the time, known simply as good and evil, dark and light. Perhaps colored by such primitive perceptions, Shade had made some fatal error in the final steps of his master spell. The powers were not his to command; he was theirs to play with. Perhaps the enchantment had even succeeded, but not the way the spellcaster had supposed. That still did not answer the question that always bothered the jet-black stallion. How old was Shade before we first encountered one another? Old enough to recall the Vraad? Old enough to—be one?
The thought was so insane, he cast it from his mind. Generations upon generations of Dragon Kings had come and gone since the brief, fiery appearance of the Vraad in this world. Humans were their descendants, yes, but nothing more.
All plans of immortality eventually fail. Even for the Vraad they did.
Darkhorse knew he was wandering away from the subject. He returned to the reason behind Shade’s brief and mysterious visit. If not to mock his helplessness, then what explanation was there for the warlock’s return? A warning? Perhaps. Possibly that and more. Darkhorse laughed low as another choice suggested itself. Could it be…?
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a key unlocking the chamber door. This is a busy day! I always thought prison was a lonely place!
The door swung open with a protesting squeal and torchlight flooded into the room. A guard stepped in and, his eyes focused on any spot other than the captive, lit the wall torch. As the human departed hastily, a second figure, tall and familiar, entered the chamber in a much more sedate manner. The gaunt, ancient form waited quietly while another guard, as anxious as the first to be gone, placed a stool midway between the door and the edge of the barrier.
When they were finally alone, Drayfitt spoke. His eyes drifted to a spot to the right of Darkhorse. He seemed a bit preoccupied, as if he could sense that someone else had been in the room. “So… demon. Have you reconsidered what my liege has requested of you?”
The shadow steed shifted to his left, trying without success to meet the gaze of the sorcerer. “That was a request? Do as he commands—without question—and he may free me some day to chase after Shade?”
“He is king and must be obeyed.”
“You are well housebroken, spelltosser.”
Drayfitt flinched, but he did not shift his gaze. It was apparent he knew what might happen if his eyes locked onto Darkhorse’s. “I swore an oath long ago to protect this city. It is my home. Melicard is my lord and master.”
“As I said, ‘well housebroken’! Every king should have such a loyal pup for a sorcerer!”
“Would that I had never needed to make use of these powers!” Drayfitt’s gaze turned upward, toward some memory. Darkhorse cursed silently.
“Why, then, did you?”
“The king needed a sorcerer. Counselor Quorin sought me out, knowing from his spies that I had held one minor political post or another for more than a century, something beyond the lifespan of a normal human, of course. Always before I was able to bury myself in the shuffle of bureaucracy, claim I was my own son or some such lie, and utilize just enough power to make men believe it. I have no desire to follow in my brother Ishmir’s footsteps and die fighting the Dragon Kings. I also have no desire to see Talak destroyed, which is a very real threat should the Silver Dragon ever succeed in his claim to the Dragon Emperor’s throne.”
So many things had happened during the years of Darkhorse’s absence that it was difficult for him to say what was the most astounding. That Cabe Bedlam, grandson of the greatest of the Dragon Masters, had bested the Dragon Emperor and fought his own father, mad Azran, to the death cheered the shadow steed, for he had met the young mortal and even travelled with him for a time. The death of the Gold Dragon had broken the drakes; who now could claim the throne of the highest of the Kings was arguable. Cabe Bedlam and his bride, the Lady of the Amber, had been raising the hatchlings of the Dragon Emperor alongside their own children, trying to teach the two races to coexist. Whether the drakes would accept the eldest royal male as their ruler when he finally came of age—whatever age was to a drake—was a question bandied about with no answer as of yet. Meanwhile, at least two of the remaining Dragon Kings had sought the throne of their “brother” on the basis that to wait for the young to mature was too risky, too speculative. Neither of the two could gain sufficient support among their kind, but the Silver Dragon was growing stronger every day. Drayfitt knew that the first step toward reunifying the lands would be to stamp out Talak, the enemy now within Silver’s own domain. Having just gained its true independence only a few years ago, the city-state was not going to give in, not while Melicard was king.
“Mal Quorin whispers in his ear at every opportunity, urging him to reckless crusades. Survivors of Mito Pica, the city ravaged by the drake Toma, still call for the blood of the reptiles and their voices are strong. Melicard himself is obsessed with the Dragon Kings. Once discovered, I came to realize that the only way to bring some sense to this chaos was to become an integral part of my liege’s court, a voice of reason.”
“And so you summoned a demon?” Darkhorse responded with false innocence. “Truly you are a master of logic! What genius! Never would I have thought of so cunning a plan!”
The sorcerer rose, his brief reverie broken by the stinging words. Almost, he glared at his captive. Almost.
“Mal Quorin would have found another to translate the damnable book! One more flexible to his will! Now, at least, I can control the situation, keep it from growing unchecked!”
“Is this what Ishmir would’ve done?”
The question was Drayfitt’s undoing. Mention of his brother’s name gave birth to a rapidly growing rage, a rage coupled with carelessness. He whirled on Darkhorse, intending to punish him for bringing to the surface the thoughts that had been wracking the old man’s mind since agreeing to this insane plane. Would Ishmir have gone through this; Drayfitt knew the answer and did not like it. He glared at the shadow steed, his gaze making contact with the cold, blue eyes.
Darkhorse froze the sorcerer where he was, seizing control of his unprotected mind. The phantom stallion laughed quietly at the success of his plan, but it was a hollow laugh. Drayfitt was a good, if naive, mortal. Using his brother’s name so pained Darkhorse, who had known most of the long-dead Dragon Masters, including Ishmir the Bird Master.
“Forgive me for this, both of you,” he muttered, “but I had no choice.”
All emotion fell from the spellcaster’s face. His arms hung limply. He looked more than ever like a dead man; Darkhorse, who did not want to hurt him, moved cautiously.
“Your mind is mine, mortal! Your soul is mine! I could hurry you along the Path Which Men May Travel Only Once, but I will not! Not if you obey!”
Drayfitt remained motionless, but Darkhorse knew, as only he could know, that, deep within, the sorcerer’s subconscious understood.
“You will remove the barrier, and open a gate in this Void-forsaken cage, and let me out! Do so and I will leave you untouched!”
Though his voice boomed, the shadow steed had no fear that the guards outside would give warning. Melicard had ordered Drayfitt to enshroud the chamber in a blanket of silence, meaning that all sounds would pass no further than the walls. A very important guest had arrived and the king, oddly subdued, did not want knowledge of his activities to reach that unknown personage.
The masks of royalty are many, Darkhorse thought snidely. Who could it be who would make “handsome” King Melicard so nervous?
Drayfitt worked smoothly, methodically, going through the motions of the spell. Though he no longer had the book, the memory of his first attempt still remained and Darkhorse had drawn that out. Had there been time, he would have had the mortal repeat the steps out loud so that he could study the makings of the spell. Vraad sorcery it was and the black steed was disturbed he had not seen it sooner. Again, had there been time, Darkhorse would have sought out the book—and the one who had discovered it. Vraad sorcery was dangerous, although on the surface it seemed amazingly simple at times.
With a stiff gesture, Darkhorse reversed the outcome of the spell. Instead of creating yet another cage around the first, he tore the present one apart.
The elderly sorcerer lowered his hands and resumed his deathlike stance. Darkhorse took a hesitant step toward the edge of his prison. One limb, stretched to needle-thin, touched the barrier—and passed beyond it. Jubilant, Darkhorse leaped free, not trusting his luck to hold long.
“Freedom! Ahhh, sweet-tasting freedom! Excellent work, my mortal puppet! Most excellent work!” He gazed down almost fondly at the spellcaster. “For that, you deserve a reward of great value, something I think you’ve lacked these past days! Sleep! Deep, restful sleep! A long, restful nap will do you wonders! When you wake, I want you to do one more thing for me; seek out the source of your Vraad sorcery, this book, and destroy it! Rest now!”
Drayfitt slumped to the floor.
With one last, contemptuous scan of the chamber that had been his prison, Darkhorse reared, opened a path to the beyond, and vanished through it.
AS NIGHT PREPARED to give way to day, the object of Darkhorse’s desperate quest materialized in the middle of a chamber that was quite a contrast to the one recently forced upon the shadow steed. Though a bit more austere than the personal quarters of King Melicard, they were elegant and, indeed, also fit for a king.
Shade reached out a hand and ran a finger along the edge of a massive, golden couch. A thick layer of dust flew off. The warlock may have smiled. No one had made use of this room in quite some time, years perhaps.
The rumors were true, then. These chambers had once belonged to the Lord Gryphon, inhuman but just ruler of Penacles; the legendary City of Knowledge. Once, the Gryphon had been a comrade, sometimes a friend, but only at those times when Shade could be trusted. The Gryphon had understood him better than most, save Darkhorse. As Shade wiped the dust from his fingertip, he found the almost missed his sometime adversary. The Gryphon was rumored to be somewhere across the Eastern Seas, fighting some war that seemed unwilling to completely finish itself. Despite numerous pleas by various city functionaries, the man he had left in charge, a minor spellcaster of masterful strategy, General Toos, refused to take on the mantle of king. Instead, the general had chosen to become regent, with powers equal to those of the monarch with the unique option of retiring in favor of the Gryphon if and when he returned.
So much the better, Shade decided. He turned in a slow circle, observing each and every object, whether it stood on the floor, was pinned to the wall, or hung from the ceiling. Most things were as he remembered them, even down to the two lifelike metal statues standing on each side of the door. They were iron golems, animated creatures of cold metal created by the former lord of Penacles to guard his personal chambers. Surprisingly swift, the creatures should have been on top of the warlock the moment he materialized. Unlike most intruders, however, Shade had the key to their control.
There were words, implanted deep in their very beings, that, when acknowledged by the golems, made them no more than fanciful statues. Words that Shade had silently flung at them before completely materializing. There were advantages to having once been privy to the secrets of the Gryphon. The warlock chuckled quietly, then turned to one of the far walls, where the object of his search, a great, intricately woven tapestry of the entire city of Penacles, hung.
That the tapestry hung here, unwanted by the regent, said many things. The artifact was ancient, even older than Shade. He touched it delicately. General Toos had never hidden his dislike for talismans of power, though he tolerated them. The tapestry itself was only a link to another greater wonder, though. Leaning as close as he dared, the warlock slowly studied the pattern. Each and every street, every building, was represented. Despite having been originally weaved during the initial construction of Penacles, the tapestry revealed structures that were no more than a year or two old.
“Even after all this time, you still work flawlessly,” Shade whispered. The creator had been a perfectionist and even Shade acknowledged the superiority of this artifact.
For several minutes he scanned the tapestry, seeking a masking that he could not even be certain he would recognize. Like the city, the mark he sought changed over the years. Sometimes, it was a stylized picture of a book. Other times, it had been a single letter. There had been many symbols over the centuries, a number of them highly obscure.
I need your fantastic eyes, Lord Gryphon! You were always able to spot the mark with little more than a glance!
Then, his eyes fell on a tiny, twisted banner, one familiar to him as it would be to no other creature living today. Shade smiled his hidden smile and the blur of face seemed to swirl with emotion. He memorized the location and briefly looked up at the tapestry in open admiration. “One would think you were living, old thing, and, if so, you have a wicked sense of humor! My—my father—might even have been amused!”
Father. The warlock shivered. Not all the memories that returned were particularly pleasant ones. He quickly buried himself in his task.
Locating the mark again, Shade rubbed the banner with one finger, and as he did, the room around him began to fade. Shade may have smiled. He continued to rub the mark as the Gryphon’s chambers gave way to another room of sorts, a corridor. The tapestry, still whole, remained until the living quarters had completely dissipated. Then, it, too, faded away. The warlock was left standing in a corridor whose walls were lined with endless shelves of massive, bound tomes, all identical, even in color. The tapestry still worked.
He stood in the legendary libraries of Penacles.
The libraries had been standing long before the city. His memories returning, Shade recalled some of the truth about the odd structure, a building beneath the earth, beneath Penacles, that was larger on the inside than the outside and never to be found in the same location. Its true origins were unknown even to him, but he suspected that, as with the spell that Melicard’s sorcerer had used to make Darkhorse’s cage, this was Vraad work.
Other than the countless volumes stored here, there was not much to see. The floor was polished marble. The corridor he stood in and those he could see were all illuminated by the same unseen source. The shelves themselves might have been brand new, though Shade knew otherwise. Time seemed not to matter in the libraries.
“You have returned after all this time.”
The matter-of-fact statement proved to be issued by a small, egg-headed figure clad in simple cloth garments. His arms almost reached the ground, due in great part to his uncommonly short legs. There was not so much as a strand of hair on his head.
One of the gnomes—or perhaps the only gnome—who acted as librarians here. As far as Shade could recall, the libraries had always had gnomes and all of them had been identical in appearance.
“Ten years is not so long to the two of us,” the spellcaster mocked, recalling his final visit here with the Lord Gryphon.
The gnome seemed oblivious to the tone of mockery, replying simply, “Ten years, no. A thousand years, yes. Even to the two of us.”
Though his face was unreadable, Shade’s body was not. He stiffened and tried to speak, but was uneasy about his choice of words. The gnome chose to fill the silence.
“What you seek is not here. It is, perhaps, the one piece of knowledge the libraries refuse to contain.”
Speaking of the libraries in terms of a thinking creature irritated the warlock. He had no desire to feel as if he were in the belly of a beast. “Then where is it? It exists!”
The librarian shrugged and slowly turned away, a book in one hand. The book had not been there before. “Seek the caverns, perhaps.”
“Caverns.” The gnome turned back to Shade, eyeing him as one might an inept young apprentice. “The caverns of the Dragon Emperor. What is left of the place where it all began for you.”
The place where it all began for you. Shade may have smiled, but, if so, it was a grim smile. He had forgotten that. It was a memory only now restored to him and it was, quite possibly, the one he would have most preferred never to recall—even at the cost of his own existence.
ERINI WOKE TO the light of midmorning intruding in her room, her thoughts and feelings a tangled web of half-remembered images and a full gamut of emotions ranging from joy to fear.
The bed was huge and so very soft. She tried to bury herself in it, both physically and mentally. Her old bed back home—no, former home!—was little more than a piece of wood and a blanket compared to this. The entire room was overwhelming, as vast as any chamber she had seen other than the main hall. Multicolored marble tiles made up the floor, partially obscured by the great fur rugs running to and from the various doorways. Columns thrust upward in each corner, festively decorated with golden flowers. Gay tapestries covered the walls. The furniture, including the bedframe, was carved from the finest northern oak, rare after the destruction of so much forest nine years ago during that horrible, unseasonable winter.
To her dismay, Erini found herself remembering how whole herds of giant diggers, great creatures of fur and claw, had torn their way south, leaving little more than churned earth. The princess shuddered, for they had been no more than a day from her city when a disease or something had killed off all of them within hours. Oddly, that was about the same time that Melicard—
Erini’s eyes opened wide as she surrendered to the inevitable and turned her thoughts back to the night before. The princess had expected so many things when she had entered his darkened chamber, the elfwood arm being the least of those. Despite its graceful appearance—thanks to some skilled craftsman, no doubt—the arm moved with an awkwardness that would forever remind one it was not real. Even had it been painted so perfectly as to match the king’s skin, Erini would have recognized it for what it was.
First seeing that arm in the dim light, however, had subconsciously made her anticipate the worst. That was why, when Melicard had held the light close to his face, Erini had let out a gasp without even actually seeing his features. When her eyes had at last rested on her betrothed and the images had sunk deep enough into her shocked mind, that shock had turned to confusion and, gradually, joy.
Melicard I, king of Talak and once the handsomest of men in her young eyes, had a visage that, Erini at last admitted to herself, was everything she had ever hoped for as a girl growing up. Strong, angular features, athletic, and with a commanding presence befitting his rank. It was a wondrous thing to behold, and the princess was so relieved she almost flew into his arms, barely missing knocking the candlestick from his hand.
Only then, when they were so near to one another, did the unholy nature of his face become evident. If there was a graphic indication of her own reaction to this sudden turn, it was the tightening of his mouth and the narrowing of his eye—one eye—when he saw her stumble and pause.
The “accident” that had claimed his arm had claimed much of his face as well, even as rumors had foretold. Because of the ancient magic said to be involved, that face would not heal. Whole sections of skin had been torn away and Melicard had even lost his left eye. When all else failed with his arm, the king had turned to elfwood, rare wood that, legend had it, was cut from a tree blessed by the spirit of a dying elf, and had his artisans carve him a new limb.
He had done the same thing with his face.
Erini, remembering what had followed, pulled the sheets around her. Tears streaked her own features and she whispered, “I’m sorry!”
While his bride-to-be stood where she was in what he could only believe to be disgust and horror, Melicard coldly lit other candles from the first. It was evidently his intention to give her the full effect, so positive was he that she loathed him.
“You certainly must have heard enough gabbers’ tales about my—difficulties—before making your way here! Is it so much worse than even the stories?”
How could she tell him? Erini could not keep her eyes off his face. It was the face of Melicard, every curve and angle exactly as it should have been—save that most of the left side was masterfully carved from the same wood that his arm had been, even down to the cheekbone and lower jaw. A third of the nose had been replaced; the elfwood spread as high as the middle of his forehead and as far back as his ear. She was certain that unbuttoning the collar of his dark shirt would reveal more of the same.
The damage had not been confined to the left side, either. His right side was streaked by what almost looked like roots spreading from the left. Three major branches split across his cheek and each had one or two minor appendages as well. So contrasting was the enchanted wood to his own pale skin that the entire patchwork face looked like nothing less than that of a man dying of plague.
“You are free to depart any time, Princess Erini,” he said after a time.
She shook her head, unwilling to trust her mouth. Melicard, carefully skirting her, came around and offered her a chair. Erini had been so engrossed in his appearance that she had not even noticed there was furniture, or anything, for that matter, in the room. “If you plan to stay, then please be seated. This should be more comfortable than those coach benches, even a royal coach.”
With a whispered “thank you,” Erini adjusted her ungainly dress and sat down. The king, moving swift and silent, suddenly leaned before her, a goblet of red wine in each hand. She took the proffered goblet and waited until he was seated in another chair directly across from her before sipping. The wine succeeded very little in steadying Erini’s nerves, for her eyes could not leave his face even when she drank.
