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A Thousand Shades of Darkness
The price that the Wildmages, the Elves, and their Allies had paid to learn the plans of their Enemy had been high. Two-thirds of the Allied camp had shared in the cost of the Wildmages' spell, and lay now in their tents stunned into exhaustion, cared for by those who had been exempted from the Price of the spell.
No one had expected that the Price would be so heavy. If not for Cilarnen, Jermayan, and Kellen managing to blend their magics to shield Idalia from the attack of the Demon Queen Savilla and save the lives of the spell-linked Wildmages, the sacrifice would have been greater still: the lives of all the Elven Army's Wildmages, and perhaps the death of hundreds, even thousands, of fighters.
But with Shalkan and Ancaladar's help, Wild Magic and High Magick had worked together, though the effort of making them do so had cost Kellen dearly. And the spell had done what they needed it to do: Idalia had seen across Armethalieh's wards and decoded the cryptic warning that it had cost Cilarnen Volpiril so much to bring them. They now knew the specifics of the Demon's foothold in the Golden City.
Somehow, long ago, Savilla had touched the mind of the young Mageborn Anigrel, corrupting him utterly while he was still a child. All his life Anigrel had worked to one goal: to see the Endarkened gain ultimate power. Though Anigrel's father had been Commonsborn, Anigrel had risen above his lowly birth, becoming Arch-Mage Lycaelon Tavadon's private secretary and tutor to his son, Kellen, all the while worshipping his Dark Lady in secret. When Kellen had been Banished for practicing the Wild Magic, Anigrel'sfortunes had continued to rise: Lycaelon had relied upon him more and more, elevating him swiftly through the ranks of Magehood. To increase his clandestine power, Anigrel had invented a conspiracy against the Mage Council, which had resulted in the Banishment of High Mage Volpiril's son, Cilarnen, and the resignation of several members of the High Council. The Arch-Mage, knowing nothing of this, had appointed Anigrel to one of the new vacancies, and adopted him as his son and heir.
From his new position of power, Anigrel had continued his work, sowing fear and distrust throughout the City against the Elves and the Wildmages, and creating the Magewardens and the Commons Wardens to watch the High Mages and the Commons for any sign of further treason--treason he himself had created. And all along he moved closer to his ultimate goal: removing the ancient and complex wards from the walls of Armethalieh--wards which sealed the City against attack by Demonic magic...
It was three days before Kellen was able to leave his bed, and at that, he was the first of the Wildmages--other than Idalia, who had not been touched at all by the spell's backlash--to be able to do so.
He guessed he was just stubborn.
All his life he'd been stubborn. His earliest memories--the ones he knew that were truly his, that hadn't been tampered with by Lycaelon to remove inconvenient memories of his sister Idalia--were of people telling him he was "too stubborn"--whatever that had meant in terms of life in Armethalieh. Too stubborn to learn his lessons by rote. Too stubborn to be a proper Mage-student and ornament to House Tavadon.
Later, of course, when he'd discovered that he was not only a Wildmage, but a Knight-Mage, he'd understood, because a Knight-Mage's most vital tool and weapon was his will. Once a Knight-Mage had made up his (or her--Kellen supposed the Wild Magic could make a female Knight-Mage if it chose, just as there were female Elven Knights) mind to do something, only Death could turn him aside from his purpose. If that wasn't being stubborn, Kellen didn't know what was.
Being stubborn had saved his life--and the lives of those around him and under his command--more than once since this war began. And it was a war. There could be no doubt in anyone's mind about that now.
When it had begun--it seemed so long ago, though the establishment of the Black Cairn to keep the rains from falling on the Elven Lands, which marked the first move in the Demons' strategy, could hardly have been more than a full turn of the seasons ago--no one had been sure of that. Even after Kellen had destroyed the Cairn, and the Elves had discovered that the Elven Lands were infested with a race of Dark-tainted beings that had lived there, unsuspected, for centuries, they had still not been sure.
After all, the Elves had fought the Endarkened twice before--the last time a thousand years ago--and each time it had been openly, on the battlefield. Only Kellen had been sure that this was war again, and though the Elves were polite, and certainly respected the fact that he was the first Knight-Mage born in a thousand years, they hadn't been willing to pay a lot of attention to the opinions of a seventeen-year-old boy. Even battle after battle with the Shadowed Elves--with Kellen proving himself in every one--hadn't really changed their minds. Elves lived a thousand years, and they did not hurry. Especially about changing long-held opinions.
But even before the Wildmages' spell, many of them had been changing their minds. Unfortunately, even if they did, it wasn't much help. You couldn't have a war if only one side showed up, and the Endarkened had shown absolutely no interest in taking to the battlefield. They were more than happy to cause droughts, to force the Elves and their Allies to expend their strength in things like cleansing the Elven Lands of the Shadowed Elves, to breed monsters in the Lost Lands and send them out to prey on anything they could reach, but as no one knew where Obsidian Mountain--the Demons' stronghold--was, or how to reach it, there was no way for the Allies to carry the war to the Enemy.
Leaving aside the fact that we're probably outnumbered, and we know that They're more powerful than we are, Kellen thought to himself. Demons were the most powerful Mages there were. All the Allies had to set against them was a handful of Wildmages, and no High Mages at all. In the last war, Armethalieh had fought on the Allied side. But not this time.
Despite that, the constant doubts and near-despair that Kellen had felt since the beginning were gone. With Idalia's discovery of the traitor within Armethalieh, and the discovery of the Endarkened's strategy, Kellen now knew why the Demons had been refusing to fight openly. Their intention was to subvert Armethalieh and make it fight against the Elves on behalf of the Demons--Light against Light. And then the Demons would destroy the winner.
Which means that powerful as They are, They're still afraid of us. Which has to mean we have a chance of winning. All we have to do is figure out what it is--and use it.
It was more effort than he'd expected it would be to dress, and for the first time in ages Kellen actually noticed the weight of his Coldwarg-fur cloak when he settled it over his shoulders. But it was unthinkable to brave the outdoors without it--when he'd broken the power of the Black Cairn, ending the year-long drought, the weather-patterns had been violently unsettled, and were still returning to normal. One of the side-effects of that was the hardest winter the Elven Lands had seen in centuries--and the coldest and snowiest, too.
When Kellen stepped out of his pavilion, the cold bit into him like a sword, and he shuddered, pulling his cloak tightly around him. It was sheer stubborn restlessness, he admitted to himself, that had gotten him up and out--that, and the fact that he wanted to see how Cilarnen was doing for himself. Since the Golden City had sealed its gates against the "Lesser Races," its name, and that of the High Mages, had been a byword for stupidity and ignorance. Cilarnen had as much to do to prove himself in the wider world as Vestakia did, and in helping to thwart the Demon attack upon Idalia, he'd done much to enhance his reputation.
Cilarnen was still living in the Centaur camp. Idalia had been a frequent visitor to Kellen's bedside, and she'd told Kellen that Cilarnen had been taken back there to recover, since the Healer's Tents were still filled with wounded from the Battle for the Heart of the Forest. By the time Kellen had walked there, he considered himself well-served for his rash decision to venture out. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this exhausted--even poisoned and half-frozen, he hadn't felt quite this hollow-boned.
Fortunately, most of the rest of the army seemed to be in better shape than he was. Oh, the camp was a great deal quieter than he'd ever seen it, and he didn't hear the sounds of drilling on the practice-field, but Kellen merely had the sense that the army was resting, not mortally wounded. And since he had come into his power, he had learned to rely upon those instincts.
He reached the edge of the Elven encampment and passed over into the Centaur encampment.
The Elves had their elaborate pavilions, and the Mountainfolk had their sturdy domed tents, but neither design would do for the Centaurfolk. Though in their villages they lived in houses very much like those of the humans with whom they often shared their lives, on campaign, their physical needs were best accommodated by a series of large boxy tents, big enough to hold a dozen Centaurs at once.
The last time Kellen had been here, he had realized that Andoreniel's people must have constructed all of these tents specially when Andoreniel had summoned the Centaur levies, because the Elves never, but never, went to war in winter, and in summer, the Centaurs would probably simply have slept outdoors. But for a winter campaign--and a hard winter at that--different arrangements had to be made. At least this way, nobody would freeze.
He found the tent where Cilarnen was staying without difficulty, making a mental note to see about at least getting Cilarnen a pavilion of his own to pitch in the Centaur camp as soon as possible. They'd had so many losses, Kellen reflected grimly, that a spare pavilion and furniture wouldn't be hard to find.
He lifted the flap and ducked inside--no Elven formality here!--glad to be out of the wind. It was comparatively warm inside; a heavy clay pot filled with coals set in the center of the tent radiated warmth.
The Centaur Wildmage Kardus stood beside Cilarnen's bedside, dozing, the only person in the tent besides Cilarnen.
The Centaurs had no ability to do magic, so Kardus, as a Centaur Wildmage, was as much a rarity as Kellen himself. Kellen supposed Kardus's lack of innate magic was the reason he wasn't suffering the same aftereffects of the spell that the other Wildmages were.