They sat like that for several minutes. Melicard, whose manner had been as politely cold as his words, drank from his own goblet in silence. With each sip, he seemed to draw deeper into his own mind. The princess wanted to say something, anything, to ease his pain and her own guilt, but the words would not come out. She grew angry at herself for becoming one of those helpless, useless maidens the storytellers often created for their fables. Until now, Erini had secretly mocked those pitiful women.
At last, the king set his goblet down and rose. The princess straightened, expecting some announcement, some word from her betrothed as to their future——or even lack of it if that was his desire. To her surprise, Melicard turned and walked to the far end of the chamber, where another door stood. Melicard opened it and, without looking back or even saying a word, stepped out of the room.
Erini stared at the door as it closed behind him, not comprehending immediately what had happened. Only when a liveried servant stepped in from the first doorway did realization sink in.
“If you will come with me, your majesty, I have been commanded to show you to your quarters.” Through his manner, the servant verified her fears; Melicard was not returning. The king had read her disgust and pity and had been able to stomach it no longer.
She saw no one other than the servants who fed and cared for her and her two ladies-in-waiting. Galea and Madga pressed her for snippets of information about the king, but Erini would have none of that. After dismissing them politely, she had retired early, the combination of the journey and her trial here too much to bear.
Letting the sun now bathe her, heal her mental wounds, she silently swore an oath. I must make it up to him somehow! I must show I can care without pitying! Small wonder he acts the way he does if everyone reacts as I did! Melicard could not be faulted for his efforts, the princess decided guiltily. If his own flesh would not grow back, what was he supposed to do? Wear a mask of gold and silver? Leave his own, mangled features visible? In many ways, the elfwood face was the best solution, unnerving as it as. Even the king’s sorcerer had come up with nothing better after failing to heal his master’s wounds.
Her own fingers began to twitch at the thought and she clasped both hands together in order to fight the urge down. She would not succumb. There was nothing the princess could do that others more skilled, others who were trained, could not do better.
Erini repeated what had become a chant to her—she was a princess of Gordag-Ai and could never be a sorceress or witch. Never. She was destined to be a queen. No king would trust a witch for a wife. Her own people would not have.
Though she fought it down successfully, Erini shook so badly after that, that she rose and dressed herself, not daring to have Galea or Magda or any of Melicard’s people wonder what made her shake. By the time the princess was finished, the danger was past. Erini inspected herself in the vast mirror that overwhelmed the wall opposite her bed and, satisfied, dared to summon a servant. If she succeeded in nothing more today, she would at least eat a decent meal.
NEITHER MELICARD NOR the unsavory Counselor Quorin met her at breakfast. Galea and Magda joined her, but she made some pretext and left them as soon as she was finished. When none of the palace servants seemed to object, the princess began exploring, trying to understand more about Talak and its monarch through the vast building itself. Erini already knew much of the city-state’s “official” history, having been educated about her future kingdom most of her life, but there was more, so much more, beneath the surface of the facts that tutors had poured into her. All she had learned about her betrothed had availed her nothing in his actual presence. It was a mistake she did not intend to make a second time.
As lavishly decorated as the palace was, she soon discovered two things. One was that the vast majority of items had been gathered during the reigns of past kings, to the extent that whole wings had been built to house them. The second and more interesting point concerned those few treasures gathered or created during the years of Melicard’s rule. Most of the pieces were dark in nature and not a few of them dealt with the death and destruction of foes, especially dragons. Faces in portraits were always shadowed or, if they were fully revealed, were sinister and even hideous. It did not paint a pretty picture of her betrothed. Erini began to have doubts.
At a window overlooking an interior garden filled with hanging plants and blossoming flowers of all colors, she paused to relax. A noise at the far end of the garden made her look there. Her eyes narrowed at an curious sight. Far below, two guards were carrying a third man between them. As opposed to the tall, muscular soldiers, the unconscious figure in the middle was thin to the point of emaciation and as old as any soul the princess had ever seen. He wore a dark robe with a cowl on it, identifying him from Erini’s teachings as Melicard’s sorcerer Drayfitt. The history that the ancient spellcaster had lived through had always fascinated her, but not nearly so much as why Drayfitt now needed to be carried anywhere. She leaned closer.
Erini glanced back at the direction the trio had come from and noticed the small doorway buried beneath the vines of the far wall. The way to the sorcerer’s inner sanctum? Possibly, and, if so, it was also possible that his present condition was due to some spell gone awry.
“What’s going on here?” a voice that grated on her nerves snarled.
The two sentries paused and, readjusting their unconscious package, saluted Mal Quorin. He ignored protocol and repeated his question in the same vicious tone as before.
One of the guards, his face no longer visible to Erini, nervously replied, “His majesty gave us orders to seek out the sorcerer Drayfitt and find out why he had not reported to the king this morning. When we arrived, the guards on duty let us in, reporting that no one had entered or left since they had been stationed there.” The man hesitated before concluding quickly, “He was lying on the floor! We tried to wake him, but nothing worked, my lord!”
Quorin looked at both of them, evidently not satisfied. “There’s more, isn’t there?”
“The demon is loose, my lord!” the other guard finally blurted. “Or, at least, it’s no longer in the chamber!”
Erini, listening intently and growing more shocked with each word, fully expected the counselor to vent his rage and power on the two hapless soldiers. Instead, he simply stood where he was, staring. Whether he stared at the sentries or into open space, the princess had no way of knowing. At last, the counselor reached forward and, in a move that stunned not only Erini but the soldiers as well, slapped Drayfitt sharply across the face. The elderly spellcaster’s head snapped to one side, but he did not wake. Quorin rubbed his hand.
“Be on your way, then. I want to know when he wakes.”
Quorin watched calmly until the trio was out of sight and then whirled back in the direction of the vine-covered door. With tremendous, catlike strides, he covered the distance to his objective in mere seconds. The counselor put one hand on the handle and then, as if sensing he were being watched, turned around and glanced upward. Erini, however, anticipating such a move, was already flattened against a wall.
She counted more than twenty breaths before she dared to look. Mal Quorin was gone, evidently having decided he did not have the time to search for shadows. The princess debated going down to the mysterious door or following the guards and their package. Knowing that the counselor might be waiting for her, Erini chose the latter and tried to guess where the two men might enter. They had mentioned Melicard and his interest in the workings of the sorcerer. If nothing else, they would eventually return to their monarch with some type of report and that report would include Drayfitt’s odd condition.
A demon, by my ancestors! Do all the rumors about Melicard have some basis in fact? Am I engaged to a human monster? Have I been so wrong about him?
Drayfitt and the guards. They had to be inside by now. Where might they go? The chamber in which she had confronted Melicard? It was her only real choice. Taking a deep breath, the princess made her way to the central staircase and started down, walking with the air of one who is inspecting her new domain. Erini did not know what might happen if she actually stumbled across the trio, but that was a risk she was willing to take. Her only fear was running into Quorin or the king himself. The counselor was an annoyance; her betrothed… Erini was not quite ready to deal with him. There were things she wanted to think about before the two of them spoke again, especially if she had properly understood the conversation between Quorin and the two guards.
At the foot of the stairs, she confronted four sentries, who saluted in simultaneous fashion. Erini nodded imperiously and continued on. No one made a move to stop her wanderings. Once she was far enough away, the princess exhaled deeply, wondering if her heart would ever slow to normal again.
She was turning down the main hall when she spotted the two soldiers from the garden. Drayfitt was nowhere to be seen. The guards themselves were just marching up to the doorway of the chamber she had entered last night. The same sentries stood watch. After a brief consultation, the soldiers who had discovered Drayfitt were ushered inside.
Disappointment washed over Erini. There was no way she could eavesdrop on Melicard and his men. Barging in was also too risky, considering that she might at any minute discover she was no longer to be his bride. Erini began to wonder what room Drayfitt might have been deposited in by the guards. If she could find some way to wake him…
“Your majesty is awake. Did you sleep well?”
The princess trembled in surprise. Her left hand made an automatic sweep across her midsection and suddenly began to glow, but she reversed the motion, thereby countermanding the spell. By the time the princess turned around, her hand was back to normal.
Mal Quorin was standing behind her, his feline features enhanced by the predatory smile spreading across his face. The counselor was all politeness as he spoke. “My deepest sympathies for yesterday, princess. The king is—overwhelming—at times.”
“And I was not understanding, Counselor Quorin. I have every intention of atoning for my lapse. The king has nothing to regret.” She glanced down the hall at the guarded doorway with a majestically indifferent eye. “I thought I might speak to him now.”
Rubbing his chin, Quorin diplomatically hesitated before replying, “I regret to say, your majesty, that now would not be a good time to disturb the king. He has thrown himself into his work, something he does when his mood grows dark, and I think it might be best to wait until this evening, when it is time to sup. I assure you that the evening meal would be a much better time to mend any rift between the two of you.”
The false face of courtesy that the counselor wore for her irritated Erini and she was tempted to tell him so. The real Mal Quorin was the man who had been shouting in the garden, an ambitious, hot-tempered plotter in her opinion. To speak the truth would avail her nothing, however, and would probably make matters worse since this man had the ear of Melicard.
“As you say, Counselor Quorin. You will arrange, I trust, that the meal is a private one. The king and myself. I have much to make up for.”
“I shall do my utmost.” He gave one of his sweeping bows. “If you like, since the king is unavailable. I can have someone escort you through the city, show you all Talak has to offer its new queen. Would you like that?”
His tone was that of an adult asking a child if she wanted a piece of candy. Erini struggled to keep her temper. If there ever was a reason to let her powers loose, it was the counselor. She wondered what he would say if he knew how dangerous his position actually was at present.
“I think not, counselor. Not today, anyway. There is still so much to see and learn about in the palace itself. I should get to know Melicard’s heritage, for it will be mine as well.”
Erini smiled so very sweetly. “You must be a godsend to your lord, counselor. There is no reason to do that as yet. I find I learn so much more just walking these exquisite halls. If you will excuse me now….”
His eyes spoke otherwise in response to her quiet challenge, although Quorin’s words themselves were nothing less than admiration and the desire to assist. “You are to be recommended, your majesty. If you will retire to your chambers, I will send a member of the royal archives who will be able to answer all of your questions for you. There are also a vast number of books, some in the handwriting of the king’s illustrious ancestors, that I will have pulled from the archives.”
With Quorin watching her back, the princess walked sedately down the opposite hall, visibly admiring the treasures around her. After a few moments, she heard the scuffle of his boots as he turned away. Erini paused, pretending to study a statuette, and looked back out of the corner of her eye just in time to see the man barge into the same chamber that the two soldiers had passed through only a short time before.
More and more, Mal Quorin bothered her. There were times when he moved much like the creature he resembled and others when he made more noise than a full honor guard. He was also her enemy, that much was now completely evident, and she did not doubt that he might even turn to violence. The counselor had no desire for the king to marry, likely because he feared Erini’s influence might some day overshadow his own.
Despite her lapses, the princess had no intention of folding up like the heroines of the storytellers. Come an endless army of demons and Mal Quorins, she would still mend the rift between Melicard and herself and, in the process, find out what had truly happened behind that garden door.
If it also meant giving in to her own curse, so be it.
IN THE ETERNAL darkness of what had once been the throne room of the Dragon Emperor, a searing light burst into life, flooding the entire chamber in its bloodred brilliance. Things that were not entirely of this world, things that had once obeyed the will of the Gold Dragon, scurried back into the safety of cracks and fissures where the light did not reach.
Like a wisp of smoke, Shade uncurled out of nothing and stepped forth into the ruins of the Dragon King’s lair.
This had once been the chamber in which the Dragon Kings met in council. There had been thirteen of them until the end of the Turning War, when Nathan Bedlam had succeeded in destroying the regal Purple Dragon who had ruled Penacles before the Gryphon. The council—and the unity of the drakes—had broken up for the final time with the madness caused by the discovery of Cabe Bedlam, Nathan’s grandson and successor, who carried a part of the spirit of the great Dragon Master within him. In this chamber, where some of the huge effigies of creatures long dead still stood despite all the violence that had passed through here, two drake lords, the battle-hungry Iron and his ever-present shadow Bronze, had paid for their rebellion against Gold. In this chamber, Shade had learned, Cabe Bedlam had defeated the Dragon Emperor, tearing his mind apart. Here also, it was said, Cabe and the Lord Gryphon had battled young Bedlam’s mad father, the sinister Azran.
Death is so very much a part of this place still, Shade thought uneasily. If there was a place that could unnerve him, it was here. As Madrac, he had forgotten that fear briefly, coming here and using the Dragon Kings themselves to further that incarnation’s goals.
Shade stood and scanned the cathedral-high ruins about him, marveling at the carnage for several seconds before finally deciding that enough time had been wasted. The warlock took two tentative steps toward what had once been the throne itself—
Though no one but the warlock himself would have been able to tell, Shade blinked. He studied the cavern again—and then for a third time. When that no longer seemed to satisfy him, he sought around for a safe place to sit. There, he stared into the darkness of an adjoining cavern and wondered…
… wondered why he had come here and why he had suddenly forgotten that reason.
DARKHORSE BURST FROM the portal at full gallop, all defenses ready. He did not stop until he was certain that Shade was nowhere near. It never paid to be too confident in the Dragonrealm, especially with the warlock, but still, he could sense nothing hostile within immediate range and decided it was safe to come to a halt.
A wave of sulfur drifted past his muzzle. Had he been less than he was, the treacherous smoke would have left him choking on the ground. Being Darkhorse, he noted it only for its pungent scent.
“The Hell Plains! How aptly titled!” the shadow steed muttered. It was actually more of a shout than a mutter, for even he found it difficult to hear his normally stentorian voice in a land where few minutes went by without some sort of volcanic eruption. All around him, the ground shook. Hills formed, burst open as molten rock was spewed forth, and then collapsed as some new crater redirected the flow. The very earth beneath the eternal’s hooves cracked wide and lava began to rise to the surface.
Darkhorse glanced down at the burning, liquefied rock and laughed. The lava licked at his forelegs, but it might as well have been the touch of a blade of grass. Mocking the power of the land with a swish of his thick tail, the phantom horse trotted to stable ground, the better to think.
He had been over a hundred places that Shade might choose to visit and none of those had been sought out by the mad warlock despite more than a day passing. More than a dozen times, Darkhorse had found himself tricked by false or old trails. Darkhorse did not feel defeated yet, but his options were diminishing.
The earth shook, alerting him to yet another crater forming beneath his hooves. Annoyed, the shadow steed began trotting north, toward the more stable regions of the Hell Plains. There was yet one place nearby that Shade might deem to visit. A place hidden from all during its master’s reign, but likely to be unprotected now.
Darkhorse kicked up the ash in frustration. He was running blind. He had no idea what Shade planned, where the warlock was, or if the spellcaster had already struck. His only hope was to come across his former comrade in a place of power such as the one he neared even now. Perhaps this time… he dreamed.
The birdlike skull of a Seeker went bounding into the air, kicked high along with the soot it had been buried under. Startled, Darkhorse came to a halt—but not before kicking up a mangled pile of bones that had come from more than one creature and more than one race.
The bones were jumbled together, the result of continual tremors and eruptions. Treading softly, the shadow steed discovered that they literally covered the earth, hidden from view only by a blanket of ash that had accumulated over the years. Memories of the past stirred. He recalled bits of news picked up concerning the fates of his friends and foes. It was as if time had not passed, for he had been battling the new, deadly incarnation called Madrac when these creatures had died fighting one another. Drake bones mixed freely with Seeker bones. The Seekers, the ancient avian masters of this land, had fought, not for themselves, but for the lord forced upon them, Azran Bedlam. They had died defending his citadel and, when even that was not enough to keep the hordes of the Red Dragon from his walls, Azran had destroyed the fiery legions and the Dragon King with his accursed demon blade. Darkhorse eyed the remains with clinical interest. This, then, was part of the battle site. He was closer than he had thought. The shadow steed puzzled over the remains and then looked up, openly curious.
This had to be the region where Azran’s sanctum was located—yet—it was nowhere to be found.
He stirred up more ash and bone as he searched the ground. There were a number of jagged hills and craters, but none massive enough to be what Darkhorse sought, unless… unless all that remained of the tower was—its foundation. The ancient structure, supposedly built by the Seekers to withstand time and the Hell Plains had to be no more than a ruin. It was the only answer and, if true, yet another failure on his part. Shade would never come here.
“Darkhorse, you are a vain, unmitigated fool!” He brought a hoof down on some unidentifiable bone, sending fragments and dust flying. He had been determined to do this alone because he felt the responsibility his. Shade was—had been—his friend. Shade’s exile had been the eternal’s doing and the warlock’s escape had been Darkhorse’s failure. Pride ruled the shadow steed as much as, if not more than, it ruled humanity.
A touch of latent power disturbed the edges of his mind.
“What have we here?” he rumbled. That which touched his thoughts was not living, not by any stretch of the imagination. It had the stink of death—no, it was death!—and it lay not too far from where he stood. Darkhorse, having few options of his own, followed the chilling trail.
Soon, Darkhorse found himself standing before a long, wide mound some two or three times the height of a normal man. The jet-black horse stepped up to the front edge of the mound and dug away at it with his hoof, not daring to unleash a spell in the vicinity of such a dark power. Darkhorse had no fear for himself, but he knew that careless action might very well rob him of his only possible chance to find and stop Shade. That, of course, depended on what had sought him out. There were things in the Dragonrealm that even he hoped never to meet.
After a few moments, he uncovered the edge of a wall. It was true, then. Something, perhaps Azran himself, had stripped the ancient castle of its preservative spells. Age and the primitive fury of this cursed region had caught up to the citadel. From what he could see, Darkhorse guessed that an eruption had taken place not too far from the once magically protected grounds. In a few more decades, there would be little or nothing remaining of the lair of Azran.
Somehow, Darkhorse could not bring himself to weep for the loss of such a place. If the Hell Plains buried the evil memory of Nathan Bedlam’s treacherous foal, so much the better.
The touch of death returned. Shaking his head to remove the foul feeling, the stallion followed the trail left by the magical contact. Ash, mortar, and yet more bones flew as Darkhorse used the slightest touch of his own power to clear a path. One never knew what might be lurking beneath. The ground rumbled ominously; perhaps decades was too long an estimate. There might be nothing remaining in mere minutes.
He came across what had once been stairs leading down to a room, a room still protected by sorcery though the physical structure itself was no more than half a wall and several loose stones. Darkhorse paused only for a moment; then, spelling the ash away, he descended. The protective measures here were bound together with the same unearthly power that had reached out to him, which was why they still remained. Even if the entire region exploded in one massive eruption, this spot would go untouched. Darkhorse laughed, his challenge to what awaited him. He knew with what he dealt now.
His form passed through a spell that would have killed any mortal creature and several entities of lesser ability than he. As the tip of his tail passed beyond the deadly trap, the violent land of the Hell Plains ceased to be.
“I am unimpressed,” was his first comment as he surveyed the chamber he now stood in. “Typical of your masters, who have no imagination!”
How the room had looked before Azran’s death was questionable, though, knowing the necromancer’s madness, it had probably been much the same. Without Azran’s physical influence, however, control of this place had slipped back to the oppressive rulers of the Final Path, the beings known to men as the Lords of the Dead and other, in the eternal’s estimation, overly pretentious titles.
I wonder what humans would think if they knew that even these Lords must die at some time!
The odor of rotting flesh filled the chamber. Decaying forms, human and otherwise, littered the place. A pool of some brackish liquid—definitely not water—bubbled ominously. Darkhorse laughed again.
“Save your show for those who believe in it, Lords of the Overacting! You know that I have no fear of you! If I should ever perish, my ultimate destiny lies elsewhere, not in your slime-crusted fingers! If you have something to say to me, then do so! One who has cheated you over and over for millennia threatens the mortals—mortals who have not yet lived the lives that are their due! Well? Do I need to start dumping this refuse into your little puddle?” He prodded an unidentifiable mass covered with black flies toward the pool.
The bubbling grew violent, creating a green froth that swelled high. The pool became more agitated, waves lapping the floor. Something long, large, and blacker than Darkhorse briefly broke the muck-covered surface before disappearing again. The shadow steed watched all in total disinterest.
In the center of the pool, a new form slowly rose. Accurate description failed, save that it was a hodgepodge of rotting limbs, torsos, and heads combined in impossible ways. Eyes dotted its form, all of them staring at the phantom horse with more than a touch of fury. Several limbs pointed in Darkhorse’s direction.
“I feel no more pleasure in seeing your lovely face—faces, I suppose I should say!—than you feel in seeing mine! Come! Speak and we can be done with this—or are you going to pass along some unmanageable riddle like those you foist upon mortals who seek your—fools that they are!—guidance!”
“Child of the Void.” The voice grated, scratched, pierced—it did everything as far as Darkhorse was concerned. Despite the irritation it caused him, however, outwardly he revealed nothing. Let them play their little games out as long as they told him something of importance.
The shadow steed kicked the fly-covered corpse into the pool, which caused a flurry of bubbling as the scavengers sought unsuccessfully to escape their sinking home. Darkhorse focused an ice-blue eye on the guardian of the pool.
“Yesss, I have earned my share of pretentious titles as well! Second move to you, my pretty friend! Now, unless you concede this idiotic game and tell me what is so important, I will depart this godforsaken hole forever—but not before sealing it so that no one else has to put up with your stench!”
“Kivan Grath.” The guardian of the pool spit the name out, along with a number of tiny, vague pieces of matter that Darkhorse did not bother to try to identify.
“The Seeker of Gods, demon horse.” It was the first understandable reply the thing had given him.
“I know what it is, but why—”
“Kivan Grath. Now.” Each of the numerous mouths formed into what Darkhorse could only vaguely accept as a smile. A smile of triumph. “Do not lose him again, unwanted one.”
The jet-black stallion met the guardian’s multiple gaze. “And how many times has Shade departed your domain without more than a nod of his head?”
The guardian did not respond to his retort, instead choosing that moment to sink back into the mire. Up to the very moment its head submerged, all eyes remained fixed on Darkhorse.
He bid the guardian, who may or may not have been little more than a puppet through which his masters had spoken, farewell with a mocking laugh that echoed throughout the chamber. Turning, the shadow steed kicked yet another moldering form into the grisly pool as he burst back through the magical veil and out into the Hell Plains.
Ascending to the surface, Darkhorse scanned the area with renewed interest. “Not so bad a place after all! Almost pleasant!”
His gaze returned to the stairway and the ruins of the chamber. Azran’s pool lay in some space between the mortal plane and the lands of the dead, a brilliant piece of sorcery. Almost indestructible, too.
“Some doors are too dangerous to leave opened,” he finally decided.
The black emptiness that was his form melted, changed. Like the molten rock flowing from the craters, the inky darkness streamed down the broken steps, pressing with purpose toward the magical doorway. As it enveloped the physical portal, a brief touch, a brief moment of protest, tapped at the edges of Darkhorse’s consciousness. He ignored it and, as the magic which had created the portal was absorbed within him, the protest faded.
The shadow steed re-formed himself at the top of the stairs. At the base of those stairs was now a clean, flat surface. Other than the steps, there was no sign that there had ever been a portal. Indeed, there was not even a trace of the room remaining.
Kivan Grath. Most majestic of the Tyber Mountains. The name was familiar to Darkhorse and he cursed himself for not having searched there earlier. Lair of the Gold Dragon, long dead. The caverns within Kivan Grath were endless and they predated even the Seekers. Was it possible that one of Shade’s rediscovered memories had sent him searching in those caverns?
Darkhorse paused. The rot-riddled masters of human mortality had given him a clue, but did he dare trust it? They cared nothing for him and that feeling was returned to them twofold. Why, then, were they aiding him? Was there something greater they feared, should the warlock remain free?
Again, he contemplated seeking out Cabe Bedlam, the one mortal who might be of help, and again the painful belief, that he was responsible for Shade, kept him from doing so.
The guardian had indicated that speed was of the essence and Darkhorse, knowing he had already stalled longer than he dared, opened a path through reality. This time, he would find Shade. This time, there would be no exile.
ONLY ONE SENTRY guarded the room where Erini guessed Drayfitt had been deposited. He stood at the doorway, a bored look on his rough features, his hand on the pommel of his sword. In the palace royal of the king of Talak, no one expected trouble. That, despite what had happened to the old sorcerer.
What exactly she planned to do, the princess could not say. Her ideas had gone no farther than locating Drayfitt and she was chagrined to realize she had no notion as to how to proceed now. Of what use would sneaking past the sentry be, always assuming that Erini could do even that, if success only meant confronting the unconscious spellcaster?
She was turning away, defeated for the moment, when she heard the sound of a door opening and the voice of the guard raised high in surprise. Erini, positioned down a side corridor, glanced back in time to see the sentry’s face glaze over as a determined Drayfitt stared into his eyes. The sorcerer had an odd look in his own eyes, a fanatical gaze that somehow did not fit the elderly man’s appearance. It was almost as if he, like the soldier, were under a spell.
Drayfitt wasted no time. Like a man possessed, he hurried down the hall—toward the corridor where Erini still stood. Quickly, she looked around for some place to hide, not wanting to chance the same fate as the hapless sentry. Sighting a stairway leading downward, the princess scurried over to it. She rushed halfway down and paused, hoping to hear the sorcerer as he passed.
A horrible thought occurred to her. If Drayfitt was returning to the garden, his quickest way to reach it was the very stairway she was standing on. Erini took several steps down and then paused. By now, Drayfitt should have been descending behind her, yet, his footsteps were growing fainter. She waited a moment longer and then slowly made her way back up. No sorcerer barred her way. The princess reached the top of the stairs and looked around. The elderly man was gone.
Holding her breath, she listened for some sound. Nothing. Drayfitt had continued down one of the two hallways, but she could not say which. The ancient sorcerer was much sprier than the princess could have believed possible. Now, there was no way she could follow him.
Voices and heavy footsteps down the original corridor made her turn. Quorin was one of them. The two soldiers who had carried Drayfitt to the room were likely with him. The other voice…
Erini cursed her luck. If she went down either corridor, they would see her. If she descended the stairs, they might notice her as she hurried across the garden. Either way, things would look suspicious. With her future already in a fragile state, this might be more than it could stand.
Strengthening her resolve, Erini did the only thing she could. It was time to rely on hope and her own ability to act as a princess acted. Smoothing her gown, she strode down the hallway and entered the corridor by Drayfitt’s former resting place just as Melicard, Quorin, and at least six guards came into sight from her right.
She pretended to notice the stunned guard for the first time. Shock was not a difficult emotion to play; the sentry’s slack features and blank eyes were a frightening sight. Without realizing it, she put a hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp.
“Princess Erini! Your majesty!” Quorin’s voice. She refused to acknowledge it, instead shaking her head as if ready to break down at the sight of the unfortunate victim of Drayfitt’s power.
The new voice was Melicard’s and the soft tone of it turned her uneasiness to wonder. She gratefully tore her eyes from the sentry, fixing them instead upon Melicard’s face. This time, the princess felt no uneasiness, only uncertainty. Would they suspect why she was here?
Quorin stepped forward to intercept her as she moved toward the king. “Your majesty, if you will permit me, I will have two of these men escort you to your chambers. There has been some unpleasantness here, as you can see, and we would not want you endangered.”
She purposely sidestepped him. “If there is some danger to Melicard, I will certainly not abandon him for my own sake! If there is some danger to me, I will feel safer with my betrothed!” Erini looked up at the king. Melicard met her gaze momentarily, then looked down. “Unless, of course, he does not wish me here.”
The king lifted his head and studied her. Erini kept her gaze on his eyes. Her own played tricks; she almost came to believe that both his eyes were real. Would he respond to her bald statement? Did Melicard understand that she would leave Talak now if he so desired it?
Beside her, Mal Quorin grew anxious. He put a hand on her arm, intending to lead her away from both the king and the present, dire situation. It proved to be a mistake. Life seemed to suddenly illuminate Melicard’s visage, even that carved of elfwood. He looked from the counselor to Erini and back again.
“It’s all right, Quorin. She will be fine with me.”
The faces of Erini and Mal Quorin were a study in opposites. More pleased than she had thought she could possibly be, the princess barely noticed the scowling features of the counselor.
“My liege, I don’t think—”
“We’ll speak of the other matters later on. I know I can depend on you to deal with the present crisis as I would want it dealt with.” The king’s tone brooked no argument.
Defeated for the moment, Quorin obediently bowed. “As you wish, your majesty. I shall report to you as soon as we have the crisis under control.”
Melicard absently touched one of the streaks of elfwood running across the right side of his face. “Unless you can’t control it, I see no need why it can’t wait until this evening. I leave it in your very capable hands.”
“My liege.” The counselor barked orders to the guards. Two of them took the stricken sentry away while the rest followed Quorin down the side corridor Erini had stepped out of before. The king by her side, Erini watched until the party was out of sight.
“Princess Erini,” Melicard suddenly began, “I apologize to you for yesterday. You shouldn’t have been expected to be at ease with something so… I sometimes try to provoke a response, I think.”
“My conduct was reprehensible, my lord. I should apologize to you for that. As a princess of Gordag-Ai and your betrothed, I should behave better. It could not have been easy for you to accept the fact that you had a bride, not after all these years.”
The thinnest shadow of a smile played briefly across the king’s mouth. Through some trick of the light, Erini imagined that the elfwood portion of his face flexed and shifted as he talked, as if it believed it was flesh and blood. She wanted to reach up and touch it, just to be certain, but she doubted that Melicard would tolerate such a thing at this point—and she had no desire to do anything that might break anew the bond between them just as it was beginning to mend.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” he responded. It was as if Erini had met twins, so different was this Melicard from the cold one she had encountered briefly yesterday. “I hadn’t even planned on marriage for several years. I have so much to do.”
The princess was careful not to press him on what sort of projects kept him so busy, instead saying, “‘The years pass as quickly as they once passed so slowly.’ An old saying of Gordag-Ai. A king needs heirs if he wishes his legacy to live on. Where would Talak be if something happened to you and you had no heir? The city would fall.”
From the look in his working eye, Erini knew she had struck one of his most sensitive points. Melicard’s campaign would be all for nought if he died. There was no one with the drive, the determination, to take over. Mal Quorin had such dreams, but the princess knew that putting Talak in the counselor’s hands like that would result in nothing less than civil war. The counselor was a madman and madmen made for short, brutal reigns.
Melicard reached out and took her hand. “Perhaps we can find a quiet place and talk for a little while.”
Having no desire to destroy what she had so far wrought, Erini made no mention of the fact that, under these circumstances, it was proper for others, specifically her ladies-in-waiting, to also be in attendance. When it came to courtship, the king was a babe. Still, she understood that they could make no progress if he had to endure the stares of other, less flexible souls like Magda or Galea—besides, Erini had no desire for them to be in attendance, either.
Melicard led her down the hall, but not to the chamber they had met in the day before. Instead, the two of them walked toward the cathedral high doors of the main hall, where several startled guards quickly straightened. The king touched his face where elfwood and flesh met, hesitant. Then, with iron resolve, he took her arm and guided her forward. Two guards quickly opened the door for them and several others moved to fall in behind the royal couple.
The king turned and calmly said, “Return to your posts. We will be within the palace grounds and very safe. That is a command.”
With some misgivings evident in their features, the guards stepped away.
“Such loyalty is commendable,” Erini commented. “Where are we going?”
Melicard did not look directly at her, but she thought she detected a brief smile. Twice in only a few minutes, the princess marvelled. There’s hope.
“If you’ll permit, Princess Erini, I would like to show you my kingdom.”
Her own smile was the only reply he received. Reddening slightly, Melicard escorted her outside and into the sunlight.
IN THE CAVERNS of Kivan Grath, a desperate Shade sat silently, his thoughts a raging fury in contrast to his still form. Try as he might, the warlock could make no sense of his memories; he barely even remembered the name by which he had gone for all these centuries. Shade. It was the only solid memory he had left. Somehow, he hoped, he would be able to build from it. Somehow.
From the darkened caverns beyond, a single, unseen watcher studied the human. When curiosity was satisfied, the watcher vanished into the darkness to tell the others.
THE CRIMSON FIRE that illuminated the throne room of the Dragon Emperor was momentarily drowned out by the brilliant white glow of Darkhorse’s gate as the shadow steed burst through. Chilling eyes quickly drank in the details of the massive cavern, from the few huge effigies still standing, to the flittering, frightened shapes seeking haven in the cracks and crevices. Darkhorse ignored the creatures, knowing them as useless servants of a long-dead Dragon King. There was only one thing, one creature who demanded his attention… and though he was nowhere to be seen, the ebony stallion could feel his nearby presence.
The warlock’s name echoed hauntingly through the endless labyrinth of caverns. It was said that here, if one dared, a way to the bottom of the world might be found. Darkhorse neither knew or cared. He wanted Shade and each passing second made that hope dwindle.
“Come, Shade! It is time to join the ghosts of our pasts! This poor world can ill afford our constant struggle! Let it end now!”
He waited, listening intently as the echoes of his challenge slowly died away. The things hiding in the cracks and crevices chittered in mad fear. More out of impatience than anything else, Darkhorse looked up in their general direction and laughed, sending them scattering to hiding places farther away from the phantom horse.
Still no one answered his challenge.
There was too much old magic here for him to pinpoint the spellcaster. Old spells abandoned, for the most part. There was also something else, something older and newer. Darkhorse sniffed.
Shade’s words to him while the shadow steed had remained helpless in Drayfitt’s cage resurfaced. The warlock had said that his elderly counterpart had used Vraad-style sorcery. Now, in this ancient place where Shade himself had come, there were again Vraad traces.
Darkhorse cursed silently. Now there was more than Shade to deal with. If he somehow survived his encounter with the warlock, there were still the legacies of the Vraad. Legacies that threatened more than a world.
Dru Zeree, the stallion thought, recalling the first being to befriend him. I’ve need of your guidance. How do I fight what even the Vraad themselves could not?
There was no answer, of course. It was a friendship of the far past. It was a reason that Darkhorse rarely sought the friendship of others, though he yearned for their trust. Everything passed beyond, save him.
If the spellcaster had come seeking the foul inheritance left by that ancient race of sorcerers, he would be deeper in the caverns, possibly miles below the surface. Though the Vraad were recent by this land’s standards, they had been a jealous people and prone to secrets, especially from one another. If one of their number had left artifacts behind, those items would be buried deep—and well-protected.
Mystery upon mystery!
Darkhorse struck the floor furiously, leaving a gouge where his hoof had landed. It also worried him that generation upon generation of Dragon Emperor had made this mountain and its caverns the home of their clans—yet not one of them had ever been known to make use of whatever the Vraad had abandoned.
Scanning the chamber, he chose a likely side cavern. A gate would have been quicker, true, but only if he knew where Shade was. Besides, there was too much sorcery lingering in the air. There was no telling what effect it might have on his own abilities.
Darkhorse trotted cautiously toward the cavern entrance.
A sinewy, metallic appendage wrapped itself around his throat. Another trapped one foreleg and two more snared his hind legs. Momentarily disconcerted, the shadow steed struggled futilely, gouging the earth with the sharp hoof of his sole free limb, as his unseen attackers struggled to maintain their holds from their shadowy hiding places. Then, the true seriousness of his situation jarred him back to reality. No physical bond could hold a creature whose essence was part of the Void itself, not unless master sorcery was at work. Even then, he should have been able to free himself simply by truly becoming a shadow. To his dismay, however, Darkhorse found that the transformation was beyond him. The same sorcery that had been used to create his attackers’ weapons also prevented him from utilizing his own abilities. Someone had planned well, though they could have hardly done so with him in mind. It was only unfortunate coincidence that he had fallen prey.
A final, jagged tentacle darted from one of the lesser caverns and snared his remaining leg. Each limb was pulled in a different direction, making movement impossible. The noose around his neck kept him from using more primitive methods to escape, such as biting his bonds in two.
“Hurry, you foolssss! Bind him quickly!”
Slowly, so as not to lose the hold each had, the ebony stallion’s attackers abandoned their hiding places and moved toward him. Their identities did not surprise him, not after hearing the hissing voice that commanded them. So engrossed had he become in his search that he had not noticed the spells that must have masked their presence, spells which he, more sensitive to sorcery than most, should have at least felt, regardless.