Kardus wore his black hair as long as any Elf, and braided into it were a number of charms and ornaments. He carried more such charms on his necklace, and others upon the broad belt that lay upon his hips. Some of them were bespelled--gifts from other Wildmages--since if Kardus could not cast spells of his own, that certainly did not keep him from taking advantage of the magic others gave him. His horselike body--for the Centaurs only closely resembled horses, being actually smaller and stockier--was as black as his hair, and he had three white feet, a pattern Kellen had not seen in any other Centaur.
Kardus cast no spells, but like all Wildmages, possessed the Three Books of the Wild Magic and followed their teachings. Unlike all other Wildmages, Kardus's life was guided by mysterious Knowings and Tasks presented to him, so he said, by the Gods of the Wild Magic, which he dealt with in his own way.
It was one such Task and Knowing that had brought Kardus's path to cross with Cilarnen's for the first time at Stonehearth, and their ways had lain together ever since. Kellen was glad for Cilarnen's sake. With everything that was being thrown at him so abruptly, Cilarnen desperately needed a level-headed friend to support him.
There was a stool at Cilarnen's bedside--placed for the convenience of the human Healers who came to check on him, Kellen supposed--and Kellen moved forward and sat down on it heavily. Another few moments and he would have sat down on the floor. He'd overestimated his strength, he supposed, and right now he wasn't really looking forward to the long cold walk back.
Cilarnen was lying listlessly in his sleeping pallet. There were deep shadows under his eyes, and he looked ravaged, as if he'd been suffering from a high fever. But he opened his eyes when Kellen sat down.
"Kellen," he said. "Did we win?"
What? Leaf and Star, hadn't anyone told the boy? It didn't matter that Cilarnen was a full year older than Kellen was. In so many ways Kellen was older than Cilarnen was, and always would be--though Gods of the Wild Magic forefend that he ever call Cilarnen "boy" aloud.
But perhaps Cilarnen simply needed to hear it again. Certainly the stakes were high enough that the truth could bear repeating.
"Yes. You saved us all."
Cilarnen grimaced and turned his head away, as if Kellen were offering false praise.
"Cilarnen, it's true," Kellen said. "It wasn't your shield alone that stopped the attack, or Jermayan's. It was both together. I think that's the secret: High Magick and Wild Magic working together. I don't think They can stand that. I think it's how you won at Stonehearth--because you and Wirance worked together there."
Cilarnen took a deep breath, struggling to sit up. Kellen moved quickly to help him, feeling Cilarnen's muscles tremble with the effort. Even a season's hard labor in the stables of the Centaur village of Stonehearth hadn't done much to put muscle on Cilarnen's fine-boned Mageborn frame. Kellen took after his Mountainborn mother--after two seasons of Knightly training he had the muscles and the stamina for a hard winter campaign. For the first time, it occurred to him that Cilarnen simply might not be physically strong enough to survive out here.
"So all we have to do to defeat Them is convince the High Mages to fight for the Elves," Cilarnen said with a faint note of despairing humor in his voice. "Well, that's simple enough."
"Harder tasks have been accomplished, when one has set their feet upon the Herdsman's Path," Kardus said reprovingly, raising his head. "And now, since you will admit that you are awake, tea, and soup. I will fetch them." Kardus walked from the tent, collecting his cloak at the door.
"He nags me to eat," Cilarnen said with a sigh when the Centaur Wildmage had gone.
"Isinwen does the same to me," Kellen said. "You have to eat, though. You're going to need all your strength."
"For what?" Cilarnen demanded bitterly. "I'm a High Mage who can't do magick--unless you want fires lit or water boiled--because to cast any really powerful spells I need training I haven't got, tools I haven't got, and most of all, a power source I can't possibly get!"
"You've already saved us once," Kellen said, refusing to let Cilarnen give in to despair. "You know more spells of the High Magick than anyone else between here and Armethalieh. You can make the tools. As for the power source...don't just give up. Besides, you're more than just a source of spells. You're the one with the best idea of Armethaliehan politics. We'll need your advice."
Cilarnen stared at Kellen as if Kellen had lost his mind.
"Think about it," Kellen said. "I never paid any attention. Idalia left the city more than a decade ago. But you...you know the families, the people. If someone can figure out a way to get a warning to them that they'll listen to, it might be just turn out to be you."
Cilarnen shook his head in disbelief. But he looked thoughtful.
Kardus insisted that Kellen share Cilarnen's meal, and Kellen was grateful for the strength that it lent him, for he realized that he had another stop to make before he could return to the comfort of his bed.
Redhelwar, the Commander of the Elven Army, had shared in the spell-price for the Working, and like all the others, was still recovering from its effects.
From Idalia, Kellen knew that Redhelwar already knew all that she had learned. But what Kellen did not know was what Redhelwar intended to do about it. When Cilarnen had first come with his cryptic warning, Redhelwar had set the Wildmages to discover what it truly meant before deciding what to do.
Now he knew.
If the Demons got Armethalieh...
They have everything they want. Everything they were waiting to get before they attacked us openly. And if they can convince Armethalieh to attack us...
The thought made him feel sick. Against Armethalieh--even with the power of the High Mages on the Armethaliehan side--the Allied Army would be fairly evenly matched. Which meant both forces would cut each other to pieces in a long, bloody, drawn-out war. Armethalieh would give no quarter. The Demons would see to that. They would make sure that the Golden City was convinced that the Elves, the Wildmages, and anyone who fought at their side had to be utterly destroyed.
And when it was over, no matter who won, there would be no victory.
So we can't fight them. We can't possibly surrender to them. There's no place we can run from them--I'm sure the Endarkened will see to that. We've got to keep that war from happening.
He walked up the slope to Redhelwar's scarlet pavilion. Ninolion, Redhelwar's adjutant, was waiting inside the doorway and ushered Kellen in out of the wind with the briefest of Elven courtesies.
Kellen stood inside the doorway, waiting to be noticed.
The Army's General was alone at his worktable, making changes to the great map that represented the eastern portion of the Elven Lands. Maps fascinated Kellen, though they were largely a mystery to him: In Armethalieh, the world had stopped at the City walls, so of course in the City, the creation and study of maps--aside from maps of the streets of the City--were among the many things that were strictly anathema, forbidden to Mageborn and Commons alike. Before Kellen had come to live among the Elves, he had never imagined that the world could be depicted as a series of marks on vellum. Well, actually, he'd never imagined the world at all, come to that.
Under Master Belesharon's tutelage at the House of Sword and Shield in Sentarshadeen, he had learned a little--a very little--of how to read them, and so he could tell that this one represented not only Ysterialpoerin and its surrounding forest, but the Army camped outside it. Its scale was such that it included even the two Elven cities to the north of Ysterialpoerin, Lerkalpoldara and Realthataladon, and the mountains that surrounded them.
But north even of them, Redhelwar was making careful marks upon the map, at various points along the Border.
At last Redhelwar glanced up. "I See You, Kellen Knight-Mage. Be welcome at my hearth. It is my hour to drink tea, and I would be honored if you would join me."
"It is always a joy to drink tea in the pavilion of a friend," Kellen answered. The proper response came easily to him now, though once finding the right words for the intricate verbal dance of Elven courtesy would have baffled and frustrated him. But Elves did not hurry--if there was one lesson that Kellen had had to learn the hard way, it was that one. They were creatures of age-honed ritual and politeness, and--except when actually using War Manners--sometimes maddeningly indirect speech.
But at the moment nobody was actually attacking, he'd be glad of a cup of tea, and he'd welcome the chance to collect his thoughts before finding out what Redhelwar's was thinking--and figuring out if he had to try to change the Elven Commander's mind.
Redhelwar gestured him to a seat, and Kellen sank into it gratefully.
In the fashion that Kellen had become used to over the past several moonturns, Redhelwar then began a seemingly-idle discussion of the weather--cold, though after the last series of severe storms, they could expect only moderate snow for the next few sennights--and the entertaining seasonal menu they had been granted through the generosity of Kindolhinadetil, Viceroy of Ysterialpoerin, who had made sure that the Army was well-supplied with both fresh and preserved food.
Apparently "entertaining seasonal menu" meant they were eating the greenneedle trees of the Heart Forest; Kellen tried not to think too hard about that, but he'd eaten a lot of things he never thought he'd eat since he'd been Banished from the City.
"One observes that the other Wildmages are still abed," Redhelwar remarked shrewdly when they both had full mugs of Winter Spice tea before them. "Even Jermayan, with Ancaladar's power to draw upon, has not ventured forth to taste the pleasures of the day." "The pleasures of the day" being a joke, or as much of one as Redhelwar ever made.
And Jermayan is probably the strongest of all the Wildmages, with Ancaladar's power to draw on.
"I was restless," Kellen admitted. "And I am well-served for my impetuousness."
"Nevertheless, you have come in a good hour, for matters have...progressed since They chose to move so openly against us, and I would welcome your counsel," Redhelwar said, allowing the conversation to turn to practical matters at last.