Despite his predicament, Darkhorse responded to his captors presence with disdain. “Drakes! I might have known your kind would be slithering about these holes in the ground!”
The crimson light poured over the newcomers, giving them the appearance of walking dead risen from some terrible battle. Each stood a little taller than a man and, outwardly, resembled savage warriors clad in masterly crafted scale armor that covered all but their heads. The heads themselves were mostly obscured by great dragonhelms that made the humanoid figures seem even taller. Within those helms, eyes the color of fire blazed and mouths full of sharp, predatory teeth opened wide in triumphant smiles. Their noses were little more than slits and, if one was so foolish as to get close enough to see, their skin was scaled, like a reptile.
Darkhorse knew far better than most that the armor was illusion. The scales were real, as real as those on the drakes’ faces. It was not true clothing they wore, but their own skins transformed by the drakes’ own innate sorcery. Even the mighty helms were false in nature, the intricate dragon crests being the true faces of the creature and not some craftsman’s design. The shadow steed had seen drakes revert to their dragon forms, and watched as the fierce dragon head slid down and stretched, becoming animated with life. It was a sight none could ever forget—provided they survived the encounter.
Dragons who preferred the forms of men, that was the drake race. With each generation, there were more and more of those who could better copy the human form. The females were already adept—too adept, some human women said—but they sacrificed much of their power for that perfection.
The drake holding the noose wrapped around Darkhorse’s neck gave it a tug. Pain burned the eternal where the metallic bonds touched his form, and all thought of drakes and their odd ways vanished as anger resurfaced stronger than ever before.
“Thisss isss our domain, demon,” the apparent leader hissed with gusto. “To enter here meansss to sssacrifice your life!”
Darkhorse chuckled. “You sound like your cousin the serpent, reptile! Is proper speech beyond you?”
The leader hissed, revealing a long, forked tongue. A throwback, the shadow steed noted in one part of his mind. A drake whose ties to the dragon form of his birth were stronger than those of his brethren, those ties manifesting themselves in such things as the split tongue, jagged teeth designed to tear flesh, and a savage manner that made them the deadliest of their race.
“Your death will be mossst—most enjoyable, demon! Our lord will gain great pleasure from watching you perish slowly! Too many of our race have suffered the unspeakable at your hands!”
“Hooves, dear lizard, hooves! Those things at the end of your arms are hands—more or less! Tell me; can you really hold a sword with those gnarled appendages—or do you scratch and bite your opponents like a riding drake?”
Riding drakes were huge, swift, wingless dragons of an intelligence just below that of horses. That such mindless beasts were as much a part of the drake race as these warriors before him amused Darkhorse. It did not amuse the leader—as the ebony stallion had hoped. “It might prove interesting to see if a sword could cut you now that you are forced to remain in the form of a beast of burden, demon horse! I will have to make such a suggestion to our lord when we have dragged you before him!”
Darkhorse looked scandalized. “Drag me before him? Did I say that I would be party to such a thing?”
The drakes grew nervous. A few touched their swords, forgetting the type of creature they were dealing with. The sword was the most useless of their weapons.
“You have no say in the matter.”
“Oh, my dear friend, but I do!” Darkhorse retorted. He began to laugh, taunting his captors with the very madness of his act. The sorcerous bonds burned into his solidified form, but he turned the agony, around, adding its strength to his mocking reply. In the vast maze of caverns, the sound of his voice echoed and echoed, but nowhere with more intensity than in the throne room. The more the pain sought to defeat him, the louder he roared.
One by one, his captors lost control as the laughter battered their ears. The drake keeping his right foreleg in check lost his grip on his weapon as he reached up and buried his head in his hands, trying without success to block out the noise. Darkhorse shook the coil loose and used the one leg to pull himself forward. The drakes behind him, barely able to even stand, could not maintain their grips. Freed, the shadow steed whirled and struck at the drake who controlled the coil around his left foreleg. The kick sent the warrior flying into one of the statues that still stood. Though he wrapped around it like a ribbon, the drake never felt his back break; Darkhorse’s blow had killed him.
The noose around his throat still burned. Darkhorse, no longer laughing, turned to the source of his pain, the leader of his attackers. The drake was on one knee and slowly recovering as the agonizing sound died away. Throughout all of it, he had maintained a tight grip. One coil, however, was not enough to hold the shadow steed, not now. Darkhorse prodded two of the other coils before him and, as the drake rose, kicked them expertly toward his adversary. The reptilian warrior had just enough time to realize his danger when both deadly toys dropped on him.
He screamed—almost. The power needed to contain an eternal such as Darkhorse was more than enough to consume the drake completely. There was not even a trace of ash.
Desperate, one of the remaining attackers leaped at the shadow steed, beginning the transformation to dragon form midway through the air. Darkhorse made no move to stop him. To what would forever be his dismay, the drake found no solid flesh to rend. He did not land upon Darkhorse but rather within him. The now-completely transformed dragon sank into the emptiness that was the jet-black stallion. Smaller and smaller the unfortunate attacker became, dwindling the way a figure falling forever and ever gradually diminished—until there was nothing to see. He would continue falling in that abyss, as still did so many before him, until everything—the multiverse, chaos, and even the Void—ceased to be.
“I am the demon to demons. I am the traveller who defies the Final Path. I am the Void incarnate. I am Darkhorse.” The eternal fixed his chilling stare on the remaining drake warriors as he whispered.
The drakes fled, disappearing in all-out panic into one of the caverns. Darkhorse watched them escape, all the while chuckling in morbid amusement.
Lead me to your master, drakes! Though the cursed light that only Shade could have left behind colors you scarlet, I think that silver is more to your lord’s taste! Darkhorse began trotting after the vanished drakes, his hooves making no sound despite seeming to strike the stone floor with enough strength to shatter it. This time, the advantage would be his.
Lead me to your master, brave ones, for I think that there might be a warlock I am seeking with him as well—and I will fight all the clans of your kind if that is what it takes to finally face him!
FACES VAGUELY RECALLED. Names only beginning to resurface. Images of the ancient dead walking the earth once more.
Shade could not say what urge had suddenly driven him to this subcavern far, far below the throne room. Not exactly a memory, but something more. Something to do with the insignia carved in raw marble and embedded in the wall he now stood before. An insignia he remembered seeing on the Gryphon’s tapestry and which he now traced in an abstract manner with his left hand. A militaristic banner with the stylized image of a fighting dragon.
The banner of his clan. The banner of his father.
“What memories do you hold?” Shade whispered, not knowing whether he spoke to the relief on the wall or his own, murky mind. He still could neither recall what he had come to this mountain for nor why the image of a great black beast, a demonic horse, had burned itself a permanent place in his thoughts.
“What memories do you hold?” the warlock repeated. Unable as he was to see his own face—or lack thereof—Shade could not notice the brief clarity which played across it. The change came and went in less than a breath, but it left its mark, though the warlock could not know that.
“Give me your memories.” The words were not the product of wishful thinking, but rather a command. The resistance was strong, but not enough, not to one who knew—now. Shade nodded. His own memories were returning again and now he would add new ones as well.
A pale, blue light formed in the center of the chamber and expanded. The warlock, his hand still on the ancient carving, turned to gaze on that light, seemingly fascinated by it as a moth to a flame. The light continued to expand and, as it did so, began to take on shapes. One after the other without stop. Tall. Short. Distant. Near. Simple. Unbelievable.
Memories of a long-forgotten time. Of a race of sorcerers called the Vraad. Of Shade’s kind.
The images were indistinct at first. Shade put his other hand on the relief. The memories had been gathered over generations and from countless places. He could not say exactly when he recalled this information, but it was true, just as it was true that this carving had been set in the wall for just the reason he utilized it for now.
“Give them to me!” he swore between clenched teeth.
An image broke from the rest, solidified, and sharpened. Even though it was not yet distinct, Shade inhaled sharply, knowing already who it would be. It was not the one he had wanted—probably one of the last he had wanted—but it made sense, given the dragon banner on the wall.
Father… Shade raised his left hand to the top of the banner.
With a violent twist of that hand, he banished the image. It flared like a miniature sun—and was gone.
A new image separated from the jumble, grew, and defined itself. A tall figure, female and only recently into womanhood. Shade dismissed it as he had the first, though he briefly wondered why it bothered him almost as much as seeing his father had. There had been no name to put to the woman, but he knew her. He also knew that, whatever her connections to him, she was not part of what he now sought. Still…
Caught up in his thoughts, the warlock looked away for several seconds. When he returned his gaze to the blue light, he started in surprise, for another figure, tall and clad in armor, stood waiting patiently. Where the others had been bright, as if the sun of midday had shone overhead, this one stood with the light behind him, blocking the glow and creating a shadow.
Shade glanced down at the rocky surface, eyeing the shadow that stretched long and narrow. This was no memory of the past. What stood before him was very, very real.
“Warlock. Shade.” The huge, armored newcomer took a few steps toward him. In the light, the scale armor glittered silver-blue. The voice was a quiet, soothing hiss. “I would have words with you, warlock. Words of things that concern both of us.”
The distant sound of mocking laughter echoing through the caverns made both look in the direction of the sole entrance to the chamber. Images of a creature with ice-blue eyes once more demanded Shade’s attention.
His new companion stirred visibly. Reptilian features partially masked by the massive dragonhelm were turned once more toward the warlock. Shade caught uncertainty tinged with greed—and fear.
The Silver Dragon spoke again, his words uttered a bit faster than the first time and his eyes continually darting toward the entrance. “I would have words with you, friend—and quickly, if you do not mind.”
THE DRAKES WHO fled from Darkhorse led him deeper and deeper into the caverns. Even he, who had known that a fantastic system of chambers lay within and below Kivan Grath, was shocked at the complexity and extent of the labyrinth. Still, it did make sense, for this had been the home of the entire clan of Gold, the most royal of drake clans. In one hot, steamy chamber, a hatchery by the look of it, he had even come across the skeletal remains of a huge female dragon who obviously had been the guardian of the newly born drakes. Her death had been quiet if not peaceful from the look of it. Old age or lack of purpose, he judged. Darkhorse had also not missed the brittle fragments of the second skeleton in that area, a drake warrior who looked suspiciously as if he had been killed by the elderly dam herself.
So many things to wonder about, he thought as he turned down yet another corridor. Would he ever find out what had happened since his exile? There seemed to be so much. A sudden uneasy feeling filled him, but it had nothing to do with his unanswered question. Darkhorse paused. No, something else disturbed him. He sniffed the air.
Vraad sorcery—and close!
“Shade…” he whispered to himself. So close the shadow steed could almost see him. Darkhorse opened a path in reality and, without hesitation, stepped through.
The path itself was short, almost nothing, and the ebony stallion emerged from the other end of the portal in mere seconds. He found himself in the center of a chamber, bathed in a pale blue light and surrounded by phantom images that ignored him as they played out their brief lives.
“What manner of monstrosity is this?” the shadow steed bellowed without thinking. Had he fallen into some hell created by Shade?
Two figures whirled at the shout, both momentarily shadowed, Darkhorse stepped quickly from the light, shaking his body as if that would remove the thought of these disconcerting specters from it. They had about them the feel of Vraad sorcery, which made their existence all the more foul.
One of the two figures watching him stepped closer, as if taking a casual walk. “You… you’re… Darkhorse… aren’t you?”
“As much as you are the warlock Shade, my blurry friend! You know that very well! You remember everything—or have you forgotten that?”
Perhaps it was his eyes that played tricks on him, Darkhorse wondered, but he would have been willing to swear even to the Lords of the Dead that Shade was smiling just a little. Was it a trick or were those two dark spots his eyes?
Before the shadow steed could take it further, the warlock nodded and replied, “I remembered… but I forgot. I am remembering again… but not as Madrac. As myself, I think.”
Darkhorse’s eyes glittered. “Yourself?”
“I can’t be certain yet.” Shade indicated his companion. “The drake lord asked me the same question. He seemed disappointed. I think he wanted to make some sort of pact. I don’t know.”
“Thisss isss insssanity!” The Silver Dragon raised a fist. Something crystalline glittered in its grip. “He isss our enemy!”
An oppressing weight crashed down on the black stallion. Darkhorse fell to his knees and grew distorted as the pressure on him increased and he was slowly flattened. The Silver Dragon took a step forward, the light of victory burning in his anxious eyes.
“It worksss! It worksss!”
Shade remained where he was, watching everything with clinical interest. “Of course it does. Vraad sorcery does not fade easily. Still, I doubt if it will be enough.”
The drake cocked his head in sudden confusion. Victory had been replaced anxiety. “What’sss that? What do you mean, human?”
“He means,” Darkhorse forced himself to his feet again, “that you’ll need more than that pretty bauble to keep me kneeling before you, lizard!” The shadow steed chuckled. “Surprise was its only useful weapon—and you’ve used that up!”
The Dragon King cursed and shook the crystal, as if that would make it stronger. Shade shook his cowled head.
“He knows more about it than you do, it seems, drake. I would have to say he probably knows more than I remember, too.”
Slowly, the Silver Dragon backed away. “I have my own power! I can deal with him!”
“Ha!” Darkhorse looked down at the reptilian monarch. “Power includes the confidence and will to back it up, my little friend! Do you have enough of either? Somehow, I doubt that!”
Shade crossed his arms and looked at both of them. “He may be right, Dragon King. He may be wrong as well.”
“You! He is your enemy, too! If he defeats me, you will be next!”
“Possibly. Possibly not. I could just depart—but I suppose he would find me eventually.”
Darkhorse moved cautiously. He was confident that the Dragon King would give him little trouble, being the most pathetic of his brethren that the horse could recall. This is a drake lord? This one would be Emperor? What worried him, however, was this new Shade, this indifferent, even possibly amoral creature who stood talking calmly while two powerful beings prepared to fight to the death—a fight that might very well include the warlock before long.
Desperation was written in every movement of the Silver Dragon. Darkhorse began to understand. This drake lord had lived under the favor of the Gold Dragon and had apparently drawn much of his strength from his emperor—who had been more than a little paranoid about his own position. That paranoia had evidently transferred itself to this Dragon King, who saw himself as the obvious successor to his former master.
The drake hissed and suddenly threw the crystal at Darkhorse.
“That was definitely foolish,” Shade commented.
Knowing the artifact for what it was, the stallion stepped nimbly aside. A magical talisman could be deadlier when used in desperation than in planned combat. The Vraad device went flying past him, striking the cavern wall behind. It bounced two or three times on the floor and then rolled to a stop—all without the slightest sign of danger.
Shade leaned over, clearly interested at the lack of reaction on the talisman’s part.
The crystal split into two perfect pieces and a gray-green smoky substance began to rise from it, forming into a cloud that swelled with each passing second. The warlock straightened quickly with as much emotion as Darkhorse had seen him convey since his arrival here.
“I warned you that it was foolish. I think I may leave after all.”
Darkhorse snorted and trotted a step closer to the cloaked figure. “None of us is leaving here, dear friend Shade, until—”
The shadowy warlock curled within himself and vanished with a slight pop! before the next word was even out of the eternal’s mouth.
“No!” The Dragon King reached toward the spot where the spellcaster had stood, uselessly grasping at air.
“You!” Darkhorse turned on the drake. “Where has he gone, carrion eater? Where?” Notagainnotagainnotagain! the shadow steed mentally cursed.
Sizing up the chamber and knowing his chances against the creature before him, the Silver Dragon came to a rapid decision. He transformed.
The transformation was quick, almost unbelievably so. Wings burst from the drake’s back and the creature hunched forward as his spine arced and his legs bent backwards. Taloned hands grew long and arms twisted, becoming more like the legs. The Dragon King’s neck stretched high, an ungodly sight at first, what with the humanoid head, but then the dragoncrest slid down over the half-hidden face, slid down and lengthened. The jaws snapped and the eyes opened, the true visage of the Silver Dragon revealed at last. All the while, the form of the leviathan expanded, growing and growing until it threatened to fill the cavern and more.
All this in but a breath. Time enough for Darkhorse to have attacked—save that his limbs were suddenly heavy and the chamber was beginning to fade. He blinked, wondering if the ominous smoke cloud had affected his senses. His second thought was that Shade had made a fool of him, had returned somehow without Darkhorse sensing him and struck with some new spell. He struggled forward. The dragon, now whole, did nothing but stare. Stare and slowly smile that toothy smile that only his kind was capable of.
“The nag hasss been sssnared himssself!” the Dragon King hissed jubilantly. He inhaled sharply and, as Darkhorse looked on in helpless frustration, bathed the shadow steed in white flame summoned up from his own magical essence. Darkhorse steadied himself, knowing that here was a fire whose burning touch even he might feel.
The flame passed through the trapped stallion without so much as a hint of its unbearable heat. The Silver Dragon roared angrily. Darkhorse laughed, covering his own surprise with bravado. What was happening?
You will come to me, demon! a familiar voice demanded. Now!
“Damn the Final Path, no!” Darkhorse renewed his struggles, fighting with such ferocity that that Dragon King backed away again. “No!”
The choice is not yours, demon! You will come!
He was wrenched from the cavern and the dragon with the ease that one might reach down and pick up a twig. The world—everything—twisted and faded. Darkhorse struggled, but he might as well have been trying to physically run the boundaries of the Void so futile was his attempt. He had underestimated an adversary again. His self-exile, he grimly decided, had warped his senses beyond help.
The world of the Dragonrealm returned then—and with it a place that he had thought he would never have to see again.
In the dim light of the torch, Drayfitt rose before him, exhausted but satisfied. The look in his eyes was unreadable, even to Darkhorse.
“He will not escape this time. We can stare in those dead eyes until the Dragon of the Depths comes to visit the king for lunch before the demon will be able to trick one of us again. His other abilities are stifled as well.”
The markings around his magical cage had been altered slightly. Darkhorse tried to make them out but could not.
Mal Quorin joined his rival and eyed the shadow steed with a mix of fury and glee. “You’ve cost us much, demon! That book cannot be replaced! Rest assured, though, before long, you will have repaid us for it over and over again!”
“Mortal fools! I am not your fetching slave! Release me! Shade still wanders free and the danger may be greater than I supposed!”