The Army's General gestured to the map spread out upon the table. "Scouts have come from Lerkalpoldara and Realthataladon, bringing news of the Borders. The Enemy sends its creatures to gather in strength--here, and here, and here--the Ice Trolls and the Frost Giants--and those who can pass through the Boundary-wards--the ice-drakes, the Deathwings, the Coldwarg, and others--freely do so in greater kind and number than have been seen since the Great War. They once used the Lost Lands as their nursery, but I think that now that time has passed. Now Their creatures will use the Elven Lands as a gateway to harry the Wild Lands to the west and south...and I do not think we can protect them."
"It's another feint," Kellen said slowly, reasoning it out. "They must know we've discovered Their agent in Armethalieh. Anigrel wants to open the City to Them. If he succeeds, They win."
"Yet we cannot abandon our allies to Their attack," Redhelwar said. "And those who might defend them are here, gathered at Andoreniel's word. I sent to Sentarshadeen as soon as Idalia told me the news from the City, and only this morning I have received Andoreniel's answering word to me."
Kellen was impressed. Even a unicorn couldn't cover the distance to Sentarshadeen and back in just four days, and that would have left no time for the royal Council to debate its reply. Though Andoreniel was the king of the Elves, he did not act without the advice and consent of his Council.
"It would be good to know how this was done--and to hear the words of Andoreniel," Kellen said carefully.
"You will wonder how word could travel so fast in winter, without magic to aid it," Redhelwar said with a faint smile. "Yet we have never relied upon magic as you humans do. The weather was calm enough to send birds; they flew to the signaling towers, and the towers passed the message along by means of sunlight and mirrors through the mountains until it reached a place where it must be transferred to the birds once more. Andoreniel's word to me returned the same way.
"As soon as Ancaladar has recovered enough strength to fly, I am to ask him to go to each of the Nine Cities in turn, starting with those closest to the Eastern borders, and carry all the women with child to the Fortress of the Crowned Horns of the Moon. Andoreniel says that we will open it to the children of our Allies as well--the Centaurkin, the Mountainfolk, and the Lostlanders who have come down into the Wild Lands so that their Wildmages may fight at our side."
It took Kellen a moment to understand what he was hearing. The Crowned Horns of the Moon was a fortress in the Mystral Mountains that dated back to the days of the Great War. It had never been taken by direct assault, and Kellen didn't think that even the Demons' trickery could manage to find them a way in. When Andoreniel had first realized that Shadow Mountain might be moving against the Elves, he had ordered all the Elven children of the Nine Cities moved to the fortress, purely as a precaution, there to be guarded by a coterie of hand-picked defenders, Elven Knights and Unicorns both. Elven children were few, and when Kellen had visited there, most of the Crowned Horns still stood empty.
But now Andoreniel was proposing to fill it.
And that told Kellen that Andoreniel was certain the Allies were going to lose.
Of course, if the Allies lost, nobody in the Fortress of the Crowned Horns was going to survive anyway.
But that's not right! Kellen thought angrily. For the first time since this all began, we've finally got a chance of winning. We know what They want--what They have to have--and where it is. For the first time, we actually have a chance!
"It won't work," Kellen said bluntly.
Redhelwar gazed at him, his brows raised in mild reproof. Kellen knew he'd been rude--much more than rude, by Elven standards--but he couldn't help it.
"Knight-Mage wisdom?" Redhelwar asked, dropping into War Manners.
"Simple common sense," Kellen answered. "They won't all fit. The pregnant women and the children of the Herdsfolk, the Centaurkin, the Mountainfolk...humans and Centaurs live shorter lives than Elves. I don't know about Centaurs, but humans certainly breed faster. You're talking about not a few dozen children and women, or even a few hundred, but a couple of thousand at the very least, and probably more, scattered throughout the Wild Lands and the High Reaches. If you choose to do this, you can't leave anybody behind. And if you do choose to do this...Redhelwar, it is as good as saying we have already lost. There will be panic. And...how are they to get there? Ancaladar can bring the women of the Nine Cities, I guess, but the others? If they have to come overland, in winter...either the Army will have to protect them--and we can't split the Army--or they have to come unprotected. Either way, anyone on the ground is a feast for anything They want to throw at them."
The longer he spoke, the more problems crowded into Kellen's mind. Getting word to everyone. Preventing panic. Gathering them for the journey. Protecting them at every stage--keeping them from freezing would be the least of everyone's problems; these were children they were talking about.
Kellen shook his head wordlessly. It wouldn't work. It was well-intentioned, but it wouldn't work.
"Surely Andoreniel has thought of this," Redhelwar said, sounding puzzled and weary.
"The message came very fast," Kellen suggested tentatively.
"I will send again," Redhelwar said after a long pause. "This time, the message will go by Unicorn Knight. Meanwhile, of your courtesy, perhaps you will oblige me by thinking of some way to protect the children of our Allies that does not involve feeding them to a pack of Coldwarg."
If only I could think of one, Kellen reflected sourly, leaving Redhelwar's tent. The problem was the same one it had always been--the Demons wouldn't stand and fight. Although of course if they did, they'd probably slaughter the entire Allied Army...
The trouble is, we need all our strength, and our Allies, to have any hope of winning. And why should they stay here in the Elvenlands if the Demons are attacking them at home?
Kellen sighed. The weariness he'd held at bay in Redhelwar's tent had come sneaking back, making it hard to think clearly.
Isinwen, Kellen's Second, was waiting for Kellen when he got back to his tent, and the look of disapproval on the Elven Knight's face made Kellen wish--just for an instant--that he'd stayed out in the wind.
"I observe," Isinwen said quietly, "that many would lose heart should we lose you, Kellen."
The oblique rebuke cut more sharply than any outright scold could have. Kellen shook his head, acknowledging the barb, and allowed Isinwen to help him off with his cloak.
"I will not die of a walk around the camp, Isinwen," he said gently, sitting down on a stool to pull off his boots. "I wanted to test my strength. From what I have learned today, I can tell you that we will not have Wildmages to support us for a sennight, perhaps two."
The sudden feeling of a key turning in a lock made him blink.
He'd wanted to know that. The army needed to know it. And there was certainly no way to find it out other than taking a stroll himself.
Sometimes he wished the Wild Magic could be--well, more obvious about things. But it never was.
"Then...I suppose it is for the best. Providing you do not take a lung-fever and end up in bed for a moonturn," Isinwen said, still sounding faintly exasperated.
Kellen laughed, though there was no real humor in the sound. "I don't have time." He set his sword beside his boots. "It would please me greatly if you would present this information to Ninolion at your convenience."
He yawned; he couldn't help himself.
"Get back into bed," Isinwen said firmly. "I will make known to Ninolion what you have learned, so he may advise Redhelwar. And we shall all hope that their services will not be needed."
Kellen nodded in acknowledgement, pulling off his heavy outer tunic. Weariness pulled at him like heavy chains; he had only a moment to hope that he'd find some more of the answers they needed in sleep before it claimed him.
The cost of attacking the Wildmages--and defending her creature within the Golden City--had been high. It had cost Queen Savilla dearly, both in the drain upon her power--for when the Wildmages had turned her Darkbolt back upon her, the backlash had depleted her of as much power again as it had cost her to cast it--and in the knowledge it had given to her son Zyperis, for it had been he who had found her in her ritual chamber, and he who had nursed her back to strength in secret.
Among the Endarkened, knowledge was power. Now Zyperis had seen her humbled; weakened nearly to death. Now he knew a secret lost for a thousand years: that the magic of Mage-man and Wildmage, working together, could end the eternal lives of the perfect creatures of He Who Is.
Zyperis was ambitious. He was her son, after all. He knew he could never hope to rule the World Without Sun while she lived--and the Endarkened lived forever.
He would want to use what he had learned. If not at once, then soon.
And meanwhile, the cursed Light-begotten had almost certainly discovered the existence of her Armethaliehan slave and learned his intentions.
Let them, Savilla thought, regarding her reflected image in the mirror of her Rising chamber. Around her, well-cowed slaves from the World Above scuttled, bringing jewels and perfumes and cosmetics to ornament the Queen of the Endarkened to properly appear before her subjects once more. It is too late for them to use what they have learned. I have won. Anigrel sits upon Armethalieh's High Council. The reins of power are in his hands. Soon the City of a Thousand Bells will be mine to turn against my enemies.
And meanwhile...I shall distract my son and lover as easily as I have distracted my enemies. He is young. Let him think I fear him. For now.
Until it is too late for him as well.
As always upon her Rising, there were the Petitions of the Grooming Chamber to be heard. It did not matter that there was a war to conduct; the petty squabbles of the Endarkened nobles must always have first claim on Savilla's attention, for centuries of rule had taught her that over time quarrels grew into vendettas that spread until they drew everyone into them, on one side or the other. And eventually Savilla would be forced to take a side--unless the matter, whatever it was, was settled before it had truly begun to fester, while the grievance was still a matter of a favorite slave or a bottle of spilled perfume.