The Silver Dragon was a bully, strong but with little true bravery to back it up. Yet, if he was allowed to study the Vraad for very long, he might become an even deadlier threat. Kivan Grath might again be home to an emperor, if it did not become the citadel of Shade first…
… and Darkhorse, trapped again through his own lack of forethought, would be unable to do anything about either peril.
ERINI WOKE THE next day feeling as if the dreams of her childhood had become reality. Yesterday had turned the fears of the future back into hopes. Yesterday, she had met Melicard the man.
In the light of day, the magical aspects of his unique features had taken on a new quality. Erini had thought him handsome in spite of the coldness of his elfwood side; now, she saw that the elfwood could enhance as well. There was a beauty to the wood when it became one with the king’s pale skin. The rare wood had always been beautiful by itself, but, as Melicard had seemed to draw from it, so, too, had it drawn from him. The two sides of his face had become one despite their differences.
Even the stiff, artificial arm had felt smoother, more supple than earlier.
Galea and Magda came and helped her this morning; a good thing, too, since she found she could not concentrate. Her thoughts continued to be of yesterday’s journey out onto the palace grounds and the tower to which he had led her. It was part of the wall and there were three others identical to it spread equal distances apart. This was the best one, Melicard had informed her quietly, to view the city as a whole.
His manners were rusty, as would be reasonable after so many years with so little practice. Still, the more they walked together—without the ever-present shadow of Mal Quorin—the more a new man had emerged; a new man, or one who had been locked away for over a decade. More and more, Erini was discovering that the dark, moody ruler of Talak was a creation of Melicard’s own fears and, though she dared not suggest it openly, the influence of men like the counselor. This was not to say that the drakes were innocent, not by far, but the princess knew that some, at least, were trying to make peace with humanity. The others… she could not entirely fault Melicard’s crusade.
He had pointed to the north first. “There you see the old center. After the palace was built here, everything shifted. The buildings in the old center were torn down and new ones put up. Since there’s a gate over there, merchants and travellers have taken it over much the way they have the other gates. Also out that way is the main garrison of the city. A remnant of the days when a drake ruled from the Tybers.”
Sensing his mood changing at the mention of the Dragon Emperor, Erini had turned west and pointed at a number of fancier buildings. “What about those?”
“The wealthier families. Master merchants and the old blood make their homes there. You probably saw some of that since the gate you entered lies in that direction.”
She smiled then, already knowing the effect a smile would have on him. Few women—few people—had smiled at him and meant it, possibly because the king never smiled himself.
In the tower, he had returned her smile. She wondered how she could have ever thought it would be a chilling sight. In reply to his comment, the princess said, “There was so much to see that I cannot recall half of what I passed. Besides, most of the time my thoughts were on meeting you.”
Only one other thing disturbed the otherwise pleasant tour. Pointing to a large structure in the eastern side of Talak, the princess asked, “What is that? I saw a building like that in the west. Are they theatres? Arenas?”
“In a sense. You’ll find similar buildings in the northern and southern parts of Talak as well. All together, they house a standing force at least five times the size of the armies of Penacles, Zuu, or Irillian by the Sea.”
A standing army. The city of Zuu, though far to the southeast of Gordag-ai, was familiar to her by name at least. Though relatively small in comparison to giants like Penacles and the maritime Irillian, their armies were of similar strength—mainly because nearly every adult was willing to take on a foe and being a part of the army was considered an honor. Erini did not understand the ways of Zuu, but if Melicard had a force five times the population of that city-state…
THE REST OF the day went peacefully. She had eaten with the king for the first time and, during the course of the dinner, had carefully broached the subject of their courtship and impending marriage. Melicard’s replies were short and vague, but more, she suspected, from shyness than reluctance. Realizing she was starting to push things too quickly, the princess turned to small talk.
Her betrothed had walked her to her room, where both ladies-in-waiting tried not to look disconcerted at the sight of their mistress and the king walking arm in arm. Melicard wished her a pleasant evening and departed. Erini could not recall when exactly she had finally gone to bed, only knowing that she had probably spent several hours either thinking or talking about the king—whether Galea and Magda wanted to hear it or not.
Now, at the beginning of what she hoped to be an even more promising day, the princess found she could not be satisfied with anything she wore. Magda tsked a lot, reminding her that it was Erini the king was to marry, not a particular dress. Erini grew flushed. Here she was acting like the mindless young things that had always surrounded her at the palace back in Gordag-Ai. Always they had spoken of this young duke or that in giddy terms, much to her annoyance. Now, she realized with a wry smile, she was acting every bit as empty-headed.
“Give me that one,” she commanded with as much conviction as she could muster, pointing at a dress she had already tried on. Galea shook her head and picked it up again.
Some time later, as Erini studied her finished self in one of the mirrors, she discovered she was still dissatisfied with the dress.
Is this what love is? the princess wondered. I hope not. I’ll never be able to live with myself if I keep acting this way.
A servant arrived just as she was about to leave her room and informed her that something had come up; Melicard was begging her forgiveness but he would not be joining her.
“What is it? Does Talak face an attack? Is Melicard injured or ill?”
“He did not say, milady. He seemed well, though, and there was no word of an encroaching army in the outlands. I know nothing more.”
“Thank you.” Erini ended up eating only with her ladies. All through her meal, a meal which proved that, if nothing else, Melicard had someone who could perform miracles with eggs and spices, she found herself returning to the mysterious actions of yesterday. The strange states of the sorcerer, Drayfitt. The anger and fear of Mal Quorin. The door in the garden wall.
The door in the garden wall?
After brunch, she insisted that her two companions learn more about the city so that they would feel more comfortable. With a start, she also realized that she had yet to speak to the captain of the troop that had accompanied her coach to Talak from Gordag-Ai. The hapless soldier had not disturbed her, obviously believing she was too busy adjusting to Melicard to speak to him. Surely, though, the captain and his men wanted to return home as soon as possible, didn’t they?
“Magda, before the two of you depart, would you please ask someone to summon—oh, what is his name? The captain of the cavalry troop that my father had accompany us.”
“Captain Iston?” Galea piped up quickly. “I’ll do it for you, Madga. I know you have some things you want to take care of before we leave.”
“Thank you, Galea. I’d appreciate that.”
The princess, who felt she had missed something, looked at her other companion as soon as Galea was out of the room. Magda smiled briefly. “Little Galea and Captain Iston have known each other for several months. He is the third son of Duke Crombey and a career soldier himself. That his unit was given to you is a sign of favor on the part of your parents.”
“Gave to me? Do you mean to tell me—”
“They’re staying here, yes. Permanent attachment. Not one of those men has a family to return to. If I may be forward, I hope you’ll encourage Galea. The captain is a bit older than her, but they are very serious and definitely a good match. She will bear him strong children.”
Erini fought down a grimace. “Is that his main priority with her? Passing on his name to a new generation?”
“It has some importance.” The taller woman looked at her curiously. “Your father, King Laris, and Melicard’s father kept that in mind, I imagine. Most royal marriages are set up that way and quite a few more common ones as well—but, before you say what your face is already shouting, I think I speak truthfully when I say that Galea and her cavalry officer would marry even if children were out of the question.”
The princess looked at her older lady with new respect. “You surprise me, Mag. The two of you aren’t that much older than me—”
“Fourteen years is not that much older? You flatter me.”
“As I was saying, sometimes I watch you and I see those creatures that my father insisted I associate with, those—those crystalline dolls of the court. Other times, you seem to be in command of the world.”
Magda made some adjustments on Erini’s dress. “No secret there. I’m a woman. If you want a puzzle to play with, try to figure out men. Now there’s a mystery.”
Erini thought of Melicard and nodded.
HER TALK WITH Captain Iston was short. Once she had gotten over the fact that her parents had turned an entire unit of Gordag-Ai’s cavalry over to her—as a personal guard—the rest was simple. Captain Iston proved to be a competent soldier and one of the few who listened to her without trying to act parental.
“I have only one request, then, your majesty,” he said at the conclusion of their talk.
“It makes little sense for your bodyguards to be so far away from you. True, we are cavalry, but any soldier of Gordag-Ai is also a master warrior on foot, too. We were given the honor of becoming yours. At the very least, let me set up a series of watches so that each man can perform his duties.”
Erini thought it over and nodded. “I’ll have to talk to King Melicard first, captain, but I don’t think that he will object to my request.” Counselor Quorin might, but his likes and dislikes meant little to the princess. “I think I’d also like you to have a permanent place in the palace itself, captain. There will be times when I’ll need you and I want you to start developing ties with our new countrymen.”
“Your majesty, I’m a soldier! I should be sleeping with my men!”
“You won’t be far. Besides, an officer is allowed some privacy, I think. You’ve earned the right to live life a little, too.”
Magda and Galea announced themselves almost as if on cue. Iston did his best to maintain a military appearance, though his eyes wandered to the shorter lady-in-waiting more than once.
“We were about to leave, as you suggested, when I thought that there might be something in particular you wanted us to look for. Good day, captain.”
“Good day, my ladies.”
Erini smiled while the officer’s eyes were on other matters. “Nothing, thank you, but a thought occurred to me. Captain Iston, if it would not be inconvenient, I have one more request of you.”
He bowed. “Name it.”
“I am occupied with many things at the moment, but I want someone to get to know the city. Magda and Galea are performing that favor for me. I’d feel better, however, if they had someone trustworthy to protect them—just in case. Would you be so kind as to take a few of your men and escort them? It would give you a chance to study Talak for yourself, something you were undoubtedly planning, anyway.”
Iston hesitated, then, with a glance at Galea, nodded. “A wise idea, your majesty. If the ladies will permit me a few minutes, I will have horses and half a dozen of my finest join us. Will that be acceptable, my ladies?”
Galea was silent with just the slightest crimson in her cheeks, but Magda took events in hand and gave her approval. “That will be fine, Captain Iston.”
“Has the princess any other need for me?”
The cavalry officer extended his arms. “If the two of you will accompany me?”
Erini watched them depart, Galea’s hold on Iston so tight, the princess wondered if it would be possible to separate them again.
Her feeling of joy increased tenfold. She was on her way to strengthening her relationship with Melicard and now her own people were beginning to adjust to their new home. She turned to the mirror for one last look, wanting to be her best when she found her betrothed, which she would. Now there was only—
A figure stood visible in the mirror. A hooded figure much like Drayfitt, only younger in stature, but clad in garments a bit archaic for the times. She could not make out his face; something about the angle seemed to make it indistinct, almost a blur. His cowled head had just turned in her direction…
She whirled instinctively. Her hands began to move of their own accord.
The room was empty.
Erini glanced back in the mirror, almost expecting to see the figure still standing there. Nothing. She turned and rushed to the spot where he had stood. Kneeling, the princess touched the floor.
There were bits of dirt in the vague shape of a heel.
A feeling of ancient, enduring power caught her by surprise and she fell backward, only barely managing to stifle a scream. It was the first time she had truly sensed another spellcaster and, though she did not understand exactly what she had done, Erini had a fair idea of what she had felt.
She debated for some time what to tell Melicard, if anything. All she had to prove her story was a tiny clump of dirt that even the princess had to admit could have come from her own shoes or, more likely, the shoes of some errant servant. Only because of her increasing sensitivity to the powers did she know for certain that what had been reflected in the mirror was no figment of her imaginative mind. Erini could visualize Mal Quorin’s expression should she give in and tell Melicard or anyone else her secret. It would probably be the fatal blow to the betrothal.
Not now. Not yet. I have to wait. Her decision was far from strong and she wavered even as she chose. Drayfitt! He might understand, but… won’t he tell Melicard? Erini knew that the sorcerer was extremely loyal to his liege and that such loyalty might demand he betray the princess. Erini muttered a curse her father did not know she had overheard countless times while growing up. She slowly rose, deciding that she would postpone telling anyone for the time being. Her only fear was that, by doing so, she might let some other danger grow unchecked.
Confused and no longer looking forward to the day, the princess left her chambers. Whatever else happened today, nothing matched the importance of strengthening her relationship with Melicard. Nothing save what might destroy that relationship before it matured.
PRINCESS ERINI FOUND Melicard in the least likely of places in the palace. He was holding court—in a sense. What she actually discovered was a huge, nearly empty throne room in which the king sat on a simple chair—not even the throne, which stood empty at the top of a dais—and argued with four or five men whom Erini realized were emissaries from other city-states. Quorin, standing behind the king, looked on in a combination of barely contained anger and contempt.
“… drake lovers, all of you. I should have guessed as much, especially from you, Zuuite. You’ve long lived under the beneficial rule of the Green Dragon, haven’t you?”
The emissary from Zuu replaced his helm, which he had been holding in the fold of one arm. A bear in size, he looked more than ready to trade blows with Melicard. Instead, he retorted, “Tell that to Prince Blane and the others who died defending Penacles from the Lochivarites and the monstrous forces of the Black Dragon and the drake commander Kyrg! You recall the sadist Duke Kyrg, do you not, your majesty?”
It was a telling blow. Kyrg’s name, Erini recalled, conjured images in Melicard’s mind of his father slowly losing control as the drake ate freely from the writhing bodies of still-living animals. Rennek IV had spent the next week babbling on and on about not wanting to be eaten alive, something he knew that Kyrg had been capable of doing. Those memories were only two of the many that haunted Melicard almost every night.
The king’s face turned as pale as bone. The elfwood hand came down on the arm of the chair and broke it into splinters. Even Mal Quorin stepped back from the rising fury of his master.
“Get… them… out of… here, Quorin! Get them out before I forget treaties!”
As the counselor rushed around the chair to aid the emissaries in their hasty departure, Erini started forward. She had been waiting out of sight near one of the side doors to the massive room with the intention of joining her betrothed once the talks were finished. Now, the princess wanted nothing more than to soothe Melicard before his anger drove him to further destruction and possible injury.
A firm hand clamped itself on her shoulder. “Your majesty, I wouldn’t recommend you speak to him at this time.”
She turned on the sudden intruder, intending to give him a strong, royal reprimand, and met the sad gaze of the sorcerer Drayfitt.
“He is in a dangerous mood, milady, and neither of us should be nearby. Things have not gone well.” The aged spellcaster shook his head slowly. “And I fear that I am the cause of much of it.”
“So what have your problems to do with me?”
Drayfitt gave her a sour smile. “Counselor Quorin, in what may be his finest performance, has been trying to make your arrival and stay here a detriment to the king’s crusade. He’s already pointed out how you kept the king occupied while I destroyed Quorin’s damnable book.”
Erini blinked. “Book? What are you talking about, mage?”
“I speak too much. Suffice to say, milady, King Melicard is not quite certain about the courtship. We have to give him a little time to recall all you did for him yesterday—and it was significant, I can tell you. He was almost the Melicard of long ago.”
“You ramble a bit, Master Drayfitt,” the princess paused, “but I will stay clear of him for a short while—providing you give me some answers I seek.”
Drayfitt closed his eyes in concentration. When he opened them, he quietly replied, “Don’t ask me about yesterday. Even I don’t know everything—as Quorin has reminded me again and again.”
The spellcaster’s muttered words did little to assuage Erini’s curiosity, but she knew there were other ways to find out what she wanted to know. The princess was about to ask him a question that she was fairly certain he would answer, when the elderly man stumbled against the wall. Erini reached out and grabbed his hand to prevent him from sliding to the floor.
He regained his balance almost immediately, but the look on his face was the most tragic yet. “Forgive me, princess. My powers have been tested beyond their limits lately; I’ve made heavy use of them much too late in life. Had I continued to train, to practice, while I was still young…” Drayfitt’s voice trailed off as he stared at Erini’s hand, which he still held in his own. After several seconds, he looked up at the princess as if she had sprouted wings. All his grief, all his exhaustion, seemed to vanish as he said, “Step down the corridor with me, please. We need privacy. I think there is something we must talk about quickly.”
Not knowing whether she was mad to trust him, Erini reluctantly followed. Drayfitt led her along for quite some time, refusing to release her hand from his own. She began to worry. What if the spellcaster cared as little for her as Mal Quorin did? Despite his polite, sometimes helpful attitude, he might object to the marriage as much as the counselor did. What did he see in her hand?
As if trying to relieve her fears, Drayfitt turned and smiled assurance. He led her around a corner and stopped. There were no guards in sight.
“I could’ve touched the minds of some of the sentries and had our talk in a more open place, but such flamboyancy always backfires. Knowing something as simple but important as that was one reason I lived peacefully most of my life. I dearly wish it was still true.”
“What do you want with me?”
“You have a natural affinity like none that I have ever seen.”
The sorcerer continued to hold her hand, studying it closely as if looking for some minuscule marking. Erini had a very uncomfortable idea that she knew what he was searching for. Nevertheless, she played innocent. “What sort of affinity? For excellent fingernails? For having the ‘fair skin’ of a maiden in the tales of the minstrels and players?”
His features grew grim. “Don’t play games with me, your majesty! You know what sort of affinity I talk of. Have you felt the involuntary desire to test your skills? What do you see? Most burgeoning spellcasters see the lines and fields of power that crisscross the world. Others see the spectrum, the dark and the light, and choose what they need from that. Which are you, Princess Erini?”
He’ll tell Melicard! The thought was an irrational outburst, but Erini did not care. She was not yet ready to face the king with her own curse, not until she was certain her relationship with him was stronger. The princess tried to pull away, pretending to be offended. “You’re mad! I am a princess of Gordag-Ai and the betrothed of your own monarch! Release me at one and forget this nonsense!”
Drayfitt’s other hand shot forward and Erini had momentary fear that the sorcerer was going to strike her. Instead, his hand went up to the hair above her eyes. Mystified, she stood silent as the elderly man searched for something.
“Aaaah! The growth is slower than I would’ve thought, but it seems to be different with each magic-user. Interesting. Ishmir was wrong.”
“What—what are you talking about now?” She jerked her head away, as if suddenly feeling continued contact would affect her somehow. Simultaneously, Drayfitt released her hand.
“There is a lock of silver amongst your beautiful, golden tresses, Princess Erini. The silver will expand—magically, you might say—as your abilities grow. Soon—and sooner than you want, I know—it will be impossible to hide it. Before that point, you must decide what you will do.”