Fortunately, these days such matters were few, for this was a time of such splendor and abundance as the Endarkened had not seen in centuries. Slaves and prey were available in plenty--and Savilla intended to open new hunting grounds very soon, which would distract her restless quarrelsome subjects further.
When the last of the lesser nobles' petitions had been heard, she beckoned her son forward.
Zyperis had been waiting with uncharacteristic patience while the others were heard. As always when she beheld her son, Savilla felt a pang of delight. So bold, so handsome, so much her match in cunning and daring. Time would make him her equal, and inevitably he would challenge her, for that was the way of the Kings and Queens beneath the Earth.
In that way Savilla had taken the throne from her own father, Uralesse, lulling and beguiling him over the centuries. Uralesse would never have had the patience and the vision to take this long subtle path to destroy the Children of the Light. He had spent too many centuries mourning his own shattering defeat on the battlefield in the Great War. Yet Savilla, who had fought at his side, had not despaired as he had. In that defeat she had seen the need to begin anew in a new way.
First she had needed to kill Uralesse, to gain the power to put her plans into motion. Then it had been necessary to move with maddening slowness, for the Endarkened had been weakened nearly to destruction by their last defeat at the hands of the Light-spawn, and should they have realized they had not truly won, all Savilla's plans would have been as a quenched candle-flame. For centuries, as generations of the race of Men lived and died, and the long-lived Elves turned back to harp and loom and forgot them, Savilla had worked through her human agents to unbind the great Alliance that had proved the undoing of the Endarkened. The human city raised its walls and closed them tight. The Elves forgot war and thought only of peace.
And Savilla had planned.
"Mama?" Zyperis asked.
Savilla blinked slowly. Her son was kneeling at her feet, the picture of perfect humility. It was not precisely feigned...but it was something Zyperis granted, not something Savilla took. It was a shift in the balance of power, and both of them recognized it.
But it is only temporary, Savilla vowed.
"I was contemplating the great favors I shall bestow upon you," she said. "We have all worked hard for this day--you with your agents among the humans most of all. Now it is time to move forward...."
Savilla spoke long and persuasively, mantling Zyperis with her great scarlet wings--a token of great favor. The Endarkened Prince's face glowed with delight, for he had long chafed at inaction--and at being excluded from her plans.
"Oh, Mama, how wonderful!" he said, when she had finished speaking. "Surely the Elven King's allies will desert him to look to their own once we begin to act in the Wild Lands! But...you have always said..."
"Oh, my son," she said, stroking his cheek fondly, "it will not matter soon. Just go slowly, as I have told you. Stay far from any lands the Mage-men have ever claimed as their own, for it would not do for them to suspect that their ancient enemy is anything but an ancient myth."
Zyperis drew himself up proudly. "You will see, my sweet Crown of Pain. I shall do all as you would do it yourself. They will sicken, sorrow, and despair--and barely know at first that it is we who are to blame for it all. You shall feast upon unicorn and dryad, wood-nymph and selkie: I shall bring them to you with my own hands!"
"I shall rely upon you," Savilla purred, stroking his long black hair as he knelt at her feet. "Sow dissention in their ranks, fill their homelands with sickness and blight, drive the game from their hunters' nets, and all the time let them wonder if we are to blame, or if it is terrible coincidence...."
"Because they dare not ignore either one," Zyperis said happily. "Whether the cause is an enemy's hand, or simple misfortune, the result is the same."
"Our victory," Savilla agreed.
Zyperis raised her hands to his lips and kissed them. She felt the touch of his fangs upon her skin and closed her eyes momentarily in pleasure.
She would bring him to heel. And his anger and frustration would make his utter and inevitable submission all the sweeter.
When Zyperis had gone, Savilla accepted a spangled cloak of gossamer spider-silk from one of her attendants. Draping it loosely about her shoulders, she left her private chambers.
The World Without Sun was vast, extending far beneath the surface of the earth. Let the Light-begotten think their world was vast: That of the Endarkened was vaster still, so enormous that there were few indeed who knew every chamber and pathway of it.
It was a place of secrets, for the Endarkened treasured secrets as much as they cherished the pain and death of others. It took Savilla more than half of her Rising-cycle to reach the place she sought, a chamber of incalculable age, deep in the living rock. Its very existence had been forgotten by most of the Endarkened. Uralesse had not known of it.
Savilla had come here once before, long ago, and learned the magics that would one day allow her to pierce the wards of Armethalieh and make a young boy her servant. When she had first come here, the walls of the Golden City had barely been begun. It would be centuries before she dared to try the spells she had learned that day.
The cost to her of forging that tiny chink in Armethalieh's defenses had been great. It had taken her years, as the World Above measured time, to prepare the spell, years more to fully recover from the casting of it, as her human catspaw grew from boy to man.
Now she meant to cast a spell more subtle still.
Uncounted thousands of years ago, when the Elves were a hundred scattered warrior tribes who fought against each other as often as they fought together, and humans were no more than grunting brutes yet to find their magic, the Endarkened and the Elves had fought for the first time. In those days, there had still been Elven Mages, and the most powerful of these was Vielissar Farcarinon, whose name was still a curse among the Endarkened.
It was she who had united the Elven tribes beneath her rule, she who had brought the dragons to be their allies, increasing the power of the Elven Mages a thousandfold.
It was Vielissar Farcarinon who, through the power of the Wild Magic and the power of the dragons, had forged the bargain that would keep He Who Is from acting directly upon the world for ever after. To win that boon, the Elves had given up their magic.
Wounded nearly to death in that war, maddened with grief by the casting out from the world of their Creator, it had taken the Endarkened millennia to recover from their defeat. When they had next struck against the Children of Light, they had expected their victory to be quick, for though He Who Is had been barred from the world, the Endarkened were still creatures of magic, and the Elves now had none.
But while they had slept in the World Without Sun, a new race had risen in the World Above. Humans had aided the Elves, and with them had come the Wildmages. Though human magic was a subtly different thing than the Elven Magery the Endarkened had faced before, the Endarkened had still been defeated.
But now they are weak, all of them. They have forgotten. And I...I shall call He Who Is back into the world again. His presence will assure our victory. I shall become first among His children, and none of my subjects will ever challenge my power. And all this world will at last become what He willed that it should be, what he intended it to be when we were first created.
Savilla drew a deep breath, readying herself for what she would do next. Later would come the sacrifices--and there would be many of them, until she had filled this chamber once again with blood, as she had done once before, so many years ago. But now, to begin, simple intent was enough. In a sense, a promise.
To any senses but those of the Endarkened, the chamber would have been unremittingly black. Savilla saw, not colors precisely, but a thousand shades of darkness, hues that no other race had words for. The darkness showed her a chamber carved of the living rock. Every inch of the walls and ceiling was covered with deeply-incised symbols in the ancient Endarkened script. They did not run in neat rows, but swirled along the rock, dipping and arcing, as if perhaps they had once been straight, and Time itself had bent the lines of writing, while leaving each etched symbol sharp and clear as the day it had been cut into the rock. As if what was written there was too horrible for even Time to touch it.
In the center of the chamber there was a long hollow spike of obsidian that stood as high as Savilla's heart. It tapered to a needle-fine point, and looked as delicate as any of the glass knives in Savilla's own torture chamber, but she knew from experimentation that nothing she could do would chip or break it.
There were a hundred ways to kill someone with the obsidian spire.
Impale a victim upon it, and they could die as quickly or slowly as Savilla wished. The chamber enjoyed the slow deaths, as was only to be expected. But most of all it enjoyed the deaths she brought about when, as a living victim writhed, impaled upon it, she struck the obsidian shaft with one of the round smooth black stones that lay scattered about the floor of the chamber.
Then the entire chamber rang like a crystal bell, the glyphs upon the walls blooming into dark fire. The victim died at once--but not painlessly. No. That death was the most agonizing of all, as if every iota of pain it was possible for one frail mortal shell of flesh to experience were somehow compacted into one single moment.
Those bodies simply vanished.
But those executions were not without cost to Savilla, for when she engineered such ultimate communions for her victims with the obsidian spire, she felt everything her mortal victims did.
A high price.
But it will be worth it, to allow He Who Is to return to the world once more.
The last time Savilla had left the chamber, it had been littered with bone and decaying flesh. All that was gone now, dissolved by the strange alchemy of the Black Chamber. All that remained were the scattered stones upon the floor, the spell-runes upon the walls, the obsidian spire itself.
Once begun, once promised, Savilla could not stop or turn aside. At best, she could delay, and delay would come at a price.
But she did not wish to delay.
She would prepare the way. She would gather the power.
He Who Is would enter the world once more, and reward the one who had made it possible.
And destroy all His enemies.
Savilla placed her hands atop the obsidian spire, and pressed down. The point pierced both her hands. She saw the glistening black point break through her scarlet skin, and saw the dark blood well forth around it. Her body shuddered faintly with pain, her great ribbed wings trembling and unfurling.
All around her, the chamber sang faintly in approval.
Copyright © 2006 by Mercedes Lackey