This was the last thing she had expected to deal with this morning. Erini stepped back and smoothed her dress, more to try to calm herself than because it needed it. “You don’t know what you’re saying! If you will excuse me, Master Drayfitt, I believe I will retire to my chambers. I’m not feeling well.”
She started to go around him, but the aged sorcerer took hold of her again. His strength was phenomenal, a complete contrast to his weakness a moment before. A fire burned in his eyes. “Don’t make the mistake I did, milady. Even if you never need them, it is best to hone your skills. I can help you. I’ve lived through the pain and the fear—more than most, I regret to say. I can teach you. There is no choice; your abilities will grow with or without your permission.”
“Let me go,” Erini commanded icily.
Drayfitt obeyed, but he was not yet through speaking. “Think about it. I’ll be honest. I may need your assistance later on.” As her eyes widened, he immediately added, “What I ask of you will only benefit King Melicard, not hurt him. I want the best for him, as do you. I think that your marriage will may possibly save him from the fate of his father—or worse.”
Erini could listen no more. There was too much in what Drayfitt had said that had the ring of truth or, at the very least, conviction. A part of her wanted to turn to him for whatever aid he could give her… but the fear of losing everything and the shame of what she was becoming held her back. Perhaps some time alone would let her clear the fog that had grown thick in her mind.
As she walked stiffly away, the sorcerer called after her, “I hope you feel better, your majesty. Let us talk again soon.”
She did not respond.
THE THRONE FELT proper beneath him. Taloned hands stroked the cracked armrests. He smiled as he thought of the others making obeisance to him, awarding what was due to him after these frustrating past few years.
The hatchlings are tainted, the Silver Dragon decided. They have lived with humans for too long. That was the fault of the Green Dragon, master of the Dagora Forest and ally to the humans. When the Gold Dragon had been defeated, the royal hatchlings had been taken by traitorous Green and turned over to Cabe Bedlam, the foulest of the human race. Now, those hatchlings that would have become Dragon Kings were on their way to becoming human sheep instead.
It is the only thing to do. They must be eliminated eventually so that some other traitor does not try to use them as puppets. The line that rules all others will be mine. My claim is strongest. They will see that. I will make them see that.
“I didn’t return to you so that you could sit dreaming in a broken-down chair.”
The Dragon King jumped. “Curse you, warlock! Announce yourself from now on!”
Shade stepped out of the darkness of a nearby tunnel and looked around. “Where are your brave warriors? Out trying to scrounge up some more toys to replace your crystal bauble?”
“What of it?” The crystal had been a double blow to the drake’s ambitions. Not only had it broken, but the chamber of the Vraad and several others nearby were now impassable. The smoky substance released by the artifact showed no sign of dissipating, either. Even Shade, who had come back to look for the Silver Dragon, would not enter.
The shadowy sorcerer had still not explained exactly why he had chosen to finally accept the drake’s offer of an alliance. It was not for what the Dragon King had already discovered, though there was one item of interest that the warlock wanted—or at least remembered—nor was it because they shared common goals. Shade seemed to care little who was emperor, as it long as it did not interfere with his own goals, whatever those might be.
“Nothing,” Shade finally replied in answer to the drake lord’s question. “Let them search.”
“What about you?” Silver’s reptilian eyes narrowed sharply. “Did you find it?”
“You said it was in the palace.”
The warlock shook his head. “I will try again later. Something went amiss.” A slight hint of humor touched his normally indifferent voice. “I ended up in the personal chambers of the king’s bride-to-be. She’ll probably have nightmares for weeks and drive Melicard mad.”
The Silver Dragon chuckled. “Such a tragedy is little in comparison to what I intend to do to that cowardly scavenger of a human! Talak will fall as Mito Pica fell—but, this time, there will not be enough left over to rise again. After Talak… Penacles, I think.”
“Why not Gordag-Ai in the region of Esedi? Your ‘brother’ there is dead and few of his clan remain active; you’ve already taken claim to his kingdom. Teach your subjects that they must obey you. That is the point of having true power.”
Shade watched the Dragon King visibly mull over the thought. Gordag-Ai would be easier pickings and boost the morale of the drake’s clans. It would also guarantee that his erstwhile draconian ally would remain busy, thereby gaining Shade valuable time—time to remember what it was he had set out to do and whether he had any right to do it.
Staring at one of the majestic effigies lying broken on the cavern floor, the warlock tried to ignore the increased pressure building in his head. He knew his mind had changed again, simply by the added pain. Shade also knew that the fact that he could recall his personality changes meant that he was beginning to stabilize. What worried him was what he would be like at that point.
He felt some shame and remorse for his past actions, especially against Darkhorse, but yet, at the same time, it was his growing feeling that those who stood in his way, regardless of their reasons, were simply in the wrong. If they surrendered to the inevitable, the warlock would leave them be—maybe—but if they continued to oppose him, he felt he was justified in removing them in whatever way necessary.
Shade realized that the drake lord was speaking. “What was that you said?”
“I asked you what you think you are doing, human! Is this how you vent your frustrations?” The Dragon King pointed toward the spot Shade had been staring at moments before.
The warlock returned his gaze to the effigy—or to where it had once lain. Now, there was only a pile of fine dust. Very fine dust. Shade looked down at his hands. They literally glowed with the use of the powers.
“I am Vraad,” he whispered to himself. “Vraad is power.” The words had been spoken millennia before by many, all of whom, save Shade, were dead now. It had almost been a litany to the race, and his remembrance of it was yet another sign of what was happening to him. Still, it bothered the spellcaster that he had reduced the ancient statue to ash without realizing it. A warning beat briefly against the walls of his mind, but the pain drowned it out. He looked up at the impatient and somewhat nervous Dragon King. “Merely a little carelessness on my part.”
The drake’s burning red eyes narrowed. “Yesss. That is what got you into your predicament originally, is it not?”
“Watch your tongue, drake lord. It might dart too far out of your mouth once too often.”
The Silver Dragon hissed anxiously. Because Shade had found a need for him, he had grown overly confident about his power. Only now did the drake realize that there were limits to which he could push the spellcaster. Both knew that the alliance was temporary at best. Quickly, the would-be emperor turned the conversation back to an earlier subject. “What do you ssseek in the book? Most of it makes little sense.”
“A key, of sorts. I really don’t know what. Not yet, but soon. Soon I’ll be my old self again.” A vague line that was what now passed for his smile surfaced briefly, faltered, and died. Shade wrapped his cloak about him and, as the Dragon King rose in the sudden realization that something was amiss, vanished.
Through his own words, the warlock had just rediscovered the purpose, the goal, of his search—and why he dared not let anyone, even Darkhorse, stand in his way.
THE PAIN INFLICTED upon him was like such he had not suffered in centuries. The human called Mal Quorin claimed it was on order of the king, but Darkhorse, in his more lucid moments, suspected that Melicard knew only vaguely what his underlings were doing. Something in the feline features of the counselor, as if he were toying with his prisoner the way the creature he so resembled toyed with its prey, told Darkhorse that.
It was obvious that the sorcerer was reluctant to question his rival and that alone spoke volumes as to their respective positions of influence with the king. Drayfitt’s loss of face was the shadow steed’s doing, made doubly worse by the successful destruction of the spellbook by the entranced mage. For that, even Drayfitt had exercised a bit of vengeance.
They had abandoned him for other matters some time back—how long, Darkhorse could not say. Now, the eternal recovered slowly in his accursed cage, his present form little more than a blot of shadow darker than the rest. Had he been human, he would have died several times over and that fact had not escaped him. With one part of his mind, he plotted the torture of his foes; with the other, he cursed himself for his stupidity and lack of foresight. Drayfitt had taken care with his original spell. Had the stallion delved deeply, he would have discovered the thin magical bond that still tied him to the sorcerer, a tie that the elderly human had used to recapture him. His escape, it seemed, had been no more than a farce.
So close! Shade was no doubt laughing at him even now. He had come so close, actually confronting the warlock. Darkhorse knew he should have come in striking, beating down Shade before the warlock had a chance to think. Hesitation had cost him the battle and his freedom.
Once more, he re-created the equine form he favored. A hollow victory, creating a form again, but a victory nonetheless. With nothing else to do, Darkhorse began a slow and thorough scan of his magical prison. Perhaps this time…
Nothing. If anything, Drayfitt had tightened the control of the pattern, used the power of the cell to cancel out the shadow steed’s own abilities to the point where even eye contact would not help. The aged sorcerer was a survivor and learned readily from his mistakes.
Odd, he wondered, that Melicard’s spellcaster would have access to a Vraad artifact at the same time that both Shade and the Silver Dragon were searching for such things. What was the connection? What did Shade want with a work from so ancient a time? Surely not to summon a true demon. Its power would be insignificant compared to his own. Was this latest madness just the product of his unstable mind? The warlock had undergone yet another personality change; in centuries past, he had done stranger things during various incarnations. These rapid and continuous changes, however, smelled of something different, something gone awry. When would they stop? Which “Shade” would be the final result?
Significant questions weaved in a hundred different directions like a swirling mass of tentacles, confusing and unanswerable for the most part. He soon realized there was little point in pursuing them for now, though he knew that forgetting them entirely would be impossible.
More time passed. All the while, Darkhorse stubbornly continued to raise, revise, and reject options as they occurred to him. There was no way that he could physically—so to speak—pass through the boundaries. His magical abilities all seemed useless while he languished in his prison. He did not even know what was going on; the Dragonrealm might be on the brink of destruction—
Darkhorse did not breathe, though he often pretended to for appearance. Nevertheless, he came close to holding that nonexistent breath when it occurred to him that, though his magical abilities were muted, there were natural ones—unnatural by human standards—that he might make use of. Regardless of his careful work, Drayfitt could not hope to completely understand the nature of the ebony stallion.
There were many over the centuries who had called the legendary Darkhorse the Child of the Void. They were closer and farther from the truth than they knew. Darkhorse was a creature of the border regions between reality and the Void who only wandered that empty realm, much akin to the mist dwellers who guarded the secret paths that crossed into and out of the world like portals. Through practice, Darkhorse had made himself stronger than most, though that had tied him to reality and lost him some mastery over the Void. He did not regret that; there was so much more to the multiverse. Had it not proved necessary in his prior struggle with the warlock, the shadow steed would have chosen never to return to the dismal domain he had dwelled in for so long.
Yet, it was the Void to which he now turned in hope.
While willing himself back into the form of a horse had proved difficult after his ordeal, the act of literally separating himself into two parts was sheer agony. The strain alone threatened to overcome him. Despite the horror, however, he was willing to suffer that pain and even the permanent loss of that smaller portion of self. What mattered most was learning what he could in the hope of using it to engineer his escape. There might even be a clue as to how he could stop Shade, though his hopes in that respect were less than nothing after what had happened.
He willed one of his hooves into a wide circular shape a little less than a foot in diameter. That was the easy part of his task. The second was far worse, a strain on his already worn consciousness. There was also the danger of losing too much of his essence. He planned to separate a tiny portion of himself from the main body. It was a dangerous thing, risking his very identity in the process, for a piece of his “self” would be lost along with his essence. Humans who had lost a limb might claim to have lost a part of who they were, but with Darkhorse it was literal. It would take him years to fully recover.
Straining his concentration to the limit, he forced the reshaped hoof to expand away from his leg. Slowly, as the two masses separated, the ankle grew thinner and thinner until it was little more than the thickness of a twig. Darkhorse felt his mind separate into two distinct “selves,” one greater, one lesser. With one last effort, they broke the remaining physical link between the fragment and the main body.
What must be done… He wondered why such a thought would come to him unbidden—then paused in sudden guilt as he realized it was a fading thought from another, that piece of “self” he had sacrificed. Darkhorse stared at the black spot for several seconds before he could bring himself to work the rest of his plan. With great reluctance and a little revulsion, he extended his essence and created a new hoof to replace the old. The shadow steed could not help feeling as if he had abandoned himself.
“It is said,” Darkhorse whispered to his other self pulsating on the floor, “that, from the Void, all places may be reached or viewed. The danger lies in forgetting yourself, losing the way home. I am my own home, yet I am also the path to the Void. I will consume you the same way that I have consumed so many of my adversaries, such as the drake in the cavern, over the endless years; but rather than be condemned to floating in the emptiness forever, you, who know the way as I do, will find the path and return through my body, the Void, and the border realms to this world, to the place called the Dragonrealm. Waste no energy in seeking the path closest to this palace, but enter at the first available. Entering reality will cost you your “self” and eventually your essence, but you will provide me with eyes and ears in the world out there—in the hope that there is still something that can be done.”
He felt better saying it out loud, though communication between his two selves could have just as easily been accomplished by mere thought.
With a touch of the new hoof, he absorbed the lesser portion of his essence in the same way he had absorbed the drake who had tried to jump him in the cavern. It fell within him, growing smaller and smaller until it was beyond even his senses.
Darkhorse sighed—because it felt right to do so—and then stiffened as the world around him changed.
Mountains passed swiftly before his eyes, smaller than the Tybers, but still majestic in their own right. Green hills dotted the borders of that mountain chain and a few habitations could be seen in the distance.
Darkhorse jerked backwards, falling against the invisible barrier that held him. By the twin moons! So quickly?
It was impossible at first to separate the visions from his own sight, but gradually, they came under control. The journey his other self had taken went beyond things such as time, but even the eternal was surprised at the speed with which it had travelled. That surprise turned to worry, for the images he perceived were weak, as if the strain of the journey had been worse than he had hoped. Little of the fragment’s essence survived. There was only one mind, too, for the other him no longer had the strength to preserve its own will. Darkhorse had gained his eyes and ears, but he had lost all else that mattered. Even though it had happened the way the stallion had thought it would, the pain was deep nonetheless.
The northwest. I have emerged into the northwest of the continent. It was now an easy matter to guide the fragment along the simpler paths he knew until it emerged again, this time in the outskirts of the city. Darkhorse could not recall the last time he had seen Talak. He wanted to know what sort of place was ruled by men like Melicard and the foulness calling itself Quorin.
Through the dim vision of the fragment, he observed the people. They seemed healthy, though he was no judge of human conditions, and relatively happy. Darkhorse moved on, intending to work his way to the palace. The more he saw, the more Talak resembled a prosperous and very normal city-state—not what he would have expected under a madman.
No sooner had Darkhorse thought that, when he caught sight of the first soldiers.
They were armored and very definitely hardened veterans. A full column rode through this section, evidently leaving on some military exercise. Darkhorse paused his tiny spy and observed the marching men closely. From the looks on their faces, they were almost fanatical in their devotion to the king. The shadow steed turned his gaze to the banners they carried. The stylized dragon made him chuckle in bitter humor. Melicard was preparing for all-out war and, judging by the size of this column, he was nearly ready.
He will have his glory… and the Lords of the Dead will have their bounty. Melicard had numbers, but the drakes had the ferocity. Either side had equal chances, which meant a long and bloody war that would strip the lands further of life.
Is that all there is to these mortal creatures? Are the humans, drakes, Seekers, and the rest all doomed to violent ends? Darkhorse tried not to think too hard about his own role; it was best to believe he had always worked for the quickest and most rational solution.
He wasted no further time. In seconds, his view had changed to that of the palace walls. The fragment, only a tiny part itself of what he had sacrificed, moved through those walls like a specter, entering the rear of the building. He ran it through corridor after corridor, room after room. Most of his observations were of the ordinary type; servants going about their daily duties, guards standing at attention in various hallways, and officials running hither and yonder with no evident purpose. Melicard was not in any of the rooms Darkhorse searched. There was also no trace of either the counselor or the sorcerer. So close, he was forced to slow his search. There were many risks, including excessive activity near Drayfitt, who might be sensitive enough to pick up the magical presence of Darkhorse’s spy.
“… and keep them prepared, Commander Fontaine! There’s been report of activity in the Hell Plains. The remnants of the Red clans may be moving.”
Counselor Quorin marched into sight, another man, a soldier, keeping pace. If Quorin had the face of a cat, his companion was just the opposite. Rough canine features and a bald head gave the human an ogreish cast. Like the animals they resembled, the two men were bickering.
“I’ve not heard a thing about the Hell Plains! Damnation, man! It’s east and north we have to watch! Drakes of the Silver clan have been spotted in the Tybers! He’s the one we should be moving against!”
“You can always go back to the city guard, commander, if you can’t obey a directive!”
The officer slammed his helm onto his head and marched stiffly away, muttering something about merchants and functionaries knowing less about wars than conscripted footsoldiers. Mal Quorin watched the fuming soldier vanish and smiled. It was the same sort of smile he had used on Darkhorse during the “punishment.”
The smile quickly soured as some disturbing thought intruded. The counselor turned back the way he had come and moved on, his pace quick and determined. Darkhorse followed closely behind, curious. The path Quorin took led him toward an outdoor garden in the center of the palace. The human was halfway to an old door partially hidden in one of the vine-covered walls when another figure entered the garden from the opposite side. Both Quorin and Darkhorse stopped, the shadow steed quickly backing farther and farther away, hoping he had not reacted too slowly.
“Drayfitt!” The counselor spat out the spellcaster’s name as he might have spat out a piece of rotten meat. The look on the sorcerer’s face matched his own. There was no love lost between them.
“What do you want now, Counselor Quorin?”
As they neared one another, looking all the while like two fighting cocks, Darkhorse moved a bit closer again. Quorin was speaking quietly now, intending his words for his rival’s ears alone. The eternal let his fragment drift close to the ground. If Drayfitt’s mind remained occupied by the presence of his adversary, then it was not likely he would notice Darkhorse’s spy. At least, that was the hope.
“Why aren’t you attending to matters below?”
“There isn’t much that creature can do at the moment—thanks to both of us! Melicard didn’t even know I’d recaptured it, did he? In fact, he seemed quite surprised, counselor!”
“What of it?” Quorin bared his teeth in a parody of a smile. “I act in his name.”
“Melicard would have never ordered such torture! I should have known better!”
“You seemed to be enjoying it somewhat.”
The sorcerer’s visage burned crimson. “I allowed my baser emotions to rule me that time, but not again! I care very little about what is ultimately done with that creature, but I will not see it abused!”
Mal Quorin leaned back and laughed loud. “Drayfitt—defender of the weak! That’s not a pup down there, you old idiot! That’s a demon older than time itself! Remember what it cost us—cost you—already! You’re fortunate it didn’t decide to take your head off while it was at it!”
Darkhorse heard the words faintly, his attention partially focused on the door Quorin had been heading for. The door, he realized, lead down to the chamber where he was being held—and both men had been heading toward it. For a brief moment, Darkhorse adjusted his senses, returning his full vision to the cramped room and his cage. If either man, especially Drayfitt, came while he was engaged with observing the palace, they would recognize that something was wrong. It was proving impossible to keep both positions in perspective and there was the danger that he might become so engrossed in spying on his adversaries that he might not even notice when one or the other visited his prison.
They were still arguing when the shadow steed reestablished contact with the fragment. The images were even more faded, a sign that the fragment was dissipating. Darkhorse knew he should have sacrificed more, but there was the danger of fragmenting himself into two greater yet weaker portions, neither of which could survive on its own. Only by utilizing a small piece of his “self” had he been able to do what he had.
“—before long! I expect it to be that way!” Quorin finished up. Darkhorse cursed himself for missing what might have been of great importance.
“We shall see. The book was fairly worthless in any case; most of it was notes, incomprehensible and, more often than not, complete foolishness. What little was useful was also insanely dangerous and destructive. I used what I could—and I still want to talk to the scoundrel you purchased it from. I want to find out where he stole or, more likely, scavenged it from.”
“Why, if it was so useless to you?”
Drayfitt shook his head, now apparently a bit angry at himself for saying too much. “You wouldn’t understand, Quorin. You could not begin to understand.”
“Pfah! I’ve no more time for this!” Forgetting that it was he who had started the exchange, the counselor departed—in a direction that took him away from the door. Darkhorse hesitated, not knowing whether he should stay with the sorcerer or follow Quorin.
It was Drayfitt who decided for him. The elderly spellcaster started toward the door and then hesitated, as if he were noticing something for the first time. It was evidently not the stallion that had captured his attention, however, for Drayfitt also turned from the door and returned the way he had come.
Darkhorse watched him go, then drifted in the direction that the counselor had gone. One wonders how anyone gets things done here, what with so many detours along their paths. The tension in the palace was astounding. It was evident just from the two conversations he had followed that no one in charge trusted anyone else. This was a kingdom in danger of collapsing. Perhaps not now, but some time in the future.
They have no lives, just plots.
Quorin had disappeared somewhere in the cavernous corridors of the building, but Darkhorse did not have the power available to him to find out where. All the fragment could do was observe—and even that ability was faltering. So far, all that he had accomplished was to add to his list of questions. In his cage, the shadow steed laughed in self-mockery. He had outfoxed no one but himself with his trick. The sacrifice of this bit of his essence was proving to be worthless.
Despite the near hopelessness of his search, he endeavored to continue. So long as he could see and hear, there was a chance. Somewhere in this leviathan of a palace, he might still find something of value. Darkhorse regretted that he could not have severed a portion of himself strong enough to free him.
While he pondered his deficiencies, he guided what remained of the fragment, through the corridors leading to the main hall, or at least where he assumed it would be. Most palaces, while they reveled in their pomp and majesty, were very much the same inside. Unless the builder and the ruler he had designed it for were both insane, Darkhorse was fairly certain that things would be where he expected them.
He was not mistaken. Both the main hall and the throne room were where they were supposed to be. Regrettably, neither the king nor his underlings were present. The shadow steed cursed as the images grew dark. His lesser self was in the first stages of death—or nonexistence, at least. Something within the eternal twisted painfully at the thought.
“I must insist. He will see me.”
The voice was female and off to the right. Darkhorse forced his pain down and drifted toward the voice. It had been raised to command, and a female authority in the palace of Melicard I was something worth investigating.
The owner of the voice was a small woman who seemed twice as tall as the sentries she was browbeating. All three stood before two massive, wooden doors. By human standards, she was beautiful, with a long, golden mane that would have put many a mare to shame. The female was not from Talak; her mannerisms and a slight accent spoke of the city-state of Gordag-Ai, which Darkhorse had visited once or twice in earlier centuries. Why she was here was a puzzle. There was only one reason that the stallion could think of, but—surely not with Melicard!
Unable to withstand his inbred training, one of the sentries finally stepped aside. The other followed suit immediately. The female, a princess if she had the authority to command the royal guard, waited until the chagrined soldiers opened the doors for her. Only then did she enter, and only after giving the two hapless men an imperial nod. It was almost enough to make Darkhorse laugh.
He followed her in, ignoring the doors as they passed through the misty form of the fragment.
The room was dark, making the dim images even harder to discern. Fortunately, the princess’s first act was to walk determinedly over to a set of curtains rising from the floor to the ceiling and fling them aside. The room was bathed in a flood of sunlight. Darkhorse shifted to a corner less lit, knowing that the fragment, while insubstantial, would still make an odd shadow. A sudden movement from the other end of the room caught his attention. His spirits soared.
The split-faced monarch turned away from the female, but she would have none of his reluctance. Darkhorse admired her strength, though he could not say much for her taste. Evidently, here was a woman bent on saving a man from himself.
A waste of time, my lady, he chided, though he knew she did not hear him. Why must mortal women always think they can bring out what no longer exists?
“What’s happened, Melicard? You act the way you did the first time we met. Have I given you some reason to think that I played you for a fool?”
The king did not respond at first, though he did look up at her from the chair he sat in. Darkhorse could not make out his face as well as he would have wished, but he thought that Melicard was nothing if not confused. Here was a man fighting himself. This was not the same man who had originally visited the imprisoned shadow steed. Darkhorse studied the female with new respect. She had accomplished something.
“I apologize—Erini. My work has become paramount. I cannot say how long it will demand precedence, but I suspect it will be some time. Rather than leave you alone for all that… time, perhaps it might… might be best if you returned to Gordag-Ai. When I can spare the time, I will summon you back.”
The princess, “Erini,” the king had called her, was not to be put off. With a bluntness that surprised both the eavesdropping specter and the disfigured monarch, she walked up to Melicard, put her hands on his face—on both sides of his face!—and replied, “Those are Counselor Quorin’s words, are they not? I recognize the ruthlessness in them, a ruthlessness you could never match! Is he blaming me for some error of his? Am I accused of something? Do you remember the things we did and said the other day? Was that all amusement on your part?”
Melicard opened his mouth to respond, but the first try resulted in a silent swallow. After some effort, he said, “It would not be right to make you part of this. Not now. I don’t dare allow anything to slow progress. I can’t. Not after the setbacks.”
Throughout all of this, Erini had refused to let go. Now, she pulled the king closer, so their faces were only inches apart. “Whatever you decide to do, I want to be at your side. Before I came here, it was infatuation with a memory and a dream. After seeing the real you, the one that men like that mouser you made counselor have tried to hide—with your help—it became love.”
Love? In his cage, Darkhorse snorted in disgust. Love for this sorry creature?
Melicard had as much trouble believing it. “After only a few days? Love… like that… happens only in the tales spun by the minstrels and storymen. How can… you be so certain?”
Erini smiled. “Because I know that you love me, as well.”
She kissed him before he could even begin thinking of a response. Melicard, unprepared, pulled back. His eyes were wide in almost childlike disbelief at what had happened. He could not have had much experience with the complexities of women, not, at least, in the ten years since he had shut himself away.
This is a predatory woman, Darkhorse thought, amused by it all. A capable woman.
The king rose and stepped away from her, but each movement, each hesitation, was an indication that Princess Erini had dashed any argument Melicard might have brought up. He did love her; that was obvious even to Darkhorse, who had never quite understood the concept since it did not apply to him. The signs were all there, however.
He whirled on her. “How can you love this?” The elfwood arm came up so that the elfwood hand could touch the elfwood face. “This is no epic song. I am no hero. I cannot promise that we will live happily ever after, as they say. You will see this face and this arm every day of your life if you marry me! Do you really want that?”
Melicard, intending to say more, faltered at the quick, simple response. Erini pressed her advantage. “Even if you had neither the arm nor the reconstructed face, I would want that.”
A knock interrupted them. The looks on both humans’ faces said that an intrusion was the last thing either had wanted. A guard, visibly tense, announced that Drayfitt needed to speak to his majesty. Melicard looked at his betrothed and then at the sentry. “Have him wait just a moment.”
“My liege.” The sentry closed the door.
Turning, Melicard walked over to Erini and put his hands on her shoulders. She was forced to look up to see his face. “We will talk again before the day is over, I promise you that, Erini. I do.”
She wanted to kiss him again and Darkhorse, though the images had become so black as to resemble night, could sense that Melicard wanted to kiss her back. Fear held him back, though. The princess smiled nonetheless. “I look forward to it, Melicard. Perhaps, dinner?”
“Dinner.” He called out for the guard, who opened the door just in time to let the princess through. Darkhorse slowly followed her. Despite the gravity of his predicament and the definite possibility that the king and the sorcerer would be including him in their conversation, the eternal found himself with an overwhelming desire to know more about this woman who could turn Melicard around so. He wished he could contact her, speak to her, for he suspected she might be his key. Her sympathy might do what his powers could not: make the king forget his idiotic dream of harnessing a demon to his service and cause him to release the shadow steed. It was a futile wish, however, for Darkhorse could only see and hear, not speak, not with so weak a fragment, and what remained of this portion of his essence was no longer enough to even gain her attention.
The princess walked the corridors as one half-dreaming. Darkhorse, who recalled moments of similar reactions from past mortal acquaintances, knew she was picturing the days to come. The stallion wished her best, for here was a true queen who would rule wisely, but he suspected her path still had barriers, chief among them Mal Quorin. The counselor would never accept a role of lesser influence. Already, he had evidently tried to break up the two. Darkhorse wished again that he could speak to her.
She was barely visible now, a darkened figure wandering in the abyss. His sacrificed “self” was in the last stages of dying. With no other option remaining, he drifted as close as he could, hoping to pick up some last words, some last expression. It was foolish and highly useless, but, for reasons he could not understand, he felt drawn to her.
Erini stumbled as if pushed. She came to a sudden halt and looked around, her hands twitching nervously. The shadow steed, his perceptions less than perfect, tried to see what worried her so. He was not long in discovering what, for the princess finally turned in his direction.
“Who is that? Drayfitt? Is that you?” She reached up a hand toward the fading place. Darkhorse, stunned, could only watch as her hand went through.
“No, not Drayfitt, it can’t be. Did—did I summon you?” She looked down at her hands in growing horror. “Rheena! Not now!”
Summon? In his prison, Darkhorse’s ice-blue eyes glittered as the answer struck him. Small wonder he had been drawn to her! A sorceress! A spellcaster untrained!
She had the potential to release him! She had the power!
The last vestiges of strength burned away. The fragment slowly faded, the last of its essence sacrificed. Darkhorse wanted to scream. If she were truly a magic-user…
Listen to me! he called out. If she did have a natural ability, it might be enough to establish a link! Listen to me!
She looked up—and her image vanished even as the shadow steed sent one last message. Below! Go below!
The walls of the underground chamber greeted his eyes once more. The single torch flickered in seeming mockery at his attempt. Exhausted by more than his failed efforts, the shadow steed drew within himself. He had little hope that his final words had gotten through—and without that hope, there was nothing else he could do.
Darkhorse settled down, yearning for the dreamless unconsciousness that was the closest thing to true sleep he could ever know. He hoped his strength, sorely used by this poor attempt, would return long…
… before the true demon, Mal Quorin, paid him yet another instructional visit.
IN ONE OF the many unused chambers of the vast palace, Shade returned to Talak.
This particular room had been closed down after the death of Rennek IV’s young bride, Melicard’s mother, though Shade neither knew that nor would have cared if he had known. It was a room where he would not be disturbed and that was all that mattered. Cloths, long buried under thick layers of dust, covered the furniture, blocked sunlight from entering through the windows, and hid the painful memories from the old king, who had come here once a year on the anniversary of his marriage. Melicard, while he did not follow his father’s example and pay homage here, did leave a standing order that no one was allowed to enter this room unless on his command. As it was, more than four years had passed since a single soul had stepped in here for even a moment. Ironically, Melicard, wrapped up in his campaign, had forgotten about his mother’s chamber completely.
“Light,” the warlock whispered, as if reminding himself. A tiny pinprick of light, all that he needed for now, glimmered in the center of the room.
Shade studied his surroundings but briefly. In a time long removed from the present rulers of this city-state and during one of his more benevolent incarnations, he had stayed in one of these rooms, the guest of a thankful prince whose life he had saved. The warlock smiled thinly. There had been a man who knew how to treat his betters.
Lowering himself down on one knee, the cloaked figure stretched his arms forward, as if reaching for an invisible object. He whispered words of a language long forgotten, the language of Vraad sorcery. Like the spells of the present-day sorcerers, the words were more a memory trick, a way of reminding him how the powers had to be bent by his will so that he could achieve the results he desired. He knew he had succeeded when he felt something squirm within his sleeves.
They say the walls have eyes and ears in most palaces, he thought in growing amusement. Now they will have noses as well.
A tiny, wormlike thing poked out of his sleeve. Shade felt a number of miniature legs and hands on his wrist; on both wrists. The wormlike thing proved to be a long and narrow proboscis that twisted and turned as its owner cautiously made its way out from the safety of the warlock’s sleeve. From the other sleeve, an identical trunk extended itself.
Shade said nothing, but he shook both arms lightly, stirring the creatures to renewed speed. Drones of his own making, they were prone to be lethargic at first. Given their own way, the simple creatures would remain on his arms for days, trying to draw strength from what they had once been part of. He had no inclination to let them do so. They were nothing to him, who had given them life of a sort. They were tools and nothing more.
A head popped out after the long trunk, a head that was little more than a single, wide orb that was nearly all pupil. Beneath the great eye, a pair each of pencil-thin legs and arms made up the rest of the tiny monstrosity that was the warlock’s spy. It scuttled onto the dust-thick floor, crouching, where it was joined by the first from the other arm.
The eye-creatures began tumbling out in astonishing numbers, many, many more than could have been hidden by Shade’s garments. As their numbers grew, the creatures began to wander about, inspecting their surroundings with great care, now eager to perform their function.
When he was at last satisfied with the quantity, Shade shook his arms once more, dislodging a final pair of the horrors. He rose and gazed down at his tiny servants.
“Find it,” he whispered harshly. “Do not let yourself be seen. Sacrifice yourself, if necessary. When you have located it, I will know. Now go!”
Shade watched them scuttle away in every direction, each creature quickly disappearing into the first crack or hole it could find, whether that opening had been initially large enough or not. There were other ways he could have gone about this, but anonymity was his desire for now. Let the destruction of Talak fall to his erstwhile ally, the Silver Dragon. The ensuing chaos and bloodshed would decoy those few who might be able to delay the achieving of his goal and might even rid him of a few annoyances.
The warlock thought briefly about trying to explain to Darkhorse what it was he had to do, but he doubted his onetime companion would understand. There were lives that would be sacrificed in order to correct the error that had twisted him so, and Shade was now fully prepared to sacrifice those lives when necessary. What was the loss of a few transitory souls if it would gain him his proper immortality and the power that should have gone along with it? He was Vraad and the Vraad were absolute. All else was there to do his bidding—even if that meant forcing that obedience by punishing a few. Once he had reclaimed this land….
Something glittered. Shade increased the intensity of the light a bit. The thing that had caught his attention increased by the same intensity. A reflection, which meant a mirrored surface. He walked over to the reflection and tore away the decrepit cloth, unveiling a full-length mirror embossed in silver. With the light floating behind and a little above him, the warlock stared intently at himself in the mirror.
A face stared back at him. The eyes and nostrils were dark spots and the mouth was a thin line, but it was still a face. A face that had been growing more distinct since his return to this world.
Shade put a hand to his reflection and drew a pattern across his face with his index finger.
The mirror cracked… and cracked… and cracked. Jagged lines crisscrossed the full length of the mirror. Pieces began to fall to the floor as the warlock stepped away, his face once again buried beneath his cowl.
Though the shattered mirror rained bits and pieces over the chamber floor, they made no sound as they hit. Odder still, the damage to the mirror did not stop there. Instead, those fragments that had fallen continued to crack, creating smaller and smaller parts which cracked further still. Shade watched silently, shaking, as a pile of dust formed beneath the rapidly disappearing mirror.
When nothing remained but a pile of fine ash, the warlock wrapped his cloak about him, twisted his body within himself, and vanished.
WHATEVER HAD STALKED her was no more. Erini felt its passing, felt that something had disappeared that would never return. Yet, she was also positive that the force behind the misty apparition was still very much alive.
Her first thought was that this was some spy of Drayfitt’s, but the feel was not right. He was no more responsible for this than he had been responsible for the visitation in her chambers. Neither was this briefly lived specter the product of that other intruder. This was another presence, one that was somehow not quite human.
What sort of place have I come to? Magic flies left and right and, though there are high walls and armed guards, intruders go in and out with ease!
Erini had not spoken to anyone about the stranger in the mirror and she was not all that certain it would be wise to bring this encounter up, either. Again, she had no proof save her growing sensitivities—which would, of course, reveal her powers to Melicard.
Drayfitt? He knew already what she was. If his present conversation with her betrothed did not include exposing her secret, then she might be able to trust him. He had offered to help her learn to control herself… an idea with greater merit than she had originally supposed. Her initial reaction at discovering the sorcerous onlooker was to reach out with those powers and discover what it was. Only her own fear had held her back. Next time…
The princess stirred, abruptly realizing that she had been staring at the same area on the wall for several minutes. So far, no one had come by, but it would not be good to be found acting so strangely. Inhaling deeply, Erini turned and walked in the direction of her chambers. Until she came to a definite decision, it was the safest place for her to be.
As she walked, she could not help feeling that the tiny intruder had wanted something from her, something of importance. The apparition was a sacrifice on its part. Erini had felt the bond, though the fact of that was only just becoming apparent to her. Whatever its cause, the unknown presence was willing to give of itself, if necessary. That was more than most humans would have done.
So engrossed was the princess in her thoughts, she almost walked into two guards patrolling the halls. She succeeded in stepping out of the way at the last moment while they, being only soldiers, were the ones who immediately apologized. Embarrassed with herself, Erini hurried away without responding.
The chance encounter with the guards had steered her to the side of the corridor where windows overlooking the inner garden dotted the wall. Out of pure reflex, she glanced out at this one colorful place as she passed each window. At the fifth one, she froze and moved closer. The door in the far wall beckoned to her with a stronger pull than ever. In her mind, Erini felt the link between the door and the thing following her and found it amazing that she, who had wondered what might be down there, below the palace, had never stopped to think that the what might instead be a who.
Erini would have gone down into the garden then, using the very abilities she had always cursed if that was what it would take to open the door. It was a foolhardy notion, though, for the princess had no idea where the counselor was at this time and, even with sorcery at her command, she did not warm to the thought of confronting as dangerous a monster as Mal Quorin. Even Drayfitt, with much more skill, was cowed by the man.
Her fingers twitched of their own accord as she continued to stare intently at the door. Annoyed, Erini formed fists in an attempt to stifle this latest urge. This was twice now in the space of minutes. At this rate, she would soon be unable to suppress herself.
It’s like breathing, Erini thought in defeat, and I’ve been holding my breath all this time, building it up into something worse.
The door still beckoned. Biting her lip, the princess took one last, lingering look—a grave mistake. Her curiosity overwhelmed her caution. She had to see what secret the palace held, regardless of the counselor or Melicard’s desires. This would be the true test to determine whether she was to be Talak’s queen. If Melicard intended on keeping her in the dark as to his plans, then their marriage would be little more than a charade and something she would never be consonant to regardless of repercussions.
Having convinced herself of this, Erini sought out the nearest stairway leading down to the garden. All thoughts of sorcery were temporarily put aside as the anxiety of discovery replaced them. A tiny portion of her mind, buried deep within, warned her again and again about taking part in such foolishness, but Erini paid no attention to it.
The garden itself was beautiful, more so this close up. Any other time, she would have stopped to admire the lush, fragrant flowers and the thick, green bushes. Now, though, she had eyes only for the door. Erini took a quick glance around her, but there was no one else in sight. It disturbed her briefly that there were no guards in sight, but then she realized that the last thing anyone would want to do is draw more attention to the door by placing sentries near it. Unattended, it was just one more seldom-used passage not worth even a second look.
Erini felt a slight tingle pass through, but, unaware of the many abilities just developing within her, she thought it nothing more than nervousness. That delusion was quickly dispelled when a voice quietly but distinctly whispered in her ear.
“Enter there, your majesty, and I cannot promise to save you.”
She whirled, saw no one, and whirled around again. Her hands came up in an instinctive offensive gesture.
“Peace, milady, peace! If you continue twirling like a child’s top, someone is apt to wonder about your sanity—as I already do!”
The voice was Drayfitt’s, but the elderly sorcerer was nowhere to be seen. In what was more a hiss than a whisper, the princess asked, “Where are you? Can you throw your voice a distance or is invisibility a trick you’ve learned?”
“Alas, invisibility has always been beyond me… but the secret of the chameleon is not. Turn slowly, as if admiring the flowers, and look at the wall behind you.”
Following his odd instructions, Erini studied the vine-covered wall. At first, there was nothing new to see, but, as she studied it closely—a difficult task since she was also supposed to be admiring the garden flowers—Erini began to make out the shape of a cloaked figure standing at ease among the ivy and brick. His clothing and even his skin were colored and streaked in the same way as the wall, including the vines. The princess knew that if she ever hoped to see him clearly, she would have to walk straight up to him and touch his face.
“How do you do that?” Erini asked quietly. Unspoken was the second question: Why did Drayfitt feel it necessary to disguise himself if only to reveal his presence to her? Because of Quorin?
“Your majesty, if you would do an old man a great favor, I would ask of you that the two of us retire to a quieter place—such as my workroom.”
“Why?” She was not entirely certain she was safe in trusting him after this peculiar display of his magical talents.
“Because I felt your struggle to control yourself even while I conversed with the king and I know you will not be able to hide your secret much longer. That was why I came, feigning weakness from some research.”
Erini glanced wistfully at the door. “Very well.”
“Excellent. We’ve been fortunate so far in that none of the guards have happened by here, but I assure you that our luck will not hold—and some of them are more loyal to Counselor Quorin than they are to King Melicard.”
With that warning hanging over her head, Erini carefully made her way to the nearest exit. Her visible attitude was that of someone who has enjoyed the peace of a short walk but who now has become bored with matters. It was a look she had cultivated well over her short life.
Departing the garden, Erini continued to feign her disinterest in all things until she was well away. Certain that she was at last safe from prying eyes, she turned, expecting to see Drayfitt with her. The princess instead found herself to be utterly alone. Erini was about to call out his name when the sound of footfalls echoed from down the hall.
The ancient spellcaster stood before her, all smiles. “My dear princess, how nice to run into you!”
Confusion reigned supreme. “Why—”
Her question went unasked as marching feet warned her that the two of them were no longer alone. Erini caught a glance from the sorcerer. Play along!
“I’ve just finished an interesting walk in the garden, Master Drayfitt. A pity you weren’t able to join me; we could have walked while you told me more about Talak. There is so much I still have to learn and you must know more than anyone about the city.”
Four well-armed guards turned the corner, marching with the same exacting precision that all Melicard’s soldiers seemed to march with. The apparent squad leader, a stout man with a thin, graying beard, called his men to a halt. He stepped toward the anxious princess and bowed.
“Guard leader Sen Ostlich at your command, your majesty! May I say it’s an honor then to meet with you! May we be of service to you?” He pointedly ignored Drayfitt.
This was something that Erini could handle with ease. Her face became a mask as she imperiously replied, “Nothing at this time, guard leader, but your attention is noted. Is there something you wanted of me? Has the king requested my presence?”
“Not to my knowledge, your majesty. We’re merely making our rounds. It wouldn’t have been proper to pass without acknowledging our queen-to-be. The captain would’ve had us all on double duty.” Ostlich allowed himself a rueful smile.
Erini granted him a royal smile. “Then, I shall not keep you from your duties. Carry on.”
Bowing, the guard leader returned to his squad and gave the order to resume the patrol. The princess and Drayfitt watched them go, a sardonic smile creeping across the lined visage of the elderly sorcerer.
“How gracious of them. How curious that they purposely changed their route to march by here while you were nearby.”
“Isn’t this their regular route?”
“By no means. Oh, they’ll claim that it was changed only today—if you ask them, that is—but I’ve the distinct advantage of having seen them turn from their normal patrol because one of the other guards reported seeing you in the garden. The chameleon trick has its advantages. I saw the sentry just as you were leaving. He didn’t see me.” Drayfitt smiled, pleased with his own success.
“I wondered why you vanished.”
“Enough of that. Now that we’ve officially met in this hall and you’ve expressed your interest in Talak—an excellent request and good, quick thinking on your part—I think no one will suspect, anymore than usual, that is, that we have anything else in mind. If you will accompany me to my workroom…”
“You are my guide,” Erini answered gracefully. As Drayfitt led her down the hall, already into the beginnings of a lesson on the history of Talak, the princess looked back in the direction of the garden and the door. While she was grateful to Drayfitt for his concern for her well-being, the sorcerer’s actions had not deterred Erini but rather fueled her determination. One way or another, she would return to the garden before long and discover the truth.
DRAYFITT’S WORKROOM WAS not what Erini had expected of a sorcerer. She had pictured a dark, moody place of vials and parchments, bones and the various parts of rare and magical creatures. There should have been ancient tomes on subjects such as necromancy and magical artifacts from civilizations long dead.
“Looks rather like the office of a minor bureaucrat, doesn’t it?”
It was true. A high desk stood in the center of the tidy room, a set of candles and several sheets of parchment on top. There were books, countless books on shelves that ringed the room, but they were neatly stacked and fairly new. Some of them sounded fairly mysterious, but others were on classical plays or theories on government. Erini had not known that so many books on so many subjects even existed.
“Do you like them?” the sorcerer asked a bit wistfully. “I wrote most of them over the years. It’s a shame that most city-states are not like Penacles, where writing and education are paramount. I understand that a few of the copies I made are now a part of the collection gathered first by the Lord Gryphon and now by Toos the Regent. I’ve made certain that at my death, accidental, natural, or otherwise, the Regent will get this collection.”
Erini could not help smiling. “You do not remind me of what I was always told a spellcaster was like.”
“Head bowed over a cauldron, arms waving in insane motions, and sinister, inhuman things waiting at my feet for some command? Some of those things are true, and, if you know the tales of foul Azran Bedlam, those images pale in comparison to what he was like. I was never happy with sorcery. I was quite happy to find myself a little niche in the controlling of Talak and stay there.” The spellcaster’s face darkened. “Counselor Quorin insured that I would never be able to return to that and so I’ve made a special point of making him regret that action ever since.”
A twinge in Erini’s right hand reminded her of why they were here. If Drayfitt could help her or, better yet, find her a way to rid herself of this curse, then she would take advantage of it. As if reading her thoughts, the sorcerer took her hands in his and looked them over.
“Tell me, when you observe the powers around us, do you see the lines and fields?”
She shook her head. “No, I see a rainbow, bright on one end and changing to black at the other.”
“A spectrum. Pity. I see the former, myself. Well, at least you see the powers as something understandable. There are those who see them in radically different ways than we do, though such folk seem to be rare. The lines and the spectrum seem to dominate the minds of most—and before you ask, I have no idea why we see them at all. Some people discover them naturally; some, like myself, need training.” Drayfitt released her hands. “You are a natural adept. With some assistance on my part, you could become very skilled.”
Erini shook her head violently. “No! I want you to help me get rid of this curse, not enhance it!”
“Your majesty, the abilities you have are a part of you, a gift from—from whoever watches over us. It’s the spellcaster who makes those abilities work for good or ill. How else could one family produce both a fiend like Azran Bedlam and good, strong men like his father, Nathan, or his son, Cabe. I understand your feelings. For years, I lived with the memory of my brother, Ishmir the Bird Master—Aaah! I see by your face that you know of him. Ishmir perished in the Turning War with most of the other Dragon Masters and it took me years to forgive him for that.”
“Forgive him? For dying?”
The sorcerer looked chagrined. “He left me, a young man, then, half-trained, uncertain of what I was. I had your qualms, too, but Ishmir saw I had the potential, though it was buried deep. I forgave him eventually, but I kept my powers hidden, utilizing only those that would help me secure a place in Talak’s government and keep me alive—I’m a coward when it comes to death. Since my forced re-education in the world of sorcery—only a short time ago—I’ve learned much about its benefits. If not for my efforts, Counselor Quorin’s influence with the king would be much stronger. That alone I count as a reason to hone my skills.”
Erini turned away, walking over to a shelf and running her fingers along the spines of some of Drayfitt’s books. “It might be different if I were not a member of royalty, Master Drayfitt. Such things are not for us. In the eyes of my people, I would be considered tainted, a demon in human form.”
“I think the only demon is in your own mind, if you’ll pardon me for saying so, your majesty. There have been rulers aplenty who command in part through sorcery. The Lord Gryphon of Penacles is the best example. During his reign, it was his skill more than anything else that kept the Black Dragon at bay. He was even instrumental in the Turning War.”
“The Gryphon was a magical creature, Master Drayfitt. The powers were a part of him.”
The elderly spellcaster chuckled. “He may not like all this talk in past tense; he still lives, they say, but fights some war across the Eastern Seas—hence the title of Penacles’s present ruler, Toos the Regent. That is neither here nor there, however; what I am trying to tell you is that the skill to manipulate the powers is as much a natural part of humanity as it is of the elves, the drakes, and the Seekers. We merely have a greater tendency to stifle those skills. I ought to know.”
Erini slowly turned back to him, an idea forming. “Then, if you cannot help me rid myself of it, teach me how to control it so that I will never find myself ‘accidentally’ unleashing some spell at a courtier who has happened to annoy me. That is what I fear; the powers taking control instead of the other way.”
A relieved sigh. “Thank you, your majesty, for making my task easier. Had you demanded I help you rid yourself of your growing abilities, I would have endeavored to do so, despite the impossibility. After all, you are to be my queen.”
“That still remains questionable, Master Drayfitt.”
“I doubt it. One reason it was so easy for me to leave the king abruptly was because he seemed distant himself, and the look on his face I have only seen when he thinks of you—favorably, that is.”
The information earned the spellcaster one of Erini’s few true smiles. “You have no idea how happy I am to hear that.”
“I do and it makes me happy to say it. The two of you are well matched. Though it’s only been a few days since you met as adults, I’m not above believing that a bond of love has already developed. There are those who are meant to be together. I—” Drayfitt suddenly paused, his eyes darting about the room.
“What is it?” Erini asked in hushed tones. To her horror, the sorcerer raised a hand toward her. She felt both the pull as he unleashed some powerful spell and her own instinctive response as she prepared to defend herself.
“Not you!” Drayfitt muttered at her. “Remain where you are!”
She froze in place. Behind her, the princess heard the thump of books falling from the shelves and—the patter of tiny feet? Something quick was running along the shelves, seeking a place it could hide from the spellcaster’s attack. It might as well have been running from time itself.
Erini heard a tiny squeak, then Drayfitt’s curse as something the old man had evidently not expected happened. A moment later, he lowered his arm, a look of disgust and worry on his face. He rose from the table toward the spot where the intruder had evidently met its fate.
Standing, the princess joined him. There was a strange odor emanating from the shelves and she sensed the remnants of some odd, disturbing sort of magic, something she had sensed briefly before. There was no sign of any creature.
“What was it? Did you destroy it?”
Abandoning his brief search, Drayfitt began picking up and reshelving his books. “As to what it was, I can only describe it as a little monstrosity obviously created to spy on others.” He looked at Erini. “It’s head and body were no more than an eye and a snout. A creature of magic. As to destroying it, that was not my intention. The creature destroyed itself. I wanted it alive—if it truly was—so that I could track it to its source, which is probably Quorin.”
“He has no magic.”
“Yes, you can tell that, can’t you? Probably better than I. The only reason I noticed our spy was because this workroom is laced with spells sensitive to unwanted visitors. Here, of all places, I am most secure.”
Erini hesitated before finally admitting, “I’ve felt something similar to that creature. The same sort of magic, different from you or me.”
“In my—my chambers. I was looking in the mirror when I saw him. When I turned around, there was nobody there. I thought I’d imagined him, but there was dirt on the floor where he had stood and—and when I touched it, the strangeness of it startled me so much I fell back.”
Drayfitt’s eyes narrowed and he scratched his head in thought. “Can you describe him, milady?”
“Not well. He wore a cloak and hood like you do, only they seemed older, out of style.” The princess closed her eyes and tried to picture the dark figure. “All his clothing seemed a bit archaic.”
“We are not always known for our sense of style. Forget his clothing, then. What did he look like? I may know his face if you describe it well.”
She looked flustered. “I cannot help you there, Master Drayfitt. I was not able to get a good look at his face. My eyes must have been watery, because, no matter how I looked, it remained shadowy or blurry.”
“His face was unclear but you could see that his clothing was old, archaic?”
“Yes, strange, isn’t it? I remember them clearly enough, but not his visage. I think he had dark hair, perhaps brown, with a streak of silver.”
“But his face you can’t remember.” The sorcerer pursed his lips in mounting frustration. “I wish—I truly wish, milady—that you could have given me a face to go by.”
Erini could sense his worry. “Why? Who was it? Is it whoever you hide down below? Did he escape?”
Drayfitt gave her a dumbfounded look. “Soooo… you know about that, too. This gets worse and worse.” He looked up at the ceiling, staring at something beyond it with eyes filled with dismay. “Aaaah, Ishmir! Would that you were here instead of me!”
“What is wrong, sorcerer?”
He went to the desk, opened a drawer, and pulled out a bottle caked in the dust of ages. Without asking whether the princess desired any, Drayfitt poured himself a goblet of what must have been wine and practically swallowed it in one gulp. Eyeing the shelves of books, he finally replied, “The one you described can only be the warlock Shade, who can only be here for two reasons; the first of which is caged deep below in a chamber forgotten until recently. Another creature of legend, a shadowy steed called Darkhorse.”
“Darkhorse?” While everyone knew one tale or another concerning the tragic existence of Shade, forever cursed to live alternating incarnations of good or evil, it was the demon known as Darkhorse that had fascinated the princess more. Here was a magical creature from elsewhere, immortal, and the terror of drakes. Some stories made him as tragic as the warlock and there were many who feared him as much, but the image of a great stallion, blacker than a starless night, had captivated her. She had even dreamed, now and then, of riding through the darkness on his back.
A legend and a reality were two different things. The thought of riding whatever Drayfitt had imprisoned down below made her shiver—and not in anticipation.
“Darkhorse.” The sorcerer nodded. “They have been friends and enemies for millennia. Yet, if he wanted the stallion, he could find him easily. There’d be no reason to materialize haphazardly in the palace unless he was searching for something better hidden, something like the book.”
“What book?” Erini was becoming more and more confused.
Drayfitt sighed. “The book I used, half in ignorance, to summon a demon, or rather Darkhorse, to our world. A book he tricked me into destroying when he thought I wouldn’t be able to recapture him again.” The elderly spellcaster smiled a bit proudly at that; it had been a coup in ways, defeating the eternal twice. Then, he frowned. “I hope it’s not the book he’s after, though I can’t think what else it might be.”
All thought of her own problems had long ago vanished as Erini tried to make sense of everything. She had wanted answers for so long, but now that she had them, the princess was more at a loss than before. “Why do you say that? Is it something he should not have?”
“Probably not. That’s academic, I’m afraid, your majesty. As I said, I destroyed it. He’ll find nothing but ashes now.”
IN A DARKENED corner of the ceiling, a small form scurried deep into a crack that should have been too tight for it. The sacrifice of its brother had proven worth the cost, for it had discovered what its master had wanted to know. Soon, it would be able to return to the warm nothingness he had summoned it from. Perhaps even as soon as it relayed the news to him.
Shade’s eye-creature did not understand how its master would react to this particular bit of news. It would not be able to comprehend the fury nor would it comprehend that the warlock would destroy it, not because it had served him well, but because of a need to strike out at someone or something.
Least of all, it would not understand the danger the success of its mission had placed the sorcerer and the princess in. Nor would it have cared.